Horror & Dark Fantasy

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Fiction

Bridge of Sighs

10 a.m./ Client: Mr. P/ Subject: His son (16) Overdose

Terry needed a fresh ghost, so he dressed warmly and headed out, camera around his neck, syringes safely packed into the bag over his shoulder.

There were many places to look. People committed suicide in surprising places sometimes, such as a change room in a large department store, or the car park at a primary school, or under the pier at the beach, but more often they jumped from the tops of buildings, from bridges, from dams.

They jumped from the hospital roof too, staff as well as patients. But security could be tight, and once he’d been locked on a roof overnight and didn’t want to repeat that experience.

He drove to Culver’s Dam instead. Some nights he had a feeling for where the ghosts would be; other times it was research and asking questions.

He loved the hunt. He loved that there was a purpose to it, but more than that, it proved time and time again that there was something BEYOND. That his mother did not blink out into nothingness.

Terry parked his car near the entrance to the dam bridge, water noise nearly deafening him. There was one car already parked there; a purple sedan. The bonnet was damp with water spray and cold to the touch, so it had been there for some time. It could belong to a hydro engineer, manning switches, checking equipment, or to a sightseer (although in this cold, no one would stay so long), or the car was abandoned, its driver over and into the hydro dam.

Feeling the cold, he gathered his camera and syringe bag and trekked to the bridge where he climbed the many stairs, feeling the tension in his thighs. A thick mist settled over the dam and in his hair and on his face. His hands felt frozen so he stuffed them into his pockets but found little warmth there.

Reaching the bridge, he could barely see three steps in front of him. Here, the water roar was so loud he could scream and no one would hear.

He set up his camera and looked through the view finder, seeking features amongst the water droplets.

He didn’t think much of those who killed themselves here. Poisoning the water supply, hurting others. Like those who threw themselves in front of a train, or over a wall at a shopping mall, or onto a busy street, it caused trauma to strangers that surely eased no passing and perhaps led to further suicides among those who saw or who felt responsible.

He saw nothing, so walked farther along, gazing through his viewfinder until he saw a middle-aged man, soaked to the bone, shivering with cold. Bare feet. Once their shoes were off, it was too late to do anything.

“It’s an amazing view, isn’t it?” Terry said.

“Yeah, nice view,” the man said, glancing out as if seeing it for the first time. “Peaceful.”

“It’s like the end of the world, isn’t it? As if all life ends here,” Terry said. “As if nothing matters, no one cares.” His voice was gentle, but it carried.

The man closed his eyes, gripping the railing. Terry hoped he wouldn’t have to get close to the edge. There was a chest-high fence, but he still felt vertigo at the thought.

“You like taking photos?” the man said. He squeezed his eyes shut, as if instantly realising the stupidity of the question.

“Yeah. It’s the one thing that keeps me going some days.”

The man leaned forward, looking over the edge. “I don’t really have anything like that. Are you a drinker?”

“Depends on what it is.”

“Whisky my dad left me. Last drops. He was an alcoholic.”

“Mine shot himself in front of me.”

They exchanged glances; both shrugged. “Go grab it for us? You’ve got shoes on.”

The man threw him the car keys.

Terry took a warm winter coat that was lying on the back seat of the purple car, but could find no flask. The car was dirty, uncared for, and it smelt of pizza. Nothing in the glove box beyond official papers. No music, no letters, no photos, no devices.

When he returned to the top of the dam the man was over, so he had wanted privacy in his last moments and had gained it by sending Terry to look for the flask. The mist was thicker, more dank.

There. There it was. His flash was powerful and froze the ghost in place so he could suck up the mist into his syringe.

He stowed his equipment in the backseat, a sense of wellbeing overtaking him. It was always this way. Taking the spirits filled him with grace and kept him from going over himself, some days.

Terry didn’t want the man’s car, but was glad to have the coat.

• • • •

His Aunt Beryl called up the studio stairs. “Are you decent?” She’d caught him once, shirt off, and she’d never forgotten it. “Come on up,” he said.

She appeared behind a bunch of purple hydrangeas, holding them out like an offering.

“This’ll bring a glow to your cheeks, you beautiful man. Although look at you! Picture of health!”

“You know I want pink or red flowers,” he said. He said it most times. “Purple gives off the wrong colour.”

She was a stupid woman. She understood him though, accepted him, and she had been his mother’s best friend. Her bright red fingernails were so long they curled down over the tips of her tanned, crooked, wrinkled fingers. She wore a lot of rings (including an ostentatious engagement ring, although her fiancé had died decades before), smelled of cigarette smoke and used Tabu perfume that made his studio reek. Her toenails were brightly painted as well and she wore sandals too small for her. Her cracked heels hung over the back and her toes stuck out the sides.

She owned the florist shop in the nearby mall. She wore a floral coat that she never washed, over a miniskirt far too short for her. Tabu perfume and old, old sweat. She collected unused flowers from the hospital and turned them into bouquets, charging full price, sometimes selling them to people who would take them back to the hospital.

He liked lots of flowers for his photos. They gave the impression of warmth and life and they provided a focus, a discussion point.

The funeral director texted. >>We’re heading up now.<<

Terry had Aunt Beryl hide behind the black curtain and climb into the Mama Suit, black gloves stitched into the black curtain, so that she could hold the dead boy up without being seen. She hated it, she said. Hated it when they were cold, hated it when they got warm. But he needed her there, to hold the chin up, keep the shoulders back.

Teenagers often needed help sitting up.

• • • •

It was good to meet clients at the entrance, not leave them waiting in the hallway with the dead loved one. Terry stood in front of the magnificent trompe l’oeil of The Bridge of Sighs, the concealed doorway leading not to a Venetian prison but to his studio.

“Here we are,” the funeral director said. Terry modelled the timbre of his own voice on this man’s; it was so perfectly kind, honest, and masculine. The funeral director’s judgement was excellent in deciding the level of service to be provided, but the final decision was Terry’s. “This is Mr. P. The father.” They never shared full names. “I’ve told him of the comfort you can bring him, in the fullest terms.”

“The mother?” Terry asked quietly.

“At home. Inconsolable.”

Terry’s mother would have been the same. She would not have functioned again, if he’d died before her.

“Come on, then,” Terry said. He led the man by the elbow, leaving the funeral director to roll in the trolley with the dead boy.

He gently lifted the boy into the chair in front of the black curtain, then nodded to the funeral director, who whispered, “You’re doing a good thing,” to the father and left.

Aunt Beryl took grip on the boy.

The father stood close, nervous, hesitant.

“You hold his hand while I set up,” Terry said. “Strong boy, wasn’t he? What did he like most? Was he a burger lover? Or a vegetarian? A lot of kids are these days.” Putting the client at ease was part of the job.

Terry pulled on some gloves, opened the fridge. There was champagne, cold, but not for this shoot or any like it. He took out the recently filled syringe. The ghosts leaked out of the needle if he left them in the fridge too long, forming yellow, viscous puddles on the shelf, like spilled egg yolk.

The father noticed nothing.

Terry bent over the boy and injected the syringe into the corner of his eye.

The boy twitched, and his cheeks reddened, chasing away the blue tones the overdose had given him.

Terry stepped behind his camera and took a quick dozen shots.

“Hold him if you like. Take him in your arms.”

Hesitantly, Mr. P stepped forward. “He’s warm. He feels warm.”

“It won’t last long. Make the most of it.”

Mr. P held his son close. Beryl knew to let go at that point, take her arms away.

“Say your goodbyes, then. Make him sigh.”

Mr. P whispered in his son’s ear until the coldness began to creep back. Terry took the boy and settled him into the chair.

“There.”

Mr. P was pale. “God. I don’t know if his mother would have wanted that or not.”

“But you got to say goodbye.”

“But it almost feels like . . . that empty feeling of fullness you get from eating a packet of potato chips.”

“The photos will make it worth it. You’ll see.”

“But he’s still dead, isn’t he?” Mr. P said.

Terry, a professional, kept his emotions in check. He would have given anything to have that moment with his mother, yet this man didn’t seem to appreciate what he’d been given.

It helped that he felt as if his mother was beside him, whispering in his ear. “Oh, you angel. Oh, such a good man.” This was what he worked for, beyond all the other benefits. This sense of benefaction.

• • • •

Terry had been sixteen the first time he saw a ghost in the mist. His mother and Aunt Beryl ran the florist shop together then, and he helped with deliveries. This one was a rooftop memorial to a suicide. Terry’s father was long dead by then; “I love you son,” and then a deep sigh, then the gunshot, with Terry sitting beside him. Terry couldn’t remember a mist forming, but later, it was there. He knew that.

“Be careful near the edge,” his mother said. “Even an accident might be considered suicide if you deliberately put yourself in harm’s way.”

It was misty on the roof, rendering his vision unclear, and he rubbed at his eyes, the bouquet wedged under one arm. He squeezed his eyes tight, opened them, but the mist seemed even thicker. He saw a slumped figure, dejected, so very sad, and reached out to it, thinking to comfort this loner, this apparent outcast.

As he touched it, it seemed to snarl, to reach for him, and he jumped back, landing on the feet of the mourners behind him. Like many in grief, they were disconnected to their bodies and didn’t react.

Later, he managed to get hold of some CCTV footage of this suicide, and he watched it over and over again. The moment he looked for, beyond what the others saw (the death of a woman with post-natal depression) was the mist forming, like a small cloud rising from the ground and hovering on the rooftop. As he told his mother, “If I stare for long enough without blinking, I see a face or a figure.”

She was arranging flowers in a cut glass vase, her taste impeccable. She was like a delicate flower herself, Terry thought, pink and easily damaged. His father had been like a stick insect, attached to her, always wanting to draw her nectar. She said, “Oh, that poor woman, stuck in limbo. No heaven, no hell.” She was a great believer in such things. She liked to remain in a state of grace at all times, just in case she was taken suddenly.

“What about Dad? Is that where he is?”

“He didn’t die that way,” she said, in denial, always in denial, but Terry still had the tiny blood-spattered t-shirt he’d been wearing that day.

No one else could see what he saw. He read about a group of people who lived by diving and fishing, who trained their eyes to see better underwater, and he took up swimming, long laps along the bottom of the pool, eyes open. His mother on the side, holding a towel, terrified of not seeing his head bob up again.

Eventually he trained his eyes to look through the water and thus the mist, to see clarity beyond it.

He would use this skill to prove to himself that his mother’s death was accidental.

She and Beryl had always wanted to travel, especially once they were both widowed. They saved for years, then hired someone to take over the shop when they flew to Europe with their hair done, their lipstick on, their matching suitcases packed neatly, their promises to write often. He didn’t see them off. He was deep in a world of buying sex and selling drugs, where stories of his childhood meant nothing. He sold dreams to people, sold calm, sold respite, and lived well off the proceeds.

Two weeks later, Beryl called him, hysterical, the line bad, voices behind her that she tried to shush. His mother had drowned in a Venice lagoon, off the Ponte della Liberta. Beryl said, “Come get us, Terry. Come bring us home,” but he was in no state to fly. In the end Beryl did it on her own. He’d sobered up by the time she landed.

It wasn’t until he saw his mother’s body he believed she was gone, and even then, he couldn’t reconcile what lay in the coffin with the woman he knew.

“It was an accident, wasn’t it?” he asked Beryl. “Tell me she didn’t want it.”

Because otherwise she’d be stuck there in the mist, graceless. She’d said to him, “Always resuscitate. Even if I’m a vegetable. I don’t ever want to be one of those people you see.” She was the only one he’d told about the mist.

“No, no, she didn’t want it! We were walking with all the other tourists. One minute we were talking, next minute she was over. She did not want it, Terry. All she talked about was the future, and you, and wanting to see how you fared. She wanted better for you.”

He drew a line then, under the man he was and the man he would be.

• • • •

Beryl sat with him and held his hands at the funeral. There were so many flowers, people sneezed uncontrollably, but Beryl said, “This is what she would have wanted.”

She handed him a camera. “Your mother took lots of photos, Terry. I know she’d want you to have this. Next up was the Bridge of Sighs. There’s proof she didn’t want it. She was so keen to see that place, and we never made it.” Beryl cried then, great snuffling sobs, and he left others to comfort her.

• • • •

He had the photos developed and he saw what his mother had given him.

Photos of mist, in many of the places they travelled in Europe. “Here there are ghosts,” she was saying to him. “And here, and here.”

Would he find her there, in the mist? He had to know.

He travelled to Venice, to the Ponte della Liberta, where to his great relief there was no mist, no matter how much he squeezed his eyes and squinted. So he travelled to the Bridge of Sighs, because he wanted to finish her voyage for her. He would look out as those long-ago condemned did, and he would listen for their sighs echoed in the walls.

He heard nothing, but he did see the mist, and flying in the mist, ghosts.

He knew about the belief that suicides did not pass over, that they were confined to the earthly plane. Terry thought it was the embodiment of the sigh that stayed behind. The last sigh so many made before jumping.

The window was like a slice of pizza. He could see the canal, buildings on either side. In the distance, another bridge, laden with tourists and beyond that; more buildings, so much water. He thought, “They’re out there.”

He began to follow the trail of suicides: the tallest buildings, the bridges, and he found the mist each time.

It was on the Nusle Bridge, in Prague, where he stood transfixed but somehow lost, that he understood what he could do. A young woman, shoes held by the straps, her lips red, her blonde hair wild and wispy around her head, said, “I feel as if he’s here. Don’t you? Stuck there, in the mist.”

He squinted and did see a face.

“Your husband?” he said.

She nodded. “If only you could capture him. Give him to me.” The woman ran her hand through the mist and shivered. “You might give him a second chance. Them.”

He took a photo, wanting to capture her grief, the moment she reached for the husband she thought waited there. The flash froze the mist and, within the mist, a face. He reached out to touch it, thinking it would disperse, but he could run his fingers through it and feel it, wet.

If only he could capture it.

The widow watched him, her cheeks flushed, and soon they were sharing wine, she was laughing with her head thrown back and he knew that she was using him but that made it even better.

• • • •

Back home, he established his photography studio above the funeral parlour. Beryl and his mother had long supplied flowers to the parlour, and Beryl was the one who made the suggestion. “You have such an affinity with the grieving. An understanding. You’ll be wonderful,” she said, and the funeral director agreed.

It took experimentation to discover that syringes worked best to capture the ghosts, but it was not time wasted. Every capture gave him strength. Among the first was his father, trapped in a small wet mist in the backyard over the swing chair. Terry flashed the photo, froze him, syringed him. It was a gift he didn’t think his father deserved, but he wanted the mist gone.

His father became one of the yellow stains. Terry soaked it up in a napkin and he kept that with his mother’s water-stained Italian silk scarf and his own tiny t-shirt.

He wasted many this way until he remembered the words of his lover in Venice (You could give him a second chance), but what led him to make that first injection? He liked to think it was his mother, helping him as he pressed the needle, unseen, into a deceased elderly woman and watched her cheeks colour.

He didn’t know what happened to the spirits next. His studio was always cold and sometimes, he thought, misty. But a flash revealed no ghosts there. He liked to think he freed them, but truly he didn’t care.

12 p.m./ Client: Mr. S/ Subject: His Fiancée (29) Car Crash

Terry walked into the forest; it was a favourite hunting ground, when he was in the mood for a hike and the fresh air. He loved the smell of pine, and the crunch underfoot of growth and of insect bodies.

The mist was thick at the base of a massive tree, and he took his photos, gathered his spirit, before pausing for a quick sandwich and coffee from his thermos.

The funeral director came out with him once and while the man saw the mist, he did not see the faces within, although he did feel chilled to the bone and a sense of the “Heeb Jeebs,” he said.

• • • •

Terry turned on soft lighting and played romantic music. He threw a satin sheet over the couch and added Erotica to the oil burner.

Mr. S was in his mid-thirties. His hair was a mess and his clothes dishevelled and there was a furtiveness about him. The dead woman lay on a trolley, covered by a soft blanket.

“Slight rush on this one. Her parents hate him,” the funeral director said in Terry’s ear as he passed the trolley over. “Apparently a restraining order on him, hush hush.”

“No worries, we’re good to go.”

“Enjoy,” the funeral director said.

“It’s a sad name for a photography studio,” Mr. S said. The light from the stained glass windows in the foyer bathed him in a deep, colourful glow.

“Kind of,” said Terry, “But I also think of the last sigh as both a release and an acceptance. It tells you your loved one was ready to move on. That they are okay.” He loved this metaphor, having once read a description of Franz Mesmer’s studio as being “filled with the sighs of sweet music and soft female voices.”

He settled the dead girl onto the couch, arranging her so she appeared to be resting. Aunt Beryl was at the florist; he didn’t need her for this one.

As Terry worked, he asked, “How long had you been together?”

“Two years. But I dumped her. It wasn’t working out, so I dumped her. She went out and got blind drunk. This is my fault, I shouldn’t have dumped her.” The body was severely damaged; broken limbs, deep bruising. Her flesh was spongy in places.

“It’s not your fault. You loved her dearly. I can see that. She was a lucky woman.” Terry’s sleeves were rolled up high around his triceps. He knew he shone under the lights and that the life in him, the brightness, contrasted starkly. He was a handsome man and he knew it, square-jawed, wild-haired, and he was always flicking it out of his eyes. Women shifted it for him sometimes, tucking it behind his ears. He knew he had them when they did that.

“God, look at her,” Mr. S said. “Can’t you cover that up so she looks normal?”

The whole back of her head was dented. The funeral director had done his best cosmetically, and they nestled her head in cushions, hiding the damage.

Terry pulled on gloves, walked to his bar fridge and removed a syringe.

He’d scratched himself before, raising blisters which were filled with tiny growths, so he always wore gloves now.

“What the fuck is that?”

“It’s going to help us make her look better in the photo. Trust me. It’s an element of the universal fluid that runs through us all, even your beautiful girl. Her flow has been interrupted, but I can get it going again very, very briefly.”

Terry emptied the syringe into the corner of her eye. Stepped back. Waited for the moment. That sudden flare of colour in the cheeks, as if the flesh was infused with dye. This, he needed to capture.

A twitch. The glow. “There it is!”

“Is she alive?”

“Just for a moment.”

He heard a soft sighing and it was so sweet it made all else seem empty. The smell was ammoniac, though. It made his eyes water.

He took some shots. “Touch her. Go on. She’s warm.”

There was no personality in the revival. It was the physical body alone that reanimated. No conversation, no thought process.

Still, Terry said, “Say goodbye. I love you always feels good. She might hear you. Think of her as in a coma. Your voice might pass through to her. And hold her while she’s warm. She’ll feel good.”

“I’m sorry,” Mr. S said to her. “I’m sorry I made you die. If you hadn’t left it wouldn’t have happened.”

Mr. S touched her.

“Go for it,” Terry said. “Most people do.”

“Really?”

Terry showed him some photos. “Really. Look. I can take a record if you want. Just for your private viewing. You have to be quick, though.”

Grief sold. Grief-struck fucking even more so.

The woman blinked. Her mouth opened.

Terry took the photos then printed them out while Mr. S went to the bathroom. He added his special touch to them, the colours he loved. Split lip red, vagina pink. All shoots excited him, but these ones in particular. He didn’t relieve himself though; he had a date that evening and looked forward to it. The only dead one he’d ever been tempted by was an actress. The funeral director alerted him, describing her wild bush, her protuberant labia, her large and obvious clitoris. There were no loved ones, but that didn’t matter.

Terry took photos anyway.

They say a photographer (pornographer) should never star in his own work, and Terry agreed. He took plenty of photos, though. She was a beautiful woman.

• • • •

He presented to Mr. S, now waiting in the viewing room, flicking through magazines. Terry liked his clients to sit with him at the large desk on the comfortable chairs. He made coffee or cocoa or he poured wine and he had chocolate truffles to eat.

“You’re a magician. How do you do it?” Mr. S said, surprised even though he had seen the body, felt the warmth.

“I treat each photo like a work of art. Sometimes I have to add a little here, a little there.”

“You’re a genius.”

Another high-paying happy customer. Terry loved to help.

He sprayed air freshener around the studio to absorb the odours. His nose was sensitive to the smell of decay, although he was far more used to it today than he once was. He burned incense by the handful and people liked it. It made some of them think of church, which was a comfort for most.

2 p.m./ Client: Ms. T/ Subject: her daughter (Stillborn)

He didn’t take bookings too far in advance. He needed to be ready to move, ready to snap on an hour’s notice or less. The funeral director kept him updated with lists and he watched the papers, so he could vaguely estimate his day if he wanted to. There was never a dull day, never a quiet one. He sold dreams in a different way now, but he still sold calm, respite and comfort.

• • • •

Aunt Beryl took a call from the hospital. “Can you go? There’s a lady there who needs your help.”

“It’s better to do it here.” She knew that.

He’d never tell the truth of it.

The mother arrived, supported by her sisters. Hair drawn back into a loose, messy ponytail, done by someone else, he thought. Her face washed clean—the sisters again, he thought, and the clothes were her pregnancy ones, as if by wearing them she could pretend she hadn’t had the baby yet.

“Come in,” he said. He asked the sisters to wait downstairs. Before Aunt Beryl went back to her shop she filled the place with yellow roses, and they brought a deep warmth. He took the dead baby gently. “So beautiful, so pure,” he said. He nestled her sideways on the soft cushions.

He syringed the mist into her small, clouded eye.

Her cheeks flushed.

“Oh!” Ms. T said. “Look! She’s alive, she is! I told them. Those doctors.” She picked her baby up, held her close. Shucked off her shirt, engorged breasts leaking colostrum.

He snapped, filmed, clicked, close up of her stretched skin, the bluish nipple moist and dripping.

The baby didn’t suckle.

“She’s warm. She feels warm. Why doesn’t she drink?”

He took photos of the baby before the warm flush faded.

“She doesn’t have the strength, poor darling.”

The baby lost her warm colour. The spirit had departed. She looked greyer than before, like marble, and so cold his fingers chilled touching her. He placed her in a basket and covered her head.

He laid roses around her. “Such a beautiful girl.”

He called for the funeral director to collect her. Ms. T sat slumped in the corner, her shirt still unbuttoned.

“That was amazing,” she said. “I don’t know what you did.”

He showed her the photos on his camera.

“She looks alive. She really does. Doesn’t she? I’m not imagining it.”

He didn’t show her the shots of her tits. He’d cut her head off for those, no need for permission.

She stood up shakily. He took her arm, held her steady. “It’s okay. This is difficult for you. It’s the worst thing you’ll ever have to go through. No one else can imagine it.”

Mothers were so grateful they often wanted to do him right there, by the cash register, as if he could make them another baby.

This one didn’t have sex with him and he didn’t want it, anyway. She’d be all messed up down there after giving birth, he knew that, but he wouldn’t mind sucking on those milky tits.

“Do it again, what you did,” she said, her voice throaty with grief.

“I can’t do it again. I only do it once. I’m sorry.”

“Oh, God, please. Please. I’ll give you all I’ve got. Have you got a girlfriend? A wife? One day you’ll have a baby and you’ll know what it’s like.”

He had girlfriends, but not the kind she meant.

She fell to her knees, her arms around his shins, begging, weeping. He was glad his mother had died first, because he’d hate her to suffer like this.

He wasn’t sure how well it would work a second time. Oddly, no one had ever asked him before.

“This has to be the last time. We’ll take one last photo so that you’ll never forget your beautiful girl.”

5 p.m./ Client: Ms. T/ Subject: Her daughter (Stillborn)

Terry dressed in a pale blue t-shirt, some lightweight pants. He didn’t have time to enjoy this hunt, so he drove to the city’s tallest building where he climbed to the roof and took out his camera.

He thought of the woman in his studio with her milky, firm tits, and her needy lips, and her gratitude. And he thought of the baby and how much he loved to see them revived, how godlike he felt when that movement came to them.

He patrolled the roof until he found it, a small patch of mist. One two three ghosts there, a family, perhaps.

• • • •

His studio was always cold.

Ms. T waited, sleeping on the couch. He took a few photos, wondering if she’d notice if he moved her around, shifted her arms and legs.

She stirred. She could almost be one of his subjects, he thought.

“Come on,” Ms. T said. She sat rocking her baby; it had a glossy sheen to it now. He couldn’t call it a girl anymore; it had moved beyond anything very human.

He bent over the child. Ms. T saw him this time and gasped to see what he was doing, but then the child stirred, sighed, and the mother cooed and sang.

Ms. T danced around with her baby but then started to sob as the body cooled again. Held her up in the air, hoping to revive her. Her daughter’s mouth fell open.

“You killed her! What did you do! What did you do?”

“This beautiful soul has left now. Didn’t you hear her sigh? She’s done. She was ready.” He walked to the door, looking for the funeral director.

“Yes,” she said. She rolled her shoulders. He’d heard that breast-feeding woman were easily sexually stimulated and he wondered if that was happening here. He gave her his charming smile, the one women liked and thought was only for them.

“Let me help, then,” she said. “Let me be part of it.”

2 p.m./ Client: Mrs. J/ Subject: Her husband (Heart attack)

Ms. T (he called her Mama T. She loved that) proved adept at wearing the Mama Suit, happy to sit sheathed in the black curtain for hours. Sometimes he forgot she was there as he went through his routines, but always they shared a glass of champagne afterward.

She never went with him on a ghost hunt; in fact to him she seemed only to exist in his studio.

• • • •

He captured this ghost at the hospital, locked roof or not, after hearing a report of the suicide on the radio. On the way back to the studio he’d stopped by Auntie Beryl’s shop and bought some roses for his Mama T.

She cooed. “From the hospital?” she said. “Did you collect my baby? Is that who you’ve got in that syringe?”

“No. It couldn’t be,” and her mouth formed a sweet moue that made him want to touch his fingers to her lips.

“Sit with me,” she said, and he sat beside her. She lifted his chin, kissed his neck. He wouldn’t say no, never did, birth-mess or not.

“Close your eyes,” she said, and she kissed him on the side of the mouth. His tongue flicked out, catching her lip, and she kissed him harder.

“Wait there,” she said. He liked surprises. “Eyes closed,” she said.

She opened his fridge and scrabbled in there. “Champagne,” she said. “We need champagne.”

“After the client,” he said.

“Now. I can’t wait.”

She popped the cork. Sat on his lap and swallowed some from the bottle, then poured some into his mouth.

She held his eyelid open. “Such beautiful eyes,” she said. It was gentle, aggressive, made him itch to get at her. It felt as if she was looking deep inside him.

“Here’s my baby,” she said, purring like a mother cat, but she didn’t mean him. She meant the syringe she held. “Here she is,” she said, as she injected his eyeball. “Here she is. I’ve been watching you. I’ve figured it out.”

But she hadn’t. Of course she hadn’t. When had he ever injected into a living person?

He was instantly filled with despair and a sense of . . . the opposite of vertigo. He wanted to fall, to fly then fall and land and he wanted oblivion desperately.

His skin formed large, pus-filled blisters like spiders under the skin, and moving hurt. The blisters leaked clear fluid and he wondered: Is that him leaving me? That poor sad suicide who had nowhere to die but the hospital?

He reached for his phone to call Aunt Beryl; she’d save him. Instead, he slumped to the ground. As the blisters opened, the heat of him and the cold of the studio formed a subtle mist, but he could not see anyone in it. He heard the funeral’s director’s deep and comforting voice as he ushered the client in, felt Mama T rocking him like a baby, cooing, and he thought he remembered his mother singing to him that way.

His skin was so puckered, so painful, each time she rocked him he wanted to scream, but there was no sound beyond her sweet whispering comfort.

—Author’s note: “. . . filled with the sighs of sweet music and soft female voices” from Harper’s Weekly, February 1873, “Delusions of medicine. Charms, talismans, amulets, astrology, and mesmerism” by Henry Draper.

Kaaron Warren

Shirley-Jackson Award Winner Kaaron Warren published her first short story in 1993 and has had stories in print every year since. She was Guest of Honour at World Fantasy Convention in 2018 and has been shortlisted for the Stoker Award and the World Fantasy Award.

Her stories have appeared in Australia, the US, China, the UK, and elsewhere in Europe, and have been selected for both Ellen Datlow’s and Paula Guran’s Best of the Year Anthologies.

She has published five novels (Slights, Walking the Tree, Mistification, The Grief Hole and Tide of Stone) and seven short story collections, including the multi-award winning Through Splintered Walls. Her most recent short story collection is A Primer to Kaaron Warren from Dark Moon Books.

She will be Guest of Honour at Stokercon and New Zealand’s Geysercon in 2019.

Find her at http://kaaronwarren.wordpress.com/ and she Tweets @KaaronWarren.