Alright, you pooper scoopers, it’s time for the “let’s post an excerpt from this year’s NaNoWriMo project so I at least have something to show off for my efforts apart from an 80-ish Word document that will never again see the light of day.”
Let’s get to it.
This year I’m taking another stab at the story I tried to write in 2016 before life said “FUCK YOU” and took away all my free time.
Fortunately, life said “FUCK YOU” already this year and I have had basically zero free time since the start of 2018. But I’ve adapted to it, so it doesn’t seem quite as awful as it did in 2016.
But anyway, I’m a lazy bastard so I’m just gonna copy/paste my description of the story from back when I first tried to describe it a few years ago. Then it’s excerpt time, yo.
The world my story is set in is exactly the same as our world now, except everyone knows and accepts that ghosts are real and exist among the living. In fact, everyone can see ghosts, but when a person able to see them and what types of ghosts they’re able to see depends on how close the person is to his or her own death.
It’s like this: ghosts are classed into one of ten types, depending on how “old” they are (that is, how long the ghost has been a ghost) and the properties that they have. Ghosts range from Ghostlets, which are the “just dead” ones who still resemble the people they were when they were alive and are super clumsy and awkward because they’re not used to being ghosts yet, to White Lights, which are the oldest known ghosts and have the job of ushering people through the final stages of death (which is why many people who survive a near-death experience say that they saw a white or bright light). The closer a person gets to their own death, the more types of these ghosts they’re able to see. People start with seeing Ghostlets and progress from there.
While ghosts and humans get along (in most cases), the government has decided that it’s a good idea to keep humans and ghosts separate as far as living spaces go. This is the job of the Bureau of Death, Dying, and the Deceased. Many of the people in this Bureau basically act like realtors for ghosts, ushering them to dwellings that are unoccupied by humans.
My main character, Nick, is an employee at the Bureau. He goes around making sure that ghosts have proper living spaces and remain out of the living spaces of humans. Of course, he can only work with the types of ghosts he can see—which, at the beginning of the story, are just the three “youngest” types.
However, Nick notices that his ability to see older and older ghosts is progressing very rapidly for someone his age, which suggests that he is quickly approaching his own death. While the progression rate differs from person to person (e.g., one person might be “stuck” seeing a certain type of ghost for a much longer period of time than another person), he knows that his own progression is abnormally fast. So he spends most of the story trying to figure out what might be causing him to progress so quickly towards his own death. He knows he can’t stop the progression, but he at least wants to see if he can slow it. A lot of this involves Nick talking to ghosts of various ages/types to try to figure out what’s going on with himself.
So yeah. And here’s this year’s excerpt! In this scene, Nick has been given a job by his boss to go to Marana (a “ghost town,” or a town inhabited just by ghosts) and deal with a situation where a Screamer (one of the more advanced and destructive ghosts) has moved into a house occupied by a Blue Type (a younger, gentler ghost). Nick has to go in and diffuse the situation and try to get the Screamer to leave. Ben is his coworker, Travis is his boss, and the destabilizers are gun-like things that can be used to “discombobulate” a ghost for a limited amount of time.
Apologies for how downright awful this is.
It had been some time since Nick had to drive out to the satellite ghost town on the edge of Tucson; as he made his way past Cortaro and headed northeast of the Saguaro National Park, he tried to remember the last time he had been out that way. In truth, no living person had any reason to be in Marana. It had been christened a government-sanctioned ghost town nearly two decades ago, which meant for anyone who was still living, there was no reason to pay it a visit. Marana was for ghosts and ghosts only.
There were two exceptions to this. The first exception were those employees of the Bureau of Death, Dying and Deceased who had special permits issued by the government to enter ghost towns. Nick and the other realtors were the main users of these permits, but other Bureau members had them as well.
The second exception were those who were unauthorized to enter ghost towns but did it anyway. This demographic mostly consisted of stupid teenagers looking to impress their friends or drunk buddies looking to show off for each other. Of course, no ghost could deliberately kill a living person, but this fact did not seem to change peoples’ reactions to getting spooked by them. It meant little to those who ever came face-to-face with an aggressive, territorial ghost. But this only ever occurred when people were trespassing in designated ghost areas, Nick felt that they deserved every bit of panic and fear that they felt. They lacked the training to deal with ghosts, so if they actively sought them out, then they were the ones who brought the consequences on themselves. For Nick and other realtors at the Bureau, they had gone through training specifically to prepare them for entering ghost-zoned neighborhoods and had taken countless classes, certifications, and refresher courses on how to deal with ghosts of all different types, temperaments, and sizes.
Still, though, he was nervous as he headed out for his afternoon job in Marana. A ghost occupying the house of a different ghost was something new and therefore something he wasn’t quite sure how to resolve. Especially since there was a Screamer involved.
As he turned off the main highway, his radio switched on. He hadn’t touched it since Ben had been in the truck a few weeks ago, but he’d remembered it had been tuned to a country station. Now, however, it only played static – that haunting, almost decipherable static that suggested that the spirit of a Soul Slick was in the near vicinity. Nick was truly in ghost country now.
He turned off the radio. Marana appeared as dead as its occupants: flat, barren, and not a tree in sight. The long road that stretched toward the horizon seemed to just vanish beyond his line of sight, the pavement wobbling in the late afternoon sun’s heat. Where there wasn’t browning sagebrush there was dust; where there wasn’t dust there were the remnants of those who used to live in the town before it had gotten converted. Broken bottles, half-collapsed yard sale signs, torn up cardboard boxes, other garbage and debris.
He’d forgotten just how flat it was out there. Tucson itself was quite flat but did have some hills and valleys to it. Out here, the horizon stretched as far as your eyes could physically see due to the flatness. There were mountains in the distance, but they were well beyond reach. Nothing but flatness. Nothing but death.
Nick’s radio turned on again, the static even louder than before. He switched it off again, feeling a Soul Slick slide across the back of his hand as he did so. He caught the glance of a few others as they oozed their way into the air vents.
“Easy, guys,” he muttered to them in a polite, amused tone. “I’m not here for you.”
The house in question was on the corner of Branchwater, just off the main stretch. It was, from the outside, just an average-looking house, perhaps a bit more weathered than its age suggested it should be. But Nick attributed this to the fact that it was occupied by ghosts, not humans, and ghosts had neither the need nor the ability to perform upkeep on a dwelling. They had no need for running water, no need for heat, no need for insulation. As long as the house was theirs and could act as a place of protection from the living and from other ghosts, that was all they ever wanted.
There was no visible activity from the outside. Nick chose to not pull into the driveway but rather to park a ways down the street and on the opposite side of the house in question. He didn’t want to startle the ghosts more than he had to.
It was the quiet that first struck him as he got out of the truck. Marana, unlike Tucson or any other city of the living, was quiet. Ghosts, when on their own, had no real reason to make any noise. Noises – howling, moaning, wailing, and the like – were reserved for their encounters with humans. Ghost-to-ghost communication happened through a channel other than sound and was something that humans had not quite yet figured out. Nick was used to the quietness of ghosts in their own places of residence, but a whole town of silence was a bit unnerving. It caused the hairs on the back of his neck and forearms to stand to attention and put him on edge with an uneasy quaking in his stomach. Before he even gave it a rational thought, he reached back into the truck and grabbed the destabilizer from the glove compartment. He shoved it in his back pocket and made his way to the house.
There was still no sign of activity, even as he made his way up the main walkway to the house and towards the front door. He wondered at the state inside. Was the Blue Type expecting him? Was the Screamer? He chastised himself for not asking Travis if he had contacted the ghosts in question to inform them that a realtor was on his way out.
Nick stood on the doorstep for longer than he should have. He was trying to convince himself that he was waiting for some sign of activity to best direct him how to proceed, but in truth, he was having flashbacks to his last job with Ben and how things had gone so wrong so quickly. He then tried to dismiss the thought. Ben was Ben, was his logic. The way he had approached the ghost during their last job had been too aggressive, too demanding. Requiring the ghost to surrender itself was not the best way to get it to cooperate. So Nick decided that he would do things his way for this job. Surely that would be better, wouldn’t it?
He gave the door a firm knock, announcing himself as he did so. “Hello? My name is Nick Hextall and I’m from the Bureau of Death, Dying, and the Deceased. May I come in?”
He knocked again, this time a bit more loudly. “Hello?” The lack of response was off-putting; he took a moment to check his phone to see if he had the right address. Even if he didn’t, he would suspect someone would answer. There weren’t a lot of vacant houses in Marana. The ghost population, despite its quietness, was booming.
He confirmed that was at the right house. So what could he do now? He felt like he was being watched; a quick glance around revealed no visible ghosts, but he knew that some may be watching from within their own dwellings. Hell, the Blue Type, the Screamer, or both could be watching him from just behind the door and might just not be answering out of fear.
He jumped as he heard his car radio turn on again down the street. The Soul Slicks grew to an impressive bunch when they were left to their own devices and didn’t have to hide their abilities.
The station the radio was tuned to was no longer playing static but instead was tuned to the station that Ben had been listening to back on their job together several weeks ago. The station was having a 90s country music marathon, and Nick had to suffer through trying to enter the Screamer-inhabited house with Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “Passionate Kisses” playing in the background.
Nick turned his attention back on the house. The fact that the ghosts did not respond to his knocking left him with very few options, the best of which was a forced entry. His realtor keys were in the truck, but he asked himself why a ghost would have any reason to lock a front door in a town like Marana, which was as living-free as a town could get. And sure enough, when he turned the doorknob and gave the door the slightest nudge, the latch gave smoothly and without a sound.
He stepped into the house and made the decision to close the door behind him in case the ghosts would be worried about an open door and one or both of them would try to flee. A closed door, he figured, wouldn’t stop a Screamer, but it might slow it down enough to allow Nick to at least try to confront it.
He decided to call again. “Hello? My name is Nick and I’m with the Bureau of Death, Dying and the Deceased. I mean you no harm; I just want to talk with you.” The entry way was rather small and connected immediately with the rest of the house; through the dimness of the unlit rooms, Nick thought he could make out a few couches and an old TV that was nothing more than a dust collector.
There was an uneasy feeling in the air – something that Nick did not usually feel upon entering a ghost-occupied dwelling. Almost without thought, one hand went to his badge, the other to the destabilizer in his pocket.
“Bureau of Death, Dying, and the Deceased,” he said again, trying to speak louder than before but not confident that he succeeded. “Is anyone home?” As he moved ever so slightly forward into the entry way, he held is badge out for proof of who he was, as he always did, all the while keeping his other hand on the destabilizer. He didn’t even think about what he was doing – of course he wouldn’t be using the destabilizer on a ghost – but it gave him some visceral level of reassurance to know it was there and that he could, if he chose to, use it.
There was still no answer, still no sound at all. It was all so unnerving. Ghosts, if given the opportunity, enjoyed making sounds around humans, whether it was to entertain, to be acknowledged, or to provoke fear. So if they knew he was there – which they must have – their silence meant that they didn’t want to be found.
He made the bold decision to enter the living room. If the ghost or ghosts weren’t going to acknowledge his presence in the hallway, they’d be forced to do so once he was technically in the house. But on his first full step forward, his foot caught on something – a basket, a stool, or some other small object he’d failed to see in the dimness of the lightless house – and he stumbled. He fell, actually, toppling forward with a surprised grunt, catching himself with his open hands on the floor as his badge tumbled away from him.
Despite no one there to acknowledge this stumble, Nick felt his face flush with embarrassment. He scrambled up, grabbing his badge, and tried to regroup quickly. For the first time that day, he was glad there were no ghosts in the immediate vicinity.
But that’s when he saw the Screamer.
It had been behind the door, Nick figured, resting in the easy, relaxed state that most ghosts went into when not actively moving about. Screamers were notorious for their ability to remain in these states even during periods of higher commotion and noise, and this one had remained there behind the door, doing the ghost equivalent of sleeping, all through Nick’s entrance to the house and his shouting into the hallway. It was his stumble that had awakened it.
Awakened it? No – frightened it. The Screamer came out of its relaxed state with such a start that in the matter of half a second, it had gone from an innocuous cloud hiding out behind the door to a frightened and frightening entity that swarmed about Nick as he tried to right himself from his fall.
Nick was lucky to have seen the ghost at all, as quickly as it reacted to him. As he righted himself he took a glance backward to determine what he had tripped over, and his eyes caught the deep, smoke-like cloud of the Screamer as it unfurled in a panic.
Both Nick and the ghost reacted to this sudden confrontation at the same time. For Nick, his reaction was to grab for the destabilizer and aim it towards the ghost – not to discharge the weapon, but to try to will it into submission with the threat of the gun alone. For the ghost, its reaction was much more violent and much quicker than Nick’s. It did exactly what Screamers did when threatened: it got large and it got destructive.
Before Nick could even pull the case completely off the destabilizer, the ghost let out a bellow that shook the entire house and was strong enough to knock over all the furniture in the entryway.
Nick topped as well, hitting the floor, the wind escaping him and the destabilizer flying out of his hand to skitter beneath one of the couches in the living room. Gasping from the trauma, Nick had just enough time to roll to the side to avoid an end table as it was hurled toward his head.
“OUT!!” The command was more of a shriek than a word, but it definitely got the point across. The ghost swirled about like a tornado in the small entryway. It’s massive size knocked the already toppled furniture about. Nick did his best to stay out of its way. He covered his head with his arms and curled into a ball. But then he saw the destabilizer beneath one of the still-upright couches, so he uncurled and tried to crawl towards it. His hope was that the debris and papers that were being kicked about by the ghost’s tantrum would hide him well enough for him to be able to recover the weapon.
But the task of retrieving it proved more difficult than he thought. As he crawled, the whole entryway felt as if it was twisting and turning and torqueing, making it difficult for him to keep his orientation. Despite the disorienting headspace he was in, he continued toward the couch, feeling like he was moving through thick molasses. But the ghost was perceptive and was having none of Nick’s trying to crawl away.
“I SAID OUUUUUUUUUT!” It bellowed again, hurling another round of debris at him. The room seemed to tilt and tilt and tilt to the point where Nick felt like he had to cling to the floor to avoid sliding off into eternity. But through the debris, the sliding furniture, the howling of the Screamer, Nick continued to crawl toward the couch. If he could just reach his arm under there…
The ghost gave another loud bellow: “OUUUUUTT!!” and as it did so it picked up the other living room couch and hurled it directly toward Nick.
If Nick hadn’t had been there witnessing it with his own eyes, he would have never thought a ghost – even an irate Screamer – could have the strength to move such a large object, let alone aim it with such accuracy. Fortunately, his fight or flight instincts had kicked in and the whole scenario seemed like it was taking place in slow motion, giving him the ability to actually dodge the flying couch. It clipped him though, as it crashed to the floor; his left forearm taking the brunt of the blow. He didn’t have time to think about it. As the previously couch hit the floor with a tremendous cacophony of cracking and tearing, Nick again set his eyes on the destabilizer. Pushing himself away from the wall with his feet, he practically slid across the floor and drove his arm as far as it would go beneath the other remaining couch. His fingers, in their frantic pawing, brushed the edge of the weapon, pushing it back further and out of his reach.
But the ghost chose that moment to howl once again. The outburst was strong enough to overturn the couch in question. Nick was finally able to grab the destabilizer and, in one motion, drew it from its case, released the safety, and aimed it at the irate ghost. The rational part of his brain was telling him to aim but not to shoot, but it was quickly drowned out by the survival part of his brain, which was frantically telling him him to fire.
So he did.
Despite the ghost’s inhuman reaction time, it was not able to get the destabilizer away from Nick before a surge of electricity the strength of a lightning bolt discharged from the gun. In a fraction of a second, the large, intimidating, Screamer was reduced to a shuddering mass of ethereal material, each atom in its structure ionized, changing it from a ghost to something else. What this “something else” was, nobody knew. And at that moment, lying on the floor, panting, shaking, sweating, Nick didn’t care. It was no longer coming after him, and that’s all that mattered.
He let the smoking destabilizer drop from his hand as he tried to catch his breath, lying in the aftermath of the ghost’s startled outburst.
There was no sign of the Blue Type. There never had been. Nick couldn’t blame it for wanting to get someone out to deal with the Screamer. As far as anyone knew, ghosts could cause harm to other ghosts, and who knows what that Screamer would have done to a small, timid, mostly harmless Blue Type.
Nick’s breath finally having returned to him, he made a move to stand. In doing so, he pressed his left hand firmly against the floor. This sent a bolt of pain up past his wrist and through his entire lower arm.
“Ah…shit!” He winced, drawing air through his gritted teeth at the surprise pain. He pulled the injured arm up towards his body, cradling it with his other hand. His adrenaline had been so high during the attack that whatever had initially caused him injury had not even registered in his mind. But that was all changing rapidly as the sharp jolt of pain started to transform into an aching throb.
After a quick inspection, the rest of him seemed to be fine. The room, on the other hand, was in even more disarray than he’d originally thought as he climbed to his feet. He stepped carefully over broken furniture and debris to head back outside. The light of the mid-afternoon sun hurt his eyes after being so long in the dimly-lit house; he took a moment on the front porch to allow himself to adjust.
He considered how much time he had before the ghost re-stabilized. All the research done on destabilization suggested it was effective on the typical ghost for an average of half an hour. Nick figured he had maybe twenty minutes. With this in mind, he was quick to get back to his truck. Upon getting in, he made sure to lock all the doors. It was a stupid, useless move – a locked Chevy door was no match for an angry Screamer – but it made him feel better nonetheless.
What was his next step? By protocol, the next step would be to call an ambulance, but he didn’t feel like he needed one. The step after that? Call his boss. His phone had been in his back pocket but had somehow remained undamaged in the scuffle. He called the first number on his speed dial: Travis. But his boss failed to answer, so Nick had to come up with a different plan. Number two on his speed dial was Stephanie, His finger momentarily hovered over the “2” on his screen, but given their recent difficulties, Nick decided against calling her and decided instead to call his number three on his speed dial: Ben.
“You stay right there,” Ben said after Nick had explained his situation. “You stay right there until I’m able to get out there. And call an ambulance while you’re waitin’. God damn ghosts.”
“I don’t need an ambulance,” was Nick’s automatic reply. “It’s just my arm.”
“An ambulance is protocol,” Ben replied. “Besides, you might have some internal bleedin’ goin’ on or somethin’, fer all you said about that damn Screamer throwin’ you around.”
When Nick didn’t answer, Ben barked, “Just do it, Hextall. Don’t be stubborn. I’ll be there as soon as I can get goin’.”
After hanging up, Nick heeded Ben’s advice and called an ambulance, though he tried to make it clear over the phone that it was not an emergency and they shouldn’t feel like they had to hurry. While he waited, he also called on one of the Bureau’s containment units, telling them that a large and aggressive Screamer had been temporarily destabilized and needed to be removed and relocated. He gave them the address and had to confirm at least three times that it was in fact, a house in Marana and that this ghost was not, in fact, the registered occupant. He finally got so fed up with their questions that he told them that they had about ten minutes to get out there and take care of things, then hung up and waited a few more minutes for the ambulance to arrive.