A pair of disembodied green eyes, larger than life, hovered outside the apartment’s open window, peered in, then turned to go. But the collective consciousness of the fog that had acted as a guide formed a porous but effective barricade, preventing their colleague’s departure. The eyes glowered. Couldn’t a ghost change her mind? No, not this time.
Inside, a woman slept on a double bed, her gray hair tangled, face greasy, brow furrowed, black t-shirt pulled out of shape and stained with sweat. She tossed and twisted, rent the threadbare sheets, moaned, panted, and curled into a loosely fetal form. Beside her on a nightstand were bottles of pills and a nearly empty glass of water.
The eyes glided in. “Diane,” they whispered. Then, with a shade more volume, “Di-aaa-ane.” Sensing no response, the eyes shot forth twin high beams, and using their heavy lashes, propelled themselves into a herky-jerky tour of the room. Adjacent to the window, sat a mini-fridge and hot plate, both coated with something fine, gritty, and speckled. The eyes would have liked to inspect the refrigerator’s contents, but had no hands to open the door, nor x-ray vision. Beside the apartment’s entrance, there stood a bookcase, empty but for a double-handled trophy embellished with a blue First Place ribbon. Next, the beams fell upon a chest of drawers topped with a display of stuffed animals, huddled, seemingly cuddling, precariously balanced. On the floor beside the chest was a clean but empty cat bed. There was really not much to see. The eyes moved on, peeking into the small bathroom, anticipating drips from the sink or shower, but no—all fixtures were bone dry. A final scan revealed several posters thumb-tacked to the walls—a bright and fuzzy Raoul Dufy seaside vista, a colorful abstract by Lee Krasner, and an advertisement for a mental health clinic featuring a lighthouse guiding a ship at sea. The eyes swung their gaze back to the bed. The beams of light expired.
The voice was loud and clear despite the absence of a mouth, larynx, or lungs.
“Di! Wake up!”
Diane lifted her head. “Edith? Is that you?” This seemed unlikely, given that her sister had died years ago.
The eyes swooped in with too much force, causing them inadvertently to bonk and bounce off their counterparts, her sibling’s pale blue and crusty peepers. “I’m not Edith anymore. I’m Natalia. It’s my ghost name.”
Diane clutched the covers. “Am I a ghost too?” she asked. It had been so long since she’d spoken that she didn’t recognize the tremulous tones escaping her lips.
Natalia’s pupils rolled. “What do you think? Are you any better at suicide than anything else you’ve tried?”
Diane crept to the front door, switched on the overhead light, and stumbled back to bed. She’d tried to kill herself earlier in the day, but now was glad she’d failed. She and Edith would have a pleasant reunion, and then Edith would help her to accomplish a quiet death with a loved one at her side. She sniffed the air for her sister’s usual comforting scent, complex and always conjuring in Diane’s mind a divine gourmet meal with courses of dressed salad, roasted meats, frosted cakes, a selection of appropriate wines, and a faint whiff of perspiration emanating from Edith’s chef’s toque. But no. She could only detect the foul odor of her own emaciated frame and bedside pool of stomach acid and regurgitated pills. How embarrassing. And then another thought occurred, one not necessarily pleasant or comforting. “Edith, are you here for revenge?” she asked. “Are you going to kill me?”
“Natalia,” she said, the eyes taking on a haughty mien. “I always hated the name Edith, Edie, Eade.” She squinted and lowered her voice. “Do I look like I could commit murder? I’m not exactly what you’d call corporeal, am I?” She paused, modulating her tone to one more kind and sisterly, albeit stern. “I’m here because I care. The gravity of your situation pulled me into your tormented, ever-diminishing orbit. I would have been here sooner, dear sister, but please appreciate the effort I’ve put into this. For a ghost to materialize even fleetingly is a tortuous process, requiring not only psychological exertions of will and passion, but also carbon, iron, calcium, water, and trace amounts of a variety of other minerals and chemical compounds, which I’d explain but I know science isn’t your métier so won’t bother.” She didn’t mention her last-minute hesitation or the actions of her ghostly colleagues, still huddled to create the fog lurking outside the window.
Diane scooted down and hid under the covers. “I’m sorry,” she said. It was her default response to everything, along with whimpering, tears, self-chastisement. She lay very still, and waited to see what would happen.
“Diane! I’m here. We’re glad to see each other, aren’t we?” Natalia sneered at her sister’s lack of fortitude, her feint at escape. “Is there any Adderall in that bedside pharmacy of yours? I need you to summon the capacity to engage with me. Now.”
“Yes, Natalia.” Diane’s veiny, wrinkled hand emerged from beneath the covers, not so much snaking as snailing toward the top drawer of the nightstand. She removed and scrutinized one container after another until she found the generic amphetamine salts. She extracted a few blue tablets, reached for her glass and swallowed. Cautiously, she peeked out. “Where’s the rest of you?” she asked.
The eyes swayed hypnotically before Diane’s head. “I’m a revenant,” she said. “From the Latin meaning ‘returning’. As you can see, I’m a mere remnant of my former self. I’ve re-emerged as two visible eyes and a voice projected into your brain—or what’s left of it. Plus the ability to hear what you tell me, to hear what you hear.”
“I’m sorry.” Diane became more aware than usual of the cacophony penetrating the plywood walls and rising up from the streets: tenants arguing, televisions turned up too loud, sirens of all sorts, police helicopters, men and women cursing, bottles smashing, dogs whining. She was relieved that Natalia couldn’t smell the stench of urine from the hallways or see the eviction notice taped to the outside of her door, read and recognized as the sign she’d been waiting for, but not touched or removed. “I’d give anything to trade places with you,” she said.
Natalia scoffed. “Everyone says that.”
Diane sat up, striving to appear sympathetic as well as remorseful, the mature older sister. “Then I wish you were resting in peace,” she said.
“Well, I’m fucking not,” snapped Natalia. Even in the hospital, on the cusp between life and death, her coma dreams had been disquieting. In one, she served herself in her restaurant, acting as chef, waitress, appetizer, and entree, her body chopped up, tartared, seared, stewed, arranged artistically on designer plates. In another, she was at her own memorial service, aghast as the wait staff-slash-actors cried false tears then sniggered, and the line cooks outdid one another with meandering testimonials, purportedly honoring their deceased friend and boss, but really boasting of their own particular skills, vying with one another to be hired on the spot by the chefs and restaurateurs in attendance. Was Diane present? Yes, moping just outside the door, on the verge of sunstroke, her usual unsociable self. After release from the morgue, death proved no better. “As a ghost, I suffer from phantom body syndrome,” said Natalia. “No flesh and blood, no nerves, but I’m plagued by persistent pain. My limbs are sore, my breasts ache, I have constant cramps, and my throat burns. I hurt everywhere, Diane.” Even her recently acquired eyes were stinging, desiccated by the dry apartment heat. “And speaking of my late, beloved body, where am I?” she asked. “My unrestful remains. I’ve been searching the world over, but can’t locate my burial plot.”
“You’re in the trophy,” said Diane, pointing to the bookshelf.
The eyes bore into her. “Ashes? You went cheap for your only sister? After causing my death?” Natalia was livid. “Cremation leaves no organic material behind at all. No wonder all I could summon was a pair of eyeballs. No wonder I’m in pain.”
Diane really did want to die. There were many reasons, including those giving rise to her sister’s wraithly wrath. But still. “Cremation is not inexpensive,” she said. “You didn’t leave me much money. You were living far beyond your means. And you know I’m poor.”
The eyes hissed. “You could’ve charged everything, gone into debt for my sake. Sprung for an environmentally correct burial, sans formaldehyde, a simple but elegant shroud made of organic cotton, a shallow grave in the mountains. Or you could have kept me under your bed—because acting crazy is your thing, isn’t it?”
Diane couldn’t argue. Over the years, she’d received assorted diagnoses, and tried a cornucopia of anti-depressants, anti-anxiety medications, and myriad pills for myriad ills prescribed by a series of disappointingly dull-witted, by-the-book therapists and psychopharmacologists. Nothing worked. She understood that it was a drag for all concerned—that while folks paid lip service to the idea of speaking openly about mental illness, she was invariably criticized for an accompanying lack of optimism. Apparently Diane could suffer from depression only if she managed it in a very chipper, cheery, and non-depressing way.
The eyes emitted a harsh tsk-tsk and glared at Diane. “Suicide is wrong. Pull yourself together.”
If only looks could kill, thought Diane. She feared the transition to ghostliness hadn’t altered Edith’s nature, that tough love might be all she had to offer.
Natalia drifted toward the bookshelf and examined the trophy. “Don't you ever clean around here?” She peeked inside at the contents. “How much is me and how much is household detritus? Give me an approximate ratio.”
Diane had considered covering the top with cheesecloth or plastic wrap, but allocating a few moment’s attention was as far as she got. “I thought you might like company,” she said.
Natalia ignored her sister’s attempt at humor. “Why aren’t there any pictures of me here, flanking the trophy?” she asked. “And candles or flowers? You could have printed out some of my selfies or press clippings and made a collage. I deserve some recognition. What about that portrait you painted? It wasn’t terrible.” She longed for a reminder of her beauty, her living self.
“I didn’t know you’d be coming back,” said Diane. “The photos, cookbook, articles, and your portrait are in the closet.” Diane had once dreamed of becoming an artist, but there was an infinitely wide, albeit subjective, chasm between “not terrible,” as her sister put it, and good enough for the art world. Not making the grade sparked occasional eruptions of anger, but more often she fell into the rut of rage’s flipside, depression, and deeper down, utter despair.
Natalia’s eyes slipped under the closet door and shone their light on her legacy. She’d been a star in the local restaurant world, a trajectory Diane had thoughtfully archived. In photo after photo she looked spectacular and confident. Diane, on the other hand, residing in the here and now, was filthy and disheveled. How could she possibly feel good about herself? “Get up and come here,” Natalia demanded, reluctantly leaving the cubby. Diane followed the bouncing eyeballs, and together they trooped into the small bathroom. “Why, when you live in such a puny place, couldn’t you have made it to the toilet to puke?” Rhetorical question—Diane was just being Diane. Regardless, Natalia needed her sister to bathe not just for hygienic and aesthetic purposes but because she herself craved water. In breaking off from the fog, she’d left the sustenance of water vapor behind. An infusion of H2O was necessary if she were to stay present, even as a pair of eyes.
At Diane’s request, Natalia turned away while her sister undressed. Once the shower was underway, though, the eyes darted in and out of the droplets, soaking in the warm stream, heedless of her sister’s shyness. Meanwhile, the Adderall began to take effect. Diane’s lethargy sloughed off, and Natalia found herself drenched in the exfoliated cells of Diane’s fatigue and self-pity.
“What’s it like to be a ghost?” asked Diane, now feeling peppy. “Does everyone become one? Animals, too? Do you all just fly around? Have you made friends with other ghosts? Do you form communities, develop new interests, grapple with the meaning of death?” Her vintage 1944 edition of the Wonderland Encyclopedia, purchased for next to nothing back when that was approximately what she earned as a department store sales clerk, didn’t discount the existence of ghosts. But it wasn’t forthcoming with specific characteristics or documented evidence, though, so now was her chance to fill in the blanks. “Natalia, do ghosts have sex? Can they masturbate? It’s not that I’m looking for a good time after I die. I’m just curious.” Diane blushed, ashamed of herself for having brought up such a thing, then tried to cover by giving full attention to adjusting the faucets, a futile effort to increase the force of the flow. Low pressure was the law of the land, at least for those without loads of dough. “Natalia,” she went on, oblivious to the fact that her sister wasn’t responding, that the eyes were now above her, making an effort to rid themselves of agony, rinse off the pain, and luxuriate in the direct drizzle, such as it was, “Do you live in a ghost town, one packed with all the popular, successful dead people, telling tales of glory, gossiping about the newcomers, those lost and confused, floating around and bumping into more important ghosts? Do you join ghost story book clubs? Are all the deceased present one way or another, all over the world? Millions of ghosts converging through the years? How do they all fit? Are they stacked one on top of the other, piled up to infinity? Is that why we require parallel universes?”
Natalia strove to be patient as her sister chattered away, the “sorries” now behind her, replaced by pell-mell exuberance. “I don’t know,” she said. Busy tending to her own needs, she hadn’t paid much attention, dodging Diane’s questions as one would the onslaught of harmless but annoying gnats. “Death does not confer omniscience.” She was perturbed by the scant spray, diminishing and cooling by the second. How did her sister stand it? Wasn’t the lack of amenities an incentive to succeed—at something? The eyes tilted back, lids doing their best under the circumstances to trap pools, accumulate puddles, saturate the cornea, iris, vitreous body, lens, pupil, retina. “All I can say is that after I died, I found myself enclosed in what appeared to be an aquarium—tons of some kind of liquid glassed in, with a filter cleaning and aerating the environment. Darkness beyond. You’re right about the crowds—I and many others were packed in like sardines. Or the ghosts of sardines. Then the space widened, and I could see that some of the sardines were trying to break out. Searching for cracks, tears in the seams, asking around, making mostly false moves. Others rose upward, their watery selves joining with like souls and forming fog banks. I think eventually we’ll all evaporate or mutate and become star stuff. Isn’t that how Carl Sagan described us? Or star dust, like in the Joni Mitchell song.” Natalia refused to admit that, like her sister, she wasn’t much good at science, except where cooking and baking were concerned.
Diane nodded, or thought about nodding before her thoughts raced elsewhere. She recalled how after Edith died, she considered consultations with mediums or psychics, but quickly concluded this was not the way—no money-grubbing capitalists, be they religious or secular, exorcists or ghostbusters, self-proclaimed communers with the dead, witches, sensitives, or spiritualists—con artists all, in her opinion. Show her a strictly eleemosynary seer and she’d suspend disbelief, give her the benefit of the doubt. Otherwise, no dice. Diane enjoyed the feel of her brain revving up, thanks to the pills. She recognized the compulsion to jabber, words gushing, outpacing her thoughts, sound out of sync with sense. She rode the rush, knowing that the best she could do was listen, steer when she could, and take the occasional breath.
“But wait,” she said. “Is anyone in charge? Did you see a god? A deity of some sort?” The water had cooled down, and Diane turned off the cold to make the most of whatever heat was left in the pipes. She knew that even hot alone would soon turn tepid, then that would be that. Both sisters hated the cold.
“When last seen, you were an atheist,” said Natalia. “Did you find religion after I died? Are you hoping for a big reveal at some point in your future?”
“I’d be willing to admit I was wrong if you told me so.”
“When you were younger, you referred to gods and goddesses as puppeteers and tricksters. You were convinced that if they existed, they used you for their amusement, as an object of derision.”
“I was trying to be logical, to make sense of my life,” said Diane.
“You prayed to Neptune, god of the sea, believing that he watched over you from off the Santa Monica coastline.”
“I thought he might be on my side since I loved the ocean, but it was probably just a misguided search for a father figure. Another relationship that didn’t work out.”
“Well, don’t look to death for answers. I’m not in heaven or hell,” said Natalia. “We’re not angels or devils, and while some of us are bossier than others,”—and here she peered through the transparent shower curtain in the direction of the apartment window—“no one is in charge. We’re intangible and transient, sensing our way through who knows what, small bits of knowledge imparted and received, I don’t know how. Some of the dead are content with this state, and have no inclination to return to visit the living. But not me.” Natalia perched one eye on each of her sister’s bony shoulders. “We have until sunrise,” she said. “Choose your ghost.”
“What?” Diane clenched her teeth against the chill that suddenly wracked her body.
“Obviously you don’t want to be a ghost version of your living self. If that was the case, you could forget about the afterlife and stay here. So convince me that you’ve thought this through. How will you change? What kind of ghost will you be?”
Diane took deep breaths and stamped her feet, imploring her blood to circulate more vigorously. The drugs worked better that way. “I want to be like you!” she exclaimed. The euphoric glow from amphetamine molecules permeating her brain re-awakened and amplified her love for her sibling. She turned right then left and noticed the eyes were looking faintly bloodshot, possibly due to the chemicals in the water. That blood was theirs, shared. Sisters!
“Don’t be an idiot,” said Natalia. “I told you I was in constant pain. Is that what you want? Besides, you’re nothing like me. I was always smarter than you, made more money, had better boyfriends, was more beautiful and talented than you ever were. I had decent relationships with Mom and Dad. Never whined about what a mess I was. Because I wasn’t. Pick your own ghost. Who do you want to be?”
“You said ghosthood was transient. Does it really matter?”
“Do you really want to die?” asked Natalia.
Diane turned the shower off and wrapped herself in a towel. What she wanted most was to catapult away from her bodily self, freed from life’s grip, into a universe as bleak and hurtful as she felt she deserved. But if humoring her sister was a pre-requisite, she’d play the game?
“Pick your ghost!” repeated Natalia.
Diane tip-toed out of the bathroom, kicked her dirty clothes under the bed, and covered herself with the bed sheet. “Boo!” she said, extending her arms. Eliciting not so much as a chuckle, she fashioned the sheet into a toga and spread the wet towel on the bed. “Rest here a while,” she said, worried that the eyes looked tired. “Do you remember Casper the Friendly Ghost?” she asked. “The cartoon show from when we were children? He was kind to every living creature, treated animals as equals, and never scared anyone on purpose. He had a catchy theme song, too” she said, and sang liltingly, “Grown-ups don’t understand why children love him the most.” When Natalia didn’t join in, she added her final selling point: “He had no adult responsibilities.”
Natalia emitted a prolonged, buzzer-like rebuke. “Wrong! Casper wanted to make friends. Friendliness was his defining characteristic. You, on the other hand, were always a loner. Wasn’t I your best pal growing up? Why would you think you’d enjoy a social circle après la mort?” Natalia winked at her colleagues outside, signaling that she’d been right—convincing her sister to stay alive would be easy. “But if that’s now your heart’s desire, why not reach out to your neighbors,” she coaxed, “or meet people through a job or volunteer work? It’s not healthy to be so isolated. Live!”
“Thanks, Natalia, but no. You’re right—I like being alone. It’s safer. I’ll think of something else.”
Diane mulled her options. She assumed that her social awkwardness would result in Natalia’s veto for what was going to be her second choice: the kind of apparition found in the party scene at the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland, a welcomed guest in the grand but cobwebbed dining hall. She’d waltz through the air in fancy Victorian dress, more luxurious than anything she’d owned in life. But with her luck and assorted lacks, she’d undoubtedly wind up spinning for eternity with a partner as loathsome as those she’d had in her past, to music she’d eventually grow sick to death of.
“I can’t be a lovelorn ghost,” said Diane, musing aloud, “One of those forlorn, romantic yearners. I don’t think anyone really loved me, and though I was often obsessed, desperate, and too willing to debase myself, I’m not sure I ever truly loved any man.”
“Remember your boyfriend Josh?” said Natalia. “The hippie English teacher who turned out to be running a title insurance scam on the side? So handsome he completely blinded you to his lack of respect and absence of ethics. He once invited me for coffee—said he wanted to get to know his girlfriend’s sister. I had a feeling something was up, but told him he could come by the restaurant for a few minutes. So he shows up, whips out his phone, and tells me he has a video of the two of you having sex. I said no thanks, but he insisted. Said it was funny, you can’t really see anything. Then there you were and I couldn’t look away. He was right—it was hilarious. You looked like an albino stick insect, skinny arms and legs flailing, while a giant, bare-assed hairy beast pounded you to near-death with his pelvis.” Natalia’s eyes shook with laughter. “And that was one of your better relationships.”
Diane cringed. Her sister had always been the fun-loving, flirty gal all the men were drawn to, the late-night drinker, witty, gorgeous, their pal for the sharing of porn. “He left me when he found out I was taking antidepressants,” she said. “The cult he belonged to didn’t approve.”
“You might still find Mr. Right,” said Natalia, again needing to correct course. She tried injecting a note of encouragement into her voice. “If you got out more. Or tried online dating. Elderly people find love.”
“Rarely, and you know it.”
“You’re so negative!”
“Then I’ll be a ghost who gripes, offering no solutions, only complaints. Let me go, Natalia. I’ll be positive about death, I promise. Grant me the right to die.”
Diane Gurman's stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Gargoyle, Santa Monica Review, Lit, Quarterly West,Dark Lane Anthology, Vol. 11, and other publications. She works as a librarian. Diane recommends the Nonhuman Rights Project.