Seeking the Dead

Seeking the Dead

DW McKinney

The nursing students lived in Meadowlands residence hall with a baby’s ghost. He wasn’t really a baby, but of an indeterminate age lost to the longevity of his tale. When I first heard about him, my womb quivered at the thought, and I believed the dead to be an infant.

  “Let’s go find Blue Boy,” Julia said one night.

It was a foolish idea only made possible with the helping hand of Smirnoff. It wasn’t surprising either—Julia had dropped out during our freshman year due to personal and financial problems. She returned every few months to pick me up so we could spend a weekend together. 

We often talked about mortality when she visited. Her interests were spurred by debilitating pain from an ongoing genetic disorder that had worsened over the past two years. At the time, I was given to risky behaviors and morbid curiosities. 

Prior, on my twenty-first birthday, Julia had taken me to the Winchester Mystery House. It was a mansion in San Jose, California, that underwent ceaseless renovations for thirty-eight years to protect Sarah Winchester from vengeful spirits of people killed by Winchester rifles. Staircases ended in windows or walls, doors opened to nothing. 

As we entered the mystery house, exhilaration couched in mild fear pulsed through me.  During our tour, I waited until our group left the ballroom to marvel at the ornate architecture alone. As I approached a set of closed doors with windows, I saw one of the brass knobs slowly turn. It could not have been someone on the other side trying to get in. There was no silhouette against the sheer curtains, but I had to be sure. I peeked past the curtains, but I didn’t see anyone. I ran out of the room and smacked into Julia.

“The doorknob turned on its own,” I sputtered. 

We peered into the room, and we could hear the knob rattling. We fled, certain that we had narrowly escaped a ghost. 

That experience must have lingered with Julia, a faint itch she couldn’t satisfy. Searching for Blue Boy was her attempt to scratch it.

Julia and I strolled around the university campus, stars twinkling in the night sky. It was eerily quiet, the soft rustle of fluttering leaves an invisible audience watching our every move. Vodka burned through veins as we stumbled across the creek bridge toward Meadowlands.

The university’s crown jewel was an iron-grey mansion. It sat at the head of a sprawling green lawn ringed with verdant gardens and mulberry bushes. Acacias dropped blossoms on the bordering pathways and during the day, the sun swept across the residence hall as if it were in constant receipt of divine blessings. In the shadows, ivy strangled its walls.

Once inside, the floorboards creaked with whispers of the boy’s death. Campus ambassadors skirted mention of the child to prospective students and their parents as they toured the Wicker Room, the dormitory’s common area that frequently sat devoid of human presence. Parents snapped photos of the lattice windows and marveled at the architecture. Their questions disguised their excitement—they wanted their high school seniors to register for this specific dorm, the best dorm. 

The dorms at Meadowlands were often the featured image on the university’s brochures, the glistening red apple color to tempt the naive. It exuded a faux elitism that followed everyone who lived within its walls. When I stared at the glossy images on the brochure, I searched the attic windows, hoping the unsuspecting photographer had captured a tiny silhouette. 

 

Before it was subsumed by academia, Meadowlands’ countless leaded windows brought light into the Victorian summer home of Michael H. de Young and his family in the early 1900s. I imagine when the nanny wasn’t washing adventures off the children in the grand bathtubs, the children scampered down the wide staircase spine that curved from the great entry hall to the second floor. Their exuberance thudded across the sun-kissed floorboards, their laughter lifted the curtains and carried through the house like a gentle breeze. The building was later converted into dorm rooms with walls and floors so thin that residents couldn’t clear their throats without their neighbors hearing them. 

Julia and I dragged each other through Meadowlands’ main student entrance and tripped up a flight of squeaking steps. A thick hush blanketed the hallways, the faintest movements behind the series of closed doors startled us. It was quiet hours, which meant Blue Boy could rip our throats out or frighten us to grotesque, disfigured corpses and we’d have to endure it in silence or risk receiving a noise violation. 

We lingered in a study alcove hoping to coax unsuspecting nursing students into telling us more about Blue Boy. Julia had heard about his existence before she left school, but she didn’t know the full story. Filled with equal parts bravado and reluctance, and keeping my voice low for fear that Blue Boy would hear me speaking ill of him, I gave the details.

The legend, or its patchwork frame that I had stitched together from various storytellers over the years, was that the boy’s mother or his nanny, depending on who told it, submerged him underwater in a rage and drowned him in a bathtub. He died blue and bloated, succumbing to the strangling hold of the bathwater. After his death, the family quarantined the tub in the attic and never used it again. Who is to say why M.H. de Young sold the house to an order of Catholic sisters for ten dollars, but his son’s murder, the tub still slick with his young life, might have played a role. The bathtub stayed abandoned in the attic along with the spirit of de Young’s son who became Blue Boy.

Resident Advisors claimed to hate it when it was their shift to monitor Meadowlands. There was too much paranormal activity, the television in the RA office turned on and off on its own volition. The room became frosty on cold nights despite the heater being on, and sometimes the heat rose exponentially until the radiator clanged in protest and the room blistered. Wet footprints appeared on the hardwood floors in the entry hall, disappearing without a trace in the middle of the foyer. No one was ever sure if Blue Boy was malevolent, but they wanted to keep their distance all the same.

When I finished speaking, a thick presence clung to the air. Thinking of my grandfather’s folktales, I believed it was the remnants of a haint—recalling Blue Boy had churned up parts of him in the atmosphere, giving him the power to materialize and harm us. I held my breath so that I wouldn’t accidentally inhale Blue Boy’s essence and tether him to me. But his name burrowed under my skin, forming a connection that unsettled me.

“I don’t know if I can do this, dude,” Julia said with a nervous giggle. 

We cast furtive glances over our shoulders, expecting to see the worst we could imagine lurking in the corner. Julia and I waited in the alcove a minute longer and when no one appeared, we choked back our fear and scurried down the hallway to explore the rest of Meadowlands. 

We blustered into the Hunt Room where students gathered for murder mystery dinners and study sessions. A mirrored bureau rested against one wall near its entrance. I walked over to the fireplace and tried to pry open the metal grates sealing it shut. The metal whined as I pulled but did not give. Mismatched wooden chairs surrounded a rectangular dinner table. The cool wood delighted my fingertips as I ran my hand over its surface. In the wall’s faded paintings, red-coated hunters and their hounds chased prey across the grounds. The flooring popped and crackled as Julia and I walked across the room, and I entertained the feeling that at any moment, it would open up and we’d tumble into some long-forgotten basement, dragged to our deaths by devils. 

We crossed into the great entry hall and circled the large oak table at its center. We called out to Blue Boy, beckoned for his presence behind titters and muffled laughter. We dared each other to be louder, to bark out Blue Boy’s name as if commanding the dead. I imagined a pearl-white, claw-footed tub filled with water, a boy lying peacefully at the bottom. As our words rose toward the attic, the tub frothed with greying bathwater that spilled over its edge as he emerged. We had awakened him, the burning intensity of our voices attracting him like a moth.

Julia and I walked into the Wicker Room. Lamps lit every corner and the overhead lighting cast the room in an amber glow, yet a general discomfort pervaded the air. We shook our heads and scampered back, and after finding another staircase, we paused to catch our breath.

“What do you want to do?” Julia asked.

I wanted to find the attic. I craved something more than just an aging tale of a dead boy.

“Let’s go,” I said and jutted my chin upward.

Julia trailed behind me. The twisting staircase swallowed the light and muted sound from the hallway below us. Our clunky footsteps echoed in concert with the sorrowful groans of the stairs. We wanted to go higher. To see him. Yet, our excitement puddled into trepidation and we paused every two steps.

“I dare you to go first.”

“Come with me.”

The stairs stopped at a closed door. Whoever entered had to step up into the room, or whatever exited would fall directly out of it and onto us. We stood a few steps below, eyeing each other and the door. Julia’s unsmiling face peered back at me in wide-eyed recognizance—we shared the same thought. There we were again, another door and another ghost.

“You go,” Julia said.

“No, you,” I exclaimed. 

We giggled at our absurdity and peeked over the railing to see if anyone was coming to reprimand us or save us.

“I dare you,” she said.

“And what do I get if I do?”

“I’ll give you five dollars.” She held the ‘s’ until it hissed between her braces; I was Eve being tempted toward an unknowable fate. 

I clasped her clammy hand in agreement then shook jitters from my body. I inhaled, letting the exhalation propel me to the top step in two bounds. 

“Get ready to run,” I said over my shoulder. 

I grabbed the knob, turned and pushed. It didn’t budge. I shoved my shoulder into the wood. Nothing. I looked back at Julia and then fueled by adrenaline, bent down to peer into the keyhole. I had to at least lay eyes on the bathtub.

I nestled my eye into the keyhole and as I focused, a grey figure brushed past. I cried out and stumbled back down the steps. My nails dug into the lacquered railing as I steadied myself. Julia screamed and hobbled down the staircase. I jumped over the rest of the stairs to the landing and trailed behind her, restraining the urge to push her out of my way. As I glanced upward to see if Blue Boy was in pursuit, I caught sight of a moth fluttering toward the buzzing fluorescent light. 

Months following this adventure with Julia, during my senior year I would request to live in this residence hall. I could think of no better place that befit my suffocating loneliness than a haunted mansion. When night washed over the campus in a velvet wave, I turned off my bedroom lights, cracked open my window blinds, and crawled into bed. My breath blunted by the comforter pulled to my mouth as I stared out the window, waiting for a specter to play at the foot of my bed on the moonlit carpeting. I was moored in a melancholic depression, eager to embrace the dead rather than sit upright to eat with the living.

DW McKinney

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