Third Ghost by Claudia Zuluaga

Third Ghost

In the parking lot of the grocery store, she found a penny, the color of mud, heads up. Though she was late to get her son from the sitter, she bent down and picked it up. 1947. Her mother, now dead, was not yet alive. Her father, still alive, was toddling around on a polished stone floor and trying to form words. She shoved it into the front pocket of her jeans, and pushed the cart towards her truck.

She would drop it in the foyer of their apartment, and let her son find it. She could already see it, his overnight backpack on his shoulders threatening to tip him over as he bent down to get it, his little mouth open, showing the dark hollow where his front tooth was newly missing. He believed in the promise of a heads-up penny and four-leaf clovers. He had the same expectant spirit when he was just a newborn, looking up at her when she laid him down on a soft towel to try out the newborn reflexes in her baby book: the Moro, the tonic neck, the Babinski. When she clapped her hands with quick intensity, she startled his translucent baby arms out sideways, his pink palms up. She stroked the sole of his foot and watched his waxy toes spread like fingers. She turned his face to the side and his arms and legs took the stance of a tiny fencer, or a love cherub pulling back on an arrow. All of the reflexes were there, he was in perfect working order, and he looked up at her, solemnly, as if his flawless performance were a good omen for both of them.

She put the grocery bags into the back seat and got into the truck, seeing that she’d left the window down, with the brand new phone she’d only started paying for right there on the passenger’s seat. It had been a sloppy day. At work, she’d slipped on the wet floor of the ladies room and landed on her elbow. She’d accidentally hung up on two important calls. Her handwriting was a mess in the way it usually wasn’t. And she had been imagining sex all day. With her dentist, with the UPS man, who was one of the ones who gave them their great reputation. With Jeff Goldblum.

She put her key in the ignition and turned it, imagining the three men, headed her way, one at a time. At the end of each day, these were the fantasies that left her head empty and quiet so that she could fall asleep without endless and perfectly-lit visions of reconciliation with her soon-to-be ex-husband — who wouldn’t answer her emails or calls.

She shifted into reverse and backed out right as Jeff Goldblum threw open her mind’s bedroom door, naked and tall and smooth as he was when he stepped out of his pod in The Fly, crouched down, ready, before any of the ugly fly metamorphosis had happened.

An old man’s sudden shout was the only reason she hit the brakes. She waved her hand in apology, watching him in the rear-view mirror. The man was unharmed, the truck still three or four feet away from him. Still, he took the time to hurl something small and hard that pinged in the truck bed.

“I’m sorry!” she called, her cheeks hot.

The old man muttered blurred curse words and pulled up his pants before finally skulking off.

She turned off the engine and reached into the glove box for the crumpled napkins and used them to dry her sweaty hairline. She wouldn’t have hit him, wouldn’t have run over him. She would have looked in time. It’s just that she was new to a manual transmission. And this truck was a lot to manage with its lurching clutch; too much inside of it needed attention for her to give equal attention to the world outside of it — the headlights she sometimes forgot to turn on, the RPMs she was supposed to watch for, the turn signal versus the windshield wipers. But the truck came to her for free at a time when she no longer had easy choices.

On yesterday’s news, a man in Long Island backed out of his driveway and right over his neighbor’s toddler. This could be her, if she didn’t get it together.

She started to turn the key. Then she stopped. Something was coming over her, fear manifest as real, moving up through her hands and down her spine. Like Ebenezer Scrooge’s ghost showing her what would be, she felt like she was the one who had done it and was watching from the past. It crept up her neck, and the back of her skull. Numb and empty and real. A child. Wrecked. Gone.

And with that, she crossed over a line she hadn’t known was there. The old her might have ascribed some of the blame to the dentist, the UPS guy, to naked Jeff Goldblum, to the man it had really been, but she let her eyes fill up without wiping them, let the shame wash over her. Her greed — for feeling wanted, for being entertained by someone else’s desire — had made her a destroyer. Her husband had not, as she’d taken some comfort in believing, pushed her into it with neglect or detachment. His face was now a painting of a sweet Jesus to her, serene and detached, and looking the other way. He only wished her well.


Third Ghost


Claudia Zuluaga is the author of Fort Starlight, a finalist for the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award. Her short fiction has been featured in Narrative, JMWW, Lost, and Dzanc Book’s Best of the Web. She teaches writing at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.


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Art (cropped) Lourdes Castro / Pedro Simoes CC2.0