Everybody has a Warsaw ghost story but me.
Chase has the Lady in White. She haunts the upper hall, he says. Her boy fell from the landing and was buried somewhere out in the woods. Our cousin Gail saw her too.
William has The Creeper. When Chase almost died, my brother-in-law slept in his boyhood bed and visited his dad every day at the hospital. Every night, he would wake up at three a.m. to a creaking floorboard outside his room.
“The Creeper,” William said. He kept a shotgun at his bed. “I thought I was losing my mind,” he told us later. He won’t stay there by himself anymore. He stays with us instead.
My husband swears he saw something in his room when he was a teenager. He passed out and woke up on the floor.
In all the years I’ve visited Warsaw, I’ve never seen anything. As much as I’ve wanted to. That whole house seems haunted to me with its dark corners and girl’s names etched into the windows. But we rarely spend the night, always driving back into town to sleep in our own beds.
Then last summer, we decided to stay overnight.
Our friends drove down from D.C. with their kids and we were going to make a weekend out of it. We had a party down by the pond. We drank sangria by the gallon while the kids swam and played in the car. We talked and laughed for hours, spread blankets on the ground. The kids slept, ate cookies. I took all of the kids for a boat ride, everybody shouting and jumping and threatening to tip the boat over.
My husband Francis blasted music from the car stereo until the battery died. Then, while I was still on the boat with the kids, he walked over to the tenant to ask for a jump. I knew it was a bad idea, even from the water, I wanted to shout, to ask him where he was going, but I was too far away to reach him.
The tenant was a long-standing argument between Francis and his dad. Chase would rent out houses on the property for cheap, in the hopes that the tenants would help with Warsaw’s upkeep. But they never did. They were always unemployed and ran down the property, some stole from him and others cooked meth. The last tenant, Dale, had a mountain of junk and was in the process of being evicted so that we could list the house for sale. Removing all of Dale’s junk was a feat of epic proportions.
Dale was furious about being evicted. He got into a huge screaming match with my husband. The both of them shouting obscenities at each other and making threats.
I was on the shore now, with the kids, and frightened. Adrenaline flooded my body.
My friend’s husband kept saying, “Stop it. Stop it now, Francis.”
“Fuck you,” Dale shouted.
“Fuck you,” Francis shouted back.
Eventually, both men returned to their respective properties.
But the fight cast a pall over the party. We made a fire, toasted marshmallows for the kids and went down to the pond to shoot off fireworks, but all the joy was gone. The bullfrogs were croaking so loudly we had to shout at each other. My son Henry danced around with a sparkler in the dark, oblivious.
Our friends decided to drive back to D.C. that night. They said, “I don’t think you should stay out here by yourself. That man, there is no telling what he could do.” They packed up the car and drove off in the dark, their headlights lighting up the lawn for a moment, before casting it back into darkness.
Francis threw up his hands and said, “We’re staying.”
We went upstairs to the master bedroom, Chase’s room, the only room with an air conditioner.
“I’ve never slept in here in my life,” Francis said.
The air conditioner rattled like an air craft carrier. We set up the play pen for the baby, put Henry in the bed between us, and the boys fell off to sleep quickly. But I laid there, wide awake in the rattling noise, filled with worries.
I worried that the tenant was going to come over with a gun and shoot us all in our beds. Paranoid, I know. But it would fix his problem, at least temporarily. We were out in the country, isolated, with no one around for miles. I thought, I need to get out of this room so that I can hear if anybody comes into the house.
I crept out of bed and into William’s old room. I thought about The Creeper, but I didn’t care. The windows were open. It was hot and steamy in the room. I turned on the fan, but it rattled, loudly, and I worried that I couldn’t hear an intruder. I turned off the fan and took an Ambien, hoping for sleep.
I felt happy. We rarely slept over at Warsaw. The bed was soft and pushed beneath a window. A slight breeze moved the drapes. I kept the light on, thinking about reading, but instead looked around the room, at the picture of my husband traveling through Europe after college, posing under the Switzerland flag; at the paintings by my father-in-law Chase, at the self-portrait of himself as a young man in graduate school. In the painting, he was handsome and young, showing his biceps and holding a paintbrush.
And then the painting started to move. First it was his arm. It came alive. It looked like his arm was rippling. Then his lips started to move, as if he was speaking. His mouth opened and closed, but he made no sound.
I thought about the house. How much Chase loved it. How he always wanted us to live there, with him, I think. To help him. How I’d always thought we’d live there too, until now. Now that Chase had fallen seriously ill and needed twenty-four care. And we were listing the house to pay for it.
I stared at the painting and thought, Tell me. Tell me what to do.
The lips opened and closed.
I watched the painting, I thought, It’s happening! It’s finally happening.
Thunder rumbled off in the distance. Rain hit the windows, breaking the stifling heat. I waited for the painting to tell me what to do. But Chase as a young man just opened and closed his mouth, saying nothing. I burrowed deeper into the covers, I watched the painting and his moving mouth, until I fell asleep.
In the morning, I couldn’t wait to tell Francis about it. I looked at the painting, at Chase as a young man sitting in a window, not moving, not speaking, haughtily regarding the viewer, his eyebrows raised, as if to say, “What of it?”
At the edge of my memory, I remembered taking the Ambien before I went to sleep. I thought about the side effects I’d heard but never experienced: sleepwalking, hallucinations.
It was the Ambien, I realized. Nothing more. I went downstairs and sat on the sofa. All the magic from the night before seemed to have gone out the window, along with the rain.
Outside a ring of mud circled the house. The room looked shabby and wrecked in the daylight, the wallpaper peeling from the corners.
Francis came inside, tracking mud from the rain.
He sat down across from me, leaned forward, and put his face in his hands.
“I can’t believe I’m going to lose it,” he said. “The house.” He cried in the grey morning light.
And there was nothing I could say to comfort him.