Julie A. Hersh
The universe had changed around him again while he was on the subway between stations.
He had been eyeing the woman sitting across from him, squished in just to the left of the pole, her legs pushed together in warm black stockings. He wondered, like he always did on the subway, what kinds of monsters she had in her apartment. What type, first of all—ghosts, or demons, or the green furry kind, or nothing but her own bad thoughts—and how fragile they were, how specific, how persistent. Looking at her legs, her brown boots that made an awkward contrast with the stockings, the blue coat with toggle buttons, he thought it must be ghosts. By the time he had gotten up to looking at her face, he was sure it was ghosts. She must live in a place with creaking floors and doors that didn’t close all the way, and a cabinet with glass panes, and windy windows. She probably stuffed gauzy scarves into the cracks around them to keep the wind out and filter the light.
They got off at the same stop, and he approached her with his card. She took it; that meant she was new in the city. No one ever took anything. “If you need help with the ghosts,” he said.
“I don’t have ghosts,” she said.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. I got rid of them all last week. And rechecked this morning, before I left for work.”
It was then that he noticed that the universe had changed. The sun was orange and visible as a small, puffy, pleased ball in the sky. If only this one would take more figuring out. The old world had been boring, very easy. He’d solved the puzzle almost immediately, but he didn’t count, he had lived for a very long time and they weren’t interested in his solutions. A long time ago they told him, No, we have to wait for a real person to figure it out, and then we’ll reset it. He had been offended at first, but then didn’t mind.
The woman had kept walking while he stood there looking at the sun, wondering what else had changed. He could see her still, a block away, heading to her ghost-free apartment. He walked toward his own, in a perpendicular direction, taking off his hat and fluffing up the hair to hide his horns. He wished he didn’t have to; they were shaped so perfectly, and such a nice pale green color.
He checked the demon traps when he got home, like he did every day. He never got less nervous. First the one right outside the front door, then the one in the deep corner between the stove and cupboards, then in the bedroom closet, then the living room near the radiator. They were all comfortingly empty; the demons had not come in today. They couldn’t resist peanut butter, so if they did come into the apartment, they wouldn’t leave again.
Normally in these situations he would spend some time wandering the world, trying to figure out the secret. He liked solving the puzzle before anyone else did, hated when the world changed on him before he had figured it out, like when you lose the book you’re reading and can’t get a new copy, or the second half of the movie isn’t online, or you swipe left by accident. It was partly pride—no one should be better at this than him, he’d been doing it for millennia—and partly that he liked to know the ending. The people were always all the same, the rules were just different. They had to start with realizing the world was a puzzle; he had a head start.
But he didn’t feel like wandering tonight. Maybe that was part of the new universe. He was tired. The last world hadn’t lasted long and he hadn’t gotten comfortable, hadn’t had enough of a break. He figured he would give himself a night off. He went online, reset all his passwords, and put his ad back online. It said that he was able to help with any sorts of creatures, ghouls, demons, ghosts. Ancient or new. Or medium.
He got a new email almost immediately.
“I was wrong,” it said, “the ghosts are back.”
He sighed. People always thought they knew how to get rid of ghosts. He wrote back asking for more details.
“They come in at night and swarm around my pillow,” she said. “Like my hair, but whiter and colder. They brush my face with their cold tails or fingers or fins. And they are grey and blue. They lie right below the bed so that I step on them when I get up and they are like cold puddles of bronze. I have no footprints anymore, just smooth metal. And they talk all the time. Inside my head and out. They try on my clothes. They walk around, dresses trailing to the floor, their bodies stopping halfway through, so that the skirts billow and then close up around themselves. They don’t hang them up again after, they just leave them on the floor, and they get dusty. It’s not my dust either. It’s ghost dust. Julia.”
He thought Julia was the name of the ghost dust, or she was addressing the ghosts reproachfully, but he realized it was her name.
“What have you done already?” he asked next. He saved her email. He had no idea what she was talking about.
“Swept the whole house. Swept the dust. The broom made electric sounds against the floor. The sparks ran to the corners of the rooms, all the corners. I lit candles and incense and sat in the center of the floor with my hair over my face and said words I didn’t know. I took all the food out of the house, I didn’t eat at home at all. I poured food coloring in the pipes so the water would come out purple. It dyed my hair and my skin.”
He wondered if she had really done all those things, or just liked the way they sounded. He thought of the puddles of metal and the dresses on the floor, of how the hems would become coated with metal and would weigh down as you walked, wearing them. He thought he would wear dresses in this next level of the world. People were different from level to level after all. Or they weren’t.
“I can come over tonight,” he wrote back, though he could just as easily have made her wait. “Or tomorrow, or the day after.”
“Tomorrow, then,” she said. Maybe she wanted another night alone with the ghosts, maybe she had already changed into pajamas and didn’t want company. Maybe she was sitting on the couch eating chips, a ghost lounging next to her, its tail or feet dangling in the air, not reaching the ground; maybe the ghost liked TV, or it was helping her solve the puzzle. Soul is what matters. Perhaps the ghost put its small hand inside her arm, inside the crook of the elbow, where the soul lives, and held its hand. Held her hand, the soul’s hand, where it rested, bobbed, or lay where the arm bends.
He wrote “Have a safe night,” then deleted it before sending. Ghosts weren’t dangerous, at least mostly. Then he wished he had sent it, after all, because if he came over the next day and found her lying in a pool of metal and white lace he would feel responsible.
He spent the next day walking: he couldn’t stay inside too long, and no one had called for his services. He wanted someone to pet his horns and tell him they were pretty. He was wearing a tall hat and it looked ridiculous. He didn’t learn much about the new world that day, other than that the sidewalks had a new geometric pattern, were a little less broken, dogs were less friendly and taller, everything about him had changed permanently and to the opposite, and the grass was yellow, but the new grass growing up below it was a darker greenish blue, like it hadn’t gotten used to the new hot sun in time to change. He didn’t know how those things could fit together. He went over to Julia’s apartment too early and sat on the front stoop: it was a brownstone, but on a busier road, old but not quiet.
She got home a little before six and stopped before the stairs when she saw him.
“Don’t worry, just go in and take your time, call me when you’re ready,” he said. It didn’t occur to him that that was creepy. It felt normal. People wait for other people to get home. She nodded and went inside, and while he didn’t see her she took off her boots, began to change clothes as she usually did when getting home and then stopped; it wasn’t the end of the day yet. She called for the ghosts but they didn’t answer. It would be strange, she thought, while he couldn’t hear her thoughts, if they all disappeared that day, and she would have to say, They were there, I swear they were there. She waited a little longer, just out of the principle of it; he wasn’t supposed to be there yet. He was still, while she couldn’t see him, sitting on the stoop, composed. He felt calm. He was even wiggling his feet in his roomy shoes.
She called him in, and he walked up the stairs into her apartment behind her.
“What do I do?” she asked. She was thinking, show him where they were last spotted, show him the puddle of metal; there was only one, as some of them dried or moved.
He didn’t answer as he started his inspection. They always came in through the same places, where they could get in. Through the vents was easiest, if they were lazy, but he didn’t see any here. He looked in the corners, in the cracks in walls, under door jambs. He got on his knees, more gently than he had ever used to, swept his thinner fingers along walls, knocked, or more like rapped, against frames. There was nothing.
He looked at her to begin asking a question.
“They were there,” she said.
“I know. This happens sometimes,” he said reassuringly, though it didn’t happen. He would have liked to check her scalp next, to find if that was where the holes were that the ghosts were getting in or out through. Where is the soul? Where is it? He looked at her again. She had a small, curved nose.
She insisted on showing him the ghost relics, though he didn’t think it would help. He wanted to see them in action. She showed him a row of dresses in her closet, not the kind he had pictured at all, not gauzy and flowing but more solid and fabric-y, the kind you wear to work. They all looked clean, though she said she hadn’t washed them or even brushed them off. He wouldn’t have thought that was the kind of dress ghosts wanted to wear. She showed him the metal puddle next to her bed; it looked like a silver Sharpie had leaked. That’s all.
“And your feet?” he asked. She paused. They were alone in her bedroom; it was too quiet. There was only two of them.
She sat down on her bed and pulled off her socks. They were long, and she simply pulled them from the toes all the way off, then threw them to the side. Sitting there still, she stuck her legs out straight in front of her, in a straight line off the bed, so he could see. It was true. They were silver, metal, slippery, not like people’s.
“What sound do they make?” he asked.
She tapped her finger against them. He thought there would be a clang, but there was no sound, the same as any finger touching any foot.
He had never come upon this kind of ghost before; he didn’t know what their point was. He realized he had been sitting there for too long, quietly frowning at her feet, and moved back suddenly in his chair.
“I’ll keep thinking about it,” he said. “And you tell me if they come back.”
“I can set traps. But ghosts can usually just go through them. It’s harder with ghosts.” Strange how the rules of ghosts did not change from puzzle to puzzle. They were always just like they were.
“There’s no… incense? Or prayers? Or water scattered in a circle?”
“No. They love that. They eat it up. They might take it and go, but then they’ll just come back. They know they can get more of that from you. If you do it right, if you really get rid of them… they won’t come back.”
“But it won’t hurt them?”
“Don’t you want to?” He didn’t know; people became sentimental about their monsters sometimes. Just when you could get rid of them, you suddenly didn’t want to; you wanted to set up a bed for them in the corner, sand down their spikes, even pet them. “You said they were cold and dusty.” Like that was the worst thing there could be. Maybe it was.
“No, I do, I do. I just wish they could have gone the easy way.”
“The universe changed yesterday,” he said.
“I know,” she said sadly.
“Ghosts changed, at least.”
“Oh.” He was disappointed. He’d never met the person who’d solved the puzzle first. The world was so big and he was only in one part of it; they were always in a different part. He would have liked to have stayed up until morning with someone, lying on the floor drawing theories on pieces of paper, throwing them away dramatically, until toward morning one of them would solve it, yell out the solution, and then sit on the floor, legs crossed, while the world faded away and then faded back in and they’d have to recalibrate, think what they were doing there. One of them would get the reward, the points.
“So the traps?” she prompted.
They returned to the kitchen together and he began assembling them in the corners. They probably wouldn’t work; they’d catch a ghost’s hand and the ghost would pull itself free. They were just rectangular pieces of cross-hatched metal, like squares of steel wool, thin enough that maybe if you were a ghost you wouldn’t see them as you shrieked and soared joyfully through the apartment. You’d get caught, and the thin cotton fibers of your thin, transparent self would be stuck, shredded, like a comb through thick hair. But you’d probably manage to free yourself in time.
He set them in a few different places, mostly hanging from strings taped to the ceiling; they weren’t heavy. It looked like an ugly art installation, or an unimaginative mobile. She thanked him and said goodbye. He wanted to be invited for dinner, or tea; she didn’t.
It wasn’t until he was home that he realized she said ghosts changed. Like the circles and chanting had used to work. He wondered what she really had up there: maybe not ghosts but a different kind of transparent creature. Someone who liked dresses, metal, cold, and whispering. Queens, probably, or widows. He wondered when he would learn about those. He wondered what she had done last night, who she had eaten chips with on the couch.
He sat down on the couch with his own chips and his own ghosts, which also weren’t real, they were simply pieces of trees sprouting inside his head, and sometimes the leaves waved against the sensitive curls of his brain and hurt him. He was sitting quietly and remembered he hadn’t checked the demon traps. He took the chips with him for security and bent down; none in the first two, or the third, but of course in the fourth one, in the bedroom closet, there was something there. The trap trigger was down. He picked it up delicately and opened it slowly, hoping what would fall out was dead. It wasn’t a demon; it was just a mouse. He stared at it, small and broken on the floor, felt a little sick, and maneuvered it into a garbage bag without touching it. He took it outside to the garbage, reset the trap. Wondered if mice were demons now, or the other way around, or if they had always been mice. In one world, there had been miniature people wearing black capes; he’d caught them and thrown them out the window. In another, they had been squares of blue cloth. In another, small bananas. They’d always crept in somehow, gotten stuck, either before or after infecting him a little, which was why he was not quite all.
He went back to Julia’s the next day to empty the traps and see what she wanted to do next. She let him in on time, still in her work clothes again.
“Thanks for coming,” she said, and then, “You’re not busy with other clients?”
No one else had called, but it was early days. “I think everyone else is still getting settled,” he said.
She didn’t ask to what. Maybe she did know, after all, and was coming closer and closer to a solution, and soon he would be out of here. As soon as he thought it he realized he had felt like twitching for the whole of this new world, like he was in an uncomfortable, dirty apartment and did not want any part of him to touch any part of it.
“No ghosts in the traps?” he asked when they had gotten to the top floor, where she lived.
“There was one this morning, just a small one. I left for a second to try to get a bowl to trap it with, but it was already gone when I got back.”
“What did it look like?” He didn’t ask about the bowl. Probably that was how he had tried to trap them, too, his first time.
“I don’t know. It was invisible.”
“But you said—”
“I could hear it rustling. And singing.”
“I thought that’s what it was doing.”
He wasn’t sure. Maybe they would sing, to her. He shook his head. He was just lonely. And needed something to think about other than the world. Probably ghosts wouldn’t sing to her more than to anyone else.
He checked the traps just in case, running his hands along both sides of them to check for stray soft bits, like cotton or undercoat. There was something in the one she had pointed to, but he wasn’t even sure if it was ghost; it might have been people’s clothing, or her hair, or thoughts. It wasn’t quite soft enough to be ghost, especially not young, small ghost.
“What do you want to do next?” he asked her
“I… I don’t know. Isn’t that what you do?”
“Oh, yes. I meant, do you want to keep going, to get rid of them. The next step is more invasive.”
“What is it?”
“Usually you just make it more uninhabitable. You can invite other creatures in, ones that are easier to get rid of after. Usually. Or you can try to find out why they’ve come, in particular, but that’s not usually a good idea.”
“It’s always something bad.”
“Do you have them?”
“No. I got rid of mine. I never got more.”
“A long time ago?”
“Millennia.” He always said this; people always thought he meant a few years ago, maybe ten at most.
“Millennia. Really? Who are you?” He thought she would be surprised; but she was only playing along. She thought he’d gotten rid of them ten years ago, too. Maybe eleven.
“I don’t know,” he said, because he couldn’t think of another answer. “Anyway. I usually just recommend inviting in someone else. It’s easiest. You can pick who will bother you the least. They’ll drive out the ghosts, and then I’ll come back in a few days and drive out the new creatures.”
“And it’s safe?” she asked dubiously.
“Ghosts are tricky. If there were a better way, I would have found it by now.” But he didn’t experiment much anymore; he might not have found a better way by now. Perhaps a new way had come up, even in the past hundred years. Even yesterday. But he did not think so. The people who created the game hadn’t changed. They just kept doing what they had been doing.
“And what if it was my grandfather, or something, and I drove him out?”
“They’re not… really that kind of ghost,” he said hesitantly.
“And you’re sure I shouldn’t just keep them?”
“I didn’t say that. It’s up to you.”
“Are they dangerous?”
“They are? What do they do?” She looked around nervously, looked at her feet.
“Well, they live in your house. And you haven’t invited them,” he said. He thought it was obvious. He got out his brochure of other types of creatures and laid it on the kitchen counter. “Just see what you think.”
She turned the pages slowly, past ghouls, demons, the green fuzzy ones, cats, and witches, running her finger down the texts but not reading them.
“Which are best with ghosts?”
“They’re all good. It’s more about which one you want.”
“I don’t know.” She looked scared, or just smaller than he’d thought she was.
“I recommend the green ones.” He usually recommended them to people who weren’t sure. They looked just like monsters; but they made a strange sound. He realized he hadn’t updated the picture for demons yet. It didn’t matter if he wasn’t sure that they were mice. No one else would know, either. Oh, he hated mice.
She reread the page about them, more carefully. Weight: 7 to 12 kilograms. Height: up to 3 feet, standing. Lifespan: unknown, indefinite. Pros: not scary, would hide under the bed, shed green soft fur that lend the home a certain atmosphere. Ghosts hate them because they like to play. Cons: the sound they make, like a squawk-chirp; that you want to pick them up, but you absolutely shouldn’t; they fly when frightened; some people find it upsetting to get rid of them, though they’re not pets; sometimes reported side effects, like sad, squashy thoughts. They can be removed simply, with a broom, though sometimes they lay eggs that must also, later, be removed. Once outside the home, they are not anymore. They are collected again, to the basement of the world, where they wait in corners until they are asked for, or manage to get out. The point of them: n/a.
“Can I take this and think about it overnight?”
“Sure.” He collected his things, put his shoes back on. “Just give me a call when you’re ready.”
He knew he shouldn’t call her, but he wanted to know what had happened. A few weeks had gone by. He wondered if the ghosts had eaten her whole—they didn’t do that, usually—or if she had come to terms with them, figured out what they were. He didn’t know. That was his secret.
He did call her, finally, but she didn’t pick up. He left a message: “This is the exterminator. I’m just following up.” He sounded professional. He wanted to say: “Have they rolled you up in all your dresses, painted you silver, and left you stuck to the floor?”
His table was getting buried in scraps of paper, observations about the new world, connections, ideas. He still hadn’t really gotten anywhere. He liked to think, The puzzle is that I have met Julia, but that wasn’t a solution, and he hadn’t really met her, much, had he. It didn’t usually take him so long to figure out the puzzle. He had been collecting ideas, doing all the things he usually did, but it just seemed like a world. It was a place to live. It wasn’t fun; it was normal life. He wondered if he was in the ending credits.
Another few months went by. He had mostly stopped looking for her when he took the subway at that time, or around their shared neighborhood. Other people had resettled into their lives and begun wanting to remove their vermin again. He was busy. He had even met other people. He still hadn’t gotten anywhere with the world. The changes were just a long list of small things that seemed not to add up. Tomatoes were more sour; black currants could be found growing in America, finally; it sometimes hailed the day after there was a sunstorm. He had made up solutions, throwing them at the programmers and hoping that maybe one would work: a particular protein had an extra amino acid, or one or two countries had been transposed. He didn’t like the chemistry puzzles, or the geography ones. He liked the literature ones best, but there hadn’t been one in years. So he kept looking. He kept looking online, too, for posts about the puzzle, or about people realizing it was a puzzle, or people trying to find out who they had been in the previous level, but there was nothing yet. He searched in all the languages he could, and had trouble reading the results. Patience, it was rare for a world to take such a short time to be unraveled. He had been in ones that took hundreds of years. He felt like he’d done this so many times before, it should be easy to adjust, he should be used to every single one of the feelings that came with adjusting, but he still hadn’t. They were still new and bad every time, even though they were always the same set, even in the same amounts. He had a list.
He ran into Julia at the subway station, waiting for the train. He said hello.
“Oh! hello,” she said. “I’m sorry I never called you.”
“I guess that must happen a lot. People decide to stay with their monsters.”
“Not really, no,” he said.
“I was just curious what happened to yours.”
“Nothing,” she said. “We still live together. They don’t bother me anymore.”
“It’s not bad at all. They cook me breakfast sometimes, even.”
“Yes, like eggs, sometimes biscuits.”
He stared at her. He gave up on solving the puzzle of the world. The subway arrived; she sat and ignored him, and he stood above her, holding the pole that her legs leaned against.