A hilltop conversation with the ghost of my brother. His image threadbare, glowing like some deep ocean creature.
“How many people do you think have ever lived?” he asks.
Always a numbers guy. Some strange statistic or guessing game. I snuggle into him, aligning as best I can, propping myself up to maintain the illusion.
“It’s billions,” he says. “Hundreds of billions. We outnumber the living; you are in the minority, little sister.”
Still little sister, despite me now being ten years older.
“Down there,” he says, pointing towards a field. “A man in the wildflower, still in army uniform, one arm missing. Do you see him?”
I see nothing but shadows. He laughs and prods at me, his finger slipping into my shoulder.
“Can you see them all?” I ask. “Right now, how many do you see?”
Before his reply, he does a mock scan of the horizon.
“We are sparse, despite our numbers,” he says, “We cover only a fraction of the planet’s surface. Imagine – the current living population could fit shoulder-to-shoulder in the city of Los Angeles. Did you know that?”
He pauses now, deliberate. Something is distracting him, far beyond the rocky edge where we sit.
“I brought you here to show you the dinosaurs,” he says. “You asked me why no one ever sees their ghosts.”
I sit up, confused. Did I ever ask him that? Maybe a joke or passing observation from our childhood, kept close all these years.
“The reason you never see them, is because you actually see them all the time,” he says. “Think about how many dinosaurs ever lived. Now think of their size – they were massive! They cover the entire planet, many times over. Everything you see is through the filter of a prehistoric ghost, sometimes more than one! They surround you like a blanket.”
He is bursting, enthusiastic, more alive now than ever before. I touch the air, trying to imagine the oldest of ghosts. Sensing my curiosity, he hovers an arm across my shoulder.
“Now, look,” he says, pointing to the valley. “I can show you proof, by showing you where they are not.”
And then I see it, without his help – a tiny square of light, pulsing and bending above the crop. It vanishes before expanding outwards, a rip in the atmosphere, hints of green and yellow.
“It’s a gap,” he says, “Between the ghosts. Sometimes, very rarely, you can make one out. That’s how you find them – you find the gap, the bit that is missing.”
He opens his arms out wide.
“Ta-da!” he says. “That’s the actual world you are seeing, without the filter, without the obstruction of ghosts. Beautiful, isn’t it? Now hurry.”
He runs ahead, beckoning me to follow.
“I thought you were stuck on the hilltop!” I shout, trying to keep pace.
He ignores my question as we approach. Up close, the gap is fragile in definition. A glare of rainbow; no heat, or sound, or shadow – a space between ghosts, an inverse of everything. It skips in the air, the illusion of being alive.
“It’s not the gap moving,” he says, “it’s the things around it. An Apatosaurus, late Jurassic, a whole herd of them.”
Before I can respond, the gap lunges forward, consuming our position. Our hands go in first, an incredible warmth, the true heat of the sun, unfiltered on our skin. We become illustrations, figures in a stain-glass window. Raw colour fills my brother, an oily volume, swirling within his form.
Looking outward from within the space, the ghosts are everywhere, now visible without obstruction. Crunching and writhing around us, a mist both alive and dead. Species from every period, compressed many times over, smudging the atmosphere.
“Amazing,” he says. “I’m so glad you got to see this.”
And with that he leaves me once more, the almost tangible feel of his fingers brushing my hand. I turn back to the hilltop, to the spot where he fell, looking for his image – a faint pencil sketch, a dream within a dream.
Around me the spectral herd begins to shift; the colours fading in its wake. Invisible giants fill the space, smoothing into a fog and smudging my vision. The gap implodes around me – reforming up ahead, flickering and thin, barely able to maintain its presence. I run toward it, toward the colour, keeping pace with the dead, and the gaps they create.
Paul is from Sheffield, UK. His stories have appeared in Milk Candy Review, Okay Donkey, Ellipsis Zine and Janus Literary.