Stories

Door Ghost – Michael Zunenshine

I never believed in ghosts while I was alive. At least I think I didn’t. 

It’s strange, finding you’ve become something you didn’t think was possible. Maybe I have had similar moments throughout my life, passing from childhood’s forward-looking innocence to adulthood’s backward-gazing guilt. But I doubt those moments of revelation were as intense as when I realized I’d become a ghost.  

The truth is, I can’t remember anything for certain from that previous period of my existence when time counted, or when I was counting time, or should have been.

My familiarity with ghosts and the afterlife came mainly through TV and movies. Turns out they got some things right. Like those scenes in horror movies where someone walks through a door and it closes behind them. Now that’s me. I’m a Door Ghost. Sometimes I close it, slow and creaky. Other times I slam it shut. It depends on the assignment; I don’t get to decide. It’s not like I chose to be a Door Ghost. 

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Babies come into the world in a state of blissful ignorance. I can’t help thinking of this whenever I recall my experience after leaving it. 

There is indeed a white light at the end of a corridor. I know that bit of information has made its way into the imagination of the living. Supposedly it was a Whispering Ghost who let it slip while on assignment haunting someone who’d titled themselves a necro-ethnographer. 

I could understand the urge to share our secrets like that, but unlike Whispering Ghosts, it’s hard to communicate through doors alone.    

This white light: It wasn’t as if I was emotionally drawn into it, like it was pitting my soul’s will to go on living against the surrender of eternal peace. If that were so, I hope I would have fought against it, especially if it was an untimely death, which I’ve always feared was my case. No, it sucked me down the corridor like a vortex. 

Then I found myself squeezed among other newcomers. We were in a snaking queue with no end in sight, with guard rails wide enough to keep us in single file. We shuffled forward in baby steps, up and down and side to side and through various halls. Each time I thought I was approaching the exit, we emerged into a bigger hall. 

I tried to talk to another ghost. My words came out as a low mumbling. It occurred to me that this low mumbling was echoing around us the whole time. It sounded like words and language when I wasn’t paying attention. But as soon as I focused on meaning, all I’d hear was this nonsense mumbling. I also remember thinking in coherent sentences, but once I failed to vocalize them, I would right away forget what it was I wanted to share with the other ghosts.

So I began worrying about the end of the line. While I had no strong memories of my life, I retained ideas, mainly from the movies. One of these ideas was that I’d be judged when it was my turn. Weigh my karmic balance or psychoanalyze my feelings of guilt or shame. Heaven or hell, something like that. Definitely not waiting in some spiritual career-day line.

But no. After what seemed like an eternity, everything just blinked away. There I was, a Door Ghost, waiting for my first assignment, and innately knowing what I was supposed to do. 

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Being a Door Ghost is a lousy lot. I have some contact with other kinds of ghosts when on collaborative assignments. Many have more interesting responsibilities, and with that, more freedom. This makes me feel I must not have been a great human being when I was alive — that is, if our jobs are based on judgments of good and bad deeds, as well as the thoughts and desires or perversions I harbored. I really don’t know.

I know I’ve said it’s hard to remember anything for sure, but ghosts like me do sometimes get glimpses into our past lives. Not exactly memories, but feelings about memories.

I’m trying to collect these feelings. I often repeat them to myself to try to hold them closer. 

I grew up in a spacious surrounding; I enjoyed the feeling of being in water; I liked the touch of other people, then I stopped liking it, then I missed being touched; I watched a lot of TV; I had a fear of getting lost and causing great sadness for those who couldn’t find me; I once wrote a poem and was proud of it; I sat in front of a computer a lot; I learned to lie to get out of social obligations and not feel guilty; I liked alcohol; I liked the smell of bakeries; I wished I were kinder to the weak and helpless; I valued self-preservation for a long time, and then I regretted that. 

Other more specific details occur to me. But like waking from a dream, these thoughts would crumble through my ephemeral fingers the moment I’d try to focus and take hold of them for safekeeping.     

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My existence is not all sentimental, however. I have feelings of missing corporeal experiences, especially the physical sensations of smell and taste and touch — that is, I can’t remember smells, but I recall their existence. As a Door Ghost, I exist on sight and sound alone.

I’ve heard that higher-level ghosts do get to enjoy these sensations from time to time. One story was told to me by a Window-Rapping Ghost, whose position is as lowly as Door Ghosts. This Window-Rapping Ghost was on a collaborative assignment assisting a powerful Shadow Ghost. Their assignment was to drive some old lady insane. Why? My Window-Rapping colleague couldn’t say. We never know why. 

Anyways, after the haunting began, the old lady would stay up all night for fear that her ghosts were a product of her dreams. She kept awake by baking cookies and cakes. Supposedly, the Shadow Ghost would be able to smell her baking and would try and describe the smell to my colleague, who’d later tell me. While we both understand descriptions like “delicious” and “freshly baked,” we couldn’t translate that understanding into a memory of a sensation. 

Anyways, this seems like an anecdote of little importance, but it felt meaningful to me at the time, and sad.   

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Sadness is real. So is loneliness. I work alone a lot. It can feel like a long time between collaborative assignments. Not that I can count time in this place, but I do have senses of long stretches of nothingness, as well as the feeling when something is relatively recent.

For example, recently, I have been trying to find more meaning in Door Ghost work. Doors: What do they mean for the living, for the dead? Are doors not the ultimate metaphor that binds our worlds? Well, I guess there are windows, corridors, mirrors too. But not only do doors open and shut, but they are, by design, meant to be traversed. 

And I don’t always close them; sometimes I open them too. I don’t always trap somebody; sometimes I show them a way out.

Doors are change, doors are possibilities, doors are diverging paths. Sure, when I close them, they can be awful points-of-no-return. But a door closing behind you can be liberation from the past. “I did that,” I say to myself after some assignments. Although I never find out what happens to my subjects, I can imagine. I can’t recall many things, but I can still imagine.

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Take my most recent assignment. The subject was a little boy. I got to collaborate with a Light Ghost, the kind who’d turn lights on or off or just flicker them. Also, low-level like me.  

I was excited to work with another ghost, so I decided not to just go through the motions, as simple as door-maneuvering is. I wanted to understand why this child had been chosen to be haunted. From what I could tell, he was a sweet child, with loving parents and wholesome interests, the kind of child who collected bugs, not to torture, but to befriend, name them, give them backstories and dreams for the future. 

The child’s family, it seemed, was at the time recovering from some tragedy.

It was our first night. The Light Ghost and I began our work. The child was terrified, as per the assignment. But although our instructions were typically straightforward, I found myself trying to harmonize my slow creaky door work with the Light Ghost’s light fader work. And I intuited that the Light Ghost was doing the same. 

The second night, our door and light work became more harmonious. The child was still scared, but this time he didn’t cry for his parents, just sat up in bed, wide-eyed and panting. After a few hours, the child finally whispered the words, “OK ghosts, good night.” He then fell asleep. The Light Ghost and I looked at each other. We had bonded with the child and through him grew intimate with one another.

By the third night, our door and light work were no longer imbued with any cliché sense of dread. And the child wasn’t scared at all. He started speaking to us, giving us names, telling us about his day and what he wanted to be when he grew up: maybe a doctor, an explorer of new worlds, or a poet. The child read us part of a poem he’d written earlier. We could hear pride in his voice.

I can’t remember the words. I just somehow knew it was his way of dealing with a recent loss. Something about the ways we feel close to other people, or other beings — that being alive is more than a walking-talking-breathing, messed-up collection of physical matter, sometimes burdened by the past, or endured by the future.

Before our next shift, our assignment was abruptly terminated. This is common, and at our level, we’re not told why: whether it’s due to the assignment’s successful completion or canceled due to failure. I honestly find it one of the hardest parts of ghost work.

But despite having no idea what happened to the child, I can fondly remember this assignment. And I’ll remember my time with the Light Ghost. I’m not sure how long I’ll be able — or allowed — to hold onto these memories. But for now, I can hope, dream even, that we’ll meet again, the Light Ghost and I, to make music and poetry out of our maddeningly incomprehensible work. 

I can imagine it. A new door being opened; a fresh ray of light entering a room. I am imagining it right now.