The Absorber

by Emily Livingstone

The house groans. Bonnie feels the ghosts panicking, scratching at the walls, unable to leave. Some fight when she comes for them. It’s not an easy job. They test kids young, find out who sees ghosts, and make them sponges. Once Bonnie turned fifteen, she was brought, like the others, to haunted locations to absorb the dead.

The country used to be full of vibrant cities. Now, the land is dying, and only small pockets are habitable. The ghosts swarm those.

She finds an old ghost woman in the kitchen. Bonnie likes the ones who keep their human shapes after death. Some become monsters.

Bonnie smiles. “You won’t be gone, entirely, if it helps. The others, they’re all still here.” She taps her head, then opens her palms to take in this ghost.

The woman says, “There’s freedom for your heavy load in Spirit City, honey. Ask the attic ghost, if you can catch her. She’s been elsewhere.”

Bonnie sighs. Most ghosts can’t leave the places they haunt. They’re dependent on human energy—humans or what they’ve created—to exist. Those that can act without it are unpredictable.

In the attic, Bonnie holds her hands ready. She’s a moving black hole. Her gift grows, even as her body weakens. She’s only twenty-one, but her bones ache, and she’s perpetually tired.

This ghost has distorted itself. It looks like a scarecrow—big head, blurred face, long body. It reaches for her. Bonnie absorbs its outstretched claws, whispering, “What is Spirit City?”

“A place where ghosts are free,” it spits. “What do you care, jailer?”


After, in the hotel, captive ghosts float through her dreams, whispering.

Bonnie asks them, What about Spirit City? We could all be free.

The face of tonight’s old woman appears. She confers with the others, and they build Bonnie a mental map from rumors they’ve heard.


Bonnie’s never tried to escape, so her keeper isn’t suspicious. She takes his keys and leaves.

She stocks up on supplies and drives west, leaving the living behind.

Hours in, she slows the car by a ghost in military uniform.

“Why’s a jailer this far west?” he asks.

“I’m looking for Spirit City, to free us.”

“Can I come?”

Bonnie puts out her hand to absorb him, then stops. “Get in,” she says.

He drifts into the passenger seat.

Could she have taken ghosts with her this way all along? What if, instead of crowding her head, they walked alongside her? But some would never have come, no matter what, and the keepers would have punished her.


Bonnie welcomes other ghosts from abandoned cities as she goes west.

There are no plants or animals. No water.

“What do I do when I get there?”

They’ve heard there’s a stone she touches.

“What then?”

No one knows.

Day and night, the ghosts speak. Some crawl into parts of her body. She feels them, inflaming her joints. Eating at her liver. Fraying the neurons. Sponges don’t live long.


As Bonnie approaches Spirit City, she drives a clown car of ghosts.

No skyscrapers, just a few broken structures and a crumbling road. Ghosts of every description walk, crawl, and float, coming closer.

Bonnie exits the car. Her hitchhikers form a ring around her, and she asks the city ghosts, “Where’s the stone?”

They part, forming a path to a massive rock.

Bonnie kneels, pressing her palms against the stone. She gasps as the ghosts spring out with such force that she falls backward.

Hungry spirits come from every side. She’s the only living thing for miles. The old woman, free now, stands over Bonnie. The hitchhiker ghosts stand with her. Bonnie rises and opens her palms, the pose of absorption. The starving ghosts cringe back.

“I don’t want to do it, but I came here to live.”

Slowly, the ghosts press closer, eyes locked on Bonnie. To her horror, they feed on her protectors, causing her friends to flicker and dim.

“Step back,” she murmurs to her circle.

“Too many,” the old woman grunts. “You’ll die.”

Bonnie closes her eyes, becoming the black hole. The dead flood into her. A whole world of suffering, loneliness, and injustice spreads beneath her skin.

When Bonnie opens her eyes, there’s not a ghost in sight.

Inside her: chaos. A thousand mouths moving. She contains multitudes. She is legion.

What now?” the soldier says in her head.

“An experiment.”

Bonnie pulls up her friends in her mind’s eye. She touches her fingertip to the stone, and they diffuse out of her.

“And the rest?” the old woman asks, worried.

Bonnie winces. So many fingernails, clawing at the coffin of her body.

“If I let them out, they’ll consume you.”

Against their protests, Bonnie orders them into the car. They continue west. She envisions the Pacific, blue and promising.


Her head aches. Her eyes lose focus and the car swerves. She drives on.

In the hills, her strength runs out.

She crawls from the car.

As she dies, she holds tight to the long chain of ghosts inside her, bringing them along to the next place. She hopes the hitchhikers will make it to the ocean somehow, traveling on her wish for them, but for all she knows, they’ll stay on this hilltop, gathered around her bones for eternity, or until civilization spreads this far, and a new absorber comes for them.

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