Editor’s Note: “Ghost Writer” was first showcased at No Name @ Word Up – Super Storytellers Edition
Her name was Emily (not her real name). We met in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, at the end of my university studies, the end of my art school days. Four years of conceptual art
classes, intense writing projects, filmmaking projects… Four years of being surrounded by competitive, creative people determined to make a name for themselves. College is that time where you are trying to figure out just who the hell you are. And I knew. More than anything, I knew I wanted to write, to tell stories.
“My name is Daniel Guzman,” I thought. “And I … am a WRITER.”
I said it just like that in my head. Walking down Forbes Avenue to student art openings. Hanging out in a bar in the South Side. Sitting in the living room of my shared artists’ house full of some of the strangest, most colorful people in all of Pittsburgh. I felt confident in the fact that no matter what the future held, I was meant to write.
“Writing is a form of incantation,” I would say a lot at the time, usually drunk on a lot of red wine, surrounded by other creative people, all of us sitting on the floor of my room. “It’s the same as magic spells. It’s the choice of words that gives a good story its power. Language is the original ancient magic, like a spirit guide that we invented, passed from generation to generation.” People would drink or smoke, nodding their heads in agreement.
Yeah. I thought I was such hot shit. Truthfully, though, I knew nothing about magic. Nothing about spirits. Not yet, at least.
If you’ve never been to Pittsburgh, I can tell you that it is one of the strangest American cities you will ever find. It was a former steel town, until the steel industry died out. There were the older generations of shattered lives, and there were the young people trying to make it the next tech empire, very little in-between.
Meanwhile, the city itself seemed to only get worse. Buildings were left half-built, or half-demolished. Homelessness was on the rise. So was crime. There were a lot of acts of violence in Pittsburgh. A lot of ghost stories, too.
Emily knew one of them.
She had written a few books: a sci-fi opus, a horror novel, and a memoir, among other works. The photo on her website was that of a woman who understood the idea of language as magic, the sense that writing was a glimpse into the dark forests beyond the village, the place where monsters still dwelled. Her eyes were an intense blue, disarmingly cool. Her blonde hair was long, down past her shoulders. She had the slight hint of a smirk on her lips, as if to say to the viewer, “If you only knew.” I’d heard about her weekly writing group. I wrote her an email, introducing myself, expressing my interest in attending.
She wrote back a few hours later, delighted to have me. She said the next meeting was on Thursday. She included the address, a house in a part of town too far for most college students to visit, not in their jurisdiction. Perfect, I thought. It was exactly what I wanted. A new adventure.
The group was a mixture of young college writers from other universities in the area and older writers with silver streaks in their hair. All of them wore glasses, dark clothing, a menagerie of chunky amulets and tattoos. We talked books and favorite movies, finding that we were all following similar paths, more or less. Whether surreal, sci-fi, or horror, we were all curiously poking at strange things with our sharp pens.
Emily was the last to read. Her memoir, it turns out, was about her greatest relationship. Not with a husband, but with a complete stranger. A man named Frank, who had died when he surprised a burglar in his home, several decades ago. Her home.
She had never met Frank in real life. He was gone long before she had bought the place. But, he was always nearby, guiding her in different ways. He was a shy ghost, she explained. A gentle soul. Sometimes he even helped her see things before they happened. He had saved her life a few times, once by predicting a car accident, another time by guiding her away from a store that was about to be robbed.
I was fascinated. I’d never experienced an actual ghost story. In my family, there were always tales, but they never involved immediate family. We retold stories passed down from others before us, myths and folklore. This, however, was a story that was presently unfolding. Frank was still very real in her life.
After the next writing group, Emily went for drinks with a few of us writers at a neighborhood bar. While some of the more drunk literati belted out tone-deaf karaoke renditions of The Doors or the Beatles, I asked her questions about her friend.
Frank was never around when guests came over, Emily explained. He got nervous of people. But, the moment people left, he would come stomping down the stairs like a kid racing out of his room. And, just like a child, he had his tantrums, too. She told me how there had been times when he slammed doors or threw plates against the wall if he felt she was ignoring him.
That gave me chills, the thought of some unseen presence making itself heard.
“He doesn’t just help me see my future,” Emily said, lightening the mood. “He likes to help others, too.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well, that’s why you’re here now. He brought us together so he could give you a warning. About the future, I mean.”
Now, I’m someone who doesn’t usually want to hear my fortune told. But, I was intrigued. For as much as I didn’t want to know, a part of me believed that maybe this could help me. Once I knew the outcome, I thought, maybe I could make the right choices to prevent a bad future. Right?
She looked at me, and then she looked at my hands. Those hands that I used to create my stories. Hands that have held pens and pencils that have typed out words on keyboards, bringing forth ideas on a canvass of white. My future lived and died on those hands, on what they could channel from the dark unknown of my mind. She took my hands in hers, and then she told me everything that would happen.
It would be a long road, she said. I’ll live a long time, but it won’t be easy. I’ll find love, and then lose it. I’ll experience great emotional pain before coming out the other side. And I’ll struggle for many years as a writer until I find success.
She said these things, and I knew that it was Frank speaking through her.
“What does it mean?” I asked her. “Can you be more specific?”
“Sorry,” she said. “I don’t get the full picture on these things. Just the movie trailers.”
A writer saw what we were doing and came by to have his future read, too. Emily was against it, because Frank hadn’t told her to. But, the writer insisted. I got up to grab some whiskey from the bar, and I looked back to see Emily tell the man his fortune. I saw him grow pale and agitated, until finally he stood up and walked out of the bar. Frank was right.
We stumbled back to her house. There was a strange chemistry between us, just the two of us at the front of her house. I was mostly sobered up, but we sat on the porch, the light above us glowing, attracting moths, while we discussed our writing futures.
“Your time will come,” she said. “It does for all of us.”
She didn’t kiss me goodnight. But, we embraced for a while.
Emily went inside. I stood on the front porch, looking out at the darkness of the street. My car was parked out there. My room in the artists’ house was out there. My future, too. I wonder sometimes if it’s inescapable, or if we’re all just on a set path, like under a powerful spell. I looked at the house behind me, home to a woman who weaves magic on paper and sees ghosts. I thought of her spirit lover, and the words he had imparted. And then I thought of Pittsburgh, that old haunted city I was trying to call home, and the long road beyond, leading elsewhere, to other cities, to a future both foretold and unpredictable. The choices seemed endless. Who knows? I thought. Maybe I’ll just live here, with this magic woman and her magic house. Bypass my destiny altogether.
‘What do you think, Frank?” I asked the air around me. “Stay here? You tell me. Come on, I dare you.”
And just then, the light bulb above my head popped, and went out.
Daniel is a writer of surreal fiction, essays, and film reviews. His work has appeared in the New York Press, Cinespect, the L Magazine, and Rio Grande Review. He has performed at such venues as The Slipper Room, Cornelia Street Cafe, KGB Bar, The Bell House, and the Bowery Poetry Club. He is the founder and host of the Lost & Found Show, a reading series at Le Poisson Rouge.