Short Fiction by Michael Chin
Ronald always had to clean up after his sister.
Take when Jennifer was ten and he was six. They played checkers and she overturned the board because he was about to win. The board was a relic from their mother’s childhood, heavy, with a polished oak base and heavy marble top, the surface of which scratched against the side of the table en route to the floor. She told him he needed to pick up the pieces and he asked why. She punched him in the arm so hard that his eyes watered and said, “Because you do what I say.”
In time, Ronald washed dishes and scrubbed the bathroom, not because it was his turn but to head off the chaos of his parents scolding Jennifer and her yelling back and slamming doors.
When Jennifer was in high school, Ronald closed her bedroom window after she snuck out at night. He had misgivings about that task—for going into her room and for keeping her secret, not to mention the chance she might actually get herself into trouble. It got cold in his own bedroom, though, next to hers, if the window were open for too long overnight.
After his sister left for college, Ronald came up with the excuse that her bedroom window’s screen was missing because it had blown out one night, and it was their parents who had forgotten do something about even after she complained. He did Jennifer’s laundry for her when she was home for winter break, and mounds of unwashed clothes poured from beyond her bedroom door into the hallway. He pretended to be a new boyfriend over the phone one summer, too, so she could get her the spring semester boyfriend to stop calling the house.
But by that time, Jennifer had started doing things for her brother, too. She brought home pot from college and shared it with him, leaning their heads out the kitchen window to take puffs while they played checkers again on the old marble board, carefully positioned on the counter. He liked when she came home then—it wasn’t only the best of his relationship with his sister, but, he felt, the embodiment of everything good in his life to have this time with her.
Time was fleeting. Jennifer moved away, married, and had a child. Ronald was touched when she asked him to be the godfather, even if it felt like more a ceremonial than a practical job.
Ronald thought he’d make a good father, but he didn’t expect children of his own. He’d seen a few girls in college, but things never got serious, and when he moved back into his parents’ house to save money after school, it didn’t bolster his dating prospects. By the time his parents moved south to retire and abdicated the house to him on the condition he’d take over property tax payments, he was forty and had settled into his bachelor life, selling certificates of deposit and retirement plans for the bank by day, eating supper by the television each night.
The routine was interrupted on occasion when his sister returned to town with her husband Jack and their little girl Anna for Christmas each of those first eight years of her life, or when Jennifer sent Anna to stay with him for a long weekend from time to time so she and Jack took a grown-up vacation.
The routine shattered when, on one such vacation, Jennifer and Jack’s rental car skidded over a guard rail and off a cliff on The 1, driving from Santa Cruz to Santa Barbara.
Ronald was left with the responsibility of telling Anna Mom and Dad weren’t coming on Tuesday. Mom and Dad weren’t coming back at all.
Ronald had no idea how Anna would react to the news. Would she cry? Would she scream? Would she get sick? Good God, what if she entered some sort of state of shocked paralysis? They had been having fun up to that point. It had been her best visit yet. They’d gone to the movies and played checkers. She’d looked awe-struck when he explained that Anna was sleeping in the same room her mother had when she was her age.
When he sat her down to talk to her, he was surprised at her mild reaction. He told her there’d been an accident.
“Are they all right?”
“No.” Ronald waffled over his choice to ease into this conversation. Was it better to ease into peeling off a Band-Aid and test how the skin responded? Or was it better to rip it off in a single swipe? “It was a very bad accident.”
Anna didn’t miss a beat. “When are they coming to get me?”
Finally, Ronald explained that her parents weren’t coming and that Anna wasn’t going home.
She paused, but didn’t shake or cry or anything else Ronald might have expected. “Can I stay in this room? “
Maybe it was all their cookie dough ice cream, sing along to the radio, mini-golf fun that took the edge off of the bad news? Ronald hadn't the first idea about what to do. How was he supposed to take care of a child full time, not to mention one who had been recently orphaned?
She hadn’t cried until the funeral.
Then the floodgates opened.
Anna cried at the funeral, and throughout the reception she remained glued to the sofa alternately crying or napping, her face planted on the shoulder, chest, or lap of a rotating cast of relatives, last of all Ronald.
Mercifully, his parents stayed at the house with Ronald and Anna for an extra week. Mom was reticent to go, but Dad reminded her—opaquely, Ronald thought—that she was due back home for another treatment with her doctor, and said the sooner Ronald could settle into a new routine with the girl, the better off they’d be. Ronald had never met Anna’s paternal grandparents. They had been absent from the wedding all those years back, and he had never heard either Jennifer or Jack mention them. He assumed they would get in touch someday, if they wanted to see their granddaughter, but he wasn’t holding his breath.
Ronald had questions by the hundred. Who would help this girl build her science projects—projects he still had nightmares about failing? How would he talk to her about boys, much less about her period when it came in—how long? Real parents had years to prepare, and often as not a partner to tag team the big issues.
He took things day by day. In his first major step as guardian, he brought her to the superintendent’s office and after a series of forms and providing documentation, they had her registered to start the third grade.
The night before the first day of school, after she’d brushed her teeth and was tucked into bed, Anna got weepy again and moaned for her mother. Ronald wasn’t sure if the tears at that moment—nearly three months after the accident, a month and a half after she’d stopped spontaneous explosions of tears—had at least as much to do with the anxieties of starting at a new school, surrounded by new people. But still, he allowed her to draw him into the uncomfortable space of talking about her parents, and told her all manner of platitudes that he was never entirely sure were fair to say, or appropriate to her specific situation.
They're in a better place.
You’ll feel better—it’s just a matter of time.
Everything happens for a reason.
They were the same empty phrases he told himself, lost in his own grief, suddenly thinking about his own mortality (How long did he have left? What if something happened to him? Who would take care of Anna then? Is this really all life is? What comes after?) and suddenly thrust into parenthood. It didn’t matter what he said. They were words to fill a silence. Words to have to have something to say.
“I wish they were here,” Anna said.
And in that instant, everything was clear. Ronald hugged the girl close; there, in the same room her mother had slept in as a girl. He looked down at the mess of stringy brown hair that he wasn’t sure when she had last washed, but still didn’t feel comfortable holding her accountable for, and said, “They are.”
Anna sucked back snot in a ragged stream, a sound like ripping an impossibly long sheet of paper.
“I caught a glimpse of your mother the other night,” he said. “Just a glimpse before she vanished.”
“I want to see her.”
“Me, too.” He nodded vigorously. The girl was buying in. “But I found that there’s no trying about it. She lets herself be seen when she can. I imagine she would want you to see her all the time.”
Anna’s eyes were still glassy, but open wide and fixed on him. “What stops her?”
Ronald wished he had time to think through the story, but here they were. Here eyes were growing wider and more intent by the second. “Traveling between dimensions—it can be difficult. Getting back to earth takes a lot of effort.”
“I wish she’d come see me.” Anna put down her head again, tired, and maybe a little desperate.
“She was trying to. I don’t expect she’d go out of her way to see her oaf of a little brother.” Another flash of brilliance. “Your mother knows how much you like checkers, right?”
Anna nestled into his chest, hiding, drying her tears, getting closer to him.
“I had the checkerboard out today. I thought you and I might like to play, but we never got around to it. But when I looked at the board—just before I came up here and just after I saw your mother, one of the pieces had moved. A play.”
“What color piece?”
This part was easy. Anna loved the color red. Half her clothes were red. Her childhood teddy bear had red fur. She always played red at checkers.
After Ronald told her, Anna stopped crying. She didn’t smile exactly, but looked ready to be convinced. “I should move.” She pushed back the covers.
“You have to get your sleep, Anna.”
“She’s waiting.” Anna’s face shifted from sorrow to indignation. “What if she comes back and sees I haven’t played and quits the game?”
“I don’t think she’ll be able play again that soon. Not yet, anyway. Make your move when you get up in the morning. That’s soon enough.”
Anna eyed him with what he could only read as suspicion. Did she see through the bluff—that there was no checkerboard set up, much less one upon which her deceased mother had made a spectral play?
Ronald tucked Anna in and hurried downstairs to grab the checkers. Scheming all the while of ways he would explain if Anna snuck down and caught him in the act of setting up the board. He could say that Jennifer had grown frustrated with waiting and upturned the board. But no, the girl may not have seen that impatient side of her mother, and it would fuel the argument that she should have come downstairs sooner. He could say he left the window open, and a stiff breeze must have knocked it over—yes, that was it. He moved the board from the coffee table where he had started and set up a card table near the window to make such an excuse feasible.
But Anna didn’t venture downstairs and inside of ten minutes, he had the board set and the first red piece moved, waiting for an opponent.
Ronald awoke feeling proud of himself for not only assuaging his niece’s sorrow, but inventing something new for them both to celebrate and believe in. He imagined concocting a ghost cat—Cocoa, from his and Anna’s childhood, who would explain away mysterious creaks in the house at night. And if that worked, maybe there could be visits from ghosts of historical importance—Gandhi teaching her a lesson about how civil disobedience was better than fighting if she got into a scuffle at school; Thomas Jefferson remembering her to pursue happiness if Anna grew too glum about missing her old home, and the illusion of ghost parents weren’t enough. Anna would wise to the truth eventually, but he imagined it might be something like the steady way in which recalled he and his sister spotting the logical holes in the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus narratives. Without any singular revelation or discovery, it had grown patently obvious that his parents bought their gifts and hid their eggs. And it was OK.
Ronald left the master bedroom in the morning and knocked on Jennifer’s old door—that was still how he thought of it. He knocked again and then opened it, musing that in a few years he’d be dealing with not a sleepy-eyed little girl, but couple of years she would need more privacy, but with a full-fledged teenager armed with righteous indignation. He hoped he would be ready.
Anna wasn’t there. And the window was open.
Like mother like daughter.
“Anna?” Ronald hustled down the steps, taking two, and then three at a time the way he had as a boy. “Anna?”
He skidded to a stop at the bottom of the stairs to find her sitting calmly at the kitchen table. Barefoot and bed-headed in her sheep pajamas, no suggestion she’d been outdoors.
Anna had come downstairs early, that was all, and when he asked if she had opened her window she said, without a trace of guile, that she hadn’t. Maybe she’d opened the window absent-mindedly, half-asleep when it was too hot at night, or, conceivably it hadn’t been latched tightly enough, and the wind blew it open.
Regardless, Anna had rushed from her room in the wee hours to make the next move in checkers, and proceeded to pour herself a too-big bowl of Corn Pops. She was barely tall enough to see over the kitchen counter, and so had sloshed milk all over. Ronald wiped the counter dry while she resumed her breakfast. He’d had intentions of making her pancakes for her first day of school, and felt a twinge of disappointment, promptly replaced with pride in the girl’s self-sufficiency and the small part he might have in that for concocting a story about her mother’s ghost that had had given her a reason to be excited about things again.
Ronald considered making the next move on the checkerboard while Anna sat there with her back turned, but realized that would be too bold. She might catch him in the act, or on the opposite extreme want to spend every waking minute from then on—including school time—seated in that kitchen, watching for the next move. The game would become less about preserving Jennifer’s spirit than contriving trickery, and it would only be a matter of time before she figured him out.
But when Ronald got to the checkerboard, the red side had moved, with a second piece advanced from its starting position. Maybe Anna was already wise to the game and had moved the piece herself, or maybe she was testing the ghost artifice. If Anna moved for her mother, would her mother respond? If the girl ended up playing the whole game herself, what would that say about her ghost opponent?
So Ronald moved that piece back and moved another—advancing the first piece one row further, to the center of the board. But was that too aggressive? To push Jennifer’s piece into direct confrontation and dare Anna to take it and trade pieces? He tried to remember how Jennifer used to play when the two of them were children, but came up blank. He wound up pulling that piece back and moving a different one altogether.
As soon as Anna got home that day, before she would fill him in on her first day of third grade, or tell him about her teacher or the after school day care activities, she rushed to the checkerboard, and if she noticed that Ronald had changed the board, she didn’t say a word about it. She made a move of her own. Despite Ronald’s best efforts to watch the girl, he somehow missed it when she moved one of her mother’s pieces again. When Anna wasn’t looking, Ronald pushed the piece back into place and made another move for red.
The next morning, Ronald got up earlier, ahead of Anna, and when he opened her door she was still asleep, bundled up tight. It was cool in the room, the window open again.
The patterns repeated. Ronald watched the checkerboard closely even as Anna walked out the door to wait for the bus, to be certain she never doubled back to make a move for her mother. And yet still, after she had been gone for half an hour, when Ronald returned to the checkerboard, the red side had moved. That next night, Ronald forbade Anna to open her window, using a voice more stern than he ever had before, and double-checked that it was locked. Still, when morning came, the window was open, and when he interrogated her, she met him with open-mouthed confusion.
Ronald was losing his mind. He began to suspect Jennifer was with him.
He tried talking to her. First in the living room, then directly in her old bedroom—if she were there, why wouldn’t she show herself to him? Was she the one moving the checker pieces and opening her window? He got no reply.
After work the next day, after Ronald drove Anna home in a silent car ride, he could think of nothing but Jennifer.
Anna returned to the checkerboard and made her next move. “Mrs. Cap says that you did the right thing setting up the checkerboard.” She grinned. She had lost one of the baby teeth from the bottom row a couple weeks earlier, and there remained a gap that she was wonderfully unconcerned with. “She says that helped Mommy come back.”
Mrs. Cappanatelli was Anna’s teacher. The school secretary had explained to Anna that everyone called her Mrs. Cap, because the abbreviation was easier for little tongues to wrap their way around.
Ronald felt momentarily reassured that Anna had bought into the ghost story enough to discuss it at school. But then, he wasn’t sure he liked the idea of anyone else weighing on his mythology. After all, weren’t his own stories enough of a burden to keep track of?
“Did she?” Ronald asked.
Anna sat up on her knees atop the chair, a precarious position Ronald felt certain he should have disallowed, but he was still getting used to not being the fun uncle. “Mrs. Cap says you need to invite ghosts into your life. Otherwise, they don’t know they’re welcome or can’t find their way to you. Just like you said.”
“Well, of course,” Ronald said. “What else did she tell you?”
“She said you can maa-fest spirits.”
Manifest. Ronald didn’t correct her and grew concerned about a word like that. It was the type of word that people who really did believe in all of this ghost stuff might use, and the next thing he knew, Mrs. Cap would send Anna home with ouija boards and all other manner of paraphernalia that would give Ronald the willies.
But that was all Anna had to say about the matter. She jumped one of her mother’s pieces on the checkerboard, beamed up at her uncle, and asked what they were having for dinner.
The second week of school included the dreaded parent-teacher night. A parade of other adults all converging on the school for a ritual the rest of them were all too familiar with. Ronald didn’t know how to dress. He wound up wearing khakis and a cashmere sweater that he regretted immediately upon seeing other parents in their t-shirts and football jerseys and jeans. These were real parents—the people who got out of work clothes and into comfortable attire for playing on the floor and cooking dinner and didn’t have time or energy to carefully consider wardrobe changes.
Ronald positioned himself next to a man in a business suit whom he imagined must have come straight from work, figuring he’d look less stodgy by comparison. He shook his hand and the man—Brad—promptly told Ronald to relax. This was his third child to come through Mrs. Cap’s classroom, and she was good.
Ronald decided that he liked Brad. He liked that Brad removed gummy fruit snacks from his blazer, and even more so when he offered to share them. He liked that he checked and double checked to make sure his cell phone had been turned to airplane mode so he wouldn’t interrupt Mrs. Cap, and the way he described how he and his wife had decided to “divide and conquer.” She was in the unknown fifth grade teacher’s classroom for their daughter, while Brad made sure Mrs. Cap hadn’t “completely lost her marbles.” Brad leaned in close across the aisle of desks made for much smaller people, the stale smell of coffee on his breath, and explained, “Mrs. Cap can be a little wooey.”
Ronald could guess what he meant, in a classroom decorated with not only construction paper cutouts of peace signs and yellow smiley faces, but also a Native American dream catcher in one corner, and an assortment of crystals and stones on what Ronald would best approximate to be an alter.
Mrs. Cap herself was younger than he expected—couldn’t have been forty, but had the rest of the hippy persona down, including dirty blond hair that reached down to her waist.
But for all her external oddities, she gave what Ronald had to imagine was the rote classroom presentation prescribed by the school. She distributed copies of her classroom achievement goals, printed in full color with clip art of rulers and books. She spoke of building an inclusive community in her classroom and making sure each child received individualized attention.
Twenty minutes later, the show was over. Parents hung back to ask questions about how she would ensure the birthday cupcakes the mothers made for class didn’t have nuts because their daughter was deathly allergic to nuts, and about how much their son should be reading at home to keep his skills sharp.
While the rest of the parents trooped down the hall to hear the gym teacher’s spiel, Ronald hung back. He didn’t want to seem a nuisance, but he also wasn’t about to talk about ghosts in front of a crowd. He held out his hand to her the way a dozen other awkward parents had, and introduced himself.
Mrs. Cap bundled her small hands around his. “I was so sorry to hear about Anna’s parents.”
From the day of the accident on, so many human interactions had included condolences, and he still hadn’t figured out the proper balance of how to respond. “I wanted to talk with you about Anna’s mother.”
“Oh.” She still held his hands, but slowed the shaking, then carefully withdrew them.
“I decided to tell Anna a story. About how the ghost of her mother was still around.”
Mrs. Cap’s lips curled into a more modest smile than the rehearsed, sweet one she’d used up to that point, cultivated for children and their worried parents. This look was more knowing, more real. “I think it’s a nice idea.”
Ronald fought back a schoolboy smile of his own. No reason to get too proud of himself just yet. “Anna said that you told her something about bringing her mother back. About conjuring—”
“Manifesting,” Mrs. Cap corrected him. “You say conjuring and everyone thinks you’re talking about witchcraft.” She winked.
“What did you mean?” he asked. “About the manifesting?”
Mrs. Cap sat down on the edge of her desk. “I probably shouldn’t have said anything. I can see you’re not really from that world, and if I knew that I wouldn’t have gotten into it. I figured if you were talking about her mother’s spirit, you might be a more spiritual yourself.”
“You don’t need to apologize.” He spread his hands in the air in what he intended as a clearing motion, but ended up colliding with the steel chalk tray at the edge of the blackboard. His knuckles smarted and he wondered how it was so transparent he wasn’t from her world. “I was hoping you might fill me in—about this manifesting. Anna’s been playing along with everything I set up, but lately—”
“But now it’s taking on a life of its own. You think you actually manifested your sister’s spirit.”
Ronald ventured a glance at his knuckles. White waves of skin protruded, but thankfully, he didn’t bleed. “I don’t even know if I believe in all this stuff. I’m not saying it’s impossible—“
“Forgive me, Ronald. But are you asking if your sister’s spirit in the house?” She gave him her full attention, a look of genuine concern. “Because of course she is.”
He asked how she could be sure.
“She would go back to her daughter,” Mrs. Cap said. “Especially if her daughter is with her brother, and if all that weren’t enough, there’s the lure of her childhood home. And when you put out a checkerboard for her to play on—the same checkerboard the two of you used to sit at—that’s the perfect invitation for her to interact.” Mrs. Cap tilted her head to the side. Her eyes were bright green with streaks of yellow exploding from her pupils like fireworks, like lightning. “Ronald, how are you doing?”
“Me?” He folded his arms and leaned against the chalkboard in an attempt at nonchalance. “I’m fine. You know, I’m sad about Jennifer—Anna’s mother. And this parenting thing is new to me. It’s hard.”
Mrs. Cap lifted a table cloth from beside her desk that had covered a shorter cube—a miniature refrigerator as it turned out. A cloud of mist flowed outward and had she been more secretive about it, he thought it might have looked like mystical smoke. Maybe that was how it looked to her students. She flipped open a compartment and removed a blue jelly icepack. “We’re not supposed to have these, but if I send every kid who bumped his knee to the nurse’s office I’d only teach half a class at a time.”
The icepack chilled his knuckles on impact. He remembered his own school nurse giving him a pack just like that, and watching the gel inside soften by degrees as it melted.
“Your sister will be around for as long as you and Anna need her,” Mrs. Cap said. “If you talk to her she’ll listen. And if you really listen, she might talk to you, too.”
“So far it doesn’t look like she can get past moving checkers.” He chuckled. “And maybe she’s the one opening Anna’s window. Can you imagine that? After all these years?” He had to sound like a crazy person.
“You might be surprised by what happens,” she said, “if you make yourself available.”
That night, like any other night, Ronald put Anna to bed. He hugged her and put her book with the princess and the dragon on the cover on her nightstand, just out of reach, before he turned out the light.
He went downstairs and studied the checkerboard. It was the second game he had set up for Anna and Jennifer. Like the days and nights before, the red side had made its move when Ronald wasn’t looking. Ronald had stopped participating in the game two days earlier, two weeks into making use of the checkerboard with Anna.
A half hour passed. He packed Anna’s crunchy peanut butter and strawberry jam sandwich on white bread, her cheddar crackers, and a box of apple juice; he put the icepack to return Mrs. Cap in a Ziplock bag. He washed the dishes and double-checked that the front door was locked, and then went back upstairs and into Anna’s room.
The girl was asleep. He sat down on a papasan chair, the cushion patterned in paisley, beside a stuffed animal snow leopard and the periwinkle princess gown he’d purchased mere weeks before, a lifetime ago when he was just her uncle, and she his visiting niece. The dress had seemed like the most important thing in Anna’s world. He remembered how Anna had fingered the sequins and called them diamonds.
He watched the window. It was silly, he knew. He felt foolish. What was he waiting for, exactly? For Anna to sleepwalk to the window and open it? For some phantom draft or the nocturnal movements of some hitherto undetected bird or bat?
But then, wasn’t there the possibility, however slight, of something else?
Was that why he was here? Was that the reason he left the checkerboard out on the table, rather than putting it away after he had lost control of it? Was that the reason he found himself sitting in the dark, staring through the dirty window pane, its smudges fracturing the street light outside into thousands of spikes. He imagined a star at its center. Then something smaller. An inheritance. Everything he remembered. Everything he had left, everything that had been lost to him. He imagined everything good he had ever said goodbye to might come back to him that night.
Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and currently lives in Georgia with his wife and son. He has two full-length short story collections on the way: You Might Forget the Sky was Ever Blue from Duck Lake Books and Circus Folk from Hoot ‘n’ Waddle. He has also published three chapbooks: Autopsy and Everything After with Burrow Press, Distance Traveled with Bent Window Books, and The Leo Burke Finish with Gimmick Press. Find him online at miketchin.com and follow him on Twitter @miketchin.
Notes from the author
Think through the above story, and, if moved, share your thoughts with us and other readers in the comments below.
This was one of the first stories I drafted after moving in with my now-wife, then-girlfriend, Heather, after a long distance relationship. She's very much in touch with her spiritual side and inclined to believe that ghosts not only exist, but are often as not around us. While I enjoy stories of the supernatural, and like to think I keep a fairly open mind, I'm also definitely more of a skeptic at heart, and the two of us went through stages of intellectual sparring around this topic. Living with Heather, I have spent far more time thinking about ghosts and thing outside the scope of material science than I ever had before. I’m coming to terms with not only a sense of fear, but also a sense of wonder in that.
The heart of this story, for me is the idea of adjusting to new life responsibilities (if not a new life altogether) while also having one's worldview challenged, and having all of these feelings of grief and regret and stress and confusion simmering together on the back burner, because who ever gets to focus on any single emotion while living full lives?
Do you think it’s because Ronald has recently had his world violently disrupted - the death of his sister, his sudden responsibilities toward his niece - that he is more open to considering the possibility that the world might be different, more strange, more complex, than he had ever imagined; that there may be “the possibility, however slight, of something else?” Does it take this kind of disruption to shake us as humans from our certainty?