There were ghosts in the house. Everyone knew they were there, though you couldn’t see them, not most of the time, anyway. But you’d be going down the stairs one day, and you’d find a ghost coming up; or – more disconcertingly – as you entered your bedroom a ghost would just be leaving it.
Then there were the times that you were doing something and a ghost would just appear in the corner of your eye, hang around a moment, and vanish. Perhaps it would be the woman, whom Kitty hated, because she had a sly expression on her thin face and long fingers that looked like claws. Kitty always thought the woman was looking her over with sneering contempt, and it made her deeply uncomfortable.
Sometimes it would be the man, who was thick around the chest and had a silly moustache. Kitty didn’t mind him so much, because he never even looked as though he noticed her, and anyway he had a kind face except for the silly moustache. Sometimes it was the little girl, but she was much smaller and younger than Kitty herself, so she always ignored her. The little girl was usually doing things which made no sense to Kitty anyway, as though she was playing some game of her imagination.
Very rarely it was the boy. Kitty waited to see the boy. Even if she only glimpsed him for a second, her heart felt as though it would burst out of her chest. He looked so good that she never had eyes for anyone else.
Even her mother noticed, and said so, more than once. “You’re going moony over that ghost, Kitty.”
Kitty tried not to blush. “That’s not true,” she protested.
“Come off it. I saw you staring after him just now.” Her voice softened for a moment. “It’s a ghost, Kitty.”
“I know,” Kitty said furiously. “And I’m not going moony over him.”
Her mother just smiled sarcastically, and Kitty strode away angrily. Down in the garden she wandered moodily about for a while, until she saw the woman, doing something near a flower bed; so she went back up into the house and up to her room.
The little girl was standing outside the door, her lips pursed as if whistling.
Kitty looked at her for a moment, and then walked right through her into the room.
The little girl didn’t even blink or move at all.
“It wouldn’t be so bad,” Kitty said moodily, “if I had someone else to talk to.”
“You have us to talk to,” her mother said brightly. “Doesn’t she, dear?”
Her father didn’t even look up from the book he was reading. “Hm.”
Kitty stared at him. “How long have you been reading that book?” she asked distinctly.
“I said,” she repeated, “how long have you been reading that book? It’s all you ever do.”
Her father looked surprised. His mild face emerged from the heavy old leather-bound volume, eyes blinking. “It’s important that I read it,” he said. “I’m doing research. You know that.”
“All the time?”
“Don’t bother your father, Kitty,” her mother said sternly.
“I was just talking to him, like you told me I could,” Kitty retaliated. “What else is there to do?”
“Why don’t you go clean your room if you have nothing better to do?”
But there wasn’t anything better to do, Kitty realised, as her father, with an audible sigh of relief, went back to his book. She couldn’t even go anywhere because they were so far away from any place, as her mother said. And there was nobody to talk to.
“Except the ghosts,” she muttered to herself, as she walked upstairs to her room. But even the ghosts couldn’t say a word.
That night she had just got into bed when the boy walked in. He stood there for a moment, rubbing his shoulder, and Kitty took the opportunity to drink him in with her eyes. He was looking much more distinct than usual tonight, the lines of his face clear, the curl of hair falling over his forehead even moving slightly in a breeze that wasn’t there. She could even see a long, jagged healing cut on the back of his hand, which flexed with his fingers as he rubbed his shoulder. She wondered how he’d got hurt. It must have happened not long before he’d become a ghost.
It was the clearest she’d ever seen him, and she didn’t care that she was in her old, ridiculous pink nightgown with the lace on the front, and that her hair was loose and straggling. She edged closer to him on the bed, pushing herself along with her hands and feet so as not to make any sudden moves, expecting him to vanish at any moment. But even when she reached the edge of the bed, almost within touching distance of him, he still hadn’t disappeared.
“Can you see me?” she whispered. He’d stopped rubbing at his shoulder and was staring up at the wall just above his head, running his hand back and forth exactly as though he was selecting a book from a shelf of volumes. “Can you hear me?”
The ghost made no response, but stopped running his hand along the line of invisible books. He tilted his head to one side, very slightly, as though straining to hear a far-off noise.
“Please try to hear me,” Kitty repeated, whispering. “I need to talk to you. Please!”
But it was already too late, the ghost slowly fading and vanishing before her eyes. She reached out to touch him, and her fingertips brushed the transparent air.
She tried to cry, afterwards, but even the tears wouldn’t come.
The next day she decided to run away.
It wasn’t the first time she’d thought about it, of course. Lately it seemed to her that she didn’t spend a day without thinking about it. But where would she run to?
“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “Any place would be better than this.”
Still, it required a bit of planning and preparation. It wasn’t as though she was worried about what her parents would think. Her mother would probably be glad to get her out of her hair, and as for her father, she was certain that he was hardly aware that she even existed, anyway.
“I’m doing it for them as much as for me,” she told herself with gloomy satisfaction. “Once I’m gone, they’ll be happy.”
Her mother saw her standing looking out of the window. “Mooning at that ghost again?” she snapped. “I’m tired of your always sighing after it. You encourage the things.”
“I do not!” Kitty snapped. “It’s not my fault they’re around.”
“Don’t talk back to me,” her mother replied. “You are encouraging them.” She raised her voice. “Isn’t she encouraging them?”
“Listen to your mother,” her father said without looking up from the book. “Don’t encourage the ghosts.”
“See,” her mother said triumphantly, “you are encouraging them.”
Without saying a word, Kitty turned away and went up to her room. Her parents made no attempt to stop her.
As she was climbing the stairs she saw the boy coming down. She hesitated, wanting to press herself against the wall to let him past, though he was only a ghost. But he paused just beside her, so close that if he hadn’t been a ghost she might have felt him breathing, and looked thoughtfully at the wall near her head.
“I’m here,” she whispered to him. “Can you see me?”
He cocked his head, as though listening intently. She’d never seen him from this close, this clearly. Even his eyelashes were clear, one of them crooked, bent near the skin.
“Oh, please,” she breathed. “See me at least. Just once!”
He didn’t look at her, but he didn’t vanish either, as she’d expected. Instead, he continued walking slowly down the steps, but hesitantly, constantly looking either way. She paused a moment on the stairs, irresolutely, and then followed him down.
He walked out of the front door and down the path towards the gate. It was rarely that one saw one of the ghosts outside, and she had never seen one as clearly as this. Even though the sun was shining, it didn’t pass through his body. But then she had never been as close to a ghost outside either.
“Kitty,” she heard her mother call from inside the house. “Where are you going?”
She didn’t reply. The boy’s hand was on the gate, he was opening the gate, and she could see the cut on the back quite clearly. It seemed better healed than the previous night. He stepped out, and she went with him.
“Listen,” she said to him then. “Listen, you have to listen, I have something to say –”
He stopped so suddenly that she almost ran into him, and would have collided with him if she hadn’t put up her hand at the last moment to catch herself. Her fingers touched his shoulder and, yes, she felt his shoulder, the cloth and the skin underneath. For a moment she felt them!
He felt her touch too. He jumped, turned around, and she could see his eyes, wide and frightened. His lips moved. “What...who...?”
“It’s only me,” she started. “But – you can see me? You can feel me, can’t you?”
He wasn’t listening. With a shout of terror, he ran. She began stumbling after him, as fast as she could go, calling for him to wait. He just ran faster, his legs pumping. His shadow followed him, flicking over the dust.
Kitty stopped where she was. She stopped for a long time before she looked down at the ground at her own feet. The sun was still bright, its rays golden on the grass and the leaves, licking at the dry dust of the lane around her. The sun was bright and golden, and it cast no shadow.
There was no girl standing in the lane.
Kitty stood there for a long, long time, until the sun had vanished behind the tall trees in the west. Then she turned round, and began walking home.
She didn’t worry about what she’d tell her parents. There was no need to tell them anything.
Long before she entered through the gate, she knew that she would find nobody there at all.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2014