BY SR HUGHES
I have been dead, now, for longer than I ever lived.
I can’t recall the exact year it happened. I remember my husband’s scream, my daughter’s footsteps sprinting the hall. I remember my son’s face blood-speckled, the stab of hot betrayal opening my innards. I remember lying on the kitchen floor, a cutstring puppet in crimson slick, going cold.
I awakened days or weeks or months later into an empty house.
Death is a crushing loneliness. I wandered the streets of this withering city for weeks, unacknowledged. It’s so human to be acknowledged. To be seen, to be heard, to be felt. But no living eyes turned my way, and when I spoke, nobody listened. People passed through me and I felt their heat enter me and leave.
Other ghosts wail and scream and none of them listen to any of the others. The dead are self-absorbed. We are all caught up in our endings, in the shambling, selfish search for some conclusion. Some of them have gone truly mad, reduced to shrieked ramblings, circular pacing, their movements listless, spasmodic, pointless. They drool and sputter and slaver and roar.
I’m afraid that I will end up like that.
I’m afraid because I keep forgetting things. I remember my death, and some of my later life, but my childhood is gone from me. What kind of girl was I? As a teenager, what forms did my rebellion take? Did I rebel at all? My earliest memories, now, begin sometime in my late teens—and even they exist only vaguely, snatches and snippets and half-remembered songs. My life dissembles day by day.
One day, my death will be my only memory. When that day comes, will I drool and roar? Will I slaver and sputter and pace?
One day, some months or years ago (who can tell), I found someone who heard me, who saw me, who felt me. I pled with him to help, to set me free. He did his best. He found my buried family and reported our lost bodies to the police. I watched them dig up my husband, my daughter, myself. Later, this sole and lonely medium told me that my son was already in prison, that he had been there for a decade—that he’s serving a 20 year sentence on an unrelated crime.
They interred us, and I thought, briefly, that this would do the trick.
And yet, I am still here.
I returned, after some time, to my old home. Another family lives here, now, of course, but the familiarity of the architecture brings me some comfort. Something to hang onto. The shape of the rooms, the floor plan, the kitchen tiles, the view of the woods from the family room window…these things comfort me. They anchor me to something real, when nothing else would.
Time passes for a family by inches, by height marked into doorframes, by floodwater pants and hand-me-down shoes. It passes in crawling and walking and running. One day, the father put his daughter down and never picked her up again. One day, the son stood taller than his mother. Time passes for a family in laughter and tears, in portraits and group photographs. In dinners and TV shows and movies.
I watch the son closely, though he seems kind enough.
At night, when the family sleeps, I walk in circles through this place that once was mine. I ache in the places where my son tore me open. I ache in my chest, where my heart hollowed out. I ache in my cold bones, even though I know my bones are buried. It all hurts so much. I often weep.
They started to hear my weeping, some time ago. My walking.
They started to notice my existence.
It is so very human to be acknowledged. To be seen and heard. To be felt.
I grow stronger with age, even as my memories flee my mind. Three months ago (or maybe six), I picked up a small coin. I managed to hold it in my palm for ten seconds before it fell through, before it danced along the kitchen floor and came to rest heads-up. I giggled and giggled and laughed for so long. Holding that coin, I was happy for a while.
Last month (or perhaps the one before), I turned a doorknob. I inched the door open, creaking its hinges, and nearly lost my imagined breath when I squeezed through the gap. Though a ghost can pass through walls, there is something deeply rewarding to using doors. To feel a knob, to grasp it, to turn, to push—to use things as the living use them. It is so human.
Last night (I can keep track of individual days, even now), I performed my greatest feat, yet.
The mother sat at the kitchen table, drinking wine from a big, open-mouthed goblet. She had the television on in the family room but sat reading a book at the dining table. I asked her to tell me about her family, but she didn’t seem to hear me. I asked her to tell me about her daughter, her husband, her son. I asked what it felt like to be alive, to be able to hold onto them, to be able to wrap her children in her arms. I wanted to know what it felt like to have a son who kissed her on the top of her head, or a daughter tall and strong enough to lift her.
She didn’t answer and I became agitated. I cried, softly at first, and began to raise my voice.
When I shouted, she heard something. She paused in the middle of turning a page, glanced up at the air where I stood.
I was so excited, I raised my voice even louder, to the point where I screamed, shrieked, wailed. It seemed she must’ve heard these keens as whispers, as her brow furrowed and she leaned forward.
I was caught up in the moment, and so I reached out, I reached out and dashed her wine glass from the table. Shards of breakage danced along the floor and a sluice of dark red pooled the tile (how reminiscent of my unfinal ending) and I screamed another question at her and she heard me, she saw me, she felt me.
Her eyes widened, big and white, and she jerked back in her seat, jumped up, and backed into the kitchen counter. She grabbed a blade from the knife block by her sink and panted, staring at me.
“Who are you?” she cried, blade held before her. “What do you want?”
I laughed. I laughed because she heard me, saw me, felt me. She acknowledged me.
I must have faded from her vision because she lowered the knife a couple seconds later, clutching at her chest with her free hand, eyes scanning the kitchen in frenzy. Her hands shook and she couldn’t quite fit the blade back into the knife block. She called her husband and told him to hurry home—and he actually did.
I cannot express my joy. There aren’t the words for it. I am so happy.
She saw me, if only for a moment. She heard me, if only for a word.
It feels so human to be acknowledged.
And I am learning to communicate.
SR Hughes (also published under Spencer Rhys Hughes) is an author of weird fiction, dark contemporary fantasy, and horror. He lives in Queens, NY, and is constantly hammering away at a mechanical keyboard and yanking out clumps of his own stress-eaten hair. He's published several short stories and flash fictions and has been featured on multiple podcasts (The Hollow podcast, Did You Hear the One?, etc). Twitter @thesrhughes
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