After the Ghosts

by Christopher Stanley

The stairlift stutters as it approaches the top of the rail and I worry I’m not going to make it. My wife waits for me in our bedroom doorway, wearing clothes I don’t remember—a light cotton camisole and patterned leggings. She steps forwards, her lips as full as her smile. “Won’t you join me?”

Seven months ago, we woke up and the sky was cerise, or lilac, or fuchsia—no one could agree. Trees and shrubs were the white of snowflakes and ageing teeth. Roads were the colour of dried blood. The government urged us to stay indoors until this new phenomenon could be investigated, but we were curious. We searched everywhere for the greens and blues of our youth, but they’d been erased from the landscape as though they never existed.

It wasn’t just the landscape that changed, it was us. Everyone woke up with skin the colour of bone. White hair with flecks of blue and gold. Eyes as black as the River Styx. We looked at each other like strangers and wondered if we were ghosts. But we weren’t ghosts. Not then.

Jean, my wife, finds me at the dining room table, still in my wheelchair, sipping from a glass of water. I don’t know where she goes when she’s not around. “Have you run out of food yet?” she asks. I have, but I don’t say anything.

We adapted to the new colours, somehow surviving the inevitable travel disruptions and empty shelves in the supermarkets. Scientists hypothesised and tested but were unable to reach any persuasive conclusions. Pit vipers, pythons, and vampire bats have thermoreceptive organs capable of registering infrared light, but we don’t. Chemically-induced colour blindness seemed more likely, but tests for elevated levels of carbon disulphide and styrene came back negative. Fringe groups argued for a variety of psychological, physiological and environmental causes, but provided little or no evidence to support their claims.

Jean started going to church again, and she wasn’t only one. Science was failing us, so an intervention by some higher power seemed the most plausible explanation.

In whispers, we spoke of Revelations.

Then we saw the ghosts.

They appeared quickly and in vast numbers, as though they’d always been there and we just couldn’t see them before. In horror stories, we’re taught that ghosts are anomalies—lost and lonely, limping down dimly lit corridors, scraping nails across chalkboard walls, faces twisted in pain, mortal wounds visible for all to see. In reality, they were young and vital—friends and families restored to their prime. They thrived in daylight and danced in the dark. They needed nothing. They wanted nothing. We watched, breathless, as crowded streets were overrun with beautiful, incorporeal spirits.

Jean finds me in the kitchen. Every single cupboard door is open. The worktops are strewn with out-of-date condiments and dried herbs. There’s nothing to eat. Nothing to drink. I’m on the floor, hunched over and sobbing. Jean points to a paring knife on the wall-mounted rack. “How about this one?”

After the ghosts, people examined their lives and found their prospects of happiness were lacking. What was the point of carrying on? Here was a chance to say goodbye to ageing and chronic pain, high rents and low-paying jobs, abusive relationships and unrequited love, climate guilt and environmental devastation. For most people, the choice wasn’t life or death, it was rat poison, bleach, or sleeping pills? The number of ghosts swelled rapidly and the only ones with regrets were those left behind.

Across the world, industries perished overnight. Infrastructures collapsed. Shortages of food, medicine and hygiene products followed, and no amount of government assurance could persuade us there was enough to go around. People who had already lost loved ones found they were starving and out of work. And the smell! The air became a dark river of excrement and decay, to which only the ghosts were immune. While we fought over perfumed face masks, the souls of our dearly departed crowded the streets in an ever-growing party of youthful exuberance.

I follow Jean into the garden, to the cherry tree where I found her body. “It’ll be over soon,” she says, her cheekbones as sharp as they were when we first met. “I’ll stay with you.”

I turn the knife over in my hand, feeling its weight, wondering how it came to this. “Why did you do it?” I ask. “Were you sick? Or was I too much of a burden?”

A gentle breeze tugs Jean’s hair into her eyes. The collar of her blouse flaps against her neck. She chooses her words carefully. “I thought it would be easier if I went first.”

“Easier?”

“For you. To give up. You were always so stubborn.”

I roll up my sleeve, exposing the long, black veins snaking up my arm. Then I press the tip of the blade against my wrist until I’ve drawn a single bubble of blood.

“What’s happening?” asks Jean. She stumbles backwards, raising her arm to shield her face. Her hair whips wildly as though she’s caught in a storm. Except, there isn’t any wind. “Help me!”

I reach for Jean’s outstretched hand, but something tugs her away from me. I drop the blade and roll after her, determined not to lose her again. She stumbles backwards and I lunge for her, ignoring the pain in my arthritic hips and shoulders. For a second I think I’ve done it, I’ve caught her. Then her expression becomes one of horror as my hand passes through her incorporeal form.

I watch, helpless, as she rises like a child’s kite, lifted by some ethereal wind. The sky is full of ghosts, thousands of them, screaming and flailing as their bodies are swept upwards, spiraling and swirling ever higher into a sky that’s either cerise, or lilac, or fuchsia, with just a hint of blue.

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