Mike Seperack lives in Syracuse, New York. He studies writing at the Downtown Writer’s Center of the Syracuse YMCA. His work has appeared in Paper Darts and Corium, among other places.
My father always told me not to listen to ghosts. But young men rarely follow paternal advice when they should. While my peers drank beer and howled at flat-screen moons I wandered past former factories repurposed into pricey fair-trade shops. Only the happy rest in peace. The spirits I found whined incessantly about oppressive families, unfair economies, and thoughtless circumstance. They never considered their own role in their undoing.
My last ghost was different. He had no legs, not even ghost ones, and he sat on the sidewalk in the spectral remnants of his own filth.
“Help me,” he called in a pitiful voice.
“What should I do?” I asked.
“Carry me,” he said.
I lifted him the way silent-film heroes lifted damsels. At first it was like carrying urine-soaked smoke. He felt heavier with each step. I held him out in front of me, but my arms grew tired. I set him down, leaning him against a brick wall. I squatted and offered my back. He gripped me around the neck as I hoisted him.
“I can’t breathe,” I said.
“Neither can I,” he answered, but he loosened his grip enough so that I could continue.
“Where should I take you?” I asked.
“Up and down the street. Like a sentry.”
I haunted that cold city block while the ghost rode on my back. The streetlights flickered as we passed. They might have been offering salute. They might have been trying to give up.
“I don’t see the point of this,” I told him.
“You don’t have to,” said the ghost. “Just keep walking. I’ll tell you a story as we go.”
The ghost wheezed his story as I stumbled along.
“Once there was a boy who was given an important task. He was sent to deliver an urgent message to a dying man in a distant city. The dying man was a man of consequence. He was a captain of industry, and many people depended on his decisions for their livelihood.
“The boy had to walk through a high mountain pass where he nearly froze to death. He had to cross a desert where he almost died from thirst. Along the way people offered to help the boy, but most of them were bad people who tried to trick him and take advantage of him in one way or another. The boy had narrow escape after narrow escape.
“At last the boy arrived in the distant city and delivered the message to the man. Then the boy learned that things had changed and the message was no longer relevant. He also learned that the man was not going to die, and he was not all that important. The boy thought he was making a heroic journey, and he expected to be richly rewarded. Instead he returned home with nothing.
“He went to work in a factory. He worked hard and received promotions. He married and raised a family. He became a respected member of the community. But even as an old man he still thought of himself only in terms of the message, and the journey, and the hero he should have been.”
“That’s a terrible story,” I said. I set the ghost down.
“Wait,” said the ghost. “Can’t you see that the boy is me?”
“I don’t believe you,” I answered. I started walking away.
“Can’t you see that the boy is you?” he called.
“I don’t care,” I said over my shoulder.
The ghost tried one more time.
“Can’t you see that the boy is everyone?”
“The boy is no one,” I shot back. I kept walking. The ghost was sobbing behind me. I concentrated on the spaces between my footsteps and their echoes, and soon that was all I heard.