Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Wish You Were Here

Wish You Were Here

“Tell us a ghost story,” said one of the women, the pouty one, the one named Melissa. She was the nice, friendly one for now, the one asking questions, the one who wanted to stop at every little roadside fruit stall and pose next to every possibly rabid monkey, but Dimas knew this kind of tourist. Eventually, she was going to exhaust herself, and then—fueled by a high metabolism and the vengeance of unmet expectations—she was going to become his worst enemy. That was why he was counting on the other woman, Rose, to keep the group stable when they reached their breaking point, which was probably going to be on Day 3. He could already tell that both Melissa’s and Rose’s men would be useless.

For now, however, the tour was still in its “honeymoon” phase. Melissa was still excited, leaning out of the seatbelt that Dimas had forced her to buckle; Rose’s man Ben’s cellphone was still fully-charged, and Melissa’s man Josh was still full from breakfast, too. Rose was—well, it was hard to tell how she was, sitting in the back row and not having spoken the whole morning except to say that she and her husband had slept “fine.” So, Rose was fine.

“A ghost story, eh?” Dimas glanced over at his driver, Nyoman, who shrugged. “Well . . . here’s a story. An army unit is sent to a remote village in the middle of the jungle in order to move the villagers to a new settlement that’s, uh, less remote. They need the land for an army base. But the villagers have lived there for a hundred years, and even though the government offered to buy the land, many times, they always refused to go. So the army drives up to the village in the middle of the night. They go to the first house on the main road—nobody home. They go to the second house—nobody home there, either. Third house—”

“Nobody home,” said Ben.

“Right, nobody home. So the soldiers look at each other and say, where is everyone? Did they evacuate? Why did they leave all their belongings? Then suddenly, they realize one of their men is missing. All that’s left . . . is his head. The soldiers panic. They’re shooting at shadows, but it doesn’t help. One by one, they’re all killed by something they can’t quite see, until finally, there’s only one soldier left, and he’s out of bullets. He squats down by a chicken coop, closes his eyes, and prays to Allah as he hears something come out of the darkness. He breaks open the chicken coop and throws a chicken, screaming, ‘Take it!’ There’s a big crunch and so he looks and . . . it’s a woman. Except she’s got claws on her hands and feet, and her eyes are yellow. She’s a tiger-woman. Of course, the soldier starts running back toward the trucks. Except this time, all the houses are full. The villagers are home. And they’re eating his comrades.”

Dimas laughed uncomfortably. Nyoman shot him an odd look. It was indeed an odd story to tell, one he would never have told two months ago—it involved soldiers dying. But in this new, rapidly-reforming world—this spinning, twisting lump of mud—nothing was off-limits. Or so he’d gathered from the drivers who blasted through Jakarta’s red lights, yelling “Reformasi!”

For at least thirty seconds, the tourists said nothing. And then Josh, who had wasted no time telling everyone that he had already been to the island twice and he knew all its “ins” and “outs,” said, “That’s not really a ghost story, is it?”

Dimas stared over his shoulder at Josh, his plastic work-smile stretched across his mouth like the surgical masks the Japanese tourists liked to wear. “You’re right,” he said. “It’s not.”

Josh, clearly uncomfortable, smiled back almost in spite of himself.

Then Rose spoke. “So what happened?” Her voice was flat as the banana leaves slapping the windows of the van. “Did the government leave them alone?”

“Oh, no. The army came back with helicopters and sprayed the village with napalm until everyone left. It’s an army base now—”

Without warning, Nyoman swerved violently to the right, unleashing a barrage of screams from the Americans. Dimas jammed his fingers against the window to protect his head. Josh spilled his iced coffee and Ben became very upset about what this traumatic maneuver might have done to the apparently breakable Rose. “Sorry!” Nyoman said, in exaggerated English, and then added, staring meaningfully at Dimas, “Animal ran into the road.”

• • • •

They paid the security guard eighty thousand rupiah each to enter the historic broken temple complex. Last month, it would have been seventy thousand, and four months before, it would have been forty thousand. The security guard kept it close to triple the cost of a bowl of noodles—one for each of his children. The Americans had no idea, and didn’t complain. The dollar was monstrously in their favor, after all.

As the five of them trudged toward the ruins—Nyoman stayed in the van, partly to keep it from being stolen and partly because he would rather read the sports page and fantasize about the World Cup—Rose hung back with Dimas and asked, “Do you know a way to contact the dead?”

Dimas tried not to cringe as he squinted at her. She was hard to read behind those giant sunglasses. “Why, ma’am?”

“My son died in a . . . car accident,” she whispered. “I just want to know he’s all right.”

Gatot, who ran the travel agency from a tiny office in Kuta, said that he had never before seen so many fever-dreaming grief tourists as were sleep-walking through Bali today. Most had lost parents or siblings, through plane crashes or cancer. They were good for business, because even the ones that didn’t buy extensive reality-delaying package tours, like Rose’s group, bought souvenirs and memorabilia and other things that they could wrap up and keep safe and take home with them, unlike the people they had lost. It’s because they think we’re dying too, Gatot said, and then defiantly snuffed out his cigarette on his own desk. We’ll just see who dies first.

“He’s all right, ma’am. For sure, he’s all right.”

“But how do you know?” A mosquito landed on her arm and deliberately sucked her blood. “I read about something that you have here. Jelangkung. Am I saying that right?”

He shook his head, watching her blood travel from flesh to insect belly. He had played with jelangkung. Ani’s grandmother had showed them how, tying half a coconut shell to a pair of criss-crossed, rag-draped wooden sticks. Give the ghost some respect, her grandmother explained. At least give it a head. He also knew that a tourist would not have found that game unless actively searching for “ways to contact the dead.” “Bad idea, ma’am.”

“I thought we were supposed to get the full experience,” Rose said. She had stopped walking, forcing him to pause as well, and by the way she was throwing out her arms, jangling her wooden bracelets, she was frustrated. “I thought anything was on the menu. That’s what we paid for, isn’t it? No-holds-barred, all-inclusive, complete-access bullshit. Right?”

He suddenly became conscious of a pain in his palms where his nails were digging. “Ma’am, jelangkung isn’t like a person-to-person telephone call. It’s like taking a megaphone and yelling, hey, spirits, come find me. Maybe your son answers. Maybe someone else. Maybe it’s not like this in America, but over here, it’s very, very crowded on the other side.”

Rose took a deep breath in preparation for another rant, then apparently changed her mind and went hurrying up the hill with a new and soldierly determination. Dimas followed, trying to stop himself from shaking his head. At the crest, they looked out upon the broken temple complex, scattered across the bright green like a giant child’s failed attempt to build a block tower. Dimas searched his pockets for his notes, because he didn’t know anything about any of this. As a Javanese, all he knew about this island and its people was how good they were at cultivating an exoticism—just wild enough without being savage, the rest of us can handle savage—for Australians to fawn over. At the bottom, Melissa was waving enthusiastically.

Ben shouted something at Rose. He was pointing at one of the little half-fallen candi stupas. He was no bigger than a hand. On the hill, his wife was looking elsewhere, at the line of enormous trees that had been continuously beaten back by skidders and diggers, and before that, fires and saws. With his pulse pounding after the hike up the hill and Rose’s demand and the thought of Ani’s grandmother and the jelangkung, the trees seemed to be trembling. Ben didn’t know that his wife wasn’t watching, and he moved toward the stupa in large, grandiose steps, like an astronaut walking on the moon. Dimas was about to yell at him not to walk carelessly on the stupa when Ben suddenly slipped from view with a yelp that roused birds from the trees.

• • • •

“Tell me a ghost story.” Ben hadn’t spoken since he was told that he’d be bedridden with a broken leg for the next two months, and Melissa and Josh had to leave because they started arguing over the merits of alternative medicine, and Rose announced that she was taking a walk to get some sweet polluted air. “Ghosts this time, no monsters.”

The quiet, pretty nurse adjusting Ben’s IV widened her eyes and smiled. In the next bed over, behind a thick green curtain, a wheezing patient stirred in their bed.

“All right,” said Dimas, who tried to focus on summoning his pity for Ben. “A boy moves to a new city to go to university. He thinks he’s very lucky because he rents a room in a house that’s quite close-by, just two street blocks away. The most direct route to his house is down a wide stretch of street that—for some reason—never seems to be very crowded. The buildings on either side are either abandoned or under construction. Taxis and becak don’t use the road. It’s very strange, he thinks. He walks down the path a couple times, in daytime, and doesn’t see anything peculiar. But most of the time, he tries to avoid it just like everyone else.

“So one night he’s at the university very late, because he has exams and he’s trying to study and the electricity goes on and off at his house. Finally, he packs his things when he can’t stay awake anymore and as he leaves campus, decides that he can’t be bothered to take the long way around to his house. He takes the direct route. The first thing he notices is that a strange fog is just sitting in the street, like a landed cloud. The second thing he notices is that there’s a figure in the fog ahead of him: a crying bloody man, in rags. The boy has enough sense to know this isn’t good, so he tries to swerve around the man, except the man then appears again, right in front of him, weeping Help Me. The boy doesn’t say anything and picks up his pace and feels someone grab him from behind—it’s a woman this time, with her eye gouged out, saying, It Hurts. The boy pushes her off and runs straight into a body that doesn’t even have a head, just arms reaching out to take hold of him. Eventually he just begins to pray as he runs and eventually the ghosts stop coming so close and he’s able to run the rest of the way home. When he gets home he asks his old landlord, who’s smoking a cigarette on the porch, what that street is. The landlord says, ‘Oh, that’s where they killed communists in this city, in 1965. They dumped the bodies in the gutter. Tell me, boy, what did they say to you?’ And the boy says, ‘Well, I think they were asking me for help.’ And so the landlord leans forward and says, ‘They’ll need it in hell.’”

It wasn’t a very good story, but Dimas didn’t know how else to finish it. He had heard iterations of the story from several friends of friends over the years, always about a neighborhood that no one seemed to know of, and that cold razor-wire line had always been the ending.

Ben didn’t care because he was asleep from all the pain medication he’d requested, but the nurse was staring at Dimas incredulously. “There’s a road like that where I’m from too,” she whispered. “But why would you go and tell him? He doesn’t understand what it was like.”

Neither she nor Dimas would have been old enough to have any real memory of 1965, but she wasn’t talking about that. She was talking about institutional, genetic knowledge—the amorphous plasma that stitched acquired data together into one cohesive, rational narrative. “He wanted a ghost story,” Dimas said with a shrug. “That one has a lot of them.”

Half an hour later, the Americans reconvened for a team meeting in Ben’s room. Ben was still unconscious, and they didn’t want to disturb him, they said, but apparently they needed his body to be their non-voting witness. Rose sat down near the bed and silently held Ben’s hand, and Dimas started to excuse himself. But she stopped him, with a set of cool fingers pressed persistently to the spot where his pulse hit his wrist. “We’ve decided to go on with the tour,” she said. Her voice was utterly without affect. Behind her, Melissa and Josh were uncomfortably squirming, sucking mango soda from straws. “Where do you think we should go next?”

• • • •

Dimas purposefully sat at the end of a row of folding chairs—provided a quick exit, if needed, and allowed the three Americans to hopefully talk amongst themselves—and thanked God that Melissa, not Rose, demanded to sit next to him so she could ask him as many questions as possible about a dance he knew nothing about. But he had his notes, so he tried to explain to her the story of the stolen princess, her avenging husband, and the demon-king. Oh, and the warrior monkeys, which made Melissa’s eyes gleam. Every so often Josh would interject, mostly to show that he could. Meanwhile, he could feel Rose staring coldly at him through both of her friends.

“Take a picture of us,” Melissa said, slipping her little black camera into Dimas’ hands and then leaning back into Josh. “Rose! Are you in the picture?”

Rose had to lean forward to get into view. Her look, naked in its resentment, was so awful that Dimas didn’t even wait for Melissa to say Bali Hai before snapping the picture. He gave Melissa a thumb’s up. His plastic smile was starting to ache.

After the kecak performance started, the audience of foreigners and wealthy natives—all from Jakarta, of course, no locals—prepared their cameras. As one chanticleer led a call-and-response around a fiery torch, the hundred male performers sitting in concentric rings on the ground shook as if inhabited by the splintered spirit of a cackling gecko god, arms outstretched and fingers frantically twitching. Dimas wondered how it felt, pretending to be possessed every sundown. He imagined them on their smoking break, sneering at tourists while they argued over where to buy shabu.

The fire leapt as Australian winds brought the night in, and the heavily made-up princess, legs wrapped so tightly that she seemed to have the lower body of a goldfish, began to skulk amongst the men. Ani had died in a fire. At least he assumed so, based on the charred remains of her family’s convenience store. He told her to leave. He’d even told her to leave the city, the day after the students were shot in the street. But she dawdled. Froze. As if she wanted it to end this way. Ani did talk fatalistically about the fate of the nation, after the IMF deal was made and parliament re-elected the general for the seventh time. “Nothing ever changes,” she said, but then they suddenly, violently did. Fiery beams fell between them and smoke filled his lungs and he couldn’t wait any longer. What was he supposed to do? And why did she have to raise her eyes and look at him just before he turned his face toward his jacket, as if finally waking up from a deep sleep? Down in his gullet, amidst the muddy guilt and the true deep sadness that Allah knew he felt for the loss of Ani’s life, lived the deep-seated fear that Ani’s last moments on earth were drowned in the sort of bitterness that left a permanent stain.

Something was shaking beside him. He looked first at the dancers—the demon-king had emerged from behind a brick wall and caught sight of the princess, eyes on fire—and then at Melissa, who was the source of the tremors. Dimas thought at first that she was shivering, but when he saw her chin warbling and her eyes rolling back into the gulf of her skull and a small trail of saliva running down her chin, he knew this was worse. Then she slipped off her chair, falling onto a group of French tourists in the next row.

For a spare second in the desperate, dark moment that followed—Josh trying to control his seizing wife, Rose screaming at everyone to give the woman space, and the other tourists and all the dancers paying them no mind at all, cak-kecak-kecak-kecak, creating the unnerving sensation that the four of them had somehow fallen through a trap door past their waking world and into the next—Melissa’s blue eyes focused. Those eyes looked at Dimas, and Rose, and maybe Josh as well, and it was not Melissa looking out. No, it was not. Their ears plugged, like passengers of a falling airplane, and then they were alone with it.

But ten seconds later, her eyes had rolled back again. The world righted itself, and now there was a German doctor on holiday holding up two fingers, and a woman in a hijab offering a dripping bottle of water with an unbroken seal, and a possum-eyed kecak dancer leaning down and asking, “She’s on drugs, yeah?”

• • • •

“Tell another ghost story,” said Josh. “The scariest one you know.”

Melissa put her head in her hands and whined, “I’m tired of ghost stories.” But Josh didn’t even look at her, and Rose just pushed a glass of ice water in her direction, telling her she should stay hydrated. Melissa pushed it back so forcefully that Dimas reached his hand out to catch it. “Jesus Christ, Rose,” she snapped. “I’m not your kid.”

Rose looked at her sourly.

Josh took another tortured sip of Bintang beer and raised his eyebrows at Dimas. “Well? You got one that’ll make me shit my pants or what?”

“I have a story,” said Dimas. Melissa started making a strange animal noise, between a growl and a whinny. Before Ani died, she used to say that she would haunt him if one of his stupid adventures got her killed—they were never all that dangerous, just rope bridges and speeding motorbikes and haunted hallways, but they liked to play pretend. And Ani would lean in and say If I don’t make it, I’ll come back to get you. Melissa, who was supposedly all better now, sat like a limp doll on the bench beside him, her jaw slightly slack as she stared ahead into the street, at the humming mass of travelers moving slowly in the half-light.

“A pregnant woman,” Dimas started, then took a deep breath and began again. “A pregnant woman is tossing and turning in her bedroom in the middle of the night. She’s been sick. She doesn’t know what time it is, just that it’s dark and she should be sleeping. But the lights to the living room are still on, and her mother-in-law asks her through the door if she’s hungry. ‘No thank you,’ she says. What about some water? No, she doesn’t want water either. How is she feeling, is she cold? And the pregnant woman finally says, loudly this time, ‘I don’t need anything!’ So then her husband comes in the room, and wants to know who she’s shouting at. Because his mother’s not due to arrive until the next morning. So now the woman knows that she’s being chased by a kuntilanak. That’s the name of the ghost. Everyone here knows what it is. She’s the ghost of a woman who died in childbirth and is searching for babies and blood in the afterlife.”

A group of sunburned, middle-aged Australians burst out laughing, or crying, next to them—hard to tell which. They had their own tragedies. Their own demons to run from. Dimas looked back at his own cohort, but only Rose met his gaze. Melissa was humming along to “Hotel California,” which had started playing over the Club Lizard speaker system for the sixth time that night. Josh was finally looking at Melissa, scorn mixed with longing.

“So the woman gets a pair of scissors from the bathroom and goes back to bed with the scissors clenched in her hand. She goes to sleep. It’s still dark when she wakes up again, and there’s a shape leaning down over her. And because she’s a brave woman, she stabs it, right where she’s supposed to—in the back of the head. The creature falls and she turns on the light and realizes it’s her husband. And not only has she killed him . . . her beloved, the father of her child . . . but now she’s alone with the kuntilanak.”

Rose stared at him in hurt and shock. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw that Melissa had struck up a conversation with a man in snakeskin sitting next to her—he didn’t seem to be part of the Australian group. “I’m sorry,” Dimas whispered. “I don’t know why I picked that story.”

“I have an idea for a scary story,” said Josh, “How about if you talk about what’s going to happen to this country once it splits into twenty-seven pieces? How about that? What happens when all these fucking people . . .” He waved his beer around, even though two-thirds of the people in Club Lizard were tourists, “. . . realize that they don’t have to worry about the military reining them in anymore? Why don’t you give us a prediction for how fast things are going to burn down once the inmates are running the asylum?”

Dimas wondered if Josh had perhaps forgotten that he could speak English. He thought of Gatot’s defiance—We’ll just see who dies first—and forced himself to smile at Josh. He could see Melissa getting up and walking away with her new friend. Rose sitting in the dark, slowly opening and closing a pair of scissors. Ben eaten alive by mosquitoes in the hospital. And he saw himself in his sordid and bloody hometown, running through empty streets toward what used to be Chinatown, toward the burning building where he knew Ani would be waiting.

“Hopefully, by the time the world ends, you’ll be gone,” he told Josh, who didn’t respond because he’d just now realized that the woman he’d walked through customs with, walked down the aisle with, was slipping quietly away into slippery anonymity. Fallen down a crevasse in the known world. It happens all the time.

• • • •

No one knew what dim, damp alley Melissa had disappeared into, and Josh was too angry to care. “Fuck her,” he said, “She does this all the time. Remember Rio? She’ll come back when she runs out of cash, the bitch.” He kicked at a stop sign, covered in missing persons flyers for tourists who had largely lost themselves at will. We Love You We Miss You Please Come Home.

As they ambled back to the hotel, Rose tried again. “Please help me talk to my son,” she begged. “I know you can. I know you know how.”

Dimas glanced at her, and thought he saw something scuttle in the gutter behind her, something that cast an uneven, shuddering shadow on the heavily graffitied wall. “Bad idea, ma’am,” he said again, staring at the glittering sidewalk—coated with dew and vomit. “I told you.”

“He died so fast,” Rose said. “Ben was driving. County road. We were coming back from a baseball game. Something happened, I don’t . . .” She stared at a glowing red sun sign ahead of them for Bounty Discotheque. “There was something in the road. They said he didn’t suffer, but . . . I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye. I’m sure he’s scared. He was such a little scaredy-cat.”

Dimas spun around, cutting her off. “Mr. Josh!” His voice came out sounding very weak, very raw. The one thing Gatot always pressed, beyond comfort and satisfaction and legality, was liability: keep your group together. He had been thoroughly scarred by a recent incident in which an Australian dive boat had left two divers behind to be eaten by sharks at the Great Barrier Reef. And here Dimas had already lost Melissa. “Mr. Josh, I think we should hurry back to the hotel!”

But Josh had stopped near a clump of skinny teenagers huddled on the stoop of a shuttered scuba store. He had his wallet out and was very conspicuously taking out stacks of weathered rupiah. “Blo’on,” Dimas whispered, but didn’t step in. Why risk it? He wasn’t going to end up in Hotel Kerobokan for anyone, especially not a fucking tourist. He counted to ten, trying to still his nerves and the sense that something besides motorcycle exhaust and patchouli was swirling around them, until Josh stuffed a little plastic baggie into his back pocket and sullenly resumed walking.

“He could never sleep in the dark,” said Rose. “But neither can I. Shapes look different . . .”

A local call girl in garish theater make-up stumbled out of Bounty, followed by an anxious-looking man three times her age. “Melissa!” Josh screamed at the call girl, who looked over her shoulder at him and sneered. “Go home you wanker,” her companion shouted. Josh slapped his hand on the hood of a nearby car—thank God, no alarm—and shouted back, “Come make me!”

It was a bad idea from the start. Cops were never very far from Bounty, and these days they—like everyone else in the country—were teetering on a knife’s edge. Too many stories about docile village mobs decapitating bus drivers who ran over small children could make a policeman twitchy. Even the Dayaks, supposedly beaten into submission decades ago, had come out of the jungle and set logging equipment on fire. Ya Allah! What’s a cop to do? Couldn’t trust anybody anymore—not even two drunk Westerners who would have been sent home to their hotels in the good old days. The British man and the call girl eventually teetered away down Jalan Legian, but when the cops found ecstasy in Josh’s pocket, that was it. Some chlorine-stained kids in sporty beachwear came out of Bounty to point and laugh, but Dimas hurried Rose away to the growling sound of what Dimas could only hope was thunder rolling down from the highlands.

• • • •

“Tell me a ghost story. A real one, this time.”

He wanted to tell her that they had all been real, or might as well have been. He could have told a thousand other anecdotes, about mysterious lights and strange coincidences and unexplained illnesses and visions of dead passengers seen by only half the bus—but they had wanted stories, hadn’t they? Stories with a set-up and an escalation and a terrible, brutal denouement.

“This is the last one,” he said, and meant that, because there was a more than decent possibility that he would not make it to the final Day 5. He had seen another humanoid shadow while brushing his teeth the night before, and then found the window to his third-floor apartment open and the drapes dancing, and he knew they were being hunted. Correction: he was being hunted, and Allah had sent ghost-seeker Rose to Gatot’s Tropical Adventure Tours in order to let him know that it was time for him to buck up and stop running from his fate, soldier.

Dimas was driving this time. He’d told Nyoman where they were going—the huge, unfinished Bali Grand Hotel—and Nyoman had laughed in his face and demanded double a day’s pay to make the drive, which Dimas didn’t feel like asking Rose about. Rose was cradling the hodgepodge shopping bag of a jelangkung’s component parts—two broomsticks, half-a-coconut, permanent marker, incense, twine, a Superman shirt because her son’s favorite character was Superman, paper stolen from the hotel room—on her lap as if they were the very bones of her child.

“My friend, my best friend, died in a fire. Along with her father and grandmother. Some people . . .” He shook his head. What to call them? Psychopaths, murderers? He’d run the streets alongside them, silent while they yelled. “Some very angry people set fire to their store. I was in there with them, trying to convince them to leave the city because I could see it coming—not the fire, of course, or the riots. But once the fires started, I knew what would be burned.” His lip quivered. “I got out. Because I didn’t wait. I was scared, you know. I thought I was going to die. I convinced myself that she’d follow, if she saw me running. I thought she’d make it out. I stood outside the building for ten minutes, I think, waiting for her. And . . .”

“And she didn’t make it.”

He glanced back at Rose through the rear view mirror. “She didn’t make it. And ever since, I’ve been afraid of seeing her. Around campus. On the street. Even in a room full of people, I can’t look at faces too closely. Because I left her, you see. Because that sort of betrayal leaves a . . . a mark in the world. Like a cigarette burn. I got so scared that I couldn’t leave my house, but even then, I could feel someone sitting on the couch and just looking at me. That’s why I decided to leave Jakarta. Just being near those buildings, I couldn’t . . . I could feel her spirit. Her energy.”

There was a small white mass in the road ahead that he realized in a few moments was a goat. He slowed to a stop, hoping the engine roar would scare it into moving, but its milky eyes barely registered the vehicle. Sighing, he kept his foot on the brake. He contemplated telling her that after a few lonely months, Ani had apparently found him again—bringing with her the shadows, the whispers, the cold sensation of being under someone’s eye, the hazy cloud of a spirit’s hug, the sick-in-the-gut feeling of hovering by a bungee cord over the gaping maw of the great unseen world—but when he opened his mouth, he was too afraid to say the words out loud.

Rose’s voice had softened when she spoke next. “I know what that’s like.”

“After your son died?”

“Even before that. It got stronger after Connor died, but . . . I’d felt it for a long time. A presence. That feeling like even when you’re alone in a locked room, you’re never alone.” Then she chuckled and wiped a tear out of the corner of her eye. “Ben always called it my guardian angel. I think he was just trying to make me feel better. But I’ve been thinking that maybe he’s right. Who’s to say it’s not a guardian angel? Who’s to say your friend’s angry at you? Maybe she’s just watching over you.”

The goat’s minder, an old man with a long beard, came out of the bushes and pushed the goat along with a few swats of a small stick. The old man flashed a black-toothed smile at their van—no, not quite at the guilt-eaten man at the wheel nor the mournful woman in the backseat, but at something just behind them, something that must have been beautiful.

“I’d be angry,” was all Dimas said.

• • • •

The Bali Grand would have been horrific, had it been allowed to live. It was gaudy, too heavy and too white and far too marbled for the gentle green hills it was nestled in. The general’s son had signed off on the final design after an extended stay at the casino-hotels of Las Vegas. Thankfully, the project ran out of money during the financial crisis, leaving the hotel unfinished with its very bones exposed, like the broken-open jaws of a long-dead giant. Rumor was that the general’s son still lurked somewhere amongst the pillars and arches, but that was bullshit. Everyone knew he was hiding in Europe, in a premium suite of a hotel he hadn’t designed.

The Bali Grand was still horrific now, but for different reasons—under the flapping tarps and abandoned construction equipment it was undoubtedly haunted, if not by dead workers then by the ghosts of offshore private loans and weakly-regulated banks.

Dimas and Rose went to the partially-constructed lobby, where tile floors had been laid and a patchwork roof had been erected, to build their conduit. The jelangkung. Then they leaned the doll against the wall to watch them eat their martabak and wait for night to fall.

Nothing happened the last time Dimas played this game, with Ani and a couple other jokers at school. No one had been expecting anything, of course—they were just bored and trying to take their minds off exams. They gave the coconut-shell a googly face and asked the oxygen molecules and cigarette smoke whether they would pass their tests. Nothing tuned into their antenna. But this time, as Dimas led Rose in a shaky overture to the spirit world—we’re having a little party—he felt that he was practically inviting Ani—whatever was left of Ani—to come forward.

Dimas saw Rose holding the wooden creature, turning the broomstick body gently in her hands like one of those hunchbacked beach-women who traverse the littered coastline hawking umbrellas and massages and temporary tattoos, and closed his eyes. Imagined the peace of the sea. He only opened them after he felt the pressure in the room plummet, as if an anchor had dragged him and Rose and the Bali Grand Hotel ten meters below the surface. With tensed muscles and an aching top row of teeth, he expected to see Ani levitating above the jelangkung, with peeling skin and denouncing eyes. But though the darkness had grown touchably thick beyond their struggling candlelight, he saw nothing. Just Rose . . . gagging on something lodged in her throat.

“Miss Rose? Are you all right?”

Rose was not fine. At that moment Rose was a broken vase, and someone—something—that wasn’t Rose came spilling out of her like a gush of tar and slithered across the floor. No, not Rose. Also not Ani. And he was willing to bet the value of Rose’s all-inclusive tour package that no matter how badly Rose wanted it to be, that it wasn’t Rose’s little boy Connor either.

The oily shadow crawled across the floor, wrapped itself around the jelangkung, and held it upright when Rose’s grasp failed. It drenched the Superman shirt and twirled the permanent marker dangling from one broomstick arm. Rose whispered, “Connor? Sweetie, is that you?”

The jelangkung was supposed to tip and use the pen to mark a Yes or a No on the paper. It did lean in, at first—and then it started shaking. Violently. It was almost like a headshake, NO NO NO, but then with a terrifying bang and a howl from the ends of the earth, the wooden body flew apart. One broomstick nearly hit Dimas in the temple, and a shredded piece of the Superman shirt landed in Rose’s lap. Like a taunt. Meanwhile, the shadow spread. Covered the ceiling beams and dripped down the unpainted walls. Occasionally, its edges would curl together and form the shape of a man or a cow or a tiger—shapes look different, wasn’t that what Rose said?—and then it would flatten out and seep to another corner of the room. Though it had hitched a ride with Rose, this shadow didn’t know sadness. It was more primitive than that: it was just hungry. It lay so oppressive on their fragile human souls simply because it wasn’t human, and never had been.

By then, Dimas had slid over to Rose so he could quietly urge her to say goodbye, to end the ritual. She was feverishly muttering something—about Connor, and a number of other things Dimas couldn’t identify—and he had to lean in close: “Miss Rose, you have to close the door.”

This only made her whisper more frantically, clenching the Superman rag to her chest.

“Miss Rose, close the door so we can drive away. We can go to Kuta. See your husband . . .”

“Can’t leave it . . .” Did she mean the presence? “I can’t leave.”

Every human cell in his body wanted to leave, because it knew this feeling and wanted to survive. This thing had come to this country wrapped around Rose’s skeleton—it wouldn’t have chased him. He’d have gotten away. Yet he helplessly sank to his knees as if his feet were lodged in mud. Ani’s legacy, he supposed. Because that was when he finally felt her outside of her normal Jakartan habitat: the same electric seizure he’d feel when pedaling past her blackened building or the empty, tortured malls where they used to fantasize about a Someday Life of large televisions and luxury brands. He imagined her putting her arms around him, pulling him down, saying, Stay. Not meanly, not hatefully. But honestly. Keep your eyes open this time, scaredy-cat. Here it comes.

• • • •

A red-and-black centipede crawled across Dimas’s hand, down into the dark concrete valley, and then onto the denim of Rose’s jeans. Dimas, who’d woken up to the sound of rain, nudged her; Rose didn’t react. He could feel the chill emanating from her body. He shifted to get a better look at her and confirmed the sick feeling in his stomach. She was dead. Eyes open, jaw slightly slack. Heart attack? Theft of the soul? He didn’t want to touch her, but knew if he didn’t close her eyes now then she would definitely roam the earth forever.

Very cautiously, he crossed the empty expanse of the hotel lobby, watching for shadows or drops in atmospheric pressure or noises of any kind. Nothing but the rain gave him goosebumps. He ran to the van, not bothering to shield his head.

He told the first cops he could find, two boys who probably should have been guarding a mall in Denpasar. For some reason—conditioning?—they believed his story, and promised to go up to the Bali Grand just as soon as the rain cleared up. Then Dimas drove back to Kuta. He thought about checking on Ben at the hospital, or Josh at the prison, but decided not to do either, not yet. He didn’t even know where he’d find Melissa, if he’d find Melissa—probably in the Crime & Punishment section of the Bali Post. So instead he went to see Freddy, a tattoo artist who specialized in painting visions of the bug-eyed, toothy Barong, the good spirit-king.

Freddy welcomed him in and sat him down in front of the television. On the table were video cases of Freddy’s favorite horror movies: a plastic mess of red eyes and long black hair and frightened, stupid teens. Dimas thought of The Forgotten—the legendary ghost story that the censorship board locked up years ago on account of being cursed. Rumor had it that a real ghost had been caught on camera during filming, and that a critic had died of a heart attack during an early screening at Pondok Indah Mall. He didn’t remember what it was about anymore—something about a dead witch, and a secret room. Tell me a ghost story.

“Hey, did you ever track down The Forgotten? You know, the cursed movie?”

Freddy laughed. “Why? You want to watch it? I did find it, my friend. But it was nothing special. Turns out it was banned because the movie didn’t have any kiai come in to beat up the evil spirit by the grace of Allah.” He handed Dimas a bowl of cup noodles. “Can you believe it? So stupid. But at least we can watch all the shitty movies we want now, after Reformasi.”

Dimas wasn’t convinced that the little vice president currently on television would change the rules of the censorship board, but he had been wrong before. Right now, the little vice president was forbidding the sort of language that had gotten Ani killed for being Chinese, for not being a true daughter of the land—so there was that. Freddy sat down on the couch with his own cup noodles and switched to the jittery black of channel 4, where a movie was already playing. A lady-ghost in a white shift was moving without weight through a foggy cemetery. If it started with her, it would end with her. She’d been terribly wronged. She’d be avenged.

“I think I did something terrible,” Dimas said.

Freddy sighed. “You need to forgive yourself, ’Mas. She’s not going to come all the way back here just to forgive you. She has better things to do now, right? She’s at peace. Let her go.”

A stray memory flickered, of Ani snorting iced tea out her nose at something he’d said about a teacher. “I don’t mean that . . .”

“So what now? You left a tourist somewhere?”

“I think I let something loose. Something they were carrying with them.”

“What, like heroin?”

“No, something worse.” He imagined the shadow loping through the forest, flying among the bodiless leyak, feasting upon the grievers and the guilty and the human guides who so delicately threaded the needle-eye balance—a spirit-monster out of its ecosystem, devouring all in its path like a bulldozer on autopilot. “I’m so sorry. I never should have come to Bali.”

He felt Freddy slow turn to look at him as an uncomfortable, unmistakable tension started to clog up the room. On television, the ghost swept aside her long black hair to reveal a gaping, pulsing wound. Rotten and squirming and infested and yet, somehow, very much alive.

© 2016 by Nadia Bulkin.

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Nadia Bulkin

Nadia Bulkin

Nadia Bulkin writes scary stories about the scary world we live in, three of which have been nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award. Her stories have been included in volumes of The Year’s Best Weird Fiction and The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror, and in venues such as ChiZine, Fantasy, and The Dark. She has two political science degrees and lives in Washington, D.C. She can be found online at nadiabulkin.wordpress.com.