The Ghost Repeater’, Joshua Philip Johnson

Illustrations © 2017 Jason Baltazar

 [ A towering insect, © 2017 Jason Baltazar ] The broadcast whispers static into the expectant silence. Daughter slaps Kid awake, her hand remaining on his cheek, a strike turned caress. Kid makes no noise as he wakes, though he does pull his bag to him, the dark grey fabric black in the mostly lightless room. Daughter has never seen anything go into that bag, and nothing has ever come out.

Kid gathers his papers and his pencil, and he sits next to Daughter as they both hold their breath, listening.

Trilobite. Etch-a-sketch. Transcend. Philological connotation. Tudors. White noise.”

The voice is mechanic, robotic, nothing like the Ghost that follows. This is only the preamble.

Kid writes quickly, his blunt nub of a pencil scratching at the rough paper, providing a counterpoint to the metallic whisper of the broadcast’s litany, which continues in an unbroken string of seemingly nonsensical words until the phrase Daughter has been waiting for:

“And now, enter pursued by a bear.”

The Ghost speaks in a voice rich with humor and knowing. After the metallic string of nonsense, the Ghost is a return to something natural, something inviting and warm.

Kid finishes his scribbling and immediately begins his reference calculations. He’s been with Daughter for almost three months, a lifetime in this world, and his notes of the broadcast are extensive. “There must be some pattern,” Daughter has heard him mutter during the off-times, those hours when the radio goes silent between broadcasts.

The voice on the radio changes and is replaced by a warm, silken voice that Daughter and Kid have come to call the Ghost.

“What’s up, cool cats? This is another transmission coming to you from Wide Sky, the Land of the Dead and Dying. My thermostat is telling me the temp is a balmy 94 degrees, but the meteorologist is promising rain, so dress accordingly. And hey, if you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes!”

Daughter feels the tension drain away from her body as she slumps back.

“Broadcast 94 again,” she says. Kid grunts in agreement, though he is still listening, clinging on, waiting spring-still for any difference, any clue that Broadcast 94 has been tampered with. Hoping for evolution.

The Ghost goes on, and though Kid is coiled, expectant, penitent in his hope, Daughter stands and stretches before moving outside. After the pillowy darkness inside, thick with heat and humidity, the outside world is a relief, bizarre as it is.

Daughter tries not to compare this place to the prairie she’s grown up knowing. The map says they are well west of Minneapolis—deep into the place she’s heard called the Hot Zone, the Dark, Once-Prairie, Green Forever, Terser’s Last Stand, the Smoke. The names go on, each trying and failing to describe a place that used to fit into a single word—prairie, but now even a string of vagaries and abstractions can’t begin to circumscribe or domesticate.

Daughter looks up into skies filled with winged bodies, some feathered and bulbous, some leathery like succulent leaves tired of remaining earthbound. Nothing leaves this place. Nothing.

The sun can only manage a shifting, flittering light through this labyrinth of feathers and beaks and tails like curling vines, but it is enough for Daughter to see the radio tower in the distance, a shard of what was stuck in the craw of what is. From inside, the Ghost continues to speak through the handheld radio, and Daughter tries to see the invisible waves of his voice in the air, described in flight paths that crisscross and zigzag, circle in on themselves and trace the endless paths of infinities. She imagines the silken paradox of the Ghost limning dried up riverbeds populated by packs of albino raccoons and other riverbeds, still flowing but with something other than water, a fast-moving sludge, scintillating a pale yellow and textured with the humps of beasts that couldn’t be turtles floating against the current.

In all things, Daughter tries to see a map of, to, the Ghost, the voice that promises her mother.

“What are you going to do when we reach the tower?” Daughter asks Kid later that day as they pick their way down a hillside littered with cut flowers, thin-fingered black veins reaching through the sunrise-red of the petals. The source of these shorn, stemless petals is nowhere to be seen. In this new prairie, cause and effect no longer associate.

Kid smiles that secret smile of his that makes Daughter suspicious. This is a game they play, reminding one another of the prize at the end of their journey, like children who can’t stop telling themselves of the fun they will have tomorrow, next week, next year, promising themselves that good is on its way. Always the same question, always the same answers.

“I’m going to find the control board and push every button there.” Kid claps his hands together at the mere thought of it. Daughter might have once shushed him, afraid of drawing attention in this alien place, but no creature or animal in this prairie has ever shown the slightest interest in them. They’d once passed by a towering insect crawling along a field, as tall as one of the agricultural combines Daughter remembered from her childhood, and in a fit of terror and lunacy, Kid had screamed at it, his voice high and cracking. In a blur of speed, the insect had turned toward them, its eyes a forever-black as they studied Daughter and Kid.

And then… nothing. The insect turned back to its field, to its silent ministrations, and that was that. Daughter and Kid moved on.

Now, they walk like tourists in one of the great cities, full of awe and disgust and terror and noise. They have long ceased commenting on the unbelievable landscape, because disbelief can only be maintained for so long before the mind yields its dusty, rusted notions of reality to a new order.

“What are you going to do when we reach the tower?” Kid asks, turning the question back to her, though his far-away eyes tell Daughter that he is still thinking of buttons, tiny causes, known effects.

Daughter fiddles with the old handheld radio clipped to her shirt, a garish orange complexity in this place, but one she’s grown fond of.

“Find my mother,” she says.

When the evacuations began, her mother had stated with complete confidence—haughty, even—that all would be well, and Daughter had believed her. They’d lived simply, just the two of them—Daughter had not been Daughter then. Her name was Maggie; Daughter came later, after the leaving, after the severing.

That morning, the sky had filled with clouds like jellyfish, the deep purple of bruises, tentacled and floating rhapsodic. It was all any of the TV channels were talking about.

“The prairie finally makes the national news!” her mother had said, smiling and laughing as she left the house, heading to the radio station to give an interview. Daughter was supposed to be working on her homework—physics or calculus or something like that, she can’t remember anymore—but then the sirens began their keening, and government vehicles broke their levies and flooded the streets, corralling everyone they could find, evacuating them.

Daughter didn’t answer the door when they knocked, and she hid when they burst in, and she kicked when they pulled at her, but in the end she went, mollified by promises that everyone was being evacuated. Everyone.

Out the window, as their boxy vehicle took turns too quickly and sped away from Wide Sky, Daughter saw the clouds, fuzzy at the edges by that point, give up their ghosts and pour down on the town an oily rain, long strips and slips of it, like mucus, black flecked with red. Someone in the vehicle gagged, and Daughter looked away.

Later, at the North Dakota rescue compound, Daughter searched for her mother. And after that compound became infected by the spread of this new nature, Daughter searched for her mother at the South Dakota rescue compound, and then at Nebraska. If everyone had been evacuated, surely it was only a matter of time before Daughter found her mother, but in the flurry of activity, in the continued drip of constant evacuation and retreat, in the endless bureaucratic attempts to create a database—files with bundles of papers, laptops bursting with spreadsheets—in all of that, Daughter found no trace of her mother.

Except for the broadcast.

“I think we’re about a day’s walk away,” Kid says, eyeing the radio tower and spitting. He hoists his bag, a dull grey in the sun’s still-filtered light, and begins to walk.

“Broadcast soon,” Daughter says as she catches up with him. She’s been scanning for a place to hunker down while the broadcast is happening, something like the abandoned motel they were in the night before, but the landscape has changed since she was last here, and there’s nothing.

Though that’s not entirely true—it’s not the landscape that has changed, although it certainly has, it’s any evidence of civilization. Houses, stores, even the road has become something other than pavement; the texture is soft and rubbery, and always there is a rapid beating both Daughter and Kid can feel through their shoes, like the tattoo of the road’s heart, nervous or excited, anxious or anticipatory.

Daughter remembers the logic this world once lived under: rows of trees and aesthetically pleasing wildflowers, bits of color penned in by sidewalks and paved roads. In all of it, the guiding hand of humanity, caressing nature into something more beautiful, something more useful, like a potter at the wheel.

“It’s nice, you know. Without all the houses and buildings,” Kid says as they walk.

“Yeah, I guess so,” Daughter says, glancing sideways at Kid. “It would be nice to find more food, though, which is harder to do when everything has disappeared.”

Kid shrugs but says nothing.

When the static sharpens, shifting abruptly from a dull haze to a heterogenous cascade, Daughter and Kid are forced to take shelter next to a tumorous outgrowth of moss-covered rock. Daughter tries not to think about how, in her seventeen years living on the prairie, she’s never seen a naturally occurring rock that large or moss that thick or pale.

Philatelist. Edges. Quantum entanglement. Arachnophobia.

Daughter’s body goes cold at those words.

“Broadcast 10:02,” she whispers, involuntarily, loud enough for Kid to look up from his scribbling and cross-referencing. This is the broadcast Daughter heard so many days ago, sitting cross-legged on a cot in a gymnasium, the ubiquitous fluorescence of the lights weighing down on her, the radio clasped in her hands.

Philatelist. Edges. Quantum entanglement. Jumping. Arachnophobia. Strawberry milkshakes. Pen ink.

The words went on, and somehow they made sense to Daughter then, the rough fabric of the cot chafing at her legs, the cup of warm water in her hand. A string of sounds, each forming an arbitrarily defined unit, each slotting together into a winding, chitinous whole that somehow perfectly articulated the horrors Daughter had seen leaving her home, the horrors the other refugees passed around like a sickness, gossiping monstrous in the oppressive fluorescent lights.

“Well well. How ‘bout it. I used to love that show.” The man in the bunk next to Daughter’s nodded at her radio and smiled, his face a creased map. When Daughter only nodded, he continued, speaking a monologue in that easy way the elderly have.

“Yes, ma’am. A little vocabulary lesson at the beginning, always good for the mind,” he tapped a finger to his temple, to the spotted skin covered with thin white strands there. “And then the weather and science news. What could be better?” He smiled at her, all kindness and peace. This old man might have been sitting in a comfortable chair, unread newspaper in hand, talking himself into a nap.

“My mother was supposed to be on the show before I was evacuated,” Daughter said, speaking over the robotic voice.

The old man furrowed his brow, clearly trying to decide how to respond, but in the end he went with the safe route.

“I suppose now, what with the evacuations, this,” he pointed at the radio and, by extension, the broadcast, now rounding into the actual content of the program, “is what you’d call a ghost repeater.”

“A what?”

The old man nodded, not shocked at her response.

“A ghost repeater. Sometimes, radio stations empty on out but it’s cheap to put in a loop of stuff for them to broadcast, see? So suddenly 89.9 starts rebroadcasting stock recordings meant to be demographically appropriate,” the man raised eyebrows that might have been rodents in the wild, as though what he was saying should mean something more than what it seems, but Daughter didn’t understand and so simply nodded.

The program had begun in earnest by that point, and the man stood up.

“Well. I suppose that’s enough from an old fart like me. I’m off to get some dinner. Can I pick you up some cafeteria slop?”

Daughter shook her head no and gave him a wave, and he walked away, following the straight lines cutting through the masses of evacuees, dividing them into countable units, like a child’s multiplication cheat sheet.

Back on her cot, Daughter listened to the voice talking about the strange changes in the weather recently, and she realized that if this was indeed a ghost repeater, this man was a ghost—not dead but gone, a haunting of her home. A human haunting of the world.

And then it happened, what Daughter had been listening to the radio for in the first place, the words she’d been waiting to hear even if she had never really admitted it to herself. When she’d inquired at one of the many help desks about getting a radio, she’d said it was to while away the time, and the rescue worker had scrounged one up for her with the caveat that most radio stations around here weren’t working too well anymore.

“And now, prairie people, it’s 10:02 and we have the privilege of welcoming Dr. Violet Young to the program. Dr. Young is a specialist in…”

Daughter’s heart stopped for a moment, and her eyes lost focus. Her head rocked slowly back, as though falling asleep or unconscious, gravity pulling her back and down, away from this world.

Her mother’s voice wrenched her back, violently.

“Thanks so much for having me on.”

“Well, Dr. Young, I know it’s terribly midwestern, but I suppose we should chat about the weather.”

Laughter, her mother’s, crashing out of the tiny speaker on the radio. Daughter’s mother always laughed like she meant it; she didn’t do anything accidentally.

It took a little more than a year to get away from the evacuation system, from gymnasiums and databases, to wind her way back to the prairie, but it all began there with Daughter coveting the sound crackling out of a cheap handheld radio, one among the rows of the lost.

As the broadcast finishes, diminishing into static like the wind, constant and overpowering, Kid looks up from his paper and says, with almost no inflection, “Well fuck.”

“What?” asks Daughter, still dazed by the broadcast, by her mother’s voice speaking out on that day.

Kid gestures at the bundle of grubby papers, each one covered in his blocky handwriting, numbers and letters and graphs like the detritus of another world.

“Something weird is going on. I cross-reference every broadcast to check if anything ever changes in them, but I also keep track of how many times each broadcast is aired and when they air. There are about 45 different broadcasts, at least that we know about, and we only regularly hear about 35 of them.”

Kid begins flipping through the bundle, the pages familiar in his hands.

“The other ten are rare, some more than others. Yeah, here it is. Look at this.” He holds out a paper with a simple bell curve drawn on it. Daughter looks at it, but her mind is still fuzzy from her mother’s voice, and the look she gives Kid is confused, elsewhere.

He juts a finger at the graph, his nail tapping the big belly of the curve.

“Here’s the broadcasts we hear a lot, really regularly,” Kid says, speaking more quickly, ramping up to his conclusion. “And here,” his finger shifts to the right tail of the graph, where the line curves dangerously toward zero, “are the ones we hardly ever hear: the Red Broadcast, only sixteen times total. Broadcast 101, fourteen times. The Wind Power Broadcast, eleven. You see?”

He is speaking louder now, excitement and fear running through his voice without constraint. With his free hand, Kid grabs at his grey bag and holds it close, the gesture unconscious, possessive.

“And here at the end is Broadcast 10:02—I never even heard that one except from you. I thought maybe it was a myth. You see!?”

Daughter understands the graph, but that there are broadcasts they hear more or less frequently is no great revelation. They’ve both known that for some time.

“Yeah, so what’s the big deal?” she asks, her own fear beginning to prickle in anticipation.

Kid takes back the paper, his mouth pulled into something like a smile, something like a sneer. He touches a fingernail to the peak of the curve.

“The broadcasts have been almost entirely true to this graph since I started listening; the ones in the middle get played a lot, the ones at the end only really rarely. But as we’ve been getting closer to the tower,” he slides his nail along the curve, like a roller-coaster cart hurtling down the drop, “we’ve been hearing the rarer broadcasts more often.” His nail stops at the end of the graph, at Broadcast 10:02, heard previously only once. “Someone’s there, in the radio station, in the tower. Someone is messing with the loop. Someone knows we’re coming.”

This, of course, is the simple truth of evacuations: they are temporary things, a bow and a step back to allow nature to throw its tantrum, but always followed by a return, more complete and total, lines drawn straighter, trenches dug deeper, the green and blue pushed back, back, back. Always back. Always better domesticated, territorialized, contained.

When the prairie roared, though, no one had any idea how to contain it. It was the prairie; there had never been anything to contain.

Mother waits outside the radio station.

They see her from a little ways off, and though Daughter’s heart begins its rambunctious rhythms, and though her breath quickens, at the core of her, down where she is still Maggie, there is no surprise, no leaping or let down. Since she set out so long ago, quietly slipping out a side door in the housing she’d been temporarily assigned—always temporarily, never permanently—Daughter has known with a bedrock kind of knowing that this moment would happen. Her mother, alive and well, right where the world left her.

“Halloooooo travelers!” Mother shouts when they are near enough to hear her. She waves her arms.

Daughter runs and then they are tangled, arms wrapping around one another, smiles and tears and all the rest. While Daughter and her mother bond, recreating themselves in this new place, Kid stands by, uncomfortable in the shadow of the tower, his hands opening and closing the zipper on his grey bag.

“I knew I’d find you here,” Daughter says. “We’ve been walking for weeks, looking for you everywhere, but I knew you would be here.”

Mother cocks her head, the movement distinctly birdlike, distinctly alien, and Daughter feels a rill of cold slide up her spine.

“You were looking for me?”

Daughter can only stare, first at her mother and then at Kid, feeling again the discombobulating chaos of this new world, the upheaving illogical logic of this place.

“Yeah. Weren’t you looking for me?” Daughter asks, aware that the question makes her sound young, so young.

In return, Mother only stares, like a woman trying to hear a voice in a storm, a message in the static.

“It’s good you’re here,” Mother says after Daughter has explained how they arrived. Mother seems to understand she’s said something wrong, though she can’t pick it out, and now she’s trying to make amends.

Daughter nods and Kid grunts, noncommittal, both trying to understand the lay of this new land: Daughter as a child still searching for her mother in this woman, Kid as an outsider trying not to disturb a fragile peace.

“So,” the older woman says, smiling wide at Daughter and Kid, “should we go inside? Take the tour?” Mother waggles her eyebrows.

Daughter notices gaps in her mother’s smile, voids where teeth used to be. Her hair, too, looks to be falling out, and she has a hundred other oddities and degenerations marking her: a rash running rampant around her neck, a calcified strip of skin lancing down one arm, a protrusion pushing at the fabric of her shirt near her back. And on and on.

Daughter might have once focused on these afflictions and pains and abnormalities, but just as she has bent and broken in the face of this new natural reality around her, so she bends and breaks before this new mother.

“Let’s do it,” Daughter says, and Kid echoes the sentiment.

Inside, at the control booth, Kid pushes all the buttons. Mother stands back, smiling her gapped smile, and Daughter can’t help but join her.

“How does the loop work?” Kid asks, the pads of his fingers bouncing from button to button.

Mother shrugs. “I have no idea.”

“Then how did you change which broadcast aired?” Daughter asks, thinking of Kid’s graph, his calculations. Someone is messing with the loop. Someone knows we’re coming.

“I didn’t.” Mother says, wandering off to examine a patch of prairie grasses growing sideways in through a crack in one of the walls.

Daughter turns to Kid, a question in her eyes.

“It must have been electrical or something,” Kid says, his face cherubic in the light of the board. “I don’t know. This place is letting go, I guess. It was random and we just wanted to see intent.”

Mother squawks in surprise and points out the window.

“Oh, my dear!” She moves over and places a hand on Daughter’s shoulder. “I forgot all about the apple tree outside. You must try one of these apples; they’re so bizarre!”

Mother moves to the door, and Daughter follows, still trying to make sense of this woman, still trying to see the mother that was in the person this is.

“I’ll meet you out there. I wanna fiddle with this some more,” Kid says, turning back to the soundboard. His fingers move over the colored buttons in a way that reminds Daughter of the way he lightly traced the bell curve, the path that brought her to her mother.

“Alright, but don’t take too long. Night here is a scary thing,” Mother says, and she takes Daughter’s hand, the two walking out together.

 [ Apple, © 2017 Jason Baltazar ] At the apple tree, Mother pulls down two pieces of fruit and tosses one to Daughter. She is smiling, and Daughter tries not to stare at the dark, uncanny spaces between the older woman’s teeth.

“Go on, go on,” Mother says, her eyes bright with excitement.

A voice in Daughter’s head is urging her to put down the apple, to shake her mother until she comes to her senses, to scream at this new world and this new life until it recognizes her, but then she remembers Kid screaming at that enormous insect, remembers his useless anger and frustration.

Daughter takes a bite.

A bitter, harsh smell clogs her nose, and her skin breaks out in gooseflesh, and then she is spitting out the apple, the dark purple flesh of the bite raining to the ground in a shower of spit and fruit and, there at the end, as Daughter is gagging, a tooth.

“Isn’t it marvelous?” Mother asks, holding up her own apple and gazing at it, adoration in her eyes. “The apple trees here don’t care about us any more; they’ve begun growing fruit that we can’t eat, not without destroying our bodies.”

Daughter opens her mouth to shout at her mother, but the older woman is still talking.

“I’ve found raspberries that cause temporary blindness and oak trees that, if you touch them, whisper the most beautiful songs in the world. There’s a lilac bush down the street that weeps oil twice a day and does absolutely nothing to you when you eat, smell, touch, or listen to its leaves. Downstairs, in the basement, a family of swallows has been flying in a circle for almost sixty-five days, and when I tried to catch one, it went through my hand, as though it weren’t even there. Or as though I weren’t.

“Don’t you see,” Mother asks, eyes open and hopeful, her smile a checkerboard, “this is a world where we don’t belong.”

In the gaps in her mother’s teeth, and as she winds a tongue around the new absence in her own, Daughter begins to see the beauty in what her mother says, in the apathetic growth of the tree, the ghostly flight of the swallow. Nature outside of human nature.

In the shade of the radio tower, Daughter and Mother share a meal, the last of Daughter’s supplies joining with a stash of food Mother has stockpiled. There, dining on canned beans and dried fruits and bags of stale chips, the two watch a pack of geese, flying in a scattershot cluster low in the air. Their wings, Daughter notices as they get closer, are covered in spores, dozens of tiny beige mushrooms looking dull in the sun’s light.

After a period of silence, in which Mother stares unblinking at a patch of bluestem growing in looping, shivering spirals, Daughter clears her throat.

“I guess you probably won’t want to come back with me,” she says, keeping her eyes just above where Mother is, her gaze settling on a tree in the distance.

“Oh no, my dear. I could never do that. There’s just too much here to see, to taste, to smell. There’s just too much.”

Daughter nods and continues.

“Then I’m going to stay with you and go further in,” she points, at the tree she’s been considering and beyond, deeper into the prairie, further into this new land.

“Wonderful, wonderful,” Mother says, though she is back to considering the bluestem, lowering herself to it, eyes only inches away.

“If I’m going to find you,” Daughter says, though mostly to herself, “it’s not going to be by running away.”

Kid comes out a little later, and though he hasn’t eaten in just as long as Daughter, he waves away their food. His color is up, and his hair is wet with sweat.

“What’s up?” Daughter asks, squinting at him, trying to figure out what’s different, what’s changed. But of course, everything has changed; why should Kid be any different?

“Nothing,” he says, “all good. Just ready to get out of that place.” He hooks a thumb at the station, and Daughter nods.

“It haunts me, too, sometimes,” Mother says, putting a hand on Kid’s shoulder, firming her lips into a solemn frown. “Let’s go see something more beautiful.”

As they walk away, Daughter takes out the radio, its bright orange plastic looking more and more alien in this place, more and more unnatural. She flicks it on, the ghost repeater already looping, already howling its haunting into the world.

“The River Broadcast,” Daughter says, smiling fondly, thinking of the hundreds of times she and Kid have probably heard this one. He smiles, too, and Daughter hands him the radio, which he clips to his shirt. As Daughter makes eye contact with him, she finally realizes what’s changed. His grey bag is gone, and Daughter cocks her head in confusion.

The radio station explodes.

The sound is gargantuan, a living thing that bellows into the sky. The three of them fall to the ground, and like fish pulled out of water, they flop around until they can see the radio station, a huge section of the roof spitting flame and smoke into the air, the tower angled dangerously away, like a broken finger threatening desertion from hand.

Daughter pushes herself to her feet and helps the others up before they all scurry away to a safe distance, to where the station and its fire are an object of curiosity instead of an immediate concern.

“I’m sorry,” Kid says, without a trace of sadness or apology in his voice. “I just—”

“You don’t need to apologize to me, dear,” Mother says, patting his shoulder. Daughter moves to his other side and clasps his hand, pointing with one finger high into the sky, where the smoke had begun to reach the masses of flying creatures.

“Look, it’s not even disturbing them,” Daughter says, smiling and feeling her breath whistling out through the gap in her teeth.

And it’s true: the smoke and the heat from the explosion are mere ghosts to this world, a specter of what was making way for what will be.

“What a beautiful sight,” Mother says, though it’s not clear whether she’s talking about the station or the fire or the birds flying or something else. Her eyes are closed.

“Yes, it is,” Daughter says.

Kid reaches up to turn off the radio clipped to his shirt, but Daughter stops his hand. The Ghost is gone, replaced in the explosion by static, complete and unchanging, a bed of fresh soil from which this new world might grow.

© 2017 Joshua Philip Johnson

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