1. I Do Believe In Spooks
The last time I thought about ghosts, I was in a McDonald’s. I had left my grandmother’s house in Des Moines at bedtime, assuming my children would fall asleep in the car, but an unnatural energy possessed them all the way across Iowa. No matter how steadily the engine hummed or how smooth the ride was, no matter what boring talk radio station I tuned into, they did not fall asleep. Eventually they even got hungry. I saw a billboard on I-80 advertising a 24-hour McDonald’s with a Playplace. I turned off at the exit.
I can’t remember what town. I can’t even remember which side of the Mississippi, isn’t that strange? A boxy, modern McDonald’s with a glassed-in Playplace, only now, in my memory, nothing surrounds it. Just a parking lot with bright white lights in the middle of a field. As if someone put it up brand-new for us, like a movie set.
I pulled into the parking lot and cut the engine. My kids tumbled out, on the attack. The restaurant looked deserted except for the employees behind the counter.
I was surprised to find that someone else was sitting at a table in the Playplace. A middle-aged woman with long, dark hair. She did not have a child with her. I don’t remember what she was wearing. In fact, I remember very little about her appearance except for her eyes. They were small and looked like dark points coming out of her face toward me, like thin glittering spikes. We had disturbed her peace.
What? I wanted to say. Are we interrupting something important?
But I didn’t say anything, of course, I didn’t even meet her stiletto eyes. Instead I sloped my shoulders and acted deferential and embarrassed because the truth was, I did have the sudden sense we were intruding.
The woman was eating a Big Mac. On the other side of her table was a red Happy Meal box. The cheeseburger was unwrapped and set out on a napkin, along with apple slices and the little carton of fries. A bite was missing from the cheeseburger. A small, irregular bite, but you would expect it to be small.
Does she have a kid after all? I wondered. She looked old to be the mother of a small child, young to be a grandmother. But anything is possible. I scanned the Playplace.
No, my girls were the only ones crawling through the plastic tubes, like soldiers in some strange war. There was not a soul in the room besides me, them, and the woman glaring at me as if I had just walked in on the Eleusinian Mysteries. I couldn’t imagine why she was looking at me like that. When I’m in the right, I thought. I couldn’t imagine why she had bought a Happy Meal, unwrapped it, and taken one tiny nibble of the cheeseburger before setting it aside.
What I could very easily imagine: she was judging me. For having wide-awake, unruly children. For sitting slumped on a bench drinking coffee instead of trying to calm them down. What do you want me to do, lady, drug them? I had been silently, festeringly defensive with my relatives the entire weekend in Des Moines. I was in practice, so much so that the thought processes had become automatic. I was deranged chaos coated in passivity.
It took me far too long to hit on the possibility of ghosts. Half the coffee, one stolen chicken nugget. The notion crept up on me like an aftertaste. Hadn’t I read somewhere about a death in a McDonald’s Playplace? A boy strangled in loose netting or crushed under a slide?
I took a long look at the woman out of the corner of my eye. She had finished her Big Mac, but hadn’t touched any of the Happy Meal. It sat in the same place, apple slices, cold fries, burger with delicate nibble. Her eyes had shrunk back into her head. She was reading a paperback.
A thrill went up my spine.
Yes, I could believe in ghosts. Hungry ones. Shy ones who vanish at the slightest sound. I sipped my coffee, back of my neck prickling. First the difficult weekend and now I’d offended the mother of a ghost. All of my apologies, all of my objections, all of my anxieties and opinions hit the inside of my smooth candy coating and bounced back. They had nowhere to go, and not much room, so they rubbed against each other painfully, like bone on bone.
Constipated and emotionally arthritic, I let the awful sounds of my children shrieking wash over me. Time didn’t seem important anymore, the amount of time we were spending on the road or the morning shift: laundry, folding, cleaning that was waiting for me. The morning wasn’t a real thing. Ghosts were real. His mother was sitting right there, wasn’t she?
At some point I noticed that my children were gathered around me on the bench. Their heads were in my lap. I was stroking them, silky hair like wisps of cirrus floating in the atmosphere, of course they wanted to climb when they could. Nothing more natural. When had they fallen asleep? When had I finished my coffee?
My gaze found the woman. She was frozen still, staring at a squirrel.
The squirrel was reddish brown, and looked skinny and paranoid, even for a squirrel. It was perched on the edge of the table eating the cheeseburger bun, teeth working like a little motor. I could sense the hair trigger inside its body. Any sudden move and it would scamper back to its hiding place.
I wanted to sag with relief, but the poor thing was so tense it made me suck in too. My reaction went up inside me, oh oh oh. That makes much more sense.
Here is a squirrel, trapped in a plastic nightmare. He survives on fast food that the messy visitors inevitably drop. And here is a woman, alone. Why not report him to the manager? His presence is unsanitary and prohibited. No, she would rather have a secret. Having a secret, just one, just one secret to keep for herself, is important to her.
I caught the woman’s eyes. I won’t tell. I tried to communicate this psychically. We’re just passing through. I don’t even know the name of this town. I don’t even know what state I am in.
She gave me a small nod, incrementally slow, so as not to disturb the squirrel, who was now investigating the apple. I returned it.
I don’t care if you keep a small animal imprisoned here against the laws of nature for your own amusement.
It was a supernatural situation after all, or anti-natural, much more serious than a simple ghost. That’s when it occurred to me that I might be looking at the Devil. We shared a smile.
I thought statistically. My husband is always thinking statistically, and I’ve gotten in the habit. This time I thought about how many other secrets were being kept and shared, all across America, in and out of different languages. I wondered what percentage of them involved squirrels.
The Devil and I waited until our squirrel secret disappeared, dragging a French fry. Then I managed to wake my exhausted children and stuff them back into the car. And that was that.
Later, when my husband asked how the drive went, I wondered whether I had fallen asleep on the road and dreamed the whole thing. I thought about asking the kids, but I don’t dare—
I accidentally baked my wedding ring in a meatloaf. Of course it couldn’t have been something romantic, like a cake or a soufflé. I’d just lost forty pounds cutting out all sugar, which is how the ring slipped off my finger.
I weigh now what I used to weigh in high school. People come up to me and ask me what my secret is. I answer them honestly: I don’t have one. I haven’t done a thing other than cutting out sugar, but I only did that because it started to give me heartburn. If anything, I’ve been eating more. Meat and eggs, sure, but also bread and dark berries and chocolate so bitter it’s basically tree bark. I must have been consuming vast quantities, mountains of sugar piled as high as my armchair. It’s the only way this forty-pound loss makes any sense, unless I have a tapeworm, which is also sometimes what I tell people my secret is.
Although I feel great about my appearance, there’s a downside. I’m cold all the time.
It’s June, but I’m wearing a sweatshirt and bathrobe around the house, gigantic slipper socks on my feet. Out in the sun, or in a hot shower, I don’t feel it so much. I get temporary relief from the sauna at the YMCA. The sign warns not to spend more than fifteen minutes inside, but I can lie there for an hour and not feel at all woozy or dehydrated. I feel normal. Comfortable. Unfortunately, the sensation goes away once I leave, and I’m back to shivering. It’s as if my bone marrow has been replaced by ribbons of freezing water.
The cold feels like a penance. Like maybe I made a deal with the Devil when we were sharing that squirrel together, and I just don’t remember. I tried to imagine the scene:
“Can I offer you anything?”
I turn her down politely the first two times, but the Devil knows social calculus. If she keeps insisting on it, at some point it will become too embarrassing for me not to accept a small favor.
“Oh of course,” she answers. “I can do that, easily.”
Then I fumble around trying to make sure the price is reasonable, like, not my soul or anything like that. She laughs at me.
My husband never calls me dramatic, but he does sometimes remark in a dry voice that my life has a lot of amplitude. He came home and noticed that my ring was gone. When he asked me what happened to it, I pointed to the oven.
“So whoever finds it in their slice gets a prize?”
“I guess that’s traditional.”
I asked him about his day at work. He’s an actuary, which means that he analyzes data and creates models to assess risk. I like to tell people he models for a living, the same sort of people I tell about my tapeworm.
That day he had been looking into paleotempestology.
“It’s reconstructing old storm patterns. Scientists examine a piece of earth the right way and they can see when hurricanes made landfall, thousands and thousands of years into the past. One group working in Belize claims they’ve reconstructed the paleotempestological record of the Atlantic Ocean accurately all the way back to the Jurassic period.”
I wiped the counter with a paper napkin. My left hand looked weird without my wedding ring, like a bad copy.
“Could hurricane winds lift a whole dinosaur off the ground?” I asked.
He shrugged. “I’m no wind scientist. I wouldn’t bet on them not being able to.”
We got out our phones and looked up lists of Jurassic dinosaurs, and imagined them being blown around in circles, the long necks of brachiosaurs whipping like windsocks, the plates on stegosaurus’s back peeling off one by one. If I stuck my weird left hand through the bottom of the sink, through time, into the path of an ancient hurricane, would it peel off my fingernails?
I was all of a sudden fearful of the scientists in Belize. I just couldn’t imagine they were real! Who were these nameless prophets predicting the past, really, and what did they want to do it for? To set insurance premiums on coastline properties?
3. The Side-Effect
I can’t explain how I have come to share my house with so many copies. It started when I found an extra toothbrush on the counter in the bathroom. I thought it was a new one my husband had unwrapped, but upon closer inspection I found that the bristles were frayed outward, as if they had seen a lot of use. There were even tiny particles of food caught in them. It looked exactly the same as my own toothbrush in every detail.
Then the artwork on the fridge began to duplicate, two perfectly identical crayon rainbows, two pipe cleaner stickmen. I just toss the copies out, but it makes a lot of waste. It’s getting so I empty the big trash can in the kitchen twice a day. (I don’t mind so much when the things inside the fridge are copied—we’ve been saving like mad on groceries.)
I finally had to tell my husband what was happening when we cut into the meatloaf and found two wedding rings. They were both size eight, white gold, engraved with our wedding date. He didn’t believe me until I dug around in the trash and produced more evidence.
“I’m starting to think we’re going to wake up one morning and find ourselves the parents of twins.”
“Two sets of twins,” he said. Then, looking at the clocks on opposite sides of the kitchen, “What time is it?”
“That one showed up this morning. See, the screw is duplicated too. I inspected it.”
My husband squinted at the second clock, his shoulders curving inward and his belly sloping out. “But why’s it five minutes slow?”
I shrugged. “No idea.”
“Huh.” He scratched the thinning patch of hair on the back of his head. “I feel like I should be more concerned about this than I am.”
“Well, maybe,” I said. “But it is pretty tame compared to what happens in The Mummy. Or Creature from the Black Lagoon.”
My husband’s obsessed with old monster movies lately. He goes to the basement in the evenings to watch them, DVDs he borrows from the library. I can’t see the appeal; all of them seem to feature women who end up screaming themselves into unconsciousness by the end. Standing there in the kitchen, looking at him looking at the clock, I felt my flesh start to creep. Not my flesh. I’m sorry, that’s wrong. I’m not sure how to describe it. Some deep part of me, a piece of my fundamental being that had been fixed in place all my life—my immovable object—started to rock back and forth.
“We should get a physics Ph.D. in here,” he said. “But they’ll never believe it.”
“No,” I agreed. “It’ll stop happening the second a physicist steps through the door.”
He thudded downstairs. I wrapped my second pale pink bathrobe around the first one, so that I looked like an overstuffed scarecrow, and finished the dishes. The water was hot, and soon my hands felt like those glowing pieces of metal that blacksmiths pull out of the fire right before they start to pound them into a more useful shape. The sensation didn’t last. My husband finished his movie and got the kids ready for bed, and I went to see how many hot water bottles I could find.
I should have mentioned that besides scalding showers and the sauna at the Y, there’s one other thing that melts my permafrost: masturbation. I’ve taken to masturbating every night, whether to completion or not, just to get warm enough to fall asleep. It’s very businesslike. I’m not even sure you could call it sexual. About a week after the incident with the meatloaf, when I slipped my hand into my pajama pants to embark upon my nightly routine, to my surprise I found I had grown a second clitoris.
It was the same size and shape, and situated right under the original. The two of them were like peas in a pod. Curiously, I began to rub this new growth, but it produced no sensation—none at all—other than a feeling of slight pressure on the tissues underneath. If the thing had nerve endings, I thought, then they weren’t connected up. I kept rubbing anyway, for a few seconds, just to see if anything would happen. Nothing did, and I thought I better not wear out my wrist. I lay shivering under the covers.
Then I felt a tickle. A prod. Then the familiar, smooth back-and-forth. Both my hands were gripping my pillow. I glanced over at my husband, who was snoring peacefully. I took my phone off the nightstand and pointed the screen at the coverlet, casting a soft glow. Nothing was moving under there.
It stopped soon enough, leaving a residual tingling. I reached down, bypassing my usual clitoris, and rubbed the wrong one, going faster and longer this time. Have I orgasmed by now? I wondered. It was the most interesting guesstimate I’ve ever made, much more exciting than jelly beans in a jar at the school fair.
I sat there in bed and thought about time travel and slow-motion neural signals while I waited. I even did some research on my phone: human nerves normally transmit information at speeds of over one hundred meters per second, according to Wikipedia. It took exactly five minutes for the signals from my new clitoris to begin reaching my brain.
I admit to enjoying it. I admit to not caring why it was happening. I mean, isn’t that the dream? Someone giving it to you exactly the way you like, and all you have to do is lie back? All at once, I saw myself as the woman in one of my husband’s movies, hanging limply in the monster’s arms. It’s wrong, I thought, to fantasize about being carried off somewhere, semi-conscious, to some primitive landscape—but then again, isn’t sex a time for wrong-but-right? Maybe in some cases. Maybe when you’re the monster, holding yourself.
It’s a twenty-minute drive from my house to O’Hare, and I spent each one dreading the corresponding minute of the return trip. What will she be saying now? What will I say back?
Anne, my sister-in-law, is a woman so slight and so fine-boned, she completely dominates any other woman she stands next to. Everything you do and are is coarse in comparison. She is a strict vegan, which turns your leather purse into an offensive political statement. There is a pale energy that seems to rise out of her; she seems mostly made of it, as though the soles of her feet are hot irons giving off steam—solid, woman-shaped steam. I won’t list her hobbies. There are too many, and she’s accomplished in all of them. She is the sort of person who makes you wonder what you’ve been doing with your time.
We’d never been alone together for more than a few minutes. We were both aware of it. It takes two to craft this kind of exquisite choreography, especially for as long as I’d been married to her brother, which at that point was almost a decade. Our waltz was danced in bathroom breaks, retreats to the kitchen to help clean up after a meal, volunteering to walk the dog or take the kids to the playground, and sometimes, in a pinch, pretending to be asleep on the couch. But circumstances had finally bested us. Her flight was delayed into practically a red-eye, and my husband can’t drive at night.
As I merged into the black hole of I-190, I started wondering why we had been going to such lengths to avoid each other. There was nothing specific to point to, at least on my end. Just instinct.
Instinct can be wrong, though. Instinct can be based in fear. She’s just a person—that’s plain fact. She’s probably as nervous as I am—a reasonable statement. I was making one after another and starting to feel brave. This isn’t some big mystery, I told myself. We’ve never had a chance to bond, that’s all.
Then she was waving at me from the Arrivals curb with her tiny white wrist, and I started to feel flustered again. (Twenty minutes!) She was stowing her bag in the trunk. (Twenty minutes!) She was climbing into the passenger seat.
“Be honest,” I said, floundering around for some way to break the ice, “have I always had this chin cleft?”
I’d first noticed it in the bathroom mirror that morning. I never thought of myself as a person with a chin cleft. Can’t remember ever having one, but as I examined it, it seemed natural on my face. It wasn’t something extra, like a pimple, or a bruise. Still, could I really have been living with it all this time?
Anne looked at me, as she so often does when I speak directly to her, with confusion.
“Did you drive to the airport in a bathrobe?” she asked.
Underneath the robe was a pair of long john pajamas with little llamas printed on them. I signaled my way back into traffic.
What did we need? What could we use? Something to sharpen us up. Before we had been stuck meeting each other at family gatherings, in vague kitchen table situations.
“We can’t be alone together,” I said.
I couldn’t look at her. There were cars all around me trying to get into all sorts of different lanes to go all sorts of different places. So I’m not sure how she took it, other than to sit there in silence.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m being imprecise. We don’t know if we can be alone together or not, because we’ve never tried. It’s just that we pick up on something from each other, don’t we? Some mutual repulsion signal. It’s like we don’t understand each other at all, even when we’re both speaking plain English.”
Now I sneaked a look at her, and she was staring at me as though I had just slapped her. She quickly papered over that expression.
“I really don’t think this is necessary.”
“It’s already making me feel better, though. Usually I’m swallowing all the things I disagree with you about. It’s like when you have a nosebleed and you swallow the blood. You can feel it in your stomach for so long afterward, can’t you?”
She continued to stare at me. Was she really that offended? I couldn’t tell. The things that bother her always surprise me.
“How tired are you?” I asked. “Feeling sleepy?”
She blinked a few times, slowly, and said, “I slept on the plane.”
“I fall asleep right away on a plane. Every time.”
I’ve never been able to nod off in a moving vehicle of any kind, not since early childhood. I shook my head, amazed at how opposite we were in every unimportant detail.
The Rivers Casino was coming up on the right. I had driven past hundreds of times and always wondered what it was like inside, even though I was pretty sure I knew: ugly carpets and slot machines and people with hunched shoulders. I put my blinker on.
“What are you doing?”
“Taking the exit to the casino.”
“I meant why.”
“Because we need a bonding experience. We need to do something spontaneous and memorable, while drinking alcohol.”
“You’re going to play slots in a bathrobe?”
Despite herself, she was intrigued. Either that or she was secretly recording me with her phone in case she ever needed hard evidence of my mental instability. I don’t know for sure if she thinks I have a mental instability, I only know that’s how I end up feeling if I spend too much time around her. My rules up till then had been: don’t look directly at the sun, and don’t be yourself around Anne.
“Why not?” I answered. “If they throw us out, it’ll be a good bonding story.”
“This isn’t a story about bonding,” she said, her thin lips even thinner than usual. “This is a story about you kidnapping me.”
“Anne, it’s exactly this sort of difference in philosophy that’s been holding us back.”
She crossed her arms. Her frown pulled the tip of her nose down until it made a quivering little V, like a disgruntled rabbit’s, but she made no more protests. I think she was curious to see what I would do next.
By the time we parked, it was almost midnight. The place was just how I’d pictured it: ugly maroon and gold swirls in the decor, ringing slots, and half-moon banquettes glowing red around the bottom. They looked like hovercraft that had just touched down. The only thing that struck me as at all nice was the green felt on the tables. The cards, too. White and crisp and fresh.
No one gave my bathrobe a second glance as I led Anne up to the bar, and I wondered how many other places I could go in a bathrobe. It was a Thursday night, not busy, so we were served right away. Vodka soda for her, whiskey for me. We took them to one of the hovercrafts and sat down.
“Explain it to me,” she said, swirling the ice around in her glass. “This difference in philosophy thing.”
“Do you know much about the Eleusinian Mysteries?”
“I’ve heard of them.” She glanced around and said under her breath, “God, casinos are so sad.”
“It was this big famous festival that the cult of Demeter would put on, with processions and fasting and poisonous elixirs and nudity, and every year a new group of followers would get initiated and learn the secret rites. But,” I said, pointing my drink at her before taking a swig, “there were different levels. Any old Joe could get initiated into the Lesser Mysteries. The Greater Mysteries…”
“Not any old Joe,” Anne said.
“Correct. The people who were taught the Greater Mysteries were called epopts.”
“That doesn’t sound right. I’ve seen this before in a crossword puzzle. It’s a different word.”
“Epopts,” I said again. I could feel the whiskey creeping into my brain, floating around near the top in a little shining pool. “There were a lot of cults, though. And they all had their own secrets. They looked at the world and saw meaning in different things. We,” I gestured between us, “are two epopts from different cults.”
Anne sat back against the banquette and sipped her drink. “What about my brother, is he in your cult?”
I shook my head. “He doesn’t have mysteries,” I said. “But he doesn’t mind mine.”
She considered this for a moment, gazing off toward the craps tables. “I’ve always thought you were a little ridiculous.”
“I’ve always been afraid of you.”
We got a second round. I was really getting to be a lightweight, so many years spent pregnant and breastfeeding. The pool of whiskey on my brain grew until it was a sphere, spinning slowly, getting larger and larger. Soon I was between tipsy and drunk, and everything around me was like a scene in a play. Things appeared stage right and disappeared stage left in orderly procession. Fellow casino-goers spoke to me, and I smiled at them. We’d rehearsed these conversations beforehand; it was so easy.
I found I had moved. Anne was watching me put tokens into a slot machine called The Rings of Saturn. She was telling me that Saturn was the lightest planet, less dense than water, that if there was an ocean big enough, Saturn could float on it. I won ten dollars. I looked down at the ice melting in my glass and realized that I didn’t feel cold anymore.
My face. It was there. My wide face, reflected in the chrome pillar to my right, out of proportion, melting on one side. Wide face with a cleft in the chin, like it was preparing to split in two.
Then I understood that the immoveable part at the center of me had finally divided, after weeks of shivering, of trying to saw itself in half like a magic act in which it was both magician and beautiful assistant. When it split, it did so without a sound. It had happened back in the car, while I was focused on Anne.
I was suddenly certain that when this cold half slithered out of my belly button, it took the shape of a tapeworm. It wiggled its way down the left leg of my pajama pants and came out at my ankle, coiling and uncoiling. I think it kissed me goodbye on the top of my foot. Somehow it exited the car. It grew a new car around itself, puffed into shape. I’d seen it rewinding in my rearview mirror, pacing backward until it was five minutes behind us on the road.Have I caught up to myself? I wondered. As Anne led me to the exit, I felt like Saturn. I tried to imagine what my husband would say when he woke up and found he had two wives. And two cars. Our car insurance payments will go up unless we sell one. What will we do now that there are multiple time zones in the kitchen? I saw the Devil sitting at a slot machine. I tried to say hello, but Anne towed me along like a balloon. Parking lots are dangerous places for balloons, but Anne never lets anything go. I knew she wouldn’t stop holding my hand until she could float me up against the ceiling of the Camry and drive me home, keeping me safe for as long as I lasted.
Alexandra Munck’s fiction has appeared in The Southampton Review, Strange Horizons, and Three-Lobed Burning Eye. Her most recent poetry can be found in Rust + Moth and Bodega. She lives in Illinois.
Featured Artwork: Lucid Dreaming With You Photograph Karin Hedetniemi (she/her) is a nonfiction writer, haiku poet, and street photographer from Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Her creative work is inspired by the natural world and ordinary beauty found in quiet spaces. Karin's photo galleries and cover images are published or forthcoming in CutBank, Pithead Chapel, Barren Magazine, Parentheses Journal, The Bitchin' Kitsch, Acropolis, and other literary journals. You can often find her beachcombing, or else on Twitter/Instagram @karinhedet and AGoldenHour.com