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Halfway Between Asleep and Dead

I don’t believe in ghosts. Especially now that I am one.

Believe me, I’ve looked.

When I became one, I was fully prepared to see them.  Them, or angels, or some sort of bodiless entity encapsulating a soul.

And when I didn’t? Well, let’s just say I was delighted. Disembodiment is pretty damn delicious, especially when I have the ether all to myself.

Oh hang on, you think I’m dead if I’m a ghost.  Well, back it up–let me tell you, becoming a ghost has been a lifetime of work. It didn’t happen instantly you know. I didn’t meet an early demise–no looming bus, boom, welcome to the ether. Nor did I succumb to a lingering disease or old age. Not that anyone would mourn or care about such a passing, they’re all far too busy with saving their own immortal souls. It’s been quite lovely keeping it to myself that it’s tough titty boys and girls, I’m the only one.

No, all this, this spirit condition that I have, has taken me much practise and quite a lot of frustration.

Ghost. I admit, the label is pretty redundant, but it works for now.

This is strange. I haven’t had to talk to anyone in a very long time. I’m out of practise.

Okay, where to begin.

*

Once upon a time there was A Girl. Her name was Gina. Geena Geena pumpkin eater. Vah-geena. Geeeez Gina, haven’tcha seen’er? Yeah, piss off the lot of you.

Dark rooms. The absolute best places as a kid. Shut the door, shut those dipshits out.

Dark rooms made the school day tolerable. The need for dark rooms diminished a little once I learned to throw a punch and a few cuss words of my own, but I never lost the love for a gloomy room with a chink of light from between the curtains. Maybe because those punches and cuss words brought me a whole new world–one of a silent hurt.

Double edge, honey. Double edge.

Dark rooms taught me a lot about how to lie still and breathe, just breathe. Count them. In, out. One, and two, and three. I became well acquainted with the minute flaws in the ceiling, the pattern of the yellow floral wallpaper. My mother said I must like my carrots, I learned to see in the dark so well.

What would she know? I hated my vegetables.

Darkness also taught me about a special moment before sleep. Lying still, hardly daring to breathe, my perception would float, something pulling me up through my scalp by a tenuous strand.

I could hold that delicious heaviness in my arms, the emptiness in my head, as I stared at the curtains. They would be so far away, so close. Back and forth.  Were my eyes open or closed? If I tried to check, the feeling chased away.

At first I dabbled with the thought that angels were pulling me up to heaven, yanking at my hair, but falling asleep stopped them from making off with my soul. Ha ha god!  You won’t get me that easy!

God and I weren’t on the best of terms even back then, since people were telling me that he wanted me to do things I didn’t want to do. But since he never told me face to face and the angels stubbornly refused to manifest themselves in the blaze of glory and gold, I told them angels to go stick it.

That one done with, my next thought revolved around ghosts dragging me away to the pits of hell. But it didn’t take me too long to put two and two together– if no angels and heaven, no demons and hell. I thought myself pretty clever for working that out so early on, but people don’t like you being too clever, so things started getting pretty frosty all round.

Still, this concept of ghosts and that I could become one wouldn’t leave me alone. While I was a decent sceptic early on, I figured ghost stories told around camp fires needed some base in truth, no matter how occluded.

While she was possibly not the best authority, I took it up with my grandmother because she seemed to have tapped into the party line to my dead grandfather. Séances,  visitation parties, psychic shows–those were her expertise. Like ghost stories, I doubted their necessitaty in a world that would be a far worthier place without. And if you’re thinking these are pretty big thoughts for a kid, hey, remember I had plenty of time to think these thoughts, going against the grain and all.

Grams had brooked the interruption of watching a Uri Geller special on TV with barely disguised annoyance–I was used to the rolling of eyes and hefty sighs. She told me that if I was such An Important Person, the ghosts wouldn’t muck around. She smirked when I talked about ghosts wanting to pull me out of my head.

I left her alone with Uri Geller. They got on just fine.

The library. Okay, let’s talk about the huge amount of time I spent in its gloriously silent embrace. Most of the books were just silly children’s stories. Some of them had words that took me a while to sound out and look up in the dictionary. The books reiterated what Grams told me–only special people were lucky enough to see ghosts. For the rest, belief began with a capital B.

Yeah, belief didn’t fly well with young Gina.  Facts, cold, hard, that’s what I needed, and for all the plethora of knowledge at my fingertips–and later from the internet–there were precious few answers.

I perfected a blank stare that came in handy when people talked bollocks. Clever girls are supposed to smile and agree, even if they don’t. I didn’t smile and I didn’t agree, which made me a whole special amount of Don’t. Don’t talk to her, Don’t listen to her, Don’t go near her, she’s too weird.

Hello friendly, special, undemanding silence.

Pre-adolescence, I floundered for a bit. The floating sensation didn’t happen every night, oh no.  Dead tired, I could hit the pillow and be out for eight hours straight without a thought or dream of ghosts.  Some nights I could lie awake for hours and not be able to conjure up the feeling. Just before my thirteenth birthday I endured a long stretch where I worried I had lost it completely. Months of righteous anger dictating that the feeling Just Happen, dammit.

It didn’t, that is until I started menstruating.  Ahh, bloody puberty. After a bit more reading, hormones made a lot more sense than what my squeamish mother tried to impart.

My best and only friend Patty was the one to inform me that this feeling before sleep wasn’t unique or unusual, with all the authority only a self-righteous adolescent could muster–Patty’s Law of Everything: “my mother’s a doctor”. A tinge of regret set up a little nova behind my right eye as she blathered on about the body’s natural sleep paralysis, and in reverent and compelling tones put a name to it–Hypnagogia.

Despite my anger that I’d never come across this reasoning in all my hours spent at the library, I rolled and ate and tested out the delicious word in my mouth.

Patty didn’t talk to me much after that, mainly because she thought it inconceivable that anyone could say they were smarter than her mother.

But it was true. It wasn’t memorizing lyrics or collecting kisses or riding horses or fitting into a tiny sports outfit, but I’d finally found something I was good at.

More reading, more practising, more silence, less outside aggravation.

After an especially trying day–one of those stupid boys, I forget which, had helpfully dumped the contents of my school bag on the classroom floor to show everyone my little lime-green purse of tampons–the idea sprung on me, and stayed. Screw the world, ya know? Make this disembodiment permanent.

My parents, desperately eager to get their sulky teenager out of her room–who knew what satanic rituals I could be performing in there–took the medical tomes I hefted around as a sign that their daughter had designs on being a doctor. All those parenting books–don’t think that I didn’t notice the adversarial culture they encouraged, Jesus Truck, and how it screwed up any sort of natural friendship we might have had–and I ended up fixing myself.

So they signed me up for extra-mural science classes.

I hated biology. Dissections and graphic imagery made me nauseous. And in chemistry all the boys got the teacher’s attention because they were so very good at setting things on fire.

Physics I enjoyed, though the maths made my head ache. I reasoned that physics may be useful in proving whatever it was I floated around in. Any sort of coherent theory was a long way off, but in the mean time I discovered a bent for the astronomy. The photographs of planets and stars plastered on my bedroom wall were a wonderful medium to help lull me towards my evanescent state.

Patty sneered that only boys liked that stuff–which led her to contemplating, loudly to all who would hear, if was I lesbian or something, and onwards to being afraid of me. My parents shrugged, bought me a telescope, and bemoaned the idea they wouldn’t be propped up by a well paid surgeon in their twilight years.

So I practised floating, ignored the barbs from all sides best I could, and waited. For myself, and for everyone else to get their come-uppance.

Once I hit college, I had little time for sex–just enough to satisfy–and even less time for the problems it caused. Writing my thesis on residual radiation from the Big Bang–looking for that elusive evidence of something personal–I had the fortuitous circumstance of meeting Emerson Brighton the Third.

Emerson, who had designs on becoming a neuro-scientist, had an eye for older women.  He cornered me at a party in the first of his many failed attempts to appeal to my libido through my brain, espousing theories about near-death experiences.

“The white light, the brightness at the end of the tunnel,” I remember him enunciating carefully, as if I was especially thick. “Chemicals, and brain washing.  When you’re about to die, your brain wants to make it as painless as possible-–it pumps you full of some really good shit.  High as a freaking kite. If I could bottle it, I’d be a kajillionaire.”

“And the brain washing part?”

Emerson leaned in, and a gust of beer breath washed my face.  He lowered his voice, eyes darting back and forth. “Religion. The opiate of the masses. When you’ve been told since day you popped out that if you’re good all your rewards come at your death, and you’re shown a dude with shining white robes over and over again, whaddya expect? All it took was one pious jerk to have a brain explosion and survive to tell the tale and…wham!” Emerson clapped his hands before my face, and I blinked.  “Everyone wanted to make sure they had a nice death.  Believer or not, they wanted to make sure their souls were taken care of. Sheep, the lot of them.”

Fifteen years too late to the conversation, he was a bit of a jerk out loud whereas I’d learned to reign it in. Malleable and emotionally immature, Emerson didn’t get into my pants on that or any other night but my way out theories had him hooked.

My success at complete disembodiment was an accident. Celebrating the completion of my thesis, I hung out with Mary Jane.

Lying there that humid afternoon on the couch in my skody flat, curtains drawn, stereo a murmur, I welcomed the sweet sickness and disembodied balloon hands, all tingly and swollen, as if they weren’t my hands at all. The curtains warped back and forth. I swept up and back from my head.

Then snap. A cutting of the umbilical cord that held my consciousness corporeal bound.

I looked down on my body. I could see myself with eyes that were not meat and humor and pupils and cornea and…

Glorious!

I watched my body succumb to sleep. Muscles twitched, and my mouth fell open, allowing a small line of drool to escape.

But regret tinged the fascination. I scrabbled with arms that weren’t there in an effort to grab hold of the roof, the walls, anything, as I fell back into my head.

And then I opened my eyes to the next morning’s sun.

Not knowing how I had reattached my conscious didn’t stop me from trying again. I went through quite a bit of pot recreating the conditions, and only the threat of losing my university tenure made me sweat it out alone.

Those first forays out of the body were tentative but essential. This young and stupid version of Gina would not have survived if she’d wandered off from the body right from the get go.

Dislocating my consciousness without chemical assistance proved difficult, but my self-taught mental training–all that time alone, all that silence– provided a prism of focus. The weed had simply enhanced something dormant, something that may have been bred out, deep in my parietal lobe.

I stayed within my four walls, quite happy to watch my body, look out the window, contemplate the view.

That was until the night my neighbour’s yappy poodle intruded on my concentration. Agitation had its roots in the corporeal world, and I tried to flail my arm against the wall.

I shifted.

I found myself staring down into my neighbour’s lounge.

Shut Up, I thought in its direction.

The dog whimpered and hunkered down, cowering beside its owner’s char. It rolled terrified eyes, but those eyes could not find the presence in the room.

My neighbour, a non-descript 50-something woman who I’d never given the time of day to, kept her eyes on the television and patted the dog for good behaviour.

I stared down at the dog for a long time. “Mouth held agape” had no meaning here.

I tried speaking at my neighbour. She didn’t hear me, and the dog whimpered again.

This required further investigation.

I grew bolder each night. I moved about my apartment, through my neighbours’ rooms, down the stairs, to the front doors of my apartment building. Dogs trembled, and cats ran hissing from me. I couldn’t push the elevator buttons or open doors, but also no surface could stop me. It took practise and concentration to not fall into the ground or continue rising. Dirt was claustrophobic, and the sky too wide and empty

The night I went outside my building for the first time made me pause and pull back into my body. I forced myself awake, and sat up all night nutting out my Do’s and Don’ts.

No watching people having sex.  No looking in on the parents. What if you see a crime, do you go back to your body and report it? Public places are safe spaces. Who do you want to see? What do you want to learn?

So much to do, so many morals to disregard.

I watched the sun come up with my real eyes as I smoked my dwindling stash of weed, turning words over and over in my head. I was Other, Evolution, better. No longer Human.

The time to call on Emerson, now deep in his research on sleep disorders, was near…but no, not yet. I needed more data. I needed to find the limits of my control, before I gave up that control to another. I needed to know whether I could take it back if they went too far.

I never wrote anything down, kept it all in my head.  No evidence meant no incrimination.

Each night I lay down, my stomach quivering with excitement, I pushed myself further and further away from my body, from corporeal needs, and from caring about my physical life. The minimum sleep I could subsist on turned out to be four hours, and I took advantage of as much up-time as possible.

The first time I stayed out during the day, intent on watching the city unfold by day, I received a fatherly scolding from my superior at the university for not turning up to work. He shrugged off as his charge’s “sleep in” as my being over worked and under recuperated.

The third offense–so excited by my speed as I skipped over to the next city that that I kept on going into the next state–induced my first official warning.

I was fired when I reached the point of missing weeks at a stretch.

Brought back to earth with a thump, I sat in an apartment which smelled strongly of industrial grade disinfectant, and contemplated my career in the cardboard box at my feet. I barely glanced in the mirror and was shocked by the gaunt, ashen, malnourished, and duly castigated figure, black hair clipped close for ease of hygiene, that looked back at me.

I cleaned up the piles of rubbish and mouldering dishes, pulled back the curtains and cleaned the windows, replaced the plastic sheets which were now de-rigueur on my bed. A visit to the supermarket replenished my stash of incontinence nappies, tampons, canned food and frozen dinners.

I called my parents. No dad, I’m not taking drugs; I’m fine mum, just having a bit of a burn out. I put out feelers for a new position, and set about re-establishing my reputation within my academic network. In the mean time, I took a job teaching physics at a local high school, and restricted my out of body experiences to the night time only.

But my brain craved the high. I roved further and faster each night but I needed practise.

I needed time.

Now with a bit of meat back on my hips, colour in my cheeks, and a new job-–the kids were tolerable, just-–resentment built at being tied to a slow, secular body.

Temptation. Come out to play Gina. Look at all this world has to offer you. Come listen to the innermost workings of the world, walk the streets, peek in on the famous and ordinary, you know you want to.

I raged against the slow pace offered by the real world, seduced by my limited physical capacity. I did not miss eating, human touch or sexual pleasure. And though I had the glory of the world at my feet, I could not get inside a computer to soak up its knowledge, or get inside another’s head.

And here’s the thing that pleased me the most–I didn’t see any other ghosts. I tried calling out to them, but the only reply came from the howling and scampering of animals, disturbed by the volume of my Voice.

For a while, I turned back to what my now deceased grandmother had wasted her time on. Oh the sweet irony.  I shouted towards mediums, priests, and speakers of tongues, but could interact with none.

This was my world, deliciously mine alone.

I didn’t want to become a freak, my brain poked and prodded and denied me. The money my abilities might earn tempted me, if only to help me break free of my bodily needs, but I dismissed that option–the expectation to perform would be too great.

I struggled on alone, doing the absolute bare minimum to get by. My brilliance, and masculine performance, got me tenure at a university with a supervisor equally brilliant and eccentric as I. He didn’t mind my absences so much, just so long as the papers kept coming. And did they ever. My spiritual escapades provided a free education that one could only dream of. I squashed the experiences of many lifetimes into a few short years.

If heaven really did exist, I’d found it right here on earth.

*

The time I almost killed my body, I caved in.

My speed of travel had reached the point where I could think of any spot in the world and I could be there within the space of a few breaths, continents and oceans crashing away beneath me, no boundaries but the ones I made. I dared not a risk death. I remained, after all, unique.

I stood on the side of a mountain…Or was it an ocean shore? I don’t remember.

I must have meditated too long on glory, because blackness bled in at the edges of my vision along with a note of panic, a distant echo along the fragile thread back to my body.

How long had I been gone? Too long without food, without changing the drip, and without rising from the filth of my bed, that’s for sure.

I barely made it back. Even a handful of breaths too long.

I awoke many days later from black emptiness in a hospital bed. I don’t remember how I had dialled for emergency services.

My lack of memory scared me like death.

I explained away my condition as a foible of eccentricity. “I was so caught up in writing my latest paper.”

For five days?

Well, I guess my tolerances are higher than normal.

Performance anxiety peaked lying in that hospital bed, and it tore me to bits not having the energy or guts to go outwards. I didn’t want the inside of my head looked at. The less those doctors knew, the better, because this was mine, all mine.

Only the police, they who broke down the well bolted doors of my house-–a private stand-alone down a long, wooded driveway, to keep the stench away from the neighbours-–questioned me about the squalor and the medical equipment. I suffered through the ignominy of visiting a court-ordered psychiatrist, buying her off with brilliant obfuscation and inside knowledge of the woman’s associates. I peeked just enough to save my skin.  She got on the fast track in her career, and I got on the fast track out of her office and official files.

After I was declared fit to return to my life, I made Doctor Emerson Brighton the Third my first port of call.

I hadn’t seen him in years, but a quick glance into his life showed me what I expected: a loner dedicated to his work because his social habits were deplorable, and absolutely perfect for my needs.

For the first time in many years I travelled like a normal human being. I flew out to see Emerson, and he greeted his old college friend with enthusiasm and the same old leer.

Not even a distasteful sexual bribe remained necessary after I said those fateful words.

“I need you to kill me.”

We shared whiskey in the lounge pit of his hospital university apartment, and Emerson stared over the top of his tumbler, waiting for the punch line. I knew that he knew about my eccentricity through the academic grapevine.

I told him everything. And then I sat in that red leather chair that squeaked beneath my buttocks and gave him a demonstration. I pushed on through my performance anxiety–I almost lost it, lost everything, as he watched me with those greedy eyes–because Emerson had become my only hope.

When I came back to myself, I gave him a full recitation of the spices in his pantry, the porn under his bed, and the use-by date–well past–on the pack of condoms in his bedside drawer.

He had me hooked up to machines within hours. The passion and sick eagerness that replaced the lasciviousness in his eyes made me shudder as I looked down on him. Had I looked like that at one time?  Thankfully, the repulsion didn’t register on his machines.

There’s always a lawyer who can be bought, and the contract I have locked in a safety deposit box makes sure I have him in check.

*

And now, here I am, staring at myself in the mirror for the first time in a decade. As promised, Emerson has brought me round so I can check in with myself and he can make sure my sanity is still intact.

It is.

Emerson’s hair is white now, but my face has barely changed. It’s still the same thirty-something from when he killed me off and hooked me up to a tank. There are a few wrinkles, but the chemicals and electronics keep my skin young, smooth and beautiful. I’ve never given much credence to vanity, but I have to admit I look good.

This alone could have made us rich. He’s been very careful about faking the genesis of this beauty breakthrough, and releasing it over time. We mix it up with the knowledge gleaned from my experiences–scientific papers, economic forecasts, a little insider trading, just enough so that it doesn’t raise red flags.  It’s all so that he can keep on keeping me alive, carry on whatever research his heart desires, and I can carry on mine.

So I can carry on being a ghost.

Suicide is ridiculously easy to fake.

All signs point to my walking into the ocean, though my remains have never been found. How romantic. How expected with all that hindsight.

I’ve been awake for about a day now. I’ve checked the recordings of my brain waves, and he’s shown me his latest research into vegetative states. Pity ethics get in the way. Ah well, at least he’s subtle and the bodies don’t pile up too much. And he has me.

I’m still unique. No one has ever been able to recreate disassociation from their body like I do.

And I haven’t seen a god or other ghosts either.  But there’s still plenty of time.

My next stop is Out There, way beyond this world into the emptiness of space. I need to prepare him for that. This is a journey that may take some time.

For as long as there is someone to follow in Emerson’s footsteps I will live forever. I have yet to be introduced to his latest protégé, but we’re treading carefully on that ground. After assessing the commitment and loyalty of the last assistant we came to an unfortunate conclusion and him an unfortunate end.

Emerson, you can put my head back in the jar now. And enough with the tired jokes about Walt Disney or James Bedford, thank you very much.

I don’t miss my body.

Not one bit.

A bit about the author:

AJ Fitzwater resides in the quaky city of Christchurch, New Zealand, knows no hobbits and has become adept at skipping cracks. She shares her writing desk with a lazy calico cat and a squawk of dragons. She has been published in such forums as Semaphore Magazine, M-Brane SF, The Future Fire, and Expanded Horizons. Her work has also appeared in the earthquake relief fundraising anthology “Tales For Canterbury”, and the Crossed Genres Publications anthology “Fat Girl in a Strange Land”. Visit author page