In the Augmented Universe, when you die, sometimes you stay. You ghost. And there are these five ghosts in particular, these five people who died in the New York Film Academy dorms, and now they’re stuck there. One of those is called Alana.
‘I want to move on, Mal,’ Alana pleaded. ‘You’ve been here the longest and you know the most about what we are. I want your help,’
‘Move on, as in, die? Effectively?’ Malachy replied.
‘I already died. Now I’m stuck. I never wanted this.’ She said. ‘I love you and the guys, and y’all keep me sane. But I know you’ve seen ghosts move on before and I just… I want to know anything that can help me. Like you’ve done before…’
‘I taught you the hot-haunt trick, sure, and yes I’ve known ghosts move on. But if I knew how they did it I’d be doing it myself. I have no business to finish so I don’t know why I’m still here either.’ Malachy replied.
‘Okay,’ she started, ‘look, please keep this under wraps for now. Don’t tell the others. When they get here, for the thing, just keep this to yourself, ‘kay?’
‘Lani, of course. I’ll do what I can to help you, you know that.’
Alana and Malachy were in a living student’s dorm room. They were waiting for their fellow ghosts to appear from wherever they’d got to. They were planning a hot-haunt, which is what the deceased call the process of communicating with the living. Mary, Bill and Eva, the three remaining ghosts, appeared in the room after passing through the walls.
‘Mal you’re gonna love us!’ Eva started.
‘We found this dude who’s started going through West Wing on Netflix,’ Mary continued. ‘He’s like midway through season one. Exciting…’
‘That’s where we’ve been ‘til now,’ Bill joined in. ‘He’s stopped right now but he seems to be enjoying the hell out of it. Hopefully he’ll power through it.’
‘That is exciting. Has he reached Bartlet’s imaginary Secret Plan To Fight Inflation?’ Malachy looked very pleased.
‘I… um… don’t think so?’ Bill replied.
‘God I hope not,’ Malachy said, still beaming. Alana wondered how anyone could be this excited for a plot about a secret plan to fight inflation.
Mary redirected the conversation but with the same enthusiastic mood, ‘So, are we set? I can’t wait to do this.’
‘Pretty much. These two,’ Malachy said, nodding at the two blissfully unaware students occupying the room, ‘they’re waiting for some woman who they say can communicate with the dead. They don’t know much about her, apart from that she’s some kind of medium and she’s moving into the dorms.’
‘The medium’s studying film, here?’ Bill asked.
‘Apparently so, yeah.’
Eva said, ‘So how does it work? Will she see us? Hear us?’
Malachy replied, ‘Look, she might just be full o’ shit. I learned the hot-haunt trick years ago, and it works on anyone if it’s done right. But it’s scary as all hell.’
‘And, personally,’ Bill joined in, ‘I’d rather we didn’t alert too many of these people to the fact that we’re here, watching their TV’s over their shoulders all the while.’
‘Exactly,’ Malachy agreed. ‘So. We communicate with this woman, this medium. Hopefully she’s the real deal. And to answer your question, Eva, no she won’t just see us and hear us. She’s not Whoopi Goldberg and we’re not Swayze.’
‘Sam Wheat’s ghost looks the same as he did before he died,’ Alana contributed. ‘I always think we’re more like the ghosts from the Harry Potter movies.’ She gestured towards their absent feet.
‘We are kinda pale,’ Mary agreed.
‘She’d have to do this whole ritual thing to commune with us,’ Malachy said, retaking control, ‘but she won’t know we’re here. We’ll hot-haunt her and hopefully she’ll not freak the total hell out, and if all goes to plan she’ll deliver our message to Romeo and Juliet, here.’ He nodded again at the students in the dorm.
‘Great. I love it.’ Mary said. ‘God I hope this works.’
‘It’ll work,’ Malachy said, positively. ‘Look at us, dead, stuck here. We need this. To thwart this on top of that? The universe isn’t that spiteful.’
As Malachy finished talking there was a knock at the door. The ghosts had the air of people holding their breaths, although obviously they had no lungs and therefore no breaths to hold. They were held in suspense, waiting for the young man in the room to get up slowly, casually, to open the door.
‘Hi, I’m the new girl.’ The young woman at the door looked somewhat familiar to four of the ghosts, and utterly familiar to the other. Malachy, Mary, Bill and Eva didn’t notice the look on Alana’s face as the young woman was invited into the room by the students, while the living trio exchanged pleasantries.
‘She’s…’ Alana started. ‘She’s…’
‘She’s what?’ Bill asked, turning to Alana, noticing her suddenly extra-ashen face. ‘Lani, you look like you’ve seen a… well, not a ghost, but—‘
‘She’s… oh God I really want to sit down and I can’t. It’s my sister, Heather. My big sister.’
There was silence while the living trio continued their little chat.
‘This is your sister?’ Eva asked, startled.
‘She hated me.’ Alana began. ‘Well, she… she didn’t hate me. But she acted like she hated me. She used to hate me watching TV all the time… Why the hell is she here? She’s a student here?!’
‘Okay, look,’ Bill started, taking gentle charge. ‘She’s the medium, right? And she knows you died here. Do you think she knows you’re still here?’
‘I… I don’t know…’ Alana started.
There was a lull in the conversation, as the ghosts waited for Alana to compose herself. The mood in the other-worldly air was full of sensitivity. The silence between the ghosts elevated the other conversation happening in the room, which had reached its introductory portion.
‘I’m Harry,’ the male student said to the medium, ‘and this is Becca.’
‘It’s nice to meet you both,’ the medium replied, smiling. ‘My name’s Alana, Alana Nguyen. My friends call me Lani.’
The mood in the other-worldly air moved from a sensitive to a stunned silence, which Alana broke, saying, ‘What. The. Escalating. FUCK?!’
Alana had hovered straight out of the dorm room after the astonishing revelations that had occurred, and into one of the vacant rooms the ghosts used. She was deeply distressed. The New York Film Academy had been her world, before she’d died. As a ghost there for some time, she was unprepared for the appearance of her oppressive sister, and was freaking all kinds of out that not only was her sister suddenly there, but she had also seemingly stolen her identity.
‘None of this makes sense,’ Alana began, to the ghosts, who had followed her softly. ‘She hates film. She never goes to the movies. The stuff she watched on TV? Documentaries and news shows.’
‘Lani,’ Malachy started, ‘can I ask you… How did you die here?’
‘What’s that got to do with anything, Mal?’ Alana barked.
‘Lani, we love you. I love you. Dearly. But… we’ve all noticed that you aren’t always entirely on top of things. When it comes to deconstructing movies, sure, you’re a superhero. But sometimes you seem to experience a…’ Mal looked for the words, ‘temporal dysphoria—‘
‘You get confused about when things happen,’ Eva offered helpfully.
‘I still don’t understand why any of this is relevant,’ Alana snapped.
Malachy replied, ‘Sometimes, when a person dies in a… distressful way… That person’s ghost can struggle to get a good grasp of reality. I’ve seen it before, Lani.’
‘No!’ Alana replied, ‘I’m not crazy! That woman is called Heather Ruth Nguyen.’ Alana’s face started to break. ‘My name is Alana Suzanna Nguyen. Her friends don’t call her Lani! My friends call me Lani!’
‘Lani, sweetheart,’ Mary said, moving towards her, ‘we’ll figure it out. I don’t understand what’s going on any better than anyone else, but we’ll figure it out.’
‘Okay. The year is 2015. Do you know what year you died, Lani?’ Mal asked. ‘How long have you been here?’
‘I… I don’t know. I don’t remember.’
‘Sweetie, what do you remember?’ Mary said.
Alana looked up from the floor she’d had her eyes pinned to, at Mary, and to Eva, and back at Mary. ‘I used to watch TV. I used to read. I used to go to the movies by myself. Heather was all martyrdom and responsibility. She used to hate the fact that I wasn’t. In her spare time she’d clean a clean house. In mine I’d escape. Into stories. I came here to be free. Free to be me. But I…’ She looked back to the floor. ‘I’m sorry guys, I don’t remember the dates and the times. I don’t. But that doesn’t mean I’m crazy. It doesn’t.’
Malachy replied, ‘Lani… do you remember how you died?’
But Alana looked away and left the room, stopping only to say, ‘Please, don’t follow me.’
After she’d gone, Mary looked at Malachy, saying, ‘Don’t you think you were being a little pushy, Mal?’
‘Look, Mare, we all wanna help Lani,’ Malachy began, passionately, ‘but we have to accept the fact that she’s not completely with it. Do you guys really think her sister has come here and stolen her identity?’
‘Well what do you think’s happening?’ Bill asked.
‘I haven’t got a damn clue, but my suspicion is it’s more to do with Lani’s post-death mental state than some woman stealing her dead sister’s identity and enrolling at a film school. You wanna know what I think? I think she died violently and that her consciousness fractured. I think that the ghost we know and love is not the person who died here. Not entirely.’
‘Well, whoever she is, she’s our friend, Mal,’ Mary replied. ‘And she’s clearly distressed. So tread careful or I’ll…’
The ghosts looked at Mary, waiting for her to conclude her threat.
‘Okay I don’t know what I can do, but I’ll be pissed.’
‘Understood,’ Malachy said.
‘You could spoil all the movies he hasn’t seen yet.’ Eva offered.
Malachy gave Eva a snarky look that said, ‘Very funny.’
‘Okay, well I don’t wanna seem insensitive either,’ Bill said, ‘but are we still going ahead with the thing? Delivering the message? I mean, it’ll be a bit weird haunting the woman pretending to be our dead friend.’
‘One thing at a time,’ Mary said. ‘Lani has to take priority.’
‘Sure, but what can we do?’ Eva asked. ‘It’s just us here.’
‘If Lani is cool with it,’ Malachy began, ‘I say we go ahead with the hot-haunt. Only instead of delivering the message we were planning, we… we tell Living Lani what we know. What else can we do?’
The ghosts looked at each other, in reluctant agreement.
Malachy went on, ‘You know. There is something. Did you guys notice that Living Lani looked young, like eighteen or so? Unless she’s very well preserved, I don’t see how she can be our Lani’s older sister.’
‘What’s your point, Mal?’ Mary replied, with a pinch of suspicion.
‘Well,’ Malachy went on, ‘I’ve always sensed that as spirits we’re not as bound to the linearity of time as the living are. Once, I found myself… haunting this place long before it was built. I was in the past. What if our Lani is this Lani. She said she couldn’t remember when she died, what year it was. What if her ghost is haunting the building she’s going to die in, not the building she did die in?’
‘You’re saying,’ Eva said, trying to make sense of it all, ‘that this woman, who our Lani thinks is her sister, is actually her? Before she died? That she just can’t remember?’
‘Maybe?’ Malachy replied. ‘Why not? It makes as much sense as anything else.’
‘So…’ Mary said, ‘if that’s the case, and we can pull off the hot-haunt… Lani’s future ghost could haunt her past self before she dies… If she can figure out what it is that kills her, she could save herself…?’
‘Theoretically,’ Malachy replied, ‘yeah.’
‘How does the hot-haunt work?’ Bill asked. The ghosts were haunting various rooms, looking for the dead Alana.
‘It takes time, it can’t be rushed.’ Malachy replied. ‘You know how living bodies are made of flesh, and bone, and are nourished by food and water? Well our bodies are made of living energy, which isn’t bound by the laws that govern the physical universe, and therefore can’t be sensed, traditionally. Our immaterial bodies are nourished by periods of stillness. When we feel like we disappear for a while? That’s our nourishment.’
‘We go to sleep, basically,’ Eva concluded.
‘If you like,’ Malachy replied. ‘But essentially, I need to do that. Only, awake. Think of it as a form of meditation, performed to give me the strength I need to communicate with a living person.’
The ghosts whooshed into another room, still looking for their friend.
‘How long does it take?’ asked Mary.
‘A few hours?’ Malachy said, with a note of doubt, implying variation. ‘It requires me to be still, and in the same place as the person I’ll be haunting, so if Living Lani leaves the place, the process is disrupted and we’ll need to start up again.’
‘That’s annoying,’ Bill said. ‘But it is what it is, I guess.’
‘And can you stop calling her Living Lani and call her Heather?’ Mary protested.
‘Fine, whatever. We need Heather—’ Malachy used ever so sarcastic emphasis, ‘—to stay in one place while I do the meditation thing.’
The ghosts whooshed into still another room, and this time they found their friend, the dead Alana, meditating. Inside the room, a dorm room, was the living Alana, taking objects—books, papers, candles—out of boxes and finding homes for them.
‘Lani,’ Malachy said. She focused on her meditation, ignoring him. ‘Lani, what are you doing?’ Still nothing.
‘Lani, sweetie, please talk to us,’ Mary said, joining in. Still nothing.
‘Lani, listen to me, please,’ Malachy began again. ‘I think that this woman is you. Not your sister. You. Look how young she is, Lani.’
‘She’s not me,’ Alana said, trying to avoid breaking focus. The living young woman carried on arranging her possessions in the room, unaware of the spectral drama playing out around her.
‘Lani,’ Malachy pleaded, ‘you get more confused about when things happen, and when things are happening, than any ghost I’ve ever known.’
Alana sighed loudly. She broke her focus and shouted, ‘So what?! So fucking what, Mal? Listen to me!’ She pointed angrily at the woman. ‘That’s not me! I’m me! She’s…’
‘Look,’ Malachy replied, ‘I believe that, when you died, your consciousness went back, back to before you ever moved here. You met us, you made dead friends, but something is going on here, I’m sure of it—‘
‘I’ll tell you what’s going on, Mal,’ she rallied, her voice raised. ‘Shall I? My sister hates me. She used to be on me, on my back, all the time. She’s become a medium so that she can come here, to the place where I died, so she can taunt me, taunt me that she’s taken the life I wanted. The life I wanted, before…’
‘Before you died.’ Malachy said, softly.
‘No,’ she replied. ‘Before…’
‘Before what, Lani?’ Eva joined in. The group was reverent to Alana’s pain, as it rose, as it started to come out of her in rising waves.
‘Oh God!’ Alana cried. Her visual form was throbbing, and she was covering her chest with her hands. ‘I remember,’ she whispered. ‘Oh, God, don’t let me remember…’
Her form became still, and calm, and she looked at her friends.
‘Before, I… died. Months before. Something happened to me. Here. Something… bad.’
‘It’s totally, totally okay, Lani,’ Mary said, with urgency and compassion in equal measure. ‘You do not have to talk about this now.’
The living young woman, the unknowing instigator of all of this, set three candles out in front of her, in a crude arc.
‘It changed me,’ Alana carried on, a note of rediscovery in her voice. ‘I had forgotten, Mal. You were right about that. But it’s not what you think.’
‘And what do I think it is?’ Malachy’s voice was still soft, treading carefully at last.
‘You think I was killed here, don’t you?’
‘I don’t know,’ he replied. ‘I don’t pretend to know.’ He started to pick up his passion again, ‘But I do believe that this woman, Lani, is you. Look at her! She’s a young you.’
‘I wasn’t a medium, Mal. And I never met that couple, the guys she met today.’
The living young woman dimmed the lights in the dorm.
‘Maybe you just don’t remember, Lani, don’t you see?’ Malachy persisted. ‘If we can figure out what it is that happens to you, we can save you. We can warn you. You don’t have to die, Lani.’
Immaterial tears coated Alana’s immaterial eyes.
‘I love you, Malachy Mulholland. I love you for trying. I love you for wanting to save me. But no one can save me.’ She looked intently into Malachy’s eyes. ‘The universe is just too spiteful.’
The living young woman sat down, cross legged, in front of the arc of candles, placing some paper in front of her.
‘Please, Lani, let me try,’ Malachy pleaded with Alana. ‘You asked me today to help you die, to move on, to go to your rest. Let me go one better. Please, Lani, let me save you…’
The living young woman lit the candles, picked up the paper in front of her, and read from it:
Ghosts are literally made of living energy, which is undetectable to humans by normal means. It can’t be seen, or heard, or touched, smelt or tasted. There is a form of supernatural light, which the living can summon. This light can be detected by the human eye, with one or two provisos. The purpose of the light is to illuminate the dead; ghosts in the presence of the light can be seen by those with eyes to see, and heard by those with ears to hear. And the young woman, sitting cross legged and reading from the piece of paper in front of her had both eyes to see and ears to hear. The light had been summoned. The light was growing.
‘Dearest Lani,’ the young woman began, reading.
‘Father Driscoll recommended I write to you. I don’t know where to start.
‘As I write this, it’s been five years since we lost you. I think about you every day.
‘I need to tell you that I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Lani. I think about the last time we spoke all the time. How you reached out to me. How I was too busy with my own stuff to listen. I thought you were just being dramatic, like I always did. I am so sorry.’
The light began to illuminate the ghosts in the room. The young woman reading from the letter looked up and saw their faint image. All five of them were still, and silent, all eyes fixed on her. She looked back down at her epistle and carried on.
‘Since you’ve been gone, a lot’s changed… for me. Do you remember my boyfriend Jules? Well, I guess it must have been a couple months after you… left us. I found out I was expecting a child. Who knew, huh? Me, a mom. Turns out I’m quite good at it, because she’s beautiful. Angelic. She’s so much like you, it’s uncanny. I can never get her to shift her ass, all she wants to do is watch TV, and have me read her stories.
‘Once I found out I was having a little girl… I knew what I wanted to call her. Jules understood before I even suggested it. I’ll never forget the first time I held her, Lani. She looked so much like you.’
The woman reading the letter pulled her sweater down over her hand and used it to dry her eyes. She looked up, at the ghosts becoming more and more visible to her, and carried on.
‘I named my daughter Alana Suzanna Nguyen. After my little sister, who I miss every day.’
The woman reading the letter struggled to get the words out, moved by their weight. She composed herself, tears running down her cheeks, and carried on.
‘Lani, the times I’ve gone by your room and wished you were there, glued to your TV, so that I could get onto you about helping me out around the house. But I can’t. After mom died, I wanted so bad to give you what I’d lost. A childhood. But I always resented you for it, and that was wrong.
‘I don’t know what happened to you out there. I don’t know why you felt like you had to take your own life. But, every day, I blame myself. I was never there for you. I was too busy wishing that I’d got to have what you had. What I thought you had. I left you all alone and I’ll never forgive myself for that.
‘As it turns out, neither will God. About a year after my Lani was born, I got sick. I’ve been fighting it for three years, and I made it past the turn of the century—there was no Y2K—but my time’s up. Jules is a good man. He’s going to hold onto this letter, and I guess he’ll pass it on to my precious girl when the time’s right. I want her to know who you were. And how much you meant to me.
‘My wish? My dying wish? I wish I could get this to you, somehow. I wish I could see you again. I wish I could tell you how sorry I am, Lani. You were such a good girl.
‘Goodbye, Lani. I love you. Heather.’
The ghosts were now fully visible, but where there had been five, now only four remained. For as soon as the letter was finished, Alana was gone.
Mary said, quietly, ‘Goodbye, Lani. I guess the universe… isn’t so spiteful after all.’
‘Goodbye, Lani,’ said Malachy.
‘Bye, Lani,’ Bill and Eva said.
The young woman, Alana Suzanna Nguyen, could now see and hear the ghosts as well as they could see and hear each other.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said, ‘this is blowing my mind.’ She dried her eyes again. ‘My name’s Alana. My friends call me Lani.’
‘Yeah,’ Malachy said, smiling, ‘we got that.’
‘I knew she’d be here,’ Living Lani said. ‘I’ve had that letter for two years. My dad gave it me when I was sixteen.’
‘So,’ Malachy replied, ‘our Lani died… what? Twenty years ago?’
‘I was born in 1997. She died the year before. She came out here to study. My mom sort of… raised her. My mom died when I was little, too, but I remember she always cried when she talked about her.’
‘What did you do to make us visible?’ Bill asked. ‘I’m guessing that was you?’
‘Yeah,’ Living Lani replied, ‘that was me. I hope you don’t mind. Ever since my dad gave me the letter, I’ve been planning this.’
‘You know… we actually knew that a medium was coming here,’ Bill said.
‘Jesus, I’d completely forgotten!’ Eva added.
‘We had this plan,’ Malachy said, taking over in his way. ‘We wanted to get a message to you. It seems…’ Malachy looked for the words with a somewhat embarrassed look on his face. ‘…kinda dumb. After everything that’s happened.’
‘What was the message?’ Living Lani asked.
‘We…’ Mary started, ‘…wanted you to ask the couple across the hall to get through a certain movie without… um…’
‘Without what?’ Lani asked sweetly.
Bill took over, ‘They are the only people in these halls who watch this certain movie, and… to stave off ghostly boredom, we watch a lot of movies, see, and… they tend to get distracted once the movie starts…’
‘They start having sex and we have to leave,’ Eva said, bluntly.
Lani laughed. ‘That was your message? “Please get through a movie without having sex”? What did you think I was going to say? “These ghosts want you to not have so much sex so they can haunt you while you watch a movie”?
‘I told you it was kinda dumb,’ Malachy said.
‘What’s the movie?’ Lani asked. The ghosts looked at each other, like school children caught writing obscenities on the walls.
‘Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog,’ Malachy replied.
Lani laughed out loud. ‘You know, I love that movie,’ she said, smiling. ‘You’re all welcome to watch it with me? We can chat about it afterwards?’
The ghosts smiled at each other.
‘Deal,’ Bill said.