by Patricia McCrystal
Winner, Slippery Elm Prize in Prose
The first time Cade said he’d seen Dad’s ghost, autumn was already a rumor on the breath of dawn, a whisper of blue creeping into the edges of the crimson mornings that spread over the valley below our cabin. I opened my eyes sometime in the night and saw my little brother standing over me, his face an unreadable warp in the shadows, breath coming hard and fast. I lurched over and reached for the fire extinguisher under my bed, my hand wrapping around the cold metal before I had fully left my dream, where smoke wove between Cade’s feet like a cat.
“Michael,” Cade hissed, “I just saw Dad’s ghost.”
I let go of the fire extinguisher and sat up. Cade took a step closer and a blade of moonlight slashed its way through the curtains and found my brother’s face, tracing a bright gash across the bridge of his nose and catching the whites of his eyes in its edges. I told him it had been a dream and to go back to bed. He said no, he’d been wide awake and reading comics because he heard a sound outside and couldn’t sleep, and after a few pages he saw Dad’s ghost sitting at the foot of his bed.
‘What kind of sound?’ I asked. Cade hesitated, then said he thought he’d heard a car crash. I felt heat rise in my neck and told him to go into Dad’s room and wake him up, wake Dad up and see he’s still as alive as you and me. Cade didn’t move, just looked out my window like he could see something beyond the curtains until I told him to quit being a queer and to go back to sleep.
I had sensed something was off with my little brother a week earlier when we went to get the mail. We made the two-mile walk to the mailbox every day in the summer to break up the angry boredom that bubbled up between us like hot grease when we weren’t playing video games or skating in the driveway. We usually brought our black lab Shadow with us, mainly because we liked to keep count of how often he’d hold his pee until we reached the clutter of mailboxes where our pitted-out gravel road bled into the canyon highway. Much to our delight, Shadow would sometimes store up his ammo and let loose on the mailbox that belonged to the grouchy old German couple who lived in the green and white cabin at the far end of the road, whom we hated. But this time Shadow was hunting with Dad, so we went alone.
We had just passed the abandoned hoarder cabin with the yellowed-out windows when it happened. I had a cattail stalk in my fist, puffy top poised like a baton ready to make impact with the back of my brother’s head when he leaned forward, closed his eyes, and sniffed the air in front of him. The ends of his pale hair splayed outward, translucent as spider webs stretching free in the afternoon sun. Then he leaned back, opened his eyes, and said, “It doesn’t smell like you.”
I blinked then ran at him full force, rearing back and exploding the dense cotton all over the back of his skull.
“Talking to your invisible boyfriend?” I sneered. Cade spun around and I speared the broken stalk at his chest, pushed him aside and ran hard down the road. He chased me all the way to the mailboxes where we finally stopped, doubled over and gasping. I’ve never let Cade catch me, not once, but he’s never given up. I could wear anything—skate shoes, flip flops, Dad’s fishing waders, it didn’t matter. I was always faster.
That walk was the first sign of Cade’s visitations, but I didn’t know what they meant yet. When he leaned forward and sniffed the air and spoke to some invisible presence it had felt like a cold fish flipped in my stomach, something small as a brook trout barely breaking the surface at sunset.
Cade saw Dad’s ghost again after our first day of school. My bus got home an hour before his since he was still in middle school. Cade walked in and threw his backpack on the floor and slumped down on the couch. I was eating Cheerios in the kitchen and watching old Rodney Mullen skate videos on my phone. Dad was standing in the living room with his tackle box propped on Mom’s old ironing board, arranging his flies by season. He was wearing his navy bathrobe over camo cargo pants and flip flops, an outfit he started calling his “new office attire” since he quit his job. I asked him which flies were the best to use in August and he said any of them, that the organization method didn’t strictly make sense but that he liked to do it this way anyway.
“I saw your ghost today,” Cade said to Dad. I looked up at him, flicked my eyes over to Dad then down at my Cheerios. Cade wiped the sleeve of his hoodie under his nose and sniffled.
“That so?” Dad’s hand hovered over an orange fuzzy fly before thinking better of it. Cade nodded.
“By that part in the river where we crashed the kayak last summer.”
“You mean where I caught that monster walleye? With this?”
He held up a mean-looking fly in his fingers. The dulled hook swiveled slowly in the air, gripped around the base by an amorphous brown squiggle, the creature’s angry red pinprick of an eye sweeping back and forth over the living room in search of a fitting adversary.
“You had your hunting rifle, and a crow was in the tree and it cawed at us, and you pointed at it and said, ‘crows are good luck for me,’” Cade said.
Dad looked unimpressed. “I say that all the time. Crows are good luck for me when I hunt.” Cade kept his eyes fixed on the charred black fireplace. He shrugged.
“Dad’s alive, dummy,” I said. “Ghosts are dead. I bet when you eat Cheerios you nearly shit your pants cause your cereal is going, ‘Ooooo! Oooo!’” I moaned and lifted my arms up and shook them like a cartoon ghost.
“Michael,” Dad warned. I shrugged and went back to my phone. Cade sucked in his cheeks before he got up and slouched upstairs. My dad and I looked at each other, then looked away.
About a month after Mom died, I started having dreams about fire. Fire lapping at the ceiling and sucking the walls of the house into its hot mouth, the flames licking our bodies down to black marrow while we slept. You’d think I’d dream about drowning, about dark, cold water spilling in through the living room windows and muscling its way up the stairs, our bodies stuck to our beds like our skin had been sewed to the sheets while we slept. But instead I dreamt about choking on smoke, and woke up in the middle of the night drenched in sweat, my mouth dry as ash.
When the dreams first started, I used some of my dog-sitting money and bought three fire extinguishers at the Army Surplus after school. I put one under the sink in the kitchen, one under Cade’s bed and one under mine. We didn’t even have a fire safety drill back then, so I drew eight small blueprints of the house and the safest route to escape from each room. I taped the maps beneath light switches around the house and made Dad and Cade practice escaping. I tied a bandana over their eyes and walked them to different rooms and made them sit on the floor, then I’d turn out the light and shut the door and run down to the kitchen. When I shouted FIRE! they had to take off their blindfolds, fumble their way over to the light switch, and use my map to find the safest way out of the house. I’d run outside with Shadow and wait on the porch and time their escape with my phone stopwatch. They both had to get outside in under a minute, or I’d make them do it again.
Adding in the blindfold element felt important somehow. I wanted to emulate the confusion of sleep, or some other heaviness of mind that could block the instinct to fight for survival. I made them practice every night after dinner, each time from different rooms until Dad said he’d had enough. Cade never complained. He always followed my instruction without question, pulling the blindfold over his eyes and allowing me to guide him to a darkened room with my hands on his shoulders. Whether he participated because he agreed with the importance of fire safety or because he understood my sudden and desperate need for the ritual, I don’t know.
He once asked what we would do to save Shadow if there was a fire, and I said we’d do nothing, that God said people were more important than animals and during a fire you should always save your family first and leave all pets behind. I could tell that upset him, and although his upset made me angry, I told him that Shadow would probably smell the smoke first and bark to wake us up, so he’d be with us when we escaped.
When fall settled in, Cade’s ghost sightings became a constant fixture in the house, twisted and unnerving as the dark stain that veined outward from the middle of the living room ceiling, water damage left from the previous owners that made me nervous every time I sat on the couch.
One night in late October, Cade took Shadow for a walk while Dad and I unloaded bags of vacuum-sealed venison and summer sausage from the back of his truck and packed them into the meat freezer in the garage. The whole garage smelled like Dad, or I guess he smelled like the garage, not like smoke but like something that’s been smoked, the transformation that comes from being cured by fire, like the whiff after the bullet’s left its cradle and you can smell the change, the sulfur and the saltpeter.
Cade leaned into the garage, one hand gripping the grubby spot of the doorframe where his fingers had fit snugly since we were small, always leaning into the garage instead of standing on the step, like the floor was lava or a conveyer belt that would slowly siphon him toward some fate he couldn’t bear.
“Saw your ghost again,” Cade said casually. “Over by the bridge.”
Our father didn’t look up, just kept pulling bags out of the truck cooler and passing them to me.
“Yeah? Did it tell you there’s a nice pile of coyote shit by the mailbox for you to look forward to?”
There was an edge to Dad’s voice now, like he was getting tired of being reminded that his non-living self was more interesting to his son than his living one.
Cade didn’t respond, just kept leaning his body out into the garage. I shook my head and put extra muscle into my handoff.
“Quit making shit up, Cade.”
“Hey,” Dad warned me again, firmer. Cursing was for grown men, for when you owned your own house and made your own money. I didn’t need to hear it again. I dove my hand into the cooler and pulled out a package of smoked trout, the gummy flesh an alarming shade of pink. Cade sucked on one of his hoodie strings and finally disappeared into the kitchen. I could hear the stairs creak above the garage as he trudged up to his room.
“Ghosts aren’t real,” I said finally, handing my father the last packet of meat.
“You don’t think so?” Dad shoved the final bag in the back corner of the freezer.
I blinked a few times. It was like he’d asked if he should wear camo or a pink leotard on his next hunt.
“They say that at church,” I countered. “Only ghost is the holy ghost. Unless you’re in purgatory, I guess.”
Dad pushed the freezer door shut. He paused and opened it again like there was something that he’d forgotten, then closed it. He turned to face me and put a hand on my shoulder.
“You’re right, son,” he said, his face unreadable. “And I don’t know which is worse, that or hell.”
I opened my mouth, closed it.
“Gonna chop some wood for the morning,” Dad said, then turned away.
I pounded upstairs to Cade’s room and slammed open the door. He wasn’t there. I heard a skateboard slap against the pavement outside.
They say death by drowning is more painful than you’d think. That it’s even worse than by fire. When there’s a fire, people usually lose consciousness from all the smoke before the flames get to them. After Mom died, I spent a lot of time looking on the internet whether one was any more peaceful than the other. Some guy on Reddit said he’d almost died by both fire and drowning, and that drowning was worse.
I’ve almost been killed by both of them, and my observations are that drowning is scarier. I was caught in a petrol explosion and was engulfed in flames. I was breathing fire, I’d burnt my tongue, the inside of my ears, mouth, and nose. I lost all the skin on my face and hands and was in agony. I would have asked to be shot. As a child, I was dragged underwater by my younger brother who used me to stay afloat. He wouldn’t or couldn’t let me up. I had taken my last breath ages ago, I was fighting for survival, kicking, punching, pinching. I was about to go to the bottom of the pool when my dad realized what was happening and rescued both of us. The near drowning was frightening, the burning was painful, but I think burning to death would be a more peaceful end. (It didn’t hurt whilst it was happening, it only hurt when the flames were extinguished), i.e. when I’d survived.
It’s possible that Mom smelled a puff of smoke just as her airbag ignited, even though it didn’t save her. Before the water escorted her to whatever comes next. Maybe smoke, not the cold mountain water, was the last thing my mom ever smelled.
That night after Cade found us in the garage, I confronted him in the driveway. Cade was skating in circles, his board slapping hard against the pavement with every failed kick flip. Shadow gave chase, lunging and barking at the skateboard. I walked up behind my brother and stomped my foot on the back of his board, sending him stumbling.
“Why do you keep saying that shit, huh?” I demanded. “Keep saying you see Dad’s ghost?”
Cade turned away and jogged to grab his board before it hit the gravel road. He dropped it in front of him and hopped back on, gliding up the driveway and bouncing his weight in his knees before popping an ollie.
“Why don’t you ever see Mom’s ghost? At least that would make sense.”
“Mom’s in heaven,” Cade said matter-of-factly, his voice muffled by the hoodie string in his mouth.
“So what are you saying?” I challenged. “You trying to piss off Dad? You wish he was dead too?”
Cade winced. “I’m just saying what I saw.”
“Well, don’t.” I turned. “Ghosts aren’t real. You need to grow up.”
“They’re real in purgatory,” Cade said, so softly I almost didn’t hear him.
I spun around, mouth open, ready to fire back. The sun was completely down now, Cade reduced to a black shadow hissing through the navy darkness, and our dog Shadow reduced to a darting absence of light behind him. I turned around and went inside.
When they found Mom’s body, she had been in the water for almost ten hours. Her car was half a mile downstream from where it had gone into the river off the canyon highway, about forty minutes toward town. During her funeral reception, Cade and I sat around our aunt’s kitchen island, pretending to have appetites so we could escape from the endless somber faces, the cloying perfumed hugs and the wet-eyed apologies for our losses, to which we never knew how to respond. Our Aunt Tina, eyes flat and distant with shock, told us in a low voice how the frigid water had preserved our mother’s body remarkably well, and that there had been some kind of black matter ringing her eyes when they pulled her out of the river.
“They still don’t know if a deer bolted out in front of the car, or if the road was icy, or if she’d just had too much to drink,” Aunt Tina went on. “Stupid. Just so stupid, it makes me angry. And with two children at home…I can’t imagine getting behind the wheel like that.”
She looked at Cade and me like maybe we weren’t really there; were just uncanny shadows or figures from memory whose presence therefore needn’t be regarded. Our Uncle Tim was leaning against the fridge, head bobbing forward now and then, crushed beer can in his hand.
“That canyon road is a mean fucker even in the middle of the day, sober as a son of a bitch,” he said blearily. “I’ve had to think twice before making that trek down the hill after a day out on the boat.” Tim raised his eyes to me. “Where did she think she was going, anyway?”
The morning Dad quit his job, I came down into the kitchen and found him sitting at the table in his robe and cargo pants, drinking coffee and reading the paper.
“Why aren’t you at work?” I asked, pulling orange juice out of the fridge. Dad put the paper down and sipped his coffee.
“I’m not going in today. Want me to make you Eggos?” he asked, getting up from the table.
Cade and I had made our own breakfast for years, but when we were younger Dad used to make us Eggo waffles “the special way” on weekends, which meant toasting them first and then adding butter and syrup and cinnamon before microwaving them for twenty seconds, but no longer or else they dried up. I shrugged and swung my backpack on the floor and sat down at the table.
Dad slid the plate in front of me.
“I don’t imagine the hardware store needs me much nowadays. They’ve got Jim and Kevin, that new GM from Reno.”
He sat down across from me and laced his hands on the table. “I think I’d like to be around more for you kids anyway. Drive you to the bus stop and make sure your lunches are all packed, help out more with homework. Would you like that?” he asked.
Dad nodded. “I think Cade would like that, anyway. I know you’re nearly a man now, my big high schooler,” he said and reached over, squeezing my bicep like it was something to behold. I laughed.
“But…how will we pay for stuff?” I asked. “If you don’t work?”
Pain flashed across my father’s eyes. He inhaled sharply and turned, looking out the kitchen window. Then he turned back to me, his faced composed in a half-smile.
“Let’s call it early retirement,” he said. “I’ve got plenty in the ol’ IRA. And when that runs out, we’ve always got your college fund.”
We both chuckled but when it came time to stop, neither of us wanted to, and our laughter that started slow and quiet broke open, each of us fueling the other until we were doubled over, wheezing, completely wracked with a hard, gut-wrenching, painful kind of laugh that neither of us wanted to stop because we knew it was all a joke, but we knew that none of it was, either.
That fall was the first time that I didn’t go hunting with my Dad since I turned thirteen. I told him I had too much pre-Algebra homework, and that I’d stay behind and look after Cade while he was gone. It turned out to be the best hunt of his life, with him and Uncle Tim both falling two bucks each. We had to let Uncle Tim keep most of the meat because our freezer was stuffed to the gills and besides, he always let Dad borrow his horse for packing in and out.
“Saw lots of crows,” Dad said to Cade when he first got back from the hunt, smiling and unbuttoning his flannel. “Got extra lucky this year.”
“I know,” Cade said from the couch, and my dad laughed and reached out, giving the back of Cade’s head a hard rub.
“Yeah, I know you know. My ghost tells you everything before I do, huh?” He turned and sniffed under an armpit and feigned repulsion. “Time for a shower.”
I glared at Cade. He caught my eye then sluffed off the couch, turning on the Xbox and sitting on the floor, back against the coffee table. Finally he mumbled, more to the pro skater on the TV than to me, “He wishes he could be with her.”
I smacked my glass of orange juice with the back of my hand, sending it sprawling across the kitchen. It smashed against the cabinets beneath the sink, juice spiraling all over the floor and cabinets. Cade didn’t move.
“Clean that up,” I barked and stormed out the back door, screen door slamming behind me.
I grabbed the axe from the shed and split wood until the sky grew dark purple with an oncoming storm. A freezing rain started to spit down on me, and by the time I got the tarp back over the wood pile and the axe in the shed I was soaked to the bone, teeth clattering in my skull. I stayed out there in the rain, willing my body to slowly numb itself against the biting cold.
I know that Mom didn’t really drown. It was the head injury from impact that killed her when her car landed in the river, so she never felt the freezing water once it started to fill the car. Dad went after her with his own car, but by the time he reached the canyon road he gave up and came back home. They’d been fighting a lot that winter. What about, Cade and I didn’t really understand. Once I heard them fighting through the vents, and heard Dad say “Go and get him, then. If you think the grass is always greener, I’m not going to stop you.”
Mom worked at the bank, in one of the tallest buildings in Fort Collins. She worked late sometimes, which always put Dad on edge. After a terse call Dad would hang up and decide we should eat dinner without her, all of us silent the whole meal, Dad chewing extra rough with one side of his mouth.
“I just worry about her doing that drive at night,” he’d say unprompted, sensing our disquiet. I’d nod my head in agreement, neither of us sure if I believed him.
Mom struggled with winter. It seemed to get worse as I got older, and I sometimes heard her joke joylessly to her sister on the phone that our side of the mountain only got sun one week out of the year. The winter of the accident, she tried finding more reasons to go into town and stay there—leaving early Saturday morning to pick up a single ingredient that she needed to make dinner, or offering to take us to a movie or go swimming at the babyish rec center. Cade and I always refused, preferring video games or comic books or browsing YouTube for hours to long drives in the car with our mom for worthless errands.
The night she died, my parents had two of their friends over for a winter solstice dinner party. To try to make the darkest night of the year a little brighter, my mom had said sweetly, causing Cade and I to retch.
My mom didn’t drink often. That day she had come home with two bottles of wine, popping one open before their friends rang the doorbell. Cade and I slipped downstairs early in the night to scarf down a plate of shrimp scampi and garlic bread before disappearing back into our rooms, willingly exposing ourselves to boisterous observations about our growth, cajoled with questions about our favorite subjects in school and if we remembered the time we all went camping together in Wyoming six years ago. Mom laughed loud and often, teeth stained dark and head thrown back, her neck long and white. Dad eyed her, laughing but with less mirth, his mouth curved in something less than a smile.
After I heard their friends’ car crunch out of the driveway and down the road, my parents started to argue in the kitchen. Their voices stumbled up the stairs, the consonants getting punchier, vowels swiveling wildly.
“That is it!” Mom growled in a voice that in a voice that was nothing like hers, a voice dark and liquid as the wine that tinted her lips. “You want me to be seeing him so bad, you want to be the martyr who gets left behind, fine. I’ll go. I’m sick and tired of trying to convince you otherwise.”
I heard the jangle of car keys and my dad bark, “Heidi, you are not getting in that car.”
The door to the garage slammed and I heard my dad’s chair scrape across the kitchen floor in a fever pitch. My dad shouted after my mom again, his voice echoing in the garage below me. I jumped up from bed and looked out my bedroom window, watched my mom’s car swing backward wildly into the road then lurch forward, churning up dust in the cold. My dad ran out into the road, pounding on the car window, but my mom didn’t stop. Dad stood for a moment in the road, breathless, then turned and got in his truck to follow her. I sat back on my bed, unsure of what to do. Minutes passed and I heard my dad’s truck crunching back over the gravel road. I looked out my window and saw him get out of his truck, slamming the door shut.
I saw Dad’s ghost for the first time on Thanksgiving break, three months after Cade’s first sighting. Dad was sleeping in late again, something he did almost every day since he quit working. We still made our own breakfasts and packed our own lunches, and walked the two miles to and from the bus stop every morning. My brother and I decided to ride our bikes down to the spot where they found Mom’s car and put some flowers by the side of the road. Dad would have murdered us if he knew we rode on the slim shoulder of the canyon highway, but he wasn’t there to stop us. Cars whizzed past us, some honking as they got behind us, swerving dramatically into the other lane as they passed. Cade flipped one of the cars the bird and we started laughing, kept laughing as we hugged the curves, veering madly into the road to avoid chunks of rock that had fallen off the canyon face.
We parked our bikes under the pine tree with the red ribbon that Cade had tied around the base a year ago. We walked around the river bank and pulled up white daisies and pink Indian paintbrush and handfuls of sage, a few purple columbines. Cade gave me his flowers and I bundled them together into a makeshift bouquet.
“Where should we put them?” I asked, but Cade was staring out across the river. I turned and saw it there, balancing on the thin ice that covered most of the river. The near translucent version of our dad had his back to us, his hands crammed in his jean pockets, looking down at the water beneath his work boots.
“He wanted to go with her,” Cade said softly. “He wanted to follow her, but he couldn’t.”
This time, I didn’t tell my brother to shut up. My dad’s ghost turned slowly, like he’d heard Cade’s voice, and looked at us. My heart pounded and I opened my mouth, closed it. It felt stupid, but I raised my hand in a greeting. My father didn’t wave back.
“He can’t see us,” I croaked.
I suddenly felt the weight of what Cade had been carrying since he’d first seen my father’s ghost, understood his desperate need to seek my father out, still flesh and bone, and to try and banish this spirit by calling its bluff in the face of its living original. My legs burned with the desire to do the same. I didn’t move.
My father’s ghost kept staring at us, but in his lucent gaze it seemed he was looking past us like we were the ones who weren’t really there, like he saw through us all the way to the river bank, to the winding mountain highway above us and the top of the rock face that towered above that, where the weight of the icy blue sky balanced on the canyon’s ancient, crumbling shoulders. Then he turned away.