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Pretend That We’re Dead

by Gemma Files


The first time I cut myself, on the lid of a tin I'd been opening, it was inadvertent. I stumbled as I lifted it free, and the sharp, round edge slid deep into the fleshy underside of my arm, freeing a flap that swung wide with every movement. Blood broke from the wound in a full, black pulse; I had to hug it closed, the knuckles of my other hand white with effort.

But when my mother saw it, her eyes went wide as stars. She cooed encouragement to me all the way to the hospital.

It was the first time she had spoken directly to me in over two months.

Afterward, when her interest dimmed again — directly proportionate to my rate of healing — I realized that I had been once more consigned to the roster of the invisible: All those inconvenient living shadows who walk, and speak, and have the unmitigated gall to get between her and the endless current of the passing dead, whose faces she spends her days scanning for any sign of recognition. For the familiar features of my brother Ethan, born ten years before me, who joined the Parade when I was only five.

Because we are none of us so real to her as he has always been, haloed like we are in mundane and unwelcome skins of light. We’re chores, tying up her time, diverting her attention from the real task at hand.

Weekends, I walk the streets with my Ghoster friends, all white-face and caked mascara — cheekbones and noses colored out skull-style, conspicuous by their absence. We go coccooned in velvet and chiffon, in white and black and grey, shod in claw-toed boots with heels too high for comfort, our veils and trains left trailing. Strutting silent, our walkmen left ostentatiously blasting — a steady stream of noise-whisper from one-name bands, recognizable only in closest proximity: Curve, Coil, Hole, Tool, Lard.

And in and about and around us, always, the real ghosts glide — vivid phantoms that eddy like smoke, glitter like scales. A mist and a haze of constant motion, flashing by like spokes in some profane prayer-wheel: Bright slices of darkness, strobe-quick, trimmed in self-doused light.

A girl with jewels for teeth, eels for hands. An old man inching himself up the street, slithering belly-down, pulled along on an anchorless rope of shining hair. Shark-toothed grins. Silent, watch-face eyes.

The facts, then: It all started the year I was born; we post-Ghosties call it the Infestation. And what it means is Toronto remade, slipped through some cosmic crack and out again onto an “other side” that soon turned out to be the Other Side. Phenomena aplenty, both actively malign and strangely beneficial, measurably physical and apparently spiritual: Cold spots, words written on walls, knockings, mutterings, whisperings, ghost lights, radiant boys, warning shrieks; apports, transports, automatic writing, ectoplasm, mediumistic possession. Anything and everything “weird,” with only a sort of consistent inconsistency as the sole established rule.

Faith doesn’t seem to help, or hinder, for all the varieties of faith we have to spare — the multiculti mosaic at work, church to mosque to temple to bank to whatthefuckever. And sure, people naturally want to think there are rules to discover and follow — that if Torontonians only found out what it was that they “did” to “deserve” this happening to them, they'd be somehow able to defuse the situation; repent, atone, stop digging up the old Indian burial ground — no rules, or reasons, seem to apply.

Or, to put it another way: Clean, neat and boring as we’ve always been, we still might’ve done enough dirt to attract this, if it’s even the kind of thing needs “attracting.” But there’s not one damn thing from before or since to proves that anything we did is the reason it began… or the reason it continues.

So: Spirits, phantoms, spectres, dopplegangers and harbingers erring always on the side of the surreal rather than the traditional; dog-headed men in tuxedos rather than werewolves, palely loitering belles dames sans merci rather than vampires. Monsters and witches and freaks floating 'round on every corner, dead men — and women — dancing down every street.

But Cherry Street in particular, of course… home, weekly, to the Parade. Which Ethan watched, and followed, and — finally —

— joined.

Because much as Mom would never want to admit it, Ethan spent most of — my — life aping Toronto’s ghosts too, almost the exact same way my friends and I do now… aside from going farther with the imitation, of course, and for substantially different raesons. If the papers I found hidden behind a grate in his bedroom wall are any indication, Ethan was seeking some kind of shortcut away from mortality — a crack of his own to slip through, sideways. To fall and lodge forever between those sharp, sharp teeth that hide unseen beneath the “normal” world’s tight-shut lips.

And oh, it must’ve taken such amazing concentration, such amazing effort, to seek out his own demise at the Infestation’s — hand? To engineer, single-handedly, his own transition from flesh to phantom.

But let’s face it: Effort like that never goes unrewarded for long… as Ethan, along with all his fellow Parade Day attendees, soon found out.

They went out in the morning, to the top of Cherry Street, and they waited for the Parade to begin. And then, when it did… they followed it, all the way down to that bleak brick wall at the bottom that the Parade walks through each and every Saturday afternoon. Followed it out of this world —

— and into another.

Twelve years on, meanwhile, my mother still drifts alone in the wake of Ethan’s disappearance. The fallout from his last gesture draws her like a tide, even now — especially what with him being no longer around to repeat it.

So I Ghost up, and go out, and stalk around the shadowy streets of my half-dead home-town, imperiously brushing elbows with the same things that took Ethan in: Ate him whole, washed him away, leaving nothing behind but the dry, picked bones of my mother’s love… nothing left for me to hold onto, aside from a dull pretense to the same spectral status.

Sun editorials aside, though, I don’t Ghost up because I want to die. I do it because I want my mother to see me — or want to see me, at the very, very least, at least as much…

… as I already know she wants to see him.

• • •

Which is why the second time I cut myself, it was intentional — and the third, and the fourth, each time a little deeper: A nail from my pinkie, shed to win a wan maternal smile; the top joint of my index finger, to extort one more sympathetic word. Each a sacrifice spent on the altar of Mom’s absent attention. Each gaining me just a hint of response, before she slips right back into the fog.

Lost and groping, over and over. And over.

But hey, I can wait. I still have both my eyes left to give, after all. My breath. My name.

“Ethan — ”

“I'm Monica, Mom.”

“Yes, Ethan. I know.”

Well, she does talk to me, now; that’s got to count for something.

Or so I struggle, mountingly, to reassure myself.

Because: In a city full of real dead children, it’s me, my friends, the whole pathetic Ghoster subculture who’ve ceased to register — born on, around or after Parade Day, shoved aside under the shadow of a generation lost. Doomed, always, to make room for our parents’ grief, to step aside for one more gulp of a far more precious sibling’s enduring but elusive scent. To catch the waft of their hair — a passing, spectral caress — as they slip by.

We’re memory’s exiles, mere brief flesh. How can we possibly hope to compete?

Days like these, between dressing up and posing all weekend and working like a neutred dog all week (nose to the keyboard, bent almost double to peer blankly at the readout of my cubicle computer’s screen), I swear I start to feel as though I already am what I only try so hard to seem: An unlaid ghost, eternally left behind —

— and not even my ghost, either.

It’s on days like these that I feel the urge to cut myself rise up, and bite it back down so hard blood salts my mouth. Remember how good it once felt to be loved — me, for me alone — and then wonder, in turn, if what I think I remember is anything more than plain old wishful thinking.

At which point I cast my mind back even further, to my precocious high school days, reminding myself how — in Old English — the word “ghost” is the same as the word for “anger”.

I plan out my own final gesture, on days like these — something far
too grand to ignore, far too big to overlook. Dream absently of how I'm going to make my mother watch as I act it through, and practice the speech I’ll make for the occasion — the one that goes, and I quote:

“Look, Mom, look. So — how you like me now? Better…”

… or… worse?

Because — when I pretend that I'm dead, like the rest of my Ghoster friends, that’s when she likes me best; when I cut myself, scar myself, slash over my half-healed scars and let them form again, keloiding the wounds ’til they puff like pastry. When I pepper my skin with fresh flesh flowers on her uninterested behalf, blood-blister-bruised and purple with relevance — always just one more, freely given, payment in pain for pain. One more for each of my mother’s ceaseless, careless tears… the current of her mourning, washing me away piece by piece by piece: Tide to my rock, wave to my sand…

Yeah, she likes me “dead’, because it makes me more like Ethan. And the more I'm like Ethan, well — the more I'm like him, the more I count.

Just a little. And one day, maybe — one of these Infested Toronto days, when there’s nothing left of me to cut away — I’ll find the strength, at long, long last…

— to finally stop pretending.



Gemma Files has a B.A.A. in Magazine Journalism from Ryerson University, and has spent the last seven years writing freelance film criticism for Toronto’s eye Weekly, a popular local news and culture review. She also teaches screenwriting at the Trebas Institute. Files’ horror fiction has been published in both small press magazines (Grue, Transversions, Palace Corbie) and mainstream anthologies (Seductive Spectres, Demon Sex). Her story “The Emperor’s Old Bones’, republished in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror 2000, won an International Horror Writers’ Guild award for Best Short Story of 1999. Five of her short stories were adapted for TV and appeared on The Hunger a half-hour anthology TV series produced by Telescene for Showtime and TMN, under the aegis of Tony and Ridley Scott’s Scott Free production company. Visit her online at http://adage1.diaryland.com.


October 2000