Authors: Nate Gubin
Tags: #Fiction & Literature
Hugh looked up at her with watering eyes.
"I shouldn't be telling you this. Hope is a horrible tyranny in this place."
"What is it?”
"A way." She nodded. "Nobody has ever made it. Many have tried, all have failed. All have failed and suffer worse than we suffer now."
"Tell me, please tell me." Hugh was almost standing.
Ana turned and stared out across the barren dusty dunes, toward the Kingdom's gate. "In the ancient past it was well known, but the council banned its publication. It gave hope to the hopeless, they said. Better to accept your lot in death and carry on. Holding out for a slim chance of a miracle, a whisper of hope? The council thought the idea of it was cruel and unusual, even for down here."
"What is it?"
Ana rubbed her forehead. Too late now, she had to tell him. "In a word, love. But that is just a word. The language doesn't work to describe what it means. Libraries full of books have tried. Not love the word, love the thing, the ... the force more powerful than death."
"I don't understand." He strained his face into a pinch, desperately trying to figure it out.
"Real love, true love, pure love between a dead person and a living person is a force greater than both our worlds combined. Somehow, it is said, love will conquer all."
Hugh jumped up. "We still love each other, I know we do."
Ana nodded. "If that's true then nothing has the power to stop you."
"So I'll go back ... back to life?"
She realized the horrible mistake she'd made. Leaning on her heels, she tried to take it back. "It's never been proven. The risk is so great." She softened. "I'm sure you loved each other, but take a moment to think. Were you really that special? Was your love any greater than the rest? It's okay to admit your love was ordinary, there's nothing wrong in that. Ordinary love is love just the same. Let her go. Please, please, please, for her sake and yours, don't go. It's hard to fathom, but there's an existence far worse than death."
Hugh looked coldly in her eyes. "No, there isn't, not when you're truly in love." He turned and pushed his way back out of the garden.
Ana slumped next to her flowers and traced a petal with her finger. "What have I done? It would be better if we could never hope in this place."
A Desperate Deal
Hugh waited outside the Ministry of Life Accountancy, psyching himself up for a confrontation with Ms. Swindon. He needed her approval to audition and was prepared to do absolutely anything to get it. With a deep gesture that made it seem like his lungs were inflating, he walked into the office and toward Ms. Swindon's podium.
"Excuse me ... Excuse me."
Ms. Swindon was deeply engrossed in the racking sobs of one of her underlings. She watched through one of many mirrors as the poor man retched and dragged his face back and forth on his desk like a mop.
"Excuse me, Ms. Swindon."
"What?" With an angry swat she pushed the mirror out of the way and focused her mean gaze on Hugh.
"Beg your pardon, it's just that ... I was hoping it would be okay ... Actually it's really important that, you see, this very important thing came up ..."
"Spit it out already," she hissed, allowing a few globs of anise-flavored gooey cheese to project from her mouth.
"I need your authorization to audition for the role of ghost this Hallo—"
"You, a ghost?" She shook her head dismissively. "Preposterous! If such a thing as laughter existed down here I would be laughing. Ha, ha, ha. The role of clown is what you should be auditioning for. Clown or Kingdom idiot."
He shuffled his feet and tried again. "It would mean a lot to me, everything, actually, if you allowed me to audition. I can make up the work.”
"Never. You're not going. Now off to your desk."
"Please, Ms. Swindon, it's the most important thing in the world to me."
She sneered at him. "You're not going. Now sit."
Hugh stayed firmly planted at her footstep.
"Please, Ms. Swindon, I absolutely have to go."
She couldn't believe what she was seeing. "Did you not understand me the first time I said no? No! Absolutely ..." She saw Hugh's lower lip quivering and stopped herself. Her eyes expanded. This really meant something to him. Where there's desire there's opportunity for exploitation, she thought.
"Tell me why, why do you want to go back to the Land of the Living as a ghost?"
Hugh was never very good at improvising and he always sucked at lying. He couldn't blow this, so he told her the truth. "Right before I crossed over into the Kingdom, I was engaged to a girl, a girl I deeply loved."
Ms. Swindon's eyes went wider.
Hugh looked down at the exploded foam ejecting from her sandals and realized this was the wrong tack to take with her.
"A girl you loved. Really? You know what they say about love? Love is a blind man riding backwards on a horse and not even the horse knows where it's ... going,” she stumbled, "trying to get back to the stable ... and there's a river that they have to cross but the ferry is captained by a ... snake. A deadly snake. Poisonous."
"Yes, Ms. Swindon," he said sheepishly.
The wheels in her head turned and slowly she nodded. "Tell you what, Hugh. I'll make you a deal. You can go ..."
"Sure, you can audition, and I hope they pick you and you get to pass over and see your lost love. But when you return you have to take my daughter ..." She cleared her throat. "Daughter's hand, in marriage."
They both looked over at Missy, who was inflating her seat doughnut. She stopped blowing into it and smiled at Hugh.
He swallowed hard. "Sure thing."
"Well then, it's settled." She rubbed her hands together and flakes of something gently rained down. "You two will be married and live with me." She hushed to a whisper. "You should see my flat, two stories underground, not a hint of a window and only one door in and out. Not so much of a door, really more of a heavy chamber stone, and I have the only key."
She sat up, excited. "Just the three of us down there. Long, cold, quiet nights without end. Run along, Hugh, good luck at the audition."
Hugh began to leave but she called him back. "Just one more thing. If you make the cut and cross over to look for your lost love, remember what they say, be careful what you look for."
"Wish for," Hugh corrected her. "Be careful what you wish for."
She dismissed him with a wave of her hand. "Oh, is that what some people are saying now?"
Once Again with Feeling
A long line of would-be ghosts stretched out of and around the imposing fortress that housed the Kingdom's seat of government.
Patrick attended to a nervous Hugh, who fidgeted with a crumple of papers. He had gone through more than forty drafts of his audition piece and would have scratched through forty more if time would have allowed.
"Maybe I should run through it again, just one more time, without the notes."
Cross-armed, Patrick held his elbow in one hand, a smoldering cigarette in the other. "If you rehearse it to death you're going to kill the... you know, what's the word I'm looking for?"
Hugh grumbled, "I dunno, pacing?”
Patrick startled Hugh with a snap. "Spontaneity! See how I did that, kind of brought the energy level down like I couldn't remember the point I wanted to make and then ... pow! You should put something like that in your audition."
"It's a little late to change things now."
Farther down the line, a poised Japanese gentleman with a neatly trimmed beard pushed back his hood and scrubbed his hair into a crazy mess. With a quick smear of black under both eyes, he shocked his face into a mask of hollow fright
and began to wail through trumpeted lips. His eyes quavered with terror, like he was witnessing a mass murder.
A black ghost next to Patrick applied face paint to hollow his head into a skull. He grumbled, "Those Japanese guys always bring that Kabuki stuff to the audition. Ministers love it because it's arty and different but man, just once I'd like to see a guy like that do something different, you know, like karate or something."
Hugh watched the Japanese ghost and worried. "That guy’s good. I don't think I'm that good. I should go through this one more time ... without the notes."
Patrick shook his head. "Try and relax, there's nothing you can do now, just leave it to fate. You go or you don't.”
"I have to go," Hugh snapped. "I have to."
"It's one night, what's the big deal?"
Hugh hushed and moved in close, serious. "It's more than that. If I can find Lily and get her to forgive me and love me again," he moved in to whisper, "I'll go back to life."
"Back to life?" Patrick barked. Everyone within earshot turned toward them and gasped. Hugh shushed him and pulled him close. "Love is more powerful than death."
"Who told you that?"
"Ana, the lady that draws the flower garden."
Patrick huffed, "That sounds like something an old lady would say."
The line lurched forward. The fierce little man who posted the notice stood guard at the doorway. He stepped up on a wooden crate and kicked it with his heels like a drum.
"Listen up, chicas. The council is very busy, very very busy, and very important. Don't even think of taking more than three minutes—" He stopped himself. "What's that? You thought it was five minutes? It's always been five minutes, you say. We cut it from five to three, deal with it. And none of this, hi how you doing, ass-kissing stuff. Hit your mark, deliver your material and then stand there quietly to be approved, or more likely denied. Then walk off, no chit-chat, no arguing, maybe just a little thank-you, and then hustle your buns off."
As Hugh shuffled past, the fierce little man looked down at him with a sneer. "You. We really need to come up with a way to discourage the amateurs from showing up. Time wasters ruin it for the rest of us."
They entered the chamber and plastered themselves to a wall leading up to a small stage. A small pin light illuminated a spot where the ghosts would perform. Lurking in the dark at the back of the stage, a council of twelve ministers sat in a semicircle with long tables in front of them. A special spot at the center was reserved for Senior Minister Crain.
Rusty, a junior minister, looked out of place in his cowboy hat and tin cloth duster. He pulled on the ends of his mustache and tried to sit still. Being calm was hard for him; he was more inclined to whoop and holler, maybe shoot off a couple of pistol rounds into the air. But he had his sights set on the senior minister's job, so he was playing along as best he could. He bided his time with arms folded, thinking about how he'd change things if he ever got into the top spot. Out with the Parisian stuff and in with more of a high desert cowboy flavor. Maybe a little Navajo critter flute playing in the background to give the Kingdom that smoky, spiritual vibe.
Crain entered and the room fell into a sour hush. Tall and dismissive, he made eye contact with no one and sat with his hands folded. The black turtleneck under his serious black blazer held his protruding head. A bulbous Adam’s apple mounded the fabric of the turtleneck and when the light hit it just right, it reminded one of a priest's collar. He wore black jazz dance shoes with angel-hair laces. A close look at the soles revealed the holes where tap dancing cleats had once been secured with tiny nails. Up top, Crain had dreamed of being a dancer, but he dreamed too long, until one day he woke up and realized he was a fifty-four-year-old elevator inspector with no family, no home and no money saved. Alone in a one-bedroom apartment, he took his life by standing on a table, tying his neck to a ceiling fan and taking one last grand jeté out of life and into the Kingdom.
The note he left behind was brief.
There is no cost to a dream, unless you dream your life away.
People who had committed suicide found it easier to rise up through the ranks of the Kingdom's ruling class. Their rejection of life while still living made them honorable by the dead's standards.
A dim table lamp illuminated Crain's craggy face from below. He nodded to the fierce little man and groaned under his breath, "Get on with it."
A middle-aged woman with strawlike hair took the stage. "I'd like to haunt my ex-husband, who divorced me while I was dying of menopause."
Crain tilted his head. "I didn't realize you could die from that."
Her fists raged as she barked through clenched teeth, "You can if you get so upset you stop breathing!"
The ministers inched their seats back a few inches and Crain motioned for her to begin.
Swaying back and forth, she began to moan, "Richard, Richard ... it's me, Richard. Remember me, Richard? You said you would never leave me, Richard. You're the reason I died, Richard, you're the reason I'm trapped in this horrible state. Why wouldn't you listen to me? You were a bad husband, Richard. All you did was watch TV and you never picked up after yourself. My sister's husband made more money than you and he had a full head of hair. Apologize, Richard, say you’re sorry, say you were the wrong one. Say you're the bad one. Say I was the good one. You were never nice to my mother. Richard? Richard?" She trailed off, her chin sunk low into her chest. She stopped swaying. A long, tense silence locked the room and then suddenly she trumpeted a bloodcurdling shriek: "Richard!"