How Sorayah Changed Her Clothes.
Sorayah Khan has gotten into the habit of wandering at night.
It’s not like she needs to sleep anymore, not really. She… can? Kind of? It doesn’t feel exactly the same as sleeping when she was alive, but then again, nothing else does either, so she isn’t sure if that’s really indicative. Either way, it became fairly obvious quite quickly that it isn’t necessary the same way that it used to be.
Frankly, it’s a little terrifying to her, and she tries to avoid thinking about it. It does mean that she suddenly has a lot of free time on her hands, and not a lot to do with it. She can’t use computers anymore, for example; her hands just pass straight through, and apparently there’s some kind of reaction with the internal systems, because Kath’s laptop started smoking and spitting sparks almost immediately afterwards, and when they’d opened it up, it had looked like a silicon barbecue. Seeing as her job involved working with computers, it had been… frustrating.
Books are also out. She can watch TV but can’t change the channel. She can’t run because she doesn’t have a body, she can’t exercise because she doesn’t have a body, and it’s caused her more than few meltdowns, tucked away inside a wall so that no-one can hear.
Kath and June try to help, of course. Flipping pages or changing channels or acting as her hands. But they’re both busy, busy and distracted, and even if they were willing to pull all-nighters for her she wouldn’t ask them to. They’ve already done enough for her, she figures.
So, she wanders. At first, she would just float up to the top of the building, and watch the lights of the cars go by. Soothing, but not exactly engaging.
Once she finally managed to force herself beyond the confines of the building, things were a little better. The Parklands are only a few minutes’ walk- a few minutes’ float away, and although there’s people sneaking around, dealing drugs and having furtive sex, it’s peaceful. Until she unconsciously tries to run her fingers through the leaves or feel the soil underneath her bare feet, and the illusion of normalcy breaks down.
So she goes further, down the hills and into the city, where people buzz like ants and the lights flicker and spark and it’s too much for her almost always but there’s always a convenient wall to hide inside. She likes watching the people go by, observing their faces, but things tend to go downhill when they notice her. Mostly just glares or fearful increases in speed, but she’s used to those. The frequency and intensity, not so much. She learns pretty quickly to stay close to walls, and out of the flow of foot traffic, but in those busier places the walls and shopfronts are all warded, so she eventually gives up on them entirely; it’s just not worth it.
The Valley is noisier and shadier, but less well-warded. Try as she might, though, the latter isn’t enough to make up for the former, and after her third time being chased off by yelled obscenities and a rain of empty bottles, she’s just about ready to give up, and go back to…
After waiting behind the trash can for a few minutes more, just to be safe, she tentatively floats up to the edge of the alleyway and pokes her head out, checking if-
“Hey!” an unfamiliar voice snaps at her. She’s so surprised that she actually goes white as a sheet. “Get away from there!” the voice continues irritably. “Honestly. It’s like you don’t know anything.”
She’s shocked enough that she just obeys, darting back and away from the corner. A little too quickly, as it turns out, because she runs straight into something behind her, nearly knocking them both to the ground.
“O-oh gosh, I’m so…” she trails off, the reality of the situation catching up to her.
“Watch your step, asshole,” the other ghost says. They’re taller than Sorayah, but significantly more translucent, and are dressed in a suit and coattails that look a hundred years old.
They’re also a skeleton.
“I’m-” she stammers desperately. “I’m sorry, I’m just-”
The skeleton sighs. “Trust me, I’ve heard it before. Don’t fucking hang around here, kid. You’ll get worse than bottles thrown at you, and I don’t know if you’ve figured it out yet, but you can very much still get hurt.”
“…oh,” she says slowly. She’d been planning to anyway, but somehow hearing it from someone else stings a little more. “…okay, yeah.”
She’s apparently not hard to read, because they sigh again. “You’re really fresh, huh?” they ask. She frowns, which is answer enough. “Yeah. Listen, there’s a… hm. Okay, I’m busy, and also lazy, so fuck off so I don’t have to deal with you, but also…” They seem reluctant, but continue anyway. “Queen’s Wharf. Look for the sign. And don’t go there on a full moon.”
Before she can even begin to ask for clarification, they float backwards into the wall. The warded wall. “And for god’s sake,” they add as they disappear, “don’t ask about the dog.”
Kath slammed her hand on the table. “I’m gonna ask about the dog,” she declared, rising from her seat.
Without looking away, June grabbed her by the arm and yanked her back down into the seat.
It takes Sorayah a few nights to work up the courage to follow the strange directions, but once she does, it turns out to be more difficult than she’d imagined. Queen’s Wharf isn’t really so much an address as an area; it covers a significant chunk of the riverbank in the city centre, and goes from being barely above the water to being perched on top of steep hills and concrete pylons; shifting from colonial architecture to modern steel and glass along the same axis, with plenty of amalgams along the way. Cars rush by on the elevated highway above the river, creating a stream of lights and wind that’s almost hypnotic as it passes by, and bounces off the dark, calm waters of the river below. The streets and paths buzz with people of all kinds, over-dressed for the mild Brisbane spring. It’s not a comfortable environment for her, but having a goal rather than wandering helps somewhat. She spends quite a bit of time just wandering around, going in loops, looking for the “signs” the other ghost had mentioned. There are a lot of physical signs around, but somehow she doesn’t think that they were being quite so literal.
Eventually, though, on her third loop around the area, something catches her eye. At the top of the hill, near the bridge over to Southbank, a railing glints oddly in the light. She almost misses it, except for the fact that it isn’t in the light. The entire area is, not shrouded in shadow exactly, but only illuminated by the ambient lights, and not in the path of the passing headlights. She floats over to investigate, barely noticing as a truck blasts its horn at her and shoots straight through her.
As she gets close, it resolves itself into a small symbol, painted onto the tarnished metal. It looks like a rounded triangle, with curved thorns coming out of the points. Two of the lines are thicker than the other, forming an arrow that points…
Towards a set of stairs.
She starts to get the picture.
The symbols keeps reappearing as she follows them, down the stairs and across a bike path, and then along the street for a little while until she reaches a maintenance ladder, and then down onto the banks of the river.
It’s dark, and strangely quiet; the thick concrete mutes the noises of the cars, and the sloshing of the water is gentle and soothing. Wiry plants grow around and between the thick supporting pillars, dark brown twists with only occasional spots of green. It feels… liminal, she decides; as if she’s in the backend of the real world. Even if the whole affair ends up being fruitless, it will have been worth it to find this spot.
And fruitless it might just be. She can’t find another instance of the symbol, no matter how hard she looks. Was this what the skeleton was talking about? She doesn’t think so, but she’d been wrong before.
Like before, though, something in the distance catches her attention. Not a symbol, but a faint glow, coming from just beyond a slight outcropping in the cliff face. And now that she’s paying attention, she can also hear the faintest sound of voices. Multiple voices.
Multiple voices that turn out, when she rounds the corner, to all belong to other ghosts.
The first surprise is that they don’t look like her. They don’t all look like her, at least. One of them does, pale and translucent but otherwise… human. Others, though, not so much. One is a vague swirl of colours in the vague shape of a person, shifting and changing in the light. Another is almost like an abstract painting; all her features are somehow visible at the same time, from every angle. Another still is a caricature, all exaggerated, bold lines, and while they’re solid, they don’t quite line up with the surrounding geometry in the right way.
Those are all bizarre, but manageable. Harder to deal with are the others that, she realises after a moment, are actually like her after all. The reason she didn’t recognise that at first is that they still bear the wounds that presumably killed them. But not simple gunshot wounds like her, oh no. A man talks through a mouth that start disintegrating halfway along its length, along with the rest of his face and most of his body. Another woman smokes a spectral cigarette, and the smoke curls out of the holes in her cheeks. And in the back of her head, and through one eye. Her entire body is riddled with holes, like a cartoon character who’s been shot, but the sprays of blood and bone that hang, frozen, just beyond the exit wounds dispel any illusion of farce. One is halfway through the process of being burned alive, skin charred and blackened, eyes leaking down their face.
Not for the first time, Sorayah wishes she still had the ability to vomit.
After a moment, the group notices her. The abstract one, to be precise. “Hey!” they say, in a voice that somehow perfectly matches their appearance. It shifts through multiple pitches and tones and timbres within just that word, as if it’s… she knows there’s a better word, but all she can think of is “crowd-sourced”. “Haven’t seen you around before!”
The rest of the group turn to look at her, and she feels like she’s going to burn away under the gazes. They’re not even hostile, not all of them, it’s just too much, in a way she hasn’t really felt since… recent life changes. She squeezes her eyes closed, and leans over so that her head is inside the cliff. It’s instantly better, the rock cool against her skin despite the fact that she doesn’t have any, the noise muted despite… actually, she isn’t certain if that makes sense or not. Either way, it’s better. “Yes, sorry,” she replies, her voice echoing oddly. “I’m, um… I’m… new? I don’t know what the terminology is.”
“How new?” demands another voice. “How did you find this place?”
“Relax, Holt,” the multi-layered voice replies easily. “No need to be aggressive. I think we can assume they were given directions. That, or they’re looking for a spot to get high.”
“She,” Sorayah clarify, still from inside the wall. “And, the second one. I was given directions, I mean. There was a… skeleton? Ghost? In a suit?”
The group give a collective groan. “Of fucking course it was,” Holt spits.
“O-oh,” Sorayah stammers, caught off-guard. “Are they… not… liked? Or…”
“Nah,” a different voice drawls in a distinct American accent, “Vachon is just, uh.”
“Complicated,” the multi-layered voice finishes. “Not something you need to worry about. You okay there, though?”
“…yeah,” she replies slowly, and is surprised to find that it’s true. “Yeah, I’m alright.” Tentatively, she floats back out of the wall and into view. A few of the group are still looking at her, but most have returned to whatever conversation they were having before.
Unfortunately, Holt isn’t one of them. “Gross,” they say. They turn out to be the abstract one, looking at her with an exaggerated expression of disgust. “Yet another one.”
“Another-” Sorayah starts, but the multi-colour ghost gets their first. They raise their free hand, and slap Holt upside the head.
“Asshole,” they say, but there’s no menace in it. “It’s obviously not deliberate.”
“Er…” Sorayah ask tentatively. “What’s not? Deliberate, I mean.” They tap their chest, then flick the fingers forward at her. She looks down at her chest, but doesn’t see anything out of the ordinary. “Your cod.”
“…my what?” What do fish have to do with anything?
“Cause of death,” Holt snaps. “C-O-D. God, honestly.”
“Holt,” the American woman says, “shut your g-damn trap, okay?” She hasn’t spoken since Sorayah returned, but now that she does, it’s easy to match up the voice to the woman with holes through her head. “COD’s a shorthand,” she says to Sorayah, “but it kinda sucks. I like mortifacient, personally.”
“What Holt was referring to,” the multi-coloured one cuts back in, “was something of a… cultural divide, I suppose?”
“It’s not a f-king cultural divide!” Holt jumps in. “It’s just f-king basic decency, and-”
The American woman punches them in the mouth, and they go staggering backwards.
“Look,” the multi-coloured ghost sighs, “I’m really sorry about him. It’s probably easier if you just head inside, yeah?” They thumb over their shoulder, at a small nook in the rock wall. “I think things will be fairly self-evident from there.”
“…okay, yeah. Thank you.” She begins to float towards where they gestured. “Oh, um. I’m Sorayah, by the way.” She goes to stick her hand out, but then realises and jerks it back.
Somehow, they give the impression of a smile. “Inge. Nice to meet you.”
The American woman looks up from where they’re holding Holt in a headlock. “Rose. Charmed.”
“That’s them over there, actually.” Sorayah pointed over to another corner of the bar, where the two other ghosts were sharing a drink with what looked like a re-animated corpse. Inge noticed her, and gave a small wave. “They’re nice.”
“What are we,” Kath grumbles, “chopped liver?”
“Inside” turns out to be… dark, for one. Sorayah’s eyes take a moment to adjust, and she barely even has a panic attack over the fact that they still need to despite not actually having real, physical pupils. Once they have, they reveal a medium-sized room, with low ceilings and plentiful support beams. Tables are interspersed between the latter, and small booths line the walls. At the back of the room is an unassuming bar, staffed by two people in server’s clothing, and above it hangs a sign that says “Second Constance”.
There’s also a heaviness to the room; she can sense it, somehow. A solidity that feels strangely familiar, almost… homely? Tentatively, she reaches out to touch the nearest support beam, and, sure enough, finds herself resting a hand against smooth, dark wood.
“Just to be clear,” June asked, “it’s this ghost bar, right? Not a different ghost bar.” She paused. “…that is also named First Constant, I guess.”
Sorayah gave a soft laugh. “It’s this one, yeah.”
“Oh good.” She tipped her bottle back and drained the rest of her mostly-full drink in one go. “Cause after Kath’s story,” she continued, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, “I’m on edge for that shit.”
Kath shrugged. “Fair.”
“Also, though, I thought I felt some funny shit on the way in. Do you reckon they’d let me have a look? When I’m less sloshed, I mean.”
“I, ah, I really couldn’t say.”
“Bet they won’t,” June said sourly. “Everybody’s always ‘ooh, our security, our special super-secret formulas. Everybody’s doing the same goddamn thing these days! It’s all fucking Grantchester! You’re not special just because-”
It was Kath’s turn to restrain June as she began to half-rise from her seat, volume increasing steadily. She’d attracted a few looks from the other customers, which she met belligerently.
“I’m just saying,” she grumbled as she sat back down, her righteous fury deflating. “It’d be nice.”
The clientele inside the bar turn out to be just as diverse as the ones outside. More so, in fact; while the outside area seemed to be a mainly spectral group, at least at the moment, inside is another story. There are a few more ghosts, sure, but there’s also… well, everything. Everything Sorayah’s ever heard of, anyway. Vampire (she thinks, but maybe they’re just a goth albino), check. Werewolf, check. Various different types of zooeys, check. A… actually, she has no idea what that is, but it certainly looks interesting.
A few looks start to turn her way, and she realises that she’s been standing awkwardly in the doorway for over a minute now. Hastily, avoiding eye contact, she descends onto the main floor, weaving awkwardly between tables and pillars towards the bar. She’s out of practice at actually interacting with physical objects, though, so she ends up leaving a trail of bumped elbows and annoyed glares in her wake.
“Um,” she says, arriving at the bar. There are two staff working behind it; a female ghost, and what appears to be a living man. “Hello. Hi. Um, how do you order… a… drink?”
“Kind of like that,” the male bartender chuckles, “but with more nouns. What can I get you?”
“Um.” Panic actually helps her for once, forcing the words out before she can second-guess herself. “Shirley Temple?” A moment after the words leave her mouth, of course, she immediately realises that she doesn’t even know if she can drink anything, and how’s she going to pay for it anyway, and-
He grins, and grabs a few bottles and glasses. “Sure thing.”
“Alright,” the other bartender says as he begins to mix and pour, “I’m out. Have fun, Ray.”
“Yeah, you too.”
She floats out from behind the bar, tossing the towel back onto the bench. She stretches, and as she does, her form comes apart, motes of light scattering like dust in the wind. Sorayah gasps in shock, but the dust doesn’t blow away; it slows, then comes to a stop, hanging in the air for a brief moment, before swirling back together into the woman’s body. Only now, instead of being dressed like a bartender, she’s wearing casual clothes and a jacket, with her hair down. And instead of looking normal, the left side of her head is halfway through the process of being blown apart by a bullet, fragments of bone and muscle frozen in the air.
As Sorayah gapes, the woman notices and groans, then waves a hand over the area. It comes apart again, then reforms, this time looking uninjured like before. She rolls her eyes, then notices Sorayah staring.
“Take a photo,” she says dryly, “it’ll last longer.”
Sorayah flushes. “N-no,” she stammers, burning up, “I w-wasn’t- I d-don’t- I’ve just never-”
The other woman relaxes a little. “Oh, sorry, mate. New?”
She glances away. “…really wish it wasn’t that obvious.”
“Trust me,” the bartender replies with a grin, “it really is. Everyone gets it, though. It’s a big adjustment.
“…that’s putting it mildly,” she replies, surprising herself. “H-how did you do that, though?”
“Um. All of it?”
She laughs. “Damn, you really are- …okay, yeah, I see what you mean. Anyway, it’s pretty simple…”
“So it’s just…” June waved her hands incoherently around her head. “Zippity, zoppity, whatever? As easy as that?”
Sorayah chuckled awkwardly. “It’s, ah, a little bit more complicated than that? Mmm… here.” She squeezed her eyes closed, tongue poking out of the corner of her mouth, and waved a hand over her head. In fits and starts, the whole area blurred, becoming obscured, before snapping back into clarity. The style hadn’t changed at all, but now the tips of her hair were a deep sea blue.
Kath whooped loudly, applauding, while June raised an eyebrow. “Damn,” she said. “Wish I could do that.” She considered it for a moment. “Probably not worth it, huh?”
“Ah, heh. Yeah.”
Kath paused in the middle of her fist-pumping. “Uh, Ray Romano? You’ve got a bit of a… situation.”
“Hm?” She glanced down, to see the bloodstain spreading across her shirt. “Ah, darn,” she swore, before scrunching her eyes closed again and repeating the process on her chest.
“Sooo,” June said, as the shirt resumed its unbloodied state, “lemme guess. Your, like, ‘default state’ is always gonna be how you looked when you, grkk,” she stuck out her tongue and made a face. “But you can change that through effort, but the actual wound that killed you- sorry, malfactor, is, like, stronger or whatever? So unless you’re specifically concentrating on hiding it, it’s gonna come back first.” She bit her lip, thinking. “…that made sense, right?”
“…actually, yeah. That’s pretty much exactly right, well done.”
June held up a hand, and Kath high-fived it, entirely too hard.
“So,” she asked, as June cradled her hand and tried not to whimper, “how much can you change? Could you change into an animal? How about a chair?” She gasped dramatically. “Could you change into me?”
“Kath,” June said tiredly. “Don’t be such a complete asshole all of the… time…” She trailed off, glancing across the table to where a slightly translucent copy of her was now sitting, imitating her movements and echoing her words.
“…that’s gonna get really annoying,” she said sourly, and the double imitated her perfectly.
Kath laughed so hard that she began to choke.
Continue reading “Stopgap 4”