Today I’ve decided to share one of my rough short stories, part of a series I’m writing called “About a Girl” (tentatively titled – not sure I’ll be able to keep that working title for obvious reasons). In “About a Girl”, I take songs that I love from talented male musicians that are written about women, and turn them on their head. I interpret them myriad ways, many of them with a feminist spin, some of them funny, some of them dark, but all of them interesting and challenging. I have written eight of these stories so far, and this is by far my most dark to date.
I was inspired by “Untitled (Ghost)” by Neutral Milk Hotel. If you’re a fan of NMH you know that much of that album was inspired by Anne Frank. As a young girl I read her diary so many times I had it memorized. Her legacy and tragic story has stuck with me throughout my life, just as it has with so many others. It’s a very small consolation how she has inspired art throughout the decades since her death.
This story isn’t really about Anne Frank, though. I’ll leave it to your interpretation.
She’d left New York right after work and driven for several hours, arriving just before dusk. She told no-one she was leaving.
She drove the entire way in silence. Once or twice she broke up the quiet by rolling down the window and listening to the sound of the wind whipping by, the occasional barking dog, a passing car. Sometimes she would hum a tune to herself, her low voice out of tune but pure. She talked to herself a bit. Mainly, she had been quiet. When the city had truly fallen behind her, she’d taken a scraggly breath and glanced once in the rearview, as though she might have been followed. Only then she accepted that she was free.
She’d brought nothing with her, hardly, except for a few tiny little objects that had no importance, but somehow mattered: an empty bottle of gin, a green necklace with a broken bead, The Diary of Anne Frank, old and battered and dog-eared. She had also brought an extra pair of shoes, because hiking up the side of the cliff in high heels did not seem a fun task. She had not thought to bring food or drink, a change of clothes, or to let anyone know where she was going. The last part was not an oversight but rather on purpose. She didn’t wish to be found.
It was time to be a ghost.
Once there, she changed into the clunky brown hiking boots, which, combined with her delicate powder blue jacket and skirt, seemed odd. She did not care. She exited the car with a kind of dedicated fervor, leaving her purse and keys and only grabbing the book, hiking with one arm up the tall, grassy craggy hillside, the damp espresso colored earth clinging to her boots and skirt, smelling of must. The sky was a vivid blue, full to bursting with plump white clouds. She could not see the water as she climbed, but she knew it was there, just up there, waiting for her. She could hear it, the gentle lap of waves against the rocks, the muted splash. She stopped for a moment, taking a second to relish the quiet; the tiny sounds, wishing she could fade into vapor and float among them.
She tucked the book into the waistband of her skirt, and kept climbing, this time with both hands. They dug into the soft, dark earth, and she could feel the gritty grains lodging themselves under her nails. The mustiness clung to her already; her armpits were damp, and so were the insides of her thighs. She dug at the mop of grass, propelling herself upwards, savoring the almost onion-like smell of the waxy, clean green blades. Everything was cool – the gentle breeze, the grass, the dirt, and the smooth gray rocks that studded the ground around her in no particular pattern. The hill was not steep, but rather a steady incline, and it wasn’t really necessary to climb up it on all fours, voraciously digging her fingers into the dirt, but she did it because it felt good and right. She wanted to exhaust herself, to fully immerse herself in the experience. She wanted to sweat and fight for breath. She wanted to feel it all.
Some might argue that ghosts felt nothing, being dead, but she would disagree. Ghosts could see it all, and they felt it all, too. They could transform energy into physical sensation if they pleased, and they would like the dirt.
The hill got rockier as she went up – it was craggy and uneven. She slipped on a wet patch of grass and landed with her knee against a stone. Her powder blue skirt now had a grass stain and a noticeable rip. She was tempted to fling it off and continue up the hill in her underwear, but decided against it. It wasn’t that she cared abut being naked – she didn’t give a flip about such things anymore, she was beyond that, now – she just didn’t want to litter.
With one last out of breath pull she found herself at the top of the hill. She had expected some kind of triumphant change in atmosphere, for the air to be different, or to simply feel different, having accomplished something, but it was simply the top of a hill. And she was simply just standing there. A light breeze kissed her skin, which was damp with her sweat. She looked down at her hands, thick with grime, her nails black with the embedded dirt. She put her fingers to her nose and breathed it in; the deep, mineral, murky smell, reminiscent of so many other things in life. The essence of it all. She sniffed deeply again, knowing it was an odd thing. She smiled, her chest feeling light. She stepped toward the edge, careful to keep some distance between herself and the open air.
The water was calm, a light gray-tan-almost-blue, impossible to describe, a color that didn’t exist, the sun shining on it as it held space, and as barely-moving and suspended as jello. The sun glinted on the water with a blinding sheen in some spots, in others there was nothing but foamy, dirty froth. There were no people in sight – no swimmers or fishermen, nobody on boats, nobody on the edge staring out into the horizon. How often did one get to be truly alone in front of a body of water? It seemed a serendipitous gift that she was here unbothered, alone, free. How long might it last? How long dare she hope?
Water strengthened ghosts. She had read that somewhere. Their energy fed on it; it made them mighty.
She had hoped that once she got to the top, had baptized herself in the dappling sunlight, that she would feel herself fill, and that well-being would come. She stood and she waited, slightly out of breath, feeling the sheen of sweat on her brow and chin slowly drying into salt, her heart tittering a little in her chest, exerted. She felt many things, but better? She wasn’t sure. The lightness in her chest could be a lie.
She had run away. She had gotten in her car after a long work day and instead of going home to her picture perfect family, she’d raced along the highway to freedom; freedom from two lives: the one she had and didn’t want, and the one she wanted and didn’t have. Neither could touch her here. Ghosts did not have lives – the very essence of a ghost, its very definition, was the absence of a life. It had no need for a life. Could there be anything more free? Oblivion, she thought. A nice word. A good amount of consonants, that word.
She was glad she hadn’t worn tights or pantyhose today. They would have been ruined, she mused, as she looked down at her bare legs, which were dirty and slightly raised with gooseflesh from the cool breeze. Her feet dug into the soft earth, a random hard rock lodged in the heel of her right foot, but otherwise, a comfort. The ground was cool and pliable.
Guilt washed over her. There were people who loved her, who stood around waiting, expecting. She was not so good at giving love back, at least not in the forms people seemed to need…she was good at gestures, at tiny things imperceptible to most. Little gifts of herself, little thoughtful trinkets. She was good at those. But they all seemed to want the grand gestures, the giving of her all, to tear her arms and legs off and feast on them. They wanted her everything, to chew her up and consume her, to own her and absorb her. She would give that happily, if she had it to give, but she did not. Some small part of her was hardened like a stone, and that part was the key to the rest of her. It remained locked. She was not consumable, she was not palatable. When they tried, they tasted how sour she was.
She was loved by several people whose love should be worth something, but she didn’t care. That was the long and short of it…their love did not sustain her, it did not matter in the end. It did not feel like anything but chains. She knew this was foreign and wrong, but like an inverted eyelash, she could not seem to extract it without maximum damage to delicate parts.
It wasn’t her fault. It was the pain. It had gotten so big, it had eaten her from the inside out. All of the guts of her, the soft parts, were gone. All that remained was the outside, skin and bones and pastel pantsuits, and a hardened stone of a heart that could not unlock. That’s why she wanted to become a ghost – to shed the old dead skin like a snake and slither to some new reality, a new plane of existence, where she weighed nothing.
What would it feel like to drift through a person, a breeze that ruffled their hair, a gentle salty spray on their skin?
She cupped a palm over her eyes and stared out at the horizon, looking for something she didn’t know. A pain had begun in her chest, traveling upward, becoming an un-poppable bubble in her throat. The air had turned cold. Was that a plane? The silver glint of something, a brief spasm of shine in the sun’s rays. She watched, waiting for it to appear again, and it did, brighter this time, flashing gunmetal and chrome, heading toward her. Was it a private plane? A military plane? It seemed to sleek and clunky to be a jet, no, it was something from an older time, a relic. It was flying low. Flying slow.
She felt a drop fall on her hand, cool and wet. She looked down at it, uncomprehending. A light drizzle was starting. The plane was drawing nearer; it was flying so low she could almost make out the pilot, but not quite. The cockpit still appeared tiny, and the sun gave a glare off the glass. Rain while the sun shined. It seemed an omen of a kind.
She remembered the book, suddenly, which was still tucked in the waistband of her skirt, safe from the drizzle. She’d had the same copy of The Diary of Anne Frank since she was eight or nine, the unabridged, unedited version. She had read it so many times as a child that pages were dog-eared, passages highlighted. When was the last time she’d been able to immerse herself in a book, in a world, in an author? To connect in that way? It had been a long time. It was a hopeless business, growing up. Realizing the tales of your childhood were not flights of fancy meant to titillate and entertain, but often, warnings. History is doomed to repeat itself, the books seemed to scream silently, if you do not take heed!
Would it ever not hurt? She wondered. She watched the plane grow closer. It was flying incredibly low, she could see that now. Too low – it would fly right over her head, she would have to duck. The force of it might throw her off the cliff. Why would a plane fly so low?
It was only yards away now. Suddenly, she realized. It was coming for her.
She took another step forward, looking down the cliff at the water, still glittering, little circles appearing, disappearing and reappearing where the drizzle hit it. Something wasn’t right. It was glittering orange, instead of turquoise blue. She wrinkled her brow, and a whiff of smoke hit her nose. A fire! There in the water. But how was that possible?
A glowing ball of orange and red flame had risen up from the depths, right in the center of the water, completely visible to her, burning hot and bright. As she watched, a line appeared, a trail to the shore, and the flame licked out over this trail and crept up the shore and onto the rocks with lightning quickness. She barely blinked, and the flame had shot up to the face of the cliff, and was climbing upwards towards her. It was moving so fast she had no way to escape it. In mere seconds the flames would be licking her feet. She imagined she could already feel the scorch on her skin.
The plane was so close to her now that she could feel the ground rumbling, could make out the letters on the side of it, could see the pilot inside. His face was obscured, his helmet a whited out circle. It didn’t matter. It was her only hope.
Looking down once more at her hiking boot clad feet, she saw that the ground was on fire all around her, flames shooting up, licking at her skirt, molten, hot ice. She jumped, exerting her limbs outward, as far as she could, propelling herself forward with all her might, grabbing in front of her, hoping she would be caught. The book fell from the waistband of her skirt and tumbled below, into nothing. Into the foamy all-color water she could no longer see.
She grappled with the air, hands clawing at nothing; she looked down, she screamed.
Time seemed to freeze for a split second as she was suspended in time and space, midway between land and plane. She was able to catch a glimpse, a puzzling view of what lay below and behind her. The water was no longer there. The cliff was no longer there. The city, the one she’d just fled (hadn’t she driven for hours?) lay below her, all asphalt and smog and grayness, people milling about on the sidewalk below, gawking. Behind her, the clean green grass and craggy rocks were gone, and it was all steel beams and more grayness. The balcony she’d so often stood at now had a broken railing; she had no memory of how that had happened.
Only the fire was real.
It didn’t matter now. She had already jumped.
She stretched out her hands, reaching them as far as she could, to the heavens it seemed, and waited for the plane to swoop down with perfect, graceful precision and catch her.
Wait, where was the plane? It was no longer there. Had it ever been there?
Only the waiting crowd below. Only the licking flames behind.
It didn’t matter now. She had already jumped. She closed her eyes.
She was a ghost.