A year to the day he had buried her empty coffin, Evan Mulraney saw Hannah sitting in the living room chair when he walked into his house after a long day at work.
At first he didn’t notice her there. Evan walked into the darkened front hallway, took off his shoes and left them on the rug by the door to dry, hung his raincoat on a peg, and turned to lock the door behind him. It wasn’t until Evan had his hand hovering near the light switch that he saw the figure in the high backed Victorian chair by the windows. It looked like a tall woman wearing a long white dress, sitting as if waiting for something.
“Hello?” Evan asked, and only after his mouth was closed did he realize that no sound had actually escaped his lips. Evan’s whisper was caught up in his fear, and he trembled.
‘Shake it off,’ Evan thought to himself, ‘You’re seeing things.’
Maybe he would have been able to brush it off as a figment of his overactive imagination, maybe he could have passed it off as a blur on his contact lens, but when he flipped the light switch it remained dark in the house, and as lightning flashed Evan knew that the woman in his living room was no figment of his imagination.
Evan dropped his briefcase at his feet; it clattered to the floor and broke open, spilling out his papers, sending his cell phone and a pack of gum skittering across the hardwood floor. His heart was pounding so hard he imagined that whoever was sitting in that chair must be able to hear it, must be able to see, even in the dark, his shirt fluttering with every beat in his chest.
Evan took one step back, that was all he could manage. He leaned against the wall behind him and stared into the living room, at the woman, the thing in that chair.
It was Hannah. But it wasn’t Hannah.
A year ago Hannah had left home. It had been an unseasonably warm morning nearing Christmas, and she had left to run some errands. She was just going down to the craft store for wrapping supplies, and maybe she’d stop and have a coffee at her favorite little cafe in town. ‘I’ll only be a couple of hours, I’ll be right back,’ she had said to him as she walked out the door.
He reported her missing that evening, and it was a week before they found her car abandoned on the side of the road in a town two states away. They searched the car for evidence of her being taken, and indeed it did seem that she had been snatched from her car, because all that was left of her belongings was a pair of Converse shoes and a book titled ‘The Memory or Lies,’ a book he had never seen before, a book he couldn’t imagine her reading. And of course, Hannah wouldn’t just walk off into the woods with no shoes on in the middle of winter.
Then, days after the car had been found, a police officer came walking up to the front door holding a cardboard box in shaking hands. Inside, there were Hannah’s well worn shoes and the book he didn’t understand. This was all that was left of her, and he knew she was dead. They had searched and searched for her, but eventually Evan gave up. She had an empty casket in a plot at the town cemetery, a stone marker with her name on the grave, and yet here she was.
It was Hannah. But it was not Hannah.
“Yes it is, Ev, it’s me.”
‘Run,’ Evan thought to himself. ‘Either there is a ghost in your house, or you’re going completely crazy. Which would you rather be? Haunted or insane? Either way, you don’t want to be here, alone with this thing.’
Alone like he had been all year, in this house that was too big for him without his wife in it as well, the house that was really too big for both of them, before Hannah had disappeared. They used to yell to each other from opposite rooms of the house and hear their words get lost in an echo of hard wood and the living, breathing space. Some days when they were both working at home, when Evan was in his office off the bedroom and Hannah in her own downstairs by the kitchen, they could go hours without seeing each other. A few times Evan even forgot that Hannah was home, and those days he’d get a funny feeling like he was forgetting about something important, like he had missed an appointment or stood up one of his buddies. Hannah would come up into the room behind him and he would scream. He knew she was there, but she wasn’t there. That’s what this was like.
“I’m just imagining you,” he finally whispered.
“You’re not. Would I lie to you?”
“Yes,” he answered. “You said you were going out for scotch tape and tissue paper, and that you’d be right back. You never came back.”
“I’ve missed you, Evan. All I do is think about you.”
“You’re not real.”
“Why don’t you believe me? I’m right here. I’ve always been here. You’re just trying to forget about me.”
Evan took a step forward, wanting to see her face, needing to know if it was really her. There was just enough moonlight through the dwindling rain clouds to make out the shape of her face. Her long neck, delicate ears, high brow, straight nose. The curve of her lips was the same as Evan had burned into his memory, the one thing he’d tried the hardest to hold on to – his wife’s beautiful smile and the light in her eyes. But there was no light in her eyes. She sat in darkness, and even though it was Hannah (but it was not Hannah), he knew she wasn’t real, she was just a ghost.
“I don’t believe in ghosts,” Evan thought to himself, but she heard.
“You don’t have to believe in ghosts, Evan. I am right here.”
Inside of Evan, something broke. That cage he built around his heart, that lock he put on that particular place in his throat where the sobs can easily escape from, it broke open after a year of keeping himself mostly together.
“You said you would be right back! Where did you go? What happened to you?” he screamed, finally. Raised his voice and let himself be heard, let himself say the words he’s been asking himself for a whole year, the words he stopped asking other people (his family, his friends, the police) a long time ago because he got too afraid to hear what they would have to say, what horrible scenario they would dream up that particular day.
“What happened to me?” Hannah repeated flatly, not human. “I’m here Evan. Isn’t that what matters to you? Isn’t that what you have been wanting since the morning I left? Haven’t you wanted me back?”
Evan was sobbing. He was bent over at the waist, holding his arms around himself, holding himself up and together. He thought that if he screamed loud enough, someone must be able to hear him, certainly if he was this frightened, someone would save him, they would have to.
No one came.
When he looked up finally, through a haze of tears, Hannah was walking toward him. She was wearing her wedding dress, the dress that they had buried in her coffin because her body had never been found.
“I’m back, Evan, and don’t worry. I’m not going anywhere.”