Ghosts have terrible memories. Turns out that the physical body is integral to particular recollections. Mass, matter, moving through space, imprinting on the world; being imprinted upon. Art has helped me bridge that gap (of not having a body); allowed me an entry point. Music, movies—literature especially—flesh things out. The imaginative world anchors me. Still. There’s always something a little slant to my impressions of the past. My young moments among the living.
Right now, To The Lighthouse is playing in the closet. Justin recorded that one himself. He has reached the Time Passes section, his voice mellifluous, incantatory, as life compresses.
For a ghost, beginnings can present a problem. They are, always, arbitrary. Chronology, linearity, these aren’t strong points for us, either. Death, though—death seems reasonable. So let’s start there.
At seventeen, I launched myself from a rope swing along the Horizon River and landed in a nest of water snakes. A flurry of fangs against my throat, Justin, risking his own life, diving in to pull me from the river. The screams of our petrified friends by the bank. My bloated body, burgeoning corpse, a grotesque Tinker Bell, no one believing in me quite hard enough. Justin, perhaps. Out of the faceless people his hovering face emerges, holding my head in his hands.
Dispersed across the ether, across time and into quantum pockets of existence. Or a perfectly liminal expression of non-existence. Somewhere in between that: familiar voices, gestures of grief; a bystander to others’ sadness. I wandered through galaxies and navigated the multiverse. Choices, infinitudes. At some point my knowledge was cut off and cauterized by celestial forces. Because I chose Justin. Even this process hidden. So I returned to that town no longer mine, to a dirt basketball court, already dissolving from my aura any remembrance of what solace might reside in stardust and supernovas.
Justin, a basketball in his hands, staring at me in a pallor of agony. Lately, I’ve glimpsed that look, caught off guard in his room, when I’ve forgotten to announce myself, as agreed. Or do I just see an echo, an overlapping of time, as in all things? As how his room and the living room and my closet are all, in some ways, most ways, the same? Barriers mean little to ghosts, though I try to respect what is deemed one. The look vanishes quickly enough, as it did that day, when he waved me hurriedly beneath the cover of a magnolia, lest his parents should see. “See what?” I’d asked. “You’re the only one who can see me, buddy.” It did not provide the comfort I had hoped. “Well then, how ‘bout this?” I said. “I’ll tell you something that even you don’t know about me—” (though at this point I could already tell some things had faded into oblivion, but for those deeply etched) “—that’ll prove you’re not hallucinating. Deal?”
We no longer tell each other secrets to gauge his sanity. We either have too few between us now, or he is afraid of the answer. He believed in me then, though; I hoped that would always be enough.
I considered haunting my parents. At least to provide an initial comfort: Yes, I’m dead, but I’m not in Hell, or being tortured by aliens on a remote planet. And, thank heavens, no reincarnation! But a haunting can be an inadvertent torture. Particularly to parents, who want to see their children grow and flourish in the world. On earth, as fleshy beings. To see them at the big game, or in the chorus line. To hug them or pat them heartily on the back after that first job interview, college acceptance, or litany of accomplishments, big and small, conventional or not. All I could do was float around them and remind them of their loss. I would become a caricature, a torment.
Initially, however, I did visit them from time to time; clandestine traipses through the house just to check in. This stemmed more from a sense of duty than attachment, which shouldn’t come across as callous, I hope. Their sadness didn’t hold any particular poignancy separate from the sadness of all the millions of other parents who had lost children. Or, for that matter, all the billions of people who had lost friends and family, in any capacity. To me they were like swirls of varying hues. Of course I missed my parents. I loved them, certainly, but, like the sadness, that love was mixed in with the abundance of the universe.
To return to my childhood bedroom was like entering a doll’s room. The way it had all been tidied up, photos perpetually dusted, and the carpet vacuumed in neat rows. It was the lack of motion, the absolute emptiness of it of any future disruption—a discarded blanket, tissues balled up by the nightstand—that made it unreal. Disturbing, even to me. I continued to visit, maybe hoping that they received some notion of my aura when I was near. Soon it seemed as if they had made a turn to inhabit some notion of a normal life. At some point the sheets had been changed, the photos hung along the stairwell, and a sewing machine placed in the middle of the room, exchanged later for a weight bench. It was no longer so haunting. I had become solidified as a memory. I moved on.
One of the best single comics of all time is Alan Moore’s interpretation of Swamp Thing. Particularly “The Anatomy Lesson.” Up until this revelatory issue, Swamp Thing’s origin had been a simple one in the vein of The Incredible Hulk and other copycats of the time: experiment blows up in scientist’s face, causing said scientist to become imbued with a superpower. In Swamp Thing’s case, without a doubt more melancholy than Bruce Banner’s plight, a chemical explosion launches the scientist into a swamp, whose components latch onto him and he becomes the titular character, possessing now extraordinary strength and a grotesquely vegetation-laden physique that allows him to interact with the very soil in which he now must spend his days. At least, that was the protagonist’s, and the readers’, perspective up until “The Anatomy Lesson,” wherein we learn that Swamp Thing has no actual humanity within him/it. The vegetation and amalgam of swamp stuff has reorganized itself into crude replicas of human anatomy. Swamp Thing realizes that he does not possess anything of the man he was—the man, in fact, was turned to dust in that explosion—and that he is a mass of swamp material, his memories merely an echo, some consciousness absorbed by the monster-shaped mass.
Not to pare down my existence in Cartesian terms, but without a body the world loses much of its seductiveness. The flatness of it all becomes apparent, subjects and scenarios that seem to captivate humans revealed as a well of false significance.
If you ever think you’ve seen a ghost, it’s most likely one who has lost their chosen haunt, and their frequencies have gone haywire, latching onto whatever is within range. Without Justin’s grounding presence, I could sense how I might whip about the world like a perpetually deflating balloon, accidentally intruding on perspectives, unable to locate myself in any time or place. It happens to a lot of spirits. Their person is hostile to them or has no inclination to connect. Perhaps certain elderly people or standoffish misanthropes who’ve exhausted empathy toward other humans, much less the dead returned. It takes energy to be haunted. Selfishness: another ghostly prerequisite.
Justin, a welcoming host from the start: in his parents’ house, in the cheap college apartments, and now the bent-looking one bedroom at the edge of nowhere. Even when he was surrounded by friends and I had to hover in silence, he would acknowledge me with a clandestine wink, lift a glass in my direction as if in deep thought.
We are alone more often than not, now. I try to never take his acknowledgment for granted, regardless in what form it comes. I thank him every time he adds an audio book recording to the closet playlist, though I hear that subtle sigh, the same mini-exhalation as when he empties the trash.
It was Dracula that explained that even the immortal must have rules. Dracula can’t just fly his batself around wherever and whenever he wanted. Turns out there is a particular radius he must keep to those things he wishes to transform into. He’s out of luck if on his journey at daylight he lands on an island with nothing that can fly or swim. And he can only sleep in those coffins full of soil from Transylvania. Even with the undead there are restrictions.
That first night—after Justin had accepted his sanity, had quelled his shaking hands at the dinner table and conversed as normally as possible with his parents—we went to his room and whispered excitedly through the night. He filled me in on what I had missed at school since I’d been dead, and I showed him how I could shape my translucent aura into any form. We launched into a brainstorm of objects for me to replicate that had him in hysterics. As the sun rose, we’d returned to our old conversational rhythm. Justin’s cheeks were flushed a potent pink, his flesh pricked with goosebumps. Though no similar sensation could exist in me, I mimicked this in my own appearance, an attempt to solidify our camaraderie, our deeper connection. At the very least I wanted him to know that we were in this together, and he would never have to be alone.
Justin had dreamed of going to college on the coast since elementary school. I do remember that much. I also contain the memory of the two of us visiting campus, though here’s where the overlap begins, and I have trouble pulling apart the timelines. We are always forever going to the coast, are always forever on campus, and always forever near its edge, like now, and now, and now. I extricate myself from this Derridean loop by focusing on a particular text/object that can help to orient me. A snippet from a song, say, can sometimes jerk me from this temporal merry-go-round. Matchbox 20’s “Bent,” in this instance, the radio playing that song on its own parallel loop the whole ride there. It was a weekend in late October, which felt so sophisticated and contrarian, visiting the beach in fall, already on our way to being scholars, finding the eloquence in the cold sand scraping across our feet, and the violet color of the darkening sky, hidden from the less discerning tourists, stuck back home and dreaming of summer.
Love, the sort impregnable from heartbreak—that’s what I saw on Justin’s face as he walked along the beach; when he stood beneath the campus bell tower and watched the students, incandescent, glide in and out of the unassuming buildings, possessed with an aura of wonderment; and that evening, when we ran across the cobblestone streets of downtown and leaned over the railing to see the reflecting lights of all those mysterious buildings behind us bend and slither against the river’s current. A town seemingly forged from our own imagination.
I know soon even this memory will disappear.
A bodiless spirit has no instrument with which to gauge anxiety, with its thudding heart, clammy skin, and twirling belly. I held only impressions of former sensations, and this, too, was mediated, perpetually merging with my present notions of the universe, its porous, celestial tilt. In a sense, I truly had nothing to worry about.
Yet if I think back to the next trip, Justin’s official move to college, a tight ball of dread had begun to palpitate around me as I attempted that same jubilant position in the passenger seat as before. I betrayed my form too often to be anything but a distraction to Justin, who maintained a giddy nonchalance throughout the drive. He asked, in what I’m sure was more concern for my boredom than anything else, if I wouldn’t want to float on ahead of him and meet at the dorm. But therein might’ve been the reason for that circling trepidation: for the first time, Justin had no barriers, no containment wherein to choose anything other than our small town, and no commitment to anyone other than the ghost boy who had urged his way back to him. I had absolutely no idea what, exactly, Justin would decide about his future, about any of it, even those basic things like classes, hangout spots, dorm posters—friends. If you want to make a ghost worry, tell them that they’re in jeopardy of losing their chosen one. Watch them closely and you might even see a quiver in their aura, like a phantom skin.
I pity Kafka’s Hunter Graucchus, the undead as not-quite-dead. The poor hunter has lost his way to the afterlife on a raft. He floats along for eternity, stopping from port to port, conversing with a respectable citizen from time to time. If only he had someone to haunt, the poor soul.
I see them: solitary ghosts, slipping along the atmosphere like lost kites. Bleating lights pouring through them along city streets, ignored by gray pedestrians on their rain-soaked commutes. Alone in frosted evening fields, traversing endless miles.
It’s inevitable, of course, that our Person will die. As inevitable as the fact that we ourselves did. Yet ghosts make their own decisions, and the pitying soul should also remember that loneliness is a different animal to us. Ghosts don’t ache for the warmth of a lover’s hand or familial embrace. Though it’s true that loss transcends the flesh. To be incomparably and wholly estranged from the universe, there is no escaping that pang, a vibration attenuated to all sentient substances.
Still—we have disregarded innumerable, ineffable wonders to return to a temporal space and attach ourselves to the life of a higher-thinking animal. Our focus is so narrow as to be inconceivable. So what is a ghost to do when they have lost their haunted? There are, I’ve gleaned from my wandering peers, three options, the first and most obvious being nothing; a ghost continues on in their spirit state for eternity, watching the world unfold over eons, perhaps holding onto some small hope that they will find something else worth haunting. The second option, and the one I needed no consultation on, the knowledge of which is embedded in every ghost from our inception, is complete dissolution. We are provided a cosmic eject button, if you will. It requires a very deliberate thought pattern, a code that it’s impossible to activate inadvertently (an image emerges: an early Christmas morning, passing the grey rectangular Nintendo controller back and forth, our little fingers trying to get it right—up up down down left right left right BA). It’s there, if needed: abyss, blackness, emptiness. The final nothingness. Many ghosts must wonder why they didn’t choose such an option much sooner. For us, as for humans, it can be the most advisable, sometimes the most agreeable, path forward.
The third option carries its own cultural baggage, thanks to adolescent girls with flexible necks and knife-wielding dolls: possession. But, as with the terms, “ghost” and “haunt,” the reality is more palatable. Possession is completely consensual, for one. No ghost can inhabit the body of a human without the haunted’s conscious willingness. It’s incompatible otherwise. It’s true that the haunted needs to be in a position of significant physical weakness, but they must still be aware enough to allow their ghost access to their person; death must be imminent, but not inevitable. The strict biological-minded empiricist would have trouble concurring (though what about any of this would they not have trouble with?), but it turns out that the ineffable spirit plays quite a large part in a body’s ability to survive. The possessed body can rid itself fairly quickly of certain ailments, contusions, breaks, and the like. What happens to the spirit once the host body dies is still anyone’s guess. That is not part of our preknowledge, and I’ve yet to meet another spirit who claims to be or know a reliable source on the subject.
You’d never recognize anything amiss in one possessed. Why should there be? The symbiosis between haunted and haunter being what it necessarily is, possession is merely an extension. A merger, more accurately. Historically there have certainly been those rare cases of incompatibility, or ghosts whose hubris has seeped into the fleshy world and must make it clear to anyone who will listen that it is they who are controlling these bodies like puppets. These particular marriages have tended to fizzle out rather quickly, in one way or another, usually desperately and violently. Thus the seeds for myth and fiction are planted.
I think of the beauty of Frank Ocean’s “Self Control,” where the modification of the voices not only suggests various narrators, characters flowing in and out, but there’s a dreamy effect, as well as an adolescent tone in the first bridge. When the second comes around, it’s more melancholy, and we begin to pull out and see the scene overhead, the outro a plea more than a confident request. It’s every teenage summer amalgamated into one gorgeous, heartbreaking song.
My impression of Justin’s college life outside of class was of a mass forgetting. I swooped over crowded yards, through bottle-stacked garages and multilevel beach houses, everyone existing in a reverie of distortions. There was a ghostliness to these inebriated forms, their euphoria running in inverse correlation to the attachment they had to their bodies, becoming more elastic, off-kilter, only a portion of them still maintaining the mechanics while the rest floated away. Soon a spiritual flow merged everyone into indistinguishable electric points. Music overtook the collective murmurs, rising to become an aural link that transcended speech, moving beyond touch. I watched cathartic tears, forgotten now, glide down sunburned cheeks.
Maybe it was one of those nights, when Justin had nothing to lead him but naked nerve fueled by some novel substance, that I first had a tiny tingling of envy; when I watched languid bodies slide along a dance floor, or slump across a dorm-room couch with melodies pulsing in their heads; when clothes crumpled on the beach and the black water lacquered those naked bodies in the moonlight. In those moments, it was as if Justin and his newfound friends had figured out some ancient mystery, cracked a code that had baffled all the greatest minds. They were experiencing the world without being caught in it, their joy complete and heretofore impossible. To misapply a phrase by David Foster Wallace, they were both flesh and not. They inhabited the limitless liminal, so it seemed. For the slightest, briefest moment, a vestigial part of me felt it. And it was intoxicating.
Edward Hopper paintings are so lonely. The women staring out windows into the forest, the light falling, as if forever, on a last day. One of my favorites depicts an apartment building with a forest looming in the background. There’s the purple dusk. The beauty and terror of the unknown, right near us. Do you want to see what lies between the dark green, or do you want to stay in the apartment, looking out the window, for something that never appears?
Then came reality: Justin’s dark, wounded mornings, a wad of phlegm in his throat. The overdrawn bank account. The exuberant harmony broken apart by belligerent fists. The foolish declarations and desperate midnight pleas. This was the balance of things, and I never felt more thankful to be dead.
I don’t want to give the impression that I was merely an observer during this time. Or that Justin ignored me. Sometimes it was just the two of us, talking into the night. Justin would turn off all the lights except for the one tall lamp that he had brought from back home and shuttled with him from every move from that point forward. He can see my form more substantively in its amber glow. “Sometimes so much so,” he said once, “that I forget you’re not here.”
A pocket of conversation and reflection. The inevitable barriers among humans, even those most subtle unconscious ones that are placed between intimate lovers and friends, or late-night ocean skinny-dippers, had no bearing on us, one flesh, the other ghost.
It occurs to me now, particularly now, that our late-night discussions might’ve been less fortifying for Justin. His openness and sense of abandon indicative perhaps of other unseen sources of melancholy that in my reverie—and, to be fair, my complete absence of fleshly concerns—I ignored. I wasn’t there for every party, every coffee date or study group, after all, and my naive belief was that when Justin was alone it was by choice. It could’ve even been on one of those nights that Justin and I had two disparate thoughts, cloaked even to ourselves, about how one might leave this world, and one might enter it.
Alas, even between the haunter and the haunted lie inaccessible dreams.
Justin did of course, like the other students, have the ostensible primary goal of a diploma. I tagged along to class with him, fascinated by these large buildings claimed solely for “higher learning,” but coming to seem more like factories in themselves, segmented into blocks of knowledge gated by appropriate postures and prerequisites. Perhaps an unfair assessment, as there are very few college majors that can interest a ghost. So many subjects seem impossibly absurd. Engineering, architecture: what underwhelming prospects to a being who can pass through walls? Biology, chemistry: once you’ve twirled around the inside of an atom and seen the plethora of creatures that inhabit a billion other galaxies, even if the images are fleeting echoes, the spectrum and genetic properties from amoeba to fungi to human don’t capture the imagination as much. Astrophysics came close to peaking my curiosity, but it was frustrating to watch the professors as they worked their way enticingly near the reality of a theory before veering off in another direction of speculation.
No, it wasn’t until I followed Justin through the, ironically enough, Humanities building that I understood any inkling of why a person would pay for such a thing as college. It’s true here again that jobs were not exactly on my conceptual radar. But if it was excitement that someone pays for—and why would it not be?—then there was no greater excitement than what we found there. Perhaps a particularly beautiful data set on a spreadsheet can have that effect on someone. I was a ghost and could not attempt such a leap of understanding. But in the arts—and literature in particular—what wonders this spirit found there.
Justin, my kindred spirit. If it weren’t for him, I would’ve had to loiter in classrooms, waiting for some professor to arrive like an erudite drug dealer, just to get a taste, or shift between stacks at the library, hoping for someone to remove a sliver of fiction from the shelves.
In contrast to many other recollections before my death, I have fairly concrete memories of reading in my room growing up. Every Goosebumps, Encyclopedia Brown, Hardy Boys, James Patterson and Christopher Pike...trading Justin his Stephen King’s for my Dean Koontz’s. And though the majority of the content of those books has been lost to me, the objects themselves still possess an electric glow when I picture them. What we found in Justin’s classes, however, was a wattage heretofore unbeknownst to us. We were like children whose only notions of candy were square bars of chocolate suddenly finding ourselves in Willy Wonka’s Factory, treats we never dreamed of being laid out before us. And though I couldn’t experience the same jolts along the spine Justin described, or that feeling of the brain being rewired by a novel, I don’t account my responses as any less real. With literature there is no anatomical hierarchy. Therein lies the perfect beauty of words. They need no container, no paint or brush, no canvas, no instrument or trained vocals. Music, painting, film, they require a body to extract their full effect, a spectrum of colors reflecting just right, the aural complexities vibrating along the inner ear, the depth of textures displayed, a unity of multiple elements. It’s true that literature has the physical book as its primary totem, but words needn’t that either. They can be whispered or screamed, written in sand and water and stone, formed in the air. Writing exists wholly in the interstitial ether. A perfect phrase, a beautifully organized stanza, an impossible situation—floating in those classrooms, sometimes millimeters from the marker board while the professor wrote a passage or circled an idea, mapping out in a spin of lines the innards of these works, I felt like Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” as his vermin-self crawls toward the sound of his sister’s violin and wonders how he could be an animal, for the music to affect him so; I pondered often, staring at the board and watching sentences form on students’ lips, and later in the apartment, hovering over Justin’s shoulder as he read aloud and turned the pages beneath that amber lamp, how I could feel so alive.
We sought strange fiction. Our interests were quickly deflated by slavish depictions of unbroken reality, no matter how skillfully and psychologically acute. Justin’s literature degree requiring him to ingest at least a smattering of these books, I was naturally a present listener for a handful of them. I soon bowed out, however, requesting that should he have to read any more proudly bland fiction that he do so silently. I had no ghastly prerequisites to slog through in order to prove to academia my literary range; no syllabi to follow that featured insufferable authors whose claim to fame was how accurately they had depicted the plight of a washerwoman or described a bowl of porridge. Justin obliged my request to set up a listening room in the small hallway closet, which would allow me access to books without the need to peak over shoulders or have him read to me like a child. He lowered the volume on two small black speakers and a 12-disc CD player full of audio books and pressed play. Now I could listen, if I chose, throughout the day, swooping in and out of the closet to catch a snippet of Kelly Link or Otessa Moshfegh, Thomas Ligotti and George Saunders. Lydia Davis. Short fiction collections were optimal for this set up, since if I missed the start of a story, another one wasn’t far behind. But often I’d also begin with a novel that morning and listen well into the night, emerging vivified from the closet long after Justin had gone to bed (or, what had become more frequent, passed out crooked on the futon).
It was comforting in the dark closet, the writers’ words enveloping me in the readers’ professionally modulated tones, the best narrators seeming to find every bend and curve of meaning behind each sentence, little pulses of discovery.
I got an upgrade when Justin moved. A larger closet whose walls he padded with insulation, which lets the sound from the hi-fi speakers seep around me. The playlist has grown, also, and there are now many gigs’ worth of stories contained on a tiny audio player in the middle of the floor. The most impressive part about the player, though, is not its storage capacity, but the fact that its voice assistance program can hear me. Certainly a shock to us both, and not something advertised on the box: “ghost compatible.” In a moment of laziness, I had called out to Justin from the closet, and the player had responded: “There is no file ‘Justin come here please.’ Please try another track title.” Now I really was shouting for Justin, and the player continued to frantically rebuke me.
We have chalked it up to a particular frequency that my aura exists in, and which the player can register. And though he was freaked out at first, there’s perhaps been a sense of relief in Justin, that something else out there hears me too. It’s also made me a more active participant in my reading (after)life, queuing up titles at my choosing, and saving Justin from his former curation duties.
It’s true that lately I speak more to the audio player than to Justin. Two lifeless things, here in the dark.
In Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, the narrator has had something fall on his head and loses his memory. He is awarded a lot of money from his accident, and, after a fissure in an apartment bathroom triggers an old image, he ends up hiring actors and buying an entire apartment building so he can recreate (possibly false) memories. He can replicate a moment on command now, as many times as he wants.
Perhaps that’s what art allows me to do. In the near absence of my own early life, I keep replaying the imagined life of others. All these little fissures I must shrink myself down and slide into.
Only in retrospect do I see the narrow scope of my own literary tastes. Death and memory. If I could slice through the jungle of associations to reveal the heart of the matter, those were the all-consuming themes that excited me. It’d be simple enough to say that this was due to my unavoidable deadness combined with the awareness of my perpetually fluctuating recollections and impressions, but I’d argue that there were many other factors not, perhaps, even present to myself. Or the authors, for that matter. I listened as professors dissected the various modes of literature, the exegesis and critical summersaults that attempted to explain the beauty and power of a particular work—the critical insights that, though interesting, always fell short for me. Because it wasn’t just the way Woolf and Faulkner perfected a prose that mimicked the nonlinear, tangential nature of consciousness, or how Kafka and Kavan explored the absurd machinations of the human condition and the inexplicable sublime of the grotesque. Not quite. Not simply that purely human part. No. It was that they wrote like ghosts remembering, constructing fragmented worlds from the ether; we meet characters in medias res, on the edge of a skewed existence; there’s an intellectual or artistic combativeness to the organization of the natural world that they find themselves floating through, perpetually in between becoming, on the verge of a certain cathartic rupture. What it was, then, in a truer sense than a critic might ever intend, was that those authors I loved were either always haunted or forever possessed.
Justin and I were entranced by the mysterious multivalency of particular writers who seemed to be operating on a different frequency all together. And the more enigmatic, the better. The strangest and most beautiful of all stories are those whose plots can be summarized in simple terms, but whose true nature is embedded within the construction of the text. If you want to know, to truly know, its secrets you have to inhabit every word. Then you must start again. Its transmissibility can only come through this type of reading. I can never give you the gift of Anne Carson; that is between you and her. I can lead you to Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond, but only she can show you how to drink.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind had some of the more beautiful visual metaphors about memory. Particularly the crumbling beach house as Joel’s memory deteriorates. Another night erased, requested by Joel himself as a way to forget Clementine (as Clementine had done to him). But even after these moments are gone from their conscious memory, the two find a way back to each other and resume life in all its messiness and beauty. We never know just how many times this has gone on, another poignant image that last scene—scenes?—as Joel and Clementine frolic on the snow-drenched beach, chasing after each other, away from us, again and again and again, their footprints in the snow allowing room for all their possible selves. Sometimes I feel like that is how I exist, or might exist someday, coming back to a starting point I never knew I’d seen before. And do we all end up doing the same thing, cosmically drawn to follow this infinite loop? Maybe my ocean-time narratives were always impossible: I would only ever be here; would only ever choose Justin.
I’ll only mention romantic love here briefly, for if my powers of description have faltered with other areas involving the physical senses, romance is its own extreme portal to incommunicability. It’s knotted up with myriad and disparate notions to such a degree that even human writers can’t depict it accurately. There are a few breadcrumbs I’ve gathered recently, memories that’ve resurfaced I’d assumed were lost, some tinged with the possibility of love, of a future that might’ve contained it at least. The day of my death, for instance. I can now remember I had a crush on Beth Benton, who was with us at the rope swing (I had forgotten this, as well). The magnitude of my crush—my burgeoning love, perhaps?—was to such a degree that there on the riverbank, gasping for breath in a puddle of my own vomit, I still had the hopeful thought that Beth would see, through the gangly bodies hovering over me, that my shoulders were really starting to fill out nicely for a boy my frame.
Beyond a few impressions of this nature, though, the notion of romantic yearning eludes me, even as I’ve listened attentively to Justin’s particular grievances over the years. But the more pain he seemed to experience each time, the more elusive and incomprehensible the idea became to me. So it was not with disinterest but rather a distanced interest that I watched him go through the various degrees of sexual melancholy and severed coupling. He appears, at the moment, to have found a certain peace with solitude. And a slight drinking problem. And me. Don’t forget me.
Sometimes Justin’s small house on the edge of town is like a strange shadowbox of grief. There’s a gray pulse that beats through the tree limbs and shutters at sundown. It finds Justin; inhabits him. Or Justin’s mood overtakes these surroundings, emanating a moodiness that captures the world in his stark glare.
Worse is not knowing from where this grief stems; if there is something right in front of me that I can’t see, confronting him with unspoken trepidations. Laconic dusk metamorphoses into grimly contemplative nights, and he trundles about the house in his own personal agony—the amber light extinguished.
Sometimes I think I feel it too, in a corner, in the dark: a phantom heat, a burning quite possibly like sadness.
I choose to stay. This is also its own mystery to me.
He used to join me in the closet. Our own juvenile game, pretending there were no open spaces, no living room or kitchen, much less a world beyond that. Claustrophobia a succor, and our secret literature squeezed between us. A clandestine society of two, imagining we were the only people in the universe who’d ever read Jesus’s Son or Acts of Worship; Grief is a Thing With Feathers or McGlue (oh yes, we even read novellas!). Lately, the only time Justin has come into the closet he’s so firmly drunk that he slumps against the wall and tells the audio assistant to play the same Dickinson poem. The other night he said to me, spat in between the poem’s mellifluous lines: “Ben, you’re the only one who’s found out what’s on the other side of that plank. And you can’t even remember.” He shook his head and wobbled slowly to his feet. His finger wag as he walked through me was at once both playful and malicious. “But I’m damn sure getting close.” He went out and shut the door.
I leave him alone during these spells. A human friend might see in Justin’s actions a need for that nebulous thing: support. But whatever that might mean, and however that might look, it always requires someone “being there.” I’m understanding with an increasing clarity how little I can be there. The comfort of an arm around the shoulder, an affectionate squeeze—the slightest physical indication of care is impossible. The memories of these gestures are themselves a murmur in the distance. There’s no analogy from the past that I can conjure to alleviate his present and future fears.
If, in the midst of his moody stretches, a modicum of sobriety peaks through long enough to allow it, Justin stays up in bed writing in his journal deep into the night. I’ll float further away from the house at this time, along the coast and out over the surface of the ocean, speeding across it until it surrounds me in every direction. At certain points I used to believe that this was when I became free, in the middle of nowhere, no implication of human existence in sight, no time, no place. I would often imagine myself having chosen differently after I died, my aura not attached to a haunting, traversing instead universes bathed in celestial wonders. The water was a mesh of colossal galaxies and there were black holes in every ribbon of current; I witnessed the emergence of gods—I was the god before gods existed, and after they turned to ash. Earth was no more a name than a particle of salt in the sea could be named. Everything. I was a part of everything.
No: nothing. I am a part of nothing out there. That’s what I’ve discovered more recently. I return to Justin’s apartment, a little lost at first, an extraterrestrial explorer, an anthropologist of loneliness. But by the time I see him, curled in his bed, the only things unknowable to me swirling in the labyrinth of his mind, I remember again why I am here; why I’ve chosen to let go of the ethereal and infinite.
It’s tempting to read the journal so often left open on Justin’s bed, a thin arm or drooling chin partially obscuring his tiny cursive. But much like seeping through a closed door without invitation or hovering in the dark on a given date night, looking at his writing crosses an ethical line I take a ghostly pride in upholding. That doesn’t stop my curiosity at what thoughts he puts down, and if there’s some raw emotion that might again trigger that phantom pulse within me. What memories could he shape and clarify that have melted into the forever undulating sea of my consciousness? What keeps me from simply asking, instead of staring at the fluttering pages, dying to know?
Life and a million universes pass over you, while you lie peacefully oblivious—and peacefully dead—“Soundless as dots on a disc of snow.” I often think of these last lines of a Dickinson poem. They provide comfort in the idea that I am gone from the world of fatuous kings and queens and other terribly pretentious people who believe themselves to hold some import in a grand scheme. Where? For whom?
That feeling of flesh: it has happened now with more potency than in the past. An illusion of the highest order. One afternoon Justin had left his bedroom door open, and the music drifted into the closet (whose door Justin had also forgotten to close), where it began a harmonious intermingling with the “Time Passes” section of To The Lighthouse. It was like—or perhaps could have been?—some chemical reaction, the exact amount of overwhelming beauty blended together to elicit a sense of warmth; of blood beating through me. There were memories trying to emerge; somewhere within the nothing of me, fireflies blinking in the distance.
I floated across the hall to Justin’s room.
“Who is this?” I asked, feigning simple curiosity.
Justin was lying down on the bed. He eased his head up. “Frank Ocean. It’s a whole vibe, right?” There was a pleased look in his eyes, but it was mixed with a certain reticence. He and I both, perhaps, were caught off guard by my eagerness.
The song’s sonic impression left me unable to respond. The lyrics conjured up forgotten summer nights, and for a moment I could almost feel the water, the friends beside me—friends of imagination or friends I’d forgotten, I couldn’t say—before I was pulled away by time and death to watch from overhead.
“Would you turn it up, please?”
After that night, I became a ghost possessed. I went out searching for ways to trigger similar human sensations in other settings, to find the proper alignment between form, content, and material, the right parts memory, art, and spontaneous experience. But then I questioned if it had anything to do with these concepts. Maybe it was simply volume, vibrations—sound and fury. I hung around construction sights and playgrounds. Parades. I hovered in traffic jams and midnight raves; watched Fox News in suburban living rooms.
I didn’t tell Justin about my scavenging. I didn’t want to come across as delusional. Imagine if he were to have to consider the mental health of his ghost.
Then, the other night, wandering through a forest, hoping for a thunderclap, a lightning strike, an aggressive woodpecker, I caught sight of what looked like a giant cowhide stretched taut between pine trees. Massive human bodies ambulated across it with godlike gestures. As I got closer, I saw a group of teenagers in a clearing beneath me. They were having a large bonfire and projecting a movie onto the white tarp. The speakers at the base of the trees crackled with every gratuitous explosion. A burgeoning euphoria: I remembered the film! Nothing great, a mediocre action piece involving modified four-cylinder sedans whining away from the cops in monotonous car chases, but along with the memory of it were Justin and I recreating fight scenes from the movie in his backyard and filming them on his grandfather’s old camcorder. Impressions came to me of us playing the videos back on the tiny screen in his bedroom, the sound coming in cracked and fuzzy. Dark shadows began to emerge, other kids who were there, who piled into someone’s mom’s minivan and drove to someone’s field...the names didn’t come, but I saw us shouting into the sky as the fire made ghosts of us all.
Hovering above those teenagers, this conflated replication of the past, of my past, I watched the fire reach toward me.
A little heat. That was all. Just a little. But I swear I felt those flames.
They’re increasing in frequency, these “corporeal echoes,” as I like to think of them. Exponentially. Sparks of memory. Of a lifetime ago. I’ve almost been a ghost as long as I’d been a boy. Four years shy. That’s another thing I have begun to register: the demarcation of time. I sense the pang of how insurmountable four years was as a kid. Justin and I were thirteen when we met. Four years later I was dead, and it seemed as if the two of us had been through every major, transcendent possibility the world had to offer; we believed that nothing would ever be as important as that span of our lives. And, whether I had lived beyond those years or not, I still believe that we were right.
Justin is away at the moment. For the second time in as many months he has taken a trip back to our hometown. He invited me, but in such a profoundly obligatory manner that no response from me was expected or needed. It will be good for me to be alone, to prepare for when he returns, to plan how I might surprise him with my newly discovered memories. Perhaps even broach the subject of my viscerality. Lay it all out, this change in me. My hope—yes, I’ve also obtained the finite sense of hope!—is that it might bring us closer for him to know I have not forgotten the details; that they are in me somewhere; that I am, at the very least, trying.
I often see whales in the quivering sea by moonlight. I, like everyone else, think of Moby-Dick; or at least the implications of legend contained within those mysterious creatures. The power of Moby-Dick is to have us understand every corporeal aspect of a whale, its natural majesty, and then to transcend our conceptions with the charged mythic symbolism of the titular creature. Melville does this with human metaphor as well, the work of the seamen containing ethereal elements in every aspect of their work. The novel makes you realize how people can devote their lives to one book. The modern qualities, composed of vignettes. Koans of wonder. The obliteration of the body. Revelation revealed through death. Queequeg’s tattoos, and the knowledge of certain mysteries only after obliteration. If Melville only knew the truth, that revelation is revoked once a path is chosen, what wonders would’ve been kept from us. Thank god for false hope.
He’s come home. He is cordial, but distant. I do not mention anything new to him. I am not new to him. He still gets drunk and journals at night; I still flit over the ocean.
He has left again.
Time. How is it that now there’s never enough of it?
A plethora of recollections. My memories now require fewer complex tableaus and multivalent sounds. Yesterday I noticed naked footprints in a foggy windshield along a wet road and remembered the touch of lost lips.
This morning, a sticky note attached to the music player: “Tell it to play ‘Ben’s Sumptuous Soliloquy.’”
Something’s not right. It doesn’t feel right. The air itself is oppressive. I have not played the message. I float in and out of the closet to stare at the note, the cursive. Large and wobbly.
I wait until noon—something about the light, its amber sheen—and tell it to begin.
“Well hey there Ben, buddy, pal, my poltergeist partner. Where oh where are you flying to this evening? You never tell me about how the night looks from the middle of the ocean. I don’t need poetics, man. Dark is good enough for me. Just tell me things are dark, ya know.
“I’m sitting here looking at my journals. There’s some good stuff in here, Ben. No one else thinks so. I’ve got an email inbasket full of form letters from small literary journals that attests to this. Rejection is a pain you get used to, like a shoestring lost beneath your heel. It’s uncomfortable, but you’ve forgotten why. Here it is right in front of me then, an accrual of failure.
“I’ve probably written more things than I’ve read the last six months, to be honest. It has become a ritual to take a book from the shelf just to know that I can still make out the words inside. Being a Reader of Literature, that was an identity for me. It’s what got me through the day at the office. I wasn’t merely a cog in a wheel; when I got home, I was an artist! Even if it was just in my head, and I never put pen to pad unless I’d had a fifth of Jack and could barely read my own handwriting. It was in my head, though. That was something. Was Joan in accounting thinking about creating a masterpiece? Oh, if people only knew the wonderful things I was going to do. Someday. Someday soon.
“Here’s the secret, Ben. Talent. I have no talent. A little. The kind that gets praise from your AP English teacher. You remember old Miss Hannigan? What a silly question, of course not. She praised you too, you know. You wrote a poem about that little brown-haired girl you liked so much. God what was her name? Why can’t I remember her name? It feels so nice to get encouragement like that. But that’s all it was, a little boost of self-esteem. It wasn’t some celebration of a rare creative genius. It wasn’t a suggestion to model myself after a lonely poet and eschew any marker of maturity as a trap of the conventional and banal.
“Oh, but that’s right, I also had a dead friend haunting me! Talk about unconventional. Aren’t I the most interesting thing in the world? But that, too, is an illusion of uniqueness. Because you’ve told me of all the other people out there with their own little Caspers. Is there a support group? You think we should start one, Ben? ‘Friends of Friends with Ghosts.’ It would at the very least be a way to connect with others, huh? Oh now I’m getting maudlin on ya, buddy. That’s not my intention, believe me. It just leaks through. It’s unavoidable, really. It’s the simple reality of being in this nowhere zone of life. Where, exactly, are you supposed to meet people? You either need an addiction or a religion at this age, and I don’t drink at the bar anymore, so.
“Here’s the obvious irony, Ben: you’re the only friend I still have. Cheers to you, good buddy. Thanks for sticking around. Till death do us part. Haha. You know I tried writing a story about a ghost who haunted his friend, and then the friend died and came back and haunted the ghost until the ghost went insane and kept trying to kill himself. Never found a good ending for that one.
“There’s no good ending for this whole thing, either, is there, Ben? For anyone, really. We’re lucky if there’s a pile of memories to scrounge through every now and again that makes you smile. I’ve got such a pile, Myself, Ben, I do. But lately...what it is I can’t put a finger on. Can’t grab hold of it. The fact that it’s nothing in particular is the problem to it all, don’t ya think? I know it has something to do with time. You remember that, Ben, time? Haha. There was this ever so thin slice of time when you vanished from my life. Vanished from your own life. Then there you were, a floating translucent Ben, staring at me as I dribbled a basketball around in the dirt, a morose little dork.
“That first night, Ben. Maybe that’s as good as it will ever get for us. And I remember that as if it were a dream. This hallucinatory space where we both were in on the secret. You still remembered the names of our friends, and I probed you for all the answers to the universe. That morning and every day after, though—I could feel some divide had been crossed and that everything was already changing. Even by the end of that week I could sense it in your responses to our life, to the town. It wasn’t home for you anymore. And as for me, well, at the time I couldn’t see it because of how blown out of my mind I was, but I still missed you, Ben. Missed the human you. But I didn’t know to miss you because there you were. It wasn’t until recently that I put something together that I hope you’ll appreciate. The other week—was it the other week? When was it?—I asked you if you wanted to come back home with me. I know how you are, that that question almost seems ludicrous to you at this point, but I didn’t want to ask in case I saw some eagerness in your aura. But your reaction was about as expected, and, you know, it’s always a little funny even now to ask these questions, knowing you could float along at warp speed should the mood strike. Not that you would. Your ghost code and all. Your ‘ethereal ethics.’ But I would have felt bad if for some reason you wanted to come along and found out later about the reunion (God knows how).
“Ten years, Ben. A bean in a barrel to you, but it’s a vertiginous feeling to me. The great crevasse of experience separating two points, as wide a stretch as the highway that takes us back there, Ben.
“I’d gone back home a little while before that just to break myself in. Couldn’t step foot cold-boned into a bar full of people I haven’t seen since high school. I had to feel grounded. That I knew where I was, that I was comfortable there.
“Never go back to your hometown with the intention of taking some kind of inventory, that’s my takeaway. Each loss, each change, is like a little slice along your heart. Even some things that have stayed the same lose their power to provoke nostalgia; they lie like limpid artifacts along anonymous roads. This, Ben, is saddest of all.
“So I came back here kind of deflated, to tell you the truth. Emptied out. Prepared, at least, for the upcoming reunion. No shocks, I believed. More disaffection that we were all going to gather in a town that might as well have been any other town.
“But then, at the reunion, I saw your face, in the corner of the bar. Oh, the way my own face must’ve looked at first! It was a perfect sitcom moment for someone to slap me on the back and be like, ‘Good lord, Justin, it’s as if you’d seen a ghost!’ Cue canned laughter. You stood out through the jumble of bodies because, unlike them, you had not changed one bit. And unlike the town, I still found you fascinating to look at. And tiny. For some reason you were tiny. And not moving a muscle. I pushed myself through the circles of reformulated cliques, but by the time I made it to the corner you had disappeared, replaced by that little girl in our Biology class who burned to death sophomore year.
“A slideshow of ghosts, Ben. That’s what it was. A dirty laptop opened on a coffee table, a few surprisingly ornate votive candles surrounding the montage. A thoughtful idea, Ben, to remember those who, if it weren’t for that whole snake and fire stuff, would’ve been there to celebrate. However, since you and that girl—what the hell was her name? Why can’t I—well since you two were the only ones ‘no longer with us in body, but Panthers forever in spirit,’ the creep factor of having your yearbook-deadened eyes flip back and forth throughout the night had gotten the better of the organizers, and alum had been asked to send pictures of anyone close to them who they’d like to commemorate. Which meant now, along with the two teenagers, a gaggle of grandparents and crippled pets, and one impossibly haunting ultrasound, populated the majority of the evening’s screen time.
“At first, I was angry. To relegate you to a smudged screen in the corner, crammed beside a bunch of bloated grannies. Where was the respect? The mourning...there, that word, that’s when I had to continue walking out the back door and past the cornhole games and formerly girly giggles now thicker and raspier, back to my car to sit and stare out at the black night, a moon so large I imagined you out across the sea at that same time almost near enough to see every divot.
“Mourning, Ben. I had never done it. I was the weird one for wanting some monument of your face carved in the middle of the bar. I mean I had literally just seen you a few days before, shouldn’t the loss of you be more impactful than an amateur PowerPoint? But no. Ten years had passed. You were a memory to them all. A fond memory, of course. Even a tightness of the chest, some doleful look into the distance when a certain song came on the radio. But there had been a thoughtful settling, a whole comprehension of your death. A final absence sealed off from equivocation.
“I was fresh and raw from your death when you came back that day. A putty you sunk into. There you are, forever melded with me. I sometimes wonder if I chose to study literature because of your influence, or vice versa. Is there some human element that was transferred in the process of your haunting? And in the same sense, am I closer to being a ghost than the other hollow-eyed people I used to sit with at the bar?
“I don’t remember the drive back to the coast. An extended blackness. I wonder now what else I’ve begun to forget.
“I think I need to mourn you properly, Ben. The old you, so that there is a clear divide between my past and my future. It won’t be a question then of why you don’t remember those moments when we were teenagers. Because it wasn’t you, Ben. It was my human friend Ben who died that day at the river. What you are is a buddy I met before I left for college. Imagine all the things we’ll reminisce about years down the road. Maybe you can come with me to my 20th reunion. We’ll laugh at how much the boy on the tiny screen looks like you.
“That’s the future plan at least, Ben. For now I need to step away so I can grieve. Properly grieve. I’ll stay with my folks for a little while. Wander that old town that once knew me. When I come back, you and I, maybe we start a book together, huh? A memoir no one will believe haha. We’ll fill each other in on the gaps in our recollections. It will be nice to have accomplished something together. The two of us, best friends after all these years.”
Wait. All I had to do was wait. I told myself it would be easy. I told myself I understood Justin’s need to mourn me. The human me. I also told myself that now, no longer tethered to Justin, I could fully explore the world. My haunt had actually requested space, and thus given me my own in which to wander as I saw fit.
Instead, I stayed at home. Rarely even ventured as far as the ocean. And now that I grasped the linear passing of every second, hour, and day, waiting itself had its own new pain.
That’s what I wanted to tell him: that I could feel things now. More than that, I could remember. Not everything, and not as much as the old Justin would have, but it was coming back. Second by second. I wanted desperately to fly to him and explain it, prove my burgeoning memory to him with a few select stories. No, I would need to wait. All my revelation would do at that moment would be to once again interrupt his proper mourning. I refused to be the cause of his existential fragmentation a second time.
The thought of his loneliness plagued me. There were moments during those weeks when my aura couldn’t even register his presence in the world. I was petrified at the notion of Justin’s connection from me being so severed by the emptiness of home. In those purgatorial instances he might as well have been a sole figure traversing the desert. Soon a distant current would return to me, and I knew that he held again at least a minuscule recollection of the town as something beyond pure psychic wilderness.
Then the opposite happened one day. That one day. I had never felt such closeness to him; even when he had been right by my side our intermingling energy didn’t emanate in this pronounced, all-encompassing way. I was saturated with it. There was no need to guess Justin’s location, for it etched itself across the patterns of my consciousness. That place where the old Ben died, and the new Ben formed. The epicenter of obliterations. He was climbing now. What was his mind like? His purpose? Could he still maneuver between limbs? Did he even care? Oh, Justin, I thought. Wait for me.
I flew toward home.
I refused to believe Justin was consumed by despair enough to take his own life. But the energy, the darkness mixed with an ambiguous light, there was too much there to ignore it. I would have to risk disrupting his mourning. He would have to forgive me. Again. I would reveal my recollections. Suggest, ever so delicately, that after all this maybe he didn’t have to mourn him—me—after all. We could talk deep into the night just like we used to. Soon, so soon and I would remember it all. If he had forgotten, well, then, I would remind him.
As I skimmed the tips of highway forests back west, I thought of Kafka’s “An Imperial Message.” That lone man attempting to break through the castle crowds, just to emerge in the center of town, then to continue on to the edge of town, and the edge of the edge of town, this never-ending quest to deliver the titular message, whole eras and histories already obliterated before he can make it to the next county—that’s how it seemed, even traveling at superhuman, ghostly, speeds. The gray roads stretched out before me like one long dead tongue. Had he already jumped? Would I pass his spirit, so strong within me now, going in the opposite direction, off toward the celestial path, away from humanity, and far far away from me?
Finally, the town came into view. I had to slow down lest I fly right past it. From this vantage point it appeared as a doll’s town, assembled long ago of plastic and cheap wood and left in an unkempt attic. I closed in on the river, following around the bend to the logs we had to jump, and that treacherous ditch. There, where Susan had slipped and Benjamin Knight had caught her, a first spark of love. Along the slanted bank, farther in, watch that limb, those vines that always snapped back, receiving a lovely curse or two from Jonathan Lowry. Along the hard orange clay path and there it was, held up by a magical act of symbiosis, the platform hanging like a torn ligament, stretched across the tree, boards and trunk relying on the other, in turn relying on the impervious rope coiled around a bundle of branches.
Above all of this, Justin stood on the hollowed out top of the tree, that untouchable top. Few ever made it up that high. About halfway and we’d call it quits. We’d bail out into the water from there or climb down to the reliable rope to swing from a less vertiginous distance.
I didn’t want to startle him, so I flew to the other side of the river and eased across the sky to hover a few meters away. Justin was staring at the sky in a vertiginous disregard for his footing, it seemed. But he had always been preternaturally acrobatic. He could’ve pursued something, I’m sure. Some sport, some activity, even as a hobby. What gifts that could’ve comforted him had he forgotten, and why?
He kept looking at the sky as he spoke to me. “You felt it too, huh?” Justin said. “It’s a chicken or the egg situation, I believe. One which we’ll never figure out, Ben. Is it this place, or do we make it this place?”
“I thought it was you,” I replied. “Or us. I’m not sure. It could be that it is us, and at the same time it’s this place too, because we are in this place, and this place created us.”
“It created you, you mean,” Justin said.
“And therefore us,” I said. “Justin, you’re really high up.”
He cracked up at this. His shoulders shook and he placed a hand on his belly. “Buddy, I am really high, period.” He looked at me now and smiled. “Do you know that after a certain age, that seems to be all there is to do around here?” Regardless of his loose demeanor, Justin’s legs remained steady around the tree. “Another chicken or the egg, Ben: did I come out here because of the cosmic energy guiding me, or am I so stoned that I manifested this energy, and now that energy is real? Are you, Ben, even real?”
“I’m real, Justin,” I said. “Real enough to be worried that you are too high to be this high.”
Justin laughed again, a little softer this time, thankfully. “Maybe you’re not a ghost after all, Ben, but a guardian angel. You really should have had one of your own, huh? Wait, no, I’m confusing you with someone else. Remember now,” here he shook his finger playfully, “I’m in mourning. Haha.”
Justin turned his head back to the sky. We stayed silent. It didn’t seem as if he had come to jump. Not that he had considered his safety too much coming up here like this. I began to feel silly that I had interrupted his solitude to whimper at him like an ineffectual parent.
From here I could see the town in its entirety. There was the sound of young laughter through the woods.
“Guess it doesn’t mean much to you, buddy,” Justin said. “Another irony, there. Considering how many people would consider it kind of a ghost town now.”
I couldn’t resist my opportunity. If I had intruded upon his lonely, stoned reveries, I would at least have something to show for it. “That’s where you’re wrong, Justin. I am remembering. I can remember. It’s coming back to me. Even the feel of it all.”
“Don’t go lying on my account, bud,” Justin said. “‘That’s where you’re wrong.’ Ha. I bet you’ve always wanted to say that one. Haha.”
“Go head, quiz me. I’m not saying I remember it all but give me a chance.”
Justin turned his head and stared down at the bare roads, the low buildings with their perpetually slick roofs. He scratched at his head and turned to face me.
“I...well if I had to...how bout...what was the name...do you...that one night...”
He looked so defeated in that moment. He shook his head. “Ah, Ben, buddy, I’m just a little too high, is all.” He smiled a pained smile. “But I believe you. You’ll have to tell me all about it. Someday.”
“How ‘bout today?” I said. “I’ll wait for you at the bottom.” I flew to the base of the tree. There was an agitation creeping up in me. I was eager for him to start his descent. “Whenever you’re ready,” I shouted.
He swiveled his body around to look down on me. “A few more minutes, Ben. That’s all I need.” He paused. “Do you think that’s us, Ben? Some version of us?”
Before I could respond I felt a tremor in the earth. There came a cracking sound in the distance, through the woods. Those same young voices, shouting now. Thin gray snakes of smoke drifted over the trees toward Justin. “Well, they’ll sure remember this day,” he said.
Through a clearing I could see a crowd of teenagers running toward the road. From town I heard sirens.
The woods glowed around us. The wind picked up and the tree swayed slightly, but Justin held his position. The smoke had now covered his upper body. He was slowly disappearing.
Then a massive whiteness whipped between us and struck the tree. Through the smoke Justin toppled, unimpeded by any branches, a free fall to the hard earth in front of me.
There is no helplessness like a ghost witnessing death. His body shaking, staring at me with bleeding eyes, Justin was the saddest creature on earth. I flew in a frenzy back and forth across the woods, discomposed, searching in all the wrong places. The teenagers had gathered on the road by the trail to watch the fire.
The sirens. Surely when they got here and entered the woods someone would find him. Help him. I screamed at the kids in hopes I might break through. But they stared right through me with the fascinated looks of those young and not yet touched by disaster.
I raced back to Justin. If he could only hold out for help to arrive. He had coughed up thick blood, and his trembling took on a steady rhythm. Perhaps forgetting himself, he reached out to touch me. As his hand fell through my emptiness, he closed his eyes and shook his head. I shouted at him to stay awake. Help was on the way. He opened his eyes and smiled at me. Beckoned me closer. “Yes, Justin. I’m here, Justin,” I said. He shook his head again, again signaled to come closer. He pointed at the center of his chest. “Inside,” he rasped.
“No. No, Justin,” I said. “If you just hold on a little while—”
He stopped me with a sharp shake of his head. “Time,” he said, pleadingly. “Little time.”
Throughout the rest of my life I’ll wonder if I did the only thing I could have. If I ever had anyone to ask such a question, I’d like to know their perspective on that moment, when our worlds quivered there between each other, and Justin’s bleeding body acquiesced.
When I woke up, I could smell the overpowering scent of burning. A large firefighter was taking me off his shoulder and laying me in soft grass. I turned my head and saw the goggling teens, who had turned their attention away from the dissipating flames toward me.
“Your name, sir,” the firefighter said. “Can you tell me your name.”
I stared into the bright pen light he was shining in my eyes. I nodded slowly. “Ben..Just..Justen...”
“Ben Justin?” he asked. I nodded again. “Sure.”
There was a sudden surge of life in me. I touched my face, rubbed my body. “You’re OK, sir,” the firefighter said. “Doesn’t appear to be any overt trauma. Do you know where all this blood on you came from? Do you remember anything?”
I stood up and began to walk toward town—toward home—nodding at him and the group of teens, all those giddy faces, not yet alive, not yet haunted.
“Oh, I remember alright. I remember everything.”