When Celia’s half-brother, Liam, called her on a Sunday night, Celia answered on the first ring. Liam rarely called, and Celia, a ghost mystery solver, was often otherwise occupied with skeletons, séances, and murders.
“Hello Doctor Elingston,” she teased as she picked up the phone with one hand and poured Earl Grey tea into her teacup with the other. She could spend hours that way, musing over the goings-on of New York City from her fire escape, if she didn’t have so many cases to work on.
“Hello Mrs. Darden. I take it you’re enjoying a night off from chasing dead people around the city?”
He sounded shaken, though he recited his usual greeting. Celia didn’t need to be a detective to hear the uncertainty in his voice, though her brother had never been anything but collected in the entire time she had known him.
“Has something happened,” Celia asked, “to my nieces, or to Mary?” Celia had no children of her own, but she lived for those two girls.
“No, nothing like that.” Liam paused. “It’s just…have you seen anything unusual lately?”
“Unusual? Like a baby left for dead in a hand basket who cried for ten years straight, a man with both his arms cut off, or a string of gruesome psychopath’s victims chopped up and arranged in mandala patterns? I’m paid a measly income from the government and a lot of money from private patrons to stare at unusual things for them. What’s this is really about?”
“Fair enough.” Her brother sighed, and Celia ran through all of the terrible things he might say. Cancer. Tumor. Something wrong with mother. A lost job. “I saw father last night.”
The cell phone in Celia’s hand tumbled onto the fire escape and rolled. A few inches from the edge, where it would have tumbled into traffic or, worse, a pedestrian, she snatched it back to her ear.
“You can’t be serious.” She clutched her hand to her chest, feeling the suddenly unbreathable city air struggling through her lungs. “Father’s dead. And I don’t just mean he died overseas, I mean he came back as a ghost and finished his unfinished business—telling mother about you—and then he died again, for real. I watched him vanish.”
“This is why I didn’t want to tell you,” Liam said, back into his doctor-comforting-a-patient voice. “I’ve never seen a ghost, and I probably won’t see one again, but Celia, it was him. I went in to check on the girls and there he was, standing over them like a sentry from his watchtower. I bit my lip so hard it bled trying not to scream, but he just put a finger to his lips and disappeared.”
“Impossible—” Celia started to say when her call waiting buzzed in her ear. “That’s strange,” she said more to herself than Liam. “It’s mother.” Their mother Robin had developed Alzheimer’s several years prior, and had stopped calling her children around the time she confused Celia for her grandmother.
“Pick up,” Liam urged, probably out of a combination of curiosity and relief.
“Fine, but this conversation isn’t over,” Celia said. She switched to the other line.
“Celia?” an uncertain voice asked.
“Yes, it’s me. Is everything alright?” Celia spoke carefully, her voice soothing and slow, while she swirled her tea bag by the white string.
“No,” her mother answered, “but I need to speak to you, and there might not be much time. Celia, if your father’s there, I need you to give him a message for me.”
Celia’s heart pounded faster, mirroring the rapid ca-ching ca-ching of tires over the metal grate.
“Father?” she asked, her voice higher than she meant it to be.
“Yes dear, hasn’t he visited you yet? I saw him earlier today on the veranda, watching me through the window, but when I tried to talk to him, he—”
“Exactly. Just tell him that I love him, and ask him to wait for me. I’ll be there soon.”
The line went dead, and Celia placed her phone back on the metal step with a shaking hand. If her father was still a ghost, then what had happened forty years ago when she had told her mother about her dead father’s mistress and his son, Liam, before he disappeared? Where had he been? If he needed a shepherd to lead him to the afterlife, why had he never come to Celia to ask for her help?
Her phone rang a third time, and she answered without checking the number. “Did you see him again?”
“Mrs. Darden?” an unfamiliar voice questioned. It was a man’s voice, with an almost huffing tone, and Celia thought she’d heard it before.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Yes, this is she.”
“This is Officer Barrett. We’ve met several times at the office, but unfortunately, I’m not calling about a case.”
“What happened?” Celia asked. “Is it my father?”
“Your father? They told me he was your husband—a Mr. Cain Darden?”
Celia let out a relieved sigh. “Yes, he’s my husband. Has he found a crime scene he needs me to look at? He can’t see ghosts, you know, only hear them, so—”
When Celia arrived at the scene of the crime, a robbery in an alley only a few blocks from her apartment, she was prepared to see her husband’s spirit floating somewhere on a fire escape or window ledge. She practiced what she would say to him over and over again—how he could not wait for her to die but should move to the afterlife, how no matter how much he would miss her, he needed to be free—but when she arrived at the alley and ducked under the police tape, she saw…nothing.
The body was there, of course, but Celia had seen enough dead bodies to tell Cain’s spirit was no longer attached to the lump of cold flesh emptying itself through the wounds like a deflating balloon. She knew that when she confirmed that those were indeed Cain’s eyes and his pale white hands and his perfectly combed black hair, she might as well have been looking in the face of a doll.
“Are you going to pass out?” an officer asked as she swayed. The night had grown cold and overcast, and any minutes, the skies would open and rain away the last mark of her husband.
They gave her his belongings: an empty wallet found in Cain’s hand, half of a pencil, and three loose quarters. The thief, who the police promised they would work tirelessly to find, had left the photograph of her in the wallet flap, so at least her husband had that small comfort as he waited to die.
Celia wanted to be at least appreciate Cain’s spiritual evaporation—he had not felt tethered to their earth, had simply floated up to the heavens or whatever abyss ghosts disappeared into—yet at the same time, she was hurt. Had she not been enough unfinished business for him? Had he needed a child to cling to life long enough to pass on a message, the way her father had? A greater passion, like that of her cousin William, who she’d found in that very apartment just waiting to reunite with his love?
When she returned home, wet from the rain that had indeed come, she was suddenly so weary she did not remove her shoes as they dripped mud and water onto her white antique carpets. Instead, Celia sunk into her easy chair and stared at the photograph as though her own face might reveal something she had missed. Over and over again she examined it, and then, on a whim, turned it over.
Your Father, the tiny pencil print told her from the corner of the back side. Here.
Celia slept for hours. Her phone vibrated against the marble top of her bedside table; her door reverberated her brother’s knocks and calls through the house. As her legs and toes and fingers grew heavy as stone, Celia imagined that if she could only lie there long enough, Cain would come in from the cold, his scarf wrapped around his neck and face like a mummy, and kiss her through the wool. Only the clock, her Aunt Sophie’s antique Gilbert Speltor, kept time, though eventually its fat, embellished belly seemed to sink into its skinny legs as sleepily as her own stomach into the comfort of the mattress.
After an entire day had passed and the darkness of 3:00 A.M. surrounded her, Celia woke from her half-sleep and heard Cain’s voice, though the sound came from inside of her. Enough. She dressed in his favorite outfit of hers, a forest green sweater-dress and the cowboy boots they’d bought while tracking a murderer to Texas, and layered the clothing with a winter coat and matching green hat. She turned off the lights, closed the shades, and locked the door behind her.
As she leapt from the balcony, as intent as a ghost as it falls from its heavenly assent to the location of its haunting, Celia spotted her father above her. He sat on the railing like a fisherman waiting for a catch, and then, in one beautiful dive, followed her past the joyful windows of her neighbors.
She could never be a ghost, she decided right before she hit the ground. Her unfinished business knew she was coming, and he was waiting for her on the other side.
About the Author
Kelly Ann Jacobson is a fiction writer, poet, and lyricist who lives in Falls Church, Virginia. She recently received her MA in Fiction at Johns Hopkins University, and she now teaches as an Adjunct Professor of Literature. Kelly is the author of the literary fiction novel Cairo in White and the young adult trilogy The Zaniyah Trilogy, as well as the editor of the book of essays Answers I’ll Accept and the anthology Magical: An Anthology of Fantasy, Fairy Tales, and Other Magical Fiction.