Dusk. The shadows from the houses on either side of the building lot had draped themselves across the two girls and the scattered patches of daisies. Broad clumps of flowers grew among the lot's half-dried grasses and the Texas-parched earth, white petals everywhere. But nightfall meant change. Soon the petals would fold inward and the flowers would close their eyes for the night. Bethany didn't have much time left to figure out the science of the trick.
"Are you going to do it or what," Joanie said.
"I'm trying." Bethany opened her eyes as wide as they would go and stared into the eye of the closest daisy. She could see the tightly packed, yellow florets that made up the center of the flower. She could see the dull green of the stem and supporting leaves. "Nothing," Bethany murmured, trying not to sound upset. It wasn't the daisy's fault that Bethany couldn't see the baby ghosts. She glanced back at Joanie. "You said—"
"You forgot the catalyst," Joan cut in, her voice impatient.
"Use your spit."
Bethany blushed and tilted her head so that her hair fell across her eyes. What if Joanie was just laughing at her?
"This is science, Bethany," Joanie said, "You need water drops to see the baby ghosts. You have to follow the protocol."
Science was one of many Joanie-words, like floret and composite flower, catalyst, and ghost spectrum. Words that made Bethany nod her head rather than admit she wasn't exactly sure what Joanie meant. Science was a slippery sort of magic. The ambulance people had all sorts of science in their truck. None of that had made any difference to baby Matthew's little grey-white body. What if Joanie's science wasn't any better?
Bethany still had a little brother. That's what her Mom and Dad kept telling her. Supposedly, it didn't matter whether she could see him or not. Supposedly, it didn't matter if she could hear his voice. Bethany had a little brother who loved her. But the thing was, parents lied all the time. About how good the new town was going to be, about remembering to make pancakes in the morning, about something as simple as getting out of bed. And the idea that baby Matthew was lodged somewhere inside her heart made Bethany feel all tight inside—like her heart might tear apart at any moment. Then Bethany would be dead, too.
No matter how much Mom and Dad loved baby Matthew, Bethany didn't want to be a ghost baby. Ghost babies were cold and wet. They hid inside water bubbles. And even when they smiled, no one bothered to smile back.
Some days Bethany felt as invisible as ghost-baby Matthew. No matter what she did, Mom and Dad kept pretending like she was just exactly what they wanted. It was like they didn't even notice her C minus in Spelling, the missing five dollars from Mom's purse, or the way no one—but Joanie—ever came over to play.
"It's almost dark," Joanie pressed.
"Okay. Okay." Bethany turned to the daisy plant and, quickly, before she could change her mind, spit. She bent down, stared at the flowers. Nothing. And still nothing. Texas summers were hot and sticky, the worst kind of weather for ghosts. She'd never tried anything like this before. Joanie was the worst explainer ever.
Bethany had done the best she could.
"Joanie, I don't—"
"Look, Bethany, I gotta go."
"Then go. It's not like you really know anything. You're just a great big science faker." Bethany found that she was yelling, tears squeezing out of the corners of her eyes. And Joanie was already walking away, turning, lobbing back just one word, "Loser."
The night was coming and still Bethany hadn't seen a single baby ghost. The flowers might not be quite ready to close. But almost, almost.
Bethany ran her left thumb under both eyes, harvesting the necessary reagent. She stared down at the tears clinging to her fingertips, feeling her way through the trick of it. Of course Baby Matthew didn't want to shine up through some trickle of spit. Bethany took a breath, forcing her lungs against her Matthew-filled heart, and flicked her hand over the daisies.
Science requires observation. Bethany bent down and observed: two teardrops clung to one particular flower on the right side of the daisy cluster. The petals of that flower were still open, the flower's golden eye seeming to stare back at her. No different than five minutes ago. But inside the water was a microcosm, a universe, a heavenly plane. The baby ghosts were everywhere. Some of the drops held more than one. A swarm of baby ghosts stuck inside the daisy's strange bubble world. One of the ghosts was smiling at her. Bethany shuddered, the heebie-jeebies tracking their way through her limbs.
The voice, her mother's voice, was still a ways off. Bethany kept her eyes on the flower. The sky had darkened in the last few minutes. Most of the daisies had started to close. The weight of Bethany's tears was keeping her own ghost-baby flower from shutting down. Maybe Baby Matthew was the one with the smile. Or was he the one who had already turned away?
"Bethany." The street was so dark now. Bethany was staring at nothing but shadows. House, car, mother, Bethany catalogued, crying daisy.
Bethany smiled as her mother stepped near, making like a baby ghost. Being a scientist wasn't all that hard once you got the trick of it.
Despite the Mom-shaped shadow looming nearby, Mom might as well still live all the way in San Antonio, in their old neighborhood. She might as well still live in some swirl of the past where Bethany played with her baby brother, Matthew, and Mom and Dad sat by the pool, happy, laughing at jokes Bethany didn't entirely understand.
Her mother's shape was no more than a hand's breadth away. Bethany tightened her smile, ghost-style, making sure her bubble was securely in place.
"I'm right here, Mom."
BIO: Julie C. Day's fiction has appeared in such magazines as Interzone, Electric Velocipede, and A cappella Zoo's best-of. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the USM's Stonecoast program and a M.S. in Microbiology from UMass Amherst. Some of her favorite things include gummy candies, loose teas, standing desks, and a tiny primate known as the slow loris. You can find Julie on Twitter @thisjulieday or through her website: www.stillwingingit.com.