Twenty-two years have passed since my father drowned me in the tub. I don’t remember much about my past, but my future seems settled. I awake in the night, that same cold sore on my lip, the same ringing in my head. A chill stops my heart. I only see in black and white.
I float into the dark, empty bedroom. Apathy fills the space. So many families have come and gone. The walls are etched with memory marks, like three-year-old Tony’s booger stains, and ten-year-old Cory’s chiseled initials. Echoes of screams permeate the air, as if the terrified tykes still remain, standing side by side, hand in hand, all with one wish cluttering their ignorant heads as they stare at my pasty apparition: for me to leave.
I wish I could. I can’t. I’ve tried.
From the closet to the bathroom, from the tub to the mirror, from the window to the bedroom door, I feel no pain. When I turn to the hallway, invisible charcoal dives down my throat, a cluster of cinnamon soot. Panic ensues. Optical illusions strike my open eyes from every direction. I’ve pushed on before. Two decades is a long time not to try. But as I descend the rickety staircase, I hear the sinister growl of a grizzly bear. “Hello dearie,” my father whispers. “I thought you’d never come.” His warm breath of gin and Hot Tamales engulfs my face; the sound of his snickering surrounds me. As the choking from the charcoal settles, a new pain strikes my aching throat: my father’s strong, wet hands. He won’t let me go. He won’t let me leave.
The window remains my only portal to the outside world. I’m a voyeur in a prison cell, watching as the unsuspecting lives of others pass me by. I see the diehard athletes on their bikes, the cars pressing through the slush, the snow melting on the widening sidewalk. I see the tilting trees, the colorless flowers. Occasionally a child traipses by and peers up into the second story window. I wave, and he waves back. The mom or dad pulls him forward, but he continues to watch me, like he needs a friend.
Not every child bellows for her mommy’s embrace. I remember when little Peggy Walton shared the space with me for those two remarkable years. She didn’t mind the ghostly roommate. We talked late into the night about her favorite school subjects, the crotchety Mr. Crouser, her secret to winning her soccer games. We played board games, and she moved my pieces for me. Her dad always asked whom she was talking to. “Abby,” Peggy said. “She’s a ghost who lives in my room.” Her dad never believed, even though I tried to speak to him. The children can see my every move — but the adults always look right through me, like I’m nothing.
I hear the cacophony of traffic in the distance. The moon is still reflected on the tranquil lake beyond the street. I hear movement from downstairs, then my father’s loud and cheerful laughing. He laughs once a night, the same eerie giggle that erupted from his mouth the second before he blew his brains out and tumbled down the staircase. A housefly lands on the other side of the window. Sadness overwhelms me. I float back to the bathroom, back to the tub. I settle into the space where it happened. I close my eyes and hope for a better day.
A car pulls up the driveway. The front door opens with a frightful clang. I open my eyes to blinding daylight.
“Oh, wow, it’s even bigger than I thought,” a woman says from downstairs.
“Yes, this is really the perfect home for a family of four,” another woman says, in a higher-pitched voice. “Intimate but spacious.”
I enter the bedroom. A barrage of footsteps comes up the stairs. A tall figure enters, and I pull back, disappearing into the shadows.
The woman is dressed in a black business suit, her hair up in a bun. She enters the room with an arrogant confidence. A young couple follows her, the man carrying an overloaded backpack and the woman carrying a three-month-old baby. I hear more footsteps from the hallway. One more person has an entrance to make.
“Awesome!” a boy says as he enters, bouncing to the music blasting in his ears.
“Mom, can this be my room?”
The irritated mother, fifty pounds overweight and plain in the face, pulls her son’s headphones down. “Honey, be respectful.”
“But Mom! It was Foreigner!”
“Percy, listen to your mother,” the father says. He scratches at his gray, prickly beard and takes a step closer to the real estate agent. “He’s in a bit of a rebellious phase.”
Percy shakes his head and breaks away from his parents. He walks toward me in the corner of the room. He’s short, pudgy around the middle, with kind, capacious eyes and a monstrous nose. He presses his headphones back up to his ears as his parents ask further questions about the property. He doesn’t see me right away. He crosses his arms and analyzes the bathroom first, and then smiles at himself in the enormous mirror. He turns around, and, as “Hot Blooded” echoes from his headphones, he catches sight of me. At first I think he might run screaming, but he remains still, his fearful expression transforming into one of fascination.
“Cool,” Percy says.
“What did you say, honey?” asks his mother.
“Nothing. Can this be my room?”
The agent laughs. “He’s such a cutie! How old is your son?”
“Nine going on nineteen.”
The baby starts crying, and the mother retreats. The father and the real estate agent follow her into the hallway.
Percy plants his hands against his sides and steps forward, curious about me, but unsure about my motivations.
“Hi,” I say.
“Hello,” says the boy. “I’m Percy.”
“I’m Abigail. You can call me Abby.”
“Nice to meet you. Are you a ghost?”
I nod. He takes another step forward. He is an inch away from my face. He peers down and brushes his hand straight through me.
“Nifty,” he says. He backs up against the tub and looks into my eyes. “Abby, can I be your friend? I’m new here, and I could really use a friend.”
“So could I,” I say.
He awakens in the middle of the night, his socks dangling off his toes, his bedspread a ball of twine on the floor. I watch him rise and lick his lips. He’s thirsty again. He takes a step toward the bedroom door.
“No,” I say. “Drink out of the sink.”
“No. I’ll be OK.”
He yawns and exits the room before I can convince him to stay.
I move toward the door, and when I pass through the entryway I’m stricken with the choking frenzy. The upstairs bedroom and bathroom have been designated my forever corridors; to move past the invisible force field into any other space is forbidden. The pain cripples me, but I press on. I reach the top of the staircase. I can’t breathe. I want to scream.
I feel Percy’s fear in the pit of my gut. The glass of water crashes to the hardwood floor. I hear him weeping. I want to help him, but I can’t muster the energy to pass the first step. I see his mother in a bathrobe, his father appearing disheveled in a t-shirt and boxers. Percy enters the foyer, tears streaming down his face.
“I saw him again,” the boy says, shivering. “He’s a bad man, a really bad man.”
The parents help their son up the stairs, back to his bedroom, back to his safe sanctuary, with me as his earnest protector.
I stay put at the top, too weakened to move, as the trio stomps through me. The sensation erases my pain for a moment and infuses in me a sense of calm. I feel Percy’s beating heart, the pulsating veins in the forehead of the mother, the clogging of blood vessels in the thighs of the father. I exhale sweetly and peer down the staircase.
My father hovers at the bottom, his white spirit glowing against the heavy moonlight. He jerks his head from left to right and grins at me, the same way he grinned at me the night he shoved my face into the water.
I wish I could cry. I wish I could attack. The choking pain overwhelms me again.
“I hate you,” I say. “I hate you so much.”
“My darling Abigail,” my father says. “Made any new female friends lately?”
His grin widens. I close my eyes, hover back toward the bedroom, then swoop deep into the claustrophobic closet.
I don’t return for air until I know Percy is asleep.
Percy begins school in January. He tells me he has trouble fitting in. He’s short for his age, a bit on the hefty side, and infinitely smarter than most of his classmates. He tells me that a freakishly tall sixth grader has set his eyes on making his life pure misery. His desire for friends isn’t helped by his frequent illnesses — the boy stays home from school almost as much as he frequents it. In March, a day before his tenth birthday, he’s diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes.
That night Percy turns toward me at the corner of his bed, a pillow wedged between his legs. His mom has spent most of the day crying. His father has departed the room after installing a small fridge next to the boy’s desk.
“Abby, how did you die?” he asks.
“It’s not important,” I say.
“It is to me.”
“It happened a long time ago.”
I levitate past Percy’s bed, all the way to the back corner of the ceiling. I’m worried for the boy. Up here with this bird’s eye view, Percy appears so small and brittle.
“Don’t go away,” he says. “I want to talk to you.”
“You need some rest.”
“I’m not tired. Tell me how you died. I want to know.”
I stay hidden, up high in the shadows. I’m surrounded by so much blackness that I can barely see the outlines of my chalky fingertips. Percy has asked me about my past before, but he’s never been this persistent.
I hear a knock from below, followed by the loud nightly chuckle. I wonder if my father listens to every word I say, judging, dismissive.
I descend back to the carpet. Percy says, “You know who that is downstairs, don’t you? The bad man, I mean.”
I’ve spent four months as this kid’s roommate. He can see through my lies.
“Yes,” I say.
“Is he your dad?”
I hesitate. “Yes.”
Percy frowns. “I can be scared of my dad sometimes. When he gets mad at me. When I don’t listen to him.”
“I don’t think you’re supposed to eat that,” I say.
He opens the fridge and removes his NovoLog FlexPen. He exposes his left hip and sticks the pen against his tender skin.
“How much insulin did you know to take?”
“I didn’t,” he says. “I guessed.”
I always keep my distance from Percy, but not tonight. I approach the side of his bed, and extend my arms toward his unoccupied pillow.
“You have to start exercising. You have to start eating better.”
“Shut up,” he says. “You’re not my mother.”
“I care about you, that’s all. I don’t want anything to happen to you.”
“You don’t need to call me fat. I know I’m fat.”
I shake my head in bewilderment. “I didn’t say that. You’re putting words in my mouth.”
Percy rolls to his side and faces the window, sniffling. I see his white insulin pen on the side of the bed, and I want to return it to the fridge. I wish I could touch a physical object, even only for a second.
“Well, good night,” I say. “I love you.”
I wait for a response, but none is given. I float into the bathroom, into the tub, and close my eyes. I hear the wrestling of movement downstairs, like my father needs someone to talk to. I try to forget he’s there. I try to believe I’m the only ghost who remains in the house.
“I love you, too, Abby,” Percy whispers from the bedroom.
Then, for the first time in weeks, I sleep.
I peer down toward the bus stop from the bedroom window. The sixth grader departs the bus with Percy every day but has never before followed him home. I hear the echoes of his deep voice carry across the densely populated street.
“So I hear you can’t eat candy anymore,” says the sixth grader, with wicked glee.
Tall and freakishly thin, with pimples popping out all over his stretched oval face, this boy is an atrocity to the eyes.
“Shut up, Dennis!” Percy’s backpack is loaded, like he’s carrying bricks along with his textbooks. I wish he carried a switchblade as well.
The bully shoves a king-sized Snickers bar into his mouth and moans with awkward delight. “I hear you got diabetes. Cuz you’re fat! Cuz you’re a fat tub of lard!”
“Shut up! Leave me alone!”
I press my face against the window. I wish I could go through. Even though I defy the laws of physics, I’m unable to pass through closed spaces. I don’t know why. I’ve been asking myself why for twenty-two years.
“Here,” Dennis says, throwing his candy bar at the back of Percy’s head. “Have a bite.”
He laughs. “I want to see if you’ll have a seizure.”
“No! Go away!”
“You do what I say, fat ass.” Dennis kicks Percy down into a puddle of slush.
Am I the only one seeing this? I want to shout for help. But no one will hear.
Dennis jumps on Percy’s back, then leaps to the sidewalk. He walks in the other direction, shaking his head in amusement.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, Percy the Pig,” the bully says. He chants the phrase as he saunters away. “Percy the Pig! Percy the Pig!”
Percy pushes himself out of the puddle and stumbles standing up. He grabs his backpack. His eyes are brimming with tears.
He disappears from view. The door slams hard. A wave of woe flows through me.
I don’t turn around when he enters the room. I hear him dive onto the bed and continue weeping into his pillows. I stay near the window. I try not to make a sound.
I turn on the bathtub faucet, then drop my towel and stare into the mirror. I’m skinnier than yesterday. My hair falls past my shoulders, and my breasts are finally taking shape. The black bruise below my eye is fading, and the cold sore above my lip is almost gone. My suitcase is packed and stashed underneath my bed. My one-way ticket to Chicago is wedged into my pants pocket. My love is in Chicago. She says she’ll take me in.
I hear my father stumbling up the stairs. I didn’t expect him to be home this early. He enters the bedroom, then calmly knocks on the bathroom door.
“I’m taking a bath, Dad.”
“Open this door, young lady.”
“Dad, I’m naked!”
I don’t have to see the red in his face and the sweat on his forehead to know he’s been drinking again. A door separates us, but I still smell the smoky scotch on his breath.
He doesn’t yell. He is calm. “This is your last chance.”
“Can you wait until after — ”
I scream when he kicks against the door, harder than he ever has before.
“Daddy! Stop it!”
He kicks twice more. The fourth kick knocks the door down, revealing an enraged, bloated figure, a large red suitcase in his hands.
He drops the suitcase at my feet and slaps me hard in the face. “What is this? Huh? You walkin’ out on me?”
“Daddy, hear me out — ”
“It’s to be with her, isn’t it? That girl?”
“Daddy, please. You don’t understand — ”
“I understand completely! You disgust me!”
“The world doesn’t need you! I don’t need you!”
My father clamps his burly hands around my neck and brings me down into the water before I have a chance to defend myself. I see my father’s face as he strangles me, no compassion, no regret. He is happy to be rid of me. I try to fight back, but he is too strong. I’m so surprised by the turn of events that I forget to feel pain. A wave of euphoria falls over me like a warm silk blanket.
The last sound I hear before my world goes black is my father’s triumphant snickering. Followed by a gunshot.
I wake up. I can still hear my father laughing. I glance at the clock. Percy’s bus driver should be dropping him off any minute.
My father laughs again. I know he’s listening.
I can’t breathe. I don’t want to be dead anymore. I want him to be dead. Dead and gone.
He laughs again.
I turn toward the window. The school bus pulls to the curb, and Percy exits first. He has a scowl on his face. The sixth grader steps off the bus and follows Percy down the sidewalk. This time the menace doesn’t keep his hands off of him. He kicks him in the leg, slaps him on the back of his head. He unzips a side pocket and takes out Percy’s NovoLog FlexPen.
“Hey!” Percy shouts, swinging his hand at Dennis’s chest. “Give that back!”
“You didn’t say please.”
“Please! Please give it back!”
“OK,” the bully says. “As you wish.”
The two stand at the end of the driveway. Dennis lifts up Percy’s shirt. My mouth opens wide. What is he up to? I watch in horror as the sixth grader thrusts the insulin pen against Percy’s belly.
“Oww!” Percy yells, gripping his stomach and falling back hard against the wet sidewalk.
Dennis laughs and retreats in the opposite direction. I try to remain calm.
The front door opens. Percy races up the stairs and down the hall to the bedroom. He appears before me shaking. He sits down at the edge of the bed, the insulin pen in his hand.
He’s quiet for a moment. Then: “I don’t feel very good.”
He opens his bedside drawer. A dozen chocolate chip cookies tumble out. He stuffs three in his mouth and starts ravenously chewing. He swallows the remaining crumbles and grabs a fourth. But he doesn’t shove it in his mouth. Instead, he starts to cry.
I float up to him, not knowing what to say or do to make him feel better. He’s still shaking. He’s still terrified.
The boy looks at me. “I wish you were human, Abby. I wish you were… alive.”
I nod. “I do, too.”
“Do you think we’d be friends? If you weren’t a ghost?”
I don’t hesitate. “Best of friends.”
Percy smiles. His shaking calms down. He takes a bite of another cookie and sets his insulin pen down on the dresser.
“Why does Dennis hate me? Why can’t he just leave me alone?”
He lays his head back against the bed and closes his eyes. The shaking ceases. His body stops moving. He’s asleep.
I approach Percy’s face. He appears even younger than his age.
I’ll do anything for him.
“I love you, Percy,” I say. I kiss him on his forehead. I know my imagination is playing tricks on me, but I feel his soft skin on my lips. “I love you so very much.”
I turn to the bedroom door. Every day since I stared at myself naked on that cold October night has led to this moment.
My father is laughing again. He’s mocking me. I see him at the bottom of the bannister, his cold eyes staring back at me like he wants me to come down and play.
I decide not to hide any longer.
I enter the hallway. The charcoal clogs my throat, and I can’t breathe. Panic consumes me. But I push on.
I descend the staircase. My father is waiting for me. He’s surprised when I reach the bottom step; I usually don’t. I turn to him. He appears ten feet tall.
“Abigail,” he says. “My darling little lesbian.”
“I’m not afraid of you.”
He grins wide. “You’ve been afraid of me your entire life.”
“You’re not real. You’re not really here.”
I feel the charcoal not only swirling in my throat, but also rushing up my esophagus. A loud buzzing rushes through me. I don’t know what’s happening. I’m surprised to discover the panic has lessened.
My father floats backward.
“What are you doing?” he asks.
I don’t let him retreat. I glide toward him, my mouth on fire, my throat ready to unleash an unthinkable terror.
“Don’t,” he says. “Don’t you dare!”
“Goddammit!” I shout. “I’m not afraid of you!”
I open my mouth to vomit, but no chunky residue spills out, and no charcoal remnants fall to the ground. Instead, a hundred houseflies emerge from my throat and encircle my father from head to toe. He tries to bat them away, shake them off. But too many cover him, blind him, choke him. The last of the insects escape my mouth and push my father up, up, up, across the ceiling and out the kitchen window. The flies disperse in the sky and scatter in every direction.
I survey the room. All is silent. He is gone. For good.
“Goodbye, Dad,” I whisper.
I move toward the entrance hall. The front door is wedged open. I haven’t left the house in twenty-two years. I take a deep breath. The choking sensation is gone, and the panic has vanished. There’s no turning back. I emerge into the blinding sunlight.
I find the sidewalk and turn to my left. The neighborhood street is endless. I float past one house after another, past the bus stop and intersection, toward a large, crowded park in the distance. Children climb the jungle gym, jump on and off the swings, and tumble down the slippery slide.
I spot Dennis. He crouches in the bushes, a pile of rocks in his hands. He giggles and tosses a sharp stone at a child, but misses.
“You’re so stupid,” Dennis says to the children. “None of you even know I’m here.”
“I know you’re here,” I say.
He whisks around. “Who said that?”
I smile, hiding behind a nearby bush. “I’ve been watching you, Dennis,” I whisper in a low voice. “I’ve been watching you torment Percy. You’ve been a very bad boy.”
His eyes dart in every direction. He doesn’t see me. His lips quiver.
Dennis stumbles up to his feet. “Who’s there? Who are you?”
“You better stay away from Percy, you understand me? You better start being a good boy. Because if you stay bad, I’ll know, and I’ll find you.”
I push past the bush and reveal myself in full to the horrified bully. His eyes bulge out of their sockets.
I smile. “And I’ll make your life a living hell.”
I swing my fist against his face and, much to my surprise, make contact. He flails backward and lands on the rocky ground mere inches from the slide.
A dozen children laugh and point. Dennis starts crying. A stream of bright yellow urine trickles toward the bottom of his legs.
I’m startled, stunned. “Oh my God,” I say. My hand aches. My whole body trembles with an overwhelming power. “It can’t be.”
I clench my fist and draw it close to my heart. I’m astonished to see the reds and the yellows and the purples and the greens — but I’m also astonished to feel the ground beneath me, the sharp rocks piercing my aching toes.
The children look at me. They gasp; they mumble.
A blond boy points and says, “That girl! She’s naked!”
My jaw drops. I turn around and run.
My feet find the street. I go to Percy. I leap up to the sidewalk and race to his front door. Tears fall from my eyes. I feel them strike my freezing hands.
I stop at the door. I look back to see a young woman on her bike. Her hair flows all the way down to the pedals, and her face illuminates the cool winter skies.
I don’t know what tomorrow will bring. I don’t even know what I’ll do next. All I know is that it’s happened.