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Skin and Muscles and Bones
I know a girl who walks beside a ghost.
She used to be a friend of mine. She was logical, precise. She kept a calendar, she dressed business-casual, in khaki and greys, skirt below her knees and dainty flight attendant scarf around her neck. Her life was a perfect cat’s cradle, she jumped from hand to hand quickly, attraction stained her face with smiles. She was charismatic, she was refined, she was elegant. She dated good boys, safe boys. She did everything she was supposed to. She played tennis with the daughters of family friends, she gardened, she attended to world events on the radio. She always had a smile and story ready for her dear best friend.
She’d tell me, “He’s so very good, he’s funny, and there’s always something about blue eyes. I grew up by the sea, you know. He’s like home, whenever I look into his eyes, it’s all Seashell Cove, it’s flashes of reminiscing, my childhood...” She always talked like a storybook.
She’d tell me, “He’s adventurous, I swear! He’s been around the world. He’s seen Greece and Malaysia and Zanzibar and India and France before war broke out and even Italy and Japan (I know I know). A traveling boy, he must know so much about life, he’s worlds deeper than anyone I’ve ever known…” It hadn’t been long, she was already after someone else.
She’d tell me, “An artist, he’s an artist. He writes his own songs, have you ever heard anything sweeter than that? I swear, he sees the world through a different lens, that of someone cultured, who sees such beauty in everyday things… I bet he sees the loveliest things in the universe.” She would swoon, it seemed the only bit of her life she would allow wiggle-room, irrationality. Like the girls on the movie screens and television sets. Love was the most beautiful thing to this girl. She thought it were a thing she could shop for and describe in words.
Then something bizarre happened. One day, she zoned out. Her thoughts drifted out to space, her eyes slipped into an unfocused dreaminess, her face fell blank. I was astonished. She was always one hundred percent implanted in the here and now. Never a word out of place, never a moment wasted.
“Huh? Oh. I was just thinking. I think I’m tired, also. Yeah… I’m okay.”
A moment passed. Then,
“I don’t know anything. I’ve never known anything.”
She drove to the train station, through the countryside. She passed the seaside village where she grew up, saw the complacent blue of the ocean swelling beyond the cliffs. She envisioned France and the rest of the world over those hills, bubbling over with culture far removed from her quaint English countryside. She saw feathers in the clouds and brushstroke fields, barns the color of cherry tea and cottages like whipped mint cream. Her favorite person in the whole world sat in the seat beside her, sleeping most of the time and staring out the window yet seeing no further than the glass. He had his bags packed, reluctantly, and a train ticket in his pocket, burning a hole. Onward, to Basic Training.
For some reason, for some awful reason, the people on the platform hardly seemed real. All of the voices were cluttered, all of the signs were so far away. Why were things reeling, why were her hands shaking, why did each step leave her feeling like bare feet on china?
They stood on the platform, shoulder to shoulder, with the ornate station clock glaring overhead. Any minute now, his train would come. He turned to her.
“Well. This is it.” She brushed away loose hair from her face with trembling fingers.
He reached out for her hand and held her fingers quietly in his palm.
They stood eye to eye, she saw her reflection in his irises and felt her heart drop. He was skin and muscles and bones, he was subject to complete destruction over there. She closed her eyes suddenly, to clear away the bullets and fire she saw.
He squeezed her hand and kissed her flushed cheek.
The train crawled in, its noise ricocheting. All of her well-organized ideas rushed around the cavity of her mind, like flyers and ticket stubs thrown into the terminal’s airstream.
Again on her trembling lips. “Wendy, won’t you write to me?”
The boy was no longer an investment of trust and hours of daily phone calls. He had broken some sort of code in her, for her trembling fingers let rationality slip away. She was a broken code, cat’s cradle in knots, bullet-torn fingers, a kiss for no one.
He let go of her hand. She watched him board the train, nothing but skin and muscles and bones. Her best friend drafted into a faraway war.
It wasn’t a subtle change.
She stopped calling on the blue-eyed boy, the traveler, and the artist. The ghost rejoiced.
Weeds grew in the empty spaces of her calendar. The ghost planted flowers in her skull.
Her socks didn’t match, she wore combat boots and her hair in a mess. She buttoned her collars. Her lipstick rolled under her bed and she never bothered to retrieve it. The ghost stole its color when she wasn’t looking.
She spent every waking moment writing. As the weeks and months passed, her life became a singular narrative, a constant address to an absent figure. The ghost listened to all her thoughts, even when his face became foggy in her mind.
She made a daily pilgrimage to her mailbox. His words on a crinkled paper were her Gospel. Words only for her, each letter carrying the universe in full and thousands of miles in meaning. And the ghost read his letters aloud.
One day, she received a letter which was particularly worn, even fresh out of the envelope. The ghost at her side gripped her trembling hand as she stumbled towards the kitchen table. She kept the room remarkably neat for a broken girl. She unfolded the letter, and the ghost opened his mouth to read.
If you’re reading this, it means I’m dead. I’m really sorry, Wendy, I didn’t mean to die. I meant to come home and listen to what you have to say for the rest of our lives. Both of our lives.
If it’s any comfort, I think I died in combat, being brave, maybe. At least I hope so. It would be hell to drown or die sick, wouldn’t it? We’re supposed to write our last letters home and keep them in our jacket pockets, near our hearts. Well isn’t that a formality? You’re already near my heart, were near my heart. I don’t have a beating heart anymore, but you do. That is a tragedy, I love your beating heart, Wendy. I’m sorry I was so destructible. I’m sorry I left you on a train and I’m sorry I can’t return to you on another train.
I want you to know I was never scared. This may sound crazy, you might not even believe me, you might think I’m just trying to be comforting. But it’s true, I’ve stared death in the face, looked into its black pupils and seen nothing but a softness, maybe a reflection of you from back home. It’s like you’re here with me, sometimes, whenever things get bad. In fact, I can almost say for certain, you were here with me, even while I was dying. I’m sorry if it sounds foolish, but Wendy, you’ve never left me.
I hope you’ll find someone else who’ll love you as much as I loved you. Someone who reminds you of home or someone who travelled the world or someone who sees like an artist. Wendy, don’t you dare become broken-up over me, over this. Don’t you dare carry me with you. I want you to be okay, I want at least one of us to survive this war intact.
Wendy, remember I loved you more than anything.
A gust of wind tore the paper from her quivering hands. The salty air beat at her back, whistling hollowly like a train. She hung her legs off the edge of a cliff, the sea a boundless chasm beneath her army boots. Dazed and disoriented, she took in her surroundings. It was her hometown, a little village, in the distance, and here was her calm sea.
Where had her kitchen gone? She could only smile at me.
The ghost read himself to death, his words erased all of her anxieties and fears bubbling in the recesses of madness.
“Why aren’t you see-through and grey anymore?” she said, curious like a child. The sun made her squint.
“Because I’m not absent anymore, and you know I’m dead.”
“You’re just skin and muscles and bones.”
“You’re dreaming, now. I’m gone.”
“I’d like to kiss you back, if you don’t mind.”
I let her kiss me, we sat eye to eye, her pale mouth trembling.
I laughed one last time for her, “That’s not a good shade for you.”
“What, now?” she laughed nervously.
“This dark red. I liked your old lipstick better.” She rubbed her lip with the back of her hand and saw the blood.
“Oh, oh! You’re bleeding!” She unwound the scarf from her neck and pressed it to my chest. Blood indifferently soaked the flight attendant scarf she always wore.
“I’m dead, Wendy. You’re not going to get around it. Not even here. Check my pocket.” She reached into my jacket pocket and found another piece of paper, drenched it blood. She started to cry when she couldn’t read what it said, she had no ghost to read my last words aloud this time.
I closed my eyes. The endless drop inches from my head. “Near my heart, of course. Thanks for being here as I lay dying, Wendy. You have been the loveliest ghost.”
With the roar of a train, the wind rushed the letter and I into the sea.
Wendy followed the letter and I, she jumped without hesitation, though she left her skin and muscles and bones behind, back in her war-torn body.