It’s not a ghost story. It’s a love story.
If the months spent caring for Ms Blum passed quickly like the night, the years Lily spends wandering the house when she’s dead pass like dreams in it, in flashes and glimpses, still images of changes that occur long after they occur. She hears the typewriter going sometimes, though it left the house long ago and the study is now a bedroom for the younger children of the family. The sound of it is one of the few things that makes time pass regularly for her, slows down the years into seconds and speeds up the still images into moving pictures. She doesn’t see Ms Blum, though, or talk to her. They share the house, as the ghosts and therefore custodians of it, but Ms Blum was already gone by the time Lily arrived when they were both alive – so she has no interest in reaching out to Lily, no knowledge of her existence, and Lily doesn’t care to try.
For a long time she does not see Polly. Only remembers her. The distantly interested, perplexed look on her face when Lily died. Like Lily was not meant to do that. Not meant to see her, certainly not meant to die of fright at it. Lily doesn’t feel angry, yet, though perhaps she might have had she been less timid while alive. Alive, she was a scaredy-cat, a silly-billy, childishly frightened of monsters under the bed that other people her age laughed about. Dead, she fears nothing anymore – but still, she maintains a natural timidity, a shyness that prevents her from reaching out to Ms Blum’s ghost, or the children, or Polly, who surely cannot have left.
She watches the children, sees them grow. The parents are of no interest to her. Lily became a nurse because of her affinity for the very old and the very young, and because she could never get the hang of connecting to others her own age. Hence the failed, not-quite-marriage.
So the children it is. She thinks maybe that they can see her sometimes, though she never tries to make them do so. There’s something in their eyes, in the way the hairs on their necks rise when she sits nearby and watches. More often than not they do not remain in the room with her for long.
Sometimes, though … sometimes Lily is not in the room with them, or standing in the garden as they play. Sometimes the children move quickly, running as fast as their feet can carry them, panting heavily in the way of children who cannot quite regulate their breath, and Lily knows they cannot be running from her.
Polly is still there, then. Lily was never sure. After all, three ghosts in one house is a little crowded. Ms Blum would know the rules for that sort of thing, Lily’s sure, but … Better to leave the old woman in her own little world, Lily thinks. It must be more peaceful that way, typing and scratching at paper forever.
So Lily keeps watching. Notes when the corner of the carpet gets kicked up, and smooths it down again before the children’s parents can see. Puts the children’s toys back where they landed when, mysteriously, they appear beside the wall next to the stairs. Inviting a challenge. Polly clearly wants the attention of the living, but Lily will die twice before she lets Polly get her hands on the children the way she got to Lily.
But it’s strange. The longer the children continue to not notice, the more dissatisfied Lily becomes. If they cannot notice Polly, how can she? If the children do not care that their things have been tampered with twice, how can she possibly invite the attention of the pretty girl with the dead eyes?
She’s sitting in the children’s room, empty though it is, when she feels a presence manifest behind her. Unmistakeably dead, like her, because silent. She feels its presence as keenly as the children’s absence.
Do you see now, it says to her. No breath to stir the hairs beside her ear. Do you see why I whispered to Iris? I was lonely. It’s so lonely in this house.
You killed us both, Lily says. You killed us and left us rotting like you.
Polly does not reply, the coldness of her at Lily’s back almost gentle for being something she can feel at all.
Loneliness just made you a killer, Lily thinks, angry for the first time since her death. How could you do it? How could you be like him?
That is the wrong thing to say. The coldness at her back pierces her, jars her into remembering how it had felt to die. She remembers every detail. The way her heart stopped, the way her body slumped to the floor and the flies came for her. Why does Polly get to forget? How does Polly know how to hurt her like this if she does not remember her own death?
The piercing feeling spreads through her, making her aware of her incorporeal state. Involuntarily, she envisions it spreading through her stomach and into her chest, up her spine until it freezes her brain into a block of solid ice. She gasps, drawing in no air, and Polly pulls away.
I didn’t kill you, her voice despairs. I didn’t kill you. I just wanted you to see me. You were always too frightened to see me.
I never wanted to see you, Lily doesn’t say, curling in on herself as a lightbulb somewhere above shatters.
Iris saw me. Iris listened.
But she can’t see you anymore, can she?
At those damning words, Polly disappears. Her presence simply is no longer, and the bitter part of Lily that was born of her death is satisfied.
Later the children see the shattered lightbulb and accuse each other of doing it. All of them are in trouble with the parents. There is shouting, talk of being grounded and banning all footballs from inside the house. Lily almost wants to own up and say I did it. I did it because I was scared. I didn’t mean to.
Only thinking those things makes her think of Polly, and suddenly she’s scared that Polly is gone forever.
She rushes through the house, up the stairs and down again, around the garden, before she finally stops in front of the wall next to the staircase, still as death.
Polly, come out.
She wants to cry, but has no tears to shed. She is a dead thing, a ghost, now, she must remember that. As the almost-crying feeling subsides, she feels Polly at her back again. This time she turns, to look at her. See her with the eyes given to dead things, the eyes she remembers Polly looking at her curiously with when she died.
You didn’t mean to kill me.
I didn’t mean to kill you.
You were lonely.
I was lonely.
Like I am with the children?
Could I kill them, if I tried to touch them? To speak to them?
But you spoke to Iris. For years.
She wanted to hear.
But you stopped.
She stopped wanting to hear.
Until she got sick.
Then she became like a child again. Ready to hear. But confused. Always confused.
She thought I was you.
Did that make you angry?
Angry at me?
Polly doesn’t answer. Drifts closer. Without form, they merge. Lily closes her dead eyes. Feels something like being alive, but better.
Now when Polly speaks, the words feel like they’re coming from Lily’s mouth instead, forming inside her own head.
I wanted you. You to see me. To hear me. But you wouldn’t. I wanted you.
Enough to kill me?
No. No. It was an accident. A true accident. Not like mine. Mine was no accident. I know the difference.
Lily feels Polly beginning to drift away again, hurt, confused. Impulsively, she steps with her. Keeps their ghostly forms as one.
You wanted me, but not enough to kill me.
Because of him?
Everything I do in death has been because of him. I wanted to defy him. But I failed.
Because I died anyway.
You died anyway.
Lily doesn’t speak, absorbing Polly’s words. The most they’ve ever said to each other in years of cohabitation, both when Lily was alive and … now.
You were lonely, Lily repeats, again. And inside Polly, she feels the hole of loneliness surge up and threaten to devour them both.
Hundreds of years, alone in the house. Seen and heard by only one woman. Years can pass like dreams in death, but dreams come in the form of nightmares too. Lily tries to imagine never speaking to anyone for so long. Knowing that to attempt it with an unready subject would be to kill them.
Lily might kill someone too, if she had to wait so long.
The years after Iris stopped hearing me felt longer than the hundred that preceded. And now she’s so closed off she cannot hear me even in death. She just
– types, Lily finishes. I hear her too.
She died with a sickness that made her forget she was dead.
But I didn’t.
No. You didn’t.
They’ve drifted away from the wall next to the stairs, now, into the front room. The family is out. For once, Lily does not wonder where.
And now we’re together in the house, Lily whispers into the air, disturbing nothing.
Polly says nothing, but the lonely void subsides.
Together in the house, and I can see you, Lily continues.
Something like light inside Polly begins to grow, but twisted. Light that has travelled far through the darkness, weak and greedy. Lily, for once, lets herself be selfish, and wants the light for her own.
I see you. I hear you.
I feel you, Lily says. And she steps outside of Polly, to remember how she was when she was alive, and opens her eyes.
Polly remembers too. The only giveaway is her dead, dead eyes, just like Lily’s.
But when Lily leans in to taste the dead woman, they close. And with their eyes closed, Lily and Polly can both pretend that they’re alive once more, with the click-clack of the typewriter a floor above echoing through the house.