Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

Olivia’s Table

Olivia blew into town with the storm and headed straight for the Grand Silver Hotel. Pots and containers of sauces and marinades clattered in the trunk of her Toyota, packed in with the rest of the groceries she’d brought from Phoenix. The evening sky hung heavy with dark clouds, but the shrinking Arizona sun still burned her arms through the car windows.

Bisden was one of those mining towns that had sprung up in the eighteen hundreds, flourished for a while, and then all but died once the silver ran out. Now, the town made its money from the tourists who trickled in, hoping to see two things: a real Wild West ghost town and one of the most haunted historical sites in the southwest.

After a childhood of making the trip down from Phoenix, Olivia barely needed her GPS to guide her. She drove past the sparse palo verdes lining the old shop fronts. Outside, the wind whipped up sharp clouds of dust and stone shards, sending them sweeping down the barren, red-dirt road that ran through Bisden’s town square. The air carried a light brown tint, and Olivia squinted to see through it.

In front of a clapboard saloon, two reenactment actors in full period dress were toughing out the approaching dust storm, fingering the pistols hanging at their hips. Most of the town’s tourists had migrated inside; a few hung back to watch them, shading their eyes or filming on their phones.

And then there were the ghosts, dozens of them, clustered around the tourists and swaying in the wind like feather grass. A few were dressed in fine clothes—long skirts and blouses buttoned to the throat, cravats tucked into tight waistcoats—but most were dressed in working clothes. Wide-brimmed hats, sturdy trousers, loose shirts. Only some of them were white folks. All bore signs of trauma; gunshots punched a cluster of holes through one gentleman’s torso, and a cluster of women hanging back by the saloon had burned, blackened bodies, the remains of their dresses drifting around them in ashes.

Olivia sighed. They were right in front of the Grand Silver Hotel, too. Figured.

She slung her backpack over her shoulder and pocketed her phone. Her braid was coming loose, but she ignored it. After locking her car, Olivia pulled out the long envelope of paper talismans that her grandma had written years ago. She slapped one over each of the car windows, and the coppery scent of magic sparked in the air. The sky rumbled overhead as she retrieved a pack of Saran Wrap and taped sheets of plastic over the talismans. If this worked, the talismans would keep ghosts away from the car, and the Saran Wrap would keep the rain away from the talismans.

It would work, she thought firmly. It’d worked for her mom all the times they’d made the trip together. And even though she wasn’t here now, Olivia had watched her ward her car like this for years.

No time for doubts. She headed for the hotel, past the reenactment actors and tourists. She had to push her way through the ghosts. Their bodies felt more solid than they did the rest of the year, and fabric brushed her hands as she edged through the crowd. “Excuse me,” she muttered. A pair of Hopi women glanced down at her from beneath the brims of their hats, turning to make room for her to squeeze by. A cluster of Chinese miners, their bodies broken and smashed—A cave-in, she thought, an accident—watched her, unmoving, from a distance. None of the tourists seemed to see the ghosts, staring through them at the girl weaving her way through empty air.

The Grand Silver Hotel rose three stories, clinging to its last shreds of grandeur. Inside, new lightbulbs shone in old fixtures, and the tatty carpet crunched under Olivia’s sneakers. Like every other establishment in town, the Grand Silver kept its head above water by advertising its very own ghost. An oil painting of the Wailing Lady hung on the wall above the reception desk, and a rotating rack of postcards, most of them reproductions of the painting, spun lazily by the elevator door. The older woman behind the desk smiled as Olivia approached. Her name tag read Renee. “Welcome to the Grand Silver Hotel. How may we help you today?”

“I’m here for the Ghost Festival,” said Olivia. Her voice sounded too loud in the nearly empty lobby. She hated listening to herself speak; talking, period, wasn’t easy for her. “I need a room for tonight and tomorrow night, and some help getting things out of my car.”

Renee brightened. “Of course. The Ghost Festival is tomorrow night, and it’s one of Bisden’s big attractions. Now, there are a few other groups of tourists who made the trip here to see it, so you won’t be alone. It’s perfectly safe, but we do ask that everyone stay inside and keep a healthy distance from the ghosts—”

“I’m not a tourist,” Olivia said. “I’m here to cook the banquet for the festival.” She reached for her driver’s license, and her student ID slipped out first. She caught it before it hit the ground. “You’ve worked with my mom before. Amory Chang.”

The receptionist squinted. “You’re Exorcist Chang’s daughter, are you? You do look a bit like her.” It’s nice of her to lie, thought Olivia. “She helped us out for years. Every summer, on the night when the ghosts come out to walk among the living. And her cooking, of course, was sublime.”

Thank you, Olivia wanted to say, but the words wouldn’t come. Renee didn’t seem to notice.

“We’re looking forward to having you for the Ghost Festival. Exorcist Chang was always a wonder to watch. Excellent showmanship, and her work kept the town safe for years.” As Olivia checked into her room, Renee paused. “By the way. Our Wailing Lady is getting . . . unruly. Could you look into fixing that up, or finding a replacement? It’s been almost ten years since your mother tended to our ghost.”

The Wailing Lady’s painting hung serenely on the wall. It depicted an ample young woman wearing a wedding dress and a veil that obscured her face. A jilted, suicidal bride, whose weeping could still sometimes be heard late at night. Not very original. “I’ll look in to it,” said Olivia.

Renee and the two folks working at the hotel—a maid and a young man who was probably her son—helped lug Olivia’s vats of soy sauce and marinade from her car and into the hotel kitchen. Rice, cooking utensils, and paper bag after paper bag of different kinds of meat followed. Pickings at the Bisden supermarket were slim, so she’d brought everything she could fit into the Toyota’s back seat and trunk. As they carried the groceries inside, Olivia caught sight of the ghosts out front. The reenactment actors were gone, and now the ghosts stared, as one, at Olivia and the hotel employees.

The air smelled like approaching rain. She walked faster.

After sussing out the kitchen—on the small side, though all of the kitchens at the old Bisden hotels were—Olivia checked her phone. No signal, no internet, though there were a couple of password-locked hotspots from the shops nearby. The Grand Silver had its own router, and Renee gave Olivia the password along with a long, old-fashioned metal key. “You’ll be in room three-oh-nine,” she said.

Olivia spent the next couple of hours in that kitchen, cutting, testing, prepping. It was night by the time she finished. When she made it upstairs to her room, she crouched on the floor by the bed and set out packet after packet of incense and joss paper. She hoped she’d brought enough. Enough incense, enough food—

No, it would be enough. She unpacked a small ceramic bowl and emptied a handful of dried orange peel into it, and then she lit a match over it. Once, her mom had taught her that the smoke from burning orange peel would keep the ghosts away. It had never failed her.

Olivia hesitated. The flame licked down the match, chasing her fingers. After a second, she shook it out.

Wind rattled the windows as she settled into bed. The sounds of faint footsteps upstairs and a woman sobbing through the floorboards chased her into her dreams.

It had rained during every Ghost Festival that Olivia could remember. On the seventh month on her mom’s calendar and the eighth month on her dad’s, Mom would pack the minivan with food and head down south for a couple of days, leaving Olivia in Dad and Grandma’s care. It was monsoon season, and torrential rain flooded the roads and the stony washes out behind the houses. But when the skies cleared, Mom would return with an empty trunk and a check for more money than she made in half a year.

For a time, she didn’t tell Olivia where she went or what she did. But the year Olivia turned eight, Mom loaded her into the back seat next to the paper bags of groceries and drove her to Bisden for the first time.

Come with Mama, she said. Back then, her short black hair was only faintly laced with silver, and she still looked healthy. I need you to help me with the Ghost Festival this year.

The drive was several hours long, and by the time they reached the tiny town, sunset was approaching. So was a storm, a desert monsoon that crawled inexorably across the horizon. That night, they checked into the Grand Silver, although in the coming years, they would rotate from hotel to hotel, collecting paychecks from many grateful proprietors. Every hotel in town wanted the chance to host the festival and attract the bulk of that year’s tourists. Mom told Olivia that when her own mom, and the long line of Chang women before her, had cooked for the Ghost Festival, in this country and in their countries before that, they’d rarely stayed in a place for more than a year.

Different ghosts are tied to different spaces, Olivia, Mom said as they got ready for bed. The lamp cast a warm glow across her face. Sometimes they form attachments to specific places, and sometimes other people bind them there and they can’t leave. Moving the banquet means bringing food to folks who missed their chance to eat the year before. Good service is all about being considerate of others.

Mom spent the entire night and then the next day prepping and cooking, and she had Olivia help her as much as possible. Olivia stood on a little metal stool and cut vegetables. Her knife cuts were careful and even under her mom’s strict tutelage. Occasionally, she peered out the windows, watching the tourists run through the rain, their eyes growing huge and round, even from this distance, whenever they glimpsed one of the ghosts.

“They’re scared of them,” Mom told her as she set out a pair of bamboo steamers. “Right now they can see them.”

“Can’t they see the ghosts all the time?” she asked.

“Not like you and I can. The festival is when ghosts are most themselves instead of what the living want them to be. Not everyone will like what they see tonight.”

When Olivia’s arms grew tired, Mom sent her out of the kitchen to take breaks. The long banquet table that Mom had requested from the hotel was set up on the front porch. She crawled under it and watched the rain slosh down the road in growing streams, swirling with red-brown dirt, until the daylight faded and the electric lights came on.

Her Game Boy. She’d forgotten it in the car. Olivia didn’t have an umbrella, but she ran out into the rain anyway, letting it beat at her through her clothes. It only rained for about two weeks each year, and the cool droplets hitting her face filled her with giddy energy. She sprinted down the street toward her mom’s car, splashing deliberately in the biggest pools of water she could find.

Halfway down the darkening street, a voice stopped her: “You’re not from here.”

Olivia turned sharply. A ghost stood under the awning of the Bisden General Store, leaning against a post. She wore a cotton shirt and trousers, like many of the other folks who’d worked on the railroad when they were alive. There weren’t many women among the Chinese ghosts. But this one was a girl, with deep brown hair like Olivia’s, and a small mouth and dark eyes like Olivia’s. She looked a little older than Olivia, but not nearly as old as Olivia’s mom.

“Did someone lose you?” said the ghost.

“Nobody lost me,” said Olivia. “I came to get my Game Boy.” She came a little closer, under the awning, and the ghost didn’t shrink back. When Olivia reached out to touch her sleeve, her hand passed through. “What’s your name?”

“Mei Ling,” said the ghost. She sounded amused. From this distance, Olivia could see that her legs were mangled, the way a number of other Chinese ghosts who’d died in construction accidents were. “My ma calls me Sadie, though.”

“I’m Olivia,” said Olivia. “My grandma gave me a Chinese name, too, but my dad doesn’t like me using it.” She’d overheard her dad talking with her grandma one night, when she was very little. What will she do when the other kids tease her at school? he’d said. Olivia didn’t tell him that the other kids teased her anyway, name or no name.

“I don’t know what a Game Boy is,” said the ghost. “But why don’t I walk with you while you get it?”

An alarm bell in Olivia’s head began to ring. Don’t talk to strangers, Mom had said, over and over. And don’t trust the ghosts, especially not during the Ghost Festival. “No,” she said. “I’m okay. It’s just over there.”

But the ghost followed her. Olivia began to run faster, and the creak of the ghost’s ruined ankles grew louder and louder as the night got darker. The rain pounded down around them. The water rushed across the ground in rising torrents with no gutters to guide it away from the street.

Where was the car? It was dark, and the electric lights seemed so dim, and the ghost was behind her, lurching forward, moving too fast—

Olivia’s foot slipped out from under her and she fell backward into the water. Her head cracked hard against a stone, and the flash flood pulled her, rolling and gasping, down the street and onto her face. She inhaled a lungful of water. Olivia choked and tried to push herself up, but her palms slid on the loose gravel and her hands slipped out from under her.

She was drowning. Two weeks of rain a year, and this was how she’d die. When she came back as a ghost, would her lungs be full of water forever?

Olivia reached out blindly, and someone grabbed her arm. The ghost hauled her out of the water. When she rubbed Olivia’s back as Olivia coughed, her hand was solid and warm, all the way down to her broken fingers. Her cotton work-clothing was soaked through.

Olivia’s head was bright with pain.

Mei Ling lifted her and held her close to her chest. The ghost had no heartbeat. And then they were running, splashing through the rising water, headed back to the town square. The last thing Olivia saw were the stuccoed walls of the Grand Silver and the hordes of ghosts descending upon her mother’s banquet table, their swarming, newly substantial bodies rippling in the moonlight.

Olivia woke too early, her heart pounding loud in her ears. The roof rattled like someone was upending stones on it. The muted roar of torrential rain surrounded her, and when she pushed back the curtains, she saw that the street was full of rushing water, just as it had been all those years ago. No living people were out and about, not even the actors from yesterday. But ghosts—so many of them, almost too many to count—huddled under porch roofs and awnings, their bodies all clumped together, away from the rain.

Overhead, the sobbing had stopped. Last night, through the haze of half-swallowed dreams, the woman’s voice had sounded familiar. Olivia listened carefully, but she could hear nothing but the storm.

She checked her phone for missed calls and found that there were none. No phone service. Right. But there was internet, so she emailed her dad: I made it to Bisden safely. Cooking all today. I’ll be home soon. Love you. Don’t forget to eat.

Too late, she remembered that her mom used to sign off all her texts and emails the same way. But she’d already hit Send. She bit her lip, then turned away to pull on her jeans.

Despite the early hour and pouring rain, the ghosts on the street were already out in full force. She walked past them, and their heads followed her on skinny, starved necks, rotating like owls’. The full moon was a brief imprint in the sky, barely visible through a gap in the darkened clouds. As Olivia headed for her car, the boy who’d helped her move her supplies into the kitchen ran after her. “Hey,” he said breathlessly. “Mom asked me to help you if you needed anything.”

Olivia looked at him. He looked about her age, maybe seventeen at most. She couldn’t remember his name. “I’m just going grocery shopping,” she said.

“I’ll help you carry things if you want. I don’t mind.” He grinned. “I’m Carlos.”

He did look strong, Olivia conceded. His arms and back were well muscled. When he smiled, he had cute dimples. If she had been interested in men, she might have found him attractive. “I’m Olivia,” she said. “I’m going to buy a lot of stuff, though.”

“I figured. I didn’t think ghosts would eat a lot, but apparently they do.” He didn’t seem bothered by the rain or by the ghosts who watched them from the awnings. But then, he didn’t seem to see the ghosts at all.

The best thing about the Bisden supermarket, Olivia decided, was that it was cheap. She headed straight for the back counter and bought two dozen fresh fish. These were dead—not as fresh as the live ones swimming in tanks at the Chinese market back home—but they would do. She loaded her cart up with fresh produce: green onions, carrots, garlic, herbs. Four crates of oranges. It was too bad that Bisden didn’t have a Costco.

Carlos talked a lot, but he did hold up his end of the bargain. He carried all her groceries and helped load them into her car. He told her all about his schooling (he was a junior, one year younger than her), his aspirations (to go to Arizona State and study mechanical engineering), and his boyfriend (Sean, beautiful and geeky, also an aspiring engineer). “What about you?” he said as they drove through the pouring rain. “Do you have someone you like?”

“I did,” said Olivia. “But we broke up a while ago.” It had been a year and a half ago, in the spring. Priya was a year ahead of Olivia in school, and when she found out she was going to an East Coast college, she was ecstatic.

Olivia hadn’t wanted to keep Priya tied down. With Priya going east and Olivia staying in Arizona, it made sense to break things off. But Priya hadn’t agreed, and when she’d cried and Olivia didn’t, she’d accused Olivia of not caring enough to be there for her.

But you’re going out of state, Olivia had said. I can’t just move to Boston for you.

Priya had blown her wavy black hair away from her face and stared her down. You know that’s not what I’m talking about. Even when we’re together, having dinner, watching movies or whatever, you’re always so detached. It feels like you’re somewhere else, not with me. Her mouth tightened. Is there someone else?

There was the memory of a girl in dark cotton trousers, her hair hanging down her shoulders, pulling her from the water. There was also Mom, lying alone in the hospital, watching dramas until she fell asleep. She’d never told Priya about either, because they felt too private to talk about. No, said Olivia.

By the time Priya left for college, they had fallen apart.

Olivia and Carlos drove the rest of the way back in silence. As they were unloading the car, Carlos stopped in his tracks. Olivia glanced at him. “What is it?”

“I thought—” he broke off, frowning. He looked pale. “I thought I saw something. Over there, to your left. But it’s gone now.”

Olivia looked. The ghost of an old man, his body wracked with disease, looked back at her. His sunken eyes glittered. “I don’t see anything,” she said.

“Let’s get the rest of these inside,” said Carlos, hurrying past her.

Olivia cast one last look at the ghost and followed. If Carlos was starting to see them, she’d have to cook fast. The moon was rising; the Ghost Festival was coming. Her palms began to sweat. She wiped them on her jeans and strode inside, past the tourists beginning to mill about in the lobby with pamphlets about the Ghost Festival.

Olivia sorted her ingredients on the counters, arranging them by dish. Duck, pork, shrimp, fish. Winter melon, out of season, but bought from one of the Chinese markets back home. Spices, marinades. Red beans, sesame oil, sugar, salt. Bok choy, green beans, lotus root, sauces that she’d spent the past two days making.

Carlos hung back by the door. “Don’t you have work to do?” she said to him, and then winced. Too blunt. The words are wrong. Always wrong, when they came out of her.

“I do,” he said. He seemed unfazed, and the tight knot in Olivia’s chest loosened. “But I want to help if I can. You need someone to help you chop and prep, right? I cook meals in this kitchen all the time.”

A surge of relief flooded through her. “Thank you,” she said quietly. She indicated the vegetables lying in their neat rows. “I need these chopped. Garlic minced, green onions left long, but not longer than a finger. Carrots thinly sliced. Winter melon cubed.”

“Do you have a recipe?”

“Only in my head,” she said. That was how Mom had done it, too.

Carlos sighed and picked up a knife. “All right. Let’s get to work.”

They worked for hours, and soon they began to learn each other’s rhythm. The clock over the sink ticked, and sunlight passed across the windows and grew dark. Olivia didn’t have to look outside to know that people were locking themselves in their houses, pulling the curtains shut. Only the curious tourists kept watch, peering through the large glass windows of every hotel lining the street. All the hotels would have bolted their front doors shut except for the Grand Silver. Not the Grand Silver, because Olivia still had to hurry in and out with her food. Its thresholds were already lined with paper talismans to ward off any ghosts bent on mischief, or worse.

Time flew by, and Olivia sweated and braised and fried and steamed. Her muscles ached, but adrenaline and fear kept her body and mind singing. The rising spirit energy from outside grew to a tight, intense buzz in her head. She could hear the ghosts through the walls—whispering, waiting—and by the expression that Carlos wore, so could he. And then there was a wet, whining sound coming from inside the hotel, and the drag of broken feet in high heels in the ceiling above, somewhere in the air vents.

The moon rose, and Olivia began to plate.

After Olivia’s mom got sick, she became too weak to move around much. She was supposed to stay still, to conserve her energy. Moving made her nauseated. But the one place that Olivia’s dad couldn’t chase her out of was the kitchen. Even when she had trouble standing, she still insisted on cooking dinner for the family. Olivia helped her into a chair by the stove, and she sat there for hours, making sure all of the meal’s components were cooking properly. Olivia did what she could to ease the burden, measuring liquids, cooking the rice, making sure all the ingredients were chopped so that her mom didn’t have to worry about it.

One afternoon, her mother smiled up at her. “You’re getting so good at this. I’m glad. You’ll have to do this when I’m gone.”

A lump rose in Olivia’s throat. “That’s not going to happen.” I can’t fill your shoes, she thought. “You’re going to get better.”

“Don’t let the sesame seeds burn,” said Mom, and Olivia swooped in automatically, rescuing the frying pan of toasted seeds. “Good, good. Let them cool somewhere safe.”

Olivia set them aside in a small bowl. Her hands were trembling. “I can’t lose you. Dad can’t lose you. You’re going to get better. I know it.”

Mom reached out. Her fingers felt so delicate, so thin. “If you honor everything I’ve taught you, then I promise that I will never leave you.” She held Olivia’s hand and squeezed it. “I love you, Xi Yi.”

Olivia hadn’t heard that name in years, not since her grandma had passed away. Tears welled up in her eyes. “Mom—”

The kitchen timer went off. Her mom moved to take the ging do pai gwut off the heat and transferred it into a waiting ceramic dish. “Remember,” she said to Olivia. “Now take this to the table.”

The banquet table waited on the Grand Silver’s porch, safe from the rainstorm and the rushing water below. An outline of talismans marked a boundary around it, leading to the hotel doors. All along its edges, ghosts clustered and crowded, whispering among themselves. They were substantial, all flesh and bone, just for this one night. Just to feast until the sun came up. Above, in a gap in the heavy clouds, the full moon hovered like a malevolent eye.

Olivia came out with a cart laden with giant pots and stacked with metal dishes, clattering past the tourists gathered in the lobby, ignoring their questions. She refused to let Carlos follow her out onto the porch, and she felt his eyes on her back as she crossed the Grand Silver’s threshold. She laid platter after platter of Peking duck in the center of the table, forming a line of meat and soft, pale, steamed buns. She removed the lids of the pots and the scent of winter-melon soup rose through the thick air. As quickly as she could, she began to fill bowls.

The ghosts whispered and pushed their hands up against the barrier, hissing when copper-scented magic sparked against their skin. Cold sweat rose on Olivia’s back. But her hands were steady as she continued to ladle soup into bowls. Finally, there was no more room on the tabletop. Olivia stepped back, laying down another line of talismans so that there was a narrow, unobstructed passage from the door to the table.

She raised her voice. “Welcome, honored guests. My name is Olivia Chang, and I have prepared you a banquet, so that you may take and eat and find peace in your souls.” Her mom had given this speech many times, and Olivia did not stumble. “Please come. You are welcome at this table.”

With that, she broke the talisman barrier around the table. The ghosts fell upon the food. They shoved at each other, grabbing bowls, seizing chopsticks. Some used their hands and pushed food into their mouths as fast as they could. Many of them barely looked human in their hunger. They tore into the meat with ferocity, pushed their faces into the bowls of soup and snarled at their neighbors to get at the dishes they wanted. The food seemed to evaporate as the ghosts fought and bit and ate, ate, ate.

I didn’t make enough, Olivia thought wildly. Dread built in her stomach. All these people came to my table, and I can’t serve them all.

Breathe.

She breathed. Grabbing the cart, she doubled back for more food. Shrimp in clear, sweet sauce; crab with ginger and scallions. Fish after fish, all steamed, with sharp, salty sauce. Tender, marinated beef, still sizzling on metal plates. Bak cheet gai, with all of the sauces; hot-pepper pork chops. Her mother’s ging do pai gwut, sweet and glazed in bright red sauce, sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds. (Olivia’s heart ached.) And then, finally, platter after platter of sliced oranges and bowls of sweet red-bean soup. They vanished almost as soon as she put it out, but Olivia kept up her pace, her legs burning, her hands steady.

The night wore on, and more spirits flocked to the table, replacing those who had filled their bellies and wandered away. The moon drifted. In the lulls between waves, Olivia kept watch, burning incense and joss paper over a small fire. Embers wafted up into the air like wishes, and one by one, they winked out. The rain poured down relentlessly.

Mei Ling did not appear. Olivia watched the table, chewing on her lip so hard that it began to taste raw. Ghosts came, some eating quietly, some ravenously. The wildness in their eyes, their grief, their fear and rage, all ebbed as they ate. Take and eat, she’d said. The Chinese-American ghosts were the ones who wept the most, laughing and reveling in familiar foods. “Thank you,” they told her, one after another. “I never thought I would taste this again.” And one after another, they vanished, fading away to rest at last.

This was why she was here, as Exorcist Chang. It was only an exorcism in the loosest sense. Her work wasn’t an act of expulsion; her role was to soothe lonely souls, offering them freedom.

Olivia thought about the footsteps overhead, the sobbing at night. She sent up her piece of joss paper and headed back inside, through the clump of tourists in the lobby. They tried to speak to her, but she didn’t hear them. She stopped by the reception desk, staring up at the portrait of the Wailing Lady.

Yesterday, Renee had leaned over the counter and smiled at her. Our Wailing Lady is getting . . . unruly. Could you look into fixing that up, or finding a replacement?

The longer a ghost stayed in one place without release, the more restless it became. Bisden lived and died on its haunted attraction tourism. And when a ghost acted up, it lent legitimacy to the stories. But ghosts that were trapped for too long began to go mad, and that was when people got hurt.

Olivia stared at the painting, at the white veil covering the Wailing Lady’s face. In the ten years of Ghost Festivals since that first one at the Grand Silver, Olivia hadn’t seen Mei Ling once.

Beneath that veil, the Wailing Lady could be anyone.

She turned and ran for the kitchen. There was still some rice, just enough for one bowl. Everything else was gone, presented and eaten on the table outside. Olivia hoped the rice would do. She took the stairs up to the third floor and headed back to her room. As she ascended, the familiar sound of sobbing drifted down toward her, and she climbed faster. When Olivia opened the door, she saw a woman standing inside by the window, gazing out at the feast below. She wore a white wedding gown, stained with dirt at the hem, and a long white veil. She turned to face Olivia.

Olivia peeled the talisman necklace from her neck and laid it on the floor beside her. Slowly, she approached, holding out the rice. “I brought you something to eat,” she said. This time, her voice didn’t sound too loud in her ears. “It’s not much. But you seem hungry. Please, honored guest, take and eat.”

The Wailing Lady didn’t move, but she let Olivia approach. Steam wafted gently from the rice into the air. Rain battered down outside, beating at the window, demanding to be let in. Olivia reached out, offering up the bowl.

The ghost reached back, taking it. The hands around hers were warm and solid.

Gently, Olivia pushed back the veil.

When Olivia’s mom had died, she didn’t come back as a ghost. Olivia half expected her to. But she didn’t materialize in the hospital room when Dad chose to take her off life support, or on any of the nights when Olivia heard her dad crying alone in his bedroom. At the funeral, there had only been the silent Mom-shaped body nestled in her casket.

People became ghosts when they were restless, or had unfinished business, or held too much regret to pass on. They became ghosts when the ones they loved forgot them or didn’t pay them respects. Olivia burned incense despite the fire warnings on especially dry days, and some days, she set aside a small dish of whatever she was cooking to put on Mom’s altar later. But she kept the small shrine in her room, away from Dad. Whenever he saw it, his mouth would crumple and he’d leave abruptly, his grief chasing him somewhere else.

Olivia started staying late at school, just to be somewhere else. She withdrew from her friends, hiding in the library. Her grades suffered and improved. Slowly, it dawned on her that her mom was gone. Not just dead-and-a-ghost gone, but gone-gone.

People only became ghosts when they had something tying them to this place. Olivia’s mom, it seemed, had nothing to keep her here.

Olivia didn’t apply to college. Every time she reached the Family section on the applications—Parents’ Names? Level of Education? Relationship? Living? Deceased?—her head filled with static. The essay questions were inane: “What did you do last summer and how did it impact you?” just made her think of the ugly, ultraclean stink of the hospital and how she would never forget it, as much as she wanted to. Besides, someone had to take care of Dad. She couldn’t leave him, too.

Her relationship with Priya crumbled, and Olivia let it.

Her friends packed and left for college, and Olivia cooked, and paid bills, and cooked. She made sure all of her mom’s emails were forwarded to her own email address, and that the small dish in front of her altar was never empty. When she opened the email from the Grand Silver asking Exorcist Chang to prepare her banquet for the Ghost Festival that year, Olivia’s heartbeat jumped.

The one night when spirits walk among us.

She’d helped prepare the banquet every year, but she’d never done it alone. And she hadn’t been back to the Grand Silver since that first summer in Bisden.

“Dad,” she said that evening, twisting her napkin into tight rings under the table, “I’m going to Bisden in August.”

He looked up with a sad smile. He’d gotten so much older in the past months, she realized. “I know,” he said.

Olivia found herself looking into the face of a stranger. A hard face, weathered with age and hunger.

It wasn’t Mei Ling. It wasn’t Mom. It wasn’t anyone she knew.

“Who are you?” Olivia whispered, and the ghost stared silently back at her. The old Chinese woman’s gaze was vacant, and she shifted back and forth, her ill-fitting wedding dress whispering around her. Olivia wondered if she was a bride at all, or if someone had bound her to the Grand Silver Hotel against her will to serve as their ghost. This woman didn’t look like the young, pretty, white girl that the hotel’s brochures advertised as the Wailing Lady. Maybe that hadn’t mattered to the person who had trapped her here.

But if there was a night for truth, it was tonight. Mom had said so: during the festival, ghosts were most themselves. Not what the living wanted. Not what Olivia wanted.

The night of the festival was a chance for freedom.

Olivia bit back her disappointment and smiled at the woman. She held out a pair of chopsticks, and the woman took them and began to eat. The rice wasn’t much, something small and humble. But with every bite, the woman’s gaze grew sharper and more aware, and her movements became more coordinated. Soon, the rice was gone. Olivia opened her mouth to apologize, but the stranger spoke first.

“Thank you,” she said. Her voice was raspy, and Olivia wondered if it was because of all her crying. “Will you walk me to the door, child?”

Olivia took her arm and led her to the elevator. The woman gazed at her reflection in the elevator’s brass walls as they rode down to the first floor. They walked together past the tourists, who gawked but kept a healthy distance. Olivia thought she saw Renee moving toward them, but the crowd of tourists had closed in tight against one another, blocking her way with their bodies.

As they crossed the threshold, the woman raised her arms and her white wedding dress and veil crumbled into dust. Somewhere behind them, Renee shouted. Beneath the dress, the woman wore hardy cotton traveling clothes and a loose coat. There was a hat in her hands that she placed on her head, tugging the brim. The strong, determined set of her shoulders reminded Olivia of her grandma.

“Thank you for the food, child,” said the woman. She patted Olivia’s arm. “After being alone for so long, I forgot what it felt like to have family cook for you. And that is what your offering felt like.” She began to fade, but before she was fully gone, she gave Olivia’s arm a squeeze. “Go feed your guests.”

Olivia looked up. The sky was beginning to lighten, and most of the ghosts had vanished. But there were still a few at the table, picking at the remains of the food. One of them stood out: a girl wearing trousers, with deep brown hair and a small mouth. Her clothing and hair were soaked, and when she caught sight of Olivia, the corners of her mouth curved upward.

“The Game Boy girl,” said Mei Ling. “You grew up.”

Warm, welcome heat spread through Olivia’s chest. Mei Ling hadn’t changed at all since she’d first seen her. “I did,” she said. “Thanks to you.”

Mei Ling looked at the table and sighed. “It’s almost all gone. It looked so good, too.” She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, scanning the remnants of the banquet. “I almost made it to the table the last time your mom cooked at the Grand Silver, but I didn’t get there in time.”

Olivia’s stomach dropped. She remembered Mei Ling carrying her, bearing her toward the Grand Silver. Had she slowed her down and caused her to miss her chance to cross over?

“I know what you’re thinking,” said Mei Ling. She reached out to ruffle Olivia’s hair. When she pulled away, her crooked fingers brushed against Olivia’s forehead. “Don’t. I don’t regret it. I saw a little kid in trouble, and I did my best to save her. I wish someone had been there to do that for me.”

The most important part of service was being considerate of others, Mom had said. Olivia bit her lip and scanned the table. All the plates had been picked over; even the fish skins and eyes were gone. “I’m going to find you something to eat,” she said. “I’m going to feed you so you can find your way home.”

Mei Ling shook her head. “The sun’s rising, kid. The banquet’s over.”

Olivia picked through the plates with her fingers, pushing aside gnawed-on bones. There was no gristle, and most of the sauce had been licked off of the plates. Mei Ling was right; there was no food left on the table.

Her gaze flicked to the serving cart resting by the Grand Silver’s door. She crouched beside it, peering between the shelves. There, she thought. Splashes of sauce and little bits of food had spilled out of their dishes and onto the metal as she’d pushed the cart through the hotel. Taking her wooden paddle, Olivia carefully scraped them into her palm. Her heart ached. “Welcome, honored guest,” she said, holding her hand out to Mei Ling. “Take and eat, and let your soul be uplifted.”

Mei Ling opened her mouth, closed it. Startled tears welled up in her eyes. She reached for Olivia’s hand, cradling it in her left hand and scooping up the food with her right. As she ate, her mangled fingers straightened and became whole, and her bones twisted themselves back into shape with a series of ugly cracking sounds. Her wounds closed, one by one.

Stay with me, Olivia wanted to say. Don’t eat my food. Don’t go. She swallowed her words and held her hand still.

By the time Mei Ling swallowed the last grain of rice, her face was streaked with tears. She wiped them away. “Thank you,” she said. Her voice was hoarse but clear.

Olivia took her hand, lacing their fingers. It was warm, so warm.

Behind her, the clouds were thinning into fine strands with the returning heat. The moon had waned, and the rain dropped off. With a sigh, the last ghost at her table evaporated into the morning air.

Alyssa Wong

Alyssa Wong writes fiction, comics, and games. Her stories have won the Nebula Award, the World Fantasy Award, and the Locus Award. She was a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and her fiction has been shortlisted for the Hugo, Bram Stoker, and Shirley Jackson Awards. Her comics credits include Marvel, DC, Star Wars, and Adventure Time. She has also written for Overwatch.