Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Dreaming Like a Ghost

If I tell you to think about a ghost story, you will probably imagine that it takes place in the dark. Perhaps your mind will conjure up the darkness of a campfire, the scent of wood smoke and burned sugar from making s’mores, the crackle of the wind in the trees. The feel of your friend’s arm pressed to yours as you all sit tight, tight together, shoulders and hips rubbing in darkness that is companionate, but still eerie enough to prickle the hair on the back of your neck pleasantly as you listen.

Perhaps you imagine the darkness of the place the ghost haunts. The shadows of an abandoned house, the black smear left on the air by violent death. The pale figure that rises out of midnight, the inverse of a shadow. You know the shape of the thing, the form. You know what to expect from a ghost in the dark.

This is not that kind of ghost story.

* * * *

The first time I saw the ghost, it was in the light. That pale gold slant of afternoon, the kind of light that wraps around you like linen drapes.

She smelled like spring rain. Not just the wet mineral scent that rises from the earth, but that particular way the near-black bark of a tree and the almost-green of buds smell, thick heavy mud burying the remains of winter underneath. Life beneath death, not the other way around.

In a nod to convention, a tribute to the power of story to arrange things, the first time I saw the ghost, she was in a graveyard.

She smiled at me.

* * * *

“I saw a ghost today,” I said, as we were washing the dishes.

“Really?” Josh asked, and passed me a plate. Water dripped from it, spattering the tails of Josh’s shirt, and the thighs of my jeans. “What was it doing?”

“She. Not it. She was in the graveyard.” I had stood at the window, when I saw her, watching. She looked like she was about my age. Her face even seemed familiar to me, though I was sure I didn’t know her.

She smiled, and her hands curved, like claws. Then she was gone.

“Well, isn’t a graveyard sort of the logical place for a ghost to be? I mean, better there than in our bedroom, or the pantry.” He stacked the silverware in the drying rack.

“You seem fairly unconcerned about all of this.” I hadn’t expected Josh to freak out—Josh didn’t freak out about anything—but I had been expecting a reaction stronger than mild relief that at least our canned goods weren’t being haunted.

“I don’t believe in ghosts, Tamsin. Dead is dead, and when you’re buried, you stay where you were put. I’m sure you saw something. Just not something I need to be concerned about.”

I looked through the window, out into the night, at the gravestones standing sentinel, silent and waiting. My left hand curled into a claw.

* * * *

We moved here for a job. A good opportunity—for one of us. Josh promised it would be my turn, next time. It was a nice community, he was sure I could find something.

I’d had a good life where we were before: a job, friends—the things that ground you. I’d given them up.

Now, I had him, and a house to unpack.

* * * *

I kept finding bits and pieces left over from the people who had lived here before us. Not just forgotten trash: an armoire, with a drawer full of men’s t-shirts, still folded; a woman’s silk robe, embroidered with a pattern of ivy leaves, hanging in the closet; one high-heeled shoe, spangled with silver glitter; a battered paperback—poetry—with a picture of a smiling couple tucked inside the front cover.

There was a tear in the photograph, splitting them almost in two, but they looked happy.

I wondered if they moved in a hurry, if they hadn’t been able to supervise the packing. I had been gathering up the things I found, so I could ask the realtor to send them on.

It seemed like a lot to forget.

* * * *

The night after I first saw the ghost, I didn’t sleep well. I didn’t sleep at all, really. My skin itched, and felt too small, too tight. I tossed, tangling the sheets, tossing the pillows to the floor. After the first hour, Josh had gone to sleep elsewhere. Finally, I gave up, too, and stood at the window, watching. Through the open window I breathed in the scent of a storm, but the sky was cloudless.

As far as I could tell, the graveyard was empty, but that was the thing about ghosts, wasn’t it? They might be there—anytime—filling the spaces where we are. We just don’t see them.

* * * *

The graveyard was small, and oddly haphazard. The markers weren’t arranged in the precise, sterile rows of modern cemeteries, but scattered here and there like they had grown from the ground where they stood. The stones were weather-faded and overgrown with weeds. An enormous wild rose bush curled its thorns over at least two plots, like something out of a fairy tale before the curse was lifted.

One of the graves was recent—the date on the headstone was from this year. The earth still hadn’t quite settled, and the grass spidery threads over uneven ground.

The earliest grave dated to the mid-seventeenth century. The house dated from around then, too—the one growing up with the other. Old for America, but the kind of old that made my friends in England half-laugh when I described it that way. Still, the graveyard felt ancient when I walked in it, as if holding the dead pushes a place backward in time, so that a grave with a stone that marks it as being there for one hundred years is actually half a millennium old.

I liked the graveyard. The real estate agent who had showed us the house clearly hadn’t—her smile was plastic as she assured us that at least the neighbors wouldn’t be noisy; then she refused to meet my eye after I said that graveyards were among my favorite places. I found them fascinating—the names, the dates, the lives marked by single lines of poetry. When I visited new cities, I would go to the cemeteries. I would walk through the rows and make up lives for the people, speaking them aloud to the quiet air. When I died, I wanted someone to walk past and trace my letters, say my name, make sure I didn’t disappear.

It was late summer and the air smelled of grass that had been baked by the sun; of fat, pollen-drunk bumblebees; and of the bitter milkweed of monarch butterflies. But the headstones still smelled cool, slate and stone.

Walking among the stones, trying to imagine which of the residents had walked out of her grave, I noticed something I hadn’t before: All of the people buried there were women.

All of them were women who had died young—between fifteen and twenty-five. Each of the stones had the same phrase beneath the name and date: “Beloved Sister.” Any of them could have been the ghost’s grave. I traced my fingers over their names: Rosalind and Stephanie and Helen and Liza. Nora and Alanna and Sarah and Maude. I whispered each name to the air.

But I told no stories. Not then. What kind of story do you tell about a garden of dead girls?

* * * *

Another drawer of forgotten objects, this time in the kitchen. Maps, fliers for local cleaning services, food-stained delivery menus. Pens with the names of banks and hotels on them. Smashed at the back of the drawer, a snake’s length of foil-wrapped condoms.

It felt like finding a dirty secret, like I had opened the door and seen the former residents of the house fucking. I washed my hands after I threw them away.

As I dried my hands, I heard a woman weeping. I looked all through the house, and the yard, and walked through the graves again, but I didn’t find her.

* * * *

Josh brought take-away home for dinner. Thai—which I liked spicy enough that tears would roll down my cheeks as I ate, and he liked not spicy at all; so I was unpacking the containers onto very separate plates before bringing them to the table.

It was clearly a peace offering, a way of saying “I know this sucks for you,” without saying “I’m sorry,” but he was trying, and so I let him.

“Did you see any ghosts today?” he asked.

I looked at him before I answered, trying to gage his tone. Was it simple curiosity—no more nor less than asking if I’d had a chance to go to the grocery store—or was there some other note beneath the words?

I couldn’t guess, so I just answered. “No, but I went looking to see which grave might be hers.”

“Did you figure it out?” He sat at the table, unbuttoning his cuffs and rolling them up.

“If you don’t believe in ghosts, why are you asking me questions as if you do?”

“This supposed ghost seems to matter to you. I’m trying to understand why it does.”

And then: a peace offering. I almost told him what I’d found. Not just a cemetery, but a cemetery full of girls—beloved sisters. But I closed my mouth over the words. It wasn’t like it was even a secret—he could go to the graveyard and see the same thing for himself—it just wasn’t something I wanted to share. It was mine.

“Or maybe you’ve decided to take up a career in fiction, and I’m the one you’re trying out your stories on. Have you decided being J.K. Rowling is easier than unpacking?” The line came out smooth, practiced, the kind of thing he’d tried out in the car first to see how it sounded.

The woman’s voice again. Not weeping this time, but laughter, mocking. Josh didn’t react.

“No,” I said, and passed him a plate of spring rolls.

* * * *

The scent of a spring storm came through the bedroom window, thickening the air, waking me from a tangle of dreams—the weight of dirt on my body, blood drying on my skin and wet in my mouth. The pressure of other bodies near me, voices crying out words that didn’t linger past waking. My fingers, still dreaming, clenched like claws and remembered rending. My muscles ached as if I had spent the night running. Through the mattress, I could feel bones beneath me.

There was mud, streaked, at the bottom of the sheets.

* * * *

Here is another way you can be woken up: rolling over onto something small, something that stabs you in your soft places. An earring. Not yours. You gasp, and you inhale—on your sheets—someone else’s perfume. Jasmine. It’s an old story, older even than ghosts.

And so when he asks you to move, to make a new start, you say yes.

You say yes, but you hate yourself a little, because what comes out of your mouth is “yes,” not “fuck you” or “I know” or “in our bed.” But you’re not ready to say those things, those endings. Not yet.

You say yes, but you think maybe. Maybe if he sees you and not her, things can go back to how they were. Maybe then you won’t feel like the ghost haunting your own life.

* * * *

Clouds rose like bruises against the sky, and thunder rumbled in the distance. The air was heavy and thick, clinging to my skin, but no rain fell.

I peeled back lids of boxes, unwrapped the packed away pieces of a life. Candlesticks and pairs of shoes and picture frames with photos of a smiling couple I still recognized, but wasn’t sure I believed in anymore.

A set of small crystal stars that I hung on the bedroom windows to catch the light. The wind tossed them about, rattling them against the glass.

Outside, the ghost stood in the graveyard again, her hair still in the rush of wind.

She smiled.

I knew that smile. One half of a couple, in a photo nearly torn apart, but preserved inside a book. The ghost was the woman who had lived in the house before me.

I ran from the house, from the piles of half-unpacked boxes, to her. The dry grass sliced at my calves, the bottoms of my feet, a thousand small knives, and so I ran faster, as if that would be enough to let me escape.

She was gone when I got there, but I flung myself backward onto the ground where she had been standing, pressing my bones into the earth above where hers lay. I dug my fingers into the dirt and held on tight, tighter. Voices rose up through the ground.

The voices of the dead, full of decay, of worms, choked with rot. I felt their words in my bones. Sister, they called me. Same.

They spoke of a storm, and wind and rain washed over me, soaking my skin. They spoke of betrayal, the death of love, and my mouth ran red with blood, thick and salt.

They whispered of vengeance, and my legs ached from the chase, and the howls of the hunted echoed in my ears.

They told me of falling beneath the ground, and dreaming the graves that covered them. Beloved sisters.

I opened my eyes to dry grass, and the setting sun.

* * * *

“Were you out there playing dead?” Josh asked. There was a smudge, just below his ear. Lipstick. A color not mine. I didn’t look at it. Sometimes you don’t need to turn the page to know how the story ends.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said, slicing tomatoes for the salad.

“Laying out in the graveyard. I don’t know, sunbathing? Tamsin, you still have grass in your hair.”

I set down the knife. The wind carried a woman’s laugh through the room. “Were you spying on me?”

“Was I—” he pinched the bridge of his nose. “Just put mine in the fridge. I’m going for a walk.”

I curled my hands into claws, and when I inhaled, I tasted blood.

* * * *

Lightning strobed across the sky, shocking the night into something sharp-edged. Josh, I supposed, was still out walking in it. He could, if he wanted, find his way back.

I walked too, pacing the house, through the hallways and up and down the stairs, my breath coming quick, my pulse beating against the inside of my skin.

I drank a glass of wine, gulping it, my lips stained red, wine falling from my mouth in my haste, my thirst.

Lightning struck, and thunder shook the house so hard the windows rattled. The electricity snapped, sparked, and went dead.

I scrabbled for candles, the matches flaring high in my shaking hands, then opened the closet where the fuse box was. Hanging there, a man’s shirt. White, button-down. Torn, bloodied. On the collar, a different shade of red. Lipstick.

Laughter, laughter, laughter.

I dropped the candle, and it guttered as it fell.

* * * *

The sky opened, rain sheeting down in heavy drops, and I ran into it, my teeth bared. The wind whipped through the grass. The air smelled burnt, and the ghost girls rose from the ground. Not just one. All of them, a spectral sorority. They stepped up and out of their graves, and I felt something inside me tug loose.

The ghosts’ stories rose in the air around me, and I breathed them into my lungs. I held the ghosts’ hands—solid now, or mine had grown unso—and knew their loves, their losses.

I knew the dreams of the ghosts, of a world where they could hurt those who had hurt them, where they might make themselves ghosts to do so. Sisters.

The wind whipped my hair to snakes, and the long grass clung to my feet and legs. The storm was the dream of ghosts, time and desire stripped raw. Rain flattened the grass, and wind tore branches from trees. Hail left bruises on my skin.

The ghost girls and I gloried in the storm, throwing ourselves through the night, through the air, between the stones, out of our graves.

Then they stopped, stilled.

Turned.

The back door opened, and Josh stepped out onto the porch.

* * * *

There are stories, of course, about the transformative power of love. Almost as many of these as there are ghost stories. About how if you hold on as your lover turns into a swan, and then a snake, and then a burning hot brand, you will save him. With belief, you can steal your lover back from the very gates of Hell. With belief, you can save your lover from whatever dire fate the story dangles over his head.

The stories, the ones that tell you this, they all make the same mistake: They assume that every story is a love story.

* * * *

I don’t know if he saw the ghosts. I know he saw me.

He tried to run.

I tore, my fingers like knives, like claws. Rent and howled with my sisters, with the storm. Felt bones break and tissue give. Tasted blood, thicker and richer than wine.

I heard him, over the storm. Telling me to stop. Telling me he was sorry. Telling me things would be different. After a while, begging. Then, just noise.

We took him to pieces.

After, I lay on the cool wet ground, my bones falling through it to rest, to sleep, the gravestone even now rising above my head.

—The dream of a ghost, wrapped in the earth.

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Kat Howard

Kat Howard is the author of Roses and Rot, named one of the best SFF books of Summer ’16 by Publishers Weekly. Saga Press will also be publishing her next novel, An Unkindness of Magicians, in September ’17, and a short fiction collection, A Cathedral of Myth and Bone, in early 2018. Her novella, “The End of the Sentence”, co-written with Maria Dahvana Headley, is available from Subterranean Press. Her short fiction has been published in a variety of magazines and anthologies, a finalist for the World Fantasy Award, and performed on NPR.