The presenter is a woman in her late forties. Old enough to convey gravitas and command respect. Youthful-looking enough that appearance-oriented audience members will not read her as “old,” and tune out.
Her dark brown hair is pulled into a loose bun. Her make-up is subtle. Her pearl necklace and diamond-stud earrings are the epitome of taste
She is wearing a red sheath dress with a lab coat – a perfectly tailored lab coat – over it. Her black pumps have a conservative heel.
When she speaks, it is in a low-pitched soothing voice, halfway between a flight attendant and a psychotherapist.
The projected images on the screens to either side of her change to mirror her topic.
“TSR – Total Spine Replacement. For decades our orthopedists and neurologists have been working together to refine this process.”
“As so many projects did, it began with a spark. Our chief of R&D nearly lost his son in a car accident – that was before ground-cars were banned and replaced by CTG flitters. Cloud-to-ground vehicles are one life-saving mechanism.“
“TSR is another. “
“No longer will survivors of devastating accidents be relegated to years of pain management, rehab, braces, and mobility devices. No more will children born with severe spinal defects have to live with diminished capabilities and physical therapy.”
“With TSR we can replace the entire human spinal column, first replacing the main neural connections with retractable synthetics, which allow us to remove the spine as one unit.”
She continues, walking her audience through a procedure that looks awfully realistic for a computer model. (It is a computer model, right?)
“Finally, we complete the procedure with our Bio-Orthopedic Reintegration Geometrics machine. How many of you are Star Trek fans? Well, we are, too, but we promise: this BORG has nothing to do with assimilation.”
She holds for the expected laughter. “Clinical trials – human trials – are set to begin in two weeks, on rigorously vetted volunteer subjects. Thanks to TSR our patients will be walking, running, climbing – or just picking up their children – by Christmas.”
The lights come up. She favors the audience with a pleasant smile that doesn’t quite reach her eyes. “Thank you for coming today. I’ll take your questions now.”
Later, behind the curtains, she faces her superior. “It went well,” she says. “I think we’ll see increased numbers of volunteers. This group of physicians specializes in severe spinal trauma.”
“Excellent,” her superior responds. “I require nourishment. Join me for dinner; we will discuss the launch of phase two.”
The woman in red gives a nod, but her neck locks and she must lift her hands to straighten her head.
Her superior stares at her through slitted eyes. “Get that servo checked out. We can’t have you glitching during a presentation.”
The presenter’s eyes widen ever so slightly. But she gives the appropriate response: “By your command.”
I’ve never seen a ghost, exactly, but I’ve heard their whispers for as long as I can remember. Maybe even longer than that.
When I was a little girl, I thought it was normal for my imaginary friends to introduce themselves by name and have real conversations with me. Mama would listen to me prattling on about Audrey from Maine who lived in a lighthouse with her father and thought the fog horns were singing just for her, or Joshua from Florida who warned me never to let my poodle outside alone when the hawks were in the sky.
“He said his neighbor’s dog was taken by a real live ‘gator!” I exclaimed as I climbed into the front seat of our ancient Dodge. Mama hated that car, but I loved the way it always smelled like summer inside, probably because we never got all the beach sand out of the ridges in the seats. “And Gazelle said we hav’ta put lots and lots of sunscreen on when we go down the shore, because our skin is an organ, too.”
“An alligator, really? Where do you come up with these things?”
But Mama never believed me when I told her that my invisible friends told me these things. She’d just tug on one of my braids and tell me I was lucky to have such a vivid imagination, and maybe I’d be a writer someday.
The whispers faded as I got older. I guess the more you know about the real world the harder it is to hear the voices that emanate from the not-quite-real. It’s like the Peter Pan thing – you get old enough and you stop believing in magic and fairies and friends you can talk to but not see.
Oh, they still managed to grab my attention when it was important.
Joshua was the one who warned me that Paul Sanchez wasn’t as sweet as he wanted me to think. He was the second-hottest boy in the junior class when I was a sophomore and I was so excited when he asked me out. We saw a movie and got drivin’-through burgers and fries and went to the cliff over the ocean… and I knew – I knew – he was gonna kiss me, and I couldn’t wait to find out what all the fuss was about.
But he tasted like stale soda and cigarettes and after we kissed a couple times, he slid his hand under my shirt, and started to push me backwards on the bench-seat of his Daddy’s old Ford pickup, and when I told him “Stop!” he refused.
Joshua was there though. He told me to lift my knee at exactly the right time, and then he whispered into Paul’s ear, and Paul apologized and took me straight home.
After that, he never talked to me again, but sometimes when we were both in the quad during lunch he’d look at me funny, like maybe he thought I was touched… or he was.
Of all my ghost friends, Joshua was the oldest. He’d been twenty-three when he passed, he said. He’d been studying marine biology at Florida State, and he’d been stupid and gone on a bender the night before a boat trip. He didn’t remember all the details of his dying – or he never shared them with me, anyway – but he made me promise that if I was ever gonna get super-drunk I’d do it in the safety of my own space, and not ever go driving or sailing after.
It was an easy promise to make. Booze and weed only ever loosened my tongue to the point where I’d forget that not everyone was as gentle and kind as my Mama about the stories that got whispered to me.
When I was twenty, and in my third year at Bennington working on a self-designed course of study involving folklore and fantasy and creative writing, it finally clicked in my head that Joshua had a kind of crush on me, and I knew I had to send him on his way.
I’d done that for Audrey, when I’d turned ten and she couldn’t follow. And I’d done it for Gazelle when I’d turned fourteen and realized I liked boys (she didn’t). And I missed them fiercely, especially when I was alone at night in my chilly dorm room and I hadn’t made any friends yet.
But Joshua… he was the boy I wished I could kiss, kind of like Cristina Ricci did in that Casper movie, when Casper makes himself solid for her.
Except Josh could never be solid.
And then I met Aurelio.
Aurelio was the son of the Ambassador from Spain, and he was made of sweetness and sex appeal, inside and out. He wrote poetry and played guitar, and he had this thick, curly hair that just begged to be finger-combed, and he let me do it with my fingers. He had soulful blue eyes and this accent that was kind of like Mexican Spanish mixed with French and when he kissed me, it felt like coming home.
Joshua was jealous.
Joshua said I was too young for a serious relationship and I’d end up being hurt and why wasn’t I listening to him?
Joshua started whispering to me about girls Aurelio was hooking up with behind my back, but I could tell he was making it up, because I’d known his voice since I was a little girl, or longer, and I knew what lying sounded like.
Finally, I locked myself in the bathroom and ran the shower at full pressure and I called Joshua to come talk to me.
He’d never been there when I was naked before, and he whispered that I shouldn’t let my boyfriend know about him, or he’d have to kill him.
And that’s when I told him to go.
“You’ve always been a friend,” I told him. “You kept me safe when I needed a guardian and you nudged me to write and explore and you saved me from being lonely during my darkest times, but I’m a grown woman now, and there’s a reason people my age don’t have imaginary friends anymore.”
He yelled at me, and he made my Gillette Swirl Razor pop its suction cups and fall off the shower wall and he ran his chilly ethereal hands over my bare skin, and I forced myself not to react to any of it.
“I’m gonna step in the shower now,” I told him when he’d had enough. “And by the time I’m finished, you need to cross over. You’ve done your duty by me, Joshua.”
He didn’t have any choice but to agree.
Aurelio arrived home just as I was wrapping my hair in one towel and the rest of me in another. He had a bag of Chinese food from the place that made the good kind of pot-stickers and he’d stopped at the flower stall on the corner and picked up a bouquet of purple carnations that smelled like innocence and cloves.
We sat on his second-hand Oriental rug in front of my ratty eggplant-colored couch and pigged out on moo shu pork while we watched The Artist, and then he took me to bed and we satisfied a totally different kind of appetite.
And afterward, he pulled his guitar into the bed with us, and leaned against the leather headboard, strumming lightly as he recited his latest poems to me. In between stanzas he told me nonchalantly, “It’s nice to be alone with you, finally.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Joshua and Bianca finally moved on,” he said, as if I’d known he’d had a whispering friend, too.
As if people talked about their invisible friends every day.
And who knows?
Maybe they do.
Inspired by Selena Taylor
And the song “Whispers and Some Kind of Understanding,” by GhostLight
“Harry, mind your manners. Becky, stop tattling on your brother.”
“But Mom!” both children chorused, their voices utterly failing to harmonize.
“I couldn’t help it,” Harry said. “I got a toe caught under my tongue.”
“Yeah, that’s what you always say,” Becky countered. She mimicked him. “I got a hand caught in my tooth. There was hair in the back of my throat.” She rolled her eyes skyward. “You’re eight hundred not eighty. LEARN TO CHEW!!!”
“Stop picking on me!” Harry roared back. “You almost got caught during your Haunting last night. Charlie told me that Mara told him you tickled a Child’s Foot and she kicked you!”
Becky’s eyes – all five of them – went all slitty and her nose squinched up and her face deepened to an almost-forest green. “Don’t you dare tell Mom about that. Don’t even think about it.”
Harry’s voice was only a soft roar when he said, “I’m sorry, Becky.”
Both of the young monsters were quiet for a bit, as they picked up Human Cookies and dunked them in their Curdled Milk, and then ate them.
“So, I heard Charlie wants to dress as a Child for Halloween.” Becky said after a bit. It was clearly a peace offering. “I was thinking we could come up with something even scarier for you.”
“Yeah,” Becky grinned, showing off her rows of sharp, gleaming, recently unstraightened teeth. “I think you should go as an Adult.”
“That’s not so scary.”
“A Human Adult.”
Harry couldn’t help giggling, which meant his sister got a lovely view of partially masticated cookie and frosting.
“Autumn in New York is so lovely,” they said. “The colors of the leaves are so vibrant!”
Sure, sure they’re lovely when they’re still suspended from the branches. They’re vibrant when they first land on the ground. All those yellows and oranges and bright reds.
You’d get sick of them surprisingly quickly if all you could do was lie in a pile of the rotting things and stare at the sky with one eye and the ground at the other, for days at a time. Don’t believe me? Trust me, I know.
After all, that’s my life.
You all know the story, I’m sure. Mild-mannered school-teacher Ichabod Crane comes to Tarrytown to lead the charge for education, falls in love with Katrina, and has a series of run-ins with a Hessian on horseback, a soldier name of Brom Bones who lost his head – quite literally – by a single, spectacular, sword-stroke. Goes around now with some squash or gourd tucked under one arm.
Calls himself the Headless Horseman.
Makes a show of being all scary and magical.
Truth is, magic’s got nothing to do with it. It’s Daredevil that gets Ol’ Brom where he wants to go.
Daredevil… now that was a horse. Bred in Spain, brought him over to the colonies from Seville. He’d been trained by the same folks who taught the Lipizzan stallions all their cool tricks. Blind as a bat – blinder, really – Brom didn’t need a head to get around as long as he had that horse.
But I digress.
You all know the story of the Horseman, but did you ever stop to wonder what happened to his head?
It’s okay. I know how it is. Man riding around without a head – that’s a scary thing. Head rolling around without a man – that’s just unfortunate.
At least the grin without a cat was still welcome at tea.
Leaves. Leaves and mulch and dirt and worms. Rain, mud, snow, ice, grass, and leaves again. On and on through the wheel of time.
Wheels go round.
Heads go rolling.
The Horseman, he’s Brom Bones… he’s got the stories and the screams and the flickering firelight that makes the shadows shrink and grow.
Me? I’ve got a name too, you know.
I used to be Abraham von Brunt, but that’s a name that requires legs and arms. And a chest. And broad shoulders.
At this point?
Well, my hair is dirty and matted, my eyes are filled with grit and I cannot get the taste of old dirt and rotting leaves out of my mouth or nose.
Well, at least until the next rain.
I’ve managed to see a bit of the world, though.
Figured out that wiggling my ears and scrunching my nose could give me a bit of mobility.
Find the correct angle on the right ground, and heads will roll.
And every once in a while some kid who wants a disgusting keepsake will use a stick to shove me into a satchel, and carry me around for a bit. I don’t have vocal cords anymore, but I can project my voice into a willing person’s head, give them directions.
Or… suggestions, I guess.
I’ve given up any hope of reuniting with Brom.
My new goal is to make it back across the pond. Not to Austria or Germany, though.
Nope. I aim to make it to Scotland.
I’ve heard there are whole clans of Scotsmen lopping each other’s heads off like it’s some kind of Game.
Pretty sure one of those bodies could use a spare.
And if not?
One option is to become a willing participant in that other game – the one with the brooms and the ice.
Team could make a pretty penny if they had a stone that could Suggest that the opponents miss some shots.
And option two? That’s the one with less pain and more dignity.
See, the people of the Isles are closer to real magic than they are here in the Colonies. Maybe they can build me a strawman body, like the ones they prop up in fields to keep the pests at bay.
It’d have to be pretty well packed though… to bear the brunt of it all.
Jack kept his focus on the dressing room mirror as he smeared white makeup over the entirety of his face, ears and neck included. He used black make-up to draw on his eyebrows – large inverted V-shapes half-way up his forehead – and blue to color in the space underneath. More blue around his mouth, red inside the blue making his lips into a garish slash in the lower third of his face. Red dots on the apples of his cheeks, and the iconic red ball on his nose.
Clown faces were supposed to be living grotesques, animated faces in the funhouse mirrors, but Jack didn’t feel particularly animated that afternoon. He was exhausted from traveling on the circus train nine months a year, stop after stop, where fewer and fewer people lined the streets to see the animals march from the train yards to the arenas where they’d be performing.
He was fatigued from doing show after show for dwindling crowds, for children who were more interested in watching videos on their smartphones than in the acrobatic and comedic feats he and his colleagues enacted every Wednesday through Sunday afternoon, with matinees on Saturdays and Sundays.
Now, instead of kids daydreaming about running away with the circus to have lives full of travel and adventure, they were more likely to parrot their kale-eating, coconut water-drinking, hipster parents: Circuses are evil. Animal acts are cruel. Acrobats are anorexic. Tightrope walkers seek unnecessary danger.
And clowns? Clowns aren’t happy-go-lucky jesters, they’re lewd men hiding behind gross caricatures of the human face.
Clowns lured mis-behaving children to their doom, they said.
They had sharp teeth and black souls, like that guy Tim Curry played in that old Stephen King miniseries.
They ate you, if you tried to run away.
None of that was actually true of course, but still, they played to fewer and fewer people in every city.
And more and more clowns came out of the rings with blue teardrops on their cheeks.
No one knew how the teardrops got there, but it happened with the younger clowns first, the rookies who were new to the circuit, eager to put their juggling, tumbling, and mime skills to use. These kids didn’t come from the Clown College – that itself had closed over a decade before – not enough applicants to keep it open – but they had the bug – the drive – the need to entertain.
When the crowds were thin, though, and the children screamed with fear instead of laughing at their antics, the blue teardrops appeared at the corners of their eyes, their faces were updated in the Registry, and they disappeared. Some said they were going back to college; others found jobs as buskers making balloon animals in zoos and amusement parks, but every single one left Clown Alley, left the life.
Jack hadn’t come up from clown college either, but he was no kid. At sixty, he probably ought to be thinking about retirement, but he’d been born and raised in the circus. He was the last in a line of clowns that dated back to the first American circus.
He was a headliner among clowns; his name – Jacko – was on all the posters.
“Hey, Boss, five minutes.” Carlos, the lead roustabout came into view in the mirror.
“How’s the crowd?”
“Quiet.” Carlos’s tone was grim. “Concession says they’ll be lucky to break even, and Souvenirs are only running half the booths.”
“Let’s see what we can do about that, shall we?”
Jack pulled on his wig and hat, the last steps in his transformation into his Jacko persona, and went to join the other clowns for the opening parade.
The music began, and the ringmaster led the march out to the arena floor, circling through the three rings arranged in the center. The horses and dogs were next, then the acrobats and aerialists, the fire eaters and sword swallowers, and all the other performers, and finally, the clowns, twelve of them, tumbling and bobbing, racing into the stands and returning to formation.
Jacko stopped in front of a crying child, and knelt down to be at eye level with him. He pulled at the white handkerchief in his pocket, and offered it to the boy, who tugged and tugged, his tears finally turning to a smile, and then laughter as scarf after scarf came of the clown’s pocket.
He gave a big thumbs up to the boy and his mother, and made his way around the circle, honking the tin horn in his hand, and scattering colored streamers as he went.
Carlos had been right; the spectators were a quiet bunch, but Jacko managed to make some real connections with a few of the children.
The show went on.
The lights and sounds eventually faded into nothing, and the show lights turned off, replaced by normal fluorescent bulbs high in the arena ceiling.
The roustabouts were already dismantling the safety nets and trapeze rigging, loading sections of the rings onto the trucks that would carry them back to the train.
Two days later, just outside Cedar Springs, Jack was he was resting in his compartment on the train when he got the call. The tour was over budget and ticket sales were slumping. They’d close down at the end of the season, three months in the future.
In the last few minutes before the final performance, Jacko surveyed himself in the mirror. He’d had offers from Circus Vargas and Ringling Brothers, but the life he’d loved for so long was no longer holding him so tightly. His children had fled the circus decades before. His grandchildren seemed embarrassed that their grandad was a clown. It was time, he thought, to head back to the Florida condo he’d finally paid off the year before, but had barely spent any time in.
“Five minutes, Boss,” Carlos warned.
“How’s the crowd?”
“Sweet,” the roustabout answered.
Jacko smiled as he adjusted his hat. Sweet crowds were the best.
This time the crying child was a girl, and she finally cracked a smile after he gave her a flower that sprayed silly string from the center. She was about the same age as his youngest granddaughter, he thought.
He was about to leave her, to push himself up from his knees and rejoin the fracas in the ring, but the child reached out and touched his cheek, just below the corner of his left eye. “Why so sad, Clown?” she asked in her little-girl voice.
Jacko mimed a shrug, and then smiled broadly, first pointing at the girl, then hugging himself – implying that he was sad because he had to leave her.
In reality, he was terrified – the little girl’s finger had come away with blue paint on it.
They took his new photo for the Registry the next morning, but Jacko never looked at it, and when the circus left Cedar Springs, the number of clowns in the Alley had dwindled to eleven.
Six months later, Jack hosted Christmas for his family. All of them came, but it was only Anissa, his youngest granddaughter who climbed into his lap and touched his cheek, right below the corner of his eye. “Sad Granddad,” she said. “Why blue teardrops?”
He hadn’t worn clown paint since June, but somehow, when the little girl’s finger came away stained blue, he wasn’t surprised.
Someday, he might even have an answer the child would understand.
As I’ve been working on HorrorDailies, many of my friends have been incredibly helpful with inspiration and suggestions, some solicited, some not. I’ve been under the weather the past couple of days, so while I have ideas… simmering… I haven’t managed to finish anything. My good friend Fran Hutchinson made a suggestion that I felt would be better served if she wrote it. And so she did, and I’m pleased to present it here.
Vlad settled into his satin-lined coffin with a sigh of contentment. A full feed always made him sleepy, so he left them until shortly before sunrise. His wife followed right behind him, lying in her adjacent, more ornate coffin in preparation for a good day’s rest.
“Rest well, my love,” he whispered. After two hundred and fifty years, some habits would never be broken. Except this time… no reply.
“Elvira? My love, I said ‘rest well.'” The customary reply, “And you, my dearest.” was not forthcoming. The silence was so jarring, so… disruptive… he could not let it remain. He sat up in his casket, gazing at the immobile face of his wife. “Dear? What is wrong?”
She sat up to face him angrily.
“Is it too much to ask,” she hissed, “that after you drain the last captive you do not put him back in the dungeon?”
Much chastened, he rose to go and dispose of the body in question.
“I really try to remember,” he muttered.
“Well, try harder. And don’t forget to put the lights out before you repose.”
Kat knew what he was the moment he walked into her pub.
It wasn’t anything obvious. His clothes were ordinary – no sign of a cape or decades out-of-date ruffles and lace. His skin wasn’t particularly pale. His soft brown hair held no sign of a widow’s peak.
And yet, there was something about the way he carried himself, moving through the throng of peak-time drinkers without coming into contact with a single one of them that made it clear he was something special… something other.
The crowd parted as he approached the brass rail.
Jake, one of the regulars, put a protective arm around the shoulders of his young (legal – but barely – she’d been carded) blonde date. The pretty redhead on his other side glanced at the newcomer, shivered slightly, and slid off her stool. Kat saw her absently finger her neck as she disappeared, heading toward the restrooms. Please be here with a friend, she thought.
The stranger took the vacated seat at the center of the bar, and fixed his brown eyes on her face. (Points for that. Most of them – the ones that preferred women, anyway – got stuck on the jugular, if they made it past the tits.)
Kat found herself drawn into those eyes. They weren’t the deep brown of black coffee, but warmer, like bittersweet chocolate. And his lashes. Most women would kill for lashes like his – long, thick – if he was old enough to be a day-walker, those lashes would make the sunglasses that were de rigueur among his kind pretty uncomfortable.
Still, to the untrained eye, nothing about him screamed bloodsucker. Sure, there was the inevitable sense of unease about him, but lots of paranormals caused that. Kat knew that this stranger, this man, was a vampire because of his lips.
“They all do it,” she’d explained to one of her bar backs a few weeks before. “Man, woman, doesn’t matter. They do that thing with their lips – as if they have to consciously hide their fangs.”
It wasn’t all that different from the way teenagers used to try and hide their braces, Kat reflected. They made their mouths a little wider, a little tighter at the corners. They did something with the upper lip to provide more… space.
And this guy. This guy had the perfect lips for one of his kind. They were the textbook soft M-shape. They were dusky pink but not so dark that you’d think he’d just fed. The top one held a hint of felinity. The bottom one was full, luscious. Even better, he had just the right amount of dark brown facial hair – more than a five o’clock shadow, less than a full beard – to accent that mouth.
Yeah, Kat thought, licking her own lips, definitely vampire. And a completely kissable one at that.
She’d dated vamps before of course. It was inevitable in her line of work. They kept the same hours, frequented the same spots. It was only natural.
It was also dangerous, which was why she didn’t do it often, and had established her own sharps precautions: Always take them to a hotel, never their place, and never, ever, your own place. Never let them pay. Never drink anything that isn’t clear – even a drop of their blood could put you in thrall. And the one rule that some women, she knew, found difficult: under no circumstances did you allow a vampire lover to be on top, at least, not unless you were into being a pin cushion.
“… you have my vintage?”
Kat shook herself out of her reverie. “Come again?” she asked, as if the noise was what had kept her from earing his question.
His cheeks dimpled slightly and he repeated his query in a voice that wrapped around her like velvet. Chocolate velvet. Bittersweet chocolate velvet. “I asked if you were Kat, and if you have my vintage?”
She quirked a flirtatious eyebrow at him. “Freshly corked.” She reached below the bar for a deep green bottle with no label, “Water, wine or…?”
“Neat,” he said. “Please.”
She nodded and poured the slightly viscous red liquid into a stemmed glass. To the casual observer, he’d be drinking red wine.
He lingered there until last call. Kat could tell that he was not only watching her, but also watching her watch him.
Between customers they chatted, doing the verbal dance that meant they’d likely be leaving together after last call. If Kat pegged him right – and she always pegged them right – he’d make a purposefully nonchalant invitation after the last employee disappeared out the back door.
He did, and she accepted.
The night air was damp and chilly as they left the pub. Invigorating. Walking next to him, she realized her head just crested the top of his shoulder. Perfect.
“My car’s over there,” she told him, indicating the parking lot across the street.
“I came on my own,” he said. It was the euphemism his kind always used when they’d flown or fogged from place to place.
“No problem,” she said. “I like to drive.”
She took him to a discreet boutique hotel that was halfway between the pub and her apartment. The night manager recognized her and handed over the key to her preferred suite.
In the elevator, she handed him a breath mint, which he popped into his mouth without question or pause.
There was no talking. She reached for the lapels of his leather bomber jacket at the same time he caught her by the waist.
Kissable, she thought. So very kissable.
His warm brown eyes glittered in the softly-lit room. “I know you’re called Kat,” he said, staring down at her. His dimples had come out to play again. “My name is – “
“Shh.” She cut him off first with a finger, and then with her mouth against his. God, his mouth was exquisite. He tasted of wintergreen and danger, the faint tang of blood barely detectable. When, finally, she had to breathe, she favored him with another of her eyebrow quirks. “I’ll just call you Lips.”
“Dance me, Pop-Pop,” I beg, wrapping my whole hand around just one of his thick, calloused fingers.
“Aren’t you getting too big for this, sweetheart?” he teases, but I know he doesn’t really mean it.
I shake my head, my golden-brown braids whipping back and forth, “Never,” I answer, followed by “Please?” Being winsome has always been a special talent of mine, and as a five-year-old, I’m at my peak.
“Alright,” he says, and he envelops each of my hands in one of his, and helps me balance while I place one of my bare feet on top of each of his sturdy shoes.
I love his shoes. His work shoes, he calls them. I know he has shiny wing-tips for when we go to Sunday brunch at the officers’ club, but his every-day shoes are made of brown leather and have thick soles, and sometimes Grandmom has to remind him not to track dirt all over her clean floor.
(He always answers her with the words “Yes, dear,” half-spoken and half-sung, and she can tell he’s not really listening, and when she swipes at him with a dish towel and scowls at him, we all know she’s really saying “I love you.”)
While we dance, he hums a waltz that is as familiar to me as the way the purple striped cotton sheets feel against my sun-tanned skin when I slide into bed after my bath at night. I don’t know its name.
“You’re my super-special sweetheart,” he tells me, as we sway in circles around the dining room.
“I love you, Grandpop,” I reply.
Hours later, when I’m playing with blocks underneath the baby grand piano, and I stand up too quickly and bang my head, my grandfather is there, gathering me into his arms and drying my tears with a white cotton handkerchief.
He holds me in his lap and hums the waltz, then, too.
* * *
“Dance with me?” I ask.
My grandfather wrinkles his unruly eyebrows. “You don’t want to dance with your old Grandpop,” he protests, but he doesn’t really mean it.
It’s my sweet sixteen, and he’s rented the hall at the officers’ club for my party. My mother and grandmother are across the room, pretending not to watch us, and my father – well, he’s never been part of the equation.
“Yes, I do,” I insist, and I really do mean it.
“Alright,” he agrees and heaves himself out of the captain’s chair he’d claimed hours before. I glimpse the folded newspaper with the crossword puzzle hidden under his empty dinner plate, and I grin, but I don’t betray his secret.
The DJ pauses the endless list of pop songs to play the waltz I’d requested earlier in the night. Apparently it’s a standard tune for father-daughter dances, but I still don’t know the title of the tune.
I don’t ride on my grandfather’s feet any more. Instead, I follow his lead as we swirl in a graceful circle, and I smile when I hear him humming along with the song.
When the music ends, he strokes my hair. “Thank you, sweetheart,” he whispers.
My answer is a gentle kiss to his whiskery cheek, just after I breathe into his ear, “The answer to fifteen down is ‘zephyr.'”
* * *
“Got enough energy for one more dance, Grandpop?” I ask at the party to celebrate my grandparents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary. He’s danced with Grandmom and my mother, my aunts, and all my cousins, but I want to be last.
“I think I can manage one more,” he says.
The waltz – our waltz – is slow enough that he can manage it, but his steps falter, and I have to take the lead. To his credit, he allows it, and if there’s any sense of indignity, he never lets it show.
When the music stops, he kisses me on the forehead. “You’re my super-special sweetheart,” he says, his voice still strong inside a weakening body.
The old endearment makes me misty, and I bury my face in his lapel. He smells the way he always has: Ivory soap and Aqua Velva, and somehow it seems vitally important that I memorize his scent.
* * *
At his funeral, I watch my mother and my aunts go to the coffin and stroke my grandfather’s silvery hair, but even though the body lying there in state looks like him, his essence has long since left.
I hold my fiancé’s hand so tightly that he loses feeling in it, but he doesn’t complain. Instead, he pries my fingers loose and wraps his arm around me, holding me close and offering me a cloth handkerchief.
Sometimes I think I fell in love with him because of those cloth handkerchiefs. I’m half convinced he and my grandfather are the only men who still use them.
Used, I correct my own thoughts. Used. My fiancé uses hankies, but my grandfather used them.
Back at the house, after, while everyone is exchanging memories and trading stories, I slip away from the group and go into my grandfather’s den. I curl up in his ancient leather chair and fiddle with the photo-cube on his desk.
The invitation to my wedding is pinned to his cork board, along with the photo of my fiancé and me standing in his garden – my proposal had come as the love of my life and I were helping my grandfather pick tomatoes.
The old man had helped set it up – arranging things so I’d find the ring box tucked in against the fragrant vines.
I open the drawer where I know he stashed those tins of hard candies – lemon, usually, but sometimes coffee flavored – and find a wrapped package with my name on it. I know I should wait, but it seems like he wanted me to find it, so I tear the tissue paper apart.
It’s a CD. The track listing has one tune circled in black sharpie, and I don’t even have to put the disc in the player to know it’s our waltz. For the first time, I learn the title, and I have to smile through my tears.
It’s called The Ghost Waltz.
I play it obsessively for the next six days, until I, too, know it well enough to hum every note. Then I pack the disc away until I need it again.
Mom and Grandmom look worried, but my partner understands.
* * *
It’s the night before my wedding and there’s a full moon shining brightly over the officers’ club. The base is closed now, and the facility has been turned into a hotel and event center, but the owners are long-time friends of my family, and they’ve made sure our group is the only one in residence.
My almost-husband is asleep in a bed so tall I have to use a step-stool to climb in it (we’ve been living together for over a year, so sleeping apart seems silly and contrived) and I know I should be sleeping, too, but I can’t get my grandfather’s waltz out of my head.
I’d wanted him to be at my wedding.
I’d wanted him to dance that waltz with me.
I slip into my wedding dress and stare at my reflection in the mirror. I’m in my twenties now, but I swear I still see the echo of five-year-old me in the oval glass.
Maybe it’s the song in my head, or maybe it’s the moonlight, but I leave our suite and padd barefoot down the grand staircase to the main ballroom.
There’s a figure waiting in the center of the parquet dance floor, and my breath catches in my throat, because the perfect posture and slight paunch could only belong to one person.
As I approach, the moon shifts, and the figure solidifies. He’s wearing a tuxedo, but his work shoes are on his feet.
“Dance me, Pop-Pop?” I demand, using the words of my child-self.
His calloused hands wrap around mine, and he helps me balance one of my bare feet on each of his shoes.
We hum the waltz together as he spins me around the room, and when we get to the end, and my feet are on the ground again, he pulls me close for a hug that smells faintly of Aqua Velva and Ivory soap.
“You’re my super-special sweetheart,” he says, his voice rough and ethereal at once.
“Always,” I respond.
The clouds cover the moon and I am left alone in the darkened room, surrounded by bunting in my wedding colors.
I sink to my knees and start to cry, and suddenly I’m in bed and my fiancé is soothing me in hushed tones that turn first to soft caresses and then to kisses, until, in the first hours of our wedding day, we are making tender love on the soft white sheets.
* * *
Hours later, it’s time for our first dance as a married couple and my husband – my husband – takes the MC’s microphone, and makes an announcement.
“For most of her life,” he says, “my wife had another man in her life: her grandfather. He was her mentor and teacher and best friend. She was his sidekick and student and princess. They shared a song that they used to dance to. Last week, I found a CD on my desk with a track marked in sharpie and a post-it note instructing me to ‘dance to this when you marry her.’ Well, I’ve married her – or more accurately, she’s married me, and now we’re going to dance.”
He returns the mic to its rightful owner and returns to my side. “I love you,” he tells me.
The music starts, and I’m immediately touched and teary, resting my head against my husband’s chest (he smells like cashews and fresh apples) while we dance, and when I start to hum along, he surprised me by doing the same.
What’s the song? You ask.
Isn’t it obvious?
It’s The Ghost Waltz.
Author’s Note: This story was inspired by the song “The Ghost Waltz,” by Fats Kaplin, which I stumbled across quite by accident on Friday night. Play the video below to hear it.