by Hailey Piper
On the fifteenth birthday of your third reincarnation, you feel his breath on your skin. New skin, never tainted until now. At once the sky darkens, and balloons, gifts, and cake no longer matter as your lives come rushing back. You’ve turned fifteen before, but that’s the least of it.
He’s found you again.
THE FIRST REINCARNATION
Once upon a time, you and he shared a life together. Eventually that life ended. It’s a mystery what metaphysical laws dictate who becomes a ghost and who reincarnates, who forgets their past lives and who remembers. You only know his place in the universe and yours.
In this new life, you’re born into a family of particular expectations. You’re a lady, so act like one. A lady sits quiet and calm. A lady only knows a man’s touch when she’s married and doesn’t fidget as unseen fingers explore her skin.
A lady is not haunted.
You stick with crowds in the daylight, believing the herd will keep you safe from the predator. Conversations muffle his voice. His fleshless fingertips go unfelt when you jostle friends and neighbors on the street.
But at night, you’re never as alone as you should be. He enters your chambers and climbs into your bed. A lady mustn’t know a man until she’s married, but he promises he married you long ago.
You run screaming to your family. They say your wailing is unladylike and accuse you of dreaming. When that excuse is no longer convenient, when you’ve begun to claw at your skin—how can he touch you if there’s no skin?—they accuse you of madness.
At twenty-two years old, you’re committed to a madhouse far from home. Your caretakers say they want to help, but you soon learn that “help” is their way of saying “hurt.”
No one visits except him. Of course he’ll follow wherever you go. He’s yours, he says.
There are no crowds to protect you from his whispers, and you feel his fingers until winter numbs your scarred skin. This isolation is familiar. Before you die of pneumonia in your cold asylum cell, you recall the end of that first life in his lonesome castle by the sea.
Where he murdered you.
THE SECOND REINCARNATION
Or tried. A body dies, but it seems life goes on.
You chalk up that last one to bad luck. Surely he can’t find you again when the world’s population booms between each rebirth. New people surround you, their lives fleeting and precious. The world comes apart as global war looms, but you cling to every fresh sensation.
When his whisper finds you again, you bite your tongue and trim your nails. No one will accuse you of madness this time.
But to keep him secret carries a cost. Quiet surrender makes him comfortable. He calls you by that first name, the one he knew you as in that first life, like it still means something. You tell yourself it’s only meaningless syllables.
He wears you down in whispers and strokes. You scream bloody murder and steel yourself for another death in the madhouse. Maybe this time he’ll leave you alone.
Fortunately, medical science has advanced since your first reincarnation. They don’t diagnose people with madness anymore. This world of needles and electricity and psychology is so civilized. You aren’t mad; you have a condition. Most women have those, don’t they? Perfectly treatable. Take two pills every evening and get some rest.
Nice as it is not to die in a cold cell, there’s no treatment for haunting. If you and he were married, death should have parted you, yet he persists. Is your tethering his doing? Did he somehow bind you together after that first life? He never talks about what happened between murdering you and haunting you. He only says that he’s yours, that he won’t stop being yours so long as there’s a you to have him. He knows nothing about the laws of death. Not that he would try to learn; he’s so single-minded. Ghosts are obsessed with the past.
Not you. Each life is a new experience. There are people you care about, people you despise, and they have births and weddings and deaths. What becomes of them? Reincarnation? Ghosts? A fabled something else? None of them haunt you. Only him.
You bear out this second reincarnation long as you can, first surrounded by loved ones, and then alone in tears and hatred.
He never leaves. If there’s something he wants, you don’t know what it is, and you wouldn’t give it to him if you did. Maybe this time, since you haven’t died young, you’ll escape him. Your cells decay faster than your body can make them, and you dream of wasting away in flakes too tiny for his grasping fingers to put you back together.
Death comes for your heart in the night while his breath strokes your white hair.
THE THIRD REINCARNATION
Third time’s the charm, right?
He’s absent when you come into consciousness, but that’s nothing new. A child again, you teach new legs to walk and learn a new world of computers and gizmos. You turn eight, nine, ten. By now, you’ve usually heard his voice, felt his breath or fingers, but there’s nothing. He must have lost you this time.
You believe it up until your fifteenth birthday. Your friends and family sing over birthday cake, but when they say your new name, his whisper tickles your ear with the old one. You blow out the candles and can’t tell if they sputter under your breath or his.
This family is wealthy, and money brings temporary freedom. When you make up reasons to abandon home, they move. Every new town is a kind of reincarnation—new friends, new memories, and a brief reprieve from him.
But each time, he finds you. Maybe not as fast as he lets on, but his obsession whispers at sleepovers, school dances, and first dates. He can’t help himself. He’s yours, the possession you never wanted. Time to move again.
Running gets tiresome, especially once you’re grown and have to arrange the move yourself. Everywhere you go, you hunt down religious leaders and spiritual gurus who try every blessing and exorcism known to man. Their rituals are hollow comfort. Nothing dispels him.
Not even love.
You meet someone else. He’s kind and adventurous, knows how to shake a laugh out of you even on your worst days, and that means something. You let your guard down and marry him. He doesn’t mind moving every few months and never treats you like a burden. He says he’ll do anything for you.
But he also says he’s yours, and you can’t call it romantic. The sentiment’s been tainted since long before he was born. When those words are whispered at night, you can’t always tell who speaks them. Are there two in your bed, or three? Across decades and deaths you’ve learned that “I’m yours” is the ghost’s way of saying “You’re mine.” He isn’t even jealous of the new marriage. Life ends, but you and he are forever.
You divorce your wonderful husband and flee again, perhaps for the last time. There’s a seaside town reputed for hauntings where people come to meet lost loves and let go. You hope the abundant spiritual traffic will make his road difficult.
But still he finds you. He always does.
He wears you down again until you’re inspired by your first reincarnation to grow out your nails and tear yourself to pieces. It’s the most you can do. You’re too tired to run anymore.
Tonight you stare out your beach house window, the big one that faces the sea, while raw red scratches bleed down your arms. His nostalgic breath fogs the glass as he again reminisces over that first life. Don’t you recall listening to the waves then, too? You were happy, he says.
You remember differently. Yes, there was a seaside castle, ancient long before you were born. You would want for nothing there if only you found contentment between its walls and turned a blind eye to your personal Bluebeard and his bloody secret rooms. Not to worry, he said. You weren’t like the others. You were special, and he would keep you.
Foolish girl, you believed him! You were actually surprised when he came in the night to hurt you in a new way.
Standing at the beach house window, you realize those are your earliest memories. There’s nothing before the castle, time having turned all prior relationships to dust. How can you even be sure that life was first? You might have lived a thousand forgotten lives until you met him. Why does this one stay? The murder? He can’t be the only one who’s murdered you before; you’re not that likable.
And what next?
Your fourth reincarnation might birth you in a digital age, where consciousness rockets through virtual worlds. And he’d find you. You know he would. It wouldn’t matter what chips they put in your brain or tubes they insert in your nervous system. He would be there, breathing on your skin and whispering a name that won’t die. Your fifth reincarnation? That might take you to space or another planet. He would reach you even there, tethered across the stars.
And if this world comes crashing down instead, he would thrive. Every moment would be a struggle between baking skies and boiling seas, the saltwater fauna having turned as single-celled and all-consuming as their Precambrian ancestors. In your desperate misery, you’ll at last reach for him and submit. Yes, he’s yours. Yes, you’re his.
Purple-orange sunset overtakes the window. He presses ghostly arms around you and whispers old promises. Had he flesh, he would crush your body. Instead, he crushes your soul.
You leave his touch and step out the door. Neighboring beach houses lean in to watch with lightless eyes, gossipy as their occupants. It’s one of those nights you can’t be sure you’re coming back. Maybe there’s one last run in you after all.
Across from the houses, the ocean curls foamy, inviting fingers. You could hit that beach and keep on walking. People have said that, haven’t they? That they’ll walk into the ocean. They mean drowning, but death isn’t enough for you. There would still be a you, and so long as there’s a you, he’ll say he’s yours.
Your nails tear your clothes away in the coastal wind. You’re naked as you approach the sea, but not naked enough. There’s still skin, the same you’ve clawed at across lifetimes to escape his fingers. Your nails burrow into it, freeing yourself in bloody strips, until at last you’ve torn your skin away and can crawl raw on the sand. Freed flesh turns porous as you slap through the surf, where saltwater seeps into your amphibious new form. Wading into the tide, your limbs turn soppy, scales coat your hide, and your skull splits and reshapes so your eyes can migrate to each side of your head. In the depths, you become a fish that has walked back into the ocean.
But de-evolution isn’t the end. You must degenerate. You must divide into scattered pieces. Not a ghost, not reincarnation, but that fabled something else.
It isn’t enough to die. You must be unmade.
The ocean rips at your scales, blood, bones, brain. Every organ segregates into homogenous cell swarms. Then the cells scatter, becoming solitary creatures, each having decided that being part of a complex organism isn’t a future they want.
Better that each becomes a lonesome amoeba. Better to carve out a Precambrian existence in the modern world than to know another moment of him.
He finds you in the last moments as your cells disperse forever. Leaving empty footprints in the sand, he approaches the water’s edge and whispers the old name, but now it really is only meaningless syllables. Is it even a sound when there’s no one to hear? His grasping fingers stroke the shredded skin you’ve left behind, but he can’t put you back together. There are only scraps, and memories, and the lonely eternity that awaits him.
There is no you to haunt.
Announcing Rigor Morbid
We are also delighted that this story, The Law of Conservation of Death, and a second story by Hailey, We All Scream, are part of our first ebook collection: Rigor Morbid: Lest Ye Become which will be available for purchase October 20.