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other ghosts

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The girl who lives in a poem isn't very good at openness, or emotional honesty.

"It's all those metaphors," Charles says, knowledgeably; he is a poet himself, very sure of his creations, and he likes capital letters. "They are the best approximation of the Truth, but they keep you from honesty, darling."

Actually, the girl has some unresolved trust issues, and never knew her father. But that isn't any of Charles' business.

Her first lover was her author, her poet; she remembers waking up one evening (in the poem it is always evening) with the breath coming fast and dangerous in her lungs, and the poet leaned in and wiped some dust from her cheek and she changed under the poet's lean, lovely hand. This is what she remembers: that when the poet turned to go the girl stepped after her, and the poet laughed. Her poet wasn't a very good smiler and her laugh was abrasive and too-loud.

"Don't worry," the poet said. "You're only a first draft."

Then were the months where she walked up and down inside the poem, met the boy who lived in it with her, the guards, the temple cat. She was sure that at any moment she'd have to forget them. The cat in particular was a mess, and did not seem to be very evocative.

She doesn't know how many times she was read before a reader first pried open the bars of the meter, climbed down into the poem, and sat beside her. He told her she was beautiful, though he meant the poem. He said that there had been a war, that her poet was dead, and that whether or not she was a draft, there was not going to be any editing involved.

The line is, "Hello. Who are you?" If it's going to be convincing, it has to be delivered with the exact right shade of innocence, her head tilted maybe to one side and her eyes big. She wants to oversell it but her poet made her kind of coquettish, too, and she never wants to have this taken for coquetry. Her readers have faith. They are all her first kiss.

If they ask, she says, "What others?"

She keeps the memories of her readers shut up inside her, a little well of a secret that she can dip into or not as she chooses. There's a reader who comes to her, a woman of forty, who clasps her too hard and shakes her and says, "My daughter used to love you, my daughter," starts crying messily, but the girl who lives in a poem has never had any daughters and doesn't really see why it's any of her business. She just looks at the woman, wide-eyed, and later that night she molds out the bruise.

She looks the same way at the new reader, the one who said, "A friend sent me." She likes him, a little. She lets slip that she likes oranges but he's so blindsided by this that she keeps the rest to herself, the way she likes to put her shoes at the door, the actual color of her hair, her middle name, her first name. She's not sure he'd survive her minutia.

Which is not to say that she's just like any other girl who doesn't live in a poem. She is, for one thing, read. Most of her readers mumble their way through it, slip in and out of comprehension, brush the edges of the poem with their clumsy hands so that the temple walls shake. Some are cautious, peering in and sizing up her smile and her hands. Some have interest only for the architecture. Some people take a long, clean scalpel and slide it under her skin, until they've made sure they've seen all of her.

Some people read her and she drowns in it, she feels what they want from her and pirouettes drunkenly when they think she is a dancer, burns her tongue when they think she's drinking tea, spreads the half-smile on her face when they so often think she is mysterious. She's the togaed girl from their costume dramas, she's the boy who won't call, she is blonde and dainty and won't meet their eyes. Once she is the masked horror at the ball who reaches for them with a tentacle and draws back. She never has more than a moment's warning when a reader is about to unfold her and refold her like a fortune teller, and afterwards she hides from whole classrooms full of students reading her poem and even the teacher isn't sure, momentarily, what anyone could see in it.

Some people read her and bring flowers.

A couple readings into their acquaintance, her latest reader brings her a slip of paper. She takes it from him, curiously, but it isn't a love letter or a shopping list or a calling card or any of the other hundred things that she's been given. It's a poem. It's got even meter and a chariot as a central metaphor, and there's a girl inside it.

The reader shrugs, when she looks up at him. "I thought you might want to, I don't know," he says. "Compare?"

"It's by the same author as me," she says.

"Yeah. She wrote a lot. This one's autobiographical," he says, touching the paper, gingerly, with one awkward finger. "That's what it said on her Wiki page, anyway."

She can see what he means. The girl in the poem she's clutching has a bad smile and a harsh laugh and she is covered in ink stains and cannon fire.

"So, are you going to--" he says, and she says, "Can you come back later?"

The girl who lives in a poem isn't any good at letting herself be caught, but she thinks she might be great, really fantastic, at pursuit.

She spreads the poem out on the floor. She is very careful, but not very gentle. She pries open the bars of the poem, and steps inside. She hurries up to the woman who looks like her poet.

"Hello. Who are you?" the woman who looks like her poet says, but in her smoky voice it's world-weary, and the girl who lives in a poem wishes she'd thought of that. "You're very out of context."

The girl who lives in a poem clears her throat. She knows how this goes. "I like your poem," she says. "Can I maybe fall in love with you?"

"Sure," says her poet. "But it won't work out."

"Of course not," says the girl who lives in a poem. She tries to make it sound world-weary.

"As long as you're sure," the woman who looks like her poet says, and bends in for her first kiss.