Following a Ghost for a Day
You stopped at the crosswalk as good citizens do. Your coat curled around your shoulders, zipper lips kissing as you tucked yourself away from the wind nipping at your wrists and ankles like a teething puppy. It could not be trained or controlled. You just had to survive the witching hours, and all was well afterwards. The light was red, like Autumn treetops and blood from a pinprick. You did that once. Don’t you remember?
The light turned green and the soles of your feet fell onto the grey-black pavement. Yellow lines dashed the uniformity. You always hated yellow. It reminded you of the bee sting you got as a child. You never understood how something so small could make pain ripple across your forearm. You covered the battle scar with a Band-Aid. The red bump below the canvas patch disappeared eventually, but you still flinched when a black and yellow menace buzzed around your cheeks. You hated it, but you never killed it. Some measures were too drastic.
Five, four, three, two, one. The white light on the crosswalk turned red again as the countdown ended. Your foot hit the curb just before the clock reached zero. Your footsteps sped up, a four-four rhythm on the concrete. One and two and three and four. One and two and three and four. You used to play the clarinet, until the reeds became too expensive. You could play Hot Cross Buns and Ode to Joy. The instrument groaned and sighed, irate, but at the recital the parents applauded. You liked that. Don’t you remember? The halcyon days at the peak of your happiness— those were the best days.
This street was a dead end. The yellow sign warned you, but you detested yellow. The sun could not push past the tree line, stuck in a perpetual tug-of-war that it would never win. The sun knew this, but did not care. Besides, it was yellow in the sky.
A wall of trunks and branches sprawled out ahead. Their fingers were bare, already touched by winter’s severe hand—the hand that plucked each leaf from their arms, and tarred and feathered them with snow. The first snow of the season had not yet coated the branches in a cold fleece. You turned back with wind-whipped, pallid cheeks, as though someone could give you an answer. Take the road less travelled? Or walk back whence you came?
There was no answer. You continued onward. Leaves, brittle with autumnal antiquity, crackled and broke beneath your feet. The sound overwhelmed your thoughts, so you stopped thinking. It was easier than you expected it to be. There was a switch, pearly white and fingerprint-stained. You had noticed it before, but had never attempted to touch it until now. Now there was you and there was nature—nothing in between. It was a natural acquaintanceship.
You entered the forest as the sun began its westward descent. Branches recoiled back to the trees for warmth. There was a small pond ahead, with shimmering water, scattered with leaves and twigs. Bubbles popped as they made contact with the air. You thought about the fish and frogs for a moment, and where they would go for the winter. But c’est la vie, and so on, and you kept walking. You went swimming there once, though you couldn’t recall it now. The water had been chilly, but the air had been warm. You’d stripped down to your underwear, and underwater you felt submerged plants brush against your toes. You went home sopping wet, and your mother scolded you. You did not care. You kept walking, past the pond and farther into the forest.
You were lost. You could not remember the path you took to get here, and you hadn’t a clue where you were going. You did not care. The sky was too dim and the air was too cold. Somewhere between delirium and oblivion, you stopped. There were no footprints behind you—the ground had rebounded from your weight—and the trees closed, encapsulating you and only you. Frayed, fallen feathers blanketed the ground, and there was a sudden crack. You lifted your head, and, with narrowed eyes, discerned a delicate white powder, fragmented from a bone. This was where the wolves went, you thought. This was where the wolves went.
The sky yawned in a magnificent blur of red and purple and orange and yellow. Watercolor wavelengths of sunlight dragged themselves into the sky one last time before they vanished into the abyss of space and began their monarchical rule in another part of the Earth. You waved goodbye. The edges of your hands were tinged with a color between purple and cyan. You were not sure how they got to be this color, or why they were shaking. The cold had become impalpable, a tasteless poison tipped into your glass as your lips touched the brim. Your breath hid somewhere in your chest, and you could not find where it went. Oh, there it is, tucked away in your lungs, pushed about by the speed of your heartbeat. Breathe in, out, in. In, out, in.
You held your lungs on a tight leash now, the unreliable fiends. You did not know that your own body could plot against you—remember, remember, the fifth of November. Then, boom, an explosion of frozen air imploded inside your chest, and your ribs came crumbling down. But you feel the same. You know that, right? It was all a false alarm, a fallacious plot against you. That’s what nature does, you know. It is both an enemy and a lover, breathing orgasmic life into the universe only to break it apart piece by piece until we are all soil and trees and leaves. The leaves crunched under your feet. You could not hear them. You did not step on any more bones.
You thought you could see an opening in the trees, a bustling road ahead. Look at the cars go, zooming and whooshing and whirring, machinations of a new industrial age. You pulled the jacket close to you again—not because the air chilled you, but because you were preparing for the brunt of humanity to gnaw at your flesh again. You walked with a slower pace than before, larghetto. The clearing came nearer and nearer, and you walked slower and slower.
You called out to the clearing. Hello, you cried, is anyone out there? Your voice was soft and airy, wisps of sound vanishing into the dusk. Hello, you whispered, am I alone? The silence answered you in a cutting tone. You continued forward toward what appeared to be a street. You thought you could make out the frames of houses, the daily bustle of life. Smokestacks and chimneys puffed out the product of fires in their hearths—the optimist’s winter night. And so you went on and on and on.
You walked into the road. It was not a road. You knew roads too well—you failed your driving test twice before you got your license. During the first test, you scraped the bumper along the curb, and the car screeched like a hawk. The second time around, you were more careful. Every turn was calculated; every stop was well timed. Everything went smoothly until the last light. You accidentally ran through red. Red didn’t annoy you as much as yellow did. You passed the third time, though. You never liked to drive anyway.
The ground was rough as cement, and the grass felt like needles beneath your feet. Dark, dark days were these when nature masqueraded itself as cold, hard creations of humanity. Artificiality was the new genuineness, you supposed. There were tree shafts nailed to the cement earth unwaveringly, and there were plants bolted to concrete soil. These were robotic days and industrial nights, you thought, in which human error prevailed. Surely your eyesight must have been fading. You could have sworn there were houses. There were houses. Where were all the houses?
They rose from the ground, clean and shining beneath the hazy moonlight. They appeared as if resurrected from thin air. They had not existed and now they did and now they were here. They rose up, granite and marble and concrete. They rose up, fieldstone and sandstone and limestone. It was an invasion, a century long invasion. You watched it unfold around you, rippling into obscurity, into the blurry corners of your vision. Would it take you, too? you asked. Would it take you, too?
At once, you could not remember the before. You could only remember the after, right here, right now. Anything the sun had touched was erased with a meticulous thoroughness until the crevices of your mind were raw from the scrubbing. In fact, you could not remember ever seeing the sun. Was it yellow? All you remembered was that you hated yellow. It was an indecisive color—neither here nor there. It stood on the threshold between stop and go, sunrise and sunset, life and death.
There was no yellow around you now. Everything was black and white and grey in a monotonous still-frame, like an advertisement in the newspapers. Buy one, get one half off, block print exclaimed. It was a noir film no one wanted to see. You walked closer to the center of the clearing. The ground sprawled out, rolling and uneven. The callipygian Earth surrounded you, and you stood, motionless. Your finger tapped against your thigh. One and two and three and four. Your finger stopped tapping. The air was too cold and your stomach screamed and you felt tired all at once. It was all too much at once. Please, not so much at once.
Once you visited a graveyard. No one had died, for you were young and lucky as most rarely are. You wore red that day. You couldn’t remember now, but you spent hours choosing the proper attire. Childhood visits to the graveyard were important, after all. Ghosts lived in graveyards, but only at night. During the day, you were free to wander as you wished. But as you approached the gates, a feeling slithered down your spine. It started deep inside, and then crept out into your fingers and your toes until it was everywhere. You went back to the graveyard when your grandmother died. She was old and happy. The tombstones scared you. You did not know if the ghosts would be friendly if they knew you, or if death stained them like cherry juice on a white shirt. You never went back to the graveyard again.
But now you stood face to face with a faceless field of what you feared most. Your hands shook with more violence now, tremulous convulsions encapsulating your fingers. You could not stop them. You did not try to stop them. A deathless terracotta army laid siege to your village, swords at the ready. Forward, march! About-face! Fall in! And so the ranks converged, unmoving yet inexplicably charging. You had neither shield nor sword. You lifted your hands in front of you, a single barrier between your heart and an army. The soldiers cried, a tearless shout that rippled silently through the air. Left, left, left, right, left.
You squinted to see past your tears. It was a feat that seemed altogether impossible. You gave up, and a single droplet slid down your left cheek. You wiped it away, your arm glancing off your face like a sword off a shield. Beware, fair knights, for I am unbreakable, you said. The knights did not dare come close. You stood strong then—stronger than before. Head held high, cheeks blanched white, lips like lavender petals. Royalty stood in the center of the cemetery, coat shed to the ground, shoulders pushed back. The world stood at your feet just then. Just for a moment, you were supreme. Trees bent to you, and the stars bowed. The planets orbited in an ornate procession, and confetti littered every surface from Mercury to Pluto. That was your moment.
That was when you began to fade. Your lips were a little too purple and your skin a little too pale. Your skin was a little too cold and your bones a little too frail. The tombstones became more vibrant, and you became a memory. You fell from your throne, toppling onto the leaves again, and now when you moved they made no sound—or had they ever made a sound in the first place? Memories shifted and altered and vanished and changed. Scene one blurred into scene two, and there was no intermission between acts. There was just before and after, stop and go, sunrise and sunset, life and death.
You had not been real for months, don’t you remember? Your name was marked on the last tombstone you touched before you returned to oblivion or heaven or hell or wherever souls go. But you didn’t remember, you never remembered, you couldn’t remember. You were condemned before you knew freedom, a corporeal confinement, but animate existence. You were confined to a stone jail cell, the worms and beetles whispering in your ears.
The night was dark and the trees bared themselves against the furies. It was fate, and nothing simpler. The ghosts that haunt are the ghosts that never die. They rise from ashes and slash through windowpanes, rapping on the glass until they are at last satisfied. Were you satisfied? Was your stomach content? Was the storm behind your ribcage quelled? Please, say you were satisfied. Please, tell me you were satisfied.
I’m sorry that I followed you along the road that day, into the graveyard and down the way. The lights were gone, your secrets disclosed. The day was done and the tombstones reposed. The corpses rejoiced as their bones decomposed. Memories faded to wounds now exposed. And I was alone as the curtains all closed. I’m sorry that I followed you along the road that day, into the graveyard and down the way.
Adalyn Model is a junior at Dwight-Englewood School in New Jersey. Her fiction has received several regional gold, silver, and honorable mention recognitions from the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. When not writing, Adalyn can be found reading, idolizing dead languages, and playing with her cats, Ezra and Moose.