Art by Jessica Rowe & Words by Johnny Bryan

The Poke

I’m not going to tell you about how I died – what killed me, how much blood there was and all that, because it’s not important. What is important is that I wasn’t brave, and when you aren’t brave you become a ghost.

At the ghost factory they told me I had to choose something to haunt. I could choose anything I wanted, but I had to choose quickly, in under five minutes, or they would choose something for me, at random. This was difficult. I did my best to think of something good and beautiful to haunt but I was distracted.

I was thinking about this one time we were together in your bathroom. We were brushing our teeth – rather, I was brushing my teeth, and you were fooling around. You were trying to make me laugh by poking me in the stomach, trying to locate my belly button through my T shirt, egging me on, asking me if I even had a belly button, and then you found it – you poked it extremely hard, and I doubled over and got toothpaste and spit all over myself, and you clapped your hands and laughed a girlish, witch laughter.

I didn’t find it funny at the time, but there in the bleakness of the ghost factory I couldn’t help but smile to myself.

“What’s so funny?” asked a ghost factory worker.
“Nothing,” I said.

And as soon as I said that I realized it was true. There was nothing funny about it because it was over. It had probably been the most beautiful moment of my life and I hadn’t even realized it until now – now that it was long past, getting smaller and more dreamlike in memory, obscured by quarrels, and tiresome questions, and stomach aches. I wasn’t ready to accept it. Meanwhile, I had used up all of my time, so I chose the only thing I could think of to haunt – your toothbrush.

It wasn’t so bad haunting your toothbrush. You’d brush your teeth twice a day and while you were brushing your teeth I’d be haunting them, and haunting all of your beautiful mouth, like before, and you had no idea. I was content to do that, until one day you brought home a new toothbrush. You picked up the haunted one, dropped it in the waste basket without any hesitation, and replaced it with the new, unhaunted one.

I lay there in the waste basket, pouting, but only for a few seconds. I realized that you hadn’t replaced me, only the toothbrush, which was old, and needed to be replaced – that it wasn’t about me at all, that much of life wasn’t about me, and there was no use in pouting about it. I wanted to be brave.

I knew it was going against ghost rules, but I didn’t care. I had to try something. I left the toothbrush there in the waste basket and floated over to where you stood brushing your teeth. I saw myself in the mirror next to you. I saw my ghost-eyes and saw that I could be brave. I turned to you. I reached out my ghost-finger and found your belly button through your blouse. I gave it a tremendous poke – and everything happened at once.

You wilted with laughter, like a petal, and toothpaste and tears and spit painted the floor beneath you in blues and greens and blacks and yellows, and meanwhile something was blooming out of you, rising above you like a Chinese lantern – it was your ghost.

And I realized that when I’d poked you, I’d poked her as well. She looked down at me cross, but only pretending to be cross, and she couldn’t pretend very well, because she loved me too much.

And that’s when it hit me – it wasn't over. It was still happening. I didn’t know how, but it always had been, and it always would be happening. We would always be there, brushing our teeth, and poking each other, and haunting each other, and it wasn’t sad, and even if it was sad, it was only sad in the most beautiful way. And that was enough for me, I was ready.

Your ghost folded back into you, or you folded back into her, I’m not sure which. I turned to myself in the mirror and waved –

“Goodbye, ghost! Goodbye, self!”

I ballooned out and blanketed your whole body in dust, and blanketed your bathroom, and the city, and the countryside, and the ocean, and I was above you, cloudlike, and also below you, mixed in with the blue and the green and the black and the yellow, at the bottom of the river of your laughter, and in between every sigh, in a moonlit flowerbed, poking at flowers, and blouses, and belly buttons, and I couldn’t decide if I was the one haunting all of it, or if all of it was haunting me, or if we were each of us only haunting ourselves, but that didn’t bother me too much – it wasn’t important. 

Jessica Rowe lives in Baltimore, MD  Johnny Bryan lives in Paris, France

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