by Zoe Nova
Unconditional love can come from the most unlikely of sources...
|On. Off. On. Off.
The ghost stood in the corner of the white-walled room, staring despondently at the floor as he fiddled with the light switch.
On. Off. On. Off.
It wasn't any fun anymore, not really, when everyone would just blame it on the circuits.
On. Off. On. Off.
His spectral fingers stopped mid-movement, letting the light flicker on and off sporadically, the wires making strange hissing noises as the sparks worked to figure out whether to fill the void or to remain inert. Jay's hand fell from the switch, and the room lapsed into a permanent darkness. Everything moved on while he was stuck in time.
Things had seemed so bright when the new family first moved here, with their little green-eyed daughter and the lacey window curtains. He was in the nursery now, though no one else called it that anymore. It was now just Dani's room, or Danielle's room, as she didn't answer to Dani anymore. Always Danielle.
Jay walked to the center of the room, his transparent feet sinking into the plush carpet. It seemed soft, but he wouldn't know. He wouldn't know anything. Gazing up at the fan above him, the ghost sat down to think. What was life like before he knew Dani?
He didn't remember what actual life was like, with breathing and heartbeat and food, but he did remember what things were like before the Charleses moved in. He was lonely, and the fat man who sat in front of the TV all day beat his dog whenever Jay came around. Dogs could see ghosts almost as well as children.
Children…. How did he meet Dani? Not just when he first saw her, but when did she first see him? He thought he remembered….
It was a warm summer night, and fireflies lit up the night outside the Charles household. The air was thick and muggy, but the windows were shut, so the house was quite a comfortable place to be. However, Danielle was fussy, and her parents, both young, mid-twenties, didn't know how to calm her. They had tried lullabies, they had tried rocking her, and they had tried the pacifier, but Dani still wouldn't sleep. Jay remembered how the father, Edmund, had told Terry, Dani's mother, how he needed to get to work the next morning, and left her to deal with their child. Terry, too, was at her wit's end—there seemed to be nothing wrong with Danielle, but the child wouldn't sleep. It didn't take much to see that the young parents were exhausted.
Jay didn't know them then, but he was fascinated with how much love the family had. Terry would kiss her husband goodbye every morning and cook him dinner when he got back. Edmund would bring home flowers when they were least expected, and he'd sneak chores into his routine even though his wife told him he had enough to deal with at work. They were a loving family, and that was something Jay hadn't seen in his entire afterlife. So, it upset him to see their child cry, especially because there was nothing the young couple could do to calm her.
Jay leaned forward over Terry's shoulder to get a better look at Dani, to see if he could help. Her toothless mouth opened in what seemed like a smile, before she spit up all over her mother's back. Terry sighed and wiped her shirt off, while Dani's eyes remained fixed on Jay. Jay froze for a minute before patting the child's head. Dani smiled and giggled, while her mother looked around for an explanation of her child's mood swing. There wasn't anything visible, but Jay knew what happened—little Dani could see ghosts. While Terry scurried back to her bedroom for another hour's sleep, Jay stayed to watch over the sleeping child; he knew he had found a friend.
The little crib was gone now, as was the rest. No one was home now, it was just Jay and—
No. He didn't want to think of that. The ghost stretched a little and then lay on his back. There were nicer things to think about, and he wasn't done remembering yet. What was next? There were so many things that happened, but Jay couldn't seem to think of enough to stem the pain. First steps! First steps were important. Not just to the family, but family ghosts as well…
After church on Easter Sunday, Dani was upset. The service had been long, and there were only so many pamphlets she could draw on before that got boring. Once she got home, Dani steadfastly ignored her toys, preferring instead to sulk in the center of the hallway. While Edmund and Terry moved to the kitchen to finish making brunch, Jay sat down next to the child.
"No," said Dani, waving her little hands in front of the ghost. "No play."
"Alright," Jay said, suppressing a smile. "What do you want to do, then? We don't have to play."
"No play," Dani repeated, less forcefully, while peeking out of hands that covered her face.
Jay paused and considered, stroking his chin with comical drama. "We could work, then. What job do you have, Dani?"
Dani didn't say anything, but turned away.
The ghost raised his eyebrows, and then held out his hands. "You want to learn to walk? I can teach you to walk." He reached out to take the child's hands.
"Walk," squeaked Dani, as Jay helped her stand up.
The first few steps they took together were stumbling, but Dani was confident. She pulled away from Jay and toddled her way into the kitchen, with the ghost right behind her in case she fell.
Half-way down the hall, the little girl tripped over the edge of her gauzy Easter dress, but Jay picked her up almost before she hit the floor. "You can do it, Dani! You're almost there! Go show your parents."
Sure enough, the little kid kept right on going, rounding the corner into the kitchen. Terry stepped back from the stove to set down the casserole, then nearly fell over as she saw her daughter.
"Look, Edmund! Our baby's first steps! Look how brave she is!"
Dani giggled, stepping into the kitchen. Her father looked up from his paper. Jay watched his face light up as he scooped his daughter into his arms and swung her around.
"I walk," giggled Dani, when her father finally set her down.
"Our baby can walk!" Terry exclaimed, hugging the giggling girl from behind.
"Yes, Dani can walk now." Jay whispered, smiling, as he slowly dissipated from the room.
Walking wasn't the only thing he taught Dani to do. He taught her not to draw on the walls, how to get peanut butter off the roof of her mouth, and the best way to cartwheel. All of these things she could have learned from someone else, but Dani chose to learn from him. It made him feel special, even loved. That wasn't something even the living could find that often, and Jay felt horrible that it might all have to end. It just wasn't fair that they all had to move on while he stayed the same.
The first major separation he and Dani had was school. At the time, he didn't know what school was, but Terry and Edmund were excited, so he was too. Jay just didn't know what it meant, at the time.
"I'm packing your lunch right now, honey. I've got cheese and crackers, just like you like them. There's applesauce too, and grape juice. There's a cookie too, but save that for snack time."
Dani was older now, with short brown hair that never seemed to stay put, no matter how many times her mother combed it. She shifted from foot to foot, too nervous to jump about. "Mama? What's school like?"
"Sweetie, school is somewhere you go to learn, to learn fun things like songs and games. You have numbers, too. You like counting, don't you?"
Dani nodded, it was true. She loved to count. She'd count the steps she took on the stairs, her warbling voice confusing the landing for two instead of one, always perplexed when she got a different number than she did before.
"You're going to learn to read books. You'll be able to have story time whenever you want it, once you can read—"
"But what if I want you to read to me?"
Terry's eyes softened as she held back her tears. "I'll always read to you. Just ask me, alright?"
Dani sniffed slightly, not understanding why her mother was sad, but crying herself anyway. "Thank you, Mama."
Terry hugged her daughter, sweetly, before Dani pulled away. "I'll be fine. Don't worry." She said this with such a straight face that Terry couldn't help but laugh.
"I know, sweetie. I know you can do anything."
Jay smiled at that. It was true. Dani might be young, but she could do anything if she put her mind to it—it just took a while to get her focused.
Dani smiled a gap-toothed smile at her mother. "I can do anything," she repeated, the words echoing around in her head. "If I can do anything, then let's go! I want to meet my teacher, and learn to read!"
Terry covertly wiped the tears from her face, careful not to smudge her mascara. "Let's go. Today will be great."
School turned out to be a good thing, though Jay did miss his friend. Every day, though, she came back with new stories, and new things she'd learned, always happy to share. Jay learned new things with her, though they weren't always absorbing the same lessons. When Dani came home with a story about how skeletons filled your body, and that they really weren't that scary because everyone had them, Jay wondered where his real body went. When Dani told him about her new friends, and how sandboxes were only good so long as the sand was dry, Jay thought about how many things were out there that he didn't know about—what was sand, for an example? When Dani learned how to write her name, he tried to write his, but his fingers simply went through the pencil when he tried to pick it up.
Still, Dani was happy, and, really that was all that mattered. Jay had a friend; he had someone to care for. And, after all, it was always easier to love yourself through loving someone else. And Dani loved him, too. How else could he explain the smiles she gave him whenever he came to visit her on those afternoons where it was too hot to play outside, and none of her friends were over? They were friends; he was like a big brother. Where did that connection go? He just wanted her to be happy. It wasn't that she had other people in her life, it really wasn't. It was what they said that made the distance grow.
Dani was having her first sleepover with her friends—all of them. She was in fifth grade, and a few girls from her class, were over right before Christmas break. They all sat on the floor of the living room, eating popcorn and giggling. They had just finished watching some movie about two kids who went to a camp that was supposedly haunted, and spent the entire movie trying to find the ghost, only to learn that ghosts weren't real, and it was up to the camp's organizers to push the 'haunted' edge in order to bring in campers.
"Those kids were stupid," said Abigail, brushing blond hair away from her face. "Everyone knows ghosts aren't real. I mean, we're all nine here, right?"
"Well, I'm eight," retorted Clarissa, "but, still, ghosts aren't real."
Dani, who had been half asleep in her sleeping bag, jerked upwards. "Ghosts are real!" Jay's heart swelled with pride: Dani was defending him.
"Yeah?" Abigail was unimpressed. "Prove it."
"Well… there's one that lives here. His name is Jay." She was faltering, but she believed in him. Dani believed he was real.
"Where is he?" Clarissa was worried. "Will he hurt us?"
"No, I can't see him right now; I told him this was a girl's party, but he's really nice. Do you want me to call him over?"
"I'd love to see that. Let's find him. Is he your boyfriend?"
Jay didn't like Abigail, even before meeting her. Dani would come home often, talking about how people made fun of her for the way she looked—'no name' jeans and unruly hair—and Abigail apparently headed the bunch. He didn't know why she was there, in the house. Only friends should be here, not mean people like her.
"No—no. He's not my boyfriend. He's a friend. He's also older."
"Well, let's see him. Coooome one out, Jaaaaay! Cooooome on out and see your giiiirlfriend!"
"Shut up! He won't listen to you! I bet you're scaring him!" Dani's face was red, and a bit of spittle lined her mouth. Jay wanted to help her, but he didn't want to interrupt the party. He'd wait to be called for.
"You're just afraid we'll know he isn't real."
"Guys, guys, stop fighting! Does it really matter?" Clarissa was a voice of reason, but everyone was too upset to listen.
"Yes! Yes, it matters. He's a friend, and I want you to meet him."
Abigail's eyes narrowed. "Show him to us, then."
Dani took a few deep breaths. "Alright. Jay! Jay? You there? Come meet my friends, Jay!"
Jay teetered a little on the edge of visibility, unsure whether his appearance would make things better or worse. He was a vague shimmer, enough to be seen if one looked hard enough.
"Where is he then?"
"Right…" Dani looked frantically around the room, finally seeing her partially visible friend. "Right there! I think he's scared. Jay, come on out."
"That's just a trick of the light. C'mon Clarissa, let's get some ice cream; I don't want to be here with the 'ghosts' anymore."
Jay sighed, and then trembled into existence. "Hey. I'm right here."
Abigail screamed, while Clarissa just stared in shock. He couldn't see Dani, even though she was the one that mattered most.
"Stop it! Stop it, Danielle! I don't know what you're doing, but turn it off! This is one sick joke!"
Jay turned to look at Dani, who was pale as well, despite the look of grim satisfaction on her face. "I told you he was real. I told you."
"No. No, he isn't. It's just the light. We're up too late. Maybe we ate too much sugar, like your mom always said. That," Abigail pointed to Jay, "that can't be real."
"I am real." Jay extended his hand with what he meant to be a friendly smile. "You're real too, aren't you?"
"You're not real. Ghosts aren't real." Abigail went from frightened to angry, and she lashed out at Dani. "I don't know what you're doing, but it isn't good. You think you're like, a witch or something, but you're not. You're just a geek. A fat ugly geek. I want to go home."
"He's real! You just saw him! He's real!" Tears streamed down Dani's face, green eyes rimmed with red. "You can't blame me for knowing Jay! He's a friend, just like you."
"No. I'm real, and I'm not your friend. Not anymore. I'm leaving." Abigail stalked out of the room, while Clarissa uncurled from her defensive position on the floor.
"You—you know, Abigail's right. That…" a thin finger pointed to Jay, "that isn't real. I don't know what you're doing, but it isn't good. I'm—I'm going to go sleep couch upstairs. Your parents' bedroom is right next to the couch, isn't it?"
"Please… he's real. You just saw him. Jay's real." Dani sank to the floor and Jay reached down to hold her hand. "No! Go away. I don't have any friends now, and it's your fault! Go away! I don't need you!"
"But I'm your friend, Dani… I'll always be your friend…."
Things worked out then, even after that night. Clarissa chose to forget about the incident over Christmas break, and Abigail was never really a friend anyway, or at least, that's what Terry said to her daughter. Dani didn't believe her at first, but she forgave Jay after a while, and their relationship went back to as it was before, but that didn't mean Jay couldn't feel it fading.
In the end, Jay supposed, reclining on the carpet, back against the wall, Abigail did get to Dani. Dani started wearing designer clothes and heavy makeup that made him cough whenever he passed through the clouds the powders left behind. Hair curlers were bought, as were fancy soaps, but they weren't for fun anymore. They were an obligation. Still, it took years, and Dani was still his friend. They were friends for a long, long while, but, yet again, someone else got in the way.
Jay tried to push past Dani's accusations when she said he hated the living for getting to have life, meet friends, taste food, and breathe the air. Though he recognized that wasn't the truth, he also knew that caring for Dani was only part of the story.
He needed to feel validated. He needed to feel loved. Jay needed a friend to rely on, and Dani had given him that for so long, but it looked like she wasn't going to be there forever. She had someone else now, and that someone didn't care about her.
His name was Paul, but everyone called him Uno. Dani could never explain why, and Jay couldn't bring himself to care. He was the latest in a long line of boyfriends, and he seemed to be the most serious one yet, both in that he concerned Jay the most and that he meant more to Dani than all the others. He was rough, he yelled, and he brought Dani drugs, cigarettes that made the ghost cough more than the makeup—much more—and lines of white powder that, after Dani snorted them, would cause her nose to bleed. She quit school just to get wasted and to sleep off the effects. He didn't see why she did it. He didn't see why she ever wanted to date a guy like Uno. Jay hated the man, even though he knew hating was wrong. He'd last seen Dani yesterday, late in the evening, and he wasn't sure she'd be coming back.
"Dani, you shouldn't be doing this."
"What do you know? You're dead, and a dumbass. You don't know shit. I can do what I want. I don't even know why I'm talking to you. Aren't you supposed to go away after I get off the high?"
"I'm not a hallucination, and you know it. You're smart. You're too good to be doing this. I really don't know much, you're right on that. But I do know that you've been miserable lately, and going out tonight won't help."
"I said you don't know shit," Dani grunted, reaching through him to grab the box of makeup lying on the bed. "I just need more, and I'll be fine. My parents are the problem. I just need my fix."
"What happens after the drugs wear off? Dani, that kills. You don't have to quit, not immediately, anyway, just cut down. I don't want you to die. You're too young to die."
"Look, you're younger than I am, and you're already dead. Shut the fuck up, and let me live my life. Stop trying to take it."
"I might be dead, but that doesn't mean I'm wrong. You're dying. You hardly go an hour without a cigarette, and your nose bleeds every time you try to clear it. I don't know much about drugs, but I can see you've taken too many. Quitting is hard, but you have to cut back, or at least stop taking more—"
"Yeah? How will I feel then? You said you want me better. This," she waved a bag of cocaine, mostly empty, so close to Jay's face that it passed through his nose, "this is better. You just don't know it."
"It—Dani, you're dying. You're getting closer to that every day, but farther from me. You might not believe in me, but I can help you. You can get better. You might not listen to me, Dani, but you could listen to your parents."
"My name isn't Dani. It's Danielle." She didn't even look up from the mirror. "Besides, I've got Uno. I don't need my parents, and I definitely don't need you."
"Dani—Danielle. He hurts you. I've seen the bruises. The makeup might cover them up to everyone one else, but," Jay ran a spectral finger over her arm to reveal an ugly bruise under the heavy concealer, "I can see. You're hurt."
"I don't give a fuck. Uno wants me; Uno needs me. You can't do anything. You're dead."
"Just because—just because someone wants you carnally, it doesn't mean they love you."
"I don't have time for this. Go back; whatever. I don't care. Just leave me alone."
"Dani, please…. Get help."
"Get out of my life. I never want to see you again. Go away." And, with that, Dani left, slamming with more force than she'd meant to use. The walls seemed to shake, and Jay sank into the bed, though his ghostly frame nearly passed through the object. There were memories there, memories that even Uno and the drugs hadn't washed out. He closed his eyes and pretended to sleep.
It had been a good twenty four hours since he had seen Dani, since Terry or Edmund had seen her either. They were out looking for her now. They could be back any moment. Jay stared at the clock on the wall, half-destroyed in a drunken fit, and hoped it still worked. It probably did, but that didn't help any as the hands drifted slowly and agonizingly across the face.
It was nearly one o'clock in the morning when the door opened, and Edmund and Terry came in from the snow. Dani wasn't there. He would have known if she was, no matter how distant she'd been acting.
"Our baby, our baby—she's gone!" Terry's voice wafted upwards, and, as loud as it was, the words barely registered with Jay. He knew what had happened; he just didn't want to know.
"Edmund, Edmund, our baby!"
"We shouldn't have ever let her see that low down bastard." Edmunds voice was dark, but though the tone would have normally scared Jay, he felt his own tone echoed in the man's voice. "That sick little man-whore."
"Edmund, Edmund, what do we do? We just can't let—"
"Terry. We have to. She has to learn. We can't just—"
Dani wasn't dead? She wasn't gone? Jay felt his head spin. But surely she would have—he couldn't feel her anymore! Not in this world! What happened?
"She has to learn." Edmund tried to make his voice firm, but it still shook. "She has to stay—she has to stay there. She has to learn."
"There's bail! There's always bail! You can work a few extra hours; I can save with the groceries; we can get her out!"
"Even if we could afford it—and we can't—it wouldn't teach our daughter a thing. She needs to sit there and see what she's done wrong. She needs to see what happens when you do things… like that, and she won't get that lesson from coming home."
"I—I know." Terry sounded a bit less hysterical, but she was still far from calm. "It's just jail, and I don't know what'll happen to her there."
"Nothing that wouldn't go on if she was out on the streets. Go to bed, Terry. I'll be there in a second."
Jay let the voices of the Charleses fade from his attention, preferring to focus on finding Dani. If she wasn't dead, why couldn't he find her? He looked all over for her spirit, the mark she left wherever she went, but he just couldn't find her. Something in Dani was dead, and he didn't know what. She'd lost a part of herself. Though Jay didn't really want to see her like that, he felt he owed Dani a goodbye, if a goodbye it was. He focused on the jail, bracing himself for what he would find.
Dani sat on a bench in a cell, not in the county blues yet, but in her own clothes, though they were nearly shredded from whatever she had been through. Her eyes were dull, and her feet kicked listlessly at the ground. Her hands were covered in gore, and her face was streaked with blood from where she had been wiping away her tears. Uno, Jay was glad to note, was nowhere to be found.
Jay watched for a while, as Dani sat there, worn-out sneakers grazing the floor. Eventually, she closed her eyes, and it looked like she was asleep. Just as Jay was about to turn away and bring himself back to the house they had once shared, Dani looked up.
Their eyes met, and though he knew she couldn't see him; he also knew she was there. Her mind, her spirit. Dani locked her eyes on his for a few moments more, before laying down for what looked like her first peaceful sleep in weeks.
Jay pulled back from the jail with a hope he couldn't suppress. Dani would get better. He didn't know how, he just knew it would happen.