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Homecoming

Another hotel room, industrial beige with a patterned bedspread to hide the stains: apples, grapes and bananas on this one; mixed with paisleys. Instead of the usual mail-order, this one had travel posters from places nobody within a hundred miles of here had ever been: Neuschwanstein castle, panda cubs, even a lovely image of a glacier calving. It looked like Greenland to me, though it had been a while since I was last there.

I turned on the tv to cover up the kinds of noises you got in every cheap hotel in the world, especially when it was only one for miles around. Some bad science fiction movie was the first thing to come on: huge implausible robots chasing hatted and spurred cowboys armed with six-shooters. My money was on the cowboys. I turned it up until I couldn’t hear the vacuum cleaner down the hall, or the mid-afternoon quickie happening in the next room.

More importantly, nobody else could hear the quiet voices that would soon be coming from my room. I pulled out my suitcase, the kind of battered leather case used by traveling salesmen since the dawn of time. I pictured someone opening such a bag in front of the Egyptian pyramids as they went up. “Fancy some new spindle whorls? Or how about these lovely needles? I have some dice, they’re the latest thing. So much more fun than knucklebones.”

I lifted the display of dinosaur figurines out of the way. Museum-quality, and molded and painted using the best theories of modern paleontologists. Schools liked to buy them, and sometimes even parents. But that’s not what I was after. Under the tray of brightly-colored plastic dinosaurs was another tray of dinosaurs. Beneath that were a couple of not-too-raunchy men’s magazines, to convince anyone snooping that they’d found all there was to hide.

Under that, a palm-leaf manuscript, brown and frail. It looked like Sanskrit, but it wasn’t. I pushed aside the remains of my lunch, a few stray jalapenos and the last smear guacamole, and laid the manuscript down gently. The glyphs, or letters, or syllables, or whatever they were, seemed to wiggle if I looked at them too long. I ran my fingers lightly over the surface, feeling the electric tingle that proximity to the manuscript brought. I would have liked books a lot more as a kid if they made me feel all fizzy. If they’d all had ghosts attached, I never would have left the library.

I didn’t know how to make the ghost appear on command, and I couldn’t understand him when he talked to me. Maybe I’d see him tonight, maybe I wouldn’t. He looked a bit like a hologram from Star Wars, only in sepia instead of blue: a glowing tiny figure, gesturing sadly at me as if that would help me understand.

I’d never seen him smile, laugh, do anything other than scowl in frustration. I’d thought about taking him to a university language department, but he was mine. I didn’t want to share him with anyone else, even if they might understand the language he spoke. It was probably extinct anyway, some long-gone product of India or Africa. I couldn’t tell for sure where he was from, only that his skin was dark. His head was shaven. Did ghosts have to keep shaving, or did death stop growth for spirit and body both?

My husband had shaved his head since before I knew him, but by the end he didn’t need to. He joked that chemo had saved him so much time since he didn’t need to shave every day, even when he was too weak to play his beloved slide guitar.

That was before. Before I traveled all the time, when I still had a home. When I didn’t know anything about dinosaurs that I hadn’t learned in kindergarten. When I had friends, family, not just a frustrated ghost for company.

Maybe he was trying to warn me of the end of the world. Maybe there was something I could do to hasten it.


This is twitter flash: 687 words in an hour and a half, with the following prompts:

@sandykidd slide
@marjorie73 a sad ghost, bananas
@ticia42 panda
@j00licious dinosaur figurines
@quasigeo jalapenos, Neuschwanstein castle, glacier calving, Sanskrit
@notmoro cowboys vs robots
@qitou vacuum cleaners and guacamole

Thanks, everyone!