This story is by Jenna Seachman and was part of our 2017 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the Summer Writing Contest stories here.
Anna didn’t believe in ghosts.
Or demons, or vampires, or werewolves, or unicorns – even though her friends used to love pretending all those things were real. Sometimes, in the heydays of their childhoods, they even imagined they were mythical creatures. Her best friend, Jenna, had been the “dragon” of the group, always joking about breathing fire or smiting the peasant village when she got angry. Her friend Hannah was the Protector of Demon Narwhals, which was pretty self-explanatory. Anna herself was the shapeshifter, capable of turning into an owl at will. Their archnemesis was the Pegasus, an evil, bat-winged unicorn who wrought general havoc wherever he went.
When Anna was a child, those fantasies had provided excitement and comfort, expanding her world like breath to a balloon. But now she was older, and the balloon had popped, leaving the crushing realities of adulthood in its wake. The closest thing Anna encountered to the Undead were the commuters in the subway train that hadn’t had their morning coffee yet.
She checked the time on her iphone. She was supposed to be at work by 6:30. If the subway was on time, it wouldn’t stop at her station until 6:29. She let out a world-weary sigh that blew her bangs out of her eyes. Around her, commuters swayed with the rhythm of the subway like sardines in a bucket, most of them looking equally pressed for time. Anna got the feeling that today would be another mad dash for the doors. How anyone took the subway to work yet managed to emerge looking professional was beyond her. Anna usually wound up looking like she’d just run a marathon in the wrong clothes.
Anna didn’t believe in ghosts… so why could she feel a phantom breeze wafting down her back?
If she’d logged a few more hours of sleep, maybe she would have laughed: phantom breeze. Ha-ha.
As it was, her rough morning had leeched the day of any humor. She’d woken up two hours ago only to be tripped by her cat on the way to the bathroom. She’d hit her head on her one and only couch – the single piece of decoration in her entire three-room apartment.
The sofa was a beautiful thing. It was the style of a Victorian fainting couch, with one end curled like a cinnamon roll – the same arm that had punched Anna in the face when she fell on it. The other side was open-ended, so she could let her feet hang off after an exhausting day. The couch had the extravagantly lazy air of a cat reclining on one fluffy front paw. Anna used to love it, but now, it would forever bear the cringe-worthy memory of the black eye it had given her.
As the commuter train jostled along, Anna held up her compact mirror, trying to figure out the best angle of attack with her foundation brush. The purple bruise bloomed right below her eye like a dark circle, freckled with burst blood vessels. She tried covering it with concealer, but to no avail. Great. Her hairdo was already rebellious: the angel-blonde hairs were waging war against the pins she’d stuck in. She did not need another impossible-to-conquer element of her appearance.
And then, in the reflection of her compact mirror, she saw it. First came the whisper of cold air down her back, like someone behind her had opened a refrigerator. In her mirror, she noticed the face of a man, turning in her direction. She would have dismissed him as another commuter, if his face hadn’t been transparent. It was almost invisible, like clear ice, and through it, Anna could see another businesswoman wearing a zero-shame deadpan while slipping her phone into her bra.
The man’s face stunned her. Not because it was see-through – but because of how attractive it was.
The person peering back at her was classically handsome, somehow both keen-eyed and kind, like a soldier on a World War II recruitment poster. The shoulders and neck attached to that face were sturdily muscular. They would have carved him a space in the crowd, if he’d had a physical presence. Instead, his body overlapped the other commuters. The subway was so crowded, he was currently superimposed over at least a dozen bodies, their arms holding on to the subway’s sidebars.
The man held Anna’s gaze. His eyes, she noticed, were gray, a gray so luminous it anchored him on the train as effectively as planted feet. They flicked down to the bruise on her face, strong brows softening in sympathy.
Anna whipped around to face him, earning annoyed squirms and mumbles from the commuters surrounding her. But the man was gone.
She frantically searched the faces around her, but none of them matched the person she’d seen in her mirror. Instead, like true New Yorkers, they returned her frantic stare with confrontational scowls.
She turned back to her compact mirror. The man was there again, grinning at her. There was nothing mocking in his smile, but it wasn’t flirty, either. No, he seemed to be keeping the flirtatious brand of grin tucked away, reserved for someone truly special. This was a handshake kind of smile: respectful, formal, acknowledging. And yet, Anna found nothing lacking in it. Actually, it was a refreshing reprieve from the leering, full-body scans that most men gave her while passing by. She couldn’t help but grin in response.
The gentleman ghost, her mind labeled him, even though the logical part of her brain rebelled.