By Damien Krsteski
Martina lights the candle, and shadows throw themselves up against the wall; black silhouettes flicker, dance, squirm as if before a firing squad, and Martina watches these shadows through squinting eyes, drinking in their performance.
“They'll be strongest on Sunday,” she tells me and snuffs out the candle.
Smoke wreathes her head; she gets up and the wreath goes through her, dissipates. She flips the switch. Light floods the room, making us both wince, and I sneak a glance but the shadows have melted back into the wall.
We have another cup of coffee, discussing the upcoming ritual. Martina pours whiskey in hers. She tips the bottle my way, and I shrug and proffer my cup.
I drain the laced coffee in two sips, smack my lips. “I better leave,” I say, putting on my coat, “you don't deserve my lingering ghost.” But Martina doesn't laugh at my joke. She's staring at the wall as if looking for shadows, for tell-tales.
“Take care, Reese.”
On my way to the door I remember and turn back and give her a long hug. “I'll see you Sunday,” I say pathetically and leave.
My ghosts crowd me from Martina's apartment to the tram stop; an echoed movement of all my previous visits to her home, the ghosts mutely retrace my former steps, resolute, while I trot on the sidewalk slightly disoriented, slightly afraid.
The tram's empty of people and full of ghosts. Smokey shadows of erstwhile passengers read papers, stare out the windows into ink-dark night, and I take a seat among them, bow my head, counting out the stops.
Fishery. Hyacinth Market. Sepper Woods. The tram cleaving its way through a dead city, twisting, turning, rattling over bent rails until we reach—
Cedars' Quarter, where I get off. And there, at the end of a blind alley lined with sweet-smelling lindens, in the blues bar Buddy, I meet Sofia.
“Well,” she says when I sidle up to her on the counter, “do you have her scent?”
I take off my coat and hand it to her. She buries her face in it, breathes it in, then looks at me. “It reeks of her Work.” That's what Sofia calls it. Never magic, sorcery, witchcraft, or voudun, but plain, look-away-nothing-to-see Work. “Tina wore it?”
“No,” I say, motioning to the waiter to bring me whatever Sofia's drinking. “I wore it. With her. It'll do.”
“Fine.” She bunches it up and puts it on the stool next to her. Beside her, ghosts recede into infinity on the bar. She drinks, they drink. Sofia's own hall of mirrors. This is her favorite place, after all.
“She says Sunday.”
“We need the object.” Weapon, she means. Knife.
I suggest Thomas, and she considers this for a moment. “I don't trust him,” she says at last.
“Me neither,” I admit, “but we have no choice.”
She sighs. “You keep close to him, then, do your thing, and if you notice any funny business from him, you sense any shitty Work, you ring me the same fucking second.”
“Same fucking second.”
We drink, tinny guitar music playing in the background. Sofia goes for a smoke, and when she comes back she says, “Sunday's too soon.”
“We can't miss this window.”
She orders another. “That's three days, Reese.”
Not a lot of time to arrange a murder.
When the ghosts first came, we thought they were the spirits of the dead.
I started seeing my father's eyes in the shadows; I was hearing his voice in the shower, hearing his recognizable light step accompanying me to work in the mornings; once I saw his profile made out of flickering TV light as his ghost sat in my easy chair, and I called after him but he didn't turn, and I walked over and grabbed him by the shoulder and spun him around, and the face was his with tapeworm lips and snail shell eyes.
I was seeing my father staring back at me, echoing my words, mimicking my movements, on Tuesdays, on Thursdays, in the mornings, before my favorite talk show, at the library, on the street, late at night.
Only I learned much later that it was never really him; those ghosts, all of them, were me.
And their arrival—explained sloppily away by a plethora of biological and mathematical theories, before they all fell apart, one by one, under the weight of scientific scrutiny, leaving us none the wiser—prised open something else: a conduit for an energy that let people's special traits, their Work traits, emerge and bubble up to the surface.
And those people with newly-awakened skills coalesced into groups, calling out to one another in the dark.
Thomas joined our coven—The Lazarus Bunch—last, and this, I believe, makes him right for the part. He knows Martina, but the two aren't close. He has no loyalty to her, and with a Feral trait, letting him tap into wild anger, he's a more than adequate bladesmith.
Little before noon, I drop by his office unannounced, two sandwiches in a paper bag. He looks up from his computer, his bug eyes boring right through me, and I rattle the bag in invitation, putting a bit of Work into my words, and this soothes him, and he smiles, licks his lips, slams his laptop shut.
We sit on a bench in a nearby park. The sun makes rims in Thomas' round glasses, and so I squint when he's facing me.
“We need it for a ritual,” I explain. “For Sunday. When they will be strongest.”
“Sunday,” he says, looking away. “Strongest.” Birds scatter above the pond. He bites into his sandwich.
“Your regular dagger ought to do.”
“It ought to.”
“Worked-up to cut through ghost-flesh,” I say, putting all of my convincing power into those words.
“Ghost-flesh,” he repeats. He studies me through those thick glasses. Birds don't chirp, frogs don't croak; the pond is stilled, the trees unruffled. “I'll do my best.”
I make love to Sofia, passionately, wildly, in a bed full of ghosts, their ectoplasm hot and sticky and viscous and gooey, intermingling like sheets between our bodies.
Later, we lie side by side, and the ghosts are fewer, rarer, mimicking our moves: Sofia's smoking of a cigarette; my hands-behind-the-head contemplating of the ceiling.
“I have second thoughts.”
“About the scene of,” she says.
Her mute ghosts open and close their mouths like feeding fish; mine, and those of men before me, lie with mouths sewn shut. Sofia says, “The riverside is too cliché. Which will not work in our favor. We want strong ghosts, and a cliché crime scene will water them down. You hear of murders on the river quay on the evening news. We want something—”
“Personal,” she echoes, and her ghosts all close their mouths. She puts a leg over my leg, kisses me. Her body melts back into mine.
So the following day I take her to the junction, to that knot of rails on the outskirts of town. Trains have long since stopped using these tracks, and the rails are rust-bitten and chewed and bent. The sky, yellowed by the fumes of the quarter's factories, seems to be of the same color as the rails. We sit on bollards on opposite sides of the track.
“I grew up ten minutes' walk down that way. We used to come and play here.” Looking down the track into the distance I can almost see the old trains, as if trains have mechanical ghosts of their own. “We would wait for a train to come close, then jump from one bollard to another.” Sofia watches me, knowing what I'm about to say, but she lets me say it anyway. “I was ten and he was eleven. He got too cocky. Let the train come too close.” I clap my hands once but this doesn't startle Sofia. She lights a cigarette. I shrug. “All I remember now is the deafening rattle of the train.”
She passes a finger over a rail, and rust sticks to her fingertip. She rubs her thumb and forefinger. “It's perfect,” she says.
Coming home, I find Thomas lingering in front of my building, his Feral eyes glinting in the dark. A cold glint, like moonlight, not made any friendlier by the toothy half-smile he flashes as he hands me a package. “Careful,” he says. “You'll cut yourself.”
“Thanks, Tommy.” Wrapped in the bundle of old shirts is a fishing knife. Serrated blade.
Just right for our little ritual.
He says, “I want to be there.”
His words hang in the air between us, not stretching, not dissipating. Where does this come from? This sudden desire to take part, when he's always been the secluded one, the one you can count on not to be curious.
I muster every ounce of Speechwork in me and pour it into my words, “It's a private ceremony, Tommy.”
Those cold eyes study me, and my heart races, anticipating the worst, but then Thomas nods and leaves.
When I ring Sofia up to tell her, she gets angry, and she blames me for suggesting Thomas in the first place, and then she grows silent, deliberating, and finally, surprisingly, she tells me we have to invite him. “Otherwise, he's too big a risk,” she says, resigned. “He's suspicious of you, and he'll snoop around, talk to the others. And God knows we don't want the whole Lazarus Bunch in on this. Just say you talked to me and you found out Tina's also coming, and so we can bring him in, too, and double-date.”
“But what'll we do with him?”
She sighs. Handling a Feral is no mean feat. “We'll figure something out. I'll use my Work on him, I don't know.”
The thought of Sofia using her Eros on somebody else gives me a pang of jealousy, but I'm quick to suppress it; this isn't personal, I remind myself. This might save our lives. “Good,” I say, “you do that.”
The house I grew up in still stands. Dusty and in disrepair and with planks creaking and a leaking roof, but there, still, and empty, still.
I decide to spend the night before the big ritual there. Nobody's lived in the house for years, and so the ghosts that inhabit it, those of my mother and father, are pale, as old and frail as their flesh-and-blood doubles were in their dotage. Ghosts, too, age and wither.
But tomorrow at sundown the ghosts, as if all connected, all protruding fingers from the same hand, will be strongest.
And by that we mean, ironically, most vulnerable; their very intensity makes them much more a part of this world than that other one, theirs, which in turn subjects them to our world's rules. You can touch them, you can grip them. You can cut them with a knife. And their intensity, too, has a reason. We've learned that they react to us: our actions, being the path we trace for their existence, influence them—they don't just echo the living, but they behave differently when reenacting a birthday party and a shooting spree, as if their consistency somehow adapts to the varying gravity of the two events.
The coat with Martina's scent burns in the fireplace. Once the fire dies out, I take a fistful of ashes and smear them on the blade, and the knife, Worked-up with Feral anger, soaks up some of Martina's scent, of her trait of Empathy.
We will kill her, and that action, combined with the strength of her Empathy and the drive of the Anger, will shine bright and fierce, and our ghosts, drawn to the murder like moths, will feed off the energy forever, looping over the same event, and we will be free of their presence, of their stalking, forever.
I take the knife with me into the backyard. I hold it up, slicing the full moon in half; the blade absorbs all light, becomes black, a sliver of the night.
The cherry tree in the backyard, too, still stands. Much smaller than I remember it, and stooped, tending toward the ground with its crooked boughs as if reaching to unearth something.
If only our ghosts could move the curtain and peek back decades into the past, into my childhood, they would be here now, sitting, propped against this cherry tree with a book or a notepad and pen in their hands, under the aegis of the enormous cherry-studded boughs, wrapped over them like the arms of a mother. But they can't. They came when I was already an adult, already spoiled, already tarnished. They don't remind us of our innocence, of the days when we were good and had hopes and wishes that moved beyond the material; instead they parade our guilty consciences before us. Evil little shadows, anchoring us to stories we may not want to tell ourselves: our boring, wasted, cheating and lying adulthoods.
I sit under the cherry tree. Clouds sail the skies, but I know if rain falls the tree's leaves will cover me. I close my eyes and drift to sleep.
The four of us follow the rail road: Thomas and I up front, Martina and Sofia lingering right behind. The sun dips toward the horizon, coating the rusty rail track in a honeyed sheen.
“Listen,” I say, prepping Thomas for what's to come, “things may happen today. Surprises. Unpleasant ones. This will not be the ritual Tina was told to expect. But whatever happens, don't get involved. I will explain later.”
He pushes his glasses up his nose. “I'll try.”
Brick buildings flank the road. Once red, now the brickwork has yellowed from the sticky smog of the quarter. The whole world seems monochrome, made out of watered shades of orange. We reach the junction, and there, on opposite bollards sit two marble statues: us, our echoes from before. Bent forward, scheming, thinking, daydreaming, they make the four of us pause.
I turn to Thomas and Martina, about to explain the ghosts' presence, but Thomas moves; he's in my face, suddenly, and hot pain rakes my chest. He raises a hand—a claw—and sneers. Blood drips from his sharpened fingers.
Nobody screams, nobody cries out.
Sofia catches me and lowers me to the ground. She reaches for the knife, her eyes ruby red, and without hesitation, she stabs me in the heart. Pain blooms. Amber skies turn gunmetal gray.
Sofia kisses me, and she pulls out the serrated blade, gently, notch by notch, as she pulls her tongue from my mouth. “Thank you, love,” she says.
The three of them watch the puddle of blood form around my body.
They watch me drain out and die, and they see the ghosts on the bollards dissolve into nothingness.
And they feel the ghosts dragging behind them dissolve into nothingness, because another appears that outshines them all: a composite of empathy for himself and love for her and anger at their betrayal, anchored to one single story, and doomed to echo this story forever, and doomed to relive and suffer it forever, while those who've set it up roam unfettered by their actions, roam free, free, free.