WINTER 2024, SHORT STORY, 3100 WORDS
As she crashed through the atmosphere of Earth, crackling through the stratosphere and into cloud cover, she marveled at the long stretch of blue: like cyanide, like corpse fingers, like glacier-fed water. The ship cut cleanly through the veil, through the dense thunderheads, through the cumulonimbus dream of atmosphere.
The northernmost part of North America was beautiful in its isolated scenery poses, a beauty like a frozen exhalation on darkened wintry sky. It was a place that was deeply still and stretched its arms outward, silent and waiting for embrace of all life that could live there. Sutton had seen places that were like it, but no place was identical. It was impossible to capture this place that was so deeply of Earth but that looked otherworldly at the same time, with its sublunar-yet-lunar landscape under fast-slung clouds grey and black in the deep stretch of night that slept for months and did not birth the dawn until spring.
The person glowed inside their small yellow tent, their extinguished campfire smelling of an oddly summerlike welcome. The Aurora Borealis burned in the deep blue heavens above, its veins pulsing bright green and fuchsia tributaries over the flesh of the sky. Sutton watched as a towering white bear’s teeth sunk into a woman’s arm: the crush of jaw and warm blood streaming made a torturous melody with her scream that steamed into the frozen air. Sutton did not breathe. In the distance, she saw the dancing lights of the town miles and miles away in nothing but night.
Sutton watched clear-eyed as the woman reached for her gun. The pain was clearly so white-hot that the woman’s whole body convulsed. Perhaps it was a stinging, a sour taste in her mouth as her scream got silenced by teeth tearing her throat: gurgling dark onto dark, her eyes shut too tightly to see the stars above her—
Sutton stood there, fascinated by the remarkable beast, all muscle and menace, devouring the hapless researcher. The screams were punctured by gurgling terror as the tearing took her life. The woman’s spirit stood and started jumping around the body as an arc of purple light and with gentle steps Sutton followed it, waiting for it to bounce into her glass vial. It was odd to see an animal encounter in real time; they happened so rarely. If an animal was involved at all, it was most often a vehicle collision, twisted metal and automotive shrapnel slung with smears of blood and fur over a highway. Those collisions had also decreased with time: The cars themselves became softer and more pliable, taking the shock of the impact in place of the body of the dazed grateful human that emerged from the wreckage, knowing their death would happen at some later time, newly grateful for their sudden rebirth, expelled from this womb of burning gas and metal.
The purple light of the woman’s spirit reached the bottle. Sutton placed the cap on and watched the light flicker and dance in time to the Aurora above. She scanned the horizon and couldn’t see or sense any other human sprits glowing, just the devouring sounds of the bear on the now-unrecognizable body. Blood streaked an abstract painting on the smooth canvas of the icy plain. Sutton looked out over the stretch of the earth, of its ice and cold, of its sleeping animals in warm dens, humans among them, and felt a sense of satisfaction with her work. She got back into her ship and locked the vial in place. One more stop, and it would be time to head back.
The last stop was a white two-storey house with a trim picket fence standing upright around the property like wooden sentinels, properly dressed for guarding against tossed Frisbees, stray dogs, and other types of banal trespass. The home was a classic suburban afterimage of idealization that was, by now, almost a century old. Sutton knew that this dreamworld was in decay, taking its old false sense of optimism along with it, the desire for escape even from dreams rotting the present moment the way that sugar rots a tooth. The desire to defy the systems of death and chaos showed up in many ways that Sutton could see in how people lived, but also in how they died, how obvious it was when some spirits struggled to leave while others leaped triumphant from the body while invisible and inevitable Death did its brutal, proud work.
As Sutton crossed the yard, she could not see the infrared glow of a spirit.
She walked the perimeter. Would it be a yard work accident? It would be dramatic, but not her first. Perhaps a heart attack while gardening? That was something more expected. She admired the lilac bush in the backyard, the slow swing of a tire roped down from a tree in the hushed night, the cricket songs chirping lullabies over lush grass. The yard was empty and peaceful, a church in the wild of domesticity, something sanctified and beautiful in its precision, coldness, how it was so quietly and demurely alive.
Sutton would have to walk inside, check out every room in the house, before returning to the ship. Houses were uncomfortably intimate, though they helped her speculate on what her once-life might have been like. Did she ever pose for a family photo? Did she ever write her name onto a kitchen table, get in trouble for drawing on a wall? There were so many small ways to carve up the world with your presence, yet she had never found any evidence of who she had once been. She wondered if she had ever belonged to any of the places that existed here, or if they, too, had ceased existing entirely, evaporated beyond the borders of knowability, name erased, shelter boarded up, struck down by wrecking balls and paved over for apartment complexes with people playing out their lives inside and malls screaming bright promises of fulfilment and warehouses with workers with aching knees and parking lots filled with devices leaking puddles of oil and gas and gyms where people would sweat and watch mirrors for the contours of their existence. Everything was temporary until it was infinite. That was the shape of time that Sutton knew, and her freedom was seeing it all laid out at once like a large map of unmarked places, beautiful monsters illustrated in the margins rising from the expanse of sea threatening to devour entire continents.
The house was dark inside, but she could hear voices in a far room, the other side of the house. An eerie quiet: no television, no lights, not even something above the stove as she walked through the kitchen not smelling the meals they must have made that day or the acrid scent of detergents, all the busywork of daily life that was affirming and mundane.
She listened more closely to distinguish the voices and still didn’t see the glow of a spirit about to die. She passed through the living room toward the front of the house, unable to distinguish anything that might illustrate information about the beings who lived there. Art hung on the walls that could have been hung in a hotel room: a seascape, an aerial view of a city at night. She supposed she was lucky she got to see that sight so often, the buildings lit like lanterns dotting a sky of concrete.
Sutton walked into a parlor at the front of the house. There was a formal living room where people sat in a circle around a coffee table lit by tapered candles. Light bounced in the shadows cast on floral wallpaper, the human faces dim and beautiful in the yellow glow.
“You are no longer welcome here,” a tall man with a moustache said, a curtain of sweat gluing his dark hair to his forehead. It had clearly once been pomaded cleanly into place and had fallen forward in the night’s activities.
Sutton glanced at the other frantic faces. Their eyes were closed. An older woman wrung a handkerchief in her hands, nervously twisting the fabric between shaking fingers.
“Spirit, leave this place,” the man commanded once again, his voice cutting cleanly through the dark. Tension and heat plastered the bodies to chairs and the antique velvet sofa. The whole room was holding its breath.
It was then that she noticed the snaking shadow of grey light piled in the dark corner of the room. Its human shape grew fuzzier, less solid, then solid again. A man’s snarling face faded in and out of vision, growing transparent against the roses behind him.
“Fuck you,” a voice hissed from his direction. No one acknowledged it. Only Sutton had heard. “Leave,” it continued, louder.
The coffee table began shaking, and one of the women screamed.
“Focus,” the man with the moustache said. “We need to stay focused to exorcise this foul spirit from this place.”
Sutton reached for her glass vial, rapt with disbelief. She had never captured a ghost; she was so used to the spirits in the hospitals dodging her and watching her every move, anticipating each time how they would swerve away from her with panicked avoidance, chirping and chattering among themselves before hissing their threats and ultimatums. This spirit faded in and out as its power waned, his anger palpable enough to keep him present, his whole being radiating anger and concentration on staying in this place. His silver eyes glowed and glared at her, but none of the people gathered appeared to see him.
“Get out,” the spirit seethed at her. Sutton couldn’t hold his stare: She wasn’t used to eye contact with a ghost, the intensity of it, the wrongness of its gaze.
“This is all beyond me,” she said to him, shifting uncomfortably. “I can’t get them to leave.”
“I’m staying,” he growled. More glass shattered in the other room. Sutton moved backwards on instinct—who knew where instinct lived in her unbody and where it was birthed with her no memory of existence, but it was present the way her emotions were, the part of her that could feel something when doing this work over and over again.
The ghost disappeared and showed up once again behind a young woman on a wingback chair. He hissed in the woman’s ear, ghostly hands pulling at her hair. It finally worked, and her hair yanked back with the contact of ghost form to human. The young woman screamed and jumped up, her voice full of tears.
“Please,” she sobbed. “I can’t live like this anymore.”
Sutton glared at the ghost, who ignored her, now delighting in torturing the frightened humans. He groped at the other woman who was sitting on the sofa and slapped her across the face.
“Hey!” she shrieked. Even in the dim light Sutton could see that her face was flushed red with hot fingertips from the slap.
“You’d better fix this now,” one of the other men said. “We’re paying you good money and this…this thing is harassing the women. And he won’t leave us alone.”
“Well, then, I need you to concentrate,” the man with the moustache said again, his voice tired but authoritative. “Ignore the spirit as best you can. He lives in your anger.” The man reached into his pocket, pulling out a strange herb, and ignited it with a silver lighter that gleamed in the dim light. Sutton squinted. There was a strange engraving on the lighter that looked familiar to her: the engraving on the spirit-glass vials.
Sutton gasped. How did he have this?
The ghost laughed and danced around the edges of the room, smoke trailing around him. He tried to knock over the candles. Sutton assumed he was trying to set the house ablaze, but none of the humans started to glow in readiness to die. Perhaps the ghost was delaying the inevitable.
The strange herbs smoldered ember-bright in the small bowl, also engraved with the spirit vial glyphs, their curling lines like foreign cursive. Thick smoke started filling the room, coiling throughout the space with a bright verdant haze. The ghost flickered, growing dimmer, still angry but evidently getting weaker in the smoke.
“What is that shit?” he snarled and spat.
“I don’t know,” she replied.
Each of Sutton’s thoughts grew softer around the edges, each idea evaporating like the spaces that exist between thoughts, gossamer webs of neural connections in a brain that she didn’t have anymore, just feelings and thoughts absorbed from humans and her repeated trips to Earth, collecting nothing of her own, everything a hazy painting of words that they said and their faces and the stories they told themselves about themselves, the ornamentation of their lives, all the tokens of evidence that attested to the fact that they once existed, that they had once had cohesion and matter and utterance that took the shape of their names.
The humans began to chant in a language Sutton didn’t understand. Panic leaped through her, icy and hot, an electric burning crackling through her like static. These feelings were not possible, this incomprehension was not possible: Sutton understood all of the languages spoken by the spirits she collected, spoke to each of the spirits as they emerged, as she readied them to be dispatched to the world of the spirit, the world of afterlife, whatever shape it took, once they’d landed on the furthest planet from Earth, beyond Neptune, in the Kuiper belt, in the dimension of the new being, the infinity that waited for all except her and the other collectors. Before she got back onto the ship and headed back through the dark expanse of stars and brief rainbow crash of warp, of movement, of traversal between the realms of living and death and the undeath of infinity, she spoke to them and instructed them off the ship and into the hub the waiting place in the new world of unbeing—
The green smoke entered her unbody, weaving in and out of her energy, burning her into the smoke as she started fading and drifting like sleep. The room dissolved and she careened, now light, flickering cinema, beautiful silver into the vial the man with the mustache held, exhaling an exhalation of notbreath as everything became sound muffled inside her new glass coffin where it wrapped like a blanket around her. She was swaddled in the new life to come. It was homecoming.
Sutton screamed, bleeding into color, becoming a warm humming radiance, her bones scraped the edges of light into gel, into starry viscosity, tinges of life becoming and becoming and becoming: her unbody emergent, lux sidereal photon energy creation humming radiance scouring stars fractal fractures of time sutured into being into melody into violet to blue to orange and red, scanning the air and oxygen and metals burning hot in the center of being and singing singeing burning birthing beautiful. Sutton was placed in the umbilical water of cosmic understanding as the memories flooded through her, stitched into the honeycomb tributaries of flesh of blood, not real and real all at once.
She had a name: She had a story. Susan Sutton. She had once been categorized to a nation and a city, had once had parents, siblings, pets and a job, she’d given black eyes and chipped her tooth on the edge of a counter when she fainted at work and she did not live to be old: She had died while in her twenties, she had died after a friend’s party. It all flooded to her in nauseating waves of truth, the cruelty she had endured and created by just twenty-six, the remorse that had flooded her and sent her into an intentional overdose the charcoal burned vomit through her the pills were wasted and ashamed she went through the steps program in the antiseptic rehab ward and went to the group therapy where she admitted to stealing and cheating and blackmail, how she had stolen money, how she had intentionally broken hearts before her own could be broken. It was easier to be in denial and pretend everything could be so perfect if you bought the right thing and looked the right way and tried to be good, tried to pretend to yourself that you were good, and, frankly, the hypocrisy of everyone’s lives sickened her, she did not want this lie at the center of her life, at the center of the labyrinth of her being where the minotaur of truth ripped hearts and impaled bodies on pikes so she did not live with the lie and at the very end there was simply a crack across a windshield and a loud roar of gas and metal twisting—
Now in the stars of her becoming, in her new flesh skinned from the infinite, Sutton woke screaming and wishing she did not remember, willing amnesia to move into her disoriented spirit knowing that something else—what had it been—had been her true work. She turned her head as far as she could, limited by the glass sarcophagus she was trapped inside. She tried to push on the smooth surface, but it would not open, no seam existed, just a test tube trap that vibrated in the pull of ascension and strange gravity. The rumble through Earth’s atmosphere twisted her in worry and terror in ways it hadn’t when she was the collector and not the collected.
She knew she could not fight what was ahead of her.
As the capsule opened with a gasp like the first cry of birth, she stepped out. She walked onto the bridge, stunned and silent with the others. They shuffled forth as the ghost from the parlor on Earth was escorted away, screaming, having hijacked Sutton’s ship. Sutton’s new skin glowed golden in the shuddering screeching light as she stepped out of the vessel into cloud cover and cold air and saw strange figures weeping rose-colored blood. She stood and waited for the drink of forgetting to return to life that she had always seen in her innermost self, had always known in the vivid viciousness of the light. There was a spirit in her that had always been something like home, something that screeched and hummed the beautiful terror of numinous knowledge. She was ready and resigned as she moved forward to drink the waters of forgetting. She would not end or begin, but live again and again and again.
Tiffany Morris is an L’nu’skw (Mi’kmaw) writer from Nova Scotia. She is the author of the swampcore horror novella Green Fuse Burning (Stelliform Books, 2023) and the Elgin-nominated horror poetry collection Elegies of Rotting Stars (Nictitating Books, 2022). Her work has appeared in the Indigenous horror anthology Never Whistle At Night as well as in Nightmare Magazine, Uncanny Magazine, and Apex Magazine, among others. Find her at tiffmorris.com or on twitter/bluesky @tiffmorris.