Note: This story is incomplete, the first workings of an idea. A piece that was very much influenced by George Saunders actually.
ON APRIL 23RD, I died because of biting into a peanut butter cookie. It was perhaps the most delicious of all ways to die, and I was glad my death wasn’t something cliché like cancer or a car accident. The media loved it. Ate it up. (Ha. No pun intended.)
But while that last bite of Sweet Martha’s deluxe peanut butter cookie tasted like heaven, I found that I was trapped in a different place altogether. My spirit that is. When I crossed over, my spirit lifted from my body. All the tension I had been carrying around for weeks due to playing 100-percent too many video games was released. The fat rolls padding my super-awesome, invisible six-pack became fluffy and light and all but evaporated into thin air.
At last! I was transformed into the half-god I always knew was hidden beneath the grease and sweat.
I was floating on cloud nine, looking at all the tiny humans from below, when my best buddy, Max, called my mom from the fake wooden bench inside the Brooklyn Mall.
“Hi, Mrs. Weston,” he said. Tears streamed down his bony, translucent face as he hiccupped for about the thousandth time.
“No, I’m okay. But, but Jimmy. He…” Max took a breath, doing his best to get his emotions under control. He was never too good at that. He once cried because his favorite flying dragon died in SkyBattle 3. In the limbo between heaven and Earth, I rolled my eyes remembering how soft Max could be sometimes.
“He ate a peanut butter cookie,” Max finally said. Those three innocent words. Who knew they would cause so much pain and angst in one fourteen-year-old boy nerd?
Just barely, I could make out my mothers muffled sobs through Max’s phone. Max didn’t have to say it. She knew. She probably knew based off of her motherly intuition. Just that morning, she had warned me to be good and to be careful. Then she asked if I had everything I needed.
“Malls are dangerous for you,” she said, giving me a stern look as I ate my Lucky Charms. I could tell she was resisting the urge to place her hand on her hips.
“I know, I know,” I had said, annoyed because she was always telling me this about every single public place ever.
I brushed her comment off, which proved to be, quite literally, a deadly mistake. Max’s parents showed up in our driveway earlier than I expected so I rushed to throw all the important things in my backpack. My retro 1999 Gameboy which always came in handy while waiting for Max to settle his tummy issues in the bathroom. An entire box of fruit roll-ups for snacking on while we waited in line at any of the two stores we would end up buying things from. And of course the five most recent copies of PlayStation Magazine so that Max and I could debate the cheats and strategies for reaching the last, most famously difficult level of SkyBattle 3.
Notice: Epi-pen was forgotten, left behind, still sitting in the drawer in my bedroom.
Finally, Max got his blubbering under control.
“Mrs. Weston, I’m so sorry,” he said. “See, the cookie said it was chocolate. But it wasn’t. Obviously.”
Yeah! Obviously! Come on, Max.
“No, I’m here by myself,” Max said. “The police just left. Made sure I was okay, but now they’re gone… Mom should be here soon. I’m so sorry, Mrs. Weston. I wish…I wish…”
He could take it all back? It wasn’t his fault really. It was Sweet Martha’s fault. The lazy, old woman mislabeling her cookie packaging.
And so Max left when his mom pulled up in a red minivan. He hopped in, explained what had all happened, and broke down. Again.
As for me, I seemed to be trapped in the mall. The place Sweet Martha betrayed me. I roamed the halls until finally it was closing time. Someone somewhere must have flipped a switch because the lights went off and the hazards on. The caged doors were slid down on each store, and I was left alone. Utterly alone.
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DO GHOSTS NEED SLEEP? Can they touch things, move things around, without freaking out the mortals? Do they still have to use the bathroom? What about eating? Do they need the recommended 2,000 calories?
I didn’t have answers to any of these probing questions.
Luckily, I met a nice-ish person my first night as a ghost. Her name is (was?) Lily. She was a few years older than me, but she knew the ghost game pretty well.
“If I was still alive, I’d be in college now,” she said, throwing back her head to look up at the glass ceiling.
“If I was still alive, I’d be playing SkyBattle 3. Trying to beat the hardest level,” I told her.
Her head snapped down and she looked at me.
“You’re kind of a nerd, aren’t you?” she said.
“No,” I said, shaking my head and throwing a hand in the air as if her statement was preposterous. “What ever gave you that impression?”
“You know,” she said, staring down at her pale hands. She had long fingers, perfect for gaming. If she wasn’t dead, I was sure she’d be a pro.
I nodded, knowing exactly what she meant. I did know. All to well. There was sign over my head that flashed every time I put on my SkyBattle t-shirts or took out my inhaler to clear my system that said in red bold letters: “Nerd!”
“So, tell me,” I said. “How long have you been here?”
“Only two years or so,” she said.
“Well, before you there was another ghost friend named Sally and she had been here since the eighties. Died from a heart attack while shopping for a wedding gown.”
“Jeez, that sucks.”
“She knew it, believe me.”
“So, what do you do all day then?”
She sighed and crossed her arms over her chest.
“Watch the people, I guess,” she said quietly. “There really isn’t much to do when you’re dead.”
“So…that’s it?” I asked. There had to be more to being a ghost than that! I would not stand for just “watching the people.” Pathetic.
“Yeah, pretty much,” she said. “See, you don’t have any of your human needs anymore. Like, eating. Don’t need to. Sleeping. Don’t need to. So that takes care of, say, half of your day. We don’t have to go to school anymore, which takes away the other half. And what are you left with? Doing things of entertainment. Which, you can’t really do either because if you go to pick something up, you freak out whoever is around you. Suddenly there’s a book floating in the air and apparently that’s something to be concerned about. So, yeah, that’s it.”
“You’re stuck here then?” I asked. I could feel it earlier, my spirit being pulled back to this spot.
“Stuck in a mall for two years,” I said, trying to wrap my brain around it. I never realized just how much I moved around in the time that I was alive. Yes, I did a lot of sitting around too, probably more than I did move around, but at least that’s what I chose. Now, freedom is obsolete. “I’m really sorry, Lily.”
“Why are you sorry?” she asked, looking down at me. Her green eyes, somehow, were illuminated. I could see the golden flecks around her pupil, the green expanding from the center until the color ended in a dark tangle of confusion. The corners of her eyes slanted downward, and that’s just how they were, from years of frowning.
Finally, I said, “I don’t know.”
“Well don’t be,” she shot back. “It’s not your fault that I’m here.”
She brought a hand to her mouth and started biting at her fingernails.
I nodded. “Well, I think I’m going to turn in for the night.” I stood and stretched my arms out, yawning in the process.
“Didn’t you listen to what I told you?” she asked. “We don’t need to sleep.”
“You know, I did hear that,” I said, walking backward away from her, “but I love sleep too much to just give it up. Even if it doesn’t work, it’s worth trying.”
She rolled her eyes, and I turned around and continued walking down the corridor.
“Whatever,” I heard her mutter.
Yeesh. Women. The Sleep Number store was calling my name.
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TWO DAYS HAD PASSED SINCE I died. It was on this second day that I first saw my mother from the afterlife. Her eyes were sunken, dark from a few sleepless nights no doubt. She wore jeans with a light sweater and in her hands was a bouquet of assorted white flowers. I was no botanist, so the only flower I could identify was a rose.
I watched her from the bench adjacent to where she sat, knowing I needed to keep my distance. My spirit had a weird pull on people, and if I got too close they could sense me. It already happened once where an old lady felt my presence and started shrieking that ghosts were “in the air.”
“Do you see that, boy?” she asked the innocent DSW worker, pointing down at her thin, fragile skin. “That’s the workings of a ghost. My hair doesn’t just stand up for no gosh darn reason. And you know how I know that? Do you, now?” The boy shook his head. “Because my Robbie came back to me as a spirit, that’s how. Same darn reaction happened. I bet Robbie is here right now, standing next to me.”
“Maybe, ma’am,” said the worker. Poor guy.
I moved away from the pair, hoping the distance would alleviate the strength of her so called “reaction.” Given my stellar history of astoundingly bad luck, it was no surprise when I accidentally ran into a shoe rack, fell on my padded rump, and brought down the entire shoe column with me.
Suddenly, all the attention was on me. The old lady and the worker looked in my direction, but neither looked at me. I was all but nonexistent.
“See!” the old lady shrieked. Again. “There’s a ghost here!”
“I bet it’s that kid who died a few days ago,” the worker said to himself. He sighed and walked over, picked up the metal contraption and began placing the shoes back on the rack.
“Kid,” he said quietly, “if you can hear this, just stay away from us. Stop making a racket.”
And I heard him. Was only sitting a few feet away. Message received, mister: loud and clear.
So I stayed away. I tried not to get in the way of “the people.” And when my mom showed up, it took all of my will to stay sitting on that wooden bench adjacent to her.
I wanted to sit next to her. I wanted to tell her that I was okay, that my death hadn’t been that awful. That it had been pretty much instantaneous. I wasn’t in pain. If anything, I was relieved from the pain I was suffering there, on Earth. I wanted to say that I was sorry for not listening to her more. Or ever. If I had just listened to her, I would be able to sit next to her and tell her all these things.
But no. I just had to be a little rebel.
My mom crouched over into her lap, rocking back and forth, her face hidden from the world. Just barely, I could hear sniffling as she silently sobbed.
“Tough, isn’t it?” said a voice next to me. I turned and found Lily standing with her hands crossed over her chest. Once our eyes met, she moved to sit down next to me.
“I just wish I could talk to her,” I said, looking again at my mom.
“Yeah, it’s hard seeing them come here and looking all mournful and sad,” she said. “There’s nothing more I wanted than to talk to my dad when he showed up.”
I nodded. Dad probably didn’t even know what happened to me. There was a part of me that believed he’d never know, or he’d find out and wouldn’t care in the slightest. I could just picture him now: drinking at some bar somewhere in the world while chatting up an old, sleazy woman. Or at least this is the image that stays in my mind from the last time he came to town five years ago.
“Lily,” I said, “how did you die?” I turned toward her, waiting for the answer. Her eyes lingered on my mourning mother.
“I think that’s a conversation for a different day,” she said after a minute, then stood. “I’ll give you some privacy.”
My mouth upturned in the tiniest of smiles and I nodded in thanks.
Mom was still there, but now she rested her head in the palms of her hands, her fingers covering her red cheeks. Every once in a while, she blinked, but for the most part she stayed staring straight ahead at the tiled column that supported the second floor of the mall. Just to the right of where she sat, my life had ended. Tragically because of a peanut butter cookie.