My name is Brother M—. I grew up Presbyterian, though faith in my upbringing was more about appearances and formality than about the real, living faith that can guide the soul between death and life. My parents sent me to a Catholic school, not because they wanted me to have a religious education, but because the Catholic schools were better than the public schools; I was excused from the religion classes. I graduated from the University of Minnesota and finished law school summa cum laude. I scored in the top percentile on the Minnesota bar exam, and went on to an influential Minneapolis law firm. I bought a house in Minnetonka, a big three story house not on the lake, but on a lake with two and a half acres of land covered in gorgeous pine and birch. I bought a Mercedes Benz, a convertible and a boat, built an indoor pool with a gym and a sauna, and rented a cottage on the north shore.
Like many of the young attorneys at the firm, I drank a lot. And one night, after a party at my friend Jake's, I went for a drive with my girl friend, N—. I'd been drinking, but I didn't feel drunk, and I'd driven after many parties before without incident. There was one curve in the road between Jake's house and my place where I'd always thought anything could happen. I should have known better, but that night I was excited, driving the convertible with N—. As I rounded the curve it frustrated me to have to slow down for an old man puttering along in an ancient Chevrolet. I was sure I could pass him easily. The next thing I knew, I was staring into the headlights of a big black sedan.
I remember swerving to miss the sedan. The next thing I remember was that everything was incredibly quiet and the car was stopped. There was no one in sight. No sedan, no Chevrolet. And then I saw a twisted old oak sprouting out of what used to be the front hood of my car. And then I looked at the seat next to me, and realized that N— was missing. Getting out of the car was a struggle because the seatbelt release mechanism was jammed. The car door was jammed too but the convertible roof was down, so I heaved myself over the door. And that's when I saw her in the moonlight, about sixty feet in front of the car, lying face down in the grass. She was sprawled out like a rag doll, too still to be alive. And then all I could think was that this couldn't be happening to me, that there must be some way to go back. I must be dreaming.
I called Jake on my cell phone. I said, "Jake, I need your help."
And he said, "Slow down, calm down. What happened?"
I said, "There's been an accident, a really bad accident. And N—, I think she's dead."
He said, "Are you sure she's dead? Have you called an ambulance?"
"She's not breathing, Jake. I think it's too late for an ambulance."
Jake told me to take a deep breath, he could barely understand me. He said he would call an ambulance for me and he would be right there. And the last thing he told me before he hung up was, "If the police arrive before I do, don't take a blood test or a breathalizer, don't talk to them. Just tell them you want to talk to your lawyer first . . ."
Jake handled everything for me. Since I refused the blood alcohol tests, it was up to the jury to decide whether or not I was actually drunk. Jake represented me in court and skillfully portrayed the police as a troop of insensitive yokels, and me in deep mourning, needlessly harassed. He brought witnesses from the party who swore I was sober when I left. And the jury believed enough to acquit me.
After the trial, I tried to bring my life back to normal. But everything was out of joint. As if I had slammed my head in the accident and wouldn't stop seeing double.
Throughout the trial, I had not had time to think about what I had actually done. But after it was over, I struggled with the guilt. Sometimes it seemed unbearable. Then I would lose patience with myself and say, Why ruin two lives? What use is guilt? I had made a terrible mistake. But nothing I could do now would bring her back, I thought.
But there were the repeating nightmares about N—. I would be standing in that field again, at night, in the moonlight. I would be moving closer and closer, noticing terrible details like the way her left arm was twisted or her pendant was on backwards. And I would realize that I had never consciously thought about the fact that human beings breathe all the time until seeing her lying so unnaturally motionless, like a horribly life-like mannequin. And in my dream, I'm reaching down to turn her over, to see her face, and I'm thinking, Perhaps I shouldn't move her, perhaps I shouldn't touch her . . . Oh, her neck looks broken . . . And just before my hand reaches her shoulder I wake up with a jolt, unable to breathe, with a terrible pain in my chest as though someone has just kicked me in the sternum.
After the trial, I dreamed that I found her purse. I thought, She always keeps her purse with her. I snapped it open, and saw her driver's license. I wondered, How peculiar that they should use a picture on her license that shows only the back of her head. And I'm wandering around the field trying to find her, not able to bring myself to toss the purse. But I'm going to vomit, I'm feeling something terrible will happen if I keep it. And then I woke, covered in sweat, thinking, Thank God it's over. Thank God I'm safe.
The day after that nightmare I saw her. I was in downtown St. Paul, over by the River Centre. I did not recognize her at first. She was walking down the sidewalk ahead of me, moving very slowly. I caught sight of the back of her head, and at first marveled how remarkable a resemblance this woman bore to N—. And then the absurd notion dawned on me that perhaps it was she. And though I rationally insisted that was impossible, still the more I studied her, that same blue dress she wore that night (though it was filthy, as though she had been crawling in the mud); the cut of her hair (though it was disheveled); the way she held herself (though now she limped slightly); the more viscerally I understood that she had already been visiting me in my dreams for some time and now she had returned in the flesh. Perhaps I should have faced her, tried to speak with her, but I panicked, I needed to run. As I fled it occurred to me that this was her way of letting me know she was back, letting me know she knew how to find me at any time, here in broad daylight, in the middle of a crowd, or at home, at night, alone in the dark.
A last desperate wish to prove it was not so compelled me to visit her grave, at Lakewood Cemetery. I entered the cemetery through the main entrance, a large stone gate flanked by spindly, black, iron pickets stretching away farther than I could see, protecting the perimeter of vast verdant acres. As I strolled under the lofty arch, I was greeted by a series of mausoleums that looked like miniature churches or mosques, dense, elaborate stonework rising up out of the ground as if from some lost subterranean city, glittering domes, shining ceramic tile, opalescent stained glass. Beyond the village of sepulchers lay acres of lush, rolling grass, acres guarded by gangly, somnolent willows and keen, angular oaks, inhabited by angels and saints and mythical creatures trapped in stone as if something here had lured them in and enchanted them, acres marked by blocks and slabs of marble resting in the shade of the trees or holding the bright, lazy open spaces. As I wandered along the winding path that took me ever further from the gate and deeper into the heart of this sanctuary of the deceased, the traffic sounds of Dupont and Kings Highway faded away and I found myself surrounded by a gentle, lullaby chorus of birds and crickets. I found her grave at the family plot, at the foot of a small hill, shaded by the copious foliage of a large, twisted oak. The corner where she had been interred was preternaturally peaceful. Even the birds and insects were quiet here. But while the rest of the cemetery was drowsy and content, this nook felt electrically charged. I could not shake the feeling that there was unnatural life here, that there were invisible sentient beings, perhaps dreadfully close.
I had brought a bouquet of white roses, and placed them carefully on the ground near her headstone. I wondered what I had come here expecting to see. An open grave? There were no signs here of anything out of the ordinary, but I left hurriedly, glancing nervously over my shoulder toward the plot as I made my way up the road leading back to the entrance. I scolded myself for allowing my useless guilty conscience to carry me away. I convinced myself that I only imagined seeing out of the corner of my eye a woman with long blond hair and a short blue dress peering at me from behind the old oak as I scrambled away.
I was awakened that midnight by a loud crashing noise from my living room. I didn't dare go downstairs. And I didn't dare call the police. What if it was she? And then how would not the whole truth of that night come into the open? So I lay frozen in my bed praying for this to end. A violent crashing--I imagined my big screen television being dashed to the floor--was followed by an ear-drum-shattering howl. I was far from the nearest neighbor, but I wondered, How can these cries not carry far beyond my property? The sound of more glass exploding--the picture windows, the ones overlooking the lake?--and then more banshee shrieks. The deep bass "bong" of the grandfather clock accompanied by the cry of cracking, splintering wood and more haunted screaming. And so it continued all night, until the gray morning light streamed through the cracks of my bedroom blinds.
It was deathly quiet. As I descended the stairs to the ground floor, there was no ticking of clocks, no humming of appliances. I found carpeting torn up, revealing ugly, unfinished floor boards. Bits of broken glass covered the floors, window sills, the hearth. Pieces of dismembered furniture were scattered around the room. The face of the smashed grandfather clock showed twelve twenty. Torn curtains fluttered gently in a cool breeze. It's rather peaceful, I thought. I wondered where the dirt had come from, until I noticed the overturned pots, the torn leaves and drying roots. I walked to the front door, saw it open slightly wider as a draft from the broken windows caught it. There was a spider web glimmering in the morning sunlight in the open door frame, a fat golden spider sitting contentedly in its middle.
I couldn't find the phones, just the empty phone jacks out of which they had been torn. There's a cell phone in my car, I thought, so I ducked under the spider web in the doorway and ran barefoot down the brick walk to the garage. The garage door was jammed--it opened only a few inches and then made a dull scraping noise and would budge no further. When I finally entered the garage through the side door, after a frantic search for my keys, my rising anxiety was confirmed. I found the car windows smashed, the upholstery slashed. It looked like she had taken a sledgehammer to the dashboard, the hood, the fenders. The tires were flat and the garage reeked of gasoline. And there was no sign of the cell phone. Probably at the bottom of the lake, I thought.
I ducked into the desecrated house, dressed, tossed a few effects into a small duffel bag, and then fled. The nearest neighbors lived a mile and a half away by the road, only three quarters of a mile through the woods behind my house. I considered for a moment the short cut through the now foreboding trees, and then chose the road. I walked briskly, jogged almost, so it took only about twenty minutes to get there. While I walked, I tried to concoct a story for the neighbors. Could I tell them my power was out? But then why wouldn't I drive? When I arrived, however, I realized that stories were irrelevant. An ambulance was parked in the driveway, and paramedics were standing around the entrance of the house, talking in hushed tones to Bob Mikkelsen, my neighbor. Bob was pale and moved stiffly, slowly. As I approached the house, I learned from one of the paramedics that Jen — Mrs. Mikkelsen — had died of a massive heart attack in the early morning. I decided it would be inappropriate to bother Bob right now, so I kept walking. After another forty minutes, I reached a gas station with a phone booth.
I weighed my options and then I called Jake.
"Jake. She's back."
"Is that you, M—?"
"Yeah, it's me. She's back, Jake. She totally trashed my house, my car."
"Who's back? Who are you talking about?"
"Who else would I be talking about? N—. She's back."
There was silence on the other end of the line. I heard Jake sigh deeply, and then he said, "M—, you're not making any sense. N— is dead. Are you all right? Are you straight?"
"I do not do drugs at seven forty-five in the fucking morning," I snapped, "and I know it's crazy, but she is not dead. I saw her in downtown St. Paul the other day. So I went to visit her grave, just to make sure, and I think I caught a glimpse of her there. I think she's been following me. She was in my house this morning. She trashed my fucking house!"
More silence. Then, "How could she trash your house if she's dead?"
Jake eventually came to pick me up at the gas station, and we went back to the house together. When Jake saw the wreckage in the garage and throughout the first floor of my house, he wandered in and out of the ruined rooms and whispered "Oh my God." He had obviously been expecting this all to be a figment of my imagination.
"This is out of my league," he finally sighed. "You won't call the police because you think it's your dead girlfriend. That alone suggests you should be seeing a psychiatrist. But since you won't do that, I suggest a good private investigator."
It hurt me that Jake still didn't believe me. His idea was to hire a private investigator who would report to him, not me. Jake warned me that if the P.I. discovered I was doing this myself, he'd have me committed. But I was relieved that we now had a plan. I was more relieved that a P.I. could help us get to the bottom of this without involving the police.
"I still think you need a psychiatrist, M—," he pleaded gently. "I'm not saying you're crazy, OK? But it doesn't take a genius to tell you're under a lot of stress. What you've gone through in the past year, who can blame you? Maybe a psychiatrist could help you work through some of your issues around N—'s death."
"What's the P.I. going to do if he discovers it's N—?"
Jake growled in exasperation. "I don't know," he exploded, "Call a priest, maybe, to drive a stake through her heart and send her back to hell? Look, let's take this one step at a time. First let's hire somebody more objective to establish exactly what's going on here. If you mention N— one more time, that's it. I'm finished with this."
Jake made all the arrangements with the P.I. I didn't even know who he was. In the meantime, I took up residence at a bed and breakfast on Lake Minnetonka.
The b and b was nestled between a marina and a row of quaint little shops hugging the lake. Across Shoreline Drive, the main road that ran around the lake, was an ominous, black tree-covered hill that blocked the sunset in the evening, bringing twilight to the bed and breakfast a bit earlier than for the rest of Minnetonka. Further down the road was a tiny Lutheran chapel built from birch wood.
Late in the afternoon, as I took a stroll down Shoreline Drive to calm my shattered nerves, I ran into Bob Mikkelsen just outside the chapel. He was barely keeping his composure, still looking as pale and shaken as he had looked earlier that morning. "I, I'm making arrangements for her funeral. You know, for Jen," he said. "It's all been just such a shock."
"How are the kids?" I asked.
"Oh, the girls are OK," he said. "The two-year-old is too small to really know what's happened. The older one is fine, holding up fine. I don't think it's really sunk in yet. They're at their grandma's now." I nodded, and he slipped away, awkwardly stammering out a goodbye.
I had a pleasant view of the lake from the bay windows of my room at the bed and breakfast. I had been sitting in front of the windows trying to read Stephen R. Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, but my mind kept wandering and I had been staring at page twenty for half an hour before I finally gave up. I contented myself to watch the lake slowly slip into shadows as the sun set. A gentle mist rose above the surface of the lake, above waters that looked obsidian in the slanted light of dusk. Crimson-gold sunlight glittered in the windows of the cottages nestled against the far side of the lake. Exhausted, I thought perhaps I should lie down, but instead I dozed while resting my head on my arms on the table in front of me.
Perhaps it was my memory of the reflected sunset that left me with dreams of burning, dreams that the cottages and the quaint shops and the marina and the bed and breakfast were all on fire, and Lake Minnetonka surrounded by great clouds of dense, black smoke. In my dream, I coughed in the smoke, unable to breathe, barely able to see, squinting at the silhouettes of people running in front of flames, not able to see a clear path of escape for myself.
And when I woke there was real fire. I jolted from sleep to the squeal of a fire alarm, and the choking in my dream turned out to be the real, dreadful stifling and burning in my chest as I inhaled the fumes of a real conflagration devouring half of my bed and the walls of my room closest to the door. I staggered out of the chair I had been dozing in, and then fell to my knees as I caught another lung-full of boiling, unbreathable air. I tried to unlatch the bay windows, and burned my fingers on the metal door latch. I finally thought to grab the legs of the chair I had been sitting in and to swing it against the glass. It took a few tries to bring it with sufficient force to break the window, and then I cut my hands and knees on the broken glass as I crawled out onto the gravel patio next to a little dock behind the bed and breakfast.
Two people were calmly rowing out on the lake in the gloom. As I struggled to focus my eyes, to see clearly who it was, I passed out, collapsing on the patio. In my dreams I saw them, the two rowers. They were having a midnight picnic on the lake, had spread a red and white checkered tablecloth on the floor of the rowboat, and were piling slices of boiled ham and rare roast beef onto paper plates, with deviled eggs and pepper cheese. They were laughing irreverently, laughing at each other, laughing at the fire, and pouring each other glasses of thick red wine. They would drink big gulps, sighing and laughing between gulping the wine and gobbling the meats off their paper plates. In my dream I tried to see them, who these two rude people were, laughing at the misfortune of others. I thought I recognized Jen Mikkelsen resting her elbows on the seat in the stern of the boat as she took a bite of a deviled egg and a swig of wine, but the other I couldn't make out. I could only see the back of a blond head and a light blue dress as she sat in the bow of the boat, facing toward Jen, offering her another serving of wine. And then I woke with two people hovering over me.
"Did you see them out on the lake?" I tried to speak, but I don't think they listened or understood.
"He's coming to," a voice said.
"He's suffered from smoke inhalation, and these cuts need treating, but he'll be OK."
"Did you see them?" I tried again, louder, "They were on the lake, in a rowboat."
"Try to stay calm," the voice said, "We're going to take you to the emergency room, just to check on you and make sure everything is OK. We should be able to release you without checking you in to the hospital."
Normally I might have protested. I wouldn't have wanted to go to the emergency room. But I was exhausted, and at that moment I felt safer with other people around me, so I just nodded. I drifted in and out of sleep, the bustling of the paramedics blending in to my dreams. I dreamed I was lying face down, bleeding in a field, and paramedics were turning me over, lifting me onto a stretcher. One of the paramedics said, "What a night! A fire and a car accident." I could see myself standing far away, like at the end of a long tunnel, standing next to a twisted old oak, watching calmly. Was I in the fire or the car accident, I wondered, I can't remember.
The emergency room was bright and white. The whiteness of it blinded me at first. Gradually my head cleared and my senses emerged from the night's confusion. It was early morning when I was finally released. Before I left, I asked one of the nurses, "I thought I heard one of the paramedics talking about a car accident. Or did I just dream it?"
"I don't know," she replied sweetly. "Oh, now that I think about it, there was a car accident over by the lake. A woman. I think she died instantly, though."
As soon as I got out of the emergency room, I called Jake. "You better call that P.I. and tell him to get on the job. N— was there last night, at the bed and breakfast. She set fire to my room; she almost killed me. I've spent half the night in the emergency room."
"The P.I. was there," replied Jake, "doing surveillance at the bed and breakfast all night. I told her to call me right away if anything unusual happened. I haven't heard a thing."
"Her?" I moaned, "The P.I. is a woman? There was a woman who died in a car accident last night near the lake. You had better call her right away and find out if she's all right . . ."
I met Jake at his home while he tried to reach the private investigator. No one answered at her home or her office numbers, and no one returned any of his voice mail messages. It was Saturday, so Jake didn't think too much of it at first, but he started to worry when she didn't call him at their prearranged time later that afternoon. By the time Jake finally reached somebody that evening around eight o'clock, I already knew what he would find out, expected the terse voice at the other end of the line, could hear in my head the clipped apology, "I'm sorry, Ms. Armeny died last night in a car accident."
And that was the moment when everything changed for me. When Jake put the phone down with a look of confusion, I knew he could do nothing more for me. He didn't have the requisite faith. Only faith could explain why the dead were not staying in their graves. And only faith could restore to my life the order I had lost three days ago when I first saw N— walking the streets of St. Paul. But the full light of the truth had not broken in yet.
"I'll call you tomorrow," Jake said before I left. I knew he wouldn't call. We never spoke to one another again.
As the sun set behind leaden, stormy skies, I watched the drumming of the rain from the back seat of a taxi cab. The driver brought me to the Doubletree Inn in downtown Minneapolis. After checking in, I rode the elevator to the twentieth floor and locked myself into a medium sized room. I would usually have taken a larger, more luxurious suite, but tonight too wide a space would have been reckless. I needed to make myself as small as possible. I was exhausted but couldn't sleep, knew I wouldn't sleep. I had never spent a night in a hotel in downtown Minneapolis. The city lights below gleamed cool and unfamiliar; I hid them away by pulling the thick velvet curtains shut. I turned on all the lights, hoping to beat back the shadows. But the lights were dim, as if running low on current, the room tenebrous in spite of the burning electricity. I turned on the television, flipped channels, chose the news. I needed something real.
There was a news story about a two-year-old girl who had fallen into a well while visiting her grandmother's farm in Albert Lea. In the footage showing a rescue team setting up a scaffolding and the mud-spattered digging crew toiling in pouring rain I thought I could see her, see N—, see the back of her head, her dirty blue dress, watching everything calmly. And then, the lights flickered out, the television moaned, then turned black, and the room fell into complete shadow except for the faintly glowing digits on the telephone key pad. I froze. The door was locked and bolted, I thought, I had made sure to lock and bolt it. I was jolted when the phone rang, but then I sighed with relief. Someone was calling to explain, I thought. The management will explain what's happening. The voice on the other end of the line was dull and cold. "This is Marilyn Armeny. I'm trying to reach M— about an investigation I'm doing for him . . ." I hung up the phone and began to shiver uncontrollably. And so I sat in the dark, listening to the phone ring, ring, ring.