By Daniel José Older
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It’s just past eleven pm on December 31 – that dizzy, in-between time when we’re not quite here but not yet there – and Haight Street is flooded with college kids. Some of their faces are pockmarked with zits, most are bleary with alcohol and all of them look like they’re waiting for something important to happen. They flash a theatrical array of expressions – everything from regret to ecstasy to total abandon – but I’m not fooled. They’re bored out of their minds. I can tell because I’m dead – well, partially-dead anyway. And when you straddle a fine line like the one between life and death – let’s just say, you can tell certain things about people.
Music is wafting out of a bar across the street – a kind of watery blues that evokes dentists’ waiting rooms. The mostly-white college kids are roaming up and down the block in packs, playing out a whole mess of different plotlines from the daytime dramas. The one black dude around is wearing about twenty-five jackets and has no teeth. He’s full-swing trashed and yukking it up with the yuppies for change. Me? I’m a kind of tan gray – a neither-here-nor-there colour that matches my condition. It would be a jarring skin tone to notice on someone, but I tend to just blend in.
I dip into a brightly lit tobacco store for some Malagueñas and a pocket-sized rum. The rum goes into my flask and one of the Malagueñas goes in my mouth. I light it as I walk back out into the street and weave through the crowds. When I move quickly, no one notices my strange gait or the long wooden crutch I use to favour my right leg. I’ve gotten the flow down so smooth I almost glide along towards the milky darkness of Golden Gate Park. There’s too much information here in the streets – each passing body gives up a whole symphony of smells and memories and genetics. It can help pass the time if you’re bored, but tonight, I am far from bored. Tonight, I am hunting.
It was two weeks ago when the Council Of the Dead, San Francisco Chapter, reached out to me to let me know there was some vague, unaccountable nonsense going on in the Haight. Because I’m an inbetweener, and the only one anyone knows of at that, the dead turn to me when something is askew between them and the living. Usually, it’s some mundane shit like a suicide-gone-wrong or someone revived that shouldn’ta been. Clean-up work. But every once in a while, it gets really hairy – like the guy with no head that wouldn’t die. In fact, not only wouldn’t he die – he cut loose and started roaming the damn streets of San Francisco in all his headless glory. That’s when I go hunting. These are the times when I forget that I was ever even dead for those few dangling seconds. Whatever questionable degree of life or humanity pertains to me – I know God put me on this fine planet to hunt. Plus, I’m good at it.
But the Council was all kinds of vague about this one. No real explanation about anything – just a photo of a man, slid across the table with icy fingers. “Something is going on in the Haight, Carlos. Do your thing.”
And me: “Care to elucidate further?”
And them: “Nope.”
And what can really be said to that? They’re dead. They don’t have to elucidate shit.
I don’t mind, though. Makes things more interesting. So, I nodded, pocketed the picture and walked out the door.
I swig on my flask and head for the park, because it’s only there I can clear my head and honestly, I hadn’t counted on this tremendous flock of New Year’s revelers jamming up all my otherworldly insights. I perform a graceful semi-swagger to avoid a ponytail guy who is plowing through the crowd to find somewhere to puke his guts out. He’s wearing too much aftershave and looks like he spent three hours trying to make his hair look that carelessly tousled.
Then I see my mark. He’s standing perfectly still in the middle of all that hootenanny, laughing his ass off. He’s pale like an overcast day and has those semi-closed eyes common to mischievous Russians in spy movies. Unquestionably, the cat is dealing with some supernatural, uh, issues. Layers of grief, anxiety and fanaticism are swirling around him like ripples in a pond, peppered with a distinct aroma of…what’s that? Ah, yes: guilt. And yet, he’s chuckling madly.
I duck into the entranceway of another bar. The bouncer shoots me a look that says, Why the fuck you movin’ so fast, cripple? I ignore it, tug on my Malagueña and observe my prey. The smoke fills me with insight and allows me to relax into the thrill of the chase. He is feisty, this one. Let’s call him “Boris”. His head is full of plans – a map that keeps drawing and redrawing itself, a checklist, an incomplete letter. There’s something else, too: a solid chunk of his subconscious attention lingers on a scrap of thick paper in his pocket – probably some piece of whatever diabolical plot he’s enmeshed in. He has all the makings of someone up to no good, and yet – I can’t help but feel drawn to this laughing wraith. For all his mysterious schemes and whatever chaos he’s trying to let loose on my city, he’s having a good time, and after all, it is New Year’s Eve.
I’m not sure if it’s that or the curiosity that gets the better of me, but instead of just ending him right then and there, I walk up and offer the dude one of my Malagueñas. Just like that. The very idea of doing this is so ridiculous that it shudders through me like the tickle of an invisible hand and pretty soon, we’re both standing there smoking away and laughing like idiots.
That’s when it hits me: the guy’s not dead. Here I was, assuming that because the SFCOD brought me in, I’d automatically have another zombie type on my hands, trying to make it back or otherwise disturb the delicate balance of life and death. But this fellow has a beating heart. He’s breathing. His memories aren’t closed books the way dead memories are. And yet, by the look of things, he’s not fully alive either. I step back a little to take him in, not even trying to conceal my intentions, anymore. He is like me. Another inbetweener – and not just one of these half-formed, not-quite-here, purgatorious mo’fos: Boris is full-fledged, flesh-and-blood alive and dead at the same time, both and neither, and from the looka him, he’s been that way for a while.
We’re definitely in the same curious predicament, but unlike me, Boris’s not at all concerned with blending in. In fact, he’s determined to stand out. “Whaddup, douchebags and douchebaguettes?” he hollers at the crowd. I’m mortified and fascinated at the same time. A few passing revelers chuckle, but most ignore him. A blond lady rolls her eyes as if she’s being hit on for like the four hundredth time tonight. “Why so serious?” Boris yells into the sky. I found the one other being like me in the universe and he is a total jackass.
Still, I am in the mood for some fun, so I decide to let this play out a little. Also: I’d like to know more about these devious plans that keep swirling around Boris’ tipsy head.
“What’s your name, man?” I slur, playing up the rum on my breath.
“Elvis.” Okay, an obvious lie. “You?”
“Bob,” I say. Two can play that old game. Then I realize with a start that he may well be reading right through every move I make just like I’m reading through each of his. The shock of this makes me feel momentarily naked, but then I quickly gather myself together and rebuild the wall of deceit. I have never dealt with someone like me before and I have no idea how vulnerable I am. I must tread cautiously.
“Why so serious?” Boris says again, this time at me. He’s still laughing.
“Not at all,” I say. Then I swig from my flask and he swigs from his.
He’s waiting for someone. The realization comes clear like a whisper inside my head, and I can’t help but wonder if the same voice is murmuring, He’s onto you in his. Then Boris checks his watch and looks me dead in the eye for the first time. “It’s time. Let’s go.” His glare is penetrating and reveals nothing to me. A total blank.
“All right,” I say, launching into the crowd alongside him. We move quickly, with purpose. He either already knows I’m extraordinarily agile or he didn’t even notice the crutch. I’m dodging a hodgepodge of hipsters and homeless rich kids, keeping my eyes on Boris’s paisley cap bobbing up ahead. He’s still laughing and calling people “douchebags” and I have no idea whether I’m giving chase or being led into a trap. Or both.
We break from the crowd, cut a sharp right down Cole and end up beneath an ancient willow tree on the panhandle. The narrow strip of park is deserted except for a few loping stragglers from the party on Haight. It’s a cool night. The light rain isn’t falling so much as hovering in the air around us in a teasing little cumulus.
“This is the year, people!” Boris yells at no one in particular. “The time, she has come! People, get ready!” He kicks an empty beer bottle into a nearby bush, upsetting a family of night birds. I should just kill him now, because I have no idea whether he’ll go down easy given that he’s like me. I’m bracing myself to make my move when I see a few figures working their way through the shadows from the direction of the university.
“That you, broham?” one of them calls out as they enter the panhandle. “Broham”? Is that Boris’s real name? I try to make myself as unnoticeable as possible, but we’re a party of two, and we’re both inbetweeners. “Who’s the dude, man? Thought this was a secret and shit.”
“It’s cool, Bradley,” says Boris or Broham, or whoever my new friend/prey is. “He’s with me.” No one’s ever said that about me. I’m flattered and repulsed at the same time.
Brad is tall and thick. His blond hair is close-cropped in a military buzz cut. Of the crew behind him, three are basically Brad clones with different-color hair, one is an Asian Brad and the last little guy is definitely Indian/Pakistani or maybe Puerto Rican. Or half-Black. Whatever he is, he gets randomly searched every time he’s within twenty feet of an airport.
“Okay, bros, let’s do this thing,” Brad says. Shady supernatural shenanigans in the Haight and it involves a bunch of frat boys? Curiouser and curiouser.
We make our way along the panhandle. Asian Brad falls into place beside me. “Michael,” he says, extending an awkward hand as I amble along.
“Carlos,” I say, nodding but not touching his hand. People tend to notice how chilly and dry my skin is. And I tend to pick up way too much information about folks when we touch. Sometimes, it’s better not to know.
Michael’s forced smile fades. “Are you going to, you know, help show us, uh, the other side?”
“Whose big idea was this, Michael?” I say.
“Well, Brad gathered us together late one night at the house. Said he had a big opportunity, a chance for us to see things no one else had seen. But only for his most trusted guys, right?”
“Said he’d met this dude, no name or nothing, just this dude, and that he was going to take us to, you know: the other side.”
I make that half-grunt noise that signals ambivalence and Michael’s starts looking uncomfortable, like maybe he revealed too much. He quickens his pace to catch up with the others. Darkened Victorians peek out from behind swaying trees on either side of the panhandle.
When we reach the wide-open roundabout at the entrance to Golden Gate Park, I see little flickers of nervousness flair up around Boris. Whatever it is he has planned – we’re getting dangerously close to it. I wonder if these frat boys are unknowingly lining up to be the main course of some ritual sacrifice. Boris seems just erratic and volatile enough to try and pull off such a stunt. But then, a few flatheads getting glazed wouldn’t warrant so much concern from the Council Of the Dead – and they certainly wouldn’t waste my time with it. Boris checks his watch and then looks up into the misty night sky. It’s eight minutes to midnight. I try to tune into the gathering storm of excitement that’s about to explode all over the city, but it’s just a faint glimmer to me.
We enter the park, move quickly through the fresh-smelling darkness. The Brads fall into a nervous silence. Boris is a fortress – he’s giving up nothing to me, so I let my thoughts chase the ridiculous mini dramas and power plays between our collegiate companions. Then I remember: in a shady grove on the outskirts of the Shakespeare Garden, there is an entrada: an entranceway to the Underworld. And of course, the timing is perfect: entradas are really only accessibly to the non-dead at midnight, and this midnight in particular, the air would be even more charged with culminating spiritual energy. The majority of San Francisco’s ancestral souls are out and about tonight, enjoying their own morbid festivities. You can almost taste the bursting molecules in the air.
As if to confirm my suspicions, we turn off the main road and duck down a narrow path through the trees. But what would an inbetweener be doing with a bunch of college kids at an entrance to the Underworld? This is only the beginning, the voice that knows things whispers. You who are neither here nor there keep the secrets of both worlds. And secrets are a valuable commodity. My man has fashioned himself into a traitorous tour guide of the afterlife. I close my eyes and imagine the Land of the Dead overrun by fat pasty tourists, thousands of bubbly Brads and Bradettes, snapping pictures and sipping frappuccino-whatevers. Crap – I really shoulda taken him when it was simple. Now, we’ve arrived at the garden. The entrada is a gaping void beneath drooping tree branches. It’s not black; it’s just emptiness. The air is crisp with new rain and a murmuring breeze. If Boris touches that void, it’s game-over – he’ll disappear into a relentless, hazy maze of wandering souls. The frat boys would be shit outta luck – their magical romp through the Underworld would have to wait – but Boris would be safe from my expert problem-solving hands.
I start to push my way up through the crowd of Brads. With about ten feet to go before the entrada, Boris makes a break for it. My elbows shoot out in either direction, crack into meaty midsections, splinter ribs. With a little added encouragement from my shoulders, the home team is collapsing to either side of me and I sprint forward in a ferocious, lopsided lunge, unsheathing the blade from my crutch as I go. It leaves my hand like a bullet. For a second, all anyone hears is that terrible whizzing sound of steel cutting through air, and then the even-more-terrible sound of tearing flesh. That sound means I win, but for once, it doesn’t feel so good to win. Boris collapses heavily, an arm’s length from the entrada.
Without breaking stride, I pull my blade from the ground beside Boris and launch myself back towards the college boys, cutting the air and hollering gibberish at the top of my lungs. They leave in a hurry, limping and carrying each other along like the good guys in war movies. I return to Boris, who’s bleeding out quickly. If he can die, I can die. It’s a sobering thought. I have so many questions for him, I don’t even know where to begin, and his life force is fading fast. He makes like he’s about to speak, but just gurgles. All of his attention, all of his waning energy, is focused back on that little scrap of something in his pocket, but his eyes stare right into mine. He knows I can read him. He’s pointing it out to me. I gingerly reach into his pocket and retrieve what turns out to be a photograph of a girl.
I can’t remember the last time I said this, maybe I’ve never said it, but this chick is fine as hell. Not just fine, though – there’s something about her gaze, the way she holds her chin, the shadow of her collarbone, that makes me want to find her and tell her everything, everything. It’s a corny snapshot: she’s got one hand up in the air, two fingers out in mock-gangsta style, lips pursed, eyes mellow like she just smoked a fatty. Looks like she’s in a park, maybe even this one; a few trees are scattered in the scenery behind her.
“Sister,” Boris gurgles and I quickly wipe the hungry glow off my face. “She is…caught up in this too….” When he says this, his head jerks towards the shimmering emptiness beside us.
“This what, man? What is this?”
“Closing the gap,” Boris whispers. “The living and the dead…don’t have to be so far apart. Like…” he takes a deep, death-rattled breath.
I manage to hide my impatience for about three seconds. “Like what?”
“…like us. You and me and…” Another excruciating pause. “Sasha.”
Sasha. The hand holding the picture feels like it’s on fire. I raise it up to his face. “Sasha,” I say, failing to disguise the hope in my voice. “She’s like us? She’s in-between?”
I almost break into a dance when Boris nods his head. Suddenly, the park seems very luminous and beautiful at this hour. The night birds are singing, and somewhere, a few blocks away, Haight Street is rocking to the New Year’s revelry of two hundred middle-class white kids.
“Please,” Boris is saying when I return from my reverie, “find Sasha. Keep her safe…” Done. No problem. How else can I help you today, sir? “…from the Council.”
“Uh…,”I say, trying to slow my thoughts. “City Council?” Did you know it’s possible to really irritate a dying person? Even an already-mostly-dead dying person. I don’t recommend it, though. Boris looks like he’s thinking about using the last of his life force to make a grab for my cane-blade and cut some sense into me. “Right, right,” I say quickly, “The Council Of the Dead.” He nods. “San Francisco Chapter.” My boss. Surely, he must know this. But whatever Boris does or doesn’t know is quickly becoming a non-issue. He gurgles again, flinches and then relaxes as death completes its finishing touches. At least he won’t have far to travel.
After gently placing Boris’s body into the entrada, I wander aimlessly around the park, working my way through the whole pack of Malagueñas and all of my rum. There are too many thoughts in my head right now – if I venture out into the city, it’ll mean instant input overload. The living and the dead don’t have to be so far apart, Boris had said. Why are folks always so cryptic right before they croak? Like us. There’s an “us”. All I’ve ever known of the afterlife has been the rigid bureaucracy of the Council, and at first, that had been a relief from the rigid bureaucracy of the living. And then I just made friends with being the lone intermediary between the two, but now…. When the Council’s icy fingers slide the photo of Sasha’s pursed lips and sleepy eyes across the table to me, I will nod my head like I always do. Then I will find her. I will honour the dying wish of her brother whom I murdered and protect her from myself. And then I will ask her out.
Daniel José Older’s spiritually-driven, urban storytelling takes root at the crossroads of myth and history. With sardonic, uplifting and often hilarious prose, Older draws from his work as an overnight 911 paramedic, a teaching artist and an antiracist/antisexist organizer to weave fast-moving, emotionally-engaging plots that speak whispers and shouts about power and privilege in modern day New York City. His work has appeared in the Freezine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, The ShadowCast Audio Anthology, The Tide Pool, and the book Sunshine/Noir (City Works Press), and is featured in Sheree Renee Thomas’ Black Pot Mojo Reading Series in New York City. When he’s not writing, teaching or riding around in an ambulance, Daniel can be found performing with his Brooklyn-based soul quartet Ghost Star (www.myspace.com/ghoststarmusic). Read some of his ridiculous ambulance adventures at www.raval911.blogspot.com.