Ghost Story: A Brief Fiction
He was trembling. Overcome by cold, hunger, and despair. He wove in and out of the crowded sidewalk, wandering without destination. Just keep going.
Toby couldn’t recall the last time he had known comfort—what it was like to be clean, to be warm, or to hear an encouraging word, to feel the comfort of human touch. If he had not grown accustomed to his plight, he might have wondered whether the ache in his belly was worse than the one in his heart.
Last night’s rain had released the familiar smell of the city. The scent of petroleum mixed with the billowing exhaust from the kitchens of restaurants, both fine and cheap, mingling with the warm dampness of refuse laden dumpsters—a cocktail of urban alchemy.
For a hopeful moment, Toby’s eyes met those of a man chasing his dreams and thought perhaps the man would offer a smile. Or better yet, something from his pocket. Not this time.
Don’t they see me? Maybe, I’m a ghost. He had wondered that so many times. But asking the questions just reminded him of how very alone he was. So he did what he always did. He walked.
Toby remembered a place, around the corner, where a moment of unexpected grace had once given him hope. The woman had offered him part of her sandwich. Thoughts of the thick slab of bologna protruding from two pieces of soggy white bread made his mouth water. Maybe the woman will be there today. He didn’t let the memory or the hopeful anticipation grow too strong. It would only make his disappointment worse if the woman wasn’t there. Or if she didn’t make the same offer. Still, his pace quickened.
The fat man wrapped in a raincoat that had he had long since outgrown lumbered towards Toby like a rudderless ship in high seas. The man was slurping coffee with one hand, tapping his phone in the other, and kept attempting to make course corrections without really looking at the path ahead. Toby couldn’t decide whether to bob left or weave right to avoid him. He feared being crushed by the lumbering gray ship of a man and made a last minute dart to avoid collision. The fat man never took note of Toby and trudged past him, still slurping and tapping.
By the time Toby turned the corner the crowds were abating. Most of the people had entered their temples of achievement and set about doing whatever important thing it was that needed doing. Later, they would evacuate their shrines and retrace their morning routes back to wherever it was they spent their nights. Toby’s pace quickened as he passed the last pedestrian between him and the bench where he had the encounter with the woman and her bologna sandwich. Almost there.
There she is. The woman was sitting on the bench peering at the black and white print of a wrinkled newspaper. He thought he saw her chewing. Good sign.
As he drew nearer, Toby slowed his pace. Better not to seem too eager—or too aggressive. He walked deliberately toward the woman, sensing she had seen him out of the corner of her eye. She was dressed the same as she had been the last time Toby had seen her. Square-toed black shoes. Worn heels. Denim pants soiled on ample thighs that doubled as napkins. A black long-sleeved tee shirt bearing the image of a smiling man with flowing dreadlocks. If Toby could have read, he would have seen the shirt’s admonition that “everything gonna be alright.” But what caught Toby’s attention was the brown paper bag sitting beside the woman.
When the old woman finally felt Toby’s longing stare, she gave him little notice. But then she gave him a second look. On the third look, she recognized him.
“You again,” she finally said. “You look hungry.”
“Suppose you think I’ll give you another piece of my sandwich,” she said, glancing at the paper bag
Toby just stared back at her.
The woman placed the paper bag on her lap and reached inside. Toby’s heart pounded as she sorted through the treasures he imagined it held. He gave a quick lick of lips feeling rumbling of anticipation within his belly. With a surgeon’s precision, she gently removed the wax paper wrapping and presented her offering to him. Suppressing a tremor of excitement, Toby waited.
“Here you go,” she said.
With each bite Toby’s hunger took control. He was ravenous, swallowing barely chewed mouthfuls almost as quickly as he took them.
“Better slow down with that,” said the smiling woman. “You’ll choke.”
But Toby was deaf with satisfaction, unable to heed her caution. In seconds, the sandwich was gone. He licked his mouth with abandon, savoring the taste of the last greasy delight of his feast.
“Better?” asked the woman.
Ecstatic from her simple act of kindness, Toby wagged his tail relentlessly. The woman beckoned him to come closer, but old fears are hard things and Toby kept his distance.
“It’s okay. I won’t hurt you.”
He let himself close the distance, drawing a little nearer. The woman moved slowly. She knew the terror of a lonely existence, what it was like to trust and be deceived. The woman held out her hand, letting Toby satisfy himself with a sniff or two. When he came close enough, she gently stroked the matted fur beneath his neck.
Toby reveled in her touch for a moment, but then the fear rushed back. He withdrew in the confusion of gratitude and anxiety. For a moment, he hoped the woman would offer him another morsel from the bag. She saw him gazing at it, transfixed like Narcissus staring at his reflection.
“Sorry. It was my last one.”
The tone of her voice was clear. There would be no more gifts today. But for just a moment, everything was right in Toby’s world. Someone had seen him. Touched him. Toby gave the woman a final glance of gratitude and turned to continue his journey. He needed to find a place to rest. Maybe a quiet place to nap while the people were all inside their temples.
I’m not a ghost.