Fantasy Science Fiction ghosts urban fantasy Hamlet

Vigil

By Stephen Dedman
Mar 19, 2019 · 3,833 words · 14 minutes

Photo by Gabriel via Unsplash.

From the author: "Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" This time, though, it's the wall between this world and the afterlife. My second sale to F&Sf, inspired by the Killeen Massacre.


VIGIL

 

by Stephen Dedman

 

 

The drunk in the stetson thumped his fist on the table, proving that he wasn't dead.  I heard him mutter "...  an' nex' thing you know, they'll be wanting the vote, jes' like the goddamn..."  as I faded out the muzak and cued 'Rawhide' for Melanie.  The drunk was trying to simultaneously outstare three deiks (though God knows how many of them he could see), who seemed amused at his outburst, though they couldn't have understood him.  Most human voices are just a subsonic rumble to deik hearing:  Desmond Morris has been trying to devise a human-deinonychus-saurornithoid interlingua ever since he died, a sort of pidgin from Hell, but it consists mostly of hand signals and very few deiks have shown any interest in learning it.

Joe sidled closer to the cash register, which is also where he keeps his guns, but the drunk didn't seem likely to make any trouble:  he just stared into his Coors, even when I dimmed the lights and Melanie moseyed out onto the catwalk.  Tiff doesn't like me watching the other girls too closely (though God help me if I objected to men watching her), so I kept one eye on the drunk and the other on the deiks.  They glanced over at Melanie as her frock coat hit the floor, but soon turned back to the drunk.  I guess they'd seen enough of mammals back in the Cretaceous, but this might have been their first time inside a bar.  With their chrome-yellow heads and scarlet wattles, they looked unpleasantly like condors waiting for something to die.

Joe was watching the deiks as well (Hell, he's seen more naked women than I've seen dinosaurs; they're like wallpaper to him), flinching slightly every time a rigid tail swept over a table and through the glasses.  Joe gets a grand from the ghost banks every month, which more than compensates him for all the dead who ignore his 'Two Drinks Minimum' sign (the dead are free with their money; after all, what can they buy that's any use to them?), but Joe isn't happy:  if there was a way to keep them out, he'd do it.  He should worry:  I wouldn't be in this dive at all if the museum could afford to keep me on full time, but who's going to go to a museum when he can see Alamosaurs in Tranquillity Park, or hear Davy Crockett lie his way into the Guinness Book of Records?

By the time the drunk hit the table, Melanie was down to her gunbelt, boots and hat, and was pointing her tits at the audience as though she were squeezing off shots, and no-one noticed him fall but Joe, the deiks, and I.  One deik nodded wisely - or so it seemed - and then the three turned tail and trotted out through the wall.

*    *    *

There were sightings before 2008 - Hell, there have been sightings all through recorded history.  Some of them escaped, and some may have been spies, but it wasn't until last Hallowe'en, when Harry Houdini walked into a Detroit newsroom, that anyone thought of them as refugees.

The story came out slowly - the authorised history still isn't finished - and you had to be careful what you believed.  Thousands were ready to take the credit, and they did, but most of the dead agree that it was Gorbachev and Yeltsin, working together, who began tearing down the walls of Hell - or Limbo, Gehenna, Nifflheim or Bardo, depending on who you're talking to.  It's safest just to call it the Afterlife.  No-one likes to admit they might have been damned.

*    *    *

"How many Dead were in there tonight?"

I looked away from the newscast - Shakespeare was threatening to rewrite his tragedies, saying that they unfairly portrayed the dead as vicious and vengeful - and into Tiff's beautiful blue eyes.  "I don't know.  There were three deinonychi and a troodon - I think the troodon was a female -"

"Jerry..."

"I didn't count.  Okay?"

She sunk further under the covers, and I realised that though we'd been in bed for an hour (it was the only spot in the caravan where we could both watch TV), she was still shivering.  "Why?"  No answer.  "Tiffany?  Love?"

"What?"

"Why?"

"Why what?"

"Why does it matter how many dead were in the club?"  The way the lights at the Longhorn are arranged, the girls can't see past the second row of seats.

"They scare me.  That's why."

"The dead scare you?  Honey, they can't hurt you, they can't even touch you, they're not the ones with -"

She reached over and grabbed my hand, and slid it up under her T-shirt and between her breasts.  "I can't touch them," she replied, simply.  "And I can't build a wall that can keep them out.  I don't let them in, they're just there.  Don't they scare you, too?"

I shrugged.  I like most of the dead I've met; they're more interested in ideas and people and things that matter, rather than day-to-day stuff like money.  I guess my face must have shown this, because Tiff pouted slightly.  "Okay, so maybe it's not rational," she said.  "Haven't you ever been scared of something that can't hurt you?"

"I don't think so."

"What does scare you?"

"Guns, but they're meant to hurt people."

"Why guns?"

I stared at the television, saw Ben Franklin speaking at Drexel University.  "My father was shot, and killed, back when I was ten.  1991.  The woman who did it claimed he stole her purse:  she was never charged, even though there were no witnesses and the gun she shot him with was in her purse."

"Why?"

"I don't know.  Playing cowgirls and indians, I guess - with a real gun, and a real Indian."  Dad was a quarter Brule Sioux and a second generation hippie, wore his hair in thick black plaits down to his belt.  "I don't blame the woman - okay, I do blame her, even though she's dead, but I don't hate her.  From what I've heard, she was a pretty good person for most of her life, made some people happy, but the gun...  the gun was made to be hidden in purse or a pocket and only taken out to kill a human being.  That's the only thing it could do."

She nodded.  "Your father died here?  In Houston?"

"Yeah."

"I thought you grew up in the Village?"

"Yeah, with my mother.  Dad was a bum, like me."

"You're not a bum."

"Well, whatever I am, he was, and he picked the wrong time to come here.  Some psycho had driven into a restaurant in Killeen and killed twenty-two people and himself, about a week before, and you know how lots of people react after a massacre like that:  they buy as many guns as they can, and they start shooting at shadows, and..."

She grabbed my other hand, and squeezed it.  "I'm sorry I -"

"Hell, you weren't to know.  You were only, what, five or six?  and it probably didn't even make the news here."  All I know about Tiff's family is that she won't talk about them, or even use her family name, and that they probably lived in Maine (she hides her accent well, but it slips out when she talks to cats and babies).  "Is there anything I can do?" she asked.

"Marry me?"  I hadn't proposed in over a week, and I needed the practise.  "I don't mind if you don't change your name..."

"I was hoping for a sensible suggestion," she replied, drily.  I put my arm around her, and held her closer to me, and no ghosts disturbed us at all, that night.

*    *    *

I saw Willy Ley at the museum, that Saturday.  I knew he'd died a few weeks before Apollo 11, but I'd forgotten that he'd been a zoologist before becoming interested in astronautics.  We sat on the roof after closing time, watching a Quetzalcoatlus coasting on the thermals.  Occasionally, we'd hear some idiot take a shot at it, but it paid them no mind.

No-one, dead or alive, seems to know why some species have returned en masse, and others haven't.  Quets are all wings and no brain, and I don't know anyone who believes they have souls.  The ceratopsians aren't much smarter, and they have tempers as foul as the Houston Ship Channel, but there are hundreds of Triceratops prowling around the badlands.  Herds of mastodons have been sighted in Alberta, and mammoths in Siberia, and there are photos of plesiosaurs swimming through the Tanami Desert where the Inland Sea used to be, but there haven't been any reports of dire wolves or sabre-toothed cats prowling down Wilshire Boulevard.  Willy hypothesized that migratory species might be more likely to return, that a sense of direction might be the key, but there isn't enough evidence to be sure.  As for why some people have returned, and not others, "Some just don't feel the need; maybe they feel the Earth has changed too much.  Others have families, or unfinished vork, or just curiosity:  I don't think ve're all refugees; many are tourists."  He smiled.  "Of course, it's hard to be a tourist ven you have to go everyvere by foot.  I valked here all the vay from New York."

"At least you don't have to worry about borders and visas."

"No?  We can't leave Earth:  isn't that a border?"

I stared at the quet.  "Less than a hundred people a year leave Earth; they never go as far as the moon any more, and they all come back.  I don't think my chances of being one of them are much better than yours."

He laughed.  I don't think I'll ever forget the way he laughed.

*    *    *

It isn't easy recognising the dead at the Longhorn; Texan male fashion hasn't changed much in the past hundred years, except for soap and aftershave, and the dead don't have any smell at all.  The women are a little easier to pick - they're too well dressed, for one thing - but they usually stand near the back wall, in the shadows.  Male or female, they rarely stay for more than a few minutes.  Apparently, the dead can't even touch each other:  watching an advertisement for sex must be bittersweet at best.  They rarely intrude into bedrooms, though brothels and bath-houses and even motels are another matter.  Tiff was becoming increasingly nervous about working, and Joe let slip that he was auditioning new dancers.

The local news that night was full of the Barrington trial - a routine manslaughter case in Phoenix, but the first time that dead spoke as witnesses (not the victim, who hadn't returned, but an old family friend).  The Singer hoard had been discovered, and donated to the ghost banks.  Shooting had begun on Hitchcock's first posthumous movie, Eclipse, with Norma Jean Baker starring.  And in Europe, hundreds of dead were swarming out of Auschwitz, Dachau, Buchenwald and Belsen, all the old death camps, and disrupting neo-Nazi marches:  next time, they warned, it would be thousands.  Maybe millions.

*    *    *

Melanie told me that Tiff had been calling her agent, arranging to go back on tour, pose for some magazines, maybe even make another movie.  I asked her about it when we were in bed, and she confessed.  "I was hoping you'd come with me..."

"Where are you going?"

"I don't know.  San Francisco, New Orleans, Boston, back to Toronto, maybe overseas..."

"When?"

"Soon."

"Tiffany..."

"This is the first time I've ever known you to want to stay anywhere:  normally, you can't wait to drop everything you don't need and split.  Why here?  It can't be the job."

"No."

"One of the other girls?"

"Hell no, and you know it."

"Waiting for your father to come back?"

"...  I don't know."

She shook her head.  "I've done some pretty weird things in my time, Geronimo, but at least I've never been a necrophile -"

"Tiff, listen -"

"No, you listen!  You want your father back?  He's dead.  You want the sixties back?  They're dead.  We're alive."  And she grabbed me, pressing my face into her breasts.  "I'm twenty-two:  how long a career d'you think I can expect?  And how long d'you think it'll be before there are dead girls in the clubs, girls who don't get old, don't sag and stretch and wrinkle?  What'm I supposed to do then?  Suicide?  Fuck that!  I'm alive, you asshole, and don't you fuckin' well forget it!"

She pushed me away, and turned around so I couldn't see her cry:  I wanted to touch her, comfort her, but she would probably have thrown me clear across the room.  "I'm alive, and I can travel," she sniffed, "and I'm getting the fuck out of here, whether you come with me or not.  Dig?"

*    *    *

Hallowe'en passed without incident, at least in Houston.  Aleister Crowley convened a meeting of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in Whitechapel, and there was a reported sighting of Vlad Dracula in Romania, but nothing worse.  A census revealed that nearly two billion human dead had returned, but no Hitler, Atilla, Stalin, Idi Amin, Jim Jones, Elisabeth Bathory, John Murrell, Cotton Mather, Charles Manson, Charles Whitman, Patrick Purdy, Ted Bundy or George Hennard.  Maybe they don't think they'd like the new world, or maybe there's another wall inside the afterlife that hasn't been torn down:  none of the dead would say.

Business at the Longhorn had fallen off slightly since Tiff left:  the new girl was even bustier, but not as pretty, and when you've seen two saline implants, you've seen them all.  Most of the clientele was dead, and Joe and I were wondering why they kept coming back, because they didn't seem to be watching the girls.  But they seemed comfortable in the place, now that it wasn't crowded, sometimes even coming up to the bar to talk to me.  Most of them were interested in the places I'd been, especially places they couldn't visit now that they were dead.  They even invited me to a Hallowe'en party in Tranquillity Park, as the only living guest, and what the Hell, I didn't have anything better to do.

One man reminisced about his days as a RETRO at the Manned Spacecraft Centre, especially being on the Black Team for Apollo 13.  A beautiful dead blond told me about seeing Kennedy shot, and said she'd come back hoping to vote for him again.  I saw a teenager, murdered in 1972, reunited with his dead parents:  the cops had told them he'd probably "joined those hippies in California."  I told them all about working as a DJ in a Patpong strip joint, castrating maize in Auvergne, and keeping bar at the Army base outside Munich and quitting when they tried to teach me to shoot.  That led to me telling them about my father; the crowd around me fell silent, and the silence spread across the park in concentric rings.

"What was his name?" asked the blond.

I told them:  none of them knew him, but there are a hundred billion human dead, after all, and I guess having been shot isn't much of a distinction.

Joe closed the Longhorn just after New Year, having become his own best customer, and the Museum 'let me go' a few weeks later.  Locked doors don't worry the dead, so the reduced hours probably didn't have any effect on business.  I'm surviving by working as a scribe for the dead (I used to do the same for Tiff, who was badly dyslexic), and a few have offered to pay me to do their travelling for them - see places they can't go, take photos, visit relatives, that sort of crap.  I may take them up on it, when it stops snowing.  They don't seem to notice the weather any more:  they'd probably be happy at the South Pole, if they could get there.  Tiff's working as a cocktail waitress at the Antarctica Hilton in Komsomolskaya; she says it's booked solid for another year, and not just because of the arcology project.  Some people are going that far just to be away from the dead.

*    *    *

The day before I left Houston, the sky was black with passenger pigeons, and a family of five was killed by a stranger with an M-18:  the cops think he went to the wrong address.  The public reaction was predictable:  they bought M-18s by the truckload.  The manufacturers must have been creaming their Calvin Kleins.

I was in Chicago when the Kent State Four came back, and I just had to see them.  Alison Krause and Jeff Miller talk just like my dad used to, and Bill Schroder said that while he'd been prepared to die for his country, he hadn't expected it to happen while he was walking between classes.  Sandy Scheuer just wanted to get back to her studies.  You can't go into a lecture theatre now without seeing the dead, but they're not letting them take exams.  I suggested she organise a sit-in:  after all, you can only die once.  She laughed politely, and the others didn't laugh at all. 

The youth hostel was full of dead, most of them young (or apparently young) and all vicariously travelling. I told them my story, but they wouldn't tell me about the afterlife.  Fortunately, with nearly five billion come back, some demographic studies have been done.  The vast majority of returnees died violently or suddenly, but almost none were suicides.  All have been dead at least four years, and most for seven or more (apparently it takes them some time to recover from the shock).  None of the dead are younger than ten:  maybe small children don't have souls, or maybe coming back, building a new body, is too difficult, too abstract.  I'm never going to forget seeing Alison and Jeff re-enacting their deaths, right up to the stigmata where the bullets hit, and then regenerating before the audience had finished gagging. 

The Bob Fosse/Oscar Wilde Contragate, with Bogart as Ronald Reagan, is almost worth dying for, but the new Hamlet closed in Stratford after a month.  Apparently the ghost was removed; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern pushed Hamlet into avenging his father, thinking he'd be a better (i.e. more easily controlled) King than Claudius.  At least the soundtrack sold well - nearly as well as Beethoven's Tenth, Dvorak's Tenth, Mahler's Tenth, and the new Lennon-McCartney.  I met a lot of young musicians who complained that no-one's interested in live music any more, but that's showbiz for you.

The new mayors of Newark, Philadelphia and Detroit are dead, and there are dead running for Congress and the Senate.  Living politicians are being followed everywhere by the dead, and many have decided not to run for re-election.  Factories in Korea and Taiwan are churning out thousands of cheap electronic eyes that'll enable the dead to vote in Japan next month.  There are Yahi and Gabrielino in California again, Yahgan and Haush in Tierra del Fuego, and aborigines in Tasmania.  Tourists are scared to visit the Little Big Horn any more, and Belsen has been abandoned, left to the dead:  some say it'll be the first of many.  Alan Turing is doing ads for IBM; Leonardo da Vinci and Lewis Carroll for Polaroid; Abe Lincoln and Bobby Kennedy for tougher gun laws; Einstein, von Braun, Sergei Korolev, Gus Grissom and dozens of others for a better-funded space programme.  After all, they say, we can't just stay on the Earth forever.

*    *    *

It was still snowing like Hell when I reached Montreal; it didn't bother the dead or the dinosaurs, but everyone else stayed underground.  I called my mother for the first time since I dropped out of pre-Law and she changed the locks on the apartment door, but I didn't visit - men aren't allowed into the commune - and then I headed back to Houston.

Dad wasn't there, but he should have been:  he would have loved it.  There was a dead in every gun shop and pawn shop, all of them showing their bullet holes like stigmata.  The proprietors couldn't move them, couldn't arrest them, couldn't touch them.  By the end of the week, there were dead in every gun shop in the country, and in every gun factory, and outside every shooting range, just standing there like so many Banquo's ghosts.  I would have hugged them all, if I could; I would have tried, if there hadn't been so many of them, so many...

 *    *    *

Selling my camera hurt, but Hell, I needed the money, and everyone's taking photographs of dinosaurs and no-one's buying them.  Why should they?  They'll still be here tomorrow.  So will the Toltecs and the Trojans.  So, it seems, will cuirasses and corsets, stiletto heels and designer jeans, Iron Cross medals and love beads, the fifties, the sixties, the seventies, the eighties, the nineties, the Pleistocene, the Tertiary, the Cretaceous...  so much past, that I began wondering where we were going to find room to put the future...

and when I realised - as Tiffany had done months before - I sold everything I owned and borrowed what I could, updated my passport, and bought myself an airline ticket.

*    *    *

It's cold outside - it will be until morning, which is still two months away - but the walls are well insulated, and Tiffany keeps me warm enough.  If she weren't so much smarter than me, she'd be perfect.

Lying here, I could almost forget the rest of the world existed:  it's easier than trying to keep up with the changes.  Kennedy is president again, with Martin Luther King as VP, guns are nearly as hard to buy as porn or cigarettes, and the dead - nearly nine billion of them - are campaigning for land rights.  Everyone says it's a safer world than the one I was born into, cleaner, less materialistic.  Oh, I applaud what the dead have done, but I didn't realise why they were doing it.  Maybe I'd left home too long ago to recognise the tone.  Didn't your parents ever tell you to put away your toys or clean up your room, and wasn't it always for your own good, and didn't they always know best?

I guess the old Shakespeare was right, after all:  when the dead come back, they come back with a vengeance.  It isn't our Earth any more, but what the Hell:  it's a big universe, and the Tsiolkovski will be launched in a few months.  Tiff and I and a few hundred other living are going to drop everything we don't need, and run away from home, like kids have always done, like they're meant to do.  We won't be taking any guns, but Hell, we're not taking any ghosts, either.

This story originally appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction.


1 Comment
  • Alex Isle
    March 31, 9:35am

    Great story, Stephen. Loved the dinosaurs - in fact, all the nonhuman species returning. And I caught that about maybe small children don't have souls :-) Anyone with the misfortune to ride a train containing one would agree.

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