I See Dead People
The house was haunted. So was he.
“He’s dead,” Elise said. “I get it now. He’s the one who’s dead.”
She was barely 12 at the time. We had rented “The Sixth Sense” from the Blockbuster down on Claremont, back when “Blockbuster” wasn’t yet an archaic word that summoned a pre-digital era of finding your entertainment at a store rather than sitting in your house and having it arrive automatically.
I remember her astonishment so well. She couldn’t get it through her head that the guy didn’t comprehend he was no longer among the living. “Dad,” she said, her voice dropping in a combination of conspiracy and awe, “do you think when we die, if there’s something after that, do you think we’ll realize it?”
“I think so,” I assured her, though it defied every belief I’d always privately harbored. “I think we’ll understand a lot more things when we’re dead that we have no idea about now.”
“It’s not going to be for a long time, though, right?”
“Of course, sweetheart. Not for a long time.”
“Dad, promise me that when you die, you’ll come back to haunt me. I won’t be scared. I’ll want it. Even if you’re scary. I can help you not be scared.”
“I’ll do what I can, Pea,” I said tentatively, though I made sure it came out sounding definitive, or at least as definitive as a near-teenager needed. I had always been better at reassuring than at being reassured. I reached over and hugged her still-small shoulder with one arm.
“I’d never want to scare you,” I said. “I’ll do my best to be a good ghost.”
“We can practice,” Elise said. “You can get a head start.”
We buried her in an old family cemetery down in Vineland that my dad had known about since he was a little kid. It was full of Coes, direct ancestors and otherwise.
There was someone named Persephone, wife of Asher M. Coe, who died when she was only 22. There were Coes going back to the first decades of the 19th century, back to the time before they started using marble for gravestones and were still using that slate that took on a gray-green pallor after it had been sitting in the sun and the rain and the snow for decades.
There was even an Elise who had staked out territory there already: Elise Lydia Luther, dead of consumption in 1847 at age 18. A single peony was etched into the crown of her faded tombstone. It always amazed me that she had, all those years ago, outlived our Elise by more than two years. Sixteen years was a microsecond to the universe and an entire lifetime to my daughter.
I woke up this morning to a realization that, like so much these days, washed over me with oily guilt — guilt, I suppose, that I somehow had been neglectful to her by not realizing it earlier. She’d have turned 17 a couple months after she died. She’d been a September baby, a product, I think, of New Year’s Eve 1988, when Laura and I got shitfaced on two bottles of $6.99 Freixenet and ended up skipping birth control for the evening. Best decision I never made.
What I realized this morning, in my liminal state, was that Elise had been gone from the world longer than she’d ever been here. And that I was somehow a year late to this revelation. It was disloyal, my brain told me. Shouldn’t I have loved my daughter enough to know these milestones instinctually? Shouldn’t I be protecting her even now, particularly since I obviously couldn’t protect her effectively then? Shouldn’t I be a better father, even to someone who didn’t exist anymore?
That’s the thing, though. I have no obligation to be a better father, because I’m not a father anymore, am I? That period of my life ended on the northbound exit ramp of exit 148 of the Garden State at 10:38 p.m. on June 27, 2004, when what the police called a “late-model sedan traveling at a high rate of speed” came up the ramp the wrong way and plowed into the midnight-blue Nissan Sentra driven by Elise’s best friend Clarissa, who had just gotten her full license that very day and had promised me, standing on my front porch, that she wouldn’t drive on any road where the speed limit was more than 45 mph.
Laura always told me I shouldn’t be angry at Clarissa, that the hit-and-run driver who somehow went through the toll booth backward and jackknifed my daughter’s best friend’s father’s car and managed to get away — “last seen traveling north past mile marker 157,” Bloomfield police informed us — was the one to blame. She was right, of course. And Clarissa, after all, was just as dead as Elise, though Clarissa had siblings. So to be a good husband — something I also am no longer these days — I tempered my anger and turned it inward, a nightmare deferred.
All these years later, that’s where it still lives. I thought it was squatting there, an interloper, only until I mustered the stick-to-it-tiveness to kick it out. Turns out it had settled in for a long- term lease.
“Mr. Coe?” The voice sounded distant and saturated, as if speaking to me from inside an aquarium. “Mr. Coe? Do you have any idea?”
The world came rushing back to me. It was my Realtor, Praya, her voice pleasant but crisp. I opened my eyes and looked at her.
“The ceiling pipes in the basement?” She was trying to be polite but I was taxing her patience. The prospective buyers, a Mr. and Mrs. Simoneaux who were relocating from Louisiana because of her job as a tax something or other, were standing behind Praya expectantly, their eyes shining behind Tulane-branded pandemic masks.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Look. This isn’t going to work. I really apologize for wasting your time. This is a great town. I hope you love living in it. It’s just not going to be here.”
I went upstairs. About five minutes later, I heard the door shut. It wasn’t quite slammed, but I could feel Praya’s body language in the sound it made and the echo it left behind.
An hour later, she called. I was sitting in Elise’s room eating a banana. Storm clouds were gathering outside.
“Kurt?” Praya using my first name was unusual these days, even though we’d been working together now for almost two years. By which I mean, she’d done the work to find prospective buyers, only to watch me reject them for reasons I’d either plotted out in advance or came up with on the fly during visits and open houses.
Years ago, we’d seen Praya and her husband, Ashok, socially for a while. But like everything else in those days, it didn’t quite take. That felt so long ago, almost as distant as the before times. But I’d liked them enough that when I decided I needed to sell the house, I’d called her.
“Look,” she said. “I’ve tried to make this work. I feel for you. I really do. But I can’t keep wasting my time on this. Do you know how many excuses I’ve had to make? This is beginning to affect my credibility in the market.”
“They just weren’t the right ones,” I said. “I could tell the moment I met them. Nice people. But not THE people.”
“You can’t project manage exactly who you sell a house to,” Praya said. She paused. I heard her sigh. “Look, this can’t happen again,” she said. “I will give this one more shot with you. But then I have to move on. And I can tell you, you’re well known enough now that it’s going to be hard for you to find anyone.”
The anger in me, which had been napping, sat up and looked around. I could feel it. Sort of like when your bowels are full, but higher. “I understand,” I said, swallowing my words. “I’ll be in touch.” I hung up, wishing that you could still get the satisfaction of putting the phone down hard, sort of like she had closed the door earlier. Instead, I pressed “end call.”
I went back to my banana.
Tonight, I heard it again.
It wasn’t coming from Elise’s room, not exactly. But it was in that part of the house. I was half asleep downstairs, in what used to be the dining room, where I had set up the couch after I turned the living room into my home office in 2016. I really had intended on getting my shit together then. I was gonna get a job again, or at least a gig. Architects could be their own bosses more easily than some professions, and I was going to get back into the game, stop living off the stock dividends that had slowed to a trickle.
The living room, well, it was going to be the headquarters of Coe & Associates, the associates being Roark and Tattoo, the tabbies that Laura left behind — reluctantly — when she moved out.
We’d gotten them a few years after … well, after. Roark was dead now — also the victim of an irresponsible driver — and Tattoo was 13 and a lot like me these days, wandering around the house dolefully peeking around every corner and looking somehow at once hopeful and detached in the way that only a feline can.
Footsteps. Anguished footsteps, lost in time and space. I’d heard the sound a couple dozen times in the years since Laura moved back home to Scranton to take a hospital job in the same complex where her parents were in assisted living. At first, we both pretended that she was there temporarily, that she was helping out because one sister couldn’t and two brothers wouldn’t. But we both knew the truth, and the certified letter that reached me nine months later from her cousin the attorney laid it all out in legalese that chafed as much as it clarified. The Coe family was, officially, dissolved.
I couldn’t really blame her. It wasn’t as if she wasn’t shattered by Elise’s death, too. But Laura and I always processed things differently. Even as she grieved, she was somehow energized by the death, too — as if Elise’s life force, left behind when she was yanked from the world, had made its way to Laura and animated her in determination. Laura had become an activist, defending the rights of children and teenagers who’d been paralyzed in car accidents and who were trying to reclaim some semblance of their previous lives. Accessibility, schooling, peer acceptance — those were the places where Laura aimed the energy she had once poured into being Elise’s mother.
Me, I shut down. For months after the crash — I won’t call it an accident, even now — I couldn’t even move. The grief was like swimming through a chocolate milkshake. I couldn’t get traction anywhere. I lost 45 pounds, which is no small thing when you weigh 195. I didn’t shave for two entire seasons. I lost my job designing mid-sized office buildings for middling people in mid-sized cities. I was sinking. No one, save Laura, offered me any kind of lifeline.
And then — then I came out of it for a year. I rebuilt my life, reconnected with Laura, with work, with the world. I thought, well, I’ll never get over Elise dying but I can have a life, some kind of life that will mean something.
Then I shut down again.
It was like a switch, like someone in some distant central power plant reached up and pulled one of those giant electrical levers and plunged the city of my soul into a blackout. I went inward. I walked around the house at night, floor to floor, room to room, a guilty man pacing his life away in the blackness and feeling sorry for himself. It got so that Laura couldn’t even sleep. Every time she fell asleep, my incessant pacing would creak a floorboard somewhere and she’d wake up.
She tried. I know she tried so hard to live with me. She gave it another decade, trying to pull me back into the world. She tried everything. She got me into counseling once, twice, three times. None of it lasted. “He’s not in there, not as you knew him,” one therapist told her. Her last-ditch attempt was radical: She told me to go have an affair if I wanted to; maybe, she said, it would reboot my system. I didn’t. I couldn’t. It wouldn’t have. She begged me, pleaded for me to do something to come back from the valley of the shadow that I was always pacing through at night, every night.
Part of me wanted to come back. In the end, the part of me that didn’t was stronger. That part found the darkness the only worthy partner for my guilt and my anger and my loss. So I did the easier thing. I stayed in the darkness. I cowered. And on the day Laura finally left for Scranton, I was sitting in Elise’s bedroom looking out the window. There was nothing left to say. Laura left a Post-It on the fireplace ledge, locked the door behind her and drove west. Your mother deserved better, I said silently to Elise’s room.
That was the first night I slept on the couch downstairs, and it was the first night I heard the sound. It was like someone walking across the hallway, but it also wasn’t. It felt somehow organic, at once distant and right on top of me. It was familiar and human, yet unlike any other sound my ears had processed in my nearly five decades on this earth.
I just knew it was Elise. I knew she wasn’t giving up on me. I knew that she knew I was alone, and that she was trying to be a good ghost, just as I promised her so long ago that I would.
Five years I’d heard that sound a few times each year, on the rare nights when I wasn’t pacing the house myself. Five years of wanting to go upstairs and find out for sure that it was Elise.
If it was her, then the beliefs I’d held and hidden since I was little — the notion that after we died, there was nothing — would be proven untrue. I used to be comfortable in those beliefs. Then one instant changed everything, derailed the life I’d built and made me hope that I had been completely wrong about whether anything was, in the end, eternal.
As I lay on the couch and heard the footsteps upstairs that might be what was left of my daughter, I was paralyzed. Not with fear of what might be there, but with fear that if I went upstairs, I’d find nothing. Maybe a pipe in the floorboard that was convulsing. Maybe the sound of the old house creaking. Maybe, I told myself, maybe it was another ghost, someone who died in this house in the first years after it was built in 1907, someone long dead whose ghost, noticing the stillness, decided to get some steps in.
Maybe there were many ghosts in this house. We always think that we’re the ones being haunted because we’re the living. Who knows — maybe the dead haunt each other. Maybe the people who lived here in 1927 haunt the people who lived here in 1946, who in turn haunt the people who lived here in 1961. Maybe misery loves company, but only if the company is other misery. Maybe, maybe, maybe.
I must have fallen asleep, because when I next opened my eyes the morning light was coming in through the dining room window, which faced northeast toward the city. My forehead was covered in sweat, and I was covered by the old afghan that my Grandma Coe had knit me when I was 9 and couldn’t sleep. I made myself a promise before I sat up: The next time I heard that sound, I would have the courage to get up, go upstairs and — if she was there — tell my daughter that I loved her again.
When the night came, I walked about the house as I often do. It is a rambling house, and thus made for rambling. Each night, like a sad night watchman guarding his own warehouse, I did the same ritual each night. I walked up the back stairs from the kitchen up to the third floor, and then ascended the stairs to the attic, where some of Laura’s college stuff still sat in storage. I walked around the third floor, going into each room, taking my time in what was once our bedroom. Then I descended to the second floor, going into each room there, too. I paused in Elise’s, sat down in her flowered desk chair, looked up at her Evanescence poster and her shelf of high- school notebooks and the yearbook she’d gotten two days before the accident but never had the chance to get anyone to sign. Artifacts now, fodder for the archaeologists and anthropologists who would happen upon this house generations from now, abandoned. I finished by walking down the front stairs and down into the living room again, and retreated to my couch in the dining room.
I heard nothing that night. Or the next night. Or the next four nights. Each time, I walked the rooms of the house and traversed its corridors. Each time, I stopped in each room and looked at the artifacts of lives interrupted, of lives that never played out.
I realized that Elise’s room, trapped in June 2004, was not the only one frozen in time. Laura’s study was not much different. Though she’d taken most of her stuff from the rest of the house when she came back the couple times after she left and we knew it was all over, for some reason she’d left her study — the most personal room she’d ever occupied in her life, full of her rich details — largely intact. And for some equally inexplicable reason, I’d left it that way. It was frozen in 2016. So was the main bedroom, which I psychologically sealed off only a few weeks later. And, now, the living room, my abortive attempt to get my life and career back on track, frozen in early 2020, abandoned when the pandemic hit, handing me the perfect excuse to give up on life yet again and make it seem like part of some noble national narrative of which I was not, and never would be, a part.
This wasn’t working. I would have to try something different.
That next night, I fell asleep around 7 p.m. It was late fall by now, and the nights were arriving earlier. The darkness is more fulsome around this time of year. It felt like one of those nights when the membrane between this land and that land is thinner than usual.
I woke up at 1:15 a.m. Tattoo was snoring at my feet. I wasn’t feeling like myself, quite. I was a bit dizzy. I felt somehow … gossamer. But I was determined to do it differently this time around. So I lay there, totally still, and I listened. And I waited.
It was nearly 2:45 when I heard the steps again. Heavy steps, I realized. Weighed down with something. They didn’t sound like a teenage girl’s steps. I listened to them wander for about three minutes until the floorboards right over me were creaking with the footfalls. I slipped out of my couch bed and headed for the stairs. When I reached the top of them, I realized something wasn’t right.
Firstly, the bureau that I had moved years ago from the landing at the top of the stairs into our bedroom, wrenching my lower back in the process, was sitting there again. We’d kept our house keys on top of that bureau at night, dumping them as we walked by toward the upper part of the house. I looked and noticed that, impossibly, Laura’s were sitting there in the cracked plastic Howard Johnson’s plate she’d taken from a turnpike rest stop in Pennsylvania when she was a little girl.
I walked down the hallway. From the bathroom, I heard a noise. Quietly, tentatively, I turned the handle and cracked the door. I peered in with one eye, careful to be silent.
I could only see the mirror. In it I saw Laura, reflected, brushing her teeth under the Edison bulb we’d put in the antique light fixture that sat by the medicine cabinet. She looked years younger, like she was only about 33. She was wearing tiny Saucony nylon running shorts and a tank top that said, in big script across her chest, “Bethany Beach.” It made no sense. She’d lost that tank top back when the three of us went on vacation in Maine when Elise was 6, shortly after we’d moved into this house.
Something in my head told me not to open the door further, not to engage with Laura. As I walked away, she pushed the door shut and it clicked. She muttered to herself through the toothpaste in her mouth, something about the house having a mind of its own. She sounded confused. In that moment I missed her so much, it was almost impossible to measure.
I walked down the hall, and the world seemed to bubble for a moment. The atmosphere — what I could see of it in the dark — was distorted, kind of like the air you see around the wheels of an airplane as it sits on the tarmac on a hot afternoon. I reached toward the wall to steady myself and looked back down the hall. The bureau, somehow, was now gone; in its place was the little teak bookshelf that I had expected to see in the first place.
I turned back and walked on toward Elise’s door, down the hall. It was closed, per usual. But from the bottom of it, a slim finger of light poked out, as if someone was in there. I padded closer.
And as I approached the door, I heard my daughter, dead 18 years now — my beautiful, smart, sweet, loving and lost teenage daughter — singing a song I hadn’t heard since she was alive and well and we were still a family and not a collection of rusted fragments of something that used to be something, afloat in an abandoned swimming pool of grief.
And I’d give up forever to touch you
’Cause I know that you feel me somehow
You’re the closest to heaven that I’ll ever be
And I don’t wanna go home right now.
I opened the door and I saw Elise, beautiful Elise, all of 14 years old, her hair pulled back by a headband and a mud mask on her face and the earbuds of a brand-new iPod I’d bought her for her birthday in 2002 stuck in her ears, cords snaking down the sides of her head to come together at her neck. She was looking in the mirror and dancing and smiling and everything; she was just there, she was there again, and I saw my daughter and I felt my knees buckle as I stood in the doorway. I could barely croak one word.
My daughter — my daughter’s ghost, I guess I should say — looked over at the doorway where I was standing.
“Daddy!!” she shouted. She looked troubled.
“I’m here, Pea,” I said. “I’m finally here.”
“Daddy!” she shouted again, louder this time. “That weird thing with the door’s happening again! I told you this house has poltergeists! You have got to get me a deadbolt for this fucking door!”
And from behind me and upstairs, from the direction of our bedroom on the third floor, I heard a voice. A voice that was my own voice, shouting to be heard across the vast house as I had so often for so long. “Language, Pea! I’ll get you a deadbolt. Put some folded paper in it for now so it can’t blow open! And stop shouting!”
And then Elise Charlotte Coe walked right through me and out her bedroom door.
Morning. Rain. Thunder. I awaken on the couch downstairs. My head throbs. Impressions flood my consciousness. Elise — alive again, moving, singing, not dead, not in the ground in Vineland for 17 years, not surrounded by dead ancestors. Elise, her story still being written, some of her pages still blank, possibility ahead. Laura just down the hall. A family ascendant, not a failed state.
I hear Elise in my head, from the night of the Bruce Willis movie. Do you think when we die, do you think we’ll realize it?
My little girl. So perceptive. So insightful beyond her years — years she’d never get. But she was asking the wrong question.
I had been looking for ghosts. One ghost in particular. What I didn’t realize was that ghosts aren’t always dead, and that hauntings aren’t always about beings and creatures no longer of this earth. We haunt ourselves. We can be the phantoms of our own houses, just as trapped, just as disoriented. I am a man. I am alive. I am real. And I am a ghost, too. I am haunting my family. I am haunting my home. I am haunting myself. I am lost, and I am lost forever, and I am right where I need to be.
I will not be selling this house.
I’ll do my best to be a good ghost, Pea. I have a head start. I’ll see you tonight.
— 30 —
The Last 90 Seconds
A fading father, a ticking clock, and one last snack for the road.