This part of the walk always gives me the creeps, but my dog pulls behind the circle of apartment houses, back at the edge of the creek, with no regard for my fears. Animals are supposed to be more attuned to the spirit world, right? So if there’s something out there, she would know. This is what I tell myself as she takes a leisurely squat next to the loquat. I ready a plastic bag, and just as it closes around the warm excretion steaming into the night air, I hear it. Click. Whiff.
I turn, hand still in the grass. On a tree stump overlooking the creek bed, a lighter seems to float midair. Deep inhale. A cigarette lights, paper crackling. Another puff, and the little orange light piercing the darkness seems to spread its glow. Breathed into existence. Puffed through a stick. A woman appears crouched on the stump. Grunge, torn jeans and a plaid flannel tied around her waist.
She flickers away. Then, inhale, is breathed back to life as though the smoke in her spectral lungs is the only thing linking her to this place. This moment. My dog kicks dirt over her feces, and into my face. I cough. The ghost looks, nods, fades to nothing, then appears again. She reaches out the cigarette, and as her fingers disappear around it, the white paper seems suspended.
I don’t know what happens if you’re rude to a ghost, so I leave my dog’s shit where it lies and lead him towards the hollow stump. She snorts around but shows no greater interest in this apparition. The cigarette burns shorter. Ashes fall. I pluck it as though from the air, inhale, and return it. Snatched from the air, the ghost takes it back. Inhales, and appears.
She looks at me with eyes bright and round as river stones, and exhales slowly so that her form lasts just a little longer. “I don’t have much time.” She hands the cigarette back, and somehow I feel guilt that these few short breaths in bodily form she shares with me, a stranger. But I smoke anyway, unsure what else to do.
“Are you real?” I ask. When her eyes reappear, I see they’re low and full. I regret asking. what happens when you offend a spirit? But she only sighs and flicks the ash. The stick’s burnt low now.
“You finish it,” she says. And after I do, I realize that she’s gone. My dog sneezes, and the moment’s broken. I flick the butt into the dry creek bed and follow the rocky way back up to the apartments.
In the morning, I leave a pack of Parliaments on the stump. When the pup and I return, they’re gone. I never know if she took them, or if some drifter got a good deal. But sometimes I imagine a bright orange flicker in the woods, and I wonder what haunts spirits.
The cover image is credited to Shannon Holman. and is used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.