There is no weather in the phantom realm. Just a gust of wind of every time a new ghost transports to our world, leaving behind their first home.
The banshee-like howl of the wind woke me today. It tore through my bedroom window like a hurricane, sharp and ferocious. They say sleep isn’t necessary for us anymore, but I still like to keep my schedule intact. What else is there to do for the hours between my work shifts, other than stare out my window into an abyss of glowing white fog.
I hover out of bed in the same clothes I wore the day of the crash. I smooth my hair—not that it looks any better than it did the moment my windshield shattered. Then I gaze upon my mirror to an empty reflection, wondering why we have mirrors here. Like most of my questions about this place, this one will remain unanswered. But I conclude it is probably for the same reason we have beds and fridges and a Starbucks on every corner; some things are needed for sanity, even in death.
I open my front door, even though it’s not required, and float outside while I wait for the phantom train to arrive. It pulls up instantly, expecting my appearance, and I hop on just as fast. The train zips ahead at light speed, floating through the walls of homes and buildings like a bullet, so that you cannot see the folks inside and jeopardize one’s relationships with the ghoul next door.
In seconds we’ve come to a stop, and I am ejected in front of one of millions of towers which sits in the indefinite space ofthe phantom realm. This one is specifically for anyone whose name was Willow and was born in ‘98 in North America.
At first I thought it was awfully confusing, with everyone being the same age and having the same name, but we make it work. We don’t go by our old names here. We go by our death. And as I died in a car crash off the San Francisco bridge in 2021, my friends have taken to calling me Fran Crash ‘21, or Fran for short.
Secondly, everyone in this office was born the same year, but not everyone dies at the same age. So, while we’re all 98’ babies, some of us have been dead since ‘08 and others just showed up yesterday. This does mean that my boss looks like a ten-year-old girl with pigtails and a pink checkered dress, despite having the emotional capacity of someone my age; or perhaps older as this place grows tedious after a while.
Dallas Pneumonia ‘08 is her name, and she’s the youngest one here. Anyone below the age of ten who die aren’t sent here. They get a free pass on to whatever afterlife they believe in. But if you’ve reached those double digits, you must do your time in this realm first, working to keep the balance between the spirit and human realm until retirement.
“You’ve reached 1-800-Spiritul Specialists, please hold.” Dallas drops the phone. “You’re late,” she snaps, as I enter her office. I had wafted up the building like smoke from a chimney, not even pausing to grab a handful of candy corn from the front desk. “And on the busiest day of the year.”
“I’m sorry, miss,” I say sheepishly. I study her pale cheeks and her flushed forehead. She’s lucky to have died in a subtle way: my neighbor Mrs. Florida Cleaver must float around with a grotesque split head everyday.
“I’ll deal with the call just his once. Get me my coffee, intern,” she says, waving me off with a flick of her wrist. I nod and slip off through the floorboards to the café. The room is large and full of bustling interns like me, mostly 23-year-old’swho just got here and are still unsure of what to do. There is no line, just an endless table or piping hot pumpkin spice lattes, sizzling to the touch. The whole room smells like cinnamon and looks like a Halloween parade with the selection of horrific slashes and scars and bloodstained dresses.
I snatch up one of the cups and watch as another pops up in its place. I would be amazed if I didn’t know it was all an illusion. There is no pumpkin spiced latte as there is no physical entity to drink it; just a bossy spirit in need of feeling sane again. All of us interns are on the same pointless mission. Retrieve the coffee to feel useful, bring it back, watch our bosses drink it even though they are consuming nothing but a memory, convincing themselves they can taste the sweet beverage. It’s the same way I convince myself that I am sleeping every night when I shut my eyes and lay there, floating, for what I can only imagine, or hope are hours.
But little routines are what make us human, and that is what everyone wishes to be. But I don’t need that. All I need is a promotion. It is my single greatest desire to be able to cross realms and haunt the human world. It is a ghost’s true purpose, and my only form of motivation.
Dallas has refused on many occasions. I thought I did great work my first month: it was Christmas, and many were summoning their dead relatives. I helped connect the ones who wanted to visit, and I moved the Ouija board pieces for the ones who had not been loved in their time alive. Then came valentines and many summoned lost loves and I used my spirit force to knock over a lamp or blown open a door at the request of “giving them a sign” that their lover was somewhere missing them. By summertime the kids were all out of school, looking for things to do. I had excelled at making the floorboards squeak at night and having flashlights flicker. No matter how many people I scared, or how many spirits I connected, Dallas refused to promote me. But tonight, was Halloween, the busiest night of the year. As I hand Dallas her coffee I smile into her large brown eyes, determined to never have to hand her another PSL after today.
“Thanks,” she says, her tone very witchy. She died too young to learn manners.
She returns to her desk where she studies a map of a neighborhood, our assigned one for tonight. It is our duty tomake the holiday as scary one, and to help those who are worthy connect with the spirits of their loved ones. There is no time to spare as the numbers are endless, so I float down into my chair and begin mentally planning my terrifying tactics one plot point at a time.
But while I sit I become distracted by the photo of Dallas with her father on her desk. It’s one from the human world, manifested here out of her own subconscious. Dallas is one of the lucky few: her father is here, with her. He died of the same illness only days apart. To his friends he is Dallas Pneumonia ‘67, but I once heard her refer to her father as Paul.
There are other lucky ones, like her. But I am all alone, just like I was that cold winter night when I skid off the ice into that streetlight.
I try to stay focused though, and not let that envious green monster get the best of me. If I wish to get promoted and haunt the human world I must buckle down and think. How can I impress Dallas?
“I’m leaving early today,” she says. “My father and I are going to haunt my mother and sister. We want to watch her tick-or-treat.” Her tone wavers for a moment on ‘trick-or-teat.’ It’s strange watching a younger sibling grow up to live the life you didn’t get.
“So, I’m on my own?” I ask. I look around the room to check for the presence of another colleague. How am I expected to impress Dallas enough for a promotion if I’m left by myself?
“Yes. You know the drill. The spirit board is at your desk alongside a book of curses and summoning spells.” She pauses. “Remember…you’re in charge of a neighborhood of children, not an abandoned trainyard or satanic cult or dumb teenagers summoning spirits in the woods. Our goal is to give them Halloween, not to traumatize them.”
Trauma. That’s a word thrown around here as carelessly as Halloween candy. Its always who deserves it or how much can we instill. But one thing I’ve learned is that nobody deserves trauma; no matter how many rituals they perform or how many eggs they throw at houses, losing a loved one is the most traumatizing of all, and that is inevitable.
“Got it,” I say. “Just a happy Halloween.”
“Spooky,” she corrects. “But not scary.”
I can tell from Dallas’s voice that if there’s even a slight miscalculation in my execution of ‘spooky,’ not only will I kill my chances at a promotion, but I could lose my job. And loosing my job, and its perks, would be the death of me—figuratively, of course, but ultimate pain, nonetheless.
Dallas whisks off after that. She moves like a wasp, as I amsure to keep my distance as she speeds out of the room. She zipsdown the hall to a ceiling-high, bight orange door with a tiny circular spiral carved into it. On the knob hangs a bold red ‘authorized personnel only’ sign. You’d think they’d have a key, or some sort of security for the portal to the human realm, but I suppose everyone is much too scared to face the wrath of Dallas if they were ever caught sneaking in.
I’d considered it, many times. What I wouldn’t give to curl up with a blanket and watch Rocky Horror Picture Show on that old scratchy couch, the house smelling like cloves and the wood-burning fire. I try to push the idea out of my head, but its hard to do when my consciousness is all I’m made of. Everything just feels too artificial here. It smells like sickly sweet candy corn and is always cold, like the innards of a pumpkin. Oh, to be carving a pumpkin with them, all slimy and covered in stringy matter with the Time Warp playing on repeat in the background.
Alas, I am here, perched over the map of our to-be-spooky neighborhood, pondering my options. I start off with a gust of wind, cranking the lever on the weather machine to send a chilly thrust down the street. Joining the cold rush, I que a wolf howl from the nearby woods. Its a safe enough distance away, but enough to send chills down the spine of a parent if even for a second.
What else? Flickering streetlights, of course. One, then two. All of them go out at my request. But in no more than a second, they’re back on. A power failure, or a visit from the spirit world? They’ll never know.
I leap around the room, sprinting to different buttons and levers, studying my book in between. I send in bats to hang from a few sheltered trees. A black cat or two wander through dark alleys. There’s a vacant convenience store lot with a car radio statically playing classical music, with nobody around.
I answer the phone to assist my fellow colleagues, and even bolt down the hall to help Victoria Bridge perform a summoning of an ex-lover. The spirit transports to the human realm through the call of his carved, black ritual candle. The man sees her. He’s much older, maybe late fifties. She looks to be about thirty. He sees her, reaches out to her. He touches his heart, and a single tear falls from his eye, joining the salt and sage covering his wooden floors. I almost believe I too will cry, but then I remember my body no longer can.
Once the couple is thoroughly united, I make my way back to my office. But as I pass the portal door, there’s a magnetic force drawing my eyes to its orange glow. It would be almost too easy to spook the neighborhood kids if I could just go through and do my haunting from the human realm. I would do an excellent job… I would…
I step into the door and am instantly sucked in by a freezing wind with the suction of a high-power vacuum cleaner. Like a fastball, I’m ejected onto the bottom of the main street in the neighborhood I had previously viewed from a large 3D map. The air is fresh and full of whimsical smells; wet leaves and burnt sugar, liquid latex and pumpkin spice. There’s a cacophony of accompanying noises; the laughter of children, the screeching whistle of the wind, the heavy bass of music deep within someone’s basement.
The whole picture makes me mentally tear up, forcing me to bite my lip to reset my focus. Howling, bats, flickering lights; I’ve done it all. What else is there?
One thought tickles the back of my mind like a spider crawling up my scalp. No, not a thought, a song.
I have an idea.
I find the neighborhood graveyard and mausoleum quickly.Knowledge of its whereabouts are in my non-existent veins. Its laughably stereotypical, with a tall wrought-iron gate and a crow perched on a tomb, so overtly cliché that it makes me chuckle.
It only takes three loud ghostly claps to wake them. The ground shakes, I can hear the scratches. Dirt rips open like a body in surgery, revealing loose limbs, oozing chest cavities, waxy skin, rotten yellow teeth, and hair as brittle as bark. The zombies growl as they pry themselves from their pits, crawling on all fours until they can regain their balance, like a crowd of baby deer, learning how to walk.
I manifest the music and like an invisible orchestra, the song begins.
“It’s astounding…time is fleeting…madness takes its toll…”
They follow me through the gate, down the crooked alleys, and to the main street where kids flaunt their princess gowns and clown masks. Parents grip their coffee mugs, internally wishing this night never existed, and dreading the candy rush they’ll have to deal with later tonight.
Its only a matter of seconds for the eyes of the neighborhood to glare through me to the mob of rotting corpses behind. They look closer, grab their kids, frightened. They’re trying to figure out if its real. Then they hear the music.
“…Let’s do the time warp again!”
The zombie’s breakout into a flash mob, like something you’d see in the mall or on television. They follow the dance choreographed in my head, communicated through the spirit realm to those who own the bodies.
Finally, someone laughs. Someone hoots. People start cheering and some brave souls dance along.
I smile and for a moment I’m wrapped in pure bliss, like biting into my favorite chocolate bar while warming my toes by the fire after a long night of trick-or-treating.
But then I remember that bliss wasn’t the goal. I’ve failed. I got so wrapped up in my own idyllic Halloween, just like the ones I used to have.
“Fran!” A voice snaps. I turn, bewildered. Who other than my boss would find me out here.
“Y-you…” And then it hits me. “…This is your neighborhood.” She ignores me.
“This is not what I asked for.” Her voice softens and she turns to look at a young girl in a purple witch costume spinning and swinging her sac of candy around. There’s a woman who grabs her hand and twirls her, laughing alongside. Dallas looks to her right and smiles at her father who floats next to the woman and child. “But thank you,” she says. “You made her night.”
I sigh, relieved.
“I’ll hate to see you go, Fran,” she says. “You were a pretty good assistant, especially on the busiest night of the year.”
“Let me go, what do you mean?”
“Well, you exceeded expectations. I can’t rightfully keep you working under me forever. I’m promoting you to spiritual specialist.”
“So, I can use the portal?”
She snorts. “You already have. May as well use the rest of your time here wisely.”
I smile, wanting to reach down and hug her, but knowing it would make her squirm. I simply nod instead and wave goodbye.
Then I close my eyes and manifest my travel to a quiet,empty street. There are a couple of kids prancing down the sidewalk, but it’s relatively empty otherwise.
It is a close-knit neighborhood, and most of the people on the street still mourn last years Halloween crash. Most of them still mourn me.
There’s an old stone house at the end of the street. The door is bright orange, matching the row of carved pumpkins lining the front steps. Inside, tucked away under a flannel blanket by the fire is a woman, her husband, and a young girl with a halo of blonde and heavy eyelids.
I slip through the walls and join my family on the couch as they watch Rocky Horror Picture show on the TV, humming along to the Time Warp. I smile, grateful for my promotion.
“Happy Halloween,” I whisper through the wind. My mother glances around and nudges my father. My heart warms: they heard me.
You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.
Two shortlists in a row, and both very much deserved. Congratulations!
Thank you so much! 😊
Nice job. Wonderfully vivid descriptions, especially of the zombies emerging from the graveyard. Two small nitpicks: one, proofread with a fine-tooth comb (I saw a few apostrophes missing, two or three missing spaces, etc.); two, I felt that the description near the beginning of who works in the office and when they died and how old they have to be, etc., a bit too explicit (i.e. more telling than showing). But these are very small, really. Well done.
Well this was a damn delight! What a clever and fun take on this prompt. This almost felt like a Monsters Inc. sort of scenario, but with humans instead. Congrats on the shortlist!
Thank you so much 😊
Aww, the end of this is so heartwarming! Nicely written characters and well-constructed world that serves its purpose well!
Thank you! :)
This was well-written. I enjoyed the world you created, with unique attributes like Fran’s ten-year-old boss. It’s hard to include hints of humor and emotion in such a short story. You accomplished this well. The ending was put together wonderfully!
What a beautiful story. Great pacing, and full of emotion and humor. The dialogue is well done, and the descriptions are vivid and solid. Very nice job!