By Adelynn Wijaya
The first spirit Serene stumbled upon was the girl under the weeping willow.
It was a rainy morning; the air reeked of petrichor and was cold with moisture. Dew trickled down the glossy surfaces of the willow’s leaves and the ground was caked in mud. The willow tree stood grandly in the center of the park, a haunting figure in the drab gray landscape.
Serene snuck beneath the willow leaves, unaware of the paths of rainwater snaking down the back of her shirt. Puddles pooled around the base of the tree, but she hardly cared as her denim shorts sunk into the grime. Her head leaned back against the bark of the tree, her hair tangling around splinters. Her muscles slowly loosened and before long, her eyes were closed.
A sound yanked her eyelids open again.
The spirit was reclining on the other side of the tree. The absence of lungs prevented the spirit from making any noise, despite her chest rising and falling in a steady rhythm. Her foot moved, continuing to slowly crush the branch that shocked Serene from her nap. Serene approached the spirit girl silently, to not disturb her, but the other girl’s eyes fluttered open nevertheless.
“Hello,” Serene said, her fingers twitching with guilt.
“Hi.” The girl expanded her mouth cavernously as she extended her limbs until she was indistinguishable from a starfish. “How long have I been sleeping here?”
“I’m not sure.”
The girl looked at Serene, but there was something about her eyes that made Serene think she wasn’t looking at her at all. The girl turned away to stare at the damp leaves, and that was when Serene was conscious of the girl’s bodily state. Draped over her body was a billowy, pearl white dress adorned with fake gemstones and dark black stains. There was a stitch on her neck, dripping liquid down her front. Her bare arms were painted in hues of deep blues and blacks.
“Are you alright?” Serene asked.
“Hm?” the girl hummed, wiping the blood off her neck with a bruised thumb, though she didn’t seem to notice the stitch in her skin. “It’s very warm today, isn’t it?”
It wasn’t. Serene’s hands were frozen over.
“I think I’ll be going home.” The girl was suddenly on her feet, though her voluminous dress made no sound as she did. “It was nice to meet you, little girl.”
It was a difficult concept to grasp, talking to a spirit. The ability to speak to someone buried six feet underground wasn’t a common ability. The girl beneath the willow tree wasn’t pale nor floating like spirits were supposed to look. However, it became easier to accept as Serene grew up and started seeing more spirits.
It was easy to identify whether a person was alive or dead. All the lost souls Serene had ever encountered were wounded or maimed in one way or another. Once, she bumped into an old man missing his right arm, and another time, she conversed with a young girl with a bleeding eye about the bleakness of elementary school. Her sixth sense naturally ostracised her from her peers. Who wanted to be friends with someone who talked to people with missing limbs?
Serene didn’t mind the lack of living company. The dead were friendlier. After all, they didn’t pay attention to their futures very much. They didn’t care about what they were going to have to eat for breakfast tomorrow morning or where they wanted to go for their next vacation. Serene found them more authentic than the living, no matter how ironic the idea sounded.
The first time Serene met Mayson, she was seventeen and her hair was chopped short and dyed blonde. It was a rainy night when she spotted him leaning next to a fountain, staring peacefully at the night sky. Her eyes trailed up to the heavens and though there were no stars to take her breath away, the gray rain clouds were still enough to captivate her.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” the spirit asked, his voice as clear as though he was whispering into her ear.
Serene glanced at the boy and was instantly ensnared by how different he was. Unlike every other spirit she had seen, he didn’t have any visible lacerations on his skin. It was only when she squinted did she see the gaping wound on the left side of his stomach, disguised by the black shirt he wore when he died. But her eyes concentrated on the smile on his face. None of the other spirits ever smiled.
“Do you want to come over to my place?” Serene asked. “It doesn’t look very comfortable to sit out here in the rain.”
His smile didn’t change in size, but his eyes seemed to crinkle a little bit more. “That’s nice of you, Serene. But I’m okay.”
Serene scanned her person for any inscriptions of her name. “How do you know my name?”
He had tilted his head in a manner that dampened Serene’s palms with sweat. “I don’t know. I think the word suits you. Most people run away when they see me. You look calm. Tranquil. Serene.”
She noticed that he was starting to fade. The rain was receding, falling in light drops that pricked her skin. Mayson flickered as the rain slowed to a stop, his form vanishing into the air.
“Wait,” Serene called. “What’s your name?”
“Mayson,” he said before he disappeared into the silent, moist night.
The second time she met Mayson, she was eighteen, six months after she first met him. Her hair was long and black again, tickling the back of her arms every time she walked. This time, he found her sitting on the steps of her house, hugging his knees with the manner of a frightened child. Heavy rain pelted the yellow nylon raincoat that covered Serene’s body.
“Mayson?” Serene called, hesitant.
“Hi, Serene,” he called. His voice was soothing, but there was something wrong underneath. The wound on his abdomen looked worse under the gray light of the lamp outside. “Can I… can I stay over for a while?”
“Okay,” she said, noting the tears pricking the corner of Mayson’s eyes. “Come in.”
Serene lived in a dorm with two other girls, but they were hardly ever home. That day was no different; her roommates’ doors were left gaping open so that passersby could see the mess residing within. Serene turned back to Mayson, whose eyes were rooted to the tornado of clothes strewn all over the unmade beds.
“I’m sorry about my roommates,” Serene apologised swiftly, moving forward to slam the doors shut.
“That’s alright,” Mayson said. His lips were flat, but Serene caught a smirk twitching on the tips. Serene found herself smiling too.
Serene led Mayson to the living room, the emptiest room in the whole dorm. It was desolate save for the rotting blue couch, the withering carpet, and the fragile old table sitting in the back of the small room. Mayson took a seat on the carpet, leaning his back against the couch. Serene settled next to him, wondering what to talk about. She never brought a spirit into her home before.
“So you live with your family?” Mayson asked.
“Ah. Must be fun.”
“A bit rowdy sometimes. They like bringing people over. I don’t usually talk to them.”
“What do you do then?”
“I read. Write. Sleep. I don’t like… talking to people.”
“Oh. Me neither.”
“Really? Everyone I know would say otherwise. They’d say that it’s unhealthy to want to be alone and to shut down the world around you.”
“Well.” Mayson shrugged, tapping the carpet absent-mindedly; his nails made no sound as they pierced the ground through the carpet. “Too much isolation is unhealthy, but there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be alone.” He smiled at her, and Serene felt like she had just swallowed a mouthful of hot chocolate.
Then she swallowed again, but her throat felt clammy this time. Her tongue was itching to ask the most sensitive question of all time.
“Um… what happened to your… stomach?”
Mayson’s eyes widened like a video played in slo-mo, and he held his wound as if he just realised it was there.
“I don’t… I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Oh.” Serene blushed, cursing inwardly. “S-sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Mayson said. He took her hand, and he was so warm. So strangely warm. Serene found herself leaning into him, and he curled his arm around her.
This is nice.
Serene didn’t know it at first, but in the years later when she looked back at this moment, she would know this was the moment when she started falling for Mayson.
“If you ever need a place to stay, you can always come here,” Serene whispered.
Mayson placed a hand on her head, running his fingers through her hair.
“I know,” he mumbled, pressing his lips against her head. “That’s why I came here.”
“Are you going to eat that?”
Serene glanced up at the owner of the voice before shrugging, returning to the book in her hands. Her dark hair caressed the back of her arms.
Warren rubbed his palms together as he grabbed the remains of her croissant and took a seat on Serene’s table, ignoring the snickers from the other side of the room as crumbs tumbled onto the hem of his black flannel shirt. Serene sighed inwardly, avoiding the eyes of the other customers. This wasn’t the only Sunbucks café in the vicinity, but Serene liked it because it was the only café that didn’t completely obscure the windows.
“You don’t mind me sitting here, do you?”
Serene shook her head and continued to read her book. Her right thumb massaged the bottom corner of the book as she waited for Warren to finish the pastry.
Today, it took him twenty minutes before he bid Serene goodbye with a sort of disheartened expression. When she was positive he was gone, she exhaled a small sigh of relief, but her victory was short-lived. Another presence took up the vacant chair, filling Serene’s nose with the smell of sulfur.
She hardly glanced up when she said, “Go away, Nelson.”
“Ouch,” Nelson cocked his head as he twirled a curl around his skinny, blue-veined hands. “That’s not how you treat an old friend, Serene. Even that goody-goody ghost friend of yours is nice to me.”
“I don’t have the energy to deal with you right now,” she answered, her chair scraping as she headed for the door. She could already feel stares digging into her back for exchanging words with an invisible entity.
“He’s been trying to ask you out since you were eighteen!” Nelson yelled as the door to the café slammed shut. “When are you going to stop rejecting him?”
Until he gives up.
A storm was raging above her, but Serene merely wrapped her jacket around her head as she hurried home. When she arrived in her warm, toasty dorm, Mayson was sleeping on the couch. His insubstantial head hovered over the cushion’s surface as his fluffy, velvety hair fell in clumps around his face. His mouth gaped open in mock sleep. Droplets pelted the windows as Serene leaned over to press her lips against Mayson’s cheek. He smelled familiar, like fresh pineapples and baked bread.
“Wake up, sleeping beauty,” she whispered as Mayson turned.
“I wasn’t sleeping,” he said.
Of course he wasn’t; dead souls didn’t sleep. Serene grasped his wrist and pulled him to his feet, placing his hand on her waist as she held his shoulder. He was so strangely solid for a dead being.
“Dance with me?” she whispered.
They twirled around the dorm’s spacious living room, occupied by nothing but two pieces of furniture and a moth-eaten carpet. Mayson dipped Serene to the floor and spun her in a tight circle. Serene leaned into Mayson and swayed around the room with him, mindful of the gaping wound in his side. She didn’t know the backstory behind it, since Mayson was always so tight-lipped about his past.
“I love dancing with you,” Mayson confessed as he lifted Serene by the waist, swiveling her with the elegance of a swan.
“Me too,” Serene said, her feet sinking into the frayed threads of the worn carpet. Rainwater trickled down the window, but the sky was starting to brighten. “Please don’t leave me here.”
Mayson smiled his wonderful crescent smile as parts of him vanished into the air and he drifted into nothingness. “I’m sorry, Serene.”
You’d think that after two years of being with a vanishable being, she would get used to the abrupt arrivals and departures. In reality, you never get used to pain. Her knees embraced the tattered rug as she hugged her elbows, silent tears rolling down her cheeks as the sky slowly cleared.
It had taken her a few meetings before she realised the pattern, that he only appeared when it rained. And now while everyone else waited for the sun to come back out, she spent her days just waiting for the next rainstorm, and longing for him.
“Tell me about him,” Serene’s mother said as her daughter washed the dishes. Serene came to visit every weekend. None of her dormmates went back to their parents’ home so often, but Serene didn’t have any friends to distract her.
“Who?” Serene frowned as she squeezed the sponge too hard. Soap dripped from her hand and down the drain.
“The boy you’re in love with.”
“I’m not in love with anyone.” Serene dipped the sponge in soap water and continued scrubbing the dishes.
“I know a soul in love when I see it,” her mother answered cheekily as she nudged Serene’s hip with hers. “So tell me, is it someone from school?”
“I told you, I’m not in love.” She flicked water at her mother for emphasis. Thunder cracked outside, and Serene’s heart picked up. “I’m going to leave now.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to stay any longer?” Her mother frowned, leaning against the doorjamb and watching her only daughter shove her heels into her suffocating shoes. “You just got here.”
“No, I need to go back now.” Serene watched as the rain began falling from the heavens. “See you, Mom.”
“You are delusional,” Nelson hummed as he laid his head of greasy black hair on top of Serene’s books.
“Can’t you leave me alone?” Serene asked. The horrible smell effusing from the spirit was unbearable. It clashed with the coffee aroma emanating from the counter, creating a strange combination of scents.
“No can do.” Nelson stretched his neck so that the abominable gash across it gaped wider, like a second mouth. Another whiff of rotten eggs permeated Serene’s nostrils.
The goodness of a soul was identifiable through the pleasantness of their scent. If a soul was prone to doing bad things while they were alive, they smelled horrible, like rotting eggs or dead bodies. If a soul had a golden heart when they were alive, they smelled comforting, like the air after it rained.
Mayson smelled just like that.
“You’re thinking about him again,” Nelson said, his palm cupping his chin.
“Thinking about who?”
“Your dead boyfriend.”
“No, I’m not.”
“It’s so obvious. You slip into a daze when you think about him. Your eyes go all gooey and the corners of your lips turn up.”
Nelson’s eyes burned into hers. Serene fought to keep her stare; she was reminded of the saying “eyes are the windows to the soul”, and she realised then how vulnerable she felt under Nelson’s scrutiny.
“You’re also dead.”
“You can’t date a dead person, it doesn’t work like that!” Nelson threw his hands into the air in a fit.
Serene raised a brow at his sudden tantrum. Nelson had always been the calm one, the ignorant one, the patient one. Seeing him irate and vexed was unnerving.
“Us spirits had had a chance to live our lives. One chance and only one. It’s similar to how we lived through our childhood and teenage years once. After that, it’s time to move on to the next phase of life. In our case, it’s moving on from this world we’ve known. You can’t give Mayson another reason to stay. He’s not meant to stay.”
“Then why are you here?” Serene shot back, her nails digging craters into her palms. “Why haven’t you moved on yet?”
Nelson’s expression was painful, as if he had been slapped across the face by her words. “This isn’t about me. This is about your boyfriend. You two barely know each other. Do you even know how he died? You’ve known him for four years, and he hasn’t even told you his darkest secret.”
Serene slammed her hands against the table, grabbing her textbooks. “Stop bothering me about my life,” she said. “Why do you even care? And a word of advice: start thinking about what in your life went wrong before lecturing me about mine.”
When Serene woke the next morning, it was raining and her room was swallowed by grey light, as if the sky had been crying. There was an arm draped over her torso. She didn’t need to turn around to see who it was.
“What’s bothering you?” Mayson whispered into her ear, his hands running down her long brown hair.
Serene exhaled, the air rattling in her lungs. “I want to ask you something, but you don’t have to answer it if you don’t want to.”
Mayson’s hand paused in mid-caress, his hand hovering over her head like an uncertain butterfly. “Okay.”
She turned around and glanced at his abdomen. Nelson’s words echoed through her head. “How…how did you die?”
The rain outside faded into a drizzle. She grasped his flickering, translucent hand, inwardly pleading for him to stay, please just stay, you don’t have to answer my question just stay, please—
“It was a stormy night,” Mayson began, his voice dulcet with sleepiness.
“I was walking down the street. From work, I think.” He paused as if the details were blurry. “I think I was coming home from the bank or the ATM. I had a large wad of cash in my pocket. I was ambushed in an alleyway by a group of men and… they stabbed me.”
Mayson’s expression paled as his hand flickered, disappearing before Serene’s eyes. She threaded her fingers through his, willing him to stay.
“You didn’t have to answer the question if it caused you this much stress.”
“I’m fine,” Mayson squeezed Serene’s hand, “because you’re here.”
Her mother hummed in response. She didn’t dare to speak in case the vase she was cleaning slipped from her fingers and broke.
Serene looped her fingers through her mug handle. “Have you ever felt like you made the wrong decision?”
Her mother paused, eyeing the vase as if it would voluntarily leap from the shelf and commit self-destruction. “Of course, honey. Life is all about making decisions, both wrong and right. There are many things I wished I didn’t do and many choices I wished I didn’t make.”
Serene thought of her father, but the memory of him fluttered away. “But how do you know if you made the wrong decision?”
Her mother reached out and squeezed her shoulder, smiling sadly. Serene wondered if she was thinking about her father too.
“Look at the people around you and observe the impact of your decisions.”
“What was the best part of your life?”
Mayson pinched the marble Serene had given him between his index finger and thumb. He brought it to the air so that the yellow gleam from the ceiling light refracted through the tiny bead of glass. It cast colourful shadows on his ghostly features.
“No, before that,” Serene said, lightly touching Mayson’s hand. “When you were alive.”
Mayson dropped the marble. It landed on the ground and rolled under the couch, but none of the two were in any hurry to look for it.
“Sleeping,” Mayson said.
“Don’t look at me like that.” Mayson poked Serene’s cheek, smiling. “It’s a pain that us spirits are unable to sleep. Sleep is a brilliant way to ignore your troubles and avoid the real world. You just close your eyes and then you’re off drifting to the world inside your head.”
“So the best parts of your life were your dreams?”
“I guess you could say that,” Mayson chuckled, ruffling Serene’s hair. He leaned against the ground to locate the marble under the couch.
Serene hugged her knees and rocked them, staring at his fluffy hair.
“There’s this kid who visits me at the cafe,” she said.
Mayson returned to his position next to her, fiddling with the marble between his fingers. “Go on,” he said.
“His name’s Warren, and he’s from my school. He keeps coming over to me while I’m trying to study. Nel… the waitress thinks he’s interested in me.”
“And are you interested in him?”
Serene looked at him as if he had gone insane. “Of course not. I have you.”
The air was silent except for the ever-present sound of rain. Mayson’s neck-length mane covered the sides of his face, but Serene could still see his tears dripping onto the floor.
“Serene… you’re young. You have your whole life ahead of you. You don’t have to waste it on me.” He glanced sideways at her, his eyes pale but full of tears. “Go date that boy. Maybe he’s nice.”
“What’s up with you all of a sudden?” Serene grasped Mayson’s hands and squeezed them tightly, pouring her emotions into the touch. The rain thrashed harder outside. “I’m not going to leave you. I’m in love with you.”
Thunder crackled. Mayson smiled.
“You can’t be in love with me, Serene. I’m dead.”
Fury boiled in her veins at the familiar words. “Did Nelson tell you that?”
The tone of his voice was all the confirmation Serene needed. She got to her feet and disappeared to grab her keys.
“I’ll be right back,” she declared stiffly.
“Serene,” Mayson repeated, but she was gone.
“What did you tell him?” Serene demanded.
Nelson yawned lazily, giving Serene a side-eye. “What he needed to hear.”
Serene opened her mouth to retaliate, but Nelson raised his hand to silence her. “Serene,” Nelson said calmly, “do you want to know why I stink?”
Without context, the question might’ve been humorous. Faced with the opportunity to discover the answer to a question she had been wondering for months, however, Serene merely nodded in response.
“I died in this very building.” Nelson gestured to the pastel cafe around them. “I stole things from people all the time. I tried robbing this cafe but a man beat me to it. We fought and he slashed my neck over here.” He pointed to the abyss knitted through the skin of his neck. “I was left to die. When the police found me, they left my body to rot in the woods. I was forgotten.”
“And your point is?” Serene asked, squashing any sympathy that might’ve bubbled up for the spirit. He was still a horrible person, no matter how he was treated after he died.
“Don’t make stupid mistakes like I did.”
“There’s no harm in dating a spirit. I’m not hurting anyone else in the process.”
“You’re hurting yourself. Experience the world as it is. Don’t anchor yourself to a shadow of the past.”
“Mayson,” Serene called.
Drizzle poured outside, but Mayson was nowhere to be seen. Serene rubbed her wrist as she stared at her empty dorm.
“Mayson,” Serene called again.
She couldn’t see him, but she could hear him.
What is it, Serene?
“I…” The words she had meticulously prepared hours before were now clogged in her throat. Instead, tears prickled her eyes, blocking her vision. “I’m going to let you go.”
We’re not meant to be together, Serene. I died years ago. You deserve someone alive, someone you can spend the rest of your life with.
“I’m sorry.” Serene could no longer bottle her emotions.
Don’t be. Before I go, can I make one last request?
Dance with me one last time.
Mayson materialised in front of her, but she could no longer see his features. Serene took his hands and they danced around the living room until the rain stopped, and he vanished with it.
“Are you going to eat that?” Warren asked, a lopsided smile on his face.
Serene glanced at Nelson for support. He winked and threw her two thumb-ups in response.
“You can have it.” She shoved her untouched croissant towards him. “Your name’s Warren, right?”
“Yeah.” He looked a little nervous. “We’re in the same creative writing class.”
“Oh.” Serene nodded, vaguely remembering the boy’s signature black shirt. “Yeah. So tell me about yourself.”
Warren perked up and began his monologue, which Serene listened to with her chin on her palm and her ears red with interest.
“That went well,” Nelson commented afterward from the seat Warren had just left. “Considering that you are the most unsociable nineteen-year-old I have ever met and that he was the first living person you talked to in four years, excluding your mother and roommates.”
“Shut up.” Serene swatted her spoon at him good-naturedly.
Nelson pursed his lips in the way someone would if they were about to ask a dangerous question. “Does he still come to visit sometimes? When it rains?”
Serene looked at him, her expression complicated. Sometimes, she missed the smell of pineapples and baked bread that followed after the rain. Sometimes, she missed the evenings in her dorm when she wasn’t quite alone, instead accompanied by an black-haired figure with a fondness for dancing.
“No,” Serene said, looking up at the blue-grey sky through the window.
“Do you miss him?”
“Sometimes.” A tear ran down her cheek, but she smiled in spite of it. “But I think he’s happy now.”
Adelynn Wijaya is an aspiring author who lives in Asia. She enjoys reading and writing stories and wishes she lived in a fantasy world or somewhere away from reality. Her favorite genres to write (and read) are romance and fantasy, though she is trying to branch out to genres like sci-fi and horror. She writes short stories and is attempting to write a novel (or two), and occasionally tries to compose poetry.