This Is Not a Ghost Story
by V. Medina
In the darkness of her bedroom, after her mother has gone to bed and she’s supposed to have done the same, she tells stories to the ghosts. She would do more for them but they never ask for anything else and she doesn’t know what more to do. They listen, gentle whispers all around her, urging her to continue, begging her for a few more words, just a little more of her time. They crave the stories she has to offer them and even when she is young, she feels the pull of narrative against her bones.
The ghosts are kind in their need, not pushing or screaming but quietly pleading, and she was not raised to deny anyone. She is the quiet kid, the good girl, the sweetheart. She knows her role, and it doesn’t matter what she wants because everyone already knows who she is before she ever gets the chance to show them.
People look at her, see the way she moves, the white cane in her hand, the way she holds books so close to her face. They all think they know her story, even before she says a word.
So, at night she takes advantage of being able to be the storyteller for once, rather than having the story put upon her. The ghosts gather around her bedside and she tells them every tale she knows and many she makes up in the heat of the moment. They don’t care if she’s a good weaver of words or not, all that matters is that someone acknowledges them.
They are so desperate to be seen, to be recognized as anything other than empty air, or as a passing mention. She understands. People don’t see her, either. They see their idea of who she should be, not the reality of who she is.
At school, they teach her how to be the right kind of person. How to be a proper girl, who is polite and doesn’t cause trouble. She sits in class and makes every effort to be agreeable, to ask for help but never demand it, and to always, always smile. She does it all the time, no matter what. She can’t see well enough to be sure when people aren’t watching, can only guess when a face is looking in her general direction.
The ghosts find her when she gets home — she can feel their heavy presence before she even enters her room. They’ve been waiting for her and she’s comforted by it. They want the stories she tells, not the story she’s supposed to be.
She turns music on, pushes the volume all the way up, and counts to fifty. It’s not a ritual but it’s a pattern, a beat in the story of her family. Her mother comes, knocking on the door and not quite snapping at her to lower the music. “You don’t need to go deaf as well as blind,” her mother says.
She ignores her and starts to tell the ghosts the first story of the day.
As she moves unnoticed through high school, she begins to think about being one of the many dead seeking out tales in the darkness, and about stories themselves, and endings and afterlives and epilogues. She starts reading books on writing, about structure and word choice and how to tell a story that compels and stirs things within people.
She doesn’t know who the ghosts were in life, just that, in death they have found her, claimed her as the person they can go to, and she is touched by that.
She thinks about what kinds of stories she would be drawn to if she were a ghost.
Sometimes she thinks she should maybe talk to someone about all this, go to a therapist, a guidance counselor, or someone, anyone who might be willing to listen to her.
Then she remembers that she’s already a story in their minds. They have put a narrative on her and she would have to fight to shatter their stories before they even could listen.
And she is so tired.
Along with the weight of the stories they put on her, and with learning how to be a person, a daughter, a student, and a storyteller, she can feel exhaustion sinking into her very center.
Sometimes, she’ll lie in bed and dream about how people would read the story she’s actually telling, the whole story, not just the fragments they want to see.
She never comes to a conclusion on those nights as to whether it’s a good tale or not but then again, she’s yet to reach the ending.
When she very abruptly loses more sight, so much that she has to exclusively read in digital and audio, she finds herself thinking about plot and character development and how, in her opinion, all of it is utter bullshit.
She gets angry, furious at everything, and she stops trying to be what people expect. For a long time she tried, she did, but what has living other people’s versions of her story ever gotten her?
She doesn’t abandon the ghosts, though.
They didn’t ask for anything but some attention and a story or two to keep them warm at night and just because she’s angry, it doesn’t mean she is uncaring. If anything, she finds more comfort in their presence, knowing they are still there, despite her anger, still hungry for her words.
Rather than pushing them away, she actively embraces them, starts feeling for others outside of her home and, when she finds one, she launches into whatever story comes to mind. It doesn’t matter if other people are around, or if it is inappropriate in some way. She tells her stories and she tells them with bared teeth.
Her mother worries. “Are you all right,” she asks. “Is there anything I can do to help?”
Instead of responding, she glares and walks away. If her mother tries to touch her, she dodges. She is done. She is done with all of it.
Except for the stories. She is pretty sure she’ll never be done with the stories.
Because somehow, they keep pulling her back, keep luring her into the depths of narrative, no matter how hard she tries to pull away.
And if she’s honest with herself, she doesn’t mind. Having something be a throughline, be it ghosts or story or some strange combination of the two, it gives her a sense of stability, of reassurance. She will always have a story to tell and there will always be someone to listen to it.
She survives her teenage years, though just barely. She falls in love with pretty girls and boys who likely think she’s too fucked up to bother looking at. She tells her love stories to the ghosts but, after a while, even she gets bored of them.
She doesn’t accept help anymore. She lets the ghosts guide her, for she’s found that there are ghosts everywhere, but the living don’t get to approach. She bristles if they try, pulling her jacket tighter around her shoulders. Black leather and a glare from mismatched eyes is usually enough to send people backing away.
She talks to the ghosts openly, not giving a damn who sees or what they think. They are friends, helpers and comrades and fellow soldiers in the private war she is fighting against the world.
She doesn’t bother trying college, just moves out when she’s twenty, after saving up enough of her disability income to put down for an apartment and convincing her mother to cosign the lease.
Her mother still doesn’t understand what happened to her little girl.
There are new ghosts in her apartment, a studio, which she chose because it’s easy to maintain. They swarm around her bed, curious and whispering questions. Who is she? Can she really see them? Does she really tell stories like the others say?
She smiles, closing her eyes and starting to talk, offering answers and quiet tales of comfort and promise. She thinks about maybe asking if she could work with them, if she could become a medium or something, but something about the idea makes her annoyed, frustrated that she even considered the thought.
She learns how to move against the city, learns the bus routes and the safe streets to cross. She learns about the ghosts on the sidewalks and the ones that haunt the park that she sometimes goes to, just to get out of her apartment.
The city is filled with the dead and while not all of them are kind, not all of them are quite as needy once they realize she can actually speak to them..
The ghosts are hungry for attention, for a little scrap of acknowledgement and her stories are just enough to lure them into coming again and again, helping her when they can and swarming like a pack of dogs around the person they’ve claimed as their own.
At some point, she starts writing down some of the better tales. They’re still a mess and she’s not sure she has the right mentality to edit them, but she starts noting down when she thinks she’s come up with something interesting.
She shows some of them to a friend she’s met online, who says they really enjoy them. It makes her cheeks flush and a smile spread across her face. She likes this friend a lot, likes the way they think, and how they treat her like a person instead of a cliché. She’s never met them in person but she is sure the two of them will get along if they ever do.
They offer to clean up some of the stories they really like, saying that maybe she could try putting them up somewhere, or maybe even submitting them for publication in a magazine.
She shakes her head, even though the conversation is happening over text and her friend can’t see. Still, the thought pulls at her for days afterward. There’s no harm in doing it, she reminds herself as she’s preparing dinner. It could be fun.
The idea of rejection doesn’t scare her, and neither does the idea of someone stealing her words. While plagiarism would be frustrating, the idea of someone finding comfort in the stories, someone living, is enough to make her finally agree.
That night, she lies in bed, getting a giggle out of telling the ghosts that they’re all going to be on the internet.
The stories get a framing device, because she’s always liked such things and it would feel wrong to leave the ghosts out.
In the story around the stories, two kids hang out by a river. One has the habit of smoking cigarettes and the other usually is fiddling with something, a bit of grass, a twig, a pencil. One of those kids is also dead.
The two of them trade stories back and forth, telling each other secrets and wishes and fears wrapped up in fiction. She posts two stories every month, one from the living kid and one from the dead one.
It feels right to do it that way, to make sure there is at least a little bit of a ghost story involved. She owes so much to the dead.
The stories don’t get astoundingly popular or anything, but they bring in a little money here and there and she gets up enough courage to start doing audio versions with her friend. They have fun, enjoying the process of creating together.
Eventually, she tells her mother she’s been writing, discusses the idea of story and how it’s been something she has loved for years.
Her mother smiles over coffee. “You look happier than I’ve seen you in a long time. I’m glad you’ve found something you love.”
On her way home, she feels her jaw unclench and the tension in her shoulders relax.
Somewhere in all this, she realizes something.
The stories are different now; the narrative has changed. She has mellowed, though she still has sharp edges. Her mother stops asking where here little girl has gone and starts talking more about what a good adult she has become. She has shifted from seeing herself as small and angry and trapped. She feels comfortable and content with where she is.
When she looks back on the ups and downs of her life, it almost makes her laugh. She was trying so hard to not be one kind of story, she found herself turning into a different one without stopping to consider if that was what she really wanted. She has been haunted her entire life, by ghosts, by expectations, by stories that lived in her own mind, unaware of the idea that she might be able to use all of that to her advantage. She was so busy reacting that she forgot about taking control and being a driving force.
Now she tells stories, not just to the ghosts at her bedside, but to the world, and it’s not a trap, not an outline she is forced to follow.
Because now she understands how characters drive story.
About the Author
V. Medina is a non-binary, queer, biracial, disabled author currently residing in Tennessee. They are often found writing about dead things, sentient things that should not be sentient, and creatures not of this world. They are also one of those people who can’t pick between cats and dogs, drinks both tea and coffee, and is the sort of person who wants to do everything at once, even if they only accomplish a little at a time.
They are often fond of calling themself a cat of many hats. Speaking of cats, they have two of them and adore both of those fuzzy, ridiculous creatures.
About the Narrator
Julia Rios is a queer, Latinx writer, editor, podcaster, and narrator whose fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Lightspeed, and Goblin Fruit, among other places. Currently a Hugo Finalist in three categories, Julia won the Hugo award in 2017 and 2018 as Poetry and Reprint editor for Uncanny Magazine, as well as being a previous Hugo Finalist as a Senior Fiction Editor for Strange Horizons.
Julia is a co-host of The Skiffy and Fanty Show, a general SF discussion podcast, and an Escape Artists Storyteller, having narrated for all four podcasts.
About the Artist
Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati. When she isn’t prepping art for Cast of Wonders, designing pins for pin-y.com, or yelling about TV into a mic for Bald Move, she dabbles in a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. Like any good bisexual, she has a lot of jackets. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.