The ghost women in the walls sway with river current, hair drifting in reedy halos, eyes like fresh dug graves (a tired comparison but an apt one), they reach down from the ceiling for me while their viola voices vibrate a song which I will mourn the loss of upon waking, and though I know they mean to pull me through and switch our places, lock me in their two-dimensional tomb and steal my warm, vibrant life for their own, still I reach back, rising slowly up through the air to meet those filmy moonglow fingers, almost close enough to touch as the music swells; it is lovely just to be wanted, no matter the reason, and anyway I already know what it is to be dead, why should I mind being dead somewhere else?
I am a scribe who knows not what she serves. If Tanim and Daren are gods in their own right, they are long lost to time or choose to remain unknown to any but myself. If they are gods already established in the world, with followers and historic traditions, then why take these strange forms just for me? Why choose new names and stories? Perhaps they are not gods, then. I thought them once ghosts but if so they enjoy an unbelievable influence over the physical world for mere spirits. They can alter the environment, after all, even to the point of manifesting items or stealing them away. Such powerful abilities, combined with an apparent penchant for fire and a string of literally Hellish dreams on my part, suggest perhaps they are fallen angels or demons. Again, though, they would either have to have chosen new identities for our interactions or have never been recorded before my meager efforts. The first option seems illogical; why keep up the charade for over fifteen years? The second is, unfortunately, more or less impossible to prove to the satisfaction of all doubt. They could of course simply reveal the answer, but they enjoy my confusion too much to do so. I’m left then with vague theories and labels which never quite fit: “sun”, “moon”; “gods”, “angels”; “spirits”, “phantoms”. All I know for sure is that I serve they who call themselves Tanim and Daren, whatever they truly are.
So I’m folding laundry in my bedroom while thinking about how Tanim and Daren, the gods/angels/demons/whatever-the-fuck I serve, have been virtually silent the last year. Sure, they’ve made themselves known every once in a while in trickster-like fashion by stealing lighters and setting off our fire alarms, but that hasn’t happened in months. These days I can barely summon a whisper of their ghosts when I’m listening to their music, let alone channel a whole sentence of prose in their words. Maybe, I’m thinking as I ball up socks, it would be better to just give up, to finally accept they’ve moved on for good. Apparently they don’t require my services anymore. Fine.
Clothes folded, I walk into the kitchen, whereupon I smell something burning. For a moment I think I’ve left the electric kettle on the counter, but no, that’s not the source of the scent. I turn in a confused circle, half convinced my nose is playing tricks on me because I see no flames, no smoke, no sign of danger. Then I see the red glow. Somehow one of the large stove-top burners has been turned to the highest setting, and already it ticks with heat. I’m home alone and haven’t been anywhere near the stove all day; there’s no way I could have unwittingly turned on the burner, nor any way the cats could have somehow done it themselves given the placement of the dial. It’s not just unlikely – it’s downright impossible.
This isn’t the most comforting of signs, but beggars can’t be choosers so I guess I’ll take it. Just please don’t burn the house down, guys.
Are you coming to me?
What urges me to search for you here among the snow and ice? Why do I linger on the side of this dead mountain, straining to catch your voices on the wind, when you could never have been here? This isn’t your story. This isn’t your grave. So why this place, this time, this particular tragedy? Perhaps it is the mystery that draws me, the kinship I feel for those who will forever search in vain for a truth only the dead know. Or perhaps every place touched by death is a link to you, you who are death embodied, you who are ancient beyond comprehension, and those places become an access point or a portal or just another clue on my never ending scavenger hunt. Maybe; perhaps; possibly. At the end of the day all I know for sure is you are one of these mysteries too: a flicker of light at the corner of my eye, a single footstep in the frozen forest, a distant figure in the fog I cannot ever quite reach. Some part of you waits for me here at this bleak crime scene – so I kneel and dig.
Will you find me?
Will you find me?
They say to cross the Bridge of Ghosts you must wear a mask so the specters cannot recognize you and silver bells to disrupt their voices. If you do not wear a mask the spirits will take the form of those you love to lure you over the side. If you do not wear bells they will whisper lies in your ears until you take their words for truth and leap to your death. Even with these protections in place you must walk quickly and never stop until you reach safe earth on the other side. The mask and bells are no guarantee of protection.
No one crosses the Bridge of Ghosts without good reason. It spans a chasm high in the mountains where the wind wails and the cliff faces sharpen the gusts to knives. Nothing grows there. Nothing lives there. Nothing chooses to linger there longer than it must, for to linger is to tempt fate too boldly. Yet it is also said that if you cross the bridge successfully, never succumbing to the ghosts’ illusions or lies, you may at the other end ask them one question which they must answer truthfully. Such a reward has thus lead many, many fools to attempt the pass.
Someone stands now at one end of the bridge and the ghosts swirl hungrily in anticipation, appearing as a white mist which ascends from the valley far below to shroud the bridge and cliffs in wintry half-light. The traveler wears a finely wrought mask of silver with rays like the sun’s with bright little bells tinkling softly from each point. One foot moves to step out onto the bridge; the spirits take up their howling din. They cannot physically touch the man and so they seek to stop him with trickery, yet the mask and bells render the deceptions powerless.
The traveler thus passes through the fog with ease, never faltering, never fearing, and arrives safely at the other side of the bridge. As he removes the mask he speaks to the empty air, “Did you keep your promise?” Behind him a familiar voice answers, “Yes. I have waited long for you.” The traveler turns back to the bridge to find his lover standing upon it with arm extended. “I am here now,” he responds. He steps forward and they join hands; both disappear, leaving behind only the fallen mask.
there’s this scream in my throat i’ve been swallowing for years and i used to be ashamed of it, you know, tried to hide it, to bide it, to bury it deep, but now i’m thinking maybe it’s here for a reason and i ought to embrace it, maybe i’m some sort of modern banshee for a modern world and i’ve come to tell everyone that we’re all gonna die, that the end is and has been extremely fucking nigh, and if so then i have a duty to let everyone know, a destiny to detail the destruction entailed, ’cause if you don’t think we’re there yet then oh man do i have a dirge to sing for you, come listen, friend, there’s no melody but i promise it’s a doozy
I could swear I was there. The distant glittering stars, the glassy black water, the last violin strains of Nearer My God to Thee hovering in the cold air – they are clear as memory. Was I just that weird child, obsessed with death and nature’s might? Am I just that weird adult, expecting the worst in every situation? Or is there something more? I never dream about water so cold it kills; I cannot claim evidence from past life readings or inexplicable historical knowledge. Yet something binds me to that place, to that night, to that terrible disaster so much it feels like a homecoming. Like I belong there. I read the names of those lost and think I know you, I remember you. I want to tell them it wasn’t your fault, you couldn’t have known, no one could have known. Do the Titanic’s wayward ghosts reach beyond their world to those they know will tell their stories or relieve their guilt by solving the nagging unknowns? Perhaps over the years the spirits of fifteen hundred people, at the mercy of trade winds and deep water currents, have scattered across the globe to wash up on far foreign shores. Maybe some small child collecting seashells and beach glass brought something bigger home with them. Or maybe those souls passed on and even in new bodies, even living new lives, that night’s chill remains in their blood and cries out for resolution.
it occurs to me that perhaps my life is just like The Others, you know, and – SPOILER ALERT – it turns out i was the ghost all along, what a fucking plot twist, no wonder all the things i tried to hold onto kept slipping away, no wonder all the times i tried to stop you from leaving you just passed right through me like i wasn’t even there – because i wasn’t there, was i, i wasn’t on your mind or even on your same fucking plane of existence, so yeah, maybe all these years ive been haunting you and not the other way around, wouldn’t that explain some things, and maybe you finally found some priest or medium to exorcise me so you can sleep at night without my chains rattling in the hallway, good job i guess, sweet dreams, but you know ill be back
I suppose I should not expect the Devil to stay close to home, should I? He was a wanderer from the very beginning, proud and independent, and certainly I have pined a thousand nights over his absence in the past. Yet here I am ten years later having learned nothing, still hunched over the cavern in my chest, still seeking proof of divinity in languages I cannot even speak. Do I doubt because he leaves? Does he leave because I doubt? I am an old hand at this and yet still it feels like punishment, like purgatory, like an eternity spent scrabbling in the dust. I thought myself passed this particular trial and yet, and yet, and yet here I am smearing ash on my skin and tearing at my hair once more. What a surprise.
“You must be Kaylie! Hi!” The grinning young woman who answered the door was not precisely what Kaylie had been expecting. The name Fox Hollow implied uniforms and scowling adults, maybe even servants or something, not some girl in a sweatshirt and yoga pants. “Um.” Kaylie shifted her backpack from one shoulder to the other and managed a wavering smile. “Hi?” She shook the girl’s extended hand and absolutely nothing weird or paranormal or scary happened. Kaylie didn’t know if she was disappointed or relieved.
“I’m Stephanie; I’ll be your group leader this year,” The girl released Kaylie’s hand and stepped back, opening the door wide so the eleven year old could enter. “Come on in. Welcome to Fox Hollow, we’re so excited you’ll be joining us.” As Kaylie stepped over the threshold the draft brought Stephanie’s scent to her and she froze. “Wait,” she did a double take as if Stephanie might have been switched with someone else, “you’re a werewolf?!” The older girl nodded and laughed. “Wow, you have a good nose on you! Yeah, there are five of us here – well, six now that you’re here.” With that she turned and gestured toward a staircase in the front entry of the house. “Come on, I’ll show you your room.”
As Kaylie followed Stephanie up to the third floor, she craned her neck to take in as much of her new home as possible. Each landing of the staircase entered into a sort of common room from which hallways full of doors branched. In the first common room two teenage girls were playing checkers while a third sat reading on the floor. None of them looked, well, weird, but Kaylie had to remind herself that she didn’t look weird on the outside either… except on full moons. The checkers girls didn’t look up as Stephanie and Kaylie passed, but the reader did; when she flashed them a smile, she had far more pointy teeth than most humans.
“Your room will be on the third floor,” Stephanie explained as they reached the landing. “You’ll have a roommate every year, but since you’re coming late in the season you’ve already been assigned someone. Her name is Maddy, she’s super nice. I think you guys will love each other.” They passed through the common room and headed down the hallway. Kaylie sneaked quick glances into any of the open doorways, eager to see more of the kids she would be living with. As she passed one open door, though, she caught the gaze of an older teenage girl. She was utterly beautiful – straight platinum hair, flawless pale skin, skinny and fit – but when she caught sight of Kaylie she scowled in disgust and turned away. “Eww,” she could be heard commenting to someone out of sight, “another werewolf? I swear they were way pickier about their students when my mom went here.”
Kaylie stopped dead in her tracks. Stephanie kept walking for a beat or two, then stopped and glanced back at the girl’s queasy face. She sighed and knelt down next to her. “Don’t let Amber get to you,” she said, quiet yet firm. “I promise not all the vampires here are so stuck up. She’s just… old blood. And wants to make sure everyone knows it.” She knuckled Kaylie gently on the arm. “Don’t worry, you’re gonna love it here.” She rose and held out her hand. Normally Kaylie would never hold an adult’s hand – she wasn’t a baby anymore! – but in that moment she needed the firm tether to keep her from falling into fear’s clutches. She gripped Stephanie’s hand and they walked the last stretch to a closed door.
“Maddy,” Stephanie called as she knocked, “your new roomie’s here!” She smiled reassuringly down at Kaylie. Somewhere within the room, a muffled voice called, “Come in!” and Stephanie opened the door. “Maddy,” she introduced them with a flourish, “this is Kaylie. Kaylie, this is Maddy; she’s been here a year now, so she can teach you all the tricks and tips.” She winked at the eager young girl standing in the center of the extremely tidy room. “Take good care of her. But don’t get so excited that you forget your homework, though, okay?”
“Okay, okaaaay,” Maddy bounced on the balls of her feet in anticipation. “Now go, I wanna show her everything!” Laughing, Stephanie gave them both a thumbs-up and headed back downstairs. Maddy turned her attention to Kaylie and tried for what she hoped was a friendly smile. “Hi! I’m so glad you’re finally here. It’ll be nice to have a roommate again.” She turned, then glanced back over her shoulder. “Oh, can you shut the door?”
“Sure,” Kaylie shut the door and followed Maddy into the room. She had always been taught to shake hands with someone you meet, as a sign of respect, so she held out her hand to the other girl. “It’s nice to meet you, Maddy. I’m Kaylie. Um, like Stephanie said, I guess.” Maddy stared down at her proffered hand and for a second Kaylie was sure the girl thought she was totally weird and a loser. Then Maddy held out her own hand – and passed it directly through Kaylie’s, with only a sudden cold shock as evidence of the contact. “Sorry, I can’t shake hands,” Maddy explained with an apologetic smile. “One of those awkward parts about being a ghost.”
“You’re a ghost?” Kaylie realized she had nearly yelled, and forced her voice back to an inside level. “That’s so cool, I’ve always wanted to meet a ghost!” Maddy shook her head. “No way, you’re a werewolf, that’s way cooler!” They argued back and forth until they were both overcome with a serious case of the giggles, and by then it was time for dinner.
In the end, money makes the whole thing almost embarrassingly easy. Money buys his housekeeper’s silence while she diligently washes away the red stains on carpet, bed, and walls. Money secures him a private jet and a wave through customs without so much as a glance into the bag on his shoulder. Money buys an opulent room in a pricey Parisian hotel just blocks from one of the catacomb entrances. And money averts the eyes of the security guard who lets him into the catacombs after dark and then takes a long, long break.
With only a flashlight for illumination, Tanim winds his way through the catacombs, seeking an area where even the bravest tour groups don’t dare explore. He finally comes to a dead-end chamber, its earthen floor untouched by footprints, and here he sets down the bag he has guarded so carefully on his journey.
“Catacombs? Really? That’s hardly creative; you could have just left me in a cemetery back home,” Tanim pointedly keeps his gaze lowered, refusing to glance in the direction of the lazy, mocking voice. Instead, he opens his bag and begins unloading its contents, setting each white bone on the ground with care. Over his shoulder he replies in a similarly mocking tone, “What better place to hide human bones than in plain sight among thousands of their fellows?” Withdrawing the last bone, a lovingly preserved skull, Tanim finally turns to his companion. “Besides, you’ll have company here. You can bother the other ghosts and scare tourists. I’m sure you’ll like that.”
From the entrance of the little chamber, Daren frowns and crosses his arms. “I much prefer haunting you, darling. These past few weeks have been quite enjoyable for me.”
“Yes,” Tanim sighs, setting down the skull, “so I know. But no more. If you won’t stay dead, you can at least stay away from me.” He glances around as if taking one last look at his lover’s final resting place. “I suppose this is goodbye for a second time, then.” He sneers at the specter. “And the last time.”
“Not so fast,” Daren holds up one white hand and takes a step into the chamber. His arrogant mouth curls in a sly smile, half teasing and half pouting. “Wouldn’t you like to stay a while? Reminisce about old times?”
“Not particularly,” Tanim scowls, impatient to be away but refusing to leave Daren with the last word. “I’ll be glad to leave those old times behind me – along with you, beloved.” The word is uttered like a curse or a slur, stripped of all the love and affection with which it was once spoken. Daren only laughs. “Oh, I don’t think so,” he taunts, grinning as another step brings him closer to Tanim. “See, because you took my life, I have the ability to haunt you, to torment you however I like – yet I can’t touch you. Incorporeality can be so frustrating. But this place…” He gestures to encompass the whole of the catacombs, arm outstretched as if to touch the walls themselves. “There’s more power in these tunnels than you can possibly imagine. Bringing me here was a very, very bad idea.” Daren’s fingers brush the brown bones cemented in the wall; dust and dirt crumble away at his touch, but Tanim doesn’t notice this crucial detail. “So won’t you stay a little longer, my love? Even for just one last kiss?”
The ghost closes the distance between them, one hand snaking around Tanim’s waist, the other cupping his face. Tanim tries to pull away but it’s too late, and Daren’s grip is like iron. Then the hand on his cheek slides into his hair and drags his head to the side, and the mouth that bends to his bared neck is very wide and full of teeth.
– – –
The body isn’t discovered for several days, not until the local cataphiles hold another rave deep within the tunnels. At first they mistake it for a prank; after all, you’re clearly supposed to think the skull with its wide red grin was the cause of the ragged hole in the dead man’s throat, and how exactly could that happen? On closer inspection, however, the body’s decomposition appears quite real and the skull is markedly fresher than the ones which shape the catacomb walls. Unfortunately, by the time the police are finally summoned the scene has been contaminated beyond recognition. There’s no way to tell which set of footprints belongs to the murderer, and the officers refuse to believe the drunk, spooked teenagers when they swear only one set of footprints led to the body, and none away.
[in-kawr-pawr-ee-uh l, -pohr-]
1. Not corporeal or material; insubstantial.
2. Of, relating to, or characteristic of nonmaterial beings.
Ghosts are incorporeal. Incorporeal means no hands to hold, no fingers to clutch, no mouth to bite and swallow. Incorporeal means ghosts cannot have or keep. Give back, then, the songs you took from me. Give back the books, the movies, the places and people and names. Ghosts are not allowed to lay claim to the corporeal; only the living can, and I am so very much alive. I grow more alive by the day, while you grow deader and deader. I bet you’ve already forgotten what it feels like to be made of flesh and blood, sensation and experience, haven’t you? What a pity. All those wonderful things you’re trying to hold onto are wasted on your scrap of weightless soul – so why don’t you give them back to someone who can fully appreciate their worth?
They say spirits cannot cross running water; so what happens if someone dies in between? What if some person still closer to boy than man, desperately fleeing a life he escaped once and to which he won’t let himself be dragged back, plunges into the river? The river that crashes forth from the mountains, tumbles through the foothills, and slips with placid power through the town where this not-boy, not-man came of age? What if he relinquishes himself eagerly to the black water’s undertow just as his pursuer, this one more man than boy but still young enough to think love can fix anything, reaches the edge of the sandy bank? What if something happens – maybe he dives purposefully, maybe he slips, maybe the bank gives way under his weight – and suddenly the river has claimed two lives, washing the empty bodies far downstream from where they met their end? What if all this happened in the span of a breath; what would become of these doomed spirits? Trapped within the very water they cannot cross, would they be fated to remain in the river itself, caught forever within the icy current? Would their voices cry out in the thunder of the rapids, unable to ever find the peace they were also denied in life?
Don’t tell me what happened to Amelia Earhart, D. B. Cooper, or the crew of the Mary Celeste. I don’t want to know.
Don’t explain why there are stairs in the middle of nowhere or plane-hungry triangles out at sea, rows of lights in the sky or holy faces appearing in rock, plaster, linoleum, clouds. I don’t want to know.
Don’t try to convince me The Wreck of the Titan was just some crazy coincidence or that famous black and white picture just a grainy snapshot of a floating log. Let some of the mysteries remain.
Let people disappear without a trace; let the wilderness swallow up whole ships, planes, settler communities, and leave behind only a word carved into a tree to prove they ever existed.
Let Tutankhamen’s curse sleep in infamy. Let the Chupacabra skulk through Mexican jungles. Let the Flying Dutchman live to haunt another day.
Is it so bad, not to know the truth?
The first time Tanim enters the house he is bombarded by the voices of the dead, so many speaking at once he can’t even determine their number. But it’s what isn’t being said that sends ice crawling down his back. Amid the emotional cacophony of the spirits around him, there is one presence inside the house which does not speak. He cannot see it; he can only sense it like the weight of a storm front looming somewhere in the distance.
The entity never makes itself known during his first session in the house, though Tanim can feel its awareness of him as he moves from room to room. He doesn’t acknowledge it, instead focusing on the other spirits clamoring for his attention. They are a startling range of ages, genders, time periods, and tragedies unlike anything he’s experienced. Yet beneath individual anger, sorrow, and confusion they share one common emotion – terror.
Records show no deaths associated with the property, though Tanim’s heard rumors about a suicide so long ago the details are lost. Why, then, the amassed dead? Tanim digs through archives, basements, attics, local myths and legends, but nothing explains the presence of so many dead. Even the findings of past mediums make no sense; no one seems to have encountered the same spirits twice in the house, and no one else has reported sensing the unknown entity which watched Tanim so closely.
The second time Tanim enters the house, he tunes out the noise of the dead as he passes methodically through each room. Beneath their racket he can still sense the unseen entity, its presence growing in strength as if it laid a trail for him to follow. And perhaps it has; Tanim feels himself pulled ever higher, up to the base of the attic stairs. There are no dead on this floor, which explains their density down below – they’re too afraid of what waits upstairs to venture closer.
Tanim climbs the stairs into a dim, dusty attic. Nothing stirs, yet he knows he’s not alone. The storm front sensation builds until the pressure tightens around Tanim’s chest, making him sink to his knees as he struggles for breath. Then the pressure lifts like the storm breaking and Tanim raises his head to see a man standing before him. He has just enough time to register pale skin and white hair, dark clothing and narrowed black eyes, before the figure vanishes again.
A single word accompanies the vision: Daren.
Tanim retraces every step of his research, yet still can find no physical records of the suicide or even anyone in the town named Daren. It makes no sense; other death records for the area go back to the founding of the town, certainly long before the house existed. Why, then, was this one death never recorded, if not in a newspaper then at least by the medical examiner?
Unless this death was meant to be wiped from the collective memory.
The third time Tanim enters the house, empty rooms and silence greet him. The dead who packed the house like frightened refugees are gone; only the single entity remains like a spider at the center of an empty web. Tanim can feel it waiting as he climbs each staircase and once more enters the attic’s oppressive gloom. Though he longs for the spirit to show itself again, fear makes him hesitate to call it out. He’s encountered entities that feed upon the energy of others before, but never one so powerful it could pull other dead from miles around and trap them in one place. This isn’t a normal haunting and he must tread carefully.
As Tanim takes a step forward, the entity appears. The spirit’s form is that of a young man, possibly Tanim’s age, with an angular face and thin, sardonic lips. It wears black clothing of an indeterminate time period, the color melting into the dark attic so only the figure’s face and hands are entirely visible. Those same hands twitch periodically as if the entity wants to attack Tanim, yet holds itself back.
“You must be hungry,” Tanim finally says as he watches its fingers’ slight spasms. “You’ve drawn everything in the area to you, haven’t you? You’re running out of prey.” The spirit says nothing, but that doesn’t surprise him. This one clearly doesn’t like to talk. “If you remain in this house, your power will eventually dwindle. You’ll become just another shade trapped where it died.” He approaches the entity, pleased when it neither moves nor disappears, only watches him with wary curiosity. “Of course, if you attach yourself to me, you could leave this place and go anywhere. We could find all sorts of things for you to eat.”
The entity seems to consider the offer for a moment. Then a wolfish smile spreads slowly over its face and it closes the distance between them.
Every time Tanim enters a new house, he watches its resident spirits scatter away from his approach; they sense the predator lurking within him, though they can’t know its exact nature. “Have fun, Daren,” he murmurs to the man standing at his side. The entity’s only response is soft, hungry laughter.