It's an old joke, you've no doubt heard it before. There's this young woman, and she's decided to kill herself by jumping off a bridge. So just as she's standing there on the railing looking down at the river below, a young man sees her and says, hey, so you've decided to kill yourself, huh? And she says yes, that's the way things are, and she's all expecting him to try to talk her out of it, to say come on, life isn't so bad; maybe he'll offer to listen to her troubles, maybe he'll get all weepy and beg her to call it off, all that kind of thing. But he doesn't.
Instead he says, well, if you're planning to die, why don't you have sex with me first? I mean, I'd really appreciate it, and you shouldn't care, you're about to kill yourself anyway. And she says, not a chance, and he says, oh, okay, and shuts up. But he doesn't go away, he just stays standing there looking at her, and when she says, come on, why are you still here, aren't you going to do anything, he says, oh, I'm just waiting for your bloated, disgusting corpse to wash ashore so I can fuck it. And, hey, could you get a move on? I don't want to be here all night. Okay, it's not a really funny joke, and you really have probably heard it before.
But anyway, that's not really the point. The point is that when she gets mad, and climbs carefully down on the safe side of the railing in order to take a shot at him, and then after she's beaten the crap out of him because he never raises a finger to defend himself, as soon as she hits him on one cheek he turns the other one to her and says, here, hit me here too, and she's standing there over his unconscious and bleeding body, well, she doesn't get back on the railing and jump. She just walks away.
Well, that wasn't really the point either, but it's closer. The thing is, ghosts. Ghosts are born when humans die, right? Wrong. Ghosts come from when humans have the strongest feelings that humans can ever have. That's usually when we die, so it's sort of true to say that they come from death, but it couldn't just be okay, you die, you become a ghost, because then the world would be crowded with ghosts all over the place and you can see that it isn't. Most people never feel anything strongly enough to create a ghost; it happens only once in a thousand lifetimes or so, and when it happens, as I said, it's almost always when someone is dying. What kind of feeling determines what kind of ghost.
You know how a lot of ghosts are supposed to be from people who killed themselves? Sometimes they're from people who were going to, but didn't. And you know how suicides supposedly go straight to Hell? That's just stupid.
Here's a picture for you: at the back of the arena, there's a big rolling garage-type door where they back out the Zamboni machine to dump the ice shavings after they've scraped the ice. Whenever they have ice in there, which is almost all year round, there's a big pile of shavings that look like snow, there beside the door. At night the whole area is bathed with ghostly green mercury light because people think that that scares away vandals, and if you look up at the light in the right way, especially if you're wearing glasses, you can actually see colored rings around the light, green and purple because your eyes (or your glasses) are splitting the mercury spectrum into its component parts, and you actually can see the ultraviolet even though you're not supposed to be able to.
Now look down at the pile of ice shavings. You wouldn't really be in a place like this in the early morning on a special night, but even though you're not supposed to be there to see it, you can actually see the outline in the snow. A snow angel, some little kid made a snow angel, but it's too big for a little kid, and there's blood and some other stains on the snow. The red looks black in this light; mercury light does that.
The arena is just on the boundary of the forest, where the two-lane highway comes straight from town and then gets wiggly where it goes through the trees, off to the big smoke. The forest boundary is an actual line on the map, because it's also the poorly-paved Number 13 Road; it's also a county boundary and the authorities on each side think it's the other side's responsibility to maintain, so the potholes just get bigger and bigger.
You'd walk along the Number 13 Road if you were trying to get from the arena to the graveyard, but that isn't the direction I came from. I had come from town, all the way up the highway on foot because I don't drive myself and I didn't want to involve anyone else. I had something to do that I had to do alone, because it was all about being alone.
People tell each other all kinds of weird things. As I was leaving the lights of town behind me I saw two little green lights in the darkness ahead, and they burned at me for a second and then zipped off into the weeds. Must have been a cat, I figured. I hoped it was black. But on weird things: people say that if you go to the right place at the right time you'll meet someone. They say you can make a challenge that can't be refused, they say if you're smart or lucky enough to win a bet you can claim a payoff. They say you can make a deal. I don't have a lot of faith in deals these days, but I believe I'm smart and a lot of not-so-smart people believe that that makes me lucky. It's weird what people believe.
The highway was deserted, all the way up to the arena. Even accounting for the time of night, and which night it was, I was a little surprised. I'd have expected to see at least a few trucks pass me, people heading to the big smoke, maybe a drunk or two out for midnight revelry. Heck, I know there are witches in town. I would have thought they'd be having a circle somewhere, burning a poppet or something. Maybe they were, and it just wasn't anywhere I knew about. Guy Fawkes Day comes early for witches, I think, but I don't really know much about it. Anyway, I was thinking that maybe I had already started to cross over into another world and so that was why I didn't see any vehicles. I wasn't sure just where the rift was supposed to be; I thought on the highway right before the forest, but maybe it was a lot sooner and I'd been walking through some special space for most of my trip.
The arena was all lit up and it looked spooky, but in the rational part of my mind I was mercilessly weeding everything down to raw perceptions, and I told myself that really, I didn't see anything out of the ordinary. It was just a brightly lit building and looked the same as it would any other night. I walked the centre line of the highway all the way to the intersection and looked around. Nobody there, nothing to see. Everything was deathly quiet.
Weeks later it occurred to me that in the whole night, although I walked up onto the Number 13 Road I never actually walked all the way across the Number 13 Road to the other side, and I sometimes wonder if that's where I went wrong. If I did in fact go wrong. Maybe I opened the door and just never really walked through it. But that's only a guess.
Anyway, I stood in the middle of the road, turning slowly around (counter-clockwise, of course!) and looking at my surroundings. Waiting for something to happen. I had been so sure I'd done everything right. I was carrying all the right things. I didn't expect that I'd have to take "no" for an answer this time. When I'd turned around several times, I saw that someone was sitting on the pile of snow behind the arena, where they dump the Zamboni machine. As I walked over there, I saw that it was a woman, well, a girl really.
I looked at her. She was pretty, I guess, but I'm years past the point where I could judge that reliably. I don't think I could describe the details of her appearance with any precision and I think that even at the time I knew I'd later be unable to describe her. That black-box recorder on the left side of my head, the same part of my brain that had been saying "Nothing weird here, keep moving" all night, seemed to have shut itself down. Either that was the effect of the place, or the drugs I'd consumed, or the person or being I faced.
"You're not as I expected you to be," I told her, automatically switching into the formal manner I'd rehearsed, and she shrugged. Her clothing rustled behind her as she shrugged, against the snow; she was wearing a heavy down parka, I thought, even though the temperature was well above freezing.
She said, "I don't believe that - you weren't expecting me at all. Nor I you. What are you doing out here at this time of night, let alone on this particular night?"
That would be just my luck, I thought, to encounter a random, human, stranger in this place and time to which I had intended to come alone. I don't think the magic is supposed to work with more than one person; or at least, you don't go to the same place that way. But I wasn't going to abort my plan just yet. Who I came to see was the original deceiver and might well prefer to trick me into some concession, instead of being bound to deal with me under the rules. As long as I stick to the rules, everyone else has to; that's the only bargain I still have true faith in. So I just said, "I shouldn't have to explain that. Why do people ever come to this kind of place at this kind of time?"
"I can see it in your mind, yes... but you seem a little old for that. Is it really all you want?"
"Sure I'm old," I said. "That's the point."
"You're not only older than most of the people I see, but also mature even for your relatively advanced age," she said. "Most of them think they're unique and nobody's ever had the same problem. But if you're that good at understanding the game, why aren't you long since winning it under your own steam? I said I can see into your mind, and I sure can't see anything wrong in there. Why do you think you need to cheat?"
"If I knew that," I said, "then maybe I really wouldn't still be losing. But I didn't come here expecting to have to justify why I want anything. I'd have thought you'd be eager to deal with me. Shall I tell you how much I'm worth? You won't get me on real vanity so easily, but it's not bragging to say that I'm sure I can top nine out of ten of the other offers you've gotten. That's just a fact."
"Well," she said, "I can also see that you're making a serious mistake. See, I'm not really who you think I am. I'm actually the one who saves you from that one. Unlike him, my services are free of charge, so put your wallet or whatever you've brought back in your pants."
"Nothing's free of charge."
"Now, you've given too many freebies yourself to say that." "I thought I was giving loans, not gifts."
"No, you didn't. You knew damn well what you were doing. Hey, should someone like me say 'damn'? Well, I guess it's in a good cause." Her clothing rustled again as she shifted her weight forward.
"So, what's in your backpack? Oh, don't bother, I can see that, too. Shall I list the contents, just to prove I can and I'm special? You've got candles, cards, hmm, Tarot cards and also something I don't recognize, what are those?"
"Magic: The Gathering."
"Oh. For the challenge? Well, that's a new one. I don't think anyone's tried that before. Not that that would improve your chances anyway. So, also some salt, matches, a glass paperweight?"
"For air. It's got clouds in it."
"Gotcha. That, a couple of dishes, complete the set with a bottle of water, then you also have a bottle of wine, a bottle of, eww, yuck! You didn't really need to bring so much of that, you know. You have like ten billion times as much as it takes. How long did it take you to - oh, never mind, I don't even want to know. You know, we normally use blood anyway."
"I have a very specific request."
"Yeah, I can see that. It's all written the contract you've prepared. You've got writing stuff, too, pens and ink and erasers and all."
"Written in your contract," she repeated. "How sad."
"You think that's sad? How about the other contract, the one I didn't have a choice about? At least I get to negotiate this one."
She didn't say anything.
After a moment, I continued. "Aw, fuck it. Everything's ruined tonight, anyway. I'm going home." But I found that I could not walk away. The soles of my feet seemed to be glued to the pavement.
She moved her head from side to side, as if working a crick out of her neck, and I heard the rustling of her coat again. She had stayed in the same pose, lying there in the snow, through our whole conversation; I guessed she must be pretty uncomfortable. "You aren't going anywhere," she informed me, though I had figured that much out already. "You don't want to take 'no' for an answer? You don't even want to have to ask? You want to be asked? Well, now we're going to go a step past that."
"It's very simple," she said. "You think you made a deal? You think you kept your side and you got nothing in return? Well, I made a deal too, and it's valid even though I never had a choice about it. I've got obligations of my own because I was saved once, and they include keeping you honest when your faith is weak. You'll have to get through me to complete what you were planning tonight, and frankly, you don't have a chance. You don't have the weapon that can hurt me nor the balls to swing it. It's already too late this year, anyway. You can't sell your soul tonight. It isn't allowed because you already did sell your soul to the same power that owns mine, and now you can't even leave here until I'm satisfied. That's my obligation and also my reward. Just be glad it's me and not the other one; I'm a lot nicer than he is. Both teams cheat, but you bet on the right one."
She opened her mouth wider and I saw how sharp her canine teeth were, and white in the greenish light against her lips that were red but looked black. As she stood up, I saw what had been rustling with each shift in her position, but before I had a chance to speak or to scream, she was silencing me.
I felt cold. Something lumpy was underneath me, and my arm was pressed at an uncomfortable angle. I opened my eyes, remembered where I was, and settled back against the pile of ice shavings. I was alone again. I stared up at the mercury light, and behind it, where the glare kept me from seeing anything clearly, I had a vague impression of fluttering wings too big to be a bug's.