I am not a ghost story, is the first thing she says each time I see her.
She is, though, a ghost. With the lank, dripping hair of a drowned woman, and a mottled green tinge to her bloated cheeks. Sometimes I catch her in the corner of my gaze and think, for a moment, she is still alive. This is where I should give you a detail that will make you care, make you love her; but I can’t ever maintain the trick of my seeing past that one moment, when I think her in the world and then realize my own wrong.
I need your help, she says, but because she is not a ghost story (or because she is) she cannot tell me how she needs my help. Instead she follows me into meetings and onto crowded buses and through the lunchtime salad lines. This is called haunting, I tell her. You are haunting me. But she shakes her head with a scatter of drops and says no, it is only that we are always headed in the same direction. We are still simpatico.
I want her to have a happier moment. Sometimes, when I catch her unawares, she is holding her own throat like she has forgotten how to breathe. She coughs a wet rattle and nothing comes up. She is in a bad way to be a ghost, locked in the worst moment of her life, and I want to pull her hands from her throat and tell her to leave.
The other thing I want to tell her is that I am not a ghost story either, I do not want to be in a ghost story; but the words feel even less true from me. I am nothing but a ghost story, colleagues and strangers edging away when they sense her at my side. I am nothing but a collection of places I will not go and words I will not say. When the leaves are turning I take her back to the lake and tell her I would slick gasoline over its skin and drop a match. I would burn it all, if such a thing were possible—I believe it could be possible. I point to each dropped red leaf and tell her how they are memories of the flame I’ll one day set, revenging her. This is what ghosts want, isn’t it?
I am not a ghost story, she says to me, though a ghost story is the only thing we are. But I’ll tell her she isn’t, I’ll tell her back her version of the truth, any truth, if it only means that one day I turn and she is gone. One day I turn and there is no patch of damp on a dry street. One day I turn, I have said the right words, there is no water clinging to my hem.
Ellen Rhudy lives in Columbus, where she’s an MFA candidate at The Ohio State University and Fiction Editor at The Journal. Her writing has been published in Story, The Cincinnati Review, and Cream City Review, and previously in Milk Candy Review. She’s working on a collection of stories and a novel.