If I had known how much this scene was going to haunt me, I would have slammed my eyes shut. Like mama. Instead, I watched it all. Only to have the scenes repeat every night. My nostrils tinge with the putrid smells of burnt flesh and hair mingling with melted metal. The billowy smoke stops me from breathing even today. I cough and cough, till I cannot cough anymore. I clasp my ears shut, but the memories seep in through the little gaps between my fingers, like unwelcome guests: the tire screeching against the freshly laid tar road, the deafening crash, the haunting screams, the eerie silence, and Ana’s whimpering cries.
I wish I too could escape from here and forget everything.
Even her face.
No, especially her face, for she has ruined our lives.
Mama doesn’t help dad with his tie anymore, so he is on his own now. He looks silly, repeating a rhyme he has picked up online: ‘fat over thin, fat around again, fat into the keyhole, right down the drain.’ It’s supposedly meant to help him tie his tie.
‘Dammit!’ he flings it on the floor, not trying to hide the tears pooling in his eyes. The next instant he mouths, sorry, and turns towards mama. He keeps forgetting she won’t scowl at him, nod in mock anger, or even say ‘Adam, language’!
It’s not that she doesn’t want to. She can’t.
Photographs don’t speak, right?
We lost mama in that terrible accident over a year ago. Life’s not been the same since then. Dad used to say, mama is our sun and the three of us are planets revolving around her, and now we have lost our sun.
Dad doesn’t tickle Ana anymore. He neither sings nor dances. I miss his off-tune songs and silly dances. There are dark wells underneath his eyes. He punched an extra hole in his belt just last week, but it looks like he will go over the same thing soon. His shirts hang on him loosely. I know it’s been a long time since he has had an undisturbed sleep. He walks around aimlessly every night, stopping by Ana’s and my bedside, making sure everything is still the same. He hasn’t accepted the truth completely. Though it breaks my heart, it also makes me happy at the same time.
Sometimes, I hide and watch helplessly as he hugs mama’s pillow, calling out for her repeatedly, stopping only when he is too tired to even whisper her name. Some nights, he cries out loud when he thinks nobody is watching him.
Ana doesn’t bore us to death with her silly jokes anymore. She doesn’t go on playdates. Her dolls lie forgotten, waiting to be picked up again. She doesn’t colour, scribble, or draw anymore. I miss her laughter.
But most of all, I miss mama. I miss her a lot. I hate being sad all the time, and I dread we might never be happy again…
Mama was my best friend, and I know she loved me the most. After all, I am her firstborn! Ana came later, much later. Mama used to call her ‘a happy accident!’
Now, all I have are memories… Of those fun days. Baking, gardening, reading books, and giggling silly.
We would go to the park in the evenings, the three of us in matching tees and shorts. Mama ran the fastest, and all the kids at the park loved to race with her. She rarely liked the company of adults and would be always on the lookout for an excuse to spend time with children.
If there was anything she loved more than us, it was sketching. She would always have a pencil and her little sketching journal with her. ‘There’s beauty everywhere, Lou. You just need to open your eyes,’ she would remind me often, especially on those days when I had fought with my friends, or I was angry with Ana over something silly. How I wish to relive those moments!
Mama had her journal with her that day, too. A few days after the accident, police officers knocked at the door and handed a large transparent packet to dad. He flinched at the sight of the dried blood clinging to mama’s bag and our clothes. He couldn’t even bear to open her bag. It lay under his bed, abandoned, unopened for weeks, until one day Ana sneaked into his room and brought the journal with her. It’s now under her pillow. She says it smells like mama and kisses it every night before sleeping.
You might think it’s weird and disgusting to touch something which is splashed with blood. I don’t blame you. You won’t understand unless you have lost a loved one too.
Ana’s soft snores are wafting through the room. It’s a weekend and dad always lets her sleep in a little longer. Criss-cross patterns dance on the floor as mellow sunshine peeks from behind the curtain. Ana frowns and mumbles in her sleep, ‘2 more minutes, Mama.’ She keeps forgetting mama isn’t around anymore. Her furrowed brows make her look like an angry doll. Her bony arms create little dents on the pillow as she cuddles it and rolls over to the other side. Her soft snores fill the room once again. I give her a butterfly kiss on her plump cheeks, hoping it makes her miss mama a little less.
My tongue twitches at the aroma of freshly brewed coffee. Mama never allowed me to drink coffee. ‘No coffee until thirteen, no driving until eighteen.’ I can’t wait to be a teen! The first thing I would do is drink coffee.
I race down the steps and am pleasantly surprised at the scene ahead. Dad is whistling a happy tune, sipping on his black coffee, and smiling to himself as he is tapping into the phone. His cheeks turn red, and only then do I notice his week-old stubble gone. After mama’s death, he stopped shaving regularly. I am about to hug him when his phone rings. The caller’s photo brings a wide grin to his face. I see his lips moving, but I am too stunned to grasp the words.
It’s been so long since he smiled. I had forgotten how handsome he looks when he smiles.
‘You should smile more often Dad, it suits you.’
The doorbell rings, and dad rushes to the door, leaving behind a trail of his deodorant. Ana is glued to the television, sucking her thumb, and doesn’t notice his absence. But I follow him and watch through the gaps in the wooden partition. He pauses in front of the hallway mirror, runs his fingers through his hair, turns towards his left, and then right, tucks his shirt, and adjusts his watch strap. He looks into the mirror once again, exhales loudly, and finally moves towards the door. I wonder what the fuss is all about.
Dad stands to one side, leaning against the frame, holding the door ajar with his hand. His broad frame is blocking my view, but I get a glimpse of thin legs and a summery dress. I hear laughter, both his and hers. I sense nervousness too, both his and hers.
‘Ugh, I can’t wait anymore!’
And in that instant, dad moves aside. My jaw drops at the sight of the visitor.
Autumn-brown skin, pinched-in cheekbones, quarter-moon eyebrows.
Is it h-h-er?
It is her!
‘What is she doing here?!’
I run up to my room without waiting for dad’s answer and bang the door shut. My Harry Potter collection tumbles off the shelf and lands with a loud thud.
‘It’s a windy day,’ I hear dad stutter apologetically.
The room is dreadfully silent and pitch-dark when I finally open my eyes. Even the clock isn’t ticking. There’s a thin sliver of street lamp filtering in through the blinds.
A throbbing pain pulsates in my head. It goes on and on, just like the crickets chirping in the bushes, but even more irritating.
I am ashamed of my behaviour. But I am also angry, sad, and, for some unknown reason, scared too.
Has dad forgotten mama already? How can he bring any woman her into our house?
‘I hate you, dad!’ I scream into the pillow, unbothered by the thought of disturbing anyone.
It is later, much later in the night, I realise the reason behind my fear.
It’s her eyes.
They were ready to pop out of their sockets.
I have never liked change. And right now, a lot has changed around me.
The dark circles under dad’s eyes have vanished, and so have the puffy bags. His snores rock the house at night. Sometimes, I fear the walls might crumble under those bulldozer sounds! He laughs often and tickles Ana too. His shirts fit nicely, and he has stopped making extra holes in his belt, too. He even shaves every day.
Just last week, our neighbour, Mrs. Brixton, created a ruckus over dad’s off-key singing on the lawns. But I know she didn’t mean it in a bad way. Her twinkling eyes gave her away.
Ana would be out of kindergarten soon. Her dolls are spread all over the house, and every other day she has a play date. She neither cries nor sucks her thumb in her sleep.
Instead of take-aways, there’s fresh food in the house. The smell of stale pizza is long gone. Now the house smells of vanilla and cinnamon.
They are happy, and I should be happy too. Instead, I am scared and angry.
‘How can they be happy? Is dad moving on? Will Ana forget mama?’
I am sure she has hypnotised them both. She tries her best with me too, but I’ll never let her take mama’s place. I hate her.
If not for her, nothing would have changed. Nothing!
Dad would still struggle with his tie. He would call out to mama at night and let his stubble grow over the weekend. He would remain slumped on the sofa, flipping channels aimlessly, instead of dressing up and going out. Ana wouldn’t make drawings of a family with five stick figures. The front lawn wouldn’t have turned green again. The dead bushes would have remained untouched. Nobody would have applied the fresh coat of paint on the rusty swing. It would have still groaned and moaned at every push.
There wouldn’t be so much fun and laughter in our home.
I wish we could go back to being sad, or being happy with mama…
I can hear them even from up here: flipping cushions, questioning, sighing. But they will never find it there!
Dad moves towards the kitchen while she goes out front with Ana.
I fling the bedsheet aside and slide under the bed. Resting on my elbows, I go through the contents of my box – cards from mama, dad, and granny. Friendship bracelets. My favourite Frozen-themed wristwatch. Medal from sports day. Grade 5 class photograph.
Everything’s the same. Untouched. Safe.
Even her things: a purple bandana, beaded bracelet, hair clip, red lipstick, pen.
I clasp the box shut and slide it back after placing the latest item in my collection – a thin gold ring with a single stone in the middle. The one dad slid on her finger when he proposed to her.
Two more things happened that day: a furious storm sent the birds scrambling for cover, and I screamed the loudest I could.
I had been planning to snatch it away from her since that day itself, and got the chance today when she and Ana were busy baking. My mouth watered at the sugar, berries, and nuts lined on the kitchen counter. She removed her ring and placed it next to the windowsill, before rubbing the flour and butter together. She dabbed a bit on Ana’s nose, who sat next to her on the slab. They were too busy giggling and making merry to notice anything out of the ordinary.
Even though I felt her eyes on me, I sneaked away with her prized possession.
She has no right to take mama’s place.
She is not going to her place tonight. Dad has just received an urgent call from work. She will stay behind, it’s not a bother at all, she assures him in her honeyed voice.
She tucks Ana into her bed and sits by her side even after Ana has gone off to sleep. Slowly she takes mama’s journal out of Ana’s hands, keeps it next to the table lamp, places a soft kiss on Ana’s forehead, and turns to me.
‘I am sorry, Lou. I am really sorry! Please listen to me,’ her voice trembles as I reach for the door.
‘Why should I listen to you?’
‘Because I love your dad, Ana, and you, too. I really do… It would mean a lot to me if you could give me a chance. Can we please be friends?’
‘No! Never! I hate you!’
‘I know you blame me for the accident. But please, believe me, it was not intentional. The brakes of my car failed and despite trying my best, I rammed into your car. Every day, I live with guilt…’
She stops abruptly. Pulling herself away from the bed, she switches off the table lamp, kisses Ana once again, and goes out. I don’t know why, but I follow her.
‘Hey! Why are you going there?’ I scream when instead of going down to dad’s room; she stops outside mine.
‘Don’t enter my room!’ I hiss through gritted teeth. But she ignores my warning and twists the knob open, all the while staring into my eyes, as if challenging me to do or say something more.
She goes in, leaving the door ajar.
Should I go in? Of course, I will. It’s my room! I don’t need anybody’s permission.
‘Can I sit there?’ She points towards the rarely used study chair. I have never liked that chair. It always hurts my butt. Mama had promised she would add an extra cushion, but she never got around to it.
‘I know you love your mama.’ She wiggles like a worm as she tries to fit into the chair. ‘Trust me, I don’t want to take your mother’s place. I’ll never ever do that.’ She wraps her arms around herself and whispers, ‘I know you are hurting. I know the pain of losing a loved one.’
‘No, you don’t!’ I can’t stand to be near her, so I move towards the window.
‘Lou, have you ever thought about why I can see you and talk to you?’
I have thought about it many times. I wondered why dad, Ana, granny, or any of our neighbours couldn’t see me. ‘Yes, cuz you are a witch!’
‘Language, Lou!’ she says, and then immediately bites her lower lip ‘I am sorry. It’s not my place to…’
‘I’m sorry too.’ I shrug and turn towards the street again.
‘Can you please sit near me? I need to share something personal with you.’
When I don’t move from my place, she continues, ‘you know, when I said I know the pain of losing a loved one, I meant it. That day, we all lost people we loved. I am not sure if you remember, but that day, the officers pulled out four dead bodies from the smashed cars.’
‘Four? No way!’
‘Yes, apart from your mama and you, there were two more people. Alan, my husband, and Sascha, my nine-year-old daughter.’
‘Yes, Lou. I lost the two people I loved the most, and I wasn’t the same after that. One day I bumped into your father and Ana at the park. I wanted to run away when we recognized each other, but my feet froze. I was certain he was going to scream at me, instead he said, “I know what you are going through.” We sat on the bench, watching Ana run around, saying nothing. By the time the sun had set, we had opened our hearts to each other. We understood each other’s grief, pain, and fear better than anyone else ever can. We both had faced insufferable losses, but I could cry and scream whenever I wanted, whereas your dad was trying to put on a brave front. He had to pretend to lead a normal life for Ana’s sake. It broke my heart when he said he hadn’t come around to grieve your absence. He was, and is still scared to face the truth that you are gone too.’
She clicks her knuckles one by one, and for a long time, that’s the only sound in the room, apart from her shallow rapid breathing. ‘It wasn’t easy, but over time, we became friends. And the day I came over the first time and saw you, I knew this was meant to be.’
When I finally turn around, I notice her hunched back, blanched skin, and quivering lips. I know she could do with a hug, but there’s no way she is getting one from me. ‘How are you able to see me, when even dad and Ana cannot?’
‘I don’t know… I guess they still have each other, unlike me, who has nobody. You won’t believe it, but I used to talk to Alan and Sascha every night. I craved to see them. I yearned to hear their voices and see their smiles. When I saw you, I took it as a sign, as if Sascha was back in my life again.’
She presses her fingers into her forehead and stays silent, just massaging her temples. ‘I want to be with you all, Lou, but only if you want the same.’
Tears trickle down her cheeks, but she doesn’t wipe them.
‘I mean no harm, Lou. I promise…’
Streaks of red lines swim in her eyes when she finally wipes her tears. ‘I’ll leave once your dad is back home.’
After so many months, our house feels like home again. She Nicole is back! Yes, and I am happy.
I was furious when Nicole said she needed them, but only after she left, I realised what she meant to dad and Ana. Guilt hit me hard when I had to witness Dad’s sad eyes and sleepless nights. Ana’s silence showed me they both needed and loved Nicole, too. They had gotten a second chance at being happy, and I had ruined it.
And I had to set it right. I had to bring her back.
I thought finding her home and going there might be my biggest challenge. In reality, my greatest challenge was in finding the right words. I just had to think of her, and I was able to connect with her. It was magical! Ghost life comes with great powers! But as we sat facing each other, I fumbled to frame sentences. I struggled to let her know how much she meant to dad, Ana, and me.
‘Ni-Nicole, I-i-i am sorry. Please-’
Tears sparkled behind her glasses when she said, ‘Lou, you don’t have to say anything.’
Mama was right, there’s beauty all around, we just need to be more open. Just because dad and Ana have found Nicole, it doesn’t mean they would forget mama or me. They will always love us.
Nicole’s ring glints under the lights as she helps Ana stick her happy family drawing on the refrigerator. Instead of five, there are seven stick figures holding hands, grinning widely – Dad, Mama, Nicole, Alan, Sascha, Ana, and me.
Nicole leads dad and Ana out to the lawn. She tilts back her head and winks at me, ‘surprise!’
Balloons, streamers, cake, the aroma of cold coffee, Mrs. Brixton, my friends from school!
My heart goes mushy when I fly closer to the cake and read the handmade card: Happy 13th birthday, Lou. We know you’ll always love us and be with us.
Boy! A surprise party for a ghost!
I was so wrong about Nicole. I feared she would break our family apart, instead; she has made us whole. I bounce with joy when she holds Ana’s and my hand and helps us cut the cake.
I will never forget her, for she is the one who has mended our broken hearts again.