Touched, Part One

by Tom Jolly

We were racing down a steep slope covered with fine, dry snow, broad sprays of ice fanning out behind us. It would have been exhilarating were it not for the million tons of snow chasing close behind.

I didn’t want to turn to look; that might slow me down. Of the four of us, I could only make out hazy outlines of two nearby. Raj was wearing bright red, so I figured it must be Michael and Frosty. I hoped Raj had somehow managed to get ahead of us, or slip off to the side, but the avalanche behind us was gaining fast.

The leading edge of the wall of snow and ice stomped down hard on the ends of my skis, holding me back just long enough for its cold embrace to wrap around me, slamming me down. Both my boots separated from the skis as I was shoved forward, tumbling into the roiling mass. Ten seconds of disorienting terror in the belly of the rumbling giant finally brought me to a standstill.

I tried to move. My hands were inches from my face, but the rest of my body was locked in a crushing tomb of ice. Dim gray light filtered in from above, and I managed to move my hands just enough to push away a small pocket of snow, giving me the illusion that there was extra air to breathe. Pain in my right leg made me gasp. It had to be broken. I struggled to move my arms further, but they were pinned to the side of my body, folded upward like a praying mantis’ legs.

I wondered how long I could last like that, and then another lighter rumble sounded above me, and the dim gray light darkened further. The cold soaked into me, numbing my shattered leg, and I closed my eyes as the tiny pocket of air before my face quickly staled.

# # # 

When I came to, my limbs had suddenly become easier to move. The pain in my leg was gone. I struggled to climb through the snow, and moved through it as though it was loose cotton. The cold seemed to have abated, or perhaps I was so numb from it I no longer felt it. It’d be just my luck to survive this, but lose my toes and fingertips to frostbite.

I climbed out onto the top of the snow, took a relieved breath, and sat down. A helicopter flew overhead. Farther down the hill, I could see a rescue team beginning to spread out, jabbing tall poles into the soft snow. A retriever and a Mudi pulled two dog handlers forward. I waved and shouted without standing, but they didn’t see me.

Michael appeared beside me minus his skis and his cap. “Hey, Jeremy. I think Raj and Frosty made it.”

I waved at the searchers again. “They can call off the search then. Man, that was close.”

“They won’t call it off yet. They still need to find our bodies.”

I stopped waving and looked up at him, squinting in the white glare of the snow.

“Mine’s over there. Snapped my neck from the looks of it.” He pointed to a small dark mound twenty feet away. “At least I didn’t get buried.”

I didn’t stand up for a minute, just stared downhill at the search party. Then I shoved my hand into the snow next to me and tried to pick up a handful. The snow passed through my hand. “Well, hell.”

“Huh. That’s almost what I said.”

“We’re dead?”

“Looks that way. Didn’t think it would be like this.”

I stood up slowly, wondering why I didn’t just fall through the snow if I couldn’t pick it up, and walked over to where the dark mound was. Sure enough, Michael’s lifeless eyes looked back up at me, his head twisted at an unnatural angle.

I looked back at the ghost-Michael. He shrugged.

“And here I thought frostbite was going to be a problem,” I said. “What happens now?”

“Wait for the grim reaper?”

“Aw, hell.”

“What?”

“I lost where my body is. No footprints,” I said, pointing back the way we came.

“Does it matter?” he asked.

I sighed and sat back down in the snow, noticing that I didn’t feel cold at all. I didn’t feel anything. We just watched the search team progress slowly up the mountainside. It would be a good thirty minutes before they moved up to where we were.

“So we’re ghosts. Do we haunt the mountain?” I asked.

“Nobody around to tell us the rules.” Michael said. “Maybe go to Heaven, or something?” He looked up into the scattered clouds.

“You think something is up there besides a vacuum?”

“I don’t know. Do you?” he snapped at me. He shook himself, then said, “Sorry, man. Maybe I should see my Mom, let her know...” His voice faded away when he realized what he was saying.

“The search team will notify her.”

“Yeah.” He nodded somberly. “I guess they will.”

“So?”

“I’ll check out the Heaven theory.” He rose up in the air a few feet.

“Hey, you can fly!”

“Yeah. I figured that out when I saw you climb out of the snow. Matter doesn’t stop us or support us. All in the mind, now. Ghost physics.” He flapped his arms. “You just need to imagine the direction you want to go.”

I stood up and tentatively walked up a flight of imaginary stairs, hovering a few feet from Michael. He laughed, accelerated upward, and disappeared into the sky.

Heaven can wait, I thought, and settled back down onto the snow to watch the rescue teams. I considered lowering my ghostly self into the snow to search for my own body, but the claustrophobic feeling twisted my ghost-guts, and the prospect of seeing my own dead pale-blue corpse made me cringe.

I walked down the slope, wondering about the interaction between my feet and the snow, or whether my ghost-body was just pretending that there was some physical contact. The two search dogs yipped anxiously when I got close, but never actually looked in my direction. One myth dispelled, partly. Ski-less, I imagined myself sliding down the mountainside, and then suddenly I was moving, swiftly passing the search team and other skiers until I reached the parking lot. I found my car, reached for my keys, and then laughed softly to myself, which eventually broke down into sobs as I sank down into a crouch next to my useless Prius. Eventually, when they dug my body out of the snow, they’d find the keys and return my car to—to—where? Maybe my Dad? There wasn’t a will. Too young and too broke for that. Would Dad have a funeral for me?

I shook my head and got my emotions under control. I felt like I should be crying and collapsing in a heap, but I had to admit, curiosity was getting the better of me. Or I was still in shock from the transition. After all, this was good news, in a way. There’s an afterlife! The Big Question answered, and all I had to do was die to find out. But it had its own rules, and I had to learn them from scratch. Or ask another ghost.

I heard a meow down at my feet, and looked down at a gray and white cat trying unsuccessfully to rub my leg, passing through it. Instinctively, I tried to pet it, but my hand also passed through. It looked up at me accusingly, as though I wasn’t trying hard enough. Yeah, it could see me. Then, it walked away, passing through a tire as it went under a car.

A ghost cat.

That got me looking around the ski resort. There had to be millions of ghosts for every species if every animal left a ghost behind. It didn’t look that crowded. But maybe snow-covered mountaintops weren’t the best place for ghosts to hang out. Or maybe ghosts just didn’t last that long.

I looked closely at my hands. There were wrinkles on them, but not really distinct. Then I noticed the fact that I was still wearing clothes. Ghost clothes? Why would my clothing follow me into death? Shouldn’t I be naked? Was I doomed to wear ski boots for all eternity? There were a lot of things I had to learn.

At the edge of the parking lot, there was an ambulance. I could see Raj and Frosty standing nearby, staring up the hill a half-mile away from where my body was buried and sipping steaming coffee like they were in a cafe. I willed myself over to where they were standing. It felt more like a camera zoom function than flying, though I could also sense the faintest of breezes when I moved that fast. So, there was some tiny interaction with real matter. That was weird.

I walked around Raj and Frosty, but they were totally oblivious. “Hey!” I shouted in Raj’s face. “Hey, it’s me! I’m a ghost!” No reaction at all. I slapped at his cup of coffee, but my hand passed through with barely a ripple. I couldn’t feel the warmth of it, just like the snow had no effect on me.

“Man,” Raj said, “it’s been over an hour.”

“Yeah. Someone’s got to call the parents,” said Frosty.

“Jeremy was dating some chick from a restaurant? Or was it a bank? You should tell her, too.”

“Why me?”

“Don’t you know her?”

“Not really.” Frosty wrinkled his nose. “He’s only been with her a few weeks, I think. I met her for a couple of minutes. If they find his body, maybe her number will be on his cell.”

“I’ll call Michael’s parents, you deal with Jeremy’s dad.”

A fuzzy gray ball appeared in the air to my left and morphed suddenly into a pair of lips and eyes, floating disembodied near my head. “Hey, you one of the fresh deaders?” The eyes swept up and down my body, surveying or calculating. “Still got your ski boots on, heh. Where’s the other guy?”

I stepped away from my friends and the eye-lip apparition followed me. Apparently I needed to get used to serious weirdness pretty fast. “The other guy—my friend Michael—flew up to see if he could get into Heaven.”

The eyes blinked a couple of times and the lips smiled. “Heh, heh. He’ll be back. It’s just space up there. Big vacuum. You go down, it’s just lava. You go up, just space. No Hell, no Heaven. Heh.”

“So where’s your body?” I asked. “Did you die in an explosion or something?”

The lips bobbed up and down in the air, wide open, as though laughing. The eyes looked a little crazy, drifting around the open mouth. I could see thin tendrils, like tendons, connecting the triad together. “Explosion! Hah! No, I look like this to save energy. Live a long, long time. Only talk and see. All that extra body,” its eyes spun around me, “does nothing but make you pretty, see. Very pretty. Light and energy!”

So, new data point for me; living as a ghost for a long time makes you freaking nuts.

“You are new here, so maybe I’ll show you around, hey? You give me your useless ski boots, pay me. Then I’ll show you the ropes, teach you how to be a ghost proper.”

I looked down at my ski boots, wondering again where they came from when I died, and it occurred to me that whatever mind or essence or whatever I’d become happened to include the boots. I probably expended some part of my soul, or energy, as this odd ghost referred to it, manifesting the things I wore. They were, literally, a part of me. And this other ghost-creature wanted me to give them up. It was bartering with the newbie to scoop a good deal.

“I think I’ll try to wing it, my friend. I like my shiny boots,” I said. And how hard could it be, learning how to be dead?

The thing pursed its lips petulantly and rolled its eyes. “Your loss! When the eaters come to get you, you will wish you’d given me your boots!” It morphed back into a gray ball of fuzz and drifted away on some imaginary breeze.

Eaters, huh? Something to worry about even after you were dead. It figured. A dark cloud passed ominously overhead and I glanced up; tens of thousands of pigeons flew past. Pigeons, at this altitude? And then I realized that there was no shadow from the flock; it was a flight of dead pigeons. Carrier pigeons, perhaps—I still didn’t know how long a ghost could survive, though judging by the flying eye-lip thing, there were predators in the mix that could shorten that death-span. I looked up at the flock again; the bottom side of each pigeon was dark, in ghost-shadow, but the birds cast no shadow on the Earth. How did that work? I shook my head. Light acted funny for the dead.

I decided to head back to my apartment, lacking anything else to do. The crazy ghost thought that Michael would return when he found out that there was no heaven, so he might already be headed to my apartment, looking for me. I walked down the road from the resort, momentarily forgetting I could fly. A man sitting on a bench nodded to me. He wore a double-breasted suit and a fedora, tipped back so I could see his eyes. “Hi,” he said.

“Hey.”

“You come out of that avalanche?”

“Not intact. You?”

“I froze to death on a hike back in 1935.”

“And you’ve been sitting here ever since?” I asked.

He chuckled. “No, I get around a bit. Hiking trails, ski resorts. Sometimes I can help out the recent dead, like you, and sometimes the living,” he said.

“What? How does that work? They can’t see you and you can’t touch them.”

“Well, son...”

“Jeremy.”

The ghost smiled sadly, like he might have forgotten his own name. He didn’t volunteer it, either way. “Well, Jeremy, think about this. You can stand on the Earth or push your way through. In some tenuous way, you’re interacting with the dirt, right? It’s just a really thin interaction. Not much force to it.”

I thought about my recent Physics 101 class. “So instead of the normal electromagnetic force between particles, we’re left with a super weak version of it?”

The ghost shrugged. “I have no idea what you’re talking about, but I’ve heard other ghosts voice a similar idea. Yeah, maybe. Anyway, you can make the equivalent of a tiny zephyr in life-land if you try real hard. You can make flames flicker or help a fire catch when a man is freezing to death and trying to blow embers to life. Sometimes you can get the snow to fall off a cluster of berries when some animal is starving to death. Little, tiny things. You can become the invisible manifestation of coincidence and luck.”

I tried rubbing my imaginary chin, but my hand passed through myself. I hadn’t expected that. At least I thought I’d feel real to me.

“You say you froze to death on a hike?”

“Yup.”

“Dressed like that?” I motioned to his suit. “Or is there a place you can shop for nappy ghost clothes?”

He grinned. “You can make yourself look like whatever you want. You don’t have to go through eternity with ski boots on. It’s all in the mind.” He stuck his finger into the side of his head.

I looked down at my clothing and thought about a tee-shirt, blue jeans and sandals. It was that easy. I added a Ghostbuster logo to the tee as an afterthought.

“Cute. Ghost with a sense of humor. I saw that movie.”

“Ghosts watch a lot of movies, huh?”

“You wouldn’t believe it. The theaters are packed, ghosts on top of ghosts. Not a lot to do in ghost land, as you might imagine. Hazard of being a ghost, though, if you don’t really have any sort of purpose, you start to fade. Never seen a dinosaur ghost. Most animal and human ghosts just disappear after a few years. No goal, no purpose, no destination. Watching TV and movies can hold your interest only so long.”

“They should get cable.”

He shook his head and chuckled softly. “Just as well they fade. If all the animals were permanent ghosts, you’d barely be able to see anything with the crowd of ghosts around you.”

I remembered the ghost pigeons overhead. “So pigeons have a purpose?”

“They think they do. There are surprises. I’ve seen ghost bees. What purpose they chase without their queen, I’ve no clue. But I don’t know everything. I’ve only been dead for some eighty years, and how much of the world can you see in that brief time?”

So this stint as a ghost didn’t necessarily last forever. Good to know. “What’s the oldest thing you’ve met?”

“I think I met a Neanderthal and his wife once. Couldn’t get them to talk to me. I don’t know if they could. And I saw a woolly mammoth family. Bottom line, you can last pretty much as long as you want to last, if you can keep your life interesting without smell, taste, or touch. You really have to be goal oriented, or be so stupid that you just carry on out of instinct. Pigeons, for example. Living in partial sensory deprivation turns some ghosts loony. Like the lips-and-eyes fellow you just chatted with.”

I subconsciously tried to rub my hands together, and they passed through each other. I frowned. “Touching things.”

“It’s a big deal for most ghosts.” He sighed heavily. “What I wouldn’t pay to hold a woman’s hand, or feel her soft lips touch my own.” He stared at the snow-covered hill and a deep sadness filled his eyes. I looked up the hill with him, wondering whom he had lost and a little embarrassed that he’d chosen to share this with me. Far up the hill, I could just barely see my body being unceremoniously jerked out of a hole in the snow. I shivered, though I wasn’t cold.

“The other ghost mentioned ‘eaters’, like it’s something I should be worried about,” I said. “What’s that? Is there something that actually eats ghosts?”

“Not on this planet. He’s probably talking about the ghosts on Mars. They can eat Earth ghosts, but they’re stuck on Mars. They don’t go anywhere else. If you stay away from the surface, then they won’t come after you.” He shrugged. “Some new ghosts and some ghost-animals go flying off to Mars because they don’t know any better.”

“Mars has its own ghosts, huh?” That would mean that Mars used to have some sort of life on it long ago. I looked up in the sky, trying to absorb the implications of this strange new post-mortem world. “And I can fly in a vacuum?”

“That’s right,” he said. “You’re a ghost. You can go pretty much anywhere you want.”

I tried to put my hands on my hips and failed, but held the pose anyway. I would come to find out that most ghosts did this, even though they couldn’t feel themselves at all. Body language was just too much of a habit to discard right away. “I think I’ll see if I can find my friend Michael,” I said. “He’s probably still looking for Heaven.”

The stranger held up a hand in farewell. “Good luck. Maybe I’ll bump into you again someday.

I smiled, thinking, ‘in the night’. Then I rose up into the air, willing myself ever higher.

# # #

I was surprised with how quickly my incorporeal self could move through the sky, and kept turning to keep an eye out for Michael in case I passed him. Around me, at a distance, I could see other ghosts flitting by on whatever self-assigned purpose or task they’d given themselves, but none of them flew my way to chat. Michael was nowhere to be seen, and it was only minutes before I found myself above the atmosphere staring down at the globe of Earth. It occurred to me that I heard a faint hiss of atmosphere as I had flown upward, or “thought myself upward”. Still wasn’t too sure about the physics involved there. What was my motive force? There was a very mild interaction with the atmosphere, for sure. But here in the vacuum of space, absolute silence. “Hello?” I said experimentally, and could hear myself clearly. Air was not the carrier of a ghost voice. This made some sense. If air had been the carrier, then living people could hear us.

I looked up at the stars, the Sun, and the Moon. If I could sense light, wouldn’t it have to be reflected off something from my ghost form? And if so, wouldn’t some of it be reflected so that living people could see me? And yet it wasn’t. Somehow, we absorbed some light to see with, or there was an entirely different ghost spectrum that let us be seen by one another, but remain unseen by the living.

I flew back toward the ski resort, stopping a few miles above it. Below, I picked out the route from the ski resort to the freeway. From there I whizzed down the road two hundred miles back to my apartment, passing a school of fish in the air that were too dumb to know they were dead, or that they weren’t in the ocean. When I got to my apartment, I instinctively and futilely checked for my door keys (again), and finally flitted through the wall to get into my flat.

Not surprisingly, it was as I had left it. No sheets over the furniture, no dead flowers on the table. My answering machine was blinking with unheard messages, and I pushed my finger through the “play” button on the phone without realizing what I was doing, then glared at the cruel, taunting blinking light.

I ran a hand through the books on my shelves, unable to ever turn a page again, and stood guiltily looking at the box of old family photos in my closet that I’d never gotten around to scanning in. My dad would find those, at least, and someone else would get stuck with them. One more obligation ditched. Death bonus.

The dishes in the sink were a bit moldy, which usually happened when I took off on a ski trip. On the plus side, I couldn’t smell them.

I walked around the apartment for a few minutes, saying goodbye to all the meaningless inanimate junk I left behind, and was ready to leave when I heard my neighbor amorously engaging his girlfriend. Loudly.

This was a regular event that kept me awake more than once, not because of the sweet sensuality of the event, but because of the raucous, rowdy, wall slamming energy involved. But what the hell, I was a ghost now.

I stepped into their bedroom, through the poorly insulated wall, and watched Howard as he went through his sloppy awkward performance. I suppose it might have been titillating except for the heavy awareness that this was something I could never, ever do again. Hell, I couldn’t even touch my own body, much less someone else’s. I turned away, depressed, flew through the ceiling, and headed for my Dad’s house to see how he was taking the news of my unexpected demise.

# # #

Dad’s house was only twenty miles away, so I got there in less than a minute, with most of that time used up trying to get my bearings. Landmarks just look different from the air.

I slipped through the roof of his house, landing gently in the living room. The TV was going, selling some new blood pressure drug, and Dad was in the kitchen clattering dishes together.

I drifted into the kitchen where Dad had the sleeves of his sweatshirt rolled up, his hands in soapy water scrubbing on a plate. To my left, I heard a woman’s voice say, “Oh, no. Please, not you, too.”

Turning slowly, still hovering inches above the ground, I found my mother staring at the noticeable gap between my toes and the floor.

My eyes widened. “Mom?” She’d died six years ago at the hands of a drunk driver who was probably still in jail. And here was her ghost, watching Dad do the dishes.

She put her hands to her face, a memory of an action representing pain. She couldn’t actually touch her face, but still I heard her cry. “This will kill your father,” she sobbed. “It was bad enough when I died, but you were there to support him. I saw what you did for him.”

“He doesn’t know I’m dead?”

Mom shook her head. “There have been no calls yet. I can’t believe you’re...you’re...”

“Yeah,” I said. I wanted to run over and hug her, but realized the futility of the gesture. Instead, I just stood next to her, pretending to rest my ghost-hand on her shoulder, dropping the pretense after a few awkward seconds. “I died while skiing at Mammoth. Got buried in an avalanche. Me and, um, Michael.”

She sighed and nodded. “Michael was a nice boy,” she said softly.

I almost laughed. When she was alive, she talked about Michael like he was the son of Satan, leading me into ruin, that is to say, we did what pretty much all teens did at that age and got into as much trouble as we could. Well, that was then. Maybe she’d been watching over us when we weren’t aware. Which, when I thought about everything that entailed, was really embarrassing. I hoped she spent most of her time watching over Dad, instead.

My timing was impeccable; the phone rang while we were standing together. My Dad quick-dried his hands on a dishtowel and picked up his cell phone from the charging cradle. “Hello? Oh, hi, Frosty. How’s the snow?”

The hazy phantasm that was my heart clenched in pain.

It was like watching a slow-motion cave-in, seeing my Dad crumple into himself. “Yeah?” he croaked. “Where is…” he stopped for a few seconds and took a deep breath, holding the phone down at his side. When he got control of himself, he lifted the phone to his ear. “Where is Jeremy now?” he asked, voice coarse with emotion. Frosty talked for a minute longer. “Okay. Okay. I’ll take care of it from here. Thank you, Franklin.” He hung up.

It jarred me to hear someone to use Frosty’s real name, but I understood. It was formal. Formality isolated the pain in some way.

Dad leaned on the counter with both hands and cried. It only lasted for a few minutes, then he stood there, still, composing himself in silence, eyes closed. Slowly, he stood erect and dialed a number on his phone, presumably to call whoever had possession of my body and make whatever arrangements needed to be made. I didn’t want to stick around to listen.

“Mom? I don’t want to see this.”

She smiled slightly through her ghostly tears and said, “I understand. Go. I’ll watch over your father.”

I nodded, and flew from my father’s house relieved and guilty to be running away from his pain, but also knowing I could do nothing to diminish it. Powerless.

# # #

It was getting dark outside. I flew to the top of the tallest building in town and watched the sun set, then I flew straight up a few miles and watched it set again, the sun shining down on the tops of some scattered clouds. In the opposite direction, a nearly full Moon crested the horizon, its blemished face begging for a friend.

The Moon. Not so far away, really. Well, why not?

I looked up at it and willed myself in its direction, slowing periodically to see if the thinning atmosphere was having any effect on me. A hundred miles up, and no problem. Ah, NASA, you’d be so envious if you could see me now. I pointed myself at the Moon and flew hard. The visual sense of acceleration as the Earth dropped away, while lacking any force, was exhilarating. Within a minute, I was hovering over the stark rocky surface. On the edge of a crater, I could see a bright patch of green and red. On the Moon? It could only be another ghost. I shouldn’t have been surprised. I’d been a ghost for less than an hour, and I already thought to visit the Moon.

I flew down to where the other ghost sat. She had the form of a young woman with clothing that I guessed came from the late 1800’s, long dark hair tied back. A bright green petticoat with a burgundy dress. She’d been gazing at the Earth, which from this vantage hung just above the horizon, like the Earthrise photo taken so many years ago during the Apollo missions. She trained green eyes on me as I approached, and smiled. She was stunning.

“Enjoying the view?” I said.

“Every time, it’s like seeing it anew,” she replied. “For much of my life, my pastor told me the planet was flat.” She spread her hands wide, encompassing the Earth. “A falsehood. Or mistake.”

I sat beside her and looked up at our home planet. “It’s beautiful. And so clear.”

“I didn’t believe any of it at first,” she said. “But when you can go anywhere and see anything you wish, many falsehoods shed their clothing.” She examined me briefly. “Are you recently dead?”

“Less than two hours. As the hanged man said, I’m still learning the ropes.”

She looked surprised. “You were hanged?”

“No, that was just a little tasteless joke.” I pulled my knees up to wrap my arms around them, but my arms just passed through. I sighed and just leaned back on the boulder, willing my body to not fall inside of it. “Tell me something I should know, as a newbie ghost.”

She smiled. “You don’t need to eat.”

“But I like eating. A nice juicy burger, or a salmon steak...”

“Then you will be disappointed. You can drool your ghost drool on a living man’s steak, but that is as close as you will ever get. And since our sense of smell is gone as well, there is little to taunt your vaporous taste buds, regardless. As with touch, it is one of the many things you sacrifice to be immortal.” She put her hand on his shoulder, and it passed through. “I miss touching,” she said. “And food. But I don’t remember any tastes, anymore. It’s been too long.” She sighed, looking at her own hands. If I wasn’t mistaken, her ghostly image appeared more faded than my own.

“That will be hard to accept,” I said. “What else?”

“You can shape yourself any way you wish, and become any age you like. You can dress as you like. Or run around nude if you wish.”

I raised an eyebrow inquisitively, but didn’t say a thing.

“Anyway, you can choose how you wish to appear. I died from consumption when I was fifty-two.” She stood up and spun around. “But I choose to appear as I did when I was twenty-five. As well as I can remember, anyway.”

“Consumption?” I asked.

“What you modern folk call tuberculosis.” Her shoulders sagged. “Consumption seems so much more appropriate a word.”

“Sorry.”

“Ghosts never say sorry. We’re all dead, after all. It’s not like there’s any survivor guilt to go around.” She sat back down on the gray Moon boulder.

I found myself enjoying her company. “What else should I know?”

She sat there thinking for a moment. “Well,” she said, “you can separate bits of your body from yourself.” She manifested a brooch in one hand and tossed it in the air. It started to drift away, unaffected by the Moon’s gravity. She snatched it back into her hand before it got too far away, where it disappeared into her flesh. “If you let it go, it is no longer a part of you or your consciousness, and another ghost can steal it away. You can also absorb other ghost-mass and become larger, but you can’t force a ghost to sacrifice a part of their body.”

I nodded, beginning to understand. The strange creature I met at the ski resort was not only trying to cut a deal for my boots, but was trying to steal part of my body to replenish its own depleted self.

Martha sighed and she sat up. “I’ve been watching Earth for the last hour. Would you like to go somewhere more interesting?”

I looked up into the dark sky, glanced at the sun, noticing that it didn’t seem to hurt my eyes at all. “Like the sun?”

She shook her head. “That would kill you a second time, and whether there is a third world, the ghost of a ghost, no one can really say. Despite what you might think, there is some energy leaking between the two worlds, and enough energy will destroy you.”

“Hmm.” I tried to tap my lips thoughtfully, because it looked cool, but merely succeeded in waving my fingers through my face, looking like an idiot. I pointed at a star instead. “How about another star?”

She shook her head again. “It is not so easy coming back. I knew a lot of ghosts who traveled to other stars. They all said they would memorize the pattern of stars so they’d know how to get back, and only a couple of them managed to find their way.” She shrugged. “Or perhaps there is something out there that’s stopping them.” She pointed up to the Orion constellation. “Some of them don’t want to come back. Like the whales. A lot of them swim straight out to the Orion Nebula. Whales that leave Earth always swim toward nebulas. Perhaps they appear as new and distant oceans to them.”

I reached up to scratch my head, but stopped halfway up. Slow learner. “How about dolphins, fish, and stuff?”

“Them too. I’ve even seen dead fishermen follow them, though for the death of me I can’t see why. It’s not like they can go fishing.”

I dredged up memories from my last astronomy class. “That nebula is over a thousand light years away.”

“If you say so. Ghosts can move very fast, though. If you can see something, you can usually fly there in less than twenty minutes.”

Well, I thought, you can chuck relativity out the window for ghosts. “Mars would be interesting, but I’ve been told it’s unhealthy for ghosts.”

She nodded. “That is true. Mars is off limits unless you want to be eaten by the Martian monsters.”

“So I’ve heard.” Wow, I thought. If only the dead could talk to the living. Mars used to be alive! “So at sometime in the distant past, there must have been Martian creatures, and they died maybe millions of years ago, and they’re still drifting around Mars?”

“That seems to be true. They don’t fade like Earth ghosts. The must possess a powerful motivation to live.”

“Yeah, I’d say. Eating Earth ghosts! Who wouldn’t hang around a few million years for that chance?”

She laughed. “Fortunately, they never leave Mars,” she said. “But it’s not just Earth ghosts they harvest. There are also the ghost-creatures from Europa and Titan. And, of course, alien creatures from other solar systems. Some visit Mars, unaware, and do not return.”

I was reeling from information overload, trying to figure out if it was possible to communicate just a fraction of these revelations to living scientists. How it would change our view of the universe! Of course, if the ghosts of scientists from the last thousand years hadn’t figured out how to do it, chances were good that it was pretty damned hard to do. If only they knew!

She continued. “Jupiter has its own creatures flying among its clouds, but they never produce ghosts. It’s a curiosity. And the creatures are difficult to see in the dim light below the clouds.”

“Jupiter has life? I would have thought the radiation was too high for life to evolve there.”
“Regardless, there is still life there, even now. The ghosts on Europa are easy to see, however, and fascinating in their own right.”

I was stunned and just sat in silence for a few minutes, gazing blankly at the orb of Earth. I shook my head. So the host planet’s DNA determine whether a ghost is formed, or whether one can eat another? Finally, I said, “I would like to see Europa. Do you think the host creature determines the way a ghost forms?”

“Such a curious boy. I would be happy to take you to Europa. You know, we have a ghost research facility, sort of, at Berkeley. They could answer many of your questions.”

“Sort of?”

She spread her hands apologetically, spanning emptiness. “There are very few tools at hand with which to work. It’s more of a philosophical school, tossing around untestable conjectures by half-demented ghosts. There are but a tiny handful that perform empirical tests, striving for the morsels of meat in the stew.”

“Stew!” said someone behind us, startling us both. “What I would give for a hot stew!” We spun around.

Hovering behind us was a man wearing a bowler, a vest, and a long tailed coat. He looked a bit like a carnival barker, and even had a cane in hand. At his side, his other hand rested on a whip. Pretentious ghost-accessories.

He nodded to me and bowed to Martha, tricky with no ground under his feet. “Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Henri Lavoisier. I was flying along, admiring the stark contracts of our Moon, when I heard your voices across the ether! Imagine my surprise, finding other human ghosts here!”

Not really very surprising at all, I thought. It was one of the first places I considered going to. While I was aware that he couldn’t hurt us, I was nonetheless suspicious of the man.

Martha nodded back to him and said, “My name is Martha, and my companion’s name is Jeremy.”

“I’m pleased to meet you both! Enjoying the view?”

“Jeremy is freshly dead,” Martha said, “I’m giving him some tips on ghosthood.”

Henri guffawed loudly and said, “There’s much to learn, and much to see, Jeremy. You mustn’t forget to visit Saturn while you’re dead. The view from the rings is spectacular, though ultimately it is just a collection of rocks.” He winked at me, like it was some inside joke between us. It wasn’t. Looking back to Martha, he said, “My apologies for overhearing you as I approached, but you said you are involved with a research group?”

“A group of scientists at Berkeley, trying to figure out how the world of ghosts functions,” she said.

“Ah, noble work! Or perhaps Nobel work, if they had such a prize for ghostly scientists!” He grinned, unnecessarily proud of his joke. “I, myself, am a connoisseur of all things Mars.”

Martha looked surprised. “The ghost-eating planet?”

Henri chuckled and shook his head. “The planet is fine. It’s the monsters that are so hungry. One merely needs to know where they are and what their limits are to avoid their appetites. The Martian ghosts have their own unusual traits. They can eat and absorb other ghosts, but they are also unable to fly, bound by something analogous to gravity to the Martian surface. Hovering above them, we would be safe. If you are cognizant of their limitations, you can easily view them without danger. I have visited dozens of times.”

Martha seemed excited. “Mars is the very field of my own studies! Two of my great, great, great...well, my descendants, anyway, wish to help colonize the red planet in years to come. If they go there, live out their lives, and die, their ghostly bodies will immediately succumb to the voracious ghost-beasts there. I must find a solution to this problem! I have interviewed dozens of other scientists on the subject, but never have I had the opportunity to actually go there to study safely! And with a guide,” she said, nodding toward Henri.

Henri smiled brightly. “We could go there now!” He pointed up in the black sky with his cane at a small red dot.

Martha glanced suddenly at me, then back at Henri. “I promised Jeremy that I would take him to see the creatures on Europa. Afterwards, I will report back to my friends at Berkeley. We can meet at the labs and leave from there. They will need to know that I will soon be returning with new stories from Mars!”

I thought I saw a dark shadow pass over Henri’s face. It disappeared so quickly that I wasn’t certain of it. His hand tightened on the handle of his whip, and he forced his smile back in place a fraction of a second later. “Then I shall find you at Berkeley, once you’ve reported in.”

“Please do!” she said, delighted with the prospect.

Something really rankled me about this guy. Perhaps living in the 21st century, where scams proliferated in direct proportion to network speeds, had made me suspicious of everything and everyone.

He tipped his bowler to us and I stared at him as he flew away.

“I don’t think I trust him,” I said.

“He is no more peculiar than most old ghosts,” she replied, dismissing my unease with a smile. “Shall we visit Europa?”

I nodded, but glared at the fading dot that was Henri. Something wasn’t right. Was I just jealous? No, it was more than that. His carnival huckster attitude and sales pitch, it was all just too practiced. Too smooth.

“Follow me!” she said, and lifted slowly off the surface of the Moon. She got her bearings and slowly accelerated away, glancing back to make sure I didn’t lose her. I followed, dark thoughts simmering in my mind.



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