Something happens in her skull as she goes to put her purse down. She is in the dark, by choice, so that she can enjoy the streetlights piercing through the branches of the enormous coral tree outside her window. She likes to pretend that her living room could be anywhere in the world.
There is a violent pain in the back of her head before she goes sailing somewhere else, to a land beyond words. She has the idea, either from her childhood religion or urban legends, that there is some magic to be found in these last seconds of life, but nothing from the past flashes before her. All her thoughts are of the future.
She wants to know more about the life she was supposed to have, which still glows, a wide-open promise. She was happy, enjoying the wedding planning so much that she thought it might be her true calling. The church. The flowers. The invitations, not yet sent.
She regrets the dress. She will never know the feel of it against her body, the yards of silk cut and stitched to fit her curves alone.
The stars turn into oceans of lace, a gift for her. She slips into the white forever.
She never knew how heavy her body was until she left it.
At first she drifts around the earth, anywhere she wants to go, really, just by willing herself there. Will isn’t the right word. She has been freed from will. Everything that she was once tied to is now gone, even the fears, the ideas. The plans! The good emotions, too, have lost their power. She is free from chasing after happiness. Free from happiness. What a thought. And it’s not true about love being eternal. It’s more like love goes without saying in this new place.
Place. Another useless concept, here, where there are no boundaries.
Why did she struggle so much? She doesn’t regret the hard work but she marvels at all the tension. The anxiety.
For what? It’s funny. The whole world misses the point. Everyone should stop. Everyone should be still. Everyone should simply be. She wishes she could tell the people she loves.
She finds herself at a child’s birthday party. The birthday girl is a princess who presides over a kingdom of pink sugar. Happiness is in the air, as well as fatigue, disappointment and jealousy.
The song begins. This is her little niece they are singing to. She has not seen the girl since Christmas. Kinship, blood, has brought her to this kitchen, this moment.
She jumps in on the final line. It is the last time she will ever sing this song, Happy Birthday to You, which is spoiled by the phone ringing. That should be her on the line but it is not. It should be her calling but instead the news is about her.
Around three in the morning the other girls get tired of waiting for the ghost and fall asleep. Zoe stares at them and feels betrayed. She is out of patience.
Using a camera with real film, she takes pictures of her guests, open-mouthed and innocent, as they sleep. Creepy. That’s what they call her at school, but still, they love her parties.
Zoe is the kind of girl who knows things. She is a valuable resource. A storyteller.
But she wonders if there are some things you simply can’t share. The best stories are secrets, hidden by her parents, carried in whispers. That’s how she heard about the previous tenant, the young woman who died in their apartment. Zoe knows what her parents would say if pressed for details: it was just one of those things, sad, but no drama. It was her time, that’s all. Still, Zoe feels chills all over when she remembers that someone died in her home.
Whenever Zoe is alone in her bedroom, she looks around and breathes in what she believes is the ghost’s air. Tragic, scary, it mixes with her oxygen, enters her blood. If Zoe feels any anxiety, or a trace of dismay, it is only because the room is devoid of spirits. No weird sounds. No white flickers. No vibrations on her skin.
On the night of the slumber party, while the other girls sleep, Zoe sets to work.
She steals into the little bathroom adjoining her bedroom and shuts the door. Then she lights a candle and stares into the mirror, where she begins conjuring. She is a natural.
Surely one of the other girls will wake and push open the door. There will be a dramatic overreaction to her late-night ritual, but she is undaunted.
Zoe both does and does not expect what happens next.
A woman appears in the mirror. She is smiling in the manner of the dead, wise and resigned. Her white gown is simple and sleeveless, not long and flowing. Zoe thinks: nice dress. There is a moment of something like communion between them, and then the mirror turns into an endless black room and the tiles beneath Zoe’s feet begin to give way.
The door flies open and everything stops. “Zoe? Can I come in? What are you doing in here by yourself?”
Her guest lets out a ringing scream. Forever after the poor girl will swear that she saw something but she can never say exactly what it was. Was it the dancing flame of the single candle in the dark bathroom? Or perhaps it was the specter that lived on, for a moment, in Zoe’s eyes?
All this happens fast, like a shooting star, but it is enough. It is a gift. Zoe is pleased, and a little awed. Now she understands that there are openings, small but undeniable, to the other side.
She is ready for the next time.
Jan Stinchcomb is the author of the novella, Find the Girl (Main Street Rag, 2015). Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in New South Journal, Gamut Magazine, Jellyfish Review, Gingerbread House and Paper Darts, among other places. She reviews fairy tale-inspired works in Notes From Rapunzel’s Tower, her column for Luna Station Quarterly. She lives in Southern California with her husband and daughters. Find her at janstinchcomb.com or on Twitter @janstinchcomb