“It’s an old building,” Becky said, when Peter asked her.
“Do you get them in your apartment, too?”
She’d given him a look, then, as if she thought he was trying to score an invite... [+]
A little girl. Why is it always a little girl?
The light through the window is barely enough to see by, but the sky outside is very pale. Clouds slide by, fast and smooth as water down a drain. She's there, sitting on the edge of my bed, reading a book. She looks so real that somehow I can't be scared. She looks so peaceful that I can't bring myself to disturb her—to speak up and ask her what she wants. I watch her, quietly, from the landing, until my eyes water. Eventually, I can't focus anymore and I have to blink, and in that instant she and her book are gone, the bed covers undisturbed as if she was never there.
Sometimes I feel like I'm going out of my mind. When I'm alone, watching TV at night in the light-bulb bubble of the front room, and I hear the patter of running footsteps overhead; then a shiver trickles down between my shoulder-blades and I can almost muster being spooked. But mostly, she's in daylight. A flick of long brown hair at the edge of my vision, that familiar little figure disappearing through a doorway into thin spring sunlight. Like she's gone, but she never fully left.
I don't tell anyone. What could I say? How can I explain this, everything, when the only people who'd even halfway understand are the ones who've survived it, too?
People visit, but, like a cat, she stays away when it's not just me in the house. Maybe I should feel flattered. Maybe I should conclude that she's all in my imagination. My friend Luke comes over most often. I've known him a long time. Not from childhood, not from before, but still—for over a decade. He's around every couple of weeks or so, sitting on the couch while we marathon sci-fi B-movies, or eat Friday night take-out, or drink a few beers before we go to the pub. One day, I catch him staring and I wonder if that's how my face looked when I saw her for the first time, too. "Johnny..."
I still don't want to say anything—to ask him anything leading. I follow his line of vision out into the hall, to where she's standing by the stairs, clear as a newspaper headline.
"Who's that?" He sounds freaked out. Perhaps he's unnerved because there's suddenly a strange kid there in the house of someone he knows doesn't have any kids. But I know that's not it. I can feel the undercurrent of fright prickling off him like static electricity. He feels it, too.
"You see her?" I keep my eyes on her, afraid to blink in case she disappears. I want this proof, but more than that, I don't want her to disappear.
"Yeah," says Luke softly. "I see her." The room is so quiet that I can hear the tiny wet click of his throat as he swallows. "How long has she... been here, with you?"
"Always, I think." I know as I say it that it's true. The girl trails one small hand up and down the stairs' banister. She looks about to turn and leave. I say, "Emma?" It feels weird saying that name out loud. Luke doesn't know my birth-name. The girl looks up sharply, like she's surprised I still know it.
I feel like I should be frightened or hate her. Like I should want to call in a priest to exorcise the house, to say prayers over me and douse me in Holy Water like a possessed man in a film, so she's gone forever, no part of her remaining. No ghost in me. What I feel instead is that I want to protect her.
"Who is she?" Luke's voice wavers.
"Who was she, you mean?"
"Right." He swallows once more. "She's dead."
"She's not dead," I say. She looks up then. It's the first time she's ever looked directly at me. Her eyes are brown, and so like mine that it's impossible not to recognize myself in them. She smiles, and she flutters me a little wave, and I realize that I love her. I love her so much. "She's just... moved on."