When I was young, my mom would make us go to church every single Sunday, without fail. It was a small, tight-knit community with a simple white building that filled only half of the twenty pews. We knew everyone's names and faces, I went to school with all of the kids, and whenever someone had a party or wedding of some sort, it was common courtesy to invite members of the church.
So, whenever there was a newcomer, our minister would make a note of it. That's why the chapel man was so strange. One day, when I was about seven years old, I noticed a man in the back of the pews. He was obviously aged, but what stuck out most was his eyes- large, spectating, and dark, almost black, so you could never tell what he was looking at. His skin was white, and looked like crumpled paper. He scared the crap out of me. I would constantly think about him during the services, wondering why he decided to show up and what his story was. He wasn't so strange in himself though, as much as it was that no one stopped to welcome him or shake his hand or to even ask who his family was. Even the minister didn't introduce him, which struck me as rude.
Being the polite little baptist girl I was, at the end of the service, I went up and mentioned to the minister the man in the last pew. He laughed and said it must've been someone's grandfather. As he searched for him in the exiting crowd, he muttered that he didn't notice the man and said that he would talk to the man next time he came. The minister probably said this more to appease me because he never did talk to the man. The third time I saw him, he still had the same, faraway look on his face.
Only I felt as if he was looking directly at me. I decided, mustering all the courage I had, to talk to him, but every time I tried, he was gone. I couldn't explain the appearance of the man, and when I tried, I was brushed off as if he was a guest that was simply overlooked. But he wasn't because he came almost every week. He brought a strange feeling to the room. I never saw him exit or enter, but he was always unfailingly there. One day, about a year after the man appeared, I told my mom I'd be sitting separately from the family.
She looked at me strangely as I explained to her I'd be sitting next the man in the last pew, though she shrugged and allowed it. When I sat down next to the man, even as a young girl, I felt a disturbing radiation. His skin dangled to his neck, and he took no notice to me for most of the minister's service. I took quick glances at the man, mostly out of an awkward discomfort.
It's strange to think about these things now as we grow older. To reflect on these childhood experiences and see a glitch that wasn't there before, like a light in an old photograph. As I was recalling these events, I decided to call my mother and ask her about the man in the last row to see if she remembered anything about him. She had the strangest response "You were so imaginative as a kid, he was probably just a visitor". I asked her again about the man I sat with on that third day "I do recall that, he was just an imaginary friend. It wouldn't be unusual for you, seeing as you mention pretend people a lot" Then, it flooded back at once. At church was not the only time I saw him, it was hundreds of times in different forms. As a woman on the subway with bottles and cans, as a child playing across the street from my house. The people I mentioned to my mother a lot in passing, but faded away as I grew older.
The people no one else saw, a shadow of a person once there. As children, we are prone to pretend friends, but why would we need them? What if everyone we saw that the rest of the world didn't, was just the residue of previous life? That as new as we are, we have this remarkable gift of seeing the old in a world so new? I remember Sarah, who lived under the floorboards. Angel, who only my younger neighbor could see. People wandering, watching over us, and showing themselves to a seldom few. Taking up space in a world that refuses to acknowledge them.