I visit you because I want to know more.
Everyone remembers what happened, the outline of the story. There was a house and a boy and a mother and a death, floorboards and secrets that lowered and expanded to cover the town like mist.
But some forget about the man, bound to memories, who kept living despite himself.
The vigils run distant in my mind, the songs and tears and candles offered up to an unknown child, one who could only be described in platitudes, who wasn’t old enough to be anything but a cute smile, wasn’t old enough to be anything at all.
You answer the door before I can knock, as if you’re waiting for visitors. I’m not ready for the delicacy of your movements, the economy, your awareness of place.
I tried killing myself, I say.
I tell you this as a way of explaining my interest in what happened, why I’m here. I ask you to tell me because you would know best, because you stayed here all these years, because you haven’t changed a thing since then.
Because you know the ghost.
It isn’t just here, people report seeing the ghost while walking their dogs and while digging for the gallon of milk with the best date, while slowing down to see an ugly car crash and while eating a disappointing dinner in front of the TV. It permeates our lives, buzzes under our skin. We can’t let go because we want stories, we crave them to the point that the darkness satisfies. It’s a pit that bobs and dances in our chest, stoked by the reminder of death.
You ask me what I hope to find, what good it will do, if it’ll make me want life or justify trying to end it again.
All I can say is that is that I need to know. It matters.
In response, you produce a notebook, skinny from torn out pages. It’s hers, from when she still lived in this house, before she didn’t live anywhere. She never saw jail, but found her own form of punishment.
Her handwriting at the beginning of the notebook is beautiful, wide and breathless. As I turn the pages, the writing becomes illegible, the curves and swirls drifting farther and farther from the lines, letters widening like they’re grasping at their horizon.
I read: you’re in the hall, in your room. You haunt my dreams, the dark behind my eyes. You smell damp, like yellowed paper, like old newspapers and comic books. You listen, I can feel you listening, but you never ask anything of me. Why? Tell me what you want. You have to want something, need a reason. I’ll give you anything.
I close the notebook, ask you why you stayed here, despite what you’ve seen, what you lived through, a dead child and wife, both by the same hand. I’ve seen pictures. I imagined the blood would be everywhere, strung like spider webs, I imagined abstract paintings, I imagined a delicate grace buried in chaos. But the pictures show only a boy, face down, a soil-colored pool soaked into a pillowcase. The hue thins as it stretches to the edges, looking like the color is moving inward toward to body, like it’s returning.
I think about the retainer I never wore, the way my teeth want to return to their original place, have to be restrained from this instinct. This is the same, I think. The blood has a place.
The blood wants to be home.
You repeat the question back to me: why did you stay here?
In response, I hold up my forearms. You examine the offering, place two fingers on the scars, drag them across the marks, down toward my wrists. It’s precious, it has meaning, you say, your voice clipped, under grown. I imagine a qualifier, a condition, but you give none. It’s precious, has meaning.
That is all.
You put the notebook away, sliding it on a bookshelf without looking, like you’re hoping to forget where it goes.
About the ghost, I ask: Did you ever see it? What do you believe?
I believe it’s a story, you say, and stories tell us something. Lessons learned, or most likely not. About our world, about ourselves. They extract, make known what lies under skin and skin and the skin beneath that.
This is where I exit, without an ending, because there isn’t one, because we’re not allowed to know it, because it’s revealed to us as it passes by.
The next day and for every day after that, I look for the ghost, seeing it only in the periphery. Accepting the story as told is to acknowledge it’ll both be wiped away some day and be exactly the same forever. We can’t imagine it, the amount of time, what lies beyond the life we have. It stretches over a horizon and we never question where it goes.
To follow the thread is to find more death, more blood, more ghosts. Each one enveloping and smothering the last. Even still, you linger. I think of you because you were the teller, you were who I was allowed to see, allowed to understand. You were the ghost. And so was the town and the boy and the mother and the memory and the forgetting.
Eventually, your face will fade and the house will be demolished and I’ll be old and die. Maybe then I’ll be a ghost, maybe then you can tell me the ending. There’s comfort in this. It crouches in my veins, spring-loaded, ready. Knowing it’s there, I wake up and work and eat and love and do the things that make up a life. I leave this place, I walk home.
And each step tells its own story.
Alex Sobel lives in Toledo, Ohio, where he is an ABA therapist for children with autism. His writing has appeared in publications such as the Saturday Evening Post Online, Stoneslide Corrective, the Molotov Cocktail, and Daily Science Fiction.