by David Rogers
When the ghosts started to appear, I knew it was only a matter of time til Stephen would show up. Again.
“Laura, you’re out of uniform,” Jimmy Neutron said. Like Joe’s Mexican Restaurant is the army or something. Jimmy used first names only when he was cranky. I think he read in some Idiot’s Guide to Success in Business how using names is supposed to make people take you more seriously. He was standing behind the sink when I came in the back, through the kitchen. Probably waiting for me. He loved to catch people making some minor mistake so he could make a big deal about it.
Neutron was not his real name. It was Neville, but everybody called him Neutron because he was so not a genius. He could barely work his phone. That’s why he was the assistant manager. An actual job that has to be done for the restaurant to function, like cooking, feeding customers, or clearing tables, cannot be given to someone like Jimmy.
I tried to ignore him, so he repeated: “Laura, I said you’re out of uniform. Black pants, white shirt. You know that.”
“So dock my pay a nickel,” I said, tying on my apron. “Jimmy,” I added, and grabbed the big plastic bin the dirty dishes go in. “Better yet, give me a raise, so I can afford to do laundry.”
I would ask to switch from busboy to waiter, because tips are better for waiters, but I have always sucked at pretending to like rude people who tempt me to dump food on their heads. At least busboys deal mainly with dishes. Lovely, silent, dirty dishes, whose problems can all be solved by a nice, hot trip through the dishwasher. However, busboys are still entitled to a fourth of the tips. Unless the customer leaves actual money on the table, in which case, a fourth is how much I say it is.
Jimmy claimed he was also supposed to get a fourth, but again, a fourth is what’s left after the waiter and I take our cuts. Was then, still is now. Not that I would cheat. I’m not that kind of girl. And yes, I’m a busboy, even though I’m a girl. Busboy, occasional bartender, entrepreneur of the future. Deal with it.
Besides, I’m not going to be a busboy forever. As soon as I graduate, I’m getting a job that pays real money. Then I’ll come back and buy the restaurant and watch Jimmy’s replacement grovel. After what happened, I don’t expect I’ll see Jimmy again.
Stephen was not the worst boyfriend ever, when he was alive. But he was the worst ex ever. Worst for me, anyway. Even before he was a ghost, he was the sort who wouldn’t give up and go away, the kind who didn’t know when things were over. Kind of natural he would become a ghost.
Plus, he never had money. I’m no gold-digger, you understand, but a guy can be kind of dull, yet if his date-night budget is exciting enough, good times may be had by all. As the Bible says, charity forgives a multitude of sins, including boredom.
You wonder how he died. I’m coming to that, okay? Just give me a minute.
It wasn’t any one thing that made me break up with him. Just a general lack of enthusiasm. On my part, that is. I could tell he was getting more attached to me all the time. I dreaded the moment he might profess undying love in sentimental terms that he would think were romantic. To me they would sound desperate and clingy.
And then there was the ketchup and mustard thing. I said it was not any one particular thing, but the ketchup and mustard did not help. He had a way of dipping his fries in ketchup, then mustard, and once more in ketchup. I mean, mustard on fries–who does that? And the triple dip–ketchup, mustard, and then ketchup again. Every time. To top it off, he didn’t immediately eat the fry, but he would wave it around, gesture with it, like the old-timey male stand-up comedians with their cigars.
Condiments should never be a fashion statement.
Seems like a small thing, doesn’t it? Well, truth be told, small things have made or broken many relationships. If Anne Boleyn, Henry the Eight’s second wife, hadn’t had a habit of delicately patting her lips with a napkin after each sip of wine, she and her head and Henry might have lived to a ripe old age together, male heir or no.
Well, okay, he probably still would have dumped her. He was just that kind of guy. But he might not have had her beheaded. And I made up the bit about the napkin. But you get the point. The butterfly effect–small events whose consequences magnify over time to cause disasters–it happens in relationships, too.
I am not heartless. It would hurt him worse the longer I waited. So I knew I had to end it, before that particular butterfly’s wings flapped the fateful breeze that would lead to a hurricane.
“Stephen, we have to break up,” I said, one evening, just after he took the fries out of the oven. He cooked me dinner at his place. He insisted, which was a bad sign, so I had to start fast.
“Hmmm?” he said, pausing and looking up from my plate, which he was mounding up with far too many fries.
“I said, we have to break up.”
“Oh, right. No, you don’t mean that. We’ll be together forever.” He put some more fries on my plate, the rest on his plate, and set the pan aside.
“Mustard?” he asked, holding out the squeeze bottle.
I shook my head. “No, thanks.”
Two hours, later, I thought I had convinced him we were broken up. But the next afternoon, a dozen red roses arrived, with a card that said, “I’m sorry about that little fight we had yesterday. I know we’ll be together forever.”
I sighed, deposited the roses and card in the bin by the curb–it was trash pick-up day–and went inside, wondering why I always attracted the weird ones.
Every problem has a solution. I undid the top three buttons on my shirt and talked to Jimmy. He had to try so hard not to let his eyes drift downwards, he forgot to blink. Probably would have given me his car if I’d asked. All I wanted was a bartending shift. At least there, customers had to be 21. I figured I could deal with the average drunk better than someone’s entitled juvenile delinquent.
Predictably, Stephen showed up, noticed I was tending bar, and came right over. He was almost broke, cards maxed out, as usual, but I kept serving him. Soon he was so bombed he could barely stay on his stool.
I poured him another, wiped down the bar, and waited. Stephen gulped his eighth whiskey in one drink, closed one eye so he could focus, stood unsteadily, and headed toward what he thought was the bathroom. It was really the emergency exit, but he never got there. He did, however, upchuck, hugely and gloriously, on Jimmy, just as he came around the corner.
This was going better than I planned. I had hoped only that he would pass out at the bar, be thrown out, and be too embarrassed to come back, at least for a while. Jimmy’s outraged-indignation face was better than I could have imagined. He escorted Stephen to the door and promised that if he showed his face there again, the police would be called immediately.
Jimmy came back to the bar for a towel to wipe the second-hand whiskey off his pretty white shirt and blue paisley tie. “Why the hell did you keep serving that guy?” he demanded.
“I poured him only one drink, then cut him off” I said. “He must have been pretty bombed before he came in.”
Outside, tires screeched. From right in front of the restaurant came a sound like a watermelon and a large bag of dry cat food being dropped from a tall building and hitting the pavement simultaneously. I stared in horror out the big plate glass windows. So did Jimmy. For the second time in five minutes, his tie was decorated with the former contents of someone’s stomach, this time his own.
I had planned to put Stephen in a cab when the time came. How was I to know he would be thrown out of the bar and wander straight in front of a bus?
I would have felt a lot worse about it if he hadn’t at least gotten to be a ghost.
The ghosts started to show up everywhere about a month after Stephen was hit by the bus. The timing was pure coincidence, as far as I know. Even as a ghost, he did not have the charisma to lead a supernatural revolt or an otherworldly revolution.
It’s not like I sat around pining over Stephen or what had happened to him. I have a life, so I had to get on with it. I dated a couple of other guys, and then a girl. She was cute, and fun to be around, but she had a disturbing fixation for really, really bloody slasher movies. No judgment here. That sort of thing just doesn’t turn me on. I was planning to break up with her, but she saved me the trouble.
Her name was Chelsee. “With three es.” She made a point of that extra e every time she introduced herself. It was one of the least pretentious things about her.
We were sitting on the sofa, the popcorn bowl still full. The movie had made me lose any appetite I might have had. The lurid red letters of the credits rolled on the gore-fest we’d just watched, at her insistence. She turned to me and said, “I think we should see other ghosts.”
“You want to date a ghost?” I took a second to process. “Wait, ‘other?’ You think I’m a ghost?”
“No. Of course not,” I said. “Are you?”
“But–your skin is so pale, I never see you eat, and you love slasher flicks. All ghostly qualities.”
“Just because I don’t want to get fat or get skin cancer doesn’t make me a ghost,” I said. “And I hate these movies. I watch them only because you like them.”
“But you picked it out.”
“Because I knew you’d like it. I was trying to let you down easy. I want to break up.”
“Okay, fine. We’re broken up,” she said. “I already said we should see other ghosts.”
“Yeah, about that word. ‘Other.’ I’m not a ghost, so that means . . . .” I was still letting it sink it. Having your girlfriend come out as a ghost at the same time you’re breaking up is very confusing. “I’m not a ghost, so that means–you’re a ghost?
“Well, yeah. Again, pale skin, I don’t eat. What did you think? And why do we always have popcorn?”
“I had sex with a ghost,” I said.
“I had sex with a mortal,” Chelsee said.
“Well, that’s just icky,” we both said. It was the last thing we did together.
That’s the problem these days. You can’t tell the living from the ghosts.
After that, things got really weird.
No one knows why the ghost population increased so much. Or why everyone could suddenly see them. The world woke up one day, and there were ghosts everywhere. People adapted. It’s amazing what you can get used to.
I asked Stephen about it. He shook his head. Even after he was hit and killed by the bus, he kept coming to see me. Hard to believe, huh? But I talked to him. Might as well be civil. Even though it’s not like I actually poured the drinks down his throat or pushed him under the bus, I felt kinda bad about what happened.
Anyway, he said, “It’s a big mystery why there are so many ghosts now. People just find it harder to move on. There are different theories. Some say it’s caused by population growth. More people born, more people die, more ghosts. Conspiracy nuts say it’s something to do with the planet’s magnetic field being off-kilter, the drift of the North Pole, or global warming. One theory says the ultimate destination, the space past the point of no return, is running out of room.”
“You mean, heaven is full up? Or hell?” I said.
“Dunno. I haven’t been there. I’m just a ghost, remember?”
“What do you think?”
“I think wild speculation is pointless. And remains pointless as long as beautiful
women remain beautiful. And occasionally take off their clothes.”
“I see being dead hasn’t made you any less of a perv,” I said.
“Ghostly pleasures are severely restricted,” he answered, defensively. “We don’t eat, alcohol goes right through us, and has no effect anyway. We can’t smoke, since we basically already are smoke, most of the time. Some carnal pleasures must remain.”
“Being a ghost hasn’t stopped you from being horny, either.”
“I can materialize all the way, rock-solid, for long enough to make love,” he said, and wiggled his eyebrows. He thought the look was sexy, but really it was just ridiculous.
I didn’t ask about ghostly wanking. Some things are too horrible to imagine.
“The old-timers tell me the ghost gig used to be really tough,” Stephen said. “A lot of spirits didn’t have what it took, so they moved on.”
“Moved on where?”
Stephen shrugged. “How should I know? Ghosts can’t see anything more than mortals about The Great Beyond. Dying doesn’t make you omniscient, or psychic. It doesn’t even make you smarter. All it does is make you dead. Phony mortal psychics claim to be in touch with ‘the other side.’ They say they get messages about all sorts of things from ghosts. Fiddlesticks.”
“So how did you find out where I moved?” I asked.
“Well, we ghosts don’t know any more than you mortals do about the Great Beyond. But think what you could learn if you had the option to turn invisible and walk through walls. Which is entertaining for a while, then boring. Most people’s secrets are sordid, and that’s why they are kept secret, yet they are remarkably similar to other people’s secrets. Sex and drugs, mostly. It’s sad. You’d think being dead would come with a better severance package than getting to know stuff you suspected already and didn’t care about.”
“But at least you don’t need health insurance or have to pay rent or worry about money anymore. That’s something,” I said.
Even after I moved, Stephen came to the restaurant. I didn’t move just to get away from him–better apartment, cheaper rent, closer to school–but I did refuse to tell him where I moved. Not that it mattered, of course. If he came to my apartment, he knew I could put the chain on the door and ignore him til he went away. That was before he became a ghost. After, he somehow found my new apartment, and since he could dematerialize, I couldn’t even be sure if he was there or not. At the restaurant, he could sit in my section, no way to avoid him and not get fired. Tables must be cleared, even if your almost-a-stalker ghost-ex is sitting right next to them. Cute customers must also be flirted with, especially if it means they might leave a big tip.
One day, I was clearing a table where a family with particularly messy four-year-old twins had dined, and Stephen materialized in the seat right behind me. Startled the heck out of me when I turned around. Which is about the scariest thing most ghosts do–turning up when or where you don’t expect them.
“Stephen, why do you keep hanging around? We’re done. We’ve been done for months. Find a nice ghost and settle down with her. Or him. Whichever. Just please leave me alone.”
“I’m persistent,” he said. “It’s the secret of my success.”
“No, it’s just creepy,” I said. “And you know who else is persistent? Stalkers. Now go away.”
Which he did. But he always came back.
Something had to be done.
Many people had ghostly stalkers, and some were more than mere nuisances. The ghost economy made theft by spectral entities a relatively pointless exercise, at least, as ghosts had no use for money. Or most ghosts didn’t. Some clung to the notion of cash as a status symbol. Probably the same kind who, when they were alive, became billionaires and still could think of nothing but how to make more money.
The vast majority of ghosts were harmless enough, however. They were considerate and minded their own business, and if they haunted any places, they were the houses they had lived in or the offices they worked in when they were alive. They remained invisible most of the time, so as not to disturb the living, who, as usual, soon found it easy enough to ignore what they didn’t see or hear. Out of sight, out of mind.
Then some genius discovered that a certain kind of electromagnetic field is impervious to ghosts. Shield generators soon hit the market. Install one of these in your house, and ghosts could neither enter nor leave. Any ghost already in your house was trapped, but psychics could be hired to swear your house was ghost-free before you turned on the system. Like Stephen, I think most psychics are are fakes, maybe all of them. But I dated a ghost, so what do I know?
The shield generators were ridiculously expensive at first, of course, and bulky, but soon smaller units were developed, so cars could be ghost-proofed. Next, mobile ghost zappers the size of cellphones were developed, so you could project a fifteen or twenty-foot “clear-zone” wherever you went. This inevitably led to huge conflicts. Harmless ghosts who were minding their own business found themselves being randomly jolted by mobile zappers. The sensation was reportedly similar to what being stunned with a taser or electric-shock gun felt like for mortals. Not the highlight of anyone’s day.
Shield generators, along with phones, microwave ovens, masturbation, and living too close to big electric power lines, were all supposed to cause brain cancer or blindness, or at least hairy palms, in mortals. Well, we all have to die of something. Meanwhile, the lawyers need jobs, like everybody else.
A whole new legal field, “spectral legislation and litigation” had to be invented. Did ghosts have rights? If so, didn’t they also have responsibilities? If a ghost broke the law, what could you do? Jail, fines, and judgments in civil suits were pointless for beings that could walk through walls and had no actual need for money, nor any way to earn it. Or much of it, anyway, in most cases. Some ghosts could materialize for several hours per day, enough to hold down jobs. Naturally, unemployed mortals deeply resented this fact, and the Hire the Living movement commenced.
Many mortals didn’t mind the proliferation of ghosts, or even welcomed it, hoping to become ghosts themselves when they shuffled off the mortal coil, but others became rabid anti-spectralists, arguing that ghosts had no place among the living. “They should have their own country” was the battle-cry of the ghost-haters. Some even wanted a ghost-zapper-dome to be generated over the entire continent. These ghost-haters avoided questions about how ghosts of people who died inside the dome would get out. “Send them back where they came from” was another popular slogan, despite the fact that many ghosts came from right here. People were irrational as ever.
“It has nothing to do with your being a ghost,” I said to Stephen the last time I saw him. “We broke up before you died, remember?”
“No, you broke up,” he said. “I didn’t give up on us.”
“For the hundredth time, there is no us!” I yelled in frustration. Stephen chose that moment to dematerialize. He was never good at real conflict. We were sitting on a park bench. People in the park moved away from the crazy girl who was screaming at no one.
So I saved my tips for a couple of weeks and bought a ghost zapper. Also borrowed all the funds from the tip jar and left an anonymous IOU. I’m not proud of it, okay? Not proud of what happened afterward, either. I just want to state that unequivocally.
But Stephen was driving me nuts. Always there. Even when I was trying to make friends, or more than friends, he would turn up. If you are an exhibitionist, you might not mind if your ex is probably watching you try to make love. I am not an exhibitionist. Not that kind, anyway.
By now, the portable zappers were the most economical, so that’s what I got. The range was short, maybe fifteen feet, but at least it would keep him out of my bedroom. And I could clip it to my belt at work. Zappers were prohibited in the restaurant. A big sign on the door said “NO ZAPPERS” in bigger letters than the “No Smoking” sign. Jimmy had a curious fit of open-mindedness and declared them cruel and discriminatory, but I took it along anyway. As long as Stephen did not materialize, I could live with his possible lurking at the restaurant, but if he did appear, I wanted the option. I wore a shirt long enough to cover the little bump it made.
Juliet showed up at the bar. I’d found I liked tending bar. Jimmy kept giving me shifts there, even after–or maybe because–Stephen upchucked on him. Jimmy decided not to blame me too much for whatever role I might have played in my late boyfriend’s transition to the ghostly realm. I guess Jimmy though it was justice, or something like that.
Juliet is not her real name, and yes, I do have nicknames for everyone who annoys me. (Stephen–Stevie Ray Gone. Go ahead, roll your eyes. I won’t see.) Even though Juliet is twenty-two, at least according to her ID, she has that precious, entitled fourteen-year-old air about her, like every Romeo in the world must be dying to stand outside her window and pine for her affections.
That day, Juliet was wearing a white tee-shirt that said Hey, Ghosts! Get a Life! Clever, huh? Anyway, she had her ghost zapper prominently displayed, the power light flashing away, when she walked in. Jimmy spotted it instantly from the other end of the bar. He spoke loudly, “No, no, turn that thing off or get out. You can’t use it in here.”
Juliet ignored him, at first. Jimmy looked at me. I went over to Juliet and said, “No zappers in the restaurant. You’ll have to turn it off.”
“Says who?” she said, pouting her already pouty lips, as if she hadn’t heard Jimmy. People out on the street heard Jimmy.
“The manager,” I said, and inclined my head Jimmy’s way. I turned to wash some beer mugs. Let him deal with her. That was why he got paid the big bucks.
Out of the corner of my eye I spotted Stephen, who had snuck in the back door. Or maybe he’d just walked through the wall and materialized. He was standing right behind Jimmy.
Juliet turned and walked toward Jimmy, who began backing away from her. I started toward the three of them. Jimmy stumbled over Stephen’s feet. I turned my zapper on, intending to teach Stephen a little lesson. Feeling the shock, Stephen turned rigid, arms and legs locked into position, a surprised look on his face, left hand reaching out, frozen, the way department store mannequins used to be posed. Unable to move, he toppled over like a scarecrow in a high wind.
I didn’t even think about the stories I’d heard, tales about what happened to ghosts who got caught in a vortex caused by a double zapping, until I noticed the light still flashing on Juliet’s belt. Normally, zappers are unpleasant but relatively harmless. However, it is said, there are limits to what even a ghost can tolerate.
“Stephen!” I said, and tried, too late, to catch him. But before I could reach that far, Jimmy began to convulse, then froze also, and followed Stephen to the floor. His face struck the freshly cleaned tile floor in what was sure to leave a blood stain.
Except there was no stain. From either of them. I didn’t expect Stephen to bleed–he’s a ghost, after all, materialized or not, so why does he need blood?
They faded away.
I tried to convince myself I was a little surprised that Jimmy got zapped into oblivion right along with Stephen. I wondered when he had become a ghost, what happened to him. But the truth was, he’d had that “I’m special, I’m a ghost, I can do whatever I want” attitude for a long time.
That was five weeks ago. Nobody has seen Jimmy or Stephen since then. I’m a little worried about the whole situation, but I refuse to lose sleep over it.
As a wise mortal once said, So it goes.
I mean, ghosts are already dead, so it’s not murder if you kill one.
About the Author:
David Rogers is the author of two novels: Thor’s Hammer, and D.B.Cooper is Dead: A Solomon Starr Adventure. His fantasy novella is called Return of the Exile. All are available from Amazon. He also curates “David Watches Movies” on Facebook. More of his work can be read at https://davidrogersbooks.wordpress.com/.