Ghosts of Utah (Short Story)

For those just tuning in: every day left in May, I’m posting a short story of mine to highlight an aspect of my body of work. Why am I doing this? Because if you’re the sort of person who likes the sort of thing that I write, I’d like for you to support me on Patreon so I can pay my bills, keep living, and keep writing.

Today’s selection has an interesting provenance. It started its life as a John Constantine fan fic, but before I finished it I decided it worked better with an original character. I first set it in my own superhero fic universe, but it didn’t really fit there so I moved it into its own setting.

I’ve written a few other stories with the same character, mostly shorter or incomplete ones. This was the first Marnie story, though, and it’s still my favorite.

Ghosts of Utah

By Alexandra Erin

I made it to the site much later than I had intended. The sun had already set, though the last angry line of orange had yet to fade from the western sky when I reached the camp.

I had planned on arriving in the afternoon, and getting a good look at the excavations on my way in, as I assumed they had something to do with why I was there… but car troubles had stalled me in Moab, and I’d had to leave my prized Thunderbird to the questionable mercy of a local greasemonkey while I continued on in a rusted-out loaner.

My name is Marnie, by the way. Marnie Masterson. The “Marnie” is short for “Grand Marnier”. Mom says it’s what she was drinking when I was conceived.

Thanks, Mom.

My ultimate destination was an old fashioned tin-can camper, older than I was and very familiar to me. The British call such vehicles “caravans”, and though this particular model had never left the western United States, that was the name its Anglophile owner had affectionately called it: the Caravan. Capitalize it when you say it. Many years out in the salt flats of Utah had done its metal shell no favors, but he’d never heard a word about replacing it. It was a little piece of history, after all.

Worth preserving.

The door of the Caravan opened as I pulled up, spilling ugly yellow light into the desert night.

“I hope I’m not too late for visiting,” I called out to my hostess, hopping out of the car and hurrying forward as if to make up for my hours of tardiness in those few feet.

“Not at all,” she said, giving me a quick hug and the very phoniest of phony-baloney air-kisses on each cheek. “It’s so very good of you to come, Marnie… it’s been far too long.”

“Three years,” I said.

“You might have come to the funeral,” she said. “But… do come in.”

Amelia Conroy was the widowed wife of Professor Ethan Conroy, dead less than a year. Heart attack at fifty-seven. He’d been fairly well-known in his field, if controversial… but of course, the two often went hand in hand. One rarely made it into the papers for saying the same things that everybody else was saying. He attracted attention not so much for having proposed any radical new lines of scientific inquiry, but for stubbornly holding onto long held and established theories long after they’d fallen out of fashion.

As far as I could ever tell, Amelia hadn’t paid much attention to her husband’s work, other than to note how many journals he got his name in and how many times he got his picture in the paper. She had never been much of a serious academic. I think she only went to school at all to get her MRS… and because it took her so long to hook a man, she winded up with a doctorate. She wasn’t exactly stupid, but she also was not what you’d call a liberated woman.

She was pretty much a living fossil herself, a relic of the past… maybe that was what had attracted such a noted paleozoologist to her.

“I’m not much good at funerals,” I said, which was true. I left unspoken the fact that I wasn’t sure how welcome I would have been. Amelia Conroy and I had never exactly been bosom buddies, and depending upon what she’d heard or suspected about me, my presence may have ended up being painful for at least one of us.

“I think… I think Ethan would have liked for you to be there,” Amelia said. She gestured to one of the battered, overstuffed chairs which had occupied the Caravan for God knew how long, settling heavily into one herself. There was a glass half filled with scotch on the small round table beside it, which she clutched like a talisman as soon as she’d sat down. Amelia was in her forties… how far into them, I wasn’t sure… but in this moment, she looked far older.

“The Ethan that I knew would have said that funerals are for the living,” I said neutrally. Ethan had been a die-hard rationalist and card-carrying skeptic. It had been the one point of fierce contention between us that kept us friends.

“I thought so, too,” Amelia said. “Once.”

That single word and the pause which followed it were not just pregnant, they were practically carrying a litter. I knew many people, skeptics and atheists, who’d had similar changes of hearts after their dearest loved ones had passed on. Most of them had seemed to find some comfort in the idea that their parents/children/steady fucks would keep going in some form.

“Well, I’m here now,” I said. “I have to admit, I came out of curiosity more than anything else. Of course I’ll do anything for Professor Conroy’s widow… but I’ve got no idea what I can do. I’m no paleontologist.”

“And Ethan never forgave you for that, you know,” Amelia said. “Turning your back on your education, throwing away your future… you were his favorite student. You know, for a long time I thought for sure you were polishing his knob… nobody ever got full marks in his lectures. That was before I heard you were a lesbian, mind you.”

I wasn’t, but didn’t feel the need to correct her right that moment. I had played a few games on the home court, sure… college had been an interesting time for me. The point was, Amelia was a grieving widow… and possibly unstable. I still had no idea why she had invited me there.

Also, I felt a little bit guilty because no matter how many times Ethan swore otherwise, I still wasn’t sure I’d earned that grade solely for my academic rigor.

Some trace of that must have shown on my face, but Amelia in her blessed distraction misinterpreted it.

“Oh, don’t worry, I have no problems with lesbians,” she said. “To each their own and all that… I just… I think even after years apart, you knew Ethan better than anyone else. I can’t imagine who else I could ask for help.”

“I’m flattered, but surely there are others better suited…”

“I don’t need another paleontologist,” she said. She picked up the scotch glass with a visibly shaking hand. “I don’t need another damned expert, Marnie. What I need is a friend.”

“I can be that,” I said, with more certainty than I felt. “I think Ethan would have liked it.”

“Ethan… Ethan would have hated what’s going on these days… he hated the idea of feathered dinosaurs, warm-blooded dinosaurs,” she said. “He grew up on the big lumbering brutes, the ‘terrible lizards.’ I remember he used to say, ‘They may have been terrible lizards but they’d be even worse birds.'”

“He said that in class a lot,” I said, not knowing what else to say. “I never got the impression you paid much attention to his work.”

“I can’t pretend I understood it as well as he did,” she said. “Or you… but I was a good wife. I knew what was important to him. I supported him. And now that he’s… gone… I’m continuing his work. I thought that’s what he would have wanted.”

“Thought?” I prompted, wondering at her use of the past tense.

“Since we restarted the dig, there have been… accidents,” she said. “Equipment that breaks, or just stops working. Little things mostly. We have to replace the batteries in the walkie-talkies every day. Little things. Then people… one of the grad students got hurt. Most of them have left.”

“You think somebody’s sabotaging the dig?” I asked. I instinctively looked around. It was just the two of us, in a tiny little tin can with no room to hide in, but I did it all the same. Instinct’s funny, that way.

“I think… I think it’s Ethan,” she said, in a very small and very tired voice.

“Have you seen him?” I asked. I didn’t ask if she was feeling okay, or if she had seen a doctor, or any other kind of friendly euphemism for “Are you nuts?” I knew that such things as ghosts were very real.

She still could have been nuts, but she had asked me there as a friend and so I was trying to be one.

“No… I haven’t seen him. I’ve felt him, though… standing behind me when I go to the dig, hanging outside the Caravan when I’m in for the night… or waiting inside when I’m coming back. I’ve felt him, and I’ve smelled him. I’ve smelled those cigars,” she said. “Those damn cigars. He wore a smoking jacket, but that didn’t stop the smell from clinging, settling all over him. You know what they smelled like.”

“I do,” I said, smiling slightly at the memory. I’d always liked his cigars. I’d even picked up a bit of a habit from him… a habit for men with cigars, that is. I personally felt stupid every time I took one of them in my mouth.

Cigars, that is.

Amelia finished her scotch in silence. I let her pour a glass for me, as that gave her an excuse to pour herself another. I sipped mine a bit, and asked for a top-off when she had drained hers, and in that fashion she finished the bottle. We filled the spaces between the booze with chit chat, safe neutral memories of the dearly departed.

I drank just enough to give myself a little buzz, to make the sharp hard corners of reality just a little bit softer and rounder. I would need that for what I had planned.

Fortunately, she was as much of a lightweight as I remembered, so I didn’t have to think up an excuse for opening another bottle. She was snoring loudly in her easy chair not long after the first one was emptied. I went to the Caravan’s kitchenette and looked for a salt shaker. It turned out Amelia had a big old fashioned salt cellar, and luckily enough, it was full.

I went outside and sat down in front of the Caravan’s narrow metal steps, facing outward. I unscrewed the top of the cellar and poured some of the salt out into my right hand, feeling the weight of it. I moved my fingers up and down, letting some of it sift through. There was very little wind.

For what I had in mind, I needed to find a connection with the land in a primal, bugfuck insane sort of way and I hadn’t thought to bring anything suitably hallucinogenic to help get me there. The salt was going to have to do it. It wouldn’t have necessarily worked anywhere else, but here in Utah it just might do the trick.

Once, a great salt sea had covered this land. That sea had died, and now the land covered it in turn. The salt provided an unstable geological foundation, which was responsible for the rather stunning variations in topography found in the Arches National Park.

Salt had other properties, as well. I saw, superimposed over the desert vista, the Roman sack of Carthage… the buildings razed, the land salted so that nothing would grow there again. I saw a Haitian priestess filling the mouth of a corpse with coarse salt and sewing it shut, so it couldn’t rise again.

I poured some more of the salt into my hand and let it trickle between my fingers, thinking about that.

Salt had been more precious than gold in some ancient cultures… the word “salary” for money or wages had its roots in the Latin word for salt. It was a necessary substance to sustain the processes of life. It was the first preservative known to man, limiting dependence on fluctuating seasonal food supplies and allowing for travel and trade over greater distances. Salt could kill disease organisms.

In large enough doses, it could kill people.

I thought about Ethan’s white salt spray on my face, and let the white grains of salt fall between my fingers.

Hey… you want to know a secret?

I can do magic.

Not just tricks with sleight-of-hand and cards, but real honest-to-goodness magic. Not flashy stuff like you see in cartoons, with lightning bolts and balls of fire, but magic all the same.

I didn’t need to throw any fireballs or doing anything else quite that impressive right at that moment. There are two ways to settle a restless spirit. They’re both roughly analogous to handling a restless drunk: you either talk them through it until they come around and calm down, or you get tough with them.

I wasn’t planning on getting tough with Ethan, because I owed it to him for being a great teacher, and I owed it to Amelia, because I had been docking her husband’s cock.

I thought about that some more as I let the salt fall from my hands and watched it as it fell. The tiniest breeze, the smallest stirring of air, caught the falling grains and sent them swirling.

I took off my watch and set it down, alongside the Caravan but well to the side of the door.

I got up.

I walked.

Then I walked some more.

I don’t know for how long I walked, as I’d left my watch outside Amelia’s Caravan. I am a scientist and a mystic, and the only thing both sides agree on is that time is an illusion. Tonight I wasn’t interested in the illusion, but in the hyper-reality of between-time, the between-place. It’s easier for a camel to pass through the twat of a virgin than it would be for me to slip into the Dreamtime with a clunky wristwatch tick-tick-ticking away at my wrist, just daring me to look at it.

You want to know another secret? The thing about magic is that one-tenth of it is knowing what to pay attention to. The other nine-tenths is knowing what to ignore. If I’d stopped to consider how far I’d walked at the time, it would have all come crashing down around me as surely as poor Wile E. will drop the moment he realizes he’s walking on air.

The moon had risen, sort of, and now hung low over the horizon, big and brilliant and bloody… as alien as the landscape it illuminated, as up close and immediate as the world outside was far away.

When I left the Caravan, I had set out in the direction of the dig, and though I didn’t dare think on it, I knew I should have walked right into the tarp-covered pits long before I encountered anything interesting. I had walked right past where the dig should have been, up through the high desert into the Arches. It would have been a good twenty, thirty mile walk if I’d done it the long way.

Have you ever been to the Painted Desert in Arizona and been stoned out of your gourd?

Have you ever been to Mars?

That’s kind of what it’s like to be there in the middle of the Arches National Park, with a big red moon filling a quarter of the sky and that’s with it hanging so low that a good third of it is still below the horizon.

And there, in front of that impossible moon, clearly illuminated by the bloody red light that shines through it… there stood something that looked like it stepped out of an Aztec priest’s most disturbing wet dream.

It had big, vivid eyes like a bird of prey, which stared down the length of its distinctly beak-like snout. Its neck was relatively thin, but cord-like and powerful looking. Its forelimbs were tipped with grasping claws, though they were very clearly wings and not arms.

Even without the brilliantly colored feathers that covered the creature, you would have seen that they were wings.

Its hind legs had three toes, though it walked with the weight only on two of them. The middle toe of each foot was held off the ground, ending in a “now-that’s-a-knife” style claw. Though it looked stooped over, with its torso leaning forward and its tail sticking out ram-rod straight, the tip of its snout hung more than nine feet off the ground.

I knew as soon as I saw it that I was looking at a one hundred million year old ghost.

I was looking at a Utahraptor.

“Well, you’re sure as hell not Ethan Conroy,” I said. “Haven’t seen him by any chance, have you?”

Its long neck curved backward and down, bringing its head lower to the ground. It shifted its balance… the tail swinging in the opposite direction… and one of the hind legs came up. With its smaller claws, the raptor scratched at its chin in a decidedly cat-like manner, before settling back down on both legs and giving its forelimbs a couple of flaps. It gave a raspy, coughing cry. The sound was faint and weak, muffled and indistinct like an old recording that had been overplayed. It ruffled its feathers a few times, and then began ambling forward. Not quite towards me, but past me. I watched it go cautiously, wondering what I’d do if it attacked… assuming it could touch me.

I was starting to wonder if it it could even see me, when it turned its head around and looked right at me, giving another one of its coughing cries.

“What is it, Lassie?” I said aloud. I felt slightly giddy, almost drunk. I’ve often found that the edge of delirium is useful when dealing with this kind of surreal shit. “What is it, girl? Timmy’s down the well?”

I followed the bird—for while the scientific community could continue to argue about whether the raptors were true avians or not, Lassie’s appearance had made up my mind for me—back down towards the camp. Again, I didn’t focus on the time or distance traveled. It was easier this time, as I had something quite fascinating to focus my attention on.

The raptor was magnificent, not quite like anything on earth. It moved with fluid grace, slinkier than any cat that ever stalked the primeval jungle. Nothing sluggish about it… this was definitely no thunder lizard.

Eventually, we stopped… or it stopped, and I did. It turned around in place, looking me right in the eye to make sure it had my full and undivided attention… as if there could have been any doubt… and then it began scratching at the dirt. Quite ineffectually, I might add, as its toe-claws actually passed through the ground without actually making contact.

“What’s down there?” I asked, then realized the answer was obvious. “You?”

It continued to paw at the ground ineffectually with its clawed feet, even reaching down and snapping with its toothy beak. I had a sudden incongruous image of a chicken scratching for worms.

“Well, that means you haven’t been the one scaring people away on purpose,” I said. “You wouldn’t have lead me here if you didn’t want to be found.”

The great raptor stood and stared at me impassively while I reasoned it out.

“You want your bones out of the ground,” I guessed. “All the salt in the ground has got you trapped… you can’t move on as long as your remains are stuck in the earth.”

It gave a little croak as if in confirmation, and I felt a little thrill go through me as I realized the implication. Not every creature that lived and died left any fossil impression… most didn’t, in fact. Most that did left only a fragment of themselves. For Lassie’s spirit to be stuck here in unliving color so long after its death, it was likely that there was a complete and detailed specimen beneath the spot where the specter stood. As the minerals which filled in the gradually decaying animal skeleton had created a perfect permanent image of Lassie’s body, so had a permanent image of her spirit remained. Immortality, of a sort that would have made the Egyptian pharaohs cream their mummy wrappings.

With that realization, I knew who had been responsible for the accidents that had plagued the expedition. The Widow Conroy had been right after all.

“Come on out, Ethan,” I called out into the darkness. “You might as well show yourself… I know you’re here.”

And just like that, he was… fainter and more translucent than the Utahraptor, and even more quiet. Though Ethan Conroy had died in this area, his body was interred elsewhere.

“You’ve been sabotaging your own last dig,” I said matter-of-factly. “Because you don’t want anybody to see what you know is buried here.”

Ethan looked at me defiantly, arms crossed. The message was clear: I was right, but he didn’t care. Lassie gave another one of her choked cries and she and Ethan glared at each other. The great bird pawed the ground like a bull getting ready to charge, but neither made a move towards the other.

“Look,” I said to Ethan. “You’re a scientist. You know this is right… you can’t hold back a discovery like this. Science keeps marching onwards, and you have to move on, too.”

Ethan gave his shoulders a little shrug, as if he didn’t care.

“Even if you shut down this dig, there will be others,” I said. “Not just here. In China, in the Gobi Desert. They’re finding more evidence of avian dinosaurs every year. I know the image of big lumbering claymation-style dinosaurs is a fond memory for you, but that’s all it’s going to be: a memory.”

“Don’t give me that,” I said, though of course he hadn’t given me anything more than a dirty look. “I don’t owe you anything… well, that’s not true, but I don’t owe you enough to help you destroy a find of this importance. Look, I’m going to make this easy on you… if you don’t stop haunting the dig, I’ll get somebody else to dig up the Utahraptor fossil, and I will keep you away. You’d better believe me when I tell you that I can do that. The only thing you’ll have accomplished is upsetting your wife, who’s only thinking of your legacy. Think about that, Ethan.”

His mouth opened and closed, silently… though I think even if he could speak he still wouldn’t have had anything to say. His form faded slightly more. He looked at me imploringly, a “Now what?” kind of look on his face.

“Go back to your wife, Ethan,” I said. “You’ve been scaring her. Tell her you love her… tell her goodbye. Tell her anything to explain why you’ve been haunting her. She deserves some kind of explanation.”

He was gone then, at least from that immediate vicinity. Lassie and I looked at each other for a few long moments, and she gave a tiny nod of her head before she vanished, too. I knew her spirit was still around, though, and that it would be until the imprint of her body was exhumed from the earth.

It was funny… so many ghosts hung around for years because they wanted a decent burial for their remains. This one had lasted for epochs waiting for somebody to dig its remains up.

The reddish light was suddenly very pink. The sun was rising, and there was no sign of the moon, big and bloody or otherwise. Frozen time melted back to normal as I hiked back to the Caravan. Amelia met me at the door.

Or rather, the palm of her hand met the side of my face. I guess Ethan must have found enough of his voice to come clean to her. She spit… yet another spray of salt on my face. You couldn’t get away from the stuff, out here.

There’s a saying that “science proceeds from the death of scientists”… no matter what big, bold words scientists might spout about empiricism and skepticism and methodology, they were human in the end, and thus prey to human folly. They each had their own belief systems, their own pet theories, their own favored ideas that they just would not let go of, no matter how much evidence piled up against them.

I think the saying originally referred to the opponents of Louis Pasteur. His germ theory of disease revolutionized our understanding of illness and created the modern science of medicine. By extending the human life expectancy, Louis might have ultimately done more to hamper scientific progress than to help it.

Morbid thoughts.

I got back into my car, said a silent prayer to whoever was responsible for the souls of Utahraptors, and was on my way.

If you enjoyed this story, you can help me bring others like it to life (and keep myself alive) by supporting me on Patreon.

If you don’t have the cash to help, you can help by spreading awareness and joining my thunderclap, which will broadcast the link to these stories in a tweet-length message on the social media platform(s) of your choice on May 31st, two hours after the last story goes live.

This story along with two others in my patron preview line-up may also be found in The Lands of Passing Through, a short story collection available as a DRM-free ebook on Amazon Kindle, Nook, and as a multi-format bundle directly from the author.