Ghost Puppy

by Kaely Horton

The ghost of my ex-girlfriend twirled in a desk chair in the middle of the kitchen, chewing gum. My mother paused in the doorway, grocery bag handles straining against the crook of her elbow, and pointed.

“Is she real?” she asked. “Because I thought she dumped you.”

“Relax, Mom,” I said, even though I myself was anything but relaxed. “She’s not real.”

“Then I want her out of my kitchen.” My mother set down the bags one at a time, cans and boxes clanking through cotton against the tile countertop. “I can’t make goulash with her staring at me.”

“Oooh, Ms. Gruff, you make the best goulash,” Ghost Kelly said. Her voice was a warm bell, and hearing it put a knot in my heart.

My mother glared at me, hands on hip, fingers splayed wide against her ribs. Her bulk blocked my exit past the countertop. “Matilda, we’ve talked about this. I can’t have your ghosts clogging up the apartment all the time. It’s the puppy all over again. You know, maybe you should go back to that therapist—”

“The therapist didn’t help, Mom.” Plus the therapist stopped wanting to see me after I came to her appointments with all of my ghosts tromping up the staircase at my heels. “Can’t you just wait for her to go away?”

“Fine,” my mother said, eyes turned abruptly toward the tomato cans she was unloading, as if she didn’t want to look at me too closely. “But it better not be like the puppy.”






When I was eight, I had a puppy for three days. More specifically, I had a live puppy for three days. On the third day, his leash pulled away from my hand and he frolicked in front of the school bus as it rolled toward the curb. I heard the sound. The impact. The panicked yelp. I didn’t see the body. I ran away because seeing it would make it real.

I believed I could bring the puppy back by force of will. And I did. My mother dropped a bowl of spaghetti when I marched through the back door with the ghost of my puppy on a leash. The ghost puppy couldn’t actually be held by the leash, any more than he could lap up the splattered marinara, but he pretended gamely, following me as if bound by the dragging red nylon.

“He’s home!” I announced.

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” my mother said.

The ghost puppy stayed by my side for three more years, and no amount of pleading, shooing, or psychotherapy could convince him to go away. When he finally disappeared, I was too busy reading the fifth Harry Potter book to notice. By the time I realized he was gone, I knew there was no point in looking for him.

When I told this story to my girlfriend, she laughed and said what kind of a dog was he if he couldn’t even fetch a ball, couldn’t even be touched, couldn’t even steal garlic bread off the counter.

He was my dog, I said, vaguely offended. Granted, he had some deficiencies, but he was mine. I should have known then that my girlfriend and I wouldn’t last.






The ghost of my ex-girlfriend sat cross-legged on my bed, wearing a silky black tank top. It rode the tops of her thighs, revealing bare legs. She smirked, head tilted, looking at me.

“I’m alive and well, you know,” she said. “The real me. Just in case you were wondering. I’m living it up in Chicago.”

The sarcasm she put into the words “living it up” made my throat burn. It was the tiny details that got me, the mannerisms, the expressions I’d seen on no one’s face but hers. “How long are you going to stick around?”

“Until you stop missing me.”

“So a while.”

Through the doorway, we could hear the methodical crash of knife against cutting board, as predictable as the clock.

“Why did you dump me?” I said. The question flew out before I had time to stop it.

“You held on too tight. You were smothering me.”

My chest felt strapped into a metal vise two sizes too small. “It doesn’t matter,” I said. “It’s not like I really lost you anyway. You’re here now, aren’t you?”

“Yeah,” she said, nudging the hem of the tank top with her fingertips. “Except you can’t have sex with a ghost.”






She followed me to the laundromat, to the library. At the deli, she perched on the counter by the soda machine, surveying the kingdom of red plastic tables.

“Matilda used to call this place ‘Mustard Hell,’” she announced helpfully as I spread condiments on wheat bread.

“Who’s Matilda?” the customer asked.

“Nobody, really,” I said. “Random person, used to work here.” It was hard holding down a job with the ghosts hanging around. Usually, I’d pretend not to know them until someone figured out they only appeared during my shifts.

At home, Ghost Kelly sat between my mother and me on the couch as we argued about how to get rid of her.

“You’ve just got to clear your mind. Stop missing her.”

“I can’t just stop missing her!”

“Why not? You did it with your dad.”

I flinched, and Ghost Kelly rested a hand I couldn’t feel on my arm. My mom had never forgiven me for (a) bringing a ghost version of my dad back after he walked out when I was twelve, and (b) not bringing him back for long enough.

“Two weeks,” my mother said. “He came back for two weeks. What kind of daughter only misses her dad for two weeks?”

“I told you, I don’t control it—”

She better not be here in two weeks.” My mother jabbed a finger toward Ghost Kelly, not deigning to look at her, then stormed off to make popcorn.






On the three-month anniversary of my relationship with my ex-girlfriend’s ghost, the two of us sat on a bluff overlooking the dirt road. She sat with one arm draped across her knee, her head cocked, staring thoughtfully at the cluster of aspens across from us. If she disappeared now, it would be a major loss, since my mom was barely talking to me anymore.

“Maybe you should try dating other people,” she said.

“Why, so they can break up with me and add to my collection of ghosts?”

She screwed up her face as if admitting that I had a point. Below us, a school bus exhaled to a stop. The little stop signs flicked out like antennas. Black steps unfolded. Kids poured out and dispersed in clusters, their backpack buckles bright in the sun.

“I should have held onto the leash,” I said.

“You always were a Negative Nancy,” said Ghost Kelly. “That’s another reason I broke up with you.”

I wanted to punch her. But I could no more punch her than kiss her. She looked solid, but I knew better. How many times had I tried to pet my ghost puppy as a child?

The doors folded shut. The bus hissed. It sounded like a protest. I stood up, my heart suddenly pounding. I couldn’t see the front of the bus from our vantage point on the slope. I couldn’t see if a tiny soft creature pranced around its nose.

“Matilda?” Ghost Kelly said.

I scrambled down the slope.


But I ran, because I had to save my ghost puppy. I ran because deep down I believed there was a time portal in front of that bus. I ran because the night my dog died, I heard my dad yelling at my mom, saying why’d you have to get her a puppy, why didn’t you watch it better, why why why why. I skidded across the gravel and then tripped, my palms stinging with dirt. The bus roared into movement, and in the open space between the wheels, I saw a shaggy shape with spindly legs and big paws. His chest was heaving, his eyes glassy with so much hurt. The bus barreled toward me, but it didn’t matter, because I was convinced I could bring anyone back, even me.

The bus screeched and then stopped, the sun glancing off its mustard-yellow frame. A man with spraying red sideburns hurried down the metal stairs.

“What you doin’?” he shouted at me. “What the hell you doin’?”

I gasped on the ground, alive despite my best efforts. Looking up, I caught a glimpse of my ex-girlfriend cradling my dog, whispering something I couldn’t hear. The driver moved toward me, blocking my ghosts from view.

“You all right?” he said.

He extended a hand to help me up, and I took it. His palm was warm and sweaty and scared, and I realized how long it had been since I had touched anyone. When I looked back toward the bus, the space between the wheels was empty. The emptiness taunted me, soft shadows resting across the dirt, until I was left wondering if I had ever even had a live puppy in the first place.

Kaely Horton is a writer, teacher, and editor currently based in Oregon. Her work has appeared in Hobart, Smokelong Quarterly, Stonecoast Review, Isthmus, Citron Review, and others. You can find her on Twitter at @kaely_horton.