It was cold water. A shower that sent Emily back to the Ghostzone for the first time. Tired, standing under the shower head, she forgot what she had come to think of as a ‘sensitivity’ and just flipped it on as normal. Like a snap, the cold bore through her, giving her only a half second to register the hole through her chin and most of her chest before she was gone.
Flushed down the proverbial drain of reality. It was strange to experience death again with a full consciousness. A lot of falling, really. Emily had gotten used to floating most of where she went - not that she needed the extra couple inches it afforded - but death seemed to be agnostic of how much you could float.
It was boring, really. Just falling. Falling… falling… falling… no 2001-style flashing lights, no great revolution, no crossing of an incredible boundary between life and death. Just… fucking… falling… Ratty had said the other day that she didn’t remember her first time dying, and it was clear why. It was about as memorable as an amusement park queue-line show.
Emily blinked and trees came up around her, instantly too tall to see the tops of. Another blink and she could feel the gravity of the ground that formed below her. With a thud she hit the supernatural floor of this strange fucking forrest, its rootless trees rising like lamp-posts, shifting in colour as she turned her back on each one in turn as though repainting themselves each time her vision blurred between head movements.
“What the fuck…” She murmured.
And the forrest spoke back: “What the fuck?”
Great. Cool fucking forrest.
Not one to waste time, or maybe just not today, or maybe just not under these circumstances Emily picked a direction and started walking. She ignored the colour shifting trees, ignored the tempo witch which the leaves crunched under her feet, chose to focus on the small miracle that the afterlife had chosen to at least give her something to wear.
It looked like her work uniform. It was probably her work uniform. There was no reason why what she was forced to wear in purgatory would be anything but consistent. They probably didn’t get a lot of repeat guests.
Her claws looked stark white under the dead grass, the hard black of her shirt.
“Fuckin’ weird ass place…” She spoke, or thought, or something.
“Fuckin’ weird ass place…” The forest repeated, now mostly behind her.
“You get used to it.” Came a voice from above. Emily’s eyes shot up from the ground. Somewhere under the crunch of the leaves the soft earth below turned to the cracked tar of her old street. She found the lamp posts of the wilderness now making orderly rows down Harrison street: toothpicks sandwiched between a valley of blank beige mid-rises.
“Up here, Em.” The voice repeated. “Yo! Hello? Emily Sloth-Bunny Jr.”
His face suddenly snapping into sharp focus from a blur of memories.
“Nah Em, it’s the fucking tooth fairy.” He teased, presiding over the gap between buildings like a king addressing his court.
“You’re dead?” Emily asked.
“Yeah, I guess so.” He replied.
“S’whatever. Come let me get a look at you. Elevator’s still broken.”
“Well…” Sapphomet stood back from their work, setting down the ancient book of ghost-zone mechanics they had been referencing. It was a mess, but fuck. It was better than nothing. Emily’s mask had been metaphysically torn open like a manhole cover, a glowing rope dangling from a fixed point in space. Something to climb out with, at the very least. “That’s the best we can do for now.” They said.
Ratty stared at the hodgepodge, running over the future in her mind. “What if one of us went in there?” She asked. Sapphomet turned to stare at their wife, even more bewildered when her face gave away no hint of humor.
“Well, Ratty…” Sapphomet started, their tone mimicking that of a parent telling a child why one avoids combining forks and electrical sockets. “One of us would have to die.”
“Well okay cool then I’ll just die temporarily and then when im ready to come back you can put me back together.”
“Thats- no, actually. That’s a bad idea, Ratty.” Sapphomet said, completely lost as Ratty pushed past them out of the bathroom, out of the apartment, to the emergency staircase at the end of the hall. “Where are you going?”
“Find something that kills me.”
“Again.” Sapphomet snapped, their voice reverberating across the concrete walls of the mostly empty storage room. “That is not a good idea.”
“She’s gonna need someone to help her get back to that rope.” Ratty explained, rummaging through the closest crate to the door.
“What has gotten into you?” Sapphomet stared at the cold pallor that had taken over their wife’s face. It was odd, almost plastic with a thin sheen of sweat as she searched.
“Guns, right?” She came up, tipping the barrel of an assault shotgun under her chin. “I don’t think I’ve ever taken one of these to the head before.”
Sapphomet was interrupted by a bang. They caught the pieces of brain in mid air, each at the end of their own string, and sucked them back into their complete form.
“RATTY!” They snapped again.
“WHAT?” The now panicked possum snapped back.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING? THIS IS COMPLETELY UNPRODUCTIVE.”
Her eyes had glossed over, her mouth hanging open, she looked like a morticians first day. Desperate to die if only to get this look off her face.
“I’m- I'm trying to help.”
“You’re not helping. Emily is going to be fine.” Sapphomet soothed, approaching with their arms outstretched. They were used to doing this with creatures twice their size with half the brain for non-violence. It scared them that they were now suddenly having to use it to talk their wife down from a ‘helpful suicide’.
“What if she’s not?” Ratty went back to her search, tipping over boxes, cracking a few open. Sapphomet panicked as an unidentifiable silver urn rolled just a few inches from being stepped on. They scooped it up and placed it gently on its base.
“Ratty you’re going to break something.”
“Good idea.” Her head popped out of the box, clearly not having heard. “Where’s that Ellen rock?”
And for a moment, Sapphomet froze. Ratty froze as much as she could with the manic energy in her chest, and while the goat stared her down, the possum just indexed her memory.
“Oh, y’know what, I think it’s still in my bag actually.” Wait, for six years?
Ratty started back upstairs, time hitching in her favor as she did and putting her on the upper landing within moments. Sapphomet threw their head back and shouted for Angel at the top of their lungs. Angel put them through a portal to their living-room, and they had already missed Ratty.
“Ratty, stop.” They were pleading now, the idea of physical force elbowing its way into the front of their mind, holding this last volly of begging by the hair as it positioned a knife at its throat.
“Lets at least talk about this.”
“Nothing to talk about.”
“What is wrong with you?”
“I just want to help, Sap- I’m doing what I do best.”
“Hurting yourself is not what you do best, Ratty.”
“Here it is.”
It’s unclear whether Ratty actually touches it.
[Sapphomet grabs Ratty by the shoulder as she goes for the stone]
[Sapphomet grabs Ratty by the shoulder as she goes for the stone]
[Sapphomet grabs Ratty by the shoulder as she goes for the stone]
[Sapphomet grabs Ratty by the shoulder.]
[Ratty's father grabs her by the shoulder.]
[The first cop to ever arrest her grabs her by the shoulder.]
[The last cop to ever arrest her grabs her by the shoulder.]
That's my inroad? That's what it took? Man, you got a weird fucking brain, Vermington. I'm not even prepared for this. Let me make a note, actually. That way you won't catch me off guard next time.
Okay, so, what to show you…
Oh, I know.
Is it enough to say you slaughtered everyone in that bar? Or, canteen or whatever the fuck they called it. No… surely that's not graphic enough. We want to leave a lasting mark, don't we?
So, where to start… there's some music playing, Sinatra or some bullshit like that. You know, one of those sweet voiced sons-of-bitches from the 40s. I wonder if Sinatra knew he'd last til 2025.
The music stopped, or… will stop. No, that's stupid. The music stops, leaving the canteen in a state of hushed conversation. Around 30 of them, if memory serves. One gets up on stage: a goat, white fur, black horns. Isn't that fun, she kind of looks like your wife.
She speaks in a language they all think you can't understand: "Ladies and gentlemen, we need you all to move out, right now. We have just received word that there is a soldier from the United States here."
You don't react to this. Good little soldier.
Some people run. Others stand, their hands on their weapons. Don't worry, you'll deal with the runners later. Nobody got out of there alive that night.
They realize it's you when you continue not to react. In an instant, you're on your feet, the barrel of an assault rifle in your gloved hand. You push it out of your face in slow motion, aligning it with one of the guys behind you. The bullet tears through his skull as you press the hot barrel into the face of the guy in front of you. One down.
You kick the man holding the gun in the stomach, he pulls the trigger again, two down.
You rip the rifle out of his hands and spin it, popping the head right off of its owner. Three down.
I mean once you got the rifle it was really just a matter of lining up your shots, not wasting ammo, watching your back, etc. Hardly exciting if you ask me.
Maybe this will help:
You're covered in blood. Kneeling in a puddle of it. It dries in a sticky film on your fingers. Your first thought is how that's going to affect you tactically. We've really trained you well, haven't we?
Blood and guts, all over the place.
This is hard.
I promise I'll be more prepared next time.
Oh! Looks like I'm losing you. Shame. Let's have one more before you go, shall we?
You hear something: sniffling, maybe some stifled crying from under the stage. Oh, you know what? Thats funny.
"I've got the world on a string… sitting on a rainbow…"
That's really funny. Don't you think that's funny, Ratty?
You cross to the stage, your boots crackling as the tacky blood peels from the concrete with each step. You pull back the slide on your rifle: one round left, how lucky for you.
You kneel, see a crouching little goat trembling below the stage. This is a really wonderful coincidence for me, I hope you know that.
You grab her by the ankle, dragging her through the slick and grabbing a fistfull of hair. If anything can be said about your methods, they're at least clinical.
You put a boot on her chest.
You line up your shot.
Her bright golden eyes plead up into hers. They’re familiar, aren’t they?
The safety on your trigger clicks as your finger ever so slowly presses the hard metal through the flaking blood. It finds its home, releases the hammer, and
“STOP.” Ratty shouted, suddenly coming back to the present, the carpet floor, her hands: slick with sweat, shaking and sore from where she hit the ground. Sore from it all. Sore from the shotgun shell that tore through her skull just moments before. “DON’T TOUCH ME.”
It took a lot of effort to push the images those memories left behind out of her head. The effort of creation matched only by the effort of destruction, of keeping them burned, of keeping them in too much pain to move. To animate for those memories would have been tantamount to a corpse directing their own funeral.
And yet, all of that work was ruined by one moment of supernatural stress. By an accident, by the unknown carelessness of one poor, innocent goat.
Sapphomet stood back, staring down at the hand that had triggered Ratty, waves of guilt emanating from it like the waves of a rising tide. They froze. Cold water. Their mind ran through all the ways they could have acted differently, hours of possibilities in moments, each with their own wave of fucking guilt.
They flickered through their mind like TV channels as the rest of their mind screamed in equal measure: “What just happened?” “Help her!” “Not your fault.”
Ratty writhed, the flood-gates now open, pushing at the edges of the memory. Curious above all else as she always was, as would in 15 years get her first self killed. Her desperate attempt to reach purgatory now was now overshadowed completely by the knowledge of how close she had come to a return to Hell.
She tried, in spite of herself, to remember more. Equal parts torture and search for one good thing she had ever done. She wept into the carpet as her wife hovered, unsure of how a boring day shifted so quickly, unsure of how to help.
‘Don’t touch me’ was the hardest thing in the world when the brash, cocky, loudmouthed possum who took on Hell and won - the Indestructible Hanrattyline Vermington - stifled her sobs with the course fur of the carpet.
God, it had been a while since Emily had actually smoked. Mortal weed was fine, but most of it just went right through her. Apparently ghosts had their own weed, and it was fucking excellent.
“So like-” Emily started, now de-stressed enough to talk about life with her dead uncle. “How did you die?” She offered the joint. Alf stared down at it for a moment before pushing it back to Emily. Clearly she needed it more right now.
“Shot by a cop, obviously. How does anyone die in Oakland?” He joked. It was surreal to see someone beyond the grave make the same kind of jokes he made in fear of death.
“Fuckin asshole.” Emily murmured around another drag. “I got this friend: Ratty. She’s like, fully on that ACAB track, you know what I mean? Like shes got jackets and shit that say it on it. She fully kills cops like, regularly. Full on anarchist, idolizes the Panthers, etc.”
“Yeah, I mean to be honest I don’t know her that well yet but she’s like. Tough as hell.”
“You got a crush?”
“How does that work with transgenders, are yall like lesbians, or just-”
“Alright, fair enough. Fair enough.” Alf paused, changing his mind and gesturing for the joint. “How did you die?” He asked.
“Workplace accident.” Emily simplified for the sake of not saying ‘I think I was a sacrifice for some cult-y thing’.
“Your mom get comped?”
“Man, until you just said that I didn’t know I had a fuckin’ mom.”
“Oh so you got hit on the head or something then?”
“Yeah I got hit on the head man, look at me.” Emily gestured to the part of her face she knew to be a frozen facade of what was once there. Alf stared for a moment, then shrugged.
“I dunno. I don’t see it.” Alf shrugged. Emily turned to the window, the only reflective surface in the room, and stared at herself. “So you gonna stay?” Alf asked.
“I dunno actually. I am struggling to integrate upstairs. Especially cus like - have you been to Toronto?” Emily asked as her reflection searched her own blank eyes.
“It’s a weird fucking city Alf. Too big and too small all at once… and there’s not like - places there. Their places are like, a Pizza Pizza across from a department store. Not like, real places.”
“Maybe you’re not giving them a chance to be real cus you miss Cali.”
“I don’t even fucking remember Cali.”
“Sucks.” Alf started, staring at the ceiling as he took another drag. “Cali was sweet.”
Emily just stared at her reflection, let the music take over the admitably dull conversation as she stared through at the adjasent, equally beige building. It was all familiar and distant, and as the natural yellow-grey returned to her fur, she felt comfortable here. The only ache here was her memory, and the fact that she was not alive.
“Can you tell me who I was?” Emily turned, now looking at her uncle. Surely if someone knew her, it was him. Alf stared back, cold, empty of recognition, with what amounted to pity in his eyes as he took in the kid that grew up without him.
“Honestly, I don’t know. We weren't like that, yknow? You only told me important shit, we never really ‘chatted’” He said.
“Huh.” Emily sat in the empty silence, the choice now clear before her: never find out who she once was and stay here (if that was possible), or go back to the land of the living and maybe find some way to become a full person again. “That sucks.”
“Well- Okay actually hold on.” Alf stood suddenly, crossing to his closet with a sense of purpose. After a few short moments of searching he turned back around with two armfuls of cassette bags, roughly 300 across six bags. “This is what you and me had together. I dunno if you like- can leave? Or even if you plan on it, but if you go, you should take these with you.”
Emily unzipped one of the tacky zebra-print cases. It smelled like cheap plastic and dust, again: distant and familiar. She clicked the tip of her finger across the combination of professionally printed and handwritten labels, stopping at the first one that jumped out in her mind:
“Chris Wallace. 1991 demo.” Alf read. “I remember that.”
The two shared a quick moment, a thread not materializing, but just becoming apparent between the two. Alf’s smile faltered as his next thought came up, embarrassed at the show of emotion:
“I wasn’t a great uncle, but I remember what was important to you. Maybe- maybe this could help you remember that, too.”
Emily stood and hugged her uncle in one motion. Content in this a substanceless memory - all feelings - they stood in that embrace like she somehow got her family back in that instant, like there was no one actually gone, like, for a moment she had the privilege of knowing some part of herself through Alf.
And in an instant, a cruel moment, that feeling was gone. She caught her uncle’s eye as she felt herself dragged back to the living world, scared and alone all over again.
“Aw man, looks like they aren’t going to give you a choice.” Alf spoke, choking back tears in a way only his closest friends would have been able to recognize as even being there.
“Uncle A, are you sure about these?” Emily scooped up the bags in her arms even as they began to disappear.
“Yeah, I got backups and shit.” Alf grinned. “Oh shit, okay do me a favor actually. The cop who shot me: his name is-”
And she was gone.
Standing in the shower, water turned off, paper mask floating on a puddle where the floor dipped below level, the bags full of tape still securely cradled in her arms. This was a start, she thought. As she stepped out of the shower and set her bags down on the toilet, the yellow-grey of her fur seemed to take on a subtle tint of orange in the bathroom mirror: a more complex colour to match the new memories.
“Emily?” Sapphomet’s harsh whisper jumped Emily out of her revery. “Oh thank God you’re alright.” They fell into a hug not necessarily appropriate for the level of friendship between them at that point. They wrapped the little goat in their spectral arms all the same: it looked like they both had an emotionally draining day.
“Hey, uh- Sapphomet.” Emily muttered, unable to keep the discomfort from their voice. Sapphomet looked up, realized what they were doing, and stepped back.
“Sorry, yes. Busy day while you’ve been gone.” They said, now back to curt. “Ratty is asleep on the couch, just so you know.”
“In- in my apartment?” Emily asked, poking her head out of the bathroom. Sure enough, there was Ratty.
“It’s a long and really very stressful story. Could you please just try not to wake her?”
“Yeah, sure.” Emily slipped quietly into the living-room, setting her bags down on the coffee table and taking a seat across from Ratty. She watched for just a moment, wondered what nightmare had scrunched up her snout, and turned to Sapphomet.
They had seemingly already forgotten Emily, their eyes locked on their wife’s crumpled form as they nervously chewed at the tips of their claws.
Ratty woke up sore too, her head swimming with the memories of her life before death.
Emily lay on the adjacent couch, comfortable, glowing softly, completely at peace for the first time Ratty had seen. She was the future, the possum thought. Proof that some amount of what she put herself through was worth it.
“Ratty?” Sapphomet’s voice washed the ache from behind Ratty’s eyes. Fully alert, she turned to stare at her wife. They looked like they had been on the verge of tears for a while, and were about to let it go as soon as they could affirm Ratty was okay. She couldn’t move for a moment, frozen in the goat’s gaze: bright, golden yellow and full of fear.
“Hey Sap.” Ratty said, her voice raw and quiet.
“I'm sorry.” Sapphomet said, now letting tears spill down their cheeks.
“No, not your fault.” Ratty stood, starting towards her wife.
She stopped a few feet shy, taken over once again by the force that held her on the couch a moment ago. Sapphomet knew, or maybe they didn’t, but the fear of losing a loved one, of seeing them in pain, looks a lot like the fear of death.
Sapphomet was scared. Not scared of their wife, but of losing them, and if they talked about it, Ratty would have been able to figure that out…
“Are we going to-” Sapphomet hiccuped. “Are we going to talk about this?”
And that question scared Ratty. So far beyond the memory, in her mind, what was to be talked about was not what she actually saw. A singular question occupied her mind: was Sapphomet scared of her.
Of course, it was a question without an answer. If they were, they would say no. People lie to the people they’re afraid of on instinct. If they weren’t, they would say no, and Ratty would have to live with the fact that someone was either afraid for her, or too afraid to tell her the truth.
There was nothing to talk about. The possum stammered through a few “I-”s before Sapphomet took over again.
“It’s okay.” Sapphomet’s breath caught in their throat. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know-”
“No, it’s not your fault.” Ratty took another step forward, her eyes working overtime for any uptick in Sapphomet’s outward show of fear. They continued to shake, their eyes still overflowing, but they seemed tentatively drawn into their wife’s arms. In a moment of rushed judgement, Ratty wrapped her arms around Sapphomet. Sapphomet wrapped her arms around Ratty, and felt ever so slightly better.
Ratty, meanwhile, felt her skin crawl. She was unworthy, it was the grace of God that Sapphomet could not read her mind in this moment.