An email, from Virginia to Robert: “They’re tearing the house down next Monday.”
He closed the file he was working on and called her on the phone.
“Hey, Bobby. What are you doing this weekend?”
“This is Whitemantle you’re talking about?”
“What other place would it be? We should stay there again. Auld lang syne. One last chance for you to see your ghost.”
“Our previous sleepover turned out so well,” he said.
“That was a long time ago. I’m not eighteen anymore. I’m assuming that you’re no longer eighteen.”
“I thought your job now was like, grand high wizardess of historic preservation, or something. Whitemantle can’t be preserved? It’s historic.”
“It is historic. We tried. There’s another circa 1790 house downtown. City doesn’t think they need two. We did what we could, but it’s a goner. The land is too valuable. And our budget is already tapped this year from all the places we did manage to save all across the state. I’m heartbroken, even if it doesn’t sound like it. With this job, you get used to being heartbroken.”
“Is husband John going to be camping out with us? What does he think about this idea?”
“Eh, that ended last year. I thought I wrote you. What are you going to tell your girlfriend?”
Robert snorted. “You know relationship status–single, engaged, married, it’s complicated? Well, it’s complicated. I’ll explain later.”
And so Robert told Linda, the jeweler with all the piercings who had moved in the year before, that he was getting together with a group of old high school friends, and he packed some things and drove the seven hours back to Budleigh that Saturday. His parents were gone and it was not a place he visited often. Virginia was the only person from his school years whom he kept in touch with. He hadn’t actually seen her in two decades. He didn’t get an invitation to her wedding, and he had never asked her why. She didn’t do social media beyond running an account for the preservation group. They exchanged email regularly and cards every December and then every few years they would have an epic phone call. She was always so busy, saving this old textile mill or that old school. He was much less busy.
But he remembered the house. He remembered the ghost. Ghosts were supposed to be scary, but he was not scared. It was just another memory, fading like all the others. Lots of people had seen ghosts.
Twenty-nine years earlier, when they were Ginny and Bobby and not Virginia and Robert, they graduated from high school and got summer jobs as counselors at a day camp for troubled kids, held on the grounds of Whitemantle. The house had been the center of a sprawling plantation started by Moses Eliezer, a Jewish attorney who married into an Episcopal family and changed his name to Leazar. In the 1960s the last of the Leazars had died, and what was left by then was just eight acres of land and the house. A local realtor with a flair for history bought the property, planning to restore it some day. He rented it out to non-profits, but never occupied it himself. Ginny and Bobby were getting fifty bucks a week in the summer of 1984 to assist with ceramics and drawing classes, and to play croquet on the sloping lawn that led from the house down to the stand of trees that shielded it from the road.
The kids were the ones who said the house was haunted. “Old Miss Leazar comes out at night, everybody knows that,” said one. “She wears a wispy gray dress,” said another, “and she’s all gray, and her long gray hair hangs down and she floats around and says ‘where is my buried gold, hid from the Yankees?'” “And she plays the piano,” said a third, but there was no piano in Whitemantle. “What piano?” said Virginia. “It’s a ghost piano!” the third kid replied.
All of the Leazars’ possessions, including any pianos, were gone, auctioned off in the 1960s. The necessities of the summer camp, the jugs of Flavorade and cookie cartons and the craft supplies, were piled into the front rooms. Ginny had been entrusted with a key, because she arrived earlier in the mornings than the woman who ran the camp did.
Ginny and Bobby had known each other since third grade. They had done a lot of things together: kickball, “Much Ado About Nothing,” hashish. There were a couple things they’d never done together: kiss, have sex. Also, they had never stayed in a haunted house.
As Robert drove, he visualized. That was his expertise. Robert was a freelance space planner; he designed mailrooms for corporate clients. He walked himself through the house: through the front door into a high-ceilinged living room. Four rooms on the first floor, each with a fireplace. Two rooms on the second floor. That was the original house. Out the back, step down into the first addition, step back up into the second addition, both of which were still old, pre-Civil-War. On the ground floor, a kitchen and bathroom and screened porch, then a big back room. On the upper floor, a long sleeping porch, and a master suite. Two sets of stairs connecting the floors. An attic, but he’d never been in the attic. He’d never thought about old Miss Leazar much, but he pictured her knocking around alone in there in the 60s, sleeping in an antique four-poster bed, watching TO TELL THE TRUTH on a black and white television.
He tried to picture Ginny now. Maybe she was one of those people who avoided social media because age had done its work on them? Age had done its own good work on him. His hair was almost gone, and what little was left was a mix of black and gray. For many years, he’d stayed in shape by playing handball, but then he blew out his knee and dropped his gym membership. He took the blood pressure medication that his doctor recommended, but only after a couple years of escalating threats and numbers. He did not do many of the other things that his doctor recommended, which all involved losing weight and getting in shape. He had some cheap reading glasses that he used while working at his computer, even though he needed a real eye exam and bifocals. He realized that he’d left the cheap reading glasses sitting on his desk at home. He took his memory of Ginny and applied some of the same transformations. Grayed her hair–her mother had had salt-and-pepper hair–made her bigger, slower, more hunched over.
Why had she invited him to recreate a bit of summer adventure? “Auld lang syne,” she’d said. No more husband, she’d said. She had mentioned the ghost. She hadn’t mentioned the other thing that happened. They would be just getting together as Ginny and Bobby, as they always had been, official lifelong friends. Never mind the intervening decades.
When he drove into town, he took the exact same route he always took. Exited the interstate, drove through downtown past the bakery that had been run by the twin Czech ballerinas. Past his elementary school, middle school, and then high school, three brick bunkers ascending a hill. Past the pizza joint that had been the prime hangout back then, now converted into a Starbucks. But then he drove right past the turnoff into the neighborhood where his parents’ house sat, full of some family unknown to him. He kept going north, back into an area zoned for business. He stopped at an intersection where the four quadrants were occupied by an extended stay hotel, a run-down shopping center, a members-only discount superstore, and finally a stand of trees with a lone mailbox and driveway vanishing up a hill into the forest. Hidden back there, on eight acres of absurdly valuable property, sat the remains of Whitemantle, the house of the Leazar family.
The previous adventure, in 1984, they met there on a Saturday. It was early August, still hot and muggy as the sun made its way down below the tops of the trees. The surroundings were different then. The nearby shopping center had just opened, but the extended-stay hotels and big-box stores were years in the future. All of the outside world was buffered away into silence after they made their way up the sinuous drive and into the meadow where the house stood at the top of the hill. Their provisions included: two sleeping bags, a deck of cards, a bag of cassette tapes, a boom box, three bottles of Blue Nun wine, and a Polaroid camera.
They set out their things in the living room, and turned on the fans that had been left there by the day camp. They opened the first bottle of Blue Nun and sat on the front porch and speculated what the first year of college would be like. She was staying close to home and majoring in history. He was going to DC, and was undeclared.
As the sun set they moved inside. Bobby pulled a table lamp from a stool and set it on the floor near the fireplace and plugged it in.
“Our campfire,” he announced. “No way we could build a fire in those fireplaces.”
“Agreed,” she said. “What are you going to do when you see the ghost?”
“I don’t believe in ghosts,” he said. “I believe in Ghostbusters.”
“God, that was a great movie. Yeah, I don’t believe in ghosts anymore. Now, eighth grade, that’s a different story.”
“Eighth grade you believed in everything: witchcraft, UFOs, ghosts, magic runes, pyramid power, Tarot. You had me convinced too.”
“Of course I did. You were always copying my tastes,” she said. He swiped the bottle from her and took a long drink, letting the wine gurgle out over his chin.
“Now we’re the ghosts,” she said. “I mean, if anyone was lurking outside, they’d think we’re the ghosts.”
“Put some music on, O Great Ghostly Tastemaker.”
Ginny put a tape in the cassette player: Madness’s Greatest Hits. They didn’t dance. They passed the Blue Nun bottle back and forth, bobbing to the beat. She had a funny way of tilting her head when she listened to the music, as if she had only one good ear. They opened another bottle.
They decided to use up the Polaroid film doing dramatic poses together. She set the camera on the mantel, flipped the timer switch, and they stood in front of it and he blurted out, “Catty!” They instinctively twisted their heads in profile and raised an eyebrow just as the flash popped. They repeated the exercise: groovy, sullen, angry, wasted, robotic, patriotic, manic, distressed, happy.
After a considerable amount of wine later, and several more cassettes, they decided that they might perhaps still believe in ghosts to some limited extent. They decided to try and summon Old Miss Leazar. They sat facing each other, palm on top of palm.
“Old Miss Leazar, first off we’d like to apologize for calling you old,” she said. “But we’re curious, are you like Old Miss Leazar from 1790, or from 1840, or from 1903? Because these things matter.”
“We’re also curious as to whether you exist at all, so come on out!” he said.
They waited, his right hand on her left, her left hand on his right. She had her eyes closed.
“You can’t see Old Miss Leazar with your eyes closed.”
“I’m summoning. When she’s here, I’ll know it.”
But Old Miss Leazar never showed up, so when the wine ran out they gave up on summoning a spirit. They were both yawning. They rolled out their sleeping bags and pads and lay on top of them fully dressed, because of the heat. They were right next to each other, next to the fireplace where the lamp stood in for a fire. Ginny clicked the light off and they lay there talking, spinning out a nonsense story about buying Whitemantle and living there with all their friends in a commune. Their eyes adjusted to the moonlight.
Finally they ran out of things to say and just stared at the ceiling. Ginny closed her eyes. Bobby couldn’t close his eyes. He was counting to himself. One, two, three. Again. One, two, three. Then to ten. Then to three. Finally, after another one two three, he rolled toward Ginny, swinging his left arm over her and trying to slide his right arm under her head.
“I’m making my move,” he announced.
Then he stopped. Neither one of them moved for a minute.
“Stop touching me, Bobby,” she said.
He pulled his hands out of the awkward hug he was delivering.
“Roll back to where you were,” she said.
“Roll back to where you were.”
He did that.
“The me of third-through-eleventh grade was really hoping you would’ve made a move before now. And y’know, maybe I should’ve made a move then. But you didn’t, and I didn’t. And this isn’t the right thing for me now.”
“I don’t want you to be sorry. I want you to understand. Do you understand?”
“I think so.”
“That’s good enough. Now, I have to go to the bathroom. And when I come back, we’re going to go to sleep, and you are not going to apologize anymore, and we are going to wake up and be Ginny and Bobby, officially lifelong friends, and we are going to proceed on with our glorious lives. OK?”
Ginny slid out of her sleeping bag and padded off to the back of the house. Bobby didn’t watch her go. He clasped his hands behind his head and sighed.
The moon was slanting in through the front windows. He gradually became aware of another light source, something warmer than the moon, coming through the windows at the back of the room. Probably just the bathroom light shining across the yard. But it kept getting brighter, and when he turned to look, there she was, walking through the wall.
He instinctively slid away, pushing himself and his sleeping bag with his hands until he was backed up against the opposite wall. But the ghost was not a threatening ghost. There was no terror-inducing visage, no chains binding its tortured limbs, no threats to steal his soul. There was not even frenzied piano-playing.
She didn’t wear tattered white sheets nor early American dress. She wore a green turtleneck and tan skirt. She was an older woman, as old as his mother. She looked a lot like Ginny’s mother. She stood in the center of the room, looking down at him with unblinking eyes.
Then she began to move, stepping quickly towards him. He gasped and shouted “Ah!” but made no move to escape. She stepped back just as quickly. Her skirt swirled around her legs. Her hips swayed from side to side. She kept her eyes on him as she moved, forward and backward, side to side. She continued this exercise, the flowing movements, several times. Then she vanished.
He realized that he’d been holding his breath. He took a deep breath, jumped up, and ran back to the bathroom. It was dark in the back hallway and he forgot to step down to go from the old part of the house to the first addition, so he went sprawling and then hit his head on the newel post of the stairs.
He cried out and heard a muffled response. He reached up to touch his head but felt no blood. It was a sharp pain dulled only by the Blue Nun. He felt like he might get sick. He got on his hands and knees and crawled the rest of the way to the bathroom, where the door was still shut.
“I saw it,” he said to the door. “I saw the ghost and then I hit my head and it really hurts and could you please come talk to me?”
She cracked the door.
“There’s no ghost,” she said. “Are you bleeding? Did you get knocked out?”
“It just hurts a lot. There is a ghost. She looks like your mother. She was here but then she left.”
“I’m not feeling very well,” Ginny said. “I think I drank too much wine. Give me a minute. If the ghost comes back, yell real loud.”
She shut the door. The pain and the nausea were subsiding, and at some point he dozed off in the hallway. He woke to Ginny standing over him. The light from the bathroom blinded him. She was checking his skull.
“You’re right, no blood. I’ll trust you when you say you didn’t get knocked out. So, tell me about this ghost. Was it old Moses Eliezer himself, come to discuss Judaism and Episcopalianism with you?”
He described the apparition.
“What do you think it is?” he asked.
“I have no idea,” she said. “I haven’t seen any ghosts.”
“I think we should leave.”
“Neither one of us is in any shape to drive anywhere. I’ll protect you from the ghost, as long as you don’t try any more ‘moves.’ Come on.”
He insisted that they go up and camp out on the sleeping porch instead of in the living room of the old part of the house, and so they did just that, and slept until the sunlight came pouring in through the windows.
Two weeks later he was gone off to Washington DC and college and life.
Robert parked on the side street where she’d told him, near the extended-stay hotel. He felt vaguely criminal as he pulled his pack and sleeping bag and his grocery bag out of the car. He started walking down the sidewalk back toward the intersection. There was an old mailbox at the bottom of the drive. He looked around, thinking he should try and sneak up to the house, but the world was oblivious. People in SUVs and compact cars zipped around from the grocery stores to the fast food restaurants and gas stations. They had no idea that hiding behind all those trees was Whitemantle, a house from another time.
The drive snaked up into the trees and disappeared. He walked up it as quickly as he could, but his knee was giving him trouble, especially with the added weight of his bags. Once safely in the forest, he stopped and caught his breath for a moment before continuing on up the slope. The drive switched back and forth twice before opening out onto the familiar view. Three giant trees staggered on a lawn of high grass, and at the top of the hill, Whitemantle itself. Something was different, though. He realized that all of the flora was grown up around the house. Where there had been neatly trimmed bushes and a manicured lawn, now the boxwoods and the ivy threatened to swallow up the house. The camellia bushes with their pink flowers were gone.
Virginia was standing near the front door, waving. He huffed his way up the hill, feet and knees and hips and lungs complaining all the way.
“You could’ve helped,” he said, plunking his stuff down at her feet.
“I could’ve helped by telling you about the path,” she said. “I just got here. Parked right behind you, in fact. There’s a path through the woods now, a shortcut, but it’s hard to see from the street.”
She was different, of course. Although he didn’t quite see why she wouldn’t put her picture online. Her hair was completely gray, although her eyebrows were still black. There were some creases and wrinkles. When she smiled it was a smile of amusement tinged with sadness, not a smile of pure joy.
The house had changed a bit, too. The porch was all wrong.
“What’s up with the porch?” he said.
“This is the one thing the caretaker managed to get done,” she said, gesturing at the tiny stoop with one gable held up by two square columns. “He sent the porch back to 1790. The porch that you remember from when we worked here? It wasn’t original. It was way too big, and had all that Queen Anne gingerbread on it. Totally wrong for 1790. Of course it doesn’t matter anymore. It’s all coming down next week.”
“I liked that porch. It was a good hangout space. I still can’t believe someone wants to tear down this house. And what about you? You been sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber or something?”
“I will take that as a compliment. I take my vitamins and do my yoga, sure. How about you? Where have you been sleeping?”
“I sleep on the couch a lot.”
“C’mon, let’s take a spin around the house. Remember the ceramics the kids made? There are still some here.”
There had been paths through the boxwoods, but now the bushes were so overgrown that they had to skirt around them. Hiding underneath the bushes were some of the old pottery projects: lumps of white and brown and gray clay, sculptures and pots that never got taken home. They tromped through the high grass to make their way counter-clockwise around the house. He called out identifications of some of the big trees that were going to be destroyed along with the house itself: Eastern cedar, black oak, American elm. The trees were in better shape than the house. The black shutters sagged from the windows, their vanes punched out like bad teeth. Green mold covered the back of the house where sunlight didn’t reach. Near the foundation on the north wing, Virginia pointed out where some siding had been pulled away and not replaced.
“We were checking for termites and rot,” she said. “And we found both.”
They continued on, moving from the high grass into the English ivy that crept out from the woods behind the house. The ivy covered everything in its path, including a rusted-out Volkswagen squaretail.
“The caretaker’s,” Virginia said. “He left a car, and he left a lot of things inside. Technically he wasn’t supposed to stay here, but I think he spent his weekends here for years.”
“Hey, watch out!” he said, grabbing her arm. They stopped.
There was a tiny baby bird sitting on the ground in the ivy, underneath a dogwood. They both bent over to peer at it.
“Its eyes aren’t open, are they?” he asked.
“Just barely. Can’t you tell?”
“Sort of. Not exactly. I left my glasses at home. I have trouble with details up close. I probably won’t be reading the newspaper.”
He glanced up at the dogwood.
“But that’s clearly the nest,” he said, pointing. “This won’t take a second.”
He let go of her and stooped to pick up the bird.
“I thought you weren’t supposed to touch baby birds. The parents will smell you and then kill them.”
“That’s a myth, pretty much. Most birds can’t smell a thing. A bird this young, it’s not a fledgling yet. We can put it back in the nest.”
He cradled the baby bird for a few minutes, warming it up. She bent the branch down so that he could replace the bird. There was another hatchling in the nest.
“It probably got kicked out accidentally. I think it’ll be fine. I should wash my hands.”
They continued back around to the front and went inside. The air was stale in the house, but there were still a couple of fans, which they turned on.
He washed his hands in the kitchen, and then she gave him a tour of the current state of the house. They explored it from front to back, opening the few windows that had screens. Virginia had been there quite a bit recently, showing it to wealthy donors, trying to set up a plan to save the property or at least to move the house somewhere else.
“I guess my ghost keeps the vagrants out,” he said.
“No, I’m pretty sure the caretaker kept any vagrants out. The caretaker never mentioned a ghost. And believe me, I asked.”
There was a blue sofa, a green armchair, and a pink brocade armchair in the living room. There were more abandoned pottery projects in the adjoining parlor. The room beyond the parlor was where the caretaker had slept–there was a double mattress on the floor, a black folding chair with a desk lamp, and a little carrier for a cat or small dog.
There were more things left in the back room. There was a card table, an old office chair, and on the table sat a beige computer connected to a modem. At first, Robert thought the computer was on, because there was a droning sound in the room. Then he felt something whiz by his face. He looked up and saw a swarm of bees congregated in the corner of the ceiling. He dashed out of the room into the back hallway and on into the kitchen, looking back to see if he’d been followed by a bee.
“Hey! I can’t stay here. I’m terribly allergic to stings,” he shouted.
“So you’ve got an Epi-Pen?”
“Yes, I’ve got an Epi-Pen. It’s sitting on my desk at home right next to my glasses.”
“Stay right there, Bobby,” she said. He kept an eye on the room as she backed out and then closed the door. There was a huge gap at the bottom. She went and got the comforter off of the caretaker’s cot and jammed it into the empty space.
“Problem solved,” she said. “I’ll go close the upstairs door into the back room.”
He went to the living room and started unpacking his bags and inflating the air mattresses that she’d brought. He shoved the furniture up against the walls to make room. When she came back into the room, he was sitting on the blue sofa, working a Rubik’s Cube.
“Nice,” she said. “Did you bring some parachute pants too?”
“I found it at my place when I was looking through a box of old things. I think I actually took it from this house.”
He flipped the cube and spun the sides at random.
“I used to know how to solve this,” he said. “Did it all the time in college, just to calm my nerves.”
She came and sat at the other end of the sofa.
“Let me see that thing.”
He tossed her the cube. She flipped and spun and had as much luck as he’d had with it.
His calf itched, and he pulled his pants leg up to scratch.
“Successfully avoided the bees, but, ugh, there must’ve been mosquitoes outside,” he said.
“A mosquito flew up your pants leg? Let me see that.”
He held up his leg: pale skin, purple veins, black hairs and all.
“That’s not a mosquito bite. That’s a seed tick,” she said, tilting her head back and peering through the bottom of her glasses.
She rummaged in her bags and pulled out a multi-tool, flipped it open into a pair of needlenose pliers.
“Hold it up here in the light,” she said. He stuck his leg out in front of the lamp. His knee twinged. She pulled the tick off and took it back into the kitchen. He looked at his leg where the tick had been, but all he could discern was a blurry reddishness.
“What is it?” he said, even though he knew.
“Well, I’ve got five of them. So far. We must’ve got into them in the yard.”
She walked back in, holding her shirt up and gesturing at her waistline. He couldn’t see any ticks.
“We need to do tick checks,” she said. “Hang on, let me get these off of me.”
He stood up, imagining that the sofa was infested with ticks. He lifted his shirt to see if he could spot any ticks on himself. There seemed to be one at his waist, but after he picked at it he remembered that it was a mole, one he was going to ask his doctor about when he got around to another physical.
“Oh, right. You can’t see. Take your clothes off,” she said.
“What? Are you making your move?”
“No, I’m assisting you in not catching Lyme disease. My tattoo artist had it. Trust me, you do not want Lyme disease.”
“You have tattoos?”
“Take your clothes off and stand over there by the lamp.”
He slumped back down on the sofa.
“I’ll take my clothes off if you take your clothes off.”
She set the pliers down on the floor, and then pulled her top over her head while stepping out of her clogs. She reached behind her back to unclip her bra.
“OK, OK, I give up. Tick check,” he said. “World’s most embarrassing tick check.” He stood up and started taking off his clothes.
“No, no, you’re right, it’s only fair.” He glanced over and she was continuing to shuck her clothes. “I think I found all of the ones on me, and if there are any left on me, I doubt you can see them. But fair is fair.”
He stumbled trying to get his pants off, tweaking his bad knee. When he looked over at her again, she was naked. He yanked his underwear and his pants off and then he was naked too, a deer in the headlights.
“Stand by the lamp,” she said.
“Can we at least move away from the windows? Someone could see. Someone besides you.”
“No one can see. No one’s back here but us. No one knows this place exists. Lift up your gut.”
He complied, looking away down into the yard. It was getting dark now. Even though they were surrounded by roads and shopping centers, he couldn’t see any lights from beyond the forest. They might as well have been floating in a void.
“OK, turn this way. Grab your junk and move it to the left, and don’t make any stupid jokes.”
She found only one more tick, burrowed into the crease behind his bad knee. After removing the tick, she rinsed the pliers off and put them away, then pulled some ointment out of her bag.
“Here, put some of this on. It’s called Miracle Mend. It fixes everything.”
“How much do you have? Maybe I should just slather it all over myself.”
“Couldn’t hurt,” she said.
He dabbed some ointment on the two spots where ticks had attached. It smelled of lavender and tea tree. She was putting her clothes back on and so he followed her lead, getting dressed without making any more jokes. Goodbye, naked Virginia. She put on a green turtleneck over her shirt.
“Well, I survived,” he observed. “And you survived too, and didn’t go blind or turn to stone. Thank you. We should celebrate a successful tick check.”
“I brought a bottle of Cabernet Franc.”
“Are you kidding? I brought three bottles of Blue Nun.”
He pulled a bottle out of his grocery bag and opened it. They started in on the wine and continued setting up their camp in the living room. He hooked up his phone and speaker, then pulled up New Wave Hits on his radio app. “The Metro” by Berlin came up, robotic synthesizers chugging along underneath an emotionless female vocal.
“Let me see if I can find something we actually listened to,” he said.
“Here, use my phone. I’ve got Madness, The Waitresses, The Furs. I made us a playlist.”
“You made us a playlist? Well, I’m afraid I can’t skank anymore.”
“You can’t do much of anything, can you?”
“I can tell you where to put your bulk mail sorter, sister. And I can save the baby birds with my eyeballs tied behind my back. How about that?”
“How about adult dancing? Have you ever tried that? Swing, salsa, that kind of thing.”
“The basic swing steps are pretty easy. A lot easier on the knees than skanking. And it’s a great way to meet people, should you and your ‘it’s complicated’ girlfriend, whom I should add you haven’t mentioned at all yet, break up. Come on, stand up.”
She swapped her phone in on the amplified speaker and dialed up some Benny Goodman.
“So, watch what I do and mirror it, OK? It’s back, forward, side, side.” She kept stepping, back, forward, side, side, in time to the music. He tried to match what she did, but something got fouled up in the connection between his brain and his feet. He kept stepping back, then back again. Finally she moved to his side, so he could replicate her movements exactly. After a few minutes, he got the basic step.
“Now we hold hands. That’s all we’re going to add, is holding hands. Just keep doing that step.”
“I think I need more wine; maybe that’ll make me a better dancer.”
He took a big slug of Blue Nun, which was even sweeter and harsher than he remembered. But it didn’t help. He had to concentrate so much, whereas she was effortless. And his knee hurt, even if it wasn’t that strenuous. He stopped dancing.
“Do you ever wonder, Ginny?”
“There have been occasions when I wondered, sure.”
“But you’re not wondering now.”
“Not at this moment, no.”
“Hey, forget dancing. I brought you a present. It’s what I was looking for when I found that Rubik’s Cube. Something I’ve held onto for a while.”
He went to his bag and unzipped a side pocket, pulled out a photograph. It was a Polaroid, one of the ten they’d shot long ago. It was “happy.” He bowed ceremoniously before handing it to her.
She changed the music from Benny Goodman to the mix she’d made of their 80s favorites, but turned the volume down so they could just talk. After one bottle of Blue Nun, they both decided it would be preferable to drink the Cabernet Franc.
By midnight, they were both exhausted. They retired to their respective air mattresses. He was the first to get up to pee, only an hour later. Whereas Robert was a light sleeper, Virginia didn’t move when he got up or returned.
He woke up immediately when she rolled off of her air mattress and left the room. He picked up his phone and checked the time. 3am. When he looked up from his phone, the ghost was there, standing in the middle of the room. There was no question who it was. It was Ginny, 18-year-old Ginny. She was not swaying. She was looking at Robert. He sat up to get a better look at her. Then they observed each other, neither one moving. She cocked her head, listening to a sound that he could not hear. Then, when she was satisfied, she started walking again, walking past where he sat on the floor, toward the front wall. She passed through it and out on to the porch, historically correct and also doomed. He moved to sit at the window and watch her glowing shape recede as she headed east down the front lawn.
He stayed there, watching her until she disappeared into the trees at the end of the slope. He thought about a ghostly young Ginny appearing on the other side, walking across the main road and continuing on, all the way to a rising sun.
The next Monday, the workmen arrived.
Richard Butner runs the Sycamore Hill Writers’ Conference. His chapbook Horses Blow Up Dog City & Other Stories was published by Small Beer Press in 2004.
His story “Ash City Stomp” appeared in Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror (Datlow, Link, and Grant, eds.) and was shortlisted for the Speculative Literature Foundation’s Fountain Award. More recently, his story “Holderhaven,” originally published in Crimewave 11: Ghosts, was a nominee for the Shirley Jackson Award.
He performs with Bare Theatre, the Nickel Shakespeare Girls, and Urban Garden Performing Arts. Last year Urban Garden produced his play, “Vogue Men’s Fashions.”