It was a kitchen filled to the windows with ghosts. Vanessa and Peter sat at the table. Cups of coffee by their tapping fingers had since grown tepid, and with one overhead bulb out, unfixed for months, Peter and Vanessa sat in dim lighting. Whatever modicum of light was shed from the singular bulb directly above made the ghosts illuminate, and as they floated amidst the still air of the room, the bulb appeared starkly ivory as a full-moon, but one veiled by passing clouds.
Before the kitchen, Peter and Vanessa met at the University of Maine in Orono. They kissed sweetly in a wine-soaked embrace, and they were young artists: poets, or painters or whatever they felt like on the particular day. But the responsibilities of adulthood put their paintbrushes into shoe boxes to collect dust beneath beds. It led Peter to a job at the grocery store, where the closest outlet for his creative tendencies became arranging fruit into pyramids in the produce department. Vanessa worked on a farm on the outskirts of Dayton. By night, after the ghosts fled town to sleep, she wrote verse: poetry injected with cosmopolitan dreams, a universe which could fit comfortably in the palm of her hand.
But the lease to their apartment was up, and they knew the world was before them. And that's where their desires diverged: Vanessa wanted to head out West, but Peter had some emotional connection to Maine. He couldn't quite explain it when she questioned him, but he saw something worth it in staying, in living among the ghosts.
Peter sat at the table, pointed at the dead bulb overhead.
We gotta fix that thing, he said.
Or we could ditch this place, Vanessa said. There's always that option.
Peter sat silent as the ghosts, staring into the night. Ghosts only dwelled in Maine, and all of America knew of the phenomenon. Lighthouse keepers since the eighteenth century kept documents of the ghosts, and the supernatural phenomenon was a point of interest for Maine poets and writers. But nighttime was the most peculiar time to watch the ghosts. They would flee the homes, mills, cafés, and streets and drift calmly into the ocean. They would sleep in the silky black water: rising with the swells of sea, falling when the waves crested. At dawn, as the day rose over the horizon, the ghosts floated back townward to hover quietly, unmoving. Tourists from all over came to see the rocky coast, the mountains at the end of the Appalachian trail, L.L. Bean, and of course, the late-night "ghost walk" to the sea. Maine's out-of-state appeal awarded the state the nickname Vacationland, because, although many came in the summers for the ghosts, they couldn't imagine living with them in their houses.
As days tumbled on, a mid-August heat swaddled the town in humidity. The conversation of moving ensued. Peter and Vanessa decided to seek refuge from the heat in diners and coffee shops of Main St., just for the air conditioning. They sat in a coffee shop across from the Biddeford public library, and in two chairs by two large windows. They continued the discussion of heading out West.
Is it the ghosts? Peter asked, catching the gaze of one of them, one who once was a young woman before becoming a mere translucent portrait of her body, steeped in a deep catatonic stare. He asked again: Is it them, the ghosts?
No, not really, Vanessa said. But don't you ever just want to leave this place behind?
I guess from time to time I do, Peter said, scratching his hair.
Vanessa talked of heading out to the Pacific coast for a while, but never once did she mention specific cities or states. She felt she just needed to walk out of her home, looking back only to remember the door she closed.
All her life she walked the tough land of Maine, strolled throughout the grey streets of its small towns, and she feared the ghosts. The ghosts, however, weren't unfriendly; timid adults feared them irrationally, while children greeted them cordially. Children have a virtuous way of welcoming the strange, while adults tend to either tilt their heads in confusion, or turn them in ignorance. But Vanessa, now thirty, had grown embittered to the sight of the ghosts, breezing though their holographic frames to pursue the menial tasks of adulthood. On that particular day, she avoided chores for the luxury of a story. She opened Joyce's Dubliners, her little paperback piece of tourism.
The next morning, Peter and Vanessa decided to sleep in. Vanessa cocooned herself in the sheets, not for their for their warmth, but the sheer comfort of feeling them around her body. Peter finished a breakfast beer and tossed the empty bottle in their trash can. He slid next to Vanessa, wrapped his arms around her waist, and kissed the nape of her neck. He slid a hand under her shirt, feeling the softness of her abdomen.
Should I get something? he asked.
I don't know. I don't think we should tonight.
She turned and flicked the light. She put her glasses on.
I just feel like resting, she said, grabbing her book off the night stand. Peter watched her eyes, fixed on the yellowed pages. A ghost floated into the room, through the door. It waited quietly, an older man ghost, just staring off in the way they all do.
Vanessa heaved her book at him. It flew through his temple.
I'm sick of them, she said. They're always lingering, watching you. This whole place is fucking dead. Those goddamn mills, the ghosts.
That day was the hottest of the summer. Peter and Vanessa held sopping cool cloths onto their foreheads, beads of cold water dripping off the cotton edges onto the upholstered furniture. The ghosts had mostly kept out of the living room that day, lingering by the kitchen table. Sitting in front of the T.V., Peter and Vanessa began to feel restless, kicking their feet and checking the cupboards: pulling the same crackers out, putting them back.
Peter. I'm moving out, Vanessa said.
He pulled the towel off his head.
I'm going to live with my parents, she continued. I need to get out of this apartment until I can find a job out of this state.
Peter stood and walked over to a storage closet. He began rummaging through a basket of various household items. He found a lightbulb, and walked into the kitchen, through the lingering ghosts. Vanessa sat on the couch, pressing the cloth against her forehead.
Peter? Are you fucking listening?
Yes, he said, standing on a chair. He was twisting in the bulb.
I want you to come with me, if you want.
He kept twisting.
Please be upfront with me. Don't you want to leave this place? Find somewhere to be young and creative again?
He screwed in the bulb in entirely and it glowed a starry white. The ghosts appeared even brighter as they lingered still in the quiet room. Such beauty in the dead things sparked a sudden knowing in Peter. His face lit up to a wide-eyed, owlish glance to Vanessa, and he spoke.
Let's go for a drive.
Can we suspend this conversation for a while? There's somewhere I want to go.
She watched him grab his keys.
Where are we going? she asked, rubbing her eyes. Where are--?
Peter had already walked through the door.
Southbound, the roads toward the coast snaked through small towns dispersed sparsely among the night. Some roads ran over hills. As the car dipped along the roads, they temporarily felt weightlessness. Peter always wondered, though he could never ask the ghosts, if death felt like a permanent weightlessness, a constant dip in some long road. It was thirty minutes later that they pulled along a dead end.
Vanessa grabbed Peter's hand. They walked silently down the road, away from the car, toward the sweet smell of ocean swimming through the evening air. The day had waned into a cool New England night.
Where are we? Vanessa asked, kicking pebbles along the road.
Peter didn't say anything. He grabbed her hand and squeezed it tightly.
Prout's Neck is a peninsula just south of Portland. The American painter Winslow Homer lived and painted at Prout's Neck during the final years of his life. He spent his earlier career as a national symbol, painting mostly Civil War Soldiers. In the final twenty years or so of his life, he moved to the Maine coast to paint the sea. Peter recalled his old college lectures, which had since migrated to the distant parts of his memory. Homer was interested in finding emotion in the sea. He stared at the same portion of Maine coastline for the final fifteen years of his life, and over and over again, he saw something.
He saw infinite things, Peter said, eyes fixed on the seascape. He just kept painting and painting, and the sea was never just the sea.
Infinite, Vanessa said. You know, there really is something about the sea. Lord Byron called it the perfect image of eternity. I bet it was the sea, not Maine specifically, not the ghosts, that inspired him.
Perhaps, Peter said. But it's true though, what you just said about the sea. You look at it and feel like you might be looking at infinity. But isn't it infinite? Can you see anything finite in waves that always move, day in and day out? Can you see anything dying in a geological body which carried people around before nations like this one even existed?
She stared into the sky.
Peter looked into her eyes. It was at this moment that he felt the desire to paint again, and he felt it intensely. It caught him off guard in the way that light catches you off guard in the early autumn mornings, as you lift the shade for the first time and you see the yellow leaves littering the grey streets. He began to speak, but halted when Vanessa sprinted into the waves, leaving his final words to dissolve as a smoke wisp, quietly as lives do at death: carried off into whatever comes next.
BIO: Greg Letellier is a writer from Biddeford, Maine. His poems and stories are published or forthcoming in Dual Coast, Extract(s), Ray's Road Review, Bookends Review, Poydras Review, Umbrella Factory Magazine, and elsewhere.