Set in New York City and New Jersey on the cusp of the financial crisis, Ghosts of Bergen County is a literary mystery with supernatural elements. It is a tautly paced and intricately plotted story in which collective burdens manifest into hauntings.
There were no witnesses except the woman who’d been up all night, had consumed two beers and three vodka tonics before switching to (and sharing) the playwright’s Scotch, and she (the witness) could remember the morning only in snatches, like the digital stills and clips that cycled through her computer’s screen saver. There was the club where she’d met the playwright. There were her friends leaving the club. There was the playwright tucking his loose curls behind his ear. There was the playwright in the stairwell of his building. There were the vents, condensers, and fans, the mechanical infrastructure on the roof, looming like the lunar module on the surface of the moon. There was the sun coming up over Chelsea. There was the playwright on the pavement below. And one other image, which came to her in the early afternoon, when she woke in her bed, naked, her dress and underwear bunched on the floor: the playwright, leaping from the gravel rooftop to the parapet that framed it, gilded and smooth and almost shining in the morning light, leaping the way an acrobat leaps from one tightrope to a higher tightrope, arms spread, for balance not flight. And it was this last image she trusted least, because it was the clearest and sharpest, as though it had never actually happened, as though she remembered it only from the dream she’d just dreamed.
It was still light when Ferko arrived home. The house was quiet, the mail strewn on the dining table. “Hello,” he said, under his breath, to no one. There were catalogs and cheap envelopes with cheap printing, windows through which his name was misspelled, glossy postcards from realtors and remodeling contractors. He placed it all in the recycling bin that held paper. The bin was full, so he took it out the front door to the barrel beside the porch, half hidden by the hemlock.
The house was new, a Cape, wood-framed, with cement siding and a porch with gray planks and white columns and a wood swing that hung from chains, affixed to the beadboard ceiling with hooks like small anchors. Mary Beth had loved the porch the moment they’d first parked at the curb on a May afternoon, in front of the lone remaining tall oak from the woods Woodberry Road had replaced. She’d wanted an older house—pre–World War II—but this one did the trick. She sat on the swing and made room for him, and he joined her and swung, their feet drawn up off the floor, while their agent fiddled with the lockbox and then with the key.
Now the bench was empty. He sat on it, then regretted doing so. He should be inside, saying a proper hello. The porch was his after dark, after Mary Beth had gone to sleep. He’d sit in the shadows, with the porch lights out and two bottles of beer in a bucket of ice. He’d sip the beers over the course of an hour, while the evening bugs sang and the occasional car coasted past, its radio muffled, while dogs walked up and down the sidewalks on leashes, their masters mostly silent, though sometimes coaxing, the way a parent might coax a child.
He was comfortable by himself, drawn to the quiet. So was she. It was a bad recipe, they’d joked when they first got together and recognized how alike they were. They’d met through mutual friends—party folk, a core group of extroverts who’d gone to Yale and functioned, in those days, in New York City in Y2K, like a star, throwing off heat, pulling others into their orbit. Neither Ferko nor Mary Beth were extroverts or had gone to Yale, yet here they were, attending the same rooftop party in the West Village. Later they adjourned to a corner bar, where Ferko, feeling magnanimous and tipsy, bought a round for the denizens, a couple dozen or so at that wee hour, including the complete strangers who happened to be there, and this discreet bit of generosity—buying a round for the bar—pulled these strangers, in that moment and for the next hour or two, into their orbit as well. Truth be told, Ferko had always wanted to stand beside a bar and announce loudly that the next round was on him, to receive the backslaps and the glasses clinking against his own, and he’d done a quick estimate, before committing, of the numbers in the narrow room and figured this was as good a time as any. He hadn’t yet spoken with Mary Beth at this point, but he’d noticed her, a new face, and if Mary Beth hadn’t yet noticed Ferko, she did so now. She told him weeks later, when they were alone together for the first time, shoulders touching in the back of a cab between one party and the next, his gesture was generous. She was impressed.
It was a risk, they both knew, given their introspective natures; they needed others. When their others moved to different cities and suburbs, Mary Beth and Ferko moved here, to start a family, a new star, a new orbit.
He stood and steadied the porch swing and went to see if she was asleep or awake.
The next morning he woke to find the girl standing in the hallway outside their bedroom. The light was gray through the white curtains. It was dawn. He didn’t wish to turn from the girl to check the time. It had been some weeks, maybe a month, since he’d seen her last. She wore a striped shirt and shorts, like usual. She was barefoot. Five years old, maybe. He propped himself on his elbow. Her pigtails fell in messy braids, the color of the clay Mary Beth had turned over their first year in the house, before the accident that killed Catherine, before the girl with the pigtails appeared, before Mary Beth neglected the garden and it was reclaimed by weeds that he mowed each week this time of year. The girl’s bangs fell in her eyes. She was looking at him. Or maybe not. Maybe she was studying Mary Beth, who slept on her back, her mouth open, and in that moment of Ferko’s doubt, the girl vanished.
He blinked, then brought his legs out from under the sheets, careful not to disturb Mary Beth. He went to the place where the girl had stood. He checked around the corners, down the stairwell. He poked his head into the guest room, his home office, and, finally, into the nursery, which was void of furniture except a dresser, where Mary Beth kept her off-season clothes, and a toy box that had once belonged to Mary Beth’s grandmother. It was a wood crate, lacquered, and painted with circus seals and elephants and the sorts of clowns that gave children nightmares.
He opened it, half expecting to find the girl curled up inside, but all he found were papers and photographs, a stuffed caterpillar and a green plastic cup.
There were holes in the back of the box. Mary Beth had insisted he drill them. “For breathing,” she’d said.
He’d looked at her.
“I used to hide in it,” she’d said, “when I was a girl. The lid is heavy.”
“We’ll fill it with toys.”
“We’ll drill air holes in the back first.”
Now he closed the lid and went back to where the girl had stood, outside the bedroom door. He placed his palm on the runner. There was no heat. He put his nose to it. Mary Beth slept. He felt less alone, more hopeful. Once he’d been afraid. But the girl was calm, serene. He wished to know what she wanted. His clock said it was 6:28, time to shower, dress, and go to work.
Dana Cann was born in Santa Barbara, California, and raised in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC. He’s worked in commercial banking, corporate finance, and restructuring. His short stories have been published in The Sun, The Massachusetts Review, The Gettysburg Review, Fifth Wednesday Journal, The Florida Review, and Blackbird, among other journals. He has received fellowships from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation. Dana earned his M.A. in Writing from Johns Hopkins University. He lives in Bethesda, Maryland with his wife and their two teenage children. Dana teaches fiction workshops at The Writer’s Center. Ghosts of Bergen County is his debut novel.