I live in Atlanta, but not really. Clark City is too far out for the train to come, unless it’s one of those freight trains crawling slowly down the tracks and forcing cars to wait five minutes for it. Clark City’s half Black, a quarter white, and a quarter blend of Congolese, Eritrean, Afghan, and Vietnamese. Food trucks offer our most convenient eateries—Benton Bell’s wing truck and Strong Island Caribbean Café. Houses hide behind trees, their windows boarded, roofs slogged down in moisture. Construction workers tear projects down and put more corporate things up—car dealerships and gas stations. The breaking and building never ends.
There is no crosswalk to my subdivision, so I jaywalk when the timing feels right, making it across the street just in time for a car to rip through the fog behind me, thrashing my back with cool air.
Blue lights flash in the distance, up the curve to my house, and there’s caution tape stretched across a driveway. The police are talking to my neighbors—the Mooneys, I think. Their home is a plantation-style thing with a wraparound fence, dripping with fake cobwebs for Halloween. Also: fake graves in the lawn.
The middle-aged couple in navy-blue suits are lonely. They hug each other in the driveway. Her head is in his neck, and he’s staring into space. A field of indigo light curls off their heads, forming a smoky field with chunks of matter like planet waste—ice and dust and tiny rocks all melting into a living thing.
A pair of ghouls hovers over them, dipping their emaciated gray heads down to suck the smoke through their spiky teeth, slit nostrils, and eyeless eyes.
Their business is none of mine. I keep pushing to my house.
There’s a ringing from somewhere. No . . . screaming? Screaming and begging.
“Wait! Stop, WAIT!”
Must be coming from behind an open window, or dead world. I hear voices from the second world, like the voices that called out to warn Steven a javelin was on its way to kill him. These voices are always in distress. Sometimes they warn; sometimes they plead.
I’m cold suddenly. Summer always ends late down here, but it’s officially over now, and the wind is not warm anymore. A gust of it blasts my beanie off my head, and I spin to catch it, finding myself face-to-face with a rib cage. A rib cage like . . . a giant rotisserie chicken stripped of meat.
No nipples; a stretched, long neck; and a giant head, alien-shaped, with gaping holes in place of eyes. The ghoul obscures everything behind it, but if I reached out to touch it, my hand would fade through its body. They’re not real. They only look like they are.
I turn, and it follows me, like a zombie hobbling after its meal. Then I’m running up my driveway, suddenly unconvinced that it can’t actually touch me. I know what I’ve read about the creatures, and what my medium mentor, Ms. Josette, has taught me—They can’t hurt you, because they can’t touch you.
So why does the ground shake when they walk, rattling the street pebbles? Why do the asphalt cracks look strained under their footsteps? The hatchbacks and minivans parked on the street seem worried a storm will destroy them.
The creature’s horrible shadow falls over me, sinking my stomach into no-man’s-land.
I’m not the one grieving, so I’d be of no interest to the leeches of dead world. They tend to avoid happy people, instead latching on to the most sullen, tragic person in the room. I’ve only ever grieved my dog, Appa, who died of heart failure two years ago. My family’s mostly alive, except for my grandfather, who died six months before I was born. I don’t think I’ll ever see my dad again, but he’s still alive out there.
Now there’s laughter—children’s laughter—and the pop of a gun.
Something terrible happened in my neighbors’ house.
It’s getting cold too fast, like the entire winter is dropping here and now. A shadow comes down like a blanket of ice as I search my four pockets—slacks and hoodie.
Where are my keys?
There are moments when it controls me. The shadows, the darkness. Moments where I become dizzy, undefined, just a floater like the failed tests in my classrooms.
But I know my porch—a column of white balusters. I know my front door—dead bolt and handle that you push down to get inside. A freezing wind sweeps under my hoodie, pulling me backward. I tilt my way into the house and click the door shut.
The TV’s playing from the living room. Somehow. Mom’s out of town.
“Benji?” I call.
The air is cold inside, and the light is so dim that even the earth-tone prints on the wall have lost their luster.
Around the entryway, I find the TV on Channel 2 News.
“We have to put a stop to gun violence. How many more people have to die?”
There’s a headline with a picture of my neighbor—the son of the weeping couple.
Matteo Mooney, Survivor of Heritage High Shooting, Found Dead in Home
Oh my God . . .
Matteo is . . . dead?
I don’t know anybody in the neighborhood, but I did notice when Matteo moved in. Him and Mr. Mooney forced a sofa through the door. Matteo was shirtless, the shirt tucked into his back pocket. The neighbors were all spying on his sweaty jock body, his shapely pecs. The sun was a hot bubble swelling over Clark City, and the humidity made me take off my own shirt, open the window, and put the fan in it. I watched Matteo come in and out of the house, wondering how much I’d have to lift to get so big. I wanted so badly to grow over my collarbones and elbows.
I sink into the couch leather.
I remember the school shooting. The Heritage killer sent a shock wave through all of Atlanta. Everyone was paranoid because one of those things had come so close to home.
I watch a clip of Matteo speaking at a podium. It’s dated a year ago, right after the shooting. Cameras flash on the tears in his eyes as he looks out over an outdoor audience. “How many more of our friends do we have to lose before we say ‘enough is enough’? There are demons out there who just want the world to burn. And we have to come together to make sure they can’t get the weapons to harm us.”
It cuts away. Matteo’s face appears side by side with the shooter who attacked his school.
Sawyer Doon. Yes, the menace with the straight blond hair and blue eyes.
The news anchors reappear, their faces molds of fake sadness. “Heartfelt words from Matteo Mooney. May he rest in peace. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Mooney family. The cause of death is currently unknown.”
I turn off the TV and stand up, staring at nothing. I guess a ghost came and turned it on when I was gone.
Murder. In my neighborhood. Matteo was like . . . eighteen? Nineteen?
I slog up to my room, and the house begins to feel heavy and too silent around me, like someone is here, something will jump out.
No one’s here. I’m in my room, turning my book bag upside down. Textbooks, pens, and worksheets fall free in a frenzy on my mattress.
I lift the blinds and watch the blue house at the end of the street. Police lights reflect in the second-story windows.
Strange. I never thought the richest kid in our community would be the one to die.
I collapse on the mattress and watch the globelike light fixture.
The final daylight surrenders to the dark trap of night. Ecto-mist creeps at my periphery, snakelike and sinister.
It’s the matter that eats ghosts as the seasons turn, nibbling on their fading bodies, burrowing inside of them like termites. It’s what makes all loops end, eventually. It’s everywhere and nowhere at once, coating the carpet, thickening the air with glittering fibers.
It’s always seeping in through the vents, the plumbing stacks, and cracks in the plaster like carbon monoxide, here to asphyxiate me in my sleep.
Copyright © 2021 by Ryan Douglass. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.