By Meghan O’Brien
Copyright.©Meghan O’Brien 2002
I never used to believe in ghosts.
I remember sitting around a Ouiji board with a group of friends at twelve years old, all of us talking and giggling and bright-eyed, secure in the lazy innocence of our burgeoning adolescence, breathless at the possibility of reaching beyond our mundane lives to witness something bigger than us, unknown, mysterious. I remember waiting in eager anticipation for the planchette to move, for some evidence of something beyond my own experience, and I remember the gasping of my friends when at last the plastic beneath our fingers shuddered, and then slid across the board. For a moment I had been transfixed, alight at the implications and the possibilities of a suddenly mysterious world, and then I felt it. Jenna was moving her hands. Yes. Without a doubt.
I had looked at Jenna’s face, searching for confirmation of my suspicion. She had been whispering excitedly and exclaiming the same as my other friends, but when she sensed my eyes on her she turned for a moment and looked at me and I saw it, a mischievous glint in her stormy blue eyes, a barely perceptible lift of the corner of her mouth, and I knew. No, there was no such thing as ghosts. Only those who desperately want to believe and those others who are more than willing to satisfy that desire.
I never used to believe in ghosts, but I believe now. I’ve believed for nearly a year, and I believe only because I have no choice but to do so. If I could deny them it would be a relief, a lifting of the terrible burden that settled around my shoulders that morning, even as the dust and ash was still settling on the ground around me, around all of us. If I could choose not to see them I would. I would retreat back into those days when I was surrounded only by life, and I wouldn’t take it for granted again, even when that life seemed occasionally miserable. I would go back to that time when my thoughts were only occupied with the living, and when people went to work and then came home again, and when airplanes didn’t seem so ominous, and I could go to sleep confident that I would wake up again with my world still intact.
But I have no choices, and I see ghosts everywhere I look. Wandering through the streets, blank-eyed, shell-shocked. Sometimes they speak to me; sometimes they seem oblivious to my presence. Sometimes they weep, and sometimes they laugh. There are no hard and fast rules there. They are as unpredictable as the living, though not nearly so complex. It seems to me that nearly all of them I have encountered are encumbered by one overriding concern, one undying obsession, that compels them through their timeless existence, and through the streets of a city that feels them still. It is different for each of them, as it should be. Individuals in death as they had been in life, over three thousand different stories, and eternal pursuits.
I was shaken the first time I encountered one. Walking through the street one evening, harsh smoke still lingering in the air above my head like a specter, I had come upon a woman sitting on the curb, feet planted in the street, face in her hands. I could see her body shaking from unchecked sobs as I approached her and I instinctively stopped, my heart pounding in concert with the movement of her shoulders. My own grief was still so close to the surface, an unbearable pressure that hadn’t left my chest since that morning only a week prior and that occasionally bubbled up and spilled over at the slightest provocation, sometimes for no reason at all. I understood why this woman wept. Unthinking, I closed the distance between us and then lowered myself to sit beside her, and reached over to take her in my arms.
She had leaned into me willingly, not even flinching at the unexpected contact, and pressed her face into my neck. I had closed my eyes at the contact, a shiver running through my body, and stroked her back until the sobbing subsided into deep breaths. For a moment neither of us spoke, and I continued rubbing my hand over her back because I needed to do something and I felt helpless and I knew she did, too. Finally I pulled back and away from her, and looked into anguished green eyes. I took her cold hand in my own.
“I know,” I said. What else was there to say? We all felt it, didn’t we? Were there even any words to describe what we all now knew?
She shook her head and bit her lip. She looked at the ground and made a small noise that was somewhere between a whimper and a strangled moan. “I missed my daughter’s second birthday party.”
The words were whispered and all of a sudden I felt confused. Upset, almost. After all that had happened, she sobbed over a birthday party? She must have sensed my discomfit because she looked at me then with intense eyes, and I shivered again as I realized how empty her gaze seemed. “If only I’d started down the stairs sooner. I didn’t know it was coming down, I swear, and I… I just…” The woman had been overcome with sobs again and she broke our eye contact, hanging her head in renewed agony.
All at once I had realized how truly cold her hand was, and how my hand felt cold around it, and how my entire body was nearly numb from the contact. I looked down at the pavement in front of us, at my long shadow created by the streetlight behind us, and at the place where her shadow should have been cast, and I cried out and dropped her hand, standing so fast that I nearly fell over. The woman stopped her weeping for a moment to stare up at me again, and when I looked at her this time I could see that she wasn’t right, that something was off, and all at once I realized what she was. Who she was. Over three thousand that were mostly nameless and faceless to me, save one whom I had just comforted and held, and who was looking at me with a profound sadness that gripped my heart and refused to let go.
“Please don’t leave me,” she’d begged, reaching up to try and take my hand again. “I’m so alone.”
I had left her. I had turned and run down the street as fast as I could, pounding my feet against the concrete and pumping my arms up and down until my heart threatened to burst in my chest and I had to stop, and lean over, and gasp for breath. Then I had felt my stomach clench, and twist, and I had thrown up all over the side of the building where I had come to rest. And then I had run the rest of the way home.
No, that’s a lie, I suppose. She was not the first ghost for me. The first ghost I witnessed after that warm September day had been that of my sense of security, of my absolute and until then unshakable faith in the future, floating away from me like so much office paper caught on an errant breeze. And it had felt like a piece of me had died; something went missing from me that could never be restored. I recognize that hollowness, that sense of loss, in others, too. Looking into their eyes, I see the mourning for their own ghosts, the little pieces of them that died on that day.
Sometimes I think we’re like half-people now. Damaged, somehow, and incomplete. I used to think I would never feel normal again, but I was wrong. Some days I feel just as I did long ago, not so long in actual weeks and days and hours and minutes, but long according to the way I feel those other days, the way I felt almost all the time for the first couple of months. Some days things seem almost ordinary again, and I can laugh and talk and play and make love and not even think about how the world has changed, and how I have changed. On those days I see the ghost of my former self. I can pretend that things are as they were, and I can plan and worry and care about stupid, trivial things again.
Until I catch a glimpse of a ghost, a real one. And then I cannot help but remember, and I feel wrong for having felt normal, and it always occurs to me in those moments just how altered I really am. I see a ghost on the street, pacing back and forth, or crying, or walking purposely towards some unknown destination, and I understand that things will never be the same again, that I am as trapped in what happened as they are. Sometimes I think that I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Today I took a walk without any specific destination, a habit that started shortly after I overcame my initial fear of the ghosts and my curiosity overrode everything else. After some time I realized that I had once again gravitated towards that few-block radius that always teems with ghosts, where the energy of their presence is so intense that it seems anyone can feel it. The living are drawn to this site just as the dead are, and sometimes when I look around at the somber people around me I can see that they sense them, too, even if they cannot see them. It used to be that I avoided this place, and the memories, and especially the numerous ghosts, but lately I feel attracted to it and powerless to resist the hold it has on me.
Today I went late, and the weather was bad, and there were not so many other living people there, though the ghosts didn’t seem to mind the rain and they milled around in droves. I stood on the sidewalk and simply looked around, nodding to those who acknowledged my presence, strangely calm in the face of the otherworldly. Ghosts had seemed frightening to me once, running down the street away from a grieving soul, but I had long since decided that ghosts were the least of my fears.
I walked past an attractive young man in a FDNY uniform, his mask tucked underneath his arm, and I could hear him worrying aloud about reaching the top, and saving more people. I shook my head sadly. Those are the ones for whom I feel the most pain. The ones who exist frozen in those last moments, their minds unable to move past their last worries and fears. I wondered if they would ever be able to rest, if that man would ever stop worrying about rescuing others, and find some kind of peace for himself. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know the answer.
Rounding a corner I came across a most interesting sight. Sitting on a park bench were two figures, and my recently honed instinct revealed to me that one was living and the other a ghost. The living figure was sitting quietly, her back ramrod straight against the bench, her eyes distant and her hands folded in her lap. The ghost, a young man about her age, sat beside her, one arm wrapped around her shoulders and the other on top of her folded hands. Both looked up at me as I approached the bench, and I returned the sad smile of the man, which in turn elicited a melancholy expression from the woman. I realized that she could not see him.
I stopped in front of the pair and stared into the man’s pleading blue eyes. The woman looked up at me and squinted at the rain that fell on her face.
“Hello,” she said softly, and I saw the man’s arm tighten around her shoulder slightly.
“Hi,” I answered. I didn’t know what to say. “Did you lose someone here?”
If she was surprised by my question she didn’t show it. She nodded. “My husband.”
I looked up into the man’s tortured blue eyes and he bowed his head a little, looking down at their joined hands. My heart pounded in my chest and I felt once again the loss and the sorrow of that day. “I’m sorry.”
The woman smiled at me, and then looked past me, her eyes bright with tears and focused on something I knew I would be unable to see even if I turned my head to look. “I still come here sometimes, even now, because… I guess… it just makes me feel close to him.” She sighed. “Sometimes I swear I can feel him…”
I looked at their joined hands and at the protective arm that still curled around her back and her shoulder, and I smiled. “He can feel you, too,” I said.
She looked at me a little strangely and then nodded, a sheepish smile overtaking her face. “I know.” I bowed my head slightly and turned to leave.
“Take care,” I said. I took a few steps away from her and then stopped, turning to look over my shoulder at the couple still seated on the bench.
“Her name is Amanda.” The man spoke for the first time, and I saw in his eyes a silent plea.
“His blue eyes are full of love for you, Amanda,” I added. “Never forget that.” Amanda brought a shaking hand up to her mouth, and gasped, and tears spilled then from her eyes. I smiled at her and nodded. “I never used to believe in ghosts, you know,” I said, and then I turned and walked away.