Conferring With Ghosts Between the Hours of Three and Four Forty-Five in the Morning
~ Elou Carroll
There is a sign on the back porch that reads Everything Will Be Okay Unless It Isn’t. No one questions the validity of the sign, nor its presence, nor the fact that it changes daily—yesterday’s message, Concentrate On What You Can’t Control, So You Won’t Have To Feel Guilty. The house with the faded blue picket fence has been empty for nearly fifty years.
Right now, the house is not empty. There is a girl sitting in the middle of the staircase, picking at the frayed edges of a moldy runner. No one saw her enter the house and no one will see her leave. It is three-ten in the morning, the neighborhood is asleep. The neighborhood has work, responsibilities, children to care for.
The girl does not work. The girl is, instead, failing university; she tries to blame her boyfriend, friends, mum, dad, seven-year-old Alsatian but even she does not find this convincing.
She likes to visit abandoned places and wallow in the dust. She does this when she should be sleeping. She doesn’t want to be sleeping.
There are rivers of dust flowing down either side of the stairs. The girl traces a question mark and lingers on the dot, presses her finger down until the tip turns white. She asks a question of the stairs and when they do not answer, she kicks the banister. The crunch makes her teeth hurt.
Back at home, her boyfriend is unaware of her absence. In the house with the rotted wooden door, someone is aware of her presence.
“Where do you think she comes from?” they ask.
“Nowhere I know, not with that outfit,” someone else responds. “Never seen such a thing.”
“Hello?” She’s on her feet and the staircase creaks.
“Did you hear that? She speaks!” Someone says.
“Do you think she can hear us? I don’t think she can hear us. Not really. They want to hear us but they never usually manage it,” someone else is certain.
“I can hear you,” she says, “but you’re speaking very quietly and I’m not sure where you are.”
“‘Not sure where we are,’ she says. Not sure where we are but she’s standing on our staircase.” Someone else might huff.
“Blocking the way too!” Someone might be crossing their arms. “No manners.”
“Oh,” says the girl, “excuse me.”
She hops down the steps and into the long hallway. She traces another question in the dust with the toe of her shoe. The girl clasps her hands behind her back and waits, when they do not speak again she looks up and down the hall and wonders if she’s imagining things. The girl is prone to fits of imagination and the someones do not contradict her.
When she is at home and her mind is pacing the hallway outside their bedroom, her boyfriend asks her to sit, hold his hands, talk. The girl does not do any of these things.
Instead of standing still, the girl explores the house with the scuffed cream wallpaper. One room in particular is difficult to open. From what she can see, it is full of hundreds and hundreds of rough cardboard signs. Through the gap in the door one board is visible—It’s Not Over. Yet.—along with half of another. The half message reads: Remember […] To Eat […] A Day.
The girl considers what a day might taste like, and comes to the conclusion that it would depend entirely on whether it were a Sunday or a Tuesday, a Wednesday or a Friday. She thinks she might like to eat Saturday best, and has decided that it would taste like crisp ice water, freedom and sugar.
The door won’t budge. The girl strokes another question into the wood, rests her head on its surface. Thumps once, twice. Sighs.
Someone follows her to the kitchen.
Someone else is already watching the girl disturb their crockery. She opens their cupboards, moves long-forgotten plates and cups, chokes on their dust.
“She’s quite rude,” someone says.
“Doesn’t respect her elders,” someone else agrees.
“It’s rude to talk about someone as if they’re not here, especially if you’re not really here yourselves,” says the girl.
“Do you think she’s lost?” Someone might be pressing a finger to their chin.
Someone else might be doing likewise. “I think she must be.”
The girl crosses her arms and decides the someones might leave her alone if she glares hard enough. It works on her boyfriend, who huffs and shuffles off until she comes to find him with her hands in her pockets and her shoulders hunched up by her ears. He opens his arms to her, and she dithers from one foot to the other.
The someones huff too but remain close. She is in their house and they will not be going anywhere; they were inside long before the girl and will linger longer still when she leaves. The girl kicks a cupboard door and it abandons its hinges. She thinks she should apologize.
She doesn’t apologize.
While she is standing in the kitchen with her arms crossed and her frown drawn down from her forehead, a square of bent cardboard makes its way from the back porch, past the kitchen, down the hallway, through the house with the faded blue picket fence, rotted wooden door and scuffed cream wallpaper, and slips through the crack in the door to the sign room; someone else is carrying it, but the girl cannot see them and reasons that she must be dreaming.
The girl is pinching herself when a pristine piece of card makes its way in the other direction. Someone carries this one and though she likewise cannot see them, she is sure she is not dreaming. Her bicep bears the tiny crescent moons to prove it.
Arms now unfolded, she peers round the door-frame and squints into the dark. The torch on her keys is dim and useless. Her phone is on her night stand back at home. The house is no longer wired for electricity, though the light switches still tease in their wall sockets. The back door opens and the card slips out, stands up and the door swings shut.
Someone stands next to it.
The girl has never been on the porch because it faces too many windows and she does not want to be accused of delinquency. She does, however, want to see the new sign and so she looks over her shoulder and makes sure there is no one there to see her trespass.
Someone else is at the kitchen window.
Someone joins them.
Both someones eye her dusty footprints on the old wood, see her cross her fingers, crouch down low.
“Do you think she’ll read it?” Someone else asks. “I don’t think she’ll read it.”
“She has the eyes for it but she won’t take it in.” Someone is solemn.
“She really ought to. But she won’t.”
“Not likely, no,” someone agrees.
The girl pictures her bedroom; back at home, her boyfriend might stretch out an arm and brush the negative space in which her body should be sleeping. A frown might shape his eyebrows and he might curl up, shiver, but will not wake. He is a heavy sleeper and he seldom notices her leaving, nor does he stir at her return.
It is four-forty-five in the morning. At the house, there is a sign on the back porch that sometimes reads Call Your Mother, othertimes There’s No Use Being Scared Of The Dark, It’s The Light You Should Be Worried About, or The Other Side Is Almost Exactly The Same As The Side You Came From. No one questions the validity of the sign, nor its presence—least of all the girl who should be sleeping. Right now, the sign reads Skin Is More Forgiving Than Dust and the girl is reading and not reading it at the selfsame time.
Elou Carroll is a graphic designer and freelance photographer who writes. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Aloe, Emerge Literary Journal, 101 Words, Apparition Lit, Walled Women, and perhappened mag. She is the editor-in-chief of Crow & Cross Keys, and she spends far too much time on Twitter (@keychild).