It was nothing new. He’d been doing it since he was a kid, one way or another. Only back then it was animals, like the half-starved-looking pit bull who had tailed him for weeks after his brother died of lockjaw. It’d had a long scar across his ribs, same as Jake, and Isaiah had known it for what it was. Memory growling softly at him from the dark corner of his bedroom, guilt snapping at him when it seemed like he might be forgetting. It wasn’t a real ghost, wasn’t Jake. It was that the things that hurt Isaiah had a habit of finding their way into the world and walking around.
No one else could ever see them, which was how he was able to keep himself sane. If he watched other people’s eyes and saw what they just skipped over when they looked around, he could tell what was real and what wasn’t.
Then they shot the serum into him—the kicker was telling him it was for tetanus, to keep him from ending up like Jake, dying shivering and knotted up—and everything changed.
After that, his pain started turning up as people. And sometimes—not always, not even often, but enough times to keep him guessing—everybody else saw them too.
The nurse who faked his death: he always thought she might’ve been one of them. She’d looked a little like his Annie, but bleached white, like all the life had been pulled out of her and she was made of nothing but paper now, nothing but the letters he’d written her every week. Her eyelashes ink-dark and as crooked as his handwriting.
“She might’ve been real,” Eli said. He was the only person alive who knew what Isaiah could do, and he took it in like it was nothing more than he expected. He’d grown up in a world of superheroes, usually ones who could do a hell of a lot more than accidentally make up some ghosts. “I don’t know how she would’ve got the job otherwise.”
“If she got herself a body, she could’ve gotten herself a job.”
It wasn’t about whether or not he’d ached her into the world with a Social and some references, it was about whether anybody there would’ve remembered her a minute after she was gone. Eli wanted straight cause-and-effect, rules that made sense. But these were ghosts, cast-offs from his own sore heart, and Isaiah figured they worked more or less just how they wanted to.
Not always on his side, either. He still had the scar from Jake’s dog.
Eli said, “If she wasn’t real, then nobody ever turned up to help you, just you.”
“And that’s been true enough, more than once.” But he didn’t want it to be. He didn’t want his goddamn suffering to get out ahead of him and save him; he didn’t want any of it to be useful. Maybe getting rescued made you helpless, but it was better to be helpless than purified by what they did to you. Pain that bit you—at least it was doing what it was supposed to do. Pain that helped you—it was like that SHIELD agent on the other side of the bars, a pale man in a gray suit, saying, What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, like the words were meant to be some revelation for him.
All of that, and he still went and had dinner with Sam Wilson, the night Wilson took him to the Smithsonian.
It was a crab place, loud and casual, and Wilson looked comfortable there.
“You’re a regular,” Isaiah said.
“When I’m in town, anyway. Lately I haven’t been much of a regular anywhere.” He took a long drink of his beer. “You don’t mind the thing at the museum.” Half like a question and half not.
“Not as much as I should, anyway,” Isaiah said.
Wilson laughed. “Yeah, probably not.”
He had a good laugh, low and musical and unworried, and Isaiah had to wonder just how full of shit he really was, if he could laugh like that—in this city, talking about all this. But Wilson had the gift of convincing him—and just about everybody who could be convinced, maybe—that that wasn’t so, that he wasn’t naïve or stupid or faking it. He was just bent on treating like the world like it could be what he wanted it to be.
“I know it was a risk,” Wilson said, sincere now, “but I couldn’t leave it like it was. History makes more sense with you in it—that you were there at all, how they treated you, what you did. Without all of that, the whole story of Captain America’s got a hole right down the middle of it.”
“Don’t practice any speeches on me,” Isaiah said. “I don’t have the patience for it, and you sound better spontaneous anyway.”
“That’s what I tried to tell my high school debate coach, you know, but she didn’t believe me.”
Isaiah cracked open another crab leg. High school, Isaiah thought, marking it down in his head. Maybe he was wrong about everything, and Sam Wilson had a real life after all, had a history that ran just as deep as Isaiah’s, even if it wasn’t as long. He had a life, he had a family. But the nurse with Annie’s eyes and those inky, bent eyelashes had had her job, too. It was hard to know one way or the other.
What he knew was that there was this Black Captain America, a man who seemed to exist to tear the world open for him, to stand in the light, to make all the choices Isaiah had never even had. A man who would’ve been born right around the time Isaiah Bradley, officially dead and gone, took his first breath of free air—in a hot house he wouldn’t even chance leaving for another year, not even to go out back to the yard.
He couldn’t tell. He just couldn’t.
If Sam was his ghost—the revenant of all his old ideals and hopes, an unreal force that could twist the world into shape around him—then the odds were good that he’d just fade away tonight, now that he’d filled up that hole in history, now that he’d gotten as high as a man could go. Maybe he’d let that decide it, and after tonight, he’d know—or believe—whatever still seemed to be true.
When the waitress brought their check, she looked only at him. But that wasn’t enough, Isaiah thought, hurting again already, lonely again—that wasn’t enough to say that Sam had already started fading. She might have just thought he’d pay, might’ve just thought they were father and son.
It was still too soon to tell, he told himself. Sam could still be just as real as anybody. The world might have changed after all.