I won’t pretend I wasn’t nervous when I walked up to the building, the slim fingers of sunset sliding down the alley behind me. There in the cramped, messy neon glow, I almost convinced myself to abandon 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 couldn't be bothered. No one would ever guess from the dingy exterior, from the dirt on the doorstep to the smears on the windows, what lay inside. I almost stopped believing it myself, which I suppose was the point. But I could only dawdle for so long, and I promised myself I would go through with this. I took a deep breath and walked inside.
I had intentionally dressed casually for this expedition, but still felt out of place inside the bar. Cobwebs hung from the rafters, the air was thick with dust, 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 approach him 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, remembering that was weird, then not wanting to make too much. “Nice weather. We’re having nice weather, that is. Recently, there has been nice weather. That’s what I meant.”
“...’spose” said the bartender, his expression neutral.
My vast reserves of small talk thus expended, I realized I would prefer doing anything else than let this silence stew. I got to the point. “I, uh...” I paused, intoning in a more rehearsed voice. “A good drink is nice, but even better with 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 here.”
I glanced back at the interior.
“When do you get more than one customer?” I asked.
The bartender winked at me as he opened the door to the back room and 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. I wouldn't have believed him had he told me more recently. Not that he could have. We weren't 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 escalated due to Stephen being completely unreasonable. It would help if it he stopped having such stupid opinions. But even though I didn’t want anything to do with Stephen right now, I couldn’t shake my curiosity. After he spoke to me the thought of this place wrapped its way around my brain and refused to let go. I had to see for myself.
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 decadent 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 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 my thoughts away. “Do you want any recommendations, general advice?”
I 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. I found foreign ones were more trouble than they're 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 and grimaced.
“Cheap end it is then”, he said, nodding and ambling 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 shabbier 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 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. “It’s just to cover all, ah, interesting eventualities that might occur. Nothing dangerous likely to happen.”
I gulped and realized that if I didn’t do this now my 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. It tasted watery and surprisingly unremarkable, until the concoction 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 were functioning 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 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 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 spoke without input. “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 sans 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, turned me around and walked through the door. They started like the haphazard twitches of a puppeteer but gained 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 stride out the front door, but realized at this point I might as well play along. 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 spirit and condense it into physical form. She spent months traipsing about supposedly haunted vistas until 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 Mortality Extract. The rest of us 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.
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 the 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 proud, but also said she could be making more money off this angle. And so the idea was put forth: possession as a luxury product. A unique experience found nowhere else! Share a head with a spirit! 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 place ghosts could be allowed one was in a laboratory, testing the day away. Here they got to experience all the corporeality they could handle, so long as they agreed to leave their hosts when the duration they paid for was up. Some tried to take their bodies and run at first, but stealing a shared skull was difficult enough that they never got far, especially when they shared pains and emotions.
But a final snag struck this burgeoning business. Too much was still unknown about how this possession functioned. Any given religion was a ceaseless maelstrom of conflict on what these ghosts were and what they meant. The medical field was likewise baffled as to the effects 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 of the world played it safe and banned the practice 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 started several years ago. I also knew that no one, alive or otherwise, 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, then said to stop asking the same 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 after that.
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 the odd looks other patrons 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 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 there wasn’t a dance floor, there was the more obvious issue of two drunks in the same body trying to bust a move 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 did, as when disagreements popped up we instantly understood where the other was coming from. Nathan had done this possession thing many times before and said I didn’t need to go through the tedious process of explaining the last hundred years like he was a doggone moron. The man had even less to say about his regular life then the afterlife. I asked his job, he said accountant. I asked about the 19th 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 into 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, y'know, type of thing! And the fact that you –“
I know! I intercepted, the two of us sharing enough to understand before the other 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 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 bein' an old curmudgeon. 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 cheery feelings of consolidation, which are much more concrete when you share a head, and our mental conversation trailed off. We spent several more minutes 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 detritus of half-finished snacks and garbage that gravitated around my computer and television, he didn’t care enough to mention. As I opened the door to the fridge he thought up again.
“You got any room mates, boy?” he inquired as I started grabbing the nearest edible solids. 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 it always falls apart. Nothing like self-sufficiency, being your own man. You ‘aint got to answer to nobody, boy, NOBODY. Folks're fine to visit, but to live with...”
I didn’t quite like where the conversation was going. 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 rounds were exchanged, any self-consciousness I normally felt yelling at bratty teenagers was completely absolved knowing with certainty that someone agreed. Hell, sometimes it was a toss-up of who got control of the mouth first.
It was all going fine until I was reminded of how I typically did these kinds of things 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 familiar with the situation.
Yeah, I thought, I mean it’s frustrating, right? How sometimes other people just...
“Absolutely,” said Nathan. “Had that problem all my life. Other people always make something out of nothing. It's why I kept to myself. Other people, they always just...y’know. OTHER people...”
At this point the train of thought we were spiraling down became too depressing for us to continue, so we did our best to focus on shooting people in silence. But it wasn’t quite the same, 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 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 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 ‘aint worth worrying yourself about, you know? No sense getting bothered about a battle that’s already lost.”
That was a sobering thought, and though it hurt me 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 flash of blue-green light became 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...”