Emma Mae woke up to a semi-translucent man sitting on the edge of her sister's empty bed. His hair fell over his eyes so she couldn't make out his face, but she could see his thick fingers, like inflated sausage casings. He was humming quietly and cleaning his nails with the corner of a postcard that had arrived the other day. It had a picture of the Parthenon and a note to Emma Mae from her sister, Bitsy, reporting, in tiny handwriting, on the amount of red wine and meat their father was consuming on the cruise ship and how frequently he disappeared with women after dinner. The man on Bitsy's bed squinted at the text, but didn't seem interested. He rotated the card around and resumed his work again with the remaining clean corner.
Emma Mae lay very still. The situation seemed similar to the kinds of scenarios they'd been forced to do improvisational skits about in her 6th grade health class, though when this man flicked his hair back, his face did not look like a criminal's. It had the wobbly texture of a jellyfish with thick lips and round, wet-looking eyes. He was superimposed over Bitsy's poster of Gandhi, which hung framed on the wall behind him. Both the man and Gandhi were looking right at Emma Mae but didn't seem to notice her at all. She considered the one piece of advice she'd managed to glean from her defense attorney father before he moved out: it was always better to be on the offense than the defense.
"Boo," she screamed at the ghost, lifting her arms over her head like she was encountering a bear at a campground.
The ghost gasped and dropped the postcard onto the carpet. For a second he had looked very vulnerable, reminding Emma Mae of the bare, exposed neck of a turtle. It gave her a squirmy thrill, but he composed himself quickly.
"Very funny," the ghost said, crossing his arms to hide that they were shaking. "Original? No. But, funny?" He had a faint accent.
"You're in my room," Emma Mae said, crossing her arms too.
"Well, I hope I didn't wake you," the ghost said halfheartedly.
"You did, as a matter of fact."
He nodded and picked up his hat. He looked sad, wobblier somehow. If Bitsy were here she'd be baking him a pie by now, but Emma Mae was not a sucker. At the same time, she wasn't heartless, and she definitely wasn't immune to curiosity.
"Aren't you going to introduce yourself?" she asked.
The ghost wiped his hand on his lap and offered it to her. "Alexander Yegorovich."
Touching his hand felt strange; it was somewhere between trying to press two negatively charged magnets together, and trying to give yourself a haircut in the mirror. The latter was a project Emma Mae was recently familiar with, and which accounted for her bangs.
"Why are you here?" Emma Mae let go of his hand.
"I got lost."
The ghost stretched out on Bitsy's bed and looked up at the ceiling, resting the hat on his chest. The hat was translucent, made of felt with a wide brim and several feathers. Emma Mae chewed on her hair and waited for him to stop sighing. It took some cajoling, but she finally got the gist of his story: he had been migrating north with a flock of ghosts and had lost track of them or possibly gotten ditched and then he'd fallen down her chimney and ended up in her living room fireplace. Maybe it was because of the cell phone towers, or maybe Maya had planned it that way. He was hoping she would come back for him. She did this occasionally, if she saw him getting too comfortable. Too independent. The ghost's wet translucent lips began to quiver.
"Was Maya your girlfriend? Your real girlfriend or your ghost girlfriend?"
"I don't think I understand," the ghost said peevishly. He was looking out the square window at the empty sky between the branches of the oak tree.
"Was she your girlfriend when you were alive?"
"I think if I stay here she will find me."
"How did you die? Did you die together? In each other's arms?"
"I'm going to go wait for her on the roof. She'll see me better that way."
He climbed out the window, and Emma Mae was surprised that he had to open it first. But maybe this was just an old habit. She could hear the rustling of his feet on the shingles over her head. The room smelled faintly of matches and he had forgotten his hat.
The next day Emma Mae knew the ghost was still up on her roof because occasionally she heard footsteps. His evasiveness intrigued her. His smell lingered in her nostrils. It was both unpleasant and very satisfying. It was probably what men in old black and white movies smelled like under their trench coats or when galloping off into sunsets on horses. It made her think of her father's catalogues that were still in the master bathroom, their edges curled and warped.
She fixed the ghost a sandwich and left it on her windowsill but he didn't eat it. It was important that she win him back before Bitsy got home or she would have no chance—he and Bitsy would be zipping around town together in no time.
That afternoon her mother tried to take her to the lake, but Emma Mae threw a fit and insisted on staying home. She stood outside and tossed gravel at the roof to get the ghost to come down, but she couldn't see him anywhere. Her mother came out wearing a sarong and sat beside her on the grass. The grass hadn't been cut in weeks. Her mother looked like a hungry old shoe sitting there with her hair hanging down her back in a tangled braid. She kept trying to hug Emma Mae, to put her arms around Emma Mae's knees. It was disgusting. Emma Mae wrestled free and went back inside. For all her pitying looks, Emma Mae knew that if her mother had been given the choice she also would have picked Bitsy to spend her summer with.
The master bathroom had not changed much since her father left. His things were still in the cabinet. Emma Mae sat on the sink and made faces in the mirror. Which Greek island were Bitsy and her father driving their mopeds on now, their hair blowing in the wind? Emma Mae used her mother's makeup on one side of her face, and whipped her head back and forth: before, after, before, after. Before. Perhaps this is what Maya looked like. Mayyyya. It sounded like the name of someone who had drowned. Or maybe burned to death. The ghost must be hiding in the chimney. Where else could he have gone? The song he'd been humming was stuck in her head, the few bars of it that she remembered.
At dinner that night, as she and her mother sat at one end of the otherwise empty table, eating dry chicken, the song came back to her in pieces. She hummed it while her mother stared into the middle distance counting something on her fingers.
Emma Mae slept with the ghost's hat on her face. It smelled like scalp and that sulfury match smell and something else she couldn't quite pinpoint. With each inhale she would picture an inkwell or a rare bird in a wicker cage or the feeling of sinking into warm mud up to the knees or flying in a hot air balloon over a burning village. The hat was weightless but she could feel its distinct contours against her chin and forehead. She had hoped to get the ghost's dreams when she fell asleep, but instead she had one of her own recurring nightmares—her whole family was in the car going along some winding roads in the mountains, when Emma Mae suddenly realized that they were all in the back seat. The ghost woke her up before the car had a chance to plunge through the metal barrier and begin its free fall off the scenic overlook.
"I need my hat," the ghost said gently. He was standing over her. He tugged at the hat but she wouldn't let go. "Come on," he said, "enough fooling around. It's my only hat."
"I made you a sandwich," Emma Mae said, her tongue sticky against the roof of her mouth.
"What would I do with a sandwich?"
"Can't I keep it?"
"No. I told you. It's my only hat. I was wearing it when I died."
"How did you die?"
"I was poisoned."
"Who poisoned you?"
"You are asking me very personal questions."
Emma Mae pressed the hat into her chest. "It was Maya, I bet. Was it Maya?" The ghost didn't say anything. "I've been very nice to you."
"You've been all right."
"I could have been much less nice." She extended the hat towards him but did not let go. "I'm giving you the hat back, but maybe you could do something for me?"
The ghost put the hat on and looked a little put out. "If you want to ask me for a favor, ask me for a favor. But don't use a sandwich I can't even eat and not stealing my property as some sort of currency."
"Fine. A favor."
The ghost nodded.
"Take me with you when you leave."
The ghost didn't even pretend to consider it. "Not possible."
Emma Mae glared at him, her jaw clenched. He looked down, picking something off the sleeve of his jacket. When he looked up her expression had not changed.
"OK," he said, "Let's not get this way. I'll do something else for you. Something even better."
"I doubt it," she said.
"I'll fly you around your neighborhood."
Emma Mae sat up, letting go of his hat.
"But it will have to be a very short trip," the ghost continued. "I can't bear much weight and you're not inconspicuous. Don't you have anything gray?"
The ghost turned away from her and faced the corner as Emma Mae changed out of her violet nightgown into her sister's high school uniform.
The air was cool and slippery. Emma Mae tightly gripped the ghost as they floated upward. Her house in the dark looked indistinguishable from the rest of the houses on the cul-de-sac, except Ms. Acker's, which had a light on in one of the rooms and smoke coming out of its chimney. Emma Mae leaned away from the ghost, took aim and spat like she'd seen the boys do in the remedial math class she'd be joining in the fall. The wad of phlegm flew down Ms. Acker's chimney.
"That's disgusting. If you do that again I will put you down immediately."
"Homewrecker!" Emma Mae said blissfully, in a voice not quite her own.
She floated on the ghost's wobbly shoulders past their subdivision, over Pal's and the gas station. The dribbled gasoline around the pumps glinted in the light of the street lamp, which they had inadvertently activated when they flew by. Two men were asleep in the bed of a pickup truck parked behind Pal's. They shifted around in their sleeping bags under the lamp's greenish glow.
"My shoulders are getting tired. Ouch. Stop that." The ghost loosened Emma Mae's grip on his ears, and slid her down to the small of his back, where she clung tightly to his waist. "It's better to stay where the trees block us. Let me turn around." They were floating along the edge of the empty parking lot towards her middle school.
They passed over a small, undeveloped patch of forest. Through the layering of branches she could see the outline of a boy walking towards the creek in the gray light. He was carrying a bucket and a fishing rod. He seemed to be the only person out in her whole neighborhood. Emma Mae's back scraped against a telephone cable as the ghost tried to maneuver her around it. It felt, for a moment, like she would fall on her neck and that would be that. It had taken everything in her not to cry out, to stay silent so that the boy below would not look up. They passed unnoticed.
The ghost could not get comfortable; he slid her down lower so she was using his foot as a seat, holding on to his pant leg.
"I used to sit like this on my mother's foot so that she wouldn't leave me," she told him.
"What made you think that? Did she ever leave you?"
Emma Mae pointed her toes and skimmed the damp treetop below. The leaves all had night deposits of dew on them.
"Did she?" The ghost asked again.
"I don't know," Emma Mae said. "Not yet."
"I think I've heard her voice. She has a very nice voice. Mellifluous."
"Isn't she something."
"A woman's voice and her smell. That can tell you a lot. Your mother smells like recently fired clay."
Emma Mae pretended to stick her finger down her throat and made gagging sounds. "Talk about your own mother," she said.
"Actually, my mother died in childbirth. I met her for the first time last spring in Vienna. She was still working through her anger at me."
They were back again over Ms. Acker's house, but this time the light was off.
"What about your father?" Emma Mae asked.
"He was all right. Distant. But that was the culture back then."
"In the 1700's."
"Where does he live?"
"I don't know. I buried him in a plot in Belarus that is now under a nightclub. I try to visit occasionally. But he's not a ghost, I don't think."
They were back again on Emma Mae's street, but very high up, so that the houses were toys, were blocks, were specks. It was colder, and Emma Mae's ears were popping. There was a weak glow on the curve of the horizon, like the light under the door at the end of a very long hallway.
"Do you think Maya will come back for you?" she asked through chattering teeth.
"Eventually," he said. "She always does."
Emma Mae climbed up to the ghost's hip and clung to his neck. He turned around carefully and began his descent towards the house, which became more real the closer it got. A flock of birds rose up from the oak tree below and for a moment Emma Mae and the ghost were surrounded by the sound of flapping wings, like decks of cards being shuffled over and over again, the way Bitsy knew how to do it, a riffle and a cascade bridge. The ghost and Emma Mae floated in place, letting the flock stream past them. The ghost's neck smelled like leather and Emma Mae kissed it. She kissed the tips of his shirt collar and his chin. It was not like kissing nothing. The ghost held her face away from his mouth.
"What are you doing?"
The light around them was grainy and diffuse. They had slowly been descending and now they were floating by the tree outside her bedroom window.
Emma Mae pressed her forehead into his palm and wetly kissed the inside of his wrist.
"Stop." He put his hand over her mouth and she kissed it. He moved it away and wiped it on his vest. "Stop that," he said softly.
"Stop what?" she asked and struggled to kiss his thin, quivering nose.
Just then they heard the scrape of the front door opening beneath them and they flung themselves through the branches into the tree house. Through the slats in the floor they could see Emma Mae's mother standing outside in her robe, one hand tentatively on the doorknob. Her skin looked very white in the weak morning light, and she seemed dazed as she looked up and down the street. Emma Mae was still holding on to Alexander Yegorovich but he did not seem to notice. He was staring at her mother.
"What? Does she look like your dead girlfriend or something?" she whispered.
"You ask a lot of questions," he said finally, after her mother had gone inside.
That afternoon, Emma Mae and her mother went back-to-school shopping. The ghost had insisted. He'd been exhausted from flying and lay under Emma Mae's bed like an enormous dust mote, weakly rolling away from her as she tried to stroke his hair. He needed time to recuperate, alone, he told her.
Right after the divorce, her mother took her and Bitsy to the mall several times a week, sometimes every day, but eventually the trips tapered off. Now all the clothes they'd bought, some of which Emma Mae had never even worn, were too small. This was her first time back all summer and she felt cheerful in the air-conditioned brightness. That feeling of tote bags banging against her legs. Tote bags heavy with crisply folded shirts and pants and sweaters and skirts, all in muted colors and perfect for flying, all encased in layers of tissue paper and the possibility that they would transform her.
She and her mother stopped at a kiosk and tried on sunglasses. It was an inside joke, something they had done since she was little.
"Dahhhling...." Her mother would start, and flip the end of an imaginary scarf over her shoulder. She looked very pretty when she did this, maybe even glamorous.
"Yes, Dahhling..." Emma Mae would reply and let the glasses slide down her nose.
They were both laughing when a strange and intense longing jolted through Emma Mae. A giddiness she could feel in her teeth and under her nails. It passed quickly and her mother did not seem to notice.
But then, standing in the cramped and cold dressing room at Dillard's, as her mother passed her endless pairs of corduroys and cotton cardigans and baby doll dresses, that feeling was back. Mild at first. Dread clinking around under her rib cage, quietly rumbling and radiating, like she was on a fault line.
"Come and look at it out here," her mother called.
A large woman in a pantsuit sat at the entrance to the dressing room, watching them. There was a funny smell and the air felt heavy.
Emma Mae shuffled into the hall and stared into the three-way mirror at the ruffled collar around her neck. She tugged at it. It was making it very hard for her to breathe.
"I think it looks sweet," her mother said and glanced at herself in the mirror. She had on a bright yellow dress, a color Emma Mae had never seen on her before. She lifted her hair out of the way. "Can you zip?"
Emma Mae zipped the dress, staring at her own reflection. She could hardly stand it, seeing herself next to her mother, her yellow mother in triplicate.
"You still have those other shirts to try on," her mother was saying as she tugged Emma Mae away from the mirror and back into the closet sized dressing room.
And it was then, as her mother was trying to force a long-sleeved blouse with an embroidered bee down over Emma Mae's head, that something inside of Emma Mae burst. It happened quickly, a reflex: Emma Mae bit the back of her mother's hand. Momentarily stupefied, her mother stared down at the glinting teeth marks.
"What on earth has gotten into you?" she finally said, not bothering to hide her disgust as she wiped her hand on her shirt. "I'll be waiting for you in the car."
Alone in the dressing room, Emma Mae began to cry. The ghost, Emma Mae was sure, was gone by now. She imagined him flying towards the ocean, bobbing in the water, surrounded by Maya and other ghosts, all of them swimming together like a school of jellyfish.
They didn't talk on the ride back, but her mother pulled over several blocks from home. Her hands were shaking when she took them off the steering wheel. The bite mark on her hand was red and slightly swollen. She interlaced the fingers of her other hand with Emma Mae's and tried to look her in the eyes, but Emma Mae stared out the window. The men she had seen sleeping that morning were selling boxes of berries out of the back of the pickup truck.
Emma Mae's instincts had been right—the ghost was gone. That night she waited for him to come back. She whistled the song he'd been humming when they'd met. Whistled it as though it was a birdcall. She sat by her square window and whispered threats and pleas until she fell asleep, and she woke up to him floating in the air on the other side of the glass.
Emma Mae grinned like a maniac. "Come in. Come in."
He hesitated, but then climbed through her window and sat on Bitsy's bed.
"Were you looking for Maya?" she asked.
The ghost gestured vaguely. "How was your shopping trip?"
She moved to sit next to him and he stood up.
"I had a funny feeling in the store," she said.
He flicked his hair out of his eyes. "Oh yeah?" He walked to the shelf to look at Bitsy's riding trophies.
"Yes," she said. "I thought you had left." She came over to him and pressed her head against his back. "I thought when I got home you'd be gone."
The ghost shrugged. She inhaled his scent.
"You followed me to the mall, didn't you?"
"Keep your voice down," the ghost said, edging towards the window.
"You were there, weren't you?"
She paused and for a moment the silence was filled with the creaking of the house and the humming of the air conditioner.
"If you try to leave me I'm going to scream," Emma Mae said. "I'm going to scream HELP! PERVERT! RAPE! until the whole block is awake and the police will come and bring their dogs and they'll discover you."
"They won't see anything."
"If you leave me—"
"Please don't threaten me," the ghost pleaded, "you will regret it."
This intrigued Emma Mae, this regret. "That sounds like you're the one doing the threatening."
"Just don't. Please. I will lose control of the situation. It will be a reflex."
"You were going to leave me."
The ghost looked blank. He did not deny it.
Emma Mae stared at him for a second, assessing this challenge. She drew in a sharp ostentatious breath, getting ready to scream, and then a strange thing happened: her breath seemed to have sucked him up inside of her. It felt like wearing gloves that were too tight, but she was the gloves. She stood up stiffly and then sat back down. The ghost made her do this several times, then he made her brush her hair with Bitsy's comb. His thick fingers were inside of hers moving them around and the comb kept slipping out of her hand. He made her get down on her knees and pick it up off the carpet. A warm awful suffocating tightness moved through her. The ghost had expanded himself around her bones, between her organs and her skin, and it was making her swell slightly. She crawled back and forth between the two beds.
"If I remove myself will you be good?" The ghost's voice was muffled in her chest. Emma Mae felt like a horse bridled from the inside. She didn't say anything.
"I am not enjoying this," the ghost said. "I hate being inside of children. It's cramped and you're all full of strange little delicate things." She could feel him recoiling inside of her. Inside Emma Mae was something hard and brittle like an empty egg and it made her squeamish to feel him brushing up against it. If he could bring himself to press on it, to squeeze it ever so slightly until something shifted in her, he would be able to climb out of her and she would be reasonable. But he could not bring himself to do this.
Her mother opened the door and stared groggily down at Emma Mae, who froze in mid-crawl.
"It's 4 AM, Bunny. What are you doing?" Her mother came and sat on the edge of the bed and drew her robe tighter around her throat. "Did you have a bad dream?" She tried to lift Emma Mae off the ground by the armpits, and Emma Mae's body stiffly complied. As her mother ran her fingers through Emma Mae's hair, a sound escaped from the girl's throat, a very muffled groan.
"I know you're upset. I know," her mother repeated, rocking her back and forth. Emma Mae blinked furiously, but the rest of her body adjusted to the contours of her mother's lap and went limp there. She felt like a lip full of Novocain, and though she couldn't feel it exactly she knew her mother was kissing her forehead and sniffing her hair. Her mother hesitated, about to say something, but then decided against it and resumed her rocking.
"You're so sweet when you're sleepy. Like a big doll." Emma Mae's mother held her at arm's length and stared into her eyes. "My beautiful baby, you're my beautiful bunny baby. My little ham cup. I will never leave you. I will never let you go."
Emma Mae's face quivered and strained itself into a sleepy smile, but Emma Mae herself was just a tiny figure clawing at the bottom of a well.
After her mother finally tucked her into bed and left, the ghost slipped out through Emma Mae's mouth like a long silk scarf from a magician's pouch. He collapsed on the floor between the two beds, panting and glistening.
"You're disgusting," she said and moved back into the far corner of her bed.
The ghost looked sad. He ran his ropey fingers through his hair. "You're right. But I warned you. No, you're right. It was unforgivable. Please, forgive me."
Emma Mae brought her raw knees up to her chin and sucked on them as the ghost paced between the beds.
"The way your mother was looking at me. At us. Ooof. That is love."
Emma Mae glared at him.
"Something passed between your mother and me."
"Is that why Maya left you? Because you're a womanizer?" She thought of the time she saw her father licking Ms. Acker's neck in the kitchen.
The ghost got down on his knees, and pawed gently at the hem of her nightgown. His head wobbled and shook. She swatted at him with her foot but with diminishing conviction. He took her hand and she did not move it. He stroked her hair.
"Just please don't leave me," she said again, staring out the window at the breaking dawn. The leaves of the oak were covered in a silvery wet film. She fell asleep holding his hand.
In the morning the ghost was gone. Emma Mae awoke to the sound of her mother laughing. It sounded like she was being tickled. It was a sound Emma Mae hadn't heard in a long time and it made her feel like she'd bitten into something rotten.
At breakfast, her mother was wearing lipstick and smelling strongly of the perfume Emma Mae and Bitsy had given her the year before on Mother's Day.
"How do I look?" her mother said, twirling around for her in the new yellow dress. The skirt flared out as she spun and her face was hopeful like an empty plate.
In those moments Emma Mae could understand her father very well. She smiled a big vicious smile, clenching her lips together and dumped her untouched waffles, in the sink.
"Hideous," Emma Mae called over her shoulder. "Absolutely hideous," she repeated.
The ghost did not come back that whole day, or that night. Emma Mae looked everywhere. She followed his scent to her mother's walk-in closet. It was strong there, and even more pungent. The side of the closet where her father's shirts used to hang was empty, making the room looked like it might tip over.
Over the next few days even that scent dissipated and the ghost's smell was gone from the house as, frequently, was her mother. Emma Mae began to sleep through the afternoons, and sit in bed all night in the dark, waiting. After a week or so, she had grown completely exhausted. She ran a fever and slept for two days straight. Her mother sat with her, only waking her to give her glasses of apple juice. While Emma Mae drank her mother petted her head, as though Emma Mae was a horse, or worse, a baby, a gesture that was both pleasurable and humiliating. But then the fever broke, and after that things seemed normal again and Emma Mae barely ever thought about the ghost. Some of her friends had come back from summer camp, and they would all ride their bikes along the creek and put Sun-in in each other's hair and shoplift candy from the gas station. Bitsy's post cards had gotten more and more frequent—it seemed she had taken about all she could take of their father and could not wait to be home any day now.
One afternoon, Emma Mae was biking with her friends past her house when she noticed her mother's slippers at the foot of the oak tree. Another time, the slippers were there next to a pair of work boots. Emma Mae heard her mother laughing and someone whistling, a familiar tune coming from the tree house above. She went inside and watched from the living room window as the man she'd seen selling berries stiffly climbed down the ladder. His movements were oddly rigid and he laced his boots up with great difficulty. Her mother paused half way down the ladder to look at Emma Mae through the window. She smiled dreamily and patted her hair, and Emma Mae knew that she was just looking at her own reflection in the glass.
Katya Apekina's stories have appeared recently in The Iowa Review, Santa Monica Review, Joyland Magazine, Joyland Retro and PANK. She's a recipient of a UCross residency, the Alena Wilson Prize and the Third Year Fiction Fellowship at Washington University in St. Louis, where she got her MFA in fiction. Her poetry translations have appeared in Night Wraps the Sky: Writings by and About Mayakovsky (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2008), which was short-listed for the Best Translated Book Award. She has also co-written the screenplay for New Orleans, Mon Amour, which premiered at SXSW in 2008 and starred Elisabeth Moss and Christopher Eccleston.
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