As the ghost, Sarah used the family’s old alphabet fridge magnets to spell things she missed: SOUP, ROMCOMS, Norah Jones’s song SUNRISE and how that album traveled with her and Jory across several states for winter orientation at the University of Montana, MOMS SINGING.
Jory – who could see Sarah, who spent evenings in the bathroom speaking through a froth of toothpaste and spit about his therapy sessions, his progress in fundraising a scholarship named after her, and the girl he was crushing on – tried to explain Sarah’s presence to Mom. After several months, Mom decided she’d had enough. “We’re both grieving,” she said, “but this game of yours isn’t helping.”
Mom never admitted how she’d call to the ghost whenever she was alone in the house. She’d sit in her kid’s former room, touching only the bed. Sarah would communicate by ruffling the Princess Mononoke movie poster, swinging the closet door on its degraded hinges, or swiveling the computer chair. Mom lay still, fingers digging into the blanket as she witnessed each signal. “I wish I could see you again,” she eventually said.
At the fridge, Sarah tried to arrange a confession, but erased it each time. After hours of deliberation, Sarah could only bring herself to spell, SORRY.
Frustrated, Mom scrambled the letters the next morning.
Years passed. Plans were made to move after Jory accepted enrollment at CSUN. Jory threatened to withdraw from college in protest. Bearing years of experience with failed psychiatrists and medications, he didn’t mention Sarah. He appealed instead to nostalgia, but with zero success. “We don’t need a house this size,” Mom insisted. “Besides, being closer will make holiday travel easier for both of us.”
On moving day, Jory ran his fingers across Sarah’s GOODBYE before packing the magnets into his duffel bag. The front door closed and the deadbolt slid into place. Sarah retreated into the cracks of the house. Prospective buyers over the following months displayed interest in the marble counters, bathtub jets, laundry chute, and sunroom, but all of them sensed a coldness that made the house too uninviting. Eventually a couple with bad credit and few options settled on the location once the price dropped.
The next time Sarah saw Jory, his hair had thinned. He wore thick-lensed glasses and stood in the doorway with a young girl clinging to his pant leg. Sarah only recognized him by his gaze. Back when Jory first walked in on Sarah wearing one of Mom’s older dresses and a bra stuffed with bundled t-shirts, he didn’t respond. The silence lasted days between them, and broke when he asked with that warm look, “Guess that makes you my sister now, huh?”
Sarah regretted worrying what Mom would think, and saying no when he offered to be there if she ever decided to come out, but she also knew it was enough to appear once and clearly before her brother – however fleetingly – then vanish. What remained of her secret manifested eternally as the lingering absence that haunted even her.
Jory explained to the homeowners how he drove from Encino to Omaha in hopes of revisiting their childhood home, and Sarah tagged along as he guided his daughter through their old bedrooms. He’d occasionally glance over his shoulder at her, the crow’s feet pinching the corners of his eyes as he gave her a smile. It reminded her how – when she was alive – that same smile would flip her despair into an unflagging belief that things were going to get better.
Sarah missed life as that act of becoming: becoming better, becoming happier, becoming braver, becoming herself. She even missed the moment she became the ghost who left her body for home. Only then could she become somebody to comfort her brother when Mom could not.
She also really missed the magnets.
Ellie Gordon is a nonbinary trans writer residing in the Pacific Northwest. She received her MFA from the University of New Hampshire, and her work has been published under her legal name with Drunk Monkeys, Cotton Xenomorph, MoonPark Review, and others. She tweets inconsistently at @autonomousbagel.
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