Hungry Ghost

Wooden sign post pointing right, no text

A short story by Jay Slayton-Joslin

Owen knocks on my door as the sun begins to glimpse through the curtains. I open for him, half-heartedly raising an eyebrow to see what his latest existential crisis is.

“I couldn’t sleep last night,” he greets me. “They’ve made so many movies about fantasy worlds at war I fear that they will never know peace.”

Owen sits down on my parents’ couch and takes a Xanax that he steals from his Grandmother’s cabinet. He looks at my little brother, Matty, who is ramming two toy trains into each other.

“Where’s Andy?” Matty asks, accepting Owen’s presence and actions in the room with an uncomfortable level of nonchalance that I would never possess for someone I had only met a handful of times.

“I’m over here,” I call to Matty, giving him the most amount of care and guidance I have this weekend while our mother is away.

I grab two beers and sit next to Owen on the couch. We have started drinking at midday because it celebrates getting through the morning. I am numb to his latest revelation, only an absence of any emotion. Owen has increasingly been coming to me with these panics that can only come from suburbia: “What if Haribo bears are actually real animals and they know how many I’ve eaten and will come back for me?” and “If Catcher In the Rye did brainwash Mark Chapman to kill John Lennon, 50 Shades will be the start of the next World War, man…”

Matty sits between Owen and me, changing the channel on the television. It shows a man running away from Pac Man and slipping on a banana peel. Matty bursts out laughing, and Owen and I look at him trying in some way to figure out how he can process moments like these as enjoyment. I think it’s a youth thing, but whenever I look back at my childhood all I can remember is the crippling anxiety of trying to please those around me, and I eventually bent shape trying to mould into what people wanted me to be. I am the weed that grew out of the crack of society.

Half an hour into the show Owen dozes off. Soon after, I do too. I wake up to Matty driving his trains through my legs like they form tunnel.

“Matty, fuck off, I’m sleeping,” I say.

“You’re awake, let’s go,” Matty says, letting the O ring, like he’s summoning something. Owen stirs but doesn’t wake up.

“Why would we go anywhere?” I ask.

“Mum said that you’d take me to the shop for getting good grades on my spelling test,” Matty says.

I stand up and stretch. There’s no point arguing with Matty on this one because Mum said so, and I’d been borrowing her money and living in the house well past my grace period. I nudge Owen and he stirs. I slap him and he wakes.

“What man? I was dreaming. I didn’t sleep last night, I…”

“Yeah, you told me. We’re driving Matty somewhere, quick shop run, won’t be long.”

“I get shotgun,” Owen says, slowly getting up.

“No way, it’s mine. We’re going to the shop for it,” Matty says, tying his shoes.

“Well, get big enough to fight me for it,” Owen says, and I laugh.

On the way out to the car Matty runs ahead. By the time Owen and I catch up with him, he’s trying to open the door repeatedly in a way that could trigger the alarm. I unlock the car and Matty tries to jump in shotgun.

“Nope,” Owen says, and pushes Matty aside, perhaps a little too hard, and climbs in the passenger seat. Matty gets in the back seat and sulks. I start the engine, and he doesn’t put on his seatbelt. I turn around, about to say something, but just end up looking him and turning back. Without saying a word, Matty clicks in his seatbelt.

As we pull out of the car park Owen puts on his sunglasses even though it’s grey out, with no chance of sunlight sneaking past all the clouds. I press a button which puts the convertibles roof down and Owen lights two cigarettes, handing me one. I hold the cigarette in my hand resting over the door, out of the window. When I was seven, my mother told me that she used to have a friend who did this and had their arm cut off by an oncoming truck and bled to death on the way to their honeymoon.

“You shouldn’t be smoking,” Matty says from the backseat. He fakes plenty of coughs, as if we didn’t know what smoking does to people.

“Shut up, or I’ll leave you at Touchy Uncle Keith’s house for the rest of the weekend,” I say, not even looking at Matty in the rear-view mirror.

“You wouldn’t.”

“Fucking test me, Matty,” I say.

When I pull into the car park of the store the driver behind me slams on the horn for not indicating. Owen and I crush our cigarettes, then the three of us walk in. Matty runs straight to the slushie machine which has two flavours, purple and brown, and Owen walks to look at chocolate bars. I briefly stop in front of the magazines before realising that I don’t understand anything on these pages; they’re a combination of words and pictures that just batter my mind around to no effect, like the sea against a buoy. I go to the counter and buy a packet of cigarettes and a lighter.

Matty is pouring slushie into a clear plastic cup. He put mostly brown in it and mixes in the purple like a perfect spiral. I crouch down next to him and stare at it. It makes my tongue feel like it’s growing hairs, as if I’d been drinking glue and licking dogs.

“Are you okay?” Matty asks.

“Fine. Do you need money?”

“Mum gave me some.” Matty says.

I reach into my wallet and hand Matty some change anyway. I lean over to kiss his head, and tell him that I love him. When I was seven my mother told me that a friend of hers had brain freeze from having too many milkshakes and walked into traffic and got hit by a car. I go outside and light a cigarette.

A girl who has all the features of a developed teenager but is sucking on a lollipop walks up to me. Even though she is wearing tight denim shorts and a t-shirt with the sleeves cut off so I can see her bra, she seems strangely young. As if she knows that her body possesses some kind of power, but isn’t quite aware what it is.

“Looking for something?” She asks.

“You’re the one who approached me.”

“Need company?” She asks. I look around to see if this is a prank and I’ll end up on the internet.

“No thanks.”

“I have a brother, if that’s the kind of company you’re after,” she says, picking out a blackberry from her pocket and begins texting.

“I’m not after any company. I just want to be alone,” I say, and walk over to the car. I lean against the hood and smoke. I try and inhale my cigarette so that I can finish it under 10 drags. I look around to make sure there isn’t an oil spill that could ignite to cause an explosion.

Matty comes out of the store sucking his slushie. Owen follows out behind him and Matty climbs into the front seat. Owen looks at Matty, half raises his hands to object but then stops and gives him what I’ve come to know as Owen’s ‘whatever’ look. We drive around for a while, listening to the radio and people watching when a car cuts in front of me I slam on the breaks. Matty spills slushie on his lap and complains. Owen laughs.

We go to a park. Matty sits on the swings and Owen and I sit on a bench smoking.

“Do you think we should get hold of something to calm us down tonight?” Owen asks.

“I don’t think so,” I say, looking at Matty laughing as he gets off the swings to push himself around on a roundabout.

“Why not, man? We need to disconnect from all this relentless boredom,” Owen says. He points, but the only think I can see him point at is a squirrel moving towards an empty sandwich packet like he’s playing What’s the Time Mr Wolf? against a ghost.

“I am so disconnected from everything around me I don’t think any combination of chemicals can make me more so. I am the mountain just barely eroded by the winds of life. I feel nothing,” I say, and stamp out my cigarette.

“We could watch Face/Off tonight,” Owen suggests.

“Yeah, let’s do that,” I say.

The clouds start to rain a little bit but we are sheltered under the tree. Matty looks up at the sky, but continues to push himself around some more.

On the way back to the house Matty throws up in the backseat. I’m thankful that Owen claimed the front seat again, stating: “When you have hair down there, you can sit here.” I don’t even care that it doesn’t rhyme properly.At home Matty gets in the shower. When he comes out he has a towel around his waist, his skin pink from the hot water.

“I look like a worm,” Matty says, looking up at me.

“Get dressed,” I say, and sit down on the sofa.

Owen is playing a video game. He’s a soldier in armour and he is running around, shooting aliens with an assault rifle. He smiles as he kills them, their blood is purple and sometimes blue. When Owen dies he goes to the next room to make us coffee and I pick up the controller.

I run around into the alien village but they don’t start shooting at me. They walk back and forth, some are programmed to bump into walls and each other, and only when their leader notices me do they open fire. I don’t fight back, and when I respawn I just run back into the village to let them kill me again. My blood is red in this game; I guess I’m something that resembles a human. I keep giving the aliens a chance to avenge all the characters that were killed, and let them attack my character over and over. As I respawn the virtual characters can achieve some sense of justice.

The three of us stay in the living room for a few hours. Matty takes over playing video games while Owen and I drift out of sleep, waking up only when Matty turns on cartoons and puts the volume up to the max. We don’t bother looking at the clock because there’s no point watching the tiny hands go when we have nowhere to be. Occasionally, after it gets dark, somebody will say, “it’s getting pretty late,” and the others will just nod and agree. We drink some more beers. I look at Matty and think about my first beer, and wonder how long it would be till he indulges in this family tradition of self-medicating. A tradition saved from the days our father was alive and would get drunk at parties, trying to get his son to join him. I was 16 and hoping my Father would get me the scotch.

Owen and I are getting pretty buzzed. Not to the point of throwing up in the toilet, but just to the point when we don’t want to get up. Whenever we lift our arms it feels like there is a more godlike version of ourselves doing it for us.

I look through my recent text messages and delete every conversation thread that I’ve ever flirted with. Owen looks over at me and shakes his head.

“You need to disconnect, everything will be okay,” he says.

“Your right man, you’re right.” I switch my phone off but not before closing all the apps so the battery doesn’t die out quickly when I open it again.

I must have fallen asleep, because the television has gone into standby mode. Matty tries to fish my wallet out of my pocket. I push him off me and I can hear him rolling on the ground as I close my eyes again.

“I want money for pizza,” Matty says.

“Tough shit,” I mumble.

“Mum’s gonna be pissed when she comes back and finds out that you’ve been drinking and haven’t fed me,” Matty says.

He is right, so I throw my wallet at him. He turns on his iPad and orders a pizza using an app. Technology that twenty years ago would be worth millions is now used to deliver a cheap pizza to our house in less than twenty minutes.

I go to the door to get the food and tip the driver, Owen helps himself to a couple of slices, then walks out without saying a word. I take a slice, wondering how long it’s been since I’ve had an actual conversation with someone of the opposite sex. I leave Matty in bed and go to a club for a few hours. But instead of having a good time dancing, I’m distracted by flashing lights and girls in tight clothes. The DJ plays a song from a Will Smith album that I can’t recall the name of, and it ruins my night. At the bar, while I’m waiting for my sixth vodka & soda of the night, a girl turns to me.

“You look fancy. What do you do?”

“I…” I say, and trail off. “Nothing.”

She nods and turns back to her friend. After I get my drink, an algorithm of tiredness and drunkenness kicks in and all I want to do is go home. I feel apathetic that I have to be in such a public place and simultaneously have a good time; the oxymoron of life. I walk to my car with the key for the ignition in between my knuckles in case anyone tries to steal my phone in the carpark, and post something on my Twitter.

I drive home and manage to stay in between the confines of the lanes, for the most part. I pull into my driveway slowly, but while watching Matty’s bedroom light to make sure I don’t wake him I steer the car and scratch it against the wall. I get out and look at the damage. The driver’s side of the car looks like the side of a matchbox.

In the living room, my mother is sitting under the harsh glow of a lamp. The rest of the room is dark. She has an empty bottle of wine and a glass with some dregs in it next to her. She looks like she’s about to deliver an evil monologue. Her face is tainted with disdain like she has seen death.

“You used to be such a nice boy,” she says as I try to walk on past her into my room. “What happened?”

I stop and look at her. I try to figure out what I should feel right now, but there’s just… nothing. There is no way my mother would understand. The nothingness I fell towards everything around me is like the taste of water.

“I… I just don’t care about anything,” I say and walk into my room. I get undressed. In the kitchen my mother is sighing loudly and opening another bottle of wine. A friend of hers once had a champagne cork fly through their eye and into their brain.

Mother must think this is just a phase for me, and in some ways I hope she’s right. If it is a phase it’s lasted longer than the posters on my wall, longer than my only relationship, and soon, it might become the phase that defines how people will remember me.

On my wall is a yin and yang poster from a few summers ago when I tried meditating to mediocre results. When I looked into Buddhism, at a time of my life where I thought a higher power or philosophy could help me, I found that there was little balance in me, and the only thing I am is a hungry ghost. I read it as somebody whose emotions are so crippling in their life, that they can never successfully be happy in their next life. If this is true, then I at least hope Matty finds some sort of answer that I haven’t found, and that I’m suffering penance so he can have a good life.

I lie down in my bed naked. I think of the Owens and the Mattys of the world and I wonder if I have a place. It would be nice if I meant something in the lives of people like they do to me, even if I have trouble registering the importance and significance that they contribute in the moment. If there is any chance that I am the secondary character in somebody else’s narrative, then my life will have some sort of meaning. I’m just waiting for the day when I can walk past someone who I have had an interaction with, someone that I didn’t burn every bridge that could have connected us, and I’ll smile at them, and they’ll smile back.


Jay Slayton-Joslin is the author of Kicking Prose (Kuboa,2014) and Sequelland (Clash,2018). He lives in Leeds, England, and is working on books that should one day be finished

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