Title: Faded Ghost
Challenge: #4, Ghost (though a bit of an odd take on it)
Word Count: 1556
He was six when his dad started using the word “eidetic” in conjugation with his name. At first it was just with his mom, and the two would argue back and forth, his father saying he needed to be trained, needed to learn to deal with it, his mom yelling back that he needed to be a child. It wasn’t long before his father started telling the teachers at school the same thing, though, and they either nodded or looked puzzled, pointing out that his exam scores weren’t particularly spectacular. His dad knew him better than to take that as evidence, and scoffed at the adults who tentatively brought it up.
He waited a week or so, wondering if someone was actually going to talk to him about these apparently life-changing decisions that were being made, but that quickly revealed itself to be an exercise in futility. After all, his dad was involved, and his dad always thought he knew what was best.
So he did the only thing any intelligent human being would do. He looked it up for himself.
It wasn’t a problem getting his dad to bring him to the library, and the grin on the old man’s face as he watched Shawn trot into the non-fiction section was enough to drag a frustrated grimace and sigh of frustration from the boy. He had been careful when looking up the books he needed, writing down the call numbers interspersed with those of more conventional fare about cats, dogs and forensics. There was no doubt in his mind which his dad would be happiest to see when he emerged from his search.
The first book was a biography of Mozart, and it only served to confuse him, dancing back and forth between claiming that the composer had an eidetic memory and denying the existence of such without ever saying what one was. Still, he was able to figure out that it meant someone with a really good memory. That didn’t seem so bad, and it did describe him somewhat.
The second book was about eidetic memories in people with autism and other mental deficits, and he almost immediately put it back, frowning in frustration.
The third and last book was old, and on a top shelf, forcing him to climb up on one of the lower shelves and stand on tip-toes in order to reach it. Once he had it down, he quickly dusted off the scratched and gouged plastic cover before settling down to flip through it.
He wasn’t expecting to be able to understand much, and he didn’t, not of the first parts, which contained schematics of people’s brains and strange abbreviations for chemicals that he was fairly certain he’d never be able to pronounce. It, too, ended ambiguously, stating that though there was no physical proof or theorem to explain eidetic memories, there was enough anecdotal and psychosocial experimental data to give it some credence. The second half of the book delved into that evidence, and he skimmed several of the stories, occasionally peering through the stacks at the clock and his dad, pacing ever more impatiently in front of the desk. Several of the people discussed in the book he recognized from school; several he didn’t. Most of them had done awesome things in the course of their life, things Shawn wouldn’t mind being remembered for.
It was the final chapter, the tag to the summation of the entire book, that scored itself deep into his mind. His finger froze at the bottom of the paragraph as he reread it time and time again, though there was no need to.
Though those with an eidetic or semi-eidetic memory are often considered blessed, and in many cases are, there can also be dangers inherent in the gift. On more than one occasion those with true eidetic memories have been reported as ‘losing’ themselves within the memories that they hold as clearly as reality. By the time these unfortunates are in their late thirties, they have faded to ghosts, their own psyche lost within the images or sounds that constantly surround them.
The whispering sound of his dad’s footsteps, the rustle of the adult’s police jacket as the sleeves brushed against the body roused the boy from his startled position. As quickly as he could, he shoved the book onto one of the lower shelves and gathered his cover stories into his hands. Trotting around the edge of the stack, he presented the books to his father with a half-smile.
Five minutes and three books lighter, they finally walked out of the library. Shawn tried hard to pretend that his face wasn’t burning from humiliation as his father’s harsh voice echoed in his memory, picking through the books and discarding this one because it was too difficult, that one because it was too easy, and that one because he was still a child and thus unfit to read it.
Certainly none of the heat (or the tears he would always deny pricking at his eyes) could possibly be due to fear.
* * *
Gus found him at school the next day crouched against one of the walls, eyes closed tight and hands over his ears.
“What’re you doing?” The other boy crouched down next to him, hugging his knees with his arms, head tilted to the side. He had only known Shawn for a few months, but the shaggy-haired boy was definitely his best friend.
“Trying not to become a ghost.”
Gus waited for further explanation, but none seemed to be forthcoming. “How come you’re going to become a ghost?”
“Because of this stupid eidetic memory thing my dad keeps going on about.” Shawn cracked one eye open to look at him. “I finally got him to take me to the library, and I looked it up, and the book says that I’m going to become a ghost.”
“Oh.” Gus frowned. “But I thought you had to be dead to be a ghost. And my dad said that there’s no such thing. Did you ask your dad about it?”
“No.” Shawn had both eyes open now, hands clenched into fists rather than blocking his ears. “He probably doesn’t care. He’s been training me to use it, after all.”
“Maybe that’s to keep you from becoming a ghost.” The dark-skinned boy looked away as denial and anger twisted his friend’s fate. He didn’t understand how you could hate your father the way Shawn seemed to hate his.
“All Dad wants is for me to be like him. He wouldn’t care if I ended up a ghost.”
“What about your mom?”
“What’s she going to do? It’s not like this is something that I can turn off, Gus. I notice things. I remember things.” Misery etched itself into Shawn’s face as he stared at nothing.
Silence descended between the two boys as Gus tried to think of something, anything to say. He wasn’t used to Shawn being uncertain. He certainly wasn’t prepared to deal with the possibility of his friend becoming something people didn’t even believe in.
“Hey, Shawn, ghosts are see-through, right? Like, you can put your hand through them and stuff.”
Shaggy hair obscured the other boy’s vision as he nodded.
Gus’s hand closed with sudden and decisive strength on his friend’s hand.
“What—” Shawn tried to pull away.
“I can’t see through you. My hand doesn’t go through you.” He tightened his grip. “And I’m not planning on letting go. I’ll hold on as long as it takes. So, y’see, there’s no way you can turn into a ghost.”
Shawn’s mouth opened, closed, twisted up into a sudden bright smile. “Don’t be absurd, Gus. You can’t hold onto me forever.”
Hurt and betrayal flashed across the taller boy’s face as he pulled his hand back.
“You’ve got your home and I’ve got mine and meals and baths and all that…” Shawn was on his feet before a second had passed, grinning infectiously. “No, that wouldn’t work at all. But if you just keep checking…”
Gus shook his head as he stood to follow his suddenly-cheerful friend. He always felt like he was a step behind the smaller boy, and now wasn’t any different, but at least he had been able to help a little bit.
“Come on. Let’s play hide and seek.” Shawn was practically bouncing in place. A broad grin flashed across his face a second before he lunged forward and slammed his hand onto Gus’s shoulder. “Tag! You’re it!”
Wasting no time in following after his friend, intent on revenge, Gus still noticed that the contact had lingered significantly longer than it needed to.
He would continue to poke and prod at Shawn for the next few weeks, continually checking to ensure that the other boy was, indeed, still of the world. As time passed the need to check would grow less and less frequent, and the incident on the playground would fade in Gus’s mind, become a ghost of a ghost.
But he would always remember that, if Shawn ever looked like that again (like he would just disappear, fade into and be consumed by the world rather than dancing infuriatingly upon it), all he had to do was take the other’s hand.
Even if Shawn immediately pulled away, that contact would mean that everything was all right.