For more than a year, a ghost lived in our house. Every morning I would see her in our lemon-yellow kitchen — standing at the sink, gazing out the window at the bird feeder, reading the newspaper at the dinette. When she saw me, she would vanish. She stayed until Halloween, until my tiny six-year-old sister exorcised her with five magic words.
On Halloween day, Tess and I decorated the house for trick-or-treaters while Dad picked up Shawn, our year-old baby sister, from daycare. When we finished draping gauzy fake spider webs over the bushes by the front steps and dangling rubber bats from hooks in the eaves of the wide front porch, we carried three little pumpkins out to the picnic table on the back patio.
“May I cut the eyes out?” Tess asked as she hugged the smallest pumpkin, warty and perfectly round.
“That’s my job. You aren’t old enough to use the knife. You might cut yourself.”
“No, I won’t. Promise, promise, promise.” She squeezed her eyes shut as she said this, which made her little apple cheeks bob up and down.
At fifteen, I could carve jack-o-lanterns with help, but if Tess hurt herself, I’d feel like I wasn’t doing a good job looking after her.
“Ohhhh,” she gasped.
“But only if you let me guide your hand while you do it.”
She pouted. “That’s not really letting me.”
“Well, it’s the way Mom did it with me when I was little.” It was a dirty trick, but calling up memories of Mom almost always made Tess obey.
We stood together and scooped out the pumpkins. Dry oak leaves that still stuck to the trees rustled over our heads, and the Fergusons’ black cat Spooky slunk by like a bad omen and pounced into the overgrown tangle of weeds that had been Mom’s herb garden. As Spooky stalked imaginary prey, I sized her up. Tess wanted to dress like a cat for trick-or-treating, but Dad hadn’t bought a costume for her. It was up to me to figure out how to make one.
“Hey, Shelley,” Tess said, frowning up at me. “Why’d you stop? The eye is only half carved.”
“I was looking at Spooky and thinking that you need ears and a tail if you’re going to be a cat tonight. But we don’t have anything that’ll work.” I thought to myself, at least not since Dad gave all of Mom’s sewing stuff to Goodwill.
“I want to be a cat!” Tess demanded. “With whiskers and everything!”
I saw a tantrum coming. She threw down a humongous chunk of pumpkin and started to stomp on the bloody-orange seeds and pulp. Her face turned as red as her hair, and her jaw clenched the way Mom’s did when she was furious with Dad. I pictured Tess’s head spinning around and shivered.
“Tess, don’t be a baby,” I said. “I was just teasing. I know how to make you into a cat.”
She stopped stomping and glared at me.
I picked up a gnarled oak twig and waved it in circles. “Abracadabra! Wart from a rat! Soon you’ll turn into a slinky black cat!”
We both broke into giggles.
If Mom were still alive, she would have made Tess’s costume from scratch. Black felt ears fixed to a black headband. A zip-up suit with paw mittens and a tail attached. Even a collar with “Tess” stitched on it. That’s the kind of thing Mom loved to do. She designed and sewed outfits for Tess and me, her friends, her family. She could have been a fashion designer, I bet, if she’d gone to college. Instead she fell in love with Dad and went straight from high school to a job as a secretary. She sewed at night after cooking dinner and doing the dishes, checking my homework, putting Tess to bed.
Then she died in a car accident the first time she left the house by herself since having Shawn. The baby, a month old, needed diapers, and Mom told Dad she needed to have just ten minutes to herself. She didn’t get even five minutes. A few blocks from our house, a surgeon in a rush to get home after a twelve-hour operation ran a red light and smashed into her. Our car, an old station wagon, didn’t have an air bag, and Mom hadn’t buckled her seatbelt.
That was just over a year ago. Now she wasn’t here to make Tess’s Halloween costume.
When we finished the jack-o-lanterns, we had one scary demon that I carved, one evil cat that I helped Tess cut out, and a lopsided smiley face Tess carved all by herself. Her second tantrum had worked.
After giving Tess a cream-filled doughnut and unloading the dishwasher, I walked through the family room, hoping to see the ghost — Mom’s ghost. She wasn’t there. I looked at the door to the utility room, where Mom’s sewing table had been. Maybe she was in there, maybe if I opened that door and spoke out loud that I needed her to show me what to do, she would appear. But she didn’t. I was missing her too much, wanting her to return and be our mother again.
I looked back at the clock in the hallway. Dad would be home soon with Shawn. He would be tired from figuring out other people’s money problems, and he would have to work fast to make dinner for us and Leigh, his girlfriend since June. He would tell Tess to be quiet while he found an old sheet to cut eyeholes in and throw over her head. That would be her costume — a shapeless, white-sheeted, pretend ghost.
“Hey Shelley,” Tess called. I had been standing in the utility room with my hands on my hips, frowning. “Hey, Shelley!”
“What, pooter brain?” I yelled back, as I closed off the room again. I loved my little sister, but she could be a pest.
“May I have another one?”
“I said no. You’ll ruin your dinner.” I walked into the kitchen and stared her down, as Mom-like as I could be. I didn’t like being so hard on her, but I knew she would get a tummy ache if she had a second doughnut.
Tess pressed her lips together and then hit me with her own dirty trick. “You think you’re a mother now, but you’re not. You’re just my sister.”
She jumped out of her chair and ran outside. I wanted to pick up her jeans jacket and take it to her, but I couldn’t make my feet move. I stared out the kitchen window. As Tess swung herself violently around in the tire swing, I thought about all the times Mom buttoned up my coat and tucked in my scarf, about how her kisses tickled the top of my head before she pulled on my cap. I never could remember to do those things for Tess.
“If only Mom were here…” I said out loud, and then I felt a whisper of air brush my face. I turned from the window and saw Mom’s ghost slipping into the hall.
“Come back,” I pleaded. But when I got into the hall, she was gone. My face felt tingly and icy, the way it feels just before I cry. But before the tears could start, I noticed that the telephone book was moving. The pages fluttered slightly as it slid over the edge of the hall table. I shook my head. I must have bumped the table. As I pushed the telephone book back into place, I saw a number in Dad’s handwriting on the back. I got a different tingly feeling. Mom’s ghost had wanted me to see the number, to call the one person who could help with the costume.
When Dad came home with Shawn, we followed our usual routine. He handed me the baby and her bag, told me to clean her up and then went back to the car, a new red minivan he’d bought to replace the station wagon, to get his briefcase and several plastic bags of groceries. I strapped Shawn into her high chair, handed her some graham crackers, and helped Dad put away the food.
After Mom died, Dad ate only canned soup and dry toast for a long time. He knew he needed to learn how to cook for Tess and me, so he would make stew or fried chicken or lasagna using Mom’s old cookbooks. He would spend hours in the kitchen, slamming cabinets and clanking pans, but then he wouldn’t eat anything. I think he only wanted to stay busy and that’s why he didn’t just get take-out. He lost about 15 pounds and bought new clothes because his pants and shirts drooped. At first, his cooking wasn’t very good, but I always ate everything on my plate so that he would be tempted to try it too. I was afraid he would disappear just like Mom.
Then Leigh, one of his clients, came to visit, and Dad ate three helpings of meatloaf and mashed potatoes and an enormous piece of the apple pie Leigh brought. Over the next couple months, he gained back all the weight he’d lost. Now he wore his old clothes again.
After putting the groceries away, he rushed upstairs to change into jeans and a T-shirt. I didn’t tell him about the phone call. I was afraid he would get mad because I hadn’t asked him first. Just as he ran downstairs and I’d decided to blurt it out when he came back into the kitchen, the front door opened. Leigh had let herself in with the key Dad had given her. Mom’s key.
“Hello,” she called out. “Ben? Shelley?”
“Hey, it’s Leigh!” Tess, who had snuck in when she heard Dad drive up earlier, ran to the living room.
“Tessadoodle!” I heard Leigh exclaim. She had nicknames for all of us. “Where’s Shelley-Nellie? Take this bag to her for me.”
“Hey you,” Dad said. They were quiet for a minute or so, and I knew they were kissing.
“Leigh brought you a present,” Tess said as she skipped back into the kitchen. She handed me a bag from the drugstore up the street, the one Mom had been driving to the night of the accident.
“It’s not for me, silly. It’s for you.” I pulled out the cat costume and face paint I had asked Leigh to buy. A pin-on tail, ears on a cheap plastic headband and a bowtie on a choker that fastened with Velcro. That was all.
Leigh and Dad walked into the kitchen, and when Dad saw Tess tearing into the packages he slapped his hand on his forehead. He mouthed the word “thanks” to me.
“Now,” he said, “I’m going to make a pizza extraordinaire. I even bought artichoke hearts especially for you, Shelley.”
I blew him a kiss as Tess made gagging noises.
Later, while Dad cleaned up the dishes, Leigh and I dressed Tess in black jeans and turtleneck, black socks, and her shiny black Mary Janes. I brushed her long red curls into a ponytail at the back of her head and watched in the mirror as Leigh drew whiskers and a black muzzle on Tess’s face.
Tess looks just like Dad — deep red hair, round cheeks, full lips. She’s going to be stocky like him, too. Shawn already looks like Dad, but I’m Mom’s clone: tall and bony, brown haired and sharp featured. When Dad takes us to the mall, I’m sure other people think I’m adopted. I’m even more uncomfortable when Leigh goes out with us because she could be my mother. Her hair is dark blond and her nose wider than mine, but everything else about her looks like Mom. Whenever we’re out with her, I want to tell the waitresses and salesgirls that she’s just Dad’s girlfriend and that I’m the one who takes care of my sisters.
On Saturdays, when Leigh spends the night, Dad closes the door to his bedroom at 10:00, and I turn up the music in my room as loud as I can without waking up my sisters across the hall. I’ve never heard Dad and Leigh doing anything, but I know they’re not just playing Scrabble. They do that at the kitchen table. After the first night Leigh stayed over, Dad asked me if I wanted to talk about it, but I told him no. I was too embarrassed by what they might be doing, and, besides, I figured she would eventually stop coming over.
But she didn’t, and I can’t say anything to Dad about how I think she tries too hard to fit in. Like when she washes the dishes after dinners here, even if Dad tells her not to. She pushes away from the table and picks up the plates anyway, heads into the kitchen, runs the water too fast and loads the dishwasher all wrong.
I definitely can’t tell him about how I see Mom’s ghost sometimes watching Leigh from the corner of the family room as she plays with Shawn and Tess. About how I’ve watched the ghost follow Leigh up the stairs when she puts Shawn down in the crib with her bottle and sings lullabies in a trembly voice. About the Saturday nights I’ve found the ghost weeping outside Dad’s bedroom door.
“There,” Leigh said to Tess. “You’re a purrrrrr-fect kitty cat.”
“Oh thank you!” Tess turned around and wriggled her drawn-on whiskers at me. “Meow, meow, meow, meow, meow.”
“Meow! Meow!” Tess ran downstairs to show Dad her costume, meowing at the top of her lungs.
“Thank you for calling me, Shelley,” Leigh said, looking at me and smiling. “I guess Ben was going to cut up a sheet, huh?”
I nodded. She already knew Dad pretty well.
Leigh gathered up the face paint and brushes. “Well, I guess it’s time to walk up and down the street threatening the neighbors. You coming?”
I shook my head. “Dad wants me to stay here with Shawn. He doesn’t want to push her around in the stroller. She might get fussy, and then somebody would have to bring her back.”
I didn’t tell Leigh that I was missing the costume party at school, that Mark Coffey had even asked me in person if I was going to be there and that I told him that I’d be the one dressed as Cinderella, without one shoe. I didn’t tell Leigh that my best friend was going to explain to everybody I knew that I had a cold and was home in bed slurping chicken soup. But part of me wanted to tell her.
“Leigh! Shelley!” Dad yelled up the stairs, accompanied by several loud meows. “We’re missing Halloween.”
“OK,” Leigh yelled to Dad. To me she said, “I wish you could have more fun tonight, Shelley.” And then she reached over and hooked my hair behind my right ear, the way she does her own — and I saw Mom’s ghost standing behind her, nodding.
Before they left, Dad handed me a salad bowl of hard candy to put on the front steps with a note saying, “On your honor, ye goblins, take 3 pieces each.”
I looked at it and thought about the party I was missing that night and about all the little children happily racing from house to house through the neighborhood. I didn’t want to miss Halloween. I grabbed Shawn and followed Dad and Leigh and Tess outside.
“Change your mind?” Leigh asked, her eyes sparkling in the dim porch light.
“No,” I said. “I just wanted to watch Tess terrorize a house or two.”
I sat in the old wicker rocker on our front porch with Shawn bouncing in my lap and watched Dad and Tess walk down the sidewalk to the Fergusons’ house. Leigh waited off the porch while Dad chatted with Mr. Ferguson. Tess ran to Leigh to show her the candy in her plastic pumpkin. Leigh giggled and said something that made Tess run up to Dad and meow rapidly.
Leigh walked behind them to the next house, and by the time they got around the curve to the Craigs’ house, she had started to walk into the porch light and talk with the neighbors.
“Trick or treat!” I jumped out of the rocker, almost dropping Shawn on the porch. A trio of aliens with wobbly antennae and green faces held out plastic trash bags. Shawn said something in baby talk and reached for one of the bags.
“Hey, your baby’s trying to take my candy,” said the tallest one, whose very frizzy blond hair floated eerily around her head.
“She’s my sister,” I said as I threw three butterscotch candies into each bag.
“Yeah?” the blond alien said. “You look like her mother. Well, thanks for the candy. Bye!”
“Bye,” I said quietly, but she didn’t hear.
A witch, a princess, two pirates and a mummy tumbled onto the steps just then, and Shawn began pulling at my jeans and crying for me to hold her. The noisy children had frightened her, and she was tired.
I was getting tired, too. Tired of trying to be like Mom, tired of changing diapers, picking out Tess’s clothes, giving baths. Tired of missing parties and not being able to go shopping with my friends because I needed to watch my sisters. I wanted to help make Dad’s life easier and to make sure Tess and Shawn were happy. But I wanted to be a teenager too. I just couldn’t figure out how to do both.
“Shawn, I can’t,” I said, throwing candy into the witch’s pillowcase. “Stop it!”
The trick-or-treaters sped away from the house, shrieking and laughing. Shawn pulled herself up by grabbing my leg and then clutched my knee so tight that it felt numb.
“No, stop it!” I pushed her back hard, and she fell onto her diapered bottom with a thunk. She thrust her lower lip out, squeezed her eyes shut and began to turn purply-red. “OK, OK,” I said, reaching for her.
“Ooooooooooo!” She wailed. I put my hands over my ears, shook my head back and forth, and thought if I did that long enough everything would be the way it was two years ago, when there wasn’t a baby but there was a mom. A mom who sewed clever costumes and gave out candy at Halloween.
Then I saw the ladybug and giant yellow crayon perched on our top step, brown paper bags held out. Coming up the sidewalk behind them was a lone Elvis, with two butchered corpses close behind.
“Go away!” I screamed. “Just go away!”
The crayon began to cry, and the ladybug grabbed his hand and yelled at me, “Meanie!”
The children scattered to other houses.
Spooky jumped onto our porch railing and began to clean herself, licking every spot at least 20 times. She seemed to tell me that I was a disgrace, that I made her feel dirty. “Spooky, you’re just a cat,” I said. “Not my conscience.” She looked up at me in mid-lick, her tongue stuck halfway out of her mouth. I stuck my tongue out at her.
I picked up Shawn, only snuffling now, went into the house, and turned off the porch light. By the time Dad and Leigh and Tess got home, I had put Shawn into her pajamas and picked up all the toys in the family room.
“Shelley,” Dad called out when he came in the front door. “Why is the porch light off?”
Before I could answer, Tess ran into the room and pounced onto the sofa next to me. “Look at all the candy!”
“Cool,” I said, hitting the mute button on the remote. “Any chocolate bars?”
Tess dug around in the pumpkin. Her ears had slipped down the back of her head a little, and her bowtie was twisted sideways on her neck. “Here!”
Dad and Leigh came in just then, and Shawn crawled to Leigh and held her hands in the air over her head.
“Look at that,” Dad said. “She prefers you to me.”
Dad picked up Shawn. “I’m going to put her to bed.” He walked upstairs with her, holding on tight to the stair rail with his free hand.
Leigh watched the silent television for a few seconds and then finally said, “I guess we should take off that make-up, Tessadoodle.”
“Oh, all right,” Tess said. While Leigh got the make-up remover and tissues from the upstairs bathroom, Tess hopped off the sofa and crept into the kitchen, meowing softly. She settled on the floor and curled up like Spooky sleeping in a spot of sunshine.
Mom’s ghost walked into the kitchen from the hallway and leaned back against the sink. She chuckled at Tess’s cat imitation but stopped when Leigh came in and began to tickle Tess. The ghost looked at me then, and the tingly feeling covered my face. She shook her head and put her finger to her lips, the way she did when she was alive and she knew Dad or Tess was about to say something really funny or sweet and she didn’t want me to interrupt.
Tess turned her face up to the light. Leigh plopped onto the floor, opened the jar of cream and began to spread it on Tess’s skin with her fingertips. She cradled Tess’s chin in her hand and wiped off the cream tenderly, slowly. She was careful not to rub too hard or get the cream in Tess’s eyes. Tess held perfectly still, her eyes closed and lips smiling sweetly. When Leigh paused to dip into the jar for more cream, Tess opened her eyes, cocked her head to one side and asked, “Will you be my mommie?”
“What?” Leigh asked, holding her breath.
“Since my real mommie is gone, will you be my new mommie?” Tess lifted her shoulders and dropped them again. “Somebody has to be, and Shelley’s not doing a very good job.”
I blinked, and Mom disappeared.
Leigh turned her head to the sink and raised her hands to her face. For a moment she glowed a brilliant white. “I felt … something,” she said.
“You’re so silly!” Tess exclaimed, jumping up. She skipped a circle around Leigh, then ran into the family room and jumped on my lap, facing me. “Leigh’s going to be our new mommie! Leigh’s going to be our new mommie!” she sang, tossing her head back and almost falling off my lap.
“Shhhhhhh!” Dad said from the stairs. “I just got Shawn to sleep. You’ll wake her up!”
He looked at Tess and then at me. I knew he was going to say something wrong, something to make us laugh and forget what Tess had just done. I brought my finger to my lips and shook my head. Dad blinked hard several times, and then he went to Leigh. He held out his hand and pulled her up from the kitchen floor. Tess and I watched her whisper something to him. He stroked her hair and then held her tightly, so tightly that I was afraid he would squeeze the life out of her. I almost yelled “Don’t!” but he let go of her and tapped the end of her nose with his fingertip, something he never did with Mom.
That night, even though it was a Friday, Leigh stayed over. I lay in bed listening to the silence of everyone sleeping. At midnight I got up to look. I had to know.
I crept into the hallway and saw that she wasn’t there.
“Good-bye, ghost,” I whispered. “Good-bye, Mom.”
In the morning, Leigh would make pancakes and eggs, and we would all sit around the dinette laughing at the baby and listening to Tess babble on about aliens, witches, princesses, superheroes, and ghosts.
Daun Daemon grew up in Hudson, North Carolina, with her mother’s beauty shop outside her bedroom window. She is working on a collection of stories about four sisters and their hairdressing mother and a collection of poetry about her real mother. Daemon’s fiction has appeared in Kalliope, Fiction Fix, Southern Women’s Review, and Literally Stories among others. She has published poems in Haiku Journal, Typishly, and Night Garden Journal. One of her poems placed first in the Origami Poems 2017 Kindness Contest. She teaches scientific communication at NC State University and lives in Raleigh with her husband and four cats.