From the editor:Immortal beings are uniquely well-suited to careers in hostage negotiation and search-and-rescue work — but befriending a child ghost with her own secrets is a much harder job. Don’t miss this eerie and touching story by John Wiswell, a New York-based author whose work has appeared in Uncanny Magazine, Fireside Magazine, Pseudopod, and more.
From the author: The unlikely friendship between a confused ghost and an immortal. They are the cure for each other's loneliness. But the greatest gift would be to help the ghost move on - something the immortal can never do.
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You remember little girls in raincoats in the middle of Phoenix summers. This one was hyperventilating into the shiny yellow hood of her coat and flailing her arms as though trying to swim through the sweltering heat beneath the train platform. It was wretched and immediately recognizable as ghost behavior.
Ghosts have the knack for forgetting they don’t need to do things like hyperventilate, or file taxes, or piss themselves in fear, and if you ever have an inexplicable ammonia smell in your house, it’s probably because some poor fool is haunting your bathroom. The few parapsychologists I’ve known have a hell of a time convincing ghosts to give up futile terrors like that.
I don’t bother convincing. I have time. If we immortals are good for anything, it’s patience.
No one else stopped to help her because a ghost hyperventilating sounds like GWAR—like GWAR on a really off night. I like the sounds of all Satirical Metal, so I climbed under the platform to prod her. The brat ignored me, managing to wrap the bottom of her coat around her face. Because she was intangible, I couldn’t unwrap it for her, and so I went on with my commute to the Heard. On my lunch break, I picked up a few candy bars and an adult raincoat. None of them are flattering, especially when you have hips my size.
Still, I wore the coat on my commute back home. Her private GWAR concert continued raging beneath the platform. She ignored me, which ghosts do, because ghosts know you’re here about as well as you know they’re here, or if that’s too woo-woo for you, about as much as a dog knows it’s got Algebra homework.
I had to call in sick for six consecutive days, lying beneath the platform beside the girl, before I got through to her. I didn’t mind. Phoenix’s wifi is improving, and as I said, immortals are either patient. They are either patient or cryogenically frozen to alleviate the horrors of eternal sentience.
It was on Day Six that I sat in a puddle from a leaking drainage pipe, and something about it got the kid to finally roll over, peeking out from under her shiny yellow hood and recognizing that there was another person there who wasn’t afraid of a raincoat. I was the picture of chill. After all, my raincoat protected me from the puddle.
She didn’t resume breathing correctly, because she didn’t actually have lungs anymore, but she did stop thinking she was hyperventilating. Then I offered her the candybars, which she didn’t take, but she did appreciate. She took my tablet instead, haunting my browser and looking up the latest One Direction videos. I deleted my cache later.
After that, she followed me to work. While she wouldn’t eat the candy bars, she would levitate them, clutched together like a deck of fattening cards, perhaps waiting for me to want one.
She followed me to a blood drive, to genetic testing (they never figure anything out, but are so excited over their confusion), and to the set of a snuff film I’ve been tinkering with. On the one hand I’m encouraging an industry, on the other I’ve gotten a couple of actors into very necessary therapy. The kid didn’t so much as blink at anything, except when I washed my hands after the blood donation. She gave a mighty Dave Brockie shriek and fled through the walls at the sight of a running tap.
On the commute home, she refused to ride over Salt River. I saw her grip the lapels of her raincoat before she vanished, and I didn’t see her again until the next morning, when I passed over the river again. She poofed into existence on the seat beside me, raincoat and candy bars intact, much to the dismay of the heavyset banker who’d been trying to hit on me. It never would have worked out. He definitely didn’t like GWAR.
She followed me to a hostage negotiation. This middle-aged man was driven to the edge by a cocktail of bad investments, a rude nephew, and losing his wife to cervical cancer, and he was stunned to be offered two hostages in favor of the one girl he had at gunpoint. It’s a great trick more immortals should play; I don’t care about getting shot. Neither did my little raincoat buddy, who took three through the chest and only registered that her Butterfinger had been blown to smithereens. That was definitely the night we started bonding.
While ghosts only think they sleep, she looked terribly cute in faux-dreams. One night she slept possessing my underwear drawer. The next two nights she possessed a box of tissues, with a tissue uprooting and drifting to the floor for every different dream. She’d sleep in my bed if I kept the bathroom door closed. If I left it open while I showered, she’d run herself a block away and I’d need to bust out my raincoat to get her to calm down. And her freak-outs always broke my plumbing.
You’ve already figured it out because you’re a smart person. You must be; you’re listening to me, and I don’t have dumb audiences. I didn’t want to figure it out, obvious as it was. A baby would spill its juice and my raincoat buddy would freak out, and even in an Arizona summer, she couldn’t avoid water. I tried staying in the apartment for days on end with her, but eventually a TV show would feature rain, and she’d go haunting around the entire building, and my LCD set would drip like a gutter. She couldn’t find peace, and yes that’s the point of ghosts, but it grates when you’re coming to love someone. I wanted to keep her. Do you know she started stealing candy bars for me? Always Butterfingers.
I knew what was going on weeks beforehand, denying all the way, because you don’t live through the ages and still maintain interest in people without willful ignorance. We had our breakthrough on the night of the apartment building collapse. I went in because, if there is a collapse, the fire department always digs me out at a maximum of fourteen days. They’re great people. There are people like them in every generation, which is why I keep coming back to civilization.
She followed me into the auxiliary basement. My intrepid raincoat buddy possessed some rubble to let me get through and snag a pair of ten-year-old twins. I heard another voice, one that turned out to be only pipes bursting and squealing air, and went deeper. She went deeper with me. The water was trickling at first, only a little rivulet down one crack in the cement wall. And my raincoat buddy froze, staring at the leak. The longer she stared, the stronger the flow became. I got between her and the trickle, and it tapered. It was a sticky haunting, and my distraction only lasted so long, as the water level kept rising even with no source of flow. The kid was gasping, clutching at her throat, and screaming nonsense at the ceiling.
Except ghosts don’t talk in nonsense. They talk in feelings, in a language that makes total sense somewhere else than here. I know feelings; I’m told I don’t have any left, but I sure know, “Daddy, come back,” and, “The knob is too slippery,” “It’s too wet in here, it won’t stop raining,” when I feel it sung by the dead. I’m never going to forget it.
I’m immortal. ‘Never’ is atrociously real to me.
Her fingers raked through the water without a splash, and even though she could float in any substance she wanted, she sank to the bottom. I drowned with her, unable to hug her shoulders, but giving her someone nearby. She wasn’t alone.
Firemen tried to rescue us to no avail for her intangibility. It was another week before they drained the basement, and another two days of mildew smells before she could raise her head. Another four passed before he could be convinced she was capable of leaving the basement. As she evanesced up to the surface, and we passed into daylight, I’ve never been so grateful for a rainless day in Arizona.
Even then, even drowning over and over again in the dark with her, I considered not solving her problems. Ghosts are the best company for immortals, better company than other immortals, because ghosts don’t change. If they’re stuck on you, they remain stuck. If they’re affectionate, they remain affectionate. I could have had a raincoat buddy living in my tissue box until civilization went out of style. Ghosts don’t get over things on their own. It’s why they’re stuck. They can be handy. They’re very easy to abuse.
Immortals do change, though, and I bought her some floaties. Two inflatable arm thingies, and a red pool-noodle shaped like a giant Twizzlers, and an inner tube she actually loved playing in and possessing so long as it was stationed on my carpet. I began pushing the inner tube around my apartment, tricking her into thinking she was getting rides. She didn’t know where she was at the end until the shower water sloshed against the drain.
My water pressure stinks, and my shower drain has never once clogged, no matter what I’ve accidentally let drip down there. Within minutes of the kid trotting in, the entire bathroom was flooded to my knees. She scurried up to my sink, staring at me with the most hurt betrayal in her eyes, no understanding, weapons-grade incomprehension. I stepped into the inner tube, hoisted it to my exceptionally broad hips, and switched on the sink. I’ve never heard GWAR sound sincerely mournful before. I hope you never do.
I’m patient, and I’d already drowned for her before. I rode the inner tube up to the ceiling, all the while gesturing at her arm floaties, and to the buoyant Twizzlers noodle bobbing in front of her. She didn’t believe that she could be buoyant, but over the hours, she couldn’t ignore the toys, and she couldn’t help haunting them. It was as illogical as an adult in a raincoat lying fearlessly beside her at a train station. It made no sense, and you could never hammer it into a reasoned argument, but you’re smart, my friend. You know what mattered to her was how it felt. Ghosts speak in feelings.
And while I hope you never know what it feels like to simultaneously think you’re drowning when no adult cares enough to come back for you, and to feel your body drawn up by inflatable floaties, and to bounce against the ceiling as shower water that shouldn’t ever get that high suddenly begins receding under you — well, I bet you can sympathize. That’s all the feeling that a living person needs.
She was looking at the floaties, levitating them above the receding water line, when she disappeared. No glance at me, no final sigh, no words, not even a quick rendition of “Road Behind.” That was it, as quick as a mortal life being snuffed out, but rarer and so it hurt more to get no goodbye.
I bought a child’s yellow raincoat to keep in my closet. I lie that it’s hers when I tell this story to get me laid. She left nothing behind, which to me is quite the happy ending. Wherever people who die go is none of my business, but wherever it is, she took everything with her.
This story originally appeared in Podcastle.