The Unfamous Dead

Piano

After I die, my house stands empty for three damn years. The iron memorial cross Mom put up outside topples at the end of year one. Year two, it’s nicked by a drunk. He’ll probably batter someone with it. Iron’s heavy.

Year three, the landlord brings a man and woman to tour. All three stare right through me, even when I start dancing. Dancing’s easy when gravity doesn’t affect you and you can’t hurt yourself. Being dead isn’t so bad. I tell myself that a lot, especially when I start thinking about how things could’ve been different. If I hadn’t been so eager to move out at the end of high school. If I’d agreed to stay in a dorm. If someone from our band had stayed the night and noticed the stroke that killed me, a week before classes started.

A stroke’s the last way I’d have chosen to die, if anyone had given me a choice. It’s fast, but it happens to people all the time. If you’re a young man, that’s weird, but no one will remember you for dying that way. You won’t even get an article in the newspaper.

A month after the tour, a family pulls up in a U-haul. The doors open to spill children and houseplants out onto the cracked driveway. There are two kids and two parents, the family traditional. They don’t have a dog. Too bad. If dogs can see ghosts, maybe it could’ve pointed me out to its folks. I’m never going to get famous haunting a bunch of idiots who can’t see me.

The boy is ten, the girl maybe six. His hair is puffy and black and in need of a trim. Hers is done up in cornrows. Their parents let them tear around the yard and ruin the dandelion field until everything’s out of the truck. Then their mom shepherds them inside with a hand on each kid’s shoulder.

The dad leads the way into the house and straight through me, calling back over his shoulder, “Honey, where did we pack the microwave?”

“It’s in the big box with the linens, remember?” The mother steps past me, but the kids stare with rounded eyes. The little girl’s thumb drops from her mouth, and her black eyes glisten alarmingly.

I’ve planned for years to scare the bejesus out of the first idiots to move into the house I haunt. I didn’t expect it to be kids, okay? I make a quick change of plans.

From behind the door of the coat closet, where I take shelter, I have a front row seat for the family’s first fight in their new home. The parents tell their daughter she’s got an overactive imagination and should act more like her brother. The daughter is outraged. The brother, who saw me too, says nothing.

“Scaring children now, David?” asks the angel beside me.

“Shut up,” I say, and press farther back into the closet. Great. She’s here again.

Maybe I should have mentioned before that there’s an angel hanging around here. She showed up a month after I died, bothering me about moving on, and she never left. She’s an odd, colorless creature, more felt than seen. She flickers dimly next me. “This will make you famous? Perhaps you ought to give in and pass on.”

I shake my head. I’m not having this conversation again. I’ve always yearned to be famous, and why should dying change that? But when she gets started, she goes on about me damaging the fabric of reality. She must be immortal, because no one with a time limit would waste years stalking a dead guy.

“Children see things the rest of the world cannot. It will be difficult for you to avoid them while they live here. But there is an easy solution—”

“No, seriously, shut up. I’m not leaving, and you’re not even a real angel, I’m pretty sure.”

“You’re the one who called me that,” the angel says.

“Shut up.” Like I said, she’s more felt than seen. When I met her, I named the parts I felt arms and legs and wings because not naming them made me feel even more nuts than just being a ghost already did. She’s got wings. What else could she be?

The upstairs doors clatter open and closed; the kids must be over their tantrums and picking out rooms. I press my insubstantial knees to my chest and wait for nightfall.

That night, the parents settle down with a six-pack and a couple of books. Maybe their cable’s not connected yet. The kids are nowhere to be seen. I creep up the stairs. The angel follows.

The little girl’s shoes are outside the first bedroom door. Down at the end of the hall, another door is shut. I pass through it. There’s not much to see inside. Mom and Dad dragged a bed in and put a sleeping bag down on it, under which the boy is now curled. Music books are piled on the floor next to a disassembled IKEA bookshelf, and a black electronic keyboard lurks in the corner behind the bed. The blinds on the windows are open, and the gibbous moon casts down light that washes the color from everything. Pale and ghostly, I fit right in.

I lean down over the bed. I can feel the angel at my back, watching. I whisper in the boy’s ear, “You know, piano’s for chumps. Forget piano. Guitar is where you want to be.”

The whites of his eyes are vivid against his dark skin. He sits up on the bed and pulls the shirt of his Spider-Man pajamas tight. He sticks out his lower lip and says, “My parents want me to learn piano.”

“You always do what your parents want you to do?”

He straightens then, gaze challenging. “They wouldn’t like me talking to a ghost.”

I take a seat over the bed, cross-legged in the air. The angel is behind me, but he doesn’t see her. “Well, you’re old enough to make your own decisions, aren’t you?” I stick out a hand. “David.”

He reaches out and brushes his fingers through mine. “I’m Anthony.”

***

Anthony is a breath of fresh air, sweeping out the staleness that’s clogged this dump for the last three years. At night, when we talk about bands and music and why piano’s for stiffs, he tells me he’s not afraid of ghosts. Hell yeah, he’s afraid of ghosts. I can tell. I was a ten-year-old boy once, too. I avoid his sister; she’s not any closer to pissing herself at the sight of me than he is, but she doesn’t try to hide it like her brother.

The kid is a prodigy. He spends hours every day tapping out songs on his keyboard. He writes them himself. If he’d apply himself to a decent instrument — say, a guitar — he could make something out of his life. Black kid songwriter jams with the stars — can’t you see the headlines now? He could be famous. He could make me famous. A ghost that’s your best friend, that’s practically begging for a single, isn’t it? But Anthony doesn’t have a guitar, and no one ever got famous by having a piano solo written about them.

Anthony gives his eighth piano concert and turns thirteen before a brightly wrapped pear-shaped present with a long handle shows up under the Christmas tree. It’s acoustic. Cheap-ass grandparents. Up in his room after Christmas dinner, as he fingers the strings experimentally, I mutter, “It’s somewhere to start, at least.”

Anthony glances down at the guitar and babbles some shit about the model and make and how it cost five hundred dollars.

“Whatever. It doesn’t have a plug.”

The angel makes herself known then. Her face is set in a frown. “Do you persist in trying to make the child over into yourself? You are no better than his parents, who you complain are pushing him into music too young and denying him a childhood.”

I ignore her, like usual when Anthony’s around. He thinks I’m weird enough without me talking to people he can’t see.

Couldn’t see. Now, his head turns toward her. He sets the guitar gently down on the bed beside him. “I love the piano, and I only do as many concerts as I want. I’m thirteen, not a kid. What the hell are you? Why are you in my room?”

The angel vanishes.

Anthony clambers off the bed, staring at the empty spot where she was. “David, why was there an alien in my room? Where did it go? Why does it know you? Do you really complain about Mom and Dad?”

“An alien? She looked like an alien to you?”

“It didn’t look human, like you.”

“She didn’t look like an angel?”

“It sure didn’t look like any I’ve ever heard of.” He hesitates and picks up his new guitar to cradle against his chest. “That’s not what you really are, is it?”

I put my hands up. “Whoa. Of course not. I’m dead David, your buddy. Look, I’m going to go get that thing out of our house. Okay? I’ll go and do that.”

I don’t give him a chance to argue. I can move fast when I want to.

The angel is downstairs, standing with wings and arms folded, dourly watching Natasha play her video games. The girl doesn’t notice; she stopped seeing me years ago.

I stalk up to the angel. “What the hell was that?”

Her eyes are colorless and too large. “I told you, David. You are damaging reality by staying here.”

“Because he could see you? How is that damaging reality? You’re real, aren’t you? You’re really here, just like I am.”

“The Intangible and Tangible are separate realms, David. You damage that separation. If you hadn’t stayed, Anthony would have outgrown seeing the Intangible outside of dreams, just as his sister did.”

“If they’re so separate, why can he see me at all?”

“Humans filter what they see through their limited comprehension. They can comprehend ghosts more easily than other things. Creatures of greater power are beyond them. Due to your meddling, the boy may see me now, but he cannot see me as I truly am.”

“Can I?”

She doesn’t answer. On the other side of the room, Natasha punches out a virtual bad guy, and “K.O!” flashes bright across the screen.

The angel’s face has never held much expression, but now her still features seem secretive. I say, “I’m not doing anything to reality, am I? You’re hiding. Your people, whatever they are — which is not angels, by the way — are hiding, and I’m helping him see you!”

The angel turns towards the frost-painted front window. I can see through her to the boots and mittens in a pile by the front door. Her voice is as cold as her face. “You have your way, then, David Fundley. I hope that you come to realize you are ruining his life before it is too late. It is already too late for yours.”

With that last passive-aggressive comment, the angel is gone.

***

Two years pass. I rejoice in living — ha ha — in an angel-free space. Anthony thinks I’m a hero for driving the “alien” away. I bask in his admiration like a hideous lizard on a sunny rock. Sure, she left on her own, but he doesn’t need to know that. Anthony shoots up half a foot when puberty hits him hard, and he gets real quiet while his voice breaks. I tell him after school, as he clings to his piano and plays away his stresses, that at least he’s not a singer.

Three days after his fifteenth birthday, I try to convince him to take up singing.

“If you just play piano and guitar, you’ll never front a band,” I tell him.

Anthony keeps playing Rachmaninoff’s third concerto, his hands rippling across the keys like a crab caught skittering and tumbling in the surf. “I’m a concert soloist. I’m not going to have a band.”

“Well, not if you keep on the way you have been.”

He ignores me. I let him alone.

Downstairs, the windows are thrown open to the spring afternoon. His parents aren’t home; Anthony’s old enough for them to trust him with the house. A robin sings, its lilting voice slow and soothing compared to the pounding intensity of Rachmaninoff. Strange, there’s usually more than one of them. I step up to the window screen. A smell hits me, sour and sickly, like an old bag of lettuce rotting at the bottom of a refrigerator. I grimace. Has some kid been smearing dog shit on the siding? Has some animal crawled under the window and died?

I walk around the living room. The same death smog comes in all the windows. What is this? I turn back to the first window, and the shock of what I see hits me like another blood vessel bursting in my brain.

There’s a thing on the other side, staring at me and drooling. It’s winged, like the angel, but it has too many wings and too many eyes, eyes that pop from every gnarled knuckle. And believe me, with as many limbs as this crawling monstrosity has, it has a lot of knuckles.

“Oh shit!”

It leans its big, snouty face towards the window, then jumps up to cling to the side of the building with claws the length of my hand. For a moment, all I can see is its belly. Then it tears the screen off, and it is too big to fit through but it does.

I run. The house has never felt so much of a trap as it does now. I scream up the stairs, “Anthony! Get out the window! Run! Run run run run!”

The doors to the downstairs rooms are open. There’s no basement, no hidden crawlspace, nowhere to go but up. I hit the stairs and pray Anthony’s already thrown the fire ladder out the window and climbed to safety. I pray that someone has left a door closed upstairs and the monster can’t tear hinges off as easy as it can screens.

The monster stampedes up the steps behind me.

I reach the top of the stairs. All the doors stand open.

“David! In here!”

I don’t waste time despairing that Anthony is an idiot and couldn’t climb out a window to save his fucking life. I jump into his room, and just as the monster comes up the last of the steps, Anthony slams the door in its face.

“You were supposed to get out,” I snarl at him.

The monster scrabbles at the door, a sound like twenty dogs on a hardwood floor, and then the handle turns. The door flies open, and the monster lunges inside. Anthony meets it with an empty guitar case to the head, but the case bounces like rubber. Then the monster’s on me, claws sunk deep. Dying hurt worse, I tell myself as its furnace-breath sears my insubstantial face. Dying hurt more.

I’m lying.

For an eternity, there’s nothing but claws in my soul and rotten breath in my face and Anthony’s screams in my ears. Then, without warning, the monster releases me, and I shoot back out of its grasp like a greased eel.

I push myself up on the floor and find the monster’s head level with mine. I scramble away, but it doesn’t move. A shining sword is run through what passes for its spine. As I watch, the monster collapses into gooey black liquid that puddles across everything. A moment later, it dries up and flakes away, leaving nothing behind but a terrible smell of decay.

A translucent hand stretches out to pluck the sword from the floor. The angel is back.

I meet the angel downstairs after Anthony’s finished throwing up. Her sword is nowhere to be seen now. “I told you that staying could have terrible consequences, David,” she says.

I just nod. I want to ask what that was, but I know she won’t tell. “So. Was what Anthony saw there filtered through his own limited comprehension, or did he see the same sick thing I did?”

She cocks her head. “He saw a monster, yes.”

“It wanted to eat me.”

“For some creatures, a loose soul is a tender meal.”

“Would it have gone after the family after it chowed down on me?”

“Perhaps. The boy, most likely, because he could see it.”

Because he tried to defend me. I stare at the wall. “If I left now, would he outgrow seeing supernatural things?”

The angel’s eyes are eager. “With nothing to remind him, he would become normal. It would protect him.”

“Let me think about it.” I turn and walk away, and the angel doesn’t follow. I don’t need to think. I just need to be away from her.

It wasn’t Anthony seeing ghosts that brought the monster — the demon — down on this house. It was me. It’s always been me that brought strange things to this house: angels, demons. Acoustic guitars.

Anthony’s outside of his room, trying to sand the claw marks out of the door with his dad’s tools. I tell him I’m leaving.

“You can’t leave,” Anthony says.

“I have to.” I remember what grief felt like when I was alive and had a throat to clench, eyes to sting. “I’m not calling anything else like that down on you. Okay? But you have to promise me something.”

“I don’t want you to leave.”

“Promise me you’ll always remember. There are things in the world that are not normal, and they want to feed you the lie that they don’t exist. Pretend you can’t see them, but don’t forget. If you forget, you’ll be their sheep, like everyone else.”

“You could stay and watch my back.”

“No, I can’t. I’m dead. You have to go out and play piano concertos. I’m stuck to this building until I decide it’s time to leave. That’s now, I think.”

Letting go must be easy. It’s not an action, really. It’s stopping. Stopping the strain to cling to the world with my fingerprints, to retain the memory of a face, of hands.

I hate long goodbyes. I let go.

I’m nothing more than a shadow of mist when a last thought comes to me. “And if you ever get a chance to bust humanity out of its brain-washing, promise me you’ll take it! That would be awesome!”

I don’t know if he heard me — there wasn’t much me left to hear — but he waves a scribble-covered piece of paper. It might be a song about me, or a grocery list for all I know. I pretend it’s the former as I step into nothing, into all the potential afterlives in the universe, and wait to see what comes next.

One thought on “The Unfamous Dead

  1. Quite a nice little short story. It certainly touches on “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. – Hamlet (1.5.167-8).”

    Reply

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