On Saturday night, Louise saw a ghost.
Her first reaction was laughter. She had just finished watching Hamlet, for God's sake. She had to admit that it had been a good production. There was a storm outside during the show, and everyone could tell that the actors were worried about the power going out. But they held it together. They had to speak loudly at times to be heard over the thunder, but they stayed in character and kept good inflection in their voices. Louise was the sort of person who would notice this. She felt proud of the actors for bravely facing the slings and arrows of this outrageous fortune. It added a positive message to what she thought was otherwise a depressing and, frankly, unrealistic play. If Hamlet suspected his uncle of murder, why didn't he just turn him over to the authorities? Launch an investigation? Yes, Claudius was king now, but the motives for murder were there, and surely there were many people in Denmark who questioned the new king's speedy ascension and would rather have followed Hamlet. Louise imagined that Hamlet was, after all, the rightful heir to the throne. And if Claudius wanted to kill Hamlet, surely he could arrange to have the prince's throat cut while he was sleeping or something like that—why the complicated plan with the poisoned sword and drink? Besides, the whole story hinged on an encounter with a ghost. A ghost. Louise wasn't sure why she had gone to see the play in the first place.
Then, as she was walking home through the park, she saw her own ghost.
The proper thing to do would have been to whisper, reverently, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” She thought of this later. At the time she just grimaced and sighed. The storm had passed, and there was a full moon glowing behind thin clouds. A low-hanging mist filled the hollows between the little hills, and wrapped itself around the trees and the swing set. A few minutes ago Hamlet had whispered: “The rest is silence.” And now a ghost was standing on the path in front of her, transparent and hovering a few inches above the ground, glowing slightly. “Really?” she said. “A ghost? Now?”
The ghost tipped his hat to her, and smiled.
It wasn't anyone that she knew. For one thing, it looked too old-fashioned to be anyone who had been alive during her thirty years on the planet. It was dressed in a suit with coattails and a waistcoat, and it was wearing a silk top hat. Even though the hat was ghostly and transparent, Louise could tell that it had been made of silk when it had been a real hat. She wondered about the hat. Was it a ghost hat? The ghost of a hat? If you took it away from the ghost himself, would it vanish? Was its real-life counterpart still in an attic somewhere, collecting dust, dreaming little dreams of noble heads? She shook her own head, and tried to concentrate on the vision at hand.
It also couldn't be anyone she knew because she didn't know anyone who had died.
As she had grown older, this had become something of a problem. Everyone knew somebody who had died. There were car crashes. There were grandparents. There was cancer. But Louise had four grandparents who were all doing just fine. Her mother had survived cancer with surprising ease, and had been in remission for over ten years. Her high school friend who had crashed into a telephone pole while driving drunk had walked away from the accident. When Louise was six years old, her parents had gotten her a kitten, her first and only pet. That kitten was now a twenty-four-year-old cat, and still frisky as ever. The world record for the oldest cat was thirty-nine years, and Louise firmly believed that Mittens would beat that record.
So Louise had never been to a funeral. She had never buried so much as a goldfish. She was the least likely person in the world to be the victim of a haunting. And she had to admit, as she stood on the path with one hand on her hip, that the ghost didn't appear to be haunting her. Not exactly. It was just standing there, looking at her quizzically. It certainly didn't look like it had returned from the grave to demand vengeance or anything like that. Which was a relief. Louise wasn't sure what would happen if you refused to avenge a ghost, but she had just seen an example of what might happen if you accepted the challenge.
She remembered, near the beginning of the play when Horatio was trying to get the ghost to speak, there had been a list of reasons why a ghost might return from the grave. “Have you buried any treasure?” she asked, because this seemed like the most non-threatening reason. Also the one to hope for, she thought.
The ghost said nothing, but looked slightly amused. “Speak!” said Louise—like Horatio, but with less force. She felt as though she were acting a part, the role of Woman Encountering Ghost. The ghost, however, refused to play along—refused to reveal his secrets, refused to tell her the mysteries of the grave. He just hovered there. He put his hands in his pockets and smiled. “If you don't speak,” said Louise, “I'm going to walk right through you.” To her, this sounded like a threat.
The ghost shrugged, and said nothing. Louise took a deep breath and held it—she didn't want to breath in any of the ghost. She stepped forward, arms outstretched as if to steady herself, to keep part of her body outside of the ghost. “I'm warning you,” she said. “Here I go.”
She expected the ghost to be icy cold, but he was really only slightly cooler than room temperature. It was a warm night, so the change was perceptible, but it wasn't a shock. It was like slipping into a shallow lake on a warm day. Louise was only in the middle of the ghost for a second, but it felt like longer. He was refreshing, really—strange, and a little terrifying, but something that she could easily accept, something to which she could easily grow accustomed. He seemed natural rather than supernatural—there was nothing in him that could not be equated to something else in life.
When she was through, she turned and looked back at the ghost. He was looking over his shoulder at her, though he hadn't turned around. “Why are you here?” she asked. “Are you a sign? Am I going to die soon? Or is—is someone else going to die soon? It's unusual, you know, to make it this far with everyone still alive.”
The ghost said nothing, but he smiled a little. He tipped his hat again, and started to fade. Louise watched him until he was only a shimmer in the air, only a breath of coolness in the warm night.
Her phone rang. She took it out of her pocket and saw the number, and she knew. “The readiness,” she said before she answered. The line from the play made sense to her now. “The readiness is all.”