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Ghost Eaters

Prologue: A Ghost Story

Three Years Ago

Tripping our asses off in the cemetery is Silas’s idea. We dose back at his dorm to give the acid a head start. By the time we abandon campus and hop the wrought-iron fence surrounding Hollywood Cemetery, the four of us are all well on our way to peak fry.

“What’re we doing what’re we doing,” Amara keeps repeating under her breath, a giddy litany. “What’re we doing what’re we—”

“Remember your partners,” Silas whispers as he scales the fence first. He just high-jumps those spikes like a grave-robbing Olympian. Now that’s some gold-medal trespassing.

Poor Tobias can’t seem to find a foothold on the fence. His tattered Vans keep slipping, reminding me of that puny kid on the playground who doesn’t have the upper body strength to pull himself up the monkey bars on his own. He’s too embarrassed to ask for help, shooing Silas’s hand away whenever he offers it. “I got it, I got it,” he keeps muttering under his breath.

Amara and I are the only ones left on the street, so we plant our hands on Tobias’s scrawny ass and heave-ho him over. I can literally feel the bone in his butt cheek as we push. From where I’m standing, it looks like he takes flight for a moment, just a beanpole of a bat flapping his wings through the bruised purple sky.

Amara is next. She starts to shriek, practically impaling herself on one of the rusted spears. We all shush her—try to, at least, in between laughing our asses off. She flips over the fence and falls flat on her face. It’s far too dark for me to see her land—Silas won’t let us use the flashlights on our phones—so there’s a hot second where I worry if Amara’s cracked her skull open on a tombstone or something. But she’s cackling like an absolute candy-flipping witch, rolling around in the grass, so we know she’s still breathing.

“Come on, Erin.” Silas beckons through the bars. He’s gripping them with both hands, leaning his face through the gap. He’s a convict and I’ve come to break him out. “Your turn.”

I can’t help myself. His face is right there. Lips right there. I lean in and kiss him through the fence. Flecks of rust dig into my cheeks, smearing my makeup. Here comes the lockjaw.

“Jesus, guys,” Amara whispers-but-not-really-whispers. “Get a tomb already.”

Suddenly I’m second-guessing myself: I can’t climb over this. What if I lose my footing and fall on one of those spikes?

“Easy does it,” Silas says. “I got you.”

Silas and Tobias each grab a foot and hoist me up while I pull on the top rail. Imagine a cheerleader pyramid, where these two strapping young lads lift me over their heads and I perform the most absolutely fucking perfect hip-over-head airborne tumble you’ve ever seen, both feet landing directly on a headstone, a total Bring It On crowd-goes-wild dismount.

You’d be wrong. I land on my ass. Hard.

Silas hovers just above me. “You okay?”

“I think I broke my hip.”

“You’ll live,” Silas says. “Take my hand.”

Silas says hop on one foot.

Silas says pat your head.

Touch your nose.

. . . Silas didn’t say.

The four of us take in the meandering rows of tombstones tilting like loose teeth. The cemetery’s called Hollywood because a few Richmond natives became celebrities way back whenever, returning home only after they kicked the bucket to get buried in their native soil. Everyone returns to Richmond someday. Mostly this place is full of dead Confederates, but there are a few forgotten starlets in the ground. Tourists take photos next to their gaudy graves—but tonight, hours after the cemetery gates close and the only occupants are six feet under, all 135 acres of this place belong to us.

“Follow me,” Silas says. “Watch your step.

Tobias trips on cue. Tripping while tripping, hardy har. He’s practically blind on the best of days, even with his wire-rimmed specs. Swap out the daylight for some liquid sunshine and add a few granite stumbling blocks and it’s no wonder he can’t stay on his feet.

“Where are we going?” I have to ask.

“You’ll see.”

Silas never tells us what he’s got hidden up his sleeve. That would ruin the surprise, wouldn’t it? He has this uncanny ability to rally the troops, enlist the rest of us to do just about whatever he wants—and what he wants most out of life is to gogogogo. His lust for life is addictive and thrilling and downright exhausting all at once. Who cares if we have to wake up tomorrow morning for class? Haven’t we realized academia is merely for sheep? Silas says we’re better than all the other undergrad lemmings, and who are we to argue? Sounds good to me. He can somehow convince us to forget our inhibitions, to lose ourselves in the white heat of the moment. To hop trains in the dead of night. To embark on random road trips with no destination. To take jaunts through haunted plantations that last until the sun rises over the abandoned tobacco fields.

This city is ours, he always says. The Four Musketeers. All for one and one for Silas . . .

We found each other through our mutual admiration for postmodern authors during our freshman fiction writing workshop. Paul Auster cosplay, basically. Silas wants to be David Foster Wallace, bandana and all. Tobias called dibs on DeLillo. Amara has an unhealthy obsession with Pynchon, so she claimed him. Silas said I had a Lethem streak in me, but I’ve never read him. L’eggo my Eggers, I said, hoping to sound pithy. I’m ready to be the world’s first Erin Hill. The literary world was our oyster and Silas made me feel like I was its black pearl.

“Something bit me.” Amara groans as she smacks her palm against her bare shoulder. Figures she didn’t dress appropriately for grave robbing. “How much further?”

“Almost there.”

“Can you just tell us where we’re going, Silas? I’m getting eaten alive out here.

“Patience,” Silas says. “Good things come to those who wait . . .”

A cherub perched on a pillar twists its neck toward me just as I pass it. I stop to make sure, staring at the chubby naked baby with brittle wings. Its washed-out eyes blink back.

Oh, good, I’m not just imagining it. Glad I cleared that up.

Its chiseled features have been sanded down, all the decades of rain and cold weather erasing its face to a gray plane. But it still has its eyelids, opening and closing over two slopes of stone, a pair of rotten eggs stuffed in its sockets. The headstone is too small for an adult.

Oooh, shit . . . A baby is buried here. Did I just say that out loud? I can’t tell for sure. I run my hand across the tomb, tracing every letter with my fingertips like I’m reading braille:


lonnie nadler. god’s lent child.


“Erin?” Silas takes hold of my arm, bringing me back. “You okay?”


“You sure?”


“Stay with me,” he says, taking my hand and leading me through the undulating row of graves—and in my head, I think it’s in my head, I say stay with me, stay with me, stay.

The headstones won’t keep still. The marble flexes. Tombstones turn my way as I walk by. They may as well be dancing toadstools, their inscribed umbrella caps bopping along—


beloved wife. in loving memory. gone too soon. absent in body, present in spirit.


I just have to keep cool. Breathe in deep. Don’t freak.

“What’re we doing,” Amara keeps reciting. “What’re we doing what’re we doing . . .”

We’re pushing our personal boundaries, I imagine Silas might say. We’re living life to its fullest. We’re turning this city into our own personal playground and howling at the moon. But he keeps quiet, silently guiding us through the bopping headstones.

Tobias won’t talk. Won’t peek out from his shell. The acid isn’t helping, I can tell. I don’t want to know what personal horror movie is projecting across the inside of his skull right now.

But I don’t care. My world is me and Silas. My hand in his. He’s leading me along, always my guide. I don’t know if my feet are touching the ground anymore. I could be a balloon, for all I know. My arm is a string and Silas is running through the cemetery while I whip in the wind.

“Here we are,” he says, stopping before a mausoleum that seems to be some bizarro cross section of Masonic and Egyptian architecture. The concrete is covered in kudzu—nope, scratch that. It’s spray paint. I have to squint to make out what’s scrawled across the vault. Even then, the warped words don’t want to keep still long enough for me to read them. All I can make out is—


rise, revenant of richmond, rise!


The gate to the tomb should be locked—shouldn’t it?—but Silas pries it open no problem, hinges giving in with a rusted wail that echoes throughout the rest of the cemetery.

“No fucking way,” Amara says. “I’m not going in there. There are spiders!”

“Then wait outside,” Silas says. “You’re on lookout.”

The mausoleum swallows Silas right up. Tobias ducks his head in next, as if he’s Silas’s lost shadow, careful not to clock his noggin against the top of the doorway.

Wait for me, I imagine Silas’s shadow saying, wait for meeeee!

Amara looks at me. At this point in our friendship, the two of us have perfected our psychic abilities, communicating with one another strictly through brain waves.

Are you really going to do this?she asks with her eyes, her voice coming in loud and clear in my head.

I, uh . . . guess so?We’ve come this far, you know?

The fuck, Erin? She’s not pleased, clearly. For real?

Come with me!

No, no way.

Fine. Party pooper.I duck into the mausoleum and immediately feel the drop in temperature. The chill is thick. It seeps through my skin, reaching deep, all the way to the bone.

I have a quick minute to myself while Silas and Tobias plot together and Amara confronts the massive expanse of slumbering corpses just beneath her feet outside.

I do what I always do in moments like these: I pull out my Sharpie from my pocket and find a free spot on the wall. The inhabitant of this mausoleum will forgive me one small indiscretion, considering the countless others who have already thrown up their own graffiti. Couples have scribbled their names: paul + hanna 4-eva. A few rudimentary pentagrams. Loopy-lettered tags: zombi. long live video fan. Ghostbustaz.

My contribution is relatively simple in comparison:


Erin is here


Present tense. Not past. I’m leaving a little part of myself behind.

I’ll always be here.

“Jesus, it’s freeeezing,” Amara squeals behind me. She can never be alone for long. She knows this, I know this. Silas definitely knows this. She can’t stand being by herself. She slides up next to me and threads her arm through mine, shivering. “Miss me?”

“Always,” I say. The two of us hunch together in our ringside seats to Silas’s séance.

“Everybody sit in a circle,” he says.

He’s brought candles. Of course he has. His backpack is like a one-stop shop for all your supernatural needs. He pulls out the appropriate paraphernalia and gets to illuminating.

“I’m not sitting on somebody’s grave,”Amara snipes—and for once I don’t disagree with her. I can hear the chitinous limbs of insects flexing all around us. Some mile-long centipede is winding up my leg and it won’t stop, no matter how many times I try swatting at it. I’m coming for your cooooch, the centipede utters as it rounds the bend. Coochie-coochie-coooo!

“Come on,” Silas says, snapping me out of it. “Mr. Pool won’t mind.”

“Who’s that?” I ask.

“Ever hear of W. W. Pool? Some call him the Richmond vampire, but that’s just bullshit. He’s really a revenant.”

Amara’s snort reverberates through the tight confines of the crypt.

“Sorry,” she says. “What’s a . . . a reve-whatever . . .”

“Revenant. Someone trapped between the living and dead.”

“Poor him,” I say, my focus drifting to the liquid-like shadows cast by the candles. I don’t feel any wind but they certainly seem to be flickering from some external force, rippling outward.

“Give me a hand,” Silas says to Tobias while running his fingers along the crypt’s marble shutter.

Tobias hops to it without protest. “Yeah, okay.” It’s the most I’ve heard him talk all night.

Silas says help me break into this tomb.

Silas says help me dig up this grave.

Silas says . . .

“Um,” Amara starts, “what’re you doing?”

“I just need to get his tongue.”

“I’m sorry, what? Come the fuck again?”

“They say if you can cut out a revenant’s tongue, you can speak to the dead.” Silas says it so matter-of-factly, as if this is the most normal thing in the world.

“Nope,” Amara says. Her voice bounces off the mausoleum walls. “Goodnight, I’m out.”

“A little too late to back out now, don’t you think?”

“Are you kidding? You never told us we were gonna be chopping off crusty body parts!”

“Would you have come if I had?”

“Hell no!”

I watch from the sidelines as Amara and Silas continue to bicker.

“And why exactly did we have to drop acid for this?” Amara asks.

“Why not?” is Silas’s answer. Always his answer. “It helps with the spiritual connection. There’s somebody I want to talk to.”

His mother, I think. Silas doesn’t say her name out loud. He doesn’t have to. We all know she passed away when he was nine years old. He freely shares that she’d been in a car accident, but I’m the only one who knows Silas was buckled in the backseat when a sixteen-wheeler smashed into their Toyota Matrix on the interstate. Silas told me about their vehicle spiraling through the air, how he lost himself in the vertigo of the moment, how he remembered watching his mother’s hair whip around, fanning around her face as her neck twisted . . . and twisted. Suddenly they were staring at each other, his mother’s bloodshot eyes peering into the backseat through the gap in the headrest, her chin perched between her shoulder blades. Her spinal column had curlicued to the point of near decapitation. The only thing keeping her head physically attached to the rest of her was her corkscrewed skin.

Not that it stopped her from talking. She looked so confused. She didn’t understand what was happening to her. She was already dead by then, but she was still talking to me. Telling me everything was going to be all right. That I was going to be okay. That she loved me.

Silas walked away from the wreck without a scratch. A miracle, he said. That’s when he started believing in ghosts. Always chasing after his mother.

The mausoleum wall has crumbled along the corner. All it takes are a few swift kicks administered by Silas’s heel for it to give away. The rock disintegrates, exposing a casket inside.

“Fuck this,” Amara moans. “Fuuuck this so muuch.”

“You take that side,” Silas instructs Tobias. “Just help me pull.”

The boys are busy busting out some Podunk Dracula or whatever the hell Silas called him, leaving me and Amara to wig out. We both know this is fucked. Amara doesn’t need to convince me, but she’ll blame me because she can’t blame bulletproof Silas, and of course she’d never blame herself.

My attention drifts toward the mausoleum entrance. To the dark pressing in.

“. . . Guys?” Nobody pays attention to me. “Guys!”

“What?” Silas asks. “What is it?”

“Ghosts” is all I can say as I point to the doorway. The cemetery is full of them. Orbs of light wash over the graves. They’re drawing near. Floating our way.

“You see them too, right?” I whisper. “Please tell me you see them.”

“What are they?” Amara asks, awestruck.

“Run,” Silas says.

Silas says . . .

Silas says . . .

Silas grabs my wrist and yanks. My arm snaps taut before the rest of my body is whisked out of the tomb. I can’t look away from the balls of light bouncing through the rows of graves, the ghosts stretching their spectral bodies out farther and farther.

Wait. Those aren’t ghosts.

Flashlights. We’re being chased by cemetery security. Well, fuck a duck. We’re booking it through the world’s most impossible obstacle course. I count three beams behind me. There’s more of us than there are of them, which means maybe one of us will be lucky enough to survive the night.

“Go go go!” Silas shouts over his shoulder.

Amara screams. She’s done for, I know it. There’s no way she’s going to make it. I’ll bail her out later, I promise myself. My parents will fork over the money to spring her from jail. Can you even bail a pal out on your Amex?

Tobias takes the lead. He doesn’t even look back. Fucking long-legged gazelle in drain-pipe jeans. He’s leaping over graves like his life depends on it. Oh shit oh shit oh shit, he pants between each pump of his legs before banking left and vanishing among the headstones. Good as ghosted.

Silas hasn’t let go of my wrist, thank god. I’d be done for without him leading the way, guiding me through the endless maze of graves. I’m thinking far too linearly to be running for my life right now. I want to run straight while the headstones won’t stay in a single-file line.

The cherubs cheer us on, clapping their tiny hands. A granite angel solemnly shakes her head. I can’t help but think of my mom, how disappointed she’d be in me right now.

“Run faster,” Silas says. “Come on, Erin!”

He yanks my arm to the left and it nearly pops out of its socket. Before I can see where I’m falling, we land on the ground. Blades of grass scratch my neck. Silas presses his palm over my mouth and I know I’m supposed to be still, be quiet, but everything inside me is shrieking.

A grave. We’re lying on someone’s grave, hiding behind their tombstone.

I’m trying so hard to hold my breath as a rent-a-cop waddles right on by, key chain jangling. Silas and I cling to each other and squeeze, compressing our bodies together to fit behind the headstone. Even after the guard passes us, we don’t move until we know for certain the coast is clear.

“Think we can make a break for it?” he asks. I inhale Silas’s words. I can taste them on my tongue. The sun will be coming up in a couple hours. We could run or we could . . .

“Stay.” I kiss him so hard that the back of his head hits marble but he doesn’t pull away. I run my fingers through his hair and can feel dead leaves tangled within it. “Stay with me.”

I want to keep hidden within the shadow of the tombstone, our heads pressed against it, chests rising and falling with every frantic breath, hearts never settling, inhales tethering together until we’ve syncopated our exhales, breathing in and out in unison, sharing a pair of lungs.

My hand wanders down his chest and lands on his pants.

“What’re you doing?” he asks.

“What do you think?”

“You sure? I don’t have any protection on me.”


“We have to keep quiet.”

“Very quiet,” I whisper.

Silas’s hand runs down my waist. That’s his hand, isn’t it? It takes a moment for me to realize those aren’t the infinitesimal legs of a centipede lockstepping their way across my skin.

I need to focus on his body. Focus on his flesh. Focus on his hands. I can feel the coarseness of his fingertips as they tunnel beneath my shirt—and for just a moment, I slip out of reality. They’re not his fingers anymore but the squiggly insects that call these coffins home, that squirm through the muck and mud and feast on the flesh of every last corpse in this godforsaken cemetery. Long forgotten starlets. The corpses of dead Confederate generals.

And now me. I’m next. I have this stupid poem running through my head from when I was a kid—the worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, the worms play pinochle on your snout—and now that I’ve thought it, I can’t un-think it.

The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out—

Silas’s fingers burrow their way into my body.

worms crawl in—

I know I’m just buckling under a bad trip, but it doesn’t stop the worms from foraging through my skin. I need to stay focused. Follow Silas through.

worms crawl out—

Silas’s lips mash into mine, but his lips aren’t lips, they’re maggots. I feel one slip in and tumble upon my tongue, down my throat.

worms play—

My zipper exhales. Silas has found what he’s looking for. What I’ve offered. I just have to work through the trip. If I keep my eyes closed, it won’t be so bad. I just have to hold on to Silas.

Hold on . . .

Hold . . .

Now I hear them. All of them below. The dead. We must have woken them. Agitated their eternal slumber. Now they’re moving around, tumbling in their caskets, awake and aware of us writhing above them. I can hear the creaking of their brittle fists and I can’t stop myself from picturing them all jacking off just underneath us, hundreds of bones draped in papery husks, buffeting against the tight confines of their coffins.

We’ve raised the dead. Every last gasp, every slipping sigh that escapes my mouth must send them into a frenzy. They’re cheering Silas on with their parched voices, Go go go!

They want me.

I can’t feel Silas anymore. The second he releases himself inside me, his body loses all of its contours. The entirety of his physical being bursts over me and the thing I’m holding in my arms is no longer flesh but a knot of worms, all of them tangled into one another, writhing against my skin, working their way through me and over me and oh god they won’t stop squirming they’re feeding on me crawling in crawling out playing pinochle on my snout.



Part One: Losing A Friend




I can’t pick up a pulse. There’s no responsiveness. No breath. Vitals all point toward a code blue. It’s going to take a second for the defibrillator to charge up and that’s a second I don’t have. I’m losing him. I can launch into CPR, but I usually save that for the end of the night.

“I hear they’ve got good chicken wings,” Tanner says.

I should just call it. Announce the time of death on this blind date, bag it and tag it before happy hour ends—but no, I’m not giving up. No one dies tonight. Not on my watch.

The waiter finally arrives with my G&T, not a moment too soon. Every sip counts here, so I quickly apply the pads—Clear!—hoping to jolt some life back into this conversation.

“So,” I start.

“So,” he echoes, drumming his fingers against the table.

Nothing. Still can’t hear a heartbeat. I ask the waiter to prep another round of epinephrine, raising my already half-empty glass, the swirling ice clink-clinking inside.

“How do you know Amara?” I ask.


“You’re in catering?”

“No, no. She was catering this thing my company was sponsoring.”

Your company? I didn’t know you—”

“The company I work for.” I think he just blushed. Check out those cheeks! Is Tanner getting sheepish on me? “I spotted her on her smoke break. She got me high in the parking lot.”

Sounds about right. “Amara to the rescue!” I raise my glass in a salute.

“She told me she had a friend she thought I’d be a good match for and . . .”

“. . . Here we are.” I’m surprised that Amara would think Tanner was the right call for me. He’s cute but soft. Not a tattoo on him. Probably gets carded all the time, which no doubt embarrasses him. His clothes are crisp, right off the rack. His cologne competes with the juniper berries in my gin but he bathed, so he’s already a step ahead of the dudes in band tees I tend to cycle through. Plus he knows how to make a reservation.

“You know what this building used to be?” I ask.

“Should I?”

“This used to be part of a plantation house. We’re sitting in the slave quarters.”

I watch Tanner’s Adam’s apple take the plunge.

“Most of the house burned down way before the Civil War. This is all that’s left. The kitchen was on the ground floor. The kitchen slaves slept upstairs, came down to cook for their masters, and then went back upstairs at the end of the day. They hardly ever left the house.”

I look out the nearest window onto Foushee Street. The rest of the block was developed into apartments decades back, but nobody knocked this particular building down—this two-story testament to Richmond’s illustrious history. You can ignore it without trying too hard. There’s a stone engraved with the date 1797 near the entrance, hinting at the building’s past but never describing it outright. Tanner walked by without so much as a glance.

My eyes scan the dining room. Limited seating; ten tables, each occupied by posh patrons. All white. We’re the youngest customers by far. This place just opened so Tanner must’ve pulled a few strings to get us a res. He’s trying hard to impress me, but from the petrified look on his face I can tell he has no idea of the place’s heritage.

That’s Richmond for you. Everywhere you step, there’s another history lesson just under your feet. This whole city’s a graveyard. You’re standing on graves no matter where you go.

“Wow . . . I had no idea. Is that on the restaurant’s website or . . . ?”

I decide to let him off the hook. “I’ve always been fascinated with Richmond’s history. I took a course in college and just kinda kept at it.” I’m not going to go into how enslaved cooks were a point of culinary pride for their masters, that the fried okra appetizer going for fifteen bucks, not to mention the rest of this overpriced menu, has its roots in the culinary traditions of the slaves who cooked for these Richmond dynasties.

“So you’re a closeted historian? I should be taking notes, shouldn’t I?”

This isn’t the best blind date banter. I could simply tell Tanner I prefer not to be defined by my career, which is to say I’m currently in between jobs, gunning for a spot at a lauded advertising agency while spending the summer dicking around at my dad’s law firm as his most prized social media manager.But I’m not here to brag about my office accomplishments, am I?

“I’m a serial killer, actually.”

Tanner locks eyes with me as if this is the first time he sees me.

“Amara and I have this routine”—I continue to fuck with him, now that I have his undivided attention—“she selects rando guys she finds at these catering gigs and gets them stoned, then she’ll casually mention she’s got this friend who she thinks would make a great fit. Then I wine ’em and dine ’em, get them tipsy enough to lower their guard, lure them back to an undisclosed location where Amara waits, and we chop them into tiny pieces together.”

Tanner doesn’t blink. “That’s . . . not what I was expecting.”

“Trust me”—I lean in and whisper—“they never do.”

“So . . .” He leans forward, elbows on the table. “What do you do with the bodies?”

I’m warming up to this guy. “Disassemble them, of course. Dump them in the James.”

“Makes sense.” He smiles. It’s a nice smile, I’ll give him that. “But you can’t just dump them all in one place. You gotta, like, sprinkle them around a bit. Spread them out.”

Tanner has joined in the fun, ladies and gents. “You’ve done this before, haven’t you?”

“Me? Nah . . . My brother was butchered by a pair of serial killers.”

“Oh no! I had no idea.”

“It’s all good. I’ve spent the last year tracking down his murderers. Avenging his death.”

“And you found me! This must be fate.”

He laughs. A genuine laugh. I see him for the first time, what he must’ve looked like as a child. “Meant to be, right?”

And there it is. It’s faint, but I can feel it now. A heartbeat. The ECG picks up the pulse, just the slightest blip on the monitor.

This date may not be so dead after all. “Okay,” I say. “You can live. For now.”


My phone vibrates. I assume it’s Amara checking in. My ribs seize when I see it’s Silas. Not now. I flip my phone over and wade back into our conversation. “So. Ever been on a blind date before?”

“Not really. You?”

“No.” Richmond is small enough that one’s romantic past is public record. You have to leap out of your own social circle to meet someone who doesn’t play in a band with an ex.

“So why’d you come?” Tanner asks.

For the pulse. The quickening heartbeat. I’m bored with my taste in men and, at twenty-four, it’s high time I break free from my bad habits. I’m that fish crawling out from the primordial ooze of my past relationships, ready to shed these exes and walk on my own two feet. To breathe. I need to evolve out of my disastrous love life.

“Amara’s got a pretty good sixth sense for guys, so I trust her judgment,” I lie.

“How’s her sixth sense working tonight?”

“Reply hazy,” I say, doing my best Magic 8-Ball impression. “Ask again later.”

Tanner’s got his fair share of charm, but I’m not totally sold on a second date. I won’t ghost, though. I’m here to, as Amara pleaded, expand my horizons. I need to leave my comfort zone of scruffy drummers and embrace the unknown. No more guitarists. No more suburban revolutionaries in keffiyehs. I never would’ve agreed to a blind date if Amara hadn’t outright begged. She’s like a cat who brought me a dead bird, offering up its bleeding corpse in her mouth.Look, I caught you a tech bro!

“So.” Tanner clears his throat, snapping me back. “Amara says you’re a community organizer?”

That’sthe best she could come up with? Jesus, I’m surprised he agreed to see me.

“In college,” I manage. “Not so much anymore. I used to do a lot of work with local nonprofits that focused on addressing prejudices within the university system—”

Tanner’s eyes cloud over.

“—helped coordinate the social media campaign for—”

I’m losing him again. He’s flatlining on me.

“Do you mind if we skip over the job talk? Even I’m getting bored listening to myself.”

Tanner comes back to life. “You wanna jump straight to the dirty laundry?”

“Yeah. Go for broke, right? Tell me something you’d never tell anyone on a first date.”

“Sounds too risky for my blood.”

“Come on. What’ve you got to lose?”

“Okay, you’re on.” Tanner’s being a good sport. “Ladies first.”

“How chivalrous.” It takes a moment to come up with something worthwhile. Something devastatingly honest. “Okay. Here we go. Ready?”


“I was . . .” Deep breath. “A pageant girl.”

“Get out.”

“Little Miss Confederacy. I was a JonBenét Barbie, complete with the pastel cowgirl hat. Every yearbook picture of me looks like a Glamour Shots spread.” I cringe just thinking about it, but Tanner’s tickled.

“I don’t believe you.”

“It’s true!”

“I’m sorry, but I call bullshit.”

“Why would I lie?”

“I just can’t see it. Got any proof? I want photographic evidence.”

“Not on your life.” I don’t tell him I snapped every tiara I ever won on my tenth birthday. Mom discovered the pile of jewel-encrusted bones in the center of my bedroom. She still hasn’t forgiven me. All those rhinestone ribs. “That’s third date material, if you’re lucky.”

“Man, I had no idea I was on a date with Southern royalty.”

“Don’t let it go to your head.” I’m not going to let on that I’m a direct descendant of General Ambrose Powell Hill Jr. on my dad’s side. I’ve dated creepy guys who actually get off on that Civil War shit. This city is full of legacy gentility types. “Your turn.”

“How can I top that?”

“It’s impossible.”

“All right, I think I got something—"

My phone vibrates again. I flip it over and glance at the caller ID. Silas again.

“You want to answer that?”

“No.” I manage to smile. “Just a friend. Nothing important.”

“It’s no problem, really.”

“No, it’s fine.” I power down my cell and slip it in my purse. “So . . . what’s your secret?”



I convince Tanner to abandon his car and take a walking mural tour with me. This is the real test for potential romance, as far as I’m concerned. Let’s see what he sees out in the streets.

I remember when I first realized there’s a separate, almost parallel account of our city. Everything that’s happened in Richmond is scrawled across the walls of nearly every building. I was stumbling back from a bar one night in college, only to stop dead in my tracks at the image of a Black girl staring down at me. Her face was covered in tears the size of my fists, but there was anger in her eyes. I reached out to touch her and felt the brick beneath her skin. In lacelike, looping spray-painted letters above her head were the words:


justice for kendra


Who was Kendra?

When I got home, I googled around until I found her: Kendra Thomas. Nineteen. Shot and killed at that very spot. No one knew who pulled the trigger and no one was looking—not anymore. Her murder hadn’t even made the local papers, so it was no surprise that I’d never heard her name until now. But Kendra Thomas is still there, hovering over the corner of Grace and North Henry, staring at every car and pedestrian that goes by, insisting that they acknowledge her existence. The mural didn’t ensure justice—there would be none—but its existence meant that Kendra hadn’t been erased yet.

Kendra is here.

There are more murals like this. They’re all around us, waiting for us to bear witness, recording the history no one talks about, enduring even as the city evolves and sheds its skin every few years. The stories behind these murals might not be fully told but the sheer number of them tells me this isn’t the city my parents grew up in. The murals multiply, while the statues of Confederate generals along Monument Avenue are just waiting for the day they’ll be toppled over.

I want to share this version of Richmond with Tanner. I’m curious how he’ll react. Am I feeling, I don’t know, hopeful? Optimistic? It’s been a while since I’ve done this with anyone. Not since—

“Where are you taking me? You were kidding about that whole serial killer thing, right?”

“This. This is one of my favorites.” We stop before an albino octopus that covers the eastern wall of Fan Thrift. Its pale tentacles branch across the broadside of the brick building, curving around the corner, as if squeezing the building. “What d’you think?”

“Wow. Never noticed it before.”

“How could you miss it? It’s as big as the whole building.”

“Guess I never looked.”

“Murals are everywhere. All around you. You just have to look up.”

“Isn’t it illegal? Defacing public property?”

That’s where your mind goes?” Major points taken off for that one, Tanner . . .

“Shit. That was a dumb thing to say, wasn’t it? Can I rewind? Just ten seconds?”

“No take-backs, sorry.”

“It’s just . . . I’ve never been on a date with someone like you before,” he says.

“Like me?”

“You’re . . . Cool?”

Cool? What is this? Sixth grade?”

“Most of the girls I date are—I don’t know. Not like you. You’re different?”

“‘You’re not like other girls’ is not the line you think it is.”

He laughs, turning away from the mural to look at me. He leans in like he’s thinking about making a move, but instead says, “What should I say to get you to go on a second date with me?”

“How about ‘Drinks are on me’?”

We’re closing in on my apartment and I realize it’s do-or-die time. I’ve played a full-on mental tennis match with myself—invite him in, don’t invite him in—when I realize my phone is still off. I turn it on and my phone explodes with texts. Silas. Silas. Silas. I can’t read them all.

There is a voicemail. I mouth just a minute to Tanner and raise the phone to my ear.

Come save me.

That’s the whole message. Less than three seconds. Silas needs someone to rescue him again. Needs me.

I play the voicemail again, just to make sure I heard it right. This tactic is certainly new. He’s never come out and begged for help before. Come save me.

Silas says spring me out of rehab.

Silas says bail me out of jail.

Silas says . . .

“Everything okay?” Tanner asks.

“Fine,” I say. I’m in friendship recovery, I should tell him. “Just dealing with a friend with some boundary issues.” Why does Silas always do this to me? He always expects me to drop everything and come to his fucking rescue.

Does he know I’m on a date?I wonder. Of course not. That’s absurd. He never knows what I’m up to, never cares to ask what’s going on in my life. My life. The thing I’m still trying to get going two years after graduation.

Come save me, he said.

I say goodnight to Tanner in front of my apartment and give him a peck on the cheek. I can tell by his baffled expression that he was hoping for more, but he’s a perfect gentleman when it becomes clear this is where our date ends. We make a few hazy promises. Drinks next week?

“There’s this new sports bar on Franklin I’ve been wanting to check out,” he says, and I hear myself halfheartedly reply, Sure, sounds good. His number is already in my phone, so I tell him I’ll text. I watch Tanner awkwardly turn, like he doesn’t know what to do with his legs anymore. As he walks down the street, I see him glance up at the surrounding buildings and take them in, like he sees them differently—or he’s trying to, anyway.

“Promise you’ll call?” he shouts from the end of the block.

“Cross my heart,” I holler back, dragging my fingers across my chest in an X, even though I can taste the lie across my own tongue. Then he’s gone. Swallowed up by the city.

I text Silas as I head to my car parked just down the block:




rehab is for quitters


How many times have we been down this road? What is this, the tenth—Christ, the hundredth?—time I’ve bailed his ass out? I’ve heard all of his excuses. I’m the one who has been there through his darkest stretches. I took care of him during his worst withdrawals. It’s my couch he crashes on, my money he borrows, even when it’s painfully obvious what he’s really using it for.

A faint rain begins to dapple the windshield. I avoid my reflection in the rearview mirror and focus on the road. If I catch sight of myself I’ll regret it—the accusing stare wrapped in eyeshadow. What the hell am I doing? We’re not kids anymore. Our college days are done. We’re supposed to be adults now, right? Striving to, at least. Only Silas didn’t get the memo.

I turn the radio on. None of this bland pop pap sounds right, so I switch it back off and drive in silence.

While my childhood friends were busy landing football-player boyfriends who would become their husbands, I was shedding my J.Crew skin, dyeing my hair, piercing my nose—all the most obvious forms of teenage rebellion. But nothing scared my parents quite like Silas.

I first spotted him at the crossroads of All-American Avenue and Vagabond Boy Lane our freshman year. He had a Rimbaud-quarterback build, strong without being brutish, muscular without being brawny. A real Sal Paradise knockoff. I fell prey to his smile, just like everyone else did. That devilish grin—always looking like he was up to no good. The cat who ate the goddamn canary, smirking with a stray feather still clinging to his bloody lips. He was utterly unlike the boys who manhandled me in high school. Silas possessed a restless spirit, always searching, yearning for more more more. He made me feel alive when everything else in my life up till that point had left me for dead.

Our relationship flared up fast and burned out just as quickly. We spent most of freshman year breaking up, making up, and repeating it all over again. Sophomore year, too. Even when our relationship was done for good, our friendship never faded. We became closer, actually, as if we just needed to plow through the romantic BS to finally reach the real core of our kinship. There were always persistent whispers behind our backs about whether or not we were still sleeping with each other. He loved fueling those rumors. Let them talk, he’d say. Our friendship goes deeper than that.

I wanted to see myself the way Silas saw me. When he laid his eyes on me, nothing else existed. There was just me and him, the here and now and those breaths in between.

Amara and Tobias felt it, too. We were all under his spell.

Then we graduated.

Now we’re stranded in that liminal space between childhood and adulthood, which most days feels like being stuck somewhere between the living and the dead. Amara moved back in with her parents so she could shovel her way out of student debt. Tobias has twenty roommates in some dingy apartment I’ve never been invited to. He’s plodding away at some brain-dead temp job while Amara has her soul-sucking waitressing gig. Careers with no consequence, if you can call them careers.

I have chosen survival at whatever cost. Any writerly ambitions I might’ve had after graduating—which, let’s be honest with ourselves here, was never going to happen—have long since faded. I’m just trying to land an entry-level job at the McMartin Agency and buy the independence I’ve been dreaming of.

That includes letting go of Silas. Living in his orbit has always been exhausting. What burned as bright as the sun all through our undergrad years now feels like a black hole. I keep getting dragged back into the gravitational pull of his bullshit. His nü-beatnik existence always defied the rest of our conventional career paths. At first, I used to think if he could succeed—and by succeed I mean just be him, just live his life and write—then maybe I could exist vicariously through him. It became my postgrad project to take care of Silas. I took it upon myself to ensure his survival at whatever cost, even if that meant protecting Silas from himself.

But I’m tired. I’m done being his lifeline. I can’t keep doing this. By the time I pull off the interstate, closing in on the Wawa, I’ve made up my mind. This is it. No more bailouts.

I never know what he’s on most on the time. I don’t want to know. Don’t ask, don’t tell is our policy now. I always spot the paraphernalia falling out of his pockets—a charred spoon, a lighter with rehab is for quitters printed on its side, burnt asteroids of tinfoil with a gummy black tar clinging to their crumpled cores—the totems of his own decline. His addiction shouldn’t have come as a surprise to any of us. Silas always wanted to experience everything. That drugs entered the fold was just the natural progression of things.

I know how awful that sounds. That we’re all—that I’m—resigned to Silas’s fate somehow. But sometimes the best kind of help a friend can offer is to just stop helping. I’ve tried everything else. Silas keeps contaminating everything he touches, like a bacterial infection spreading throughout our circle.

His younger sister finally convinced him to go to rehab when no one else could. It’s just been the two of them ever since their mother died. Silas is the only family Callie has at this point. Somehow she got Silas to enroll in a no-frills twenty-eight-day residential treatment program. A cage with no bars. By my count, he’s barely made it through the first three days—a new record for him—before stealing back his phone.

Come save me.

I light a cigarette and roll down my window a crack to let the smoke out. Rain dapples my forearm. There’s the Wawa sign up ahead. Better script out what I’m going to say to Silas:

I can’t do this anymore . . .I’m sorry. I need to move on with my life.

I keep reciting the litany like it’s a spell. I spot a gauzy form through the windshield as I pull into the Wawa lot. The wipers sweep over the glass, parting the veil of rain, revealing him.


I spring up in my seat, gripping the wheel with both hands. The rush is instantaneous. After all these years, even now, just the sight of him is enough to send a flood of blood straight through me.

He steps into my car’s headlights. He’s completely drenched. His stringy hair covers his face. He’s carrying a plastic shopping bag, a yellow smiley face printed on its side: thank you for shopping with us. He’s barefoot. Wet leaves cling to his feet. He doesn’t look like Silas. Doesn’t feel like him somehow. He’s gotten worse, as if he has atrophied in rehab.

“Where are your shoes?” I ask as he opens the door and jumps in.

“You don’t see them?”

I glance over my shoulder. “. . . See who?”

“Nothing? Nothing at all?”

“I don’t see any—”

“Never mind. Just go. Go go goooo.” He punctuates each go by smacking the armrest.

I pull out of the parking lot, suddenly worried the police are on his tail—that this is actually some kind of jailbreak and I’m his goddamn getaway driver.

“You wouldn’t believe that place. Fucking religious nutjobs sitting in a circle, talking about accepting Christ into their life. Such a con. You realize that, right? They pull you in with these promises of getting better but it’s really just a front for converting you. Once you sign in, they don’t hide it anymore. They just keep the God talk out of it until you’re stranded. Then it’s all tambourines and prayers and—”

“Where are we going?”

He glances over his shoulder, checking to see if we’re being followed. “Your place?”

“What’s wrong with your apartment?”

“Home’s in flux. It’s safer at your pad.”


“Less static. Less interference.” He keeps peering into the side mirror. Objects in mirror are closer than they appear. The headlights from passing cars streak through our windows.

I can’t help but think, I ditched Tanner for this? I could still be out, at least striving to have the quasi–time of my life, but instead, I’m stuck carting Silas’s soaking-wet ass back to my apartment before he freezes to death. “Callie will be worried if we don’t—”

“She’s dead to me. Fucking witch. Anyone who would—who would do that to their own brother? And call it love? Fuck that. That’s not love. She doesn’t understand what I’m trying—”

“That’s not true. She just wants you to be—”

“Look out!” Silas’s attention locks onto something outside of the windshield. He braces himself for impact, as if there’s something in the middle of the highway, but nothing’s there.

“What?” I shout. “What is it?”

Silas spins around to look out the rear window. “Did you . . . ? Did you see that?”

“See what? I don’t see anything!”

Another car passes us, its high beams illuminating his wild eyes. “Pull over.”

“We’re on the highway!”

“I need to get out. Now.” He’s already opening his door as the car clocks in at sixty-five fucking miles an hour on the rain-slicked interstate. I’m in the middle lane of a three-lane highway at eleven at night and he’s about to leap.

“Silas! Stop!” I have to veer to the right to reach the shoulder before he jumps. A horn blares behind us as I cut off another car. We swerve onto the far shoulder, gravel shredding the chassis’s underbelly before I suddenly skid, dovetailing back onto the interstate.

“Are you crazy?! You’re gonna—”

Pulloverpulloverpullover!” Something in his voice—the sudden rush of words, the fury that fills the cabin—frightens me. I course-correct the car and pull over. We barely come to a stop before the door flies open and Silas tumbles onto the gravel. He lands on his hands, then springs to his feet.

“What the hell are you thinking? You could’ve—”

But he’s not listening. He leaves his door open and bolts. The steady rush of traffic flies by, high beams sweeping over his body.

“Silas, where are you—”

I put the car in park and turn the hazards on—orange lights pulsing with a click-click-click—then reach over the passenger side seat to close his door.


By the time I sit up, Silas has climbed over the barrier and is entering the woods that surround the interstate, the happy-faced shopping bag bobbing along behind him. Where are his shoes? Why isn’t he wearing shoes?

“SILAS!” I scream.

But it’s too late. He’s gone.

Fuck this, I think. I can’t do this anymore. I’m done. Fucking through. No more saving Silas. Let him save himself. Or kill himself. I don’t care anymore. I just don’t fucking care.

Here’s the straw, here’s the camel’s back. Listen to it snap like a goddamn bone.



When Callie calls, I pretend I don’t know what she’s talking about. I lie to her about breaking Silas free and releasing him back into the wilds of Richmond. I feel bad about it but I’ve been down Relapse Avenue with Silas before. He’s always managed to pull himself out, hasn’t he? He’s stronger than his addiction—or that’s what I want to believe.

Silas has to survive himself. No one else can save him.

Ican’t save him. Not anymore.

When he knocks on my door at three a.m.—poof, materializing out of thin air—I still can’t get over how little I recognize him. The flesh under his eyes has a sallow tint. His hair is wirier than before. This bag of skin and bones is supposed to be my friend.

He cups my face with both hands and presses his lips to my forehead. “Hey, Li’l Deb.” Deb, as in debutante. Funny, right? “Mind if I crash here tonight?”

Before the synapses in my brain fire off—I don’t think that’s a good idea, Silas—he pushes his way into my apartment. He’s still got his smiley-faced plastic bag with him.

“I’m fixing myself,” he starts right in, giving me the same spiel he always does. “I’m getting my shit together. I just need somewhere to stay . . . Somewhere I’m not alone.”

Just say no, I hear Nancy Reagan’s voice in my head. Silas isn’t the only addict here, and you need to focus on your own recovery. Go cold turkey. Let Silas go.

Say it.


“Okay,” I say, opening my home up to him even though he’s already inside.

“I swear I’m going to get better. Hand to god. You believe me, right?”

“Yeah,” I manage.

He’s already passed out by the time I walk into my living room. His shirt has slid up, exposing his prominent ribs against waxen skin.

I can’t tell if he’s still breathing or not, so I take a step closer. Just waiting for him to inhale. To see his chest rise. Fuck, I think as I lean in, please tell me he didn’t OD on my couch—

His breath catches. I leap back, my heart racing.

Tomorrow, I’ll call Amara and Tobias and beg for their help. His friends will be there for him this time. The ol’ undergrad gang back in action. Silas needs us.

Needs me.

But this is a ghost story. A ghost is someone caught in a loop, doomed to repeat the same actions over and over again. So who’s the real ghost here? Who’s haunting who?

Through it all, I still believe—need to believe—he is finally, finally turning a corner, even though I know that Silas is long gone now. He’s no longer the Silas we all knew.

What’s left of our friend is nothing more than a shadow of his former self. A phantom.

Silas was a ghost long before he passed away.

Excerpted from GHOST EATERS by Clay McLeod Chapman. Reprinted with permission from Quirk Books.

Ghost Eaters
by by Clay McLeod Chapman