Cigarettes remind her of her mother who never looked or smelled like a smoker. She was an entrepreneur with a knack for palm reading and dream interpretation. Unfortunately, she wasn’t very good with finances and her relationship with the IRS was tense. She had her first stroke at the age of forty-four and then one every spring until her heart failed four years later. After she died, Anna longed for a connection, something to keep her close not only in thought, but also in body. Lighting up became a sacred ritual, an invocation of the dead, but her mother never came. Anna didn’t take it personally.
Anna crushes her cigarette with her boot on the brick path before picking it up and tossing it in the trash. She stuffs her hands into her jacket pockets and makes her way over to a tombstone nestled beneath a dogwood with tender pink blossoms. The epitaph reads: Lydia Marie Wilcox. An angel so loved by God, He took her for Himself. She was ten years old when she died in 1962. Anna looks up past the grave marker at the spectre sitting just beyond it. She is wearing a white dress with puffy short sleeves, black dress shoes, and a blue headband that holds back her blonde ringlets. The ghost is glaring at Anna, her hands crumpling fistfuls of her dress as she holds back tears.
Anna greets her with a gentle volume as if approaching an injured fawn. Lydia buries her face in her hands and sobs, her tiny shoulders shaking beneath the weight of a life unlived and a crime unsolved. No one suspected that her father drowned her in the bathtub, not even her mother. He supplied the police with a diary full of entries suggesting Lydia lost the will to live. He was smart enough to remove the pages that recounted his late night drunkenness, resulting in physical beatings that Lydia endured, but never deserved.
The sad tale floods Anna’s mind after she places her fingertips on the tombstone. She grimaces, taking back her hand. She watches Lydia’s ghost wail with a force and passion equal to her grief, but the sound is distant and goes unheard by all except Anna. She walks around the grave marker and sits down on the ground, leaning against it. The branches of the dogwood tree rustle in the wind, a natural white noise that folds over Lydia’s sobs.
The first time Anna experienced a transmission like this was six months after her mother’s death when she went to visit her grave. She knelt down on the grass and pressed her forehead against the name etched in stone. It felt like a dream sifting behind her eyes. She saw her mother sitting at the kitchen counter, staring blankly through the window. Anna felt awash with dread as her mother suddenly grasped her head, trying to stand only to lose her balance and fall to the floor. It was her mother’s first stroke, but Anna hadn’t been there. She pulled away from the tombstone, gasping for breath as sweat coated her upper lip.
The visions began happening anytime she touched an object belonging to her mother. Hidden pieces of her life unfolded before Anna’s eyes: the constant drinking, the chain smoking, the prescription painkillers. But Anna experienced more than images; she could perceive feelings, thoughts, and memories. Underneath her mother’s addictions was a thick floor of regret, which Anna chose not to explore. It’s true that knowledge is power, but ignorance is bliss.
“What can I do for you?” Anna asks Lydia’s ghost, pressing her palms together between her thighs to warm them.
Lydia lifts her head, wiping her face of snot and tears with her forearm. She licks her lips and looks at the grass, contemplating her answer.
“Do you want me to tell someone what really happened to you?” Anna suggests.
Lydia shakes her head, sniffling as she mumbles, “No, that’s not important to me.”
“What is important to you?”
“I don’t want to be alone.”
Anna folds her left arm over her chest, propping up her right elbow on her left hand as she fiddles with the cross hanging from the chain around her neck. There’s no way to help Lydia cross over to the next world, but she can show her how to make a world of her own.
“If you want, you could stay with me.”
The ghost’s eyes widen and her lips part in surprise.
“You see my cross? If you close your eyes and imagine the most beautiful place, we can put it in there. You can live there and I’ll always be close by. I won’t be able to come inside, but you can come out whenever you want.”
Lydia clasped her hands in front of her heart and squealed, “Can it be a big white house? With a cat and a dog? I promise I’ll take good care of them! And I’ll bake cookies every day and read books all the time until I fall asleep!”
Anna smiles, nodding with approval. Lydia jumps up and down before closing her eyes and vanishing into thin air. The cross is cold and heavy now, bearing Lydia’s soul and her new world. Anna heads out of the cemetery, lighting up another cigarette.