Dead Hearts
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When I arrived at the City of Weeping, everything was exactly as I had imagined it, and, yet, it was nothing like I had expected.

A heavy fog covered everything around me. All the streets looked abandoned, with buildings from all eras and places, albeit with a faded tone, while the cloudy sky threatened with a rain that never came. Each of these things contributed to the feeling of loneliness, of sadness, that haunts our kind wherever we go.

However, none of those streets were actually abandoned.

Here and there I could see remnants of what once was. Inside the light of a neglected street lamp I saw the face of a person, taciturn, as if silently begging for help. A few steps away, in front of a clothing store with the lights off, and illuminated by the street lamp, was the body of a child, decapitated. He was sitting, leaning against the wall, staring at a toy in his hands with eyes that were no longer there. I approached him in a friendly manner, and for a moment he turned to look at me, then went back to looking at his toy. I sat next to him for a while before continuing on my way.

I don't know if it was him or me who needed the company.

Later on I encountered similar scenes: a legless woman dancing a beautiful waltz in the middle of a town square, a soldier covered in bullet wounds fleeing from an invisible enemy, and a skinned face hanging on a wall, singing a guttural chant whose words I didn't understand. The deeper I went down those dark alleys and lanes, the more and more I could see of my own kind, trapped in their eternal end. Gradually, however, life, if you could call it that, began to fill every corner. It seemed that those who still preserved a glimmer of sanity preferred to cluster inland, leaving the outskirts as a refuge for lost souls.

There was more light, at the very least. A few stores and street stalls caught my attention here and there. They offered all kinds of objects and services, and were it not for the fact that everyone in that place was dead, I could have imagined that I was at home again, surrounded by hundreds of humans.

As I passed by a coffee shop, a woman complimented my soaking wet hair. I told her how nice her dress looked, despite the blood stains.

She laughed and said it wasn't hers.

I guess, after all, existence wasn't so bad in some parts of the City.

Despite the eternal fog, the new lighting helped to see the distance more clearly. In particular, for the first time I was able to see with my own eyes the legendary Upside-Down Tower: it was far off in the distance, like an even darker spot in the already dark sky. It was imposing, swaying in the wind almost in all its majesty. The only part out of my sight was the tip of the tower, hidden behind the rest of the buildings… although I had a feeling that I was not hidden from it.

I quickened my pace, perhaps because I felt in a hurry or perhaps because I was afraid of the thing that, I believed, was watching me from that cursed tower. I kept walking forward, always forward. On my left, an old man with no jaw was selling newspapers; I managed to read some headlines about Three Portlands as I passed in front of him. On my right, on the avenue, vehicles were passing at full speed. Some were automobiles and others were horse-drawn carriages.

I could see one of those horses dragging its intestine along the ground as it galloped.

I stopped for a moment, leaned against the wall and closed my eyes. I heard the shouts of vendors, laughter, the barking of a dog, the beeping of cars, even the siren of a police car. But I didn't feel the air on my face. In fact, I didn't quite feel the wall behind me either, nor the gravity that was supposed to keep me on the ground. But, despite this, I felt something. A feeling that was not easy to find in my state, but that I know all of us souls search endlessly for.

I felt at peace.

Visually, my surroundings were a complete chaos. Modern and old buildings alike: a bookstore next to a wooden shack, in front of which a tent house stood obstructing the way. People in suits walking shoulder to shoulder with those in hospital gowns, or those who were naked. Some looked normal, while others were as pale as paper. However, I felt at peace, because in that place and at that moment, I felt that I belonged there.

After a while, I took a deep breath and then approached the curb. I raised my hand, signaling to a nearby cab that I was going to board it. It looked as if it had been involved in a major crash, with a smashed front end, broken windows and a missing tire. It stopped in front of me, whereupon I was able to look at the driver. At first I was startled by him, not because of his sunken and reddened eyes, nor because of his general look of exhaustion, but because as soon as I saw him, I realized that he was more than me.

He was physical.

I got in and he drove off. He must have noticed my discomfort, because he was the one who started the conversation.

"Relax, I don't bite. Not with this moon, at least," he said. "Where are you going, my friend?"

"To, uh… District 44." I didn't sound convinced. And I wasn't. I had lost the paper where I wrote it down and my memory was no longer reliable. It was always like that, first the memory, then the personality, and finally the sanity.

"Ah, the great 44. Yeah, I know it, I've been dropping a lot of people off there lately. It's nice, yeah, everything that Club did with the place was definitely a good thing."

I remained silent.

"So, you're new in the City? You must have come in through a Way, right? Let me tell you, you're going to have a good time. There's no other place like this for night creatures, believe me, it's just fantastic."

Nothing from me.

"Hey, don't get upset; I'm just trying to chat, pass the time, make the trip enjoyable, you know? Look, if you managed to track down the City it was for a reason, and I'm not going to stick my nose in your business, but since you're going to be around here, why not make it a comfortable stay, don't you think?"

I didn't answer.

After a brief moment, he sighed.

"I know what you're thinking. Everyone does it, and it's really not your fault. There are very few wolves here in Mienicna, but I can assure you we're not the bad guys. Hell, we don't think we're better than you just because we're alive. We're just trying to go on with, well, with life, you know? Back in Esperwidos there is almost no work, and we have to get moving, you know?"

I didn't reply, and he gave up. The rest of the ride was quiet. Interestingly, the outside world seemed to align itself with us, for as we moved on, all the noise of the City was silenced. But this time we were not greeted by the lonesome silence I encountered when I arrived; it was something different, like those silences you sometimes spend with your loved ones, when there is nothing to say, but nothing to be silent about either.

Your loved ones…

I finally began to see it, as the fog dissipated and the streets were once again filled with that anti-life. District 44. I stared at it for a while in rapt attention, trying to assimilate what I was even looking at. And that's because having witnessed everything I had seen shortly before, I didn't think District 44 was nice. Not this nice. Not the definition of 'nice' that normal humans tend to use.

The difference with the rest of the City was massive: the thick, ominous fog was dissipating to give way to a gentle, cool breeze that matched the unusually clear and bright blue sky, at least for the standards of the City. It didn't look like the buildings were going to collapse under their own weight at any moment, all of them being consistent and well-organized, and their inhabitants looked… happy. They didn't look like they wanted to be killed again. There wasn't that sad irony on their faces, they didn't look like they were trying to cope with their existence. They were actually and genuinely happy, like they were alive again.

The driver stopped in front of a park, and I walked slowly into the District as I looked around and observed everything. Some people were waving cheerfully at me, while the rest were so focused on their activities that they didn't notice my presence. Everything was peaceful. No one, ever, would have pointed out the place as part of the legendary City of Weeping.

In the distance, among the lush trees and countless bushes with flowers of all colors, stood a special building. It was decorated with white paint and a shade of light purple, like the rest of the structures around it. Large windows ran along its walls, as if inviting you to look inside. Or out. I was sure both views were equally majestic.

I approached it. That was the place I had come to, wasn't it? Besides, if it was so close to the entrance of the district, it was for a reason: it was better for everyone to visit it first, before going to another place. They wanted to keep that feeling of undisturbed peace as much as possible.

When I left all the trees behind, I was able to see a symbol at the front of the building. It was a heart with the symbol of a heart rate going through it. On the side, in cursive letters, it read 'Midnight Club.' I carefully walked in and approached the receptionist, who was startled when she saw me. I guess someone with my looks doesn't tend to walk so calmly into a place like this. After a moment she regained her composure and addressed me in a friendly manner.

"My God, friend! What happened to you? The kids threw you in the water, didn't they? Just look how they left you. You'll have to forgive them, they're just kids and when we give them permission to swim in the pool they get so excited and don't measure their energy. But don't worry. Here," the girl said as she gave me a white towel with a beating heart printed in the center.

I took the towel and held it in front of me. Until then I hadn't realized what I really looked like. I knew what I looked like, but knowing something is one thing, and actually realizing the importance of that something is a completely different thing. I've been like this since I came into the District, since I boarded the cab, since I arrived at the City, since… since… since… since before I arrived at the City. Since the last time I was with her. As I wiped myself dry, I replied to the receptionist, trying to sound humorous.

"No, it wasn't any child. I'm new here. I came like this. An apology for my… appearance." I handed the towel back to her, but from the drops of water I felt running down my body, I knew it hadn't helped. "I saw a pamphlet and… wanted to come. To find out exactly what you do here."

"Oh! Don't worry, you have no need to apologize. A ghost's appearance should never define their identity."

Ghost… Hearing that word still scared me. She must have realized that.

"I'm sorry!" She said. "I know it's hard for most people to admit it, but accepting what you are is the first step. Would you like me to show you around? I'm sure you'll find it very interesting."

"Yes, that… that would be nice. Is it for real what you do? Here you help people to… you-know-what?" At first she looked confused, then she understood. The subject was taboo, and as much as the facility focused on emotional health in the face of death, it still remained so.

"Of course! I'll show you, just wait a moment." She approached the desk to pick up a phone. She pressed a button and waited a moment. "Carla? It's me, could you attend the front desk for a moment? A new one came in… Mm-hmm… Yeah… I owe you one, thank you very much!" She hung up. Then she turned to me. "Follow me, this way."

We passed through a door. As we walked down a long hallway, which was perfectly lit only by the light coming in through the windows, she began to tell me about the history of the Club. 'Established in the seventies in South Korea, their goal from the beginning was always to help us. For people not to abuse us, not to be afraid of us, for us to be able to move on…' It was obvious that she had rehearsed this speech several times, but it was also obvious that the emotion with which she said it was not fake. She believed in her mission. Perhaps too much so.

"Excuse me…" I cut her off. She turned to look at me. Through her glasses I could see that in her rehearsals she had not contemplated being interrupted. I could also see that she was curious about what I had to say. "I'm sorry, I just… I don't understand how… Well, you exist. You, the Club, I mean." I pointed around me. "The City isn't famous for places like this. It feels surreal, out of place."

"Oh! Well, I also don't really understand how Mr. Yoo Seo-Jin convinced the Faceless King to set up a Club branch here. I didn't even know the Faceless King could be approached, for that matter." She let out a nervous chuckle. "But it makes sense. This is the biggest ghost epicenter in the world. We remodeled the area a bit and now we can help a lot of people."

She approached a window and looked outside, at a large pasture, at the eternal sky, at some seemingly normal children playing with several dogs, which had many cuts along their bodies. One was even dragging its innards around.

"You're wondering about the sky, I assume." She continued, apparently remembering another part of the speech. "On the roof we have a holographic machine. Surprising as it may seem, it doesn't work with magic or anything like that. Pure and simple science. If you're interested, I can provide you with a booklet explaining how it works, but basically it creates the illusion of a clear blue sky. It wears off as you get further away from here, but at least it serves to take away the gloomy atmosphere of the fog. A visually peaceful environment helps a lot when it's time to move on, you know?"

"But if you used magic, you could probably cover a larger area, couldn't you?"

"Uh… At first instance, yes. However, we weren't given permission to expand beyond the boundaries of District 44. Besides, we're afraid of magic interacting in weird ways with all the Akiva around here."

"Akiva?" I had heard the term before. 'Akiva radiation.' It seemed to be something that accompanied us everywhere, something inherent to… ghosts.

"Oh, it's the… uh… thing that makes ghosts exist, so to speak. It's energy radiated by faith. You shouldn't weigh on it too much, my friend, I don't think it's a stable starting point for… well, your acceptance."

I thought about it for a moment and nodded. Maybe I could ask about the Akiva later. For now, I decided that the girl didn't have a good time with going off her script, so I decided to try not to stray so far off topic.

"What… is acceptance, exactly? You just help me accept that I'm no longer… alive, and that's it?"

"Yes! And… no." She walked towards me, then motioned me to keep moving. "It sounds simple, but it's quite a process. Surely in the City you met, uh, lost souls. Ghosts who seem to have lost their minds, who seem to be in a state of perpetual shock. They do the same thing over and over again."

I remembered the legless dancer, the fleeing soldier, the singing face. The boy and his toy. I had been told about sanity before, but I didn't want to make her lose her train of thought again. I nodded.

"They are those who refused to accept that they had died." She continued. "There are several levels of denial, of course; they are just the most severe and the most obvious. The process of acceptance goes from assimilating that you are dead to having peace of mind with that fact. Realizing that there are still many things you can continue to do." Her voice lowered in volume. I got the feeling that sometimes she wasn't entirely talking to me. "And then there's the other thing, you know. But that's up to each individual."

We arrived at another door, which opened automatically. We went out into the courtyard, and walked around for a while without saying anything. In the distance I could see a family having a picnic. There were no wounds of any kind. I still couldn't do that. I imagine that, to fully control your appearance, you must have accepted your situation.

"So… what's your name?" The girl finally asked me. "I'm Gwen, by the way."

"I… I don't remember very well, I'm sorry." Memory always was first.

"Oh! Don't worry, it's okay. If you decide to stay, we have a device that reorganizes spectrines, and can recover some fragments of memories. It helps a lot not to… sink into denial."


"They're… uh… a very scientific thing. I can give you a booklet later, if you're interested."

"Sure…" I kept looking around at all the people who were enjoying this kind of artificial utopia. Everyone was getting the help they needed, at no cost, and in a self-sustainable environment. An environment where everything always seemed to be moving towards a better future. In the center of the courtyard, I noticed, stood a lonely threshold. In the place where the door should have been, instead, there was a very bright light. "What's that over there?"

"What…? Ah, right! Sorry, it's just… That's an Akiva radiation concentrator. As you might guess, it focuses it in one place. With enough of it, it can simulate a door to the… to the… to the you-know-what."

I nodded. We were all afraid of that place. But, for once in my anti-life, I decided that I could do better, that I could actually move on.

"To the Afterlife." I concluded.

"Y-yeah, that."

"How did you get this much technology?" I changed the subject. I knew I had made her uncomfortable by mentioning that. One would think it was a natural thing, but there was evidence that many Afterlives were terrifying. Far more so than any known abomination. And worse, they were eternal. Eternity itself is terrifying.

"Oh, donations help a lot," she said, excited to talk about something else. "Plus, the Club managed to make a deal with Deer College, isn't it amazing? A lot of devices are actually the students' final theses. And the Haunted House even gives extra credit if we come and volunteer to help during vacations." She pointed to herself proudly. I once heard something about ghosts with smoke for legs always coming from Deer, but I didn't want to assume the stereotype. "It's all a collaborative effort to make a better future for everyone."

"You like it here, then?"

"I think so, yes, I think so." She turned to look at the landscape, and as she did so, I could see a strange mark around her neck. "At least this makes some sense, don't you think?" She fell silent for a long moment. "Well! So, are you staying? Lodging is completely free as long as you attend all therapy sessions and treatments."

I thought about it for a moment. I sighed.

"I don't really remember how… I died -I started-. I was playing with… her, near a lake, and suddenly… it was over. I guess she remembers it well, she's still alive and all, but I… I can't ask her, not like this, at least. I've hurt her enough. I… I thought I'd learned to move on, but… I don't know if I'm doing it right. I don't think I'm doing it right."

"… Who is her?"

"She is my…" I didn't know if the water on my face was from my tears or from that lake. "She is my sister. I really miss her."

The sky over District 44 was blue. It was very beautiful. But it had an end: in the distance it was starting to fade again into the dark fog. So did the laughter and joyful shouts of the ghosts of the Midnight Club. If you paid enough attention, you could hear the distant noises. You could hear the weeping.

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