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On Discovering a Ghost in the Five Star

Peter M. Ball is the author of Horn, Bleed, and the Flotsam novella series from Apocalypse Ink Productions. His short stories have appeared in venues such as Apex Magazine, Eclipse 4, and Daily Science Fiction. Find him online at petermball.com and on twitter @petermball.

At first, I considered changing laundromats. I mean, sure, the Five Star was just two blocks from my apartment, but there's something 'bout the presence of a ghost girl by the dryers that kinda takes the thrill out of throwing your wet laundry in and settling into an ugly plastic chair to wait 'til the job is done. It got worse when there were four of us, 'cause no one wanted to be stuck using the last dryer on the left. The closer you got to the ghost girl, the weirder it felt. She'd stare at you and offer the pink balloon tied to her wrist, and it felt like your skin was trying to peel its way free and get the hell away.
I stayed because she fascinated me, even if I felt terrified.
Besides, the other laundromat was a good six blocks away.
The ghost used to be Ella Sabine. She was beaten to death, in the back of the Five Star, by these punk girls with a grudge against Ella's older sister. Three women were charged, two convicted. The third went to prison a few years later, after getting involved in another beat down. These kinds of things make the papers, so you can go and track the details down. Most people don't, though. We're too used to seeing ghosts. Too used to finding a way to work round them.
I got interested in her story 'cause of the balloon. I've seen plenty of ghosts, in my patch of town, but they don't usually manifest with accoutrements. There's the ghost of an old Highwayman, down on the corner of Sycamore, who can still manifest his horse and sword, and a women out by Starling Field who holds a ghostly lantern, but they're both ancient hauntings, the legacy of a time when we treated ghosts differently.
These days we're lucky if a ghost can manifest pants to cover themselves, let alone a full ensemble and accompanying accessories. ghosts, like everything else, are the victims of progress. We know too much about them, treat them like petulant toddlers throwing a tantrum in the market. Take away the one thing that makes their existence bearable.
There are more civilized ways of expressing anger than lingering, fueled by anger, for all eternity.
Yes, even now, after death.
We tell them this, over and over, until they start to look weak and blurry.
This one time, I went down there with my friend Maya and her girlfriend. I'd been telling them about the ghost girl and Maya wanted to see. Her girlfriend, Cassi Rollins, didn't seem to like her much. Cassi made jokes about Maya being eager to see other women, but they weren't really funny and didn't seem like jokes at all. I got the feeling, as we walked to the Five Star, that they'd been having problems.
It got worse, when we got there, 'cause she goaded Maya into going over and accepting the ghost girl's balloon. She knew it was stupid--we all knew it was stupid--but Maya did it anyway. She approached the ghost of Ella Sabine, wrapped her fingers around the length of pink ribbon. The ghost girl smiled, let go of the ribbon, and Maya went down immediately. Fell against the cracked tiles, twitching, until we dragged her out the door and into the warm sunshine.
I asked her about it, a few weeks later, when we caught up after a faculty meeting. Maya had been uncharacteristically quiet, and she still looked pale and twitched a little, whenever we asked her questions.
"I saw how she died," Maya said, really quietly.
"You know how it happened?"
"No," she said. "It's like her memories took up residence in my head. I felt what it was like, lying there, in pain."
She shut her mouth, after that. Shuddered, and looked away. I tried to get more out of her, but she didn't want to talk.
Her girlfriend left a few months later, said she couldn't take it anymore.
Maya disappeared a few months after that. They emptied out her office one afternoon and said she'd taken leave, but that was just a concession to the students who'd loved Maya's classes. No one really knew where Maya was and whether she planned to return.
My own love life, quite honestly, wasn't any better. I'd been seeing this guy named Oliver, when the ghost girl first appeared. He used to throw his dirty laundry in with mine, but he didn't like the way things felt when I brought it back. "My underwear feels haunted," he said. "You did it near that ghost-chick, right?"
I told him no ghost-chicks were haunting his boxers, but Oliver didn't believe me. We broken up when he started complaining about the time I spent on research. "It's the ghost-chick or me," he said, one night, and I chose Ella Sabine.
A colleague at the university did his thesis about hauntings and the cultural methods we use to disenfranchise the ghosts behind them. We eat lunch together on Tuesdays, in order to escape our students, and he mentioned his thesis one afternoon while we ate at the off-campus sushi place.
"It's unfair to go out there and deny ghosts their anger," he said. "The history of designating proper and improper behavior has been used as a method of control for centuries, refusing to listen to legitimate grievances because of the way they're expressed. People are dubbed too angry, too emotional, too Other, and suddenly the way they say it means more than what they're saying."
"I expect it's worse for ghosts," I said. "You know, compared to the living."
My colleague didn't agree with me.
"Disenfranchise any part of society, and they'll effectively disappear," he said. "Living and dead doesn't mean shit, when it comes to being silenced."
I quickly changed the topic and stole one of his gyoza, but I could feel his disapproval through the rest of the meal, even after I offered to pay.
If I were braver, I would have followed Maya's lead. Gone down to the Five Star, reached out my hand. Figure out what it was that sent my friend off the deep end, made her disappear and never return. Figure out, maybe, where she's gone, so I could go and bring her back before the Faculty turns nasty. Instead, I hit the Internet and searched for details about her death. News reports, abandoned MySpace accounts, anything that marked her passing. There's more stuff like that than you'd think, all the detritus we leave as we live our lives.
The closest I ever got was one night, while drunk. I went to the Five Star with a pile of laundry, a hip flask of bourbon, and a sweater. Forced myself to use the last dryer on the left, although it took half the hip flask before I had the guts. The ghost of Ella Sabine watched me getting closer, her head tilted slightly to the left, dark hair falling across her pale, unsmiling face. Up close, I could make out the red smear of blood staining the side of her head. They'd smashed her head against the dryer door, repetitive trauma until the skull cracked. That much, at least, was in the news reports when I started digging.
I loaded wet laundry into the machine and she offered me her pink balloon.
I slipped on the tiles, scrambling backwards, trying to get away.
When Oliver left me, post-ultimatum, he couldn't figure out why I'd chosen Ella Sabine.
I tried to explain it, failed miserably. But then, I fail at many things.
These days I use the Laundromat six blocks away, and it isn't by choice, not really. They closed down the Five Star, in the end. People wouldn't use the dryers, not with Ella Sabine's ghost there. Not that they ever used that excuse--we know better than to admit we're afraid around a ghost--but that was the reason, no doubt about it. I tell myself I'm not relieved, that I would have been fine to keep going back there.
I go down to the Five Star once a year, on Maya's birthday. Use a crowbar to pry open the boards up the front, light a candle in a cupcake to fight back the darkness. Ella Sabine's still there, down the back, near the ancient Maytag. I sit on a plastic chair and celebrate absent friends. I sing loud and off-key--that happens when I'm drunk.
Ella Sabine is always waiting for me, full and pale as ever. Offering me her balloon, trying to communicate what she needs with her sad, dark eyes.
One day, I swear, I'll take it. One day I'll understand her pain, what keeps her whole and strong when other ghosts fade.
I got real good at lying to myself, as the years went by.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, June 3rd, 2016
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