Lackey was entering his sixth month of silence when he first noticed the
ghosts inhabiting the city.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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?”
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?
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.
was on the bench that he first noticed her as well.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
noticed that all the grays had dispersed and seemed to not regard him at
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
it turned out, he only had to wait about two hours; to him it was
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
need for me is too great and I’m afraid that I cannot endure it, he
will read. It’s too much,
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.
has been a year since Adler met her.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
several minutes, they turn and go slowly about their unearthly business
as the complete soul sitting on the bench fades from their view.
 A form of autism where individuals often lack empathy and show difficulty with social interactions