And that brings us to our closing story.
I'd shared an early, mostly uncombed short version of this months ago, and I thought All Hallow's Read the perfect time to put the entire, cleaned-up thing here. The entire story, as dumb as it sounds, was a dream. I'm not normally that lucky as far as plots go.
I'd been having trouble dealing with the fact I was, officially, changed. I had a new diagnosis, I had shifting goals and plans. I realized that I didn't have time to do all the things I'd wanted, things I'd dreamed of-things I assumed I would just pluck into reality. It pained me in a way I almost couldn't swallow. Then, this dream came. This story came to ask whether you will rail against a new truth, a new version of reality-or will you rise to meet what you now have?
It's a question we will all face.
"What You Feed Yourself"
I remember waking up at home. On our soft violet couch. I knew I was dead. I knew that much, but it was as if I'd lost everything else. And sadness blossomed out of my body like a flower.
I don't remember how it happened, and I refused to ask.
And I felt so lucky. I woke up at home, with the people I love. My husband can see me, our children can see me. I can interact with them, with the world, with objects. I'm sure there are yet limitations I don't know about. Rules that could probably break this spell. Like knowing how I died. Maybe just that knowledge would suck me down into some other eternity.
I don't actually care what, if anything is beyond this. I just want to stay here. With them.
I get to rock my baby to sleep, to inhale her breath that still smells like cookies even if she hasn't eaten any, because that's just how babies smell. I get to help the older children with homework, with late night philosphical talks, and be proud when I don't have to help them at all. I get to run a wide brush through their young hair every morning before school. I get to pick up toys. I get to lie beside my husband, touch his warm skin and listen to his stories.
I am the luckiest person not alive.
I died and nothing changed. But I died and I changed.
That deep sadness I felt when I woke up never went away. It unfurled new and more decayed petals every chance it got.
I stopped looking in mirrors. The nicest thing about being dead is that I don't change. I don't wear my long hair up, I don't have to because it is always in place.
I spent the first week looking over my body intently, out of morbid passion. I went looking for a wound, a seam to be unwound, for my skin to start curling and peeling up. I waited for my blood to blacken, for my pigment to fade to ivory. I never saw anything. You don't change when you're dead. You're just dead.
When you don't know the rules, it's frightening to go to new places. My family could see me, most people in everyday life seemed to be able to, but maybe I was imagining that. I did notice that the places I used to frequent in life were infinitely more crowded now. What the actual hell hundreds of ghosts were doing at the park and the library and the market was beyond me. But some were probably doing what I was doing-trying to help take care of their loved ones. I wasn't brave enough to talk to them. I didn't know the rules for that.
It takes me a bit to tell the living from the deceased.
The gargantuan automatic glass doors of our grocer opened like a sideways mouth of a creature lying down. They inhaled the breeze from the Autumn day, and yet a woman with perfect, golden and straight hair was unmoved in any sense. Her baby's strawberry hair, too, sitting in a buckeled carrier on her back, remained motionless in the wind. Just a few feet from the doors, picking through oranges on a stand, it should have affected them. They were dead.
"That's not her baby, if that's what you're thinking," said a male voice, deep, and suddenly in my right ear.
I jumped. "I'm sorry," I said. I'd been staring at them, and maybe it was someone he knew. His face was just as easy to lose myself in. I stared at the details-deep set dark eyes, paired off my the darkest lines of eyebrows and eyelashes I'd ever looked at; they looked like ink. His hair was long and slicked back, but was the same color. He was a vintage travel poster, and was wearing an ugly blue plaid scarf with a button-up shirt. No way this bastard wasn't long dead.
"They get like that," he said, pointing to the golden woman. She was picking through every orange and then putting it back. "Over-focused and protective. She probably just got him today and doesn't know what to do with herself."
"The baby is a ghost?" I asked. I stared intently, wanting the child to move or show some sign of life, but it appeared to be sleeping.
"You think a living child would want anywhere near us? No, the living prefer the living. Hell, the dead want the living, too, but, you get the idea." He had a perfect snear.
"I have children-" I said.
"Oh. I thought you had maybe a juice box and cheese cracker fetish." He pointed to my reusable shopping bags. I laughed, but I kind of wanted not to.
"I didn't mean our children. Of course they want us around. I didn't mean it like that. The ghosts of young ones need caretakers, too. But the longer we've been like us, the more it takes adjustment. They'll be fine." he said.
"That's good. You seem to know what's going on." I said, "Can you help me?" I put my bags on the tiled floor and a clamshell of kiwis escaped. I set to collecting them. It was one of the only vitamin-rich things all four children would eat.
"Well, you're dead." he said.
"I know that. That is almost all I know. I wake up everyday afraid that I'm going to screw this up, break rules I don't know about for a game I didn't get to decide whether or not I really wanted to play." I said.
"You must have wanted to play. There are three kinds of deceased. The dead-dead. Like you. Driven to stay around for the people they love. The dead-and-gone have moved on with their after-life, unattached to this place. And the night-dead. You don't want to be one, you don't want to sit with them, if they ask you."
"How long have you been dead?" I asked.
"What the hell kind of question-You know what? Not even that long. It's the scarf right? Damn. You're the fourth dead woman to ask me that. Talk to me like I went shopping in a newsboy cap..." He picked up my bags, and I went to fetch the last stray fruit, its scraggling hairs damaged by the wild roll to the dairy case, and my reflection caught me by surprise.
There was something dark. Something dark on my face.
I moved closer to the shimmering sidelines of the freezers and saw the deep midnight black oozing out of my eye-like a tar bubble that had been pierced open. But in the darkness were tiny stars, small points of light and faint auroras. The longer I stared, the more it began to pour down my face.
Someone wrapped something around my eyes, and tied it, binding and blinding me. There were many cold hands like my own, I heard someone else pay for my things and then I heard the whoosh of the automatic sideways mouth. I tugged my blinder off. Of course, it was his scarf. He came up beside me, and another ghost handed him my shopping bags.
"I ruined this," I said, the quivering lines of cosmos from my eye began to congeal like ugly blood.
"I'll steal another one from a really old dead guy or vintage shop. It's fine. I mean, I'm fine, but you are in real trouble."
I reached up and touched my eye, relieved to not feel any wetness, any difference, or any pain. "How long was I walking around like that?"
"Since I made the comment about the living not wanting us, actually, but I bet it's been going on longer than that on the inside. I would like to think I'm not personally responsible for turning a soul into one of the night-dead."
The stranger, now scarfless, walked me home. I didn't drive because I couldn't. He said he couldn't either, it was one of the rules, one of the worst ones according to him because he couldn't touch his beautiful car he'd worked so hard for. Ghosts were allowed public transportation, though. Because we clearly weren't suffering enough.
I asked him about holy grounds, he said unless I decided to become some unspeakable kind of evil, any of them would be fine. It was even encouraged. There we could clear our heads, guide the living in thoughtful ways, make peace with ourselves.
He said that most of the living can see us, many of them have no idea what we are. And it's better that way.
"I realize, you have responsibilites. But, you need to make arrangments for tonight. I'll need you to meet me. No other living person can follow. A rundown on what's going on isn't going to cut it anymore. Being dead neccesititates a level of interaction beyond armchair philosophies. And what happened to you today won't stop unless you make some changes." he said, smoking an entirely earthy-white ciggarette. I watched to see if he could exhale the smoke cloud, or if this was some nervous habit from his former life, but he blew it out through his nose like a regular smoker. I didn't smell it, though.
"I don't want to scare them, my family-"
"Don't tell them, then. And I won't come for you until everyone is asleep. I promise." he said. "Go ahead and cover your mirrors, don't stare into reflective surfaces. Feel free to wash my scarf, though."
"It's not even a good color for you. Or anyone." Making jokes was like a joyless reflex, I got the feeling it was for him, too.
"I'll be back later this evening," he said, touching my heavy front door, like his fingers could memorize it and teleport him later. "My name is Francisco."
I thought I should say my name, but I'd forgotten it. I went inside to put away the groceries, and called my husband home early from work.
He covered the mirrors. He assured me that he didn't see any trace of the universe-leaking wound in my eye, or anywhere else. I asked him my name, and he tried to tell me, but no sound was audible when he spoke it. I told him maybe I wasn't supposed to know.
I worried I'd bleed darkness and frighten the kids. I worried Francisco would arrive and frighten everyone.
After dark, after dinner and ice cream and a movie, after bedtimes and after I'd let my husband fall asleep in my lap on the couch, I felt suddenly awake.
I replaced my soft lap with a pillow. I packed backpacks and lunches for the next morning. In case I was not back.
Like a magnet to metal, I went to our dark and modern bathroom, and pulled off my daughter's bamboo-fibered baby blanket from our square mirror. I didn't get a change to see if I was bleeding the dark stuff again. Francisco was suddenly beside me, and put his long fingers over my eyes.
"I'm almost amazed at how little you listen." he said. "And, no, the dead don't have to knock."
I faced him and pushed his hands from my head. Francisco turned silently and started walking, and I followed, but made sure I locked the front door.
I checked it again. That heavy painted door was the only boundary between the dangers of my new world and the people I loved enough to remain in the light of the old one.
"Do what you're told, and you can come back here. You can keep them safe. Just do what you're told." He was still walking away, and I kept following. "Tonight is not a refuge from tomorrow. It will come eventually." Francisco said, but his words were outward, into the night, more like he was quoting something than speaking to me.
I ached for the wind I knew existed in the night to blow my dark hair around my face, and it never did.
Fog came in, and I couldn't feel the heavy mist of it, but it came in so heavy it began to eat my neighborhood, hiding even the tall lamp posts.
I couldn't tell where I was anymore. The lights, all but one in the distance, were gone. It was just wet street and one remaining light, which had an uncanny glow of lavender to it, and Francisco, who wasn't speaking. My bones started to hurt.
The lavender light was less intimidating in person, just a hanging lamp burning that peculiar shade on a trendy bricked bar. It didn't have a name on the front, but the place smelled like a bar.
"You're not serious." I said. Franciso opened the door for me and gestured to the walnut counter. It was packed, there were no seats open. And there weren't lights. Just the dead, and their luminant bodies like glow worms packed in here. But I wasn't shining like that. But I noticed Francisco was. He pushed me forward until I hit the counter of the bar at my waist too hard, and I want to cry, not beacuse it hurt, but because I badly want to go home.
"So, you've found another one?" A beautiful older woman behind the bar put her hand on mine and it was so soft I thought I would die again. Or at least pass out. Her face was made of clouds and blue sky that looked painted on, but they were moving in real-time. Her eyes were deep dark black like Francisco's. Then she was a female monk. Round and smiling with her dark hair shaved down to nothing and smile lines etched into her face.
But then suddenly she was a dark-skinned Catholic priest with bright blue irises and a shining red rosary. Then she was back to being the monk.
"Yes, Father." Franciso said.
"You're in danger." She said. "I don't say that lightly. You're in real trouble."
"People like to keep telling me that." I said.
The monk, now priest again, took out a decorated clear glass bottle with a cork in it, and in the glass were bits of gray and manilla-just a small batch of uninteresting dust in the world's cutest little container. "It's about what you feed yourself. It's all about what you feed yourself." He said. And something in his voice made me take the bottle and thank him for it.
A rumbling like thunder, but not thunder rang out. A rumbling that physically shook, but didn't disturb the bar of the dead.
"Francisco..." She said, now the sky-woman again. Then she became a painted warrior who served another glowing dead soul a bottle of something uncanny.
"Come on, we have to go," Francisco pulled me and broke into a run, so I did, too.
I didn't know if I was crying or the darkness was pouring out of my eyes.
I was so close to busting apart. The fear, the sadness, the lack of answers. I took my hand from Francisco and stopped. I leaned against a fat gray pillar of a shopping center because it was all I could see.
At least the fog was lessening. The sky was flashing, appearing to be cracked open with light. I could tell where I was. I knew this place. I'd been here before. A sign flickered up, reading "City-Go Do-Nuts" in bright green. I could get home from here, without help. And it made me relax a little. Francisco came back, towering over me and pulling at his chin.
"Is this it?" I asked. He threw up his hands in an overexaggarated shrug. "Do I just eat this bottled powder and get suddenly better?"
"You know what that is? Convenient she didn't tell you. It's bones. Crushed bones. Of beings holier than you are."
"Why the hell would I need to feed myself that?" I asked, I wiped my eyes and was relieved to see tears and not tar black liquid. "And why was she changing? Does it happen every time she talks to someone?"
"It does if they need him...Her." He said.
"Why was she a priest for you?" I asked, swirling the bottle. before setting it on the ground to watch the bone dust settle in the bottle.
"It's different for everybody. Everyone needs different medicine, and the dead are lucky enough to get different doctors, too."
"So why is my medicine this, exactly?"
"Once again, you don't seem to listen." He said. "And we don't have time."
I just wanted to be back home. "You suddenly don't seem to really want to help. I don't know what kind of game this is for you. But it's my life. Or what's left of it. Just leave me alone." I said.
He looked at me, his dark eyes so wide that I was sorry I'd said that, and then the tinted glass window of the do-nut shop shattered.
I kneeled on the ground as the other window beside it broke, too. I hadn't been afraid of getting hurt. But glass was sticking out of my shoulders and back, and the pain was very real.
Terrible screams came from inside, and two people jumped the broken windows and stormed the shop. Dressed in black, armed with guns. A third came toward me. Staring. A cloud of shadow with space dust for eyes, but it was a woman. A beautiful woman dragging the essence of what I just knew to be her night-dead with her, and it was everywhere. It stung my nose and throat. Like tiny insects, it didn't float, it attacked. Francisco moved in front of me and I was able to look away as the woman moved calmly over the broken window and into the store with the assailants. She was talking to them, whispering to them non-stop. I couldn't understand anything she said. It turned into a bleating, almost like an alarm clock.
There were other people inside. I heard screaming. An older woman, I remembered her name. Mrs. Lin. A tall boy was there, too. One of her sons. It was a family business, I remembered coming in here, seeing them work together. Usually smiling, but always kind. They'd given each of my children small treats for their birthdays. Charged them nothing, and sometimes remembered the date and their names.
Mrs. Lin began to hand everything over, bravely asking them to leave, asking them not to hurt anyone. And then she was shot.
I saw the fresh blood rolling across the white floor toward me. The dark red lines reaching out like fingers, like the hand of someone falling and desperate. The men with guns were barking orders at Mrs. Lin's son. The night-dead was still sounding her alarm.
I quietly moved forward, trying to get to Mrs. Lin. Nobody seemed concerned about my presence, so I went faster. I was dead anyway, what were they going to do to me?
She was convulsing lightly, I pulled an oven mitt from the pocket of her apron and put pressure on the bullet hole.
A memory of taking care of people came back, but then was snuffed out. I hadn't been a nurse. It was something else, something fast, but it was gone now. I knew she wouldn't make it much longer without help.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw movement, I expected Francisco and started to ask for help, but stopped and no more words came.
That creature, trailing with her the red and black space dust that wrapped her body one second and went in flux the next. She stared at me with hollowed sockets like I was the reason she was there.
The taste of metal flood my mouth, I thought I was choking on blood, but the night-dark was falling down on Mrs. Lin, and it was pouring from my lips and nose. Afraid of what it would do to her, I backed up, and the night-dead woman lunged and pinned me against a stand up cooler.
I screamed for help, even as I was drowning.
The pain was so great, I could think of nothing else but getting her off of me. Her touch driving out everything but agony, making the world go away and all that was left was pain.
"Get off of me! Get off of me!" I shouted as best I could.
It hurt so much I wanted to die again, and be nothing.
There was another noise, loud like a gunshot, but heavier.
The night-dead was ripped off of me, but she took the skin off of my shoulders and chest with her.
I started to scream again, but now it was Francisco in front of me, and he was covering my mouth, muffling me, and looking over his shoulder.
Something large had landed just outside of the shop. Lumbering, a giant blue-skinned creature, beautiful and miserable to stare at with a jagged neck and teeth on the side of its face. It's golden eyes were lined with make-up like a movie-star.
It had wings. And a sword.
An angel? Other dead souls were flocking to it, maybe called by its prescence or maybe just following it into battle.
"He's here for the other night-dead, but he'll destroy you on sight, " Francisco breathed hot into my ear.
"Mrs. Lin-" I coughed.
"You have to let go. You have to accept what happens. What happened to you. And you have to let go. Or this moment will be the end of everything you wanted." How can anyone accept this? How can anyone be expected to?
"The Dead don't get to lose themselves in sadness. It brings with it the night-dark-the rift in the goodness of the world. Please, just let it go."
I'd had a beautiful family. I'd never taken anything for granted. Not even my life. I didn't deserve to be dead. Neither did Mrs. Lin.
"Let it go," he said.
Francisco pulled the glass bottle I'd been given from his shirt pocket. I didn't remember when he'd picked it up. He smashed it against the cooler door open-handed. I could see the lumbering blue creature just behind him, close enough to smell his deep sweetness, like cooked sugar.
"It's what you feed yourself." Francisco said, putting his hand to my mouth and I took it; his blood, the splinters of glass as it cut my lips and tongue, and the dry, dry bone dust. And swallowed.
The night-dark I'd been fighting filled my vision until I really could see the stars in the blackness.
There was heat in raw skin of my shoulders and chest, and the scratching of a deep itch from those wounds as something clawed its way of out me. Wings, flat and pristine white-they were paper. Crinkled lightly when they moved, and painted at the edges with black ink.
I had paper wings.
Fragile, but the air I beat with them was strong.
I was able to stand. Able to move. Able to charge the night-dead that nearly killed me and knock her out of the broken window she'd walked in from. I took her hands in mine, and stood on her body.
Using the upward motion of my wings, I tore off her arms.
I kept my foot on her until she stopped thrashing, her red and black space dust, settling down to the grey concrete like ashes. Her mortal colors were pouring back into her as the dark liquid cosmos leaked out. Her brown curls and flawless milk complextion and pink stained mouth were sad to look upon now. Her old poison ran along the lines and cracks underfoot.
"Paper Bird..." The angel growled, his voice horrible to my ears, but the way his mouth moved was intoxicating. "Was this your choice, or his?" He pointed to Francisco, who was covered in human blood and night-dark, but was using his own soft brown wings to cradle Mrs. Lin as her son held her hand.
"Mine." I said.
The angel said nothing else, but collected the pieces of the poor soul I'd fought with. Glowing dead filtered into the shop, most of them putting their hands on Mrs. Lin's young son for support. Francisco was speaking, whispering things. He took out a blanket, a plain and soft brown blanket that I saw was made from his wings and wrapped Mrs. Lin's body in it like a child, and carried her.
"Wait," I said. "Is that it?"
"I carry her back home, and if she choses to stay, that is where she will wake up."
I understood now. That was why I'd felt that I knew him. And why I felt that he knew everything. Because he did.
"Do you need to walk with me?" he asked. I looked back at Mrs. Lin's boy. He was crying into the arms of an paramedic, who brushed his forehead the way his mother probably had. Officers had joined the scene, one of the gunmen was in a squad car, and still, around all of them, the luminescent souls were filtering in.
"Let's walk her home," I said.
"The dead who can keep the pieces of their life and be happy get to do that. As long as they want to. The ones who can't, they end up as night-dead. Or they end up like us-working rats for the higher-ups. I didn't know what you were. But, you did."
"You said before you had a family. Where are they?"
"Long gone. They didn't feel pulled to stick around here, thankfully. They were able to move on." He said.
"No. Once you work for them, there is no moving on. There is nothing else. It's just this."
I tried to breathe through the heavy blow that idea hit me with, breathed through tears I made damn sure were just clear saline. Francisco's feathery brown wings were no longer visible, and I reached back to find mine were gone as well.
"You don't get your wings all the time. Paper Birds are warriors, though. Hopefully you won't need your wings that often. But. you miss them when you don't have them. " He said. "You miss a lot of things."
Mrs. Lin stirred, winced. "Is she in pain." I asked.
"Were you?" Francisco asked. I told him I couldn't remember. He said nobody does. He carried Mrs. Lin to her apartment and laid her in a large leather rocker. Her husband, eyes sore and swollen from tears covered her in a quilt. Francisco and I hurried away, he later told me that no other dead should be present for the awakening of a soul that had passed. It might weigh on their decision on what to do with the after-life.
Between when I was called in to battle the night-dead, I spent every moment I could with my husband and our children.
One summer day, at a beach we'd rode the train to get to, he finally saw a living woman that made him smile. Kind-hearted and happy with a bouncy pony-tail and summer-kissed skin the way only the living can get. She was like him, more like him than I could ever become now. And I knew he needed that. The living need so much.
I rode the evening train home with the kids, the youngest in my lap, all of them water-logged and smiling, so he could enjoy her. He'd earned that, and more. He hasn't married her yet, and insists that he won't. I blame myself for that, but also, selfishly, I am happy. When I hold him, I feel fire run through my veins. That love is the closest thing to being alive again.
Francisco, who's name was never Francisco when he was alive, is still with me. He's a band-aid, a stitch across the gaping void being dead brings. We are two lost souls.
I never returned his scarf. Even though I washed the night-dark from it years ago.
We are handed things in our lifetimes and after that don't seem fair. Some more than others, but it happens to us all. It's all in how you rise to meet it, and what you do from there. It's who you decide to become in those dark places.
It's what you feed yourself.
It's what happens when your kids need a pumpkin for school the next day, and
all you've got is paint and a micro-pumpkin.
As a last All Hallow's Read present, you can get my first novel absolutely free here from October 27th to October 31st.