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Day Two Hundred and Twenty Six: Double-Crossed

January 3, 2012 Leave a comment

Say what you will about funerals, mine was exceptional.

There were the flowers and the slow-as-hell procession of about three dozen cars. Everyone was dressed in black, my mother and my two sisters were decked out in pearls and veils, my wife was doing her best not to cry the whole time, even though everybody was placing bets on how long it would take her to jump onto my coffin and throw a wobbly.

There were officials from every level of government, from a half-dozen nations, a twenty-one gun salute, and a lavish wreath to lay on my grave. There was a Dixieland band and a bagpiper. You can’t beat that.

The grave marker was very nice, very simple. Just “Senator Mitchell Gillman” and a couple of dates. Oh, and something about “A hero to us all,” which was awful nice of them.

The funny part of it all is that I didn’t deserve a damn bit of it. I mean, don’t get me wrong – it’s not like I’m going to tell anyone that. It’s not like I could. At least not now, what with the whole “being dead” thing. Makes chatting a little bit of a chore when it comes to the living. When it comes to the other unquiet dead, however, it’s not so tough.

“You double-crossing bastard.” A form materialized in front of me, blocking my view of the Cardinal giving his eulogy. The thing was…

Y’know, now that I’m dead, I find it really hard to explain things to people who aren’t. There’s a certain perspective problem that’s hard to get past. But I’ll try anyway, just for your benefit.

Have you ever licked a nine-volt battery right after remembering the most embarrassing moment you had in high school? And then stubbed your toe really hard while someone jammed peppermint oil up your nose and played whale song sped up about a thousand times?

Neither have I. But it was kind of like that.

And it punched me in the mouth.

I clutched at my jaw, more out of habit than actual pain. “Sweet mother Mary, Hin’leru – what’d you do that for?”

The thing coalesced into something that vaguely resembled how I had seen it last, before we were both blasted into our component atoms. “You blew us up, human!” It bloated as it spoke, greenish-black skin cracking and sliding over its form. Its head was surrounded by a glowing blue gas that smelled like burned coffee. “That wasn’t part of the plan!”

I stood up and brushed my trousers. Again, not strictly necessary, but habit is hard to shake. “Hin, look, I said I was sorry.” The thing bloated again in rage. “I had to sell it, and I guess I…” I shrugged and grinned. What was he going to do to me now? “I guess I oversold.”

The teeth on this thing were like slabs of dark concrete, and they threw sparks as it ground them together. “I had everything worked out, human,” it said. “We had a plan!”

“Yes, we did, Hin.” I tried to pat it on the shoulder – or at least what was probably its shoulder – and my hand passed through. “We had a plan, and the plan didn’t work the way you thought it would. Welcome to life, hope you had a nice time here.” I turned back to my funeral, where the President was getting ready to say a few words. I always hated his politics, but man this guy could orate.

The thing grabbed me, which was totally unfair, and threw me through the crowd. I wafted through everyone, and nobody noticed, which was a bit of a shame. I eventually slowed down and came to rest against the side of a mausoleum a few hundred yards away. I pulled myself up, and saw Hin’leru stalking towards me, leaving great globbets of ectoplasm floating in the air behind him. There was definitely something weird going on here. He could throw me across the graveyard, but I couldn’t touch him? This was going to be a very long afterlife.

Well. I had managed to stare down an entire Democratic caucus when they wanted to pass through a new tax package, so I was pretty sure I could handle one angry extraterrestrial ghost. I held up a hand, and the spirit stopped like it had hit brick. Hin’leru looked confused – probably just as confused as I was, but I think I managed to hide it better. I cleared my throat and adjusted my tie and then stood the way I always did when addressing the Senate. My back was straight, my chin up, looking good for the cameras.

“Hin’leru, this has got to stop. Regardless of the deal you and I had – or whatever deal you thought we had – it’s over.” I pointed out at my funeral, which was starting to break up. My wife was shaking hands with a whole lot of powerful people, and holding together nicely. “The fact is that we are dead. Your plan failed, my plan failed, and we are both. Dead.”

The ghost trembled there for a moment, and then kind of… deflated. Not in a literal sense, mind you, but all that malice and anger and rage that he’d had pointed at me – it was just gone.

“Let’s face it, Hin,” I said, putting my hands behind my back. “Your invasion was never going to work in the first place.” It looked up at me with suspicion in its eyes, and I just nodded. “We’ve been doing protection rackets down here a whole lot longer than you know. And as nice as your offer was to try and ‘protect’ us from all the big, bad aliens out there, it wouldn’t be too long before people wised up and started asking some very pointed questions.”

The other ghost rushed at me again. “But -”

I whipped a hand out, and it stopped. Interesting trick, that. “In any case, as long as we’re wallowing in some post-mortem honesty, Hin, I figure you should know.” I leaned forward and smiled at him. It was my big, smug smile, the one that had become an internet meme for about six months. It was the smile I used when I knew I had someone by the short hairs on national television and there wasn’t a damn thing they could do about it.

“The truth is, Hin – I was always going to use you.” I gestured to the departing crowd. “All those people would have been out of jobs the moment the American people found out that they’d been sold out to some interstellar thug. The very instant I revealed to them that there was never any threat, that you had tricked us all into believing your little story, the people of this country would have risen up as one and rebelled as surely as they had back when in the days of the Revolution.”

I turned back to him, and he was glaring at me, that coffee-smelling mist pouring off him in waves. “It would have been a new nation, Hin. No one would ever trust the federal government to do more than carry the mail. It would have been everything I’ve worked for all these years.” I sighed. “I had everything set up perfectly, and then…” I shrugged. “Kaboom.” I looked over at it. “What was that, anyway?”

It snarled at me. “The central power core of my ship,” it said. It flexed heavy, clawed fingers, but didn’t make a move towards me.

“Central power core,” I said. “You really should have been more careful with that.” I shook my head. “Pity. Baton Rouge was a lovely city.” I took a deep breath and let it out again. “Well,” I said, “what’s done is done. I guess here is where we part -” I cut myself off as I realized that Hin’leru was making a bizarre sound, sort of in the middle of… a hyena choking to death and an air-raid siren. I turned back to him. “What’s wrong?” I asked.

Hin’leru kept making the noise, and there was something in its eyes that told me it was laughing. The smell that was coming off it now was like beer, spilled on the floor and left there during a party that ended in tears for all involved. It made my noise wrinkle and my chest hurt. I may not have had a spine, but a chill ran up it anyway. “What’s so funny?” I asked it.

It opened its eyes and they were shining with an evil humor. “You thought I was trying to scam you, Human?” it asked. “You thought you could use me?” Its arm reached out and grabbed me, across a far greater distance than I thought it should have, and Hin’leru dragged me upwards, above the treetops and the surrounding roofs. I could see my grave, dark and hollow with the coffin beside it. My wife was still there. “Look!” Hin’leru said, jabbing a finger towards the darkening sky. “Look at what I was protecting you from!”

The stars were coming out. But it was far too early for that many stars, and we were much too close to the city. And besides – stars didn’t move the way these did.

They came towards us, growing from tiny pinpricks of light to great, glowing spheres. They began to arrange themselves in the sky, snapping into position as a great grid from horizon to horizon. Beams of sickly green light arced between each sphere, making them into a vast net of energy miles across. Hin’leru’s laugh grew louder and louder as they lowered towards the ground, each sphere now surrounded by its own halo of green energy. They dropped quickly, not stopping once they hit the ground. Their net sliced into the earth, rending it and carving it up as they disappeared beneath its surface.

I stood still in the land of the dead, watching the earth roil and churn. The trees burst into flame and great gouts of fire burst up from under the crust, and I could feel the planet’s death ripple through the world of the dead.

“Honey? Is that you?”

My wife walked out of the mists towards me, still wearing her veil and her pearls. I nodded and held out a hand. “Sorry, dear,” I said. She looked nervously over at Hin’leru, whose laughter had subsided into a great, expanding cloud of smug self-righteousness. “Don’t worry about him,” I said. “With any luck, he’ll go away once all this is done.” I held my wife close and we watched the world burn together.

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Day One Hundred and Eighty-eight: Houseguests

November 25, 2011 2 comments

My husband and I bought a haunted house.

We got a great deal for it, too. Even in this day and age, people have a thing about buying a house where – allegedly – the dead still walk and unquiet spirits roam free to terrorize the living. A good haunting knocks at least ten percent off the list price. More if it was due to something particularly gruesome.

Our house was the one where Willie Heckle killed fourteen young boys over the course of ten years.

I certainly wouldn’t make light of it. That kind of crime is… well, it’s unthinkable. In this city, his name is pretty much the go-to name for parental horror. Fourteen kids. He buried thirteen of them in the basement floor. The story goes that after the police raided the house, killing Heckle in a shootout, one of the officers found boy number fourteen. It’s said that the cop was so horrified by what he saw that he put a bullet in the kid’s head right before he put one in his own.

So yeah, this house has a history, and our agent tried to steer us away from it good and hard. But let’s face facts here. Hardwood floors aren’t easy to come by, and for all his horror, Heckle kept the place in great condition. Even after all these years, it doesn’t need nearly as much work as some of the other places we looked at.

But here’s the thing: there’s no such thing as ghosts. There’s no such thing as a permanent evil stain that resides in a place after the perpetrator is gone. Bloodstains, yes, but those were ripped out by one of the previous owners. But Ari and I were very firm on this when the broker brought it up, when the neighbors came around to welcome us to the neighborhood, when our parents called because they’d found out where we were living: there were no such thing as ghosts, and there was nothing there except the two of us.

We were, of course, wrong. But I’ve always said that’s the hallmark of a true skeptical thinker: when presented with evidence that inescapably, undeniably disproves your position, you have to abandon it and take up another. It just took us a while to figure it out.

The first thing we noticed were the footprints.

Ari mentioned it to me over breakfast one morning, about a week after we moved in. “Savannah, you forgot to put down the bath mat when you took a shower this morning.”

I looked up from my paper and then ran a hand through pillow-tangled hair. “I haven’t taken a shower yet, hon,” I said.

He looked at me and then glanced up, towards where the upstairs bathroom was. “Really?” he asked.

“Ari, if this is what I look like after I shower, then I hate to think what I look like before.” I went back to the paper.

“Huh,” he said. “There were wet footprints all over the bathroom. I thought that maybe you…” He stopped in the middle of his thought and then shrugged. “Probably nothing,” he said.

By the end of the day, I had forgotten about it, and I figured he had as well. But that wasn’t the only weird thing that happened in the house.

It was pretty textbook, really. Doors would close that we had left opened. I’d come downstairs and all the drawers in the kitchen would be sticking out. The TV would turn on in the middle of the night. And we had logical, rational reasons for each and every one of those occurrences. If it wasn’t the house settling or warped wood or a short circuit, it was probably just our own faulty memory leading us down the garden path. To our credit, neither one of us even thought about blaming a ghost.

My mother, on the other hand, had no problem with it.

She was supposed to stay for a week while she visited some friends in the city. She lasted very nearly twenty-four hours. As she threw her things back into a suitcase the morning after she arrived, she said, “I will not stay in this house a moment longer than I have to.” She spun at me and pointed an accusing finger at me. “And neither should you!” Her eyes rolled from one corner of the room to the other. “There’s evil in this house, Savannah. I saw it with my own eyes.”

I sat on the bed. “Really, mom?” I asked. I tried very hard to keep a condescending tone out of my voice, but judging by her narrowed eyes I was pretty sure I failed.

“I woke up in the middle of the night,” she said. “I heard something that sounded like crying. So I got up, and right there -” She pointed to a space next to the bedroom door. “Right there, as clear as I see you, Savannah, I saw a little boy. He was curled up in a ball and crying.” Her eyes started to shine, and that’s when I started to get worried. My mother has always been a paragon of self-restraint, and for her to get emotional like this would take a lot. Ghost or no ghost, she thought she saw something, and it really disturbed her.

“Okay, mom,” I said. “I’ll book a hotel room for you downtown. How’s that sound?”

She went back to the suitcase and snapped it shut. “That sounds fine,” she said. “But I want you and Ari to get out of here. This is not a good place to raise a family, Savannah.”

I very nearly rose to that argument, which was an old one. I wanted to have kids, but I just didn’t think we were in a good enough position to raise any. Ari’s teaching salary was low enough, and I wasn’t making a whole lot as a copy editor for an ad company. We had decided to put off having children until we were sure we could take care of them, and that didn’t look like it was going to happen anytime soon. No matter what my mother wanted.

I saw her off in a taxi and told Ari when he came home that I was worried for her health.

Pretty soon, the strange became the normal. There were no bleeding walls or portals to hell in the closets. Just little things – a toothbrush out of place one morning, all my clothes off hangars the next. Nothing dangerous, but a lot of minor annoyances that we learned to deal with. And we never, not so much as once, blamed it on ghosts. We were enlightened people, after all.

That made it all the weirder when we saw the ghost for the first time.

It was during Thursday night TV. Ari and I were on the sofa, as usual. He was grading essays, I was watching a police drama when the TV snapped off, as did the lights. “Aw, hell,” he said. He handed me the essays, got up, and headed to the kitchen. He came back a few moments later with a couple of flashlights and his cell phone. “It’s always something,” he said. He called the power company, and they said they’d look into it, but they hadn’t gotten any other reports of a power outage. Indeed, when I looked outside, all the other houses seemed fine.

When I turned around, there was a boy standing behind behind the sofa, watching Ari, and there was no way I could describe this boy other than to say that he was a ghost.

He was naked and white and glowing. Dark hair nearly covered eyes that looked blankly out of a face that seemed to be observing Ari with curiosity as my husband graded essays by flashlight. I hate to say it, because it makes me sound like a character in a bad horror movie – I screamed.

Ari jumped up, dropping the essays on the floor, and when he saw me and looked where I was looking, he screamed too. We stood there, holding each other, yelling over and over again wordless syllables of horror and shock. This boy – this thing – was in our house. What was worse, if he was what we thought he was, then he was proof that all we thought we knew was a lie.

That’s not a problem that you can really get over without some screaming.

When we took a breath, the ghost looked up at us, crossed his arms and said, “Are you done?”

No. We weren’t done.

A few minutes later, the ghost was actually looking bored. He leaned up against the sofa, his chin in his hands and his blank eyes on us. We were terrified, unable to move. Nothing we had ever experienced had prepared us for something like this.

“Hey,” he said, and gave us a wave. Ari and I both flinched.

The boy sighed, and walked through the sofa, which made me feel sick to my stomach just to watched. Then, casually, he sat down. It was hard to tell, but he looked about eleven or twelve, but of course was probably much older, if such a concept applied to things like him.

“Look,” he said. “If you’re going to just stand there and freak out, this is going to be a long night. So why don’t you take a seat and we can talk.” He patted the sofa cushion next to him.

I wish I could say that I drew myself up and faced my fear. That I put reason over emotion and vowed to face this thing head-on, whether it was a ghost or something entirely different. I wish I could say that I was brave.

Actually, I ripped myself out of Ari’s arms, bolted upstairs to our bedroom and locked the door.

I leaned against it in the darkness, as if to hold it shut against whatever might come through. I was breathing heavily and might have been crying.

It was only a moment before a new voice said from behind me, “Lady, you really need to pull yourself together.”

The boy sitting on the edge of my bed was like the first one, only a little heavier. He was tapping his foot against the floor and had a look of impatience on his face. He stood up and came towards me, and I backed up against the bedroom door. A few feet away, he stopped, put his hands on his hips and said, “So. You gonna help us, or what?”

And that’s where I finally passed out.

*****

Savanna and Ari Langhorn at 30characters.com

Day One Hundred: Ghost Stories

August 29, 2011 Leave a comment

The train ran smoothly through the wide-open spaces, sliding by trees and a river, then farmland, then trees again. Raindrops ran back against the window and let through a gray half-light which made the economy car quiet and subdued. Ronnie wanted to doze off and watch the world go by, to think about the new year at school and wonder what he and Erich would do when they finally got together. And he would have, too, if the blonde woman next to him hadn’t said something he couldn’t ignore.

“You know, Barassa dorm is very haunted,” she’d said. “When I went to Yellowchester, I always got the feeling that I was being watched.”

Yellowchester, of course, was Yellowchester College, the small liberal arts college that Ronnie was returning to, which just so happened to be the one that this woman had graduated from. As soon as she saw him in his branded hoodie, she introduced herself as “Alena Barassa, class of 98!” She asked the man sitting next to Ronnie if he wouldn’t mind changing seats with her, which he didn’t, and she spend the next hour or so telling Ronnie all about the wonderful times she had at “Old Yellow” without managing to ask a single question about himself.

All this time, Ronnie smiled and nodded and gave polite but curt answers in the hopes that she would pick up on the hint and let him take a short nap before the train stopped again. She was all too eager to share, however, and so he let her nattering wash over him while his mind wandered.

And then she mentioned ghosts.

“Sorry?” he asked. “Did you say haunted?”

Alena blinked, slightly surprised that Ronnie had asked a question, but she fell back into her rhythm fairly quickly. “Oh yes,” she said. “I’m absolutely certain of it.”

He twisted slightly in his heat so he could face her better. “How are you so certain?” he asked.

She smiled under the attention. “Well,” she said, trying to speak just loudly enough so that people in other seats would be able to hear her. “I’ve always been… sensitive to such things.”

“Sensitive.”

She nodded. “Oh yes. Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve had experiences that have convinced me that the spirit world is all around us.” She waved her hands in what she probably thought was a mystical gesture. She was dressed conservatively- some pastels, nothing eye-catching or flashy – but Ronnie could easily imagine her in a fake Gypsy outfit, complete with a turban, a shimmering shawl, and lots of ugly rings.

Ronnie rubbed his eyes for a moment and then blinked them clear. “How are you so sure?” he asked. “That you are… sensitive?”

A smile spread across her face. “Well,” she said. “When I was ten, my grandmother was very ill. She was in her nineties, you see, and we all knew it would be any day. Then, one night, I saw her standing at the foot of my bed, clear as I see you right here. And I couldn’t move, not a muscle.” Her face became more expressive as she talked, and she was waving her hands around again. “But my grandmother told me not to be afraid, that she loved me very much and she would see me again someday.” Alena’s voice dropped to a near-whisper. “Then she was gone.” She sat back. “The next morning, I came down for breakfast, and do you know what I found out?”

“Your grandmother was dead?” he asked.

“My grandmother was dead,” Alena said. “She had died during the night, and she visited me one last time before departing this world completely” She sat back, a look of satisfaction on her face. She was waiting for the “Gosh-wow” reaction, Ronnie was sure. The awe of the listener to beg her to reveal more of her stories, her encounters.

“Yeah, but…” Ronnie started. The smile on Alena’s face shrank, just a hair.

Ronnie cleared his throat and made sure to look her in the eyes. “How do you know that was a ghost? Maybe it was a dream? A coincidence?”

She laughed, and it was loud enough to startle the other passengers. “A dream?” she said. “I think I know the difference between being awake and dreaming.” She shook her head, disappointed by Ronnie’s obvious lack of understanding. “I was awake, no question about it.”

He nodded. “Okay, maybe you were. Maybe you were.” He paused, as if he had just thought of something. “Have you ever heard of sleep paralysis?”

Her smile battled with confusion, and neither of them truly claimed victory over her expression.

“Sleep paralysis,” he went on, “is when the usual sleep systems of the body get out of sync. Usually, the conscious mind goes to sleep, and then the brain shuts down the body’s ability to move. Otherwise we’d all act out every single dream we had, and I think that would get a little messy.” He forced out a laugh, but got none in return. He cleared his throat. “So, there have been studies about this, where the body’s ability to move gets shut down before the conscious mind is asleep. It’s not that uncommon, and -” He held up a finger. “It is often accompanied by hallucinations. Waking dreams, kind of.” He sat back. “So that was probably it. You were thinking of your grandmother, so your brain gave you a pleasant image of her. You weren’t able to move because of a momentary glitch in the system.” He held up a hand this time, as if to forestall an objection. “And, you said she was very ill, so the fact that this happened the night she died isn’t all that surprising. In fact, it might have happened on other nights too, but you didn’t remember them because she hadn’t died.” Ronnie sat back against the window.

Alena’s eyes were dead flat, though her right eyebrow had been slowly rising as he talked. Her lips tightened until they practically disappeared. When he finished, she said, “Well. Don’t you just have all the answers?” she said. She turned sharply away from him, took a battered paperback from her purse, and started reading. She turned the pages with some force, and the scowl on her face deepened as she read.

Ronnie started to feel terrible. He felt like the bottom of his stomach dropped out as he watched this woman fume and seethe next to him. He had only wanted to help, really. She had clearly had a very important experience, but she’d interpreted it wrongly. “Oh,” he said. She glanced over at him, but said nothing.

“Look,” Ronnie said. “I’m sorry if I made you angry. It’s just that… well, I thought you might want to know what really happened to you.”

“I know what happened,” she said, still not looking at him. “My grandmom came to see me. End of story.”

He wanted to come closer to her, but her posture screamed that it might be a bad idea. “See, that’s the thing. I know that’s what it seemed like, but science has shown -”

She slammed the book down in her lap and barked out a laugh. “Science!” she said. “It’s always science with you people.” She turned to him and poked him in the arm. “Maybe science doesn’t know everything, huh? You ever think of that?”

He resisted the urge to rub the spot where she had poked. “Of course science doesn’t know everything,” he said. “But it’s pretty sure there are no such things as ghosts.”

Alena laughed again. “Science doesn’t know that. They can’t prove that ghosts exist.”

“No, you’re right,” he said. She looked instantly smug. “I mean, you can’t prove a negative. But since you’re the one who claim ghosts exist, it’s your job to prove them. With evidence, with logic.”

She shook her head. “Logic,” she said. “There are some things that are beyond logic, you ever think of that?” She poked him again. “That’s the problem with your science,” she said. “It’s too logical.”

Ronnie wanted to laugh, but held back. “But… being logical is the whole point of science.” He thought for a moment. “It’s like complaining that a racecar is too fast. Being fast is the whole reason it exists.”

No matter how proud he was of that line, the argument was already long over. He would be more likely to marry her before the next station than to convince her she hadn’t seen her grandmother’s ghost that night. Or that she’d never seen any ghosts at all. Alena turned back to her book, angling her body away from him. There would be no more talking for this trip, and part of him was relieved.

Ronnie leaned against the window again and thought about ghosts and logic and his grandmother. Alena changed seats the next time the train stopped, and by the time he was back at school, he had very nearly forgotten her.