When We Don't See
“I think I’m a ghost.”
Willie is a flesh and blood human person standing in front of us. We blink.
He’s throwing stones into the water at an angle, and sometimes they seem to skip. It’s night. He throws one last stone, turns, and takes a step toward us.
“I’m serious.” He looks us each in the eyes, one by one. First Jake, then Sam, then me. His eyes stay on mine for a year at least.
Jake picks up a pebble and throws it at Willie. It bounces off him and lands in the water. With the fingernail moon I can just barely see the ripples going out and out and out and--
“I don’t think I’m dead. I don’t think I’m literally a ghost.” He stiffs up. “I’m not crazy, that’s not what I mean.”
“Okay then,” Sam crosses his arms in front of himself. He does this when he’s deep in thought. “What do you mean?”
WIllie swallows and bites his lower lip.
I sneeze, but manage to muffle it with my elbow so it isn’t too loud.
Willie kicks a few of the stones at his feet and I forget for a second that he used to be the least shy of us, that he has done stand up comedy and has never backed down from a challenge in public. In the third grade he pulled down a teacher’s pants and we all laughed.
“Sarah walked past me today without looking at me.”
Jake laughs out loud and holds another pebble in his fingers. “That’s just because she’s nuts.”
“Or she’s worried you’re moving on,” Sam adds.
Jake nods. “How do we know your own ex-girlfriend better than you do?”
Willie shakes his head. His thick brown curls bop. His fists are clenched.
“She didn’t just not say hi. She didn’t just ignore me.” He pauses and takes a deep breath. “She didn’t see me. And not just her. Others. Other people. People don’t see me in the hallway at school, they don’t see me in stores, they don’t acknowledge me at all anymore, since the story was in the newspaper. And not just recently. I didn’t notice it at first, but she’s been ignoring me for a while. They all have been.”
He seems so small, so angry. Not at us. His anger pulses outward, but without direction, like the aimlessly belligerent energy from decaying radioactive material, tainting everything within reach. Like the ripples of his pebbles in the lake. He looks us in the eyes again. First Jake. Then Sam. Then me. His eyes linger on mine. I’m sure I’m not just being crazy.
He throws another stone and sits back by the bank, facing away from us. It’s still dark, but from the sound of the splash I can tell it doesn’t skip.
Hesitantly, one of us calls over his shoulder. It doesn’t matter which of us.
“But we see you now, Willie.”
He mutters the word again. Ghost.
An hour later we’re walking through Willie’s neighbor’s backyard. This is the shortcut from Sam’s house. Jake lives on the other side of town. It’s just me and Willie now, and it’s the first time I’ve been in this backyard in a while. I used to come here often; we would go down to the bank and skip stones. This is the first time we’ve been since he got out of the hospital.
“You know what I meant, don’t you?”
He stops walking, right in the middle of his neighbor’s backyard. The moon shines over his shoulder and if he’d been a step to the right and a little taller, it’d look like a halo.
“You know what I meant.”
I take a deep breath, and press my right toes against the sole of my shoe inside my shoe. This is a habit of mine when I’m uncomfortable. I think of that specific moment, when I found Willie there, and I grimace. I think of the wealth of haughty looks I’ve gotten from Willie since that moment.
“I do. I know what you meant.”
He grins. It’s not a grin of happiness or joy. It doesn't soften his eyes. It’s a grin of relief, of renewed assurance of his own sanity. I’ve grinned it before. I think maybe we all have.
“Do you feel the same way?”
I start walking again, walking toward his house. He hobbles to catch up to me. I guess I forgot about his limp. I reach over the gate and undo the latch.
I sit on his front porch. He’s a few steps behind me.
I wait quietly until he sits next to me on the step.
He asks, “Do you feel the same way? Do you feel invisible? Ever since?”
“People look at me different. They don’t not look at me at all. I found you lying there, which is something, but I’m not you. I guess I’m only a second-degree ghost. I guess I get some credit ’cause they think I saved you.”
“You did.” He pauses. “Save me, I mean.”
There’s a stale silence on his porch. It is a heavy silence that has been settling, ruminating between us. A dead air that we can’t seem to wake.
“Well, that’s better,” he says, eventually. “You have it better than me.”
I look at him. I stare at him until he blinks. As soon as his eyes break free, mine stare at the marks on his neck, like they do all the time now. He’s given up trying to hide them, the bruises on his neck. They’ll fade soon anyway, he told me. He told me that’s what the doctor told him.
I get up again, and start to walk away. I don’t look back until I can no longer hear him call after me.
A week later we’re back at the same spot. We hope Willie isn’t going to talk about ghosts again. Or, at least I do.
Jake is talking about his stepfather. Jake doesn’t usually do this. His stepdad is a sore subject for him sometimes, but we don’t know why.
“We saw him on TV the other day, my sister and me. A recording. We saw a video of him from when he was on TV fifteen years ago, and I didn’t even recognize him. He had been interviewed on the news because he helped catch a high profile burglar or something, I don’t know. This was back before they put him at a desk. But I didn’t recognize him. My sister didn’t either. We couldn’t believe it was him.”
“Isn’t that just how aging works?” Sam asks.
“It’s different,” Jake replies. “He doesn’t just look different in the video. He’s got none of the same mannerisms. He speaks differently; he’s not even stopping between sentences or trailing off like he does now.”
I nod at this; I know Jake’s stepdad. We’ve made fun of his irregular speech patterns before. His stutter. I assumed he’d always talked like that. He stops between words, trails off sometimes and starts again in weird places. I shrug, because I’m not sure what else to do.
Jake is almost whispering now. “He didn’t just seem younger. He seemed different in the video. Like an entirely separate person, one who got replaced by the guy I know.”
None of us know what to say. I kick a pebble.
“Has he seen a doctor?” Sam asks.
Jake nods, “a few. A specialist, even. They think it’s definitely genetic. That it’s what got my grandfather, though no one knew it. That’s what they think at the hospital anyway.”
I notice how Willie winces at “hospital”.
“It’s almost like he is gone,” Jake says, looking at something we can’t see. “In comparison to the video I saw of him, he might as well be gone. Hollow.”
They keep talking, Sam and Jake, but Willie and I are silent. I think about how someone can be gone like that, not quick, but slowly, over time. How someone can fade so slowly that you don’t even realize he’s gone. So he’s still with you, and you can see him, and talk to him and be with him, but he’s gone and he’s been gone for a while and maybe he knows it but you don’t. And he’ll never be back.
I don’t know what Willie thinks about.
Jake can’t remember where he’s put his phone down, and Sam shines a light for him. I stare at the shadow it makes, and when he turns out the light because the phone has been found, I stare at where the shadows were engulfed by the night.
We spend a few more hours by the lake, until it’s so dark that we can barely see each other. There’s not much of a moon, the fog has started rolling in, blocking its light. We can barely see each other’s bodies.
We sit in silence, we joke, we talk about girls. We tell more ghost stories.
We’re back in his neighbor's backyard again, because all of these nights go the same way, and Willie is talking about Sam.
He laughs. I don’t see any light in his eyes either, but it might just be too dark.
“We have it worse, right? ”
I say nothing.
He asks again. “We have it worse, right? Worse than Sam? It’s worse for us. I hate hearing other people complain when they have it better than me. Than us. Like, he doesn’t get it. His stepdad. It’s not the same.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Willie.”
He shakes his head. He thinks I do. He knows I do.
“They have problems, but not ours. And they have to do it alone. But we’re together, you and I. We have our problem together.”
I punch him straight across the jaw, and it hurts my hand, but not as much as it hurts his jaw. My fist sends him sprawling and as he falls, he knocks over a birdbath.
He doesn’t cry out in pain.
“You did it to yourself, Willie,” I say. I spit my words at him. “You didn’t have to do it, you did it to yourself. I found you, and I got help, so you’re okay now. But don’t act like the world’s out to get you. We’re not in this together, because I didn’t want it, okay? You brought me into this. It’s you, Willie. You wanted to be a fucking ghost, not me. You got it that day, even though the rope broke and you fell instead and I saved you. You made yourself a ghost, and you have no one else to blame. It’s what you wanted.”
I crawl inside myself to the place where those words came from. It’s empty there now, where it used to be full of that talk. Hollow. It still tastes bitter, though. I can’t stop staring at his neck.
He still doesn’t say anything. I can’t look at him anymore. I can’t be around the neck and the limp from the falling and the way his eyes are these days. It’s just not the same.
I don’t go into school the next day. Or the day after that. I tell my mom I’m sick, and I am. I am sick. I feel sick. I sit at home and I watch TV and when someone comes on the screen with curly hair or a stutter I turn it off.
Eventually I have to go back to school, and I do. I say “hi” to Sam and Jake in the morning without fear, since Willie always comes in late anyway. His commute is about the same as mine and Sam’s, but he likes to wake up later. Especially recently.
I see him in the hallway, and I can tell he doesn’t expect to see me. He makes eye contact with me, like he’s ready to say something, and I break it right away. I don’t quite run away. The bruise on his jaw matches the ones on his neck.
I see him all the time now. I see him nearly every day, and I never make eye contact with him. It’s not that I ignore him, but that I don’t let him exist. He’s gone for me.
I wonder what it would be like to become a ghost.