Last Ghost (in the House)
Christopher D. DiCicco
And then, dead dogs ran rebirthed, trees greyed, ghosts gathered. We listened behind the door. Esme crawled to the window and touched it, but only the curtain. Neither one of us was brave enough to look. Not at first, and it wasn’t what we expected, anyway.
On the first day, the news reports came buzzing. Blackbirds migrated in huge swaths, like unholy land unearthed and sowed across small towns. Shit and feathers buried homes, and underneath withering oak trees ghosts kissed. The television said the worst was still far from us, then cut to a shot of three ghosts dancing. On the second day, Esme turned off the news, turned on the news, poured a shot of cold vodka, and raised the volume when the reporter announced, “The state urges all residents to lock their doors.”
“Nonsense,” we said. We could see the sun, and only an occasional ghost walked our street. That night, the news aired live footage of Philadelphia and Denver, but it was only darkness, silver shapes, cats running, shadow. On the third day, shrieks and squawks came from the trees and the sky and the television and the people, and then roars like mountains waking and low screams like oceans breaking, and there were dogs reported, big ones licking bones they should’ve never dug up. Our neighbor Tim waved from his backyard and said, “I refuse to give in.” He watered yellow tulips and said, “Spring better stick around a bit longer or it might never come back, right?”
We laughed. Tim laughed. And a white SUV crashed into a telephone poll, knocking out our power and ejecting the driver onto the road. The tempered glass did what it was supposed to do, what we’re all supposed to do, and shattered upon impact, breaking into a thousand tiny crystals that clung together like a family or a small child’s art project. The driver’s body was somehow largely uncut, but his bones, his soft organs, his heart, his calculating brain and deep marrow, blue blood were all, in some way or another, wrong.
We ran to him, his crash site only a quarter block from where we stood. Our neighbor Tim was the first to turn away. Or was it run? Maybe it was me. But either way, when the crash victim died, his ghost ejected out of him like his body from the car. The spectre wavered and took shape, stood and turned toward us, buzzing with some radio-static energy. Then, the driver’s ghost stared, his pale eyes wide, his vapor mouth searching for words. He twisted his ghost neck, one way then the other, searching the street—staring as if he expected someone to be waiting—but there was no one there. The ghost dropped to his ghost knees and gagged up nothing before he stood again. He looked at us once, then at his former self, the husk of him, the flesh of who we were, and he ran, disappearing down the street, away from us.
I wanted to ask Esme, “Who do you think he was looking for?” but down the street, silver shapes slid between cars, ghosts gathered, and Esme said, “C’mon, let’s go.”
That evening, crows came. The sun dipped. A robin died on the windowsill. Esme cried awhile. I said something. The dead robin flew away. I threw up and shook my head. Esme paced our kitchen. We ducked when we heard howling. We vanished when we heard screams. Neighbor Tim locked his doors and texted don’t follow me. We couldn’t see any lights in his house, but Esme reminded me, “The power’s out. He hasn’t left. Why would he leave?”
In the morning, he was gone, and outside, no children ran, no children sped by on bright colored bicycles, and no one talked about watering yellow tulips.
After that, we stayed inside. And more came. Ghosts, like rivers of mercury, poured down the street in silver lines, disappearing and reappearing, splashing against the doors of old loved ones. They flooded. They gathered. Trees drained grey and dead dogs walked. We could hear them. Almost like a static. The ghosts static kissing, static laughing, static talking and fucking and yelling and jumping, and when one, a small girl, who looked like my daughter, came by on Emma’s same pink scooter, I tried to stop her. I tried to do what the news had said not to do. Don’t let them gather. Don’t touch them. Don’t hold them to your chest. Don’t say how much you miss them. Don’t let them collect.
Before we went dark, the news had reported residential homes covered in blackbirds and ghosts. Striking images of small cottages swarmed in spirits. The dead drowned family homes, like bees to the hive. And it was always the same. The homeowner. The widow. The husband. The son. The daughter. The dad. Someone would open the door. Someone would step outside. Some suffering crushed-heart would leave their home to disappear into the swirling mass of what once was dead. And the dead would converge and shatter, breaking around the person who would disappear into what looked like a thousand ghosts caving in. The news had aired a special montage of them, people stepping through the threshold and into the storm of spirits. And, one after the other, Esme and I had watched, waiting for closed doors to open, for family members to rejoin, reunited in a grey life we wanted to understand.
When the little girl who looked like my daughter scooted by, the wheels sounded like wheels, the clink of metal bearings sounded like the clink of metal bearings, and the girl smiled like Emma smiled. Esme grabbed my sleeve and swore at me. We yelled. She said something like, “what are you doing” or “sit the fuck down” and I said something like, “Emma. Emma” and “she’s out there,” but it was too late, anyway, I was undoing the locks, and the little girl was gone, disappearing at the end of the block. No ghosts gathered. No spirits came. The street was empty, and I stood waiting, but none came to envelop me into their empty chests with dead hugs. I could hear noise a block over and imagined somewhere on 9th street, someone leaving their home or coming home or being swallowed by ghosts and Emma. I imagined Emma. Always Emma. I sat down in the street, far from the edge of the curb, and held my head in my hands, pressing my palms against my eyes until I saw the bright colors we see behind the lids when all there is, is sun and darkness, and I imagined explosions, souls popping in other galaxies, crashing into mine.
When I looked up, Esme stood at the front door, inside our house, waving me in and pointing down the street. At the corner, where 3rd Street met Hill, a massive black dog sniffed the ground, licking at the gravel with his tongue. He lifted his large head only once, and we locked eyes, but there was enough distance between us that neither one of us could be sure of the other. He sniffed the ground, dragging his nose across the dirt, and Esme said, “He looks unreal, like a stuffed animal come to life,” which was her way of saying, he looked like Mountain our family dog who’d passed months after our daughter. We’d bought Mountain as the family pet, but he learned to love Emma best, gravitating to her, sometimes me. He’d wait for her, sleeping at the edge of her bed. He’d move his massive head beneath her hands, leaning into her for all he was worth, and Emma would hold onto him, claiming his softest spot was behind his big black ears.
Later, when Emma couldn’t come home, we bought her a stuffed animal, the very image of our black mountain dog, and she held him to her chest until the hospital staff, in a moment of pity, said, “You can bring the real Mountain for a real visit.” And then the two of them said their goodbye. Emma’s arms wrapped around Mountain, and his tongue lapped against her cheek. Her little face buried into his fur, and, with her cheeks pressed against his skin, she whispered, “Mountain, take me home,” loud enough for us to never unhear.
But Mountain didn’t.
So, he followed her a few months later instead. One morning, he came back inside through the backdoor, dropped his huge weight to the floor with a soft thud, and there he slept until he didn’t.
After the hospital—in the night, in the afternoon, in the morning, in my sleep, in my wakefulness, when I picked up the paper, when I touched Esme, made a sandwich, did anything at all—Emma’s command starved into me, Mountain, seeped into my meals, take me, into my teeth, my tongue, until it filled me, home, then hollowed me, left me empty and haunted by what I was without.
In the doorway, far from the hospital, away from old memories, Esme stood and said something else, like “Get out of the road before they notice you,” and I said nothing at all.
I came inside, and we closed the door. We sat at the table, and that night, while Esme played solitaire on the floor, she hummed over the static of our past, exploring a melody we hadn’t heard since before our first ghost. Esme hummed louder, but it wasn’t enough and we could still hear them outside our house, a thousand ghosts whispering, buzzing around us and invading the cracks of who we were. When Esme slid the queen of hearts away, I stood up and walked upstairs. In our room, I dropped to my knees and stretched my arm, searching beneath the bed, until I found him. As soon as I touched the stuffed fur, I heard her, or the residue of her, take me home, and later, in bed, I held Emma’s little plush Mountain in my hands, running its fur through my fingers. Esme lay next to me, sliding her body into mine. She whispered, “He’ll take you away. He’ll take you, and you don’t know if you’ll find her.” I nodded and curled and said, “Does it matter?” or “Goodbye” or “Home” or something. Either way, Esme said, “I don’t know” and rubbed the skin of my cheek with the soft of her palm, and she hummed as loud as she could until we slept.
Days blew by like thin leaves, and the ghosts came in great waves, pouring down the streets and into alleys only to disappear and move on to where we dared not follow.
We slept in shifts. We ate when we could. Neighbors flashed lights and a battery-operated radio told us not to die.
On the last day I lived inside the house, I told Esme goodbye, but said it wrong, had said, begun repeating, something, Emma’s command, mountains in my sleep, something, in my sleep, watching from the window, Emma’s command, walking the stairs, told her static in my soul sort of, under the bed, had said goodbye, searching for her scooter.
Esme understood. She held my face in her hands and squeezed and kissed me, and nodded her goodbye, shaking her head up and down.
On that last day, Esme shrugged her shoulders and turned off the radio. She didn’t look. She lay on the sofa and turned away, our daughter’s stuffed dog tucked beneath her arms. I sipped old water, kissed her one more time, and listened to her hum in tune with the static whispering. Esme said, “Leave the door open when you go,” and I did, leaving her and the house behind me.
In the street, I imagined the black dog, his gigantic tail rounding the corner, and when he did, at his side, a small ghost rode her scooter clinking over the cement. I kneeled and the black dog came running, and behind him, she rode, and other ghosts came, more shapes, more familiar swirls of grey static until a mountain of family moved toward me, and when the black dog reached me, his paws struck my chest, and I touched the soft fur behind his ear and heard my daughter say with me, Mountain, take me home.
Christopher D. DiCicco is a high school creative writing teacher and the author of So My Mother, She Lives in the Clouds and other stories (Hypertrophic Press). His teaching has been nominated for Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year—and his writing has been nominated for Pushcarts, Best of the Net, Best Indie Lit New England, The Million Writers Award, and semifinalist for Best of Small Fictions. His work has appeared in such places as Superstition Review, Maudlin House, and Gigantic Sequins. He is currently at work on a new collection of ghost and world-ending stories.