Brown Boy, Red Ghost

Vanessa Norton

When their blue-eyed children grew too old for the Presbyterian choir, the only WASP couple on the block adopted a light-skinned boy from Jamaica. Gary, they called him, not thinking it was a jumble of the word gray. Nor that Gary, who they'd thought was dyslexic, might ever notice this himself. By the time his older brothers and sisters had been shipped off to universities in the tiny states, the boy had grown into a man. Gary was fifteen, a freshman in public school. Broad-shouldered and molases-lipped, but a daydreamer in school.

At night, the three of them ate at a long table with candles in the center. Father’s face was a glare of white hair and blue eyes, looking up through his glasses, satisfied by the porcelain plates wired to the wall. Mother, a retired principal, asked questions related to school.

“And why don't you like math?” Her voice was perfectly genuine.

He could come up with no answer.

“You can't just not like something.”

Gary tried not to make noise with his knife while he cut. Stuffed pork chops, Stilton cheese, romaine lettuce. He wanted to learn how to cook jerk chicken but his mother had already told him, “spicy food burns the brain.”

Everyday after school, Gary retired to his bedroom, where he listened to reggae and watched the enervated movements of his pink and blue fish. In his closet was an old pan he used as a steel drum when his parents weren't home.


        In school there was a white girl with jet-black hair who was a wanderer. She bit her nails down to yellowed stubs and did not comb her hair. She wore baggy overalls and nothing underneath. She and Gary met in the stairway at school. She was stuffing notes into a crack in the wall. They’re for the ghosts of the children who were here a hundred years ago, she told him before disappearing down the dark stairs. Later that day, he returned to the crack and pulled her notes out of the wall with the tip of his pencil. He felt that the notes were addressed to him. Do not be afraid, they said, All feelings are temporary.

The boy rolled the notes back into tiny funnels and stuffed them into the crack. He worried that he might have disturbed something, yet he couldn’t bring himself to regret it. He sat in history class bewildered. Words with many letters floated between himself and the teacher. Colonialism. Conquistador. He thought of the girl and wanted to run home with her, to take her to his flannel bed, to see her bare-shouldered as his fish swam slowly in the corner of his room.

The next day he found the girl in the same place, checking on her notes. He watched her as she headed up to the fourth set of stairs, the stairs that led up to the attic of the old school. No one ever went to the attic, the last set of stairs was gated, but the girl climbed over the high, black gate and disappeared into the dark. His mother had once told him that the school was haunted by the ghosts of red children. An Indian graveyard had been destroyed when the school was built. He wanted to follow the girl but he was too afraid. He stood there, listening to her footsteps, until his next class.

The next day he walked to the fourth floor and waited for the girl at the black gate at the top of the stairs. When he heard her coming, he scribbled on the wall the only thing his mind could give him at that moment: I want you to love me. He stood next to the wall and watched the greasy crown of her head come closer to him. She looked at the writing on the wall and looked at him. Come, she said and helped him climb over the gate. She took his hand and led him through the dark, around the old furniture, the boxes of expired texts, the exams. The ceilings were covered in wasps’ nests, nails and insulation stuck out from the walls. He was afraid, but she led him to a corner where there was a tiny window that opened up to a giant view of their dirty city. I’ve hated where I live until now, he told her.

Everyday Gary and the girl went to the attic. They smoked pot next to the window. They burned tiny fires with old dittos and made love in the orange light. When school let out, they ran into the rain, onto the wet leaves of their old city’s streets. They filled the air with the pounding of black boots and a laughter that penetrated every closed window. The girl started to brush her teeth. Gary told her, don’t do that for me.

One day he found her in the hallway, looking at pictures of graduates from before the Second World War. She pointed to the face of a blue-eyed man with a German surname. This was my grandfather, she told the boy, no one has ever met him. The man looked strikingly similar to the boy’s adopted father. He was in fact the same age. It was strange, but he forgot all about it once he felt her leg touch his. The girl’s grandmother had died on a Reservation just over the Canadian border. She had visited the girl once when she was small. To walk past the school with the girl, to honor the dead. The girl’s grandmother had told her, part of you is underneath this building.

The school began to call the boy’s parents. He knew he would have to run. They would try to put him in a special school. They would call him dyslexic. They would sneak pills into his food.

He came to school with his bag filled with socks and fruit. When he saw the girl in the hall he told her they’d have to go far away and never come back. The girl took his hand and told him, we’re not going anywhere we haven’t been. They walked up to the top of the stairs and jumped over the gate to the attic and ate by the window. They lit tiny fires and lay down on the floor. They made cones out of paper and pissed in them. They watched the sun disappear behind a factory and named ten words to describe it as if it were the only one they’d ever see.

See, she said.

That night, they slept like snakes curled around each other. Gary dreamt of dirt under fingernails, of roots wrapped around wrists, of teeth stuck in clay. He heard someone whisper the same words the girl had written on the note that she’d stuffed into the crack of the wall. All feelings are temporary. What did she mean by this? He hadn’t really thought about it, he couldn’t. Thinking about these things didn’t work for him. He tried to figure it out, to fit them together like a riddle or a puzzle, but an easy task became confusing. His head began to hurt and in his stillness he found a short, empty sleep. When he awoke, the girl’s straight, black hair was in his mouth. It tasted like earth and oil and his heart was calm again. But he lay awake the rest of the night.

The next day they broke open boxes and looked through old photographs. The man with the German surname appeared again. It was a name similar to Gary’s, only longer, impossible to pronounce. The girl looked at him, what you know is true. Gary thought, I know him less and despise him more, but he returned the strength of her gaze and told the girl, what does it matter? We’re here, now. They burned the old photos in little fires and broke open another box containing history books from every decade. They laughed at the pictures. They grew dirty and began to crave water and meat. At night the boy couldn’t sleep. He knew he’d dream about bones breaking under the weight of this building, of blood mixed with dirt, so he lay awake watching a spider spin a web the length of the ceiling. He knew that the next morning he’d have to leave with the girl. They’d sneak out, then run away. He thought about the bus station downtown, that he might have enough money to get to Toronto. He and the girl could find jobs in a restaurant and sleep in a shelter until they found an apartment.

In the morning he told her, I’m too hungry and tired to live in this attic anymore. Come with me across the border. The girl hesitated. People who ran across borders often got stuck there. But she loved the boy and agreed to run away. His plan was to wait for nighttime, to climb down the side of the building, and to run into the street. That day they searched the attic for rope and rags. They made a ladder from twenty musty flags with forty-eight stars. They kicked out the glass from their tiny window and tied the ladder to the window frame. After the sun disappeared and the sky was indigo blue, Gary said it was time to go. You go first, she told him. He took his first step down the ladder. It wobbled almost out of control before the girl held the top steady. Go, she told him. He lowered himself slowly until he reached the bottom. He was shaking, his heart was pounding. The girl knew that there would be no one to hold the ladder for her, but she wasn’t afraid. She stepped onto the ladder and lowered herself slowly. She could feel the cloth pulling too hard under her weight. In the silence of the dark she heard the sound of a thousand tiny fibers breaking. She looked into the belly of the black sky before she fell, and in that second she heard the boy’s heart beating. Three hundred tiny ribs cracked beneath her weight when she landed on the wet grass. One hundred skulls, a thousand fingernails.

The girl could hear him screaming. She could feel his cold hands on her, trying to wrap her legs with the flags from the ladder. She opened her eyes for a second and looked at him. Just get out of here, she said. But the boy couldn’t move. He saw red hands tearing through roots, broken fingernails scratching to the surface. The girl being pulled under the soil, under the marble building. Gary breathed deeply and knew that with every breath he was crushing bodies underneath. When he looked down at the girl, he saw her disappearing into the ground, her overalls filling with dirt, the bloodied flags from the ladder lying dead on the grass.

Vanessa Norton Vanessa Norton is from Buffalo, NY, and now lives on the foggiest beach in California. She completed her MFA in Fiction from the Creative Writing Program at the University of Oregon in 2007 and has since read at several literary events in and around San Francisco and been granted residencies at the Begat Theater Company in France, Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, as well as the Jentel Artist Residency Program. Her work can be read in South Dakota Review, Breakwater Review, Drain, as well as the anthology, Sex for America. She is working on a collection of short stories and a novel.