Followed by Author Bio and Q&A
Midwest Boris Finds a Good One
“Pardon me? Emily from Channel 6 News? Maybe a small rehearsal would be wise.”
“Once again, please call me Emily, just Emily.”
“That makes sense, but it isn’t how I know you in my head. I see you standing here and I think: oh hello, it’s Emily from Channel 6 News.”
“Move over a couple feet, Doc. You’re right in front of the sign.”
“The television in the faculty lounge is always on Channel 6, so I watch you during lunch five days a week. Last week it was four days, because of that holiday, but still: quite a bit of conditioning to overcome. I’m not going to say your name at all and that’ll resolve the issue.”
“Another few inches. Mr. Nork specifically wanted that sign in the shot. Ready? Three,
two. . . Good morning. I am here with Dr. Eric Emerson, famed authority on ghost
hunting. . .”
“Pardon me there. I’m sorry. I don’t prefer that terminology.”
“It’s an attention-grabber so people will watch through the boring stuff. You’ll have a chance to explain whatever it is you do, I promise. Take two. I am standing here with Dr. Eric Emerson, an expert in ghost hunting, and we’re on site of the nearly completed Nork Investigatory Science and Experimental Research Institute. . .”
“Pardon me. I’m sorry. Please, call it the Nork Institute.”
“Mr. Nork won’t care?”
“It’s such a mouthful. Such a redundant, ridiculous mouthful.”
“Still rolling? Take three. I am standing here with Dr. Eric Emerson, local ghost hunter, and we’re on site of the nearly completed Nork Researchy Science. . .goodness, it really is a mouthful, now isn’t it Dr. Emerson?”
“Well it’s right there on the sign, have a look. But until recently, it was called something else, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, in the sense that it wasn’t called the Nork Institute.”
“What was it called?”
“I suppose it was called the third floor of Bunting Hall. Not the whole third floor.”
“Part of the psychology department, yes?”
“I received scant symbolic funding through the psychology department, yes. On the annual line-item budget I was filed under misc.”
“But then local billionaire Jonathon Nork—inventor of the ubiquitous Nork Nozzle—bestowed a large gift, didn’t he?”
“Ten million dollars, wasn’t it?”
“And now two years later, you’re ready to cut the ribbon on the largest construction project this town has seen in a decade.”
“That’s arguable. The new landfill has a substantially larger footprint.”
“Cut. Let’s start over.”
~ ~ ~
After the television interview Emerson packs up his office at Bunting Hall, the final missing element of the nascent NISERI (oft-pronounced to rhyme with “misery”). A gleaming young man from College Studs Moving Associates strides into the room and gathers a box under one arm.
“Would you mind putting a shirt on before you pick that up?” asks Emerson. “It’s just, the sweat, and the books. I’m going to read those books again.”
“I’m not sweating—it’s freezing out there. For easy jobs we’re required to mist ourselves down with a spray bottle. It’s part of the uniform.”
“I won’t tell if you won’t. That’s a first edition Clarke in there.”
While the man disappears to get dressed, Emerson retrieves the text (William Clarke, Fundamental Principles of Parapsychology. New York City: Janus Company, 1990) and flips to the inside of the back cover, where his mentor smiles at him.
Pressed for anecdotes, Emerson had recounted for Emily from Channel 6 News a story about Professor Clarke, originator of this enterprise from the third floor of Bunting Hall (not the whole third floor). In 1992, the dining room of the Samburg plantation house—by that time transformed into a tony bed and breakfast—began to experience visitations from an unseen phantom, making itself known via piercing screeches at night. Guests of the estate would trample groggily into the dining room to find every piece of glassware shattered where it sat. Clarke discretely set up surveillance cameras and captured the event in progress, wine glasses popping like firecrackers around the table with not a figure in sight.
The head of the kitchen staff was Gertrude Silver. One evening, Clarke tucked himself away into the trunk of her car, holding the latch open with a fragment of tree branch, then waited three hours for the woman to drive home. He then slipped from the trunk and fought through the bushes surrounding the house to peer in through the bathroom window. Silver, in the shower, began to sing “Der Hölle Rasche” from The Magic Flute, an impromptu performance so remarkable that Clarke wept.
“Gertrude Silver was a semi-famous opera singer from the ‘50s with a five-octave range, who was by then forgotten,” Emerson explained. “She had a portable amplifier she’d sneak into the dining hall in her serving cart, and had experimented to find the precise volume and resonate pitch that could shatter the glassware they were using. Clarke became suspicious when he overheard her singing briefly in the kitchen one evening, three or four notes before she fell quiet. But it was enough.”
“So,” said Emily, slowly. “He stalked an elderly widow, stowed away in her car and then spied on her in the shower?”
“Yes.” Emerson smiled proudly.
~ ~ ~
Emerson receives a phone call that evening from Midwest Boris, one of five interns that NISERI maintains on assignment across the country.
“Found a good one, Professor Emerson.”
“I honestly cannot imagine how they’re doing it. Really good.”
“Remind me where you are?” Emerson gets on the computer and launches a spreadsheet from the shared drive.
“Gresham. . .Gent. . .these are out of order. You realize you can auto-alphabetize columns?”
“Please examine New England Kwame’s spreadsheet for a suitable template. No sloppy record-keeping. That’s rule number. . .?”
“Rule number twelve, professor.”
“Correct. Here we are: Gorte. Residential location. Dancing ghost, it says.”
“I don’t know about dancing. It spins a couple times. Pirouettes.”
“And then smiles.”
“Not a hologram, not a projection, not an anything. It’s the weirdest goddamn sight. It’s a good one.”
~ ~ ~
Eric E., Ph.D. Forty-two years old, seeks male companion for coffee, crossword puzzles (no internet look-ups). I am not skilled at conversation but am an excellent listener/sounding board. Sports not my forte but I’ve been known to watch a game of ball. A nice-looking man, prominent widow’s peak, forced smile. Paul sends him a message, gets a response within three minutes. It’s two in the morning. Paul is a warehouse security guard browsing dating sites on his phone during the graveyard shift.
You work nights too? asks Paul.
I work all the time, is the response. They go back and forth a bit.
What do you do? asks Paul.
I’m an academic psychologist. I investigate and debunk paranormal fictions.
You’re a ghost hunter!
I don’t prefer that terminology. Rather, I prove there are no ghosts to hunt.
“Sort of a buzzkill, aren’t we?” thinks Paul and tucks his phone away.
~ ~ ~
Emerson flies into Indianapolis, where Boris meets him with a rental car.
“Hello, Midwest Boris,” says Emerson.
“Excuse me, sir?”
“You probably go by Boris, of course. In your own day-to-day life. Is that right?”
They drive north-northwest for an hour. The house is a fixer-upper. The porch looks as Emerson imagines a porch might look were a grenade to be lobbed onto it: splintered and scorched but mostly just absent. The exterior of the home has been painted over at least three times, and all three layers are evident to various degrees in patches and streaks.
Emerson knocks on the door and it swings open a bit. He pulls it closed and holds it shut by the knob as he knocks again. Johnny Harris, a wiry middle-aged man who wears tank tops, answers promptly. He nods at Boris and offers a nicotine-stained hand to Emerson.
“Like I was telling your son here,” begins Harris as he leads down a hallway, motioning for them to avoid a trip hazard posed by mounds of pulled-up shag carpet.
“He’s just an intern.”
“Well whatever your relation, I was sayin’ it weren’t here when I bought,” continues Harris. “The stain were there, but the ghost weren’t. Ghost didn’t arrive ‘til after I signed. Isn’t that peaches?”
They come into an open space that probably functioned as a living room but is now devoid of furnishing. The hardwood floor is missing several contiguous boards, revealing the foundation beneath. Paint cans are piled up in a pyramid. A woman is spinning in the middle of the room.
“It’s a real pickle for me,” says Harris. “Got it for a hundred at auction, thought I’d put, I dunno, fifty in it? Sell it for two hundred? But then this. You can imagine.”
She’s in her twenties, dressed contemporarily in jeans and a blouse. She twirls like a child trying to dizzy herself. She spins four times and halts, looks up, gives a great toothy grin, disappears entirely for half a second, then reappears and is spinning again. Each cycle lasts five seconds and each is identical. It stands over a circular crimson stain roughly an inch in diameter.
“I’ll be honest, gentlemen,” says Harris. “I’m figuring to take a bath on this deal. I certainly am.”
“It isn’t pirouetting,” says Emerson.
“Excuse me, sir?” says Boris.
“You said it was pirouetting. To pirouette is to spin on one foot with the other leg bent and the toes of that contralateral foot contacting the ipsilateral knee.”
“Yes sir. And so you would describe this as. . .?”
“Commonplace twirling, type B.”
“Type B, yes sir.”
“It is a joke. Rule number. . .?”
“Rule number fourteen: judiciously utilize humor to build camaraderie.”
The figure is silent. It appears wholly corporeal and opaque, though Emerson’s hands pass without resistance. He has Boris stand exactly within its space and they appear physically comingled like a writhing conjoined twin, resulting in a discomfited verbal outburst from Harris. Emerson raps on all the walls, taps his feet across the floor, and finds nothing.
He stands before the figure and watches its face. The smile is honest. Emerson appreciates the practice required to fake a smile with conviction: first, the challenge of mimicking the involuntary partial squint; second, remembering to do so. She catches his gaze and they lock eyes for a fraction of a moment. His chest thumps. He leans in and waits another five seconds. It doesn’t happen again. He waits another five seconds. It doesn’t happen again.
Minutes pass. Emerson hasn’t moved. Harris and Boris trade glances.
“What’s the stain beneath it?” Emerson finally asks.
“Don’t know,” replies Harris. “Looks like blood. Guess I’d think that, on account of the ghost o’er the top of it.”
“We’ll be back tomorrow,” says Emerson. “Can we come early?”
“Here’s a spare key. Come whenever you want.”
~ ~ ~
Emerson and Boris visit a Home Depot then stay the night at a Motel 6. They return to the fixer-upper the next morning before dawn, parking two blocks away and approaching silently on foot. Emerson peeks in the living room window. He shines a flashlight inside, which partially illuminates the woman, spinning.
They let themselves in and turn on the lights. She is performing her routine. Boris goes back to the car and brings it up to the driveway, then drags in a package. They spend an hour with tiny Allen wrenches assembling a metal locker (unfortunately, the Home Depot had only aluminum). Once it is complete and stood vertical they push the open locker atop the red stain. The woman now spins contained inside the locker. They shut the door. Emerson peeks in through an air vent. She spins. He opens the door and gets inside, instructs Boris to close the locker and duct tape the entire thing from top to bottom, leave it like that until Emerson knocks, at which point it should be cut open before he asphyxiates.
He waits in the dark. It is silent other than the distant scratch of duct tape ripping and the slight vibration of the locker as Boris works. He hears a muffled “done, boss.” He turns on the flashlight. She is right there, right there. There isn’t sufficient room for two people and it would be intimate indeed were she a physical being. Her face spins immediately in front of his. She is somewhat short for a woman and he is very short for a man—was teased about it as a kid, in fact. She never looks him in the eye. No matter how he repositions his head, it’s never quite right.
Minutes pass and she persists. If the figure is transmitted from afar, then said transmission isn’t blocked by aluminum so they’ll have to try lead. His breathing becomes fast and shallow. Should he knock? Has he waited long enough? Would Clarke have waited longer? If he collapses, the generated noise will probably alert Boris, which should be enough. There is a rush in his ears, he is floating or falling. Lights flashing. I don’t always answer my office door, Clarke admitted. Knock exactly six times and I’ll know it’s you.
Of course, Professor. Six times.
“Okay boss, opening it up.”
Emerson spills from the locker onto the floor, the woman spinning behind him.
~ ~ ~
Harris arrives mid-morning to find Emerson and Boris knocking holes in the walls and the floor with sledgehammers.
“Great shit almighty,” yells Harris. “I didn’t agree to this.”
“I’m going to take this house off your hands,” says Emerson. “Two hundred thousand, cash.”
“Well then,” says Harris, calming down. “I’ve been thinking, actually. Thinking about not selling at all. I’ve been thinking: ghost tours. Like on the TV. Could set me up for a long time.”
“I can sweeten the deal. I can get you a crate of Nork Nozzles.”
Harris squints his eyes. “How many nozzles in a crate?”
“I’m uncertain if they’d arrive in a crate or not, I’m only speculating. Standard USPS parcel boxes are likely. But let’s postulate that I can procure for you a generous quantity of Nork Nozzles.”
Harris paces for a long time. “Lemme ask you a hypothermical question, doc,” he finally says. “If you could ask for however many Nork Nozzles, how many would you ask for?”
“I would ask for ten.”
“Ten,” says Harris, first surprised and then all smiles.
Emerson nods to Boris who gets on his phone and steps outside.
“Ten,” whispers Harris.
~ ~ ~
Emerson e-mails Mr. Nork with an update and a request, and NISERI’s bank account is injected with a considerable sum of money. The locker is temporarily bolted down around the spinning figure. A contractor is summoned to the house, an envelope of cash changes hands and a backhoe is on site within twelve hours. Within twenty-four hours, little remains. Every piece of the house save the living room floor is demolished and carted off in dump trucks. There are incessant questions about what the hell is going on with the verboten locker in the living room, and why did Emerson periodically halt all demolition to peek inside?
“I work for Nork Nozzles,” says Emerson. “Mr. Nork is an eccentric billionaire and this is the sort of thing they do.”
Evening falls and the last truck drives away from the concrete foundation, bare but for four square feet of hardwood floor. Emerson opens the locker. She is still there. Emerson and Boris unmoor the locker and separate the stained floorboard from its neighbors, then slide it out from under the locker. As anticipated, the figure slides out with it. They lift the board up onto their shoulders and she ascends above their heads.
The contractors left sawhorses and a toolbox behind, as requested. Emerson gradually trims away the edges of the floorboard. A foot off one end, a foot off the other. And again. Trims it down to a piece roughly the size of a dinner plate, with the red stain right in the center. She spins and smiles. He rests the piece of wood on a smooth flat rock and twirls it like a top. She spins times ten.
They make plans to reconvene at NISERI in a few days and then Boris flies out to Minnesota to see about a levitating frog. Emerson cannot imagine any viable scheme to smuggle the specter through airport security, so he extends his car rental indefinitely. He wedges the board into the open glove box, facing the back seat so that she projects into the trunk. He drives at night and covers the car with a tarp during the day.
On the first morning, he buys an old-fashioned shaving kit and a package of bandages from a convenience store. He gets in the car and under the tarp, turns on his flashlight and watches her legs rotate in a blur just inches away. He retrieves a blade from the kit and opens a small cut in one finger. He smears blood across an edge of the plank, and bandages his finger.
On the second morning, in a dilapidated motel under thin sheets, he pulls out his phone and logs on to the dating site. He has no messages. He browses for users currently online and finds a man called FloridAdam. In his profile picture FloridAdam is playing a guitar.
I like your guitar, Emerson messages him.
They make the smallest of talk. FloridAdam’s responses come spaced many minutes apart and Emerson is exhausted, pacing the room to stay awake.
u became psikologist to hunt ghosts? asks FloridAdam.
No, I became a psychologist to understand how people work because I’ve always been different.
Five minutes later: different how?
I think if I knew how I was different, then I wouldn’t be different.
Ten minutes later: so y ghosts?
I determined that probably I’d never understand how people do normal things, but I’m good at figuring out how people do abnormal things. And also, I met a man.
Three minutes later: I know that story. Conversation trails off further and Emerson sleeps.
On the third morning, he arrives at NISERI and pulls into the loading bay. He brings the floorboard into Research Lab #1. Under bright lights he compares the two crimson stains. They are similar. He can’t tell.
~ ~ ~
Emerson and Boris stand abreast in the middle of NISERI’s lead-lined laboratory.
“How was the frog?” asks Emerson.
“Magnets,” says Boris.
They take photographs of the spinning woman, digital and film. It photographs fine. They make audio recordings with the most sensitive equipment commercially available. It emits no sound of any frequency, at any volume. They take video and do a frame-by-frame computer analysis, proving that each cycle is identical to the millisecond and the millimeter.
After much deliberation (rule number nine: take risks), they saw the stain in half. Immediately as the plank is cleaved, the figure shifts precisely over one of the halves and the other half is suddenly stain-free. They repeat the experiment five more times until they are left with a tiny red fragment too small to easily reduce further. The other pieces littering the floor are just wood. She floats above the splinter and spins.
Emerson brings the fragment to the Pathology Department at the medical school. They find no cellular material, no DNA. “It isn’t blood?” he asks.
“Not likely. Hard to tell since it doesn’t come off.”
“Why is it red?”
“I think it’s just red. Like, why is a rose red?”
“You do realize there is a reason why a rose is red.” Nothing further was gained.
Emerson calls an acquaintance—a very casual acquaintance—actually a casual acquaintance once removed—who is Professor Emeritus in the Physics Department. On her arrival she is suitably astonished, which Emerson finds bittersweet. He is pleased the answer is not so apparent that he is foolish for having missed it, but all the same he needs to know.
“Thoughts that come to mind?” he asks.
“Holy shit,” says the Professor Emeritus.
“Any different thoughts?”
The Professor Emeritus reviews their notes. She stares and thinks and stares. “You have made many reasonable measurements,” she offers. “From Heisenberg, we know that when a measurement is carried out on an elemental particle, you can choose to determine either its position or its velocity. By measuring the one you inevitably alter the other and cannot learn it.” She wiggles the wood splinter with her finger and the woman wiggles about in the air.
“So, let me posit something of a similar spirit—pun intended, yes? No? Well let me posit: by studying this phenomenon, you alter its explanation.”
“Certainly that’s nonsense?” Emerson protests.
She gestures at the figure. “Certainly this is nonsense, isn’t it? All science was once thought supernatural.”
“Boss,” says Boris. “It’s late. Let’s go get a drink.”
“What? I don’t know. Maybe later. What about smell, we haven’t really done anything with smell. Maybe we rent a dog. A bloodhound.”
“Okay then, a rain check,” says Boris and slowly backs out of the lab. The Professor Emeritus trails him, whispering: “Where you wanna go?”
Emerson paces. If an explanation is altered by seeking it, then said explanation can never be known. Since all explanations are knowable, this theory is intellectually bankrupt. Nothing but its own little ghost story. He wishes he had gone for the drink.
“Yes,” he says aloud to see how it feels. “That sounds nice.”
He goes to the window to view his reflection. “Yes actually, sounds good. Sure, a drink sounds good. Sure, that sounds good. Yeah, actually, sounds good.”
He walks back to the spinning woman and addresses her. “Yeah, sounds good.”
“Next time. Yeah, actually, sounds good. Next time. I will join you next time.”
~ ~ ~
I don’t know how to explain it, writes Emerson in an e-mail to Nork. There is an explanation, but I haven’t found it yet. It is not a light projection or hologram. It is not a drug-induced hallucination or shared delusion. There may be some hitherto undetected device embedded in the wood, but then how is it powered? It doesn’t require light, it doesn’t require sound, it doesn’t require motion. I have one further request that may seem strange, but please understand: I need to remove it from all possible influence. I need to remove it from any source of human interference or signaling, and I would like to remove it from gravity.
The Nork Organization for Research and Knowledge in Air, Space and Astronomy arranges for a rocket.
~ ~ ~
“Mr. Nork, it’s a pleasure to finally meet you.”
“Please,” says Nork, shaking the offered hand. “Let us dispense with formalities. Call me Jonathan Nork.”
“So, the whole thing then?”
“No need for the ‘mister.’ I feel like we’re nearly friends. Jonathan Nork will be just fine.”
“Certainly. I suppose you can call me Eric Emerson.”
“Eric, it’s brave what you’re doing. These rockets aren’t meant for human cargo, you understand, and since you’re in a hurry we’ve only done what one might call the bare minimum. . .”
“Sit down, have a cup of tea. Green tea with two sugars, that’s what you’ll have. Eric, I need to tell you something before you leave. Something nobody knows. Can you guess what I might tell you?”
“How a Nork Nozzle works?”
Nork sighs. “Friend, to quote myself: there’s more to life than nozzles. That’s from my autobiography—copies at the front desk if you haven’t read it. I sell them at cost. Go ahead and take one up with you. But the answer is no, you cannot guess what I might reveal because it’s not something that could be suspected. What I need to tell you is this: you are looking into the eyes—Eric look into my eyes, there we go—you’re looking into the eyes of a madman.”
“This is very surprising to me,” says Emerson.
“I saw a ghost,” says Nork, speaking quickly. “A few years ago. Woke up in the middle of the night and my grandpappy was taking a shower in my bedroom. There isn’t a shower in there, but he was buck naked and scrubbing his hair and armpits and all that. Testicles, Eric. Dead for twenty years, and he’s taking an honest-to-god shower. I was wide awake, I promise you that. I’m a scientist for God’s sake, I invented fucking Nork Nozzles. I can’t have dead grandpappies taking showers in my bedroom, ergo I have lost my mind. I know you understand me.” He pauses to breathe. Emerson sips his tea, which is quite too sweet for his tastes.
“Eric, this spinning ghost of yours. Is it real?”
“No, Jonathan Nork.”
“And why do you say that?”
“Because ghosts aren’t real.”
“Excellent,” nods Nork, sitting back in his seat. “I’m feeling good. But I need to feel great. I made a ten-million-dollar investment into the business of shining light into the dark, and now I need this ghost of yours to be explained away. Eric, do whatever it takes. Can you do that? Can you do whatever it takes?”
Emerson remembers Professor Clarke sweating in Gertrude Silver’s trunk. “Doing whatever it takes is rule number one.”
“Good man. Now go get in the rocket ship with that ghost and prove I’m crazy.”
They stand and Emerson raises his hand for a shake at the same time Nork comes in for a hug, and there is awkward shuffling and muttered apologies and the meeting is adjourned.
~ ~ ~
He eats and drinks sparingly so the water might last for months, but the oxygen won’t. He won’t get far on a cosmic scale. Still, if twenty million kilometers isn’t enough then why would two hundred million be? Two billion? There is a point where you must allow reasonable assumptions or life makes no sense.
There is nothing to pass the time. Beeps announce incoming transmissions from Nork; he never reads them, and the beeps irritate him for weeks until he smashes the computer with a pipe. He tries and fails to catch her eye, hours at a time. He forgets if he is asleep or awake, and when he remembers, he is wrong. She spins and smiles and grows brighter every day. An alternate explanation is that the interior of the craft falls dimmer. He has no way of measuring either variable—the equipment has crumbled and he walks in circles through an inch-high layer of gray debris. He carves a dry moat around her.
“Nobody else is here,” he assures her. “Nobody is listening. I won’t tell them. I literally can’t tell them.” She spins and smiles and never stops.
“What do I call you?” he asks. In a million years hence (or a billion, or more) might an alien race intercept this vessel, pry it open, find a mummified corpse and a beautiful twirling ghost, and would they understand? Could they answer what he could not? The notion gives comfort.
Now where has it all gone? Here is Clarke, sifting through dirt heaped on a desk, third floor of Bunting Hall. He draws out sheets of paper, drafts he is reviewing for his book. He makes a notation with a tight, enviable flourish.
It’s a wonderful story, Professor, says Emerson.
Call me Bill, says Clarke, and Emerson’s spine tingles.
So here’s the denouement: I find a local theatre. Not much mind you, forty people on a good night, but they adore the idea. Once a month Ms. Silver puts on a show, happy as a clam. And the Samburg Banshee is exorcised. All is right in the world. Isn’t it fine?
I think you might be a genius.
Of course not, just determined to help.
‘Determination yields elucidation.’ That’s rule number five, didn’t you say?
Eric, I’ll remind you there aren’t really rules. I was joking when I said that. You know, joking, laughing, building camaraderie?
Maybe so. But what matters is that at the end of the day the explanation was yours, Professor. He wants Clarke to say it again: Call me Bill.
Clarke sighs and tosses the papers onto a stack, causing an eruption of dust. He is going to die in two weeks of a ruptured aneurysm. Eric, every ghost story is ultimately a story of loneliness.
This isn’t what you said. I remember that day well.
The only question is why, and what can we do to help.
Sir, you’re covered in dirt.
But Clarke is gone. Emerson is awake. He might be alone.
“I’m going to tell you a secret,” he starts but drifts off, distracted by another memory, and never speaks again. He takes the fragment of wood, puts it in his mouth and swallows, and he spins, and he spins and spins and spins and spins. Over time the Earth dwindles to a dot and disappears.
Brandon Barrett is a practicing cardiologist and writer living in Virginia. His stories have appeared with The Carolina Quarterly, Hobart, Passages North, Sixfold, American Chordata and elsewhere.
For some years I have been writing and publishing a series of stories that I think of as "ghost stories that aren't ghost stories," meaning that the supernatural elements are superficial or vague, and are in service to some other theme rather than being the whole point. To come up with these ideas, I just drill down to the core features of ghost stories and invert one of them. The "prompt" I developed for this story was: what if there was an actual ghost in the world, but one and only one, and it only did something very mundane over and over again. . .would it still be interesting? And the story went from there.
What are your five favorite words of all time?
Ensorcell, exsanguinate, morselize, spatchcock, denouement.
Coffee or tea?
Coffee. Tea is acceptable when one is ill or British.
You’ve been given a plane ticket that can take you anywhere in the world. Where do you go?
I'm going to take the question at face value and pick a location that otherwise would be completely impossible to ever fly into regardless of financial resources, and say Area 51.
Followed by Author Bio and Q&A
You’ve been dead for years, but listen to me anyway. Josiah was six and his favorite toy was a little plastic ghost. “Spook,” he named it and carried it everywhere. School, car, dinner table, bed. Some nights it followed him to the tub.
I know what you would say, but Jess and I didn’t mind. We had friends with boys around Josiah’s age. They told us stories. The fistfights and stealing. Lighting stuff on fire and torturing animals. Josiah did none of that. He was sensitive and shy. He had a kind heart and a mind that ran on magic. If he talked to toys and imagined they talked back, so what?
“We don’t deserve a boy like him,” Jess often said.
“God got His hospital rooms mixed up,” was another way we scratched our heads at how people like us could end up with a kid like him. A perfect kid, all things considered.
Why tell you all this? Because of the other night.
The three of us were having dinner. Green bean casserole with chicken-fried steak. One beer, double whiskey. Jess and I were talking weekend plans. Then Spook emerged from Josiah’s pocket and began moving around the table. He climbed the saltshaker then hopped over to the napkin holder.
“Careful, baby,” Jess warned.
Slower than before, Spook ramped off the tines of a fork and skated around the edge of a plate. Then he floated up, cut two flips, and perched himself on the lip of the plastic cup holding Josiah’s apple juice. When the cup teetered, juice sloshed out. My hands became fists. I thought about slamming one against the table.
Only I didn’t. I did the breathing exercise that the free counselor at church recommended. It worked. Calm as a stained glass saint, I looked at my son and said, “Do me a favor, bud. Set Spook aside until you finish dinner, okay?”
“Yes, sir,” Josiah mumbled. He swaddled Spook in a paper napkin and returned to his dinner.
You would be proud to know my son has manners.
Jess and I kept talking. Josiah kept eating. Then I heard the cup hit the table and saw the spilled juice begin to spread.
“Damn it!” I yelled and stood up.
Jess was looking at me. I was looking at Josiah. Tears bubbling up and Spook still floating in the outstretched palm of his right hand.
“Shit!” I yelled again, when the juice ran over the edge of the table and splashed onto my shoes.
Jess was sopping up the mess with paper towels. “Honey,” she said. “It’s just juice.”
The part of me that knew Jess was right was stuck on the other side of three deep breaths. The truth: I didn’t even try. Instead I reached out and snatched that ghost right out of Josiah’s hand.
“No,” he whimpered.
I squeezed it until the plastic groaned and cracked inside my fist. Loathing myself as I did it, I flung that ghost across the room and watched it smash into pieces against the wall above the sink.
That’s when Jess brought you up. A little afterwards, actually. After Josiah had collected the pieces and gone crying to his room, and after Jess had gone back to comfort him, and after I had taken my whiskey out onto the porch. That was when she leaned out of the screen door and said, “Maybe I’ll just start calling you Perry.”
Perry. The sound of your name got me thinking. Remember the time with the shoebox and the frog? I was about Josiah’s age. You were sitting in your big chair with your beer and television, and I came in the house holding a shoebox. Only it wasn’t a shoebox. It was a mansion for the frog I’d found down in the creek behind Ben Preston’s house. I was on my way to the kitchen to look for something that could be a frog bathtub.
One minute I was walking, thinking about that bathtub. Then, I was flying.
You kicked me so hard it lifted me off the ground. My head left a hole in the drywall. The shoebox was flattened beneath my legs. When I stood up, I felt something in the place where your boot had struck my hip. It felt like someone had left tiny knives in my bones.
“Freddy,” I said, standing up and looking inside the box.
The frog was motionless. I picked him up and rubbed his stomach. I squeezed him in the place I thought his heart would be. When he didn’t move, I put the lid back on the shoebox and started towards my room. You were laughing.
“You want to know what that was for?” you said.
“What?” I said.
“That was for nothing.”
And I remember how you leaned forward after saying that. How you levelled your watery eyes at me and said, “Now if that was for nothing, imagine what the world will do when you actually fuck up.”
I put the box in the trash and went to my room. I was almost there when you said, “And who the hell is Freddy?”
I never told you it was the name I gave to the frog.
Here’s the thing, Dad: later that night, when I went into Josiah’s room, and I knelt down by his bed, and I kissed the tops of hands and asked him to forgive me, that was not me believing I’m a better man than you. I’m not, will likely never be. That was me letting my son know that I didn’t deserve him and that his dreams, even the smallest ones, will one day reign like fearsome kings over bastards such as us.
Dan Leach’s short fiction can be found in The New Madrid Review, The Greensboro Review, and Deep South. His debut collection, Floods and Fires, was released by University Press of North Georgia in 2017. He is an MFA candidate at Warren Wilson. He is currently at work on his first novel.
My inspiration for “Bastards” came in parenthood. As a parent, you realize that the ways in which your parents wounded you isn’t all that different from the ways in which you wound your own kids. Sins have echoes, in other words. And that, following that realization, your heart should be marked by grace and forgiveness—not anger and entitlement.
What are your five favorite words of all time?
Because the entirety of time and memory frightens me, can I give my five favorite words at this particular moment? This is an easier thing to do, given that I am writing a novel that requires me to aim my conscious and subconscious thoughts at these words:
Coffee or tea?
For taste, tea. For energy, coffee.
You’ve been given a plane ticket that can take you anywhere in the world. Where do you go?
Oxford, Mississippi. I’m due a pilgrimage to stomp around on Barry Hannah’s old turf. Plus I have a dear friend down there at the MFA program.