All That Is Seen And Unseen
by Ryan Creel
On the whole, the dead are far more afraid of you than you are of them. Where fear of ghosts and ghouls and various other post-life beings frequently arises from the fact we, too, will one day die, their fear of us comes from the fact that they once lived. It is a frightening thing to be alive, I am told—all fear and pain and cold and uncertainty. The dead share none of these qualms, and our day-to-day anxieties are wholly unwelcome additions to an otherwise staid, predictable existence.
“But, Holden,” you say to me, “nor do the dead have hope, pleasure, or warmth. They know not the bounce of breathtaking butterflies before a first kiss or the self-satisfaction of righteous anger or even the feeling of pride at a job well done.” And I tell you, while this is true for the most part, it is also true that the dead are forgetful things…at least when it comes to feelings.
They just don’t see things like you do.
But then, neither do I.
The dead speak to me and seek me out, for, like them, I am cold. I was not blessed by the pleasures of life; nor, I suppose, was I cursed with its worries, other than hunger and one wish. I find myself, from time to time, unable to contain this wish, this want, this need to fly. So I flap these feeble wings until my arms collapse, and I fall to the ground in exhaustion.
I am different, entirely too forward, too honest, and too unafraid to truly relate to anyone. Words that flow true and strong on paper are often dammed and damned before they escape my mouth. My condition has left me ever-awkward, ever an outsider in the eyes I never meet, though I myself never feel particularly awkward or particularly outside. However, I am prone to unpredictable fits of imaginings, where deep-seeded creativity bursts like bubbling magma from the earth, leaving behind islands of tales, poems, and paintings. And if you are susceptible to these imaginings, the dead are wonderful friends to have.
You see, the dead have answers.
The dead have stories.
So many stories are answers, and so many answers are stories. Spirits have wonderful stories, many of which are too forward, too honest, too unafraid to tell the living, or at least to tell when they were alive. But they tell me these stories. They tell me true stories of how it really was or is or how they saw or see things. The first story I ever heard from a ghost was in response to a question asked when I was six years and forty-seven days old. It went something like this:
“What did people do for fun before there were books or televisions or movies?” I asked this of an apparition who calls himself Professor Hubert Wordsworth Granderson. (He insists on keeping the professional moniker, though it means little to anyone anymore.)
The Professor responded to me as most of the dead do; that is, he took his time. You should know that the dead habitually believe that time is theirs. Eternity spits in the face of immediacy. Three weeks after I’d asked the question, he came to me with an answer.
“Holden,” he said in his thick-as-molasses South Carolina drawl. “I have asked about, and seeing as how I myself was a literate man, and seeing as how I did not walk among the living at a time when moving pictures were of such general import, I have come to two conclusions with regard to your question.” (To this day, being unable to change, he talks in this manner.) “First, for thousands of years, people told stories of gods and kings, of princes, princesses, and monsters. These tales filled the gaps and were told by any number of storytellers—bards and shaman, mostly—who found themselves in positions of honor in the communities they inhabited. But you have to understand, what you’re talking about, the idea of leisure time, is a relatively new concept. In those thousands of years where oral tradition filled the minds of peasants and royalty alike, most people only had time for a handful of stories. The rest of the time they were slaving in fields, fighting the elements, braving wars, or suffering from diseases.
“And second, humanity has spent most of the rest of their free time copulating…you’ll understand why when you get older. You don’t know it yet, boy, but it’s really the one thing I miss about life…if indeed I am still capable of missing anything.”
I’m told I’ve been able to read since before my second birthday, which did not inspire rapturous pride within my physician parents but instead prompted them to take me to a doctor friend of theirs who diagnosed me as “Other.”
I read everything when I’m not listening to the stories of my bards, my shaman, my friends. My fits make me paint and write and draw and fly and fall, and getting lost in other people’s words helps me get up again. My brother, Jay, the one who cares for me, the one who refuses to treat me like the village idiot, gets me books, new and old. I write reviews for him, reviews of books and films that do not see the light of day under my name, reviews I’ve read in newspapers here and there, and when I tell him, “This is me, these words are mine,” he says, “I know, Holden. How do you think I’m able to take care of you the way I do?”
Jay gave me a book four years, six months, and three days ago that sold millions of copies about vampires and werewolves and an author’s fantasy to copulate with a sparkly immortal who would take her and break her bed. I think it was nonsense, mostly, but it made me wonder about the undead and if there was such a thing. Frankly, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t asked the question before. And so I asked Emma Jones, a dead woman I know, about unlife after death. (She retained the pale blue eyes, dark hair, and vigor of her youth and insisted she was a witch in life with real powers that had been magnified in death, though I had yet to see any evidence.)
“Asking the dead ’bout the undead, lad?” asked Emma in her odd, hundred and fifty year-old Massachusetts accent, which made her sound more West London than South Boston. “Very interesting proposition.” Thirty-two days later, she was sitting next to me at my writing desk, ready to answer, and I told her of the book.
“Shining, glittering, vampires? Vampires in the sun?” she asked, unable to contain her laughter. “Why the entire idea would be the scandal of scandals in covens throughout the world. How is it I’ve not yet heard of this farce?” She shook her ethereal head and wiped away non-existent tears. “Apologies, Holden, apologies. The answer to your question, in short, is yes, many of the creatures that haunt the dreams of the living do exist. I’m not familiar with werewolves, though. I do believe they are fabrications. And they wouldn’t be members of the undead, regardless…though I’ve been surprised by the existence of many things.
“I have seen zombies—sad, pathetic, little creatures with no mind of their own—whose sole purpose for the rest of their half-lives is to try to take your brain in the hopes it will impart them with thought once again. It won’t, but they’re not thinkers, aye? Some of them, the zombies, arise from spells. Others are formed from little powders concocted by witch doctors, witches, priestesses, or apothecaries.
“Vampires? Now that lot’s even sadder,” she continued. “In life and in death, I have worshipped the Mother Moon and given praise and sacrificed to Her power and all She gives. But aye me! To never see the sun who birthed the moon? ’Tis a better thing to be dead, able to enjoy its light, if not its warmth, than to live forever in the dark having neither.
“May you never meet the demon who first gave that dark gift to man. It’s sad to think that every time they pass the curse, they grow his master’s power a bit more. He does so love the fear and death they bring about. But I suppose it’s also a lucky thing for the living that a bit o’ the demon’s traits also pass through the blood when they’re turned. The cold ones are as spiteful and greedy a group of creatures as you’ll ever see, and they jealously guard their curse like it was a newborn babe. It’s also lucky they’re so hard to make. The few who’re born into darkness are usually brought into the world by accident.
“And the thirst? The thirst digs at their hearts, which, no longer beating, contain the remnants of withered souls meant to move on long before. Blood nourishes the soul in the body when it’s alive, and the thirst that drives the vampires is simply a fruitless attempt to feed what has become an abomination. Bodies are repositories for something greater, Holden, and those repositories are meant to expire. What’s at the center of the nightwalkers is spoiled. So often they enter into the eternal night, assured they’re gaining immortality, but they’re not; it’s death. They think they’re in for a grand time, what with the power and all. But they’re not. What they’re really getting is simply a liquid red version of the Black Smoke, and it leads to nowhere but the Gate of the Hundred Sorrows. We should feel sorry for those poor buggers, not turn them into gleaming gods. They’re addicts—junkies, to use today’s term. They should be pitied.”
Anthony O’Reilly is adamant he was killed by a vampire.
So many of the spirits I meet were murdered.
Anthony told me the story three years, one month, and twenty days ago. He’s a native Bostonian, the product of an Italian mother and Irish father. He appears to me a fair-haired boy of about seventeen, unless he gets very angry, then his skin shrinks and melts, and he seems to swell, and he darts in and out of the room. It’s really quite impressive. He said, “So my old man and Ma are screamin’ and goin’ at it again, and I decide I gotta get the hell outta the house. It’s, I don’t know , 9:30 at night, maybe? I’m walkin’ down the steps of the brownstone we’re in, and this friggin’ ghost, not like me, but a pale bastard, dressed all in black with reddish eyes, bumps into me. So I tell him to watch where the hell he’s goin’, and he gets this look in his eyes like he’s gonna go. But then he just hisses at me and keeps walkin’ up, like some kinda freak. And I don’t think nothin’ of it.
“So I go to this girl’s house ‘round the corner. Think her name was Sylvia or somethin’ like that. She’s fresh off the boat, real looker, and I see her at school one day and tell her I’ll show her ‘round a little, thinkin’ maybe I’ll get a little somethin’. I head up the stairs and knock on the door, and this girl’s pop answers. And I kid you not, guy looks just like Mussolini and don’t speak a word of English. So I’m like, and I say it real slow, ‘Sir, I’d like to take your daughter out and show her the city tonight.’ Real proper and polite, I think. But this dumb bastard starts cursin’ at me in Italian like I asked if I could sleep with his wife or somethin’. Ma used them old country words whenever I’d do somethin’ messed up, so I give him the bird and walk off.
“So I get downstairs, and I’m pissed to begin with, because I know I ain’t gettin’ nothin’ off Sylvia tonight, and I find that damned ghost with the bloodshot eyes from my buildin’ waitin’ for me. And he’s got a friend. I got my knife on me, but I don’t know what these spooks are carryin’, so I just walk by, smooth, and I don’t take my eyes off neither of ’em. Let’s ‘em know I ain’t scared of ‘em. Funny thing is, neither of ’em’s givin’ me nothin’. I got no read. They’re all stone-faced, and it creeps me the hell out. So I get by ’em and start to walk home. I keep it slow at first, and then I notice that the two’re followin’ me. So I pick it up. I’m goin’ a little faster and a little faster, and before I know it, I’m runnin’ as fast as I can, and the two spooks are still behind me. So I duck into an alley, and I pull out my knife. And, I’ll be honest, I worry what Ma’ll think, cuz now she’s gonna have another kid in jail. Then the first one, the one from my stairs, glides around the corner, and I take my knife and jam it, point first, underneath his chin and into his throat. And all he does is hiss…damnedest thing I ever saw. Then I feel a mouth at my neck, and I go cold…so cold. And I wake up like this.”
I asked Anthony once whether or not there was a God or gods.
He said, “Yeah…but we ain’t supposed to talk about it.”
Anthony introduced me to the man that ran his parish when he was a boy. His name is Father Thomas Murray. (Yes, like the Professor, the title remains with what remains.) He was a Jesuit priest, the pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Hope for twelve years, until he tried to break up a knife fight one afternoon. I asked him once, just two days ago, whether or not the devil exists—not just the Biblical Serpent, but Lucifer, the Satan, the one so prevalent in popular culture and the nightmares of the living. And he answered me that same day, a minor miracle for the dead.
“You know, son,” said Father Tom in his faint Irish brogue, “when I was alive, I spent sermon after sermon convincing my flock that there was such a thing, the Devil. And now that I’m dead, and I’ve seen hundreds of incarnations of the living God and not one shred of evidence that Lucifer walks the earth, I think back and can’t come up with any logical reason as to why I believed he existed in the first place. Were I alive, I’d be quite upset about it.
“I’m a Christian man, a Catholic. I believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen. I believe God is my Father, our Father, and that He is all-knowing, all-powerful, and, most importantly to me, all-loving. He is our Father, and He cares for us and protects us—each and every one of us, living or dead. And so I’ve asked myself, ‘How could the Father, the One that loves each of us, the One that cares for us and protects us, allow a psychopathic, sadistic, murderous pedophile like the Devil to wander unmolested around His children, and all the while He has the power to prevent it?’ And when I ask myself that question, I wonder how I could have believed in the Devil in the first place.
“But maybe that’s a question better left for the living. Maybe we’ve moved into a place where Satan can’t get to us anymore. Maybe the Devil is a problem for the living. But I’m not so sure about that anymore, either. Alive, I was sure there was a Lucifer, an archfiend whose sole purpose it was to corrupt our souls. But maybe that idea’s just a scapegoat for man’s conscious choice to continually make poor decisions. This is a rather vexing thing, Holden, questions of God and His mysteries. I just don’t know.”
When he finished speaking, he ran his hand over his face in a very lifelike moment of exasperation and dissipated the way the dead do when they’re done with me.
As it turns out, it was a question better left for the living.
In fact, I think I found my answer just yesterday.
I woke at night on the floor of my apartment after a particularly exuberant fit of failed flying, of imaginings, to find myself as hungry as I’d ever been. (The results of my fit were red, red paintings of wings and horns, heat and pain.) There are times I go days without eating. It’s why Jay takes care of me. But he was away on business, and his wife, a very pretty young girl with red hair and green eyes and lips like strawberry, hadn’t yet determined what to think of me. Still hasn’t. I don’t think she’ll come around, but we’ll see.
I put on shoes and walked down the steps of my building to street level into a light, misting rain. I passed two young Goths dressed in exquisite black clothes, with white face paint and red contact lenses. And then I wondered if they were Goths or if they had simply joined the ranks of countless youths who’d taken to dressing like vampires. And then I did my best to feel sorry for them, for I now know we are to pity the poor undead. One of them hissed as I walked by and showed his fangs, and I admit, I was impressed. They looked so very real. I applauded the young man on his aplomb and said so, as best I could, “Bravo, bravo. One so lost in the method would make Brando himself proud. Look out, Cullens; there are challengers around every corner.” The young vampire curled his lip into a sneer.
I walked across the street, around the corner, and down some steps into a basement shop that sells the best pizza in town.
“Holden!” yelled the proprietor, Nicky, an old, hunched, gray-haired Italian man, whose apron contained so many layers of greasy sediment, I’m sure archeologists could find dinosaur bones underneath. “The usual, my friend?” he asked.
I assented and waited for the usual—a simple thing for these epicurean giants—cheese pizza. I sat and thanked the waiter as he poured ice water from a pitcher into an opaque plastic cup and set it on the bistro table. I looked to the television and saw that, due to inclement weather, the Red Sox game would be postponed until tomorrow evening, much to the chagrin of the restaurant’s patrons. And then Professor Granderson was sitting in the chair next to me.
“Hello, Professor,” I said to the mustachioed man in the tweed coat. “What brings you here tonight?”
Nicky stepped in between my chair and the next table and assured the young family that I was harmless. A small blond boy stared in my direction, wide-eyed. “A little different, he is,” said Nicky, “but he’s good, a good boy. Just talks to himself sometimes, that’s all. Don’t you worry.”
The family went back to eating their pizza.
“Holden,” said the Professor, “I have known you now since you were just a young boy. Why, I can remember speaking to you for the first time and realizing that you weren’t another ghost, but a real, living boy. And I must admit it made me feel a little like Geppetto, for I had not spoken to a member of the living since I myself was counted among their ranks.”
“Thank you, Professor,” I said absentmindedly as the pie came.
Nicky laughed and patted me on the shoulder. “Professor,” he muttered. “You’re a funny one, Holden.”
He set the pizza on the table, and I dove into the first slice. It was just as perfect as the last, an old world Neapolitan construction of Caputo-floured dough with a hint of olive oil and buffalo mozzarella that swims in an otherworldly red sauce. I scarcely noticed as the sauce dripped from my lips onto my shirt.
“Holden, did you see the two men that followed you here?” asked the Professor.
“Uh-huh,” I said, mouth full, wiping the sauce from my face with the back of my hand.
“Well, you know we’re not supposed to interfere with things when it comes to the living? You know that much of what we tell you is actually a bit, well, completely against the rules. But you are who you are, so it’s overlooked?”
I nodded and grabbed a second slice.
“Holden, I am afraid that those two men out there mean to do you harm. In point of fact, I have reason to believe that they mean to do more than that.”
I finished the second slice. “And why would they want to do that?”
“It is who they are. It is their nature. Please, Holden. Please leave now. Ask the proprietor for permission to use the backdoor, and perhaps that will remove them from your trail. We are doing what we can to protect you.”
“I’ll be fine, Prof—”
“Holden!” The table shook as though I had slammed my fist into it. What was left of the water crashed to the floor, and the Professor was gone.
The boy at the next table buried his head in his mother’s chest and began to cry.
Nicky walked quickly over to me.
“Sorry, Nicky. I don’t know what happened,” I lied.
“That’s ok, that’s ok. Nothing to worry about,” said Nicky. He grabbed a towel from a server and mopped up the spilled water.
“Nicky, may I use your back entrance to leave tonight?”
Nicky scratched his head. “Why?”
“It’s just that I think there may be some people waiting outside. Bad people,” I said.
“You want we should call the cops for you?” he asked.
“No, thank you. I’ll be fine.” If this was really happening, if they were real vampires, the police would be of little use.
“Well,” he looked away and scratched his head again, “it’s not what we do for everyone, but for my favorite customer,” he clapped his hands together and smiled, “you follow me. You want ’em to box the pie for you?”
“No, thank you.”
Nicky put placating hands in the air and said, “Suit yourself.”
I followed him through the kitchen, past the mammoth brick oven, and up a flight of stairs to a door marked EXIT in bright red letters. Nicky pushed on the metal bar and opened the door.
“You be careful, and come back soon,” he said.
I walked through, into the alleyway and said, “I’ll do my best.”
The door slowly swung shut, and I was alone in the dark alley. I walked toward the light of the street to lamps haloed orange and white in the night drizzle. As I stepped into the light, I heard a voice say, “Holden, kid, those spooks’re after you now. But we ain’t gonna let ’em do nothin’ to you. Got my word on that.”
I looked left, down the street, and saw four red eyes, not a block away, gleaming through the night rain. They began to move towards me. I walked right, away from my home, away from the danger, though I felt no fear. You learn over time to trust certain people, living or dead, and I trusted the Professor. I trusted Anthony. They would not lead me astray.
As I walked, my pace quickened until I was jogging, then running, then sprinting. I am still quite fast when I need to be. I turned and saw the creatures slowly gaining and wondered if they could be on me in an instant if they’d wanted to, if the chase was part of what would make their hearts beat, were they still in working order. I turned a corner and slipped into an alley. I jumped into a dumpster and, not having done this since I was a teenager, was reminded of smells better left forgotten. I pulled shut the lid.
I felt myself simultaneously catching and trying to hold my breath. The bullies of my junior high and high school years usually ran off a few minutes after they couldn’t find me. But then, the bullies weren’t trying to eat me. After five minutes, I opened the dumpster lid and peeked out. Anthony had transformed; his skin had melted away, and he was hurling trashcans, newspapers, and any other debris he could find into the air in an effort to frighten my pursuers. The black figures stood stone still at the entrance of the alley, not knowing what to make of the poltergeist. A moment later, the figures noticed me and stepped into the alley.
“Run, dammit, run!” yelled Anthony.
I sprang from the dumpster and ran to the end of the alley to an old fire-escape, the ladder of which hung just low enough for me to climb. I scaled its metal rungs, not knowing where to go. Halfway up, I was met by Father Tom, who said, “Go. Get to the roof. I’ll hold them off as long as I can.” He passed through me, like sunshine through a window pane, an insubstantial crucifer bearing a shining cross, hurling prayers in the direction of the vampires, who ascended the stairs with purpose.
“Be gone, Demons. You are not welcome! Most glorious prince of the divine army, Saint Michael Archangel, defend us in this fight of ours against the hostile princes and powers, against those that want to govern the world in darkness, against the negativity of all things spiritual. Help us, those He made in His image, and free us from the tyranny—”
I looked down when the world went silent, and Father Tom and the nightwalkers were gone. Where the priest had been was now a great, horned shadow, darker than the bowels of the earth. And, for the first time, I felt fear.
I couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think. Every memory that should have haunted my dreams came in one overwhelming wave that crashed into my mind: the babysitter extinguishing her cigarettes on the back of my legs; my mother screaming at my father, who left because of me; five particularly brutal young boys taping me to a football field goalpost and taking turns urinating on me. Every dark, overlooked terror of my life was highlighted in bas-relief, and I wanted to flee. I knew then what horror life was.
And I knew how to end it.
I stepped to the railing at the edge of the fire escape and spread my arms, preparing to fling myself upon the hard ground. But the shadow let loose one ear-splitting cry of frustrated anger, and Father Tom was at my ear. “Don’t,” said the priest, his words comforting salve on my newly opened wounds. “The Demon is gone, and his minions will have none of their unholy Eucharist today. Go now, Holden, to the top, where we can protect you. They will follow, but we can defend you in the light of the moon. Go.”
I began to feel like myself again and just in time. I could hear the sound of undead talons scraping on the metal of the fire escape and knew I was the hunted once again. Hand over hand, foot over foot, I ascended the ladder until I reached the top.
I stepped onto the gravel roof and was greeted with a cold, gentle kiss from Emma.
“Hide, love,” she said.
In the light of the full moon, in her tattered white dress, with her dark hair, pale blue eyes, and pouty lips, she was quite beautiful.
I hid myself as best I could behind an air conditioning unit and was gone from sight when the two creatures stepped silently onto the roof.
“Come out, and thank you,” said the larger of the two. “You offered great chase, but sadly, it’s time we bring an end to your night.” I covered my face, as they were on me then; strong, ice-cold hands hurling me like a rag doll from my feeble hiding place.
But then the whispers came: silky, tangible things that subtly weaved and danced through the night rain, becoming one with the reality around us. The vampires hissed and came toward me, and the whispers grew louder. I felt a hand grasp my throat and heave me to a standing position. And still, the whispers grew in volume until they were like soft, muffled screams. I looked into the red eyes of my captors, watching as the look of triumph turned to confusion and then to wide-eyed, incredulous dread. And the moon, great, full, and shining in the sky, flipped like a coin, for the briefest of instants revealing the flaming sun in all its glory. And then it was the moon again.
And the vampires were gone, leaving behind only piles of smoldering ash, quickly doused by the night rain.
And her whisper came to my ear, “I told you my powers were something to behold.”
I woke in an unfamiliar room, in an unfamiliar bed.
I don’t know how, exactly, I made it from the roof of the building to this hospital bed, but I did. The doctors say I have a mild concussion, lacerations on my neck, and two broken fingers on my left hand—a pretty good outcome, all things considered. And they’re still trying to figure out how I got the sunburn. I just don’t have the heart to tell them.
Jay and his pretty wife who won’t look me in the eye came to visit this afternoon. He was very upset. “I go away for one day and this happens, Holden. Dammit, I don’t know what I’m going to do with you.” I knew if I argued, if I told him the truth, it would just make things worse, so I only offered one of the feeble, half-wit apologies that have kept me out of the asylum for so very long. (The brochures mother used to show me called it “Assisted Living.”) I think I’ve bought myself some more time, but we’ll see.
After my brother left, I fell into a dreamless sleep and woke to find myself surrounded by my friends and their pale, smiling faces.
“Well, my boy, you gave us quite a fright last night, but all’s well that ends well, I guess,” said the Professor. His booming laugh filled the room.
Anthony laughed along with the Professor, looking a great deal more peaceful than I’d ever seen him. Come to think of it, that may have been the first time I’d ever heard him laugh. “Yeah, kid, we really gave them punks a run for their money,” he said. “It almost made me feel alive again.”
Father Tom raised the ethereal rosary over my face, made the sign of the cross, and said a silent prayer.
And Emma, lovely Emma, said excitedly, “Holden, I’m glad to see you’re feeling well and such, but you’re never going to believe what I have to tell you. Do you remember that thing I said before about werewolves?”