You’re a dead thing now, but you keep telling me that I should smile more. You can’t speak (your unfortunate throat), so you mime these things with your hands and your eyes. This tires you out and so your throat deconstructs. Your eyes become more insistent, even as your throat yawns wide and red.
If someone else ever saw you, I am certain they would scream.
You watch me drink my sweet and milky morning coffee. You shake your head and frown. Once upon a time, you drank your coffee black.
“Piss off,” I say, but you don’t.
I’m not sure why you’re here with me, of all the places you could be.
I hadn’t even gone to your funeral.
During the time between us breaking up and you arriving here as a dead thing, I’d both forgotten you and whittled you down to all your worst parts. Your selfish part; your snoring part; the part that gripped my arm too hard if I laughed at another man’s joke.
I expected you to rage when you showed up here after your death, but rage is not for dead things. You explain this to me with your eyes.
I hadn’t been that sad about you dying. A nice girl would have been sad.
You are a dead thing, but you are blinking and breathing. For me. You know how much I appreciate it when you blink and breathe.
When you first turned up as a dead thing, I asked why you were here. Is it about your mum? You want me to give her a message? Your ashes? Do I need to scatter them? Do you have a message for me? Is there something I need to destroy?
You shook your head.
I first looked up exorcisms later that day and you frowned at me. My spine tensed up, just like old times.
My teenaged brother Sammy lives with me. Before he arrived a month ago, I hadn’t seen him since I left home at 18. I’ve never gone back (I should have gone back).
I nod at him. He nods at me. I push a sugary, milky coffee towards him. He sits with his ankles crossed. He’s quiet and seething and smells of pot. He cannot see you (no one can). He clenches his hands, often, into fists. You follow him around and do this, too. Clench and unclench. You study your fisted knuckles. Sometimes you look up at me, beseeching.
I know, I know.
You never hit me.
But still. The bone-crunch sound of your fist through plaster, through wood. The splinter of your fist through glass.
When we were together, we would often hear stories of men hitting women. Their wives; their girlfriends; strangers who rejected them at a bar; women who did not laugh at their jokes.
You would lick your lips. “Fucking wife-bashers.” Then you’d shake your head, like it was the worst thing to be. Like it was something you couldn’t fathom; would try to beat out of them, if you had the chance.
All the while, my taut spine. Thinking the words, God, I love you. Thinking the words, I’m so lucky.
Sometimes I’m forced to walk around you or through you (this disorientates us both; you’re like thick mist; like morning breath; like digging my fingers into another’s creased flesh). Your vivid thoughts. I am different from them. I am different.
I wonder what would happen if I agreed. Would you leave me, then? Would you go?
Sometimes, I am tempted (I am tired). You are different, you are good. I have spent so much of my life convincing men of their worth. I look up cleansings (burn any items associated with the spirit).
I want you gone, but not enough.
Sammy winces if I get too close, his spine taut. I sometimes see the same yearning on his face that flares across yours like a bruise from a quick, hard strike.
I talk too much when Sammy is around.
And, mostly, he walks out of the room. You follow him, one hand hovering near his back, as though you want to lay a bracing hand there, the way men do when a hug is too hard. You look back at me, making sure I am witnessing this goodness of yours. That beseeching, wanting look.
Had you once been a teenager who flinched at sudden movements? Taut spined? It’s a question that is too tricky to mime an answer to.
I make sugary, milky coffee. Think of fire. Bring a mug to Sammy.
“Hey,” I say (you nod encouragingly). “Got some shit I need to burn in the yard.”
Sammy follows me as I pull out a T-shirt, a guitar, a stubby holder, a book that a father had once given to his son. We smash the guitar to pieces with a hammer. Like shattering bone. We tear the book. We rip the T-shirt.
We pile it all out back. Spill it with diesel and light a match.
Sammy’s face flushes with the happiness of watching the flare of fresh flame. We drink sugary, milky coffee. You pat his hair with your large, blunt fingers.
I see when you recognise the burning things.
You breathe, but not for me. Your breathing is suddenly a primal, selfish thing. You try to reach for them. You rage when you can’t. I watch you. Your fists.
You are still here.
As the flames begin to settle, Sammy gives me this: the touch of his shoulder against my palm. You watch this (so dead). You lick your lips. You look at me with so much wanting. The words swell in my throat. You are different.
The sound of hammer striking bone.
You are different. You are good. I swallow the words back down.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 10, 2022 as "A dead thing".
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