THE MAN IS HANGING FROM THE STAIRS AGAIN, which means it’s going to be another bad day.
I slide past him without looking in his direction. He’s just a shadow hanging off the stair rail, la la la, he doesn’t exist, nothing to worry about.
Instead I’m thinking about Mom.
Maybe she’ll come back today. Maybe this afternoon, when I’m home alone because Phil doesn’t get home until six, maybe I’ll finally hallucinate a knock at the door, and it’ll be her, finally, her—
Part of me just says I want to see my mom. I want to talk to her, I want to hug her, I want—
Mom never liked me to read ghost stories, which is kind of ironic, but I read “The Monkey’s Paw” in school. It’s about a kid who dies in an accident, and his parents make a wish to get him back, and then late at night they hear this dragging, moaning thing knocking at the door? The thing is, Mom died in an accident too. Some guy hit her with his car. I can’t look at her clothes or smell her perfume; I made Phil pack them away. She had a pair of red flip-flops I used to borrow all the time. When Phil gave them to me, I screamed and made him take them back.
Maybe the guy will still be hanging from the banister when I get back from school, and this’ll be the day when he stops just hanging there and turns his purple face slooowly and starts pulling himself up the rope—
I’d rather see him than Mom. I want to see her. I don’t. I don’t know what I want.
I should introduce myself, like in a meeting of Ghost Seers Anonymous. Hi, I’m Katie, and I never see ghosts. None of the things I see are real. Nobody actually hung himself from the staircase in our two-family. I know this because I asked.
What I see are hallucinations. Hallucinations happen to lots of people, but mostly not to fifteen-year-old girls. Something bad has to happen to you.
What happened to me is Mom died.
A year ago today.
I could hang out with Phil, and we’ll talk about how it’s a year today, or we won’t, and it’ll be really awkward. Or I could sit in the school art room and draw and have Ms. Rosen, the art teacher, worry about what I might have to draw and tell me I have talent, but don’t I want to draw something else?
Ms. Rosen is the worst, because she tries to understand and sympathize even though she doesn’t know a thing about me. She always wants to see what I draw, because she was a friend of Mom’s and she used to admire my work back when I drew fluffy little kitties and princess outfits. I don’t want to be sympathized with. I would rather be laughed at by half the school than understood by Ms. Rosen.
So where am I going to spend my time after school today when I don’t want to be home alone?
Mom and I used to go to the park at Jamaica Pond. Back before everything happened. Back before there were any ghosts but Dad. Before.
Everything’s all right in parks. Parks are sunny. Parks are full of swings and benches and green grass.
Nobody dies in parks.
When I get to the park after school it’s sort of misty-foggy and chill, a northern light, with the trees making black blotches in the background. I chain my bike and sit cross-legged on a park bench with my sketchbook balanced on my knees. I lean back and let my mind and eyes blur: white space of the paper, pale gray water and field, black pine trees. I want to make something all pale smudginess, not an edge, not a line, something that will make people feel chilly and foggy and sad, like they’re missing the person they love most. A picture about how Mom’s not here. Not about her dying.
I uncross my eyes and look.
I’m not alone here. Out in the field a boy is playing with a dog, like they’re both tired and cold and damp and thinking about going home. The boy is throwing a ball clumsily and running after it like someone told him he had to do it some more before he could go inside, and the dog is bored, sniffing at the bushes at the edge of the field, ignoring the ball and the boy. They both look lonely. I smudge them both into my drawing, using them to show the cold, the boy blowing on his hands, his shoulders squared against the damp, and the big white bulldog with one ear cocked toward the boy, sulking and muttering, I don’t see you, you’re not the boss of me.
“Bullet? Bullet! You bad dog!”
I was wrong about the dog belonging to the kid. The bulldog scrabbles stiff-legged toward a woman with a leash and whoofs up at her adoringly, and the two of them head away toward the baseball field. The boy looks after Bullet the dog, wishing for a dog so hard I can almost hear it, though the dog didn’t even pay much attention to him.
Then, looking for something else to do, he sees me and shambles across the field toward me, kicking his ball.
He’s older than I thought, a teenager maybe. As he comes closer I see his round face and thick eyelids. Mom used to work with Down syndrome kids. It makes my heart all pucker up, scared but happy, like he’s a message from Mom. I smile at him and he smiles back, friendly but timid, like people usually pay attention to him only to make fun.
He’s wearing the weirdest assortment of clothes, short wide pants and a thick jacket that looks made out of a blanket. No parka, no gloves. He doesn’t look cold, but I can almost hear Mom talking, like to one of her kids’ moms: Are you keeping him warm?
Maybe I can just remember her today without wanting to burst into tears or scream.
“I’m George,” he says.
“Hello, George. I’m Katie.”
“Hello!” he says, grinning. “Katie.” He looks at my sketchbook. “That’s me. George.” He hunkers down with his hands on his knees, looking at himself. He’s nearsighted; he squints.
He has a nice face, kind of elflike: nice and a little unreal.
“Do you live around here, George?”
“Yes, I do!” George is an exclamation-point kind of kid.
“Do you like dogs?”
“Dogs don’t play with me,” George says. “Do you like drawing?”
“I do. I like it a lot. Can I draw you some more?”
He smiles all over at the thought of pleasing me, which is so nice of him. George is a good person to be with today.
He sits at the other end of the bench with the trees behind him. I outline him quickly, getting the proportions of his face right, then start on contour. The sun comes out through a hole in the cloud, turning the pines dark green and making blocky shadows. George is hard to draw; as the branches move and the light shifts, his face changes the way people’s do in firelight or dreams, older and younger. The clouds trail like fingers across the sun, the light flickers; and behind George, as if there is someplace the strangeness of the light has to come from, instead of the nice quiet block of dark trees I want for contrast, my pencil began to draw a house.
A house in flames, all on fire, every window shrieking and fire-spiky and ghosting smoke and the roof sagging and beginning to fall.
Stop it! I jam the pencil into the notebook rings and look at the picture that should be for Mom, but now it’s about death. On the paper George is a few years older. And he looks so scared. His face is toward me but already he is turning, twisting away, looking back toward the house. He is going to go back inside the house. He doesn’t want to, but he’s going to. And he is going to die.
I look up from the paper and see George posing for me, oblivious, and behind him I see the house.
It’s right where I’ve drawn it, half-hidden in the trees. I didn’t see it before. Now it’s there. It has tall brick chimneys and pointed roofs that look like pine trees. Maybe it was beautiful once. But it feels as haunted and scary as one of my hallucinations. The windows gape and sag like dead mouths. Loose half bricks and broken roof slates litter the grass around it, as if it is throwing bits of itself away.
Part of the roof is just gone; through burned timbers I can see the sky.
But it hasn’t burned all the way. Not the way it did in my picture.
“That’s my house,” says George, coming up behind me.
Oh, shit. “You live there?” Of course he does. With his clumsy clothes and his nearsighted eyes, my guy George is living in an abandoned house.
So? I practically hear Mom’s voice. What are you going to do about it?
Today I should listen and do something.
“George, do you live by yourself? Who lives there with you?”
“I live with my grandfather. George Perkins is my name. I live at Mr. Perkins’s house on Jamaica Pond.”
Mr. Perkins’s house. Some old homeless guy. I am practically channeling Mom. Do you have electricity, George? Do you have a toilet? Do you have a bed? Does your grandfather smoke in bed?
Because, George, I know how you’re going to die, living in a place like that. I just drew it. You’re going to get out of that house when it burns, but you’re going back in.
“Is your grandfather—Mr. Perkins—is he old?”
George nods his head up and down, awed. “But Grandpapa will always take care of me.”
Yeah. Sure he will. Until the fire. Then you’ll go back in after him, and you’ll die.
“George, would you like to go for a walk with me?”
The police station is just a couple blocks away, and I bet somebody there would like to know all about Grandpa and George.
“But I must be home before dark.”
The shadows of the trees are stretching way onto the baseball field, but I can tell George he’ll be back before dark and I won’t actually be lying. He’ll be back. In a police car.
“No problem, George. Let me get my bike.”
I do the mother hen thing, shooing George back across the field, and grub in my pocket for my bike key and kneel down to unlock my bike. George rocks back and forth by the bench, looking at my bike as if he’s never seen one before.
And then, then, I get it.
You would think I would have got it right away, being me.
I never draw things that are going to happen to people.
I only draw deaths that have already happened.
Way late, with the lock in my hand, reaching to pick up my sketchbook from the ground, I see George’s feet. I see George’s buttoned leather boots, and all around George’s feet nothing but dead winter grass in the sun—
“George, you don’t have a shadow.”
“Oh,” George says. “I forgot.” And around his feet, like a stain, a shadow begins to spread, and spread, shapeless at first, and then it takes the outline of the shadows on the field.
My dead boy George, the newest of my hallucinations, stands in the middle of the field, in flickering light, with the shape of a giant tree shadowing all the ground around him, and spreading, and spreading. I stand up and back away. George calls out to me and holds out his hands, and I scream and I run and I leave him there.
© 2010 Sarah Smith