And here's the story!
A Brat with a Soul
Donald’s littlest cousin was born into brathood. He supposed it was better than being born into hatred or something else serious, because a person could simply outgrow being a brat, eventually. Maybe by the time thirty hit. To go on, it made large family get-togethers tedious and daunting, having this young, thoroughly bratty child hanging about him. For some unfathomable reason, she liked him. Her name was Lizzie. Lizzie B, the family called her, because she talked so much she sounded like a bee, and a lot of times the words stung.
Once, just because she could, Lizzie B went without eating a thing but non-chocolate candy. It started at the Christmas dinner, this “once,” and it lasted for three straight years. Luckily, she’d passed that stage and was eating real food again (cookies, cake, cupcakes, cheesecakes, pastries, and so on and so forth). Another time she stole Loretta’s credit cards, because “Loretta wadn’t gonna buy good presents for Christmas anyway, because she didn’t know how, so of course she needed the credit cards,” and only returned them after buying the entire Dora sleep set off an internet site. She’d apologized after her mother and father convinced her to do so.
But she was still a brat.
Lizzie B sat at the dining room table of their great, great Aunt Loretta’s, right next to Donald. They were the only ones inside the house; it was a fine bright day outside, late summer. She swung her feet back and forth. Back and forth. Back and forth. Donald pretended to continue checking his email.
“Checking my email.” Donald tried to keep his tone mild.
“No you’re not. You’re a liar. Probably a cheat, too. Liars always cheat.”
“You cheat, Lizzie B. You cheat all the time. That’s why nobody plays cards or Candyland with you anymore.”
“I don’t cheat, Donnie,” she said sweetly, blinking at his immobile inbox screen. “I only make sure I win. I always win. That’s what I do.”
“What you do is cheat, Lizzie B.”
“Don’t talk like that. Go find your father.” Donald subtly shifted the laptop so it was a bit away from her. She didn’t seem to get the hint.
“Dad’s stupid. I want to talk to you.” She paused. “Cuz you’re not. Stupid, I mean. Sometimes you let people think you are but I can tell you’re not.”
“Your Dad is not stupid, and you shouldn’t call people that anyway.”
“Well, hey! I’m ignoring that. What happens to people when they die?”
“What?” Donald turned to look at Lizzie B. Her blond hair, a blurred mess around her face, bobbed slightly as she swung her feet back and forth, back and forth.
“I said, ‘What happens to people when they die?’ Maybe you are stupid. Or deaf. Maybe you’re deaf like Nana Loretta.”
“Stop it,” Donald said sharply. “Stop being mean about people or I’ll never talk to you again.”
Her eyes went wide, and she gulped.
“Please, Donnie, I’m—I’m sorry, I think. Please don’t be mad at me. It’s just nobody ever tells me nothing about it, and I’m getting the feeling it’s just like Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you know,” she said, dropping her voice confidentially, “that they ain’t real, like, really real;. They’re real enough people think about ‘em, but they don’t really, you know, walk around and leave presents and money and stuff.”
Donald felt himself nodding. He pushed the laptop back a little on the table.
“That’s true enough,” he said. “But death is very real.”
“I know it’s real! I ain’t the stupid one in this house!” she blurted. “I’m sorry. I think. But…but well, see, once I saw this table go through the outside of a house. We were on the way to the circus, and I see’d it, a table float right into a wall of this old house, while we were sitting in the car at a stoplight, and it got stuck and just stayed there like that. And there wadn’t nobody holding it or anything! I wanted to go back and vestigate it but Mom wouldn’t turn the car around.”
“You saw that?” Donald asked skeptically. Lizzie B glared at him, narrowing her slightly cross eyes through her glasses. “Alright,” he amended. “What do you think caused it?”
“I think…. I think it was ghosts, maybe,” she said in a hurry, and then she looked at her lap and back up to Donald. “’Cept I can’t decide if ghosts are really real or just real like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, and nobody will tell me, ‘cept maybe you, cuz you’re not stupid and you’re kind of, you know, like me.”
“Like you?” He couldn’t keep from sounding surprised. “How so?”
She waved her hands. “Oh, I dunno. Cuz you lie even when you tell the truth, maybe, I’m not sure. But you are. So, are they real? Ghosts, I mean? Do they exist? What happens when we die? Can I be a ghost? I might like it. Can you—or Nana Loretta, when she dies? That’s gonna be soon, surely, right? Will she float tables through the wall for me? And if ghosts are real, and they can do stuff, why can’t we? Make things float and stuff? And —”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. Hold on.” Donald smiled in spite of knowing she was such a brat.
“Hey wha’d you do for your job? What are you?”
“I’m a financial advisor,” he said automatically, confused.
“That’s right,” she said. “Sounds like somethin’ smart people do. So it’s good I’m talking to you. Well? What’s the answer?”
Donald sat there a minute.
“I…that’s a tricky one,” he said.
“I know it is. Do you think I’d go round asking about it if it weren’t tricky? Sheesh! —Sorry. Well?”
“It’s tricky because no one really knows, Lizzie,” Donald said gently. “The only way to know for sure what happens is to be dead, and then, well, you’re dead, so you’re kind of past the point of wondering, right?”
“Yes, that’s true enough.” The echo of him in her voice was uncanny. Her eyebrows were frowning, but she looked at him still, waiting.
“I think it depends on what you believe,” he continued. “And beliefs usually come down to religion and the way you were raised. Does your church say there are ghosts?” Acchk. This was a discussion for a parent, not a somewhat distant relative.
“Church? Only been a few times. With friends. Lot’s of singing. I liked that. Lots of talking too, ‘cept I didn’t get to do any of it. Didn’t like that so much. But nobody said anything about ghosts.”
“Well,” he said carefully, “I can tell you the short story of what I think…It could be that you become a ghost, maybe, if you want. You’d have to know what being a ghost was, of course, because if you’d never heard of ghosts, you certainly wouldn’t know how to go about being one.”
“Yes,” she said, eyebrow frowning again. “But does that mean you ain’t dead?”
“Oh no, you’re dead. That’s real, for sure.”
“No way round it?”
“Hmmm.” Then. “I don’t get it.” This was firm. “How can you die, and still be around?”
Truth be told, Donald didn’t get it either. And he told her so.
“Make a guess,” she suggested.
“Well, you’ve got your body, and your soul,” he said, reasoning it out.
“—What’s a soul?”
“That’s the deep part of you, the part that nobody ever really sees, but you know is there. Way, way down deep. That part,” he said, pausing as Lizzie B closed her eyes, pressing her lips together, eyes rolling under her eyelids as she searched for it, “that part, you know, it’s like energy. It can’t die, just like you can’t kill the light from a light bulb. You can turn off the light to a light bulb, but that doesn’t mean it won’t come back again. It just won’t technically be the same light, right? Because it’s being used a different time. But it’s still there.” She opened her eyes.
“Hey that makes sense!...I think.”
“Don’t sound so surprised,” he said wryly. “Anyway, there’s the soul, and the body.”
“That’s easy,” she said. “That’s my skin, and bones, and, like, fingers and stuff.”
“Right,” he agreed. “But how do you think those things?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you know those things, right? It’s not your soul that knows what a body is. Your body doesn’t know it’s a body. What does?”
She eyebrow frowned at him.
“Oh, hey! There’s a third part of me!”
“Yes,” he said. “At least, I think there might be. The third part is what makes us human, what makes us ourselves.”
“Is that the part that can become a ghost?”
“Maybe,” he said. “I wouldn’t know. This is the simplest story I can come up with, and we can’t quite really know if it’s true or right. But you told me to guess, so I did.”
Through the silence of the house they could hear remnants of laughter; the others were outside, getting a bonfire ready.
“I don’t want to be a ghost no more.”
“Cuz it’d be lonely. Honestly, Donnie, I thought you were the smart one. Wouldn’t it be lonely? To have yourself but no body to be yourself in, and no soul to connect yourself to everyone else?”
“What’s a soul do, now?”
“Well, see, I closed my eyes when you were talking earlier, and I felt around for it, and sure like you said, it’s there, deep, deep down, just like everyone else’s, and it makes me feel bigger than I am. Not fatter, but you know, a part of more things than just me and my body.”
Donald blinked. Such an intelligent thing for a nine year old—but mustn’t tell her that. Her of all people. He stifled a chuckle.
“Right then. So do you believe in ghosts?”
“Um, well…I believe there could be ghosts, um, yeah. But I don’t think that’s what I saw.” Her hair wagged as she shook her head.
“Cuz like I said, who’d ever want to be a ghost? Stupid. I bet dead people know that better’n anybody else, so why would they let themselves go on like that, all stupid and lonely and stuff? Stupid.”
“Don’t talk like that!”
“Well?! Sorry,” she added. “But it’s true. You know it.”
“Yes,” he said, though he wasn’t sure any more that he did, “I do. Maybe the table was already there. Could have been a trick or something, for a…a…a haunted house.”
“Yeah,” she said, just as doubtfully. Somehow the table-through-a-wall thing seemed more and more like a ghostly doing, now that they’d talked it all out. He hoped she hadn’t really seen anything, been daydreaming or something, because the alternative…unsettling. “You know what Donnie? I don’t think I always like talkin’ to you. You make my head hurt too hard.”
“Ahh, that’s good for you. Take it from a financial advisor,” he said authoritatively.
“That’s right,” she said, swinging herself off the chair. “I keep forgetting your smart. It’s good of you to remind me, so’s I won’t treat you like you’re stup—I mean, you know, so I remember. Hey let’s go outside. You’re gonna make me a big fat s’more.”
“Oh I am, am I?”
“You know, Donnie,” she said, rolling her eyes as she tugged him towards the kitchen screen door, “sometimes I wonder if you’re not as smart as a financial avider ought to be.”
They went out to join the others.