a ghostwriter

The rain pelts down on the remnants of civilization—reflections of flashing red lights, flyers with blurred words, and discarded paper wraps. Tall buildings behind the mist are quiet, windows dark.
I cross the empty street.
My head tells me to hurry, but my feet feel clumsy. I glance behind and see no one. Hear no footsteps. Only shadows shrouded in the night rain linger.
The rain pummels harder.
Thump, thump. Thump, thump.
Haze becomes dense, and visibility worsens. The sound gets closer and closer.
Thump, thump. Thump, thump.

My heart pounded so loud that it woke me up. A frail ray of the morning sun sneaked in through a gap in the curtains. I stumbled out of bed and shuffled to the bathroom. When I looked up, a pale face in the mirror stared at me.

“How’s your book coming?” My editor, Tomoko, called.
“I’m working on it.” I recited my usual answer.
“Good.” She checked in regularly but never pestered. We talked about the writer we both knew; his book was on the shortlist for a national book award.
“By the way, your protagonist, does she still die at the end?” Tomoko brought the subject back to my work-in-progress book.
“Yeah, I think so. Why?”
“It’s just… I thought it’d be better if she lived. You know, she would be the sole survivor and live on.”
“Which is harder? Killed or left alone in the aftermath? Some think killing is an act of compassion.”
“Like those who euthanize their pets when they get old and crippled.”
“Exactly. So, if she lives, her agony continues.”
“And that is good?”
“I don’t know… But, it lingers, you know, unresolved.”
“Are you talking about the sequel? Anyway, what would the zombies do? Just let her go?”
“Think about it, will you? Got to go. I’ll call you again.”
Tomoko hung up, leaving my head swarming with images.
An act of compassion. What did they know?
I boiled some water and made tea. The steam from the cup tickled my nose, and the grassy aroma soothed my head.
The girl had to die, didn’t she? She was outnumbered. How would she survive the zombie world? Alone? Was Tomoko insinuating that the premise was questionable?
I sat in front of the laptop on the dining table and stared at the screen. After tapping my fingers on the table for a while, I closed the laptop, got up, grabbed the cup, and stepped out onto the narrow balcony, inhaling the outside air.
My gaze shifted from the building across to below.
Ensconced in the valley of the urban complex was a tiny park, which no one seemed to use—no screeching children down the slide, no parents pushing the swing for their child, or no lovers on the bench whispering into their ears.
On that afternoon, however, there was a boy in the sandbox between the swings and slide. He stood alone, staring down at his feet on the sand, in the shade under a tree.
I sipped the lukewarm tea, then went back inside and opened the laptop.

The tea on the table was stagnant and cold when I finished typing, rereading, and saving the work.
The sun was disappearing behind the concrete jungle, and a thin veil of night was spreading quickly. Grabbing a jacket, I left the apartment.
Hurrying towards the tiny park, I scanned the vicinity. There was no one in sight. My feet felt clumsy, and my sporadic footsteps echoed on the empty street. The buildings on both sides were quiet, dark behind the windows.
When I reached the park, I marched straight to the sandbox and then, standing near the edge, stared down at the spot where the boy had been standing.
The tree branches swayed in the wind above my head.

Stillness and darkness surround me. The pallid moonlight peaks in from the jagged windowpane.
When wailings and roars explode outside, I close my eyes, placing my hand on the chest.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
I take a deep breath and open my eyes.
A pair of gray pools are focused on me. Or, perhaps, the wall behind me. Then, disappear. My heart skips a beat.
I get up on my feet, walk towards the shadow, and lift my hand. It leans against my touch. Time drifts like the clouds above the moon outside.
Then, the gray eyes snap open.

“How’s your book coming?”
“Working on it.”
“Good.” Tomoko was chattier than usual. “Hey, listen… I thought, what if the girl becomes a zombie and lives among them.”
My mouth hung open, but no word came out.
“You know, the girl lets zombies bite her and turns into one of them.”
“Ah, but. You said… What about her living in agony? Lingering?”
“Wait. Hear me out. Her agony does continue. Something goes wrong, and she is half-human-half-zombie.”
I cleared my parched throat and swallowed.
Tomoko continued. “Her heart and brain stay functional. A zombie with feelings and intelligence, that’s one tough life. If you can call it that. And she sees and hears the dead. The real dead. The ones who are on the other side, where she can’t get to. Talk about lingering!” Tomoko chuckled and hung up.
Lying in bed, my head swarmed with hypotheses.
There was no sound outside. Dead quiet. I looked out the window. The moon was about three-quarters full and dominated the dusk. Unaccompanied by stars. A different kind of solitude from mine.
I turned my head towards the laptop on the floor and reached for it. My arm felt heavy and dull.

“How’s your book coming?”
“On it.”
“Good. Are you watching the press conference?”
“Yes.” I lied.
“We want to leave our footprints, don’t we? As proof that we exist.”
I said nothing. My heart throbbed in an irregular rhythm.
Tomoko hung up without waiting for my response.
I slumped on the floor, trying to catch my breath, fumbled for the laptop, and clicked the video from the news archive.
“Your book has made number one on the sales chart and, I’m sure, many more will read it after receiving this award. How do you feel?”
Microphones swerved.
“I am just happy that my book resonates with many.” His lips slightly curved at the ends. Cameras flashed. He added, “I’d like to thank my agent and publisher, who have worked tirelessly, and, of course, my late editor, Tomoko, who passed away last year.” His lips pursed, and his eyes dropped.
More flashes. More questions. Waves of microphones swayed back and forth, reminding me of those tree branches above the sandbox.

“How’s your book coming?”

My head is foggy, my heart slow.
Thump… Thump…
The shadows lurk behind me.
Darkness and silence close in. Numbness takes over. I close my eyes, no longer feeling alone.

Thank you for reading. I submitted this story to a short story contest, which went nowhere. Haha.


6 thoughts on “a ghostwriter

  1. Nicely atmospheric. And the most sustained piece I ever remember reading from you. I also wanted to keep reading, so that’s an achievement.

    Liked by 1 person

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