The Question of Ghosts


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Scene Title The Question of Ghosts
Synopsis "Psychoanalysis has taught us that the dead can be more alive for us, more powerful, more scary, than the living. It is the question of ghosts," Derrida said. But sometimes, the living can be like ghosts. One such wanderer finds another at the Bay House.
Date June 28, 2011

Bay House

Years ago, in high school, a young man who gave Isabella Sheridan the flutters commented on the cuteness of her freckles, a pointillist splash across her little nose and roundish cheeks she'd been long self-conscious of. Since then, every summer she has surreptitiously made a point to sun long enough to cultivate a stock of these little markings, a tribute to old affections and the conquest of vanity over shame. And blessings be upon the soul smart enough to bring a reclining lawn chair to the Bay House, which Bella dragged across the dunes until she was just within sight of the beach proper, given some small shade by tall grasses, which harbor a orgiastic buzzing of emerald green dragonflies, hovering in couplets.

The metal tubing of the chair's supports sink inches into the sand as Bella reclines, basking in the warm glow of the near-solstice. She didn't intend to be out here for very long - she burns easily, as gingers do - but the heat and the sound of the waves, and the familiar prose of the novel she's re-reading have tipped her into a doze, and her arms gather sunspots as her neck and clavicle are, mercifully, shielded by the spread cover of her book.

Should Bella glance up again toward the shore, there will be small footsteps that weren't there the last time. But all the children are, theoretically, inside and accounted for, taking lessons and doing homework under the watchful eye of their caretakers.

But before she can awaken to notice the trail, a pink bottle of 45 SPF sunscreen lands in her lap from behind, and the patter of small feet can be heard retreating, until there is a rustle in the tall grass. A keen eye might be able to see just the hint of fair skin, and blue eyes in the shadows and greennish light that filters through the leaves.

Bella comes back to consciousness with the sudden, mild jolt of a student who catches themselves drifting in class. She blinks rapidly, bruise-green sunroses obscuring her vision as she pushes herself into a more full sit, legs shifting. As they do, the sunscreen tumbles out of her lap and down between the broad, grimy looking stretches of plastic that make up the reclining surface of the chair, landing in the sand. She leans over, peering at the little gift, and one hand presses the open book to her belly as she reaches down and picks up the bottle with the other.

Now where did this come from?

She's too late to waking to hear the footfalls, but she doesn't imagine the bottle came from heaven. She twists at the waist, craning her neck to peer into the grasses behind her, pale blue eyes trying their best to adjust to the contrast of sun-bright sand and deep green shade. Is- is someone out there?

"Hello?" is cast out, a little doubtful.

There is nothing but silence for a few moments, and fear. Bella's warm sunbath is chilled by more than just the surprise of the visit, as worry and fear begin to worm their way into her, pushing away the tranquility of the nap and novel in the sun.

Finally, a small, equally doubtful voice returns to her. "You're not the other lady. What happened to her — the Samara lady?" It's a child's voice, though none belonging to any of the children Bella's heard romping in the Bay House thus far.

Like Bella needs a reason to be anxious. Free floating unhappiness finds objects enough to agglomerate onto, and she presses the hardcover close, like a shield, as she begins to speculate on what awful joke, what fatal prank, might begin with throwing her sunscreen.

But none of her fears involved children, at least no children that are still children at this moment, and when "I- I don't know," and suddenly Bella feels rather concerned about this as well - do Ferry members often disappear inexplicably? What does that mean for her, hardly the most popular girl in her current class? "I'm just a guest."

Only wait, is this a local child? She hasn't really spent a great deal of time cataloguing the munchkins that scamper through the Bay House hallways, but this one is unfamiliar. Could he be a security leak? "Where did you come from?" is motivated by suspicion, but Bella has enough command of herself to prevent it from entering her tone.

"I'm not a guest," snaps the voice, and anger flares both in that voice and also in Bella. "I used to live here, before they came. Now I don't live anywhere. I'm like a ghost or something."

The leaves rustle and the child begins to emerge. Thin, with dark hair and solemn, eerie blue eyes, he stares at her. "Are you like a ghost? Do you belong anywhere?" he asks in a whisper, crouching like a little wild thing in the leaves, grimy in the way of street children who try but fail to keep themselves clean. A bruise mars one side of his face, the corner of his lip swollen. The anger subsides, and all that's left is loneliness, despair.

It's only in her most private moments - within the bindings of her now-defunct journal, in fact - that Bella tends to openly engage in any such dramatic comparisons. Even in her own writing, her brutal pragmatic rationalism shows this tendency no mercy when it appears. So while, indeed, she sometimes feels if not a ghost than a Wandering Jew, she'd never give such thoughts voice. At least, not under normal circumstances.

As misery falls over her like a wet blanket, paling her beneath the sun damage she's inviting, her expression gives credence to that sense which she can't permit herself to voice. She gives a small gulp, and smaller sniff - she can feel the beginnings of tears pricking at the corners of her eyes. And while this emotional key change is sudden enough to deserve suspicion, she's got too much on her chest, too much to account for an unhappiness she's now being given room to feel.

That's a sob she's suppressing, as she nods. "Y- yes. I- I do feel like I'm in an afterlife." And though this afterlife doesn't look so bad, what with the sun and the clear blue sky, the mind is its own place and is fully able to, diabolically, make a hell of heaven and vice versa.

That pale face screws up into an expression of worry, and the boy creeps closer, laying a hand on Bella's. The hand is dirty, the nails embedded with dirt, the knuckles scabbed over. The hand seems like it should be cold and clammy, the hand of a ghost, but it is warm from the sun as he touches her skin.

"Don't cry, lady," the little boy says, even as a tear slides down his own cheek, cutting through the grime to leave a trail of clean, if salty, skin behind. "It'll get better. When I go away, you'll feel better," he promises, and this makes him sob once.

"It's always better when I'm gone," he adds, retracting his hand and starting to move away.

The unkempt touch gives Bella call to suppress a shudder, but afflicted by this distinct sense of isolation - one that finds reinforcement in her unaltered disposition - she finds it suddenly impossible to bear being alone. And while this boy is hardly her first choice of companions, he is the most immediately present.

So Bella astounds herself by reaching for the lad’s wrist and exclaiming, with unexpected vehemence: “No!” and then, taking a long inhale that serves also to clear her of another building sob, “why- why would you say something like that?” Her immediate solace in playing the part she’s so long played, and so usefully, to her if to no one else.

The little boy crouches, arms hugging around his knees, and picks up a stick to poke at the sandy ground. “B-because it’s true,” he whispers. “You don’t feel good right now, and it’s because of me. It’s not your fault. It’s mine. It’s why I stay away.”

He sniffles and wipes his eyes across the sleeve of the shirt that’s a little too small, and a little too warm for the sunny day.

“I’ll leave and you’ll feel better,” the child assures Bella, wide blue eyes searching her face, to make the vow sealed by that solemn eye contact. “I promise.”

There once was a time when Bella could have comfortably chalked up this - and so many other - interactions to conversation with the paranoid schizophrenic. This was back before she had genuine multiple personality cases coming through her door, before she found that, really, neuro-psychology would have been a better focus for her.

So she does not assume that this child is disordered, at least not primarily. Some people think of their gifts just as gifts. Bella knows better. She knows that some gifts are white elephants.

The eye contact they share shifts, not in angle but in intensity - Bella retreats behind her tear-pricked eyes and tries to summon up curiosity sufficient to overcome the inchoate unhappiness bubbling within the primal stew of her limbic system. "You- how long has that been true?" she asks, blinking rather hard to keep further moisture from welling up in her eyes.

Dark brows knit together as he pokes at the sand, but the desolation seems to wane, the suffocating feeling of loneliness eases off, like a weight from the chest. Bella can feel it, and it’s visible in the child as he looks up at her. Curiosity wins out over the despair.

“They had me tested,” he says, quietly, tear-wet lashes fanning his cheeks as he glances down again. “And my dad, he… he died. Because of me. And that’s why she left me. She was gonna have my little brother, she said, and that I had to do the right thing, that all big brothers look out for their little brothers, and that I had to be the strong one and be alone so that they’d be okay. So that I wouldn’t make them sad enough to do what my dad did to himself.”

The explanation is given quietly in a neutral voice, as if the boy were giving a current events report, rather than the tragic history of his abandonment. “I don’t blame them,” he adds, glancing up at Bella, sunlight catching on the glimmer of tearshine on his face. “I try to stay away from people. For their own good. People should be happy.”

A test - that makes it a near certainty. Bella shields herself with purpose as the corners of her lips tug down, a preventative measure, pre-empting more somatic signs of unhappiness that might, if left unchecked, snowball into psychically induced hysterics. She's had quite enough of that just on her own lately. Quite enough, indeed.

"That's ridiculous," she says, and she sounds almost haughty, imperiousness an unintended side-effect of her attempt at emotional control, "there's a- a treatment for your condition. It's- not you. It's just- it's a disorder." A thing outside the patient's 'self', a debatable point but it's not as if this child needs rectitude or nuance right now.

"I'm a doctor," Bella explains, and now, at least, the aloofness of her tone matches the loftiness of her office, "I can help. What's-" sniff, "what's your name?"

“Salem Mayhew,” the little boy says, hugging his knees tighter and dropping the stick. “I’m older than I look. I’m almost eleven. What month is it? Is it July yet? I haven’t looked at a newspaper for a couple’f days but I’ll be eleven in September.” At Salem’s age, every month counts in giving an age. He doesn’t look nearly eleven, but instead perhaps around nine at most, small for his age, fine-boned, eyes too big for his face in the manner that younger children often have.

“I’m not sick, though,” he adds, with a shake of his head. “I’m just one of them.” The words are spoken with fear and distaste, the sort that is learned from parents, from society. “Are you? That Samara lady was. She could walk through walls, but she wasn’t a ghost.”

Bella has lost the magazine subscriptions and workdays that structured her time. Is it July yet? "I'm not sure," she admits, in all honesty, "but I can find out."

Mostly she's floating above her feelings right now - treating the chemicals in her brain as just that, chemicals, one that control her experience of reality but do not necessarily dictate its truth. She closes the book - she'll find her place later - and turns to face Salem properly, sitting sidesaddle on her recliner.

"I'm not, no," Bella says, "but my closest friends are," some of said friends would, in the wake of disempowerment, disagree, but it's not the gift itself, but the world it makes the holder live in that, to Bella, seems most important. "You don't need to live alone. You can trust me, Salem. I can help you." Repetition, she's taken to understand, works well with kids.

She extends her hand, offering a shake. Custom and formality - civilization. "I'm Doctor Sheridan."

The hand is watched, warily, for a moment before Salem unwinds his arms from his legs and stands, stepping forward. His small hand takes hers, and he shakes it in a caricature of such a gesture, the way a child playing “pretend” might while schlupping around in too-large shoes that belong to a parent.

“My other doctor tried to make me better with pills and they just made me feel worse. But that was before they pricked my finger,” he says, letting go and putting his hands back behind his back. “But you seem nicer. And you know people like me.”

He nods toward the house. “They are like me, right? The kids who live there? I don’t want to make them sad. I don’t want to make you sad.” Salem’s thin voice trembles, and that sorrow and fear seems to creep back in around the edges of Bella’s psyche, just as it does his.

Nicer? "I'm better informed," Bella explains, accepting the handshake with all its outward ceremony, returning it with unblinking seriousness; a more skillful person might have jokes, might try bringing a smile to Salem's face, might even succeed, but Bella knows best to engage on the register already set.

The risk being the easy slippage from seriousness into grimness, and the broadcast fear that Bella now begins to pick up. She fights to maintain the levelness of her gaze, to remain mistress of her own house - the emotions she's picking up are information, and should be accepted as such. "And they are, yes. Which means they'll understand. Many of them have been alone, too."

"You can't help what you can do- it's not your fault," these words, cherished personally, feel different when give away rather than being self-assign, "you just need help. Everyone does sometimes." You don't need a special gift to hurt the people around you without intending to to.

The boy tilts his head. It’s not your fault — words he desperately wanted to hear from his father, but never did. Words he wanted to hear from his mother, and words that she wanted to say, and yet never did. He swallows, and reaches up to scratch the side of his nose thoughtfully.

A glance is given over his shoulder, as if to plan an escape. He could run. She wouldn’t chase him like the others, Salem is pretty sure. His teeth rake over his lower lip, and he looks back.

“Okay,” he finally says, owlish eyes blinking at her. “I trust you.”

It's a trick as old as the talking cure - saying those things the parents needed to say but never did. But no need to be so Viennese. Bella is just extending some basic decency, and proffering plain truth. The pills he took before were of no use, but we've come a long way since then.

"I'll need to talk to the people in the house," Bella explains, "and you'll have to wait until I explain properly. But they'll understand, and then we can take care of this."

Because she's not about to just bring the human emotional sinkhole into the house - hardly a great opening argument. But she feels poorly about just leaving him out here. She extends her arms, offering the book up to Salem.

"Would you hold onto this until I get back?" she asks, "I won't be long."

Salem presses his lips together — it’s not hard to guess what’s going through a ten-year-old orphan’s mind, when he’s been abandoned in the worst possible ways — but finally he nods, and reaches for the book. Entrusted with the task, he holds the book as if it were very important, and moves to sit carefully on the sand.

Planted rather stolidly, he crosses his legs and waits — not for the first time — for someone to come back to him.

It isn't the first time. But it is the first time in a long time.

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