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Nicholas Manzolillo
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nextstep.jpg
Art by W. Jack Savage 2017

The Next Step

By Nicholas Manzolillo

 

          You cannot make a real fist upon waking up. Too fatigued, most of you still rests as your mind struggles to separate between the illusions of the night and the shimmering glow now filling your pupils. It’s sort of like that now. My hand floating without any connective point to the earth and my fingers are curling forwards, slowly. My index and middle are showing more life than the other two. My thumb is the catalyst

Floating….I have left gravity. My surroundings, if I am in fact real, consist of too much sand and then bigger clumps of rock, mostly orange. I have sight but no eyes, no face. I perceive my hand, floating several feet above the ground amidst a speckled blood mist. At the wrist there is connective tissue, veins and hints of skin that begin to slowly trickle out and thicken like a tree sprouting off its first branch. Bones are the last piece to form. I appear to be picking myself up…

          By the time I have an elbow, my second hand and a few toes come into… existence, is that the word? Did I stray too far into the make-believe?  A wind blows up sand and a short bush, more brown than green, sways, yet I remain broken and joined in place, unmoving. I am now up to my knees, my shoulders and chest…there’s a touch of a nose between my line of sight. 

          Intestines and organs, a walnut grows and expands into a still heart. A shameful sight, for such a sacred piece of me to be in this state, exposed as it is. Was my heart always so still?  

          Airplane, Airplane, Airplane, clutching my seat grips and pissing off the man to my right, praying even though I’m not one for that, begging the sky and the sun and all the clouds to stop the turbulence. Wishing I was here, wishing beyond all that I would appear in the dry dusty desert lands below… alive…safe and sound…

          Molecule by molecule I reemerge into reality. I am a “person” once more. Like a key fact from a fading murky night, I realize that I am dead.

          Similar to a man on the moon I can glide vaguely above the warm desert sand. I can feel…my feet gently drop to the ground and beneath my bare toes there is sand. I am naked. The wind brushes against my exposed bits and it tickles. I could almost say I am alive but my heart doesn’t beat and I can’t feel myself. Pinching my cheeks, slapping my arm and my dick…nothing…no feeling…I’m not breathing, there’s no need to swallow or blink or…the sand is like a piece of clothing fresh out of the dryer. 

          I force my body to walk, to feel the earth instead of taking my capable floating steps. I can remember myself. I, Ryan Burgess, reporter for the Sun’s Touch. There are bits missing, little connective threads of memory, I’ve forgotten many of the nonessentials, and despite their unimportance I want them, I want…I need…

          Enthralled in the soothing warmth of the sun, I come to a rise over a dune and there I am met by a large skeletal beast of metal and failure. The crash site…there is no caution tape on this end but the fuselage and bits of the wing tips are scattered around. The general shape of the plane remains as if it’s trying to pull itself together like I did. A number of plain-Jane cars and dump trucks as well as a crane surround the wreckage. The ruins of the crash appear old and the fires have been put out some time ago and the bodies lie in ash or beneath the earth.

          That hectic, crunching level of fear and then my reemergence…I suppose dying could have been much worse. My friend, my photographer Richard, is it silly to mourn him when I myself have met the same fate? Why do I perceive myself here all alone?

          Upon reaching the workers it’s logical, with my newfound existence and all, that none of the tired and grumpy and perhaps heavy-hearted men can see, hear or feel me. Screaming as loud as my surprisingly vital lungs can muster right in one of their faces does nothing. I can’t kick up dust or knock the hats off their heads but I can touch and feel them. Putting my hand on the shoulder of one man it’s nearly the same sensation as being alive except I can’t push down on the fabric of the man’s shirt. Human contact, yet I have no influence.  

          A ghost…given the knowledge of ghosts surely there are ways I can interact with the world and be seen, even if it’s for just a moment.  Everybody knows of ghosts, of all that shit. If there is no afterlife then, well, the sun is sure nice and what if I’m back for a reason? What if there’s truth to restless spirits? What if…Lindsey…no…oh, my girl, what if she’s in danger? I haven’t exactly made a lot of friends over the years, a fair number of vermin have been arrested, buried by the dirt I shoveled onto them.  Perhaps this is my story of vengeance or perhaps I am to be a saving angel. 

              She’s here in Las Cruces, looming just miles away from here, the flight made it so close to home after all, we were so close to landing. I must see her. I will use all of my reformed mind to make her notice my existence.

          With what can be called frustration, I can’t recall the assignment I was returning from. My body and my emotions aren’t in sync. I don’t think I can make myself cry or really lose my cool in any way. There’s no blood boiling to accompany the frustration, there is just an irksome lack of comfort.

         It’s only when I reach the edges of the cities foundations that I see my first fellow “spirits”. At first sight I thought I was witnessing some form of molestation, a naked man closely following a woman, continuously reaching around her waist and pulling himself and his groin against her, like a skateboarder holding on to the back of a moving vehicle. It’s only when I realized the lack of physics as she kept walking, her pace and movements unaltered while the man essentially floated and humped away. 

          The should-be shameful fact that I’m naked still hasn’t registered, being dead and all really raises other concerns, but wow, the further I move into the city the more nude men I see. Rubbing themselves against all sorts of women like a strange and disgusting invasion of perverts. There are a good amount of them but, nowhere near as many ghosts as one would expect. Given the countless number of dead in the world, the lack of ghosts clogging every street corner brings hope to the fact that I am here for a reason. 

          Having to witness the perversion of some of the dead men, I notice them moving through cars and streetlights and people themselves. An ability I have yet to need, I begin to wonder if there are any ghost women at all, though, given the sight of these naked animals molesting everything in sight unknowingly, I can understand their reluctance to associate with their male compatriots. Ghosts presumably in locker rooms and showers. As voyeurs and degraded deviants, yes but I suppose, being dead can make you more of an animal than you were in life.

          I consider that other forces really could be at work, when I run into her far from our mutual apartment. A flower shop I’ve only stopped at because the honest and sweet scents pulled me in. I am the bee, absorbing all the aromas and textures of the plants, even the vast number of prickly, oh sweet pain, cactuses.  She’s there in all of her naked beauty, amongst the flowers, amongst other women, baring their bodies and all. 

         “Ry?” her smile and her so damned lively glow. It fades when she realizes I am nude and can see her. She, dead, my disconnected and not quite the right place mind heaves at the realization. She reaches towards me and I embrace her. I try to embrace. The true blow here is that I feel nothing upon touching her. Not her skin nor her breath on my back.

          Most ghosts are more confused than a victim of Alzheimer’s.  Something about coming back…it scrambles the memories. Lindsey died before I even became big time as a reporter of the investigative sort. She’s what gave me my drive, she was poisoned by some chemical in her food at a restaurant that stemmed all the way back to corrupt practices and a front at a slaughterhouse. I think perhaps there is a reason why so many ghosts are reported as repeating the same thing or action or bothering people because they have them mistaken…the really bad ones, the confused and lost spirits are the ones that have that extra bit to them that the living can witness. If it weren’t for finding Lindsey, somebody I knew while I was alive, against all improbabilities, I may have dwindled into that state of existence as a mentally ill poltergeist.

               Despite the brief debunking Lindsey provides, she does nothing for my purpose and worst of all I cannot feel her, a person I held so dear, that I mourned every single day until my arrival in this state of being. I can’t feel her yet some passing woman on the street presses against me and all of my bodily urges spring forth.

          I remain with her for a while, finding as many scents and unique touches as we can, trying to hold on. She is a photograph, a voice on the phone. There is no feeling. Eventually, in our city wandering, we see less and less of one another. No need for sleep or, well, anything the living are required to do. Time and existence is an art gallery or a brothel, if you’re one of the animals. 

            Without her, no longer being capable of missing Lindsey, I still naturally abstain from joining the herds of perverts wandering the earth. I wander and walk and float away from New Mexico, up and away through the coast. Occasionally, I meet and walk with a wide variety of dead men like myself, able to resist the lures of harassing the living. Some are as old as this country. In one circumstance I even meet and walk with a former president. Former as in 1800’s but still, the conversation persists. Of who we were, that’s what all conversations with dead lead too. We are remnants.

              To be a ghost is to forgo personal connections. All the way in North Carolina I reconnect with my family. At the least I can embrace my still living father and briefly feel disturbed by the lack of my mother’s presence and existence as a ghost. Seeing the man who raised me…it doesn’t do anything. I leave his household and the wandering takes hold and even my memories are useless. I forget all about what it is to love….

          A memory shifts into place. A first encounter I had at a cousin’s house in Connecticut. My one and only encounter with spirit as a living boy.  There is the memory of a lighthouse and the briefest flash of a woman peering down at me, the moon shining through her smile.

          That little memory pulls me to an old rusted-out structure, lacking all the beauty of the ideal quintessential lighthouse. It’s like a stubbed cigarette, lurching almost sideways out of the rocks. The ocean has beat it senseless for its betrayals of her wrath and all the ships she presumably guided home.  All that remains to the lighthouse is its mystery, something I’ve always associated with these beckoning lights of land meeting sea. I am done walking.

        I glide through the loosely bolted red and black door and ascend through the cobweb and mold-ridden chambers, ascending a spiraling, nearly step-less staircase until at last I breach the top and here I find her. The lady of the lighthouse. Always awaiting for someone lost amongst the ocean.

 I am here. She sits at the highest rung, overlooking the sea, the wind blowing its hypnotic odor into my nostrils. I sit down next to her, sticking my feet out through the rungs. She turns and looks at me and my eyes never leave her face. She turns to look upon the ocean and I join her. We can wait together. Our hands idle by our sides. Close, together, never quite touching.



Nicholas Manzolillo’s writing has appeared in the anthologies Wicked Witches, Thuglit: Last Writes, Phobos, Vol. 4 and the online publications Nebula Rift, Out of the Gutter, Deadman's Tome, and NewMyths. He is currently earning an MFA in Creative and Professional Writing from Western Connecticut State University.

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