In Alba’s final hour, she’s kneeling with her back to the window of her bedroom while the noose she made out of a sheet is folded over her shoulder. The other end of the sheet is tied to the handle of the window. Under her ink black, greasy hair that she chopped off short, her snow white skin seems bloodless, as if every cell of her body has given up. Her umber brown eyes are downcast and sunken, emptied of tears, and her mouth is pale and droopy. None of her facial muscles move; facial expressions are meant for communication, and she has long resigned from mankind. Her ribcage stands out like a giant, bony insect trapped under her skin. Beneath the costal cartilage, the abdomen seems hollowed out. Her yellowed cotton briefs haven’t been cleaned in a week. On her spindly and feeble limbs, horizontal, pearl-colored scars cover her wrists and forearms as well as her inner thighs, like scratches on the walls notched by a feral beast trapped in a cage. The self-harm scars on the inside of her left arm are crossed from the middle of the forearm to the wrist by a glistening, punch pink scar from when she cut her wrist artery, ruining her nerves and tendons.
Alba never noticed us, or only the same as other shadows haunting her mind. After all, it’s already too late.
Her parents had painted her bedroom a lemonade pink. They had filled her shelves with plush toys. They had hung posters that read ‘there is always a reason to be happy’, ‘be kind to yourself’, ‘run your own race’, ‘if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging’, ‘learn to love yourself’, ‘choose life’, ‘this too shall pass’. Alba had taken advantage of the time between the instances when either of her parents or her siblings would check on her, and she had worn herself out pushing her wardrobe and her table against the door. The furniture that block the entrance tremble along with the door as her family members pound on it and push it. Their cries for Alba to let them in reach me dulled as if I were floating underwater.
Alba closes her eyes. She grabs the noose with both hands and passes her head through it as if crowning herself. Then she tightens the noose around her neck and leans forward until the rope is taut. Alba lets her body hang limply, resting the backs of her hands on the floor.
We stand on both sides of Alba’s dangling body as her face goes purple and snot flows out of her nose. Her breaths are heavy and shuddering, and her eyes tremble behind their lids. Her heart must be beating rapidly, and her flesh will bruise as the blood pools in her body.
Her ghost slides out onto the floor, falling from a tipped container. Alba is paralyzed for a moment, but then she props her forearms on the floor and looks up. She notices me first. Calmly, she lowers her gaze to her shadowy hands. She raises to her feet. Her ghost remains tethered to her hanging shell by shadowy filaments.
Her parents are screaming her name. The wardrobe and desk tremble under a persistent assault.
“Hello, Alba,” I say casually.
The newbie stares at me as if catatonic. I had wondered how she would react when she finally discovered that the afterlife exists and that a myriad of ghosts are trapped here. She cares as little about this new world as she cared about the previous one.
“So I’m dead?” Alba asks in a weary, monotone voice.
“Not yet. It will only take time, though.”
Alba looks over her shoulder towards her body, and then she turns slightly when she notices the filaments that keep her attached to the plane of the living.
“How much time?”
“As long as those threads remain.”
When Alba holds my gaze again, her indifference makes me narrow my eyes. She might as well be looking at a rock. Still, I know she has never been able to help it. I did hear her mother mention that even as a baby, Alba barely cried.
“Are you a ghost?” she asks.
“Did you die in this house?” Alba asks in the same dull voice.
“Oh, no,” I answer. “We have been hanging out here ever since we came across you.”
Her shoulders droop and she tilts her head as if I’m presenting her a tiresome riddle.
“You were waiting for me. So, do you have a name? Do you use names in this place?”
“Sure, we can still talk, right? We need a way to refer to each other. I’m Irene.”
Alba’s face twitches, a precursor to a frown. She’s had enough of interacting, and she hadn’t prepared herself for meeting new people. She nods towards the third ghost in the room.
“Who is this one?”
“My best friend,” I say.
Kateryna bows slightly, and I can make out the faint traces of a kind smile in her veiled face.
“My name is Kateryna. Nice to meet you, Alba, even if it had to happen like this.”
“Where are you from? That accent is Eastern European, right?”
Kateryna exhales a chuckle.
“I’ve lived in plenty of places. I was born in a city that the living built, and that’s as much as it matters now.”
Alba keeps staring at Kateryna as if she expects my friend to elaborate further, but in the end the newbie takes a deep breath as if to recharge her voice, and addresses me.
“What’s this about? Why were you waiting for me to die? Are you my guardian angel?”
“I’m everyone’s guardian angel,” I say. “We first met you in the hospital, when they were treating the nasty vertical cut along your inner forearm. A great attempt, but that family of yours loves you so much that they can’t bear the thought of you winning at the only game you’ve been playing for years. They are annoying like that. But then again, if you had succeeded, we wouldn’t have been here to welcome your ghost.”
Alba closes her eyes and breathes slowly.
“I guess that ghosts need some entertainment.”
“That’s part of it, sure. There’s not much we can do here. So you see, you were one of our most interesting cases in a long time. You yearned to be admitted to our faded plane. Anyway, we followed you and your family home, where we got to listen to your parents and siblings as they talked in hushed, pained voices about your previous attempts. That paracetamol overdose that nearly ruined your liver. That time you tied a plastic bag around your head. You are so determined that you fooled those psychiatrists at that facility so they would release you. They must have been idiots, right? Who takes a look at you and thinks you are fine? Also, you truly fucked up that jump from the bridge, huh?”
Alba lowers her head as if she’s being admonished for a poor performance.
“It’s not as if I could have trained properly. Even after the surgeries, my legs only added to the daily pain. I was an idiot.”
One of the threads tethering Alba to her dangling body has already dissolved, and two are fraying as each individual shadowy fiber snaps silently.
“Don’t be so hard on yourself, kid,” I say. “After all, you are in the happy place for suicides now.”
Alba’s shrouded eyes dart around as she shakes her head.
“It’s no different here.”
“You get it then. I was disappointed as well, so many years ago.”
“Alright, ghost, I’m tired. Now what? What’s going to happen? Why did you two bother to wait for me?”
“Don’t be so negative!” I say sarcastically. “We can still get on rollercoasters. We three can ride them all day and night if you want!”
“Or we can go on the water slides,” Kateryna adds. “They are my favorite. The speed bursts through your body, and then that drop makes you feel like you are freefalling.”
Alba looks at the ceiling for a moment.
“You two are fucking weird, you know that?”
“Yeah, we are weird, and we’re also here for you,” I say. “So what do you want to do?”
Alba closes her eyes and sighs.
“In case you hadn’t noticed, I intended to die. Am I dead now? It doesn’t feel like it.”
“I always offer the choice, if it’s still possible: either take advantage that you remain tethered to your body and return to it, or wait until those filaments dissolve. Then you’ll find out whether you are cursed to roam through the afterlife for eternity, or you move on to the beyond.”
Alba looks at her dying body. Her face has reddened, the eyes are bulging. The wardrobe and the desk are shaking while her family members keep shouting as if Alba ever cared to listen.
“Why hasn’t my heart stopped already? Hasn’t enough time passed?”
“Don’t ask me. I’m not in charge of the afterlife. Find a ghostologist.”
Alba’s eyes flick between me and Kateryna.
“Alright, so what’s in that beyond? It sounds like oblivion.”
The old, cold pain spreads through me, making me shiver. I want to turn around and leave. I take a deep breath, but my voice comes out hollow.
“The beyond is where the people you love wait for you. If you are lucky enough that you have gotten over your regrets, I’m sure that when they let you in they will provide you with as many of your preferred books as you want. Thacker, Bernhard, Ligotti, Schopenhauer, Cioran… But they weren’t enough, were they? Even though they held the attention of someone who doesn’t care about anything. Maybe you want to check out new stuff.”
Alba looks at Kateryna.
“They have the complete works of Edgar Allan Poe, right?” she says acidly.
“I was never into reading, I’m afraid,” Kateryna answers.
Alba closes her eyes and lets out a long breath that she has been holding in. She raises her eyebrows and turns her head to me.
“They weren’t enough, you said. Enough for what?”
“To keep you alive.”
“You are an idiot, aren’t you? After all, you are one of the damned. I bet you don’t know what’s that so called beyond. You have no clue if another level of the afterlife exists. Maybe ghosts just vanish into nothing, their particles return to the universe, the consciousness is erased from existence. Pure oblivion.”
My rotten insides ache. I swallow without a throat.
“We can hope, though.”
“Hoping doesn’t lead you anywhere, does it? Every person hopes for their life to improve, for the world to stop bleeding, but they don’t. Everything ends in pain.”
Kateryna steps closer to Alba and gestures for her to stop.
“Hey. Just… leave her alone,” she says with a pained voice.
Alba merely stares at my friend for a few seconds, and then her gaze falls on the trembling furniture that blocks the door.
“I yearned for blackness. No, I didn’t want to register a blackness. I wanted oblivion, and yet I find myself wasting my energies to talk to you both. I don’t want to be the target of other people’s expectations, even if those people are dead. I don’t want to be seen nor heard. I don’t want to think and doubt and struggle and dread. I don’t want to exist. None of us should have ever existed. All of this… was a mistake.”
Kateryna lowers her gaze. I sigh.
“I have heard it all before, Alba. We have welcomed quite a few. The stories get stale quick.”
“Stale?” she asks, raising an eyebrow. “Stale is a word used to describe flat bread and ale that’s gone sour. This is our damnation. We do not have the luxury of describing our suffering with bland words. No, we are not stale. We are rancid.”
“Don’t patronize me. Tell me, what makes you think that you are any different? You’re here, too.”
Stop looking at me like that, kid. I don’t want to bother any more than you do.
“I want all of it. All the lives, all the love. I am damned, remember?”
“You’re here because you want to be saved,” Alba says as she shakes her head.
“I’m here because I was too proud to admit that I had wasted the time I spent in my body. I was too stubborn to ask for help. But you know what? When I was alive, I believed that I didn’t need to be saved. Now look at me. I will never move on to the beyond. If you have made your choice, Alba, rip apart those remaining, fraying filaments coming out of your dying body. Fuck them up as if you were floating in your mother’s womb and you had the chance to cut off your umbilical cord. Maybe you truly meant your words and you’ll dissolve into nothing. Or maybe you are just a fool who has no clue what’s waiting for her.”
Alba narrows her eyes.
“I’m ready for it, alive or dead. Do you think I care?”
“I don’t claim to know what goes on in the festering recesses of your mind. What are you waiting for, then?”
Alba twists her torso around to grasp a shadowy filament coming out from under her right shoulder as if it were a cancerous growth. She lifts her gaze towards me.
“You are tired too,” she says.
“I am. But I also have messes to clean up.”
Alba sighs. She yanks on the thread. It breaks, then disappears like a warm breath in winter.
“Goodbye, Alba,” Kateryna says kindly.
“Maybe we’ll meet again one day, sister,” Alba says as she ruins another fraying filament. “Depends on how lucky I am.”
Alba focuses on snapping off the two remaining threads. Once the last one disappears, a look of relief flashes across her face. It doesn’t take a second for her shadowy figure to brighten, for her features to start getting erased. Alba looks down at her vanishing hands, and she chuckles.
A moment later, Alba is gone. I sigh, then hurry up to orient my body so I can crouch into her fresh corpse. Kateryna stands in front of me and smiles warmly. She always knew how to keep me going.
“Be strong, Irene,” she says.
I wiggle until I only see the dark insides of Alba’s corpse.
“I’ll procure some ouija boards soon. This family will be a mess to handle.”
“Even if they send you to another facility, I’ll be waiting here,” Kateryna says. “Now hurry up, my baby.”
I possess Alba’s fresh corpse, and her feeble heart beats again. The pain sieging this body bursts in my consciousness like a wave slamming me against a wall. The noose is digging into my neck. My tongue is swollen and filling up my mouth. My face is burning up as the blood roars in my eardrums. My body spasms while every nerve sends messages of agony to my brain.
I struggle to move my new hands so I can push myself off the floor, but they are too numb, this body is too weak. The fire in my throat intensifies like it’s being burned with hot coals. I try desperately to move my legs so I can get enough momentum to slip off the noose, but I can barely twitch them. My vision goes blurry as the cells in my brain are starved of oxygen. All I can see are blobs of colors. My brain is shutting down.
I hear the sound of something heavy scraping the floor. The furniture that was blocking the door, and that now only look like pulsating, blurry blobs, is being dragged away from the door by an invisible force. Suddenly the door bursts open, hitting the back of the wardrobe, and a big man runs into Alba’s bedroom. Other people follow him. Their footsteps are loud as their soles slap the floor. Even though this body is numb, I feel the pressure in my chest as the big man, Alba’s father, holds me upright, and then someone else loosens the noose and slides it off my head. My chest heaves up and down as I gasp for air. It feels like knives are stabbing into my throat.
“I got her,” the father says with a weary and distraught voice.
“Why are you doing this?” Alba’s teenage sister mumbles as she cries.
Alba’s mother only repeats her daughter’s name as she buries her face into my hair. She rocks my body back and forth, holding me in her arms. Alba’s sister clutches onto my opposite arm while her warm tears sprinkle the bare skin of my chest. The numbness in my face begins to wear off as pins and needles jab into my cheeks, my eyesight sharpens as the blood returns to my head.
Alba was going to stick into each of their hearts a poisoned dagger. Those organs would have rotted slowly until the day they stopped beating.
“It’s alright,” says the new voice coming out of me. “I’m still here.”