by Dash Owens
“The inside of the library doesn’t match the outside,” Maeve mused as she moved up the Brooklyn Central Library staircase with Edward. Speaking still took time, but she found she had a lot more to say. It helped that she was shocked at the bare ugliness of a building she once esteemed from afar.
“Listen, these people you’re about to meet are strange,” Edward explained, gesturing towards the second floor. “They’re able to see us but —”
“What do I look like?” she interrupted.
“You’re wearing a dress. It’s blue with white stuff. Are those deer?”
“You have a cut on your head, and some kind of white stain on your…top.”
“Yeah, that could be it.”
“Fucking amazing.” Maeve thought she was still angry, but it wasn’t exactly anger. For a brief moment, she felt something like anger, but it wasn’t feeling at all. She was left with impressions of moments where she felt anger before; waves knocking her over and then receding. Maeve followed Edward to the top of the stairs, when she paused.
“Walking?” she said simply towards Edward, who smiled knowingly. “How?”
“Ah, your curiosity is returning to you! Yes…oh…! Yes, why do we walk? Excellent question, to which I can only say…I know that I know nothing.” Edward giggled and, apparently, hopped. “I mean, what does gravity have to do with being a ghost? If we were made of any matter, shouldn’t we be able to interact with people, like bump into them? But no! Are we just quantum particles moving indeterminately in mind-boggling, imperceptibly subtle ways? I have no idea. It’s so exciting to think about!” Edward continued talking in words and terms Maeve recognized but struggled to grasp (she thought she used to know some of this), when Edward started glancing further down the hall towards a room. “I have so many questions, and I could keep talking and talking about all of them, but I think these people are working strict 8 hour days — good union folk! —and I don’t want to miss anyone.”
When they entered the room with the long tables, Maeve was struck by the ordinary way people sat, sipped their coffees, and moved their fingers through their hair.
Edward stopped her to say, “Listen, these people have a lot of rules they follow. They may not be the most polite, but they can find ways to help sometimes. They ask favors of us, and in return they do favors.”
Maeve didn’t hear anything he said because she was fixated on a being across the room. Their skin was scorched and broken, as if someone took a red checkered latex material and pulled it tight across the model of a human face. Maeve searched the being’s face — there were the eyes, and there a nose, and fatty mounds implied lips. But the rest…even from across the room, their hair fell in dehydrated tangles to just below their ears, and the number of skin creases on what should have been a neck told Maeve she was looking at someone old.
“It’s rude to stare,” whispered Edward. Maeve, startled, looked back at Edward.
“Who is that?”
“The ghoul? Honestly, no idea. That’s another question I would like an answer to one of these days.”
The ghoul. Maeve never imagined a ghoul’s appearance when she encountered the word before, but the word seemed apt for such a being. When Maeve looked back in the ghoul’s direction, it was gone.
“Now this is Pearl,” Edward said, moving towards one specific clerk with ruby-red fingernails clawed about a manila envelope. Her hair was plaited neatly across her head, and she sat up in a crisp, button-down. Another clerk, older and grayer, approached holding a form covered in small font and blank lines.
“Cassius,” Pearl spoke to the older clerk, “do you have the on-boarding documents?”
“Is this fucking ghost HR?” Maeve cried out. She couldn’t yet regulate the volume of her voice. Speaking was unnatural, sudden, and uncannily emotive compared to her other activities. None of the other workers seemed to notice.
But then, unexpectedly, Cassius laughed.
“I haven’t heard that one!” he chuckled, revealing a relaxed, side-ways smile. “You know, I’m gonna start saying that to everyone.”
Pearl remained perfectly still. She did not seem tickled.
“Name and date of death,” she stated.
Maeve stared back blankly. When did she die again?
“Early April, I think? 5th or 4th.” Pearl took the form from Cassius and began writing on the lines. Maeve had not answered the full question. “Maeve, my name is Maeve. Fredrick-Feehily. With a hyphen. And not feely, like I’m a feely person. Fee, then h-i-l like almost hill but missing an l, and then a y. Do you need to know when I was born?”
“No,” was all Pearl said, continuing to write.
“How old are you?” asked Cassius. His syrupy voice was dark and easy to listen to.
“Look at you, ancient one,” Edward chimed in the way Maeve realized he would always sound: goofy. “I didn’t make it past 27 – a month shy of 28.”
Maeve reacted with second-nature acridity: “The extra month really makes all the fucking difference.”
Cassius smiled again, as if he thought Maeve had politely concluded the kind pleasantries.
“Good to meet you, Maeve. Well, I’ll leave you with Pearl. Pearl, come find me if you need anything,” Cassius raised his hand in universal farewell, and he returned to a stack of organized folders in the back of the room. Pearl gave him a nod, but she proceeded to keep her eyes downwards.
“When did you become senscient again?” asked Pearl, though her questions landed more like statements than inquiries.
“I’m…not quite sure. Maybe a few weeks later? I wasn’t far from my apartment.”
“Where did you go next?”
“To a friend’s.”
“Did your friend note your presence at all?”
“No…no. I don’t remember, honestly. I was just moving.”
“Have you been able to enter or control any objects?”
“No…is that a thing? Could I do that?”
“Most likely not, if you haven’t already. Have you been in contact with anyone who can perceive you?”
“I don’t think so. Edward was the first person to talk to me.”
“Not the same category.”
While Pearl was writing on the form, a new thought occurred to Maeve.
“My family. Can you write to my family?”
Pearl finally looked up, though not directly at Maeve.
“Our policy is that we will provide some favors in exchange for services; however, we do not provide direct contact between the passed and the living. Communication could be damaging for both parties, and we are not trained mediators. Clerks are unfortunately not qualified to act as mediums in such cases.”
In high school, Maeve wrote an editorial for the school newspaper criticizing a new library policy, which installed mirror technology into computers to monitor students. She may have flippantly used the words, “nazi,” “fascist,” and “polgram,” revealing the historical naivete of a teenager comforted by their personal code of self-righteous justice. When she was informed of a school policy against inflammatory political language, she responded quite similarly in those circumstances as she did in these circumstances to Pearl.
“Who made this godforsaken policy?”
Pearl looked around again, this time towards Cassius.
“No, no. Look here. Who makes the fucking policies? Who is your puppeteer stringing along your automaton responses right now? You’re telling me I can’t contact my family, but you want to know every nook and cranny of my post-death existence? I don’t even know who any of you are. I stroll in here and you have me filling out forms like I’m at the goddamn DMV. Of course, death would be the DMV. Are we just recycling cliches? What kind of favors could you possibly do for me? Nothing fucking matters any–”
In carbon-based humanity, someone who unleashes this sort of rant usually experiences someone stepping in to pull them back or to provide a comforting hand. In the world of the insubstantial, there are no counterweights to supply the necessary slap or push. Somehow, Edward managed. He stepped in between Maeve and Pearl with his arms outstretched to indicate a world of other possibilities.
“You know what, Maeve? Let’s check out some of these other clerks. I have someone I want you to meet.”
Maeve complied, and she thought gratefully that the living Maeve would be walking away with a sense of overwhelming awkwardness but, in death, Maeve didn’t care. When she was alive, she would hear her heart thumping in her ears, but now she heard and felt nothing. Everything sounded like a feeling without being a feeling. Pearl, statue-like, stayed seated. As Maeve and Edward moved out of the room, she noted Cassius returning to Pearl’s side, speaking in a low voice.
They exited the library to the pavilion right outside, following the curve of the stairs towards Eastern Parkway, where a small green yard separated the library from the sidewalk. Lounging on the grass was a woman with thin hair knotted in a bun on the top of her head. She wore dark, loose linen pants and a billowy peasant top. She must have been in her late thirties, early forties. Maeve and Edward approached.
“Maeve, I would like for you to meet Cassandra,” Edward gestured with a wide arm towards the woman. “I have a feeling that she’s a clerk you will get along with.”
Maeve looked around at the people walking to and from the park.
“Isn’t it a little crazy for her to be talking to us out in public?” Maeve asked.
“And that right there is the inquiring mind I am starting to admire! My god, all I could think about at first is how unbelievably relieved I was to be faked out by death, you know? It took me a long time to actually think about my situation with any real attention. And here you are, provoking discussion!”
Cassandra rolled her eyes, and tapped a single earbud pressed into her left ear.
“As long as I have this in, no one thinks I’m the crazy lady talking to ghosts. I’m, as you heard, Cassandra. You must be the new arrival.” Cassandra and Maeve stared at one another for a moment.
“I’m…Maeve.” Maeve looked around at the streets and buildings that used to feel familiar and like home. Now she felt like she was walking through a virtual reality tour of her old life.
“I’m…I’m…still not sure the right way to talk. And when I used to meet someone, I would shake their hand.”
Cassandra laughed at that.
“Not an option for us, right?”
Maeve continued to stand there. She could tell Edward wanted to show her something.
“Okay, so this is Cassandra, who is 1000% the most amazing clerk. She was assigned to me after I started working with the clerks. You could almost say she is my clerk, but she isn’t, I don’t own her. It’s just, she helps me with things that I can’t do on my own because of my lack of everything. So I’m having her read for me.”
“Read?” Maeve said, incredulous.
“Yep, we sit in the beautiful sunshine on the grassy lawn and we read whatever my imagination hankers for that day. And I find — “
“What are you reading?” asked Maeve. Her sense of timing was nonexistent.
“Thucydides. He’s this guy who wrote the history of all the wars the Greeks had with one another, but mostly Athens and Sparta, and it’s a dense book, but it also has –”
“Don’t you think reading a book when you can’t hold or touch anything is, ultimately, no better than Nicias setting off on the Syracusan expedition?” Maeve spoke as if she were an echo. Yes, she had read that book once before. Had she said those words before? She used to have a swelling feeling, a heat in her lungs and cheeks, when she gave a quick retort.
Edward snorted. “Mhmmmm, hmmmm, uh, yeah probably. Not like we’re dead and nothing matters anyways.” He chuckled and sat down besides Cassandra. He gave Maeve a knowing look. “Yeah, I can sit. Don’t overthink this and make friends.”