I feel a tapping on my shoulder. I live alone. No one else has keys. My heart races as if trying to flee to a safer body. But I am startled for only an instant. I turn around and, sure enough, it’s merely that ghost. He always shows up when I feel most alive, which for a long time meant infrequent visits. Lately I’ve come to expect him at least once a week.
He never uses fancy theatrics to frighten me. No creaking footsteps from the closet or lightning bolts piercing the bedroom wall. No howls or shrieks, no low moans or clanking chains. “I’m not too good on the audiovisuals,” he once explained after trying to project hand-shadow ghouls onto the wall.
Sometimes he hides behind a chair and emits a feeble “Boo!”—and then, “Don’t be scared, it’s only me.” Once, I discovered the word demon written in what I thought was blood on the front door. It turned out to be a jelly smear from one of the doughnuts he’d brought as a treat. He apologized and then scrubbed the door clean.
Tonight it’s just a tap on the shoulder. He shrugs, as if to apologize for startling me. We sit for a while, until I forget why I was so cheerful. He has a smoky presence, vaguely shaped into limbs and facial features—nothing I could grab hold of, though God knows I’ve been afraid even to try.
Three days later, I return home from work feeling chipper. He is lying on the couch and rises with a start when I close the door. “Huh! . . . Oh, it’s only you,” he says.
He seems weary, even more translucent than usual. I make some coffee, and we drink it quietly. He dunks his cruller and lets it dissolve in the blackness. The smoke from his cigarette looks like ghost-children wandering in the air.
“Anything wrong?” I ask.
He stares at the cold coffee. “There’s something about living I’m beginning to miss,” he says at last. “I can’t remember what it is, not for the life of me.” For the first time I think I see a flicker of a smile. He shrugs, and his borders undulate, giving the impression of a full-bodied fidget.
“Please go on,” I say softly.
A bolt of lightning zips across the window, and he looks admiringly at it. “I thoroughly appreciated deadness,” he says. “Now I feel almost nostalgic for the days when people disliked me for who I was, not for what I represent.”
I reach out to touch him, forgetting how scared I’ve been to do that. He pulls away, though a coolness in my palm makes me think I might have grazed him. “Sorry,” I say. “Only trying to help. You’re fading away, pal.”
“A throbbing where my bones used to be,” he murmurs.
“Maybe you’re coming back to life.”
“I don’t believe in that crap,” he whispers as he merges with the last puff from his cigarette. Soon that too is gone, and I am alone in the room, which vibrates as if reacting to a tremor from someplace below. Traffic, no doubt.
(originally published in The New Yorker)