I work in haunted houses. In this one, there was a child who drowned in the well. In that one, a woman wasted away of cancer. Here, there lived a man who couldn’t let go of his worldly goods. Every historic house museum has its ghosts. We cobble together stories, passed from one staff member to the next. In this room, I heard a breath in my ear. In this hall, I felt a hand upon my shoulder. In this window, I saw a strange woman’s face where none should be. We speculate why the spirits linger. We speak to them softly as we open curtains and dust things that may or may not have belonged to them. We tell versions of their lives and deaths to visitors, hoping that we’ve gotten some spark of it right.
When you peddle the stories of the dead, people always ask: Do you believe in ghosts? I tell them that I don’t believe in ghosts until I’m alone in the museum, closing up for the night.
It always gets a laugh, but it’s not exactly the truth.
When I was in college, a boy died.
We could have been friends. We’d made passing jokes in the dining hall and sat at the edges of the same circles on grassy hilltops. His friends were my friends. With only three hundred students living together on a mountainside, everyone was, by default, a friend of a friend.
The call came in the middle of the night. I was a resident advisor, a job that I never should have taken, but I needed the money. It meant I was responsible for the well-being of others but had no power to protect them from anything. Especially from themselves.
The phone rang. I woke with a jolt, twined with my boyfriend in a too-narrow bed. I answered, palms already slick with panic sweat, and a voice told me that a boy had hurt himself very badly.
I pulled on a thick wool sweater. It was October, and I knew there would be a coat of frost on the grass. Campus was empty and dark. The single floodlight by the dining hall cast thin rays down the dirt paths and reflected weakly off of the white clapboard buildings, turning the world a dull monotone.
That sepia filter colors each memory of that night.
Watching one of his best friends smoke a cigarette with trembling fingers, her face flickering like a silent film.
Standing in a hallway, fists clenched, trying to decide if I should wake a mutual friend and tell him myself or let him sleep and learn it in passing the next morning.
Finding his girlfriend alone, hunched on a picnic table. She said she wanted to be by herself. I asked if I could sit with her anyway. Never fall in love, she said. Then she told me to go back to bed and walked off toward the dining hall, where people were starting to gather as they woke to the news.
Each memory is its own little ghost.
Much like a museum, a school is a repository for hauntings. She walks the path through the woods, she stands at the window, she moves your books when you aren’t looking. At my college, ghost stories were nothing new. Teenagers huddled in common rooms lit by illicit candles, exchanging whispers about a sad farm girl who had hanged herself in the nineteenth century, back when our dining hall was a cow barn. She’d fallen in love with a traveling salesman, people said, but her father forbade it. Now she wanders the campus, looking for her lost love. Someone would bring up a student – you wouldn’t know him, he graduated last year – who’d dared to contact her with a Ouija board when he was a freshman and had gotten a message: Get out get out get out. Then there had been a fire. Or maybe just some smoke.
As that October passed in a haze of collective grief, the students in my dorm reported strange events – feet grabbed in the dark, boxes shifting mysteriously, cold drafts where there should be none. The electricity kept cutting out for no reason. Bereft of practical solutions, I turned to more esoteric methods of banishing and placating. I had someone burn sage, and we asked whatever it was to leave. I even left a bowl of milk in the locked boiler room as an offering to the spirits. It was empty the next day. Sometimes, I tell people that as an entertaining little story. Ghouls in the boiler room of my haunted dorm, so funny. But at the time, it frightened me.
It also fascinated me to the point of obsession. I began collecting stories about encounters on campus that stretched back decades, interviewing professors and staff. I wrote maudlin short stories about our hanged girl, changing her lost love from a salesman to an artist and giving her a longing for life beyond the farm. I imagined her black, lace-up boots hanging in the rafters above my head while I ate my dinner. I stopped looking at my reflection in the bathroom mirrors at night, afraid of what I might see looking back at me.
There is no real denouement to this story. Most of us kept on living, and the dead stayed dead.
Each year, when October arrives, I try to write about that night. Other people – people who loved him – have written beautifully of his life and their loss. I always comment and say, I remember, but then cut myself short. Because if I write about that night and the weeks that followed, it ends up being a story about me, and it shouldn’t be about me when he died that night. When others lost so much more than I did. When my remembrances might bring them pain.
But I am learning something from my time spent peddling ghost stories: That night is my haunting, too.
It’s only years after the fact that a shortened life and tragic death can be wrapped into a tidy narrative, facts blurred and portents fulfilled. Sometimes I wonder if the students who came after us told a new kind of ghost story about the place. I wonder if they were haunted by our loss.
It doesn’t matter anymore, because my college is gone now – closed down and abandoned. The buildings are still there, but they’re empty of students and teachers and books and all the things that made them a school. I don’t know who will go there now and walk among our ghosts.
But I will not forget them.
Caitlyn Paxson is a writer, performer, and historical interpreter. She reviews books for NPR Books and Quill & Quire. Her writing has appeared in a variety of places, including Tor. com, Shimmer, Stone Telling, Mythic Delirium, and Goblin Fruit. You can find her at caitlynpaxson.com or @caitlynpaxson on Instagram. She currently lives on Prince Edward Island.