Family Ghosts

I see people where they are not.

The first fragment was Hannah in the body of a girl with red hair and olive skin. I stopped walking in the revolving door of Starbucks, and it hit my back as she walked out. A smile lingered even after I realized I’d been duped. It was funny at first—the girl, upon reconsideration, didn’t remind me of my sister at all. Guilt followed. I felt as though I’d somehow betrayed her. Hannah’s hair isn’t red like bright cherry suckers are, nor is it the ginger that compliments freckles. I made meatloaf last week and realized the top of it was the color I’d been searching for, right down to the grease from the bacon; the tomato and beef settled into the deep Kool-Aid shade that had stained our bathtub. I don’t have to remember the last time we ate together to know that she picked it apart, maybe taking a small peck of the meat drowned in ketchup, or a sliver of bacon to satisfy her appetite. Her skin is not the dull tan I spotted on the girl who walked past me; it’s an ambiguous hue that makes customers feel comfortable asking, “What are you?” as they lick salt off their fingers. Even her winter skin, so pale and cool, is a source of children’s curiosity. In the morning she notes how the bags under her dark eyes have grown darker, calling attention to how sickly she looks. Every day she takes a Benadryl and drives forty minutes to work and then forty more back to school. The girl who passed me in Starbucks had not just escaped from a hospital. She didn’t reek of butter or sweaty hot dogs, and her feet were not so small that they could fit into the shoe of a child she would soon be teaching.

//

Someone in the hallway said they didn’t like the Simpsons and I was squeezed back into my nine-year-old body. I was sat at my mother’s friends’ house as they told me I wouldn’t like Pink Panther because I wouldn’t understand the adult jokes. I was furious they’d reduced me to my age. I proved them wrong after piano lessons every Wednesday. I would relish in getting a Big Mac with my dad and sister and then we’d go home to indulge in the 2,000-calorie treat with the sophisticated humor of an adult cartoon. Wednesday was when my mother went to my grandma’s house. There was a list of chores for both of us: rake the leaves, make the bed, take out the trash, clean the cat litter, do the dishes. Equal responsibility does not mean equal actions. I gave myself permission to lay on the couch and rot. When I stopped improving at piano, I forced my mother to let me quit.

We are now separated by 115 miles, but I see her every morning in a pair of green eyes. Mine are light, but not so much as hers, and not nearly the transparent teal tint of my grandma’s. I wonder if they lighten with age. Its not only the eyes—when I look in a mirror, I see the strong nose that likens us to birds, and the face shape, though hers is slimmer. When I moisturize, I remember stealing into her room at eleven-years-old and raiding her skincare and makeup. Will I care so much about wrinkles and sagging when I begin to age? Even now, when I return home, I look through her vanity to see what she’s bought. I know that she never actually uses the products and she knows that I take them. Sometimes she offers them to me, but I feel guiltier accepting a gift from her than I do taking one without permission.

When I was six, my mother sat at the edge of my bed one night and told me to pursue my passions. The moment is foreign now, like a fever dream. She was desperate but I still don’t know what for. I was driving home on a Wednesday when an ad came on the radio for child actors, nearly identical to the ad I’d heard when I was eight. My mother had said the casting call was a scam and I had told her I hated her and she’d ruined my dream. It was only fair; I’d ruined her dreams as well. She’d put me in ballet classes when I was three or four, and I’d raced from the studio crying because they made me dance. I passed horses in the car as well and remembered how she’d paid for riding lessons. A horse named Peanut stepped on my foot and I quit the lessons. I wasn’t afraid of horses after that, but I was afraid of dogs. The black labrador at a family friend’s house bit my arm as I raced for the trampoline. After that I avoided dogs for ten years, even after my mother brought one home.

She sold our piano. Thursdays became grandma days, the days she’d ask, “Would you like to come help me?” and the days I’d answer, “I’m too tired.” At two in the morning she found me typing on her laptop. We didn’t talk the next day. I wonder what it’s like to have your eight-year-old child accuse you of loving your job more than her. I wonder what it’s like to have your thirteen-year-old child be incapable of hugging you or even entertaining the idea. Does it hurt that your daughter doesn’t recognize you as human until she turns eighteen? Does it hurt that it was because she recognized your silence and the sudden wave that crashed over you, that made you act as though you weren’t in your body, as though your consciousness had never existed to begin with?

//

I got a scarf for Christmas from my mother. I had mentioned I’d wanted one but never specifically asked. I felt guilty for not thinking she could even remember. I wore it around the house for three days but never outside. The pressure was immense. People would look at me the way I looked at my reflection—they’d think me silly in it, like a child playing dress up. I started to see myself in a house of mirrors. Over the couch. Over the pantry. Above the sink. In the hallways. On the bedroom door. I don’t know if they’re really there.

My sister hates the color yellow and thereby hated the scarf, but I’d spent $120 on her, more than I’d ever spent on anyone, so she refrained from comment. I was thankful she allowed me to retain some of my confidence and fearful of what she might actually have thought.

Sometimes when I look into a mirror, I see a very old woman.

I wore the scarf in my car and when I’d catch sight of it in one of my mirrors, I’d rip it off. Now I feel the softness of it against my chin, protecting me from strong gusts of wind.

And the old woman smiles at me.

I look in mirrors often, tilt my head just so and watch my lips part. A physical being seems too fantastical to exist, almost more so than my own consciousness. I’ve begun wearing the scarf every day. I wear bright red, heart-shaped earmuffs. I make eye contact with drivers when I cross the street. I throw the trash out in my pajamas.

I’d invite the old woman to dinner, but she looks as though she’s already eaten.

Emma Hawkins is a junior creative writing major from Central Ohio. She takes interest in feminist literature and short stories about the elderly and spends most of her time with her cat Yogi. After graduation, she hopes to work in publishing and publish her own collection of short stories. Her publication through the Whiskey Island website will be her first.


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