Ghost exited the apartment through the mossy door, down three crumbling cement steps to a narrow alley. She passed no one else; never did. She hadn’t told Jerome, but she already had another place to stay. Ghost pulled the hood lower, covering the burn scars on the right side of her face. When she tucked her braid back, strangers could scarcely tell she was female, under the hoodie that was two sizes too big.
She had begun taping her breasts years earlier when she turned fourteen in the foster home and had maintained the practice since moving here to Harlem. She avoided people whenever possible, but to all who saw her from a distance, she was an androgynous ghost. At 5’11 she could pass for a average height young man, or a tall women. It was impossible for anyone to tell. She never wore makeup, and nearly always wore dark sunglasses outside making it impossible for anyone to see her eyes.
She skipped down the steps, hands in her hoodie pocket, not needing to hold the railing for balance, to the bright subway platform. Head down, she spoke to none of the other people on the platform, and they returned the courtesy. But she observed them, her gaze hidden behind dark sunglasses, head turned slightly away, not looking straight on so they wouldn’t know she studied them. There were regulars, faces she saw often; men and women sharply dressed with every hair in place. The homeless, with careworn faces and downcast eyes, dressed in layers of all the clothes they owned, no matter how high the temperature rose. A few strange faces, as always. No one noticed her, no head turned toward her in curiosity. Each person was a universe to themselves. Some held newspapers, flicked through their phones, or wore headphones like her, eyes closed, heads bobbing to music only they could hear. Five minutes later the train rushed in. Ghost blended with the flowing crowd and grabbed the first empty pole she say, swaying only slightly as the train took off. Headphones went in and the thunderous opening strain of Beethoven’s fifth symphony became the soundtrack of the tightly packed sea of humanity around her. Ghost’s eyes skipped from one face to the next as she drummed her fingers and tapped her toes in time to the musical score. If anyone thought her strange, no one commented. The strange and unusual was commonplace on the New York subway system.
No face looked her way. Except one. It took a few seconds for Ghost to recognize the weight of a gaze upon her, the sense of otherness, temporarily focused on her. She swiveled her hood in that direction. A young man. Tanned. Fit. Dark curls caressed the collar of his black button-down shirt. Something tugged her memory. The young man’s nostrils flared. He looked away, shrugging almost imperceptibly. The moment was broken. Ghost drew in a relieved breath and closed her eyes, losing herself to Beethoven’s world.
She flowed along with the music until the train reached her stop; she had made this trip so many times that she knew exactly how long it would take. Thirty-six minutes. The same length of time as the Symphony. As the final twenty seconds of music played to its finale, Ghost opened her eyes and flowed out with the tide of humanity, head down, invisible to all. Just how she liked it.
She climbed the stairs slowly; breath quickening in anticipation as it always did. On the sidewalk she looked up at the building that was as familiar to her as her own hands and feet. She slipped into the alley and through the window next to the delivery door. Inside, she stood in the storage room. It still held props from the glory days of this theater. Ghost lingered, looking around, remembering. The LeRoux theater had stood empty for years, claimed by the city council when none of Stephen Daye’s heirs could be located. Everyone thought his only child had perished in the fire. There had been some repairs made, but the city council was waiting for a buyer with deep pockets to take on the renovations that the theater would need. The council had originally planned to repurpose the building, but there had been such a public outcry at the council meeting, they had decided to leave it as a theater and wait for a buyer. Jerome had told her; he had been at that council meeting.
Ghost walked through the main auditorium, then up the stairs that led to the apartment that had once belonged to the Daye family. She paused and gazed at the gate of the elevator, still stuck halfway open, gaping blackness behind it.
Her feet carried her along the familiar path, and she pushed the door open. The past opened to greet her. The years fell away. Ghost opened her eyes, seeing the apartment as it was ten years ago.
The thick layers of dust and debris vanished. The oriental carpet that covered the wood floor spread out clean and bright beneath her feet. Behind her, ornate glass sconces gave off a warm amber light, and her father’s leather jacket hung on the coat rack beside the door. Ghost rubbed the sleeve against her face, inhaling the scent of the leather and of the English Leather cologne her father wore.
The apartment was as opulent as the rest of the theater. It was decorated in black red and gold, expensive paintings had adorned the walls, and expensive Chippendale furnishings. Ghost remembered the last Christmas they had spent here. She had given her father a fountain pen and a leather-bound notebook. Isabella Angevin, the mother of her best friend Paul, had taken her shopping a few days before Christmas. Ghost had found the pen and notebook at Bradford’s, but she had been unable to find a suitable gift for her mother. She had just been about to give up when she spotted a display of items from The Nutcracker play. Sitting in the center of the table, a Nutcracker soldier doll on either side, was a handcrafted music box.
It was concave, wider in the middle that at the top and bottom, like a flattened oval. It was red, with a black base and swirling vines of gold trim. It stood on four golden legs. The hinged lid was closed, but Ghost carefully opened it, and Tchaikovsky’s Dance of The Sugar Plum Fairy played as the tiny figure of Clara spun, one leg extended behind her. Tiny gems decorated her red dress and sparkled as she twirled. The scene where Clara meets the Nutcracker Prince was painted on the inside of the lid.
This was done in soft pastels with delicate, barely visible brush strokes. They were standing in front of a decorated Christmas tree. In the painting, Clara’s dress was orange, and she had white bows in her hair. The Nutcracker Prince wore a red and white uniform and an orange hat, the same color as Clara’s dress. They were in Clara’s family’s parlor, standing on a Persian rug, Clara was curtsying to the Nutcracker Prince.
Loud thuds from the theater below, and men’s voices drifted through the air vents and shattered the memory. Ghost opened her eyes and stood in the empty apartment once more, the paintings and fine furniture gone, having been sold at auction years earlier. Ghost struggled with the collision of past and present, but the noises and voices continued. Silently she glided to the library, where there was a hidden panel in the floor that looked down on the stage below. Ghost lay on her stomach and watched as two men in yellow hard hats conversed and pointed at various things in the theater while they studied the blueprint they were holding.
I must get closer, find out what they are saying.
She had explored the old theater often with her friends, as a child. Ghost remembered what history had long forgotten. The theater, like many old buildings in New York, had tunnels under them, hidden places in the walls where bootleggers had moved contraband alcohol during Prohibition. One such tunnel began in a hidden hatch in a storage closet on the ground floor and led to the basement. From there, she could climb the ladder bolted to the wall that led to the catwalk above the stage.
Jerome and his workmen had often used these passages to remain unseen by theater guests, and Jerome had often allowed Ghost to help him. She had even managed the lighting during a few plays.
Ghost used her knowledge of the hidden passageways to make her way to the catwalk above the stage. By the time she crept out on the scaffolding, another man had joined the two workers below.
“Senator Sommerset, thank you for agreeing to meet us, I know you have a busy schedule,” One of the workmen greeted the new arrival, motioning toward a worktable where the blueprint was spread. He seemed to be the one in charge, as the other workman just followed him and didn’t say anything. “I did an initial inspection Senator, there is a lot of work gonna need to be done in here, I understand that you wanted to reopen this place in eight months, but I think it might take a bit longer…”
“Just get it done, it has to be done in eight months! Do you know how hard I had to fight, and how many promises I made, just to get the funding? This can’t drag out…”
Ghost had heard all that she wanted to, and retreated into the shadows. It was clear that someone, probably this prissy looking senator, had purchased the theater. To reopen it, he’d said. As a theater? She wondered.
“Jerome, you are not going to believe this,” She shouted as she burst into the apartment, startling him for the second time that day. “Some pudgy senator bought the theater, that bastard is going to….” Jerome tapped his upper lip and kept his gaze averted. Ghost narrowed her eyes as she stopped and stared at him. “You knew, didn’t you? You don’t seem a bit surprised. You already knew. When were you planning to tell me?” Ghost’s voice was deceptively quiet, her gaze flinty.
“It was in the paper. I didn’t think you would care, it’s been ten years…”
Ghost pulled her shoulders back, her eyes widened. “Wouldn’t care! They’re only desecrated my parents’ tomb, why should I care?” She fired the words like bullets.
“The world isn’t going to keep letting you live in the past!”
She just shook her head, as if she couldn’t believe his betrayal and turned away, unable to look at him.
“Er…” he started to say, but she flew out the back door. Anxiety made his pulse pound, and he felt a bit lightheaded, been happening often lately. His chest started hurting, so he sat back down in the chair to calm down. “She be back, once she have time to think.”