A Haunting for Beck

Beck didn’t believe in an afterlife, but he was starting to think that this was what people meant by ghosts. There was something there, he craned his mind toward it: something about ghosts. 

Liz Harmer smiles at the viewer in front of a background of trees.

Liz Harmer is the author of the novels The Amateurs and Strange Loops. Her stories and essays have appeared in This Magazine, The New Quarterly...

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Something, some thing, was coming into being that was made out of both of us.

–Douglas Hofstadter, I Am a Strange Loop



Patricia stood outside the Optimist club smoking a cigarette; even from fifty feet away Beck could see her fingers trembling, her chest heaving slightly with each exhalation. A floodlight had caught her in its beam, and tenderness washed over him, to know that anyone could see her out there, smoking a cigarette with her suffering. He approached her quietly. His sneakered feet on the gravel-sprinkled parking lot made little scraping sounds. Perhaps better not to approach too quietly.

He tried to feel somehow in this moment, tried for this feeling of presentness that for some of them was a kind of a drug. He had always liked any place that felt like a school parking lot at night, because it made him feel festive. He could even pretend it was autumnal, like back-to-school nights for the kids, even though there was never anything autumnal about Riverside, California. Inside him was the memory of his own back-to-school nights as a boy in southern Ontario, in Canada—the Corn Husk, they called it, the farmers’ families that populated the parochial school where his father was principal—and the memories, many years later, of his children’s back-to-school nights, how they would pull on his arm to show him this and this and this and this. How good it felt to be seen by one you loved! He noticed, though, too, that like the memory of a film he’d watched recently, in him were Maureen’s memories of her back-to-school nights in Connecticut, where everyone was always talking about the Mayflower, no matter what season, and the Ivy Leagues. The feeling, though Beck was not American, of American patriotism that infected you from very young. Indivisible. Under God.

“Beck!” Patricia said, sputtering out some smoke and putting a hand on her chest. “You surprised me!” 

Beck could see she was nervous to see him after what had happened the last time. The skin around her eyes was red and irritated, and all of the wrinkles on her pretty face were exaggerated. She was pleasantly plump. This is what Maureen would have said. It was Maureen’s thought. I’m pleasantly plump, she’d say, and he’d say, mmm, yes, very pleasant, because the phrase made sex seem jolly, and like eating, a place for merriment and savouring. 

“It’s dark tonight. Cloudy,” Beck said. “I’m sorry for startling you.”

“I don’t usually look like this,” Patricia said. “I’m both swelling and shriveling. I went to an allergist but they can’t find any reason why, considering that I almost never eat—I don’t have an appetite—” (Beck knew most of this already, since they’d been in the support group together for months, now) “—but my stomach and my ankles, my wrists, they’re filling with fluid. As though I’m pregnant again. But the allergist found nothing. I ate nothing but white rice for a month to see if it was gluten, shellfish, dairy, soy, legumes, what have you.” 

“My appetite is off, also,” Beck said. For the whole winter he could only eat dishes Maureen loved. He sensed that he was eating them for her. Beck was a vegetarian but sometimes Maureen, who’d done a fellowship in the UK, would rhapsodize about heavy British meats, like brisket, which you ate with bread pudding and gravy and a big pint of beer, and now that she was gone this was the sort of meal he ate. “I wonder sometimes why didn’t I make more of the foods Maureen liked when she was alive.” He was careful with phrasing. For example, he’d never say: when Maureen was “with us” as though she no longer was.   

“What do you know about ectoplasm?” Patricia peered at him with those tear-puffy eyes. 

“I’m not sure I know anything about ectoplasm,” Beck said. 

“Oh, I thought because you’re a scientist, you might know.”

“Sure,” Beck said. “But I’m not a biologist.” 

“I’ve been looking into it. I have a theory. You’re going to think I’m crazy. I don’t usually act like this! I’m not even a smoker.” She lit another cigarette and asked if he wanted one. He did, but he declined for Maureen. “Ectoplasm. It’s this kind of psychic fluid, right, and you know—okay I do hear myself. I do hear it. But on the other hand, people experience hauntings, don’t they? I know it’s stupid but also, like, why not? Haven’t stranger things happened?”

“What’s the theory?” Beck said, who had theories of his own. She had said this same thing to him last week, when he’d gently rejected her advances: I don’t usually act like this. 

“I have this sense that the swelling is, like, somehow…”

“Go on.” Beck smiled kindly when he saw Patricia’s hesitance. Maureen had found him too gentle in lovemaking sometimes. His awkwardness evident in his stiff blue jeans, his buttoned shirt, everything slightly ill-fitting. Beck was not a person who knew how to do something insincere with their person, with even their clothing, in order to charm. 

“It’s, like, Kris is inhabiting me. Like some kind of viscous substance.”

Beck studied her. There was something a little gelatinous in her body.

“I can’t shake this feeling. I know it’s crazy.”

“One thing I like about it,” Beck said, on the one hand a little jealous that Patricia might be kept in gooey company like this, and on the other always the diplomat. “Is that it depends on materialism. That matter undergirds us, you know? Our souls are made of cells or something?”

Patricia squinted at him. “Now you’ve lost me, Professor.” 

Beck had always lived in a particular mental world that others were not able to enter. And, it seemed to him now, that in his grief he had entered another new world. Why was it so hard to love the living, to see the living, the way we loved the dead? 

Patricia crushed her cigarette into the brick of the wall behind her. “You know that thing in the Bible when Jesus is dead and Mary says ‘They have taken my Lord away and I don’t know where they have put him?’” She started to sob, as though the cigarette had been plugging a chink in a dam. “Oh, god, I’m so embarrassed,” she said, pulling out a worn Kleenex and dabbing at her cheeks.

“It feels wonderful to cry,” Beck said. “Don’t be embarrassed.” She collapsed doughily into him, and it was then that relief hit him, like biting into a piece of bread when you’ve fasted for a week. So long since he’d been held. “I don’t usually act like this either,” he told her. But he was an awkward man. He patted her shoulder. “Shall we go inside?” 


The metal folding chairs were arranged in a circle. Patricia leaned on him like an old woman as they walked in together. He felt, mostly, happy to have the camaraderie of this woman who was well-liked by the support group. Beck was not well-liked. His questions were often met with disapproving looks—at first they had been pitying, now they were exasperated. And, also, they disliked that he was always writing down everything everyone said. “This is a private, sacred space,” Alison told him one evening after the meeting. “People feel uncomfortable with you taking so many notes and asking so many follow-up questions. They feel like you’re a reporter. Like you’re interrogating them.” 

How strange were other humans to think they could create something sacred out of nothing? Out of a hodgepodge of rotating strangers, united only in the most common human experience of all? Beck was not by nature suspicious of the motives of others, but Maureen would have wanted to debrief for hours. The two of them, as though after a party, would have stood at the sink cleaning dishes and wondering which among the attendees was the traitor, the tattletale. These would be Maureen’s words. And then—in this now-impossible, hypothetical scenario—she would get frustrated with him, because he would grow certain Alison was right, because he had spent his forty-five years on earth bewildered by the behaviour of others. 

“That’s understandable,” Beck said. “Would it be helpful if I explained myself?”

“I think,” Alison urged him, with a condescending smile, “you just need to stop taking so many notes.”

There had been an oral commitment made when he first joined the group, one that was repeated every week for the eight to twelve people who showed up. Alison would recite, “We acknowledge that this is a sacred space,” and the group would repeat back the pledge, “and that the things we share in this space will not be shared elsewhere.” 

“I didn’t mean to upset anybody,” Beck said, with some regret, because he had started to believe that thinking about grief and love and the mind and what it does was his real life’s work. He no longer took notes but sat in rapt attention, trying not to alarm anybody by staring with his eyes wide, but also trying hard to take everything in and memorize it, after which he ran to his car to write everything down. There was a horrible movement toward crescendo on these Tuesday nights that he could not resist. After he’d made dinner for Daisy and Leif, trying to engage them in conversation, to ask them how their friends were and whether their workloads at school were interesting enough—Leif had recently become interested in feedback loops, which, being Beck’s own subject, made Beck burst into tears—his kids, kind like Maureen, quietly cleared the table and did the dishes before disappearing to their bedrooms and their screens. To their own grief. After that, he brushed his teeth and got in the car, made the short drive to the Optimist club, went into the group meeting, sat at full alert taking in all the wonderful ways people spoke about their dead, rushed to the car to write it all down, turning the car on—the Goldberg variations pouring through him at full volume—and there it was, the high from which he’d fall, the high moment of insight and happy distraction until he was alone again, the feeling of Maureen’s presence settling in him, a bodily feeling, as of the chills or a wave of calm, the feeling that he was doing all of this for her. Someone said in group that they felt they had lost a limb and he was trying to think through this—how it felt, instead, that he had not lost a limb but gained several, which had required the development of new neural pathways to help him incorporate and operate them. But he rarely shared that feeling at group, anymore, because the others wanted to talk him out of his observations. They—who constantly stated that grief took many forms—wanted, when it came to him, to plow through to the acceptance stage. He’d start to speak about this new limb feeling, and they’d become impatient. No, Beck, that’s not what this is like at all, they’d say. Or, at times, she can’t experience this! Beck, you know that’s imaginary. But it wasn’t exactly imaginary, except in the strictest sense, since it was happening to his body. Beck didn’t believe in an afterlife, but he was starting to think that this was what people meant by ghosts. There was something there, he craned his mind toward it: something about ghosts. 

Patricia shifted her chair closer to his so that the sleeve of her blouse brushed against his arm. Rather than actually wanting to be with him, it was possible that Patricia wanted everyone to believe she was with him, and he was so flattered by this that he reddened. Then he swarmed with a vision of the many cells in the room, the unthinkable multitude of brainless gobs careening around that somehow added up to them, had no brains themselves but gave them brains, added up to these people and their intentions. The residue of all these loved ones still sat with all of them, somehow, without existing. The memories of these people sat here, too, so that with he and Patricia were also Kris and Maureen and each of their many dreams and memories and embarrassments. All the words they collectively knew. Like turtles, like tortoises, like titanium, terrarium, tachycardia, like tensile strength, tabletop tennis, toilet tanks, trembling tree limbs. Like time traveller. Treatise, trench, trek. 

He was grateful when this inner list was interrupted by Alison starting the meeting. They made their pledge. Someone spoke. Someone else spoke. People were always dying. All men are mortal. Beck’s thoughts were thick and crowded and for the first time in this group he wasn’t able to listen carefully. Instead of keening his neck he surrendered to the whole group’s buzzing noise, one after the other speaking of how the days had gone and what they were doing to fill them and how they were managing. Fights they’d had, sometimes, with friends or loved ones. Oh, keening was not the word. Leaning. Craning his neck. Keening was a lament for the dead. Appropriate slip, he thought, laughing to himself slightly, feeling Maureen laughing, too, at what a delight the human mind was. 

“Is that funny?”

A large man wearing a ball cap and red-eyed with tears looked with fury at Beck. The man’s large denim-slacked legs were open wide and his belly was long and enormous above his waist. Beck always made himself so small when he was sitting anywhere, since, though he was not manly, he was usually better at mathematical calculations than anyone in any room. This ability was enough to make other men easily riled by him. 

“No, I’m sorry. My mind had wandered. I had been thinking of something else.” 

 Alison frowned. “Don’t mind him. Go on, Steven, please.”

 The man with the hat scowled. “How am I going to keep going now? You people with your safe spaces!”

“Our sacred spaces.”

“You people,” he said, whimpering as Beck’s long-dead family dog used to do when he wanted to bark but was afraid of the consequence. 

“Oh, Steven, don’t worry about him, really. That’s just Beck. He’s…”

Then Beck felt a rage not his own pull up in him and begin to rant, eyes fixed on his off-white Brooks. “How dare you dismiss him! He has a PhD in mathematics and a second PhD in computer science and he has been featured in two prominent magazines! You don’t see his value because he is passive and kind and he sits there hunched over and with his thin legs crossed over each other diminutively—hey, what?—he has the mental power equal to ten of you combined, and he doesn’t point this out because he’s still kinder than you are, too, and why don’t you see this? His goodness? His kindness? Why does every human want to destroy whatever is good?”

Alison gaped at him, but everyone else, including Steven, looked down and away. 

“Beck?” Patricia whispered. She rubbed a hand on his leg. “You okay?” Beck was rolling back and forth on the chair. He was breathing heavily. 

“Let’s take a walk,” she said, and they excused themselves—Patricia shooting a fierce look at Alison. She led him around to the other side of the building where they could sneak cigarettes like young teenagers. 

 “Alison already believes I have a neurological disability. And now she’s going to think I’m going crazy,” Beck said, feeling the need to apologize to Patricia for this outburst, as though an apology could erase his embarrassment.

“There isn’t a lot of tolerance for people being a little quirky or different, which is so sad if you think about it, in America where it’s all about not becoming some idea of what a communist is, which Americans, because they are brainwashed, think means people who all want to dress alike. But there’s no tolerance for difference in America!”

“That’s true.” Beck was surprised at Patricia’s interesting political idea, and he felt badly for being surprised.

“I mean, those are really Kris’s ideas? I’ve been so full of his ideas lately. I think it’s why he had a heart attack, the stress: he wasn’t sleeping because of the political situation. He grew up in Russia—he really thought we were headed toward fascism and no one was paying attention. He was trying to build a bunker. And now—” she made a joking ghost gesture and wooooo… “he’s come from beyond the grave to make sure I can’t sleep because of it. I’ve got to continue his work. It’s going to kill me too.”

She was quiet for a long time. They were sitting on two big garden rocks in the dark, and he saw only the light of her cigarette’s cherry moving back and forth, the wet gleam of her eyes. 

“Sometimes I think about that word disability,” Beck said. “You know how everyone has different abilities on a spectrum. There’s no abled person and disabled person, there’s just every person and their package of many abilities, each package of which is different than others, like for example I’m not seven feet tall and I can’t play basketball well, but no one would say that’s a disability. I guess I’m trying to talk myself into something. That’s what Maureen would say when she was frustrated with me.” He felt he’d betrayed her, then, having revived their old argument without her consent. They slipped again into a companionable silence. “Why do people find ghosts scary? Aren’t they just people?”

“Now that’s a very good question.” Patricia’s exhalation of smoke filled the air with a comforting smell. It reminded him of the farmers he’d known as a boy, rolling their tobacco into papers outside school events, a memory that was his alone. “Are you sure you don’t want a cigarette?”   

“Maybe I will have one.” 

“Listen,” Patricia said. “I know you’re a scientist and everything and I have a feeling you

won’t like this. But that was weird in there, wasn’t it?”

He held the lit cigarette she handed him without putting it to his mouth. “It was weird.”

“I’m going to this kind of event this weekend and I want to take you. Will you come? Will you be open-minded and come?” 

He tipped his head and looked at her. Why did people think scientists weren’t open-minded? “I’d love to,” he said. 


That night, he lay in bed travelling back through the day. A handy illusion the self was, thinking that by perceiving it was somehow in control. Many people said there was a gauze or a veil torn from the surface of reality when someone you loved died, making you receptive to what lurked behind it. Not forever, but for a while the gauze thinned. But this was debunked spiritualism, and what was really happening is that in grief you were hypersensitive to stimuli. Even the air could seem to sear. What a strange mystery the mind. The mind that in marriage you share with another mind. It had always felt that together he and Maureen had created some third thing, a presence that came into being and was nourished like a mute animal, growing with them. A third thing that had not gone anywhere. That lived alongside him still. He lay there thinking about ectoplasm, which was some kind of veil also, some kind of gauze. Wasn’t it? No, no, it did not exist, this gelatinous covering over of a ghost. Just as ghosts did not exist. Just as, too, human minds did not exist. 

In the months before she died, Maureen had started to say they’d gotten married too young. A lovely third thing they had brought into being together, but still, she had regrets. They ought to have explored more with other people, and maybe it was not too late for such explorations. At the time when she was saying these things he had felt she was trying to sever herself from him. He was betrayed and terrified to lose her. A few weeks before her death she suggested they try living apart for a while. Had he willed her death? If you leave me… what had he said? If you leave me I’ll wither, I’ll die, and she had been alarmed because he had never been dramatic. I love you, she said, but you are just one person. 

Now it turned out—was it the case? He wasn’t just one person. No person was just one person. 

Now his feelings, in the light of her death, were only sadness on her behalf. He now thought nothing of himself. How sad he was that she had had no love affairs that he knew of. No one existed but him to curate the memories of her deep loveliness, of the meal he had made of her as though he could, by loving, own a person. 


On Saturday afternoon, Patricia picked him up in her Jeep, which was littered with coffee cups— some were in cupholders but many were just rolling around or crushed in piles on the floor—and which smelled of old cigarette smoke. The kids had laughingly interrogated him about this outing, but now were watching him from the kitchen window. He leaned back in the passenger seat and had a strange feeling, as though inhabiting some former version of Maureen, a girlhood Maureen, who wanted to be driven around in a big car by a man. His fingers seemed feminine to him, achingly so, and he put them on his slender knees to look at them. 

“What kind of music do you like,” Patricia said, brusquely, and the brusqueness made his fingertips tingle. 

“I mostly listen to Bach. I also like Schubert…”      

Patricia started to cough. 

“But I”—he racked his brain. “I like jazz too. And…The Beatles.” 

 “Okay. I’ll find the Beatles station. Satellite radio. Pretty good investment.” 

 “I’m Only Sleeping” came on and Beck turned to the window, tears suddenly gushing out of him. 

“Don’t worry, Beck,” Patricia said. “It feels wonderful to cry.” She opened the glove box

in front of him and handed him a clump of napkins, with which he delicately dabbed at his eyes. The rest of the song played at a stoplight, punctuated by the ticking of Patricia’s turn signal, until finally the station moved on to “Lovely Rita.” 

“I honestly, honestly cannot believe what is happening to my body,” Patricia said. She pulled onto the freeway at a speed that made it difficult to hear her. “My hair is almost like a growth.

Tumescent. A tumor. It’s so greasy. It’s not like hair. And I’m so sweaty. No matter what I do. Something is happening to me. Something sort of watery and oily and thick.”

“Something’s happening to me, too,” he said, to be kind. 


At 4:30 p.m., they arrived at a hotel in Irvine, and Patricia walked them quickly down a wide hall. Beck felt something strange in his limbs. They were so long. The ground so far away. The pattern on the maroon and green carpeting dizzied him and he looked back up at wall sconce after wall sconce. Maureen and her pretty youth and that she’d chosen him because she loved smart men and because he was a safe place. She had been assaulted once by a mentor at a conference hotel, back when she still had academic ambitions, back before they met, and though she wouldn’t tell Beck the name of this man, claiming she wanted to leave it behind her, she never had. She had abandoned her fellowship halfway through and never returned to Victorian literature, except to reread Dickens at Christmas. Twenty-two years ago for a series of weeks her assault was all Beck could think about, as if it had happened to his own body, and so he had been careful with hers, its lanky beauty, its curve at the waist, its long fingers, he would not spoil her with desire. This had been a miscalculation perhaps. What a collection of regrets each person was. Everyone and their overlapping traumas: was this all that constituted human existence? Beck grabbed the wall, which was also carpeted, for some reason. It was a nightmare, it wasn’t real. 

Patricia stopped a few feet ahead and spun around. “Beck, are you going to make it?” He nodded. “Did you eat today?” Again he nodded. It felt like the wall would become earth, would come alive and start to touch him. He jerked his hand away and kept pace with her until they arrived. Room 111. The room was the size of a conference room with a keynote speaker, and Beck’s identity as an academic returned to fit itself to him. Tinkling sounds coming from a boom box at the stage near the front, which was not music. Music was free. Why did people choose such bad non-musical sounds. Windchimes. The oddly placed reverberation of a gong. He was being a snob but this felt like a way of existing, so he held on to it. 

Patricia took a pamphlet from a small table near the back, then led him up the half-filled seats toward the front. They had come early, she’d said, in order to get choice seats. “I paid an extra six hundred dollars to have a one-on-one with her later, with the medium.”

“The medium?” he said. 

“Six hundred dollars is the same price as a few sessions with a great therapist.”     

“I suppose that’s rational,” he said. He crossed his right leg over his left and rested his palms on his knees. “Did you talk to Alison about this?”

“She’ll just try to tell me that I’m being exploited by a sociopath in my grief. Kris would have felt the same way. That psychics are snake oil salesmen who exploit us.”

Beck generally agreed with this point of view but the question of his open-mindedness had been rattling around all week. I am a rational person, and I hate this music, he thought. I am an atheist, and I am not afraid of this. 

“But I’m going crazy, here. What am I going to do, get myself committed? I know what it feels like—I’m being possessed—” 

Beck saw through the density of the stage. The particles careened and careened, the brainless gobs. It was our minds that held objects together, our words for them—this was what some philosophers believed. And maybe he was going to vomit?

“Don’t be scared, Beck. I just need help managing it. There’s something nice about it. Something nice about being inhabited.”

He was trapped there. The only way home was back in her Jeep. 

“I can feel you’re skeptical, Beck, but you don’t have to be. You can just let go. You could think of the human brain like a radio that receives signals, that’s very good at receiving signals, you know? So it’s not like our souls are limited to our bodies. You can get messages from all over, if you tune in. You have to tune in.”

“And consciousness is like a wave? Like a radio wave?”

“That’s right,” she said. 

People had begun to fill the seats. Their voices and chatter had a charge. The lights dimmed, voices buzzed. Beck was at sea. Sloshing. Someone in long linen clothing began to light candles on the stage, twenty of them in total, and he feared for their dangling sleeves. But all was well. The only other light came from people’s phones, most of them older than he and Patricia. Oopsy. It’s starting. Shhh. How do I turn the screen off? Nervous titters of laughter. The linen-enrobed person stood in the middle of the stage now. He saw that the outfit was wide trousers and a loose blouse, and that she had long, angelic hair. She began to define terms. She was a medium, an empath, clairvoyant, clairaudient, clairsentient, claircognizant. She said the spirits vibrate, just as we all do. She invited these vibrating spirits to join in, to come to them now with benevolent intent. 

It was exactly like a nineteenth-century con job séance. He listened impatiently as one after another generically referenced loved one visited them with messages like Bob is very proud of you and all you’ve done this year. Susan is no longer in pain and loves you very much.

Increasingly sick, Beck watched the woman’s eyes flash in the reflected candlelight. People lied. People were not very good to each other. 

“Someone in this region has lost someone very important to them,” the medium said, gesturing her wide preacher sleeves in Beck’s direction. “I feel someone trying to make contact, here, oh yes, there is a strong presence.” The woman closed her eyes. Beck could feel something happening to Patricia’s body, like a dog trying to contain its excitement. Vestigial tail wagging. 

“Oh, goddess,” the woman said. “Oh my goddess.”

Beck would not give this cruel woman the satisfaction of taking advantage of him.

He thought, maybe I can love Patricia so that she doesn’t lean on these monsters, maybe Maureen and I can take her in. 

“The letter M! The letter A, maybe? Oh, she’s speaking. A woman, a beautifully feminine woman.”

Beck scowled at her. 

“That’s Maureen,” Patricia whispered loudly, too loudly. 

“She was so young. Oh, she was young and just in the prime of her life. She loved her husband and her children.”

Beck stared at her, hardness in his eyes. 

“Oh, Maureen, she is so sad. She loved so much. She still loves.” The medium beamed.

She closed her eyes and lifted her arms upward. “She left suddenly. There was no warning. The body can be so cruel. A…I think…a brain aneurysm. But she is not gone. She will never leave you.” 

A candlestick started to rattle. 

“Oh, Beck,” Patricia said. 

Beck stood, thinking to leave. Parlour tricks preyed on the grieving. But he could not leave. The candlestick stopped rattling and its flame went out. Several people in the audience made gasping sounds. Still he could not leave. He was rational but he could be fooled, just like anyone. In a way, he thought, that was a comfort. He sat back down. 

“What else is she saying,” Patricia said. 

“She didn’t want to leave you,” the medium said. “She didn’t want to leave.”


Patricia’s six-hundred-dollar meeting was the fourth in line after the group session, and Beck had to wait, pacing, in the nearly-empty room. An hour with no book to read, no Bach to blast, and so he wandered down the hall to the hotel bar and ordered a stiff drink. Two maraschino cherries for Maureen. Of course she hadn’t wanted to leave. Tell me something I don’t know—tell me what the afterlife is like—maybe he could pay six hundred dollars and see if this greedy claircognizant could tell him that. So, consciousness was everywhere and not specific to our specific bodies but also specific people could speak to you from beyond the grave? No, this was just grief, just the imagination. Not just the imagination, but the real, actual, most powerful thing that makes a human as wonderful as a human is. Some elephants loved like this. Elephants had been known to die of grief. But a brain was not a radio signal. It had always deflated him when something so obvious to him was so difficult for others to reason through. 

He ate the cherries. To eat a cherry for Maureen. This wasn’t insanity or something supernatural. It was just his long love that would not cease to exist because she had died. It felt good to angrily brood sometimes. He drank down the whiskey, because it braced him and reminded him of his body. Maureen had always been there to tell him what he was feeling. Of course she hadn’t wanted to leave him. But also she had wanted to leave him. What was the afterlife, some kind of place where spirits are flying around indicating certain letters of the alphabet vaguely to mediums that no one even likes? He laughed and slugged the drink. No, he wouldn’t accept it. His mind was not that open. He would not allow it to be the case that Maureen was trapped somewhere having thoughts only for his benefit. 

The selfishness of the living. He put the glass down and watched the drink resolve into its particles. 

He sat there so long that Patricia had to find him. He saw her ambling toward him. She was breathless when she arrived at his side. “Oh my god, Beck, can you believe that?”

“I don’t know,” he said, wanting to be kind.

“She knew how Maureen died,” she said. 

For five years as a boy he had devoted himself to learning magic tricks, amazing to him not that there was something called “magic” but that it was so easy to fool people into thinking there was. “She did,” he confirmed. “She did know. We don’t know how she knew, but she did. But an accurate guess or an accidentally true belief is not the same as knowledge.”

“Beck, don’t tell me you don’t believe in intuition,” she said, pulling up a seat now and lifting a finger for the bartender. “And anyway, look at me.”  He turned to look at her. 

“We asked Kris why he was doing this, in particular, to get my attention. And we told him it had worked and that we were paying attention but what we wanted was for me to have some control of my body. Was that possible? We asked him. Was it possible for Kris to be near me but not to take over my body like this? It was like couple’s therapy.” She laughed. “And look, Beck, look at me. Here, look.” She took his long-fingered hand and put it on her forearm. “He’s letting me be a little. I’m not so feverishly hot anymore.” 

Beck did not trust his perceptions or his memories. 

“Don’t I look better?”

She did have a certain glow. Whether it was some kind of instant placebo was hard to say. Her hair didn’t look messy, and she didn’t look swollen to him, just pretty and pleasantly plump. But maybe he had only taken her word for it that she had been looking badly. 

“You look lovely,” he confirmed, squeezing the solid flesh of her forearm, which was both quite firm and quite cool. 

“This is nice,” she said. “We’ll get through this, won’t we?” 

What was true was that they’d get through it or they wouldn’t, which was exactly the kind of thing he’d say that might tickle Maureen, and he thought maybe it was time to relax the boundaries a little. Let Patricia in. Go on a date with her—or was this a date?—and see what happened. Let their bodies and minds intersect and form some kind of strange brainy gob, a metagob that would always be bigger than the sum of parts and was all that a person could hope for. 

Liz Harmer smiles at the viewer in front of a background of trees.

Liz Harmer is the author of the novels The Amateurs and Strange Loops. Her stories and essays have appeared in This Magazine, The New Quarterly, Little Brother, The Malahat Review, Literary Hub, and elsewhere. She was a finalist for a 2013 NMA for Best New Magazine Writer, and won the NMA that year for Personal Essay. Originally from Hamilton, she now lives in Southern California with her young family. 

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