The trouble with being dead, Bruce thought, was that is was really bloody boring.
Boredom didn’t seem to bother the other ghosts. Not that there were many of them around. He was the only one in the Handy Pavilion, and there were just a few others in the Super Centre. Yet these others all seemed to have a purpose.
Take young Vinnie. Sixteen year old petrol-head. Died after a tire blew out while he was doing burnouts in the carpark late one night, sending his stolen Mazda crashing into an open storm-water drain. His spectral vehicle could still be seen from time to time, doing doughnuts in the moonlight.
Then there was Mr Donovan, the original owner of the carpet shop across the way. He’d had a heart attack partway through his annual stocktake, and now spent every night in a doomed attempt to finish his counting. He was the ghost Bruce saw most, since he sometimes came over to the Pavilion to count their carpets too. He seldom said much, except when he was on his tea-break.
Other than that there was Kylie, who’d OD’d in the toilet beside BBQ Imperium, who spent her time searching for her missing syringe. And then there were some local Aboriginals who’d died in a smallpox outbreak just before WWI, and had been buried under what was now Hoonworld Automotive. Bruce found himself too embarrassed to talk to them.
All of those other ghosts did things. They recreated the last moments of their life, or searched fruitlessly for lost loves. Even the cloud of dead goldfish that surrounded the Place O’Pets seemed in constant search of fish food.
And Bruce? Bruce just wandered around the Pavilion and smoked imaginary cigarettes. Maybe that was what happened to dead tradies. Always overtime, never payday.
“You must have some wisdom from beyond,” Carol said.
“Nah,” Bruce replied. Ever since Belinda’s séance, Carol had come to talk to him pretty regularly. She’d sit on the chained-down pine bench outside the Handy Pavilion’s front door, and try to talk about cosmic wisdom. At first, Bruce had been happy for the attention, but he was seriously getting tired of it all.
“Not even a little?” Carol pleaded.
“Eat well,” Bruce said. “Be good to your parents. Oh, and don’t smoke. Even if it doesn’t kill you directly, it’ll slow you down and make you easier to murder. Take it from me. Personal experience.”
Carol shook her head. “Is that why you’re still here, tied to the material world? Because you were murdered?”
“Could be,” Bruce said. “I don’t know. They don’t tell me anything they don’t tell you.”
“They?” Carol said, sitting up straight. “Who are they?”
“Buggered if I know,” he said. “They, he, she, I don’t know. Used to be an Anglican, you know? Got to say, not a very good Anglican, but an Anglican. Thought once I’d died I’d get a chat with God, and what have you? ‘Hey, Big Fella, thanks for the daffodils et cetera, sorry about that whole adultery thing, and thanks for being understanding about it.’ That’s what I thought. Haven’t seen Him yet.”
He over looked at Carol. It was a cold night and Carol was dressed head to toe in warm weather gear, but through the gap between her Laplander hat and heavy scarf, he could see a look of disapproval.
“I’m sorry,” he sighed. “I was an electrician. I liked being an electrician, you know? I liked being a electrician, I liked betting on the greyhounds, I liked a nice cold beer and I liked Mrs Mariana Galukis. I wasn’t much interested in the meaning of life, and I’m pretty sure I’ve missed my chance on figuring out what it was.”
Carol shook her head. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I just… You’re a being of pure spirit. Maybe you have more wisdom than you think?”
“Wouldn’t know what to do with wisdom even if I had any.”
“You would if you had wisdom.”
Beneath his sheet, Bruce frowned. “Yeah, I guess I would, eh?”
Carol sighed and rubbed her eyes. A cool breeze blew under the eaves of the Pavilion, and she pulled her coat tight about her. Bruce tended to prefer when attractive women wore a lot of clothes. When he’d first discovered that he was a ghost, he’d tried killing the time by oogling women in the toilet. He’d soon learned that it was more embarrassing and shameful than erotic, so he’d given up on it very quickly. These days, he kept out of the toilets and — more recently — Ms Shan’s office. Honestly, didn’t that woman have a bed at home?
“Look, love, I wish I could tell you something,” he said. “I wish I could tell you that there’s a plan, or that it’s all going to be all right or something like that. I do. Bottom line, though, I’m pretty sure I’ve learned everything I was ever going to learn while I was alive. It didn’t amount to much. I’m just not a curious bloke, you know?”
Carol nodded. Bruce had never liked upseting people — an attitude that had only been reinforced by the consequences of upsetting Mr Dimitri Galukis. He cast about for something kind to say.
“I think it’s a good thing. What sort of unfair world would withhold the meaning of life until you don’t have a life to even have a meaning?”
Carol sniffed. “You know, that’s almost wise?”
“And almost is as close as I’m ever going to get,” Bruce said. “How’s Zorbar?” he added.
“He’s pretty well,” Carol said, pointing to the only car in the darkened carpark. “He’s recovered from his ordeal at the DIY Barn, or as much as anyone can recover from something like that. He’s waiting for me in the car. Says he’s scared of ghosts.”
To Bruce’s surprise, this cheered him a little. A big bruiser like that would never have been scared of the podgy, chain-smoking, middle aged Bruce when he’d been alive. The thought that he was the tough guy now made him feel magnanimous to Zorbar, who he’d never much cared for.
“Well, you keep a hold of that one,” Bruce said. “He’s a good man. He’s got some issues and all, what with the chimp thing, but…”
All at once Carol was sitting on the ground, the bench bowled over by some terrible shock. Bruce was still in a sitting position, the sudden collapse of the seat meaning little to his spectral body. Standing, he reached down to help Carol to her feet, before remembering that this was a bloody silly thing to do.
He looked up, hoping to see the source of the shock-wave. It wasn’t hard to spot. Standing in a crater in the carpark was a robot. Not some fancy-looking robot from a modern movie, but a big, clunky thing that looked like it was made out of parts from an FJ Holden. It stood about five meters tall, and it lurched towards the Handy Pavilion on clanging, steel legs.
“Oh, fuck me,” Bruce said.
Carol lay on the ground. She wasn’t dead, or unconscious as far as Bruce could tell. A trickle of blood ran from under her Laplander hat, and she was muttering something that Bruce couldn’t make out. His ears were ringing from the impact — which didn’t make a lot of sense to him, but what can you do?
The robot lurched forward. Bruce could hear what it had to say, and it said: “Crush! Kill! Destroy!” A streak of pink lightning came hurtling towards the robot. Zorbar! Bruce cursed. Forget the robot, you idiot! Come and help get Carol to safety! Shrieking, Zorbar leapt on the robot’s back, clutching on for dear life while stabbing at the join between its head and body with a huge knife.
“No, you bloody idiot!” Bruce said.
Again and Zorbar’s savage blade struck home. Then it struck home a little too well. The ape-man’s long hair stood on end as a shower of sparks cascaded from the robot’s neck. Zorbar fell twitching to the ground. Still sparking, the robot marched on.
“Oh, fuck this,” Bruce grumbled. Instinct made him want to run or else help Carol. His immaterial body made the first instinct unnecessary and the second instinct useless. He ran his hand across his shrouded face. “I’m dead, you pricks. Stop fucking with me!”
Other than the shower of sparks, Zorbar’s assault didn’t seem to have had any effect on the robot. Paralysed with indecision, Bruce watched the sparks fall, and estimated the voltage involved. Bits of his mind that he hadn’t used since his death clicked into action, calculating current flow, power, work, volts, amps, newtons. His thoughts raced, unhindered by the meat of his brain. He had a rough model of the thing’s wiring by the time the robot reached him.
And then it walked into him. And Bruce was inside the thing’s hulking steel frame and the whole world vanished.