After two decades as a ghost, I forgot how much physical pain hurts. The living brain in this body I’m possessing had been almost fully occupied in preserving its sanity, until some nurses pumped me full of medicine that made me as docile and serene as a particularly stupid barn animal. The times they have either treated my body or operated in it has passed in a blur, and I finally start coming back to my senses. I am lying on a bed located in some observation box belonging to the emergency department of this big hospital.
As I roll my eyes to check my surroundings, a realization suddenly hits me: I haven’t had to make any effort to keep myself glued to this body. That sounds good until I understand that I can’t get out of it either. I’m overwhelmed by a sickly claustrophobia. This decaying mass of bones and flesh is anchoring me to a location, and I will constantly have to drag it around. As my physical, very real heart beats against my bruised ribcage, I figure that this is the price to pay for others to see you and listen to you. Because those damn ghosts don’t give a shit except about themselves. No, they don’t even care about themselves. Bunch of rotten nihilists… Whatever. If it gets bad enough I’ll just kill myself. Suicide solves most problems in this world.
I go in and out of lucidity. At one point my gaze falls on some guy sitting in front of a computer that the department likely uses to monitor my vital signs, or go through my patient history or whatever. The guy is wearing a white lab coat, and he seems as disturbed at getting my attention as I am that someone can see me, but he excuses himself saying that he just works with the computers and has nothing to do with everything else going on in the department.
However, the next stranger that stops next to my bed isn’t wearing any kind of hospital uniform. It’s a woman in her maybe mid thirties and who is staring down at me intensely with naked resentment. Her black hair is cut short and her skin is pale. Mostly her eyes stand out: they’re cognac-colored and the sadness in them is nearly overwhelming.
“Ah… Hi?” I try through my dry, foul-tasting mouth.
Apparently speaking to her was a bad idea, because she averts her gaze and frowns.
“Why would you still have me as your emergency contact, Asier?”
Shit, she knows this guy I’m occupying.
“Maybe because I’m too lazy to change it? Wait, are you really there? This is a real person I’m speaking to, right?”
She turns to look at me again, her face now sporting a very small hint of concern.
“Yes, Asier, I am really here.”
My throat hurts when I talk. Who knows if it’s due to the accident or to whatever garbage they’ve pumped me full of. I just know that it hurts, along with plenty of other spots of this rotting body. How do living people tolerate this without going crazy?
“That’s good. I’ve mostly gone through a series of hallucinations in the last however long I’ve been here. So, what’s your deal? Do we know each other?”
She gives me a strange look, a mixture of pity and guilt, with a healthy dose of you-have-got-to-be-kidding-me.
“The doctor… He mentioned that you didn’t seem to know your personal details. The extent of it… I thought it was preposterous.”
“I’m pretty sure they haven’t asked me anything,” I say, somehow convinced. “I just recall a sequence of masked faces touching me all over and drugging me.”
She turns away as her face twists in anger. I suppose it’s towards me.
“Do you remember me at all?” she asks with an accusatory tone.
“Sorry, I don’t. As far as I know, I have met you for the first time.”
“You don’t remember anything?”
“It’s all a blur. I feel like I’m on a steady stream of alcohol, except not really. Seriously, I know how to speak, how to breathe and all that basic stuff, but I have no memory of anything resembling a previous existence of mine. It’s quite troublesome, I’m sure.”
The woman studies my face with her trembling eyeballs.
“You don’t even sound like yourself…” she mutters.
“Not manly enough?”
“No, it’s not that. It’s just… I don’t know what to make of you.”
“Is it a bad thing?”
“You can’t even remember anything of yourself, let alone of me!” she says, raising her voice.
I wait for the woman’s jaw to relax, and for her breath to steady.
“I sense we have some history,” I say calmly. “I’m sorry I can’t remember any of it. Let’s start from the beginning, then. I seem to be Asier. What’s your name?”
“It’s Ainhoa,” she says, turning away. “Damn it, I can’t…”
“Well, Ainhoa, you seem like you have untapped depths, and you are quite beautiful. I’d offer you my hand to shake, but I have had my poor hand rejected before, and I don’t think my heart would be able to take it at the moment. Those paramedics are savages.”
She glares at me for a while, before smiling faintly.
“Please, don’t try to kiss my ass. It makes me feel sick, independently of whether you remember me at the moment.”
“Yeah, this lack of memories thing doesn’t feel like it’s going to go away,” I say, but I contain myself from chuckling nervously. “Still, I need it to be clear, if only to understand why you seem to dislike me so much. What were we to each other?”
“We started as friends. Good friends. And we became something else. The last thing I was to you, if you thought of me that way, was your ex-fiancée.”
“Oh crap, that serious, huh?” I shrink a bit under the resentment this Ainhoa is focusing on me. “I get the sense that I fucked it up somehow.”
“Yes, you did,” Ainhoa says with a hollow voice.
A doctor enters the room. She’s a blonde woman in her thirties, with a friendly face and a bright white coat.
“Ah, you’re awake! You had us worried for a moment there! How do you feel?”
“A little dizzy,” I say. “Light-headed. And the pain is making me regret this whole living thing.”
The doctor chuckles. I wasn’t kidding, though.
“Yeah, you’ll have to get the injuries treated. You were punched in the face by one of your friends, and thrown down some stairs. You could consider yourself lucky not to have broken any bones.”
“I’m… quite sure I was in an accident,” I correct her, although I don’t sound very convinced. “I crashed my car into some bus or something like that.”
“Yes. You were found in your car with a few broken ribs, a concussion and a lot of blood on your face. I was testing your memory.”
“… Are you sure you are a doctor?”
As the seemingly carefree doctor waves her hand and laughs softly, the ex-fiancée turns around with a somber expression and disappears behind a curtain.
The doctor goes on about treatment stuff, but I can’t get Ainhoa out of my head. Particularly the resentment she focused on me, which didn’t match her gentle face. Before I jumped into Asier’s body, I didn’t bother weighing the pros and cons of kidnapping someone else’s recently deceased corpse, but to be fair I didn’t have time to waste before necrosis set in. I ventured into this new stage of my existence like someone who had found someone else’s discarded clothes. From now on, I feared, I was going to get dragged down by everything this Asier guy had done, and everyone he had tied himself to. I already felt sorry for Ainhoa, but I didn’t want to bother with any of it.
At some point I fell asleep, and the next time Ainhoa appears next to my bed I can’t tell if only a couple of hours have passed, or a day.
“It seems they can’t find anybody else in your life that would care about your predicament,” Ainhoa says with barely contained self-satisfaction.
“They found some people, but they didn’t care?”
Ainhoa sighs, deflated.
“No, they can’t find anyone. But the people that care about you would have found out by now, right? Your phone broke during the crash, so that is for sure part of it. Still, I figured that people manage to locate their loved ones in cases like this.”
“Well, I don’t know who my loved ones are, or if I have any.”
“That’s… just sad.”
From the way Ainhoa’s lower lip trembles, it doesn’t take a genius to tell she is about to shed some tears.
“Don’t cry,” I say while smiling softly. “I’m sure I don’t deserve those tears. I can feel that whatever I did to you was real bad.”
Ainhoa sniffs and rubs her eyes.
“None of it makes sense. How you treated me back then, how you kept hurting me afterwards… Suddenly you lose your memory and now you are gentle with me. Maybe in a couple of days you will recover every last bit of who you are supposed to be, and you will return to being a complete bastard.”
“Can you tell me, please, what the hell did I do to you? I’m dying here.”
Ainhoa laughs humorlessly.
“Are you sure you want to know? What if it’s not in your interest to remember, or even if it is, the memories are buried so deep down that they might not be fully accurate?”
“Whatever it was, I need to know where we stand.”
She shakes her head.
“Somehow this is even worse, you not knowing. You get to forget and have been freed from whatever guilt you retained from how you hurt me. It’s like you are getting away with it all over again.”
“No. No, I’m not. I can feel it in me, the guilt and the shame. I don’t know what I did to you but I know that it must have been bad. Very bad.”
I have plenty of guilt and shame stored for a rainy day, so I don’t have to act for this one. Ainhoa shakes her head slowly as she purses her lips.
“Hey, you can punch me if you want,” I continue, “if it will make you feel better. I’ll tell the nurses that I fell down some stairs.”
A tear runs down her cheek, but she covers her face and turns away from me to walk over to the window.
“I would never hurt you. Even after what you left inside of me, which will remain there for the rest of my life, I am not the kind of person who hurts others like you did.”
“For the love of everything good in this damned world of the living, will you please, Ainhoa, tell me what on earth did I do for you to hate this guy I’m supposed to be?”
“Until you remember, it’s nothing to do with you. It’s everything to do with me.”
“What the fuck does that even mean?” I exclaim, starting to lose my cool.
When she turns her head to glare at me, the sun beats down on her face, giving her a halo.
“Alright, I’ll tell you. It’s real simple, happens all over the world, all the time. You cheated on me with everyone you could. At least six women that I found out about, two of whom I talked to. Does this jolt your memory?”
I lie there speechless.
“Great, I’m glad you’re finally letting your guard down and actually listening,” Ainhoa says with a raspy voice, as if her previous revelation scratched her throat on the way out.
I look down towards the sheets that cover my torso.
“… Was I really that much of a piece of shit? Oh, man, what the fuck was wrong with me?”
Ainhoa walks closer and takes a seat on a stool next to my hospital bed. She places her left forearm on her right knee, closes her eyes and sighs.
“You weren’t always like that. When I met you, you were funny, and kind, and charismatic. I fell in love with you quickly.”
I have to force myself to hold this ex-fiancée’s gentle gaze.
“If I was that much of a bastard, I suppose I must have been cheating on you even back then.”
“Maybe you were. I don’t know. But I do know I’ve never felt that strongly about anyone in my life, and when you ended it, it destroyed me. My friends tried to cheer me up, I went out a lot, got wasted every night. Still does not quite compare…”
Tears roll down her face as she looks down towards her lap.
“Hey now,” I say nervously. “I don’t sound like I was worth you caring so much about me. Have some self-respect, Ainhoa. Cheaters are the scum of the world. There’s nothing worse than destroying the trust of the person you are supposed to love, except for maybe stabbing them literally, as in killing them. And I’m not entirely sure if that’s worse.”
“I am so sorry,” she chokes out through the tears.
“It’s not your fault. I’m sorry that I ruined your life. You truly should stab me or something. It might make you feel better.”
She laughs through tears.
“So… Please tell me you got over me,” I say sheepishly.
“I wish I could say that,” she says. “But I’m not sure if I ever will. I did meet a guy who isn’t an asshole like you. Married him a year later, and now we have a one and a half years old daughter. You already knew that, though… Then again, for a while you are someone new.”
That lifts a bit of the weight in my heart. I take one of Ainhoa’s hands, which feels so wonderfully warm and soft in mine, and I grin at her.
“That’s wonderful. Being able to create new life like that… I’m so happy for you.”
Ainhoa agreed to drive me to the address listed on my identity document as soon as I received the medical discharge. She had shared her worry that the next time she saw me I would have recovered my memories, so I would have gone back to being the cheating bastard she was used to. Of course, I didn’t recover any damn memory, because that shitty human being disappeared into the beyond. I wait for Ainhoa inside the emergency department, next to the people who are waiting for the busy employees to treat their wounds. I start this new life with barely anything else than the guy’s clothes, his keychain, his wallet and around a hundred twenty euros.
I notice that someone has stopped in front of me. It’s Ainhoa, wearing a lovely blouse and a knee-length skirt. She looks beautiful, but then again she’s the first living woman who has paid so much attention to me in around twenty years.
She smiles cautiously at me, but when I smile back she understands that I’m the amnesiac son of a gun she’s come to appreciate.
“Hi back to you,” she says. “You recovered quite fast for how bad the crash must have been to turn you into a decent person.”
“I can’t disagree with you on that. It’s amazing what living bodies can come back from.”
Ainhoa nods, then gestures for me to exit the building.
“Shall we go, then? We have a twenty five minutes ride ahead of us.”
As I was walking out, though, something invisible hits my nose, and the suddenness of the pain and the previously non-existent obstacle makes me stumble backwards. As I hold my breath I notice that the glass door is trembling. Ainhoa is staring at me surprised and worried.
“Ah, right,” I say as I rub my nose. “People are supposed to open doors to get to the other side. Even transparent ones.”
Ainhoa approaches me, puts a hand on my shoulder and leans towards me. This Asier bastard hurt her so bad, but she still cares so much for me.
“Asier, you cannot be alright. I was surprised at how fast they let you go, given that you haven’t recovered your memory! Maybe you suffered permanent brain damage. We should talk to–“
I shake one hand dismissively.
“I’m just a bit confused, that’s all. If you had gotten into such an accident you would likely understand it as well. I’ll be fine! Let’s get going, I want to check out my place. Really, you don’t have to worry about me. I’ll go to the doctor again if I start feeling worse all of a sudden.”
Ainhoa looks at me, then sighs.
“Fine. But we’re going straight there. No sightseeing. And rest for a few days when you get home.”
The ride to Hondarribia, where this bastardly guy lived, goes quickly. Along the way we barely speak, and I’m too absorbed by how bright the scenery looks. I guess that during my years as a ghost I forgot that the world isn’t supposed to look faded and grey. When I turn my head towards Ainhoa, who is focused on driving, I’m touched by how much she must have loved me. The body I’m inhabiting was supposed to marry her and take care of her forever. And yet, she now has to bear a rotten weight for the rest of her life.
“Listen, Ainhoa…” I begin, and I have to swallow to clear my throat. “I hope I never remember any of it. Still, this body of mine is responsible for the trail of destruction that it left on its wake. Maybe at some point I thought it would have been better to cut ties with the mess I made, turn tail and run away into the beyond. But I’m someone else now, and I think I understand. You either endure the pain and get the chance to love, or you get to forget pain but also never love anyone ever again.”
Ainhoa blushes as she alternates between glancing at me and following the road.
“Asier, I’m not sure that’s the appropriate lesson for what has happened to you, and what you did to me. I’m married, I have a daughter…”
“Yeah, I know, and I actually didn’t mean it like that. But you are also still in love with me. Life’s a mess.”
Ainhoa doesn’t reply, and there is silence between us for the rest of the trip.
I had walked around Hondarribia plenty of times during my couple of decades as a ghost, but I had never roamed through the outskirts where this Asier guy lived. It’s a small community surrounded by ivy-covered walls, and adjoined to a graveyard no less, which I thought was a nice touch. On the other side of the road extends the peaceful countryside common to this province. Once Ainhoa finds the way into the community, she drives around columns of neatly arranged two-story homes. There is at least a car parked in front of most of the houses I look at, but otherwise the silence doesn’t suggest that people live inside those buildings.
Once we get out of the car in front of the house that apparently belongs to me, I grow giddy.
“Damn, this place looks like three to four times as big as I would have expected. How the hell can I afford it? Do I have a job that good?”
Ainhoa looks impressed as well. I guess Asier bought this house in the last couple of years.
“Well, you inherited a good chunk of your assets. I don’t want to get into that, but I think you can afford this place without much hassle.”
Both of Asier’s parents might be dead, though, or if one of them still lives, he or she doesn’t have the kind of relationship that causes them to figure out I suffered a serious car accident, appear suddenly and force me to deal with another stranger’s close relationship. I have already gotten tangled emotionally in Ainhoa’s predicament, but I don’t want to take any more.
As I hold the keychain they found in Asier’s pants, a keychain that hopefully belongs to him, I approach the front door of this new home I have stolen from a dead man.
“This might take a while,” I say as I try one key after the other.
Once I finally find the correct key, I was about to open the door when I notice that Ainhoa is standing behind me with a guilty look on her face as she wrings her hands.
“Ah, you want to figure out whether I live with someone,” I say with a smile. “I’m curious as well. Let’s find out, then.”
I turn the key and open the door. I have barely stepped into the foyer when a cold sensation runs down my spine. It feels as if I have wandered into a mausoleum.
“This doesn’t feel inviting at all!” I say, disappointed. “And what’s with all the mess?”
From my position I can see most of the furniture of the spacious living room. It looks around twenty years old, and I guess it came with the house. But the main problem is the papers, magazines, books and a couple of framed photos strewn about, as if the area had suffered an earthquake since the last time Asier was able to come home.
“What the hell…?” I ask out loud in a thin voice, but then I raise it to address whoever might inhabit this place. “Hey, is anyone home? I’m supposed to live here too!”
Nobody answers, but focusing my hearing allows me to listen to the singing birds outside. I turn to Ainhoa.
“I guess I’ve been a lonely bastard ever since I fucked things up with you.”
Ainhoa averts her gaze and bites her lower lip.
“I… should go,” she says as she begins to turn towards the exit. “Remember to rest properly, Asier.”
“Of course. Thank you for everything. Take good care of yourself, and of your family.”
Once we step outside, she lowers her head and addresses me without looking me in the eyes.
“If you remain like this… call me from time to time so we can catch up. Is that alright?”
I smile. The more I speak to her, the more I want to hug and comfort her.
“Of course it is. I look forward to meeting you again.”
She drives away, leaving the community through the gate, while I wave her goodbye. How am I going to call her, though, when I don’t know her number?