Cady hadn’t set foot on Harvard’s campus since her older brother’s suicide. It was the place where Eric had eaten his last meal, dreamed his last dream, 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 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, sworn that she could handle it, bet everything on it. Yet her knee bounced in the backseat as her father parked right outside her freshman dormitory, Weld Hall. She spied his face in the rearview 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 had left her paraplegic, hence the parking privileges, although Cady never thought of her as handicapped. Laura possessed an irrepressibly 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 brake and took a heavy breath. “Ready?”
Cady 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 smiling relatives. A girl laughed standing in the bed of a pickup as she pushed a box toward her father waiting 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 at 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 let her have it. “When did I get so old?”
The question was rhetorical.
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.
“Nice that they have an elevator,” Laura said. 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. From Weld to the White House.” He slapped the back of his reed-thin son. “Might have the next president right here!”
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.”
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 squared his shoulders? 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. 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 for the key, the metal freshly cut and sharp. She hesitated. This place had already marked a turning point in her family’s history, and her decision to come here marked 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?” Laura asked.
“Sure.” Show no weakness.
Cady opened the door to an empty room. It had the layout of a larger space retrofitted 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, Eric’s freshman dorm. I remember moving him in.”
“How does that make you feel?” Laura asked, sounding like a therapist.
“Good, close to him.” Cady was surprised to hear the truth coming out of her mouth. “Is that weird?”
“No.” Laura put a hand on her arm. “Just remember, life is for the living.”
Cady knew it was a common saying, but it sounded 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 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. “You the first to arrive?”
“Looks like it.” Cady readjusted the duffel bag in her arms. “I know we have more in the van, but do you mind if I unpack a little to claim my room?” 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 taken 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, 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 their thinking she was emotionally fragile, they’d barely let her come here as it was. 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. Cady opened it, flipping through pages soft with wear. She ran her fingers over her brother’s familiar handwriting, the ballpoint-embossed lettering speaking to her heart like Braille. The earlier pages were vintage Eric: notes and diagrams tidy as a textbook. As she flipped farther ahead, however, his note-taking grew more disorganized; 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 commentary appeared unrelated to the calculations: dates, times, initials — she noted most often “M” — and jottings of complaints and observations about unnamed people’s 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 revisit it when she felt stronger.
With those items safely hidden, she surveyed her room. She didn’t mind having a bunkmate — it 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, desks, dressers, and bookshelves. The boxy, light wood modular furniture looked as if it had been built in the nineties; the desks bore decades of pen marks, the dressers were dinged at every corner. She could smell the fresh white paint on the 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.
Cady opened the window and pressed her fingertips to the screen. Eric had removed the screws from his window screen in advance, the police found them and the screwdriver 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 none was at ease. There was all the normal first-day-of-college stuff, living away from home, meeting roommates, and the rest, 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 crowd around 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 contrast to the pall over Cady’s family. She missed her mother today but didn’t blame her for not coming. Cady knew how 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 further. 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 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 as though 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 keenly. 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, catercorner 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, leftmost room on the center section, 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.