Ghost Gifts, Excerpt
Twenty Years Ago
The sky cartwheeled overhead. A Ferris wheel continued on, carrying Aubrey Ellis past amber-tinged treetops and stringy power lines that looked like black spaghetti. She counted church steeples. This town had three to the north. Heaven disappeared, carrying Aubrey closer to earth. On the approach, Aubrey felt like any normal thirteen-year-old girl, in particular the kind who didn’t speak to the dead. The scenery leveled and the view changed. Carnival crowds thinned as she circled past Carmine, who manned the controls. “One more time, please!”
“Once more, Miss Ellis, then it’s back to work! Your grandmother will take us to task for slacking on the job.” But his mustache stretched wide over a grin. Aubrey relaxed, her long arms resting lazily across the seat back. Her chin tipped upward and she indulged in nothingness, a soft breeze touching face like a kiss. A cornflower September sky domed high while a white moon awaited its cue. Cool nutty air rode with her and Aubrey breathed deep with each turn of the Ferris wheel. It was the Heinz-Bodette carnival’s largest, most spectacular ride. But soon cycles would come full circle and leaves would decay, signaling another season’s end. The troupe and equipment would break down into smaller units and retreat to various winter haunts. Some went to storage and some went to Albuquerque.
Aubrey inhaled halfway and the autumn air transformed. A chemical odor, like gasoline but stronger, seeped into her lungs. She inched forward, looking right and left, trying to match the smell to an earthly event below. There were only signs that a carnival had come to town: Sugared-up children begging for one more ride and another game of chance. The parents who’d spent their money on made-in-China memories, their children’s bellies filled with cotton candy and funnel cake. Aubrey saw nothing that explained the pungent air. The growing stench made her gag, and she pressed her hand to her mouth.
As she passed by Carmine, he asked, “Miss Ellis . . . Aubrey, are you all right?” But it was too late to stop the spinning machinery and Aubrey circled on. Their catch and release gaze broke, her gondola rising above the idyllic New England scene. Unable to hold her breath any longer, Aubrey gasped for air. Her lungs filled. She prayed for a simple gas-main leak and looked toward the pointy steeples. Religion offered few clues. At the Ferris wheel’s peak, Aubrey stood and the gondola wobbled from its winch. There was nothing to note. She shuffled onto her knees and peered over the back of the seat. Ferris wheels were stingy about a downward view, and the only thing Aubrey could see was the top of a man’s hat in the gondola below. He wore a fedora, like the ones she’d seen in old movies.
On putrid air a name filtered up: “Georgie . . .”
Aubrey faced forward and sat, her insides cramping with the grip of a python. She braced for what came next. There hadn’t been an incident since June, and she’d lulled herself into thinking the dead might never come again. On her tongue came the taste of candy, a Mary Jane, peanut buttery and sweet. It layered with the acrid chemical smell. Fear and flavor were a potent combination, too potent, and Aubrey thrust her head over the side, retching onto the grass below. A late lunch hit with a splat, thankfully missing Carmine. As her gondola approached he grabbed the metal frame and wrestled it to a halt.
“You should have yelled down. I would have gotten you off faster!”
Aubrey waved one gangly arm, wiping tears from her eyes with her other hand. “There wasn’t time. It happened too fast.” Carmine helped her out of the gondola, but it did little to resolve the sensation of being trapped. The name Georgie drilled into Aubrey’s ears. The chemical smell burned. The taste of the Mary Jane was opposing and strong. Carmine’s hand rested on her shoulder as everyday embarrassment nudged its way in. “I’ll . . . I’ll clean it up,” she said, glancing at the mess. Towns had strict ordinances about waste disposal, and Aubrey supposed vomit on their pretty fairgrounds violated the rules.
“Joe will take care of it.” Carmine pressed the walkie-talkie in his hand. “Charlotte, are you nearby? Aubrey could use you.”
“What’s the problem, Carmine? I’m waist-deep in receipts.” Husky laughter echoed through the device. “And we know that’s a substantial waist!”
He traded another look with Aubrey who nodded. “We, um . . . she’s had an encounter of sorts. She looks a little peaked . . . I think she could—”
A crackle cut in. “I’ll be right there.”
Carmine smiled thinly. “Your grandmother will be right here.”
Aubrey tried to focus on the physical bits and pieces of Carmine. Sometimes it had a settling effect. His dark winged-tipped hair went with his wing-tipped shoes, his mustache and Roman nose perfecting his master-of-ceremonies façade. Aubrey was relieved it was Carmine; he understood that this was neither motion sickness nor malady, not even the result of a teenage candy binge. There was the possibility of insanity, which Aubrey had yet to rule out. Complementing the idea of insanity were the images of marbles currently rolling around Aubrey’s head. She saw black aggies and oxbloods, the word keepsies hammering over and over. She had no idea how she knew the names for the marbles or why they were there.
Aubrey’s hand balled into the layers of fabric, her sweatshirt and tie-dyed Heinz-Bodette apron twisting as she gripped the fabric. It dizzied her to glance down. The swimming colors had made Aubrey uneasy from the moment troupe seamstress, Yvette, handed Aubrey her last spring. She closed her eyes and tried to breathe plain air. Vomiting was bad enough, but the potential humiliation of losing bladder and bowel could never be discounted. A voice thrummed in her ears, an adamant plea that she speak to Georgie. She heard arguing over marbles and Mary Janes. More distantly, she sensed fear and sorrow. On ordinary sound waves a rider yelled from above, “Hey, you ever lettin’ us off this thing?”
Aubrey’s trembling hand remained in Carmine’s steadier one. He glanced at the control switch. “Hang on. I had to reboot the motor. It’ll just be a minute.” He winked at Aubrey. “Let them wait, honey.”
Aubrey coughed, swiping her hand across her watery mouth. A caftan-covered Charley approached like a giant seabird, her grandmother swooping in to protect her charge. Thick fingers, a ring on nearly every one, cupped her granddaughter’s chin. Aubrey peered into murky blue-gray eyes that looked like her own.
As Carmine quietly recounted the details to Charley, the marionette creases on her face pushed into a smile. It was equally wooden. “Would you look at that, Carmine? The child’s pale as a ghost.”
“Not funny,” Aubrey said. The creases did what wood couldn’t, bending into a frown.
Charley pulled her granddaughter tight to her. “I know, sweetie . . . I know.”
“If you want to take her back to the motor coach, I’ll get these folks down.”
Charley glanced at the motionless wheel. “Yes, get them down before somebody threatens to sue,” she said. “Why don’t we do that, Aubrey? We’ll hide out inside the Winnie, watch an old black and white—Cary Grant, maybe Montgomery Clift—until we get the heck out of Dodge.”
Aubrey moved a few steps from the Ferris wheel, wanting to do just that. But in the last year hiding hadn’t proved useful. “I’d rather get it over with. It won’t give up.”
Charley sighed. “The same way they looked for your father.” Thick silver hair shimmied along her shoulders. surveyed the crowd as if she might see whoever sought out her granddaughter. “Why don’t we give it a try? Who says we can’t outsmart—”
Aubrey broke from their conversation as the man in the fedora hat exited his gondola. She’d noticed him three or four rides ago. It didn’t seem like he was in the mood for a carnival ride. Aubrey knew his name. He slipped into the crowd and she chased after him, her long legs and Keds spiraling. “George!” There was no response. Aubrey jammed her feet to a stop. “Georgie!” The man turned. The look on his face did a free fall.
“What did you say?”
Charley was close behind. “Aubrey, slow down. He won’t understand. You’re going too fast.”
She glanced over her shoulder. “I want it done. I want him to go away and leave me alone. I hate this!”
“Hey, I didn’t do nothin’ to the kid here!”
“No, not you.” Aubrey’s voice was sure, but her body said otherwise, her knees buckling and a trickle of urine soaking her underpants. “You’re Georgie.”
Aubrey watched his eyes shift between her own sweaty face and Charley. “I’m George Everett. I haven’t been Georgie for decades. Not since . . . since I was a kid.”
“Not since Roy.”
He stepped back.
Aubrey forced her line of vision onto a solid earthly element, the grass beneath her feet. Touch was better, but the man’s tone said he wasn’t open to holding Aubrey’s hand.
“He calls you Georgie. The two of you came here every summer when the carnival was in town.”
“How . . . how do you know . . . ? That was years ago.”
“Roy told me.” Aubrey dragged her hand through her dark hair. At the crown, a fistful knotted in her grip. Squeezing seemed like a way to get the information out and her gaze rose to a bewildered George. “The Ferris wheel. It was your favorite ride . . . both of you. You’d come here every year when our carnival was in Holyoke just to ride it.”
“That was decades before you were even born.” George’s mouth gaped. “I don’t understand . . .”
“Neither do I!” Aubrey spat back. “But Roy is here. He wants to you to know it’s not your fault, that you should stop feeling bad about him.”
“What’s not my fault?”
“His death.” Aubrey plucked at the colorful apron. It had grown increasingly uncomfortable, like the chemicals had soaked through to her skin. Needing more answers than she had to give, Aubrey glared at George. She stepped closer and sniffed. “What’s that stink? Did he die in a plane crash? Was it an accident?”
No response came from George. On her shoulder, she felt Charley’s hand. But in an abstract line of vision, one no other human could see, a young man appeared. He wavered in between aged oaks and the popcorn machine. His skin was shredded; he was dirty and sweat covered, wearing fatigues and blood . . . dog tags. His face was both pleading and dead. Aubrey realized her misstep. Roy hadn’t died in any factory accident.
“Napalm,” George said. “Roy died in Vietnam. It was an overload of chemical weapons. It wasn’t even the enemy. Human error. But if I had been . . .” As George’s explanation hit Aubrey’s ears, the image of Roy grew more vivid. “Roy and I . . . we were going to enlist together, be war buddies. We were eighteen. But I don’t see how—”
“You didn’t do that, did you? You didn’t enlist,” Aubrey said.
“I . . . My father talked me into college. Roy, he went anyway . . . to war. He didn’t have money for college. I was supposed to be there, with him. I . . . I didn’t go. But how do you . . . Wait. Wait just a doggone minute.” George’s wide-eyed look collapsed. He turned toward Charley. “You case your subjects good, don’t you, lady? I give you credit. You almost had me. She’s good.”
Charley’s hand squeezed Aubrey’s shoulder. “Aubrey, go. Go back to the Winnebago and stay inside. I’ll be right there.”
“You picked the wrong mark today. George Everett won’t be your next carnie scam!”
“My grandmother doesn’t scam people!” Aubrey said, anger pushing hard against the aberrant encounter. “She doesn’t have anything to do with this.”
“Yeah, right. And Roy’s been waitin’ thirty years for a chance to chat. Think I was born yesterday? Sure, I been coming here since Roy died and before. I ride that Ferris wheel in his memory. But it probably didn’t take much for professionals to do their homework, come up with a few specifics. You people travel this circuit every summer.”
“That’s not what’s happening here,” Charley said.
“No, of course not.”
“If you would just lis—”
“Sure. And for what, a cool fifty, maybe a hundred, I get to hear the whole story? The gawky, sad-eyed kid here provides me with Roy’s personal message? No thanks. I know how this stuff works. You make the trip out to the cemetery, come up with some leads—then you look up the poor dead sucker’s history. How hard could it be? Hell, they named the damn municipal building after him! The Roy E. Fletcher Complex. I’m sure you had to stop there for your permits.”
“I realize how it might sound, Mr. Everett. But no one here is scamming you. My granddaughter has a very unusual, very intense gift. She didn’t seek you out. Your friend sought her out. And I will not allow—”
“Save the indignant speech, Mata Hari. You and your underling targeted the wrong mark. You’re lucky I don’t call the cops!” He turned and started to walk away.
Aubrey pulled away from Charley’s hold. “Roy said that the Mary Janes were his, fair and square—so were the aggies and oxbloods. It was keepsies . . . whatever that means.”
He spun back around, coming so fast that Charley didn’t have time to intervene. Aubrey quaked at his stink-eye but held her ground. “Keepsies, kid, is what we played every afternoon, grammar school through junior high. But that’s part of your training, right? You mention some obscure fact and play dumb to the rest.” Charley and Aubrey stepped toward her grandmother. “You ought to be ashamed of yourselves. Slick touch though—not sure how you pulled that off.” He stalked toward the exit, the words “Lousy carnies!” echoing.
George Everett never looked back. Aubrey supposed it wouldn’t have mattered if he had, whether to argue over con artists or even to let her show him the ghost gifts that were now hers. Black aggies and oxbloods, she guessed, rolling around her apron pocket.
Two weeks later the Heinz-Bodette troupe neared the season’s end with stops in Chatham and now Surrey, Massachusetts—whirlwind setups and breakdowns. Peak season was behind them. Carnival days competed now with fall renaissance fairs and apple picking. Soon Aubrey and her grandmother would depart to the desert Southwest where they wintered. In that hot dry place, carnival equipment and teenage psyches could be repaired. Aubrey didn’t mind carnival life, although . She recalled only bits and pieces of any other existence, and doubted that what she did remember qualified as normal.
Eight years ago, a limo ride between her parents’ wake and gravesites marked the transition from that curious life into this one. Conversation had been sparse during the bleak ride, and the name game had distracted grandmother and granddaughter. Charley, they’d both agreed, was a good fit. While the multi-married carnival mistress could be described as many things, Grandma was not one of them. Charlotte Antonia Pickford Ellis Heinz Bodette embraced a traveling life, having inherited both halves of the carnival from her former and late husbands, Truman Heinz and Oscar Bodette.
For herself, Aubrey had adapted to this version of domesticity, calling Winnie home and the people around her family. Charley was the carnival’s matriarch, warm in her boisterous bawdy ways, and everyone, even Aubrey, earned their keep. When she was small, so were the tasks, like feeding the baby goats and tiny plastic prizes. The jobs grew with Aubrey, who now tended to an assortment of carnival duties—everything from running rides to assisting Yvette with costumes. But after the Ferris wheel scene in Holyoke, even everyday chores were ignored. Aubrey remained inside the Winnebago.
Charley had been absent most of this morning, overseeing the setup for their Surrey stop. The town was an idyllic place that all but glowed with traditional family life—something Aubrey usually found fascinating to observe. Today not even Surrey’s quaint town common could tempt her. Aubrey stayed sequestered, uninterested in the general public. It wasn’t that she feared people. But avoiding them seemed like the best way to elude a gift that did not make her feel safe.
During her self-imposed solitude, Carmine had come by for lessons and yesterday to administer an algebra test. (Before joining the carnival, he’d run one of the toughest, most gang-filled schools in Detroit.) In between schoolwork, Aubrey passed the time by watching black-and-white classics on VHS and reading. Aubrey had fifty-three library cards in her possession, a representative number of the carnival’s annual sixty-eight circuit stops. Of course you were supposed to be a resident of whatever town, but Charley had managed to secure one for Aubrey whenever she asked. Maybe, sometimes, carnie sleight of hand facilitated their lives.
Aubrey looked up from her book and peeked past the curtain in the Winnebago. She huffed at the daytime buzz. Joe had the motor cover off the Whip—the carnival’s most vomit-inducing ride—while Yvette took a skimpy costume from Maxine, the tattooed lady. At last count, Maxine was her own skin flick, showing off one hundred and twelve separate and unique designs.
Aubrey dropped the curtain and returned to her book—Watership Down. The novel was an escape, a comfort title that Yvette had brought from the Surrey Public Library. While Aubrey loved to read, what she wanted to do was write. Not novels or poetry, but real life adventures. Perhaps, she thought, hugging the book, it was the longing to tell a story more incredible than her own. Aubrey was in the midst of wondering if such a thing was even possible when Charley lumbered back inside the Winnebago. From the serious look on her grandmother’s face, Aubrey knew her book refuge and solitude were about to end.
“Is it your plan to spend the rest of your life in the confines of a motor home? Granted, it’s cozy,” Charley said, one rotund arm on the kitchen counter, her other easily reaching to the compact dining table. “But I have to insist on more. Obstacles are going to come your way, Aubrey, and I’d imagine the insult of George Everett won’t be the worst of it.”
Aubrey closed the book. “I’ve been thinking about it. You recognized him . . . George Everett. You’d seen him before, didn’t you?”
“I’d like to tell you I spotted George Everett at the municipal office—a mark, just as he accused.” Charley’s jowls shook and her labored breath pulled in. “Luring you into a Dodger-Fagin scam would be an easier life.”
“You dreamed about him.”
“In Londonderry, New Hampshire. Two nights before his friend, Roy, showed up.”
Aubrey nodded. It was the genetics of her gift. On occasion, things worked in tandem. Charley dreamed of a connected earthbound being before Aubrey encountered the spiritual half. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Oh, Aubrey, you know the answer to that. Dreams aren’t a road map. I also dreamed that Oscar’s first wife, Vera, came by the carnival to chat. I haven’t seen the woman in thirty years. You haven’t heard from Oscar, have you?”
“No, I never see anyone I know.” Frustrated, Aubrey tossed the book aside. She thought a visit from her mother or father might be reasonable compensation for enduring her gift. Nothing like that ever happened. Aubrey’s attention was drawn back to Charley as she reached to her lower back. “It’s bothering you again, isn’t it? I knew Joe putting a board under your mattress wasn’t going to fix anything. You need a doctor.”
“So he can tell me what I know. That my sciatica is worse, and my lifestyle is a catalyst. Then what? We sell? I don’t know about that, Aubrey. I don’t know at all . . .” She gave her granddaughter serious consideration. “Oliver Twist’s Fagin might not think twice, but I’d miss you when the new owners insist I sweeten the deal by tossing you in.” Aubrey bit down on the humor that bubbled. Her grandmother was even parts wit, understanding, and durability. Both carnival life and demanded as much. Charley tapped her crimson nails on the counter, her stare examining, and Aubrey knew tough love was on today’s agenda.
A short time later, the assumption came to fruition. Aubrey stood with Yvette, the two of them manning the duck shooting game. They looked like twin kaleidoscopes, each wearing a neon tie-dyed apron. Aubrey touched the bands of color as she recalled last summer’s carnival smocks. It had been Yvette’s earthy phase, and the aprons had looked more like brown paper sacks. This year Charley requested vibrant colors, and Yvette, who adhered to the literal translation of everything, had delivered.
Aubrey and Yvette made a good pair. Yvette talked so much about life—the one that she lived and the one that she’d left—that a person hardly had time to reply, much less conjure up the dead. Chances were they’d be too busy to talk anyway. It was a Friday afternoon and Surrey ordinances didn’t allow carnival rides to open until five. Games of chance were the only attractions available.
Rogue boys on bicycles perused the area, darting like bandits from game to game. A man and his granddaughter stopped by. It made Aubrey smile to hand the small girl a pink pony after her grandfather skillfully took down the midsize row of ducks. His deceased wife nudged at Aubrey, but she forced silent the woman’s faint plea. Among the things she had learned was that the newly dead were far easier to dismiss. Aubrey touched the apron again. Last summer, apparitions were fewer in number, weaker in tone. Aubrey thought about the bright hues of the apron’s fabric and the newly dead woman’s ability to be heard at all. There was a connection between the two things. Color, she realized, mattered.
The spaces in front of the stalls began to fill. She and Yvette went about their work, resetting the game and doling out prizes. Other shooters came and went, a pair of older boys who challenged one another with duel-like antics, neither winning a thing. Close on their heels came a tall man with dark crew-cut hair. His presence commanded Aubrey’s attention. He looked in her direction, though he spoke mostly to Yvette—perhaps because she was an adult and Aubrey was a girl. There was nothing surreal in his demeanor.
Aubrey did note that his hands weren’t clean, as if he’d just gotten off work—a laborer, like the men who worked for Charley. Caked under his nails and on them were bits of dried cement. She couldn’t peg his age, maybe thirty. He wasn’t overly good-looking, but not bad either. Aubrey thought he was average, until he smiled. She heard the man say that he’d learned good aim in the army—a sharpshooter. None of it really mattered, as no entities seemed inbound, trying to attach themselves to the man via Aubrey. It was mercifully silent. Yet her stare remained fixed and her heart fluttered when the man’s cement-covered fingers grazed against hers as she took his money, almost the buzz of touching a live electrical wire. Aubrey felt it a second time as she handed him a giant stuffed walrus, their grand prize. He claimed his reward, flashing a smile. “I’m going to give it to my girlfriend. She didn’t want to come to the carnival. It’ll make up for our spat.”
Aubrey wanted to say something back, but her attention was averted. A blond-haired girl—no, a woman—stepped into Aubrey’s line of vision, the man’s place. She was pretty, almost too pretty. There was eye contact, though Aubrey tried to look past her. The man was gone, having vanished into the thick of kiosks, rides, and people. She gave up and turned her attention to the young woman. Instead of asking if she wanted to play, Aubrey was compelled to say, “Can I help you?” The young woman didn’t reply, just gave a vague stare as she nodded. “It’ll just be a minute,”
In his effort to win, the crew-cut man and his dazzling smile had used sharpshooter aim and a violent approach. Aubrey watched while Yvette finished resetting the ducks. It was a tedious task as he’d succeeded in taking out all but one.
“Okay, we’re all set,” Yvette said, facing Aubrey. “Hopefully, the next one misses most of them.”
Aubrey blinked. Her mind wouldn’t let go of the man. An uneasy feeling rumbled. It felt like a volcanic warning that Aubrey needed to escape. She huddled close to her seamstress partner. “Yvette, I . . .” she said quietly, “I have to go to the bathroom. Can you help her?”
The blue of Yvette’s irises scanned the perimeter of the duck-shooting booth. “Help who?”
“The girl—” Aubrey turned. The blond woman was gone. Clutching the front of the rainbow-colored apron, Aubrey leaned into the booth’s raw wooden edge. She peered right and left. “Huh. She . . . she must have left. She was odd . . . like she was mute or something.”
“Are you all right, sweetie? You seem . . . not quite here.”
Aubrey rubbed her hands over the dizzying pattern of rainbow tie-dye. “I’m fine,” she lied. “I . . . I just need to go. Can you work the booth without me?”
“Charlotte was clear. She wanted . . .” The lines on Yvette’s face collapsed into layers as she smiled. “Sure, baby, I can do that.” Yvette glanced down. “Hey, where’d these come from? They’re awfully pretty . . . purple, for sure.” From the counter, she scooped up a handful of delicate, violet-colored flowers. “I don’t know what is about this town, but these flowers grow like crazy around here. With so many stops, it’s how I always know we’re in Surrey.” The fine petals rustled in the late September breeze. A thin grosgrain ribbon bound the stems, the only thing that kept the wind from carrying the flowers away. Aubrey didn’t respond. Purple flowers, flowers of any color, were not on her mind.
Instead, Aubrey’s head swam with indiscernible babble. Future promises and the crack of a gun, an argument about money—a lot of money. She stifled a gasp. But Yvette diverted her attention, tugging at the elastic edge of Aubrey’s apron pocket. She dropped in the flowers.
“Go on now. But if you’re going to hide out, put those in a budvase next to your grandmother’s bed. Flowers are a sure way to keep on Charley’s good side.”
On her way back to the Winnebago, Aubrey purposely took a path that differed from the one the man with the dazzling smile had taken. Bad feelings receded as she walked. The urge to get to the bathroom wasn’t as strong. The only sound that sank in was the crank of carnival music. Nearing the motor home, Aubrey stopped and breathed. She relaxed. Her hand slipped inside the apron pocket as she stretched her neck and shoulders. But the movement ceased Aubrey withdrew the purple blossoms. In her palm, the flowers had wilted, decayed, and rotted—the heavy burden of death sinking back into Aubrey.