Fiction: We Are All Ghosts

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By Peter Darbyshire

This is the way the world ends.

Not with a bang but with the silence of the grave.

I don’t bother testing the walls of the tomb you’ve buried me in. I know there’s no way out. After all, you built it to contain not only me, but what’s inside me. I cannot escape. We cannot escape.

But I must tell you – I’m not the villain you think I am. Not any more than I was the superhero you once thought I was.

I’m just a man. A man with a curse you don’t understand. Not yet. But you will comprehend it someday. Not that it will do you any good.

I know what the pipes leading into the tomb are for. I would have done the same thing. But it won’t work any better this time than it did for the inhabitants of the Frozen City.

Instead of looking for a way out after I drop into your trap, this tomb, I stand by the coffin and rest my hands on it. Providence’s coffin. I suppose I should thank you for that, even though it’s empty inside. There’s nothing left of her.

Nothing but the memories.

 

***

 

By now, you’ve probably figured out the stories I told you in the mission debriefings were lies. Maybe you knew it even then, in the interrogation rooms after you flew me back home. How could you not suspect there was something different about me when I was the only one who returned from the Frozen City? When I said I had no memory of what happened to the others, no memory of what happened on the mission at all before waking up on the icy floor of that sunken tomb, in that forgotten city? When I said I didn’t feel any different than before?

The truth is – I remember everything.

I remember the afternoon that Smyth was sitting in my office when I returned from teaching my Intro to Archaeology class, even though my office door was still locked. He said he worked for the government, although not any branch I’d ever heard of because it didn’t have a name. He pulled out a phone and showed me the satellite shot of a dark mass buried in ice. I remember the question he asked.

“What does this look like to you?”

I studied the image. A Rorschach blot.

“Bones,” I said.

He put the phone away and stood. He looked at the door like he’d already forgotten me.

“The bones of a city,” I said. Because, why else would he seek out an archaeologist with a picture like that? He thought the ruins of a civilization were buried down there. Close. It was the ruin of civilization.

Smyth looked at me again, but his expression didn’t change.

“You’re going to assemble a team,” he told me. “No one who knows anyone else on it beforehand. No one who will talk. No one who can’t leave their life behind the minute I call. If word of this gets out, I’ll never call. And you’ll never have your chance to explore this city.”

And then he left me there, wondering why he’d chosen me. I wasn’t anyone special. I’d done a few digs in Peru and written a few papers on the religious customs of a tribe that had sacrificed themselves to extinction centuries ago. I was a nobody in my field.

I understand now that’s why he came for me.

I was expendable.

We were all expendable.

 

***

 

A scream from the pipes breaks the silence. You’ve opened something. The security gates or airlocks or whatever it is you’ve put in place to keep me in this tomb. Or rather, to keep what’s inside me in this tomb.

I wish you luck.

I open the coffin and look down at the empty space where Providence should be. I think of the last time I saw her.

The time I killed her and doomed us all.

 

***

 

I chose Providence to be on the team, even though Smyth wanted only people I didn’t know. How could I not invite her, the star student of the department, thanks to her work on Aztec transformation rituals? She singlehandedly made us rethink everything we knew about their religious sacrifices.

And, of course, we were in love.

I know it’s a cliche. The aging professor and the star graduate student. Maybe Providence was young and naive. Maybe she was just using me to get ahead. Maybe she would have left me, after she graduated and secured a job somewhere. But maybe she wouldn’t have.

I’ll never know.

We had dinner with wine and candles, and I told her what Smyth told me. Then we made love, with more wine and candles. That was the last time we even kissed.

Providence said we had to pretend we didn’t know each other. She said we had to treat each other like the Aztecs treated their sacrifices. So, we sat in different parts of the military cargo plane that flew us to Antarctica when Smyth called. We shook hands with everyone else on the team I’d assembled – all strangers to me, I swear, and all nobodies I’d found through their scholarly articles. Providence and I introduced ourselves to each other on the plane like we’d never met before. She was so good at not knowing me that I wondered if she’d been practicing it.

When we reached Antarctica, we all ate together in the cafeteria of the base camp that had been built over the Frozen City and talked about what we’d find when the robots finished digging the hole down through the ice. Some of us thought perhaps another Easter Island, monuments dedicated to a race that wiped itself out. A couple of us wondered aloud if it was perhaps the lost city of Atlantis. Even though we were all academics, none of us was willing to make disparaging remarks about that. We were all gathered there in Antarctica, after all.

Providence was the only one to voice what we were all secretly thinking. That maybe it was something older than we’d ever dreamed of finding. Something more ancient than Easter Island and even the idea of Atlantis. The city of a forgotten race. That put an end to our speculation and we spent the rest of our wait in silence.

We held our breath in the control room as we watched the first camera feeds of the Frozen City’s empty streets, of the strange, melted buildings lit up by the robots’ lights.

We huddled in groups and tried to make sense of the glyphs inscribed on every surface, of the undulating pathways paved with some glittering substance we couldn’t identify, of the abstract sculptures that looked as if they’d been carved from bone.

We looked for signs of life, for bodies or skeletons, but saw nothing. Whoever or whatever had lived in the city was gone.

I split us into groups for the initial exploration and I teamed up with Providence. Smyth just nodded when I handed him the paperwork outlining the survey plans. He assigned each group a military escort. Men in black uniforms with every weapon I could imagine – assault rifles, handguns, grenades, knives – but no insignia on their uniforms. For all the good they did.

And down we went into the Frozen City.

I know you’ve seen the recordings we made with the handhelds. But the films don’t capture what it was really like. The stillness in the air. The silence except for our steps and the drips of the ice melting from the buildings. The way the twisting shapes of the buildings made you dizzy if you looked at them too long. The way shadows fell where they shouldn’t fall.

I shouldn’t have lied. I don’t mean to you in those debriefings, when I said I didn’t know what happened. I mean I shouldn’t have lied about not knowing Providence. Then Smyth wouldn’t have let us come. Then Providence would still be alive and I wouldn’t be what I am now.

Then maybe the world wouldn’t be ending.

But I did lie and here we are, buried together.

 

***

 

There’s a moment of silence after the metal sounds. Then the pipes start to shake and rattle in place. I know what’s coming down them.

Like that’ll stop the ghosts.

I feel them stirring inside me now, restless to get out. The periods between them waking are growing shorter. Soon, they won’t sleep at all.

Soon, they will be free.

The water erupts from the pipes and pours into the room. Within seconds, it’s up to my ankles. And there’s nowhere for it to escape. It’ll rise until it reaches the ceiling.

And then you’ll turn the temperature down and freeze me, won’t you? You’ll turn the water to ice.

You’ll freeze me the way the ghosts had been frozen all those ages.

 

***

 

The thing I didn’t tell you in the debriefings was that I was the one who woke the ghosts.

Providence and I found a tomb half-melted out of the ice. A stone building with a stone door. It looked like the ancient crypts you see in cemeteries, once you saw past it not having any right angles, or even straight edges. It was like something fluid that had been fixed in place by the ice. Or maybe just our lights.

The soldiers forced open the door with a crowbar and scanned the inside with their guns, then nodded at us. So, that tells you how much good they were.

The tomb was empty except for the sarcophagus. Which resembled any sarcophagus I’d ever seen as much as the tomb resembled a human tomb. It was a rough oval shape, but there were stone outcroppings here and there in what seemed like random directions. As if it housed filaments, or maybe tentacles. Or who knew what?

Except, of course, we all know what it housed now, thanks to the things that haunt our city. The things that live in the shadows. The things that spread the shadows.

Providence and I decided it was a sarcophagus because that’s what we were looking for as archaeologists. And we were right. So, we opened it, as we’d opened so many similar resting places before.

No.

I opened it.

I took the soldiers’ crowbar and levered it into a crack in the sarcophagus and popped the lid. It made a sound like the screaming of the pipes when you released the water.

And the screaming went on as the ghosts came out.

How can I explain them to you?

Imagine the things that live in the darkest depths of the oceans, the things you can only glimpse in nightmares. Now put them in a partially-thawed tomb in a city buried under the Antarctic ice. And try to imagine the way they felt, waking after being trapped there for thousands of years.

Maybe I was spared because I was the one who freed them. Maybe because they needed a host. I have no idea. But I wish they hadn’t spared me.

Yes, I know what happened. They took the others. They took Providence and the soldiers. They went out into the Frozen City and took everyone. Nothing but screams escaped the shadows.

And they hid them in me.

Who knows why? Maybe the ghosts are feeding on them while resting in me, growing stronger.

Maybe the ghosts turned Providence and the others into more ghosts.

Maybe the ghosts saw how much I loved Providence.

Maybe the ghosts saw how I would do anything to free her.

 

***

 

I get into the coffin to stay dry a few minutes longer. I stare up at the blank ceiling overhead. The water splashes around the edges of the coffin.

I know you’re trying to do the right thing.

Just like I tried to do the right thing when I came back from the Frozen City.

They sealed the tunnel with ice when I climbed back out of it, alone. They left the robots down there and watched the live feeds, but nothing else happened. The ghosts were gone. They were in me now.

They put me on a plane back home. The plane arrived filled with soldiers and left with me and no one else. Smyth and the others who had stayed in the base while we descended into the city flew out on a different plane. I was dangerous cargo now.

I spent a month in quarantine. They studied me with x-rays and MRI scans and radiation meters and all sorts of things I didn’t understand. They didn’t know what they were looking for. So of course they didn’t find it.

More men named ‘Smyth’ interviewed me in a conference room with metal walls, deep under the city. They asked the same questions over and over, and recorded the answers on multiple recorders. They wanted to know what had happened to everyone who had disappeared. They wanted to know what had happened to Providence and the soldiers who had been with us.

I told them I didn’t remember anything.

I told them I didn’t remember anything because I didn’t want them to know what I had done to Providence.

I told them I didn’t remember anything because I still didn’t understand what had happened.

So, I said nothing and they let me go back to my job. The men named ‘Smyth’ said they’d be in touch.

I didn’t have any teaching duties, as I was officially on sabbatical. I’d been expecting to be part of the exploration team of the Frozen City for months, if not years. I had nothing to do. I sat in the quiet of my office and tried to make sense of things.

Instead, I heard the voices.

At first, I thought it was students playing some new instrument outside. They were always experimenting. One year, it would be Japanese drums, the next it would be Mongolian battle horns.

But the more I listened, the more I realized it wasn’t music. It was voices. It sounded like chanting but chanting underwater. It took me days of listening to realize the chanting was coming from inside me. It followed me around, in my office, in my home, in the grocery store, fading in and out. No one else showed any signs of hearing it and I worried I had caught some sort of illness from the Frozen City.

I couldn’t sleep. The voices drove me into the night. I roamed the streets in my car, wondering what they were trying to tell me. Until I came across the men assaulting the woman.

And that’s how I became a superhero.

I saw them dragging her off the street and into the dark parking lot behind a church. Three of them. I jumped out of the car and ran at them without a second thought, because I saw her face.

Providence.

I screamed at them to free her. Only, it wasn’t a scream that came out. It was a ghost.

The same chanting voice I’d been hearing for days rose up inside me. “Fhtagn ssw’nafh!” I cried. Or, more accurately, I burbled. For now I sounded like I was talking underwater. That may have had something to do with the ghost exiting my mouth.

Even now, after so many of the ghosts have escaped into the world, I still find them hard to describe. This one was like a cross between a jellyfish and the remains of a man. It flopped onto the ground and shook for a moment, and we all stared at it. Me, the other men, the woman who I saw now wasn’t Providence at all. I’d never seen her before in my life.

Wgahst’nar phl’unk!” I said. I suddenly felt so empty that I fell to my knees.

And the ghost rose up and threw itself at them. The men screamed as it dragged them into the shadows behind the church. And then the screams turned into other sounds I still don’t know how to describe. But I don’t have to. You’ve heard them at night while you cower in your bedrooms.

The woman screamed, too, but it left her alone. She ran off into the night and the sounds in the shadows ceased. And then it was just me and the silence, again.

Only, I wasn’t alone. I could feel the ghost in the shadows. Watching me. Waiting. For what, I didn’t know at the time. All I thought was that it was over. That whatever had crept into me in the Frozen City had left me now. It wasn’t my problem, anymore.

I threw myself back into my car and drove home as fast as I could. I locked myself in my bedroom and kept all the lights on. For the first time in days, I slept.

I woke to a story in the newspaper about what had happened. The woman who wasn’t Providence had gone to the police. She said three men she didn’t know had grabbed her on the street when she was walking home after her shift at the bar. She said they’d been drinking in the bar all night. They were trying to drag her into an empty parking lot for God knows what, when another man had shown up. She said he yelled at them and something came out of his mouth, something that took the other men into the shadows. She said she thought he was some sort of thing, because she saw tentacles waving from his face, and his hair was floating, like he was in the water. The police cautioned women about walking alone at night and taking drugs.

I went in the bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror, but I didn’t see any tentacles. My hair stayed matted to my head.

I got in the shower to wash away the memories of the night before. And the voices started inside me again.

 

***

 

You know the rest, of course. That woman was just the beginning. There were many more after her. Too many to just pass off as drug hallucinations or mental illness. You didn’t know what was going on. Neither did I.

All I knew was that the voices grew inside me with their strange chanting, night after night – “Urbl’phhar mypr’ttsh urbl’phhar” – until I couldn’t stand it any longer and went out into the dark to escape them.

And, every night, they drove me to Providence.

Providence being pulled into a van by two men in the parking lot of a grocery store, until I jumped out of my car and yelled at them. And a thing like a squid with crab legs slipped from my mouth and ran at them, wrapping them up in its tentacles and dragging them into the van. It slammed the doors shut behind it. The woman who wasn’t Providence screamed and got into her own car and drove away, leaving the groceries lying on the ground around a trail of water and slime that led from me to the van.

Providence being beaten by a man in a house as I drove past. I stopped and got out of the car and yelled at him. A thing like an eel made of a thousand other eels flew through the glass without breaking it, and the lights inside went out and the screaming began.

Providence being held hostage in a liquor store robbery. The man inside wore a stocking over his head as he held a gun to hers. The police turned to look at me as I hit the brakes on my car and jumped out, screaming. A scream that travelled through the air like a manta ray made of writhing shadows, a darkness that engulfed the man and took him into the back room, where he disappeared forever, just like all the others, as I got back in the car and drove away, leaving the woman who wasn’t Providence shrieking with terror in my wake, the cops standing there, not knowing what to do at all.

After that, I started wearing a mask I bought in a gift store. It was really just a white strip that covered my eyes. But it was enough for the media.

“Ghost,” they called me. The first real superhero.

 

***

 

The water is at the edge of the coffin now, so I close the lid. That won’t stop it from getting in, of course. But after decades of digging up the dead, I know there’s a custom to these things.

I hope you’ve inscribed the proper warnings on the outside of this tomb. I’d add my own if I could. But, as we all know now, the warnings only work if the people who dig up the tomb can read them.

And who knows who will find us?

Pthhh’gatt mlew’hag,” I say, the words escaping me. The ghosts sense something happening. They sense another entombment. They want to get out.

And I can’t stop them.

I’ve never been able to stop them.

And the truth is, I’ve never really wanted to stop them.

 

***

 

I roamed the night, fighting crime. Releasing the ghosts within me to take the criminals into the shadows. To make more shadows in the corners of the city.

Like any hero, I even had a secret sanctuary. In the days, I visited Providence’s grave. Sometimes, I brought her flowers. I sat on the grassy plot for hours at a time, listening to the music inside me. I felt most comfortable there when it rained.

There had been a small funeral service for Providence after I returned from Antarctica. I signed off on the termination paperwork. Cause of death was listed as ‘disappearance while on a freelance dig’. Not connected to the university at all, so the department wasn’t liable. Everyone came out to the service. I was the only one who wept. Which is probably how someone put things together and started the rumours that brought Smyth back to me.

Yes, I had the secret sanctuary, the tragic past, the mask. All the trappings of a superhero. I wasn’t really fighting crime, though. I wasn’t really a superhero.

I was just looking for a way to free Providence.

I knew that the women I kept seeing as Providence weren’t her. I knew it was just a trick of the ghosts to anger me, to make me release them. I figured the only way they could know about Providence and me was because they had her in there with them, trapped in me, somehow.

And I thought, if I let enough of the ghosts out, maybe she could slip out, too. Maybe they’d free her, or maybe she could find a way to escape. Maybe we could be together, again.

So, I started looking for crimes where maybe none existed.

I drove down to the hooker stroll. I put on my mask and stood near a couple of sex workers on a corner. They looked at me, but I shook my head, so they went back to waving at the passing cars. Every now and then, one would slow, but it always sped up again when the driver saw me.

I only had to wait a few minutes before a man got out of another car parked down the street. He told me to stop harassing his women. I told him I was just keeping an eye out for criminals. He told me to move along before there was a real crime. I told him I was here for the real crime. He lifted his shirt to show me a gun tucked into his pants. I opened my mouth and screamed ghosts. Two of them came out. One took him into an alley; the other went after the women. I didn’t care. They were criminals, too, in their own way.

Neither of the ghosts was Providence.

I stopped at a random bar. I put my wallet on the counter and pulled money out of it to pay for drinks. It was stuffed with twenties. I’d gone to the bank, first. I made sure everyone could see my money. I got drunk and then I left. I heard men following me.

I staggered into an alley and fumbled my mask on. When I turned to face them, they had knives in their hands. They dropped them at the sight of my mask and ran. They didn’t even make it to the street before the ghosts pulled them deeper into the alley.

The ghosts weren’t Providence.

Sometimes, I didn’t even need crime to release the ghosts. I was stopped at a red light when I was rear-ended by a taxi driver. He got out of his car, saying something about the brakes. I got out of mine, screaming, and the ghosts took him and slithered down a manhole with him. The people in the backseat filmed the whole thing and sold the film to the media. Luckily, I still had my mask on from when I’d gone after some street-corner drug dealers. But things changed after that.

And the ghost wasn’t Providence.

The next morning, I woke up to a new headline: Superhero? Or Supervillain? A photo of me, with something unrecognizable emerging from my mouth. Something long and sinewy, and wet and serrated. My eyes were completely black. It was the first time I’d seen myself releasing a ghost.

I didn’t recognise the man in the photo.

 

***

 

The water seeps into the coffin, now. Streams of it coming in through the cracks. My whole body shakes as I struggle to contain the ghosts. I can hear more metal sounds, as you do whatever it is you’re doing with the pipes.

Releasing the chemicals that will turn the water to ice?

Releasing poison?

Releasing something you’ve come up with to make the ghosts sleep?

None of it will matter. The ghosts always wake in the end. The ghosts always escape.

 

***

 

You knew it was me when the city started to change, didn’t you?

When the buildings began to cast dark shadows that didn’t move, no matter the position of the sun.

When the buildings began to twist upon themselves in impossible shapes.

When the symbols started to appear on the sidewalks and on the walls.

When the voices began to chant in the night, from the alleys and the sewers and the abandoned buildings.

When people started to go missing in record numbers.

That’s when Smyth came to visit me in my office. I was sitting there, listening to the songs inside me, when he walked in without knocking, even though the door was locked. He looked at the glyphs I’d marked on the walls with a knife and my blood, and then he sat down in the chair where students had once sat.

Where Providence had once sat.

“You need to tell me what’s going on,” he said.

Ssshhllaat’in verden’tik,” I said.

“Tell me what happened in the Frozen City,” he said.

Ia ia ia ia,” I said.

He looked at my desk. At the photo of Providence, surrounded by a ring of teeth and bits of bone and fingernails and other things.

“You lied to us,” he said, “and you’re the only one who came back.”

I wanted to tell him I wasn’t sure I had come back. I wanted to tell him that, even if I had, I thought I wasn’t the only one. I wanted to tell him I thought maybe the others were inside me.

Fffhtg’pp,” I said instead, the voices welling up inside me.

“We’re going to have to do something about this,” he said.

Myllrhet’et,” I laughed.

After he left, I went down the hall to look at myself in the restroom mirror. My eyes were black, and my skin was writhing, flesh-colored worms. The head of the department came into the restroom, but stopped when he saw me.

“Ghost,” he said. “You’re the Ghost.”

So, I unleashed the ghosts on him.

After all, whether I was a superhero or a supervillain, I had to protect my secret identity.

And then I went out into the melting city, in search of Providence.

 

***

 

You know how this story ends.

I stalked the streets of the city. I turned day into night and night into nightmare. The mayor declared a state of emergency and people fled, but no one came to help. No one would come, while I was loose.

The government revealed the secret of the Frozen City and you exchanged your theories about what had happened.

I was a host for some horrible disease that I’d brought back from the Frozen City. Scientists said I should be called “Vector”, or maybe “Carrier”, not “Ghost”.

I was a superweapon, released from a lab of the Frozen City, or maybe even developed by our own government, using technology from the Frozen City.

I was an inhabitant of the Frozen City who had switched places with the real me. I’d escaped into the world to wreak havoc and set the stage for an invasion of the rest of my kind.

None of these things was true.

After Smyth’s visit, I knew what was true.

I was still me, the same me who’d gone to the Frozen City with Providence. But I was turning into something else. I was turning into a real ghost, the kind I carried around inside me.

I wondered about them. I wondered if maybe they, too, had once been people like me. I wondered if they’d been changed by the Frozen City.

I wondered if Providence was a ghost like the others, now.

And I wondered if I no longer carried her inside me at all, if I’d already released her into the world, but hadn’t realized it.

I kept visiting her empty grave every day. Maybe I was waiting for a sign. Maybe I was waiting for you to finally do something. Which you did when the grave plot opened beneath my feet and I fell into this waiting tomb, and then the ceiling slammed shut again.

But by then, it was too late, wasn’t it?

 

***

 

The water rises up around me in the coffin now, lapping at my face.

I wonder how many other Frozen Cities are out there, buried in the ice.

The ghosts inside me cry out. They want to escape their tomb. They want to escape me.

I wonder who will find me in the future. Who will break open my grave and release me?

Now, the water is at my mouth. The ghosts scream.

Providence, I am so sorry.

I open my mouth and the ghosts rush out of me in a flood that cannot be stopped.

The End

Bio: Peter Darbyshire is the author of the novels, The Warhol Gang and Please, which won Canada’s ReLit award for best alternative novel. He can be found online at peterdarbyshire.com, as well as the usual social haunts.

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