(This is a standalone piece; but it’s also a companion to my Autumnal story.)
There’s that ghost story, best told when everyone is gathered ’round a fire, about all the people who are gathered ’round a fire to hear a ghost story.
It oughtn’t work. It ought to pull you out of the story, make you too aware of yourself, make you conscious of being a living creature listening to make-believe, when what the make-believe ought to do is convince you that it’s real.
But it does work; it works surprisingly well.
And that is because ghosts are perfectly real.
Ah, now, there’s the moment which actually pulls one out of the story. Because many people definitively believe—perhaps they’d say they know—that ghosts aren’t real. And those who believe that the supernatural exists and comes into our lives, they’ve no reason to trust that the teller actually believes this. In fact, those who have experience with spirits don’t often talk about it at all. So that part doesn’t ring true. Actual ghost stories aren’t…stories, most of the time.
Sometimes the experiences are just weird enough to be unexplained, but not the stuff of good tales. Not provable, not symmetrical, not stacked with meaning. That stolen heartbeat, for example, the one that hits you in the brief moment as you come to the top of the stairs and your eyes meet those of the broken doll, and you know that there’s something inside of it. And the next instant, you blink and it’s just a damaged and outdated toy, no more vital than a stone or a hunk of long-forgotten human hair. This doesn’t quite make a good fireside yarn. Everyone will tell you that you simply scared yourself, that—as the old cliche says—it was just your imagination. And that is a very reasonable and rational explanation, and you really wish it wasn’t completely wrong.
Truth to tell, the world is so much better when there aren’t malevolent spirits in semi-forgotten places, when the light that goes out in the basement has merely reached the end of the natural lifespan of its filaments, when the traffic signal that changes from red to green just before an oncoming train is a simply an electrical misfire.
I didn’t believe that ghosts were real. As with much that’s happened in the last seven hundred days, I’ve changed my beliefs based on lived experience. Or (as might be more accurate)—”deadened” experience. I know ghosts are real because I am one.
That’s not the big reveal of this story; there is no big reveal. Just little pieces. That’s part of what’s disquieting when the living are forced to interact with the sleepless dead; it’s seldom a like horror movie, seldom a heroic last-ditch battle. It’s knowing, having seen, being unable to unremember doors which have opened in your head, doors which you never knew were doors, doors which you thought were solid walls, keeping out things you’d never want to see; doors which are, instead, portals, big gaping holes, wide open, letting everything through. Everything.
Time split, or I split, or something broke, anyway. I mean, I know that I didn’t actually die on January 23rd, 2018. That’s not what happened. And yet it is. I remember—oh, best beloved, it is not something you forget—falling deep, almost forever, deep, deep down into my own open grave, a grave that had been dug for me. And it doesn’t matter who shoveled the dirt over me; it didn’t have to crush my lungs or end my air supply, because I was a dead man when I hit the coffin.
That’s more real to me than anything. I don’t exactly remember that other guy, the one whose skin I wear. I know I wear it with his consent; that I faithfully love much of what he loved, that I am still a friend to my friends, that I still—more than ever, really—have a mission in life.
But I also know that I’m a ghost. I haunt places where I am unwanted; I can’t help it, they’re places I need to be. And I don’t hold much love for those who don’t want me there; and when they try to exorcise me, I just laugh, and splash my face with holy water; it doesn’t even sting.
I tell this story around a fire because I don’t know how I came to live this strange, rewarding half-life, but I know that when I emerged, it was through fire. And half of why we tell ghost stories around a fire is, not the interplay of shadows or the grounding smell of blazing wood, but the fact that fire has long been our ally, driving away that which we should fear.
But now I know something of fire. I know that I was a dead thing, a spirit, and I was in flames, and one day I walked out, and here I am.
And that’s the thing about fires. You never really know what’s inside. You never know when you’re going to look in the conflagration, and the sparks will look back at you, and suddenly, a piece of you is in the fire, and a piece of the fire is in your chest.
You never know, if you blink or turn your head away, what will come out of the fire and make itself at home in this world.
You never know, but how many humans have walked away from a fire, feeling fine, and then blazed bright, incandescent?
This is the ghost story: sometimes we die. Sometimes we come back. Sometimes we befriend the living. But each time, all times, we are confused. We are unsure. The world of human life is so different from the inferno of the Other Side; not hell, but a place where souls burn brightly.
Let me tell you what you should not do.
Do not gaze into the fire.
Do not open your heart.
Do not let what is within that incendiary radiance leap out and into you.
…but if you do:
Keep it secret.
Some won’t believe. Some will fear you. Some will wonder who’s in control. Best to keep it unsaid.
We’ve all stood around a fire tonight, friends.
But I’m sure none of us are infected.
None of us are already, in our minds, enacting scenes of screaming horror. None of us are filled with the flames of primal creation. None of us are changed forever. None of us are different from what we were. All of us are exactly the same as we were before. None of us are altered. We are as we always were. We are human, and not of the fire. We are human, and not of the fire. We are human, and not of the fire.
Goodnight, my darling, darkling, burning friends. We’ve had ourselves some good fun, and now we go back to the real world and our real lives and the real things, and fire’s just a set of chemical reactions generating heat and light.
I tell you this, and I speak it true.
Would a dead man lie?
The Villainpunk World’s Fair, “Evil Expo”, is here.
The answers to all questions in the world are all right here.