TW: Suicidal Thoughts/Ideation, Referenced Child Abuse
We Share the Dark
By Carlie St. George
When the ghost sat beside me, I was sitting on the porch, considering suicide the same idle way people think about where they’d go on vacation, if they could afford to. Pills and knives were popular but also prone to failure. Hanging was so old-fashioned as to be almost charming, but if your neck didn’t break, it would be one lousy way to go. A shotgun was practical. Already had one, and I didn’t think I could fuck it up any. I was warming to the idea when the ghost put its hands around my wrist and squeezed till I dropped my cigarette.
“Fine,” I said. “Cancer’s not an option anyway. Takes too damn long.”
The ghost rarely let himself be seen, and he never spoke out loud at all. But I knew his name was Alex cause ghosts are better than anyone at nonverbal communication.
He spoke through gestures, through charades, through temper tantrums. Used to be a theater student, somewhere out west, and clearly he missed putting on a show. I would wake sometimes to the clashing of pots and pans, bad renditions of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath songs. Alex usually started up before even God was awake, but I’d put up with worse before, and I knew I’d put up with more after.
Only sometimes did he touch me. His fingers pushed against my skin, inside it, and I would know things about him, the little things that made up a person. He knew things about me too, only the bits I was willing to give. We didn’t share our secrets or our fears or our childhoods, only pieces folk don’t usually bother putting into words.
A few weeks after Alex arrived, my ex-boyfriend came over to see if I had one of his old Muddy Waters albums. Rob only listened to vinyl--his Daddy hated technology something fierce, and he had once broken a CD by throwing it across the room, slashing the hell out of Rob’s left ear on the way. That was some twenty years gone now, but scars remember, and Rob had a lot of scars.
Alex and I were watching some dumb comedy on TV--or I was watching, while Alex objected by launching teddy bears round the room. Rob walked in without knocking and eyed the floating bears cautiously as he leaned back against the wall.
“So,” he said. “Nothing’s changed, I guess.”
One of the teddy bears--the blue one my daddy had bought me, two weeks before he left town for good--wiggled its blue butt right in front of Rob’s face. Rob slapped it with the back of his hand, the way you might slap a woman.
I watched him watch his hands, curl them into fists and shove them in his pockets. “This one love you too?” Rob asked, staring at the ground.
Beside me, Alex flickered.
“Doubt it,” I said. “Hasn’t even peeked at me in the shower yet. Frankly, I’m offended.”
“Right,” Rob said. “Well.”
I sighed. Rob’s almost total lack of humor had always been his worst selling point. “I’ll look again, but I don’t think it’s here. You only brought that turntable over a couple of times.”
“Can’t think of where else it’d be.”
I couldn’t either--Rob didn’t have much of a social life--so I left him by the door to have a look around. Alex hovered over my shoulder, let his fingers melt right through my skin. I saw purple bruises, wide eyes. Commercials for Lifetime movies.
“No,” I told him. “It wasn’t like that at all.”
I couldn’t find the record. I came back into the living room, found Rob staring through the screen door at the setting sun, arms folded loosely cross his chest. I missed those arms, those shoulders. The dead might touch me, but they were always cold.
“Sorry,” I told him. “Nothing doing. Might be you could find another copy down at the Salvation Army.”
Rob shook his head. “You know he’ll leave you. They always do.”
I pushed past him and kicked open the door.
“Well,” I said. “The living are pretty good at that, too.”
Alex wasn’t a blues man like Rob. He didn’t like country music either, took the Bible from my bedside and underlined Luke 6:36 -- Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful--when I started playing Hank Aaron one morning. He didn’t even like Patsy Cline.
I didn’t ask him what music he did like. I didn’t ask him where he was from, what his last name was, how he died. Figured he’d tell me when he wanted to talk.
Course, he didn’t want to talk. He wanted me to guess. Alex liked playing games, and I didn’t, but I did like the way that he laughed, loud, like it had never occurred to him that the dead ought to be quiet. So I indulged him by playing Twenty Questions, and he kept score by drawing lipstick tallies on the wall. I didn’t have a lot of lipstick. When I ran out, I drove my truck down to Wal-Mart and bought a Ouija board from the bargain bin. Alex loved it, could spend hours spelling out nothing more than knock-knock and yo momma jokes. He said he was a big kid at heart. Said he was only nineteen.
I called bullshit on that pretty fast.
D-O-N-T Y-O-U B-E-L-
I forced the planchette to NO.
“Cause you’re a liar, Alex.”
His hands slipped away from mine, and I shook my head. “Don’t take offense,” I said. “I don’t think you mean nothing by it. Comes second nature to you, I expect, but you’re still a bullshitter, through and through, and I can’t trust anything you tell me if it don’t come straight out of your skin.”
For a moment, I sensed nothing, and I thought Alex had left me to sulk, the way some men do when a woman has the gall to be honest. I didn’t much care--I wasn’t about to apologize for speaking my mind in my own house, and anyway, it was too hot to get all worked up. The air was damp and suffocating, and every inch of me was beaded with sweat.
I leaned back against the couch and took a long drink of my beer, and Alex’s fingers wrapped around my wrist, gently squeezing until I set the bottle down. “It’s like you don’t want me to do anything fun,” I complained. “Can’t smoke. Can’t drink. Can’t listen to country.”
He didn’t respond to that, just guided my hands back to the planchette, his fingers becoming visible between mine. They were long and dark and refreshingly cold. His fingernails were too clean for this part of the country.
“You don’t usually let me see,” I murmured.
B-U-R-N S-C-A-R-S D-E-F-O-R-M-E-D H-I-D-E-O-U-S
I smiled. “Liar,” I said softly.
Alex moved the planchette to YES. After a moment’s hesitation, his fingers disappeared. The Bible, which had been pushed off the coffee table to make room for my Burger King wrappers and beer, lifted in the air. Pages flipped back and forth until Alex found what he was looking for and set the Good Book in my lap.
It took me a minute to scan the page and read the line he wanted read. “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” I looked up at where I thought he might be sitting. “So . . . you’re saying you’re not just a pretty face?”
Alex didn’t laugh like I thought he would. He grabbed at my wrists again, and this time I felt his cold fingers sink inside mine and hold there. I saw the boy he once was, a chubby thing with big eyes and bigger hair, playing in a costume box, performing for an audience of stuffed animals and a couple of hamsters. He always played cops, never robbers. He recited movie lines to himself on the way to school. If he could dress the part, he could play the part, and maybe someday people would believe he was the part--
I pulled back, blowing warm air into my hands. My fingers had gone so cold they’d started to ache.
“You don’t gotta be no one special for me,” I told him. “I like you. You should like you, too.”
He kissed me, and I tasted birthday cake, strawberries and vanilla frosting. I smelled smoke and counted candles, twenty-seven of them, waiting to be blown out.
I wasn’t so much older, and Alex kissed like he’d been born for it, but his tongue was as cold as hands, and it was only a matter of time before he left like they all left. “You’re a little dead for me,” I said, stepping away and hugging my arms around my waist. “Might be best to keep things platonic.”
For a moment, there was nothing. Then the planchette moved across the Ouija board. K-N-O-C-K K-N-O-C-K.
I shook my head. “I need to teach you some actual jokes.”
Rob came by again while I was at the grocery store. I pulled a bag full of peanut butter and booze out of my truck and found him sitting on the porch, staring at his boots like there were stories written on them.
“You missing another record?” I asked him.
He didn’t look up. “Grandfather’s watch.”
I didn’t even remember the watch. “Are you sure Boxer isn’t eating your stuff?”
“Doubt it. Died a month ago.”
“Sorry,” I said, and meant it. Boxer was dumb as a bag of bricks, but he was a good dog. Had been.
“Yeah.” Rob looked up. There were circles under his eyes, and circles under the circles. “Need help with that?”
I considered my pride, shrugged it away, and handed him the grocery bag so I could fish my keys out of my purse. When I opened the door, I took the bag back. “Come on in,” I said.
The house was a mess. I wasn’t worried--Rob’s house was always a mess too, although his walls probably had less lipstick on them. I watched him look around as I poured myself a shot of bourbon. “Same ghost?” he asked finally, turning back at me.
“Same one,” I said. Alex was being quiet, but he was somewhere nearby--the house felt different, heavier, when the dead were in the room. “He hasn’t heard the bells yet.”
“There was that one girl, the girl in the closet--“
Rob nodded. “She was here, what? Seven months before she heard them?”
“Six,” I said. Alex had been here almost three. Sometimes they were only here for days, even hours, before they were gone again. “You can look round for the watch, if you want, but I don’t think it’s here.”
Rob looked. He couldn’t find it. I offered him a shot, to be polite, and he took one but didn’t drink it. He turned the glass round and round in his hands. I glanced out the window and noticed that my truck was the only one in front of the house.
“I walked,” he said before I could ask. “Needed the air.”
It was almost six miles from my house to his. I looked at his face again and was surprised I didn’t see it sooner. “I thought this new home was working out for him.”
Rob scrubbed his hands over his face. “It was,” he said. “But you know how he is.”
He was a violent, mean sonofabitch. “Yeah.”
“I was a fool to think it’d last.” Rob finally took his shot, automatically went to pour himself another, stopped, and looked at me. I nodded, but his fingers hesitated around the bottle just the same. He drew his hand back. “Anyway, I should get on home.”
I followed him out to the porch. “I could give you a ride.”
Rob shook his head. “Not in any hurry. A nurse comes a few days a week now, checks up on him when I have to run out. They aren’t expecting me for a few hours.” He started down the driveway, stopped, and turned back to look at me. “Look. I’m sorry for how things turned out between us.”
I had never heard Rob apologize for anything, not in twenty-five years. I didn’t know what to say.
“It’s okay you’re still mad. I said some shitty things. You didn’t deserve most of them. But I’m worried about you.”
I laughed. “Me? Rob, you look like you ain’t slept in a week.”
Rob shrugged. “I’m fine,” he said. “It’s been busy on the farm, is all.”
“No one’s seen you anywhere. Not at the bowling alley, not at the bar, not even for fireworks last week. Judi says you been calling out sick--“
I stared at him incredulously. “You been spying on me?”
“I ran into her at the gas station,” Rob said calmly. “She was worried. Says it’s like you barely leave the house.”
“I just went to the grocery store!”
“Yeah, and how long’s it been since the last trip?” He stepped closer to me. “You’re skin and bones, Etta. You can’t keep doing this to yourself. It’s not healthy, spending all your time with the dead.”
I laughed. “You’re going to talk to me about what’s healthy? You?”
“Etta -- “
“No, just--just get the hell out of here. Go home.”
Rob nodded. He turned and started down the road, but only a few seconds later, he stopped and turned around. “You think I was jealous,” he said. “And maybe I was sometimes, but that’s not why it ended like it did. I know those ghosts mean a lot to you. I know you love them, but Etta, you don’t be more careful, you’re gonna end up one of em, and I don’t want to watch that.”
“Then don’t look,” I said, and headed back inside.
I headed straight for the Jim Beam, and Alex’s fingers found my wrist again. “The hell do you care?” I asked, spitefully tugging out of his grip and pouring myself the shot.
He touched my face gently.
“Asshole.” But I let go of the glass.
I walked into the living room and fell back on the couch, kicking off my shoes with more vehemence than they deserved. “This is why you don’t screw your best friend. You lose one, you lose both, and then who do you talk to?”
Alex touched my face again. Cold radiated down the side of my neck.
“You don’t talk,” I reminded him. “Won’t. You just play your little charades. And besides that, you’re dead, and that means I lose you too.”
His hands were on both sides of my face now, sinking straight on through. I closed my eyes and saw church bells and question marks.
“Don’t know if they’re church bells,” I told him. “I don’t even know what they are. God? Another medium? I can’t hear em. Only the dead. And it’s always the same--ghost finds me, stays a while, hears the bells, has to follow em. Once he’s gone, he don’t come back. New ghost comes instead. Rinse, repeat.”
Alex kissed me then, and there weren’t nothing platonic about it. I let him cause I was lonely, cause I missed someone touching me, even if his touch made me shiver for all the wrong reasons. But I told him he couldn’t save me, that no one beat the bells, and I sure couldn’t afford to believe otherwise. It hurt too much, believing, and it was so damn easy to do.
But folk, living or dead--well, they hear what they want, don’t they, and Alex didn’t want to listen. He lowered himself on top of me and into me and into me, and we became one person, at least for a little while. I knew how cookies smelled, fresh out of his momma’s oven, and I knew how blood tasted, as it came up through his throat. I knew if he had committed suicide, he’d have done it by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge.
I kept my eyes closed during. Didn’t want to see that I couldn’t see him.
Afterwards, I was shaking too much to sleep. I huddled underneath every blanket I owned, and I heard whispers in the dark, more like echoes than actual words. Ever . . . ever . . . ever . . oh . . . oh . . . oh.
Never go, he was saying. I’ll never let go.
We had two months together.
Alex performed Shakespearean tragedies with my teddy bears. Made sounds instead of words, so it was like listening to an adult in one of them Peanuts cartoons, only a lot more melodramatic. Took me forever to figure out what he was doing, and sometimes he still had to cheat, touch my skin and fill it with soliloquys. I liked it, when he cheated.
We watched black and white comedies. I put on Willie Nelson just to see him bitch. We spent whole days lying together, swapping stories without saying a word.
And then we were sitting on the couch, watching The Apartment, and I heard him breathe in sharply.
And I knew.
Alex tried to fight it, of course, spent days trying to shake it off. Kept asking me to turn up the volume. Kept laughing too hard, too much. He tried to tell me what it felt like, showed me a white rabbit and a pocket watch. I’m late; I’m late for a very important date. But he couldn’t remember what the date was for.
By the end, he could barely hear me. The bells got louder the longer they were ignored, and Alex kept asking me what I had said, sometimes even forgetting what he was saying. He tried to distract me, make me laugh. He performed Romeo and Juliet cause it was my favorite to mock. But he kept losing focus, and the teddy bears kept crashing to the floor.
When we went to bed that night, he showed me sunlight and kisses and bacon. He was telling me he’d see me in the morning.
Alex was a liar. But this time, I let it slide.
When Rob walked up the driveway, I was sitting on the porch, drinking a beer and idly thinking how I wouldn’t be leaving anybody. Everyone I could leave had already left. I’d blow out the back of my skull and maybe chase the bells myself for a change. It was a comforting notion.
“Look, I really don’t got any of your things,” I told him.
He sat down beside me. “I know.”
“You ever find the record?”
“Never went missing.”
I stared at him.
“Sorry,” he said.
Two apologies in one year. I’d be worried if I wasn’t so pissed. “Your granddaddy didn’t even have a watch, did he?”
Rob shrugged. “He might’ve. Never passed it on, though.”
“So, you been coming over . . . why? See if I was miserable and lost without you?”
“Didn’t have nothing to do with us. I just wanted to see you were okay. And you weren’t, but then I didn’t know what to do about it.” He scratched the side of his face where a beard was starting to grow in. “Guess I made a mess of things.”
“You guess.” I shook my head. “So, when I said you were spying on me a couple months ago . . .”
“I really did run into Judi, but yeah. I was spying.”
Rob didn’t answer right away. He pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket and casually swiped my lighter, like we were ten again. “That day we fought, I’d come by to take you to the movies. You remember?”
I did. The movies was a special occasion--the theater was over an hour away.
“Figured you’d be on the porch, but you weren’t. So I came inside and called your name. Called it three times, but you didn’t answer.”
“I fell asleep,” I said.
Rob ignored me. “You had to be in the bedroom. You weren’t anywhere else, but the door was shut, and I didn’t want to open it. I was scared to.”
“Of what? Finding me on my knees, blowing a ghost?”
He threw his cigarette to the ground. “God’s hooks, Etta. I was scared of finding you dead.”
“Dead . . ."
Rob shook his head. After a minute, he stomped out the cigarette and methodically lit another one. “Your ghost is gone,” he said.
I couldn’t see how Alex had anything to do with anything, but I didn’t rush him. Rob got to places in his own time. “Yeah,” I said. “Well, that’s what they do. Remember?”
He ignored that too. “I could always tell,” Rob said. “I can’t see ‘em, can’t hear ‘em, but it’s different when they’re gone. You’re different. It’s like you . . . fade just a little.
“When I said what I said, about you loving them more than me, I didn’t mean you were in love with them. I meant--that little girl, Adele--you took to her like she was your own, and when she was gone, and that door was closed, and I kept calling your name, and with that shotgun you keep by your bed--“
“Okay,” I said.
“You want a beer?” I asked.
I went inside and got two more beers. When I came back out, Rob was looking down at his hands again. His fingernails were dirty. So were mine.
“I wouldn’t have done it,” I said. “Everyone thinks about it sometimes, but I’d never really do it, you know.”
“It’s just . . . you could be happy, I think. You don’t have to invite them in. I know you can’t stop them from coming, but you don’t have to talk to em, take care of em. Hell, if you left this podunk town and actually went somewhere, maybe you could even outrun em. Find someone living to love.”
“I have someone here.”
“He’s kind of an asshole.”
Rob smiled. “Yeah. He is.”
“He taught me how to ride a horse, and I taught him how to smoke a cigarette.”
“You also got him through high school.”
“You’d have gotten there.”
He snorted. “Not likely.”
“Hey.” Rob didn’t look at me, so I took him by the hands. His skin was sweaty and solid, and it told me nothing at all. I could never know Rob the way I knew Alex, could never touch his skin and see the things he didn’t have voice for, but I still knew him better than anyone else alive.
“Your daddy,” I said, “is a mean sonofabitch, and I wish you’d stop listening to the lies he’s been selling. There’s more to brains than numbers, Rob, and there’s more to a man than how hard he hits.”
“It wasn’t so bad,” Rob said. “Lots of folk round here, they have it bad. It wasn’t--“
I squeezed his wrist gently, and Rob stopped.
“It was bad,” I told him. “It was, and you don’t owe that man a damn thing. The way he treated you, your momma, you should have let him rot outside whatever nursing home kicked him out. You shouldn’t be bathing him, changing him, listening to him rant and rave . . . but that’s what you’re gonna do, isn’t it?”
Rob shrugged. Didn’t say anything for a while. Finally, “He’s my blood, Etta.”
“Shouldn’t make him your responsibility.” I drank from my beer and set it aside, scooted closer to him on the porch. “You want I should go on some road trip, find a new life, leave the ghosts behind? Tell you what: I will if you will. How about it?”
Rob looked at me.
“In the back. You know, maybe we should just skip your place. Don’t stop there at all.”
“Can’t. No spare clothes, and I don’t think I’ll fit in your jeans. Booze?”
“In the suitcase.”
“In my purse. Shit, did you grab the peanut butter?”
Rob sounded offended. “Of course.”
“Good.” I put on my seatbelt. “Good. That’s good.”
The keys were in my hand.
I looked at them and then past them, up through the windshield at my little blue house. House where I learned to read, where my momma died, where I met my very first ghost, playing hide and seek in a kitchen cupboard, but I wasn’t the only one hiding there. Little blue house where I knew the walls like I knew my very own skin. No surprises there, no dangers. I understood everything it expected of me.
I looked at the little house and then the open road and the horizon just stretching on and on.
The keys were in my hand. But I just couldn’t breathe.
Rob swallowed. “It’s okay, Etta.”
“I want to.”
“It’s just . . . ”
I turned to look at him. “I can’t,” I said. “I can’t.” He didn’t say anything. “You don’t look mad.”
Rob shrugged, leaned back, didn’t say nothing for a while. “Maybe I am,” he said finally. “Maybe a little. I don’t know. Reckon we were never going to get very far. Wake up in the morning, probably drive right on back. No one makes it out, Etta. No one leaves it all behind.”
“No one hears the bells,” I said. “Only the dead.”
We sat there for a while. Eventually, Rob unbuckled his seatbelt and kissed me on the cheek. “Come on. I’ll fix you dinner.”
I nodded. Dropped the keys.
Rob made me Pop-Tarts for dinner because I didn’t have shit in my fridge. He went on about that for a while. I mostly ignored him. Then we sat on the porch till the stars came out, drinking beer and talking bout parts of the world we’d like to see someday. Wasn’t so different from thinking how you’d kill yourself, if you could afford to.
Rob had his daddy, and I had my ghosts, and we both knew we’d keep doing what we were doing till we were dead. But it was good to have someone to share it with again, the dark things that kept you from chasing bells, from flying free.
“If you were going to do it . . .”
“Shotgun. No note. Wouldn’t say I was sorry at all.”
I nodded and drank the last of my beer.
“You?” he asked.
I rested my head on his shoulder. “Same,” I said. “Just the same.”
This story originally appeared in Shock Totem.