Authors: Nate Gubin
Tags: #Fiction & Literature
She took a slight bow and stepped back.
Crain looked side to side at the other council members. No words were exchanged, only furtive glances. He leaned slightly forward into the light. "Good, not great. We would rather have one great spirit than a thousand good ones. Denied."
She hissed at him and shuffled offstage.
Crain raised his voice for the room to hear. "And let me inform the rest of you, this year we're shifting our focus to the midlife demographic. The young are proving too hard to scare. I blame violent video games and computer-generated special effects for that. The old are already scared, they can hear us calling to them in every ache and pain in their failing bodies. No, it's that sweet spot, that thirty-to-fifty-something breather we're focusing on. All smug, their lives churning along, busy with their careers and their young families." He pitched his voice to mock them. "No need to worry about dying, look at me, la-de-da, texting away on my smartphone while I drive my hybrid SUV past the graveyard." He swallowed bitterly. "We need some spirits to go up there and scare them into respecting us." He pounded his fist into the table. "Next."
One after another the ghosts took their shot. Screaming and wailing, shaking and swaying. Most were sent off, their application stamped
. Crain had an endless supply of critical quips in his quiver.
"We wanted a ten, you gave us a four."
"You were focused on the
and not the
"You have a face that is incapable of expressing human emotion."
A lucky few were approved, given a slip of paper stamped
by Crain's left-hand man Jerry. He would make a point of just tapping the approval slips with the ink stamp. For rejections he would raise his hand high and slam it down, the red ink splattering. Jerry had worked his way into Crain's confidence by coming up with new ways to make the little people of the Kingdom feel even worse about themselves. After a while he decided the loud stamping of the rejects wasn't enough, and he insisted on also stamping
on the ghost's wrist and/or forehead. When that was no longer enough to entertain Crain and himself, he started playing a little trick on the ghosts. He would accidentally stamp their application
and with a coy wink, whisper, "Oops, looks like I made a mistake, oh well." He'd hand over the approval but before they could grab it he'd snatch it back and violently stamp it with a rejection. "Sorry, pal."
A surfer dude named Fernback was just ahead of Hugh and it was his turn next. He wore cheap flip-flops, shower shoes really, with white tube socks. The tension of the sock fabric pinched by the toe thong made Hugh uncomfortable. They both watched a frightening woman with serpent eyes get her form stamped with a rejection. Fernback turned back to Hugh. "Whoa, they're being brutal this year. I thought with her howling and her eyes rolling back in her head she would have made it. I mean, last year that would have gotten her in for sure."
Hugh bit his lower lip, then unfolded and refolded his notes as Fernback centered himself under the pin light on stage.
Crain was having an aside with Jerry so Fernback waited to start. Crain noticed his delay and leaned forward. "Are you waiting for an invitation to start?"
"Oh, I'm sorry, I thought—"
"Get on with it," Crain barked, and then he went back to having an aside with Jerry.
Fernback raised his hands like claws and growled. As he did, shiny black ink drooled from his mouth and he started to stamp his feet, waddling from side to side.
Crain stopped him. "Really? This is what you prepared for us?"
Across the room the fierce little man threw his arms up and complained to the ceiling. "Amateurs, they exist only to waste the precious time of the important people."
Crain scolded Fernback, who shrank from the spotlight, wiping the ink from his chin. "That's not even camp zombie, it's just emotionless, meaningless bluster. There's no passion, no story. Here's a tip. If you don't have talent, which you don't, you better bring a whole lot of something else, and that something else I call dedication to the craft. Is everyone in the room hearing me? Are you getting this?"
The dark faces along the wall grumbled. Fernback shrank even more, staring at the toes of his dirty white socks.
"Tell me something, what's your reason for going up there? Why do you want to cross over for a night of haunting?"
Fernback rocked back and forth, thinking. "Well, to tell you the truth ... I'm pissed off."
"That's a start," Crain nodded. "What are you pissed off about?"
"I'm pissed off at the people who lied to me. I'm angry at the people who forgot about me after I died. Most of all I'm super pissed at the dicks who totally got my organs transplanted into them and never thanked me. Totally dissed me on the remembrance part of the deal."
"Good." Crain began to glow.
"They should thank me. Every waking moment of every day they should be like, dude, thanks so much for the kidneys. But all they do is sit around and waste their lives, trash my good organs with their worthless mouth breathing. Come to think of it, I'm totally pissed, I'm damn pissed. I wanna go up there and scare the crap out of 'em."
Crain's eyes lit up and he nodded. "Yes, yes. Feel that acid anger growling up your throat. That steel bell of hate clanging away in your head. Now, once again, from the top!"
Fernback stepped back into the light. Head bowed, a shudder grew deep inside of him and swelled with rage. His entire body shook and he looked up with hateful eyes and blasted a horrible scream.
His hideous caw echoed out across the Kingdom. Ambling citizens froze in their tracks and clutched their chests. Somehow they became even more miserable.
The scream echoed out across the tops of dunes to black iron stables in the cliffs above the town. A herd of horrible creatures agitated behind the metal bars of banged-up cages. Shadows of horselike monsters unsettled at the sound of Fernback's cry. Steam spouted from nostrils, lips quivered around translucent fangs.
Back in council chambers, the room had been rocked as still as a stone. Crain slowly clapped in the silence. "Yes, yes."
Jerry wrenched his chest with stiff fingers. "My god, I feel like my soul was just crushed flat with like a million-thousand-ton slab of cement or something."
Crain took the approval stamp and slammed it down on Fernback's application. "Approved! Next!"
Hugh tried to summon some courage but couldn't. "I have to follow that?"
Patrick gave him a nod. "I'm sure you'll do fine."
Hugh slowly made his way up on stage. The chamber closed in on him and he shivered, alone and scared in the darkness.
Crain watched, arms folded in impatience. He leaned toward Jerry and said, "You can just tell by looking at him. It's so obvious. Maybe next year we could cull the herd outside with a quick walk by, just pick the few that hold themselves, you know, like professionals."
Jerry nodded. "Absolutely. We could send the good ones inside and then make the rest wait outside for a while, like three hours. Then I could go out there and say something like, ‘Those of you who still think you have a chance of being a ghost, please raise your hand.’ And before they got their hands raised, I'd yell, ‘Not so fast, losers, now beat it, scram and don't come back next year.’"
Hugh squinted into the darkness, trying to see the council. "I ... I should just start, then."
Crain gruffed, "Or you can just stand there until your time is up. You have two minutes left."
"Oh, jeez." Hugh hustled into his routine. His voice rose and fell as he belted out his best attempt at an eerie siren song, "I will cross over and haunt the house where I was born. I will wait until the children are sleeping and then I will pace the attic floors above their bedroom. And when they light a candle I will blow it out, and when they turn off the garage light I'll wait and turn it back on so then they'll be like, I thought you turned off the garage light. I thought I did. Creepy, creepy ..."
A council minister coughed in the dark, "Hack... hack... what-a-hack... excuse me... hack."
Crain had his shoes up on the table in front of him. He retied the laces, taking special care to pull them into uniform loops.
Hugh sensed he was losing them and pushed his voice to its operatic limits. "I'll make creaking noises on the staircase and when they leave the room I'll wait a bit and turn the light back on."
Jerry shook his head. "He already used that one. This is unbelievable."
The council minister with the cough had it louder now, "Hack... hack... hack…”
With his voice deep and low, Hugh did his best to finish big. "And while they're in the shower I'll sneak into the bathroom and write the word
on the steamed-up mirror. Evil!"
The room stagnated in silence. It was so quiet, Rusty the cowboy swore he could hear a cricket pissing on cotton.
Without looking up from his shoelaces, Crain yelled out, "Next!"
Hugh didn't move. He was confused. "Do I get to go?"
Jerry barked a laugh. "Oh, puh-leeze. I wish I had a big old red ink stamp that read
. That's French for clueless."
Hugh shriveled up, shoulders slumped, deflated.
Jerry saw an opportunity and took it. "Oh dear, don't be upset. Let me see what I can do. Tell you what, I won't just stamp your application with rejected ..."
"Really?" Hugh perked up.
"Really. I'll stamp it with rejected like a hundred times." Jerry stamped the application with a quick staccato. "Worst ghost audition ever!"
"Was it really that bad?" Hugh begged.
Crain sat up. "Was it really that bad? Listen, if I thought you had a sliver of talent I'd give you some notes and encourage you to come back next year, but you, sir, have the opposite of talent. You are like a black hole of talent. You suck the talent out of a room. At best you're a feeble prankster, at worst you're an embarrassment to the Kingdom and everything it stands for. Let me explain something to you and the rest of the hacks in line. This is a proud dead Kingdom. Those breathers up there need to start paying us the respect we deserve. They're all so busy with their lives." He kicked his voice into a falsetto, mocking, "Isn't life wonderful, it's a glorious day to be alive. I can't wait to be alive again tomorrow and the next day. Dancing around in the sun, optimism and joy."
He stood up and lowered his voice, his finger stabbing into the table. "Life is nothing more than pretending you're not dying. A pathetic attempt at trying to forget the forever night that follows a brief day."
Crain floated with fancy footsteps into the spotlight. Changing his tone to a gentle plea, he smiled. "And besides, is being dead really that bad? I mean, I'm comfortable. And being dead has its benefits, like ... I don't know ..."
Jerry piped up. "Like not having to worry about dying."
Crain deferred to Jerry with both hands. "There you go. Rest comfortably in the finality of it. No striving, no keeping up appearances, bills to pay, disappointments and rejections. Self-delusion giving way to self-loathing, et cetera. You all know what I'm talking about. Life is the evil half of existence. That world up there is a torture. You will never have to worry about living that hell again, and that's a guarantee. Freedom from life. One of the hundreds of reasons we are better off than those heart-pumping buffoons up there. Look around you. This is a paradise."
He looked at Hugh. "I wish everyone could go to the Land of the Living as a menacing ethereal force, I really do. But we have a reputation to uphold. We have standards. Are we a bunch of disgruntled sad sacks or are we the dark eternal end that awaits? Death reigns supreme."
Everyone mumbled, "Death reigns supreme."
Crain tried his best to glissade from the spotlight and back to his seat but there was something lacking in his prance. It was hard to put a finger on it, like he was trying too hard, compensating for a lack of something.
Hugh was still in a daze as the fierce little man herded him off stage. In the wings he shook his head, trying to register what has just transpired. He slapped his cheeks, trying to wake from the disbelief. "I'm not going?"
A lanky, dark-haired Italian thrust toward the spotlight. Halfway there he executed an over-the-top pratfall and then clumsily picked himself up with a roll and a pop.
The ministers collectively tilted their heads. Intrigued or disgusted? They needed to see more to make a decision.
The pale-skinned, hairy-armed monkey-man contorted himself into several wacky poses. A biting vampire, arms outstretched like wings, fangs bared. A strangler, cold eyes, emotionless mouth, hands outstretched and gripping. A zombie, head sunk crooked, shoulders hunched, a methodical march forward.
The ministers still didn't know how to react. They looked at Crain, trying to discern what he thought about it. Crain's attention was locked on this rapidly metamorphosing Jerry Lewis.