THE SECOND LIFE OF LAZARUS
The first time Monty saw the ghost, there in the corner of the Crippen Mansion’s third bedroom, was the year his uncle went missing. He was working over the summer for his mother, who curated the mansion’s collection of antiques. His job was to unlock the back door for the landscapers and tend to the shadow-bathed furniture, which now held more dust than dishes. Most days he moved through the house alone, listening to his stomach and the decrepit pipes grumble in unison as he made his way down the winding hallways, stopping at every old photograph hung on the dark walls and trying to guess who the people in them were. The photos were yellowed and crumbling in their frames, filled with boys in heavy knee socks and women in floppy-brimmed hats. Monty hummed to himself the tunes of the Luna Carpet or Frosted Flakes commercials, as if to present himself to whoever was waiting beyond the corner. He even knocked on every door, believing that spirits would appreciate his polite gesture.
He was sweeping away the mites that collected on the creaking floorboards when the morning sun slanted through the curtains and caught the shade of the room. Dust particles floated before him in bloated shapes, crafting what looked to be a figure in the light’s glow, breathing gently as the curtains moved in the breeze. Its haloed head seemed to turn with Monty’s movements as he stepped closer to the bed. He felt something clinging to him, the way the smell of fresh smoke clung to the cigarette burn etched into the leather of his uncle’s couch. Before the clouds covered the sun and stole the figure, the room felt alive with a once-lost memory, briefly recalled.
Monty sat for a while on the edge of the bed, waiting to see if it would return. The neighborhood kids always assumed the Crippen Mansion was haunted. Sometimes when they passed on their bikes, they’d stare across the ocean of front lawn and catch glimpses of moving shadows in the upstairs window. The house was a historic landmark, said to be the oldest in the city. From that window, the original owners watched the Great Chicago Fire engulf the horizon and the skyscrapers which sprouted from the ashes. The kids’ stories moved between history and fiction without warning as they detailed the tragic endings of the families who lived there throughout the years – the mob hits and murders and grief-stricken suicides. It was just an old house, built by rich folk and passed down through generations. But as kids, they wanted to tell a more interesting tale, something haunted and traumatic.
The job helped Monty fill time while the adults searched for his uncle. He was thankful for the time away from his house, which was now always filled with people busy doing very little. His mother and aunt bent over the kitchen table reviewing letters and financial statements, the home phone like a Thanksgiving turkey in the center. People came and went with the ringing of the doorbell, dropping off pies and chicken noodle soups and hams until the fridge refused to close with all the tinfoil-wrapped pans and platters. His father left for days at a time as he drove to Gary and up to Racine looking for his brother, who had been missing for 12 days and counting. Monty’s uncle woke up early on a Sunday, left his wife asleep next to him, and disappeared in his 2001 Dodge Ram.
Monty told the story to Mae at the mouth of the Avondale Tunnel, a pedestrian walkway underneath the Amtrak rails where neighborhood kids went to play and escape the summer heat.
“I bet that’s the girl who offed herself in the 30’s,” Mae said.
Mae believed that the youngest Crippen sister, whose name they had either forgotten or made up, hung herself from the light fixture in the mansion’s third bedroom after her family declared bankruptcy during the Great Depression. Mae studied death like baseball stats. She read obituaries every morning while eating her bowl of Fruity Pebbles and then, as they made their way to the park, pointed out to Monty who had recently died in each passing house. Columns of dark, strappy bracelets jingled on her forearms when she told stories. Mae was two years older and straddling the edges of puberty. Monty noticed the extra skin emerging at the ends of her all-black wardrobe, her ankles and wrists outreaching the ends of her clothes. She drew her own tattoos on her arms when she was bored, sequences of 666 and thick-shaded pentagrams. Before she passed away, her mom bleached Mae’s hair after she dyed seafoam green streaks in her bangs, yet the color remained in muted shades near her scalp.
“What did the ghost look like?” Mae asked.
“I’m not sure,” Monty said. “I just felt something.”
They sat in the grass near the tunnel’s mouth, Mae blocking an ant’s path with her finger as Monty plucked blades of grass.
“Did she have hair that hung over her face like this?” she flipped her hair with a swoop of her head.
“Did she make the room go cold?”
“I have to know these things,” Mae said. “Was she bleeding?”
“Oozing? Moaning? Shrieking? Did she grab you with her decomposed hands? Did she lift books into the air? Turn lights on and off? Did she throw things? Was she a bedsheet with two eyeholes?”
“Well then what did she look like?” Mae asked.
Monty wanted to lie. He wanted to tell her that he had seen a figure carved by the sun, who reached for his hands like a priest during confession, and when he offered himself to it, the body dissipated in a fresh gust of wind. He felt he had to tell her an intriguing story, one with action and cliffhangers, though to be truthful he stood in that room for a long time, tracing the phantom outline with his finger, hoping it would make up his uncle’s soft, beer-bellied body.
“I think it was just a trick of the light,” he said.
Mae flicked the ant, which landed in front of Monty and scurried away.
“You need to get a picture,” she said. “For me.”
Mae fell over onto the grass, her head dropping onto Monty’s lap like a pillow. A warmth whipped in Monty’s chest like crashing waves. She closed her eyes to the sun’s glare.
“Have they found your uncle yet?” she asked.
“No,” Monty said.
Monty listened to time pass as Father Eric thumbed the beads of his rosary, which rose from his lap like a purring cat. The man seemed to be in constant motion, his fingers moving from his silver beard to his shirt buttons to his bouncing knees. They sat in silence, the kitchen clock ticked to each escaping second as his family waited in the kitchen. His Aunt Janet tapped her pen against the table to the clock’s off-beats, steam from her tea spreading across her face like morning fog on pavement. His mother sipped a glass of water, held herself in a hug. His sister Haley set a king of hearts on the dining room table, one corner of the card at a time. It was her eighth game of Solitaire that day.
Father Eric cleared his throat and Monty prepared for forced conversation. His parents had asked Father Eric to stop by to talk to the children, but he seemed unsure whether to play the priest or therapist, as he switched without warning between prayer and probing questions. He rested on the edge of the desk while Monty sat cross-legged on his bed, the door to his room cracked slightly.
“How are you feeling today, Montavious?” he leaned back until his feet left the floor.
Monty fought the urge to cringe. He hated his name, which was an ode to his great-grandfather who’d immigrated from Germany, and he hated being asked how he was feeling. Monty’s mother asked him every morning at the breakfast table. He’d answer fine in a low, mechanical tone before taking a bite of burnt toast. His parents thought he was repressing his grief, which was perhaps true. Monty wasn’t sure how he felt. One moment his uncle was in the kitchen, having a beer with his father, and the next he was gone. Now, nearly two weeks later, Monty’s life remained on an indefinite pause, as if waiting for his name to be called at the doctor’s office, the world continuing to move even as nothing changed.
“Montavious?” Father Eric said.
“I’m fine,” Monty answered.
“We’ve been praying for your family at mass,” he said.
Monty’s family had a regular pew in the front left corner, just under the stained-glass window, which pictured the Roman soldiers stabbing Jesus’s lifeless body with a sword. Monty gripped his Spiderman bedsheets as Father Eric knocked over a statue of the Eiffel Tower on his desk, a gift from his uncle after a trip to Paris the year prior.
“That’s nice,” Monty said.
“No updates on your uncle,” he said.
Monty wasn’t sure if this was a question or a statement. He knew there were no updates. His mother was careful with what she shared to Monty, trying to appear as positive as possible, but Haley, who was four years older and entrusted with more sensitive information, told him of the potential sightings, the guns his uncle had packed, the note he left which read as suicidal. This morning she told him there was a sighting in Hammond and that their father was driving there now from Gurnee. Monty took the information like cough syrup, shivering before letting it settle into a numbness within him.
“No updates,” Monty said.
Father Eric looked at the shark posters hung on the walls. One had a picture of a bull shark opening its mouth to the camera, while the other showed a great white vaulting into the air and leaving a widening ripple in the ocean below.
“You really like sharks,” Father Eric said.
“Yeah,” he said. “They eat people.”
Monty could hear the clock tick away in the kitchen.
“So, yesterday we talked about the last time you saw your uncle,” he said, his hands grazing the edges of the desk. “You said you felt guilty about not saying goodbye. Would you like to talk more about that?”
Monty’s uncle disappeared on a Sunday, shortly after having a beer with his father. He could hear their laughs and gravelly voices from his bedroom, though he couldn’t make out what they were saying. Monty turned down the volume to his videogame as he pretended not to care and listened. His uncle enjoyed asking him about the girls he was crushing on, poking Monty between the ribs as if it were his ON switch. Come on, Monty, spill the beans, he’d say, bursting into his thunder-clap laugh as Monty could feel his cheeks sizzle and turn red. Let me tell you about the new life you’ll have once you discover love. But Monty was young and didn’t want to know. He wanted to read and share ghost stories with Mae and play pretend in the backyard. So that day he hid from his uncle and peered around the hallway corner into the kitchen where the brothers hugged. Monty thought to say goodbye, but instead he watched him leave.
“Not really,” he said.
“Have you cried yet?” Father Eric asked.
“It’s okay, you know,” Father Eric said, stumbling over his words, “to feel a range of emotions at this time.”
But Monty didn’t feel anything besides the chill from the air conditioner.
“I know, Father.”
Father Eric pinched his rosary beads. The clock ticked.
“Why don’t we read a passage,” he said.
Father Eric read Monty the story of Lazarus, who got sick and died but was raised from the dead because he was friends with Jesus. Monty wondered if God did that for all his close friends. If He does, he thought, God’s kind of a jerk for playing favorites. He’d heard this story a few times at mass, but he had been too busy having poke fights with Mae underneath the pew. She told Monty once that she’d heard that Lazarus never smiled after he was resurrected, that he was too haunted by what he’d seen in death to ever feel happiness again. They don’t talk about that, though, Mae said.
“How does that story make you feel, Montavious?” Father Eric asked, setting his pocket bible to the side.
“Are you trying to tell me my uncle is dead, Father?”
The clock ticked.
“No, no, of course not,” he said. “That story is about the possibilities of a new life with Christ.”
They sat in silence for a while. Monty ran his finger across his bedside end table, then blew away the dust that it returned.
“Can I ask you something?” Monty said.
“When someone dies,” Monty said, chewing his words like a bite of overdone steak, “is it possible that a part of them stays behind?”
Father Eric took off his owl framed glasses, held them to the light. Then, with his shirtsleeve, he wiped them like a kitchen countertop.
“The body stays behind, of course,” he said, squinting blindly. “But the Church says that, after death, one’s soul goes to heaven, hell, or purgatory.”
“The soul can’t stay behind like a ghost?” Monty asked. “It goes to heaven?”
Father Eric put his glasses back on, his eyes large and inescapable behind the frames.
“If it’s a pure soul, yes,” he said.
“If my uncle doesn’t come back,” Monty said, “will he go to heaven?”
Father Eric coughed into his fist. The sharks stared at them with dead, black eyes.
“That would be a complicated question.”
The clock ticked, ticked, ticked.
“I’m saying if he chose not to come back. If he chose to hurt himself,” Father Eric paused, restarted, “I’m saying suicide is a serious matter. It’s contrary to our love for God.”
Monty nodded, but he had lost his concentration. Father Eric continued talking, citing which Commandments self-harm violates and how it makes souls tainted and impure, but Monty’s gaze was drifting from his thick, glassy stare to the desktop covered with taped photographs of his family at his uncle’s backyard pool and down to his lap, his shoes, the floor, thinking about what, if anything his uncle would leave behind if he didn’t come home as Father Eric tried to call him back. Montavious, he repeated, Montavious please.
Monty no longer slept. At night, he sat in bed and held books to the lamplight, too tired to read, his eyes merely scanning the words. He tried to remember things about his uncle, taking mental notes of his smell – smoke and sandalwood, hint of lavender – and the feel of his hands on his shoulders – soft touch, hard callouses. He listened to his mother talk to his father on the phone and cry to the tune of late night infomercials. Monty would wait until her eyes fell to the weight of the day. Then he snuck out to walk the neighborhood, taking his mother’s cell phone with him as he’d been told in case news of his uncle broke.
The neighborhood was quiet. House lights glowed in the darkness and cicadas screeched from the cover of shadowed branches as Monty walked down the street, pockets jingling with spare change and house keys. Late night L trains growled in the distance. Monty felt like a ghost, moving separately through the world as it slept.
Mae’s house was dark except for a dim porch light. Monty took the driveway to the side of the house and knelt by the basement window, Mae’s bedroom. He tapped three times against the glass and waited for the light to turn on, then went to the front door to meet her. Mae cracked the door open and stepped outside.
“Do you know what time it is?” she asked.
“I want to do it,” Monty said. “I’ll look for the ghost.”
Mae rubbed her eyes.
“That’s great,” she said, followed by a yawn.
They stood in silence, looking into one another’s wet, filmy eyes. A gust of wind brought the trees to life like shadow puppets.
“Is there anything else?” Mae asked.
“No, I’m just stopping by to,” Monty paused, swallowed something heavy in his throat. “I’m just taking a walk. I can’t sleep.”
Monty watched as Mae sucked her lower lip, though he didn’t want her to notice him stare, so he turned to the lamp where a cloud of moths danced in the light.
“Wait here,” she said.
Mae disappeared inside. Monty pulled out his mother’s phone, held its dark screen before him as he grazed the “on” button with his fingertip. He had come to believe that waiting was that dark phone screen, that moment just before checking when anything could be true, when there could either be no word or a message from his mother, one with joy or tears in her voice. It was the jump in his heart and the strain of his face, caught between grin and grimace, as he willed himself to look.
Nothing. He put the phone back in his pocket as Mae returned with a large blanket. Monty followed her onto the tight-cut lawn, his shoes becoming dark in the forming dew.
“If you can’t sleep,” Mae said as she laid out the blanket. “then we’ll do something else.”
Monty almost thanked her, but Mae was already focused on a group of lightning bugs flickering around their heads, like speckles on the face of the night. One by one she scooped them from the air until her folded hands glowed green in the light of three bugs.
“Did you know that in Japanese legends, lightning bugs are believed to be the souls of the dead?”
“Why do you know that?” Monty asked, though he didn’t want an answer and Mae didn’t seem interested in giving one.
“You just have a lot to learn,” Mae smiled.
The lightning bugs escaped through the spaces between her knuckles, flying like a neon cyclone into the night. Her face lit up as they buzzed around her head – blonde hair falling past her shoulders, emerald eyes speckled hazel, a crooked smile as she watched the lights surround her. Then she re-trapped them and put her hands to her chest.
“Have you ever kissed anyone?”
Monty felt his face flush with heat as they met eyes. He tried to break their stare by checking the phone, but Mae waved her clasped hands at him as if she were swinging a sword.
“I’m here,” she said. “No one’s down there.”
Monty assumed Mae could read the color of his cheeks. The trapped bugs began to flicker, her hands flashing an S.O.S. signal. She leaned forward at the waist, her eyes open and lips positioned for a kiss. It took a moment for Monty to recognize that he too must move, but by that time Mae had drawn close as he remained wide-eyed and open-mouthed like a gasping fish. He tried to pucker, but his lips formed a grin.
“There’s the smile,” Mae said, leaning back with a laugh. “That’s what I was looking for.”
They were laughing together now. It felt like a release of something Monty had been holding for a long time.
“Come here,” she said. “Put out your hands.”
Mae placed her hands in his and released the lightning bugs, then gently curled his fingers until they formed a cage, though one escaped, flickering off into the shadowed tree. Monty shivered and grimaced as the remaining two crawled on his skin. Mae laughed at him, breathless and quiet.
“Be careful,” she said. “That could be your great-great-grandfather.”
Monty smiled, but Mae’s expression was firm.
“It’s nice to think like that,” Mae said. “You know, that the people you love are still around in some way.”
Monty’s spine tingled to the tap of the bugs’ little feet. He remembered when Mae’s mother died because she stayed at their house while her father visited the funeral home. As they waited, she coldly described the mangling of metal in that Dan Ryan pile up and how her mother’s neck snapped, as if she were a narrator in a nature documentary. He’d found it strange that Mae didn’t show emotion, until she began to cry while they were playing superhero in the backyard, wiping her eyes with a towel cape. She glanced at him now, a flash of emerald in the night, before looking down at her feet.
“I just. I don’t know if it makes you feel any better,” she said. “But I hope it does.”
They shared another look, another turn away.
“They’re not going to bite you,” Mae said, but Monty had already opened his hands to release the bugs.
The lights circled their heads before floating away in the wind. Monty and Mae sat quietly in the dark. She seemed to be waiting for him to say something specific.
“I should probably go to bed,” Monty said.
They stood, and Mae crumpled the blanket into a ball, held it tightly in her arms.
“Tomorrow then? We look for the ghost?”
Monty nodded. Mae took a few steps up the stairs before turning to wave goodbye, silhouetted by lamplight and her hand raised like a crossing guard signaling him to stop.
“Practice your pucker,” she said and stepped inside.
Monty formed O’s and volcanoes and other shapes with his lips as he walked home.
The family drank coffee from dirty mugs the next morning when Father Eric stopped by for a group prayer. A pimple peaked between his wrinkles, its white head the snow-capped mountaintop. Monty stared at his lap to avoid eye-contact with him as the family held hands around the kitchen table.
Father Eric read Isaiah 41, his voice low and flat, and Monty pretended to listen as he pictured the ghost in his head. His heart beat hard when he thought about Mae and he felt empty when he remembered his uncle, so Monty followed the man’s cracked lips and caught passing words like fear and not and God and uphold, none of which meant anything to him. His mother held his hand tightly, her fingertips massaging his knuckles.
“Amen,” they chorused.
That night, Monty met Mae at the corner of the Crippen Mansion. She nearly faded into the darkness with her dirty grey skullcap and black My Chemical Romance t-shirt. She wore a polaroid camera around her neck, a backpack, a cross under her arm.
“Did you get the holy water from Father Eric?” she said.
Monty hadn’t thought to ask.
“He was fresh out,” he said.
“We better hope it’s not a demonic spirit then.”
They walked down the sidewalk, following the line of street lamps to the mansion’s front yard, then followed the brick path that led to the porch. It had been Monty’s idea to search at night. He figured that ghosts were more likely to appear then, and he didn’t want his mom to know he let in uninvited guests.
“Hear anything about your uncle?” Mae asked.
“I’ve been thinking,” she said. “If he was going to, you know, he wouldn’t have brought a hunting rifle. That’s not a gun you hurt yourself with.”
Mae continued to explain the easier ways for people to take their lives, listing what she’d read in the newspaper and her favorite haunted Chicago guidebooks. Monty nodded. He wondered if Mae ever got tired of death, all the headlines of murders, illnesses, and car crashes that are printed and thrown away the next day.
“Anyways, I’m saying don’t worry too much,” Mae touched his forearm.
Monty unlocked the door with the key he took from his mom’s purse as Mae pulled a flashlight from her backpack and shot a beam inside. Monty checked his phone and followed her inside.
“Don’t be scared,” she said.
But Monty still was scared as Mae’s flashlight moved slowly through the hallway, bringing life to the yellowed photographs and shadowed end tables and dark wood panels as it moved up the steps of the stairway before turning left into the dining room. His heart pounded and skipped every time the beam redirected as he worried what it may uncover from the shadows. The floor creaked beneath their feet. The long dining room table and surrounding oak chairs were covered in white sheets, whose ends lifted in the gust of their passing bodies.
“Want to give me the tour?” she drew a hand of dust from the grandfather clock in the corner.
“Well, this is the living room,” he said.
“Did anyone die here?”
“Not that I know of.”
“I think what you mean is,” she said, showing her teeth, “Mrs. Crippen beheaded chickens at this table for her occultists rituals.”
Mae stepped into the hallway.
“I don’t think that’s true,” Monty said.
“Tell a story,” she said. “Give your audience something to chew on.”
Mae tapped Monty’s arm with the back of her hand, warm and smooth against his skin. He checked his phone as Mae stepped into the hallway. No calls.
The wind echoed through the gaps in the old windows. Monty led her up the stairs, tracing his fingertips on the banister to guide him as the flashlight shined against his back. The steps groaned under their weight. He wondered if Mae noticed how brave he was being, leading the way into the darkness.
“In the ‘30s, the youngest Crippen daughter fell down these stairs,” Monty said, then added, “it paralyzed her.”
“Paralyzed,” Mae said, her voice rising in interest.
They made their way through the upstairs hallway. The moon peaked through the windows, bathing the floor in a pale glow. Mae stopped at the photograph of a boy standing on the mansion’s balcony, overlooking a youthful skyline.
“Isn’t it creepy?” she said. “you almost forget the guy is dead.”
Monty checked his phone. Still nothing.
“Nothing’s going to happen if you keep checking,” Mae said.
Monty nodded, put the phone back in his pocket, and swallowed something painful inside him.
“Let me see where you found her.”
Monty led Mae to the end of the hall where the stained glass window patterned with a rising sun let the night in. They stepped inside the third bedroom. She set the flashlight in the center of the floor, its beam a pillar reaching for the ceiling.
“This is where she was?” Mae said.
“Then help me set these up.”
Mae began pulling out candles from her backpack.
“What is this?” Monty asked.
“You think a ghost will just show up?” Mae said as she formed the candles into a circle. “We have to call it.”
Monty didn’t move. He felt his phone against his thigh, heavy in his pocket. He wanted to go home.
“Are you with me?”
Monty worked in silence to arrange the candles into a circle as Mae followed with a Zippo lighter until they were surrounded by flames flickering in the wind streaming from the open window, the scents of Autumn Harvest, Cool Christmas Mint, and Morning Beach Breeze combining into one, discordant odor. They sat cross-legged in the center and Mae set a Bible in his lap. Monty pulled his phone out, no messages. He set it facedown between them.
“I’ll get us a started,” Mae said, passing the camera to Monty. “You get ready to take the picture.”
“I’m not sure about this.”
Mae turned to him.
“Trust me, okay?”
Mae looked where the flames reached for darkness. She was close to him, her knee nearly touching his.
“Picture something in your head,” she said as she closed her eyes, as if in prayer.
Mae began muttering words he didn’t recognize, and Monty assumed they were made up. He thought about the warmth they shared. He thought about the phone between them, its silence. He thought about his uncle’s whiskey breath and the snap of his two-seam fastball. The wind picked up. The fire stirred.
“Do you feel it Monty?” Mae said. He didn’t. “Something’s here.”
Raindrops danced against the windowpane as the wind began to speak.
“Hello?” Mae said, then turned to Monty. “Hold my hand and close your eyes with me.”
Mae took Monty’s hand. Her skin was cold and clammy. She held his hand tightly and he held hers tightly in return. His lips curled into a pucker. He loved Mae. He heard himself declare it now in his head. Monty closed his eyes and watched the flames dance in the shadows behind his eyelids.
He thought he heard the phone vibrate.
“Hello?” Mae said. “Spirits?”
Monty began to uncurl his fingers, but Mae’s hand still gripped his, her palm becoming warm and sweaty. She was humming to herself, cooing the spirit like a cat. He wasn’t sure if the phone had vibrated or if he’d imagined it in her hums. He wanted to check. But she clung to his hand. She held him close. He couldn’t let go of her.
“Show yourself,” Mae said.
The wind threw the curtains and stole two candles’ flames. Mae held him tighter, and Monty felt a tear form in the corner of his eye. And the phone was buzzing again. This time he was sure of it. He didn’t want to let go. He would look in a minute, Monty decided, just one minute.
“Oh my God, Monty,” Mae said. “Do you see that?”
Monty opened his eyes.
“Take the picture, quick,” Mae said. “Right now.”
Mae’s hand shook, but Monty was too focused on the buzzing to notice, wondering why he was being called home and if, when he turned the phone over, he’d find a message that read Monty, he’s back or Monty, we need to talk. Finally, Mae woke him with an elbow to the side. He brought the camera to eye level.
But Monty didn’t see anything. He didn’t see a damn thing.