I lived in a haunted dorm room for one semester, and that was long enough.
It was at small private college just south of Des Moines, with buildings made of tired brick crawling with ivy, a college with a bell tower in the center of campus whose bells rang at indiscriminate and unexplained moments. A bride was rumored to have leapt from its heights on her wedding day after learning that her spouse had been unfaithful.
I lived on the third floor of a historical dorm building, a red brick monstrosity that looked, smelled, and felt collegiate. I shared a corner room with three other girls, a room that was the envy of all freshmen: four built-in bunks, a huge walk-in closet, a large dormer window, and enough floorspace to turn several cartwheels. At first, we relished our good fortune—the other dorm rooms were the size of our closet.
But it was not long before the older students told us of the room’s dark past.
There was a crawlspace at the back of our room, just to the left of the dormer, where the ceiling above began to slant. Its door was wide, but it could not be opened.
A girl was said to have crawled in there years ago, intending to end her own life. But after she had turned her blade against herself, she had a change of heart. She tried to open the door, but it would not budge. She spent her final moments scratching at the stubborn door, trying in vain to free herself.
It was said that this girl haunted the crawlspace, that her final, ragged breaths could still be heard in the middle of the night, that her desperate scratching could still be heard against that crawlspace door.
I figured this story was concocted as some sort of freshman hazing ritual, and I half expected a group of sophomores to hide in the crawlspace just to scare us, so I tried to ignore it and enjoy the fact that I had the biggest dorm room in the building.
Urban legend or not, this terrified two of my roommates so much that they wanted out—within a week, one of them left the school (the ghost wasn’t the only reason), and within a month, another found a different room on the second floor. That left me and a Mississippi girl who was used to the haunts of the deep south.
She’d heard more terrifying tales as childhood bedtime stories, so this rumor did not bother her. Instead, she seemed to revel in it.
After the other girls left, I tried to enjoy the extra space in our already enviable suite, but I could not pretend that I did not hear it —a noise coming from that crawlspace, one that could only be described as a scratching sound.
Scritch, scritch, scritch.
I wanted it to be my imagination, but my ghost-loving Mississippi roommate confessed that she heard it, too.
Scritch, scritch, scritch.
I told myself it was mice, even rats—an infestation was preferable to a ghost. I grew up in an old country farmhouse and was used to the sound of critters in the walls. Sometimes, this made it hard to sleep. My imagination would get the best of me, and I could not help but picture bloody fingernails raking across that crawlspace door.
Scritch, scritch, scritch.
But this noise was the cost of our prime real estate, so I tried to smother my fears with the blanket of logic. It was mice. It was the wind. It was the pipes.
It was a prank—it had to be.
Scritch, scritch, scritch.
I held onto that belief.
After a few months, it became background noise. We got used to the sound. Eventually, it didn’t even frighten me anymore. Sleeping became easier.
Until the moment it became impossible.
One night, when we were both asleep, everything on top of my nightstand crashed to the floor at once.
It was a lot of stuff: a lamp, a green cordless phone, my dog-eared copy of The Autobiography of Malcom X, a stack of papers, a notebook and some pens, all fell the floor at the same time, as though someone had swiped an arm across the top of the nightstand.
Like someone—or something—was trying to get our attention.
It felt urgent. It felt deliberate. It felt sinister. And there was no explanation for it.
It startled us both awake, and I was so terrified that I ran across the room and crawled into my roommate’s bunk with her, and she was so afraid that she let me stay there with her until the sun came through that dormer window.
That was the day we put in a request to be transferred to another room.
We moved just across the hall at the semester’s end, and we never heard those noises again.
I wasn’t expecting it, but doing foster care radically changed my views on abortion.
My last look at my childhood home was entirely digital.
Our family had met in person at the house over a week earlier to say goodbye to the only home we had ever known. I had expected it to be an emotional farewell, but at the time, it really wasn’t. We spent our time cheerfully reminiscing as we sorted through old report cards and school photos and preschool graduation certificates, as we loaded furniture onto the trailer and made trips out to the dumpster. It still felt like we had so much time left. We knew it was only a week, but a week there felt like forever because we had no concept of anything else within those walls.
That home had already been ours forever.
It had only ever been ours.
It was the ancestral Miller family home. I could not yet comprehend the idea of it belonging to anyone else.
But today, that all changes.
Today, after five generations of Millers living on that farm, a new family will take ownership of it.
My last look at my childhood home happened last night, on on the small, smudged screen of my iPhone. It felt so surreal, listening to Mom narrate a tour of the most familiar place I’ve ever known. By the end of the video, she was crying, and Dad put his arm around her, and he said a beautiful prayer over the home, that it would continue to be a blessing and a refuge.
It had certainly been a blessing and a refuge for us: The yard was tranquil, an idyllic acreage of full of trees and aging outbuildings, with space made for childhood joy: a trampoline and a swing set, a treehouse and a pool. But the actual house, built by my great-great-great grandfather, felt like an embrace. That house was a silent witness to our lives, sheltering us like a sentinel as generations of Millers grew within its walls. Passing over its threshold kindled the warmth of centuries-old emotion, as though the memories of laughter and fun, of play and love and kindness had been left behind for us to enjoy, an inheritance from my ancestors.
That home had been a refuge for others as well—a literal, historical refuge: the Miller farm, north of Wells, was a known safehouse for American Indians fleeing persecution. My heart swells with pride at the thought, that my family used their home to offer safety and shelter to those in need. Though my own adult home is bereft of that same historical memory, having been built more than a century after my childhood home, I have still tried to make similar use of it, offering it as a refuge, as safety and shelter for children in need through the act of foster care.
In that way, the spirit of our home can live on, even when it is no longer ours.
As a family, we shared our tearful goodbye over the phone, miles apart, as Mom and Dad packed the final load into their minivan and drove away.
That was the end.
We will never share another meal together there. We will never again dump our coats in the porch and sweep into the kitchen to receive Mom’s hugs and snitch bites of whatever she had cooking on the stove. We will never again gather around the fireplace at Christmas to sing carols and unwrap gifts. We will never again play card games in the dining room or tag in the yard.
Starting today, a new family will begin their own history there, in the loving space five generations of Millers left behind.
And while that home, the Miller farm, north of Wells, is no longer in our family, we can still carry the legacy of generosity and hospitality with us.