Final cover for my latest novel “My Own Desert Places”

The contest for the cover of my latest novel, “My Own Desert Places”, has finished, and only one nailed for me its odd tone, a mix of dark comedy, drama and supernatural.


Now that I don’t have to worry about the cover any longer, I will continue with my first full-length revision of the novel, which is close to the size of 2,2 novels. Revising texts you haven’t read in a while is a good way to get reminded of how stupid you are, because I average around 70 notes to change stuff by chapter. I also found three places so far in which I will need to add further details from zero. Revising the novel until I’m happy will likely take me a couple of weeks. Then I’ll have to figure out how one self-publishes stuff to Amazon and the likes these days, and whether I’ll need to market it somehow. What a bother.

My mood has only worsened since I stopped writing frantically every day, so I’ll also need to deal with that shit.

Ongoing contest for the cover art of “My Own Desert Places”

I’m already in the process of revising the e-book version of my recently finished novel “My Own Desert Places”, which will remain online.

I have started the contest for talented designers to figure out what cover would be appropriate for this strange tale. You can folow the contest in the following link:

Contest for the cover art of “My Own Desert Places”

Post-mortem for “My Own Desert Places”

I have finally finished my favorite story of all I have written. It took nearly 179,000 words, which I have written frantically in slightly more than a month. If one considers the average length of a novel to be 80,000 words, this story ended up reaching the length of 2,2 novels.

The concept and the few associated notes for this one had been waiting in my archives since maybe 2013. I knew it was about a ghost who falls in love with a living woman and that possesses someone else’s fresh corpse to date her. Beyond that, I was sure of two things: the ending, which I have dreaded writing from the very first part, and that the protagonist’s new life was a mess he would need to navigate, due to how the previous owner had screwed it up.

During creative periods, I tend to come up with quite a few interesting concepts which I’m quick to write up and archive for whenever I end up using them. Sometimes my brain works in the background some more details about those stories. It just happened that most of the details that my subconscious came up with for the initial iteration of this story didn’t excite me. I pictured Asier’s life as being involved with some sort of drug ring, gambling, or some similar illegal enterprise. I believed that the story needed that kind of external pressure, because the protagonist would be focused on seducing slash deceiving the so called impact character, which in narrative terms is the character that changes the protagonist the most. However, I just wasn’t interested in figuring out how to pull off Asier’s previous life convincingly, and I had more pressing stuff to write.

However, after I finished writing my last short story, “A Poor Player”, I browsed through my notes to figure out which concept grabbed me enough this time. I figured that I could test the concept of “My Own Desert Places” for a single part and see if I enjoyed it enough. In that first part not only I fell in love with Irene’s personality, which was tremendously fun to act out, but I also thought of Asier’s particular sins which had ended up wrecking his life. I’m someone who has always had a terrible trouble connecting with others, so when I got to trust someone a little, the notion that they could betray me, and the fact that some did, ruined me significantly for future relationships. I loved the idea of Irene having to bear the burden of a behavior (serial cheating) that I despise, and it allowed to flesh out Irene’s behavior during her first life, mirroring Asier’s: the protagonist hadn’t been a cheater, because she technically never dated any of the girls she pursued, but she only cared about short-term pleasures, not thinking a bit about the long-term misery she caused not only to others but also herself. I have always avoided getting too attached to people, so performing this narrative could work out my personal issues, which is a significant part of why I have always needed to write.

In my original notes, the protagonist was a man. However, I have loved every single story involving body swaps (one of the last of those stories I’ve experienced being Shūzō Oshimi’s “Inside Mari”), so I wanted to contribute to that, and I think that the notion of a woman being in love with another woman but using a man’s body to seduce her, because that’s what the other woman is into, is inherently compelling. I knew very little about Irene when I wrote that first part in the last day of April 2021, but an inherent law of narrative is that most, or ideally all, of the symbols form a pattern that justifies why each of them is there. The symbols either complement each other or offer a distorted mirrored image of others. Usually the subconscious mind works this out in the background during the period when you are writing a full-length story, and you need to be alert and write those notes down. So Irene’s behavior could have been compared to Asier’s because that bastard needed to be a serial cheater, and Irene felt isolated and freakish and killed herself because she needed to connect with Alazne. Kateryna’s suicide was a case of mirroring: she trusted too much, was too good, but people fucked her over anyway. Ainhoa’s inability to accept whatever didn’t contribute to normality, and her implosion when she finds out ghosts are real, plays out differently in Alazne, who eagerly welcomes Kateryna’s ghost. There was also an unexpected mirroring in Kateryna’s brothers Oleksiy and Hadeon: the big brother was the tall, big one with anger issues, same as the protagonist, and Hadeon was the withdrawn person with troublesome fetishes and who loves anime, same as Alazne. I’m not sure what that means. In any case, there are tons of these symbols connected throughout the story, which I’m sure I will enjoy, or even fortify with further details, as I go through a full revision.

I write for fun, whether it involves silliness and acting out ridiculous scene concepts, or for the inherent fun of writing a compelling scene, even if it’s as depressing as they come. Because my brain doesn’t allow me to detach from my obsessions, for the time it takes me to write a full story I live vicariously through it. It feels as if I’ve constructed false memories. Related to that is the fact that Alazne’s demise has lodged a cold ache in my heart. I have always preferred imagined people to flesh and blood ones, after all, so I guess I fell in love with her along with the protagonist. Even before I wrote the first part of this story I knew how Alazne’s arc was going to end, but finally acting out those two scenes that encompass the climax of this story was one of the hardest creative endeavours I’ve gone through. Throughout this last month I tried to think of any other way it could end, but I never figured out any ending that felt more powerful and fitting.

This version of Alazne wasn’t my first iteration. After I self-published two books of novellas written in Spanish, my native language, I jumped into writing a far more complicated story that would end up having to be split into two books, not only because of the length but because its narrative allowed it. That story was about a guy who experiences hallucinations and who befriends a reclusive writer who is trying to write a novel which is barely more than fanfiction about someone she’s obsessed slash in love with. That reclusive writer was named Alazne, and was an Ukrainian refugee from Chernobyl who had been adopted by a childless local couple. There was plenty of stuff about her failing to connect with others, feeling permanently alienated, etc. Ironically, the person that Alazne was in love with was a woman. Anyway, the story was a novel within a novel, because the story that the co-protagonist was writing was also fleshed out. I ended up writing a whole first draft, a very loose one, of what should end up becoming the first book of two. Writing the second book would have required me succeeding even minimally with the two books I self-published (both for scenes involved in the narrative and because I couldn’t imagine this new story selling otherwise), but I sold close to nothing of those two books. In the end, after I finished the first draft of the last scene of that book, I realized that it hadn’t been fun. I had writen that book to work through some troubles of mine, but I wasn’t enjoying it, and I didn’t want to revise that whole novel and then handle the second one. I never reread any of those drafts.

That first iteration of Alazne was Ukrainian originally because I had that connection from high school. For a while I hung out with a guy who was blond and blue eyed, and although there are virtually none of those around in my province, I didn’t think much of it. It was strange that the guy preferred to hang out with outcasts and losers like me. One day we went to his house and it only took me glancing at his parents to realize that the guy had been adopted; his parents were tanned, dark-haired, dark-eyed, probably from the south of Spain. Then someone told me that the guy had been involved in the Chernobyl incident as a baby or a toddler, which matched his age, and that his biological parents either died or gave him up for adoption directly. I never figured out anything more about that background, not even if it was true, but it remained as a cool story for the purposes of me becoming creative with it.

Plenty of Alazne’s issues are or were mine, of course. Her musical tastes belong to me, and I also love to play the guitar. For example, during the writing of this story I became temporarily unemployed (although I’m going to be recalled for the summer), which meant I turned into a recluse except for the times that I went out to the woods to play the guitar. In my mid twenties I also was diagnosed with clinical depression, along with Asperger’s syndrome (now considered merely high-functioning autism), and for many of my earlier years I had a terrible time handling the depressive aspects. Irene’s demise, that of failing to connect with people, dropping out of college, having an abusive job (which was worse in real life) and then wanting to jump off a cliff, were mostly my background as well, except that I stepped back and went to the library.

What comes next is me going through the thirty five parts and fixing minor issues like punctuation. Then I’ll have to figure out how one puts together an epub file these days. Afterwards I’ll spend some time walking around with the digital version of my story to perform a major revision, which will likely involve adding a few descriptions here and there and strengthening symbols. When I consider that done, which might take me a couple of weeks, I’ll spend 150-200 euros to commission the cover art, and I’ll upload the digital book to Amazon and similar services. I have no fantasies that any traditional publisher would want to bother with this story, not to mention that I despise the process of selling it to people who don’t care.

I have no clue what I might write after this. Maybe I’ll try to generate a bunch of new concepts through freewriting (asking myself about my likes and dislikes, what I’m passionate about, what bothers me, what I hate, etc.). What I have always had clear is that I shouldn’t bother writing a story unless I find the concept compelling enough by itself, and even then I wouldn’t invest my energies in writing it unless the process is fun. I have started and abandoned quite a few stories because they sounded good in paper, but they simply didn’t work in practice.

In any case, if anyone is reading this and has read some of “My Own Desert Places”, I hope you got something out of it.

My Own Desert Places, Pt. 35 (GPT-3 fueled short)

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, greIn 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 had 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. 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 shake 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 may 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.
I nod.
“Did you die in this house?” Alba asks in the same dull voice.
“Oh, no. 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 existed 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, expecting 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. 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. Still, 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 like 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’ve reached 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 rolls her eyes.
“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 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 keep shaking while her family members shout as if Alba ever cared to listen.
“Why hasn’t my heart stopped already? Hasn’t enough time passed?”
I shrug.
“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 asks 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 in a pained voice.
Alba merely stares at my friend for a few seconds, and then her gaze falls on the trembling furniture that barricades 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 as she raises 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.”
“Alright, Alba.”
“Don’t patronize me. Tell me, what makes you think that you are any different? You’re stuck 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. As you said, I am damned.”
“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 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.
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. Although 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 in 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 flows into my brain.
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.”


My Own Desert Places, Pt. 34 (GPT-3 fueled short)

The jarring ringing coming from our empty living room makes both Oleksiy and Hadeon crane their necks, as if to figure out whether they had missed a third person living in the house. The ringing stops, but its echo spreads throughout the hall. Hadeon turns his head sharply towards his brother Oleksiy, expecting for the big man to decide what to do, when the call bell rings again. In the living room’s dimness I can’t see the bell’s button being pushed down. Kateryna is waiting for us to approach the dining table.
“I-it’s that bell over there, right?” Hadeon asks, both on edge and excited. “But there’s nobody ringing it! It must be Kateryna!”
Oleksiy exhales sharply through his teeth.
“Hadeon! Our sister is dead! That must be some kind of alarm!”
“No, that’s truly Kateryna,” I say, and cough some of the blood dripping down my throat from my split lip. “We set up call bells in a few rooms of the house so she can notify us whenever she wants to talk through the ouija boards.”
“Oleksiy, come with me, p-please,” Hadeon says. “Kateryna did kill herself here, and people who commit suicide are known to leave their ghosts behind, right? We need to contact her, perform an incantation!”
“What the fuck, man,” Oleksiy grumbles while staring at his younger brother as if Hadeon is embarrassing him.
Hadeon stops restraining my girlfriend, who falls to her knees. The younger brother makes a frantic pleading gesture with his hands towards his brother, but as he opens his mouth, the call bell rings. Hadeon shakes his head, turns around and runs into the living room. He switches the light on. Once he stops next to the ouija board, he observes the bell as if witnessing a miracle. The bell keeps ringing almost as if transmitting a morse message, but I know that Kateryna simply intends us all to gather there.
“O-Oleksiy, someone is pushing the call bell’s button!” Hadeon shouts in a high-pitched voice. “It’s getting pushed down!”
Oleksiy frowns. He lowers his baseball bat absentmindedly from his shoulder so the end touches the hardwood floor.
“What? What fucking nonsense is this?”
“Come, damn it!”
I haul myself to my feet, although I’m getting dizzier by the minute.
“As I told you goons, I only learned about Kateryna’s existence when I first came to this house, a few days after I possessed Asier’s body. Your wonderful sister threw some shit at me with her poltergeist powers, because she thought I was Asier. And I meant the adjective ‘wonderful’ honestly, even though back then Kateryna almost destroyed my testicles. But the three of us are best friends, now that she knows I’m some other ghost occupying that rotten bastard’s body.”
Oleksiy looks at me with his eyes unfocused and his lips parted. He seems as overwhelmed as I guess the average construction worker and Real Madrid fan must be in the sudden presence of a ghost. But then he raises his baseball bat to point at the living room.
“You two, get over there,” he says in a hollow voice, then glares at me. “And don’t try anything, because I will fucking crack your skull.”
I stagger forward quick enough that I reach Alazne, who has her back turned, and I put my arm around her waist. When she feels the contact she flinches, but then realizes that it’s me. It takes her one look at my damaged face, with a likely bruised cheek, a swollen upper lip and a split lower lip, for her face to scrunch up in pain and for some more tears to fall. She raises a trembling hand to stroke my unscathed cheek.
“My love…” Alazne whimpers.
I feel a cold pain in my chest, as if my heart had snapped, but I force myself to smile confidently.
“It’s alright, sweetie. Kateryna knows what she’s doing.”
A few seconds later the four of us are standing in front of both the ouija board, with the planchette waiting at its center, and the call bell, which has stopped ringing. Hadeon lifts his gaze towards me as if eagerly seeking my advice. He reaches with his shivering hands, the index fingers outstretched, to touch the planchette with his fingertips.
“I-I need to keep my fingers on this, right?”
“No, you don’t, actually,” I answer. “Kateryna can move it by herself without issues. She’s one of the most talented poltergeisters I have ever seen, and I knew plenty of them in my twenty years of experience as a ghost.”
Oleksiy covers half of his face with his free hand, then he shakes his head.
“I don’t like this. I don’t like this at all, Hadeon.”
I have no clue why Kateryna hasn’t introduced herself already by moving the planchette. That would astonish her brothers for sure, which would make it more likely that I would survive this day to keep loving my girlfriend. I clear my throat.
“Hey, Kat. I suppose you are expecting us to ask, but just say anything, so your brothers understand that I wasn’t bullshitting.”
As soon as Hadeon turns towards the ouija board again, the planchette starts sliding to spell out something. Both brothers flinch, but I don’t want to tear my gaze away from what Kateryna is sharing.
“Holy shit, it’s moving!” Hadeon cries out.
The planchette spells out YES ITS ME YOU PAIR OF IDIOTS.
Despite my pain, I burst into laughter, which showers the call bell with spittle and blood.
Oleksiy crouches to look under the table, as if I had installed some convoluted fraud to deceive them through magnets. When he straightens his back again, the big guy opens his eyes wide, and a bead of sweat rolls down from his light blond hair.
“This is some vedma shit…” he mutters.
Hadeon keeps staring at the ouija board, spellbound. His lips are quivering. The planchette slides again, now spelling out OLEKSIY AND HADEON DONT HURT MY FRIENDS ANYMORE.
Oleksiy nearly jumps as if he had been pricked by a scorpion. He points his index finger at me and starts jabbering.
“What the fuck have you done?! How are you moving that thing?!”
I narrow my eyes.
“Are you seriously this thick? Can’t you see that ghosts are real, you motherfucking thug? That’s your dear sister over there, telling you to stop screwing with us.”
Oleksiy’s face is losing its color. He raises his fist to hit me as if by reflex, but Hadeon quickly lays his hand on his brother’s shoulder. Oleksiy freezes with his fist raised as if saluting.
“P-please,” Hadeon says. “The board hasn’t confirmed yet that it’s Kateryna!”
I groan.
“What else do you need?”
Hadeon begins stammering an answer, but he notices the planchette moving.
Hadeon and Oleksiy step back.
“T-that’s her, it’s her!” Hadeon cries out.
I’m rubbing Alazne’s back, which trembles through the bones in my arm. I can’t bear to look at her pained face.
Alazne sobs. She lifts a hand to her mouth, then nods as if she can’t push words through her throat. I can tell that Kateryna worded it that way, instead of saying ‘she loves you’, because she knows I haven’t confessed to being a woman. I have burdened my best friend with all these lies almost from the first time we met.
Oleksiy exhales noisily. When I turn my head towards him I meet his stumped expression, as if he’s beginning to understand that not only his sister’s consciousness has survived, but that he has attacked a ghost possessing a dead man’s corpse.
“What if this is some demonic shit…?” he mutters.
I take a deep breath through my teeth.
“Oleksiy, you are the fucking worst. Why don’t you start lifting weights with your brain for a change?”
“What the fuck do you mean?”
The thug has gone wide-eyed. I don’t know how much he will understand of anything I bother to explain. I recall the day when Ainhoa came to my apartment possibly to cheat on her husband, and she found out that ghosts existed. She imploded in a panic attack. Oleksiy’s mind might be unable to integrate such a far-reaching new concept.
I sigh.
“This is not demonic shit. This is a ghost who has survived and wishes to communicate with the people she cared about. Well, at least with the two people who broke into our house to attack me. And she’s not any average ghost, but the sister you wished she hadn’t killed herself!”
Hadeon looks guilty, but Oleksiy’s nostrils dilate, and his Adam’s apple bobs in his throat.
“Ghosts are fucking demonic,” he states confidently.
I’m displeased with this stereotype.
“A ghost is the imprint of a deceased person’s soul. It’s not demonic.”
“Demonic shit,” he whispers to himself.
“What the fuck would you know? Until five minutes ago you were sure that ghosts didn’t exist!”
Hadeon groans. A solitary tear is sliding down his cheek, but his stubble ensnares it.
“Please, stop it.” He stares down at the board. “Our beautiful Kateryna, say something more. I beg you. I want to feel your voice through your words, even though I can’t hear it anymore.”
“I-I don’t know… Are you happy in the afterlife?”
Oleksiy steps forward and grabs his younger brother’s shoulder. His eyes are alert, as if he expects a sudden poltergeist to shake the entire house and collapse it on him.
“You have no clue what we might be dealing with,” he says in a raspy voice. “It could be some demon pretending to be our sister.”
“Hadeon,” I start, “you need to start thinking for yourself, man. You have the opportunity to talk with your sister, and you aren’t pressed for time either, because Kateryna lives here. I’m sure she would… Well, she may be open to talk to you some other day as well!”
Hadeon’s gaze looks at his big brother and then at me, standing a few steps behind him.
“I feel that it’s really Kateryna. O-or maybe that’s what I want to believe. But if this is some demonic trick, I-I couldn’t forgive that.”
“Ever since you two idiots harassed me at that coffee shop and left with Kateryna’s laptop, I wanted to invite you home so you could talk to her and get some closure. People who kill themselves don’t think enough of the grief with which they infect others.”
Oleksiy stares at me with his bloodshot eyes, but his gaze is different from how he was scowling while he beat the shit out of me. That was an angry thug aching to beat up some stranger who might or not deserve it. Now he’s on edge as if I may pounce on him and tear out his throat.
Hadeon nods. He’s come to a decision.
“Alright, I’ll test if this is truly our beautiful Kateryna.” He straightens his back and clears his throat. “Please, ghost, could you prove that you are who you claim to be by revealing some information only us siblings would know?”
YOU REALLY WANT TO GO DOWN THAT PATH, the planchette spells out.
Hadeon steps back as if he felt threatened.
“O-of course! We need to be sure, r-right? Please!”
Hadeon gasps. The skin of his face suddenly looks like it belongs to a desiccated corpse. Although he remains paralyzed, the tears, which had been building up, overflow their banks and stream down his cheeks.
“You walked right into that one, buddy,” I say.
His head jerks towards me. He realizes that I know as well, that his sister’s ghost lives here, and that she has shared his sins with anyone who might listen.
“You know, what you did to her was unforgivable,” I say lowering my voice. “I’m sure Kateryna was thinking about you too when she swallowed all those pills.”
Hadeon’s jaw trembles. I wouldn’t be surprised if he dropped to his knees and asked for forgiveness.
“N-no, I don’t…”
Oleksiy puts a hand on his younger brother’s shoulder.
“Hadeon, stop crying! What the hell does that mean? What’s this about masturbating into panties?”
“Maybe you shouldn’t have led with that,” I say. “Ghosts aren’t meant to be confrontational.”
“Shut up!” Hadeon wipes the tears off his face, then attempts to walk towards the doorway into the hall, but his brother blocks the path. “Let’s leave, Oleksiy! There’s no point in us being here.”
Oleksiy snaps his head back and grimaces.
“What the fuck are you talking about? We are not done yet!”
“We are too!” Hadeon whines. “Asier was already dead. Kateryna is dead, and she won’t forgive either of us, ever.”
“Shut up, Hadeon. You don’t know what you’re talking about.” He points at the ouija board. “You were going to test the demon to figure out if it was pretending to be our sister, right? And what was that about some panties?”
“I… I did something stupid.”
Oleksiy shakes his head and frowns.
“Did what? Having to do with panties?”
Hadeon hangs his head low. His tears are forming puddles on the hardwood floor.
“I-I was… lonely, okay? I was so lonely that I couldn’t take it anymore. I-I didn’t mean any harm…”
Maybe I’m being too harsh on this incestuous fucker. I remember what it was like to be terminally lonely, and the lengths I went to achieve some semblance of happiness. Granted, I never resorted to incest as a way of escaping the cold embrace of isolation, but I didn’t have Kateryna for a sister.
“I’m not following,” Oleksiy complains. “What does this have to do with panties?”
Hadeon sobs into his hands.
“Allow me to clarify it, my simple-minded nemesis,” I say. “Kateryna told me all about her little brother’s escapades. He used to watch her while she changed her clothes so he could catch a glimpse of her glorious breasts and pussy. He even took pictures of her naked. Kateryna woke up some nights to find this little creep standing nearby with his pants down and pulling on his possibly little dick frantically, no doubt while he imagined himself exploding into his supermodel sister’s womb. He also stole her panties, sniffed them, masturbated into them as he whispered Kat’s name, all that good stuff.”
I can’t tell if Hadeon’s sobbing is increasing or if it’s starting to give way to hysterical laughter.
“You’re lying! You’re such a dirty fucking liar!” he shrieks.
Oleksiy uncovers his brother’s face forcefully, and then grabs him by the collar. The big brother’s face is twisted in cold disgust.
“Hade, you better tell me that’s some lie,” he says almost in a whisper.
When Hadeon shakes his head, some of his tears fly away. His gaze is unfocused.
“S-she was so pure…” he mumbles. “So luminous…. She was… a g-g-g…”
Oleksiy lets go of his brother’s collar and slaps him across the face with a wet smacking sound. Hadeon reels back, but prevents himself from falling on his ass by leaning against the dining room table.
“Hade… You haven’t answered me,” Oleksiy says monotonously. “You didn’t defile our sister like that, did you?”
“No! No, brother… The things he described…”
Oleksiy turns his head slightly while one side of his lower lip remains raised. He stares unblinkingly into his incestuous brother’s eyes.
“You wanted to fuck our Kateryna?”
Hadeon opens and closes his mouth a few times.
“N-not like that… I wanted to take care of her… I loved her!”
“Did you want to fuck her?” Oleksiy repeats as if he can’t comprehend that he would have ended up associating such a concept with his little brother.
“I… I…” Hadeon’s voice falters.
I witness his animal instinct taking over. His gaze focuses on his violent brother’s eyes, and faces that he may become the new target for Oleksiy’s fists. And then his pupils slide to the left corners of his eyes, as if contemplating whether Kateryna remains a bigger threat. He blinks, then turns around sharply and glares at the ouija board.
“T-this is a demon! It’s fucking with our minds!” Hadeon says as he points with a trembling finger.
“She’s not,” I say sternly. “You wanted to make love to your sister.”
“Shut up! Shut the fuck up!” Hadeon screams.
The planchette is sliding towards the left side of the ouija board, but Hadeon slaps them both away. They land on the coffee table, hitting a vase that shatters against the floor.
Oleksiy straightens his back and lowers both his fist and the baseball bat, which he had angled up.
“Of course, it had to be a demon,” he says hoarsely, speaking to himself. “That couldn’t be true.”
Hadeon breathes hard while he rests his hands on his knees. He’s deathly pale.
“S-sorry… I think I need to vomit.”
He throws up on his sneakers. Both Alazne and I step back reflexively. Oleksiy looks like he may end up vomiting as well. Suddenly both the ouija board and the planchette lift themselves into the air as if Kateryna had picked them up with each hand, and they float while bobbing slightly as they return towards the dining room table.
“You annoyed your sister,” I say. “That’s her only way to communicate with the living effectively.”
Oleksiy opens his eyes wide, then turns his body sideways to defend himself. Hadeon, still bent over, was following the board’s movements, which were about to pass him by, when both the ouija board and the planchette dart towards Hadeon’s face. He makes a gagging noise as he raises his palms, which block the projectiles.
“Fucking demon!” Oleksiy shouts.
He wields the baseball bat, ready to whack any projectile coming his way. I grab Alazne by her arm so we can retreat towards the doorway, but Oleksiy notices me and turns around as if I were about to ambush him. Those pale blue eyes now belong to a cornered beast.
“Asier, you fucking bastard!” he shouts.
I was about to speak when Oleksiy twists his torso, charging his bat for strike, and I barely begin to realize what’s coming when the thick wooden barrel bashes the left side of my face, crumbling most of it. I land onto the hardwood floor with a thud. I quickly prop up my elbows, fearing I will need to defend myself from another strike. The left half of my lips, which were already injured, feel numb and detached from my gums. I spit out pieces of teeth, which clatter on the floor. My nose has squirted blood, it hurts like hell and I can hardly breathe, so it may be broken. I shake my head to avoid fainting.
I hear Alazne’s muffled yell over the ringing in my ears. Oh no, she was standing close enough to that motherfucker that he might strike her too. But Oleksiy is entirely focused on me. He’s breathing hard while he holds his bat, which is dripping my blood, expecting me to leap to my feet and charge against him.
Alazne’s eyes go wide as the tears stream down her cheeks. She releases a guttural scream, then she raises her fists, separates her feet and twists her body to kick Oleksiy’s right leg, which bends slightly inwards.
I cough up a mixture of saliva, blood and mucus as I haul myself to my feet. I need to get between him and my girlfriend, or he will bash Alazne’s brains in.
Oleksiy has lowered his bat to the point that the bloodied end is resting on the hardwood floor. He’s staring down at Alazne with a perplexed expression, as if a stuffed animal had sprung to life and had kicked him with the same strength. He seems to have forgotten about ghosts and demons for a moment.
“What the hell are you doing…?” he mutters in disbelief. “Stay back.”
He keeps holding his bat with his left hand, but with the back of his right one he slaps Alazne across the face. My girlfriend’s head snaps back and to the side as if it was hit by a hammer. She stumbles backwards, hits the console table and falls on the floor.
A rush of blood roars in my eardrums. My vision gets constrained to a tunnel with the edges blurred. Oleksiy’s bust is tinted crimson red. His face is turned to the right and slightly down as his gaze remains focused in that direction. His lips move, forming words. My whole body burns as Oleksiy’s face grows closer. He turns his head sharply, alerted by something happening in front of him.
Both his eyes and his mouth open wide in a panic, but before he can react, a fist enters the frame from the right side and crashes against Oleksiy’s mouth. A tooth and a fountain of blood shoot out as he’s launched backwards. He must have dropped the bat, because he reaches out with his arms to grab something for support, but his lower back hits the edge of the dining room table. I feel the damage in the knuckles of my right hand as if they were a line of four burning spots in my consciousness. I draw back my fist and thrust it with all my strength against Oleksiy’s face. It crushes the bridge of his nose with a wet crunch of shattering bone and tearing cartilage. An electric burst of pain shoots through my entire right arm, but I launch my fist against the thug’s face again. This blow smashes his nose into his skull, crushing his upper jaw, caving in that part of his face. A fine mist of crimson blood spurts out of his nostrils as it mixes with the saliva pouring out of his mouth, which hangs open like a grotesque broken trap door. I see the splintered edges of his teeth. My shoulder hurts, I feel as if my right scapula has popped out. The fingers of my right hand have gone numb. I draw that fist back and propel it against Oleksiy’s face. I feel his jaw break, and his mouth becomes a toothless cavern as the force of that blow causes his head to snap backwards. His eyes roll up into the back of his head, then he slumps down in a sitting position as if the thin cord that connected his upper body to his lower one had snapped.
My body only waits until I take two steps back to inform me about the battering I have received. Most of the left side of my face below the eye feels gone: it burns where it doesn’t feel numb and unresponsive. I takes me probing with my tongue to prick it with the jagged remains of some teeth, either chipped or broken off at the gum line. Warm, metallic tasting snot keeps flowing down from my left nostril, forcing me to breathe through my mouth carefully, because some of the blood from my busted lips is pooling around my tongue and dripping down my throat. My skin feels clammy with cold sweat, and I feel that if I allow myself to close my eyes for a few seconds, I will pass out.
The muscles of my right arm are sore from the hand to the shoulder, and I may have pulled a muscle near my scapula. When I try to move those fingers, except for the thumb the other four merely twitch, and remain half-closed like a dead tarantula’s legs. The four knuckles are swollen and rosewood pink, encircling bleeding lacerations.
Alazne. I look over to where she last fell on her ass. She’s leaning sideways with her back against the console table, propped on one elbow. Her left cheek is bruised near the mouth and the skin is grazed in two spots. No lasting damage. Her glassy eyes are staring up in alarm at a figure that has sneaked in between us. I first catch a glimpse of black drawstring pants, but then Hadeon’s blocky head appears as he crouches to pick up the baseball bat. He straightens his back wearily as he holds the bat by the grip, letting its end rest on the hardwood floor. Hadeon looks down at his unconscious, bloodied and disfigured older brother.
“Did you kill Oleksiy?” he asks in a shuddering, pitiful voice.
I cough out blood.
“I hope not. I don’t want a ghost roommate who despises me. Other than that, he fucking had it coming, didn’t he?”
Hadeon’s widened, emerald eyes, a near copy of his sister’s, slide to stare at me with a resigned sorrow. He keeps his mouth closed.
“It’s my fucking house, ever since I stole it from Asier,” I say sternly as I eject droplets of blood with every exhalation. “You’re the ones who broke in here to assault me, not the other way around. How do you want to play this? Because both your brother and I need to get to a hospital, and you know that the guy who led to our dear Kateryna killing himself has already moved on to the beyond.”
Hadeon’s face darkens with rage. He opens his mouth to shout, but only a groan comes out as he shifts his jaw.
“Y-you have messed up everything,” he mutters.
Alazne has snapped out of it, and is moving on her hands and knees towards the backyard door. I need to keep distracting this underling.
“Me? Motherfucker, you were the one who chose to pretend that the sister with whom you were unhealthily in love is now a demon. How fucking insulting! That was your decision, which led to your unsophisticated brother getting his nose pushed into his skull. Own up to your actions. It’s about time, don’t you think? You should have confessed to Kateryna formally, in case there was the slightest chance you had a love story in your hands.”
A pained gasp escapes Hadeon’s lips as he shakes his head in shame. Alazne has stood up. She opens the backyard door forcefully. Hadeon, startled, grabs the handle of the baseball bat with both hands and lifts it slightly. I see my girlfriend’s profile as she stands on the grass and looks up towards the neighboring house.
“What is going on with all those noises? What the hell are you doing?”
I recognize that the raised voice belongs to our middle-aged male neighbor, whom I have only spoken to twice because he seemed to be spying on me.
“Please, call the police!” Alazne pleads. “Our house was broken into by two men who are trying to kill us!”
“Really? Well, I already called the police. You were making too much noise.”
“Thank you!”
Hadeon snaps his head towards me. I can tell that he fears getting caught. Today he may be facing the consequences of his actions for the first time.
“What’s your name, ghost?” he asks me in a hollow voice.
I smile with my bloody mouth, which hurts like I’m tearing my lips further.
“No, that part was a lie. I’m actually the devil.”
“You’re a bitch,” he snarls as if imitating his collapsed older brother. “If I’m going down, you are going down.”
I turn my body sideways so I can defend myself with my intact arm.
“Out of general principle, huh? Alright.”
Hadeon’s face twists in rage as he raises the bat to throw his entire weight into crushing my head.
“Go to back to hell!”
An invisible force yanks the baseball bat backwards from his grip. Hadeon twists around and gapes at the bat, which floats as if Kateryna was holding it by the barrel over her head. Then it drops onto the dining table with a thud and rolls slowly.
“Ah… K-Kateryna, I’m s-sorry,” Hadeon whimpers. “I-I’m sorry that I called you a demon, and that I d-defiled you…”
Our surroundings remain still. Hadeon steps back and looks around, expecting the ghost of his sister to manifest herself. He looks down towards his big brother to receive instructions, but Oleksiy’s ajar eyes are white.
“N-no…” Hadeon whimpers. “I didn’t mean to… I’m sorry that I hurt you… I want to go home…”
Hadeon’s head snaps back, and suddenly something is protruding from his left eyeball. The tip of a pen is lodged into his pupil to the extent that the emerald iris is ringing the barrel of the pen. Hadeon staggers backwards while he moves his eyes around as if to figure out what has shut off half of his vision, and the pen swings along with the left eyeball. Hadeon tries to scream, but he cannot find the air to do so.
He clutches at his face only to push the pen with the side of his left hand. He yelps, then probes the foreign object that has blinded him in one eye. As he realizes what has happened, he yells in feral terror. He rips the pen from his eye, which leaves a perforated hole where most of his pupil used to be. His whole body trembles. He turns around and vomits onto the console table.
Alazne has stepped back into the living room, and is frozen midstep between one of the sofas and the coffee table. I want to tell her to return to the backyard or even climb that fence, but I fear Hadeon’s reaction.
The younger brother looks up with his healthy, bloodshot eye towards the front door, and as he wails he lurches up to it, opens it enough for him to pass through the doorway, and closes it behind him. I hear a muffled, angry scream.
“Well, I guess that’s that,” I say feebly.
Alazne snaps out of her trance and runs up to me. She holds me in a tight embrace.
“I’m so sorry for lying to you,” I say, pained.
Alazne pulls back to check out the wounds on my face. She grimaces in empathy. Fresh tears start coursing through the wet paths that previous tears had imprinted on her cheeks, but she looks determined.
“You need an ambulance.”
“To be honest, sweetie, I need a new body. The next time I should try to figure out first if the previous owner had ruined his own life.”
Alazne holds my face in her hands and kisses me softly on the unscathed half of my lips, but my blood stains her mouth anyway. I feel so relieved that my adrenaline may wear off, which would cause me to collapse.
“You need to lie down,” she says. “I should have told that neighbor to call an ambulance as well…”
I pat the right pocket of my pants, then pull out my cell phone. I push the button to wake the screen up. It works. I hand it to Alazne.
“Pretty sure it’s 112, but I can’t be convinced of much right now,” I say wearily. “Too many hits to the head.”
My girlfriend finishes dialing the number, and raises the phone to her ear. As she waits with her head lowered, I sigh.
“By the way, Kateryna, thank you so much,” I say. “Sniping your creepy little brother to save my life… I’ll have your back forever.”
Kateryna’s voluptuous self is standing next to her broken older brother. She holds my gaze warmly with her slightly slanted, feline eyes, and her full lips curl up in a smile. The sunlight flows along her luxurious, sunflower-colored hair.
“My baby, I’ll always protect you,” she says with a slavic accent.
My vision blurs in and out. I blink, and Kateryna’s image disappears. I’m losing it, likely because of the blood loss and my rattled brain and the terror. But Oleksiy’s hands are waking up. He lets out a zombie-like groan. Alazne, who was talking on the phone, turns around startled. The both of us back away. Blood keeps pouring from Oleksiy’s mangled, toothless mouth, dyeing the front of his shirt red. Some pieces of teeth are glistening, caught in the wrinkles of the fabric.
“Oh shit,” I say.
The big brother is already shaking his head slowly, and his eyeballs have rolled down to the extent that the lower half of his irises peek out from under his upper, half-closed eyelid. The bat rests on the dining room table that Oleksiy is sitting against. The smell of his mouth, pooled with blood and bits of broken teeth, wafts over.
“Alazne, let’s get out of here,” I say. “He can wander around the house in a daze if he wants.”
My girlfriend nods nervously, then hands me the phone.
“Yeah… The ambulance is coming. They said they’ll also make sure to send the police, in case the neighbor was lying.”
I nod, then put down the phone and grab her hand.
“Let’s go,” I say anxiously.
I open the front door of our house and take four steps when the both of us stop abruptly. Oleksiy’s brick red Toyota 4Runner is waiting near the side wall of the community, facing our front door in a thirty degrees angle. It looks like an invading army’s battering ram. Hadeon is sitting behind the driver’s wheel, and is glaring at me with his remaining eye as if nothing remains in his life except for flattening me against my house.
“Alazne,” I say in a thin voice, “get out of here. Run to a neighboring house, one of the next column of houses. Now.”
Alazne gasps.
“What about you?”
She attempts to grab my arm, but I push her hands away. The Toyota’s engine growls as the vehicle accelerates towards me. I shove my girlfriend, and she stumbles towards the space between our house and the next, but she doesn’t fall.
By the time I look back at the Toyota, it almost fills my vision. I leap out of the way and I feel the wind as the Toyota passes me by and smashes into the front wall of my house in a thundering crash. I have landed poorly. My ankle hurts, but I stagger away from my home in the direction of the first column of houses. I hear the thuds of falling bricks as the Toyota backs up with a roar. Hadeon is turning the steering wheel frantically so the crumpled front, which is blowing white smoke, faces me. He doesn’t slow down fast enough, and the back of the Toyota slams into the wall of our gated community, which collapses that stretch and shakes both the car and Hadeon.
I see movement out of the corner of my eye. A white car with an azure blue hood is entering the community through the gate. A police car. Its lights are flashing silently. As they maneuver towards the destruction, Hadeon leans back to wedge the gas pedal against the floor of the Toyota. He’s gritting his teeth, and nothing remains in his surviving eye but bloodthirst. The engine roars as it tries to propel the heavy Toyota at the highest speed towards me while the car trails white smoke.
Time crawls to a near standstill. I can’t run. I know that if my ankle doesn’t fail me, my weakened body will. If I try to jump out of the way, Hadeon just has to swerve a bit to the side to ram me. It will hit me anyway. I should jump onto the hood at the right moment, and I might be able to bounce off the roof of the car, or at the worst, break the windshield with my body. It may knock me unconscious. If I hit my head wrong, it might shatter my skull and kill me instantly. But I’ll have better chances jumping than if the car runs me over.
Hadeon’s bust is so close that I can make out his whitened knuckles as his hands clutch the steering wheel. I turn sideways and bend my knees slightly to charge the jump, but a force that hits me from behind knocks the wind out of my lungs. I’ve been shoved out of the way. Someone has saved me.
The car hits my legs and my body swirls as I hear a crunch of metal and shattering glass. I fall on my back. The car’s tires are screeching to a stop, but a body is hurtling through the air, as rigid as a mannequin. I spot the light brown hair trailing behind the head, the Wings of Freedom logo in the hoodie, the cloud grey sweatpants. The body lands face first, and for some meters it keeps sliding while prostrated like a contrite sinner as the asphalt burns off the fabric and rips off the skin. The body comes to a halt.
I hold my breath and jump to my feet. I hobble towards the body as quickly as my stolen muscles allow me. There’s a splatter of dark blood where the head landed, and a skid mark of fabric and blood and skin leads to the splayed, facedown body. When I reach it and see half of Alazne’s face, her mouth bloodied and broken, her eye ajar and empty, I fall to my knees.
I want to embrace the body, scoop her up, feel her blood seeping through my clothes, cradle her to my chest. But I don’t want to store in my mind for the rest of eternity the image of the other half of her face. I don’t need to touch her body to know that she isn’t inhabiting it any longer.
I raise myself to my feet. Tears are jumping from my eyes, my teeth are chattering and my throat is closed shut, but I swallow and force myself to speak.
“Don’t be afraid, sweetie. Wait right there.”
I turn around and limp towards the blurry vision of two cars, one a crumpled Toyota and the other a police car with its lights flashing and parked close. I hear two strangers shouting at the driver of the Toyota, telling him to raise his hands, to get out. The corners of my eyes tingle as a new wave of tears wells up. I blink rapidly to focus my vision. A deadly anguish is spreading throughout my body, rotting every organ it reaches. I want my heart to stop.
The closest officer is a woman with black, curly hair. She’s wearing the denim blue uniform, with a bulletproof vest that on the back reads ‘ERTZAINTZA’, and a bulky belt with equipment. The officer has drawn her gun out, which she’s pointing at Hadeon. The weapon trembles with every barked order.
Although I don’t know why, I look at Hadeon. He’s still clutching the steering wheel, but he has raised his one-eyed gaze towards me. Streams of tears are flowing from his eyes, snot is running down his nostrils. He grimaces as if apologizing.
When I reach the police officer, with my healthy hand I grasp hers, which are closed around the grip of the gun, and yank her hands towards me, twisting her torso. It startles her so much that for a second she doesn’t react. I squeeze the thumb of my ruined right hand between the trigger guard and her thumb that she’s resting on the trigger. The woman’s face is tanned and angular, and her dark eyes widen and tremble as she faces a monster.
“W-what are you doing?! Stop!”
I lean my forehead into the cool, solid muzzle. The officer’s nerves tremble through my skull as I push my right thumb against hers.

I’m lying face up. My eyes are closed. Two people are shouting, but they sound wrong, as if coming from a slighty detuned radio playing in another room. I don’t feel any pain. No, that’s not true. I don’t feel any physical pain. I haul myself to my feet, and I open my eyes.
The world arounds me looks muted, like a two hundred years old painting that nobody has bothered to restore. In some time I will forget how the colors are supposed to look, how vibrant they should be. The same for the smells, the tastes, the feeling of temperature.
A shadow is standing next to Alazne’s corpse. It retains her outline, even that of her hair falling loose around her shoulders, but it’s fuzzy as if I’m watching through unfocused lenses. A pang of pain in what used to be my heart, or the mental image I retain of it, makes me hunch over. The shadow hurries up to me. She reaches with her hands to put them on my arms, but the contact feels wrong, just a nebulous echo of what touching someone else used to be, as if her energy was passing through mine. I lift my face. Hers is so close that I should be able to tell all the details of her angelic, pale, freckled face, but the shadowy veil conceals it.
My consciousness allows a realization to pass through, even though it would have stopped my beating heart. I will never touch Alazne’s warm skin again. I won’t run my fingers through her soft hair. I won’t hold her naked body in my arms. I won’t caress her tongue with mine. We won’t make love. We will never become a family. I had yearned to save her, but I have caused her to die. I want to fall to my knees. I want to scream and wail until my mind cracks. I want to disappear from this world.
“You have breasts,” Alazne says matter-of-factly. “I didn’t know you were a girl.”
I can make out her hazel eyes holding my gaze, her slightly furrowed brow. I nod.
“I can’t see your face clearly, but I have seen it before, haven’t I?” Alazne says. “What’s your real name?”
If I had a jaw anymore, my teeth would keep chattering.
Alazne snaps her head back. I see her eyebrows, thin and curved, and her nose, which is small and cute, with its bridge just beneath her eyes. Her lips curl up in a soft smile.
“Irene, huh? I see… I’m glad to finally meet you.”
Her freckles pop up. They spatter her upper cheeks, the bridge of her nose, the skin around her eyebrows. I want to say sorry, but I can’t speak.
“Irene, you fucked up my life,” Alazne says nonchalantly.
What remains of me runs cold. I finally see myself, straight through her eyes.
“Yes… That’s what I do.”
Alazne stands on her tiptoes and cups my head with her hands like she used to do to run her fingers along my scalp. Now her palms pass through my skull. I feel a tingling sensation as her fingertips brush my spine.
“But… I had so much fun,” Alazne says.
My girlfriend narrows her big, hazel eyes, smiling with the surrounding skin as well as with her grinning mouth.
As her face whitens and blurs, her freckles fade out one by one. Her hazel eyes and her smiling mouth get rubbed out.

My Own Desert Places, Pt. 33 (GPT-3 fueled short)

When it would only take Oleksiy three strides to reach me, I snapped out of my paralysis, jumped back into the hall of my house and I closed the door. The last image of Kateryna’s older brother remains in my mind: the downward diagonal of his eyebrows, the reddened sclera, the rouge pink bags under his eyes as if he has barely slept a few hours a night during the last week, the creases in his stubbly cheeks as he grits his teeth.
I have leaned my back against the front door for a second when Oleksiy bangs on it, making it tremble through my bones.
“Come out here to talk this out like men,” Oleksiy growls.
“No, thank you. I’d rather hide. I’m sure you intend to let your baseball bat speak for you.”
He says something in Ukrainian. I had forgotten that Alazne was standing in front of me, and when I lift my gaze to her face, I wish I had never brought her to Asier’s house. She has turned slightly sideways, her eyes have gone wide, she has narrowed her shoulders and she’s holding her hands over her chest as if she wished she could turn invisible.
“W-what’s happening…?” Alazne says quietly in a high-pitched voice.
“These are the brothers who punched me in the guts the day before we left for Asturias,” I answer in a thin voice. “The whole reason we left. They must have followed us home some day.”
Alazne blinks, then straightens her back. She raises her voice to address the two brothers through the door.
“Please stop this. Whatever you’re fighting about, just… talk it out! We don’t have to fight.”
The brothers stop squabbling in Ukrainian.
“What Asier has done to our sister can’t be resolved by talking,” Oleksiy says harshly. “Your boyfriend knows this.”
“I wouldn’t do it anyway,” I add, “because I don’t negotiate with terrorists.”
My heart is beating too fast. I try to project confidence to Alazne through my steady gaze, but she can tell how serious this has become.
“Alazne, where have you left your bike? Go grab it, throw it over the backyard fence, and climb it. Ride out of here.”
Alazne gulps. Her eyes are glistening in fear.
“I will not leave you alone.”
I open my mouth to answer her, but Oleksiy either punches the door again or hits it with the end of his baseball bat. In either case, I wonder how long he can keep doing this until some of our neighbors peek out from their doors and windows.
“Yes, you will,” I say lowering my voice. “I intend to keep you safe. I can’t do it here anymore. Just go, and I’ll call you later.”
Alazne begins to weep silently, her shoulders heaving. I want to hold her in my arms, but I feel that the moment I stop putting all of my weight in the door, Oleksiy will burst through it.
“I won’t go anywhere,” she says.
“Alazne, this is no time for–“
“You still don’t understand? When you met me I was already dead. This new life you gave it to me.”
My girlfriend’s voice is like honey, and I can’t help but weep a little too. I have no doubt that those two intend to kill me. Dying would mean severing the only bright thread of hope in the dark tapestry of Alazne’s life. I have to survive for her, but I can’t bear the thought of her getting hurt.
“Y-you’ve only had a taste of what being dead is like, just a few days out of the month, at worst most days out of a given week, but not every single hour of your existence. You can’t sleep, so you can’t escape from that nightmare for a second.”
Oleksiy hits the door again. It felt like the whole house shook. My girl’s lips are trembling.
“Damn it, Alazne,” I whisper. “There’s no pride among ghosts. Every one of them wishes they could live again.”
“I-I don’t. N-not if it means I have to lose you.”
She furrows her brow as she steps back and pulls out the phone from a pocket of her sweatpants.
“What are you doing…?” I whisper. “Ah, I guess we can call the police.”
I realize that for a few seconds I haven’t heard the brothers talking. Almost at the same time I spot some movement in one of the windows of the hall, which face the wall that encloses our community. The blinds are lowering themselves awkwardly, falling a little from one end and then the other, as if trying to shield the window from something happening behind it.
With a spine-chilling crash, the glass of that window shatters inwards, and the sharp pieces scatter across the hardwood floor. Half of the baseball, held sideways, lingers in the empty frame until it jerks out of view.
Oleksiy’s tall and wide figure appears in the window. He hits with his hand the fragments of glass stuck in the frame so they fall onto the hardwood, clearing a path for him to climb through. I push myself away from the front door. Alazne is paralyzed, the phone halfway to her ear as she stares wide-eyed at the imposing intruder who has bent over to step on the window frame.
“Alazne, run!” I say in a stern whisper.
Oleksiy’s head snaps towards us as his foot lands on the floor, crunching glass. Some embedded piece of glass on the frame has scratched the man’s forearm, and the wound is beading with blood. He lunges at Alazne and snatches her phone from her trembling hand.
“The police has nothing to do with this,” Oleksiy says while she glowers at me.
He drops the phone to the floor, and as soon at it hits the ground, Oleksiy crushes it with his heel. Behind him, the baseball bat plunges through the empty window frame, hits the hardwood loudly and rolls over the pieces of glass. Hadeon appears in the window, and while he supports himself on the sill he tries awkwardly to pass a leg through the empty frame.
“Don’t move,” Oleksiy says as he takes a step towards me, daring me to try something.
“A-are you Ainhoa’s brothers?” Alazne asks in a faltering voice.
My beloved girlfriend must be losing it. There’s no genetic combination that would have produced Ainhoa’s raven-haired self as well as these two blonde bastards, let alone their respective eye colors.
Oleksiy relaxes his brow slightly as he looks at Alazne.
“We could have been some Ainhoa’s brothers, or the brothers of many other women this son of a bitch has ruined,” he stabs his finger in my direction without turning his head. “But no, I don’t know any Ainhoa.”
Hadeon jumps into the house and drops gently on the floor, crunching glass under his heels. He hurries up to pick up the baseball bat, which had rolled close to the doorway into the living room. Once Kateryna’s scrawny brother straightens his back, he taps his other palm with the end of the bat as if imitating threatening behavior from movies. The bags under his eyes are even more pronounced than Oleksiy’s, and the scar with the shape of a slim crescent moon almost blends with the darkened skin. He’s breathing through his mouth, showing that most of his lower teeth are misaligned.
As Alazne wrings her hands, she takes a step back towards the console table.
“W-what happened to your sister that you hate my boyfriend so much?”
Oleksiy shakes his head slightly at Alazne.
“You poor woman. You can’t see that your man has done nothing but bring dirt to many women’s houses.”
“W-what does that mean…?”
Oleksiy sighs.
“He brings dirt and shame on their houses. He’s an adulterer, a cheater. But that’s the least of it.”
Hadeon holds the bat with his left hand while he points at the chest of my girlfriend’s hoodie with his right.
“Do you even know what that is?”
Alazne looks down at the prominent logo on the grey fabric.
“T-the Wings of Freedom from ‘Attack on Titan’…”
Hadeon raises his eyebrows, and his face lightens up as if he had forgotten why he and his brother have invaded my house.
“Really? What’s your favorite character?”
Alazne looks at both brothers before answering.
“Uh… A-Annie…”
Hadeon purses his lips and nods enthusiastically.
“Good choice, but I prefer Erwin. He’s just so cool, the perfect mix of a soldier and a scholar.”
Oleksiy rolls his eyes as he grits his teeth, and then pats his brother on the shoulder with the back of his hand.
“What the fuck are you going on about now?”
Hadeon shrugs at his brother’s outburst.
“I wouldn’t have expected any woman that bastard dates to be interested in high culture.” Hadeon turns his attention back to my girlfriend. “You know what else I like about ‘Attack on Titan’? The intrigue. It’s a war show, but what sets it apart from other war shows is the mystery and intrigue.”
Alazne tilts her head to the side while her expression suggests she’s anticipating getting punched. Oleksiy groans. He grabs his brother by the shoulder.
“We don’t need to know about Asian cartoons now,” he mutters through his teeth.
“I’m just saying that the lore of ‘Attack on Titan’ is really interesting. It’s a shame that you’re not interested in such things, Oleksiy.”
Oleksiy pats his brother on the chest.
“Let’s deal with this.”
Hadeon nods towards my girlfriend.
“But she’s cool, right?”
Alazne shudders under the big brother’s gaze. Oleksiy seems to be considering her role.
“It’s good that Asier’s new piece is present, because we get to teach her a lesson.”
My muscles tense up, my eyes twitch, I feel spines shooting through my skin. I ball my hands into fists and shout.
“Hey! If you hurt her, Oleksiy, in this life or the next, I will fucking wreck you!”
Oleksiy turns his head sharply towards me, but his expression is one of stunned confusion, as if he had expected me to try to sacrifice Alazne to save myself. I suppose that Asier would have done it. The big brother barks out a laugh and turns to Hadeon.
“You see what I have to put up with? He threatens us.”
“I threatened you in particular,” I growl.
“She doesn’t know you like we do, Asier,” Hadeon mutters. “She thinks hurting you is a big mistake.”
Oleksiy glares at me. His expression darkens and his nostrils dilate as if allowing me to keep breathing means insulting his ancestors.
“Why would I hurt this woman? She’s not at fault for anything. She will end up suffering like all the others. What she will get is a lesson on the kind of devil you are. A lesson that our sister should have gotten before you ruined her.”
What is Kateryna doing right now? Is she merely standing nearby, witnessing the scene as if it belonged to a reality show? Seeing her brothers again must have shocked her. I have no doubt that if some random men broke into our house, Kateryna would rain hell upon them with her poltergeist powers, but these two goons are her brothers, no matter how much Kat claimed that she didn’t give a shit about them. No, I can’t rely on my ghost friend for me to survive what’s coming for Asier.
Alazne sniffles.
“Y-you intend to beat my boyfriend, the love of my life, because he cheated on your sister before his car accident…?”
Hadeon rubs his eyes, as if the reality of his sister’s death is hitting him again.
“You don’t know what kind of monster Asier is. He ruined our sister’s life. He drove her to kill herself.”
“I bet he hasn’t told you that,” Oleksiy says while smirking bitterly.
Alazne snaps her head back, and shoots me a shocked look.
“A-Asier, do you remember any of that?”
“Makes no difference whether he remembers it,” Oleksiy growls. “He did it.”
“I wouldn’t remember it,” I say, “because I didn’t do it.”
Oleksiy shudders in rage as his eyes show the reddened sclera over his irises. He balls his hands into fists, cracking his knuckles, and walks towards me. I remain stone-faced, and don’t budge an inch. Kateryna’s big brother stands in front of me while his big chest raises and falls. Then he pulls his right fist back and launches it at my face.
Oleksiy’s big fist hits my cheek with a solid thunk, snapping my head back. I felt the bones in his hand impacting my skull. I black out for a split second as my legs tremble, and the next thing I hear is Alazne yelping. Oleksiy had drawn his fist back to hit me again, but my girlfriend runs to me and hugs me from the side, grabbing the chest of my tracksuit. She’s sobbing.
“L-leave him alone!” she cries, her voice reflecting her terror.
Oleksiy stands to the side as he breathes heavily. He looks like he intends to kill me. He hugs his right hand with his left.
“Woman,” he says in a cold voice, “get out of the way.”
Alazne shakes her head.
“No. I’m not letting you hurt Asier anymore.”
My left cheek is burning up, and red splinters are ringing the vision coming from that eye. It’s okay, it’s just pain. It can’t compare to what I have done, to what I’m doing to Alazne, the love of my life. She’s sobbing in terror because I couldn’t deal with Asier’s responsibilities well enough, and the consequences ended up involving her. If it wasn’t because I can’t die and abandon Alazne, I would welcome getting beaten to death. I do deserve it.
Oleksiy shoots me a hateful look, then his gaze flicks over to Hadeon.
“Hadeon, grab her.”
The scrawny brother hesitates, as if he doesn’t want to hurt or even inconvenience Alazne, but Hadeon relies on his brother, so he nods grimly and grabs my girlfriend by her wrist. My ears ring as I hear her muffled complaints and feel her lose her grip on my tracksuit. My stomach feels hollow.
Out of the corner of my eye I see Alazne getting dragged towards the doorway to the living room, but I am staring straight into Oleksiy’s vengeful, pale blue eyes.
“You need to blame Asier entirely, but you read your sister’s suicide note. She considers you both pieces of shit. She knew she couldn’t return home nor rely on you both because she would get hurt again.”
Oleksiy’s face twitches. It pains him. He must have chastised himself for allowing Kateryna to think that of her brothers. He takes a deep breath.
“None of that business of speaking about yourself in the third person. You are Asier. You don’t remember it, but you did it. People don’t change that much. And our sister was just… confused. We are her brothers! Family is the only thing that lasts for a lifetime. We were there for her, she just needed to reach out for us.”
I feel sick.
“What, so you could go back to telling her what to wear, when she should come home, what boys she’s allowed to date? You would tell her again to cover up because every man would want to fuck her? Would you slap her again if she contradicted you?”
Oleksiy lowers his head as he covers his face with his palm. When he composes himself, he shouts at me, showering me with spittle.
“We would die for our little Katya!” Oleksiy’s voice risks breaking, as if he’s holding back tears. “She was the best thing in our lives! She… she…”
“Everybody failed her,” I say somberly. “It’s too late for any of this.”
The big brother grunts and grabs me by the collar. I can see the pores on his nose. His warm breath touches my face.
“You motherfucker. You were lying. Maybe not about all of it, but you do remember her. You know what you did to her.”
“No, I wouldn’t remember it, because I wasn’t there. Your sister told me after my accident.”
Oleksiy’s eyes narrow as the skin around them twitches.
“After your accident…? When she was already dead…?”
“That’s right,” I answer in a thin voice.
Oleksiy pushes me hard against the front door, rattling it, and then he strikes me in the mouth with all his strength. My head bounces against the door. My legs fail me, and if Oleksiy hadn’t been holding me up, I would have slid down to the hardwood floor. Warm blood is mixing with my saliva. Without thinking I probe my lower lip with my tongue where it hurts the most, and when it touches the raw, burning flesh of my lip, I can tell that the punch has split it. My upper lip is pulsating, and feels swollen over my teeth. I can’t tell if I have lost any.
Oleksiy snarls at my face.
“You do nothing but lie. That’s how you broke all those women, how you took our sister from us.”
Oleksiy holds me up by the collar with one hand and slaps me hard across the face with the other, which snaps my head to the side. Half of my face is burning up, I feel those pores pulsating. I’m getting dizzy. I slump in his grip and find myself coughing up blood, which is trickling down my chin. I’m twitching like a worm on a hook.
The big brother slams me against the door one more time before tossing me aside. I nearly hit my head on the console table. The impact knocked the wind out of me, and I gasp for air as I prop one elbow on the console table to keep my torso upright. Blood is dripping down my throat. The hall is starting to spin, and when I close my eyes for a moment, I hear Alazne bawling. My mind must have blocked it out so I could face Oleksiy while remaining sane. I can’t take her pain. I want to tear out my nerves.
I wish I got through this without daring to look at my girlfriend, but I dare. Her torso is convulsing, her eyes are narrowed as if squeezing out those constant streams of tears, her mouth is locked in an upside down smile of terrified impotence. The pained noises coming out from her throat don’t resemble those of a human being, but those of a weeks old wild animal who has witnessed her mother die and now has to be alone in this world.
I feel her agony in every fiber of my body. I need to run up to her and hold her, but I stand paralyzed not because I’m scared of how Oleksiy would react, but because I don’t deserve to touch her. Ever since I bumped into Alazne so I could save her from the noose, I have grappled with doubts and guilt and the belief that my new life would come crumbling down if I confessed to Alazne about who I truly am. I wanted to love Alazne and keep her safe, give her a place where she could be herself, but if I had confessed, Alazne would have been so disgusted that she would have left me, so she wouldn’t have been here to suffer even more. I had only been thinking about what would benefit me.
“It’s true, I have been lying the whole time,” I say while I stare at Oleksiy’s murderous eyes, but then I force myself to hold my girlfriend’s gaze. “Alazne, I haven’t suffered any memory loss. I lied to the doctors, who just bought it. But I also don’t remember anything about Asier’s life before the accident, because I have never been him. I’m only wearing his body and living his life.”
Alazne’s face loses all signs of life, just like it had when I watched her as she was about to hang herself. Her body keeps shuddering with dry sobs. She’s falling apart right before my eyes, and there’s nothing I can do to prevent it.
“What the fuck does that mean?” Oleksiy grumbles, too bewildered to be angry.
I keep looking straight into Alazne’s eyes, and I continue talking even though I have to push the words through my tightened throat.
“I had gotten on a bus headed to Donostia when Asier veered his car into our lane to kill himself. He hit his head hard enough that his ghost was temporarily ejected, so I got to meet him on my plane, what breathing people call the afterlife. I informed him that he remained attached to his body, that he could still return, but he must have pictured the mess he made of his life, because he turned tail and ran. He dissolved into the aether. Not once in my twenty years of experience I had thought of taking over a living person’s body right after the original owner’s ghost left, but I did, because I wanted, needed, to meet you, Alazne.”
“Are you saying that you were a ghost?” Hadeon demands to know in a low rumble as he restrains my girlfriend.
Alazne’s facial muscles are paralyzed, her eyes open wide although they keep pouring tears. I can’t read what’s going through her mind.
“I was a ghost,” I affirm without shame. “I am still a ghost, I just happen to be permanently possessing someone else’s corpse. I can’t get out of it even if I wanted to. Just as Kateryna has poltergeist powers, a few ghosts have the ability to possess breathing people. I always thought I had gotten the short end of the stick, because possessing a living person under normal circumstances only annoyed and disturbed me. It felt as if every cell of those bodies attempted to push me out. But now I’ve found out that I can return to life if I steal someone’s fresh corpse. That’s who I am, Alazne. I’m someone originally smaller trapped inside this big, manly beast. That concept should be easy to grasp for you.”
“You’re a monster,” Hadeon declares.
I don’t want to look at his face, so I can’t tell if he believes me, if he considers me monstrous for making this up, or if he’s just alluding to Asier’s involvement in his sister’s suicide.
“A monster? Why? Because I didn’t want to be dead? I’m not the one who killed himself because he had done nothing but ruin other people’s lives. Ever since I took control of Asier’s life I’ve tried my best to solve the messes he caused. But I only did that because I intended to use Asier’s body to meet you,” I say while staring into Alazne’s watery eyes. “It wasn’t a coincidence that we bumped into each other. One day I was roaming through Belaskoenea as I would have done anywhere around, just to ease the unending nightmare of being trapped in the afterlife by checking out the sights and snooping into the affairs of breathing people, when I heard your song. You were playing the guitar in your bedroom, and the music flowed from the window as if you were sitting on the sill. I remember it as the most momentous instance of my strange existence. You were playing Neutral Milk Hotel’s ‘In the Aeroplane Over the Sea’, hitting the chords as if you wished to break your hand, singing with a despairing voice as if you didn’t believe anyone could hear you and you wished to learn how to see the beauty that the song promised. I pictured a tiny, defenseless creature trapped at the bottom of a murky well, and the creature had learned a long time ago that it wouldn’t be able to climb out.”
“You… you were there?” Alazne murmurs, faint for my decaying ears as a ghost’s loudest scream.
I smile, which feels like I’m about to tear my split lower lip further. My girlfriend remains here. She can listen to me.
“Yes,” I answer her. “I followed the music until I reached your apartment on the third floor, and I passed straight through the door. My first sight of the love of my life was you sitting on the edge of your bed, undressed down to your panties, your hair disheveled, the guitar wobbling against your thigh given how hard you were playing. From then on I haunted your house as much as I could bear it. Many times I watched you return exhausted from another worthless day at the office and then collapse onto your sheets. I heard you breaking your silence from time to time just to declare to the universe that you wanted to die. I loved to watch you sit on your shower stool under the warm water and pleasure yourself slowly. I stood behind you as you watched one YouTube video after another, or opened incognito mode on the browser to look up porn videos, even though nobody else entered your apartment. I learned from your favorite videos that you yearned for some big, imposing man to treat you like his little girl and hold you in place with his strong arms as he plunged his thick cock into you. I watched you roll in bed for hours at night, some of them only getting an hour or two of sleep, the rest of the time curled up and crying, having no clue that I was lying next to you and wishing with my entire being that I could hold you in my arms. I was waiting for you at your apartment the day your lost your last job and you slid down the door until your ass hit the floor, and then begged for some invisible presence to help you. I had to witness you searching painless ways to kill yourself on Google. I saw you make a rope out of an old sheet, tie one end around the doorknob of your bedroom door, pass your head through the noose and lie face down to test which positions would allow you to choke to death even if you fell unconscious. From then on I knew I had to save you. I would drink your tears and give you a place to be in this world.”
It seems like the four of us are holding our breaths, and I break the silence by laughing as if forty years worth of worry and suffering were spurting out of me.
“What in the fuck…” Oleksiy mutters.
“You said Kateryna has poltergeist powers?” Hadeon asks in disbelief.
The brothers have turned into background noise for Alazne and I. She’s holding my gaze firmly as if trying to read in my expression how much of my confession is true, coming from a liar. But I have revealed many details about her private life that nobody else could have known, so she understands that however unlikely as it may sound, I must have been a ghost just like Kateryna.
“T-then who are you…?” Alazne asks in a vulnerable, teary voice.
I want to confess. I would just need to say the five letters of my name, of my original name as a woman, and I would witness my beloved girlfriend’s eyes lighting up with the epiphany that Irene kept popping up everywhere in our relationship because she’s the person with whom Alazne fell in love. But maybe I would end up facing her disgust.
“If you fell in love with this tall, big, decaying body, with its already greying hair and its thick cock, and my personality is just an accessory, then I’m fucked, but if you love me because of my words and my actions, then just consider this new body of mine a permanent Halloween costume.”
“Like a trick or treat fuck?” Hadeon asks.
Alazne’s face has loosened into a resigned sadness, as if she woke up from a beautiful dream only to realize that her brain had hallucinated it.
“Is our love even real?”
A sudden anguish makes me tremble. I can’t bear that she doubts that. I swallow so I can push the words through my throat.
“It’s the only true thing. The column on which the rest of this mess has grown.”
“In your Asier body. In your Asier life. I wanted to be with the real you, not some weird imposter. I thought we had opened up fully to one another.”
“I wanted to confess everything, but I was terrified of losing you!”
“I feel like I’m losing myself. You said you want to have a family with me… How am I supposed to trust that? You’ve been lying to me from the start. You’re not who you’ve shown to me.”
“I mean, I literally cannot show you who I am because I’m trapped inside this man-body!”
Alazne shakes her head. She sniffs, then bites her lips as if she is trying to hold back tears.
“Let me come with you.”
I struggle to understand what she means.
“Whatever there is when this life ends.”
The hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
“Don’t say shit like that, Alazne,” I want to say firmly, but it comes out breathless. “You need to live a long life.”
“If we are to love one another we should meet face to face.”
“You truly do not understand how the afterlife is.”
“Asier’s dead, and a monster. He didn’t deserve us loving each other through him.”
My head is buzzing. Even though I can’t figure out what to say, I open my mouth, but a sudden movement from Oleksiy makes me look up at him. He has rolled his eyes and is covering his face with one hand. He seems fed up with everything.
“What the fuck did I do to deserve getting tangled in this crazy shit,” he mutters.
He walks calmly up to the console table and grabs the baseball bat that his brother had left there. Alazne yelps.
“H-hey, you two guys can just leave,” I say while the big brother examines the length of his bat as if suspecting it had gotten damaged. “We won’t call the police or anything. I would be that murderously angry at Asier as well, but he’s already dead. You could say I’m spitting in his rotting face every day by wearing his body.”
Oleksiy shoots me a dark look.
“You think I fear the police, huh? The local policemen are wimps. And we live so close to the border that we can just drive away into France. By the time the police or the politicians or whoever gives out the order to the French police to go after us too, we will have reached our home already. And I mean our real home, not this shit place that couldn’t keep our sister safe.”
“With all due respect, your sister should have picked a better man,” I say meekly.
Oleksiy waves the bat menacingly.
“She was only twenty four years old, and she got tricked into submission by a lying sociopath like yourself,” he roars.
“It was your fault she killed herself,” Hadeon says nervously and as if he may break into tears. “Our beautiful Kateryna… You had no business being inside her in the first place.”
“You shut it now, Hade. And don’t you fucking cry.”
“W-wait, Kateryna is your sister?” Alazne asks, startled. “Our Kateryna?”
“Yes,” I say somberly. “These are Kateryna’s siblings.”
Oleksiy frowns at Alazne.
“What do you mean ‘our’? What do you know Kateryna from? I thought Asier would have kept the previous women he ruined a secret.”
“You already know I’m not Asier,” I say, but Oleksiy just frowns harder while keeping his gaze fixed on my girlfriend.
“Kat is our g-ghost,” Alazne says. “I mean, she’s our roommate. She lives here. She’s likely witnessing this right now.”
“She’s a ghost, and she’s your roommate…” Oleksiy trails off as his hands start trembling. He squints. “How the fuck did you people come to be this crazy? Do they put something in the water?”
Hadeon frees one of the hands with which he was restraining my Alazne, and raises a palm towards his brother.
“W-wait a second. If Kateryna, our beloved sister, is still here, it should be easy to prove, right?”
“Don’t fucking start,” Oleksiy says. “This is just craziness!”
“K-Kateryna, if you can hear us, please give us a sign,” Hadeon pleads as he closes his eyes.
I swallow the blood pooling in my mouth. The pain is making me dizzy.
“Yeah, Kat. If you intended to interrupt us at any point, please do so now.”
Hadeon retracts his free hand but instead holds it in front of him as if offering it for a handshake.
“Kateryna, if you’re here, please take my hand.”
She wouldn’t want to do that, not Hadeon’s. The guy might not have washed it since he last touched her panties. As I was wondering with what Kateryna was busying herself, all four of us hear the living room call bell ringing insistently.

My Own Desert Places, Pt. 32 (GPT-3 fueled short)

As our taxi passes in front of the airport, heading home, I keep looking at the narrow vegetable gardens that compose most of the field between Irún and Hondarribia. Tiny greenhouses built with plastic tarps, homemade A-frame trellises on which nothing has grown, rectangular patches of khaki dirt empty except for scattered tufts of weeds. I spot a couple of old men; one of them has bared his tanned torso and is bending over to tend to his tiny farming estate.
A couple of minutes later we reach Hondarribia itself, with its mostly white two to three story houses, but our driver exits a roundabout into a road that follows the outskirts. We leave behind apartment buildings surrounded by low walls and hedges, so peaceful and close to parks and playgrounds that any young couple should want to move there. The taxi passes by a pelota court, located inside a bland building that would otherwise contain offices. The streets are quiet and empty save for a couple of elderly women sitting on a bench in the shade, reading magazines. They look like they’re waiting for something to happen. A roundabout later I see the coffee shop where I had sat down to write my memoir peacefully, only for Kateryna’s brothers to harass me and Oleksiy in particular to strike me twice in the guts. Alazne and I wouldn’t have gotten tangled in a trip to Asturias if I hadn’t wanted to flee from Asier’s responsibilities.
This city should feel familiar. I’m quite sure it did before our trip, and yet it now looks small and out of place. To the few people walking along the sidewalks at this hour, when most are eating their meals at home, I want to ask them whether they know what’s out there in the wide world. Take a train or a bus in any direction, except in one that will end up with the vehicle plummeting into the water, and whole new worlds open up. One is forced to reframe their thoughts, to ponder one’s troubles even if that person had grown used to their way of life. But I knew all this, didn’t I? I spent my first years as a ghost travelling throughout Europe. Very few memories remain of those days during which I tried to add some color to the faded, odorless, tasteless afterlife. I suppose that in the end similarly threadbare memories will remain of my time with my girlfriend in Asturias: just some images here and there, or if I’m lucky, sequences of a few seconds. Maybe none of the contents of my conversations with Alazne will survive beyond how they made me feel. If we lost the pictures that my girlfriend took, we would forget most of the details as if we hadn’t been there.
The countryside on the left of our taxi resembles the wide open spaces between cities, with no hint that if one looked to the right he’d face a row of apartment buildings. At the end of this street that our car is climbing up, we’ll get to see our house again.
“Where exactly do you want me to leave you both?” our driver asks. “Around here there’s only a graveyard.”
“We get that all the time. You guys need to update your maps!” I say amiably, relieved that I get to return home. “Just keep going. Past an ivy-covered wall there’s a gate that leads into our community.”
The driver frowns as if he believes I’m pulling his leg, but when he finds the gate, he veers to the right onto the asphalt that paves most of the ground except for our backyards. The man looks around confused, as if he had visited the graveyard recently and he shouldn’t have found these rows of two-story houses here.
“Just stop the car,” I say. “We’ll walk the rest of the way.”
After I pay the guy, Alazne and I drag our luggage towards the second column of houses while the driver pulls around. Once the house in front of ours stops blocking the view, I realize that I had been holding my breath. I guess I had expected our house to have gone up in flames, or to have blown up to the extent that only charred rubble remained. But it looks as undamaged and palatial as it used to, with its tawny bricks and the ornate cast iron balustrade that surrounds the huge balcony on the second floor. We are home, and we can rest.
“It feels so odd to be back, doesn’t it?” Alazne asks tiredly.
“Well, I did fear that I wouldn’t be able to tolerate the bus ride a second time.”
Alazne laughs.
“But you did, with only some weird complaints. I’m proud of you.”
I pull out my keychain and I was reaching towards the lock when I hear it turning from inside. The door opens decisively to reveal an empty, darkened hall. I get goosebumps, but then I chuckle and step onto the hardwood. As I leave my suitcase next to the console table, I grin at the invisible presence.
“Thank you for the warm welcome, Kateryna.”
“I have missed you,” Alazne says, then closes the front door. “I think you would have enjoyed Asturias.”
“If only because some parts of it looked like Soviet Russia.”
“Hey, what parts of Asturias reminded you of Soviet Russia?” Alazne asks, amused, as she takes off her cardigan.
“Those that seemed like the outskirts of some medium-sized factory town. It was like travelling back in time to the Cold War.”
Alazne rubs my shoulder.
“They made me feel safer somehow. Maybe because they reminded me that some people are working hard to keep things going.” As she shuffles by, she lets out a long sigh. “I need to take off these boots. My poor feet…”
The living room call bell rings twice. Alazne stops and turns towards it. Kateryna had rung the bell impatiently, so we hurry up to the ouija board. The planchette was already twitching when I see it from up close.
PLEASE DONT EVER LEAVE FOR SO LONG AGAIN, the planchette spells out.
“We’ll try not to, I promise,” I say with a lump in my throat. “All along I had thought you would have tolerated, or even welcomed, some quiet days…”
“You’re not alone anymore. We’ll be here for you, Kateryna.”
“W-what do you mean full of ghosts?” Alazne asks, worried. “Did you see lots of ghosts surrounding our home?”
NO I DIDNT SEE ANY BUT I MEANT IN GENERAL. The planchette hesitates for a few seconds. I DONT LIKE BEING ALONE.
I shake my head.
“The whole world is a ghost town. We thought we saw some people in Asturias, but they all turned out to be ghosts.”
“Well, I guess they may as well be dead to us, all of them…” Alazne says sadly. “It’s not as if we are likely to see them ever again.”
I coordinate my stiffened arms to take off my jacket. I don’t want to get on another bus for months. When I fold the jacket over a chair, I look down at the board to let Kateryna know that I’m about to address her, although our ghost roommate is standing in front of it.
“I had thought of buying an answering machine so whenever I want I can call home and share my thoughts with you. Maybe they can be programmed so they replay the message a few times, in case you have wandered to another room, or even the second floor.”
“You’ll have to remind me to change the tapes for you, just so you know. Unless modern answering machines don’t come with tapes… The times have changed a lot.”
“Don’t worry, Kat,” Alazne says while smiling warmly. “Now that we are here, we’ll return to spending hours together, the three of us.”
Before I know it, Alazne stands on her tiptoes, crosses her arms behind my neck and kisses me on the lips. We embrace and I hold her tightly, losing myself in the warmth of her lips. I would have gladly carried her like a princess to our bedroom, but she pulls away from me.
“My love,” Alazne says, “I will grab my notebook and a jar of water and I’ll spend some time writing on the balcony of the second floor. I’ll be there if you need me.”
I SHALL BE THERE WITH YOU IN SPIRIT, the planchette spells out.
As Alazne strolls down the hallway towards the bedroom, where she left her notebook, I feel that I need to improve Kat’s mood. I’ll spend some time with my suicide sister.
“Let’s go to the kitchen, Kat. I’ll tell you all about Asturias, their gigantic armadillos, iron trees, fish-men, black metal, futuristic spas, highwayman taxi drivers, nightmarish factories, rotting old bastards, sooty kings and flame-throwing smokestacks.”

Alazne walks out of our bedroom into the hallway, and when she realizes I’m standing close by, she grabs the fabric of her hoodie with both hands.
“These are the sportiest clothes I have,” she says apologetically.
Alazne is wearing her beloved grey hoodie that features the azure blue, white and grey Wings of Freedom logo, along with cloud grey sweatpants, and she has tied up her light brown hair in a loose ponytail that leaves two locks framing her face. The coffee she drank has barely worked yet, because her eyes remain sleepy.
“You look cute,” I say. “I have missed you wearing some of your old clothes. But more importantly, they will do just fine for this morning’s purposes.”
“I wouldn’t call my clothes sporty normally, though, because I wore them to feel more comfortable at home during the chilly days. You are the one who is used to working out, and your tracksuit suits you.”
I cup her angelic face with my hands and smile warmly as I look down at her hazel eyes.
“We’ll turn those clothes into proper sporty ones, and you for that matter. You need to keep healthy.”
Although she blushes, she doesn’t avert her gaze at this point.
“Alright, but I doubt I will be able to run for more than five minutes.”
“We aren’t running, though. Let’s go to the backyard.”
We exit through the living room into the backyard, and Alazne spots the bikes that I had left leaning against the fence. The one I bought for her is a cross hybrid, or at least that’s how the guy at the store called it, because I hadn’t ridden a bike in more than twenty years nor would I have cared then about the terminology. The bike is black except for bands of bumblebee yellow in the saddle, the handlebars, the top tube and the forks that hold the wheels in place.
I gesture towards her bike.
“Pretty badass for what it is, right?”
Alazne narrows her shoulders as if she wants to look smaller, and her gaze sweeps the grass.
“Yeah, they look cool, but… Asier, I-I don’t know how to ride a bike. I have never even touched one yet.”
I raise her chin with my hand and lean in to kiss her lips. I let my mouth linger for a couple of seconds. When I straighten my back and open my eyes, Alazne is looking up at me tenderly.
“I suspected that was the case. That’s great, sweetie, because I’ll get to teach you! And you’ll reward me for it, let’s say with some activities that involve you taking off your sporty clothes.”
I hand Alazne her bike, and she holds it in front of herself as if it were a giant sea shell. She seems unconvinced that she’ll be able to learn.
“As if we wouldn’t do that anyway. So this is what those two giant boxes contained. I knew you intended to surprise me with something, given how shady you were being with them, but I never thought they would be bikes…”
“Well, at first I was surprised that I hadn’t found one in this house. I guess the previous me before the accident wasn’t fond of aerobic exercises. But my main purpose is for the both of us to go on some lovely rides together.”
Alazne’s face brightens, and she grins. The morning sun is lightening half of her facial features, making some of her beautiful freckles disappear. If I allowed myself to be fully motivated by causing as many of those grateful smiles as possible, I would dilapidate my fortune in a year.
“I think you will have a hard time teaching me how to ride this thing…” Alazne says as she probes the handlebars. “And where can we do it without bothering anybody?”
“Why, we only have to walk up our street to stroll along a picturesque, albeit narrow, concrete path that cuts through the countryside, passing in front of farms and grazing fields and whatever shady stuff those isolated people do. I’m sure some of those stretches of path will be deserted enough, because I gather that you will be embarrassed about your biking abilities.”
“Sure, about my lack of them. But h-how narrow is that path? What if I fall?”
“I’m sure some bushes or plants can catch you.”
Alazne frowns, but as if she were about to pout.
“That can get serious! Some of the bushes around these parts can cover you in scratches. And with my luck I might fall on nettles.”
“If I get to lick the irritation away, I hope you strip naked and disappear into a bed of nettles.”
She chuckles and pushes my arm.
“I was about to say that no licking today, but I’d be shooting myself in the foot. Let’s go, then. The sooner I learn how to ride this thing, the less embarrassed I’ll be.”
I grab my bike’s handlebars and begin rolling it into the living room, so we can exit the house through the front door, but behind me Alazne complains. She’s staring puzzled at her bike.
“What? It doesn’t move. Aren’t the wheels supposed to keep turning even though I’m not pedalling?”
“You are squeezing the brake. Just hold the grip.”
She blushes.
“Oh, got it. I’m such an idiot…”
“It’s alright. Now you know.”
We push the bikes forward and leave our house through the front door. I end up holding Alazne’s bike upright as she locks the door. Then we carry on past the gate of our community.
“What a beautiful morning,” I say as I take a deep breath of fresh air.
“A bit chillier than one would expect with a clear sky, but I guess it’s good enough for biking…”
We walk a bit further to the right until the full view of the countryside opens up beyond a barbed wire fence.
“Look at those hills, the healthy trees, the random sheep, and the conspicuous lack of factories,” I say merrily. “We are so lucky.”
“Yes, it is beautiful, Asier.”
“I guess when you stop considering the myriad of things that makes the world horrible, it is quite pleasant.”
We push our bikes on the side of the path, in case a farmer’s car drives down and we end up having to move aside anyway. We pass by a gated farming estate with fruit trees in bloom. A house we come across is so close to the path and so unguarded that we could just walk straight into their yard. Some of the sheds are rusted, and I wonder when they were built. As we climb up the path, it now borders flimsy barriers that should prevent the cows and sheep from escaping. One of the cows, mostly white with black spots, looks up at us while it ruminates grass and swats flies with its tail. The animal gives off a pungent smell of dung.
“She looks so innocent,” Alazne says. “Cows always make me sad, for some reason.”
“Maybe because the person who owns them may end up butchering them?”
“I guess so. Do you think the people who live in these rural places are happy, Asier? I mean, they have a kind of freedom that most people will never experience. They can open their front door and go wherever they wish. No cars, no trains, no trams, no buses, no police. They can walk for long stretches without seeing another soul. They aren’t crowded on top of each other like most of humanity.”
“They’re not free, though. If they have cows and sheep, then they have to tend to them every day of their lives. Maybe some don’t own their property, the government does. They’re paid little for their milk and meat. Their children might end up working in the farm as soon as they’re able.”
“I suppose that’s true.”
“But I’m painting their life much harsher than I should. I’d rather slip and fall in cow shit and get headbutted in the nuts by a ram than work at an office five or six days a week. Those are the people you should pity.”
“Yeah, I can’t say I want to remember my days at the office…”
The path becomes steeper until it reaches a plateau covered in a threadbare sheet of shadow, thanks to some big oaks that have grown next to the path. I stop.
“This looks perfect. No nettles around either, just ferns.”
“A-alright. What do I do then?”
“First, straddle the bike. That should be easy for you, as you’ve become a pro at straddling.”
“Shut up,” she replies, but does what I said.
I chuckle.
“Those things to the side of your bike are called pedals.”
“I know what they are called,” she says, embarrassed.
“Hey, I don’t like assuming things.” I stroke my chin for a moment as I look to the side. “We better start with you getting comfortable with the brakes. Just push the bike forward slowly as you keep straddling it, and squeeze each break lever to get a feeling for how hard you should squeeze them according to how much slower you want to go.”
“Got it.”
Alazne totters forward while her ponytail sways, and amorphous spots of light slide down her back. That ass of hers looks so cute in those sweatpants. I’m glad that we stopped at the top of this hill; any steeper and she may have fallen off.
She comes to a stop as she leans into the brakes, both feet spread wide.
I push my bike up to her.
“You good?”
Alazne smiles at me and nods as she stretches her fingers, her palms resting on the handlebars.
“Alright, now comes the hard part. Lift one of the pedals with your foot until reaches the apex of the circle it makes, and then push it forward slightly. The idea is that when you are ready you will push that pedal down fully as you put the other foot on the opposite pedal, because the rotation of the wheels will keep the bike upright for a couple of seconds, which will give you the opportunity to start pedalling normally.”
Alazne teeters as she balances all her weight in her right leg to lift the left pedal. However, after she pushes it forward slightly, she raises her face towards me.
“But how will the rotation of the wheels alone keep the bike upright?” she asks as she furrows her eyebrows.
“Magic, probably. Who the fuck knows. Maybe nobody. But the fact is that the faster you pedal, the steadier your bike becomes. You don’t have to pedal that fast for most rides, though.”
She nods, then she bites her lower lip. She balances herself on her feet evenly as she grabs both handle bars. She bends her left knee, but for a couple of seconds her left foot can’t locate the pedal.
“Now for the last, most vital piece of advice,” I say. “The moment you push down that pedal, the bike is going to thrust in the direction the front wheel is oriented at, so before you push down you have to turn the wheel in the opposite direction. In this case, to the right.”
“That makes sense. I would have never thought of that.”
Alazne turns the handlebars to the right, then pushes down the left pedal with her foot. Her face becomes a mix of fear and exhilaration. The chain rubs against the cogs as if it were an oversized zipper. However, Alazne’s determination only lasts a couple of seconds until she loses control of the front wheel in a panic, which begins to turn to the left. I drop my bike and hurry up so I can catch my girl, but I don’t reach her in time and she falls face up onto some ferns.
I stand over Alazne, blocking the patches of light that had been brightening her body. She’s breathing through her mouth, and she seems disappointed.
“You look so cute lying on the ferns and the grass like that,” I say. “Can I take a photo?”
Alazne shrugs.
“Sure, why not.”
I take out my phone. I move around my girlfriend to find the best angle of the sunlight filtering through the gaps of tree branches as it falls on her face and upper body. I snap a few shots and then show them to her.
“Just like a forest angel,” I say proudly.
“I think those are called dryads.” She sighs. “Anyway, I fucked up the bike riding.”
“But you didn’t get hurt. I’m impressed that you were able to turn the handlebars and fall like that. It was like you were doing parkour or something.”
Alazne props herself on her elbows.
“I think I’ll get the hang of it, though. Let me try again.”
I grab her hands to help her stand up. As she turns around to lift her bike, I pat her ass to brush the dirt off, and also because I wanted to touch her butt.
Alazne chuckles.
“Now you are just feeling me up.”
“Just a bit. Let’s start over.”
I stand further back as my girlfriend balances her weight in her right leg again to lift the opposite pedal. She bends her neck to the side for a moment as if to crack it, and then takes a deep breath.
“Alright, here we go.”
She leans forward and pushes the pedal down. Less than a second later she steers the bike to align both wheels. She snaps her head back as if surprised, but then she pushes the other pedal down, which allows her to keep pedalling.
“I did it!”
I roll my bike quickly, because a bend on the path up ahead would make Alazne disappear past a mound.
“Yes, but stop for now, turn the bike around and do it again in the opposite direction. You need to get comfortable with it.”
I stand on the grass to the side of the path. I lean the kickstand of my bike with my foot so I don’t need to keep holding the frame. I watch Alazne ride past me. She’s balancing while turning the pedals with little issue. She looks over her shoulder towards me and waves.
“Hey, look at this! I’m actually doing it!”
“You are, but don’t take your hand off the handlebar!”
She breaks to a stop and then swivels the bike around awkwardly, wobbling, so she can ride in my direction. She then bites her lower lip, lifts the left pedal and pushes it down almost in the same movement. She steers the bike to approach me while patches of light slide up her body. Alazne grins, which brightens her angelic face.
“This is so cool. I know how to ride a bike!”
A warmth fills up my chest.
“Yes, you do.”

We return home around midday, still riding our bikes. We veer into our gated community, then turn until we reach the front of our house. We get off. Sweat shimmers on Alazne’s face as she takes out her key.
“I’ll open the door. And I’ll need to take a shower. I haven’t sweated this much outside of a bedroom in many years. My legs are burning.”
“A good burn, though.”
Alazne opens the door and rolls her bike into the hall. I’m picturing my beloved naked in the shower when something vibrates in the pocket of my tracksuit, then plays the short melody indicating that I have received a message. As I struggle with the narrow pocket to pull my phone out, it vibrates and plays the same sound twice. I open the messaging app. All three messages are from Oleksiy.
My whole body tenses up and freezes. My vision goes blurry. For a moment I can’t even breathe.
The first two messages only contain a photo each. The first thumbnail shows a hand holding an A4 page that features printed text, but just the upper half of the page. The second image shows the lower half. The third message just contains words, and it says ‘read it and call me’.
My breathing becomes labored. I touch the thumbnail of the upper half of the page, then turn the phone around for landscape mode so I can read the text better. Even before I read the first words I know that I’m staring at Kateryna’s suicide note.
I can’t take it anymore. I’m sick of putting faith in people only for them to turn out to be shit. One after another, all pieces of shit. You said you would make me happy? How can a human being say those words when they know that they have done nothing but ruin other people’s lives? Even when those two exes of yours confronted you, I defended you. Although I understood you had been a cheating piece of shit with them, I told those women, and myself, that you had left it in the past, that you were someone new. That’s what you kept repeating to me, after all. I have always been too eager to trust people and see the best in others, that’s why I didn’t realize what you were doing. Even when someone slaps me, I prefer to put the other cheek, because deep down I know it must be my fault. Those times when you left for hours only to return and go straight into the shower without touching me, I didn’t think anything of it. You should know that I have so little support, because I have lost my friends and I can’t return to my family, that even if you cheated in my face I would have preferred to stay. Even after you tore my heart out by fucking other women, I would have remained by your side.
My hands are trembling. My heart hurts for how much Kateryna suffered during her last days, and my frayed nerves tell me that the Zaretsky brothers will want to beat me to a pulp. I keep reading, ready to touch the second thumbnail when the text reaches the end of the first photo.
But what goes through the mind of someone not born in hell when he knows that he’s fucking everything that moves and still offers to marry the girlfriend he’s lying to? Not just that, but puts a baby in her. What was growing inside me wasn’t a clump of cells, you son of a bitch, but our daughter. In my mind I still called her Bohdana even though you insisted she should have a Basque name. You came into my womb without giving any thought that it could make me pregnant, as if you couldn’t care about the consequences. Although you were becoming shittier and shittier, for all those weeks I was sure that I would end up giving birth to our baby. I was sure even the day you finally broke me down, as you had been doing bit by bit, saying that it was too soon to become a family, that we would try again in the future, that fetuses aren’t alive at that point and that I wouldn’t be murdering her. After I killed Bohdana and I lied in bed for days as I cried and cried, you couldn’t have cared less. You got what you wanted, which was to never become that attached to me or anyone. You sell lies so naïve women will open their legs for you, and then you throw them away. What I would have never expected from any person is what you have done to me now. I’m glad that I’m not the kind of human being who would have imagined it. I still see you there, standing near my bed in the dark, caring nothing that I’m weeping, and telling me that I have become too annoying and whiny, that you have been dating other people, and that I should leave the ring on the nightstand and get the fuck out of your house before the end of the day. Where would I go? I have nothing anymore. I don’t want to keep struggling. I feel it, my heart is broken. From now on I would have to carry this pain and this regret for as long as I lived. I am through being kind, I need to feed this rage with which you have infected me. I want to grab every beautiful girl you flirt with and lock them in a dungeon. I want to cut your throat and feel you choke as I watch your life fade out. So before I become a monster like you, certain as I have never been, I’ve made my decision. By tonight you will find me still here, lying in your bathtub. I hope there is a hell and in the end I find you there.
Oleksiy won’t be content with giving me the beating of a lifetime. He must want to torture me to death. I would too. But I’m not crying out of fear, but because I can’t comprehend why someone would hurt my sweet friend like that. Her unborn daughter upon dying floated on to the beyond, blissfully unaware of how close she had been to being born in this horrible world. But the regret for aborting her daughter has chained Kateryna to the afterlife, and because she can’t get pregnant anymore, Kat is fucked. She better sit tight and get used to the dark.
Kateryna’s brothers already know that I have read their messages. The messaging app sent them the notifications. Either I call him now or I call him hours or days from now, but I better do so immediately as he demanded. And not only I have to fear them both, but also the police. If the law gets ahold of Kat’s suicide note, they’ll want to throw me into a jail cell.
The phone is already connecting to Oleksiy’s number before I have thought of what to say. And how would Asier have defended himself? I would be cheering for him to get fucked.
Oleksiy is on the other line, but I just hear him breathing, as well as the hum of an engine.
“Oleksiy,” I begin, “I’m sure we can–“
“Don’t fucking speak, you fucking bitch,” he interrupts with a growl. “Now that you have returned from your trip, we can get justice for Kateryna. I want you to know that it’s coming.”
“Oleksiy, there’s no need for violence. Asier’s dead. He can’t be brought back, so it’s pointless.”
“I don’t care that you lost your memories. You did it. You have a debt to pay.”
“I just want your forgiveness and a friendship between the two of us.”
He’s quiet for a moment, then he lets out a creepy laugh.
“I don’t think so, monkey. Look up and wave.”
A brick red car is entering the community through the gate. Its bulky, the armored version of a regular car. The bumpers, the wheels and the lower half of the doors are splashed with dirt, as if the owner had driven over muddy puddles and hadn’t bothered to clean the damage. As the car turns towards me and slows down, I notice the Toyota logo, and even though the windshield shadows the two people sitting in the front seats, I make out their blond hair.
“What’s wrong?” Alazne asks from the hall.
She’s approaching me cautiously. Her light brown hair is falling loosely around her shoulders.
“Why were you crying…? And who is that guy who looks like Reiner Braun?”
I turn my head sharply towards the Toyota 4Runner. Oleksiy and Hadeon have already exited their car and are marching side by side towards my house. Hadeon is wearing the same crimson hoodie with the prominent image of an anime girl, as well as some black drawstring trousers, while Oleksiy is wearing a worn, short-sleeved shirt, pine green and slightly dirtied with white paint, along with coffee-colored cargo pants. Neither of the brothers have shaved for a week. Hadeon is looking towards the neighboring houses as if he fears getting spotted, while Oleksiy is scowling unblinkingly at me with his pale blue eyes, while with his right hand he’s holding upright a baseball bat against the side of his body, as if hiding it.
I speak to Alazne with a guttural voice.
“Stay inside.”

My Own Desert Places, Pt. 31 (GPT-3 fueled short)

That night, Alazne and I dined at a restaurant located in our hotel. Its dining room reminded me of lounge bars featured in Hollywood movies from the forties, but if they had been jazzed up with vibrant colors. The marble flooring reflected the shadows of the tables and chairs, and shone under the scarlet, polyhedric lamps. Both the pillars and the velvet curtains were apple red, and all the internal walls were covered in a mosaic of mirrors that reflected each other. My girlfriend and I filled our stomachs with ham croquettes, seafood chowder and lamb chops with honey sauce, and we topped it off with rice pudding sprinkled with burnt sugar and cinnamon.
When we walked up to our room we knew that despite how exhausted we were, we couldn’t go to sleep on a full stomach, so we leaned our backs against the headboard and we watched YouTube videos on Alazne’s tablet while we held hands. Near midnight, our caresses turned into making out, and then undressing ourselves to taste each other’s skin. We made love as if sleepwalking. Only our moans rose above the electric humming that leaked through the walls.
As if my conscious mind has suddenly switched on, I find myself retracting my tongue in a second long break from licking Alazne’s swollen, lubricated labia. My girlfriend’s hamstrings are resting on my trapezius muscles, the fingers of my hands are interlaced with hers. I absorb the view: the enlarged, throbbing clitoris peeking out from the hood, the shiny, punch pink labia minora spread as if welcoming a deep kiss, a catenary of gooey pussy juice linking my mouth to her vagina. As I lean in to polish her pulsating clit with my wet tongue, I realize that I have never felt as comfortable in my new role as a man than now, when I direct my girlfriend’s pleasure with the tip of my tongue while a trail of my creamy cum slides slowly down her perineum.

On the next morning we took advantage of the breakfast buffet again and then abused the services of the same taxi company so they would drive us around. This time, though, we could have bothered to walk, as we only wanted to leave the housing development filled with a hundred identical houses, and then go past an isolated and quiet working-class neighborhood made out of peanut-colored apartment buildings. The taxi left us at a train station, barely a raised platform. We took the C3 line to Oviedo, a journey that would take around an hour.
I had already braved through what I intended to face in Asturias. I had wanted to discover if I was resilient enough as a human being to return home after I abandoned the consequences of my choices for twenty years. Now I can’t tell if I’m relieved or just numb. But I want to take advantage of the rest of our time here to enjoy the sights with the love of my life.
Alazne and I sit shoulder to shoulder on the train. I look around the plasticky interior and at the commuters bathed in fluorescent light. Most seem tired or fed up as if they are heading to work. A few of them are staring down at e-book readers. Two young guys are listening to music through their earphones and they have it way too loud, leaking the drum beats.
“So what are we seeing first?” Alazne asks while she plays lazily with my hand. “The cathedral?”
“Yeah, it’s close enough to the train station that we can walk there. I’m sure I came a few times to see it with my parents, I guess when I was so young that they thought they had to bring me to a bunch of fancy places.”
Beyond the tranquil, verdant hills of the countryside and the passing clumps of pillowy clouds, some stretches of the journey are dominated by imposing industrial complexes. Dozens of meters long chutes, overlapping pipes, begrimed silos, metallic towers that remind me of guard posts from a post-apocalyptic movie, and smokestacks that exhale grey plumes. Only near the end of our ride the train passes in front of sleepy towns that likely house people who work in Oviedo.
Once we reach the capital of the province, Alazne and I look out of the windows at the bustling streets where plenty of cars and pedestrians hurry up to their destinations, and that likely would have teleported if they could. Many of the buildings are far larger than any we have been accustomed to on this trip, except for our hotel, and have been designed carefully. The train slows down as it approaches the main station. I’m impressed by the sight. The equivalent of the first two floors of a building are emptied out and lack walls, and many pillars are supporting a horizontal building, like the box that a television would come in, upon which is stacked, at least from our perspective, a tall, blocky building that contains offices
Whenever I stop to think about the intricate stuff that people have managed to build, I’m mesmerized, and yet it all feels so fragile, as if it would only take a huge disaster for the tenous links between all the steps, from wanting to construct a building to placing the last brick, to be severed, and the survivors would be left wandering around increasingly ruined monuments of a technological era that they couldn’t reproduce nor comprehend.
When we exit the train and its station, we head towards the cathedral following the route we looked up last night. I force myself to ignore the constant feeling of déjà vu, and I focus on the feeling of Alazne’s warm hand on mine, and on checking out the storefronts. My girlfriend looks at the surrounding apartment buildings, even at some of the passersby, as if she can’t quite believe they exist.
“This is one long street, one of the main ones, I suppose,” I say. “I like the style of these houses, and how they differ in color. The similarly fancy residential buildings in Donostia look far more sober.”
“It’s all so strange, isn’t it?” Alazne says dreamily.
“It’s familiar, but strange. It gives me déjà vus, so I’m sure I’ve been here before.”
“All these people, we likely won’t see them again for the rest of the day. They had never existed before we came to Oviedo, and once we return home they’ll be gone forever. Still, these lives must exist by themselves. I don’t know how this world can bear so many stories. It’s… suffocating.”
Alazne holds my hand even tighter. Her big, hazel eyes widen, staring at the world around her. Her cheeks are flushed, and her light brown hair falls in gentle waves.
“There are definitely too many human beings on this planet,” I say. “We should have never grown beyond let’s say five hundred million people. I don’t know how anyone can take a look at the world we have created and not realize that it will end in a bloodbath. But politicians love their pyramid schemes that demand more and more babies to be born.”
Alazne looks down at the pavement, then closes her eyes tightly for a moment.
“I didn’t know you felt that way as well. It doesn’t seem to bother the vast majority of people. I hope that I won’t end up giving birth to another monster.”
“Oh, it will be a monster for sure. But it will be ours, which is the whole point.”
“I guess that when you cross two monsters together, you can’t expect anything different.”
“Well, we will do better than our parents, won’t we?”
“We sure will,” she says with a sad smile. “I just hope that he or she manages to remain happy enough.”
Although we need to walk in a straight line, we have to navigate through crowds. A few groups are talking in the middle of the sidewalk, which isn’t that wide, forcing others to walk around them. Some restaurants and coffee shops have placed tables outside, leaving a narrow passage between the seated customers and the front of those buildings.
“You know, I have been wondering if I was being selfish,” Alazne says hesitantly, “and maybe cruel. I think clinical depression has a strong genetic component, right?”
“I suppose so,” I reply, having wondered the same thing myself.
“Should anyone risk having children with a tendency to depression, or I guess even worse genetic conditions?”
“Well, the main point of having babies is to perpetuate one’s existence. But they can be a source of joy and fulfillment. Are you regretting our decision?”
She looks troubled, and I’m guessing that the presence of so many strangers is worsening her anxiety.
“No, it just will be harder than I thought.”
“I recall you saying that holding our baby in your dream felt right, what you should do. So I believe that if we don’t start a family, you will regret it. If we do have children, there is a risk that they will suffer from the same conditions with which we struggle. But we should do a better job than our parents to help them through their troubles.”
Although Alazne sighs, she keeps smiling softly.
“I guess I’m just afraid of the future. Afraid of our little spawns growing up and one day confronting us and demanding to know who the hell did we believe ourselves to be to burden them with such pains. What would we say then?”
I pull her closer so I can put my arm around her waist.
“I’m pretty sure that won’t happen. And if it does, well, we’ll deal with it then. But I don’t think you should worry excessively about the future. What matters is now, and that we love each other. Maybe it’s irresponsible of me, but I can barely care about anything else.”
Alazne leans against my side, and I feel her warmth.
“We are all monsters,” Alazne says as if she had been considering it for a while.
“Sure. Everybody will die some day, and we all know it.”
Shortly after, we reach the vast square that on the opposite side ends at a famous cathedral. Ancient people somehow organized themselves to construct it during hundreds of years. We stop to gaze at it. An Asian, probably Japanese, tourist is standing nearby shooting photos with his expensive camera. The cathedral’s color reminds me of peeled peanuts. Its porticos seem to have been built for giants, and apart from the intricate spire, a wall over the main doors displays a huge rosette. I have never cared about the beliefs of people associated with such buildings, but the structures are awe-inspiring, and certainly better than most modern architecture, which seems to be modelled after construction sheds.
“Let’s get closer,” I say. “The whole cathedral grounds are supposed to be interesting.”
“Sure, but I want to take pictures too. Stand over there.”
She takes out her phone, and she starts lining things up so my hopefully presentable self will fill most of the left half of the picture. I keep smiling as her phone plays a digital sound. She looks down at the screen.
“That’s good. You know, we have to take plenty of pictures and print some of them at a store. You only framed that one picture of me you took back during our first date at the amusement park.”
“One of my most priced possessions.”
Walking across the vast square, which is mostly empty due to its size, makes me feel as if we were exposing ourselves to sniper fire. On one side of the square, a sloped sidewalk is occupied with the outside tables of a series of restaurants, where I guess we’ll eat today. On the left side of the cathedral, we pass through the gate of a fenced garden with four small trees pruned to conical shapes. Except for the fence that separates the garden from the square, the other sides are delimited by walls in which they built alcoves that feature statues of long-dead people. The full-bodied representations seem vaguely Roman to me, although the crowns they sport belong to the Middle Ages. Those probable kings are holding swords, pointing at indeterminate places or staring into the distance. Alazne takes some photos of them. We move on towards the back of the garden, where parts of the wall jut out forming pedestals that hold, out of people’s reach, the busts of bearded men wearing crowns. Three of the busts are partially blackened with soot as if some fire broke out but nobody cleaned the damage.
Alazne takes more photos.
“Who are these people supposed to be?”
“Kings, I guess.”
“They don’t look very regal to me. Some of them are looking in strange directions.”
“I guess they were just people before they became kings. And then one day they became ghosts too.”
Alazne rubs her chin.
“They stopped being kings once they died.”
“I think they would disagree with you on that.”
I keep staring up at the busts. I have no idea why, but those coin gray depictions look more real than the vast majority of the people we’ve come across. These kings died long before I was even a gleam in my rotting old man’s eye. Were their struggles worth it? I imagine they had families, people who loved them, people who hated them, and now virtually the entirety of mankind has forgotten their names. Maybe some of their ghosts still roam around to ponder similar questions.
I myself was a ghost for twenty years, and although in comparison I have barely spent any time enjoying my new life, the processes and burdens that my living body subjects me to are starting to make my time as a ghost feel like a distant nightmare. The chemical reactions in my brain keep pushing me subtly in this or that direction, towards eating, pissing, shitting, fucking or sleeping. In between those needs, my body keeps alerting me of a myriad of minor annoyances and pains, from the sweat building up in my groin to the background ache of the bruises that Oleksiy bastard caused on my abdomen. All these sensations tie me to the here and now, but no matter how bad any particular day gets, I can always look forward to the respite of sleep. Still, it’s all so brittle, and our lives hold no intrinsic meaning beyond the lesson that we are here one moment and gone the next, with the only guarantee that until the instant our brain stops receiving oxygen we will need to struggle through thousands of problems and persistent pains. In less than a hundred years I, Asier, will be gone, and although thinking about it makes me want to cry, Alazne will be gone as well. It will only take time for the entire universe to vanish too.

During our last night in Asturias we dined at the same restaurant we had patronized, but instead of walking up to our rooms to digest the food in peace, we decide to leave the hotel and take a walk in the moonlight through the quiet housing development made out of identical homes. It has only gotten chillier in the last couple of days, so Alazne is wearing a pullover sweater.
The crickets keep chirping as my girlfriend and I, hand in hand, follow the sidewalk to wander around. The sound of our footsteps reverberates. Most of the houses remain dark, probably unoccupied, although in the few houses where light leaks through the windows, at the most I hear the murmur of conversations, likely from movies. The streetlights are properly spaced and insects are flying around their glass-covered lamps, but the area seems so deserted that the little oases of light they spill onto the sidewalk make me feel safer.
“It would be nice to live in a place like this, wouldn’t it?” I ask.
“Yes. Too bad we had to come so far to get here.”
I have grown anxious enough anticipating the eight hours long trip that awaits us tomorrow.
“Don’t remind me of that, though.”
Alazne chuckles.
“I love our actual home, Asier. I wouldn’t change it for anything.”
“Yeah… Me neither.”
A tiny drop of water, probably from the humidity that has settled in, falls on my left arm. I look up. A cloud is drifting in front of the moon, turning the area around us into a dark grey void.
“It may start raining soon.”
However, no second drop falls on me. After we turn a corner we spot a couple in their forties, along with two young kids, who are taking things out of their car. I suppose that the house in front, which has the gate open, belongs to them, or maybe to some other family members. The scent of food wafts from the windows of that house, and now that I’m paying attention I hear an animated conversation muffled by the walls. As we pass the family by, they nod towards us and smile amiably.
We realize that if we follow this side street to the end we’ll reach a shoddy wooden fence that offers a view. The housing development was built on top of a hill, and on this edge there’s a steep slope downwards which gives us a panorama of seemingly the entirety of Avilés. The lights of the apartment buildings down there, many of them identical ten-story tall monsters, give off an almost blinding glow when contrasted to the darkness that surrounds us. To the right of the panorama stands a line of even taller smokestacks, and to my confusion two of them aren’t spewing smoke right now, but shooting flames. What a weird world.
“It’s gorgeous,” says Alazne in a tired but grateful voice. “I mean, there isn’t much to this city, but it’s still humbling.”
I don’t know how to answer beyond agreeing, so I remain silent. I didn’t feel that Alazne expected a response. I listen to the sound of the breeze for a few seconds, then my girlfriend puts her warm hand on mine. She’s looking up at me, displaying such a trusting affection that it tightens my throat.
“Thank you so much, Asier,” she says in a voice tinged with emotion. “Thank you for making today happen, as well as the days before. I wish that we could just stay here forever, watching the world.”
She turns her face towards the panorama, showing me her profile, and observes the view as if she wanted to burn it into her mind. Close to her temple, a lock of light brown hair is swaying slowly in the breeze.
“The world doesn’t care about either of us,” Alazne says quietly. “Nobody notices we are passing through here, or that we will be gone. None of the things built out there had us in mind, and there’s little we can do to affect this society in any way.”
I stay quiet, and wait for her to continue.
“When these days I look back and think about who I used to be, that ossified form which I believed would be the last, I remember those times I passed my head through the noose and tightened it around my throat. The deafening noise of blood surging in my ears, my face burning up. That person would have never believed that one day I would stand here. And even less with someone who managed to love me.”
I feel a dampness on my cheeks. I hug Alazne from the side, and cup the other side of her head to stroke her hair. She doesn’t turn.
“I wanted not only to die, Asier,” she whispers, “but to never have existed. To be erased from the minds of everyone… That not a single person in this indifferent world would have known that I ever was. Now I wish for you to always remember me, to know that I was here, and that we got to love each other.”
I close my eyes and press my lips against her forehead. I bask in the warmth emanating from her body, I smell her scent that I recognize only as hers. She shivers against my skin while she cries silently. Neither of us speaks for a while.
Alazne puts her hand on my chest, and we pull away from the embrace. She wipes her eyes and sniffles.
“Let’s return here some years from now,” she says, “and experience how the world changes when we do.”

My Own Desert Places, Pt. 30 (GPT-3 fueled short)

Although I wished to leave Gijón, I had dragged my girlfriend into this trip, so we settled for checking out the tourist area that surrounds Poniente beach. We walked for a bit along the promenade while Alazne looked at the beach. The sky had become overcast, so the dozens of beachgoers remained dressed and just took walks or played around. If one has seen a beach, one has seen a thousand of them, although this one featured more washed-up detritus than I would have expected, as I don’t recall seeing much of it in Donostia’s beaches. Alazne also eyed meaningfully the blue banners that encouraged people to visit the nearby aquarium. My girl loves animals, so I know she would enjoy hitting every aquarium and zoo in the cities to which we end up travelling.
I was struggling to sustain a conversation with Alazne, although she kept bringing up topics kindly. Putting words together in my head and verbalizing them was sucking the energy out of me. I felt I would only endure around an hour more outside of the safe house that our hotel room represents. Still, we’d likely only return around nighttime. I wasn’t in the mood to see the sights, to eat good food, to talk. I wanted to go back to Hondarribia, to the expensive house that I stole from a dead man when I took over his ruinous life, and to our bedroom, where I would curl up under the sheets and merge with the darkness.
It’s the time of the day to settle for a restaurant and pay strangers to prepare a meal for us. Past a series of long benches fully occupied by groups of teens or old couples, Alazne and I find a raised restaurant with outside seating, which offers a panorama of the numerous leafy trees that keep most of the square in shadows, as well as a view of the beach, from which come the cheerful voices of children.
We sit under a patio umbrella. I don’t think I will be able to retain much food, so I order a hamburger with a side of fries. However, my girlfriend chooses a combo plate and a strawberry smoothie with yogurt. The restaurant is thankfully half empty, so they bring our food quicker than I expected. It only takes a bite of my juicy burger, and tasting the crispy bacon, for my shoulders to relax a bit. Even though my girlfriend will have to eat a fried egg, fried potatoes and a steak, she steals some of my fries and tops them with dollops of sour cream. I don’t mind.
“It’s so delicious,” Alazne says as she munches on one of her own oily fried potatoes. “Eating solves most ills, doesn’t it?”
She takes a forkful of her egg. The yolk is still gooey, but not liquid enough to break and make the food gross.
“Serves as a distraction, at least,” I say hoarsely. “Eating, fucking, sleeping. The three only pure joys for any living creature on this planet.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” Alazne says. She smiles with her mouth closed as she chews her food. “But I hope you feel better.”
I lift the bun of my hamburger and I realize that they haven’t poured any ketchup, so I open the packet and empty it onto the bacon and the cake of minced beef.
“I think I will be able to hold a conversation properly in a short while. I don’t want to keep worrying you.”
“I’m your girlfriend, it’s not a bother if you worry me. I’m glad that you talk to me.”
“You have been really accommodating and self-sacrificing today, Alazne. I truly appreciate it.”
Alazne eats another fry.
“You’re welcome,” she says in a mild tone. She looks towards the busy square, located maybe thirty meters away, as if she’s thinking. “Hey, was it a good idea for you to talk with Irene’s father?”
I sigh. My head hurts.
“I don’t know. Is it ever worth it to talk things out with people who think so differently from oneself? He will never change his mind, and neither will I. So what’s the use?” I take a sip of my water to wash the food down. “But it’s done. I doubt I’ll ever speak with that man again.”
Alazne lowers her head and sweeps the table with her gaze.
“You are so resentful and guilty because Irene killed herself, Asier,” she says in a low voice, as if fearing that it will upset me. “After so many years. Like a painful tumor that nobody can take out.”
“I wasn’t able to save her,” I reply grimly. “If I had known you during your worst times but I hadn’t been able to date you and prevent you from killing yourself, it would have destroyed me inside as well.”
Alazne drops her fork noisily on her plate to cover her face, as if overwhelmed by a sudden pain. After a few seconds of breathing deeply, she lowers her hands to the table and speaks.
“I would have never expected to meet you, or anyone for that matter, let alone that they would be interested in spending any time with me. That’s part of what depression does, right? It hunts you down until it traps you against a corner, and then it murders you. I don’t dare to assume how Irene must have felt during her last days, but she also bore the burden of only being able to love people of her own gender, which makes life far more difficult. Poor girl.”
I place my right hand on top of hers and squeeze it softly.
“She would have gotten along wonderfully with you, I’m sure,” I say, but I stop myself from talking further, because I fear that my voice is about to break.
Alazne chuckles sadly.
“I suspect she would have wanted to date me. Misery loves company and all that.”
I draw back my hand that was caressing hers, and I take a big bite of my hamburger to camouflage my sudden unease. I munch on the beef and the bacon slowly, and once I swallow the morsel, I dare to ask.
“You think that you would have been able to date Irene, despite…?”
Alazne sips her smoothie through the straw, then she licks her lips.
A warm sensation bursts in my chest. I clench my ass cheeks and sit up straight. My heart starts beating faster.
“H-how so?”
“Because I don’t have a problem with people loving anyone they want, as long as those people are of legal age and aren’t related to one another. It’s not really any of my concern who anyone is dating or having sex with, and why would it be? It’s a free world, and I don’t pretend to have some sort of moral high ground, because my entire life has been one mess after another.”
“That’s one thing, but I mean Irene dating you in particular. You aren’t attracted to women in the slightest, right? So would you have been able to get involved in a romantic relationship with her?”
Alazne puts her elbows on the table and rubs her hands while she looks down with an unfocused gaze.
“I don’t know, maybe. I mean, I think so. I’ve never been attracted to women before, but that doesn’t mean I can’t. I have been so terminally lonely that even if the one person who wanted to love me was a woman, I think I would have opened up to it. But maybe this is all just talk, and the moment I found myself feeling her naked body against mine as she held me to make love, I might have felt such revulsion that I would have pushed her away.”
My throat had tightened and my hands tingled as my brain worked itself up into confessing my unforgivable deception, but I force myself to calm down. I have learned enough about human beings in my four decades of half-life.
“The problem is that the stories we tell ourselves are mostly fiction, aren’t they?” I say with a thin voice and a feeble smile. “We convince ourselves we like this or that, and sometimes we arrange our lives around those beliefs, even though our instincts clash with those rationalizations. Some people spend their existences pursuing what they decided through such arguments, but they need to fight their instincts every step of the way. To an extent, our modern civilization has become a tangled rationalization dedicated to burying and suffocating our instincts. Different groups of people and ideologies are invested in it. Getting people to reject what their hearts demand makes them malleable.”
Alazne brings to her mouth a forkful of egg while she frowns as if she’s having trouble holding on to the meaning of my words.
“What I mean to say is,” I insist, “you aren’t in a relationship with me because you decided that’s what you wanted. You’re in a relationship with me because your instincts pushed you into it. We both admitted it during our glorious first day together, right? For me it was love at first sight, as if I was meant to be with you, and I didn’t need to stop and ponder the pros and cons. In spite of whatever logic has convinced you that something is the right thing to do, the real you keeps screaming inside to get out.”
Alazne gulps down noisily more of her smoothie, which as it goes down leaves that stretch of the glass covered in foam.
“What you mean is that if Irene still lived, and was in her twenties, and had approached me because she found me attractive, I might have ended up in a bedroom alone with her, both naked, and she would have stared at me hungrily with that pretty face and the uniqueness in her eyes. And then different things could have happened. Maybe I would have found her love or at least desire for me so erotic that I would have welcomed a lesbian relationship with her. Or maybe I wouldn’t have been attracted to her, but I would have considered that any romantic relationship with a person who wanted me would have been better than rotting alone, so I would have gone along with it just to keep Irene around. Or I would have been so disgusted by the idea of a woman kissing me and fondling me and caressing my pussy that I would have excused myself and declared our date a horrible mistake.”
I nod, although I remain nervous.
“That’s exactly what I meant, yes.”
Alazne wipes her fingers with a napkin.
“To be honest, even if I didn’t find Irene attractive, I would still have wanted to keep her around as long as she could hold me through the night.”
My heart hasn’t calmed down. I munch on some fries as I wonder whether I should be happy about that confession. I can’t think straight with my pulsating headache, and I don’t think Alazne has ever had to prove that supposition with another woman, so it may mean close to nothing.
“You know…” Alazne starts, but she looks down as if she can barely bring herself to say something. “At times I grew fond of the spiders that appeared suddenly on a corner of my ceilings. Because they chose to be there, and wanted to stick around. Human beings only hurt you. That’s what I thought. At least mindless creatures won’t reject you if you let them be.”
I swallow the sour taste in my mouth.
“I wish I had been there the first moment you felt lonely, Alazne.”
She lifts her gaze to meet mine, and she smiles so amorously that it makes me shiver.
“These days I wouldn’t change a thing of what has happened to me, Asier, because I can sit here and eat this food and be with you.”
I nod, and as I fear getting overwhelmed, I bury my face in my hands and take a deep breath.
“I don’t want to cry,” I manage to say. “It has already been too emotional for me.”
“You can cry. You’re allowed to do that.”
Once I dare to look at Alazne, she smiles briefly before she opens her mouth again.
“Do you know Daphne du Maurier?”
For a couple of seconds I only let out confused noises.
“I don’t know… Daphne du Maurier? I think she’s a writer, right?”
“Glad you know. She mainly wrote in the first half of the previous century, I think. Long dead, the poor lady. Anyway, she wrote ‘Rebecca’.”
I shake my head slowly as I frown, dazed.
“This is one sudden change of topic.”
“I’ve been thinking a lot about it. It has been one of my favorite books since I read it years ago.”
“To be honest, I’m surprised you would know her books at all, given that she wasn’t Japanese nor a manga author.”
Alazne giggles, and touches my hand.
“Hey, I am a woman of culture.”
“That’s what I mean.”
“I have been known to delve into exotic fiction as well. Anyway, have you read that book, ‘Rebecca’?”
“No. I haven’t even heard of it.”
Alazne nods slowly.
“It’s a love story. The main character is pursued romantically by a rich man who brings her to live in his mansion. As she struggles to fit in a role for which she doesn’t feel prepared, the ghost of another woman, the titular Rebecca, haunts every corner of that place, figuratively, as well as every nuance of the protagonist’s relationship with the man who chose to love her.”
I shift my weight in the chair, as I feel uncomfortable.
“It sounds a lot like ‘Jane Eyre’.”
“Yeah? I haven’t read that one…”
“Me neither.”
Alazne opens her mouth to question my words, but then chuckles.
“Alright, but do you get why I brought up Daphne du Maurier’s book?”
“Well, let me think… Because you were pursued by a rich man who brought you to live in his mansion, which also happens to be haunted, literally? I guess many people could have interpreted that relationship, just from your brief summary, as if the man was merely obsessed with the protagonist for whatever reason, and the relationship turned poisonous until eventually the main character realized that the guy didn’t really love her, but rather loved his own twisted reflection of himself that he saw in her?”
Alazne blinks a few times, and narrows her shoulders as if she fears shuddering.
“I suddenly regret bringing up that book. I don’t like that interpretation at all. But I mentioned ‘Rebecca’ because Irene pops up everywhere in my relationship with you, Asier. Maybe you were in love with her and never resolved that feeling because she was a lesbian, in addition to the lack of closure that her suicide caused.”
Talking more about myself in the third person implies making up more outrageous lies that will pile up the anxiety I deal with every day. I want to sigh deeply and shake my head, but Alazne has every right to wonder why this Irene person was fundamental to me. I shouldn’t have gotten so worked up when talking to my rotting old man.
“Are you suggesting that before I met you I remained in love with a lesbian ghost?”
“I’m not sure if that’s what I mean… But I think you may have been mourning her for a long time, and only now you are realizing it in the process of recovering your memories, hence your surprise at your own behavior.”
I struggle to figure out how to retort to that. Alazne realizes she has broken my mind, so she continues.
“Do you think Irene’s ghost is out there?”
I snap my head back, and the irony of it makes me chuckle bitterly. Yes, she’s around. Right in front of you, in fact. I fell in love with you, or maybe it started out merely as an obsession because I was hopelessly lonely and not even spiders would have paid attention to me. And because I knew you wouldn’t love me if I didn’t have facial hair nor muscles nor a cock nor could reliably pass for a father figure as your sexual needs required, I spat upon nature to raise myself from the dead. And now you are happy, so I did good, didn’t I? The hugest unforgivable deceptions in the world are justified if the target remains blissfully ignorant and satisfied.
“I’m sure Irene is still around, hopelessly wandering the wastelands of the afterlife, wishing she would find someone she could love and who would love her back. And I’m sure she will never move on to the beyond. She was too much of a greedy, rotten bitch.”
Alazne considers my words and my tone carefully as her expression turns melancholic.
“Is that how you see her? No, you truly loved her to some degree.”
I shove into my mouth what little remains of my burger, and take the opportunity to picture Irene like the people who had the misfortune of meeting me back then would have seen me. Even though in the theatre of my mind I’m holding a mirror in front of my mental image, I can no longer define Irene’s facial features, that supposed pretty face, nor the eyes that promised I wasn’t another interchangeable speck on the tumorous body of the mushrooming human race. Do I even know you anymore, Irene? For the twenty years I wore your body, I never understood you, and when your heart stopped and the electromagnetic tendrils of your consciousness grasped the fabric of reality, I no longer had any choice but to carry on as an echo of who you used to be. Still, I never learned to love you. Even if I had stepped back from that cliff’s edge and gotten to live eighty years more, I don’t think I would have ever contemplated you with affection.
I shake my head in an attempt to stop the landslip from burying me, but my mind is a desert of unending sand. I’m compelled to keep lying, and I’m compelled to tell the truth.
Alazne has jabbed the tines of her fork in the remaining quarter of her steak, and with her index finger she’s moving the fork around lazily.
“Asier, whenever I try to hold you in my mind, some pieces slip through my fingers. It doesn’t form a coherent whole. I love you more than I would have thought possible, but it still makes me… uneasy.”
A pang of pain shoots through me.
“I’m sorry,” I only manage to say.
I’m not the one dating Alazne. When she holds my gaze, she isn’t looking into my eyes. She pledged her eternal love to someone else, while I observed this dying world through a monitor set up in a dark, cramped, airless bunker. I’m surrounded by a man’s decomposing flesh and his crumbling bones. I want to claw at my face and rip a tear through which Alazne could peek at the person who had been hiding behind the rot.
“I didn’t love Irene, Alazne, I… hated her,” I say. “I remember how she ran around frantically from goal to goal. Any given day she wanted to repeat with one girl or yearned for another, but her solution was to ricochet to a third one. She never committed to anybody nor anything because she knew nothing would last. When a few of the people in her life wanted something deeper, she turned tail and fled. She feared she wasn’t enough, that she couldn’t live up to those people’s expectations, and above all she was terrified of anyone tying her down, chaining her to a time and place. As a result, wherever she went she left a trail of misery in her wake.”

After we finish our meals, none of the staff urge us to leave, so we lounge on the chairs for forty five minutes or so more. Once we descend the stairs to the promenade, Alazne intertwines her fingers with mine.
“My love, I know it has been a taxing day, but I’m sure I would regret having travelled this close to an aquarium and then leaving without exploring it. Could we…? I mean, if you want.”
I stop and turn to hug my girlfriend tightly. When she reacts, she lets out a noise of satisfaction and buries her face in my neck while she hugs me back.
“Of course, Alazne,” I say. “Aquariums are always fun.”
Inside a tank that a hidden fluorescent light bulb dyes green, some big-eyed, silvery, elongated fishes with glittering backs nibble the purplish flesh of a drowned corpse. In another tank, white and pink fishes with elongated mouths poke the corpse’s eardrums through the ear canals, and they dig through the decomposing tissues of the body’s vagina and asshole. A few clownfishes slide through the corpse’s floating hair as if it were an anemone. A crab with bulging, bony articulations, its carapace covered in ossified pimples, cuts little pieces of the corpse’s belly with its pincers and brings the morsels to its mouth. An octopus latches on to the corpse’s rotting torso with its suckers, and then with its free arms the cephalopod probes the outline of the corpse’s muscles and bones. A carp swims through the disemboweled abdomen and upwards until it exits the corpse through a hole in its ribcage. A moray eel lunges against the corpse’s face, plunges its teeth into the greyed iris and then yanks the eyeball out. Dead-eyed sharks bite chunks out of the corpse, opening holes from which gush out clouds of coagulated blood. A school of piranhas cover the corpse and gnaw at every centimeter of purplish skin, and they only return to swimming listlessly when the unlinked bones sway outwards then land on the floor of the tank like sunken waste.

My Own Desert Places, Pt. 29 (GPT-3 fueled short)

Alazne and I fucked a few more times, as carelessly as only a couple in love can do when the one occupying the man’s body can freely fill the woman’s womb with his cum. After one of my orgasms, I went down on Alazne to tend to her clit. Given that I am a woman even though I’m wearing some dead bastard’s corpse, and that I was always attracted to women, I thought that licking my cum mixed with pussy juices would revolt me, but I didn’t have a problem with it beyond the taste. I suppose that I have gotten used to this man-body’s fluids, because I’m constantly tasting and sometimes drinking its saliva, and plenty of its mucus has gone down my throat. Still, I don’t understand why cum doesn’t taste better at this point of human evolution. Wouldn’t nature have made it so it would taste like syrup, so most women would be eager to gulp down plenty of cum every day? I’m frequently puzzled by how nature put this world together.
I guess Alazne and I felt like cleansing our sins, because at around seven in the afternoon we had the idea of walking down to the spa and figuring out what the hell that implies. I never visited a spa back when I inhabited my original female body, and as a ghost I couldn’t even feel the rain, so watching breathing people stewing in hot tubs would have only made me envious. To be fair even watching living people getting hurt also used to make me envious. I yearned for the pain that would certify that I was alive. I suppose that’s why a couple of other ghosts whom I came to know and who could also possess people, almost immediately jumped into self-harm, while the original soul of the person from whom they had stolen control kept licking the intruder all over for him or her to fuck off.
Turns out we were lucky. The spa, built underground, closes at eight. We descend the stairs to the facilities while carrying my swim trunks and Alazne’s bikini, because it’s forbidden to enjoy the hot tub naked. After we take a shower in different changing rooms, we exit into a large pillared room bathed in yellow light. It contains two circular pools with a strange circuit built in them, that people are supposed to walk through while submerged. Some strategically installed faucets shoot streams into the water constantly, even though most of those streams aren’t hitting anybody. A waste of energy and water. Whoever designed this spa also put lights underwater, which project hazy, widening yellow beams. The din from so many streams of water becomes a soothing background noise.
We aren’t alone: two middle-aged couples are submerged up to their shoulders in bubbling water, hopefully because they are enjoying a hot tub session.
I lean in towards Alazne’s tasty ear, so I can whisper in.
“Too bad we aren’t alone. We should fuck in a hot tub some time.”
Alazne giggles.
“Oh, don’t start. I don’t want my nipples to stand out in my bikini. And how could you keep going? You should be dry by now! I can barely stand up.”
“I know, I know. Just wanted to get your mind off the cold you’re suffering from, now that you are semi naked but not in bed nor in the water.”
“Well, it’s working. Let’s go in.”
We stroll through the roomy area towards the emptiest corner of the pools. The light installed underwater shines a cloudy yellow under the rippling water as we sink into it. Alazne and I let out long sighs. The stream shooting from the faucet installed behind us massages our shoulders while some bubbly jets tickle our ass cheeks and genitals. I lean back against the inner wall of the pool. I feel myself finally relaxing. I have emptied my balls to the extent that if I tried to cum again, my dick only would cough dust, and I might have impregnated my girlfriend, so my job is done. I can die in peace.
“My goodness!” Alazne says, delighted. “What a nice feeling.”
“Want me to massage your feet?”
She’s surprised, and then smiles at me gratefully.
“You don’t have to…”
“I want to.”
I scoot a bit further away from Alazne so she can turn and rest her calves on my thighs. I grab her dangling feet, which remain underwater, and rub them lovingly. She sighs in contentment.
“I don’t know where you learned to do this, but you are the best boyfriend ever.”
There’s no feeling like knowing that you have made your girl orgasm and possibly impregnated her like she yearns for, so for a few hours I will remain crowned as the queen of the universe.
“Thank you,” I say, kidding only a little. “I learned it watching YouTube videos, I think, and from many daydreams.”
Alazne remains silent. She stares at me with such love and trust that my blood gets warmer. A couple of locks of her beautiful hair are pasted to her temples. The pools are a perfect temperature, the underwater lighting creates a pleasurable ambiance, and my girlfriend’s feet are soft and smooth in my hands. I’m groggy and on the verge of sleep.
I feel someone’s eyes on me, and I realize that a middle-aged woman sitting inside the other pool is nudging her husband while gesturing with her head towards us. They talk to each other in a low voice. The man, who is almost entirely bald and has hirsute shoulders, shrugs and seemingly attempts to disuade his wife from getting a foot massage.
“I don’t think I will be able to do anything but sleep afterwards,” Alazne says with a dreamy languor. “Not even eat dinner.”
“Yeah, I’m not hungry. And this hotel offers a fancy breakfast buffet, so we can look forward to that.”
“I love you,” she says, and closes her eyes.
“I bet. I’ll intend to drag you to Gijón tomorrow morning, though.”
“Sure, let’s go to places and see new things… You lead the way…”
Shortly after, Alazne has had enough of my massage, or wants me to relax as well, so she lifts her holy calves from my thighs. However, I lean sideways against the cool tiled wall so I can put my arm around her shoulders. Her skin is warm and soft to the touch, and I let my fingertips linger.
I yawn to the point that my jaw cracks. I stretch my arms and legs, feeling all my muscles become loose. I could fall asleep like this. I close my eyes.
“Wake me up before I end up in France,” I murmur.

I woke Alazne up at eight in the morning so we could enjoy the breakfast buffet without having to hurry up. Once we got dressed and walked down to the dining area, we waited in a queue while a stressed employee made sure none of us were random bums off the streets, and then directed us to our tables. Although the hotel had seemed almost deserted, except for a few clients I had seen in the lounge, now we are surrounded by around two dozen groups of people, from rich executive types to working-class families with bored children.
Once Alazne and I are given a table, we serve ourselves coffee, orange juice and some pastries. I don’t touch the lunch meats nor any other food out of the ordinary, mainly because I feel I would have trouble digesting it. I don’t have the intestines of a twenty years old woman anymore.
Alazne and I talk about mundane things, although she is excited for the rest of our trip.
“So what are we going to see in Gijón?” she asks.
I take a sip of my bitter coffee, as I hadn’t added milk to it, and I steel myself to open up about old memories, most of which I don’t want my girlfriend to know. I take a deep breath.
“We won’t go sightseeing straight off. As I told you, I wanted to come to Gijón partly because writing my memoir was bringing some information and images to the surface. I want to visit a street that is linked to my past.”
Alazne listens wanting to retain every detail.
“Maybe you lived in that street long ago?”
I can’t hold her gaze any longer.
“I dont know… But it’s linked to complicated feelings from around two decades ago.”
She takes my hand and caresses it with her thumb. She isn’t pressing me for answers. I have committed fully to her, after all. Our baby might already be growing inside her. After a few seconds, I speak again.
“They are unpleasant feelings. So this could be difficult. Maybe bad memories will come up, and I fear turning into a sad sack for the next few days.”
Alazne smiles reassuringly.
“Asier, I’m not your girlfriend just for the laughs and the… wild sex. You can lay it all on me.”

I call for a taxi so a driver will waste a couple of hours of his or her morning driving up to this nowhere place and then straight into Gijón. I’m sure it’s going to cost me a few days of any regular person’s salary, but who cares. As a rich person, I have every right to waste money.
This time we get an old guy who gives me the impression of being someone’s grandfather, and it doesn’t take him much to bring up that he has indeed three grandkids. Alazne is eager to hear about his experiences raising a family. However, I notice that our new driver misses the exit of the roundabout that we entered through when that fish-man drove us here in the first place, and this old guy ventures through a small road surrounded by working-class neighborhoods, under a cloudy sky no less. Is the man a brigand? I keep looking out of the windows nervously, anticipating an ambush.
“Is this some kidnapping situation?” I ask to our driver from the passenger’s seat.
“Oh, I know this area like the bread on my table. We just took a shortcut.”
The old guy gives me an innocent smile. He could be a good actor.
“Well, how is the road condition ahead?”
“It’s great, don’t worry!”
I look at Alazne through the rearview mirror, but she seems more concerned with not offending the driver than our own safety.
I notice that between houses with crumbling walls there’s a way higher than average amount of palm trees given the weather. The people around here must have delusions of grandeur.
“Hey, Alazne, doesn’t this area remind you of your old home?” I ask over my shoulder.
“… Yeah, it does, but more quaint. I don’t know how to feel about that.”
“Why, where did you live before, miss?” the chatty driver asks.
Alazne opens her mouth. Her pupils dart around as if searching for an answer, or an excuse to avoid answering the snooping fellow.
“She lived in hell,” I say.
“Pretty much, yes,” Alazne agrees, then sighs.
The old man’s eyes grow wide as he realizes his mistake. Don’t try to open certain windows if you aren’t ready to face the view. This isn’t something that I can forgive, so I will have to end this man’s life. What kind of person would I be if I let him get away with his rudeness?
I take a deep breath and rub my eyes. No, I’m just anxious. I know I would regret not figuring out if my parents’ house remains there so many years later, now that I had the opportunity to come to Gijón. But at the same time I don’t want to. I wish that city had ceased to exist, that the US had dropped a thermonuclear bomb on it to cleanse the world from its depravity.
“Anyway, my name is Luis,” the old driver says.
Nobody asked you, I think.
Once the taxi leaves behind the shoddy outskirts of wherever we were, the landscape turns flat except for box-like industrial buildings, tall smokestacks and assorted dumps. Some of the cancerous plumes of grey smoke seem to be spewed from the ground, as if from geothermal vents. The traffic grows heavy with trucks, and the few signs of life on the sides of the road are rural restaurants to feed truckers and possibly prostitutes. The corrugated walls of some of the factory-like complexes are rusted and caked in thick grime as if a titan had pissed all over them, if titans had genitals. I recognize a huge orange crane as the one I had complained about to my fish-man friend when he drove in the opposite direction.
“What is this route?” I ask to the driver. “Are you trying to scare us off from your province?”
“No, it’s the fastest route to Gijón that doesn’t go through the highway. I thought you guys were tourists… You don’t get many views on those roads.”
“You should have made sure first that you had sights worth seeing. Look at that, the huge industrial complex with multiple active chimneys. It looks like the headquarters of a villain.”
“I think it’s a lumber mill,” the old man corrects me, stumped.
“You are a lumber mill.”
The driver squints as he smiles, which I suppose was intended as an apology.
“I’ve been doing this job for so long that I can’t put myself in your shoes anymore, I guess.”
“It gives a bad first impression of this area, it’s what I’m saying,” I grumble.
“Yeah, well… it’s not the best side of Gijón, but you should see the other sides.”
“We will, if we survive this ride.”
As if the landscape was hearing us, the last artificial clouds pouring from industrial complexes hang in the air behind us as the taxi continues through a verdant countryside.
“This is more like it,” I say, pleased. “We don’t have those scrawny trees at home. How do they stand upright without cracking and collapsing, when the trunks are so thin?”
“I don’t know, sir, I’m not in charge of nature.”
The view eventually degrades into isolated restaurants, dilapidated huts and a few houses with large yards. We also pass in front of healthy cornfields, with all the cornstalks carefully arranged in rows and columns.
“You guys raise your own food and everything,” I say. “It’s beautiful.”
The old man seems hesitant to even answer me, or maybe he’s upset at the poor state of the area.
“Well, we do try to survive in this world.”
“It’s good to survive. Having to eat every day gets so annoying, though.”
I feel like I’m having an old-age moment and will soon start yelling at young people to get off my lawn. Not only I’m wearing a nearly forty years old corpse, but mentally I’m even a bit older considering when the disaster of my consciousness switched on. I guess I’m overdue for a middle age crisis.
For the next few minutes the taxi either goes through a narrow road bounded by monstrous vegetation that has absorbed tons of rainwater, or we pass by the entrance of named industrial complexes. No way this is the right route to reach Gijón. Our driver must be senile. There’s a bleak glow in his eyes, as if he’s given up on life.
The dreary stretch eventually opens up into the countryside. We find ourselves surrounded by grazing fields and farmhouses. In the distant horizon, though, two isolated and striped smokestacks tower over the rustic surroundings as if they were prehistoric monoliths. I’m biting my tongue to avoid complaining again, only because it could irritate my beloved, but a road sign announces that we are approaching Gijón, so the driver must have been sane after all.
As the taxi climbs up the road, I get to gawk at a bundle of pipes, one of them thicker than a sequoia’s trunk, laid over a hill as if it was the modern, more toxic version of the ancient aqueducts, but Romans also poisoned themselves through their lead pipes, so I guess we haven’t learned anything in thousands of years. The taxi continues along the elevated highway, and a panorama opens in which, past more factories and colossal, robot-like electric poles, the horizon is now made out of residential buildings.
“You seem to be driving us to Gijón after all,” I say to the driver. “I apologize. I don’t place much faith in human beings anymore.”
“Yeah, we’re nearly there. I’m taking the long way to avoid the traffic jam.”
There was no traffic jam when we last used the highway. He must have taken the long way to charge us more. I have bigger things to worry about, though, like the headache that keeps worsening the closer I get to the city. Now that I’m recovering from the trauma inflicted by the impossibly long bus ride that brought us to Asturias, my brain keeps firing off alarms. I have looked at this tawdry row of one-story workshops that proudly display their companies’ names with lazy logos, I recognize this exact stretch of road, I recall seeing the graffitied underside of that bridge. But Asier has never been here, only my original brain experienced these images. I doubt human brains are made so someone else’s ghost can take them over, and it feels as if my current brain is beginning to question who is commanding it.

By the time the taxi is traversing an area of grey workshops, all of them with inclined roofs and corrugated walls, my skin feels clammy, and I feel like any sudden movement is going to trigger nasty nausea. I lower my gaze to the dashboard. As the outside world passes in a blur out of the corners of my eyes, I end up in a staring contest with a toy adhered to the dashboard: a bobbing cow with a golden bell and whose alarmed eyes seem to ask me ‘why the fuck are you looking at me?’. I want to close my eyes until we reach Schulz Avenue, but after how much I had been babbling during the ride, both the old driver and my girlfriend must be wondering what’s wrong with me.
A freight train zooms by in a rhythmic clickety-clack. A minute later the soundscape that surrounds us turns into constant traffic, conversations coming from the sidewalks, and the loud music of some generous assholes who want to share their tastes from their cars. I briefly glance towards the passenger window and I see a row of working-class apartment towers, as well as two lines of thick palm trees. I don’t know what’s with this area and palm trees, we are not in the tropics. But exposing my brain to more familiar sights only sends a shiver down my spine. I feel like I’m venturing willingly into a nightmare. I lower my gaze again.
Shortly after, the driver speaks up.
“Alright, we are almost there.”
I get busy pulling my wallet out and browsing through Asier’s cards, while the taxi passes in between two buildings constructed with copper red bricks and that have the first-floor windows protected with burglar bars. I have walked along these sidewalks more times than I can count. When I went out with my girlfriends, when I wanted to drink coffee at a coffee shop, when I had to buy groceries. I truly lived twenty years ago. I threw myself off a cliff and broke my spine. I want to vomit.
The taxi turns a corner. One of my classmates lived in that apartment building, but there wasn’t an office next to its front door. I bought lunch meats at that butcher shop. I got my hair cut a few times in that tiny hair salon, although I stopped going because the hairstylist asked too many questions. I want to get out of this car and breathe fresh air.
I feel how the driver turns his head to stare at me.
“I’ll park next to the Compostela plaza. Is that fine?”
As I was about to answer, I feel a sudden surge of nausea that forces me to swallow, just in case I end up throwing up all over the dashboard.
“Yeah, that sounds good,” I say in a grating voice.
“You have gotten carsick, haven’t you,” the old man asks, worried.
“We’ll get out in a minute, thankfully,” Alazne says from the back.
I can tell from her voice that she has been concerned about me for a good while.
Our driver parks next to a stall that sells lottery tickets. Once I get out of the passenger’s seat and stand up, I take a deep breath of air, although it smells too much like car fumes to call it fresh. My girlfriend stands on the sidewalk while I go through the process of paying with Asier’s credit card. The old man wishes for me to recover quickly, and then he thankfully leaves.
Alazne hugs me from the side and rests her head on my shoulder.
“My love, you remember this area, don’t you? I could tell that it was bringing up bad memories.”
On the opposite side of the street there’s a church lodged between old apartment buildings with covered balconies. My father forced me to attend catechism classes there.
Alazne hugs my left arm.
“Where now?” she asks sweetly.
“This was a terrible idea. We shouldn’t have come here.”
She reaches with one hand to turn my face towards her. I would have expected my girlfriend to be embarrassed of me, but in her hazel eyes there’s only concern and empathy.
“No, we are doing this. No regrets, remember? You are strong.”
I am strong, because Alazne needs me to be. I have no choice. I swallow, then point in the direction of my parents’ house.
“That way.”
We walk along a sidewalk so narrow, made worse by the trees planted near the middle of the pavement, that if the pedestrian in front of us walks too slowly, we’ll have to step onto the asphalt and hurry up to pass them by. We wait for a traffic light to turn green. Once we cross this sidewalk, we will only need to leave behind about seven narrow apartment buildings until we reach the two-story tall building where I used to live. As we start walking again, Alazne must sense how my dizziness increases, because she holds on tighter to my arm as if to lend me her strength.
I reach my former home, and I stop next to the facade. The wall is made of shiny slabs of some mineral with a surface that looks like black and grey noise. I don’t recall if it used to be so graffitied. The building next door is still condemned. I always wondered if bums lived there. I dare to look up towards the second story of my former home, but I can’t see any detail from this sidewalk, and the box windows jutting out from the wall are blocking most of the view.
“This is it, right?” Alazne says as she observes the for sale sign in the only storefront of the building, which has a window busted.
“Yeah, this is definitely the house from my memories,” I say in a thin voice.
“Did you live here?”
“I’m not sure whether it was me or someone else that I cared about. Let’s… cross the street to get a good look from the opposite sidewalk.”
“Are you going to be alright?”
“We’ll see.”
We cross the street, and Alazne holds my hand as we look at the building for two minutes, in silence. The window blinds are lowered most of the way, and the same old, yellowed curtains block the view of the inside. Two of the windows are slightly open to let the air in. You couldn’t pull back the curtain, because people walking along the opposite sidewalk could see into your room. It felt so cramped and stuffy. A working-class apartment that the inhabitants were damned to live in because they couldn’t find anything better, and that was constantly exposed to the din of traffic and of random people talking loudly or even shouting in the small square across the street.
Some interaction between my memories back when I lived as Irene and my current brain is short circuiting it, as if it can’t figure out whether I’m supposed to know these views from some movie, from my dreams, or because I’m losing my grip on reality. Back when I died, in my first day as a ghost I had the right idea when I chose to leave this city forever.
As I rub my temple, I turn around towards the square mainly so I can stop facing my hold home. The large planter that separates the sidewalk from the square’s pavement should have grown grass and plants, but it mainly contains mucky dirt, moss and cigarette butts. Then I lift my gaze up towards the benches maybe twenty meters away from me, and my blood runs cold. That seated old man who has rested his hands on his thighs and who is looking down at the pavement. That’s not him, is it? He seems to be staring at nothing. His eyes aren’t working anymore and he’s picturing instead something missing.
I swallow. My girlfriend has asked me a question, but I haven’t processed it. I walk further into the square and a bit to the side, to get a better angle of the man. What remains of his hair is white, with a few greys at the temples. The top of his head is bald, but the hair on the sides, which he should have cut at least a month ago, has raised with the breeze, making him look like a bum. He’s wearing a worn sweater with a checkered shirt underneath, along with high-waisted trousers. All his clothes are worn, as if he were the type that wouldn’t buy a replacement unless his clothes sported holes through which he could drive a thumb.
He’s rotting. His face is wrinkled, droopy and bloodless, as well as mottled with dark spots. The back of his hands show similar spots, and that skin is veiny as if a couple of worms had gotten stuck underneath. Is that man even alive anymore? No, he hasn’t been for a long time. The ghost escaped from the frame ages ago, but the brain has kept puppeteering the flesh and blood robot out of rote memory. The ground soaked up the fluids leaking from his body, and the worms and insects made a feast of what remained inside.
“My love, your hand is trembling,” Alazne says in a low voice as I feel her looking up at me. “That man is someone you used to know, right…?”
“He’s just some sad old ruin,” I mutter.
Would you be happy now, old bastard? I’m not the Irene who cut herself off, as if out of spite, from passing the genes that you and my traitor of a mother forced upon me. I’ve become big and tough. A proper man. I have already filled my girlfriend’s womb with my manly cum, and even if that doesn’t impregnate her, we will keep trying over and over. One day I will hold in my arms a defenseless baby, a creature whose wellbeing will always make me worry, and to whom I will always feel like apologizing for damning him or her to struggle in this world. And that baby won’t carry any single one of your genes.
“Asier, you are shaking…” Alazne says.
The old man looks up and notices me staring. He doesn’t move his body below his neck a single centimeter, as if he had become paralyzed and a random passerby merely plopped down his body onto that bench. He squints and blinks so his decaying eyes clear the vision of whoever has realized he still exists.
I get a strong feeling: after today, I will never see this human being again.
My legs feel rigid as if transformed into concrete, but I force them to turn towards the sidewalk so I can walk out of this avenue and call a taxi that will drive us far away from here.
“Let’s go, Alazne,” I mutter.
My girlfriend doesn’t budge, and she tugs on my hand.
“You can’t just leave after you know he’s someone from your past,” Alazne says decisively. “Talk to him, figure out what relation he had to you.”
I feel a heavy ball of lead sinking in my gut. I can tell that if I choose to insist and walk away now, it will create a problem in our relationship. She wants me to recover from my supposed memory loss and the damage it has done to my psyche. I can’t refuse.
“Oh no,” I mutter, but I start walking towards him.
My chest tightens as the anxiety grows inside my ribcage. The old man’s eyes are now watching me as we approach him. He coughs heavily. A phlegm rattles in his windpipe before he spits it on the ground. I wince, then wonder if this bastard recognizes me. But I’m a man, and Irene is dead.
Alazne holds her hands in front of her waist and lowers her head slightly towards this rotting creature.
“Hello, sir. Sorry to bother you, but my husband here knows you from somewhere. We aren’t sure what relation you two had, though…”
He looks at me, then turns his eyes back to Alazne. He opens his mouth and exhales an odor of rotten dentures. My stomach turns at the stench of decayed gums and oral cancer. I expect that any minute now foul-smelling black blood will pour from the decomposing orifice.
“Do I know you?”
His voice is wheezy yet loud. I wonder if he’s still smoking heavily.
“No, not me, sir,” Alazne says. “I’m Alazne. We are from Hondarribia, in Gipuzkoa. But my husband had a relationship with Gijón many years ago, around twenty, and he is quite sure he used to know you.”
The old man squints as he examines my face. I try to hold my breath.
“Never seen you before,” he concludes.
“Yeah, you have,” I say, and my words taste bitter as I push them out. “You just forgot me.”
He frowns slightly as if offended.
“I haven’t forgotten anyone, boy. I remember all of them. I haven’t gone soft in the head yet. So I can say with certitude that I’ve never seen your mug before.”
I don’t say anything, and Alazne and I make eye contact briefly. I want to walk away, but I want to hurt him. I grit my teeth and narrow my eyes at the man.
“I used to know her. You know who. Twenty years ago.”
The man snorts, and a line of dark green snot, like a thin worm, leaks slowly from his left nostril and onto his upper lip. He pulls out a tissue and blows his nose.
“Most of the people from twenty years ago are gone,” he says wearily.
“So you forgot her, then.”
“Didn’t I just tell you…?”
“Say her name,” I dare him.
The man raises his upper lip as if he’s bitten into a lemon.
“You mention a woman from twenty years ago…? You don’t mean…”
“Your daughter.”
The old man’s facial muscles spasm. He opens his mouth to speak, but only a throaty sound comes out.
“What was your daughter’s name?” Alazne asks softly, although she looks concerned.
His mouth hesitates as if he hasn’t allowed himself to verbalize it in many years.
“Irene… That was her name, my daughter’s.”
Alazne snaps her head back, shocked. She then stares at me as if she’s experiencing an epiphany. Whatever is going through her pretty brain can’t be the realization that I’m Irene, but she gets that I had a more complicated relationship than expected with this long dead gal who drowned. I never intended to drown myself, though. I wanted the far quicker death of spilling my brains when my head hit those jagged rocks.
“Yeah, I used to know Irene,” I say. “Had a close relationship with her, you could say that I got to know her quite well.”
He takes out his wallet. I don’t think about what he’s doing until I realize he’s pulling out a photograph. He attempts to show it to me, but I look away. I tense up from head to toe. The old man realizes that staring into those long dead eyes would be too hard for me, and he hands it to Alazne instead. I rub my eyes.
“Irene…” Alazne says sadly, I suppose while she studies the photo.
“Yeah,” the old man says, “that’s her.”
“She was pretty. And there’s a uniqueness to her eyes.”
“Pretty like her mother, and even wilder. Irene could rarely sit still, you could never get her to do anything she didn’t want, and she went on about the craziest things. Most of the time we didn’t know what she was talking about. I suppose there was… something wrong with her…”
I look down at the old man again. A soft smile lingers on his lips, as if getting to talk about Irene, despite the pain, was better than wasting another empty day. He looks up at the sky and blows his nose. Then he holds my gaze in a congenial manner, even though I must look pissed.
“So you knew our Irene, so many years ago,” the old man says. “Were you sweet on her?”
“You know that wouldn’t have changed anything.”
The arc of his bushy eyebrows tenses up and deepens his wrinkles. He knows I know, but he would never want to bring it up.
“I suppose not. But I’m asking you anyway.”
“I was fond enough of her, I guess. I didn’t consider the stuff she said as crazy. She simply had her own interests. Nothing wrong with that.”
He looks away and rubs his chin.
“Irene always seemed so sure of herself, and so bold, but she must have been… unhappy.”
I want to grab him by the throat and yell in his face.
“Did they find her body?” I ask harshly.
His eyes widen and he looks hurt.
“You really want to talk about that? What’s the use? Yes, they did. It took a week and a half until she washed up on a shore.”
He sucks in air, and the skin around his eyes reddens. He’s silent for a moment.
“I went to identify her,” the old man says as if forcing the words out. “I can see her… I wish that hadn’t been the last time I got to see her face.”
A tear rolls down his cheek, and he hastily wipes it away with the back of his hand. Neither Alazne nor me say anything for a few seconds, so the old man speaks again.
“Even though it would be a different girl, I had always hoped that she would live a long and happy life.”
“I-I can’t imagine how horrible it must be, to endure something like that happening to your daughter,” Alazne says, sounding as if she may cry as well.
“Thank you. It still doesn’t feel real. You know, I look at the time and think that Irene is going to return home from work. It feels that if I hold my breath, I will hear her putting the key in the lock.”
I’m gritting my teeth. My spine is trembling.
“Why would she have killed herself, old man?” I ask him somberly.
He forces himself to hold my gaze, even though tears may overflow from his lower eyelids at any moment.
“I don’t know. I really don’t know.”
“But you have a guess.”
“I think… she must have been very unhappy.”
“Why would a young woman like that, with her entire life in front of her, become so unhappy?” I ask him defiantly.
“I wish I knew. The world is a dark place.” He sighs and holds his head low for a moment. “We buried her at the graveyard next to her grandmother. Words cannot describe how heartbroken her step-mother was, God rest her soul. I’ll never forget that day, as long as I live.”
“You know. You wanted her to be normal.”
He narrows his eyes at me, then takes a deep breath.
“You are trying to blame me for her choice. Every father would want his daughter to be normal.”
“Normal,” I spit out the word in disgust. “You are insane.”
“How am I insane?”
“You have brainwashed yourself to rationalize your daughter’s death,” I tell him, barely containing my fury. “You claim that she killed herself because she was unhappy. But the real reason she killed herself is that you made her feel like a freak.”
The old man’s lower lip trembles.
“I made her feel like a freak? She was not normal, anyone close would have been able to tell you that. You should know, if you cared for her as much as you think. She was… always pursuing girls. She even brought them home, when she knew that it was hard for us. Irene didn’t care about anything, nor anyone else’s feelings.”
“What, was it so horrible to picture a pretty girl making out with another one, or licking the other girl’s clit? Or did it bother you that much because Irene was your daughter?”
He scrunches his face. His hands are shaking.
“You know what was down that path? Exactly where she ended up. She turned so unhappy that she believed that the world lacked a place for her. If she had considered that one day she may start a family, have kids… she would still be around.”
“You fucking sociopath. She only wished to be allowed to be herself. Instead you constantly pushed her to become someone else, and not because she wasn’t normal, but because she embarrassed you. You didn’t want people you knew to think that your daughter was defective. Irene only mattered for you as long as she matched who you intended her to be, someone who one day would give you grandkids. Is that not the case, you rotten old shit?”
His wrinkled face turns paler.
“I can tell that you two don’t have a child yet. So you have no clue, not a single one. Your job is to make them presentable to the world so they can survive by themselves. But she… was too much. I failed her. I blame myself every day.”
“Miserable, self-pitying shell. Your job as a parent is to love them for who they are, not who you want them to be. It’s your fucking job to pick them up when they fall and take away their fears. But most of all you are meant to accept them.”
His eyes turn red and crinkled at the edges.
“I dealt with Irene how I knew I had to,” he protests frailly.
“And now you are left alone with your pain. Was it worth it?”
The old man lowers his head. A warm hand grabs my trembling fist carefully, and I turn my head to find myself looking at my beloved girlfriend’s disquiet. I have done little else than disturb her, make her worry for me. I let my arms hang limply by my side. I’m about to propose that we leave, but the old man speaks.
“If you cared so much for Irene, what did you do to prevent her from jumping off a cliff?”
The question catches me off guard. The old man continues.
“I gave her everything I could, because I loved her. But I didn’t know how to make her happy. What did you do?”
“I tried to help her forget the pain,” I say.
“Did it work?”
He knows the answer, so I just keep facing his resentment.
“I’m not your punching bag,” the old man says. “In the end, Irene chose to die. She could have chosen to quit her job, to study something else, to seek some hobby. If she asked me to see a therapist, I would have sent her. She could have fallen in love, with another woman if she couldn’t help it. But she chose to jump off a cliff. What I’m saying is that she didn’t want a way out of her sadness. And because she didn’t want to get better, any help anyone provided was wasted.”
I feel numb. What’s the point? Why did I feel the need to come here? Nothing is ever solved, no amount of shouting and blaming ever changed anything. This old man isn’t my father anymore. One day he’ll become a ghost and maybe he’ll hang around for a while or he’ll dissolve into nothing.
In the end, the old man breaks the silence.
“Just go.”
I nod and take Alazne by the hand.