Welcome to monthly ghost, an eclectic, multi-genre newsletter of ghost stories. This is the first ghost story, medium-mild spooky. My apologies to anyone who actually knows anything about tides. Comments for me? Tips? Feel free to reply to this email. It’s an open channel.
Okay, here we go.
[Small, spiral-bound notebook. Cover: serious water damage, bloody half thumbprint. Forty soggy pages of entries in neat, cramped handwriting. Just looking at it makes my wrist hurt.]
6:03 am, bed
Not the recurring one.
Following my dad through farmers market. Overcast, about to spill, lightning ready to crackle. Absolutely crowded. He keeps looking back for me with the arched eyebrow of disappointment. Whenever I catch his eye, I keep saying: “Tests to grade, presentation to finish.” He never slows. My own voice comes out in a whiny kind of pout that I hate hearing. So many vegetables. Decision fatigue. Sunday scaries.
The market tables thin into single row. Low rumble, but staticky. Like old radio. Dad nowhere to be seen. Meander instead toward a table with no one browsing. Merchant vaguely resembles translucently pale dad of a student. Crafts on the table. Look more closely. Things from my childhood home in a yard sale spread. Fat raindrops. Plastic horse with matted mane, shoebox of colored pencils, A Wrinkle in Time with wrecked spine. Next table: slender phonebook of my coastal hometown, yo-yo covered in ABBA stickers, coil of bloody ace bandages. Fat raindrops now, so heavy they hurt. Next table: chunky plastic pear earrings, double-dutch length jumprope, a cardboard moving box filled with stuffed animals. Know the rest of the box’s contents without digging: attendance cards, mini chalkboard, tiny department store carpet sample for reading time. This pile of love-worn plush animals. My very first class.
1:45 am, bed
Can’t sleep. Visualize: mind rolling itself through a pasta machine into nice, doughy strips. Body exhausted. The kids at easels for much of afternoon. Me, crouching.
7:15 am, school parking lot
Not the recurring one. Still wake up as if I’d just run a race. Jelly legs.
2:46 pm, cafeteria
Dad calls. As always, he reads the tide table for the week. 1:39 am, 4.46 ft. 2:30 pm, 3.74 ft. 2:48 am, 4.66 ft. A recurring habit. 3:37 pm, 4 ft. This weekly report. 3:55 am, 4.95 ft. I drift and remember how we used to call the movie theaters to hear showtimes. 4:38 pm, 4.4 ft. If you missed the exact time you wanted, you’d have to call back. 4:55 am, 5.35 pm.
5:55 am, bed
Not the recurring one.
Dread. Plenty. Irrationally thirsty.
3:21 am, bed
Can’t sleep. Pinned under boulder of dread.
6:59 am, bed
No dreams remembered. Woke up with the word “indiscriminate” in my mind’s mouth. Quizzes today, guest speaker today: former Olympian. Rower? What third grader cares about rowing? Spin it: teamwork, staying active. Distinct feeling that I can’t hold my thoughts. Brain like mesh.
4:18 pm, school parking lot, annex
Not rowing. It was judo. Wild frenzy of a nap dream, then shame from sleeping in car at the school. Relative shade and privacy, annex lot. In any case. The dream: not the recurring one.
Dream was: at terrible Greek diner 20 miles from hometown by the sea. This must be after everything that happened. Dad absent. Desperately thirsty. Bright fluorescent bathroom. Shock from the mirror: wearing stage make up that someone unsuccessfully tried to wash off. Bleeding black raccoon eyes down my cheeks, wine red smudged around my mouth. Turn on sink and all I can do is drink and drink and drink and drink.
Takeaway? Who is any of this for?
Reminder: building a new foundation. Fresh start this year. Best self to begin best decade of this little life. Even though current class has bad, ugly energy. Even though house falling apart.
Get to the bottom of my problems. The recurring one.
5:24 am, bed
The recurring one. Beginning part dragged. Ended horrifically.
11:57 am, classroom
Check the kids’ answers against the answer key. Imagining this journal as an answer key for this nightmare. My pervasive unease. Mostly in the long, dark quiet hours. These days, a lot of that.
8:15 am, kitchen table
Not the recurring one.
5:44 am, bed
Insomnia. Keep drifting into a low grey zone just before actual sleep. Sensation of being one of those pond-skimming bugs. Exhausted but some unbreakable membrane between me and sleep.
1:02 pm, classroom
It is incredible, really, that anyone understands what a child is saying?
9:28 pm, living room
Call from Dad, the tides again. 6:37 am, 4.79 ft. 6:51 pm, 5.02 ft. 7:08 am, 4.86 ft. 7:27 pm, 5.18 ft. Calming. 7:45 am, 4.86 ft. 8:00 pm, 5:28 ft. Writing it down like these waves will help. 8:22 am, 4.76 ft. 8:32 pm, 5.31 ft.
2:15 am, 3:45 am, 4:01 am, 4:09 am, 5:18 am, bed bed bed
Insomnia. Feel my heart slowing.
2:10 pm, classroom
Class has been presenting papier-mâché volcanoes. Feels like it’s been all afternoon. Katie L. recites the history of Mount St. Helens from a poster. Pours the vinegar, the volcano fizzles and bubbles over. For a moment, Katie’s curls glitter and shimmer. Her striped shirt, her arms, her sneakers. As if thrown by a sudden glistening reflection. No one else seems to notice. Scan the room quickly for some mirror or metal catching odd afternoon light. Nothing. Then it’s over. Paper towels for the foamy, pinkish lava. Tiny hands clap.
What does recur: school lunches. Taxes. Birthdays. Car inspections. The Mary Oliver poem that makes my eyes water every time it appears in my life. Because I’m soft like that. Sunday crosswords. Christmas trees strapped to cars. School fundraisers: chocolates, coupon books. Reunions. Crabapples in the yard. Birthdays. My years since the bad one, because life really just keeps unspooling.
7:11 am, bed
The recurring one.
5:15 pm, living room sofa
Nap dream. Wholly underwater, absolutely blurry. Water unexpectedly silty. Wake up thirsty, rush of a headache behind my eyes for a moment, then it's all gone.
The recurring one.
Feeling like melted saran wrap. Like my skin is pulling tight and cracking apart. Difficult to smile, to react properly to the kids. Art class today. Set them loose to “free draw.” They all draw the ocean. Tiny fists urgently curled around blue, blue-green crayons. Classroom near silent. This would spook me if it didn’t soothe me more. When I leave, my car is covered by little grey birds. Standing, pecking their feet.
Scroll through tweets on my phone. Lazy-thumbed, mechanically swiping the touchscreen. Blue glow. Some glitch: the scrolling outpaces my fingers, the app closes, the camera opens, my bewildered face in the sudden flash. Again. Again. Again. Bewildered, drop the phone. Hacked? Broken? Something uncanny. Bring self to delete the pictures, finally, early in morning when I can’t sleep. Looking alive (terror) but also more than a little dead (absolutely washed, bruise-like circles around my eyes).
Receive a call from an unknown number. Area code matches my hometown, so I pick up. The speaker is frantic, words indistinguishable, voice pitched way up. Robocall? The voice halts every time I try to speak, its breathing jagged, hitching. Hesitate. How can I record this? Searching the squeaking, scribbling voice for any kind of sense. Hear something that sounds like my name: Layla?
Stare at the phone after trying to call back and hear The number you have reached is no longer in service. Almost half an hour passes. Feeling serene. Quietly losing my mind. Call is coming from inside the past.
Head to the driveway to get the Tupperware I’d left in my car. On the gravel drive, passenger side, something that had not been there earlier: a thin, long strip of cloth. Open my car door, the light spills out: a beige ace bandage, deeply stained with dark, shining blood. Wet, still. Dumbly look around. See no one. Garbage and recycling bins loom at the end of the driveway. Lift the bandage with a stick and walk it to the curb, throw it away. All business. The limp, blood-sodden thing echoes a buried memory from when I was younger, back when I was a sister. The dead rattlesnake my father lifted from the road with a branch when we were young.
Not the recurring one.
Maybe I dreamed this because I remembered them yesterday. Sitting in the truck with me. Watching dad fling the dead snake back into the pine barrens.
Dream: we snuggled with our mother in a foreign bed. The sound of waves outside. We tucked our noses under the edge of her upper arm until she wrapped her heavy wings around us, a belt strapping us to the earth. Our fear babyish but so heavy, so physical. Like we didn’t trust gravity. Like it was that simple. The sound of waves. A horn and then the waves are just the highway once more. This is the eye of the storm. This is a hideout.
Insomnia. Then, ?
I wake up driving, my arm out the window like a confident trucker. Taking the back way to school. Through the valley, where the orchards grow so close to the country road. The sky, a slice of pink. The branches of apple trees, not yet in bloom, nearly graze my elbows. The telephone lines sparkle and shimmer, a mirage I can’t blink away.
Haven’t had a thought in hours. We do another free draw day. Each child draws bird after bird after bird. The room is silent when I slice more oak tag on the paper cutter.
Watch the news. My left eye starts to bleed, but I can’t find any cut or scratch.
Watch the later news with a box of tissues in my lap. Both eyes watery, a little itchy. Like regular allergies, but I’ve turned all tears to blood.
Insomnia. Then, the recurring one. Wake up hollowed out and thirsty. Blot the droplets of blood on my pillow with hydrogen peroxide.
Phone scrolls through a news article without me touching it. Place it on my desk. Phone types an alphabet soup of nonsense, words autocorrecting, deciding their own destiny.
Don’t like running at night, but jog anyhow. Seems like the thing to do when falling apart. Reach the overlook, and the entire valley glitters, tossing light as if through a prism, as if the sun hadn’t set an hour ago.
Wake up running. Nice dress, no shoes. Wipe mouth with the back of hand, taste sweat and blood.
Asked not to come back to the school. Took it well. Took it. Recognize high school era boyfriend at the grocery store. Cart full of steaks. Salt and pepper beard. Looked right through me.
Been wearing sunglasses. Blood catches at my cheekbones. Like a reflex, keep smudging it away. Drips from my earrings. Speak to my dad on the phone and the rising blood makes me lisp.
Another call from hometown area code. Different number. Staticky sobs. Rumbling and gasping. Pitched up. I stay on the line, waiting for my name. Interrupted by a thud at the living room window.
Insomnia. Then, the recurring one. I sleep on a towel to catch the blood leaking from my head. When I go outside, the lawn is littered with dead birds.
The recurring one.
The recurring one.
The recurring one
The recurring dream. A dress rehearsal for the worst, one that wrings the fear from my everyday normal waking life like a sponge. Every time, now, I’m lucid enough to recognize its events. Go through its motions. Never lucid enough to divert it, to stop the inevitable progress of the nightmare, to wake myself up. Always compelled by a thick cloak of dread, unshakeable inevitability. Here it is.
It begins in the classroom. Field trip day. Get the kids ready. It’s my classroom, but clinically clean. Matching tiny evergreen parkas, matching tiny evergreen caps. They line up. Every time I count, someone else is missing. Every time I count, someone is screaming from the hallway, from the coat closet, from behind the ceiling tiles.
Don’t board the school bus, instead I get in the truck of the older boy I was with when I was young. The man-boy who wouldn’t let me break up with him. Slick hair, dead eyes. You know shark energy: impenetrable, perpetual motion, cutting through the world like a knife. In the truck, my teen self acting flinty, too. Like her face smashed into the dashboard didn’t leave toothmarks. In some versions, I hit the pleather dash again and he pretends it wasn’t him. In other versions, I just watch the little dents in the dashboard, my entire spine a flinch.
Arrive to the beach. Alone, I watch a beached whale of impossible proportions. A mountain. Big enough to pull its own tide at the water’s edge. I approach with my throat and eyes closed. A pilgrim, a mourner. I put my hands on the big, dry, briny skin. I’m a magnet growing strong. This moment is the only moment in the dream that feels good. Too soon, dread returns.
Go into the town. Hometown. Beach town of surf shops, donut shops, antique stores, and psychics. Ghost town of absolute silence, cars stopped in the streets, paninis abandoned on cafe tables. Drawbridge half open over the bay. But everywhere, every corner: birds. Little grey birds, speckled, quivering. Watching me with unblinking flat yellow eyes.
I try not to think about this dream, but when I do, this is where I dwell, where I most want to escape. I never walk away. My heart drops like an elevator as I approach the boardwalk, stepping carefully around the birds. I keep swallowing. More and more of them. Congregated, ruffling slightly. A quivering sea of grey fluff. I can’t help but nudge some of them with my boot as I move forward. Perched on the steps of the boardwalk, the railings, the low surrounding dunes.
Where the beached whale had been, there is an unconscious child floating four feet off the ground. Her arms reach limply to the ground, as if dropped from a height. In some versions, she’s wearing a sunflower-printed bathing suit. Or a tiny denim jumper. Or her communion dress. Or the last thing she wore in real life, in original condition. Or the last thing she wore in real life, in final condition. Or nothing. In all versions, she casts light. Shimmers. Warps and twists the light around her.
Then there’s the part that happens next that I think about and don’t think about.
Then I am running on the sand, limbs windmilling. It’s a slow run, each step a kind of falling. I run toward the sun for a million years, metabolizing my dread into sick, slick adrenaline. Blood streams from my eyes, nose, mouth, ears. I consider looking over my shoulder. I spit teeth in the sand. The ocean gets red.
[New page, a looser hand, ink badly smudged]
i have so much to tell you i tried to call you i played on your phone i tried to fix you tried to talk face to face heart to heart tried to come as something littler a bird a whole sea of birds well you replaced me with all these little sisters all these little strangers it’s so boring here how did you get so big and old why you not me mom always gave us turns and i’ve been waiting waiting waiting waiting waiting waiting waiting yes sometimes i borrow you body but always return it well i’ve had fun lately it’s been good to run drive dance play but the thing I want most is to swim out as far as i can i can always follow the trail of blood back to shore i’m so good at holding my breath are you?