You might not know a person while they live.
But a name will sprout from the dirt when they die. Anyone who sees the headstone will then know what to call them.
If you are unsure about something, bury it deep underground. Mull it over in your own time.
Once you figure it out, its name will naturally bloom for you.
- Lu Yu-chia
A list of things about Andrew Ilnyckyj that is public knowledge, among friends:
- His name (his first and last);
- His terrible puns (very terrible indeed);
- His dream of transforming a cat (Annie's refused his request about seventeen times. You'll get there eventually when you're like, two hundred years old, she says.);
- Where he lives (on Steven’s couch, located in that one building on the junction of 74th Street and Broadway, right outside the subway station, can’t miss it.)
A list of things Andrew remembers that he's not sure how to tell anyone, just yet:
- The taste of the varenyky his mother used to make;
- Morning rainfall, the sound of it on his roof, patapatapat;
- The scar on his abdomen that still aches in the night and how it got there;
- His death.
Andrew wakes up at midnight to find Steven gone.
Which is not too surprising considering the kind of calls he gets at times. It’s happening more frequently now that summer is upon them, something Andrew had learned through the magic of the Internet. August means hungry spirits.
There’s an unread text waiting, and a note next to the phone for good measure: something came up, be back in two days. don’t miss me too much!
It’s hard for Andrew not to grin despite a seed of worry starting to sprout inside. These days they go together to most of these calls, but when security is tight (whatever that means— Andrew doesn’t like it, but it’s one of those rare cases where he knows he won’t get anything out of Steven just by asking) he stays behind. Most of the time it just serves as a pretext for looking through the cabinets full of old papers and medicine and objects he probably shouldn’t touch.
Though he’s already dead, so what does it matter, really.
His eyes wander past the faded spines of several books shelved neatly inside the porcelain box next to the medicine cabinet, the ant-like characters barely legible in the dim lamplight. Andrew’s learned a bit of Mandarin since living here, but it doesn’t mean much in terms of actually processing the material. Steven rarely touches the dusty tomes, and Andrew’s fairly sure at least one of them is cursed anyway, so that’s that.
The fourth drawer is locked, as always.
“Where in the world are you now, Steven,” Andrew murmurs to himself as he lets the lapis beads fall from his palm. They roll lazily across the scented wooden platform, but there is no divining the music in his ears.
Adam’s good to talk to, in Andrew’s opinion. Adam hadn’t been a stray someone had picked off up the street, but he is a werewolf, and that means blood and guts could be a normal subject of conversation over meals.
“I don’t know how Steven did it before you came along,” Adam points out over coffee the next afternoon. They’re sitting in some artisanal Korean cafe where everything smells faintly of lavender and the walls are a muted industrial grey. Andrew stirs at his iced rose latte and stares at the petals disappearing beneath the froth. “The first time I went on site with him he wouldn’t come out of the bathroom for three hours after seeing the body. He hasn’t thrown up on you yet, has he?”
Adam shrugs. “It was pretty mangled, not gonna lie.”
Andrew knows. Steven’s been doing this for five years now, and it’s no secret amongst themselves that despite his job he doesn’t exactly have the strongest of constitutions. Ghosts are fine (mostly), shambling columns of supposedly dead flesh aren’t. Totally normal stuff. He hasn’t seen the worst of it, and maybe—
He feels a little sick. Maybe he should’ve gone for the taro instead.
“Something I’ve noticed,” he says instead, indicating towards his phone. “Steven never turns it on whenever he’s gone off alone. That’s just really w—”
“Oh,” Adam murmurs. He gives Andrew a contemplative look over their plate of half-demolished cinnamon rolls. “You shouldn’t worry too much. He can take care of himself, even if you get fainted on every now and then. You, however, are coming to the cheese-tasting with me.”
“Yeah,” Andrew agrees, if dubiously. “Okay. Right.”
It’s surprisingly easy to act alive even when dead. It’s not so easy living, even with spells to prod one along. Necromancy can’t help get Andrew a passport or driver’s license or insurance card or a salaried job, which is probably more pertinent to his needs as a man in his late twenties now living exclusively on his boyfriend’s (that’s what they are now, right?) couch.
Andrew doesn’t want for much. He doesn’t need to eat human food, though he does so anyway out of habit. He doesn’t need to dress for the weather, except when he needs to step out the door. Whatever he wants as a distraction comes from the pay he splits with Steven after their exorcisms.
(A correction: he does have a passport and license, though god knows from what kind of shady back-alley Annie had procured those things. It’s useful for when he does need to hop on a plane, which is not often, and also when he needs to get alcohol, which is too often.)
“You’re gonna drink yourself back into your grave,” Annie chides him over dinner. She’s finishing up her tonkotsu broth and Andrew’s on his fourth bottle of Kiku Masamune and the waitresses won’t come near their table anymore. “I know you can’t get drunk but this is ridiculous. What if—”
Andrew looks down at his chest and the very faint outline of the talisman beneath his shirt. He can’t wear sheer pastels anymore, though he has a feeling past him wouldn’t have been doing that anyway. “Annie. My organs are stuffed with xu duan and myrrh and iris leaves. I think I’ll be okay.”
She rolls her eyes and pokes at his fingers with her chopsticks. “I’m not talking about that, Ilnyckyj. You might be dead, and I might be dead inside, but I’m pretty sure Steven’s alive. Did you know stress is topping the lists as the next big epidemic of 2019?”
“You read that in a listicle.”
“Doesn’t mean it’s not true.” Annie drops her voice until it’s almost inaudible over Namie Amuro’s soulful crooning overhead. “You remember the thing you asked me to do.”
Andrew has a sinking feeling the alcohol doesn’t help at all to dissipate. “...Yes?”
“Someone’s been trying to break through.” Pause. “It’s not Steven. But.”
Annie’s eyes flicker towards the window overlooking the busy 52nd outside, and Andrew could see the streetlights reflected like pinpricks within her oversized glasses. “Try to not let anyone follow you home.”
The thing is, Andrew’s fairly certain Steven knows. Knows about him asking Annie to obfuscate as many search results as she could, knows about him surreptitiously calling Shane to dissuade Ryan from doing whatever it was Steven had requested. Even after the incident over New Year’s it’s been them doing this weird dance, this I-know-you-know-but-I-don’t-want-to-initiate thing, even when they’re drinking or kissing or trying to not get themselves killed during house calls. It’s not so dangerous of an occupation anymore now that spirits could go on the Internet to annoy their descendants and the general public through haunted YouTube videos and spy cams instead of trying to rip bones out of bodies, but Andrew’s very existence indicates the threat hasn’t entirely gone away.
This shouldn’t be Steven’s job, Andrew thinks sometimes. He shouldn’t have to be subjected to blood seeping into his collar and the pleading cries of clients quarantined in the living room and the nightmarish screams that would’ve had the whole precinct come running had the entire building not been charmed beforehand. But Andrew also knows Steven can’t go near a burning fire without jumping into it.
(“You care too much,” he’d say in the night for far too many times, as they lay on the couch together watching The Journey of Flower or Wonderful Earth depending on who’s stolen the remote. “Sometimes the dead have to decide to let go. By themselves, I mean.”
And then the air would still and Steven would only look at him wordlessly and touch his hand and Andrew would wonder if he were about to ask, would you let go? )
He wonders this as he settles into the sofa with a book, wondering too if the neighborhood cat would come pawing at his window like it does every now and then. Instead he hears the soft creak of stairs and footsteps that stop at his door and he freezes.
Steven might have his phone off when he’s on duty, but he never comes home without calling ahead.
Andrew says nothing, waiting. He’d had a bit to eat on the subway back tonight—had that given him away? Or was he overthinking it? He can’t detect anything particularly threatening on the other side of the door, but whatever it is, it isn’t Steven or anyone else he knows.
And so he holds his breath until he remembers there’s no difference whether he does so or not and hears the footsteps start again, going slowly to the side and then downstairs. Just someone who got lost, is all.
After a few minutes, Andrew hears his phone buzz. He reaches for it then hesitates, opting to wait for the inevitable voice-mail instead.
“Hey, I’m in the Uber now!” Steven’s voice chirps from the phone, too cheery for someone getting off the plane at this time of the night. “Finished the job early this time. You up for Veselka later? I’m dropping my stuff at home first, so go dress up!”
“Alright then,” he tells the empty room fondly. “Hurry up and get here, then.”
Exhale. Andrew puts the book next to the bonsai willow and goes into Steven’s room. He does want pierogies, even if he knows they taste nothing like his mother’s used to and that he probably shouldn’t be having so much human food in one day. Surely this could be an excuse to broach that topic, now that Annie’s put the subject at the forefront of his mind.
The curtains brush against his face as he enters the bedroom, fabric fluttering in the wind. Summer heat is harsh on the dead, though Andrew could’ve sworn he’d closed the windows for the AC earlier. He slips the shirt he’d worn earlier off the back of Steven’s chair, pulls it over his head, and then—
Someone clamps a hand over his mouth; for a brief moment he recognizes the unmistakable sharp scent of soaked wormwood, and then the world is sent spinning before his eyes…
“Humans were not created for death. Humanity was created to live forever.”
He’s eight years old and at church again, small hands grasped around a candle. The air is salted with tears, and it is dark, but not so much that he cannot see the casket.
Panachyda. The vigil. Andrew strains to look over the pews at the procession coming down the aisle. His parents are singing, and his brother is singing, but he cannot remember the words. The priest’s speech is slow and painful and he wants so badly to leave his seat, but he cannot.
“We pray not only for the living, but for the dead.”
Yevanheliye. Sweet incense over the body amidst the reading of the gospels. Who is it lying in silent repose up on the podium? He pulls at his mother’s sleeve, but she does not respond. As if he is invisible, a ghost.
“—and renew a steadfast spirit within me—”
Prakh do prakhu. Ash falls in front of Andrew’s eyes, fine and familiar. Beyond it he sees the circle of bread, and people shuffling into the line to pay their respects. He is jostled forward by invisible hands, pushing and pulling this way and that. And then he knows.
— Пам'ятайте —
Andrew stands at the head of the line. He looks down at his own body and touches its forehead. It isn’t as cold as he’d expected. Then he sees the wound, the slight bump of pink skin beneath the sheer white dress shirt. The mortuary makeup artist had done all they could.
They are burying him outside. The wind moves the clouds along in a spiral through the horizon until none remain in the courtyard but Andrew and the gravestone, which is colder than ice. He sits on it and muses this would be hilarious were it real.
In the dream he reads the newspaper, which prints only the truth: that he had died in a crash when the taxi he’d been in had skidded off the road on a rainy day. It tells of the job interview he had been on the way to, some media startup internship Andrew has no memory of now. It tells of the family he’d left behind who have all moved to Canada since, far and away.
It tells of his body being stolen in the night, which was not printed on any major paper, only in this one, in his mind.
When Andrew wakes he does not immediately open his eyes. He is not home but elsewhere, tied up in a chair that he would surely have been able to break were he not weighed down by the smell of animal blood and heaviness on his lap.
“It’s in the faith,” Andrew says without thinking. “Whatever you believe in. Even if it’s nothing.”
Until now he had not dreamed since he the day he died, and yet—that’s how people like Steven do it, Andrew realizes. If you believe in something hard enough and long enough it will come true. He’d have scoffed at the notion even a year ago, but now he understands. It is how people get through the night, push through the morning fog. Towards the sun.
Will he see sunlight again? He looks up at his captor and sees nothing but smoke. He is in an unlit room probably somewhere far from the city, and he hears no breathing. A faint smell of decay, from elsewhere.
“What do you want from me?” Andrew asks the darkness. “This is really kind of fucked up, you know. Graverobbing. Kidnapping a dead guy. You ever read American Gods?”
Andrew falls silent. He wonders if he could get the bloody block of wood off him without losing consciousness again in the process. It’s not doing anything but keeping him stationary and being kind of nasty anyhow. But beneath his clothes, beneath the talisman, there is a mark there that nobody had been able to erase, not even Rie. The original burn never goes away, no matter who comes along after to sweep away the ashes.
Someone else had made Andrew the way he is, way back in the beginning, but they are long gone. Nothing to do with this now, and a question to be answered only for when he is ready. It must’ve been a person, and what he is dealing with now is no human. He can surmise there is only one thing the spirits are after, and whatever herbs line his stomach aren’t helping the nausea from the revelation go away.
“He won’t come,” Andrew lies.
Angry chittering fills the room. He thinks he might’ve seen the shadows move, but even turning his head is hard. They must’ve gotten hold of another body somehow to have been able to pull off this shit, or they’re so much older that—
“He’s not the problem,” he continues. Andrew’s seen enough movies to know the next scene would ideally be for all of his friends to barge into the room yelling and swinging and chasing the ghosts away, but this is real life and he’s tied to a shitty wicker chair on top of a crudely-drawn bagua diagram. What’s it that he’d have to say next? “He’s trying to help. What’s keeping you here? Why can’t you leave?”
What’s it that Steven would say? He sighs irritably; this is why he’s conduit instead of counselor. “Look, you’ve been dead for way longer than I have, it’s pretty obvious. Whatever it is that’s kept you around is probably long gone. I think we can all move on from this. Yeah?”
It says something else then, and although Andrew finally recognizes it he has fuck-all idea what that was.
“I’m a dead white guy,” he replies, grimacing. That’s such a Shane thing to say (god, he wishes someone would come, anyone, the ropes are starting to hurt.) “I don’t think Steven speaks Cantonese either. Sorry.”
A screech, and he feels the air swirl cold and settle on his face. Beyond the veil of smoke he senses an unfriendly gaze looking his way. Just another reason to hate summer, Andrew thinks. It’s too hot up here even if he doesn’t sweat anymore, and all the ghosts are out to play. Thanks, global warming.
“What do you need?” He tries again, desperate. “Hey, maybe if you untie me, I can try to help.”
The air is dead silent.
“Fuck,” Andrew mutters as the ground starts to heat up.
(“What’s in this one?” Andrew asks, pointing to the fourth drawer. He knows now that the odd numbers are medicine and the even numbers are charms, but the fourth one is the only one shut tight with yellow strips of paper wound tightly over its wooden handle and stings whenever Andrew’s hand strays near. He wonders if it is cursed like the copy of Codes of Heaven and Earth that’s locked in the other cabinet or if Steven keeps some sort of miniature dragon-qilin-mythical being slash demon-thing inside.
“Oh, that.” A hesitation in Steven’s voice. It’s a demon then. “Don’t worry about it.”
“That is the worst thing you could say to make someone drop the subject,” Andrew replies. “Steven, if you’re keeping some otherworldly creature in the house that might come out and eat us in our sleep I’d really appreciate an advanced warning.”
“It’s not a—Andrew, I don’t keep pets!” (It takes too much of Andrew’s self-restraint for his liking to not give a self-implicating comeback.) “It’s just—I don’t like to think about it.”
“Self-destruct mechanism.” “No!” “Scroll depicting a dangerous forbidden technique.” “How much are you using my Netflix account while I’m away?!” “Your phone’s lock code.” “No, but that’s a good idea.”
Steven gives up after the porn question, ears pink. “That’s… no, Andrew. It’s… it’s a sword.”
“A what.” This city has so many weird ordinances that Andrew would see it being perfectly explainable, if illogical, that Steven would refuse to hang the thing on their wall like a normal person. But. “A sword, like one that kills people, or…”
Steven noticeably winces at the word. “No, and I mean… that’s why it’s there.”)
The room is burning in the darkness, less sweltering summer heat and more dry, painful smolder. Andrew manages to shift his position leftward, but the eyes are still on him as he half-hops in place and almost topples over. The searing sensation on the part of his exposed leg that touches the ground is agonizing and he curses as he tries to steady himself.
When he watches those old wuxia films with Steven and Inga they’d always giggle over the funky details, the put-on accents, but really—what people get wrong are always the small things.
So when the door comes crashing down and the wailing starts Andrew thinks, oh thank god, before the light flashes by him and cauterizes the very air across his field of vision. Whatever’s left of his blood, whatever embalming fluids that had been moving if sluggishly inside his body, all turn to ice.
Completing an exorcism with Steven is exhilarating, in the knowing that Andrew has done a good deed, but mostly because he’s made Steven happy. This, sharp silhouette in fog-framed doorway, the unearthly crackle of flame, the immediate cessation of spiritual existence all around him, is terrifying.
If Andrew had once thought Steven incapable of showing true anger, he’d been dead wrong.
The wooden seal upon him splits apart and falls away harmlessly, as do the ropes. Andrew feels his body relaxing, though whether in relief or something else he can’t tell. He feels faint as he finally stands again: the last vestiges of restraint upon him melt away as Steven scrapes away the chalk lines with the blade’s edge, its silver glow dulling as he walks quickly up to the chair.
“That was very gallant of you,” Andrew manages before he hears metal clattering to the ground and feels the familiar warmth of Steven’s arms around him, tighter than ever. “Steven. There’s ah, blood, not mine but—”
“Are you hurt?”
Don’t you dare answer with “Well, actually, I’m dead.” “How long was I out? How did you find me?”
It’s only now he notices Steven’s hands are trembling furiously as they pull away from each other, and Andrew grabs his bare wrist; he’s too shaken to do much anyhow, and they just stand looking at each other in the broken diagram without speaking.
“I felt something was wrong when I got off the ride,” Steven says finally, somewhat breathless. His forehead is slick with sweat, and Andrew reaches up to brush the hair out of his eyes. There it is: unmistakable guilt. “I saw the window open and—I ran. I should’ve—”
“No,” Andrew interrupts. “No, Steven, we are not doing this. It wasn’t your fault. You already told me it’s dangerous this time of the year, and I didn’t listen, and now I’ve experienced it, so there.”
“So there.” Andrew cups Steven’s face, pulling him down for a kiss, blood and fatigue be damned. He’s had quite enough of dreams forever. “Let’s get out of here, okay?”
“How was the service?”
“It was fine.”
There’s some sort of musical happening on TV: it’s very loud and colorful and Andrew doesn’t understand a word that’s being sung, only that it’s joyful instead of gloomy. They’re sitting at the dinner table making pierogies: mushroom and sauerkraut and sweet plum. Andrew’s all too aware of Steven’s eyes following his motions of dipping into the filling and sealing up the dumpling, making little indentations in the dough with deft familiarity.
“You wanna watch something else? This is really boring.”
“Steven.” Deep breath. Tensing up. Something something it’s funny because he’s dead, but no time for jokes. Steven suddenly looks like he might cry and Andrew really, really can’t deal with that right now. “I think we need to talk. No, wait, that was bad. I need to tell you something.”
He tells Steven everything, and Steven for once listens without saying a word. He talks about the things he knows and the things he doesn’t anymore, what he’s told Annie and Adam and what he’s kept inside. Everything but the dream and the voice calling to him, I will.
“Do you want to see your family again?” Steven asks after a lengthy silence. He puts a hand over Andrew’s, squeezing tight, and the warm flow of energy circulating between them seems to wash away all that had happened in the past week, even though it doesn’t, really. Andrew will always carry that part of him no matter where he goes, like the mark on his chest, and the dream in the recesses of his memory. Between where he was and where he’d been heading.
But maybe he’s okay with that, because he’s here and nowhere else.
“I don’t belong in that world anymore,” Andrew replies. He squeezes Steven’s hand back, less hesitantly. “And listen. I’m sorry I made you do...that.”
It’s true, about the fire. You can’t save everyone, he would continue, were it not him being put on the spot. Steven looks down at the table and sighs, biting his lip.
“No, Andrew. It’s a bad month,” he says. Then amends with “No, a restless month. It’s silly; I should be over this by now. You’re right. I can’t expect life to hand me a clear-cut choice every time.”
He drums his fingers on the table and looks up at Andrew with a wry smile. The tension dissipates into the air around them, though not entirely. “And I can be selfish too, when it’s something I want. I’m not a saint. Sometimes you just gotta do what you gotta do.”
“That so?” Andrew cradles the bowl of pierogies like tiny birds against his chest, watching the water on the stove come to a boil. “You know what, actually, I think there’s something else we could do.”
“Whatcha writing on yours?”
“Not telling you.”
His handwriting is shaky, and his joints are still a little stiff, but the letters soon fill up the sides of the thin paper lantern. It’s getting dark now, and they’re at some deserted pier down at Flushing Bay with a flashlight between them, writing away. Steven’s already eaten most of the pierogies back at the apartment (“These are so good, Andrew, why didn’t you tell me you could make these sooner.”) and they’ve got some saved for when their friends tomorrow, but there’s a bowl laid out on a stool next to them here, on the waterfront. An offering, an apology, a reminder. For the departed.
Steven’s writing in English and he keeps looking over, brows furrowed at Andrew’s lantern. It’s not like he doesn’t want Steven to know what he’s writing—oh, alright, maybe he doesn’t. A little secret.
— Proshchannya. Goodbye. For now.
Even now Andrew doesn’t entirely believe in a lot of things—God, reincarnation, the fact that the world hasn’t ended in fire and ice the whole time he was out of commission. Even with all of this craziness he’d discovered had already been there on the other side after becoming undead. He can’t go back to the world of the living and exist as he is now, but he can still do this.
He lights the candles one by one (only because Steven would have set the whole pier ablaze with the way he’d almost dropped the lighter earlier) and in twilight the lanterns look tiny, glowing rectangles floating atop dark waves pulling out into the bay. Little boxes of dreams. The sea will be where they can all go, Andrew hopes, from now on.
“Does this count as littering?” Steven wonders aloud as they watch the lanterns float off into the distance, joining the multitude of lights of the city on the other side. “I mean, I got biodegradable ones, but back home they’d still have someone clean up after—”
“Stop thinking so much,” Andrew says. He bends down to retrieve the bowl and other litter and feels Steven’s eyes on his back the whole time, something lingering in the briny air between them. Less pensive and more curious. They’re getting a little better at this, slowly but surely. “We should head back before seagulls eat us alive. Steven?”
“Is this enough?” Steven asks, quietly.
“Yeah,” Andrew replies. The warmth of Steven’s hand slipping into his compels him to look up, and he leans in, taking in the waves. He can’t see the lanterns anymore, but the light has been there all along. “Yeah, I think it is.”