This is a serial fiction posted in one toot daily (ish) during October on Mastodon. It was unplanned and experimental, and I’m pretty happy with the result. I hope you enjoy it. (original format)
I’m a ghost but I never died, or at least I don’t remember it. Memory and shape are both unfixed concepts to me. The only time I ever feel real is when someone sees me.
I have no power over who can see me or what they’ll see when they do. Human minds do something with my aether, project onto it, give it a form it doesn’t really have.
I’ve been a cat for a lonely little girl. I’ve been a night terror in the dark. Sometimes, I’m someone you loved.
There is a young man in front of me now, narrow-shouldered and with curly hair that flops to one side.
I don’t know what he sees — someone he knew, maybe. Something that makes him press trembling hands to his heart.
I prepare to vanish. Some enjoy these moments with humans, but I have no taste for sadness.
But before I do, I am frozen by a strange sight.
He is crying.
His tears are not human tears.
His tears are pure, sparkling aether.
I don’t know what to make of this. I have existed since … I have always existed. But I have never seen aether come from a human. They are physical things; they do not contain the stuff of spirits.
So instead of making my goodbyes and a quick escape, I find myself saying: –What are you?–
And to my shock, the human stiffens, aether still trickling from his eyes in golden rivers. He says, ‘You’re not him.’
He sounds more angry than sad.
I don’t know what to make of this. Communication with humans is usually so brief, and they *want* to believe the evidence of their eyes, so I cannot convince them of my otherness.
But the human before me is clenching his fists and baring his teeth like he wants to hit me.
Not that he could, even if he tried.
I should leave. I doubt I will enjoy whatever accusations he throws at me next. But I am still fixated by his shining aether tears.
–I’m not him,– I agree, though who ‘he’ is is a mystery to me. –I don’t have a shape that your human mind can comprehend, so it has projected one onto me. I do not know what or who you are seeing.–
His brow furrows. The aether that has been streaming from his eyes slows then stops, though I can still see the glimmer of it in his eyes.
‘You’re not a ghost?’ The anger has become a quaver.
–I am a ghost. The real question is, what are you?–
His eyebrows pinch. ‘What do you mean, “What am I”? You’ve already said I’m a human.’
–You look like one,– I tell him. –Maybe you think you are one. But that doesn’t explain this.–
I reach out a tendril of aether toward the tears shining on his face, the aether gradually evaporating into the air.
‘This?’ He gestures. ‘These are tears. Humans cry all the time.’
But not like this.
Curiosity overwhelms me. I close the gap and touch the tears.
Touching aether is a warm, fluid experience. Energy is exchanged, then retrieved. Information is shared. It is how we communicate with each other. It is how we learn and grow.
This isn’t like that.
This is sharp. Painful. A crackle of electricty running through my aether. First I feel hot, then very cold.
I squeeze my eyes shut and — eyes?
I open them. My hand is cupping the human’s face.
Skin warm. Smooth.
I turn and vomit.
It’s awful, and not just the vomit. Everything is sensation. Where once the world was liquid, now it is made of knives.
I can feel the air on my skin. The ground thrusts up at me. Gravity — how do humans cope with gravity? I’m so HEAVY.
And this … this BODY is full of aches and gurgling and DENSITY. Do I have to protect this head now? Aren’t humans stored entirely within their skull goo?
I start hyper-ventillating and I do not like it AT ALL.
‘Chris! Oh my god — are you okay?’ I feel his hand on my back.
‘I’m not Chris,’ I say between gasps. My mouth is clumsy and my voice thrums in my throat. What a stupid, cumbersome way to communicate.
‘I thought you said you didn’t have a body! I thought –‘
‘I don’t! I didn’t! You’ve done something to me. I — I can’t –‘ The world blurs at the edges, then spins.
When I hit the ground, I wonder if this is what dying feels like.
For a time, I drift. I am aether in empty space, energy in a void. The air doesn’t rake my senses, for I have no skin. Gravity doesn’t drag me down, for I have no body.
And though I do not recognise this black place, relief ripples through me. I am myself again. The memories of that terrifying time in flesh will fade, as all memory does.
Even as I think that, I remember the aether shining from the human’s eyes. A mystery that will go unsolved.
I will gladly let it, so long as I do not have to wear a body ever again.
But as my thoughts turn to the human, a shape begins to form across from me in the void. Pulled together of sparkling aether, then solidifying into flesh.
I do not recognise this human, with his beard and black hair and woeful eyes, but I feel a shock of discomfort at the sight of him.
He is standing, though there is no ground to hold him up.
He says: ‘I wish it was me.’
–Wish what was me?– I ask him, but he is blurring at the edges, disintegrating again into beads of shining aether. First his arms and legs, then his body, until only his head is left.
‘He’s special,’ he tells me, as he disappears into light. ‘Never forget that.’ Then all shape is gone and he is a firefly cloud of aether that scatters into the void.
–Hello?– I call into the darkness, but my words meet no other entity. I am alone.
Gradually, the void lights up, as if an unseen sun is rising. Then colour returns, strange and dancing. Where am I now?
I open my eyes. I am in a human house, on a human bed, and I have a body again.
My head hurts. I feel sick.
‘What is happening to me?’ I ask, my voice thick and hoarse. There is something grainy on my eyes; I reach up to wipe it away.
‘Are you alright?’ The human from before, the one with the shining tears, sits beside the bed.
‘I’m still in this human body, aren’t I?’ I cannot keep the sharpness from my voice, though truthfully I am touched by his concern. It must have been him who laid me in this bed.
Across from the bed is a mirror, and in it I see the bearded human from the void. I lift a hand; so does he.
So this is me.
‘What … uh, what do I call you?’
‘Call me?’ The question stops me for a moment. ‘Like a name?’
It has never been a concern before.
Aether recognises aether. We ghosts know each other without a need for crude communication.
‘Aether,’ I murmur, wondering if that would serve.
‘Ethan?’ he says.
I laugh bitterly. ‘Close enough. And you are?’
‘Mo,’ he says. He watches me anxiously, as if waiting for recognition, but I only shrug. I am not his lost human. I hope he realises that soon.
‘You did this to me,’ I tell him, avoiding his sad, hopeful eyes. ‘I need you to undo it.’
He is stunned by my words, so I explain again about the tears.
‘They were just regular tears,’ he says. ‘It’s not that strange.’
I shake my head. ‘Tears are never aether. Humans are never aether. Whatever you are, you must be something else.’
He runs a hand through his hair, pushing it back from his forehead. ‘I’m really not. I’m … I’m just me.’
But that isn’t good enough. Just human doesn’t explain why I am mortal. Just human won’t save me.
‘Cry again,’ I say, because that is the only thing I think can save me. If his tears turned me into this, then perhaps they can turn me back.
He blinks at me, all long lashes and confusion. ‘Sorry?’
He shakes his head. ‘I can’t just … do that. Besides, haven’t you seen me cry enough?’ There’s a tension to his words, and I sense he is confusing me with my shape again.
‘I am not Chris,’ I say.
But he sets his jaw.
‘Then why do you look like him?’ He asks. His voice cracks as he adds: ‘Then why are you *here*?’
I don’t have time to deal with his emotional crisis. Every minute, cells in this mortal body are dying. I have limited time — as limited as any human. I am terrified of this finite existence.
But I need Mo. I need his help.
‘If this is confusing for you, then make me look different. That is a thing humans can do, yes?’
He looks uncertain, but nods.
And to my surprise, he does help. We shave the beard from my face, which is surprisingly satisfying until it nicks my mortal skin. He seems amused by my panic as my lifeblood tricks from a small cut on my face. ‘It’ll heal,’ he says.
We cut my hair and place harsh chemicals on it that change it from black to orange to a pastel purple I find soothing. Mo leaves several times — for the dye, for clothes — and leaves me with the television each time.
Television is strange. It is like observing humans from the aether, but everyone behaves oddly and there is more music. It stirs odd emotions in me and makes my eyes sting, so I’m glad each time Mo returns and I can turn it off.
When we are done, I look in the mirror. I no longer resemble Chris. I run my hand over a smooth chin and straighten a cotton shirt in dark purple.
Mo stands behind me. ‘What is it?’ he asks.
I wonder how he knows that I am having strange emotions. My throat feels thick and I put my trembling hands in my pockets, as I have seen Mo do.
‘I have never got to choose my appearance before,’ I tell him, and I cannot help but touch my purple hair, and straighten my vibrant blue glasses. ‘It is a nice feeling. What do you think it says about me? This look?’
‘That you’re a little too excited by colour,’ he says. I glare at him, but he laughs.
It’s a surprisingly pleasant sound, high and cracked and fun all on its own. Of course I’ve heard humans laugh before, but never from within a human body. It’s different, somehow.
He sees me studying him, and stills. I see him swallow hard .
‘It’s just … you don’t look like him, really.’
‘I know. That was the point.’
‘No … I mean, your expressions are different. And maybe … something about your face.’ He seems troubled again.
I want to say that it doesn’t matter whether I look like Chris or not, but the words don’t come. Instead, I ask, ‘How am I different?’
‘Your expressions,’ he says. ‘You always look so serious. Really focused on whatever you are looking at. And your chin –‘ He lifts his hand as if to touch my face, but then he drops it, fist clenched at his side.
I have no idea what to make of this, but I want to hear more.
‘You’re different,’ he says firmly.
‘But you imagined me,’ I say. ‘You created this shape. Your mind –‘ But I stop. Because whatever Mo is, he is no regular human.
Or maybe I am no regular ghost? I am no longer aether. I am adrift in a sea of strange sensations and new emotions. Everything now is immediate, clear, focused.
Everything centres around Mo.
There is something about him, about this link between us.
I think again of Chris, floating in the void. –I wish it was me —
‘You think I saw you because I wanted to see Chris,’ says Mo.
Yes. No. Suddenly, I’m not so sure. I look in the mirror again. Maybe I don’t look like Chris. Or I do, but not in the way I thought.
I thought I was changing the window dressing. Shifting the surface. But this face bears only a passing resemblence to Chris now.
And Mo is looking at me very differently than he did when he thought I was Chris.
I clear my throat. ‘So what now?’
He seems surprised by the question. ‘I don’t know,’ he says. ‘I don’t understand any of this. Is there some … some ghost advisor you can speak to? I don’t know; a ghost king?’
‘No,’ I say. ‘There’s nothing.’
For the first time in untold centuries of existence, that feels lonely.
‘Hey,’ says Mo. He puts his hand on my shoulder, squeezes. I’m startled, but comforted, somehow. He catches my eyes. ‘We can figure this out. We will figure this out.’
This body is a discord of conflicting emotion and sensation, and somehow when Mo looks at me like this it’s both better and worse.
I want to know what these emotions mean.
I want to shed this skin and never have emotions again.
I want Mo to keep his hand on my shoulder.
‘What would you do,’ I say. ‘If you were human for the first time?’
‘Hmm.’ His eyes go to the window. The sun has long since set. ‘It’s dark out, uh … got it.’ He snaps his fingers.
He takes my wrist and guides me out of the house.
We take a car to the edge of town, then trudge up a hill shrouded in mist.
He puts down a blanket and sits with his arms wrapped around his knees, staring at the sky. I hesitate, then join him.
Even through the blanket, the earth is cold. I pluck at the collar of my new coat in its bright pattern of pink and blue and wonder how much colder I would be without it.
‘This is what I’d do,’ he says.
I follow his gaze. ‘It’s the sky,’ I say. ‘It’s always there.’
‘True. But you can see more of it at night.’
I try to see what he is seeing. I see a map of shining pinpricks on a canvas of night. I see strange bodies burning with intense colour, a mystery to me. I see the moon, a familiar nightlight.
I feel the cold prickling my skin. I feel the grass brushing against my jeans. I feel Mo’s warmth beside me. We are an island surrounded by mist.
And as I focus on the stars, it strikes me that they are aether, too. That their burning forms are familiar to me.
As I look, I feel energy grow and burn beneath my flesh. My skin itches. I look at my hands and see double: the human body and beneath it, the shapeless aether I long to be.
For whatever reason, Mo’s human experience has reminded me of my truth. Empowered me to return to it.
My human form begins to fade, and I exult in it.
His voice calls me back into this time and place where sensation and memory matter.
He looks alarmed. He is frightened for me. And even though I know that returning to aether will be safe — safer than a human could ever be — I cling to this human form.
I want to know why I am here. But most of all, I want to know what will happen next.
So I lay back on the grass and stare at the stars and embrace the strangeness of being human.
That night, I dream again of the void. I see Chris, the man who almost looks like me.
His eyes are sad but lack the bitterness of our first meeting. ‘I still wish it was me, sometimes,’ he says. ‘Why did fate bring you back to him and not me?’
He smiles to one side. ‘So I don’t get my second chance. But you … you get a first. Don’t waste it.’