To see her return in this way. Is it any worse than losing her altogether? I don’t know.
My hands are shaking. I can barely…
The more she lingers, the more I wonder if this is really her.
The bright blue eyes are watching, always watching.
They are her eyes.
But she’s not in them.
We are more than bodies. Aren’t we?
I thought her body was gone, forever. And I thought it had taken the rest of her with it.
But it’s not gone.
Some of her parts still cling to mortal life.
I lived on a quiet street.
So when I heard that scream, I froze. My pen suspended over the page, my breath held, I slowly turned my ear in the direction of the sound, waiting. It wasn’t a child screaming out of fun or frustration. It wasn’t the scream of someone who had just dropped a glass jar on the floor, a momentary but manageable fright. I’d heard those before. They were familiar and harmless.
This scream was breathless. This scream was panicked, even a little anguished.
And it was followed by a curse. I moved to my front door to hear.
“…the hell is it?” someone said.
“Come back inside. Just come back inside,” said another voice. An urgent whisper.
I heard a door close.
I opened mine.
And I looked out onto the nighttime street just as a man ran past. I didn’t see his face. I couldn’t tell if he was running from something. Or just running.
I walked in the direction he’d come from, keeping inside the wide shafts of light cast by the street lamps.
And I saw a sight that might draw a breathless scream, an anguished scream.
Under the street lamp there hovered a hazy human form made of light and shadow that faded beyond the soft borders of the lamplight. But within that form, solid as I was, the orbs of two eyes floated within the outline of a head. The irises were blue, a light milky blue, more like a flower petal than a human eye. The mouth was pink and parted, forming soundless words, for there was no tongue or throat to utter sound. And resting in the chest, a beating heart that hung like a pendant from vessels that stretched to where the neck would be.
Strange, yet so familiar.
By reflex, I called her name.
She started drifting toward me. She had no body, and so it seemed she didn’t quite know how to move. She wobbled, her whole head swaying on the neck in ways that no living human head sways.
I went still. Some primal part of my brain commanded my limbs to lock until the danger passed.
But she did not pass.
She came straight for me.
My arms started to shake. My legs. My heart quickened. It was thrumming, trying to do what my legs could not do.
My breaths dragged. The air I pulled in burned my throat. My lungs wouldn’t fill.
My legs gave way, and I collapsed to the ground, one elbow hitting stone.
She wobbled closer and closer. She leaned down. I opened my mouth but my throat caught. And my lungs had no breath to give force to any sound. My sight dimmed at the margins. I saw only shadows. I felt hot, too hot.
I closed my eyes.
I remembered something touching my forehead.
A soft pair of lips.
Living arms pulled me to my feet.
A man. He was with two women. One of them told me she would call for help, but I stopped her. In a voice more forceful than I expected to manage, I assured them I lived close by, and was steady enough to make it home. I lied and assured them there were plenty of hands to help me at home.
I lied and told them I’d just tripped. My sincere embarrassment and the sudden surge of vitality I displayed was convincing enough.
I went home, and dreamt of white orbs drifting in the dark.
One such encounter could be dismissed. Hallucination. Imagination. Made manifest by a confluence of causes.
I had many causes to see what I thought I’d seen.
But then there was another night.
And a third.
People began to avoid the end of the street.
No, at first, there were a curious few who wanted to see for themselves what others had seen by happenstance. But there was something sickening about the corner, I mean truly sickening to the body. If one drew near, it became difficult to breathe or to see, difficult to control one’s limbs, to speak. And there was a sensation. Not pain. But a throbbing of the heart and the head that felt unsettling in its forcefulness, as if those organs might soon burst.
I would go as close as I could manage without passing out.
I tried to speak to her. I asked her to gesture. Carelessly, I asked her to blink in response before I caught myself. She could not blink. Her eyes had no lids.
“Why have you come here?” I asked.
She couldn’t tell me. She had lips but no voice. She had eyes but no brain.
She had a heart that beat as strongly as it did in life. It was always the strongest part of her, and it tried, but it couldn’t keep her here.
Or so I had thought.
I had thought I would feel some measure of relief, from knowing that she was no longer in pain. And some measure of guilt in feeling that relief.
The guilt arrived and settled in. But not the relief.
She had been so lively in her last hours. More lively than she’d been in months. It was as if she had been floating irrevocably down the path leading to death, but all of a sudden, she’d been granted the strength to divert herself from that path, to take a detour, a secret escape, toward life.
Sometimes, horror lies in hope.
The anxious fluttering in my heart had paused for a sweet golden hour. My eyes caught the tiniest of details. A flush of color in her cheeks, where before there was a paleness so severe that her skin seemed bloodless. A loudness in her laughter that leaped above the mere whispers she’d uttered before.
I was on the verge of letting myself feel hope. I had opened the door to it, just a tiny bit and said, “Give me a moment.”
But hope is not shy. If you open the door, even just a crack, it will try to come in.
Its eager little fingers reached through the door. I knew I should stop it, tell it to wait, just wait a bit longer. But I didn’t. The door opened wider.
And then I received the message that she was gone.
Something shifted out of place in my chest then. The walls of my heart skewed and pulsed out of rhythm, pulling, straining against new weights, all hanging heavy, and so slippery that I could not throw them off.
Every door that lay before me closed. And I heard the locks and bolts sliding into place.
I would never move from where I stood in that moment.
I returned to that arcane corner of the street during the day. She wasn’t there. And neither was that dread sensation of feeling all my vitality draining out of me.
I returned to that arcane corner of the street at night. She was there. I retreated if she drifted in my direction. I watched her. She watched me.
I couldn’t just leave her there. But I didn’t know what to do.
Ghosts linger for many reasons, it’s said. One of those reasons is unfinished business.
Had anyone else seen her? Was her unfinished business with me?
But we had said our goodbyes. And we had agreed to meet on the other side of death, if there was anything of us that survived the end of our bodies.
“You can go,” I called out to her. “We release you. I release you.”
She had no ears, and yet the sound of my voice seemed to catch her attention. Maybe the waves of sound had reached her naked heart.
She moved toward me. Whenever she passed out of the light, the rest of her went dark. All I saw were the blue and white orbs of her eyes staggering through the air.
What does she want? Why won’t she go? Why does she linger?
I came at twilight, hoping that I would see her approach, hoping that her coming would bring me some clue.
What was I to do for her?
Must I be as useless to her after death as I was to her when she still lived?
I waited, pacing the street as the sky darkened, glancing in every direction, so I would not miss those eyes approaching, and that heart beating without purpose, the blood it pumped fading into vapor.
I waited after full dark fell, drawing my scarf around my neck, pulling on gloves, still glancing in every direction. But for the first time since I’d first seen her, she wasn’t there.
I waited for a further hour. It was growing cold, too cold to stand out on the street for much longer. I started walking back home, glancing back a few times.
When I turned the corner, I felt a pang in my heart.
It was the pang of missing someone.
It wasn’t right for me to want her back in that form that she had not chosen, for how could she have chosen without her mind present to do the choosing? That thought tickled a memory, something just out of reach.
Carry on, she had told me, told all of us.
I would in time, but…maybe the time was now.
By the time I reached my front door, I had stopped glancing about.
With my keys in the lock, I felt eyes on me.
I looked to my right, peering into the shadows beyond the light that hung over my door.
Eyes emerged from those shadows. And lips that parted but made no sound. A beating heart floating in a membranous mist of blood.
She wobbled toward me.
I gasped and opened my front door. I had time to close it against her.
And what would have happened then?
Would the ghostly parts of her have made it through? Or would they be anchored outside by the living parts?
I wouldn’t know. I left the door open.
And she drifted inside.
I kept my distance, watching her.
She watched me.
I reached for the door and closed it.
She did not drift toward me.
She drifted to the window on the far wall. It was night now, but during the day, sunlight streamed through the window. On rainy days, rain drummed and ran in twinkling trickles down that window.
And when the moon was out, she cast her soft light through that window.
The orbs of those eyes lingered by that window. But they didn’t look out. They looked at me.
At last the tears swelled and coursed down my face.
She was not some ghastly specter in the street.
I had seen those eyes gazing through my window before. I’d seen those lips smiling out at the sparrows flitting around a thorny bush, pecking at seeds.
I had seen those lips moving, sound coming out, telling me the weeds in my garden were actually quite pretty.
I sniffed and wiped my eyes with the heel of my hand.
“What now?” I said. “We’ll both stay in here, together?”
She didn’t answer, of course.
She floated toward me, and I backed away.
“You told us to carry on without you. Are you here because I haven’t done that?”
It was dim in my front room. I could see her hazy faded yellow shoulders, the tops of her arms, her head, even strands of hair.
“But you’ve only been gone for—why have you come to me like this? Because I haven’t done as you wished?”
I gasped. That memory my mind could not quite grasp before, when I remembered her words, her last hope for everyone she loved, I caught it now.
My hands began to shake. “No.”
I rushed up the stairs to my bedroom, stopping at the top of the stairs to watch for her.
The blue and white orbs of her eyes rose above the staircase. The beating heat followed.
I turned and burst through the bedroom door. I yanked open the drawers of my dresser, pulled boxes out of my closet, crouched beneath the bed, searching.
I found it on the little bookshelf beside my bed, lying under a disheveled pile of mundane mail.
I slipped the notebook free, and flipped past all the bittersweet dates, to the end, the very end.
And I read the words I’d written.
The words wavered in the fresh tears that formed.
I dropped the book. Those strands of sadness hanging heavy in my chest curled up and wrapped around my heart, squeezing, strangling.
I wish her eyes were still watching me. I wish her lips could still kiss me. I wish her heart was beating strong and steady in her chest.
And I wish she would stay with me, always.
I had wished for something that nature could not provide.
I did this.
I did this to her.
I trapped her between life and death.
Something flickered at the margin of my sight.
I turned to the apparition who was floating toward me. But I could not meet her eyes.
All I wanted was for her to stay with me. I still wanted that.
But I didn’t want to die.
“You’re carrying my burden,” I said. And I lifted my gaze to hers.
For that, maybe I deserved to die. Hadn’t she carried enough in life?
She drifted closer and my pulse quickened. My limbs quivered. My breath dragged.
It was a careless wish, but anyone might have made such a wish, and anyone might have meant with all their heart.
How did my wish become manifest? And how could I undo it?
I collapsed to the ground, my heart beating fast, too fast, and too hard.
She too descended beside me. Her eyes did, and her lips, and her steady beating heart.
“You…would never…hurt me.” My voice is now a gasping whisper. “So this…can’t be, can’t be you.”
I’m keeling over. I just want to rest my head a bit. It feels heavy. I would move away. In a moment. I just had to catch my breath first, brace myself.
She isn’t particularly fast. I could evade her if I crawled.
I close my eyes. The lids were sore and heavy, so I let them lower.
I draw in a breath, a smooth breath, and I feel something brush against my forehead.
Soft and warm, living lips.
My anxious fluttering heart stills.
I drift away, into a memory…
In the lamplight she glows. I can see the rest of her. Eyes blue, not a spectral blue, but living blue, water and glass and sky lit from within by the glow of a soul. Pale lips with a blush of pink from the blood rushing beneath in the tiniest of vessels. A sloping nose, and ears that stick out just a little, the lobes bearing a single tiny gem each, sparkling warm yellow. Her blouse billows in a breeze. She raises her hand to brush a strand of golden hair out of her eyes, and the arms within that blouse are solid and strong.
She frowns and ties her hair back. She catches my eye, and I smile at her. She winks at me. And she tips her head to the side, a quick gesture, a beckoning gesture. This way. Come on.
She was hurrying me because she couldn’t stand being late. And if we were late, I was usually the reason.
I make a mad dash to reach her, dodging and weaving past the thickening crowd. They buzzed with excitement, moving my heart to swell with an eagerness I hadn’t let myself feel until that moment.
“Are we late?” I ask, huffing.
A casual shake of her head gives me all the answer I need, but then she speaks.
“We have time.”
Copyright © 2022 Nila L. Patel