No new short stories to share so I decided to give you this one this week. This one of the ones that always makes me cry by the end. Hope you enjoy!
Survival was hard enough but when your space station was half destroyed and the population was slowly trickling away it became even harder. Paulina lived with the scars of the accident that had nearly killed their station. She wasn’t sure if she could live with the plan her lover Tina and their friends had come up with to revive the station’s failing future.
It was hard enough to live with the ghosts of the dead in her heart. Paulina wasn’t sure she could stand to be surrounded by them all the time.
Ghosts of the Dead is a near future SF story of recovery from disaster, regaining your strength and moving into the future.
Ghosts of the Dead
By Meyari McFarland
1. Water Damage
“Ugh,” Paulina complained. “It stinks.”
“The whole station stinks,” Tina said with a shrug that was anything but casual. “Will until the filters are all replaced.”
That was true enough that Paulina didn’t reply. The smell of smoke and melted plastic had almost gotten familiar in the last couple of months. It lingered on Paulina’s tongue, stained the back of her nose until the burning seemed normal.
Nothing was normal, not anymore. Too many people were dead. Too many had fled the station with what little they could salvage. Paulina had a moment of vertigo as she remembered the burnt and twisted wreckage of the other half the station drifting away with Keiko Lewis still chattering away about keeping people safe.
She’d died. Her body was still in the wreckage a few thousand klicks away. She wasn’t the only one ‘buried’ in vacuum. Paulina shut her eyes against the rush of faces she’d never see again. So many people had died but Paulina had been left behind to struggle on through life. The too-familiar sourness of vomit rose at the back of her throat, threatening to spill Paulina’s meager mushroom and spinach piroshky out onto the stained carpet covering the floor.
“It smells like mold,” Paulina said once she’d pushed the nausea down again. “We can’t buy a place that’s full of mold, Tina.”
“We can fix it,” Tina replied as she pushed the theatre’s double doors open so that they could see the stage and seats.
“Sure’n it’s a beautiful sight,” Boss Johnson said in the back of Paulina’s head. His accent was as off in memory as it had been in real life. “Perfect place to take a lovely lady fer a night of fun.”
Paulina cringed away from the flashback. She didn’t want to remember. Her first date with Tina had been to see an amateur production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in this theatre. Tina had grinned when Paulina marched up and asked if she wanted to go. She’d been so nervous that she’d almost shouted it, much to the amusement of her and Tina’s coworkers out on the Docks.
The smell of mold fought with Paulina’s memory of popcorn and laughing kisses as they watched the play from the back of the theatre. It had been perfect, a perfect shining moment that was completely destroyed by seeing the condition of the station now. When she tried to remember what Tina’s expression had been, Paulina couldn’t.
Faces didn’t make sense anymore. She could see eyes, a nose, mouths, even hairstyles but none of it made any sense. It didn’t coalesce into ‘Tina’s happy’, ‘Tina’s angry’ or ‘Tina’s sad’. Instead Paulina had to piece the separate elements together against a mental register of remembered explanations and hypothetical assumptions. She’d gotten better at figuring out what people’s expressions meant about their emotional state but the doctors had said that Paulina would never regain the skill for facial recognition and emotional comprehension. It was gone just like everything she’d loved about their space station.
Paulina slowly drifted towards the stage. Her fingers brushed against one of the seats. The once-soft velvet was sticky with fire suppression foam residue. She snatched her hand back, fisting it. Everything was ruined, completely ruined. Well, Paulina thought as she stomped up the stairs to the stage, that didn’t mean that they couldn’t make new memories. That was what Tina kept saying, not that Paulina thought they could make something out of this place.
It was a disaster. Boards lifting up, nails coming loose and that didn’t even touch the condition of the drapes; she’d never seen a stage in such horrible condition. The rest of the theatre was in equally bad shape.
The walls looked as though a thunderstorm had poured through the roof, staining the walls. She could smell mold everywhere in the theatre, a truly horrifying thought given that the space station was supposed to be ‘fully refurbished’. It obviously wasn’t but Paulina already knew that. Everyone who lived on the station knew just how much was left to be done. The station management’s advertising only applied to specific public areas. Any privately owned spaces were officially the responsibility of the owners.
“You can’t be serious,” Paulina complained to Tina without meeting her eyes. “This place is a dump.”
“Yeah,” Tina said with a far too casual shrug. “But it’s in our price range.”
“Why a theatre?” Paulina whined in part because it was this particular theatre full of memories that Paulina would have preferred to keep intact. “Seriously, this is insane. How can we set up a shop in a theatre, especially one this rundown?”
Tina glared. The punch to Paulina’s shoulder was expected. Didn’t stop it from hurting even though Paulina was better at pain than most after her dockside accident. Tina was a good foot taller than Paulina and from a station with full Earth gravity. She hit a lot harder than Paulina could dream of. Tina’s arms crossed over her chest looked as big around as Paulina’s waist, as brown as mahogany and corded with muscle.
Growing up on a low-grav station had left Paulina with a much more delicate body than Tina’s. Paulina’s slender build prevented her from ever being effective in combat that didn’t involve remote controlled robots. Besides, her scars weren’t the sort that went numb from nerve damage. No, Paulina got lucky and had scars that ached all the time.
Her whole body ached. Sometimes Paulina thought about using the pain pills the hospital had given her but no. No. The dreams she got were worse than the aches, worse than her scars brushing against something and sending screaming fire through Paulina’s body. Better to deal with what was around her, the damage, the destruction, the shell-shocked expressions she couldn’t comprehend anymore, than dream of what it had been like before.
“We can’t afford anything better,” Tina growled. “I checked. There’s literally nothing left, Pau. All the good places have been taken. This is still available because the fire suppression systems malfunctioned and flooded the place. No one wanted to clean it up.”
“I don’t want to clean it up,” Paulina complained. “This place stinks and it’s going to take most of our budget just to renovate. We won’t have money for buying stock.”
“Yes, we will,” Tina said. “All we have to do is work with Sue and Andrea. They take part of the building and we take the rest.”
“Which part?” Paulina asked immediately.
The theatre wasn’t that big. It held just over two hundred seats, most arranged in the main part of the floor, a few on the tiny balcony. The backstage portion was small with very little room for props or, in their case, stock. The offices were tiny, barely more than closets. Out front, where the most effective sales presence would be, there was a decent lobby but that was run down and water damaged, too.
Besides, Paulina wasn’t terribly fond of Sue. She wasn’t that bad, really. It was just that her voice was always too loud and her Southern accent frequently confused Paulina. She was from Earth, after all, and every Earther that Paulina had met was convinced of their inherent superiority over space-bred people.
If Sue was bad, though, Andrea was worse. Her smile always had that plastic quality of a person forced to smile when they’d rather curse. Paulina had no idea why Andrea though so poorly of her but it showed. There was nothing like watching a person go from laughing and carefree to fighting to keep a fake smile on their face the instant you showed up. Even with Paulina’s problems interpreting facial expressions Andrea’s issues with her were obvious. That smile was so fake that it stuck out like a sore thumb.
“I don’t want to have to deal with them all the time,” Paulina told Tina. “You know I don’t get along with them.”
“Everyone knows that,” Tina groaned as she rolled her eyes. “Really, it couldn’t be any more obvious if you tried. They said they’d like the offices and the backstage area. A tiny accounting firm doesn’t need a bunch of room. We should be able to take the rest of the theatre for ourselves. No storage space but then we can’t afford much in stock anyway and there’s not that many people on the station anymore so it will be okay.”
“Why are we doing this?” Paulina asked. “You’re right. There aren’t enough people on the station. There aren’t going to be. It’s old. It’s worn out. Half of the damn station is gone, Tina! Everyone knows that the station’s dying, dead, gone. They all want to go to stations that are new and fancy, with big open spaces and plenty of room, where it doesn’t stink of fire and death and fear.”
Tina pulled Paulina in for a hug without answering the complaint. There was no reason to. They’d talked about this for months as Paulina recovered before deciding that it was the best of their limited options. Neither of them had any family to speak of. Their jobs had been cut when the station management downsized due to decreased traffic and residency. And neither of them had the funds to move to a different station. Starting a shop was their only choice.
“It’s big,” Andrea murmured at the double doors that led from the lobby to the theatre.
“Yer gonna be fine, sweetie,” Sue reassured her. When Paulina peeked around Tina’s side Andrea looked frightened of the sheer size of the theatre. “We’ll take the store rooms an’ make ‘em ours. Might even be a service corridor we could use to enter so ya don’ have to deal with the space in here.”
Paulina blinked up at Tina, surprised. She hadn’t thought that Andrea had agoraphobia. How she survived on a space station Paulina didn’t know. Tina turned the two of them and Andrea’s smile instantly went plastic. Her fingers tightened so much around Sue’s wrist that Sue winced.
“There y’all are,” Sue said loudly enough that Paulina winced. Her words echoed through the theatre making everyone wince along with Paulina. “Yow, I’m gonna have ta practice my indoor voice, aren’t I?”
“Please,” Paulina begged. “It’d help.”
To her surprise, Andrea swallowed down a laugh. She looked almost as shocked by the aborted giggle as Paulina felt but Sue didn’t seem to notice either. Sue grinned and nodded, flapping her free hand at Tina and Paulina.
“I’ll do m’best,” Sue promised. “But Lordy-God, this place needs a ton of work. We even gonna be able to do it?”
“I have a friend who had a team that does refurbishing work,” Tina said. “If we chip in labor then he’ll cut the cost.”
“I still don’t know what we’re going to sell,” Paulina sighed. “There isn’t a demand for food. The big grocery store is too cheap. And no need for knickknacks either when the station’s half gone and the other half is emptying out.”
“Games or toys?” Andrea suggested hesitantly. “There are a lot of families and no good entertainment options anymore.”
Sue shook her head no, sighing. “Don’ see that working. Too far away from the center concourse.”
Paulina sighed and nodded her agreement with Sue. She might be annoying but she was right. They really didn’t have a good plan. All Tina had been able to come up with so far was ‘open a shop’. That was better than Paulina’s half-cracked ideas of somehow making millions out of nowhere.
“I don’t know if we can even make this place work,” Paulina said. “I mean, look at it. It’s designed to be a theatre, not a shop. Unless we’re selling ghost stories about all the dead people on this station we’re not going to get much business.”
Tina stiffened. She looked around, a grin slowly blooming on her face. Sue whistled but it was low enough not to go straight through Paulina’s head. Even Andrea gasped and then smiled a real smile, the one that quirked her lips and made her eyes wrinkle up in completely different ways from the fake smiles Paulina had learned to recognize already. Their reactions made Paulina stare and then huff.
“Pau,” Tina said, “you’re brilliant. What better to sell than ghost stories? The entire station is turning into a ghost town. Why not play on that? There’s plenty of material, after all.”
“How?” Paulina demanded. “I’m not a writer. Neither are you. How do you sell ghost stories, anyway?”
“Oh, that’s easy, darlin’,” Sue said. “When we get this place fixed up we make sure ta leave it a bit bedraggled. Have some water stains, torn seats an’ the like. Then we fill the front lobby with all sorts of spooky toys and books. Then maybe dress up in torn coveralls, spooky makeup. Y’know, like Halloween costumes jus’ all the time. It’ll be easy for you.”
Paulina bristled at that, making Andrea shiver and hide behind Sue. Tina glared at her, too. That made Paulina feel a bit better. She knew how her scars made her look. There was no need to rub her nose in it.
“Not like that,” Sue sighed. “Seriously, y’all are too sensitive about those things. Yeah, they twist up your face on one side bu’ it’s not tha’ bad overall. No, I meant yer size, sweetie. Y’all make the perfect pair for that sort of thing. One little ‘n’ scary-fast, the other big ‘n’ looming. It’ll work well.”
“We’d still need stories,” Paulina said with a glare that didn’t bother Sue at all even though it made Andrea quiver behind her. “Or shows or something. We don’t have that. I can’t act.”
“You can sing,” Tina said entirely too mildly for it to be anything more than her taking the idea seriously.
“Traitor,” Paulina hissed at her. “I am not singing for anyone but you. I’m not that good.”
Tina grinned and shrugged. “You are, too. Well. And I do a good job of telling stories. All it would take is some research. We’ll have time to gather stories to play off of when we’re fixing the place up. Maybe we could do some actual plays, you know, spooky ones that only take a couple of actors.”
“That’d be a load o’ fun!” Sue exclaimed much too loudly again. “Oops. Sorry! Really got great acoustics in here. I c’n act a bit if y’all don’ mind an accent.”
“Um, I know how to decorate things,” Andrea offered. “I could make costumes, maybe some props. Sue can sew cute toys for kids.”
Paulina pulled out of Tina’s arms to stare at each of them in turn. They were serious. They really thought it would work. She shook her head, mouthing ‘no’ at Tina. It didn’t work. Tina smiled wryly at her and shrugged. Sue clapped her hands and bounced on her toes. Even Andrea looked as though she thought it was a good idea if the way she met Paulina’s eyes was anything to judge by.
“You’re all insane!” Paulina complained. “We’ll go broke and end up on the chain gang for our debts.”
“No, we won’t,” Tina said. “It’ll work. Besides, do you have any better ideas?”
Paulina’s shoulders tensed until they felt like they were made of stone. She didn’t. There weren’t any other ideas that showed any signs of succeeding. They couldn’t grow anything in the theatre because permits for independent food production were prohibitively expensive. None of them had the skills to pilot, the really big earner on the station. And there wasn’t any other place that they could afford to buy.
“No,” Paulina sighed.
“Well, then,” Tina declared. “We have a plan.”