It was dark that night.
I remember this quite clearly.
If other fragments of the evening have grown a bit murky with time; well, the darkness was distinct.
I tip-toed down the hallway, one step at time. I tried to forget that my brother and sister were still asleep and the only living creatures in the room.
Surrounded by ghosts.
In my five-year-old world, I saw them all quite clearly — Casper-like phantoms squished together in every spare space between the bunk bed and the door.
There was a bird ghost, too. White with fluttery wings.
Its filmy form alighted off the window ledge, as if he came through the glass.
I recognized the bird from hours earlier when he was alive and brown.
I had poked at his body with a stick. He was rigid and his feathered head, stained with blood, was resting on the concrete, as if he was sound asleep. Except his two tiny eyes; they were wide open, staring at nothing.
Or maybe everything.
Years later, some playmate at recess would argue with me that ghosts go through things: doors, walls, even bunkbeds and people. I argued with them that they were wrong, because I knew the truth.
Because that evening, like every other evening, the ghosts contorted: squeezing together and squishing; their translucent forms pressed into the walls, into the dresser, and into the wooden frame of the bed. In fact, they perfected the art of blending; one ghostly elbow poking a milky jawbone, a whitish-gray robe brushing into the edges of a smaller apparition, a kid-size ghost, like me, with skinny flowing tendrils of what used to be the long hair of a little girl. In life, of course.
I couldn’t sleep. Again.
I shut my eyes tight, but even with my eyes closed, I could see them staring ahead, peering through blackened and empty eye-sockets. Watching me.
I think it was an unexpected ghostly muttering, a soft exhale that sliced through the silence that caused my heart to flutter. Or maybe it was my brother or my sister. I wasn’t sure.
I felt the pounding and the racing and the beating in my chest, confirming the one dire truth I really didn’t want to remember:
I was the only one awake.
It was up to me alone to confront the phantoms that elbowed and nudged and swayed; back and forth and back and forth.
I felt a cool moist breath against my cheek and the air in the bedroom became dark, darker even than the midnight that usually surrounded us when story-time was over and the lights turned off.
I tossed away my blankets and ran to the door and into the hallway where a single light illuminated from the ceiling, soft and steady.
I stood in the silence, not daring to breath, drenched by the brightness that ricocheted off the walls.
My heart was beating in double-time, bounding off the bones of my chest.
Then, the miracle happened:
In the light-turned-on hallway I felt them dissipating back behind me. Slowly, ever-so- slowly, they backed away.
I edged closer to the center of the hallway, placing distance between me and the ghosts. I tried to forget that they were retracting into the shadows and would soon be hovering over my sister and brother as they slept unaware , snoring, and tossing between their sheets.
Tip-toeing ever-so-quietly, I followed the sounds down the hallway: Gunsmoke, Kung Fu, Colombo, Hawaii-Five-O, Mash. Dad’s movies on television, one of our cues to go to bed.
At the corner, I peeked around, my fingers gripping the edge of the wall.
Dad was in the armchair, elbows relaxed and Coors Light in hand, chuckling to himself.
I paused at the threshold between light and sound. Although the light bulb still brightened the passage behind me, keeping the ghosts at bay, I could feel their filmy arms flailing in the shadows; wanting, waiting for the opportunity to step across the black void.
Waiting for me.
I froze at the threshold to the room, unsure what was worse: telling Dad only to be sent back into the darkness, or stay in the half-way zone where I was shielded by the light. Somewhat.
In the end, it was not my choice. I couldn’t hold back the onslaught of tears. I gulped and from the tiny hiccup, two skinny streams erupted and slid down the slope of my face.
“Corrina Mcjillney?” Dad turned around.
I raced across the space and into Dad’s chair, the hem of my nightgown brushing my bare ankles.
Dad wrapped his arms around me. “What?” I was suddenly surrounded by his thick and musky, Dad-like smell. “Corrina?”
I took in a deep breath, feeling safe. This was the smell that chased ghosts away.
A gunshot from the television interrupted my thoughts, as the movie continued on, as if nothing had happened. Some detective or cowboy was arguing with somebody else with a gun. Someone raised their voice, threatening and screaming.
“Daddy, there are ghosts…” I sniffled, burying my head in his chest. “I can’t sleep.”
Dad’s scraggly beard was against my cheek. He lowered his head to mine.
“No, no, no, Corrina Mc-Jillney. There’s no ghosts — ”
I looked up to see if his eyes were smiling, maybe laughing at me as they often do .
But he was serious. “Nothing bad can get you in this house.” His hand touched my cheek. “You see, honey, I put an imaginary circle around this house. You and your brother and sister and mother are all safe. Nothing bad can get through that circle.”
Then he smiled.
I wiped the tears from my eyes with the back of my hand, wondering if the ghosts in the bedroom knew about the circle. Maybe they did know and they were friendly ghosts.
Or maybe they weren’t really there. Maybe, like Mom said, they were all in my imagination. After that, Dad was quiet.
For about one minute, I was happy there, sitting on his lap in the noisy brightness. Then some car exploded on the television and a man was thrown across a dusty expanse of dirt and gravel. Together we watched as a man stood up and brushed off his blue jeans.
His face was full of dirt and blood. I had never seen a man so full of dirt and blood.
Then out of nowhere, a lady ran up and embraced the bloody dirty man. I was waiting for her to get smudged up, too, when she put arms around him and pressed her face into his. But she didn’t: she remained clean, blonde, and mascaraed. And blood-free.
I leaned deeper into my dad, trying to forget that blood leads to death and death leads to ghosts.
“Are you and Mom going to die?”
Dad paused, then reached for his beer on the coffee table. He took a sip and wiped the malty residue from his mustache. Then, with a large calloused hand, he tussled my hair.
“Corrina Mc-Jilliney, don’t worry. That’ll be a long time from now.”
He returned to the television and I curled in closer to him. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be in a world where my mom and dad were dead.
“Will you be a ghost?”
Dad turned away from the television. “No, honey, I’ll be up high in Heaven.”
“Where the bird went?”
“Bird?” He paused, then I think he remembered the bird on the sidewalk that he picked up and put in a shoebox for mom to help us bury. “Yes, exactly. Where the bird went.”
“He didn’t need his body, huh? So he left it on the sidewalk. Right Dad?”
“Yeah. Well — ” Dad started to nod, but paused a moment to scratch his beard. Little furrows lined his brow. He took another sip of beer.
I swallowed back the air and mucous that had gathered in the back of my throat. “But Dad…,” I couldn’t stifle back the choking, strangled mass. ”I’ll miss you.” More tears started.
Dad hugged me again, then held me back at arms length. “Corrina Mc-Jillney, do you know that invisible circle I told you about?” His eyes met mine.
“That invisible circle will always protect you. Even from Heaven. Understand?”
Again, I nodded, not even trying to figure it out.
It took me years to really understand his words. But that night, even if I couldn’t follow Dad’s logic, the ghosts did. Because after that night they went away; sulking back into the dusty corners and cobwebby closets from whence they came.
Dad must’ve carried me back to bed after the movie that night. The last thing I remember is watching the television and seeing the lady who hugged the bloody man standing in a cemetery. She was dressed in black and holding a flower. She knelt down, exposing one nylon clad knee after another and placed a flower beside the gravestone.
And when she did, a brown feathery bird swooped down, landing beside her.
I wanted to point at the television and cry out to Dad that I recognized the bird. I wanted to tell him that the bird’s ghost was huddled up in my bedroom, or maybe now it was flying up around the ceiling fan, but, instead —
I woke up on the bottom bunk, next to my sister. My cheek cushioned in the softness of my pillow. I was in a dreamy spiral of cloudy, ghost-less memories.
I opened my eyes, remembering I was warm and safe and protected by Dad’s circle.
The bright sun gleamed in through the window, long rays that that stretched across the room, from the glass panes to the bedroom door.
It was a stark contrast from the night before.
Green leaves from the rose bush outside pressed against the glass in varying shades and shapes and sizes, but my eyes were drawn to one spot of darkness in the bright window. It was a solitary blur of brown that fluttered down, then paused to look at me with its two tiny black eyes. It was the bird.