Once upon a time there was a girl.
She had two eyes, two ears, two feet, two knees, two elbows... but only one hand. Her right hand was slight, beautiful and delicate. But her left she had lost in an accident as a child. She barely remembered it - only flashes of light, tinges of pain.
To this day, she still sometimes woke up forgetting it was gone. She could feel it as a phantom limb. Could swear her right pinkie was itchy. Thought maybe she felt a fly land in her palm.
One evening, as she slept, she had a particularly peculiar dream. She was hovering, omnipresent, aware of everything and anything that was happening below her. Her attention, however, was drawn to a boy about her age talking intently to no one. He sat, legs folded beneath him, on a bench in front of the town library. His eyes were animated, his head nodding every once in a while. His expression was that of concern. He took turns pausing, as if listening, and responding in the like. He spoke to the air in front of him. As if a ghost, she swooped down to take a closer look. As she settled, still hovering, to the left of the boy on the bench, he turned in her direction. His gaze met hers and she was stunned by the fact that it seemed he was looking right at her. She was also struck by the stark blueness of his irises.
Hours earlier, a boy with piercing blue eyes sat on a bench in front of the town library talking to a friend.
"He's in pain," the ghost of an apparition explained to Gary. "And I think maybe you can help him."
The boy looked at but also through him. He could see the street and the passing cars through the willowy wisp that made up his companion. He nodded in compassion.
The spirit continued. "He and his wife are both here in the afterlife, but are separated by the walls of the house that used to keep them together." As the boy listened, he felt a strange other presence, watching but not present. "She died in the house as it burnt to the ground. He tried to go in and save her, but their home collapsed before he could make it in to rescue. He died a mere week later of heart failure."
"To be with her," Gary mused, muttering a half sentence that he had no intention of completing.
"Most likely," the apparition agreed. "But now, he just mopes and paces outside the ghost of the house that remains. They can see each other through the panes of glass, but are unable to open the door. Unable to get to each other. Unable to be together."
The boy paused to reflect. It was then that he felt the eerie presence swoop down close. It neared him, almost sitting there on the bench next to him, when it finally started to take shape. Shimmering but barely visible, the outline of a girl formed before him. His breathing slowed as he was struck by her beauty. He noted the outline of her flowing hair, her pretty face, her slight frame, and, as he glanced out of the corner of his eye, her sole hand. As he brought his gaze up to meet her, their eyes locked for a second and then, as quickly as she appeared, she vanished.
The boy and his original phantom friend were left alone.
The day the boy and the girl met in person was not barely 24 hours later.
Mana and Gary crossed paths when both were boarding the Number 1 bus home from downtown. Mana had just seated herself in the second to last seat in the rear of the vehicle. Gary was running frantically after the bus as it started to depart. He rapped wildly at the back and it slowed to pick him up. He paid two fares then shuffled in her direction. Out of breath, he grabbed the sole seat left. The seat next to Mana.
As first, neither looked in the other's direction. But, noting the new arrival's heavy breathing, the girl turned her head to see who had occupied her neighboring seat. Gary cast a smirking look at the air next to him and his breathing started to level off. His head turned to face his seatmate and their eyes met. Instant recognition registered in both their brains, but as ethereal as their first meeting had been, both were unable to vocalize their greetings.
He was the first to attempt. "You're the girl from the library."
Struck by his bluntness, she responded in kind. "I am. And you're the boy that was talking to no one."
"It's not no one," he smiled. "I have friends that you just can't see right now."
Thinking that the conversation had taken an even stranger turn than she had imagined it would, Mana started to turn her body away. "Well that seems.. interesting."
"No no," he said slightly louder than he had intended. He didn't want to lose her so quickly. "It's not what you think." And, on instinct, he put a hand over hers.
For the slight second it remained there, she felt the bus around her change. She could swear she saw a man standing next to Gary, staring at her intently. And further, up close to the front of the bus, a woman holding a rail, gazing out the window. It all seemed brighter too, but in a way that was hard to identify. It all faded as she defensively drew her sole hand back to the safety of her personal space.
"I'm sorry," he apologized, his head down defeated. "I didn't mean to." He stammered. "I didn't.. " He trailed off. His eyes looked to the floor.
"What was that?" she almost whispered.
"I can show you again if you want," he offered. "But only if you don't mind taking my hand." The invitation hung in the air like a bad odor. She seemed to ignore it at first but, ultimately, she shifted her body back to face him.
"Yes," she affirmed and held out her arm. He took her hand in hers and they clasped in confidence.
Together they saw what Gary saw on a daily basis. The shimmering shine of the world. The ghostly presences that inhabit it. That weave in and out of our lives. That live on but breathe not our air. That are not seen by the common eye.
She was silent. And the rest of the ride, she didn't speak. Merely took in the new world that she never knew about. Looking out windows at the souls walking down sidewalks. Sitting on bus benches. Conversing with passers-by.
When her destination approached, she broke the magic by letting go of Gary's hand.
"This is my stop," she finally spoke. "My name is Mana. And I'd like to see you again."
"I'm Gary," he introduced himself. "And I would too."
"Meet me here at the bus stop," she said as she got up to leave. "Tomorrow at the same time."
"Sure," he replied as he glanced as his watch. "Tomorrow at 5."
"See you then," she called as she disembarked.
When they met again, Gary's face was flush and he looked panicked.
"Are you okay?" Mana asked, worried.
"Do you trust me?" he implored. But she didn't. Yet at the same time she did.
She shook off the doubt, took his hand and they were off.
They walked at a brisk pace. Rows of suburban homes passed in a flurry until they finally found themselves in front of an empty lot.
Only to them, it wasn't empty. That same shimmer Mana was beginning to see everywhere now enveloped the frame of a two story Colonial. Outside, a man paced.
When he saw them, his face livened and he approached.
"She's fading." His voice echoed the look in his eyes. The defeat. "And the house with her. I'm afraid of losing them forever."
"Let's think this through." Gary was already looking for solutions. "What is currently keeping you apart?" As the men spoke, Mana took time to glance around. The house had doors but no doorknobs, windows that seemed sewn shut. In the closest window, she saw the head of a woman looking out. Her eyes, too, pleaded.
"I can't get in," the specter spoke. "The doors won't open for me. The windows stay sealed."
"What about any secret entrances?" Mana mused. "Any special spots you two shared? Some way of getting in and out that was unique to the both of you?"
The thin veil of a man turned to face her. He stopped, thinking. Then, suddenly, he turned and ran toward the back of the home.
They followed behind, trying to keep pace. When they reached him, he was already halfway up the tall aged hickory tree scaling the house. As he arrived at the window where the thick branches met the second floor, he frantically pawed at the pane of glass. The woman was there too. Inside looking out. Reaching for him.
"I still can't get in!" he shouted down at them. "The handle is too small. This was Sheila's way of sneaking in to see me when we were teenagers. The grip on the window is only small enough for her hands." He looked down at them, forlorn.
Gary turned to face Mana. "Maybe you can reach it."
"But I won't be able to see it without you."
"Then let's go together." They released hands and Mana was left staring at an empty lot and a tall tree. They spryly climbed the old hickory and were up at the windowsill in no time.
"Now stay balanced," Gary implored when they were safely situated. He placed his hand on her shoulder and the glimmering world appeared again. Mana found herself face to face with the woman within.
She grasped for the windowsill and was disappointed to find her hand sliced swiftly through the mirage. She couldn't touch anything in the ghost world. It was there but it wasn't.
"Use your other hand," Gary nodded toward her left. He smiled.
Confused, she looked down. Where her hand normally eluded her, was the shimmery outline of her phantom limb. She felt the tears start to form before they fell. She just stared at it for what seemed like hours. She turned it over back and forth. Waved it. Wiggled her little fingers one at a time. Her eyes coated in tears that hadn't yet burst forth and she smiled back at Gary.
"Go ahead," he nudged.
Hesitantly at first, she moved toward the window and the little groove that was made just for Shelia's slight hand. Reunited with her ghost hand, Mana slid it into the small handle. It fit perfectly and the window slipped open effortlessly.
The man climbed passed them and through the window. The house pulsed with a new invigorated glow. The lovers united in a warm embrace. A kiss. And it felt like all was right.
Gary took his hand off Mana's shoulder and it all disappeared.
Again, it was just the two of them and the hickory tree. She looked down at the spot where her ghost hand had just existed. Her smile flickered.
Gary moved to lift her chin to align their eyes. He reached for her missing hand and surprisingly, she felt his in the one she couldn't see. He moved her arm up toward him and softly kissed the area in front of his mouth.
She could feel the tingle of his kiss on the top of her phantom hand.
And her smiled shimmered.