“Among the Dead” is my novella in “Spirit”, gothika #4, which is due out Oct 19th. You can pre-order here. I’m happy to be back in gothic land for Halloween, and to share this volume, once again, with the talented Kim Fielding, Jamie Fessenden, and BG Thomas.
This is the first part of the first chapter.
The first time I saw the dead man in the bowler hat, I was on the Number 34 bus heading downtown.
It was the first Tuesday of the month, and I had to go into the office for my one-on-one with my boss, John Shaler. I hated first Tuesdays with the heat of a thousand pissed-off suns. But it was little enough forfeit to pay for having a steady job I could work from home the rest of the month. Thank God I’m the best dev Hora Systems has, or they would have kicked my agoraphobic ass to the curb a long time ago. I haven’t exactly been the ideal employee AC.
AC—After Concussion. My life is pretty much defined by Before Concussion and After Concussion.
That particular first Tuesday, I left my basement apartment on Capitol Hill with the usual vein-thrumming mix of nerves, terror, and utter dread. As soon as I got on the bus, I saw a dead woman. She was up front, in those seats that face the aisle. She’d probably gotten hit by a truck or some kind of machine. Her body was sliced into thirds like she’d been through a giant Veg-O-Matic. She sat close to the oblivious driver, a purse primly clutched in her lap, while blood pooled under her seat. I walked past, pretending I didn’t see her. My stomach threatened to toss up the Eggo and peanut butter I’d had for breakfast. I fucking hate blood. If I had my way, I’d never see it again.
A few stops later, an old couple got on and sat in the laps of two teenagers. Their lined faces were pinched into bitter, sour masks—the old couple, not the teenagers. They said nothing to each other, didn’t even look at each other, but their movements were perfectly in sync: scratch of the nose, shaking finger and mouthing something angrily, rock in their seat, gnash teeth, sigh. There they remained for three stops and then they hobbled off, each step perfectly mirrored.
Interlocked spirits liked that were particularly horrifying to me. The idea of spending eternity with someone you hated in life—it’s so unfair. You’d think you could escape the commitments you regretted in death. Right? I mean, what else is death for? It ends all corporeal pleasure and shit, so there should be an upside. Debts cancelled, enemies escaped, mistakes left behind, and all that. But that’s not how it is. I’ve seen a lot of spirits who were stuck together. And let me tell you, it’s rarely down to true love.
I’ll take my loneliness, thanks.
Despite my commitment to being single, I found myself craning my neck when we drove past Volunteer Park. But I didn’t see the beautiful boy in the red hoodie. I hadn’t seen him in a long time.
See, a few years ago, BC, I used to ride my bike to work, and my daily route went past the park. I often saw a young guy at the entrance on the corner of 15th and Galer. He was maybe eighteen, wore a red hoodie and jeans, and had blond hair, a pretty face, and sad blue eyes. His clothes were always the same, rumpled and dirty. I thought he might be a street kid, but he could have just been dedicated to the Seattle grunge thing. He was always alone. I called him Red Riding Hood in my head, and I always looked for him when I rode past.
I wished I’d had the nerve to stop and talk to him back then, but I never did. He was long gone now, maybe away at college somewhere. He could have ditched the grunge for a suit and tie for all I knew.
The bus passed Volunteer Park and then Broadway, the main shopping drag on Capitol Hill.
At the Swedish hospital stop, he got on. The man in the bowler hat.
To be honest, my first reaction was to check him out. He was handsome—dark-haired and slender, with an intelligent, soulful-looking face. Besides the bowler hat, he wore a three-piece tweed suit, looking very genteel for the bus and a bit old-fashioned. It took a second glance to realize he was also, unfortunately, not alive.
I stared down at my shoes. The floor of the bus was fairly clean, with it being just after seven in the morning. The slightly bubbled blue flooring looked bright around my scuffed brown leather shoes. It was a bit embarrassing, as if to say, Even I, the floor of a public transit vehicle, am better groomed than you.
I was about to tuck my neglected shoes under my seat in shame when a pair of pointed, black boots stepped in front of me. The legs were covered in dark brown tweed pants and almost completely solid, but the prickling hair on my arms and the back of my neck told me what I knew anyway. It was him.
I swallowed and raised my eyes. I expected him to be staring straight out the window or perhaps around the bus. But no, his warm brown eyes were looking into mine.
My heart pounded, and fear slicked through me in a black, oily tide. I closed my eyes and counted to ten. Oh, God. Oh, God. Please be gone.
When I opened my eyes, he’d moved. He was now across the bus, a few feet away, as if backing off. But he was still staring at me. Shit. I took calming breaths and pretended I didn’t see him.
I glanced at the old lady sitting next to me to see if she’d noticed my freak-out, but she just sat reading her book.
When I got off at First and Bell, Bowler Hat followed me. He walked five steps behind me for the three blocks it took me to get to the Hora Systems offices, a dead man reflected in shop windows and the shiny surface of a black limousine. And when I passed through the revolving door at our building and signed in at reception, I risked a casual glance around.
He was there. He stood against the glass front of the building, his eyes fixed on me. He opened his mouth as if trying to speak.
“Hi, Joe,” I blurted out to the security guard, just to act normal, like nothing was wrong.
Joe grunted, not looking at me.
I headed to the elevators.