Five rides, Clay told himself after he gagged up that morning's haunting. He'd pick up five rides today, and then call it quits.
He'd woken up choking on housekeys nearly every morning for the last two months, a curious sort of morning sickness. Today's was brass with a hexagonal head, old and scratched. Clay caught the haunting before it fell into the toilet, warm from his body and sticky with mucus. He washed his hands and the key, dried them, and then dropped the key into the jar he kept in the bathroom. It was nearly full; he'd have to get a larger one soon.
Five rides and no more; he'd do them during the day and be home before dark.
He thought of his last passenger of the night before. Halloween had ended weeks before, but people in town still wore cheap masks and polyester and satin costumes, more of them out on the streets every night. She'd been dressed in a brown onesie, with a plastic monkey mask that had been too small for her face.
"It's Halloween every day," she'd slurred as her friends poured her into his backseat. "There are ghosts everywhere, see?"
She pointed out the window at one of the wraiths twisted up in black scraps of fabric, bleeding purple light from its eyes, mouths, and fingertips. The wraiths dotted the street, wandering in and out of traffic and bars, standing sentry on the corners.
"Bastards," she'd muttered, and kicked the door. He'd left her on the curb after she demanded he pull over so she could puke.
Clay pulled on a hoodie and a pair of jeans, stumbling to the apartment below his. Mari, in 2B, was infinitely generous with her cheap coffee, and she was sometimes his only human contact outside of driving for Flock.
Clay could hear calm music and a British voice on the other side of the door, one of Mari's many nature documentaries, and knocked loudly. When she opened the door, strains of oboes and violins washed over him, along with the smell of Mari's apartment: sage and weed smoke, lavender, sautéed onions.
"Coffee?" she asked, speaking over the TV.
Mari's living room was crowded with shabby furniture and mismatched pillows, potted plants and unfinished craft projects littering every surface. Clay's apartment contained his bed, a table with two mismatching chairs, and piles of clothes in varying states of cleanliness. Clay didn't need a lot of stuff. He didn't want it.
Mari already had the coffee things out, the big yellow can of Bustelo and an aeropress. The little TV in the corner of the kitchen was showing clips of crows, and the noise of their cawing filled the apartment. They circled through gray skies and perched on telephone wires, calling to each other. They remembered people's faces, the narrator said. They remembered what people had done to them, remembered for generations.
"So, Clay." Mari didn't seem to mind that she had to nearly shout over the TV. "You're queer, right?"
Mari had a briefcase full of sex toys that had a Bisexual Pride bumper sticker on the front. He knew this because she had pointed it out in the living room and said, "That's where I keep my sex toys. Most of them, anyway." He had never given her potential heterosexuality the benefit of the doubt. Clay blinked, and said, "Why?"
"I said—" His throat flared with pain, and he gestured for her to turn the sound down on the TV, where the crows were still drawing lazy circles through the air. When she did, he said, "Why do you want to know?"
"I wanted to ask you a favor, but I didn't want to presume. I kind of figured you were, because of that conversation about Neil DeGrasse Tyson—"
"If you don't get turned on by him talking about the cosmos, you're dead inside," he said, an automatic reaction. "But yeah."
"Cool. So Finn wants me to peg him, but he wants to know what bottoming is like from someone with a prostate. And I'm not presuming anything about your tastes and preferences, but… Your look of horror is pretty cute, for the record."
"Thanks." Clay ran a hand over his face. "I'm not sure I can talk to you about anal sex when I'm barely awake."
"You don't need to talk to me about it. I want you to talk to Finn."
Finn was Mari's boyfriend, and not that it was his business, but she could do better. The first and only time he'd met Finn, the other man had pressured Clay to drink nettle tea and read Pema Chödrön, "To help keep your life in balance." Mari, meanwhile, worked at a suicide hotline, could swear in English, Tagolog, and Mandarin, and freely shared her weed and bad coffee. Clay knew which of these things helped kept him balanced.
"Is there a reason Finn can't google how to take it up the butt like a normal person?" Clay said.
"It's Finn. He wants locally-sourced advice about anal pleasure." Mari plunked a cup of coffee in front of him. "I'll also cut your hair. And make you dinner tonight. I have people coming over anyway."
"What's wrong with my hair?"
"When's the last time you cut it?"
Clay couldn't remember. Things had been too hectic, too weird before he'd left the city; things had been too lonely and weird since he'd arrived.
"I'll set you up on a date, too," Mari offered. "There's a cute intern at the hotline."
"I'm not fucking an intern," Clay said, though he wasn't sure why he objected. Not like he had room to judge.
"At least let me cut your hair. It's starting to look like a hockey mullet."
Mari had her own kind of inertia, and. Clay soon found himself on Mari's balcony, looking out at the fields beyond their shared backyard, and the construction project that had been abandoned in them. Billboards along the road still advertised for new homes, built to order. But the project had been abandoned. None of the homes were built, and all that remained were enormous gouges in the ground where they'd dug foundations. A couple wraiths lingered by the edges, little blurs of black and purple, gazing down into the pits.
Clay sat on his milk carton while Mari moved around him, combing through his hair with her fingers and snipping with a confidence that made him relax. She pitched his hair into the wind, and he thought about birds building their nests with it.
"What's Finn haunted by?" he asked.
The movement of Mari's fingers slowed. "Unspooled cassette tapes. He wakes up with the tape knotted in his hair."
"What type of music?" Clay asked.
"We don't listen to them," Mari said. "I get postcards."
Clay had seen Mari's hauntings, since all of their mail was mixed together. The postcards were vintage, with terrible puns and bland innuendo: the one he'd seen had had a naughty librarian with stacks of books propping up her cleavage, Interested in a thriller? On the other side was a spidery scrawl of words in faded brown ink. He'd slipped it under her door without reading it and washed his hands after. It felt terrible to touch someone else's haunting.
"Mine are house keys," Clay said. "I wake up with them stuck in my throat."
"Do they unlock things?"
"I don't know. I haven't tried."
Mari fished a pair of clippers out of her bag and plugged them in. Clay shivered as she touched them to his scalp.
"Cool," she said a moment later, tilting his head up. "You look slightly less like you're about to murder a cabin full of teenagers."
Clay shook his head, marveling at how light it felt. "Thanks. So."
"I'll talk to Finn about taking it up the ass. Although I don't know when—"
Mari waved a hand. "I'll set it up. It's not like a pegging emergency, you can take a couple days."
Clay's phone pinged with a ride request right as he was pulling out of the parking lot: a little red dot just a few hundred feet down the road, from a user named Nadia. She'd uploaded a picture of herself, an olive-skinned woman with long brown hair, smiling in nostalgic, filtered light.
There was a figure by the abandoned construction site, perched at the edge of the unfinished foundation. Was it a wraith? Clay had picked up wraiths before, though he worried about being seen with one in his car. The wraiths weren't bad customers. They tipped. They were never drunk or obnoxious. And they didn't talk, though some of them sang in low, grating, mournful voices. If Clay wasn't in the mood to listen, he just turned the radio up. They were easily drowned out, unlike some of his living passengers.
Clay pulled over, rolled down the window, and called out, "Nadia? Going to the Riverside apartments?"
The figure waved, though Clay wasn't sure if it was in affirmation or negation. As she came closer, Clay realized she was human, not wraith. She wasn't leaking purple light. She had a hat pulled down to the rim of her sunglasses, a scarf wrapped up to her nose, and an overlarge jean jacket that draped over her hands. A few strands of brittle, black hair stuck out. She limped up to his rear door, opened it, and carefully folded herself into the back seat.
"Nadia?" he asked again. "Riverside apartments?"
"Yeah." A hoarse voice: it sounded like fabric being torn.
"All right," he said. He hit ON ROUTE on the app and started driving.
She had brought the smell of the outdoors with her, rotting leaves and salt and mud, and her presence seemed to fill his car. He didn't dare turn on music or the radio—it would have felt like listening to music on the way to a funeral—so the silence lay heavy. It was just her labored breathing and the engine, which didn't seem loud enough in comparison.
"Do you live around there?" he asked. "Near the construction site?"
Nadia shook her head.
"What were you doing out there?" What he wanted to ask was, what were you doing so close to my house?
"Looking," Nadia said.
"For what?" Clay asked, then realized he might not want to know. "Sorry you didn't find it, whatever it was."
They drove again in silence. The houses and subdivisions, like his and Mari's building, gradually gave way to apartment complexes, Wal-marts, and Targets.
"Do you really want to know what I was trying to find?" Nadia asked.
"No. Not really. That's fine," Clay said, and pressed down a little bit harder on the accelerator. He was going to count this as two rides, he decided. Two of the five he'd allotted himself today.
They passed into the quaint neighborhoods nearer the center of town, old houses with front porches interspersed with newer, uglier condos. They were almost at the Riverside apartments when Clay caught movement out of the corner of his eye: Nadia leaning forward, swaying closer to him. The car swerved in the road.
"My skin," she said in her harsh whisper. "They took my skin. It's always so cold, now."
"Sorry," he said, and turned up the heat in the car. Both of them, he knew, were meaningless gestures.
"Why?" she asked. "They took something from you, too. I can tell."
Nadia leaned back, and Clay let himself breathe.
They had stopped at a light, only a few blocks from Riverside, when the door opened, and the interior light went on. Clay twisted around to see Nadia step out of his car, adjust her sunglasses, and shut the door softly behind her. She limped past two lanes of honking cars to the sidewalk, and then turned and started walking in the opposite direction of the one they'd been traveling. Clay put the car in park and was about to unbuckle his seatbelt, full of vague thoughts of chasing after her, when his phone pinged.
Nadia had marked the ride complete.
Nadia had tipped him six dollars on a ten-dollar ride.
The light ahead turned green, and the cars in front of Clay started to move. Clay followed. She'd marked the ride complete. That meant she didn't need his help, right? Or at least, didn't particularly want it.
Clay turned down a ride request to the airport, and another that originated from one of the frat houses. He killed time by the downtown strip of cafes and brunch places, waiting for the lunch rush to get out, by trying to imagine what he would tell Finn about getting fucked. Bottoming, that sounded better—specific but not graphic, less likely to trigger the ass-related anxiety that seemed to be the resting state of most hetero guys.
He texted Mari: What exactly have you done to Finn's ass before now?
The answer came immediately. Exactly?? A winking smiling face was appended to it. Mari was fluent in emoji.
God no, just generally, Clay replied.
Peach emoji, pointer finger. Some touching, not much penetration. He's butt shy.
If he was butt shy, why did he want to get pegged? Maybe he wanted to prove that he was secure enough in his heterosexuality that he could unclench his sphincter long enough to let his hot girlfriend fuck him? Who knew why straight people did anything, really.
There had been a period where Clay had been using the Flock app for hookups. He hadn't meant to, but one day, he'd met the eyes of a passenger in his rearview mirror, and the man had said, "You've got a nice mouth, anyone ever tell you that?" A terrible line, but it did the trick. The weather had still been warm then: bad ideas seemed worth exploring, consequences seemed minimal. The town had shut down its only gay bar a few weeks before Clay had arrived: legal troubles, supposedly. Mari had said, "Oh yeah, the city was really concerned about underage drinking. That's why they shut down a single bar that mostly had old men and married lesbians in it."
Clay had pulled over into a parking lot, and they'd fooled around in the shadow of a pickup truck with a confederate flag sticker on it. The act was defiant enough to make the otherwise mediocre sex hot.
He'd stopped after letting a guy take him home and fuck him. That guy had done it like a porn star, like it was a performance for an audience Clay couldn't see and wasn't included in. Seven different positions over the course of an hour, a stream of filthy invectives in Clay's ear; this was a hero's journey, but Clay was just the mountain he had to climb. The guy cried after he came, and that wouldn't have bothered Clay, except the tears, too, felt like a performance, like pageantry.
He'd noticed the framed pictures on his way out the door: the guy dressed up in a suit, shaking the hands of other men in suits. One of them looked like the governor that everyone hated, who'd still managed to get re-elected.
That had been the end of hooking up with his passengers. He hadn't had sex since.
He imagined relating this story to Finn, the delicate look of distaste—or worse, fascination—as Clay described how sex sometimes left him feeling hollow and more alone than if he'd just jerked off in his room to porn gifs on Reddit. Isolation was easier. Keep your eyes on the road and your thoughts to yourself. Don't look back. Don't think about what came before, what was lost, who was gone, who had disappeared. Don't wonder what doors the keys unlocked; don't ask why they haunted you out of everyone in the world.
His second ride that day was two middle-aged men. He nearly didn't pick them up: one was dressed in an ill-fitting cop costume, with a fake handlebar mustache and aviator sunglasses. But the other, dressed normally, had spotted the winged Flock decal in Clay's rear window and waved him down.
"19th and Stein," the normally-dressed one said to Clay.
"Got it," Clay said. Short ride, just a couple miles. He could do this.
"I'm telling you, man, it's brilliant," the dress-up cop said as they got in.
"I don't care. You look like one of the faggots from the YMCA song."
Clay hadn't heard anyone use the word "faggot" since he'd ditched his hometown, ten years before, and the sound of it now made something in his chest buckle, like it was in danger of collapsing. Keep driving, he told himself, even as his skin prickled.
"Young man! There's no need to feel down!" the cop sang. His voice boomed in the confines of the car.
"Would you shut up? Let the guy fucking drive us in peace."
They turned down Magritte Ave. The normally dressed guy tried to catch Clay's gaze in the rearview mirror, in silent apology perhaps, but Clay kept his eyes forward.
"You ever unwind one of them?" the dress up cop asked. He tapped a finger against the window. A wraith was hunched over in a bus shelter, its hands resting on the sidewalk in puddles of violet light. "The purple stuff goes everywhere. Splashes up your arms like blood, stinks like sulfur. It dries, but you'll smell it on your skin through a couple showers."
"No wonder you fucking stink," the other guy said. Clay had noticed it too: the man smelled like someone had lit a match and set fire to a pile of dirty clothes.
"It keeps the hauntings away," the dress up cop said.
The other guy rolled his eyes, mostly for Clay's benefit. "Nobody really believes that."
"I haven't found any game pieces in my shoes for a week." The cop looked at Clay. "You know they're connected, right? They have to be."
Clay shrugged noncommittally. The man leaned forward, and the smell of sulfur grew stronger. "You even speak English? I haven't heard a damn word from you yet. What's your name, anyway?"
"I speak English," Clay said. "And I don't know anything about the hauntings."
The other man pulled the cop back into the backseat. "That's enough, Frank, he's gonna crash the car if you don't leave him the fuck alone."
The cop settled down, singing the lyrics to "YMCA" to himself. Clay let the two men off at 19th and Stein. The dress up cop got out first, slamming the door behind him. The other guy lingered. "Sorry," he said. "He's a good guy, normally. It's just, everything that's going on."
"I get it," Clay said. These kinds of assholes wanted empathy for their tough situation. Clay just wanted them out of the car.
The guy pulled out his phone, signing off on the ride. "The weird thing is, he actually is a cop. I don't know why he's dressing like that. Why anybody is. It makes me sick."
Clay had earned a break. He got a coffee and a sandwich, and treated himself to the luxury of rejecting a handful of ride requests and thinking of nothing much at all.
He'd honed the latter as a skill. Dissociating made days go by easier. Maybe that's why people still wore their Halloween costumes—one more step towards detaching from day-to-day life. Clay didn't believe the dress-up cop, though: nothing could keep the hauntings away. It was a conviction that dwelt on the back of his tongue, where the taste of brass burned constantly. Everyone who was haunted (and there was nobody who wasn't) either needed or deserved it. They were all culpable. Smashing apart a wraith wouldn't change that.
Clay paused at a ride request that was pinging from a block away: no picture, but the name Joe Palomar was attached to it.
Joe was petite and compact, and Joe had soft brown skin, and Joe had given Clay a handjob that had been almost transcendental back in the summer, when Clay was still cruising his passengers. Clay had wondered aloud how anyone could give a handjob that was inspiring rather than perfunctory, and Joe had smiled and said, "The only good thing I learned at Methodist summer camp." Joe had told him to look him up, and Clay never had, because right after that he'd encountered the crying Republican wannabe porn star and realized that alone was better. Easier, certainly. Detach and dissociate: a survival mechanism for the modern age.
But what, exactly, had detaching gotten him?
Clay accepted the ride, and the Flock app sang its tinny song of praise. "Yeah, yeah,"
Clay said, and turned the car back on. Joe was only a block away, going to the university's library, and he hadn't seemed the type to try and drag Halloween past its expiration date. Still, Clay was relieved to spot Joe wearing a green hoodie under a brown jacket, no costume in sight, unless it was an extremely subtle one.
"Schiele Library?" Clay asked.
Joe looked up from his phone. "I wondered if it would be you," he said. He sounded pleased rather than annoyed, which Clay had expected. He got in the passenger seat, next to Clay instead of the back seat. "It's good to see you," he said.
Clay stole glances at Joe as he drove: noted the empty holes that dotted his ear, where Clay remembered delicate silver hoops; noted the stubble on his jaw, the overgrown curls of his hair, and that his skin looked rougher, paler than the ruddy brown of Clay's memory. He looked softer in some places, harder in others.
"How've you been?" Joe asked.
"Can't complain," Clay said. "How are you?"
"The world's fucked," Joe said, though he didn't sound concerned. "Rent's due. Paycheck's late. I've been living off the candy at the receptionist's desk at work. I'm considering selling plasma, but my sister's got me paranoid about the nefarious magical shit that could be done with it. And a cute dude I fooled around with ghosted me."
"...Sorry," Clay said. He actually was, too.
Joe slouched down and propped his knee up on dashboard. "Don't be. You just said you couldn't complain, and I thought, who can't find something to be mad about right now?"
"I think if I let myself get mad," Clay said, "I wouldn't be able to feel anything else."
"My life in a nutshell for the last month or two," Joe said. He blew on his hands to warm them up. "I'm holding it together with masking tape and spite."
Clay turned up the heat and asked, "You want some of my coffee?"
"Thank you for recognizing that I am actually that desperate," he said. After a moment and several sips of coffee, he added, "And sorry if I made it weird."
"It was already a weird day." He pondered telling Joe about the wraiths, the dress up cop, Nadia, the keys in his throat, then settled on: "My neighbor asked me to talk to her boyfriend about getting pegged."
"Oh my god," Joe said. "Do you mean Mari? She asked me the same goddam thing."
"Are you serious?" Clay wasn't sure if he should be insulted that he wasn't even Mari's first choice. "Wait, how do you know Mari?"
"I started working at the suicide hotline with her," Joe said. "Technically, it's an internship, but it pays, so—what? Why are you laughing?"
Clay considered calling it quits after dropping Joe off at Schiele Library, after finding out he'd be at Mari's tonight, after Joe said, "I'm gonna take the rest of your coffee, but sincerely promise to get you back sometime. Not like that. Unless you're into it."
But Clay had promised that he'd pick up five rides today, and he'd already skimped. He was driving back downtown when he saw the group crouching in a rough half-circle. They wore costumes: a pirate with a flimsy tricorner hat, a vampire in a tight, black dress and torn stockings, a young girl with the green toga and crown of the Statue of Liberty. Clay slowed down, watching as the Statue of Liberty suddenly stood up, waving a piece of black fabric joyfully above her head. The black cloth was being unwound from a wraith, which was curled in on itself at the center of the group. Indigo and violet light bled from its eyes, nostrils, and fingertips, seeped from its body and pooled on the ground. Droplets caught on the black cloth, and splashed onto the hands and clothes of the people surrounding it.
Even from inside the car, Clay could smell sulfur. He heard, like a ringing in his ears, the wraith's voice as it screamed or cried or sang.
The vampire turned and saw him watching. She had a scrap of the fabric in her hands and wound it around her neck as he watched, pulled up one end in an approximation of a noose, and waved to him cheerfully. I see you, she mouthed.
Clay pulled back into traffic, nearly clipping an oncoming car. It was several minutes before the roaring in his ears died down enough for him to hear the chimes from his phone, the Flock app activating and ringing with pleas for rides. He killed the app and at the next red light, turned the phone off entirely. His hands were shaking, and shivers ran from the nape of his neck to his gut.
He was okay, he told himself. He hadn't said anything or tried to stop them. They weren't ashamed, they had torn into a wraith in broad daylight, so why did it matter? He had only watched.
Jesus, he had watched.
Clay was turning down Owen Avenue when he felt it coming on as a cold sweat, his guts going liquid and then cramping. He pulled over again, jerking the car to a stop and throwing it into park. He fumbled with the door handle and managed to get it open before he doubled over, gagging, choking on the cold metal in his throat. He was sure that he was about to die; he'd be found with stiff limbs and blue skin, or maybe he'd already be a wraith. Clay reached into his mouth, fingertips brushing the very tip of the key, an eternity of fumbling before he managed to grasp it. The metal teeth clawed at his throat as he extracted it, but he could breathe again. The cold air burned as he sucked it into his lungs, and he sobbed.
Clay took one raspy breath and then another, until he could stand to open his eyes and look at the key. It was old, black, and made of iron. There was blood in the creases of his fingers. The taste of metal in his mouth wasn't just from the key; its teeth must have actually broken skin.
He slipped it into the pocket of his coat, and wondered if he should get a tetanus shot.
The TV was still on in Mari's apartment. Clay stood on the landing in front of her door, one foot on the stairs going up. He took another step, then turned around and knocked.
"What's wrong?" she asked, when she answered. "Are you okay?"
Clay shook his head. "I'm fine," he tried to say, but his throat rebelled, and the words were a broken whisper. He thought of Nadia and the tearing sound of her voice. "Water?" he mouthed.
She pulled him into the apartment and filled up a glass of water from the faucet. The first swallow was too large, and the sharp, stabbing pain nearly made him spit it out. Mari's voice seemed to have receded away, though he could still hear the TV: a serious voice with a British accent describing flocks of birds that descended like locusts on farms in sub-Sahara Africa. The birds ate and ate, stripped crops down to barren fields, devouring every seed and plant. It did no good to shoot at them, since they would just rise up, circle around the sky like a dark, buzzing cloud, and land again to continue their meal. Mari turned the TV off, and pulled Clay into the living room. Sat him down on the couch. Wrapped a soft blanket around his shoulders.
"Can you tell me what happened?" Mari asked.
He focused on her face: the dark-rimmed glasses, the wide, soft nose, the dark freckles that spattered over her round cheeks. He opened his mouth to speak, but the pain got in the way. He pulled the metal key from his pocket instead and tapped it on his throat. He wondered if she would forgive him if he told her what he had witnessed today, and that he had chosen to drive away from it. He was thankful that he'd lost his voice and wouldn't have to find out.
"I got three postcards yesterday. Four the day before. They're coming more often. I can't—" She closed her mouth. The emotions that were written so clearly on her face fell away, as if she were consciously pulling them off her skin.
"You're not going back outside, are you?" she asked.
He shook his head.
"Good. You should stay for dinner. Come help me cook," Mari said, then suddenly sat up straight. "Fuck, I hope I didn't burn the onions."
She had, in fact, burnt the crap out of the onions, and the kitchen was filled with greasy, acrid smoke. Mari swore in Tagalog and French while wiping tears out of her eyes, and Clay coughed and winced from coughing.
"Fuck everything," Mari shouted. She opened the backdoor and threw the pan, heedless of the oil that splattered on her arms. It flew end over end, and a few blackened onions came loose and arced out in their own orbits before splatting onto the ground.
They opened every window and tried to wave the smoke outside, but the smell lingered. "Fuck," Mari said again. "This doesn't mean everything is ruined, right? It's not a sign."
Clay shook his head, not sure if he believed himself, but wanting to. He could believe it for Mari's sake, he thought. "It's just a pan," he tried to say, but his throat still wouldn't cooperate, so he typed the words out on his phone. Just a pan.
Mari sighed, then coughed and wiped her face. "It feels like everything is life or death these days. Even a shitty pan from IKEA."
Let's just make food, he wrote. Then, because he knew it would make her smile, added some stupid emojis: ramen noodles, muscle arm, praise hands. Mari rolled her eyes, but got out another pan. First onions, then ginger and garlic. Mung beans and shrimp stock, water, then the shrimp themselves, already cooked to a tender, pale pink. Mari put the fish in the oven—she'd planned to fry it, but said darkly that she no longer trusted the stove. Clay took care of the rice. The kitchen still smelled burnt and acrid, but it also now smelled like the distant sea, like something comforting.
Finn arrived first, bearing a six-pack of fancy beer and a salad whose lettuce was buried under small hills of nuts, seeds, dried fruits, and avocado slices. He opened a beer and offered another to Clay, who shook his head, gestured to his throat. One good thing to come out of this: he wouldn't have to talk to Finn about taking it up the butt for a day or two.
The apartment began to fill with people, not uncomfortably so, just bodies occupying places that had seemed empty before. The house warmed up, and the smell of burnt onions was overlaid with the smell of people, beer, wine, cheese, bread, casseroles.
Joe arrived last, bearing cookies still steaming with heat; the scent of turmeric, almonds, and cardamom rose from them. "Sorry I'm so late. It took longer than I thought to bake them," he said.
Clay smiled, and managed a whispered "Hey."
"Are you okay?" Joe said. "Did something happen?"
Long story, he mouthed, and tried to distance himself from the horror he'd felt, the guilt.
"I can't promise it'll make it better, but…" Joe handed him one of the cookies. Clay broke off a piece and held it in his mouth, surprised at its softness—sweet and buttery with the tang of ginger. Clay imagined that taste of the cookies on Joe's tongue, should he kiss him, and felt something like lust, something like affection.
They all ate in the living room, since Mari only had a shaky card table with a janky leg. The only thing Clay could eat was Mari's soup, which stung his throat in a soothing way, salty as tears. He sat on the couch, and Joe sat on the ground next to him, his shoulder was resting gently against one of Clay's legs, warm and solid.
Inevitably, Mari's coworkers started talking about the suicide hotline. They'd had twenty-three calls in the last week, and dozens of text messages. Mari had talked to two teenagers, and repeated the stories they told her: that kids at their schools still wore Halloween costumes, even though they were stained and smelled like sweat; that some of the teachers had started to dress up too, or wear plastic masks. Wraiths were filling up the bleachers and the back rows of classrooms.
After a while, there was nothing more to say about it. The conversation broke up, falling to pieces between different people around the room.
Joe was a warm weight on his leg. What was he haunted by, Clay wondered? Joe turned to look at him and gave him a soft sort of smile, then whispered, "I think one of Mari's dildos is going to get its wings tonight."
Clay snorted a laugh, and then winced. Mari and Finn were engaged in a close, whispered conversation, spoken mostly into each other's ears. Finn was flushed, and Mari looked smugly happy. Maybe Finn had gotten over his ass-related anxieties on his own.
Guests started drifting out. Mari put Finn and Joe on dish duty, while Clay gathered up empty beer bottles and took out the garbage. Night had fallen, crisp and clear, and a fat, generous moon hung in the sky. As Clay climbed back up the stairs to Mari's balcony, something caught his eye: lights moving through the fields beyond their backyard.
He'd never noticed that the lights that dripped and seeped from the wraiths were different colors, as unique as bruises: indigo, pale violet, hints of green or blue. The wraiths were gathering around the old construction site, alighting on the frozen machines, in front of the weather-worn sign that advertised homes built to order. The lights dripped and fell like water as the wraiths moved across the field, more than Clay had ever seen at a single time.
"Clay. Get back in the house."
Clay turned. Joe was standing on the balcony, one hand urgently beckoning him, the other holding his phone to his ear.
"I am telling him," Joe said, and Clay realized that he was talking into the phone. "Clay, come inside now."
Clay looked again: beyond the field of swaying, sloshing light, groups of costumed people were walking down the road that led to town. He could hear the murmur of their voices, the jagged edges of laughter. Was the cop down there? What about monkey girl from last night, or the group of kids from this afternoon? Joe grabbed Clay by the hand and pulled him back inside, locking the door behind them. Mari had turned off all the lights.
"Should we shut the blinds?" Finn asked.
Mari said, "What if they see the movement?"
They sat on the floor, pulling blankets and pillows off the couch to make it comfortable. Joe was still talking urgently into the phone. "It's okay," he said. "We're safe. You'll find it someday. It's—you what?"
He looked at Clay, then back at the ground. "Why?" he asked. "I don't think that's a good idea. Look, just tell me what—damn it."
He put his phone in his pocket and asked the rest of them, "Third time she's called today. Has it been happening to the rest of you more often?"
Joe was haunted by phone calls. It seemed so pedestrian. But as he leaned against the couch, he pulled his phone back out, staring at it, waiting for it to ring. At least Clay's keys didn't demand answers from him.
He wasn't sure when he fell asleep, or when, exactly, he woke up, coaxed back into consciousness with Joe's body pressed against him, Joe's mouth. Such a change from waking up with the sharp pressure of metal teeth pressing against the back of his tongue. It felt good to be disoriented this way, to not know who had started kissing whom. Maybe that's what he could tell Finn about bottoming: it would push buttons you didn't know that you had, sure, but it could also be such an easy, sweet release.
Although now that he was listening for it, he could hear noises from the direction of Mari's bedroom, raised in unselfconscious pleasure. He wasn't going to speculate on what they were doing in there, but he hoped they felt as good as he did.
There was a pinging sound. "Sorry," Joe said, as he broke away and fumbled for his phone. But the noise was coming from Clay's phone, and he recognized the sound of the alert: a Flock passenger asking for a ride.
"That's me," he said. The pain in his throat had settled to a burning ache while they were kissing, but flared when he spoke. Clay pulled the app up on his phone, ready to reject it and sign off, when he saw the name and the picture: a woman with long dark hair, smiling in soft, warm light, sunglasses covering her face. Nadia.
"I should take this," he whispered, though the words felt like splinters in his throat.
"What is that?" Joe said. Clay showed him the phone, and the look of half-asleep desire dropped from Joe's face. "Nadia?"
He took Clay's phone from him, and the light illuminated his face, the planes and curves of it. Clay wondered how he hadn't seen it before, the resemblance between the two of them. She wasn't a wraith; she was Joe's haunting.
"She wanted to talk to you tonight," Joe said.
Clay nodded. "Do you want to come?"
Joe shook his head. "It's so hard, just hearing her voice. I don't know if I can."
"It's all right." The words had sounded more believable coming earlier from Joe.
"Tell her I'm sorry," Joe said, giving Clay back the phone. "Tell her I'm sorry I couldn't do more."
Clay pulled on his jacket, scarf, and boots. He contemplated kissing Joe again before he left, but Joe had turned towards the wall, phone clenched in his hand.
The field and abandoned construction site were empty now. Down by the holes where the foundations would never be poured and walls never erected, a single, solitary figure stood. Clay stood silently, watching her, until the phone in his hand pinged again. He still hadn't accepted the ride request.
He did so, and as he was shoving his phone into his pocket, the balcony door opened. Joe came out, coat open, boots untied. He grabbed Clay's hand and held it until they got to the car.
Ride number five.
Clay drove out to where he'd picked Nadia up that morning and honked once, apologetically, but she didn't move. There were no fences, so Clay turned and drove directly onto the field itself, hoping the ground was hard enough to keep the car from getting mired.
Nadia no longer wore the sunglasses, scarf, or hat, but Clay found himself unable to look directly at her face; his gaze fell, instead, to the rusty stains along the hem and sleeves of her coat, or the frayed black knot of her hair.
Finally, abandoning her contemplation of the pit, the moon, or whatever she'd been looking at, Nadia came over to the car. Her limp was not as pronounced, and she didn't move with the same slowness and caution as she did before. She reached for the passenger side door, but stopped when she saw Joe. She left a handprint on the window, a smear that could have been dirt or blood, and got into the back seat.
They waited for her to speak, and eventually she did.
"When it happened," she said. "When they took my skin, they left my eyes. I can't look away. I see all of it. I see what I am, and what I used to be, and how everything has changed."
"I'm sorry," Joe said. She scoffed. The sound was wet, choked, bloody. Clay flinched, and saw that Joe didn't; he must have been used to this.
Her voice dragged down to a hoarse whisper. "Do you have the key?"
Blood was pooling at the bottom of her eyelids, gathering on her lashes. The car was filling with the smell of rust, metal, salt, blood. The key he'd nearly choked on this afternoon was still in his pocket. Clay patted it to be sure, and felt the metal press into his skin.
"We'll need it," Nadia said.
"Where are we going?" Joe asked.
"Nowhere just yet," she said. "We need to wait for them."
She pointed out the window. After a moment, the lights of the dead began stumbling upwards, more numerous than Clay had ever seen or imagined, rising up out of the ground like clumsy, hungry birds.
NINO CIPRI is a queer and nonbinary/trans writer. A multidisciplinary artist, Nino has written fiction, essays, reviews, plays, comics, radio features, and many rabble-rousing emails. They have also performed as a dancer, actor, and puppeteer. Their work has appeared or is forthcoming in Nightmare Magazine, Interfictions, Tor.com, Fireside Fiction, and other fine venues. One time, an angry person on the internet called Nino a verbal terrorist, which was pretty cool. You can find them online at ninocipri.com.