I've never enjoyed waking up early. My body just did it to me, as it did a lot of things to me in my childhood, which is why I had to live in the Special Wing. No one else in the bunks was awake, so I sat up and pulled my blanket over my head, turning myself into a human tent. I don't remember when I started doing it, only that from my earliest memories, it felt better than lying in bed. It's like a denial of the day, or at least a stay of execution.
My bunk shifted with as someone else climbed on. I tensed up, afraid an orderly would chastise me for not sleeping, but this girl lifted the foot of my covers. She was no older than I was, with spindly arms and legs and splattered with freckles, and perched there, draping the end of blanket over her head as though mimicking me. Like everything other kids did back then, I thought she was making fun of me, even when she spoke.
"I like playing ghosts, too."
"I'm not a ghost," I said, and folded my arms. Without my hands to prop them up, the blanket fell over my face and I couldn't see her. "I have a right to privacy."
I wish I hadn't talked like that. These days I think it was half of my problem, but the girl stayed under my makeshift tent with me. She said, "Well I'm pretending to be a ghost. I drowned in a terrible boating accident in my private river. Now I haunt wherever the river's water flows."
Her feet were visible, her soles pressed together and rubbing like a normal person's palms. Her ankles had bands of olive freckles. Maybe, I thought, she was a weirdo. I hoped it too, which is why I said, "I just don't want it to be morning. I'm not good at mornings."
"And you think being under here will stop it?"
"No…" I said without nearly enough conviction, which made me unconfident, which immediately made me think she was going to insult me. And so I said, "It's not like I'm crazy, like I think I'm a ghost."
"I'm not crazy either," she said, grabbing more of the blanket so I'd have to look at her. In the gloom under there, her eyes looked purple and insistent. "I'm pretending to be a ghost. It's not like I think I'm one."
I pinched the blanket from her fingers and it draped down until I could only see her feet again. "I don't think I want to share my blanket with someone who's that judgmental."
She said nothing for a little while. Her feet shifted toward the end of my bunk, then pointed back at me, pressed together, and rubbing each other briskly. "Will you pretend to be a ghost if I promise you my pudding at lunch today?"
And because I truly sucked at talking to people, I responded, "Is it tapioca day?"
"Okay," even though I've never liked butterscotch. The way she rubbed her feet like that made me think I'd hurt her feelings, and that meant I owed her something. I wasn't a monster. Being a monster was not one of the reasons I had to stay in the Special Wing. "I'm the ghost of a boy who drowned in pudding. It's too thick to swim in, not like water or milk, so you can only sink in it. My funeral smelled like butterscotch."
Her feet parted slightly and she said, "That's sick."
"Hey, it's your game."
"I like it," she said, wrapping her hand in the sheet and making what she'd later explain was a ghost-hand. She poked me with her ghost-hand. "It's sick."
"It's something boys like."
"But you're not a boy."
I remember raising the blanket very deliberately, though I bet it just looked pompous. I looked into her purple eyes, which now looked more like red, and said, "I'm a boy, my body just doesn't know it yet."
"Okay," she said like she'd always meant to concede. "That's cool for a ghost story."
I pulled the blanket over my head so she couldn't see me smile. "So you died in a boating accident in your private? How do you get a private river?"
"Oh, I didn't die there. I'm bored of having died there." She sucked air between her teeth as she made up her mind. "I think I was born a ghost. You know what 'stillborn' is?"
"Now that's sick."
Her toes scrunched to together until they turned pink, and she said, "Yeah it is." There was so much glee in her voice. She was definitely a weirdo.
She was my best friend for thirty-three years. She was the first person to make me want to get up early, and she used a telescope to teach me to be less afraid of the sun, and she played the best man at my wedding. Then, one day, the things that had made her have to live in the Special Wing made her fantasies come true. I keep a sheet in my closet that I like to think she haunts. Sometimes, when I still get panic attacks at dawn, I hide under it. She still helps.