John H. Matthews has worked as an office equipment mover and a library
specialist. As the “M” half of the comic “A.M.” he drew artwork...read more for the
Evanston-based monthly, Strong Coffee, also contributing his short stories. He
did illustration work for the website, FamousDreams.com which cataloged dreams
about celebrities. He played drums for the Villa Park punk rakehells, Six Slug
His writing has appeared in the anthologies What Happened to Us These Last
Couple Years? and It’s All Good: How Do You Like It Here Now? His work has also
appeared in Wisconsin Review, Pindeldyboz, Opium Magazine, Word Riot and several
other publications. He lives with his wife Rachel and dog, Darla near Chicago
where he is hard at work on a novel. Visit him online at www.sixslug.com.
THE FIRST THING you lose when you die is your motor skills. You become almost weightless and nearly invisible, which is nice, but it’s hell trying to get anywhere.
I spent my first day as a ghost trapped in the video arcade of the North Park Mall. I was stuck between a game called Zombleed, which involved sawing zombies in half with a chainsaw, and another, intended for girls, called Pinky the Unicorn. No matter how I struggled, I couldn’t move out of the space in which I’d found myself.
The players’ absorption in their respective games kept them from noticing me, but I soon attracted the attention of the two Indian gentlemen who ran the arcade. I saw them discussing something. They were both wearing bright orange vests with name tags. Sanjee pointed in my direction and the other, Muhammad, squinted across the room. Muhammad was just going on shift.
I thought of them as brothers, although I’m not sure whether they actually were. Their rich, black hair was stacked high on their heads and it seemed that they had similar features, but maybe this was just my imagination. They were very calm; I admired that. They came up and looked above and around me, looking for the source of me. They put their hands through me, and then concluded that some sort of magnetism between the two machines was probably responsible for the pillar of bending waves that distorted the air. They moved one game away from the wall.
That was all it took. I sprang loose.
I was momentarily exhilarated. I drifted like a balloon until I bumped up between a column and a planter close to Mariella’s Pretzel Shack and got stuck again. During my confinement at this new location, I observed the business closely. Mariella was a short Italian woman in her late thirties. She kept her long brown hair pinned under a white cap. Mariella struck me as hardworking—maybe too hardworking. She had a sign posted advertising for help.
Mariella looked at me curiously a few times and even walked through me once to see what the deal was. She seemed to think I was a problem with the light, because she directed some of the mall’s physical-plant personnel to the lights above her little shack. The men checked them out and then told her that the lights were working fine; they would not be replaced until they needed replacing.
...read more (2/7)Mariella studied me, and I studied her. Since I was unsure of my role as a newborn apparition, I hoped maybe I’d learn something from observation. I gathered from the conversations Mariella had with her customers that she was divorced and had a daughter named Rosemary who was in college. Her most frequent customer was this one guy who wore a red jogging suit, though he didn’t appear to be at all athletic.
Jimbo, this man called himself. Jimbo hit on Mariella as if she were the most sought-after princess in the land. Maybe to his eyes Mariella was a princess, or maybe her circumstances had reduced her to being attainable to the likes of Jimbo—at least in his estimation. Who could say? I’d never before observed someone eat his weight in mustard-covered hot pretzels.
One day, despairing of something interesting to talk about, Mariella pointed to me and asked Jimbo what he thought. Did I look odd to him at all? Did the light almost look like a body? Walk through it, she urged; it’s cold. It’s the weirdest thing.
Jimbo couldn’t, or didn’t want to, see me. He walked through me, flapping his long arms and going, “What? What? See? Nothing!” This may have cost him any chance he had with Mariella.
“You ever take a vacation?” Jimbo asked Mariella. “You work too much. You need to go on a vacation. You should come fishing with me sometime.”
“Huh!” Mariella snorted. “You think I can leave this place in the hands of these kids I got working for me? I’d have the health department shut me down in a week! If they showed up for work at all, that is. They’re always quitting on me.”
As I watched Mariella’s activities and the goings-on in the pretzel shack, I continued to struggle to gain mobility. I enjoyed watching things from my little corner, but I had a nagging sense that I had to get somewhere and, not only that, that I had to do something. Wasn’t it the nature of ghosts to be restless? Well, then, I was restless.
...read more (3/7)I’d died in the most ridiculous of ways. A power line fell across the bus I was on. The front of the bus exploded in a fireball, and there was a lot of smoke and screaming; sparks were spitting all over the place. There was this vibration of uncontained power in the ground. The line sputtered. It hummed. It hissed. Some people panicked and tried to get off the bus; I was one of them. It was on fire. I touched a metal railing and that was it: my last action. I was thirty-one.
Now I was dead. I supposed, anyway. Having not received any kind of universal knowledge or guide to the afterlife, I wasn’t quite sure what was happening, but I knew this much: I was ghostlike. I wanted to move, and I needed to do something.
After a few days, it got so that I could make slight, jerky motions that would carry me an inch or two. Slowly, I inched away from the pretzel shack and positioned myself in the foot traffic that was passing by Rothbart’s Jewelry store. Eventually, I maneuvered to the northwest corner of the first floor, which terminated at a vitamin store, and gradually began to have more control over my movements. By day five, I was floating a good three inches off the polished tiles and could move about pretty much at will, like a proper ghost and had even regained use of my hands and arms. Though I seemed to have access to any area of the mall, when I attempted to leave the premises, a force at the exits repelled me.
By my seventh day, I could easily have ascended to the second floor using the escalator, but my lofty goal was to levitate myself there with my own ghostly power. Why did I need to get to the second floor? I knew this much, now, too: someone named Colin was up there. For some reason, I had to meet Colin.
Using all of my energy, I concentrated on levitating. Up I went, just like a real ghost, and landed safely on the second floor near Carson’s department store, where a sullen-looking sixteen-year-old boy sat on a bench, watching a row of TVs.
Colin looked like he could have been the lead in a movie about troubled teens. He wore a faded denim jacket that reeked of cigarettes. His long brown hair hung over his old-soul eyes. His jeans were torn at the knees. His gym shoes had been drawn on with a ballpoint pen: anarchy symbols, bands I’d never heard of.
...read more (4/7)I knew, without being told, that Colin had a broken home and that my mission was to try to improve his life if I could. Why was this my mission? I had no idea. Maybe, before you pass on completely, some final deed is required of you.
Colin was sitting on a bench—it was more of a slab, really—watching the row of TVs and ignoring the biology homework that he’d brought along. Colin wasn’t making much progress on the homework. The book was closed, and he was watching a rap artist sing about his bling and his thing.
Colin watched the rappers, and the rappers that followed them, and then the glamorous teen idols that followed them. At some point, Colin opened his biology workbook and attempted a few questions, but this was soon put aside. When the mall was closing, he left his homework assignment on the bench.
I secreted the page away and looked it over. Though I’d always been horrible at science and math, I could tell from Colin’s answers that he could not be doing well in this class. I resolved to help. I traversed the mall that night until I hit upon an idea.
The next afternoon, when Colin appeared on the bench, I placed a note near him.
FIND KEY BENEATH THE BENCH
WHAT’S INSIDE IS YOURS
— MAGIC BOX
Colin read the note and looked around suspiciously. There wasn’t anyone standing close to him, except for an old couple looking at sunglasses in Sunglass Hut and a woman perusing sweaters near the entrance of Carson’s. Colin looked up, but there was no third floor.
He stuffed the note in his pocket and looked beneath the bench. Then he took the key and started walking slowly, his eyes darting furtively beneath the protection of his bangs. He didn’t walk to the lockers immediately. He made a loop of the second floor first, probably to see if he was being followed. Once he was confident that he wasn’t, he turned down the hallway where the lockers were.
Colin arrived at locker 508 and glanced around. There were only a few people coming into the mall from the outside doors, but no one else was around. He inserted the key and removed an item that I had placed inside the night before, a book called Biology the Easy Way.
...read more (5/7)He opened the cover and flipped through the book. My heart swelled at the thought of this good thing I’d done. Now, Colin would know that someone cared about his well-being and education, even if his parents didn’t. I imagined this little act having a ripple effect on his entire life. He would never forget the mysterious stranger who had helped him out, who had led him to embrace the sciences and become a respected biologist.
I followed Colin on his way back to the mall concourse. Then I had all the wind knocked out of me when I saw him deposit the book in the garbage can and leave the mall.
Maybe it had been presumptuous of me to assume that such a trifling deed would change Colin’s life and allow the gates of the afterlife to swing wide, but I was thoroughly crushed, crushed as only a heartless teenager can crush someone.
The next day Colin came back to his usual spot by the TV sets. Again, he neglected his homework almost exclusively for the endless stream of video imagery. Today his posture seemed hostile, like he was defiantly waiting for some adult to show up and inquire about how he’d liked the gift. He seemed prepared to tell this person to fuck the hell off.
As he waited for this encounter, Colin tore open several sugar packets and poured the contents into his mouth. I wondered, horrified, whether this was his dinner.
No wonder his schoolwork was suffering. How could he be expected to concentrate without a decent meal in his stomach? Inspired by this realization, I absconded to Portillo’s Hot Dogs and inserted myself into the assembly line, where the employees were throwing together sandwiches for hungry customers at their usual incredible speed. My theft of two red hots was not noticed amid the gyrations of the workers. I delivered the hot dogs to the locker.
Relieved to find Colin still at his post, I dropped a new note nearby.
EAT AT JOE’S
SEE MAGIC BOX
Colin read the note and stood up hastily, looking every which way for the creep stalker, but no one was close. He went to the locker and opened it up. He might have been concerned about some psycho poisoning him, but if he was actually hungry, I doubted he would be able to resist the tempting smells wafting directly into his face. My assumption was correct; he ate both hot dogs without hesitation. After looking around to confirm that no one was going to approach him, he headed for the parking lot.
...read more (6/7)I smiled at this small success. Eager to continue to make an inroad to him, that evening I removed a pair of gym shoes from Maury’s Shoes that looked about his size and placed them the locker. Colin’s shoes were in bad repair, so I figured he’d appreciate the gesture. The next day, Colin came to the bench and found a note I’d left for him.
JUST DO IT
— MAGIC BOX
Colin opened the locker, examined the shoes, then placed them back inside. He took out a note card, wrote something and placed it in the locker as well. This started a note exchange that lasted over the course of a few days.
Colin: I DON’T WANT YOUR SHOES.
Magic Box: SORRY. WHAT DO YOU WANT?
Magic Box: I CAN’T GIVE YOU MONEY. WHAT ELSE DO YOU WANT?
Magic Box: I CAN ONLY GIVE YOU SOMETHING SUBSTANTIAL.
Colin: MONEY IS SUBSTANTIAL. GIVE ME A HUNDRED DOLLARS.
Magic Box: HOW ABOUT A PART-TIME JOB?
Colin: WHAT JOB?
Magic Box: PRETZEL SHACK. GOOD JOB. FRIENDLY BOSS. BUT DON’T BOTHER UNLESS YOU’LL BE ON TIME AND WORK HARD.
When he received my last note about the job opening, Colin seemed confident that he had uncovered the mystery of who was sending him the notes. He passed by the shack several times, looking at Mariella, trying to see whether she would take any notice of him. Finally, he approached the shack and purchased a pretzel. He kept staring at Mariella even after the transaction was complete.
“The mustard’s over there,” she said.
“Um, OK, thanks,” Colin said. He hesitated.
“Need something else?”
“Uh, no.” Colin turned away but came back after a couple of steps. “Hey, you’re looking for someone?” He nodded at the “HELP WANTED” sign.
“Yes, we are. Do you want to fill out an application?”
Mariella handed the form to Colin. “Here you are.”
Colin wandered off, looking more confused than ever. If Mariella was the stranger behind the magic box, she hadn’t acted like it. Laughing to myself, I went back to the video arcade to create more optical distortions.
...read more (7/7)When I floated past the pretzel shack a few days later, I was gratified to find that Mariella had given Colin a chance. He was behind the counter, head bent in concentration as he rolled out dough in long sheets. Mariella was standing behind him, gently coaching. In the same omniscient way I’d known I had to do something for Colin, I knew that this job was an important step for him. Mariella was going to teach him something and make him feel good about himself—something he hadn’t felt in a long time. And I knew something else as well: while his road was just beginning, mine was finally ending.
I found myself ahead of a janitor’s broom, being pushed towards the north exit, my motor skills depleted again. The janitor kept pushing in his erratic manner until we were at the doors of the mall. Before, whenever I’d come close to these doors, I would bump against an invisible barrier that was similar to the feeling of two magnets opposing each other. I hadn’t been able to get through, no matter how hard I’d tried.
But now this barrier had vanished. I stood at the exit, facing the light, terrified but hopeful.
I summoned the nerve to walk forward on heavy, human legs, and passed into whatever came next.