“Susannah is dead”
Of course, Grant knew the woman before him was no ghost. He had seen her in the daylight, spoken to her on the phone. Still, the moon pearled her skin like the faithful stones that marked the buried, as if she belonged here, as if she’d been here the whole time. He could imagine taking a picture, posting it to the internet, circling her gauzy outline as proof that the dead walked among us. In one sense, he realized, they did.
Beside him, Jules gripped his wrist with both hands. He could hear her breathing. Despite the clank of a nearby train, the whoosh of cars on Memorial, it was that quiet within these walls. Even the air seemed stunned.
Grant opened his mouth to interrupt this silence, but as he did, Susannah turned and started up the brick pathway, delving deeper into the dark.
He hurried to follow, Jules tethered to his wrist. They stumbled over loose bricks, unearthed tree roots, but kept their footing. In her long skirt, Susannah seemed to float ahead of them. She didn’t even pause as they fell in step beside her.
She smelled of gardenias, or maybe it was the cemetery, its knotted tufts of leaves and branches, the sweetness of death. She chose their turns without hesitation, anticipating the Christmas lights strung across one path, the dip into the driveway when they reached it. She led them ever deeper, down the hill, toward the identical rows of stone markers, the endlessly dead. So at home here that once she finally spoke, Grant was almost surprised to remember that she could.
“They say he’s buried here, you know. The man who started it all.” She traced her fingers along the marble stones as they passed them. Her birthmark, in the moonlight, gleamed. “We’re all buried somewhere, I guess. For a while, I thought I’d tracked myself to Indiana, then I thought Delaware. I visited a town near El Paso years back, convinced I’d found it.” She shook her head and scoffed a humorless laugh. “But then the birthdate would be off by one day, or they’d have a middle name, something like Clementine, something unforgettable. I felt so lost.”
She veered them away from the bell tower, clinging to the grass line. Jules fell into single file behind them. Grant glanced back to see that she was okay, but her face was hard to read in this inky dark.
“About fifteen years ago,” Susannah continued. “I found a website, and it was so easy. I just typed in my name.” Susannah turned to Grant for the first time, almost smiling. “Would you believe I was in Atlanta all along? Just a few miles from here, near Decatur. I’ve been in town six weeks and I still haven’t visited. Don’t know why. Just can’t bring myself to go.” She waved a hand, gesturing to the fog around them. “Instead, I come here every night. I don’t know, maybe I think if I could find him, I could make all of it go away.”
A bird swooped close above them. Grant could hear the flap of its wings against its breast. “Who?” he asked, almost in a whisper. “Who are you talking about?”
Susannah plucked a leaf from a nearby bush and de-veined it, leaving tiny flecks in their path. “The first among us. The original ghost. They tell us not to use that word. Too macabre, or something. Or they tell me. I assume they say the same to the others. We don’t know each other. We don’t talk or anything. But I’d guess there are hundreds of us out there, living someone else’s life. Could be more. I thought I’d found one on a message board years ago. No name or anything, but there was something to the way he talked about his childhood, how badly he wished he could go back, do it all again. He felt,” she paused, a faint smile to her eyes, “familiar.” The smile disappeared with the next shadow. “But they caught wind of it somehow. Shut it down.” She winced at an invisible pain. “I didn’t make that mistake twice.”
“Who are ‘they’?”
“They could be anyone. A man in an Italian suit. The guy washing windshields at stoplights. The new friend you thought you’d made at the gym. They’re everywhere. They’re anybody.”
“I’m sorry, what does any of this have to do with Eliot?” Jules asked, her voice like a slap on the cobblestones.
“Jules,” he said, but Susannah waved that hand again.
“It’s okay. I understand.” She stopped to look at them. “But first, tell me, how long has she been gone?”
“We think a week,” Grant answered. “Jules saw her Monday night, but neither of us have heard from her since.”
Susannah nodded and resumed her pace. “You should know, I never intended for her to find me. Even when she did, I thought I could keep her safe. I told her it was too dangerous, her coming there. I had her kicked out, for heaven’s sakes.”
“So you did see her? At the Pullman Yards.”
“I recognized her immediately, even before she saw me. She’s beautiful, isn’t she?” Susannah gazed up at Grant, as if expecting an answer, but then her smile tapered into the delicate lines he now noticed around her eyes, across her forehead. Marks of the years she’d missed. “I never should have come back here,” she said.
“Why did you?” Grant asked.
“I needed the work.”
“Not to see your daughter?” Jules snarled. “Not to apologize for abandoning her?”
“Jules,” Grant said again. “Cut it out.”
But Susannah didn’t flinch. Instead, she led them to a wrought iron bench tucked beneath a tree and sat down. She patted the bench beside her, but neither of them joined. “Have you ever heard the story of Peg Entwistle?”
“Who?” Jules asked.
“She was a Broadway actress in the ‘20s, headed west to become a movie star. But she couldn’t get work, so a few months later, she climbed a ladder to the top of the Hollywood sign and jumped off the ‘H.’” Susannah imitated the drop with her finger and thumped her knuckles on the bench. “Legend has it, two days after they found her body, a letter arrived at her house, offering her a role in some movie.” She sat back, arms folded. “People love to tell that story. Old teamsters at bars. Tour guides. She’s the trivia of dinner parties, the ghost who haunts Griffith Park. They make her a cautionary tale while they laugh at her, the sad dumb girl who gave up too soon. My,” she said, “how we love to prove the dead wrong.”
“I don’t know what the hell that means,” Jules said. “Who cares about some actress? We’re talking about your daughter. You let her believe you were dead for decades. I would think she deserved an explanation.”
Susannah raised her chin, her face placid in the limbs’ shadow, and locked her eyes on Jules. “It means that sometimes people kill themselves. Sometimes they blow up their whole damn life. It doesn’t matter if you think they were wrong to do it. It wasn’t your choice to make.”
“Susannah,” Grant said, hoping to calm her.
“Don’t call me that,” she said, without breaking her glare at Jules. “Susannah is dead. My name is Ginger.”
“I’m sorry. Ginger. I just think we’re getting off topic here. It’s not our business why you did it. We just want to find Eliot. That’s all.”
Neither woman seemed likely to blink first, but then Susannah smiled and draped an arm across the back of the bench.
“You’re her friends, huh?” she said. “I did some digging after I got your note. A chef with a stalled restaurant. An out-of-work lawyer. Are you really the dynamic duo that should be looking for her? Wouldn’t the police make more sense?”
“Are you going to help us or not?” Grant asked, the weariness dripping off his words. He didn’t know why he’d expected Susannah to give them answers. After all these years, knowing what she’d done. When he looked at her now, she seemed small and pitiful, a woman who didn’t even know who she was.
“Come on,” he said to Jules. They started to turn away.
“If they found out I told you,” Susannah said. “You wouldn’t be safe. Either of you. They’d kill us all.”
“We’re already here, aren’t we?” Grant said. “It’s a little late to warn us off now.”
Susannah looked to Jules, and then back to Grant, and nodded, smacking both hands on her thighs before she stood. “All right. But let’s keep walking. I think better on my feet.”