What is a soul?
I used to think that souls were an eternal thing. Infinite. As if a consciousness existed before my birth, during my life, and after my death. I imagined that it was a ghost-like, wispy thing shrouded in light. It would be young and beautiful. Forever twenty-five, spry, and handsome despite whatever decrepit shape my body warped into. A soul is immortal. It cannot get hurt, damaged, or at the very worst— erased.
As humans, our greatest fear is to not exist.
We'd rather entertain frightening concepts like Hell and the Devil poking you with his pitchfork than consider the possibility of suddenly not being. How depressing it would be to work this hard, to fight this fight, and have nothing to show for it? Vanishing from existence, no longer having a presence or purpose or something to contribute to this world is simply the most horrendous idea we could conjure.
Well. Rest easy.
Because I'm here to tell you, that's false.
I've been dead for a few hundred years. Or several. Or days. I'm not entirely sure as time is extraneous here. It's as elusive and slippery as it is in life— the same way our childhood can seem so distant and yet like it was just yesterday. Or the way you reflect on the portfolio of your experiences in old age, wondering how so much love, pain, and excitement could be packed into such a short time, and yet wanting more.
The theory that we stop existing upon death is false.
The most common notions about the soul, its physicality, and theological concepts surrounding it are also false.
Now, I don't know how I know this. In fact, I'm not entirely sure if this is some kind of cosmic knowledge imparted on me upon my passing, or if it's my own opinion spawned from too much time thinking. But I'm certain that this is true. And I'm certain that I know the origin of the soul.
The soul is not artfully inserted into unborn babies. There is no record of which ball of light gets paired with which developing sack of organs. There isn't even reincarnation— which greatly disappointed me, as I would have quite liked coming back as someone wealthy or adventurous, or at the very least an exotic animal.
Moreover, the soul is not created by an altruistic super-being. Our personalities are not foreseen and crafted like ingredients in a cake recipe, as if our consciousness is preordained to be downtrodden or kind, or especially good at math or basket weaving. It is a common misconception that souls are created by God. I'm not saying there is no God. I'm just saying if there is, he remains one of life's great mysteries. Or, life-after-death's great mysteries.
No, souls are not created by an all-seeing power.
They are created by humans.
We do not exist before we are born. We do not exist even shortly after we are born. For the first few hours of our lives, we are nothing but instinct-driven animals— flailing and wailing and piloted by guttural need. It is not until the brain synapses begin to fire, not until the cells begin to stretch and reach for one another, that the soul begins to take shape.
We are energy.
I am energy.
I know this now, standing here beside a tombstone in an aging graveyard in Central Portland. Our bodies are fragile and temporary, and what makes us human is what makes us souls. Every experience we relish and love we lose, the tears we cry, and the jokes we crack are fodder for that eternal something. That reserved well of energy that leaves us with our final breath— departing from the beautiful, complicated network of biology that was given to us on loan from the universe.
It's a cozy home. It's hard to leave its familiarity.
But we realize quickly upon passing that what is familiar is not the casing, but the frame of mind. It's like my grandmother used to tell me when I was young— when I was scared and alone and tired of moving from one place to another, trying to find a proper foster to care for me in the wake of my parents' end. "Home is not a place. It's a feeling." She said, "It's in the words you speak and in the air you breathe. It's where your feet are."
The same can be said for being a ghost.
Home, or in this case, being, is simply where you are.
And, as I mentioned, I am currently in a graveyard. There are some people over there— living ones— gathered in droves and sitting on the grass under an array of brightly colored avenue banners. Some are standing, but most are sitting, watching the standing ones shout and make garish body gestures while wearing odd clothing. Ah, I get it. Acting. It's a play. I haven't seen one of those in centuries. Or years. Or days. I don't know.
I'm a ghost.
I don't know what I look like. I could look human. Or I could be a floating wisp of light. Perhaps I'm invisible. But secretly, I hope I'm a floating sheet with two holes cut out for eyes.
I know I died young, so if I look human in appearance I suppose I'd look somewhere in my twenties. Green-eyed and sandy-haired and clothes dirtied from the Mississippi dust roads. I'm male, by the way, though it seems silly to even have an identifier in this state. It's pointless to speculate. I can't exactly look myself in the mirror. And I've never seen another ghost in my afterlife. I know they're there though. I feel them.
A graveyard seems like an odd place to hold a play, but then again, we humans have never been known for predictable behavior. I watch passively, observing the world around me like one typically does when drifting in and out of a daydream. There are periods of focus— like watching an epic staged sword fight between two men reciting Shakespeare— followed by periods of drifting. Like taking a breath and realizing weeks have passed.
Living people look the same. And somehow different.
In some ways, their clothes look as outrageous and ridiculous as the actors, now shouting even louder than they were before. One of them is writhing on the ground with a wooden sword beneath his armpit. I smile— if I can even call it that. I don't know if I have lips for which to smile, but I do. And then something catches my eye.
A girl. Or a young woman. In her late teens or maybe twenties. She sits quietly on a green blanket in the audience, hands comfortably clasped over her legs and hugging them close to her chest. She has dark golden hair and a pair of clear emerald eyes, and even more startlingly—
She is looking right at me.
I am looking at a ghost.
It has to be. I've been watching him for several minutes now trying to wrap my mind around this. My cross-legged body bobs back and forth on the blanket, trying to get a different perspective, but it doesn't change. I'm afraid to look away. I'm afraid that if I blink, he'll vanish. I'm just plain afraid.
It's smoky but somewhat solid. Definitely a he. I don't see legs but I see a torso beneath a white shirt. It's glowing. Faint, like a mirage. And he's looking at me. Though that's hard to tell because he doesn't appear to have eyes. They look more like deep, round, perfectly circular craters. But he's staring at me. I know it.
I slap the leg of my friend beside me with a little more force than I intended. "Ow! What?" she whispers.
"Carly!" I say in full volume.
A few audience members and even some actors turn by way, but she is already shooshing me, "Megan. Shut up."
"Look!" I point, wrist flailing in the direction of the creepy apparition.
"Shh!" she urges again, "What?"
I'm dodging around again, thinking I saw him move, but he didn't, "Can you see it? Over there?" Her hand is on my arm, hauling me to my feet. Carly pulls me, stumbling down the path and away from the play, which was boring anyway, otherwise I wouldn't have been aimlessly scanning the graveyard. When we walk far enough away from the production to speak normally, my dark-haired friend releases me.
"Oh my god, what is with you?" she's embarrassed, maybe even a little angry, but can't help but crack a smile when she sees my frazzled eyes bounce around. I hide behind her, putting her between myself and the ghost, which was roughly fifty yards away.
"There's— don't turn around!— But there's a," I peek out from behind her shoulder at it, "ghost behind you. Okay, wait, no, turn around."
A long silence rolls between us.
"I'm going back." She says flatly.
"Megan, I really like this guy okay? Come and sit down. It's almost over." She pleads. We've been college roommates for two years now and I've never seen her date a guy. I think she's too picky. She thinks the good ones are all taken. At least she thought so until a strapping young Drama major sauntered into Calc I last week. He invited us to see this production of Macbeth in the Lone Fir Cemetery, where he plays the part of Monteith, who has maybe four lines in the whole performance. But he's been sure to shout as loudly as he can and roll his r's even when there are no r's to roll.
As she begins to walk away, I remain frozen. Eyes still locked with the dead thing.
When she sees me stall, she sounds an exasperated, "Ugh." sound and goes on without me. I feel naked without her shield, standing there on the dark asphalt path, knees shaking. For a moment, I look back to the audience sitting on multicolored blankets in the clearing. I contemplate returning to Carly's side and pretending this never happened. But when I look back, he is still there— just the same as I left him. Still, white, and with cavernous eyeholes.
What is it doing there? What does it want with me?
What the fuck is going on?
Okay, what the fuck is going on?
Pardon my language, but this has definitely never happened before.
And believe me, I have been around for a long time and observed many humans, and not one of them has ever been aware of my presence. I know she can see me because she looks absolutely terrified. I would be too. I have no idea what form my soul has taken in the afterlife, but by the way she trembles, I assume the worst. Perhaps I am a projection of the current state of my body, which I can imagine is nothing short of horrific. I must be a skeleton.
She's coming over here.
I can't help but feel nervous. It's such a foreign feeling. I haven't experienced it in ages. The urge bubbles up to drift— to run away in a slow exhale and let a few years slip by. Anything to relieve me from her frightened and disgusted gaze. No man likes to be looked at that way, even if it is completely justified.
The girl with dark blonde hair is hiding behind a tombstone. It's large and pointy and does little to conceal her, but she peeks out from behind it and utters, "Hello?"
I watch her.
After a few minutes, she comes out from behind her perch and begins a slow approach. She's wringing her hands, trying to control the emotions on her face. It's as if she's trying to remind herself to be polite. Don't stare. As if the floating corpse skeleton might be offended. It strikes me then that she must be a nice person.
"Hello." She says again, directly meeting my gaze.
Oh thank God. At least I have eyes.
"Can you—um." The girl puts a strand of hair behind her ear, "Hear me? Hello?"
Drat. I didn't say that out loud, did I?
Hello! Yes I can hear you.
Damn it all. I've forgotten how to speak.
She breathes, clenching and unclenching her fists as she comes in for a closer inspection. She's circling me now. For a moment I lose sight of her, then she resurfaces again on my right. I no longer feel nervous. Instead, I'm fascinated and absolutely vibrating with anticipation. I have made a connection with the living. I have made a connection with something for the first time in over two-hundred years. It isn't until now I realize how lonely I've been. How quiet and dismal the afterlife is, speaking to no one. Not a soul.
The natural peace of death and sudden realization of the universe quiets this instinct, but I remember it so suddenly now. Lonely. I'm lonely.
The pretty living girl wrinkles a brow, "Are you a ghost?"
Curses. Do I even have lips and a vocal cord?
She sneaks a nervous glance back to her green blanket and the companion that sits upon it. Then, turning back, stretches out a hand. She maintains eye contact with me while she does this, inching closer and closer until her nimble fingers pass into my chest. The thrill is like lightning. I don't feel a thing, but I know it's happening. She is touching me. The living girl is touching me.
She yelps and jumps back, wriggling her wrist. For a moment, I worry that I've hurt her, but then I realize she comes up smiling, "It's so cold." She almost laughs. I want to laugh too. I'm learning so much from her. I wonder what she'll do next.
Her green eyes bounce back and forth for a moment in contemplation, "Is there, something you want from me?" she puts a hand on her chest, "Do I need to— help you with something? So you can go on to your afterlife?"
She doesn't realize that this is the afterlife. My human consciousness, like hers will be someday, has been absorbed back into the universe. I suppose she believes I have intentionally sought her out, as if she possesses some kind of ability that can help me. Help me do what? Reconnect with a loved one? They're all dead and have been for quite some time. They most likely exist on a similar plane of existence, unable to speak, unable to do anything else but simply be.
"Is this your tombstone?" she asks, looking to my right, "Mary Ackerman. That's not you. Your lover, perhaps?"
No. I just drifted here. I don't know why I end up in the places I do. I died in Louisiana.
"1834 to 41. No, Mary was seven years old." The living girl sighs.
She's looking at me again, this time with a brow raised. She has the suspicious, self-scrutinizing gaze of someone who realizes they have been talking to themselves. Another glance is lost to the distant play, where drum and flute sounds surface. When she turns back, she says, "I— I'm leaving now."
No, don't. Not yet. I have so much to ask you.
"But before I go—." She removes a small rectangular lantern from her pants pocket. I'm not quite sure how to describe it. It's about the size of her hand and glows in brilliant, multi-colored fire. But it's flat like a stone.
She turns her back to me and holds it out a full arm's length. It makes a small chirping sound, then she lowers it. The human girl pouts at the object, seeming disappointed. She does this three more times— once with a burst of light. She keeps looking at it, but never seems satisfied.
"Goodbye." She says abruptly.
I can't move. I can't speak. Am I truly good for nothing else short of standing here and observing? She's getting further and further away, sneaking periodic glances at me over her shoulder. I feel as if I'm shaking. Frustration and anger and a sense of unfairness surge within me— things I haven't felt since my adolescent life among the living. Whereas before I felt so content with my newfound place in the energy of the cosmos, I am suddenly panicked. I long for more time spent among the humans. I long for conversation. For emotion. For feeling. I had a taste of it and now I'm desperate.
Even more terrifying than not having it is the fear of going back to not needing it. To not even knowing it's missing.
She's getting farther away now. Her feet are almost back to the smooth concrete path.
I search myself for that deeply repressed muscle memory— the one I can access without any muscle at all. The feeling of lips moving. The vibration of vocal cords that aren't there. I take a deep, unnecessary breath and bellow, "WAIT!"
The girl jolts as if electricity has struck her, and she whirls back around to me with a familiar expression. Awestruck horror. I look from her to my hands. I have hands! I'm not a skeleton after all, thank goodness. She is approaching me again, cautiously, fingers wringing and shoulders hunched forward with intrigue, "Did you just—?"
"Hello!" I say as happily and non-threateningly as I can. Is that what my voice sounds like? I haven't heard it in so long. I always thought my internal monologue was in my voice, but I realize now that I am wrong. Keep talking so she doesn't run away. "Please don't go just yet."
She smiles in an astonished sort of way, "You talked. Oh my god, you can talk." She covers her mouth, "Is this real? Shit." She's moving around now. I wish she wouldn't move around so much. I'm not sure I've gotten that part down yet. She looks like she has a million questions, and so do I. But at that moment only one comes to mind, and it is the most prudent to ask.
"What is your name?" I say.
"Megan." She laughs, "What's yours?"
"James." I say mechanically. I hadn't called myself anything in years. The response was purely reflex.
Megan is holding a beautiful, fleshy hand out toward me. The gesture of a handshake. I look at my milky, transparent fingertips for a moment before hesitantly reaching for hers. Perhaps she's thinking the same thing I am. This probably won't work. She'll pass right through me like she did moments ago. But the formality of a first greeting, and the human warmth of pleasantries is too appealing to ignore.
"Well James, it's nice to meet—."
As our hands touch, we're interrupted by clapping. The play must be over. The clapping grows louder and louder, rising like thunder until I can feel it in my chest. Why is it so loud? In a jolt of white-hot light, the world rotates. Gravity is thrown off-axis and I am sideways. I am falling. I'm powerless against the vacuum I'm being sucked into. I flail in an instinctive panic that's worthless, I know, but I don't know what else to do. Death was nothing like this. Nothing in the afterlife is so violent. For a moment, I think I'm dying— which is utter nonsense. But then it quiets.
The earth rights itself and slips back into position.
I'm still in the graveyard, and I'm standing stupidly with my hand out. Absently, I look at it. With its peachy porcelain skin, silver ring, and freshly manicured nails. A small bracelet strung with plastic pearls hangs delicately from my wrist.
I stare at my hand.
And it's shaking.
When I was in the third grade, I accidentally locked my legs at choir practice and passed out. I recall that feeling so vividly— the rush of darkness and dizziness. Feeling completely out of control while my body buckled to the ground. This feels a lot like that.
Coming-to presently, I see the world on its side. Grass to my left. Sky to my right. I try to get up, but I can't. Then the fear sets in.
What's going on? What's happening to me? Help. I can't get up. I scream, I cry, I wail. But I don't hear anything. No words come from my mouth. I'm paralyzed, laying there on the ground. In the distance, I can see the play concluding. The actors are taking a bow. Thank God. Carly will come over here and find me. I just have to stay calm.
But I scream instead.
It's a strange, foreign noise. The voice is my own but it didn't come from my lips. I didn't initiate it. My eyes swing to the source of the sound, and to my complete horror I find that I am looking at myself. Doubled over, staring at my hands, and screaming at them in a high-pitched shriek I didn't think myself capable of. All I can do is keep taking breaths and screaming. This goes on for several seconds before Carly and a few others rush over. But they don't run to the Me on the ground. They run to the Me standing, grabbing my shoulders and urging me to calm down. Over the soothing words and condolences of strangers, I hear Carly say, "Why do you not want me to be happy?"
I can't feel anything. I know I'm lying on the grass, but I can't feel its lush coolness. Or the wind in my hair or the air in my lungs. There is only complete, peaceful stillness and it is creeping me out. I'm having an out of body experience, but I'm still conscious. I'm talking to people. I'm walking.
I utter the words, "I'm fine."
But I'm not fine. That couldn't be further from the truth. I watch, helplessly, as I walk away.
There's a hand in my hand, and the feeling of skin against skin is thrilling. It's a beautiful, intoxicating sensation I can't get enough of and simultaneously feel overwhelmed by. Unfortunately, that hand is attached to someone who is currently yelling at me— about what, I'm not sure— but I can't be bothered by that. Instead, I focus on the fact that I am feeling something.
I can feel the warmth of a hand and the pressure of a grip. I feel air flooding my lungs and the pleasant, involuntary flutter of my eyes blinking. I'm heavy. Gravity presses on me, and my twiggy legs stumble under the pressure of bones, skin, and organs.
When we pass beneath the cemetery sign, I jerk my shoulder to release my hand from the angry woman, and stumble a few feet away to promptly vomit in the grass.
"Great." Her hands are on her hips, "Just great. Do you make it like, a daily goal to embarrass me? I should be talking to Derrick right now."
Shaking, I grip the black iron gate and try to compose myself. It's all very familiar, but at the same time, foreign. I close my eyes and try to find a rhythm— breathing, quieting my very present stomach, finding my balance. The angry woman is behind me again, this time softer, "Hey, seriously though. Are you okay?"
"I'm fine." I say again, this strange mantra I've been repeating or several minutes now.
Through the gates, I look out into the cemetery. I think of all the people beneath those tombstones. I think of Mary Ackerman and the rest of its tenants that exist on a plane I can no longer see. No longer be a part of. For reasons I cannot fathom, I am alive. Looking at my dainty, trembling hands, I realize I am also a woman. But one can't be picky. And as I mentioned earlier, identifiers are useless in matters of the soul.
I walk alongside the angry woman on the sidewalk, and she says more angry things but I'm not listening. My eyes scan the crowd, taking in the theatergoers and eavesdropping on their conversations. I could listen to humans talk for hours. The couple beside me is deciding on where to go for dinner. The woman is clearly ravenous, but when she asks her husband he only shrugs and says, "I could eat." The gentleman to my right comment on Lady Macbeth's rack. While I try to discern this vernacular, I must be making a face because they stop mid-sentence and look at me.
This, I am not used to. I must remember that I am solid now. I'm visible.
The angry woman leads me to an apartment building— simple, gray, and humble. She barks at me only once when I almost go the wrong way, then snaps again when I stupidly stare at the door. While she groans and fishes in her purse for the keys, muttering something along the lines of, "Do I have to do everything?", I press my hand on the door. It meets my palm and flattens it. I do this several more times before the door is opened with what surely is more force than necessary.
We enter the apartment and my irate companion disappears into the kitchen. She's still talking and I'm still not listening.
I take a deep breath and stand there, taking in the cream walls, the dirty, patch-worked couch, the unframed pictures tacked to the wall, the mismatched coffee table, the warm red area rug. There are soft lamps, casting an orange glow. It smells like vanilla. It smells like home. Absently, I look at my feet.
"I just don't get you sometimes, Meg." Her voice permeates my inner monologue, but only for a second. It is succeeded by the slam of cabinets and the pop of a wine cork.
I run my fingers along objects I am not familiar with. A slim pane of black glass sits upon the dresser. It's large and intrusive and I scrutinize its purpose. There's a slab of metal on the coffee table— brushed smooth and heavy. I run my nails over the white polished symbol of a fruit. It opens like a clamshell, revealing yet another pane of black glass. Sitting on the couch, the thought strikes me. A small rectangular lantern is sitting on the table to my right, connected by a white line that deposits into the wall. I pick it up, turning its smooth surface to and fro before it unexpectedly lights up. In a panic, and so as not to get burnt, I drop it.
This does not please the angry brunette in the kitchen, "Oh my god, what were you doing on my phone?"
She hurries to my side, slamming the wine bottle on the coffee table and racing to the floor to retrieve the device. "Is it broken?" she says, "No. Thank god. But what the fuck, Megan?"
"I'm fine." I say. The rectangle glows brightly in her hands with no consequence. She is miraculously unharmed.
"No you're not, you're being super weird." The woman reaches for the bottle on the table, "You need to talk to me."
She continues to speak, absently pointing a small wooden block toward the large pane of glass, and it too comes to life with a burst of fire. The sound and sudden shower of light startles me, and I visibly jolt. Dimly I realize I've knocked the bottle of wine from her hand, soaking us both, but this uncomfortable sensation is nothing compared to the beauty unfolding before me.
There are images behind the glass— glowing and moving and changing from second to second. I see faces and places and they're flying by so rapidly I can hardly keep up. It is radiance beyond measure. I'm looking at some kind of magic, surely, and I'm too dazzled to realize she is screaming.
The glass loses its glow in an instant. It returns to its darkened state and I am begrudgingly returned to myself. The woman says more things and then stomps into another room. It's not until then that I remember I am covered in red wine, and its acidity and stickiness agitates my skin, so I stand to find a washroom. When I peek into the bedroom, it is dark. I feel around for a lamp, but I can't find one. And just as well, I have no matches. Luckily when I enter the bathroom, the lights come on automatically, and I feel at once alone with myself. It's a feeling similar to life after death— this complete and utter acceptance of isolation.
I slip the sweater up and over my head. Then the shirt. I step out of my pants, which are tight and uncomfortable, but even discomfort is entertaining to me at this moment. I stretch and paw at the brassiere. There has got to be an easier way to get out of this thing. I ponder this while I try and fail at slipping it over my shoulders, a move that pins my right arm against my ribs. Oh hell, now I'm stuck.
"What the fuck are you doing?!" a screaming voice intrudes. I'm startled to find that this is not my angry roommate, but a voice coming from inside the bathroom— merely feet away.
When I see it, I jump, slamming into the door and knocking the full-length mirror off its mount. When it clatters to the floor, I spill onto the counter, knocking over several bottles. A great frightful thing is leering over me. A human soul— white and foggy, it is a suspended torso with a face. Most of a face. The eyes are missing and that's deeply unpleasant. Despite the loss of that predominant feature, I recognize her as the nice girl from the graveyard.
"Megan." I say, then go back to struggling at my pinned arms. How in blazes do women get in and out of this contraption?
"No." says the ghost, "I said no! Stop it. Do not take that off!" Megan demands while I spin in circles. I've got my right arm free. Now if I can just get the strap over my head. "Gross!" she goes on, "Get out of my body right now!"
"Megan?" says the roommate from behind the door, "Derrick is coming over, so— I think you should just go."
"Carly." Megan cries, "Carly it's me! Can you hear me?"
"Yes I can hear you, you fucking weirdo." Replies the other, "Seriously, he's on his way over now so if you could just be cool and give me the apartment for the next few hours, I'll forget all about you being on— whatever it is you're on right now— and we can just get on with our lives. Okay?"
I manage to rip the thing up and over my nose, which hurts a great deal, but I'm finally free. "Yes!" I exclaim. I take a minute to regard my naked self in the mirror, spare for the bottom undergarment. As I mentioned, I've outgrown the need for sexual identifiers in the afterlife. Such preferences, both personal and external, are superfluous to the dead. But it has definitely been a while since I've seen a pair of these.
"Oh my god, don't poke them!" the ghost screams into my ear. She's swiping at my head, screeching and flailing her arms, "Stop touching them. Don't even look at them!" I giggle. When she touches me, it's like a cold blast of air. The sensation is exhilarating. I've always been speculative about life, death, and the existence beyond, and now I'm learning so much.
A loud pound erupts from the other side of the door, "Megan. Get out and leave, please!"
"What did you do to me?" Megan levels with me.
I try hard to pay attention to her, but I'm just so fascinated. Seeing her is otherworldly. She's somewhat opaque, but there are moments in which she is invisible. It's an illusion much like looking at a pattern too long until the details begin to disappear. I peer into the two deep black holes in her face, studying.
"Answer me!" she screams. There is more pounding from outside, this time softer.
"Oh shit, he's here." The one called Carly hisses, "You know what? Just stay in there and pretend you don't exist. I'm moving out tomorrow, I swear to God." There are a few loud stomps followed by a sing-songy, "Derriiick. Hi!"
"I don't know." I can feel a smile spreading across my face. It spreads uncontrollably. I can barely suppress my glee, "This has never happened before."
"Well make it un-happen." Megan looks at her shaking white fingers, "I'm dead!"
Outside, Carly laughs nervously, "She's having some kind of nervous breakdown. Don't mind her."
"I know." I giggle, "I'm alive."
"This is definitely not okay." Megan bellows, "Change me back right now. Give me my body back right now." She shoves her hand in my face, stretched out and vertical— like a handshake. I stare at it, suddenly very careful not to touch her. When I don't move or speak for several minutes, she takes a dive toward my hand. I spill across the counter to avoid her, sending toothbrushes, oils, and salves chiming against the tile. She pounces at me again, so I run into the shower. The curtain comes down with a bang, but Megan moves right through it. Her fingertips just graze the tips of mine when I slam into the door, completely forgetting that I can no longer move through it, then fumble to turn the knob.
Megan tries to tackle me, so I duck, flailing into the apartment and hitting the floor.
I've hit my elbow and scraped my knee.
It hurts so badly, I can't believe it.
I am so entranced by the sight of red on my kneecap that I don't even notice the screaming voices in the room. When I touch my fingers to it, it stings even more. I remember this. I remember this burn from long, long ago. I remember being small and scared and crying. The memories, not the pain, cause my eyes to burn too. It really hurts.
My blurry view of the room reveals the Carly girl shrieking, moving to rip a blanket off the couch and throw it over me. Megan is screaming too, but I don't think anyone can see her. A man inches toward the door, sliding into the hallway before breaking into a run.
In addition to the blanket, more things are thrown at me. A pair of pants. A shirt. A bag. A coat. Some shoes. And now she's pulling me, hauling me to my feet and opening the front door. From there I am thrown, stumbling over my own wobbly feet and careening into the opposite wall— blanket, clothes, and shoes in-hand. This hurts too, and for a long time I lay on the ground simply stunned.
Megan comes through the wall and looks at me, I think in disgust, judging by the bend of her eyebrows. "Get up." She says, "Stop crying and get dressed." I'm sad, and pain isn't a very pleasant sensation, but even this emotion is captivating. I decide I rather like crying. I take a deep breath and see if I can cry even harder. As it turns out, I can.
I am sobbing.
I am laying on the floor, in a public hallway— naked— and I'm sobbing.
And that's not even the strangest part of my day. I'm privy to this horrific display because my soul has been expelled from my body— taken over by this asshole, James, who seems determined to get me institutionalized.
It took me forever to figure out how to move in the graveyard. It took me forever just to focus. It's like coming out of a nap or like that particularly strong pot brownie I had at Jessie's party. My mind wanted to slip away from the present, a feeling driven by a strange sense of peace and contentment. I felt at one with the universe and yet, completely alone. This was something that I was oddly okay with, though. I wasn't startled by this notion, at least, until I remembered that I am not supposed to be feeling this. I am not supposed to be here. I am not supposed to be dead.
With a little time and a lot of mental acrobatics, I managed to get myself upright. When I tried even harder, I managed to move. I walked— floated— whatever, home and found myself sitting on the couch. It didn't take long to put two and two together. I had been possessed. That's not really the right word for it, though. Evicted. That's closer.
It took a long time trying to talk. I sat behind a cloak of invisibility, screaming with no mouth. Begging with no vocal cords. It wasn't until I watched that sick freak undress me that I managed to break through that barrier. Seeing him now, it's hard to picture him as a demon, or some kind of deviant spirit. Right now, he just looks really, really pathetic.
"Hey look, calm down, okay?" I try to say nicely.
James lifts a finger to cover up his left nostril and blows. Snot explodes down my face, which he wipes on his arm and then stares at.
"Okay, that's just gross!" I yell, "You are awful." I slap him, even though I know it's futile, "Get the fuck up. Put on your clothes. Talk to me like a man."
"Okay." The ghost agrees, moving to slip the shirt over his head. He sniffles, evidently done with the tantrum. He stays on his back, wriggling into the jeans just as Miss Thatcher and her son, Collin walk by. She's a sweet single mom and I always wave to her waddling three-year-old when I see them. But she gasps and covers his eyes, shielding the boy from the apparent drunken mess writhing on the wood floors. I can only sigh.
"Are you done?" I ask.
"I think so." James stands up.
"Come on, let's get out of here. Let's go somewhere so people don't see me talking to myself." I float near the exit, hoping to coax him away from my home. Or what used to be my home. I wouldn't blame Carly if she changed the locks.
James smells my wine-soaked hair, following obediently. Absently. Like he is barely even listening. That arrogant jerk. This bastard holds all the cards. I don't know why he targeted me in the graveyard, or why he chose the body of a twenty-two-year-old female to colonize, but he clearly had malicious intent. Why else would he shake my hand?
He seems dazed enough— too intoxicated with life to pay attention— so maybe I can trick him into shaking my hand again. Maybe I can reason with him.
We step onto the sidewalk, and I take a breath, "Okay, look. We need to talk about this. Hey—!" he had taken a hard right and started down the street without me, "Where are you going?" I catch up to him.
"I just remembered." He looks at me wildly. A goofy expression of awe lights up my— his— features, "Food."
"What?" I fumble, "No! Let's go somewhere private to talk. Hey. Stop!" I hate this. Panic and hopelessness rise within me, threatening hysterics, but I stay calm. I have to. I have to reason with him.
I follow him down the street to a restaurant called Jam, which is fairly empty at this hour and on the verge of closing up. Without stopping or talking to anybody, he finds a booth and sits down, prompting a bewildered waitress to take notice and move toward him. Halfway through her "What can I get you to drink?" speech, James says, "Food please." When she asks what he would like, he says to bring him whatever she has. When the confused woman leaves, she passes halfway through my shoulder.
"Listen." I say, sitting down across from him, "You said this has never happened before, right?" I point at my hand for added effect.
James makes a conscious effort to duck his hands beneath the table, "That's right."
I drum my nails on the table despite not being able to feel it. The nervous gesture is lost on me. How many people did he try to possess before it worked? "Why me, James? Why did you choose my body to take?"
"I didn't." He starts to say before he's interrupted by the waitress manifesting with what must have been a pre-made sandwich and cup of soup.
I watch my green eyes grow wide— staring at the double-bacon BLT with such awe and surprise, the waitress scoots away without a word. He looks like he doesn't even know what to do with the thing.
For a long time, he looks at it before I snap him out of it with a sharp, "HEY!" then go on, "I'm sure you've been dead for a long time, but surely you remember the difference between right and wrong. Stealing is wrong. Kidnapping is wrong." He looks at me briefly, chewing thoughtfully with a mouth full of bacon. I have his attention now. I think I'm getting through. "It's not fair for you to take control of my body because you already got to live your life. I'm just beginning mine. I still want to finish college. I want to meet someone and fall in love— you know, the things you probably got to do when you were alive? Don't I deserve that chance?"
Food is, without a doubt, the most inspiring, pleasurable, and euphoric experience I have ever had. I don't recall eating during my living existence, which indicates it must have been an inconsequential, mundane occurrence I took for granted. Or perhaps I just never ate food like this. I'm not sure what it is called, but it seems to be some sort of cured meat with sliced vegetables, crisp, crunchy lettuce, and a sensational white spread sandwiched between two slices of warm, buttery bread.
Thank god I'm sitting down. If I weren't, I think I might melt.
"Kidnapping is wrong." Says the ghostly apparition of Megan across from me. I had almost forgotten she was there. This sandwich is heavenly! I must have nodded blearily because she continues to speak, though I can't hear her over my chewing. It's quite loud. Was it always that loud?
"I still want to finish college." I hear her say between gulps.
Oh, sweet glorious universe— dipping the bread into the soup is even better. What is this? Some kind of red soup. Tomato-based perhaps? I'm delighted to find that I am remembering and recognizing tastes. This is tomato and that was most certainly bacon.
"Don't I deserve that chance?" she asks, so I nod. This seems to make her happy. The ghost with no eyes beams a brilliant smile and extends a hand toward me, prompting me to immediately suck my hands beneath the table.
"Shake my hand, James." Megan insists. I shake my head, so she stabs it toward me further, "Shake it and do the right thing, you dick."
I shake my head again, pausing only to pop the last bit of sandwich into my mouth, which seems to only make her angrier, "Did you not listen to a word I just said?" she roars, "Are you a man or a demon? Why did you do this to me? What did I ever do to you?" Ghosts don't cry. Without the need for complex living emotions, or at the very least, tear ducts, the occurrence is rare if not impossible. But Megan manages it.
And seeing it breaks my heart.
"I'm sorry." I offer, because I think this is the correct thing to say, "I didn't mean to."
She sniffles, which is also extraordinary without the ability to produce mucus, "What?"
"I didn't mean for this to happen. I didn't know it would." I admit, because it has only just dawned on me that she does not realize this. She must think I'm some kind of deviant. A body snatcher. "In all my afterlife, I've never spoken to or touched a living person. I was just as surprised to see you in the graveyard today."
What I hoped would comfort her only seems to have left her deflated. Even with two chasm-like eyeholes, she looks positively crestfallen— something which resonates deeply in my own newly-acquired sense of empathy. This display, coupled with the sudden awful hurt in my chest, inspires me to put my elbow on the table. I extend my slender, feminine hand toward her. It has been a fun ride. I've greatly enjoyed this beautiful mistake.
The living ghost flashes a smile. And she takes it.
And nothing happens.
We sit and flail our hands for a minute, trying at every which angle only to reap the same result. Her hand keeps passing through mine.
"What the fuck?" Megan screams loudly, because she can. The people around us, those who are not close to her or know her personally, cannot seem to hear her. Secretly, I'm relieved this gesture didn't work. I'm elated at the opportunity to continue living. I hope there's more bacon.
"Fuck. Fuck. Fuck!" she says over and over again. I think maybe we should leave this place. She's ruining my good meal.
Suddenly, it dawns on me exactly where we should go, "The graveyard?" I propose.
I'm staring at my powder-white hand in shock. Absolute shock.
Why isn't this working? We've tried it a thousand times. Standing in the exact same spot we were this evening, and I am still body-less. The only other solution I can think of is coming back tomorrow and trying to shake hands at the precise hour and minute we did today, but I can't really recall what time that was. Shit. Maybe while I'm at it, I should ask the entire Shakespeare ensemble to come reenact their performance too. For a moment, my internal thoughts become external, "This is hopeless!" I crumple down.
Cynical, negative thoughts invade my mind. Maybe you should just stay here, Megan. You are a ghost, after all. Maybe James will take good care of your body and pass your psych finals for you. Maybe he'll meet a nice boy and have that wedding outdoors like you always planned. You just stay here and be a good little one-with-the-universe beam of energy.
These sentiments are unpleasant, but they're one of the few things keeping me tethered to this world right now. I can feel it creeping in the back of my mind even now. That comforting, warm contentment. The seductive harmony of feeling everything all at once and yet, not at all. If I were to let go just a little, I know there would be only peace. No sadness. No fear. No mortal instinct to pursue happiness. It would be so lovely, and I know it.
My hatred for this unforgivable asshat is what's keeping me alive. Or dead. Whatever.
"It's a strange feeling, isn't it?" he asks me in my voice, which continues to be unnerving. He must have noticed me staring. He must have seen the brief flit of my featureless face as I contemplated letting go.
"It's terrible." I snap.
He shrugs, "Perhaps. But we'll never know the difference."
"How long have you been like this?" I can't help but ask, "How old are you?"
"Twenty-five? Twenty-six?" his eyes find the sky, "I don't know how long that has been the case."
"Do you remember your life?"
"A little." He says, "It comes in flashes."
"What do you remember? How did you die?" this is rude, but I don't care. He doesn't seem to either.
"Tuberculosis. In Louisiana." James replies. Random. "I remember the dirt roads near my home. I remember my grandmother and pennies beneath the bed. The smell of sage. Endless rows of trees."
"Cars?" I pry, "Do you remember cars?"
But he shakes his head and says instead, "I remember horses."
"Wow." my eyebrows raise, "You're pretty old."
I watch myself yawn, then appear delighted with this. James tries to duplicate the phenomenon for several moments before getting the hang of it. Now he can't stop yawning. Great. He's tired. I didn't even think of that in my current state, but it must be nearing midnight now. Crap. And after that embarrassing spectacle at the apartment, I doubt Carly would even open the door.
I don't have any money for a hotel. The only reason we got out of the restaurant without paying is because the wait staff thought I was in some kind of distress. When the waitress announced that dinner was on the house, she did so in a slow, sweet delivery.
I have friends I could call I suppose, though I'm not too keen on ruining any more friendships tonight. James has already made me homeless. I don't trust him to make a good impression on the few acquaintances I've made in college thus far. And just as well, I don't know anyone's phone number. They're all auto-saved on my phone.
I only know two numbers by heart: One is my folks' up in Washington. The other is stained into my memory after weeks of seeing it in the corner of study guides, tests, and agendas. I never put it into my phone for fear of someone finding it.
"Come on." I say to James, who is swaying on his feet, "We need to find a good Samaritan and ask to use their cell phone."
Although Megan has reassured me multiple times that the smooth stone lantern will not burn my fingers, I'm still cautious. I can't feel any heat, but I make my interactions with it brief and delicate. She tells me the numbers to push, then urges me to hold it to my ear.
"No, higher." She says, "There. Right there. Do you hear anything, yet?"
"No." I say, "Just chirping." The nice couple we stopped on the street are looking at me strangely, though I'm dimly aware of this. I wonder instead what kind of bird noise is coming from this thing.
"Just say what I tell you, okay? The first thing you'll say is hello." Megan looks nervous too. Maybe it is dangerous, after all.
"Hello?" the chirping turns into a voice.
"Hello." I repeat as instructed.
"Megan, I haven't heard from you in a while. What's up?" Says the voice of a man.
"Hello." I say again.
"Tell him it's Megan." The ghost beside me urges.
"It's Megan." I tell the voice.
"Yes." He chuckles, "I know. What are you up to, baby?"
"Tell him you need a place to stay tonight. You'll explain when you get there." Megan says.
"You need a place to stay tonight." I begin, then notice her frantic arm-flapping, "Oh. I need a place to stay tonight. I will explain when we get there."
"We?" asks the man in the lantern, "Who are you with?"
"Megan." I reply.
"Yes, but who are you with?" the male voice asks.
I don't know how to reply to this, so I decide to play it safe, "Hello."
"What are you doing?" Megan stands beside me, fidgeting as if in pain, "What did he say?"
But the male voice simply laughs again, "It's fine. Come on over. I just opened a bottle of wine."
I hold the contraption away from my face and nod to Megan, who instructs me to push the red circle. Again, I remain unscathed by the stone that shines with multicolored light. The couple we stopped seems relieved to continue walking, and Megan explains that we need to do the same.
This day has been nothing short of thrilling and I've enjoyed every minute of it. But at this moment, I do not enjoy being tired. I feel heavy and lethargic, and my knees and elbows still hurt from earlier. It's hard to think and even harder to walk, especially with Megan leading and prodding me down the unfamiliar streets of this massive city. She is talking most of the time, but I can barely listen. All I can focus on is how awful I feel and how badly I'd like to stop moving right now.
"He's kind of like a boyfriend. Or what would the historical equivalent be to you— a suitor?" she shakes her head. I hate how much energy she has, "No. He's more like a friend. We've never even been on a date." She says, "I wonder what you called 'hooking up'."
Mercifully, we arrive. It is a massive building, the likes of which I've seen in drifting but never actually entered. It looks unthinkably large and made from brick, which is odd since Megan explained that this place was called the Pearl District. The inside is warm, bright, and welcoming. She leads me to a metal door and instructs me to push a button on the wall. When I do so, the door opens and reveals a small closet. This seems pretty counter-intuitive if we intend on meeting someone, but I do as she says and get in.
Another button causes the room to shake. This momentary sensation stops abruptly when the doors open again. And then I can't help it. I scream.
It's like I've drifted. But I haven't. I'm awake and most certainly living right now, so that's not possible. Though, this is definitely a different room from before. Megan pleads with me to be quiet, so I try to stifle my shock, stepping out of the closet and into a hallway that was not there moments ago. There is so much that I don't understand about the world. It makes me question if I ever understood it. Or if being dead brings you any closer to ever grasping it, which I'm beginning to fear is not the case.
She leads me to a door at the end of the hall, fussing and bothering me all the while to straighten my sweater and run my fingers through my hair and adjust my boobs. But when I move to do that, she changes her mind and screams at me to stop. She's the one who needs to be quiet, not me. I'm starting to get annoyed with her when the door in front of us opens.
A man waits there with two glasses of red wine. He's taller than me with a handsome face, dark hair, and a matching, well-groomed beard. He says some words of welcome, but I can't hear him over Megan snapping, "His name is Dane. Don't be weird, okay? Say hi."
"Hi Dane." I say mechanically, then take the wine because it is presented to me.
He invites me into his home, which is quite large. It strikes me as very clean, very sharp, and somewhat scarce. It's completely unlike Megan's home, in which every wall was covered in color and clutter and things. This one seems somehow empty— almost unfinished. Poor Dane must not be very wealthy.
"I'd ask how you like the wine, but it seems you've already gotten started without me." The man called Dane is touching my hair, which was dyed purple in the accident and smells worse than it did a few hours ago. I stare at him for a moment before looking past his shoulder. His walls are positively twinkling— no, they're not walls. They're windows.
I nearly knock him over, rushing to place my hands on the glass and regard the beautiful sight. We've drifted somehow high. I am floored— overwhelmed by the majesty of this city from an elevated view. It moves and twinkles and shines in the dark. A bustling metropolis. I've been to cities before, but never from this perspective. I've never witnessed anything so remarkable in my life or afterlife. I think I might cry again.
"James." Megan is beside me, urging, "He's talking to you. Say something! Say you're really tired and want to go to sleep."
"Are you alright, Meg?" while he was hospitable before, now Dane seems worried. He's close enough for me to notice the streaks of silver in his peaked brows.
"I'm fine." I say, peeling my gaze away from the window, "I'm just tired."
"If I didn't know any better, I'd say you had a rough night." He motioned to the couch, "Come on. Sit. Tell me about it."
"James, no." Megan demands, "Tell him you don't want to talk."
But I'm not ready to walk away from this view, and I most certainly do want to talk. The only person I've spoken to all day is Megan and she hardly seems interested in my discoveries. After joining him on the couch, he urges me to tell him what's wrong.
"I saw a girl today in the graveyard— or rather, for the first time ever, she saw me. I couldn't believe it. And now, somehow, I am alive." I explain.
"You feel alive?" he chuckles.
"No, I am. For the first time in centuries!" I can't stop talking. This is thrilling, having someone listen to you, "I forgot how incredible this feels. Air in my lungs. Weight on my knees. This," I touch his hand, "This is particularly nice. I've touched a lot of things today, but skin is by far my favorite."
"Well—." Dane raises his eyebrows.
But I interrupt, "And food. Dane, I ate food. Bacon. Can you believe I forgot what bacon was? I can't. And I never will again." This man looks stretched between entertainment and confusion— probably because I'm shouting. It's impossible to get a word out around Megan, who has been screaming since we arrived.
Dane pauses for a minute before bursting out in laughter. The sight of it makes me smile— instantly contagious. As it turns out, laughing is the same kind of cathartic release as crying, and I am instantly hooked. I give it a test for several moments, alternating between snickering, giggling, and howling. When I wipe the tears from my eyes, I can't help but find that funny too. There is a very thin line between sobbing and laughing.
I look at Megan, but she doesn't seem amused. In fact, she has retreated into some kind of stunned silence, which is refreshing.
"Um." Dane chuckles a bit more, though it sounds forced, "Well you've certainly had an interesting one. So, at what point did this happen?" he moves to touch my scraped knee, which until then had faded into a dull ache
"Oh that? I fell down. That is most certainly one thing I do not miss. Pain is my least favorite feeling."
"Hold on a minute." When he disappears into the kitchen, I swirl the glass in my hand and take a sip. It's sour, and bitter, and part of me doesn't like it. Regardless, I down the whole glass in one gulp and find Megan staring at me, aghast.
"What the hell?" she bellows, "Would you slow down? And could you also stop cackling like a crazy person? Go to bed!"
"Okay so— you fell down in a graveyard." Dane returns with a smile on his face, holding a little box.
"No, that was later." I say while he fiddles with its contents, withdrawing a cotton ball and inverting a brown bottle over it, "In her home when everyone was screaming."
Dane chuckles, "I don't doubt it with that roommate of yours. She's a high-strung kid. Probably won't make it another semester. She's nearly failing out of my Behavioral Psych class." He touches my knee, "This might sting a bit."
When he touches the cotton ball to my knee, it hurts. It hurts worse than before and a thousand times over. It frightens me so badly, I shatter the wine glass on the floor and nearly crawl up the couch. I just got done explaining to Dane how much I dislike pain, so this sends me into a whirlwind. Did he do this intentionally? I don't know what to do with this information. My heart is pounding. I think perhaps I should run. Or hit him. I should hit him and then run. "Hey, hey." His hand is on my shoulder, "It's okay. I'm sorry."
While I concentrate on breathing, he seems to be getting closer, "Don't worry about the glass." Dane puts a strand of hair behind my ear, "You okay? Yeah?" Just this morning I hadn't seen a human in quite some time. Presently, I am certain I've never seen one so close, "I'll make it better."
"I think—." I manage, but I am silenced by his lips pressing against mine.
I am without words.
Stuck in some sort of nightmarish out-of-body experience— only in this reality, I am being kissed by Dane and all I can do is sit there like a dead fish. I mean look at him. He isn't even closing his eyes. Just looking around the room as if considering the sensation. Weighing his options. I don't know what's worse. That, or when he finally does close them and gets into it.
God damnit. Damn it all. Screaming at him does nothing. All I can do is pace wildly for a moment, unable to watch this disgusting spectacle. I want to cry. Try to cry— but find that I can't. I can only mime the noises when all I really want is a good hard cry. This impulse passes quickly, as I discover you don't need bodily functions to feel white hot rage.
When I turn around again, they are horizontal. Rubbing and grinding and moaning all over the couch. I feel so angry I could burst. Exploding into a string of incoherent curses, I stomp across the room— which is saying something for a ghost with no feet— rear back and punch James square in my face.
To my complete surprise, this shocks them both.
They pull back, and Dane stares at me (my body) in bewilderment. Meanwhile, James looks at me (my spirit) with a similar surprise. I pant, still holding up my fist— emboldened by a glimmer of hope that I have made contact with the physical world.
But then Dane pulls him closer, "Baby. You're freezing cold."
"I am." James touches his face.
"I think you're going into shock." He kids, scooping my body off the couch and twirling my body down the hallway, "We better warm you up!"
"Wait." I can't help but say, chasing them into the bedroom, "James. No. Wait!"
My body is thrown upon the mattress with the same playful cadence that should have my stomach doing backflips right now. I watch myself giggle like I normally would, delighted with the sensation of feeling weightless and desired. Only knowing it is James experiencing this special moment with Dane makes my stomach flip in all the wrong ways. I reach to pull at the sheets, but my hands go right through them. I close what I think are my eyes and try to muster some form of existential concentration, summoning the same power from before, but nothing works. Clothes start coming off.
And it's not like being embarrassed in front of Carly.
It's not like being ignored while he enjoyed the experience of eating.
This, oddly enough, for the first time today feels personal. I am powerless— watching my bra fall to the floor.
If holding hands felt like a jolt of lightning, this is on an entirely different level.
I remember kissing. It was buried, like any other recollection of my earthly desires, deep in my memory with the other things that don't matter in the grand scheme of the cosmos. Oh, but it matters now. Does it ever. It comes rushing back to me like a flood of nostalgia. A flutter of the heart. The intoxicating adrenaline of feeling wanted— needed. Wanting and needing in return. It's all so exterior and foreign, yet all the same, familiar.
The breasts are new, though.
Definitely not something I recall being a part of the equation during my time among the living. At least not experiencing them firsthand— while I watch in fascination as Dane strays from my mouth to my navel. I close my eyes and enjoy it— finding myself more preoccupied with unearthed memories than the present act itself. I remember accompanying my grandmother to Sunday mass. I remember spotting a blue-eyed, redheaded girl across the aisle. I remember the course texture of the sheets. The soft, flickering glow of candlelight and a pair of creamy legs. Not knowing where one appendage ended nor where I began— and being swallowed up, wholly, in the moment. Much like now, where I have trouble discerning fantasy from reality. Hallucination from sensation. Where was I now? Louisiana. No, Portland. Who is this? Margery— no. Dane.
And there's good old Megan. Screaming at me. Not much has changed since I last paid the present a visit.
But it's then I realize, along with the revelation that my pants have been removed, that Megan is not screaming. She is sobbing— as best that ghosts can sob, which is not at all, but since I understand the intent she must be utterly upset. I tilt my head and ask her earnestly, "What's wrong?"
But she can barely form words, "Please stop." She sobs, "This isn't right. This isn't fair. You're in my body. I don't want this."
I remember Margery pushing against my chest. I can feel her fingerprints— burning, clear as day. Stabbing to my core the same as they did all those days— hours— centuries ago.
And I see my spread hand pushing against Dane, perfectly manicured and adorned with too many bracelets for my taste. I say, "Dane. No."
"What?" he breathes.
I look to Megan, who seems stunned. Then I look back to him, "The lady would rather you wouldn't."
Dane pauses for a moment, then his bearded face bursts into a grin, "What's this? Do you want to be my lady?"
"Sir." I press more firmly this time, not taking my eyes off of Megan— whose sunken eye sockets don't denote much— but in this moment I can sense her absolute misery, and perhaps even a burgeoning optimism, "The lady has asked you to stop. So, we will stop now. Do you understand?"
The man called Dane laughs again and dips his head to nibble on my neck, "I like it, baby. It's weird, but I like it."
"Dane." I warn once more, bucking my hips, "Remove yourself right now."
"That's it, baby. That's it." He mutters into my neck, and before I can say any more, I am interrupted by a shooting pain in my groin. A hurt like you wouldn't believe— like a barely mended scar being ripped open at the seams. It takes me back to only moments prior, when he injured my knee. The urge to hurt him or flee bubbles up again and stays only for an instant. It takes just that long for me to decide what I want to do.
My fist cracks against his ear with all the force I can gather. Then I hit him again, this time in the jaw.
When Dane rolls off the bed, taking the covers and sheets with him, I stand up and begin collecting my clothes. He says several things, none of which are particularly pleasant or at the very least coherent, but they sound vaguely violent, so I close my hands into fists once again and tell him, "Stay down, sir."
"What the fuck?"
"I said stay down." I repeat, fumbling with the stretchy piece of fabric in my other hand, "Brassieres are quite complicated. You can't imagine." I say, sticking my head through what I believe is the head hole. Turns out it's not, "This may take a moment."
"Forget it." Megan snaps.
"Alright, I will forget it." I announce, looping it around my shoulder instead then snatching my pants, shirt, and cardigan from the floor, "I am leaving now. Goodbye."
Dane shouts still more things while I take my leave, pausing only to rip the covers off his bed because I recall it being chilly outside. Moments later, we are in the hallway— which is thankfully, considerably quieter— and Megan talks me through fitting myself with the brassiere…a process which begins with untangling it from my shoulder and ribs. Next comes the shirt, pants, and cardigan. She even tries to pull the blouse over my head, although her hands go right through it. Whereas moments ago, she was sobbing, now it seems she is smiling. It's a small smirk though. Shy and a little coy.
"Thank you." She says.
"My pleasure." I reply.
I end up sleeping on a park bench outside of Portland University.
And by I, I mean my body. I, my spirit, spent the remaining early morning hours watching him— my body— sleep. He was so exhausted, he barely stirred whenever a bus went by. He dozed through rowdy students making their sleepy way back to their apartments. He slept through a car alarm going off on Holladay for a solid twenty minutes. I suppose he had a big day… being and hurting and eating and fucking. It makes me wonder how I ever did it. Being in this state is eerily easier. Infinitely simpler. I am filled with only calm while I watch him— James. Myself. Sleeping peacefully on the wooden bench outside of the administrative building.
The temptation to drift presents itself in the early dawn hours, but I ignore it.
I think of the measure of a life and what makes it meaningful. I think of my family, but not in a sad way. I should have called them more, but that's okay. I hope they know I meant it when I said I loved them. Even if it was hasty and mumbled and callous because Carly was listening. I think of my schoolwork, which matters even less now. Especially now. I think of what I could have been after college. I think of my cat at home in Vancouver. God I miss my cat.
I perch myself above my body and watch the sky transform from a deep, midnight blue to periwinkle, then pink. It's gorgeous— watching the stars brighten, then fade. Hearing the silence climb to the distant roar of cars and footsteps. To the sway of trees. To the subtle electricity, the undercurrent of energy that surfaces when millions of people join the waking world.
I don't know how I missed it before.
I press myself to ever— ever recall a sunrise.
But I can't.
This may be my first.
I look down at James, who begins to stir— rubbing his eyes and lifting his head from the rough surface of the steel armrest.
"Hey." I say.
"Hello." He replies.
"Sleep well?" I can't help it. A little bit of bitterness seeps through.
"No, not really." He sits up, rubbing my eyes, "I had dreams?"
"You had dreams."
"I suppose so." He frowned, "They are very disconcerting."
"They can be if you're not used to them. What happened in them?" I smile. I think. I'm never really sure in this state where I can't feel anything— like facial expressions.
"I don't remember." he stretches— popping my neck. I see it and hear it, but can only relate to it on the same level as muscle memory. Something distant and primal. When he rubs his aching joints, he looks at me with the same lost look I can only imagine I wore every day of my life, once. I know what he is thinking before he even says it, "What now?"
I smile (maybe) again, and shrug, "We could go to class."
James turns his head to look at me, and asks genuinely without a shred of sarcasm in his voice— because I don't think he could dredge it up if he tried, "Am I you now?"
"I don't know." I say, "Do you want to be? You don't have to. You can be anyone you want. But clearly, I'm never getting my body back."
And I'm oddly okay with that, I mean to say. But I don't.
I don't understand. She's been so vocal up until now. But now she's eerily silent. Perhaps resolved is a better word? Seeing Megan in any other state than screaming is a relief, but all the same— I don't like it.
I don't like it as much as the prospect of carrying out a life that is not my own. I had my fun. I had my time. Especially in the past twelve hours, but before that. Hundreds of hours— and hundreds of thousands before that— I was done.
I hold my hand out to her, feeling the definite furrowing of my brows. Megan regards this for some time before I feel her gaze move from my hand to my eyes.
"I think I understand a little more, now." She says, "About life. And death. And the way our energy navigates the universe. It was scary at first, but now—."
"I'm sorry." I continue to offer my hand, "I didn't plan on any of this happening."
"It's okay. None of us do." Megan says, "James? I have a question."
"Anything. Then please, just shake my hand." I press her.
"Is it lonely?"
I pause for a moment. For some reason, it is becoming harder and harder to relate to the apparition I was just a day ago. It's an easier task for me to recall the feeling of skinned knees, the crisp crunch of dead grass, or the savory melting sensation of eating anything with butter. But somewhere beyond all of that, I am able to recollect my afterlife before living. I remember the calmness she feels now. The contentment. There was a pleasant, peaceful numbness, but I was most certainly alone.
"I suppose—." I answer before I'm ready, the words spilling from my lips, "a little. Even if I wasn't entirely aware of it." I realize my arm is dropping so I shove my hand toward hers again, "That doesn't matter, now. You have a life to live. And a class to attend. And bacon sandwiches to eat. And Danes to kiss or punch."
Megan smiles, "You've been a trip, James. Whatever happens, I hope the afterlife isn't all blissful isolation. I hope— maybe someday— I'll see you out there."
I'm a bit taken off guard by her words. She is a little mistaken in her understanding of the afterlife and how it works, but her sentiment is sweet nonetheless. I am reminded all over again of the timid young woman I met in the graveyard just a few hours prior.
I am reminded all over again that she is kind.
Megan takes my warm, fleshy hand in her chilly, vaporous one— and I close my eyes at the feeling of the world turning on its axis. It starts slow and startling before escalating to the sensation of my stomach flying up into my chest. And then just as suddenly and horrifically as it came on, the world settles.
I open the eyes I cannot feel and find myself staring at Megan.
Not the ghostly wisp of a soul's reflection, but the flesh and bones— beautiful— Megan.
Her green eyes flutter open, pausing to touch her face with all the haste and fervor of someone who thought they'd never feel again. Her eyes are swimming with tears. She's laughing— no, crying. I wasn't aware these two things could occur at the same time and now I'm slightly miffed that I didn't get to experience the combination. But all the same, it's entertaining to see her twirling around. She stretches her sweater. She rakes her fingers through her matted hair. She laughs and jumps up and down upon the pavement.
She is struck by a very large, extremely fast metal carriage.
I am laying in the street outside of my college campus.
The bus screeches to a halt with a strangled hiss. The driver practically spills out of it already in tears. Dropping her cell phone. She screams incoherently. Sobs about a girl coming out of nowhere. Jumped right in front of her. Right into the street. She can't seem to stop crying while passersby rush over.
I've been having an out of body experience for half a day now, and still I'm having trouble wrapping my mind around the sight before me. I am looking at myself on the ground, eyes wide, red stretching slowly behind my head.
I am gone.
We stand over her body and stare.
I wasn't exactly an ace at conversation before, but believe me when I say that words have escaped me.
"Um." says a voice, "Are you okay?" James looks the same as he did yesterday. That vaporous shape of a young man— only somehow now, he looks even more dopey.
"No James." I say, "I don't think I am."
We watch while more people arrive— some passing through us. All shouting. Some frantically waving at my classmates to stop taking pictures and call an ambulance. It's odd returning to this state, but seeing the way James is looking at me— even with his sunken, craterous eyes— it's definitely different from before.
He seems worried beyond belief, so I smile. I think I'm smiling. I must be, because he smiles back.
I hold my hand out to him— the soft, translucent, mirage of a shape.
Here we are.
And here we go.
James pauses for a moment, seemingly grappling between the sight on the ground and the present reality in front of him. My mind is already moving elsewhere. I look out beyond the chaos in front of the bus to notice the brilliance of the sunrise. Pale, incandescent rays fall on a city just thrumming to life. And beyond it, who knows what.
My palm is still extended toward him.
James doesn't hesitate any longer.
He links his fingers in mine, and we walk.