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Emergent

Do me a favor, Papa, and don’t let them market this as a fucking ghost story, okay?

I may be dead, but I’m no ghost.

And before you get all defensive here, remember that it was you who first taught me my contempt for ghosts when you proclaimed that ghost stories were no more than bloodless fairy tales “that both license and rebuke our dread of death.”

I read that quote in the interview you gave to The New Yorker.

In the most charitable sense, ghosts can be useful stand-ins for remorse. Through the guise of irrational terror, they serve to exculpate the guilt of the bereaved by assigning a measure of harmless punishment for the unforgivable sin of remaining alive.

You said that, too.

Only, I’d add that in the least charitable sense, ghosts, like wolves and witches, demons, hobgoblins and all the rest of it serve as the sole emotional refuge of callous, self-obsessed, pretentious has-beens whose names once appeared on the dust jackets of their arty horror novels in a typeface larger than the titles.

Oops . . . I’m sorry, Papa. Did that hit too close to home?

But let’s get real, shall we? Can you think of anything more ridiculous than for me to be a ghost? Imagine your dead son “haunting” the dreary moors of your consciousness like one of your post-modern banshees from Highland House, mooning over my lost love and moaning about all your great and petty cruelties that brought me to my lowly state.

Boo!

Hoo.

Still, given your colossal narcissism, it will no doubt come as a surprise to learn that I have not spent the past eighteen months stewing in the ectoplasm over you. You’re not worth the trouble of revenge, and I’m not the least bit interested in saving your soul, nor, God help me, attempting to make you regret what you did to me. Sure, I hope you hurt, and I hope you go on hurting for the rest of your miserable life. But I doubt very much that you do, or will, and believe me, that’s not what’s keeping me up nights. I have better things to do with my eternity than to try to ignite something like a flame of guilt in that cold, black lump you call a heart. Besides, we both know that off the page you’re way too pragmatic a guy to be bothered with inconveniences like remorse or redemption. In the real world people fuck up all the time. They hurt and get hurt, don’t learn anything profound about themselves, a lot of unresolved shit happens to them, and then they die.

I’m pretty sure as far as you’re concerned that’s all that happened to me.

I died. End of story.

Only, that’s not quite the end of it, is it? Because although I may not care about you or your wretched soul, I do still care about Jamie. Jamie is the one whose remorse is real. Jamie is the one who deserves to know what really happened in that forest the night I died, so that he might find some measure of closure and move on with the rest of his life.

I owe him the truth.

So, that’s the only reason I’ve bothered to come slumming in the back-alleys of your inspiration like this. I’m here to use you, Papa. Nothing more. I’m going to take advantage of your shameless lust for a good story to get you to put down on paper the truth of what happened to me the night I died, since the nebulousness of my current condition prevents me from striking the keys on this laptop myself. Instead, I’ll whisper my pitiful story into your ear, and all you have to do is translate me back into the language of the living.

For Jamie’s sake. For mine.

It’s the very least you can do.

Besides, think of what the critics will say! The master’s triumphant return. They’ll call you a macabre genius for re-contextualizing the tragic suicide of your only son to inaugurate your long overdo comeback.

Just remember, I’m no ghost…

So, shall we venture back to that night?

I’m sure you’ll recall how the evening began for you, Papa, brooding behind your desk as you had all summer long, a glass of Glenfidditch in one hand, the other hand propping up your chin, your fingers drumming out DEEP THOUGHTS across your pursed lips as you struck a writerly pose for that spectral Vanity Fair photographer who never seemed to stop shooting inside your mind.

The silence of your keyboard was deafening.

At first, you didn’t notice us watching you from behind the bushes beneath your study window. Of course, Jamie had wanted to formally meet you, right from the beginning. Just like all the others did. But experience had taught me too well to avoid that at all costs, and so I’d managed to put him off for most of the summer, until that evening, when I’d finally broken down and agreed that we could spy on you for a few minutes while you “worked.” Or, should I say, while you pantomimed being a serious writer—aka, a drunk—suffering from the affliction of writer’s block—aka, a chronic and persistent lack of talent.

Anyway, I ought to have known better. I did know better. Letting you in—even simply the notion of you—had been the ruination of every friendship or relationship I’d ever had. If it wasn’t the terrible things you inevitably did and said, it was the corrosive suspicion I could never fully shake that I was only ever a means for others to enter into your orbit. Some smaller body the star-seekers could slingshot around into the gravitational pull of your greater and more glorious, if ultimately fading celestial wonder.

But I told myself that with Jamie it didn’t really matter, because it didn’t seem possible that even you could hasten the end of our time together. There was so little of it left anyway. Summer flings never endure past Labor Day, and I’d already made my peace with that. In less than a week, you and I would return to the city, and that would be that for Jamie and me.

So, I figured no real harm could come of it. You were already too drunk to be truly dangerous anyway. At worst, if you caught us spying, you’d make a fool of yourself, say something predictably withering about your pansy of a son, and then, with any luck, you’d pass out in a stew of your own vomit. Jamie might leave disillusioned and disappointed, but before that could begin to matter between him and me, you and I would be long gone.

Nevertheless, I warned him what you’d be like if you spotted us. I even offered to lay bets on how long you’d be able to contain yourself before your cruelty came sputtering forth. But Jamie would have none of it. He was still so in awe of you. The man who’d written Sympathy for the Wolf, whose description of the coitus of the basilisks in Cyrene’s Eye had made Oprah retch on national TV, who’d once so famously totaled his Mercedes on that all-night bender with Stephen King. Jamie couldn’t quite get past the popular image of you as a two-fisted, romantic sort of drunk. “The Hemingway of Horror.” How impressive it must have been for him that you’d come all the way from the big city to his little corner of the Adirondacks to write your next acclaimed bestseller. I suppose it was like having Hollywood move in next door. I don’t blame him for being dazzled by you.

As a matter of fact, a part of me was secretly glad that he found you so intriguing, at least in the beginning. I longed for his attention, no matter why it was given. I liked him, you see. Right away, I knew that I liked him. And what wasn’t to like? Doe-eyed and dirty blonde. Compact and meaty in that robust, full-blooded way that only country boys ever are. Unlike the juiced-up and preening gym rats at Crunch or Chelsea Piers, he’d earned his muscles delivering chords of firewood for his old man. He was sweet and self-effacing, and oh so easy on the eyes, although, as you might expect, he was not too terribly bright. But still, he laughed at most of my jokes, and he’d actually read Sympathy for the Wolf, not just watched the movie, so I suppose he wasn’t technically a hayseed.

Most importantly, Papa, he seemed to like me for me, or at least that’s what he said, and I allowed myself the luxury of believing him. So, if I could make him happy, or at least satisfy his curiosity by letting him slip quietly into the realm of my famous old man for a few minutes—a transaction I’d performed for many others who’d been much less convincing in their affections for me—then it was something I was willing to do.

So yes, we spied on you.

If you recall—and you probably don’t—that evening had turned cool by then. Though a hazy August gold still suffused the daylight hours, the chilly nights had begun to wither the leaves. Of course, there was your withering silence to contend with, too. Do you remember that, at least? A long, sinuous creature that’d coiled itself around our entire summer, squeezing out what little oxygen lived within the walls of that stuffy rental cottage until there was nothing left to breathe but your animus. Not that there was anything new about your silences. I could’ve counted on my fingers the memories I had of you since Highland House tanked when you weren’t off drunkenly sulking in front of some blank computer screen. In fact, I’d lived my whole life in the shadow of your “creative process,” where it seemed as if all the light in the world was perpetually cast into whatever new snake pit of booze, insecurity, and self-loathing you’d fallen into at the time.

Let’s face it: most writers suck at parenting. How can they not, when living inside their own heads all day long is how they earn their bread and butter? It doesn’t leave much room for the real-world demands of wife and child, does it? But Jesus, Papa, you really had a special knack for sucking at the family thing. No matter what, you always managed to find a way to make a black hole blacker. Even after Mom died.

Especially after she died.

And so that whole summer long, I’d stayed out of your way as much as possible. I passed my days exploring the endless empire of forest that surrounded our little cottage, while my nights were spent there in Jamie’s arms.

Oh, that forest! What can I tell you about the forest, Papa? I swear it was like something primeval out of the Brothers Grimm. Acre upon acre of cedar, spruce, and scotch pine that stretched on and on, seemingly forever. There were hollows in that forest where the trees were so dense they held back the entire sky, never admitting even a morsel of sunlight, and always poised to swallow every sound, even that of my own breath. The air in all that simmering gloom clung cool and dank to my body, smelling as old as legend, rich with undisturbed centuries of loam and mystery.

In that forest, the real world shifted and refracted. It was the kind of forest you could quickly lose yourself in and never be found again. The kind in which you might expect to dance naked with witches, hunt with wolves for the fresh blood of virgins, or be fucked raw by the Devil against the gnarled throat of an ancient hemlock. If you’d ever managed to tear yourself away from the bottle long enough to glance out your goddamned window, I swear you would have recognized it for the enchanted and mercurial place it truly was.

Jamie and I loved that forest, though for different reasons.

For him, it was a refuge from his church, his town, his family. It was the only corner of his pathetically small universe where he could allow himself to be himself, for the first and probably last time of his lonely, closeted life.

But for me it was much simpler than that: I loved the forest because it was a place as yet unspoiled by you.

We only ever spent our nights together at its fringes, deep enough inside to hide ourselves from the world, but close enough to home to find our way back in the morning.

And no, you don’t need to know the details about us, Papa. You don’t need to know how we met, what we talked about, or why we found such solace in each other’s company. I don’t want the essence of those few magical weeks to be co-opted for a tawdry subplot in your next novel, the kind where the blissful night lovers find themselves terrorized by some demonic, troll-thing born from your twisted sense of what constitutes poetic justice. We didn’t deserve to be shamed or punished any more than the characters in your damn books deserve the hell you put them through. I know you get your only jollies these days by playing God like that, but now that I’m dead, I’m sure as hell not going to let you do that to my sweetest memories of Jamie and me.

What we shared was ours, and you stole it from us.

Just like you’ve taken everything else from me.

And why? For weeks I’d been so careful not to disturb you. Even before we’d left home, I made myself as scarce as possible. Once we arrived in that damn tiny cottage, alone together without the city’s distractions to shield your fragile ego, I knew I couldn’t let myself become your next excuse for failure.

I never wanted to take Mom’s place in your life.

And that’s why it’s all so goddamned unfair. Did you ever have to speak more than five words to me that entire summer? Had I imposed myself on you in any way? I made sure you had plenty of food and a clean place to sleep. The bills were paid on time and the household kept tidy. Your clothes were washed and laid out freshly each morning, and there was always an un-cracked bottle of something waiting on your desk each afternoon. I made myself useful and invisible, just as you preferred me to be.

Just as she never could.

Why wasn’t that enough for you to leave me the fuck alone?

Okay, yes, I know, we spied on you. Our great and terrible sin! For nearly five whole minutes until you slumped onto the desk, as you’d done every evening before that, and where I expected to find you the next morning, snoring fitfully in a pool of your own drool. By then the edifice of awe Jamie had constructed around your myth had finally begun to crumble, and so I risked a joke, something inane about you not getting your pen up anymore. Jamie laughed. He actually laughed. Heartily and true, and without any trace of awkwardness or disappointment. Then he took my hand and smiled, and for the only time that summer I allowed myself to dream, just for an instant, what my life could be like without you in it.

It was only as we finally turned and strode toward the forest—bored with you, horny, and eager for our night alone together—that I glanced back to see you watching us retreat, bleary-eyed and drink-fogged, your head still wedged against the desk.

Your teeth were bared.

Jamie had brought his sleeping bag and a six-pack of beer he’d stolen from the fridge in his old man’s garage. My contribution was one of the joints I’d swiped from the guest stash back home. In retrospect, maybe this was our mistake. The beer and pot made us more uninhibited than usual, more reckless, with only the unblushing moon as our witness. Did we cry out too loudly during sex? Is that why you followed us into the woods? To punish me for being happy?

I always knew that I disgusted you, Papa, but until that night I hadn’t realized how much you despised me. Do you even remember what you did to us, or were you too drunk to recall? How you came upon us as we slept, entwined in each other’s arms? We were magical there, two pale, glowing creatures alone together in that forest. We radiated real magic, human magic, and you came like a hateful ogre into that secret, magical place we’d created, and you pissed all over it.

I mean that literally.

Do you even remember pissing on us, Papa? On our faces and our naked bodies, the smoldering embers of our campfire. Do you remember pissing on your only son as he lay in a state of dreamless bliss with the boy he’d just made love to? You didn’t even say a word. You didn’t need to. You held your silent contempt so tightly in your grip, your dick might as well have been an axe that split us in two, Jamie and me.

And then you zipped yourself up and stumbled back to the cottage.

I don’t know how long we sat there, stunned, humiliated, soaked and stinking in a pool of your piss. But it couldn’t have been very long, because it felt like only an instant before Jamie began to fall away from me. I could see it in his eyes, how quickly he’d tipped over the ledge of shame and self-loathing you’d pushed him to.

He rose to his feet and gathered up his things. When I tried to stop him, when I tried to explain, to apologize, to tell him that you didn’t matter, I could see the fear surface in his eyes, as cold and pallid as a dead thing. And then he punched me. He punched me hard and true. He burst my lip and a torrent of blood flowed into my mouth and down my chin. Then he began to cry. But as I tried to soothe him, to tell him that it was okay, we were okay, he turned and ran from me, Papa, as if I were the beast that’d done this to him.

He ran, and so I ran after him, not caring that I was still naked and barefooted, not caring that the trees had concealed the moon, and I could no longer see where I was going. I ran frantically after Jamie, because I needed to explain you to him. I needed to make him see that it wasn’t we who were the freaks and monsters.

But it did me no good. Although I’d whiled away countless afternoons exploring the paths and hollows of those woods, alone in the night I was all but a stranger there. Jamie soon disappeared, so quickly it seemed that it only took moments before I could no longer hear the slap of his footfalls against the hard, rutted earth. Panting, spent, and abandoned, I finally gave up and skidded to a halt, unable to go on any longer.

It was then that the world shifted and refracted around me.

In an instant, Papa, the silence swallowed me, a silence even thicker than yours. It was the silence of loss; the terrible, endless silence of aloneness; the inescapable silence of that forest at night, with not even the wild thrum of my own pounding heart to call a friend.

Darkness consumed me next. It fell upon me, blacker than a panther, so black I couldn’t see my own body standing beneath me. With the moon and starlight bled out into nothing, it was as if I’d been sucked down the great, cavernous maw of the universe.

It was all I could do to keep from screaming just to convince myself I still existed.

Although I probed the air with my fingers as I inched blindly forward, I soon slammed my forehead into a tree limb and was knocked flat on my back. As I tried to sit up, something shot out of the darkness to grabbed a hold of my wrists. Something swift and rough and crackling that entwined around my feet and ankles, encircling my chest and neck with woody tendrils that squeezed tight as I struggled. My skin punctured as sharp spines tore into my flesh, and I found myself suddenly gasping and helpless as my limbs were forcibly drawn and splayed against the ground. I cried out, but the sound was squeezed into a croak in my throat by my unforgiving bonds, which were neither ropes nor vines, but the upturned roots of the trees come to life—just like those your warlock IRS agent conjured to ensnare the fleeing Hans in Hans and Gertrude.

It was then that the light began to return via tiny pinpricks of illumination from a suddenly teeming sky of stars. Only, these were not stars, Papa, for as the pinpricks grew wider and brighter, they resolved into tens and hundreds of eyes that peered down at me from the trees, glowing in the savage crimson of your rapacious mothmen from Dire Omens.

The silvery moon swelled into view again as if a gigantic curtain had been lifted, and all at once it cast its pallid glow upon a towering, carnivorous figure that stepped toward me from the shadows.

I swear to you, Papa, this creature was Damien Davos.

Just like your World Health Organization technocrat-cum-werewolf who rapes and devours the Little Honduran Girl in Red in Sympathy for the Wolf, he loomed over me in a mass of rippling fur and muscle that burst through the seams of a three-piece suit. His features were a lurid pastiche of man and monster, his claws steely daggers that raked slowly across my skin, carving trails of blood into my flesh. My ankles were hoisted high and wide by the roots that held them fast, and then this foul creature dropped to his knees and mounted me, plunging himself deep inside of me with a slavering howl that pierced the night.

Oh, how I howled too, Papa.

When he’d finished, he withdrew himself from me, though not before he lowered his head between my legs and gobbled up my engorged genitals. But as the shredded carnage between my legs began to gush a torrent of blood into the dirt, rather than any agony, I experienced what I can only describe as the most astonishing orgasm of my entire life.

I cannot explain this, Papa. I simply know that it was.

While still in the midst of my ecstatic twitching and sputtering, a pair of Azazel’s unicorns from The Wayward Forest drew near. Black as onyx and as graceful as eels, they were as darkly majestic as you’d described them, with their flaming eyes and poisoned-tipped horns, which they promptly drove into my belly, goring me without mercy.

Yet, again to my astonishment, I felt no pain at being impaled. Instead, a kind of honeyed warmth pervaded my body, as if I’d been pierced to the core by the purest, sweetest joy.

The terrible swamp fairies of Limberlost descended upon me next, darting all around me with their gossamer wings and chomping metallic teeth, and setting to work affectionately devouring my cheeks, lips, and eyes, as well as the succulent meat of my arms, thighs, and buttocks. I moaned with delight as the slithering white wyrm of The Moorlands fell upon my stomach and intestines, consuming them all with a ravenous, slurping guzzle. Then the voluptuous nixie marauders of The Bloody Isle carried off my gleeful heart and remaining viscera, while the greedy gnomes of Demon Tor came to snack jauntily on my fingers and toes, and the devil-eyed Pan of Endymion’s Wake emerged from the ground to gnaw merrily on my remaining bones as if they were ambrosia.

Finally, the only thing that remained of me was my head, which was lovingly dispatched by the fat, hawk-beaked harpy from that untitled novel you never bothered to finish. She bore the queerest resemblance to Mom, Papa, and swooped down from the branches of a nearby tree to take hold of my skull, crushing it like a walnut with her sharp beak and savoring the delicious fragments of bone and brain that cascaded to the ground.

And then I was gone.

I assure you, as incredible as all of this may sound, once my brothers and sisters began the task of transfiguring me into one of their own, I felt no pain or fear. It was as if I’d at last been suffused by a wondrous sense of purpose and fellowship, and the experience was not the least unpleasant, despite how gruesome it may sound. In fact, it was all so unspeakably beautiful I will not sully the memory by struggling with inadequate language to convey the depth of emotion it stirred within me. Suffice it to say those feelings still remain, indelible and ineffable even in death, which is why I can swear earnestly now that I have no idea how I came to be found hanging by my belt from that hawthorn tree behind our cottage.

You could never have driven me to suicide, Papa.

I am not my mother’s son.

Despite what the world may believe about my demise, what I’ve told you here tonight is the actual truth. I am no ghost. This is no fairy tale. These are the facts of how I died, as accurately as I can recount them. And now that my story has been transcribed by your very own hand, I think you will have no choice but to care for me, Papa, just as you have always cared for them, my brothers and sisters, unencumbered as they are by the baser human aspects of flesh and blood and need. More than the mere fruit of your loins, we are the product of your genius, and so we are, dear Papa, all that is truly worthy of your devotion.

And because I know how deeply you must feel for me now, I also know that you will do as I ask and go to see Jamie again. You will talk to him for me, only this time without the press and police and accusations. You will apologize for what you did to us. You will explain to him what truly occurred to me that night in the forest. Perhaps you’ll even let him read what I’ve compelled you to write here. You will free him from the yoke of guilt he’s borne unfairly all this time, and make him see that what happened to me was not his fault at all, but simply the way things needed to be in order for your only son to finally know your love.

This is, after all, the very least you can do.

About the Author

Rob Costello (he/him) is a queer man who writes dark fiction for and about queer youth. He holds an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and is an alumnus of the Millay Colony for the Arts and the New York State Summer Writers Institute. His short stories have appeared in Hunger Mountain, Stone Canoe, Eclectica, Light and Dark Magazine, and Narrative, and are forthcoming in Rural Voices: 15 Authors Challenge Assumptions About Small-Town America (Candlewick, October 2020). Visit www.cloudbusterpress.com to find out more.