No one thought much about Marley returning as a ghost. That sort of thing had happened to loads of families. It was Marley returning and insisting that she was pregnant that caused a stir. A month after she died, she just walked through the front door and into the living room where we were watching Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and eating our microwavable dinners and announced, “I’m pregnant.” Not, I’m back! or I’m so happy to see everyone again! or Guess who’s not dead?
Marley always liked dramatic entrances and exits.
When I first learned she was dead, I was sitting in my room, staring at the wall, hating her as usual. She hadn’t come home after cheerleading practice, and she was supposed to take me to the art store. I figured she was making out with Wyatt, her latest boyfriend, or had gone shopping with her friends. She often left me behind. So there I was, staring at the wall that adjoined our rooms, happily picturing her as the focus of a horror movie death scene on her bed, when Dad walked in without knocking and asked me to come downstairs. He and Mom had something to tell me.
“Tell me here,” I said, irritated that I had been interrupted yet again and for something Marley related.
It was then that I looked at him and saw how drawn down his face was and how he looked right through me. It was as if he had lost something. He sighed, that deep sigh he can sometimes, and said, “Please, Shawna, come downstairs.”
My mother was sitting at the dining room table, her hair shrouding her face and darkening her white with sunflowers print dress. They didn’t have to say a word. I saw Marley’s purse on the kitchen table, and I just knew. In that moment, I hated Marley more than ever because she always got everything—boys, nice clothes, everything—even this, the one thing that we could never forget. And if I hadn’t been before, I was definitely and instantly the forgotten one.
My dad comforted himself with a glass of whiskey, which he never did, and I stared at the kitchen window as my mother cried to herself. I cried too. Marley is dead, I kept telling myself in my head. Marley is dead. I had to make myself believe it. After a while, my mother moved, and I looked to see what she was doing. She held a steak knife above the fleshy white of her wrist. She was quick about it. Dad darted across the room and got to her before she could slit her other wrist.
“Call 911!” he shouted.
I grabbed the phone, dialed, and as the emergency dispatcher spoke to me and I relayed back to her, I watched Dad restrain Mom. She rested her head on his chest as he tied a tourniquet he’d made from a kitchen towel around her arm. The blood ran across and over the plastic tablecloth, spilling onto the faux tile floor.
We haven’t used the dining room table since.
That’s why we were eating in front of the TV—not because we couldn’t get enough of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire—when Marley walked in. She stood there with her mouth open and waited for a response, but no one said anything for a moment. Mom had to be the one to speak first, and we turned to her. She blinked, and then she knocked over her TV dinner and tray as she ran to hug Marley. It was a bit awkward, since ghosts can’t be hugged like the living. It’s more like a pretend hug. I’ve seen a few of those ghost relative reunion shows. When Marley and Mom figured it out, Dad and I joined in. Marley is back. Seeing Mom’s grin, wider and brighter than any time since Marley had died, lifted something up in me. It was hard to hate Marley at that moment.
Over the next few weeks, things were different around the house. Mom and Dad doted on Marley, especially Mom. Marley had always been her favorite. Marley was beautiful—even as a ghost she had a nice complexion—and Mom never saw the sin behind the innocence, I guess, or she chose to ignore it. I called out of work—I was just working enough to save money for college anyway—and Dad took a Ghost Day. We had a big dinner, and Mom cooked a few of Marley’s favorite dishes.
Dinner was good, except when it became awkward. Marley couldn’t really eat anything. She could barely lift a spoon, and I had to teach her how. And then, right smack at the moment that mom brought out the whipped s’mores pie, Dad asked, “So…who’s the father? Is it that guy we buried next to you?”
The necrophilia—does that apply to ghosts?—in the room was hard to ignore. More importantly, though, Dad knew Marley hadn’t been an angel. He’d found her diary after she died. I saw him one evening, tearing page after page, date after date, fling after fling, out from the stitched binding before tossing them singularly into the backyard fire pit. He never let Mom see it, and I never said a word about it.
If you’ve never seen a ghost faint, let me put it this way: it’s like dropping a paper napkin that’s been rubbed between your hands for a good ten minutes, only the napkin doesn’t fall to the floor. It floats in the air.
Mom shrieked—cliché—and we rushed Marley to the hospital.
I think we were the only people to ever take a ghost to the hospital. Thankfully, there was this doctor on duty who had spent a good bit of his younger years obsessed with the occult, and he knew a thing or two about ghosts. At least, that’s what he told us. Either way, Marley was released after being diagnosed with post-partum spectral resurrection. And yeah, she was pregnant, though the doctor couldn’t confirm it, so that had created an imbalance of her spectral ectoplasm.
By the time we got back home, there was a media circus lining up and down the sidewalk. Marley’s little secret wasn’t so secret anymore. The world demanded to know more!—or some crap like that. Some people worried what exactly it meant that Marley was pregnant. We hadn’t given much thought to that. She was pregnant. That was a big enough deal without all of the scientists coming round with their radiation detectors, ethereal detectors, and all sorts of probes that looked as if they had been made in the basement of someone who had a wad of wires, electrical tape, and an overly active imagination. No one had a clue what was going on. Neither did we.
No one had a clue what was going on. Neither did we.
A few days went by of total apocalypse lockdown at the house before the media dwindled. A plane had crashed in the next county over, and there were survivors, real breathing survivors who were easily coerced into sharing their shocking tales about the plane’s tail being hacked away mid-flight.
Everything post-Marley’s return was finally quieting down.
Then, Dad came home one afternoon with a device of his own. He’d bought this antique shoe fitting machine made of wood and brass and uranium, and he had Marley stick her feet in it a couple of times until Mom raised hell that it might hurt the baby. Of course, that was part of the issue. We had no way of really knowing she was pregnant. No one had a way of testing if she were pregnant—the ultrasounds all resulted in white static. Marley knew she was pregnant. She could feel it, and she had all of the ectoplasm retching morning sickness to prove it.
“The baby isn’t in my foot anyway, Dad,” Marley said.
Afterwards, Dad wheeled the shoe machine into the garage, and he didn’t bring any other oddities home again. Everyone eventually forgave him; we all knew he was merely trying to be proactive. The fight wasn’t about the gizmos; we all just wanted to know what Marley’s pregnancy meant to us.
I hadn’t thought about how all of it made Marley feel until she woke me one night. She was outside, weeping in tiny weeps as she floated around in flowing, ghostly steps. She never slept. Ghosts don’t sleep. They may disappear for a while here and there—and I guess you could call it sleeping—but when they’ve manifested, they can stay for as long as they’re focused.
Marley, I knew, had something on her mind. When she had been alive and was in the yard at night, she always hid until a boyfriend showed up to whisk her away. That wasn’t the case now. I figured she was distressed over the baby, and wrapped in my blanket, I watched her from my bedroom window for an hour. She mostly just floated around, and for a while, she stuck her hand through the base of a tree before she had enough courage to stick her head in it. Later, she told me that she couldn’t see anything. As long as there was mass to an object’s insides, I guess there was nothing to see. It was later that I realized she’d tried looking inside of herself, at the baby.
As she floated about in the night, I wondered what it was like to see everything through ghost eyes. I knew what it was like to look upon something with resentment and bitterness, but I didn’t think that was the same thing. Did everything look melancholy, gray, or did everything seem like a wish? What did we look like to her?
I made a mental note to ask her in the morning, and as I fell asleep, I had no idea I would forget and never get to ask her.
* * *
One afternoon, I came home early from work and found Marley in the kitchen. She was slumped over the island with a pile of vitamins that she’d crafted into a ghost baby mosaic that resembled Casper.
“How does a ghost take prenatal vitamins?” she asked.
“How does a ghost even know she’s pregnant?” I asked. “Maybe it’s just swamp gas.”
We laughed, and she floated over to me for a hug. It gave me the shivers, but she said it was warm for her.
“Don’t be upset,” I said, “but who is the father? I won’t tell Mom and Dad.”
“I don’t know,” she said. She saw me frown. “Honestly, it could be the coroner for all I know.”
She pouted her lips and bent slightly, putting her hands on her knees in her best Betty Boop impression.
“I am that hot, even in death.”
“That’s what got you into this mess, remember? But your complexion,” I said, “it is immaculate.”
She held up her arms and stared at the white limbs. Then, she sighed, which raised the hairs on the back of my neck.
“Who would really want to be father to a ghost baby?”
“Lots of guys, I imagine. That kid will be total low-maintenance. Think about it. He’ll cost nothing. Just to be safe, you should stock up on empty baby jars.”
Marley laughed at that, and she hugged me again.
“You’re a good sister, Shawna.”
It was the first time we had really bonded since we were kids. Three years separated us, and in those three years were two vastly different people. Marley liked boys, clothes, jewelry, and makeup. I liked boys, but never had any boyfriends that I liked to admit were boyfriends; and I liked to make my own clothes and jewelry. Somewhere in-between all of that separation, though, we were sisters. I had lost her when she died in the car crash. She was texting Wyatt about which movie they should see that night when she went through a red light, veered to miss another car, and crashed straight into the concrete side of an overpass. Now she was back, and as I watched her float into the living room and try to operate the TV remote, I realized for the first time that we would always be sisters.
* * *
I was reminded of that fact again the day I left for my first day of college. Marley flipped her hair back over her ears that morning when I walked into the kitchen. There was something mournful about it. I’d seen her do the same thing when she broke up with her boyfriends, even when they were talking on the phone—her preferred mode of communication for breakups.
“Seriously, Shawna, I need you to know something.”
Marley looked around. Mom and dad were trying to load some of my bags into the back of their car, so we were alone.
“I know I wasn’t the best sister to you,” she said. She rubbed her belly. “And I want you to know how I great I think you are, and how great you’ve been about all of this.”
I told her it was OK, that’s what family is about. She nodded her head, then tried to move a glass of milk across the counter.
“What is it, Marley?”
She turned to me, her face paler than before.
“Promise me,” she said, starting to cry, “please, that if anything ever happens to me that you’ll take care of the baby.”
“Nothing will happen to you,” I said. “What could happen to you anyway? You’re dead.”
“Nothing will happen to you,” I said. “What could happen to you anyway? You’re dead.”
“I do have trouble with windy days,” she said, crying as she laughed.
“I’ll just chase after you with a vacuum.”
We hugged, and when Mom came in the room a moment later and saw us, she began crying too. Dad watched all of us for a moment before deciding he should recheck the car’s fluids. Mom kept bawling. It took forever to get out of the kitchen and on the road.
* * *
I didn’t go home until Christmas. I was just too busy with work and studying, and at the end of the semester, I was preoccupied with my finals and the breakup with my first acknowledgeable boyfriend—who proved an ample distraction and gave me more attention than anyone back home. His name was Brian, and like me, he was artsy. I’m not sure why we broke up. It was mutual, sort of, and all of the breakup reasons seemed logical at the time. Looking back now, I think it was because we both didn’t know what we were really doing or wanted or whatever. Whatever the cause was, he had his reasons, and I had mine. Marley was there for me for the first time in my life. She talked me through all of the tears for hours at a time. After the tears dried, which had made my exams all the more stressful, I packed the car for the trip home.
Marley said she was big and round now. It was hard to tell in the photos she sent me because she was always a blurred spot, and it didn’t help that mom had never mastered the skill of taking a decent photo—even with auto focus! Dad called Marley his Fat Casper. Mom spent endless hours trying to figure out how to clothe a baby ghost until finally giving up. “‘He’ll just have to be naked!’” Marley quoted Mom as saying. Marley proclaimed that her baby would never be naked. “See-through, maybe, but never naked.”
I was excited to go home. If the doctor was right that the pregnancy was coming along the same as any other pregnancy, then Marley would have the baby during Christmas break. I would be an aunt, our parents grandparents, and Marley, who once made a joke that the day she’d marry and have a baby—as if it were to happen all at once—would be the day before the uncontestable end of the world, was going to be a mother. We had no idea if Marley was having a boy or a girl or the end of the world, and it didn’t matter as long as we were all together.
* * *
When I arrived back home, the house was empty, everything the same, except a white ribbed crib with little blue pillows and blankets with stitched on yellow stars. A note with my name was on one of the pillows: We’re at the hospital, Sis. Hurry up.
Marley was in the maternity ward, her legs in that embarrassing delivery position. She smiled when I entered the room.
“About time,” she said.
“How far apart are the contractions?”
“Contractions?” she said with an excruciating wink. “We’re having a full exorcism here.”
Then, she crunched up in pain, and her hands dug into the sheets that were whiter than her. We all held our breath as she wailed. For a moment, I thought we were all dying in Marley’s knuckles. In the back of my head, I had always secretly worried that what some of the people had said might come true, that the birth of a baby ghost would mean the collapse of this dimension into an ethereal one, or that this would be a new beginning with a brighter world changed by this girl who had died while texting her boyfriend about a movie. But I was wrong. It was just Marley who was dying. All over again.
And all that happened after I looked into Marley’s knuckles happened faster than we’ve ever had time to understand:
—Marley pushed one last time
—The doctor yelled for a container, and my mother was there with a mason jar from her purse
—Marley’s hand slipped from mine, and when I turned to her, I saw her floating up, off of the bed, and through the ceiling as though she were the last cold breath cloud of winter
* * *
Marley was gone, and we were still alive. The world hadn’t changed, not beyond our world, our family. Dad hugged Mom, and Mom hugged me. And we all cried towards the ceiling tiles.
When she was gone, the doctor held the jar out towards me. The top was tightly screwed on. Inside was Casper Reynolds floating about, spinning like a miniature tornado.
I take him everywhere.