by Pamela Painter
If this were a ghost story I could tell you about songs whispered into my answering machine, “For you, Mona”; footsteps outside my dorm room at 3 AM; bottlecaps arranged like coins across the hallway from my door.
If this were a real ghost story I’d tell you how the elevator always rises to the seventh floor, how it opens to a stench I remember from last semester’s chem lab, and, going down, how it bypasses First and drops to the florescent basement maze. I’d show you how postcards and letters in my mailbox arrive wrinkled and slightly damp; I’d pull out essays returned with words crossed out, like “pantomime,” “acquiesce,” and “love”; books with torn out pages and magazines with all the coupons filled in. I’d describe the bored disbelief of my dorm advisor, who has faith only in the guy supplying her with drugs.
In a ghost story, graffiti would be taken seriously and photographed; the janitor wouldn’t dare scrub it away with a shrug; bloody handprints on the bathroom walls would make sense; underwear wouldn’t just reappear.
In a ghost story, the living characters would confront the dead, naming names, revealing motives. Instead of narrowing to infinity, the plot would thicken; time would never stand so still.
If this were a ghost story, I could turn my flashlight on and read under the covers late into the night. I could hold my breath. I could turn to the last page to find out what happens. If this were a ghost story, I could count on knowing it would end.
Pamela Painter’s recent story collection is The Long And Short Of It. She is also co-author of What If? Writing Exercises For Fiction Writers. Her stories have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, and have received three Pushcart Prizes. Painter teaches in the MFA Program at Emerson College.