By Luisa Perkins
He came in through the bathroom window, just like that stupid Beatles song her mother loved. That’s how she knew he was a ghost. That and his teeth.
Two years ago, he’d knocked his two front ones out when he tripped on some concrete at a cross-country meet. He’d had to get veneers, and they were just a tiny bit too perfect to be believable.
But now his teeth were his own again, pre-accident. Restored.
He sat on the edge of the chipped clawfoot tub and watched her wash her face. There was a big blackhead on her nose, but she couldn’t pick at it with him there.
“You don’t seem surprised to see me,” he said.
If he could speak, that meant he was real. Didn’t it? But she wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of a big reaction. She kept her voice light. “You know me and my poker face. Since you died, it’s become my superpower.”
“You okay?” He didn’t laugh. He. It. What was the right pronoun for a ghost?
She scrubbed her nose a little harder, willing the little bits of apricot kernel in her cleanser to dislodge the plug in her pore. “Not really. You?”
“I’m all right. I’ve missed you.”
Julie’s eyes welled up a little, which she camouflaged by rinsing her face.
“Me, too,” she said into the hand towel. It muffled her words, but she could tell Liam understood. He’d always seen through the façade that kept everyone else from getting too close.
She turned her back on him and went to her room. How dare he just show up as casually as ever? Just barging in through the second-story window as if it were the kitchen door, and they were ten again.
He was at her side, floating a little above the carpet. It looked like he was on one of those stupid hoverboards that had been banned at school. Was he showing off? Julie wasn’t impressed.
She flopped down on her bed and watched him settle on the edge of her desk. “Why are you here?”
“Where else would I be? All I care about is you.”
Of course. Liam’s ghost would be as clingy as Liam in the flesh. She probably had it coming. She dug her feet under the covers and turned so she lay facing the window. The sheer curtains swayed in the air rising from the heater. “Well, I’m going to sleep,” she said over her shoulder. “Hang out if you want.”
Facing away from him, she allowed herself to smile.
The next morning, he was still there.
“Time’s different for me now.”
“Whatever.” How long was this going to go on? She’d missed him, but she hadn’t counted on him being around 24/7.
At the end of the hall, she stopped. She needed to go to the bathroom, and she didn’t want him floating around in there while she was on the toilet. Or in the shower. “Stay out here, okay?” She felt like she was talking to the dog.
Once she was ready for school, he was nowhere to be found.
But then he showed up again in Biology, wafting above the linoleum in the same space as Beth Gilbert. It had been his stool, their lab station, but Beth had sat there since Julie had come back to school. Julie scowled, then muttered “Sorry” when Beth gave her a dirty look right back.
It seemed that Liam was her own personal ghost; no one else had noticed him. That was fine with her. People had been handling her like a raw egg since the accident, anyway. She didn’t need anyone else’s pity, didn’t need everyone else sucking on her drama like emotional vampires. She’d had enough of that.
After he died, people exaggerated their connection to him. Kids from his first little league team—who he hadn’t talked to in years—cried at the funeral. Distant cousins, teachers who’d had his brother Todd but not Liam in their classes—they all wanted to claim their own little piece of grief.
He was at her heels for the rest of the day. Julie refused to acknowledge him. But once she got home again, she turned on him.
“How long are you going to be here?”
He shrugged with one shoulder, just like he always had. Gave her that goofy, sheepish grin that worked on parents and teachers. She wanted to slap it off his face, but she was pretty sure her hand would go right through him.
“Can’t you go somewhere else? Heaven? Limbo? Nirvana? Manhattan? There’s got to be someplace more interesting than Kashkawan.”
“Heaven’s supposed to be awesome. World religions have been preaching it for millennia. Are you telling me it’s all a crock?”
Come to think of it, shouldn’t she be documenting all of this? There was that movie about the boy who’d come back from being dead on the operating table. First it had been a book and sold a kajillion copies even before Hollywood had gotten its hands on it. Julie could mine Liam for information on his situation, type it all up, and get it published.
And Dr. Kaupfmann would be so pleased. He’d been hounding her to keep a journal. She pictured Liam following her into a session, and Dr. K somehow getting a glimpse of him. “Journal this,” Julie’d say. And then, maybe Dr. K would understand.
Liam’s shoulder and the corner of his mouth went up again. “It’s not a crock. It’s okay, I guess. I just miss you. You’re my heaven.”
“Seriously?” Her lip curled up as she said it.
But there was a part of her that was pleased. It wasn’t as big as the part of her that was annoyed, as she always had been, with his romantic overtures. Isn’t that what they were called in the novels her mom read on her days off? Overtures. That meant openings, she knew from French class.
But what Julie wanted was closure. And it looked like that was off the table. Why did this have to be so complicated? She rolled her eyes at him and rooted around in the fridge for something to snack on.
She did her homework. Liam sat on the kitchen counter. She watched an episode of something stupid on Netflix and texted with Shay. Liam sat on the end table. Always on a hard surface. She wondered if there was a reason for that, but didn’t want to ask. Didn’t want to encourage him.
Things went on like this for weeks. Julie got used to it. Almost.
Her mother noticed. “What’s going on, honey?” she asked one morning at breakfast. “School getting you down? The year’s almost over. Just hang on a little longer.”
“School’s fine,” Julie said around a mouthful of cornflakes.
“Is it…have you been thinking? About the—you know—accident?”
Julie stared down at her soggy cereal. “Yeah, that’s it.”
“Do you think I should call Dr. Kaupfmann?”
“No. I’ll see him Thursday.”
Her mother got up to wash out her coffee cup. After she turned off the faucet, she held onto the edge of the counter, like she was bracing herself to say something. But she didn’t.
Julie glared at Liam, perched on top of the washing machine. He stared back. He wasn’t ever overtly obnoxious. He was just always there.
“I’m haunted,” she thought. It was ridiculous. Having him around had been fine at first. But how would she ever get over him if he kept on showing up?
After her mother left for work, Julie started pacing the kitchen. “You’re bringing me down. Can’t you go somewhere else? What about your old bedroom?”
“Empty. Nothing to hold me there.”
It was true. His parents had gone away to Oxford shortly after the funeral, and Todd was at college. They hadn’t been back. They’d had a renter for a while, but now the house stood vacant, dark, shuttered. The gardening service made sure it looked less like a target for thieves, but there it was.
“I’m sure your parents would be happy to see you.”
He shook his head.
“What about Route 301?”
For the first time, Liam’s eyes dimmed. “Why would I go out there?”
“I dunno.” Wasn’t that the classic move for a ghost? Haunt the scene of the crash. Jump out at other people, cause mayhem.
“That wouldn’t be restful.”
“How is it restful following me everywhere?”
There was that dimming again. The opposite of a glint. “It’s not. But you need me.”
Spark to tinder. Julie exploded. “No, I don’t! That’s what I was trying to tell you that day in the car!”
Her mother was back, hovering as well. Julie whirled, gritting her teeth. “What are you doing here?’
“I was about to ask you the same thing. I forgot some work stuff. What’s your excuse?”
Julie willed herself not to glance behind her at the washing machine, but her mother looked there, anyway.
“I assume it’s not Shay you’re screaming at in the laundry room.” It wasn’t a question. Didn’t need to be. “I also assume you’re on your way to school. Come on. I’ll drop you off.” Her mother picked up a file folder and her stethoscope off the counter and went back out the kitchen door to the car.
Julie looked in the laundry room, but Liam had disappeared. Good. But the damage was done. She’d have to come up with some lie that would satisfy her mother. Shoving down panic, she shouldered her backpack and went outside.
“I will be calling Dr. Kaupfmann,” her mother said at the drop-off curb. Her face was smooth, but her voice was shaking a little. “And I’ll check in with Ms. Martinez later. When I do, I’ll expect to hear that you went to every single one of your classes.” She hesitated, and she gazed into Julie’s eyes. “You know you can tell me anything, right?”
“Yep.” Rational. Logical. Like a stone.
Neither of them said anything else. The five-minute bell rang, and Julie got out of the car. “Thanks for the ride,” she said.
“She doesn’t deserve your sarcasm,” Liam observed from the sidewalk next to her.
Between first and second periods, Julie texted Dr. K. My mom might call you. She walked in on me talking out my feelings, like you told me to. I’m fine. No problems here. Was that enough? Casual? Breezy? Normal? Dr. K had promised Julie could always count on him. She was counting on him now. She backspaced over the last sentence and pressed Send.
There was no point in going to Calculus. She didn’t get it, she never would, and she wouldn’t ever need it. Mr. Herron was too nearsighted to notice whether her seat was empty, and he never took roll. Instead, Julie went through the gym, out the side locker room door, past the handball court where the stoners hung out, past the tennis courts, and into the woods. She didn’t look back, because that’s what guilty people did. Besides, she already knew who was following her.
She took the path worn by countless high school students before her, the one that cut across a patch of forest. The green of the trees was almost neon, the sun shining through new spring growth. A gust of wind shook the heavy leaves of the wild rhododendrons. Julie shivered and walked faster. Up the slight rise, a little out of breath, a little sweaty. She hopped over the dry stone wall that had bounded the cemetery since before the Revolutionary War and headed toward the Hotalings’ plot.
“How come you’re here?” Liam was doing the hoverboard thing again.
Instead of answering, she sat down on the low stone bench next to his great grandfather’s headstone. The cold of it penetrated her jeans as fast as if her legs had been bare. Didn’t matter. Liam sat down next to her. She nodded at the headstone. “Do you ever see any of them?”
“All the time. The dead are all around us.” He traced a half circle around them in the air.
Julie looked around wildly, but no one else was there. “Liar.”
Liam just looked at her.
“How come I can’t see them, then?” she demanded. “You’re here, as clear as day.”
“You don’t need them.”
“I don’t need you, either.”
“Then why’d you stop taking your meds?”
The space between Julie’s heartbeats stretched to infinity. How did he know?
She gave him her best highly offended look, but it didn’t have the effect it used to. And it was probably no use trying to bluff him. “I guess you’ve seen me more often than I’ve seen you. Little sneak.”
The corner of his mouth and his shoulder. Up. Like always. “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore, because gentleman, this is my last press conference.”
A sob bubbled up in Julie’s chest. AP U.S. History, last May. After the test itself, they’d had four weeks of class to get through until the end of junior year. Mr. Kinsella had gone through the whole Watergate thing with them—that Robert Redford movie, all the old videos. Nixon had fascinated Liam, and that line had become one of his pet quotes. He had a ton of them, but that was one of his favorites. Hearing him say that, kidding with her like he used to—she wanted his arms around her so badly it hurt. But that wasn’t possible. She hugged herself and leaned over knees instead.
“Your mom knows,” he said. “She’s gonna put you back into Seaview unless you start taking the Risperdal again.”
Now she couldn’t stop crying, fishing through her coat pocket for an old tissue, but not finding one. Finally, she wiped her nose on the back of her hand.
“I don’t want you to go,” she whispered.
In her bathroom that night, she stared down at the orange tablet in her hand. Her mother stood in the doorway, her jaw tight. Julie put the pill in her mouth and washed it down. Even after a big glass of water, the bitterness lingered at the back of her throat. She opened her mouth so her mother could check her gums and under her tongue. Once she was done, she stepped back and let Julie walk down the hall to her bedroom.
“Good night,” she called after her.
Julie didn’t answer.
From her bed, she looked up at Liam, who sat on the edge of her desk again. “How long can you stay?”
“Probably until you fall asleep. I’ll do my best.”
I love you, she wanted to say, and I’m so sorry.
But instead she closed her eyes.
“The Dead Are All Around Us” won 2nd place in the 2016 Sunstone Fiction Contest and was published in issue 184 (Spring 2017) of Sunstone.