“Hannah, we’re going to be late,” her mother is saying, but not in the real pissed-off way she would have said it before the accident. Instead she’s tentative, careful, like she’s constantly disarming a bomb and isn’t sure what wires are safe to cut.
“Sure,” Hannah says, and guides her dead arm through the sleeve of her coat and pulls a glove over its fingers. She’s careful about keeping the arm warm and safe, though she can’t feel it anymore — the doctors have warned her often enough, told her the arm is still a part of her, even if she doesn’t recognize it. But she’d care for it anyway, because the ghost has ceded so much ground in her body that she might as well respect the place it’s claimed as its own.
After the accident, there had been — nothing, a long nothing, and while she was sleeping the ghost kept her walking, fed her and kept her alive. She can’t blame it for slipping into an empty shell; it’s not like it knew she would be back. She feels a little bad about that sometimes. The ghost crushed low in a body it claimed but that had never really belonged to it.
In the waiting room at the doctor’s, Hannah’s mom keeps shooting her strange little looks, soft looks, and she doesn’t say anything at all about how Hannah’s failed to brush her hair. She gets a pass on these things, now. Apparently the ghost wasn’t all that good at pretending to be her. And they all know what she’s lost in the accident — more than a traumatic brain injury and a messed-up hand. All that and her best friend, too, poor girl. Elise’s name hovers over their tongues, but no one wants to be the first to say it.
All she feels in her dead arm is a flutter in her fingertips sometimes, a brush like wings. Sometimes she finds herself staring at the sky with a vague yearning for warmth and sun and flock. It’s no wonder she worried everyone — a ghost like this has no idea of how to be human. Its life had been simpler, instinctive and magnetic.
The doctor prods at her gently and makes a few notes and tells her it’s perfectly normal to have lingering issues such as these, after an accident. Her brain needs time to recover, the doctor says, and she should be gentle with it. With an injury as severe as hers, some people never come back at all.
Sorry, Hannah thinks at the ghost, and she smiles faintly at the doctor and assures him that she’s aware of how lucky she is. After all, the other girl in the car had not come back. Elise’s body empty like Hannah’s had been empty but crushed and pulpy and awful, no room for a ghost to slip in and keep it going. She remembers the blood sometimes, and the jolt of the impact, but she tells everyone she doesn’t.
Hadn’t there been geese overhead, when the accident happened? Hadn’t a bird flown up in front of the car, its wings beating against the windshield? Elise had shouted something, her mouth an O of surprise —
“I’m sure you’re looking forward to being able to return to school,” the doctor continues. Hannah winces at the reminder. Her mother has been talking around the subject, because the ghost couldn’t hack it, but there have always been plans for Hannah, and a full semester’s absence was never among them. No one ever asks her opinion, of course. “But be patient with yourself. Your teachers know how severe your injury was.”
Hannah thanks him and the ghost flutters in her dead hand. She wonders what the ghost would have made her say had it still had control over her body. It doesn’t matter, now — it only makes the beds of her nails itch.
“I’ll be right there,” she tells her mother as they walk to the car, and she slips away like she’s going back to the bathroom or something. Instead she stands around the corner, near the shade of a twisted little ornamental cherry, and she looks up at the sky. Her fingertips itch so she holds the dead hand up, stretches it out twined with her good hand and lets the ghost’s fingers brush the air again.
Don’t go back, the ghost is saying in its wordless way. Don’t trap yourself when you could fly, instead. And it’s right — she has a chance, now. To do the things she used to talk about with Elise, before that day and the shriek of metal that had ended things between them. No one expects anything from her now; they learned not to expect anything of the ghost. But here she is, about to fall back into her old life. Back to the same school, back to the same future that’s been planned out for her since she was a child. Like nothing that happened ever meant anything — not their friendship, and not the accident that ended it.
“What do you expect me to do,” she says aloud, clutching at the ghost arm, letting it fall back to her side. It drops like a weighted line.
The ghost says nothing else, but when a bird sweeps up from the branches of the ornamental cherry, Hannah feels her heart fall into time with its wingbeats.
© 2019 Shannon Peavey