Ghost in the Wall

Nicole Miyashiro

Fiction


Inner Light, Steve Smulka

Inner Light, Steve Smulka

It was nothing, I tell myself. Or, a ghost.

At least a ghost wouldn’t feel anything and could stretch inside the wall without bruising or being seen but could also steal breath without being seen, and then again, I could be hearing things.

My leg slides off the bed and drops a foot to the floor, but my hand refuses to remove the sheet from my body. The sun, unsure in its rising, withholds full light, and cars shush and bleep far outside of this below-ground apartment to remind me that I can hear them, but they will never hear me. I do not move.

It was nothing.

But how can I be sure when no one else sees the things that stalk the body from the inside—heartache, throbbing sores, the humiliation of someone lying and all along it has been so easy for them to do it. To look right through you. Ahhh, helllp, the ghost moans, or maybe that’s just how I feel today. I am alone.

Monica is at her boyfriend’s again, but I also fear that I am not alone. My room has become unfamiliar, has a ghost trapped in its wall, and I’d rather disappear than believe in it. Nnnn, she’s groaning, and she’s shuffling like pant legs sliding to a crumple. The sound alerts my skin the way a skirt flipped to my back in public would, and by now I have the sheet over my head. I am still.

I take only slow breaths through my nose, my face hot and embarrassed. Does she see me, does she see me? I think, is she even there?

Then I hear nothing.

Waiting for my breath to be pushed from my gut repeatedly against my will, I realize it could be hours, days of this crushing anticipation… I burst from the sheet to get it over with.

But no one is there.

It’s just me, and I listen for that moan, the thin soreness of it, it’s aching plea that sounded to me like a Nnnn, a Nooo, and I think, I knew it!

I knew it could be worse here on earth than in hell.

 

One place is no different than the other, and just before locking my door, I heard a, Nnnn, heeere, that stayed with me as I raced to the subway with my head down and then haunted me all the way into this conference room at Pointe Plaza Hotel where I work.

Sitting here, the rustle of white sheets sneaks in close, and I’m thinking, it’s right behind me. But then I see it’s Owen.

He’s tapping papers on the long table and I feel the full exposure of this room without its ceremony: small, windowless, no cloth dressings or silverware for a formal event, no pre-set binders or pens for a conference. The table is bare and awkward—defenseless against the coarse scratch of chair legs being dragged against carpet as Owen chooses a seat--and the air in my lungs scrambles for space.

 

I’ve got your back, kid, he has always said.

He said it the morning I was slumped over my desk, dreary and cold, because it was late fall and I’d forgotten my mug of tea at my apartment. I’ve got your back, his voice slid along with the base of a white mug across my desk. I lifted my head and knew he’d taken it from the stacked crates at the breakfast station. The bright image of a lemon twirled on the hanging tag, the mug warm and soothing to the touch.

Another time, he caught me cowering during one of our staff happy hours. Knees parted, body slouched, a guy at a nearby table rolled ice in his teeth, fixing his stare on me.

Owen leaned forward, slamming glasses into each other with his arm as he stretched his upper body over the table to block the view.

I’ve got you, kid.

 

But Owen doesn’t say anything now.

From over here, I can smell his smoldering leather and pepper-scented cologne that I’ve inhaled, more than once, with eyes closed as he was walking away from my desk. Not because I expected his touch, but because I imagined his touch and he is the only one here who has always seen me for who I am: full and feminine. The girl who holds her own in a razor-edged bob, stone-heavy necklaces, and a nickname given most often to baby boys.

‘Stevie,’ that’s cute, he approved, reviewing the succinct headings and columns of my first report when I started here as a programmer.

In the backroom behind the lobby counter, crowded with the soft lunch bags and jackets of my new coworkers, he leaned a hip to my cramped desk and reassured me:

The rest of us work the frontlines, but we count on you to keep our reservation systems up-and-running.

 

Today we’ll talk about system tweaks, reservation counts, and guest surveys. We’ll talk about peak seasons, happy hours, and all of the same things we always talk about, but instead of words, embarrassment forms in my throat as each of them walks in without noticing how plain this conference table is. How bare it has always been for our meetings, and I am just now seeing it. All three of them take a Monday agenda from Owen like flattery from his hands, because he is the guy who makes everyone feel good.

 

Aw, c’mon Owen, Margie said under a street-side umbrella on Friday, our table crowded with glasses of sun-tinged ale and a stack of clean bread plates. She is a mother of four whose thick braid swayed from her shoulder as she nudged Owen’s abandoned chair with a toe push. Don’t go!

He’d always been the first to leave in the past, standing to get home on time, dropping a generous fold of bills to ease his departure, and Booo, just stay! Joe bellowed, leaning back to stroke his round stomach.

But I sensed Owen wanted to hear it from me, and I was willing. Willing to mention that Monica would be at her boyfriend’s anyway… So I’ll be around. Stay! I begged. He stood there with his leather bag slung over his shoulder, his folded bills spotting with beer sweat on the table, and I waited to see if it was true. If he’d been waiting for a signal from me to make it worth his time.

Owen sat down, and the table roared with cheer.

 

“Guests seem satisfied,” Sheila is saying, tapping a bejeweled pen to my nerves, and I don’t want any of this to have to do with me, but it does. I assigned every value of every equation and ran the survey reports, and here I am—slouching below conversation, slinking partway beneath the table until the edge of my skirt touches the floor—and there is nowhere else to go. I’m caught. 

I’m the one they’re looking at.

“Stevie, thoughts?” Owen looks through me.

There’s a ghost! I want to tell them, crazed and hot, unable to focus. No one will believe me, so I stand. I excuse myself from overwhelming suspicion before it can swallow me whole, before they can twist their mouths and raise eyebrows at me—the way Monica did when she noticed me wearing makeup from the day before.

 

“It’s just not like you,” she said on Saturday.

Elbows in the air, she tied her stringy hair back, snapping the elastic band with every twist the way she does, because she doesn’t take shit from anyone. She is strong and resolute. Her bag was repacked with new clothes and I imagined her boyfriend kicking cigarette butts down the sidewalk outside. Waiting for her. But I did not want her to go.

Monica stalled, looked at me, smoothing her hair up the sides of her head, and then she jammed her hands to her hips.

I could have asked her to stay, but I rolled over. Blamed the hangover.

Now I am alone, hiding in the lobby restroom because I think I was sucking air with a ghost, and I can hardly breathe. I lower my face into palms of water and feel it plug my nose and touch my lips without temperature.

I had switched from matte lipstick to gloss, from all-over powder to dabs of blush because Sheila, who oversees reservations at the check-in counter, left red lip stamps on every Styrofoam coffee cup that she took from the lobby.

“Ick. There’s no competing with natural beauty,” Owen said.

Owen combs his hair with his fingers and an oaky pomade. He folds his own clothes after the wash because his wife doesn’t crease them right, and he likes things just right—he’d told me. He’d always stop by my desk to say hi, to tell me to dismiss Joe’s friendly reference to me as quirky and to assure me that Margie had been reminded to clean the microwave so I could heat popcorn without the mess of soup splatter.

More than once, I’ve stacked papers into neat piles on my desk, stored my used mugs in a drawer, and then waited for his warming scent to surround it all.

For each coworker to leave Friday’s happy hour, one-by-one, until it was just us. Him and me pouring beer that slid down the exterior curves of my glass for that second before his supportive hand covered mine to guide the flow.

He laughed, and I felt good in that skirt. The black and white A-line with a pink ribbon to match my shoes. But the flush warming my body had nothing to do with what I wore. Owen was leaning in close.

“You’re a funny girl,” he said. “I like that.”

His tone aroused an intimacy that felt new yet so familiar, as if the hushed flirtation of our every interaction was on the verge of rushing out to fill the glass that waited for my reach, frothy and fizzy with beer. I was full and staggered with possibility.

“I’ll walk you home,” he offered later. “I’ve got your back.”

 

“I really have to pee!” I said, hurrying inside, leaving the threshold of my door open at his feet. He came in, because I let him. The door was open, so he stepped through it. There would be no other way to explain it.

As I came out of the bathroom, I found him where I’d expected. Right there in my room, standing where my side was divided from Monica’s. The bath towel I’d left draped over my unmade bed, the candle bonded to checkered cotton that covered my nightstand, and a gem earring bent at its post were all there for him to see I realized, embarrassed, but he did not look. He took a large stride in my direction, heading for the bathroom.

His hands came down onto my shoulders, pressing us into a stumble. My torso buckled with his advancing weight until my bottom met the bed. Punishment, I thought. For all of my fantasies with this married man, wasn’t he just fulfilling them? Scrunching his pants down to step out into the flesh. You wanted this, I reasoned to myself, to ease the scorching between my thighs as he took my underwear away, as he filled every space there was to breathe, his presence pausing me with heaviness, each gasp separated inside me, a tearing force that was taking, taking, taking from me, without me.

Without the air to carry a word.

Even death seemed to listen for its queue, so I was silent as he heaved and sputtered, bearing down with his weight, splitting me below the stomach with every push—his grip implicit. He liked it. Hadn’t I known?

Hadn’t I worn this skirt for him?

Yet it twisted and burned, it demanded I tie my breath while wringing my skin with the dry sting of tears that never cried out.

 

“You okay, kid?” he said afterward, his pants rustling to cover his legs, the grate of his zipper closing. My body curled on the bed inside a room that was mine, but no longer belonged to me. My presence roamed. Unsure of its existence at all.

 

Now he’s standing here at my desk.

“You awake today, Stevie?” he says, not a waiver to his grin.

He chuckles with what I’d always thought to be affection. He uses my stapler without asking and then walks away. He should be turning around soon to make things right. To explain. Because I am screaming without making a sound. Trapped like that ghost, thumping and moaning inside, wondering if I could gather the breath to blow his papers into a spin. Make him feel something. Because something awful happened, I realize. I did hear that achy moan, shifting and pleading from behind my apartment wall.

Calling for help.

 

No one looks at me on the subway, but I know I am here because of the breathing. Keep breathing. Survive.

Nnn, Helllp,” the ghost said. And I heard it, I think. If only it had been imagined. But it wasn’t.

I pin a tear between my cheek and the handrail, its cold shininess reaching to the bone of my jaw. It is frigid. And real. As deep as that narrow opening that falls beside the length of the stairs that lead to my door—the only space that could possibly exist so near to my apartment wall. The subway shrieks, and I feel myself swallow.

When the doors slide open, I push through the bobbing crowd to get to that ghost. Because, I remind myself, there is No. Such. Thing.

 

I land each step hard into the concrete. The anger, the fear. The flap of my skirt into my thighs keeps me in touch with my surroundings, keeps me moving past the blur of doubt, the urge to cower in this dread. I welcome the bumps of my purse into my hip, its loaded reality pounding against hours of being lost and pinned, with little room to breathe.

There is a crowd, and I stop.

I’ve been standing outside of it all along. My apartment. People are being held back from the building by yellow tape strung between oak trees, the street blocked at either end by a waiting ambulance and a fire truck.

“You live in there?” a man with a small dog on a leash says, and I do not want to tell him. There is no need, because I can tell by his face that he is preparing to mourn without knowing what to mourn, darting his eyes through the crowd, searching, trying to see, the dog panting and squeaking in tapered yaps.

“Stevie! Did you see this?” Monica emerges from the crowd, reaching for my hand. She leads us into the fold of people, and I look down at all of the feet, the anonymous sneakers, the flats, woven sandals.

Monica sees me crying and stops.

“She’s alive,” she says, squeezing my hand. “It’s okay, they’re getting her out. Look!”

She whips an arm around my back to squeeze my shoulder, and I feel my body shaking in her embrace. I see a couple wearing tracksuits, crossing their arms, a woman covering her mouth, light flicking off her gold rings, and I hear the dog—its leash whipping as full barks erupt.

The woman appears frail, slumping between two men in heavy jackets and boots. They hold her close by the arms, offering her their legs and hips as support. She is limping and sooty. Her flowered top and linen pants are tattered, her spiky hair matted. Yet she waves with a silent smile, and applause lightens my breath. My palms sting as I clap to join in, knowing that I’d rather not be alone in my apartment tonight. That I really want Monica to stay.

All I need to do is ask.


Nicole Miyashiro hopes her story contextualizes behaviors associated with sexual assault to increase understanding and all efforts to defend human dignity. Her latest work appears in HEArt OnlinePersephone’s DaughtersClever Girl Magazine, and The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review. She is also working on an ekphrastic project called Words of Art. http://www.nicolemiyashiro.com