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Ghostling

Welch fucks the ghosts in the orchard. Before, it was the alleys, but the bricks of the five and dime were rough and the alley ground too wet and cold. In the orchard, it’s all long grasses gone to gold, the softness of rotting trees and fruit underfoot. The apples taste like cider, intoxicating if suckled too long, the wild roses black with hard thorns.

The ghosts don’t care whether it’s the orchard or the alleys; they come where Welch summons them, never making a sound, always smelling like mud. The alleys were more dangerous, the likelihood of someone rounding a corner to find Welch and a wraith higher, but Welch enjoyed that possibility. Still, the orchard is safer, and once Furst showed up, Welch knew the alley was right out. If someone caught a glimpse of Furst, there was no telling what madness might be loosed.

Furst, beloved performer of a weary nation, dead in the ground only two weeks. Welch has never seen such a new ghost, those who come usually being ages old, but Furst already knows the rules, already knows that when the living asks of a ghost, the ghosts get to take. They always want Welch’s body, because a body is what they miss most. A presence. A warmth, a heartbeat, the feel of skin over muscle. It hurt at first—Welch supposes all first things do—allowing a ghost under the skin, beneath a lung, into a cage of ribs.

Welch takes a breath, untangling limbs and clothes from the half-solid form of Furst still draped against the tree. He’s a new arrival, and Welch hadn’t intended to summon him, but then nothing about this system—this ability—has been intentional. Welch stares at the ghost, as perfect as the man had been in life—less solid but no less sensual. He hasn’t gone gray with age yet, still hues of wind-blown sand and lavender the way he’d been alive, a hint of stacked heels and fluttering scarves.

The cigarettes that have tumbled from a jacket pocket are damp with rotten apples, but one lights just fine. Welch takes a longer breath.

“How does this work then?” Furst asks. “You summon me and I . . . what.”

The first time a ghost spoke, Welch broke out in hives that necessitated the wearing of long sleeves for a month. Now, it’s just an elongated, low shiver against the spine, rattling into the skull.

“It’s not precise,” Welch says, plucking the jacket from the ground. The sleeves are damp, but Welch pulls it on anyhow. “It’s never precise.” Welch tucks the cigarettes back into the jacket pocket, but doesn’t miss the way Furst follows the motion. Plenty of ghosts hold on to what they loved in life, and this one seems no exception, so Welch leans in and exhales smoke into Furst’s face.

The ghost’s eyes roll shut—do ghosts have eyes, Welch has never stopped wondering—and a shudder moves through the body that is elegant even in its afterlife.

“Again,” Furst whispers through bee-stung lips.

Welch blows again, almost amused, but then the ghost dissolves, lost in the haze of smoke so that one becomes the other, until eventually Welch stands alone in the orchard, shadows deepening as does night.

“Shit.”

Welch smokes the cigarette to cinders on the way back into the city. Ghosts generally linger longer than that, some taking an uncomfortable amount of time before they step off. Welch doesn’t know why, hasn’t found a pattern though has kept good track in a book that would make sense to no one else. No names, only initials, just in case. It wouldn’t do, to have a list of dead celebrities and the dates of their post-mortem appearances.

Most times, Welch doesn’t think anyone else would care. The meetings would be brushed off as hallucinations—grief did strange things to people, and hadn’t Welch’s mother—

Stop right there, Welch would say. It isn’t about—

“But it’s always about the mother,” Lisa says as they sit thigh against thigh at the sushi bar, rain pouring from the neon-edged sky, drumming on the metal awning. Lisa fingers a ruby slice of tuna into her mouth and Welch smokes. “Any leads?”

Lisa believes, as do so many others, that Welch’s mother is missing. That she, as have many others, has been taken by parties unknown, to be used and abused, erased and rewritten. But Welch’s mother is not missing, she is dead, killed by the man who swore to love her above all things.

Welch leans against Lisa just a little more, reaching for the squat bottle of warm beer they share. Cold fish, but warm beer, and no one cares; it fills a belly. Welch drinks and considers. Furst was not a lead, didn’t stick around long enough to be one. His appearance might be a clue to something, but Welch has no idea what. With all the ghosts, there’s never a pattern to their comings and goings.

“No.”

The tuna is so cold against Welch’s tongue, a shiver soon follows. Welch chews and wonders if sushi would be the thing most-missed when death calls. Will it be fish, of all fucking things . . . Will Welch be a ghost begging sushi from Lisa’s fingers?

“Maybe she—” But Lisa doesn’t finish the sentence. She doesn’t have to.

Maybe she left. Lots of people do, of course, and Welch has considered it. But Welch saw the death, the spill of blood across the kitchen floor, and that was the first night— The first night Welch took to the alleys and met a ghost. It wasn’t intentional.

The first ghost was Iris Lesley, looking as if she had been peeled from a movie screen. She was all silver when the moonlight hit her, black and gray in the shadows. She moved like she hadn’t been in the ground for thirty years, like she was walking a red carpet in diamond slingbacks and McQueen gown. Welch hadn’t been able to look away, thinking the actress was a hallucination. After the knife across a throat . . . After all that blood . . . What might a mind do to erase it?

So Welch didn’t move when Iris Lesley did, allowing her ghostly fingers to stairstep their way up a cheek, into a tangle of hair, across and into a mouth. Iris Lesley was hot and tasted like ash, which didn’t surprise Welch one bit, given she had died in a studio fire that had consumed four blocks before it too died.

“I can tell you,” Iris Lesley said, and the hives rippled into being. “About your mother.”

Welch only stared, watching her eyes as the moonlight played over them, eclipsed and then not; black and then silver. Iris Lesley moved closer, eyes going black, and her ash hands slid over Welch’s chest, downward across belly and hip. Welch had jerked away, and before the question could be asked—why, how, what the hell—Iris Lesley dissolved, the motion away from her, Welch now understood, being taken as a refusal.

“Maybe she left,” Welch says to finish Lisa’s thought. Lisa watches from eyes as blue as any of the neon glowing above them. Welch wants to crush her mouth in a kiss, but settles for feeding her another slice of the perfect tuna. How, in this hellhole, they have such sweet fish remains a mystery; as with the ghosts, Welch doesn’t want to dig too deeply to find an answer. Some things simply are.

When they part, Welch walks the damp streets, the alleys too, smoking three cigarettes to ash. With the flick of the third filter, a rotting ghost shambles into Welch’s path, and strikes before Welch can think where they are.

The alley ground is old cobblestone from the first settlements, rain water collecting in the brick grooves. Trash gathers, too, cellophane wrappers, soggy sandwich crusts, nut shells, and an eraser that is astoundingly pink as the ghost floods over Welch.

It’s like drowning, because for a moment there is no light and no air, only the in between of both, a distinct lack. Welch does not flounder—the violent ghosts enjoy that too much—but flattens against the ground, no matter the wet trash. Wet trash, Welch thinks, sending the thought to the ghost. A bouillabaisse of garbage. Much the way Welch can summon the ghosts, they can also be repelled.

The ghost is off like a shot, as if someone has yanked its ephemeral form away like a blanket. Welch rolls, staring at the ghost as it floats away. Old and torn around the edges, its face melting in streams of running chalk, the ghost is no one Welch recognizes. Welch thinks that ghosts get like this when they’re older than anyone remembers. What remains of the ghost’s face wavers, as if it is crying. But it’s not tears, Welch knows; it’s anger. With a shriek, the ghost spins itself into oblivion, not even a trace of fog remaining in the alley once it is gone.

Welch doesn’t know exactly why they come, but they all seem to want the same thing: a body. Most people can’t see the ghosts, so aren’t troubled, but Welch— Welch can see them and they know, and so they come. Wanting.

In the morning, the orchard is cold, wreathed with fog like ghosts and it gives Welch pause. In the rising sun, the fog has a quality unlike ghosts; ghosts don’t glow or blind the way sunlit fog does—so Welch relaxes until the ghost of Iris Lesley parts the clouds. She walks through the trees with a purpose, though Welch wonders if she’s ever not purposeful. As in life, so too in death. Iris Lesley crouches and touches Welch’s boots, squeezing knees through damp jeans. Her fur wrap pools around her like new fallen snow.

It’s usually mornings when Welch thinks of her, because it was morning in The Long Golden Day, Iris Lesley’s debut. She’d been thirty-nine years old. No one expected her to do all she did—no one made their debut at thirty-nine, didn’t anyone tell you darling, but Iris Lesley did. Welch remembers the way the sunlight filled her hair, revealing not the flat brown the critics took pleasure in bad-mouthing, but countless colors—colors like the forest, Welch still thought, though now she is a forest in winter, silvered and snowy.

“Always this time of day,” she says, but it’s not a complaint. She crawls up Welch’s legs, burrowing her face into a warm neck, a tangle of hair. Can ghosts tell time?

Welch fucks Iris Lesley in the orchard, or perhaps it’s Iris Lesley who fucks Welch; Welch loses focus with this one, maybe because she was the first. Welch doesn’t care that it hurts when Iris Lesley pries her way into the heart’s tightly locked case; doesn’t care that muscles shriek with pain and loss when she floods out. After, in the long, flattened grasses, Welch can only stare and try to breathe. The pack of cigarettes is empty.

“She’s more distant now,” Iris Lesley says, “It’s not enough to remember her—you think it should be, that memory burning brighter than ever, even after all this time.”

All this time. Welch can’t count the years—doesn’t want to. The knife across the throat, the blood across the floor. Welch was crouched so as not to be seen, but Welch was also smaller, not grown. All this time.

“What will you do with her, anyhow?” Iris Lesley wants to know.

There’s no answer for that. Welch just wants to see her. Wants to know if— No. Everything’s not all right, and can’t ever be. Welch just wants to see her. Wants to know that she doesn’t blame anyone but her killer. Wants to know she doesn’t blame Welch.

Iris Lesley makes a sound nearly like a cat’s purr. She rises from the grass and begins to blend with the fog, speaking the words Welch has never wanted to hear.

“She can’t come, you know. Those who are—” And here she pauses, as if she cannot even speak the word. “—taken are . . . different.”

That’s not the word. Welch stands and says, “Murdered.”

Iris Lesley vanishes and with her the fog; the orchard is suddenly clear, sunlight streaming painfully bright through the dead and broken branches. Welch flinches and fingers the empty cigarette pack.

The five and dime isn’t busy, but Welch avoids the few people who are there. The aisles are full of things no one really needs, though the empty shelf spaces speak to what they do want: lipsticks, lemon candies, cigarettes. There is one pack remaining when Welch reaches the counter. The clerk holds the pack as if he doesn’t mean to sell it to Welch of all people.

“You find Martha yet?”

Not Welch’s mother—the clerk’s dead wife. “No.”

It wasn’t that Welch couldn’t find her, more that Welch didn’t want to. Martha Kaye had been a cruel woman, had drowned more than stray dogs in river. They’d been going to lock her up, take her away forever, but the strays got to her first. Rumor had it, they’d lured her to the river, giving up one of their own so as to catch her off guard. Leap on her, drag her down, and— They’d eaten half of her, hadn’t they? People said so. Welch stares at the clerk.

“It’s not precise,” Welch says.

Kaye rings up the cigarettes and Welch leaves without another word. Most folks don’t believe in ghosts or that anyone can see them, let alone talk with them. Most days, Welch doesn’t believe it, either. The cellophane wrap on the cigarette pack crinkles as Welch pulls it loose and shakes a cigarette free.

Martha stands across the street, eye narrowed. She’s only got the one now, half of her just plum gone. She crosses her single arm across her half chest, but does not otherwise move. Welch does not go to her, only lights the cigarette and breathes deep. A few breaths later, Welch makes a note in the notebook, and counts the lines up as Martha moves on and disintegrates.

According to the initials—and Welch remembers the names, every single one—there are more women ghosts than men. Welch wonders if it’s something specific about the time or the place; traveling isn’t a thing Welch does, so there’s no way to get a broader demographic. There’s no way to even know if this ability is a thing elsewhere. Welch both wants to know and wants never to know.

Welch adds the day’s date to Martha’s line and slides the notebook away.

The summoning of ghosts isn’t about sacrifice and isn’t about wants, least Welch doesn’t think so. Welch has sacrificed a very normal life in order to speak with them, has all but given up wanting a normal life—

That’s not true, Lisa whispers.

Lisa’s not dead, but her voice could be a ghost all its own, butting into Welch’s head the way a cat might if it were looking for affection. Welch silently allows that a normal life would be a good thing and maybe that’s why the search for one dead woman has been so all-consuming. Find the mother, speak to the mother, life would slide back into rhythm.

“But what then?” Furst smokes out of Welch’s body that night in the orchard, having spent the evening burrowed in the cradle of Welch’s stomach. “What rhythm?”

Welch exhales, exhausted, and it’s more ghost than smoke that trails out. Gossamer fingers stroke Welch’s lips, chin, collarbone. Welch’s eyes slide shut.

“There’s none,” Welch says. The memory of a job hovers just outside reach. There had been one, once. Welch reaches for the cigarettes and spends the next eight minutes blowing streams of smoke into Furst’s face and mouth. Furst is redolent when they finish, glowing. Welch remembers the man looked like that in life, too. Had never dreamed Furst would be here like this, but he was, and Welch takes advantage, wanting pleasure to erase pain if only for a breath.

Welch fucks Furst in the orchard until Furst falls entirely to pieces, thin threads of fog in the long, crushed grass. When Welch can stand again, it’s only by leaning against a rotting tree, fingers curled into the soft, umber bark. Welch smells like rotting cider by the time it’s Lisa’s turn to be leaned on.

“Any leads?” Lisa is gentle when she pushes Welch away, reaching for tuna cold and ruby, drinking down more warm beer, rolling sticky rice into balls she pops past her chapped lips.

“No,” Welch says.

It has become less about leads, Welch thinks; more about . . . There is no word, no word for the feeling that rocks through a body when a ghost is taken inside. But there are words amassing for an idea, an idea that makes Welch shake. Sacrifice—one of a kind given up so that a goal can be achieved. But what then, Furst had wanted to know. The loss of everything, Welch thinks. Welch knows. Why did Martha drown all those strays; why did she at last take the child? The sacrifice of something understood to be of great value.

Lisa’s eyes are as blue as the neon above them when Welch turns to her on the stool. She watches a long time, waiting, never quite pressing for answers, although her eyes are pressing enough. She knows too much, but still hasn’t seen what Welch is capable of.

“Come with me.”

“Anywhere.”

Welch takes Lisa to the orchard, where the trees stand still and rotting. In early evening, they are shadowed and dark for reasons other than rot. At this angle, the light makes them look like ordinary trees. Welch doesn’t know if Lisa has ever been here, but by the look on her face, she has. She stands between two trees and looks at Welch as though she’d like to kill something. Someone.

“Anywhere but here,” she whispers. “What are you—”

The ghosts come out of the trees, unbidden. Welch counts four of them before Lisa finally moves. She steps backwards, hands held in front of her to ward them off.

Welch doesn’t recognize any of the ghosts—and didn’t summon any of them—but they move toward Lisa as if they know her. And Lisa— She knows them. Her face creases with sorrow, then pain.

It’s always about the mother, Lisa said, and Welch watches as one of the women tries to scoop Lisa into her ethereal arms. Watches as Lisa pushes the ghostly hands off and away, for she is no child to be scooped. Not now—she is grown and weary of the world, the world she believed gone when the cider press collapsed and took her family with it. Beyond the trees, Welch can now see the hump of the old cottage and its failed press. Can smell the death that lingers in its crevices and can hear Lisa’s screams of so long ago, coupled with those of today, of now.

The ghosts press Lisa to the ground and her shriek claws into the branches. Welch brought her here for this—a sacrifice to the ghosts so that a dead mother might at long last come, but not these ghosts, these vicious and starving things that have not known bodies for decades. Blackness robes them, decay dripping from them as they stretch arms around Lisa’s protesting body. Their mouths stretch into holes that could swallow the world entire. Welch cannot reach her, for another ghost slides from a tree, to settle itself onto and around Welch’s shoulders.

Welch pulls the smaller ghost to the ground where, in the long wet grass, one soul seems to part from another. Welch knows the way a body opens to a ghost, but not how a ghost may open to a body. Welch forces the ghost to open now, and finds, within the hollow center, a case locked and latched. Welch’s fingers work the locks as if they are long familiar and well-known, and when the case opens, Welch sees—knows—that this ghost is well beloved, that this ghost is most dear; that this small and cowering ghost is younger Welch, kneeling on the floor until knees go numb and hardly know the touch of a mother’s spreading blood. Welch gasps, locks dangling from fingers as the case opens, as the heart unfolds.

It should be warm—but this heart has grown cold, its walls streaked with cobwebs and ice. Fingers do not melt these formations, or seem capable of prying them loose. Welch stands rooted within the heart for a long while, thinking the space should be too small—but finds that a child’s heart is boundless and holds a broken adult far too easily. Welch drops to knees, ice cracking beneath.

“Welch,” Welch whispers. “Get up. Get up.”

Child-Welch rises in the distant memory, knees sticky with blood, but once up doesn’t know where to go.

“Away,” Welch whispers. And then, “To me!”

Across the years, the child runs from the horror of that long-ago moment, into the orchard of now, now where Welch opens quaking arms and enfolds that which was lost. Not a mother—a mother taken, a mother murdered and unable to return, but something almost more dear taken that day: a future.

Welch opens eyes to Lisa on the ground, kicking and scratching the ghosts away. Get up, Welch thinks; to me!

On steady legs, Welch rises, and summons the ghosts, and does what no one would ever believe was possible. Welch quiets them and presses them into the ground, beyond the long, gold grasses where the ghosts find their long-forgotten bones and remember what it was to inhabit them. They have no breath and Welch’s is not for giving, so they still and quiet, and no longer shriek. Lisa, watching her mother find her rest at long last, also quiets and curls into Welch’s arms.

Welch smooths Lisa’s hair down, and calls to Furst, to Iris Lesley, and Martha, and all the others, but for the first time in a long time, they do not come and the orchard stands silent, becalmed.

About the Author

E. Catherine Tobler has never frolicked with ghosts in strange orchards, but there’s probably still time. Among others, her fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and on the Sturgeon Award ballot. Follow her on Twitter @ECthetwit or her website, www.ecatherine.com.