A dark haired woman stood motionless at the kitchen counter trying to blend into the shadows formed by the dim lights. The knocking continued, loud and incessant. Each sharp bang felt like an attack. She stared at the apartment door willing it to stop.
“Aileen, please open up,” insisted a muffled female voice. “I have something very important to tell you. You won’t believe it, it’s shocking! But I promise you’ll want to hear about it.”
It was Mrs. McHarg, a small, middle-aged woman from across the hall. She always knew everyone’s schedules, everyone’s secrets. She was also keen to share the information with anyone who would listen.
Aileen cringed at the thought of whatever this news could be, most probably bad. She couldn’t take any more, not one more drop. Where was Camilla anyway? She hoped to God it didn’t have anything to do with her. She glanced at the couch but her head was swimming. She knew she shouldn’t drink so much, but it was the only thing that made her feel better, or even approach normal.
The knocks continued.
Well, the sooner she got it over with the better. She made her way across the room, bumping into a kitchen chair then into the table. When she made it to the door, she opened it a crack and looked down at her neighbor’s round, pressing face.
“Oh, thank goodness. There’s been a murder, Aileen! And the victim is a young girl, a girl about Camilla’s age.”
Camilla raced down the street. Her mother made her so mad, trying to keep her from leaving their shabby little apartment, their dreadfully dreary lives. But she finally passed out drunk and wouldn’t even know she was gone.
She navigated the uneven sidewalk, her frustrations dissipating with every step. Short dark curls bounced in the wind while thick rimmed glasses bumped along for the ride. A blue knit sweater swung low over her spare frame. No one ever said Camilla was beautiful, but adults, if they noticed, would say she was a cute little boy. Her mother always did cut her hair too short, claiming she didn’t know how else to handle it.
But now things were looking up. She had a new friend who genuinely liked her. If Camilla played her cards right, things might finally work out. She could become part of a regular family. She was afraid to even think of anything good happening for fear of ruining it. But she was so very tired of moving, of having the rug pulled out from under her again. Shouldn’t she be allowed to hope? It was a lot for an 11 year old to take.
A sense of peace eased into her body as she reached a quaint middle class neighborhood. Crisp air cooled her skin; yellow, orange and brown leaves dotted the ground. Ranch style homes and bungalows sat in neat rows surrounded by manicured hedges and square fences. She breathed in the scents of outdoor grilling and cut grass. It was all so wonderfully normal.
She finally arrived at Madison Stackpole’s house, her new and forever best friend. The house seemed like a fairy tale castle with two beautifully decorated stories and a finished basement.
She rang the doorbell.
The front door opened. A shock of sandy blonde hair and one blue eye peeked out.
“Who goes there, friend or foe?”
“Foe, especially if we’re playing Crazy Cubes.”
“All right come in.” Madison whipped the door open. “But let’s not play Crazy Cubes today. I have another plan.”
As they tromped up the stairs arm in arm, they passed one of Camilla’s favorite marvels: a collage of family photos blooming like flowers up the rose colored wall. The largest photo was of the family at Disneyland. Madison, her parents and older brother Jacob stood smiling triumphantly in front of the Magic Kingdom. The annual trip was a hallowed tradition started by Great Grandfather Stackpole and was as celebrated as any major holiday.
Madison clapped her hands as they entered her room.
“Ok, here’s the plan. Let’s make a music video! Good idea right? And we’ll play my favorite song and wear my brother’s Disney costumes. That’ll make it awesome-sauce don’t you think?”
“Sounds great, but did Jacob say it was ok for us to touch his things?” Camilla knew how mad people could get when you touched their things.
“We can’t ask him if he’s not here,” Madison said. “Anyway, he’s fifteen and doesn’t care about that stuff anymore. Don’t be scared, come on!”
The girls grabbed their gear and ran giggling down two flights of stairs to a large basement full of enticing relics, toys and gadgets.
Madison paused, putting a finger to her lips. “Just in case,” she said. “Jacob, you down here? Hey ugly!”
When there was no response they ran across the polished hard wood floor. Camilla gravitated to a large display cabinet filled with souvenirs from another time and place: pennants, snow globes, picture key chains, figurines and other curiosities. It filled her with wonder. She opened the cabinet door and reached in.
“Forget those old antiques,” said Madison, lifting the lid of a red cedar chest.
“Here’s what we want.”
The deep chest was filled with fantastical hats, scarves and neatly folded costumes. The girls tried them on and laughed at how funny they looked.
Finally they started recording: singing and dancing, waving their arms and leaping with the freedom of childhood. When the song ended they fell breathless to the floor.
“What did I tell you?” Madison asked.
“Awesome-sauce,” Camilla said.
The sound of a creaking floorboard interrupted their reverie. The girls inhaled simultaneously and jumped up to find Madison’s brother Jacob standing at the bottom of the stairs, his athletic frame tense, his hands balled into tight fists. Time stopped as they stared at each other.
“What are you two doing with my costumes?” he demanded, his voice low and menacing.
For an instant, the girls remained still. Then they erupted in high pitched screams, their hands working like whirlwinds, ripping off their shiny clothes while their feet rocketed towards the staircase.
His angry shouts followed, loudly at first then diminishing. “You know you’re not supposed to touch my collection! I’m tired of you two messing things up around here. Stupid brats.”
The girls ran and shrieked and didn’t stop until they were outside and safe behind their favorite climbing tree, the rough bark biting into their skin. They laughed as they tried to catch their breath.
“Oh my gosh that was hilarious!” Madison said, her blue eyes shining. “I wish we had a recording of it. I don’t know why he’s so sensitive. What good are things if you don’t use them?”
“I know right?” Camilla smiled. “I thought we were goners for sure.”
“We would’ve been if we’d stayed down there.” She glanced towards her house. “Guess I’m in trouble now though.”
“No you’re not. Just say that it was all my idea. I ran down on my own and got into everything. Don’t worry; I’ll always have your back chicka.” She threw an arm around Madison’s shoulder and Madison followed suit.
“Ok, here’s the plan,” said Madison. “I’m gonna sneak around to the front, peak in and see if Jacob’s causing any trouble. Hopefully he’s online with his friends by now and we can work on our video.”
“What about just playing outside for a while?” asked Camilla.
“No, I want to finish it while it’s fresh, ok? Wait here. I’ll be back when the coast is clear.”
Madison bent over and ran, disappearing into the side yard. Through the trees, Camilla saw a group of girls skipping down the sidewalk toward the house. She inhaled and stared, knowing all too well the danger of groups. They could quickly turn into a pack of hungry wolves, attacking anyone vulnerable or alone.
Voices sprang from the front of the house. She wished those girls would leave already. She waited and waited, but Madison didn’t return. Bits and pieces of excited chatter continued to float into the backyard. Camilla was afraid to move. Should she go home? She didn’t want to sneak away from her best friend. Better to just go and see what was happening, like a normal person.
She walked slowly around the house, her legs feeling like water. As she rounded the front she saw three girls from school, popular girls who had never been friendly to her. But Madison was there. Maybe it would be all right. They were playing hopscotch and giggling in constrained bursts.
Camilla forced a smile as she approached. “Hi,” she said.
No one answered. They didn’t even look at her. She waited a few moments before she tried again.
“Can I play?” she asked.
Still there was no reaction. It was as if they couldn’t see or hear her. They continued jumping, tossing, and snickering.
A terrible feeling washed through Camilla’s thin body. Something was wrong, but she wasn’t sure what and was afraid to find out. Despite a trembling panic, she didn’t leave. It would be worse to turn around and walk away. And maybe things were really okay.
“Madison, can I have a turn?” she asked.
Any moment she expected to see a twinkle in her friend’s eyes and a familiar grin on her face. But the girls played on and Madison didn’t look her way; her face was alien and cold.
One of the girls finally spoke. “Has anyone seen Camilla lately?”
Camilla looked over in surprise and confusion.
“No, I haven’t seen her since forever,” another girl said. “I wonder what happened to her?”
“Who knows? But I heard she’s bad news,” said a third. “I never liked her anyway, she’s so weird. I’m just glad she’s gone.”
The girls agreed that Camilla was indeed weird, smelly, and ugly; words that hurt like daggers slicing into her skin. And why did they keep saying that she wasn’t around anymore? Then Madison bent down and took a piece of white chalk. Slowly, she started writing something on the sidewalk. The squiggly, white letters became: ‘Camilla Is A Ghost’. The other girls burst into laughter and grabbed Madison, running down the street, screaming and howling, reveling in their wickedness.
Camilla’s chest began to burn and her temples pounded. She loathed mean kids, but Madison? Madison who shared late night messages and secret dreams? How could her forever friend do this to her? Her fragile hopes had shattered.
She peered down, wincing as if about to be struck in the face. ‘Camilla Is A Ghost’ blazed into view like a lighted billboard, pushing violently into her brain. The rug had been pulled out from under her again, the pain was worse than anything. Her eyes were dark as she looked toward the fairy tale castle and said her final goodbyes.
Later that evening, Camilla sat on a threadbare couch as if in a trance. She stared at an old television set flickering in the advancing dusk.
There was a loud knock at the door.
Camilla’s mother stood motionless at the kitchen counter, trying to blend into the shadows formed by the dim lights. The knocking continued, loud and incessant.
“Aileen, please open up. I have something very important to tell you. You won’t believe it, it’s shocking! But I promise you’ll want to hear about it.”
Camilla’s mother glanced toward the couch, then felt her way across the kitchen and cracked open the door.
“Oh, thank goodness. There’s been a murder, Aileen! And the victim is a young girl, a girl about Camilla’s age. It happened right down the street too. Stackpole’s the name. Poor thing. Can you believe something so horrible happened right on our very doorstep?”
Camilla’s mother swallowed hard, staring. “Do they know, who…?”
“Oh thank heavens yes. I wouldn’t have stepped an inch outside of my door if there was a lunatic killer still running around on the loose.”
Camilla’s mother relaxed.
“But it was the darndest thing; word is that it was her own brother who did it.” Her voice lowered as she touched a hand to her throat. “She was found in their backyard with a knife buried in her heart, an old Disneyland pocket knife to be exact. It’s just too dreadful. The family is devastated of course.” She shook her head. “It makes you wonder why a young man from such a nice home would snap like that.”
“It certainly does.” Camilla’s mother barely got the words out before she shut the door. Then she caught her balance on the kitchen table and bent over, nauseated, gasping for air.
“Who’s the ghost now?” Camilla whispered.
“It’s time to move again,” her mother said.