The street was nearly deserted now, his father hardly noticing. With the dwindling population in the town and the crumbling infrastructures of society in shambles most had pulled up stakes and headed for the hills. Not Arthur Knowles though, not as long as he had his wife. Maybe other’s could not take what he was living with, their terror or depression sending a shock into their life that would not be borne, but he had Theresa and the kid so he was content to remain.
There were a total of two thousand people left in Biddeford, Maine. If given time Arthur could probably name them all, he had met most of them at the town council meetings. The rest had abandoned most reason, most need, and had simply pulled up stakes and headed out. No one could give him a location, no one knew where to go or what they would do, they simply ran. They ran as far and as fast as they could, away from the string of suicides. “Waste of fucking time,” he thought to himself, “since this is everywhere.”
It was indeed everywhere. Reports had stopped coming in from most of the world ever since the fad had been taken up by the news crews and they had begun offing themselves. CNN’s newest main anchor, Chuck Hogan, had been the first to openly endorse offing yourself and had done so on the air. His ghost had been present, to explain the wave firsthand. With him had been his former wife, Sarah Hogan, and she had made the entire thing real for the world as she was the first suicide since the appearance of the misty dead to prove what had only been guessed up until that point – when you died you joined your loved ones, only tethered to the world by what remained of their friends and family.
“Chuck Hogan here, with World Report.” he’d began, with a smile. “And I’m Jane Auburn.” his co-host said, a smile glued to her face. “Tonight we’ll be discussing the market drop. Are your stocks properly bonded in the world we live in?” She turned to Chuck, the smile not quite reaching her eyes. “And also a very special guest, my lovely wife Sarah Hogan,” he picked up, “will be here to discuss the rising suicide fad that has been sweeping the nation.”
They had chatted about the market, discussing the recent death of Norman Saithe, who had tied a noose around his neck and thrown himself from the top floor of Saithe Industries. With the former CEO dead a scramble was being made to see who would occupy his seat, and the stock fluctuated accordingly. The situation had not been helped by the loss of several board members, leaving the once-prominent companies situation unsteady.
“But the real news tonight is a story you may not be aware of,” Jane segwayed. “Tonight we have special guest Sarah Hogan, late wife of our very own Chuck Hogan, who is here to tell us about death and what lies beyond!” She hoped the fear didn’t show on her face, the plastic mold of a smile set on her face so firmly that she ached to release it and sag into a frown. “Thanks Jane, I’m glad to be here,” Jane said, hovering one ethereal hand on her husband’s back. He couldn’t feel it, but he could see in the feed that she had tried to touch him and the gesture made him smile, his joy radiating through his makeup to touch the whole of the U.S. audience. “And I’m glad to have you back as well,” he said. He looked directly into her eyes, the smile on his face barely drawing attention from the tears in his eyes.
“So Sarah,” Jane continued, “tell us about death? The sensation, the fear, the exhilaration, and the faith of something next.” Arthur Knowles chuckled at this. It was his favorite part of the broadcast, which was being shown on repeat around the world seemingly on a loop. “Well Jane, I have to tell you that its not a pleasant experience in and of itself. I did it by razor blade, which is without a doubt one of the biggest mistakes I had ever made.” Jane was cracking, the discomfort creeping visibly into her face, and Arthur began to chuckle. “I took the razor to my wrist, remembering to cut up because the joke is that if you want attention you cut across the river, if you want to get where you’re going you have to go up it. I sliced away at one arm and grit my teeth through the pain with my dad looking over my shoulder. He had been telling me I could join him for days, probably over a week at this point. He just seemed so frustrated with the whole thing, he wanted me to do it right.”
“Here it comes.” Arthur thought, anticipation building in his gut.
“And when I couldn’t make my fingers move to slice the other wrist he just exploded in laughter. ‘I told you to use a gun!’ he said, rolling on the floor and laughing the whole time!” she burst out laughing, and Arthur joined her from his comfy couch at home. “Can you believe it?” Jane could believe it, but it was at this point that she had a moment of unprofessionalism. The fear shone forth in her eyes for less than an instant, but it had been taken to the internet maybe a minute after it had happened. Within ten it had become the ‘Jokes on Jane’ meme and it had stuck ever since. “Oh honey, your dad is so funny!” Chuck said, crossing over Jane to give her a minute to collect her shit and get it together.
The conversation had gone on like that. They all knew the story now. How the ghosts were there because they wanted to be with their families, how they wanted to be with them forever and all it took was one little moment, one blink of faith and it was all done with. Arthur skipped over most of the ooey gooey bullshit, he didn’t believe in any of it and he didn’t need it. What he wanted was the punchline, the coupe de grace of the joke. Theresa squirmed uncomfortably on the couch beside him. He had not been as receptive to her pleas for him to join her in death, and it made her unhappy. It also seemingly trapped her in his world. He liked that. He had control over his world, but none over hers that he was aware of. But as long as he had control everything was right in the world. He had a son who was a bit of a bitch but was intelligent and knew his place, and he had a wife who knew it was futile to beg or demand anything of him and was mostly just pleasant to have around. Life was good.
“Well Sarah, I’m glad you came back.” Chuck sputtered around gasps of laughter as he and Jane listened to the ghosts anecdotes about life as an undead. Apparently it had taken her time to become corporeal and it took finding Chuck to truly come into being, but after her suicide she had hunted him down and surprised him on his birthday, laying naked on his bed as though waiting for him. Chuck, who had become accustomed to the ghosts, had been ecstatic about his wife’s return and had since helped promote the idea of love via suicide to the world.
“I’m glad to be back with you to sweetheart,” Sarah crooned, sliding her hand over his and smiling warmly into his eyes. “And I have a surprise for you honey!” he said, leaping out of his chair and spreading his arms wide in a theatrical gesture of exuberance. A string quartet marched out and sat in seats over on the interview set that Chuck had requested before the broadcast. There were few superiors and almost no one left at the FCC to tell him no so it had merely been a matter of convincing the rest of the group working with him to comply and they had been happy to once they had heard his plan. The quartet began to play a string version of “Sweet Cherry Pie” by Warrant, the first song that they had made out to in the back of his Mustang, and it drew a burst of further laughter from Sarah. They were all smiles, all joy on this broadcast. Everyone except Jane seemed to be having a good time. She, however, sat in her interview chair looking a bit scared, her fake smile still stuck to her face like a surgical mask as if to protect her from whatever bug had been causing people to jump off rooftops and swallow too many pills.
Sarah stood in surprise as Chuck took a knee before her. He held out his hands, and she hovered her ghostly right hand between them as she clapped her left over her mouth in shock. “Sweetheart, will you marry me again?” he asked. “Of course, of course, yes!” she cried, and attempted to throw herself into his arms. She kept passing through them and finally settled for hovering right near him, her head on his shoulder and tears streaming down her face. “Now folks, you just saw it here, she can’t touch me. We can’t kiss, we can’t hug, we can’t even consummate!” This drew spatters of laughter from the room at large. “But,” he continued, wagging his finger at the camera, “we can fix that!” It all happened very quickly after that.
Chuck Hogan drew a gun from his jacket, placed the barrel against his temple, and fired off a round. His brains splattered all over Jane, her smile finally dissolving into a shriek of horror. His wife stepped back in shock. The whole room went silent, everyone looking at Chuck as his body fell to the floor, the showman’s grin still beaming. They all simply stared.
Then applause began to break out, people laughing and whooping, throwing their arms and headsets into the air in triumph. Sarah Hogan was jumping up and down squealing “He did it, he did it!” over and over. Jane simply looked around as she tried to figure out what had happened.
“See that shit, baby?” Arthur yelled, pointing at the television. “That dude went and offed himself! Can you fucking believe this shit? Incredible.” Theresa smiled and hovered her head on his lap as though ready to cuddle, smiling up at him. “Do you believe it honey? Do you believe now?”
* * *
The blood wasn’t coming off of his hands. He had scrubbed for over three hours and it still seemed to be there. The marks on his hands, the brand of a vicious killer. It was not as prestigious as he had thought it might be. The earthy scent of sandalwood pervaded the air in the bathroom and added to his growing nausea. It smelled like a department store, somewhere that his mother would have drug him a few years ago while forcing him to buy uncomfortable shirts or shoes that hurt his feet for the first week he had them.
Billby simply couldn’t get erase what he had done. He had tried, had seen his father had passed into a drunken mess that sawed logs on the couch and then gotten out of bed and gone downstairs for the lighter fluid his dad kept in the basement. The tin can sounded off when he finally tripped over it, sprawling to the floor and bashing his nose into it. His own blood was on him now, but it hadn’t mattered to him as much as destroying the evidence. What mattered most was erasing Gasser from existence as thoroughly as possible.
He had watched the fire until he was certain. After stripping naked he had tossed his clothes into the small grill in the backyard and doused them in the foul-smelling liquid. He tossed a match and warmed himself as his conscience burned the last of its misgivings away. He had gotten away with murder, which seemed like an amazing feat to a 9 year old kid. And with the national craze over the suicides and the dissolving criminal element (he had heard a newsman say it like that) the disappearance of another kid would most likely go unnoticed. They would rule it another suicide, his parents would probably follow pretty quickly.
He had trouble producing the ghost of Gasser Pratchett. He could make one, and it would act and sound just like the sadistic fucker (this phrase he had courtesy of a trashy book his mother had owned), but the issues arose when he vomited blood. He had problems producing a ghost that was anything but a mangled remain, that looked hurt and betrayed, that spit up his oozing guts. The ghost even had shimmery gravel embedded in his wounds from the cairn over his body. Oh well, with any luck he would not even need the ghost for Mr. and Mrs. Pratchett. They would most likely take care of themselves pretty quickly with no encouragement. Thank goodness for that.
The process finished, his clothes ashed, he wizzed on the fire and went inside to try to clean the blood and sand off of himself. Everything came off just fine except the blood on his hands. He was almost certain it was off, but as he sat in the warm tub scrubbing with his lufa he just couldn’t seem to make it go away. He considered pouring bleach on his hands for a scrub, but he had no idea if it would hurt his skin or not and decided to play it safe. It was still there in his eyes, but he was fairly sure it would not get on his jammies or his blankets so it was probably fine.
He dreamed that night, for the first night in over a month. In his dream he was floating somewhere, he had no idea who he was. He looked around. The basement he was in was creepy. It looked like the kind of place big, horrible men took little boys to ‘do sex’ to them. The walls were covered in maps and papers and pins holding it all up and together. He stood next to two ghosts, one a fat man with a sweaty look to him and jowls that reminded him of his Aunt Shelly’s dog and the other was a thick but lovely looking woman with a smile that said she could make everything ok. They were happy looking people and for a brief moment he was sorry they were there. Then he turned and saw the goblin.
The thing was sitting on a milk crate, hunched over papers like a mad scientist looking to bring back a dead guy. The shaggy, gray hair on his head hung down in thick strings and looked like it needed a wash. He stank. Billby could smell the gross just flowing out of him. It smelled like shit. His hands had longer nails than a grown-up should have, and his beard wove in with his hair to make him look like a bird’s nest. Even his clothing was stained and ragged looking. This was a monster, but the ghosts around him must be his family. Looking at his hands he saw they were misty, see-through. He was a ghost then, and this crazy looking goblin must be his grampa. He looked up and closer to the papers the goblin’s hands. They were printouts from news websites and they were all about the suicides. He found his voice and tried to guess his way through the dream.
“Grampa,” he said quietly, “any new reports today?”
“Some,” the goblin replied. “From Singapore.”
“What happened this time?” he asked, moving forward to try to see the papers.
“Twenty people got together and downed a bunch of pills.”
“Did they all die?”
“No, not all. Paramedics recovered three.”
“What happens to them now?”
“Ben people are dying.” Ok then, the ghost he was in was named ‘Ben’.
Billby looked up at the wall, reading over the map and trying to see what all the goblin had come up with so far and froze. On the wall, off to the side of the big one with all the countries, was a map of Maine. With a bunch of pins around his home, Biddeford. He began to shake a little and closed his eyes, took a deep breath in an attempt to calm himself. “Holy shit,” he thought, “This thing is really close. Please don’t let him notice.”
“Ben,” the goblin said, “The survivors are being treated, but if the pattern is the same they will just try again. Whether they bite their tongues and bleed out or try to overdose again it will be the same. These people will find a way to die.”
“Jesus, dad!” the fat man yelped. He grabbed Billby and pulled him close. “Dad you can’t scare him like that. Come away, Benjamin.” The fat man lead him away and up the stairs, the woman following, but he slowed and turned back. The old man was following, but had stopped at the foot of the stairs and was looking at the map again. “I found you, fucker.” he whispered to himself, “I’m gonna get you.”
* * *
Billby shot up in his bed, catching a cry in his throat and feeling hot tears already forming in the corners of his eyes. He clutched a hand to his chest and felt his heart pounding, felt the staccato beat in his temples and in his throat. Someone had found him. Someone had figured him out. Someone wanted to kill him.
He spent the rest of the night trying not to have a panic attack. He microwaved water and had hot chocolate. He drank one of his father’s beers. He had some milk and a cookie. Around the third time he peed, close to three o’clock in the morning, he realized none of it was working and decided to just trying to go back to sleep. After brushing the sugary crumbs off of his jammies and snagging the last chocolate chip off of the counter in the kitchen he returned to his room to try to sleep. The headache that had cropped up after the beer was gone but the rolling feeling in his guts was awful. He felt like a wash machine on spin cycle.
The dream had felt too real to be anything more than fact. He had entered ghosts before, had led suicides by the hand and sometimes even gotten to watch the big ones, but this was the first inkling he had that someone was catching on. He had been noticed, had put too many people in the ground that were close to him. He should have spread it out a bit.
He looked at the stars on his ceiling. He wanted to play Ghost Hunter but it probably would be fruitless, something to distract him and he needed to think. He was Billby Knowles, and he had to figure out what to do instead of hide. Hiding was for little kids. His father would knock him upside the head if he thought he was squirreling away his problems for a very rainy day, for the thunderstorm of the century by the looks of it.
There was a rustle in the corner. He sat straight up and turned his beaklike face towards the sound. His mouth went dry and he broke out into a sweat. If he was being honest with himself he would acknowledge that he nearly peed the bed.
Sitting in the corner, in his reading chair, was the goblin.
He was far more terrifying than in Billby’s dream. The ragged hair look stained like his father’s, the haze of smoke rising from a cigarette clutched between the two talons of one claw that twitched nervously. The skin had a greenish tint to it, the eyes a glistening yellow that lit up like the eyes of a cat framed by the scraggly mane. He wore the dirty overcoat, and his sharp teeth made his twisted smile into a feral hole. The ragged breathing sounded anticipatory. It sounded predatory. It sounded hungry.
The goblin raised the smoke to his lips and took a deep puff, exhaling enough smoke into the room to reach Billby all the way in his bed. The smoke smelled coppery and crisp in contrast to the clean smell of the immaculately kept room it persistently pervaded. It smelled like blood. “I found you fucker,” it hissed, “And I’m gonna get you.”
“Just go away,” Billby whispered back. “Please, please, just leave me alone.”
“Can’t, boy, you’re mine to claim.”
Billby pulled his sheets up to his chin, hiding behind them. “Why?”
“You fucked with us, boy, and you fucked too much.”
“I didn’t fuck with you!” he pleaded, “I just want to be alone!”
“Alone is how you should be. Deep in the ground, sometime after I’ve had my fill.”
He wet the bed. It simply could not be helped at this point. He was scared and desperate and alone. The tears came easy, falling from his eyes unbidden. The goblin smiled at this and sniffed the air. “Smells like death and chicken-shit little boys in here.” he said. His teeth were so sharp. “You took someone I loved you little bastard, and I’m gonna eat you up. A good main course. You’ve taken too many, you got too greedy.
‘Let me tell you something, boy. I’m from hell. You’ve sent a lot of people there and the population growth was fun for awhile but we can’t handle much more. Christ, you should see how the rents have skyrocketed.” The goblin chuckled to himself at this, his eyes dancing with amorous glee at the sight of Billby’s terror. “Just fuckin’ with you, kid. I’m not from hell.”
“What are you?”
“Smells like piss in here. Did you piss?”
Billby tried to compose himself. “What are you?” he asked again.
The goblin sat back, looking almost contemplative. “Well,” he started, “That’s a bit of a conundrum. You should know what I am. I’m not fully real, nor am I just a figment. Believe it, because I’m going to fucking eat you alive.” At this Billby leaned forward, completely entranced by the monster in front of him. “If you aren’t alive then what are you?” The goblin chuckled again, his throaty laughter sending a chill through the room. “I’m just you,” he said, and took another puff on the dwindling cigarette. “I’m just something you see, but its all you Billby.”
“You know my name?”
“No, but you do.”
At this Billby smiled. So this was just his imagination. “So you’re a ‘lucination?”
“Well kind of, kid. Its a hallucination, sure, but its still not good if you’re seeing shit. Hell, any doctor could tell you that. This isn’t like when you see the stuff you read, this is you talkin’ to yourself.” Billby looked around and then nodded. He was alone, sure. “Kid, you can’t escape me. I’m coming for you. There’s no way you didn’t see the maps, the pins all over Biddeford.” The eyes began to gleam again, the sharp smile spreading literally from ear to ear.
“Ok,” Billby thought. “I can get ready then. I can prepare.”
“Sure you can,” the goblin said. “Sure.”
* * *
John Kaepernick stepped out of his car and onto the pavement. The cold was setting in, and he wrapped his coat tighter around him. The mane of hair blustered in the breeze around him. It was an October in Maine alright, frigid and miserable. It only took him a couple of months to build up the courage to head to Biddeford for the hunt, and he felt good at last. His .500 Smith & Wesson Magnum was strapped to his hip, the cannon loaded and ready to go off at the slightest twitch. The sign in front of him read ‘Welcome to Biddeford’ and underneath were painted the words ‘See you on the other side!’ One last desperate grasp at attention before whatever idiot had tagged the sign mostly likely offed themselves.
There could hardly be anyone left at this point. It was a modern ghost town, a look into the end of the world that was framed in gnarled trees and browning grass. The road ahead of him stretched into a set of houses, and beyond that the small downtown that housed empty stores full of rotting food and cafes with blood in their kitchens. The whole place smelled like rot, he was getting quite a whiff of it right at the city limits. He set off on foot towards the first house. He planned on searching them one at a time, looking for the living. He would find who was doing this.
John Kaepernick was going to end this, no matter the cost. His ghosts followed him to up the steps of the first house and stood behind him, shuffling uncomfortably as he knocked on the door. “Hello?” he called. “Anyone home?”