I am a ghost.
I was seventeen when I died from a plague that struck the coast of the upper peninsula of Michigan. I remember the fever that wracked my body, the liquids that oozed down my face. The plague came with boils, and that was the worst part. Itchy welts crawled up my arms and legs like swollen hickeys.
It was the plague that wiped out the town, that and unemployment, the deadliest of diseases. The factory that stood on the edge of the bay — that produced the iron spikes that nailed down railroad tracks — ceased to bring in money and ceased to create jobs for the boys that passed the eighth grade. I worked there for a while, scooping coal into the giant furnace, black coating my lungs, but that was only a perk of being the son of the factory supervisor. My family was to survive the recession. Most others did not.
But I didn’t survive, after all.
I am a ghost living in a ghost town. The bones of the grocery store still stand. They’ve revived the doctor’s house up the hill and the theater next to the small school. I guess they decided, two hundred years later, that the town offered something of value. I watched as they painted over old walls, rebuilt fallen buildings, and reverted the town to its base, no personality.
Visitors liked the houses the best. I’d watch couples, families, boys and girls enter the open doorways, smile at the beds that used to fit five at a time, comment about how odd it all seemed.
I am an ancient ghost in an ancient ghost town.
Fayette State Park requires a parking pass. They profit from my old life.
It was hard to be bitter when chubby toddler feet ran down my flowered hills. It was hard to regret when tourists came for pictures of my home. Days turn to weeks turn to months. Years turn to decades turn to centuries. Time warps after your blood cools.
I’m walking past the boats when I see her. After fixing this ghost of a town, the living added a campground and a boat launch. The campground is a mile away, the dirt path lined with wildflowers and scoliotic trees. But the boat launch — brand new wood glistens with water and fish oil. Boats dock along the edge, white and sterile.
If I was the kind of ghost who scared the living, I might take one. I might climb behind the wheel and ride it into the waves. But I don’t care to make myself known, so I climb pillars, watch the unloading of fish, and admire the sharp architecture.
Her brown eyes make me want to whisper hello.
I was almost married before I died. Margaret Holloway. She had a nose like the perfectly sloping hill behind the Grand Hotel and straight hair the color of the dirt path to the factory, blackened by soot. I didn’t love her, which fills me with shame. Our parents thought it was a good match, but I still needed two-hundred years to learn about what it meant to love a girl.
The first time I saw Jane — I learned her name was Jane from a conversation between her and her father. It seemed it was just the two of them — I stopped in my tracks. Her hair was a dark red, an unnatural but eye-catching color. Her green eyes could be seen from any place in town.
What I liked the most about Jane was that her face wasn’t buried in technology. I didn’t know much about these “phones” everyone seemed to carry lately, but I knew they were unnatural. People aren’t meant to stare at one thing for too long, though that rule doesn’t apply to Jane.
I might watch her forever.
Jane returned to Fayette the same week every year, her and her father gliding in on a large sailboat. They didn’t stay at the campground, but instead slept in the belly of the boat.
Every year she returned with a sketchbook, gliding her graphite across the page instead of gluing her fingers to a screen.
Sometimes I stood behind and watched. She liked to wander the property and her favorite spot were the cliffs above the bay. I followed her whenever I could — whenever I wasn’t keeping small children from ripping apart the toys at the school. It was easy to guide a child in a different direction without alerting to your own presence.
I found out early on that the living don’t like to be touched. By me, at least. Confusion, sometimes fear, floods their features. I didn’t intend to scare, so I stopped. But sometimes I touched Jane’s red hair. Only on a windy day, so it’d seem like a gust of wind instead of my snow-white fingertips.
One day, I can’t help myself.
It’s her fifth year here, her fifth year sleeping in a boat and climbing the trails around my old hometown. She’s older than me now. I can see it in the way her face matures and the way she speaks to her father. I am two-hundred-and-something and she might be twenty.
After five years, I can’t help myself.
I follow her to the doctor’s house, past the wealthy side of town and into the woods. At night, the doctor’s house is the last place you want to be with a ghost, but during the day it’s not so bad.
The house is two stories, unlike other homes in town. The basement was used as an office and the bedrooms were upstairs. I remember falling from a ladder one day at the factory. I fell into the opening of the furnace, the door still open from my own careless actions. I burned a good portion of my back and was rushed to the doctor. I still remember the wet strips he laid on my skin. I was lucky it never took to infection.
Jane climbs the stairs to a door that remains forever locked. They didn’t restore the inside of the doctor’s home, so she sits on the stairs leading to it. I sit next to her, as I often do.
She ties up her hair, missing a streak of red. It curls around her cheekbone. I can’t help it. “Jane,” I whisper. After two centuries of not speaking, my voice is scratchy. Her hands freeze, one holding her sketchbook and the other, a pencil. She’s heard me.
My mouth opens to say it again. I almost laugh at how good the air feels, sliding down my throat. Her name is on the tip of my tongue, when I see her face.
There it is, the same confusion and fear. The wind doesn’t whisper pretty girls’ names. Her eyes scan the clearing, wide and unblinking.
She doesn’t hear her name as I whisper it again and again in my head.
Don’t be frightened, Jane.