I'm having that nightmare again—the one where I'm lost in the woods. Only I'm not on dry land: I'm underwater. The forest grows tentacles. These wooden jellyfish have arms like boughs. They reach for me. Tangle my hair. Pull me down.
Drowning, I choke on my love's name.
Phelia's trying on a headpiece for her dungeon mistress Halloween costume. She fiddles with the formidable crown of spikes. I wonder who she wants to repel with this getup. Maybe she wants to people to think she's impenetrable.
It's been seven months since my passing. I should be jealous, thinking of her in potential romantic relationships with others. I'm not. It's only natural for her to move on. I've watched her grieve, curled up in the quilt I made last spring, rubbing the fading hand-embroidered squares against her lips like she could absorb them into the fabric of her skin. I've leaned in to kiss her, to be rebuffed by her defensive self-hug against an attack of goosebumps. She was reacting to the sudden drop of temperature my presence incurs. Perhaps.
I wish I could slip into Phelia's music apps—I'd send her a playlist. This is what I'm feeling for you right now, I'd tell her. Nothing's changed; except I miss you more. I don't need a body to hold you. I'm gone, but I can't leave.
She considers a matching necklace: choker-style, smaller spikes; but it will truncate her slim, strong dancer's neck. I see the one I want her to try. It's a deep orange pendant flecked with burgundy and cat's eye yellow. I imagine it against her bronzed skin.
"Choose that one," I murmur into her ear. "It will bring out your eyes."
Though she doesn't hear me, her body quivers at my ghostly plume of breath. She senses me on some level. This gives me hope. Despite corporeal boundaries, we can still connect. She's about to try on the necklace I prefer, but a nearby customer knocks over a stacked display of high-heeled shoes. Leather, satin, and glitter litter the floor.
Quickly, Phelia bends down to help. The customer makes apologies, but she dismisses them.
"They were stacked too high anyway."
The woman thanks her, and ducks out of sight. Something else captures Phelia's attention. It's the dress I noticed when we first arrived—the long, flowing one with tapered sleeves and a drop-waist ivory bodice laced with gold accents. My love approaches it. Takes it off the rack. Holds it up to her body in the mirror. She sees herself, but doesn't see me.
"This one," she murmurs. "Jules would pick this one."
She studies her appearance; turns to the side to catch the dress' profile. Pleased, she places her to-be-purchased items aside and steps into the dressing room. She reemerges; inspects herself in the three-way mirror.
"That dress looks amazing," the salesperson minding the dressing room praises. "Like it was made for you."
In a bitter-honey tone, Phelia replies, "I'm living up to my namesake."
"What's that?" the salesperson asks.
"Nothing. Just talking to myself."
Phelia dresses by candlelight: a romantic even when alone. I make-believe she knows I'm here. When she manipulates the clasp on the necklace we chose, I place my hands over hers. We secure it together.
"You look beautiful."
I stiffen. Did she hear me?
"I'm trying..." Her lower lip trembles. "I miss you so much." Her eyes fill with saltwater.
I settle my chin onto her shoulder; wind my arms around her waist. I wish both of us could feel my embrace.
"Go to the party," I urge. "You might have a good time." I kiss her collarbone. "I'm always with you."
With tear-brightened eyes, she fixes her smudged eyeliner. Her flushed face glows with the rosiness of sorrow. If I were alive, I would ask to take her picture.
With a shaky breath, she places the flower crown on her head. "OK."
I stroke the curled wisps that escape from her hairpins. "Perfect."
As Phelia enters the cliffside mansion housing her colleague's Halloween party, I take pleasure in observing the reactions of the guests when they notice her arrival. My love's a mournful gamine lost in the midst of jovial giants. Her dolor enhances her beauty. A pack of wolves follows her movements with a ferocity of gaze that makes me clench my fists. But Phelia's no Red Riding Hood.
"Who're you supposed to be?" a drunken witch slurs. "A fairy?"
"A character from Hamlet."
"Huh. Never saw it. What's her deal?"
"She's a victim of her own madness."
The witch belches. "Dark."
Phelia assimilates into the throng of supernatural beasts, scantily clad temptresses, and presidential figureheads. She finds the spiked punch bowl in a remote corner of the living room and molds herself to it.
"Why did I come?" she mutters around a saccharine sip of liquid courage.
I plant myself at her side. "Give it a chance."
"If the fun hasn't started in twenty minutes, make your escape."
My love stares through me into the eyes of the new arrival, a dark-haired woman
dressed like Robin Hood. "Maybe I'll do that."
"It's helpful to have a Plan B," the stranger says. "Too many people waste their time suffering through forced social interactions."
Phelia regards her with amused detachment. "Are you suffering?"
"Not anymore." The stranger grins. "I found the booze."
Phelia licks her thumb to catch an errant drop of punch. "Booze helps."
I sense a spark, and stamp out my feelings of betrayal. It's time, I tell myself. It's inevitable. Still, a thorn catches in my throat when Phelia smiles at Robin. The woman is handsome: tall, thick-browed, sexy cheekbones. She wears her straight hair short. Her lips are on the thinner side, but the upper is an appealingly curved Cupid's bow.
"How do you know Jocelyn?" Robin asks.
"Oh, her husband invited me. We're colleagues."
"You work at the studio with him?"
"I'm an art dealer."
"Interesting." Robin steps aside to allow a female Harry Potter access to the punch bowl. Her elbow brushes my love's. "What's your name?"
"Phelia." She flourishes a tapered sleeve. "Not much of a disguise."
"Ah. A literal approach to Halloween."
"Why not?" My love looks at the floor. "It's a pretty dress."
Robin studies her for a minute. "Come to think, you do resemble the Ophelia model from that John Waters painting."
"Waterhouse," Phelia corrects. "There's a similarity, yeah." She smirks. "Except I'm not white."
"I mean, your styling is dead-on. Your costume, your hair, the look in your eyes...pretty convincing."
"Thanks. I like your tights. Where did you find that shade of puce?"
Robin chuckles. "You're teasing me."
"No, really. They look good on you. Your legs are—" Phelia stops. Blushes.
"Long?" Robin fills in.
"That, too." Phelia finishes her punch in a couple of gulps. "I should get going. One drink is enough."
Robin looks disappointed. "That's a shame. I was going to ask you to dance."
"I don't feel like dancing."
Robin points to the wall-mounted speakers. "You know that's the name of this song, right?"
"Oh!" Phelia utters a surprised titter. "So it is."
"Are you...attached?" Robin presses. "Boyfriend? Girlfriend?"
Phelia crumples up her cup and tosses it in the trash. "My lover passed away a few months ago."
Robin keeps her facial expression neutral. "That's—I'm sorry for your loss."
"She was..." Phelia trails off. "She was taking a walk in the woods by our house. It started raining. "Another pause. "I shouldn't be telling you this."
I haven't heard this story since my funeral. Maybe I don't want her to tell this attractive woman about me. But I have no choice in the matter.
Robin leans against the wall. "Why not?"
"You're a stranger."
"All the more reason." Robin opens her palms. "Strangers can make great sounding boards."
"Are you an audio engineer or something?"
"A lighting tech. But close enough." Robin pours herself a second serving of punch.
Phelia hesitates. "This can't be fun for you—talking to a random grieving widow at a party."
"What's more depressing is watching my associates get hammered like they're underage drinkers. I'd rather hang with you right now, if that's OK."
Phelia relents. "One more drink."
Robin pours a generous draught of punch into a fresh cup and passes it to her. "At your service, milady." She bows. It's corny, but charming.
A smile flirts with Phelia's lips. I want to claim them like I used to—show Robin that Ophelia's mine. But she isn't. A small sigh resonates through my non-body.
"Thank you." Phelia takes a swallow. Her eyes darken. "Halloween was my favorite holiday. Until this year, anyway. Now it just seems like—" she gestures around the room. "—pageantry. Everyone's all gussied up just to get wasted. Same as any other night, but with outlandish costumes and wigs and masks."
Robin furrows her brows. "Aren't we doing the same thing?"
"Well, I came tonight because I knew Jules would want me to. If she were still alive, we would've come together and stayed in our own private world, making snarky comments about super-drunk people and admiring pretty women." Phelia bites her lip. "We would've left early and spent the rest of Halloween watching horror movies and eating junk food. It isn't the same without her."
Robin nods. "How could it be?"
"I keep looking for her in the crowd." Phelia's brittle laugh hurts to hear. "So pointless."
Robin cocks her head. "If you could see her right now, what would you say?"
"I'd tell her I'm angry." A muscle in her jaw twitches. "I'm angry at her for leaving me. Even if she didn't mean to. It was stupid for her to take a walk when she knew a storm was coming. Why didn't she turn back?" Phelia sets her cup down. Hard. Punch splashes out—stains the tablecloth the color of diluted blood. "She wasn't even that far from home. Ten minutes at most. She could've come back before it was too late." Her voice gets louder. "Foolish! She was foolish. And now I'm all alone, barely keeping it together—spilling my guts to strangers I'll never see again."
"I'm so sorry, my love." I step in front of Robin; face Phelia's heartbreak. "I wanted to stay with you."
Of course, she doesn't hear me.
Robin regards her with the patience of a therapist. "You want to go for a walk?"
Phelia looks incredulous. "It's dark. We'll fall off the cliff."
"No, we won't. There are lights lining the trail to the beach. Fresh air might feel nice."
"You can wear my jacket."
Phelia frowns. "Why are you being so pleasant?"
Robin laughs. "We all have our moments. The pendulum swings. Fortune advances, fortune reverses." She catches Phelia's eye. "I'd like to stay with you a bit longer, if you don't mind."
"I have no romantic interest in you," my love half-lies. "I'm not looking for that tonight."
"Neither am I. But I'm enjoying your company. You act more like a real person than most people I meet." Robin licks her lips. "I appreciate your candor. Most of the time, people act fake in public. Sometimes in private, too. And it gets tedious. They might show their hidden selves anonymously online, or behind closed doors with their families, but I don't get close enough to see that."
"More often than not. I appreciate talking to someone who doesn't bullshit me for the sake of appearances." Robin discards her cup. "You coming with?"
Phelia shrugs. "Why not?"
Part of me wants to return home to wait for her—spare myself the indignity of watching her connect with someone she's attracted to, who's attracted to her. But I also feel protective. Though I sense no ill intent from Robin, I've been fooled by people in the past. Phelia will be alone with a stranger if I don't tag along. She'll be vulnerable.
"Be careful," I warn her." You don't know this person."
Robin leads the way through the colorful crowd to the deck's sliding glass door.
"There's a staircase built into the side of the cliff. Make sure you hold onto the railing—the steps can get slippery. Be careful."
"Here." Robin plucks her leather jacket from the coat rack. It clashes with her costume, but it's otherwise stylish.
"What about you?" Phelia indicates Robin's billowy shirt and vest, neither of which look particularly warm. "You'll freeze."
"Nah. I grew up in Alaska."
"Uh-huh. Fall feels like Summer here."
"If you're sure." Phelia pulls on the jacket. "Thanks."
"My pleasure." Robin slides open the door. "This way, milady."
I follow them outside, cringing as Robin's hand hovers above the small of Phelia's back.
Illuminated mini-jack-o'-lanterns line the stone steps. The wind moans through the cliff's hollow spots. Once Phelia and Robin reach the bottom of the staircase, they settle atop a flat rock by the water's edge. The ocean's black and roiling. Foaming waves lap the shore.
Phelia's hair is a moonlit phoenix, whipping around her face in multi-colored feathers like dancing flames against the backdrop of a black hole. Her aura of private agony sucks me in. I want to heal her; but I only exist on the periphery: a tragic figure from her shadow-boxed past. Robin has a better chance of connecting with Phelia than my ghost does.
I hang back. Perhaps I'll stay here tonight—give her space. Even if she doesn't know I've been with her ever since I died, maybe my presence is somehow hindering her healing process. But no—I mustn't leave her again. I promised.
Without any prompting, Phelia unloads her burden.
"I couldn't find Jules," she tells Robin. "Keys were gone. Purse was on the chair. Car was in the garage. We'd just texted about the weather, so she knew what to expect."
But Phelia didn't know about the distressing email I'd received that afternoon. Even though she couldn't hear me, I had to get it off my chest.
"Before you came home from work, I got bad news," I confess. "Another rejection from another gallery. They said my portfolio wasn't right. I felt ashamed. Defeated. I needed to blow off steam."
"It didn't make any sense for Jules to be in the woods," Phelia insisted. "She was usually so cautious."
I hunker beside her huddled form. "I made a bad choice."
Robin sits on the other side of Phelia. "You think she did it on purpose?"
"I don't have any reason to think that. But I don't know." She pounds a pile of sand. "I'll never know."
I lay my head on her lap. "I guess I wanted to hurt myself. At least, get in harm's way. Tempt fate. I didn't realize how dangerous the situation was until it started thundering and lightning and that tree—"
I remember running through the underbrush, drenched. At one point I started laughing, aware of how crazy I probably looked. I prayed Phelia hadn't returned yet—I wanted to dry off before she figured out what I'd been up to. I knew she wouldn't appreciate my carelessness. I didn't want her to worry.
Robin hugs her knees to her chest. "Have you talked to Jules since then?"
"I mean...I've said things aloud from time to time. But I haven't had any like, visitations. She's just gone."
"But she's still here." Robin pointed to her temple. "In your head."
Halfway home, it had started hailing. The pellets struck my skull. It hurt, but I was too scared to realize how badly I was injured until my vision went fuzzy. I reached up to feel my scalp. My fingers were slick with rain-thinned blood. There was a deafening crack. I smelled an odor like burnt chemicals and then—
"When I found her, she was pinned under a huge branch. I tried to move it, but it was too heavy. Her eyes were open. At first, I thought she could see me." Phelia presses her hands to her forehead. "But then her eyes closed and didn't open again."
"I did see you." I embrace her. "You were the last image I had."
"She saw you," Robin says.
"No." Phelia shakes her head. "You weren't there."
"I wasn't. But you can't know for sure—just like you'll never know why she was in the woods at that moment. You can choose to believe she saw you."
"Isn't that being delusional?"
"If having hope is a symptom of delusion, then yeah. But wouldn't you prefer to believe she saw you before she died?"
"Then that's what happened."
We all sit in silence for a while. I hold my love's hand until she withdraws it.
"We should get back to the party."
Robin raises an eyebrow. "Because we're missing out on so much fun?"
"Because I owe you a dance."
They lock eyes.
Phelia smiles. "Thanks for listening."
"My pleasure." Robin offers her arm. "Let's see how drunk everyone got in the twenty minutes we were gone."
Phelia laughs. "Can't wait."
I watch them go. My chest feels crushed, like it did when the branch fell on me. Still, I'm relieved—relieved to see Phelia's real smile again.
"Thank you," I call to Robin. "She needed that."
Robin stops walking. "One second—I left my lighter. Be right back." She rushes over to where I'm sitting. Leans down. Looks into my eyes.
Astonished, I can't think of anything else to say. Robin gives me a nod; then hurries back to Phelia. "Got it."
For once, I let my love leave me behind. It's only natural, after all, for her to seek solace in the company of the living. I accept the ache of letting go; step into the coldness of the sea. It envelops me. I float nowhere and everywhere, in between.