The following is an excerpt from the story "Frances the Ghost" from Demons in the Spring (Akashic Books, 2008) by Joe Meno.
Frances the ghost is going to school: She is dressed in a white sheet with two holes for her eyes and that makes the people who see her riding in the passenger seat of her mother’s station wagon smirk. Of course, Frances becomes a ghost whenever her mother does not know what else to do. Today was too much already so her mother decided, fine, fine, if she was going to behave like this, fine. The phone would not stop ringing and the baby was colicky again and Frances was pretending she could not buckle her shoes, so Janet, her mother, began to shout, and Frances threw herself on the ground and would not get up. She started holding her breath and crying and the only way to get her to calm down was to pretend she was a ghost again, draping the white sheet over her face and humming, Janet placing her soft lips against the fabric where Frances’s forehead was crinkled up, and slowly, slowly, the tears began to stop. Too many minutes later they are all piled in the front seat of the brown station wagon, the muffler dragging as they drive, and Janet suddenly remembers the baby’s car seat is once again unbuckled.
An ice cream truck has collided with a van at the intersection up ahead. The station wagon slows to a crawl as Frances sits up and stares at the damage. The vehicle is white and green and lying on its side. All over the road are melting popsicles, Dilly Bars, and Nutty Buddies, growing softer by the moment in the April heat: every kid’s best dream. A hundred bumblebees, excited by the prospect of so many melting sweets, hang above the ice cream truck in a glittering cloud. From beneath the white bed sheet and from behind the two small holes her mother has cut so she can see, the little girl stares at the mass of bees suspiciously. Frances does not like bees. She thinks they are her enemy. One day last summer, she was stung inside her mouth when she surprised a bumblebee hiding under the rim of her soda pop can. Frances places her hand against the outside of the sheet just above her lip remembering. She watches the truck grow smaller and smaller until it is just another strange, uncertain memory.
Oh, oh, oh. Come and see:
See the girl. See the boy. See the pony.
Come and see:
Beneath the ghostly white sheet, Frances is very pretty. She has soft brown eyes and a face shaped like a dandelion: Her hair is blond and curly. For some five months now, Frances has refused to speak. She is reading her school book which is all about horses. In the book, a black mare nestles with a small white pony. The baby, in the car seat behind her, is blowing spit bubbles and smiling at her. While her mother is fooling with the radio, Frances turns and pinches the baby for absolutely no reason.
In the station wagon, in front of the school, Janet turns to face her daughter. Slowly, making sure Frances can read her lips, she says, “Okay, honey, it’s time to take off the sheet.”
The ghost does not move.
The ghost is silent.
“Frances, I want you to take off that sheet right now.”
The ghost makes a small move and Janet can see that Frances has folded her arms in front of her chest, pouting.
“It’s time for school and it’s time for you to take off that blanket.”
The ghost shakes its head.
“Frances, right now.”
The ghost shakes its head again.
“Frances, take off that blanket or you’re going to be on punishment.”
The ghost does not move. Janet quickly makes a grab for the flimsy fabric, but Frances, small, ruthless, quick, is already gripping it too tightly.
Janet is exhausted and it is not even 8:00 a.m.
“Okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay!” Janet shouts, letting go of the white blanket, sheet, whatever it is. “If you want to go in there like that, fine, be my guest.”
The ghost is still for a moment, then one solitary pink hand reaches up and finds the door handle. Frances hurries from the front seat of the station wagon across the empty schoolyard, before her mother can change her mind, the white sheet still covering the girl’s head. Janet does not even protest. It is now 8:01. It is totally out of her hands. Janet sits and watches the schoolchildren all standing in line, clapping, singing, shouting. Frances is doing well at school, mostly. She has known how to read ever since she was three. Frances loves to read but struggles to speak, or to make many sounds at all due to her hearing impairment. She can say a few words: No, Yes, Hello, Goodbye, but she’s gotten lazy and does not really try to talk anymore. Janet can’t remember the last time she heard her daughter mumble anything like a word. Frances is good at spelling and her vocabulary comprehension is very high. She has a hearing aid but doesn’t like to wear it in her ear. She does not like to wear it because it makes the other children stare.
Sitting there, like every morning, Janet wonders if they are doing the right thing, letting Frances go to the regular public school. There is a special ed school but it is an hour and a half away and the school here has been very accommodating. The biggest problem is Frances, because she gets frustrated and she can be pretty, well, mean.
From Demons in the Spring by Joe Meno. Copyright © 2008 by Joe Meno. Published by Akashic Books.