I believe in ghosts. They’re the ones who haunt us, the ones who have left us behind. Many times in my life I have felt them around me, observing, witnessing, when no one in the living world knew or cared what happened.
I am ninety-one years old, and almost everyone who was once in my life is now a ghost.
Sometimes these spirits have been more real to me than people, more real than God. They fill silence with their weight, dense and warm, like bread dough rising under cloth. My gram, with her kind eyes and talcum-dusted skin. My da, sober, laughing. My mam, singing a tune. The bitterness and alcohol and depression are stripped away from these phantom incarnations, and they console and protect me in death as they never did in life.
I’ve come to think that’s what heaven is — a place in the memory of others where our best selves live on.
Maybe I am lucky — that at the age of nine I was given the ghosts of my parents’ best selves, and at twenty-three the ghost of my true love’s best self. And my sister, Maisie, ever present, an angel on my shoulder. Eighteen months to my nine years, thirteen years to my twenty. Now she is eighty-four to my ninety-one, and with me still.
No substitute for the living, perhaps, but I wasn’t given a choice. I could take solace in their presence or I could fall down in a heap, lamenting what I’d lost.
The ghosts whispered to me, telling me to go on.
Spruce Harbor, Maine, 2011
Through her bedroom wall Molly can hear her foster parents talking about her in the living room, just beyond her door. “This is not what we signed up for,” Dina is saying. “If I’d known she had this many problems, I never would’ve agreed to it. ”
“I know, I know. ” Ralph’s voice is weary. He’s the one, Molly knows, who wanted to be a foster parent. Long ago, in his youth, when he’d been a “troubled teen,” as he told her without elaboration, a social worker at his school had signed him up for the Big Brother program, and he’d always felt that his big brother — his mentor, he calls him — kept him on track. But Dina was suspicious of Molly from the start. It didn’t help that before Molly they’d had a boy who tried to set the elementary school on fire.
“I have enough stress at work,” Dina says, her voice rising. “I don’t need to come home to this shit. ”
Dina works as a dispatcher at the Spruce Harbor police station, and as far as Molly can see there isn’t much to stress over — a few drunk drivers, the occasional black eye, petty thefts, accidents. If you’re going to be a dispatcher anywhere in the world, Spruce Harbor is probably the least stressful place imaginable. But Dina is high-strung by nature. The smallest things get to her. It’s as if she assumes everything will go right, and when it doesn’t — which, of course, is pretty often — she is surprised and affronted.
Molly is the opposite. So many things have gone wrong for her in her seventeen years that she’s come to expect it. When something does go right, she hardly knows what to think.
Which was just what had happened with Jack. When Molly transferred to Mount Desert Island High School last year, in tenth grade, most of the kids seemed to go out of their way to avoid her. They had their friends, their cliques, and she didn’t fit into any of them. It was true that she hadn’t made it easy; she knows from experience that tough and weird is preferable to pathetic and vulnerable, and she wears her Goth persona like armor. Jack was the only one who’d tried to break through.
It was mid-October, in social studies class. When it came time to team up for a project, Molly was, as usual, the odd one out. Jack asked her to join him and his partner, Jody, who was clearly less than thrilled. For the entire fifty-minute class, Molly was a cat with its back up. Why was he being so nice? What did he want from her? Was he one of those guys who got a kick out of messing with the weird girl? Whatever his motive, she wasn’t about to give an inch. She stood back with her arms crossed, shoulders hunched, dark stiff hair in her eyes. She shrugged and grunted when Jack asked her questions, though she followed along well enough and did her share of the work. “That girl is freakin’ strange,” Molly heard Jody mutter as they were leaving class after the bell rang. “She creeps me out. “When Molly turned and caught Jack’s eye, he surprised her with a smile. “I think she’s kind of awesome,” he said, holding Molly’s gaze. For the first time since she’d come to this school, she couldn’t help herself; she smiled back.
Over the next few months, Molly got bits and pieces of Jack’s story. His father was a Dominican migrant worker who met his mother picking blueberries in Cherryfield, got her pregnant, moved back to the D. R. to shack up with a local girl, and never looked back. His mother, who never married, works for a rich old lady in a shorefront mansion. By all rights Jack should be on the social fringes too, but he isn’t. He has some major things going for him: flashy moves on the soccer field, a dazzling smile, great big cow eyes, and ridiculous lashes. And even though he refuses to take himself seriously, Molly can tell he’s way smarter than he admits, probably even smarter than he knows.
Molly couldn’t care less about Jack’s prowess on the soccer field, but smart she respects. (The cow eyes are a bonus.) Her own curiosity is the one thing that has kept her from going off the rails. Being Goth wipes away any expectation of conventionality, so Molly finds she’s free to be weird in lots of ways at once. She reads all the time — in the halls, in the cafeteria — mostly novels with angsty protagonists: The Virgin Suicides, Catcher in the Rye, The Bell Jar. She copies vocabulary words down in a notebook because she likes the way they sound: Harridan. Pusillanimous. Talisman. Dowager. Enervating. Sycophantic…
From Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline. Copyright 2013 by Christina Baker Kline.