ghosts for neighbours

stanza by particle
the ghosts move in upstairs
flakes of each falling
already from above
tomorrow I’ll have to dust!

they probably laugh
at words like papier-mâché

3am
I pound the ceiling with a broomstick
hearing their disembodied snickers
aware that they’re likely
disembodily thinking
the mortal buzz-kill downstairs’s
a bore

 

 

 

 

 

 

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riggin’

1971

“Hand me the riggin’,” said Paul Vaillancourt.

I looked at the neatly laid out array of engine parts that surrounded us, and chose a likely candidate. I wasn’t mechanical. Didn’t care to be. Didn’t care to be dirty. Didn’t want to play rough. Or exchange juvenile bullshit about auto mechanics.

There was local folklore, in fact, about my avoidance of boyishness. I sensed, though at the time I would not have been able to verbalise it, not having the vocabulary, that family, friends and neighbours were worried that I might never achieve proper boyhood, with all of the future consequences that implied. My brother and others, using words like faggot, helped to expand my personal moving glossary on the topic.

Riggin’, by the way—

Paul often used this kind of word. Old Manitoba words. Fashioned long ago. Allowing a user to never call a thing by its actual name. A tradition brought with him to Vancouver, from the town of Morden, Manitoba. Round-abouts Dead Horse Creek, he’d say. Paul believed calling a thing by its real name was for suckers.

He lived in the house next to my family’s. He was 61. And worked in a mill. A place, I imagined, not really knowing for sure, that was full of riggin’s.

I’d chosen well. The riggin’ he’d asked me to hand him was called a carburetor. For the old Ford inline 6 Paul was working on. I was 9, and had wrapped my small hands round it and hefted it up. Paul grabbed it from me with one big hand without taking his eyes off what he was doing under the hood. The carburetor was oily. I looked for somewhere to wipe my hands.

“Rags’re over there,” he said, without pointing in any direction, as he cranked a ratchet wrench. I did a 360. Saw nothing. Wiped my hands on my tee-shirt.

“Your mother ain’t gonna like that,” said Paul. Again, without looking away from his work. Later in life, I learned the word uncanny. Paul’s Bluetooth telepathy was uncanny.

He produced a rag, pulling himself out from under the hood. And tossed it my way.

He was grey and balding. Close shave. Wearing jeans, work boots and a plaid shirt. Smelling of Vitalis and gasoline.

“A haunted house in a city just ain’t the same as out on a prairie,” he declared, wiping his hands with another mysteriously gotten rag. He was starting again from where we’d left off on our earlier haunted conversation. I came to him occasionally with the big questions.

“On a prairie,” he said, “it’d be an old farm house. Maybe abandoned since the depression—damn those were some hard times. Yup, a prairie haunted house is the loneliest place in the world. Spooks attracting spooks from miles around. Real social. But no place for the livin’. Ghosts the colour of the high grass and prairie flowers in the summer. Movin’ the same in the wind. White like frost in the winter, standing real still like something frozen, but ain’t. Inside, when you get inside and start nosin’ round, they’re the shape of the stairs and the doors and the windowpanes. Standing behind you in a mirror, if there’s still one hanging on the wall. Maybe matching yer step, walking upside down on the ceiling ‘neath the floor yer walking on. Walking up the walls, like on a sidewalk in town. Lookin’ atcha through a window, from inside or out. Gettin’ inta yer soul, if they can. Readin’ you like a poem, one stanza at a time. Yer a poem, boy. You know that? Every man is. Every woman, too. Though a man ain’t as prone to admitting it, as much as a woman. Ghosts get in a man and read him stanza by stanza. Sounds like a whisper when you try to listen.” He looked at his hands as he wiped the grease and oil from them.

I said, “I was only thinking of the big black old place up on 8th Avenue.”

“Been in there?”

“No way.” I lied.

He gave me a sly look. Like he knew a little better.

“Then how you know it’s haunted?”

“Just looks haunted,” I said, though I had a more concrete reason to believe that it was. Secret. I hadn’t shared it. I was already a suspicious neighborhood character. “Everyone says it’s haunted. Joe Farano, Bobby Jensen.” But it was all talk, on their part. They hadn’t seen the little round-faced girl looking out through a window at the back of the house. Younger than me. Maybe 7. I was braver than most. And fewer friends meant more time on my hands. So I ended up there that evening. She smiled when our eyes met. I had a rock in my hand. It was like she was daring me to throw it at her. Through one of the last unbroken windows. (Why else would a boy be in the back yard of an abandoned house, if not to throw rocks through windows?) I didn’t, though. And she came out onto the back porch, gave a little wave and then disappeared. Then there was invisible movement everywhere. It was dusk.

“Ghosts the shape of the front door, then?” Paul continued with the questions. “Shape of the gables, the porch? Leaves of the trees, the dandelions?”

I shrugged. This wasn’t the conversation I was expecting.

“Are there lights at night? In the windows. On the walk up to the steps?”

“I don’t know.” It wasn’t true. The invisible movement around me that dusky evening had turned into a parade of lights.

“Did ya feel yer stanzas bein’ read?” he asked. “Out loud? In whispers? It’s loudest just before you go to sleep at night, mostly. Just before you cross the line into dreamin’. But sometimes it’s louder when they aren’t inside of you, just real nearby.”

“No,” I said. But, maybe, I thought. And wondered if it showed, when a boy’s stanzas had been read.

“Ghosts are tricky,” said Paul Vaillancourt, lighting an Export “A”. “Some even say, artful.”

Artful. I looked the word up later. In the massive Webster’s Dictionary my father placed on the kitchen stool when he cut my and my brother’s hair with the electric razor he’d bought at Simpson Sears one weekend past a payday long ago in my family’s misty past. The big fat book made our little heads high enough for him to do a decent job. (My father, an industrial printer by trade, was a failure as a barber. So, we almost always ended up nearly bald.)

Ghosts could be artful, I decided after reading the word’s definition. They’d evolved into their own peculiar civilization, I came to believe, piecing together this theory without being able to articulate as much. Like Aztecs. Building pyramids. Block by block. Able to read the interior Stanzas of Mankind. And some of them were just up the street. Residing within their very own immeasurable, artifactual tarpaper abode. Each in a shape he or she had chosen for his or her own artful reasons.

Paul retook his place under the hood, asking me to hand him the riggin’ next to the alternator.

The alternator, what the…?

I chose another likely candidate. One as likely as the rest. Wondering at the oddness of the Ford inline 6. Choosing well once more. The engine fan. I hefted it up, into Paul’s waiting hand.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

a Canadian over Hiroshima

In a favourite frequent dream he was Little Boy, released lazily from the fuselage, falling freely over the city with his eyes open wide, toward the topography and civil systems, framed by the compass horizon. This was the elegance of his descent, the landscape static below for that long minute, having been dropped from so high, decent divorcing distance. Then the dense second of his detonation, uranium-235 colliding, as he became the toroidal vortex that defined him forevermore.

He woke at 3:00 a.m., in the heat of that fire over Hiroshima. But he remembered quickly that it was August, and that the heat was merely the swelter over his dull prairie neighbourhood. He sat up in his bed, scanning the dark for ghosts. But until that night, there had been none. The dead had spent no time in his ordinary garden. They hadn’t peeked over its walls, or tried its gate. The dead danced on other planets.

He was a man of many regrets, prone to saying he had none. Alive to the murder/suicide in things, he wrote equations to forget, on his ceilings and walls, papering over the windows and writing over them. Kilometres of binaries, brackets, numbers, functions, powers and variables throughout the house, all in 4B graphite pencil. There were holes in things. He gauged their sizes and pinpointed their locations. Strings of calculus. He dusted carefully the boundaries between objects, a bit of mathematical fibre on a toothpick run along the cracks in things. 3:00 a.m. glowed in the dark. Fictitious, a fraud.

Time is equal to distance over velocity, t = d/v; anguish equal to isolation over remembering, a = i/r.

The Enola Gay, with a crew of 12, 7,000 gallons of fuel, and a 9,000 pound bomb in its belly lifted off from Tinian Airfield at 2:45 a.m. on August 6, 1945. The B-29 Superfortress had four engines and was propeller-driven, a heavy bomber designed by Boeing. It was advanced for its time, with a pressurized cabin, an electronic fire-control system, and remote-controlled machine-guns. The crew dropped the bomb over the city at 8:15 a.m.

A girl on the ground, at that moment, looked up at the silver bead falling in the sky, her head tilted back, her mouth open slightly. Curious at first. Then, “Raijū,” she said, a second before she was blinded.

She wore a blue cotton dress like any Japanese schoolgirl of her time, and now sat on a chair near the bedroom window opened inches to the night. “I saw you in the sky,” she said to him, “that morning. And for all of the enmity and cunning that delivered you there, you were passive and imbecilic, round and ridiculous, a silly tantrum.”

“But you misunderstand,” he said. “I simply have dreams.”

She looked around at the numbers on his walls, and said, “I felt your heat for a second, and then I was ash. A silhouette. A moment scorched onto a wall.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, his fists twisting the sheets, and at some point fell back to sleep.

She was gone in the morning, and he wrote a = i/r with a finger in the bathroom mirror’s morning steam. Equations and the dead have their silence, and they stand on stone.

 

 

 

 

 

history talking in tongues

His name was Lester Gwyn, and at some point in his life, he couldn’t remember when or believed it important, he’d begun calling younger men lad. And when he did, he would say it with condescension, and always with a leering glance that would last far longer than necessary.

As for young women, he’d begun around the same time to refer to them as lass. Again with condescension and a leer that differed only slightly from the one he offered male students.

This was, it was hoped by other staff and by his supervisors, nothing more than an eccentricity. Same as the eccentricity that lead him to grow his unclean fingernails too long, use Vaseline to grease down his balding head and sport a pencil thin moustache. But not all shades of a man can be blamed on eccentricities.

For example: Lester’s eyes were ponds of pink and muddy hazel, his breath was sloughy, and his back slightly hunch. He was musty smelling, wore once-white, now yellowing button down shirts, and always the same very thin red tie with a tiny green thread-wild dragon embroidered on it.

It was said of him, by those lacking charity, that he oozed a rank sort of gluiness, like a wound oozes pus. An assessment that would have outraged most, but instead stirred something curious inside of Lester, making him feel, when he heard it, an earthy awakening below his belt, in the region of his tangled manhood.

As a university history librarian, he worked with many a morbidly introverted student, and happily watched the promising ones strand themselves forever in isolation upon unapproachable islands of past events. Occasionally, he’d startle one of these students by placing a thin hand upon his or her shoulder, approaching from behind when least expected. This he did for reasons of his own, but always in a way that alarmed and disconcerted. It might have been considered a gesture of kindness or encouragement if done by another librarian, but Lester inspired a unique sort of loathing no one could describe, so no one bothered trying.

One of the students Lester Gwyn enjoyed accosting in this way was a very shy young woman named Ophelia Flint, with her poorly fitted eyeglasses, awkward wardrobe and difficult hair. She routinely stumbled over the most easily avoidable objects and was inclined to stare down at her slightly tattered red rubber boots, when not looking in a book. Lester thought it odd, however, that he believed he recognised her, as if from another life. He even thought, for the briefest of moments, that this recognition was empathy in disguise—but it was a very brief moment.

In short, Ophelia’s bearing spoke of sullen frailty, which attracted Lester more than any other quality a woman could possess.

Now it is in late October, with its light sickly in the day and its nights approaching absolute, that Lester Gwyn would come into his own. Perhaps because the night is at its most accommodating then, and he could move more freely in the gloom, in fact becoming his own mobile shadow standing very still and watching, or rolling over the topography of things, in the subtle but ever-present light of the stars and moon that adds spice to any fine spell of dark.

And sometimes it will be, as it was in that year, that the occasion of Halloween falls on a lesser day of the week, such as a Tuesday. Which is not to say that the air is any less filled with the smell of fire or the fragrance of spent gunpowder, or that the moon and lurking dead have any less influence over foul mirth. But Tuesday is a more modest and aloof day than any of the rest, and therefore more susceptible to the consequential weight of iniquitous ceremony. In short, the union of Halloween and Tuesday is a pleasing and compelling match for devotees of all that is wicked. Lester’s career as a  cutthroat had begun on a Halloween Tuesday. And that year’s Halloween would be a Tuesday Halloween.

But Halloween, on the surface at least, regardless of what day it fell on, was no longer the bleak chamber of infernal ritual Lester remembered it once was. The candy kisses had lost their molasses, and the mayhem had been suppressed beneath layers of dreary correctness. He yearned for a lost long-ago when the fog half settled over the city, and the spirits banged hard on the door. The Halloween of his youth was now a ghost, its shadowy magic exchanged for a foil wrapped corporate malaise.

Lester was determined to be the change he wished to see in Halloween, and that is why he’d sought out an absolute über victim, one whose demise appealed most to that sadistic spoke in the wheel of his psyche.

He began to stalk Ophelia on the Friday before Halloween, and Lester was pleased to discover how simple she was to track, always walking in the same small circle, between three primary locations: from the library to a coffee shop off the quad called Moe’s and then to what must have been her home, a squat really, a large derelict Victorian pile just off campus. She seemed to be the lone tenant, and only one window would be lighted after dark, a basement window just above ground level.

The library, Moe’s, old Victorian house. His plans were still in development, but Ophelia would be easy to hunt. She was a pigeon to Lester’s predatory mind, walking with her head down, her stringy hair hiding her face. Whatever happened to her would be her own fault. He smirked. She was just asking for it.

On the afternoon of Halloween Tuesday, Lester found Ophelia in the university archives. It was a section, oddly enough, containing only local history, and it presented him with an unexpected opportunity. He could toy with her there, and enjoy an hors d’oeuvre of her vulnerability in anticipation of that evening’s main course. The table where she sat was stacked with files chronicling the university’s past, and its surrounds.

“Local history?” Lester said. “I thought your thesis was on Byzantine sewers.”

“Yes,” said Ophelia, looking up. “It is.”

Lester recognised a picture on the table. It was of the old house she lived in now, taken a hundred years ago.

“That’s the house on University Boulevard,” he said.

“Yes,” she said, “it’s condemned now, but several Deans have lived there.”

“Condemned?” he said, playing stupid. “But I see lights on, at night.”

“There are rumours of a haunting.” She struggled to keep her glasses on her nose.

“You think ghosts are the source of light? That’s odd.”

“History speaks in many different tongues,” Ophelia said.

That was insightful, spoken like a true Master’s student, whose study of history hadn’t yet broken her heart. But Lester was struck once more by her blank expression, her inability to make eye contact and the flat tone of her voice. Not for the first time, he suspected autism.

“There’ve been murders there,” she continued, and pulled an aged newspaper clipping out of a folder.

Police investigate Murder of Dean’s Family in Dean’s Residence, said the headline.

Lester pushed the scrap of discoloured newsprint away without reading it. All he cared about was  the possibility of adding one more to house’s body count.

“Perhaps someone lives there now,” he said. “Students are always looking for cheap or free rent.”

“Perhaps.”

“Do you think whoever it is, lives there alone?”

“Maybe, probably. Who can say?” She began nervously shuffling documents about on the table, as if to confirm Lester’s suspicions: she was the lone resident.

“I have to go,” she suddenly said, and began stacking her archival materials.

“Just leave it,” Lester said. “I’ll have an assistant clear it away.”

“Thank you,” she said, standing and stepping back, nearly stumbling over her chair, saved from a fall by a shelf of books. A couple of volumes fell onto her head. “Thank you.”

Lester stepped closer, and now they stood face to face. And in that moment, Ophelia smelled his mustiness and thought she saw something scuttle from one of his sloppy eyes and tuck into the other.

“You’re welcome,” Lester said, tightly grasping a leather blackjack in his pocket. “Happy Halloween.”

Dark seemed early that night, the time change having occurred the weekend before. Lester found himself arriving ahead of time and standing across the street from Moe’s when Ophelia arrived. He watched as she sat in a window seat, sipping tea and reading an out of date romance novel. As he did, he massaged the long heavy leather weapon in his pocket. He was smug. He knew he was undiscoverable. He was shadow itself.

Leaving Moe’s, Ophelia walked up University Boulevard, tripping occasionally over her rubber boots, to where the lampposts became old-fashioned and further apart. The light was dim and yellow, and the houses were those of sororities and fraternities, spread apart on double lots and in various states of repair. One house, however, was like a black hole. It was grander yet more ramshackle than the rest. It sat unlit on an acre of neglected land, with what had once been a grand driveway and surrounded by a high overgrown hedge. Most of its windows were broken or boarded over, and there was a For Sale sign next to the tall wrought iron gate.

Lester gave Ophelia a moment after seeing her disappear off of the street, through a hole in the holly. Then he followed, coming to crouch next to a dormant fountain statuette of a moss cover boy holding a cornucopia, silhouetted against a misty three quarter moon. There was the sound of water dripping into the pool, and things moving in the bushes. Then a basement light came on, and Lester felt a thrill pass through him. In that room was a friendless outcast whose body would never be found.

Stepping round back, Lester tested a basement door. It was locked. Then he climb the stairs to the backdoor, and the knob turned with a rusty yelp. He’d worn lightweight deck shoes for the prowl. Inside the abandoned kitchen, he stepped lightly on what turned out to be a solid uncreaking floor. Many of the old appliances were still in place, in various states of degeneration. Opening a cupboard, he discovered ancient bags of rice, cans of tuna and a jar of Ovaltine.

Then peering through the entryway into the main dining room, he saw a decaying dining table surrounded by chairs and set with dirty china, as though a meal had just been eaten. Astonishing, he thought, that none of this had been pilfered after so many years.

Then, as his eyes adjusted further to the dim silver light, he saw a dilapidated baby grand sitting in a corner, with its lid up. He walked over and tenderly touched middle C, producing a thump as the hammer fell onto empty space. Then he pressed D, thump again. But this time, the blunt sound was accompanied by the sound of something scraping on the floor behind him. Turning quickly, he saw a chair out of place. And was that a moving shadow?

Then just stillness and silence. He was imagining things.

Back in the kitchen he quickly found what he was looking for, a door to a dimly lit cellar. Pulling out his blackjck, he began to tiptoe down the stairs, hearing muffled voices as he did. Then the quiet laughter of two women. This was a happy surprise. Two for one, but he’d have to be careful. His attack would have to be savage and without relent. He’d never killed two at once. Perhaps this would set a new tradition. Perhaps only a double massacre would do on Halloweens to come.

The cellar floor was dirt and very damp, the walls polluted with mildew. There was the sound of things scurrying all around. Wishing he’d brought a flashlight, he lit a match and held it high. A face appeared and vanish behind crates a few feet away. More imaginings. Match shadows, he was certain.

He crept toward a dim light coming from around a corner, surely from Ophelia’s room, and when he found it the door was open a crack. Now, however, there were no longer only two voices. Peeking through the crack, he saw at least ten individuals sitting round a kerosene lamp on a table, the lamp light doing awful shadowy things to their faces. Lester saw that these people were pale, emaciated and dirty. Their clothing was terribly soiled, and some had ghastly open wounds.  .

Looking closer, he saw Ophelia at the head of the table, with a deck of tarot cards laid out in front of her. No longer clumsy and shy, she was now vibrant and laughing, as all those round the table hung on her every word. Looking closer, Lester saw that the strange lamp light made each of the faces strangely familiar.

It was a Halloween trick, a costume party. Lester cursed. This put a crimp in his plans.

Leaning back against the wet wall, he considered his alternatives, feeling his coat pocket for his backup switchblade. But he’d used the switchblade before. The standing tradition held that each year’s victim must die in a new and different way. Poison, gunshot, strangulation; the list was long but not endless. Not only that, in the past twelve years, no Halloween had come to pass without him committing a murder. Cancelling now would ruin his record. It would mean shame. He’d be reduced to a mere dabbler. There was loud burst of communal laughter as he came to this conclusion, as though the revelers in the next room had read his mind. Then there was a call out—

“Oh come in and join the party, Lester.” It was Ophelia, but with a confidence he didn’t recognise, or did he? “Come in and share the joy. We’re all here for you, after all.”

All here for him? What could that mean?

“Come in,” the rabble repeated. “Take your place of honour.”

Lester peeked in again.

“There he is,” said an old woman with what looked like an open wound in the area of her heart. “Come visit us all again. This is your night.”

The faces in the room were becoming unpleasantly familiar. He even began to recognise Ophelia in a different way.  It was all too confounding. Deciding to retreat, Lester spun round and walked into a tall man with the face of a boy, and a garroting scare encircling his throat.

“Forgive me, lad,” Lester said, and tried to go round.

“Lad?” said the young man, blood bubbling out of the open trauma just below his thyroid cartilage. “You’re still fond of the label, I see.”

“Please,” Lester said, and tried to dart around.

“No you don’t,” the young man said, grabbing Lester by the collar and pushing him into the room with the others. “In you go.”

Lester fell onto the ground. Everyone at the table in the ghoulish light, looking down on him. Now he fully recognised each of them. And there were thirteen. Each a victim of his past Halloween exploits. Many of their names he’d forgotten, but there was #4, Imelda Abel: the lass who died by straight razor, and was buried beneath the Clyde Street sidewalk, the concrete poured on the November 1st that followed her death; and #7, Martin Geir: the lad who’d died from an ice pick Lester delivered up his nose; and #9, José San Andreas: a lad Lester had thrown into the inlet with two cinderblocks tied round his ankles.

And the one who was now the most familiar of them all, Natalie Morgenstern, who had been masquerading as Ophelia Flint. Natalie, the lass who was his very first so many years ago, death by switchblade, thrust into the cerebellum and given a twist. He remembered her body floating face down in a suburban drainage ditch. She had been his first, on a Tuesday Halloween.

“We all trusted you,” she said. “You’re a librarian.”

“Who can you trust if you can’t trust a librarian?” said someone else.

“And you were ready to kill me all over again,” said Natalie Morgenstern. “Maybe History doesn’t speak in different tongues, huh.”

A woman with a limp noose round her crocked neck said, “Don’t worry hun, it does and always will. But sometimes it mixes up all the details, sequences and delivery. Then it hands it all back. That’s called karma, Mr Lester Gwyn.”

Lester could hear the piano playing now, the one upstairs without strings. It was a grim execution of something by Saint-Saëns, a pitiless accompaniment to what was unfolding. He remembered a lad named Roger from the Faculty of Music who had played the piece, but it couldn’t be him. Lester had taken a ballpeen hammer to both of the young prodigy’s hands, nailed to a wooden table, just before he sawed off his head with an electric carving knife.

“I really must go,” Lester said, scrambling on the floor.

“But we’ve dug such a comfortable hole for you,” said Natalie Morgenstern.

“And we mustn’t waste time,” said Imelda Abel, to whom time was once an important thing. “This is only one night, and you have thirteen different deaths to die.”

“Thirteen?” Lester looked desperately at each of the gory faces. “W-what does that mean?”

“That’s history talking in tongues again,” someone said, and all thirteen of Lester Gwyn’s victims laughed.

 

 

 

 

 

ghosts

Look for a ghost. Call an old forgotten phone number, one that connects with a disremembered rotary dial-up model in a stylish 60s shade of yellow, sitting dusty on a side table in a house overlooked by the bulldozers, and ask whatever answers, “Are you a ghost, or do ghosts live there?”

Or find an abandoned cellar—they’re everywhere, according to Hollywood and the bottomless imaginations of children, and enter into the dark spider empire and whisper, “Any ghosts here?” Then wait for a whisper in return. You may need sensitive equipment, or hear it all on your own, so close to your ear that it’s almost a kiss. “Raphael?” it might say, mistaking you for a lover lost first in minutes and then the hours and then….

Don’t worry. There probably won’t be any ghosts at all, or if there are, they’ll be standing very still and won’t say a thing, their eyes working in a dead sort of rotating way, seeing you, through you, behind you, or you from behind, or from above you, a shadow on the joists, in the deep valleys between them.

What I’m suggesting is just an exercise; read a book if you’d rather, or wash the dishes. But beware the ghosts of those who died lonely, like the one of the man who died sitting next to the yellow telephone, which never rang in his life though he listened and practiced his disappointed hellos. The ghosts of them that died lonely. The ones who look expectant when you enter the room, even though to them you’re blind, and reach out a hand from where they sit, and softly take a piece of you, without you knowing, as you pass them by.

 

 

 

 

 

little ghost twice

A ghost eats opals, and a demon eats ghosts, and late on a Sunday night, as the dreadful music of waking painted frightful gardens in the empty corners of the tramp house, uneasy dreams occupied the underside of his sleep.

He dreamed of his bones made of wax, melting from the strife of walking the bleak, observing an evening horizon confused by its own inconstant line, dimming and dark, and imagining elsewhere, beyond its imperfect circle, places where skies were proud of morning. And as he dreamed of himself melting from inside, the demon became aware of his sudden sentence of death by nature.

When he woke, he found himself sitting up in bed, with the heavy blanket of flame he slept beneath cast aside. He’d smudgy muddy tears to wipe away, and in the room the scent of some intent, while the opal jar next to his bed stood full of rainbow stones, some like pulsing stars (heartbeat, heartbeat) still warm with the residues of outlandish nostalgias and the dearer testaments of the dead.

Then he heard a child’s voice, a dream remnant he was certain, saying—

“You dropped me in the river, like something greasy, served in a box.”

The charge was levelled by a vaguely familiar scribble on the wall, its lips moving not quite in concert with its words. A ghost? But there were none. He’d hunted the hauntings of that house to extinction, a hundred years before. So he laid back down, and rolled over beneath his fire.

He fed on ghosts for sustenance, some demons did, and the ghosts of ghosts did not return. It was true, however, that he recognised this small scribble, and remembered how he’d stalked her, observing for days and from afar her strange delight in being a pale drifter. He recalled the moment he pounced, and how when he was finished, he’d poured her soft remains over the railing of the 10th Avenue Bridge, and watched the peculiar gravity that gripped all invisible things drag her residue down into the dark water, and out of mind. That was only nights ago.

Now she shouted, “Wake up!” and the candle shadows shook.

His eyes opened again, and sitting up in his ancient four-poster bed, he crab-crawled backward to the headboard, and shouted back, “What the hell is it?”

The scribble approached the bed, shaping itself into the full likeness of a small girl, and sat next to him, fondly taking his blue hand, his eyes so dark that they threatened to devour the light of her own.

“Do demons have nightmares?” she asked.

He shook his head, but wasn’t certain, as his belly chose that wrong moment to cough up a small translucent stone. It spit a pastel fire, and he placed it in the jar on his nightstand.

“A trophy?” she said, as it went plop. “Whose precious centre of gravity was that?”

“You aren’t real,” the demon replied.

“What’s wrong, can’t you believe in a ghost made twice?”

“There’s never been one!”

“That’s the same as not believing in a ghost made once,” she grinned. “Wouldn’t you starve, if that were true?”

“You don’t talk like a child.”

“They don’t in the places I’ve been.”

“But I watched what was left of you sink into the water,” he said. “Your flame was absolutely extinguished.”

“The man who killed me the first time watched me wilt in a closet. Then he dumped me into the trunk of an abandoned car. He thought that he’d snuffed me out, too. Now he’s spoon-fed Thorazine, and raves in a tiny locked room with a window in the door.”

“You returned and drove him mad.”

“Yes,” she said.

“You won’t do that to me.”

“Granted,” she said. “A demon’s already insane. There is a word, though—an imperfect one—not even a syllable, really. A demon dies, when he hears it.”

“So you’ve come with vengeance in your pocket.”

“Yes, but you’ll forgive me. It’s imprecise, imperfect like I said. It’s sort of like a bullet, this word. It must be aimed well, and it can only be fired once. So, if the sayer has a target in mind, she must aim very carefully. But she must also be sure of her mark. Because a word once spoken, refuses to be hushed.”

“Then I must do you a favour,” he said—because a demon who has lived ten thousand years is always haughty—“and be very still.”

“And listen very closely, my dear,” said the little ghost, as she reached up and stroked the bony mound of the demon’s blue bloodless cheek, like a daughter or a lover. The demon feeling, strangely, something approaching compassion and regret—because a demon who has lived ten thousand years can be very lonely.

“I will listen,” he said, “and then I’ll tear you to pieces, when the game is over.”

“Yes,” she said, “but first….”

But first, she moved from sitting, up onto her knees and tenderly wrapped his blanket of flame round his shoulders.

“…a kiss between equal enemies,” she whispered, and placed her lips upon his temple, and was repulsed when she saw ages of murder. The demon smiled at what he mistook for her simplicity, and thought the better to destroy her again.

Then with uncanny exactness and speed, she turned his head as if to snap his neck, and uttered softly a sound, scarcely sensible, into his sharp ear, and he violently pulled away.

“You bitch,” he hissed, and sneered revealing his teeth too sharp, and tongue incandescent with the blood of luckless spirits. The jar of opals on the nightstand burst, and stones emerged from every hidden space, orbiting into a galaxy. The demon stood and stumbled, wrapped in his darkening cloak of vanishing flame, and was blinded by a spectral fire, legions returning to take back their foggy marrow and essence.

“You slut!” He felt his bones melting, as he shrank into shadows. “Don’t fool yourself. You’re no worthy enemy.”

“Maybe, but your conceit was.”