I don’t think I’ve ever seen a ghost before. I’ve had vivid dreams, and sometimes even dreams that predicted things that came true, but those always happen when I’m lying down and possibly asleep. Sunday night, I was standing up, with a toothbrush and tube of toothpaste in my hand.
It was pretty late at night when it happened. My friends and I were hanging out in front of the fire, talking about our day. Three of the women had taken a ferry over to a spot where they could watch hundreds of snow geese fly over their hands. “I’m so glad we actually saw them,” said Signing Woman, my pun-loving friend. “We were worried that it might just be a wild goose chase.”
We were gathered in the living room of an old mansion owned by Signing Woman’s cousin. As the night grew later, the laughter and talking grew quieter as some of the women went to bed. I took a naked photo of Gorgeous Eyes in the firelight, and Signing Woman gave Makes Bread a massage. Nothing unusual.
Soon there were five of us left. We’d turned out the lights in the kitchen, the formal dining room, and the study, and the house was dark except for the flames.
“I’m going to get ready for bed,” Denim Woman said, yawning. That seemed the cue for everyone to go upstairs, retreating to their bedrooms to put on pajamas. I was planning to sleep on the couch by the dying fire, so I didn’t have a bedroom, but I went upstairs to brush my teeth.
When I walked into the main bathroom, Signing Woman was already there, brushing her teeth. I grabbed my toothbrush and toothpaste, and said, “I’ll go use the other bathroom.”
I walked into the dark hall moving quietly so as not to wake up any sleeping friends. I went into the little sitting room that’s outside the master bedroom, then through the master bedroom. It’s cute room with a row of windows and a green quilt on the bed. I’d been in there earlier in the day, to take a naked photo of Quilt Artist. The friend who had slept there the night before had gone home, so the room was empty.
In the little bathroom, I brushed my teeth. Because I was tired, I wasn’t thinking that clearly. I found myself hurrying. I had this feeling that I had to brush my teeth fast because someone was waiting to use the bathroom. Since I’ve always lived in crowded households, that sensation isn’t an unusual one. The room felt crowded, but that’s normal to me.
I noticed, as I looked to the right of the bathroom mirror, that the window of the bathroom led to a fire escape: kind of a balcony. I looked out into the darkness, at the balcony covered with pine needles, and felt a sudden weird sensation, the way I feel when they play spooky music in a movie. I spit the toothpaste out quickly, hurrying. I’d left the door behind me open, and I wanted to get back to my friends. I turned fast and stepped back into the bedroom.
Standing just a few feet away from me was a teenage boy.
I was so startled that I jumped about a foot and screamed, waving my toothbrush in the air.
The teenage boy looked maybe seventeen or eighteen – older than With-a-Why, but younger than Shaggy Hair Boy. He wasn’t dressed the way my kids dress: he was wearing light-colored clothing. He wasn’t scary-looking or anything like that: he looked like a kid patiently waiting for someone to get out of the bathroom.
But when I screamed, he disappeared. Suddenly the room was empty.
From down the hall, I could hear Signing Woman’s voice, “Are you okay?”
I walked through the bedroom, through the sitting room, down the hall. Signing Woman was in the bathroom where I’d left her, light spilling out into the hall. I told her the story, and she came with me back into the room. It was empty. I stood back in the spot where I’d been, trying to see if maybe it had been a trick of light, some reflection off the window panes or the bedside lamp. I told myself that maybe I’d imagined the teenage boy. I was tired, after all.
I admit I still felt a bit creeped out as I tried to fall asleep on the couch by the dying fire, but I kept telling myself that Signing Woman’s ancestors were all nice people, and that any ghosts who appeared were likely nice ghosts who didn’t mean to do me any harm. I woke up to sunlight — and no spirits in sight.
That afternoon, Old Neighbor Woman came to join us for lunch. I’ve met her before: she’s lived down the road for ages, and she lost her husband a few years ago. She joined right in with our chatter and joking around. We saved a spot at the table for Animal Lover, who had a headache and had gone upstairs for a nap.
When Animal Lover joined us, Quilt Artist said to her, “How are you feeling? Did you get a good nap?”
Animal Lover said, “I kind of dozed off and on. I had the weirdest dream. This teenage boy … he said his name was Jonathon, and he was killed in a farming accident over there.” She pointed vaguely to the north.
Signing Woman and I exchanged glances. Then Quilt Artist spoke up, “Really? That’s probably the spirit that jo(e) saw last night.”
Old Neighbor Woman said, “Oh, that’s just the ghost. The teenage boy one? He’s harmless.”
We all turned to look at her.
She took another sip of her soup. “Were you in one of the upstairs bedrooms?”
I told my story.
“Yeah, people see him,” she said. “I need to sleep up there sometime so that I can see the ghost. I’ve never gotten to see him.”
She took another sip. “Mmm … beet soup. I haven’t had this in ages.”
I started to feel bad for my reaction. After all, the ghost hadn’t tried to hurt me or anything like that. He was just standing there. Maybe he just wanted to be an extra, like the extras we have in our household. He was just a harmless kid.
(Hours later, when I got home and told the story to Shaggy Hair Boy, I said, “I felt bad for screaming.” Shaggy Hair shrugged. “I bet he gets that a lot.”)
I don’t know if it was daylight that changed my feelings towards the spirit or Old Neighbor Woman’s matter-of-fact reaction, but I felt that I needed to apologize. While my friends were cleaning the kitchen, I walked upstairs into the green bedroom. It felt creepy to be alone, but I didn’t want to scare the ghost off. “Sorry for screaming,” I said into the air. I didn’t see a ghost or feel one. Sunlight came in through the windows, making patterns on the green quilt. I felt silly.
It was almost time to leave. I cleaned the fireplace, emptied the compost bucket, carried my stuff out to the car. I decided take a moment to sit on the long cushioned bench on the front porch. From where I was sitting, I could see my friends, gathered over near the car, talking as they packed. I could see all the way down to the lakefront, where Signing Woman was talking to an old man who was some kind of relative.
I felt a presence next to me on the bench. I didn’t turn. I know from experience that teenage boys are more likely to listen if you don’t stare right at them. I have my best conversations with With-a-Why when I’m driving in the car, and we’re both looking straight ahead.
“It’s okay,” I said to the ghost. “You can be an extra here if you want. They’re nice people, it’s a safe place. Signing Woman’s family – they’re really good people.”
We watched as Signing Woman and Old Relative hugged each other. We were too far away to hear what they were saying, but they were both laughing about something. Signing Woman turned, and Old Relative massaged her shoulders for a few minutes. Then they hugged each other again, and Signing Woman walked up the lawn to the car, where my women friends were still busy sorting through what they had to pack.
I stood up, and turned to look at the bench. It was empty. I didn’t see anyone. But it felt okay. I left the house and joined my friends for the ride home.