Exactly one year after my father’s death, he woke me three hours before dawn. It went something like this: the ceiling staring down at me, me staring up at it, the moon glittering off the chandelier, and my hands curled into fists. He was sitting at the end of the bed—he had pulled the covers up and was now pinching my toes as though trying to figure out what they were. I couldn’t move them but I could feel his incessant tickletwitch touch. If I had the wherewithal to unclench my jaw I would have told him to leave off, but I’m not so sure he would’ve understood. He died before he taught me how to talk to ghosts, and it would appear no one had really taught him how to talk to the living. So instead we sat in silence, me stiff-muscled and silent and him still fiddling with my toes.
When the sun finally rose I felt the strength return to my muscles, and as I sat up I realized my father was gone. I couldn’t point to the moment it happened—it was like I’d forgotten something. If I hadn’t known to expect him, I wouldn’t have believed myself. But he had told me, on the day of the crash, that he’d see me next year, and my father was nothing if not punctual.
When he’d died, my mother had taken to washing the dishes herself, scrubbing them until her bony fingers split at the surface like grapes. I told her not to worry and even Gianni, my father’s suave Italian butler, stepped in. He put his foot down when he saw the wine glasses streaked with blood. As he bandaged up her cuts, Gianni said grief worked in mysterious ways. My father would have laughed, or maybe been offended that my mother had so little faith. But after years as the wife of a television medium, she’d lost whatever belief in the beyond she might have started with.
At any rate it had taken a year after my father’s death for him to visit, but once he started he wouldn’t stop. It became incessant—every night I’d wake up at three a.m. and he would be sitting there at the end of the bed. He wasn’t always alone—sometimes a few other shades would be with him, and they’d walk around the room, or come closer to inspect the top of me. He had stopped playing with my toes but it seemed the mysteries of flesh were still captivating to the dead. He did a lot of eyebrow stroking for a week or so, then some ear tugging. Once, one of his companions slid her cold dead finger up my nose, and if I hadn’t been paralyzed and if she hadn’t been dead, I would’ve killed her then and there. But I was, and she was, so I glowered instead.
It seemed like there were more and more of them every night, but never the same ones. There were new ghosts and old ghosts, shades of every race, religion, and creed, and they were all stuffed into my bedroom, inspecting the place, inspecting me. They carried with them some astral chill that stifled my breathing to thin, shallow gasps, and the more they poked at me the stiffer I felt, like a cadaver. Once in a while one would try to lie down in my place but my father would always corral them away just at the moment before fusion. I didn’t know exactly what would happen if they joined into me, but I wasn’t so sure I wanted to learn firsthand.
When Gianni noticed the dark circles under my eyes, I had to confess I wasn’t sleeping. He told me to try some of my mother’s sedatives, but they didn’t help at all. I was just groggier the next morning. Instead I asked Gianni if he’d kept my father’s papers, and I began to study.
Scribbled on yellow legal pads and scrawled in the margins of books, my father had left a lot to work with, but little of it was relevant to me. It seemed he wasn’t interested in the theory of ghostwork, but rather the psyches of the dead. His notes read like those of a therapist. Onscreen, he’d always acted… well, larger than life. That was the name of his show. But here, now, I could see he was a man obsessed.
I could find no guidance for talking to ghosts, no evidence my father had ever experienced the same paralysis I was undergoing. Instead, I found out only that ghosts felt more welcome in the presence of burning mugwort but hated sage, that they often cared more about the body they left behind than the people they had, and that they could manifest just about anywhere, but once they had they couldn’t travel through closed doors.
That last one sparked my interest. I always slept with my door closed, afraid of someone creeping in during the night. But now that I had dozens of nightly visitors, I realized perhaps I could let them out. That night I piled sage onto a ceramic plate on my bedside table and set it to smoldering, and left my door wide open, sure that this time I would finally get some rest.
Needless to say it did not go as planned.
I woke with sensation in my limbs, surrounded by sage smoke but ghost-free. I checked, and checked again, sitting bolt upright and even stepping out of bed to prove I could. It was still dark out, the kind of cloudy night where you can’t even see the stars, and so lit only by the ember remnants of the herbs I poked my head out of the door.
I heard a sound like running water, and despite the smoky heat I shivered. It was probably Gianni doing some household task. But then again, maybe it wasn’t. With the door open, who knew what mayhem the ghosts were causing?
I decided to investigate. I walked down the hall on the balls of my feet, as though by tiptoeing I could sneak up on ghosts. It felt reassuring in a frail way, like pulling a blanket over yourself and pretending like that will ward off monsters and murderers.
In the kitchen I found my mother at the sink, her eyes wide open as she scrubbed and scrubbed at spotless plates. It had been a while since I’d seen her do this last, but the image of her bloody fingers was fresh as ever.
“Mom?” I asked. She stared and stared at nothing, and didn’t stop scouring the dish.
“Mom,” I tried again, but she kept going, so I called loudly for Gianni.
I could hear his footsteps, then so many footsteps like a stampede. He walked into the room from the long hallway, flanked by ghosts.
I felt the motion drain from my limbs and I froze in place as the ghosts filled the room and began poking at me, tugging at my mother. She was still washing the dishes, her hair disheveled and her nightgown sweaty, and she didn’t seem to notice as the ghosts pulled at her flesh.
I looked at Gianni, and Gianni looked at me and seemed to take in my condition.
“Now, now, Evelyn, that isn’t nice. Let him go, please,” he said, and immediately I could move. I jerked away from one set of ghosts and tumbled into the next.
“You…” I said. It was all I could spit out.
“Yes, me.” He was smiling as he said it. I looked around for my father, but he was nowhere to be seen.
“You didn’t really think your father could do any of it himself, did you?”
I’d never seen Gianni look so alive. It only made the dead look paler, thinner, poor facsimiles of the living. You could see they had no flesh.
“I saw him speaking to ghosts on Larger Than Life. I read his notes!”
“You read my notes. Couldn’t you tell they weren’t really his style? No, he would go on set and manipulate poor sad widows into revealing things they didn’t realize, and he’d regurgitate their message back at them. When it came to real ghosts, when he needed real information, that was all me. Until he decided he didn’t, anymore.”
I swallowed hard. My aching fists were clenched like they were still paralyzed.
“And even now, look what he’s done. All that trouble I went to, arranging the crash and everything, and he still finds a way to profit off the dead. He’s been charging them to see you, you know.”
Just then my mother dropped a dish into the sink and it shattered.
“Mom?” I said, my voice raw and high and scratchy.
“Oh, that’s not your mother. It hasn’t been for a while. She was bothering me, asking too many questions, so I had her replaced.”
I felt my eyes bulge. “Replaced? With what?”
“Now, now, you’re being rude, just like your father. With whom, you mean. And her name is Edith. She died some hundred and seventy years ago or so, and she just doesn’t understand the dishwasher.”
It felt too staged to be real and I expected at any moment to wake in my room again, groggy from some strange, sage-induced hallucination until Gianni stepped forwards and touched my face.
“I always thought you were cleverer than your father. Wouldn’t you like to join me in rebuilding his empire on a real foundation now?”
I opened my mouth to say yes, to convince him for long enough to get to my sage-safe room, or outside at least. But he saw all the no he needed in my eyes.
“Very well, then, Evelyn, take him,” he said, stepping off to the side. I felt my body go stiff and lock again.
“They all want a piece of the living, you see. I try to tell them it won’t last, but that hasn’t stopped them yet.”
And they came forwards and tugged at my toes until they popped off, and bit at my ears until they ripped, and they divided and divided me and I screamed and screamed until I was one of them.