The cemetery was a brisk two-mile hike from Hostetler House. It took me a little over an hour to reach it. I met up with Marco at the gate, and then we found Eric, the only other member of Hostetler House our age, behind the caretaker’s shed. He was smoking a cigarette, holding it between his middle and index finger, when Marco and I crept up on him. We startled him, and he dropped the cigarette into his sweatshirt. He batted at it until it fell on the ground.
“Christ, Marco!” Eric said. “You made me go and waste a perfectly good smoke.”
“It’s bad for you, anyway,” Marco said. He squinted in the dark and saw that everything was in order. Our familiars were there, waiting silently and patiently for us to command them.
Marco’s familiar was a giant were-Saint Bernard that always gave me the creeps. It had only one good eye; the other side of its face was smooshed in from where a Ford Bronco had roared into it, ending its life. My familiar, Rufus, was also a weredog, though a more moderate-sized golden Retriever, and thankfully not a former piece of roadkill. He’d made it to the ripe old age of thirteen before he’d finally passed on, but of course now it didn’t matter how old or how arthritic he’d been in life. At Hostetler House the curriculum was all about teaching dead dogs new tricks.
“All right, let’s go,” Marco said. He switched on his flashlight and began to head north.
Marco was in familiar territory. He led us through the sprawl of headstones, unerringly pointing to the north, where the newer graves lay. I shone my flashlight on as many of the grave markers as I could, taking in the parade of names and dates. ALBERT HERNSEY, 1895-1954 ... MARTHA WELLS, 1912-1984. As always, I was mesmerized by the landscape before me: here were hundreds of histories, long and short, lying peacefully in the ground beneath our feet.
As we proceeded north, toward the newest corner of the cemetery, the dates grew more recent. MARGARET KENT, 1954-2002. JACOB TRENT DIXON, 1989-2003. I contemplated this one for a little while. The kid had been about my age when he’d passed on. I wondered fleetingly what had done him in.
“Well, here we are,” Marco announced. He came to stop before the newest headstones. “That one’s yours,” Marco said to Eric. He pointed to a grave marker that said JOSÉ VARGAS, 1974-2005. “Died in a car accident last Tuesday. Tragic. This one’s mine.” The marker read ANDREW PETER SCHMIDT, 1978-2005. “Drowned in his own swimming pool.” Then Marco put a hand on my shoulder and pointed to a tiny headstone that read MARTIN LESLIE PATTERSON, 1976-2005. “And this one ... drug overdose, I think. He’s all yours.”
I frowned. “All my what?”
Marco beamed. “Your fake ID, of course. Tonight’s our night on the town.”
I groaned. “You can’t be serious.”
“C’mon, old bean,” Eric said. “Where’s your sense of adventure?”
“The headmaster would kill us if he knew what we were doing.”
Marco shrugged. “He oughta be proud. We’re putting our studies to good use, after all.” And without further ado, Marco bent down and rested his hand on the grass of Andrew Peter Schmidt’s grave. “Get up,” he whispered to it.
Our familiars went to work burrowing in the fresh earth of the graves. It was painstaking, but the animals never tired, and never had to pause to rest. Inside of an hour, they had the caskets uncovered to the point where we could pop the lids. Marco had brought along a crowbar for just such a necessity. He was like a friggin boy scout, I thought—always come prepared.
So shortly after one thirty, by my Indiglo watch, the three corpses stood in a row before us, waiting to do our bidding.
Marco’s was strapping, a tree trunk of a man struck down in the prime of life. He looked like he must have been a bodybuilder. Eric’s was quite handsome, too; it was hard to tell because embalming always tended to make faces look like botox gone bad, especially after they’d been in the ground a few days, but I thought he had a face like an Abercrombie and Fitch model, with penetrating eyes and the works. Well, of course they were penetrating; corpses didn’t blink, after all.
Mine, however, was rather plain. Martin Leslie Patterson had kept himself in good shape, at least. He wasn’t prone to flab like some men in their late twenties, but he was a bit on the skinny side. I began to wonder if Marco had picked him out for me on purpose.
“Well, let’s get started.” Marco sat on the grass, and his corpse sat obediently next to him. Eric did likewise. I hesitated for a second. I knew what Marco had in mind: we’d all practiced shunting our consciousnesses into fresh cadavers. It was just like animating a familiar—only from the inside out. Except to me the transference had always felt like something sacred, an ethereal exchange between the dead and the living. “Um, are you sure about this?” I asked.
“Would you sit down already?” Marco said. “You’re breaking my concentration.”
I sighed inwardly. Well, I thought, looking to Martin Leslie Patterson, let’s go for it. I sat down on the ground, and I willed the corpse to follow my lead. It sat facing me, waiting expectantly.
I reached out to take its hands. Then, I closed my eyes and breathed deeply. Martin Leslie Patterson inhaled, too. Dead bodies didn’t breathe unless they were commanded to, really; I focused my thoughts on him and at the same time I breathed deeply in and out, in and out, just as the headmaster had taught me. Soon my breathing and Martin Leslie Patterson’s grew perfectly in synch; we remained like this for several inhales, exhales, inhales, exhales ... . When I was certain I had the rhythm right I focused my perception inside my own body, willing the feel of the grass beneath me, the sough of the air on my face, to drop away.
When all external sensations had vanished, I exhaled once, longly, willing my concentrated perception to travel along the conduit of my arms and into the inhalation of Martin Leslie Patterson ... .
All my senses went haywire for a second. It felt like I was watching my own sight through a video whose cameraman was violently shaking the camera. There was no point of stability on which to focus.
I panicked. This was not how it had been when the headmaster had taught me this procedure. I tried to pull away from the link, and for a moment I failed completely. The pitching and roiling of my perception continued.
And then I found an anchor: a touch. On my shoulder.
I opened my eyes.
Actually, I didn’t. I opened Martin Leslie Patterson’s eyes. He was lying on the ground, panting heavily. I looked to my left, and through the surreal othersense of the transference, I saw my own body, lying in the grass and panting heavily.
“Are you all right?” Marco, now wearing the body of Andrew Peter Schmidt, asked me. It was his hand on my shoulder.
“Yeah,” I said, and sat up. The transference had worked. For a second it had just been ... weird.
“Christ, I thought you were gonna lose it, man. Don’t do that again, all right?”
I bit back a sarcastic retort. Marco—or rather, Andrew Peter Schmidt—helped me to my feet, keeping his hand on my shoulder to steady me. At length, he said, “Feeling all right now?”
I took stock of the sensations of being in Martin Leslie Patterson’s body. Everything seemed fine now, except for one thing. There was an insistent pressure right around his midriff. I frowned. “I think this guy has to pee,” I said.
“That’s impossible,” Eric said. “He’s been in the ground at least four days. He can’t possibly have anything left in his bladder.”
“Yeah. I guess you’re right.” I let Eric convince me that the strange feeling must have been my imagination.
“Well, let’s get going,” Marco said. “The night is ours.”
Marco had chosen the trendiest nightclub in town for our hangout. The Underground was housed in an old converted railway depot from when the rails had passed through the center of town, so it was, aptly enough, underground. It consisted of two levels joined by a catwalk-like winding stair. On the upper level, several tiny tables barely big enough for one person overlooked the dance floor; most of the tables had clusters of three or four people crowded around them with graveyards of empty drinks on the table. On the lower level was the dance floor, where throngs of people gyrated in close proximity to the beat of music with bass cranked up high enough to rattle your spinal column.
Marco, Eric, and I paused just inside the door and surveyed the scene. Some guy on the music system was howling about purple rain, or some shit like that. I thought the song sounded vaguely familiar, like something I’d heard on the radio during a retro weekend, but I couldn’t place it.
Retro night. Great. From what I could see of the crowd from the entryway, almost everybody here was in their thirties. Nobody even close to our own age. I suddenly felt very conspicuous, as if everyone could see through my disguise and see the fifteen-year-old kid lurking in the thirty-something man’s body.
I stole a glance at Eric and Marco, and had to do a double-take. The corpses they wore reflected their body language perfectly. Marco surveyed the room with his trademark what-the-hell gaze, taking in all the sights and sounds as if he was too cool to care about anything—ever. And Eric’s gaze was more lingering, his eyes roving around the room, coming to rest at intervals and undulate over the curves of sleek-dressed women. Eric always had only one thing on his mind.
I wondered if my own corpse was so blatantly transmitting my mannerisms—whatever those were. But before I could ask Marco how I looked, he leaned over and shouted something in my ear. I didn’t hear him over the music; I shook my head and shouted back “What?” but he didn’t bother to repeat himself. He was already strutting off across the bar toward the stairs that led down to the dance floor. Eric and I watched him disappear down the steps of the catwalk.
A second later Eric leaned over and said something to me. I couldn’t make out what it was, but his intent was clear. He pointed to the bar, then patted me on the back as if to say see ya later, chum, don’t forget to write. And he set off, heading in the opposite direction Marco had gone, leaving me there standing all alone.
Great, I thought. Now what? I looked out over the bar again, trying to copy Marco’s disaffected cool-cat stare; I had no idea how it came off on my appropriated face. I shuffled to the side to stake out a spot on the wall.
I watched the crowd, feeling vaguely self-conscious. My little spot of wall grew smaller and smaller as people pressed in around me. A couple squeezed in right next to me, though they took no notice of me. The man, dressed all in black, rested one arm on the wall, and in his other hand he held a half-empty bottle of beer. He stared down at a petite brunette in a red dress and smiled, showing entirely too many teeth. At one point he leaned in close to her, almost close enough to kiss, and his butt nudged me, but he didn’t even notice.
I decided to seek out a spot with a bit more space. Leaving my perch on the wall, I meandered a bit further into the Underground. I caught sight of Eric over at the bar, so I wandered over to him. I edged in next to him. “Uh—how’s it going?” I asked, having to shout over the music.
“Here, try this,” Eric said. He placed a shot of some brownish liquid in front of me. He held one up in his own hand and waited for me to lift mine.
I took the shot glass and held it to my lips. “What is it?” I asked.
I frowned. “Can you even taste that?” I asked him.
“Partly,” he said. “This guy’s tastebuds aren’t completely gone yet.” And he downed the entire shot, then slammed the glass back down on the bar. “Damn, that’s good stuff,” he said. “And the best part is, I could drink all night and still never get this guy drunk.”
He had a point there, I thought. He was waiting for me expectantly, so I dutifully downed the shot. I felt liquid slithering down my corpse’s throat, but not much more than that. I wondered if Martin Leslie Patterson’s taste buds had already decayed too far.
Eric grinned. “Burns, don’t it?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I guess.” Eric was already turning to the bartender and ordering another one, a martini—shaken, not stirred. He’d gotten that from James Bond movies.
Seeing that Eric was going to be occupied for a while, I leaned in close and shouted in his ear, “I’m gonna find Marco.”
Eric waved at me, already ignoring me. He turned to the bartender who was making his martini.
I wandered over further, pressing in between too many milling bodies. I stepped out onto the catwalk-like stairs that headed down to the lower level. Here, I noticed there were people lined up along the railing, holding drinks out over the heads of the dancers beneath them. I found an empty spot along the railing and looked out.
It didn’t take me long to spot Marco in the crowd. The cadaver he was sporting for the evening was in the thick of the dance floor, gyrating and grinding. He had two women, one on each side of him, grinding up close to him. Damn, I thought. Even with a borrowed body he was a smooth operator. I wondered if those two ladies would be so quick to grind up against him if they knew that his body had been lying in the ground with worms and maggots only a few hours ago.
I looked up and down the railing at all the other people standing there, conscious of how out of place I was. I didn’t have a drink, for one thing. Everybody standing on the railing had a drink, and they nursed them casually, to detract attention from the fact that they were really ogling the crowd dancing below, like lions stalking a gazelle, or something. I thought about returning to the bar with Eric and buying myself a beer—
—but then I gripped the railing. My senses suddenly went reeling. The strange sensation of roiling I’d had in the graveyard returned. All perspective deserted me; it was suddenly as if the floor were onrushing, then receding, then onrushing again, then receding ... like it was tethered to a rubber band. What the hell? I thought. I tried to put a hand to my forehead, and I couldn’t tell if I missed or not.
“—you okay?” a voice shouted, practically in my face. It had to be in my face for me to make out words over the music.
I blinked, and my perception stabilized. Was there something wrong with my link to this body? I wondered. That shouldn’t be ...
There was a hand on my shoulder. I looked over and saw a woman standing there. She was probably about thirty-five, brunette, with a pudgy face and too much rouge. She wore a maroon dress that didn’t flatter her ample figure.
“Are you okay?” she asked again. “You look a little—”
“I’m fine,” I said. “Just a little warm, I guess.”
“You wanna dance?”
I stared at her. “What?” I said, dumbfounded.
“You wanna dance?” She cocked her head to the side and held out her hand in invitation.
I didn’t take it. “Um, no, thanks,” I said. “I—I’m not really ... I dance like a dead man.”
She tittered at my joke. “You sure?” she said.
“Um—yeah. I’ve really gotta go to the bathroom.” Which wasn’t exactly a lie. The strange pressure in Martin Leslie Patterson’s bladder had returned.
“All right then. Your loss, hon.” Her expression remained playful, but I could tell her composure cracked a little. She must get rejected a lot, I realized. I wondered why she kept coming back here night after night.
She wandered away. I looked out across the bar and finally spotted the bathrooms. They were on the lower level in the corner. I would have to navigate the bodies on the dance floor to get there.
The pressure in Martin Leslie Patterson’s bladder was becoming uncomfortable. I didn’t know how or why, but it was almost overwhelming. Gritting my teeth, I began to make my way down the metal stairway.
I didn’t even make it back to the bottom of the stairs when I felt a hand take hold of my arm. Another woman drew me in close to speak to me. “Martin?” she said.
Oh, shit. Now what?
She was smiling, though. Not freaking out, at least. She didn’t seem to know that Martin was really dead. I made Martin take a deep breath in an attempt to relax me.
“Martin? It’s me. Vicki.”
I mustered a smile. “Oh. Hi, Vicki. How are you?”
“God, I haven’t seen you here for a while,” she said. “It’s good to see you.”
“Uh—yeah. You, too.”
“Do you wanna get a drink?”
Could I ditch her? I didn’t think so. Not easily, anyway. “Uh, sure,” I said.
She led me back upstairs, back toward the bar. Eric was still there. This time he’d caught two blondes, one on each side of him. They were laughing and appearing to be playing some kind of drinking game with their drinks, a napkin, and a cigarette they kept passing amongst them.
Vicki found one of the tiny two-person tables unoccupied. She sat, and I sat facing her. Our faces were only inches apart. Vicki flagged a waitress, who came over in short order. “Miller Lite,” Vicki ordered.
The waitress looked at me. “Uh—the same,” I grunted.
As the waitress scuttled off to get our drinks, Vicki leaned in. “I’m glad I ran into you,” she said. “For a while there I didn’t think you’d ever come back. What’ve you been up to?”
Dead, I thought. I’ve been dead. “Not much,” I answered instead. “The usual. You?”
She looked away from me for the first time. “I’ve ... been away for a little while,” she said. Then, she recovered her smile and looked back at me.
“Oh,” I said. “That’s cool.”
For an awkward moment both of us just sat there, occasionally making eye contact. When we did, our eyes flickered back down at the table, and we both smiled nervously.
Luckily, our beers came soon enough. The waitress plunked them down on the table, then waited. At first I didn’t understand why. Vicki was already reaching for her wallet when I realized what the waitress was waiting for. I jumped up, banging my knee on the table in the process. The beers jiggled on the table, but didn’t fall over.
“Don’t worry. I got it.” Vicki handed a ten to the waitress, who returned two ones from a pouch around her waist. Then, the waitress disappeared.
“Uh—thanks,” I said. I wondered if Martin Leslie Patterson was showing my blush.
“Least I could do,” Vicki said. “You were so sweet that night we met.”
She took a swig from her bottle, and I followed suit. When she put the bottle on the table again, she leaned a little farther forward. “I usually don’t drink that much,” she said. “That night was just ... well, it was a pisser.”
“I see,” I said.
She shrugged. “But hey, I bored you about all that shit last time. Things are better now.”
I took another swig of the beer. I couldn’t really taste anything with Martin Leslie Patterson’s taste buds. “That’s ... nice,” I said.
She hefted her beer, but didn’t drink from it. “I do regret one thing that night, though.”
She grinned sheepishly. “I was too damned drunk to give you my phone number.”
“Oh.” I took another swig of beer. As long as the bottle was to my lips, I was relieved of the burden of having to make conversation.
With effort, she met my gaze. “Most of the guys you meet here are real pricks, you know,” she said.
“Yeah.” I noticed her right hand, the one that wasn’t holding her beer, was creeping its way across the table toward mine. “But hey, I keep coming back, don’t I?” she continued. “I don’t even know why most of the time. I’m a shitty dancer, and we both know I can’t drink to save my ass, but I guess I just ...”
I leaned in a little closer. “Just what?”
“Just keep hoping. You know what I mean?” She looked me straight in the eyes, and as she did so her right hand closed around mine. I was too startled to pull it back.
And the moment stalled out like that. She gripping my hand, running her thumb softly up and down my palm, staring into my eyes as I gazed back into hers. A shy mona-lisa-like smile flickered on her lips, and I could do nothing but sit and gape, open-mouthed.
And a pang of need fired in my gut. My gut, not Martin Leslie Patterson’s. Here was this beautiful woman sitting across a beer from me, looking lovely at me, and damned if I didn’t forget just for a second that she was over twice my age and not really looking at me at all.
Her expression changed. Her face drifted closer, closer, until I realized she was leaning in for a
No. I couldn’t kiss her. Not with these pale, frigid lips. She was so open and warm and beautiful … she deserved so much better than kissing a corpse.
I stood up so quickly that my chair overturned. The sound of it clattering on the floor was completely obscured by the music.
Vicki stood up, too. “Are you all right?” She looked worried now.
“I—I have to go to the bathroom,” I said, and stumbled away, not bothering to pick up my chair. I left her standing there and I stumbled away, across the bar. I ran into a woman and almost knocked her over in my haste to get away, but I didn’t hang around long enough to apologize.
Too far, I thought. This has gone too far. I was going to find Marco, and we were going to get the hell out of here.
I stumbled down the stairwell, past all the scopers hanging on the railing with their beers. None of them seemed to take notice of me as I blundered by.
I meandered out onto the dance floor, and I realized the excuse I’d given to leave Vicki was now true: the strange, insistent pressure on my bladder was back. I had to piss urgently.
Except that was impossible.
It took me several precious seconds of casting around like a drowning swimmer to spot Marco. He was scrunched in between two shimmying bombshells in low-cut blouses that barely covered the tops of their ta-tas.
I made a beeline for him. Twice, clusters of bodies gyrated into my way. I skirted around them, relocated Marco, and kept going.
I’d almost reached him when vertigo overtook me. It was the same rock and roil I’d felt in the graveyard. The dance floor spun, and all the bodies seemed to cavort all out of perspective in time with the strobe ... now closer, now farther ... closer ... closer ...
An arm caught me. “Are you all—?”
Marco. I blinked once, twice, but it didn’t help. His face, the one he was wearing for the night, was running at the edges like a melting clock. “Marco?” I said.
“Christ, what’s the matter?”
“I—something’s wrong. This guy ... what happened to him?”
“Not sure. Drug overdose, I think.”
“That ... that can’t be right.” There couldn’t still be drugs in this guy’s system, messing with his perception after he’d been dead for days ... . I gripped Marco’s shoulder hard. “Where?” I asked. “Where did this guy overdose?”
Marco shrugged. “How should I know? I didn’t read the obit that close.”
“Christ, Marco,” I said. “It wasn’t here, was it? Please tell me it wasn’t here.”
“Look,” Marco said. “Maybe you should sit down. It’ll pass—”
I ignored the rest of what he said. “I’ve gotta pee,” I said. I left him and stumbled back across the dance floor, toward the far end where I could make out a string of red neon letters: RESTROOMS. Except my fucked-up perception read it as ASTROOOOOOOOOMSSSSS.
I collided with at least a half-dozen people in my pell-mell stagger across the dance floor. Most of them yelped in indignation, but when they saw my trajectory they cleared out of the way.
I flew through the restroom door. It banged hard up against the wall. The pressure in my bladder and the wooze in my head were both so insistent now, and they only got worse as I approached the bathroom. I stumbled to the first porcelain fixture I could find, not caring that it was really a sink, and unhitched my pants.
Just in time. My bladder had the sensation of emptying as I stood there leaning over the sink. I let out a long sigh of relief as I emptied ... nothing ... into the sink.
I heard a toilet flush, and a voice behind me. “Ah, geez, did ya have to? What if I wanted to wash my hands? Asshole.” Somebody yanked open the bathroom door and left.
Finally, the stream of not-urine came to an end. I sucked in a huge gulp of air, blinked twice, and stared into the mirror.
Martin Leslie Patterson’s reflection stared back at me. Except ... I peered closer.
No, that wasn’t possible. His reflection wasn’t in the mirror. He was standing behind me.
Revenant. Everything made sense then. I was staring at Martin Leslie Patterson’s revenant. The headmaster had told us about them, had told us it was a really, really bad idea to animate their corpses right in front of them. It was supremely disrespectful, for one thing, and for another, you could never tell what they would do.
And here I was wearing Martin Leslie Patterson’s body.
I whirled around, and saw that the mirror did not lie. Martin Leslie Patterson was indeed standing there before me, looking pale and pasty and frail. He wore a sickly-sweet smile on his face.
You shouldn’t have come back here, he said. His mouth moved, but the words were in my head only. No one ever notices. Not here.
Another wave of vertigo slammed into me. I could maintain balance no longer. I pitched forward, and my—no, Martin’s—cheek pancaked on the cold tile floor. I lay there twitching—
I was twitching, experiencing all the sensory shutdown in all its glory that Martin Leslie Patterson had felt on his last night. Like an idiot, I’d wandered into a revenant’s lair, wearing its body, at the place where it was strongest.
Martin Leslie Patterson ran icy ectoplasmic fingers through my (his) hair. They found me after closing, he whispered in my ear. His voice was wistful. Nobody ever said a word. I ... He hesitated. I shouldn’t have done it. I just ... wanted somebody to notice. You know?
I could do nothing but lay there and twitch.
It’s not so bad, Martin Leslie Patterson whispered to me. You get used to it.
I wanted to scream that I didn’t want to get used to it, that this wasn’t my death, but try telling that to a revenant when you’re lying in front of him wearing his body.
Dimly I heard something that sounded like a gunshot: the springless bathroom door, banging against the wall, I intuited.
“Martin? Martin? Ohmigod!” Suddenly there was another set of icy fingers caressing my hair. “Martin, what’s wrong? I don’t understand. You were fine a minute ago.”
Vicki. I couldn’t see her face, but I could hear her voice and feel her touch.
“Martin? Martin! Talk to me. Should I call an ambulance?”
“No,” I managed to croak out. “Please. Stay.”
She stroked my hair and cradled my head in her lap, and as she did so the veil of perception began to lift. I could still feel Martin Leslie Patterson’s phantom fingers stroking my hair beneath Vicki’s fingers, but with each stroke the chill of his fingers was supplanted more and more with her warmth.
I managed to open my eyes. I stared up, into Martin Leslie Patterson’s translucent face. Except he had no eyes for me. He stared full-on at Vicki, his eyes wide in surprise, though I didn’t think she saw him. His phantom fingers twined in hers as they brushed the hair from my forehead.
His mouth opened as if to say something. She ... she noticed, he said. He looked at me with a beatific smile on his wispy lips. I ... I can’t believe it. Somebody actually noticed.
And then his fingers slowly dissipated, followed by his arm. The last thing I saw of him was his face, eyes shining bright. Then that, too, disappeared. He was gone, to wherever revenants went.
Vicki, still with my head in her lap, shivered. “Christ, it’s cold in here.” She looked around for a second. “So this is where guys pee, huh?”
As I felt my mastery of Martin Leslie Patterson’s corpse returning, I sat up. I sat staring at Vicki for a second. Then, I smiled.
My smile was contagious. Vicki smiled, too. “What’s so funny?” she said.
“You just marched right into the men’s bathroom,” I said.
“What can I say?” She shrugged. “I was worried.” She reached out, took my hand, and opened my palm. “I wasn’t going to let you out of here without this.”
I opened my palm. In it was a slip of paper with her name and phone number on it.
“Um ...” I searched for the right words. “Look, Vicki, I like you, and I ... I think you’re beautiful, but I can’t call you.”
She sighed. “Christ. Not you, too. You’re married, aren’t you?
“No, it’s nothing like that. Just ... read last week’s newspapers, okay? You’ll understand.”
She looked puzzled, but she nodded. “All right.”
“And thanks,” I said. “For noticing.”