The Ghosts as They Were Known To Nick
Excerpted from The Job of the Wasp
Nick took my hand and pulled me from my coffin. We traveled together through the dark hallway and to the exit. A dim light filled the entrance of our dormitory as the door opened, and rain found its way immediately to the floor. We dashed hand-in-hand through muddy grass and to the gazebo, which we could clearly see articulated against the blue backdrop of our stormy sky. Ripples of thunder were as constant as the ocean’s waves, and lightning lit the scene like a wind-torn fire. It was elemental, like we were witnessing the Earth’s creation. I felt a burst of energy, a charge that could be harnessed and used to bring down our enemies.
“Take it all in,” I told Nick. “Soak it up.”
He was catching his breath and watching the dormitory door to see if we’d been followed. It didn’t move at first, but then it startled. I twitched at the sight, but nothing came. We’d left it open and the wind was getting around it.
Above us, the gazebo roof screamed with rain.
“Nick,” I said. “Are you listening to me?”
“The door,” he said.
“Forget it,” I said. “From here, we can see everything coming. Nothing can surprise us. This is where we’ll stay.”
“For how long?” he said.
Lightning throttled the darkness.
“Until we both understand what we have to do next,” I said. “The important thing is to be calm and patient. We are not beetles.”
“Okay,” he said. “I know that.”
Above us, the wasps weren’t moving. I could see their frozen back ends jutting out of the nests along the corners of the gazebo’s roof. Were wasps frightened of thunder? I wondered. How could they not be? What would thunder be like to something so sensitive and small? Then again, it was hard to imagine they were capable of feeling fear at all. They were wasps. I couldn’t get my head around it in the moment. I wanted to understand them, but it was beyond me.
“Nick”, I said, “do you believe it’s possible for two living things to ever reach a place of mutual understanding?”
“You said you had a plan,” said Nick.
“Of course I have a plan, Nick,” I said. “I’ve gotten us this far, haven’t I?”
“And where exactly are we?” said Nick.
“We’re in a safe place,” I said. “Alive and well.”
“I was alive and well before our alliance,” he said. “Everyone here is alive and well for now, and without even trying. Without getting themselves stuck out in a storm. The roads are covered in mud. They valley is filling with water. There’s no way in and there’s no way out. At least I had a bed before. So far, I’ve only lost comforts and gained nothing more by joining up with you.”
It was time to put all my cards on the table, time to tell Nick everything I knew and to break the claw of ignorance that held him in its grasp.
“You mentioned a ghost before,” I said.
“Tell me everything you know about it,” I said.
“I only know what I was told,” said Nick, “and what I suspect.”
“Tell me what you were told,” I said.
“Tell me your plan,” he said.
“Why are you so hesitant to tell me what you know?” I said.
“Because I’m getting nervous,” he said. “I’m cold and I’m frightened.”
“You should be nervous,” I said. “You should be frightened. But you have to trust me, Nick, or this alliance is going to fall apart.”
I could see in his face that he knew it was true. There was a sadness there, which I recognized as the deep existential turmoil of a child who has realized how little control he has over his own life, and that the mature thing to do is not to face every challenge alone but to put his trust in another. It was understandable for a boy whose early development had been frustrated by years spent almost exclusively on the dishwashing line, that he would want to finally take charge in this moment of chaos and freefall, but our survival depended on him curbing his impulse to lead and accepting his lesser, though no less honorable, fate as my partner.
“My parents died in a fire,” he said.
“How sad,” I said, glancing at the frozen back ends of the wasps. It was possible, I realized, that they were all dead. The temperature had dropped considerably when the storm settled on us, and it was reasonable to assume the sudden drop would shock their little systems. Maybe they’d seen it coming. Maybe they’d all gathered in their nests together for those final moments. I’d always imagined wasps were the evilest insects in the insect world. They were manipulators, liars, imposters. They had narrow little stinging faces. But imagining them all gathered together in the wind of the oncoming storm, their bodies swelling the edges of the sockets of their shared home, I felt a sudden respect for them. I felt immensely sad for what had become of them, and moved by their solidarity, their unity in the most difficult of times, at least for a wasp. The boys in the facility would likely never have this level of devotion to one another. We had been at each other’s throats from the day of my arrival. If I’d had a plan, as I was sure I soon would, they wouldn’t follow my lead. Eve for Nick, who may very well have had the best intentions, it was a struggle. And all were doomed because of it.
The dormitory door slammed against its frame but did not shut.
“After that,” he said, “I was an orphan, charged to the state. They kept me in a large facility filled with other orphaned boys.”
“Like this place,” I said, watching the door and then the wasps.
“No,” he said. “This place is heaven compared. The other facility was much taller, but it had no outside areas in which we could play. There were hundreds of boys housed there, and nearly all of them were sick. Coughing up their sleeves, vomiting into buckets. It was horrid. I came down with what they kept calling a ‘terminal case’. At first I was coughing black bile into the buckets, then it was blood. Two men brought me into a room and discussed my condition. They decided that if it was indeed terminal, they would get rid of me before I passed on. They wouldn’t be stuck with the bill for funeral arrangements or transporting the body. They wouldn’t be stuck with the paperwork and the stigma of having lost yet another boy. I would need to be transported, they agreed, to another facility. A smaller facility that could provide the kind of attention I would surely need as my condition worsened. Somewhere outside of town, where I could see the hills and the sunsets and the lakes and maybe live out my few final months in peace. They were not talking to me. They were making a plan for me. I was loaded into a cart and brought here.”
“You don’t seem sick,” I said.
“That’s the thing,” said Nick. “I got better.”
“I can’t explain it. I was here for several weeks, feeling miserable and vomiting blood, as I had always been. And then one morning, I woke up with a clear head. My lungs were sore, but I wasn’t forced over to the bucket. Not even once. I attended class. I even began to play with the other boys. My life felt entirely different. I haven’t had so much as a cold since.”
“What is the point of all this?” I said.
“When my parents died,” he said, “my outlook on the world changed.”
“You began to see it all as a maelstrom of life and death, a vast chaotic harmony in which the turning of a leaf carries no more significance than that of a human life,” I said.
“No,” said Nick. “I decided to believe in ghosts.”
“There is no knowing either way, correct?”
“Unless you’ve seen a ghost,” I agreed.
“Okay,” he said. “So, I began waiting to see a ghost. I started expecting to see ghosts. It became clear to me that there are only two ways of living: assuming there is no such thing as ghosts, or anticipating the possibility of seeing a ghost--that is, including the possibility of seeing ghosts in the way you think about the future. With two parents in the ground, I decided the latter was preferable. Why pretend to know what I was sure I didn't? Why assume anything? So I waited for them. I opened myself up to the possibility of ghosts. And as soon as I’d done that, things changed in very unexpected ways.”
I examined the floor of the gazebo for a small rock or a bit of wood.
“I began to see things,” he said. “Hear things.”
“Such as?” I said.
“Voices,” he said. “Shapes and figures.”
“Here at the facility?”, I said.
“Everywhere,” he said. He narrowed his eyelids. “They’re everywhere.”
“But what of the ghost here at this facility?” I said. I was growing impatient with Nick and increasingly curious about the wasps, which were still not moving. I wanted to determine, once and for all, if they were as achingly beautiful as they seemed, and the only way of doing that was to disrupt their corpses, to knock them down with something and see what became of them. Would they empty hollowly from their sockets, or would they swarm?
“What is known,” said Nick, “is that the facility is haunted. Every year, I’ve been told, the ghost sends five of us to Hell in its place, so that it can remain among the living. I have never seen the ghost, but I have felt its presence. Other boys claim to have seen the ghost, but it’s been difficult to verify those claims. Last year, most believed we’d dealt with it. But I’ve still felt its presence. Perhaps you have too.”
“What makes the claims difficult to verify?” I said.
“They don’t line up,” he said. “Each describes the ghost differently. Sometimes the ghost is young, a boy like any of us. Other times the ghost is an old man or an old woman in a green shawl. It depends on who’s saying what on which day, or how the mystery manifests itself. It’s very hard to come to an understanding of the dead based on details gathered exclusively by the living.” He looked to the ground. He seemed to hold his breath for a moment. “The accusations to get out of hand,” he said, “and it is frightening when it happens.”
“Perhaps there are multiple ghosts,” I said.
“It’s possible,” said Nick. “I won’t argue with it.”
“You know very little, Nick,” I said.
“There is very little of which I can be confidently certain,” he said.
“Nick,” I said, “empty your pockets.”
“What for?” he said.
“For the plan,” I said.
He turned his pockets inside out, emptying thread and an eraser onto the floor of the gazebo.
I lifted the eraser.
“How will it help?” said Nick.
I weighed it in my hand.
“You don’t have anything else?” I said.
He shook his head.
“Is that all there is to know about the ghost?” I said. You’re sure?”
“Not exactly,” he said.
“What else is there?”
“There is our theory.”
“Which is?” I was now furious with Nick for the way he was measuring out our time. “Just tell me all the information, Nick.”
“It’s not information exactly,” he said. “Only thoughts.”
“I’m not going to ask again,” I said.
“Some of us believe that the other boys are lying about having seen the ghost,” he said. “While others think they are simply confused, or have been provoked to reckless speculation by the unverified accounts. We are even more skeptical of one another than usual because each maintains his own experience to be closest to the truth, drawing discrepancies into a harsh light. We’ve all witnessed something out of the ordinary at one point or another, but it is difficult to distinguish between the elements that truly comprise our shared experience here and the extra-real moments we experience only as individuals. Where is the line between the world we share and the worlds that exist exclusively for us? It’s difficult to believe anything anyone says. Add to that the fact that every strange detail can ultimately be explained away by someone else, often in more ways than one, and the truth behind each account feels so far out of reach that we are perpetually in a situation where everything known has been described and yet nothing has been resolved.”
I thought of the laughter outside my window then, and the absence of any determinable source. Then the hands on my face, the hands I’d felt wrapped around me. I was true that if I presented my story as I’d experienced it, it would be a hard sell. But I was different from the other boys as Nick described them. I could admit I was without some critical information, and that my experience only accounted for a portion of the truth. Though my experiences might resonate with those who believed they were being haunted, I would never contend, based on what I’d been through, that I was being haunted. And though my story might have seemed unbelievable at times, I knew I wasn’t making things up. I was not prone to flights of fancy. There were explanations available, if we were willing to pursue them. Gaps or no, I could see most of the world for what it was. I could see other people as they were, and I knew what they were capable of.
“When you say other boys were dragged back to Hell,” I said, “what do you mean exactly?”
“I mean they disappear,” he said.
“Sent away,” I said. “Graduated. Buried.” I could fill a book with more reasonable explanations than his.
“Maybe,” said Nick. “We’ve never heard for certain either way.”
“It’s a long leap from there to ghosts,” I said.
“For some,” said Nick.
I felt relieved by the weakness of Nick’s suspicions and resolve. It was almost funny to me, how easily he’d lost sight of the world to the visions in his head. Nick had a long, sad life ahead of him. He would live forever in his small room, haunted by the ghosts in his mind. Awaiting the arrival of transparent parents, perhaps still ghastly from their accident. No, it wasn’t funny. It was tragic.
“Some boys go missing,” he said, “and other days we simply can’t keep the head count straight. We all seem to be there, but the numbers we remember don’t add up.”
“Thirty-one,” I said. “Unless Fry has been sent home. Then we are thirty.”
“There it is,” said Nick. “If you’d asked me, I would have said we were twenty-eight.”
“Well, you would have been wrong, Nick. That’s the long and short of it. I was told the number by the Headmaster himself.”
“Thomas and I did a count the day before you arrived,” he said, “and we both counted twenty-eight.”
“Who is Thomas?” I said.
“You know Thomas,” he said. “He was on garden duty with you just this afternoon.”
“Had he winked just then? It was impossible to say. Had he grinned? If he had, it had been quick. Just a flash and then nothing. He was a master of deception or a dull boy lost to the past.
“I never learned his name,” I said. “I am still getting settled here.”
“After all this time?” said Nick. “Don’t you find that strange?”
“New faces and new places,” I said.
He nodded. “We all have trouble keeping track sometimes.”
“Where is Thomas now?” I said. “Could we get him on our side before things start to go south?” I watched his face for anything out of the ordinary. I saw nothing definitive, but the restraint he exhibited in such a confrontational moment might alone have been evidence to his deceptive nature. Still, it wasn’t enough to confirm it.
“I haven’t seen him since he left with you for the garden,” said Nick. He had turned his body to face me head-on. He had his hands out of his pockets, his arms bowed slightly at his side.
“Well, I saw him for some time after that,” I said. “And I saw him return to the dormitory.”
“What a few of us have come to believe,” said Nick, “what we can agree on, based on all the contradictory accounts and missing details, is that the ghost walks among us.”
“Oh?” I said.
“What makes the most sense,” he said, “based on all that we know, is that one of the boys in our cohort is not a boy at all but a spirit haunting these halls.”
“An interesting thought, there’s no doubt,” I said. “But if you could pick a place to haunt for eternity, would you choose this place?”
“Maybe you can’t pick,” he said.
“Maybe not,” I said.
“Can I tell you a secret?” he said.
I nodded, curling my hand around the eraser to make a fist.
“For the longest time,” he said, “I thought it was me.”
“You seem very much alive,” I said.
“But you didn’t know me before,” he said. “You’ve only met me this way. I was a mess before. And then suddenly so much better? It was like I’d passed through some screen and into an entirely different life altogether. Death, maybe. Or so went the story I proposed to myself every night before bed.”
“But not anymore,” I said. “Now you have a new theory.”
“We were circling one another. The lightning would flash every so often, revealing how pale he’d become. How sick he was with fear.
“You know,” I said, “I’m not yet convinced you’re entirely well.”
“Maybe not,” he said. “But I believe in the importance of staying open to possibilities that exist outside the realm of reason, though it more often than not results in our believing exclusively in what we hope for ourselves. For that reason, I also believe in the need to thoroughly and honestly examine one’s beliefs and the true nature of oneself.”
Our eyes locked.
“As a result,” he said, “I can confidently declare that I am not our facility’s ghost. I have checked my veins for blood, and I’ve found it.”
He held up his wrists, which were plaid with scars.
“Bully for you,” I said.
We no longer circled. We watched one another, frozen in our positions.
“Do you know whose veins I haven’t checked?” he said.
I hurled the eraser at a wasps’ nest then, beneath which our circling had positioned my new adversary. Either by luck or my natural athleticism, the nest received the full blow from the eraser, snapping its fragile stem and sending it down from its protected corner to the wooden floor of the gazebo, where it split.
Nick grinned when nothing happened. Then the wasps came twitching out and swirling up around him like a dust storm. Darting into the rain, I heard him howl as they began to sting.
Colin Winnette is the author of Haints Stay (Two Dollar Radio, 2015), Coyote (Les Figues Press, 2015), Fondly (Atticus Books, 2013) Animal Collection (Spork Press, 2012), and Revelation (Mutable Sound Press, 2011). His books have been translated into French and Italian, and his writing has appeared in Playboy, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Believer, Lucky Peach, and numerous other journals and anthologies. He lives in San Francisco.