Aphelion Issue 241, Volume 23
July 2019
 
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Elegy for Mary Alice

by Charles Ebert


On the western edge of Pennsylvania, in the midst of the woods stood a cemetery. It was old but far from full and consequently still in use, its patrons being few and dying slowly.

It sat next to a gray blacktopped road beside a small country church. On the other side of the road was a house, nestled in trees and hidden from cars that sped past, the drivers having no time to wonder about the house or its occupants. Nor did the people living in the house worry much about the passers-by, beyond the care of a few seconds lost sleep when, on dark autumn nights they were awakened by the sound of an engine, racing past.

On one such night the frail figure of a woman clicked across the highway and made her way toward the cemetery. She trod upon the gravel drive that led past the memorial lawns to the church.

Stopping, she gathered her threadbare coat tightly around her and pulled her knit cap down over her brown hair. Only an hour before, the clouds had retreated and the rain has ceased and allowed the moon to pour its silver light on the countryside. The markers glittered in their coats of frost, and their images became sharp, every detail focused. It was a cold beauty, but beauty nonetheless, and it drew the woman toward it. She wondered along the lines of graves. Her hand made delicate caressing motions in the air before each stone, as she silently mouthed the words inscribed upon them. Thus, she passed among the dead, soothing and comforting them.

She came to a group of markers, which stood apart from the others. There were thick ones, four feet tall and made of reddish brown granite. And then lighter, less imposing stones gently shaped into crosses or likenesses of Jesus. And finally a very small grave, a little lamb made of marble, resting on a snow-white pedestal with its stick-figure legs folded under it. Carved into the pedestal were the words, "Mary Alice Corning, August 7, 1827 to November 12, 1827."

The woman knelt, her fingers reaching out to touch the tiny head, which was worn smooth. Her palm rested there a moment and then gently stroked the neck and body as if there were real wool and flesh and bone beneath them. She blinked away tears that stung in the cold air. When her eyes opened again there was a baby lying next to the grave. It was as white as the lamb, distinguishable from cold marble only by the fact that it moved and breathed. It clawed the cold air with its stubby hands and cooed sounds. Her fingers trembling, the woman reached out to touch the baby but stopped, biting her lip in indecision.

Finally she took off her coat and used it to scoop up the infant. And carrying this bundle she ran out of the cemetery and back across the highway.

####

Mary leaned forward, being careful not to touch anything and asked, "Are we almost there?"

Her mother jumped and looked at Mary with alarm, holding her hand to her chest. Mary ignored her reaction. Mother had been on edge the entire two-hour trip from Bowling Green. She had said nothing but "look out" or "please slow down Carl." Mary could tell her father was tired and struggling to keep his patience. He took a breath before speaking and chose his words carefully.

"Yes Mary. It won't be long now. You sit back and watch the scenery." He drove the big Continental across the bridge spanning the Mahoning River and then up the two lane road to the Pennsylvania border and Mary's new home. Mary looked out the back window at the big, black and silent buildings inhabiting the valley. And then forward at the expanse of woodland broken only by the grey concrete of the road.

"Will it be light enough to see when we reach Pennsylvania?"

"I don't know, it's getting dark pretty fast isn't it." He turned on the headlights and smiled back at her, "Don't worry, I'll tell you when we're coming to it. Just look at all these trees. Aren't they beautiful with all their fall colors." There was nothing but trees on both sides of the road now. Behind them was the gloom of Youngstown's abandoned steel mills and boarded up storefronts, which had reminded Mary of her mother's recent unemployment and the hard and bitter search for work.

The road climbed steadily and with it, Mary's impatience for the trip to be over. She scooted across the back seat from one window to the other, not wanting to miss a single sight.

"Mary settle down, you'll work yourself into a frenzy, and then you won't be able to sleep."

"Yes Mother," said Mary, crossing her arms and sitting back into the soft red cushions. It wasn't fair. Mother was fidgeting more than Mary. She could see the back of Mother's head as it swiveled back and forth, looking at the scenery, but too fast to appreciate it. Her hair was mostly gray with traces of the original brown. It peeked out of the bottom of her old knit cap and lay uneasily on her tattered coat.

Mother was in a constant state of agitation. Mary had always assumed that this was because they were always short of money, and the end of the month invariably involved a scramble to raise funds. When her father called that day and offered Mother a job in New Castle as his receptionist, Mary had thought the nervousness would go away. Instead it increased.

At first she didn't want to accept Father's offer of the job or his invitation to stay with him until they could find a place. Mother didn't know how to type and she wasn't very good at dealing with people. Father had argued that he was sure she could learn and that no one else was going to give her a chance like this. Mother was still hesitant but Father won out eventually, and they made arrangements to leave.

"Helen, what's the matter," said Father in his soft German accent. He was a tall man with light brown hair, slowly turning gray and a long face, which managed to look benevolent, despite the odds of it seeming morose. He was a man people instantly trusted, a useful trait for a doctor.

"Nothing, just a little nervous about going back to the house."

He nodded. "You'll find that hardly anything is the same. Ilsa and I redecorated. We added a den and another bathroom downstairs."

It was completely dark now and Mother was growing more nervous with every mile. Father glanced over at her, Mary could see, in the green glow of the dashboard, his face was wrinkled in concern. "The cemetery is still the same."

"The cemetery?"

"Yes the one across from the house. You always liked it there."

"No, I hated that place. Why should I like a cemetery?" Mother's voice rose, as if she was answering an accusation.

"You went for walks there all the time."

"I needed to walk and that was the only place I could without going into the woods." She stared at him.

"Oh, I'm sorry. I thought you liked it."

"No." Mother looked away, horrified.

Father drove on in silence, his face curiously expressionless until he looked back and said, "We're almost at the state line, Mary. Keep your eyes open."

Mary leaned forward again, carefully this time so as not to disturb Mother, "Where?" she asked.

"It'll be to the left; just a little pillar made of white stone that says Pennsylvania on it. You really have to look to see it at night." Mary scrutinized the left side of the oncoming road. Father was slowing down so they could get a better look at it and presently it appeared, just as he described it, a dirty white pillar standing by the side of the road, almost obscured by weeds. Mary had only a glimpse of it before they were past. She looked around her and found that nothing appeared to be different except the road was a little bumpier.

After a few minutes they arrived. The Continental pulled into a long gravel driveway with two entrances, one a hundred and fifty feet down the road from the other. Father brought the car to a grinding halt and then flipped it into park.

Mary jumped out of the car and ran toward her new home. The house was large and old but well kept up. It had a big front porch, brightly lit, and a bright green swing swaying gently in the fall breeze.

She stopped just before the porch and stared up at it. A puff of wind whistled through the drain spouts and sounded like it was softly calling her name. "Who's there," she whispered loud enough that only she could hear. Father pushed past her, lugging a suitcase. "Come on in. This is your home, at least for now." Mother was hanging back, reluctant to come any closer. The bags in her arms were shaking, as if she was about to drop them.

"Mother," said Mary.

"Go on in, Sweetheart, I'll be there in a second." Mother cast her a nervous smile and looked up at the house again.

Mary turned and went inside. She was in a foyer lit by a yellow light overhead. Father had set the suitcase on the floor and was hanging up his coat in the hall closet.

"Where's your mother," he said, taking Mary's coat from her as she absently looked around.

"Oh, still outside. She's kind of nervous."

"Yes, she was always like that whenever we came here." He looked out the door, even though Mother was in the darkness beyond the porch light. "Well how do you like your new home?"

"It's so big," said Mary, looking up the stairs, which were opposite the front door.

"Not really, only three bedrooms. But it is too big for just me. It'll be good to have your mother and you here. Bring some life back into the house." Mary wasn't paying any attention; she was peering into the other rooms. "Well why don't you go explore while I get Helen?"

"Sure," said Mary and she looked around, not knowing where to start. Father slipped out the front door without her noticing.

On her right was the dining room. It was large, with a big oak table dominating the center. Matching chairs stood in respectful attitude around it, like mourners at a funeral. Along the far wall was a glass-paned cabinet that held beautiful but frail looking china.

On the left was the living room. It had the stuffy air of one of those rooms you find in historic homes, the kind that are cordoned off by a red ribbon across the doorway. There was antique furniture and a couple of ornate bookcases filled with hundreds of big black books, most of them about medicine. The carpet was light gray and of course, spotless.

As if entering a church, Mary reverently walked into the middle of the room. She was afraid to move, much less touch anything. It took her several minutes to work up the nerve to sit on the davenport. Its distinguished striped upholstery designed to give only a little under her weight, making it clear, however, that she was not welcome. Her back was as straight as the crisp outlines of the oak door frames, and her eyes, seemingly frozen wide open in awe, slowly scanned the room. She could hardly believe that she was to live in such opulence. It made her uncomfortable.

Gradually, Mary realized that her new surroundings were not the only things causing her discomfort. It was the same feeling she had, standing outside the house, only stronger in here, almost unbearable. Looking up, she saw a woman, about fifty years old but frail, standing in the entrance to the kitchen. She wore a white blouse clasped tightly about the neck and a gray blazer and skirt. Her hair was set in a bun on top of her head. Her face was sparse, almost gaunt, consisting of a few utilitarian lines drawn around piercing blue eyes.

When she spoke her voice was heavily accented, more so than Carl's. "I do not allow children in here." Mary bolted out of the room and didn't stop until she was out of the house and brought up short by the sight of her startled parents. Mother looked like she was about start running herself.

"What's wrong, Mary?" said Father.

"Do you have a maid or something, Daddy?"

"A maid, yes she comes in three days a week to clean up."

"Only during the day?"

"Yes, what's wrong?"

"I saw somebody in there. In the living room. She was tall and dressed in gray. She said she didn't allow children in there."

"Hmm," said Father. He walked to the door and entered, "I'll look inside. You two stay out here."

Mary looked up at her mother, "I saw her, mother, I know I did.

Mother's eyes reflected the porch light as she looked at her daughter. "I believe you," she said softly, "Was her hair gray and set in a bun?"

"Yes, how did you know? " Helen's eyes went dark and both looked to see Father silhouetted in the doorway.

"There's nobody in here, Mary." A half formed scream escaped Mother's mouth as she toppled over backwards.

####

That night Mary didn't sleep. She lay awake almost all night staring at the unfamiliar surroundings. Her bedroom, although the smallest in the house was much larger than she was used to. In the darkness the large dresser, with the mirror on it became diffuse, its edges hard to distinguish from the wall. The autumn moon shone with an eerie light through her window and the crickets were deafening. She would have much preferred the traffic noise on their old street in Bowling Green.

The next morning, however, the sun rose bright and yellow and the smell of eggs and bacon cooking filled the air. Mary donned her little terrycloth robe and padded downstairs. In the dining room, Father was sitting at the table, already in his church clothes, reading the morning paper. He looked up and smiled.

"Go in and look at your mother," he said, motioning to the kitchen.

Mary walked into the kitchen and found her mother at the stove, frying some eggs. "Good morning Mary, I think there's some bread in the freezer. Could you put a couple of slices in the toaster for me?"

"Sure, Mother," said Mary, opening the freezer and taking out a frozen loaf of bread. "Are you okay now?"

"I'm just fine dear. Last night I was just so tired from the trip, and you scared us so. But your father gave me something, and after a good night's sleep this place doesn't seem so bad, does it?" She cast Mary a glance that had just a hint of the previous night's fear.

"I guess not. I suppose I was tired too."

"Yes, that's right, you were tired. Car trips are so dreadful, aren't they?"

"Mother, who did I "

"Did I ever tell you my secret for making scrambled eggs? It was my mother's really, but I've made some improvements." She scooped the contents of the frying pan into a yellow serving dish. "Oh I forgot you don't like to cook. Well I suppose these days a woman doesn't really need to know how to cook." She put the pan back on the stove and turned off the burner. "Mary, your father and I had a long talk this morning, and he convinced me that I should put away the past and concentrate on the present." She knelt down before Mary and carefully took her arms by the sleeves of her robe. "It's going to take awhile but I'm sure I can do it if I have your support. I've got a chance to make a new life for both of us, and I want you to know that I'm going to do my best."

"I'll do my best too, Mother."

"Good girl," said Mother, standing and taking the dish of scrambled eggs from the counter, "Now take this out to the table."

Mary carried the dish to the dining room and put it on the table, wishing she could share in her mother's mood, but the image of that strange woman last night hung in her mind. Mary could sense her watching. Every time Mary turned around, she half expected the woman to be there.

When they left for church, Mary was glad. She walked ahead to the end of the driveway, where she had to wait until her parents caught up. The church was right across the road, next to the cemetery. Already people were beginning to file past the large oak doors in the front. Mary saw that there was a crowd in the cemetery too, congregating into small contained groups, but none of them headed for the entrance.

The Sunday School class for twelve year olds was in an upstairs room that had two big windows through which the sunlight poured, making it very hot in there despite the chill autumn air outside. The kids quickly became uncomfortable in their Sunday clothes. With a practiced eye Mary watched them. She took off her sweater at about, but not exactly the same time as the other girls. She fanned herself with her workbook just like everybody else and pretended to wipe sweat from her forehead. Therefore she was no more conspicuous than she needed to be, being a new kid in class.

The classroom, at one time, must have been a choir loft because there were huge wooden partitions that could be opened to reveal the sanctuary. A couple times during the class Mrs. Boggs, the petite blond woman who taught the class, had to pause while the congregation was singing hymns. She would sit down on one of the little tables, looking very uncomfortable and wait for the hymn to end. Then with a "Now where were we" she would continue the lesson.

After class the children went down to join their parents for the last half of the service. Bored, Mary found herself watching the colored glass in the windows and the way the shadows of the bushes outside waved in the breeze. When she looked around at the other members of the congregation they were doing much the same, or else they were sleeping silently.

Father, who was sitting next to her had a look of polite attention on his face, but his mind was obviously somewhere else. He looked down at Mary and winked.

After it was finally over, Mary was cornered in the parking lot and subjected to an interrogation by her classmates. It consisted of the usual questions, where was she from, did she have any brothers and sisters, what did her father do, what did her mother do. It was the last one that she hesitated answering. But eventually the other kids saw that Mary was all right if not overly friendly, and they left her alone.

Only one girl persisted. She was a blond haired girl named Tracy Reynolds who was a bit on the gregarious side and who, for reasons completely incomprehensible to Mary, decided she was going to be Mary's best friend. When all the other kids lost interest, Tracy stayed behind and filled Mary in on everybody in the gang.

"That there is Tommy Hopkins," she said, pointing to a tall boy with brown hair who was hanging around with a group of boys, talking under a tree at the edge of the cemetery. "He's a bad boy. If he starts talkin' to you, just walk away from him. And that's Betty Wiggins, she's a nice girl and my best friend but don't trust her with any secrets. I just can't stand girls who gossip, can you?"

Mary listened politely to Tracy's opinions about everybody but soon her attention began to wander, and the next thing she knew Tracy was saying, "Well I've gotta go now. I'll see you tomorrow at school." Her parents led her away, and Mary went to find her own.

That afternoon, when lunch was finished Father settled down to read the Sunday paper while Mother did the breakfast and lunch dishes and then sat down with the computer and the typing books Father had bought for her. Mary said she was going to explore outside, but she never got up the nerve to get off the lawn surrounding the house and into the woods beyond. Still it was better than spending the day indoors. She could still feel a presence there, an indignant, sometimes hostile presence as if somehow they had offended the house itself.

She sat on the wooden swing on the front porch looking out at the road. The trees in the front of the house were in their full fall colors now, and they rustled quietly in the cool breeze.

Mary purposely sat on the near side closest the house so that the trees blocked her view of the cemetery. But she knew it was there, just as she could feel the house behind her.

Mother shot out of the house. She glanced at Mary and walked to the front of the porch, looking out at the road. Mary pushed the point of her toe into the wooden floor of the porch and set the swing into motion. She looked down her hands and then toward the woods, everywhere but at her mother. The awkwardness of the moment hung heavily over the porch like an invisible fog. Mary breathed it in and knew its taste. It was bitter.

"What's the matter, Mother," asked Mary, rising to her feet.

"Nothing Mary, why don't you go in and play for a while." Bewildered, Mary walked toward the door but stopped at her mother's voice. "Mary, do you like it here?"

"I don't know. I guess so."

"Would you be terribly disappointed if we went back to Bowling Green." Mother was biting her lip trying to keep from crying out right.

"But we just got here. Why do you want to leave?" Mother walked over and sat down on the porch swing. Her back bent and her hair looked frizzled and unkempt. "I'm never going to learn to type," she said, "I try and I try, but I just can't do it. It's the sort of thing you have to learn when you're young. Like a foreign language."

"But you've only been trying for a couple of hours."

"It's no use. I can't do it. I'm afraid your father's going to be very disappointed in me." She crumbled onto the porch swing and held her head in her hands. Mary quietly sat beside her.

"There must be other things you can do?"

"It's not just that. It's.. Well I don't know if you're old enough to understand this but...those women in church today, most of them remembered. From twenty years ago when Carl was just starting his practice they remembered. It was rough back then. Carl didn't have many patients. But they don't remember that, all they remember is that I was a doctor's wife, and I had to work for a maid service." She turned her head toward the road. "It was humiliating, but I couldn't do anything else. And then when he met Ilsa..."

"Who is Ilsa?"

"Your father's second wife. They met shortly before I left him."

"I don't understand," said Mary. Her world was spinning. She had only met Father a few years ago when Mother had broken down and asked him for child support. He had been angry at first that Mother had hidden Mary's existence from him but after that initial storm, Father was a sea of calm. He was generous and kind, and Mary liked him a great deal. She could not imagine him deliberately hurting her mother.

"I don't mean to say they had an affair," said Mother, "I've never thought that. But the attraction was there. He talked about her all the time, and they did spend many hours together."

"So what happened?"

"Well you know how people are," she said and then looked at Mary. "Or perhaps you don't. Anyway it was assumed that more than was apparent was going on, and soon I found myself to be the object of gossip also. Eventually, I got fed up with the whole situation and left. I went to Bowling Green where you were born."

"Why didn't you. ." Mary began but stopped; the feeling of being watched came upon her again. This time it was overpowering. She twisted around, and there in the picture window in front of the house stood the strange woman again.

"Mary," said Mother, "What's the matter? What do you see?"

"It's her again, the woman I saw last night. She's at the window."

"Wait here," said Mother, "I'll be right back." She bolted out of the swing and ran into the house. Mary was frozen, unable to move even if she had wanted to. Her eyes were fixed on the apparition in the window, which was turned around now, watching something in the house.

Mother burst out of the door and quickly sat next to Mary again. Shoving a photograph set in a gold plated oval frame into Mary's hand, she asked, "Is this the lady you're seeing?"

Mary looked down at the photo and saw the same face as the one in the window, the same eyes, the same hair, even the same dress. "Yes, that's her. Who is she?"

Mother grabbed the photo and wailed, "I knew we never should have come back here. I knew it, I knew it." She bent over and started sobbing audibly.

Hesitantly, Mary reached out and put her hand on her mother's back. "What's wrong..."

"Don't touch me," she screamed, jumping up as if someone had put an ice cube down the back of her dress. She bolted off in the direction of the cemetery. The photograph had fallen to the porch, the glass, shattered in a spiderweb pattern over the woman's face. Mary picked it up and ran inside the house.

Father looked up from his paper as Mary shot into the living room, "What's the matter Mary?" he asked.

"Who is this?" asked Mary, holding out the photograph.

"That's my second wife, lIsa, she passed away last year. How did this get broken?"

It took most of the afternoon but Father eventually found Mother wondering among the tombstones of the graveyard. Mary watched them crossing the road, Father holding her shoulders tightly, as he quietly but persistently urged her back to the house. Finally he got her in and upstairs, giving her a sedative.

Mary had spent the rest of the day in shock, sitting on the porch swing and staring out into the woods. That night she didn't sleep at all but spent the hours waiting for Ilsa Wendt to return. But morning came without further visitations.

The incident was never mentioned, and in the light of more immediate concerns, Mother and Father appeared to have forgotten it altogether. Father was very busy down at his office because it was late fall and the beginning of the flu season. He was giving vaccinations and treating coughs all day, and of course Mother had a new job to worry about. Her progress was slow but steady. Father told Mary he thought she was going to work out fine. Both were too busy to worry about ghosts.

Mary remembered although she tried not to. Whenever the memory surfaced in her consciousness, she ignored it. She either did something else like read a book, or watch TV or she just let it sit in her mind as it was, not speculating on it or thinking about it in any way, just simply remembering it. She purposely never framed the question in her mind of why she could see the ghost when neither her parents nor anybody else could. But like a ghost itself, the question hung on the edge of consciousness without form or substance but there nonetheless.

School kept her occupied for the time being, however. It was a lot like Sunday School in that many of the same kids attended, including Tracy Reynolds. Mrs. Boggs was even the teacher of the lone sixth grade class.

For the most part, Mary was indifferent to school. She was happy to get away from the house and Mrs. Wendt, but schoolwork was boring. For some reason none of it seemed relevant to her.

After awhile she found that she didn't have much in common with her classmates. Not that they teased her much beyond the occasional unkind remark, it was more of a quiet hostility or at best indifference. From the beginning Mary had assumed the role of an interloper, and soon it became natural for the other kids to treat her that way.

Even Tracy Reynolds began to avoid her after a few weeks, put off by Mary's cold and melancholy nature. Soon the girl's affection for Mary rapidly began to swing the other way. More and more Tracy joined the groups that gathered at the edge of the playground to laugh and gossip. As the days went by Tracy turned the attention of this group toward Mary. It was as if Tracy had been offended by Mary's unwillingness to accept her offer of friendship and was now gaining revenge by becoming her enemy. Mary had a pretty good idea of what was happening, but considered it to be inevitable. In any event she didn't see how it could lead to trouble.

Trouble arrived on a gray November day. The sky looked like a lead bowl placed upside-down over the world. Mary wandered along the ragged edge of the blacktop as she usually did during recess, keeping as far from the school kids playing on the monkey bars and swings as she could without infringing on the kickball and football games going on in the big field behind the school. Her mind had drifted away, leaving her in a kind of reverie that caused her not to notice when Tracy and a few of her friends came up behind her.

"Hey Mary," said Tracy with a smirk on her face, "Where did you get that coat, the Salvation Army?" This drew giggles from the other girls.

Mary looked down at her dull brown coat, which her mother had indeed bought at a second hand store. It was stained in places, the pocket linings were hanging and two buttons were missing. She looked up again not knowing what to say.

"Oh, poor Mary. Her father's only a doctor, and she has to wear second hand clothes."

"Leave me alone, Tracy."

"I almost forgot, even though her father's a doctor, her mother's a cleaning lady. Daddy must not be a very good doctor if Mommy has to clean houses." Tracy and her compatriots burst into uncontrollable laughter at that. Mary turned and started to walk away but they followed.

"Are you gonna be a cleaning lady too? Hey, cleaning lady where'd you get that scarf? Out of the garbage." Tracy pulled the ratty red scarf from Mary's neck and examined it distastefully.

"Give it back," said Mary, making a grab at it.

"This thing is filthy. Do you ever clean it?" Mary tried to snatch it from Tracy's fingers, "Now, now cleaning lady, we can't let you wear this. It's too disgusting, even for you."

"Give it back, Tracy," cried Mary.

There was a trash barrel sitting on the grass about ten feet away. "If you really want it back, cleaning lady," said Tracy, holding the scarf like it was a dead rat, and walking over to the barrel, "you'll have to get it from where you got it in the first place, the trash." She held the scarf over the barrel and looked at Mary contemptuously, daring her to try and grab it. By now several other girls in the class were gathered to watch the spectacle.

Without thinking Mary grabbed Tracy's wrist and yanked the scarf away with her other hand.

Tracy screamed in agony and pulled away, "You burned me. She burned me. I'm telling Mrs. Boggs." She then ran toward the school entrance where the teacher stood watching the children play.

Mary stood with the scarf hanging from one hand and the other hand held up before her. The other girls had stopped giggling and were glaring at her in silence. In spite of the enmity in their eyes though, they kept their distance.

Mrs. Boggs marched toward Mary. Tracy followed her, cradling her wounded arm like a baby, and talking a stream of incomprehensible accusations. The teacher broke through the surrounding ring of girls and shooed them away, "Okay, children, go back to playing, there's nothing to see here now." Reluctantly, they left, mumbling softly to themselves and casting backward glances at Mary.

When only Mary, Tracy and Mrs. Boggs were left, Mrs. Boggs said, "Mary may I see your hands?"

"Mrs. Boggs, I..."

"Mary, please cooperate, your hands." Her face was grim but not unkind. Mary liked Mrs. Boggs who was a good teacher and was friendly to all her kids. Perhaps, thought Mary, she could trust Mrs. Boggs to understand and take charge of a situation that Mary was just now realizing she couldn't ignore anymore. Mary held out her hands.

Mrs. Boggs looked closely at the frail white hands before her and said, "Turn them over." Mary did.

"Look for a cigarette lighter or matches, Mrs. Boggs. I bet that's how she did it." Tracy was staring at Mary accusingly, her eyes puffy and red with hysterical tears.

Mrs. Boggs motioned her to be silent. "Mary, have you been playing on the monkey bars or the swings?"

"No, Mrs. Boggs."

"Have you been wearing gloves? I'm asking you this because where you touched Tracy's arm there's frostbite."

"No, Mrs. Boggs," cried Tracy, "She burned me. I felt it."

"Hush Tracy, being burned and getting frostbite can feel the same," explained Mrs. ,Boggs. "Do you have gloves, Mary?"

"No ma'am but I've been keeping my hands in my pockets."

The teacher wrinkled her forehead and reached out to touch Mary's hand. Mary pulled away.

"Now Mary, I asked you to cooperate."

"But Mrs. Boggs.. "

"Mary." Mary held out her hand again and Mrs. Boggs touched it and instantly withdrew her fingers, "Why child, you're as cold as ice. Let's get you inside."

Mrs. Boggs took Tracy and Mary to the nurse's office where Tracy was treated for frostbite and sent home. They called Mary's mother and told her to come pick Mary up and keep her home for the rest of the afternoon. Mother had to borrow Father's car.

It was a long drive home. Mother was so nervous she could barely drive and Mary sat next to her in the front seat, staring out the window. Even the brilliant red and orange leaves on the trees seemed gray under the featureless sky.

What next, she thought, what else would they find out about her? Mrs. Boggs said she was cold but Mary didn't feel cold. She had never felt cold, or hot, or anything. She wore a coat and hat in winter because everybody else did, not because she needed to. Wasn't that the way everybody was? Mary began to suspect not. She touched the window and watched frost form silently under her finger.

"Mother," said Mary, softly. Mother looked at her with eyes red from crying. "What's going to happen?"

"I dont know, Mary," she said. When they finally got home Mary wanted to go outside but Mother wouldn't allow it. She stayed in all afternoon and read a book. Mother hid in her room. Mary went up once to ask her a question but stopped when she heard crying behind the door. By the time it was dark Mother still hadn't ventured out. Mary sat at the dining room table, reading. She had an old pair of work gloves on to protect the book. Every so often she had to stop and defrost the gloves over the heating register. Her clothes were stiff, and whenever she walked past the thermostat the heat came on. It was getting worse. Frost was forming on her hair almost faster than she could brush it away and she could barely see because it was forming so quickly on her eyelashes.

Maybe I am sick, thought Mary and she wished her father would get home. He would know what to do. She ripped a couple of paper towels off the roll, sitting on the floor, and dried the table again before setting down the book. She then sat back in her chair and gazed at the ceiling.

It wasn't just the cold anymore. Ever since she got home it had become harder and harder to move, not just physically but mentally. Her mind was slowing down and so, in a strange way, were her feelings. She had to work at being worried about her mother and even herself.

She heard a gasp and looked down to see her mother, standing in the doorway, hand up to her mouth. "Mother..."

"Oh my God, are you all right?"

"I think maybe I'm sick."

"I'll make you something to eat."

"I'm not hungry. You know that." Mary closed her eyes but opened them again, humoring a fear that if she left them closed too long she'd never get them open again.

"Yes, well your father will be home soon. I'd better start supper." She almost ran into the kitchen.

For what could have been hours or just a matter of minutes Mary stared at the ceiling. She was brought out of her stupor by the sound of a car pulling into the driveway. Her first thought was one of curiosity about why her senses kept fading in and out and then she realized that Father must be home. With an effort she sat up and tried to look alert.

The front door opened and then closed. Father walked into the dining room. Somehow he had removed his coat and hat. He went over to Mary and said, "Are you all right, Mary?"

"There's something wrong, Daddy. I'm..." How was she going to explain this. "I'm cold." A lock of hair, stiff with frost, fell in front of her eye. She brushed it aside.

"Have you been outside?"

"No, Mother made me stay in."

"Oh," He was looking at her with something more than his physician's professional concern. Mary thought he looked like he was about to panic. "Where's your Mother?" Mary pointed a small white finger toward the kitchen.

"Helen," he said, walking to the kitchen door and looking in. Mother came to the door warily, eyeing Mary. "Helen, I think we should take Mary to the hospital right away."

"No you can't. They'll...

"Helen how can you say no? She's obviously very ill with some kind of exotic disease. At the hospital they can.. "

"They can poke and prod at her until she feels even worse. No I won't have that for my daughter."

"She's my daughter too, and I say she goes."

"She is not your daughter," said Mother . She put her hand to her mouth and cringed from Father's stare. Mary couldn't quite figure out what Father was feeling but she knew he must have been near the end of his seemingly endless patience.

He turned to her and said, "Mary, do you think you can make it to the other room? I think you should lay down."

"I can make it," she said, rising stiffly from her chair.

"Do you need help?"

"No, I'll be okay." She hobbled out of the room. The dining room door swung shut behind her and she was left alone in the foyer. The yellow hall light was on and the closet door was open. Clumsily, Mary made her way to the living room but stopped when she looked up and saw the ghost of Ilsa Wendt standing in the doorway to her living room.

"0h, I'm sorry, Mrs. Wendt. I forgot you don't allow children in there." Ilsa remained silent, her tiny gray eyes burning into Mary. "I'll just go outside then." Mary turned to the closet and started to get her coat, but hesitated, "I don't need a coat." Opening the front door, she ventured onto the porch and walked as far as the front steps. It was a quiet night, except for the crickets but Mary had grown accustomed to them and was even starting to like them. A slow breeze was rustling the fallen leaves, sending one scampering across the porch where it spiraled up toward the light and then stalled, the wind blocked by the porch's overhang. There it hung motionless as if it was soaking up all the light it could before it fell back and was swept away into darkness.

Mary looked after it, squinting her eyes, but it was lost.

Her gaze lifted to the cemetery, which was lit up by bright white lamps set on thick telephone poles. It glowed like some far off ship drifting out to sea. It was crowded with people now, milling aimlessly about the tombstones not talking to anyone but themselves.

"You really don't know, do you?"

Mary turned and saw 1lsa Wendt standing beside her. The old woman looked down at Mary with eyes that, if not kind, were at least understanding. "Poor child. Your mother has had such a hard life and you were never meant for this world." She shook her head sadly. "1 will wait for you." She faded away.

Mary watched and suddenly knew that she was not sick. It all came back to her now, the careful mimicking of peers, the absence of sensations like cold or hunger or even illness, her mother's reluctance to touch her. Idly, Mary wondered when it had happened. There were a couple of instances that were close calls when she was almost hit by a car, or had swallowed too much aspirin and had gotten sick. It could have happened at any of those times. It was the sort of thing that happened to people every day but she had always believed that she would notice when it happened to her.

But the process was incomplete. For some reason she remained on this side, at least in part. She was still in this world. Perhaps now that she had finally realized her bizarre state, she could finally cross over. That is, if she wanted to.

Mary took a deep breath, startled at the realization. Up until now she had been getting along fine, interacting with the living, if not perfectly, then at least well enough that nobody had guessed her true state. Now that Mary realized what she was, she was sure she could continue fooling people just as well, if not better than before.

Then she thought about her mother. Could she be convinced her daughter was as alive and warm as the day she was born?

Suddenly it occurred to Mary: Mother must have known all the time. It was the only excuse for her actions. Mary was seeing it all clearly now, for the first time, her mother's nervousness, and reluctance to touch her child. Poor Mother, who knew how long she had been carrying around the terrible knowledge of her daughter's death. For her sake it had to be put out into the open now.

Mother had to know that Mary knew the secret and that it was all right. She turned to enter the house but Father came out at the same time, holding her coat.

"What are you doing out here Mary, I thought...Heavens." He looked at her with shock and alarm in his face. "You're completely covered with frost. Here, put on your coat. We're going to the hospital right now." He handed her her coat.

"I don't think it matters anymore Daddy."

"What do you mean it doesn't matter. Of course it matters. Life and death always matter. Listen, I don't pretend to understand what's happening to you, but I do know that your life is in danger. We must go, now!" He tried to herd her off the porch but Mary wouldn't move.

"Could I say goodbye to Mother?"

"Mary," said Father, dropping to one knee, "Your mother isn't feeling very well right now. We've got to get you some help. Now please.. "

"What did she say?" asked Mary, remembering her mother's last words before she left. Somehow it seemed important now.

"What?"

"About you not being my father. What did she say?"

"Your mother is very ill, not physically like you but in her mind. Tomorrow, I am going to take her to a hospital too."

"But Daddy, what did she say?"

"It's not important right now."

"But it is. It's life...and death."

He paused; Mary could almost see him trying to think of a way to get her off the porch and into the car. "Oh, very well," he said, "But there's one thing I want you to know. Even if it turns out that you are not my daughter, it doesn't matter. I will always love you as if you were. And I want you to know that if anything should happen to your mother you'll always have a home here."

"Thank you, Daddy."

"Now please keep in mind that what I'm going to tell you is the product of a very ill mind. Your Mother claims that she didn't give birth to you, but that she found you."

"Found me where?" Mary could feel her newly found confidence slipping away.

"Over there, in the cemetery. On the night she left she went for a walk and claims to have found you lying in the grass next to an infant's grave on the Corning family plot. She even named you Mary Alice after that infant. I'm afraid Mary, that your mother thinks you are a ghost." Mary stood up and looked across at the cemetery. A drop of water fell from her hair and landed in her eye.

It's not true Mary, there are no such things as ghosts. And certainly you are not one."

"But it is true, Daddy, I am a ghost.

"Mary, you're my daughter," said Father and he grabbed her by the shoulders and spun her around. Mrs. Wendt stood behind him.

"You are not dead. You're very ill but you're still alive."

"Mrs. Wendt, can you tell him? He needs to understand. " The old woman nodded and laid her hand on Father's head.

"Farewell Carl, for both of us, because we both must go. I love you, darling. " Father looked behind him and saw her. His mouth dropped open and only one word managed to tumble out.

"Ilsa."

She took Mary's hand and led her across the highway without a backward glance from either of them. Mary's frosted footprints glittered like silver in the moonlight.

####

Mary Alice Corning/Wendt sat upon the grass next to her grave. She stroked the tiny head of the marble lamb, giving it a fleece of frost on top of it's one of stone. The wind blew in puffs, scattering the frost from which her corporeal body was made. The ice crystals fled from her and sparkled like tiny stars. She was thinner now and frail.

"My body is disintegrating," she said softly to the lamb. But the lamb declined comment, choosing instead to gaze at some distant object. Mary followed the gaze and saw a small figure making its way toward her.

"Mother," she said, and a woman, lying in the grave next to her slowly sat up and turned her head to face Mary. "No ma'am. I'm sorry but I didn't mean you." But the woman's attention had wondered. Mary forgot her and concentrated on Mother, who approached.

"Mary," said Mother, "You're dying."

"No Mother, I died long ago. I came back because...I think I wanted to live. I was just a baby so I don't remember too well, but now I'm sure it was a mistake, and I'm ready to be dead."

"I'm sorry," said Mother, sniffling.

"It isn't your fault, Mother."

"But I failed as a mother. I never fed you.

"That's not true. I never ate. I didn't need to."

"I never touched you, hugged you."

"Because you couldn't; you would have died. I understood that much. You loved me like a mother anyway. I knew that even if we couldn't touch." Mary stood up.

"I know I can't make up for years of neglect now but I'd like to make up for some of it at least." She held out her arms and came to Mary.

"No, Mother, it can't be like that."

"You misunderstand, I just want to touch you, only for a second. Just touch you and not flinch like before." Reluctantly, Mary held out her hand. It was barely a hand, several fingers having melted and fallen off. White it was, fashioned from a fall morning's frost long ago. Her fingers trembling, Mother grasped the hand in both of hers. She winced once at the cold but did not flinch and after a second she said her goodbyes.

"I'll always remember you and visit you often."

"Thank you Mother, this is a very lonely place." Mary looked around her and watched her new companions, if that is what they could be called. Here no one spoke or moved much or did anything at all. They all just sat, invisible but serene for eternity.

"Goodbye, Mother." Mary collapsed, tumbling silently to the ground in a heap of snow and ice. Mother looked at her hands where she still held her child's hand. The first rays of the morning sun cleared the treetops and struck the lump of snow in her grasp. It glittered like a handful of silver coins; the price of one life's passage through this world.

THE END


© 2008 Charles Ebert

Bio: Charles Ebert runs the Audio Visual Unit of the Durham Public Library in Durham, NC. He has been writing SF and Fantasy since he was in high school and reading it for far longer.

E-mail: Charles Ebert

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