by Raiff Taranday
Things have been tense between the ghost in my house and me since quarantine started. It wasn’t an ideal arrangement even before I was stuck at home, but we had a routine that allowed us to ignore each other pretty effectively. She would usually hide while I was around and emerge while I was out to taunt my cat, Jackie; tilt my picture frames; or rearrange my glassware. Despite some introverted tendencies, I used to have a reasonably active social life that kept me away from home for significant stretches of the day, not to mention all the traveling I used to do (yes, I’m one of those people who keeps a world map on the wall and colors all the countries I’ve visited—Eastern Europe and South America are mostly filled in). Now that I’m around all the time, I’m constantly catching glances of the ghost out of the corner of my eye, darting along the periphery, fleet as a shadow. Worse, she’s started hiding my bras.
I’ve never been the type to wear bras by myself at home, but it’s the aggression I find unsettling. Usually the ghost limits the phantasmagorical nonsense to things I might have inadvertently or forgetfully done myself, but there’s no way I’m the one jamming underwear down my garbage disposal. The world is already messed up enough without my having to live through the plot of Poltergeist. It seems like the type of behavior that’s bound to escalate, and of course it does.
Weeks pass and I’m getting sick of the uncanny. She keeps leaving flowers out for me; otherworldly roses of blue and white. I’ll walk into my living room or kitchen and find them on a table, floating in a kintsugi bowl. When I relax my eyes, their blooms appear as pale flames. I dare not touch them. These spectral roses have spectral thorns and who knows what kind of Snow White bullshit would befall me if I got pricked. They always disappear, along with the bowls, after I ignore them for a couple of hours, to my enormous relief. I wish it was the most unsettling of her outbursts, but it’s only the tip of the fucking iceberg.
Lately she makes her displeasure known most keenly by afflicting me with nighttime paralysis. In a life full of silly maladies (adult acne, bouts of mania and depression, chronic masturbation), it was one in particular I’d been thankful never to suffer before. I’ve always pitied the friends of mine who have described it. Then the pandemic forced me into constant proximity with this wrathful wraith and now I lay in my soft sheets, holding the hug pillow I bought online at the end of month two of lockdown, completely unable to move for hours at a time. Worse, she sits at the foot of my bed and watches me with the pinpricks of light in the smoldering craters where her eyes should be. It’s a real drag.
Also, she keeps lying to me about who she’s the ghost of. Not with words, of course, because if she can speak, she doesn’t do it to me (I have no idea if she’s ever spoken with my cat; maybe interrupting their conversations is why she’s so pissed at me). No, she lies to me in the most insidious way I can think of: costuming.
So I’ll be laying frozen in bed one night and she will turn up dressed like Emily Dickinson—whalebone corset, heavy dress, ribbon around her neck. Then a few days will pass and I’ll wake up with a start, totally paralyzed, and the ghost will be there done up like Scarlett O’Hara—full southern belle. I don’t know where ghosts go to get styled, but her lewks are always dead-on. Once she was even wearing a newsy costume. Last night, I swear she was wearing MY jeans and Cowboy Bebop hoodie, the one with Spike, the Swordfish II, and Ein the corgi data-dog on it. I wake up terrified that she stuffed them down the garbage disposal, but no, they’re just on my bedroom floor, soaked in ectoplasm, which, it turns out, comes out in the wash like it never even existed.
“Don’t wear my stuff, you damn goop factory!” I scream to a seemingly empty room as I transfer the load to the dryer.
It’s always the same ghost, I know that. She has the same face every time, which must have had an element of ethereal beauty even when she was alive, with the same hint of a scowl in the slightly downward slope of her thin lips. Even without any physical tells, I know that I’d know her. Something about her presence, don’t ask me to explain.
Obviously, she’s fucking with me. I’d like to mess with her back, but how do you wage a war of pranks on a ghost? How would I even begin to make her feel as uncomfortable and anxious as she makes me? It’s a conundrum and I’m not about to ask my friends for advice. They’d worry about my mental health—everyone’s worried about everyone else’s mental health—and we have more important things to talk about on our video calls; recipes to swap, other people’s babies and pets for me to coo over, which black organizations and artists we should donate to.
I try to approach the decision like I always do (or, at least, always try to do), with empathy, analysis, and open mind. Clearly she doesn’t want me to know her. Why else would she go to any trouble to alter her appearance? This is all happening because I’m home so much. I wish I could make her understand that I’m just trying to be a considerate person, that I’m doing what I’m doing to help others, not hurt her. My #1 least favorite thing in the world is having my intentions misunderstood. I try explaining the situation to her by talking out loud to an empty living room and hoping she’s there. The only time I know for certain she’s in the room with me is in my room at night, when I am not in a position to talk. She either doesn’t hear me, doesn’t listen to me, or doesn’t understand me.
So I decide to get old timey with it.
My Dearest Phantasm, I write with the calligraphy kit my mom bought for me six Hanukahs ago, the first time I’ve ever used it. It feels so weird to be writing in cursive.
It would seem fate and circumstance have conspired to bring thee and me together in this, my domicile, for a protracted period of proximity. Surely you will agree that these regrettable events were neither of our choice, therefore I am writing to you in the spirit (get it???) of amity and reconciliation. Please know, if you do not already, that a terrible plague is afflicting the world outside these four walls. I would love to depart this abode, to see my friends and family,
before I lose my fucking mind, but please realize that the responsible choice, the one that protects the meek and infirmed, is to abstain from society for the nonce. Dearest phantasm, I am merely trying to do what is right.
Whilst only one of us is currently a proper resident of this kingdom of beating hearts, I remain certain we can find common ground. Forthwith, I humbly beseech you: kindly desist from haunting my evenings with your paralytic reposes. Leave no otherworldly blooms upon mine tables. Purloin not my habiliment, for we all deserve dignity. Do so and thou shall find me an eternally grateful and gracious partner in domestic serenity. I await your reply, be it in correspondence or action.
Yours in warmth and breath,
I sign my name and leave the note on my kitchen table. I figure I need to vacate the room for a while, to give her the time and space to read it. Before I do, I prep for my evening meal, a crockpot concoction that will not require my active attention. I dice some red peppers and onions. I brown them in my perfectly seasoned cast iron pan, then add crushed garlic along with salt and pepper. I toss some turkey meat in and wait for everything to get golden while I thrash around to some Bikini Kill on my Bluetooth speaker.
I dice some tomatoes, take my homemade broth out of the fridge, and mix them in my crock pot. The kitchen is pretty replete with the smell of cooking turkey and onions at this point. I upend the cast iron into the slow cooker and give it a good scrape. Then I open cans of garbanzo, kidney, and black beans, clean them in a colander, and toss them in the mix too. I add a pinch of cayenne and liberal amounts of cumin, pepper, and–naturally–chili powder. I remind myself I’m trying to eat healthier and toss a handful of chopped kale in there too. Then I open a bottle of cheap rioja, take a glug, and dump a generous amount into the concoction. It’ll be more chili than one person could eat, but it keeps well and I prefer to prepare multiple meals at once (it also tastes even better after a couple of days in the fridge). I’ve always had trouble cooking for just one and all this time by myself has, counterintuitively, only deepened this propensity. Now the proto-chili needs at least four hours of slow cooking before it becomes edible. I double check to make sure the letter’s still on the table and hasn’t moved. I decide to take the rest of the wine with me and conspicuously sidestep out of the room.
In my living room, I take out my electronic stylus, put on a podcast about famous hauntings to have in the background, and sink into work on my latest design job. So many people told me an art degree would be useless, but none of my liberal arts friends own their own house with a ghost in it. All it took was selling my soul and talent to a global corporation, thereby disappointing both myself and my idealistic professor parents. Still, the work is easy, relaxing, overpaid, and it keeps my skills sharp for when I actually decide to make my own art, in the unlikely event that’s ever going to happen again. On top of that, it already gave me plenty of practice working from home, which ended up being a pretty invaluable skill this year.
I decide to take a break after what I figure is either fifteen minutes or two hours. I chase Jackie around the room with a teaser wand toy so that my chonky baby can have some exercise and fun. She’s an indoor dummy and needs all the stimulation she can get, so I make it as challenging as I can for her to get her pudgy paws on the toy. She exhausts herself in fairly short order and curls up in a discarded pair of leggings, becoming a fuzzy little boulder, the proverbial unmovable object.
It’s evening now. The wine bottle is just about empty. I decide to move the letter in case the ghost doesn’t like reading in the kitchen. I walk into the kitchen, breathe in the smell of almost-done chili, uncover the pot so the broth can properly condense and thicken, and snatch up the note (which still hasn’t moved).
I put it upstairs, in my little coffin of a bedroom, right at the foot of my bed where she likes to creep. Then I go downstairs, vape some sativa, queue up one of the half dozen streaming services with passwords I’ve managed to scam off of loved ones (before you get too judgmental about my being both a bougie princess and a bottom-feeder, please note that I do actually foot the bill for a couple of them, which I then redistribute among my inner circle). I put on an episode of Puella Magic Madoka Magica. Anime is so good these days, so aware of its absurdity, so at peace with its emotional excesses. Whenever I date boys, I always indoctrinate them with my favorites: Baccano!, Kill La Kill, Fullmetal Alchemist, the whole Studio Ghibli repertoire (basic but also duh), Night of the Galactic Express, and of course my holy grail: Bebop. Whenever I date girls, I’m always trying to act cooler than I am, and make an a priori assumption that they won’t be interested. Is that my own internalized misogyny talking or my insecurity about finding the principle of my joy from supposedly childish things? These are the things you think about when you’re stoned in a haunted house. You shouldn’t watch anime for any boyfriend or girlfriend, I resolve. Just do it for yourself.
I amble into the kitchen, pour myself a bowl of turkey chili, which I top with nacho cheese, sour cream, and chives. I turn the crockpot to warm and decide to leave it on overnight. I take my bowl, a new bottle of rioja, and a bag of tortilla chips back into the living room. I use the chips as my primary utensil in devouring the chili. God it’s delicious. Quarantine can’t be a complete wash if my cooking skills have gotten so dank.
That last episode I watched—so full of frustrated love, longing, time travel, and the inevitability of death—has me a little bummed, so I switch to cheerier fare. I put on an episode of Steven Universe, picking up where I left off because it’s a series where continuity is increasingly important. Not anime but it was a heartfelt recommendation from my best friend, Len—whose opinions about pop culture, along with most other subjects, I trust implicitly—and it has so many of anime’s best influences, plus a big open heart and infectious music. I watch the characters sing “Peace and Love on the Planet Earth” and momentarily forget that I’m isolated from a hostile world and that my only sanctuary is itself increasingly unsafe. I wish there was some way I could telepathically thank Rebecca Sugar for conjuring this lovely, empathetic work of art. Animation, no matter which hemisphere it hails from, is truly at an apex of quality. I feel a twinge of sadness, thinking that no creative effort I could make would ever live up to it.
At this point I’m drunk enough to watch an episode of InuYasha and imagine what it would be like to have sex with all of (adult) characters. They can all get it. Stories are a curiously effective survival technique in my current circumstances. I float from one to another, taking them like medicine, more essential to me than any of the actual substances I consume.
I transfer the letter again, moving it from my bedroom to the living room. I decide to read in my bed, a collection of James Tiptree Jr. stories that Len mailed to me. Tiptree, who was really Alice Sheldon: CIA officer, research psychologist, and one of the greatest science fiction authors of the twentieth century. I’m ashamed to admit I can’t read her work without thinking of the way she died, shooting her husband, then herself in what was likely a suicide pact brought on by old age and failing health. It’s a terrible habit, to focus so much on endings, and not the journey itself. I try to concentrate on the stories instead, on the artful mind that crafted them, on quality that remains undiminished by the decades that have passed since their publication. I love how she writes sex, as something that can be alternatively playful and threatening, qualities that have proven very much true in my own life, back when I had a sex life. When I think about how her stories portray women and women’s issues, I marvel at how blinded people must have been by patriarchal bullshit to actually spend so many years believing she was a man.
One of the things I admire the most about her stories is that, unlike some other high-end (and mostly male) sci-fi authors, she never doubts the authenticity of reality. In her work, reality is something to be engaged with and explored. It’s never an elaborate hallucination or a malicious simulation. The world is what it is, and it’s up to you to find or make your place in it. That’s the way I try to live my own life. No matter how strange or unexpected reality becomes, it’s up to me to adapt. I didn’t believe in ghosts until I realized I was living with one. Now the two of us are at a crossroads and I’m resolved to try my best.
It’s a mistake for me to read before bed. I always do it assuming it will wear my mind out, but now I’m more stimulated than ever. I go downstairs, catching a hint of movement in my peripheral vision and deciding to ignore it. The note on the table is gone. Good. Message received. I roll a spliff of heady indica. I put my vinyl copy of Money Jungle on what I still think of as my dad’s turntable. I puff, breathe in the music, and cough. I’m absolutely wrecked in minutes. I extinguish the joint, still mostly unsmoked, and set it aside for later use. Jackie shows up to cat-trap me, curling up in my lap, rendering me immobile far more pleasantly than other inhuman roommates I could name. I’m on the verge of nodding off when I hear a loud crash from the kitchen. Jackie leaps off me.
I’m on my feet and moving toward the origin of the disturbance. My French press is shattered on my kitchen tile. What am I supposed to make coffee with tomorrow?! There’s another crash. My Beverly Hills Baby Club commemorative tray that I had hanging on the wall is now snapped in half on the floor. Goddamn it! I loved that thing. The babies had top hats!
Then I see my Troy & Abed in the Morning mug—the one Len gave me to match the one I gave them—begin to slide to the edge of the counter.
“Stop!” I shout.
The mug scootches another inch.
“Doooon’t,” I whine.
It’s right on the edge now.
I lunge to catch it. I hit something invisible that feels like a wall made of ice. I don’t even hear the mug break, but when I open my eyes, I’m lying on the floor and I can see the jagged fragments close by.
“Just tell me what you want!” I scream, still on the floor. I pick myself up. “You want my house!? Fine. Take it. But I get yours! Whatever place or no-place you live in when you’re not here, it’s mine now. I’m going to go there and bust up your beloved one-of-a-kind shit and objects of sentimental fucking value!”
I can see her now, her form wavering in front of me. She’s wearing a long, colorless dress with a giant hoop skirt that reminds me of a circus tent. Her hair floats around her face like seaweed. Her head is cocked to the side, curious.
“I mean it,” I say. Maybe I’m very stoned and a little drunk but I am determined to find this ghost’s ghost-house and wreck it. “I’ll trade you. Your house for mine.”
“Oh… kay,” I say. “Maybe just on a trial basis? Like for one night.”
She nods again and gestures at the door to the living room. The shadows there have coagulated into a thicker, darker substance, one that writhes like living ink. It’s still a doorway, I can tell, but one that leads to the opposite of a living room.
“Can I, uh, survive going through that?”
I know it’s silly to trust her, but I have a stubborn streak and I’m the one who set this whole thing in motion. I take a step towards the dark door, then another. The air gets crisper and clearer the closer I get.
“Wait!” I shout.
I turn around and jog to the kitchen closet. I take out the large cat food and water dispenser my dad got me years ago so I could visit them more (I’ve never used them for that purpose). I fill both to the brim and leave them out. I have no idea how long I’ll be gone and I don’t trust the ghost to feed Jackie. I turn to face the portal.
“Chaaaaaaaarge!” I shout, sprinting face first into the land of the dead.
I expect cold and darkness but get neither. I find myself in a long, ornate hallway lit by candles set in expensive-looking sconces. The flames are green and give off emerald-hued light. These new environs look like what you would find as a top result if you did a google image search of the phrase “nice castle hallway”. The floors are marble. The walls are lined with vaguely Roman statues, men in armor and callipygian nudes. I do a 360 spin to check behind me. No sign of the doorway I just walked through, no glimpse of my kitchen back in the land of the living, just more hallway bathed in green radiance. If there is a way back home, I’ll have to find it elsewhere, eventually. For now, I might as well explore. It’s actually pretty refreshing to be out of the house, regardless of the circumstances.
I start plodding forward. No one’s around so I touch the cool stone of the statues as I pass them. I’m tempted to give some of the bare asses a honk, but decide it’s a bad first impression on a foray into the afterlife. It’s pretty clear to me that this hallway is a liminal space, so I press on. I worry that it’s going to play by the rules of budget animation and repeat endlessly, but a few minutes of walking takes me into a wider, darker space. The walls open up and retreat in the shape of a dome so vast and poorly lit that my eyes can’t take it all in.
I turn around and I no longer see the illumination of the hallway, just the dim impression of slightly curving walls. I start to get unnerved by this place’s habit of erasing the spaces behind me, like it’s taking an active interest in preventing me from retracing my steps. I can’t help but think of Orpheus and what happened when he descended to the underworld and made the mistake of looking back. Not a story with a happy ending.
“Is anyone there?” I shout, registering a hint of panic in my own voice. I’m not expecting a reply, so when I hear one almost immediately I have to work hard to keep my skeleton from jumping out of my mouth.
“Sure!” calls a deep, smooth voice–a male voice (I’m assuming, I don’t know how this disembodied baritone in the land of the dead identifies).
Firelight blazes ahead of me, no more than ten feet. Someone’s holding a torch, and that’s not me trying to use Britishisms; there’s an actual wood and fire torch in someone’s hand. The light gets closer, although I can’t be sure if I’m walking toward it or the other way around. I get a good look at the torch holder.
He’s tall (my head barely coming up to his flat belly), skinny, and wearing a really well tailored three-piece suit. The suit is dark on dark, charcoal with pure black pinstripes and a black tie. The darkness of his clothing is nothing compared to the skin of his hands and face, which does not have a complexion so much as it radiates anti-light. The lines of illumination cast from his torch in his direction seem like they’re being bent, distorted, and ultimately destroyed by the darkness emanating from his flesh wherever it’s bared. What facial features I can make out beneath that ebon glow are fine, pointed, almost delicate. His eyes are twin points of bright starlight. His hair is a nest of tightly curled silver, and I really mean silver because its gleam is decidedly metallic. His ears are long and pointed, like a Doberman Pinscher, and for some reason I find them deeply adorable.
Incongruously, a sword swings at his hip. At least, I assume it’s a sword. I can’t see the blade because it’s cased in the kind of curved sheath you’d expect to see a katana in, and it’s got one of those ornate hilts and rounded guards. The sheath, hanging from a thin chain around his waist, is inscribed with golden kanji letters. I’m ashamed to admit that, despite the thousands of hours of anime I’ve watched in my life, I do not speak more than a few words of Japanese, and I can’t read it at all. The voice acting for English dubs has gotten so good, you guys. Anyway, I have no idea what the words on the sheath mean, but I suppose wearing a sword is a statement in itself.
“Uh, hey,” I manage to stammer by way of greeting.
“Yo,” he says, casually. He sniffs, softly. “You smell like an alive human.”
“What do ‘alive humans’ smell like, exactly?”
He takes a moment, as if genuinely considering the answer. His starlight eyes pulse in thought.
“A lot of sweat, a little bit of dirt. Blood, mostly. Hot, rushing blood.”
I know I should be creeped out but I’ve always been easily won over by people who say weird shit with this kind of absolute confidence.
“Well, I am… alive. Who are you?”
“I’m the nightwatchman.”
“Is it, uh, night here? How can you tell?”
“It could be night. Impossible to say. That’s why I’m on watch all the time.”
“Oh, that makes about as much sense as I could expect.” I am very curious what, exactly, he’s on watch for. “Am I not supposed to be here? Like, is it against ghost law for the living to tread these halls?”
The nightwatchman’s starlight eyes roam around the cavernous chamber. He seems to be barely paying attention to me.
“We don’t have much in the way of bureaucracy around here, and our laws, the few that we have, only really apply to beings like myself and my siblings.”
“Are you… human?”
“My mother was,” he replied offhandedly. “You ask a lot of questions, alive girl.”
“Naturally inquisitive. Comes from having academics for parents, I think. When I was a kid, my mom says I—”
“Humans just love talking about their childhoods,” he says, speaking over me in a way I find very irritating. “I don’t understand what you think is so important about them.”
“Oh, you know what they say about an unexamined life.” He blinks in incomprehension, so I decide to change the subject. “You talk to a lot of ‘alive humans’, then?”
“Just the ones who pass through. Happens every so often. I… don’t mind the company.”
“Me neither,” I say, instantly forgiving his rudeness. He’s clearly so isolated here. I have a lot of newfound sympathy for the condition. There’s a significant pause before he speaks again.
“Want me to show you around?”
“Only if you cut it out with all the questions,” I say with a grin.
“Sorry,” he grunts. “Don’t have a lot of opportunities to practice minding my manners.”
“Never too late to start.” It’s really one of my core life philosophies.
“There’s some neat stuff here and there,” he says like he’s taking mental stock of the place.
“Well, I desire only the neatest stuff. Stuff that is objectively the neatest.”
“Objectively,” he mutters. “So, you’re interested in value?”
“I really don’t know how to answer that. Sure, yeah, I guess.”
“Follow me. I’ll show you the machine.”
He lets go of the torch. Instead of dropping to the ground, it just hangs there, suspended in the air. The laws of physics seem more like suggestions here. The nightwatchman turns and strides away on his long legs. I hustle after, not wanting to be left behind or lost in the dark. It isn’t long before we come to a heavy wooden door, which he effortlessly throws open. Beyond is a marble walkway that falls off precipitously on both sides with an abyssal plunge into absolute darkness on either side. Fortunately, the walkway’s wide enough that I don’t have to absolutely freak about the lack of handrails. At least a hundred feet above us are ornate chandeliers, lit with the same emerald-tinged flame as the hallway where I first arrived. Off to the right and left are free standing arches and buttresses that don’t seem to be buttressing anything.
“Is it always so dim and fancy here?” I ask.
The nightwatchman answers me without turning around or slowing his pace.
“Your stupid human eyes see what they’re going to see, regardless of reality. If you have a problem with the scenery, you’re the one to blame.”
“Uh huh.” I’m incredulous. “So what does it look like to you?”
“Impossible for me to describe to you.”
“Oh, because your extra-human intelligence is so many orders of magnitude greater than mine?”
“No. I’m just not, y’know, great with words.”
“Ah, yeah. I can see that.”
“The machine’s just up ahead.”
The walkway leads to a wide central column, a nexus into which dozens of other bridges flow. At the center is what looks like a fusion between a Commodore 64 and one of those industrial incubators they use to warm dozens of chicken eggs at once. I walk up to the interface, a worn old keyboard. A green cursor blinks on the tiny screen behind it, which is set into the side of the empty, recessed platform. This retro tech is not what I expected to find in the world of the dead (I haven’t even run into a single dead person yet), but I figure I better just roll with it.
“What does it do?”
“It determines the objective value of things,” the nightwatchman says. He’s glancing around again, keeping his watch.
“The objective value of… what things?”
“Anything in your universe, give it a try.”
I put my fingers on the keyboard. I think for a minute. Then I type.
MY COWBOY BEBOP HOODIE
A light shimmers in the recessed platform and a hologram coheres out of it, displaying a translucent image of my hoodie. Beneath it the number 10763,288,415,324 appears.
“The closer it gets to 1, the greater the objective value is,” the nightwatchman explains.
“Huh, my hoodie’s not super valuable, I guess. I love that thing.”
“You might, but the universe doesn’t. This is a database of objective value we’re talking about.”
“What’s got the value of 1? That would be the most important, valuable thing in creation, right?”
“I dunno. I don’t mess around with this contraption myself. It was made to measure the value of things in the living world and that’s none of my business.”
I delete the words on the screen and the hologram vanishes.
I type GRAVITY. An image of a planet revolving around a sun appears. Beneath it, the value 5.
“Pretty close,” I say.
Without deleting GRAVITY, I type LOVE. A big cartoon heart appears next to the cosmic dance, this one with a value of 16.
I glance over at the nightwatchman. He’s stopped paying attention to me so I decide to conduct an experiment. I reach into the recessed platform and tap the holographic planet. It feels solid and vibrates at my touch. I grab the number 5 and I can feel its mass in my hand. I grab the number 16 with my other one. With a final glance to the nightwatchman, I transpose my hands and switch the two values. Now the icon for GRAVITY has 16 and LOVE has 5.
I delete both words on my screen and both holograms vanish in turn. Then I type LOVE again. Sure enough, it still has a value of 5. I just made love more valuable than gravity, permanently.
I type ANIME and some kawaii bullshit appears with the value of 8452,376 beneath it. I type BORING UPSTAIRS DOWNSTAIRS BBC SERIES and an image of Maggie Smith appears with 8232,981. Unacceptable. I switch, then delete both.
I type CATS. 4541,399. I type dogs. 422,953. Unacceptable. Switch. Delete.
“Hey,” I call out to the nightwatchman. He turns to me.
“You show a lot of your alive human visitors this thing?”
“A few, yeah. Most, I think.”
“It’s been a part of your tour for a while, then.”
“I suppose. People really like knowing what’s valuable.”
And I bet they’ve been doing what I’ve been doing, switching up the values based on their subjective perspectives. I frown.
THIS MACHINE, I type. The machine displays a miniature holographic version of itself and beneath it the value √(−1).
“Totally worthless,” I say.
“Humans ruin everything,” growls a velvety, menacing voice, one that does not belong to the nightwatchman. “You come like pennyweighters in the night, switching treasure for dross, making it incapable of knowing true value.”
A third figure stands on a walkway opposite us. He’s clad in an ivory three-piece suit and is hard to look at because of the white light radiating from his skin. I can make out two points of darkness where his eyes should be and the impression of a cruel half-smile.
“Who’s that?” I whisper to the nightwatchman.
“Bad news,” he says. “Get behind me.”
I do what he says. I’m not about to get between a couple of afterlife guardians or whatever these guys are.
“Wretched brother,”says the white guy. “I warned you not to allow mortals near my machine. I do not care how cunningly they seduce you.”
“And I told you to shutup!” the nightwatchman replies, wit just razor-sharp.
“You share our father’s disgusting propensity for fornication with these animals. I will purify you both before you interfere any further with my important work.”
“Psht,” the nightwatchman scoffs. “You don’t even know why you do the things you do. I don’t care what little projects you do to while away eternity. Just stay out of my way!”
The white guy reaches up to his head and plucks a single metallic strand of his own hair. He snaps his wrist and, in a burst of white flame, the strand becomes a lance longer than I am tall, ivory and elaborately scrimshawed from the haft to its vicious point.
“You were warned. Now you will be disciplined.”
The tip of the lance explodes out of the nightwatchman’s back, stopping just inches short of my own face. Dark ichor drips off of it, a drop landing on my cheek. It’s surprisingly hot. It hurts, lightly burning my skin before I can wipe it away with a pajama sleeve.
“Fuck!” I scream.
“Vulgar human,” the white guy hisses. He reaches toward his head to pluck another hair. “You defile these sacred halls with your presence. You beguile my pathetic sibling in order to tamper with designs aeons in the making. Prepare for your punishment, slut.”
“Woah!” I call. I don’t know what dangers I expected to face in the world of the dead, but an eldritch incel was definitely not one of them.
“Hey,” the nightwatchman calls to his brother, his voice pained but undiminished. “You and I ain’t done.” His hand rises to grip the lance protruding from his chest. He rips it free. It clatters to the ground next to him. For a moment I can see through the hole in his chest to the white guy’s hateful, darkling gaze as he manifests another lance. Then the wound closes on its own, flesh reknitting until even the nightwatchman’s fine suit repairs itself.
I want to scream that this is silly, to ask these immortal idiots what they think fighting will accomplish, but it’s all happening too fast. They leap simultaneously, trading blows and whatnot midair, the nightwatchman parrying another lance thrust with his forearm. They land on the far side of the machine, on the walkway where the white guy first appeared.
“I got something for you, you mean bastard,” hisses the nightwatchman. Rather than reaching for the sword at his hip, he thrusts his hand inside one of his jacket pockets. He pulls out three wolves, small enough to fit in his palm, and tosses them at the white guy’s face. They aren’t figurines or holograms but actual living wolves and they rapidly enlarge as they sail through the air. They land on the white guy, clawing and snapping at his luminous skin.
“Pocket full of wolves!” I shout by way of an expletive. It occurs to me to do my own part in what I am coming to realize is a pretty intense battle where my own life might be at stake. I kneel down to pick up the lance that’s still lying discarded on the walkway. It’s so heavy and unwieldy that I stagger as I try to lift it, recovering myself before I can tumble over the ledge. It’s a lot further to fall than I remember, the inverted dome of the distant floor barely visible, and I have to suppress a wave of vertigo. Hefting the lance, I charge forward. The white guy has managed to kill two of the wolves as I struggled to arm myself, their corpses sprawled at his feet. I run past the nightwatchman, right along the unguarded edge of the walkway and make impact just as he snaps the third wolf’s neck. I don’t make contact with the actual point of the lance, having neither the strength nor coordination to properly aim it, but I do manage to connect with the side hard enough to drive him back until he disappears over the edge of the walkway, pitching into the darkness. I feel a thrill of triumph I haven’t felt in months, maybe years. The feeling is short-lived because I have no way of stopping my own momentum, realizing I could have just let go of the lance a second after I feel open air under my feet.
Why aren’t I falling? Why aren’t I dead?
Something is holding me by the back of my pajama top. My hands are empty and my arms are flailing.
The nightwatchman, his dark face a study in graceful concentration, pulls me back onto the walkway. If singlehandedly lifting me caused him any strain, he doesn’t show it. I let out my breath all at once.
“Pretty brave,” he says, “for an uncoordinated primate.”
“Big words,” I pant, “for a guy who didn’t even unsheathe his sword.”
“It’s not a sword and this isn’t a sheath.” He taps the hilt gingerly with his index finger. “And if you value your life, you don’t want me taking this thing out of its prison. Now let’s get out of here. He won’t be gone long.”
He takes my hand and, with next to no effort, lifts me up into the crook of his arm. It’s the first time anyone’s touched me since quarantine started in earnest. The world around us blurs with the speed of his retreat. When he sets me down we’re in a dim hallway. He’s panting for the first time. I’m suddenly aware of the closeness of our bodies. I take a step back, thinking about my appearance for the first time in months, my unruly mane of tangled curls and my chili-stained corduroy PJs.
“Your brother’s an interesting guy.”
“Yeah, sorry about that. He’s got problems.”
“That’s the impression I get. You kinda push his buttons on purpose, though, letting me screw with his stuff.”
“He’s so hung up on understanding your universe, even though he hates everything about it. Pisses me off.”
“Is he going to come after us?”
“Definitely. We shouldn’t stay still. You’re still on the tour, I suppose. Where do you want to go next?”
“Well, we’re in the world of the dead. I’d like to meet Alice Sheldon.”
“Is that some unalive human?”
“That’s one way to put it.”
“How long since she was all like, ‘ah, my dumb human body is a slave to entropy and I just can’t stay aliiiiiive’?”
“About thirty years ago, I think.”
“Oh, then she’s gone.”
“What do you mean?”
“What do you mean, ‘what do I mean’?”
“This is the land of the dead. Isn’t this the place where people, uh, live after they die?”
“It’s where they pass through… but, you know humans don’t last forever, right?”
“That’s what I thought before I came to the literal afterlife. This is the soul’s final destination and all that.”
“Humans don’t have immortal souls, you weirdo, otherwise they wouldn’t be mortal, which they very much are. Only immortal denizens of this world do.”
“You’re saying I don’t have a soul but you do?”
“I wouldn’t say I have a soul so much that I am one.”
“That doesn’t make any sense. I only got here because an actual ghost opened the way. If ghosts exist then some part of us must live on after death.”
“A ghost? Oh. A skip sent you here? That makes sense. Skips do that kind of thing sometimes.”
“The mechanics of your universe function pretty well. Linear time and all that. But every once in a while, things don’t work the way they should. The track of time jumps out of its groove a bit. Sometimes it happens at just the right moment for an expiring human consciousness to get entangled. That frozen remnant becomes a skip, caught between one moment and the next, between life and death. Terrible luck, awful fate.”
“So, being a ghost has nothing to do with unfinished business, black magic, or being an unquiet spirit?”
“Well, yeah, that all sounds like nonsense.”
“Look, I’m not sure what to do with any of this information.”
“It’d be easier to show you. Here, climb on my back. We don’t have time for those stumpy legs of yours to locomote.”
“Hey! Rude! I didn’t hear you criticizing my speed while I was saving you from your psycho brother.”
“I had that situation totally under control. Your ‘help’ was absolutely not required. Now get on my back.”
I climb on and try not to pay attention to how little effort it takes him to carry me or the pleasant warmth that radiates through the soft material of his dark suit.
He charges ahead through one shadowy hallway and architectural oddity after another.
“So… what’s your name?” he says eventually.
“Galit,” I answer. “It’s Hebrew for–”
“Wave,” he says. There’s a sadness in his voice I haven’t heard from him before.
“Wave on the sea,” I say, my own voice softer.
There’s a beat of silence, then another.
“My mother’s name was Nami. It… it has a similar translation.”
“Your human mother?” I can’t think of any other words that wouldn’t fall short. “Crazy coincidence.”
“It’s just a superficial similarity. Doesn’t mean a thing. She was totally different than you anyway. Calm. Quiet. Kind.”
“Hey fuck you, I am kind.”
“I guess that’s… probably true.”
“Yeah well, it takes one to know one.”
“We’re here. I’m going to put you down.”
I can’t help but be surprised by how gently he sets me back on my feet. We’re on the shore of some kind of river, except the bank is made of smooth black stone and the flowing current is made of thousands upon thousands of luminous glass spheres. They are flowing by so quickly that it takes me a moment to realize that each one contains an incandescent spark, each one emitting a different color, like Christmas tree ornaments lit from within.
“There they are,” the nightwatchman says, gesturing at the river of glowing orbs. “The humans making their way through the world of the dead.”
He stoops down and scoops one of the spheres from the stream. It pulses a soft pink glow. He hands it to me. It’s almost uncomfortably hot in my hands, like a mug of fresh coffee.
A wave of sensations washes over me, like a movie montage but for all of my senses. I (not me) feel the trauma of being born. The jumble of childhood memories (not mine); being pushed, being yelled at, being held, the smell of crayons, my body (not my body) desperately trying to balance itself on a bicycle. The awkwardness of adolescence, jumbled up incongruously with a nightmare of war; milling about a jungle, my body (not my body) sweating through its uniform, finding a corpse among the bamboo shoots and not knowing if it’s a man or a woman, the suffocating weight of a gasmask. An adulthood full of underfunded institutions and ineffective therapies. Sleeping under an overpass with a mangy dog as my only companion. The mistrust and long dormant survival instincts kicking in as a group of teenagers approach. I (not me) would run away, but they have the dog, laughing as he whines. Not willing to abandon my friend, I turn back. I feel my ribs (not my ribs) crack when they kick me.
“Jewish Jesus!” I scream. I drop the ball. Instead of falling, it rolls sideways in the air, following the flow of the river. “What was that?”
“A human consciousness making its way between waking life and oblivion.” The nightwatchman’s explanations have lost their condescending edge. Is there a note of reverence in his voice?
“That was… a person. I felt them live. Felt them dying.”
“That’s the journey, and this is the last leg. The body’s dead but the brain takes just a little longer. That ember flows along this river, through this land, to its final darkening.”
“Show me where it ends.”
My hand is in his. I’m not sure if he took mine or I took his. We make our way along the shore. I can hear the beat of my own heart.
“So,” I say, filling the loud silence with my soft voice, “we all just end and there’s nothing after.”
“But you just go on and on.”
“Far as I can tell. I never got a rulebook, and if my father still exists, I haven’t seen him in, well, a long time. He was never the talkative type anyway. I remember being knee high and running up to him, and he’d just narrow his supergiant eyes at me and float off into a deeper realm where part-humans like me can’t follow.”
“It’s weird to think about you being, like, a little nightwatchman.”
“Yeah, new eternal souls get born every now and then, when a human wanders into this place, runs into one of us, and, y’know.” I might be imagining it but I swear I can see a light blush beneath the misty blackness of his face.
“Have you ever, ‘y’know’ed’ with one of your alive human visitors?”
“That! That’s private!”
“Look, I’m not like my brother but… growing up here was so lonely. After my mom was gone, all I had was the occasional lost human, and they never stayed. Not that they should, this is no place for alive humans to make a home, but I could never keep myself from hoping. And having hope is the surest way to get utterly crushed by how things actually turn out. I do not want to be responsible for giving a life like mine to a kid.”
I squeeze his hand.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I get it, just a little. There’s some… bad stuff going on in my world. I barely see anyone who isn’t on a screen. I barely talk to anyone who isn’t going through a crisis of their own. It’s sad and exhausting and so, so isolating. I have friends, but I don’t want to burden them. I have my parents but they expected me to do so much more with my life, to be some great artist, and I can’t bring myself to call them. I can’t imagine doing it for as long as you have.”
“At least you have the skip who sent you here.”
“She’s not exactly a friend.”
I tell him about the circumstances that brought me here. He listens, his starlight eyes burning steadily as we walk.
“She was upset with you,” he says after absorbing the tale.
“I don’t blame her.”
“Excuse me?” I half-heartedly try to snatch my hand back but his grip, however oblivious, is too strong and I’m not really trying.
“She left you flowers. You refused her gift. She tried to communicate with you, and you were too scared to move. She tried to dress like you, be like you, and you got angry with her.”
“She’s the one…” I start but trail off as soon as my conscience catches up with my anger. “Everyone’s their own goddamn protagonist.”
“You can apologize to her when you get back.”
“I hear it’s never too late.” He pauses. “Quit navel gazing and look up.”
I see it. Where the river ends. A great waterfall of expiring minds, flowing into the abyss. The spheres of consciousness cascade down into absolute darkness. I look down and see their dim lights vanishing.
“Well, this is the saddest thing I’ve ever seen.”
“I don’t get it,” the nightwatchman says. “There’s nothing sad about this. Look, each of these minds float down the river full of troubles and concerns, obsessions, grudges, anxieties, trauma. You felt it yourself. Everything in the world matters to them. Then they go over the edge and they’re in a moment when it all falls away and they get to just let go. Everything to nothing. What could be more peaceful?”
He’s turning to look me full in the face, dark and beautiful.
“This is my favorite place in the entire universe,” he says.
Am I going to fuck this guy? It’s been so long and what could be more appropriate, standing here on the very edge of the void.
Our faces are drawing closer. His shadowy lips part and I can see his pearly teeth. I’m on tip-toes because he’s so tall. I feel his arm circle my lower back, drawing me up.
“I forbid this vile fornication,” growls a familiar voice. The nightwatchman drops me and I sprawl on the stone. The white guy is standing further away from the falls than us, a few strides of shore between us. His cold gaze rakes us impassively.
“Why can’t you just let me have this one thing!?” the nightwatchman calls. The dark stars of the white guy’s eyes twinkle in a way that seems analogue to narrowing. I don’t see him move but now he’s right next to us. His hand is a dragon’s claw, twisting around the nightwatchman’s throat, lifting him while his feet kick helplessly in the air.
“You will have nothing because you are nothing, whoreson.”
“Stop hurting him!” I hear myself scream and find I’m leaping on the white guy’s back.
“It was my right to know the proper value of all things contained within the living universe. You permitted mortal after mortal to tamper with my machine. Now it is impossible to know what anything is truly worth. Value. Undeterminable.” He brings his other hand up, fingers probing into his brother’s eyes. The nightwatchman screams. “I do not care if it takes millennia, I will make you understand how this offends me.”
The white guy shrugs me off with the slightest movement. His light intensifies, eating into the nightwatchman’s anti-light. What can I do? I think about that sphere of life I briefly held. That poor veteran who wouldn’t leave his dog behind. I stand. The sword (that isn’t a sword) dangles at the nightwatchman’s hip. I lunge for it, wrapping both hands around the hilt, and pull up as hard as I can.
“Stop, you idiot,” the white guy hisses. “You will destroy us all.”
“Let my friend go.”
“Not until he learns his lesson.”
“Then I guess this is what’s happening.”
I am, obviously, not a strong person but I am truly using all my might. I manage to draw the not-sword up less than an inch. In that slightest fraction of exposed blade, I see an infinite galaxy of swirling stars and cosmic mysteries. Then I feel the burning cold emanating from it. I have to pull away before it freezes the skin of my palms.
“Get out of here!” the nightwatchman manages to sputter out from his sibling’s choking grip. I want to say I won’t leave him, but the cold is crawling inside me now, stealing my breath. I’m lifted into the air and by the time I realize that it’s the nightwatchman’s doing it, he’s flinging me away with his considerable might. I’m flying backward as I see the singularity open wide and consume both brothers before imploding into non-being.
I land in the river, among the flowing spheres. The impressions from their dying minds overwhelm me.
I (not me) feel the fever, the wracking coughs, the struggle to breathe.
I try to roll away but the spheres seem endless and each tells the same story as they bear me along.
I (not me) am wheezing, choking. They’re intubating me (not me). The endotracheal tube slides down my (not my) throat. No loved ones are near. My (not my) family can’t come close. I (not me) am alone at the end. I am alone.
The river gives way to the falls. I plunge forever toward that final nullification, the spheres shattering and their lights winking out around me. In the seconds before the nothingness takes me, I’m wishing my mom and dad were here to hold me.
Except someone is holding me, lifting me up. I feel warmth bathing me, driving the horrible cold out of my body.
“I knew you’d save me!” I shout. Then I open the eyes I didn’t even realize I’d closed and I see my ghost. She is luminous here, a being of golden light, still wearing her ridiculously wide hooped dress. Her arms are around me and her billowing skirts are bearing us up like a hot air balloon, up past the falls and the river, into the neither day nor night sky of the netherworld.
“You came for me?”
Her spectral face nods.
“Take me home.” I bury my head in the crook of her neck. We ascend, further and further.
We’re in my little coffin of a bedroom, laying together. Her warmth and presence are all around me. It’s not necessarily sexual but I am very turned on.
“I’m sorry,” I tell her, tears spilling through my voice.
“I know,” she says in plain English. Her voice is husky and soothing. “I am too. I… just wanted you to accept the roses I left for you. I have so little else to give. I didn’t mean to get so angry.”
“I was scared. I didn’t try hard enough to understand you.”
“You tried, but I was hurt and didn’t want to let you.”
I close my eyes for a while. It feels so good to be in her arms.
“Why did you open the door to the other world?” I ask her. I have to know.
“I thought we could both use some time to ourselves… and you needed an adventure.”
“Thank you. For that and not letting me fall.”
“It never occurred to me to do otherwise.”
“You’re… different to me now.”
“I know. It’s so easy for us to make monsters out of each other.”
“I think I had to go through all that, finding a friend and losing him, to understand how much I didn’t understand you.”
“I wasn’t trying to hurt you, or even teach you a lesson, but I’m glad you feel that way, Galit.”
“I heard that you’re stuck here.”
“For a while, yes. Maybe I’ll unstick one day.”
“What are you doing tomorrow?”
“I was planning on messing with the cat for a while. Maybe I’ll knock over some of those cups you’re always leaving on the kitchen counter. Just the plastic ones!”
“Well, if you’re free in the evening, there’s something I’d like to work on with you. I can’t stop thinking about those bowls you make to hold the flowers. The ones with the gold in the cracks.”
I hear her sigh knowingly.
“All these months floating around you while you work, I’ve been hoping to see you take all that talent you pour into designing welcome mats and ad campaigns, and channel it into something a bit more you. Of course I’ll make time. But you should sleep now. You’ve had a big night. Want me to keep holding you?”
“Yes please.” I turn on my side and let my sleep paralysis demon embrace me, mellow and radiant. “I’m glad you haunted my house… even though I really liked that stuff you broke.”
She’s gone when I wake up, off to be about her day, I suppose. I go downstairs and fry an egg, keeping the yellow runny. I eat it over a bowl of chili with some rye toast. I pet Jackie and plan my day. It’s mostly going to be calls. I want to talk to my parents, to tell them how much I miss them. But before that I take a hot shower. I put on an aloe mask because sticking to a skincare routine is important (also, my face still has a burn on it from the nightwatchman’s blood). I facetime Len instead of my mom and dad. Hey, sue me but I want my best friend first.
Len is smiling through the screen. They’re in their kitchen. Their lip ring sparkles in the sunlight coming in through their window. I miss sitting at that old wooden kitchen table, having coffee in the light with my friend. Someday I will again.
“Well if it isn’t my favorite Gally Gal,” they say.
“This a veiled mental health check? If so, it’d be my third one of morning.”
“Oh no. I mean, I’m always concerned about you, about everyone, but I have a, uh, creative concept I wanted to talk out.”
“If this is a design thing, I don’t know how much I can help.”
Len can’t see it, but my collaborator is right next to me. I can feel her hand in mine.
“No, no. I mean, it’s an art piece, but it’s not professional. It’s something that’d be just for me.”