Ghosts by Amy Stuber
Amy Stuber’s “Ghosts” is the second-place winner of the 2022 CRAFT Short Fiction Prize, guest judged by Alan Heathcock.
Ry is a young woman in a college town. She works in a café selling bubble tea to sorority girls. Hayes and Solace are grade-schoolers, best friends, and neighbors. They walk through the world as if unseen, as the titular “Ghosts” implies. Even after Ry does something rash and dangerous, and, by chance, meets the boys in a building that’s bound to be demolished the next day, they can’t harden their forms to escape into a less-spectral existence and change their lives. This story is deceptively simple, existentially profound, and poetic in its search for something solid and good in a world where lives are liminal and beauty is fleeting and even the crickets cry for help. —Alan Heathcock
People will say Ry must have planned the robbery for weeks. They’ll want purpose and emotion and strategy. They’ll say she had a gun tucked into a pocket. They’ll say she must have been desperate: four kids at home or a dying parent in need of a kidney.
None of that was true. The fact was, Ry was not rich, but she’d paid rent. She worked in a place on campus where sorority girls bought bubble tea. She had a decent supply of microwavable Indian food and several kinds of cereal.
She walked down the hill on Ninth Street on a Tuesday, past the building surrounded by chain link and about to be demolished, past the burrito place, the convenience store, the mortgage place with its signs making declarations and promises, and into the bank.
The bank teller was an older man with precise hair and a mask printed with golden apples. She handed him the note she’d scrawled on someone else’s receipt in the parking lot, and his look was more shock than fear, as in, “Really? You?” She left with her pink bag stuffed full of cash.
It surprised no one more than her.
Hayes and Solace walk to school like this every day, up the hill of Ninth Street and then left to the flat school building with its many eyebrow windows, someone’s dream of innovation in the 1960s. The campanile bells ring from campus a few blocks away, and it makes them feel like they are in a movie from another time, something with love and war.
“I would not be in love in a movie,” Hayes says to Solace on a Tuesday when they meet in front of their apartment building. The fall leaves have been on the ground long enough they crackle, but it’s not very cold. They both wear hoodies. Hayes’s solid gray and Solace’s airbrushed with an ice-cream cone on the front and yellow fluorescent “Be Cool” underneath.
“What do you mean?” Solace says. He is almost ten and loves press-on nails and musicals. He hates the bottoms of lakes and apartment carpeting.
A car races by, too close to the curb, and he steps back and adjusts his backpack. Many small stuffed animals hang from the backpack’s zipper like tiny safari trophies.
“What I mean,” Hayes says, “is I wouldn’t want to be the person in love in the movie. I’d rather be the other person, the one who gives the person in love advice.” Hayes is ten and loves black holes and communism. He admires atheism and hates gummy fruit snacks.
“I could be the person in love then,” Solace says.
Hayes lives with his dad who is the produce manager at the co-op. Their refrigerator is full of unwanted, disfigured fruits and vegetables. His mom is gone, but she sometimes sends Polaroids of the mountains that Hayes hangs from metal clothespins in his room, a walk-in closet where he’s strung lines of LED lights and superglued stuffed animals onto one whole wall so he can, when he’s upset or angry or simply wants to, run himself from the floor mattress into the plush wall and feel nothing but softness and joy.
Solace’s mom works in the communications office of the hospital, so he spends school conference days walking up and down the stairs in the hospital atrium where people sit at tables, sad about someone dying or happy about someone being born. His room shares its back wall with Hayes’s room and has a peachy ceiling and pale green walls and several of the paper lanterns he thinks people who live in cities sit under while eating on the back terraces of well-reviewed restaurants.
Sometimes at night, when their parents have taken and plugged in their phones, Hayes and Solace knock on their shared wall. One knock is I can’t sleep. Two knocks is I can’t either. Three knocks is Goodnight or Tomorrow or Wait. Four knocks is I hate everyone but you.
Halfway up the hill to school, they stop at the construction site, which is walled off by a chain-link fence and speckled with excavators and telehandlers ready to tear down a building that was once home to a film company that made low-budget horror films. Hayes’s dad said it was “a shame for it to go.” Solace’s mom said, “We can’t always afford to prop up every old thing.”
“I think when they tear it down tomorrow, it’s going to release a bunch of old-movie ghosts,” Solace says. His forehead is crisscrossed from leaning into the fence. He doesn’t know his dad, and his mom never talks about him, so he thinks of him as people in commercials about detergent or sports drinks or a kind of blurry dad ghost who could be anyone at all.
“You don’t really believe in that shit,” Hayes says and lets his backpack hang down on his forearms.
“You’re right, I don’t,” Solace says, even though he’s not sure, and they keep walking.
A block away from the bank, Ry, hands shaking, face taut, chest vibrating, stuffs her mask and hat into the bag in one of the alleys between the bank and campus. She stacks the money on the back of a toilet in a bathroom in the student union and thinks, It doesn’t look like much, but, also, it’s more money in one spot than she’s ever seen. She switches her bag from the pink tie-dyed side to the light-blue-with-flowers side and leaves the bathroom, outside of which people play chess in the common space. The chess pieces are pink and, though they are probably plastic, look like rose quartz, the kind she learned about in a middle school geology class when you could find yourself excited about pretty stones.
She and her sister had binged the show about the beautiful woman chess champion. Her sister had shown up at Ry’s apartment with an Instapot full of chicken mole, and they watched in one bleary overnight stretch. “Of fucking course,” her sister had said, “it makes it so boring, her beauty. Give me an average-looking woman chess player trouncing everyone and still getting their admiration. That, I’d like to watch.”
Ry had agreed, but also, she wanted to be the beautiful chess player.
“You have good tits, at least,” her sister said and threw her paper plate, now soaked in what looked like dried blood, into the trash can. Ry stepped out on the rectangle of concrete outside her sliding glass door where the morning was coming back behind the trees, pink in strips. Maybe it wasn’t beauty she wanted, exactly, but expectant faces in a room, possibility.
Hayes’s and Solace’s teacher has shelves of Pokémon plushies near the reading rug where they sit on a Tuesday, each of them only about twenty pages into the same assigned book about a dog and a tollbooth.
“It’s kind of embarrassing,” Hayes says to Solace when they get up at break and wait in line at the fountain, over which they’d once been able to lean, but where they now fill bottles to drink later when they are seated far enough apart from other people. The teacher makes a hand motion near his face while making his eyes look smiley, and the motion means, Hayes, pull your mask up, so he does.
“What do you mean?” Solace says to Hayes.
“I mean, the striving,” Hayes says as they walk down the linoleum that is mainly gray but has periodic squares in bright colors. Hayes’s dad talked a lot about striving, about the trap of capitalism, about how it made you hate yourself enough to buy more and then spin there forever, hating, wanting, then buying, again.
“I mean thinking having those plushies makes us like him, that striving.”
“But people have to try,” Solace says, “right? They shouldn’t just not try?”
Someone runs into Solace near the doors to the playground and says nothing, not I’m sorry, not My bad, not Oops. This is something Solace’s mom has prepared him for, and he knows already how to pretend and ignore. Hayes speed walks ahead, trips the person, and then backs up quickly so he won’t be found out.
“I didn’t need that,” Solace says.
“I know,” Hayes says. “Still.”
They walk out to recess where all they ever do is swing: higher, legs working, higher, jump, start again.
Outside the student union, away from the chess players, Ry braids her long hair into two braids while she walks. Several girls in big sweatpants and midriff shirts walk by her laughing at something. Their teeth are as white as miniature marshmallows.
Ry hadn’t gone to college. She started working at the makeup counter at Kohl’s during high school, and then she’d gotten the bubble tea job. Her sister, who was older by three years, went to college for a semester and then quit to work at a sports bar where Ry still spent too much time playing Pac-Man and drinking whatever drinks her sister was willing to give her. When she first started playing the game more than a year before, she thought the Pac-Man ghosts were all the same, the same level of aggressive, the same randomness, the same chase. She learned over time, though, they each had their own personality, their own game and method. The red one was relentless. The pink one was sneaky. The blue one wasn’t on its own as much of an aggressor but could team up with the red one. The orange one was a scaredy-cat. Ry’s mom had said to her when she was younger, “Don’t be a scaredy-cat,” when they walked through their neighborhood at night. She had been, though. Every noise, every car, every person.
“I always want to be the red ghost,” Ry had said to her sister the previous Saturday, even though she never had been a red-ghost type.
“Sorry, girl, you’re not the red ghost,” her sister told her. She held two soapy pint glasses. “You’re the blue one, like you’re not going to, you know, initiate, but if red is into it, you’re down.”
On the way home from school, Hayes convinces Solace to fit through the gap in the chain-link fence at the back of the lot where the old movie building is prepped for demolition. The building is taped off, but no one is there, and the construction vehicles are dormant, so for a few minutes they sit down on the step at the back of the building.
“We should go in,” Hayes says.
“Let’s sit,” Solace says and messes with the lid of his water bottle. “Did you know the military is experimenting with electromagnetic force fields to play with gravity so someday we could live on the moon if they figure it out?”
“Weird. There’s a hawk on that pole,” Hayes says, “or is it an eagle?”
“Hawk. The head isn’t white, and eagles don’t come this far from a water source.”
“Oh, okay. And I would not want to go to the moon unless space travel changes completely.”
Hayes gets up and tries the door, which is unlocked. “Come on,” he says to Solace. Hayes goes first, and Solace grabs Hayes’s forearm. It’s dark, but chutes of light come through high windows. They go into separate rooms with shared walls and knock on them the way they do at home. Hayes is both scared and exhilarated alone in a semidark room with filing cabinets, and Solace is nervous in another room with shiny beanbag chairs.
They meet back in the hallway, where empty beer cans are lined up like an art installation.
The girl with the braids surprises them. She’s sitting on the floor at the end of the dark hall where they have been walking.
She says, “Hey, don’t be afraid of me. I’m not scary. I’m fine,” even though they didn’t ask, and then, “I didn’t have a weapon, but they thought I had a weapon, so it was weirdly the same as having one.”
“We don’t even know you,” Hayes says to her, and she pulls at a hangnail.
“Come on,” she says to them. Hayes and Solace are used to grown people telling them what to do.
“Come where?” Solace says, “And why?” His nails are painted pale blue, imprecisely applied. The polish makes his fingernails look like bits of sky.
“Why do we do anything we do is what I’m wondering,” the woman says. She snaps at a rubber band around her wrist, which looks breakable in the way of a birdwing. “Don’t mistake me for fragile,” she says while looking at the ceiling. Though it’s a strange thing to say out loud, they both know exactly what she means.
Ry walks them into a room and picks up a long metal canister, the kind that maybe held a roll-down map from another decade and swings it at one of the glass plates separating door and wall. What is she thinking of then? Of her sister sad on a Monday. Of a stranger naked on her bed and looking up at her bare stomach. Coming into the bathroom to see her mother, curled over on herself like a reptile, cutting her toenails into the bathtub. Life is a series of knitted-together indecencies maybe. Maybe the real work is to loosen oneself from the indecencies every now and then. She doesn’t know. Maybe that’s the thing: to not know and keep going the way people walk through the dark of a haunted house and scream sometimes with delight at the surprises.
“Whoa,” Hayes says. Solace’s eyes are big as the glass falls in pieces to the old carpeting. He stands with toes turned out, arms at his sides light as willow branches.
“What? They’re going to demolish this whole place tomorrow, so, you know, why not?” She motions to them with her hands and arms, as in, Come on and Join me.
Hayes pulls at the wooden shelf of some built-ins, and it disconnects from the wall easily. Lines of blue tape wander the wood, and it reminds him of how when you type www into a word document, the black turns itself blue because it knows it’s text to take you elsewhere, but these bookshelves, this wood, come from the land of pre-URLs, from the land his dad romanticizes, the land of his dad riding his bike in the country for hours and even through swarms of butterflies landing on his hands and forehead. Butterflies have never landed on Hayes, though once when he sat in the green space behind his apartment, three triangulating grasshoppers stared at him, an inch from his ankle.
He holds the shelf like a baseball bat and looks around for something to strike. He makes eye contact with Solace and then sets the board down the way someone would relocate a snail to get it out of the line of pedestrian traffic: softly, gently.
“I don’t think I’m as interested in destruction as I thought I’d be,” he says.
Ry says, “Yeah, you know what, same here, agreed. What about cereal?”
“We both like it,” Solace says.
Cereal is its own through line, and Ry can follow it from dry cereal on a high chair tray in a warm something-cooking kitchen where her mother danced to eighties metal then to cereal in front of a Saturday TV while her sister jumped next to her on the couch then to cereal alone in her apartment bed looking out the window at midnight and swearing the tree shadows were people and the crickets were chanting something like Take me, take me. It’s easy, so easy, to think life doesn’t matter, and it’s hard to convince yourself it does.
Hayes and Solace follow the girl out of the building. It’s darker now because it’s the time of year when the night starts to take over early and quickly. Hayes and Solace aren’t usually out without parents at this time, so there’s a thrill to it. They both have phones, but their ringers are still off from having them silenced at school, and they aren’t old enough or at least not the kind of kids to have them forever in their hands. Rather, they are buried in backpacks beneath mechanical pencils and Starburst wrappers.
The girl/woman leads them across the street at the light at Ninth and Emery and then down the hill toward the farthest building, the one that abuts the woods and is three buildings back from the one where Solace and Hayes live in their adjacent apartments.
“Do you live here too?” Hayes says. He looks back at the woods, where it’s now dark and impossible to see between the trunks and branches.
“I do,” Ry says. “Do you?”
“Yep,” Hayes says. “We both do,” but then he has a small feeling like a splinter and wonders if he should be revealing this information to this person whose apartment he is entering from the back sliding glass door. He should have stopped at his own apartment. He should have gone inside and gotten a damaged apple from the refrigerator and locked the front door and waited for his dad to get home so they could watch Cosmos while eating a margherita frozen pizza.
The girl opens a cabinet and pulls out a box of cereal whose cardboard top is ripped. She fills three plastic bowls with cereal and almond milk, and they go to the couch and sit cross-legged in a triangle.
She sets her bowl down on the coffee table for a second, pulls her bag from where it sits on the floor, and spreads money over the table the way Hayes has seen people doing in movies.
“Holy shit,” Hayes says.
Solace says, “What are you going to do with it? Buy a Tesla?”
“Ha, no. It’s not enough for a Tesla,” she says and laughs. “You can each have some.” She hands them some of the money. “Take it,” she says, “really,” and they put it into their backpacks. Teslas make her sad, with their silly up-opening doors that seem like the dated space-age dream of someone young many decades prior.
Her phone is buzzing.
“You should check that,” Hayes says. “It’s been going crazy for a while now. Maybe someone needs you.” Hayes and Solace both envision their parents maybe standing worried together in one of their two kitchens.
She opens the sliding glass door, and then the room is a flood of night noises. Somewhere, owls are tormenting a chicken, with all the corresponding hooting and then squawking. The bird noise builds, so loud it sounds like coyotes, a back-and-forth cacophony, and then silence. She doesn’t look at either of the boys.
Hayes’s eyes go to the open back door. He takes a deep breath. “Is no one going to say anything about the dead chicken?”
Who knows, maybe it’s minutes before the door to the apartment will rumble with knocking. There are cameras everywhere now, and police can solve crimes surprisingly quickly.
Ry gathers the money back into the bag. She shoves protein bars into the pocket and fills a few plastic water bottles.
“Come on,” she says to them. Solace hesitates. He sticks to the couch, but Hayes pulls at him. They walk out the sliding door and into the woods where their shoes snap twigs, where they hold hands as a balm against the owls who are somewhere nearby gleefully tearing apart a dead chicken.
Ry closes her eyes in the dark. The lights of passing cars cast through the woods. The word fractals pops into her head. To her mind comes the phrase, “infinitely complex patterns repeating,” something from a high school science class, back at a time when every day someone talked to her about fantastic facts and ideas and the future.
Pac-Man ghosts are encoded with a set number of options. Alive, alive, dot dot dot, forward, forward, dot dot dot, disappear.
In some other version of events, the two boys and the girl/woman disappear in a puff of movie ghosts and still-live chickens and unscary woods. They eat candy by a waterfall. Sleep comes easily. Nonpredatory mountain lions wander by. The stars are brighter than they’ve ever seen them. They miss no one. Of course, this isn’t that world.
In this version, she sends them home. She goes home herself and puts the backpack in her closet under a pile of clothes. In the morning, she sits with cereal by her windows and sees the boys walking up the hill. She puts on bright red lipstick and goes to stand behind a counter and serve bubble tea to sorority girls who’ve been trained into the kind of hyperpoliteness that makes her feel terrible.
After work, she sits at the bar and talks to her sister and watches while her sister flirts with two basketball players who lean against a pool table. She read a poem in high school about having to prepare a face for all the faces you’ll meet, and her sister does it so well.
No one comes for her. She will wait for years. She’ll marry someone average, live in an average one-story house on an average street with her average children. Sunsets might be out of the ordinary a few nights each fall, sometimes the orange of a cut-open peach. One year, the lilacs at the edge of her property will be so profuse and heady that sitting by them with her eyes closed in the morning will feel like swimming in thick purple water. She’ll think so many times of saying to her children, “Once I robbed a bank,” just to get them to really look at her.
While she is at work, the day after the robbery, the excavators come and tear down the building. By 6 p.m., when the traffic is heavy, Hayes and Solace are home and knocking on their shared wall, and all the bricks and boards and parts and pieces that made the building, the glass they didn’t hit, the blue-taped shelves, the metal disks that held someone’s beautifully scary movies, are rubble, are completely gone. Take me, take me, take me, the crickets say.
AMY STUBER is a fiction writer living in Lawrence, Kansas. She edits flash fiction for Split Lip Magazine. Her work has been published in or is forthcoming in Flash Fiction America, American Short Fiction, Copper Nickel, The Cincinnati Review, West Branch, New England Review, and elsewhere. She was the recipient of the Northwest Review Fiction Prize (2021) and a runner up for The Missouri Review Editors’ Prize (2022). Find her on Twitter @amy_stuber_.
Featured image by Jon Moore courtesy of Unsplash