All the kids in the neighborhood would come together, in silence and black clothes, just as dusk was settling in. Together, they’d cry out, “One o’clock, two o’clock, three o’clock…”
A child, the first unlucky ghost, would run and hide. “Four o’clock, five o’clock, six o’clock…”
The bravest boy would begin to inch away from the safety zone. Amanda’s play set with the tire swing and shiny metal slide was always safety. With her hand touching the twisted waxed rope, the tire swing bumping into her hip, no ghost could ever touch her. At the count of twelve o’clock, their small nervy voices would cry out as one, “Midnight. Pray we see no ghosts tonight!”
Jessica was Amanda’s best friend. They were born in the same hospital near Ardsley Park, in the same month of the same year. They lived side by side on the same street and shared the same love of banana pudding and vanilla wafers. Jessica was the dark to Amanda’s light, with thick mouse brown hair pulled back in a tight pony tail. Amanda’s blond locks were wild and streaked with sweat.
Amanda had the play set with the always-popular tire swing but Jessica’s yard was the biggest. The two lots together were the perfect summer backdrop for moonlit games of Ghost in the Graveyard.
That last evening – the night before Jessica vanished, her body evaporating into nothingness – she and Amanda walked side by side in the dark. Amanda’s eyes played across the shadows, searching for movement in the inky corners of porches. Joey Martin was the ghost and he was the best at it – he was never the ghost for very long. He was an older boy, too old, almost, to be playing with them still. Jessica grabbed hold of Amanda’s arm as they silently picked their way across the open expanse of grass. Joey’s little sister, Samantha, was still waiting, wide eyed, with her little hand against the smooth metal of the slide. Other neighborhood kids, already in the midst of the game, stretched out to the boundary lines.
“We stay together, Jessie,” Amanda whispered.
“We always stay together,” Jessica replied in a hushed tone. It was a promise, a low chant of safety and security. “We’ll always stay together.”
Amanda and Jeremy walked down Oglethorpe Street. One hand gripped the strap of her camera to steady it from bouncing against her chest. The other hand brushed against Jeremy’s but when he tried to grab it, she moved it just out of reach.
“Who is Juliette Low?” Jeremy asked her, pointing to the marker on the side of the road declaring the huge white mansion in front of them as a site on the historical registry.
“She was the founder of the Girl Scouts of America.”
“Hmm…were you ever a girl scout?” he asked his tone only slightly lecherous. “Did you go door to door in a cute little green skirt and sell your cookies?”
“No,” Amanda replied and smirked at him. “There was a group of girls in the neighborhood that were girl scouts but we hated them. Besides, green isn’t really my color.”
“What?” she asked, puzzled.
“You said ‘but we hated them’. Were you a part of some delinquent cookie hating gang? Who hates Girl Scouts?”
Amanda opened her mouth to respond but hesitated. It was said that Savannah was built on her dead – thousands of graves lingering just below the cobblestone streets and manicured parks. Amanda felt that she, too, had been built by the dead. But, she never talked about Jessie with anyone. She ran her hand idly down Jeremy’s arm and began to lead him up Bull Street to Wright Square.
Finally, she answered, “My best friend when I was little was a girl named Jessica. Her parents live in the house right next door to mine – the blue one?”
He nodded. “So, does Jessica still live around here?” Amanda smiled sadly, shook her head and looked away.
“I think I’ll get some pictures over here,” she told him and crossed the street into the park square.
“You’re the award winning photographer,” he joked. “But, I thought you said you couldn’t work in Savannah?”
She had driven down the N3 in South Africa, snapping shots of shanty towns and happy tourists eating Bunny Chow on the coast of Durban. She’d traveled across Europe with a backpack, her camera and little else. She’d sat in a steam powered boat on the Ben Hai River in Vietnam, skirting along the edge of North and South. In every one of those places, she had searched within the shadows, looking for Jessica.
It had been so easy to become an artist growing up in Savannah. The city practically begs it’s young to pick up a brush, throw some clay, haiku, haiku, haiku. Amanda loved capturing broken moments, those seconds in people’s lives when their fissures begin to grow. She was drawn to the vulnerability and to the notion that she had the power to stop time. But, she’d never allowed herself to work in Savannah, afraid that within the click of the shutter, she’d find Jessie waiting for her – hidden in the background like an abandoned vista.
She walked away from Jeremy and approached two old men sitting beneath the shade of a giant Oak tree. Spanish moss dripped down from the branches. After a quick conversation, she lifted her camera.
As she framed her shot, she caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of her eye. Jessica stood near the President street entrance, never grown, still wearing the frilly white skirt and blue shirt she’d had on the day she’d disappeared.
Amanda blinked. Sun light filtered through the trees and blinded her for a moment. When she looked again, Jessica was gone and in her place was a normal, living girl, the sun refracting bright against her dark hair.
These ghosts are unnecessary, Jessie, she thought and the girl turned to her and smiled. Give me one day. One day to be happy, to be free of you. The wind picked up for a moment, skating through the fallen leaves that littered the sidewalk and dancing against Amanda’s skin. We always stay together, it whispered.