Grey, Black, and Ash
I went to high school with a kid who was invisible.
Not like, H.G. Wells invisible. Just unnoticeable. Easy to glance over and miss. The way you hear about kids in abusive homes learning the trick of not being noticed as a survival trait. Not to say that this kid had a bad home, or anything. I mean, maybe he did. I dunno, I never talked to him.
But this story isn’t about him. Someone else will have to tell his story, ‘cause I don’t know it. I only brought him up because the girl was sort of like that. The Ghost Girl.
I didn’t actually believe in ghosts, never having gone in for that supernatural fantasy stuff. Jilly does, though, and she’s the one who started calling her that. “Been haunting the Ghost Girl?” she’d ask when we met at Mr. Spot’s for coffee on a Wednesday night, her eyes twinkling in that special way she only gets when she’s giving me shit.
I wasn’t haunting her…except that I sort of was. So what if I went a little out of my way to cut through that vacant lot on my way to work every night? It wasn’t like I hung around waiting for her.
Except that one time.
The first time I saw her was on a Monday, a gray, cold evening that had been threatening rain to the point where I almost wanted it, like an old man wishing Death would just get it over with. My last class had run a little late and it was my first night at my new job tending bar at the Lock & Keel. Not knowing the area, I tried to take a short cut and got promptly lost. It’s one of those places where old streets crash up against modern urban planning and you end up with crooked intersections and one-ways that lead nowhere.
I was somewhat frantically trying to get my bearings when I saw her, leaning against a brick wall by a wooden door that looked like it hadn’t been opened in decades.
I almost didn’t see her at first, the way she almost blended in with the gray brick wall, streaked with black as if someone had tried to paint it by dripping buckets of outdoor glossy down from the roof.
She had that kind of timeless look about her that I’ve never been able to resist, wrapped in a long gray coat with ash-blonde hair mostly tucked under a black beret. She was trying to light a cigarette with a match, which the cool evening wind wasn’t making easy. I imagined smoothly walking up to her, offering her a light like Bogart in some old film noir, but while I was dreaming she successfully lit the thing and took a long, smooth drag.
I cursed myself silently as I hurried past, and made it to work in just enough time. While pulling pints that night I wondered if she’d come in, but I wasn’t that lucky.
That’s when I started taking the not-so-shortcut on a regular basis – not every day, but enough. Eventually I did catch her at just the right time to offer her a light, but other than her soft, low “thanks” and my terribly witty and smooth “no problem,” we didn’t say anything. What could I say? “So, come here often? To this…alley?”
The next time we spoke, I gave her a light again. If she suspected I’d been gripping my lighter as I walked, waiting for this opportunity, she didn’t show it. She looked as if she was waiting for something, and anything that wasn’t it barely registered. Like me.
For some reason, my thoughts jumped into my throat and before I knew it I was saying, “Are you waiting for something?”
She nodded slowly, looking somewhere just to the left of my eyes.
When she didn’t offer anything else in the silence that followed, I mumbled something to the effect of “see ya,” and walked quickly away.
The next time I saw her there was the last. I was coming up the street and thought for sure I could see her by the door as usual, gray and black and ash in the dwindling light of dusk, but when I looked back a minute later she was gone. I squinted, remembering how she sometimes blended in, almost invisible. But it was no good.
She was gone.
I didn’t see her again for a long time. It was the next quarter, and I was at the library doing some research, looking up local historical documents. I was looking at old photos and newspapers on microfiche, and there she was.
Oh, you think you know the story now? That the girl was staring up at me from some yellowed photograph, maybe an obituary mentioning a tragic fire in whatever used to be on that vacant lot? Sorry, my life’s not that exciting.
She was just standing in line, waiting to check out a book, her hand on the arm of a tall, muscular guy I recognized as a mechanic who worked at a garage in the area. My ghost girl was just a girl, waiting for her boyfriend to get off work. Sometimes life is like that – you notice something odd and think you’ve stumbled onto a bit of magic, but on closer inspection it’s just someone else’s boring life.
That newspaper idea is good, though. Maybe I’ll try it next time I tell this story.
Sarah Shay is a writer, journalist, and musician living in Seattle. When not writing about music and magic, she makes magical music with street folk trio The Mongrel Jews.
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