[Here’s a short story from Nicholas Day’s collection, Now That We’re Alone. Out now.]
Nobody can deny the existence of ghosts if they possess that thing called a memory, wherein the mind recalls voice, appearance, and even action. Everything that has come before has a potential to haunt… as long as one remembers. And if one is moved emotionally, or their actions easily swayed by memory, by history – because everything that has come before is history, or memory, thus ghosts – then the dead are busy at work in our living world. Many people are haunted for their entire lives, and remain so until they die. Then they have no more room for secrets and become – themselves – a memory. A ghost.
In the city of Alton, you can walk snow-slick cobblestone streets and watch the Mississippi choke on ice, and if the clouds see fit to separate then a thousand dull reflections serve as a reminder that there is a sun still hovering above the earth, but warmth and sweat will have to wait, because the cold isn’t done killing. Snow falls thick, like meat, and covers damn near everything but the persistence of man, his lights and cars and shopping malls where the older folks in town go to power walk, to distract themselves from their own advancing mortality. The cold outside is patient, aches bones, like the pain of being lonely.
It is here, in this cold, that we can find Lewis.
Lewis lives alone in a one-story house, and in the wintertime he keeps the thermostat at an even sixty-five degrees because Lewis is a heavy man who cannot deal with warmth and damp skin.
He pours himself some coffee and thinks about adding sugar.
Lewis always remembers Mother—Lola—when he thinks of sugar. Lola was a passionate woman, and round, very round and very red. She was the kind of red that signaled bad cholesterol, and she was round because food rich in cholesterol tasted very good to her. She cooked meals that Lewis still remembers. He daydreams of dinnertime the way some men think of fucking.
When Lewis was much younger he made it a habit to run a lot because he did not want to end up like Mom. When he ran he thought about leaving and going Someplace-Far-Away and forgetting life and snow.
When Lewis turned eighteen, he ran nine miles during that year’s first snowfall. When he came home he found Lola dead – in the kitchen. She almost finished making a chicken sandwich; a bit of mayonnaise coated her fingers. In his shock, Lewis finished the sandwich she had started. He sat at the kitchen table and cried and ate.
The official cause of death was complications from diabetes.
Lola died ten years ago, and for the first five years after her death, Lewis refused to keep sugar in the house. It was a silly superstition, but he always felt it was her love of sweet things that did her in. It was her addiction, like how Lewis started to drink all the time, though he put himself through AA and cleaned up pretty fast. Coffee, de-cafe, became his social drink of choice. That’s when sugar started making its way back into the house.
Lewis thinks coffee tastes like shit. So did alcohol, but when he got drunk enough he didn’t mind so much. Coffee, however, needs sugar. Just like winter needs snow. Lewis bought a bag, but kept it in the tallest, most awkward of the kitchen cabinets.
Three of the kitchen cabinets are above the sink and are easily accessible. The fourth runs parallel to the corner of the room and above the old gas stove. That cabinet sits higher than the rest, to avoid the heat of the burners. Because the stove sticks out a good inch farther than the countertop, it makes it all the more difficult to get to. Lewis uses only one shelf in that cabinet, and on that shelf – the very top one – sits sugar.
After Lola died, sugar replaced jogging. Fat intake took the place of casual sex. Within three months Lewis was courting obesity and contemplating suicide. During the summer he tried to overdose on sleeping pills.
While he was swallowing all those pills he started thinking about his mother’s funeral, the sound of sobbing and wanting those tears for himself, or at least something close. He fantasized about people wiping their eyes. Lewis wanted people to appreciate the moments they had with him, and not because he was something significant to their lives, but because he was gone. Fuck them if they wished they’d spent a little more time with him.
Lewis wanted to die but ended up barfing a lot.
His grandfather, his father’s father, visited him at the hospital.
“Your father would be sick.” The old bastard sneered.
“Why are you here?”
The old man leaned in close and shook Martin’s gut. “You always took after your mother.”
Lewis turned away from him, blubbering. “Fuck you.”
The old man grabbed Lewis by the face. “I came to tell you to clean yourself up”—he shook—“to stop being such a fucking woman.” He loosened his grip and went to the door, but stopped just before he left. “If you’re so lonely, why don’t you go buy yourself a gun?” He spit on the floor. “More reliable than pills anyways.”
Grandfather never spoke to Lewis after that and, ironically, didn’t follow his own suicidal advice. In a note found below his swinging feet, the old man cited the inconveniences of dying in the winter. No gun for the old cuss, just some rope and a life that amounted to shit and a disdain for cold weather. Lewis wondered what his father would have thought of that, having been a suicide himself.
Lewis thought of his father as often as he remembered his mother.
When his father died he was still very young and Lola was still very thin, though she had more bruises. After the funeral, bruises became little more than bad family history, but Lola would still freeze at the top of any staircase and would only descend after a quick glance over the shoulder.
Lewis takes a sip of his coffee and cringes. He looks over his shoulder and glances toward that tall, awkward cabinet.
He shrugs. “Like winter needs snow,” he says and puts his cup of coffee on the counter.
Lewis is not a very tall man, slightly under six feet, and finds that he makes friends easier with people shorter than himself. He does not like being looked down upon.
His stomach presses hard against the stove and his swelling fingers cannot reach the handle of the cabinet. He tries again, and a third time. His shirt has worked itself above his bellybutton.
Lewis sweats profusely.
He takes his shirt off and drapes it on the kitchen counter. The back of the shirt is soaked through, making it look like a Rorschach test. Like a butterfly, he thinks, and wipes his eyes.
His stomach pushes back into the stove and he’s reaching again, but not for the cabinet handle. All he needs is the corner. If he can just get a fingernail under there, then flipping open the cabinet shouldn’t be a problem. Lewis leans very hard. He bites at his lower lip and closes his eyes. In his own imposed darkness he daydreams the cabinet coming open and the sugar is in his hands. A sigh of relief escapes him. He’s not sweating. He’s skinny. He and Lola share a coffee. Dad is home. All is love. He’s got it.
Lewis opens his eyes and sees blood running from underneath the nail of his index finger. Sweat runs from his armpits and around the curves of his fat waist. He begins to tear up and looks to the cabinet. It is open, barely. The sugar sits in shadow, hidden by the dark beyond the cabinet door.
He makes a fist and slams it into the stove. The cabinet creeps shut. He drops to the floor and sits with his back against the wall. “Fat, fat, fat…” he mumbles as he rubs his stomach. Blood still seeps from under his fingernail and leaves little smears across his skin.
There is a first-aid kit under the kitchen sink. Lewis pulls it out and pops it open, revealing the cornucopia of Band-Aids and antiseptic wipes. A roll of gauze and a pair of surgical scissors are packed into their own little container. Lewis can’t imagine ever needing the gauze, and the surgical scissors make him nervous. They are more like a weapon than a pair of scissors.
Getting up off of the floor takes a lot of work, but his forearms are thick. He grabs the kitchen counter and pulls himself up. He opens one of the kitchen drawers and pulls out a fork. He is leaning on the stove again.
The end of the fork slides under the cabinet door and he gives it a quick push. The cabinet opens wide, exposing the bag of sugar…which rolls back further into the cabinet.
Lewis steps back and scratches the top of his head with the fork.
“Son of a bitch.”
He tosses the fork into the sink.
His shirt has dried and he puts it back on. He grabs the cup of coffee and takes a small sip, then forces himself to take a much bigger drink. He swishes the coffee back and forth in his mouth, but quickly turns on the faucet and slurps handfuls of water to rinse out the taste. He sets the cup of coffee back on the counter, laughs, and grabs the fork again.
Lewis is at the stove and on his toes, trying to hook the bag of sugar with the prongs of the fork. The strain causes him to fart and he laughs, a choked and guttural sound. The prongs of the fork catch the bag and it heaves forward. Lewis comes down on his heels and he draws his arm back. There is a sound.
A ripping sound.
A great cloud of sugar fills the air, cascades to the stove and even further, dusting the kitchen floor. Lewis stumbles back and hears the crunch of granules crushing beneath his feet and somehow manages to knock over his cup, which bathes the countertop in caramel-colored coffee. Sugar spills and spills from the bag’s open wound, forming sweet little dunes atop the kitchen stove.
Lewis picks up the cup and wipes the outside of it with a paper towel. He pours himself more coffee and opens one of the kitchen drawers, pulls out a spoon, and gets some sugar from the top of the stove.
It takes hours to clean up the mess. A combination of paper towels, pinching fingers, and a vacuum help get the job done. The sound of snow colliding against the windowpane keeps Lewis company.
He takes a shower and puts on some warm clothes. Seems he’s out of sugar, and his thoughts turn to the grocery store nearby.
Lewis opens the front door and makes sure to lock the handle. Just before he walks outside, the hair on his neck stands on end. He looks over his shoulder.
No one is there.
“There is no such thing,” he says.
Lewis closes the door to his childhood home, trapping within his accumulation of memories, but carrying in himself a wealth of secrets waiting patiently to be remembered.
…from the afterword to Now That We’re Alone:
“Snow Like Lonely Ghosts…” was also written during my year in Cincinnati. The story had originally been conceived as a first chapter to what I had hoped would be my first full-length novel. That never came to fruition. As it turned out, I knew fuck all about writing a whole book. However, it was a solid piece of prose that worked as a self-contained story. I even wrote another three or four chapters before throwing in the towel. Eventually, I junked the rest but held onto the first bit, and in 2008 I made a couple of minor revisions. That draft was picked up by Morpheus Tales, seeing print in 2009. First short story of mine to see print. I was living in Los Angeles at the time, and just had two feature-film projects implode during the 2007-2008 Writer’s Guild strike, so it was a much-needed pick-me-up.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nicholas Day currently resides in the Pacific Northwest. His novella, Necrosaurus Rex, and his collection of short fiction, Now That We’re Alone, are both available through Journalstone imprint Bizarro Pulp Press.
His new novella, At the End of the Day I Burst Into Flames, will be released in December of 2018.
Click here to find him online and on Facebook.
Nicholas Day is creating original art and sending to the first 50 people who purchase the ebook and read a review. Here’s a sample of art he’s sent to people: