By S. J. Hinton
I was really feeling sick that night, so I can't honestly swear that
what I'm writing down really happened the way I remember it. I'm not
actually even sure why I'm writing it down in the first place, sloppily
with a cheap gel pen on the pages of an old spiral notebook, since I
doubt I can ever show the pages to anyone. But the incidents of that
night and the following days seems so odd, that I can't help but write
After September 11, most people were really worried when it came to
being sick. It might have actually worked out in a good sort of way
when I caught a cold the last week in November. It started like they
all do, with an itchy throat and the sniffles, then rapidly went into
the uncontrollable sneezing phase. By morning of the next day, I was
running a fever and had red puffy eyes.
Then I tried to be a trooper and showed up for work.
Annie Raises wouldn't talk to me - she just got up out of her office
chair and sort of ran into the restroom. Don Mayfair looked up from his
workbench, then found a good reason to put on his faceshield. Most of
the others were pretty good about it and tried not to act
I'd been at work maybe half an hour when Doug Jennings, my manager,
called for me to come back to his office. He didn't usually do that
unless there was trouble, so I expected the worst.
"Danny, I want you to take the day off," he said as I entered. He
motioned me to the chair opposite his desk and sat in his overstuffed
office chair. "In fact, you might as well just take off until you feel
"Um," I replied thoughtfully. I wasn't at my best that morning. "Okay.
He sighed. He was a big guy, so sighing was done with the whole body
in his case. "Well, because you look like hell, for one thing. For the
other, you're scaring the staff."
I looked at him blankly. "I don't understand."
He shook his head. "It's stupid, really. Ever since the terrorist
thingy and the anthrax scare, everybody's running around with their
heads cut off. I know you don't have anthrax or anything fatal, but
I'll play hell trying to make sure everyone else knows it." He made a
clucking sound. "Frankly, I'd rather do without you for a couple of
days than have you get sicker and miss even more time. Not to mention
maybe making the rest of us get sick. And, if I don't send you home,
I'll have half a dozen people call in sick tomorrow just so they don't
have to work in the same building as you." He was panting by the time
he'd finished speaking. He wiped his forehead with a beefy hand.
"Oh," I replied. "I guess I'll go home then. Maybe make some soup and
get some sleep."
And I did.
Which is how I mean it all might have worked out: I only had a cold,
but it got me a few days off. And that was right in the middle of a
time when I was really unhappy with work. It may just have kept me from
quitting at the worst possible time of the year.
So that's how I ended up being home for a few days right in the middle
of the week, and me working retail. It felt good to be out of the
grind, even temporarily.
Well, I felt pretty bad that first day, and even worse the second. By
the third, I was actually feeling like I might live, but all the sinus
drainage had upset my lower intestinal tract. By seven, I was suffering
from a bad case of diarrhea. By ten that night, I periodically felt
like my stomach was a vacuum cleaner hose someone had just dumped a
whole pouch of marbles down. There would be this terrific and
impressive rumble, and I'd have to sprint for the bathroom
Around midnight, I think flushing myself out with lots of water was
beginning to help, but I still didn't feel comfortable enough to try
sleeping. I turned on the television and flipped channels.
I eventually ended up on the Comedy Channel, and began to watch The
Knightly Show. If you've never seen the program, it's a comedic takeoff
of every news program ever made. Terrific stuff and it often has
wonderfully funny interviews. This particular program was a repeat, but
I'd missed the original broadcast, so it didn't matter. The guest was
some stupid girl from some stupid television show, but host Brad Knight
was in rare form.
I had dozed off for a little while and had just awoken with a dry
mouth. I sipped greedily from a glass of tepid and slightly salty tap
water and looked blearily at the TV. Brad had just finished commenting
on some skit or other he had just shown, and was introducing his
"special guest" for the night. I perked up, because the program usually
only had one guest per show.
It turned out to be Jack Gardner, whose own show Beyond the Boundary
with Jack Gardner was incredibly popular. Gardner's public relations
agent claimed that, as a young child, Jack had shown the ability to
tell details about a complete stranger's life and past. As a young man,
he had worked as a psychic in a circus until a true "sensitive" had
shown him the reason for his "powers." After that, he had tried to help
people with his "readings." Ten years ago, a session with a young man
was interrupted by the spirit of the man's grandfather speaking to Jack
from beyond, hence the name of the program. Since that time, Jack had
used his powers to speak to the dead for the ultimate good of his
All of which was pretty good entertainment, and I was just a wee bit
"Yeah, it's pretty much crap, all right."
The voice had suddenly come as if from thin air. Actually, it might
have been better had it come from thin air. In that case, the old man
sitting beside me on the couch wouldn't have seemed to have suddenly
materialized there as if by magic.
I jumped clear off the couch without bothering to straighten from a
sitting position, which made it nearly impossible to finish standing
before gravity took hold and made me fall flat on my face. I did manage
a pretty passable scream, though. Maybe just a little too high-pitched
to be manly, but I wasn't interested in perfection.
"Who the hell are you?" I stammered.
The old man glanced at me in a fairly disinterested way, then
shrugged. "Morty," he replied in a conversational tone.
"And what the hell are you doing in my house?" I asked, my voice going
up an octave. "Did you come in while I was sleeping?"
"I incorporated while you were snoring," he replied.
He sighed. "Incorporated. That's the opposite of discorporated. It
means that I formed a tangible physical presence out of what to you
would have seemed nothing." He looked around hopefully. "Do you have
More to see whether he was real or not, I handed him a bowl of the
potato chips I'd been eating earlier.
"Thanks," he nodded as he took the bowl. "It's been ages since I had
He began grazing peacefully on the chips, crunching noisily and making
appreciative noises. I watched for a while, Morty ignoring me, until I
felt reasonably sure he wasn't a figment of my fevered imagination nor
a crazed killer out to chop me into little bits.
"I should tell you to leave," I said at last. "And if you refuse, I
should call the police."
Morty shook his head. "That's be a bad thing to do," he replied.
"First off, they'd never see me unless I wanted them to, and I
wouldn't. That'd make you look crazy. Second, you're interested in me,
and I'd never forgive you enough to ever talk to you again."
"Why in the world would I want to talk to you in the first place?" I
asked. "I don't know you from Adam."
"I'm Morty," he said. "And everyone wants to be able to talk to the
dead and find out what it's like on the other side." He nodded toward
the television set. "Just ask him."
I blinked, being unable to speak at that exact instant. "Excuse me," I
said, finally. "I can't talk to the dead."
Morty rolled his eyes toward the ceiling imploringly. "Oh. Look who
knows everything all of a sudden!" He looked at me out of the corner of
his eyes. "For your information, you're talking to the dead right at
this very instant. That means you don't know a thing about it right
now. But you can learn."
"You mean you're trying to tell me that you're dead? A ghost?"
"Bingo, more or less," replied Morty. "He can be taught."
"Uh huh," I nodded. "And how did you get here?"
"I thought we'd covered that," he replied. "I incorporated."
"So you said. And to me that means...?"
Morty eyed me shrewdly. "What do you know about quantum
"Not very much."
"Ah," he nodded. "Well, you're going to know a lot more after you're
dead. Suffice it to say that I exist normally in a state of quantum
flux. I can appear in solid, but temporary, form by manipulating
electrically charged subatomic particles to form a field, and fill that
field with tiny bits of matter. Quarks and stuff you've never heard
"So you're real."
"I think so," he said, patting his hands over his face and chest. "And
solid, at the quantum level, for as long as I can hold this
"Uh huh," I said thoughtfully, sitting down carefully. "Mind passing
the potato chips?"
"There are a lot of things you'd probably like to know about what's
going on beyond," began Morty. "I'd like to let you know everything,
but I don't think I'm allowed to. But I will tell you as much as I know
"There are three levels of existence - you might call them universes -
that living people exist in all at the same time. They don't know they
live in them, because they don't have the senses to realize it, but
"The first is the physical body. The other two are bound to it through
life, and are only free to live separate after death of the physical
"The second is the spirit, or soul. I can't really explain well what
it is, but it makes us human. It also has no personality of its own,
and can best be described as a spark of energy, a flame borrowed from a
fire. At the death of the body, it returns to the fire and loses its
At his pause, I made a comment: "You say usually."
He nodded. "A strong personality can color the spark. Treat it like a
tablespoon of salt added to a glass of water. You add personality - a
drop of dye - and still it's a tablespoon of salt in a glass of water.
Evaporate the water, and the salt is colored by the dye. Mix it back
with the bag of salt, and there's that drop of dye distributed
throughout. Every tablespoon of salt taken from the bag from then on
has a bit of that dye mixed in."
"You hear of a lot of people claiming to be reincarnated. Ever noticed
how every one of them is Benjamin Franklin, but none are Ben's upstairs
maid? That's because a strong personality colors the salt, and it's
much more likely to be noticed later.
"The point is that the soul gets recycled. There's a finite amount of
this energy out there, and the soul spark returns to its source.
There's a constant flow going out into the universe, and returning.
Sort of like an electrical current flowing in a circuit."
Again he paused, and again I felt obliged to prompt him. "You said
there were three."
"The last is the personality itself, or maybe you might call it the
intellect. Most people can't stand the knowledge of their death, and
the intellect dies with the body. In others, the intellect lives on,
unknowing of the death of the body. It wanders the earth, the site of
its death, a mere shadow of its owner.
"In a few cases, a very few, the intellect comprehends the death of
its body and moves on. It realizes the import, and realizes what it
has. We live on in a world we perceive as what we wanted most in life,
or what we feared most. It depends on the clarity of your
"So that's heaven."
He shook his head. "Oh, no. Heaven is what we've always been told is
the home of God and his Angels. I've never seen God, but I know about
Angels. You don't ever want to see one of them." He gave a visible
shudder. "No, it isn't heaven. It's just another part of life, beyond
this prison of flesh."
I thought about what he'd said. "If it's so perfect, then why leave it
to come here?"
He smiled. "Well, I'm not really here. Or, better explanation, I'm
both here and there. Time and space are both a bit more elastic than
you think. And, to answer your real question: We're all a little tired
of shitheads like him." He pointed at the television with his chin.
"We'd like to teach him a lesson."
"And what's that got to do with me?" I asked, but feared the
Morty waved a hand. "Aw, it's nothing. You ever hear about what they
call 'thinking outside of the box'? It's like that. Those of us who are
going to make it through death and out the other side tend to be a
little different in life. You've got that."
"So, I'll be like you?"
He hesitated. "You can be, but nothing's guaranteed." He looked
closely at me. "The more important thing is that you have what it takes
to be able to see us. Not everybody can."
I nodded toward the television. "Like him?"
"Like him," agreed Morty. "He couldn't see us to save his life. Much
less be able to carry on a conversation. Like I said, there is the
intellect remaining after death. In some people, it just goes away:
They can't accept life after death, so there isn't one. In others, the
trauma is so great that only a shadow of what they once were survives,
and that's what a ghost usually is. They have no understanding of
what's going on, and relive a portion of their lives over and over
again. The rest are like me: They survive death and live on. They
interact when necessary with the physical world."
"But you haven't explained why you're here," I interjected.
"It's boring out there," he sighed. "Nothing much happens. But it
really chaps our asses when someone we don't know tries to tell people
I shrugged. "Tell him so, yourself."
Morty smiled. "Can't. It's against the rules. You see, we can't
usually even try to contact a person unless we have some connection to
"Uh huh. But we have no connection. I'm not related to you, and I've
never met you before."
A pause. "I shouldn't say anything, but I've got dispensation. I've
got permission from the others to talk to you. The question is whether
you want to take the step or not."
"And should I ask what that step might be?"
"Well," Morty waffled. "For our part, that'd be teaching that bum
what's what. For you, it'd be something a little more substantial. What
if you could do for real what he claims he's able to do?"
And that's how I became famous.
Or, almost how. First I almost got arrested.
See, Morty came up with the idea that I had to get attention. What
that meant was that I ended up dressed pretty nice standing on the
corner of a busy street at lunchtime.
Morty nodded toward a well-dressed woman who was walking our way. "Say
hello to her, then tell her you got a message for her from Al."
I did that, and the woman stopped, looking at me down her nose.
"Excuse me," she said with disdain. "But I do not know you."
"Al knows you," I said, repeating what Morty told me. "He says he died
ten years ago, never telling you the truth about Lorraine. He really
didn't have an affair with her. She was his daughter by another woman.
She has letters from him, and is running a business he helped start.
She wants to talk to you."
"I -" the woman stuttered. "How do you know this? Why should I care -
"Because Lorraine thinks you should have a share of the business. I
know you've been having problems making ends meet. Call Lorraine." And
Morty gave me the number.
And it started just like that. Like ripples in a pond, people suddenly
started milling around me as I picked people out of the growing crowd
and told them about loved ones who passed one and secrets they never
Eventually, the police came and tried to haul me away for being a
public nuisance, but the crowd booed them. A camera crew from a local
television station pulled up and began taping a segment, and the nice
looking female reporter interviewed me. I sounded a little nuts, but
people seemed to love it.
By the time I got home, there were ten messages on my answering
machine. People at work had seen, people in my family had seen, and
even old friends were calling up. There was a message from the local
television station wanting me to appear on their morning talk show day
after tomorrow. I was a celebrity.
"Welcome to the big time," smiled Morty.
I'd just finished the interview at the television station for the
afternoon program they called After Lunch with Louie when the gentleman
from the Jack Gardner show introduced himself. The local guys sort of
faded back when Mister John Webber shook my hand, like they could stand
to be that close to the real thing.
"Jack's heard a lot about you the last day or two," said Mister
Webber. "It's like you just appeared out of nowhere."
He wanted to say out from under a rock, whispered Morty in my
"I guess I sort of did," I replied. "It's only been the last couple of
days that my - gift made itself known to me."
"That's just fine," said Mister Webber. "Here's the thing: Jack wants
you on the show. The people want to see you on the show. My job is to
get you on the show. How's that sound?"
I shrugged. "I'd like nothing better."
"Good. Great. We normally pay a set amount for a guest shot. That's
what you'd be first time out. If it works okay, then Jack's prepared to
make you an offer to be a part of the team."
He's heard about you and is running scared. He doesn't want the
competition, so he's bringing you in close. Morty again.
"We can do that," I replied brightly. "How soon do we do this?"
"Uh," Mister Webber consulted his watch. "We'll be leaving for San
Fran in about three hours. Is that enough time to pack?"
I met Jack Gardner for a late dinner in the hotel restaurant. He was
taller than I expected, and spoke a lot with his hands. He was
originally from Philly, and the accent was a lot more pronounced in
"What we've got here," he told Webber. "Is the genuine article."
Which he is not, said Morty in my head. If he could do what he claims,
he'd be able to hear me now.
"With a little time," Gardner was continuing. "I could train him and
he'd be able to do as much as me."
"From what I hear," replied Webber, examining a fingernail. "He
"Well," mused Gardner. "Maybe he can, but he doesn't know how to make
it into a real show. I can do that."
It turned out that Gardner was as good as his word. He really was able
to make the whole thing into a show. That was good for ratings, and
that was good for making money. It wasn't good for what this was really
all about, though. He was supposed to be speaking to the dead, for
chrissakes, and somehow that seemed to be kind of a quiet and serious
He made it into a circus, complete with baboons riding unicycles. The
more I grew to respect how much of a showman Gardner was, the less I
liked him as a person.
Which made it a lot easier planning to ruin him.
I did it on the second show.
We'd done the first show straight, with me as a guest. Gardner mostly
did his thing, and only let me "read" one person in the audience. I did
my reading, Morty helping invisibly, and the people in the studio ate
it up. It was the single most popular show they'd done, so Webber got
with me and cut a deal for me to do another guest spot the next
This one had me sharing the spotlight with Gardner and we were working
with celebrity guests. Randall Black, the famous skeptic, was there. So
was the new pop music sensation who called herself Misty Red, and the
horror author Anthony Chilton. Black had volunteered at the last
instant, saying that would not provide enough time for us to prepare
and that therefore we wouldn't dare do a reading on him. Ha.
When my time came, Gardner introduced me and asked if I'd like to do a
reading. I agreed, and began to work the audience and guests a little.
I told a little white haired lady her dog was doing fine in the
afterlife, which was pure hockey puck since most animals lacked the
ability to live on as ghosts. Then I moved on to Black, prompted by
Once you've convinced him, or at least made him doubt, anything you do
to Gardner will hold that much more weight, had said Morty.
I did all the stage stuff Gardner had shown me, which made Black cross
his arms and look very amused. Then I dropped it on him.
"Mister Black, you realize that I've been pulling your leg with all
this stage stuff."
He nodded. "You've got a knack for it, but you're not really the best
I've seen do this," he replied.
"Well then, it's time I show you what I can do when I'm not hamming it
for the audience," I said. I caught the surprised look on Gardner's
face and the panicked waving motions Webber made. "You became a
professional skeptic after your mother was misled for years by a
medium. She wanted desperately to contact your deceased father."
He uncrossed his arms. "You could've read that in a dozen places,"
"Yes, but what's not been told is that you made it your personal
crusade to ruin this medium. You crushed her career and she ended up
committing suicide." I looked him right in the eyes the entire time.
"That medium was your own sister."
Black went pale with shock, and I continued: "After that, your mother
suffered a breakdown and was placed in a mental institution. She died
there three years later. Your real reason behind sniffing out the fakes
is because you're hoping to find the real thing. You want to prove
that, in spite of all the bad that came of it, your mother wasn't
really a loon." I looked away. "Sorry, those were your sister's
Black looked like he was going to fall out of his chair. He tried to
stand, but his knees buckled under him. An intern helped him off
Well done! Said Morty. That was too easy. He should've doubted you a
Applause rippled through the audience. Gardner looked pissed, but
Webber was smiling. Our two remaining guests looked at me warily, as if
they expected me to grow horns and pounce on them.
With Morty's prodding, I turned to Gardner. "Mister Gardner, I seem to
be getting a message for you."
Gardner frowned, and it was Webber's turn to look pale.
Morty fed me the information, and I read it back off to Gardner. "It's
something from your father. He tells me you should be more honest and
go with your given name." I frowned theatrically. "Jack is your
nickname. It's really John. No, Johan. He says it'll be better for your
Gardner opened his mouth, then snapped it back shut. The audience was
enthralled, and he was too good a showman to let the opportunity pass
him by. He watched and waited.
"Johan," I continued. "And not Gardner. Your grandfather tended
gardens for a living, back in Germany before the war. Your name is
Epstein. Such a good Jewish name. Why are you ashamed of it?"
Gardner stepped closer and hissed: "What are you doing?"
I ignored his remark. "Ah, because the boys at school teased you and
beat you up. You began scaring them by acting very different from
everyone else. They began to think you were a little insane." I smiled.
"Then you went off to college. You changed your name and forged
documents. You became John Gardner, and attended acting school. You
learned stage magic and how to play the audience. You turned a stage
act into all this, and became Jack Gardner."
"You're getting a bad reading," said Gardner with a venomous look at
me. "That's not true."
"But it is," I replied calmly. "Just ask Mister Black how accurate I
was with my information from his sister. I'm getting the same good
information now from your father. You're a fake."
The word rippled through the audience again and again. I had them, and
they were convinced I was the real thing. Whether they'd believed in
Jack Gardner before that instant or not, they believed in me now.
"You're ruining me!" accused Gardner, stepping even closer to me. "Why
are you doing this? Who told you about me?"
"I told you I was for real," I replied. "The dead are upset you've
been making money and hurting people with your lies about what they
say. You're father is especially disappointed in you." I paused for a
heartbeat, shocked by what Morty had just said in my mind. "Your father
says so, himself. Morty is right here with me."
That was all I wrote in my journal, whether you choose to believe the
story or not. That's even if you've ever gotten the chance to.
Jack Gardner was ruined. No one would even admit to ever having
believed in him before. As far as the people were concerned, he'd
always been a hack. The press even ran a story the next morning showing
how often he'd been wrong. I never got the chance to read it.
The only person who seemed genuinely happy was Webber. He took credit
for finding me, and was already spinning a story about how I'd come to
have my powers. I let him. I was pretty much done for the time being,
and sick of it all. Morty had left me as soon as he told me about being
Gardner's father, and I didn't know whether I'd even have those powers
I left the set with a small detail of security guards, making the
promise to Webber I'd talk to him in the morning. The crowd pressed too
close, and I just wanted to get away.
That's when the son of a bitch shot me.
His name was Ed Hauer, and he'd been a fan of Gardner for years. He
was a little bit of a flake, bouncing between the Atlantean Society,
the UFOlogists and Gardner for the last couple of years since he'd been
released from the hospital his family'd put him in. He was no longer
taking his medications and he was a kettle waiting to boil over. Nobody
knows where he got a gun.
In the movies you see people getting shot and slapping a hand to the
wounded part and saying "ow." It's not like that. Hauer only had a .38
Special, but the bullet caught me in the side and felt like a baseball
bat. It spun me around and dropped me in a heap, and all I could do was
lie there and try to wrap myself around the hurt.
The last thing I remember was trying to catch my breath while someone
used his shirt to try to stop the bleeding.
Until I woke up in a bright room, looking at Morty.
"How do you feel, Kid?" he asked.
"I didn't think I'd see you again," I replied. "I feel a little odd,
He nodded, and I remembered what had happened at the studio. "Why
didn't you tell me you were Gardner's father?"
He looked ashamed. "I didn't think you'd help," he said slowly. "I
didn't lie to you about how we felt and why we wanted to shut him down.
I just didn't tell you about how he and I were related. I wasn't able
to talk to him directly, so I used you."
"Aren't you sorry you ruined his career?"
Morty raised an eyebrow. "That was a career? No, I'm not. I figure in
a month or two, once the money runs low, he'll get a real job. Maybe
even a real career he can be proud of. For what it's worth, he's coming
around to realizing how what he did hurt people."
"So what about us?" I asked.
"Yeah. Don't act dumb, Morty. I don't know if I like the idea of
helping people out by speaking to the dead for them, but I kind of was
getting used to you being around."
He looked off in the distance. "Well, about that. I can say that we
can keep on having our talks, if you want. Like I told you before,
you've got that something different."
"What's going on, Morty?" I began looking around the pleasant
"You might've noticed you're not in a hospital," he replied. "I don't
know how much you remember, but you got shot. It wasn't a scratch,
either." He gestured to the entire room. "You're here, now."
It dawned on me. After all, I'm not completely dumb.
"Yep. As a doornail. Passed on and out the other side." He smiled
carefully. "Welcome to the afterlife."
I pondered on it. I didn't feel any different, not really. And I'd
seen that Morty seemed to be pretty happy, overall. Maybe it wasn't so
bad. I'd probably lost my old job when I never showed back up to work,
anyway. Most certainly, I'd had after the people there saw their loony
co-worker claiming he could talk to the dead. And I hadn't been
completely comfortable with Webber's plans to make me another Jack
Yeah, it looked okay from my point of view. Not that there was
anything I could do about it, anyway.
"Okay, Morty," I said. "What's on the agenda?"
He smiled back at me. "With you gone, I think we might recruit someone
else to take up where you left off," he replied. "There's this writer
I've heard about..."