I blinked, squinting the muscles in my face. The train carriage was empty. A conductor was moving down the aisle, sweeping trash into a dustpan.
“Last stop,” he yelled again, in my direction.
I couldn’t even remember dozing off. My neck was sore from my sleeping position. It took me a few seconds to remember how I’d gotten there. But my clothes still smelled like a mixture of my mother’s fried snacks and the smoke from my father’s nicotine inhaler. I’d spent the day visiting them; sitting on the balcony of their retiree complex and watching their neighbours do calisthenics on the lawn.
My father had complained about his health, while my mother had cooked. I’d just tried my best to listen. My parents lived a few towns away from me, further inland. The trip took an hour by commuter rail and I went once a week. Usually I read one of my beat-up paperback thrillers on the train, but today I must’ve fallen asleep mid-sentence. My book lay in the middle of the carriage near my feet. No one had thought to pick it up or even wake me.
The conductor passed me, cleaning aggressively. He stepped over my book. From where I sat, I could see two earbuds snaking up from under his uniform. They were hidden by greasy hair. Heavy metal music emanated from him like an odour.
I waved in his direction.
“Excuse me. Do you know when the next train is heading back inland?”
He looked up from his sweeping.
“Do you know when the next train is leaving?” I shouted, gesturing the way we’d come.
“No more trains.”
He bent back to his task.
I wanted more information, but I wasn’t getting any from him. Tucking my book into my pocket, I walked off the train.
The platform was deserted. The city that lay beyond its limits looked just as empty: unlit windows, quiet streets, and a dark line of hills to the west. I tried to figure out my location. I had to work the next day and the sun had already begun to set. Dusk was creeping in.
After scrutinizing the rail map, I determined that I was in a seaside town called Tello. I’d never heard of it before. I’d slept through my own stop almost an hour ago.
I checked when the first train left the next morning and bought myself a ticket from the automated vendor. Then I departed the station and set off to explore. It was a hot, spring night, as humid as the day. The air felt dense, as if more layers of atoms were compacted than usual. But it still retained that smell of vitality, which is unique to spring: the smell of things growing, releasing their aromas into the cosmos.
Then I got lost.
Tello’s train station emerged directly into a jumble of backstreets. All the buildings looked the same: squat, grey constructs. Some of them had shops on the ground floor, but all were closed. I went in circles, stopping sometimes to stare up at a lighted window, watching for moving shapes behind the curtains. Besides the conductor, I hadn’t seen another person since arriving in the town.
I continued to wander. As I got further from the station, the apartments gave way to cramped houses with walled gardens and blue-tiled rooftops. There were no children playing in the streets. Sometimes I paused beside a gate to listen, but only the cries of cicadas reached my ears. It was as if the entire town had simultaneously gone on vacation.
I almost wanted to shout out, “Hello, is anybody home?” at the top of my lungs. But I thought some neighbour might pop his head out of a window and scold me for ruining the town’s Sunday evening. So I continued walking, hoping to find someone.
I crossed a park — clean-cut grass and baseball diamonds in the shadowy distance — and found a path that wound uphill through a cemetery. The spaces under the trees were lit by squat, solar-powered lamps that made the trunks and tombstones glow blue. The path was new asphalt, smooth and perfect. I felt the bizarre urge to press my cheek against its unblemished surface. It reminded me of my driveway growing up and how my mother had never let me carve my initials into its setting surface.
“It’s too dangerous,” she’d said—although it had never seemed dangerous to me.
I was so consumed by this memory, I barely had time to leap out of the way when a cyclist materialized out of the dusk before me.
They flew by so close, I could almost feel the wind from the bike’s passage! I caught a glimpse of a fluorescent red jersey, cycling shorts and an aerodynamic helmet. Then mysterious rider disappeared into the trees. It was the first person I’d seen since my arrival in Tello.
I was heartened by this fleeting encounter. The town was not deserted after all! The sight of the graves under the trees had begun to affect my mood. When you’ve spent the day with your aging parents, the thought of death begins to have a certain hold on you. The ‘great unknown’ becomes more immediate, more tangible when someone you know is facing it.
Even after the cyclist’s passing, the air under the trees felt difficult to permeate, like dozens of strands of spider’s web were stretched between the trunks. It was hard to move forward. Breezes rustled the branches, high overhead, but never touched me. Nevertheless, I pushed onwards against the invisible obstacles and tried to picture the wind rushing into the face of the cyclist — instead of listening to the whispery cemetery.
When I finally got to the top of the pathway, I was breathing heavily. I stopped to look out over the town of Tello. It lay in darkness, dotted with the occasional streetlights. A few neon signs protruded from taller buildings, clustered near the station. In the distance, I could see a broad swathe of black where the ocean began. But, in all that vista, only the trees showed signs of life.
Then a wash of noise broke upon my back. I turned, surprised by the sudden sounds of people talking and laughing; the smells of frying meat, the hubbub of a large crowd somewhere nearby. Caught in the tide of voices, I let my feet carry me along the smooth surface of the path. The chatter ebbed and flowed in a manner inimical to regular sound; turning back on itself and into itself and over itself again.
I emerged into a congregation; an open space of parkland, with hundreds of people threading their way between half a dozen bonfires. They clutched cups and paper plates, eating and drinking and laughing. On the edge of the crowd, a group of men stood in grease-stained aprons, chatting to one another.
No one seemed to notice my abrupt appearance at their barbecue. Everyone seemed too busy to pay attention to me.
Maybe it was just my desperation at being alone for so long, but I felt an almost immediate hysteria at this reception. I could feel a familiar panic clutching deep in my chest.
I was being skirted. My gaze was being avoided. My sentences dried on my tongue. I began to sweat profusely, in the heat from the crowd and the bonfires. It felt as though my chest was contracting, my eyes oscillating from person to person in desperation. No one would look at me. I was breathing in abrupt spurts, trying to suck in whatever oxygen I could get. Why was I being ignored? Was I imagining these people? Was there something wrong with how I was dressed?
I wanted to check my appearance, trying to diagnose the peculiar behaviour of those around me. But I was deep in panic mode now. My movements became spastic. My mind flailed like a desperate child. Not again.
Was this a secret gathering? Some backwoods religious cult? Were those really hamburgers they were eating? Or was I simply dreaming, still asleep on the train home? Theories like these popped through my brain: a succession of pathetic fireworks, each fizzling out as I failed to find supporting evidence. Just as my mind began to regain hold of itself, a kid drifted out of the crowd and tugged at my elbow.
“Hey mister, you looking for someone?”
I almost jumped backwards into one of the fires, I was so surprised. But the easing of my body afterwards was palpable.
The kid grinned at my reaction; something I would’ve found oddly observant, if I hadn’t been so relieved to be talking to someone. He had goofy-looking ears, too big for his head, and a missing front tooth. But he seemed friendly. Seeing him, I momentarily forgot about my discomfort.
“Do you want a hotdog?” he asked, offering me his own, half-eaten.
“No thanks,” I replied. “I’m not hungry right now.”
“You’re not from here.”
“No,” I told him, wondering how he knew. My general twitchiness? “I’m just passing through town. I missed my train.”
I fell silent and the kid resumed eating, staring at me. I realized I didn’t know what else to say. I’d never been very good at taking to children. The kid seemed to sense my awkwardness.
“Want me to show you around the party?” he asked.
“Sure, but not for long. I have to find somewhere to stay tonight.”
The thought had been on my mind ever since leaving the station and my sudden nerves had brought the worry to the forefront of my mind.
The kid didn’t reply immediately and, for a second, I thought I’d offended him. Then I saw he was just finishing his hotdog. He paused to wipe a spot of mustard off his nose.
“Do you not want to stay?” he asked.
For some reason, his question made me feel uneasy. I wasn’t sure what he meant: at the barbecue or in the town itself? I felt like I’d be in trouble if I gave the wrong answer.
“Well, I didn’t actually plan to come to Tello at all,” I admitted. “It was an accident. I fell asleep on the train and I got stuck. I’m sure it’s a nice town—it’s definitely a nice barbecue!—but it’s pretty important I get to work on time tomorrow. I need to take the first train back in the morning.”
“I know a train that you can take before then,” the boy vouched.
“Really?” I asked in surprise.
“Yeah, it stops just outside town, at 2:30 in the morning.” He seemed incredibly proud of himself for knowing this—like he’d memorized the fact.
“Can you take me to the stop?” I asked him.
“No, it’s too far.” My disappointment must’ve shown because the kid quickly added: “But I know someone who can.”
He beckoned me to follow and started off through the crowd. I kept track of him until we emerged on the far side.
On the edge of the grounds, I could see a line of parked cars. A circle of people were gathered beside a final bonfire, apart from the barbecuers. They were solemnly attending to the oldest member of the group: a man in official-looking robes.
As I approached the tiny group, a man wearing a smart beige suit glanced towards me. The others kept their heads bowed. The suited man held a finger to his lips and gestured for me to join him. I realized then that the goofy-looking kid had disappeared.
The old man’s words were barely audible over the sound of the festivities. He finished speaking, just as I arrived. The group bowed their heads and quickly turned to go. Confused, I looked to the man in beige. He was the only one sticking around.
“Can you see them?”—was the first thing he asked me.
He gestured towards the barbecuers. “Can you see them?”
“Of course I can,” I replied in astonishment. “The crowd?”
“Sometimes folks can’t,” he told me. “But I saw you come through the crowd, so I figured… Plus it’s easier at night.”
“What do you mean by them?” I asked.
“I thought you’d have figured it out by now,” he said, his eyes curiously faraway as he spoke—like he couldn’t quite see the crowd, but he knew it was there. “We’re at a wake. Those people aren’t real. They’re ghosts. That’s why they’re ignoring us. They always show up for funerals. It’s an excuse for them to celebrate. Another inductee to swell their numbers, y’know?”
I was stunned for a second. But I quickly found my tongue.
“There’s no way!”
The man chortled, like this was the funniest thing he’d heard all night.
“Hey, you don’t know about Tello, do you? I thought everyone in the area knew.”
“You’re messing with me,” I protested incredulously. “They’re barbecuing. They’re eating hot dogs!”
“Ghosts need to have fun too,” the man replied. “Best fun they can have is mimicking what they did in real life. They’re not very inventive. They go through the motions of barbecuing every now and then, even though it’s kind of a pointless exercise.”
I shook my head, trying to clear my thoughts.
“Can we get out of here?” I asked, suddenly uncomfortable near the crowd.
“No problem,” the man in the suit replied easily. “Come on, I’ll give you a ride back into town. There’s no sense sticking around. This party will go on all night, but they don’t like it when we try to mingle.”
I followed the man dumbly to the hearse, the only car left by now. He whistled a country tune as we strolled through the grass. When we reached the car, he climbed into the driver’s seat and pointed me towards the passenger side. Then, on the way down the hill, he told me the story of Tello and its ghosts.
“We started seeing ghosts in Tello about five years ago,” he informed me, as the hearse cruised down the hill from the cemetery. “Maybe it was six, I’m not sure anymore. It was the summer of that terrible heat wave, when the power kept going out. Everyone was trying to use their air conditioners and the grid kept getting overloaded. In the end, the city had to impose restrictions on electricity usage. But it was too late by that point…
“This coast has always been a big spot for retirees. There’s an especially large community here in Tello — or there was, anyway. Folks from inland would sell their homes and buy a nice apartment to enjoy the ocean climate. When the heat wave hit, we had all these old geezers in their apartments with no one to check on them. They started getting heatstroke and dying. Trains weren’t running on regular schedules, so their kids couldn’t even come to visit. It was a tragedy. They went down in droves. The morgue was packed. But it was a gold rush for people in my business! To be honest, I don’t like to see that kind of thing happening. Still, you take what you get, right? I went on a sweet vacation afterwards and I still have a bundle set away.
“Anyhow, a few weeks after the heat wave, people started seeing old folks out walking on the beach in the morning — the same ones who’d died! Guess they wanted to keep up the old routine, even after they’d ‘passed away’ — to use the polite expression. I saw it myself when I got back. Drove into town late on a Sunday and spotted an old couple strolling through the dunes. Said to myself: ‘Damn it, I buried those two the other week! What in hells are they doing up and about?’ Looks unprofessional, y’know?
“Anyways, after that summer, things only got worse. It was like people were coming to Tello just to die. Newcomers would move in and a few months later — bam! — they’d kick it. Some of it was grisly stuff: suicides, drownings, murders, but most of it was fairly innocent. Lots of deaths from old age. Some freakish stuff too. Several entire families suffocated in their apartments because of gas leaks. Total accidents. I had three different people choke to death on peach pits in the same week! Can you imagine the chances of that happening?”
He shook his head in amazement, then continued: “Problem was that folks would stick around afterwards. You’d see them in the supermarkets, the convenience stores, the bars, even the banks! They were just going about their daily routines, like nothing had happened. Harmless mostly. You could always tell which folks were ghosts because they’d ignore you. Except for the talkers. The talkers were the worst. Even I can’t tell when I’ve got a talker on my hands.”
I immediately thought of the goofy boy I’d met earlier. But I didn’t say anything: I was still processing what the man was telling me. It would’ve been hard to believe if I hadn’t experienced the strange behaviour of the barbecuers.
“Of course, I can’t move away,” the hearse driver continued. “Business is too good. Even though Tello’s half-empty these days, I still make more than I would somewhere else. And locals seem to be safe from the freaky stuff, so I’m not worried for myself. It’s only the new arrivals that get the curse but—like I said—it’s almost as if they’re coming here to die on purpose. So maybe there’s no curse. I don’t know.”
He saw my nervous look and hastened to reassure me. “Oh, I don’t think you need to worry about it. You’re not moving here, just passing through.”
This was not entirely comforting. I felt my desire to leave Tello increasing by the second. I hoped this stranger could help me.
“There was a boy…” I caught myself. “A ghost, who I spoke with earlier. He must’ve been a talker. He was the one who brought me to you. He said something about a train coming through the outskirts of town, sometime in the early morning. He said someone would be able to take me to the stop. Was he talking about you? I’m not worried about this curse, but I have work tomorrow. I don’t want to be get in trouble.”
“Hmm, I don’t know anything about a train like that.”
When my face fell, he added: “Hey, feel like a drink instead? There’s a little place I stop at whenever I finish a job. Maybe someone there will know about your train. Worst case scenario, it’s a way to pass the night.”
I nodded reluctantly. I did feel like a drink.
“Best part is: most of the regulars are alive,” the man added, and laughed.
We parked the hearse about two blocks away from the bar. Outside, a neon light buzzed quietly in a blacked-out window. The sign advertised a generic beer brand. The shabby door beside it bore only an empty plaque where a name should’ve been.
Inside, there were no tables, only a counter and a row of seats The walls were decorated with musical memorabilia: faded pictures, concert posters, and dog-eared ticket stubs from a dozen cities—the evidence of a long career. In all the photos, I noticed the same young woman, smiling beatifically out of the frame. In some shots, she was singing: buttoned into a sequinned dress, head thrust back and microphone to her lips.
Behind the bar was the same woman from the photographs, several decades older — like she’d jumped straight out of the past. She was pouring two tumblers full of a pale liqueur when we entered. Her face looked more lined than in the pictures, but she had that same beatific look about her, that same round face. She was nodding her head gently to tango music playing on the stereo. I half-expected her to burst into song.
The place was mostly empty. There were only two other customers inside: an older man and a middle-aged woman. The old man was seated at the end of the bar, next to a door marked ‘Toilets’. The woman was positioned one seat away, a vacant spot open between them.
Above that empty stool, an ashtray lay on the bar top. A single cigarette butt was crushed against its porcelain surface.
As the entrance swung shut behind us, the hearse driver inclined his head towards the couple and took a seat in the middle of the row. I sat next to him, closer to the door.
“How’s business?” the lady of the house asked the driver, passing the drinks to the couple at the end.
“Never been better!” My companion spread his hands expansively, rolling up his sleeves and digging in. “I just buried the elder Mr. Lawrence, poor soul. Knew he wasn’t long for this world. It was a private affair for his children, but who can blame them, given their financial situation. They’re looking to sell the house, of course.”
“That’s an excellent piece of property,” the woman commented.
“Absolutely,” the driver agreed. “It’s a very convenient location. If you know anyone who’s in the market I can easily put them in touch with the younger Mr. Lawrence. It would probably be a relief for him to get rid of the place. Bad memories and whatnot.”
“Of course,” the proprietress replied. “I’ll be sure to mention it.”
She turned towards me politely.
“Are you a relative?”
The hearse driver threw up his hands, as if he’d just remembered. “How rude of me! This is a fellow I met earlier, by the cemetery. Ran afoul of the barbecuers. He’s gotten stuck here overnight. Says he’s looking for a drink and a train he can catch on the outskirts of town…”
The woman raised her eyebrows. “I don’t know anything about a train, but I can help you with that drink. What’s your poison?”
I must’ve given a look in response, but she only shrugged and laughed it off.
“We like our little jokes.”
The hearse driver ordered a whiskey-cola in a highball glass and I asked for a draught beer, setting aside my misgivings. The proprietress poured me off a pint, with just the right amount of foam. Sipping it and falling back into easy conversation with the driver, I felt strangely comfortable in the peculiar bar.
“My new friend didn’t know about Tello’s ghosts,” announced the driver. He’d turned slightly to include the silent couple in the conversation. The younger woman nodded respectfully, but the old man remained impassive.
“Can you believe it?” My companion turned back to the proprietress, in search of a reaction. “I thought everyone knew about Tello! I had to tell him the whole story.”
“I expect you got it all wrong too,” the round-faced woman replied, teasing. She turned to me. “Don’t let this cowboy give you the wrong impression. He thinks this place is the final frontier: the last boundary between our world and the next. He’s a romantic.”
The hearse driver laughed, but he did not contradict the proprietress. He began digging in his pockets for a pack of cigarettes.
“I’ll tell it to you straight,” the round-faced woman told me. “There’s nothing complicated or mysterious about Tello. Tello is just a town where the dead outnumber the living. In most places, there are so many people going about their lives that you don’t notice the dead. They’re still there, but they stay out of the way. They’re intimidated by us. In Tello, it’s the opposite. The dead are the majority here and they’re able to make their presence felt. Their way of life sets the tone for the rest of us. It’s not so strange when you think about it. The same thing could’ve happened anywhere. It just happened to be Tello.”
“You have no sense of imagination,” my companion protested, in indignation. He’d tucked a cigarette into the corner of his mouth. “How can you take such a banal view of things?”
“I just take things as they come,” the proprietress retorted. “I don’t see anything special about the situation. Our town may be different, but every person is still free to make their own choices. I have my music, my bar, and my memories. What more do I need, cowboy?”
“I see your point,” the hearse driver allowed. “But what about an appreciation for the great beyond? I don’t know—what do you think, old man?” He turned toward the couple at the end of the bar.
The old fellow seemed surprised to be addressed. He turned his tumbler of liqueur slowly in his hand and cast his gaze downwards.
“Ain’t much to it, I reckon,” he said. “Nothing worth losing sleep over.”
His voice was so quiet, I could barely hear it over the music.
I noticed that the woman had placed her hand gently on the man’s knee as he spoke, as if to comfort him. But there was something oddly domineering about the gesture; something about the way he fell silent when her palm made contact with his thigh. I noticed she was smoking too: a cigarette pinned elegantly between her fingers. She turned towards us, a curiously blank look in her eyes. When she spoke, her voice was whispery like the leaves in the cemetery. She appeared not to address anyone directly, merely the air inside the bar.
“I think there’s something powerful about this place,” she said carefully. “Tello is a special town. Its uniqueness cannot be explained. The lingering of the dead defies rational comprehension. We can only attempt to grasp it; express the gravitas of these spectres, the awareness of mortality they give us. This is what I do with my paintings.”
She turned to look back at the old man. I saw her eyes blaze with a sudden intensity, her nails dig into the fragile flesh of his thigh. It was such an unexpected transformation, I thought I’d imagined it. Within a second, her composure had returned.
My companion nodded sagaciously at the woman’s words. But when he turned back to me, he mouthed a word under his breath. Pervert. I wasn’t sure what he meant. I wanted to hear the woman speak again. Her words had been both mesmerizing and disturbing; however, she and the old man had resumed their silence. They seemed unwilling to talk anymore.
The round-faced woman continued to beam at all of us. She passed me a bowl of salty snacks and cleared my empty glass of beer. Finishing his highball, the hearse driver rose to his feet.
“Well, I’ve got to get back to the wife,” he told me. “This old girl can point you in the direction of the train station, when you feel like leaving.”
“You’re not staying to keep him company?” the proprietress interjected.
“Sorry,” the driver replied, “the wife and I are trying for a kid. No luck yet, but I’m feeling good about tonight!”
He gave me a rakish grin.
“Take care, my friend. I have no doubt the lady of the house will keep you enthralled until the early hours of morning. Ask for stories of her life under the glittering lights! Maybe you’ll even be able to talk her into playing some old demos. They’re a treat—folks don’t make music like that anymore!”
He was already moving towards the door as he spoke, tugging his jacket into place as he slipped out into the night.
“He really is too much, sometimes,” the round-faced woman confided, inclining her head towards the swinging door.
In the relative silence left by the driver’s departure, I realized I needed the facilities. Passing the couple, I noticed the old man had sunk into a half-stupor against the wall. The muscles in his face were hanging slack. The woman was watching him with heavy-lidded eyes, insensitive to my passing. I shuddered.
When I got back to my seat, there was a new figure at the bar: a woman in a familiar, fluorescent jersey. I started when I saw the helmet on the counter.
“There he is!” The woman said as I re-appeared. “You should’ve seen yourself earlier—like you thought I was some demonic apparition.”
“You’re the cyclist! What are you doing here?”
The woman chortled to herself. “I’m a regular here! When I saw you heading up that hill, I wondered if you’d run into the funeral party. Newcomer to Tello, I hear?”
“That’s right,” I admitted.
“So what brings you into town?” The woman asked, as I sat down beside her. She already had her own beer.
“I feel asleep on the train,” I explained, for the third time that night. Then added: “I never fall asleep, usually.”
“Perhaps the ghosts were calling to you,” the cyclist suggested.
“I hope not.”
This only made her laugh.
“I’m just kidding,” she told me. “That would be very forward, and Tello’s quite a conservative place when it comes to ghostly etiquette.”
This time, I laughed.
“What’s your name?” she asked, tipping her pint back.
It was the first time someone had bothered to ask all evening.
“It’s Will,” I replied. “What’s yours?”
We shook. Karen swivelled in her seat and leaned towards me conspiratorially. “Will, I hear you are looking for a train.”
“Well, you’re in luck,” Karen informed me. “I happen to know where the train in question stops.”
“You do? Can you take me there?”
“Sure, sure,” Karen indicated her glass. “Just let me finish this.”
I didn’t know what else to say. By that point, I’d given up on finding someone to take me to the train, despite what the kid had promised.
“Why are you in such a hurry to leave?” Karen asked me as she drank. The proprietress had returned to her cleaning, leaving us to talk in private, and the couple were too far away to hear.
“I have work tomorrow,” I explained. “I don’t want to be late.”
“You’re not scared of the ghosts?”
“A little,” I replied. “But I’m more scared of becoming a ghost. The hearse driver was telling me stories earlier.”
“Ah, I wouldn’t worry about the curse,” Karen told me. “That old cowboy always exaggerates the problem. Besides, I’ve been here for two years. I’m not dead yet. The curse is just a theory. The truth is probably much more complicated. In my opinion, people only end up dead if they’re looking for death.”
She glanced towards me.
“You’re not looking for death, are you? ‘Cus I kinda like you and it would be a damn shame to see you go like that.”
“I don’t think so…” I replied, off-put by her forwardness.
“Good,” Karen turned back to her beer.
Not wanting to disturb her, I cast my gaze around the bar one last time. The round-faced woman was humming to the music, re-arranging bottles behind counter. She gave me a friendly smile that wrinkled the crow’s feet at the corners of her eyes.
As soon as Karen finished her beer, she set the glass down with a heavy thud.
“Alright, let’s go,” she told me.
I hurried to pay my bill; I didn’t want to lose my guide. Out on the street, Karen unlocked her bike. She beckoned me after her and led the way into the empty streets of Tello. It was easy to keep pace with her in the darkness. I simply followed the ticking sounds of the bike’s gears.
“What do you think about that couple?” I asked, as soon as we were out of sight of the bar.
“Ah yes, the painter and her corpse,” Karen vouched. “Couple of weirdos.”
“You know them?
“Of course. We all know each other in Tello.”
“Is he dead then?”
“More like standing on the threshold. Every time I see them touching, the first word that jumps to mind is ‘necrophilia’. He’s practically a zombie.”
“There must be a story there,” I speculated.
“Who knows?” Karen returned. “I’ve only heard the same things as everyone else. They live in a flat together, near the station. He’s a retiree who’s been here for over a decade. She’s a local. He potters around and she paints—although no one seems to have seen her work. They’re very affectionate in public, so they must fuck like teenagers in private. But I don’t know anything else about them.”
“I’m not sure I want to know,” I murmured.
“Me neither,” Karen said. “They weren’t always so obvious, you know? It’s nauseating, watching them go at it. Once, she told me the aura of death makes it more intimate.”
“Really?” I couldn’t help chuckling. Karen had peeled back Tello’s macabre façade to reveal its true absurdity.
“I said ‘go tell it to a shrink,’” Karen continued. “She didn’t like that. I think she was trying to befriend me. Most folks in town steer clear of them, but it hasn’t deterred them from imposing displays of affection on us. I just can’t believe the old bone-bag can actually get it up. That’s the real miracle here.”
“After you almost ran me over earlier,” I told Karen, changing the topic. “I saw the barbecuing ghosts, in the cemetery.”
“You did, did you?” Karen returned. “I suppose that’s where the cowboy rescued you.”
“Yes, it is,” I replied
I expected her to add something, but she had no more to say. I desperately wanted to ask her about my encounter with the goofy-looking boy. Had he been a talker? How did Karen know about the train? Did she have some connection to him? But I felt rude pressing her with more questions, so soon after our initial meeting.
Along a suburban lane, we reached a gate. Karen slipped through first, hoisting her bike over her shoulder. I followed into the open space beyond, waited as she put it into the shed. A path of paving slabs led to her front door, backlit by panes of glazed glass.
Karen led me inside. I found myself in a welcoming front hall. Ahead, a broad staircase led to the upper floors. Karen threw her biking gear onto the floor and told me to make myself at home.
I padded cautiously into the living room, as she disappeared upstairs to change. A cream-coloured sofas sat next to a coffee table covered in home improvement catalogues, biking magazines, and photo albums. The room was decorated in warm shades. Tasteful pieces of furniture filled in its empty corners. One side was dominated by a bookshelf. In the room’s far corner, an old record player sat atop several racks of vinyl discs.
But I found myself transfixed. Seconds after entering the room, I noticed a photograph mounted on the mantle. It was the only picture with people in it. A younger-looking Karen stared out at me, sitting next to someone I recognized instantaneously: the goofy-looking kid from the barbecue. Behind them, an older couple had their arms around each other.
It was undeniably a family photo.
“So that’s how you found out about the train.”
Karen had returned. She was watching me, her eyes leaving no possibility of a question.
“Who is that?” I asked, pointing to the boy.
“It’s my brother, Neil,” she told me. “He’s dead. Those are our parents. They’re dead too. They died in a plane crash, about four years ago.”
“I was hoping we wouldn’t have to do this,” Karen replied. “Come on, I need another beer. This might take a while.”
We went into a spotless kitchen. Karen reached into the fridge and grabbed two cans. She cracked them over the sink, without spilling a drop, then plopped herself onto the countertop. I took a beer and sat next to her. Our legs were just touching.
“It all started with our parents dying in a plane crash,” Karen told me. “It was a freak accident during take-off. One of the engines failed mid-ascent. Plane fell straight back to the ground. Have you ever heard of those couples who travel on separate flights, so their kids will still have a parent if there’s an accident? I always thought those kinds of people were asking for death. It’s such a morbid precaution.
“Our parents weren’t like that. They loved to travel. They loved meeting new people, loved new experiences. They lived their lives to the fullest. When we were younger, Neil and I would travel with them. We didn’t like it. We didn’t understand what was so great about travelling. As we got older, our parents respected that and let us stay home.
“I’d already moved away when they died, but Neil was still finishing high school. I had my life fairly together. I was studying at university, figuring out what I wanted to do with my life… I thought I would have time to sort things out for myself. But after the plane crash, everything just fell apart. Neil and I discovered our parents had been in debt for years, from all their traveling. We had to sell the family home to pay it off.
“I dropped out of university to live with Neil. We didn’t have any extended family, so I became his legal guardian. There was no one else. My mother had been an only child and her parents were dead. My dad was estranged from his siblings. We didn’t even know how to contact them. Neil needed a lot of emotional support too, he was having difficulty coping with what had happened. I wanted to put him in therapy, but we didn’t have the money. I didn’t know what to do. We needed somewhere to live, so I went looking for a job and found one at the post office in Tello. I heard real estate was cheap here, so we moved into a little apartment near the station.”
Karen stopped and took a long drink from her beer. I did the same.
“I put Neil into high school again, but he dropped out. When I went to work, he’d just sit around at home. I desperately wanted to stay with him, but we needed money. I had no choice. Every weekend, we’d ride our bikes to the park or the beach. But it didn’t help. His condition remained the same. I always hoped it would improve with time. My sole desire was to support him, but I didn’t want to go into debt like our parents. I had to leave him alone most of the time.
“Then one morning, a couple of weeks before his 18th birthday, I went into Neil’s room to get him up before work. But he didn’t wake up. I shook him and shook him, but he just lay there. Finally, I tried that trick where you peel back a person’s eyelids. Normally their eyeballs will roll back into their sockets. But when I did this to Neil, his eyes just stayed open, staring back at me. That’s when I knew he was dead. I think I woke the entire building with my screaming. I don’t remember what happened afterwards.
“The autopsy revealed nothing. His body had expired, just like an old person’s. No one could explain it. So many strange things were happening in Tello, no one even paid much attention to it.” Karen paused to take another long swig. She’d almost finished her beer.
“I didn’t see his ghost for a couple of weeks,” she told me. “Then one day, I was on my midday break. There was a kid’s playground, halfway between the post office and my apartment. I wandered over to eat my lunch and there was Neil, playing on the swing set. He’d been coming there every day while I was gone. As a ghost, he naturally returned to the spot. When I saw him, I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t look away and I couldn’t approach him, so I just watched for a while. Neil was swinging as high as he could, grinning this big grin. Even though there was no one with him, he looked so happy. Eventually he spotted me and waved, but he didn’t stop swinging. I walked away and never went back to that playground again. I was just glad he was happy.
“A few months later, I sold the apartment. Without Neil to support, I was confident enough to take out a loan on this house. Over the years, I’ve made it feel like home. I paid off the mortgage last fall. I renovated the kitchen and landscaped the garden. I built a shed to store my bike. I have a good life now. I have hobbies. I finally finished my degree, via a long-distance program. I’ve been promoted to manager of the post office. I could get a better job somewhere else, but I can’t bring myself to leave Tello.”
Karen finished speaking and drank again. Her empty can of beer remained clutched between slack fingers. She stared at the impeccably clean appliances: stove, fridge, sink. Her eyes were empty.
“He told me to look for you, I think,” I told her. “He said that he knew someone who could take me to the train. I’m sure he meant you.”
Karen nodded dully. “He talks to people sometimes, usually new arrivals to town like you. I’ve had people end up on my doorstep before, and it’s always because Neil has sent them here. Sometimes I wish he wouldn’t do it. I know he’s trying to reach out, but I can’t bring myself to talk to him. The cowboy thinks Neil is still attached to this world. He thinks that’s why he pays attention to the living—why he’s a ‘talker’. He cares about me too much to cross over entirely. As long as I remain in Tello, he’ll be stuck on the border.”
“Why won’t you talk to him?” I asked.
“I don’t know. It’s not a situation I want to resolve, I guess. Once he’s gone, I’ll have no one. I’ll be alone. Even though I never talk to him, somehow knowing he’s around makes me feel better.”
“Don’t you have any friends from university? Old roommates?” I pressed.
“I cut everyone out of my life when my parents died,” Karen explained. “None of them understood what I was going through with Neil. They kept telling me to finish university, to get social services to look after him. But I couldn’t abandon my only family.”
I didn’t know what else to say. I realized each of my questions was causing her to sink deeper into sadness.
We went into the living room and I began to tell Karen the story of how I’d come to Tello. She put on an old jazz record. We continued to talk about inane, trivial things. When our beers were finished, Karen got more from the fridge. Cans accumulated on the coffee table. We remained like this for a while, until I absentmindedly glanced at my watch.
“What time did you say the train came?”
“2:30. What time is it now?”
“It’s already ten past!”
“Ten past?” Karen leapt to her feet. “It takes at least fifteen minutes to get there! We’d better leave now.”
“I could stay,” I suggested lazily. I was pretty drunk and, meanwhile, Karen had begun to sit closer to me as the night progressed. “I don’t want to put you out.”
“Nonsense, we need to get you to work.” She was all businesses again. “I’ll get my bike from the shed.”
Since I was the heaviest, Karen sat on the handlebars while I pedalled. We must’ve made a funny sight, but there was no one to see us. The streets of Tello were deserted, as usual. We rode straight through stop signs and red lights, until we were biking along a narrow country lane.
Leaning close behind Karen, I could smell her as the wind whipped past us. I wanted to press my body closer to hers, but I didn’t want to knock her off either. So I just kept pedalling. The only sounds were the cicadas, all around us. Eventually we reached the base of a steep hill. Karen jumped off and I stopped. I looked down at my watch. It read 2:23.
“The train tracks pass by on the other side,” Karen told me. “You can’t bike up it with me on the handlebars. We’ll have to walk.”
We took the hill at a slight jog, me pushing the bike. When we reached the top, I glanced back for a second and saw the city of Tello spread out behind us in the darkness: the neon signs blinking from the tops of apartment buildings, the occasional streetlights peering over the rooftops and, beyond, the broad swathe of darkness where the ocean began.
“There’s the stop.”
Karen indicated a squat, concrete platform at the base of the hill. The lane ran directly to it. I glided noiselessly down on her bicycle, alighting at the bottom. She ran past me and turned to look down the tracks. They were slightly overgrown on the verges.
“No train yet,” she called back to me.
As we stood side-by-side on the platform, waiting for the train to arrive, I felt the nagging sensation that there was something I should say; the moment felt important. Karen kept looking down the tracks. I checked my watch to avoid the silence. The moon was bright overhead, glinting off the rails. Everything around the dilapidated platform was still. It felt like an incredibly strange place for a train to stop.
With a minute left before 2:30, I turned to Karen and asked the question in my heart.
“Why don’t you leave Tello with me?” I asked her. “I’m sure that once you leave, you’ll see what you’ve been missing. There are other people to meet and other places to explore. You don’t owe this town anything. You don’t owe Neil anything. You don’t even have to leave forever—just come with me for a day! I’ll call in to work and we’ll do something together. We’ll go to a theme park!”
Karen looked at me with a mixture of amusement and sadness. “That’s a nice offer, Will, but I barely know you. Besides, I thought work was the whole reason for catching the train? Or is there another reason?”
I refrained from checking my watch again. It would only underline my acute awareness of time slipping away from me. I answered without dissemblance.
“I don’t like this place,” I told Karen. “When I got here, I was intrigued because Tello felt different, even though it was empty. It felt welcoming somehow. Even after I found out about the ghosts, part of me wanted to stay longer. People are friendly here, willing to open up to you. It’s a nice place.
“But I don’t like what happened at the barbecue. When the ghosts ignored me, it made me feel like I wasn’t real. Like they were the real ones. The hearse driver and the lady at the bar, the weird couple, even you–you’re all insulated from their influence by your idiosyncrasies. They make you real. But I have nothing like that. Returning to my job is the only thing that makes me feel like a real person. That’s why I need to leave.”
“Everyone wants to feel like a real person,” Karen replied. There was nothing judgemental or condescending about the way she said it, but I knew she wasn’t going to come with me.
We waited in silence as two spots of lights grew in the distance. The train never announced itself, just came gliding out of the night to stop alongside the platform. It hunkered slowly to a stop, like a beast of metal and double-plated glass, coughing faintly as its rotations were arrested. An automatic door popped open. I looked up and down the length of the train. This solitary portal was the only fissure in its impenetrable body. I climbed aboard reluctantly.
On the last step, I turned to look back at Karen. She was tiny next to the bulk of the train. Behind her, the bicycle lay in the dirt of the lane.
“I guess this is goodbye,” I said awkwardly.
“I guess so,” she returned. I thought she might laugh at my odd formality. “It’s been nice to meet you—whether you’re a real person or not! If you want to visit again, you’ll always be welcome.”
“Maybe,” I replied. I couldn’t help smiling at the thought.
The whistle sounded and I stepped back as the door slid shut. Karen was lost to sight, gone as abruptly as she’d appeared. Turning, I was startled to recognize the same greasy-haired employee from earlier in the day. He was holding out a ticket for me.
“How was your stay in the town of ghosts?” he asked me.
“You knew all along?”
“Of course. Tello has a reputation in these parts. You didn’t know?”
“I didn’t and it wasn’t so bad,” I returned. “I met some interesting people.”
“What?” I asked angrily.
“Well, no one lives in Tello,” he told me. “It’s totally deserted.”
Thanks for reading all the way to the end! I hope you enjoyed the story. If it gave you something to think about or if you just enjoyed it, please, please, please leave a comment and let me know!