By De Elizabeth
For years growing up, I believed I could talk to ghosts.
I attribute some of that supernatural inclination to the fact that I was obsessed with ghost stories as a kid; after reading The Baby-Sitters Club book when Dawn found a secret passageway in her house, I spent more time than I’ll ever admit knocking on walls in my childhood home, listening for a hollow sound on the other side. I was always the first to suggest the ouija board at sleepovers, even if we didn’t use it so much to summon spirits, but rather to ask if our crushes liked us back.
But mostly, I thought I could talk to ghosts because my best friend in third grade convinced me that I could. Or, more accurately, she could; I just listened.
Alice* and I lived around the corner from each other growing up, and we rode the same bus to and from school. Nearly every day, we would hang out at my house from 4pm to 6pm. We’d meet at the stop sign at the corner, walk back to my house for a snack, and then run down the hall to my room to play with board games, or my ever-growing collection of Barbie dolls. Sometimes, we’d walk down the big hill to the small country store at the end of the road to purchase iced tea and chips, and we’d sit by the lake and talk.
But once Alice told me that she knew how to talk to ghosts, our hangouts became supremely focused on the paranormal. Her method was strange but simple: she’d shut all of the windows in a room, and crouch in a corner before humming three notes on a “whooo” syllable. It makes me laugh now, because I can still hear it in my head: high, low, high. whoo whoo whoooo.
Of course, Alice was the only one who could hear the ghost’s response; no matter how many times I sang the three notes, I couldn’t hear a thing. So, she would translate.
“The ghost says hi.”
“The ghost is hungry.”
“The ghost is friendly, he won’t hurt us.”
“The ghost is lonely.”
For one reason or another, I never questioned any of it. Alice could talk to ghosts, and by proximity, I could too. We once tried to bring our other best friend Jasmine* into the game, but she was decidedly no fun at all. “Ghosts aren’t real, you idiots,” she said, tossing a pillow at us. “C’mon, let’s go rollerskating.”
Over the course of several months, I got to know the ghost that lived in my house, thanks to Alice. He was a young boy when he died, a little older than we were at the time. He had no family, and only a few friends. He was jealous of my toys and games, and wanted to play with us. I believed all of this with earnest, and even wrote about it in my third grade writing warmup notebook in school. “What an imagination!” my teacher probably gushed to my parents at conferences.
One day, Alice suggested we contact the ghost from my parents’ bedroom. We always talked to him in my room, so it felt like a new and exciting adventure, like the first time we’d ventured into the paranormal realm together. But soon after making contact with our ghost, Alice got scared. She jumped to her feet and screamed, pulling me out of the room with her. Once back in my room, I asked her what had happened. Her answer was — and still is — unclear. She muttered something about a mirror, something else about furniture floating and cut in half, and something about blood. Then, “I don’t want to talk to the ghost anymore.”
I remember being mad at her; Alice was the only one who could communicate with the ghost, and if she stopped, that meant I had to stop too. After she left that day, I tried and tried to get the ghost to talk to me — but I still couldn’t hear anything.
Looking back on this story, even as I’m writing it, the answer is obvious: There was no ghost, and Alice was messing with me the entire time. But that didn’t come out until years later. In high school, after I had moved across town and was no longer on the same bus as Alice, after we each grew closer to other people, after different extracurricular activities replaced our daily 4pm-6pm hangouts, long after all of that, she eventually told me:
“Hey remember when we talked to that ghost in your house? You know that wasn’t real, right?”
I probably knew, somewhere, but just didn’t want to acknowledge it. It was more fun to pretend. It was more fun to get lost in the make believe. And it never really was about the ghost anyway; it was about the fun that Alice and I had together, pretending. Or at least, the fun I had.
Alice and I don’t talk anymore. The last time I saw her was years ago during college when I was home for winter break; I picked her up, driving past my old house, past the country store, past the lake, past the stop sign, past all the places we used to go as kids. We went to our local diner and ate eggs and toast, and took turns filling one another in on our college lives. When we parted ways, I hugged her and said: “We should do this more often.” A few months later, I texted her on her birthday and discovered her number had been changed. We haven’t spoken since.
I think about that last day sometimes, how it felt to sit behind the wheel of my car and drive the winding roads I used to walk at dusk as a kid with skinny legs and scraped knees. How it felt like a lifetime ago, but also yesterday, all at the same time. How, if I squinted just hard enough, I might have spotted Alice and I as eight-year-olds, tiptoeing along the curb like a balance beam, an iced tea in one hand and a bag of chips in the other, sunburnt and carefree. How there are “lasts” all the time and you don’t ever know it until they’re over; the last time we talked to the ghost, the last time we walked down the hill, the last bus ride together, the last time we saw each other.
I think about how people change so much, but the memory of how they once were, how you once were, still exists, too. Sometimes they exist in harmony, sometimes they are at odds with one another. Sometimes they cancel one another out completely.
Maybe there was never a dead, lonely boy haunting my childhood New York home. But looking back, looking at it all, I know with certainty: ghosts are very, very real. I was talking to one all along.
*Names have been changed