None of this was little brother’s choice. The emptiness beside the ghost was the only open seat on the school bus.
He could hear the older boys chanting: Ghost. Ghost.
He hugged his backpack and sat down. Taller by a head, the ghost drooled onto her sweater, watering a rose that resided there.
Far away, at the back of the bus, big brother made the older boys laugh.
Every morning, little brother flanked her. His body jostled with the movement of the bus.
After a week, he felt brave. He snuck glances. Her skin was chalk. Nose chapped and hooked. Orange hair draped her shoulders. No lips. A bloated, featherless bird. A familiar odor issued from her body, pleasant and ripe, a smell that tucked little brother into dreams of being lifted by talons.
When he awoke, he checked beneath his shirt. No stomach holes, only dissatisfaction and dread as the bus arrived, brakes screaming.
A week later, the ghost opened her mouth.
Bumpy ride, bumpy ride. Aren’t you glad that we’re inside? Aren’t you glad nobody died?
She was singing.
Physically, she was eleven. Maybe twelve. Maybe a teenager. The kids knew only that she wasn’t smart. She rarely spoke. She couldn’t write her name—couldn’t, perhaps, dress herself. She wasn’t a ghost; her pale complexion was all it had taken.
However, she levitated. Glancing to be certain no one was looking, her body rose six inches off the bus seat, a cautious balloon. Her cheeks flushed red, blue, and yellow, lights underneath her skin. Down she came, smiling. She touched a finger to her nose and winked.
He saw her in the halls, on the playground, in the cafeteria. He was afraid to approach, flanked as she was by bigger children. Red-faced, cruel, they danced around her until chased off by grown-ups.
Only on the bus in the mornings was the ghost there like breath, waiting for him. They never spoke.
He wanted to ask how she ignored their spitting, why she didn’t fly away to live on a cloud. But then he pictured his father guarding the water treatment facility, climbing into bed every day as the sun rose. He pictured his mother, slathering bread slices with red jam: Don’t be a coward. Everyone goes to school. He pictured big brother twisting his ear, imitating the father, delighting in the way the cartilage folded.
One morning, the ghost held his hand. She was shy, like cupping a robin’s egg.
The next day, she was bold. She grabbed his hand as soon as he sat down.
Her grip was strong. Sweat mingled. He absorbed the painful joy by ascending through the ceiling. Borne on a weightless wind, he gazed down at the yellow bus as it crawled along the street. The world shrinking, he became a balloon. He drifted into clouds and searched for her there.
She reeks, big brother said. Now your hand reeks.
He scratched big brother’s face. The mother sent him to his room.
In the darkness, little brother sniffed his hand.
Outside the bedroom, the mother reassured the father. It’s what boys do. No reason to get upset.
Big brother demanded little brother stop sitting with her.
Her mom is nuts, he said, and the ghost is retarded. My friends think I like her. They stole my shoes.
Big brother has a few points, the mother agreed. Her lips smacked at her tuna casserole. For the third time today her makeup had been applied, thus the care inserting bites and pressing a wineglass to her lips.
For the father, eating was not to be interrupted. Boys and mother were surprised when he spoke:
There’s a genetic component to craziness, he nodded. The jutting Adam’s apple above his unbuttoned collar looked like a rock he’d tried to swallow. Want to know what’s wrong with the kid? Check the parent, he said.
I suppose I could drive him to school, the mother suggested in a pillowy voice.
The father growled into his can of beer: There’s a direct way that doesn’t involve acting like a coward.
The ghost wasn’t on the bus the next day. Or the next. Or the next. Little brother took his regular seat. In his mind, the ghost touched him, and her songs lived like hidden worms.
The other children pointed at the emptiness beside little brother. Now she really is a ghost, they said.
One night, little brother awoke. The ceiling crawled with dark continents. He thrashed in his bed, feverish. The ghost knelt at his side, molding his hand like clay. I’m making a bird that looks like me, she said.
Then she was the father, unsmiling as he manipulated little brother’s hand.
Little brother walked backward into sleep. Out of the dream, he thought. I am backing out of this dream.
In the morning, his fingers were jointless. His left palm was swollen, and together with the unbendable fingers, his hand crowned his forearm like a deformed flower.
The skin was tight and itchy. The aroma was of something pulled from the earth. He wrapped the hand in a bandage and told his family he had burned it.
When, exactly? The mother frowned, sniffing the air. She knew everything about her boys, or thought she should.
How does a kid who never touches anything get a burn on his hand, the father asked, smiling.
He’s full of it, big brother said. He sneered across the table. Unwrap it for us.
We’ll be late for school, little brother said. His heart, his ribs; breathing labored, like climbing flights. There was a fire in the bones of his hand.
It hurts, he whispered. He had thought he could keep it to himself, but the pain was too much. Tears drew lines down his cheeks. The world turned mouse-colored and blurry. He felt himself fall.
How long he slept, he didn’t know. He tried to raise his head. At the end of his arm lay a great flesh suitcase, pores wider than pinheads. The hand occupied an entire coffee table beside him.
It’s wiggling, he said. The drawn shades stood hot and unmoved. His own voice came from outside his body, from the darkness.
I know what you mean, the mother answered, but it’s a she, not an it. The mother’s complicated gaze fell on him. Forlorn. Smitten. Hateful.
Is it the ghost? he whispered.
Yes, a man answered. Doctor Foster materialized from a corner, his bald head alive with sweat. He dried it with a forearm. Of course it’s the girl, he said. Curled up all snug and tight. Like she was swallowed by a snake. He and the mother laughed and exchanged a look.
Don’t play dumb, the father said to his son. He sat on the floor, leaning against the dresser, smoking. You know goddamn well why she’s in there.
Charlie, please, the mother said.
Nights, little brother hummed the songs, trying to remember the words. The ghost was fading from his mind.
He lay in bed for weeks. His parents withdrew him from school.
Every morning, he heard big brother in the bathroom, preparing teeth and bladder for the day, heard the mother handing out lunch, kissing goodbye. Little brother lived in fitful sleep.
Minutes or hours later, his father entered and crawled beneath a ragged blanket on the floor.
Why don’t you come clean? the father said. He dragged on his Camel and exhaled a smoky cone. What’s the point of lying? Everyone knows you fell in love. You let her in. You aren’t protecting anyone.
The hand was no longer a hand. It was a sleeping bag housing a full-grown adolescent. The outline of her hips was plain under the skin. Her arms nested against her sides; the bulges of her ankles; each individual toe. The rise and fall of her breathing.
At night, the father talked:
You confuse me. Blond hair and glasses. I used to ask your mother if you were mine. It didn’t matter so much when you were little. What did I care? I said Let him sing all the songs he wants. Let him fingerpaint every baby bird in the neighborhood. It was cute. But you’re in school now, buster. Those kids will eat you alive. When you grow up, the adults will do the same. So yes. I admit it. I found the ghost. Broke into her room while her mom was looking for her marbles or whatever. I don’t regret it. Your brother climbed through the window. We smuggled her here and spent all day flattening and compressing her, and we did it because we love you. I missed a whole night of work, broke my pinky nail clean off. Lookitthis. Ouch, right? While you were sleeping, I cut you open and boom, in she goes. I sewed you back up. I used to reupholster sofas in Saginaw, bet you don’t remember that, do you? There’s a lot you don’t know about me, and maybe you need to think about this fact as it relates to your family. Anyway, you wanted her, you got her. Crap in a pan, you eat it.
When the ghost was born, nighttime was speaking. Sounds sifted through the window—a bark; a car horn; a triangle of wind chimes.
The hand swelled and kicked. The six feet of skin became an ocean undulating. The ghost thrashed. Tissue and blood squelched like mouths kissing. A small rip in the skin let out a snake of blood. Small rip became large, a circle.
The father sat against the dresser. Moonlight blued his face. A Louisville Slugger rested on his lap. He’d sent big brother and mother away. Three days, four nights at a hotel on the lake. He had drained the bank account so he could be here alone when the ghost was born.
He heard the noise of birth and laid out the facts: I’m going to crush her skull. No questions. You’re going to know what disappointment feels like. Why am I warning you? Here’s the answer: so you can know what it feels like to know that disappointment is coming but you can’t do anything to stop it. Two lessons for the price of one.
An hour later, there was a gush of fluid as the ghost spilled onto the carpet.
Songless, white, and naked, she sobbed. Her skin trembled. Her throat was clogged with viscous body.
Little brother lacked the strength to lift his head. He was also too afraid to look.
He winced as the dull thumps rejoiced.
Muffled thumps in rhythm, like a heartbeat.
The wooden bat broke. The father tossed the handle onto the glistening corpse. He sat on the floor to catch his breath.
Silence settled in the room. Little brother’s body relaxed. His hand, torn and splayed, blanketed the coffee table. No pain.
He was aware that the hand was useless now and would be removed. He wasn’t sad. It was relief that he felt. The relief was unexpected. It crouched in his stomach like a new animal.
Unexpected, too, was the father, his blood-dotted face, crawling to the bedside. His eyes were dark but clear. His breath warmed little brother’s cheek.
Headless or bodiless, the father said, that ghost is coming back. She’ll find her way. She’ll climb into that other hand. He touched the blanket. He appeared to be sincere.