Mark’s chin rested on his chest. Drool trickled from his parted lips creating a wet spot on his grey button down shirt. Judge Judy hollered at a less-than-intelligent plaintiff on the television, and a clock counted out the seconds on the wall just behind him. His wheelchair was jammed in the corner where he could see out the window and the television at the same time. His mother thought this would give him more options.
She stepped from the kitchen into the living room and clucked.
“Why can’t you keep your dad gum head up, boy?”
She pushed his forehead back with her cool, slight fingers and pulled a small towel from the pocket of her scrubs.
He could feel her fingers. He could feel her hand pressing the towel into his lips and face. He could feel pressure and temperature. He just couldn’t tell anyone.
“I forgot your soddin’ bib again. Who in the world would have thought when you were a baby and I put your first bib on ya that I’d still be putting bibs on ya at nineteen years old.”
She looked directly into his eyes when she said this and smiled at her own joke.
Mark did not smile back.
“Now keep still this time or you’ll miss seein’ who wins.”
She tucked the towel in her pocket and adjusted the supports around his neck.
“Are you chilly love?” She touched his hands and face then turned to the ancient kerosene heater she kept at his feet just under the side table holding all the medical tools for his care. Summer and winter that heater was at the ready, just in case he caught a chill. When she was quite satisfied that he would be plenty warm, a.k.a. roasted, she bustled off to another room.
If the muscles in his face would have allowed it, Mark would have given his mother a powerful glare. The kind he saw teenagers on television throwing around whenever they didn’t get their way, the kind Judge Judy was giving the defendant now. The idea that he had moved his head on purpose was ridiculous in the extreme, and the bib joke wasn’t funny either. As if it wasn’t bad enough that he was in a wheelchair, drooling all over himself, fed by a tube and unable to communicate or move his own body, his mother insisted he wear homemade bibs she’d crafted from bath towels. Some of them were even patterned with ducks and cartoon characters.
But he couldn’t glare, and he couldn’t tell her he didn’t appreciate it, especially since Jacob was the one who always knocked his head forward.
A snicker rose up behind him. A form moved in the corner of his eye first, then he felt the whack on the back of his head, just like every time. And just like every time, his head jerked painfully forward again.
A gaggle of doctors had debated endlessly over whether or not Mark could feel pain. If he could have spoken he would have told them, “Hell yes! I can feel everything you do to me!”
But, of course, he couldn’t speak, so they strapped him to a computer and poked him and prodded him from the top of his head to his feet for an hour. Their conclusion? Mark could feel nothing.
“You think it’s going to be the ducks today?” Jacob asked. “Or you think she’s got something new for you? Maybe there was a sale on Christmas towels and she’s going to make you up like an elf.” Another malicious snicker.
Mark hated Jacob for obvious reasons, and for reasons that troubled him deeply.
Mark prided himself on knowing everything that was happening in the house just by the sounds. Right after they moved to the small two bedroom bungalow, Mark’s mother left him to watch some asinine Disney channel show meant for kids half his age when a deep, threatening voice broke through the whining characters on tv.
“What kind of crap are you watching? You’re as big as a mule but you sit there in that wheelchair like a slug and watch these kid shows and wait for your mom to come wipe your butt and your face—I bet she uses the same towel to save money on washing. Cheapskates. This neighborhood has gone to hell.”
Mark’s chest tightened and his pulse sped up. The voice was coming from behind him but of course, he couldn’t turn his head to see who it belonged to.
He immediately thought of all the Law and Order reruns he and his mom watched at night. What if this was some psychotic druggy that was going to beat his mother and steal their electronics just for fun?
But as Mark sat frozen in his chair, the voice drifted around his head and Jacob came into sight.
He was tall, at least six feet or more. His dark hair was cropped close to his scalp, very military looking. He had a strong face and wore a black t-shirt stretched over a large chest and arms. Combat pants completed the look of a drill sergeant well past his prime.
This man coming from nowhere and verbally attacking Mark would have sent him into a state of shock or even cardiac arrest except for one more detail: he was opaque. Jacob’s entire presence, as intimidating as it was, shimmered and faded at the edges and Mark could clearly see the door to their kitchen through his abdomen. Jacob was not solid.
“Stupid kid.” The shimmering man was now stomping around the living room with one hand on his chin like he was trying to solve a problem. “In my house, in my spot and can’t even ask for something decent on TV.”
Mark surprised himself as he steadied his breathing and calmed his mind. It was odd and scary, this shimmering man, but he was fairly certain this was not a Law and Order type of situation. This was much better, this was a ghost.
Suddenly the ghost whirled and leaned over Mark, “I want you OUT! Out of my house! Do you hear me? OUT! Or are you deaf and crippled?”
Anyone else would have cowered in fear or run for their life. But Mark sat wide eyed, unmoving, his heart thumping away like a scared rabbit, unable to move. A dog tag fell out from inside the ghost’s shirt and swung in front of Mark’s eyes. It was hard to make out, but he read the name “Jacob” on one of the lines.
This was probably the single most exciting thing that had happened to Mark in his entire life, he wanted to hold onto the moment, as terrifying as it was, so he studied the man’s face and beyond. He looked at the TV through him and looked at his anger and frustration, hanging opaque in the middle of his room.
Jacob looked back. There was contact and meaning in their exchange. There was curiosity and hatred and Mark felt like he was actually communicating with someone for the first time in his life.
Then came the pain.
Jacob roared, “Get your stupid chair and your mother out of my house!” Then raised his shimmering right arm and backhanded Mark with all the force he could muster. If it had been an arm of flesh and bone, Mark felt sure the blow would have easily snapped his neck. But since it was only a shadow of the massive arm it had once been, his head rolled painfully to one side and his face burned where the ghost made contact.
Mark had never been hit before. He’d been stabbed, tortured and compressed, but that was all done carefully with precision instruments by doctors—for a good cause. This was the kind of slap that he’d seen on TV, that men delivered to other men.
“Ha!” he immediately heard levity replace the rage in Jacob’s voice. “I did it! I hit you. I can hit you. Man! Did that feel good!”
Pain continued to shoot down Mark’s neck and into his shoulder while his head hung limp on his chest.
“Do you know how long it’s been since I hit a guy?” Jacob sounded absolutely giddy and Mark felt a sick feeling roll around in his stomach. He could see transparent army boots on the carpet before him.
Footsteps came from the kitchen and panic settled in. If this ghost could beat him up then what would his mother be able to do to stop him from hurting her?
Suddenly white sneakers replaced the boots and cool gentle hands surrounded his cheeks, carefully righting his head.
His mother came into view. Jacob was gone.
“What on earth happened to you? You’re hot to the touch. Please don’t tell me you’re getting sick again.” She looked him over carefully, frowning, and turned his head back and forth.
The next few days went much the same. Mark’s mother would leave and Jacob would appear. The ghost seemed to have an endless supply of insults to dish out.
“Nice towel, retard.”
“How’s Mickey Mouse doing today?”
“What’s wrong? Cat got your spine?”
Then a slap in the face and his head would fall forward.
One Thursday, after his monthly visit to the internist, Mark sat in his chair wearing a blue towel bib with a boat embroidered on it watching another stupid talk show his mother had picked out when Jacob’s low voice whispered in his ear.
“I’ve never seen a more pathetic excuse for a man in my life.”
The hair on the back of Mark’s neck stood on end.
He was used to Jacob screaming at him and stomping around the room by now. He was even used to the slaps and punches. With no way to defend himself, he’d made it sort of a game to guess when Jacob would finally run out of expletives and insults and just slap him.
But this soft, low malice was new. Mark felt uneasy. Something new was happening.
“You can’t even change the TV channel. You let your mother serve you day and night like a worthless slob. I saw her changing your sheets last night when you crapped all over the place.”
Mark wanted to yell back—I didn’t choose this! I can’t control it! You think I enjoy being stuck in this chair watching her waste her life?
But he couldn’t.
So he sat, Jacob’s shimmering face coming around his head in his peripheral vision. Mark had never seen him at night. They’d only had exchanges during the day. Something about the thought of this hulk of a dead man watching him in his bed, stomping around in his bedroom, and especially watching his mother, made him snap inside.
“I’ve got a new idea for you. I’m going to knock you clean outta that chair. We’ll see how you like that.” Jacob smirked and stood straight, taking a few steps back. “Oh I know they all think you’re nothing but a vegetable, but I can see it in your eyes. It hurts when I hit you. You can feel it. I know you’re in there, you can hear every word I say and you’re so mad you want to kill me. Only you can’t. You don’t have the guts to get up out of that metal crib and fight me like a man.”
Jacob was right. He would like to get up out of this chair and fight the old army jerk, face to face, hand to hand. Actually, he’d like to take a baseball bat to the guy.
But he couldn’t. He held his breath, tightened his core and just sat there preparing for impact.
He held his breath.
It occurred to Mark, suddenly, that he could control something; he could breath. He could chose not to breath and then to start again. The air coming into and leaving his body was his choice.
Just as Jacob launched at Mark’s chair, Mark blew out all his breath with as much force as he could muster from his atrophied chest.
“I declare! Would you look at this?”
Jacob vanished and Mark’s anticipation fizzled into a tight little ball in his gut.
I had him. He thought. I’m not sure why, but I’m sure of it. I had him that time.
His mother came from down the hall and into view carrying a photograph.
“She’s a beauty, eh? Found her in the back closet.”
She held the picture in front of the television for Mark to appreciate. A woman, not much older than Mark, was captured there wearing a pink sweater and looking demurely over one shoulder. She had perfectly coiffed blond hair and an airbrushed face giving the impression of flawless skin, bright blue eyes and just a hint of pink in her cheeks. She looked like one of the cast members from the Brady Bunch before they stopped running the ancient show. It was definitely a portrait from the sixties.
“Wonder who she was,” his mother pondered as she left the photo propped on a bottle of medicine resting on the table just to the right of Mark. “Might be fun to wonder about.” She left him alone again. He could just barely see the photo in the corner of his eye.
There had never been a day when Jacob came twice. But after his strange confession about night-time spying, Mark was on high alert.
His intuition paid off.
A shimmering grey mist began to form in front of the television. Mark braced for another attack, but it didn’t come. As Jacob took on form, Mark could see that his attention was not aimed at him. His anger gone, lines on his face carved out different emotions now; sadness.
The ghost took a step towards the table holding the photograph and Mark’s daily medical supplies.
“Gloria.” It was more of a whimper than a name. The once large man was now crumbling in on himself looking at this photograph from decades before. He leaned forward, huge hands outstretched, as if to pick it up lovingly and hold it to his chest.
But his hands passed right through the thick paper.
Jacob’s face twisted in frustration. He tried again and again failed to pick up the image.
Mark watched in fascination and felt himself twitch slightly as Jacob turned his disappointment on him.
“You stupid…” his words left off as he raised his arm and struck Mark squarely across the face.
The blow rattled Mark’s thoughts and left his cheek stinging once again, his head lolled to the side, off its pillow support. He could see the photograph more clearly now. He was looking right at it and he could see Jacob trying again and again to pick it up in vain.
“You useless people. Your stupid mother’s hands all over Gloria. She’ll never be half the woman Gloria was…” he kept muttering and cursing as he stroked and grasped at the image unsuccessfully.
Mark drew in a deep breath and watched as a shimmering tear slipped out of the corner of Jacob’s hardened eyes.
He blew out with all the force he could muster from his aching lungs and chest.
The photograph slid off the bottle and lay half on, half off the table.
Jacob mistook the movement for something accomplished by his own shadowy hands. His eyes lit up and he started frantically pawing at the woman’s picture again.
Mark drew in another breath. His whole chest felt like it was on fire. He’d never exerted this much effort in his whole life. He’d never had a reason to. He shoved the air out of his lungs again, as hard as he could, causing a tiny gust to push the photograph off the table, flipping end over end until it landed on the ancient kerosene heater that sat almost under the medicine table.
“No! No!” Jacob’s excitement turned to panic. “No!”
He slipped around the heater working frantically at the image, trying desperately to pick it up, to move it. He wept openly, “Gloria! No!” He dipped and grasped like a dog frantic to get at a rodent, just out of reach.
Mark watched as the soft pastel tones of the sixties slowly started to darken from the heat of the burning fuel.
“No, no, no…”
The edges curled and the protective coating crackled and started to discolor. Gloria’s smile was being eaten away by a black cancer, seeping out from within. A flame licked up suddenly around the left side.
“Gloria!” Jacob screamed and threw himself at the image, flames engulfing the beautiful woman and now the shimmering grey of the ghost.
The smoke alarm in the kitchen began to wail.
“Heaven’s to Betsy!” Marks’ mother came panting into the room. “What on earth?”
She fanned her hand in front of her face, taking in the smoke, the flames and her son leaning over to one side, his eyes reflecting the pyre.
“Oh dear! My dear!” she rushed to his side and pushed him back, away from the heater. She yanked the cord from the wall, disconnecting the electricity, then grabbed the lap blanket from his withered legs and threw it over the flames patting them out with swift efficiency.
The synthetic yarn of the blanket instantly bonded with the hot metal, leaving a chemical smell in the air, but the flames were smothered and his mother hustled to the kitchen to fan the alarm that continued to shriek.
Mark coughed involuntarily in the acrid air that surrounded him, and then smiled.