Aphelion Issue 220, Volume 21
August 2017
 
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Selling Ghosts

by Alex Puncekar




The good thing about being dead is that the deceased know to stay away from the man known as the Spirit Merchant. This is why he made his living off of the living, and a rural Ohio town was where he had hoped to make his next sale.

He was a slim, tall man, with tattered clothes, but he had an arrogant gait like he was a rich man. He wore sunglasses with yellowish lenses, and he was missing an eyebrow over his right eye. A plaid winter hat covered his head. The only thing normal about him was his feet; a pair of brand new white Nike's covered them, and even that seemed strange compared to the rest of him.

On his back was a large wooden coffin, covered in lacquered black paint and attached to straps. He wore it like a backpack, this coffin. Someone, most likely him, had carved the words "MY COLLECTION" on the front with a pocket knife. The letters looked as if they were fading.

This man walked in on a cloudy afternoon, skipping over the train tracks that was the entrance to the town. He was humming something, a tune that only he knew.

Sixteen year old Veri was the first person--and probably the only person--to see him. She, in her older sister's old college sweater (go Buckeyes) and torn jeans, watched as this man almost danced past her. Veri wanted to say something. Was he for real?

This man stopped a few feet ahead of her, just in front of the abandoned grocery store that Veri had worked at before it closed last year. He skipped backwards until he was in front of her wandering grey eyes. Oddly enough, he smelled like cantaloupe.

He smiled a toothy grin, revealing mismatched teeth of gold and silver, and perhaps even bronze or copper. He removed his hat, and Veri almost laughed when she discovered that he wore a tiny bowler hat underneath.

"May I offer the lady a ghost?" he said. He dropped the coffin flat on the dusty ground and used a tiny bobby pin to unlock its padlock, but he did not open it. "Special today on gents from the fifties."

"What?" was all Veri could say.

"Would you like to buy a ghost? A spirit? A ghoul, shade, or phantasm? Maybe a soul? I've got all kinds."

"You sell ghosts? For what?"

He nodded. "I sell them for you. People all over the world love my ghosts for their lonely little lives. Unfortunately, I'm the only vendor of my kind, I'm afraid. So if you'd like a ghost, best get it now. I'll not be around these parts for another," he stopped and tapped his forehead with his forefinger, as if trying to remember something. "three hundred and fifty seven years."

This time, Veri laughed. "Who are you?"

The man perked up. "I wish I knew, miss. My name has been lost on me. You seem to forget a thing or two on the road. People just call me the Spirit Merchant. I rather like that title. May I ask yours?" he asked as he bowed before her, offering his hand.

Veri chuckled, giving him her hand and shaking it. "Veri."

"Very? Very what?"

"Veri. Well, Veronica. But I changed it to Veri."

"A person changes their name for a reason."

"It ticked my mom off. At first."

"Ah," the Spirit Merchant said. "I have some nice ghosts who were mothers once. Care to take a look?" He motioned towards the coffin.

Veri liked this guy. He reminded her of those terrible stage magicians, although with a different sort of flair. She'd thought she'd humor him, for herself more than for him. It wasn't often that people actually talked to her. "Sure," she agreed. "I'll buy one." She pulled out a small wad of fives and tens in her pocket. "How much?"

The Spirit Merchant shook his head. "Oh no no nonononono, my dear." he wagged a finger at her. She scowled at that. "I don't except money. I'll take whatever's in your pocket."

Veri motioned towards the bills. "This was in my pocket."

"Your other pocket," he replied.

She pulled out a half stick of wintergreen gum. "You want me to pay you with this?"

"Ah!" he exclaimed, and snatched the gum from between her fingers. "That'll do, yes. That'll do just fine. So!" He kicked the unlocked coffin, and the lid flipped open. "Look at my wares, and I'm sure you'll find something you'll like. Just reach inside and pull out the one you want."

He looked completely serious.

Veri was apprehensive, but she liked anything regarding ghosts. She read books about ghosts all the time. She even watched those crappy TV shows where those guys with the night vision equipment go into some old ladies house and poke and prod at everything but the underwear drawer. Sure, she knew it was fake, but so what? It had something to do with ghosts.

But this.

This was just weird.

"Okay," was all she could say. What else could she say? She wanted to see what was in the coffin.

It was empty of course, but the black leather on the inside started to change shape the longer she looked at it, like it was morphing into something else. It started to get blacker and blacker, until she couldn't tell there was even leather there at all. It just looked like a coffin-shaped hole into the deepest, darkest pit that Veri could imagine.

"Please, take your time," the Merchant said. "Take a long look at my Collection."

"You want me to get inside this thing?" she asked, pointing to the coffin.

The Merchant shook his head. "Just look inside. You'll see them soon enough."

Veri lost herself as she stared into the deep.

Her hometown disappeared and she was in complete darkness. There was no air, but she could breath. It didn't smell like anything, but her senses flared with the sudden remembrance of smelling roses on a rainy day in the summer. The darkness was calm, but for all its subtle beauty, Veri couldn't help but feel as though she was in danger. She looked behind her to see if she could turn back, to just head home and forget this, but there was nothing. She couldn't see a single thing. This was but for a moment, because hundreds of dim, blueish green flames appeared before her. As they grew brighter, she could see that these flames had faces.

These were the Merchant's wares, his sad ghosts.

Eyes followed her as she walked on an unseen floor, as she browsed the ghosts. Some called to her, but they had no voice. Right above each head were fiery words that looked as though they were carved into the darkness. The names of the ghosts and the date they lived and died, Veri figured.

The flames of the letters and numbers scared Veri, but she couldn't look away. Is this what it's like? she thought. Will I end up here when I'm gone? She looked at each ghost for what felt like hours. She returned to a few and studied the names and dates. Men, women, children, old, and young. Every age group, every race, every human type possible was on display.

Veri stopped. In front of her was a boy with short, dark hair. He looked to be Veri's age. The words above him read 'Elias Enright, 1823 – 1841'. Veri stared into his eyes for a long time, and he stared back blankly. She wasn't even sure if he could see her.

What surprised her was how he had reacted to her. The other ghosts stared at Veri, and called out to her in restrained silence--a restraint most likely imposed by the Merchant. This boy--this Elias--just looked at her with lonely eyes.

Veri felt a pang of sadness for him. For everyone in here, but mostly for him. The blue and green flames that encircled the image of his head almost formed a portrait, something that Veri refused to look at any longer.

"This one," Veri said in the darkness. "I want this one."

"Excellent choice," said the Spirit Merchant. His voice reverberated off of the walls of her head, like he was inside her brain.

Veri blinked, and she was in front of the abandoned grocery store again. There were no more flames or darkness surrounding her. Everything was normal again. The Spirit Merchant smiled at her.

"For a half stick of gum, you have chosen to buy young Elias. May he serve you well."

There was a cough behind her, and Veri turned.

Standing there was young Elias, still wearing the farm clothes he was buried in. He had a freckled face, and his ocean blue eyes glowed.

The Spirit Merchant noticed her staring. "All of my ghost's eyes glow like that. It's just what they do. I don't make the rules for these paranormal types." He laughed like a clown and shut the coffin lid, locking it tight. "Toodles," he said. "Enjoy the boy."

Veri broke away from Elias. "Wait, that's it? You're leaving?"

"Well, of course. I've other business transactions to complete, you know. I'll be in that little Ripley town for a few days. I need to refill my stock at their graveyards," he said with a sneer. "Normally, I don't do refunds, but if you are unsatisfied with your product, find me amongst the dead in Ripley. I'll see what I can do."

"What am I supposed to do with," she hesitated, looking at Elias, "him?" She didn't want to hurt his feelings, if he still had them.

The Merchant clicked his tongue. "You'll figure it out."

"Why are you even selling these things?" Again, she felt like an idiot calling the ghosts things. Elias didn't react to the word.

"Because I see that the paranormal business remains untapped. As a businessman, it would be an insult to not make a profit off of this venture."

"How can you get filthy rich with my gum?" she replied, annoyed and angry.

"The reasons for my form of payment are my own."

The Spirit Merchant walked on, passing the bars and churches as he left town. He looked like he was skipping.

Veri turned back towards Elias, who still hadn't said a word.

"Hello," Veri said. It came out awkward, but she couldn't take it back. She wondered if there was some sort of etiquette for making a first impression with a ghost.

Elias shook his head. "You're making a big mistake," he said.

"Excuse me?" Veri replied. That hadn't exactly been the response she had hoped for.

"Buying a ghost. It's not the smartest move a person can make." His voice was young, too.

"Why do you say that?"

The boy shrugged. "You bought me for the company."

Veri frowned. "You ghosts aren't," she almost chocked the word out, "slaves, are you?"

"In a way, yes. Depends on who buys us, really. All we can do is talk to you and watch over to you. Until you're dead, of course."

"Well, what happens to you when I die?"

"I'm an investment, and the Merchant is a lender. When you die, I go back to him... with your ghost in tow."

Veri's eyes widened. "My ghost? Really?"

"It's another way he recruits more of us for his Collection. He tends to forget to mention these things to his customers."

"Oh," Veri replied. "Why does he want a collection?"

"I'm the wrong person to ask, I'm afraid. I don't rightly know. So," Elias said. "What do you want to do?"

"Can we talk?"

"Talk?"

"Yeah," she said. "Like you tell me about yourself, and I tell you about me. Might as well get to know each other, if you'll be around for the rest of my life."

"Okay," Elias said. "I was born--"

"Not here," Veri interrupted. "Let's go to my house. Mom won't be home right now, and I think she'll freak if she sees you. We'll have to find a place for you to hide." She started on the road home. Elias walked next to her.

"Others can't see me. Only the Merchant and the person that bought me can."

"Oh. Well that's a relief. She'll think I'm weird if she catches me talking to myself. Well, she'll think I'm weirder."

"Weird?" Elias looked confused.

Veri laughed. "C'mon, Elias. Let me tell you what it's like living with air conditioning and cell phones."

The two walked throughout the small town. Veri pointed out the auto shop, the ice cream shop, the boarded-up comic book store and explained to Elias what they sold.

"You have to forgive me. The Merchant kept me in the coffin for a long time. What exactly is a computer?" he had asked. Veri had laughed all the same, and tried very hard to explain the various things she took for granted for one who lived in a different time. It was like talking through a time machine. She liked it. It should have felt frustrating, as if she were trying to explain trigonometry to a squirrel, but Veri wasn't going to ruin the opportunity to get to know someone else, even if he was technically dead.

As Veri turned on the corner where the post office was, she saw a group of kids across the street coming out of the town diner. They were from her school. Veri was quiet, but nervous.

Elias noticed Veri's change in demeanor. "Do you know them?" he asked.

She nodded. "I go to school with them."

"Are they your friends?"

"Sorta," she replied. In truth, she didn't exactly have anybody she could call her friend. There were other kids that talked to her, but only if they had paired up with her in chemistry or gym class. Some said hi to her in the hallways, but not many had actually asked about her, about her interests and her past. "They know who I am. They just," she said, "don't really talk to me."

"Can't you talk to them now?"

"If I'm having trouble talking to a ghost, I can't really see myself talking to somebody else around my age who can still breath."

Elias's eyes shifted, from calmness to sadness. "I'm sorry."

"Oh," Veri said. "I didn't mean to blow up on you like that. I just... I'm just nervous around other people. It's been like that for a long time. Some people are born with confidence."

"When I'm inside the coffin," Elias said, "I have the chance to talk with all sorts of ghosts and learn all sorts of things. And I learn that the ones who were lacking confidence in life have an overabundance of it in death."

"That's reassuring," Veri replied sarcastically.

"It is, isn't it?" Elias said happily.

"You ever meet any famous ghosts down there? I didn't see any when I was looking around."

"The Merchant likes to keep the more recognizable ones for himself," Elias replied, "if he can find them. Ghosts tend to wander around the world. I remember the day he found Abraham Lincoln. He wouldn't stop smiling. He's still searching for more, though. I've heard from the other ghosts that he was looking desperately for Julius Caesar and Cleopatra."

They talked like this during the entire walk to Veri's house. Elias didn't get many of her jokes, but he knew when it was appropriate to laugh. Veri still felt as though talking to a floating spirit was a lot weirder than talking to a person, but she felt a bit more comfortable the more she talked.

Veri lived on the edge of town. Actually, if one were to look at a map, the exact spot where her house was built is the actual edge of the town, right on the border into the next one. Her mother had joked that the house was cursed now. It is now, Veri thought as she looked as Elias. The gravel driveway was empty of cars. No real surprise there. That meant the blue and gray house would be empty as well. Her home was surrounded by woods, a detail she hadn't appreciated until she decided to buy a ghost.

Elias had walked--or floated, Veri guessed--into the house when Veri opened the door for him. She gave him the tour, and left food in the bowl for her brown and white husky, Benny. The dog whimpered as Elias neared him, barked at air, then looked around for the source of its discomfort.

"Sorry," Elias said. "Most animals can sense us. I always found it strange that they could and humans couldn't."

"Benny doesn't like anybody," Veri replied. "It's okay."

She led Elias throughout the house, eventually stopping at her room.

The walls and ceiling were painted a light blue, with white outlining the windowsill. There were no posters, no pictures on the wall. Her nightstand had a digital alarm clock and one framed picture of her mother and sister and herself, holding up a large fish they had caught one day when Veri was thirteen. Veri had been in the background of the picture while her mother and sister seemingly took all the glory. Her bed hadn't been made, and a ball of clothes sat on top of the purple sheets.

"Welcome to my chamber," Veri said jokingly.

"It's very," Elias searched for the word, "nice."

"Have you had other masters that," Veri started. "Wait, that sounds terrible. What do you call me?"

"Veri," Elias replied.

"No. I mean, as the person who bought you, what would you call me?"

"What do you want me to call you?"

She sighed. "Just Veri."

Elias smiled. "I've had others around your age. The last time was the year nineteen sixty seven. A young man. Although, he laid on his shaggy carpet most days, and he ingested various things that made his demeanor very... different."

Veri laughed. She jumped onto her bed and sat cross-legged.

"Okay. Time to talk," she said.

"I died from the flu," Elias said as he finished most of his life's story. He was slightly floating right above the computer chair Veri had let him sit on, ever so slightly so that it couldn't be noticed.

"The flu?"

Elias nodded, returning his attention to her. "It burned right through me. I didn't last the very night that I got it."

"I'm sorry," Veri said.

"It's okay. My mother cried every night since and my father drank more and more, but they eventually died peacefully in old age. It was shortly after their deaths that the Merchant found me. I was wandering some tall grass in the middle of the night. Somewhere in Kentucky, actually. It had to have been the summertime in the 1890s. He approached me, and said that he would give me a home, and a purpose in the afterlife. That's what I wanted most, in the end. Something to do with my time, now that I had plenty of it."

"Did you ever see your family again? After they died?"

"I see them sometimes, yes. Still in Mississippi. The house we lived in was demolished, but my parents pretend that life still goes on. The Merchant lets us go every now and again to see our families. He doesn't capture them all. Just some of us. I'm not sure why he does the things he does. My family isn't part of his collection. It's quite nice of him, actually. My mother is always happy to see me. My father too, but I can always tell that he's frustrated since he can't drink anymore. Being like this," he said as he put his hand through his own stomach, "means no more food or drink for us." Elias smiled at this. It was the first time that Veri saw him like that since she bought him.

"Can I ask you something?" he said, after moments of silence.

"Of course."

"Why did you choose me? From the coffin."

Veri didn't know what to say. "I guess because you were around my age, and you looked so lonely."

"That's what I figured," he replied. "You're a very honest girl, Veronica."

"Just Veri."

"Veri, I'm sorry. It's unfortunate your family doesn't spend enough time with you.

She sighed. She had told him about her mother, who always worked too much. Her sister, who got married and move off to Chicago. Her father, well...

"It's okay. That's why I bought a ghost, I guess," she said.

"Do you love your family?"

Veri nodded. "I do. I really do. My mom is so caring and strong, and my sister is so smart. It's no surprise that so many colleges wanted her. But they," she said, thinking of what to say next, "just don't seem to find the time for me."

Elias stared at her, and she noticed it.

"It's not like I don't get by," she said. "Less family time gives me more time to read. Or sketch." She lied to herself like that often. Elias, she could tell, could see through it. "Mom is either too busy working or going out on dates to ever really come home except bring home groceries or sleep. Sarah used to be my best friend, but she married her own best friend."

"That sounds selfish," Elias replied.

"I know," she said. She should have felt angry at that, but she knew he was right. "Things were so much easier back when I was a kid. Everything I needed was here."

"I felt the opposite. When I died, I had nothing. No family or friends to talk to. I had the ghosts, but it wasn't the same. But one by one, my family came back to me. In a way, death brought me everything I had ever wanted."

"You are the grimmest ghost I have ever met," Veri said, then thought about the words that had come out of her mouth. They both laughed.

They talked for hours. Veri had only got up a few times to make herself dinner and to let Benny outside. The dog paced back and forth at the back door, still concerned about the strange feeling it got when Elias was around. She learned a lot about him, and he her. It got to the point in the night when Veri fell asleep while Elias talked about farm life that Elias just sat in the computer chair, without a clue as to what to do next. She woke up a few times to find him gone, and thought that maybe he had been a dream or something, that the Spirit Merchant was just something she made up in her head while she slept. Veri woke up and changed into blue shorts and a gray t-shirt, and headed for the kitchen when she heard the back door open. It was 5 am, and her mother was all dressed for work, business suit and suitcase all.

"Hey, honey," her mother said tiredly. She took a sip of a silver mug of the strongest coffee that anybody could ever buy. "I'll be home late again. Darrell wants to have dinner and a movie after work."

"Okay, mom," Veri replied.

"I really like him. I hope it works out."

"Okay, mom."

"There's lunch and dinner in the fridge, and could you do the wash for me? Thanks."

"Okay, mom."

Veri could hear the gravel crunch as her mother pulled out of the driveway with her black Pontiac. Veri went back to sleep, and awoke with Elias sitting back in the chair, just as she had left him.

"Please tell me you didn't watch me all night, because I really hope I didn't buy a creeper ghost," she said. She was groggy, and couldn't find the energy to scream like she thought she would have.

"No," he replied, sounding sad. "I left to explore your town."

"You did?" she said surprised. "Aren't you supposed to stay by me? Not that I care if you take a nice strol--haunt through the town."

"You didn't say I couldn't, so I did."

She noticed that he was being extra gloomy. "So why the sad face?"

"I didn't find them," he replied.

"I need a bigger hint than that."

"Other ghosts. This town is empty."

"Is that normal?"

"Yes. After the Merchant comes by, places like this usually grow quieter without the dead. It's sad really."

"I'm sorry." She couldn't really think of anything else to say.

"I stood under a light post in the middle of the night. And everywhere I looked, I saw nothing. Nobody. Not a single ghost." He was concerned enough for Veri to lean forward and listen to what he had to say. "After meeting with the Merchant, I was always with someone for close to a hundred years, living or dead. Being by myself, under that bright light was terrifying."

"I'm sorry," she repeated.

Elias looked like he wanted to smile, but sadness covered his face.

Veri saw this change. "Are you okay?"

"I know I'm going against him," Elias said, not looking at her at first, "but you need to know." He stood up from the chair. "My people need freed."

"Your people?"

"I don't know what else to call them. The other ghosts. The ones he has for sale."

"They need freed?"

"Yes. Ghosts weren't meant to be shackled. The dead are supposed to be free from such things. Seeing your town empty of other ghosts just saddens me. Seeing any place like that saddens me. The Merchant isn't the greatest of men. We're kept in that darkness for so long. It's Purgatory in there. All we want is freedom."

"Why would he do this? Why capture ghosts?"

Elias's head lowered. "For him, his Collection is everything."

Veri thought for a moment. "He said he was going to be in Ripley for a few days," she said. "That'd be our best chance to get them out of there."

Elias perked up. "You'll help me?"

Veri nodded. "You're my ghost. And my ghost should be happy."

Elias smiled back. "Thank you. You are truly kind."

Veri went to the garage, where her mother's cherry red nineteen seventy something Mustang sat underneath a tan sheet. She only drove this during the summer. Her mother loved cars, and she'd probably kill Veri for driving it.

But this was important.

She grabbed a hammer from a toolbox on the floor. "You think this'll work?"

Elias nodded. He told Veri that the only way he could think of freeing the other ghosts was to smash the coffin. That should open up the void and set them free.

Veri started the car, and they sped off towards Ripley. With a full tank of gas and her mother's GPS, they reached the town--a copy of her own town--by midday. The checked every graveyard they could find--every graveyard that Veri could find on a map--until purple and orange dusk washed over everything, and finally, they found the Merchant.

He was pulling at air, like he was pulling a carrot from the ground. Veri looked at Elias, who looked disgusted. The Merchant was pulling ghosts from the grave, but Veri couldn't see the soul he was grabbing at. The Merchant looked as though he was a mime, acting out movements he had done thousands of times before. He flipped open his coffin and threw the invisible ghost into it. The man wiped his hands on his dirty coat and giggled.

"You want a refund already? That was rather quick," he said, not even looking at Veri.

She wasn't surprised that he knew she was standing behind him. The man was strange enough. "I'm here to free those you've captured, Merchant." She had hoped her words hadn't sounded like something out of corny movie, but that was the best she could come up with. She brandished the hammer like a knight's sword and held it tight. She was going to turn that coffin into a million pieces.

"Are you now?" the Merchant replied. "That's a good joke, miss. Although, it's kind of old. You aren't the first person to rush in like Don Quixote. Please forgive young Elias. Although he gets me results, he is rather unoriginal." Veri looked behind her, at Elias, who's glowing eyes dimmed. "You went with the 'free my brothers and sisters' story again? I tell you, the boy's one hundred and ninety years old and he still can't come up with a new way to get loners like you to come to me." The Merchant shrugged, then smiled that speckled smile of his. "Oh well. You've fought the windmill and lost, girl. Into the box you go."

"What?" Veri looked at the Merchant, who moved next to Elias. "Elias, what's going on?"

"You have to understand," Elias said, almost pleading. "I want to see my family."

"Elias here is my best snatcher. I sell him to lonely boys and girls like you, and he brings 'em back to me for harvesting. Sometimes, I can't just wait for people to die. I'm always looking for new residents in my Collection. In return, I let him go for a few years to go see his dead mother and father. When he's home, it's as if they never died." The Merchant cackled. "It's nothing personal, I assure you. He's just doing his job."

"I'm so sorry," Elias said. "So very sorry."

Veri dropped the hammer and covered her eyes, and she felt tears on her fingers. "But why?"

"I told you already," the Merchant replied. "He helps me collect people to be turned into ghosts. I'm a busy man, but I'm only one man. I can't get every ghost by myself. So I send some of them out to bring people back to me. People like you. People that won't be missed by their inattentive mother or sister, certainly." The Merchant stepped forward. "My Collection is everything. Welcome, Veronica."

The Spirit Merchant shoved Veri, and she stumbled backwards. Her heels connected with the coffin, and she fell into it. Only nothing caught her. The portal into the Merchant's Collection opened wide.

The darkness covered her like a blanket, and she fell for hours, eventually coming to rest on her own place on the wall, where her name had already been carved by flames into the shadow.

Veri tried screaming, and walked around in a four cornered cell with dark, invisible walls. Like a glass cube, this was Veri's prison. She tried banging on the walls, and nothing budged. She called for help, but no sound came out of her mouth. All she could see was her name and the years she had lived and died, all written in the blue and green flames.


* * *

The Merchant laughed. "Well done, boy." He went to grab Elias on the shoulder, but he touched air. "That's another one you've brought me. Let's see," he said as he thought for a moment. "I'll give you five years. Go see your family, then be back in five years. I'm sure I'll have another boy or girl for you to snatch up. Go on."

Elias disappeared, a tinge of sadness and regret on his translucent face.

The Spirit Merchant laughed as he kicked the coffin and the lid closed. With the padlock on tight, the Merchant swung the heavy coffin onto his back. He walked back onto the road, humming a song only he knew.


THE END


2013 Alex Puncekar

Bio: Mr. Puncekar is currently an English major at Youngstown State University from Hubbard, Ohio, and helps run a student-produced literary publication called Jenny Magazine.

E-mail: Alex Puncekar

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