Ghost Gifts

by Laura Spinella


Holyoke, Massachusetts

Twenty Years Ago

The sky cartwheeled overhead. A Ferris wheel continued on, carrying Aubrey Ellis past amber-tinged treetops and stringy power lines that looked like black spaghetti. She counted church steeples. This town had three to the north. Heaven disappeared, carrying Aubrey closer to earth. On the approach, Aubrey felt like any normal thirteen-year-old girl, in particular the kind who didn’t speak to the dead. The scenery leveled and the view changed. Carnival crowds thinned as she circled past Carmine, who manned the controls. “One more time, please!”

“Once more, Miss Ellis, then it’s back to work! Your grandmother will take us to task for slacking on the job.” But his mustache stretched wide over a grin. Aubrey relaxed, her long arms resting lazily across the seat back. Her chin tipped upward and she indulged in nothingness, a soft breeze touching her face like a kiss. A cornflower September sky domed high while a white moon awaited its cue. Cool nutty air rode with her, and Aubrey breathed deep with each turn of the Ferris wheel. It was the Heinz-Bodette carnival’s largest, most spectacular ride. But soon cycles would come full circle and leaves would decay, signaling another season’s end. The troupe and equipment would break down into smaller units and retreat to various winter haunts. Some went to storage and some went to Albuquerque.

Aubrey inhaled halfway and the autumn air transformed. A chemical odor, like gasoline but stronger, seeped into her lungs. She inched forward, looking right and left, trying to match the smell to an earthly event below. There were only signs that a carnival had come to town: Sugared-up children begging for one more ride and another game of chance. The parents who’d spent their money on made-in-China memories, their children’s bellies filled with cotton candy and funnel cake. Aubrey saw nothing that explained the pungent air. The growing stench made her gag, and she pressed her hand to her mouth.

As she passed by Carmine, he asked, “Miss Ellis . . . Aubrey, are you all right?” But it was too late to stop the spinning machinery and Aubrey circled on. Their catch and release gaze broke, her gondola rising above the idyllic New England scene. Unable to hold her breath any longer, Aubrey gasped for air. Her lungs filled. She prayed for a simple gas-main leak and looked toward the pointy steeples. Religion offered few clues. At the Ferris wheel’s peak, Aubrey stood and the gondola wobbled from its winch. There was nothing to note. She shuffled onto her knees and peered over the back of the seat. Ferris wheels were stingy about a downward view, and the only thing Aubrey could see was the top of a man’s hat in the gondola below. He wore a fedora, like the ones she’d seen in old movies.

On putrid air a name filtered up: “Georgie . . .”

Aubrey faced forward and sat, her insides cramping with the grip of a python. She braced for what came next. There hadn’t been an incident since June, and she’d lulled herself into thinking the dead might never come again. On her tongue came the taste of candy, a Mary Jane, peanut buttery and sweet. It layered with the acrid chemical smell. Fear and flavor were a potent combination, too potent, and Aubrey thrust her head over the side, retching onto the grass below. A late lunch hit with a splat, thankfully missing Carmine. As her gondola approached, he grabbed the metal frame and wrestled it to a halt.

“You should have yelled down. I would have gotten you off faster!”

Aubrey waved one gangly arm, wiping tears from her eyes with her other hand. “There wasn’t time. It happened too fast.” Carmine helped her out of the gondola, but it did little to resolve the sensation of being trapped. The name Georgie drilled into Aubrey’s ears. The chemical smell burned. The taste of the Mary Jane was opposing and strong. Carmine’s hand rested on her shoulder as everyday embarrassment nudged its way in. “I’ll . . . I’ll clean it up,” she said, glancing at the mess. Towns had strict ordinances about waste disposal, and Aubrey supposed vomit on their pretty fairgrounds violated the rules.