books, fiction, horror, music, old work, poetry, professional life, short stories, Uncategorized, updates, writing

O Sweet Angels

I’ve been listening much more to Spotify lately. What’s most fun for me is making playlists, which reminds me of burning mix CDs when I was in college. Here’s one I made of songs that felt longing or wistful, including a lot of old favorites and others that just came up on shuffle.

I’ve been submitting a lot of stories lately, which slowed down progress on my novel but was a lot of fun. For some reason there’s a big market currently for short stories about evil mermaids, so I’ve written three in the last few months. One of them, “In the Nevergo,” was recently published in Dangerous Waters: Deadly Women of the Sea, an entire anthology of evil mermaid tales I was delighted to take part in. The others were a bit different in subject matter, and I hope to tell you more about them later.

I’ve also been dipping my toe back into poetry in the last year or so, with mixed results. I used to write poems quite a lot in high school, but they were very strange and I never shared them with anyone. Lately I wrote sets of poems for two different calls for submissions. None of them were accepted, but I’ll keep practicing.

Here are some very strange ones I’d forgotten I wrote last year. The project was called “The Unquiet Nursery,” with the idea being that each poem would be structurally based on a famous nursery rhyme but have much darker subject matter. About half of them were terrible, but I kind of liked these. I wonder if you can guess which nursery rhymes they’re based on.

1 I am not going to sleep.
The lines have gone too deep.
There’s whispering sin
Upon my skin
And something is starting to weep.

2 My little love
Is up above,
Pretending she is an angel.
But in her wings,
Unholy things
Are burning like a candle.

3 My little dumpling
Really is something,
Sunning herself to sleep.
She cannot be killed
She cannot be held
She only can rattle and weep.

4 Go to school,
Little fool.
See what they do
Before they come for you.
They’ll take your home and they’ll take your lands,
They’ll crush your heart and they’ll cut off your hands.
The strongest house is the one that stands,
So go to school.

5 Something in the atmosphere
Has made me very cold.
The sun is full of cinders
And the stars have all been sold.
I cannot look away from it.
I cannot break the spell
That echoes in the twilight
Like the tolling of a bell.

6 Into the dark!
Into the night!
Sing with the nightingales!
Drink delight!

Out of the dark.
Back from the night.
Gone are the nightingales.
All is quiet.

7 Mary Artless,
Vain and heartless,
How did you sink so low?
The sons you should have cared about
Are running like wolves in the snow.

8 First comes the matter of the monster,
Next comes the matter of the nun,
Then comes the matter of the long walk
Into the valley of the sun,
And last is the matter of the silver star
And how the world was won.

9 Pretty little Mabel,
Sitting at the table,
Softly tells me,
“Life is like a fable.
But I don’t know the lesson
I was meant to learn
When I left my homeland,
Never to return.”

I guess they’re basically doggerel. But so are the originals they’re based on. Anyway, it was fun writing them.

One more thing to tell you about: I have an upcoming publication in a friend’s anthology! My friend Sonya Lano has been working tirelessly on Slightly Sweetly, Slightly Creepy, an anthology of gothic romance, and the book will be out on April 29. My story, “The Wind Chimes,” is probably more “romantic gothic” than “gothic romance,” but I had a lot of fun writing it. The book is available for preorder here, and I’d love it if you checked it out.

Lots of love to all of you. I hope you’re doing well.


books, daily life, horror, professional life, reading, updates, writing

Updates January 2023

I’m working on a short story for an anthology my friend Sonya is putting together. It involves murder, ghosts and other spirits, romance, wind chimes, and a dark forest. I hope you’ll enjoy it when it comes out.

Anthologies are difficult in general. Some other friends and I were trying to put one together, but more than a year on it’s still in limbo because it was so difficult to allocate responsibility. I’m really proud of two stories of mine that were published in recent anthologies, but I’m not sure how they were received because neither book has gotten very many reviews. It can be a little discouraging. But then I realize that I myself haven’t read that many anthologies recently–I haven’t even finished reading the ones I was published in. So maybe everyone’s just busy.

Anyway, anthologies are an incredible way to discover new authors, and I haven’t been doing enough reading lately. Are there any collections you’d recommend?

On a completely different subject, I realized last night that the publication of “In the Nevergo” qualified me for an “Affiliate Writer” membership in the Horror Writers’ Association. I applied and was accepted today. I have a few more dark fantasy pieces in the works, so I’m hopeful that I might be able to upgrade to an “Active Writer” (i.e. full) membership before too long. I’ll see if there’s a badge or something I can put on my website. There aren’t a lot of concrete benefits to joining writers’ associations at this point in my career, but it’s a nice boost in a field where it’s hard to feel like a working professional.

(***I just checked and saw that under the updated membership requirements I also qualify for an Associate Membership in SFWA. I’m not quite ready to pay two sets of dues, though, so I’ll keep working towards a full membership there for now.)

fiction, horror, old work, short stories, Uncategorized

Under Glass

Written 2010/edited Halloween 2011

I wrote this during a mini writers’ retreat with my friend Brittany Harrison back in 2010. We’d decided to do a Frankenstein-style writing challenge, since it was spooky season and our isolated rental cabin in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina was very conducive to imagining horrors. When I decided to put out a few short stories as an ebook a couple of years later, this was one of the ones I included. I think I’ve grown quite a lot as a writer, and I wouldn’t call this representative of my writing now, but people have enjoyed it and I think it has some good moments. Let me know what you think!

“But you said I could go!”

    “I said you could go if you kept your grades up, young lady, and I told you what would happen if you didn’t.”

    “But Aunt Laurie–”

    Adie’s mother folded the report card and set it down on the pristine kitchen counter. She clearly would rather have thrown it on the floor. “I will call Aunt Laurie myself and tell her why you’re not coming,” she said. “Or you can explain to her why shopping with your friends was so much more important to you than your visit next month.”

    “That’s not–”

    “Don’t you raise your voice to me, young lady, or you’ll regret it.” Her mother pointed out the door. “Now go upstairs and do your homework. Dinner’s in an hour.”

    Adie glared. “I’m not hungry.” Her stomach rumbled as she spoke. The air was heavy with the aromas of baking bread and homemade tomato sauce, and she hadn’t eaten anything since lunch. But some things were more important than her mother’s spaghetti, and New York was one of them.

    Adie’s mother looked heavenward, took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. “All right. Then go upstairs and go to bed. I don’t want to see you until morning.” With that she turned back to the cutting board and began dicing celery with harsh, uneven strokes. Adie knew that the conversation was over.
    She grabbed her backpack and stormed from the kitchen, down the hallway and up the towering stairs. She made sure to stomp hard on each beige-carpeted step. When her mother didn’t come out and yell at her, she stomped even harder. All right, she would go to bed– and then she’d get up early tomorrow, eat breakfast and leave the house before either of her parents woke up. Right now she wasn’t sure if she wanted to see them ever again.

    The trip to New York was a long-delayed birthday present from her Aunt Laurie, who had been one of Adie’s dearest companions until she’d moved away last fall. The thought of calling to tell her aunt that the trip was off was enough to make her gut clench. Tears blurred her vision as she opened her bedroom door. She threw her backpack on the floor, then went down the potpourri-scented hallway to the bathroom to brush her teeth. She would go to bed. Right now she’d rather be dead than face the knowledge that her own stupidity had lost her New York.

    In the bathroom, Adie squeezed a healthy glob of toothpaste onto her toothbrush and shoved it into her mouth. She winced as it rammed the backs of her gums and bruised the inside of her cheek. As she brushed (tops… bottoms… insides… outsides… twice all over…) she watched the reflection of her face in the mirror. 

The girl in the mirror was an unfashionable sixteen. She had frizzy hair and an awkward nose, and her shirt was stained from a spill at lunch.. Her cheeks were wet with tears; her eyes were red and swollen. This was the kind of face you had when you were hopeless. When you weren’t going anywhere. When you would spend Christmas break alone with your own stupid parents… and when, worst of all, you weren’t going to New York because you were stupid.

    She spat her toothpaste into the sink, then spat again to clear the remnants from her mouth. Now the girl in the mirror had little dribbles of toothpaste foam all over her lips and chin. Her nose had begun to run. She looked ridiculous. 

Adie wrapped her arms around herself and stood staring at the girl in abject misery. So stupid. Why had she ever even thought she would make it to New York? She was probably doomed to stay here and rot, like an unharvested pumpkin in the world’s worst field. 

    A little more toothpaste ran down the chin of the girl in the mirror. Despite her foolish appearance, there was a glint in her eyes that Adie didn’t much like. She looked mocking. Mean. She could understand why people wouldn’t want to be around a girl like that. She wouldn’t want to be around herself, either. She just made everyone angry. It was probably for the best that she wasn’t going– Aunt Laurie would probably have regretted inviting her even if she’d gone. 

Adie glared at the girl, and the girl glared back. “Fuck you,” Adie whispered. She wiped the toothpaste from her mouth with an angry fist.

    The girl in the mirror watched her dumbly, as if she hadn’t understood what she’d said.

    On a whim, Adie licked a fingertip and wrote– in big, neat block letters– on the surface of the mirror: FUCK YOU

Then, to make it even clearer, she wrote it backwards. 

    When she looked back at her reflection, her stomach dropped. The girl was not looking at her. She was looking at the message Adie had written, and her lips moved as she read the words. When she’d finished, her eyes widened. Slowly, she lowered her eyes to stare at Adie. 

It was not a nice look.

    More than an hour later, as Adie lay shivering in bed with the blankets over her head, her mother came into her room. She knew that it was probably her mother because she could smell her mother’s neat floral perfume over the faint tang of her own unwashed laundry. Well-pressed chinos swished efficiently to the center of the floor and stopped. 

The woman who was probably her mother stood quietly for a long time. Adie lay in the warm darkness under her blankets and wished that she could be sure. “Still mad?” her mother said finally. The sound of her voice was blessedly familiar.

    Adie shrugged. She hadn’t actually thought much about the argument since seeing what must have been a hallucination in the bathroom mirror. She still shuddered just to think of the malice in her reflection’s eyes.

    “Do you want to talk about it?” her mother continued in her calm, reasonable way.

    Adie snorted. Tell her mother she was hallucinating? Sure, that would smooth things over.

    Her mother sighed. It was a soft, gusty sigh, quite restrained: the sigh of someone who has too many troubles to welcome another one. There was also that extra trill of exasperation at the end that had always been reserved for Adie. That, more than anything, convinced her that it was safe to come out.

    Adie pulled the covers from her face and sat up. The air was a cool shock against her face after more than an hour between the blankets. Her mother, who had already started to leave, stopped in midstride, looking surprised. Adie didn’t usually get out of a sulk until at least a day after she’d started it.

    “Still mad,” she said quickly, lest her mother wrongly assume that all was forgiven. “But I’ll… I’ll come downstairs.” 

    “All right,” her mother said, looking bemused. “Go wash your hands and then come set the table.”

    Adie approached the door to the bathroom as if it were a dragon’s cave. Her heart was pounding. The light was out, and since the room had no windows it was as dark as a real dragon’s cave would have been. Adie snaked her arm around the doorframe and felt for the switch. For a harrowing second she was sure that something would bite her hand off, but then she found the switch and light flooded the bathroom.

    Her hair stood on end as she crept inside. There was something wrong with the mirror. At first Adie couldn’t make sense of what she saw. There was a strange crosshatching over the surface of the glass, so thick in places that it almost looked frosted. It covered the entire surface of the mirror, top to bottom and edge to edge. It took her a moment to realize that the marks were scratches, gouged into the surface of the glass as if with a screw or a nail. They grew larger and wilder the farther down they went, until at the bottom they were a nest of angry gouges that took up half the mirror.

    Adie reached out automatically to touch the glass. The scratches were quite deep, rough to the touch. It would have taken a lot of work– and a lot of anger– to produce them. Gradually her mind found patterns in the chaos– and then it all clicked into place. From top to bottom, side to side, the scratches spelled out the same two words, written over and over again until they culminated in a ragged scrawl across the bottom:


    Something moved behind the glass, and drew Adie’s eyes to her reflection. The girl behind the mirror was almost hidden behind the destruction she had wrought, but it was clear that she was pleased with herself. She smirked at Adie, and mouthed two words. Though Adie could not hear them, she understood them clearly.

“I just don’t see how you did it,” Adie’s mother said the next Saturday. “You were only up there for an hour– some of those scratches were a quarter of an inch deep!” She was leaning against the kitchen counter, overseeing Adie’s punishment breakfast of cold cereal and milk. For Adie’s parents there were pancakes and coffee and fresh-squeezed orange juice. The smells in the kitchen were a glorious torture to Adie, who usually looked forward to Saturday breakfasts all week.

She watched wistfully as her mother sliced fresh cantaloupe and poured real maple syrup into a jug for the table. “I didn’t do it,” she muttered for the thousandth time.

“Then who did, Adie?” her mother snapped, clearly losing patience with Adie’s protestations of innocence. “Only you and I were in the house, and I promise you I didn’t carve ‘Fuck you’ all over your mirror. Are you suggesting that some criminal broke in and did it?” She looked as if she wanted to throw something. 

Adie rather wanted to throw something, too. She shrugged, looking down at her plate. What could she say?

The new mirror for her bathroom was delivered within a week of the old one’s demise. Under her mother’s direction, Adie had cleaned and polished the bathroom to a sparkling sheen, and the air was heavy with the remnants of chemical vapors. The mirror itself was larger and more elaborate than the other one had been. It had a beveled edge where the other had been plain, and a border of frosted-glass roses that Adie wanted to run her fingertips over. She stole glances at the glass as her father installed it, and as her mother polished it to a brilliant clarity. There was nothing unusual in their reflections. Adie began to hope.

After dinner that night, she crept toward the bathroom with butterflies in her stomach. Once again she reached through the doorway first to turn on the light. New mirror or not, there was no way she would ever set foot in that bathroom without the light on. Across the flawless counter, she laid out her things: toothbrush, toothpaste, dental floss, mouthwash. Then she looked up.

For a long, still moment, Adie stared at her reflection, and the reflection stared back at her. Neither of them moved. Around them, the house was quiet. Downstairs she could hear the news, and over it her parents’ quiet voices. Nothing was out of the ordinary.
    She slowly let out the breath she must have been holding for ages. In the mirror, the girl let out a breath, too. The two of them smiled at each other, then reached for their toothbrushes.

But as Adie squeezed toothpaste on her brush, her reflection continued to smile. The smile grew until it was a savage grin, full of sharp white teeth much larger than Adie’s own. 

Adie shrieked and leaped backwards. She hit the wall hard, and a towel rack jabbed into her back. The thing in the mirror shrieked, too, and then began to laugh. As Adie doubted her senses, the thunder of footsteps began coming up the stairs: her parents, coming to see what the matter was. Adie wanted to tell them to hurry, please, help her– but the thing in the mirror had wrapped its fist around the toothbrush in its hand, and was advancing towards the mirror. Adie covered her face just as the mirror shattered.

When her parents reached the bathroom doorway, they found Adie crouched amid a sea of broken glass, still covering her eyes and weeping hysterically. Of the thing in the mirror there was no sign– only a little flicker of motion in one of the shards of glass that littered the floor.

This time the mirror was not replaced. Instead, her parents began to talk about “special care” and “seeing a therapist” when Adie was around the corner. She barely heard them. She was too busy finding, to her horror, that reflections were everywhere. She caught glimpses of herself in windows, in pot lids, in the blades of table knives. Though she kept her eyes lowered, and tried to avoid anything reflective, it always came to her, anyway: a flicker of motion where nothing was moving; a flash of teeth in the corner of her eye.

One night, as she was going up to bed, she paused in her bedroom doorway. Across from the door, next to the closet, was a full-length mirror that her mother had bought for her at a flea market years before. It was very pretty, with a carved wooden frame the color of oxidized copper. She had always loved it, but since the night the first mirror was defaced she had kept it well-covered. Now the sheet she’d hung over it lay on a pool on the floor, and the mirror stared back at her unguarded. 

She was stopped by her reflection. It had grown pale and drawn from many nights without much sleep, and the skin under her eyes was so dark that it looked blue. Her hair was an  unkempt mass, and her clothes were out of place: she never checked her appearance anymore. It was no wonder her parents had taken to talking about her in hushed voices from around the corner. The changes in her appearance startled even her. 

Just as she remembered that she should probably look away, the girl behind the mirror stepped forward. 

Adie was out the door and halfway down the hallway before she’d registered what had happened. She had just enough presence of mind to sneak back and yank the door closed. Something seemed to tug against it when it was almost shut, and she gasped and held back a scream as she wrestled it into place. When it was closed, she grabbed a handful of blankets from the linen closet, minced back across her doorstep, and pounded down the stairs as fast as her legs could carry her. 

Her parents were in the kitchen, talking in low voices again. They stopped when they heard her go into the living room. “What are you doing, Adie?” her mother called, in that careful, sweet voice she’d taken to using when addressing Adie personally..

Adie spread the lightest blanket across the old tweed couch. “I’m sleeping down here tonight.” She’d given up explaining her actions; they never believed her explanations, anyway.

She heard a flurry of whispers. “Uh… all right, honey,” her father said. She heard him close his paper. “Good night.”

She stacked most of the throw pillows at one end of the couch, then spread the other blankets on top of them. As she curled beneath the covers in her makeshift bed, chairs scraped in the kitchen. A moment later, the kitchen light went out. Now the living room was black and infinitely vast, but Adie didn’t care: it was a familiar darkness, and felt safer than the compromised space that had been her room.

With her vision thus lost, Adie’s ears grew sharper. She listened as her parents climbed the stairs and continued down the hallway to their room. They were still whispering, as if they thought she didn’t know what they were talking about. Someone stepped on the creaking board outside her bathroom. She heard the hallway light click off, and the darkness around her deepened. A moment later, her parents’r door squeaked open and shut.

Now the living room was an alien wasteland, alive with black shadows that moved when she tried to see them. She pulled a blanket all the way over her head. It had the same vague odor of mothballs as everything else in the linen closet, although Adie’s family never used mothballs.

She tried to reassure herself that everything was safe. Her parents were probably still awake. They always sat up for a while after they’d changed into their pajamas, talking and reading and settling down to sleep. She could see the clean white light of their reading lamps in her mind’s eye, and could nearly hear the placid murmur of their voices. It made her feel a little better to remember that they’d hear anything out of the ordinary.

Then she remembered the menacing stare of the thing behind the mirror. It had come from the bathroom to her room so easily– had haunted the kitchen and the car and the corners of her mind. What was to stop it from traveling to her parents’ room, as well? Reassurance twisted into regret, and she wished that she could go and warn them. 

The house grew very quiet, and into the silence there came a dream. Adie was walking, holding in her arms a long wrapped parcel: the mirror from beside her bed, safely covered once again in a sheet with little hearts all over it. 

Something was thumping and thudding against the glass inside the parcel, struggling to get out. There was a sour, unhealthy smell coming from the sheet. Adie knew that if she didn’t lock the mirror away it would get her, and then maybe it would assume her face and go and kill her parents, too. She tried to shoulder open the sliding door of her closet, and as she did so fingers rose from beneath the sheet and began to pinch at her arms and shoulders through the cloth. She screamed, and shuddered, but at last the door slid open.

“You are nothing,” hissed a voice inside her ear, just as she was wrestling the mirror inside. “You are food.” Sharp teeth bit into her neck just as Adie hurled the mirror into the corner. She heard it crack, and saw the sheet start to fall. Heart pounding, she leaped backwards and dragged the door shut just as something began to emerge from the shower of broken glass.

For a moment, there was silence. Then something began to scrabble against the door.

Adie screamed herself awake– and then was not sure she’d woken up at all. She lay paralyzed in the darkness, soaked in sweat, listening desperately for some sign that what had happened wasn’t real. All around her there was breathing: sharp, harsh, desperate, as if the lungs of an animal had been ripped from its body and left to die on their own. Her heart pounded against the inside of her chest.

Gradually the breathing slowed, and Adie finally realized that it had been hers all along. The last black shreds of the nightmare soon lost substance and fell away. Adie realized that she was still curled up beneath a nubbly, scratchy blanket that smelled vaguely of old mothballs, on a couch that under usual circumstances she’d get in trouble for sleeping on. She was in the living room, not in her bedroom at all, and nowhere near the mirror or the closet into which she really should have put it earlier. 

Her mouth felt like it had been wiped out with cotton balls. She swallowed, but couldn’t get rid of the sour taste that lingered in the corners. Taking one last, deep breath, she pulled the blanket off her face. Cool air rushed over her skin, drying her sweat and giving her goosebumps. Adie peered into the darkness, trying to assure herself that nothing was amiss. 

The house was dark and still, and around it the neighborhood was silent. Even the crickets weren’t chirping. It had to be late– maybe three or four in the morning, she thought. She turned over uneasily, meaning to go back to sleep, but quickly realized that she quite desperately needed to pee.

For a split second she thought of waiting tilll morning. The house was vast and black and chilly, and in her nest of blankets she felt relatively safe. The pressure on her bladder, however, was too powerful to ignore, and at last Adie relinquished her safety and staggered wearily to her feet.

Clumsy with sleep, she toddled towards the bathroom. The hardwood floor was chilly under her feet. She wished she’d thought to bring sleep-socks. From the kitchen she heard the hum and groan of the refrigerator, the rattle of ice falling into the machine. Outside the kitchen window, a bright streetlight showed that no strange shadows were lurking in the street. Everything appeared normal.

It wasn’t until Adie had almost reached the bathroom that she remembered: Her bathroom might have no mirror anymore, but this one most definitely did.

Frost crept up her spine as she stared through the pitch-dark doorway. She almost retreated right then and there, but she knew that she’d never be able to wait until morning. A brief thought of going back upstairs was quashed by the memory of what she’d seen in her room. Downstairs it was. 

Anyway, if the thing was in her bedroom now, then maybe it hadn’t come downstairs yet.

Somewhat cheered by this thought, she reached through the doorway and turned on the bathroom light. Its cheerful yellow beams spilled into the hallway, shrinking and clarifying everything they touched. Now she could see that the bathroom was, after all, just a bathroom. There was the striped wallpaper that her parents had picked out together. There were the gleaming brass fixtures her mother had shined, and the white tile floor that her father had laid down one sweaty afternoon a few years before. There was an unlit purple candle among the bath towels on a shelf above the toilet, and it filled the room with the faint mixed scent of lavender and roses.

Just to be on the safe side, she kept her eyes lowered as she stepped quickly past the mirror. Nothing flickered in the corners of her eyes, and nothing hissed or muttered as she raised the toilet lid and sat down on the icy seat. She concluded her business without incident and got up to wash her hands.

A morbid curiosity compelled her to look up this time. She raised her eyes fearfully to her reflection– but there seemed to be nothing to fear. She saw only herself– the same old Adie, frizzy hair and awkward nose and all. She smiled, and her own shy smile came back. When she lifted her arms, the reflection’s arms went up, too. She did a little dance, and the mirror mirrored it without a trace of mockery.

The thing must have been somehow confined to the upstairs– or maybe she’d even defeated it when she’d trapped it in her dream. Tomorrow she would ask her dad to take the mirror out of her room. Maybe a priest could even come to bless the house– she’d ask her mother about it.

Adie grinned at her reflection, happy that the end was in sight.

Her reflection grinned back, and turned off the light.

Image source

fantasy, movies, TV, Uncategorized

Belated review: ‘Midnight Mass’

Fran and I often have trouble choosing what to watch. She’s seen almost everything, for one thing, and I hate making her rewatch things. The overlap in our tastes also isn’t that wide, so it can be difficult finding something we both enjoy. Last week I randomly picked Midnight Mass, though, and it turned out to be a very good choice.

To make it clear: we are not horror fans. I walked out of IT about ten minutes in, and my attempt at watching Ju-On ended after ten seconds. We’ve both been curious about The Haunting of Hill House, also by Mike Flanagan, but we weren’t together when it came out and neither of us wanted to watch it alone. (Maybe now we’ll try.) Jump scares are the real issue, at least for me. I feel them like a physical assault, and that’s not a feeling I want in my entertainment media. Fortunately, Midnight Mass doesn’t have too many,, and the ones it has are for dramatic effect, so I didn’t mind them too much. Overall, it’s a beautiful series, with great acting, wonderful music, and gorgeous cinematography.

SPOILERS below, for obvious reasons.

We start with Riley Flynn. While driving drunk, he causes an accident that kills a teenage girl and is sent to prison for four years. The story begins when he comes home to the dying fishing community of Crockett Island. At the same time, Erin Greene, Riley’s childhood friend and sweetheart, has come home pregnant from a bad marriage. She’s settling into life as a single mom-to-be, taking her own mother’s place as the island’s only teacher. At the same time, Sheriff Hassan, one of two Muslims on the island and a recent transfer from New York City, is trying to build a meaningful life in a small, hostile town where there’s nothing much to do. His son resents him for bringing him here, and both are generally made to feel like outsiders. Meanwhile, the island’s few teenagers do their best to keep themselves sane in a place where nothing interesting has happened in years.

Then something does happen: to the shock of everyone in the congregation of St. Patrick’s, the local Catholic church, a new priest has come to fill in for the old priest, Monsignor Pruitt, who supposedly fell ill on his return from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The new priest, Father Paul, is very good at his job: kind, charismatic, and a talented preacher. Everyone seems to like him, and attendance at mass is going up. Good things are happening, relationships are forming, upswing, and the community as a whole seems to be on an upswing.

At the same time, though, some pretty nasty things are happening, too. (Content warning, if you’re thinking of watching this show: there are lots of animal deaths, including one very graphic one that’s extremely awful.) Father Paul seems to know more than he should, and in general there seem to be lots of secrets for an island with 127 people on it.

Then a genuine miracle happens at St. Patrick’s, and suddenly the mood changes.

I won’t completely spoil the rest, but I will say we were just a hair disappointed by the revelation of what’s actually happening in town: the truth wasn’t quite as mysterious and strange as the first episodes suggested. But it was a really neat twist on the trope.

The priest (played by Hamish Linklater) was a cool character: earnest, devoted, well-meaning, and tragically misguided. The congregation was also mostly devoted and well-meaning (though, critically, not all of them were) and I thought the director did a good job showing the positives and negatives of deep religious faith. Mike Flanagan apparently grew up Catholic and is now atheist, and you can definitely see that in this series. The incorporation of religious music is very effective, and it’s neat how key moments of the story are set at key points during Holy Week, building up to a catastrophic midnight mass on the eve of Easter Sunday where everything finally goes down.

The final scene of the show is really beautiful, and it’s a great callback/final summation of all those religious themes, with what felt like a reenactment of some of the earliest days of Christianity. It was clearly very deeply thought through, and really effective. Addiction, the show’s other main theme, was really well dealt with, treating the subject with both honesty and compassion. The series also has things to say about life in a small, traditional, dying community. The depiction was really strong, but if it had been possible, I would have liked to see just a tiny bit more of Crockett Island before everything went to pieces. I’m not even sure what state it’s supposed to be–Maine, maybe? It’s not important, I guess, but it would have been nice to know a little more about some of the extras who died horrifically during the course of the show.

One of the strongest points of the series was Bev Keane, played by Samantha Sloyan. She was a fantastic villain in that I absolutely hated her from moment one. Well done. She’s a kind of person who feels very familiar, though I can’t think of specific examples: a judgmental zealot who resents all the sinners around her for having a good time, and who can’t understand why everyone seems to be happier than her when she’s following all the rules and they’re not. There was some interesting little-girl imagery her portrayal (hair in a single braid down her back, Peter Pan collars, a high-necked white dress for mass, and a general air of “malicious tattletale” attitude”) that shows you she’s always been like this. Having never matured emotionally past “teacher’s pet,” she has no real depth of soul and isn’t able to understand genuine human relationships. There’s a brief moment at the end where she seems to have gained a hint of maturity, but (spoiler) it doesn’t last. It was a really compelling performance and added a lot to the show.

Sheriff Hassan (Rahul Kohli) was another strong performance, though I would have liked to see just a little more of him throughout the series. I loved his relationship with his son and the way the show dealt with the issue of religious conversion and intergenerational culture gaps, plus the irony of Hassan bringing his son to Crockett Island for safety in the context of what actually happened. I would have liked to have gotten a bit more backstory earlier in the series, because I felt like his big monologue (episode 6, I think?) tried to push too much info into too little space, but Kohli is a great actor and did an excellent job.

Riley (Zach Gilford) was probably my favorite performance. I absolutely loved him. Remorse shone through every moment, every gesture, and every word he said, and the dream images of Tara Beth were incredibly vivid and effective. I absolutely understood what he had gone through, where he was coming from emotionally, and why–after being gutted by the guilt of accidentally killing an innocent human being–he would make the choice he did rather than live through that again. The AA meetings between him and Father Paul were some of my favorite scenes. Another of my favorite characters was Joe Collie, a distorted reflection of Riley, who was also incredibly well acted (I would like to see more of Robert Longstreet).

Erin Greene, probably the main female character, was not my favorite. She was… fine… but her line delivery was a little too theatrical for me, and her big final monologue went on for WAY too long. But the actress, Kate Siegel, is apparently the director’s wife, so I guess I should get used to her if I’m going to keep watching Flanagan shows. I did love the relationship between Erin and Riley, though (from the beginning to the end). Another strong note was how Riley and his parents kept trying and and half-succeeding at reconnecting with each other throughout the story after the physical and emotional rift caused by what Riley did.

The show did have a few downsides. My main pet peeve was the lighting: though the show was set during early spring, the constant darkness and general color palette kept making me think it was October. There really is a difference between spring and autumn light, and in a series where so much of the action happens outdoors, I think that should have been taken into account. (Just looked it up and apparently it was filmed in fall because of COVID, which is understandable but unfortunate. I think it would have been better to wait a few more months.) I also felt that the last two episodes of the show were weaker than the first five (possibly because of who was missing). Overall, though, it was a really good series and I definitely recommend it.

I’d like to watch other shows and films by Mike Flanagan, but I’m worried they’ll be too scary. The Haunting of Hill House is one of my favorite books (I reread it almost every autumn), so I’m definitely interested in that adaptation. I’d also like to see The Fall of the House of Usher when it comes out, since we read that story in high school. I’d like to read The Turn of the Screw before I tackle The Haunting of Bly Manor (which is based on that book), so I’ll put that one off for a while. What spooky, creepy, pretty, and not-too-scary horror shows and movies would you recommend?

Image source here.

fiction, horror, long stories, writing

Long Story: Wake Your Ghost

This is the story I mentioned yesterday. I wrote it for Halloween two years ago, while I was working for a last few months in Korea waiting to be able to move to Europe. It’s heavily inspired by this song, “On The Old Mountain Radio” by Múm. Apparently some people find this song nostalgic and peaceful. I always thought it sounded like someone slowly suffocating to death. (The title, though, is from “Your Ghost” by Kristin Hersh.) It’s the only story I’ve written so far that’s set in Korea.

Background: Back in 2010 (I think), my friend B. N. Harrison and I spent a weekend in a cabin in the Smoky Mountains. The cabin was very spooky, and (while eating homemade bread, drinking tea, and making nostalgic visits to our alma mater and its surrounds) we decided to make like Shelley/Byron/Polidori & co. and have a ghost story-writing contest. We’ve tried repeating it a couple of times, with varying success, but in 2019 I did manage to get a story done. I’m still waiting for yours, Brittany. 😉

This is one of the stories that I was going to rewrite, as I’ve generally had positive feedback on it but my style has changed since writing it. My writers’ group here in Prague pointed out that the setting isn’t clearly established. I worked in South Korea for more than ten years as an EFL instructor on the cyclical E2 visa, and I was so deeply entrenched in the culture of that group of workers that I didn’t really try to bridge out the story for other readers. The character of David is inspired by a certain “type” you tend to see a lot in that job, but he may not be a fair representation. I was working evenings, walking home alone at night to a temporary apartment in an unfamiliar neighborhood, and my frame of mind really wasn’t the best. For those reasons, I’ve decided to let the story stand, but I’d really like to hear what you think of it. I kind of feel like the ending goes on too long?

Also: if you’d like to read something more recent, but also spooky, I hope you’ll check out “Spirits in the Dark,” another long story/novelette I wrote around Halloween last year. It was published by JMS Books (it’s f/f romance), and can be purchased here, here, and other places. Happy reading. 🙂

Wake Your Ghost

He’s the kind of person I would have avoided if I’d met him at home. He’s weird. I know that doesn’t say much–plenty of people aren’t sure what they’re doing socially, and I’m often one of them–but there was just something about him that made me feel unsafe.

I didn’t realize it at the time. Not consciously. But in retrospect, it’s what I was feeling. It’s why I always hesitated when he invited me to his house–why I looked away if he made eye contact for a second too long. I didn’t want him looking at me. If he did… something might be able to crawl in.

I met him incidentally, late one night at the entrance to my officetel building. I’d just begun to find my way around the place, and was heading out to the convenience store for a midnight snack. He was coming in, and as I opened the door, he caught it and held it wide, stepping aside so I had plenty of room to go out. “Well, hello,” he said, smiling and making eye contact. (Direct eye contact isn’t considered polite in Korea, so already I wasn’t used to it.) “New neighbor?” His accent was North American.

“Oh… do you live here?” I hoped he did. A bit awkward if I’d just let a complete stranger into a building where he didn’t belong.

“I do indeed.” He held up a set of keys and jingled them, grinning. “Don’t worry, you’re not letting a creeper in. Or I’m the only one you’re letting in.”

I laughed uncomfortably. In the dim glow of the entrance light, he did look a little creepy. But not for any particular reason. His hair was a little long, but plenty of male English teachers had long hair. He wore khakis and a short-sleeved dress shirt, nothing unusual for a weekday evening in June. He’d probably just come from work. He looked about 30–on the older end of the spectrum for our industry, but he’d probably been here awhile. “Are you a teacher?” I said, just to be sure.

“Sure am.” He grinned. “And you’re with Castle Town, I guess.”

I took a step back, towards the shelter of the door. He was still outside the threshold–hadn’t made a move to come in–but I felt suddenly as if he’d stepped into my space, revealed he’d been spying on me. “How did you know?” I said.

My new neighbor snorted. “Only one waygookin apartment in this building besides mine, and I knew the guy who lived there. John Barker, right?”

“Yeah,” I said, relaxing slightly. “He left last week.”

“Yeah, I was here for the shouting match when he moved out. Guess he and your boss didn’t get along too good.”

“I guess.” I stepped out past him, letting him take my place inside the doorway. “Don’t know exactly what happened. They had to hire me pretty quick, though.”

He nodded sagely. In the light of the downstairs hallway, he looked more normal–just a slightly eccentric white guy who’d been teaching English in Korea a bit too long. His eyes had dark circles, and his face was rough with evening stubble. “Be careful,” he said. “If they treat one person like that, they treat everyone like that. Best to know up front what you’re going into.”

“Sounds like good advice,” I said, for want of anything better to say. I’d known I was taking my chances when I signed the contract. “Well, nice to meet you. Good night.”

“Good night.” He cocked his head and waved to me as I turned to go. As I stepped out onto the darkness of the street, I imagined I felt him watching me.

I saw him all the time after that. We were on slightly different schedules–he came home two or three hours later than me, when the sky was deep black and the streets were almost empty–but I’d gotten into the habit of going out, to grab a snack or take a walk around the block. I didn’t like hanging around my apartment at night. It was too quiet–just me and the greenish lights and the hum of the refrigerator–and the occasional bang of a distant door, the shuffle of footsteps outside my room. I never saw anyone when I went to look. The hallway was always empty.

With David, at least, there was always noise. He would hum, jingle his keys–he had one of the few apartments in the building that opened with a key-lock instead of a number pad. He’d talk, constantly, if we were in the same place for more than a minute. Sometimes I’d meet him halfway down the street, and he’d turn and accompany me to the convenience store, chatting about the news or about something his kids had done in class that day. He taught middle schoolers–boys, mostly–and seemed to like them. I still wasn’t sure how I felt about mine.

On a mild night, returning from the shop, David and I stopped at a wall outside our building to look up at the moon. I leaned back, letting my shoulders press against the tangle of ornamental bushes that crowded the berm, and David sat beside me just a little closer than he needed to. I knew what he was doing, and didn’t mind. I was lonely, aside from him. It would be nice to have someone for a while.

He leaned in, waited for me to respond. I angled my body towards his, smiling awkwardly, and he smiled back and kissed me.

It was fine. Pleasant. It didn’t taste like anything. I let him do it again, opening my mouth to deepen the kiss. He smiled, and pushed forward, sliding his hands up my sides–and then we were fumbling and grabbing for each other, barely managing to open the door, dragging each other up the stairs in a haze of sighs and giggles. I expected we’d go to my place–it was closer–but David tugged my hand until I followed him up another two flights of stairs. He opened the one door in that hallway that unlocked with a key–pushed me into the warm darkness.

As we crossed the threshold, I imagined I felt a zing, as if I were passing through a force field. But it was mild enough I’d probably imagined it. 

While David was undressing me, I realized suddenly that he was seven years older than me. Quite a gap. But I let him ease me down to the mattress, and after a while I didn’t worry about it anymore.

We slept together for a month. More or less. I’m not good at keeping up with dates now. Usually we’d go to his room, but sometimes he’d come down to mine–late at night, or early in the morning, or on the weekend when I was having a lazy day and wasn’t thinking of him much at all. I’d hear him patter down the stairs, then the solid rap of his knuckles on my door–he didn’t call or text; we didn’t do that. He’d drape himself outside my threshold, flirting gamely until I laughed and let him in, and then he’d push me up against the wall and work me over, hands and lips and thighs all moving to the same purpose, until I broke and dragged him to bed. He was very, very good–in minutes, he could take me apart to the point where I couldn’t think straight, and I’d come back to myself to find that an hour had passed and David was lying beside me staring at the ceiling, ready to be done with me. He was always in a hurry when we were at my place. We did it with the lights on, and he left soon after, often persuading me to crawl into my clothes and come with him. At his place, he was more relaxed, more ready to take his time. We kept the lights off and buried ourselves in his deep plush blankets, emerging hours later for food and water before crawling back into our cave for another round.

One night, curled against his chest in that dark room, I was watching a music video with David–some kind of creepy Swedish art-pop, the video a maze of found footage under a lunar-green filter–when I heard a footstep scrape outside. I stiffened, trying to listen under the mismatched chords of the video, but the sound didn’t come again.

“Everything all right?” said David mildly, as I slowly began to relax.

“Yeah,” I said, laughing, sheepish. “Just, sometimes I think this building is haunted.”

I felt his attention sharpen. “What do you mean?” he said.

“Did you hear that footstep just now? I swear to god, I hear it almost every day now. Like there’s someone outside in the hall–but whenever I go to look, there’s nothing there.”

“Really.” David glanced at the door. In the light cast by the video, his face was limned sickly green. “I didn’t notice. But I’ve been living here a long time. I’ve probably tuned most of the noises out.”

“I can’t,” I said. “I hear everything in that hallway by my room. And then, for the next hour, I feel like someone’s standing outside my door, just waiting for me to come out…”

David laughed. “It could be a ghost,” he said. “They have them here, just like anywhere else. Probably be weirder if there wasn’t one.”

“I guess.” I turned away from the door, learning into him for comfort and warmth. “Hope it’s friendly, I guess.”

David was quiet for a moment. Then he got up and turned the video off. “Close your eyes,” he said. Before I could ask why, he turned on the overhead light, blinding me for a second. When I recovered, I saw his room fully lit for the first time.

It was oddly underwhelming. His overhead lights were as dim and sad as mine, his room just as small. He’d arranged it to maximize the space, pushing all the furniture against the walls, but with his queen-sized bed there wasn’t much space left to maximize. There were a few decorations, though: a row of candles across a windowsill; a large poster of a starscape; a few arcane-looking line diagrams drawn on traditional Korean paper. On his refrigerator was tacked a postcard showing what looked like a black hole.

David crossed to the wardrobe and pulled down a flat black box from the top of it. He brought it to the bed and laid it before me like an offering. “Want to do a séance?” he said.

The box was featureless, and smelled like herbs. I did nothing, only watched him open it, revealing a folded cardboard game board painted matte black. He took this out and opened it, and it was a Ouija board.

Or maybe something slightly different. Its letters and numbers were arranged in a wide circle, with Yes and No and Goodbye in the middle and what I thought were zodiac symbols around the outside. All of this had been painted in silver, or maybe written with a silver Sharpie, on the board’s black surface.

I didn’t know what to say. “You’re into this stuff?” I managed at last, lamely.

“What do you mean, this stuff?” David took a small cloth bag from the box and shook out a polished glass disk. He set it on the board and gestured to me. “Go on, try it out.”

I reached slowly towards the strange planchette. I’d done Ouija before, knew how it worked. But something about this board made me reluctant to touch it. “You made it?” I said, stalling.

“I did.” David seemed pleased that I’d noticed. “The store-bought ones aren’t set up quite as I like them, and I find you get a better connection if you make it yourself.” He took my wrist and started to put my hand on the planchette. “Here, touch it–”

I jerked my hand back and held it against my chest. David stared at me. “Sorry,” I said, “I’m not really in the mood right now. If there’s something outside, I don’t want to attach it to me or anything…”

“Might be too late.” David’s tone was as mild as ever, but I could see he was at least a little annoyed I’d rejected his offer. “If it’s visiting you that often–and even followed you up here–you might have caught its attention for good. Might as well find out what it wants.” He picked up the planchette–I thought it looked a little like an unfinished glasses lens–and tried to put it in my hand.

I stood up. “Sorry, I really, really don’t want to do a séance right now. Maybe when it’s lighter outside.” I picked up my jeans from the floor and began slipping them on without much conscious thought, without bothering to put my underwear on first.

David raised an eyebrow. “You going home?”

“Yeah, I–I’ve got some stuff to do.” I pulled my shirt on over my bare breasts, gathered bra and underwear and socks and balled them all as small as I could into my hands, preparing for my little walk of shame. “See you tomorrow, maybe?”

“Sure.” David’s voice was bored. He’d already put the board away when my back was turned. Now he was scrolling through his phone, as if he wished I were gone already. “Maybe tomorrow.”

I muttered an awkward goodbye, pushed my feet into my shoes, and left. As I closed the door, I again imagined that I felt a slight all-over sting, as if I’d passed through an electrical field or something. I shook my hand out and rubbed it against my jeans. 

The hallway outside David’s room was empty. Cautiously, I entered the dark stairwell. My feet echoed on the steps, pitter-patter-patter. As I went, I heard a slight echo, high above me, as if something else were pattering after me down the stairs. I ran faster and faster, until I swung through the stairwell door on my floor and pulled up short outside my own apartment. I entered the code without breathing, and just managed not to slam the door behind me.

I heard no footsteps in the hall for the rest of the night. After a while I fell asleep. I didn’t see David the next day, or for several days after that.

What came next were the shadows.

This was a thing I didn’t notice for a while, so it could have been happening all along and I just didn’t realize it. What would happen was: I would look to the side, at the wall beside me or the floor by  my feet, and see a woman’s shadow. Not mine; I know what you’re going to say, but mine was always where it was supposed to be. And this shadow moved, independently of me–mostly starting forward, as if it had seen me  notice it and wanted to talk to me. Or I’d see it sway, out of the corner of my eye, like someone who’d been standing around too long and had gotten bored.

This should have scared the shit out of me. And, yes: seeing it move towards me always gave me a pretty bad jolt. But it never hurt me–never touched me–and when I saw it, it was usually broad daylight. I would see it, for example, by the elevators at work, shifting beside me as I looked out over the cityscape on my lunch break. Or I’d be outside, on a bright and windy afternoon, and I’d lean against a garden wall to let the wind-tossed branches of an ornamental shrub rustle my hair. I’d look sideways, and on the ground would be the shadow of a flowing skirt, perhaps of flowing hair, and I’d realize she was enjoying the sunshine, too.

She was always with me. That was probably the point that brought me around to her. I saw her in my hallway still–heard the footsteps, the huff of her breath as she passed me–but I’d just as often see her at the bus stop, or out of the corner of my eye at the grocery store, or in the back of my classroom when I was teaching. When I went out sightseeing on the weekends–as I still tried to do when I could, though I’d done most of the touristy stuff in Seoul a few times over–I would feel her beside me, keeping pace with me on the palace walks at Deoksugung or the wooded trails of Namsan. I wasn’t sure I wasn’t imagining her–I didn’t think I was, but she wasn’t anything I could prove in a lab–but as time went on I began to like her, find her reassuring. At least, if there was no one else to keep me company, she was there.

David and I had made up a few days after our non-spat over the Ouija board, but hadn’t slept together again since. It was October now, and I was beginning to think I might want to start things up with him again, when I came home and found David leaning against my door.

He smiled when he saw me. “Hey.”

“Hey.” I punched in the keycode, and heard my invisible friend move behind me across the hallway. I wondered if David could see her. He didn’t appear to notice her, anyway.

He followed me into the apartment. I closed the door, feeling the little prick of regret I”d begun to associate with leaving my new friend outside. She’d never tried to cross the threshold of my house, but I’d begun to think I might not mind too much if she did try someday.

David did not, as he’d often done, push me up against the wall and start to kiss me. Instead, he kicked off his shoes and wandered into the room, shedding his black hoodie as he went. He looked around as if he hadn’t seen the place before, though he’d been here many times. “Your apartment is pretty bare,” he commented after a while. “You’re not going to put anything on the walls?”

I looked around at the clean white wallpaper, and shrugged. “I’m not sure if I’m going to renew my contract. Don’t want to put stuff all over the walls just to have to take it back down again when I leave.”

David looked thoughtful. His gaze passed to the purple flowered comforter on the bed, the neat stack of Daiso dishes in the drying rack by the sink. Nothing in the room had cost me more than twenty bucks. Most of it had been here when I got here. “You’re living like a ghost,” he said finally. “Don’t you want to put a little more personality into your space? It’s like you’re not really here at all.”

I was starting to get a little annoyed. David had barely been here in the last month. What did he care what the room looked like? But I didn’t want to sound too accusing, so I simply said, “What’s up?”

David turned, and I saw that he held a cloth bag in one hand. “I was wondering if you wanted to try something,” he said, his voice carefully casual. “A little ritual.”

“Ritual?” I glanced at the bag. “You mean like a spell? What kind of ritual?”

He opened the bag. I watched curiously, but what he took out–a few tupperware containers, bundles of string, a pen–didn’t look like anything Hollywood had trained me to recognize as magic. “Kind of a general-purpose thing,” he said. “Raising and focusing energy, mostly. It’s something you’re supposed to practice, if you do magic, and I never do it as much as I should.”

I looked at his ingredients again. He must have been very confident that I was going to say yes, because he’d already started laying them out on the bed: the bundles of string in red and black and white; a cloth with markings on it. It was all totally unfamiliar to me–I’ve never been into that stuff–but something about seeing it laid out on my bed, with the late afternoon sun slanting in on it, was vaguely unsettling.

I took off my shoes and crossed the room to look closer. “And you need my help? I don’t know anything about this stuff.”

David nodded absently. “Mostly I just need a focus. It’s easy to raise energy, but you need something to put it into afterwards. And since you say you’ve been having trouble with our friend out in the hallways–” he made a fluttery, ghostly gesture with one hand–”I thought we could do a kind of spiritual protection spell for you. Then if there is something there, it won’t bother you.”

I thought about telling David that I wasn’t really bothered by the ghost in the hallway anymore, and didn’t feel the need to be protected from her. But then I realized that, even if she was safe, one ghost probably meant many. If I ran into any other spirits, ones less friendly than the ones in the hallway, it wouldn’t hurt to have done a little protective magic ahead of time. “Sure,” I said. “But could you do something that would help me to see ghosts, too? If there’s something sneaking up behind me, I want to see it.”

He looked thoughtful. “I think I could work in something like that, yeah. I’ll adjust the part of the ritual that denotes the intention–seeing them will keep you safer, so we’ll put ‘wide eyes’ or something as part of the protection. But your intention’s going to do most of the work, so you’re going to have to really want to see them on your own. Which I didn’t think you did,” he added, giving me an odd look.

Hard to explain my change of heart in this context. “I’ll work up to it,” I said, looking down at the materials he’d laid out on the bed. “So… what do I need to do?”

“Sit down.” He arranged me in a patch of sunlight, and picked up what looked like a stub of regular black eyeliner. “I need to draw out some gridlines on your skin, and then we’ll get started.” 

“Doing what?” I couldn’t help asking. Though David’s intentions seemed generally helpful, he was still being annoyingly vague.

He turned to me, blue eyes wide, and smiled. “Raising energy,” he said, and I knew what method he had in mind.

It was about as you’d expect. A kinky game, I thought, lying naked on the covers, with black eyeliner glyphery scrawled over most of my skin. David was muttering in a language I didn’t know, which he said he’d made up for doing ritual work. But he was naked, and his attention was all on me, so I figured I knew what he really had in mind.

He’d tied string around my ankles, my wrists, my neck, a few knots in my hair. In the quiet of the room, the deepening shadows, I lay and let him work. He didn’t ask me for much input. When he began “raising energy,” I began to participate a little more, and before long it was like any other time we were together–a regular bedroom scene. It wasn’t until he shouted, and came, and I suddenly blacked out, that anything seemed particularly unusual.

Then I woke up and looked around, and a ghost was standing in the corner of my room.

It was her. There was nothing in particular to identify her, but I knew immediately she was the one who had been following me. She was Korean, a few years older than me, dressed in layers of comfortable-looking clothes–including a long, flowing skirt whose shadow I’d seen many times out of the corner of my eye. Her black hair was long, and lay in permed waves over her shoulders. She was average-looking, I thought–her face was serious, and she didn’t wear much makeup, which set her apart from the average woman you see in Seoul. She looked at me as if she wanted to tell me something–and as if she knew, whatever it was, that I’d be too stupid to understand it.

I stared at the corner for a long time. David soon noticed. “She’s there, isn’t she? I can’t see her, but I felt her come in.”

“Yeah.” I came back to myself, and realized how uncomfortable I was. We hadn’t used protection, and now I needed to clean up. “Hang on, I’m going to the bathroom.”

I got up–and then staggered, sinking to my knees I hadn’t noticed it lying down, but now I felt completely drained–as if whatever energy David had just raised had come straight out of my cells. “Jesus,” I muttered, trying to pull myself to my feet. “What the hell?

“Whoa, there.” David was at my side, solicitously helping me up with a hand under my elbow. “You okay?”

“Yeah, I think so.” I looked again at the corner where the woman stood. She hadn’t reacted to my fall–just continued to watch me as if she couldn’t believe she’d found such a stupid person in the world. When I came out of the bathroom, she was gone.

David insisted on laying “wards” around my apartment. This involved burning incense, chanting, sprinkling salt in a continuous line all around the edges of the room, and hanging up some of his half-drawn diagrams on the walls. “It’s to keep her out,” he said, “unless you want her to be here. Spirits shouldn’t just be waltzing in and out of your place without asking permission. You need to set boundaries–you know, take a firm hand.”

I laughed, though I didn’t really feel like it. “You’re talking like ghosts are animals,” I said. “Or children.

David seemed to find this funny. “Some of them are,” he said. “I mean, some are animals and children, obviously. Everything dies. But some ghosts… A ghost isn’t a real person, you know. It’s just what’s left over when the person’s gone. They don’t have much capacity to make decisions on their own. So you can kind of train them–tell them ‘go here,’ ‘do this,’ ‘don’t do that.’ They’ll obey you if you’re strong enough, or if they’re weak enough. That one wasn’t very strong.”

I glanced again at the corner where the ghost had stood. It was oddly disappointing not to see her. If David was right, she wouldn’t be coming back. “You seem to know a lot about her,” I said. “Had you met her before?”

“Oh… no, not really.” David smiled. “But I’ve lived here a long time. I run into pretty much everyone at one point or another.”

The woman ghost wasn’t the only one I could see now. A lot of people had lived and died in Mok-dong over the years, and though most of them had passed on–or so I assumed–a few left lasting impressions. There was an old crusty-eyed cat, white with orange spots, that sat on a wall near my house. It seemed real until I tried to pet it, and then my hand passed through. There was an old man in a tracksuit who paced the park below the temple. There was a surly middle-school girl who rode through me on her bike, late for some academy she surely didn’t have to worry about anymore. No one on the street noticed them, and I got very strange looks if I reacted to their presence. I felt, sometimes, as if I were a ghost myself. 

My new companion was always with me. She usually walked a few paces behind me, far enough back that it would be awkward to turn and look at her. I felt as if she’d bound herself to me somehow–she never seemed to look at anyone else, and was always waiting when I left my room in the morning. Of course, she couldn’t come in, not after whatever David did.

Around this time, I finally began to make a few other acquaintances among the living. There was another children’s English academy in the same building as the one where I worked; and since, like most Korean English academies, they hired the youngest college graduates they could find, there were plenty of foreign women there who were close to my age. We met in the elevator a few times, made successful small talk, and started meeting for coffee and drinks when we weren’t at work.

That was when I learned that nobody in the neighborhood liked David.

Something had brought him into the area where I worked around lunchtime one day, and we happened to cross paths as I was walking to a noodle shop with my new friends. I waved, and David–after glancing at the women I was with–gave a strangely ironic wave back. He passed without speaking, and I thought he was walking a little faster than usual.

When he was out of earshot, Jayla, the woman walking nearest to me, turned to give me a scandalized look. “You know that guy?” she said.

“Who, David? Yeah…” Jayla’s reaction didn’t exactly encourage more details. So I just said, “He lives in my building.”

“Did he hit on you yet?” said Heidi, Jayla’s coworker.

“What?” I felt a prickle of discomfort. “What do you mean?” 

“He hits on everyone,” said another girl, whose name I couldn’t remember. Her voice was low and dry. “LBH, seems like–you know, ‘loser back home,’ enjoys all the play he’s getting here. He had a Korean girlfriend one time, but I guess she figured out how weird he was, because I stopped seeing her around.”

“What’s weird about him?” I said, trying to keep my tone idle.

“Oh, you know,” the girl said, laughing uneasily. “He’s just… intense–like he’s always having a conversation with you that you don’t know you’re a part of. He was real possessive with his girlfriend, too–when I’d see them together he’d always have his arm around her somewhere. I’ve known guys like that–they always get really creepy.”

No kidding, I thought, remembering that afternoon ritual in my room–the white and red and black strings that had bound me. I suddenly felt as if maybe I shouldn’t spend too much more time with David. 

Behind us, a shadow moved–I saw it when I turned my head. My ghost woman was there, watching us. I’d known she would be. I checked back a few times as we walked to the restaurant, and she was always there.

That night, as I was coming to the entrance of my street, I saw her waiting for me at the corner. A little farther on, closer to our building, David was leaning against the wall and looking up at the sky. I could sense he knew I was there, in the same way I always knew the ghost was there even before I could see her. And even though the two of them were in a line, I could feel that I had a choice to make.

David turned to look at me. He was wearing a long coat and fingerless gloves. He lifted his head at me in a kind of backwards nod. I could see he was waiting for me to come and join him.

I suddenly didn’t like the look of my street. He hits on everyone. Did he tie them up with colored strings–were they naive enough, desperate enough, to let him take them home and do what he wanted with them? At least before today I’d thought he liked me, though subconsciously I’d probably known that my main attraction was convenience. 

In his coat and gloves he looked like a character from a 90s teen movie. The Outcast. If I’d seen him at home, I would have walked past him–maybe sped up a little so he wouldn’t talk to me. That wasn’t much of an option, with him standing right in front of my house–and with him knowing me better naked than most people here knew me clothed.

“Hey,” he said, when I didn’t come closer. “Want to come upstairs for a while? I was going to watch a movie.”

I didn’t want to. But there was no obvious excuse. It was Friday night, I was clearly in no hurry, and we’d done just as he was suggesting any number of times before. We didn’t actually watch the movie, but we put one on sometimes, a kind of soundtrack–in case one of us got bored with what the other one was doing to them.

Without thinking, I turned to look at the ghost. She had not looked at David at all, though I suspected she knew he was there. Her eyes held me, black and sober. 

“I’ve got to go,” I said, still without thinking. “I’m meeting someone. Sorry.”

David raised his eyebrows–why would I come all the way back here, if I was meeting someone? But he only said, “Sure. Maybe tomorrow?”

I didn’t want to meet tomorrow. “Maybe.” 

My voice came out stilted, and I saw David grasp the meaning. His face went stony. “Guess you’ve got a busy weekend,” he said. “Never mind.”

He stalked away–and with that, it was over between us.

The ghost was still there. She hadn’t seemed to take any notice of the interaction with David. She looked up at the sky, to where the moon was mostly full. I could never remember if it was waxing or waning.

I found myself walking forward–steps quiet, so I wouldn’t disturb my silent friend. I thought she relaxed slightly when I approached. Her eyes returned to me, and her face was peaceful.

“Let’s go,” she said–and I couldn’t move, because I’d never heard her speak aloud before.

She started walking. Despite my shock, I quickly followed. “Hi,” I said stupidly. “Where are we going?”

She didn’t answer. Her steps were slow and even. She was walking toward the park.

I sped up until I was walking beside her. Her steps made no sound, but in a corner of my mind I felt like I could hear them.

The night seemed to close over me–like a film of water, except that I felt now that I could see more clearly. Our street wasn’t bright, but it was still Korea: a convenience store blazed light into the street, and a few bars and restaurants still twinkled. Each street lamp lit up a different slice of life: a young woman walking quickly home from work; a chicken delivery guy stopping his scooter to check an address; a man smoking at the corner of two streets. More people were out than you’d expect–Seoul is always awake. A lot of them were ghosts, but I couldn’t always tell which ones. 

After a while, my ghost looked at me and then away, as if she wanted to tell me something. “You shouldn’t trust him,” she said. There was no reason to ask who.

Her accent was almost perfect. In life, she must have studied abroad, or at least hung out with foreigners.

I liked her. It wasn’t for any logical reason. Maybe it was just familiarity. But she was familiar, and she stuck by me as if she would reach for my hand if she had the ability to hold it.

Instead, we just walked.

The park wasn’t one I’d really been to much. Weekdays I was too busy, and weekends it belonged pretty thoroughly to the Korean families who lived in this area. I could go there–I lived here, too–but I’d be looked at, and I didn’t want that.

Now, of course, no one was looking. We made our way through the dark streets, a woman and her shadow–or a shadow and her woman. We seemed to move like twin stars, in a way–as if we couldn’t get too close together, but couldn’t separate, either. The space between us felt full of unspoken words.

The streets looked different, now that I was with her. It wasn’t just the street lights or shop lights I was seeing. There were other lights, too, little twinkles deep in the darkness of each alleyway, waiting for us to pass by. They seemed to blink, like clouds of little eyes. Other things shifted in the shadows with them.

We did not go to the park. We walked around it–skirted it, as if some force were repelling us just as it repelled us from each other. We came down to the main road, walked around to the next neighborhood–my friend flashed red as she passed beneath each streetlight–and walked, and walked, and walked.

Eventually, we came into one of those big neighborhoods filled with high-rise apartment buildings. My companion slowed down, then, and eventually stopped, looking up through the branches of a ginkgo tree–blaze-yellow even by streetlight–at the nearest building. “My parents live there,” she said.

It was not what I had expected. “Oh,” I said. “Do you ever… um, get to see them?”

“From a distance.” Her voice was sad, though not as sad as one might expect. “I can see them leave for work, see my younger brother come to visit them. I can’t go closer,” she added, though I wouldn’t have asked for excuses. “Whenever I get close, they seem to know I’m there, and… it just upsets them.”

“That sounds awful.” I couldn’t help but imagine what it would be like for my own family, if they suddenly got the call one day that I had died. It had been more than a year since I’d seen them. It would kill them if they lost me one day without getting to say goodbye. I should call my parents, I thought, whenever I got home. 

I really, really wanted to ask how the ghost had died. But I felt like it would be impolite. Instead, I stood and looked up at the apartment building with her. It shimmered like a sheet of stained-glass panels–each window tinted a slightly different color depending on what kind of light bulbs the occupants used, warm yellow or pale amber or sea green. The high-rise was one of dozens, at least, in this neighborhood, and probably many thousands in the city. I wondered how many lonely ghosts were staring up at these windows, unable to leave or to go home.

After a while, the ghost woman turned and walked away. We walked a long way again.

I’m not sure where we went. We must have passed by the same places at least a few times, but I couldn’t seem to recognize landmarks at the time. The buildings began to withdraw, as if we were walking among them but not close enough to see anything.

“Where are we going?” I finally made myself ask, after a long time. There were no stars, but that’s not unusual in Seoul; we’d be lucky to get more than two or three visible ones at once.

She shook her head, but didn’t answer verbally. We were in a place where streets were quiet, and the scuff of my feet over the first thin drift of leaves was the only real sound around us. I let her lead me on, under street lamp after street lamp, deeper and deeper into the quiet night.

We finally ended up at a park, but not the one I’d originally been heading toward. It was a little strip at the base of a vine-covered hillside, with a small covered platform for picnics and a few exercise machines for senior citizens. I went to sit in the picnic shelter, and my friend followed after me. 

“I used to come here,” she said, sitting down so close to me that if there were anything to touch we would be touching. “My boyfriend and me. At night, when there was nobody here, we’d lie down in here and just… be. Like you can’t be during the day. There’s always somewhere you’re supposed to be during the day, you know? If you’re not working, someone’s wondering why you’re so lazy. When really… just being alive, with our hearts beating and blood rushing through our bodies–just feeling the wind on human skin, and kisses on human lips… that was enough, sometimes. I didn’t value it when I had it.” She turned to face me, and in her dead eyes there was a look of such despair that it made me catch my breath. “I can’t feel anything, you know. Even the wind, when it’s blowing through my hair, I can’t feel it.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, because there wasn’t anything else to say. “Is… there anything I can do for you? Is there, like, unfinished business I can help you resolve, or…”

“No,” she said, “there’s nothing you can help me with. But if you’re here with me… I feel a bit better. Will you walk with me sometimes?”

“Of course.” It would have been pretty hard-hearted for me to say no. “What’s your name?”

She shook her head gravely. “I don’t have that anymore.”

“Oh.” I hesitated, and then I gave her mine. She nodded, and I saw her tucking it away inside, somewhere I wouldn’t be able to see it. I thought for a second that she was going to kiss me. But she didn’t–she just stood up, and in less time than I expected she led the way back to my apartment.

I took down David’s wards.

After that, there wasn’t much separation between us. She was always there, now, standing behind me or in a corner, watching me or watching nothing. I often found myself watching nothing, too, now that I was with her and felt more like part of the dead world than the living one. Things didn’t seem as important now. Work didn’t seem important. I missed deadlines, zoned out during meetings, let my classes run wild. Wherever I was, whatever I was doing, she was watching me, and I thought she might have more important things to tell me if I could just get her to talk to me again.

She said things, obviously. Sometimes, at night, we would be walking around in the streets around my house–I didn’t sleep much, now that I had better things to do–and she would point to a shop, or a cafe, and say she used to go there with her mother. Sometimes she hummed as she walked along–a gentle sound that blended with the whispering wind–or cleared her throat, as if she had something to say, and then seemed to think better of it. Sometimes, very late, when I was finally drifting off to sleep, I would hear her voice in the shadows by my bed, and wake to find her crouched there like a monster. She would never tell me what she was talking about, and I could never sleep again on those nights.

I still saw David sometimes. He hadn’t left, obviously–he was one of those foreign guys who seemed like they’d never leave, having found a niche in Korea that they couldn’t find at home. The only thing missing in his case was the requisite Korean girlfriend. I remembered that my new acquaintances had told me he had one once, and I wondered what he did to drive her away. Maybe he tried to make her play Ouija, or tied her up with colored string.

Anyway, I saw David skulking around the building sometimes–or was it skulking, if he lived there? Maybe it wasn’t fair to say that. But I’d run into him near the mailboxes, or pass him at the entrance like I had that first time. He never said a word to me, but he always gave me this filthy look, like I should be ashamed of myself, and stomped off as fast as he could. I started to think about changing jobs just so I could get a new apartment where I wouldn’t have to see him. I was more and more embarrassed that I’d ever gotten involved with him in the first place.

When David stomped off, my ghost friend always came up close behind me and wrapped her arms around my chest. It was comforting now that I could sort of feel it. I wished I could hug her for real.

This went on for a long time, and then it was winter. I’d gotten one of the “longpadding” coats that made all the kids here look like walking sleeping bags, but even so the cold was breathtaking. I kept up my nightly walks with my ghost, tracing a long labyrinth of dark streets I could never recreate by daylight, and always finishing at the little park with the picnic shelter. I could tell my friend was waiting for something.

She seemed to get more solid the longer I knew her. Her postures and gestures became as familiar to me as those of any friend–I knew when she was wistful, when she was annoyed, when she wished she could be alone but wouldn’t be able to because she was with me. She didn’t seem to be able to leave me, any more than I could be clear of her for more than a few minutes. Where she was, I was. Where I was, she was.

“Why do you hang around?” I said at last, one day when I’d spent many futile hours at work wondering why I bothered hanging around. “There have to be more interesting people to haunt than me.”

She smiled at me skeptically. “You want me to go?”

“No…” Of course I didn’t want that; it was one of the few things I knew for sure.

“Then it’s best not to ask me.” She continued her slow way down the sidewalk, stepping straight down the middle of each square of cement, not seeming to notice or mind the people who walked next to her or even through her. In the darkness–it was 10 p.m.–it was hard to make out anything distinct about her, and she would have vanished easily in the middle of any crowd–though I, at least, would probably have been able to find her again.

I thought about her answer. “So you don’t want to tell me why you have to stay…?”

She didn’t answer.

I thought of the surly girl-ghost on her bike–a car accident, I’d guessed–and the old man, who must have died of a heart attack or something while exercising in the park. I wanted to ask my ghost friend how she’d died. But I didn’t think she’d answer me.

I wondered. Had it been a car accident for her, too? An aneurysm? Suicide? Somehow I didn’t think it was that, though you never could tell what people went through behind closed doors. She… just had this sense of normalcy–like she was still going about her daily life, and hadn’t even realized that she’d died. If other people could somehow see her, they’d assume she was a living woman walking down the street, flickering from light to shadow to light as she passed beneath the streetlamps. The only thing was that she hadn’t dressed for the season–she still wore her long skirt, her long-sleeved blouse, but no coat; and the wind that tousled the strands of her black hair was nothing like the one that made me huddle in my coat and think of going home.

I hurried forward to walk beside her, wishing I could steal some of that remembered summer warmth. She half-smiled at me, as if she knew what I was thinking, and held out her hand. As our fingers brushed together, I imagined I could almost feel it.

“I want you to do something for me,” my ghost friend said to me one day.

It was afternoon, and we were sitting together on the brick half-wall in front of the building where I worked. The sun was bright, but not bright enough to warm us. It was almost Christmas.

I leaned back and let the branches of the hedge tousle my hair. It was time for me to go back upstairs, but I’d been less and less careful about getting back to work on time. No one had said anything yet, though I had a feeling they were going to. “What kind of thing do you want me to do?” I said to my ghost, reaching out to touch her hand in that way that I could now almost feel.

“I want you to come with me to the park.”

I looked at her, confused. She was leaning back, eyes closed against the winter sunlight, and her face was perfectly placid. It was always hard to know what she was thinking, of course, but today I really had no idea. “We go there all the time,” I said. “Almost every night.”

My ghost shook her head, eyes still closed. “I don’t mean just to walk there. I mean I want you to go there with me and stay the night–at least, anyway, I want to stay there for a long time. And I want you to stay with me. WIll you go?”

I shook my head, bewildered. “Stay the night? It’s December. It’s much too cold.”

She was quiet for a little while. “All right,” she said finally. “But just come for a while. Let’s watch the stars, like I used to do. I want to remember what it was like to be alive. It’s been so long…”

“All right.” I certainly couldn’t deny her this, if it was something she wanted. I couldn’t quite understand what was going on right now, but I wanted her to feel better. “Let’s go tonight.”

She smiled, but there was a twist to it, as if she was happy but didn’t want to be. “Tonight,” she said; and in that moment she was only an echo, a ghost echoing a stranger’s spoken words.

I dressed more warmly than usual that night. I put on fleece-lined leggings under my jeans, and stuffed my feet in fluffy knee-high socks before shoving them into my warmest boots. I pulled on an undershirt, a T-shirt, a sweater, my longpadding coat, thick gloves, and my warmest scarf. Then I took my wallet and keys and went out, locking the door behind me.

She walked beside me all the way, a quiet presence under the street lamps. We did not talk, but I felt her company almost physically. I had never had a friend like her, someone who could say so much without speaking, who could make up for all the loneliness I’d felt since being in this country. I’d give her almost anything, I thought, as long as she stayed with me. I didn’t think I could go on here without her.

It was very quiet. There was almost no one on the street. Those people we did pass were minding their own business, and didn’t have any interest in looking at a pair of ghosts wandering beneath the leafless ginkgo trees.

Above those bare branches, the sky was unusually clear. This part of Mok-dong was sleepy at night, without much of the light pollution that clouded the sky above most of Seoul; and maybe the Siberian winds had swept some of the air pollution away. Whatever the reason, the sky was a deep, bright blue, and around the waning crescent moon there burned a handful of stars.

“Here.” We had reached the park. My ghost touched my hand, and I almost felt it. “Let’s lie down in the picnic shelter,” she said. “Just for a little bit.”

I felt an odd moment of hesitation. There was something expectant in the air–something humming, like David’s wards had used to hum, a subconscious warning that I couldn’t understand. But my ghost was asking, and so I said, “Lead the way.”

With a strange, sad smile, she walked to the picnic shelter and lay down on the square wooden platform under its peaked roof. She curled up on her side and seemed to go to sleep, like a child who’d been put down for a rest. I watched her for a moment, enchanted by her patient stillness.

Then I went to lie down with her.

The wood was cold, and it took me a moment to arrange my limbs comfortably. When I did, my breathing settled, and the stillness grew. I was looking into the face of my ghost–our noses almost touching, our hands overlapping though I could barely feel hers. I watched her side rise and fall, though I could not hear her breathing. I listened to the distant noise of traffic, and felt myself grow stiller and stiller. Even as cold as it was, I was getting tired, and I must have drifted off to sleep.

When I woke up, there was someone else with us.

I sensed them more than heard them. They were behind me, shuffling on the asphalt, and I thought maybe it was a teenager who’d come to the park to smoke–or maybe a drunk old man, seeing two women lying down asleep and wanting to cop a feel. I opened my eyes, wanting to turn around and catch them before they got too close–

But my body wouldn’t move.

I was paralyzed. I could blink–could breathe–and my breathing was growing fast and panicked, realizing the extent of my terror before I was aware of it myself–but my muscles wouldn’t respond when I told them to activate. I felt, in fact, as if I’d been tied up–and when I swept my eyes down, past the sleeping face of my ghost, I saw threads stretching between her and me–light and dark threads that in brighter light might have been red, and white, and black.

“Miss me?” said David.

The shuffle on the asphalt became footsteps, slow and rhythmic. He was walking around the picnic shelter, looking at me from all angles–or so I assumed. I couldn’t see him. I saw only the face of my ghost, who wasn’t sleeping–who was aware of me, as she’d been aware all this time what end I was coming to.

She wasn’t sleeping. Her inaudible breathing was too even, her face too perfectly peaceful. But her eyes didn’t open, and she didn’t participate in what was going on. She’d done enough, I supposed, drawing me here.

“I knew it wasn’t going to last between you and me.” David’s voice was mostly dispassionate–just a little bitter, perhaps. “They always leave. And, honestly, the sex wasn’t all that good. You were just convenient.

I knew that. Had known that. But it still stung. Though I couldn’t tell him that.

“Convenient,” he said again, more softly. His fingertips traced the knots of colored string that were only there in spirit, and my bound limbs convulsed into a shiver. “I was wanting to try again, and there you were.”

Try what again?

“She was never convenient,” he went on, a villain monologuing, “never very useful, unless I gave her something very specific to do. Even then, she’d find ways around it, try to mess things up for me. I guess you’ll probably do the same thing.” His voice was unconcerned. “It doesn’t really matter, though. I’ll get better at it over time. And if there are enough of you… it doesn’t matter if every single one of you’s inefficient. It’ll get the job done.”

His fingertips still traced the knots that lay hidden under my coat–I felt his touch as if it were on bare skin, even though he wasn’t really touching me, might not even be near enough to touch. He’d touched me enough back when we were together. The necessary work was done. 

Across from me, the ghost opened her eyes. There was a warning in them, and a promise, and I didn’t know why she’d done this. When she shouldn’t have helped him, after what he’d done to her. When I’d loved her.

“The two of you can be company for each other,” he said lightly, and snapped his fingers.

Everything around us–the air and the earth and the moony glow of the streetlights–began to shiver. Something inside me–deep, intrinsic–began to shiver too, and didn’t stop after the rest subsided. It grew deeper, taking more and more of me, and I knew it was going to shake me apart.

My breathing grew shallow. Slowly, with a terrible effort, I managed to wrench my eyes up to look at David.

He grinned. “They’ll think you died of hypothermia,” he said, “even with the coat. When she died, they thought it was a brain aneurysm, but it’s winter, so.” His breath hung in clouds around his face. 

My breath wasn’t making clouds, I realized suddenly. It wasn’t coming out at all. And I was still shaking.

From the corner of my eye, I saw my ghost move. When she laid her hand over mine, I so nearly felt it I would have sworn it was real. Cold, though–not warm like flesh. And mine, in a minute, would be the same.

David said something I couldn’t make out, and then he struck me, hard, across the breastbone. The thing within me that had been shaking… snapped. The world disappeared for a moment.

When I came back, I was floating upright beside my ghost, who was standing by the poor lump of body that used to be me. She took my hand, almost absently, and pulled me back down to stand by her.

My feet settled comfortably on the ground. I twined my fingers more firmly with hers, and we watched David putter around, pausing at the edges of the park to pick up little objects that must have been his wards. Maybe that was why no one had come while he was here, or maybe there had been no one outside to come.

He looked around, as if checking for observers, and then began to shake the body I had just left. “Hello?” he said loudly, as if performing for an audience. “Hey, are you okay? Hello!”

Beside me, my ghost–now my opposite number, I supposed–snorted softly. “Asshole,” she said. “He did that when he killed me, too. Thinks he should be an actor or something.”

“So he did the same trick with you?” Intellectually, I knew I should be furious with my ghost–my equal, my sister–for helping to ensnare me. But all I felt was nothing.

She held up her hand, and I saw the black thread that fell from it and faded into the distance. “Look at his wrist,” she said, gesturing at David. “And yours. You’ve got one, too.”

I looked. David’s wrist was bound by two black loops of string, and both of them trailed off towards us. I looked at my own wrist, and found a similar loop.

On my other wrist was a different loop of string, bright red and somehow warmer. This one did not vanish, because it bound me to the woman beside me–arm to arm, hand to hand.

David took out his phone. I half-listened as he dialed emergency services, mumbling out some sob story about finding his neighbor unresponsive in a park. His Korean was good, as far as I could tell–halting, but obviously fluent. And whatever he was saying, the nearby security cameras would probably back it up. He had a system down now–whenever he killed his next victim, it would likely go even more smoothly.

My ghost was watching him with calm distaste. Not anger–whatever she felt for him was clearly not strong enough for that. “He’s begging them to send an ambulance,” she told me, not taking her eyes from our murderer. “Listen, I think he’s crying a little bit. What an artist.”

She walked over to him, slow and steady like a pacing cat. When she got to him, her hand lashed out, knocking the phone from his hand and making him fumble to catch it. He recovered, apologizing to the dispatcher, but looked around afterward as if disturbed.

My ghost looked surprised and pleased. “That never would have worked before. You must have made us stronger.”

“What do you mean?” I said.

“He’s connected us,” she said, “as if we were different parts of the same system. I doubt he realized he was doing it that way–but with him using the exact same strategy to kill both of us–and wanting us for our power–how much work we can do–he’s associated us with each other. We’re stronger together now, and I don’t think he can reverse that.”

By now, David had finished his phone conversation and hung up. He looked back and forth between two spaces in front of him–where he assumed we were, I suppose, though actually he was off by several feet. “I don’t know which of you that was,” he said slowly, “but I don’t need you trying again while I’m dealing with the paramedics. Get out of here, both of you, and don’t come back till I call you.”

I felt a tug against my navel. Then I was flying through the streets, still hand in hand with my partner, as ambulance lights flashed behind us in the distance. I could still feel David–the cord binding me to him didn’t just go through my wrist, but through my heart. I would always feel him, I supposed.

But closer, and much more powerful, was the pulsing red band that bound me to my fellow ghost. As we settled to the ground, many streets away from where we’d been before, I realized that we’d likely be together forever.

She was watching me with a strange smile, as if she could tell what I was thinking. Maybe she could. Maybe I’d know her thoughts, too, as time moved on–maybe we’d become, more and more, the same person, until there was no telling where one of us ended and the other began.

“Do you forgive me?” she said at last, lips quirking into her familiar bitter smile. “I could have warned you away–I could have tried harder. But I didn’t.”

I wanted to kiss her. Even though, a dozen streets away, my body was being poked and prodded, and the EMTs were failing at CPR–even though, in the back of my head, I was beginning to picture what my family would be going through in a few hours, when they learned what had happened to me–even though a tiny, hysterical part of me was gleefully wondering who the school would get to cover my classes tomorrow–the largest part of me felt peace. Acceptance. Comfort, knowing that I’d never be alone again. That she would always be with me.

I learned my head forward. She froze, but didn’t protest, until my forehead was resting against hers. Then, with a long, shaky sigh, she wrapped her arms around me; and I wrapped mine around her; and we stood together, phantoms under the streetlights, until the distant noise of the ambulance pulled away.

“I was alone,” she said softly, after a long time. “For five years, I’ve been alone. I couldn’t talk to anyone–not even him. He’s too stupid to see us, to hear us, even though he thinks he’s this big wizard…”

I saw another phantom sliding through the darkness of a nearby alleyway. An old homeless woman who died on the street–I’d seen her before, back when I was alive. “What about the other ghosts?” I said. “Can you–can we talk to them?”

My ghost shook her head, her forehead bumping softly against mine. “They’re just memories–not like us. There’s not much in them of who they really were. It’s just me… and now… you.”

She pressed her lips to mine. I returned the kiss, feeling all the senses of my new post-mortal form wake up. Faced with the entirety of her–her clever mouth, her strong slim arms, the little hitch of sound she made as she pulled me closer–I felt that other, less-important bond begin to fade away.

For a long time we stood like that. It might have been minutes, or hours–time didn’t matter to us anymore, wouldn’t matter again. But at last, when I had almost forgotten where and what I was–forgotten everything else but her–I began to feel a tug against my breastbone.

My ghost stiffened and pulled away. She pressed her hand against her own chest–whatever the tug was, she felt it, too. “He’s calling us,” she muttered. “We’ll have to go to him–we’re not strong enough to tell him no yet.”

“Is that why you helped him?” I couldn’t quite resist the sting, though I saw her flinch when I reminded her what she’d done to me. “Why you brought me there for him? Because he told you to?”

We started walking–not very fast. Without being told, I knew I had to obey him: the tug in my chest was growing stronger, more insistent. But I didn’t have to do it quickly. 

“I tried to warn you,” she said after a minute.

“Not very hard,” I said.

She shook her head. “No. Are you angry?”

I wasn’t sure. “I should be furious.” I looked into my heart for fury, for hatred. I couldn’t find anything like that. All I felt was tired.

She took my hand. I wrapped my fingers in hers. 

“So we’re his servants now,” I said after a while. We were coming closer to my house–just David’s house now, I supposed. The sky between the buildings was growing brighter. “Is there any way we can get free?” 

She was quiet for a moment. “I couldn’t by myself,” she said, when I thought that she wasn’t going to answer. “I tried for three years and gave up. And… I don’t think we’re strong enough, even together.”

“But?” I said after a moment, hearing it unspoken in the air.

“But…” She looked up at the brightening sky.

Ignoring the sharp tug at my heart, I slowed to a stop and waited for her to speak. “But?” I prompted, when she was silent.

“But I think he’s going to try again,” she said. “He’s bound two of us. Why wouldn’t he bind more?”

I thought of what I’d heard about David from the other women in the area who knew him. “You think he’s going to make–and bind–another ghost?”

She smiled sardonically. “He’s done it twice now. What’s stopping him?”

I thought about it. Was David arrogant enough to think he could beat more than two of us? Or was he sensible enough to quit while he was ahead?

Another thought hit me, then. “We could beat him, if there were three of us. Or four, or however many we’d need. Eventually, he’d overstep, and then we’d have him.”

Her eyes glinted. “Yes. That’s the idea.”

“But to do that, we’d have to… let him.” I realized what she’d done, what she was doing. “Let him kill another person–or two more–or three–however many we’d need, until we could overpower him. We’d have to… draw them in, like you drew me in, and let him bind them the same way he bound me. We’d have to… be complicit, basically, whenever he murdered someone. Help him kill them, as many times as it took, until we could be free.”

She looked away, started walking again. “Yes. That’s what it would take.”

The tugging at my breastbone drew me onward, and after a second I started walking again. I didn’t know how I would answer her, how I wanted to answer. I kept walking, and we two spirits faded into shadow as the sun began to rise over the silent street.

books, daily life, fantasy, fiction, Uncategorized, updates

Friday Update

Hi, kids! Having another quiet night. Tomorrow I’m taking the day off from writers’ group to spend time with Fran and her mom, so I’m hoping to get some work done today. Very quiet with just me and the cats; I’m used to sharing Friday nights with someone else now.

Recently I’ve gotten a decent amount of work done. I finished a short dark piece on a fictional species of invasive fish, and have begun several other new projects.(Yeah, I know…). Actually, I’ve just noticed that there are many more open markets for horror than for fantasy, so I’m trying my hand at a few more short horror stories. Lots of anthologies coming out that I’m excited to submit to.

I’m feeling a bit better about the craft in general now. I got a couple of really nice rejection emails last week–you wouldn’t think a rejection would make you happier, but these were really complimentary. Sometimes all you need is for a professional to tell you you’re not a hack. So I’ve started confidently attempting projects that are rather out of my usual wheelhouse. I also have a couple of stories I wrote before developing the new prose style (technique?) that I use now. I’ll probably put them up here, rather than rework them, because I’ve already got plenty on my to-do list, and reworking an old story is just as hard as writing a new one. You’ll see them soon.

Still working slowly through A Suitable Boy, but I’ll probably take another break and read something different. Also still flipping through The Haunting of Hill House, which I reread every couple of years. It still holds up for me. Sometimes you look back at a story that helped to shape your adolescence (and your creative aesthetic) and realize it has fundamental structural flaws that might actually be influencing the way you put your own work together. I guess in a way that’s nice: if XYZ Book has major flaws, but still won several prizes and lingers in the fond memories of many, there’s probably hope for me. I think I’ll try The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton next; it seems like a good choice for the season.

We’re getting into the early-autumn weeks where witchy, spooky things linger at the fringes of daylight and I am very susceptible to Spook. I want real-life ghost stories and dark harvest aesthetic. I bought ribbon to redecorate my front door wreath, and might get to that tonight. Ooh, I could also bring down the glass Jack-o-lantern I bought last year. I’m getting more and more into this kind of light-vintage, 70s-80s domestic aesthetic of deathless wooden furniture, lace and florals, etc. etc. I want a La-Z-Boy chair and an indomitable couch, a wooden chest for blankets, a basket of scarves in the closet. I want lighting with the warm tinge of the old incandescent bulbs, and the kind of quiet you’d hear on a summer night at my grandparents’ old farm. (But I don’t want to leave the city–haha, oh no–and moving apartments with old-fashioned furniture is a bit of an endeavor.)

I think this kind of feeling is pretty common now, at least judging by the popularity of the whole “cottagecore” trend. I guess we’re still trying to imagine there are still insects buzzing outside, that the natural world is still proceeding in ordered seasons the way it’s supposed to. I think everyone wants to rewind the clock on nature (see rewilding efforts, which I’m a big fan of). I’m not sure how successful it can really be, but there’s something comforting in the idea. Maybe aesthetics like cottagecore are also a harmless way to connect to cultural traditions marred by outdated social mores (not to speak of horrific historical atrocities). I think also that, being 37 and likely to remain childless, I might be thinking nostalgically about the continuity of family. I’ve gotten into perfumes lately, and two scents I’m really fond of are one my mother used to wear and one that reminds me of my grandmother. I do think it’s easier to feel that old-timey vibe here in Central Europe, where the landscape seems to change much more slowly than in the places I’ve lived before. And of course, given everything, I haven’t seen my actual family in more than two years.

Anyway. Take care, everyone, and have a good weekend. Let’s move on one day at a time.

Much love,

fiction, flash, Uncategorized

Flash Fiction: Glass Shop

Halloween 2020. 976 words.

Image credit SplitShire.

You have never seen beauty like the sunlight shining through shop windows into this proliferation of color. Red glass bowls cast crimson parabolas across a white tablecloth. A cluster of blue wine bottles share the light between them, commingling their cobalt splendor. So brightly do the points of sunlight blaze in a large family of crystal balls that you remember stories about house fires started by unwatched refractions. 

A row of prisms dance across the top edge of the front windows. You squint into their scattered rainbows. They seem to scatter memories, too: you can’t remember how you got here.

 The shop is uncomfortably warm, and has a stale smell, as if no one has visited in a long time. You wonder where the owner is. It feels wrong to leave the place unattended, but you don’t want to stay. Though the air is still, the glass ornaments and bells that hang from the ceiling shiver as if in a soft wind. You think of ghosts. In Victorian times they would cover the mirrors when someone died so they couldn’t trap the dead. What might be trapped in this chaos of reflections?

You wander through the shop, dusting your hands across forests of art-glass swizzle sticks and animal figurines. A heap of round glass fishing floats (witch balls, they call them) occupies one corner. Tiffany lamps sprout from a table like psychedelic mushrooms. Another table is green: bottles, vases, gazing-globes, liquor glasses, opera glasses, ashtrays. Antique Christmas ornaments cover most of one wall. Below them are big crystal bowls filled with smaller items: beads, marbles, stained-glass nuggets. 

You dig your hands into this clicking hoard and pick up a lump of yellow glass. In the sunlight, it reminds you of urine. You put it back and pick up a soda-blue marble. As you roll it in your hand, your mind supplies the taste of it: how it would clatter on your teeth, slide cool and slick across your tongue; how tempted you would be to swallow.

Dropping temptation back in the bowl, you return to the center of the shop. Something has changed, but you can’t pinpoint it. Then you look again, and see what was there from the beginning. 

Against the far wall stands a tall wooden case, rough-built like a wartime coffin, its front a plate-glass window. Inside, a man stands sleeping. He is of no particular age or obvious character, but you shudder to see him. Somehow he stands upright without support, and you wonder if he is a wax figure or some kind of mannequin. You don’t know why he could be here. He doesn’t belong.

From a hook beside the case hangs a long iron hammer. It is dull and crudely made. It looks like something used to stun animals for slaughter. Like the man in the box, there is no reason for it to be here. Like the man in the box, it makes you shudder.

You are standing in the center aisle. Tables to your left and right hold trays of little things one might pick up. Your eye falls on a silver tea tray loaded with glass paperweights. Your fingers close around one clear orb with a blood-red flower blooming in the center. It’s heavy as a stone, and fits perfectly into the curve of your hand. You want to throw it more than you’ve ever wanted to do anything in your life. 

When you look up at the man, his eyes are open. They fix on you, muddy and cruel. He grins. 

The paperweight flies from your hand. The crash of glass through glass is as loud as the death of the world.

When the echoes clear, the man steps out of the case. He inhales loudly, sucking at the meager air. He takes up more than physical space. He lifts the iron hammer from its hook. It seems to fit perfectly into the curve of his hand.

“No.” Your voice shivers. “Don’t do it. Please.”

For a second, he is still. Danger stands poised, not yet loosed on the world. You feel that there is something you could say to stop what’s going to happen. But no words come to mind.

The moment passes. Rolling his shoulders, he steps forward with brutish boots, swinging the hammer, loosening his muscles. A flick of his arm smashes a tableful of figurines. Animal heads and broken ballerinas glitter in the air for an instant before they fall. Another blow obliterates the glass table they stood on. 

He clears the next table with a careless backswing. Another wave of glass crashes to the floor. The base of a round bud vase rolls to your feet, glimmering like Eris’ apple.

You start to back away. You think of running, but know you won’t reach the door in time. He is grinning, still grinning, anticipating the moment when there is no glass and only you remain. 

“Stop,” you say. Your voice doesn’t make much noise now.

He swings high, smashing chandeliers, breaking bells and sweet glass chimes. Glittering shrapnel stings your brow and cheeks. You close your eyes, but the crashing of his hammer only magnifies when you don’t watch him. When you open your eyes, the shop is gone.

You stand in a waste of shards and powder. Glass dust hangs in the air. Fragments of it are trapped in the creases of your eyelids. Soon you’ll blink, and they will fall into your eyes. 

The man rolls his shoulders, breathing heavily. Beneath his shaggy, glass-flecked hair, his eyes are unreadable. You open your mouth for one last plea, but your throat will not contract. Your muscles lock up one by one, leaving you frozen, unable to run, unable to fall.

As he lifts his hammer for the final blow, you look down and see that you are made of glass.

Image credit SplitShire.