The Terms and Conditions of Being a Ghost
by Linda Kong (United States)
Audio: "The Terms and Conditions of Being a Ghost," read by Linda Kong
It was 8 p.m. and Dad still wasn't home yet.
The Zhou family typically ate dinner at a rectangular table for four. Grace always sat facing the television. Mom sat to her left, facing the only painting in the room: a watercolor Grace had made in third grade art class. She didn't like it much herself, but Mom had insisted on hanging it up, as it had taken her an entire three months to complete it. Dad usually sat across from Mom, on Grace's right, facing the window that looked upon their backyard. Her parents often lamented the fact that they didn't have a nice flat backyard: Dad about how hard it was to mow, and Mom about how she couldn't grow a vegetable garden there. Instead, she kept succulents and cacti throughout the house. They seemed to be the only plants that wouldn't die.
Across from Grace was an empty seat. She always wondered why her parents left it out when it just took up space. No one usually sat in it, anyway, since you couldn't see the television from there. Mom said it had come with the table set, so one might as well just keep it with everything else. Sometimes they'd use it if they had guests over or as a stool for reaching the higher cupboards. It wasn't like they had a better place to keep it.
Though too often now, not one, but two seats at the table sat empty. Grace and her mom had long since finished dinner, and the bowl of the cold leftover noodles sat sadly at the center of the table. The TV was playing some movie about a talking dog, and while Grace didn't find it particularly interesting, it was better than doing homework. Mom sighed and grumbled about how she had no motivation to make dinner these days, since no one was ever enthusiastic about eating it. Daily lunch was just dinner's leftovers, since Dad never ate any dinner when he got home. Still, Mom didn't pack up the leftovers just yet. She usually left it out until Dad came home out of courtesy. It wasn't like anyone really cared.
After around fifteen minutes of sitting around watching cartoon characters jabber, Grace got up from the table and went up to her room. It was too quiet around the house these days; Mom was always busy on her computer, and Dad was never at home anyway. She heard Mom bustling around downstairs for a bit until the house settled into a busier kind of quiet. Less lonely than dinners usually were.
Grace had just put away her book and flashlight when she heard the garage door opening downstairs. It was 11 p.m., five hours after Dad was supposed to be home. Still, they'd gotten used to it. Often he'd stumble in even later, at one or two in the morning. When her parents would crack open the door and peek into her room, Grace would close her eyes and pretend to have fallen asleep. She'd hear them murmuring in whispers—they always seemed to be bickering over something. But no matter how hard she listened, she could never make out much. Once she'd leaned her ear against the bedroom door in hopes of making out more conversation, but every time she heard even the slightest noise, she'd go scrambling into bed. Eventually she gave up and just let her curiosity fade. It usually wasn't long before she fell asleep.
Today there was an extra clanking as Dad walked in the door, which Grace found quite odd. Mom asked Dad about dinner—Grace could hear the rise in her voice. Soon came the crinkling of saran wrap as Mom put the food in the fridge. Unsurprising, really: Dad always claimed that eating so late would make him gain weight. Mom said that he should come back earlier. It was the same thing every day. Not like anything ever changed.
Dad's whispers today seemed a bit more careless than usual. Excited, even. Grace could hear Mom's "hushes" growing louder, trying to get him to quiet down. She considered getting out of bed. Every once in a while she'd pretend to go to the bathroom so she could get a better glimpse of what was going on. As she snuck quietly towards the bathroom, she stopped at the top of the stairs and attempted to catch the conversation below.
"... you can't keep going on like this," Mom said. "You haven't slept properly in weeks. And it's been affecting everyone at home."
"I know, I know. But if I can last a little longer—"
"—you know you can't last any longer! You keep hoping that—"
"Yes, I know. I keep wishing that we had more time—"
Crick! Grace stepped on a loose floorboard. Shit. Her parents went quiet. On tiptoe, she ran as lightly as she could to her room and gently shut the door. She tried to listen for conversation, but their whispers remained too quiet to hear for the rest of the night.
Afterwards, Grace lay in the dark. Her pillow was always uncomfortably warm, and she'd flip it over, and then it'd get too cold, and then too warm, and then she'd flip it over again, and so on. She considered pulling out her book again, but figured it was best to get some sleep. It was getting late, and she needed to get up early tomorrow. Or more accurately, she needed to get up at her normal time for school, which always seemed too early.
She stared up at the wrinkles on the ceiling of her room—some days she'd stand on her bed and trace the lines that sprawled across it. She liked to feel the ridges under her fingers. Sometimes she'd pretend she was holding up the sky. Sometimes she pretended she was touching the stars.
Today she pressed her palms into the ceiling and felt her heartbeat pulse against its surface. I am real, her hands thrummed. I am here.
Linda Kong, 15, is a Chinese-American writer from the Mid-Atlantic. In her spare time, she enjoys playing ping pong, card games, and various Wordle spin-offs.
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9/24/22, 2:13 PM
Was this inspired by flights over Iceland?
9/24/22, 10:04 AM
Amazing. I love it.
9/23/22, 7:34 AM
This is just so good!!!! "The air has been poisoned' I love how you describe things! Congrats :))
9/23/22, 7:32 AM
Love the message! The way you prompt the readers to rethink over 'is anything free' is so effective and the ending is...gorgeous.
9/23/22, 7:30 AM
Gosh, Antara...this is really beautiful! I love your use of language, and the anecdotes were so effective!! Congrats so much :))
9/22/22, 9:30 PM
I love it! Especially the part where you say if humans can control the world, they can control themselves too!
Keep up the brilliant writing!
9/22/22, 5:22 PM
Poignant and so beautifully written!
9/22/22, 5:19 PM
I love the flow, this is gorgeously written! Great piece!
9/22/22, 5:17 PM
Life really is all about the little things and you wrote about them in a beautiful way!
9/22/22, 5:16 PM
This is a lovely piece, Keren-Happuch! It provokes such a magical and dreamy feeling.
9/19/22, 5:47 PM
Oh my god, the part about changing the mindset given the pre-existing beliefs drilled in by those around us... Even we often hesitate to have these conversations at times amongst friends as this topic is seldom more than a subject of twss jokes. You put it into words brilliantly!
9/17/22, 6:46 PM
this was thought-provoking! I particularly enjoyed how you connected existentialism to the topic. it provides a different perspective.