George is picking his teeth and thinking: I should have known purgatory would be a waiting room. He turns to the girl waiting next to him and says, “I should have known purgatory would be a waiting room,” like it’s a smooth pick-up line. She gets up and moves two seats to the left, so there’s a gap between them and now she’s sitting next to this really old, chain-smoking lady.
George turns to the empty air in front of him and mouths, “YOLO,” feels proud about the artful irony of it all and kind of sad that none of his friends are there to appreciate it. The waiting room is lit by fluorescents and doesn’t smell like anything. The décor has a neutral colour scheme with some light accents, like a waiting room at Centrelink. When George looks around he can only see these rows of chairs, plastic and fused together, just rows and rows and nothing else. He wonders who will call him, and when, and where he will go.
After that nothing happens either for a very long time or no time at all. Time is elastic and George spends it wondering why he is still in a body. He wonders if he’s made of ectoplasm, like a ghost, and if the chairs are ectoplasm too and all of purgatory is ectoplasm. He looks to his left and the girl is gone and so is the chain-smoking woman. He wonders if the cigarettes were ectoplasm. He starts to touch parts of himself to feel whether they are ectoplasm or skin and bone. He is kneading the balls of his ankles when his name is called. The results are inconclusive.
PULL QUOTE: He wonders if the cigarettes were ectoplasm.
As soon as George stands up he sees that there is a long aisle and he walks down it really quickly, and it moves like a travelator at an airport. At the same moment that the travelator feeling stops a new feeling starts, the weight of a door handle under George’s hand. He turns it and a door opens and he is standing in an office with walnut-panelled walls, like a dean’s office. There is a man behind the desk in the office. The plaque on the man’s desk says: FRANK GRIMES.
“Frank Grimes is a character from The Simpsons,” George says and sits down in the chair before Frank Grimes’s desk.
“Huh,” says Frank Grimes. “That’s new. Last kid your age I had in here was calling me Walter White.” He laughs and then he holds out a hand for George to shake. The desk is so narrow that they can shake hands without having to stand up, which means they hold hands for longer than they need to, but it’s nice, for George, to hold on to something.
Frank Grimes pours them both a Coke without even asking George if he wants one. He puts the glass by George’s left wrist and for a while they sit in silence, watching the bubbles rising rapidly from the bottom of the glass.
“Well, kiddo.” Frank Grimes leans back in his swivel chair. It squeaks. “I hope you don’t mind I call you kiddo. It’s a paternal thing. I used to have kids.”
“Kiddo is fine.” George drinks the Coke. It tastes like nothing but he can feel the bubbles burning the inside of his nose. The more he thinks about that episode of The Simpsons with Frank Grimes in it the more he starts to notice things from it in this room, yellow pencils with Frank Grimes’s name embossed on them, a framed picture of a nuclear power plant. This is too weird. He wonders if the last kid his age just saw a bunch of meth baggies on the desk.
“Well, kiddo,” Frank Grimes says again, and lets out a sort of sigh that’s half sad like he feels sorry for George and half content like he’s really looking forward to what’s about to happen. “Your unfinished business has been assigned. Looks like an easy one. Don’t mess up, and you’ll be signed off and on your way upstairs by the end of the day.”
Frank Grimes looks at George very steadily. His voice is flat. “Heaven.”
George tries to make sure that the look on his face conveys total belief and lack of surprise. “Oh. Yeah. Right. Heaven. Sure. Haha.”
“So.” Frank Grimes clears his throat and shuffles some papers on his desk. One of the papers is a menu for Saigon Massage and Noodle House. “Here it is. Kid your age, uh, name’s Bevan Trent. He’s the revenge type. Worked at a dodgy pizza restaurant, wants to teach the boss a lesson. Pretty standard haunting.” He slides a contract over to George. “You’re getting off easy, kiddo. All you have to do is ruffle a few feathers and you’re home free.” He puts a hand on his stomach and does a little burp with his mouth closed. It’s from the Coke, but George is still grossed out.
The contract is printed on very white A4 paper, with carbon copies attached behind it in pink and yellow. At the top it says in a very broad serif font: UNFINISHED BUSINESS CHARTER. There’s a place at the bottom for George to sign.
There are so many questions George wants to ask but he chooses the one he thinks will make him sound the most cool: “Why can’t I finish my own business?”
PULL QUOTE: “The glory days are over, kiddo.”
Frank Grimes gives George a look like he’s been waiting to answer this question all morning. “When people try and finish their own business,” he says, “they get lost easily. Find something from their own life to hold on to, stick around, get seen. We can’t be risking that anymore. Misdemeanours. They’re bad for our stats.” He rolls his chair to a filing cabinet behind him and opens a drawer. The whole drawer is filled with one very fat file, labelled: TUPAC SHAKUR, 1996-CURRENT. Frank Grimes wiggles his eyebrows and closes the drawer again. “You see what I mean.”
“I guess. Okay, a haunting. What are the rules?”
“Oh, the usual.” Frank Grimes pulls a pen out of the breast pocket of his shirt and hands it to George, who uses it to sign his name. “You’re not allowed to do anything really violent anymore. Occupational Health and Safety.” He sighs. “The glory days are over, kiddo. You’re just there to give this guy a little fright, make him feel sorry for whatever he did to Bevan Trent. Place is called the Mona Pizza, pizza chef named Nicky, should be easy to scare. Most people are. Throw some stuff around, drop the temperature, groan at night. Whatever works. As soon as this Nicky feels sorry, we’ll have you out of there and checking in up there.” Frank Grimes points to the ceiling significantly. “Try and be quick. I hear they’re doing bottomless Mojitos until Thursday.”
George left the world in the back of an ambulance, so it’s in the back of an ambulance that he returns. He sits up on the gurney this time. This time he can breathe, and nobody is crying, nobody is pressing hard on the palm of his hand where the sting is, or maybe nobody was pressing the other time either, and it was just the hot pressure of swelling.
Frank Grimes is studying his fingernails in a way that makes it obvious that ambulance is a really common way to travel around here, and George feels embarrassed about it, like how he used to be embarrassed of his Mum’s rusty old Berlina when she picked him up from school. He thinks about his Mum opening the front door to receive wreaths of flowers with his name on them. It seems like it would be insensitive to send flowers to a woman whose son just got killed by a bee sting, but also like it would be even more insensitive not to send her flowers at all. George imagines his Mum telling everybody she is fine, making cups of tea and forgetting to drink them, throwing all the flowers onto a pile and spraying them with Mortein. Thinking about his Mum makes George feel shitty, so he tries to stop. Instead he stares at the palm of his hand. It’s not swollen. It’s not even punctured. The scar he got trying to uproot a cactus when he was twelve is gone, too. His hand is cleaner and more whole than it ever was in life. George thinks that if he is stuck with this hand for all eternity he will miss that cactus scar. It had become a kind of friendly marker, a reminder of his body being a place that he would always, for the rest of his life, be in.
The sirens wail loudly enough that George and Frank Grimes do not have to talk to each other and their mutual relief is palpable. Outside of the little window in the back door of the ambulance is a flat, shallow blackness, like a blackboard, the red and blue lights thrown onto it periodically. George watches the light and time sags again or maybe stretches tight and he has the same feeling he had when he left the ambulance last time, a feeling of being torn from something, a violent severance, right in the navel.
The air feels thin to George and he can move through it really fast and light like all the walking he has been doing before now was under the water with clothes on. The pizza restaurant where Bevan Trent used to work looks like every pizza restaurant George ever saw on American TV but didn’t think existed in real life. It has a black and white checked linoleum floor and a couple of shabby booths along one mirrored wall. There are some formica tables and, near the wooden counter, a salad bar. Behind the till a pretty good likeness of the Mona Lisa eats a slice of pepperoni pizza, framed in fake marble made of Styrofoam. Propped up between the till and the tip jar, facing the customer, is a picture of a really generic face that must once have belonged to Bevan Trent, wearing a Vans beanie and a soft goatee. One of those battery-operated candles is flickering next to it with a handwritten note on a post-it that says R.I.P. BEVAN WE WILL MISS U. The ‘i’ in ‘miss’ is dotted with a sad face like this: ☹.
The kitchen has a little window with a ledge where pizzas sit steaming and a bell the chef can ding when the pizzas are ready. It dings now, a couple of times, insistently, and a girl with two green plaits and chunky orthodontics rolls her eyes and takes the pizzas from the ledge. George guesses straight away that she is responsible for the post-it. When she walks over to table nine with a pizza balanced on the palm of each hand George watches the self-conscious inward curve of her shoulders, the very deliberate wiggle of her hips, the way she smiles at the customers with her mouth closed so they won’t see her braces. Her lips don’t quite stretch over them, so the bottoms of her two front teeth are visible, and with her wide eyes and high, arched brows her otherwise plain face has this stunned naivety which reminds George of the pink rabbit from The Ferals. She’s wearing a badge that says HI, MY NAME IS GINGER!! and it’s pinned to her boob kind of crooked. She seems nice.
At about this point George figures out that the reason he feels weird is because he doesn’t have a body. All the glistening cheesy pizza smells like nothing, the sticky linoleum floor feels like nothing under his nothing feet, but he still has this feeling in his mind like phantom limb syndrome, like he can move his arms, clench his fingers. He’s pretty sure he could touch something, pick it up or push it over. There’s one of those metal straw dispensers on the wooden counter, and he pushes the lever, watches it go down and release an orange bendy straw. The straw rolls from the metal lip onto the linoleum floor, where it sits looking lonely and abandoned until Ginger stoops to pick it up with a click of her tongue.
George looks at his nothing hands, flexes his nothing fingers, sees only the unmoving linoleum underneath them. There is a feeling deep in his nothing stomach like a nervous bursting, like he can do this, he can do this. He begins to hum aggressively the chorus from the Black Eyed Peas’ ‘Let’s Get It Started’ and goes into the kitchen. Probably the best way to get this haunting started is to find this guy Nicky. On his way to the kitchen, George rolls his shoulders like a dance move and ups the groove factor of his humming, chucking a couple of rhythmic “uh, uh” kind of noises. He is thinking: I have never felt more alive.
In the kitchen, Nicky is squatting on the floor watching dough rise through the oven door. There is a tender look on his face as he watches it, and when George gets close enough to see the reflection of his face in the glass he sees, against the soft yellow pizza bases in their metal deep dishes, a cheek shiny with tears. Nicky looks around him, over his shoulder, through the window with the little ledge and towards the kitchen door. George stops humming immediately.
“Who’s there?” Nicky stands up, pulling up his chef pants where they sag in the back. “Who’s singing? This kitchen is staff only!”
George clears his throat, thinking: let’s get this pizza party started. He opens his mouth and goes, as loudly as he can: “oooOOOooOooo000oooOooo!”
For a second it looks like Nicky isn’t going to react, but just as George decides he can’t be heard after all, Nicky swears, surprisingly quietly but very fervently. There’s a loud clanging noise from the floor of the restaurant, and seconds later Ginger’s face appears in the little window between the kitchen and the counter. It’s really pale and she looks stricken. George feels like a total dick.
“Nicky? What was that noise?”
Nicky hasn’t taken his eyes away from the door, where George is still standing. “Nothing you need to worry about,” he says slowly. “Get back out there and pick up whatever it is you dropped.”
Ginger blushes and ducks her head out of the window, and Nicky continues to stare right at the point where, if he could see it, George’s abdomen would be. George doesn’t want to frighten Ginger any more, so he whispers his next scary moan quietly enough that only Nicky will hear it. It’s more like a slow exhalation: “waaaooooaahh.” For effect, he gently flings a serviette to the ground. Both he and Nicky watch it slowly floating down. It lands in a little bit of grease on the floor and begins to soak it up. Nicky looks at it for a really long time.
PULL QUOTE: The sauce looks like blood, and he has to fight the urge to write THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS HAS BEEN OPENED.
The kitchen is a world of inspiration to George right now. He looks at the dough in the oven, rising slowly, and concentrates really hard on speeding it up. It works, and the dough puffs up out of control, bursting and very quickly cooking onto the hot glass of the oven door. Nicky is like, what the, and while he’s turning the oven off and opening the door George dips his finger into a tub of tomato pizza sauce and begins to write on the kitchen wall. The sauce looks like blood, and he has to fight the urge to write THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS HAS BEEN OPENED. Instead, he writes: BEVAN WANTS REVENGE. He adds some handprints for good measure. In his head he creates the portmanteau “Bevenge” and begins to think of this haunting as Bevengefest 2014. This makes him laugh out loud, which only heightens the sense of terror for poor Nicky, who at this point is sitting in the corner of the kitchen with his hands on his cheeks in a pretty cute imitation of Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone.
George floats back down to sit on the edge of the kitchen bench, swinging his nothing legs. He looks at Nicky, cowering there, and instead of feeling powerful he just feels totally shitty. Half an hour ago this guy was weeping at an oven full of dough. George can hear Ginger chatting to a couple of customers as she refills their drinks. Jay Z is playing on the restaurant’s sound system really quietly, like way more quietly than anybody should ever listen to hip hop. It’s dark outside, and the street is busy with drunk kids in tight jeans. The bell on the door rings again and again as they come inside in herds to buy Nicky’s pizza by the slice.
Nicky isn’t moving. His hands are over his eyes now like he can’t bear to look at the message George left on the wall. To be fair, it’s pretty grisly. The tomato sauce has begun to drip. George can’t see any reason why anyone would want to scare the crap out of this poor guy, with his badly fitting chef pants and his big shiny bald spot. Maybe Bevan was just kind of a dick. At any rate, Ginger’s out there on the floor by herself and she’s already run out of both BBQ Chicken and Mushroom Supreme.
The air, which up until now had continued to feel thin and light, begins very rapidly to feel thick and dense like George is moving through panna cotta. The sound of Jay Z’s very quiet rapping grows distant and starts to sound gurgly, and Ginger’s green plaits become a blurry green blob bouncing up and down as she walks around the restaurant. This can’t be good. George looks at his nothing hands and sees that, against this new, thick air, they are shimmering a little bit, they are tangible. They are still the reupholstered hands he noticed earlier, new and without scars, but they are no longer clean; the half-moons of his fingernails are caked with tomato sauce.
George looks around desperately and sees that Frank Grimes is standing in the doorway, right where George stood to moan before, bathed in the flashing red and blue light of the ambulance. With each change in light his shadow leaps from his left side to his right side. Away from his desk, Frank Grimes does not look like a man you would want to shake hands with.
“Good job, kiddo,” Frank Grimes says in the same voice he used before, but which now sounds more patronising than anything else. He jerks his head to the left to indicate Nicky, who appears to have pissed himself. “Whatever he did to Bevan Trent, he’s sorry as hell now.” Frank Grimes gives a short, barky laugh at his own reference to hell. George doesn’t join him. There is a silence, during which Frank Grimes looks around at the kitchen carnage and smirks a little bit. “Well, happy hour’s about to start,” he says, reaching into his breast pocket, the one he pulled a pen out of in his office, and brandishes a cocktail umbrella. “I’m here to escort you. Ready to go?”
George looks back at his weird, smooth hands. At the oven, with its door open, caked in burnt dough; at Bevan’s name, in George’s own handwriting, drying to a flaky crust on the white wall. He thinks of the napkin floating to the floor and the smug, revered gaze of Bevan himself, and feels a hot, sick roll in his stomach at the thought of the Vans beanie, the sparse goatee, the sense of vindication that must have followed Bevan to Frank Grimes’s office, or to Walter White’s or Morrissey’s or Nancy fucking Drew’s, and here, to George, to this mess of a kitchen and this mess of a man on the floor. He thinks of his mother and the Mortein flowers, of his mother in the black pantsuit she wears for job interviews, graveside. He wonders whether, if he thinks of his Mum hard enough, the scar on his hand will grow back.
Frank Grimes is watching this inner monologue unfold with a look on his face that is unashamedly bored, bored enough to be rude. He is twirling the cocktail umbrella between his forefinger and his thumb. There’s something comforting in knowing that this post-mortem existential crisis is probably normal, some kind of inevitable adjustment period. George slides down from the kitchen bench and puts his hands in his back pocket, as though to precipitate action, while he tries to decide what he should do next. In the dining room, Ginger flirts loudly with a couple of customers, angling for a tip, oblivious and beautiful for it.
‘Unfinished Business’ originally appeared in The Lifted Brow: Digital, Volume 14, Issue One: The Spooky Edition.