Breathing the Ghost

by | Jun 8, 2021 | CNF, Issue Twenty One

Rebecca Mathias died in second grade. We called her Becky. She had a brain tumor.

Our teacher asked if it was ok if Becky sat next to me on the bus on a field trip. Becky laughed too hard—too loud—and she had a runny nose, and she wore leg braces, and she had a rubber ball she had to squeeze, and she spit when she talked so I turned away. Her feelings were hurt, and she leaned her head against the bus window.

When my mother told me Becky died, she asked if I had questions. I said no. Our teacher asked us if we had questions. We said no. We went to recess and ran on the playground because our legs worked.

Becky’s desk was empty.

            Or maybe our teacher took her desk out.

Or maybe our teacher rearranged the assigned seating to fill the hole in the classroom.

Becky’s funeral was Catholic and open casket. The women leaned in to kiss her forehead. Becky was in our Brownie Troop. We wore our uniforms to her funeral. We stood on our tiptoes and viewed Becky’s death like a museum exhibit. We did not get a Death Badge.

Becky was only in our Brownie Troop in the short story I wrote about a child who died. My mother told me no, Becky was in our Brownie Troop in real life.

For sure? I asked my mother.


And we really wore our uniforms to her funeral? Like dress blues or something?


Second grade was the year of the Chickenpox. We all got Chickenpox sitting next to each other in class. Becky got it in the hospital. Becky was in her coffin, with her eyes closed, and she had Chickenpox marks all over her face, and her face was coated in pancake make-up, and she held a doll. Pancake make-up was a narrative choice in 1980s funeral homes.

            Or maybe I put the doll in her casket.

Becky held her doll that I put there in my mind or she already had the doll by the time I looked at her body.

Her mother put the doll in the casket, not me.

Becky was buried in the cemetery on Brown Rd. The cemetery was along my school bus route. Mr. M. always slowed down when we went by the cemetery because the eighth-grade girls in the back of the bus held their breath every time we passed it. The eighth-grade girls shrieked at the rest of us that we better hold our breath, too. Mr. M sometimes slowed the bus and smirked in the rearview mirror and the eighth-grade girls couldn’t hold themselves any longer and they exploded. They yelled out, “No fair, Mr. M!” And they yelled out, “If we have ghosts in us now, it’s your fault.”

In the short story I started but never finished, a child ghost showed up during Brownie Troop meetings and did mischievous things. The ghost wanted to play, but the girls in the Brownie Troop were scared because 7-year-olds get scared when glue sticks float in the air. I wrote that story in first person plural to explore unrealized and/or repressed group fear. After I wrote the funeral, after I wrote the Chickenpox, after I wrote the pancake make-up, and after I wrote the flashback where the girls crafted Christmas ornaments but already Becky’s hands did not work so her ornament did not come out right, I got stuck.

We pretended Becky was not there because she was dying and that made us uncomfortable because we did not understand. Her ornament was missing pieces, and it never stayed on the tree. The first few times it fell off, we put it back on. But no matter how many times we put it back on, it fell again and again and again and again—

Becky’s real name was Jenny.

I abandoned the story. I left those little girls standing around that Christmas tree staring at Jenny’s ornament on the floor, afraid and confused.

Read more CNF | Issue Twenty One

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