For two days, I pondered this week's prompt. I toyed with the idea of re-visiting an old character of mine and turning him into a ghost. It went nowhere, and then BAM! the idea for a story hit me. I've never written so productively as this--2700 words in about three and a half hours. This is a first draft, so it's not perfect, but by golly, I'm pretty pleased with it.
Constructive criticism is always welcome.
“Of all the ways to die! Jesus Christ, there's nothing heroic about getting electrocuted. Nothing whatsoever, no lesson to convey, no meaning. Don't you get it? All my life, I tried to do stuff with meaning, but it figures I had to die a senseless death. And insult to injury—all that work, and there's not even some feel-good-grant-all-your-wishes heaven. Not that I ever believed in that concept, of course, but Jesus. No bright light, even, just a bunch of mist and vague details. This sucks!”
Joe (only his grandparents called him Joseph) went to kick at a rock to vent his frustration, but his black Converse sneakered foot merely went through the rock as though it weren't there. “And the special effects are shitty, by the way,” he added, shaking his fist at the sky.
“Are you through complaining yet?” Joe turned to see who was talking. Some Wall Street Capitalist stiff, he decided—the suit and tie were impeccable, and the shoes were glossed to a high shine, or so he conjectured even though he couldn't see them through the low-lying mist. Even in the afterlife, The Man was trying to maintain the status quo—as long as people were satisfied with what little they'd been given, they'd never agitate for better conditions.
“No, I'm not through. The moment we cease to struggle is the moment we give up and die.” The line had worked brilliantly for the youth action group, and it worked even better on idealistic young women.
The Man seemed unimpressed. “Well, you must've given up at some point, or else you wouldn't be here. Dead, I might add, though I suspect you had something a little more metaphorical in mind.”
Joe was taken aback at the display of humor. It didn't mesh with the solemnity of death. “Who are you—Death himself? I always thought you'd have a black hood or something.”
A wry smile. “No, I'm not Death. Death, in your case, was a bolt of lightning. For someone who claimed to be such a cynic, you're certainly quick to jump to superstitious conclusions.”
“Who are you, then, and what comes next?” No use beating around the bush, Joe figured, even if he had an eternity to figure things out.
“And I suppose you're wondering where to register your complaints, hmm? Patience, Joseph.”
Joe impatiently shoved his hipster hair out of his eyes and folded his arms across his chest, waiting for Mr. Man to continue.
“I'm your guide. Somebody thought it'd be a great joke to pair us up. I'm not in a position to argue, so here we are. Listen up, because I'm not going to repeat anything. I haven't met my quota of Drifters yet, so the sooner I send you on your way, the sooner I can continue on my own way.”
“So eternity functions on the capitalist model? Out-fucking-rageous.” The possibility threatened to render all his work moot. It figured that some patriarchal-capitalo-fascist godhead would have the last laugh, wouldn't it? Ha. Ha. Good one, old man.
“Well, it's a human construct, this tangible afterlife thing. It can't be extracted from the conditions that created it. Alter the earthly conditions, maybe, then you might, might see something different in this dimension.” For a minute, Joe could see a glimpse of a younger idealist, one who hadn't sold his soul to the almighty dollar. That moment passed quickly. “Anyway, back to business. You and me, we're Drifters. We're still caught between the dimension we lived in, and whatever comes next. Some people move straight on, lucky bastards. You know the type—satisfied with their lives, never did anything wrong against their fellow man--”
“Goddamned political correctness. Yes, or women, or innocent puppy dogs or poor helpless cows. You get the point. Those people, they move straight on. To what, I don't know, but I haven't heard any screaming or even rumors of torment, and you know how bad news travels. The rest of us—most of us, actually—have something that needs to be settled, maybe some so-called sins to work off. We can't do much in the realm of the living, except your typical ghostly rattling the window shutters and Ouija board antics. So it's easier to help in this realm. Takes longer, but it's easier, and hey, I've got eternity.”
Joe sat down on the ground, disconcertingly close to his own remains. His butt sank slightly into the pavement, and when he tried to brace himself with his hands, they too sank. “I thought... I tried. I tried to make the world better. Doesn't that count?”
“I dunno. Anyway, that's the sum of what I know. You're sharp, though—you might figure out more. Now, if you'll excuse me, there's a drunk driving accident across town. Three fatalities, I think. Good luck, kid.”
“Fuck you.” He stood up. “Fuck you,” he repeated, though this time he didn't even know who the intended recipient was.
Joe passed the rest of the night in the abandoned parking lot where he'd met his untimely end on his way home from the homeless shelter where he was volunteering. He scrupulously kept his back to the direction where his body lay. As dawn broke, the fog didn't lift, confirming his suspicion that it was intended as a manifestation of the separation between him and the world of the living. It worked, too—he'd never felt so alone, even when he'd championed unpopular causes, like fighting the vending machines in high school.
A shriek finally alerted him to the fact that his body had been discovered. It had to be Jean, one of the regulars. Oh god, not her. She's just shy of insane already. This'll tip her over the edge. Like that will help my karmic balance.
“Whoa, there,” Joe said aloud, needing to hear his own voice. He looked over. She didn't seem to have heard him, and the mist was thicker in front of her. “I don't think she can hear me. RIGHT?” No visible reaction. He approached her, waved a hand in front of her face. Nothing. “Okay, so I'm invisible. I wonder if I could walk through—Jesus, Joe, that's freaky. Quit that. Think, think. You've got to do something here, not just sit around on your lazy ass. Gotta think betterment of humankind. Settling old debts. Debts? Like student loans? No, that doesn't make sense. People. Who do I owe? I did right by my parents. Sure, they thought I was weird, and I think they were convinced I was gay when I started volunteering with the Gay-Lesbian Alliance, but I think I avoided disappointing them, for the most part.”
Silence was the only response. As the coroner's van pulled up, Joe decided to walk around, or float, at least. No need to watch the show. He knew how it would end, on a cold slab, with his parents being called to identify the body. His feet and legs instinctively moved in unison to walk, but if he didn't concentrate on the ground, he walked an inch or two below the cement, or alternately, above it, his feet making a morbid parody of walking.
He didn't register the distance covered, and from time to time, he had the disconcerting feeling of walking through people. As his vision and perception adjusted to his newly disembodied state, he began to realize that while the guy in the suit—whose name he'd never actually gotten, he realized–had seemed substantial enough, the others, the people walking around, doing things, living, were fuzzy and ill-defined. The fog seemed to eat them away at the edges. So, solid is dead, wispy is alive. Must be inverted, because I'm wispy to them. OK, I'll buy that.
As he wandered, though, he began seeing flashes of color—a red T-shirt, a fake bleach blond dye job, no doubt the type sold by the gurus of marketing who were out to convince otherwise beautiful young women that they'd never be pretty unless they conformed to an unrealistic Hollywood ideal. Were they dead, too?
Curious, he approached one girl. Red-head, kind of cute, he realized. Her expression was unreadable, but he could make out the logo on her handbag, a company well-known in his circle of acquaintances for charging top dollar for their product while shortchanging the workers who made them. Joe's blood boiled at the thought, but he had a mission, and being dead and therefore having little to lose, he approached her. “Hey.”
No visible response.
“Hey, this is going to sound really awkward, and I swear it isn't a twisted pick-up line, but are you dead?”
Still no response. He'd been ignored by girls before, of course, but then, small tics betrayed that he'd been noticed and deemed unworthy of response; this time, there was no indication of recognition. As if to confirm his hypothesis, she walked through him.
“So, not dead. But we have color. Color's good, I think. Maybe.” He looked to see where the seemingly solid people were heading. His favorite big box store. “Jesus Christ. Wal-Mart's even infiltrated the fucking afterlife.”
In spite of himself, he followed them, wondering why there was a convergence of colorful people gathering at this place. Why here? And what were they, if they weren't dead?
Joe approached a tired looking housewife who was trying to manage a shopping cart and a two-year old. Well, it was a small child, anyway, though he wouldn't want to have to swear to its age. The mother appeared clearly enough, right down to her bright red flip-flops. The child, on the other hand, was indistinct. Joe decided to follow them throughout the store, studying them, trying to figure out what made the difference.
She loaded up the cart with lots of pre-packaged food, Joe noticed. Pasta meals and lunch meat. Nothing remarkable there. The cereals were full of sugar and preservatives and unnatural colors, but he couldn't see how that made her choice in purchases too different from many Americans'. After she finished with the grocery section, she wandered over to clothing, and then to home appliances, where she bought an automated coffee machine. As she reached for the box, another shopper passed by. The woman in red flip-flops pulled her cart closer to her side of the aisle.
The new shopper passed through him, and Joe realized that the shopper and her child were almost an inverse of the pair he'd been following—the mom was insubstantial, but the child—probably preschool aged—appeared in technicolor splendor. Since the first duo hadn't gotten him closer to answers, Joe decided to follow the newcomers. They finished in home appliances, and headed, it appeared, toward the home and garden department. As they passed by the toy section, the otherwise docile child came to life.
“Can I get a new doll, please Mommy?”
“Not today, sweetie.”
“Please? Pretty please? Karen just got a new one, and you can fix its hair and everything.”
“I said no.” The woman had more to say, but Joe was transfixed by the child. She was glowing with, well, something. Before he'd died, Joe would've associated the bright eyes and flushed cheeks with life and vitality. But this world worked backwards. The brighter the light, the deader the person. It had to be. The mother was older, but given that he couldn't make out her features, she must be more alive. Is the child sick, then?
Even though there was no one to converse with, Joe needed to voice his thoughts. The words tumbled over each other in their rush to get out. “No, that'd be an awful lot of sick kids. Unless there's a nuclear generator somewhere, and they're all dying of some sort of cancer and I'm supposed to find some way to call it to people's attention so we can bust those fat cats who let it happen. And then that could be my penance and I can move on. No, no. That's not it. Too simple. So these people are half-dead. They're like ghosts, kind of. Living ghosts. Walking dead. Zombies? Oh, that'd be rich. Jeff would love that. But no. Zombies kind of make sense, metaphorically, maybe...” He trailed off.
Another child was getting ready to pitch a tantrum at the endcap of another aisle. A boy, this time, wanting a Transformer toy. “But I want it!” He listed off the features that made the toy so covet-worthy. It sounded like-- “He's reciting the commercial! The little twerp memorized the commercial!” As the pint-sized sales pitch continued, the same animation took place. The greens of his camouflage pants intensified to a rich forest green, his blue striped T-shirt took on shades of indigo, and his blond hair seemed to acquire a halo.
It was all leading to something, Joe knew it. He could feel the answer lurking on the edge of his consciousness, but it eluded him. He needed to see the effect on a real person (someone taller than 3 feet), maybe. He wandered off in search of understanding. He knew now to look for the almost-radioactive glow. There would be his most glaring examples of what was wrong—and perhaps the answer to how to fix it. Fixing wrongs, now he was back on familiar territory.
Things began to make sense at the check-out line. Two teen-aged girls flipping through a young woman's magazine were glowing Chernobyl-bright. Joe edged closer to listen for perhaps the clue that would make things clear. “So, I guess green is the color this year. Gosh, just look at her.” An intake of breath. “She's perfect,” her companion agreed. “And the guy she's with--” They sighed in unison. “Hey, think they have that lip gloss here?”
Impulsively, Joe reached to swipe the magazine out of their hands. His hand went through. He concentrated. Think rattling window sills, Ouija boards—I need movement here! He tried again. Nothing. Again. The taller of the two girls reached to put the magazine back. “Damnit, that's all a load of lies, don't you realize?” Joe exclaimed in frustration. “Buying that lipgloss won't get you the guy—and he's not worth getting, by the way!” The magazine went skittering to the floor facedown just as it touched the shelf.
“That's weird,” the girl said, picking it up. Once again, and how, he didn't know, Joe managed to knock it down.
“Maybe the spirits think it's the wrong shade,” the shorter girl joked.
“Maybe,” her companion agreed, with a nervous chuckle. The glow dimmed, flared slightly as they headed toward cosmetics, then dimmed again as they changed their minds and headed for the exit.
Something in Joe shifted, for lack of a better word, and he realized that somehow, he'd just accomplished something good. As a feeling akin to satisfaction settled over him, another thought occurred to him: he couldn't lurk at check-out lane endcaps waiting to do poltergeist things. Not every person who glowed with the unhealthy death wish of consumerism read the magazines. Not many people read, actually. People didn't read. Something clicked. They didn't read because... they were watching TV.
His mind jumped back to the boy and the Transformer, and the commercial the boy had practically recited. Joe raced back to the toy section, where the battle was still commencing. Mom was wearing down quickly, though, and he wasn't surprised to see the toy in the shopping cart moments later. It would take more than he was capable of to remove the action figure from the cart, but he had an idea.
At first the idea of following complete strangers home seemed appalling. It's for a greater good, though, he told himself, mentally apologizing for trespassing. The mother was unloading groceries on the kitchen counter when Joe heard the telltale click of the TV and the sound of squeaky cartoon voices.
He took a deep breath, and half expecting to be electrocuted all over again, reached into the back of the TV set, yanking on the first wires his fingers touched. There was a small popping sound, and then silence.
And, there are more takes on the concept of "ghosts" over at Sunday Scribblings.