Written by Sua Wen Xian
The kitchen is on fire, but it isn’t Boo’s fault.
Sure, he’s accident-prone, and just a tad bit mischievous, and maybe sometimes he gets muddy footprints on the carpet, but he’s not a bad kid. At least, that’s what he tells himself, knowing that the high-pitch smoke detector alarm will have his mom flying down the stairs in a flurry of ire soon enough.
Next to him, Ingrid is still holding onto the smoking pan, high enough to be a bit too close to cupboards that could probably use a fire extinguisher or two. Why some architects decide to put wooden cabinets close to the stoves is something Boo will never understand. He is, however, getting increasingly concerned; Ingrid still isn’t moving, and a young girl her age really should have a fully functional fight-or-flight response.
“DADDYYYYYYY!” Ingrid’s sudden piercing scream fills the air, giving her father another reason to book an appointment to check his vital signs.
Boo swivels his head to watch as Ingrid’s father rushes into the kitchen, a fire extinguisher in hand. Boo nods in approval to himself; foresight is a great cognitive trait, which compensates for the complete idiocy of running head-on into a burning room. He continues watching the father-daughter pair save the kitchen for a while, before deciding to find his mother, who, for some reason, hasn’t materialised to witness the cooking catastrophe.
Boo has gotten bored of looking at Ingrid’s two-unit family. All he feels is boredom these days; he already knows what will happen next. The fire will be put out, things would return to wherever they belong, and Ingrid’s dad will take her out for ice cream. Mint chocolate chip, with exactly two cherries.
So, Boo leaves the kitchen, goes up the stairs, passes a mirror that never shows his reflection, and enters the attic. The entire journey to his room always makes him feel better; it would probably suck trying to heave himself up the last flight of stairs if he wasn’t a ghost.
“Would you like to explain what happened?” Boo’s mom asks. Her pale eyebrows etch itself into a frown. Her blonde hair is the only remnants of her past human life, just like Boo.
“It’s not my fault,” Boo says. This time it was true. Trying to help just isn’t that straightforward when you don’t have a physical body.
“You told me that you were helping Ingrid make ice cream,” she sighs.
A stab of irritation sparks inside Boo. It isn’t his fault that Ingrid burned the cream. He couldn’t yell at her to stop, nor could he turn the stove off himself.
“It’s not my fault that she didn’t read the instructions. Who the hell puts the emptied cartons into the pan to cook?”
“There must have been something you could do!”
Boo whacks at a neighbouring lamp. His hand passes right through.
“See? How was I supposed to do anything?”
Boo could not stress his lack of a corporeal form enough and in that moment, nothing irritated him more than seeing that lamp still intact.
“If you would just tell me how to reincarnate, I wouldn’t be here anymore, and you wouldn’t have this problem!” He yells.
Mom had promised Boo that she would tell him how to reincarnate when the right time comes, but decades of waiting has rendered Boo distrustful. He still remembers the day he first asked; in the same room, hovering over a velvet armchair that Ingrid’s dad got rid of two years ago. Boo watched his mom twirl around in an imaginary ballroom, with her arms around an absent lover. She loved old Hollywood glam; often recounting memories of glossy posters, British accents, and rouge.
Boo used to love those stories (and secretly, he still does), especially when Mom plays the protagonist. Boo asked her once what she would look like; as a young ghost, the concept of ‘colour in the cheeks’ is foreign to him. But instead, she described something different.
“I’ve always wanted to look like a young Audrey Hepburn. Soft dark hair and pearl necklaces, ” Mom said.
She twirled to a stop in front of him.
“And I’m sure you’d want to adopt her philanthropic traits to boot.” Boo quipped, the slightest bit of mockery in his tone.
“Oh, that’s precisely why she looks the way she does! An angel in the flesh. Her pearls glow bright enough to light up a town!”
Boo shrugged and rolled his eyes at the embellished sentiment.
“You know, dear, this vanity of mine should really be enough to bring me back to life.”
Mom never did become real, although Boo got increasingly enamoured with the idea. Nights of bedtime stories and questions slowly filled in the gaps of his understanding.
“The first part is that you have to really want something that only the living can offer, no matter how silly it may seem to others,” Mom had said.
Now Boo promises himself that he wouldn’t let up on his interrogation until he got the last piece of the transition puzzle. He already has the first part; a lust for life bubbles in his empty chest unexpectedly.
“What’s the second part then?” he demands. “What else do I have to do?”
Mom purses her lips, as if to cage in all the words that Boo was determined to get out. So, Boo repeats his questions again and again, until his own voice sounds grating to his ears.
“The first part – what do you really want?” Mom murmurs.
“Ice cream. I want ice cream. And cherries, and summer parties.” He recalls every account of Ingrid and her ice cream in his memory, and his spirit blooms at the thought of having the same messy smile, the same sparkling eyes. The colorful retrospects slowly dissolve into the washed out attic; the absolute antithesis of summer.
Boo’s voice drops ten decibels. “There’s nothing left for me here.”
“Don’t you see? I have to move on from this. Get new experiences, and actually carve out a new path for myself. I can’t stay here forever!” Boo rants.
“I’ve never told you the second part because I couldn’t do it,” Mom says.
“When you leave, you can only keep one memory from your time as a ghost. Only one. I’ve never been able to choose which.”
“I couldn’t leave any part of you behind! You’ve been my son ever since I found you by Greenside street all those years ago,” Mom says. Her voice is wobbling, but her eyes are as clear as ever.
A silence fell over them like a blanket, and Boo snuggles into it. He doesn’t know what to say; affection had always felt strange to him. But he does know one thing.
“There’s nothing left for me here.”
“I know.” Mom gives him a watery smile.
“Do you remember the family that we first lived with? Jonathan and his parents. I used to look at them and wished for a family like that. I couldn’t understand why this wish wasn’t enough for me to reincarnate. Years later, with you, I found out why; a family isn’t exclusive to the living. I had you, here,” Mom says.
“And when Jonathan left for college across the world, I couldn’t understand why his parents wished him well instead of mourning his absence. But now with you, I can’t think of anything else to give, other than my very best wishes.”
Boo blinks back tears. It’s been a long time coming, and they both knew it.
Boo offers a final suggestion, “You could try again, you know. To let go and live.”
Mom only smiles, “I love you, you know.”
Boo knows he can’t ignore the statement this time. He gazes at his mother, with foreign words trying to fit in his mouth.
“I love you too, Mom.”
Boo had expected a transcendental experience, but what really happened was that he blinked thrice, four times, and then everything felt cold and wet and dark. He let out a cry, and all of a sudden, his lungs are full, stretching and expanding his chest in a way he has not felt before. Something dry envelops him; the texture was slightly rough and itchy, but he welcomes the warmth.
“Here you go, ma’am.”
The air smells different now, and something feels comfortingly familiar. And so Boo gingerly opens his eyes and sees himself in the arms of a woman who looks very much like a young Audrey Hepburn.