There used to be a hulking, gothic prison in the exact same spot as my neighborhood’s fancy grocery store. It’s not like they advertise about the prison in the store. I found out from some historical signpost at the edge of the parking lot. I’d never bothered reading the sign before. I only read it this time because one of the straps on those crappy paper bags broke and my groceries spilled out on the ground right in front of the sign. I secretly missed the plastic bags, but to admit that would be like saying I wanted to suffocate a sea turtle. I did learn a thing or two from the sign, though. For instance, the demolished prison had been known as Karakung, its name cribbed from a long-gone indigenous tribe. I didn’t like the thought of my organic produce mingling with tortured souls, but it honestly explained a lot.
Once I got home and put away my banged-up groceries, I went upstairs to confront the ghost loitering above my laundry hamper. He’d appeared a week ago after my last shopping trip. He wore eccentric, striped rags and hadn’t said a word since materializing in my bedroom. He didn’t seem to have a face. It was like his orifices had been smudged out by a cheap eraser.
“Hey,” I said. “Does the name Karakung ring a bell?”
At this, the ghost’s eyes popped onto his face and opened about as wide as eyes could get. He was still earless and mouthless, but it was progress at least.
“Um, hello?” I asked. “Do you hear me?”
His ears suddenly appeared and, lo and behold, his mouth.
“An evil place,” the ghost said, his mouth disappearing whenever he stopped talking, as if exemplifying the phrase use it or lose it. “I need you to deliver a message for me.”
Delivering a message for a ghost felt so cliché. “Is it going to be a whole thing?” I asked.
The ghost’s ears vanished again. Apparently, he didn’t want to listen to my excuses.
“I implore you,” he said. “Find my wife. Tell her I miss her dearly.”
“And how am I supposed to find her?”
The ghost scratched his bald head. It seemed he hadn’t thought through logistics. “Her name is Elizabeth Fields,” he said. “She was the love of my life.”
“Okay,” I said. “Anything else? Like, any identifying features?”
“Beauty beyond even God’s imagining,” the ghost said, with a literally crooked smile. “If the sun came down and kissed the dawn.”
“How about an address?”
A single tear fell down the ghost’s cheek, leaving an orange, ectoplasmic stain on the floor that I’d have to clean up later. “If only I knew,” he said.
I thought about telling the ghost that he’d probably died well over a hundred years ago and that his Elizabeth was long dead too. But I didn’t do it. I figured it would only further upset him. So, I lied and said I’d ask around the neighborhood for any intel.
The ghost, despite not paying rent, turned out to be a half-decent roommate. He never interrupted me if I happened to binge-watch the entire season of some reality show. He didn’t mind if I spent the whole evening in bed scrolling on my phone. He never once judged me.
Of course, there was the complication of Elizabeth, but I managed that pretty well in my opinion. Every day, he’d ask about her and, every day, I’d give him some fake leads regarding her whereabouts. He also told me the story of his incarceration. He’d gone to a neighboring county to find work as a farmhand and, without warning, was snatched, tried, and committed to Karakung. He wasn’t even sure what he’d been charged with. When they hung him, he told me it just felt like a snapping at the base of his skull and then he awoke as a specter in my bedroom.
One time, the ghost asked if I had an Elizabeth in my own life.
“Not really,” I said. “Dating’s hard these days. I’ve got a lot on my plate as it is.”
He said he understood. He told me that when I find my Elizabeth I’ll know. He told me he knew the first time he heard her speak, that the winsome lilt of her voice had set his heart afire. If he had a single wish, he said it would be to hear Elizabeth’s voice one more time. I explained to him how I mostly interacted with potential romantic partners on apps via emoji. I said it was tough to meet people in real life and that everything just felt so awkward. I told him it was easier to talk with people on a screen. But the ghost couldn’t comprehend what I was trying to get across to him. He was stuck in the past, a relic of a bygone age.
One evening, I heard noises coming from the street outside my window. I didn’t feel like getting up from bed, so I asked the ghost if he could see anything. The ghost didn’t react. Lately, he’d been spending hours on end staring at the one piece of art in my bedroom. It was a reprint of a Monet painting, Train in the Snow. The train appeared to be chugging through a frigid countryside, the train tracks lined by skeletal trees. I’d received the picture as a gift from an ex, who’d felt that my barren walls were too much to bear. After we broke up, I’d never taken the initiative to replace it with something less depressing.
“Don’t you hear that ruckus?” I asked.
The ghost turned his body to me, but his head and eyes remained fixed to the painting. “I would like to ride a train someday,” he said.
I sighed, knowing full well he couldn’t leave my room. “Let me give you a piece of advice: Sometimes you just have to accept your limitations.”
“Even so, I would still like to ride a train.”
“Sure, pal. So how about looking out that window?”
The ghost ignored my question again, forcing me to look out the window myself. It wasn’t anything too exciting out there—just some neighbors setting up for a block party on the street. I didn’t know my neighbors, but I figured they wouldn’t mind if I made an appearance. Either way, I was tired of listening to a ghost go on and on about stalled trains and lost love.
The block party consisted of some tents, makeshift tables holding chip bowls and potato salad containers, and a few families scattered around, talking to each other. I watched a young guy in a white t-shirt pick out a hotdog. Then he looked up and saw me gawking.
“Want one?” he asked. “They’re just the right amount of burnt.”
We started chatting. His name was Byron. He lived a couple of houses down from mine.
“Are you new to the neighborhood?” he asked.
“Might as well be,” I said.
“It’s a great area,” he said. “Pretty affordable.” Then he motioned down the street. “Although it’s gotten pricier ever since that supermarket opened up.”
“That place is haunted,” I said.
Byron found this funny, even though it was more of a fact than a joke. I explained to him how it used to be a prison. He’d had no idea our neighborhood was so rich in macabre history.
We ate a few hotdogs, nursed a few beers, and later, participated in a water balloon toss with the neighborhood kids. We didn’t win—our balloon exploded on the asphalt after bouncing off my fingers—but it was still more fun than I’d had in a while. Byron and I kept on talking until the sun sank below our houses and a slivered moon came out. Our neighbors started putting away the foldable chairs and it seemed like our time was up.
“You know, I’m really glad we met,” I said, feeling tipsy and flushed.
“Likewise,” Bryon said. He held a green glass bottle and took a last sip.
We exchanged numbers. It was nice interacting with someone who was alive for once, so nice that I wanted to text him right away. But I didn’t. I thought it might seem desperate.
When I got home, the ghost was in the same spot where I’d left him.
“I would like to ride a train,” he said. “That way, I could search for Elizabeth.”
Before bed, I took down Train in the Snow. I’d grown tired of the ghost’s obsession. But even more than that, I could finally imagine putting up something better in its place.
The removal of the painting did nothing to help the ghost’s mood. In fact, he just started staring at the blank wall where Train in the Snow had been. Worse, he was coughing up bugs—weird millipedes—and making high-pitched shrieks around midnight.
I had an inkling his bad mood was mostly my fault. I’d been giving the ghost false hope that he might reunite with Elizabeth even though it was impossible. Still, I didn’t want to just admit outright that Elizabeth was gone and that he’d never see her again. It would crush the poor guy. So, I resolved to do some sleuthing at the local archival library to find some trace of her. I heard the library had a database where people could look up info on their forebears. I pictured finding Elizabeth in the records, maybe even discovering she had a daughter who, herself, had a daughter. Then I could pass off that granddaughter to the ghost as the true Elizabeth. I wondered whether this fraud might be cathartic enough to send him to the next step of the afterlife. But the prospect of his disappearance from my life left me strangely hollow, so I kept putting it off.
After a few more days of dithering, I finally made a visit to the archival library. It was a dilapidated brick building that looked mostly forgotten. Inside, it smelled old, like ink, empty hallways, and decaying knowledge. At the front desk, there was a librarian sporting spiky hair and tattooed arms. Her youth seemed ironic in such a place.
“So, what brings you in today?” the librarian asked.
“I’m trying to find a lost relation,” I said. “Can I do a search through your database?”
“Oh,” she said. “I think you might be confused.”
“That’s usually the case,” I said.
“The collection hasn’t been digitized,” she explained. “So, you can’t really ‘do a search.’ But we’ve got a very simple cataloging system. You’d get the hang of it pretty quickly. Do you want me to show you how it works?”
I considered the prospect of making several trips to the library, spending hours sifting through fragile documents and squinting at 19th century cursive. I told the librarian thanks, but no thanks. I told her that some things are better left a mystery. She seemed disappointed.
Back home, the ghost hounded me once again about Elizabeth.
Instead of the truth, I told him I had big news: My informants discovered that Elizabeth settled down upstate on a great big farm and started a great big family.
The ghost let out a long sigh that made the lights flicker. “Thank you for finding her,” he said. “It is a great weight lifted off my shoulders to know she thrives. She deserves every happiness on earth.”
“Yup,” I said. “Land’s fertile up there.”
I told myself not to feel guilty. I was just trying to help. Anyway, it was like that old saying: ignorance is a man’s best friend. Or at least I think it’s something like that.
I’d hoped my lie would help the ghost forget about Elizabeth, but it only encouraged him. He kept on asking when I would visit her upstate, so I had to keep making excuses about why I needed to postpone the trip. The ghost never doubted me, no matter how flimsy my explanation. In any case, his disposition improved, and I considered my scheme a success. I felt pretty confident I could keep the charade up indefinitely. And, for a while, things carried on in our odd sort of normal. That is, until one rainy evening, when Byron messaged me.
The gist was: DTF?
It’d been over two weeks since the block party, so I was surprised he even remembered me. But I was also too excited to overthink it. I badly wanted to see his face again. Even though the weather was terrible—rain pouring down, wind singing through the windows—I didn’t care.
“Hey,” I said. “I’m heading out for a bit.”
“To go see Elizabeth?” he asked. His eyes shone bright with hope.
“Soon, pal,” I said. “For sure.”
I grabbed my windbreaker and went out into the drizzling night. Wind and rain pelted me until I reached Byron’s rowhome.
When he opened the door, I could tell something was wrong. He looked frightened and pale. His shoulders were draped with blankets. He guided us over to a couch. I took a seat next to him, close enough that our legs would touch.
“So,” I said, turning to face him. “Is everything okay?”
Byron took a steadying breath. “I may have brought you here under false pretenses,” he said. “The truth is, I need help. I have a ghost.” He looked down at his socks. “I know it sounds crazy, but you’ve got to believe me. She’s up in my bedroom. I don’t know what to do.”
I sat in silence, not knowing what to do either. Up to that point, I hadn’t thought too much about why the ghost had entered my life. I considered his appearance a fluke—a worm in the apple of the universe. But now I had questions. How many tortured souls had been infused into the food at our grocery store? How many others suffered injustice at Karakung? What was our responsibility to atone for the sins of the past?
But then something less complicated occurred to me, something the ghost had once told me about Elizabeth. About her voice. And that’s when I knew.
I took Byron’s clammy hand in my own. Then I closed my eyes and leaned in close to him, hoping it would be the start of something strange and beautiful.
Matt Goldberg’s stories have appeared in The Normal School, SmokeLong Quarterly, Porter House Review, and elsewhere. His work has also been anthologized in Coolest American Stories 2022 and won the 2021 Uncharted Magazine Short Story Award. He earned his MFA from Temple University and lives with his partner in Philadelphia.