Ghosts of New York
by Jennifer Pelland
Originally published in DARK FAITH (Apex Publications)
2011 Nebula Award Nominee--Short Story
Poets and sages like to say that there is clarity in certain death. That a calm resignation settles over the nearly deceased, and they embrace the inevitability of the end of life with dignity and grace.
But there was no clarity for her, no calmness, no life flashing before her eyes in a montage of joys and regrets. There was just pure animal terror, screams torn from her throat as she plummeted toward the ground in the longest ten seconds of her life.
And then there was an explosion of pain.
She remembered flailing at the air, as if she could somehow sink her nails into it and cling there until help arrived. She remembered the crash and pop of the people who were landing mere seconds before her. She remembered a fleeting moment of shame when her dress blew up over her head, exposing her underwear to the crowds gathered below. She remembered the burst of shit and piss as she crashed through the awning just a split second before she hit—
The only people who find clarity in certain death are those who somehow cheat it, those who can reflect back upon the experience and use it to goad them into living a better life.
For the ghosts, there is only terror.
After her first fall, she stood by the roadkill smear that was her body, not recognizing what she was seeing at first, until two more bodies rained down from above, splattering on pavement with a crash of glass and a sickening splat.
Then she knew.
Then the North Tower collapsed.
All around her, people screamed and ran while she stood helplessly by the wreckage of her body. Debris flew through her, burying her corpse, leaving the ghost of her untouched.
And then she fell again.
If anything, it was worse than the first time. Now, it was an echo of a fall, a non-existent body falling from a non-existent building, with all the terror of the original fall—the same flailing, the same flash of embarrassment, the same piss—
The same body-shattering moment of pain at the end.
Days passed, the dust cleared, the debris and bodies were carried away, but still she fell, over and over, sinking through the sky for the same interminably long ten seconds, the pain of impact fresh and raw each and every time.
Between falls, she wondered if she were in hell. She wondered what terrible thing she’d done in life to merit this kind of eternal punishment. But she couldn’t remember.
She couldn’t remember anything.
No, that wasn’t strictly true. In the chest-heaving intervals between falls, she could remember, if she tried, the blistering heat and choking smoke. She remembered mobbing a broken window with a half-dozen other people, gulping in precious lungfuls of clean air. She remembered a floor too hot to stand on, the eerie creak of metal. She remembered a man and a woman dropping past her window, hand in hand. She remembered looking over her shoulder at the impenetrable wall of smoke. She remembered a scream stuck in her throat, a heart that felt like it would burst through her chest, a desperate wish to breathe just once more before she died.
She remembered a split-second decision, legs suddenly unfrozen, propelling her out into the blue September sky.
But before that?
She couldn’t even remember what she looked like. She would think back to standing over her body after the initial fall and try to conjure up hair color, skin color, but all she could remember was the pool of red in a sea of glittering glass.
She could see the other ghosts, though. The hundreds of others who still rained from the sky, all still trapped in the same deathly cycle as she was.
She didn’t talk to them. They didn’t talk to her. They each lived in their own little bubble of pain. They could each only fall, catch their breath, and fall again.
The living couldn’t see them. She wondered if they could feel them. They certainly didn’t come near them. All around Ground Zero she saw the same dance—the living weaving around the invisible dead, speeding up their steps to get out of the way of a falling jumper, brushing a hand across their pants legs as matterless gore splattered up from the impact. She wondered if she and her fellow ghosts were why the site had stayed empty for so long. Each year, as people gathered on the site for their memorial, she would hear them talk about bureaucracy, red tape, financial woes, lawsuits, respect for the families of the dead. She didn’t believe a word of it. No force on earth could keep Manhattan from putting a building on a prime piece of real estate.
But eventually, build they did.
Between falls, she watched, rapt, as the steel beams climbed into the sky.
Sometimes, she wished she could take in the details of the construction work on the upper floors as she fell. But every time, the animal fear took over right from the start. Every time, it was the same. She was nothing but a frozen moment, repeatedly playing out exactly the same way.
She quickly learned to keep away from the construction workers so they could do their jobs without having to step around her. The other ghosts did the same. They were uniformly polite in their silent suffering.
As the new tower grew, a memorial was constructed where the old ones once stood. She would land next to the waterfalls that poured into the old buildings’ footprints, pick herself up, and stare at the water as it flowed down into a churning mist. She tried to find her name among the lists of the dead, but none of the names looked familiar to her. Out of the corners of her eyes, she could see the other ghosts looking for themselves as well. She suspected that none of them had any better luck than she did. She wandered through the museum, looking at the photographs, and finding no images of people jumping from the buildings that day. It was as if they were some shameful taboo. It was as if they had never existed.
The memorial wasn’t any comfort to her. It didn’t bring her any closer to knowing who she was, or really, who she had been before she died. She was still a ghost. She still fell.
Maybe she could find answers elsewhere.
For a while now, she’d been feeling less stuck to the site. As the new building went up and the memorial and museum were completed, she could feel herself coming loose, bit by bit, but it had never occurred to her to try to leave until just now. How many years had it been? She didn’t want to know.
She stepped off the site for the first time in her unlife.
All around her, she could see the other ghosts coming to the same realization as they, too, left the site and started cautiously exploring the world around them.
New York City was in places familiar, in places bewildering.
Had she only been visiting the Twin Towers that day? Was she not a New York City regular? That, she didn’t know. She read an ad on the side of a bus and wondered why it said the same thing twice before realizing that half of it was in Korean. She knew Korean? Was this a clue to her past? But then she read the headlines on a Chinese newspaper and a taxi ad in Spanish, and realized that it meant nothing. Everything about her meant nothing.
And then she was falling again.
She took several short jaunts into the neighborhoods around the Towers, always being dragged back to fall from the window that no longer existed to land on the precise bit of pavement that was similarly nonexistent, before deciding to take a more ambitious walk.
That was the day she learned that they weren’t alone.
Standing at the base of the Empire State Building, she stifled a scream as she watched a small plane crash into the upper floors. Not again. Not another one. Weren’t the Twin Towers enough? A body flew from the gaping hole that had been torn through the side of the building, but no one on the street seemed to notice a thing.
Another ghost, with a ghost of an airplane creating a ghost of a hole in the building.
And then came the rain of jumpers, hitting the pavement or phantom cars in a staccato rhythm of death. No one seemed to notice. They were ghost jumpers, just like her, stuck in the same never-ending cycle.
One woman, lying on the crumpled hood of an old-fashioned limousine, looked positively serene.
She ran across the street to take a closer look, but the woman sat up, staring dumbly at her torn stockings, and moaned, “Oh god, make it stop.”
“I can hear you!” she gasped. “Oh my god, I can hear you! Can you hear me? I haven’t talked to anyone in so long. This is wonderful!”
The woman just covered her beautifully made-up face and moaned again, a long, keening sound that seemed to come from a place far deeper than her body could hold. “It never ends. It never ends.”
“What do you mean? How long have you been falling?”
The woman turned wild eyes to her. “Where did you come from?”
“The Twin Towers.”
“I saw them rise and fall. A new one’s rising, isn’t it?”
“But you’ll fall from the old ones forever. No one’s going to forget you.”
“Forget me? What do you—”
But the words were ripped from her mouth as she found herself back at the North Tower, leaping through the window, and clawing at the air for ten long seconds before hitting bottom again.
She could talk to the dead, just not the Towers’ dead.
But she didn’t like what she’d heard, and wasn’t sure she wanted to hear more.
She walked to the memorial park and stared at the waterfall cascading into the ground where her Tower had once stood. The living wove around her as she stood there, unmoving, not caring for once that she was bothering anyone. She was a sentinel of pain. She saw it on the faces of the people doing their little dances to avoid walking through her. It wasn’t just this memorial that disturbed them, it was those who were left behind.
Why wouldn’t it end?
How did that woman even know?
From the look of her clothes, she’d been jumping for at least half a century.
She looked down and felt the echo of her fall in the movement of the water.
In a way, it was the perfect memorial.
Why was she still here? Wasn’t she supposed to move on? Did she even believe in an afterlife? She couldn’t remember. There was so much she couldn’t remember.
Maybe she hadn’t believed. Maybe that was the problem.
But what was the point in some god punishing her if she didn’t remember why she was being punished?
She found an old church nearby, walked through the iron gate, through the front door, and stood facing the altar, waiting to see if she felt anything. But she didn’t feel any different here than she did at the Towers, or on her walks. It was just as cold as it was everywhere else, even when she stood in the postcard-perfect beams of sunlight streaming down through the massive windows.
Maybe she needed to pray to actually feel something. But she couldn’t find the words. Has she known them in life, or was this yet another wished-for revelation about her past that really meant nothing?
An old man sat on a badly-scuffed bench off to the side of the room, his head bowed in silent prayer, and she sat down as close to him as she dared. If there was a god out there listening to this man’s prayer, maybe he’d see her and realize that he’d forgotten to take her when she’d died.
And then she was yanked away to fall again.
So that was her answer.
She didn’t feel much like walking anymore. The few longer trips she tried showed her a city full of people jumping from or being pushed out of buildings, all still going through the motions for countless years after their deaths. She couldn’t deal with them. It was bad enough to be stuck in this endless loop herself, but seeing it played out across the city was just too much.
But some days, she would step off of the site and cross the street, if only to get away just a little bit. She needed to prove to herself that she could still leave if she wanted to. That her eternity wouldn’t be completely made up of monotonous terror. She’d sit on the curb, stretching her legs into the street, watching as cabs swerved to avoid hitting her ghostly feet.
When the new tower’s skeleton was nearly complete, she had a visitor.
He was young, a teenaged boy, dressed in short pants and a cap, like something out of an old black and white movie. He was soaking wet, both hands clasping the tattered life jacket that was draped around his neck. “You!” he screamed.
She tucked her feet up and stared at him, puzzled. “Where did you come from?”
“The East River. We were almost gone, until you happened.”
At that, she was on her feet. “Almost gone? You mean we can go away?”
“People were forgetting about us. We were finally fading. And then you!” He jabbed a finger at her. “You! You made them start talking about us again! We weren’t the biggest mass death in the city anymore!”
“So if people forget us—”
“I hate you!”
She heard a splash as he was pulled away, a gurgle.
But she didn’t care about that. She knew the answer now. People had to forget them. Then they’d move on.
She stared across the street at the memorial park, and felt her hopes plummet.
That was never going to happen. They were going to be remembered forever.
She crumpled to the ground and beat it with her fists, howling like an animal at the unfairness of it all.
And then she fell again.
And again. And again. And again.
But now, every time she landed, she screamed.
She screamed at the pavement, she screamed at the memorial fountain, she screamed at the visitors, she screamed at the people working on the new tower. She would step off the site, stand in the middle of the sidewalk, and scream at the people walking by. She would stand in the middle of the street and scream at taxis who would swerve and honk at the other drivers as if it were their fault.
She hated them for remembering her. She hated the whole world for making her a repeating memorial of terror.
The boy kept coming back, standing at the periphery, spewing hate at whichever ghost was the closest. And the ghosts would scream back, their voices a chorus of anguish and betrayal.
The site was filled with their screams.
How could anyone not hear them?
That boy—he’d been screaming for...how long? A century?
They’d brought him back. Their deaths had brought him back.
But it wasn’t her fault.
She’d had to jump.
It wasn’t her fault.
She’d been suffocating. She’d needed air.
She needed air.
She needed it now.
She staggered off of the site, gasping for breath. This time, a woman was waiting for her. She looked young, but with old eyes. Her dress was long and simple, her hair messily pinned up, and there was soot on her pale face. “Stop it.”
“I have every damned right to scream.”
“You’re too loud.”
“I don’t care! If you had any idea—”
“Of course I have an idea!” the woman shouted back. “We’re all jumpers. All of us who are left behind, we’re jumpers. Surely you’ve noticed that by now, or are you stupid?”
“That boy was wet. He didn’t jump, he drowned.”
“You mean that boy from the Slocum? He jumped into the river. History only makes ghosts out of those who try to fly.”
Before either of them could say anything else, woman was snatched away, screaming.
And then she was back in the air, falling, landing.
She screamed her frustration into the air, pounding on the pavement with her fists, and looked up to see the woman from the fire looming over her. “I said stop it!”
“Don’t tell me what to do!”
“We can hear you all the way over at the Triangle building. Everyone can hear you.”
She pushed herself up off of the pavement and snarled, “Good. If they won’t forget us, then they should hear us.” She tried to storm off, but the woman stepped in front of her.
“They can’t hear you,” she said, gesturing at the living. “But we can.”
“Why should I care?”
“Because we’re all we have left. We barely even have ourselves. Can you remember what you look like? What your name was? If you had children? What you did for a living? If you were rich or poor? We’re just pieces of people, not actual people.”
“I know that. Don’t you think I know that?”
“So have a little respect for the rest of us and stop screaming. There’s too many of you. You’re too loud. We just….” The woman looked like she was about to cry. “For the love of God, we just want a little peace.”
She spat out a laugh. “Oh, please. We don’t get to have peace. Whatever the hell we have, it’s the opposite of peace. You’ve been around long enough. You should get that.”
“We’re here until we’re forgotten,” the woman said. “And you and I will never be forgotten. If a pack of girls jumping out of a burning factory could learn to stop screaming, then so can you. Have a little courtesy for your fellow ghosts.”
“I’m going to spend eternity reliving my death. Screaming is the only logical—”
And then she felt the wind tearing by her as she fell, again.
When she hit the ground, she lay there, staring up at the sky, not able to summon the energy to pick herself up.
Why shouldn’t she scream? She was a walking beacon of pain, the icy feeling that trailed down someone’s spine as they visited her death site. She had every right to scream. She should scream without stopping until the end of time.
But instead, she cried.
She curled onto her side and sobbed until she felt empty, which didn’t take long at all.
It must have been because there was so little of her left.
She repeated that thought, and rolled over onto her back, letting the sun wash through her insubstantial form as she mulled it over.
There really wasn’t very much of her, was there? Like the woman from the fire said, she was just a piece of a person, just the horrific slice of a woman’s life as she died. The rest of the woman was who knew where—maybe heaven, maybe hell, maybe reborn into a new body, maybe nothing but worm food.
Wherever the rest of her was, she was missing this part. This death part. The part that lingered here in the shadow of the non-existent Towers.
How wonderful it must be not to be saddled with those last seconds of her life.
She sat up, staring down at the ground that all those years ago had been stained red with her blood. How strange to think that the rest of her could be out there, somewhere, not burdened with this memory.
Maybe her unlife wasn’t a curse. Maybe it was history’s gift to the woman she once was.
If so, that was a greater gift than anyone could ever know.
She looked over at the shouting boy and the soot-covered woman who was now lecturing another of her fellow Tower jumpers, and wondered if they’d ever had this thought.
Maybe this was the right way to stop the screaming.
She picked herself up, walked over to the memorial, and selected a female name at random from the list. Maybe that was the woman she’d once been. She had a nice name. She hoped she’d been a nice person. She hoped she was having a lovely afterlife.
She looked around the memorial, found a visitor scanning the list of names, and decided that she’d be that woman’s sister today.
“It’s all right,” she told the woman. “Your sister doesn’t remember what happened to her. She’s at peace.”
She reached out to stroke the young woman’s hair, and for once, the living didn’t flinch away from her.
Out of the corners of her eyes, she saw a couple of her fellow jumpers stop screaming and stare at her with expressions of astonishment.
She smiled back at them.
She hadn’t smiled since she’d died.
It felt good.
And then she fell again.
But it was all right. At least, it was once she landed.
Because there was no clarity in death, no dignity. And history didn’t fulfill any grand purpose when it plucked jumpers from the sky.
But perhaps there was a purpose to her suffering.
And that was enough.
JENNIFER PELLAND lives outside Boston with an Andy, three cats, and an impractical amount of books. Her short story collection, Unwelcome Bodies, was published by Apex in 2008 and contains her Nebula-nominated story “Captive Girl.” She’s also a belly dancer and occasional radio theater performer. For pictures of the aforementioned cats, plus links to her various blogs, visit www.jenniferpelland.com.