Ghost Story – Tess Pollok
October 1, 2022
Fingers of cold dawn snaked around the room, closing the single delirious occupant into a bitter morning fist. The bitter face of fascism, she thought to herself, pulling at the ends of her hair. The bitter agony of split ends.
She got out of bed and walked to the bathroom, stupidly, with a kind of long drag in one leg, a psychosomatic limp. She was sleepy or tired or just malnourished. Three years of nuclear winter. Outside the window: white.
In the mirror she noticed her eyes were turning a yellowish color. When she tugged at them or looked far to the left or right she could see blood pooling on either side, something to do with her veins. In the kitchen there were canned peaches, canned peas, and canned chili. In the trash can there were empty cans of peaches, empty cans of peas, and empty cans of chili.
Cooking out of cans is an ascetic experience. Mimetic drive carried her through the opening act, the wrist flick of dumping it into the skillet, the sound of canned food softening into something digestible. She wondered if she would survive one of those astronaut tests where they lock you in an antechamber for a year. Imagine not surviving that. Imagine not surviving anything. She could imagine it. There was no world left to end.
Breakfast was half a bag of frozen chickpeas thawed in chili. The meal was a meal, the meal was chewed and eaten. She added hot sauce to everything, which did something to her tongue, at least.
What does it mean to miss an old life? She wondered if the powder color of her apartment walls could be considered alabaster. Pearl. Bone. She loved the color taupe. She showered in the shower. In the off-white morning light she could dimly make out her swollen feet. She crouched to massage blood into her extremities and contemplate her new limp. The water ran cold in a few minutes and she lay on the shower floor practicing her distress tolerance. Distress tolerance was a phrase from her pre-winter days, when she was a beautiful girl caught in the unexpected blitzkrieg of low self-control. In therapy they taught her to tolerate stressful situations by counting backwards, by listing objects in the room. Emotion is mimetic, too, a developed reflex of the spirit – you could, for example, increase your ability to tolerate the emotional distress of life by tolerating the physical distress of a cold shower – the ontological connection between the two seemed tenuous to her. But still she lay flat and cold in the water, flinching and training herself.
A friend once saved her number in his phone as “War of the Worlds.” It was because of her personality: hostile and dysfunctional. Maladaptive, at one point in time. Now, most people were dead and she was alive. She got out of the shower and dried off, wrapped long rolls of gauze around her arms, legs, hands, and feet, before putting on her long underwear, her clothes, and finally her outer shell.
The closest thing they had to a celebrity in the building was the water heater tender, an old man who lived in a converted stairwell on the roof level. He was good at attending the heaters, and did so with extraordinary care, but he was also a hopelessly dispossessed and wretched person, under-socialized and lacking a necessary self-consciousness in his perversity. He was wet-eyed, his teeth were rotting out, and he grunted while masturbating on the public stairs. He had a complex public utility: screwdrivers, hammers, a pipe wrench, and nails. Besides him, their community had dwindled from twenty-eight to about seventeen as the building’s insulation decayed and units were variously blasted and frostbitten out of existence. Even her own room had begun to feel indecently cold.
She went downstairs and leveraged herself into one of the abandoned apartments, helping herself to a frozen door jamb. A few kicks and it crumbled in. Brittle metal.
The first time she ever walked into a winter-claimed room she had been thrilled by the novelty, like stepping through the freezer door. Everything was brushed with a fine white cream puff crust. Things sometimes froze until they burnt – she once picked up a book that crumbled to snow in her hands.
The living room was piled with snowdrifts and ice blown in through a hole in the back wall. A large white drape was suggestive of a couch. A table had frozen to the kitchen linoleum. The apartment was post-ransacked, having been entered and resourced of anything useful by at least a dozen people before her. Still, she began mechanically checking the pantry to see if anything was left behind. A column of ice turned out to be a stack of porcelain bowls that cracked under handling. Nothing edible. A single fork was under the kitchen sink. The plastic shards of an ex-bleach bottle.
The bathroom proved a more successful venture. A pair of nail clippers had fused to the mirror in a block of ice. She punched off the chunk, wrapped it in tarp, and put it in her backpack.
Outside the building, it was white and white and white. She taped a visor to her hood to deflect from the blinding starkness of the scene. The road, sidewalks, and other construct shapes were anemically outlined without shadow under a blank totalitarian sky. It wasn’t possible to walk with so much ice packed over the road, so she moved in shallow, slip-and-slide lunges across its surface.
She and other community members had left a pile of ski poles in the lobby and used them, interchangeably, to pole around the premises using the cracks and grooves of the landscape. Walking was like eating canned food, it was rote motion. The hinges of her body swung in perfect accord. Stab at the ice. Lean on the pole. Slide. She was miserable and kicking through clots of frozen ground for nuts when it occurred to her that she wanted to die and was ready to do it. She laughed to herself. She had no idea her story was a ghost story! She had always thought of herself as a tireless adventurer. But she was too tired to adventure anymore, and there was nothing in any direction for miles.
She wondered if she was allowed to do that, to make the decision to kill herself without a drastic, catalytic event. I’ll find a reason to kill myself in the snow, she thought while obliquely shuffling through her findings. A few frozen twigs, some ice-fossilized leaves, a syringe. If it wasn’t so cold out she could have cried at being denied a single decent provocation to suicide.
She took the nail clippers back up to her apartment and contemplated the best way to die. She could let winter into the apartment, but that would be a slow death, and too predictable. She wanted to turn up the heat so she could die spectacularly. It would be so outrageous to be boiled alive in the bath. It even excited her, the idea of being turned to soup. But there was nothing spectacular around and nothing painless or easy like pills was available. She remembered the shotgun in the lobby and went back downstairs.
There were unspoken rules surrounding what you gathered for yourself and what you shared. The lobby housed their badly abused stockpile of community resources: ice poles, firewood, hand warmers, axes, and the shotgun. It was for the defense of the property, though they had an excess of shells so it was mostly used to shoot cans in the parking lot. She was surprised by how easy it was to load it, put it in her mouth, and pull the trigger.
She felt a pinprick of pain, just at the back of her mouth, and that was it. The pain went vastly beyond her threshold to experience it and existed in a purely hypothetical state when her brain exploded out of the back of her skull.
She was crumpled to the ground, trailed hysterical viscera across the carpet. She felt her relationship to the ground shift as her consciousness settled into a new, indescribably neutral focal point. She was annoyed, or maybe surprised, that she was still there.
There was a loud slam as someone flung open their door, followed by the thud of boots on stairs.
“Oh my god!” Someone shouted. “Claire killed herself!”
At that moment, she dislocated from her body. There was a pinch of total nothing. She re-apparated in the lobby at a later, more indistinct time. Probing the psychic reaches of her new ghosthood, she was awed by the vast vascular infrastructure of the building: through a light switch, she felt miles of electric filaments enter the building’s network, micro-transacting through thousands of switches and outlets into the circuitry’s finite endpoints. A faucet: she felt the the building’s weight distributed across the ground, the under-earth pressure drawing water from the pipes. Lying on a human chest, she felt the blood and electric peat bog of the human body.
She wasn’t sure what to do with herself, so she went to see the water heater tender. He was cruel and unmanageable. She watched him invite a young girl up for dinner and trade her little pieces of skirt steak to put his hands up her skirt. She watched him kick his dog. She watched him gritting through the pain of solid food, watched him pick up and rearrange loose teeth in his gums after they fell out against a tough bone.
He didn’t know it, but they spent their days together. It was just the two of them alone among the pipes. He worked, she watched. Each night he ate dinner in bed and huffed oil from a small can at his bedside. After he got high he would scratch himself all over, especially places he was sore, masturbate until he came, and wipe himself with the singular sheet he used for eating, sleeping, and drying. In the morning he would rinse and wring out the sheet and do minor repairs around the building, or he would serenely tinker with abandoned materials.
She fell in love with him. It was unexpected and overwhelming. It made her want to cry. It made her regret death. She lay with him at night, watching his breath fog on the window, wishing more than anything she could write him a message on the windowpane: “I love you, but I never got to know you. How come I never got to know you?” But she couldn’t. It was finally true that there was no world left to end.