The Ghost Pool

Mona was an early ghost. At the time she went live, Chaz thought she was the first.

Mona was an early ghost. At the time she went live, Chaz thought she was the first. He thought he’d hit on the idea first. But some weeks after Mona launched, Chaz read with dismay that a South Korean outfit had beat him to the punch. The South Koreans, though, had launched in Korean, and Chaz launched in English, so Chaz’s platform quickly snapped up enough market share to become the worldwide standard. Momentum Mori locked in.

Now it was October, many Octobers later. Chaz stopped at a florist’s on his way out of town and bought a single rose. He felt guilty authorizing the transaction, as he did every year; he’d never bought Mona roses while she lived. If you were to bundle the roses he’d bought her since her death, you’d manage a half-dozen, a bouquet. The pair had rarely marked their anniversary — they weren’t sentimental that way — but now Chaz did so every year, and he felt guilty about it every year. She’d have liked that, a bouquet.

He let himself regret. It’s okay to regret, it helps. He got in his car and placed the rose on the passenger seat. He headed out.

Limp autumn leaves. A flat white sky. Ads felt too cheerful today, so he triple-blinked to change the web channel on his contact lenses. The ads vanished and the audio studs in his ears fell silent as he switched to public broadcasting. He took an onramp, found the highway, saw a ghost.

It was a young man with shoulder-length hair. Checkered fleece, bad posture. You imagined him dying drunk out here, another terminal joyride, backseat cheers to backseat shrieks. Chaz shook his head. He just didn’t get highway memorials. They were grim, a downer — which was the point, of course, but why inflict your tragedy on every single passerby? He understood the impulse, the need to find meaning in your loss: The highway bereft made sense of senseless death by enshrining their dead as examples, morphing dumb accident into sacrifice, as if these kids had died as a public service to us all. Chaz shuddered. Dying hadn’t made them public servants. Dying had made them speed bumps. Which was tragic, granted, but for all the wrong reasons.

He passed the ghost and continued on. The commons looked so shabby compared with the slick interfaces of the commercial webs. Chaz preferred the commercial webs. He’d take ads over ghosts almost any day. The commons was funded by taxes and therefore bent on education and cultural celebration, on betterment, Latin names on the trees you passed and sites of historical interest throbbing with trivia. Which was great for tourists and nature fanatics, but not for Chaz, who was neither. All your wayfinding and social data were still present, but since the public web wasn’t dependent on ad revenue, your vision was clear of pop-ins. What you saw instead were ghosts. Ghosts everywhere.

Chaz told himself he could hardly complain. The ghosts had been his idea in the first place. (Well, technically, they’d been some South Korean’s idea in the first place, but Chaz thought of himself as an independent co-discoverer.) Still, the highway brought him down. It was lined with ghosts. Some of them stood in the middle of the lane — how tacky was that? You were forced to drive through them. He had half a mind to change the channel, to switch on the ads, but he told himself no, not today. Today was for this. Today was for ghosts. And if parents wanted to line the highways with digital records of their dead offspring, that was their prerogative. To suggest otherwise would be offensive in the extreme, because the one thing you weren’t allowed to criticize in this day and age was someone else’s grieving style. Other forms of expression — hate speech and porno and spam — were disallowed in public, but you couldn’t touch grief. Which was why the public channel was stuffed with ghosts.

Chaz flipped on the wipers. It wasn’t raining so much as being damp. Dampness infused the scene and laid a mist on the windshield. His eyes took their cue. Love is sometimes a useful word, a useful shorthand, but Chaz found it inadequate to cover what he’d had with Mona. A single word couldn’t do the job. Losing her was like losing a dimension.

She was young when her heart gave out, only forty-eight. When Chaz and Mona first met, forty-eight seemed like the opposite of young. But life grew on them and they lived it well together, aged well together, a pair of fine cheeses, and the years rolled on by. Then Mona’s heart gave out and time stopped for a bit.

When time stopped, as a way to cope, Chaz built a program. He’d buried Mona at sea: the vogue thing to do, but it left him no headstone, no anchor for mourning. He hadn’t thought this would matter but soon found that it did. Then he had an idea. Because he had a record. They’d lived and loved on ambient webs, so he had a complete picture, Mona from every angle. He built a program and launched it on the public channel. He launched it there because every other channel was garish with ads, and ads would clash with the mood he hoped to establish. His program wasn’t an ad — no one but him would ever see it — so as far as he could tell he wasn’t breaking any broadcasting rules. He wasn’t polluting.

What he built was a simulacrum of Mona, which he saved on a secluded pier in their secret special spot, a spot on the lake out in the woods where they owned a cabin, where they went to get away from it all. The most beautiful spot in the world, as far as Chaz was concerned. A copy of his wife would wait for him always, staring forlornly over the lake, and when their anniversary came up and he felt the need to mourn, he’d go see her. He’d switch to the public channel and drive out to their spot, and he’d see her standing there waiting for him and he’d mourn. The first time he went, he brought her a rose. She turned to him. She smiled. He told her that he missed her and he threw the rose into the lake, and he felt sad but lighter: It helped.

This became his ritual, his yearly ritual, and also a revenue stream. He patented the code, branded the idea, and built a platform, which he opened up to consumers and developers. For a modest registration fee and a yearly subscription, anyone could join, anyone could turn the bits left by their loved ones into an online presence. Users flocked to Momentum Mori. Lifestyle blogs buzzed about the new trend, immersive grieving, which soon became the norm. Now, six years after coming online, Chaz’s baby had grown into the augmented memorial utility of choice. The new black. And the public channel swelled with ghosts, because the one thing you couldn’t say was no. No, not in public, please. Can’t you find a private corner? The world is full of them.

He turned off the highway onto a back road. Poplars naked, blanched. He was relieved to get away from the ghosts. It amazed him how many there were. People sure did die.

He wove between stretches of brown-orange farmland and pothole lakes, and he thought about the pier, their secret special spot. He thought about Mona’s long black hair, which had greyed openly as her crow’s-feet stretched their toes. The Mona that waited for him on the pier was the same Mona he’d kissed goodbye on their last day, pecked on the cheek as she hurried off to work. He could have made her younger, but he chose not to — it was telling, he thought, how you chose to instantiate your dearly departed. He was often surprised by user choices. Some rewound their loved ones back to childhood; some touched up flaws; some eschewed reality altogether and uploaded gaming avatars. Developers launched a zillion Momentum Mori apps. Most of them were garbage. Chaz only tried one: a clever string of code that endowed a ghost with limited powers of speech. He dumped the app after a scene of stilted chatter that nearly broke his heart. Anyway, all he wanted from Mona was that look, that smile. That brief moment alone together in their spot, the two or three seconds when his little battering heart would gasp and almost believe it were so.

He slowed as he passed the dirt road that led to their cabin, which wasn’t theirs anymore. A “No Trespassing” icon hovered in his vision. He carried on. Ten minutes later, he pulled into a parking lot, surprised to find it paved. The lakeside was unrecognizable these days. Back when Chaz and Mona bought out here, it was truly secluded, a sanctuary; the parked RVs and painted lines in the lot signalled how much times had changed. He got out and breathed deeply. The air here reminded him of her. At least that hadn’t changed, thank god.

He’d put the cabin on the market a few years after Mona passed away. The place felt haunted, and he knew his only reason for holding on was easy access to the lake. So he sold the land and was glad to be rid of it, except for that easy access. The pier was a short stroll from their porch: they would head out arm in arm after dinner, watch the sunset, and make it back before the woods got scarily dark. Now he had to follow a trail for half an hour, cross a footbridge, and skirt a few acres of private waterfront to reach their spot. The last leg of the journey was illegal, but no one ever hassled him. Most of these properties were empty this time of year, sealed tight against the coming winter.

He took the trail. He carried the rose as you’d carry a candle, held away from the body, upright. He cupped his free hand over the petals to guard them from the raindrops that had just begun to fall. He met a ghost, which startled him with string music and a baritone narration:

“John loved the beauty and tranquility of these trails, and he could often be found enjoying them alone or with his family, who miss him very much.”

Chaz bristled at the intrusion. Who wants to hear about John?

He came to the footbridge, which spanned a deep gully. The spectral crowd there unnerved him.

Why so many? Were they suicides? He recalled without meaning to how Mona liked to read the inscriptions carved into the wooden rails, the hearts and initials and plus signs, the hieroglyphic vows. She often talked about making rubbings, which was an impulse he never understood and she never got the chance to satisfy. They took the bridge slowly, the two of them, whenever they wandered out this far.

“Think of all the loves,” she’d said to him one time. “Look at all the dates.”

She meant the dates carved into the wood but he heard the other meaning: romantic nights that began or ended on the footbridge, a boy with a penknife hunched at the rail, a girl blushing by his side. Chaz told her about his misunderstanding and she found it poetic — the only time he ever qualified. That stuck with him.

He started down the bridge. Some ghosts watched him pass while others stood or sat with their backs to him, surveying the gully. He was trying to capture and hold a very specific feeling, a feeling for Mona, and these other deaths were a distraction, an annoyance. He didn’t want to feel annoyed because it was the wrong emotion, wrong for the experience he aimed to have. This annoyed him more. He crossed the bridge and breathed a sigh.

He skirted the properties. He met another ghost. At first, he mistook it for an occupant, but he saw the green glow and the hovering dates, born then and died then, and he knew it was a memorial. The ghost ran along the shore. It blipped out when it reached the property line, then blipped back on where it had started, giggling, tottering with that free wobbly jounce children have before their coordination gels. Chaz frowned at the display. It was downright maudlin. A dead kid on loop, unhappy wallpaper for someone who couldn’t let go. And such a lovely view of the lake too, what a shame.

He turned to the house enjoying that view. The deck was writhing with moment worms — great tubes of user experience captured second by second and strung together in superposition. Lifelogging on Momentum Mori was a new trend, and one that Chaz resented. Some brilliant developer had awoken one morning and asked himself why users would leave their memorialization up to survivors. Didn’t it make more sense for users themselves to curate how they’d be remembered? So the developer coded up an app to enable just that. The app recorded your every move on the public web and let you tag your favourite moments, post comments, edit. Not that most users did much editing. Most of them kept everything, the entire pre-death feed, maybe in the hope that ancestors would take interest, sift through it all, get to know the deceased. But to what end? When you’re gone you’re gone, no matter how big a mess you’ve left behind, how much proof. The moment worms were just experience hoarding, which Chaz found unseemly. This wasn’t the point of his platform.

He shook his head and pressed on.

At last he came to the bend, the spit of leaning pines that hid the pier. He stood for a minute and sniffed the rose. Nature was pulling down, pulling rain from the clouds and tears from his face. He couldn’t stop nature from pulling down, all the sad facts of nature from pulling down. Let them pull.

He blubbered as he rounded the bend. You’d think this thing would get easier. It never did. He looked up, and there she was, and there they were, whoever they were: ghosts, dozens of them, all wind-whipped and staring forlornly over the lake. Chaz and Mona’s secret special spot. Which was, apparently, all of their secret special spot.

He stopped crying. The rain stopped. How dare they? How dare they invade? How dare they clutter his experience?

He hung his head and told himself he could hardly complain. And then he knew he couldn’t do this anymore, not now. It was spoiled now. He called up a Memento Mori admin panel, shut down his account, overrode the termination fee. Mona disappeared. He headed back. He crossed the footbridge and took the trail, clutching the rose to his breast. He came to the parking lot and got in his car, tossed the rose on the passenger seat, drove away. He drove through the highway ghosts and drove to the city, and the city was awful to see.

Chaz had left his contact lenses set on the public channel, which he never did in town. Today he did. Comments roared in his ears while moment worms threaded in and out of every doorway, knotted up the avenues, clumped on the sidewalks in squirming piles. He could barely see through them. Besides the worms were the ghosts, the dead, milling around in the background; the zombie horde of other people’s memories, ever growing. He switched the car to self-drive, but he kept his eyes open and he didn’t change the channel because he wanted to take it all in. He watched the dead, he watched the living. He watched a man cross the street. The man was the head on a snake of copies, the leading edge of a stroboscopic wake. Every step time-stamped, for the record.

Chaz plowed on through, cutting the knots. His car pulled up to the curb. He plucked the rose from the passenger seat and got out. He carried the rose up the steps to his townhouse, up the staircase to the kitchen that was so small but so cute, so cozy, all the room he and Mona really needed. From there they had a fine view of the city lights. They’d eat dinner at the little kitchen table, two glasses of wine and the city lights, and it was room enough.

He looked out at the lights, the worms, the seething spaghetti of unfinished business.

He turned off his lenses.

Then he placed the rose in a wine glass, placed the glass at Mona’s end of the kitchen table, and sat on the other side. He made a little vow to himself and to her memory. From now on, when he needed to, here was where he’d find her.

Trevor Shikaze’s short stories have appeared in the Bibliotheca Fantastica anthology and online at Mirror Dance. He lives in Edmonton.

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