was Charlie, which might have been my biggest problem. I died
in one of those storms people called the Storm of the Century.
before I left my mom's house, I had a fight with my mom. It was
like every other fight we'd had, only worse. She always begged
me to visit her, and then by the end of every visit, she yelled
at me. This time, she told me she didn't care if she never saw
me again. This time, I figured she meant it.
I left her
house and stomped along the road under the drumming of snow,
steaming at first, then cold, because I'd left without stopping
for my hat, gloves, or down jacket.
I tried to
figure out what I could have said that would have made it end
different. I went over and over it in my mind. Mom had called
me a lot of names, "shiftless no-good parasite," "waste of good
dirt," "a burden," "an idiot without the brains God gave a
sofa," same stuff she'd been saying to me all my life, though I
figured she was really talking to my dad, who stole the TV and
slipped out the window when I was three.
So I was
slushing along the main street of this small town where my mom
lives, Ridgeway, Colorado, with my hands shoved deep into my
pockets and my shoulders hunched, trying to keep my ears warm.
stopped to pick me up.
been thinking, I would have wanted to go home to my one-room
apartment in Ewell. But I was still steaming and not thinking.
I didn't care where I went.
the way the woman looked she was upwards of forty, at least
twice my age, but she had nice eyes, dark blue in the dome light
of her Chevy Nova, sad eyes though. Her hair did a Doris Day
flip thing I had only seen in movies, and it was the same color
of white as Doris's, not old white, but just a little tan around
the edges, like pulled taffy. She had kiss-me lipstick on, dark
women put out these signals that don't mean exactly what you
think they would. You think it means Kiss Me and she thinks it
means I Look Nice.
dressed warm because of the weather, but she didn't look too big
or too small inside all those clothes, more just right.
for a while without saying anything. We got way out of town and
up into the mountains. We were going north, which was not a
direction I usually went when I left Ridgeway.
was warm, the seat was comfortable, the windshield wipers were
plowing the snow off the window in powerful strokes, and the
sandy patter of the flakes falling into the plowed sweeps of
windshield made me sleepy. If I was sleepy without even having
to concentrate on the view, I figured the woman would be even
sleepier trying to look past all those snowflakes, so I talked
to help keep her awake.
really wanted to do was tell her about my fight with Mom, ask
her if she thought Mom was right, but we don't ever air our
dirty linen in public in my family, so I asked her questions
woman was like my sister Sarah, looked at me and saw Boy, Man,
whatever, and thought of some Boy or Man she hated. All I did
was ask her if she was married, and what kind of man her husband
was. What did he do? Did she like her in-laws? Did they have
didn't want to talk about it.
me a question too. What was my name?
stopped the car and told me to get out.
"But " I
looked at all the snow bucketing down out of the sky. I
couldn't remember the last house or driveway we had passed. All
I could see was a smothering of snow and the dim dark shapes of
trees beside the road.
Just get out," she said, and she didn't sound anything like
Doris Day. Her voice was low and angry, the way Mom's had been
right before I left the house. "Get out of my car."
I got out
of the car, and she drove off, snow spinning out from under her
rear tires, car slipping on the road, straightening, zooming
off, following its headlights and leaving pale snowy darkness
there was nothing the direction we had been coming from I'd
been in her car a couple hours' worth of slip-and-slide
snowblanket nothing already so I walked on the way we had been
heading, and found a lot more nothing. Okay, there was snow,
trees, and snowy road. That was it.
until the snow sneaked into my shirt and soaked my socks and
froze again, till snow mixed with my hair and froze into a hat.
I trudged until I couldn't feel my fingers or my toes, and my
face felt frozen hard.
I walked a
lot, but I couldn't tell how far because everything looked the
same. I walked until I was too tired and cold to do anything
but sit down. Then I sat. Then I couldn't get up again. Kept
thinking I should stand, but couldn't get up the gumption.
lay down on the snow beside the road. By that point I couldn't
feel much of anything. It was like going to sleep, only colder.
woke up, the snow had made a blanket over me, covering my face,
even. I sat up. Suddenly I was looking at that snowy sky
above, but there was no feel or sound of snow moving off me. I
looked down and saw that everything of me from the waist down
was still under the snow.
to the side. Didn't disturb the snow at all.
puzzled me for a minute. Then I went into complete and total
panic, jumpy as a cat on a griddle.
I leapt to
standing on top of fresh snow without making a dent.
me, stretched full-length, was a me-sized lump in the snow.
and I wasn't in it anymore.
I must be
I must be
couldn't be it. Dead? Dead? Maybe I was dreaming? I
plow came along and gave the body a better burial. The snow it
piled went right through me, till I was standing there, up to my
neck in snow, or the snow was up to my neck in me, and I
couldn't even feel it.
spun around with nothing to stop it.
I slowed down and tried to puzzle it out.
At least I
didn't feel the cold anymore. I wasn't hungry or thirsty or
tired. I couldn't figure out how I felt.
I was on a
mountain pass road, in the middle of a very snowy night, in a
big high snowbank the snowplow had pushed over on top of what
was left of my body. I couldn't see my breath. I could barely
supposed to do something? Was that why I was dead but still
out into the road and looked down at myself. I looked like me.
hissed and sizzled down thick and right through me. I waited
through some long patches of quiet. Two cars drove past, didn't
slow. I wouldn't have known what to say if they had
stupid time to walk out of Mom's. If I had thought, if I had
waited, if I had packed, I could have used the return part of my
bus ticket and gone back to my apartment in Ewell. I could have
been warm and safe instead of dead.
again, how could Mom hurt me now? I thought about drifting back
to Mom's house. Maybe I could scare her now. Even if I
couldn't scare her, at least she was more entertaining than
trees. She would watch TV, and I could watch it too. She even
liked some of the shows I liked.
toward Ridgeway and Mom. Presently I started to feel drifty.
When I looked down at myself, I saw less of me. My hands were
almost gone, and my legs below the knees. I walked some more,
saw the me fade.
Why was I
here, if I was just going to fade out?
and headed back up the mountain.
looked, I saw my knees had returned, and then my calves, my
ankles. Finally my shoes showed up at the ends of my legs,
right where they belonged. The closer I got to where I had left
my body, the more of me was there.
tethered to the body, which I wasn't even using anymore? It was
stupid. But I wasn't ready to evaporate yet, so I walked until
I got as much of me back as I could.
sure where I'd come from. It wasn't like I had left footprints.
Even if I found myself, I wasn't sure what to do. Nobody was
going to find my ex-self buried under all that snow.
well try to find my body anyway. If I was a ghost, I could go
through things and I already knew they could go through me. I
tested it. It was sure enough true. I walked through some snow
and a couple trees.
back toward where I thought I had left my mortal remains and
dived into the snow bank, and discovered that even though I
could go through things, I couldn't see through them.
After a few inches it was just plain dark under there. I swam
around in it trying to see if any of it felt different.
Sometimes I'd swim out into air; in the undersnow dark, in the
absence of gravity, I couldn't tell which way was up.
I found my
body by feel. The feel was that my body sucked at me like a
magnet sucks iron filings, this place in the darkness that felt
different from everything else around. Come on home, it
said. Come back where you belong.
inside my body for a while. It was as comfortable as I could
get in this state where I couldn't feel much of anything. The
body held me almost the way it had in life, only there was less
work to it. No breathing, no heartbeat, no brain activity, so
what was I thinking with? I decided not to think about it.
flickering a finger, twitching a toe, but no response from the
body. It was just fooling with me, making me think I was at
home inside it. It was sort of like Mom. Come stay with me,
but the whole time you're here I'll make you feel bad about who
you are and what you do.
I climbed out of the body and back onto the road, and just in
time, too, because that same blue Nova came back. The snow had
let up a little.
yelled, waving at the driver.
me. She stopped the car and rolled down the window. "Where did
you come from? I'm been looking for you all night!"
up at the sky. Sure enough, it was pinking along one edge after
a night of freezing cold and snow.
I got so mad and told you to get out of the car," she said. "I
wasn't thinking. I figured someone else would be along to pick
you up, but I got most of the way home and realized only fools
were driving in this damned blizzard. I've been back and forth
on this stretch of road ten times in the past hour. Everything
looks the same! Where were you? It's freezing! Are you all
I said. Maybe I shouldn't tell her I was dead. What if she
went away again and left me here?
relieved. I know it was awful to leave you out here, no matter
what you said."
even know what I said that got you so mad."
back in the car," she said. "I don't want to let any more heat
out." She rolled her window up.
around the car and climbed in right through the closed passenger
door. I mean, I tried to open the door, but my hand slipped
through the handle and I fell into the car. And sat in the
seat. Heck, if I could sit in the seat, why couldn't I touch
the door? It made no sense. Maybe I could touch stuff if I
didn't think about it too hard. Hadn't worked with the door
handle, though. I had practically forgotten I was dead by the
time I tried it. What a pain in the butt it was to be a ghost.
meantime, she noticed. She screamed. She sat there staring at
me with her eyes really wide, round as pickling onions.
said. Maybe if I talked fast enough she would forget I was
strange. I wondered if I could get away from my body in a
speeding car without dissolving. This road in the middle of
nowhere was one of the most boring places I had ever been. Even
if I did dissolve, maybe it was better than staying here.
but that but you what happened?"
you're tired. You've been out driving around all night, through
a lot of snow," I said. I had never been a very good liar while
I was alive. Maybe there were advantages to being dead. "Maybe
you fell asleep and had a really short dream."
swallowed. "Stop it," she said. "Tell me the truth. You never
opened the door. What are you? Are you a vampire?"
So I was a
lousy liar even after death. "Naw. I'm dead."
god! Oh my god! How did it happen?"
down in the snow."
god," she said a few more times. I wondered if she was ever
going to put the car in gear and kick us out of there, whether I
would be able to go anywhere with her. "It's my fault!" she
said. "It's my fault. I killed you."
about that. I'd been walking through the outskirts of Ridgeway
when she picked me up. The fight with Mom had driven all the
smarts out of my head, and by the time I came halfway back to my
senses I was walking through heavy, blinding snow and feeling
too cold to be sensible. No way was I going back to Mom's. I
never wanted to see Mom again.
have picked someplace warm to go to. Could have gone to the
all-night grocery store and offered to help the guys offload
groceries. I had about two dollars in my wallet. I could have
gone to the Bluebird Café for a six-hour cup of coffee. Could
have gone to the bus station, waited for the morning bus back to
Ewell. At least I wouldn't have frozen to death.
had picked me up. She had driven me into the wilderness. She
had kicked me out of her car.
But it was
the cold that killed me.
know if I should tell her that, though. What if she kicked me
out of the car again?
it I had said that had made her so mad?
name," she said.
I said. "Charlie made you throw me out of the car on a
freezing snowing blizzard night?"
started crying. She leaned her forehead on the steering wheel
and snorted out some sobs, her hands gripping the wheel beside
her head. "I am going to Hell," she said after a while of
choking and sobbing and tears dripping down into her lap.
out of here," I said.
up. She rubbed her eyes. She looked at me, away, at me. She
started the car and drove away, and I did not dissolve. I still
felt the magnetic attraction of my body, but it faded as we
went. Maybe I was sticking around to do something connected to
the woman. I could live with that. Or whatever I was doing. I
was glad the car seat was pulling me forward and I could rest my
feet on the floor.
had stopped. Even though the snow plow had been through here
earlier in the night, there was new snow on the road. As the
sun rose, everything sparkled.
drove pretty well for someone with no sleep and a ghost in the
car. I watched her to see that she stayed awake. Even if she
fell asleep and crashed the car, it wouldn't make much
difference to me. Maybe that was what I was supposed to do with
my afterlife, kill her somehow. Maybe that was what she wanted
me to do; maybe that was why she didn't kick me out of the car.
didn't want her to die, no matter how guilty she felt.
your name, anyway?" I asked a while later. We were down in a
valley again. Still a lot of snow on the ground and plowed up
beside the road.
somebody else named Charlie, but I had never met anybody named
Lorna before. I guessed she could just be whatever Lorna
meant. "Where are we going?"
want me to live with her, or whatever the verb was that I needed
now? I didn't want to ask her. I didn't want to hear an answer
that might be "no."
We came to
a town. Gold Falls, the sign said. Population 3,451. It was
pretty the way everything is pretty after a fresh snowfall, all
clean and white in the morning sun. Low buildings, most not
above three stories tall, with lights on inside, small framed
scenes of warm life in the midst of all this cold, people
shopping, secretaries typing, people sitting in a coffeeshop
drinking coffee and reading newspapers, a man standing in a
kitchen window with steam rising around him, maybe doing dishes
or making coffee.
drove to the other end of town and pulled into a snowed-over
driveway behind a little red sports car, also frosted with
snow. It was just the kind of car I would have liked, only I
figured if I really wanted one I would have known what kind it
was. I got confused in my head about this and wondered if being
a ghost made you forget things. I had bought a couple of car
mags and read up on the kinds of cars I would have bought if I
had any money, but it was a dim memory, not sharp like the ones
said Lorna. Sounded like she was talking about rotten food.
staring at that car.
home," she said.
other Charlie. Maybe her husband, the one she hadn't wanted to
answer questions about.
"Did you expect him not to be?"
him to pack his things and get out before I got back from the
medical center in Ridgeway," she said. "I even reserved him a
room at the Timbers. Bastard." She sat straight-backed in the
driver's seat, her hands gripping the steering wheel, and she
stared at the house. It was still morning, barely, according to
the dashboard clock.
in?" I asked after a while. She was breathing shallow and fast.
want to see him again."
you," I said. I was happy. Being with her, I got a change of
scenery. I didn't care if we went in the house.
and stared at me. "You sound like him. You even look like
him," she said, her voice low and mean and hopeless. "I don't
want to see you anymore either."
it. She was going to kick me out of her car again for being a
thing with the same name.
at each other for a while. So I had the same name as he did.
Maybe I looked like him. I didn't say anything. I watched her
and waited, teetering on the edge of another uncertain future,
and at last her eyes dropped.
glanced at the house. "I wonder what he's doing in there. He
knows I was supposed to get back sometime late last night. He's
been there a while, if there was time for snow to build up on
the car and not be melted by the engine heat. Damn it!" She
pounded on the steering wheel with her gloved fist. "I have to
go in. You come with me, okay?"
said. Not that I thought there was anything I could do. "Is
this guy mean? Do you have any kind of weapon? Maybe you
better take something with you."
looked at me this time. "I don't know if he's dangerous. He
only ever hit me when he was drunk, but he's been drunk a lot
these past few weeks. I need for him to get out of my life. I
don't know if I could hit him, though. How about you go in
first and find out what he's doing?"
slipped out through the door and turned to glance at her. She
had her hands on the wheel. Steam and exhaust clouded from the
tailpipe of her car, melting a hole in the ice on the driveway.
The engine grunted and shuddered.
at the house. It was a redbrick one-story with white trim. The
pale curtains were closed in all the windows. A curtain
like a nice house, not exactly the same as every other house on
the block, but not very different, either. The trees around it
had lost their leaves, but there were some that looked like they
would be a riot of green and flowers in the spring. A broad
cement step led up to the front door, sugared with snow and
scarred by a stir of footprints, a line going in that did not
come out, with later snow inside the prints.
about going up to the front door, then thought, what the hell,
and walked through the wall with the biggest window in it, the
one where a curtain had twitched. Maybe it was just the furnace
switching on that had moved the curtain, and maybe he was inside
wall was a comfortable living room with big sprawl-on furniture,
the kind I liked to test when Mom and I went to Sears, though
she always bought the other kind, uptight and prissy with
flowers on it, not furniture you could get comfortable on. This
furniture was the perfect brown color you could spill on and no
one would notice, though it was kind of slick-looking, too, so
maybe you could wipe off whatever you had spilled.
At first I
was knee-deep in floor. I jumped up until my feet rested on
floor. Who knew houses were so high off the ground?
there. He looked like a wreck, big smudges under his eyes from
tired or drink, his skin pasty and his lips cracked, his
mouse-brown hair spiky with sleeping sideways on it or not
washing it and tugging at it. He was thin. He had a mustache
that looked like it hadn't decided to actually show. He was
wearing a red-brown leather jacket over a dirty white shirt, and
jeans, and black cowboy boots with tooled curlicues on the toes,
and he looked like he hadn't showered or slept in a week. He
stood there and stared at me while I looked back.
thought I looked like that?
who " He swung an arm up with a bottle at the end of it, and
splashed himself. I couldn't smell it or taste it. I read the
label: Jack Daniels.
he was me. We had the same name. Only he was twice my age, and
I was dead at nineteen. Maybe I was lucky I never lived long
enough to turn into such a loser.
you doing here?" I said. "Aren't you supposed to be gone?"
who?" he asked.
bitch! Who's she to be ordering me around, huh?"
want to mess the place up and yourself, too? Why?" I knew one
reason: when you felt worthless, you might as well make
everything else worthless to match. Mom had told me I was
worthless often enough. Until I managed to leave, move to Ewell,
find myself a job, even if it was just stockboy at the
supermarket. Well, she still said it, but I knew what I was
worth: minimum wage, forty hours a week, cost of living
increases, occasional overtime when other people called in sick;
and that was something.
I couldn't do my job anymore, so was I really worthless?
nowhere to go," said Charlie. He took a swig from the bottle.
"What are you?"
"What do I
stupid punk kid from nowhere," he said, "going nowhere."
that's what I am."
doing in my living room?"
it out. You leaving?"
you. No place to go."
Ewell. You can have my old job. I don't need it anymore. I
have a room, number 32, in Pine Lodge, 515 North Fifth Street.
You can have that too."
used to live there twenty years ago. Things sure were simpler
manager at Everett's Supermart you're Charlie Hudson's big
brother, or his old man, or something, and you want my job."
got a job."
can't you get your own apartment?"
want my own apartment. I want to stay here."
messing up too much to stay here."
his head. He shook his head some more. He grabbed his cheeks
with his hands and managed to stop shaking his head, and then he
groaned "Such a headache," he said.
you gotta get out of here."
don't want to. I want to lie down."
doesn't matter what you want," I said. "Go on. Get out of
here." Then I thought, why am I helping Lorna? A woman. Like
Mom was a woman. Here was me, Charlie, and some other Charlie
together in a living room full of furniture I liked. Outside, a
woman in a car. Why didn't she just go away?
sorry," said Charlie, "but I gotta lie down." He crashed down
on the big couch and lay still, half his face smashed into a
cushion. He started to snore.
back out to the car and slid into the passenger seat. "He's
passed out on the couch," I said.
you this long to come and tell me?" she said.
at her and saw Mom. Women! I had been doing the best I could,
and all she did was gripe at me. "He was awake and talking when
I first got in there," I said. "I told him he had to leave, but
he passed out instead."
said. She turned off the engine. She slipped out of the car
and I followed her up the front walk, across the stoop, and into
the house. Charlie lay where I had last seen him.
around the living room. Crushed junk-food wrappers, dirty
dishes, empty bottles. A litter of life I hadn't even noticed
the first time I looked, because I liked the furniture. "Could
be worse," she said, and bent to pick up crumpled papers.
"Guess I can call someone to haul him out of here."
Mom. She was just Lorna, in a place Charlie had messed up. He
had hit her, and she was mad at him. That was a problem with
worthlessness, wanting to pass it on like a present. You didn't
want to keep it, but what could you do with it?
there and watched Lorna walk to the kitchen and pick up the
phone. I wondered why I was there at all.
at Charlie, lying on the couch.
about my body calling me home, and then I went and lay down
inside of Charlie. Why not?
If he had
a ghost inside, it didn't even squirm or wriggle when I got
there. Maybe it had gone to sleep too.
woke up, my mouth tasted terrible and my head pounded. I lay on
something hard and listened to my lungs pulling in air, felt the
throb of heartbeat in my ears. I flickered a finger, twitched a
toe. Everything ached. Everything was tired. Horrible smells
and tastes lay on my tongue and in my nose.
my eyelids, could almost hear them creak like rusty hinges.
White walls, and when I rolled my head, bars. Beyond the bars,
people in the distance, talking to each other in low voices and
whines. Smells, strange and wild after the scrubbed-free,
tasteless, odorless snowy night and day I had spent dead.
Wrinkled, sour humanity. I rolled my pounding head again and
saw I wasn't alone. Benches lined the walls, and men lay on the
drunk before, and I'd woken up feeling mighty sick before, and
wishing I were dead.
one thing had changed.
I sat up
and went to the bars and asked for water. A woman brought me a
big plastic cup full of water and I drank it. She gave me a
couple aspirin with my second cup. "You feeling better?" she
yeah," I said.
back and lay down and thought about Lorna. Sure. She wouldn't
want to see me again, that seemed pretty certain. Charlie had a
job, but I didn't know what. Whatever it was, I wasn't sure I
could do it.
forty now. I thought about my job and my room at the Pine Lodge
in Ewell, and I thought about a shower, how good it would feel
to wash away all the smells Charlie had left on himself, and
start being me instead.
mustache had to go.
look for me, but she'd never find me in here, and I'd never have
to visit her again. I wondered if this Charlie had any
relatives he had been visiting because he had to. They would
never find me either, not if I just went to Ewell and left
everything Charlie owned behind. I thought about that little
red sports car, and I let go of the idea of it.
there inside of Charlie-I-didn't-even-know-his-last-name and
thought, Hey. I can change my name if I want to.
hurt, but I was happy.
About the Author:
Over the past twenty-four years, Nina Kiriki Hoffman has sold
novels, juvenile and media tie-in books, short story
collections, and more than 200 short stories. Her works have
been finalists for the Nebula, World Fantasy, Mythopoeic,
Sturgeon, and Endeavour awards. Her first novel, The Thread
That Binds the Bones, won a Stoker Award.
Nina's young adult novel Spirits That Walk in Shadow was
published by Viking in 2006. Her short science fiction novel
Catalyst was published by Tachyon in 2006. Fall of Light,
a fantasy novel, will be published by Ace in 2008.
Nina works at a bookstore, does production work for the
Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and teaches short
story writing through her local community college. She also
works with teen writers. She lives in Eugene, Oregon, with
several cats, a mannequin, and many strange toys.
Story © 2007 Nina Kiriki Hoffman.