“A year and a half ago, on a moonless night just like tonight, Irene was getting ready for bed. Just as she put her favorite toothbrush into her favorite toothbrush holder, she heard a strange scraping noise downstairs.”
(When reading this aloud, whisper the words “Scrape, Scraaape,” raspily, for effect. Hold the second Scrape for a little longer, if you’re not in a rush.)
“She inched down the dark hallway toward the stairs to investigate. As she peered down towards the living room, she heard it again.”
(Repeat both the “Scrapes” again — with a little more intensity. You should be getting the hang of this!)
“Her trembling hands slowly slid down the banister toward the bottom steps. She groped in the dark for something to arm herself with and gripped the neck of an old wine bottle. She saw the silhouette of a hand through her curtain, clawing at the window latch.”
(Repeat “Scrape, Scrape” a few times, and pick up the tempo — we’re almost at the climax!)
“She pulled back the curtain and…”
(Pause for tension.)
“…saw a stray branch scraping the windowpane.”
(Let relief wash over the listener.)
“But when she turned back around—”
(Pause again to reignite tension.)
“—and she stubbed her pinky toe into her coffee table really bad! Like really, really bad! Like it sort of soft-shattered into a finicky little shape and started getting all tie-dyed maroon under the nail. It looked kind of like a chunk of jolly rancher that’d get stuck in your back teeth.”
(Let the sheer horror sink in.)
“Her foot hurt for almost an hour. And the shape of her toenail… never went back to normal again!”
(Hold for gasps, tears, accolades, book deals.)
That’s my ghost story. I’m a Toe-Stub Ghost.
(Sorry for the micromanaged theatrics, but it’s kind of like my autobiography. Still working out the kinks.)
Most people don’t really tell ghost stories like these, but I like to have a polished version of it ready to go, just in case.
To be honest, stories like mine only get told once — usually the day or two after they happen. Maybe when complaining to a parent on the phone, or to a partner over a microwaved dinner. It’s more a conversation gap-filling ghost story. It’s not one you gather friends around the fire for. Those stories are usually reserved for Ghosts of Traumas, Ghosts of Heartbreaks, Ghosts of Grieving, and the like. Top tier ghosts, no question.
I’m just a Ghost of Minor Inconvenience. You may have been haunted by other ghosts like me: Broken-Mug Ghosts, Deep-Splinter Ghosts, Bad-Bee-Sting Ghosts, Bumper-Scratch Ghosts, et al.
I don’t want to brag, but I’m doing pretty well for myself in my weight class. I mean, you should’ve seen Irene’s toenail — I was like this close to being a Broken-Bone Ghost. Once you’re one of those, well, then you’re a ghost story she’s telling all the time! Conversations with doctors, coworkers signing your cast, icebreaker exercises (“never have I ever broken a bone”); you name it.
Even if Irene doesn’t talk about me, I can at least sense that she thinks about me pretty often. When she scrunches her face when painting her toenails. When she gives a wide berth when walking around the coffee table after a glass of wine.
That’s not nothing. But it’d be nice to be mentioned sometime. To be acknowledged.
When you’re a ghost, all you really are is your story.
People usually imagine us ghosts to be other people (which isn’t surprising if you’ve ever met a human person, or seen the way they treat their pets — they have a lot of trouble imagining anything else).
But when you’re a ghost, you’re really just a moment in time; an amalgamation of emotional residue lingering after an event.
You’re the way that someone felt in the moment — the hollow roar of repulsion in your belly when a lie is revealed; the aching negative space of someone’s absence whirring in your chest like a cold gritty feedback loop; the dizzy mania that disorients you for weeks as you come to terms with the fact that million little sacrifices you made amounted to not very much at all.
You’re something like that: something vast and immaterial, perpetually associated with a tangible signifier. A haunted object, or a room — or a whole house, if you’re lucky.
Me? I’m the feeling of impact on the left pinky toe against the table. That sharp sudden nerve-plucking pain that feels like a splash of scalding water or a shrill note on a cheap piano.
I’m a little more than that, too, if it’s not too bold to say. I’m a cocktail of all of Irene’s emotions at that exact moment. The fear of a possible home intrusion. The terror that her ex Rya had found where she was living now, two counties over. The exhaustion from the psychotic fallout of that relationship, a tension buried eons ago. The agony that she’d never feel truly safe and secure and at home anywhere again, even after all this time — after all this work.
All of that, focused into the off-kilter clawfoot of a hand-me-down coffee table: a placeholder piece of furniture, until she found something that felt right.
My powers are limited as a Toe-Stub Ghost. If Irene’s foot gets within half an inch of the coffee table, I can subtly encourage her to stub it again. I can even shoot a little chill down her leg to adjust the angle ever so slightly to smash the pinky in the exact same spot.
I don’t want to hurt Irene, of course. But it’s the only thing I have. The only thing I am to her. That moment, however unpleasant, is the crossroads between us. It’s part of who she is, irreparably.
I’ve never really used my Toe-Stub Powers though. At least, not fully. Every now and then, it’s nice to have her graze the table. Just a little bit. Just enough to make her mutter how close it was. Just enough to make her feel a little grateful that it wasn’t worse. It feels good to inspire nice emotions whenever I’m able, y’know?
I can’t help but haunt, in the small ways I can. Just like she can’t help but remember — with every near-miss; every pedicure performed through a grimace.
I feel like every ghost in here has their own dilemma like that.
We all just slowly showed up, one predicament at a time — materialized and attuned to an object or place: in the cat-clawed curtains; in the spackle patching punch-pierced drywall; in a regularly rotated picture frame.
We were never invited here. We never asked to come in, either. We just happened. And now we’re woven in the walls and floorboards of the place. Stitched into her clothing. Etched into her acrylics (when she gets them done these days).
There’s not a lot of spiritual real estate left in here. Everything in the house looks the same from the human eye, but the overcrowded energies throughout are starting to throb like a series of overlapping coral reefs — vivacious and virulent.
You can see that Irene feels it, even if she can’t perceive it.
It’s no one’s fault.
You can’t blame ghosts for reinforcing their own existence. You can’t blame me for wanting to stub Irene’s toe again sometimes. (If I did it, that’s one thing — but you can’t blame me for wanting to.)
If you ever saw a ghost pass on, you’d understand.
Once a ghost is forgotten about altogether, they lose their tether to this plane. If they can’t actively haunt their host and influence the way they move through the world, what’s left? They’re barely a memory; an occurrence with no evidence; the sound of a tree falling in empty woods on an empty planet.
Once that happens, you go immaterial. Whatever you were begins to dissolve, like words turned to gobbledigook through a game of telephone.
I saw it happen once.
A Ghost of Traumatic Global News haunted Irene’s television for about a week. Something about a shooting. It seeped into her smartphone, into her laptop, had tendrils wriggling throughout the house and beyond. But after a few days it shrunk, and shrunk fast, into a twitchy little spirit the size of the news ticker at the bottom of the screen.
A week after that, it soundlessly dematerialized like a sugar cube in boiling water. It was horrifyingly unceremonious, especially after its gargantuan presence just days earlier.
Other ghosts have inhabited the TV since. Some think that maybe that Traumatic Global News Ghost lives on in some way — that the new ghosts are an amalgamation of the ghosts that came before. But I don’t buy it.
That death felt so complete, I can’t imagine that there’s anything after it. If there is, it feels a lot like nothingness.
I’ve never been beyond the living room, but I’ve heard stories — especially of The Cup by The Window with Honeysuckles.
I don’t know much about it (Irene made it in a ceramics class a few months ago), but I know that she fills it with a new fistful of pale flowers every few days after a morning walk. I know that she glances at it warmly when talking on the phone to her sister. I know that she smells it when she remembers to in the morning. I know that she swore profusely when she knocked it over a few weeks ago (and sighed in relief when it was all in one piece).
I was told that this cup is haunted by a Ghost of Unglamorous Gratitudes. I’ve never personally met one, but from what I’ve heard, it sounds like this ghost can make the natural light a little warmer and wistful; that it can redirect a spring breeze when the window’s cracked; that it can tweak nearby humidity a hair to help make Irene’s fingertips a little less soggy when washing dishes.
I honestly didn’t know ghosts like that existed.
Apparently, they’re not very common. Apparently, they’re a lot harder to manifest at first.
Apparently, they don’t even have ghost stories at all. There’s no inciting moment. No cataclysm. No inconvenience. No trauma to speak of.
Some even think Irene may have even invited it in herself.
That’d be a first. (I don’t really buy that either.)
I can’t think about that ghost, though. I don’t even know if it really exists. I don’t know what it means for me if it does. All I can focus on is how to be the best ghost I can be at what I do. How to make myself undeniable to Irene.
Maybe she’ll tell my story again someday. (I hope I’ll never be desperate enough to recreate it; her pinky still looks rough.)
But if it ever comes to that though, I promise I’ll take it easy on her. I’m perfectly grateful being a Minor Inconvenience to her. It’s better than being nothing.
It has to be better than being nothing.
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