I’m standing in the school bathroom, peeling off a ghost, when the new girl walks in. She’s a mess, all running snot and smeared mascara, and I’ve got my hands full of wet, writhing pain. My other ghosts, each a discarded moment of loss or fear or heartbreak, press closer. All of them watching with hurt, hungry eyes.
You get used to it after a while. Sort of.
I step back so the girl can pass me, figuring she won’t notice. Mostly people don’t. But the ghost, already free on the left side, reaches out its slick, transparent hand and touches her. Maybe it’s that, the contact with a ghost so new, still attached, that does it.
She shivers, stumbles back, eyes gone wide.
We stare at each other. Me looking at her. Her looking at the ghosts.
“Wow,” she manages. Her voice catches on the word.
“You all right?” I ask.
“Sorry. Things are just a lot right now. Got a text from my Dad. He’s not supposed to know this number.” She gestures, vaguely, nervously, in my direction. “You?”
“Like you said. Things are a lot right now. Better not to hold onto stuff. I’m Brooke.”
“Ash.” She reaches out her hand, then pulls it back, tucking it into her pocket. “That’s a lot of, umm, stuff, you’re not holding.”
“Yeah, but once I get them off, I don’t notice so much.”
“Really?” She sounds wistful.
Ash’s eyes are still bright but she’s done crying. She glances at her phone, making a show of checking her email. When she looks at me again, she’s composed. She’s vivid and a little wild looking, her hair a garish rainbow of colors, her clothes all somber grays.
“Does it hurt?”
“You ever get a bad sunburn? The kind where the skin comes off in strips?”
“It’s like that.”
She smiles, shy and mischievous and hopeful, and my stomach twists, that fluttering, anxious, wanting feeling.
“Can I help?” she asks.
And that’s how Ash and I become friends.
* * *
We’re in my basement, watching videos on my laptop. Ash is warm and close and too quiet, so I know she’s going to ask before she does.
It’s not the first time.
“You could teach me how,” she says.
The thing is, I don’t want to. I like that she cries. And yeah, that’s terrible, I know. But when I was six, Dad was in the hospital bed, made strange by monitors and tubes, when my mom sat me in her lap and showed me how to make my first ghost. I haven’t cried since. Things at home are calm, real calm, all the time. Ash is like a storm.
Maybe everyone’s drawn to what they fear.
“I miss my friends,” she says. “I miss my house. I even miss my dad. Everything. All the time. It hurts, Brooke.”
What do you say to that? How do I explain that it starts with the big things, but then you forget how to cope, until any pain, no matter how small, seems too much to take?
“They stand around my bed at night.” I nod up to the ghosts. “They get so close; I can’t even see the room. Just all these eyes, watching me.”
“They’re always watching you.”
“Yeah. That’s my point.” I’ve woken to the pressure of their eyes and found myself shaking. I’ve made ghosts out of that fear and sent them to join the crowd of watchers. And so it builds and builds and now Ash is grabbing my hand, wrapping it in her icy fingers.
“Please,” she says. “I need your help.”
She needs me.
“Where does it hurt?” I ask. “Where do you feel it most?”
She goes quiet, then her free hand flutters to her throat. I follow the motion, guiding her other hand there, and run our entwined fingertips over her neck, leaving goosebumps in our wake. Her breathing is sharp and her eyes are wide and she is so very close to me and my fingernails catch on the edge of her ghost.
“There. Feel it?” I run her fingertips over the seam.
“All you have to do is pull. Be gentle though. Don’t rip it.”
“You do it,” she says. “Help me.”
I hold her hand as she peels off the ghost. I help her tug it free. It has her face, its expression pained, locked in lonely grief, while Ash goes calm.
“It’s so easy,” she says.
One of my ghosts wraps its arms around hers. They cry together, heads bent close. Ash sits next to me, knees pulled to her chest, and I don’t know how to reach for her or what to say. She doesn’t need me anyway. The pain is gone.
The pain is standing right there, and now she’ll never heal.
“Let’s watch another show,” I say.
* * *
In daylight, it’s simple. They’re translucent, faded memories, easily ignored.
At night, there’s only ghosts and ghost and ghosts: fearful, desperate, weeping. All of them me. Me at seven with skinned knees and no one to call for. Me hiding, terrified, at ten. Me, broken-hearted, from last week or last month or last year.
I could send today to join them.
I can feel the knot where the pain sits, in the pit of the stomach. Feel the edge of it, like a scab begging to be picked. I keep seeing Ash’s ghost, crying. I didn’t mean to leave her crying.
How many times have I left myself crying?
They press close, watching me with wounded eyes. The one that comforted Ash’s ghost touches my hand, wet and strange and familiar. I hurt. But so do they. I can’t unmake them, can’t turn them back to wounds. But there are other ways to comfort pain.
I take the littlest one, the six-year-old who’s still crying for her father, into my lap, and I whisper to her that it will be all right. I’ve got her. I’m here.