“Hold me,” he whispered, but the ghost gave no reply.
Darkness had long since enveloped the room. Its series of windows all faced to the east and were quick to grab each day’s first light—but also first to let it go.
As the pulse of his heart calmed, the continued hum of the refrigerator could be heard through the walls, through the closed door, closed to the rest of the house as he had closed himself off to the rest of the world. Beyond the windows, the occasional whir of wheels on pavement interrupted his attempts at slumber, cars bearing people living their lives. But so much time had passed since he had all but given up on living his—at least that’s what his friends said.
Or what they would have said, had he had any friends beyond the casual sense of the word.
And, so, again, tonight, just as every other night, he fed the cat, darkened the lights, and tucked himself into the bed, feeling the weight of the bedding fall about him, warming him slightly—but enough—against the pervading chill of the house. Through break in the chill, the ever-so-soft warmth of the covers, he remembered her and how she had felt with him as they would drift off to sleep together. He longed to hold her, to be held by her, so tonight he articulated it.
But there was no answer, no response, no closeness, no further warmth. There was only darkness, emptiness, loneliness. And cold—so much cold.
No matter the season outside, it was always winter within. Every surface, every nook of the house expressed itself through the discomfort of cold. Chilled air rushed from vents in every room, bringing a raw malaise to any who lingered in any one spot for too long. The tiled flooring absorbed the cold air, gnawing and numbing bare feet, necessitating slippers or socks or something to serve as a barrier from the iciness of the house. Heavy blankets were warranted as bed coverings.
And it was in one of these beds—the bed he and she had shared—that, night after night, he would plead to the dark, to the ghost, “Hold me.” And, night after night, the ghost would give no reply.
Maybe the ghost could hear the request, but most likely it could not; he was careful not to disturb the ghost any more than was necessary.
There was no fear of the ghost. The only emotion it seemed to illicit from him was one of nostalgia—a longing for how things had been, for they had been so good before disease came and changed everything and made the ghost that haunted his home, his mind, his very existence.
At first, the changes were subtle—being quicker to fatigue or not getting around so easily—but the changes increased, quickly and more drastically. Soon, she was reluctant to leave the house at all. Fatigue had given way to mobility issues; a former collegiate track and cross country runner could scarcely walk at all, requiring a rollator for balance and some semblance of stability. She no longer “fit in” with the fitness crowd with whom she had found herself, established her identity and very being. She appeared and was treated as almost a pariah, yet eliciting pity and pathetic comments of how “good” she looked.
Looks, as is so often stated, can be deceiving—and they were.
To everyone, for everyone, brave faces were put on, smiles to drown the tears. Only the children were able to see through the disguise, but the children were unable to understand why they no longer went out as often as they used to, why no one seemed to come over, the anguish in every move she attempted to make. The children could only watch as the ghost grew and grew before their very eyes as they attempted to make sense of the seeming anomaly in their midst.
Ghosts are horribly misunderstood.
Originally, stories told in the oral fashion fashioned the notions and forms of spectral agents in our plain of existence: The dead coming back in intangible form to torment the living in some real, physical, tangible way. The advents of film and special effects only furthered the stories and what ghosts were and what they were capable of doing. Turns out those notions were very much overstated.
The notion of ghosts goes back millennia. Certainly there’s the biblical sense, but secular stories of the shrieks and shouts accompanying the deceased were purportedly first told by those who had been in battle and were subsequently haunted by comrades whom had been dispatched or by those they had dispatched themselves through combat. Trauma, it seems, spawns the ghosts that haunt us. Ghosts are, quite literally, figments of the overstressed imagination, returning to haunt us when the mind is at rest and attempts to process what has been directly or indirectly experienced.
His theory of ghosts—that they were nothing more than memories we could not let go—was thought up over a lifetime of loneliness. For a while, though, there was partnership, there was happiness, there was love.
They had met by the lake, beneath a blank sky of slate. Months later, reintroductions were made by another lake as the sky blazed blue overhead. But not until the following year, in a room of darkness did they find one another: As he lay on the floor, he stretched out an arm toward the bed where she slept, though sleep had not yet claimed her; she, too, stretched out an arm into the darkness. Their hands clasped, fingers interlaced, and they breathed in the scent of the night together. A memory made, a love born. Loneliness banished.
For a time, anyway.
The disease would not come for a few years, though they were both vaguely aware of its existence and its implications—only not so close to home. It would not be until after the purchase of their own home a year after saying “I do” in secret to one another on live television and in a crowd of other runners. But even then the disease was relatively benign, so much so that there would be one child and then another. A short time later, the true nature of the disease took root in her brain and spinal column. And the ghost began to take form.
Ghosts—in the traditional sense—were a staple of his childhood, dating back to the stories told by cousins of the haunted attic-cum-guest-room in a relatives home. Ascending the stairs to the room or even sitting within its darkened walls, however, left no eeriness, no sense of foreboding. There were no shrieks or rattling chains or other ghostly evidence to be observed. Even the birthday photo of one of them with a card allegedly suspended by some phantasm or other could never be located for any sort of proof that ghosts were something in which to believe.
Similar incidents persisted into adolescence and the teenage years: Always a story or experience by another, never any discernible proof.
The closest to “proof” probably came in middle school when a classmate became uncomfortable at an abstract of the visage of William Shakespeare, whose eyes seemed to “follow” viewers around the room, but such was the apparent intent behind the poster itself. This same classmate also alleged to have seen “things” creeping or crawling or flying about about in the classroom and would shudder and shake and seek confirmation from someone else that they saw them, too. So, bored as he was in language arts, he would play along with the classmate, pretending to be encountering some ghostly thing or other in the aged halls of the school.
(Incidentally, the classmate and his brother would grow up to produce and host a show exposing ghosts in area buildings and other landmarks.)
At some point, he began to develop his theory of ghosts, that they were little more than memories that, literally & figuratively, haunted the memory holder in one form or another: In realtime or in dreams. Regardless of form, it held that ghosts themselves held no form and existed only to or by those who held some facet of knowledge about what the ghost had been in its mortal existence. Before it came to be recognized as or called a ghost.
As a means of protection against ghosts, though, he learned to block unpleasant memories. Turns out, there was a lot of unpleasantness in his memories, so there was a lot to block. Only in his own slumber would the ghost wake and roam his mind, so he learned to deprive himself of sleep, only that was not without its own consequences—though never in the form of spectral visitors from beyond the grave.
But, now, in his very own home, in the very next room lived a ghost. It was ever-present but strongest at night when the mind was at its weakest, when utter exhaustion would claim the body, causing it to sink deeper into the bed as the mind would sink into the past, deeper and deeper. The ghost would whisper what had been, what could be, but so seldom what was the reality experienced day in, day out, oftentimes so painful as to question the validity of Job’s argument.
Or so he thought.
The memories they had made gave the ghost its glory, the good fondly, often recalled or rehashed; the bad, glossed over. He found himself not haunted by any ghost as much as he tormented himself over what it was he could not let go—the ghost. In frequenting moments of despair, he would isolate himself in reflection to the point where there would be, nor could there be, any relief, painting himself into some proverbial corner, going mad as he waited for the paint to dry, only to apply another coat of paint, insisting to himself that it was the only way forward. Eventually, he was sure, he would recognize his folly, recognize that ghosts were not worth holding onto at the expense of the moments unfolding before him.
Indeed, life was different than what it had been, but such is the progression of time: To change and to allow change. There was no room for ghosts.