Ghosts linger in Crucias Station. Bells no longer remembers the name of the cemetery the station is built atop— “It changed so many times across the eras,” she once told me—but the ghosts creep about in the oddest places. In the strange blooms that line the tracks and peek up from the gray slate in bold defiance of industrialization. In the names children pick for whatever creature they find scuttling around the platform. In the leaking faucet of the third sink of the women’s room which will never be fixed no matter how many faucets they try to replace it with. In the brown-skinned woman who sits on the wood bench in the dark, three leather-bound books tucked at her side.
Each time a train runs through Crucias Station, the lights inside the train cars flash across Bells like the rapid-fire click of moving shadow boxes. The lights in Crucias have never worked past 10 PM, at least never in my memory, but I almost don’t mind. The lights give me a reason to watch. Gold strikes brown skin and Bells leans into the light like she can catch it if she reaches far enough. Like it will suck her up and take her anywhere. I’d believe it if she told me that’s how she traveled. She never has a train to catch.
I never win the waiting game. I could watch the train lights run over Bells for hours and she wouldn’t say a word, just stare forward for a train that will never arrive. With strangers, she always makes the first move, but once she knows your name, it’s as if she never met you. At least, until you speak first.
I have another dream, I say.
Tell me, Bells says.
On Moon Beach, the palm trees rose so high their leaves are swaddled by clouds. I stood at the top of one, the palm leaf my diving board, nearly unbending despite my weight. Below, the sea was moonlight, bright as commercial breakfast milk. The tide pulled forward and back, morse code telling me all the ways to escape the sleepy town. They said jump and I will find freedom.
Sometimes, I dove into the light, deep, deep, deep. It was cold, but I didn’t mind, white light slipping between fingers and sinking into my eyes. If I resurfaced, I would see nothing but white. I would remember that I am a poor swimmer and drown in the white. I would forget how to float. But in the moonlight, the white was every color, every texture, every vision. I was divine in its attention. Free. I heard bells in the sea, and they told me I was getting closer.
Sometimes, the light was just light and the sea was just the marble-sized grains of hateful sand and when I leapt my head cracked against the deceit. Red confetti burst from my head. Surprise, it said, there was nowhere else to go in the first place.
Five years ago, I told my friend about this recurring dream. The dream was its own wraith that haunted the rare occasion I could actually sleep. But talking about what few dreams I had was better than griping about contracts and deadlines. We sat on the other side of Bells’ bench. I spoke quietly, but we were close enough for her to hear every word. When I finished, she tapped my shoulder and offered me a match.
A wish for a dream, she said. One of the books laid open in her lap. I could catch snippets of my dream written in it.
I took the match, and my friend was quick to pull us away to another area to wait for our train. Crazy woman, she mumbled, but I could only hear the bells from the dream ring, ring, ring.
I forgot about the match. I put it in my coat pocket, went on my train to work, went on my train home, readied for bed, and stared at the ceiling. I stared until the silence was unbearable. I got up, got my coat, but got a match instead of my headphone cure. I wasn’t going to light it. I tossed it aside, found what I wanted, and laid awake for another two hours. Insomnia has no friends.
What harm is there in wishes you don’t believe in? When it’s 3 AM and there’s nothing better to do, there is no harm at all.
I wish for sleep.
Bells was on her bench again the next morning, just as she had been for years. As she would for years to come. I will learn people don’t notice her, don’t see her unless they know to look for her. I sat beside her, waited to see if she would look at me and know. She didn’t look, but she did know.
It could have been a fluke. It could have been a lucky chance, or maybe I just wanted the wish to work so it did. Placebo effect.
But I’d never slept so well in recent memory. And desperate people have little to lose.
I don’t believe in wishes, I said.
Then why come back? she said.
My mother believed in spirits. Not in a god or single figure. She didn’t believe in religion. But she believed in her spirits. Used to talk about them as guiding hands, advisors of the unseen. I wanted to believe, but schools are cruel and teach unforgiving lessons about believing in anything different than the norm. Alongside their othering, I learned other things, too. I learned about the good jobs, the normal jobs, the one that lead to success. I learned to play a numbers game and rely on proven fact. I learned how to succeed, however they defined that.
Scientific method, I said. Repeat and experiment to see if you get the same results.
Placebo or not, sleep was sleep.
A dream for a wish. We take nothing else.
Bells smiled, something ancient and pitying. She pulled up one of her books. What did you wish for?
A good nap, I said with a smile, like I knew it was a stupid waste of wishes.
Will you tell me your dream?
Crazy woman. Crazy women.
I stood in a classroom. Women who looked like me but I refused to believe were me moved rapidly, at 3x speed like the audiobooks I once played for class. And just like those audiobooks, while the story moved quickly, I was trapped at 1x. I was frozen and forced to watch as the world moved on without me. They spoke in numbers. They piled papers with more numbers on my desk. I drowned in their numbers. My heart caught the rhythm and threatened to grow nails and claw through my ribs, leaving me trapped and heartless and alone.
It’s not the dream I had the night before, but it was one I could remember clearly. Bells put down her pen and gave me a match. Essential oils in a diffuser will make the dreams easier.
The match worked. So did the next. And the next. And the next. At some point, I stopped telling myself this was crazy, that I was making it up. I wished for sleep. I bought the diffuser. I dropped seven drops of floral oils into still water. I dreamed. I lit more matches.
The kids at school said my mother made potions because she made traditional medicines as her job. They said the cloth charms stuffed with the herbs I found familiar smelled weird. Kids are cruel, but parents could be, too. For career day, many parents came in to volunteer. As we filled out worksheets, one volunteer asked what my father did. I gave my mother’s answer: Something boring. The volunteer smiled and asked what my mother did. When I answered, the volunteer smiled and nodded, but a pharmacist muttered, The crazy woman’s kid. I heard the father walked out. I left my mother’s charms at home after that.
Smoke so thick you could bottle it like ink spilled into me from my nose and mouth. It painted me black inside out. A fire alarm blared, but it soon turned to ringing bells.
When I told Bells, she told me about the cemetery. She gave me a match and a piece of history.
I’m sleeping better these days.
I wish you would find somewhere else.
I think I might start looking. Silence. Do you still believe in spirits?
October. I climbed a tree so high until I was in the heart of its canopy. I sat in its cradle, seeing nothing but gold, crimson, and orange, like I was really in the heart of the sun. The leaves told me not to go, to make wings out of them and fly. I would not be Icarus. Could not be Icarus. You can’t fly too close to something you are.
After this dream, Bells told me about wandering librarians who carried shelves on their backs. They traveled town to town carrying stories. She once traded books for matches, but when her favorite librarian died, she switched to dreams. The librarian is one of her ghosts.
I’m on the phone with him. We sit in silence, but one of us is crying. Because one of us is crying, the other one starts too. It terrifies me how in rhythm we are. But it feels good to cry. To put the fears in the open. To carry it in the net between us instead of in the sagging, wet box of my heart.
This dream earned me the secret about the wishes. The ghosts grant the wishes. They follow the matches, wait for the signal, then cast their spells to make it come true. They have limits. No overnight millionaires or people raised from the dead, but sleep they can grant. A free drink, an extra day off, healing a mild cold, extra courage to make a big decision. I’ve used wishes for them all.
The truth is, he wasn’t the one to leave. My mother said he’d lost his spirit. My mother knew the life she wanted. My mother packed everything up and pulled us out. He stayed in his city, in his stable desk job, in his all too neat apartment. We spent nights traveling across the country. I learned to stay up at night and watch out the window. In one of my mother’s stories, a wolf would come and swallow a bad soul. I didn’t know how to tell if a soul was good or bad. Even when we settled down, I waited for a wolf.
The pit before me was endless. Rings and rings of stairs carved out of the earth ran down and around along the walls of the pit until I could see nothing more. She stood on the first step. Looking at me expectantly, she asked what I was looking for. I opened my mouth and answered, but my voice was just the chime of a bell. She nodded in understanding, took my hand, and ran. We ran down and around down and around down and around. The moon stood vigil, our guardian in our descent.
Night by night, we went down. We ran always, but between bell chimes and her melody of a voice we learned. We laughed, we cried, we screamed. Even while raging at each other, we ran down and around. My feet were bare. The bottom of her white skirt turned brown from the dust we kicked up. She pointed out the moment when we could no longer see our guardian. We wept as we continued. Weeks, months, maybe years we ran. My heart beat to the drum of her feet.
We reached the bottom, but my heart didn’t realize it and still it drummed her song. At the bottom, in the dark, there was a door.
This is it. I cannot remember if I said it in relief or despair, just as I can no longer remember when my voice turned from bells to words.
The sign over the door said Welcome. Welcome, but I knew the other side of the door would be exactly the same as this side. The only difference was that the Welcome should make me feel prouder to be on the other side. You’re Welcome.
She looked at me in that defiant way of hers. There is no doubt in her eyes as she said, This is not what you’re looking for.
When I finish retelling the dream, Bells looks up expectantly. The dream is not all you have.
I had considered not telling her, deluded myself into thinking I might be able to slip away like a fleeting dream, but Bells always knows. I say, I got accepted. I’m going back to school. Learn something else. Maybe travel.
Dreams are telling things. Congratulations.
I think about distance. I think about wishes. I think about everything that could go wrong without matches. Crucias Station is a five-hour drive from my new apartment. I could hardly show up for a daily match.
You’ve earned the flight you dreamt of, Bells says.
Earned seems debatable.
You wish for courage, not a promotion. You wish for a break, not free money. You have the skills. The matches provide safety nets; they do not build something out of nothing.
Maybe it’s not the matches I’ll miss, then.
Bells smiles. I have been in this spot long before the station, and I will be here long after. That’s the thing about ghosts. We never know when to move on.
I must not look convinced. She continues, Do you know why I trade in dreams? Ghosts can’t dream. Dreams are for those who want change, who want growth, who know how to move. You’re a dreamer, not a ghost. Not even the matches can make a dreamer from a ghost.
Two weeks after I leave Crucias, I cannot escape one of my dreams:
I stand in an orange orchard. These trees are entirely white, not a leaf in sight, although I know this is not how orange blossoms work. When the wind comes, the petals fall like snow, layer the ground in a similarly fragile fashion. Smaller than my thumbnail, they dance as they tumble into my hair, as they crown me as one of them. As they stay as permanent fixtures in my thick brown curls. They follow me everywhere I go and remind me that I was grown from their roots. And, when the time comes, they catch on the wind and dance me back to the orchard we left.
I write it down. Pen to paper in a script not nearly as elegant as Bells’.
To Bells, Crucias Station, 4th bench on Platform 8
Two weeks later, an envelope comes with a slip of paper. Spend it well. A single match falls out.