"Ashes to Ashes"
The ghost begins to follow me the day the sky turns black. In the clamour of sirens and the stench of burnt eucalyptus, she appears at my shoulder and touches my face. She trails icy fingers down the nape of my neck and wraps her arms tight around my waist.
“I know you,” I say, but she doesn’t answer.
From the back veranda of my house, I watch as the column of smoke becomes a spreading cloud. The air is orange, too arid for autumn, and I cough into the haze. A flock of screeching cockatoos flies overhead. If I squint, I can make out the glow of the fire front, right on the horizon at the convergence of two hills.
“It’s not my fault,” I tell the ghost. “It’s a coincidence.”
Her body presses firm against my back, a cold shroud in the radiant heat.
“You’re fine,” I say. “Alive. You’re not really here.”
The ghost remains silent as I light a cigarette.
The police officer is young, too young for the grey at his temples and the truth in my heart. He watches me without movement. How many people have sat across from him like I am, worrying at a plastic water cup and refusing to meet his eyes? They get hundreds of calls, the police, thousands at times like this. To him, I'm just another time waster. But I know more than he dares to think.
“I saw her,” I tell the policeman. “Before the fire,” I add and I can tell the exact moment that he starts to listen.
“How long before the fire?”
My fingers stroke the corrugated side of my cup. I want a cigarette, but I’m afraid of giving myself away. “Not long before I saw the smoke,” I say.
“No more than half an hour before the sirens began.”
“At Picnic Point.” She was my only witness. I can tell him almost everything. The dead don’t speak.
The ghost at my shoulders sighs into my hair.
“The firies say it started around about there,” the policeman says.
“I know,” I say. “I think she did it.”
The ghost’s breath freezes and forms a scarf of ice around my neck.
The ghost is invisible, but I can see her. I wash my face in the basin, rubbing ashy grit from my skin, and when I straighten, she stares at me from the mirror. Her eyes are dark, unreadable, but everything else has stayed the same.
“I don’t believe in you,” I say, and her silence is unbroken. “You’re just a metaphor.”
She kisses my neck with tinder-dry lips.
It’s autumn, April, too late to worry about parched undergrowth and buffeting north winds. It’s a long drive from the western suburbs of Melbourne and, by the time I reach the Mount Baw Baw turn off, I need a nap. There’s a picnic area not far from the freeway, little more than a couple of tables and a fringe of summer-brown ferns. Mid-afternoon on a Tuesday, the only sign of cars is the criss-cross of tyre tracks. I sip a servo coffee in the shade of an ancient gum that is shredding its bark like the skin of a snake. My car windows are wound right down and nearby I can hear a currawong’s mournful cry. It’s hot, that airless sort of heat that feels like someone’s left the oven on too high. When I set off, I’ll put the air-con on, but the blazing warmth helps me sleep.
When I wake from my nap, I’m no longer alone. A teenage girl is sitting at one of the tables, throwing a tennis ball to a leggy Labrador that fetches it in seconds and drops it back into her waiting hands. I watch them for a while and then light up a cigarette. The smoke burns a fiery pathway down my throat.
“The dog came home,” the policeman says. “Limping, paws burnt, but otherwise fine. They often do, dogs.”
“Animals are good at that,” I say. “Defeating nature. We’re not as resilient.”
The ghost shifts, reminding me I’m wrong.
The dog tires and the girl pats it for a few minutes before picking up the ball and sliding it into the pocket of her tartan dress. A uniform, I realise. I’d slept longer than I’d intended. I suck the last lungful of nicotine from my cigarette and toss it through the open window as the filter sears my skin.
“What the hell?” The girl is beside me. “Don’t you watch the news?”
“It’s April,” I say. “It was burning my fingers. What can you do?”
“Memorise your number plate and tell the police?”
There’s a reason I’ve never had kids.
Behind her, the undergrowth flickers. Later, I will tell myself that I didn’t realise, but I act with full understanding. I twist the car keys in the ignition and the engine fires. The dog darts away from the wheels.
“Your word against mine,” I say.
As I reach the road, I think I smell burning. I roll up the car windows and set the air-con to recirculated air. “Damned smokes,” I say aloud. “Stink gets into everything.”
I stop in Drouin for petrol and grab a pie at the bakery up the road. I should go back, I think before the sirens begin their wail. I should, I think, but I don’t. This way, it’s only me who knows.
“She was smoking,” I tell the policeman. “I remember thinking how stupid she was. Just a kid, throwing her life away.”
“But you’re a smoker too,” he says. “I can smell it on your clothes.”
“I’m older,” I say. “I started when I didn’t know better, and now it’s too late to try to stop.”
Like a fire, the ghost tells me with her eyes. Like a fire that’s out of control.
The ghost first strokes my shoulder on the Tuesday, and Wednesday morning her face is on every front page. Sixteen, the papers tell me. Sixteen and doing great at school. She wants to be a doctor, her mother says, but then, all the missing kids do. I buy the Herald Sun and the Age and I read each article twice before tearing the newsprint to shreds.
The ghost lingers. “What do you want?” I ask her. “There’s nothing I can do.”
You can tell the truth, her touch seems to tell me. You can help them find me.
I scrub at my skin with my fingernails until the scratches well with blood.
“I didn’t think anything of it,” I say. “Not until I saw the papers.
Missing, they said. It’s a tragedy, you know. Young girl like that.”
“You didn’t think to go back?”
“Why would I?” I ask the policeman. “I’m surprised I remembered her face.
She was just a girl walking her dog.”
“And now she’s missing.”
Dead, the ghost tells me. Missing, presumed (undoubtedly) dead.
They find her body the next day. What’s left of it, that is. There are other bodies, too, but hers is the one that counts. I crumple my half-full packet of cigarettes into a broken mess and toss it into the bin with the remains of last night’s dinner. The ghost watches as I drum my fingertips on the coffee table, chewing my lips until I draw blood.
“What more do you want?” I ask. “You’re dead. It doesn’t matter what people think.”
It matters, the ghost breathes. Memories are all I have left.
“If they knew it was me, they’d send me to jail.”
She doesn't care. I’m hungry. Whatever I cook, the food always tastes like ash.
I watch her funeral from the back of the church and the ghost strokes my hair like the caress of a wife. The place is packed, extra chairs lined up in the aisles to fit all the locals and school friends and ghouls. The minister, tactful, doesn’t say it, but still the words form a refrain in my head. Ashes to ashes. Flames to flames.
I shake her father’s hand and pretend not to see his tears. Her mother is curled around a small boy, the girl’s brother, perhaps only ten. His eyes are older. Too old. He moves like he’s wrapped in smoke.
“Too young,” everyone says. “What a tragedy.” And, underneath, the unspeakable thoughts. Her own fault. How foolish. So many dead. What did she expect?
She expected justice, the ghost whispers. And she will have it.
Her fingers slide inside the black crepe of my new funeral dress.
My house stands alone on the outskirts of town, a small block cut from the edge of a former farm. The ghost holds my hand as I soak the carpets and loops her arms around my waist as I search the cupboards for a match. Between the bin and the pantry, I find the torn half of a single cigarette.
The ghost leads me to the plump chair in front of the television and my nose crinkles at the stench of whisky and turpentine. I sit and she straddles my thighs, kissing me full on my cheese-grater lips.
“Do it,” the ghost says. “For me.”
And the black of her eyes begins to burn.
Tara Calaby lives in Melbourne, Australia with her wife and far too many books. Her writing has appeared in publications such as Grimdark Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, Aurealis and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, and she is an Assistant Editor for Luna Station Quarterly.
She is currently a PhD candidate and is researching lesbian writing and Victorian fiction. In her free time, she can be found playing video games or attempting to learn Welsh.
Her website can be found at http://www.taracalaby.com