Two, One, Zero
by Shenan Prestwich
You fell in love with a ghost. That was your first mistake; your second mistake was falling in love with the ghost of a speed-addicted serial killer.
You didn’t mean to—I mean, do you ever?—you’d seen newspaper headlines reporting the reopening of investigations against him, post-mortem. They were as grisly as you’d expect. You did it mostly, at first, to stop his dancing around, his taunting and haunting of you constantly, at home, at work, at the store, when buying lottery tickets or candy, those amphetamine-addled eyes, the floating 8-balls that followed you everywhere. A hand on his shoulder, an elbow crook in his seemed to quell his incessant speed-freakery, the constant angry trampolining of his being, so you thought, why not? Why not bring a little kindness to this ghost, and get a little peace in the process? All fine motives, but then it snowballed, or speedballed: the touches became dances, the dances became embraces, they became long talks with his arms around your spine and your grip on him shocking corporeality into his form as nothing had in life. He told you how today’s one becomes tomorrow’s two, so he has to stick to zero, hunger, absence; you sat spellbound by the sunken sockets and wild, sandy, beach-grass hair that once made you want to flee the room.
Then one day he sits you down on his lap on a sofa with dime-sized burns and has that old look in his eyes, the one from before you, and starts furiously breaking pens in half with one hand, biting his own teeth while he talks: it’s all doomed, you’re not a ghost, you’ll grow old and he’ll stay the same and you’ll grow apart, until you die, and then maybe, maybe you’ll become a ghost but maybe not, maybe your soul will be peaceful without him and even if you do, who knows what ghost of yourself you’ll come back as, will it be one that loves him? Will it be one in love with someone else, or with the free breathing of solitude, or one with skinned 12-year-old knees, too young to know him? You stroke his rapidly shifting face, wrinkling in and out of creases like wadded newspaper, try to light his cigarette, try to shut the window, try to reassure him that you can love more than one, that today’s one sometimes isn’t tomorrow’s one but maybe you can love two, or three, or all of them, that all isn’t lost with the loss of one, and when you ask if he thinks that’s true he stares straight ahead, catatonic, doesn’t hear your question, only himself. And then he disappears. Into the wall. Into thin air. The empty space of him leaves a dread-filled question mark.
But what can you do?
Life goes on, until it doesn’t, so you go to the party, talk to the British guy and your pregnant friend Colleen, nibble a few pretzels, look over your shoulder waiting for him to materialize, finger your trachea expecting to find the cool of a knife there instead of warm flesh, because that’s what you are, and that’s the problem: he doesn’t want you to stroke the hot cheek of his hunger, he wants you to join it; he wants you to dance ghost dances and go on ghost bike rides through the country and sip hot ghost coffee on the ghost porch together; he wants you to lie in each other’s ghost arms, your ghost head lapping up against the curve of his ghost bicep; he wants for the salty watersheds of your ghost bodies—your southern seas, their swelling governed by volcanic forces deep below their shells of sand; the northern fjords of your faces, a glacial melting of exertion, overflow; the equatorial sweat of your torsos—to join night’s fresh condensation and for you both to lie still, spent, fallen in the same brackish waters.
A graduate of Johns Hopkins University's Master of Writing program, Shenan Prestwich is a Washington, D.C.-born writer and editor currently living in Portland, Oregon. Her work has been published in a variety of publications both online and in print, and her first full-length collection of poetry, In the Wake, was published by White Violet Press in 2014. She has founded and/or edited a variety of journals, including Magic Lantern Review, Prompt & Circumstance, and Outside In Literary and Travel Magazine, and in her off-time enjoys long drives, unplanned turn-offs, nice whiskey, cheap whiskey, excessive hospitality, the great outdoors, good people, and bad karaoke.
Illustrations by the wonderful Meghan Irwin.