Published in Toasted Cheese.
I find myself trapped in a Looney Tunes cartoon. Try to get away from the wascally wabbit and he always pops up right behind you.
I run up the stairs to my apartment, slam the door, and slide the deadbolt into place. On cue, I hear her voice behind me, calm and sweet while I’m red-faced and out of breath.
It’s Eddie, actually, but I won’t let that ruin the joke for her. I turn around and put my back to the door. She shakes her head slightly, apparently bored with our game but amused to see the effort I’ve put into it. She has a round face that’s just a breath away from being considered chubby and long brown hair. Her black business suit is contrasted by her pair of white jogging sneakers—apparently she opts for comfort rather than professionalism when it comes to footwear.
Oh yeah… she’s also completely transparent. Ghosts tend to be that way.
I shrug my shoulders, cornered in my lair. “What’s up, doc?”
“I’m not a doctor.”
And here I thought she had a sense of humor.
“My name’s not Joe,” I counter.
She sighs, or tries to. Except for speech, which most people can’t imagine being without, it’s hard to make noise without lungs to do so. “We’ve got some talking to do, then.”
I nod. “I guess we do.”
I asked her out for drinks half an hour ago. “Not in this lifetime,” she said as she hustled toward her car. It made sense for her to see me as a threat. After all, how many complete strangers ask a woman out on a date after bumping into them in a mall’s parking garage? The ones with criminal records don’t count.
Then her car blew up. That was the first indication that our relationship wasn’t going to work out.
She floats about my apartment, looking at the pictures on my wall. Theodore Roosevelt, Frank Sinatra, the 1986 New York Giants defensive squad—all people who accomplished something with their lives while I went through the motions. Then she reaches the closed door to my bedroom and pokes a hand through it experimentally. A smile crosses her lips as she realizes that, for her at least, solid walls do not a prison make.
“Don’t go in there, please,” I say, just before she pokes her head through the door and checks out all of my secrets.
“Why not? Do you keep fresh corpses in there or something?”
“We just met. A gentleman doesn’t bring a woman into the bedroom until at least the third date.”
She turns away from the door and drifts back toward me. “Dating etiquette? After you practically accosted me in the parking garage?”
“I only asked you out to drinks. And, if you had come with me, you might not have wound up on fire.”
I gesture toward the table and set a mug of green tea down for her.
She looks at the cup and frowns, not amused. “Are you trying to mock me or something?”
“I thought you might want at least the trappings of humanity around you,” I reply, taking my own seat across from her. “Having a cup of tea nearby seems to make everybody feel a little better.”
“I just got blown up. Having tea I can’t drink isn’t any comfort.”
“Fair enough.” I pick up the cup and take a sip. “What would comfort you?”
“To what questions?”
“For starters, how is it that you can see people like me?”
“Practice. I’ve done a lot of looking.”
“Can you see other ghosts, too?”
“What do you mean sometimes?”
“I can see people who have certain traits.”
“What kind of traits?”
“The type of person who sings in front of her bathroom mirror because she’s afraid to do it in front of an audience.” I smile as her eyes go wide, my conjecture hitting its mark. “Or the type of woman who for reasons I still don’t understand is completely obsessed with Bugs Bunny cartoons.”
“Have you been stalking me or something?”
“I just know your type when I see them.”
“‘My type’ seems like a pretty specific subset.”
“It’s big enough to draw charming phantoms like yourself.”
“Is that why you asked me out? You saw something about my aura or something?”
I stand up, walk over to the far wall, and open up a cardboard box. “I’ve got some old cartoons on tape if you want to watch them.”
“You like them, too?”
“Not at all. I think they’re the dumbest things I’ve ever seen. But for some reason, ghouls like you can’t seem to get enough of them.”
She chuckles and floats over to the box. I smile at the sound of her slight laughter.
“For your information. I like them because they’re always familiar, but always different. The running gags and the jokes stay the same from decade to decade, but there’s always a twist that makes them unique. Does that help you understand?”
“I understand; I just don’t see the appeal in it. Do you want to watch them or not?”
She shakes her head and drifts away from me. “Do you really expect me to spend my afterlife floating around and watching seven-minute shorts for all eternity?”
I shuffle back to the table and pick up the teacup again. “Not exactly. Our speaking is a limited time only deal. You’ll start fading away as you get further from your death.”
Her eyes expand and the corners of her mouth twitch downward. Even as a phantasm, she seems to need to use her face to express herself. “Fade away? As in oblivion?”
“I can’t tell you for sure what happens after that.”
“So…” Her voice squeaks, and she makes a failed attempt at clearing her throat. “So how long do I have?”
I check my watch, then squint out my dirty window as the setting sun burns its colors across the smog-filled sky. “Two hours, maybe three.”
I finish the tea in one gulp, burning my throat a little as it goes down. “Yeah. I know.”
I stared at the green stripes on my sneakers as I heard the engine of her car kick on. Something sat in my stomach, heavy and uncomfortable like I had just swallowed a brick. I just stood there, about thirty feet from her like a dejected puppy—like maybe she would turn around and talk to me if I looked sad enough. I don’t know if I knew something bad would happen until I heard the mechanical wheeze of her engine when she tried to back up. My head snapped up, eyes wide as I started to understand what was about to happen.
The car didn’t go up like a pyrotechnics display as action movies had taught me. Instead it fired off a chain of explosions. The first boom came from her engine, which then touched off more, smaller bursts of fire. Only when the sparks hit the fuel tank did the car really burst into flames. She had the vehicle in reverse the whole time, and the car kept rolling backwards, sleepwalking through its seconds-long destruction. It hit the guard rail on the far end of the garage as it finally lit up. I didn’t see her after that thanks to the thick black smoke.
Well, I didn’t see her body, anyway.
She rose about a minute later from the wreckage, transparent and stunned. Her eyes met mine, and I immediately looked away. That was my mistake. Even the newly dead expect invisibility—it’s one of the few accurate myths about being a ghost. She saw my look of recognition as our eyes met and shouted out to me.
“Hhhhheeey!” she said in slow motion, her ghostly body adjusting to the lack of a physical way of making noise.
I turned and walked away. When I got to the exit of the garage, I started jogging down the street.
“Hey!” she shouted again.
I broke into a run. I didn’t stop until I got back to my apartment.
“Why did you run?” she asks.
Instead of answering I play with the teacup, rolling it from one palm to another. My hands are calloused and rough, which falsely implies a harder life than I really live.
“Why?” she insists.
“I didn’t want to get into this situation. There’s not much I can do for you, Sarah.”
“My mistake.” Then, realizing that I haven’t given my own name, I add, “My name’s Eddie.”
She registers my name with a nod. Then her eyes—green with flecks of brown—narrow. “How did you know my name, anyway?”
I don’t point out that I actually guessed wrong, instead playing it off with a shrug of the shoulders. “I’m an investigator. I pick these things up.”
“Wait, so you’re like a private eye or something?”
“No… I’m a professional investigator. I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, and I don’t talk to myself in a bad film noir style monologue.”
“So what’s the difference between a private eye and a professional investigator?”
“A private eye is a creation of pulp mythology. A professional investigator spends his career looking for people who ran away from home and tapping phone lines for jealous husbands going through a divorce.”
“And seeing ghosts, apparently.”
“That’s not a PI thing. That’s a… talent of mine.”
“So have you ever taken a job from a dead woman?”
“Would you like to?”
“Ghosts don’t pay well.”
“I have a private account with my life savings in it. I’ll give you the number.”
I set the teacup down and start folding and unfolding my hands, repeating the cycle as a physical mantra. I have no mirrors in my apartment—I’ve tried my best to forget how I look. Puny, pale, and useless is all I can remember. I have never been Humphrey Bogart, willing to throw a punch in defense of a lady’s honor.
I try not to look at Tara as I think, because she’ll sway my opinion. Curvaceous, confident, and utterly wronged by circumstances beyond her control. I don’t want to go through this again. But my eyes drift back to her face, and I feel myself losing the battle.
“What do you want me to do?”
“I want you to get back at the man who killed me.”
She didn’t listen to a thing I said. But within the hour I’m standing on a downtown bus with a gray paperboy cap pulled close to my ears and a duffel bag that contains a change of clothes and a tire iron.
“This is stupid, isn’t it?” Tara can’t stay still. Her form wavers, growing fuzzy at the edges—a ghost’s way of fidgeting nervously.
“Relax. I’m on board with it. Just go over it one more time.”
“That bit about me performing in front of a mirror? I don’t know if you were making a lucky guess, but you were right on. I’m a nobody.” Her not-there body flickers in a spectral tremble at the confession. “I grew up with big dreams and fancy ideas of being a star, but I don’t have the courage for it. Instead I took the safe life—a low-level job where I could keep my head down, a husband who I thought I would learn to love.”
I glance at her left hand. “I didn’t notice a ring on you, even when you were alive.”
“I caught my husband at home with another woman. We’ve been separated for over a month, and I was going to clean him out in the divorce. No one else would have tried to murder me. It has to be him.” She starts to wander the bus, putting her hand through a man’s shoulder. He doesn’t even twitch. “Except for you, I can’t connect with anyone else in the world. In a couple of hours, even that will be gone. It will be like I never existed. But I still remember the smell of my burning skin, and I want someone else to feel my pain. Does that make sense?”
The bus pulls to a stop. “You don’t have to convince me,” I say. One of the other passengers gives me a strange look for talking to myself. “You want to get even. I can respect that.”
Everything about the neighborhood screams that we’re on the wrong track, but I do my best to tune out the logic portion of my brain. Tara’s husband has to be the murderer, because the alternative is unacceptable.
Tara’s old house is rooted firmly in the middle class, with peeling paint on the houses and faded fences separating the lots. Her husband’s car is a decade old. I don’t know how much a hitman costs, but I know someone with a salary only a bit above mine can’t afford it.
“This is a bad idea,” says Tara, maybe noticing the things I picked up on, maybe just responding to a wisp of common sense that we both lacked earlier.
“Trust me,” I say.
I take the tire iron out of my duffel bag. Then I smash the car’s front windshield.
The lights go on in the home, the noise predictably flushing my quarry out. The front door flies open and he steps out onto the stoop dressed in red pajamas that match the color of his face.
The man who emerges from behind the front door catches me a little bit by surprise. Tara’s husband stands only about five-and-a-half feet tall with a slender body and a chubby face that seems too large for the rest of him. Except for the thin layer of hair on his head, he looks like Elmer Fudd to me. I cast a sideways glance at Tara, silently admonishing her for settling for so little. Of course, my thin, pasty-skinned self isn’t exactly a prize, either.
“Joseph Carsten?” I shout, marching purposefully toward the front door.
“That’s him,” confirms Tara, drifting alongside me.
“Yeah?” he responds tentatively.
“Your wife sent me.”
“Tara hired a hitman?”
“Posthumously?” His eyes shift from side to side, searching through the dusty dictionary of his brain for the meaning of the word. “Oh God… you mean the bitch is—”
His reaction lights up another bell in my brain. That alarm gets drowned out by the surge of adrenaline that his insult to Tara sends rushing through my body, causing me to attack before he can finish his sentence. Something more than chivalry drives me. My arms shake as more aggression flows through them than I can contain. I want to bash this man’s skull in for one reason and one reason only: Tara spent her short life with him and not me.
Unfortunately, tire irons are meant as tools, not weapons. They’re heavy, awkward, and dull. I take a batter’s stance, but my swing comes too slow. He steps forward, raising his arm and catching mine before I can land the blow. Then he punches me in the chest, knocking the wind out of me and causing me to drop my weapon.
“We made a mistake,” says Tara. “Get out of here before things get out of hand.”
I ignore her, driven forward by anger and pride. My skill, however, is lacking. As a result, the fight turns into the type of awkward slap-battle that can only come from two men who have thought about violence but never actually had to resort to it. I charge forward, knocking him against the doorframe and grabbing him by the waist. He hits me in the back until I let go and we both fall to the ground. We both roll over and kick out at each other, tangling our legs and bruising our shins. Then he remembers the tire iron. I push away from him and start to get up. He stays down and grabs the weapon.
“Look out!” warns Tara with a shout. She lunges at her husband, momentarily forgetting that she’s a ghost, and passes right through him as he swings the tire iron at my head. I feel an impact across the side of my skull, and my vision lights up with an explosion of bright colors. I stagger backwards and fall down, and when I open my eyes everything has gone blurry. Tara yells something more, but I can’t seem to hear her over the ringing in my ears.
Joseph’s face has gone white, and I guess I should be thankful that he doesn’t press the attack. Instead, realizing how close he has just come to killing me, he retreats inside to call the police. I stagger away in a half-conscious retreat, my eyes trying vainly to refocus.
As my mind recovers from its forced scrambling, I start to replay Joseph’s reaction to the news of Tara’s death in my mind. His shock could have been acting. But calling Tara a bitch at the same time… someone who wanted to pretend to be surprised wouldn’t have immediately shown some happiness in her death.
“We should get you to a hospital,” says Tara, audible to me once again.
“No. Not done. Gotta find out who did it.”
“You can barely speak coherently. You’ve probably got a bad concussion.”
“I’ll be fine. I heal fast.”
I keep moving, trying my best not to puke on my own shoes.
I find myself capable of walking in a straight line again as we reach a fast food restaurant a few blocks away. I make my way to the men’s restroom to splash some water on my face. Tara stops at the door. Apparently, the bathroom’s stickman sign wards her off like garlic in front of a vampire.
She’s practically a window by the time I step back out again, continuing her slow slide toward complete invisibility. She’s my own personal Frosty the Snowman, melting away before my eyes. Just like I had hoped to avoid.
“We don’t have much time, do we?” she asks, noting my frown.
“We’ve got to check out the parking garage.”
“You’re not bleeding anymore,” she says as I march out of the restaurant. “You don’t even have any bruises. How’s that possible?”
“Like I said, I heal fast.”
“No one heals that fast.”
“I do.” When I feel another question coming, I decide to cut it off with a preemptive strike. “It’s all part of the deal.”
“The deal that allows me to see lovely young ladies like yourself. I made it a long, long time ago.”
“How long ago? How old are you, anyway?”
“Who gave you this deal?”
“Someone you’re not supposed to make deals with.”
“What did it cost?”
“If you made a deal like that, there’s always supposed to be a price. You didn’t sell your soul or anything, did you?”
I run my tongue along the back of my teeth, making sure they’re all still there. “That’s just stories. This deal didn’t have a price mentioned.” I wave my hand in front of her nearly-invisible torso. “On the other hand… maybe I should have checked the fine print.”
“You really like being vague, don’t you?”
I take a long look at her—or, more accurately, what I can still see of her. Through her fading body, I see the imperfections of the world all the more clearly.
“No, I don’t.”
The garage is still cordoned off with yellow tape that I happily ignore, but the police have already combed the area through. The fact that nobody’s around speaks volumes. Car bombs hint at terrorism, which means federal investigators swarming over the scenes like black flies in the summertime. They never mean a quick investigation and an empty lot. Somewhere on some police officer’s desk, a report has already been filed that supposedly explains everything. Neither Tara nor I will ever see that report.
The pavement is scorched and melted in spots. The remainders of her car were lifted out as evidence, leaving an outline of two halves of a vehicle on the concrete. Black soot highlights the outline like an old-timey cartoon explosion.
“What are you looking for?” Tara’s voice seems small and distant now. I touch my forehead and feel sweat as I contemplate what will happen next.
“I don’t know, but I should have come here first. Always take a look at the scene of the crime… if there was a crime.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
I’m not sure how to answer her, so I don’t. I get down on my hands and knees, crawling through the soot and dirt and discarded cigarettes of the garage. I can feel the curve of the pavement where the concrete was poured unevenly. I can feel something else, too: deep scratches in the floor, each the size of water drops. Then, near the front end of Tara’s last parking spot, the scratches form into a palm-sized indent, like a shallow, dried puddle. I place my hand over it and feel a tingle on my skin—a slight burning sensation like walking through acid rain.
I stand up and try to recall anything I can remember about mechanics. A car has the explosive capabilities of two sticks of dynamite. All it needs is a spark…
“Did you find something?”
No. Make it murder. I’ll bash someone’s head in right this time.
Her voice saying my name causes my head to snap up. I stare dumbfounded into the face of the transparent woman. Maybe if I don’t answer, she’ll say my name again…
“Your battery,” I say, unable to keep the secret from her.
“Your car’s battery was damaged. It was leaking hydrogen and acid. When you turned on the engine, you sparked a small explosion. Then it touched off something else that kept the flames going until they hit your gas tank.”
She stands, dumbfounded as she continues to fade into oblivion.
“So I died… just because of some stupid freak accident?”
I should tell her the truth, or at least what is suspect to be the truth. I should tell her that it’s my fault. Instead I remain silent and nod once.
Her face contorts into a mask of pain. Even if she didn’t mean anything in life, she could have at least gone out with a bang. Instead, nobody even cared about her enough to murder her.
She can’t cry anymore, so she wails. The keen sounds like rusty nails rubbing together, magnified a million times into a banshee’s shriek by her frustration. I stumble backwards and fall into a sitting position. My eyes start watering, but I don’t ask for mercy. I let her keep going until she has nothing left.
“That’s it. That’s my life. I’m a nobody. Just a nobody! I’m a stupid little secretary who married her boss and then watched him run off with some newer, younger, stupid secretary! I can’t even get murdered right—no one would waste the energy! Nothing to nobody, nothing to nobody. No meaning in life… no meaning in death…”
She staggers now, transparent and truly lifeless. She falls down next to me and begins to fade away for good. I reach out for where I think her hand might be and squeeze emptiness. Only when she’s almost gone can I bring myself to saying the words I don’t even want to hear.
“You’re not nobody. You’re Tara. And before that, you were Sarah. And you’ve been Chandra and Alice and even one awkward time Stan. And I’ve spent every borrowed year of my life looking for you.”
Her wispy smoke-body turns its head and looks at me one last time. I make sure to stare into her eyes. I owe her that much.
“A long, long time ago, I fell in love with you just before you died. That’s when I made the deal I mentioned. I can’t die, but I’ll always be able to find you as you’re reborn again and again. Up until now, it’s always been something else that’s killed you—an illness or a thug or something else I can’t stop. I thought this time if I could get close to you quickly enough, I’d be able to protect you. But now I know what’s really happening. That bit about paying a price you brought up… nobody gets something for free, do they? Fate is a vindictive bitch who doesn’t like people messing with the order she’s set up. The explosion will get filed away as a freak accident, but it never would have happened if I had been smart enough to stay away from you.”
I watch her face as she disappears, expecting to see anger there—hatred for the pain I’ve caused her. Instead she nods in understanding. She leans forward to kiss me, but she’s gone before our lips meet. And I’m left alone again, bereft of the one who will always understand and will always forgive me.
The real reason I ran… I didn’t want to watch her fade away again.
I make it back to my apartment after dark and slam the door. I lean against the wall and look at my box full of old cartoons. The same vindictive running joke that will be replayed again and again with a new twist every time.
I walk to my bedroom and open up the door. Posted on the wall above my mattress is a large bulletin board filled with newspaper clippings, old photographs, and yellow sticky notes. At the top is a strip of lined paper marked with the words “Wabbit Hunting.”
Sarah: Tuberculosis. There’s a vaccine for that now.
Chandra: Lynched by racists. Next to her picture is a map of the United States with certain parts of the country crossed out in red marker, letting me know of the danger spots in case she comes back with dark skin again.
Alice: Suicide. A list of articles citing medical journals and treatments for clinical depression surround her name.
Stan: Shot in the streets by an admitted homophobe. A string on two thumbtacks leads back to the map of the United States. More areas are crossed out, this time in blue marker.
I write a new name on the board. Tara. Cause of death: me.
I don’t know how to get around that one. But I’ve got another lifetime to figure it out.