“The dead do not grow,” the old man muttered as he dropped bread crumbs. “They only fade away.”
A few dead ducks floated on the sludgy river running through the park, but other than that not a single bird occupied the area. Yet, the old man came everyday to sprinkle crumbs. Ritualized routine defined his life, though not every day seemed the same. On occasion he pretended the wind ate the crumbles rather than swept them away.
He might’ve realized a different way to exist, but the reader set aside the book, forgot the page number, and when reading resumed started on the next chapter.
The school year ended with a bang. Principal Lee set up dynamite under the bleachers, and during a final day assembly he pressed the detonator. Because he left no explanation behind speculation ran wild without ever approaching the reason why. Yet, it’s unlikely anyone would think to blame his car, although they obviously spent enough time together for the vehicle to convince Lee of myriad things — the location of Atlantis, for example. That said, two teens, Shirley and McGee, came the closest to suspecting the sedan.
Earlier in the day the two passed out in the library. Few folks ventured deep into the stacks anymore, the computer area acting as a kind of unofficial terminus — no reason to travel beyond. Rumors abounded about a tribe of teachers lurking among the forgotten shelves, nervous breakdowns who vanished into the forest of untouched books, but McGee and Shirley never saw proof of such people. Instead they found a quiet place to get high without having to worry about, well, anyone. The combination of privacy and isolation, since they only cared for each other’s company, made the location ideal.
On this occasion the two slipped out of consciousness thanks to a new strain of grass called Marlena Evans (named after a soap opera character prone to chronic comas). Asleep in each other’s arms, it’s entirely possible one or both may never have woke up if not for the blast. Gently shook awake — the explosion rocked the school, vibrations dissipating to a gentle shake when they reached the snoozing stoners — McGee and Shirley got to their feet.
Stretching, Shirley yawned, “What time is it?”
McGee checked his watch, “1:30?”
“Shit. We’re late for that assembly.”
Shirley said, “Mrs. Flitch told me to be there. She wants an article for the paper. Said it’s my ‘last chance to be serious.'”
Holding hands the two left the library. When they reached the smoldering ruin that used to be the gym it took a moment to process the scene. The blast caught enough people off guard that one could conceivably reassemble bodies like a gruesome puzzle into enthusiastic pep rally participants. A grinning head near Shirley’s feet confirmed such a supposition. Recognizing the face of Mike Spetzer, known around school as the date rapist, Shirley punted the head across the ruins. It landed in a smoking pile of brick, and cheerleader bits.
“Everyone here is dead,” McGee said. To those unfamiliar with him it might seem like a slow witted observation. However, it simply heralded the first turn of mental gears. Once the machine got humming McGee surmised, “We were supposed to be here, so we could be dead.”
“But we’re not,” Shirley said.
“We’re not?” McGee took out his wallet. He removed two dollars, slipped them in his pocket, then tossed the wallet among burnt remains. He nodded, “We can be dead.”
Raising an eyebrow Shirley smiled, “And gone.”
McGee put an arm around her shoulders. Pulling her close he said, “I’m ready to be a ghost if you are.”
Shirley tossed her favorite necklace among the wreckage. Sacrificing the silver bat seemed like a way to ensure the future. She wondered if they should leave some blood for DNA evidence, but the sound of approaching sirens inspired them to run. After all, not everyone gets to take advantage of dying.
Hurrying thru the parking lot they passed the spot reserved for Principal Lee. His car’s headlights flickered, and the horn beeped intermittently. It seemed like the sedan might be laughing. No time to confirm such suspicions, the two ghosts flew into McGee’s car, out of the parking lot, and into the afterlife.
In the often owned, seldom read philosophical tome, Binding Direct Realism, it is proposed that “although quantum entanglement, as it relates to particles, is an accepted scientific belief, the analogous conception, wherein people are linked to perceptions of reality regardless of their proximity to said perceptions, is still a matter for unnecessary debate.” The book then recounts how a pig can leave a farm, yet remain a pig to all who observe it regardless of how many advanced degrees it acquires from Harvard; this example one of many fueling debates among critics and fans, the few to read the whole mess, speculating if the book is a collection of postmodern prose poetry, an academic philosophical argument, or the ravings of a drunken lunatic. Perhaps if more folks agreed what the book was, it might be that one thing.
However, that all said, no such thoughts blossomed in either young ghost. They focused first on robbing their parents like a pair of thieving ninjas. Living next door to each other expedited the endeavor. While McGee tiptoed through a field of crushed beer cans, Shirley slipped by the oxy-zombie that resembled her mother.
Back on the road Shirley counted their loot which totaled three hundred bucks. Happy with anything higher than zero they aimed north. Shirley figured a black sheep from her family could help set them up. McGee put the pedal down, a thin reddish cloud of rust billowing off the car as they sped on.
By the time they reached Chicago McGee’s car disintegrated into little more than seats, tires, and an engine coughing for death. They parked near the lakeshore, and a strong gust of wind scattered the remnants across existence. Glad to stretch their legs after a lengthy commute, the ghosts walked.
Searching old emails on her phone Shirley found the black sheep’s address.
When they arrived in the vicinity McGee pointed at an ivy wrapped building, “Is this it?”
From above a voice called out, “Shirley?”
The two looked up to see the black sheep falling, having just jumped off the roof.
“Hi,” Shirley waved.
“It’s so good to see you,” the black sheep said before hitting the pavement, and popping like a water balloon.
“That…” Shirley sighed, “Doesn’t surprise me.”
McGee said, “If it bothers you, I’m here.” He discretely flicked his foot, kicking off a bit of viscera. The two searched the suicide’s pants. Finding keys to the apartment they went inside.
Over the next several weeks the ghosts settled in. The black sheep’s landlord, a Binsfeld Belphegorian, didn’t mind giving them the place because the precepts of sloth deemed it the least active option. McGee found work at a sandwich shop nearby, and Shirley got hired at a comic book store. Scavenging the apartment they pawned what they didn’t want, providing a cash cushion for their new life.
Meanwhile, back home, memorial services went on for days. Parents and surviving siblings stood outside the blast site holding candles, and photos of the dead. Camera crews jammed lenses into weeping faces until the ratings dropped. Then news crews migrated to follow the latest developing tragedy, a racist blind woman on a killing spree.
One night McGee’s parents escorted Shirley’s mom to a vigil. She wandered the wreckage barefoot until she stepped on a silver bat. Nothing to say except, “Okay then,” she brought the necklace back to the assembled mourners. For all intents and purposes this confirmed every death in the explosion.
In Chicago a mug of hot chocolate fell from Shirley’s hand. It slipped through her fingers as if she possessed zero substance.
When he got home from work McGee remarked, “Something weird happened today.”
Shirley smiled, “Let me guess.”
Without another word she ran at a wall, and leapt through it. Strolling back inside, casually ghosting, she smirked, “Am I close?”
McGee pushed his fist into the floor. It felt like pressing into sand.
Shirley chuckled, “We wanted to be dead.”
McGee finished the thought, “So now we’re ghosts.”
Obvious questions came to both minds. Oddly enough, simply thinking about answers produced interesting results. Like when Shirley wondered aloud why they didn’t fall through the floor which caused McGee to suddenly do exactly that. He landed hard in the apartment below, terrifying the Polish folks living there. Perhaps if they hadn’t been watching a horror film the combination of McGee’s stoner-metal-head appearance and dramatic arrival wouldn’t eventually lead to an apocalyptic cult — “Aniołowie szatana obfitują, a Bóg milczy, więc musimy być mieczami ognia chroniącymi ten ziemski Eden” — but in any event, he politely excused himself before hurriedly exiting through the door, and back upstairs.
In their apartment the two ghosts continued ruminating on their situation. Spying a copy of Binding Direct Realism, Shirley recalled how much the black sheep admired it.
Getting it she said, “There’s supposed to be all kinds of answers in here.”
On the first page a handwritten note from the black sheep stated: “This book made me kill myself.” Shirley set the book back on the shelf. They eventually agreed their focus dictated their incorporeality. This didn’t answer everything, like why their clothes went thru walls as well, yet content with certain degrees of ignorance, they ceased speculating, and ordered pizza.
They spent the next several days haunting various parts of Chicago. McGee enjoyed pretending to be the ghost of local bars. Shirley possessed a fondness for playing the monster in the closet. Both enjoyed running through traffic, and jumping in front of the subway.
As weeks passed, the ghosts slowly realized that although they could eat neither really needed to. In addition, they discovered a surprising indifference to the weather. Essentially, it became clear they required neither food nor shelter. Shirley immediately recognized the potential of this, but McGee needed some convincing.
“You don’t need a job because we don’t need anything,” she said.
He replied, “Yeah, but I like making sandwiches.”
“You can still make sandwiches.”
“Oh. Cool. So what do you want to do?”
“I want to see what’s out there. Is there anywhere you’ve ever wanted to go?”
Taking hold of her hand, “I’m where I always want to be.”
The first people to travel back in time inadvertently made it impossible for human’s to ever time travel again. However, their disruptive ripple also resulted in the loss of Chapter 43. That said, some claim to have vague recollections of the lost chapter. Why they focus on fragmented memories of a book from another timeline is odd considering that the secret to world peace exists in the then that is no more. But if modern humans have one obvious failing it’s a zealotous devotion to entertainment. Despite being stranger than fiction, reality, for some, is rarely as satisfying as fantasy.
Consistent recollections of Chapter 43 are as follows, though hardly the whole chapter.
Two of Cups
Snaking pavement feeds cars into the Appalachian countryside. Along the roadside autumn shaded trees shroud a sleepy physicist on vacation. Penning speculations in a battered notebook he happened to glance two ghostly hitchers drifting on the wind. Seeing them holding hands, the physicist’s pen rose to impale the god of the gaps, proposing a concept of emotions as a kind of dark energy acting on quantum consciousness.
The following year servants of a Salem witch monitored an alembic distilling ghost tears for a new kind of booze called Spirit of the Spirits. Ounces sold for hundreds, but the brewers lost their secret ingredient when McGee and Shirley reunited.
“I told you I’d be back.”
“Knowing that didn’t make me miss you less.”
Afterward they rarely discussed the breakup for fear of resurrecting it. Yet that looming disaster fueled romantic gestures like the spring McGee whisked Shirley away to London, England. British headlines soon announced the ravens left the Tower. Unbeknownst to the Brits, the birds emigrated to the Brandenburg Gate thanks to two stoned specters.
In Moscow that winter, Lenin’s corpse rose from the grave with a little assistance from McGee… the Siberian Steppes provided a wonderful quiet home for two decades — time becoming almost immaterial with time… un-aged, the ghosts wandered back to the start, nostalgia providing influence steering them homeward.
They put flowers on their own graves, and finding themselves reminded more why they left than why they came back the ghosts returned to wandering.
So it went for centuries: two ghosts circling the globe, always eventually coming back to their hometown; curious to see how home evolved into something unrecognizable. Meanwhile, though the official cause listed it as a drunk driving accident, both of McGee’s parents died trying to run over a homophobic tree. McGee’s hair turned grey soon after. Shirley’s mom overdosed on painkillers, though her level of intention would always be open to debate. Afterward, Shirley sometimes flickered like a sputtering film reel. A century passed, and the school removed the plaque commemorating Principal Lee’s victims. Officials meant to replace it, but budget constraints wouldn’t permit its restoration. Whereas before both ghosts could vary their degree of transparency, from then on they became permanently translucent. Erosion and neglect double teamed their tombstones into misshapen rocks. The nameless markers meaningless to the caretaker, the last person aware McGee or Shirley ever existed stopped thinking about them; the collective consciousness forgot them.
In a Turkish cafe, McGee felt what could only be described as himself evaporating. He
looked at Shirley. She seemed to be dissolving from view as well.
He wondered, “Is there anything left?”
“Not that I can think of.” Though she could.
He reached out a hand. She took hold of it. Nothing to do or say, smiling, they vanished together.
Such are the thoughts of a lonely old man drowning in a sludgy river.
J. Rohr is a Chicago native with a taste for history, and wandering the city at odd hours. He writes the blog http://www.honestyisnotcontagious.com in order to deal with the more corrosive aspects of everyday life. His Twitter babble can be found @JackBlankHSH.