The Lorelei Signal
Written by Mark DiStefano / Artwork by Lee Ann Barlow
She was very obviously very dead. She stared at me with a morbid curiosity, her hollow ghost eyes looking right through me, figuratively. I was looking right through her, literally, of course. Her transparent skin was the classic grey hue I’d seen in B-list horror movies. I had been certain someone was haunting the house for weeks, but it wasn’t until this evening that I had finally worked up the courage to confront the specter.
“Yeah, this is super awkward. You sure I’m not your dead wife?” She paced as she talked, her ghost feet bobbing on the stained hardwood floor.
My wife had been dead for two years now. I figured if she had unfinished business, she probably would have turned up sooner. Besides, this ghost was nothing like Lily. Lily was tall and auburn-haired with perfect posture and a soft smile that danced on her lips when she was thinking. The ghost lady was much shorter. She was younger, too. She could have been my daughter’s age. She had dirty-blonde hair and a frenetic energy that took up the entire room.
I had never ruled out the possibility of the supernatural. I honestly couldn’t say that I’d given it much thought.
“So now what?”
“I don’t know,” she quipped. “They didn’t exactly hand me a rule book when I died. I sort of just showed up here.”
“Well, if you’re gonna haunt the place, we should probably come up with some ground rules.”
I wasn’t particularly frightened. At the time I chalked this up to her unassuming stature and general approachableness. When I look back now, I can appreciate how lonely I had been. Retirement had been quiet, and this ghost lady was someone to talk to. I’d stopped going to the therapist I kept promising my friends I’d been seeing. Maybe this was someone I could open up to about Lily and not have to deal with the usual pity that people seemed to dole out every time I dropped her name.
“I’m listening.” She sat in the recliner. I hadn’t wrapped my head around the physics of supernatural sitting, but it seemed appropriate for me to join her. I plopped down on the couch.
“Well, I think we need to respect each other’s space. If you’re gonna be ghosting around in here, I don’t want you walking in on me showering or anything.”
“Ew. Why would I do that?”
“What, you think just because I’m dead that I’m some kind of pervert?”
“I don’t know! You showed up in my house talking about my dead wife. Clearly, you’re not good with boundaries.”
Her brow churned into a puzzled furrow. If she was supposed to be a scary ghost, she wasn’t very good at it. She betrayed a very human empathy.
“I didn’t mean to be callous.”
“It’s okay. I mean, she is dead.”
She leaned back in the chair exasperated.
“Do you remember anything?” I figured maybe we should start from the top.
“Sure. But I definitely don’t remember being in this shitty house. No offense.”
“None taken.” This was fair; the house was falling apart. Two years of sulking around and neglect had taken a toll on the place. The plaster was peeling. The couch was worn. The framed photos of dogs and beaches and Lily’s parents were in dire need of a good dusting.
“Do you remember how you died?” I figured we might as well dive in.
“Pretty sure it had something to do with this bad boy.” She gestured down to the gaping hole in her stomach.
She shrugged. I joined her at the armchair and took a closer look.
“Bullet hole?” I offered, knowing damn well I wasn’t a certified coroner.
“Icicle. I was making snow angels with my niece. It fell right off the roof. Splat.” She demonstrated a falling frozen spear smashing through her insides. Very theatrical.
“Yupp. Anyhow, doesn’t really matter now. I’m here.”
A silent moment. Her reflecting on death, me standing awkwardly over her, not knowing where to look.
“Do you wanna touch it?”
“Oh. I mean… kind of?”
“I don’t mind.”
I reached my hand out and delicately touched her stomach hole. Well, I tried to. My fingers went right through her ghost skin and landed on the couch.
“Figures.” She stood up through me and resumed her pacing.
“Look, we don’t have to figure this out tonight,” I said. I could tell she was agitated. “Why don’t you get some rest. I mean… is that something you do?”
She looked up at me again with those big pale ghost eyes.
She floated towards the game room stairs.
“It was nice meeting you!” I called after her.
She turned and smiled.
She disappeared down the staircase, and I collapsed onto the armchair.
~ * ~
I didn’t see the ghost lady again for a few days. She’d inspired me to clean the place up a bit. I figured if I was going to have company, I’d need to make the place habitable again. I busied myself with the vacuuming and dusting I’d been avoiding. Repainting the living room meant a trip to the hardware store, and I soon found myself parked in the driveway with a trunk full of paint cans and brushes and a large camping tarp to “keep this shit off the floor” as the bespectacled hardware guy had put it.
When she finally reappeared, I was almost done applying the finish coat. I’d chosen a “Gossamer Veil” at the recommendation of a Google search. It looked the same to me as the other greys on the shelf, but apparently it had been quite the rage this spring. I had tied a bandana across my forehead to keep the sweat out of my eyes while I painted. My cargo shorts were worn and splotched. They were sagging; I’d lost weight.
“You look like one of those dads at Warped Tour. You know, the ones who show up with their twelve-year-old daughters and make snide comments about the slow deterioration of contemporary rock and roll.”
“Bandanas aren’t just fashion. They’re functional.” I set my paint roller in the tray and wiped my face with a paper towel. “And rock’s been dead since before you were dead.”
She hovered around the room in thought. I couldn’t tell if she was holding back or bored out of her mind.
“What do you think of the color choice? Nice change of pace, right?”
She had her ghost hands on her hips as she admired my work.
“I dunno. It’s a little drab.”
“Hey, it’s not my house. I’m just haunting it.”
“Oh, so we’re making this official?”
She shrugged. I picked up my roller again. She was allowed to be moody, I supposed. Seemed like she was going through a pretty rough afterlife transition.
“I’d give you a hand with this, but I’m not much of a painter.”
A little ghost humor. I laughed politely.
“You know, I’ve been thinking about your hole—”
“And I’m the pervert?”
“Your stomach hole.”
“You can just say belly button like an adult.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Oh, you’re talking about my gruesome icicle wound. The source of my untimely demise.”
“Yeah. That one.”
She took the armchair as I finished painting. My work had gotten progressively sloppier since she’d materialized, but I chalked it up to fatigue.
“What about it?”
“Well, I was thinking about why you’re here. I always associated ghosts with unsolved mysteries. But it sounds like you know exactly how you died.”
“So, if you’re not here to solve your own death, maybe you have some other unfinished business.”
I could see her right hand trying to flip the recliner switch, as if she could somehow will the chair backwards with her undead fingers if she just concentrated hard enough. When that didn’t work, she got up and floated over to a picture of Lily and Grace.
“This is Lily?”
“And your daughter?”
She paused and touched the picture with her transparent fingers.
“Would we have been friends?”
“Maybe. I dunno. She didn’t really bring her friends around the house much.”
“Well, when do I get to meet her?”
“I don’t even know your name.”
“Check my tombstone.”
“Have you seen your tombstone?”
“Nope. Can’t leave the house. You know, traditional ghost rules. I mean c’mon. Haven’t ya ever been haunted before?”
“Anyhow, I hope they gave me a good one. Maybe a gargoyle or two to keep me company. Oooo, maybe I got one of those creepy little death monuments where people can walk in and sit above my remains.”
I wasn’t gonna let her off the hook. If she wanted to poke around my casa, we were at least gonna get to the bottom of why she was here.
“Maybe you need to right some wrong or something,” I suggested. “Did you hurt anyone? Were you a bully?”
She floated towards the kitchen, and I followed in her wake. She was starting to remind me of Grace, the way she would just leave the room in the middle of our conversations. The truth was that I hadn’t just lost Lily that day. Grace still wouldn’t speak to me. I understood, of course. They say time heals all. Not all, as it turned out.
“What about your parents?” I asked from the kitchen doorway. She was looking out at the backyard through the window over the sink. A robin sat on the old sandbox, its red feathers ruffled in the spring breeze.
“What about them?”
“Everyone has drama with their parents. Did you have an argument or something before the accident?”
“I don’t talk to my parents. Well, obviously. But I didn’t talk to them much when I was alive either.”
“Now we’re getting somewhere.”
“Are we? You think my mommy issues got me a ticket to purgatory?”
I didn’t wanna push too hard. I had always been good at that. I liked to take a little bit of credit for Grace’s excellent grades. She was a real brain, of course. Like mother like daughter and whatnot. I had always insisted she have multiple activities going. Chess captain, mock trial standout. She was on the varsity basketball team her freshman year, and she was the leading scorer before she turned sixteen.
Lily always fought to keep things fun. “She’s a kid,” she would say, taking my hand in the bleachers to shush me when I raised my voice from the sidelines. I was one of those obnoxious bleacher dads. It had been very important to me that the other parents know which kid was mine. The one with the blonde pixie cut and all the double-doubles. Lily had always kept me in my place.
“I’m trying to help here,” I reminded the ghost in my kitchen. She was exploring my pantry, her spirit floating in and out through the cupboards over the counter.
She turned back from the window to face me.
“I wanna have dinner with you and Grace.”
“That’s not gonna happen.”
“Well sort that shit out. Jesus, you’re still alive. You wanna end up like this? Dead in some old dude’s kitchen? No offense.”
She had a point. I hadn’t tried to reach out in weeks. I had Grace’s new number, and one of the neighbors had mentioned she was back in town. I was trying to be better about respecting her space. That was Doctor’s Taylor’s idea, anyway. He said if Grace wanted to talk, she’d come find me. Part of me was scared she would never talk to me again. So when she agreed to come over for coffee, I decided I was going to play it cool.
“This is bullshit. The whole thing was my idea.” The ghost had her arms folded in her patented pretzel cross.
“Look, it’s a big deal she even agreed to come over. I can’t have you scaring her off.”
“I’m not gonna scare her off. I just want to meet her.”
“You can meet her once I fix this.”
Ghost lady agreed to stay downstairs unless I gave the signal that it would be okay to come introduce herself. Not that I had any intention to give the signal, of course. This was the first time I would be seeing Grace in two years. No chance I was gonna let some emotionally stilted dead girl blow this for me.
We sat on the back porch. Grace had grown her hair out, but she still took her “coffee” with three quarters of a cup of milk and a jar of sugar. Awkward small talk and lots of silence. She did mention that she liked the new living room. I took this as a huge win.
“Are you gonna go back to Yale?”
Her year off from school was in danger of becoming permanent. I wanted to pry, but I knew better. The last time we had this discussion ended with her moving out. I didn’t know if there would be a next time if I kept pushing.
“Are you okay, Dad?”
“Yeah. I mean, you know. No. But I will be. I think.”
“Have you been talking to anyone?”
“No. Um, someone new.”
“Is it helping?”
“Yeah. I mean, she’s not as technical as Doctor Taylor. Or as patient. She’s very blunt, to be completely honest. But it’s been good for me. I think you might like her.”
“I’ve been seeing someone too.”
“Yeah. Not professionally, though. Look, I know we don’t really talk about this stuff, but I’m sort of dating again.”
The ghost woman materialized right above my left ear.
“You’re dating again?” she asked.
Grace dropped her coffee all over my lap.
“Ow! Jesus Christ. I thought we had a deal,” I yelled.
“Emily?” Grace was looking up at the ghost as if they’d known each other a lifetime.
“Surprise!” The ghost lady held her hands out demonstratively like a dead magician. She did have a name after all. Emily.
“What the hell are you doing here?” asked Grace.
“I’m fine, if anyone’s wondering,” I screamed out through the open kitchen window, my arm burning as the cold sink water rushed over it. “Super confused as to how you two know each other, though.”
Grace stormed through the back porch and into the kitchen.
“Is this a joke, Dad? What is wrong with you?”
“I told her to stay downstairs!”
“Why are you hanging out with my dead ex-girlfriend?”
Emily had rematerialized in the kitchen. I turned to look at her.
“Yupp,” Emily answered. Grace stared at her.
“So, what? You’re, like, haunting my dad?”
“That is so weird.”
“Hey, it wasn’t my idea!”
“Mine either,” I added.
“I have to go.” Grace barreled through the kitchen. Ghost Emily and I followed her to the front door.
“This was a mistake.”
I called after her. She didn’t answer. I watched her car speed down the street. When I turned to confront Emily, she had disappeared again.
~ * ~
I didn’t see Emily again for three weeks. I spent my days cleaning out the upstairs rooms.
I left Grace an apology voicemail, a babbling “I’m sorry” where I tried to address the ghost situation. I blamed Emily for scaring off my daughter, of course. That said, I kind of missed our living room banter. I had just been getting used to our haunter/hauntee arrangement, and now she’d gone and turned the whole thing upside down.
When she finally decided to appear again, I was watching the Phillies blow a two-run lead in the top of the eighth. She sulked in the recliner as I whined about our atrocious bullpen. I knew she felt bad about the whole not-telling-me-she-dated-my-daughter thing. Honestly, though, it felt good having someone in the room again, even if it was my daughter’s dead ex-girlfriend.
“Her hair looked good.” Emily was staring at the post-game interview as if she was an ardent Philadelphia sports fan.
“It did, didn’t it?” It was nice hearing her say something sweet about Grace.
“I always told her she could pull off bangs. I was right.”
I fiddled with the remote. Emily floated over to me on the couch.
“Sorry I didn’t tell you about me and Grace. And, you know, acting like I didn’t know who you were. And I guess just the general lying and stuff.”
“Well, you know. These things happen. It’s not like anybody told me you two were a thing while you were alive.”
“That was her call. I just knew you as the scary guy who yelled things at our games.”
She had me flip over to Comedy Central. Some comedian was talking about things he’d bring to the afterlife. Emily smiled when I noted how topical this was.
“Did she ever talk about me?” I asked. I pictured the two teenaged lovers savaging me at some movie theater. My relationship with Grace had been rocky then, too.
“Sure. I mean, she lived with you and all.”
“You know what I mean.”
“I dunno. I picked up that you guys weren’t exactly bffs.”
Our comedian continued complaining about his mother and taxes and cancel culture.
“She dumped me pretty soon after the crash. Something to do with my inability to be emotionally supportive in her time of need.”
“Damn. I can’t imagine that.” I tried to say it as genuinely as possible. Emily didn’t exactly strike me as the shoulder-to-lean-on type.
“Please. Even I knew I wasn’t giving her enough. I tried. I just… I didn’t know how to sit there and watch her struggle. I felt useless. Like a fly on the wall watching her go through it. I didn’t know what to say or when to say it. And then that stupid fucking icicle…”
“You were just a kid. You both were. Hell, I didn’t know what to say. I’m still paying for it.”
She was playing with her ghost hair. I wondered if that was something she used to do in life when she was deep in thought. We sat there for a bit, each of us pretending to listen to the television.
“It wasn’t your fault.” The tone of her voice was somber and serious.
She was looking at me now. I kept my eyes on the screen.
“I was supposed to pick up Grace that night,” I was mumbling, almost like I was talking to myself. “But she had to come home early, and Lily went to get her—”
“It wasn’t your fault.”
Those dead eyes. I could feel them on me, big and grey. My face was heating up. I just kept picturing Lily’s lifeless body in that cold morgue. Me nodding my head in broken confirmation as the coroner talked. Grace screaming. Me not even having the strength to put my hand on her shoulder.
“I appreciate what you’re trying to do. And I’m trying to be better about forgiving myself and whatnot like the doctor said. But that doesn’t change the facts. I should have been the one in that car.”
Still staring at me. Finally, I stood up.
She watched me leave in silence.
The next morning, Emily joined me in the kitchen while I made my peanut butter toast.
“Lily used to love this,” I yapped. “She would put a banana on hers. Used to slice it longways instead of cutting it into little ovals. I’d tell her she was just being lazy, but she would say efficiency is everything. If you ever get sick of the whole ghost thing and wanna try a piece you let me know. It’ll change your life.”
“I wanna leave Grace a message.”
She was doing her ghost pace across the room, bobbing back and forth across the floor while I ate.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“Yeah, well, I won’t make you listen.” Her pacing quickened. She’d clearly been stewing over this.
“I left her a voicemail. She knows where to find us. We need to respect her space.”
“You’ve been respecting her space. When’s the last time you heard from her?”
“That’s not how boundaries work.”
It had been weeks now. I was trying to accept the fact that Grace might be done with me for good at this point. Everyone has a breaking point, and she clearly didn’t want to be around me after the ghost ambush. Emily, on the other hand, rose over top of me, floating a foot off the ground. I hadn’t seen her this worked up before.
“Fuck boundaries. You’re always talking about boundaries. I’m dead. My boundary is supposed to be the little wooden box they put my rotting corpse in, yet here I am. So why don’t you sack up and call your daughter.”
I put my toast down and wiped my mouth with the back of my hand.
“We need to give her time.”
She reared back, the skin on her face disappearing into an exposed skeleton as she screamed.
I cowered back against the wall as she flew around the kitchen in a rage, her voice a piercing howl of desperation. I thought about Lily. She would know what to say here. She was so good at talking to Grace; all I’d ever been good at was pushing Grace away. Ivy league, summer internships. She did everything I wanted her to, and all it cost me was our relationship.
With a ghastly final scream, Emily retreated into the living room. I gave her a few moments as I worked up the courage to join her. She was sitting in her favorite armchair, her transparent frame twisted into a defeated slump. I sat on the couch and looked at my feet, hoping she would say something.
“I’m the reason she needed a ride home early that night,” she whispered.
My heart thudded.
“We had a fight. It was about something stupid…the game maybe. We were supposed to go to the diner, but she stormed out of the gym. I remember yelling after her, but she wasn’t having it.”
She turned to look at me.
“And then I left. I just left her standing there waiting for a ride. I was mad, I…”
She averted her gaze back to the wall.
“If I hadn’t picked the fight, Lily wouldn’t have had to pick her up.”
“If I had just kept my mouth shut—”
I was on my feet. She was crying. The tears were grey and tiny. They slipped down her ghost cheeks. At least that’s the way I remember it. It sounds silly now, but in my head, I saw them.
I went to the kitchen and pulled the whiskey bottle that had been collecting dust off of the refrigerator top. It went down like water. I was crying too. Crying for myself. Crying because I missed Lily and Grace. Crying for the dead girl in the living room, cursed to sit in my shitty armchair and relive the past with a broken old man.
I woke up on the couch. The whiskey bottle was lying on the floor next to me. It looked like I’d finished more than had spilled onto the floor at any rate. Emily was hovering over me like a lost guardian angel. She looked at me with that pity face I’d spent the last two years hiding from.
“Don’t. Don’t do that.” Talking hurt. I worked my way into a sitting position.
“Don’t give me the ‘pity for the sad old man on the couch’ look. I don’t need you to feel sorry for me. I already feel sorry for me.”
I pulled myself up. Cleaning up the bottle was a chore in my hungover state. It was everything I could do to keep from vomiting, the smell of the whisky burning my nostrils. Emily watched from her chair. I sunk back into the couch, a glass of water in my hand.
“Check your phone.”
I opened my eyes. My phone was over on her armchair.
“Toss it to me.”
I groaned as I made my way over to the chair. There was a text from Grace. Emily hovered over my shoulder, waiting for me to open it.
“Do you mind?” I was slightly indignant. Not that I had any realistic expectation of privacy at this point.
“What if it’s for me?”
“I’m pretty sure it’s not.”
“You better not read it if it is.”
It was for Emily. I held it up for her to read. There was nothing she could do to stop me from looking at it if I had decided to. It even occurred to me that Grace might have sent it to me with the intention that I would read it too. Either way, I held the phone at arm’s length as Emily read, nodding her head when she needed me to click the screen or scroll. When she was finished, she sat in the chair for a moment. Agony. I wasn’t even miffed that Grace would text her undead high school fling before her old man. I just wanted Emily to let me know what the message said.
“She misses you.”
“Really? Did she say that?”
“Kind of. Not directly. Indirectly.”
“Okay high school English teacher.”
She gave me a dead, blank look.
“Because you’re reading into the text— never mind. What else?”
“She says she knows it’s not her fault. Or mine. Or yours.”
I nodded. Everyone had been telling me this for years, but somehow the idea that Grace knew this or at least knew that she was supposed to say it was immensely comforting. I sat on my couch as Emily gave me little teases of the text. It felt good, sitting there with her. Sitting there with someone who knew what had happened. There was a distance, but it felt healthy.
When she’d had a minute to decompress, Emily had me help her record a reply message to Grace. I stepped out of the room while she spoke into my phone, so I didn’t get to hear it. I like to think she finally had the chance to tell her some of the things she had struggled to say after the accident. How she hadn’t been close with her own family, but that she knew what it was like to lose someone special. How much it had pained her to watch Grace suffer. How sometimes she had laid awake in bed during the early hours of the morning and prayed to anyone who would listen, crying into the pillow and wishing she had the strength to tell Grace what she was feeling.
She stopped haunting me soon after that. I held out hope over the next few weeks that she would rematerialize and say hello. Maybe to tease me about my new workout regimen or the patchy summer beard I had stubbornly committed to growing. When she finally did show up late one August evening, it was to make fun of the dating profile I had been working up the courage to finish. She laughed over my shoulder as I deleted an embarrassing photo off my page.
“What, women don’t like a man who can cook?” I asked defensively, my ego bristling.
“I don’t think women go for guys in Fedoras even if they have a dozen James Beard awards. Besides, who wears a Fedora when they grill?”
“You don’t like my bandana, you don’t like my hats…”
“Just own the fact that you’re bald. These women are looking for someone authentic. They’re too old for games. If you use a picture where you’re wearing a Fedora, they’re gonna assume you’re bald anyway.”
“What makes you an authority on older women’s taste in men? You’re dead, gay and like, nineteen.”
She laughed. I laughed too.
“I really am glad you’re getting back out there.”
I blushed. The phrase sounded strange, as if I was riding a bicycle again after some injury.
“I figure I should probably start hanging out with people my own age. I’m not dead yet. No offense.”
She asked me to tell Grace goodbye, and I promised her that I would. I had been seeing a little bit more of Grace. We hadn’t talked about the ghost or the text or Lily, for that matter. But I was biding my time.
“So are you gonna tell me how you actually died?”
“What do you mean?”
“Come on. You were impaled by a rogue icicle? I think maybe I would have heard about the town’s first death by snow angel.”
“Maybe I’ll tell ya in the next life.”
I thought I saw the hint of a tiny ghost tear. But I’m not sure. After all, my eyesight was deteriorating.
“Take care of yourself, you silly old man.”
“Likewise, you dead young whippersnapper.”
“Please don’t say whippersnapper.”
She laughed again and disappeared. I like to imagine she was at peace, having finally unburdened herself from a lifetime of harbored feelings. I made myself a cup of tea, admiring the two robins playing out in the sandbox. I paced the halls of my formerly haunted home. It looked pretty damn good for an old piece of work, if I do say so myself. And for the first time in over two years, I got a good night’s sleep, albeit on the old living room couch across from the empty armchair.
Hailing from a massive family (both immediate and extended, here in the States, Mexico, Italy, and Cuba), Mark enjoys writing movie screenplays with his identical twin brother John.