Ian was a troubled child.
I could tell right away. Even before I overheard the phone calls, even before I saw his mother hiring professionals. I saw the tension in his little shoulders; I saw the tension in his mother’s eyes. I saw, and I understood.
They move in late in September, just the two of them, one car and a moving van. Ian’s mother tries to address him a few times, and he doesn’t even respond. I watch her sigh, then fake a smile for the people she hired — I watch her make it so obvious she does not know how to help herself. That she knows how to help her son even less.
I am no stranger to parents failing under pressure. To children left alone to deal with what the adults are too scared of. Maybe that is why I float after Ian. Maybe something clicks.
The first three families, I avoided politely. The stories of what had happened to me, combined with how awfully old the house is, made them all leave eventually but I never minded their presence, and never did a thing to alert them to my own. Ian, however, I feel drawn too.
Years made me a slow thinker. It takes seeing his eyes widen for me to remember how frightening I look.
And yet. I still creep out from under his floorboards. I still wave at him. He pulls the blankets over his head, but peers out. He seems unable to look away — seems too young to have learned how much easier it is to do so. He doesn’t wave back, and instead clamps both hands over his mouth. If he does scream, it gets stifled.
He must have noticed, too, that his mother would not know how to help.
I was eighteen when I died. But I was closer to Ian’s age when I started trying to.
They let me out of the hospital because they thought I was getting better. My father wanted to believe I was getting better so badly he didn’t bother to hide the pills, and my mother had long since stopped looking at me at all. This must have hurt me, back then — emotions all feel faded now — because it was her rum I stole to take the meds with. I emptied out the whole six-month prescription, and then washed it down with my grandmother’s sleeping pills.
Rain broke midway through but I did not move. I died in the garden, somewhere by the flowerbeds. They found me the following morning, while the air was still thick with petrichor. I was covered in dirt, and so, so stiff.
They moved my body, and washed it, and buried it in a clean box. But I’m still stiff, and I’m still dirty, and I’m still here.
Ian stops being scared of me some time in the next two days.
I notice it when he hands me a toy. When I try to take it, my fingers just phase through — still, if I sign something at him, he seems to understand.
His mother looks at him weird, if he talks. So, he doesn’t talk. We just motion at each other, and he tries not to laugh. We play checkers, and some other game I don’t really understand. He moves the pieces for me. I just point.
He is only just learning to read. Maybe when he grasps it, I think, we can get him one of those Ouija Boards. Or something more age appropriate.
I quickly learn a lot of what he does is not age appropriate.
My tongue is too swollen to speak. The first time he suggests a game that makes my insides turn, I choke on the inability to ask who taught it to him. On my inability to leave this house, and find that person, and squeeze their throat until their tongue swells like mine.
I don’t know why I’m surprised it’s the woman meant to look after him that’s hurting him. Experience should have taught me better by now.
She pays the house a visit two weeks after they settle in, and though we just spent a whole day laughing in the garden, Ian now refuses to leave his room. I hear her talking to his mother downstairs — about children needing to get used to new surroundings, about forming better behavioural patterns, about overactive imagination and imaginary friends and being nonverbal.
I also see him shaking, small and terrified. I know by now words are useless in excess.
I want to tell him I know what it’s like. I want to tell him he did nothing wrong. But my tongue has long been too swollen to speak, so I just sit there with him, until her voice downstairs goes quiet, until we hear the front gates close.
We both know she will be back. But neither of us can do anything about it.
I have no way of telling his mother. So, I just trail after her, while Ian sleeps, and blame her for refusing to see.
I wonder if I’d tell her if I could. I tried telling mine. All the good it did could fit in the shallow grave I dug for myself back when I was trashing in that wet soil, all sick and aching. I ponder on it now, my dirty feet barely touching the carpet. In all those years I barely gave it a thought, but now it is all I can think about.
I didn’t regret it until Ian, I realize. I didn’t regret it until I realized that for Ian, I want something else.
I want something else for myself too but it is a little late for me.
I can’t stop thinking about how cold it felt, until it didn’t, and how the sky seemed to retch down on me. The movies always made dying seem so peaceful. I feel cheated, I realize years too late. I feel tricked.
The movies didn’t tell me it would hurt.
She comes back with December, and I freeze before she’s even inside.
I don’t know if it’d be worse if I was there, helpless to help, or if I left him to it alone. So, I flicker in and out of it, eyes downcast and form sightless. And so uselessly angry.
The only life I’d ever taken was my own, and I did not think myself capable of it until I had already done it. But this woman, by God, this woman I feel ready to strangle without flinching.
Too bad dead hands can no more than rot. Too bad memories can only whisper.
He spends the rest of the day apologetic. I taste rum on my tongue.
I hate myself for letting him see me seethe. I unclench my fists and offer distractions — I sit with him and plead with him, wordless and useless, to stop chewing on his fingers. To stop hitting his head against the bedframe. I beg him, like a hypocrite, to keep himself alive through all the pain I overdosed to opt out of. I pace the room while he sleeps, as if something would get him now. As if I’d be able to protect him if it did.
In the morning, he reaches for me. We both jump when our fingers brush.
He goes right back to sleep, but I remain awe-struck. I stare at my hands long into the day, unmoving, unbreathing.
My skin almost tingles — not like while I still had it, different than when I still had it. For the first time since I decided to die, I feel awake. I stretch my fingers out, flex my hand open.
How anger makes us tangible.
She’s back same time next week. I don’t know I’m about to do it until I’m doing it, but at no point do I waver.
She cannot see me. She moves around her car, and chats to his mother, and flashes her pearly white teeth and her peachy pink lipstick. There are little round pearls hanging from her earlobes. Her hands got washed afterwards.
Ian is somewhere inside, hiding. He might be looking for me — this, a part of me feels guilty about — but I know I am doing this for his own good. I promise myself to find him as soon as I’m done.
Neither woman notices I’m there. As I run my fingers down the back of her car, and see the trails of dirt I left behind, I know it must be on purpose. The only truth that gets acknowledged is the truth that feels comfortable, I learned that much, and nothing about this meets that category.
There is a sharp turn, not that far out from the gates of the property. I sit in the shotgun seat until the very last moment.
She doesn’t even scream. But as the car runs off the road, and spins down the hill slope, her eyes stay locked on where my hands cover hers.
Her fingers need to be pried off the wheel, eventually — rigid, dead, two days cold. Two days it took for them to find her. Two days of her standing around that car, screaming.
I know she saw me, in those last moments. I know it because when she looks at me now, guarding the gates of the property, her fear melts into absolute hatred. Like she’d strangle me, if she could. Like she’d claw my face off.
But dead hands no more than rot. And memories can only whisper.
Her body is bent five ways, none of which look right. There are glass shards in her eyes, and blood stains all the way down her pretty little blouse. Her spectre stands bloodless and pale, though, and unbending. Her posture is as proper as it was in life. Only her smile wavers.
And she’s as dirty as me. She died fastened to her little Toyota, yet her ghost looks like I raked her down that entire mountainside. It confuses me only for a second.
After all, it is the people like her that the dirt was always coming from.
Anger becomes my anchor.
I can touch things all the time now — I can touch the house. I tuck Ian into his bed over and over through the night, for he keeps kicking the covers off, and I can move my own checkers pieces.
And I go into his mother's room. She is a beautiful woman, a scared woman. I pity her sometimes, how lost and incompetent she is. But I love her son more.
I do it using steam on mirrors, her laptop if she leaves it open. Her own makeup, on the fading wallpaper. I go into each little gruesome detail — I am not restrained by anything, for Ian cannot yet read — I spell out in bold letters everything she spent so long choosing to ignore. I stand there as she tries to scrub it off, like I am not going to write it out again. Like her tears could move me.
When her lack of spine tempts her, I act again. I wrestle her for razors, scissors, pills. I have decided to be the last suicide in this house. She does not get to escape anything her son will have to live with. She does not get to be another thing he’ll have to heal from.
There’s an underlying bitterness to it too. Not towards her, not really, but she’s close enough if I squint. There is a part of me that failed to rot, it seems, something that instead festered, and it pulses louder every time she dares to sob.
Unlike with Ian, I am not keeping her alive out of love. But she lives with me all the same.