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Ghosts in the Termini, by Joel Hans

My mother’s words are not words but ripples in water: This is the right thing, my babygirl. That’s all I ever asked. Months ago she made me promise I’d never let her dry out now that she’s dead.

“I’m trying, Ma,” I say.

She shimmers: We’ll stay forever this way. Take stock in this miracle.

I fill the bathtub, home for her ghost, with the reservoir of well water I’d collected in the morning, and as the ripples slow my mother shifts back into focus, this vision bent and clinging. Blurred refraction against the water’s surface but without a source beneath—a bend both infinite and unreal.

The sunset turns my mother red—she’s beautiful like this, in a way.

Once, the sun’s falling signaled the emergence of new sounds: crickets, owls, cicadas. Once, this place was adorned green by grass and trees. Now only silence or wind and a village turned into sand dunes. Now only myself and the shimmer of my mother, the only two who refused the world’s migration towards oceans that seemed to promise they would never dry up.

I sleep outside because I don’t have the heart to tell her she can’t go on forever like this. I sleep outside because I don’t have the heart to say I can’t start missing her until she’s really gone.

A half-hour’s walk away there is a well at the basin of a valley. Every day I trek there, I cross paths with parallel lines in the sand: my mother’s heels from the night I dragged her home after finding her near-dead and already half-swallowed by the sand.

When I approach the well and begin to work the cast iron hand pump I hear voices calling to me from that drying-up reservoir beneath, ghosts who linger in the façade of the water they died nearest—the curse of this sunburned world.

When I hang my mouth beneath the trickle, this stolen few sips, the water tastes like stone. I fill the reservoir that fits on my back until it is full and then I walk home across those same lines in the sand. The sun’s arc takes up a quarter of the sky, as if melting to both the east and west.

I rest a little in the shade near the well, but the sound of footsteps in sand wakes me to see a girl standing on the dune opposite mine, well between us. For an instant, I wonder if I’m looking at a mirage or a reflection—we are both gaunt from dehydration and dressed in rags.

She puts her hands to her lips and I do the same. I have a holstered knife on my belt, but I wave instead. I smile and my lips crack, bleed. She screams and the resonance of her voice lingers like ghosts at the bottom of the well.

I blink and she is gone.

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