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“So you know, the theatre is haunted,” the bar back said.
“Haunted?” repeated Harveen.
“Haunted,” he said, nodding.
She assumed he was joking. They threaded through labyrinthine kitchen corridors that somberly glowed with bone laminate and steel. He was short but promising, solidly built with guileless blue eyes and blond hair razed at the sides. Like most native Icelanders she had encountered, he spoke faultless English with a jangling glissando accent.
They ascended a narrow, darkened stairway. As she swayed on her heels, he righted her with a hand on her hip and a yawning, ennui-riddled chasm deep within her twitched in response, very slightly. Governed by impulse, she constantly sought new experiences, trips abroad and increasingly shameless conquests, like the bar back that evening. They exchanged smiles, and she permitted herself the barest soupçon of guilt for not missing Max.
It was the opening gala of a film festival in Reykjavík. For the past few weeks, following a two-month television gig in the Ukraine, she had worked as a script supervisor on an Icelandic film. After wrapping the shoot that evening, the cast and crew headed to the party at the National Theatre to celebrate. Harveen first stopped by her hostel to shower and change, painting her face with an exacting hand. Before leaving, she removed her platinum wedding band and locked it in her suitcase.
The lobby was deserted when she arrived at the theatre. Wisps of conversation and music unfurled from the basement. She hung her battered fur coat in a mirrored alcove and hurried downstairs.
The evening passed in a blur. New wave music, revelers in leather and dark wool cut on the bias. After a few hours she went to fetch her coat, but the lobby had been locked for the night. The bar back, with whom she had flirted, offered to retrieve it, cautioning that they’d take the long way through back areas.
They climbed the stairway and reached the main level of the theatre. “You are Brazilian?” he asked. She shook her head. He led her through a door and flicked a switch. Milky brightness bled from above. “Boyfriend?”
She considered him. He really was too short. And she was bored with overseas romances. Her last, with a South African stuntwoman the previous week, had been decidedly lackluster.
“Married,” she admitted. “And Indian. My parents are moving from Punjab to live with my husband and me in California,” she added.
“That’s nice, isn’t it?” he said, disappointment tinging his face.
“Not really,” she said. “But we won’t talk about that.”
They stepped into a hall with crenellated chandeliers and velvet curtains that deadened the shallow light. The bar back steered her from the left wing.
“That’s the crystal bar. Stay clear. As I said, there are ghosts there. Two old women appear from time to time, always wearing the same clothing and never talking to anyone. They’re harmless. Supposedly one of them likes to critique plays.”
Harveen laughed again. “Good to know ghosts have taste.”
“This isn’t a joke. The theatre was built in the Second World War, during the American occupation. A soldier hanged himself. Sometimes people see him. Wearing a—”
She stopped laughing. The soldier ghost stood at the end of the hall.
His smell filled her airways. Crumbling cloth, clay. Her height in heels, unblinking eyes like tar pits over a lofty Roman nose, hair combed back from his forehead in precise coils. An ephebic air. Muted vermillion cascaded from his ears, nose, and mouth onto a length of rope wound around his neck. One hand clutched its frayed end, swinging back and forth.
“You see him? I don’t?” the bar back said, eyes swiveling past the apparition. He shivered. “It’s cold up here.”
The ghost cast no shadow nor reflection in the mirrored walls. Behind him floated Harveen’s own likeness. Flat sheaves of hennaed hair slapping against her ribs, brown face with the indomitably febrile coloring of a matryoshka doll or a cocaine addict. She looked lurid compared to the ghost, conspicuously corporeal. Staring into the depths of his funereal gaze, she thought of the terrain she had seen outside of the city, ragged mountains striped with magma beneath a dark lavender sky.
“I…” Her voice paled. The ghost raised a finger to its lips and signaled at her to leave. Alarmed, she nodded, inhaled and exhaled as though smoking a cigarette. “I don’t see anything either,” she lied. “My eyes must have been playing tricks.”
“You sure?” The bar back examined her with concern. “You said–”
“Could we hurry, please? I’m tired and should get back to my hostel.”
They hastened down the main staircase to the lobby, where she retrieved her coat. Too preoccupied to thank the bar back or say goodbye, she careened outside into the cold.
For a few minutes she wandered, mind aswirl, struggling to process what she had seen in the theatre. Stilettos skewering cobblestones, snow stung her neck and arms, perfused with the odor of sulfur. Moonlight spilled onto slanting streets rimmed with gabled buildings painted primary colors. A susurrus of dialects gusted past, tourists surging from hostels and bars.
She breathlessly recalled the soldier ghost’s eyes that seemed to harbor the secrets of hell. Even though the bar back hadn’t seen him, she knew he was real, that her vision of him had a special purpose, that she couldn’t quite grasp. Her hip faintly throbbed, a warm flitting of cobwebby wings. She blenched, convinced the ghost had followed her and reached into her bones. No, her phone vibrating. She fished it out of her pocket.
“Max.” His face filled the screen. She hastily modulated her voice, smoothed her panicked features. “What’s happening?”
“I should ask you the same thing,” he said. Seated in their apartment kitchen, occidental sunlight cast a frail patina on his skin. “Are you outside? Where’s your jacket?”
“Why’re you calling, honey?” She draped her coat over her shoulders, deflecting him with a bland smile. She had no intention of telling him what had happened in the theatre. Partly because he’d worry, but mostly to maintain ownership over her ghostly encounter, to keep it her secret and hers alone. She greedily sequestered the memory in her bosom, where it simmered.
“I texted you today. Didn’t you get it?”
“I didn’t know I had a quota for talking to my wife,” Max said dryly. “I’m worried about you, Harvy. Something’s up. I feel it.”
“Oh come on, don’t be paranoid. It’s not sexy.”
As always, his intuitiveness unnerved her. They had married a year ago, mere weeks after a blind date arranged by mutual friends. Certainly, he was no more attractive nor magnetic than her other lovers; she wedded him out of sheer lassitude, a feeble attempt to stabilize her oscillating desires.
“I’m fine, baby, really. You’re sweet to worry.”
“You’ve been working nonstop for months. Have you bought your return ticket?”
“I told you. The producers want me to stay another week or two, at least,” she lied, feeling unpleasantly cocooned by his solicitude. “How are you? Did you ask your sister about her mammogram?”
She scanned the streets as he answered. To her right, a nightclub with a roseate façade bedizened with neon lights, from which disco music genially issued. A long queue cordoned with a sateen cable awaited entry. Locals in denim, drag queens armored with stage spackle and plumes.
A slim figure in a brown coat at the front of the line. The soldier ghost.
Her eyes widened. “I have to go.”
Harveen shoved her phone in her bag and ducked beneath the barricade. Maneuvering past irritated patrons, she didn’t stop until she reached him. She took hold of his sleeve.
He turned. A man her age, with longish copper hair, sardonic eyes. She stroked his face, wintry pale skin tinctured with azure. But human, nonetheless. Not the ghost. He gave her a strange look.
“I thought you were someone else,” she said. He shrugged and disappeared inside the nightclub.
“Miss?” A bouncer at the entrance. “Your ID?”
“Oh.” She turned to leave and reconsidered. With everything that had happened that night, she could use a drink. She rummaged through her purse and flashed her passport. “Here.” The bouncer ushered her inside.
Shouldering through the dance floor, she reached the bar and ordered two shots of Aquavit on ice. She downed them, eyes slitting as the liquid seared her throat, and tossed more cash on the counter. Winking, the bartender handed her two more shots in heavy tumblers. Periwinkle lights flashed overhead. The music slowed, grew syncopated, sybaritic. Len, she thought, recognizing the song, allowing the tension in her shoulders to dissipate. “Steal My Sunshine.”
The man from outside sat with a group of locals at a low table. She took him in, his liquid, pellucid features. Reflexively, she flashed a wide grin. “Mind if I sit here?” She eased next to him, wrists curving from the weight of her drinks. “I’m sorry about what happened in line. It’s been a strange night.”
He shrugged again. “What are you drinking?” he asked. She handed him a glass and he took a sip. “That’s too hard for me. I only drink beer.”
Tasting his drink, she likewise grimaced. “I’m Harveen.”
“Hm. That’s also a Muslim name.”
Her purse vibrated. Max again. She turned off her phone, traced Ómar’s hand lightly. “You’re from Reykjavík?” He nodded. His friends spoke to him in Icelandic, eying them like poachers appraising fattened pheasants. One man with a shaved head had his arm around a much older woman with a comely smile. “How long have you been together?” Harveen asked them.
The woman giggled. “We just met.”
The man waved at Ómar. “Kiss him on the cheek,” he ordered. Without hesitating, Harveen skimmed the precise architecture of his face with her lips. The others laughed. “Now the mouth.”
She looked at Ómar. They began to neck, breath deepening in unison. She pushed her fingers into his slippery mass of hair. A propitious urgency she hadn’t known in years, since she was a teenager.
“I don’t do this often,” he said. “I don’t know what I’m doing.”
“It’s all good, honey.”
He tensed. Diffident hands cupped her jaw and slid to her knees. From his scent of cigarettes and leather rose another smell. Dusty skin, powdered bones. She slowly withdrew, rigid and unmoving, as his face paled to grey. Lacerations encircled his neck, those of the soldier ghost, she comprehended, through which she spied the heaped rings of his trachea punctuated with gangrenous shreds of cartilage.
As he transformed before her eyes, the chasm of boredom inside her stirred as it had in the theatre, and then shuddered and narrowed. Startled, her heart constricted.
And then he was smooth and whole once more.
“Are you all right?”
“I don’t know what’s happening to me.” She closed her eyes, taken aback by the physical reaction that her vision had provoked. She rested her fingertips on her lids until her chest stilled. Distended, overlapping voices encircled them, to her irritation. “What are your friends saying?” she asked.
“That they can’t believe we were having mouth intercourse,” Ómar said, straightening his collar. “Assholes.”
She unsteadily made her way to the bar, where the man with the shaved head bought her another shot. “Go fuck him,” he said to her, stressing each word.
“Ómar. We think he’s a virgin. We told him, ‘do her now or you’ll never get the chance.’” She stared at him. Somehow, his high-handed, proprietary mien jarred her more than seeing the ghost. “You can use my apartment around the corner. Or we’ll find you a bathroom.”
I can’t do this anymore, she thought. “I have to go,” she said firmly, retreating. “Thank you for the drink.”
She found Ómar smoking a joint near the entrance.
“I wanted to say goodbye.”
“I know what my friend said to you,” he said. “I normally don’t pay him any mind, but I got hard when I kissed you. I figure I should fuck the person who makes me hard.”
“Believe me, I used to think that way, too.”
“When did you stop?”
“This evening.” She took a long pull from his roach, double swatches of smoke obscuring her view. “It’s not enough, honey. It’s never enough.”
Idly, the soldier ghost reappeared in her mind’s eye. She replayed her memory of him, forwards, backwards, every which way, slowly cradling each second.
“I have to see him again,” she thought aloud.
“Who?” She didn’t respond, still mired in her reverie. “At least, let me walk you where you’re going.”
She contemplated him for a moment, nodded. “Can you take me to the National Theatre?”
Nicotine-hued fingers plaited with hers. He led her down a main street, past skeletons of buildings at the waterfront, a concert hall that resembled a roughly hewn diamond teetering over the ocean. Hallgrímskirkja towered in the distance, the church at the marrow of the city.
At last, they turned down a side road and neared the theatre, stolid and uncompromising in the blackened sky. Flanking the extinguished lights, the doors sectioned with spidery dark metal, pregnant with expectancy.
A flash of white in a window. A hand pressed against the glass.
“You can leave me here,” she said to Ómar.
He didn’t protest. “Give me your email address.” She entered it into his phone and kissed him goodbye, knowing that she’d never see him again.
When he skirted the street corner, she tentatively mounted the steps of the theatre, betwixt pillars plastered with posters of dance troupes and Ibsen plays. She paused at the entrance.
The front doors were unlatched.
Harveen closed her hand around the chilled door handle and carefully drew the door open.
The lobby was lathered in candlelight. Figures in formal dress thronged, the air tumid with mirth and mingling. Patrician men, women in tiered skirts and furred capes. As her eyes adjusted to the lambency, the people came into focus. They were all corpses, their fine clothing dappled with holes that revealed frayed skin. Rotting innards and starveling limbs.
She was the only living person in the theatre.
Within the crowd, she saw the two ghost women the bar back had mentioned. Garbed in beaded gowns and parrot-bright stockings that were too outré amidst ghoulish wraiths, withered hair frothing. The others ignored them. They all moved with cephalopod fluidity, raising imaginary cigarettes to mice-eaten lips. For them, another long night in the hall of the dead.
And then they saw her.
A gelid wind and the soldier ghost stood before her. Whispers of words rasped from the gashes in his neck, his face in shadow. Harveen nodded and he bowed, extending his arm. Suddenly alert, the hordes of corpses materialized at his back. Likewise beckoning and swaying. Their eyes seethed, for they clearly regarded her as an interloper. Beneath their vexation, she sensed something deeper, a jagged eagerness, in which lurked the true reason why the soldier ghost had summoned her to the theatre.
The void within her contracted further.
She reached out and clasped his hand.
Pain coursed through her fingers. He gripped her with behemoth strength, flyblown skin rasping against hers. She cried out, more surprised than frightened. The theatregoers hemmed in closer, toothless mouths agog in mirthless glee. Spindling fingers curved into claws. They wished to tear her apart.
This isn’t a joke, she thought, remembering the bar back’s words.
Slowly, by and by, the soldier ghost pulled her into the doorway. He yanked her close, eyes brimming with ferity, pools of shallow animal instinct and appetite. He ran an ashen tongue along battered teeth, champing at the tang of her fleshly scent as he lunged at her neck. Her chasm nearly sealed, now, inching shut with stunning swiftness. And, finally, terror. For she realized that her emptiness housed her will to live. A constant hunger that, while maddening, propelled her forward each day and cemented her in the meat of her being.
“I don’t want to die!”
With all her strength, Harveen wrenched herself free. She tumbled against a pillar, panting.
A reproachful look from the soldier ghost. Laughter reverberated through the theatre.
One last cackle and the door clanged shut.
For a moment she stood, motionless. Gathering her skirts, she fled into the streets.