Living With Ghosts, a short story
And it wasn't just the apartment she lived in with mama. The entire building was haunted, maybe the whole neighborhood.
The ghost in the wall knocked loudly above the girl’s head and she sprung from her sleep, getting her foot tangled in the clutches of her sheets before landing on her knees with a thud. A long wail escaped her throat as she winced, pushed herself up, and limped out of the room as fast as her wobbly legs could carry her. Mama’s door wasn’t closed all the way and she could see a sliver of moonlight escaping into the hallway, lighting her path. The girl, who was still afraid of the dark, was grateful for the moon’s intrusion.
She had always believed that ghosts only came to eat you at night, but now she knew that there was nothing to stop ghosts from clawing at her in the daylight, too. There was the ghost in the wall of her bedroom where it clanged and croaked, echoing deep and slashing through her dreams to infect her mind with nightmares. But there was also the ghost in the kitchen who cursed any fruit mama brought home. Sometimes, they would start to give in to rot and gnats by the next day. Once, the girl had bitten into a shiny red apple, expecting a sweet offering, only for her mouth to be filled with rancid, brown mush.
Beneath the sink, the ghost had planted a seed of infinite darkness. The inky spot had one hundred splotchy arms that crawled outward away from what the girl knew must be a portal to some place of torment beyond, beneath, or buried within this world. Mama had told her to stay far away from it, and she did not have to be warned about it twice, especially because the ghost had also birthed a scourge there.
Leggy demons came squirming out of the cabinet and haunted the entire apartment, watching and screeching. The girl was convinced that the ghost could see her through their beady, insect eyes. So, the apartment always smelled faintly of the bug spray she used every day, an imperfect attempt at creating a shield to protect her and mama from the ghost’s minions.
In the bathroom, the water would come out the wrong color, spurting a reddish liquid from the faucets before it would run a murky white and then, finally, clear-ish. This ghost drew weird circles that looked like sickly creatures on the wallpaper and popcorn ceiling above the bathtub — dilating, misshapen bubbles that hovered somewhere between black and mossy green.
But the scariest ghost was the one that would cause the air to grow thick with a horrible smell. The girl had never seen a dead person before, but she decided that this must be what dead people smell like. The bad smell was always lurking, but there were moments when it would creep up and up and up, until the place was saturated with it. Then the ghost would wrap itself around her windpipe and squeeze. She’d cough wildly and cry until it finally let go and slinked back to wherever it had come from, to lie in wait.
And it wasn’t just the apartment she lived in with mama. The entire building was haunted, maybe the whole neighborhood. Sometimes, a loud rattle would come from somewhere deep within the building, like its belly was rumbling the way hers did when she got hungry at night. But she didn’t know if this hunger belonged to the building or the ghosts.
She had never seen any of the ghosts, only heard or sensed them. And she never wanted to see one. Seeing a ghost, she thought, would surely be her end. What would happen to mama if a ghost ate her up?
Now the girl was darting through the hallway and lunging at mama’s bedroom door to escape the loud ghost knocking in her wall. But her cries fell into dust as she stood there, chest heaving and hands shaking, at the threshold of an empty room. Oh, that’s right. Mama was at work. Her shift would last until 6 a.m. and she would come home to sleep for a few hours before heading to her other job.
Her shoulders slumped as she let out a sigh, almost forgetting for a moment what she was running from. She closed the door behind her and limped towards the bed before falling into it and cocooning herself in the blankets. Pulling her aching knees to her chest, she rocked herself into an uneasy sleep and whimpered through her nightmares.
The girl didn’t even hear it when mama’s keys clanged against the front door, or when mama groaned while pulling off her shoes and unclasping her bra. And she didn’t feel it when mama eased into the bed and snuggled next to the blanket cocoon, planting a kiss on the little brown forehead peeking out from beneath it…
Before long, mama’s gentle snoring was interrupted by an alarm sounding at 10 a.m. — which she snoozed, twice. The girl was awake too now, and the entire time that mama was stretching, showering, dressing, and cooking breakfast, she was babbling on about hungry ghosts, and smelly ghosts, and begging to move back into their old apartment.
Mama rubbed her temples. She had already explained as best as she could, so many times that she had lost count. They just couldn’t afford it anymore. But this seemed to only confuse the girl, who could never wrap her head around why they couldn’t afford the old place anymore. If mama was working more now, why was it that they could only afford less? Mama could scarcely understand it herself.
Their breakfast was hasty. Scrambled eggs, sliced ham, and toast smeared with jelly from packets mama had collected from the restaurant — which did not allow employees to take food home, even though the owners knew some of it would end up in dumpsters at the end of the night anyway. Luckily, it wasn’t too difficult to sneak more than jelly packets out of the supermarket backroom before things were thrown out. It was an unspoken agreement among the employees there, this was an implied benefit of their employment.
Before leaving for her next shift, mama would need to check yesterday’s homework and make a phone call about a bill she needed an extension on. She rushed the girl to get dressed so she could be dropped at auntie’s for the day. Mama hated that she had left her alone the night before, but it was her only free option sometimes. The guilt in her belly crept up and grew into shame, then frustration, then anger. Then, she swallowed it along with the last of her orange juice. Mama yawned big and grabbed her keys.
She gagged a little when the stench from the factory hit her nose and singed her nostrils as they walked to the car. Even inside with the windows up, the offensive odor still found its way in, assaulting her senses. It was a smell she feared she would never get used to.
Mama went over her mental checklist and groaned at the number of tasks on it. Her eyes were heavy and stinging, her neck and shoulders were stiff. Her feet screamed, her back cried, and her jaw popped as she let out yet another yawn. In that moment, mama gave herself permission not to complete the entire checklist today, but she would at least pick up the girl’s new inhaler from the pharmacy. The asthma had gotten worse since they’d moved into this place. This fucking place.
Mama hated this place. She hated living downwind from the meat processing factory that spat unending foulness into the air, and probably the water, too. She hated the ancient laundry machines in the basement that banged around loudly, and the bug infestation in the kitchen, and croaking pipes in the walls, and the growing water spots in the bathroom. Their landlord had promised to take care of the mold under the sink, just like he had promised to ask the plumber what could be done about the rusty pipes. But, of course, he had done neither.
She really missed their old place. The building, the neighborhood, the community. They didn’t know many people here yet, and things would be much easier for them if they did. In the old neighborhood, the girl had friends to play with and mama had people to lean on. They went to block parties, and hosted sleepovers, and had big dinners with neighbors on Sundays after church, and worked together in the community garden. Mama looked out for the queer elder who lived alone next door and the couple across the hall always greeted her with warm smiles and were happy to babysit whenever she needed. They took care of each other. It was home.
But then, the others moved in with their yoga mats, and canvas bags, and cold pressed green juices. Bright murals and graffiti were painted over with bland whites and grays. Renovations came along and new housing began construction. Rent prices went up. Mama started working more. Quirky shops appeared on corners where family-owned delis and convenience stores used to thrive. Everyone who frequented these boutiques would obnoxiously refer to the old neighborhood by some funky, made-up name, and it drove mama up the wall. The others had invaded their home.
In the back seat, the girl tried to cry quietly, but tiny snivels escaped her. The ache behind mama’s eyes began to grow and her stomach sank down, down, down. She had no words to comfort the girl, or herself. She had no energy, no time, and no money. All mama could say was that the new place scared her, too. It hurt her, too. It made her sad, too. And she was sorry. Mama was profoundly sorry, but there was nothing she could do. They would both have to learn to live with ghosts.