Zach Fleming

  She will come to him unbidden, an intruder into his solitude.  The pain caused by this meeting will force the realization that something vital is missing from his life.  He will be unable to identify it.   She will give it a name.  He will come to resent this knowledge.   


Adler Lackey was entering his sixth month of silence when he first noticed the ghosts inhabiting the city. 

The decision to stop speaking was not one that he had made consciously; it had gradually occurred almost without his notice.  He had made the effort to eliminate small talk from his verbal diet as it seemed to him to serve no purpose.  Jokes failed to elicit a response from him; observations about the weather felt inane and hollow.  Even worse, speaking directly to others put him too close to them.  Conversations for Adler revealed far more about those interacting with him than they could ever know; he could feel their longing and their pain.  This, of course, was worse with some than it was with others, but Adler had come to realize over the course of his thirty three years that everyone, from the homeless vets to the couples in love, everyone had some kind of pain flowing out of them.  During even the briefest exchanges, Adler would have to tolerate a steady torrent of pain emanating from his fellow humans.  His words never seemed to eliminate or even lessen their agony, so he had abandoned them and resorted to silence.  This proved to be useful as he now had to deal with fewer people; he could still feel them (the suicidal were the worst, he could feel them coming for blocks) but he could lessen their unintentional blows to his soul by having no reason to be acknowledged.  In silence he dwelt and was content to be ignored.   

Even curiouser than this ability to feel the dread, terror, longing, loneliness (always loneliness) that others experienced, was that all of these feelings meant very little to Adler.  He, despite his “gift,” was unable to feel any of these things in relation to himself.  He could name these pains, but they were beyond his experience.  While he could comprehend what caused one distress, he could not relate. Certain agonies cannot be adequately explained to those without a frame of reference.  How does one explain hunger to a king?  Or the pain and separation of childbirth to a male?         

   Adler’s silence was conducive to his job.  Working from home, editing the life stories written by prison inmates, many of them serving life sentences or awaiting execution on death row, put him in direct contact with no one.  All of his communications were via email.  He had never married, had no living relatives, and had never developed any meaningful friendship over the course of his life.  Adler was, more or less, content to spend his days translating slang into readable passages or, as he liked to think, trying to make chicken salad from chicken shit.  His leisure hours were spent reading, with sporadic forays into the cinema.  While his taste in books was fairly specific (biographies and history), he held no preference when it came to movies.  The theatre that he most often went to, a rundown derelict three blocks to the east, on the edge of the ever encroaching urban blight, only ran one movie at a time and he would always attend the midnight showing of whatever happened to be on.  Chick flicks, mindless action films, the newest remake of horror movies from his youth, martial arts epics, Bruckheimer explode-a-thons—he watched them all with equal disinterest. 

        Afterward, nakedly, her voice still thick with tears, she would ask him how long he had been able to see them.  He would respond automatically, “Six months,” his own voice dry and brittle from nearly a year of disuse.  She would tell him that she had been able to see them all her life.  The first she could remember was her mother, three months after she died.  She was five.  Her mother would tell her things.   


Adler hadn’t given his silence any thought until the day his phone rang while he was in the middle of trying to piece together a convoluted and poorly worded story of gang initiation before an ever approaching deadline.  Crossing the room to grab the receiver, he wondered who could possibly be calling him.  His phone hadn’t rung in weeks (the last, a telemarketer with news about vinyl replacement windows—something his rented apartment desperately needed but he felt uncompelled to provide) and he wondered monthly why he continued to pay the bill that kept the line functioning.  As he stood in the middle of the room running over the possibilities of who would be calling (wrong number, prank call, another exciting investment opportunity) it occurred to him that it had been some time since he had spoken to anyone.  He tried unsuccessfully to determine the last thing he had said and to who (“Excuse me,” to an elderly woman on the bus roughly two weeks previous who hadn’t even heard him) above the din of the telephone’s insistence.  When the ringing finally stopped, after several minutes, far too long to have been anything other than urgent, Adler felt relieved.  Regardless of who had been on the other end, the idea of a conversation seemed like an unnecessary hassle; he could think of no one he wanted to talk to.  He was almost back to his computer and the Fifth Street Kings violent beat down of initiates when the phone rang again.  Without a second thought he retraced his steps and unplugged the phone’s power source, then the phone line itself, and deposited it all into the trashcan.  The next day, his television met the same fate.   

“Why can I see them?” he will ask her in a hoarse, croaking whisper.  She will be on her side, her back to him and he will long to reach out and touch her.  The distance between them will only be several inches; it will feel to him like a chasm of infinite miles filled with eons.  He will move closer to her, trying to move silently on the creaking box springs under his beaten mattress so as not to disturb her.  When he closes the gap, his pain will be lessened.   It will take her several minutes to respond and he will assume she has gone to sleep.  As he settles in close to her, she will move back to meet him, closing the gap, naked back to bare chest.  Contentedness will envelope them both in warm arms.  You are an incomplete person, she will tell him.  Something in you is dead too. 


         Adler smoked.  He sat on a bench facing the street, smoking.  He did this because smoking was forbidden in his apartment by his landlord and the smell of his cigars was not something he wanted in his house.  He always hated the smell of tobacco on people and he had his own designated smoking jacket that hung outside his door on a hook in the hallway, so as to minimize the smell on himself.  In winter he would stand just outside the door of his building and smoked considerably less.  Often in the evening he would walk aimlessly through the labyrinthine city smoking, but twice daily, during working hours, he would sit and watch the world pass from the fixed vantage point of the side walk. 

It was on one of these smoke breaks on the bench that he first noticed them.  He didn’t know they were the dead then; he could barely distinguish them from the other long, blank faces on the street.  But something was slightly off about them; they looked washed away somehow—not devoid of color but somehow faded, grayish, pale.  Another indication that something was amiss was the lack of interaction with anyone.  It wasn’t as if other people couldn’t see these gray imitations of life, for they would often unconsciously step around them or avoid them in numerous other ways, but almost as if they wouldn’t see them.  Adler’s silence had made him a keen observer of the world around him, and things that had apparently escaped his attention for years now came into sharp clarity. 

He will ask her, a little offended, what she means by dead as he raises himself onto his elbow to look over her shoulder.  She will answer his question with questions of her own looking straight ahead at the opposite wall: have you ever had your heart broken?  Have you ever been lonely? Can you tell me what you felt when your mother died?  “My mother is still alive,” he will say.  She will sigh and turn to face him.  Doesn’t matter, how about your grandmother?  Grandfather?  No?  Nothing? she will demand.  You can’t feel things for yourself.  You are all empathy.  I’m the opposite.  I can’t feel anyone’s pain but my own.  We’re both incomplete. “Aspergers[1]?” he will volunteer lamely.  Heh, she will spit.  I suppose it would have gone diagnosed as anti social behavior or borderline personality disorder if my mother hadn’t told me what I lacked when I was young.  She also advised that I learn to fake it and I did… after a fashion.  But I never felt it.  None of it meant anything to me.  Can you imagine what that’s like?  Never being able to share anything with anyone? 

A long pause will follow before he clears his throat, shifting a little to be closer to her and says, “I’ve never thought about it before but yeah, I guess I do.”  I decided to become an artist, she will continue, because everyone expects an artist to be self absorbed. 


It was on the bench that he first noticed her as well.

He could recall nothing unusual about this particular evening.  It was a Wednesday and Adler’s thoughts were vaguely organized around procuring food after spending the day immersed in the hierarchy of Florence ADMAX, “The Alcatraz of the Rockies.”  As he exhaled his final drag he felt something odd—a kind of ache that he could easily identify. He had felt this same feeling coming off of virtually everyone he encountered in this city.  It was loneliness.  What was odd was this time it was his own. 

Adler sat with a puzzled brow for several seconds.  As he went to throw his cigar stub into the street he saw that three of the grays, as he had come to think of them, had stopped and were looking directly at him from across the street.  His hand paused in the action of flicking the cigar and he looked around on the crowded rush hour street.  He spotted several more of the grays, all of them staring at him intently.  Panic started to overtake the new sensation as he stood up, his cigar now starting to burn the back of his middle finger which was still poised to discard it.  Turning to his right he noticed for the first time that he had been sharing the bench with one of the grays.  A woman.   

She will ask him if he had ever spoken to one.  “Sort of,” he will reply, clearing his throat.  “A child once.  In the park.”  He will tell her of watching a grey boy building a sandcastle surrounded by other youths who ignored him.  The boy eventually noticed his gaze and approached him, standing silently in front of him, waiting.  “He didn’t speak,” he will say to her, “it seemed like a voice in my mind asking me what I wanted from him.  I asked ‘what are you?’”  He will become quiet, unsure how to proceed, shifting uneasily on the worn mattress.  She will ask him what the boy said.   “I don’t remember exactly.  Something like ‘you are like us’ or ‘we are of you.’  It’s vague.”  She will tell him she had heard something similar from her mother.  “What do they want?” he will ask her.  I’ve never really known, she will reply.  I guess I know what my mother wanted but the others… I don’t know.  Maybe they have their own assignments or agendas.  Maybe they’re all supposed to make sure we get together, we certainly seem to get their attention.    


No.  Not one of them but his mistake was an honest one.  She was pale, thin, clad in a black dress with a gray zip-up hooded sweatshirt.  Her hair was dark brown, shining radiantly in the waning early evening sunlight.  She wore no makeup.  Her attire and her vacant expression, as she stared holes through him, made him think that she was one of their legion, but her eyes made him realize she wasn’t.  They were green and very much alive, their penetrating beauty further emphasized by her ashen face.  She asked him for a light as she pulled a cigarette out of her purse.  Reaching into his pocket, Adler looked again across the street and saw that now more grays had stopped to watch the proceedings.  He was starting to grow increasingly more uncomfortable and longed to get back into the safety and sanity of his building, but something in him resisted; for reasons he could not explain, he felt that he had to be here.

Pulling out his lighter, Adler forced himself to sit back down.  He reached over to hand the lighter to her but she leaned forward, the cigarette to her lips, her hands in her lap.  Opening his Zippo, he struck the wheel and placed the flame to the tip.  She inhaled and he closed the top, looking now to her face.  She stared directly into his eyes and waves of new emotion washed over him, crashed into him, broke over him in increasing intensity; he became afraid that they would not stop, that these new feelings would wash him away.  His breath became shallow.  What the hell is happening? he thought.  She turned away without a thank you and looked blankly across the street.  Adler sat unable to move, experiencing things that he had only ever been given glimpses of before.  She finished her cigarette in silence, flicked it against the window of a passing bus, stood and walked away without looking at him.  As he watched her departure, it felt like something was being ripped from Adler’s chest.  He wanted to cry out, to stop her, but he could say nothing. 

He noticed that all the grays had dispersed and seemed to not regard him at all anymore.      

  My mother was the one that told me I should seek out my other, to be complete, she will say, her breath a faint heat on his neck.  I guess that’s you. “How do you know?” he will ask her.  She will turn her eyes, worlds dancing in their depths, to his face and tell him, Because there are no others.  There is only you and I.  We were made to be together.   He will say nothing but know that she is right. 


        The next day, Adler had trouble concentrating on his work.  The whole exchange of the previous evening ran through his mind continuously and he wondered who the woman was and, more importantly, what had made him feel the way he had. 

        He found himself getting up in the middle of a sentence and walking to the window where he could look down on the bench where they had sat the day before.  He wondered where she was currently, what she was doing, who she was talking to, where she lived.  He thought about how he looked to her, what he would say if he saw her again, what he should be wearing if he did.  He thought about the graceful line of her thin neck when she turned away from him, of her hair pulled back behind her left ear, of her green eyes that seemed to pierce through to his soul. 

        Adler took more smoke breaks than usual that day in the hope that she would materialize on the bench next to him again.  By his fifth, she had.

        He noticed his own discomfort shortly before she arrived.  The ache that had been so disconcerting yesterday now felt akin to joy because he was sure it heralded her approach.  Sitting, waiting in nervous apprehension, trying not to look to his right and the empty bench, Adler instead scanned the streets before him.  All around him grays were stopping where they stood and lifting their heads to turn in his direction.  Like the previous day, she glided up unseen, sat beside him, and asked for a light.  The same ritual was repeated; she sat in silence, apparently unaware of his presence while he gazed raptly at her, stunned.  His feelings today were more intense and he wanted desperately to engage her in conversation.  He silently cursed himself for being almost a year out of practice when he realized something else about her; something he had failed to notice the day before. 

He could feel nothing from her.  No pain, no longing, no emotions of any kind; only his own.  Somehow she was a blank to him.  As far as his heightened sense was concerned, she was more like the grays than she was the other people on the street.  As quickly as this thought occurred to him, another formed in his mind.  He couldn’t feel anyone.  It was like suddenly losing one of your senses. 

        Adler watched, feeling somewhat blind without his old curse to guide him, as she took a last slow drag from her cigarette and placed the butt on her thumb with her middle finger behind it.  As she raised her arm to flick it into the street, already leaning forward to stand up and leave, he saw her change her aim and flip it directly at a gray that stood off to her right.  It hit the gray squarely, but harmlessly, in the chest, sparks thrown from the burning tip in a miniature explosion.  Adler was sure that she had targeted the gray and watched it briefly before he stood to follow her but she was already lost to him.  All the grays had again returned to whatever it was that occupied their time and his own pain diminished, but did not recede altogether, to be replaced by the steady flow from those around him.  He knew that she was gone.            

        In the ensuing silence that will descend upon the two she will tell him a story.  She will say that she heard it from her mother after she died.  It is an old story, perhaps the first, about a god.

        This god was the creator, she will begin.  It created everything, all of the universe from a dream.  “Why?” he will ask.  Because it could, because it was bored, how the fuck should I know? she will respond without venom.  He will smile, a genuine smile of amusement, perhaps his first, as he gazes up at the ceiling listening.  It did, she will continue, That’s what I’ve heard.  Soon all that remained to create was life.  But the god could not come to terms with what exactly it wanted to make.  Part of it wanted something to enslave, something to submit to its will, something that would worship it unconditionally.  The other part only wanted to create and nurture; to give what it could to its creation and watch it grow.  She will pause and shift herself more closely to him, her head now on his chest.  He will wrap his arm around her shoulder as she continues.  The god was torn.  It couldn’t decide what it wanted for its creations.  This indecision split it somehow but rather than making two entities, it fractured into uncountable pieces.  The pieces were polarized so when they were scattered to the far corners of the universe, they went in pairs; each piece containing one of the two desires.  Some of these pieces fell to earth and seeded life, all the species of plants, animals, and humans.  Male and female.  “So our desire to procreate is just the desire to be whole again?” he will ask her.  Hm.  Clever, she will say smiling as she gently squeezes him with the arm thrown across his chest.   It’s as good an explanation as any, I guess, but we’re different.  You and I don’t just have that instinctual drive, ours is something more.  “Because we are not whole like the others,” he will say.  I’m not sure they are whole either, she will tell him.  But they aren’t missing a key piece like we are; they’re essentially whole.  Whatever they don’t have, they can compensate for.  We can’t though; we need each other if we’re ever to really experience life.  “The ultimate codependency,” he will offer.  Both of them will laugh, perhaps for the first time.         


        On the third day, Adler couldn’t concentrate at all.  By nine o’clock, he had abandoned his post at his computer and had instead pulled his reading chair to the window where he could have a better vantage point of the bench where he had encountered her.  His desire, turned longing, had now become full fledged obsession.  It was a long vigil that day and Adler alternated from sitting and waiting to pacing and brooding. 

He had taken two showers, one upon awakening, another around three o’clock when he could no longer stand sitting in his chair and watching the street teeming with the living and the dead.  He had taken great pains to shave thoroughly to remove any trace of his prematurely graying stubble.  He realized that his own feelings would foreshadow her coming long before he would see her but he could still not take his eyes from the street, hoping, yearning to catch a glimpse of her.

He had picked up the book he was reading, a biography of the Romantic poet Lord George Gordon Byron, but it had stayed open to page eight in his lap, unread.  He alternated between knowing that she would come and fearing that she wouldn’t.  His pain was exquisite; he speculated that he was in love.

By four o’clock, fresh from his second shower, Adler donned his smoking jacket and stepped out into the street.  Looking around him, he noticed more grays than he had ever seen congregated in one place before.  They all seemed to be waiting, like him.  None of them acknowledged him but all stood motionless, heads down, standing in anticipation.  Adler thought briefly of taking a walk to alleviate some of his nervous energy but there was nowhere in the city he wanted to be more than right here.  He would wait on the bench, unmoving, chain smoking for days if he had to.

As it turned out, he only had to wait about two hours; to him it was several lifetimes. 

They will hold each other after making love for a second time with much less intensity, but with much more passion, than the first.  Silence will descend upon them and he will grow drowsy with the scent of her hair in his nostrils, lavender with a hint of lilac, and the sound of her slow, steady breathing like a metronome in his ear.  Before sleep overtakes him, he will whisper to her that he loves her.  She will smile with her eyes closed and hug him briefly but she will say nothing. 


The rush hour foot traffic had just started to thin when he felt the now familiar pain.  He had been digging in his pocket for another cigar, his third, when he stopped and looked across the street.  Everywhere grays were lifting their heads in new awareness as if they were being shaken from some kind of reverie. Adler’s pulse quickened.  He abandoned his search for tobacco and instead reached into the pocket of his sweatshirt drawing out a piece of gum.  Before the piece had grown soft in his mouth he could feel her there.  He waited several seconds before turning in her direction, chomping away at the gum with the nervous energy of a meth addict.  When he faced her, her eyes bored into him; green like emeralds, green like a source of life. 

He thought that he detected a hint of a smile, just a slight upturn on the left side of her full lips, as she asked him for a light.  Hands shaking, palms sweating, Adler reached into his pocket, withdrew his silver Zippo and leaned across the bench to light the cigarette that awaited him.  His hands were shaking so badly that she had to reach up and steady them with one of her own.  At her touch, Adler was stunned.  It felt as if a current of energy passed through him from her finger tips.  A hunger, a desire, a yearning was communicated through that touch and he was filled with a need to be closer to her, to possess her space, to be one with her. 

Her cigarette lit, she leaned back on the bench, exhaled, and ignored him.  Adler sat shocked with his trembling arm still extended, the lighter still burning, his mouth agape.  She turned to look at him quizzically, now with more than a hint of a smile, as she reached over and closed the lighter’s lid without touching his skin.  She gestured with her cigarette, held between the long, graceful index and middle fingers of her left hand, across the street and commented that there were a lot today.  Adler made an effort to tear his eyes from her.  He was startled by what he saw. 

Dozens of grays stood watching them.  They far outnumbered the people on the street, who instinctively weaved through their ranks avoiding, but not seeing, them.  Their stares, which had unsettled him the previous days, now only registered for a second.  They were a distraction.  He didn’t know or care what they wanted; he only knew what he wanted.  He turned his full attention back to her, shifting his body slightly to the right to better take in her grace.  She glanced over at him, dropped her half smoked cigarette, and stood.  Adler immediately stood too, prepared to follow her simply to be near her. 

She didn’t walk away as she had before.  She stood looking out over the street at the grays, seeming to make an effort to control her breathing; she was apparently as nervous as he was.  Turning to face him and taking a step closer she told him that they should go someplace more private.  Swallowing a lump in his throat, Adler nodded dumbly and walked to the door of his building and held it open for her.  Without looking at him, she entered and ascended the steps to his door.            

  Upon awakening, he will know by the aching and emptiness that he will feel that she is not there.  He will moan groggily as he exits the bed that they had shared and stagger, like a man mortally wounded, toward the table where a note will be waiting for him.  He will see that it is short.   He will not have to read it to know what it says.


After waiting for her to enter his apartment, his first visitor in the ten years he had lived there, Adler turned and locked the door.  He heard her unzip her hooded sweatshirt and casually toss it onto the couch.  Adler turned in time to see her simple black dress fall from her body and pool around her feet.  She was nude underneath and easily the most beautiful creature that he had ever witnessed or dreamed of.  She took a step toward him and wordlessly began undressing him, her touch on his bare skin like live wires. 

She held his hand and led him to his bedroom where she pushed him firmly onto the bed.  Gazing up at her, his whole world aflame with desire and arousal, he watched as she came toward him, stalking like a panther.  They both gasped as she straddled his erection and began to rhythmically rock against him.  Their sex had intensity that Adler had never known possible; nothing in his limited sexual experience had prepared him for something this meaningful, something of this magnitude. 

Her pace quickened and he was afraid that he would not be able to last and would prove to be a disappointment to her.  She moaned loudly as she climaxed, beating his chest with her fist in time with her movement.  Adler had closed his eyes, trying desperately to delay the inevitable, when she suddenly stiffened, her whole body becoming rigid, and screamed.  Opening his eyes, Adler saw that tears were steaming down her face, falling to her breasts, making pools on his stomach. 

She rolled off of him quickly in one fluid motion, her body wracked with sobbing, and assumed a fetal position as far away from his as his narrow bed would allow.  The separation after such intimacy brought fresh longing to him but he was unsure how to proceed.  He wanted to touch her, to console her, for her to reassure him that he hadn’t hurt her, but he lacked the words.  All he could do was wait in agony for her to explain what had just happened.  Eventually she calmed enough to whisper that she was sorry.  She said she wasn’t sure what to expect but that his feelings were far more intense than she had anticipated.  His longing for her had been too much to take and she had been overwhelmed by his intense need.  Later, they would talk long into the night before making love again but for now they lay together in silence attempting to reestablish their lost equilibrium.

        He will read the note three times through a blur of tears.  He will drop the note to the floor and climb back into bed, broken, a hollow shell.  He will lie there in misery, not sleeping, not awake, in a state of despair and shock.  He will weigh the world that he knew against the possible world that she showed him and will conclude that she was right.  It would have been better if they had never met as they would have never known what they had been missing. 

Your need for me is too great and I’m afraid that I cannot endure it, he will read.  It’s too much, I’m sorry

The letter will be unsigned.   

        It will be three days before he is sufficiently dead inside again, comfortable in his immunity to his own pain, before he can rise again and resume his old, empty life amongst the living and the dead.     


       .          .


It has been a year since Adler met her. 

He continues on, still editing, still reading, still attending an occasional movie, still not speaking.  Occasionally, he feels a tinge of his own pain and at that feeling his heart leaps with the expectation of seeing her.  These feelings are brief, however, and end almost as quickly as they start.  He thinks that these are residual effects, echoes perhaps, from the meshing of their souls.  He is glad the pain is brief but would endure it unendingly if only it meant being with her once more.

Adler had given up smoking months ago but he still continues to keep to his former schedule on the bench.  He knows that her own feelings will guide her unerringly to him if that is her wish. 

Ghosts still inhabit the streets, but they now show an awareness of his presence.  Sometimes he will catch one of them watching him; most merely mark his progress as he passes, some will smile, once a child waved.  This change is odd but it does not distress him.  He has several theories, all of them unfounded and based solely on speculation, but he rarely dwells upon them for long; he is content to merely nod to them or return the smile or wave and continue on ignoring them as the other living do. 

He sits.  He waits.  On this day, Adler has finished with his work, the memoirs of a serial killer that will almost certainly never be published due to pending civil cases from several of the victims’ families.  He is contemplating taking a walk through the Old Quarter to Hiram’s Books.  The Quarter is quiet with more ghosts than people and this comforts him. 

He has recently finished Volume I of Hume’s History of England and has decided that he will return for Volume II if the elderly bookseller still has it.  Adler is confident the book will be where he saw it last month, still covered in dust and awaiting its return to its companion. 

He is just about to stand and leave when he notices that all of the ghosts have stopped again and are staring blankly down the street.  He starts to feel the ache again, growing stronger, steadily becoming real pain that brings tears to his eyes and a smile to his face, as he looks to the direction that all the ghosts have turned. 

He watches her approach, still clad like one of them, bug eyed sunglasses hiding the radiance of her eyes.  She is unsmiling as she sits down, closer to him this time, barely a foot away, and asks him if he has a light.

“No,” he replies with a cracking voice.  “I quit.”  Good, she says.  I never really smoked anyway.  She smiles as she faces him and grabs his right hand, lacing her fingers between his, and moves closer to him on the bench.  I think I was wrong, she says tucking a strand of her dark hair behind her ear before settling back to see ghosts smiling at the two. 

After several minutes, they turn and go slowly about their unearthly business as the complete soul sitting on the bench fades from their view.       

[1] A form of autism where individuals often lack empathy and show difficulty with social interactions

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