After her mother died, my daughter became afraid of ghosts. Not the kind in Scooby Doo, she said, but ones that smother you in the bed, that lurk in the crack of the closet, that drip out of the faucet and threaten to flood the house. The kind that take her mother in dreams.
At night I hold her. She is jelly soft, hot breath, knees the size of golf balls, as she tries to get comfortable in the spot where Ronnie slept. I flatten her curls against the pillow, away from her face. I kiss the wisps of her eyebrows.
“Mommy.” Her eyes flicker, wet, glassy, toward the ceiling. “What if they’re here?”
I am as hopeful as my daughter is fearful. But Ronnie already haunts me in so many ways. Would a fallen glass, a moved necklace, a shadow in the hallway, make anything better about where she is, where we are, left behind?
Our cat is acting strangely, stopping in the middle of the hallway, sitting on Ronnie’s desk chair, staring at corners. My daughter carries a clove of garlic from the kitchen in her school jumper and wears her grandmother’s crucifix. At night we listen to the floorboards creak, expanding and contracting like the muscles of our hearts. Winter crackles like static, dark and cold and rolled up like dust bunnies in corners.
One evening in February, I am slicing a lemon when the cat jumps on the counter. I jerk, the knife slicing the soft between thumb and forefinger. I staunch the blood with a towel and shoo her away, wondering why she would do such a thing. Ronnie or the cat? The blood rises to the top of the cloth, a perfect circle, along with the pain. My daughter hurries in as I kneel on the floor, weeping.
The winter grows into spring. My daughter grows into six. She sleeps in her own bed again. Summer warms the window panes. The scar on my hand is pale, wormy. I cannot remember a time now when I’ve not had it.
“Where did you get that?” my daughter asks at the coffee shop. It’s parents’ weekend at the university. She is taller than me, even when she hunches over the table, hands cloaking her mug.
“This scar?” I look at my hand. It never changes, like Ronnie’s face in photographs, but it never disappears, ever. “When Spooky jumped on the countertop, remember?”
“Which one was Spooky again?” I can smell the faint stale of cigarette on her Oxford shirt, white, wrinkled, as she straightens and grins. “The orange one or white one?”
At 21, my daughter does not fear the past, only the future. Her grades, how she will pay for her car insurance, her credit card.
“I met a guy.” She traces the top of her mug with her finger.
“Oh?” I smile. “Am I going to meet him?”
“We’re not there yet.” She shrugs, then looks at me. “Have you ever thought about it?”
“Dating?” I place my hands in my lap. After enough time has elapsed, when the silence threatens to suffocate us, I pick up my teacup. “Spooky was the white one.”
When I go home, I lie in bed, watching Henry, the gray one, sleeping. I rub the waxy line between my fingers, seizing on every rattle of the window, every groan of the pipe. The one thing I’ve learned about opening old wounds is that they keep the blood flowing. The phone rings, and Henry jumps off the bed, wiggling through the doorway.
“I’m not here.” I press the receiver close to my lips. “Are you still there?”
Jen Michalski is the author of the novels The Summer She Was Under Water and The Tide King, the collections From Here and Close Encounters, and a couplet of novellas called Could You Be With Her Now. She is the managing editor of jmww and host of the monthly fiction reading series, Starts Here!
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