I won’t pretend I wasn’t nervous when I walked up to the building, the last of the sunset starting to dissipate from the entrance to the alley. There in the cramped, messy neon glow, I almost convinced myself to walk away from the whole enterprise. Burton’s Exotic Brews and Spirits, the sign said. Although technically it said Burt-n’- Ex-tic Br—s an- Sp-ri-s, as the remaining lights clearly thought this place wasn’t worth waking up for. No one would ever guess from the dingy exterior, from the dirt on the doorstep to the smears on the lazily wiped windows, what lay inside this place. Hell, I almost stopped believing it myself for a moment, but I suppose that was the point. I could only distract myself for so long though, and I had promised myself I would go through with this. I took a deep breath and walked inside.
I had intentionally dressed casually for this expedition, and I still felt out of place inside the bar. Cobwebs hung from the rafters, there was enough dust to see footprints on the floor, and the tables seemed to be competing over which could collect the most colors of stain. The bartender on the other end of the room was absentmindedly polishing a glass, which I had up until now doubted was a thing real bartenders did. I tried to cross the room with a casual nonchalance, so I’m sure I looked conspicuous as hell. Carefully selecting a stool with a relatively intact cushion, I sat down and held my hands in my lap, away from the filthy countertop.
“Uh, so...” I said meekly, trying to avoid eye contact before remembering that was weird but then not wanting to suddenly make too much. “Nice weather. We’re having nice weather, that is. Recently, there’s been nice weather. That’s what I meant.”
“...’spose” said the bartender, his expression still notably neutral.
My vast reserves of small talk thus expended, I realized I would prefer doing anything else than let this silence stew, so I got to the point. “I, uh...” I paused, intoning in a more rehearsed voice. “I always like a good drink, but even better is good company.”
“Ah, figures” snorted the bartender, a small smile finally breaking over his face. “You know,” he continued as he rose up off his elbows, “for future reference you might want to buy a drink before saying the code phrase, so you’re not so damn obvious to anyone else in here.”
I glanced back around the interior.
“When do you get more than one customer?” I asked with a raised eyebrow.
The bartender winked at me as he opened the door to the back room and then gestured for me to follow. “First time for everything”, he said.
It was my friend Stephen who had tipped me off to this place, weeks ago. Had he told me more recently, I wouldn’t have believed him. Not that he could have, us not being on speaking terms since we had that argument over programming languages. Actually, the argument may have been about economic reform. Or renewable energy. Or The Lord of The Rings movies. I admit we had a lot of arguments, all of which seemed to escalate due to Stephen being completely unreasonable. It would help if it he stopped having such stupid opinions. The point is it that even though I didn’t want to think of anything to do with Stephen right now, I couldn’t shake my curiosity for this. After Stephen spoke to me the thought of it wrapped its way around my brain and refused to let go. I had to visit this place.
And so I stood in the back room of Burton’s Exotic Brews and Spirits, still not sure if I believed what I saw in front of me. In stark contrast to the front room, the back was fancy to the point of poor taste. The cushioned walls, interspersed with inlaid gold-leaf patterns, gave way to rows of spacious shelves adorned with curious, glowing bottles. The bottles weren’t stored as you might expect, instead each getting their own little miniature shrine complete with a tiny pillow and descriptive placard. As I inched across the appropriately elaborate carpet to one such shelf, I could see glowing green and blue liquids eternally swirling within their containers. I could also read descriptions such as “1844 – 1908; Civil War Veteran”, “1643-1711; Vague Acquaintance of Isaac Newton” and “1842-1864; Civil War Participant”.
“First time here, yeah?” said the barkeep behind me, startling me out of my thoughts. “Do you want any recommendations, general advice?”
I just kind of awkwardly shrugged in his direction, out of my depth and not even sure what I was doing here. “Uh...I guess so...?” I said, rubbing the back of my neck.
“The vintage is the most important thing of course”, he said. “Well, next to country of origin. But I only keep English speaking stock here, these days. Used to keep some foreign ones but was more trouble than it’s worth. People get the emotions but there’s not much direct communication, which always disappoints. Oh, and do you have a price range...?”
I drew in breath between my teeth, giving him a bit of a grimace.
“Cheap end it is then”, he said, nodding and starting to amble towards the other side of the room. “Can’t really blame you, first timers are never too sure they’ll like what they see...well, what they experience that is.”
After some searching through the slightly less well-maintained shelves he’d directed me to, I found a bottle that seemed reasonable enough, in description (“1859 – 1937; No Notable Events”) and in price. I wasn’t here for an expensive history lesson, I was here for...well, a unique experience. This had to be better than spending another night alone in my apartment. Lost in my own thoughts, I started to reach for it when the bartender loudly cleared his throat.
“If you’ve made your decision, sir...” he said, putting a hand on my shoulder and pulling up a piece of paper. “You’ll just have to sign here...and don’t worry,” he continued amiably as I nervously skimmed the waiver he handed me. “It’s just to cover all, ah, interesting eventualities that might occur due to circumstances; nothing dangerous likely to happen.”
I gulped and realized that if I didn’t do this now my fast fading courage would abandon me. “...Screw it”, I murmured to myself and signed the waiver. I handed him the waiver. He handed me the bottle. I uncorked the bottle. I took a deep breath. I drank the bottle.
The liquid was chilly and honestly, kind of refreshing. I otherwise tasted watery and surprisingly unremarkable, until I finished drinking and it reached my stomach. A strange coolness started to spread in waves through my body, as though my organs were becoming air conditioned. I tried not to freak out as it spread through my legs, my arms, and finally, my head. It was at this point I had a strange sensation pry open my mouth, and I experienced what I can only describe as a slow yawn in reverse. Then everything popped for a second, and I had to stagger and reorient myself as normal feeling returned to my body.
When things returned to more or less as they were before, I couldn’t help but wonder if it had wor – “Of course it worked, you idiot!” interrupted a creaky old voice in my head. “Now hold still a minute and let me get my bearings.” It was at this point that I noticed that my arm was moving on its own, twisting and turning while the fingers flexed about independently. I did my best not to fall into absolute panic, but wasn’t doing well. “Pah, with all this fuss you’re making you must be new, ‘aint you?” drawled the voice in my head as my limbs continued to stretch themselves of their own accord. I wasn’t sure how to respond. “Ugh, course you ‘aint” said the voice in my head. “No one ever is, wish I didn’t have to go through all this nonsense every time I enter a new cranium.”
Suddenly a voice outside my skull interjected. “Everything satisfactory, sir?” The barman stepped into view as he took the empty bottle from my hand and placed it back on the shelf.
“Oh,” I said, “er, I suppo –“ suddenly my lips twisted and turned, pursing mid-sentence. Startled, I paused and they abruptly spoke of their own accord. “Seems fine, Phil” said my mouth, in a voice similar to mine but with an unnervingly alien affectation. “Obviously be a bit before we get chummy or whatnot, but seems he’s not a loony, at least.” I wasn’t really comfortable with this man using my mouth like this “But you’re gonna’ put up with it anyway because you’re the one who signed up for sticking a ghost in your noggin” interrupted the man. “Name’s Nathan Crawford, by the way.”
While I was still struggling with the oddness of having my own thoughts cut off, my mouth started to move without permission yet again. “Anyway, you know me, Phil, gonna’ get right to it while I have time”, I said. My legs then, with some difficulty, started to turn me around and walk through the door; starting like the haphazard twitches of a puppeteer and gaining traction and balance the further I went. Wait... I tried vocalizing my thoughts more clearly. Can’t we talk for a minute before we go running out into the streets?
“Nope!” replied Nathan with the cheery carefree air of a man who didn’t give a shit. “I don’t come out just to chew the rag, and you ‘aint gypping me out of my eight hours. If you MUST, we can talk on the way to the nearest bar, boy. Nearest real one, of course.”
I considered trying to stop Nathan’s increasingly smooth leg movements past the front of the bar, but realized at this point it was probably more trouble than it was worth. I could feel Nathan’s approval of this line of thought as we, together in one body, walked out into the night.
At this point, I should establish some context. There was once a rather brilliant young scientist named Jennifer Westworth, who came to hypothesize that ghosts were real. The notion was laughed out of the academic community for obvious reasons. But Jennifer ignored the academics, who said she was a crackpot. She ignored her family, who said she was a crackpot. And she ignored existing ‘ghost hunters’, who said she could be making more money off this angle. After years of study, she created a device which she believed would capture the essence of a ghost and condense it into physical form. She spent months traipsing about supposedly haunted vistas with it, until finally one day, it actually worked.
With a flash the device revealed a humanoid outline hovering in the air, which immediately collapsed into a pile of greenish blue liquid. Jennifer called it Posthumous Emergent Corporeality Fluid. Non-academics just call it ectoplasm. Ecstatic with her discovery, she collected the fluid and headed home. Having been out until the wee hours of the morning on her hunt, she decided to catch a quick nap before the next day of tests began. At this point her brother, who had been out drinking at even worse hours, stumbled home barely cognizant and fairly thirsty. Dramatic irony can tell you what substance he blearily grabbed off the counter and drank.
Jennifer awoke the next morning to her brother and a gentleman from Victorian England confusedly arguing over the same mouth. She eventually calmed the two down, and they found that the ghost could leave her brother’s body. But when he did, he became just as impotent and incorporeal as he was before, until another flash from Jennifer’s device.
The scientific community was taken by storm. Copies of Jennifer’s device were disseminated, more ghosts were found, tests were performed, and the ghost hunters of the world were seriously put out. Jennfier’s family was very proud, but also curious from a more...business-oriented perspective. And so the idea was put forth: possession as a luxury product. A unique experience found nowhere else! Share a head with a ghost! Experience another person’s thoughts and feelings! Get first-hand experience of past events!
There was, of course, an incentive for the ghosts as well. Having a body and being able to interact with the word again had obvious advantages. But the only other place ghosts could be allowed one was in a laboratory, testing the day away. Here they got to experience corporeality all the time, so long as they agreed to leave their hosts when the duration they paid for was up. Of course some tried to take their bodies and run at first, but stealing a shared body was difficult enough that none ever got far, especially considering they shared that body’s thoughts, pains and emotions.
But a final snag struck this burgeoning business. Too much was still unknown to the world about these ghosts and their possessing. Any given religion was a ceaseless maelstrom of conflict in regards to what these ghosts were and what they meant. The medical field was likewise baffled as to the effects of these possessions on people’s health. Health in general was thrown into question upon the realization that some rare circumstance lets you just keep ‘living’. Was this wise? Was this safe? Was this natural? No one knew, and so most governments played it safe and banned the practice to varying extents until further notice. But something this monumental wasn’t about to just disappear, so private establishments kept the industry alive beneath a veneer of legitimate business. Burton’s was one such place.
I knew all of this, some from Stephen’s descriptions but most from the news when it had started several years back. I also knew that no one, alive or otherwise, who could explain why some people came back as ghosts. In spite of this, I put the question to Nathan as he was walking us to a nearby bar. He told me what I already knew with exasperation, and then told me to stop asking stupid questions everyone asked. When I pressed him on the matter to be sure, I learned that you can, in fact, get a headache from shouted thoughts. I packed away questions about the afterlife from here on out.
And, and then you know what happened? I thought. And then the son of a bitch says, he says that I cut HIM off! Based on some of the odd looks other patrons of the bar were giving me I think I may have mumbled some of those thoughts aloud, but I wasn’t in a fit state of mind to worry about that right now.
It was several hours later and Nathan and I were now at our second bar. We hadn’t intended to leave the first bar at all, but things just got a little...out of hand. No amount of drinks could get me to agree with Nathan’s desire to chat with the ladies in our current state. But we eventually drank enough where we both agreed to show onlookers some ‘sweet dance moves’, as I think I put it. Ignoring the fact that this wasn’t a bar where dancing was going on, there was the more obvious issue of two drunks in the same body trying to dance without consulting one another. Luckily there were only a few minor casualties, but we were ejected from the establishment regardless.
Nathan was much better drinking company than the software engineers I worked with, and I didn’t have many friends outside of work. He also didn’t get annoyingly argumentative like they all did, as when disagreements popped up we instantly understood where the other was coming from. I had learned that Nathan had done this possession thing many times before and I didn’t need to go through the tedious process of explaining the last hundred years like he was a doggone moron. It also happened Nathan had almost as little to say about his regular life as he did about the afterlife. I asked his job, he said accountant. I asked about the turn of the 20th century, he said it was even more boring than it was now. I asked about what he did for fun, and he said he talked about more interesting things than this. It was only after I shifted topics from his personal life that he got more talkative. We had since settled comfortably in our most mutually enthusiastic topic, types of people we hated.
“Ugh, I HATE people like that!” responded Nathan. “I hate, I mean, I know EXACTLY the type of blowhard who would try that type of thing! And the fact that you –“
I know! I intercepted, the two of us sharing thoughts long enough to often understand each other before we’d finished thinking out loud. Because it’s like, that’s so ru –
“SO rude, yeah!“
But you know, you know what’s even worse than guys like him? People who waste your time!
”Ugh, you got that right! Nothing, no NOTHING worse than some uppity little piece of crap trying to give me the run-around!”
Exactly, dude! It’s like, it’s like why d’you gotta’ waste MY valuable time? And the thing is, it’s like, I seem to get so unlucky. I meet SO many assholes, so many, y’know, those type of people.
“THOSE type of people, yeah! I can’t stand the shmucks, and that’s not, not like an old man thing or anything. I couldn’t stand ‘em before either! And they’re all I ever met! ‘slike God just said, just said here, have all the windbags, the boneheads, the grousers...ex-wife was all three and more, haha...”
I offered my cheery feelings of consolidation (which are much more concrete when you share a head) but couldn’t comment much on the specifics of that one, so our mental conversation trailed off. After several more minutes of drinking in silence, sharing nothing but soft, nebulous emotions, I mentally vocalized another thought.
You think it’s about time to get out of here...? I said.
“Naaah, we can wait it out a bit longer, boy”, said Nathan. “In my experience, these outings are best ended only after we vomit on something.”
In my current state, I somehow thought this was a reasonable idea. We didn’t have to wait long.
Soon I was stumbling back into my apartment and over to the fridge, stepping over a stack of pizza boxes. If Nathan noticed the mess, the varying detritus of half-finished snacks and garbage that gravitated mainly around my computer and television, he didn’t care enough to mention. As I opened the door to the fridge Nathan spoke up again.
“You got any room mates, boy?” he inquired as I started grabbing the nearest edible solids within arm’s reach. I let him know that I did not.
“Good”, said Nathan, releasing a wave of approval. “Trust me, they’re alright for a while, but you got the right idea. Nothing like being your own man, living on your own. You ‘aint got to answer to nobody, boy, NOBODY. A little bit of other people is fine, but too much...”
I didn’t quite like where the conversation was going, and Nathan could tell, and consequently I knew Nathan could tell, so we awkwardly moved on and I asked him what he wanted to do now.
“Hm...you got one of those doodads where you press the buttons and you can shoot people through the television?” he said.
The next few hours into early morning were spent with the two of us amiably murdering strangers on the internet. As virtual bullets were exchanged, any self-consciousness I would have normally felt yelling at bratty teenagers was completely absolved knowing with certainty that someone agreed with me. Hell, sometimes it was a toss-up of who got control of the mouth first to exclaim our drunken frustrations.
It was all going fine until a while later I was reminded of how I typically did this type of stuff with Stephen, which of course brought to mind the fight a couple days ago. I tried to hide those thoughts from Nathan for about half a second until I realized how impossible that was. I got the clear feeling that he didn’t want to broach the topic, but I was stuck on the thought now and he realized it would only get more awkward if he didn’t bring it up.
“So...what were you two fighting about...?” he finally thought aloud.
I told him that it was nothing much, really. In all honesty, there wasn’t even a reason for the argument, it had just sort of...happened.
“Yeah,” replied Nathan. “I know exactly what you mean.” And I knew he did. I knew with utmost certainty that Nathan was very familiar with the situation.
Yeah, I thought, I mean it’s frustrating, right? How sometimes other people just...
“Absolutely,” said Nathan. “I had that problem all my life. How other people always make something out of nothing. Other people, they always just...y’know. OTHER people...”
It was at this point that the line of thought we were spiraling down became too depressing for us to continue, so we did our best to abandon it and focus on shooting people in silence. But it wasn’t quite the same as before, with the looming specter of that conversation hanging over us. The weight of Nathan and I considering what type of people others were, and what type of people, deep down, we suspected we might be.
Eventually we silently agreed we’d had enough, got up, and turned the video game console off. We just sat there, blearily looking at the skyline as the first pinpricks of the sunrise winked on across the horizon.
“Don’t let my...situation get to you, when I’m gone”, Nathan said eventually. I’d ask what he meant, but of course I got the gist. I let him know without words that I didn’t really mind; that he was, in fact, worth the consideration.
“Thanks and all,” he said. “It’s just that I...I ‘aint worth worrying yourself about, you know? I mean...no sense getting bothered about a battle that’s already lost.”
That was a sobering thought, and though it hurt us both to consider, I think the mere fact that it did let Nathan feel valued. I didn’t want to end the night on such a downer, but I could feel our time was just about up.
“...maybe try and talk things out with your friend, eh boy?” said Nathan.
I will, I said. I probably would’ve anyway, but I didn’t mind him mentioning all the same. I need to thank him for introducing me to this, after all. I could tell Nathan appreciated that one.
“Well then...” he said, as I felt something strange in my chest. “See you later, boy...”
At this, I yawned and a stream of cold...something flowed out of me, which with a brief flash of bluish green light turned into a mere ripple in the air. It flowed and spiraled outwards towards the general direction of Burton’s bar.
“...yeah” I said softly to myself, as I watched him go. “I think you will...”