I don’t know why I find the idea of ghosts so fascinating. I’ve never been a religious, or even particularly spiritual person, but something about the idea of souls living on after death intrigues me. It makes me feel a certain way, though I can’t describe how. On the one hand, the incarnation of the ghost can sound sad and scary. It’s a soul wandering around while also not being tethered to anything physical. On the other hand, ghosts can also be an idea of freedom. They aren’t tethered to anything physical, so they are free to do whatever they want. Then, there’s the idea of scary specters, but my tale doesn’t really see ghosts in that light.
This story sees ghosts as souls connected to the physical world by a regret or grudge that they just can’t release. They are tragic and beautiful all at once, surrounding a boy who thinks he has nothing to lose. I hope you enjoy my new short story: The Phantom Waltz.
The Phantom Waltz
Once upon a time, not too long ago, a lost boy found himself standing before a stone door in an ancient city. The door looked like an ordinary door, with a plain frame and no large, intricate carvings. It wasn’t even particularly tall. The boy doubted someone taller than six feet could walk though without ducking their head. The only unusual thing about the door was the tiniest carving of a raven right above the knob. Still, something about the door allured the boy. It was nothing he could explain, just the energy around the door. It was as if something had reached out in smoky tendrils and pulled the boy to the place he stood now.
The boy was scared to touch the door. He didn’t believe in magic, but there was something tenuous about the door, as if it would shatter or vanish the second anyone touched it. The boy, ignored by the crowd mulling around him, bent down to the raven above the knob. He squinted his eyes and pushed his glasses up the sweaty arch of his nose until he could see every tiny detail in the tiny bird.
The raven almost looked real, with feathers that looked soft to the touch and a beak that looked on the verge of creaking open, but the most unnerving thing about the raven was its eyes. They laid the boy’s soul bare, piercing into him like a blade and ripping out his darkest secrets, not that he had any. The boy liked to think he was an open book.
The boy pulled himself back up, weighing his options. On the one hand, he could leave the door and carry on with his wanderings. After all, the boy didn’t know what lay behind the door. It could be monsters or murderers or worse. Behind the door could be a void from which he would never escape. But what did the boy really have to escape to? The boy had already used up the meager coins his father gave him, and it wasn’t as if he could reach out to his brothers for help. The boy was completely and utterly alone with nowhere to go and nowhere to be, so what did he have to lose by walking through this door? Adventure could lay beyond!
The boy came to a firm conclusion, refusing to think as he grasped the solid, delicate doorknob, smiled at the raven, and pulled the surprisingly light door open. The boy did not know whether the crowd saw him before he vanished into his fate.
The boy felt a chill and then he was in a great ballroom.
The boy gaped, eyes wide, at the hall ten times as big as his father’s farm. The ceilings, a shade like the sky at midnight, arched above the boy, stretching on and on into an expanding infinity. The walls were painted with script in languages that bent the boys brain, languages humans should not understand. The air smelled of the comfortable cold, crisp and clean and sharp. The boy took a great inhale, basking in the chill after the sweltering heat of the ancient town. Then, there were the dancers. All around the boy, specters swirled in glittering ballgowns and elaborate, blooming suits. One couple spun around the boy, the man lifting a woman up in his arms and above his head in a stunning display of flowers and capes. They paid him no mind, lost in each other’s eyes as they danced right through him.
The boy gasped, turning to the dancing couple. This was when he noticed they were a shade too pale. In fact, the boy couple almost see through their bodies to the wall beyond them. The boy realized with a start that he was in a ballroom of ghosts.
The boy didn’t know how to react, too shocked at his discovery of ghosts to notice that all of said ghosts were all staring at him.
The boy felt a cold grip at his hand. He turned his head to it.
“Why are you here?” asked a ghost woman in a high-collared, raven gown. Her eyes were a sharp silver, steely and watchful, as if she knew more than she let on.
The boy answered honestly; it was the only thing he could think to do. “I wish I could tell you. All I know is that I walked through a door with a raven carving.”
The woman’s cold expression warmed. “I see. Come with me, dear boy.”
The boy followed the spectre as she led him across the ball and through the droves of dancing ghosts. The dancers seemed to part around the raven-gowned woman, as if she were some queen or even a goddess. The ghost woman led the boy on and on until he was at the center of the ballroom. The ghost analyzed him as phantoms spun around them like a cyclone.
“You need to change,” snapped the ghost queen.
“What?” asked the boy, quirking a brow and tilting his head.
“You cannot dance in clothes like that,” scoffed the ghost queen. Then, before the boy could consider his dirt-caked rags, she grabbed him by the hands and spun him around three times, releasing the boy into the crowd of ghosts only to get swept up by another dancer.
The boy felt his clothes shift, feather-light on his bony body. Suddenly, he was no longer wearing his rags, which were coated in a thick layer of dirt, grass, and other, fouler stains. Instead, he now spun in a glorious, red suit. The suit was the shade of leaves in autumn, smooth and tailored to the boy’s frame. It was something like what the boy imagined princes or faerie kings wore, with buttons of gold running up the center and a cape made of starlight draped across his shoulders. The boy glanced up to his dance partner only to see a sly smile on her lips. He had no clue what to say, so he waited until the girl spoke first.
“Hello, breather,” said the girl, her voice like honey.
“Hello,” The boy answered. “What’s your name?”
“My name is not important anymore. What is important is that I made a mistake long ago and I never got to fix it.”
The boy thought this was an odd thing to say, and his curiosity got the better of him. “What did you do?”
“I betrayed someone I trusted, and who trusted me, and I lost everything.”
“Is it your loss that you regret, or your betrayal?”
“I regret the betrayal of course,” the girl said to the boy, her pitch rising with offense. The boy could tell she was lying since this was how his oldest brother used to sound when he lied.
The boy furrowed his brows and the girl sighed even though she could not breathe, telling him everything. The boy grasped onto the girl’s tale of woe, listening to every word and understanding. It was quite the interesting story, if a bit depressing, but when the girl was done, she smiled a smile unlike her first one.
While her first smile was sly and mischievous, a breath away from lying, this one was honest, stripped bare, and almost relieved. It was as if a great pressure was lifted off the girl’s chest, as if retelling her own story pulled the weight of her heavy life from her shoulders.
The boy did not understand most things, but he understood this smile and he knew with heart-wrenching certainty that he was doing what he was meant to do. Mid-song, the girl took the boy’s hand and lifted it to her lips, kissing it softly as she said, “Thank you,” and vanished before the boy’s eyes.
Without warning, another phantom swept the boy into its arms, but this time, the boy was ready to listen. So, the boy’s night flew as he went phantom to phantom, ghost to ghost, listening to stories and accepting them. Some lives were tragic, full of loss and sorrow with brief moments of sunlight. Other lives were bright and beautiful, full of good fortune. However, regardless of background and life after death, all the ghosts wanted a listener because the listener set them free.
Finally, after one last ghost vanished into smoke in his arms, the boy turned to see the queen of the ball. Everything about her was the same except for her gown. Her dress was now a stark white, blooming against the floor as she stopped the boy in his tracks.
“Did you enjoy my ball?” she asked, her silver eyes glimmering in the ceiling’s starlight.
The boy, suddenly out of breath and aching from a night of revelry, exhaled, “Yes.”
“My other guests had great things to say about you,” murmured the queen, “But unfortunately, it is time for you to go.”
“I don’t want to go,” begged the boy. “I have no one out there, with the living.”
“But you do not belong here anymore. Still,” The queen thought for a second before gently placing something cold in the palm of the boy’s hand and closing his fingers around it. “Tonight will be but a dream to you. You will not see us again but rest assured that that you did a service to my patrons. You relieved them of the burden that kept them from passing on.”
The queen lifted her sharpened thumb to the boy’s forehead and his eyes rolled back as he fell into darkness.
The boy woke with a start, slamming his head against a cobble-stoned wall.
“OW!” He yelled, rubbing what would soon become a lump.
The boy’s mind turned to his dream, with the ghosts and the ballroom and the ghost couple swirling to the tune of the dead. The boy’s heart settled in his chest as he assured himself that the ball was just a dream. That was when he felt something in his left hand. He lifted it to his face and curled his fingers open to find a small, black marble raven, exactly like the one on the stone door.
The boy grinned from ear to ear, assured that the ballroom was real. Then, the boy that believed in magic dusted his rags and marched into the hectic morning streets, ready for the next adventure to come his way.