My mother said the ghost in my room would leave when I turned twelve. At thirteen, I started to believe that she was a liar.
Catherine wasn’t an annoying ghost or a mean ghost, or a ghost that carved cryptic messages into the rafters, or whispered pervy stuff into my friends’ ears while we played video games, or sent a gust of wind over the curve of my girlfriend’s ass the first time we fucked. She just talked to me when I needed a buddy. She spent the rest of her time reading tattered books in my closet. When I’d reach in for my jacket, I’d ask what she was reading, and she’d always say, “You wouldn’t get it.” I guess I believed her, because how could I argue? She’d already lived an entire life.
As you know, my mother was a liar, so Catherine was the only one I talked to about my hair. When I was a child, I insisted on keeping it long, which drove my mother insane. Sometimes I’d sneak out to the rain barrel, fill my Super Soaker, and shoot myself in the head until my hair was drenched and I could swing it around like a supermodel. Then I’d join the gun battle, blasting my friends from behind a tree like I was Doc Holliday at the OK Corral, but a goddess raged inside me. My heart was glowing.
When I turned thirteen, Catherine put down her moth-eaten copy of Faust long enough to tell me that if I kept believing in her, the two of us would become more alike.
“What will happen, exactly? Stop being so cryptic.”
“I don’t know everything,” she said.
“Catherine, is there an afterlife?”
“Yes. God is a female werewolf that lives in the shell of an old RV in the junkyard.” She twirled over my Xbox and blew a raspberry at me.
“Are you joking?”
I didn’t want to stop believing in Catherine, even though when I opened the closet to show Mom, Mom only pretended to see her. “Hi, Catherine,” she said, staring at my hangers of button-down shirts when Catherine was actually curled on the shelf overhead, her silken blue face buried in a mangy-looking copy of Don Juan. I spent years reinterpreting this moment, but no matter what answers I came up with, Catherine’s voice still sounded as real as mine.
“How long do I have to keep believing in you before something happens?”
“Let’s say until you turn twenty.”
“Is that a real rule or did you just pull it out of your butt?”
Nothing much happened between there and twenty, at least nothing that doesn’t happen to everyone else: driver’s license, smearing borrowed makeup over hickeys, that little pop in my chest when the response to my college application came in a thick envelope. That, and I started to realize that my body sometimes didn’t feel like mine. I felt fidgety in my clothes. When I told Catherine, she said, “We’ll talk about it later.” She said that forever. Eventually, I convinced myself that she had a plan.
On my twentieth birthday, I was sitting in my dorm room with a mouthful of ice cream cake when Catherine came spinning out of the bathroom and stopped just above my head, her striped stocking hovering between me and the cake plate.
“Hey,” she said. “I feel funny. Did you do something?”
“Turned twenty a few minutes ago.”
“Oh. Right.” She clutched her abdomen. “I think I’m going to hurl.”
This struck me as an odd thing for a ghost to say. I’d never seen her eat anything.
She floated back through the bathroom door, and I could hear bottles of my roommate’s mouthwash and man-scented body spray tumbling off the sink. I shoveled the rest of the ice cream cake into my gullet, finished the episode of Rhoda I was watching, then tossed the plate and nudged the bathroom door open.
A girl who looked like Catherine but was definitely a girl and not a translucent blue specter was lying on the linoleum, wearing Catherine’s shabby old gown and rubbing her hands over every inch of her body, as if making sure it was real.
“Hey,” I said. The excitement at having a ghost friend instantly seemed like something from childhood, and now it sort of felt like having a kid.
Catherine looked up at me and blinked a few times. “I can barely see you,” she said. “I need glasses. And better clothes. And takeout.”
I let her raid my closet, and a few minutes later she came out in a neon green hoodie, full-rimmed eyeglasses in my prescription, and purple leggings with jellyfish on them. She painted her toenails turquoise while we waited for the pizza delivery in silence.
After scarfing down mushroom and sausage slices, we finished off the ice cream cake, and she let out a big breath like she’d just taken off a heavy knapsack. I wished I’d thought to ask the pizza guy if he could see her.
“So,” I finally said, “how are you feeling? Is there anywhere I can take you?”
“We have work to do,” Catherine said. “We’re taking a ride to Soapstone, then we’re going camping.”
I decided not to tell her that the last time I went camping, I spent the whole night vomiting fish tacos into a dry compost toilet. Instead, I said, “Soapstone is far away, and I have classes.”
“It’s only three hours. I’ve been sharing five square feet with your corduroys for twenty years. Give me a break.”
I had perfect attendance, so I could afford to miss a couple of days for whatever this was. Plus, I probably owed her. When I was a kid, I never bothered to ask how she ended up in my closet, because it never occurred to me that her being there wasn’t normal. When I was ten and Ted Rexly bashed my face with an ice ball on the playground, Catherine taught me the Joe Louis haymaker in case I wanted to lay him out, then sang my praises until my veins were hot with confidence.
She wasn’t the monster in my closet – she protected me from those.
I filled my gas tank at the station across from campus as Catherine explored the walls of beef jerky and milkshake machines. She placed her pile of junk on the counter, and when I asked how she planned on paying for all of this, she gave me the side eye. I wondered whether the cashier looked at her and saw a scrappy homeless woman, when to me, Catherine looked like a pearly bow at the crown of an olive wreath.
We listened to Pavement on repeat the whole way. Catherine kept her face out the window with her tongue hanging out like a big puppy, maybe feeling the wind for the first time in an eternity. We stopped at Camden Bluff, a cliff about an hour outside Soapstone that overlooked the ocean, and watched gulls and kingfishers whirl over the bare rocks.
“This is beautiful, huh,” I said to Catherine, whom I was still calling my ghost friend in my head. “You know, whenever I was sick, or sad, I always wanted to be able to hug you.”
Catherine looked down at her sandals – well, mine really, but I planned on letting her keep them – then turned and walked back to the car.
When the highway was far behind us, we turned left onto a road called Storage Drive. The cross street led to a beach with a famous shipwreck on it, where hundreds of people were probably baking themselves right now. The road sign was nailed to a tree. Every car behind us went straight.
“There,” Catherine said, pointing to an enormous complex called Shipwreck Storage. I found a parking spot and followed her to a unit labeled B799. A little keypad sat beside the rolling steel door, which was bright red and featured a crudely done logo of a crab in a ten-gallon hat.
Catherine typed in a code. After hitting the first three numbers, her hair blew across her mouth, and when she spat it out and brushed it away, it was the most human thing I’d ever seen.
My own hair was down past my shoulders now, tied back in a loose ponytail.
Catherine finished punching in the code, and we entered. She sat on a cart bed while I pushed her up a nearby ramp.
“Here,” she said as we came to a smaller steel door with another keypad. “This should be the one.”
“The world’s biggest beach ball had better be in there,” I said. I was hungry, my ankles were sore, and all I could think of was my chemistry class’s attendance policy. I pictured the tiny campsite waiting for us, imagined the woods at night, what a girl who had haunted me my entire life would have planned for us there.
Catherine lurched the storage unit open to reveal three large aquariums. If there was anything inside them besides mold, it was invisible. Catherine had a look on her face like she was seeing an old friend.
I stared at the fish tanks, wondering how long they’d been here, striving to see what Catherine saw, aside from our reflections. Well, just mine.
After a few seconds, thousands of shapes appeared behind the white mold, silhouettes of tiny women with dragonfly wings.
She saw my face shift. “Sylphs,” she said. “They’ve been waiting a long time for us.”
I felt something in my stomach, like a fish taco about to come back up. “What are we doing here, Catherine?”
“Relax, girl. Help me put the tanks on the cart.”
Girl? Well, that was a first.
I felt the same glow in my chest that I felt during water-gun fights as a kid. I followed Catherine into the unit and grabbed one end of the first aquarium.
Our campsite was in the woods about ten miles from Soapstone Beach. We pitched the tent and set the aquariums around it in a triangle. While Catherine was off peeing behind a tree – so non-ghostly! – I managed to find enough phone reception to look up some info: sylphs were spirits that had something to do with the air and with protecting girls, but I couldn’t get too far into it before reception died and Catherine returned.
We cooked pasta on a little stove and ate while the sun set. It felt like the first time we had really sat down together.
“Something on my face?” Catherine said. She could tell I’d been staring.
I wanted to ask why we were out here, but I knew she would dodge a direct answer. Instead I asked, “Catherine, how did you die?”
She pinched her own cheek. “I didn’t. See?”
In middle school, I read an article on the house fire that happened years before my parents bought the property. The name “Catherine” wasn’t mentioned, but I figured she must have been part of the family who perished there, before the contractors toppled the cinders and built our house on the same foundation. Throughout our friendship, we never had a conversation in which she didn’t speak her own name. Catherine. Like it was a word she’d taken from an ancient language and claimed ownership of.
When we’d slurped down the pasta, we bagged the stove, cleaned our dishes, and sat on a big rock, watching polliwogs dance through a shallow pond. We brushed our teeth together, then dug a small hole and spewed the toothpaste into it. I kicked some leaves over the hole just as she was crouching over one of the aquariums.
“Open it,” she said, rubbing her palms together.
“What will happen?”
“The sylphs will escape, obviously.”
“Are they going to hurt anyone?” I pictured a whole revenge scheme, planned by a ghost, unleashing dangerous beasts on the world. Why she had to do it ten miles from a tourist community, I had no idea.
Catherine just snorted. “You’re the best,” she said. “Do it, please? It will be worth it.”
I pressed my fingertips under the lid of the aquarium and popped it off. The sylphs were invisible again, and I started to doubt whether I’d ever actually seen them. Two motorcycle dudes at the adjacent campsite were staring. At what, though? Could they see her? Or were they looking at a crazy person talking to a fish tank?
“Great,” Catherine said. “Thanks.”
I asked about the other two tanks, but she said we’d be doing those over the next two nights. We slept together in the cramped tent, facing away from one another. I was scared, annoyed, and couldn’t stop thinking about a big fat F on my transcripts. She fell asleep first, and as I tried to doze off amid the racket of peepers and katydids, what I could hear loudest was Catherine’s rhythmic sleep-breaths, and I realized that this was the first time I’d ever heard her breathing, really breathing.
On the second day, we swam and kayaked in the nearby lake, ate all of our meals at the campsite, and watched the pond animals again before dark. I wanted to introduce myself to a group of girls I passed on the way to the showers, but Catherine insisted on keeping me to herself. I wondered whether this was it, if she planned on leaving me for good when this was done. Maybe that’s what this ritual was: the thing that would release her from me. I opened the second aquarium and slept more easily this time, secretly hoping that Catherine and I would wake up in each other’s arms. We didn’t.
I wondered whether she could feel that kind of desire. Or anything other than hunger.
Day three featured a low-peak hike and more swimming, and when I popped the lid on the final aquarium, Catherine let out another heavy breath. That day, I learned that Catherine had a Biology degree and a minor in Eighteenth Century Literature. The year of the fire, she was twenty-nine, and in the process of applying for a professorship at a community college near my parents’ house. I didn’t know if the degree would still be good now, but I figured her plans didn’t involve inhabiting my closet anymore.
When I woke up on the final day to pack the tent, Catherine was already up. I found her in the lake, submerged up to her shoulders.
“Hey,” she said. “Come here.”
I took off my shirt and waded in, and when I got within a foot of her, the sylphs appeared, thousands of them flickering to life and wheeling around me. Through the cyclone of water, I could hear Catherine’s laugh.
The sylphs vanished from sight again, but I could still feel them there.
“Catherine,” I said, “what is going on?”
“You’re you,” she said. “And I’m me.”
Maybe this was the “later” she meant when she said she’d talk to me later about my body, about how it never got along with my brain. I’m not sure I really understood it that morning in the lake, but she never spoke about it again. Whenever I thought of sylphs, I felt the glow.
After the trip, Catherine hitchhiked out of town, and it was a few years before I saw her again. She showed up at my college graduation in a red pinstripe suit and giant sunglasses. I was wearing my hair long and loose, like the mane of a screw-horn goat. We talked about everything we’d been up to – for her, it was world travel, exotic food, and an indie rock band. For me, it was a bachelor’s degree, half-marathon training, and an apartment search.
“I’m not sure I want a closet that you haven’t been in,” I said.
A group of professors was laughing about something nearby. Another graduate passed glasses of bubble-water around her friend circle. I made eye contact with her and nodded to my left, as if to ask whether she could see Catherine, to make sure I wasn’t the one who created her. She just grinned and tipped her glass.
I imagined how I would introduce Catherine to my parents. I wondered if liars would be able to see her.
But then Catherine pulled me in close, wrapped her arms around me, swaddled me in them. I leaned into the nook of her shoulder. She smelled like cinnamon.
I wondered what was waiting for her out there. I wondered if she thought about her life before she was a ghost, before she was Catherine, whether my closet mattered anymore, which life was more real.
“I love you,” she said, then turned and dissolved into the crowd.