Esme has been walking past it for a week. She’s not sure exactly when it showed up, chained to the street sign five blocks down from her apartment, at the intersection where someone is always slamming on their brakes. Before this week, Esme hadn’t left her apartment for nearly a month.
Esme finally ran out of food. People stopped coming by with casseroles and soups after the first couple of weeks, even her closest friends. She could hardly blame them. Her heart feels like a monster’s den, a monster she tries to pacify and soothe and slay all at once, and she is sure they could see it, snarling and weeping, right through her chest. Her friends assured her it wasn’t her fault, she hadn’t done anything wrong, she couldn’t have stopped him. But they stopped coming all the same. Esme feels responsible. He was her son. She had raised him. She hadn’t seen it coming.
Esme decided to walk to the store. Take herself step by step down the street, through her neighborhood, to prove she still belonged in the world. She could take their stares and pity and blame. Step after step, damming back tears, pressing her purse against her side to tamp the monster as its claws tried to reach through her ribs. Five blocks down, at that intersection, where she had to turn to get to the store, there it was.
The bike shimmered white, like antelope bones left to bleach in the sun. White frame, white tires attached to white spokes, white handlebars, white pedals and seat. A child’s bike, the size you’d get just after you’d outgrown training wheels. Someone had filled its white basket with daisies, woven bright sunflowers through the white wheels, looped pink ribbon around the white chain. A stuffed cat toy leaned against the sign post at its base.
Esme stopped, hitched her purse strap higher on her shoulder, felt the monster beginning to crawl up her throat. She’d heard about these bikes but had never seen one up close. What happened while she’d been hiding in her apartment? How had she not heard about an accident? Esme bent to look at the plush cat. Dusty plastic eyes stared at her accusingly. She stood back up. Esme couldn’t take any more sorrow right now. Her heart didn’t have room for it. It still roiled and spilled over when she thought of all those young people, how scared they must have been, how they had such promise ahead of them, how broken their families must be now, how unnecessary it was that they were gone. And also how much she missed her son.
Esme turned her back on the bike and pushed herself forward again, rounding the corner, despite the gooseflesh prickling on her skin. When she felt something tug at her skirt, she panicked, sure the monster had escaped, was pulling at her like her son used to do when he was small. She whirled and found herself snagged on the pedal of the bike. No monster. No child. Cars zipped by. Esme flipped at her skirt to dislodge it and hurried for the store. On the way home, she went around the block, took a longer route, avoided the bike altogether.
But the next day, Esme found herself thinking about the bike, making an excuse to go back. The bike looked so lonely, chained up to the street sign like a patient dog. She could feel it calling to her heart monster, knowing she would come. Avocado. She needed an avocado. And the next day, lightbulbs. A can of beans the next. For an entire week, Esme visits the ghost girl.
She can’t be seen standing and talking to herself on a busy street corner, so Esme brings small gifts, or tends to the bike. She leaves a tin of lemon drops in the basket, clears away dead flowers and replaces them. She gathers clumps of dandelions from her yard, especially the ones gone to seed, because she thinks the ghost girl will enjoy blowing them away.
The ghost girl does. The pedals of the bike advance forward, just the tiniest bit. The white tassels on the white handlebars rustle when there is no wind. Esme asks over and over, what happened to you, what happened to you? She could look it up, but she doesn’t. She wants the ghost girl to tell her herself.
The ghost girl won’t tell her when the sun is out, Esme thinks. So she starts coming at night. But the ghost girl won’t tell her at night, either, so Esme talks instead. My son, Esme starts, the monster stirring and turning over in her chest. My son, my son, my son. Esme sits down next to the toy cat, leans into the bike’s white frame. She can feel the bike pressing back at her. The ghost girl is listening.
My son, Esme says, my son is dead. The ghost girl knows. Of course she does. Do you know my son? Esme asks the ghost girl, but then she gets frightened. You should stay away from him.
If her friends were coming around anymore, they would think Esme is crazy. But they would forgive her, explain it away as grief. Esme should go back to work, but she can’t yet. She’s afraid no one will want to talk to her or admit they know her. No one will know what to say, so they won’t say anything. They’ll know there’s a monster hiding inside her heart. They’ll turn their backs, walk away. How can you comfort someone and fear them at the same time?
So Esme visits the ghost girl. I don’t know why he did it, Esme says. She knows she is going to start crying. I didn’t know he was unhappy. He was just a teenage boy. Aren’t all teenage boys that way? I didn’t know he didn’t have friends. I was working. It was just the two of us. I didn’t know what he was capable of. I thought he knew I loved him. I did. I still do.
Esme puts her arm around the white bike frame, threads her fingers through the white spokes, rests her head against the white basket. It’s late. The street is silent. The moon is up, all the way up, and bright. The ghost girl listens. Esme can feel it along the back of her neck and on the insides of her elbows, where the hair is raised.
Esme cries. Her tears fall onto the white bike. She tries to wipe them away, out of respect for the ghost girl. She begins straightening the flowers, arranging them in the basket. I’m sorry, Esme whispers. I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry.
Esme has to go back to work tomorrow. She needs the money. She’s exhausted her leave. What will happen to the ghost girl? Esme won’t be able to come every night to keep her company. I have to tell her, Esme thinks. I have to explain.
It’s night. The street is silent, the moon a crescent wane. Though she hasn’t dared to do so before, Esme sits on the bike. She steps one leg over the white frame and eases down onto the white seat, knees knocking against the white handlebars, head buried in the cross of her arms on the white rim of the basket. Esme cries, and the monster cries, too.
What happened to you? Esme starts. What happened? The ghost girl doesn’t tell her. My son, cries Esme, my son. He killed them. His classmates. He walked into the school, and he shot them. He walked into the school, and he aimed, and he shot them, and some of them died. They died. The ghost girl listens. The ghost girl isn’t afraid of monsters. Esme can feel the bike pressing against her legs, her arms. There must have been screaming. My son, he was quiet, he was responsible. I am responsible. I thought he knew I loved him. He shot them, and then he shot himself. He died. My son died.
The hair on Esme’s arms is rising, she can feel the ghost girl at the back of her neck. I don’t know why he did it. I didn’t know what he was capable of. My son, I thought he knew I loved him. I did. I still do.
The white tassels on the handlebars quiver a little. There is no wind. It’s late. Esme rocks gently on the bike. The white tassels lift and drag across the backs of her hands. They wrap themselves ever so slightly around her thumbs. I have to go, says Esme. The tassels wrap more insistently, stroke Esme’s wrists. Esme’s tears fall into the basket, but she doesn’t try to collect them. What happened to you, she whispers, weeping, what happened, what happened, what happened?
First published in Hemingway Shorts Volume 4 (May 1, 2019)