(excerpted from the forthcoming Balloon Heart - a wacky and disturbing lil' novella.)
“You nearly got waxed yesterday, Hombre,” said Ed's Ghost the next time I saw him, which was the day after the whole steel-garden-fork-prong-up-the-kazoo-vision-and-nightmare episode. I was outside, grabbing a quick smoke after a shift in the warehouse, when I heard his voice close to my ear.
“Ed,” I said, stepping back, “what gives? I ain't seen you in a while. You saw the whole suburban nightmare yesterday?”
“Yeah,” he said, frowning and scratching at his gearclaw. “That was some nasty shit. You grunts really ripped those two kids apart.”
I didn't say anything to that, as it made the whole episode come back in a pretty vivid kind of way. I just took a long drag off my smoke and looked at the ground.
“So she's got you thinking about her a lot, it seems. That is most definitely NOT, Hombre, what I had intended, but then, no one goes and asks Ed what he thinks anymore these days, do they? ”
“Ed,” I said, looking up, “What the hell am I supposed to do? You mean you never had fantasies?”
“I tried to keep them to a minimum when my life or the lives of others around me were at stake. But what the hell do I know? I'm just a ghost.”
“Ed, what's the deal with Andy, anyway? This all started because of you, you know.”
“Whoah, Hombre,” he said, “this did not start because of me. On the contrary, I think this most definitely has continued, however, either because of or on behalf of the both of us. And I would greatly appreciate it if you would spend some time contemplating that while you chew on your beefsteak over this coming dinner hour.”
“Continued on our behalf?” I asked.
“I would like to some day go on to the remainder of my eternity in the afterlife confident in the knowledge that I got myself diced into a bazillion little bits of bite-sized meaty morsels for some purpose other than making the clean-up an absolute bitch for a bunch of sorry losers who drew the short straw that morning.”
“Yowch, Ed,” I said, “ I'm sorry. That sounds worse than I ever thought.”
“Don't sweat it, Hombre. It happened so damn fast I never knew what hit me. Just make me a happy old ghost and contemplate like I asked you, OK?”
“And by the way, I really meant that about the beefsteak for dinner today, too. If I were you I would pass on what they're going to be serving as chicken.” Ed's Ghost shared this last nugget of wisdom and vaporised once again. I was standing there by myself, with a cold cigarette butt in my hand.
“Thanks Ed,” I said to the thin air. I stood there a while longer, contemplating the cigarette butt, and contemplating what Ed had said to me. I tried to number what I had learned since my ghostly visitor had been making his sporadic visits:
- I knew, or at least I thought I knew a bit more about the nature of ghosts.
- I had a healthy curiosity about time-keeping within the confines of the Project.
- Sympathy can get you killed.
- Things are not always as they appear.
This was, as far as I could tell at that stage of the game, all that I had really learned from my visitor from the other side. It didn't seem like a whole lot, but at the very least number 3 and number 4 were making me look at things a little differently and perhaps they might cause me to go about my work a little differently. I probably could have added to the list something about “not having violent sexual fantasies while standing in potentially hostile territory,” but I should have had that lesson drummed into my thick skull a long time ago. Sadly, I just needed a refresher.
I tossed the butt into the air and kicked at it like an errant hacky-sack. It flew a little ways across the compound and I could have sworn that it actually hovered in place for just a split second before it fell to the ground. I did a double take, but it was just lying there by that time. I walked over to it and looked down. I could see the imprint of a silver lightning bolt printed on the rolling paper, and near the end of the filter tip, a bright red smear of blood. I instinctively reached up and put my hand to my lips and then looked, expecting to see a matching smear on my fingers. There was nothing there, just a couple of fingers freshly moistened with my spit. I did this a couple of times, even sticking my fingers right into my mouth to check my tongue, my cheeks, and the roof of my mouth. Nothing. I then coughed a couple of times and spit on the ground, expecting to see blood mixed in with my phlegm, but it was as clear as it could be after a couple of smokes. I shook my head and thought again about point number four as I walked in the barracks. I got back, washed up, and headed off to dinner.
I wandered into the mess hall and grabbed a tray. The same old bald-headed guy with greasy looking skin was serving the food, as always, and he barely even looked up as he spoke.
“Gravy on your chicken?” he asked with no enthusiasm.
“Isn't there any beefsteak?” I asked in return.
“Ran out. Gravy on your chicken?”
I opted for just a big serving of the rehydrated potatoes and some sawdusty bread. Once again, Ed's lessons that translated into point number four were proving useful.