by Patrick Donovan
The yuccas in the graveyard bloomed like radio towers. No faint crackles in the air from their flowers unfolding, but large petals scooped like satellite dishes made of cloud and heavy with nectar like rain. Finny green agaves lined the entrance, sharp and squat and plump with water. Creosote still hung in the air at our midnight arrival, lingering from sunnier times in the day. Flowers seemed more significant once I’d begun dating Zinnia; and where more-so but a graveyard. The yucca blooms stay open throughout the nights, for weeks and a month, just once per year; a reincarnation unlike the death-knell stalks of the agaves which send up entire satellites of motionless orbit, held in suspension and plummeting. We were at the graveyard for ghosts though, not the fauna, but I didn’t know much about anything before Zinnia.
The ghosts showed up after the new power generators hit the market. There's, like, some kind of awful interaction between the new generators and the ghosts as the generators lap up and reconfigure any electromagnetics slinking through the air. I didn’t really understand it all, I just fixed the machines—and the ghost hunting was strictly after hours. If someone spotted one, they had likely hung around the generators a lot—technicians like me or people on cigarette breaks at work, and even then a glimpse was rare. I had been hunting for a few months, but this was my first excursion into a graveyard. I did not expect any ghosts there, and no one could have spotted any on their own anyways—that was why we brought the cats. The cats had been gene-spliced and glowed bright colors in the dark as they hopped between headstones, river rocks skipped and smoldering like coal.
One of Zinnia’s friends—I didn’t know any of them well—told us all to stop; never mind we already had when Bixie, the tuxedo cat that glowed scarlet on its white, started yowling. A cat making any sound in front of you when you’re in a graveyard, whether you are hunting ghosts or not, will pretty well stop you square—or at least it should. Other than to breathe or fidget, no one hardly moved until Bixie flicked his tail and then trotted behind a row of gravestones.
When we all stopped, Zinnia stood behind the group, whispering with Peacrock like usual. Peacrock is a demigod or angel or something. He tried to explain it once to me, but it seemed like a lot more math was involved than should have been. Zinnia understood right away because her spiritual calculus is, like, whoa.
Peacrock had the appearance of a peacock with a snake’s head and elephant’s snout, though he never explained why. He only let Zinnia, me, and the cats see him when we were out hunting because he did not want anyone mistaking him for a ghost, which I didn’t even try to figure, just smiled and looked at Zinnia who had been nodding in agreement with Peacrock. Zinnia might have been able to see the ghosts when the cats did, before they appeared to the rest of us. She never told me.
When Zinnia and I started dating, I quickly discovered that she was one of those people who went down the boardwalk on Venice Beach and someone always knew her. I would never learn all of her friends’ names. “I think it found a ghost,” one of them said. They pointed at Yot, the orange cat that glowed blue. Yot stared past the group with eyes wild toward the twilight and then sat, preening the fur on her leg stretched out like waves before their breaking.
“Bixie has to shit, that’s all,” said Peacrock from the back of the group.
Being a spirit or angel or whatever—I’ve actually considered that with all of the math Peacrock used to explain everything he might have been, like, more of an angle instead of an angel, bent towards—I don't know—unutterable degrees or some other jazzy geometry. But, as an inter-dimensional warrior of light, his voice carried a bizarre multi-tonal twang, so you can imagine how funny it sounded to hear him say 'shit.' Or maybe you can’t; but either way, as no one present except me and Zinnia and the cats could see him, nor could they hear him. I was looking for Bixie when he said it, and I almost laughed. Zinnia couldn’t stop herself and one of her friends said ‘cut it’ like they were expecting Yot to do something profound, which of course Yot wouldn’t, not for them. Zinnia’s friends had held their breaths long enough, and I could hear Bixie digging the dirt back on, so I told them there was no ghost there.
The cemetery should have been an ironic place to look for ghosts when what we really needed were the power generators. Explaining the mechanics of the ghosts to Zinnia's friends felt unethical, if only by ruining the theater they expected. But everyone who heard kept telling more people what I did which had started to piss me off because I had asked them not to. Until Zinnia asked, sweet as her name, I could not say no—so I took the first group to the cemetery pretty sure I would not actually have to try and catch a ghost for them. Except I had not been to a cemetery in years, since before the new power generators came out, and I should have realized that people are people and so, now more than ever, some of Los Angeles’s recently departed had been memorialized not just in stone but in pixel as well—inlaid screens in the granite, projecting videos of the dead from when they lived, powered until the sun explodes by a small generator found at each tombstone’s base, sucking its energy right from the air. No plug, no panel, just a hum like sand, or a computer parsing air like oil does water.
“The cemetery was a great idea,” Peacrock said. He spoke as we moved on, following the cats towards an assemblage of new, illuminated graves. Sometimes I swore Peacrock read my mind. He could but he said that he didn't. Still, he was uncanny. “It really adds to the theatrics of it all. You might even start charging money to take people through.” I could not respond with everyone around, but I knew he would conjure my most flippant reply. When I stopped and turned towards him, Yot and Bixie hissed and darted away from the group. At that point I’d only had a handful of encounters, and my success rate was pretty okay. I gave Peacrock the finger and then followed the group as they rushed after the neon streaks of fur.
The way I got into ghost hunting was really an accident. Like I said, I worked by day as a technician on the new power generators, and of course one thing led to the next, as it goes. But Peacrock always insisted that it was no accident, so we finally agreed to equivocate. I could not sense the ghosts like the cats did, but if the cats drew one out I could generally handle everything from there. The machine I used for dealing with ghosts came with the cats, luckily, but that’s a different story. Peacrock had said the small device I carried in my pocket enacted a more humane method of reintegrating the ghosts than did the power generators that attracted them. It was kind of like Ghost Busters but instead of storing them, I sent them back into their proper caste. I showed Peacrock the movies, and he said it was a significant difference, so I’ll defer to him. Though my machine contained some pretty advanced electronics, it looked like a stone and felt thick in my pocket. If I brushed it with my fingertips or held it in my hand, I could think it some ancient talisman from when shamans and druids breathed ones and zeroes into petrified circuitry and gathered golden foils from the sun.
The cats would begin sniffing low to the ground when they felt a ghost, which I learned early on, and which they had begun doing beneath the brightly lit headstone screens. I had not yet encountered any ill-tempered ghosts, and Peacrock would not have done a thing to help if I had needed him to, which I didn’t, but when I saw the cats’ hackles rise I stiffened. Everyone noticed my hesitation and stopped walking, then looked around for the cats or ghosts or maybe the breeze. I wanted to implode and puke but instead reached into my pocket and pulled out my stony machine. It was a good thing my shaky hands had it because everyone else buzzed against the stillness like they could sense my same cold doom. Except there at my back stood Zinnia, stronger than me by oceans, unaffected as she waited for the ghosts who, once they appeared, addressed her without fail before even thinking of me or the cats. She always stood behind me for the ghosts, forearms up and pressed against my shoulder blades, her warm breath under my ear making me feel like driftwood.
Zinnia peered over my shoulder as I watched a movie play on the headstone I had stopped next to while the cats zeroed in, a slide show of a woman’s life: birthdays, wilderness hikes, an elementary school production too zoomed to distinguish parent or teacher. There were weddings, though none featured her with a veil. The video lingered on a picture of the woman in a field full of wildflowers, leaning against a giant, bushy yucca. I could not tell her age—somewhere between twenty-five and forty—but she looked happy even to her hair’s curling tips caught within the wind. The display switched to an epitaph I did not want to read, printed over a backdrop red with cyclamen.
I looked for the cats while palming my machine. Zinnia’s breath felt like sea foam on my neck. The screen had transitioned from the epitaph into a movie of the woman in the field of wildflowers, dancing around the yucca to music the tombstone did not play. Then Bixie hissed and Yot kind of barked at the crisp and palpable ghost shaking out of effervescence about ten yards beyond us. I wanted to watch the video playing on the woman’s headstone, but Zinnia’s friends had begun to scream and Zinnia herself kissing the back of my neck and whispering in my ear about lips as soft as moss. I walked calmly through the group who had begun to spread out but had realized there was nowhere to go.
“It’s an illusion of too many choices.” Peacrock said. He chuckled over the din. I glanced back at him, but he sat watching the video of the woman on the headstone, performing occult calculations, sniffing with his elephant’s trunk at the joint of dirt and granite. The ghost began to approach our flurried group, so I hustled a bit to head it off. Zinnia was calling everyone towards her, putting me between them and the ghost.
I’ll describe what the ghosts look like, but it’s an in-general. With a little effort, a search of the nets for a clip will give you a much better idea. Their basic shape can be most anything, I suppose, though I never saw one that was not, generally speaking, animal, vegetable, or mineral in appearance. There was one that I interpreted as kind of looking like stomach acids, but whatever. They appeared mostly opaque and traced in smoke, something of a pale yellow to livid green color, always monochrome, and they smelled like the pungent part of apple cider. Zinnia threw out all of our apples after her first hunt with me.
The ghost we came upon in the cemetery looked like a half-lit moon, cratered, with one eye, half nose, closed, smirked mouth, and the yellow of fog that some Prufrock might walk through. I really wanted Zinnia blowing the ocean on my neck again, so I held my machine, ovoid and pearlescent, gripping the thing like a hammer, feeling its smoothness all around except for the bumps of the now useless three-prong electrical socket on the bottom side. The machine stayed active so long as I touched it, but for it to work, the ghost had to be pretty close. Like custard in my molars close. I needed to walk into the ghastly thing with the stone in hand so the ghost would be sucked in and divided by zero, or however Peacrock described it, and everything would be hunky-dory—his words, not mine. It takes longer to explain, but most all of this went through my head as I closed the last fifteen or so feet to the ghost at a steady pace, my insides starting to float.
The half-moon had roughly a ten foot diameter, and at the time I believed ghosts could not affect, move, or hurt me in any way—but like I said, it was early on. So, though I was worried, I walked forward still thinking my talisman made me untouchable. I did not expect the ghost to juke left past me, clipping my shoulder so that I twisted and fell. It headed straight towards Zinnia and the group behind her who, seeing me get knocked to the ground, all scattered again. The half-lit moon, sinking down onto the grass, turning slowly brighter, seemed unsure of who to follow until it spotted me throwing rocks at it that passed through the yellow miasma of its body. I had gotten to my feet again by that point and stood ready. The fight ended without much climax. I won. The ghost got sucked into my machine, and I made everyone wait while I watched the video of the woman twirling around the yucca. Then we went to hunt for more.
. . .
A lot happened after that. Too much. I don’t care anymore. Zinnia’s dead, I’m in jail, and Peacrock told me stories don’t have endings. The library in the jail is not so bad, so I’ve kept myself busy breathing, thinking, and reading. I shouldn’t say Zinnia is dead, I suppose. Rather, Zinnia departed. I’m not trying to say she has departed as a euphemism for her dying. At this point, saying that would be, like, anti-redundant. You can’t follow up the truth with a euphemism. It feels incredulous. Is it even a euphemism if you have already said what you then euphemize? if after the person you have told it to understands the message you were trying to hide and express? Alpha and Omega without the mu or nu. The despair in hiding. The shame. Regardless, it was Zinnia’s choice to depart, and I can’t blame her. I still love her too much.
Peacrock’s arrival and the ghost hunting and all of that—on the surface, the operation was totally legit. My company’s power generators were sucking up ghosts and mashing them out all over southern California; and a few people really did need my protection from dead and vengeful spouses that had begun appearing with the new generators, whom I successfully saved, and all for which Peacrock really had come to coach me, or whatever. But it was all a euphemism. Let me clarify:
It was a euphemism kind of like a phallus is a euphemism for something yonic, a radio tower for its signal, the pollen for the bees. With Zinnia gone, I have been thinking a lot about sex. But then, with Zinnia gone, it's just no fun. And so really, at heart, what is the phallus but a narrow tunnel within thick and layered outer walls. Experientially, phalluses have a simple symbolic shape, their innards tucked away or ignored. When we see an object we call phallic, all we are seeing and naming is its shell. The antenna seems phallic but is really yonic, delivering a life spring. And so the soft, metallic dish of womb shows itself as the actual phallus. As a force; the center of a pull; a new sentience and spirit eruptible. Magma under the ocean floor. And in that pointed sea above: A galaxy, A quasar.
Patrick Donovan lives near a swamp and studies writing at UL Lafayette where he is an assistant fiction editor at Rougarou. His work is forthcoming in Literary Orphans and has previously appeared in Intellectual Refuge, Circa | A Journal of Historical Fiction, and the bicycle review.