It was a strange time for a phone call. A suspicious time. And there was an unfamiliar number on the caller ID. Most people would be immediately anxious about family members, mind jumping quickly to thoughts of heart attacks and car accidents and hospital emergency rooms.
My concern was silence.
I almost didn’t answer it.
“Is this Min YoonGi?”
A voice. A simple question. Nothing to worry about.
“Yeah, that’s me.”
“Ah, this is Jo WonSeok. I work at Hopeful Giving Resale. I’m really sorry to call you so early in the morning, but I want to let you know that we’ve got a problem with our truck. So, we won’t be able to do this morning’s pick up on time.”
“Is that so.”
“Yeah. We’re gonna take the truck over to the auto center first thing and get it looked at. If it’s something that can’t be fixed right away, we’ll go rent a truck. So, I’d say we’ll have everything out of your way by noon at the very latest.”
“Alright. Thanks for letting me know.”
Shit. I stared blankly at the computer screen full of text in front of me. Pushed my fingers through my hair.
Shit. Shit. Shit. I did not want to deal with a delayed pick up. Not when I’d been engrossed in writing chapter 8 and the words had been flowing effortlessly from my fingertips. Not when it was still dark outside.
I thought about waiting for the sun to rise. For the blurring of dawn. I recognized it for what it was. Avoidance and unnecessary cowardice. I wouldn’t be in any danger out on my porch or in my tiny front yard. I just didn’t want to deal with it. Didn’t want to see. Didn’t want to hear. Didn’t want to think. I wanted to stay inside and pretend like nothing else existed.
But darkness is a shield as well as a menace. It would hide me from the neighborhood and curious, suspicious, judging eyes. At sunrise, more people would be waking up, glancing out their windows, heading off to work. I didn’t want to be out there dealing with the problem when that happened.
So I went outside. I live in the first of a line of row houses, tall and narrow, each sharing a wall with its neighbors. Mine is 1271 and my neighbor is 1273. We share a large cement porch that opens on a wide set of steps that leads down to a sidewalk that’s about 12 feet long and splits the front yard in half, my side and his side. There’s a lawn of scruffy grass surrounded by a wrought iron fence.
My side of the porch and my half of the yard - hell, even my half of the sidewalk - were covered in a mess of objects. On the other side of the fence, crowding together, pushing forward as much as possible without touching the cold iron, were hundreds of ghosts.
It had been awhile since I saw them at night. I avoid leaving my house and it’s protected with every possible ward for keeping them out. If I do go out, it’s always during the day, when the light fades them, makes them weaker. When they’re easier to ignore.
Not that I can’t protect myself. I’m always carrying the proper herbs and spices, amulets and geegaws. All but the strongest of them can’t get near me. But they can stare and they can scream and beseech me for help. Help that I can’t and won’t give.
With a sigh, I began halfheartedly sorting through the jumble on the porch. Trying to stack everything and at least make it look orderly. As if I had purposefully taken a bizarre assortment of objects out of my house and arranged them neatly on my porch and lawn.
Normal people might do that, right? If they’re getting ready to move, or spring cleaning, or preparing for a yard sale. Not likely. At least, not like this. And the things themselves made the story even less believable. Everything from diamond rings and gold watches, to filthy tennis shoes and a half eaten hamburger. A case of apple juice. A little girl’s dress. A blender. A hammer. A cell phone.
The list went on and on. The ghosts pick them up anywhere that’s outside, since they can’t take a solid object through walls. Well, most ghosts won’t walk through walls themselves, even though they can. They pick up the goods stores have displayed on sidewalks, get them from outdoor markets, snatch belongings from people who’ve dropped them or set them down and taken their eyes off of them.
They carry them to my doorstep and leave them as offerings. Bribes. Pleas for attention and aid. They cross over the iron fence between 2 and 4 am, when their power is at its highest and they dare to suffer the pain.
There’s more than the iron to contend with. I’ve sprinkled so much sage and coriander seeds over the lawn during the last few years that it’s nearly impossible for them to stay in the yard. And the porch is painted haint blue. The weakest drop their gifts just inside the fence and flee. The strongest make it to the porch.
The era the ghost died in determines what sort of gifts they bring. As well as their personalities and the issues they drug over the border with them into the world of spirits. Recent deaths know the importance of smart watches and laptops. Ghosts that died long ago favor food, clothes and shoes, things that they understand. Housewives bring small appliances, jewelry and decorations. Business men bring briefcases, watches and golf clubs. Children bring toys.
I keep none of it. It all goes to a charity resale shop. They pick it up every morning before sunrise, dispose of everything that’s trash and sell everything else. They keep all of the money. It’s an arrangement that suits me well. I don’t have to deal with anything and I’m left with nothing of what’s been offered. Not a single penny of profit.
If some of the items they carry away and put up for sale on their shelves are possessed, well there’s risk woven into everything. It’s easy enough to go to the grocery store and buy a can of corn with a ghost attached to it. They’re everywhere. Always trying to get a little closer. Always trying to resolve some issue, though they’ve often been gone from the living world so long, forgotten so much of what it’s like to be alive, that their actions are nonsensical. Their means of striving for a solution forever doomed to fail.
That’s why they want me. I can see them. I can hear them. And they know it. They smell me or sense me or something from miles and miles away. They never stop coming. They want me to find their wife, their son, the man who killed them. To turn in the report, feed the children, pay the rent. To throw water on the fire, to give them medicine, to stop the car from rushing forward.
Things that I can never do, even when the things they ask are possible. When their death is fresh enough that I can find the people and the places and the things. It never works. Because it isn’t me that needs to do it. It’s them. And they never can and never will.
Their only hope is to slowly give up and fade away. Dissolving bit by bit into the afterlife. Disappearing from this world of pain.
“What is all that stuff?”
The voice surprised me. Decidedly human. I turned quickly to see my new neighbor, Kim NamJoon. I’d only met him once. He was tall and attractive, with a bright, open, guileless face. He’d bought the row house connected to mine after the crazy old lady who used to live there died. It hadn’t been long since he’d moved in. Maybe a couple of weeks.
The length of wall that abutted the porch was inset a few feet into the face of our houses. It created an alcove that was topped by the second floor and protected our front doors from rain and snow. He was sitting in a chair in a shadowy corner of his side of the alcove, looking at me curiously.
I sighed. I’d been muttering and cussing angrily to myself as I sifted through the shit that littered my property. Tossed the trash into a corner of the yard. Tried to create a half-assed order out of everything else.
I took a moment to wonder how long he must have been watching me, but the answer was obviously since I’d stepped out of my door. If he’d walked out of his house in the time I’d been outside, I would have noticed him.
“It’s gifts from my fans.” It was the best explanation I’d ever come up with. Because really, how the fuck was I supposed to explain it? “Don’t worry. They won’t put things on your side.”
The offerings were for me and there was no way that the ghosts would set their gifts on his property.
“Your fans give you old broken stuff? What do you do?”
“I’m a writer. I’ve got haters, too. And some people just have a weird sense of humor.”
I picked up a worn dog leash, a toy car with a missing wheel and an open bag of chips and tossed them over to the trash pile.
“Really?” His voice was suddenly excited. “I love to read. What kind of books do you write? Maybe I’ve read one.”
“Ah...I didn’t know textbook authors have fans.”
I had to bite back a short burst of bitter laughter. “It takes all kinds. And I write articles for journals and magazines, too.”
As if that explained everything. He was silent for a little while and I kept working my way through the pile.
“Did you ever think, maybe the people who are doing this are psychotic or something? It would probably explain some of the stranger gifts and...well, is this stuff up here real?”
I turned to look up at him. The sky was starting to turn gray as dawn approached and he was growing easier to see. He was motioning to the pile of jewelry and high end tech.
“Of course they’re crazy. You’d have to be crazy to go out in the middle of the night and drop a gift off at a stranger’s house just because you like something he wrote. Someone did it years ago and the idea caught on and spread. There’s really nothing I can do about it. I’ve tried. And, yeah, that shit’s real.”
It had rained the previous afternoon. So there were quite a few umbrellas. I tossed a few more onto a pile that already held about twenty of them.
“What do you do with it all?”
“I donate it to a shop that sells it and then donates the money to charity. I donate so much, they let me choose which charity it goes to each month. This month is orphans. Next month it'll go towards conducting funerals for people who die without family or friends to do it for them.”
“Ah. That’s nice.”
I did the funeral one every other month. It’s not like I was ever going to notice a difference in the number of ghosts, but if a proper funeral could send a spirit off to the afterlife, it was worth the attempt.
“This stuff usually gets picked up by a truck from the shop. It broke down this morning. So, don’t worry. It shouldn’t be a big problem for you.”
“Yeah. Well. That’s good to know. I’ve got to go get ready for work. You have a good day.”
“Thanks. You, too.”
The sunlight was growing stronger. First illuminating the ghosts that littered the sidewalk, the road and the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street. Then quietly washing them out, fading their color until they were barely there. Outlines of human forms with a scant brush of watercolors. Upper bodies floating with no legs to support them. Standing unmoving, staring and wailing, even as school children ran and adults hurried and cars, trucks and buses zoomed right through them.