Ready to Die - 2010
“Hey, Eleanor? Right?” Her neighbours were overly friendly to say the least. A small, dark-haired kirin and his boyfriend, both of whom looked like they had known exactly what the word ‘homeless’ meant since their early teens.
Eleanor nodded back silently, popping one headphone out to listen, finding - as was often the case - her voice, stuck in her throat.
“We uh- there’s an anarchist book-club tonight, we were wondering if-”
Eleanor shook her head, again silently. “S-s-sorry.” She stammered.
“Oh, no worries. Maybe-” The kirin was cut off as Eleanor slipped into her apartment and shut the door. She took a deep breath, once again disappointed when her lungs stayed tight and shrivelled. The worst part about not being able to breathe, at least right now, was not the obvious terror of suffocation. It was not being allowed the catharsis of a long sigh.
Her mask hung low in the collar of her loose-fitting sweater as she went about her chores. Sett had suggested giving herself a reason to get out of bed in the morning, this was as good as any.
She set spinning a copy of The Notorious B.I.G.’s ‘Ready to Die’ on her record player; a gift from Ratty that likely would have been weird if she hadn’t prefaced it with “This is the only Biggie album I have on vinyl.”
And I mean, it was a good album. No complaints.
Her plants were next. Sitting under a constantly buzzing bulb was a counter top filthy with flora. In the cold, Canadian winter, the only thing keeping them green was the heat from this bulb and a few spritzes of water each day. Eleanor didn’t mind. She slept in the living room on a pull-out couch, and the constant glow was comforting; an anchor to pull herself back to when her nightmares got too intense.
She took a step back when she was done. It was hardly fair to call that ‘chores’, but it was reason enough to go around the corner for plant food.
Maybe a shower would make her feel better. She dragged one of the speakers through into her bathroom, having specifically set it up with a ridiculously long cord for just that reason. She pulled off her sweater and stared into the mirror, the paper face of Ellen DeGeneres caught in one of the cups of her bra.
She took it off, set it down on the bathroom counter, and stepped into the shower.
It was cold water that sent Eleanor 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 completely gone.
It was strange to experience death again with a full consciousness. A lot of falling, really. Eleanor 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 show.
And then she blinked, and in that instant trees came up around her, already 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 Eleanor picked a direction and started walking. She ignored the colour shifting trees, ignored the tempo with 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. Eleanor’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, El.” The voice repeated. “Yo! Hello? Eleanor Sloth-Bunny Jr.”
His face suddenly snapping into sharp focus from a blur of memories.
“Nah El, it’s the fucking tooth fairy.” He teased, presiding over the gap between buildings like a king addressing his court.
“You’re dead?” Eleanor asked.
“Yeah, I guess so.” He replied.
“S’whatever. Come let me get a look at you. Elevator’s still broken.”
“Well…” Sett stood back from their work, folding shut the ancient tome of ghostzone mechanics on Eleanor’s bathroom counter. It was a mess, but it was better than nothing. The paper mask had been metaphysically torn open like a manhole cover. Sett had tied a rope to a fixed point in space above it and fed it down through the drain. Nothing particularly complicated, but something to climb out with at the very least. “That’s the best we can do for now.” They said.
Ratty stared at the shimmering tangle required to keep the rope suspended, another possibility forming at the back of her mind.
“What if one of us went in there?” She asked. Sett blinked once as they processed this, turned to stare at their wife, and blinked again - even more bewildered - when her face gave away no hint of irony.
“Well, Ratty…” They started, their tone not dissimilar to that of a lecture on the dangers of forks and electrical sockets. “One of us would have to die.”
“Well, okay, cool then. I’ll just die temporarily and then when i'm ready to come back you can put me back together.”
“That's- no, actually. That’s not a good idea, Ratty.” Sett stammered, now completely lost as Ratty pushed past them, out of the bathroom, out of the apartment. “Where are you going?” They asked, struggling to keep up with her as she skipped every few feet.
“Storage.” She turned around for a half-second to reply, not slowing down.
“Find something that kills me.” She seemed almost excited at the possibility.
“Again.” Sett snapped, their voice now reverberating across the concrete walls of the stairwell. “That is not a good idea.”
“She’s gonna need someone to help her get back to that rope.” Ratty explained, already rummaging through the plastic crate closest to the door.
“What has gotten into you?” Sett stared at the cold pallor that had taken over their wife’s face: an almost plastic-looking sheen of sweat dulling her fur as she searched. Her eyes had glossed over, her mouth hanging open, she looked like a mortician’s first day on the job.
“I’m- I'm trying to help.”
“You’re not helping. Eleanor is going to be fine.” Sett reached out, their hand entirely ignored by the frenzied possum.
“What if she’s not?” Ratty went back to her search, tipping over boxes and cracking arcane safes that had been sealed for years. Sett watched as an unidentifiable silver urn rolled from one, just a few inches from being stepped on. They scooped it up and placed it gently on its base, still struggling to keep pace with Ratty.
“You’re going to break something!” Their voice shook, straining under a now tipping-tower of arcane encyclopedia and the weight of their growing anxiety in equal measure.
“Good idea.” Ratty’s head popped out of the box, foam packing peanuts freezing in mid-air around her head. She had clearly progressed beyond being able to listen. “Where’s the stone?”
And for a moment, Sett froze. As slowly as they could, they let a subspace needle slip from inside the wrist of their sweater. Ratty was seemingly too far gone to notice, staring into space and indexing her memory. “Oh, y’know what, I think it’s still in my bag actually.”
She was too fast. In the instant Sett realized the possum had moved, she was already half way back upstairs, time hitching in her favour.
“Ratty, stop.” They were pleading now, the idea of physical force elbowing its way out of the front of their mind, holding this last volley of begging by the hair as it positioned a knife at its throat. “Let's at least talk about this.”
“Nothing to talk about.”
“What is wrong with you?”
“I just want to help, Sett.”
“There’s nothing you can do right now!”
It’s unclear whether Ratty actually touches it. There is a moment in which Sett’s hand - with nothing but perfect intentions - clamps down painfully around Ratty’s shoul████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████
[Ratty spits drywall out of her mouth as her father drags her out of her bedroom wall.]
[Ratty yelps as her head slams into the upper-edge of the door to a police cruiser.]
[Ratty’s heart stops as Handler Smith sets a hand on her shoulder.]
There is a long stretch of unconscious black, void in all dimensions except time. A man sits down at a console. This man is Handler Smith. He doesn’t waste time on his excitement, he knows not how much he will get.
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. The music stops, leaving the canteen in a state of hushed conversation. Around 13 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.
Hm. 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? That's 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 fistful 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 hit the present moment like an 80-mile-an-hour wreck. The carpet, her hands: slick with something warm and wet that she was far too disoriented to identify as sweat. Shaking and sore from where she hit the ground, she begged, suddenly feeling very broken: “Don’t touch me.”
It took a lot of effort to push the images of those memories left behind out of her head, keeping the events of her before-life 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 it took to break down the walls she had constructed with bleeding nail-beds stubs was one moment of supernatural stress.
Sett stood back, staring down at the hand that had triggered Ratty’s attack, waves of guilt emanating from the palm in a deep, unyielding ache. They froze in the chilling surf, their mind running through all the ways they could have acted differently, hours of possibilities flashing behind their eyes in moments, each with their own wave.
‘Don’t touch me’ was the hardest thing in the world when the brash, cocky, loudmouthed possum who took on Hell and won stifled her sobs with the coarse fur of the carpet. The flood-gates were now open. Curious as she was, she pushed at the edges of the memory, begging the pain for salvation.
It had been too long since Eleanor had actually, properly smoked. Mortal weed was passable, but - considering how hard it was to inhale - it took a lot of effort, and a lot of waste to actually get her high. The ghostzone had it’s own weed, and it was fucking excellent. Eleanor silently thanked the brave marijuana plants that had to die so she could have this meal.
“So like-” She 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, shook his head, and pushed it back to Eleanor. You don’t stop taking the medicine when it starts working.
“Shot by a cop, obviously. How does anyone die in Oakland?” He joked. It was surreal, almost, to hear those words said from beyond the grave, when Alf had been making those same jokes since well before he had to think about death. Alf had always thought about death.
“Fuckin asshole.” Eleanor murmured around another drag. Alf paused, staring at the plume of smoke, changing his mind and gesturing for the joint.
“How did you die?” He asked.
“Workplace accident.” Eleanor simplified for the sake of not saying ‘I joined a Hollywood cult by complete accident and became blood for the blood god.’
“Did your mom get comp or anything?”
“I dunno, I didn’t know I had a mom ‘til you said that.”
“You brain damaged?” Memory loss wasn’t a normal part of dying, in spite of a pair of cases that seemed to prove the opposite.
“Yeah I got hit on the head man, look at me.” Eleanor 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 don’t see anything.” He said. Eleanor turned to the window, the only reflective surface in the room, and stared at herself. She could see an almost rubber seam between the part of her skull that had been caved in and the rest of it. A few experimental faces reaffirmed what she knew: a half-second lag between the left and right sides of her face.
“So you gonna stay?” Alf asked, snapping Eleanor out of her examination. It took a slight delay to process the question, and a few seconds more to come up with an answer. She settled with:
“I don’t know. I’m kinda struggling to integrate upstairs.” She went back to her reflection, searching her own hollow eyes. “Have you been to Toronto?”
“It’s a weird city. There’s not like - ‘places’ there. Does that make any sense? Their places are like... a Pizza Pizza across from a department store. Not real places.”
“What’s a Pizza Pizza?”
“It’s like Domino's but in Canada.”
“Weird.” Alf went to take another drag, then, thinking better of it, set the joint down in his ashtray. It went out almost immediately. “Maybe you’re not giving them a chance to be real cus you miss Cali.”
“I don’t even fucking remember Cali.”
“Sucks.” Alf stared at the ceiling fan, watching the smoke rise up through the vents. “Cali was sweet.”
Eleanor took a deep breath, relieved of the constant suffocation of the mortal realm by the fact that this was technically where she belonged. The music took over their dull conversation as she stared through at the adjacent, equally beige building. It was familiar and distant at once. 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?” Eleanor turned, now looking at her uncle. Surely if someone knew her, it was him. Alf stared back, empty of recognition, with the kind of pity in his eyes that only comes from people who hate pity. Eleanor had grown up without him.
“Honestly, I don’t know. We weren't like that. You only told me important shit, and like, I died when you were in the tenth grade.” He said. “You’re clearly not that person anymore.”
“Huh.” Eleanor sat in the empty silence, staring at the grey carpet. Though not surprising, it was still disappointing. Her choice was clear: 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.”
“Actually…” Alf stood, drawing Eleanor’s gaze up from the floor. “hold on.” He crossed to his closet and, after a few short moments of searching, turned back around with two armfuls of cassette bags, roughly 300 across six bags. “This is what you and me had together.When you go, you should take these with you.”
When you go…
That was what Alf thought was best. He was probably right.
She unzipped one of the tacky zebra-print cases, releasing a plume of plastic scented 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.”
Eleanor stood and hugged her uncle in one motion. Content in this a substanceless memory, they stood in that embrace like both had somehow found their family again, like there was no one actually gone. For a moment she had the privilege of knowing some part of herself through Alf.
And in 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 a rising feeling in a way only his closest friends would have been able to recognize as even being there.
“Uncle A, are you sure about these?” Eleanor scooped up the bags in her arms even as they began to disappear.
“Yeah dude, I have an Ipod now.” Alf grinned, his eyes glassy. “Do me a favour 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.
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.
“Eleanor?” Sett’s harsh whisper jumped Eleanor out of her revery. “Oh thank God you’re alright.” They fell into a hug that was a little too tight for their level of friendship at that point. She wrapped the little goat in her spectral arms all the same: she could tell they both had an emotionally draining day.
“Hey, uh- Sett.” Eleanor muttered, unable to keep the discomfort from their voice. Sett looked up, realized what they were doing, and stepped back.
“Sorry, yes.” They said, now back to curt. “Ratty is asleep on the couch, just so you know.”
“In- in my apartment?” Eleanor 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.” She was cool enough to let sleep on a couch. Eleanor slipped quietly into the living room and sat on the edge of her pull-out couch, across from Ratty, curled up in a loveseat. She watched for just a moment, wondered what nightmare had scrunched up her snout, and turned to Sett.
They had seemingly already forgotten Eleanor, 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 a blurry swirl of water-ruined ink-prints of her life before death.
Eleanor 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?” Sett’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 Sett.” Ratty said, her voice raw and quiet.
“I'm sorry.” Sett 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. Sett 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.
They were 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-” Sett hiccuped. “Are we going to talk about this?”
The 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 Sett 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 Sett took over again.
“It’s okay.” Sett’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 Sett’s outward show of fear. They continued to shake, damp tear tracks darkening the fur of their cheeks, but they seemed tentatively drawn into their wife’s arms.
In a moment of rushed judgment, Ratty wrapped her arms around Sett. Sett wrapped her arms around Ratty, and felt ever so slightly better. Ratty felt her skin crawl. She was unworthy.