The first time I saw the dead man in the bowler hat, I was on the Number 34 bus heading downtown.
It was the first Tuesday of the month, and I had to go into the office for my one-on-one with my boss, John Shaler. I hated first Tuesdays with the heat of a thousand pissed-off suns. But it was little enough forfeit to pay for having a steady job I could work from home the rest of the month. Thank God I’m the best dev Hora Systems has, or they would have kicked my agoraphobic ass to the curb a long time ago. I haven’t exactly been the ideal employee AC.
AC—After Concussion. My life is pretty much defined by Before Concussion and After Concussion.
That particular first Tuesday, I left my basement apartment on Capitol Hill with the usual vein-thrumming mix of nerves, terror, and utter dread. As soon as I got on the bus, I saw a dead woman. She was up front, in those seats that face the aisle. She’d probably gotten hit by a truck or some kind of machine. Her body was sliced into thirds like she’d been through a giant Veg-O-Matic. She sat close to the oblivious driver, a purse primly clutched in her lap, while blood pooled under her seat. I walked past, pretending I didn’t see her. My stomach threatened to toss up the Eggo and peanut butter I’d had for breakfast. I fucking hate blood. If I had my way, I’d never see it again.
A few stops later, an old couple got on and sat in the laps of two teenagers. Their lined faces were pinched into bitter, sour masks—the old couple, not the teenagers. They said nothing to each other, didn’t even look at each other, but their movements were perfectly in sync: scratch of the nose, shaking finger and mouthing something angrily, rock in their seat, gnash teeth, sigh. There they remained for three stops and then they hobbled off, each step perfectly mirrored.
Interlocked spirits liked that were particularly horrifying to me. The idea of spending eternity with someone you hated in life—it’s so unfair. You’d think you could escape the commitments you regretted in death. Right? I mean, what else is death for? It ends all corporeal pleasure and shit, so there should be an upside. Debts cancelled, enemies escaped, mistakes left behind, and all that. But that’s not how it is. I’ve seen a lot of spirits who were stuck together. And let me tell you, it’s rarely down to true love.
I’ll take my loneliness, thanks.
Despite my commitment to being single, I found myself craning my neck when we drove past Volunteer Park. But I didn’t see the beautiful boy in the red hoodie. I hadn’t seen him in a long time.
See, a few years ago, BC, I used to ride my bike to work, and my daily route went past the park. I often saw a young guy at the entrance on the corner of 15th and Galer. He was maybe eighteen, wore a red hoodie and jeans, and had blond hair, a pretty face, and sad blue eyes. His clothes were always the same, rumpled and dirty. I thought he might be a street kid, but he could have just been dedicated to the Seattle grunge thing. He was always alone. I called him Red Riding Hood in my head, and I always looked for him when I rode past.
I wished I’d had the nerve to stop and talk to him back then, but I never did. He was long gone now, maybe away at college somewhere. He could have ditched the grunge for a suit and tie for all I knew.
The bus passed Volunteer Park and then Broadway, the main shopping drag on Capitol Hill.
At the Swedish hospital stop, he got on. The man in the bowler hat.
To be honest, my first reaction was to check him out. He was handsome—dark-haired and slender, with an intelligent, soulful-looking face. Besides the bowler hat, he wore a three-piece tweed suit, looking very genteel for the bus and a bit old-fashioned. It took a second glance to realize he was also, unfortunately, not alive.
I stared down at my shoes. The floor of the bus was fairly clean, with it being just after seven in the morning. The slightly bubbled blue flooring looked bright around my scuffed brown leather shoes. It was a bit embarrassing, as if to say, Even I, the floor of a public transit vehicle, am better groomed than you.
I was about to tuck my neglected shoes under my seat in shame when a pair of pointed, black boots stepped in front of me. The legs were covered in dark brown tweed pants and almost completely solid, but the prickling hair on my arms and the back of my neck told me what I knew anyway. It was him.
I swallowed and raised my eyes. I expected him to be staring straight out the window or perhaps around the bus. But no, his warm brown eyes were looking into mine.
My heart pounded, and fear slicked through me in a black, oily tide. I closed my eyes and counted to ten. Oh, God. Oh, God. Please be gone.
When I opened my eyes, he’d moved. He was now across the bus, a few feet away, as if backing off. But he was still staring at me. Shit. I took calming breaths and pretended I didn’t see him.
I glanced at the old lady sitting next to me to see if she’d noticed my freak-out, but she just sat reading her book.
When I got off at First and Bell, Bowler Hat followed me. He walked five steps behind me for the three blocks it took me to get to the Hora Systems offices, a dead man reflected in shop windows and the shiny surface of a black limousine. And when I passed through the revolving door at our building and signed in at reception, I risked a casual glance around.
He was there. He stood against the glass front of the building, his eyes fixed on me. He opened his mouth as if trying to speak.
“Hi, Joe,” I blurted out to the security guard, just to act normal, like nothing was wrong.
Joe grunted, not looking at me.
I headed to the elevators.
“So how’s it going, Neil?” John asked.
Hora Systems was on the seventh floor of a black high-rise, and John’s office had a nice view toward the Sound. It was a cloudy Seattle Tuesday, dreary despite being technically spring.
“Fine. I’m fine,” I said.
“Yeah? How are the headaches?”
“Headaches” was my usual excuses for turning into a freak who never wanted to leave his apartment. I’d had a bad concussion, so people understood and accepted the idea that I might have terrible headaches as a result. Seeing dead people, not so much.
“About the same. But it’s cool. I’m good enough to work. I prefer to work, actually.” It was true. Working filled a lot of hours when you were stuck in your apartment.
“Good. Catch me up to date on the Gravalu project.”
So I did, describing the inventory check system I was currently working on. Hora Systems converted traditional businesses to paperless. Most of our clients had systems so complex, they required custom coding, which gave plenty of work to me and the three devs who worked in the office. One of our big clients, Gravalu, was a bio-tech company. I’d been working on their system exclusively for some time.
“I feel like this project is taking too long,” I said apologetically, “but it’s not because I’m not cranking on it. It’s the most complex system we’ve done. There are so many different chemicals and compounds. And this inventory check thing… I have to check the amount of each chemical in inventory against all the ways it was used in the lab, which all have their own logs. If there’s more than a variable percentage difference in the amount, I put up a flag. I guess some of that sh—er, stuff can be dangerous, so they want to make sure no one’s walking off with it.”
“It’s okay, Neil,” John said with his usual boredom-masquerading-as-patience. “The client’s paying for your hours. As long as they’re happy with your progress, I’m happy.”
“Good.” I still felt a little nervous about it. I didn’t know what I’d do if Hora Systems ever handed me a pink slip.
“So…. You ready to come back into the office again? Maybe start with two days a week?”
John asked this same question every month. And every month I said the same thing. “Not yet. Maybe in a few months.”
John was polite enough to pretend he believed me.
The one-on-one with John was the easiest part of my first Tuesdays. Once I was in John’s office, a dead-free zone, it was fine. I liked seeing the view out his window, drinking the company coffee, and talking to a real live person. I liked John. He was a good boss and a nice guy. And God knows I so seldom had a chance to talk to anyone. But after John, I had to face the trip home.
I took the elevator down to the lobby and stuck my head out warily. There was no sight of the dead man in the bowler hat. Cautiously, I ventured out of the elevator and then out of the building. I must have looked like a mouse sneaking around so timidly. Pause, dart, pause, dart. I didn’t see him on the street. I was relieved, but still looking out for him nervously until I was on the bus and it was moving.
Bowler Hat never did reappear, but there was a big, ugly dead man who got on the bus while we were still downtown and rode all the way up to 15th on the hill. He made his way down the aisle, looking at every person with intense interest before plunging a large butcher knife into their chests or stomachs. Down the aisle he went, like some hellish inspector, one person at a time. None of the living saw him, of course, but they would rub a hand where he’d struck, as if suddenly feeling a pain, or go pale and sick-looking. One woman leaned forward and nearly put her head between her knees as if light-headed.
I didn’t know what to do. If I tried to escape the guy, he’d know I saw him. That would be the worst thing I could do. Then maybe he’d follow me and keep stabbing. So I forced myself to shut my eyes and pretend to be asleep, despite the fact that my heart slammed in my chest and every nerve urged me to run. Please let me get home. I just want to get home. Oh God.
I could sense him getting closer, and when he was in front of me, I felt his legs brush my jeans. They feel solid, you know. Which is weird, but I guess if you can see them, you can feel them. I kept myself from moving or opening my eyes. He must have stared at me for a long time. Just when I was hoping he’d move on without stabbing me, I felt the knife plunge into my chest with a heavy thrust. It didn’t hurt as much as a real knife would, but it was still shocking. It was like a ghost echo of the way it would really feel—deep and sharp, violent and invasive.
I couldn’t hold back a cry, but I covered it with a jerk of my body and then relaxed again, as if I’d just had a bad dream.
Butcher Knife moved on.
By the time I got off at my stop at Volunteer Park, walk-ran the three blocks to the house where I had my basement apartment, got inside, and locked the door, I was drenched with a stinking sweat born of anxiety and terror. God, I hated the bus! I vowed to get my bike out of storage. Fuck the consequences. I wasn’t supposed to ride because my head injury was bad enough that any fall or knock could really hurt me now. But fuck it. I’d die before I rode the bus again. I promised myself I’d never have to.
And that’s how your life narrows, incident by incident, vow by vow, until your world is the size of a one-bedroom basement apartment.
But at least in my eight hundred square feet, I was safe.
The reason Bowler Hat freaked me out so much was because, as a rule, the dead don’t notice you. They’re set on their own paths, and the less you interfere with them, the better. Maybe they assume I can’t see them anymore than the other living walking through their world can. Drawing their attention, letting them know you can be messed with? Very. Bad. Idea.
Yes, I’m a selfish bastard. But here’s the thing: you can’t help the dead. Forget Haley Joel Osment and the fucking Ghost Whisperer. That’s all bullshit. Talking to the dead is like listening to a scratchy record in a language you don’t speak—with intermittent power failures and creepy shades of The Omen. It’s like playing charades with a madman. It’s scary and depressing and it’s dangerous.
Fuck it. I tried, okay? After I got through all the denial and shit, I tried.
The first year after the accident, also known as AC 1, I tried to fix myself. I’m a programmer, after all. I have a logical brain. I’m used to problem-solving. Well, there may be a Google page for just about everything, but there isn’t one for how to stop seeing the dead. I worked with my doctor in the regular hospital where I recovered from the accident. He sent me to a psychiatrist, Dr. Able. I gave Dr. Able the old college try. At first he was very interested in my case, and I believed he could help me get back to the way I’d been before.
Dr. Able taught me some interesting things about the brain, about how the swelling caused by a concussion, if not fatal, can damage some areas and reroute others. He’d had patients who suddenly had amazing math ability or the ability to pick up a new language in weeks. He’d had others who thought their wives were aliens or couldn’t process words starting with D. He’d seen people gain synesthesia, the ability to see odors or feel colors. But he’d never had a patient whose brain had rewired to see the dead.
We tried all the treatments. I went through twenty or so different meds, some of which made me sick or so tired I could barely open my eyes. We tried hypnosis. We even tried ECT, electroshock therapy.
Yes, they still do that. No, it doesn’t hurt when they jolt you because you’re under anesthesia. But it does hurt like a bitch when you wake up—lots of sore muscles from the seizures the electricity causes. My jaw had clenched so tight around the rubber insert they put in your mouth, it hurt like a bitch to move it. I could hardly talk or eat for a week.
Dr. Able had described ECT to me as a “hard reboot of the brain.” That made sense to me, being a computer guy. But when my brain “rebooted,” my ability to see the dead came back online even before I remembered my own name. So yeah, pretty much a complete failure.
By the end of that first year, I finally accepted that I really could see the dead and it wasn’t going away. I began to ask the nurses about the people I was seeing, describe them. Turns out the dead people I saw at the hospital matched descriptions of people who’d been patients who had died in that ward.
Dr. Able told me my belief that I was actually seeing the dead was a worsening of my “damage-induced hallucinatory condition.” I told him to watch out for the dead guy with the frizzy red hair and the hatchet. That guy really fucking hated Dr. Able. Then I checked myself out.
After that, at the start of AC 2, I tried to do something with this “gift.” I was going to make a difference in the world! And, not coincidentally, I’d get rich. I’d be like one of those mediums on TV who see ghosts for a studio audience and bring everyone to tears of happiness and spiritual wonder. I was gonna be a hero, a Batman for the dead. But the few times I tried to communicate with them, it was a disaster.
There was one guy, typical Mad Men 50s father-type, with horn-rimmed glasses and a suit and tie. He paced in front of an apartment building not far from where I live. I talked to him, asked what was wrong. When he finally noticed me, his face got all angry, and he yelled at me in gibberish and smacked me upside the head. It felt like a scene he’d played out before, like he thought I was his son and we were arguing and he was hitting me. All day that guy followed me around, smacking me upside the head and yelling at me. The blows didn’t hurt exactly, but I got a massive headache from all that negative energy. And I got drained too. Not to mention it’s really unpleasant to have a man in your face screaming at you and hitting you.
I finally knocked myself out with a bottle of wine and a couple of “happy pills”—pills I’m supposed to take if I get too fearful. When I woke up later that night, Dad of the Year was gone. Thank God!
Makes you wonder, right? Was that the thing that haunted the guy? The way he lost his temper with his kids? Was that what he would obsess over in death—on and on and on, forever? Lovely.
The second time I tried to reach out to a dead person went even worse. I tried to help this sweet-looking old lady ghost I found wandering around downtown. She had on a print flower dress and wore her hair in a bun. I talked to her on the street, asked if she was able to move on, “go to the light,” and all that crap, or if there was a message she wanted me to give to someone.
Long story short: she moved in with me for six weeks, convinced I was her son. She had dish-throwing tantrums over my meal choices, disconnected all my cell phone calls, turned the channel away from my favorite TV shows to Sesame Street and National Geographic, went apoplectic over Grindr, and stared at me in the shower with this disdainful moue, just daring me to touch my willy. Every. Single. Day.
Her name was Margaret, by the way. The dead old lady. I got rid of her by visiting the most expensive Jewish assisted living facility in the Seattle area. I pretended I was shopping for my real mother and got a tour of the place, with Margaret trailing along behind. Last time I saw her, she was happily waiting in line at the spa with three other old lady ghosts.
In the six weeks Margaret lived with me, I never figured out her real son’s name, nor any pressing “unfinished business” I could help her with. I never convinced her to “go to the light,” which, as far as I can tell, doesn’t even exist. I changed nothing.
Now I just ignore them. And they ignore me. But Bowler Hat had seen me, followed me, watched me. I really wanted to know what that meant.