Exile

The carriage held but just ourselves 

and immortality.

- Emily Dickinson     

 

“Welcome to Timbuktu,” the voice said. It sounded bored, as if repeating this greeting for the hundredth time today. “Are you an atheist?”

I tried to open my eyes and then realized they were already open. I could feel my eyelids move. So, I was in complete darkness. “Where am I? And why is it so dark?”

“The dark helps avoid sensory overload and facilitates adjustment. Also cuts down on the amount of vomit we have to clean up. Please answer the question.”

“What question?”

“Are you an atheist?” the bored voice repeated, a little impatient.

Sometimes I get confused and tell the truth because I can’t think of anything clever. “No, I’m agnostic. Where am I?”

“Oh, good. We don’t get many of those,” the voice said. “As I said, this is Timbuktu. For now. Last month it was Shangri-La. Next month, maybe Nirvana. In generic terms, the afterlife. It takes a little getting used to.”

Someone turned the lights on. 

I climbed out of the boat. My feet were wet. As I stood up and felt water drip down my legs, I realized my back was wet, too. Had I been lying down in the boat? Memories were fading fast.

“Would you like to tip the boatman?” the bored voice asked. I saw now it belonged to a short man, bald, with wire-rimmed glasses and an extremely large mustache. He held an old-fashioned clipboard in one hand and a pencil in the other.

“Boatman?” I said, looking around in confusion and down at myself. Scuffed white tennis shoes, faded blue jeans, and my “No soup for you!” tee shirt. Well, if I had to be dead--not that I believed it for a moment--I might as well be comfortable.

“Boatgirl, then. Boatperson, boatwoman. She doesn’t much care. But she’ll be grumpy and give the next patron a rough ride if you don’t tip her.”

I spotted the boat driver, a young woman who looked about nineteen, leaning on the gunwale of a battered white rowboat, staring upstream as if none of this was her concern. The biggest black dog I had ever seen sat patiently beside her. I checked my pockets. “I have no money.”

“No problem. You can leave a metaphorical tip. Those are always appreciated. Or we can charge it to your account, if you want to tip actual money.”

“Fine, whatever,” I said. “Where am I?” This time I knew I had already asked, but I was hoping for an answer that made sense.

“Door on the far left,” Mustache said, ignoring my question. He pointed, made a mark on the clipboard, and turned to the boat driver. “Ready for the next one,” he said. The big black dog jumped in the boat behind her.

*              *              *

I faced four wooden doors made of age-silvered wooden planks. All closed, no lines, no one waiting outside any of them. The doors were surrounded by a short stone wall that ended a few feet above and beyond them. I looked around the end of the wall. The other side looked the same as this side. Sand and sparse grass, two small trees in the distance, and a horizon that faded into complete darkness. The light faded to darkness above, too. It was impossible to say where the ambient light came from. Behind me, Mustache and Boatgirl were repeating the routine with a new arrival.

The door on the far right was labeled Conventional Religions in large letters. The one beside it said Capitalists, Materialists, and Anarchists. Second from the left was the door labeled Atheists. The one on the far left simply said Others. I shrugged. This wasn't the first time I had been an Other. I tried the knob. The door creaked open slowly, as if it didn’t get much use.

The wall had seemed to stand alone but the door opened on a cross between the Guggenheim and a parking garage, as if it were designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and M.C. Escher: tall marble columns supported endless curves, up and down, no steps in sight, and few level or rectangular surfaces except the small booth, like a toll-taker’s cubbyhole, just inside the door. Looking down--or up?--certain paths, I saw what looked like skeletons of prehistoric animals, displays of stone tools and inscribed clay tablets, rocket ships, and other items both natural and artificial. The odd curves and angles made for visual cacophony; the scale of things impossible to judge. I could not tell if the displays were tiny or just very far away. The air smelled like orchids.

“Daisy Donner, right?” the woman in the booth asked. She stared at me over half-glasses and a copy of The Brothers Karamazov.

I nodded. I was still sure of my name, anyway. The front window of the booth had a little round hole for speaking through, and the usual rectangular slot at the bottom, for sliding money or tickets through. I hoped there was no admission charge, or that metaphors were an acceptable form of currency here, too. The woman must be the source of the orchid scent, I decided--it was much stronger as I stepped closer.

“Do you have any questions?” She wore a name tag that said Flossie in large letters and below that, in smaller script, Docent. I watched her check a box beside my name in a list on her clipboard. Everyone who was anyone had a clipboard, it seemed.

“A million. I won’t ask what this place is, unless you have something to say besides ‘the afterlife.’ So how did I get here?”

“You don’t remember. Interesting. But a little amnesia is not unheard of. It will probably come back to you. I can’t tell you.”

“You don’t know?” I said, a little incredulous.

“I didn’t say I don’t know. I said I can’t tell you. But no, I don’t know. You don’t know, either, it seems, and it happened to you. Anyway, records on cause of death are not kept here. You have any idea the amount of paperwork that would entail? Storage space alone would expand to metaphysical proportions. And the army of clerks . . . I shudder.” And she did, in fact, shudder.

“You people never heard of computers? It’s the twenty-first century, you know.”

“We heard. Didn’t care much for the idea.”

“Maybe you can tell me why I’m here, then.”

She smiled, as if the chance to give an actual answer pleased her. “Why, yes, you are here because you are agnostic.” She looked at the clipboard to double check. “You are agnostic, right?”

“Yes.”

“And apparently you never did anything bad enough to be lumped in with the capitalists. So here you are.”

“What happens to capitalists?”

“I don’t know.” She shrugged. “But from what I hear, it’s not pleasant.”

“Why do they have it especially bad?”

“Well, not all capitalists. Just the ones who valued money and profits above all else. The afterlife is all about what you believe. You’re agnostic. Seeing is believing, for the moment, anyway. So here you are, in the museum, where there are things to be seen.”

“So if I believed in reincarnation, I’d have been reincarnated?”

“Probably.”

“If I believed in a heaven where everyone is issued a harp and angel wings?”

“Yep, that’s where you’d be. The wings don’t work, though. Not nearly enough lift. You have to respect physics here, same as everywhere.”

I thought this over for a minute. “What if you get bored with the afterlife? Does that ever happen?”

“Sometimes.”

“So what happens--you’re just stuck in eternal boredom? Or worse?”

“Yeah. It’s called hell. But you can apply for a transfer.”

“Who decides if you get it?”

She jerked a thumb skyward. “Upstairs.”

“God?”

“There is no god.”

“Who makes the decisions, then? Who’s in charge?”

“The Committee. Sort of a board of directors. Or Homeowners’ Association. Some of them think they’re gods, but nobody takes them seriously. Members rotate. Or so I hear. I’m just a lowly admissions clerk. Do my job, keep my head down. Otherwise, I might get promoted, and that sounds like a hassle.”

“Why a hassle?”

“Less free time. Less opportunity to work on my fantasy novel.”

I knew better than to ask what it was about.

“There’s not a lot of rules, just pragmatic common-sense stuff--no stealing, don’t kill anybody, lie only if you must, and try not to litter. And don’t try to leave town. That one’s important.”

I was never very good at following rules, but now didn’t seem a good time to mention that. “Town? What town?”

“The agnostic section. You were assigned here for a reason.”

“Well, yeah. I’m agnostic. Or I was. Now I guess I don’t know what I am.”

“Once an agnostic, always an agnostic. If you wander into, say, the Southern Baptist section--well, let’s just say there’d be trouble. Big trouble. I’d have to file the report. And I hate paperwork.”

“What would happen to me?”

She shrugged. “Not my problem.” Another vague gesture upward. “Whatever they decided. Just stay where you belong, follow the rules, and everything’s easy.”

“One more thing--where’s everybody else? I can’t be the only agnostic who ever died, but I don’t see anybody else. Except you.”

“They’re around. It’s a big place. And actually, there really aren’t very many of you guys.”

You guys? You are not agnostic?”

She laughed, a tinkly sound, like a wineglass tapped with a caviar fork. “Goodness, no, I worshipped Artemis.”

I let that sink in for a minute. “Artemis? As in, the goddess of the hunt?”

She nodded.

“But I thought you said there’s no god?”

“That doesn’t stop people from worshipping one, does it? Anyway, the Olympians existed. They were supernatural beings, of a sort.”

“Where are they now?”

“Another of many things that are not my problem.”

I was beginning to think Flossie left much to be desired as a docent. “How long have you been here?” I wasn’t sure what kind of answer I hoped for.

“About twenty-two centuries, give or take.” She looked at her book, clearly growing tired of this conversation.

I didn’t know what I thought about that, so I wandered off toward the display of a skeleton, the bones of an animal I could not identify, perhaps a miniature T-Rex, or maybe just a big lizard. 

*              *              *

This must be a dream, I decided. The thought excited me, because the only times I’ve ever known I was dreaming were right before I woke up. Ergo, I must be about to wake up.

I did not wake up. Therefore, I was not asleep. Instead, then, this must be one of those mind-control experiments, like something in an old episode of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits. I took a seat on an oak bench near Moran’s “Childe Roland” painting--or what looked like it, though I assumed the original was in a museum somewhere. I stared at the lurid, turbulent painted sky, and waited for the scientist or military officer in charge to show up and explain.

I waited a long time. The scientists or generals never showed up. But people smarter than me have said absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. My not seeing them did not mean they were not there somewhere, waiting to see how long before I figured out the game. There would be a glitch in the computer program that projected the hologram, an actor who forgot his or her lines, a corner on the movie set where wallpaper peeled up and revealed scaffolds and concrete beyond. Something would give it away. I would be patient and see what happened.

*              *              *

Hours had passed as I wandered the museum. I was not tired. My feet did not hurt. Past the working model of a steam engine in the Industrial Revolution diorama, the hall led to snack machines, a drinking fountain, and restrooms. I was neither hungry nor thirsty, and I hadn’t needed to go to the bathroom since I got here. If this really was the afterlife, would I get hungry? Or need to sleep or go to the bathroom? Apparently, someone did, or these amenities would be superfluous. Did the afterlife have civilian employees?

The door in the shadow beside the drinking fountain said “No Entrance,” so I tried the knob. Unlocked. I entered. Was this the janitor’s closet where someone kept tools for fixing glitches?

The door led to another hallway. Of course. It was dimly lit, but the doors were labeled clearly enough. Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, etc. I kept walking, past various doors for sects and sub-sects. At least three different doors for alternate varieties of Judaism. Fourteen versions of Protestant Christianity. And so on.

At the far end of the hall, a hundred yards from where I entered, another door with no label, but the same admonishment as before--No Entrance. I opened the door.

*              *              *

Brakes squealed. Horns honked. The air smelled of exhaust. People laughed, cursed, and ignored me.

I was standing on the sidewalk, off Times Square, New York, USA, Planet Earth. I looked around and immediately recognized the place, somewhere on West 47th Street, in the No-Man’s-Nor-Woman’s Land between Hell’s Kitchen and Times Square. I looked around for the door I had just opened. It was gone. The nearest door was the plate-glass entrance to an espresso shop. I had been here many times before.

I knew it. I had been dreaming, sleepwalking, or hallucinating. Here was reality again. A good cup of very strong coffee would help.

*              *              *

I went inside the shop and sat at a table near the window. The world still had that not-quite-real look about it that comes right after strange, vivid dreams. Like you could see right through solid objects if you looked hard enough.

A man at the next table was eating a slice of cherry pie. I stared at it. Suddenly, those red cherries, the sugary glaze filling, the flaky crust--they looked like the most beautiful things in the world. My eyes followed the silver fork up to the man’s mouth.

“Looks delicious, doesn’t it?” A woman’s voice said. “Well go ahead, have a bite.”

I turned and looked. A brunette with shoulder-length hair and straight bangs had seated herself across from me while I was staring at the pie.

Normally, I would rebuff familiarities from a stranger, but everything had been so strange lately, I hardly noticed one more oddity. “Yeah. Looks like that’s the only way I get any pie, if I take a bite of his. The waiter seems to be ignoring me.”

“He’s not ignoring you, Dearie. He can’t see you.”

So, I was Dearie, now. “What, he’s blind?”

“No. He cannot see you. You’re invisible to him.” The brunette stared at me a second, then said, “Oh, my God, you don’t even know, do you? I’ll bet you just got here. Welcome to the show. I’m Radcliffe. Radcliffe Hall.” She held out her hand and said, “You can call me Cliffe.”

“Here?” I asked. “Where is here?” She still held out her hand, so I took it. One shake, firm but not too firm. Her hand felt a little chilly.

“The Point of No Return,” she said. “The In-Between. The Beyond. The Singularity. Nowhere. There are lots of names for it. But what’s important is not so much where you are as what you are. In simplest terms, you’re dead. Dead as your great-great-great grandparents.”

“You mean I’m a ghost?”

“We prefer non-corporeal entity. Or differently-incorporated. Less baggage. But in the vernacular, yes, you’re a ghost. The dead are normally on the other side, but ones who don’t fit in there, for whatever reason, the ones who don’t belong there, well, they end up in the Singularity. Here, you’re just like everybody else.”

“Like everybody else?”

“Well, like everybody else who’s not alive. Dead.”

Apparently, the dream, which was turning into a fever-dream, maybe a nightmare, was not over.

“You’re not dreaming or hallucinating,” Cliffe said, as if she could read my mind. “But there’s no way to prove that now; anymore than when you were alive. All you can do is wait to wake up, if you think this is a dream, and meanwhile get on with your afterlife.” 

“And how do I do that, if I’m dead?” I figured I might as well play along. When in Rome…

“Start by having that pie you wanted.” Cliffe reached over and took a bite from the slice of pie at the next table. Or seemed to--I saw her fork dip into the crust and filling and lift it to her mouth, yet nothing changed on the plate. The pie remained as it was, and the man paid no attention. It was a bizarre sort of double vision, like looking into a funhouse mirror.

“This is one of the advantages of being in the Singularity,” Cliffe said. “You can get away with a lot here. Eat pie. Eat all the ice cream you want, have sex with no fear of pregnancy, etc., sneak into the movies, except you don’t have to sneak, and travel anywhere you like. The living don’t see you, for the most part, and don’t believe in you if they do see you. The bureaucracy of the afterlife doesn’t care what you do. You fell through the cracks in their system, and besides, they’ve got the steady supply of new arrivals to deal with. We don’t matter to them anymore.”

We--so you’re a ghost, too.”

“Why else do you think we’re talking? The living don’t see us. Not usually.” She paused, then asked, “How did you die?”

“I don’t know.”

“Oh, my. You are new here, aren’t you?”

“There’s a gap in my memories. I’m still not even totally convinced I’m dead.”

She nodded in sympathy. “A violent death, then. Causes amnesia. And denial. Usually temporary. Or so I hear. It will probably come back to you. But trust me. You’re a ghost. We wouldn’t be having this conversation if you weren’t.”

“So how is this different from reincarnation?” I asked.

“Simple,” she said, “You’re not carnal. No longer flesh and blood. You can eat, but you don’t get hungry. Sleep, though you don’t get tired. Being hot or cold--any kind of physical discomfort, they’re all just states of mind now. You’ll learn to control them.”

“Ghosts seem to have it almost as good as superheroes,” I said.

“Better. Nobody expects us to solve crimes or prevent terrorist attacks. But there are two things you can’t do now.” She paused, as if expecting me to ask what they were. Rules of conversation and all. I did not ask. I’m not a very good rule-follower.

“One, you can’t go back,” she volunteered.

I looked out the window. The door that said No Entrance on the other side should be there somewhere. It wasn’t.

“The door is gone. You won’t find it again. At least I never heard of anyone finding it. You’re stuck here. You’re an exile.”

“What’s the other thing I can’t do?” I was intrigued enough to ask now, dream or no dream.

“You can’t change material things. You can’t make a difference here. This is their world, not ours. Kinda balances things out, I think--we can do whatever we want only because it doesn’t count. Not in this world.” She took another bite of the pie from the other table. “But you get used to it. See--if you’re dead, you really can have your pie--or someone else’s pie--and eat it, too.”

“You make being dead sound too good to be true.”

“In a lot of ways, it is. Are you going to have some pie or sit there looking sad and lost?”

I had pie.

*              *              *

I had always played it cautious. Never believed in much. Now the world didn’t believe in me. Maybe it was ironic, I thought, but then I realized that apparently being a ghost was in fact the farthest thing from irony. Exactly what you’d expect. Tit for tat. Poetic justice.

As an agnostic, I still refused to rule out the possibility that this was all still some trick. Virtual reality. Hypnosis. Mind control. I’d heard incredible things could be done with lasers and artificial intelligence. If this were a simulation or dream, I still figured I’d spot the flaw, sooner or later.

On the other hand, people suggested that the so-called reality I’d lived in my whole life was a simulation. And if so, maybe things that make no sense--the Schrodinger’s cat paradox, dark matter, all that mind-bending jazz--maybe those are the flaws. The holes in the story told to us by whoever is running the experiment. My mind ran in that loop until I remembered why I’m agnostic--the only honest answer to these questions is, I don’t know what is really going on. And I trust no one who claims to know.  

*              *              *

Over the next couple of weeks, I had several more conversations with Cliffe, in the coffee shop, in the park, in her apartment overlooking Central Park. Apparently, the world was pretty much still the same. I was the one who was different. Maybe this was why the rules of the afterlife said not to leave town--for your own good. I realized it could be depressing to see the world move on without you, to not even exist in what used to be your life.

On the other hand, it was also very freeing. If you’re nobody, you can do whatever you want. Freedom--real freedom, when you can do whatever you effing want--is vastly misunderstood and underrated by people who spend their whole lives doing as they are told.

Cliffe shared the apartment with a living woman who didn’t know she had a roommate. The woman, Cathy, was a corporate attorney who was determined to be a CEO or Chair of the Board. “Real workaholic, hardly ever home, and then just to sleep. Alone. So she’s no bother. Another advantage of being a ghost--you don’t pay rent. Not that you really need an actual apartment, or domicile of any sort, as people don’t see you and you can ignore the weather. Still, if you can live in one of the best places in the City, why not?”

I didn’t know if the apartment was the best place in the city, but I didn’t argue. I could never have afforded it when I was alive.

We sat on the balcony and drank tea and admired the leaves turning scarlet. “So where are all the others?” I asked. “Other ghosts, I mean.”

“There are very few of us. I assume you did something you weren’t supposed to in the afterlife--ate the forbidden fruit, read the forbidden book, opened the forbidden door--and got kicked out. Or just wandered down the wrong path and got lost. Happens rarely, and only to true misfits, as far as I can tell. Not everybody gets to be a ghost.”

I nodded.

“Still,” I said, “there should be a lot of ghosts. Considering all the people that have ever died, if even one percent of us wind up back here as ghosts, there should be millions of us.”

“No. We fade away after a while. Or so I hear. I know a ghost who’s been here since the 1490s. One of Columbus’s sailors. Claims he was, anyway. Kind of a jerk, too. Must’ve been a real hell-raiser back in the day. That whole bunch was nothing but trouble, I guess. Anyway, he’s so insubstantial, you can’t see him unless he stands in broad daylight. You’d think shadow would make him easier to see, but there he just blends in. So that’s how it goes. We fade. Then one day, poof. You’re just gone. That’s what I hear. Never saw it happen.”

“Then what”

“How should I know? Nothing, I guess, the big zero.”

I nodded. Oblivion. As an agnostic, that’s what I always figured death was.

“Don’t you ever miss it?” I asked. “Being alive, I mean?”

“Of course. The thrill of danger, for instance. When I was alive, I was afraid of heights. Being up here would have made me uncomfortable. Now, well, that thrill is gone. But then, I’m not shut up in an office staring at a legal brief on a computer, either.”

I nodded. She made a good point.

“Speaking of missing things,” Cliffe asked, “any luck on remembering your old life? Or death?”

“Just flashes. A big room, lots of people listening and watching me.”

“Like a theater?”

“No, more like a classroom. I was a teacher, I think. Math, maybe. And sometimes in the street, I see a face that reminds me of someone. And dreams.”

“What happens in the dreams?”

“Just vague images. Nothing I can make sense of.”

“Don’t worry. You will.”

“Actually, that is what worries me. I’m afraid of what I might remember.” I paused and decided I knew Cliffe well enough to ask, “What happened to you? How did you become a ghost?”

“I was an accountant, once upon a time. Just an ordinary drone in the lower levels of mortal hell, otherwise known as an insurance company. I died in a car crash--a drunk ran a red light. In the afterlife, they tried to put me in the capitalist section, even though I explained accounting was just a job, not a philosophy, a way to put food on the table and pay rent. Nobody listened--capitalists are as capitalists do, I was told, and so I was partly responsible for every sick person who died because the company refused to honor their responsibility to pay for treatment. I was partly responsible for the demise of the planet, because the company took the premiums that customers paid and invested them in other companies that were destroying the rainforest. And so on. I couldn’t disagree, but I asked, ‘So what was I supposed to do--starve?’ Nobody answered.

“Anyway, the bureaucracy of the afterlife put me with the other capitalists, in the accounting section. I had to spend 18 or 20 hours a day generating reports, the same half dozen reports, day after day. Talk about passive aggression. Complaining was useless. So I jumped. Right out the window of the 22nd floor. I didn’t know if a person could commit suicide in the afterlife or not, but I decided to find out. Next thing I knew, I was in Manhattan. Been a ghost ever since. I guess the afterlife doesn’t want me back. At least not badly enough to send anyone to get me.”  

*              *              *

Over the next couple of weeks, I saw only one other ghost. Or at least, I assumed he must be a ghost. He strolled through Macy’s, casually taking whatever he wanted from the men’s department, trying clothes on in front of the big mirror at the end of the aisle, without bothering to use the fitting room. No one seemed to notice, except me. The clothes somehow remained on the racks, even after he’d taken them. That ghostly double-vision again. He had an extremely cute butt, but I didn’t talk to him. I was never the extra-sociable type who starts unnecessary conversations with strangers, alive or dead. I did decide that I, too, might as well be a well-dressed ghost, so I went to In God We Trust, a boutique in Brooklyn that had cool shoes I could never afford when I was alive. At least, my vague memories included no such luxuries. Differently-incorporated or not, it felt like I should do something to pay for what I got, so I took a hundred-dollar ghost-bill from the purse of a rich, obviously way-too-entitled woman and tucked it into the pocket of the harassed clerk who made attempt after futile attempt to please her. The poor clerk wouldn’t be able to spend ghost-cash, but maybe it was good karma. If karma still worked in the In-Between. I figured it did. Still do, as a matter of fact.

I slept on rooftops, a different one every night. Weather and the rocks in tar-and-gravel roofing were no bother for a non-corporeal entity. Hovering a millimeter or two above the surface was comfortable enough, yet it provided the reassuring illusion of lying on a horizontal plane. I enjoyed the view of the half-dozen or so stars and planets I could see clearly through the light pollution.

I had dreams every night. Vivid, jumbled images that made little sense when I awoke. I didn’t know why ghosts had dreams. Or even slept. Some of the many things I didn’t know. I still half-suspected this was all a dream, so the dreams would be dreams inside a dream. Or a hallucination inside the dream. Or vice versa. The kinds of questions that lead to headaches, not answers.

But one dream began to recur and grow clearer: someone is trying to kill me. I can’t see his face. He chases me down a dark hall at night, toward a bedroom. I run around a corner, through a doorway. I always wake up when I go in the room.

*              *              *

Days, I looked for a job. Not the kind of job that pays money, for which I had no use, but the kind of job that earns you a sense of place and purpose in life. Or in death. Or in the In-Between. It was hard, because material objects and the living were impervious to my advances.

Except they weren’t. Not entirely, as I eventually discovered.

I sat on a bus-stop bench, watching the lights change and people hurry across, and the cars slamming on brakes or accelerating instantly to ridiculous speeds the instant the lights changed, as if they all actually had someplace important to be. An old lady carrying two grocery bags nearly as large as she was started to cross. I knew the light was about to change before she would make it halfway. Please, no, I thought. All the drivers in front of the lines of traffic seemed more interested in their phones than in the other humans. The old lady was about to be squashed like a bug. I stared at the Walk light. I thought, Don’t change, don’t change, don’t change.

The light stayed on. The old lady made it across the street. I tried again and found I could speed up the change when no pedestrians were crossing. I spent the whole aftermost tinkering with the crosswalk lights and traffic lights.

I had a job. Crossing guard.

*              *              *

If I could cause changes in the material world, could I become visible to mortals, even for a few seconds? There should be a Handbook, to answer such questions for new ghosts, I thought--but we are not supposed to be here in the first place, apparently, so it would have to be an underground publication. And a limited edition, since there are so few of us. I resolved to talk to Cliffe about it.

I chose the restroom at the mall as the place for my first experiment in materializing. My friend Julie--at least, she was my friend when I was alive--was shopping for new shoes, so I waited for her to make a pitstop. I know, public restroom, seems a little sleazy or stalker-ish, but materializing in front of someone else seems like a thing you need to try in private. Going to her house seemed even sketchier.

I concentrated, held my breath, and became visible, in a transparent sort of way. Julie screamed and ran from the restroom, her unrinsed hands still soapy. I screamed and followed her, seeing the image fade in the mirrors as they flashed by.

The figure that half-materialized was not me. At least, not the me I remembered. A teenager with totally different eyes and hair.

Maybe this was the universe’s way of telling me that the person I used to be was dead. Really dead. Even as a rebellious ghost, if I wanted to be seen, it had to be as somebody else.

Still, I could produce some visible manifestation that the living would notice, if only for a few seconds.

*              *              *

When I told Cliffe about my discoveries, I could tell she was more impressed than she let on. “It’s not unheard of, but I never saw anyone who could really change the material world,” she said. “Just be careful. Power is dangerous, no matter how much or little.”

“More dangerous than powerlessness?”

She shrugged. “What danger? We’re ghosts. Exiles from the afterlife. What’s anybody going to do to us? Also, meddling in mortal affairs is probably against the rules.”

“Well, if we always followed the rules, we probably wouldn’t be here, would we?”

Cliffe nodded and sipped her tea.

*              *              *

I’m having the dream again. The one with the face I can almost see. I run down the dark hall, through the doorway.

This time, I don’t wake up when I enter the bedroom. The man behind me turns the corner. The light falls on his face. “You cheating scumbag,” I say, in a low, dangerous tone, and pick up a floor lamp and jab it at him. The shade tumbles off and rolls across the floor. He pauses for a moment. I turn to the startled redhead, who sits in shocked dismay on the bed. “You can have him. All yours.”

I swing the lamp again and he falls backward, stumbling over the shade. I turn to go. “Daisy, wait,” he says, and then I know his name is Ryan. He jumps up, grabs my arm, and twists. I pull away and stumble, banging my head on the viciously sharp corner of the dresser.

After that, blackness. And the wet bottom of a boat.

*              *              *

I woke up. I knew who had killed me. Or, at least, who was responsible for my death. “Everything will change, now,” I said to the stars. I found that the emotion of my dream had translated into vertical motion. I was drifting five hundred feet above the Chrysler Building.

*              *              *

The next morning, I told Cliffe, “I’ve got some haunting to do. I think I’m going to be a very vengeful ghost.” She didn’t bother telling me to be careful this time.

I couldn't remember just yet where Ryan lived. Cliffe assured me memories would return gradually. But it didn’t matter--I remembered one thing about him--he liked to ride trains. I waited in a station that felt somehow familiar, felt right. I waited hours, every day for a week. I brought a book. I found being a ghost made me more patient.

Ryan showed up on the eighth day. He stood at the front of the crowd. When I heard the rumble of approaching wheels, I marked my page, closed the book, walked across the platform, and pushed him in front of the train.

Don’t judge me if you’ve never been killed, even accidentally, by your cheating boyfriend. Trust me--it really, really pisses you off. I mean, seriously.

A few moments later, Ryan came crawling out from under the train. I stared, then immediately realized what had happened.

“So you’re a freaking ghost, now, too?” I said. Alive, he had looked tall, blond, and Nordic. Or so I used to think when I was alive. Now he just looked skinny, pale, and cadaverous. Probably a shift in my perspective as much as his appearance. 

He blinked stupidly. “Daisy? I’ve been looking for you. I wanted to apologize. I’m so sorry about what happened.”

That was Ryan, all over. He’d learned well the lesson that it’s easier to apologize than to learn from your mistakes and avoid screwing up. Sometimes, his apologies were even sincere.

We talked for a minute. As it turned out, Melody, the girl with whom he was cheating on me, also thought she was the only one. She proceeded to stab him in the heart with a barbecue fork right after I died of the head injury.

“That’s just like you. You deprive me of the opportunity for really satisfying revenge,” I said, and walked away. At least, I wasn’t going to listen to another one of his BS apologies.

Is it still called haunting when a ghost does it to another ghost? No matter. I was a part-time crossing guard and full-time ghost now, with all the time in the world and nothing to lose. Ryan was in for a few very rough train rides.

And, as the poet said, more or less, “‘tis centuries, yet it feels shorter than the day I first surmised the train was headed toward eternity.”

Collective Realms

02.03.2020

Fiction