Haunted

"I thought I might find you here."

Her figure appeared amidst the gravestones, the daylight dying at her back. Shadows streaked across the ground, casted from the tree trunks and reaching to the eastern horizon. Everything westward was silhouette, having shape but not texture. It was impossible to make out what she was wearing- clothing or expression.

She reached my foot and paused. Her head turned a little, staring at the grave by which I lay sprawled.

"Does it help, to visit her?"

I shook my head.

"Painful."

"Then why do it?"

"If I didn't have the pain, I'm not sure I would feel anything at all."

"Mm. How sad. Come home." She offered her hand. I took it and pulled, urging her to join me on the ground. She resisted, insisting I rise. I was stronger and in this case more stubborn, and so won out. She alighted by my side with a sigh. We sat in silence for a few long minutes, watching pale lights flicker between the gravestones- probably Duskull.

"Do you think I'm a loser?" I asked.

"Do you really need that answered?"

"I do. With honesty."

A pause for consideration.

"I think you are lost," she answered.

Another pause, mine.

"That's fair," I decided. "Indulgent, maybe."

"What's bothering you? The same old thing, or something new?"

"Both. It's converged this time."

"Tell me," she urged, grabbing my hand in hers. That was her way of insisting I open up, as if the physical connection would become a conduit for an emotional connection. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes.

How do you describe a feeling? I could sum it up in one word, like "dread" or "sorrow", but that's oversimplifying it, and would only net me a simple response. Not something I needed at the moment. Words, words, I'm supposed to be good with words. Think.

"It's hard for me to keep in mind everything I've got. Mom. Dad. You. The Gym. Friends. Health, money, talent, Pokemon. There's no sane reason why I should feel this way. Everything good keeps fading away, hard to remember. Like, coins in a wishing well. I keep casting these valuable things into the hole, hoping they'll return me happiness, but nothing happens."

"I understand what you are saying. You know it upsets me."

"Because it sounds like I don't appreciate you."

"Yes. I love you and trust you but I need you to return that trust. It hurts that I can't make you happy."

"Asking for happiness might be stretching it." I grasped her hand tighter. "Just keep being there for me. It helps. Keeps me thinking I'll have you forever."

"You don't think we'll last?"

"You know my fears. Of course losing you would be the biggest."

"Why don't you use your gift? To find out?"

She just had to bring that up.

"I don't like talking about that. It upsets me," I told her.

"No. It's about time you told me the truth about it."

I was staring at the blackening sky. She lifted her free hand to my cheek and forced me to face to her. In the darkness, the only thing I could make out of her face was the soft glow reflecting off her irises. Most people have a hard time being evasive when confronted face-to-face, eye-to-eye. She knew I had a far harder time than most.

"It ruins the fun of things," I said weakly.

"I don't believe that. Remember how I reacted when you first told me?"

She thought it was funny when I first shuffled a deck of cards and read them to her, one by one, going through the whole stack of fifty-two without taking a glance. "You're a magician!" she exclaimed. Then I started telling her things about her past she had never told anyone, and that got her attention. When I predicted she would slap me and then run crying into her room and cuddle with her childhood stuffed animal, it started our first and only fight, which ended exactly as I said it would.

"I think you're scared of what you might see," she asserted.

"That's not it," I countered.

"Then why?"

I sighed and bowed my head. Our clasped hands intertwined. I felt the warmth in her palm, and also the cold hardness on her finger. We've passed enough secrets between one another. I trust her. I love her. That's why I gave her the ring. She already knows who is buried here, and what they mean to me. So it's no use keeping these other hellish secrets to myself.

"Once upon a time I was a spoiled little brat who insisted I didn't have to go to a grown-up get-together. They told me that was okay, I just had to stay home and look after Uncle Deimos. Uncle hadn't been feeling well and everyone was worried about him. My mother made me promise to watch him and call if anything went wrong. I agreed.

Then my buddy called and said they had gotten a lead on a Misdreavus who'd been pranking the neighborhood. We'd been chasing this Pokemon for three months; it was always causing trouble, spooking old ladies, ransacking the trash, tangling up laundry lines, the works. I made a bet to my friends I would catch it one day. So when he called and said they had it trapped at the park playground, I really wanted to go. But I knew there would be hell if I left Uncle Deimos and something happened. So I cheated.

I took a peep using my gift, and what I saw was my uncle sleeping on the recliner. He looked okay, he was breathing. I convinced myself that everything would be fine, that I could sneak off for a bit, catch my first Pokemon, get back before anyone noticed, and nothing bad would come of it."

"Something did come of it," my fiancé guessed.

My chest quivered. The memory was difficult to handle.

"I came home and found everyone around Uncle Deimos. He wasn't moving."

Another, longer pause. It was toil, to try to recall these moments and then rationally organize them into a narrative without breaking down into tears.

"What I had seen was my uncle in a coma. He suffered a stroke while I was out playing. They managed to keep his body going for another three weeks, but," I shook my head, "the damage was done; his mind was already gone."

She squeezed my hand and arm.

"No one blamed me. There was nothing I could have done, even if I had been there to call an ambulance right away. It wasn't my fault. I know that, I cognate that, I understand it intellectually. None of that helps."

I patted the chest area over my heart in emphasis.

"The truth is, I trust my visions to be accurate. I do not trust myself to interpret them properly. There's always going to be that human element. It all gets filtered through my ego. What really scares me is if I ever saw something like that again, but with the chance to do something about it. How do I know I won't end up causing the vision to come true? Or change the way things are supposed to be by interfering? Those kinds of possibilities terrify me. It's too much of a responsibility for an idiot like me. I'd rather not use this gift- this curse- at all."

"I see. I understand."

"And?"

"You call yourself an idiot, but I don't think so," she said. "I think it shows you are humble."

"Me, humble?" I got a chuckle out of that.

"And wise."

"I'm not wise. Clever, but not wise," I insisted. "He's here, you know."

"What's that?"

"Uncle Deimos." In my long sojourn by the grave I had idly collected a heap of twigs, stacking them together like a teepee. I picked one up and flicked it, nicking a grave three rows over. "There he is."

"Oh."

"Grandma too." I sent another twig twirling into the darkness, hearing but not seeing it glance off a gravestone. "And Alan. And Grandpa Nate. And Aunt Ether…" My voice trailed off. It's no use naming everyone.

"They're all here?"

"Pretty much."

She stared at me for the longest moment.

"What?" I blurted out, a little unnerved.

She spoke up, soft but accusing in tone.

"Morty, after everything you've been through, I don't understand. You surround yourself with the dead. Why?"

"Why? Hmm. I guess it's because I want to feel closer to them. Trying to commune with their spirits, you know?" She's not buying that answer. "No? Okay, then, the real reason is I can't stand the living. They don't know what it's like, can't understand what I've been through. It hurts too much to be around their cheery-ass faces." No response, she doesn't like that explanation either. I could hear her impatience in the shortness of her breaths. "It's comforting," I admitted at last.

"Mm?"

What more am I supposed to say?

Memories drifted through my head. The crass joke I had perpetrated upon senior prom a few years back came to mind. From the memory of that lone act of idiocy came a thought, then more tangential thoughts, and then the words started flowing out with ease.

"Out there, I feel- what's a word- I guess- disturbed." That's one way to put it. "When I'm around people, I feel a lot of pressure to be happy and upbeat. I want to make others laugh. Sometimes it comes off as rude and insensitive. It's hard for me to sense where others' boundaries are, because I've been dragged so far past my own I don't recognize them anymore. That's okay, though. If they get mad, let them get mad at me. I hope it makes them feel better about themselves. If they think I'm funny, even better. Let joy reign.

What I can't stand is to see someone else in pain.

I don't know why. I guess I do. It's complex.

I empathize too much with their pain. It hurts me in a deep, personal way that doesn't make any sense; it's not my life, not my tragedy, but I feel for them all the same. They remind me of myself, force me to feel the pity, shame, and all the other feelings I don't want to deal with anymore. It makes me less sure of the world, whether there's any natural goodness in it. To be honest, I resent them for interrupting my escapist fantasy."

I took a slow, sweeping glance of the cemetery. There wasn't much to see, just black blobs.

"When I'm here, I feel like I belong. Acceptance. That's it." I smirked. Found the right word at last. "I feel accepted here. No need to play a part, or hide anything. The dead don't judge."

I expected her to rebuke me. Or at least, say something. For a while, though, she just sat and tilted her head up, stargazing.

"You're judging me, aren't you?"

"Do you believe in God?" she asked out of the blue.

"No." -my automatic, candid answer.

"Or anything? Heaven? Reincarnation? Souls? Spirits?"

What is she getting at?

"I wish I did," I answered with a sigh. "I really wish I could believe. I have tried, chasing down every hint of paranormal activity, every little rumor in a hundred mile radius. It's all a farce. Nothing that can't be explained by science. Most sightings are just Ghost Pokemon."

"I see. That explains your obsession with that hobby."

"Yeah." Another breath, this one deep. "I have no faith."

"I see."

She began speaking in that soft, lucid, matter-of-fact way that only she can pull off.

"You are surrounded by death, Morty. Most people would run away, and desperately stave off the thought of the end. They would choose to cherish the memories of when the deceased were still alive and full of life. It is a legacy of happiness that is passed on, one to another, throughout the ages, that sustains hope even in those with no faith. Yet you reject that hope. You come here and surround yourself with the dead. You dwell on the end, and what is missing.

In daylight you don the mask of carpe diem, and everyone sees your irresponsible, fun-loving attitude and assumes that is you. As if you've taken to heart the notion we can draw meaning by the transient joys of living. In the night, though, the question of permanence always returns, and you cannot escape the inevitability of it all ending."

"Mmm."

"Am I right?"

"You're always right," I replied.

"You're scared, aren't you?"

I didn't answer.

"Lay down," she commanded.

She had me recline onto the grass. She joined me, the both of us laying supine upon the earth. The air was growing cold, the earth colder. It had been a warm day, but fall was right around the corner. It wouldn't be long before it was too cold to remain here. Above us, the light had failed completely. All that was left was Ecruteak's feeble glow; the old city did not suffer from light pollution as badly as Goldenrod or Olivine. The brightest stars began twinkling into existence one by one.

She raised her hand and pointed to the sky. Her outstretched finger painted doodles in the air. I realized she was tracing constellations.

"There you are. Altair. Deneb. And Vega."

I wondered what she was getting at and waited in silence for an explanation. Instead I got more questions.

"What is a star?"

"A sun that's much farther away," I guessed.

"I was expecting a scientific answer."

"I'm not an astrophysicist."

"True." Her hand fell to the grass. "A star is a collection of high energy hydrogen atoms, subject to such extreme pressure that they spontaneously undergo nuclear fusion, yielding helium, light, and other radiation. That is basically all a star is."

My focus was fixed upon the star she had formerly been pointing to. It was nothing but a glittering pinprick against the darkness of space.

"That's Vega. The photons born in its womb escaped twenty-five years ago and are just now reaching us. The image of Vega we are seeing is older than we are. We are essentially looking back in time. For us, tiny and insignificant as we are, it's awe inspiring, isn't it?"

"I guess." I shrugged.

"You guess. From the sounds of it, you don't really care."

She's spot on.

"And that's just it. From our perspective, it doesn't really matter what happened long ago and far away. In the grand scheme of things, it's not all that spectacular either. The laws of physics are in play. From the birth of the universe, it was pre-determined that Vega's light would reach us here, and we would be here to witness it. Every last one of the infinite particles that make up the universe are set in their course. There is no reason or meaning in any of it. Nothing inherent, nothing of agency, nothing of mystery."

"I don't get it."

"Can a star feel? Can it think?"

"No. It's just a bunch of gases, like you said."

"How do you know that?" she asked.

"Because. It's science. Stars don't have brains or neurons."

"So?"

"Um…"

"How is it that we can think and feel, and know we exist?"

"Because we have brains."

"But are not brains merely an overly complex mass of atoms? How can we believe we have the ability to affect change? How are we self-aware? After all, everything is supposed to be predetermined. Hey Morty, do you believe I have feelings?"

"Yeah. Of course."

"How can you know that?"

"Observation."

"Assumption. I act in a certain way and you compare that with your own understanding and experiences and assume it is equivalent. But you can't know. You can't see inside my brain. What about a Pokemon?"

"Huh?"

"Do you think they are self-aware?"

"I guess, probably?"

"What about a computer A.I.?"

"No, they're not self-aware."

"Why not?"

"Because…"

I didn't have proof.

"Morty. This will be hard to accept, I know. But you should know- everything is alive."

I tilted my head to the side, facing her. She was still gazing at the stars.

"Vega is alive, it is itself. It does not meet our concept of sentience, but it still exists within itself. It even gains a measure of awareness, because we observed its light and comprehend it. Even your Uncle Deimos is alive. He lives in our memory. Who is to say that Deimos cannot feel and cannot be conscious, in some small way, even as an imprint upon our neurons? It's no more preposterous than a mass of cells having self-awareness in the first place."

"But that's all he would be, an imprint. He doesn't have his own brain, so he can't be happy, or form his own memories, or anything like that."

"Is that what you're going to define as 'alive'?"

"I don't want to be an impression. I want to keep loving and experiencing things forever. I don't want that part of me to end."

She remained silent.

Her hand wandered over and gripped mine.

I felt like I had, for once, gotten through to her, and convinced her of a truth. It was a horrible feeling. I wish it hadn't been this truth, the ultimate, that won me an argument. This was the one I desperately wished she could refute.

"Say something," I begged.

"I'm sorry," she said.

"Phoebe…"

"I'm so sorry."

She shook her head. Is she crying?

"I can't help you. I want to, but I can't."

"All we have to comfort ourselves is fantasy," I muttered. I started reciting them in my head:

The fantasy of the moment, ignoring the end and living and having fun right now.

The fantasy of legacy, the prideful cognizance that we can impress our ego upon future generations.

The fantasy of delusion, the unfounded hope that our conscious will be preserved in some intangible form once the biological system that hosts it perishes.

The fantasy of despair, the conviction that life itself is so unbearable that even oblivion is preferable.

"I never had a good imagination," I said.

Phoebe shifted onto her elbows, looking like she was about to get up and leave. On impulse, I gripped her hand, not letting it go. She noticed and paused midway through rising.

"Stay with me," I begged.

Her chest rose and fell in breath five times as she held still. At last she lay back and rejoined me.

Stars and satellites wandered across the heavens. I focused on a singular dot representing some distant world as it lay motionless in space. Nothing happened and nothing happened, and yet the dot disappeared, falling out of my line of vision. Who knows how much time must pass for the earth to spin beneath the sky and carry the image of a star away out of sight? A long time, I suppose.

I flexed my arm. It was bare and, I realized very suddenly, stiff from the cold. I placed it across my chest, affording one side the comfort of my core warmth. The movement stirred Phoebe, prompting her to speak.

"Morty, do you care about me?"

"Yes. Of course."

"Why?"

I brought my arm up to my face, hand over brow.

"What you said on Mt. Pyre, about how the dead can live on in our memory, I thought it was really beautiful. It comforted me at the time."

"Those words didn't last, though. You're back where you started."

"I can't just accept any of these beautiful theories. It all gets twisted back in my head, back to that one end. But I remember that, for a little while, I can be fooled into thinking there's more to it. I remember that you were responsible for those precious moments, and for being able to bring me that faint solace, I love you."

Images of the lost flittered through my mind, slowly regressing, giving way to those I still have. Mom, dad, Phoebe, and the rest.

"I know it looks like I have an obsession with death. I probably do. Hard to deny it. But that doesn't mean I'm rejecting the ones I still have. It's the complete opposite. I want to hold onto them even tighter. I'm afraid of losing you all. I really care for you."

"Morty." She reached over and took my hand, pulling on it. "Would you live for me?"

I managed to crack a smile, a cracked smile, finding it funny but also sad that she would have to ask such a thing.

"I'm not going to off myself. I wouldn't dream of it. That would hurt you too much."

"So you love me enough to care about life, don't you?"

"Yeah."

"Then, there is one way to keep you vested in life, and get you to believe in the future, even in the face of the inevitable."

"How?"

She tugged, pulling my hand over to her and clasping it in her own. Her delicate fingers pried mine apart, manipulating them open. She placed my palm against her stomach and hugged it tight.

"One day, I'll show you," she said.

A shiver ran up my arm, through my chest, and down into my gut.

She says that like it's nothing.

I stood up, and then helped her up. She puts on a brave front, but I can tell she's shivering. I wrapped my arm around her shoulder and pulled her close.

"Hey Phebes."

"Hmm?"

"Sometimes, I think there has to be a God, or something like him. A mindless universe couldn't possibly have brought someone like you into my life."

"I love you too."

I leaned down and gave her a brief kiss. We ended up staring down at the grave together.

"So… you really think I could be a…"

"Why did you give me this ring if you weren't ready?"

"Because I wanted to let you know I want to spend the rest of my life with you. I wasn't thinking farther than that. I'm not sure if I'm cut out for the job. You're right, I think it would help me make sense of things, give me a reason to hope. I would love to… except for…" my voice drifted off.

"Her," Phoebe said, nodding to the grave.

"I don't want to risk going through that again. I don't want another reason to come here."

"Why do that to yourself? Did she mean that much to you?"

"In a way, yeah."

"You never really knew her. There's nothing to mourn."

"I mourn for what could have been."

"But doing that, you're holding on to nothing but regrets. Not even guilt, there was nothing you could do."

"I know, and yet…" I grasped for the words I wanted to say.

"Everything is as it was meant to be. The stars' light reaching us, you losing her, even the future and what you do going forward are all set. Yet, we're subjective, we can't comprehend the infinite complexity of the universe, and so we have the illusion of choice. You can't keep dwelling on things you cannot change. Just live out your existence, and go forward. Be the agent of your own happiness. Let go of your regrets."

I sighed. Her pleas are hurting me by bringing clarity to my torment. The emotional pain swirling in my mind spiked, but so did my comprehension. My thoughts came streaming out, this time crystalline.

"I have so many regrets. Things that have caused me terrible pain. Some were circumstances I had no control over whatsoever." I gestured to the grave. "Others were mistakes I made that I cannot take back. I'll have to live with the consequences for the rest of my life."

"I can-" I gave her a squeeze to interrupt her so I could finish.

"There is one regret I have, one of the hardest for me to come to terms with. Except, unlike the others, I can change this one. I have a choice to try to make it right."

"What is it?"

"There was someone I cared about. Someone I hurt. I want to fix them, to give them the happiness they deserve, the life they would have had if I hadn't messed it up."

Her face came to mind, the unhappy, pained expression I had left her with, the uncertainty in her voice as I answered her final question. A sudden mental juxtaposition racked my brain- I saw her curled up underneath the earth before me. I'd known for a long time now I was making this mental equivalency between the two of them, but the stark image in my imagination hit me harder than expected. I choked.

"Are you okay?" Phoebe looked up to me. I had to grip her shoulder to keep from falling. A shake of the head was needed to assuage her. "Who is it? How did you hurt her?"

You have to tell her. She is the one you love. You need her permission for something like this.

"I met an old friend at the Gym Leader Summit," I began. "Her name is Jasmine."

End