Chapter One - The Gunslinger Arrives
The soup lady rejected me with an outstretched palm before I could even say anything.
"But…" I protested. "Come on, grandma. I've been waiting in the line for almost seven hours!"
As though to prove my point, I gestured to the queue of ghosts floating behind me. All of them were dressed in white gowns like patients in the hospital, an indication of the spiritual dimension's lack of fashion sense. There were a few young ones, many old ones, some very old ones, and a single ancient one; no matter the distinction though, their bowed heads and forlorn expressions clearly showed their feelings about drinking grandma's special home-made brew.
"No," the soup lady replied with a raised eyebrow. "And I am not anyone's grandma."
"Please, grandma. I am begging you," I said. "Can't you feel my sincerity? I bet there's no other ghost who would patronise your shop like this. I'm like your number one fan!"
The soup lady nodded.
"That's true, because they would have stepped through the gates by then."
At this, I stared longingly at the ogive gates opening into a sea of pure, blinding white. Step through the gates and you would be reborn in another generation, ready to take in whatever crap that life throws at you ("Screw the weather.")— or welcome the new adventures with a bubbly attitude ("Oh my god, it's raining. How exciting! Oh my god!"). Take your half-glass pick.
But first, I had to navigate through the source of my troubles: the cauldron bubbling with a purple thick liquid.
The reason why the other ghosts shun it wasn't because of the flavour, not that it should matter since us spiritual beings were already robbed of our taste buds. The reason why they looked like visitors to their own funeral, was quite simple.
The soup robbed them of their living memories. Memories of their childhood, memories of their school, memories of their first kiss, memories of losing their virginity, memories of their work… sweet ones, bitter ones, random ones, they would all be flushed down into a black-hole of no return. Only then would they be qualified for the reincarnation process.
And of course they couldn't let them go. The older you get, the harder it is to let go. I knew that because the ancient ghost looked like she just swallowed a sour plum, ever since she had taken the escalator down to limbo.
The funny thing was, I possessed no memories myself. I was a blank slate. Zilch. Nada.
But I had no intention of finding out who I was, and how I died.
For all I know, a flowerpot carelessly flung from an apartment window could have caused my death. Upon impact, I would have collapsed and lie spreadeagled on the concrete, the back of my head submerged into the reddened soil, my facial features twisted into a retarded grin by cruel coincidence.
Certainly not the way I would have wanted my family members to remember me by. And certainly not the kind of memories I would ever want to shock me from my amnesia.
In that case…
"Just let me through into the gates, grandma. I'll skip your soup. I don't remember my past life anyway."
The outstretched palm again.
"Rules are rules, lad. I would advise you to go back," the soup lady took the ladle and began stirring the contents in the cauldron. "And stop calling me grandma."
Fourth attempt: Failure.
Maybe I should really give up.
"Can you at least tell me why I can't drink the soup like the others?"
The soup lady stopped stirring for a moment. She lifted a wrinkled finger and touched her chin, pondering. The temptation to make a run for the gates came, but I decided otherwise as the soup lady possessed deceptively quick reflexes. I thought I counted twenty ghosts apprehended from trying to escape the soup punishment from my visits here.
At last she answered, quoting a line from a million fantasy novels. Or maybe sci-fi.
"You have a destiny to fulfil."
When your best friend was a faceless poltergeist who loves to toss things around like a teenager throwing a tantrum, you know you are well and royally screwed.
In a tatami room of a well-worn building, Haiiro carried out his daily routine of tormenting the Morita household. First, he rolled the futons and threw it against the wall. Next, he lifted the kotatsu and threw it against the wall. Finally, he took the apples and oranges from the fruit bowl and threw it against the wall, splattering a messy artwork on the canvas.
Haiiro loved the sound of things hitting the wall.
As always, the Morita couple cowered together at the corner of the room, helpless to Haiiro's moment of fun.
As always, I remained as a bystander and watched the proceedings. What was initially mild amusement had degraded to sheer boredom. I wished Haiiro would vary it sometimes, but I didn't know how to talk poltergeist language, which comprised scales of different moaning octaves. And I was tone-deaf to begin with.
By the way, I named Haiiro because he was grey. Yay for my imagination.
"Anata… have you called the exorcists?" The wife asked the husband.
The husband gulped and nodded his head.
"Then… why aren't they here?"
"They are busy," the husband licked his lips. "Says that…" He winced as Haiiro let out a delighted moan, before continuing. "Says that they have their hands full. Talk about an upsurge in paranormal activity. And the rising of the undead."
"Undead?" The wife's eyes widened. "You mean like vampires and zombies? But that's impossible—"
She yelped in fright after Haiiro hurled the vacuum cleaner against the wall.
Haiiro hated people when they didn't pay attention.
I hovered near the paper lamps suspended from the ceiling, mulling over the man's words. As far as my experience went, I would agree with the lady. I haven't seen many spirits around since most of them were already awaiting their turn at the soup queue (Haiiro didn't count as a poltergeist), but I wouldn't take my own word for it due to my limited voyages outside this tatami room.
The vampires and zombies had to be impossible. They didn't exist outside the fictional world of gratuitous splatterpunk horror and cheap paranormal romances.
Or did they?
I felt a sensation on my shoulder. Haiiro was handing me a rubber duck.
Probably wanted me to join him.
"Haiiro," I said gently. "You know that I can't influence the real world like you do."
Haiiro moaned and squeezed the rubber duck. It quacked.
"Yeah, I know it's real fun Haiiro, but I'm really sorry."
Haiiro pressed the rubber duck against my chest, or tried to in vain, as it slipped right through the translucent fabric of my white gown and hit the bamboo floor with a choked quack.
The Morita couple closed their eyes and prayed. They knew the drill well.
I closed my eyes and started a mental countdown. Even in the darkness, I could feel the tense coiled-up energy emanating from the poltergeist, building up to an explosion that could only mean a tsunami turning the room into a demon toddler's playground.
Haiiro hated friends who didn't play with him.
But the explosion didn't materialise. The build-up deflated into an abandoned fireworks show, turning into something else completely.
I opened my eyes and saw the reason.
I could see right through Haiiro's formless grey veil, right into the invisible chattering teeth and pallid cheeks.
Haiiro was shivering and frightened like a drenched puppy. That had never happened before. Heck, the word "fear" shouldn't even exist in a poltergeist's dictionary.
Did he sense something that I couldn't? Hard to say, considering my questionable ghostly instincts.
"Haiiro, what's going on?" I patted him on the head (or at least, I thought it was his head) in an effort to calm him down. "There's nothing to be afraid of. After all, we are—"
Haiiro interrupted me with a long baleful moan. He whisked out of the room through the sliding doors, leaving behind a draft and a flapping paper lamp in his wake.
"Haiiro, where are you? Come on out!"
I called out in the empty streets, my voice keening against the deafening silence. Unlike New York, this city did sleep, and it slept early, way before the stars could arrive in a glamour of glitter in the night sky. It was a good thing too; I would probably scare half the city's population to death with my cries if they were out to have supper or to do some last minute shopping.
I bypassed the closed shops, their shutters rattling faintly in the breeze. The glare of the sodium lamps lent the mannequins displayed behind the shop windows an unearthly glow. For a moment, I thought I was staring at a female vampire clad in tank top and low-cut jeans, but the garishly red lips and imagined teeth was obviously a trick of light and shadow.
A squashed beer can rolled across the blacktop before getting wedged in the gutter, the scraping noises reminding me of shuffling footsteps and the fact that I was quite alone.
This was a perfect setting for an assault on a poor, lonely man, leaving his corpse bare for the city to see when it woke up later in the dawn—
Sometimes, I forgot that I was already dead.
"Haiiro, you forgot your rubber ducky! Stop hiding and let's go back, okay?"
Nothing. Seemed that Haiiro was long gone from the streets. I had lost his trail right after I left the building, my eyes catching a whisper of dissipating smoke at the corner leading into an alley, and when I rushed in, I saw only overflowing garbage cans and tasteless graffiti smeared on the walls.
But it wouldn't hurt to try again.
I headed for the corner once more, entering an alley filled with overflowing cans and vandalised walls.
Yeah, pretty much the same as before—
My ears perked up at the sound of a muffled cry. Tracing the source, I arrowed in at the spot of the wall below a phallic image. It appeared damp, like someone had just decided to relieve himself and hope that no one was watching. But it couldn't be, because the dampness was writhing and grey.
A very familiar grey.
The dampness coalesced into a convulsing hand. Without thinking, I grabbed it and tugged with all my might.
What on earth was Haiiro doing, getting stuck in the wall like that?
The resistance on the other end was huge; I might as well been competing in a truck-pulling contest. However, stubborn old me refused to budge, continuing to strain with gritted teeth. Exerting effort was a pain-free activity for a spirit, so why not go all the way?
The rest of his hand eventually emerged from the wall.
If I was still a human, I would already be breaking out in cold sweat. As it stood, I broke out in metaphorical sweat at the scene.
The rest of Haiiro's body had vanished into the wide mouth of a monster. A round scaly monster with bull-like horns, lips thick enough to engrave my own obituary, and an eye which spanned half its countenance. The veins in the eye popped out like cancerous tumours, indicating displeasure at the interruption of its feast.
I punched the monster hard in the eye. The latter's mouth dropped open in a pained cry, and I pulled Haiiro out.
"You all right, buddy?" I asked, and got my answer from Haiiro's missing left arm. Some of his head had also been swallowed into the monster's gullet, leaving behind a vaguely pentagon shape.
Haiiro hugged me tight and moaned.
Oh well, at least it could still moan. But this meant that my best and only friend was now an incomplete, faceless poltergeist.
Before I even lament my misfortune, the monster recovered from the blow and stepped out of the wall, bringing itself to full height.
Damn thing had to be at least three storeys tall. I couldn't even see the moon and the stars now.
Damn thing also had freaking tentacles.
Haiiro's embrace tightened. He buried his head in my shoulder.
An insight hit me.
"Haiiro, you saw this monster in Morita's room?"
Haiiro nodded, his head still buried in my shoulder. Conclusion: my ghostly instincts were absolutely useless. Remedy: Use that as an excuse for the soup lady to prove how unqualified a ghost I was, and then finally achieve that long-sought nirvana.
The monster (for convenience's sake, let's name it Eyemon) roared, showering globs of spittle on the alley. I raised an arm to block, cringing at the viscous touch as they slapped on skin. This proved one thing.
Eyemon was a ghost monster, that ate ghosts.
"Hey, Eyemon!" I shouted, not sure why I even did that. "Go eat somebody your own size!"
Eyemon responded by crouching down and yawning its lips. I saw the abyss that awaited beyond the line of teeth and lapping tongue, and strangely found the prospect welcoming. I closed my eyes and waited for the end.
Goodbye cruel world, may my next life be free of first kisses gone wrong, prematurely soiled bedsheets, and most importantly, flowerpots. Wait, I don't get reincarnated if it eats me right? Holy shit, hold on Eyemon, don't EAT ME YET—
I snapped my eyes open, only to see Haiiro hurling three garbage cans into that abyss. Somehow, reality affected Eyemon, not that I was jealous of it in this case. The refuse tumbled out of their containers; beer bottles, food wrappers and torn styrofoam jerkily bobbed up and down on the monster's throat. Eyemon emitted a strangled cry.
I had forgotten that Haiiro didn't want to be food again.
Eyemon lurched back, its tentacles shooting into its own mouth to retrieve the inedibles. Now was my chance.
"Let's go, Haiiro!" I piggybacked the poltergeist and took a flying leap into the skies, but not before offering the finger as a parting salute. "So long, sucker!"
An hour later, I regretted acting out the role of a cheesy delinquent.
I was now soaring between the tops of skyscrapers, Eyemon following closely in pursuit. Whether I sped up or slowed down, one look behind was enough to know that I was doomed. It was toying with me, when it easily could have lashed out its tentacles and envelop me into its loving embrace. One tender twist and it would really be goodbye cruel world, different shreds of me dispersed to the wind like falling autumn leaves.
Besides, I realised that spirits do get tired.
I flew over another building, into that gap which had claimed the lives of unfortunate Parkour practitioners, the gravity-free card enabling me to cross with little effort. Chancing a downward glance, I saw a narrow strip of road and a blue hatchback small enough to pluck between my fingers. If only I could pick up the car and smash that fella's teeth with it.
Haiiro interrupted my thoughts with a moan of warning. Without thinking, I veered sharply to the right, a erect tentacle lashing at the point where I was just a moment ago.
Eyemon had made its move. There was no longer any point in fleeing.
I touched down, my back facing the giant neon signs of T Corporation. Giant neon signs which still flashed psychedelic at this hour, casting distorted rainbow hues on the floor.
T Corporation must be overflowing with cash bills to be wasting electricity like that.
I let Haiiro disembark, just in time to see Eyemon made its landing. Feet crashed on ground, sending tremors rippling throughout the building.
"You be fine, Haiiro," I reassured the trembling poltergeist. "I'll take care of it."
That was like a boxer with a losing record, declaring to the press that he would beat the world champion with one punch.
Well, I never said I was modest.
"Come on Eyemon!" I beckoned the monster. "Give me everything you've got!"
Eyemon regarded me with a curious look, its huge eye blinking. Perhaps it didn't understand, or couldn't believe that its prey would throw down the gauntlet. At this point, I got that giddy feeling of lightness associated with crack (which I blame on the neon signs), and propelled forward to Eyemon's knees. I started raining blows, kicks, punches, elbows, chops, headbutts, every manner of attack that was imaginable. Which was fine, if not the fact that I somehow found it fitting to yell out battle cries.
"Floating Drunk Murderer Fist! Press of the Monkey! Titantic Headbutt of the Stupid God! Holy Horse Tornado Kick! Wachaa! Atcha! Wadaa! Woo!"
I ended with a finishing move between Eyemon's legs.
"Blow of the One Million Jewels!"
My clawed fists grabbed air.
"Oops, no jewels," I looked up with a sheepish smile. "Sorry."
Eyemon no longer looked curious. It looked murderous. All twenty tentacles shot out, intending to impale me on the spot.
"Kya— don't rape me!"
Not the last words that I had intended for.
There was a sudden flash of oceanic blue light on the edges of my vision. The tentacles grew limp and shrunk on contact. Eyemon growled in pain and backpedaled.
A newcomer had arrived on the scene. A girl to be exact, decked in a black cassock, holding a vial of holy water in one hand and brandishing a cross with another. I could go into detail about what a looker she was, but my only concern at that point was that she looked awfully young to be donning the robes of priesthood.
And jittery in the face of the monstrosity confronting her.
"You got to be kidding me," the girl muttered. "This is a poltergeist?"
Huh? Wait, this was the one who was sent to the Morita household? How dense could she be?
"Hey lady," I said, pointing to Haiiro, who had understandably taken refuge behind me like a shy kid upon her arrival. "This is a poltergeist."
The girl glared at me.
"Shut up, spirit. I'll exorcise you later."
I shrugged and squeezed Haiiro's shoulder.
"Come on, let's sit back and watch the show. This should be interesting."
Haiiro moaned in agreement.
Meanwhile, the girl had taken a battle stance akin to a sumo wrestler, with her knees bent double and her back hunched. She uncapped the vial and sprinkled water over the cross.
"Purification level 1!"
A flash of light bathed Eyemon. When it disappeared, nary a scratch was found on the latter.
Eyemon bared its fangs, drooping saliva.
"Purification level 2!"
Another flash of light bathed Eyemon. When it disappeared, nary a scratch was found on the latter.
Eyemon drew back its tentacles, little spikes popping up on them.
"Lady, you are just making the light brighter."
"Shut up, you Bruce Lee wannabe!"
Resorting to calling names, eh? Oh well, I didn't have the motivation to stay any longer, since the show turned out to be poorer than expected. Too bad I couldn't get a refund from the ticket booth.
I beckoned Haiiro onto my back, preparing to make a silent departure from the scene. The poltergeist vehemently shook his head.
"Why, Haiiro? That girl is going to exorcise you, you know?"
Haiiro shook his head again.
I sighed and threw up my hands. Poltergeists could be real stubborn sometimes.
"Purification level 3!"
The brightest light yet briefly plunged the rooftop into a dreamworld of floating blue, before vanishing out of trace. Ditto Eyemon's response.
From the corner of my eye, I spotted the girl pulling out a revolver, which surprised me since I didn't know that exorcists were trigger-happy. Glad for her though. She'd got another weapon other than that utterly useless torchlight piece of magic. Maybe she could survive the round after all.
I gave Haiiro the ultimatum.
"Alright, stay if you want, but I'm leaving."
I wheeled around, only to see Eyemon slap the revolver from the girl's hands with a tentacle. The weapon cartwheeled in the air, a boomerang heading for the home stretch. Without thinking, I dived towards it, knowing how pointlessly futile it was, knowing that the revolver would fall through my outstretched fingers like they weren't there, knowing that—
The revolver fell into my hand.
A tingly sensation coursed through my spiritual body, flooding it with feeling. A feeling that the living often took for granted. A feeling of feet constricted within the leather confines of boots. A feeling of hair suffocating in the heat of the fedora hat. A feeling of warmth afforded by the brown duster buttoned on the front. A feeling of being alive.
Wait a minute. Alive?
I stared in disbelief at the outfit that I was now wearing. I inhaled the scent of the night air, which smelled faintly of pine. I licked the inside of my cheek, tasting bile.
Sprawled on the floor, the girl's round and azure eyes watched me with fascination.
"The ghost gunslinger," she whispered.
"Huh? Say what again?"
The girl didn't reply directly. She continued watching me. To be honest, it was creeping me out.
"The gun chooses its owner," she finally said.
Not another line from a million fantasy or sci-fi novels. I did remember what the soup lady had said earlier though.
You have a destiny to fulfil.
Was this the correct destiny she was talking about? If that's the case, I'll be absolutely thrilled, simply because I had randomly attained a new level of badass. The complex backstories and rationale could wait. Right now, I'll just go along with the ride.
I pointed the revolver at Eyemon, which looked unsure at the new series of developments. The uncertainty quickly gave way to aggression; it drew back its tentacles and stomped towards me with its fangs bared. Gunslinger or no gunslinger, it was determined to make me supper.
Time to show who's boss then.
"Hasta la vista, baby."
I squeezed the trigger.