And here it goes:
A few brown leaves are all that remain in the trees. People seem content to curl up at home. Watching television. Reading books. Stews and soups simmering on the stovetop. Even the pets seem content to linger inside when they have the chance to run into the crisp air outside.
Without these mortal distractions on the streetscape, she hopes that today might be the day to study those houses and remember which one she used to live in. Most of them have certain similarities. White porches out front. Forgotten clotheslines in the back. But they each have their own signatures. Some of the newer streets would have the challenge of houses too afraid to be different. The houses where taupe somehow became a community standard instead of knowing the people on your street.
She wanted to study each of those houses until something until something reminder her that she used to live there. That might help get her closer to figuring out how she got here.
She had vague memories of the library. She would bound up the stairs every time and study the spines of each of the books. It was always so hard to leave with only three, but she usually settled for two new ones and one of the books she has read dozens of times before.
The elm-lined streets converging on the public square were familiar, as was the diner on the east corner of the square. But other than that, most of the shops did not evoke even the foggiest memories.
A disrupted the quiet around the square as he sped down the street on his bike. The bike, she thought. She had gulped the last of her root beer float and stepped out of the diner. She was about to be late for dinner, and as much as she hated borscht, she would hate being grounded or losing her weekly allowance even more. But where did she go? She closed her eyes and concentrated as much as she could, trying to retrace her route. When she opened them again, she led herself along the route until she reached an intersection. She has been in such a rush that she did not even see the car coming from the other direction. She was thrown from her seat and all that remained of her bicycle was a mangled heap that looked like the display she saw during a school trip to the art gallery in a nearby city
That was the day she had to go to the hospital and get eight stitches on her forehead and a cast. It ruined her summer, but it did not get her here. She looked down past the crosswalk and she remembered. The blue house in the middle of the block with the hedge out front. Protective instinct in high gear, her parents ran from that front door and past the hedges.
Her mom cried more than she did when she get her stitches. Her dad rubbed her mom’s shoulder and said, “Ruth, honey, Caroline will be okay.”
She floated along to the blue house. It was freshly painted, but this was it. While she could go into any of these places without a person noticing, she was too unsure of herself to do anything but linger outside and peer in the windows. She just had the picture in her head of her parents from the day of her bicycle accident, but these couple inside looked nothing like her parents. Taking a deep breath, she went inside. If she wanted to figure out how she got here, she had to look around her only lead.
Much of the inside was a stranger to her. The moulding that lined the ceiling remained. The floor was the same, but freshly polished. But nothing else triggered any memories.
It was frustrating to her. It did not seem fair that the other ghosts seem to knew everything they wanted to know about themselves. Am I really supposed to be having an identity crisis in the afterlife, she thought. If anyone had asked her when she was alive, she would have been certain there was no room for such an emptiness once she had moved beyond the realm of the mortal.
A slam of a door brought her thoughts back to the house. She thought there might be some forgotten objects from past residents stowed in cobwebbed corners of the attack. Before she could make her way there, scents wafting from the kitchen distracted her. She no longer had a sense of taste, at least not that she was aware of, but her sense of smell had become heightened. She remembered the smell from her childhood, and it comforted her. She got closer to the stove and peered into the pot. Smiling, she thought how strange it was that the smell of a hated childhood dish was comforting right now. Next to the stove, she saw a typed out recipe for the borscht.
“Recipe from: Grandma Ruth” it read at the bottom of the recipe. She could not remember any siblings, so If Ruth was Grandma to this person cooking, was one of these people her children? She did not remember having any children.
“What are you cooking?,” asked a petite brunette as she entered the kitchen. It sounded more like an accusation than a question about what was for dinner.
“Bosrcht,” replied the man at the stove. He did not take his eyes off the pot as he answered.
The woman gave him an icy glare.
“I told you not to use that recipe.”
“I like the recipe. I wanted to cook it, Jillian. You used to love it.”
Jillian. That was her daughter’s name.
“That was before.”
“Listen, we have been over this. To everyone else, it seems perfectly normal to use a family recipe. Your mom cooked it for you. Now we cook it. You told me the story. Your mom didn’t even eat it when she made it. She just made it because your grandma used to make it for you once we moved in here when your dad ran died. And then you asked for it when once your grandma couldn’t cook anymore and you made it for me after we got married.”
Jillian moved right beside him and spoke in a forceful whisper.
“Whether or not my mother ate it is besides the point. I don’t like it”
“We live in the house we got when she died. This house was renovated with the life insurance money. That couch you were just sitting in was life insurance money. And you thinking a pot of bloody borscht will be want causes her to rise from the grave and haunt us.”
Jillian picked up the pot off the stove and brushed past him through the door without a word. She nudged the handle with her elbow and threw the pot, bosrcht and all, out the back door.” Face catatonic, she walked back inside. Shocked by the commotion, Caroline lingered outside. A fear seeped into her until the thought overtook her with panic. Jillian was so afraid and her husband made the comment about haunting them. Had they killed her the insurance money? What she was supposed to do if she has been killed? The thoughts raced through her head. She did not know the first thing about being a spooky ghost. Was there even such a thing? She had not believed in ghost before this moment. None of the other ghosts she knew had been killed, she she did not if she was supposed to haunt her killers like in the movies. The movies made it seem so easy — like everything a ghost was supposed to do was a given.
She waited outside for a long time, trying to formulate what to do next, and finally decided to return inside.
Jillian sat on the couch, tears streaming down her face.
“I know to you it is just a silly recipe. But what it is to me is something my mom took the time to cook for us when it was something she didn’t like. I hated that nursing home she was in at the end, but I didn’t go there. She cooked us dinner she wouldn’t even eat because everyone loved my grandma’s recipe. Those stupid beets stained her hands every other week, but she did it. And I couldn’t even visit my dying mother because I hated being there. The smell, the noise, seeing her decline more and more.”
“You can’t change that now. Your mom loved you. She showed she loved you every time she cooked that borscht. She willed you this house to live in.”
“I don’t think she would love me if she knew how little I could sacrifice to see her in the end.”
Caroline realized during this exchange that feeling sheepish was not just for people that were alive. She could not believe moments before she thought her daughter could have killed her for insurance money. This whole unknown history ghost situation really messed with the head, she thought. With so few memories of her life, Caroline did not remember that her daughter rarely visited her in the end, so she could not resent her daughter. She wanted a way to tell her daughter not to feel guilty about the end.
As Caroline tried to think of a way to let her daughter know she was there without frightening her, she thought of the binder on the island in the kitchen. Family Recipes. Caroline recalled a recipe that was the opposite of borscht. While Jillian hated it, Caroline loved it. She flipped through the slippery plastic-covered pages of the binder, until she found it and left it open to the recipe. Stroganoff.
“I need a nap,” said Jillian. “I just want to clean up in the kitchen. I am sorry about the soup. We can order in after I get up.”
Caroline walked into the kitchen and saw the recipe on display.
“Honey, did you leave the binder open to stroganoff?,” called Caroline to her husband.
“I might have been risky enough to cook borscht, but I am not that crazy. I know you hate that stuff and haven’t touched it since you were a kid.”
“Actually, can you run to the store to the ingredients?”
A few hours later, Caroline followed Jillian and her husband to a cemetery. Caroline had a blanket and a container stroganoff in hand. As Jillian set out the blanket and sat down, Caroline noticed the headstone. It was hers. There was her name and her husband’s name next to it.
Jillian. finished a spoonful of the still steaming stroganoff and said, “You know, it’s not actually that bad.”
She smiled at her husband and then looked around. Caroline knew Jillian could sense she was there. One of the side benefits of the ghost world, Caroline figured.
Every weekend, Jillian returned with her blanket and container of stroganoff. Caroline was grateful for company and the stories she heard Jillian reminisce over each time she sat on that blanket.