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.”
“Ghost stories?” Max and Sam said as one.
They blinked at each other, slow smiles blooming over their faces. Despite being twins, they didn’t look a thing like each other. Max was pale skinned and burly with the kinky hair of their mother. Sam was inky black skinned with slightly wavy hair from their father. Strangers who saw them together tended to think that they were lovers, not brothers.
Their business was a simple cleaning and remodeling one. Somehow, Tina had gotten a discount from them but only in exchange for the two of them helping Max and Sam do all the cleaning in the theatre. Paulina would have preferred to spend her time coming up with a better idea for their future but that didn’t look like it was going to happen.
“I like it!” Max exclaimed. “We gotta do that, too.”
Paulina groaned. Every single person she’d mentioned the idea to thought it was incredible. The owner of the little entertainment shop down the way had already redecorated so that his shop looked like something out of a traditional Earth Halloween celebration. When she and Tina walked home last night they’d glimpsed holograms of space-suited ghosts with broken helmets appearing and disappearing in the central concourse.
People around them had laughed or screeched with delight. They appeared to enjoy it. Paulina had no idea why. What was so great about being scared? It didn’t make any sense to her. She could identify the people the ghost holograms were based on. One had been Lisa Lui who’d died of oxygen deprivation after using up three canisters of air saving other people. The other had been Boss Johnson as his corpse drifted off into space, flailing and reaching for the cut line that had meant his head. The idea of their ‘ghosts’ wandering the station made Paulina’s stomach twist into knots. Tina, on the other hand, had grinned so smugly that Paulina had glared at her.
And now Max and Sam were just as excited about the idea as everyone else. Paulina huffed, waving her broom at them as if she was going to whack them with it. Max laughed and mock-ducked. Sam just grinned.
“It’s a great idea,” Sam said, pushing the broom away. “I like it. It’s not like we have anything else around here. Why not theme the whole station as a ghost station? That’s what it’s on its way to being.”
“Yeah, but for real instead of fake,” Max agreed. “People like that sort of stuff, Pau. You know that.”
“Don’t call me Pau,” Paulina growled at him. “Only Tina gets to call me that.”
“Sorry,” Max said without the slightest trace of guilt.
Tina appeared at the double doors into the theatre dragging the garbage bin and its lift. She smiled at Paulina, nodded to the twins and then grabbed her broom. The actual theatre portion of the theatre had already been stripped of everything broken and moldy. There was a big pile of more or less usable seats off to one side of the lobby. Everything else had already been disposed of.
The lobby was mostly stripped. They’d taken down the ceiling covers and the walls were mostly gone. One patch still needed work by the front door but that wouldn’t take long. Paulina was looking forward to getting rid of the carpet. If the theatre was anything to judge by the mold smell that still lingered was coming from the carpet under their feet.
“So you guys are going to do plays?” Sam asked Tina with enough delight that he got a grin out of Tina.
“Maybe,” Tina said. “We don’t know yet. We don’t have the writing skills to create ghost stories to base things on. It’s just the shell of a concept so far.”
“I could write you some stuff,” Max offered.
He blinked at them when Paulina stared at him. Tina just made a ‘go ahead’ gesture at him while Sam bounced on his toes excitedly. Sam’s bouncing made the mold smell much worse so Paulina poked him with the handle of her broom. She also pulled up her face mask. Mold spores were the last thing she wanted to breathe in.
“I write a little,” Max admitted. “Not much but I could throw together some nice spooky stories that you could feature.”
“Do,” Tina said. “We’ll give you credit, of course, but we don’t have the money to pay you for them.”
“Eh, they’ll just be outlines,” Max said. “A few spooky details and maybe a plot that you guys can work around. Nothing fancy. You really won’t need much. Scary stories work better when you don’t know all the details.”
“Go ahead,” Tina said. “I’d like to see what you come up with.”
Max and Sam fist-bumped; both of them grinned so broadly that Paulina didn’t bother protesting this latest round of insanity. She really didn’t know why everyone was so enraptured with the idea of their station being known as the ‘ghost’ station. It frankly bothered her a lot more than she was willing to explain.
Even Tina didn’t know just how close Paulina had come to being one of the dead. The accident had come within a hair’s breadth of killing her. Paulina’s scars were permanent reminders of the fact that she’d lived when so many other people died. As far as she was concerned, spending the rest of her life talking about the dead was going backwards instead of forwards.
As they finished cleaning up the last of the debris from the walls and ceiling, Max chattered about various stories he’d heard. He came up with the ancient one that Paulina had heard as a little girl about the ghosts of the workers killed during the construction of the station walking through the hallways early in the morning as if they were returning to their jobs, broken helmets tucked under their arms. Sam offered one that she’d heard for ages about the old mining ship A-9871 ghost ship where the crew all died in a solar flare but the ship still made it to port on autopilot only to sit silent and still on the docks.
By the time Max and Sam were trading ideas of which of the accident’s many stories would scare people the most, ghosts killed in electrical arcing or ones who’d been caught in the explosion proper and thus had their suits rupture, Paulina’s stomach was in so many knots that she could barely breathe.
“It’s not funny,” Paulina said, low enough that none of the others heard her. “It’s not funny! This is horrible!”
She flung her broom at Sam who dodged with an expression of shock on his face. Rather than let Tina grab her, Tina ran for the back rooms that were going to be Sue and Andrea’s. Tina called her name. Paulina ignored it.
Both of the back office doors were open. Paulina ran in one and slammed the door, sitting against it so that Tina wouldn’t be able to get in. She sighed and let her head thump back against the door. Protesting this wasn’t going to do any good. No matter how Paulina complained about this, she knew that there weren’t any other options. If they wanted to survive they had to do something and the whole ghost idea was the best one anyone had come up with.
Paulina jerked. Her eyes snapped open only to slide shut as she groaned. Andrea stood on the exact opposite side of the room, her back pressed against the wall with a broom in her hands. She looked utterly terrified to be alone with Paulina.
“Sorry,” Paulina said. “They just won’t stop talking about the accident’s ghost stories out there. I had to… get away.”
“You don’t like the ghost story idea?” Andrea asked with enough surprise that Paulina shrugged. “Then why are you going along with this?”
“Because I don’t see any other options,” Paulina admitted. “I’ve tried to come up with something else and I just can’t think of anything that would work. It’s this or take on a huge debt to move to another station where I’d probably be the next best thing to a wage slave. Besides, Tina likes the idea.”
Andrea nodded slowly. It could almost be an encouraging gesture if it weren’t for the way she swallowed convulsively. And her knuckles were white from her too-tight grip on the broom. Paulina sighed as she rubbed a hand over her unscarred cheek.
“Why are you doing this?” Paulina asked. “You’re terrified of me or something. Every time I look your way you panic. Or you hate me. Can’t tell. I never was good at reading faces and it’s only gotten worse since the accident.”
“That affected your facial comprehension?” Andrea asked with enough astonishment that Paulina couldn’t help but glare. “I’m sorry! I just didn’t realize that it had.”
“Yes, it did,” Paulina grumbled. “Brain injuries often do that, you know. I look at people and don’t… I can’t figure out what they’re thinking. I mean, I’ve learned Tina’s expressions, mostly her body language, frankly, but everyone else confuses me.”
“Oh,” Andrea breathed.
She carefully set her broom aside, setting it into the corner as if keeping it from falling down was the most important thing in the universe. Then she slid down to the floor to put her head between her knees. The slow deep breaths were the first thing that clued Paulina into Andrea’s panic attack. Paulina squeaked something, an offer of help she thought, but Andrea shook her head and waved one hand no.
It took a minute or so before Andrea raised her head. Her face was covered with a sheen of sweat and her eyes were closed. Paulina bit her lip. Maybe she really misinterpreted Andrea’s responses? She must have if she just set off a panic attack.
“Sorry,” Andrea said as someone, probably Tina, knocked on the door.
“No, not your fault. Hang on,” Paulina said. She turned and thumped an elbow against the door. “Go away! I do not want to talk right now.”
Tina’s laugh echoed through the door. “Well, come out when you do. We’re going to start stripping the carpet.”
“Have fun,” Paulina said.
She could hear Tina reassuring Sue but the words were an indistinct murmur. Andrea raised one eyebrow, making a questioning gesture with her left hand. Paulina shrugged.
“Can’t hear what they’re saying,” Paulina said.
“You figured that out,” Andrea commented.
“Raised eyebrows either mean questions or they mean snide comments,” Paulina explained. “It was the hand gesture that made me think it was a question. So, panic attacks?”
Andrea grimaced. “I was on the dock too. I get really bad panic attacks when I’m reminded of the explosion. You don’t?”
Paulina blinked several times, trying to fit what she knew of Andrea in with working on the docks. The delicate woman didn’t seem the type to be out on the docks in the first place. She always wore pretty clothes full of lace and pastel colors. Andrea was as far as she could get from being the standard dock worker.
Her shock prompted a grin that was too fast for Paulina to properly register. It was just a hint of teeth that felt threatening rather than amused or nervous. Andrea waved both hands in the downward gesture that dock workers used to tell someone else to settle down out of the path of flight.
“You actually worked the docks,” Paulina said. “I’m stunned.”
“They like littler people for the job,” Andrea said, shrugging. “Don’t need strength when you’re in microgravity.”
“True,” Paulina agreed. “That’s how I got the job.”
“So you don’t get panic attacks?” Andrea asked. Once again she used the old, familiar hand gestures from the docks, signaling ‘explain’ and ‘further detail needed’.
Paulina laughed. “Keep doing that. It helps. No, I don’t. I was knocked out almost instantly. Didn’t wake up until two days later in the hospital. Heck, I didn’t actually spend more than a few minutes at a time conscious until two weeks later. I have issues, yeah, but there’re not panic attacks.”
“Lucky,” Andrea sighed. Her hands went limp. “I was pinned and conscious all through the rescue effort. No real damage, physically, but… I couldn’t move and had to watch the whole thing.”
“That,” Paulina said with a surge of nausea at the sheer thought, “is worse.”
Andrea blinked. This time when she smiled it was a slowly dawning thing that was coupled with tears dripping down her cheeks. Paulina stared for a moment, unsure if she’d just hurt Andrea’s feelings but no. Andrea’s hands flapped for a second and then cupped in the gesture for ‘thank you’.
“Heh, you’re welcome.”
3. Set Dressing
“It’d be amazing!” Max shouted as he tried to help Sam heft their end of the new theatre curtains up onto the restored stage. “Really, I think it’ll be great to have actual plays here.”
“You have got,” Paulina grunted as she got underneath the middle of the roll of fabric, pushing up with all her might, “to be kidding. None of us… can act!”
“Little more,” Tina said.
The boys shoved while Paulina pushed up. The curtains suddenly moved, sliding onto the stage in a rush that left Sam and Max toppled over the top of Paulina. She growled and shoved them off, brushing herself off. Max rubbed his head as if he’d hit it while Sam groaned and rubbed his back.
“Y’all could have asked for help,” Sue said. “Woulda been glad to give you a hand.”
“We got it,” Tina said. “We could use help getting the curtains attached to the beams.”
“We are here,” Sue said, grinning as she climbed the stairs to stare down at the drapes. “Not so sure these’ll work but wha’ever floats yer boat, sweetie.”
“It’s part of the set dressing,” Paulina said. “Everyone’s determined to go ghost stories so rags for curtains it is.”
Both Max and Sam made outraged noises behind Paulina’s back. She ignored them. The curtains were rags. Black and gray fabric had been pieced together. Most of the edges were ragged and torn, dripping loose threads that made Paulina twitch for how badly they would clog the air vents in the theatre if they got lose.
Yes, it fit with what they’d done for the decorations but it just bothered her that everything was unfinished, ragged and seemingly broken. They’d left the right side of the theatre unfinished, the chairs unbolted and piled in one corner of the room. Yes, the floor was properly carpeted and all the holes had been filled but it looked like the seats had just been torn out and thrown off to the side.
The left side of the theatre had been restored with the seats were properly bolted down. Unfortunately, as far as Paulina was concerned, the carpet had been deliberately distressed to look as if it was stained. All down the wall was a carefully painted ‘water stain’ that made it look like they hadn’t done a single thing to clean the theatre up. Max and Sam had even put up some carefully anchored drapes of artistically stained woven wall covering near the ceiling.
“They’re not rags,” Max protested. “We paid my aunt a lot of money to make these. She did extra work to make them look this way.”
“They look like rags,” Paulina complained. “Everything looks trashed. It’s horrible!”
“That’s the point,” Sam and Max complained as one.
Andrea laughed quietly, attracting Paulina’s attention with a ‘hey’ gesture. She followed it with ‘trying too hard’ and ‘noobs’. Paulina snickered and nodded before sighing as she looked around the theatre. ‘Disturbing,’ Paulina signed.
“It is, a little bit,” Andrea agreed. “But everyone on the station seems to think it’s a great idea.”
“Makes it hard to walk home without getting creeped out,” Paulina complained.
Max groaned, rolling his eyes as if he thought that they were both insane. He hadn’t started telling ghost stories since Paulina’s little fit a couple of weeks ago but she thought he might be thinking of it. Tina glared at him, hands on her hips. Sue, who’d cheerfully sat on the floor to thread bits of twine through the grommets at the top of the curtains, snorted.
“All y’all better get yer butts in gear,” Sue said. “We’re supposed to open in three days an’ we’re nowhere near ready. Thinkin’ up new ideas of what to do isn’t gonna help, Max. Maybe we can do little plays someday but fer now we’re not goin’ there.”
“Fine,” Max grumbled. “I still think it’d be fun.”
“Fine,” Paulina said. “Then we’ll set up a schedule and people can come tell ghost stories or something. But most of the time we’re not going to be a theatre. This is supposed to be a shop.”
Max bounced excitedly at the concession, flapping his hands like he was trying to take flight. His wide open mouth was probably a smile but he bounced around so much that Paulina couldn’t be sure. She shook her head at him and turned to Andrea.
“Help me set up shelves?” Paulina asked.
“Sure,” Andrea replied. “Those are sturdy, aren’t they? And straight? Clean?”
“No,” Paulina complained. “They’re grubby and they look crooked.”
“They’ll stand level on the theatre floor!” Sam protested. “I measured the heck out of those things.”
Both Paulina and Andrea ignored him. The shelves were level once they were set up on the theatre’s sloping floor. It still bothered Paulina that the angles weren’t square. She thought Andrea was equally bothered by it because she kept fussing with her end of the shelves, pressing down and pulling up as if trying to level them. They bolted into the floor easily though, with virtually no misalignment of holes, so Sam really had done a good job making sure that everything fit together properly.
Setting up all six shelves didn’t take that long for Paulina and Andrea. They were much the same size and knew all the same nonverbal signals from their time on the docks so maneuvering the shelves into place and securing them was quick and easy.
In contrast, putting the curtains up on the stage seemed to have turned into a disaster. Paulina listened without looking as Sue first tried to haul the curtains up herself, and then Tina took over and dropped one over the top of Max and Sam. Sue’s growl was loud and frustrated enough that Paulina turned to watch.
“I swear, the lot of you are worse than children,” Sue complained. “That’s it. That’s enough! All y’all get off the stage. Go bring in the boxes of trinkets. Andrea, Paulina, get yer butts up here. You two’re the only ones ’round here who know how to actually work.”
Even with Paulina’s brain damage she recognized Andrea’s response as a delighted grin. Paulina waved her to go first, pointing towards the door as the twins groaned. They grumbled as they went down the stairs and the up the slope towards the lobby.
“Oh, stop it,” Paulina huffed at them. “I don’t know why you two are even here. It’s not like we’re paying you for this part.”
“But it’s fun!” Max protested.
“And we got laid off yesterday so we have the time,” Sam agreed.
Paulina just shook her head at them. Between Tina lifting the curtains up, Sue barking orders from the ground and Andrea’s apparent gift for tying knots that would never in a million years come undone, they managed to get all the curtains hung in fairly short order. There were more of them than Paulina had expected.
A big one hung in the back, suspended from a heavy beam. Sue chattered as they worked about how she really wanted to paint a spooky castle or some nonsense on it as backdrop to the store. Several side curtains bordered the stage, hiding Andrea and Sue’s back rooms and the shelves they’d set up for keeping stock on. Then in the front there was a truly ragged curtain that was suspended from a beam on ropes and pulleys.
“That is so crooked,” Paulina complained once Tina, Max and Sam hauled it up into place.
“It’s even,” Tina said. “We checked.”
“It looks terribly crooked,” Andrea said doubtfully. She winced as Sue huffed at her. “Really. It does.”
“It’s supposed to,” Sue said. “Tha’s the point. Let’s get the last two done and then I’ll think about painting the backdrop.”
“Shouldn’t be a castle,” Paulina complained as she joined Andrea in climbing the ladders yet again. “It should be a black hole sucking everything in. This is a space station, after all.”
The silence that followed that grumble made Paulina freeze. She turned and looked at Andrea, then Sue, Max, Sam and finally Tina. All of them had big grins that were either wicked or utterly dopey. It wasn’t a smile she’d ever seen on Tina’s face before.
“Not again,” Paulina groaned. “Can we just get this done, people? We’ve still got tons of stock to set up and final plans for opening day do make.”
“Not to mention costumes,” Tina agreed with a delighted chuckle that told Paulina that the grins had to be dopey ones. “Good idea, Pau.”
It took longer to rig and hang the last two curtains than all the others combined. They draped from the center of the stage off to the sides, gathered up by heavy ropes that looked like they’d been stolen from the dock. Felt like it too, given how rough the ropes were. Sue fussed over how the swags of fabric fell and curved forever, adjusting it over and over until she was satisfied.
They all moved back to the double doors and stared at the theatre. Even Paulina had to admit that it looked like a very spooky place. The combination of traditional Halloween elements with things that reminded you that you were on a space station like the woven wall coverings was really effective.
“Creepy,” Paulina commented. She curled into Tina’s side, smiling when Tina wrapped an arm around her shoulders.
“It’ll be even better when I get that backdrop painted,” Sue promised. “Y’all’ll love it, cross my heart.”
“Which means it’s going to freak me out to come in here,” Paulina sighed. “Great. I still think you’re all insane.”
“Maybe,” Max said so cheerfully that Paulina had to glare at him. He didn’t seem to notice the glare at all. “But the whole idea is taking off really well. The whole station’s picking it up.”
“My ex-boss said that he was expecting tourism to pick up because of this,” Sam said. He shrugged and sighed. “If he’s right I might get hired back sometime soon.”
Paulina sighed as she leaned against Tina. As good as it would be to have customers, to have real money coming in, she was really afraid that this was going to be a waste of time. Their only hope was that people off station would want to visit the ‘ghost station’. If they didn’t then she and Tina would have spent the last of their money on nothing.
4. Opening Day
“Hide me,” Paulina begged as she slammed Andrea’s door and leaned against it.
The little office was much smaller now that there was furniture in it. Andrea had gone with a space-saving desk that had storage above it coupled with shelves that stretched from floor to ceiling for all the overflow storage that had someone gotten shifted into her office. Unfortunately, Sue had won the battle to decorate Andrea’s office in Halloween effects so the walls looked stained, the floor was scruffy and a completely incongruous plastic jack-o-lantern sat on her desk like a mixed up paperweight.
“I thought you would be working,” Andrea said, frowning over her shoulder at Paulina.
“They’re driving me insane,” Paulina hissed. “Stories, stories, tell us stories. I keep growling at them and telling them to leave me along but they won’t!”
Andrea put her hand over her mouth. It didn’t muffle her giggle at all. Paulina groaned. Since when was she the one designated as the official ‘ghost’ person? She’d been the one fighting the thing all along.
“But is business going well?” Andrea asked.
“Yeah, it is, damn it,” Paulina complained. “We got mobbed the moment we opened and it hasn’t slowed down yet.”
She opened the door and peeked but she could still see hordes of people on the stage. Well, maybe ‘hordes’ was overdoing it. There were several kids and a couple of parents on the stage, making indecipherable faces as they stared at the ragged curtains. Paulina could just see several more people clumped around the shelves of merchandise that they’d put out.
The history of the station was selling so well that Max had been sent to get more made up by the printer down the way. His book of ghost stories had sold so well that Max had all but danced out the door. The little stuffed ghosts that Sue had sewn up from rags and scraps of fabric found who knows where sold so well that Tina had talked about having Sue make a whole series of them in her spare time.
It was working. Terrifyingly, the ghost theatre idea was working. Paulina shut the door and groaned as she rested her forehead against the door. The last thing she’d wanted was for the idea to work. Well, not really. Losing all their money would have been horrible but now she was going to have to deal with ghost this and ghost that forever.
“Too much?” Andrea asked.
“Way too much,” Paulina said. “I swear, the grown-ups are worse than the kids. The kids just stare and hide behind their parents. The stupid grown-ups keep asking if my scars are real and then laughing when I say that they are. There’s this couple out there that keeps laughing at me when I tell them to stop commenting on the scars.”
Andrea whirled her chair to stare at Paulina. Even with her difficulties in figuring out expressions Paulina could tell that Andrea was horrified by that. She stood, heading towards the door with her hands in fists. Paulina caught her sleeve, staring at Andrea.
“That’s the rudest thing I’ve ever heard!” Andrea hissed. “How dare they treat you like some sort of museum exhibit?”
“I think they really believe its makeup,” Paulina said hesitantly.
She backed away from the door and then trailed along behind as Andrea stomped out to find Tina and Sue. The jerk who’d laughed about her scars smiled brightly as Andrea stormed up. He’d apparently been saying something to Tina who frowned when she saw Andrea and then Paulina’s expressions.
“As I said, they’re really well done,” the man said.
“They’re not fake, you ass!” Andrea bellowed. The entire shop went silent as the man jerked and backed off. “What is wrong with you? She told you that they were real. Your husband’s holding the history of the station. We were both in the explosion, the one that killed four hundred and twenty one people. We’re both scarred by it. How dare you treat her like she’s some sort of actor? These are our lives you’re making fun of, you jerk!”
“Uh…” the man backed off, running into his husband and clutching their little girl who just stared at Andrea with her mouth dropped open.
“Honey, ya need ta calm down,” Sue said as she caught Andrea’s hands. “Come on, love. Paulina can take care of herself, ya know.”
“They are real,” Paulina told the man. “All of this is real.”
She was acutely aware of Tina standing so rigidly still that she looked like a statue. Max was at the door with a box of books in his arms, eyes wide and face pale. Sam fidgeted and then went still over by the theatre seats.
Paulina laughed, rubbing her hand over the side of her face that wasn’t scarred. Her tattered coverall sleeve made her wince. She really should have insisted on using a different one, one that was worn but not torn. It just brought up bad memories of the explosion.
“The stories?” Paulina continued. “They’re true stories. They’re actual people who died. Our station is the ghost station because half of it was destroyed. We’re living among the ghosts of the dead and wounded every day. That’s why I didn’t want to do this. I don’t think it’s respectful of those who paid the price for living in space. That book tells about it. Everything we have here is real, you know. I’m not an actor. I’m a dock worker who almost died. Andrea almost died, too.”
She looked at Tina who breathed out so slowly and carefully that it hurt Paulina’s lungs. “They dressed it all up in rags and stains to make it seem less real but it isn’t. The front window talks about the thousand and one ghosts of this station. There really are a thousand and one people who died here. It’s an early station. Lots of people died to make this place livable.”
Something burned down Paulina’s scarred cheek. She didn’t realize what it was until Tina reached out and brushed the tear away. Paulina gulped, burying her face in Tina’s chest because she just couldn’t face the man’s horrified expression any longer. Andrea made a horrible choking noise that hurt nearly as bad.
“We survived,” Tina said. “We all survived. And now we’re doing something with our lives. We’re making something new. But Pau’s right. Everything we build is on the graves of the people who died before us. We’ll die on this station, too, someday.”
Paulina snorted, pushing away from Tina to dash the tears away. “Not anytime soon, we won’t.”
She glared at the man, his husband and their staring daughter. It would be nice to know what they thought of her collapse, her tears, the truth that everyone avoided thinking about. But then again it was nice not knowing, too. What they thought didn’t matter. They were tourists. They’d show up and leave again. Paulina didn’t have to worry about what they thought or felt.
“We’re real,” Paulina declared. “Our stories are real. So have a little fucking respect, will you?”
“We’re very sorry,” the man’s husband said. “We didn’t realize.”
“No one wants to say it,” Paulina said, shrugging. “But it’s true. Any scar you see is probably from a survivor of the explosion. Any skittish person is someone who’s got PTSD from the aftermath. We’re all the wounded walking among the ghosts of our families, friends and coworkers. Just… have a little respect. We’re stronger than you think but we’re fragile, too.”
Both of the men nodded. They paid for the book and a ghost for their little girl, hurrying away with an expression that Paulina thought was horrified. Maybe. She couldn’t be sure. Really, though, it didn’t matter what they thought.
She felt better for exploding, for finally saying what had been bothering her all along. No one talked about the dead, not properly. Sure, they told ghost stories and compared notes on where they’d been when the explosion hit but no one talked about Boss Johnson, big and burly with a thick Irish accent that was completely fabricated.
They didn’t mention Lisa Lui who had used up three canisters of air getting people from the dock back inside. No one talked about Keiko Lewis who had stayed in the auxiliary control center, working the controls by herself. She’d stayed so long that she’d still been there when the main control center jettisoned the damaged portion of the station, sending it spinning off into space.
None of the dead were actually talked about, remembered for the heroes that they were. Paulina took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Even she didn’t talk about them. She just remembered them, dwelled on the past. Maybe she’d spent too much time thinking about it and not enough time talking.
“You okay?” Tina asked once the customers had moved away to let them have a bit of space.
“Yeah,” Paulina said. She looked back at the stage with its black hole backdrop, the bits of wreckage slowly drifting towards it and then smiled. “Yeah, I think I am. Hey, you think we could do shows in here? Maybe once or twice a week?”
Tina blinked down at her, eyebrows drawn together in what Paulina knew from all their time together was a frown. “We can. Why?”
“I think…” Paulina looked at Max who was carefully, silently restocking the shelves with history and ghost books. “I think I want to tell some of my stories. You know, for other people to hear.”
Max turned and looked at her. Sue cocked her head to the side, one hand circling in a gesture that should have meant something but which wasn’t dock sign so it made no sense. Andrea, on the other hand, grinned and signed ‘go on’. That made the knots in Paulina’s stomach loosen a bit for the first time in ages. When she looked up, Tina’s face was a puzzle of love and joy, the bits making sense but the whole not fitting together properly. Even so she could tell how happy Tina was as she sniffled and nodded.
“I think I want to tell some stories of my own,” Paulina said. “I think it’s time.”
Find this Story:
On Amazon $3.99 ebook
On Smashwords $3.99 ebook
On CreateSpace $10.99 5″ x 8″ TPB
If you can’t afford to buy the story, please consider leaving a donation. All money received goes toward keeping me writing and posting these stories. Thank you very much!