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Ghosts of Harvard


It was silly to be afraid of falling, considering her intent, but Cady hadn’t anticipated how windy it would be on the bridge. She crouched on the balustrade, her hands gripping it so tightly that white crescent moons shone in her fingernails. A gust blew her hair into her face, but she didn’t dare lift her hand to move it aside.She didn’t want to fall, she wanted to jump.

After a moment of screwing up her courage, she commanded her legs to straighten and rose slowly to a standing position. She felt a shiver down her back, although the night was warm, or as warm as Cambridge in springtime could be. Across the river, she could see Harvard’s campus, the familiar dormitories lit to perfection—but it wasn’t perfect, Cady knew that. A glance downward at the black, lapping water of the Charles triggered a jolt of fear, but not enough to deter her. She had promised herself she’d go through with it and she would.

It was easier once she was standing tall. Her jelly legs felt stronger, her balance solid. The night air swept over her body in a caress. She breathed deeply, taking in the scent of the river and this campus in all its bitterness and beauty. She had never imagined she would end up in this place, feeling this way, but here she stood with a lump in her throat, preparing to say goodbye.

Cady closed her eyes and listened to the voices egging her on; they wouldn’t let her turn back now. She wished she could slow this moment, but they were counting down—her time was almost up. She raised her chin, pulled her arms away from her sides, and wiggled her fingers in the air, reaching in the dark.

She poised, knees bent, and counted down the final seconds:

“Three, two, one—”


Chapter 1

Cady hadn’t set foot on Harvard’s campus since her older brother’s suicide. It was the place where her brother Eric had eaten his last meal, dreamed his last dream, and taken his last breath. The sight of the red brick dormitories, a picture-postcard of collegiate perfection to so many, made her heart pound. For her, it wasn’t a college, it was a haunted house.

And today she was moving in.

Cady couldn’t let her doubts show as they drove into the Harvard Yard. The sun-dappled quadrangle and its ancient elms were festooned with red balloons and a big, crimson banner reading, Welcome, HARVARD MMXXIII. She reminded herself that she’d wanted this, insisted on it, sworn that she could handle it, bet everything on it. Yet, her knee bounced in the backseat as her father parked right outside of her freshman dormitory, Weld Hall. She spied his face in the rear view mirror, his eyes weary, his jowls gray and unshaven. His sister, Cady’s Aunt Laura, sat in the front passenger seat. Cady’s mother remained home in Pennsylvania, too angry at her daughter to come today. Maybe that was for the best; seeing her mother’s face would’ve made Cady lose her nerve.

“Look at this parking spot, I told you I was good for something,” Aunt Laura said with a wink. A car accident in her twenties left her paraplegic and she used a wheelchair, hence the parking privileges, although Cady never thought of her as handicapped. Laura possessed an irrepressible, positive outlook, a trait to be tested today. She had come ostensibly to lend the use of her giant van, but Cady knew it was to fill in for her mother, and she was grateful.

Her father yanked up the emergency break and took a heavy breath. “Ready?”

Cady got out and helped Laura into her wheelchair, as her father went around to the back of the van, their solemn mood at odds with everyone around them. On the front steps of her new dorm, she noticed a boy posing for a photograph with six smiling relatives. A blond girl standing in the bed of a pickup laughed as she pushed a boxed futon toward her father, who waited on the ground wearing a Harvard t-shirt with his cowboy boots and Stetson. A tall boy in a Lakers jersey wiped his mother’s happy tears from her cheeks.

Cady envied them. They didn’t have to fake it.

She joined her father around the rear of the van and saw him hauling out her green duffel bag. “Oh, I’ll take that one,” she said, she hoped not too eagerly.

“I got it, you get the roller suitcase.”

“No, Dad, seriously.” Cady grabbed hold of the nylon straps, and he looked at her, puzzled. Then she deployed the head tilt and tone her mother had perfected. “Your back.”

He held tight for a moment, before he relented and let her have it. “Alright, but only because I haven’t been doing my exercises.”

“When did my little bro get so old?” Laura teased. “You know, some people say back pain can be psychological.”

“Then I blame you two,” he said.

Cady’s dorm room was Weld 23, only the second floor—only, she caught herself—she couldn’t help but think of the height. The elevator was crowded, so her father decided to wait, but people made room for Aunt Laura to wheel on and Cady to squeeze in after her, hugging the duffel close to her chest. Laura held a laundry hamper filled with linens on her lap.

“Nice that they have an elevator,” she said to Cady. It was her official duty to point out every good thing that day.

A middle-aged man overheard. “You know what was in this space before it was an elevator? JFK’s freshman dorm room. He went from Weld to the White House.” He slapped the back of his reed-thin son. “Might have the next president right here! Right, Max?”

His son’s face reddened, and Cady’s heart went out to him.

The elevator doors pinged open. Cady and Laura exited, and Laura broke into a grin. “God, can you imagine being here with a young JFK living down the hall? He must have been dreamy. He was probably a horn-dog even then, though.”

The first image Cady could conjure of JFK was the last moment of his life, the grainy footage of him waving from that car. She tried to imagine him as a young man her age, full of the nerves and excitement she saw on every face around her. If someone had told him he would be president, would he have blushed like that boy in the elevator, or would he have owned it? Did he sense he was bound for greatness? If someone had told him he would be assassinated, would he still have wanted that future?

“Although,” Laura continued, “if you were looking for sexy Kennedy ghosts, you should’ve gone to Brown. That’s where John-John went. He was the best looking of them all. I had such a crush on him.”

Oh right, Cady remembered, his son, too. And his brother. And his other brother sort of killed that girl—maybe that was what started it. A lot of ghosts in that cursed family. So far only one ghost in the Archers. Were they cursed, too?

They found the door to her room and Cady reached into the manila envelope to pull out her key, the metal so freshly cut that it felt sharp. She hesitated. It was real now. This place had already marked a turning point in her family’s history, and her decision to come here would be another. She knew the pain she was causing her parents. It would either be worth it, or it would be another mistake she couldn’t undo.

“You okay, honey?” Laura asked.

“Definitely.” Show no weakness, she told herself.

Cady opened the door to an empty room. It had a funny layout, the sort that comes from retrofitting a larger space to become multiple rooms; the common room was long and narrow, with an off-center window on one end and the two bedrooms off the side. She crossed to the window and looked out.

“How’s the view?” Laura asked, joining her.

“That’s Grays over there, that was Eric’s freshman dorm. I remember from when we moved him in.”

“How does that make you feel?” Laura asked, sounding like a therapist.

“Good, close to him, in a way.” Cady was surprised to hear the truth coming out of her mouth. “Is that weird?”

“No, it’s nice to remember him.” Laura put a hand on her arm. “Just keep in mind, life is for the living.”

Cady nodded. She knew it was a common saying, but it sounded so harsh to her ears now. Life was for Eric, too, even if he’d lost sight of that. Maybe they’d lost sight of him.

There was a knock at the door, and Laura went to let Cady’s father in. “Is it just you?” he asked, and for a split second, Cady didn’t know what he meant. She flashed ahead to a lifetime of not being enough for her parents. Just you?

He set the box down with a grunt. “Are you the first to arrive?”

“Yeah. We’re first.” Cady readjusted the duffel bag in her arms, still holding it close to her chest. “I know we have more to get from the van, but I want to pick my room before anyone else gets here. Do you mind if I unpack a little to claim my space? I promise I’ll be right down.” It was a lie, one of Cady’s two roommates had already requested the single room over the summer, leaving her with the double.

Laura waved her hand. “Of course, call dibs.”

“Don’t be long. We have to move the car,” her father said.

Cady watched them leave and waited a few beats to be sure. Then she darted into the larger bedroom and dumped the green duffel on a bare mattress. She unzipped it and dug under the layer of bras and panties, the final Dad-barrier, to uncover the two items she couldn’t let her family see. She’d stolen them from the box of personal effects her family had received from Harvard after Eric’s death. They’d kept the box in his bedroom at home, but Cady had secretly visited it so often, she had its contents memorized. Most was junk, he’d gotten so messy toward the end, but these two items spoke to her more than the others. As souvenirs or as protective talismans, she needed these relics close to her, especially here.

The first was sentimental: Eric’s rumpled gray Harvard hoodie. She lifted it to her face; it still smelled like him, a blend of fresh soap and warm toast. Her parents might’ve given her this if she’d asked for it, but she couldn’t risk them thinking she was emotionally fragile, they’d barely let her come here as it was. Around them, Cady had to hide that crumbly feeling whenever it threatened the corners of her mouth or crept up the front of her throat, and Eric’s scent triggered it. But sometimes she needed that feeling, liked it even, to release the pressure. She hugged the sweatshirt to her chest before pushing it to the back of the bottom drawer of one of the dressers.

The second buried item was a clue: a blue, spiral-bound notebook labeled Lab Notes at the top. Lab notes were as close as Eric would’ve ever come to keeping a journal, so it was the closest she could get to a window into his mind. Cady opened it, flipping through pages soft with wear. She ran her fingers over her brother’s familiar handwriting, the ballpoint-embossed lettering spoke to her heart like Braille. The earlier pages were vintage Eric: organized and neat, with logical headings and experimental diagrams, tidy as a textbook. As she flipped further ahead, however, the notes grew more disorganized and illegible; the math devolved into wobbly columns of numbers and slanted, incomplete equations. These scribblings didn’t look like advanced physics, they looked like nonsense. Toward the end, the written commentary appeared unrelated to the calculations: misgivings about food in the dining hall, perceived slights from “M”—Cady guessed, Matt, his old roommate—and jottings of random people’s appearance or behavior, likely those deemed suspicious. His paranoia had taken over by then. Cady hid the notebook in the same drawer as the sweatshirt. She would look more closely at it later, when she felt stronger.

With those items safely out of sight, she could relax enough to get a look at her new room. She didn’t mind having a bunkmate—sharing a room was such a normal misfortune, she found it comforting—and the double was the corner bedroom, large and sunny. She sidled around the haphazard arrangement of metal bunk beds, two desks, dressers, and bookshelves. The boxy, light wood, modular furniture looked like it had been built in the nineties; the desk bore decades of pen marks, the dresser was dinged at every corner. She could smell the fresh paint of the white walls, and Cady stuck her fingernail into a soft glob, wondering how many lives in this room had been painted over. Judging by the sloping hardwood floors, the deep windowsills, and the massive trees outside, she guessed about a century’s worth. Someone was moving into Eric’s old room in Leverett Tower right now, probably finding it as clean and white as this one; they wouldn’t know what had happened in it just last year. Cady wasn’t here to paint over anything. She was here to chip away.

The bedroom window was open, and Cady pressed her fingertips to the screen, but it didn’t give. Eric had removed the screws from his window screen in advance, the police found them and the screwdriver tucked neatly in his desk drawer, that was how they knew it wasn’t an accident. Though she supposed that no one really thought it was an accident.

Cady looked out at the busy Yard below. Every new student was acting happy, but no one was at ease. There was all the normal first-day-of-college stuff, living away from home, meeting roommates, etc., but Harvard was more than a school. It was validation. It was history. It was expectation. The place crackled with potential energy. She could see the John Harvard statue, a reminder that the college was founded in 1636, before the country itself. The legacy of the past and the onus of the future freighted the present moment, like time collapsing inward. It was saying, this is the launch pad for your extraordinary future, if only you don’t blow it. Behind the smiles and hugs and introductions, the self-doubt: am I smart enough, talented enough, driven enough to deserve my place here? Will I make good on this golden ticket, or will I crack under the pressure? They were questions for every student here, but only Cady knew the stakes—if I crack, will I survive?

Only the parents seemed unequivocally happy, basking in the proof of their parenting job well done, a sharp contrast to the pall cast over Cady’s family. She thought of her mother with a twinge; Cady missed her today, but didn’t blame her for not coming. She knew how her going to Harvard so soon after Eric’s death looked from the outside: bizarre, callous, unhealthy, morbid. And the last thing she wanted to do was hurt her parents. They had been through too much, she knew that. But she wished they could see she had her reasons.

Cady thought back to the weeks following Eric’s death, when college admissions had been the last thing on her mind. It had been impossible for her to think of her future when he no longer had one. If he was going to stay a twenty-year-old college junior forever, then it seemed like she should stay a seventeen-year-old high school senior for the rest of her life. She and her brother were three years apart, she was never supposed to catch up to him. But when the letter of acceptance arrived, it was like the decision had been made for her. To go anywhere but Harvard was to willfully not know, to stick her head in the sand. She had done plenty of that when Eric was alive, and she regretted it dearly. She had learned that unasked questions were more dangerous than unanswered ones.

Cady had tried keeping the why? questions locked away, but most of the time, not thinking about Eric was like pushing a beach ball underwater. She had trained herself to run through a series of questions with very specific and unchanging answers—a pilot’s checklist against emotional nosedive. Why did Eric change? Because he was schizophrenic. Why did Eric choose to die? It wasn’t a choice, it was his mental illness. Was it because she, his only sibling, had let him down? It was nobody’s fault.

But did she believe that?

Every single day she woke with the same questions, and every night she struggled to fall asleep in the misery of not knowing. If any answers existed, they would be here, at Harvard.

It would be cowardly not to go, and she had been a coward long enough. She owed it to Eric. It was the least she could do.

She didn’t want to be here. She needed to.

Cady looked again at Eric’s freshman dorm across the green. He had been happy that first year, so excited and hopeful, Cady recalled helping him move in three years ago with fondness. She tried to recall his exact room, her eyes traced the building’s facade to find it—there, the fourth floor on the corner, his bedroom faced the Yard. Now the window was dark, save for the places where the panes of glass reflected the bright green, yellow, and orange elm leaves, dancing back and forth in the wind. A gust blew, and the colors swept aside to reveal a figure behind the glass.

Cady felt a shiver down her spine.

She had thought she’d seen his red hair, but it was only a reflection from another tree.

Cady stood there looking, wanting it to happen again.

Ghosts of Harvard
by by Francesca Serritella