by Dash Owens
The period between 3:30 and 6 a.m. was the trickiest. Few were watching television or listening to the radio or reading books during this time. Mary left for work around 6:15 every morning, and Maeve usually followed her. Sometimes Maeve got caught up with the insomniac or she discovered an early rising child watching a show on their tablet.
One morning, Maeve was doing the latter. A small boy no older than five curled around the 10 inch screen on his sofa, his eyes following the cartoon adventures of a group of gnomes. Maeve drifted inside the couch so she was hunched above the boy in his train car pajamas. The gnomes lived in a garden behind a picturesque suburban house, and they had adventures by interacting with the creatures who lived in neighboring gardens and yards.
Once Maeve saw she missed Mary’s departure, she decided to go for a walk — or whatever it is a ghost does when they move down a street. Maeve didn’t have a destination in mind, but she moved west down Fulton, past recognizable storefronts from her days as a living person: the post-office and biergartens and tiny bakeries. She moved until she stopped in front of a bookstore with its pristine display of new releases and tote bags. She wondered for the first time what happened to her books, the ones missing when she returned to her empty apartment. She remembered when her dad drove across the country to move most of those books into her first Brooklyn apartment, and he shook his sweaty head each time he carried another heavy box to the third floor walk-up. He declared he was never helping her move again. Did he help take all of her things out of the apartment? Did he put all of those books back in boxes, carry them down to a car double parked on the street, and drive back to Michigan? Maeve realized for the first time how little she had thought of her parents since she died. But that made no sense — how could she forget about her own family? Why didn’t she begin walking towards Michigan the moment she discovered she died? Why couldn’t she feel horrified and distraught the way she was supposed to? It was as if she were banging her head against the wall without being able to sense the wall or the bang.
When Maeve first came to New York, she spent hours ambling through large bookstores near Union Square and the Upper West Side. She loved reading staff recommendations scrawled on index cards and analyzing the logic behind arranged tables of books. Which critics counted for critics picks? Does Dostoyevsky belong on a table entitled, “Underground Reads” just because he wrote a book with “Underground” in the title? Maeve imagined a curator pouring over a random set of books for months at a time, straining their eyes through an oversized magnifying glass on a spread of genres and chapter titles and themes, all in search of the short phrase that encapsulated the topic of them all. She would hunt for the thread knitting together The Peasant War in Germany with Death and the King’s Horseman: “Books You Didn’t Expect To Be Written in England”; “For Collectivism”; “Hunt Not Hunted”; “Authors People Lie About Reading To Sound Smart.” Maeve wondered why she ever wanted more than just a wage. Jobs existed where people sort books in whimsical ways so people buy them. All kinds of jobs existed, but Maeve never wanted a job that could be described as “just a job.” She wanted, as she had informed Mary, something a Disney heroine wants at the beginning of the movie: “more.” Now there was no “more” of anything.
Maeve entered the bookstore and ran into (through) the ceiling-high, white bookshelves a few feet from the door and came out the other side near biographies and histories. Maeve made circles around the shelves looking at familiar and new titles, inattentively passing through patrons here and there. A few years before, Maeve went to the 9/11 memorials in lower Manhattan. Large rectangular caverns marked the locations of the Twin Towers. Inside, water poured downwards towards a dark hole in the center, where the water appeared to continue falling indefinitely into the endless hole. She thought about taking one of the books and flipping to the inside flap or back cover to read a summary and reviews. That and similar thoughts seemed to also fall away from Maeve into some far away, ambiguous abyss which she neither saw nor comprehended; water falling indefinitely into the endless hole. Maeve knew she was physically dead, but she was beginning to wonder how much her mind needed her missing senses to make any sense of the world.
As she passed through a thirty-something man with an unruly beard and large rectangular silver metal glasses, Maeve paused. What if she stayed this time? Could she possess him? Usually passing through someone was a quick flash of dark colors similar to the insides of eyelids. This time she remained for a few moments. What did she expect to find — signposts directing her to a control panel with a joystick? A tiny version of the man with the beard and glasses ready to battle her for his consciousness? The best way to describe his “insides” was…fuzzy. There were no comprehensible feelings or perceptions. She phased out of him, stuttering like she had when she first died. She found herself hopping about the bookstore, quick images appearing before her. The sky (was she on the roof?), then a bench in a tiny park sandwiched between two forks in the road a block from the bookstore. She focused on the bench and became still. It seemed like human possession was not an option.
“Hey! Hey You! Hey!”
If she could possess someone, then she could read. Walk. She noticed for the first time how the grass next to the bench seemed to sway. There was wind. When was the last time she felt wind?
“Hey! Ghost! You, you the ghost. Ghost person. I’m talking to YOU!”
She saw him. Light pink robe wrapped around plaid sweatpants and a white undershirt. She saw this barefooted young man walk towards her. Could he?
“I see you! YES YOU! YOU!”
Maeve hadn’t talked since she died. Did she remember how to talk? It didn’t matter. He immediately began to speak without stopping for some time.
“I’m sorry,” he said, pausing in front of her. “I’m so sorry. This must be shocking for you. I’m also dead. I mean…I’m dead the way you are dead. I saw you the other day and I’ve been trying to find you because I think you’re probably freaking out. I see it might have been an unexpected way to die with that cut on your head” — Maeve reached up as if to touch her forehead — “and you’re probably very confused about being dead and kinda not dead at the same time. So I’m here to, well, like welcome you to the afterlife and guide you….no, not guide you, I’m not, like, important or knowledgable. I’m no Virgil. But it is seriously confusing to be suddenly alive and then dead but, like, a ghost. So I’m here to help you, if I can.”
The young man in the pink robe smiled, a big and wide smile that struck Maeve as greedy. She experienced a constriction in the space where her chest used to be, and the air around the strange ghost seemed to palpitate. Maeve didn’t recognize what was happening because it hadn’t happened to her in quite some time. It was similar to when she was a child learning to play the cello, and her teacher instructed her to repeat a scale after she missed a half-step. Maeve would stand up, tighten her hands into fists, and, with proverbial steam shooting out her ears, stomp her foot as hard as she could, screaming—
“NO! NO! NO NO NO NO NO!”
The young man backed away with his hands up, his jolly grin receding into a look of concern.
“I know this is upsetting…”
“NOOOOOOOOOO,” Maeve bellowed. “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!”
It was like the first time she refused to go to Mass with her parents. She locked the door to her room as her dad banged on it over and over, ordering her to come out. She felt it in her gut with a bull horn reverberating through her esophagus…
And then the moment came after the stomps and screams and power struggles — contents spilling out of the broken candy dispenser, leaving the transparent globe empty.
“This really sucks right now,” the guy in the robe said calmly. “Really, really sucks.”
The air stilled and Maeve held on to a brief thought: she had been angry.