Her Pale Smile

by Simon Kewin

If I've learned one thing in the two years I've been trapped in here, it's this. Don't ever die of a heart-attack riding a ghost train.

Seriously. Three reasons. One, you'll be dead, which is intrinsically not good, right?

Two, it's plain embarrassing. You can protest about undiagnosed congenital cardiac defects all you like. People will still snigger. A grown man. Frightened to death. By a ghost train.

The third reason is the clincher though, especially when you have the traditional unfinished business binding you to the mortal realm. Think about it. You can haunt and whooo and wail all you like, but a ghost train is the one place in the whole damned world where people won't take you seriously.

"Look at that one!"

"Call that scary? It's pathetic!"

A car of teenagers rattles by. What really stings is when they scream more at the gaudy plastic masks and sheets on wires than me. I float after them, hoping to worry them just a little, but their car barges into the double-doors and they're gone. I haven't the strength to try and pass through after them. What's the point?

"Ignore them, Daniel. They're just children out having their fun."

Camelia floats there beside me, a faint twist of smoke in the glow of the phosphorescent zombie heads. Her pale smile shines at me in the thin air. It's good to see her. She doesn't come up here much when the ghost-train is running, preferring it down in her cellar. I hear her down there, talking to herself.

"It's just so frustrating. At least if they looked frightened it would be something. Show I'd gotten through to them."

Camelia looks around, her face briefly a blur of confused features. She looks vulnerable. Despite all her years here she finds the fake monsters and blaring sound effects alarming. She's a ghost frightened of fake ghosts and I'm a ghost people mistake for a fake ghost. What a pair we make.

"How is it going with Zak?" she asks. "Are you any closer?"

"Decided I'm going to try it tonight," I say. "Once he shuts the ghost-train down. What have I got to lose?"

She doesn't reply, looking thoughtful. She fades visibly.

Zak, I should say, is still among the living. Just about. He's the lank-haired adolescent they've hired to run the ghost-train this summer. He slouches in each day in his Cradle of Filth tee-shirt, music buzzing away in his earphones. Sits in his plyboard cubicle pulling in the cash, pressing the Release Car button every ninety seconds. Zak, who is my one great hope for salvation and release from this vale of tears.

Because, say what you like about him, he's conscientious. He supposed to walk the track each night after the punters have gone, check nothing's been dropped, check no-one's pulled a leg off the giant tarantula or graffitied the mummy. And that's what he does, torch in hand, humming away to himself. There's my chance. With the electrics all off it's quiet. Maybe then I can make myself heard, get my message across to him.

Camelia's been training me for months, showing me how it's done. What would I do without her? But the effort of it makes me want to weep. Even now, after all this time, the best I can manage is a few moaned syllables, maybe some letters drawn in the condensation on a mirror. Pathetic, I know. I just hope it's enough. If not, I'll be stuck here for eternity.

"I hope it works out for you," says Camelia. "I really do."

We can both hear the next car lumbering towards us, the screams of the occupants, the strident sound-effects. She starts to disappear, wary of the people and the stroboscopic lights the arrival of the car will trigger.

"Thanks, Camelia. I hope you ..."

But she's gone. If it does work I won't see her again. It'll be just her and the plastic skeletons.

~

That night, I wait for Zak among the polystyrene tombstones. There's a mirror concealing an alcove there. When cars approach, lights come on to show the wraith that looms unseen behind the car. My hope is to write something on the glass. I'm desperately trying to make letters appear on the cold surface as I hear Zak approaching. Just his name might be enough, Just a letter. But it's so hard to manipulate material objects and the strokes I make are too faint, much too faint. His flashlight catches me, washing me out completely. He doesn't see me. I cry out in frustrated rage but he doesn't hear.

Then it comes to me. Why didn't I think of it sooner? His earphones. Such tiny electrical impulses; manipulating them might not be too much effort. Plus, with all that death-metal he listens to, he might not be that alarmed to hear me in his head. I float after him, focussing all my will into those thin little wires, trying to form audible words through the electrical fuzz.

He's in the last room, next to the Unconvincing Vampire, when I finally manage to get something through to him. He stops dead by the exit door.

"Zak. Help me, Zak."

That's what I try to say anyway. It probably comes out more like, Nngh. Nngh N, Nngh, because all he does is take out his earpieces, shake them and press them back into his ears. Then he pushes open the exit door and he's gone.

I drift around aimlessly after that, exhausted by my efforts, numb from the failure. I'm still there when Camelia materialises to see what's happened.

"I thought it must have worked," she says. "I thought you must have gone."

"Nope. Still here."

"I'm sorry."

"Not your fault."

She doesn't speak for a time, seeing how I'm feeling. Then she says, "Do you think it would have worked anyway? I mean, are you sure this is the unfinished business that's holding you here?"

"I'm sure. I'd been trying to pluck up the courage to tell Laura for weeks. Months. I can't pass on without her knowing how I feel."

"But you came here. I mean, to a fun-fair. It just seems a strange place to come to tell a girl you loved here."

"We were friends in a group. We went places together."

"But I mean, a ghost train? It seems an unlikely place for romance. What would you do, come back on anniversaries and ride it again?"

She means well, I know. She's trying to give me a way to handle the disappointment. I wish she wouldn't.

"I didn't intend to tell her on the ghost-train, did I? We just came for the ride and I, unfortunately, had a heart-attack."

"Which is completely understandable," she says, a little too quickly. "You'd obviously been under a lot of stress."

"No, Camelia! I explained. I had an undiagnosed congenital cardiac defect. It could have happened at any time. I wasn't scared to death, okay?"

She nods, doesn't reply. I immediately regret being so mad at her. My only friend these two long years. She fades even more.

"Camelia, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have taken it out on you."

But she doesn't reply. She dissolves into the air completely and I'm left alone with my frustration. And the Unconvincing Vampire.

~

I mope around for days, wondering whether it's possible to just fade away from pure ennui. Apparently, it isn't. What are you supposed to do if you're a ghost who's tired of unliving? Beats me.

I don't see Camelia. She's avoiding me and I don't seek her out. I've lost her too. No wonder ghosts moan. Finally, out of sheer bloody-mindedness - if that's the right phrase - I start working on my spooky-earphone-voice thing. It's all I have. Zak is still my only hope. Problem is, the summer is coming to an end and the fun-fair will be shutting up soon. Zak will go off to college or somewhere and my chance will have gone.

I take to hovering around by the entrance, peering through a crack in the painted plyboard facade so I can see Zak in his cubicle. I spend my days pouring all my strength into speaking to him through his earphones.

Occasionally I get through. A syllable or two. I watch him fiddle with his earpieces, take them out and tap them. Slowly, painfully slowly, I start to get the hang of it. It's still hit-and-miss, but it's all I've got.

One rainy day, dark early, I try to reach him again. A swarm of fallen leaves has blown in through the ghost-train with every car and Zak is sweeping them up at the end of the day. Conscientious, see?

I put all my desperation into it.

"Zak! Zak! Help me, please!"

It's undignified, I know. What can you do?

"Zak! Zak! Help me, please!"

He stops by the Grim Reaper, shakes his head, confused. He hears me. He actually hears me.

"Zak! Zak! Help me! Behind you!"

Finally, finally, he turns around. His flashlight finds me, stays on me. I think for a moment he's going to scream in terror but instead he grins and mouths a single word.

"Cool!"

It takes an hour to get the complete message through to him. I've never seen him look so animated. It's like this is the best thing that's ever happened to him. People like to feel important, I guess, even Zak.

When he goes off to deliver my words I drift around in the darkness, glowing with delight. It won't be long now. The deactivated monsters on the walls stare at me with dead eyes as if they've blanked me already.

I have to say good bye to Camelia. I pass down through the scuffed hatchway into the cellar. This is where they keep all the broken mechanisms and obsolete horrors, leaning against the walls like discarded deck chairs. It's where she spends all her time. She's always brighter here, more solid. Her ankle-length linen dress could almost be real.

"Camelia."

I drift around, waiting for her to materialise. I've never really noticed it before, but the walls down here are made from big old stones, from some ancient building. The stones of Camelia's old home I suppose, before they built the fun-fair.

"It's worked with Zak, then?"

She's there beside me. She clearly knows without me telling her. Her voice is no more than a whisper.

"He agreed to 'phone Laura, give her my message."

"Will she believe him?"

"I told Zak what to say so she'd know it was from me. Things only we'd know."

"Ah. That's good."

We float together in silence after that. I wonder how it will work, whether I'll just wink out of existence when my message is finally delivered. The thought holds no terror. Still, I suddenly don't want it to happen. This isn't much of an existence but I don't want it to just stop. I think how it will be for Camelia here, left behind.

Then I feel it. A rush of light throughout me; a sense of freedom, a grip released.

Camelia sees it immediately.

"It's done then. You're free."

"Yes."

She looks fainter than ever. Reduced.

"Tell me before I go," I say. "What holds you here? You never told me. What would release you?"

She is quiet for a moment, struggling with the words.

"Me? Oh, I was set free a long time ago. A fire, a lost family. Goodbyes needing to be said."

"But you're still here. How can you still be here?"

I'm panicking now. I can feel myself fading but I need to know her answer.

"I chose to remain. My mother always said I didn't do what I was told. Said I was too inquisitive for my own good."

I stare at her. I can feel this vast blackness sucking me down, calling to me. The final death. Camelia recedes from me.

"But you hate it here. The ghost-train."

"All this? It's nothing. It won't be here long. A few years. I've been here nearly two hundred now. I want to know what comes next, you see. And then after that and after that. I didn't get to travel much when alive. Now I sort of can. Does that make sense?"

I cling to the room, striving away from the pull of the blackness. I wish she'd told me all this before. The possibility of it had never occurred to me. I reach out a hand to her, there in that underground room. The solid stones and the crisp, white linen of her dress. The effort of it is huge.

"Show me how, Camelia. Quick. Show me how to do it. I don't want to go."

Her eyes widen and she flares back into brightness. She could almost be solid there, flesh and blood. She holds out her hand to mine. I feel our fingers touch.

She gives me that smile of hers.

"I think you've already found out," she says.