by Meera Jhala
Folks in small towns love telling stories. Sometimes the stories are love stories and sometimes they’re ghost stories. Sometimes they’re both, because most often a ghost story is a love story, just gone terrible wrong. Some of them ghost stories are about our house. I’m awful glad for that, because I figure the taller the tales grow, the less the neighborhood brats will harass my Mabel.
The Social Services lady first planted the stories, after she went to check on Mabel and saw strange lights flickering in the house. Then came the break-in. That was Miracle-Gro; the stories got fatter and juicier after that. A local janitor, armed with a knife, had slipped into the basement of the house. When the Sheriff arrived, brakes screeching and siren blaring, there wasn’t anything much left for him to do but call the Coroner; the janitor lay dead in the cemetery across the street; ivory-pale, ivory-stiff.
For three days afterward, poor Mabel sat on a chair, rocking. All the detectives could get out of her was that she wanted her Ma, as though she didn’t know I was right there beside her.
Poor, sweet Mabel. After her Daddy died, it was just her and me in the house, with the mackerel cat. Mabel had come outta me three decades ago with a mop of thick brown hair that was the envy of every other new mom in Covington Hospital. Just she’d come out blue, cord wrapped tight around her throat—nobody envied that. I couldn’t help but blame myself, though everybody told me it wasn’t my fault. When I finally heard her cry, my heart pumped a love through me so fierce it burned like alcohol on a fresh cut. I knew then I’d die for my baby, I’d kill for her—I’d do anything to keep her safe, give her
a good life. We sent her to special school; I taught her how to grocery shop, clean, cook. At thirty Mabel’s still my baby, with her big eyes and innocent heart.
I’m real happy I taught her good. Mabel lives all alone now, with the mackerel cat. I help out a little, but she manages. I’m so awful proud of her that some days I fear my heart will balloon, and float my soul off to Heaven before I’m ready to go.
I wish I still lived in the house. I’m just across the street; Mabel visits regular, brings flowers—but it isn’t the same, she gets lonesome. Tore me up to move out. It was an icy January night, five years ago. I was driving us home from the doctor when oncoming headlights swerved and my world exploded. The stars outside rolled, streaking light.
Next I remember I was stretched out on a cold asphalt mattress, half-feeling the hot wet life trickle out the corner of my mouth. I was just falling sweetly asleep when I heard my baby crying “Ma.…”
Love in its sheer orneriness grabbed my aching shoulders, and hauled my head above the fog just long enough for my lips to shape words: “Mabel. S’okay. I ain’t leaving you.”
The cold air shuddered a moment—then engulfed my bond, holding it frozen as the ambulance returned me to Covington, DOA. It was then I moved out of the house and into the sweet earth, across the street from my baby.
But I kept my word. I watch over Mabel; I keep her safe. When the janitor slipped into her house, I laid my icy hands on his throat. I dragged him out of Mabel’s home, and to mine.
So I do the best I can. Problem’s this: I can’t hold Mabel when she’s lonesome, and I can’t dry her tears. When she calls for Ma, I can’t answer. We can’t have tea, or grocery shop anymore. When she’s sad, I pace the upstairs of the house; when it all gets too much for me to bear, the lights flicker.
Folks in a small town love telling stories. Sometimes the stories are love stories and sometimes they’re ghost stories. Sometimes their voices drop, and they talk about me, and say that sometimes a ghost story is a love story, just gone terrible wrong.
Threw a right wrench into my love, dying did. I could never really do right by my baby, after that.
Meera Jhala is a physicist, former professor, and the author of numerous technical publications. She is presently working on a collection of short stories. Her website is can be found here.