My gift for the #Resistance, the most wish-fulfillment ghost story possible. I kinda suck at short stories, and this is going to continue to be really irregular, because it’s taken me six months to write a second chapter, but we’ll see where we go.
If you haven’t read the first part, go here first.
Nate was a giant, linebacker big, someone who panicked white cops. He’d been twenty, maybe twenty-five, but cops would have thought him adult since he was eight. Nate leaned against the portico’s left pillar, alternating between watching the snow fall and reading The Globe over the shoulder of a living man. When he caught sight of Mai, he grinned.
“I told you he was one of ours,” he said. “Good to meet you, sorry about the circumstances.” He, like Mai, sounded like a Boston native.
“Kris,” Mai said, “is enby. Not he. They or xie. Right?”
“Yeah,” Kris said, but they didn’t feel the rush of shame and frustration that being misgendered had always summoned in the past. Except for that second when xie occupied space with the nurse, nothing except going away felt all that important, and nothing felt shameful or distressing.
And I’m dead, so I should be freaking the fuck out, Kris thought. When did I get so comfortable with just stating my pronouns?
“Sorry,” Nate said. “Kris it is. Hey, no hormones. No neurotransmitters. No anything. That’s the chill. It’s okay. Everything’s simpler without all the noise in my head, tell you that.”
“It takes longer to build,” Mai said. “You’re gonna feel like crying, and you will cry in a day or so. First sunrise or sunset does it, according to Bree.”
“Somebody else who already left?” Kris asked. Xie didn’t feel numb, just genuinely curious and not worried. It felt… good to be accepted and not worry. Perhaps not Heaven good, but safe. Secure.
“Yep. There’s a whisper network, that’s why Lara’s staying. Jamie and Hassan told Lara and me everything they knew. Lara will pick a couple people in her squad to tell, who will pass it on. We all wanted to stay, just not here. We can’t write anything down, we don’t have phones anymore, so it’s all oral tradition. That’s why we were hoping you would stay.”
“Oh, okay?” Kris asked. “You’re taking me now — ”
“You’re a messenger,” Nate said. “You ride this city, you know all the streets, probably the T. We’re at Melrose-Wakefield. How d’we get to Back Bay Station from here?”
“Um…” Kris closed their eyes and thought about their phone. Xie didn’t need it much anymore; xie’d memorized all xer regulars and the routes. Kris didn’t yet have Boston learned like London cabbies knew their city, but xie was close. “Um… The 131, the 136 or the 137 will take us to Oak Grove. Then the Orange Line to North Station, then Amtrak to DC?” They opened their eyes. “Unless getting on the bus or train ends up taking us too far away and we evaporate or something. Have the others come back?”
“No,” Nate said, “but they’re headed south. Besides, worst case is yeah, we go poof. Still better than hanging around a hospital. Nobody reads anything serious here.”
“And you think the White House will be better?” Mai said skeptically. “This White House?”
“Once we’re there, we can haunt the whole damn city,” Nate said. “Books everywhere. So. Kris. Bike messenger. Looked like you got T-boned when the ambulance guys brought you in. What else you do?”
“Yep, I think that driver broke my neck and everything between my waist and knees. Went to BU for three years. Social science, politics, history. Queer studies.” That last felt… freeing. Xie never admitted that to anyone not in xer classes. Xer parents disapproved too much, and Mormon gossip networks were infamous. “What about you?”
“I taught logic, critical thinking, test prep, and philosophy at Wakefield High. I think I had an aneurysm or a stroke. Something like that. My head started to hurt worse than I thought it could, then Mai and Jamie offered me a hand. I think we got lucky that it works this way rather than every other way.”
Mai rolled her eyes and half turned so she could read the living man’s Globe, but Kris took the bait. “This is lucky?”
“Oh, yeah. You ever think hard about continuity of consciousness? We don’t know why brains make minds, we just know they do. We assume it’s electrical and chemical because we can look at that, but look back. Once upon a time, pumps were the hot shit new tech, so Ancient Greeks developed their theory of mind based on fluid dynamics and hydraulics. The four humors. That crap lasted for millennia, until the Industrial Revolution, when people started using looms and mechanical calculators and brains became machines. Then radios and tape recorders, then computers and hard drives. But it’s all just a metaphor because even with our fMRIs and PET scans, we don’t know how consciousness works. Not really.
“What if we were wrong? What if the way brains make minds was tied to our cellular structure in some way we can’t detect? We could have perfect continuity of consciousness, but we’re stuck in our bodies. It would be like being locked in, except we’d get autopsied, embalmed and buried or cremated. Yeah, I say walking around and going where we want is damn lucky. Even if we poof when we hit the state line.”
Kris wondered if they really felt nauseated, or if that was Mai’s habit of mind, because that thought was worse body horror than tentacles or pregnancy. “Yes, very lucky,” xie said through gritted teeth. “Okay, so you’ve seen other people who left from here, but have you seen other dead people?”
“Oh, yeah,” Nate said. “I hopped on the wrong bus early this morning — Mai’s right, we don’t wanna be on crowded buses or trains — and I saw this real old guy, probably an Irish famine immigrant. Sitting with someone who looked like maybe a Russian Jew. They were just hanging out in Franklin Square, like all the other old bullshitters in the back of any Yankee donut shop.”
“No coffee, though,” Mai said. “I miss caffeine.”
“No, you don’t. Your brain misses it like I miss nicotine. It’s not real.”
“Why are we standing out here?” Kris asked. “And can we be hurt? Killed? Again?”
“We’re waiting for the 131, the 136 or the 137,” Mai said. “Whichever comes first. It’s late enough we should be able to hop the bus without hurting anyone. As for hurting ourselves… Punch Nate. He can take it.”
“Yeah,” Nate said. “Best shot, right here.” He tapped his chin.
Kris didn’t want hit either of these two people, but the fact they were encouraging it seemed to indicate it might not hurt them. Xie never had much of a punch, but being the youngest, with six elder brothers, meant xie could swing if pressed. Xie aimed instead at Nate’s shoulder, just below his collarbone.
Xer fist went through him.
“Neat trick, isn’t it?” Nate said. “I can hug you, give you high five, fist bump. If it’s got a positive connotation, we can do it until we orgasm, I think. Haven’t tried that with a partner yet. But if you intend harm, we go ghost.”
“Do we know why?” Kris asked.
“Not about anything,” Mai said. “Nate and Lara were spitballing, but it’s beyond me. I’ve spent the last decade in deep research on my cells, social media activism, and fantasy fiction. My bet is intentionality. We weren’t ready, so we didn’t go. Our consciousness and whatever creates it cares enough about us to make it work until we’re satisfied.”
“That’s her way of saying God,” Nate said. “And it’s as good a reason as any, because we’re not getting to why. All we’ve got is what we can observe. We know we can leave. I got up to Franklin Square. We were hungry, now Mai isn’t and I’m just peckish. Jamie says he was here for three weeks before he left, and didn’t fade or poof. Those old guys have been around since men wore bowler hats and plaid vests.”
“Can we change clothes?” Kris asked. Xie didn’t mind xer cargo shorts, jersey and hoodie, but xie died wearing only one of xer Vans. The accident knocked the other off. Xie didn’t feel like xie was missing a shoe when xie wasn’t paying attention to it, but when xie did, xie noticed.
“Close your eyes and visualize it,” Mai said. “Believe it, and go through the motions. It’s your perception, and maybe a projection of your perception. But I think death fixes our contexts, which is why Irish Famine and Russian Refugee are a century out of date.” She closed her own eyes, bent over, stepped into something, tugged it under her skirt, then shimmied the skirt off. She now wore skinny jeans with her enormous sweater. She folded the skirt and wrapped it like a scarf around her neck. “See?”
Kris followed Mai’s example and felt the second shoe settle around xer foot. As xie worked on the laces by memory, they became faint, then solid sensations in xer fingers. When xie opened xer eyes, xie wore two Vans, identical models, but one was the plain black one xie died in, and the other was a vintage green velvet and tapestry model made before xie was born, that xie had coveted and could never afford.
“Nifty,” Mai said. “Like your taste. Did you start to feel the laces about halfway through?”
Kris nodded, then xie closed zer eyes again, and went through the motions of making the first dish xie ever learned. Kris shredded the potatoes, then rinsed them, feeling xer grandmother’s wire colander. Xie mixed the hash browns with sour cream and opened two cans of soup. At first, the scent of condensed mushroom and condensed cream of chicken soups weren’t present, then they were, as xie scooped them from the ridged cans with the very best rubber spatula in Mama Ruby-Ann’s drawer of utensils. Xie felt the waxy shreds of cheddar in the bowl to xer left, cool and slightly oily because xie always shredded the cheese before the potatoes, because it’s easier to clean a box-grater of starch than cheese-grease. Funeral potatoes, made by the guest of honor. Kris concentrated and the dial of xer grandmother’s oven came alive under xer fingers. Xie felt it click into place and heard the gas whoosh with ignition. Xie patted the casserole one last time, added just a bit more cheese, picked up the casserole dish older than xer oldest uncle, and shoved it into the oven. Xie felt the heat on xer face, smelled the warmth. Xie kept her eyes closed and a hand on the handle.
If Kris could intention xer way into a shoe that probably couldn’t even be bought on eBay for more than a month’s rent, xie bet xie could intention xer way into xer tribal comfort food.
Twenty minutes later, Kris used Mai’s skirt to wrap a bubbling dish, and all three boarded the 137, headed for all points south.
“Now, how do I imagine a bag of sporks for the spooks?” Nate mused, and closed his eyes while inhaling the delicious creamy steam of Mormon Funeral Potatoes.