by Joseph T. Christopher
He wanted to read. He tried to read. But the ghosts wouldn't shut up.
It sounded like cups were covering their mouths. A muffled, incoherent, incessantly irritating chatter. He thought Karen had left on the television in the den the first time he heard it, so he set down his copy of Neuromancer on his imitation-oak end table, peeled the sheets away as not to wake her, then tiptoed downstairs to terminate the blather.
And that's when he remembered there was no TV in the den.
This was all Karen's fault. She just had to move into the middle of Bumblefuck, New Jersey. Richard was more of a city guy. There were just certain aspects about cities that he liked. Neighbors for one. Probably had to charter a small plane just to borrow a stick of butter around here.
But he was determined nonetheless. At dinner tomorrow night he would ask -- demand -- that they move.
"You're so irresponsible, Richard. This is why you didn't lose your virginity until thirty," Karen replied, staining the rim of her wine glass with a cheap cherry gloss.
Richard forced a smile. Karen's lips prattled on with all the speed of a stenographer's fingertips, but he didn't listen anymore. Oh, occasional sentences slipped in:
Richard, when are you going to kiss some corporate ass and get a promotion? I can't live here without a swimming pool.
We can hire a cleaner. One with big arms. Richard, why don't you ever work out? What a slob.
I think I want Botox. Mary gets injections three times a week and she looks like a goddamn Picasso. You know, Mona Lisa? You're so uncultured, Richard.
But the rest was upstaged by more interesting static, like the ghosts in the den. What the hell were they talking about?
"Daddy," his daughter spat through a mouthful of fried chicken, "can we move to Disneyworld?"
"You're too old for Disneyworld, Ginger," Karen interrupted. "You're what, five, six now? Eat your asparagus." She instructed Ginger with the tip of her fork.
"Asparagus screams when you cook it, ya know." Ginger poked a burnt heap of greens with her index finger.
"You'll be screaming soon if you don't finish your damn vegetables."
Karen had this habit of popping the gum in her mouth when she thought she was being assertive. Just another bullet on Richard's list of the reasons why he hated his wife. Cutting her lettuce into small pieces, like she was doing now, was somewhere near the top.
Richard removed his glasses and palmed the sweat from his thinning scalp. "How can you guys live like this? Don't you hear them? Every second of the day? Talking. Talking. Talking." He slipped his glasses back on then ingested a full glass of water.
"You need to see somebody."
Then Richard's glass flew from his hand and shattered on the obnoxious yellow wall, ending the dinner.
It was time for his bath.
With a cold six pack and a copy of The Year's Worst Science Fiction, Richard relaxed in a near-scalding tub. Finally some Karen-free time. Everything about the woman was positively cloying. But he was alone now, sipping his suds, far away from her. Peace at last.
Until the ghosts started talking again.
He tried to ignore it by humming a tune from his misspent youth. Then he downed a beer.
He belched and crushed the can on his forehead, like some feeble attempt to impress a bar whore.
He thumbed through the pages of his book. Ah, new work from E.A. Dick, he thought.
He scanned the Table of Contents.
Can't hear it.
Oh, a new novella, ‘Planet Cleavage.'
Why did this have to happen now? Karen wouldn't bother him because his body repulsed her. But these ghosts...they had no shame. Was a mere hour of silence so much to ask for?
Flies in his ears.
That's it. The water would provide him comfort. It would clog his ears, distend his lugs, choke the air right out of him. It would all end.
Richard bolted from the tub with a violent hack. He writhed along the cold linoleum and puked warm bath water. Tears filled his eyes. His chest felt like fire. The ghosts were still talking.
A phantom image loomed over him. "Daddy," she spoke, "are you all right?"
"I'm fine," he replied, cheeks the color of Jersey tomatoes. "Would you uh, put my beers in the fridge?" He artfully drew the shower curtain across his lap.
Grace laughed into her fist and lifted the beer by its plastic rings. Then she skipped out of the bathroom, leaving the door ajar.
"Richard!" came forth Karen's poison. "What's all that noise? Are you masturbating in there? You sick fuck!"
Shut up, he thought, cupping his ears. Just shut up.
It was clear to him that there was little escape from this insanity. Now he understood why asparagus screamed when it was cooked. One can only be simmered for so long before everything starts to burn.
Richard banged his head on the floor and winced, but that just made the voices ring, not to mention add a spin to everything in the bathroom. The wall light blinded him now, the mold in his tub stunk, Gracey was pleading for a bedtime story down the hallway, Karen was singing badly out of tune on her treadmill, and the ghosts just wouldn't relent.
The boiling point had hit.
He sprinted from the bathroom, barreled through his daughter, screamed down the staircase, out the door, and all through the cornfield beyond.
Richard's pestering thoughts woke him.
He paid little attention to the buzzard pecking at his toes, or the slither of insects on his bare back. Here was, naked, lying in the middle of a cornfield in southern New Jersey and all he wanted to do was talk with ghosts.
Obsession impelled him to stand. The buzzard was in disagreement, but a kick to the beak forced it to seek out another carcass. Richard's house was just another dirt speck on his glasses, probably a few miles away. But it didn't matter. They would still be talking when he arrived. They were always talking.
It was a two hour walk. For how long he'd actually been away was uncertain. The voices were audible now, beckoning him past the pool cleaning van in his driveway. He didn't even care that there wasn't a pool. The ghosts were all that mattered.
He walked in and got venom.
"Richard, fuck! Gone for two days and you decided to come home now?" Karen hopped off the couch and her shirtless lover, scrambling to clothe their bodies with a sheet.
But Richard looked beyond them, mouth agape, the crust in the corners of his lips cracking. He moved up the staircase with the grace of a zombie and slinked to his bedroom.
Karen followed, murdering his eardrums. He didn't listen. Instead he sifted through his sock drawer and fished a 9mm.
"Look who's Mr. Proactive now," Karen said as he waved the gun in her direction.
He advanced. Karen retreated.
"What's it going to be, Richard?"
They glided down the staircase like a distant minuet. Karen bitched the whole way.
He cornered them in the den.
"Oh shit!" Karen's lover screamed and cowered behind the couch.
"Relax, Richard doesn't have the balls."
He cocked the pistol. The pool boy soiled his purple thong. Karen instigated.
"You spineless, miserable, neurotic piece of --"
A gunshot cut her off.
There was a split second of agony, then darkness, then gray. Richard felt weightless, without care. He saw himself lying on the floor. Blood seeped through his teeth. Karen was laughing maniacally, but he couldn't hear her. He finally couldn't hear her.
It was hard to adjust to this ethereal plane, with everything so foggy and distorted. But deep within the spectral haze, he found what he'd been looking for.
"Well that was rather rash," spoke a voice in lucid discourse.
"I'll say. I'd have shot that harlot, myself." The second voice lingered in the air like it would in a dream.
Richard gravitated to the voices, two figures in colonial dress. A small table hovered between them.
"I've been through hell just to talk with you two," Richard said. "What could ghosts possibly have to talk about all day?"
"Nothing out of the ordinary. Mostly arguing about his unfathomable luck at Rummy. A stupid game, really."
"Unfathomable luck?" the other ghost responded, adjusting his powdered wig. "Face it Lucian, you're just bitter."
Richard smiled, knowing that asparagus was safe here. "Can I join?" he asked, floating toward the table.
Their conversations grew exceptionally mundane over the years, from discussions on needlepoint to Oprah's monthly book club pick, but God, was it ever a step-up from Karen. And as much as he tried not to think about it, he knew she'd be here one day to leech his soul with her pontificating drivel. But hopefully, by that time, she too would feel the agony of boiled asparagus. Oh, would she ever feel it.
After another round of Rummy, of course.
© 2008 Joseph T. Christopher
Bio: Joseph T. Christopher writes from the southern pits of New Jersey hell. He attends Stockton College and is glad when the semester ends, so that he can read and write the crap he wants to. Mr. Christopher's story Omni-Corp Home Network appeared in the August 2008 edition of Aphelion. His article "Persistence" has since appeared in Writer's Beat Quarterly.
E-mail: Joseph T. Christopher
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