The symptoms of anxiety and the symptoms of a haunting are so similar: sleepless caverns under eye sockets; lack of appetite; a habit of flinching. A practiced avoidance of mirrors, for fear of catching a glimpse of something wrong, something formless, something no one else can see. I know I wasn’t like this before. There is something else in here with me.
Heather was my best friend from the first day of seventh grade, when she sat under a tree reading from an enormous leather-bound Shakespeare anthology instead of playing kickball. In my memory, she’s always wearing purple lipstick and a long black skirt, light brown hair hanging down to her hips—but that image is spliced in from a later time. The day we met, she had shoulder-length hair and blue jeans and a Blossom- esque denim hat. “I hate kickball, too,” I said, and sat down next to her without asking if I could. I adored her totally (and platonically) before she even spoke.
It’s possible that in the years since her death I’ve mythologized Heather, but even when she was alive she seemed legendary. She did everything to extremes: She laughed loudly, cursed graphically, wore way too much jewelry, and drove too fast with the music cranked to “permanent hearing damage.” We had sleepovers at her house, where we stayed awake until dawn watching horror movies, eating Circus Animals, and painting each other’s nails with thick crusts of glitter.
We were sixteen or seventeen when Heather said “I wonder how far we could get if we drove all night.” Ordinarily terrified of breaking the rules, I didn’t hesitate to follow her out the back door after her mom was asleep. With Eve 6 thrumming through the speakers, and Heather’s platform boot on the gas pedal, we headed west from Denver, making for the mountains. Just outside Boulder, a light drizzle blossomed into a storm of near-biblical proportions, and Heather pulled into a gas station parking lot to wait out the rain. For the next two hours, we lay back in the reclined front seats, writing poetry in our journals. When the deluge waned, we returned to Heather’s house, and—for once—slept the rest of the night.
Remember how the world was supposed to end on December 21, 2012? I’m still not sure it didn’t. I can’t imagine any meteor or nuclear winter feeling more apocalyptic than my best friend’s funeral.
In stories, hauntings are how the dead resolve their unfinished business with the living—but of course, the living write those stories because we have unfinished business with the dead. I wish I believed in ghosts. I wish I believed Heather had another chance to collect on all her unpaid debts. If ever someone had a right to posthumous vengeance, it was her. Her dark sense of humor, her taste for the grotesque, her finely honed instinct for fairness and retribution: She would have made an incredible poltergeist. For a long time after her death I waited, half-hoping that my best friend would come back to me. I’ve read “The Monkey’s Paw”; I know that wishing for impossible things means risking the unimaginable, but I would have taken the chance on any kind of reconciliation, however ghastly. Heather’s ghost, even a malevolent one, would have been a comfort.
There was this glimmer of a moment when I was so devastated by Heather’s death, so desperate to connect with anyone else feeling the same chest-imploding agony, that I tried to be friends with her husband. It was his shadow falling between us, more than anything else, that had set my friendship with Heather off-kilter: I hated the way he treated her, the demands he made of her, the exhaustion that grew around her like tree rings every year of their marriage. I thought if I could find some redeeming quality in him, if I could figure out why Heather loved him, that would retroactively erase the chasm that grew between Heather and me every time I swallowed the things I wanted to say about him.
So before the fragile peace of mourning exploded, before he abandoned her mother’s car in the mountains and gave her engagement ring to someone else, I tried to be his friend. When he asked if I would go to the mortuary with him for emotional support, I said yes. But when we arrived, he decided he wanted to be alone. I remained in the waiting room, trying to picture what the loudest, most animated person I’d ever known would look like dead, her face still for the first time.
I never saw Heather’s body. Maybe if I had, my nightmares would be different. In the weeks after her death, friends and family said she came to them in dreams, said kind things, waved goodbye. I never had those dreams, or their darker counterparts heavy with gore and decay. Instead, my dreams remind me that I’m still letting her down. I am visited nightly by manifestations of my own inadequacy as a friend. I have dreams in which it’s all a mistake; she isn’t dead, but I’ve let five years go by without calling her. Dreams in which she doesn’t understand why I’m not coming around anymore. Dreams in which I almost have a chance to make it right, to apologize, and then I wake up with my mouth open and the words turning to salt on my tongue.
Heather and I were adolescent fangirls of all things occult and macabre. These fascinations predated our friendship, but together we nurtured and tended them like a shared and precious garden. We wrote ghost stories together. We hovered our hands, giggling, over Ouija boards after midnight. We laid out altars on our bedroom window sills, arrayed on thrift-store silk scarves: incense and candles, a cut glass goblet full of seashells. We wore pentacle necklaces and celebrated equinoxes and carried crystals in our pockets to attract positive energy. The universe was vast and unfathomable, but we were initiates to its mysteries.
It didn’t last. By the time Heather and I got our matching tattoos, the triple moon symbol that represents the Wiccan Goddess, my belief that elemental powers even existed, let alone that it was possible to call on them for help, was fading. That image only represented faith to me because it represented her.
When Heather died I tried to believe in God again, just so I would have someone to be angry at. In bed one night, I whispered the Hail Mary to myself; it had all the emotional resonance of the Robert Frost poem I memorized in sixth grade. It was a recital, not a prayer. Another night, I lay flat on my back with my hands crossed on my chest. Fingers digging into my collarbone, I silently mouthed the words: Light as a feather, stiff as a board.
We always spent New Year’s Eve together. Three years after she died, I sat up on December 31st playing pinochle. I was reckless like Heather used to be, bidding too high, risking too much. The cards I needed just kept showing up in my hands. Her mother would say she was with me, her ghostly hand helping me shuffle—a “low-down, no-good, dirty rotten deck-stacker,” to borrow a phrase from Heather that she borrowed from her grandfather. I wanted to believe it. But I didn’t smell her perfume or feel the rhythmic thumping of her platform boots. I was reminded of her, but she wasn’t there. I listened for the echoes of the cosmos and heard dull white silence.
I was never the friend Heather deserved in life. When I couldn’t stand to bear witness to the way her husband treated her, I turned away. I picked arguments over stupid things because I couldn’t admit, to her or myself, how deeply angry I was with her for all the ways she was hurting. I didn’t help, because in the worst corner of my heart I hoped that if things got bad enough, she would clearly see the source of all her unhappiness and extricate herself from his nightmarish grasp. I was waiting for her to hit bottom, but she never came back up.
As much as I’ve earned it, Heather has never haunted me—or maybe her absence is her parting shot. I’ve never seen her face behind me in the mirror or found arcane curses scrawled on my walls in blood or purple lipstick, the “i”s dotted with stars. I’ve never heard Nirvana’s “Sliver” blasting in the middle of the night from a speaker that wasn’t even plugged in. I’ve never gotten so much as a hint that Heather is still around and holding a grudge. Instead of rattling furniture and flickering lights, I’m kept awake by the quiet, inescapable knowledge of my own failings. Either there is no afterlife or Heather is enjoying the Great Whatever Comes Next unfettered by any desire to balance the scales. A nonexistent Heather or a Heather who has forgiven me: either possibility breaks my heart in equal measure, because they both mean I’m alone.
For all the dread wrapped up in the idea of unquiet spirits, there’s something just a hint gratifying about the prospect of being haunted. Maybe I want Heather to cling to me, too—it doesn’t matter so much whether out of love or rage. If you believe your lost love still exists in some form, you can apologize and hope they hear you. If there’s a higher power in charge of meting out justice, you can atone.
If I felt certain of some form of retribution for my failures, in this world or the next, I might not need to punish myself. I can’t forgive myself for the mistakes I made with Heather, and so I torture myself with ridiculous expectations. Anyone I love could die at any moment, and it’s absolutely imperative that they not be angry with me when they do—which means no one can ever be angry with me, which means I have to make everyone happy all the time, which is impossible. I have set myself the task of rectifying an irredeemable mistake, and in so doing sentenced myself to emotional purgatory. Twisting on this hook is both an active choice and an insatiable compulsion. I do not forgive myself. I do not deserve forgiveness. If Heather’s ghost won’t punish me, I’ll do it myself.
It took me years to realize that my anxiety, spiking from a quirk to a diagnosis after Heather’s death, was causation and not coincidence. The tight fist of panic that closed around my lungs any time I got close to confrontation with anyone I loved might have been my own grief rather than Heather reaching out from beyond the grave, but it was her ghost all the same.
Heather was cremated, her ashes scattered in the Colorado mountains she loved; she has no gravestone. Sometimes it seems as though the only physical markers proving she was in my life are the tremors in my hands, the choking in my throat when I think of how I failed her. There is no earth from her to rise from, so she rises from my body instead.
The logic of ghost stories says that the restless spirit just wants the truth to be told—sometimes so that justice will be carried out, but often the simple act of revelation is enough to satisfy the specter. The haunting is over when you find the body; seeing the ghost is enough to free her. But realizing what was buried in the unhallowed ground of my psyche, realizing where my haunting arose, has not quelled my anxiety or helped me sleep better at night. I am still jumping at the sound of footsteps, but I’m not ready for them to give way to silence. I will not go gentle into being healed, not when pain is all I have left of my best friend. I am not yet able to lay Heather to rest.