There are a variety of ways in which people respond to being dead. Some take the news well and start new lives in the world of Shadow, happily continuing on as ghosts for years or even centuries. But others try to deny their deaths, attempt to act as though it never happened and they're still alive. The souls in this latter group will usually pick one place of importance and stay there doing whatever is logical in the spot, like the grandfather who continues to sit in his recliner napping all day or the frycook who keeps trying to flip burgers.
What every spirit who remains in Shadow has in common is that they possess a purpose for remaining. The guy sleeping in his chair? He's probably worried about his widow or their grandkids. The frycook? He's worried about that coworker he was crushing on, or maybe he wants revenge on the manager who made him work until closing and is the reason he crossed the street at 11:30 instead of 8:30, which is how he came to be killed by a drunk driver.
Mara Brisbane remained living-adjacent rather than moving on to the true afterlife because of one thing: a claw machine. Well, a claw machine and a mentaly unstable young man with a gun.
On the afternoon of June twelfth, 1987, a gunman entered the Midtown Mall Arcade. It was years before Americans would start thinking of mass public shootings as normal events, but despite the fact that he injured five people and killed one in an age where this didn't happen several times a week, the news was too busy talking about Ronald Regan telling Mikhail Gorbachev, "Tear down this wall!" as though the Soviet Premier might start taking direction from the President of the United States to fully cover it.
Mara knew her murderer from school, where they'd shared a trigonometry class. She wasn't the reason he was in a homicidal rage, though. That honor went to Brittany Smalls, who had not only turned him down for prom but made certain everyone knew how ludicrous it was that he'd thought he stood a chance of her going with him. Brittany frequented the arcade regularly, but wasn't there that day. Even in the realm of people willing to commit murder, most people would go home and come back later if the object oftheir plan wasn't there. Not this guy. In the absence of the brunette he wanted to shoot, he shot at every brunette he could spot in the time between drawing his weapon and being taken down by off-duty cop who had been ordering cookies nextdoor when he heard gunshots.
It would have upset Mara to be murdered no matter what, but what really upset her about the whole thing was that she was absolutely certain she was a second away from finally managing to snag the plush wolf in the claw machine bin.
The wolf was important. It was for her kid sister, who needed it to comfort her as she had surgery scheduled the next week. Annie loved wolves. And Mara loved Annie.
That was over thirty years ago and Mara is still standing in front of the claw machine.
Over the years, she's developed the energy to work the machine's controls. That's how everyone knows the thing is haunted. She only uses it when the arcade is closed, but when she wins things, she leaves them where they fall. There hasn't been a wolf in there for years, you see. And she isn't interested in anything else.
I've pieced all this together over the last few weeks, through a series of conversations with Mara. It's only been a few months since I moved to this town and when my parents brought me into the arcade gushing about how they loved places like this "back in the day" I instantly spotted the teenaged girl in a short denim skirt, jean jacket, and high top sneakers. If I didn't have so much experience with ghosts, I would have thought she was being retro, but she's far from the first spirit I've come across. When I realized no one else seemed to see her, I was confident she was dead.
A couple named Jonesevich own the place and roll their eyes at the assertions of the place being haunted. Their daughter, Camille, though… She believes. And she helped me arrange for there to be a wolf in the claw machine. She also let me in after hours, which is why we're both walking up behind Mara as she concentrates on the machine.
"She's there, isn't she?" Camille whispers. She's shorter than I am, but her boobs are bigger and she's all-round prettier than I could ever hope to be. Her heart-shaped face is filled with awe and hope as it shines up at me from under a teal fedora, and her hands are grasped in front of her chest like she's about to break into prayer.
"Yes," I confirm. "But sush, she's concentrating."
Even though she knows Mara is there, Camille lets out a little gasp as the claw in the machine starts to move. It lowers, grabs a toy, and moves to drop the prize in the shoot to the collection bin.
Mara breathes out. "Okay. I should be able to get the wolf now. Can you get that thing out of the way?"
"Sure." I move over to where I can bend and retrieve what turns out to be a really cute blue dragon. Personally, I'd rather have a dragon than a wolf, but I don't say anything.
Aware that Mara doesn't care about the dragon's fate, I take it to Camille. "She says to give you this thanks for all you've done."
"Oh!" Camille grabs the plushie and hugs it tightly. I feel a twinge of envy for the dragon. Camille is my age, my type, and openly bisexual judging by the blue, purple, and pink heart pin attached to her hat. I'm not silly enough to think that means I stand a chance with her, though.
We wait as Mara takes a few tries to grab the wolf. When we first met, I asked her how she could operate the arcade machines without using tokens. She'd shrugged and said that when she came to after being shot, they just worked for her without her knowing why. Her theory is that her energy is somehow tricking them. I don't have any better explanation.
Finally, the wolf drops into the prize box and Mara takes it out with a whoop. She doesn't manage to hold it long; manipulating our world takes a lot of energy and she would already have been tired from using the machine controls.
I pick the wolf up off the floor. It is pretty adorable, although I stand by my assertion that the dragon was the better prize.
"Did she move on?" Camille whispers.
"No. She's still here."
Mara moves around, looking at as much of herself as possible. "Yeah, I kind of thought something would change."
"Maybe you need your sister to get the wolf," I say. Camille and I brought a box and we sit on the floor to put the wolf in it and seal it up. Annie's address, which I paid a service to get and hope is right, is already written on the shipping label and ready to go out first thing in the morning.
"Have you seen my sister?" Mara asks, standing over us.
"Not in person," I admit. "I found her Instagram account, though."
I open my Instagram app and put in Annie's username. A page full of pictures, mostly of two little girls and a Siberian Husky, pops up and stand to show it to Mara. "See? She's doing well. Those are your nieces. She never says their names, but their initials are MM and and SA."
"Mara Marie," Mara whispers. "My middle name is Marie. She named her daughter after me?"
I shrug. "Maybe. Probably? I thought about asking, but was afraid I'd sound creepy."
"And SA would be Sarah Anne. That was our grandmother's name, the one Annie was named for." Mara's eyes continue to focus on the screen. "Where do they live? Is that a beach?"
The picture she's pointing out does seem like a beach. "Her address is in Maine, so, I guess so."
"Maine? That so far away… But she's okay, isn't she? Like really okay?"
"I think so." It's hard to tell how someone is doing from an Instagram account, but she seems to have a nice balance of activities and interests.
Mara smiles. “That’s all I ever wanted. For her to be okay.”
Even as the words fade, Mara’s body starts to take on a transparency. Without further comment, but with a peaceful smile, she shimmers and is gone.
I stare at the spot Mara used to be in. I’ve never actually witnessed anyone moving on from Shadow before. “She left,” I whisper. “I think… I think she’s in heaven now. Or being reincarnated. Or, you know, whatever happens after Shadow.”
“Oh. So she just needed to know her kid sister's alright?” Camille looks where I am, although she never saw Mara in the first place. There’s a mist in her eyes. “That is so sweet.”
“It really is.” I bend over and pick up the box. “Think we should mail this anyway?”
Camille nods. “Absolutely.” She climbs to her feet. “And… Um… There’s something I’ve been wanting to ask, but it didn’t seem like right time before…”
My heart-rate picks up even as I tell myself she’s not about to ask me out. More likely she wants to know if she can learn to see ghosts too or something like that. “Okay. Go for it.”
“I…” She draws a shaky breath. “I was wondering…” Her eyes drop to the floor. “Would you maybe…” She brings her eyes back up, her expression saying it’s hard to look at me as she speaks. “Would you like to go out with me?”
I try not to stare. “Like on a date?”
“Yeah… I mean… You do like girls, right?”
“And I know it’s a stretch to think that maybe you’d like me specifically, but-”
“I do!” I interrupt. “I like you specifically. Very much so. I would totally have kept that dragon otherwise.”
She laughs, relief making her body loosen. “Okay. Good. You pick where. Anywhere that isn’t an arcade.”
I join the laughter. “That’s really limiting, but I’ll think of something.”
With the box tucked under my left arm, I wrap my right hand around Camille’s as we walk out into the deserted mall.
The above image is Arcade by Kelsey Smith. You can find it an other works by the artist at INPRNT.com.
It was offered as a prompt for my Wording Wednesday Project.
If you like ghosts, you might be interested in my novel I'd Rather Not Be Dead.
Drew McKinney never liked living in Pine Bridge, North Carolina, but she liked it a lot better than being dead there. No way does she want to haunt this stupid hick town for the rest of forever. She doesn't want to haunt anywhere if she can help it. The whole dying thing knocked Drew back in time several weeks, so she's got a shot at saving herself from Hell in Appalachia if she can figure out why she died. Unfortunately, not only is she clueless about what killed her but there's a soul-eating fog after her, the ruler of the ghost realm is interfering in her afterlife, and the only living person Drew can turn to for help is Cooper Finnegan, who is hands down her least favorite person on the planet.
Available for Kindle and other digital retailers or in print.