“I see you, intruder. I know you, I’ve seen your face. Look into my eyes. Teacher, death.”
— Chat Pile
The last place I thought I’d be is back on Earth suckin dirt with the rest of the rats. Hell, or the infinite void of death seemed more appropriate. Spent most my breathin days with the promise of eternal damnation hot on my heels, so openin my eyes to a toothy little girl with a head full of kinky curls was a bit of a shock.
Pretty sure I met my end in a bar while makin my way north to escape the heat. I’d kept busy until then. Idle hands and all that though I wasn’t doin the lord’s work. Caught this guy Harlon Wells by the neck with a belt. Choked him out until his eyes bled. Left his ass somewhere outside Litchfield. Burnt to a crisp. Starin at the Sun. Cut his bitch up too makin sure I messed up that pretty face. Thought his wife might appreciate it. Later gone and stuck a bunch of holes in that fat bastard Frank Mullins. Had less open land nearby so I broke him down, torched the pieces, and scattered him. Pigs found half his torso off one them county roads by the Mississippi. Cities got loud with talk of some “craven negro” preyin on the innocent of Roving, MN but that’s a lie. If they crossed my path, they’s far from saintly. When the boys in blue stumbled across the teeth and bleach white skull of Mickey Dauterive I was long gone.
Nobody in Canada was gonna question a stray Black man lookin for rail work. Most people looked at my hands and saw someone familiar with hard work. They wouldn’t be wrong. Made it close to the border but got too lax around Big Falls and someone caught up. Heard them say my name low and gravelly, then a cold bite pushed its way into my back. Whoever had the handle did it a few more times to be sure but I was done. I slumped over the bar and been swallowed by the dark long before they stopped. Guess that’s what I get for walkin this earth like a sonofabitch.
Could’ve been days, months even spent driftin around in that blackness. Heard my name again, but this time it was smaller. Singin, Allen all honey sweet. That voice wrapped me up tight, ripped me out of the dark and dropped what was left of me onto a hardwood floor.
I felt alive as I ever was minus the breathin. Truth be told it didn’t feel like much. Couldn’t feel a thing. No skin. Nothin to touch with. It seemed death took my tools. My livelihood. Robbed me of my goddamn hands.
A shadow of a man I was.
Little girl stood there with a stick of charcoal in one hand and wavin with the other. Her face and PJs all sooty. Underneath her bare brown toes was a big black circle. Looked like a hole in the world. Like a door to hell. Imagined that’s where I came from, and that little girl was responsible. Couldn’t wave so I tried a “hello” but just made the curtains blow.
Girl’s mouth went slack, and that toothy grin got all big. She told me her name was Ellie. We’ve been together ever since.
Learned a few things real quick. We lived in the Cofield Funeral Home stuck in the overgrown back nine of a cemetery. The same section where the “colored” plots used to be back in the day. Same spot where they tossed me. Some shit don’t change.
Only other livin thing hangin around was Ellie’s old man Delton. Gaunt, and gangly with a cue ball head. Walked around like a ghost most days until there was a body to work on. Delivery bell would ring, and he’d move a little quicker to fetch the package. Coroner would drop off an expired local then the house would get all lively. Pumps, buzz saws, hammers. Old man would turn on the radio. Feet’d start tappin. Whistlin. Looked like one of them janky puppets on strings. Motown about the only that got the man movin. That and a dead body at the door.
Ellie would hang out in the embalmin room, watchin from a chair while he pulled out guts, weighed hearts and spilled blood. Sometimes Delton would take her hands into his leathery pitcher’s mitts, and they’d stitch up a sternum. He’d wear out then slip off to some dank corner pull out his whiskey and start sippin. She’d finish up, tappin her fingers on ribs in rhythm to the music, fakin her fathers’ whistle. Needle gleamed in her hand like a meat hook as she bounced above the body.
Felt someone else in that house. Saw them in this rocking chair no one used and in the empty dinner table spot. Ellie’s mother, Zeller Mae, died years ago now she haunted the place. Delton only ever slept on one side of the bed. Left a sad gap between him and the night stand he never touched. Probably on account of that picture of him and Zeller on it. Same picture I’d catch Ellie daydreamin over. One of the only times I’d see that girl smile. That and when her pop was singin in the embalmin room.
Me? I knew better than to keep around what belonged to the dead. Mess around and end up haunted holdin onto keepsakes. Better to burn it all.
Couple times, Delton be laid out on the drink, Ellie would sneak out to the morgue. Ellie’d break out that charcoal, some stranger’s bones, and get to conjurin. Girl said she’d been tryin to bring her ma back, but all she had was a locket with a piece of hair in it. Figured that wasn’t enough on account there was no Mrs. Cofield floatin around yet. Only thing she was able to bring back was me and I was a far cry from a mother. If she knew what she caught she would’ve thrown me back no doubt.
Most nights we played Twenty Questions. She split her bedroom into yes and no halves. I’d float around until she would ask somethin.
“Do you remember what happened when you died?”
“Did it hurt?”
“Could you feel anything after?”
“Did you know where you were?”
“Could you see anyone else?”
“Did it feel like heaven?”
After about a week of that she caught on that if there was any evidence of a god or a life beyond this one, she wasn’t gettin it from me. That night when she asked me about the other side was the first and last time I saw Ellie cry. Girl wept about a minute before she wiped her tears and went stone-faced.
I don’t think she slept that night.
Stuck pretty close to Ellie most the time unless she was at school. While she was out learnin I practiced bein a ghost. Started out I would sink through floors by accident. Got pretty good at goin through walls and stuff. Got stronger. Ended up I could twist myself into shapes which always impressed. Ellie would call out an animal or somethin out of her geometry book. I’d bend myself into a dog or some other slap-dash shape and she’d get to grinnin.
I never had the dad instinct but makin that girl smile was somethin else. A younger me wouldn’t have been caught dead with kids. Could out drink old Delton by eleven so didn’t have much time for fun. Drank to pass the time. Drank because it was better than feelin nothin. If I wasn’t drinkin I was duckin my old man. Bastard only ever paid attention when the TV was off, and that was long enough to go upside my head with a bottle. That was my cue to grab another and be quick about it. Wasn’t too keen on bein around for the beck and call bullshit. Years of bein on the lam didn’t have me thinkin of fatherhood too much. Doubt I even could’ve had kids. Now that I’m dead? Let the games begin.
Got it down so I could gather myself up into a thick cloud of whatever I was, or thin out to the point where I was invisible. Stay like that long and I’d fall back into that dark space I came from. I could pull myself out, but if I didn’t focus on Ellie, I’d end up somewhere else. Usually, I’d end up back in the cemetery next to some fresh corpse or by some roadkill. Sometimes it was people still dyin. A car accident. Cancer. When I slid into that darkness, I could feel somethin pullin me now. If I let it reel me in, I knew death would be close.
Winter melted straight into summer. Watched that girl grow like a bean pole. By fall she was back in school. Morbid kid I found out. Did pretty much anythin to try to communicate with the other side. Persistent kid. Ain’t nothin happened though. Tried the Bloody Mary thing with different names and dances. Toilet lights never flickered. Stall doors stayed shut. Heard some moanin once, but that was just some poor sucker who didn’t like that day’s lunch.
Tagged along in the locker room when the other girls teased her for bein short and strange. Didn’t seem to faze her though. Always had her head in a book or studyin somethin like a professional researcher. I remember when she got her period. Other girls freaked out or celebrated or somethin like that. She went out and bought a cheap microscope. Spent the night lookin deep into her blood.
She’d look at her bullies the same way. Not lookin through them. She was lookin inside. Lookin at their bones. Didn’t feel like malice. More like peekin at what makes them tick.
Saw bits of myself in Ellie. Didn’t care much for people. Not much for talkin. Seein her peer into her blood brought back memories. Memories of nose bleeds and scrappin with the other street rats on the block. Lickin their blood from my knuckles. Remember this one time I snatched Ms. Elkins’ cat. Peeled it open to see what was inside. Both of us, kin in curiosity.
Soon as Ellie finished high school she went straight to college. Breezed through physics, and biology. Found a niche in religion and philosophy. She’d study anythin that could get her closer to death though. Anythin to help her look past what was in them books. Nothin excited her until she took this class on death, dyin, and bereavement. That’s when she met Reginald. A morbidly obsessed nerd who had the swagger of a newborn giraffe.
This man, Reginald, might as well been one of the corpses in the funeral home; tall, gaunt, and pale. Like a birch twig. Not so handsome. Didn’t talk much. Whenever I’d listen on their conversations it was all bugs and protoplasm. Six months in she got up the nerve to tell him about me. He gave me the same attention he gave a petri dish. They got married the next day. Ceremony was the two of them and the court witness. Felt empty. Rings didn’t even fit right, but they said they were in love. I’d seen love though. Love tears you up. Rips you limb from limb. These kids barely touched each other.
Delton died ‘round about when they became doctors. Three of us went back to Roving to tie up loose ends then ended up stayin. Newlyweds retrofitted the funeral home into a lab. With the little inheritance Ellie’s old man left and Reginald’s connections they got new tools. A couple computers, cameras, and metal cages for test subjects. Got a bunch of liquids to take them near death and some of them fancy shock paddles in case they got too close.
With all them new toys, Ellie doubled down on cheatin death again. Doin astral projection and sippin on a few of those expensive death trips in a bottle. Went so far as to submerge her entire body in an ice bath so she could die “safely”. Only outcome was frostbite on the toes that were touchin the metal tub. Them cute brown toes got scarred black. Got herself a little taste of the price she’d have to pay to get where I came from. Think she finally got it that she wasn’t gonna be able to peek into death with a microscope. She’d have to move in.
Months went by. Mr. and Mrs. Doctor looked like they were runnin low on ideas. Reginald, that stick bug, was gettin itchy talkin about makin their own family. Started trailin Ellie around the house like a lovesick dog. Nippin at her heels for some attention. She paid him no mind. At night I watched Reginald paw at her face with his boney hands. When she leave her glasses on it looked like a tree scrapin a window. Ellie would shy then bury herself deeper in the sheets. He roll over and lay there all hot and bothered. Once in a blue, Ellie’d try to reciprocate Twiggy’s advances. She’d jump on him like a mantis. All spindly and sharp. They’d get at it until he’d tap out. Think he realized he couldn’t bring it home. She wasn’t helpin though. I don’t think she ever learned the dance. Not the touchy-feely type, and her dad sure as hell never hugged her let alone said anythin outside of a grunt and mumble while pokin holes into a body. That stale air that hung between her and the man that was supposed to be her lover. Watchin them try the act was painful. With their doctorates combined they knew more about sex than ninety percent of the town, but when it came down to it, they were all bones and no butter.
Just as well. She already had a man.
No kids and no pets kept my girl focused. We worked at peelin back the layers of what I could do. She started sendin me on what missions. I would thin myself out, glide into the void, then feel around for that pull. Wherever I showed up, I’d take in as much as I could before I’d fizzle out, and head back through the void. Then we’d play 20 questions until she got enough data to try and find where I’d been.
Within the first month, I hit Austin, Fairbanks, Sacramento, and somewhere in Mexico she said. Reachin new places was fun. Seein how far I could go. If I could bring somethin back. Gettin farther became easier but never as easy as comin home. What was left of me felt like it belonged there. Couldn’t tell if it was Ellie, or the proximity to my moldy behind. All I knew is that it felt good bein home. Only time that ever happened, alive or dead.
Most of the trips didn’t amount to anythin other than a looksee. Stick Man had all but given up on havin a baby. Never did find out if he was shootin blanks. Didn’t matter. Ellie had no interests outside of death. Pair got colder than permafrost. Not the most fertile soil to grow a baby. Me and Ellie had bigger plans anyhow.
Set our sights on bringin back somethin from the beach. A shell. Some sand. Seawater. Anythin. I slipped into the void and started thinkin about the ocean. Seafoam, gulls, salty air. I remembered the feelin of swimmin and breathin. Of my lungs gettin tight. Imagined dunkin my head in the water. Got as thin and loose as I could manage. Heard the rush of bubbles. Waves breakin up above. Sound got louder and things kept gettin colder. I could feel again. Once my sight came back it felt like my eyes were stingin. Tried to breathe but only sucked in water. Arms flailed. Realized they were stuck to me. Voices shouted. Saw a light at the surface. Body I was in was weak. Sinkin fast. Did the only thing I could do and made myself thin to get back to the lab.
When the cold left me, I felt somethin familiar. Felt the weight of muscle and bone. The warmth of skin again. Looked up to make sure I had arrived home only to see Ellie all slack jawed.
She asked who I was.
Felt the floor below and looked down. The feet, legs, and arms that I’d seen strugglin in the water were back. Scrambled to my feet in a motion I hadn’t done since I’d been divorced from my flesh. Legs were weak. Stumbled over to a mirror and looked some white boy right in the eyes. Naked as the day he was born. Felt like a dog seein itself for the first time. Felt like a dog that knew it wasn’t supposed to be a dog.
Lookin at me in the wrong body made my head spin. Somethin told me I wasn’t long for this one. Like the kid’s soul was pushin me further inside. Smotherin me. The feelins I’d had got muted. Buried deep. Like I’d been surrounded. Suppressed like cancer. What happened next Ellie had to tell me about ‘cause I was gone.
Told me the boy sat shiverin for a while. Guessed that I was no longer in control. Assumin the boy was conscious again, she asked for its name, but he ain’t say nothin. He just kept openin and closin his mouth like a guppy. Twigs scanned his forehead. Temp read ninety-three degrees, so Ellie grabbed a towel to warm him up, but he was already goin blue. His eyelids turned to little red lines. When she read the temperature about ten minutes later it was eighty-nine degrees. Kid would die if she didn’t intervene but the hot towels were no use. Kid stopped doin that thing with his mouth. Next temperature readin was seventy-one degrees. Since she couldn’t raise his body temperature, she figured the kid was beyond savin, and sat and watched as its skin went frosty. When it stopped shiverin, she got up to dispose of him. Went for a bag and bone saw from the closet but when she turned her back to the boy, he let out a scream. She described the sound of debris scatterin on the floor. The boy had got so cold he shattered in frozen bits.
That suffocatin feelin lifted. Warmth and weight had left me too. I was free again. Bodiless again but I felt somethin new in me. I felt hungry. Looked at the carnage all around. Saw Ellie siftin through pieces of that boy as he thawed on the laboratory floor. The hunger burned.
Old Reg must’ve taken off because next thing I saw was Ellie pickin through the steamin chunks like she was searchin for somethin hidin in that boy’s cells. One them lumps twitched. A piece of heart still with a bit of charge. Ellie cupped what looked like an aorta and stared into its drippin chamber, stickin her fingers into the meat. Moved on to a section of rib cage. Peeled sinew from bone, plucked at tendons and turned over muscle. Ellie squeezed the lumps like a child playin with a clump of muddy worms. Her movements got fast. Got sultry. Proddin turned to strokes as I watched her feel around viscera. Brought her hands to her face and held it. Left crimson prints.
Now if you asked me earlier I would’ve said she was lookin for some secret. Still diggin for some scrap of a way to cross over. Maybe a space to open up so she could pull her mother through. This? Whatever she was doin, it looked primal. Clutchin at her breasts. Rockin her hips. It looked like she had learned the dance after all. It looked like lust.
Lookin at her made that hunger grow. Burned so hot it set me on fire.
It must have been an hour before she got up from that floor. Stayed there with her and my hunger until I felt eyes on me. Shifted my attention to the lab door and saw that scrawny shit standin in the window, takin in the scene. I could see right then and there that he didn’t understand what he was lookin at. Ellie turned and smiled. In that moment I knew then that he never would.
After that night he made sure to be at every experiment. She told him pieces of what happened, but he wasn’t satisfied with her half-truths. She led him around to the idea that I had brought somethin back but couldn’t tell what it was. It just showed up as pile of gore. They spent the rest of the night cleanin up the aftermath. Both of them hands deep in that boy with that old silence between them.
It was only a few days before she sent me out on another mission. Stick Bug buzzed around the lab settin up cameras, temperature probes and other machines. Didn’t want to miss any of the festivities. Ellie left him to his devices. She was already focused on where to send me, and what might come back. While Reg had his face stuck in the computer, she whispered an order to me.
She told me to try and keep them alive.
When I stepped into that dark, I couldn’t help but think of Ellie. Covered in gore. That burn came back. The world vibrated. I was vibratin. Then I smelled exhaust.
The body I landed in was sittin in a car. It was smoky. Glanced at the giant dials on the dashboard radio and station indicator was set in the low 90s. “Have You Seen Her,” came out the speakers. On the passenger side of the white leather bench seat was a man. Face had duct tape wrapped around it. Hands too. Skin was all purple. Looked down at the hands I had all balled up and red. Shakin. Roll of duct tape in my lap next to a pistol. Looked like “plan B”. Opened the door, spilled out into the garage, coughed out some smog, then fell back into the dark.
Skinny Boy Reg was waitin for me with the AED and smellin salts. Body I was in fell on the floor with a fleshy slap. Lungs hurt. Head felt full of cotton and pain that forced the eyes shut. Felt like I was breathin out car fumes. He flipped me on my back. Started doin CPR. Focused on stayin in. On not bein shut out. Felt Reg’s wet rubber mouth on mine. Popped my eyes open, and we looked right into each other’s pupils.
“Hi, Reggie,” I said. Gave him a sly grin. I know he saw me. Saw the fear in his eyes. Then I got swallowed up.
Next thing I know I’ve been kicked in the chest. Hard. Somethin shoved me back into the dark. When I come out I see little Reggie’s spooked. All pressed into the corner holdin a scalpel like he was gonna cut someone. Some woman was all twisted up on the floor next to the spent shock paddles. She had a wild look in her eyes. A look I recognized from when I still had skin. When I still had hands. Pure terror. Made me feel good. Hungry.
When they did the autopsy, they figured out her heart exploded. Whole time, that scrawny shit kept glancin in my direction. Nervous like. I didn’t mind. Look on his stupid face said he had understood what I could do. Boy realized I could snuff him out in a second. Only thing kept me from running my thumbs up that sap’s gullet and feeling his breath trickle out was the lack of a body. Not gonna lie, but when I managed to use that woman’s mouth, I felt stronger than I had ever felt since bein dead. Seein the fear in that boy’s eyes, the respect, made me feel like a damn god. As far as I could tell I was one.
Ellie had a fresh look in her eyes too. Caught her takin secret glances at Reg. Recognized that look. She was lookin through his skin. Lookin right at his beatin heart. Then I saw that grin again.
Towards the end, Twigs slinked off and left Ellie to finish up. Poor boy had to collect his thoughts. Too much excitement. Ellie was right at home though. Few minutes after Reggie left, she got deep in it. Bare handed, and up to her elbow in that woman’s guts. Squishin kidneys. Put her finger through the liver.
If it weren’t for meetin Ellie’s father and seein her mother in pictures, I would have thought she’d been raised by death itself.
Ellie fucked the shit out of that boy that night.
Mornin started off quiet. Ellie was in rare spirits. Cookin breakfast. Hummin Motown. Reg broke the peace tryin on his big boy voice. Spittin and yellin and shit. Started slammin his fist on things like he was bad. Looked more like someone playin at bein pissed off. Boy was feelin bold though. Said he kept the cameras rollin after the autopsy. Caught my girl rummagin around in that woman’s belly. Said he sent off a sample of that first find too. Said he had a good mind it would turn out human. Little shit wheeled around, pointed at me with one of them twig fingers and called me dangerous then called Ellie insane. My hunger went white hot.
Every fiber in me wanted to beat that boy to a pulp. Still no fists. Thinned out into the dark with that fire blazin in me. This crossin got sloppy. Was too wound up. Ended up outside in the cemetery right on top of my old grave. Second jump got me to some dead bird. Felt like I was trippin through the void. Rage done fucked up my compass so I couldn’t feel that pull. Settled down into that anger like a pit. A pit I’ve called home a time or two. This jump I woke up in a place I’d been before. I saw them orange pants, white shoes, and prison bars just beyond. Them legs were puttin in work drivin those shoes into my face. Into my belly. Felt a shiv in my chest then a heel come right between my eyes. Left as soon as I arrived.
Ended up back in the kitchen right next to Ellie. Caught that skinny fuck Reggie’s eye, marched right up, and grabbed him by that goofy pencil neck. He scratched at my face. Didn’t feel much on account of workin this convict’s big frame. Took all I had to use these new hands, and I didn’t have long. Sucker was bleedin out all over little Reggie. Reg was drippin with snot, pissin and moanin about lettin him go. Stopped all that whinin real quick when I dug a spare thumb in his eye. Hadn’t felt someone squirm like that in a long time. Felt alive again. Took the last bit of juice I had and boxed his ears real good. Watched his ass crumple to the floor before I got kicked out of the brute.
Came out to the sight of bodies on the floor. Took a second to make sense of what I was lookin at. Orange jumpsuit man all mangled on the floor. Ellie straddlin Reg right next to the expired perp. Saw her all hunched over at first. Them shoulders heaved, then saw her head rock back. She let out a big sigh. Blood flowed from between her knees.
Felt that pull again. Strong this time. Close. Already thin from my last trip I slipped into the dark. Landed right where I wanted to be. Lookin up at Ellie. “Hey baby,” I said with Reggie’s dyin breaths.
Her eyes lit up. Them plum-colored lips turned into a grin, “Allen?” she asked. She pulled out the kitchen knife she had been stickin into Reggie and showed it to me. Held it up to watch it drip in the mornin light. Then she leaned and kissed me hard.
Every nerve in Reg went white hot, “Do it again,” I said.
Ellie went in for another kiss.
“No,” I pushed back. “With the knife.”
She held up the knife for me to see, licked the blade, then slipped it between Reggie’s ribs.
Sure hoped he wasn’t missin this.
Pain shook Reg’s corpse like an earthquake. Shadows crept into the edges of my sight. Skinny fucker would be feelin this soon enough. Took a gander at Ellie’s hands covered in blood. Looked a lot like mine used to.
Saw that grin again as I fell deep down. Gave Ellie a wink, put a hand on hers and helped her twist the blade. Her key into the world of death. Told her, “That’s my girl,” as we both slipped into our long dark future.
— Jordan spent his younger years in Anchorage, Alaska. Now that he’s escaped to sunny California he still carries a little of the dark with him. Jordan tends to spend his time writing, playing various games, and cooking pizza. Huge fan of slow-burn horror movies, weird cartoons and his cat Ori.