THE GHOST WOMAN
Tabby jogged around the docks surrounding Psymon’s home until she was on the back deck, facing the falls and the glittering pool. Pearlescent moonlight scattered in the cold mist, giving her just enough light to see.
“Where are you?!” she shouted above the falls. She peered over the dock’s railing, searching the bottomless pools. “Ghost, whatever your name is! I need to talk to you! Please!”
The only reply was the constant crash of water.
“Hello!” she shouted again, her face overcome with despair. She slowly turned in place, desperate for a sign. “Hello! Please!!”
A pulsing firefly appeared near the falls, and Tabby felt an undeniable presence deep in her soul.
“You…” She placed a hand over her pounding heart.
The glowing orb bounced in the air, gesturing her to follow. Tabby jogged after it, turning the corner of Psymon’s house where the pools continued to snake. The wooden promenade opened up to a larger, quieter pond. In the seclusion of the cove, the falls were more of a cooling rumble than an overbearing crash. Suspended in the middle of the pond was a circular patio fitted with a sizable telescope, pointing straight to Nonak. There was no sign of the glowing orb.
She was certain the ghost woman was hiding somewhere, watching her. A small voice of doubt still wondered, however, if it was all in her head.
Tabby stood for some time there, alone, staring up at Nonak’s Saturn-like rings. She became dizzy taking in such an unearthly sight, as if her spirit was lifting out of her body and floating away, far, far, away to the place her heart was tethered to – to her Earth.
She closed her eyes and breathed deeply, trying to remember the smell of Pike State Park, that woodsy, earthy smell that she loved so much. Instead her lungs were filled with the nameless, sweet, metallic perfume that was everywhere on Rema, and tears stung her eyes. She wasn’t sure if she would ever set foot on Earth again. The thought of it crushed her.
She spun in place with a start. A thick fog had gathered over Psymon’s patio. Philip walked through it, scattering the mist in swirls.
He approached her carefully. “Are you all right?”
“Yes,” she said, looking away. Then, as the reality of her estrangement began to sink in, her eyes welled up again with thick tears. “No.” She kept her back to him. He was always so put together and practical. Crying in front of him would be mortifying.
“I’m sorry,” Philip said in a near mutter.
Tabby realized he was standing very close behind her. She clenched her fists, struggling to keep her voice even. “You didn’t do anything wrong.”
“You wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for me,” he went on sadly. “Psymon was right. You saw me, and that’s where the mistake was made.”
But Tabby was too grief-stricken to debate whose fault it was. She gazed distantly at Nonak, her voice small and remorseful. “Right before I left Earth,” she said to him, “I had an argument with my mother. She showed me that she knew everything I thought she didn’t. She showed me how wrong I was to assume all kinds of things about her, about her fiancé, even about my father. It made me feel like I had no place in my world, like what I thought didn’t matter because I was wrong about everything. I was mad at first, but…” Tabby paused, her lips pressed together, “she was right. I thought following you would give me answers, but now I’m more lost than ever. I have no one to blame but myself. She was right.”
Finally she turned to look at Philip. He was merely a foot away, looking down at her with sympathy. The kindness in his eyes was unexpected, and it broke whatever semblance of composure she had left. She felt a sob bubble in her throat and she covered her face, ashamed.
To her surprise, he immediately put his arms around her and held her against him, allowing her to cry into his chest. She never thought she would be the type to need a shoulder to cry on, but being in his arms was undeniably healing. As he held her, he conducted a touch of ciphrony between them and the mournful knot in her throat miraculously unraveled into something much more manageable. A weight lifted off of her spirit and her mind cleared.
“Better?” he asked.
She nodded. The sound of his voice against her ear was soothing, a low hum that was almost as comforting as his ability to heal. He made it so she was able to dry her face and swallow her sobs. He held her curled against him for a moment that seemed to stretch forever, until she found the will to move again.
She wasn’t sure how much time had passed when she finally pulled away. She flashed him a grateful, if not abashed, smile. “Thank you.”
He held her hand, his warmth lingering. Heat rose to her face despite her greatest efforts. She could’ve sworn there was more to his touch than before…
But as she studied his face, she concluded he was smiling at her with kindness, not affection. Tabby looked down at their hands, inwardly warning herself not to get carried away.
“Can I show you something?” he asked after a moment.
She gave him an inquisitive look and nodded, grateful that he didn’t comment on the obvious flush in her cheeks. He gently guided her towards the telescope to sit down. She sat on the bench that faced its looking glass and stared plaintively at her sneakers, her last pair of Earthling shoes.
Philip took the seat beside her, placed his hands on his knees, his back straight, and scanned the night sky with a keen eye that sparkled as deeply as the stars above. She watched him through misted eyes. She was grateful he was there for her. She didn’t want him to leave.
As he spotted something in the sky, he reached across her and took the handle attached to the side of Pysmon’s large brass telescope. Peering through the aiming glass, he turned it slightly East until it was perfectly aimed at a conspicuously bright golden star.
Philip leaned back and presented her the spyglass. “Take a look.”
She did as he told and closed one eye, looking into the telescope’s small magnifier. Within the displayed circle of night, the golden star sparkled and trembled in Rema’s sky like a glittering diamond.
“It’s a star,” she said, indifferent.
“It’s your sun.”
Tabby leaned away from the looking glass and stared at him with an expression of awe. “Earth’s Sun?”
He had his usual calm, self-assured smile. “Yes.”
He was being perfectly serious. She went back to the magnifier and looked again.
The ordinary star was suddenly the most beautiful thing she’s ever seen. It was no longer simply flickering -- it was shining, glorious. The golden light reached through the glass and soothed her. She felt her heart unfurl, and the world around her melted away.
Somewhere near that star was her mother, holding Daniel and searching for her lost daughter. Somewhere near that star was her endearing childhood friend Monica. Somewhere near that star was everything she’d ever known, and all the places she’d ever seen. Her heart felt drenched in the gold that poured forth from her distant star, lending a warmth all its own.
All she could see was the Earthling Sun, and all she could hear was Philip’s voice speaking to her by her side.
“Even when you think you’ll never see home again,” he said quietly, “it somehow manages to stay with you no matter where you go. I learned that at a very young age. If you ever need to talk about your life on Earth, even just to remember who you were and where you came from, I’ll be here. I’ll do whatever I can to help you remember.”
He waited several moments. She kept looking through the telescope as if her eye was fused to it. Tabby heard him chuckle softly behind her, and he laid a warm hand on her back.
“We’ll be waiting for you inside,” he told her. “Come in whenever you’re ready, and we’ll head back to Raed’s house for some rest. It’s been a long night for everyone.”
“Okay,” she replied, her eye firmly fixed to the magnifier.
She listened as his steps faded. When she looked up to see him, a glowing smile on her face, he’d already gone back inside. She was alone once more.
The only reply was the steady rush of falling water. She listened in quiet meditation as she thought about what he said, about how he held her in her arms, healing her once again. She smiled. She felt silly for ever doubting his friendship. She might be trapped on Rema, but she wasn’t alone.
Tabby turned back to the telescope to take another look, to drench herself in that homesick, golden feeling. Before she could get a good hold on the Earthling Sun, a voice materialized in her head.
It was the same voice she heard before, the voice that came from within her own mind, but which was obviously from another person’s thoughts. For as long as she lived, she would never forget that voice.
She slowly backed away from the telescope, eyes wide. “Ghost?” she whispered, hesitant. “Is that you?”
There was quiet laughter near her ear and the golden orb of light reappeared behind one of Psymon’s waterfalls, making it glisten like rippled glass. The orb hovered around the perimeter of the patio and found its way to the center, stopping a few feet in front of Tabby. It danced into a swirl, glowing more brightly, until the light was large enough to paint the entire falls with gold.
Tabby gasped and ran to the far end of the patio, slipping on its wet surface. She turned and watched breathlessly as the orb stretched and contorted, slowly taking the shape of a person.
The orb faded until it became a shimmering trick of moonlight, and the ghost woman hovered placidly in its place.
She was just as frail and ancient as Tabby remembered: a ghastly creature that bore the resemblance of a mummified corpse brought to life.
The ghost’s eyeless skull faced the young Earthling. Though she had no eyes, Tabby felt as if the specter could see her perfectly clearly. In fact, it felt as if she could see more than just herself. It was as if she could see an invisible ether surrounding her.
Tabby didn’t know how long the ghost was going to stay, and she wasn’t going to waste time being scared. “Hello.” She spoke clearly above the din of the falls. “You’re the ghost that haunted my father, aren’t you?”
The ghost spoke with a youthful, honeyed voice that clashed with her decrepit appearance. There is no need to shout. She tilted her head and smiled warmly. Speak to me with your inner voice, Tabetha. The Gods are always listening, and it would be helpful if they didn’t know I am here.
“Inner voice?” Tabby whispered, confused. Maybe she doesn’t understand what I’m saying.
I can understand you perfectly, she answered with amusement. Perhaps the noise is a bit distracting?
The ghost lazily raised a frail hand. In response, time began to slow around them. The waterfalls fell to a sluggish crawl, dimming their noise to a low, echoing rumble. Tabby watched, wide-eyed, as water splashed off the patio in slow motion droplets. Everything was halted to the pace of molasses.
There, said the ghost proudly, gesturing to the arrested world around them. Isn’t that better? Easier for the both of us.
Tabby stared at her with fearful wonder. “Who... what are you?”
A friend, she answered simply. And please, use your inner voice when speaking to me. I truly mean it -- you put yourself and your friends at great risk by acknowledging my presence.
I’m sorry, Tabby replied, a funny sensation tickling her brain. Why would acknowledging you be a risk?
Let us just say that I am not welcome on Rema, and leave it at that.
You mean I can’t talk about you to anyone?
I think you will find it difficult to bring me up in conversation whether you want to or not. You will find yourself tongue-tied, should you try. I usually avoid interfering in these matters, but sometimes the situation is too fragile to risk.
Tabby couldn’t believe what she was hearing.
The ghost smiled at her fondly. I promise you can speak of me to whomever you wish, once all is said and done.
She hovered peacefully, satisfied with the delicate trap she set for her Earthling transplant. Tabby grit her teeth, struggling to keep it together.
I am here because of you, she thought, aren’t I? You’re the one who keeps stopping the portals from working.
I did not stop them from working, the ghost said. But I’m the only one that can make them work for you. I brought you here. I am the only one who can bring you back. A slow, toothless smile spread on the ghost’s face, scoring her skin with wrinkles. I am the key to your future and your past.
What are you talking about? Tabby scowled.
Her smile disappeared, the empty hollows of her eyes gazing at her with remorse. I am the ghost that haunted your father, Tabetha Charon, and I am the ghost that killed him.
It was as if she pierced her heart with those words. Tabby gazed at the ghost woman, memorizing her tortured face, her emaciated features, and her heart grew still. Every nerve in her body was telling her to run away, that she was in danger, but she fought against it. She needed to know more, and she wasn’t sure if she’d get another chance.
What do you want from me? she pressed on.
There is nothing I want from you, the ghost replied, almost imploring, only for you. I am here to deliver your fate, as I was there to deliver your father’s. In a way, it is the only reason I exist.
“Are you going to kill me?”
No. I am not here to kill anyone. I did not want to kill your father, either, but he was determined…
Tabby pressed her lips together, willing herself to hold her ground. “What did you do to him?”
The ghost stared at her for a long time, her brittle curls undulating in an invisible current. Nothing he did not want me to do. He knew about Rema. He became obsessed with it… he wanted to see it for himself. Despite my earnest warnings, your father begged me to pull him through the portals. He did not survive the journey. You did.
“He died trying to come here?” Tabby muttered aloud, pain written across her face.
The ghost woman nodded once, solemn.
“All those years living without him,” her gaze lowered, crushed, “because he tried to come here...” Her eyes grew cold and she glared at the ghost. “You’re lying. He’d never risk losing us like that. If he knew about Rema, then why didn’t he tell me?”
He was trying to protect you, to avoid the inevitable -- that you would find your way here and attempt to complete his work, as you always longed to do. I am telling the truth, Tabetha. You must believe me.
An angry tear fell from her cheek and she rubbed it away with annoyance.
The ghost looked away from her tears, her voice laden with sorrow. I tried my best to stop him, she said gently, but he was adamant. For better or for worse, your father was an ambitious man, and he stopped at nothing for the sake of discovery. If I did not do as he asked, he would have revealed the portals to the world at large, and that would have been a disaster for Rema and for Earth. I do not expect forgiveness for your father’s death, but I do hope you understand he gave me no choice.
Tabby could only think of her mother’s disturbing description of her father’s body – like someone took him apart, shook him up, and pieced him together the wrong way. He ended up like that because he didn’t make it through the portal, because the ghost grabbed him and forced him through… because she delivered his fate.
Her mother must have known this. It was no wonder she tried so hard to push her in another direction. It wasn’t because she wanted her to be pretty or sociable. Her mother really meant what she said the day she ran away to Rema. She didn’t want to see her pulled into the same obsessions her father had. She didn’t want to see her only child die.
Tabby put a hand over her mouth, feeling ill to her stomach. That could have been me, she thought, horrified. I could have ended up dead like him and you pulled me through the portal anyway!
It was a risk I had to take, the ghost answered.
Tabby shook her head with disgust and stepped towards her, wishing she could shout her words at the top of her lungs. Why are you doing this to us? What could possibly be so important to sacrifice my father’s life and risk mine?
Because some things are worth the risk. It is why I brought you here, why I risk speaking to you now in the realm of the Gods. Sadness cast a shade over the ghost’s gaunt face. This city is an old place full of dark secrets. I brought you here to find that darkness, and illuminate it.
A chill ran through Tabby with those words. “What do you mean?”
She shook her head slowly, apologetically. Your father was not the man you thought he was.
Tabby bit her tongue and clenched her fists. “You know nothing about him.”
Neither do you, Tabetha Charon. But follow my lead, and you will know your father better than he even knew himself.
The ghost suddenly snapped her head up, staring at some invisible thing. When Tabby followed her gaze, there was nothing a dark sky.
I’ve lingered too long, she said, wary. Even when time moves slowly, it passes with haste. With a reluctant sigh, the ghost woman began to hover higher and higher, floating away from Tabby like a feather. We will meet again at fate’s divide, she said, her voice soft as mist. Until then, I will be watching.
Tabby took several steps after her, both repulsed and intrigued. She didn’t dare say anything. She didn’t dare think anything, afraid the ghost would read her mind. She simply watched her father’s killer turn away with a small, warm smile. As soon as her frail frame passed the glowing sphere of Nonak, the ghost woman faded into it like silk on water, and was gone.