Maryellen Sterns was the first person I ever knew who died. I didn’t even know her that well; she was in seventh grade and I was only in sixth. And yet a month after the car crash, she began appearing in my bedroom when I was trying to fall asleep. I didn’t question why she chose me. It seemed impolite to ask.
I had never been a good sleeper, always dozing and rising, wandering around the house after my parents and brother were asleep. I flipped like a land-borne fish under the covers as sleep swallowed me up only to spit me out again. So I was used to the altered texture of the night: the odd creaks from phantom rooms, the warped squares of moonlight creeping across the walls. But I had never seen a ghost before.
She first appeared in my doorway deep into an early October night filled with lightning and thunder from a freak late-season storm. “Don’t be scared,” she said before I even saw her, and somehow, I wasn’t. Dressed in jeans and a purple T-shirt I imagined she was wearing when the accident happened, she stayed where she was, waiting to be asked in. I had been trying to will myself to sleep by counting backwards from a million by sevens, and since that wasn’t working, I saw no reason to turn her away.
She came over and sat at the foot of the bed. “Do you know Miss Lucy Had a Baby?” she asked.
I nodded, and we clapped our hands together and sang. Her hands felt strange against mine: solid, yet not solid. Like they had mass, but no temperature.
Miss Lucy had a baby, she named him Tiny Tim, she threw him in the bathtub to see if he could swim.
The rhythm of our clapping was oddly soothing.
He drank up all the water, he ate up all the soap, he tried to eat the bathtub but it wouldn’t go down his throat.
I fell into a sort of trance, going through the lines automatically and only regaining awareness of what I was doing when we reached the end.
Out went the doctor, out went the nurse, out went the lady with the alligator purse.
Maryellen put her hands in her lap and peered around my room, checking out my books and stuffed animals.
“What do you want to do now?” I asked.
I was feeling constricted under the sheets, so I stood up and stretched. Maryellen came up next to me, alert and ready to follow me to our next activity. I couldn’t think of anything else to do with her in my room that wouldn’t be boring to her, so I wandered downstairs to the kitchen. I kept looking over my shoulder, expecting her to vanish between glances, yet she was there each time I checked.
I got myself a glass of water, drank half of it, and set the glass down on the counter. Maryellen stood next to it and waved her hand back and forth through it. “Can you feel that?” I asked.
She shook her head.
I was going to go into the living room, but Maryellen seemed stuck on the current situation. She poked one finger through the side of the glass and wiggled it around in the water. Not even a ripple on the surface. I strolled around the room a couple times and then opened the refrigerator. While it had been half empty that afternoon when I went to look for a snack, it was now filled to capacity with bowls and platters I had never seen before. “What’s this?” I mumbled, pulling out a large plate shaped like a lotus flower and putting it on the counter next to the water glass. Maybe my mother was throwing a dinner party. But had she bought all new dishes?
Maryellen whipped her head toward the plate. “What is that?”
“I don’t know,” I said. I pulled a gossamer cloth napkin off of the plate’s contents, which turned out to be a circle of small teacakes dusted in powdered sugar. Before I had time to consider whether or not to try one, Maryellen grabbed a cake and took a big bite. “Mmm!” she said, biting into it again.
“You can eat that?” I asked, skipping over the fact that her ghostly hands could pick it up in the first place.
She nodded, her mouth too full to speak.
Hesitant, I reached out and picked up a cake. It was lighter than I expected. I took a tiny nibble from the edge, and the flavors overwhelmed me. I didn’t recognize them then, but many years later I tasted them again and remembered lavender, bergamot, a highly fragrant type of vanilla bean. “Whoa,” I said between bites, lightheaded.
If the food were for a dinner party, I would get in serious trouble for eating it, yet I couldn’t help myself. Maryellen and I finished off the cakes, and then I pulled out one dish after another after another, and we stuffed ourselves, half drunk on the scents and tastes of everything. Between a dish of golden sweet potato fritters with tamarind sauce and a bowl of cardamom spiced pudding, it occurred to me to ask her, “Do you usually eat?”
“Nope,” she said. “This is the only food I can have now.” She stuck her hand right into the pudding and scooped some into her mouth.
We sat on the floor bathed in refrigerator light and devoured every morsel of food on those dishes, savoring each bite. No daytime food I’d ever tried had tasted so sweet, so rich, so flavorful. I was so sated that I fell asleep right there on the tiles, the empty dishes piled all around us.
I woke to the sound of my mother coming down the stairs. It was light out, and Maryellen was gone. I jumped up off the floor to put away the platters and bowls before my mother saw them, but there were no dishes anywhere. Peeking into the refrigerator, I saw no sign of any unusual plates or fancy food.
“You’re up early,” my mother said, coming around the open fridge door to where I was standing.
“Have you seen that big plate that looks like a flower?” I asked without thinking.
She looked at me quizzically. “Which one?”
I held my hands about a foot apart. “This big. A big pink flower. Or purple, maybe?”
“We have those nice china plates with the yellow flowers on them. Is that what you’re thinking of?”
“No,” I said, more insistent. “The whole thing was shaped like one big flower.”
She peered at me. “Hmm. I think maybe you’re thinking of something else. Maybe something Grandma or Aunt Farrah has?”
I wanted to argue more, to push the point, but I could tell it would be useless. “Never mind.”
“You want some breakfast?” my mother asked.
“I’m not hungry,” I said, and went to get dressed for school.
Maryellen’s car accident had happened one evening when she was on the way home from soccer practice, just one week after school started for the year. Everyone at school found out the next morning, and we all sat around and talked all day instead of doing any classwork. The entire student body was shuffled into the auditorium so the guidance counselor and the principal could talk to us about the feelings we might be having, and then they released us back to our homerooms, where everybody gathered into pairs or little groups and talked about their experiences with Maryellen. “She gave me a piece of gum one time,” said Stacy Lucas. “One time she said she liked my shoes,” said Taneesha Blake. Lilly Pressley kept crying, and when she left the classroom to go to the bathroom, Jessica Saperstein rolled her eyes and said, “She’s so fake. She barely even knew Maryellen.”
I didn’t say much of anything. Mostly, I watched everyone else reacting, wondering what it was I was supposed to be feeling. There was some emotion brewing deep down in my gut, someplace I couldn’t access, but I didn’t want to make the wrong impression as Lilly had. So I listened to everyone else, nodding and trying to look serious. Meanwhile, my mind rode through the narrower, twistier streets of town, the ones with barely enough room for two cars to pass each other, the ones with big, old trees right at the edge on either side. I pictured broken glass and splintered branches, and there was a hole the shape of a ghost in the center of my chest.
Maryellen came to my room again the night after she first arrived. This time, she didn’t bother with niceties. She appeared by my bed, and as soon as I saw her, she said, “Let’s go eat something.”
Part of me felt hurt that she seemed more interested in the food than in me. But, I, too, wanted to feast again. I could still taste the flavors of spices and flowers on my tongue. “I don’t even know if anything will be in there,” I said, but she had already evaporated through the door. I got up and followed her downstairs. In the kitchen, she stood waiting for me to open the refrigerator. “Can’t you just stick your hand through the door?” I asked.
“I can’t see what’s in there if the light’s not on, and you have to open the door to turn on the light.” Obviously.
I grasped the handle, and a nervous anticipation filled me. What if the feast had been only a one-time event? Would she leave if it had? “There might not be anything there,” I said again, bracing myself for her sudden annoyed departure if the refrigerator turned out to be empty, but Maryellen waved my concerns away.
I cracked the door open, not even enough to switch on the light, and Maryellen said, “Come on!”
Finally, I took a deep breath and swung the door wide. The shelves were packed with brightly colored dishes, and Maryellen squealed with delight. As I let out a relieved giggle, an electricity tingled through me, and my mouth watered. I began pulling things out and setting them on the floor. Somehow, it seemed more appropriate to eat down there than at the table or the counter.
There was a deep cobalt blue bowl filled with a fruit salad of mangosteen and dragonfruit cut in the shape of intricate flowers and coated in just the right amount of a light honey syrup. There was a silver platter of spicy pork and black bean dumplings with a tangy, salty dipping sauce. There was a black and red lacquered box containing rich dark chocolates with fillings of rose petal cream and pistachio ganache. We dug in, we reached over each other to try everything, we squealed and moaned with delight as we tasted each new dish. We ate all of it.
The next morning, I woke to find that I had somehow waddled up to my bed after feasting, again leaving the dishes strewn all over the floor. I went down and checked the kitchen, and once again, there wasn’t any hint of the night’s activities, not a plate, not a single crumb. I wasn’t going to ask my mother about the mystery food this time, not after the conversation about the flower plate. And anyway, she would have brought it up if that much food had gone missing.
Each night for weeks, the ghost showed up in my room, and we went downstairs and stuffed ourselves on all the dazzling night foods, and each morning, there was no sign any of it had happened. I had no one to talk to about my new friend, and I wondered if, in fact, we were friends at all. With each feast, Maryellen grew less interested in talking to me and more interested in the food. I pretended it didn’t bother me. After all, I couldn’t stop thinking about those flavors, either. Sometimes I peeked during the day, but the food only showed up after dark. I began to grow tired, unable to focus in school. The other kids didn’t talk to me, and I didn’t talk to them. I felt irritable when the teacher called on me, and spent a lot of time daydreaming about passionfruit custard and chili paste, the mysteries of the midnight refrigerator. What if it stops? I worried. But the strange nocturnal banquets kept coming.
I felt heavy from all that eating, yet when I weighed myself on my parents’ bathroom scale, I was the same as I had been at my checkup a month earlier. Maybe it was my soul that was heavier. I grew cranky with my family, and when my parents sat me down after dinner one night to talk about my recent behavior and see if something was wrong, I barely heard them. My eyes drifted past them to the refrigerator. Would the feasts still be in there even if I didn’t open the door to find them? The Zen riddle of it whirred in my mind, my father’s voice only background noise. I thought of ruby pomegranate seeds, the warm tones of saffron and turmeric, brightly colored dishes of beautiful food piled like jewels in a safe.
One chilly night in early December, I tucked myself into bed early, but I couldn’t sleep at all. I listened as my brother went to bed, and then my parents, and then the house was quiet. I kept thinking about the refrigerator and the bright feast waiting for Maryellen and me. Where was she? What time was it, anyway? Wasn’t she usually here by now? How could she keep me waiting like this? I fidgeted and glanced at the clock until I couldn’t stand waiting any more, and then I went downstairs without her.
I counted out the stairs as I tiptoed down into the dark kitchen. With one hand on the refrigerator handle, I felt a clammy panic edging its way along my skin. What would I do if I only discovered the mundane contents that had been there that afternoon? Would Maryellen grow bored with me without all that food to eat? Had she already grown bored with me, and that was why she hadn’t come?
But the feast was there, and it was even more bountiful than usual. I found myself eating before I even thought about it, and I couldn’t stop. Oh, the flavors of cinnamon and basil, of olives and sumac, of honey. The food that night, eaten all by myself, was the most delicious of all the midnight feasts.
A small ceramic pot caught my eye. I took it out, removed the lid, dipped my index finger into the cool center, and tasted. It was a tangy lime curd. Just like Maryellen had done with the spiced pudding that first night, I plunged my hand into it and shoved it into my mouth as though I were starving.
“What are you doing?” said a voice from across the room. Maryellen. She had come after all, and now she stared at me, horrified, but I didn’t stop. “Why didn’t you wait for me?”
I didn’t answer. I was ashamed, but I couldn’t help myself. I licked the last of the lime curd out of the pot and grabbed an elaborately carved crystal bowl of meatballs from the top shelf of the refrigerator. Maryellen charged toward me, right through the kitchen island, and we struggled as she tried to grab my arm and spin me toward her so she could get at the dish. As she clutched at me, I felt that familiar not-quite-solid feeling of her hands pressing on me, like the way a heavy rain feels against the skin. She twisted and turned and reached into and through the bowl to try and grab a handful of meatballs. But I held the dish close, dodging and keeping my back to her, shoving meatballs into my mouth as fast as I could so I could have them all to myself. The flavors of oregano and lemon zest sang on my tongue.
“Give me that!” shouted Maryellen, coming around my side and grabbing the edge of the bowl. “It’s supposed to be for me!”
“No!” I shouted.
“You get everything! You can have whatever you want during the day!”
“It’s mine!” I screamed, turning away from her again, but I lost my balance and the dish slipped out of my hands and shattered on the floor, the meatballs rolling in all directions. “Look what you did!” I shrieked, diving to the floor to pick up the food. I couldn’t bear to waste it. I grabbed at the meatballs, cutting my hands on the crystal shards as I flailed. All the while, I kept expecting Maryellen to push me away so she could get the food herself, but it was only me on the floor.
“I should go,” Maryellen said from somewhere behind me.
“Wait,” I said, but when I turned to look, she was already gone.
Though her leaving meant I didn’t have to share, I felt uneasy when she disappeared, the same uneasiness I felt that day when we found out she had died. Something curdled in my stomach, and I slowly rose and went upstairs. I lay in bed for a long time, feeling haunted, and only began to doze when it started getting light outside.
In the morning, the food was again gone, but the scratches and cuts on my hands remained. I told my mother I was sick to my stomach and couldn’t go to school. I spent most of the day sleeping, and when night came, I waited to see if Maryellen would come back. She didn’t. Sometimes, on the many nights that followed, I woke up in the dark to the feeling of being watched, but I never saw her again. When I checked the refrigerator, I found only the normal leftovers and ingredients. I checked it every night for a while, and then less frequently, but the feasts never returned. Over time, I started sleeping better, and the heaviness inside me grew lighter. But even now, decades later, I still find myself up past midnight every once in a while, and I peek inside my own refrigerator. Even now, when I taste rose petals or cardamom, I shiver and look over my shoulder for the ghost of a girl.