Horla Fiction (September 2020)

 

JUST A BOTTLE OF MAPLE SYRUP

by

JUSTINE S. RUSSELL

IT was damp and cold in the castle basement. But the guide was wearing a thick velvet jacket, so she didn’t feel it very much. She wasn’t supposed to be wearing a jacket, they were for management and she was lucky to get a 20hr work week, but again it was cold. She also wasn’t supposed to take off her nametag, but it made her uncomfortable when strangers knew her name. So there’s two rules broken, but the rest of her uniform was right; black dress pants, black dress shoes, black hair pulled back away from her face. 

A grey-skinned ghost was floating next to her. Well next to and slightly above her, and he was leaning back with his arms crossed as if he may fall asleep. He was wearing the same button-down shirt and paint-splattered jeans he’d died in. No shoes.

The guide glanced at his bare feet. “I could have sworn you were wearing shoes before.” She told him nonchalantly.

“Hmm?” The ghost looked at his feet, “Oh yeah, I took ‘em off. Turns out you can still undress after you’re dead.” He smiled mischievously and flipped over so his feet were near the ceiling and his head was level with her, “Want me to—”

“Nope.” The guide walked around his head and down the hallway slowly. The wall on her left was lit with small spotlights, illuminating a line of posters from the movies that had been filmed at the castle. Batman, the Kennedy documentary, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, so on and so on. When she reached the end of the posters she turned on her heel and came back.

Upstairs she could hear the sounds of yet another wedding happening out in the courtyard, mingled in with the noise of tourists wandering around the many ballrooms and gardens and secret studies with their hand-held audio-guides. She arrived back to where the ghost was still floating and retook her position behind a thin wooden podium, which itself had a long list of all the movies that had been filmed on location. Just in case guests asked. Behind them was an archway leading into a small theatre room. The guide checked her phone, 10min until next showing.

 “What should I tell them this time?” she asked aloud.

“The script your boss gave you might be a good idea.” the ghost replied.

“Hmm, but he’s listening you know.”

“Your boss?”

“No, him.” She pointed up at the ceiling. There was a grey foot sticking out of it, along with the bottom of a rifle. “He always hears the same spiel everyday, maybe I should shake it up a bit for him.”

“I thought you didn’t talk to other ghosts besides me,” the ghost said curiously.

“I don’t, I just know he listens. It’s his story after all.” She looked at the ghost, “Besides, you’re the one who told me not to ignore ghosts.”

“I said that when I die, you can’t ignore me,” the ghost grinned and leaned forward until his forehead was inches from her own, “And you promised.”

“I promised,” she agreed. She glanced at her phone.

The ghost moved down so that he blocked her view of the phone, and waited until she looked at him. “…You know at first I didn’t believe you, when you said you saw ghosts. I thought you were just being you.”

“Me?”

“Weird.”

“Well I am weird, anyone would be when there seems to be more people in the world than it should be able to fit.” The guide grimaced and rubbed her shoulders uncomfortably, “The claustrophobia is why I asked to stay down here instead of up at the register. This place is swarming with undead tourists. Why did I get a job here again?”

“How would you know about the world’s population?”

“Huh?”

The ghost flipped over so that his feet were near the ground again, and put his hands in his pockets. “You said the world looks like it has more people than it can hold, but you haven’t gone enough places to really grasp what that looks like. But you could. Did—”

“Evening everyone!” the guide called down the hallway. A large group was slowly making their way towards her, audio-guides in hand, looking at all the movie posters and chatting. They looked to be a little older than she was; college graduates probably, by their general air of persistent hope and vaguely-concealed existential anguish at having entered into true adulthood. They came up to her and she began her speech, speaking loudly to be heard at the back of the group. She ended up going with the script after all, until the end.  

“… and so the castle took three hundred men three years and three hundred million modern dollars to build, and was commissioned by soldier-turned-stockbroker-millionaire Sir Henry Pellatt for his family of three. Himself, his wife, and his son.”

The script didn’t call for a pause here, but she waited. At the mention of his name, the foot in the ceiling went up and a pensive, mustachioed head lowered, watching the crowd. Some of the college-grads looked impressed by the grandeur described, others looked mildly disgusted at the enormous cost for a three-person home.  

“Unfortunately, tough times were in store for the small Pellatt family.” The guide continued, “The Great Depression hit, and the city decided to tax the land. Sir Henry and his family lived in the castle for a total of ten years before his debts made it impossible to keep, and this, Casa Loma, was handed over to the city with all of its furnishings. In the end Sir Henry moved into the home of his former chauffeur, and died there March 8, 1939, penniless.”  

A short chorus of sympathetic sighs. Sir Henry nodded his head and rose back into the ceiling.

“…Now if you’ll all go inside, there is a short documentary about Sir Henry and his family, which will begin in five minutes.”

The crowd filed in slowly, and the guide entered after them and went through a side door near the entrance marked “Employees Only.” Inside was a small room with a projector facing into the showroom, and a table with chairs in the back corner. She started the projector to warm it up and sat down. The ghost came in through the wall and sat down opposite her. Of course. he would have passed through the chair just like he did walls, so he just hovered in a sitting position over it.

“Did you bring—” he started.

“Check it out.” The guide reached into her inside pocket and took out a pair of wire-rimmed glasses. “I took them yesterday from a woman at this café in an underground gallery I found. She was taking a nap with her glasses in her shirt, and I nicked them without waking her up.”

“Thief.” The ghost laughed.

“Yep.” The guide turned the glasses over in her hands.

“I met a ghost a while back who said she’d seen a pickpocket who was stealing the most random crap from people. I bet it was you.”

“Except I don’t usually go for the pockets, just little things people maybe forget they have on them.” The guide counted on her fingers, “Like a nice beret, or a toe ring, or the third page of everyone in the neighbourhood’s newspaper…”

“I think she’ll notice her glasses.”

“Well yeah, but I took those because…well I’d never done that kind stealing.” The guide put the glasses on the table and laid her head down next to them, staring through the lenses. “I took her sight away from her, I never thought that’s something I’d have the power to do.”  

“Did you bring—”

“I wonder how I’d take away someone’s hearing?” she wondered, “Or their sense of taste? Touch? I should investigate that, maybe write a story about it. ‘The Senses Thief’ or something not so on the nose, maybe?”

“You could take a person’s hearing if they were already deaf and you took their hearing aid,” the ghost suggested.

“I don’t think hearing aids help if you’re actually deaf. Like, completely.”  

“Maybe, but was the girl you took the glasses from actually blind?”

“Good point.”

“Did you—”

“You know it’s funny,” the guide smiled and sat up, “when I told you that I could see ghosts, but that I ignored them because it was easier than having them always talking to me, you told me to promise that when you died, I wouldn’t ignore you. And then you died later that year. It’s weird.”

“It hurt to die,” he said quietly.

The smile dropped from her lips, “…I’m sorry,” she said.

“But it doesn’t have to hurt. Did you bring it? Tell me you brought it.”

The guide reached into her other inside coat pocket— maybe a bit quickly— took out a small bottle without a word and put it on the table. The ghost reached for it, but his finger went through, so he floated up and inspected it with his feet above his head. It was a short bottle, had a wide throat, and was filled to the middle with a golden-brown substance.

“It looks like a maple syrup bottle,” he observed.

“Yeah, syrup.” The guide mumbled.

“You like syrup.”

“Mhmm.”

“Remember that time,” the ghost laughed, “when I came over for breakfast and you drowned my pancakes in syrup? I couldn’t believe you.”

“It’s my favourite brand, I wanted you to try it,” she laughed, “I can’t believe you ate it all.”

“I really liked you. I really like you now, I’m glad you didn’t ignore me. I’m glad you kept your promise,” he tried to meet her eye, but the guide kept looking at the bottle.

“Mhmm.”

“And you know, if it looks like syrup, it probably tastes like it to. Whatever it tastes like, it won’t hurt.”

“You don’t think?” the guide asked quietly.

“I know. I know other ghosts who did it, and they said it was like falling asleep. That’s all it is, just falling asleep.”

“Falling asleep,” she repeated.

“That’s right. Here’s a good place too, everyone will wonder why the movie hasn’t started, and they’ll find you and take care of things.”

“Find me?”

“No, no you’re right, not you. But I thought you cared about what happened afterwards? I’m telling you it’ll be fine because it won’t be just getting gross out in the middle of nowhere.”

It?”

“Well, I don’t know what else you want me to call it.” The ghost shrugged, “Your body? Remains? But it’ll be ok, everything.”

The girl put on the glasses impulsively, and the ghost became blurry through them. She kept them on.

“It’s hard to see you like this,” she told him.

“It’s hard for me to see you too,” he said, misunderstanding, “but I want to be with you again. Forever. I want to hold you again, and its torture being so close and still being apart.” The ghost floating closer to her, hovering in front of her like he would embrace her, “…But if you don’t want to then I don’t want you to,” he told her.

“But you think we’d be together again, better than right now.” she asked him.

“Not better, but I know it’ll be painless, and that’s not something everyone gets. Most people don’t even get a choice when it comes to this. And I know we’ll be like we were before.”

“Before…” the guide smirked, “When we walked through crowded places competing to see who could nick the most ridiculous thing off some tourist. We could do that again?”

“Exactly. And I’ll get something way more profound and poetic than a pair of glasses.”

She laughed, and the ghost kept going, coming closer, “And we’ll travel. Remember? We wanted to go everywhere and see everything.”

“I can do that now, I have some saved up. You could come too.”

“I can fly. I flew to China and saw the Great Wall,” the ghost persisted.

“I could buy a ticket to China, I could see it too.”

“I want you to see it with me too. It was beautiful, and I never felt tired walking up it. You don’t need to feel tired.”  

She didn’t say anything, and he reached forward as if to touch her shoulder. Suddenly, there was a knock at the door. The guide started and stood up. One of the guests poked her head in, and asked, “Hey, two minutes till start time right?”

“Uh, yeah.” The guide walked towards the door and looked out into the seating area. It was half-full. “Yeah two-minutes.”

“Cool, thanks.” The guest went back to her seat, and the guide closed the door. The ghost floated over to stand close to her.

“See?” he said, “It won’t hurt, and in two minutes someone will come in and find out, and it’ll all be ok. It won’t be like you just left…it, out somewhere where no one would ever find it. It’ll just be two minutes and—”

“Why do you think that’s all I care about?” the guide asked suddenly.

The ghost backed up in response to the sharpness in her voice. “I’m sorry,” he said immediately, “I just thought that might be part of it. I’m sorry.”

“No, no it’s ok, I’m sorry I just…” she hurried back towards him and sighed. She took off the glasses and rubbed the bridge of her nose, “I guess these things were giving me a headache. This whole…thing, is a lot.” Again, she avoided his eyes.

“…Well what do you care about? Me?” The ghost asked hesitantly.

“I care about you.”

“Us?”

“…Yeah.”

The ghost backed up again at her hesitation, “Isn’t it important to keep this relationship strong?”

“What about my family? Aren’t they important?” she blurted out, finally looking at him.

“Aren’t I important?”

“…You’re important.” She went to him again.

“You need to decide what you want.” The ghost told her, “Because I already know what I want, and it’s you. Just for us to be together again. It’ll just take a minute, and a minute after that you’ll be fine, and everyone will be fine.”

“Everything will be over,” she said.

“No it won’t, not between us.”

“But everything else. Everyone else.”

“Come back and sit down.” the ghost went behind her and guided her back to her seat. He couldn’t touch her, but she walked as if he could, “You don’t need to think about everyone else. You care about other people too much, you know? What do you want?”

She paused with her hand on the back of the seat, she couldn’t sit yet.

“Us.” He answered.

“Mhmm.”

“It won’t hurt. It’s just like maple syrup, and it’ll be fine when they come and find out…But if you don’t want to, I don’t want you to.”

“You want to know what I want? I want to go to one of the busiest cities in Europe.” The guide lifted her head and closed her eyes, “And I want to nick an invitation to a super exclusive party, get in, and work the entire room. Take the one thing no one will miss, off every guest. Then later when they go home, and they’re all getting into their silk pajamas, they’ll notice, and wonder how on earth they could have missed someone taking that. I want to guess what that item is for each person, and know that I got it right, and then return all of it to the wrong addresses.”

The ghost didn’t say anything. The guide opened her eyes.

“Wouldn’t that be incredible?!” she demanded.

“It would, incredible,” he answered.

“I want that…too,” she told him.

“…The show starts in a minute, I think.”

“Do you really need me?” she turned away from the table to look at the ghost, “Would it really make you happy if I were with you, there?”

“You make me happy now.” he leaned forward so their foreheads were close again, “So happy. I just know that it won’t hurt, and that we’ll be happy together. Flying to those busy cities, standing next to those fancy people without them ever seeing us, just imagine!”

“I was imagining,” she said.

“And I love imagining with you.”

“If you love me, can you do something for me?”

He backed up to see her face. “Anything.”

“Could you just—leave? Just for a second, please?”

“I don’t want to leave you alo—”

“I need you not to be here. I’m always surrounded, I’m never alone. And I need to be alone f—for a second.” Her breath was catching, the ghost came closer.

“Ok I will, just sit down. Breathe. It won’t hurt, but it’s your choice. I’m going to see how many people are out there.”

“Ok.” She sat down.

“I’ll let you know in a second.”

“Mhmm.”

The ghost went, and the guide buried her face in her arms on the table. She could almost feel the presence of the maple-syrup impersonator in front of her, but she tried to ignore it. She tried to ignore everything for a moment, and just exist in the darkness behind her eyes.

After a few moments she sat up again. She turned her head to look back at the door, and she suddenly had a panicked thought that the ghost had left, and that he wouldn’t come back. But the panic had barely started when he did come back through the door, and he floated towards her. She stood up hastily.

“I’m sorry,” she said quickly, her hand half-raised towards him, “I shouldn’t have made you go. I don’t want you to go. I don’t.”

“Hey, hey it’s ok. It’s ok.” He floated around until he was lying over the table, covering the bottle with his head, “I get it. There’s twenty-two guests outside, just so you know.”

“Thanks.” She sat down again. There was silence between them as she held her hands in front of her.

“…I just want to be with you.”said the ghost. His voice was low, insistent.

The guide sighed and reached out to cup his face, and found her hand touched something solid. She gasped and her eyes teared up.

“See?” he said gently, “We’re almost there already. Everything will be fine. Everything will be alright.”

She smiled and felt tears prick in her eyes. And she rubbed his face, her fingers moving up and down the poison bottle hidden inside his grey chin.  

 

 

***

Justine S. Russell is a fiction and creative non-fiction writer from Ontario, Canada. She is a recent graduate of Brock University’s Creative Writing program, and has been writing creatively for the better part of ten years. Most recently, she has had work nominated for best in young Canadian non-fiction with the Word Guild, and has been the first-ever recipient of their Wendy Elaine Nelles Memorial Scholarship for young authors. Currently she is a student of Vancouver Community College’s ASL and Deaf Studies program, and is pursuing a career in freelance writing.