Caleb had been dead for two weeks when I started pretending to be his ghost.
After the funeral, Hudson couldn’t sleep. I lay in my room and listened to my son crying. Quiet tears. A big boy suddenly aware that solid things can snap and break and bleed and end up buried under freezing earth. A big boy who didn’t understand how his father could have been so sad when the smile he saw everyday was brighter than the sun.
Over and over, I’d creep across the hallway and touch his doorknob, but I couldn’t bring myself to open the door. It wasn’t me he wanted. Wasn’t my face he wanted to see when he turned over. As much as it hurt, I couldn’t fault him that.
My own eyes were dry.
At first it was an accident. My hand slipping from where I’d laid it against his door so that my knuckles rapped against the wood, and I went to push the door open, opened my mouth to tell Hudson I was sorry, but his breath hitched, and I heard his bedsheets rustle.
“Dad?” he said, and everything inside of me went heavy.
I should have opened the door. Should have whispered that it was just me. Just mom. Should have held him too tight and lied to him. I’ll never leave you. I should have said, but it was the sound of his voice settling around me so filled up with a hurt he shouldn’t have to understand that kept me from moving.
I knocked again and fled back to my room.
In the morning, Hudson ate his cereal without looking up, and I pretended to eat a halved grapefruit, but all I did was mash the pulp down with my spoon and drink the juice.
“Mom?” he said, and his eyes were dark and heavy. His skin too pale.
I looked back at him, waited for him to tell me what he’d heard in the night, but he shook his head.
“Nothing. It’s nothing.”
Thirty minutes later, he climbed onto the bus. I waved from the doorway, but he didn’t turn back.
It was a game they used to play in the house when it was raining. Hide and seek, but Caleb would play the monster while Hudson hid. “Quiet and tiny as a mouse,” Caleb would say, and Hudson would giggle and nod his head, downy, tow-colored hair flying as he took off running down the hallway.
“Slow down!” I’d say, but he never listened.
In a few minutes, I’d hear Caleb banging on the closet door, and Hudson—tucked away in his hiding spot—would start giggling.
“Let me in!” Caleb’s voice booming. Too big for the house. Too big for the world.
I was already late for work. Already too late to blame traffic. Instead, I went to Hudson’s room, opened his closet, and crept inside. The warm dark smelled of sweat and of rubber. I breathed in my son. Tried to hold him for just a little bit longer. I put my hand on the door, traced the razor thin edge of light peeking through.
I waited for my husband to knock.
On the third night, Hudson knew to sit up. Knew to wait for the knocking. I heard his breathing. Irregular and jagged. The sounds of sleep swallowed down as he forced himself to be still.
I thought he would get up, thought he would open the door and find me standing there. I knew the way his face would contort, knew the way he’d pull his lips back from his teeth in anger at finding me there and not his dad. He never opened the door.
I thought he wanted to believe.
So I stood away from the door so he wouldn’t see my feet underneath, and I knocked and I shook the doorknob, and I licked the salt from my lips and forced myself to be quiet. Quiet as a mouse.
Each time, I’d walk back to my bedroom. Slow and steady so I wouldn’t make any sound, and I’d stare at the ceiling until it was time to pretend that life was still happening.
On the fifth day, Hudson got up before I did, was waiting in the kitchen, already dressed, his hair dripping and slicked tight against his skull.
“You’re up early,” I said, and he shrugged his shoulders, shifted his weight from one foot to the other. Like he was waiting for something.
He took a breath. Let it out and looked back at me. When had he started to look so old?
“I keep having this dream. Every night since—” He paused and chewed on a cuticle. “Since it happened.”
I waited for him to tell me about it; waited for him to tell me he’s dreaming about hiding inside his closet, his lungs full and aching from holding his breath. For him to tell me he was waiting on the other side of that door for his father to knock, and that he knew if he opened the door, if he just cracked it a little, it meant that Caleb would come back.
Instead, he picked up his back pack and slung it over his shoulder. “I’m going to wait at the bus stop.”
Before he reached the door, he turned back but didn’t look at me. “I love you,” he said and then he was gone.
I didn’t go to work that day. My cell phone chirped at me until I shut it off and hid it under a couch cushion.
Inside of Hudson’s closet, I waited. My knees pressed to my chest and my teeth against my wrist to keep me from screaming.
“Please,” I whispered when the light filtering through the door turned early afternoon amber. “Caleb, please.”
“You need to sleep, honey.”
“I can’t. The dream.” Hudson looked up at me from the nest of his blankets.
I knew what he meant. It wasn’t a dream keeping him awake. It was the waiting. The waiting to hear me knocking at his door while he lay dry-mouthed and wide-eyed in his bed.
“Tell me about your dream,” I said, and he shook his head.
I opened my mouth to ask him please. I needed to know that he found comfort in imagining it was his father on the other side of the door. Needed to know that even though he wasn’t sleeping, there was a part of him that nestled inside the sound and rested.
He pressed his lips together and turned his face into the crook of his arm.
I leaned over to kiss the top of his head, to breathe in the boyhood smell of him. He grasped at my fingers, squeezed them hard, and rolled over.
“G’night,” he said.
I waited until I left the room to cry.
Later that night when I stood outside his door and pressed my knuckles to the wood, something behind the door knocked back.
“Dad,” Hudson said. It wasn’t a question.
I jiggled the handle in response, choked back the sob in my throat when I heard Hudson start to cry.
In the morning, Caleb didn’t look as tired, and he smiled back at me when he got on the bus and lifted his hand in a wave. My heart shattered a little more.
There were voicemails on my phone. They understood that I might need to take some time. To heal. To come to terms with all that had happened. To let them know when I’d like to come back, but if I could please tell them sooner rather than later because they’d need to find a replacement if it was going to be much longer.
I deleted the messages one by one and tried to keep my hands from shaking.
I spent the entire day inside Hudson’s closet. I didn’t speak, didn’t whisper. I waited until I heard the hiss and squeal of the school bus brakes before I opened the door to wait for my son.
When he came inside, he pushed past me, his backpack angled so I couldn’t see his face.
“Hey—” I called after him, and he slowed but didn’t turn back to me. My body felt too heavy to follow him, but I did.
“Hudson. Did something happen?”
Outside of his bedroom, he stopped, let his backpack fall, and squeezed his fists, his thumbs tucked tight inside his hands. If he were to hit me right now, he’d break his thumbs. Something Caleb taught me. If anyone ever attacks you, keep your thumbs out of your fist unless you want them snapped from the impact.
“Bryant said there’s no such thing as ghosts.” My son looked back at me, and his face was flushed, the crimson creeping down his neck.
I opened my mouth and then snapped it closed. So full of all of the things I wanted to tell my son but didn’t know how.
“On the bus. He said it’s only our imaginations or normal sounds we want to think are something else. He said only stupid people believe in ghosts because people go to heaven or hell when they die and that’s it. There’s nothing else. And then he said he reckoned that Dad was . . . ” He choked and let his hands fall to his sides. I sank to my knees and pulled him into me.
“Bryant is an ignorant little shit,” I whispered when his shoulders stopped shaking.
“What do you believe?” he said, and I held on even tighter.
“I don’t know anymore.”
He pulled away and nodded, and I swiped my thumbs under his eyes.
After dinner and homework, Hudson went to bed without my asking him to, and I drank half a bottle of a cheap Malbec and waited for the alcohol to numb me. When it didn’t work, I drank the other half.
“You said you would haunt me. When we got married, you told me that if you went first, you’d find a way back.” I spoke into the empty room, the empty house, and my tongue was thick with wine.
I imagined my husband lost himself inside the darkness he kept hidden. I didn’t think he knew the way back to me. To Hudson.
“What am I supposed to do?”
I rose and went silently down the hallway, my fingertips tracing against the wall as if I could read all of the things I should know there.
When I got to Hudson’s door, I pressed my body flat against the wall and reached my hand over. I banged against the wood as hard as I could and rattled the doorknob until my hand ached.
Behind the door, Hudson was laughing.
I went back to work after two weeks. Somehow, they’d managed to keep the position for me, and when I walked in on the first day, everyone kept their eyes trained on the carpet or the ceiling and there were no whispers leaking from the cubicles around mine.
There were also no flowers or care packages or fleshy hands pressed against my shoulders and back and burnt-sugar sweet words from well-meaning people who wanted to tell me how very sorry they were for my loss.
I ate my lunch alone, in front of my computer, and drove myself home. Cooked a dinner and helped Hudson with his homework.
He didn’t talk about ghosts again, but the dark circles under his eyes had disappeared. Sometimes, he would smile behind his hand.
Every night, I knocked on his door.
Every night, my son would talk to me from behind that thin wood.
And then I found a worm, Dad. Big as my arm. Swear. And Nathan dared Scott to take a bite of it, and Scott said he would do it if Nathan handed over his entire Punisher comic book collection. Nathan said okay because he thought there was no way Scott would do it. Nathan kept the worm to keep everything fair, and then Scott showed up the next day, and ate the entire thing.
Hudson poured out his life for his dead father, and I sat and listened and understood I would never be able to give him all that he needed. I couldn’t be his father.
Eventually, the knocking would stop. Eventually, I would have to stop haunting my son.
A month passed before Hudson asked the question I knew he’d been holding back.
“Were you sad?” he said, and I bit down on my tongue.
“Mom said you were sad. That it was like being in the bottom of a deep, deep hole. So deep you can’t see the top, and all around it’s just dark and darker. So deep you forget who you are.”
For a long time, Hudson went silent. I held my breath.
“Are you lost down there now? Are you trying to remember who you were? I think I could find you. If you let me.”
I knocked once. My son knocked back.
“Okay,” he said. “Okay.”
The next day, Abigail, the front desk receptionist, popped her head into my cubicle after my first cup of coffee but before my second. Her face was pulled back into something that looked like a smile, her eyes filled with something like sympathy. Fake. Everything fake and plastic. Right down to her too white veneers and perky tits.
“I wanted to bring you this,” she said and thrust a hand forward. A silver bracelet clasped around her wrist jingled, and the sound was obscene.
“This,” she said and wriggled her hand at me as if the movement could compel me to take whatever cheap trinket she had clasped in her fist. She pressed her palm against mine, and the object was sharp and cold.
A coin. I stared down at the dulled metal and turned it over and over. The edges were worn smooth, and the image imprinted on the surface was barely discernible, but I saw the lifted arms, the heavy cross behind.
“In times of trouble, you can always turn to him. Give him your burdens and sins and let him carry you through the dark, dark water,” Abigail said. I dropped the coin on my desk and cracked my knuckles so I wouldn’t slap her across the face.
“It don’t matter what he did. It isn’t too late for you. For your boy,” she said, and something cold uncoiled inside my belly. Something sharp-edged and hungry.
I leaned toward her, and her smile went wider. “What did they tell you, Abigail? All of those loose, gossiping tongues? Did they tell you how the police found him? How his body had already begun to bloat, how there were leaves packed in his mouth? Did they tell you about the letters he left? To me? To my son? Did they tell you about the voices he’d heard since he was a boy? His mother had him convinced since he was small that he was hearing the voice of the devil himself and the only way to save him was to cut it out of him. Did they tell you about the scars running up and down his chest? His arms and back?”
She leaned away so quickly she stumbled, her hand catching against the edge of my desk so that the stack of papers I’d left there went flying. Her hands fluttered to her face, her throat, and she opened and closed her mouth so I could see those fine, porcelain teeth.
Abigail scrambled across the carpet. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, and I picked up the coin and tossed it at her feet.
She pushed herself upward, and then she was gone, the swish of her skirt echoing through the air.
For the rest of the day, no one spoke to me. If I went to the copier or to the restroom or the coffee pot, people flicked their eyes away.
It felt different. Their avoiding me. Less like they wanted to let me mourn and more like they wanted to forget I exist. Like they wanted to pretend I was a ghost.
“Mom really misses you.”
Hudson was behind his door, and I was sitting with my back pressed against the wall, my hands wound together in my lap so I wouldn’t open the door and reveal myself.
“She tries to pretend that she’s okay, but she’s not. Her eyes are different now. She won’t talk about you. Not with me. But sometimes I see her looking at the picture we had taken last year. Do you remember? We had to get so dressed up, and then you spilled coffee on your shirt on the way there, and Mom got so mad, but then you made her laugh, and everything was okay?
“I want to tell her that I think I’ve found you, but I’m afraid it would make her sadder. I don’t think she’d believe me.”
I bit down on my tongue until I tasted blood.
I thought then I would open the door and tell him everything. Tell him we could look for Caleb together, that I’d help him, but I was frozen to the floor.
“G’night, Dad,” Hudson said, and I heard the shuffle of blankets, the sounds of my boy tucking himself in.
G’night, I mouthed, and then I crept into my own bedroom and closed my eyes.
Sleep didn’t come. I kept my eyes closed anyway.
In the morning, I got out of bed and made a pan of scrambled eggs and toast. Hudson ate quickly and without speaking. In what seemed like a matter of seconds, his plate was empty, and he was out the door, the sensation of his lips pressed against my cheek still lingering even though his bus had pulled away three minutes ago.
When I passed by Hudson’s room, I thought of calling out of work, of filling the day with the dark outline of his closet door, but I showered and put on mascara and forced myself into the car even though my hands were shaking.
Before I closed the front door, I whispered into the quiet house. Something like a prayer.
I spent the day pretending to update spreadsheets and then cut out early. No one said anything and no one called to ask where I’d gone or when I’d be coming back. I think they liked it better this way. If I wasn’t there.
By the time Hudson’s bus pulled up, I was already halfway into a bottle of white I found buried in the back of the refrigerator.
“You’re home,” he said and tossed his backpack on the floor next to the stairs.
“I’m home,” I said and lifted my wine glass toward him in a mock toast. I should have felt ashamed, but the wine refused to let me.
He paused at the top of the stairs, his body angled toward his bedroom but his face turned to me.
I took another sip of wine, but it went bitter in my mouth. I swallowed anyway. If I could drink enough, I was hoping it would be like these past three months never happened. Maybe I could go all the way back. Back to the little boy my husband was huddled under a thin sheet while his mother slept uneasy and fitful in the next room. Maybe I could take him out of that house and put him somewhere safe, and he would grow up and would forget the pain he’d been born into.
Before I could lift the glass to my mouth again, Hudson crossed the room and threw his body against mine. The weight of him was enough to knock me backward, and he wrapped his arms tight against my ribcage, and I couldn’t breathe.
It was the only thing I ever wanted to feel again.
I pressed my lips against his hair, and he said something, but I couldn’t make it out.
“What?” I asked him, and he tipped his head back, looked up at me from eyes the color of dark ocean water.
“Don’t go away. Don’t—”
“I’m not going anywhere. I’m not leaving. Never.”
He nodded his head once and stepped away. “Me neither.”
His smile flitted across his face so quickly I almost think it didn’t happen, but I held the image tight, held it so that everything else inside of me won’t spill.
I cooked a dinner I didn’t taste, and Hudson watched me like he was measuring out the weight of every twitching muscle.
“I’m going to bed now,” he said once the dishes were in the washer, the table cleared and wiped down.
“I’m tired,” he said, and all I could do was nod.
“Sure. I can come tuck you in.”
“I’m really tired, Mom,” he said, but what he really meant was he didn’t want me to.
He clutched at my hand, brought it to his face, and leaned his cheek against my palm. “Love you,” he said, and then he was gone.
I swiped at my face until it felt raw, but I couldn’t stop crying.
That night, I let my feet swing over the edge of the bed, placed them on and off the hardwood floor. Maybe I wouldn’t go tonight. Maybe it would be better to end this now before there was more damage done. Maybe it would be better to give Hudson the space to let his father go. Even if I wouldn’t. Even if I never could.
Before I could think, I stood and went to Hudson’s door. I lifted my hand, and the door swung open.
Everything inside of me turned to water.
Hudson—my boy, my son—lifted his finger to his lips and held out his hand.
All of the things I wanted to say to him knotted in my throat, so I took his hand and he pulled me into the room and closed the door behind us. He turned the lock.
“It’s okay, Mom. I knew it was you.”
He tugged on my hand again, and together we turned to face his closet. The door stood open, darkness yawning from the interior.
“Please,” I whispered like I had so many other silent days.
My son climbed inside the closet, his hand still tugging me on.
We sat together, our elbows and knees touching, and Hudson leaned forward and closed the door.
The darkness was complete, and I blinked, tried to find some shred of light, but there was nothing.
For a long time, we just sat, the two of us breathing into the dark. I wanted to explain everything to Hudson, wanted to tell him why, but he was squeezing my hand, his knee jiggling against mine. There would be time enough. Later.
“I want to show you something,” he said, and I imagined that he was smiling. I could almost hear it in his voice.
“Here,” he said and lifted our hands, still interlocked, and guided them toward the door. I had to lean forward to match the movement, and the two of us had to shift onto our knees. A muffled sound came from my left, and I realized Hudson was crying.
Once. Twice. We knocked against the door.