Jessica Lee Richardson
Polly washed the turpentine into a river of chemical bliss. Her trained eye must be why she didn't say oopsie or sorry when her patriotic ghost child interrupted class again with his singing of America the Beautiful. Her nostrils were singed and she was dizzy with medium, watching thin paint trails swirl down the drain.
She really needed to stop bringing her patriotic ghost child to class.
None of us were comfortable intervening, so we just tried to ignore his nationalism while we painted the propped up banana bunch. Really, what could you say?
The bananas browned their medicinal wash into the air with the paint burn and I walked past ol' amber-waves-of-grain belting into the beams. I just needed to wash my brush but that's when the ghost brat crossed the line and tripped me.
The class pretended not to notice, except Sal who tsked, but he just dropped his head and blended his brown. Ghost Brat's cheeks were flushed with purple mountain majesty, his lips kept right on rounding the notes in determined little O's and his mother definitely looked proud. She hadn't seen the tripping of course.
Sal still appeared disgruntled in my honor, which he should. He comes to my car after class for a gummy almost every day. When he doesn't come I see him in Cassie's Volt hitting her vape. This is how it is with Sal. But how Polly came to conceive such a patriotic son is another matter entirely.
Let me tell you a little about Polly. She wears fabric in her braids and pins through her dimples. Her hair is sno-cone blue and she paints lime-bright nudes with severed fingers. Doesn't seem the type to have mothered this dead conservative, right? But here he was, grand old flagging his way right down the linoleum. Polly looked at us like isn't he just adorable? Like we were supposed to agree on the dead-kid cute factor on autopilot, but this is one banana I can't paint.
I can see why Polly herself paints the fingerless.
It's an uneasy situation, having to placate those who love the beastly, simply because you know they must be very sad inside. But when I looked around at my classmates, it was almost as if they had just accepted this little flag-waving bulldozer as a fact of their creative lives.
I decided to leave early.
Some days my head bubbles with too much of myself and I am liable to say anything that flits into it. Best to wash the yellow off of my hands and let the thing dry.
But when I got to my car I almost hit the ghost brat with my door. He had followed me, the bugger. I caught my breath and folded my arms. He probably had freckles when he was alive. I wanted to be endeared by his chubby cheeks, but then he spoke.
"What's the matter? You scared?" he said and screwed his mouth into a snarly smile.
"Ha," I said and tried to get into my car.
"I need a ride," he said.
"I don't like your singing," I said.
"What are you, a commie?" he said. "A snowflake?"
"I can't give you a ride, I have to be somewhere."
"Where?" Now the kid folded his arms too. We were in a standoff.
"For your lady parts?"
"No," I said, and now I was the snarler.
"Well then I'll come with you."
"Your mother will worry."
"I'm already dead," he said and he had a point there. The sky swelled with sun, a giant wink at itself. The last thing I wanted was a ghost child in my Corolla. But somehow he took my silence as assent, and skipped around to the passenger side. I had left it unlocked, not that it mattered, and he slithered right into the bucket seat.
I sighed and my brain felt abuzz with Pop-Tarts of static pinging from the toasters of my better judgment. He immediately started adjusting the radio and I swatted his hand. My hand went right through his of course and he smiled a creepy smile.
"Fine," he said. "I can listen to your music," he said. "Let me guess? Rihanna?"
"No," I lied. I switched on classical. It would lull him, perhaps. But instead of becoming tranquil he began jamming his transparent little fingers in the cup holders and window buttons, in the glove and on the mirror, which he courted with beguiling eyes as he lip synced "This land is your land."
"Seatbelt," I said.
"Dead," he said.
"Oh yeah," I said. "Where are we going?"
"Your appointment," he said and gave me a smug chin.
"I would rather get your errand over with first," I said. "Mine's private."
He called my bluff with his face but then abruptly changed tactics. "Left on Merchant."
I followed his directions in a numb-headed blur, all the while ignoring the tenseness of my chest. Why did I let this apparition into my car? How would I get rid of him?
We pulled into a pawnshop.
"Wait here," he said and hopped out. I noticed he had a small box in his hands.
"No way," I said. "I'm coming in."
"Suit yourself," he said. "But you radicals don't tend to like these kinds of purchases, so you might prefer waiting in the car."
"No way you're buying a gun," I said.
"Try and stop me," he said. I lunged to grab his arm but my hand went right through his left shoulder and he laughed.
I followed him in anyway of course. Ahead of us in line a teenager was assessing the heft of a meaty looking assault rifle. He told the clerk he would be back with the money soon and the clerk assured him that if they were out of stock, a similar model would likely be in by then.
I tried again to talk the dead kid out of his plan, whatever it was. "What is your plan, anyway?" I asked.
He looked at me like I was ridiculous. "You've never heard of a responsible gun owner?" He shook his head and muttered, "Pathetic."
"Not at eleven, no. Not when you're dead."
"I won't stand for this discrimination," he said and smirked. His precocious little fists clamped onto his hips.
The teenager in front of us put his future weapon down and skulked away and now it was our turn at the counter. I was sure the clerk would laugh at this tiny ghost wanting to test his machine guns. But he didn't. He began a sales pitch.
At first I was aghast. It stunned me into an open-mouthed silence. Couldn't he see the height of this clear little boy? Didn't he shiver when he touched the absence of his cold shimmery fingers?
But as they settled in on a "fit" I gathered myself and interrupted the exchange. "Doesn't he have to meet a minimum age requirement?" I asked.
The clerk looked up at me and rolled his eyes a little at the kid. "Doesn't apply to ghosts," he said. "The dead are ageless." He winked at his little co-pilot.
"Okay," I said, floored at the loophole in the law. "What about a background check?"
This time the clerk basically ignored me. He waved his hand at me and said, "passed." It was the ghost child's turn to wink. At me.
Heat rose in my chest and neck. I came up with a few more questions but now the two were tuning me out. It was as if I did not exist. As if I had ceased to be. My only remaining hope, since I could not capture the boy, was that this was just a fantasy daydream of his and it would pitter out with the sticker shock.
I watched closely as he opened the box in his hand. The clerk whistled at the contents and I shimmied up to see. It was a gold locket in the shape of a heart. Engraved on its sides were delicate fleur-de-lis. It looked like it contained a picture when the clerk opened and closed it, but all I could glimpse was an aged black and white hue.
"Who is that?" I asked.
"My grandmother," the ghost said.
I rang like a plucked string.
"Don't you think your mother would want that?" I said.
The man and the boy both laughed. The man wrapped the gun in brown paper like it was a parcel. Obviously the locket was worth a lot because the clerk moved as if the ghost might change his mind.
The whole way back I made and remade plans. I would drive him to a deserted seaside where he couldn't hurt anyone. That was it. But he was smart. He would figure out how to navigate back, no place was really all that deserted.
I would lock him in a basement someplace, then. But besides making me feel like some kind of torturer, couldn't he slip through walls? Wasn't he a figment constructed of thought? He wasn't material enough to contain.
Finally I relented to his pestering to drive him back to the school where his mother taught art. Perhaps she could talk him out of whatever sinister plan he had hatched. I knew he was no responsible gun owner by now. There were eerie maps in his lap and he hummed, steadily, the same repetitive tune.
I watched him slink out of the car and across the lot with the gun, now torn from the paper and slung over his tiny shoulder like an anthem.
I told myself there was nothing I could do to stop this slithering invisible thing. I knew there was a box somewhere I should be thinking outside of, but I couldn't find it. I fidgeted in my seat and grabbed for something to take the edge off, but my skin swarmed with proof. Deep down I knew my meek assent was as unequivocal as an equal sign.
I wondered what color was on his mother's brush. I wondered how it curved, and if the fingers of the figure were in place. I wondered if her lime bright piece would make the coverage or if the transparent boy would be all we could see.