lost ironies

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Tag: ghosts

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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the distant song of gunpowder

to enjoy this Halloween
remain very still

find a corner
and say nothing, but

listen for the timid pops—
the distant song of gunpowder

listen
and learn the lyrics

ghosts go be dead
on the other side of town

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.”

the numbers

Asher was anemic, just a kid with dry lips and dark rings round his muddy eyes. He’d been following me around for days, and had finally cornered me on the patio of a coffeehouse on Hornby Street. That was where it all began. And now that I’m in on the joke, I don’t think the punchline could have been any different.

It was hard times when we met. I’d wagered myself into a corner, doing what all high stakes gamblers on a streak do, eventually – I’d crashed. Now there was only enough money in my pocket for a latte and a slice of chocolate cake, with a little left over.

Asher was a ghost, by the way. He told me he’d died when he was twelve, seventy-two years ago, 1943. But he’d never made it to the other side, whatever that meant. He’d been following people round ever since. I was his latest fixation. Sure, I’d tried to shake him, but he was a tenacious little shit.

“First I got sick,” he’d said, sitting across from me at my patio table. “I puked for a week, and my mamma was real worried, and the doctor came into my room and he was worried, too. I was trying real hard to hang on because of the war. Back then everybody was dying. My brother died in the Atlantic. I didn’t want to break my mamma’s heart, but I died all the same. When the moment came, I sort of stepped out of my body, and I saw myself there, on the bed with my eyes half open. The doctor shook his head, and my mamma cried, and I just walked away.”

Asher was pretty convincing as a ghost, being a little less than solid, and a little more than transparent. Bugs flew right through him, and there he sat barefooted in the grimy pajamas he’d died in. What else could he be?

“Who can see you?” I nodded to the surrounding patrons. “Any of them?”

“No,” Asher said. “Just you.”

I spoke to him with my deactivated iPhone to my ear, to keep from looking like I was talking to an imaginary friend.

“Just me, why?”

“Because I like you.”

“But why aren’t you in Heaven, or Valhalla or some shit?”

“Ralph says there ain’t no Heaven.”

“Who’s Ralph?”

Asher pointed across the street, at an unkempt crowd of semitransparent individuals, some with serious body traumas, others just pale and hopeless. I looked way, and took a gulp of coffee and a king size bite of cake.

“That’s very disturbing, Asher,” I said. “Please don’t show me shit like that.”

He shrugged. “Ralph is the one in the fancy suit with a hole in his head,” he said.

I risked another look, and saw a grinning man wearing a tuxedo. He waved. There was a bloody hole in his head. It had to be Ralph.

“What the hell does Ralph know about Heaven?” I said.

“He knows a lot of stuff.”

“Such as?”

“He knows what horses are gonna win, place and show at Ex Park, and he knows the lottery numbers.”

Horses and lottery numbers; the story was taking on a compelling density. I did some desperate arithmetic.

“The lottery numbers,” I said. “Before they’re drawn, you mean? How’s he know that?”

“Just does.”

“Can he come over?”

“He’s kinda scary,” Asher said.

“And you aren’t? C’mon, call him over.”

And then there he was, Ralph. Sitting across from me, dressed to the nines, with several spots of blood on his starched white shirt. His gaze was fixed. Clearly he wasn’t using those decomposed eyes to see with. Asher sat next to him.

“I love this goddamn kid,” Ralph said, ruffling Asher’s hair. “I knew a dame once, named Flo. She had a kid just like him. Flo did a lot of heroin, see? So the little fella was sort of at loose ends. I took him to see hockey games, and he ran a few errands for me.”

“Swell,” I said. We hadn’t even been introduced, and Ralph was telling stories.

“You know,” he said, leaning toward me across the table, pointing at my latte, every word a trashcan stinking exhalation, “I’d love to have one of them Italian coffees again. Somethin’ real strong. Somethin’ to straighten out the ol’ gonads.”

He was up close now, his mouth a slack, post rigor mortis sneer. He had a musty smell, and the blood on his forehead was still a little wet.

“What’s with the glad rags?” I said.

“Pretty sharp, eh?” He pinched the lapels and gave me a toothy yellow grin. His gums had receded considerably. Then he brushed some confetti off of his shoulder and swatted at a bright red streamer. “The Commercial Drive boys got me out back of the Hotel Georgia, New Year’s Eve, 1929. I was out back doin’ a little of the ol’ cocaine, when they came outta nowheres. Caught me flatfooted, and pop, right through the head. Felt like someone’d got me a good one, upside the skull.”

“Nice,” I said. I was starting to get a little queasy. Ralph simply oozed quease.

“Yeah,” Ralph said. “Life is hard, innit? And then you get iced by the wops, out back of the Hotel Georgia with a cocktail straw up yer nose. Ha! Waddaya gonna do?”

“They must have had a reason.”

“Oh that,” Ralph said, sitting back and throwing up his hands. “Let’s just say that some people can’t take a joke. So what if I had a few longshoremen on the payroll, always good for some marketable merchandise here and there. I had a couple of fighters, too, I gotta admit, training outta the Astoria, took the occasional fall. And so what if I was fixing the horses. The suckers lined up for that kinda shit. Vancouver wasn’t much back then, but there was enough to go round – I thought so, anyways.”

I looked across the street again. “What’s with your crowd of followers?”

“Them? That’s just a little pyramid scheme of mine.”

“What does that mean?”

Ralph spat out a short guffaw, and slapped a knee. “Just a little joke, innit Asher?” He gave the boy a none too gentle punch in the shoulder.

“Yeah, Ralph,” Asher smiled, rubbing his arm, “a joke.”

“Yeah, sure it is,” Ralph said. “But seriously….” And here Ralph got a little grim, as something brown dribbled out of the corner of his mouth. “What’s this I hear about you wantin’ to play the numbers?”

Asher leaned over, and Ralph met him halfway. The boy whispered into his ear.

“See?” said Ralph. “This is why I love this kid. He’s right. I meant the lottery. Jeeze, the more things change…, eh? The government takes it over, and the numbers become the lottery. Same goddamn crooks, different name. Now it’s all contractual agreements, church on Sunday and expensive aftershave. I can’t keep up.”

“What about them, then?” I pointed across the street again. “I still wanna know.” The gruesome troop watched us like dogs waiting for a bone.

“We just sorta wander round together, nothin’ better to do. I lead the way. I’m kind of a guide. Hell, they don’t know where they’re goin’. Most of them’re still suffering from the same shit they were suffering from when they were alive – broken hearts, bad decisions, unresolved tribulations, that kinda crap. They brought it all with ‘em to the grave, just can’t let it go.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”

“Of course you don’t, and it don’t matter, neither. Now tell me, do you want help with the numbers, or not?”

The numbers. My foot started tapping. I had debts, I couldn’t pay. Now this spook was offering me a chance to cash-in, maybe big time. It was too implausible. It was a hallucination. But what could it hurt to play along?

Ralph’s musty smell was getting worse.

“Tomorrow’s Lotto Extreme is worth $25 million,” I said.

“That’s a tidy sum,” Ralph said, “a tidy sum. It’d clear up some of those gamblin’ debts. Oh man, it’d clear ‘em up with plenty of change left over.”

“What gambling debts? What do you know about my gambling debts?”

“Detroit versus Montreal, the other day,” Ralph said, suddenly refined and wise, despite the congealing drool. “That was your last bad last call, wasn’t it? Plenty before that. You were hot once, but that don’t ever last. You’ve worked your way down through the legit bookies to the bottom feeders, and the bottom feeders don’t use collection agencies, do they. I bet there’s some boys in town right now, looking to cut off one or two of your fingers.”

“How would you know?”

“Shit, boyo, if I can tell you the lotto numbers, don’t you think I know what’s what with you?”

There was silence now. The street noise had stopped. Ralph and I sat looking at each other like gunfighters. The one who looked away first, lost.

I looked away first.

“You’re a risk taker,” Ralph said, taking a slip of crumpled paper out of his pocket. “I appreciate that in a man.” He slid the slip of paper across the table to me. His fingernails were black. “Takes one to know one. I was a risk taker, too. It didn’t work out so well for me, of course. But maybe now I can do you a favour. Maybe it’ll make up for some of my own bad decisions.”

I stared down at the paper. It was folded in two.

“Go ahead, kid,” Ralph said. “Go buy a ticket. Use them numbers. After tomorrow’s draw, everything changes.”

Ralph was see-through, but the paper was solid. It slid across the table, caught in a breeze. I slapped my hand down, and caught it.

“We’ll talk later,” Ralph said, and vanished.

“Yeah,” said Asher, “later.” He smiled then and faded.

It’s hard to be cool standing in line, when you possess the winning lottery numbers for a $25 million jackpot. I was snapping my fingers like Sinatra to a song that wasn’t there. I’d written the numbers down on the chit in a frenzy. I didn’t even know what they were. The draw was the next day at 7:30pm Pacific Time.

Just ahead of me, in line, two old men were discussing the physics of trading on the stock market. It was the usual old fart drivel of lottery line-ups.

“I still say Gaussian models are the only way to go,” said the bald one. “It’s definitive.”

Definitive? Was that grammatically correct? Who gave a shit?

“And when it doesn’t work,” said the one in the I heart Stephen Harper tee shirt, “you blame chaos theory.”

“Of course. The universe is chaotic.”

“Then nothing’s predictable, nothing’s definitive, and that’s why you’re living off a pension cheque. Take the lottery for instance….”

Yeah, take the lottery. Holly shit. My foot began tapping again, and I checked my pocket for my last $5, the price of $25 million.

At the counter, I handed the five over to a smiling Pakistani man who moved like a machine, inserting my numbers into the slot, then pulling out my ticket.

“Good luck,” he said, handing it to me.

I wondered how many times he said that in a week. Again, who gave a shit? Then he said, “Do not forget to put your name, address and signature on the back – very very important!” This guy was all drama.

Now I was suddenly aware of the potential of a measly piece of paper. The ticket was nonnegotiable. Yet I trembled as I held it.

It was getting dark and cold, but going home was out of the question. Ralph was right, there were likely some of Philbin’s boys in town. ‘Las Vegas’ Max Philbin, that is, to whom I owed a little over a hundred grand. He might even be in town himself, for that kind of money. Max was a hands-on kind of guy. So I’d sleep at the bus station, sitting up. If they gave me the bums rush, it would be a back alley. But if all went according to plan, it would be the last time I slept with the rats.

The next morning I woke to a janitor running a mop over my shoes, as he washed the floor.

“Hey, fuck,” I yelped, jumping up. “These shoes are Allen Edmonds.”

“Then you should give them back,” he said.

“Oh, that’s a very funny fucking line for a janitor.”

He smirked as I tried to kick off the slop. Then I saw Asher standing a few feet away.

“What the hell do you want?” I didn’t bother with the iPhone trick. Who cared if a guy sleeping in a bus station talked to himself?

“Golly,” Asher said, as unsuspecting people milled round him, “this sure is a crummy part of town, even worse than when I was alive.”

“Yeah, well that’s 2015 for you.”

“You got the ticket, right?” he said.

“I thought I’d finally gotten rid of you.”

“I got nowheres else to go. What about the ticket?”

“I got the fucking ticket, okay? What’s it to you.”

He shrugged, but was that really a blank expression? What did he know?

It was raining the usual shitty Vancouver rain outside. I checked my watch. 8am, still a whole day to go. I put up my collar, and began to walk. The watch was a limited edition TAG Heuer, purchased after a big win at craps in Vegas. I considered pawning it, but thought any pawnshop unworthy. I found an awning over an abandoned storefront, and sat down. My stomach growled.

“Hungry?” Asher said.

“Bugger off.”

“There’s a soup kitchen round the block.”

“Will you just fuck off?”

“My mamma and me got real hungry sometimes,” said Asher. “She drank a lot of wine, and didn’t wanna do war work. We went to a soup kitchen, the Franciscan Sisters. They gave us food and told us Jesus loves us.”

“Yeah? Well where’s Jesus now?”

“I guess he’s home with the funny papers.”

“Terrific.”

The guy ladling out the soup in the soup kitchen gave me the once over, then a wondering look. My jacket was wet, but it was still an Armani.

“Hard times, brother?”

“Temporary,” I replied.

“Me too,” he said. “But the thing about temporary, I’ve found, is that it can last an awful long time.”

“Can I just have some soup? Gawd, who the hell eats soup before noon anyway?”

“You do, bub.” He filled my bowl and handed me some bread. Then he said, “Do yourself a favour. Do whatever you gotta. Rob a bank if you have to. But don’t come back. You don’t belong here.”

The soup’s main ingredients were water, salt and a piece of carrot, and the bread was only minutes away from sprouting mould. Other patrons avoided sitting with me. Asher watched without blinking, from a far corner. Everyone but me ignored a tall grubby man at another table when he stood up and screamed for several minutes. All-in-all, it was a hideous dining experience.

As I left the building, a woman wearing a Jesus Rocks t-shirt handed me a pair of dry socks. They were red, and I was wearing taupe slacks with brown shell Cordovan loafers. It wasn’t going to work, but I took them anyway.

“Keep the faith, brother,” she said.

I would, absolutely. I felt the ticket in my shirt pocket.

I spent the rest of the day walking, my new socks soaked through. At about 7:25, I walked into the mall and up to the lotto kiosk to watch the numbers come in. It was the first time I’d actually looked at the ticket to see what mine were. 2 3 5 7 11 13 17. What the fuck? The first seven primes. My stomach knotted. What a ridiculous combination. It would never come in, all primes in sequence. It was impossible. I’d been played for a sucker by an apparition.

I was about to tear the ticket up when I heard Asher say, “Don’t do it.”

“But this is stupid,” I said. People began looking at me. I should have put my iPhone to my ear. “In all of the history of the universe, something like this has never happened, and never will. I hope you and your deceased pals had a good laugh.”

“Just shut up and wait,” Asher said.

Shut up? Poltergeist Jr. had just told me to shut up. The situation was worsening by the second.

Then the first numbers started to appear on the screen behind the counter. First came 2. Then the second: 3. The third: 5. Holy shit! The forth: 7. This was sick. Unbelievable. The knot in my belly rapidly changed from one kind to another. The next numbers couldn’t possibly be a match. But they were: 11, 13 and 17.

I checked it again and again.

“Holly hot bloody fucking goddamn shithouse motherfucker,” I said.

A couple of people looked over their shoulders.

“We gotta go,” said Asher.

“I’m stinking rich!”

“Yeah,” he said, “but let’s get outta here. You’re attracting attention. Someone’s gonna follow you out if you make too much noise. I can’t protect you.”

He was right. Some members of the normally zombie-like shopping mall crowd were starting to look at me like they were either going to eat my brains or hoist my ticket. I made for the exit, and walked out onto the sidewalk.

Rain.

“You have to call the lottery office in the morning,” Asher said. He was walking quickly to keep up, his naked feet splashing through puddles.

“What do I do until then?”

“Lay low,” he said, and then vanished.

Lay low. Hell, it’d been hours since my bowl of salty soup, and I was freezing. I was a millionaire without a dime in my pocket, and no one to celebrate with. My smartphone was useless, I’d spent most of the day hiding under a bridge, and I couldn’t go home in case I ran into a homicidal bookie. There was no lower to lay.

I hugged the storefronts, weaving in and out of doorways and under awnings, to stay out of the rain. Then passing Dunn’s Tailors, I noticed that they were having a suit sale. I stopped and looked in the window. High end worsteds, nice lines. Snappy but dignified Italian ties. Dunn’s was my favourite tailor. It would be the first place I stopped after I collected my purse.

A few other guys must have shared my enthusiasm, because I was suddenly in the company of three men.

“Nice,” said one, looking into the window.

“Yeah Max,” said another. “Real nice.”

Max? It couldn’t be. What were the odds of him finding me here, now? But then, what were the chances of a sequence of primes being a winning lotto numbers?

“Fuck,” I said, quiet and resigned.

“How you doing, Lester?”

It was, indeed, ‘Las Vegas’ Max Philbin standing next to me. Rain streaming down his pale doughy face, illuminated in the dim store window light. He had boozy garlicky Eau de Vart funk hovering over him.

“I’m just fine,” I said.

“You really look like shit, though.”

“Thanks.”

“You know,” Max said, “there ain’t one goddamn decent restaurant in this whole toilet of a town.”

“You should have called ahead,” I said. “I would have told you as much.”

“You know why I’m here, Lester?” said Max. “Because you owe me money, and you’ve been avoiding me like it’s alimony.”

“You got a cigarette?” I said. He offered me a Camel and a light. It was mighty tasty, my first in over a twenty-four hours. “Give me until tomorrow morning. Things have changed for me.”

“Changed how?”

“I won the lottery.”

“Don’t get smart with us,” Max said, “you deadbeat son of a bitch.”

“Look, just give me until tomorrow. Have one of your boys shadow me. Lock me in a hotel room. Handcuff me to a chair. I tell ya, tomorrow I’ll pay you every dime.”

“You’re a liar, Lester,” Max said. “Which ain’t no business of mine, normally. Shit, I’ve told some real whoppers in my time, eh boys?”

The goons laughed and slapped Max on the back.

“But you owe me over a hundred grand, and lies will not be tolerated. Grab him boys.”

They pulled me round the corner, and into the alley. Then they threw me against a wall between two cars, and Max’s goons started kicking and stomping the hell out of me. They were good, and they were wearing me down. It wouldn’t be long before I received the final crippling wallop, so I struggled to pull the ticket from my pocket, and then held it up for all to see.

“It’s legit,” I spit through the blood. “Check it. Use your fucking phone and check it.”

“All right all right,” Max said to his boys, “lay off.” He snatched the ticket out of my hand.

“You got blood on it,” he said.

The goons snickered.

“Check it,” Max said, handing it to one of them. “It don’t seem impossible, I guess. You’ve been on one of the worst losing streaks I’ve ever seen. It’s gotta turn round sooner or later. Why not now?”

“It’s turned around,” I assured him.

“Holy shit!” said the goon with the Android. “Boss, take a look.”

Max grabbed the phone and the ticket, and there the numbers were, on the Lotto Extreme website.

“Twenty-five million?” he said. “That can’t be right.”

“It is,” I said. “I’ll call them in the morning and get the cheque. Maybe it’ll take a couple of days. I don’t know, but I can pay you then.”

‘Las Vegas’ Max Philbin stood there for a moment, flicking the very valuable piece of paper with a finger. There was a machine in his head that could calculate changes in the fabric of circumstance as easily as it did odds and percentages, and this calculation was an easy one. Then he turned the ticket over, and looked.

“Nah!” he said.

“Nah? What does that mean, nah?”

“It means I take the ticket, and we’re square.”

“No way, I only owe you the hundred grand.”

“Call the rest interest.”

“Fuck no!”

“We should whack him, boss,” one of the goons said. “He’ll go to the cops, for sure.”

“And tell ‘em what?” Max said. He held the ticket so his henchmen could see the back of it in the yellow lamplight. “Look, the dumb shit hasn’t put his name or nothin’ on the back. I’ll just fill it in with my particulars, and badda-pow, I got twenty-five mill. If we wax him now, he won’t be able to spend the rest of his life cherishing this little moment.”

My life hadn’t been a bad one, mostly. And if it was a mess now, it was my own fault. But like most fuck-ups, I’d always felt a little like the world was awfully unfair. I figured it had a hate on for me, especially as I bled in the rain. Sure I’d made some bad bets, and taken some lumps, but I’d always lost and taken my lumps from better people than Max.

I guess that’s how the idea came to me. And what could it hurt, now that all I had to look forward to was a life of wondering, what if? So I deciding to follow through, and pulled back my knee until it touch my belly, and then let it go: my foot, heel first into Max’s junk. You could have heard him gasp and howl three blocks away, then he fell onto the ground, screaming like a little girl.

His gorillas were stunned. This was unforeseen.

“Boss?” one of them said. “Wadda we do?”

In a moment, after rolling around in the puddles, Max was able to form the last two words I would ever hear, that side of the eternal curtain –

“!!Shoot him!!”

Then I watched as both of his thugs drew and aimed. There were only a couple of muzzle flashes, that I saw. But I guess they’d kept shooting after that, because a few seconds later, standing over my body, I saw that they’d reduced it to hamburger from the waist up. Forget the open casket. They were going to sop me up and squeeze the sponge out over my open grave; yea, though I walk through the valley…, drip drip fucking drip.

“Glad you could make it, chief.” It was a familiar voice coming from behind me. I turned round and saw Ralph, with Asher at his side.

“I don’t get it,” I said.

“What’s to get?” Ralph said. “Like I told ya, it’s a pyramid scheme, the whole death by misadventure racket is. One dead guy enrolls as many other dead guys as he can, and they enroll as many as they can. Along the way a fella’s gotta learn how to recruit participants.”

“Enroll? Participants?”

“Yeah, participants,” Ralph said. He put his hand on Asher’s shoulder and said, “My little man here recruited you. He’s one hell of a recruiter, ain’t ya boy.”

“Yeah, I’m okay,” Asher said with a shrug.

“He even arranged for that Max fella to run into you,” Ralph said.

“But why?”

“Hell, I don’t know. It’s a lousy business model. You’re bound to be disappointed. Everyone is. I’m the first to admit that there ain’t no benefit to it. It’s kinda like the leaves falling in October. It just happens.”

“So now I’m dead,” I said. “And you used the lottery ticket as a scam to enroll me. Why didn’t you just have me run over by a bus?”

“Ain’t no fun in that.” Ralph laughed and clapped his hands. “Bein’ dead can get awful dull. A little bit of cabaret is always welcome. We got you a good one, eh?”

“Go to hell.”

“Been there,” he said, his eyes flashing a bright fiery red. “Shit, I even bought goddamn lakefront property.”

* * * * * * * * *

Death is weird. It’s like looking at the living through the bug splat on a windshield.

I swore the moment I heard about it, that I would never participate in The Pyramid Scheme, but Ralph was right, death is boring. So, I’ve caved-in, and I’m about to enroll my first participant. That’s why I’m here in Vegas, standing out front of the MGM.

Oh, hang on. I’ve got to go. Max Philbin just pulled up.

a fine spell of dark

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. And sometimes, 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. 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 will fall 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 the devotees of what is wicked. 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.

But that year Lester was determined to be the change he wished to see in Halloween, and that is why he’d sought out the 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 stalk, 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. She was just asking for it.

On the afternoon of Halloween Tuesday, Lester found Ophelia in the university archives. It was a place, 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,” he smirked.

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 massaged the heavy long 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 came on, and Lester felt a thrill pass through him. In that room was a friendless outcast whose body would never be discovered.

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 in 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 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 could 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. “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 more 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 weren’t just ten, but 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. Natalie, the lass who was his 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, and 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.

prairie girl

Hearts were this way, she was aware. She tried to ignore the familiar polished stone. The one in her gut. The one that accompanied such ferocious understanding.

The freighters sat like continents on the bay. She watched the angels fly above them. It was Christmas Eve, and she knew those angels would soon sing. Their somber blue and amber eyes, pretending to understand nothing of the human world, suddenly knowing beyond all safe and reasonable measure.

That night she would sleep in the park, and wait for them. There was a frosty patch near the lake, just off the trail and hidden by trees. She had candles. She would recite poems. Jesus was a Capricorn, if anything was true. He’d enjoy a little bit of poetry. There’d be colours in the night. They said there wasn’t, but she knew there were. They would fall like an eiderdown to comfort her. Then the cold would be someone else’s problem. The park was a fine place to sleep.

Hearts were this way, she knew it. She knew because there was a Christmas Eve decades ago, when she was only seventeen years old. The night the voices finally came to guide her away. They’d been promising to do it for so long. But that was the night they finally embraced her, and made her their own.

It was on a white rolling prairie, studded with the lights of warm wheat farmers’ homes. The soil underneath them quiet like something waiting to jump. Coercing with a shock, when the time was right, the winter wheat to grow into an infinite spring-green ocean.

But that was still months away from the events she remembered now. When she’d sought shelter along the side of a snowbound highway, beneath the aurora borealis surging in the clear black Saskatchewan sky.

Her father had drunk too much that Christmas Eve. And though he was a man of few words, he had wiped the kitchen clean of her and her mother with eloquent swings of his fists. That’s why she was on the highway, her arms wrapped tightly round herself. She had escaped with no gloves or coat, and it was terribly cold.

She’d been walking for miles when she came to the top of a low hill. There in the distance, a quarter mile away, was the glare of a single stationary headlight. Oddly positioned and silent in the stillness. It shouldn’t have been there at all. Radio reports throughout the day had said the highway was impassible.

“Catastrophe,” whispered a familiar voice. Familiar, but unnamed. Naming the voices would come later.

She closed her eyes tightly and put her hands over her ears. She shook her head. She didn’t want to hear.

“Be careful,” said another voice. “There’ll be ghosts.”

She bent into the wind and walked on. Then she began to run, sliding on the ice under the snow.

When she arrived, she saw that the headlight belonged to a pickup truck, its frontend crushed against a telephone pole. The headlight’s twin had been smashed to pieces.

There were two bodies, laying on snow darkened by blood, where they’d landed after going through the windshield. A man and woman. Their unmoving eyes staring up at the northern lights, as patches of frost crystallised across their faces.

She slowly stepped closer.

There was a scattering of things surrounding the bodies that must have come through the windshield with them. Sunglasses, fast food containers and empty cigarette packages. And strangely, a baby’s bottle. She picked it up and then dropped it again, as though it had squirmed in her hand. The milk was beginning to freeze.

“A baby,” a voice said.

“No!” she said, shaking her head.

She looked around, everywhere. There was no baby on the snow.

“The angels have her already,” said another voice.

“No,” said yet another. “It’s with the ghosts. The ghost are all round us. Just listen.”

She tried to ignore them. The voices were irrelevant, weren’t they? The doctors had said so. But they’d also said that she was too young for a thing they called psychosis. She was just high-strung. She had spit out their pills. She didn’t believe in them. The doctors were liars, pompous and passionately blind to what was magical.

Snow seemed to fall now from invisible clouds. She was momentarily aware of meteors crisscrossing above.

And then she heard a soft noise. A cross between a squawk and a sigh, a baby sound. It came from in the dark cab of the truck.

For a moment she was unable to move, and was blinded by the headlight. If there was still a baby in the cab of the truck, she had to rescue it.

“It’s a ghost.”

“No,” she said, and strained to look through the broken windshield. And there was a baby, strapped into an infant’s car seat, held in place with a seat belt.

The baby looked back at her with soft brilliant eyes. Six months old, she guessed.

Carefully, she reached in and unfastened the buckles, mindful not to let the baby fall. Then, careful of the broken glass and tangled steel, she removed the child from the cab of the truck.

A boy, she assumed from the shades of blue in which he was wrapped. A happy boy, in spite of it all. He smiled at her, exposing the beginnings of his first tiny teeth.

“The angels don’t have him,” she said. “Neither do the ghosts.”

“He should be crying,” a voice said. “He should be cold and miserable. His parents are dead.”

“He doesn’t know,” she said.

“He knows something,” said another voice. “There is wisdom in that face.”

“No, he can’t.”

“Yes, and look.”

She did look and saw something disturbing. A halo? It couldn’t be. Mustn’t be. But it was. And his demeanor so calm in the radiance now surrounding him.

“Impossible,” said a voice. “It’s a baby from out of a truck. His parents were just a couple of farmers.”

“I’m not so sure.” she said.

There were whispers all around her, then. Whispers changing into song. Warming her frozen body. Removing all worry and confusion.

She looked up and saw ghosts and angels for the first time. Spirits of prairie Indians and farmers. Homesteaders and drifters. She suddenly knew whole histories, poverty and dusty depression roads. Victories over weather and land.

The ghosts weren’t frightening, and the angels not the bland cherubs stolen from Baroque ceilings. They were tangents and arcs. Galaxies and star clusters. Their voices exquisite, driving the orbits of planets. Filling hollows in space with matter and gravity.

She looked down at the boy in astonishment, and he reached up with a chubby hand to touch a tear on her face. And in that second all wisdom was hers, as she stood next to a ruined pickup truck with a single live headlight.

Who was this boy?

No one would believe it ever happened, though. They wouldn’t call it a miracle. They’d call it a delusion. They’d put her in a quiet room and leave her there. She couldn’t share it. She would always keep it secret.

Now a voice said, “She’s ours.”

* * * * * *

The police and ambulance arrived shortly after the snowplow, and she sat in the back of a cruiser, waiting to be driven home. The boy was in the ambulance. A policewoman told her that she was very brave.

The next day, Christmas, she rose early, packed a bag and took the money out of her jewelry box. Her father snored on the threadbare couch. Her mother was with a neighbour. It was approximately 4:45 a.m., when she left the house. Hearts were this way — it was only a mild revelation. She knew now that understanding was the only thing that mattered. Sunday school piety was a deceit.

There was a Greyhound station in town, five miles away. Buses went almost everywhere. Christmas glowed like a halo in the sky, on the snowy prairie and over the wrecked pickup truck, as she passed it by on her way.

parenthesis

To be homeless in a land of the housed, or was it homed? It was a common reflection for Rita. To her, not to be housed on her own terms was more than insult; it seemed a ridiculous waste of her energy and talents, spending every conscious moment in pursuit of a place to rest for the time when rest became compulsory, then risking it all fighting to maintain it. No one had mentioned this possibility to her in her youth, when security in her future middle age hadn’t been an unreasonable imagining.

Still, this place was a fortunate discovery. She stood there in the tall brown grass, in her threadbare raincoat and dull rubber boots. It was a wonder, she thought, as she dropped her bags in the wild untended garden, how a place like this could go lost to the city surrounding it, behind its overgrown hedges and hidden gateway. It was sure to be inventory on some realtor’s list. It was a mansion, after all. Even if it had seen better days – shutters hanging by single hinges and windows broken, the front door having been forced. It was a gothic tragedy.

She was standing next to a dormant fountain, a centre piece around which a weedy driveway arced, leading up to and then away from the grand front steps that went up to a splendid, if ramshackle, wraparound porch. The fountain was a little taller than her, made of marble, once alive with showery glistening cherubs and lavishly carved fish standing erect on their tautly coiled tails. The cherubs reaching skyward with their chubby hands, as if to touch the outer membrane of creation to exchange plasmatic sparks with God’s holy outstretched fingers. Now the pool at its base was dry and scattered with dead leaves.

Wasn’t this the very definition of fixer-upper? Where was the young couple, with more of the bank’s money than sense, to buy it and make it a home?

It was a romantic domestic idea. Just one of thousands that streamed into her head hourly. They would not cease.

“It’s a fucking dump,” said Henry. Henry was a new voice, acquired since she abandoned the olanzapine. He was a working class Londoner with a broad uncouth accent. “I’d rather live in a fucking tent.”

“It’s lovely,” Rita replied, dreamily.

“It’s a bad house,” whispered Natalie, the voice of Rita’s shaman. “Don’t go inside,” she warned. “You’ll be courting ghosts.”

“These ghosts scarier than you lot?” Rita said. She meant her collection of voices.

“Careful with that,” said another voice, familiar but without a real name, the voice of The Nun. The one that insisted Rita was possessed by demons, and that only prayer could save her. Rita ignored The Nun, slightly offended by the idea that she was possessed by mere demons and not Satan himself.

“I will go inside,” Rita said.

It was late October, cold overcast and now becoming dark. She hoisted her bags and climbed the stairs. The front door was long gone, leaving a dark open portal. She crossed the threshold and entered what must have been a greeting hall.

“It’s dark,” said Tony, her timid little boy. He needed her. The other voices bullied him. He’d disappeared while Rita was on antipsychotics, missing in some undiscoverable province of her mind, frightened and alone. But now he was back, and in her care.

“Don’t worry, Tony,” she said. “I’m here. We’re all here together.”

The house smelled of mould, though the weather had been dry for two weeks, and something else. She opened a bag and took out a candle, lighting it with a plastic lighter she returned to her pocket. The candlelight illuminated the hall and part of the larger room beyond, the tall ceilings and ornately molded plaster, pale blue paint peeling, walls stained and tagged with graffiti. Rita heard the sound of small animals darting in the dark.

“Malevolence,” Natalie whispered. Her whispers always sounded like the hiss of wind in a darkened alley, setting Rita on edge.

“It’s a bit premature for that, Natalie, you old hag.” It was Samuel, mostly the voice of calm and reason. “This place is shelter. Shelter we need, yes?”

“I need no shelter,” Natalie said. “I am energy. My shelter is the cosmos.”

“Very poetic,” Samuel said.

Rita said, “Please, not now, you two. I want to explore before we settle down.”

Rita knew she must look in every room. There might be other homeless in the house, unwilling to share. Crazed on drugs. Drenched in murder. Demons and ghosts. This was an observation she had shared with Dr. Mazari, the city psychiatrist, nervous when she mentioned it casually during an appointment.

“Why don’t we find you a home, Rita?” he’d said. “A little apartment you can call your own. Somewhere where there’s staff to watch out for you. We could get your psychosis under control. No more taking chances in derelict buildings, exploring empty rooms.” Dr. Mazari loved his metaphors.

But she said she wouldn’t go back to one of those places. Where the youngsters they hired forced pills down her throat and laughed at her behind her back, as if she didn’t know. Where she was placed in the dusty papery continuum of some weary Social Worker’s caseload. Appointments with the last one so tedious that she pitied him. His face and wringing hands exposing his anguish as he evaded the daggers of his various office quandaries and catastrophic relationships. His obvious anxieties powering the orbits of moons round the planets of his cruelly acquired cynicism.

“Tell me who’s the caregiver then, doc?” she’d said.

Dr. Mazari hadn’t answered. He’d only stared at her for a moment and blinked. He’d clearly expected her to passively agree. Perhaps he also wondered at her eloquence, as though she was incapable of having thought such a proposal through ahead of time, based on her own lived experience.

They were always happier when she raved, and she had raved more often than she liked to admit. But not then in Mazari’s office. A parenthesis had hung in the room with them, then. Something subordinate, best placed in brackets and left unsaid.

Mazari scribbled something in Rita’s thin file, and dismissed her. She never returned.

Now she climbed a curving staircase, having crossed the sagging living room. The staircase was something from an old film noir classic, where Bogart might have stood, lighting a cigarette.

The light of the candle preceded her. For the moment, there was nothing else in the world. Or perhaps there was. She thought she could hear sounds beneath the creak of each ruined step. Laughter hiding behind each squeak and scrape.

“Stop laughing,” she said.

“But you’re funny, you are,” said Malcolm. Mischief Malcolm, he’d named himself. He who admonished her for not walking in traffic, cutting herself, shoplifting or spitting on cops. “Tip toeing around,” he said, “like there be monsters here.”

“There are,” Natalie said.

“There aren’t,” said Tony.

“Yes there bloody well are, little boy,” said Henry.

“Stop it,” Rita said, a little too loudly. Adding too much credence to the reasoning behind the conversation.

She reached the top of the stairs and could see a row of doors on both sides of the hallway before her. Bedrooms, she thought. She would be exploring for a half hour, at least. She hoped her candle would last.

The walls of the hallway were stained brown with water that had leaked in through the collapsing roof, and the ceiling sagged.

The first room was large and empty, obscenely spray painted. A window let in dim light. There was a decaying shoe on the floor and putrid blankets. A fuel can, likely empty, next to a broken kerosene lamp. Closet doors opened onto empty space, where whole wardrobes once hung, worn by a warm living breathing thinking person. Where was he or she now? Had there been joy in this room?

The next room was smaller and contained a solitary baby’s crib. The moon was breaking through the clouds outside and shone through the broken window. The abandoned crib seemed all the sadder in the silver light.

“Nursery,” Rita said.

“Baby ghosts,” whispered Natalie, “the most melancholy, robbed of life before life begins.”

“They’re with God,” said The Nun. “If they are baptised, that is. If not, they abide in purgatory forever. God is good.”

“God’s a dick,” said Henry.

“Stop it,” said Rita.

There was a smell in the room, sharing the air with that of mould and the foul dry rot of the building’s timber frame. It was like what she’d encountered when she first entered the house, only stronger now. A disturbing smell, triggering something inside of her. Something prehistoric, a signal to run. But she couldn’t. There was nowhere to go.

She exited the nursery into the hall and walked toward the next room, but stopped at the door. Here the disturbing smell was overwhelming. She felt it on her skin. She heard it in her ears.

“Don’t go in,” whispered Natalie.

“She might be right for once,” Samuel said.

“Enter in prayer,” said The Nun. “You shall fear no evil….”

“Burn the fucking place down,” said Mischief Malcolm.

Rita jerked her head and shoulders, as if to dislodge the voices. They felt like they clung to her.

“Leave me,” she said, and entered the room.

The room was the same as the others, empty but for things made insignificant by neglect and decay. An empty wooden crate, used syringes, a balled-up sleeping bag. Rita tried to hold her breath, extending her arm, holding the candle out in front of her, moving it from one side of the room to the other. Until she saw the eight ball eyes and stopped. The cloudy unseeing cataract eyes, bulging in the head of a dead man. A head with a gaping bloody bullet wound, tilted over onto his shoulder.

“Monsters,” one of the voices said.

“Shut up.” Rita jerked her head and shoulders.

“This is the fucking stink,” said Henry.

“Is he dead?” Tony said.

“Dead and in hell,” said The Nun.

Rita knelt next to the body, holding the candle close for a better view. She felt the molten wax drip across her fingers and hand. Death is so still, she thought. Nothing more silent, unmoving.

She stood abruptly. Suddenly sensing someone in the room with her. She turned and looked behind her.

“It’s him,” Natalie whispered. “Where’s God now? Nun, you bitch.”

“Blasphemer!”

There were undeniable footsteps beyond the candle light, breathing. Rita stepped forward to illuminate more of the darkened room. Nothing. But there, just beyond the candlelight. Movement, a figure dashing to the left.

“Who’s there,” Rita hissed.

“Burn the fucking place down,” said Mischief Malcolm.

“I’m scared,” said Tony.

“Show yourself,” said Rita.

And the glowing figure stepped forward. Silver like the moonlight. Different from the ruined cadaver on the floor, but the same as well. The clothes were a match, but the face was mild young and unmarked by violence. Early twenties, she guessed.

“I’ll cast a spell,” whispered Natalie. “I’ll send him away.”

“Pray,” said The Nun.

“I’ll kick his fucking ass,” shouted Henry.

“What happened?” Rita said.

“I died,” said the ghost.

“But why?”

“I owed money I couldn’t pay. What does it matter now?”

“What was your name?” said Rita.

“Nigel,” said the ghost. Then, “You mustn’t stay here. There are more than me. Predatory. Watching you now.”

He’d been good, Rita thought. Bad choices.

“There is no other place for me tonight.”

“Anywhere is better. The street.”

There was shuffling in the dark. Heavy clumsy feet.

“They’ve been here a long time,” Nigel said.

“Burn it.”

“Malcolm’s right,” Henry shouted.

“Demons,” said The Nun.

“Not demons,” said Nigel.

“Do you hear them?” Rita said, surprised. “The voices?”

“Yes,” said Nigel. “But The Nun is wrong. They’re not demons. They were were human once. Worse than demons.”

A door slammed in the hall. Then all the doors slammed in the hall. Again and again. The remaining unbroken windows in the room shattered inward, spraying Rita with broken glass. She could hear low voices, murmurs and sighs. There was movement behind her. She turned to look. Nigel’s body was shifting. Awkwardly rising of its own accord. Its bulging eyes turning in their sockets.

“It’s not me,” said Nigel.

“Bloody well looks like you,” said Samuel.

“It’s them,” whispered Natalie.

“Who?” Rita said.

“They want you,” said Natalie, loudly now, with urgency. “Eat you alive. This place is hell,” she screamed.

Now Rita remembered the first room. She moved fast, keeping her hand round the flame of the candle so it wouldn’t go out. She ran down the hall and entered. There was the kerosene can. The one she assumed was empty. She picked it up. It felt heavy enough to be full. She removed the cap and sniffed. It was indeed fuel. She grabbed the blankets and ran, but was slammed against the wall by something unseen as she took to the stairs. She stumbled. But grasped the railing and continued down.

Vast patches of plaster had fallen away from the living room walls. Leaving holes, exposing large expanses of narrow pine shiplap, dry and flammable. She put her candle down and dropped the blankets in front of one of the holes, dousing them in kerosene. Then she doused the shiplap, soaking it.

Turning then, she saw her candle extinguished. The air was still. There was unfamiliar laughter, and she was thrown once more against the wall. Something snapped in her arm this time, accompanied by a paralyzing pain that rapidly occupied the full distance from her shoulder to her finger tips. She lay motionless in her agony. More laughter. Then an impact with her stomach. A boot. A kick to the belly. She knew the pain. She’d been kicked there before. Never fall down in a fight, she’d been told by someone more experienced than her. But what could she do now?

The strong smell of kerosene was sickening. Her hand felt for it, and found her plastic lighter in a pocket. She grabbed it with her good hand and heard the house shriek as she lit the blankets. The flames rose and took hold of the expose wood. The living room was immediately brightened by flame. Rita rolled onto her back and watch as the fire worked its way into the wall.

* * * * *

The glow on the north east horizon went mostly unnoticed at first. But slowly, the sirens began. And the city, early into its night, became aware that some unassigned calamity was taking place. Maybe even something that would win an editorial race to top story, to be displayed on the handheld screens of the citizenry.

“Close call,” said Henry.

“It was good to fucking burn it down,” said Mischief Malcolm.

“You’re safe now,” said Nigel.

Rita felt a clean blanket over her. There was an oxygen mask on her face. She was on a gurney. Surrounded by red and blue flashing lights. The flames of the house could be seen over the tops of the overgrown hedges.

“Not a hospital,” she said.

“Your arm’s broken,” Nigel said, smoothing the bangs out of her eyes. “And you’ve inhaled too much smoke. Don’t worry, I’ll keep this lot at bay. No voices while you’re in the Emergency Ward. Tell them that there were others in the house who started the fire. Maybe you’ll get out with just a cast and some pain killers.”

His voice was soothing. And unlike the others, he could actually be seen.

Tibbit Crow Girl and the Queen of Halloween

dedicated to the crows of Vancouver

Anyone will tell you, Halloween past is a far darker neighbourhood than Christmas past. The property values are lower and the sun never shines very brightly through the smoke of burning leaves and spent firecrackers. And it was once in the dimness of Halloween past that the Queen of Halloween cast her spell on the crows. Ever since then, the crows have never flown over a Halloween to serve themselves. Since the casting of that ruinous spell, the crows, on All Hallows’ Eve, have done only as the Queen of Halloween decrees and maraud on her behalf alone.

What is less well known is that the Queen of Halloween lives in a discarded refrigerator in an abandoned warehouse, off Terminal and Main Streets.  She often presents in the guise of an old woman, wondering back alleys by the light of the moon in search of bottles and cans and the occasional human soul. Other times, she’s a black coyote that feeds on children’s pets. Mostly, however, after dark, she will open the door of her discarded refrigerator home and emerge as a pale young woman of unrivalled beauty, dressed in a splendid flowing gown of ravenous cockroaches. And it is this ghastly writhing gown that is the source of her shadowed magic.

* * * * *

The Crow King walked the branches of the castle tree like a sea captain made mad by an unachievable horizon. His eyes, bottomless black, swallowing the dregs of chemical light at dawn. His coveted crown of shiny, found items askew. His fragile mansion on the edge of creation, tilting on the lip of a chasm. The Crow Court watched and pondered disaster.

“Bring me news,” he cawed, “bring me news. Fly out and bring back news. Find the Queen of Halloween and ask of Her demands. It is impossible to do bidding unknown.”

The flock surrounding him cawed loudly, a cacophony of assent. There was much flapping, bobbing of heads and shifting from side to side.

The Crow King’s Wizard sidled near to him with his scaled and talon feet, his taxidermy eyes too deep to be real, his told-you-so voice hissing like a maleficent snake. “Your Grace,” he rattled and cooed, “perhaps there is no bidding to be done this year. Perhaps this year we maraud freely over Halloween and take what we will to line our own nests. We have been Her slaves long enough.”

“Yes we have,” clicked the Crow King thoughtfully. “We have been her slaves too long, surrendering our plunder. But a spell was cast long ago and we still suffer beneath it. What is the remedy?”

“A child, I foretell,” the Wizard cooed. “One to challenge Her on our behalf. One to end the spell that holds us in thrall.”

“Who is this child?” the Crow King crackled.

“She sits in this castles tree, among us now,” clucked the Wizard with a conspiratory voice. “But none can point to her. She must fly as the flock flies and be divided by fortune. Only then can she face the Queen of Halloween.”

“Then let it be so. Morning breaks,” cawed the Crow King looking east. “It is time for us all to fly.”

And with that the inhabitants of the castle tree took to the sky, flying en masse toward the city.

It was a massive flock of thousands that flew into the city, blackening the sky and obscuring the setting moon before scattering to feed. The flock made a terrible noise as it flew, knowing it would wake the city below from its safe and contented sleep.

Tibbit Crow Girl flew among them, still young enough to fly at her mother’s side. And Tibbit’s mother preferred the grounds round the abandoned warehouses off Main and Terminal to feed.

“It be a good day to fly,” Tibbit’s mother cackled. “And I smell nuts and tender bits of carrion on the wind.”

Tibbit Crow Girl liked nuts and carrion just fine but also enjoyed the bread and seeds handed out by elderly humans all over the city. Devouring this free meal involved little effort and the elderly people seemed so pleased by her and the other crows. Of course the pigeons ruined everything with their gluttonous inhalation of the handouts. But occasionally, a pigeon would eat too much to fly away, and made delicious eating.

“Let’s land and see what’s to eat,” Tibbit’s mother cawed, and they banked away from the main flock and whirled and spiralled down toward the ground. They flew low over the busy intersection of Terminal and Main, over the speeding trucks and cars. And Tibbit’s mother cawed, “Be careful. Not too low. Watch the trucks.”

Tibbit had heard this before, however, and thought her mother worried too much. She’d seen other crows fly much lower than she ever did. It was a thrill and a good way to observe what tasty bits of food might be lying round on the ground. Tibbit flew lower that morning than she ever had before. She flew in and out of the traffic, laughing in the faces of the wide-eyed drivers.  Laughing, that is, until she was struck by a passing delivery truck.

The truck knocked Tibbit high in the air and she fell onto the sidewalk. When she hopped to her feet, she felt a sharp pain in her wing. Suddenly she couldn’t fly, and had a paralysing thought of the pigeons that ate too much to fly and what happened to them.

“Fool of a girl,” Tibbit’s mother cawed from overhead. “What will you do now? You be food for the rats.”

These were not the comforting and encouraging words she’d hoped to hear from her mother.  Tibbit saw the road that lead into the old industrial park of abandoned warehouses and began to hop toward it, looking everywhere for rats and humans with their big feet and unpredictable tempers.

After a long while of exhausting hopping, Tibbit was safe among the empty warehouses. There was no traffic there, only the occasional transient with a shopping cart. Tibbit’s mother landed next to her. “I can smell rats here,” she said. “They be watching us now. They be up on their haunches sniffing the air filled with the scent of wounded crow.”

“I will not be eaten by rats,” Tibbit cackled and cooed, hopping up a decaying wooden staircase. The staircase lead to a warehouse door that was opened just a crack. They both entered. It was dark and vacant except for a refrigerator. “I will take a corner here and fight all comers with my claws and beak. I will heal and fly again.”

Tibbit’s mother knew better of the plight of downed crows, how ill at ease a crow is when not in flight, how a crow should choose flight rather than fight. But she said nothing. She sidled about looking for something dead for the both of them to eat, but there was nothing.

The old refrigerator was an unfortunate 1960s shade of sky blue, and had a single door with a large handle of chrome and rust. Frigidaire said a rusting chrome name plate, hanging askew by a single remaining rivet. The refrigerator shook. Then it sat quietly for a moment, and shook once more. Then the chrome and rust handle was pulled out by an invisible force, and the door opened.

Inside, the refrigerator was completely black. It looked like a passageway into a dark incalculable recess. There was a cold wind blowing out of it as though it was still a functioning appliance. But it hadn’t been plugged into an electrical socket for decades. Screams, shrieking and human pleas for help could be heard on the cold wind emanating from within. And the smell was that of an animal so dead and far gone that even a crow wouldn’t eat it.

Tibbit’s mother hopped back from it and Tibbit sidled round for a better view. “What is it, mother?” she cooed.

“It be a human thing,” Tibbit’s mother cawed. “We should go. There be better places than this.”

Then there came a commanding voice from deep inside the blackness of the refrigerator’s interior, an evil, echoing voice. It said, “Who stands before the door to my bottomless pit without my permission? Speak now before I chew your souls in my mouldy mouth and swallow you into the abyss of my belly.”

Tibbit’s mother jumped back but Tibbit only cocked her head. “I’m hurt and in danger of being eaten by rats,” she cawed. “What difference would it make being eaten by a mob of rats or by you? I’ll fight you all and you’ll suffer for your meagre meal.”

Tibbit’s mother looked concerned when no reply came from the refrigerator’s dark interior. Then smoke began to spill from the derelict appliance, onto the floor. The smoke piled up and up into a column, and the column took on the smoky appearance of a woman. Finally the Queen of Halloween in Her grand and magical gown of cockroaches emerged and stood before them.

“Oh,” She said, wrinkling Her nose. “Crows. I’d hoped for something more interesting.”

“It be Her,” Tibbit’s mother reverently cooed. “The Queen.”

The Queen of Halloween walked around Tibbit and her mother, taking in the situation. As she did, her magical cockroach gown made crawling and clicking sounds.

“You’re the one,” Tibbit said. “The one who has placed a spell on the crows.”

“Really?” the Queen of Halloween said. “Am I? You must forgive me for not remembering. I’ve spun so many spells, it’s hard to keep track.”

“We are doomed to fly at your behest every Halloween night and place at your feet all that we find. It is a night of great treasure and we deserve to keep what we steal for ourselves.”

“Rubbish,” snapped the Queen of Halloween. “The rats, the bedbugs and all of the vermin of the world pay tribute to me on Halloween night. Why should crows be any different?”

“We are not vermin,” Tibbit cawed proudly. “We do not scramble about on the ground; we fly above the world and look down upon you.”

Tibbit’s mother felt fear but couldn’t help, at the same time, feeling pride in her daughter.

“I fly, too,” the Queen of Halloween said, and in a flash an ancient corn broom appeared in her hand. “It would appear, however,” She said to Tibbit, “that your flying days are over.”

“But you cannot fly faster than our flock,” Tibbit rattled.

Tibbit’s mother looked at her with a glint of worry in her dark eyes.

“You can try to out fly us,” Tibbit cawed. “You can try to fly faster and out manoeuvre us. You can even attempt to surpass us as marauders. But you will fail.”

“Ha!” the Queen of Halloween yelped. “Even if that were true, how would it help you with your broken wing, surrounded by a warehouse filled with hungry rats?”

“I challenge you,” Tibbit cawed. “Ride your broom tonight and try to beat my flock. And when you fail, you will use your magic to mend my wing and you will remove the spell that enslaves us.”

“And what if your flock does not out fly me,” said the Queen of Halloween. “What will I have?”

“You will have me,” Tibbit said. “To chew in your mouldy mouth and swallow into the abyss of your belly.”

Tibbit’s mother was stunned by this. “No!” she cawed.

“Yes,” cooed Tibbit.

“But I have you already,” said the Queen of Halloween. “I could chew you up and swallow you now, and be done with it.”

Tibbit thought about this and realised the Queen of Halloween was correct. “If the flock cannot out fly you, and you fly past them at dawn,” she cooed, “the crows will be your marauders every night, not just Halloween night, but forever.”

“That is an intriguing offer,” said the Queen of Halloween.

“It’s not an offer,” said Tibbit. “It’s a bet.”

The Queen of Halloween rolled her eyes and clicked her tongue as she pondered the possibilities. The crows did deliver some impressive swag every Halloween. If She out flew them, She could have it every night of the year. Forever. And She could have this impudent little crow girl for dinner. She raised Her broom and brought it down on the ground, with a loud explosion of light.

“It’s a bet,” said the Queen of Halloween. “You are protected from the rats. For now, that is. Until after we fly tonight. Assemble your flock nearby this evening and we will see who will out fly who.”

Tibbit’s mother hopped and sidled out of the crack in the warehouse door and flew away to gather the flock.

And as darkness fell over the city, the magnificent flock of crows gathered and landed round the warehouse, creating a deafening and discordant cacophony of caws. Above them, out of the darkening east, flew the Queen of Halloween on Her ancient and twisted broom, cackling a crazed and demented laugh.

Seeing Her above them, the thousands of crows took off over the city blotting out the stars and the moon as they did, swirling in circles like a vast black tornado, then rocketing forward in an infinite swarm, leaving the Queen of Halloween behind. Then the Queen of Halloween, determined in Her evil cause, raced past the flock, leaving it in Her rancid dust.

The Crow King seeing this cawed and commanded his flock forward, progressing in the night. It traded the lead with the Queen of Halloween again and again. And when She realised that She might not fly faster than the Crow King’s flock, the Queen of Halloween decided to use magic to cheat Her way forward. She created a sudden pulse of blinding light and like a supersonic bullet shot past the crows.

Meanwhile, in the warehouse, Tibbit hopped into a corner and prepared to defend herself. She saw the bright red light in the eyes of the rats around her. They sniffed the air and licked their lips. And she began to fear for the first time that the rats might disobey the Queen of Halloween.

Above the city, the race continued and the Queen of Halloween was winning. She cast spell after spell, placing obstacles before the crows. She pelted them with stones and had Her ghosts fly against them. The Crow King wondered what to do. As the flock flew and manoeuvred as best it could, he consulted with his Wizard.

“How can we beat this evil witch’s magic,” cawed the Crow King.

“She is powerful and has many evil allies,” the Wizard cawed. “But I think I have a plan.”

“What is it?” cawed the Crow King. “Tell me fast or all may be lost.”

“My magic is no match for hers, but I might enchant two or three of our strongest youngsters with the speed to catch up with Her.”

“Will they be able to fly past Her by dawn?” the Crow King cawed.

“No,” rattled the Wizard. “But by now they will be hungry and the cockroaches that make up Her splendid gown, the source of her evil magic, will be tender and tasty.”

“That might be a very good plan, Wizard Crow,” cawed the Crow King. “Do it!”

And so, the Wizard Crow endowed certain of the younger crows with the power to fly as fast as the Queen of Halloween, and sent them in pursuit of Her with instructions to eat heartily. They flew fast and soon saw the Queen of Halloween ahead. Then one of them cawed, “It’s dinner time!”

There were three of them. All that the Wizard Crow could manage with his limited magic, but they were ravenous and fell on the splendid magical gown of cockroaches with gusto. The roaches squirmed and wiggled and scrambled to escape.

“What is this,” the Queen of Halloween shouted. “The impertinence! Get away.”

But the hungry young crows continued to feed. As Her gown and its magic began to disappear, the Queen of Halloween began to slow and the flock caught up. She had cheated with Her magic, so the flock of crows saw no shame in attacking Her gown.

“Stay away,” the Queen of Halloween shouted as she slowed and the flock caught up, falling upon Her in midair. As Her magic waned, spells were being broken all over the world. “Get away, get away,” She yelled as Her unrivalled beauty began to fade, and the pitiful thing that She was under the splendid gown was revealed. Soon Her gown was completely consumed and only a skeleton rode the ancient broom. It fell to earth like a meteor.

The flock cawed and cheered. They were free of the evil spell. But the Crow Wizard was still very concerned.

“All of that evil witch’s spells are broken,” he cawed. “Including the one keeping the warehouse rats away from Tibbit. Fly faster than you ever have before. We must get to Tibbit before that mob of rodents.”

The Crow Wizard was right. In the warehouse, Tibbit was fighting a brave fight but her time was running out. The rats attacked in waves. She used her beak and claws to flight them back, but they lunged and bit. The first crow through the crack in the door was Tibbit’s mother. She attacked with abandon and she and Tibbit fought gallantly together until the flock took down the door and flew in to peck and eat the rats that didn’t escape.

Then the flock lifted Tibbit high into the air and she was taken back to the castle tree to heal and fly again, just as she had predicted. But not before the flock pillaged what it could from Halloween night. And with it, the shiny objects, choice sticks and tender morsels of food, they lined their own nests.