It is strange to think that someone had cut your father open, flayed his muscles and cracked apart the interleaving of his ribs like he was some contentious puzzle that required solving. Did they weigh his heart? His lungs? His liver? The length of his intestines, still sour with the half-digested remnants of last night’s dinner? You have no idea how autopsies worked, only that they are a kind of bizarre intimacy, penetration and halogen-lit dissection, a baring of skin, meat, and spirit.
You jolt like a fish on the line, mouth working soundlessly, before you discover the capacity to shape a platitude, display it on the arc of a thin smile. “I’m fine.”
You’re not. Not remotely. You’re uncertain if you ever will be, even though you suspect that time will, regardless of your input, ameliorate the grief that creases the margins of your consciousness like a word you can’t remember, or a song you can’t forget.
But no one wants to hear you’re not okay, only that you will be, can be, already are. People want to be useful, you think, as you pat the umpteenth shoulder with a tepid hand.
“I’m fine,” you repeat with greater zeal, coercing a smile that borders on real. “Honest.”
Your voice drains as you look up and over that faceless head, the fifth in a long line of well-wishers. In the distance, framed by the ebbing sun, a slant of trees bloodied with pink flowers, is your father.
As though to make up for his absence in life, your father’s ghost follows you everywhere. Never too close, never near enough to encapsulate in a hug, but never at a distance where you can justifiably ignore the knowledge of his presence.
He trails you into supermarkets but not public lavatories, cafes but not changing rooms, forever hovering outside the door, his face a blot of colors runnelling together, recognizable but not necessarily identifiable. At home, he occupies doorways, both ends of the stairwell, the foot of your bed. You quickly learn that he will leave you alone whenever you sleep on the couch, seemingly repulsed by the suffering his company incited, so you colonize the living room. A bad back is worth seven hours of bad sleep.
“I didn’t know you were close,” says a friend, an accusation inlaid in her low, breathy voice.
“It’s complicated,” you reply, uncertain, the explanation sticking in your throat. In the back of your head, an unhappiness amalgamates into words that sounded like how dare you, how could you, why would you. “I’ve always—”
You look up. In the periphery of your vision, your father’s ghost cocks his head, his features a flesh-colored smear. You breathe out.
“It’s complicated.” This wasn’t a lie.
“I don’t get it.” Your friend should have been born a Parisian. She is fine-boned and neurotically exacting with her attire, a chain smoker who balances a predilection for nicotine with a reverence for salads, too ephemeral, you think, to ever be touched by grief. You can’t imagine her crying over anything. “You’ve not spoken to your dad for six years.”
Your throat clenches. “It’s—it’s hard to explain.”
“I guess it could be disassociation,” she continues, relentless, smoke pluming from between professionally whitened teeth. “From all the years of not seeing him, and from being physically removed from your home. You’ll be fine. It’s just shock.”
Shock? You close your mouth around the word. Shock. It didn’t taste like shock. In your mind, shock is astringent, sharp. Like lime, like stomach bile, a flavor that wrenched and appalled. What you feel is softer, a carbon monoxide haze, subtly lethal, seeping into your lungs and your blood. It dulls you, whatever it is, flattens your world into mono-dimensionality, into perfect greys.
Not shock, you think.
“No.” Your friend pinches together immaculately painted brows. “It’s definitely shock.”
You spasm, lurch in your seat, realizing at last that you had spoken, not subvocalized. In your embarrassment, you assemble a laugh, unevenly syncopated, a quavering ha-ha that you use then to segue into flightier topics, rearranging the conversation about your friend instead of the grief that sits waiting like your father’s apparition six tables down.
Your father only stares as you crumple against the steam-slick wall, as you contract into a ball on floor, hands in your hair. Somewhere in the last five days, he lost his fear of proximity, replaced it with an intensity that both frightens and depresses you. Now, he squats an inch from your face. As you look between the kelp-tangle of your hair, you see him reach out, long fingers stretched to brush your cheeks.
Your scream erodes his silhouette, reduces him to ashes on an ocean wind, to a shimmer in the cold fluorescent light, and then, like he never existed in the first place, a delusion given substance by an ill-attended grief, he is suddenly and irrefutably gone.
You pointedly ignore his reflection in the laptop screen: his skin is missing, his torso gapes like a mouth, the ribs gleaming teeth-like against the wet mass of his innards. Intestine drool from the base of his breastbone, a spiral of nesting pinks.
Preta. Er Gui. Hungry ghost.
You type in fresh search terms, hoping to triangulate a solution, or at least an explanation for the haunting, an origin story from which you can exorcise some form of reprieve. But Wikipedia only has riddles.
Hungry ghosts were driven by intense emotional needs in an animalistic way. Hungry ghosts were lessons. Hungry ghosts were victims.
One source suggests that hungry ghosts are manufactured by loneliness, forgotten souls made destitute by unfilial children. But your father had not wanted an altar, had hated the idea of being tethered to a specific point, rooted in the earth. His remains are long gone, (don’t think about that, don’t think about how they only told you about his death when it was too late) disseminated into the sea. He had wanted to be forgotten. (Don’t think about the last time you spoke, not at his father’s funeral, but over the phone before you ran away and made yourself a better life.)
So, how could he hold you accountable? (Don’t think about the times he made you talk him out of killing himself, putting the weight of his life into your teenage hands.)
Desperate, you look up myths from different countries, Irish poltergeists and Native American lore, Egyptian afterlife, even the storied weirdness of Abrahamic religions, which prescribes very specific routes for the dead.
The dead go to hell. The dead do not. The dead wait in their coffins for Kiamat, haunted by everything they’ve done wrong. The dead become addled on the grace of God. The dead do not come back.
The hours come, leave, systematic as a funeral procession. Eventually, you realize it is four am and you’ve nothing to show for your efforts, only a landfill of tabs. Exhausted, you decide at last to discard faith, begin investigating the circumstances that midwife hallucinations. Maybe, it’s all in your head. Maybe, maybe—
Your father announces disagreement with a scream that detonates your Retina screen. You cry out, arms and face striated by glass, bolt from your desk, but he does not relent. He follows you across the house, into the yard, back to the living room where you cower under a thin blanket. He screams at you from outside the fabric, full of an inchoate madness, so close that you taste salt, smell rot, feel the damp chill of the ocean floor.
He screams until the sun rises, until light cuts bands of gold across your shivering, sweat-soaked flesh.
The cacophony becomes a nightly ritual.
You last another forty-eight hours before you decide to escape to your best friend’s apartment. However, your father chases you there too. His voice breaks every window, every piece of electronic, every picture frame on the mantle, every sliver of glass.
“What the hell is going on?” Your best friend emerges from his bedroom, eyes sleep-bruised, terror-hollowed, in time to see the kitchen cabinets tears themselves open. Cutlery and plates launch into walls, a cascade of bent steel and shattered porcelain. The air glints bright with shrapnel.
“My dad—” you begin, but he does not hear you, too busy dialing up emergency services to babble about electromagnetic pulses, conspiracies grounded in some truth of science.
You grab your bags. You run.
Don’t think about all the times your father hurt you.
Don’t think about all the times he dragged you from bed to discuss the minutiae of your failing family, demanding that you made sense of his infidelities, your mother’s fury.
Don’t think about the lashings; the bruises that striped your legs, your arms, your back.
Don’t think about the way he made his want for suicide for your fault, the way he described the days that would come after, always broken, always jagged, always digging into your skin, like a reminder that this was always your responsibility, your failure.
Don’t think about the way you cried. No, don’t.
“You made him our problem in life,” says your auntie, smugness anchoring in the harbour of her throat. “Now that he’s dead, he’s yours.”
She ends the call before you can vivisect her willingness to accept your claim, her insouciance, her delicate pleasure, or ask if they’d perhaps hired someone to tether your father to you. You press your head against the payphone, the black plastic cool and slightly sticky. Outside the booth, your father is exposed vein and naked muscle, palms flat against the glass.
You call again. It’s been two weeks. You don’t remember the last time you’ve slept in more than gasps. The last time you spoke to your best friend, he told you to see a therapist, to sort yourself out, own up to the destruction you’d caused instead of blaming it on a dead man.
(You paid for the damages. You did not pay for an hour on a stranger’s couch, escorted by your father’s spectre.)
“Ask your mother,” your auntie purrs, picking up the phone after the sixth ring. She hangs up, even as your father begins to moan.
Don’t think about the way your mother stroked your hair as she stared at the wall, eyes full of drowning, voice full of hurt. Think instead about her promise to always protect you, her she-wolf grin as she stood guard over you.
Don’t think about the way she sang under her breath, plaintive as a child. Don’t think about what your father might have done. Don’t think about why she almost drowned you, and how you’re dragging his ghost to her door, years after she tore herself free.
Think instead about release.
“When a parent dies, his sins go onto their children.”
“That’s not fair, mom. I—” You tighten your grip around the mug. Your father is sitting beside your mother, invisible, no longer human, just muscle and meat. “It’s not my fault.”
“But it is your burden,” your mother continues, serene. Too serene, you think, savage, as you jealously process how soft she’s become, how voluptuously restful. “You’re his flesh and blood.”
“I didn’t ask to be.”
“I know. But that doesn’t change anything.”
You sip your Milo, feel anger tense your neck. For the first time, you’re not afraid, not subsumed by guilt. You’re furious. How was this fair?
“How do I stop this?”
“You could try calling a Taoist priest, or a Catholic priest, or whichever religious person fits your purpose.” Your mother twitches an indifferent shoulder. “They might be able to get rid of him.”
A thrum of hope, but it is only a murmuration, a twinge of hurt, subtle as the first signs of cardiac arrest. “What happens to him after that?”
There is no kindness in your mother’s eyes, not even judgment, only that cool practicality that’s become synonymous with her person, almost indistinguishable from cruelty. “What do you care? You’ve only ever wanted him gone.”
The words die in your lungs.
She hires you someone, anyway. She is your mother and she loves you even if she never tells you that.
You find this out in the morning after you awaken and startle at the knowledge you had slept, deeply and peacefully, unaccosted for the first time in recent memory.
“Doesn’t matter.” Your mother waves your concern away. You look over the cliff of her shoulder, see your father standing in her bedroom, slightly more human than you recall. Guilt impales your gut: you wonder what bargain she struck for your silence, what price she paid again. “He’ll fix it.”
“Go.” A whisper, fierce, feral, full of fire.
The exorcist is a pudgy man with tortoise-shell glasses and a kind mouth, thinning hair that keeps unnecessarily long. He doesn’t ask stupid questions or supply worse platitudes, simply gets on with business, every question phrased calmly, efficiently.
“How long has your father been haunting you?”
“A little over two weeks.”
“Has his appearance changed in this time?”
You don’t look. You’ve learned better. He’s grown savage in the last night or so, a thing of corners, screaming into your face when you least expect it. “Yes.”
In the corner, you hear the drip, drip, drip of pooling gore.
“How much less?”
You don’t miss a beat. “A lot.”
The exorcist nods. “You were his favorite child?
You consider this for a minute, evaluate the jumble of memories, fading watercolors puddling through your fingers. There are no specifics, no moments you can point to and declare yes, this was when he loved me. All you have are apparitions.
“Mm.” The exorcist nods to himself, reads off a bestiary of causes, an armament of solutions, all completely, unmistakably final. “So, which would you prefer?”
You run a tongue over your upper lip. “I’ll—I’ll call you back tomorrow.”
Your aunt was right. He is your ghost, always has been, since the day he walked out of the house so many years ago, already a spectre, a ghost of an idea.
Instead, you go home and you shut off every light in the house. You wait until there are only streetlamps outside, until the night is black and vicious, oozing tropical heat. And then:
Something in the darkness stirs, a textured sound you cannot quite place, a shifting that could be the susurrus of sinew, or the migration of tissues over fat, or wet footsteps dragging along the carpet.
“I love you,” you tell the emptiness, the bruise-black dark. The words sound small and vulnerable in the waiting dark, almost child-like, completely inadequate. The silence eats them whole.
“I love you,” you repeat, the second word snagging fishbone-sharp in the roof your mouth. “I loved you so much, papa. And I am so, so sorry I didn’t say it enough. Didn’t call you on your birthday, didn’t tell you I forgave you. Didn’t forgive you. I’m sorry I stayed angry for so long. I’m sorry I didn’t—”
Wet breath against your cheek, a charnel stink. You persevere, however, clenching teeth against the fear that pulsates through you.
“I’m sorry I didn’t say I love you enough. I’m sorry I kept running. I love you. I love you so much.”
Your father says nothing, does nothing. Only stands there a bone’s width from your skin, still, silent, and forever out of reach.