They were drunk. Carol was married, but had been eyeing Francis since he joined the department. The company took the support staff to a winery as a thank you, and when the time came for toasts, she went on too long about him, cheeks burning. Afterwards, she took him by the hand into the woods and slipped off her underwear, grabbing a gnarled oak. They were going at it pretty good when Ted from accounting appeared, rumbling up the hill, his moon face slack-jawed. His eyes widened with bewilderment and jealousy at this hidden world he’d never experienced. He pointed at them, mute, Francis’s pants still around his ankles, then turned to run back down the hill. Carol ran after him, her life closing around her, the impending doom of being separated from her daughter. “Stop!” she yelled. But he could think of nothing but wanting to be away from that place. When he didn’t turn, she panicked and brained him with a rock. When it struck, the sound had a hideous softness. Ted pooled on the ground, something white and pulpous and braided with dark ribbons emerging from his head like hidden oil.
“I don’t —” she said. “I don’t think I touched him.” She stood over him, bewildered, but quivering with a kind of triumph Francis didn’t think he could name.
“Keep the rock,” he said. “We should go.” He stood, trying to catch his breath, scenting the air for a sign of doom he was surprised to find he could not locate. It was late spring. Bees trembled in the warming grass and the wind carried the scent of lavender from the hills.
Ted’s ghost was only able to float beside his body for a few minutes. He watched his own inscrutable face. He wanted to be furious or grief-stricken, but without a body, it was difficult to feel.
Ted’s only friend, Samantha, was sick the day of the wine trip. It wasn’t until the next day, when he did not bring her the cruller they customarily shared, that she thought to call his house. But he was prone to taking days off to work refurbishing antique, forgotten instruments, hurdy-gurdies and zithers. She had sat there by his side in the contented silence of his room while his hands planed necks and ran resin over bows. When his phone rang and rang, she was not alarmed, but thought of its clamor echoing through his darkened home, the fading notes like a chorus of bells.
Samantha had pined for Ted ever since they shared a drunken kiss at the holiday party two years before. Ted, too, counted that kiss among the most exciting moments of his life, but he woke the next morning bathed in shame. Feeling he had betrayed their friendship, he treated Samantha with a meticulous professionalism, which she mistook for lack of interest. That night, while Samantha slept, Ted floated near her. He tuned the clock in the hallway, drew the viola Samantha had played in high school from the closet and loosened the strings, allowing the neck to relax for re-working.
“Can you believe we did that?” Carol asked in an urgent whisper, legs wrapped around Francis’s hips. They were in the supply closet, the next morning. The room was filled with a carbon scent of bond paper and toner that made everything seem blank and crisp and new.
“No,” he said, equally dumbfounded by her nakedness, their sudden intimacy. He touched her lips with his fingers; the tips hung over her open mouth. He trembled in the excitement of their double secret. At his moment of climax, he saw Ted’s face, pale and round, but he wished it away. The way his mouth hung slack at one end disturbed him.
That morning, Samantha found Ted’s ghost in her kitchen, preparing a breakfast of French toast and bacon, wearing nothing but an apron. So this is grief, she thought, investigating the contours of her madness with fascination – the jauntiness of the tune he was whistling, the hairiness and specific shape of his ass, which differed slightly from what she had assumed. She watched his hand on the spatula, lifting each piece of bread with a single deft push and flipping it over. She had always loved watching his hands when he fixed his instruments – how sure they were, how skilled.
“Good morning,” she said out loud, hoping it would not break the spell.
He stopped whistling. He stood still, collecting himself, then turned toward her. Chest hair protruded from the edges of the apron. She was surprised to find it sexy.
“Samantha,” he said, hardly able to talk. He waved at the table, where he had set two plates with cut up fruit, cups of coffee. But she was already running to him. She threw her arms around him, pressed her lips against his. But she felt only the apron. There was nothing for her to hold on to.
“Shit,” said Ted.
“Shit,” she said.
Ted’s body was found by the winery owner’s hound, Beauregard, who had a sinus infection and big, drooping rheumy eyes. The dog scented the ground while the vineyard owner paused on a walk to urinate behind a nearby tree. The dog sniffed the body and stood at stiff attention. When the owner approached, he nudged the body gently with the toe of his boot.
“How’d this happen, old boy?” he said to his beloved dog. The dog sniffed wetly, bemused. The grass had begun to yellow along the outline of the body. He was giddy with the smell of wildflower and ripeness. Who knows why people do the things they do?
People wore black armbands around the office. “How could that have happened?” they asked. “And so close to where we were?” The thrill and terror of it rattled their bones. They chewed doughnuts by the water cooler, powdered sugar raining down on their shoes.
In the break room there was a makeshift shrine, a corkboard adorned with photos and letters of tribute. Ted at the lake. Ted with his coworkers wearing fun run medals. Ted at the state fair eating an enormous corndog. Carol ran her finger over the pictures. She moved closer and farther away. Different places. Different companions. But in all of them, she could not see his face.
When the detective came to conduct his interviews, a nervous thrill ran through the office.
“They must know something,” Robert from procurement told Francis, a cooling mug of coffee in his hand. He exuded a hardly-contained excitement. “I can’t wait to get in there. It’s like we’re in Law and Order.”
The detective called them in, one by one. Francis was surprised to find himself unafraid. He wondered if he had dreamed the whole thing — the death, the affair. Nothing before had seemed so immediate and impossible.
“I don’t envy them,” he told Robert. “Needing to prepare explanations. What explanation will convince us that death won’t come for us?”
Robert took a sip of his tepid coffee and tapped his pencil on his desk. “Like we’re in an episode of CSI,” he said, his eyes wide.
“I have to confess,” Carol said to Detective Mickelson, and his eyes widened only slightly. “This is the most exciting thing that’s happened here in some time. It’s weird to feel that way, isn’t it?”
Mickelson stared at a point in the middle distance. For weeks now, his house had been visited by an infestation of red-winged blackbirds. The branches of the cypress trees dripped and blackened with their weight. Even at night the restless birds chattered and chased each other and crashed against the windows and the walls. Animal control said it was outside their jurisdiction. The red markings on their wings were beautiful. He did not know what to make of their arrival. The sleeplessness reminded him of his daughter’s first year, when he seemed to have been removed from time. His wife spent her days in her bathrobe in the yard, a cup of steaming tea cooling in her upturned palm, tracing their movements with a single outstretched finger.
“Anything else I can tell you?” Carol asked.
“What? No,” he said. “That will do.”
Carol left that night for a run at 9 in the evening. She returned, sweating, the glow from the nighttime lights -- their dim oranges, the reds and pale greens -- somehow still on her skin.
When she came to bed, her husband pulled her to him, smelling her hair, which did not seem like hers. He found himself unusually aroused.
When he fell asleep, she lay beside him, watching his face. Without the weight of the past, his skin was sterile, his smell inert. She covered his face with her pillow, but then took it back, curling up beside him like a foal.
Francis returned home that night to find Ted’s ghost sprawled on his sofa, the crumbs from a half-eaten twelve pack of tacos littering his round belly. A spray of meat and lettuce covered the floor. Francis could see the wound on Ted’s head, the hair around it matted. On the coffee table in front of him was a chess board, fully set.
“Please,” Ted said, waving to the seat across from him.
“She didn’t mean to do it,” Francis said, sitting down. “We’re built to survive, to react. Quickly. Definitively. Before our minds even understand what’s going on. How can one thing, no matter how terrible, define an entire life?”
Ted took a bite from a taco and closed his eyes. The chess pieces were in mid-game, smeared red at their edges.
“What are we playing for?” Francis said.
Ted chewed, then regarded the decimated taco in his hand with adoration. He sucked the sauce from his fingers and reached out to grab the King’s knight. “Orgasm in a shell,” he said. “Swear to God.”
Detective Mickelson returned home to find his wife still staring at the bird-laden trees. She had died a year to the day before they found Ted’s body. It was on the night of her funeral that he had first found her ghost in the backyard chair, sitting in the robe that she had worn every Sunday morning. She motioned to the chair beside her. “How?” he had said, but she squeezed his hand and said nothing.
Now her eyes were expectant, delighted, the same way they had been seeing their daughter for the first time. She pointed where the moonlight lit the tips of the conifers. He sat beside her all night, bringing her a blanket from the bedroom, though she did not seem to mind the cold.
Mickleson’s daughter had long ago moved to Minnesota, where she lived with her own husband and two children. The week before her mother’s funeral, she had come to stay with him in his home, sleeping in the bed she had used as a child. He was an early riser and would watch her face from the doorframe in the blue dawn light. They went through her mother’s things, remembering. Her cheeks blushed when she drank wine. The morning after her mother’s funeral, she found him in the backyard asleep. When she woke him, he smiled at her, then at the ghost of his wife – all the best days of his life returned. But she didn’t see her mother. “Come on, Dad,” she said, remembering the way her parents had sat watching her play in that backyard, the way he’d leapt from that chair to carry her around the yard on his back. She took him inside and made him eggs and coffee. He ate, looking at his daughter and then out the window, watching his wife’s delighted face watching the trees.
When Mickleson was a boy, he was offered a ride home by a stranger who locked the doors and drove him for an hour through the woods near his home. Mickleson kept his hand on the door handle the entire time, ready to jump, but he never did. The car was meticulously clean. Tree trunks sped past like a film on loop. He kept seeing his mother and father in the shadow space that repeated between the trees.
Ted had once gone to an antiques conference at the lake and run into Samantha, who happened to be there for a solo vacation. They walked together to the pier, where teenagers were jumping into the frigid water. “What if we joined them?” he said, and she looked at him, genuinely surprised. His eyes were fixed on the spot where her hair touched her neck. In that moment, before he ruined it, before he laughed nervously and changed the subject, she said, “I only swim in the nude.”
The week before his death, Ted had set a broken hurdy-gurdy’s wheel in motion, producing a low, ragged tone. Samantha sat next to him on his bench.
“People stop noticing after a while,” he said, “but the drone’s always there, beneath the notes.” Samantha closed her eyes and listened as it grew louder and vibrated in her chest, the bottom seeming to drop out of the room.
“That’s what I like about it,” he said. “That darkness always threatening to swallow everything up.” He said to this to her, their legs nearly touching on the bench.
“It seems hungry,” she said.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I won’t let it get you.”
“That feels . . . nice,” Samantha said now, Ted’s ghost in front of her. She had put oven mitts on both of Ted’s hands. His left hand was pressed against the small of her back. His right hand was cupping her boob.
“You’re feeling something?” he said.
She nodded, smiling at him eagerly.
She frowned. “No. It’s like I’m being felt up by the hamburger helper.”
Ghost or not, Ted wanted nothing more than to take Samantha, there, on the kitchen floor.
“Wait,” she said. “Just wait right here.” She grabbed her purse and left the apartment.
She returned twenty minutes later with a shopping bag. “Step One,” she said, pulling cotton gloves from the bag and laying them on the table. Ted smirked approvingly.
“Step Two,” she said, laying latex gloves and lube on the table. Ted’s smile grew. “Step Three,” she said, laying condoms on the table.
“Do you think this will work?” he said.
“Only one way to find out.”
The moment Ted’s soul passed from his body, Samantha stirred from her fevered nap, and called for her childhood cat, who she thought had run across her chest. She worried the cat, long dead, would be lost forever. In New York, a man, entranced, followed a dancing scatter of leaves into an alley, but, feeling a sudden foreboding, turned back to the main street. Halfway across the world, a child woke from dreaming and screamed and screamed, but her body was frozen. It made no sound.
A ghost does not carry on under its own steam. It needs a host to animate it. It is the needs of the haunted that give the ghost its form. The haunted carry within them a broken chamber into which the ghost flows like a mold. Still the ghost can want. It can act through whatever form the haunted give it.
It goes without saying that a ghost can appear in different forms to different people. It can be in two places at once.
When Francis was a child, his mother took him to pagan ceremonies in the woods. The congregants wore robes and antlered crowns and danced with bells around their ankles. The forest was soft and wet, the air filled with mist. Strapped to his mother’s chest, his breath bloomed in the fall cool. Warmth and cold, his mother’s ruddy face close, with its familiar veins and mother smell. The torch light blurred as she spun and spun. She held her hand against his back to keep him from spinning free and flying off into the wolf-filled night.
One time when Carol was a girl, she picked a flower from the sidewalk. It was purple with golden edges. She told herself she picked it because it was beautiful. But later she realized she had taken it because it was brazen. It had no place growing in the concrete like that. She stuffed it in a book and placed it at the side of her bed, where it dried and preserved. She peeked at it from time to time, picking up the fragile petals gingerly with a corner of her pinky. Then it sat forgotten, folded into the abandoned book on her childhood bookshelf. One day when she was a teenager, she hurled the book at her mother during an argument. The flower fluttered out, disintegrating into dust as the book hurtled through the air.
“Why is it,” Carol had asked Francis at the winery, “that we spend all this time getting good at convincing people to sleep with us and then we get married and we’re never supposed to use that again?” His young face grew intent. She thought the line sounded sexy, though it wasn’t true. She’d never slept with anyone before her husband.
When he took her by the waist in the woods, his hands were rougher than she expected. Everything different because it was real. When Ted appeared, it was not the part of her that wanted to preserve her life that acted, but the part that wanted to be anything other than herself. When he fell, she felt sorrow, but a dream sorrow, separate.
Carol and Francis met at a seedy hotel. Carol walked there alone. Lost, she circled under high rises, none of which looked familiar. She found herself by the train tracks, and walked along them, the rails receding into the darkness. She felt light and dizzy. She felt as if she might tumble from the ground into the darkening sky. The track bed was made of smooth stones. She slipped one in the pocket of her overcoat, then two more.
“What’s in the jacket?” Francis asked, when she got to the hotel. Her pockets bulged. On the wood panel wall was a watercolor of a small boy floating a toy sailboat on a pond. Pink neon shone on the curtains. She thought of how strange it had seemed the first time her daughter was too heavy to carry. How slight her own body felt with no one to hold.
“It’s all a cliché, isn’t it?” she said. “This could be any motel, any place, any two people.”
“We’re marooned on an island,” Francis said, “with only each other to depend on.”
She didn’t answer, pulling him onto the bed on top of her. She found his weight, pinning her to the bed, reassuring.
When they left, they left separately. On the first floor of the motel, beside a flower bed, was a track of gravel. Carol placed one piece in her mouth, and then another. She rolled them in her mouth and swallowed.
The grass where Ted’s body had fallen grew brittle and tan. The earth beneath it tittered with worms and beetles. Overhead, stars passed once and then again, rotating into place like the pieces of a mechanical toy. Beauregard returned here day after day, following the scent of decay wound into the ground. “I wish you’d leave it alone,” the winery owner would say to the dog, as if there were any way of forgetting what had once been, of being drawn back, again and again, to its richness.
Walking to the car in the morning. Stopping at the coffee shop on the way to work. On her mid-morning break, walking around the manmade lake nearby. Carol placed the ragged stones in her mouth and swallowed. They cut her throat, and she tasted blood and brine. Her throat swelled. Her tonsils grew, coated in white. She squirmed in the novelty of her disloyal, transforming body, the way it became foreign and extraordinary, like a lover who does something entirely unexpected, hurtful even, and becomes again new, desirable.
Night after night, Francis played chess with Ted’s ghost, always winning. Always. I should let him win, he would think. I should let him have this one.
“Why don’t you turn her in?” Ted asked Francis one night. “You didn’t do anything. You’re just a bystander.” Ted’s hand hovered over the board. He’d spent most of the game jumping his knights around the board, making neighing sounds. Now he moved his knight again, simultaneously threatening Francis’s rook and queen — Francis must choose which to lose. Ted looked ready to burst, shifting back and forth on his seat.
Francis sighed. He looked at the board in frustration. “You didn’t protect it,” Francis said, taking the threatening knight with his bishop. He looked Ted in the eye. “What are you trying to teach me?” he said in frustration. “I can’t make sense of it.”
“Teach you?” Ted said. “I didn’t pick this game. You think the ghost gets to pick how you’re haunted?”
He moved his queen, never breaking eye contact, and called out “Checkmate.”
Francis took Ted’s queen.
“Oh, ha!” Ted laughed. “Guess I didn’t protect that one either.”
“What’s with all the food?” Francis asked another night. “I heard once that couples who don’t do it tend to overeat, to compensate for… you know.”
“Really,” Ted said, cramming a taco in his mouth. “Haven’t heard that.”
Ted and Samantha tried the condoms. They wrapped him in gauze like a mummy. They rented him a wetsuit, but the zippers weren’t in the right place. Anything to give her some physical form to hold on to. None of it a substitute for his living body. He could only appear to her as what he always had been – just out of reach. Ted could only experience his own stupidity, his failure to act when he had the chance.
How long had Mickleson lived in the land between the living and the dead? The grief space where the light was overbright, the shadows crisp. He drove the city and saw them in pairs, the ghosts and their haunted. Each had become separate from the world. You lost your life one way or another. You lost your body or others’ beloved bodies. Sometimes even the regrets of the living – their grief for their own misplaced lives – grew so large that they found themselves here. In the land of grief, all that you want is possible, but it is never really given to you. Your yearning only grows. Mickleson watched Carol and Francis, Ted and Samantha. He watched their desires consume them. He sat beside the ghost of his wife and she was not returned to the living world, and neither was he. To be haunted is to privilege the part of you that is no longer part of the world. The others did not know where they were.
Does it matter how Mickleson arranged for them all to meet at the scene of the crime? When they had been assembled in the glade where Ted’s body had lain, a cloud passed over the moon. The grass was dry, the leaves motionless. A cluster of bats flew from the trees and circled overhead. Carol’s eyes traveled over the spot where Ted’s body had lain. She walked and knelt beside it. She reached her hand into the dirt, cupped it and placed it in her mouth.
“Cut that out,” Samantha said.
“Sorry,” Carol said, the dirt dribbling from her lips.
When Ted entered her body, Carol felt sodden, rooted. He was beside her and then throughout her, so that they became intertwined. Ted felt himself flow through every crackling terminal of nerves. He nodded Carol’s unfamiliar head. He placed her hand on Samantha’s cheek. Carol felt her pulse quicken. Across Samantha’s face passed puzzlement and then delight. Carol thought she should ask Ted for forgiveness, but then they were not separate. When Ted pressed their lips against Samantha’s, they felt together the satisfaction of a long-borne desire fulfilled. Samantha’s breath softened. Beyond the clearing, the wind grew loud. Francis smelled pine and smoke, heard the hushed dance of belled feet on rain-softened leaves. Beauregard snuffled in his sleep, swatted his paw at some invisible quarry, then lay softly breathing by the vineyard owner’s side.
With older instruments, every relationship of parts was idiosyncratic. Any movement in one direction — a re-aligned gear, the adjusted curve of a neckpiece — affected the balance of the whole. People brought Ted their old instruments, not to have them perfected, but -- as with all lost, loved things -- to have them returned. A thing was outside its time, but you still knew how to fix it. You fiddled at it, trying to put it back in place, but nothing worked. Sometimes you needed a catastrophic fix. You broke the neck. You crushed the bridge. Once it was broken, it all became easy.
When Mickleson went home, he sat next to his wife. She placed her hand on his. They sat until the sunrise came, then walked to the edge of the wood. The birds were silhouetted against the reddening sky. One by one, they climbed away toward the horizon and the growing light. Then all at once, they turned and swarmed around them, a latticework of blackened wings blotting out everything. In the dark, their beating wings, their faint heartbeats circled. Then they loosened and cracked. Red light leaked between their wings. They flew past and dispersed and were gone. As if they had never come. The yard did not even contain the echo of their screams.
Note: This story was selected by Matt Bell as the winner of the 2022 Calvino Prize for Fabulist fiction. Bell had this to say of the story: "Steve Wilson's 'Ted' is full of wit and wonder (and not a small amount of joyful weirdness).” The program in Creative Writing at the University of Louisville congratulates Wilson on his win and thanks all those who sent their work for consideration.