There are worse ways to die. You keep telling yourself that.
You're running out of oxygen, struggling but unable to make a sound, any sound. The man has both of his hands hands clamped around your throat, and even as you dig your nails uselessly into the flesh of his wrists, you know it's already over. You are going to die here, in this red minivan, and the last thing you are going to hear is Professor Oak's Pokémon Talk on the radio because your attacker is completely silent. His face is impassive and blank hovering above yours. Terrifying.
Still, this is hardly the worst way to die. When he'd dragged you off the sidewalk and into his car, you'd expected far worse.
And just like that, you're out of time. The colors bursting in front of your eyes fade to black and your arms fall limply to the upholstery, but the man doesn't let go of your throat until long after you've lost consciousness, long after you've lost your body.
You are dead at eleven and a half.
There is pressure, there is strain, there is the sound of something cracking and then there is release and light. And then there is a voice.
"Are you a boy? Or are you a girl?"
"There's no way to tell. It's just a ball of gas."
You blink wide eyes and try to adjust to the sudden brightness. There are two things-that-are-not-you peering down at you, but you don't fear them. They are much larger than you and very familiar somehow, with tanned skin and brown hair at the top of their heads.
Mother. Father. The names come to you automatically—from instinct or something deeper, you have no idea. Do you look like them? Is that important? The one with longer hair and a higher voice scoops you up in her hands and you half-feel the touch, squirming experimentally and finding your movements strangely fluid.
"Hey, there, little one," she says, her voice subdued. Dismayed, you wonder if she is unhappy, and if so, why. You press in closer to her hands but your body spreads out instead of curling in, spreading out over her palms. She smiles a bit when you recompose your body and look up at her, but then she drops her hands to her sides. You remain floating in the air, however, and this doesn't make you afraid either.
"I wasn't expecting a ghost-type," says the other one. They are human, you think, and you realize that you knew this information all along. The one who held you is female. The other is male.
"That's kind of a sick joke," the female says, matter-of-factly, but she doesn't seem quite so sad as she was a moment ago.
"She did say she had no idea what was in the egg. She just found it abandoned somewhere," the male offers. You turn to look at him. Something about him feels…helpless, like he isn't sure what to do. You think it might be your fault.
"I can't. I just can't," she says, quietly, raising one hand toward you again. You both shudder as her fingers graze the outer layer of gas comprising your body—she from a chill, you from ticklishness—and she pulls her arm away. "I thought it might be nice, while we were still coping, but I just can't. Not a Gastly."
"Then what do we do?"
Soon after that they call a boy to come and get you.
You are in a pokeball, but you can hear the voices of Mother and Father as they explain to him that it's been a very difficult time for them, that they really just need someone to step in and help them because this kind of responsibility just doesn't factor on the radar for them right now. They also say that he has always been such a blessing for their family. They also say that maybe you (when they say 'Gastly,' they mean you) can help him the way you couldn't help them. That part hurts, but at least they are trying to make sure that someone wants you.
It works, because although you never hear a word from him while Mother and Father are talking, a new hand closes around your pokeball when they finish.
The boy walks for a time before releasing you. The two of you are outside, at a playground, and you look around curiously for a minute at the grass and the plastic climbing structures before turning back to your new owner.
"Hey there, little one," he says sadly, and you wonder, for a scared moment, if he is eventually going to get rid of you too. "I've never done this before, so I can't promise to be a good trainer. I've never had my own pokemon before."
You analyze him. His hair is a lighter shade of brown than Mother's and especially Father's, and he is shorter than both of them. His clothes are nicer than theirs were, less worn, with no fraying threads. You examine his eyes: they are blue, sad but kind. You like him. You almost feel like you know him.
"There was no way I could leave you with them," he says, reaching with one hand to graze the top of your body with his fingertips. Unlike the woman, he doesn't pull his arm away at the chill. "They couldn't take care of a pet rock."
He feels familiar and safe, so you don't hesitate to curl up and around his arm, twisting your gaseous body into a bizarre embrace as he drops to his knees and begins to sob.
Neil—the name of your new trainer—needs some time to get away from everything, as he explains to his mother while you float solemnly over his shoulder. She looks at him with helpless eyes, and you wonder if every human suffers like this. None of them seem happy. You like being a Gastly.
The two of you leave.
You find out that pokemon training is difficult. Neil has started much too late at fourteen years old, it seems, and it is hard to find trainers the two of you stand a chance against. But he refuses to catch any other pokemon besides you, and that makes things easier, because you grow quickly and it saves money to only have two mouths to feed.
The trainers whose pokémon you battle are mainly seven-, eight-, nine-year-olds too young to go out on real journeys for themselves; their pocket money keeps the two of you fed and alive. Everyone looks on disapprovingly for those battles, but you don't mind because their judgment feels somehow familiar as well. And not even children can break the rules: if you are challenged to a battle, you must accept.
Neil hates being a bully, but anything is better than going home, he says. And he never picks the children who look like they really do need the money for themselves.
The battles are sometimes painful, but there are worse ways to live. There is so much pride in Neil's smile when you finally evolve into a Haunter that it all seems worth it, somehow. And when you fight, an unfamiliar but welcome feeling of power courses through your intangible body—you don't feel pathetic or weak or helpless, not then.
It is not long after that when Neil decides to trade you.
Just for a second, he insists frantically, seeing the fear in your eyes. Just for a second, and then you'll get traded back. It's the only way you'll evolve.
He finds a trainer with a Kadabra who is willing to cooperate, and the four of you go to a pokemon center. Neil has assured you that everything will be fine, and you trust him, but you also know that he's secretly hiding a knife under his jacket just in case the other trainer tries to run before trading back. You don't know what in his life has happened to make him so paranoid, so protective, but you are here now, you aren't going anywhere, and you hope that will be enough.
Using a piece of equipment at the center, Neil and the other trainer switch your place with the Kadabra's. The overwhelming, amazing sensation of evolution overtakes your body once more, and when the trade is complete you are a Gengar, fierce and feeling infinitely stronger.
You're stranger than I had anticipated, Alakazam muses, twirling a spoon in her thin fingers. She is newly evolved as well. Her original trainer, a chipper girl with six badges, is idly chatting with Neil while the two of them wait for the machine to cool down again for further use. They don't notice you two talking. Your spirit is a bizarre little lost thing, isn't it?
You don't know what she means.
You're clearly not a true Gengar, not in your soul. Pokémon spirits are wild and thrill-seeking, but you are sad like a human would be, she says, examining you closely. Tell me, do you ever play tricks on your trainer? On other humans?
Why would you do that? It's rude. It's pointless.
You are no ghost pokémon, she says, and you sense that this somehow makes her happy. You must have been human, at least once.
The machine is ready to be used again. There is considerable relief on Neil's face when you and the other pokémon are placed back inside it.
I have seen the future, the Alakazam says, audible from within her pokéball, or maybe she's simply speaking directly into your mind. That boy will lose you again, and it will break his heart in half.
She's lying. You'll be with Neil forever. He promised to take care of you—someone has to take care of you, don't they?
The machine whirrs and soon you are his pokemon again, and when Neil releases you the first thing you do is embrace him with your short, clawed arms. He shudders at the cold but smiles and doesn't pull away.
If you were ever human, you don't want to remember it. This is the only life you want.
The two of you train for another year. You grow stronger, more cunning, more dangerous on the battlefield. Neil begins to hold his own against trainers his own age.
He never takes up the League challenge, and no badges adorn his clothes. Your trainer only trains to stay away from home and its bad memories, and, one day, he decides that enough time has passed that he can handle going back. He tells you that he wants to go home again. And of course you're coming, too.
You are afraid. You're afraid that the Alakazam was right about your soul, and that once you stop battling you'll begin to feel like a human again—like a weak human, because a strong one would never have died in the first place, right? And battling is your life.
But he is Neil, and there's something so irresistible about having someone who really cares about you, and so you accept that there are worse fates out there than a peaceful life and don't protest.
Being home is not so peaceful as either of you had hoped.
You're not battling seven-year-olds for their allowances anymore, but whispers and disapproving stares follow the two of you anyway, wherever you go in town. Neil hunches his shoulders and tries to ignore that he is sixteen and without a friend in the world except for you and his own mother.
One day, you find out why.
"Sick pervert, finally decided to show your face back here?"
Neil turns, and you turn. You are always at his side now, petite for a Gengar but still an intimidating pokémon, almost four feet tall with glowing red eyes full of hate for these people who hate your trainer.
The other teen, a little older than Neil, falters when you look at him, but quickly regains his composure. "You know, they finally arrested a guy about six months ago for killing that kid."
"I know," says Neil.
"They didn't have a lot of evidence to prove it was him."
"I know," says Neil.
"We all know it was really you," the teen says with a sneer. "Why don't you fess up, already? You were the kid's only friend. If the police didn't notice, we sure as hell did."
You clench your clawed hands into fists. Neil is literally trembling with rage, but he makes no move to answer, so you decide to answer for him. Something inside you is wild with glee as you draw back your fist and slam it into the teen's abdomen; the shadow punch lands despite his poor attempt to scramble out of the way.
"No!" Neil shouts, and it's the only thing in the world that could make you stop before you kill him. The teen shoots you a dirty look but flees like a coward.
Neil doesn't reprimand you, but he doesn't praise you either, standing still and looking miserable for a few long minutes while you stare at the ground, wishing for him to say something. Finally, he does.
"Goddammit," he whispers, voice cracking. "I was just a babysitter. Why is the whole world full of sick fucks?" He doesn't cry, and you want to in his place. "I was just a babysitter, and I still cared more than anyone else, even the parents. And now they think I did it."
You know, from the bottom of your soul—your human one—that he is speaking the truth.
You make the liars pay.
For the first time, you leave Neil's side voluntarily. The humans in the town suddenly find the night air full of cackling laughter, especially when they are alone. Their shadows run ahead of them or twist into strange, impossible shapes, and sometimes the temperature around them plunges without warning. There is a strange freedom in giving into the ghost pokemon that's been inside you all this time, making mischief and living for the fear of others, and you relish it while you can.
Half the town becomes convinced that they're being haunted.
But the teen you attacked that day remembers that Neil has a Gengar.
A League official shows up to answer complaints that a pokemon is disturbing the peace. All fingers point in one direction.
Neil begs, pleads, and argues, but you are taken from him anyway and placed into storage while they search for a new trainer, one who can handle a rebellious pokemon that's obviously too strong for an amateur, one with no badges, to care for properly.
You howl and scream in the PC, desperate for him to hold you again, desperate for anyone to hold you again and promise they'll never let anything bad happen to you. There is absolutely nothing worse than this isolation, in this life or the next.
Everyone in the town is assured that the problem has been "taken care of."