I’ve inherited the family ghost.
You learn after about five days to leave Leyla Hempstead well and good alone. It’s tough, because she’s gorgeous. She takes her lunch outside and sits under the linden tree at the corner of the quad, pulls everything out and spreads it on an embroidered napkin.
No kidding. The same pattern every day: cream cheese sandwich, thin sliced apple, crumb cake. Only most of the cake ends up tossed among the roots so that during sixth period calculus a swarm of crows lands and makes this huge ruckus so that Mr. Boswell has to close the blinds. We all know it’s because the crows like her ghost.
Supposedly, he was her great-great-grandmother Henrietta’s fiancé. And that handkerchief has a drop of blood on one corner from when a second frustrated boyfriend decided to interrupt Henri’s secret liaison with a pistol. Ever since, the oldest girl in the family has carried that napkin and they only washed it by hand so that blood stain will always be there to remind them it isn’t wise to fool around with two boys at once.
Not that I heard the story from Leyla – she only talks to her ghost. We just tell stories about her while pretending to ignore her from afar.
There’s a big state university on the other side of town, and we get a handful of new kids every semester as their parents move in or out. This year, my senior year, a guy from Arizona moved in about a month and a half late. So here we are near Halloween and he’s just now learning about Leyla.
Usually this is what happens:
Day one. New Guy notices her walk across the quad while the sun shines down so you can see the shadow of her legs through the thin layers of her skirt. He watches her kneel down and begin opening the tin lunchbox. She leans over to spread her embroidered napkin, just enough that he sees the top of her breasts, and he just knows that she isn’t doing it on purpose. As she sits back, her long chocolate hair falls in this sweep back over her collar and she breathes deeply. A little smile flips her lips as she starts in on the apple.
I swear to God that’s all it takes.
Day two. New Guy fiddles with his own lunch, knowing he should go join the crowd of football dudes or the nerd squad – whichever are his people – but all he’s thinking about is sitting next to Leyla. Fortunately, one of the linebackers yells at New Guy, and he gives in to peer pressure.
Day three. Oh shit. New Guy has a plan. He waits for her under the linden tree, and we’re all watching, too. But we’ve perfected the art of pretending to ignore that corner, so he has no clue he’s on stage. After about thirty seconds, he shivers. It’s shady, sure, but not that much colder. He can’t seem to stop though. It gets into his bones, like they say somebody’s walking on your grave, and he hops up and down in tiny little motions because he’s freaking freezing but doesn’t want Leyla to walk out and see him looking like a dumbass. By the time she comes out of the school, he’s gone.
Day four. The approach. New Guy decides that if she’s sitting there, it can’t possibly be as cold as it was yesterday. So just after she arranges her lunch, he saunters over and asks “Mind if I join you?” Leyla tilts up her head and for a moment just studies him. The sun makes her glow softly, like she’s in one of those artsy movies. Then her lips move and she says something like If you please, or The grass is quite nice and I have extra cake, or possibly It’s your funeral, and your balls that will freeze. New Guy hesitates, then just as he’s about to sit, his balls do, in fact, shrivel up like some invisible hand has encased them in a block of ice. He minces his way back to the jocks, and they don’t really laugh because, seriously, we’ve all been there.
Day five. This day is filled with longing, drawing hearts in your textbook like a fifth-grade girl, and then at lunch New Guy will watch Leyla even more closely than before. He’ll see her lips moving, like maybe she’s singing to herself, only the rhythm’s not right. She’s talking to somebody. Only there’s nobody there. It sinks in that Leyla is not only weird and beautiful, but totally nuts.
Only, this Arizona New Guy, named Quinn, skips days one-three and goes right for the approach. I’m sitting with Dace and Cal and suddenly Cal gets all quiet, smacking at my hand and eyeballing Leyla’s tree like a mad dog. We all turn, and there’s Quinn crouched down and talking to Leyla.
Now I’ve known Leyla – in the distant way you know your third cousins – since second grade, but her laughing still makes me think about all kinds of impolite things. I quash them, because dude, and focus on Quinn’s apparent victory.
Something about this boy, Quinn, makes my ghost quiet. I feel him hovering behind my neck, his fingers cool and slick under my hair. But he’s waiting.
Quinn makes an easy joke about my sandwich and frosting and me not needing any sweetener because of the color of my eyes. It’s silly and nonsensical, and I find myself laughing. My ghost grips tighter into my neck, as if he wishes to feel the vibrations of happiness as they roll up off my tongue. I lift a hand to run through my hair; it’s camouflage really, because I’m twisting my fingers into my ghost’s cool touch. He wraps shadows around me and I see Quinn shiver.
“Why don’t you come out into the sun?” he asks as goose-bumps rise up and down his forearms. He smiles at me, and through the leaves light dapples his tan face. For a new boy, he’s awfully confident and I imagine how warm his skin will be if I take his outstretched hand.
My ghost coils down my spine, creating ice in my hips. He’s angry, and giving me a chance to go with Quinn. I know this is like a test, but he has no right to think I would wish to leave him. For my whole life he’s been the center.
The first memory I have is opening my eyes in the antique wooden toddler’s crib, and the bars are sliding down of their own accord. I sit up and look around for mama, but there’s only a man there with large gray eyes and a pale smile. He picks me up and swings me around the room. We dance throughout the house, me flying and him tapping his heels, until I’m giggling so hard I can barely breathe. Mama finds me in the morning curled up near the kitchen hearth, and I remember so many voices hissing over me, and the sorrow in Daddy’s face as he takes me back to the nursery.
It was almost like I died myself. Great-Aunt Jennifer gave me the handkerchief, and said if I wanted to, I could burn it. I didn’t, of course. I’d never.
Every memory I have after that first one, he’s there. Even if it’s a memory about Christmas or graduating from kindergarten, I remember his presence, whispering in my ear and tickling my hair. He likes the nape of my neck, so much so that when he isn’t there with his hand cooling that pinprick spot, I sweat no matter how deep into winter it might be. When I can’t sleep at night, he’s there, and I understand him best at night. He reads with me, turning pages if I go too slow, cooling my morning coffee, and leaving flowers for me at the dinner table.
We’re all used to it, though my baby sister and brother grew up jealous and never liked me much.
I don’t mind, because I have him. He’s got no name but Mine, and doesn’t need one because there’s no reason to call someone who never vanishes.
How dare he test me so? How dare he now, after sixteen years of knowing me, pretend I might choose a flesh-and-blood boy over him?
Because he has stopped touching my neck, I feel hot and angry. I smile fiercely at this Quinn from Arizona, and take his hand.
The craziest thing I’ve ever seen happens next.
Wind shakes the linden tree so hard all its leaves plummet down, and Quinn is shoved back. We’re all on our feet, but Leyla is fine. Her eyes are round as a doll’s and she curls her hands against her stomach. The leaves now on the ground rustle and shift and sure as gravity right then even though he’s standing three feet away and nothing but air is touching him, Quinn drops dead.
Only, he isn’t really dead, just in a freaking coma and everybody’s yelling and somebody calls an ambulance and the principal. We’re ordered to go inside to our homerooms while they sort shit out. But I saw Leyla run away, and there’s her embroidered handkerchief abandoned like a piece of trash.
I wait around at the edge of the student body as everybody presses close and tries to be the last one forced inside. At the last moment, I dash forward and slip between a paramedic and the football coach who used to be a firefighter, and I grab the napkin up out of the leaves.
All the way home I tell my ghost he was horrible, that I was only talking to Quinn because of the way he was behaving, and most emphatically that he must never, ever draw such attention again.
He caresses my neck, tugs at my hair, and slips his cold, shadow hand into mine. At home, we sneak around the back to avoid all the catering trucks setting up for my parent’s annual Halloween party. The whole town comes, mostly because they want to see my ghost, even though none of them believe he exists outside of a strain of madness passed through the women of the family. He enjoys the attention, and it’s the one night of the year I can be myself, that I can talk to him openly, dance with him, tell anyone who asks what he thinks of their costume.
For the rest of the afternoon, he teases me as I read ahead in my textbooks to make up for the classes I’m missing, and when the sun is setting he brings me the costume I wear every year. With all the buttons and corsetry, I should not be able to dress myself, but together we manage. His fingers slide down my back, tickle across my belly; I shiver and smile as I put on lipstick.
It isn’t until he offers his arm and we’re walking across the second story landing that I realize I left great-grandma’s handkerchief under the linden tree.
I only need a costume to get into the party. So I grab my older brother’s Zorro mask and the thin black hat and cape he got for a kegger at one of the frat houses across town. I’m sure Zorro didn’t wear black jeans and hiking boots, but that’s the best I’ve got. I tuck the handkerchief into my pocket and drive over with Cal. We usually avoid Leyla’s house, even on Halloween, but he’s totally game when I bring him a pack of my brother’s cloves. Cal stapled a green paper leaf to the crotch of his jeans and says he’s Adam, which works great for me because it’s easy to tell him I’m going around back because I am not in a million years walking into this classy old mansion next to that.
Leyla’s back yard is surrounded by towering oak trees, and smaller maples with leaves totally on fire. From the house there’s creepy violin music and lots of laughter and conversation. Everybody’s exclaiming about how cool or scary or elegant everybody else’s costume is, in that grown up way where even if you think somebody looks like a slut you find a backhanded way to tell her it sure is impressive they way she got that bubble-wrap to hide her privates.
I’m hoping to get through the dining room and into the place where the dancing is. That’s always were we hear afterwards that Leyla spent the night, dancing with her dad’s business associates and telling her mom’s customers what it’s like to grow up with a ghost.
I don’t know why she does it.
But when I push between two low-hanging branches into the dark backyard, she’s right there. The yard is round, and in the center there’s a running fountain. Leyla’s beside it, standing with her arms out, and all of a sudden she spins in a circle and moves into a gliding dance. And there’s nobody else there.
I’m dancing with my ghost because it was too crowded too fast in the house. I’m seventeen now, and going to graduate this year, and more of the guests are seeing me grown up. The men lean closer, even if they don’t mean to, and the women tell me stiffly what a beautiful, if old-fashioned, dress I’ve chosen.
I feel my ghost growing colder and sharper. After this afternoon I know he’s more temperamental than before, and when his fingers dug cold spikes into the small of my back because a new professor at the college kissed my hand and held it for too long, I fled to the back yard where we could dance alone.
His arms are around me, and mine rest against the shadow of his waist as he leads me into a waltz. I’m thinking about nothing but what it would be like if he was solid and warm against me, if he could kiss me and make me warm. That’s what it’s like in all the books I’ve read: kisses cause a flush, not shivers. I stopped reading those kind of books last year, when the love scenes upset us both.
Now I pull at his cold embrace, and its enough. It has to be. My ghost knows me better than anyone, and I know all the subtle shifts of temperature and sound as he whispers need and longing into my ears.
It’s almost perfect, when someone from school says my name.
She is so beautiful, like a ghost herself in that huge, complicated dress. I nearly back up, and leave her alone until Monday, when I’ll replant the handkerchief under the linden tree.
But a tear falls down her cheek, and freezes in a long trail of snow.
“Leyla,” I say, walking forward. I tear off the Zorro mask and throw it to the ground.
She turns, her arms behind her as though blocking something away from me. “Max.”
It makes me smile. I mean, we’ve been at school together forever, but you just never know with her. I get closer. “Happy Halloween.”
“Thank you,” she murmurs, leaning away. Her dress leaves her shoulders bare, and goose-bumps scatter along her collarbone. “There’s excellent punch inside. And hors d’oeuvres.”
I can’t help myself, because damn, she’s talking to me. I say, “Come in with me, I’d love to dance. I don’t know that one you were practicing just now.”
Leyla shuts her eyes and says, “No. Go on, I’ll be alright here.” Her whole body shudders like she’s afraid, and suddenly I’m thinking, what if it’s all hiding something horrible? Not a ghost, but like, her dad’s been hitting her, or there’s some threat and she isn’t allowed to get close to anybody? There are all these crazy ideas running through my head like rabid squirrels.
“Come with me,” I say again.
“I can’t,” she whispers. She’s shaking her head over and over again.
I drag the handkerchief out of my pocket, and the lighter I brought with the bribe for Cal. “You can’t be its prisoner forever,” I say, and I hold up the corner, flicking my thumb over the lighter switch.
It catches like flash-paper, and Leyla leaps forward. “You don’t understand,” she hisses, trying to snatch it away.
But it’s too late. The embroidered handkerchief they’ve passed down along with the damned ghost is going up in smoke.
Triumph fills Max’s face, and I cover mine with my hands as my ghost whips into a frenzy.
It’ll be over soon.
Max thought he was freeing me, thought the handkerchief was a piece of magic binding the ghost to my family. That’s what they all think about it, about why we keep it close. That’s the story the town tells.
But the handkerchief isn’t binding the ghost to me so that I’ll always be haunted. That tiny drop of blood bound him in other ways.
The wind leaves frost behind, making my hair crack and my teeth chatter. I hear Max catch his breath and there is a dull thud as his body hits the cold lawn.
When there is quiet again, and the party noises trickle back out, I open my eyes. He sprawls on his back, the black cape spreading around him. I kneel, and hold my hand over his lips.
But I’m shaking. Not from fear or even from cold. I study his features. The square jaw, the dark hair, the too-thick brows. His lips are thin, but I want to touch them badly.
Max’s eyes open, and he whispers, “My Leyla…”
I bend over and I kiss him. His warm mouth burns me down to my toes. When his fingers find his favorite spot at the nape of my neck, I melt down against him. The ashes of the handkerchief blow away in the perfectly warm October breeze.
image by: Le Petit Poulailler