The seventh repetition almost played out like all the others. A different person filled Luis' place, but despite the evidence before my eyes, I could only see my idiot husband. The burnt-coffee weight of disappointment in my stomach gave me all the certainty I needed. Once again, he'd forgotten the cat. "Goddamn it, Luis. You were supposed to get Nye!"
Luis – the curly-haired teenaged girl standing in his place – squealed in shock. "Oh my gosh! It's the ghost!" He dropped his bag of candy corn, and wedges of multicolored sugar-wax scattered across the concrete basement floor.
I sighed. "This isn't a drill, Luis, I checked the news! You forgot Nye, didn't you?"
Luis and a friend, some freckle-faced boy, cowered against the wall. Luis found his courage and pried himself free from his partner's grasp. "She's real. No way!" He stretched out his arm, fingers curled as if testing a hot wire.
I rolled my eyes. If he's not going to help, I'll just get Nye myself, tornado warning or no. I turned away and stomped toward the stairs. I kicked a piece of candy corn out of my way, but my foot passed through it like a mirage.
Candy corn. Luis hated candy corn as much as I did. That girl – she didn't look like Luis, she didn't talk like Luis. Why did I think she was him? Why was I so angry? It had all made sense at the time. Frustrated, rushed, I had repeated my last argument like some B-movie–
My last argument.
What had come after? A flash of wind and flying bricks, too swift for terror. Was I dead? Impossible, no matter what the girl had said. I groped for another answer as my steps quickened along a path I had chosen long before. I leapt up the stairs, toward the exit. My feet bounded soundlessly against the wood, form without mass, and my voice said, "Forget it! You stay here and be useless, I'll–"
I threw open the door, caught a glimpse of moonlight on ruined timbers, and dissolved like a breath of smoke.
I returned to awareness in front of a new Luis, as disappointing as ever in pale skin and pierced eyebrows. You're not Luis– but my voice said, "Goddamn it, Luis. You were supposed to get Nye!"
Dead, and stuck here with him. Trapped by his sweet idiot incompetence, in death just as in life. I said, "This isn't a drill, Luis, I checked the news! You forgot Nye, didn't you?"
I curled my fists and forced myself to ignore the boy. He wasn't Luis, no matter how badly I wanted my husband to stand there and accept the blame for my death.
My death. Ghosts were superstition and nonsense, my prison and… my hypothesis. I didn't need to believe, I only needed to listen to the data. Maybe my lab had closed in the months or years since my death, but I could find another, stocked with electron and optical spectrometers that could make sense of whatever-I-was. But first I needed to free myself from this video-loop echo of my end.
I said, "I don't care how many chapters you outlined, I asked you to stop by the hardware store today!"
A grin split my face. Different words! Not the sentence I'd intended, but when ice melts, that first drop feels like a flood. Even if I couldn't escape my fights with my absent-minded husband, at least I could choose which argument to quote.
But what could I gain from another inch between the bars of my cage, if I had no time to pry them open? I was already stomping up the stairs, shouting my final line before I threw open the door and dissolved like a breath of smoke.
To break the cycle with my meager power, I would need to design the perfect experiment. Could I prevent the loop from ever starting? I squeezed my eyes shut before I could register who was there, before I could see and name him Luis.
I said, "Hello? Luis, are you home?"
Silence. A shuffling of feet, a man clearing his throat. "Who're you? Where'd you come from, lady?"
I'm a ghost and I'm trapped repeating my last argument every time someone comes down here, could you please call my graduate student or at least one of those Mythbusters shows– "I've been at work since six this morning, and I'm sorry, I cannot listen to a word of your stupid story until I've had a shower and a drink and some Chinese food. You called in our order, right?"
He shuffled his feet. "Look, lady, uh. If you don't want to share your squat, that's fine. Didn't mean to bother you. I'll be going."
A sigh escaped my lips. "You were supposed to get Nye." Wait! I forced myself away from the script. "Look, don't yell at me! I could relax about this grant proposal if it wasn't the only thing keeping a roof over our heads!"
Not-Luis ran past me, and the stairs rattled beneath his feet. Come back! I can explain this! Somehow! I leapt up the stairs in pursuit as he threw open the door, and sunlight flashed around him before I dissolved like a breath of smoke.
I clapped my hands over my mouth, but my voice rang as clear and angry as ever. "Goddamn it, Luis. You were supposed to get Nye!"
The words tasted more bitter every time. I wished I could take them back, not so I could make myself heard, but so I could stop yelling at Luis. I could barely endure one lifetime spent driving him away when I needed him most.
How many times had I manifested? Ten? Twelve? The faces blurred together, fits and starts of anger unbroken by any comfort. My instincts clutching, every time, for Luis. I would sit in this dusty basement, my stomach empty and my work shoes still on my feet, if he would put his arm around me and read me a chapter from his novel.
This Luis wore a construction helmet, and sunlight peeked into the basement through gaps in the ceiling panels. Earth crunched beneath the whir and grind of a backhoe. Beams of light drew closer. Without my haunt, would I ever return from my dissolution? Wasn't that the end I wanted? Whatever came next, I might meet Luis there, waiting for me with open arms and forgiveness.
"How was the weather today? God, I wish our lab had some windows." Yet I pressed my back against the wall, a barrier impenetrable to my absent flesh. Alive or dead, a woman cannot thrive on love alone. I could step forward into a sunbeam and find peace, but rest without knowledge would be the worst afterlife of all.
A clawed metal bucket tore through the ceiling's rotted wood as I berated the man about our cat. Sunlight streamed in, and I dissolved like a breath of smoke.
Luis was a lanky brown-skinned girl in her mid-teens, but she had her back to me as she pulled black fabric across a well window. She and I stood in a brand new basement: carpeted floor, fake-oak support pillars, eggshell-yellow walls. No sign of the old concrete, of the wooden stairs Luis and I painted together.
I danced away from the last fleck of sun as the girl tacked her curtain over glass blocks. To empty air, she said, "Brandy, stop watching the movie without me! I'm almost ready, I just need to set up the projector and– holyshit there's some lady in here!"
"Goddamn it, Luis, you–" We stared at each other, interrupted, silent.
"Brandy," she whispered. "Remember how the old house here was supposed to be haunted? Look it up, quick."
I said, "Shouldn't you have heard back from one of the agents by now?"
She held out her hand, palm toward me, gesturing to me to stop. She tipped her head and listened to her invisible phone.
I frowned. "…you said you were going to get Nye?"
Her black eyes met mine. "Are you Anita Reyes? You must be. She died right here in 2015, chasing a cat named Bill Nye."
I sank to my knees. My eyes stung, straining for tears. All I could think was ghosts shouldn't get dizzy, they don't have blood pressure.
The girl grinned. "Hah! It's her, Brandy! I'm serious! Unbelievable, right?" She tapped a button behind her ear and then focused on me. Her smile shifted, sharp and watchful, like an animal sniffing a new arrival. "So are you going to haunt me now?"
I wiped at my eyes, dry against dry. In that moment, I would have promised her anything. "If you're making progress, I'll cook dinner."
She crossed her arms. "Okay, Ms. Reyes. You're on camera. If you're a ghost, prove it."
I leapt back to my feet, as giddy as the day I earned my thesis committee's signatures. Finally, someone with the wherewithal to communicate! More than that, a hint that I could meet her challenge. My words still adhered to the language of my years with Luis, but for the first time in ages, I had spoken without resurrecting an argument.
How could I prove myself to this girl? Eventually I would vanish and repeat, but this train of thought was too precious to risk. I had no possessing touch, no poltergeist's tricks. My body wasn't properly material, but silent footsteps would hardly convince anyone as long as my feet still treated floor and stairs as solid.
How did that work? Why did the walls constrain me at all? The answer might depend not on their nature, but mine. Repetition of the past, with all its limits–but the basement had no support pillars back when I lived. I reached out, and my hand passed through the pillar, as insubstantial as the candy corn so long ago.
The girl clapped. "Oh, awesome! Brandy, are you– wait, what do you mean it won't come through? Let me send again." Her face clouded over, and then focused on me once more. "So, Ms. Reyes. Problem. You do something weird to video, and I really don't have time to work on it now. I mean, you're a real live–dead?–ghost, and that's wild, but my girlfriend and I have been planning this all week. Could you come back later or something?"
If only I had that kind of control! Frustration hit me like a fist, and all I could say to it was: "This isn't a drill, Luis, I checked the news! You forgot Nye, didn't you?"
She jerked back as if I'd slapped her. "What the hell? You're not listening to me, are you? I don't care about your husband or your cat or whatever! Luis Reyes died six years ago. You died thirty years ago. Your cat probably died in the tornado! None of that stuff matters anymore! Now get out of my face and let us have some privacy!"
Her words pierced me, a mounting pin through a butterfly. I wanted to shake her, to yell how? or no! or maybe just to beat my fists against her chest and say you were listening to me you can't just stop!
As I stomped up the molded-plastic stairs, the girl laughed, a single dry breath. "God, I don't know why I'm yelling at her. Sorry, Brandy. Stupid thing can't even hear me."
I said, "Forget it! You stay here and be useless, I'll–"
I threw the door open and entered the hallway. The wall in front of me held a framed photograph of an Indian couple bejeweled and hennaed for their wedding. Momentum carried me another step forward, onto the hardwood. Voices echoed from a distant corner of the house, muffled by my white-knuckle thoughts. Outside the basement. Was I no longer bound? Or had I never understood the rules?
Footsteps rose behind me, and I stepped forward, toward the photograph and living voices. I rounded the corner, into the bright grey light cast by a half-curtained window, and dissolved like a breath of smoke.
I only got as far as "Goddamn it, Luis," before the girl grinned like a wolf trap and turned on the lights.
I blinked in the sudden glare, quick and warm unlike any bulb I knew. My chest relaxed, expecting dissolution; but there I stood, intact beneath the electric glow.
I said, "Not right now! I'm thinking." But it was a lie. She was the one experimenting on my nature. I could only remember the taste of our last conversation, the bitterness of its absence, that one elusive moment when I spoke without anger.
Her eyes narrowed, annoyance honed by pride. She yanked open the makeshift curtains, and pins popped from the wall to reveal glass blocks, the blurry shine of moonlight, and my dissolution.
The cruel girl sat on the basement floor, her hair chopped short, her eyes red and hollow with tears. She swung a hammer loosely in one hand, its head thumping against the floor.
"Hey, ghost. Can we talk?"
The girl looked older. I didn't want to guess how much time had passed. "Fine! What now, Luis?"
She smiled, more sour than amused. "At least someone has the time to listen to me." Her fingers tightened on the hammer. "Brandy said she wouldn't go to Northwestern unless we both got in. We promised we'd never have to do the long-distance thing again." She grimaced and hurled the hammer across the room. It clanged against a pillar and landed heavily on the floor. "But I guess she cares more about Chicago."
I groped for a memory that might comfort her, a moment of revenge against the all-consuming injustice of those rejection letters. "Hah," I said, keeping my tone low and empathetic, though I once spoke the words with vindictive joy. "Brown wouldn't let me in as an undergrad, but now they're going to pay my graduate stipend."
She studied me more closely. "Was that an answer? Hey, captive audience. If you understand me, say something about your job."
"Luis, you're amazing! Hold on, I have to call the cellular imaging center and cancel tonight's scans. No no, that's a good thing– you gave me a great idea, I'll have a way better slice for them to run next week."
A smile snuck through her face, like a sliver of sun on an Antarctic spring. "All right. So what do you think, ghost?"
There's no escape from the people you love. They'll infuriate you, disappoint you, drive you mad; but you can't control them, and you can't control how much you love them. But maybe, maybe, you can choose how you respond to that impossible knot of resentment and love.
I said, "Sometimes I feel like we're having the same argument every day."
"Well, that's because you're still talking to–" Her smile vanished. "This isn't about you, ghost."
Denial yanked me forward, railroad tracks beneath a locomotive. "This isn't a drill, Luis!"
"God! You're so self-absorbed!" She leapt to her feet. "Not even the ghost trapped in my basement will listen to me!"
She stomped up the stairs, and I tried to follow her, but I knew exactly what my explanation would sound like: "Forget it! You stay here and be useless, I'll–"
The same dried tears still furrowed her cheeks. She sat on the floor with her legs folded up, her arms around them. She mumbled, "Sorry."
Even without a body, I could feel the course of my frustration, the righteous fire cooled to greasy ash on my tongue. For all our troubles, this meager relationship was the only thing I possessed. "I'm sorry, baby."
She watched me, silent, her chin resting on her knees. I wondered what kind of family might have driven her back down here, with me, in search of comfort.
She said, "My name's Malati."
"Brandy didn't dump me." Malati studied the carpet. "She wants me to move to Chicago with her. But I didn't get into any schools up there. I just feel so trapped, you know? Give up on Brandy, or on college."
I knew what would happen, if she moved just to follow Brandy. A year or more working the early-morning shift in a Starbucks, while her partner attended classes in a school full of bright new ideas, bright new people. The two girls tied together by their past, while they grew farther and farther apart.
I said, "I could relax about this grant proposal if it wasn't the only thing keeping a roof over our heads."
"Bitter much, huh? Yeah." She sighed. "Maybe you're right. I can't believe she's making me choose like this. At least she left it so I can dump her."
Her voice shook beneath its veil of fierceness. She's not going to go through with it. What teenager ever listened to an adult on matters of the heart?
Perhaps I could find some way to convince her, help her cut herself free from her ruinous relationship. But her voice cracked with an unfamiliar sound, betrayal rather than bitterness. Was this the only advice I could give, my pain rephrased as if it was wisdom? If Malati's love had survived years and miles, it could yet be saved, as long she and Brandy never surrendered to contempt.
I stepped closer and sat down on the carpet I could not feel, close enough to touch Malati's living hand if I dared. "No, no, no. Luis, no. That's not what I meant." The words still caught in my throat, after all this time. "I don't want a divorce."
She dropped her face into the cradle of arms and knees. A sob, short and choked, wracked her body. "Then what do I do?"
I possessed only one gift to give, but it could get Malati into any college in the world, reunite the two girls as peers. She possessed half of it already, ever since that night months or years ago when she measured the bounds of my impermanence.
If I wanted her to understand, I needed to shake her out of her rut. I touched her arm, and we overlapped slightly, her flesh slowing my passage like a watery agarose gel. "They've offered me a position! It's not tenure-track, but still. Washington University Department of Biology!"
Malati lifted her head, her brow furrowed in confusion as she tried to swat my hand away. "What? Stop that, it feels weird." She studied my face, trying to make sense of my words. "Wash U. didn't accept either of us."
I could have stopped there, pretended my last words had been unplanned. If I let Malati take credit for discovering me, her name would come first on every publication and grant, along with fame and success to outshine my entire career.
Once I would have obsessed over such unfairness. But what did I care about portioning out the labor and glory, so long as we struggled toward knowledge together? The Nobel Prize committee didn't give out posthumous awards anyways.
I pointed at myself, and then at the heavy black cloth tacked over the glass blocks. At myself, then the stairs. I said, "How was the weather today? God, I wish our lab had some windows." I leveled my finger at her. "Why don't you ever visit my lab?"
Understanding dawned on her face with a smile fiercer than any tornado.
It's the new moon, and we're ready to go. It'll be a long walk, but with Malati's conversation to anchor me, we'll get to the Life Sciences Building before dawn. If we can't find an unlocked door, we've got a tent and a tarp to bide our time until the first graduate students drag themselves to campus. I could pass through the walls without Malati, but I can't finish this alone.
Our plan might not work. I've gone outside only once, in the too-short hour between moonset and dawn. I felt the give of grassy earth beneath my feet, watched the light of streetlamps gleaming on the house's white polymer siding. Malati's house, not mine. No trace of the early-twentieth-century brick beauty Luis and I fixed up. When I step onto that sidewalk, this place won't even have a memory of us.
She tightens the straps on her backpack. "Let's show those dicks at Northwestern what they're missing."
I say, "I know, right? Candy corn is disgusting."
We step into the moonless night, and forward.
This story originally appeared in Strange Horizons.
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Benjamin C. Kinney is a SFF writer, neuroscientist, and the Assistant Editor at the science fiction podcast magazine Escape Pod. Find him online at benjaminckinney.com or follow him on Twitter @benckinney.