By Jody Callahan
It’s stopped raining, and with that I take the last beer in my fridge to my apartment’s small balcony. I like the earthy aroma that rains kick up, which I’m told is from bacteria spores lying dormant in the ground until a summer storm churns them into the air. In Brooklyn, you don’t always get such a natural delight, especially in smells, but my tiny balcony overlooks Greenwood Cemetery, which is old and larger than most of the city’s parks. The brief afternoon storm has driven everyone off the grounds. Usually, at dusk I see art students in groups with their sketch pads and charcoal, tourists, neighborhood walkers, and, here and there, one or two folks paying respects to the deceased.
The dead are not in the well-kept ancient graveyard, either. But, they wouldn’t be. That’s not where they horribly died, if they died horribly. I’ve been privy to dealing with and studying the dead for nearly twenty-five years. They don’t hang around cemeteries.
One in particular, a young girl, hangs out on the balcony neighboring mine. She might have been ten or so when she died. She wears fading blue and yellow plaid pajama bottoms, and a pink tank top that’s turning grey. Her clothes are damp, even when there hasn’t been rain. Could she have drowned? Purple veins show through her pallid skin. The nails of her small fingers and tiny toes of her bare feet are grey-black. Her teeth, the same.
I’ve lived here for two and a half years. She didn’t show up until a year ago. Thankfully, she haunts only the next door apartment and not the building. I only see her when I’m on the balcony. She just stands there looking in my direction but never directly at me. There are dark oily stains showing on her body that I know are eating at her, slowly decaying her specter. A blackish translucent drool trickles from her slack jawed mouth. It’s not saliva. It’s whatever is inside her that is causing the decay. Her irises, like her greasy hair, are too dark now to tell what color they once were. But the eyes aren’t milked over, so the girl, as ghost, isn’t that old. A couple of decades, maybe. No outward signs of trauma. Suffocation, maybe, which would bring me back to the drowning theory. Poison, maybe. It could be for some other reason her clothes appear wet. Neglect, possibly. She might have gotten sick and was left to die. Certainly not peacefully. There are no sweet gentle spirits roaming the earth. Only these echoes. Only these poor souls who while living suffered the other living.
I’m not looking at her now. I don’t need to. I’ve studied her as much as I can from this distance between our balconies assessing her threat level, which I’ve deemed benign. For now. She won’t be a problem tonight, or tomorrow; or next week. I half-hope to live another year here with a dormant ghost child next door. After that, who knows. I could be in a new apartment somewhere, in a new building with no ghosts, which is an odd thing I’ve had to think about in my life of dealing with the dead. They are tied to their place. Tear this building down, and erect a new one, that dead little girl won’t be in it. I don’t know what happens to them, and that particular unknown will fill me with existential dread if I let it.
Here’s the thing. I do dread the day the little dead girl will look straight at me. I am afraid of what harm she may cause both to myself and others. She will awake confused, angry, and wrathful. That is always a ghost’s M.O. However, if I am not here when she wakes up I will feel a great pain of guilt. They’re looking for help. She’s a little girl.
I want to sit, but I didn’t bring anything to dry off the one folding chair I have on my balcony. I turn to go inside, raise my empty beer bottle to the little girl ghost who remains stock still, slack jawed, and staring past me at I don’t know what. A light comes on in “her” apartment. It’s the actual living renter. New to the building. New to the city. I saw her a few weeks ago in the elevator. She had a box in her arms, and a box at her feet. We nodded to each other. When the doors opened on my floor, she started kicking the box at her feet out into the hallway. I picked it up, followed her to the apartment. She said, thanks, and told me how moving by yourself sucks logistically. She said she’s from a small southern town. I said I was born in the city but lived in North Georgia for a long time before returning. She’s from North Carolina, born and raised. Not much of an accent, but it’s there. She moved to the city to be a data scientist. I was being friendly in helping, but I also wanted to peek in and see if the dead girl was hanging around and still docile. I didn’t see her. I told my new neighbor to feel free to knock on my door if she needs anything. I didn’t get her name or give mine. Southern friendliness is instantaneous and total, it gives the impression of having already known someone. It can be easily missed that you haven’t exchanged names. She hasn’t knocked on my door, which is a good thing, haunting-wise.
I saw her again one night on the train. She smiled and appeared ready to move across the rail car to me for a chat, but I only nodded and went back to staring at my feet. I had just come from a Whole Foods that was built on the Gowanus Canal, a stagnant and filthy industrial era waterway known for its polluted, sometimes gelatinous, and always smelling of sulfur, waters. I happened to notice something more awful brewing over its turbid depths. Lights. Tiny shining orbs floated above the murk water. It was a lovely sight to be sure, more so than the Gowanus deserves. But it is a bad omen. I walked out to the edge of the grocery’s parking lot to peer into the water for more clues. I couldn’t see anything beneath the surface. I don’t know why I expected to, the water is a dense impenetrable brown. Looking around, no one else in the parking lot took note of the floating lights that meandered in the air above the canal, and this would definitely be something of note if they could see it.
When I’m the only one that can see something like this in plain day, it’s ninety-nine percent of the time a bad sign. It put me out of a chatty mood and so I ignored my new neighbor on the train. Benign supernatural occurrences are rare. The dead girl on the balcony is my only example, and I know like I know the sun is hot without touching it that the dead girl’s eerie calm, and the tranquility of lights above the Gowanus won’t last. Anyway, I should’ve said hi to my new neighbor on the train. She’s tall, has long hair, and likely single. At any rate, it’d be nice to have a friend in the building.
Going back inside my apartment, I spy the new neighbor at her sliding glass door in a neat blouse and long skirt with a kitchen chair in tow. She slides the door open and works her chair through the door. The little dead girl is undisturbed. My neighbor positions her chair and promptly sits facing the cemetery, sighing as though relaxation is a tiring endeavor. She props bare feet on the railing, and the long dress slides down. It’s nothing scandalous but reminds me that it’s rude to let someone believe they have privacy when they don’t. The little dead girl stands at her far side, just inches away, still staring in my general direction. Neither notices the other. Good. The dead girl doesn’t see the new tenant as someone of use. Me, however, well, we’ll see.
“Hello, data scientist.” I say. Our balconies are close enough that I don’t have to raise my voice much. She looks my way and her face shows disappointment. I don’t want to be a bother. “I was just going in.”
The disappointment morphs into a glad hearted smile; a southern thing. “Hello, neighbor.” She stands. The skirt falls back down to her knees. She leans on the railing facing me. The little dead girl is behind her. I try to sip from my empty beer bottle and feel a little angry at it for failing me when I need something to fidget with. “That’s a sad bottle.” She says.
“Yeah, I wish I had another.” I smile, but mine is far more out of practice than hers. I’ve been gone from the south for too long.
“I’ve been saying once I’m moved in proper then I’ll have a drink out here. Everything’s still in boxes, though.”
“If you told me your name, I’m afraid I can’t remember it.” I know she hasn’t, but for some reason I think this is a cool way to ask.
“You look really good to be a hundred year old granny.”
“That’s funny.” She doesn’t laugh, but her smile says she means it. “Our parents’ generation were the first hipsters, so we get to have grandma and grandpa names. What’s yours?”
I nod. “How’s big city living?”
She sighs and looks off to the cemetery.
“It’s going to be rough with you at first. That’s for sure.” I can tell she needs reassurance. Her shoulders loosen a bit.
“It’ll let up?”
I shake my head, no. “You’ll get tougher.”
“How do I even do that? What if I don’t?”
“Then, when your lease is up, me and the city will never see you again.” Her shoulders tense again.
She still looks at the cemetery. “Those are pretty, though.”
I look where she does. Fireflies have come out. They fill Greenwood Cemetery with brilliant motes of light. It is a pretty sight, similar to what I saw over the Gowanus Canal, but that wasn’t fireflies. I’ve Googled the canal a lot since then hoping to read about gaslights or something that could explain it, anything to tell me others see it, too. The ghost-lights, let’s call them, were as pretty to look at, but bad omens can be pretty as fireflies or, more often, unsettling like the little dead girl.
I look back at Maribelle. She’s smiling at the fireflies. She turns to me and says in a thick southern accent, “Lightnin’ bugs.” It makes me laugh.
“They call them fireflies up here.”
“Nope, they’re wrong. I’ll never call ‘em that.” She’s cute.
I hope the little dead girl stays quiet, though I know she won’t. I hope whatever is brewing in the canal is nothing. I know it’s not. I hope Maribelle figures out how to make it in the city, and she might. “Well,” I say, “I’ll leave you to your porch sittin’ and lightnin’ bugs.” I get a solid smile from the girl from North Carolina. I motion that I’m going inside.
“Maybe I’ll run into you again out here.” She says.
“I’ll keep an extra beer for it.” Maribelle waves goodbye as I open my sliding glass door and leave her to the view of the fireflies in Greenwood Cemetery, and in the company of a little dead girl that most likely won’t bother her for the time being.