by Elyse Kallen
“Charley.” A lilting, feminine voice calls out from behind me, and it takes every ounce of self-control not to jump or gasp. It’s one of those early autumn days when the sun shines so brightly it hurts and the wind whips everything to and fro, but halfheartedly, without bite. I hadn’t been in any hurry, but now I clutch my purse close to my worn, brown jacket and quicken my pace.
“Charley!” The voice tries again, with more urgency. Reluctantly, I sneak a glance out of the corner of my eye. The translucent pallor of the skin and the swish of a dress that’s been out of style for fifty years confirm the speaker isn’t really there.
I’ve seen ghosts for as long as I can remember. Old ghosts, young ghosts, scary ghosts, scared ghosts–the only thing they have in common is their proverbial unfinished business. True to their reputations, they haunt dilapidated houses and ancient cemeteries, but it’s not uncommon for one to pop up in the cereal aisle at the grocery store.
Still, I do my best to avoid intersections between the past and the present. And when I can’t, if I pretend to be deaf and blind to them like everyone else, they eventually take the hint and leave me alone. Most of the time.
“I know you can see me. I’m your great-grandmother, Colleen.” Admittedly, it’s not every day a ghost claims to be a long-lost relative. But the revelation doesn’t slow my stride. If she’s really my grandma, she should know I have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to family, living or otherwise.
“You must recognize me from my wedding portrait. I left it to your mother. She would have hung it somewhere prominent.” Clearly, it’s never occurred to Grandma Colleen that her beloved picture, of no value to the local pawnbroker, stayed buried in the dusty box it arrived in. “She certainly wore my pearls.” She’s got me there. Mom wore the pearls on the rare occasions she wanted to present herself as a passable wife and mother. I remember genuine tears streaming down her face the day she sold them.
“Charlotte Aurora, I won’t play this game. Look at me.” I haven’t responded to that name in more than a decade, and I’m not about to start again now. I adjust my headphones and turn up the volume on my phone. She sighs in exasperation. “I could see them, too.” That stops me dead in my tracks, no pun intended.
Lowering my sunglasses, I turn to look at the petite form beside me. Although I know Colleen died in her 70s, there’s an ageless quality to her face, and I’d be hard pressed to say if she was 50 or 80. Wisps of what must have been white hair escape from a loose bun and frame her narrow face. Wide eyes assess me as intently as I’m studying her.
I look nothing like her. My hair and skin are more than a few shades darker, and my nose takes up proportionately more room on my face. Still, we appear to have at least one thing in common. She reaches out to touch my cheek, and I instinctively take a step back. “Consider it a family heirloom.” Her sternness has evaporated, leaving in its place a gentle whisper.
“More like a curse.” In comparison to hers, my voice sounds rough and bitter.
“Only if we don’t use it in the right way, my dear.”
I look around to see if I’ve been spotted apparently talking to myself. The street seems to be deserted, but when it comes to the appearance of sanity, better safe than sorry. “If you have something to say, it’ll have to be in private.” It’s a relief not to have to spell out the implications for her. So many older ghosts forget the limitations of being alive. “And it’s Charley. Never Charlotte.”
She’s nonplussed by the edge in my voice. “Lead the way, Charley.”
As we walk, I try to dust the cobwebs off my hazy recollections of family lore. Stories were few and far between when I was growing up, but in her rare periods of sobriety, Mom was proud of her forbearers. I remember the broad smile that came to her face when she told me about a teenage Colleen, the first Reilly born in the United States, marching in suffrage rallies in New York City. It was presumably the first and last time any of us took part in a social movement. Unless, of course, I count Colleen’s daughter, my grandmother, who took the ideal too much to heart. She ran off to live in a commune in California in the ‘60s, leaving her daughter behind to be raised by Colleen. The hard knocks left her feisty, Mom told me once. In all the years since, no Reilly woman has fallen far from that tree.
I step into my dim studio apartment, and with dismay, I watch Colleen glide behind me, answering my unspoken question. Unlike the vampires of legend, ghosts apparently don’t need an invitation.
Plopping down on a worn armchair, I waste no time on pleasantries. “So, what’s your unfinished business?” In contrast, Colleen gingerly settles herself on my couch, avoiding stale bits of cereal. “Do you need a message delivered to a loved one? Or has an actual family heirloom gone missing?” I fold my arms across my chest and tap my foot, hoping to convey a nonchalance I don’t feel. “Let’s get this over with so you can find peace and move on. I have plans tonight.”
If Colleen is disappointed by my brusque manner, she doesn’t show it. “My unfinished business is nobody’s concern but my own. I’m quite content in the world of the living. But not everyone is.” She pauses. “Your mother passed away last month.”
My heart starts to hammer in my chest. “I know.”
“I didn’t see you at the funeral.”
“I didn’t go.”
The words leap out before I can bite my tongue. “If she wanted me at her funeral, she shouldn’t have tried to make a profit off my heirloom.”
There was a time when the sight of a pale and dead stranger didn’t make my stomach drop. Growing up, instead of experimenting with makeup and eating ice cream at sleepovers with the other middle school girls, I ran around like a little supernatural Saint Teresa, bringing peace to every ghost I could find. In a sleepy town like Morriston, passing along a simple message was usually enough to free a ghost to poof into their next existence. I lost track of how many spouses received an apology from beyond the grave and how many children were reassured that their parents loved them. It was a thrilling day when I got to tell a second wife to look in the fourth drawer of the desk for an updated will. Still, no matter how mundane or repetitive, their stories fascinated me. I may not have had many friends, but my “missions” kept my spirits up and kept me out of trouble–no easy feat in a place with more opioid prescriptions than people.
Then, when I was 12, my father disappeared for good, along with his child support checks. With five kids to feed, Mom turned her attention to me, the youngest, the one who hadn’t yet outgrown her seemingly imaginary friends. A few clever questions made a true believer out of her. Where I saw souls in distress, she saw dollar signs. In no time at all, the onslaught of threats and bribes reduced me to her unwilling accomplice.
I still shudder at the memory of Mrs. Donaldson’s face when I tearfully told her I wouldn’t tell her son about the box buried in the yard unless she could come up with 100 dollars. She was the first, but not the last, victim of the new order.
Everything I needed throughout high school, from pens and notebooks to lunch money and field trip fees, was paid for by ghosts able to finance their eternal peace. And when there were no ghosts to be found, Mom had no qualms about inventing some and convincing our neighbors I could help their loved ones move on, for the right price. It didn’t take me long to do the math and realize my ability was also contributing to the utility bills, the cat food, and the bottles of liquor that regularly moved into–and just as quickly, out of–our kitchen.
As soon as I had my diploma in hand, I hightailed it out of town and vowed to never so much as speak to a ghost again. Fifteen years and many therapy sessions later, I have a bachelor’s degree in IT and English, a tolerable job in a modern office building, and a ghost free-existence. It’s the closest I’ve ever been to content. A sudden, sinking feeling tells me it’s not going to last much longer.
“Aurora hasn’t moved on.” Colleen’s voice abruptly shakes me from my musings.
“What’s the problem? Hell didn’t want her?”
“You watch your tongue, young lady. Your mother deserves your respect.” The tone of her rebuke is identical to Mom’s. Never mind that I’m well into my 30s, I glare at her like a teenager.
“So, you want me to forgive her so she can find peace?” I spit the words out with all the scorn I can muster. “Not gonna happen.”
Colleen gives an unladylike snort. “She doesn’t require your forgiveness. She forgave herself years ago.” My face flushes with a rage stronger than I care to admit. I make a mental note to bring up the subject, though not the source, with my therapist next week. Sensibly, Colleen doesn’t give me the opportunity to respond. “Before she died, your mother borrowed some money from her church.”
It’s my turn to snort. “You mean ‘stole.’ Mom didn’t believe in borrowing what she could take for herself.”
“She had every intention of returning it!” Colleen’s voice is heated, but I detect a twinge of doubt. “She was the volunteer treasurer. The church appreciated having someone with accounting experience keeping the books.”
“Accounting experience? Only if you count avoiding bill collectors.”
“The pastor was extremely grateful. He took her out to lunch every Sunday.”
“Mom could be charming when she had a reason to be.”
Colleen ignores me and clears her throat. “She wrote herself a few small checks over the last year. But, she died before she could return the money.”
“How much?” I demand.
She looks away. “It doesn’t matter.”
“Of course it matters! Are we talking 40 dollars to cover utilities or a couple hundred for a new flat screen?”
Her voice is barely a whisper. “5,000 dollars.” I didn’t know ghosts could blush, but Colleen’s face is suddenly tinted pink.
“Unbelievable. It’s unbelievable how believable this is. Of course, Mom would steal 5,000 dollars from a church. Nothing is sacred to her; if she can find a way to get her grubby hands on something, it must belong to her.” Could, I remind myself. In my head, she’s as alive and fierce as she was the day I left home.
I stand and begin to pace. I’ve never felt cramped in my cozy apartment before, but after crossing the length of the room, I realize it’s hard to feel dramatic while sidestepping furniture. “What was it for?” The words come out harsher than I intend, but Colleen meets my stare.
“I don’t know. She won’t tell me.”
“You’ve actually spoken to her?” Notwithstanding my aversion to family, the revelation wounds me. Irrationally, I feel as if she’s chosen Mom’s side over mine.
“I’ll never turn away from any granddaughter of mine, no matter what she’s done.” She seems more tigress than ghost now, and it’s me who looks away. “You need to come home to Morriston and set things right. That’s the only way she’ll find peace.” Her presumptuous familial authority makes something inside me flare.
“I don’t need to do a damn thing,” I snap. She arches an eyebrow but makes no response. I run down my hastily assembled list of excuses.
“What about Eric or John? Last I heard, they’re still in town. Let them sort it out.”
She shakes her head. “Your brothers can’t see us. No one alive knows about the money. You’re the only one who can put it back where it belongs.”
I shrug. “The pastor should’ve known better than to trust a notorious liar and alcoholic with the checkbook.”
Colleen’s nostrils flare. “Everyone deserves a second chance.”
“Not her.” My eyes bore into hers. “If you knew as much about us as you think you do, you’d know she’s–she was–well past her second chance.” It’s a direct hit. Her face becomes even more translucent, and the cactus behind her pops into view, imposing itself under her nose. With a smooth motion, she stands.
“If you won’t have pity on your mother, think of the church.” Her voice is tight, and I see with satisfaction that she’s hanging onto control by a thread. “Without the money, the pastor will have to shut down the food kitchen.”
I have vague recollections of driving with Mom to pick up loaves of bread and cereal in the church’s pantry, on the occasions when money was tight but her state of mind was sound. The old ladies dispensing the food would stare stony eyed at Mom, but they always had a smile for me. I feel a stab of discomfort thinking about the bare cupboards. However, Colleen and I have already staked out our opposing positions. Stubbornness won’t allow me to yield any more than it will allow her to beg.
With a vehemence I didn’t realize I still had in me, I say, “Good. She can add that to her guilty conscience .”
“She’s still your mother!”
“And you’re supposed to be my great-grandmother. But a real grandma wouldn’t ask me to go anywhere near her, living or dead.” I yank open my door. “If you don’t want to move on yourself, get out.”
Much to my relief, she exits as gracefully as she arrived. I’ve never had to kick out a ghost before. Would I sprinkle her with holy water or wave silver in her face? Either tactic would more likely produce laughs than results, so I’m grateful not to have to try.
The rest of the evening is a blur. Later that night, thirty minutes after he said he’d be there, Alec arrives. His round face, framed by soft brown curls, lights up when I open the door. The speech I’d prepared about respect for other people’s time dies in my throat. I decide it will have even more impact the inevitable next time he’s late, and it’s banished to the back of my mind, along with all thoughts of family, ghosts, and the ghosts of family.
With much more ease than when we met a year ago, I hop on the back of his motorcycle, and he fastens his helmet under my chin. Before we speed away, my eyes scan the street as warily as a secret agent with a price on her head. However, if they’re out there, Colleen and the assassins stay out of sight. The knot in my stomach begins to unwind, and I circle my arms around Alec, enjoying the feel of his warm body pressed against mine.
Hours later, I sway to the music in the stifling bar, drink in hand. I watch Alec strum his guitar onstage as he searches for me in the crowd. When our eyes meet, the familiar feel of a lightning bolt runs through my body. It’s not a night for self-control, and more drinks follow. The last thing I remember is my head on his shoulder.
Someone is loudly and obnoxiously clearing their throat, again and again. I crack open my eyes, painfully crusted over by sleep. Unfortunately, my arms feel too much like jelly to wipe it away. Instead, I blink furiously.
“Look at you.” With minimal movement, I tilt my chin up, knowing the nausea will hit as soon as I lift my head from the pillow. Surrounded by the light streaming in from the window behind her, Colleen could pass for an angel, were it not for the disgust on her face.
As sensation returns to my limbs, I slowly become aware of what she must see. I’m sprawled on the bed in a shirt with a plunging neckline and jeans so tight they should come with a warning about loss of circulation. I don’t have to look at my pillowcase to know it’s smeared with mascara.
“Just like your mother.” My throat is too dry to defend myself, but my eyes work just fine. I glare at her, now fully awake. “Who’s this, then?” She nods to Alec, shirtless and breathing steadily next to me. In the middle of the bed, his hand covers mine. With a jerk, I pull it away, and he stirs gently. When I don’t answer, Colleen draws her own conclusions. “Isn’t he a little young for you, my dear?”
Her words sting because they mirror my own anxieties. Drawn in by an enthusiasm and energy I could only admire, I was smitten with Alec minutes after meeting him in a dim bar across town. It was only after a couple hours of conversation that I learned he was my junior by seven years and several Nickelodeon cartoon generations. When he came back to my apartment, I assumed it was only for the night. A year later, he claims he’s still unperturbed by my occasional gray hairs. I wish I was as placid about being a cougar.
“You should drink that.” Colleen nods to a glass of water on the nightstand. Alec must have set it out last night. Part of me wants to refuse out of spite, but common sense wins out. I slowly sit up and reach for the glass, fighting my roiling stomach with every movement. Colleen looks on impassively as I sip. When I think I can trust my legs, I slide noiselessly out of bed and stumble into the bathroom. I know Colleen will follow without prompting.
Once the door is safely closed, she doesn’t bother to rehash yesterday’s preamble. “When are we leaving for Morriston?”
I begrudgingly admire her directness, but it doesn’t change my answer. “Do I look like I’m in a state to go anywhere?” I whisper fiercely. “We’re not.”
She clasps her hands. “Charley, I’m loathe to play into stereotypes, but I’m prepared to haunt you until the day you’re one of us.”
“Look, Grandma, your devotion to family is almost inspiring. But the lesson obviously didn’t take because Mom felt no loyalty to anyone, least of all to me. I’ve certainly never brought her any peace before, and I’m not about to start now.”
She shakes her head. “You’re just like her. She was always selfish, too.”
Her eyes drill into mine as the words sink in. I turn towards the mirror and stare at my bloodshot, raccoon eyes. My mother’s eyes. “I’m nothing like her,” I say to the sink. In the mirror, Collen’s mouth says nothing, but her eyes say, prove it.
I’m silent for a long moment. I’m willing to call Colleen’s bluff on the eternal haunting. But, I can’t–won’t–stare at myself in the mirror every morning and see Mom’s eyes. Besides, I rationalize, the world will be a better place once every last bit of her soul is out of it. I raise my chin.
“I’ll go to Morriston, and I’ll sort out the money. But you tell her to stay the hell away from me. I don’t want to see so much as her ghostly pinky finger.”
She exhales, apparently too relieved to comment on my language. No “thank you” is forthcoming, but I settle for her deep, slow nod.
A knock on the door makes me jump. “Babe, everything ok?”
I splash some water on my face and open the door. “Just fine.”
A cheery and bright-eyed Alec gives me a peck on the forehead. “Come into the kitchen. I made coffee.”
Not only is there coffee, but I smell bread browning in the toaster and the beginnings of scrambled eggs in the frying pan. “This is a nice surprise.” Almost too nice. “Are we celebrating something?”
“You know.” He puts his hands on my hips and draws me close to him. “You finally said it.”
“Said what?” My hungover brain struggles to sort through the jumbled images that make up my memory of the last twelve hours.
“You know what.”
I give a weak chuckle. “I’ve got nothing.”
“You love me.” He grins smugly before going in for a kiss. My eyes widen. In the corner, Colleen arches an eyebrow and raises a hand to cover an amused smile.
“Uh, when did I say that?”
He shakes his head with a smile. “Don’t try to deny it. Last night, before you fell asleep.” I glance at Colleen, who nods in confirmation. We’re going to have to have a talk about boundaries in the near future.
“Oh, right. That.” Not for the first time, I have no recollection of a conversation from the previous night. The nausea returns with a vengeance. As he releases me to attend to the eggs, he starts to hum.
“Alec, not that again,” I groan, but it’s too late. He launches into the first verse of one of his original compositions, “Charley, I love you:”
I met you one night at the Wishing Well.
I knew you were fine, and I nearly fell
Into your arms ‘cause I tripped on the mic.
Sure glad you didn’t tell me to take a hike.
My face turns beet red. I look back and forth between my boyfriend, using the spatula as a microphone, and my great-grandmother, doubled over in laughter. I’m not sure which of us I’m most embarrassed for. He continues without shame:
Charley, I love you, ooo.
Say you love me too, ooo.
Charley, I love you, ooo.
Say you love me too, ooo.
I snatch the spatula. “I hope you have some better material for the music producers.”
“That’s what you said last spring. And then you called me an immature punk who never outgrew his garage band.” He brings the dishes over to the table with a wicked smile. “But this time, you love this immature punk, too, ooo.” He grins, I sigh, and we sit down to breakfast.
I’m not very good conversation this morning. My mind is a hundred miles away in Morriston. I don’t even notice when Colleen slides into the chair between us until she snaps her fingers in my face. “The punk, oh, pardon me, the talented young musician asked you a question.” I narrow my eyes at her for an instant before turning to Alec.
“What was that?”
As always, there’s no trace of annoyance in his voice. “I said, what are we doing today? I was thinking, we take a walk, pop into–”
“That sounds great, but I have to run an errand.”
“Cool, I’ll come. Where are we going?”
I wave him off. “That’s okay. It’s on the other side of town.”
Alec knows better than to push the point. “Alright, I’m gonna scoot.”
I repress a sigh. This isn’t the first time we’ve been down this road . “You don’t have to go right this second.”
Today, however, he shakes his head vigorously. The gesture makes his long curls look like they’re on a merry-go-round. “Might as well. You’re just gonna kick me out when you decide I’ve gotten too close.” There’s a clang as he drops his dishes into the sink. “You always keep me at arm’s length. You’re not down to talk about the past. Fine, I get that. That’s your deal. But you won’t talk about the future either. You won’t say if you’ll show up at the fest I’m playing next month. You can’t decide if you want me to move in when my lease is up. Dude, you won’t even tell me if I can take you out for your birthday next week!”
He wrestles with his next words, and they come out slower, more hesitant. “Sometimes, you stare off into space, like you’re on a different planet. Like you’re listening to something no one else can hear. And when I ask you to tell me about it, you say I’m crazy. But I hear things, too. I hear music, and as soon as it pops into my head, I can’t wait to show you.” He turns away from me. “You know how I feel about you. But maybe it’s not about that. Maybe it’s about trust. And I don’t know what else I can do to earn yours.”
I blink in stunned silence. If he could channel this eloquence into his music, he’d be a chart topper. He grabs his backpack, discarded the night before, and heads for the door. Before he reaches it, he turns to me. “I love you.” It’s a test, and we both know it.
It surprises neither of us when I fail. In this moment, I’m incapable of getting those words–or any words–out of my mouth. Kind as ever, he doesn’t let me struggle for very long. “Maybe next time, you’ll mean it.” He smiles, but there’s nothing cheery about it. The door closes behind him. I imagine this is what it feels like to kick a puppy.
“What a shame. He seemed like a nice young man.” Colleen stares at
his empty chair.
“I thought he was too young for me,” I snarl as I get up and slam the bathroom door.
An hour later, Colleen’s glowering looks become more than even my stubbornness can bear, and we set out in my car, heading south towards Morriston. I gaze enviously at the cars flying through the carpool lane. They don’t know how lucky they are to have passengers the traffic cops can see.
Colleen’s mouth twists in dislike when the radio begins to blare the screeching teenybopper du jour. “Dear, can we listen to something else? The noise is giving me a headache.” I’m not a fan either, but that doesn’t stop me from smirking and shaking my head.
“Driver’s choice.” With a scowl, she tries to push the different radio control buttons. Tries, because her fingers go right through them. Too late, I stifle a laugh. She mutters something that might almost be a curse under her breath.
But I’m not allowed to savor my small victory for long. She starts to hum, and before I can protest, she launches into song. “Charley, I love you, ooo. Say you love me too, ooo.”
She grows louder and louder until I think my ears will start to bleed. “Dammit, Colleen!” I don’t bother to mutter. With more force than strictly necessary, I turn off the radio. “Happy?”
“Much better.” She sighs contentedly.
“So, you can sit on furniture, but you can’t press buttons?” I’ve never before had the opportunity to interrogate a ghost on the finer points of their state of being. As long as we’re stuck together, there are more than a few things I’ve always wondered about.
“The afterlife doesn’t come with an instruction manual.” Her tone doesn’t invite any follow-up questions. I raise a hand in defeat. It appears family bonding is not on the afternoon agenda. Fine by me.
After a moment, she crosses her arms and frowns. “There’s a limit to how much each of us can interact with the physical world. It would appear that sitting in a car talking to you is my upper limit.”
With a quick glance at her face, I realize her brusque reply stems from frustration with her limitations, not my question. Still, I’m not about to step into another ghostly conversational minefield. I manage a simple, “Oh,” and we lapse into silence.
The quiet doesn’t bother me, but Colleen doesn’t let it last long. “Why don’t you confide in your young man about your ability?” Fortunately, my eyes are fixed on the road, so she can’t see them go wide with surprise. I pretend to consider changing lanes to buy myself a moment. I’m torn between a vicious “None of your business” and bursting into tears. I settle for the truth.
“I’ve thought about it.” I want to tell Alec more than I’ve ever wanted to tell anyone. I think about the way he squeezes my hand whenever I mention anything that upsets or saddens me. I want to believe he wouldn’t let go if I could force out the truth about the ghosts, Collen’s demand, and the fear that’s been growing inside me ever since I agreed to return to Morriston. “But my track record for this particular secret isn’t exactly stellar.” The laughs, sneers, and concerned expressions from the handful of siblings and friends I’ve confided in over the years flash through my mind. I imagine Alec’s face among them and tighten my grip on the steering wheel. “At best, people think I’m joking, and at worst, they think I’m crazy.”
“Except for Aurora.” I remember Mom’s face when she realized the truth. A shudder runs through me.
“And look how that turned out.” I shake my head. “It’s better this way.” Ignorance is bliss, for both our sakes.
I assume the conversation is over, but once again, Colleen surprises me. “I never told Billy.” The words come out unnaturally, and her face is turned towards the window, away from me. I’m not the only one unaccustomed to–and uncomfortable with–sharing secrets. “He’s your great-grandfather. I was afraid he would ship me off to an asylum. Never mind that he would have starved along with the children if I wasn’t around. The man couldn’t scramble an egg.” She gives a wry chuckle. “Then, he had that heart attack, and just like that, he was gone. Maybe if he had known that I could…known that it didn’t have to be goodbye…” After a while, she says, “I always regretted it.” Part of me bristles at the unsolicited counsel, but unexpectedly, a larger part of me appreciates the perspective. I bite back a stinging retort and simply nod.
What could have been a touching, intergenerational moment is ruined when a truck cuts in front of us, forcing me to slam on the brakes. I honk the horn twice for good measure. “Watch it, asshole!” I look over at Colleen. “You okay?” Her face is tinged red as a tomato, and her fists are balled. For an instant, I wonder if it’s my language that’s upset her.
“Oh, I’m perfectly fine. But he won’t be, that beastly, nasty son of a–” With the gracefulness of a women half her age, or, what would have been her age, she leaps out of her seat and out of the car, right through the windshield. One instant, she stands on the hood of my car, and the next, she launches herself at the back of the truck. She passes through as if it’s made of air. All I can do is blink and wonder if ghosts show up on video. If so, I’d have a viral hit on my hands.
Moments later, the truck careens towards an exit. As it turns, a cell phone flies out the window. I see Colleen gliding down the highway. She steps through the passenger door and settles into her seat.
I gape at her. “What did you do?”
She sniffs. “Anyone who nearly kills my granddaughter deserves a good scare. And nothing frightens humans like things they can’t control.” She smiles, vaguely resembling a peacock. “I may not understand how you make these gadgets and whatnot work, but even I can figure out what they’re not supposed to do. The gentleman in the truck witnessed his electronics getting a little…groovy.”
I turn a laugh into a cough. “Grandma, we don’t really say that anymore.”
She shrugs. “He was singing along to that same, awful song we heard earlier.” She examines her fingers. “This time, I had no problem turning the dial.” The two of us burst out laughing as I make my turn into Morriston.
The roads are exactly as I remember them. Hilly and poorly paved, I can still feel every twist in my bones, and I smile despite myself as I lean into the curves. The signs for the post office, the gas station, and the grocery store are missing a few more letters, but it’s comforting to see they’re all right where I left them. Before I can get too nostalgic, however, old Mrs. Donaldson’s yard appears on the horizon, quickly followed by a closed down factory and the high school’s bleachers, cliché site of my first kiss. I push the warm and fuzzy feelings back down where they belong.
Nothing is very far apart in Morriston, and a few minutes later, I pull into Mom’s dirt driveway. When I see no other cars in sight, I exhale a breath I didn’t realize I was holding. There will be no awkward reunions, at least for now.
I catch sight of the old tree behind the house, and for just a moment, I allow myself to feel the surge of adrenaline that would flow through me when I raced my brothers to the top. I’m pleased to see Mom never followed through on her threats to cut it down.
I ball my fists and dig my nails into my palms, a reminder to focus on the present. The house has seen better days. The paint is so chipped now that it’s hard to tell it was once a pleasant sea green. However, considering the age of the paint and its likely lead content, perhaps that’s for the best.
I stride towards the door and am not surprised to find it unlocked. Morriston is the kind of place where people don’t lock their doors–but not because they trust the community. Everyone knows there’s just nothing of value to steal.
The one-story house is larger on the inside than its decrepit exterior suggests. As my eyes adjust to the darkness, I fumble through the rooms and see a different kind of ghost. In the kitchen, Joe and I eat cereal and watch Saturday morning cartoons. In the living room, Eric and Kevin prance around in homemade felt hats, armed with swords made of folded newspaper. On the porch, all five of us are gathered around Mom as she tells a story, each character passing across her animated face in turn. The surge of long-forgotten memories brings with it the sensation of life returning slowly, painfully, to frozen fingers after too long in the snow. I had thought it was my choice to never again call Morriston home. But now, surrounded by the ghosts of my own making, the place seems to be choosing me, not the other way around.
Instinctively, Colleen stays a room behind me. I don’t ask her where Mom is, but my heart skips a beat every time I turn a corner. I breathe easily only after seeing for myself that she’s nowhere to be found. How Collen communicated my stipulation to Mom, I can’t figure out. Remembering her struggle with my radio, I’m fairly certain she didn’t borrow my cell phone. Do ghosts gain psychic abilities when they die? I decide to save that question for later.
When I reach the living room, I stifle a groan. Haphazardly stacked piles of official-looking forms, medical records, and assorted legal documents cover nearly every surface of furniture. Fighting a rising wave of despair, I wonder if I’ll be a ghost myself before I get through it all.
I grit my teeth and set to work. Sorting through the giant mounds of papers takes almost as long as I feared. Once that’s done, I make several phone calls to the bank, leave a voicemail for my brother John, and endure a brief conversation with cousin Donnie, the family’s all-purpose attorney for births, deaths, and arrests.
The signs of Donnie’s future career were evident early on. While my brothers and I would be sent to bed without dinner for whatever mischief we’d caused, Donnie always managed to sweet talk his way out of any scrape and still get a helping of his mother’s apple pie. His silver tongue didn’t endear him to me then, and I certainly don’t appreciate it now.
Before I can hang up on him, Donnie provides some unsolicited legal advice, voice dripping with smugness. “You should really think about doing some estate planning of your own. You saw what happened to your mom. It’s never too early to start. I’d be happy to set up a meeting–”
“See you at the next funeral, Donnie.” Unlike stubbornness or paranormal abilities, tact doesn’t run in the family.
Nevertheless, at last, the 5,000 dollars are on their way back to where they belong. As I hang up, I imagine Mom poofing into the hereafter, unfinished business finally completed. Goodbye and good riddance.
I wander back into the living room and find Colleen examining the dusty collection of family photos. They’ve been arranged on a small table in the corner. She’s holding a picture of great-great granny Charlotte, her mother and my namesake. Curious, I ask, “Am I anything like her?”
I’m strangely disappointed when she shakes her head no. Maybe Colleen notices the slight droop in my shoulders because after a beat, she adds, “You’re much more outspoken than she would ever have dreamed a woman could be. Once she recovered from the shock, she’d be proud.” We share a smile. Then, tentatively, “Is it done?”
I nod. “She should be halfway to–” I catch myself just in time. “–wherever she’s going.”
Colleen closes her eyes. “Thank you.”
As this morning’s scene in the kitchen reminds me, I’m no good at emotional moments. As usual, I make it awkward. “Yeah, sure. No problem.” While looking anywhere but at her, it dawns on me that this is likely the last time I’ll stand in my childhood home. Suddenly, the room feels very small and is growing tinier by the moment. I’m having trouble catching my breath. “If we’re done here, I’m gonna…scoot.” Impassive, Colleen watches me back out of the room. “Good luck with whatever unfinished business you’ve got going on, and if you need me, er, you know.” My clammy hand finally finds the doorknob.
“Goodbye, Charley. It was a pleasure to meet you.”
“Uh huh. You, too. See you later.” I step outside, inhaling the deepest breath I’ve ever taken. Air has never tasted so sweet. I take one last look at the tree in the yard and then, before I can change my mind, I’m putting the car in reverse and literally–not metaphorically–looking out the rearview window.
I don’t even make it to the bottom of the driveway before Colleen dashes out of the house, a frantic look on her face. “Charley! Charley, wait!” My heart sinks. I can add “psychic” to my list of intangible family heirlooms, because I already know what she’s going to say. I open the window and brace myself as she approaches. “She hasn’t moved on. It wasn’t enough.” The side mirror shows I’m almost as pale as Colleen.
“Maybe the check just needs to clear,” I suggest hopefully, knowing as well as she does that it doesn’t work that way. Colleen shakes her head. My confusion turns to anger. “What the hell am I supposed to do? You said she forgave herself, so she clearly doesn’t need me!”
“It’s your choice.” Colleen stares at me without expression, betraying not a trace of her earlier insistence.
I grasp the steering wheel until my knuckles turn white. If I leave now, my life–the life I’ve worked hard to build for myself–continues on as it has: jogs by the pier, cereal for dinner, and, if he ever speaks to me again, late-night concerts and eggs in the morning with Alec. No ghosts, no painful memories, no uncomfortable reunions. And yet…Mom and Morriston will always be there, haunting the back of my mind, just like they have for the last fifteen years.
With arms that no longer feel like my own, I kill the engine and open the door. Colleen asks, “Do you want me to accompany you?” I nod stiffly, oddly comforted. This time, she leads the way. I was far from happy when I walked into the house earlier, but the second time around, I feel like a condemned prisoner taking her final steps to the gallows.
This time, the living room isn’t empty. The light streaming through the dirty window illuminates someone–well, a former someone–bearing little resemblance to the woman who raised me. It’s all I can do not to gasp. Her frame, once sturdy and curvy, is now mostly bones covered by sagging, translucent skin. She was always proud of her perfectly straight blonde locks, but now, they’re streaked with gray and hang in long, unkempt clumps. Her jeans are torn, and she wears an oversized plaid shirt. During my brief plaid phase in high school, I often heard her say she wouldn’t be caught dead in one. The irony isn’t lost on me.
“Charlotte.” Her voice, however, is as steady as it ever was.
“Mom.” I try to summon all the things I’ve said to her over the years, in therapy, in my head, to anyone but her. But my mind goes blank. My feet tingle, urging me to flee the room. I’ve anticipated and feared a dramatic confrontation for so long, and it’s almost a disappointment to settle for a painfully awkward silence. Together, we stare helplessly at Colleen.
She comes to the rescue with more grandmotherly warmth than I’d have thought she had in her. “Aurora, why don’t you tell us why you think it is you haven’t moved on?”
Mom crosses her arms and turns toward the window. “Damned if I know.”
Without missing a beat, I add, “My thoughts exactly.” Colleen’s glares flicker back and forth between the two of us, as she tries to decide if she’s more upset by Mom’s language or my disrespect.
With visible effort, she sticks to the matter at hand. “My dear, should you send a message to your pastor? Perhaps an apology is in order.”
Mom snorts. “He’ll forgive me. It’s his job.” She takes a seat in her favorite reclining chair and rests her head in her hands, looking bored. There’s the mom I recognize.
Collen’s patience is apparently not infinite, and her tone grows curt. “Aurora, what was the money for?”
I too have had enough of the guessing game. I answer for her. “What’s it always been for? Booze. Whiskey, vodka, whatever she could get her hands on.” I turn to Mom, letting loose the decades of hurt and anger I’ve tried–and failed–to dispel. “The pain meds didn’t get you high enough? It wasn’t enough to give yourself liver cancer, you had to take a few more shots to finish the job? You’ll never change!” I correct myself. “You never changed. And now, it’s too late.” I whirl around to make my way to the door.
“That’s enough, young lady!” With a speed that can only be described as supernatural, Colleen appears in front of me, hand raised as if to slap me. Before she can strike, she remembers she’s dead and glowers instead.
I can’t help smirking. In her former life, it would have been Mom standing in front of me, and she wouldn’t have held back. Now, Mom answers my outburst with a whisper. “It was for you, Charley.”
Maybe it’s the unfamiliar warmth in her tone or the name I spent years begging her to use, but the earth seems to shift beneath my feet. I abandon all thoughts of the door and instead fall into a torn loveseat. “Me? I don’t need the money.”
“Damn right you don’t. I raised you to take care of yourself.” There’s a flash of the woman I knew before Mom 2.0 takes over. She bites her lip and clasps her hands. “It was to pay for your…missions.” Not for the first time today, the moment has me at a loss for words. “I felt bad, okay?” Mom starts to pace, staring at the ground. “Now that I’m dead and stuck here, I realize I probably shouldn’t have…you know…”
Her eyes narrow at me. “Tried to feed my family with your ability.” She takes a deep, unnecessary breath. “There should have been another way. I should have found another way. I’m sorry, Charley.” I can almost hear the crack of hell freezing over. Never have I ever heard my mother apologize to anyone, for anything, including the time she ran over John’s cat.
“I don’t know much about your fancy life in the city–” Her use of the word “fancy” suggests as much. “–but I guess I figured it wouldn’t be enough after a while.”
She takes a long look out the window, and I see she’s not just talking about me. “You were never the same after I got between you and the damn ghosts.” I hadn’t realized she’d even noticed the change in my personality, never mind cared. “I thought if you had some extra cash, you might want to take some time off, travel around a bit, and go back to, you know, poof. Turns out, there’s a lot of us hanging around. Some of them are pretty desperate to get on with it.”
Mom risks a look at me. “I thought I’d have more time to get everything squared away, but…” She gestures to the mountains of papers and shrugs.
“Um, thanks,” I stammer. Hand drawn up to her face, Colleen seems as taken aback as I am. Just when I think she’s done, Mom continues, making this the longest speech I’ve ever heard her give.
“I was so proud of you.” My mouth drops open, and she’s quick to correct herself. “Not back then. I thought you were weird. Figured you got that from your dad.” I’m not too overcome to roll my eyes. “But I get it now. The seeing, the listening, the helping–it was a part of you. And I killed it.” She buries her head in her hands. “I’ve done a lot of crap to a lot of people over the years. You kids were no exception. When I was dying, John was still going on about his damn cat.” She smiles wryly. “I never claimed to be mother of the year. But you don’t get much worse than shitting on what makes your kid special.” She takes a faltering step towards me. “I had to at least try to remind you of who you were. If it’s not too late.”
Almost shyly, her eyes meet mine. A flippant retort disappears from the tip of my tongue. Instead, tears stream down my cheeks. I’m not the only one, but a peculiar Reilly sense of pride and privacy makes all of us look away as we try to stop the waterworks.
When I can trust my voice not to crack, I whisper, “It’s not too late.” I don’t realize it’s the truth until the words are out of my mouth.
Immediately, Mom starts to shimmer, and she examines her hands wonderingly. Colleen gives me a meaningful look and whispers, “This is it.” Years of ghostly interactions have at least made me an expert in these kinds of moments. This time, I pass the test.
“I love you, Mom.”
Her kiss is cool and soft on my forehead. “If you tell anyone the last thing I said was ‘sorry,’ I’ll turn right around and haunt you forever.” With one more smile, she poofs.
“Where will you go now, Colleen?” We stand by my car, dancing around the awkwardness of our goodbye. I fidget with my scarf, trying to repel the chill in the air. Winter has arrived in Morriston in the hours since I returned.
“Oh, here and there. Even at my advanced age, there’s plenty of places left to see. Travel becomes much more affordable when you don’t eat or sleep, and can stow away to just about anywhere.” The image of Colleen squeezing herself into an overhead compartment on an airplane makes me snort.
Before she can ask what’s so funny, something catches my eye. In unison, we turn to see someone walking up the driveway. His long, white hair is held back by a bandana, and dark sunglasses cover his face. Tattooed biceps protrude from a leather vest that looks like it’s seen more of the country than I ever will. Or rather, saw more the country. When he’s close enough, I see the vest is just as translucent as the rest of him.
“Pumpkin? Ready to go?” His husky drawl isn’t addressed to me.
“Dan! What are you doing here? I thought we agreed to meet at the bus terminal.” Colleen’s face has grown pink, and his appearance seems to have robbed her of her steely composure.
“I couldn’t stand to be away from my girl for another second.” He grasps her hand and kisses it.
She tries, unsuccessfully, to turn a giggle into a cough. “Charley, I’d like to introduce you to Dan. Dan, this is my great-granddaughter, Charley.” I almost extend a hand but catch myself. We nod at each other instead. The biker smiles pleasantly, and I see he couldn’t have been a day over 50 when he died. Colleen squeezes his hand. “Boo Boo, give us just a minute.” She sounds more like an infatuated teenager than a grandmother.
“Anything you say, pumpkin.” He gives her a kiss and walks away to examine the rust bucket that was formerly a car parked behind the house.
“Boo Boo? Pumpkin?” I can’t contain my glee at the turned tables. “Grandma! And you think I’m a cradle robber? I guess I’m a chip off the old block.”
I didn’t think ghosts could flush any redder than Colleen already is, but she proves me wrong. “But–he’s–we’re–” She stutters before giving up. “At least he doesn’t make up ridiculous songs about me.”
“Touché.” The moment sobers.
“What will you do now, dear?” I know she’s not asking about the rest of my afternoon.
Memories of Mrs. Donaldson and the ghosts of my youth flash through my mind, competing with visions of gas stations, empty highways, and tacky roadside diners. My eyes wander towards the tree in the yard. At the thought of never seeing it again, an ache fills my body. Whichever possibility I look towards, Alec lurks in the corner of each, waiting and smiling.
“Maybe I’ll come home for a bit. Just for a little while,” I add hurriedly, before Colleen can say she told me so. “I could help John clean out the house and tidy things up. Then, maybe I’ll hit the road, like Mom wanted.” I’m struck by a sudden fancy for a leather vest as worn as Dan’s.
“I’m sure your brother would appreciate the help with your mother’s affairs.” She pauses. “While you’re here and traveling the world out there, perhaps you’d look into some other kinds of unfinished business.” Colleen is biting her tongue, and it shows. Even so, there’s no mistaking her meaning.
I mull the thought of conversing with ghosts again. My heart doesn’t race at the idea, and my palms remain cool and dry. After a moment, I nod. “Pro bono, this time.”
Her face relaxes a fraction. “And perhaps there’s someone who would like to accompany you on these forthcoming travels?” Subtlety really doesn’t suit her.
“None of your business, Grandma!” I smile. “But I hope so.”
She takes a step closer. “I’ll visit you next time I’m passing through, if…”
“I’d like that.” She leans in to hug me. Then, we discover another one of her limitations as she falls right through me.
I sit in my car a long while after Colleen and Dan walk into the horizon, staring at the phone in my hand. When I’ve run out of excuses, I force my fingers to dial Alec’s number. I’m relieved when it goes to voicemail. If I’m going to ruin another emotional moment with awkwardness, at least it won’t be because I was interrupted. After the tone, I do my best to match his declaration this morning in sentiment, if not eloquence. Before I hang up, I say, “I’m on my way home. I’m ready to talk, about the past, the future, and the festival next month, if you still want me there. I’ll see you soon.” I take a deep breath. “I love you.”
Elyse Kallen is a Chicago-based creative writer, avid photographer, amateur genealogist, and collector of an unhealthy number of hobbies. In addition to short stories, she writes plays and sheds light on overlooked and offbeat history at secondglancehistory.com.