Hi, I’m Tonia Thompson, writer and creator of NIGHTLIGHT: The Black Horror Podcast.
Last week, we took a trip to the past, and this week we’re going to the future. Author Aigner Wilson gives us a ghost story with a twist. But before we hop into our time machine, we have a quick message from this episode’s sponsor.
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And without further ado, here’s Unwanteds, by Aigner Wilson.
By Aigner Loren Wilson
The call box outside Holly’s place displayed, not one, but two cartoon sleeping forms, but I kept at the buzzer until one of the animated figures rose. Within a couple of seconds, Holly’s real face appeared on the screen, and a sigh left her lips.
Despite the look in her eyes, she opened the door.
“Evenin’ or mornin’ whichever ya like. Before ya go tellin’ me to get out of here, hear me out.” I licked my cracked lips, giving her a small chance to send me off. Because once I got started, I wouldn’t stop till everything was out.
She said absolutely nothing and stood stiller than a corpse.
I cleared my throat. “Now,” I said beginning at the beginning, “I knew better than to listen to Jazzy—that fuckin’ boy was messed. Let’s just say he had a couple extra letters inserted into his DNA. So when he started spoutin’ some shit about ghosts and revenge and poltergeists, I just figured he got rigged up again—that happens more than the newsies are lettin’ on, ya know. Now, I hope you’re not believin’ everythin’ ya read about riggin’. It ain’t all fiends chasin’ a high they can’t catch. Most of it’s them on that damn hill chasin’ us so they can test out some new fucked up drug that inspires creativity while also curin’ your venereal diseases. Or so some shit like that.
“Things between us and the state is always goin’ to be fucked. Ain’t no changin’ that; ain’t no getting’ out once you’re in it. Some fucked up shit on a whole new level. But that’s not why I had your fancy box wake ya up. I did it because somethin’ is goin’ on, and I remember ya used to be into this kinda stuff, and that got me thinkin’ that maybe you’d be interested in helpin’ an old man out.
“I want ya to know exactly what happened so that ya know I ain’t here to fuck ya about. I’m not sure how much ya pay attention to the broadcasts, but a few months back we—my friends, the people I settle down with, and me—got ourselves treated to a fancy upgrade.
“Story goes, a company invested a load of credit into this bit of land just outside the city limits. The plan was to make it into one of those company communes where ya work where ya live and live where ya shit. Very self-contained model, I’m told. Anyways, all these fuckin’ houses got built, and nice ones too. Big ol’ southern gothic beauties, white columns, pointed arches, and the whole shabang—right there in the middle of all that nothingness too! And we gots them shits for free because the company went under or into hiding or someshit. My bet is they all got themselves killed.
“That should have been our first indication that somethin’ was just not right. But those houses…damn, just lookin’ at them sets ya in a dream. There weren’t no way we were goin’ to argue or say no once they bussed us in. And those State fuckers probably knew that.
“Hell! Before they brought us there and after they hoodwinked us outside the canteen where those nice fellas give us sandwiches, they took us to this public bath. Said they rented it out for our privacy—fuck that noise. It was for their privacy, so they could hose us down and burn our stuff. Then they had the nerve to say that it was for health concerns. Bullshit! We lived just fine like that for years.
“Turns out they did it so we could look all prim, clean, and proper for the cameras and newsies. None of them even asked us anythin’, but then they put all these phony ass comments below our pictures they never asked to take. So if ya do follow that bullshit broadcast, and ya saw a picture of this fella lookin’ sullen, sayin’ somethin’ like ‘Never before have I felt so welcomed’, shit weren’t real.
“But I’ll tell ya somethin’ really real.
“That first night, somethin’ dark took hold of Jazzy. I could hear him through the wall havin’ one of his fits. Not that the walls were thin or anythin’ but because I was strainin’ to hear him. After all that time livin’ together the way we did, it was hard to just lie behind some wood and plaster and call it close enough. So, I heard him beggin’ all night. At the time, I thought he was just havin’ another episode, like I said that shit just happens a lot. That’s why I didn’t do nothin’ but listen. Not because I was afraid. Hell, I didn’t know then that there was somethin’ to be afraid of.
“When I went to relieve myself in the morning, I spotted Shelley and Victor and a couple newcomers gatherin’ up in one of the yards. Once I joined them, all they wanted to talk about was food. And I get that, but ever since last October my stomach ain’t been right so hearin’ about food only makes me sick. But Jazzy had followed me out without my noticin’, and he wasn’t havin’ any pie and bacon malarkey neither; he had a story to tell.
“He said that during the night, his room trapped him inside. Windows, doors, walls, and all were locked to him. He couldn’t get out no matter how hard he tried. Said it wasn’t until the mornin’ that his lockdown ended, and he was freed from his torment. But Shelley was a cruel one, though, and just laughed at him sayin’ ‘It’s not like ya never spent a night in a jail cell!’ just like that. And if ya would have just seent him. Not so much how he looked, because in the night, I will say, that he had scoured away all the harsh work the state had put into cleanin’ us. But if ya could have watched him speak and seent the tremble in his hands and the look of light gone from his eyes, ya would have thought for sure some fucked up shit happened.
“Now, I didn’t blame Jazzy or intervene when he grabbed Shelley and shook her like she was a sleepin’ baby doll. One of the newcomers—never got her name—tried to step up and show that she had gall, but Victor stopped the wee bitty just as Jazzy let Shelley go. And Shelley was just laughin’ and gigglin’ and makin’ a joke out of it like it was no damn thing.
“Jazzy wouldn’t let up, though, and what he said happened next, shut Shelly right up. He started talkin’ about how his walls stopped bein’ walls and became Track’s Crossing, transporting him to the heart of the Financial District just as the markets closed. People came from every direction to overcome and pass him like he was some misplaced ghost. When he tried to shut his eyes to all of it and escape into the messed-up world that was his own head, they started yellin’ at him. Sayin’ shit like he was filth and scum and death and disease and war and crisis and greed and nothin’, nothin’, nothin’ fuckin’ good.
“It obviously sounded like a bunch of nonsense to me. I had my ear pressed against that wall harder than Shelly against anyone with more than a hundred to their name, and I ain’t hear jackshit. That’s the truth. All I heard was him runnin’ up the walls of his own head. Finally, when he thought it was all over because the yelling had stopped, the people all caught fire, he said, like God was strikin’ a match to their souls.
“After that shit left his mouth, I told the others the truth.
“Not with him standin’ there, of course. I waited for him to march off, mutterin’ about some other shit. As soon as he was far enough away, I told ‘em what I heard. My story wasn’t as thrillin’ as Jazzy’s, but still, it was the truth, so that had to count for somethin’. It didn’t, though. Victor hopped on the ghost train even before Jazzy had finished tellin’ us what had happened.
“As soon—and I mean the second Victor’s lips parted, I just knew we were in for a helluva time. Not before long, everyone done come out into the street like nothin’ changed at all, like we didn’t have houses to go into. But once everyone was there, we started hearin’ more stories of crazy shit happenin’ in the other houses. Like the airflow going haywire and freezin’ people out into the night or cookin’ them raw to the point of pinked flesh and heat exhaustion.
“No one had it as bad as Jazzy, though. And if they did, they sure as hell didn’t say it. Most of the shit was pretty basic hauntin’ stuff from what I read at the downtown public research facility. Things like finding shit not where ya left it, except when our stuff was found it was destroyed and taken out like waste.
“There is obviously a presence within those homes that doesn’t want us folks livin’ there. Sometimes I think maybe it’s the residue of resent left over by the corporation that wasted billions of trillions of capital on makin’ that place nothin’ more than a vacant lot with nice ass houses in it.
“I just don’t know what to do anymore. After Jazzy killed himself tryin’ to rid the neighborhood of that wickedness, and Shelley followed the newcomers down a spiral of satanism and horrid animation that ended in so much death and sadness, most of everyone has up and gone. The ones who are still around are stickin’ to what we got.
“We been campin’ out in the main heart of the place. Got ourselves a nice cozy little set up in the middle of a cul-de-sac. A couple of structures made from some scrap wood we found in a little forest nearby. It’s no mansion, but at least we ain’t hounded for our blood and driven insane.
“Ya gotta know I need ya, though. And I need ya somethin’ bad because I don’t got a lot but what I do got is in danger. If I go at it alone, I’ll fuck shit up for sure—probably even die. And, well, there’s no one else I know who’s as smart or resourceful or fearless as you. So what do ya say? Will ya help your old man out?”
She had changed in the years since I last saw her, over twenty years ago, maybe more. There’s no point in keeping track in things like that. All that matters is I left, not when.
“Dad,” the word sounded strange in her mouth. She noticed it too. “Kal, I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying. Are you…do you want me…do you want me to come tell you that there aren’t ghosts in your house?”
“I fuckin’ know there’s ghosts. I don’t need you or anyone to tell me that. We are way beyond identifyin’. We are at the stage of battle, and if we don’t act soon, we’ll lose everythin’.”
It was late and cold and rain was near. Holly pulled her robe tighter around her body and reached into the unknown behind the door. She retrieved a long jacket, black like the twilight choking in around us. After shutting the door, she slid down against it. In her descent, she pulled a pack of cigarettes out of an inside pocket and loaded one into her mouth. As she breathed in, it sparked and flamed, shooting nicotine deep into her lungs.
She laughed out smoke. “Alright, what’s going on? You need more capital to waste or something? Want to take a car? Tell me exactly what you fucking want. It’s late, much, much too late for whatever this is.” Smoke poured out of her nostrils and clouded her face. “It’s all yours anyway. I never touch your movie caps.”
“Why ain’t ya listenin’?! I keep tryin’ to tell ya that shit is goin’ down. I’m not messin’ you about. I swear.”
Reaching her prescribed limit, the cigarette cut itself short. Holly wasted the rest of it, stubbing it out on the concrete of her porch. “Oh, no, I hear you. Crazy shit at your new mansion-” her hands danced in the steam of her breath as she continued parading concern “-gotta get down there to save your shit pile and your addict friends before fucking ghosts get them.”
“What do I have to do to get ya to believe me!?” I yelled, getting close.
“Hey!” a voice barked.
Someone opened Holly’s door, causing her to fall back into the entryway of her townhouse. They were broad and bold and took one step over Holly’s body to grab me by my hood. Whatever strength possessed that mortal, God give it to me. With one hand they tossed me with such force down the flight of stairs and into the coming rain that every part of me rattled and quaked like a puddle.
“Fuck!” Holly gasped, rising from the ground and pushing past my assaulter.
They grabbed her by the arm. “No. I’ll go get my service revolver; you hop on the channel and tell them we got ourselves a trash pick-up.”
Pushing them away, Holly raced down the stairs and cupped me like a child. In the way that I should have cupped her when she was a child, but couldn’t. Every touch of her hand on my skin felt like fiery needles digging into my flesh. I backed away from her.
“Please,” I said in a whisper like rain. “I need your help.”
“Alright, alright,” she said. “Take me to this haunted suburb.”
So I did. And to my dismay, her companion joined us as well. They insisted on coming, and Holly seemed to think we might need them. I only saw hate and misfortune in their eyes and kept my distance the best I could in their SUV.
Holly gave them a quick rundown of my story. This time she did so without the hand movements and over exaggerated facial tics. We took the ramp out of the city and into the surrounding wasteland. Acres of crops and animal manufacturing plants stretched out to the North, while the reflectors that bounced the sun’s overcharged rays to the city’s solar windows took over most of the Southern region.
But we weren’t heading there. We were heading into the bought-out corporate lands of the East. Lands traded and sold for private use, but more often than not being left to sit, untouched. Hansen, Holly’s companion, seemed to know their way about the outer limits of public access. Even said they knew about the housing development.
“Yeah, Safeco bought up this whole area and the neighboring ones as well. They wanted to move their headquarters closer to the city, their main client,” Hansen said, glaring at the darkness their car’s high beams couldn’t penetrate. They chuckled softly. “I guess the only problem was, their employees had an issue with the way we live here. See, they come from a country where their biggest municipality is less than 20,000 citizens. Us living here with over 100 million people, under and above ground, makes their skin crawl.
“Only solution they had, was to live separate from it all. They’d keep their small community life and still get a fat paycheck from all the pies they finger. It was supposed to be paradise.”
“What happened?” Holly asked from the passenger seat.
“Who knows. This shit happens all the time. Things are built and abandoned. Maybe they found a better plot of land somewhere else. Maybe they figured it would be more cost effective in the long run to remain where they were. Maybe in the end, it wasn’t enough.”
“Y’all will see once ya get there why they abandoned the place,” I piped in from the rear seating.
“Yeah,” Hansen said, glancing up at me from the mirror above their head. “We will see.”
As Hansen drove out of the dark valley, our fires from the spot we made out in the open dotted the night sky in the distance.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Hansen muttered.
“Would ya look at that,” Holly gasped.
We were our own fucking little city. Even from the distance, the flames raged so strong they created a red dome of light above our haunted homes.
“Wait till we get there.”
When Hansen rounded the cul-de-sac of fire we called our home, the circle was empty. They turned off the engine and hopped out. “I guess the houses swallowed your friends all up.”
“Hush,” I warned. I called for them in our secret way and listened for their response.
Nothing sounded from the night but the fire licking at air. I repeated my call and shut my eyes hoping that I’d be able to hear a faint distant response. And yet, there was still only nothing.
“We should check in one of these houses,” Holly suggested, coming to stand near me. “Maybe they hid from the SUV. It looks pretty official.”
“If we are goin’ in, we need to arm up,” I said. “Ya got your holy water, crosses, and bible?”
They both stared at me blankly.
“If we are goin’ to fight evil, we must use the instruments of good to expel it,” I explained what shouldn’t need explaining.
“How about we check things out first, and then we can decide on if all of that is in order,” Hansen said, heading toward the house closest to us.
“I ain’t goin’ into one of those things unarmed. What do ya think I am crazy or somethin’?”
Holly slapped Hansen on the arm before they could say what I knew they wanted to say.
“You can go in, but I’m goin’ to stay right out here with my daughter.”
A look hung between the two for a few moments before Hansen groaned and grabbed a flashlight out of the trunk of their car and went into the house without even a knock. I stood outside with Holly, listening for a scream from Hansen or a response from the others, but not even the insects chirped a symphony.
“Ya really believe these houses are haunted?” Holly asked.
“Of course. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have gotten ya involved.”
“But…this was just a hobby I had in like, high school. It was just an adolescent search for something greater than myself. Something greater than the famous dad who didn’t want me. If I could prove that there were ghosts, hidden workings in the world around us, I could somehow find a replacement, or I don’t know, find something better.” She shrugged under her big coat. “What I needed back then, I didn’t think was real, so I sought it in the unnatural world. I’ve grown up a lot since high school. Learned that there’s a whole world out there of real things and real people who don’t need to be replaced because they are just there.”
“Things were stacked against us from the get,” I said and went to say more but closed my mouth instead. Whatever I was going to say wouldn’t be good enough and wouldn’t be anything different then what I’ve said before.
She sighed and loaded up another cigarette. “What the hell is taking per so long?”
“Per? That explains the—” I whistled, insinuating certain parts of my body and twirling a nonexistent mustache.
Holly rolled her eyes and stormed off in the direction of the house, throwing her cigarette down to the ground.
I stopped her by jumping in her path. She went to push me out of the way, and I instinctively dodged her touch.
“Why don’t you just take your shots!?” Her voice grew deep with annoyance. “They’ll take the pain away.”
“Yeah and every other feeling. I’d rather feel pain than nothing. And I’m sorry that it’s done so much damage to what could have been us, but there’s nothing we can do about that. We gotta move on and fight the things that are in front of us.”
She sighed. “I don’t need your apologies. I’ve gotten over a lot of this and have moved on with my life. Moved on enough to let my guard down and let someone in for once. Hansen’s got problems and isn’t perfect but per is there whenever I need per. And that’s what matters to me.”
“That’s good, I guess. Yeah…yeah, that’s real good.”
“Holly!” Hansen called from the doorway of the house. “Get my computer from the console and bring it in. I think I’ve got his ghost.”
We gathered what Hansen needed. It took a bit of convincing to get me to even get close to the house. In the end, I stood and watched from the doorway. They pulled open a panel in the security system and plugged in the computer we had brought from the truck. Holly worked at the wires on the inside that spilled out into her hand once they popped open the board, and Hansen pounded lightning fast on the keys of pers external terminal base.
“Holler when you’re in. I only have a small window to type the codes before the protocols kick in and boot us out,” Hansen said.
Holly bit her tongue. “Now. Go!”
“We’re in,” Hansen said, clapping per hands together. The two exchanged pleased looks. “Now let me see what they got these bad babies running on.”
“If it’s Safeco, no doubt their own software,” Holly said, squatting beside per and hanging her arm off pers shoulder. “Go in there. Might be a backdoor.” She gestured at something on the screen.
“Doubtful—what the hell?” Hansen removed per hands from the screen and stared down in astonishment. “That’s more than a backdoor.”
“Welcome,” spoke a voice from the house’s interior. It sounded quietly natural and new. “I am your state-of-the-art home. I will care for and protect you. I will be your oasis from the worries of the—”
“Hello!” I yelled into the dark opening of the home. “Who am I speakin’ to?”
“My name is Hope. How may I assist you?”
“Hope?! What the hell kind of name is that for a poltergeist? I want ya out and gone. Ya hear me!”
“It’s not a ghost. It’s the house itself. The programmed AI assistant. Hope,” Hansen said her name with thick authority, “are you connected to the rest of the homes?”
“We are all on the same network. Like neighbors in a village.”
“Do ya know what happened in the other houses? My dad says there were some incidents?” Holly asked the house.
“We did what we were programmed to do.”
“Ya terrorized us!”
“We attempted to rid the colony of an infestation. It’s our first directive: keep the inhabitants safe and comfortable. The occupation of outside entities triggered our fail-safes to come on in an attempt to return the community to its prescribed conditions.”
“Can you stop it?” Holly asked Hansen.
“Just tell it to stop,” I said, stepping into the house.
The door slammed behind me.
“Now listen here, ya big lug,” I said. “There’s no need to protect that town anymore. There is no town like the one ya know, and never was. The people who were meant to come here never showed up. It’s just us now, and all we’re after is a nice safe place to call our own.”
“Do ya hear me? I said they never showed up. They built ya and made ya and then left ya. They just plain old left. So you can forget everything they told ya about the world because it doesn’t matter; they’re gone and don’t care how well ya perform your functions.”
“They never came,” Hope said in that innocent voice. “Why?”
“Probably because they didn’t want to anymore. Humans are like that. One minute we want it all, and the next we want nothin’ to do with it-”
“Got it!” Hansen interjected. “I deactivated its controls. The system is shut off. Permanently. Buh-bye, ghost.”
“What?!” I said, turning to face per. “Ya killed her?”
Hansen looked up at Holly rising to stand. “No, I turned off the system. That wasn’t a real person, just a voice tied to some code. No one died.”
“Yeah, no one you cared about,” I said.
“It’s over now,” Holly said. “That’s all that matters. I’m sure soon, your friends—the ones left over—will return. Things are safe. The houses can be lived in.”
I turned from them and went to the door. My hand hesitated on the knob before I turned it. There was no resistance. No trapping fear, just a door leading to the smoky night. “These houses will always carry the horrors of the past.”
“What are you going to do then?” Hansen asked, packing up per equipment. “Go back to the streets?”
I sighed. “Is there any bringing Hope back?”
“Oh, absolutely not. That buried programming had developed a virus that would have only sent the houses into more catastrophic states. I wiped everything. There’s not even a factory reset available. No, no these are just houses now, nothing more.”
“Yeah, houses no one wants.”
“Did you want to keep that program running so that it could continue terrorizing you?” Hansen scoffed. “You should be grateful,” per said, carrying per things pass me and back to the SUV.
I followed per and my daughter out onto the lawn. “Pers right, there was no fixing it. We had to rid every trace of Hope. But on the bright side, we exorcized your ghost,” Holly said with a small smile of confidence.
“That weren’t no ghost. That was a chance to get somethings right for once. I may not be as sharp as I used to be, but I know an opportunity when I sees one. ”
Hansen looked weary, but Holly stared at me with her big eyes like she was a kid again, and I was a father she could look to for answers. At least, that’s what it seemed like to me.
“Everyone and everything in this city is pitted to keep us down. To remind us of who we are, but with Hope we had a chance to rewrite all that. To show her that we ain’t no different than anybody else. But you ruined that and just like everyone else before you who had the ability to make things right, you shut her up and snuffed her out. Only thing any of us should be grateful for is the hate that went with her. The hate they put in her.”
Hansen chuckled softly. “You’re crazy then your biographies lead people to believe. Come on, Holly, let’s go home, I’m tired of this.”
She looked back at Hansen standing by the car and said, “Ok.”
“Thanks, Holly, for helping the best ya could,” I said and turned, leaving them behind.
Transcript of Aigner’s interview is coming soon!
Today’s episode was narrated by MarBelle. It was produced by Jen Zink of the Skiffy and Fanty Podcast. Thanks to Jen, and to our newest minion, Meredith, and imp, Kevin, for joining the NIGHTLIGHT Legion and supporting Black writers. Because of you, this podcast won’t be wiped out like Hope. AIs–and podcasts–have feelings too! You, too, can join the NIGHTLIGHT Legion on patreon by going to patreon.com/nightlightpod. We are *so close* to locking down one episode per month, but we need your help.
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Thanks for listening. We’ll be back next week with another story.
This week, we have a ghost story with a futuristic twist.
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