I splashed cold water on my face and stared at my reflection in the bathroom mirror. Why was I so jumpy? I had to remember where I was; a nursing home, where most of the elderly residents came to fade away from memory, like ghosts, but that didn’t mean I’d seen a ghost—just a weird old man. This place was full of those, and like Grandma, all they wanted was attention, some needier than others, and I suspected he was one of the needy ones—they were often ignored.
I tore a paper towel from the dispenser, wiped my face, and checked myself in the mirror one last time. I still looked rattled, but most of the fear had gone away. Hopefully Grandma wouldn’t prod me about my sudden departure. She always said I was the emotional one of the family. Easily excitable, her exact words. It must have started with Pawpaw’s practical jokes—well, I guess they were Elliot’s first—I never got used to them. I went over the list of pranks Grandma claimed Elliot had invented: whoopee cushions, fingers, Jack-o-lanterns . . .
So I guess I could thank Elliot for Halloween 1999, when Pawpaw hurled a glowing Jack-o-lantern at my head across the neighbor’s yard on a clothesline. I stood there, frozen in terror, screaming my head off until the thing hit me dead in my face and knocked me out cold. Later, after I had woken up with a throbbing headache and a black eye, Pawpaw confessed that he was only reenacting a scene from a short story by Washington Irving, “The Legend of Sleepy Hallow.” Meanwhile behind him, Grandma chided me about how I would be the reason why black people would never get to live past the opening credits of horror movies.
When I finally emerged from the bathroom, Grandma was already on her next husband.
“Meg, sweetie,” she said when she saw me, “I didn’t mean to scare you like that.”
“N–no, I wasn’t . . . It wasn’t . . .” I stuttered. Our circle was back down to five: Grandma, Thomas, Winifred, Tammy, Marcos, and Frank. The nurse must have left when I bolted to the bathroom, but her empty rocking chair still teetered back and forth by itself, and I imagined the ghostly man was now sitting in it—all the energy he’d absorbed to manifest himself depleted, making him invisible once again—still watching me with those scared, worried eyes.
No, no. I shook my head. He was real. He was a patient here. That’s why the nurse was gone. She’d seen him and taken him back to his room. Maybe she would give him medicine that would put him down, keep him from harassing visitors unaccustomed to his haunting nature, at least until dinner.
“Come here, baby.” Grandma stood up to examine me closer. She pinched and stretched my cheeks like she often did when I was little. “Honey, all the melanin has drained right out of your face. You look bout as white as Winifred.”
“Like you seen a ghost,” Thomas jeered. The swooped side smirk on his face told me Grandma had been talking about my history of getting spooked.
“Did you see him? Did you see Gaston?” Grandma asked.
“W–what?” The old man was Gaston? That couldn’t be right. I thought Grandma had said Gaston was younger. Or maybe I’d just assumed that because he drew comics. Comic books were childish to me, but I knew of grown men who collected and also wrote them. Gaston could’ve been as old as Fred, or older, and like comic book writer, Stan Lee, he could’ve been creating superheroes well into his nineties.
“I only ask because he haunted Harry too.” Grandma reached behind her, grasped the arms of her chair, and eased herself down in her seat. I followed suit. I should’ve known her concern wasn’t sincere. I couldn’t remember a time when she ever showed true concern for the things that frightened me. She was a storyteller first, and she often used me as inspiration for her scarier ones. Like the rest of her husbands, Harry probably wasn’t real at all, but because I was so spooked after she’d finished talking about Gaston, she had all the material she needed to continue on to husband number eight.
“The way Gaston died, I should’ve known he would come back. I didn’t think he would come back so jealous, though. He barely even paid attention to me when he was alive, but as a ghost, he was so loving and attentive. It was like he needed to die to be a good husband.”
“Ha!” Frank flapped his newspaper in front of him. “He gotta be dead to love ya ’cause you’re a piece of work.”
Thomas threw his head back and laughed, his Adams apple jiggling up and down. “That was a good one!”
“I’m serious,” Grandma protested. “He was sweet to me, but he terrorized Harry, like the poltergeists in his comics. I couldn’t leave Harry alone in the house . . . literally. I was just outside in the backyard pulling weeds from my garden when I heard him scream.”
“So you mean to tell me the ghost of your dead husband haunted your existing husband?” I asked.
Grandma nodded slowly. “To death.”