Two months into my time as Fred and Elsie’s ghost, they wake up in the middle of the night to find me at the kitchen table, staring at the Ouija board unfolded over the unfinished pine. I didn’t mean to be staring at the board when they came down the stairs. I’d snuck down after they’d gone to bed to skim from their leftovers and it was already there, waiting.
They come into the room slowly, but not out of fear—they’re used to me now. They’re just old, the kind of old where you always look like you’re moving around underwater.
“Now you can talk back to us,” Elsie says. She burns a little incense, for effect. She sits down across from me, touches the heart-shaped planchette, and waits. I drop my fingertips onto the wood, not touching Elsie, but able to move it just the same. T-H-A-N-K-Y-O-U, I spell, the curved glass window amplifying each letter like a raindrop.
After that, Elsie and Fred watch Law & Order, and I doze in the recliner. When the cops run after the suspect, Elsie sits forward in her chair and hollers. I wake a little and watch her through my lashes, then drift away again. It feels safe to sleep in this house. No one is going to hurt me. Common sense dictates you don’t just go about touching ghosts.
I’m not really a ghost. I’m just a runaway, a broken-home girl whose home broke for good. When Fred and Elsie first found me, I was sitting on the floor of their warm kitchen, soaked from an autumn storm. My curls plastered to my forehead like leeches, my clothes vacuum sealed to my skin. I had no way of knowing that this house—the one whose back door had been so helpfully unlocked—belonged to a couple whose teenage daughter had drowned in their pool years ago after hopping the fence in the dark, a teenager who looked a little like me. They drew their own conclusions.
I would tell them I was real, if I could. I would run to Elsie and press my fingers into the soft meat of her cheek and say, “I’m real, I’m real, I have a name and a heartbeat and I used to be afraid but I’m not anymore, because I’m here.” But what if they call the police? What if they send me away or, worse, back? It’s better for them to think I’m dead. Everyone else does anyway. And it’s pleasant, to be able to listen and observe, to not have to talk to anyone. It’s probably a good thing I don’t believe in ghosts myself, or else this old house would seem really creepy.
Elsie sings to me. I think she thinks it placates me, keeps me from doing—I don’t know. Whatever ghosts do to people they’re mad at. For the first week Elsie kept a vial of table salt with her, in case she needed to fend me off. In case I had wicked intentions. But now the salt lives next to the pepper and Elsie belts country songs at me all night. Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, anything by Dolly Parton.
They’re retired now, but Elsie was once a math teacher, and Fred an engineer. Sometimes they go to a local bar for karaoke. On their way out, Elsie sings back into the darkness, “We’ll see you soon, sweet girl.” They always return laughing. I can hear Elsie’s voice even when she’s blocks away, tripping down the last few notes of “Walkin’ after Midnight,” asking Fred if he remembers a moment of their shared past. His voice is low. I can only identify it by the spaces in between hers.
Nowadays, they love the night. They love that they can sleep all day and visit with me when the sun goes down. They love that the night has brought them back what they lost.
Then one night, Fred doesn’t wake up.
I can hear Elsie saying his name, and there’s a moment when it changes. Her voice sort of bends over, like it’s given up on something. I resist the urge to run, because ghosts never run. In the doorway, I see Elsie sitting up in bed, her hand pressed flat to Fred’s chest. She isn’t crying, just holding her hand there. She sees me in the doorway.
“Where is he?” she asks. I must look confused, because her hand begins to gesticulate wildly, like she is shooing away a bee. I realize she is referring to the world I can see and she can’t, the other room inside this room, where the dead live. Where I live.
But he is nowhere, except on the bed, not moving.
Elsie kneels in front of me and I can smell her body, and it is human and confusing. She doesn’t touch me but her hands come so close.
“Can you see him?” she asks.
I back out of the doorway and run down the stairs, breaking my own rule. Elsie follows me, slowly. In the kitchen, she sits down at the table and flips open the Ouija board.
“Please,” she says. “Talk to me. Tell me where he is.”
I do not want to. I want to run to the back door, shove it open into the moonlight, and tear across the lawn and find some other place to be a teenage runaway, somewhere less safe and kind, somewhere less haunted. But then Elsie would know. She would realize I was real and, soon after, realize I was abandoning her.
So I sit. She runs the planchette over hello and then she writes F-R-E-D-F-R-E-D-F-R-E-D. I place my fingers outside of hers and push.
N-O-W-H-E-R-E, I spell.
“Now, here?” she whispers.
I do it again.
“Nowhere?” she says.
I gather her fingers in my own. “Just us now,” I tell her, in my own voice. “Just us.”