We discover our ghost selves one Saturday night while sneaking sips of tart-as-cherry pinot noir, the bottle stolen from Renata’s parents’ wine supply, hidden in the cabinet above the fridge. After the murder of a seventeen-year-old girl—her body found invaded and discarded in the bushes just a few feet off the lake trail she’d been running one early morning—our parents tightened our leashes to a chokehold, banning us from adventures after dark. Like Rapunzel imprisoned in a tower, or an animal caught in a trap, we’re confined to our bedrooms, shuffling to and from each other’s houses each weekend for sleepovers under the watchful eye of parents who warned us of murder and rape and kidnapping. They promised us it would happen if we didn’t behave and didn’t we want safe and good lives?
“Good girls are safe girls are boring girls are bored girls,” we snort, wine dribbling down our chins, as we collapse into Renata’s oversized bean bag chair. Sinking deeper, we fall silent, wondering for a moment what it would be like to disappear and walk out of this house so late at night. In our fantasies, we don’t need Paris or Tokyo or Rome—just an open front door and the chance to explore our city and its off-limits corners. We crave any emotion other than boredom, for an experience to make our legs tingle and hearts pound.
When we push out of the chair, our bodies don’t come with us. Only a spectral silhouette stands, pellucid and pearly, while our physical bodies remain seated, staring ahead at the wall, alive but immobile.
“Cool,” Zora smiles.
We spend the next month exploring the limits of our ghost selves. When we inhabit our ghost selves, our physical bodies drift into a daze, continuing whatever task we were doing before we left, like math homework or watching a movie. We’re limited in our movement and we can’t speak, but no one ever seems to notice or care, anyway. But our ghost selves have no limits: we can walk through walls and people, say and do whatever we want with no one to tell us “no.” When our parents fight during dinner, our ghost selves escape to our rooms, passing through passive aggressive fathers and sniffling mothers, while our bodies remain at the dinner table, mindlessly shoveling lasagna into our mouths. We don’t ask why we can see and hear each other but no one else can (we feel invisible most of the time, so the experience isn’t shocking), or about the physics of why we can touch and hold things but not the other way around (we hate science class enough as it is), or why, at sixteen, we’re just now discovering this bodily quirk (we’re used to our bodies betraying us). The only question worth answering is how much freedom our ghost selves can offer.
We start small in our exploration. In chemistry class, during monotonous lectures on a topic we don’t care to understand, our ghost selves wander the campus. We slip into our teachers’ cars, unearthing wrinkled sweaters, crumpled gas station receipts, and, in Mr. Ferring’s Toyota Tercel, empty condom wrappers.
“What’s grosser?” Renata says. “Having sex in a Tercel, or having sex with Mr. Ferring?”
Definitely Mr. Ferring, we agree.
While our boyfriends play video games, we disappear for hours without them noticing, rifling through their parents’ closets and scouring siblings’ journals for our names. But we learn to never leave our bodies alone with boyfriends during movie nights; they get handsy, fingers and mouths greedily exploring what is not theirs.
Confident in our ghost selves, we take to the night and abandon our sleeping bodies to roam neighbors’ homes. We find their secrets: affairs documented via graphic images and text messages, prayers for miscarriages scribbled in journals, and credit card statements demanding overdue payments. At first tantalizing, the affairs and sex scandals and consumerism turn stale when we realize everyone—including the nearly ancient Mrs. Brody—is doing it.
“It’s like peer pressure,” Zora says. “Except instead of jumping off bridges, they’re having sex with multiple people and getting Botox they can’t afford.”
We nod, wondering why, then, our smoking weed behind Mrs. Brody’s house warrants a two-week grounding.
“Hypocrites,” Renata spits.
We ditch the journals, phones, and ripped pages to explore closets, jewelry boxes, and dresser drawers. Treating every wardrobe like our own, we wrap milky pearl necklaces around our milky necks and slip diaphanous silk dresses over our diaphanous bodies. In Mrs. Sandover’s laundry basket, we find soiled lace lingerie with mysterious strings and straps, and it takes all of us and a Google search to decipher the correct placement. Admiring ourselves in the mirror, we feel naked and vulnerable, yet we can’t look away at our shapeless selves masquerading as women. We wish we could take a picture, but every time we try, only the world around us appears. Removing the lingerie, we remember its owner’s husband has been overseas for four months, and our titillation turns to disappointment. We promise never to wave “hello” at Mrs. Sandover again.
When there’s nothing left unexplored in neighbors’ homes, we parade down streets and through parks our parents would never allow us to visit this late at night. We wake swing sets from their sleep, climb slides, and cartwheel across dew-soaked grass. The sounds of crunching leaves and snapping branches and husky coughs don’t frighten us. None of the men our parents browbeat into our nightmares—the kidnappers and sex-crazed maniacs and druggies—can do anything to our bodiless states. We wonder if this is what it feels like to be a man: to be fearless and careless of consequences, to do what we want when we want with no one to tell us to stop.
A week into our park exploration, two shadowy figures steal our swings, moving through us to collapse into the rubber seats. The man pulls a plastic bag, spoon, and lighter from his jacket like a magician preparing for a trick. The woman rolls the flint wheel, and a flame erupts from the lighter, warming the convex belly of the spoon as a chalky pellet melts and bubbles. He pulls out a needle, and the syringe drags the white liquid into its barrel. He pinches the woman’s arm before injecting the needle. The plunger slides down and she gasps and leans against the rusted swing chain. Her head falls forward and her body sinks into the seat before falling back onto the dirt. We rush to inspect her up close, standing beside the man who gently calls her name. Karla, Karla, Karla. She doesn’t respond; instead, her watery eyes bore into us before collapsing shut like the lid of a coffin. We watch for the rise and fall of her chest, but it’s too dark to see anything, and we don’t wait to see what happens next.
We don’t talk about the park or why we don’t want to return, day or night. Instead, we take to the neighborhood streets dotted with lamp posts, bathing in the bright yellow glow of the sodium lights. Marching along the outlines of cul-de-sacs, we spy through windows the silhouettes of families laughing and fighting and crying. They stare blankly at TV screens, pour second and third and fourth glasses of wine, and pick at zits in bathroom mirrors. One night, we watch a man peer through a bedroom window, the front of his jeans unzipped and his right hand jerking up and down. We throw rocks at him and, while amusing to witness his terror at the mysterious pelting before abandoning his post, we know he’ll be back. He eludes the motion-sensor lights too well for this to be his first time. When we return home that night, we close our bedroom window blinds, lock our windows, and make our younger sisters promise to do the same.
“Never shit where you eat,” Zora says, and we nod, craving secondhand excitement; the kind we can abandon and that won’t follow us home.
We move beyond the suburbs to a six-mile stretch of restaurants and bars and laundromats, the closest thing to downtown that our town offers. In restaurants, we observe first dates end well (fingers interlaced, shared tiramisu, heavy petting in the parking lot before the exchange of an address) and breakup dates start poorly (the lapping of glass after glass of wine, a “you’re late” snap between a clenched jaw, the demand for the check before dessert).
When the restaurants close, we move to laundromats where women in sweatpants sort blood-stained black underwear from lacy bras.
“My Tom pile and my Nicky pile,” one laughs with her friend.
They compare bills and Tinder messages and childhood stories. With phones glued to their ear, they shout and swear and flirt. They kick washing machines that steal quarters and growl at new arrivals who prowl for an available cart.
“Don’t even think about it,” one snaps, pointing at the cart four feet away before returning to her phone call.
After midnight, only the bars remain open, and we can’t resist the Irish pub, if only for its name: The Irish Pub.
“It’s so self-aware,” Anastasha admires.
Inside, a half-dozen men line the bar, rooted to their stools and hands gripping half-empty pints. These are sloppy men who don’t take “no” for an answer, who expect more than a “thank you” in return for a free drink. We don’t need HBO or Nylon or personal experience to know this. It’s an instinct; the same one that tells deer to scatter when they hear the snap of a twig, the slap of a footstep in the mud, or the disengaging of a safety. Prey always knows its predator.
We watch the men change form when a group of women enter the bar, their postures now erect, eyes alert, and legs spread wide. Their eyes crawl up and down each body, and their tongues slide across their top front teeth. A few of them whisper to each other, gesture and snarl. We don’t need to hear their thoughts to know what they’re thinking. Our fathers are not like these men, we remind each other, but it’s easy to imagine our boyfriends transmuting into this form in five or ten years, their hands already nimble and sly. The women order a round of shots, swing their heads back, and leave, all within five minutes. The men deflate like limp balloons and they return to their drinks, and we release our breath, our pellucid palms vibrating with energy.
We return to the bar the following night and the night after that, agreeing that the best secrets and ugliness belong to strangers. On the fifth night at the bar, we crawl into a corner booth and listen to the men complain about their wives, their jobs, their bosses. They use scatological nouns as verbs— “you’re shitting me,” “stop dicking around,” “don’t cock it up”—scratch their crotches, and start every other sentence with, “if it were up to me.” They threaten to quit their jobs, punch their bosses, and leave their families, but every night they return to the bar and complain about life’s chokehold. Exasperated, hearing the same complaints every night, we’re disappointed in our parents for misrepresenting the dangers of bars after midnight. Yet, bored as we are, we agree to hold out for the possibility of excitement.
“It’s like a horror film. We have to sit through the first thirty minutes before getting to the good stuff,” Zora says.
While ranking the worst ways to die in a horror film, we hear a glass shatter and turn to the source of the sound. At the front of the bar, a man grips a woman’s wrist, jerking her arm into his chest and forcing her body to follow. We can’t see his face, only the back of his blond, curly-haired head, but even from twenty feet away, we can sense her body shaking, her mind calculating possible next steps and the cost of each. She turns her head away from him and scans the room for anyone who might help her, but the men at the bar ignore the scene. The man yanks her arm again, his hand pythoning tighter around her wrist. She turns toward our booth and her eyes, fearful and wet, catch ours and hold us captive. We wonder if she can see us, and we scan our ghost selves, fearful we’ve lost the safety of our diaphanous form. Help? Renata mouths, but the woman doesn’t respond, only panting and pulling to free her imprisoned arm. We scream but no sound fills the room; we are useless to this woman.
The man whispers into her ear and her face falls from terror to relief and, finally, into a half-smile. He kisses the side of her face, but she doesn’t look away from us. The man turns toward us, searching but finding nothing. It takes a moment in the dim lighting to make out his face, but when we do, Anastasha sharply inhales, holding her breath as her father wraps his arm around the woman’s waist and guides her out of the bar. We don’t ask Anastasha if she knew, if her mother knows, if there were suspicions; the answer is obvious. We look to her to make the next move, to decide what we do or say next.
“I’m tired,” Anastasha says, slumped in her seat.
And we know what she means; we’re all tired. Our silence confirms the obvious: we’ll never return to the bar in this form or another, never talk about this night again, never mention Anastasha’s father again.
The walk home is long, but we’re comforted by the increasing silence of the suburbs and the solace of familiarity. When we reach our neighborhood, we take one last look at each other’s ghost selves—this form we thought would free us—before parting ways and slipping into the pitch black of our sleeping houses. Our bedrooms feel a little larger, the walls a little brighter, every edge a little softer. We shed our ghost selves with no intention of returning and reinhabit our bodies and all their limitations.
Melissa Darcey Hall is a writer and high school English teacher in San Diego, California. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming in Fugue, Press Pause Press, The Florida Review, The Louisville Review, Pigeon Pages, The Rumpus, Epiphany, and others.
Art by Andy K. Smith