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Thursday, 3 November 2016

The Ghost in Love-by Jonathan Carroll. Copyright©


            The ghost was in love with a woman named German Landis. Just hearing that arresting, peculiar name would have made its heart flutter if the ghost had still had one. She was coming over in less than an hour so it was hurrying now to make everything ready. The ghost was a very good cook, sometimes a great one. If it’d spent more time at it, or had more interest in the subject, it would have been exceptional.
      From its large bed in a corner of the kitchen a mixed breed, black and oatmeal colored dog watched with great interest as the ghost prepared the meal. This mutt was the only reason why German Landis was coming here today. Its name was Pilot, after a poem the woman loved about a Seeing Eye dog.Jonathan Carroll's 'The Ghost in Love'
      Suddenly sensing something, the ghost stopped what it was doing and glared at the dog. Peevishly, it demanded “What?”
      Pilot shook its head. “Nothing. I was only watching you work.”
      “Liar. That is not the only thing. I know what you were thinking: That I’m an idiot to be doing this.”
      Embarrassed, the dog turned away and began furiously biting one of its rear paws.
      “Don’t do that-- Look at me. You think I’m nuts, don’t you?”
          Pilot said nothing and kept biting its foot.
      “Don’t you?”
          “Yes I think you’re nuts, but I also think it’s very sweet. I only wish she could see what you’re doing for her.”
      Resigned, the ghost shrugged and took a slow deep breath. “It helps when I cook. When my mind is focused then I don’t get so frustrated.”
      “I understand.”
      “No you don’t. How could you? You’re only a dog.”
      The dog rolled its eyes. “Idiot.”
      “Quadruped.”
      They had a cordial relationship. Like Icelandic or Finnish, “Dog” is spoken by very few. Only dogs and dead people understand the language. When Pilot wanted to talk, it either had to get in a quick chat with whatever canine it happened to meet on the street when it was taken out for a walk three times a day. Or it spoke with this ghost who, by attrition, knew more about Pilot now than any dog had ever known. There are surprisingly few human ghosts in the land of the living, so this one was equally happy for Pilot’s company.
      Pilot asked “I keep meaning to ask—where did you get your name?”
      The cook purposely ignored the dog’s question and continued preparing the meal. When it needed an ingredient, it closed its eyes and held out an open hand. A moment later the thing materialized in the middle of its palm—a jungle green lime, a small pile of red cayenne pepper, or particularly rare saffron from Sri Lanka. Pilot watched absorbed, never having tired of this amazing feat.
      “What if you imagined an elephant? Would it appear in your hand too?”
      Dicing onions now almost faster than the eye could see, the ghost grinned. “If I had a big enough hand, yes.”
      “And all you’d have to do to make that elephant happen is imagine it?”
      “Oh no, it’s much more complicated than that. When a person dies then they’re taught the real structure of things. Not only how they look or feel, but the essence of what they really are. Once you have that understanding, it’s easy to make things.”
      Pilot considered this and said, “Then why don’t you just recreate her? That way, you wouldn’t have to fret about her so much anymore. You’d have your own version of her right here.”
      The ghost looked at the dog as if it had just burped loudly. “You’ll understand how dumb that suggestion is after you die.”
      Fifteen blocks away, a woman was walking down the street carrying a large letter “D.” If you were to see this image in a magazine or television advertisement, you’d smile and think that’s a catchy picture. The woman was pleasant looking but not memorable. She had even features that fit well together, although her nose was a little small for her face. She was aware of that and often self-consciously touched her nose when she knew she was being observed.  What people remembered most about her was not the nose but how very tall she was. An almost six foot tall woman carrying a big blue letter “D.”
      She wore brand new jeans, a gray sweatshirt with “St. Olaf College” written in yellow letters across the chest, and scuffed brown hiking boots. These boots made her taller. Funnily enough, her height never bothered her: The nose yes, and sometimes her name. The name and the nose, but never the height because everyone on both sides of her family was tall. She grew up in the midst of a bunch of blond human trees. Midwesterners, Minnesotans, they ate huge meals three times a day. The men wore size 13 or 14 shoes and the women’s feet weren’t a whole lot smaller. All of the children in the family had unusual names. Her parents loved to read, especially the Bible, classic German literature, and Swedish folktales, which was where they harvested the names for their children. Her brother was Enos, she was German, and her sister was named Pernilla. As soon as it was legally possible, Enos changed his name to Guy and would answer to nothing else. He joined a punk band called “Kidney Failure,” all of which left his parents speechless and disheartened.
      German Landis was a schoolteacher who taught art to 12 and 13 year olds. The “D” she carried now was part of an upcoming assignment for them. Because she was both good- natured and enthusiastic, she was a first-rate teacher. Kids liked Ms. Landis because she clearly liked them. They felt that affection the moment they entered her classroom every day. Her enthusiasm for their creations was genuine. On one wall of her apartment was a large bulletin board covered with Polaroid photographs that she’d taken over the years of her student’s work. She often spent evenings looking through art books. The next day she would plop one or more of these books down on the desk in front of a student and point to specific illustrations she thought they should see.       
       She fell in love easily but walked away just as easily from a relationship when it went bad. Some men thought this showed she was cold hearted but they were wrong. German Landis simply didn’t understand people who moped. Life was too interesting to choose suffering. Although she got a big kick out of him, she thought her brother Guy was goofy for spending his life writing songs only about things that either stunk or sucked. In response, he drew a picture of what her gravestone would look like if he designed it: a big yellow smiley face on it and the words
“I like being dead!”
      Little did either of them know that she would like it when her time came to die, years later. German Landis would move into death as she had moved into new schools, jobs, or phases in her life—full speed ahead, hopes ahoy, heart filled like a sail with reasonable optimism and a belief that the gods were fundamentally benevolent, no matter where she was.
       Shifting the heavy metal letter from one hand to the other, she grimaced now thinking what she was about to do. Whenever she went to Ben’s place these days to pick up Pilot there was almost always trouble between them of one sort or another. They would argue about big things and small. Sometimes there were valid reasons for these disagreements; usually they occurred only because these two people were in the same room together. Early in their relationship they had seen the Cary Grant film THE AWFUL TRUTH about a couple that splits but, by sharing custody of a dog afterwards, end up back together because of their abiding love. Neither of them liked the movie but it stuck on the walls of both their heads now like a pink Post-it note reminder because some of the story had come to pass for them.
They had been in love once—equally and passionately.  Like a spider web that you walk into, it is not so easy to get all the tendrils of real love off after you have passed through it.
They only had contact now because of the dog. Both regarded Pilot as their adopted child and friend. Ben had given it to her on their third date. He had gone to the town animal shelter and asked to see whatever dog had been there the longest. He had to repeat that request three times before the attendants believed him. The whole thing was German’s idea and it was the first of many of her ideas that effortlessly touched Benjamin Gould in the middle of his heart. Several days before, she had said she was going to buy a dog that no one wanted. She planned to go to the dog pound soon and sight unseen, buy whichever dog had lived there longer than any of the others.
“But what if it’s a skeez?” he asked half-seriously. “What if it’s got a terrible personality and weird diseases?”
She smiled and lifted one shoulder. “I’ll take it to a veterinarian. Skeez and disease are okay. I just want to give it some kind of nice life before it dies.”
“And if it’s ferocious? What if you get a biter?” Ben asked these questions but didn’t mean them. He was already a convert.
At the animal shelter they took him to see a dog they’d named Methuselah because it had lived there so long. Methuselah did not lift its head from the floor when the stranger stopped in front of its cage and peered in. Ben saw nothing but entry- level dog. If it had any extras, he sure didn’t see them. There was not one thing special about this animal. No soulful sensitive eyes. No puppy’s adorable, rollicking enthusiasm. It did no tricks. If it had a shtick, cute wasn’t part of it.  All the attendants could say about this mixed breed was that it was housebroken, quiet, and never caused trouble. No wonder all prospective customers had rejected it. Every single sign indicated this nondescript mutt was nothing but a dud.
Although he had little money, Ben Gould bought Methuselah the dud. The dog had to be coaxed from its cage and out on the street again for literally the first time in months. It did not look happy. Ben had no way of knowing that he’d bought a skeptic and a fatalist that did not believe anything good came of anything good. At the time of its adoption, Methuselah was close to middle aged. It had lived a difficult life but not a bad one. It had had three previous owners, all of them forgettable. On occasion it had been kicked and beaten. Once it was struck a glancing blow by a passing truck. It survived, limping for weeks afterward but it survived. When picked up by the dogcatcher, it was relieved more than anything else. At the time it had been living on the street for three months. From past experience it did not really trust human beings, but it was hungry and cold and knew they were able to remedy that. What the dog did not know was that if it were taken to the wrong kind of animal shelter, it would be killed after a short time.
But it was lucky. In fact this dog’s great turn of life-luck began the day it entered this particular shelter. The place was funded entirely by a rich childless couple that loved animals above everything else in the world and visited it frequently. As a result, none of the stray animals brought there was ever euthanized. The cages were always spotlessly clean and warm. There was ample food and even rawhide chew bones, which Methuselah found disgusting and ignored.
The dog ate and slept and watched for the next three months; a great career move because it was missing a miserably cold and snowy winter outside. It did not know what this place was, but so long as it was fed and left in peace, then this was an acceptable home for now. One of the joys of being a dog is they have no concept of the word “future.” Everything is right now, and if right now happens to be a warm floor and a full stomach then life is good.


Who was this man pulling on its leash now? Where were they going? They had walked many blocks through blinding blowing snow. Methuselah was old enough so that the bitter cold pierced its bones and joints. Back home in the warmth of the animal shelter the dog could go outside whenever it wanted but rarely did in weather like this.
“We’re almost there,” the man said sympathetically. But dogs do not understand human language so this meant nothing to the now miserable animal. All it knew was that it was cold, it was lost, and life had just turned hard again after that pleasant respite in the shelter.
They were two blocks from German Landis’s building when it happened. After looking both ways, Ben stepped off the sidewalk down into the street. Slipping on the snow, he lost his balance. Arms flailing, he began to fall backward. Frightened by this sudden wild movement, Methuselah leapt away and jerked hard on the leash. The man tried to stop his fall while at the same time keep the dog from bolting into the street and being hit by a car. As a result of his body going in so many directions at once, Ben fell much harder than he might have if he’d just gone down from the slip. The back of his head hit the stone curb hard with a loud thick thud, bounced, and then hit it again just as hard.
He must have blacked out then because the next thing he knew, he was on his back looking up into the concerned faces of four people, including a policeman who held the dog’s leash.
“He opened his eyes!”
      “He’s okay.”
“Don’t touch him though. Don’t move him till the ambulance gets here.”
Across the street the ghost stood in the snow watching this, utterly confounded. A moment later it fizzled and flickered like a sick television set and disappeared. Methuselah was the only one that saw it, but ghosts are nothing new to dogs so the animal didn’t react. It only hunkered down into itself and shivered some more.        
############################################

The Angel of Death looked at the ghost of Benjamin Gould and sighed. “What more can I tell you? They’ve gotten very clever.”
They were at a table in a crummy turnpike restaurant near Wallingford, Connecticut. The Angel of Death was nothing special to look at: It had manifested itself today as a plate of someone’s finished meal of bacon and eggs. Egg yolk was smeared across the white plate. Inside this smear were scattered breadcrumbs.
It was midnight and the restaurant was almost empty. The waitress stood outside having a cigarette and talking to the cook. She was in no hurry to clear the table. Having found the Angel of Death here, the ghost of Benjamin Gould had manifested itself as a fat black fly now sitting in the egg yolk. 
The plate said, “When Gould hit his head on the curb he was supposed to die. You know the routine—cracked skull, inter cranial bleeding and death. But it didn’t happen. To oversimplify, think of it as a massive virus that has infected our computer system. Afterwards, a whole bunch of similar glitches popped up all over the grid and we knew we were under attack. Our tech guys are working on it. They’ll figure it out.”
Unsatisfied by this explanation, the ghost/fly paced back and forth across the drying egg yolk, its little black spindly legs getting yellow and gooey. “How can Heaven get a virus in its computer system? I thought you were omniscient.”
“So did we until this happened.  Those guys in Hell are getting cleverer all the time. There’s no doubt about that. Don’t worry-- we’ll work it out. For now though the problem is you, my friend.”
Hearing this, the fly stopped pacing and looked down at the plate. “Say again?”
“There’s nothing we can do about you until we fix this problem.  You’ve got to stay here till then.”
“And do what?” The fly dared to ask indignantly.
“Well, doing what you’re doing, for one. You can continue being a fly for a while, and then maybe change into a person or a tree... Changing identities can be lots of fun. And there’s other pleasant things to do on earth: Learn to smoke, try on different kinds of cologne, watch Carole Lombard films--”
“Who’s Carole Lombard?”
“Never mind,” the plate said and then mumbled, “She’s reason enough for you to stay here.”
The fly remained silent and unmoved. 
The plate tried to change the subject. “Did you know that Ben Gould went to school in this town? That’s why I’m here now-- To do some checking up on his history.”
But the fly wouldn’t be sidetracked. “How long will this take? Just how long will I have to stay here?”
“In all honesty? I don’t know. It could be a while. Because once we find the computer virus then we’re going to have to run a check of the whole system.” The plate said this gently, knowing full well that it was on spongy ground here.
“‘A while’ meaning how long-- A year? A century?”
“I cannot answer that; until they rid the system of this virus and then clean up the damage it’s done. But if you don’t mind some advice, I would suggest that while waiting, you go and live with Gould. With the right kind of help, he could skip having to live a few lifetimes and move several steps up the ladder.”
“I am not a teacher—I’m a ghost; his ghost. That’s my job. Read the job description.”
The Angel of Death considered this and decided it was time to get to the point. “All right then, here’s the deal. They’ve decided—“
Who’s decided?”
If the plate could have made a face it would have frowned in exasperation. “You know very well who I’m talking about—don’t play dumb. They’ve decided that because it might take a while to sort out this virus problem and you’re stuck here through no fault of your own, they’re offering you a chance to try something untested, just to see if such a thing works: If you can somehow get through to Benjamin Gould and make him a better person while he’s alive, then you won’t have to come back to earth after he dies and haunt things. We know how much you hate fieldwork, so if you succeed here, you can stay in the office and work from there in the future.
“We don’t know how much longer he’ll live now because he was scheduled to die that day from the fall. Now the matter of his fate is anyone’s guess. That means there’s no telling whether you have a lot of time to work on him or only a little.”
The ghost was genuinely surprised by this offer and paused to let the intriguing proposal sink in. It was just about to ask, “If I don’t come back here to haunt, what will I do instead in the office?” But the waitress came to the table, saw the fly in the egg yolk, and whacked it dead with an old newspaper.
 

Somewhere in everyone’s inner city is a cemetery of old loves. For the lucky contented few who like where they are in their lives and who they’re with, it is a mostly forgotten place. The tombstones there are faded and overturned, the grass is uncut, brambles and wild flowers grow everywhere.
For other people, their place is as stately and ordered as a military graveyard. Its many flowers are well watered and tended, the white gravel walks have been carefully raked. All signs indicate that this spot is visited often.
For most of us though, our cemetery is a hodgepodge. Some sections are neglected or completely ignored. Who cares about these stones, or the old loves buried beneath them? Even their names are hard to remember. But other gravestones there are important, whether we like to admit it or not. We visit them often, sometimes too often, truth be told. And one can never tell how we will feel when these visits are over—sometimes lighter, sometimes heavier. It is entirely unpredictable how we’ll feel going back home to today.
Ben Gould rarely visited his cemetery. Not because he was happy or content with his life, but because the past had never held much importance for him. If he was unhappy today, what difference did it make if he was happy yesterday? Every moment of life was different. How did looking or living in the past genuinely help him to live in this minute, beyond a few basic survival tricks he’d learned along the way?
In one of the first long discussions they ever had, Ben and German Landis disagreed completely about the significance of the past. She loved it. Loved to look at it from all angles, loved to feel it cross her right now like a thick midday shadow. She loved the past’s weight and stature.
Stature? What stature? Ben asked skeptically, thinking she was joking. The memory of the delicious sandwich you ate for lunch is not going to take away your hunger four hours later. On the contrary-- it will only make the hunger worse. As far as he was concerned, the past is not our friend.
They argued and argued, neither convincing the other that they were wrong. It became a joke and eventually a stumbling block in their relationship. Much later when they were breaking up, German tearfully said in six months you’ll probably think of our relationship and me about as often as you think of your third grade teacher.
But on that subject she was 100% wrong.
The great irony that held both Ben Gould’s life and apartment captive these days was that he lived with not one but two ghosts, because German Landis haunted him too. He went to bed thinking about her and minutes after he awoke every morning he started thinking about her again. He couldn’t stop himself, damn it. It wasn’t fair. He had no control over it. Their failed relationship was an insistent mosquito buzzing close around his head. No matter how much waving away he did, it never left or stopped irritating him. 
He was at his desk staring at his hands when the doorbell rang that morning. He was wearing only underpants and nothing else. He knew it was she. He’d known she was coming but had purposely chosen not to get dressed. In recent meetings with her, Ben had grown increasingly remote and sullen, which only made the air between them thick and uncomfortable. Sometimes it got so bad that German thought oh just let him keep the damned dog and forget it. At least that way I won’t ever have to see him again. But Pilot was hers; Ben had given him to her as a present. She loved the dog as much as Ben did. Why surrender only because her idiotic ex-boyfriend made her uneasy for five minutes every few days when she came to get Pilot?
The ghost heard the doorbell ring and immediately tensed up. Pilot looked at it and then towards Ben’s bedroom. The table had been carefully set with beautiful food and objects. In the middle of this setting was a full blooming Star Gazer lily placed inside an impossibly faint lavender glass vase from Murano, Italy.
Nothing happened. No sound emanated from inside the bedroom. A minute later the doorbell rang a second time.
“Isn’t he going to answer the door?”
The dog shrugged.
The ghost crossed its arms but then immediately uncrossed them. It made three different faces in the course of eight seconds and finally unable to stand it anymore, walked out of the kitchen and over to the front door. Ben Gould eventually emerged from his bedroom looking both sleepy and confrontational.
The ghost looked at the man in his underpants and glowered. Again? He was going to pull this sort of immature, retard-o stunt with that wonderful woman again?
Gould rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands, took a deep breath and opened the front door. The ghost stood two feet behind him holding a metal spatula in its right hand. It was so nervous about seeing German that it madly wiggled the utensil upanddownandupanddown… at an impossibly fast speed. Thank God neither person could see this.
“Hello.”
“Hey.”
Both said their single words in voices as void of emotion as they could muster.
“Is Pilot ready to go?” she asked in a friendly fashion.
“Sure. Come on in.” He turned toward the kitchen and she followed.  She looked at his nice butt in the wrinkled underpants and closed her eyes in despair. Why was he doing this? Was she supposed to be shocked or embarrassed to see him in his underwear? Had he forgotten that she had seen him naked oh, several hundred times in their past? She knew what he smelled like clean and what he smelled like sweaty. She knew how he liked to be touched and the most intimate sounds that he made. She knew how he wept and what made him laugh out loud. How he liked his tea and how he absolutely sparkled when, walking down a street together, she put her arm over his shoulder to show the world she was his pal and his tall lover.
Seeing where the two of them were going now, the ghost disappeared from its place by the front door and reappeared a second later in the kitchen. When they entered, its arms were crossed tightly over its chest in anticipation. Everything one could imagine wanting for breakfast was on that table. Warm freshly baked scones, strawberry preserves from England, honey from Hawaii, “Segafreddo” coffee (German’s favorite brand), a plate laid with long pink strips of northern Scottish salmon, another heaped with perfectly prepared Eggs Benedict (another love of hers). There were two other egg dishes as well. Mouth-watering fare covered and graced every part of that small round table. It looked like a cover to Gourmet Magazine. Whenever Ben Gould watched a cooking show on television, the ghost watched too and often took notes. Any time German came by to get the dog, the ghost made one of these TV recipes or something else scrumptious from one of Ben’s many cookbooks and had it on the table waiting for her when she arrived.
Of course German couldn’t see any of it. What she saw now was only a bare wooden table with a single spoon off to one side, exactly where Ben had left it last night after using the spoon to stir sugar into a cup of weak herbal tea. She looked at that spoon a long time now before speaking. It broke her heart. For those glorious few silent moments, the ghost pretended German Landis was staring in silence because she actually could see everything that it had prepared for her because it knew how much she enjoyed breakfast.
It was her favorite meal of the day. She loved to buy it, prepare it, and eat it. She loved to shop for fresh croissants and petit pain au chocolat at the bakery two doors down. Every time she happily closed her eyes so as better to concentrate on the heavenly smell of bitter fresh coffee when the owner of the local Italian market ground the beans while she waited. She loved grapefruit juice, ripe figs, bacon and eggs, hash brown potatoes with ketchup. She had grown up eating monumental Minnesota breakfasts that buoyed anyone over the ten degrees below zero temperatures and car-high snow drifts outside. Like her mother, German Landis was a lousy cook but an enthusiastic one, especially when it came to breakfast. She was thrilled when people ate as much as she did.
The ghost knew all of this because it had sat in this very kitchen many times watching with pleasure and longing while German assembled the morning feast. It was one of the traditions the couple established early in their relationship: She made breakfast while he prepared all of the other meals. 
“Have you been eating?”
 “What?” Ben wasn’t sure he had heard her right.
“Have you been eating?” She repeated more emphatically.
He was thrown off guard by her question. She hadn’t said anything so intimate in a long time.
“Yes, I’m fine.”
“What?”
“What do you mean, what?”
German picked up the spoon and turned to Ben. While reaching for it, she stuck her hand right through the middle of the perfect seven- egg soufflé the ghost had baked for her. It was a masterpiece. But she didn’t see or feel it because ghosts make ghost food that exists only in the ghost world. Although the living sometimes sense that world, they can’t occupy that dimension.            
“What have you been eating?”
Ben looked at her and shrugged like a guilty ten-year-old boy. “Stuff. Good stuff. Healthy things, you know.” His voice dribbled off. She knew he was lying. He never cooked anything for himself when he was alone. He ate junk food from circus colored bags and drank tea.
Pilot got up from his bed and walked slowly over to the woman. He liked feeling her big hand on his head. Her hands were always warm and loving.      
“Hello, Mr. Dog. Are you ready to go?”
Suddenly and with close to a feeling of horror, Ben realized what it would be like in this apartment a few minutes from now when those two were gone and he was here alone with nothing to do. German probably had planned a nice long walk with the dog. When it was over, she would take Pilot to her place where they’d eat lunch together.
Ben had never been to her new apartment but could imagine what it was like. Full of bright colors, found objects, and her collection of Japanese toy action figures would be arranged on all the windowsills. The wickedly comfortable blue couch she’d bought when they were together and took when she moved out would be the center of her living room. In all likelihood that couch would be covered with large art books both opened and closed. That image alone made Ben hurt because it was so lovingly familiar to him. The dog had his place on the couch next to her. He would not budge from there unless she did. Her new apartment would have to be light and airy because she insisted on both. German always needed a lot of natural light wherever she lived.
She also liked to open windows even on the coldest days of the year to fill any room she occupied with fresh air. It drove Ben crazy when they were living together but now he missed that quirk and all her others. The other day while sitting morosely over another cup of peppermint tea at this table and thinking about her, he had written her a note on a paper napkin from a take out restaurant. Knowing she would never read it, he wrote what he honestly felt. “I miss you every day of my life and for that alone I will never forgive myself.”
“Well! I guess Pilot and I’d better be going.”
“All right.”
 “I’ll be back with him tomorrow. Is two o’clock okay?”
“Yes, that’ll be fine.” He made to speak but catching himself, stopped abruptly and walked instead to the other side of the kitchen to retrieve the dog leash hanging on a hook there.
German wanted to say something more too. Seeing the expression on his face however stopped her.
Unexpectedly a moment came when handing over the leash, both people let their guards down. They looked at each other with a frank mixture of love, resentment and yearning that was immense. Both turned quickly away.
Sitting at the table, the ghost observed all this. When it sat down it had pulled the exploded soufflé towards its chest with both hands, as if trying to protect the ruined beauty from any further damage.
Now seeing that look rocket back and forth between them, the ghost slowly lowered its face into the middle of the yellow-brown soufflé right up to its ears and remained like that while goodbyes were said and German left. It was still face-deep in the egg-y mess when it heard the front door close.
Ben walked back into the kitchen, sat down across from the ghost and stared directly at it. The ghost eventually lifted its head from the soufflé and saw that it was being stared at. Although it knew it was invisible, the intensity of the man’s gaze was distressing.
Lifting the teaspoon off the table, Ben appeared to weigh it in his hand. In truth what he was doing was testing to see if any of German’s warmth remained in the metal.
Suddenly he flung the spoon with all of his might against the far wall. It ricocheted loudly off several places before landing and clinking across the floor.

The ghost lowered its face back into the soufflé.
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