~ Nina Kiriki Hoffman
I learned to take selfies from Walter, my most recent husband.
When we were out in public, Walter liked to document. He often broke into what we were doing to pose us in front of something or someone fabulous so he could take a selfie. He gloried in putting pictures of us up on his Facebook page to show all the other losers in the world what an amazing life he was leading with his trophy wife.
Yesterday, I went to his Facebook account to look at that gallery of us looking like a celebrity couple leading a fantasy life. I need to delete the account soon; any record of me as Walter’s wife must disappear, because I don’t get facelifts between my marriages, and I don’t want facial recognition software to be able to identify me.
Walter was my best and my worst husband so far: Our two life-lines, the apparent and the real, were both interesting, and I liked him better than I liked my other husbands.
With every husband, I have a line. I put up with a lot from them. Then they cross that line, and I kill them.
Walter crossed the line after we’d been married about three years. He broke my arm. Luckily my right arm, not my dominant left. I still had the strength and skill to kill him and make it look accidental, though I had to wait a couple of weeks after he broke my arm. I wrapped the cast in plastic so it wouldn’t get blood on it.
All the death stuff takes a while to settle, if you want to get away with murder. You have to be grief-stricken and do a bunch of acting for the few friends your husband allows you once he really gets into controlling you, and all his so-called friends, too. Husbands I’ve had are usually charismatic and look like they lead perfect lives, so they have lots of acquaintances. I don’t know that I’ve ever had a husband who had really good friends.
The selfie thing—I liked that. I don’t keep souvenirs, because that’s one of the easiest things for police to use against you in a court of law. My memories are my treasures. But, I thought, how about pictures of myself while I’m recuperating from being with someone who abused me, and while I’m transforming myself into the next trophy wife? Nobody could convict me of anything based on those.
I went blond after I killed Walter. I experimented with sparkly makeup instead of subtle and classy. I took a ton of selfies in different lighting, trying to decide whether I looked too trashy to attract the kind of man I wanted. Walter was the richest man I’d ever killed. It was nice to have money, but I was ready for a different flavor.
When I studied my selfies, I noticed another person in the pictures, even in the ones I took when I was alone. A shadow man stood behind me.
With the help of the only long-term friend I had, my high school nerd buddy Sully, who knew my whole history and made me fake IDs as necessary, I’d changed my name to Stephanie for this incarnation. As Walter’s wife, I had been Margaret. Walter called me Meg at first, and then, as he wore me down, Nutmeg, at least in private. Nutmeg, because I was crazy. He told me my memories were imaginary, and That Didn’t Happen. Not easy to convince someone when you have documentation. Sure, he hid all his trophy photos of me after he hit me in a private partition on his computer, but I knew how his mind worked and where he hid his passwords. Also, he left the key to the lock of the basement gallery in a hiding place in the basement, and of course I found that. I took pictures of his pictures and kept an SD card of them in the lining of my purse, just in case.
After I killed Walter, I took a hammer to his laptop and burned his printed-out pictures in our fireplace. I mailed my SD card to Sully and told him not to look, just keep it safe. He’s a criminal, but he respects my wishes, or if he doesn’t, he never tells me.
I stayed a widow in the house I had shared with Walter for three months, then told anyone who was interested that the house held too many memories. I sold it and moved, as I usually do. I hadn’t made any real friends during Nutmeg’s life, so I had no regrets.
In my new town, Stephanie joined a gym, took aquarobics and pilates and yoga classes, and buffed up the body I’d let go during my Walter period. Some of the guys in the hot tub hit on Stephanie while she was still fat, which told me I still had it, but they weren’t the type of men I was interested in.
Between husbands, I never did feel right. I felt better in some ways, but the lust and excitement and satisfaction were all pretty flat.
I documented Stephanie’s adventures in character-building in a series of selfies: Stephanie in all kinds of clothes in department store dressing rooms. I didn’t buy many. It took me time and many experiments to settle on a new style every time I started over. I needed my selves to be conventionally attractive, and also interesting, and different from each other. Finding the right quirks took work.
In selfie after selfie as I studied them on my laptop, I saw a shadowy figure behind me, near me, sharing a mirror with me. I knew I had been alone all those times.
The shadow grew darker as I fine-tuned Stephanie. Its outline looked familiar.
At the gym, I took a selfie of me on a treadmill, rocking out to songs on my iPhone. Totally innocent and non-prosecutable. A man stood beside me, even though my gym had separate rooms for the women and men to work out in, and it was hard to stand next to someone on a treadmill. The shadow was darker this time, not at all transparent, and I could make out its face.
It was Walter in all his urbane glory, out of place in a gym in his best dark pinstriped suit (the one I had buried him in), every dark hair in place.
I’d never run into this particular problem before. I mean—ghosts? Who believed? If there were ghosts who could do stuff, wouldn’t we be drowning in them? Everybody died sooner or later, not all of them peacefully. I thought about my previous husbands—Rich, Jason, Hank, and Trevor—all resting in different places around the country.
I sat in my apartment bedroom with the lights lit on my vanity table. I monitored my looks, though I was detached about it. Looks were a tool I used to get what I wanted. I took another selfie while I sat there, and Walter’s face showed up over my shoulder, staring at me with a big frown. He looked different from the way he had in the treadmill picture, but I wasn’t sure how, except his hair was less shellacked.
What if he was around all the time, watching me, judging?
More fool him.
“What do you even want, Walter?” I asked, looking over my shoulder at nothing. I faced forward again, held up the phone, and aimed the back camera toward my face. He was there, right behind me, wearing a ferocious frown. He frowned even more, came forward, and put his hands around my neck. It looked like he was squeezing, but all I felt was a slight chill.
I shrugged. “You got nothing.”
His shoulders rose and fell. Wait, what? He wasn’t in his suit anymore. Before I could study on that, he let go of me, pursed his lips, and pointed to my hair, now honey blond with platinum highlights. While I was married to him, it had been auburn with golden highlights.
“What? You don’t like it?”
He shook his head.
He grimaced. He had never liked to hear me use swear words. Which meant I could easily torture him in the afterlife.
“This is the color for my next husband, not my last husband. I’m going to find somebody with different tastes this time. Maybe a little more down home.”
He put his hands around my neck again. I took a selfie. He was there in the picture, looking like he was expending great effort to choke me. His arms were bare, and his muscles were bunched up. I was smiling.
“Look at this. It’s so weird!” I showed him the selfie, then realized that without the phone camera active, I couldn’t see him, so I didn’t know whether he was looking. That was no fun. I emailed the picture to myself, then opened up the laptop to put it on a bigger screen, and switched the phone back to camera mode, aiming it around until I found Walter again. He leaned over beside me and looked at the picture.
“What the hell are you wearing?” I asked. “That’s not the suit I buried you in! Are you shopping in the afterlife?” How could he be wearing metallic green workout shorts and a pink tank top? So undignified! I’d never seen him wear clothes like that.
He looked hot. His butt, sheathed in shiny green cloth, was so nicely defined I wanted to grab it. I snapped a picture of just his butt, then aimed the camera at his face and captured his nasty grin. He stepped back and posed for me, showing off his muscles, lifting his shirt to reveal washboard abs, doing poses like mustachioed strong men in old circus posters.
I took picture after picture, more interested in him dead than I had been while he was alive. Had he always been this toned? I knew he was strong. I’d felt it. But he wore formal or studiedly casual clothes while we were together, except when we were in bed, and he liked that to be dark time. He loved looking at his handiwork on my body, but never liked me to see him clearly.
I sent all the pictures to my laptop and then looked at Walter with the phone’s camera. When had he gotten so . . . solid?
He laughed. I could almost hear it—just the thinnest edge of a sound that used to mean he was going to hit me again, harder.
It worried me.
Then he vanished.
My best friend Sully and I rarely met face to face since I started my career as a serial killer. Our pasts were too tangled with things that might make government people spy on us and listen in on what we said to each other. We liked flying below any radar there was.
This time, though, I arranged to meet him. Sully was rooted in place, part of a crime network in San Francisco, and as Stephanie, I had moved to Palo Alto, not too far from where I grew up. I was ready for some California culture after three-plus years in Chicago.
I met Sully at the public library, in one of the private, glass-walled study rooms.
I hadn’t seen him in six years. He was still rangy and tall and looked like he hadn’t shaved, or brushed his shaggy brown hair in two weeks. I had never been able to figure out how he maintained just that length of prickly golden stubble. The lines around his eyes and mouth were deeper, and his clothes were more ragged and frayed, but he wore expensive tennis shoes, and he’d changed his chunky black plastic glasses to wire rims that made him look like John Lennon. We hugged. He smelled like barbecue and citrus shampoo and something wild, like sage, and he felt warm and solid.
“Nice work with Walter,” he said. Sully always knew where I was, and checked my local newspapers for stories about me and my husbands. He watched for coded requests from me in the personal ads, too. He would have seen the article about Walter’s car crash.
“Thanks. Only there’s a problem,” I said. “Take a look at this.” I opened my laptop and showed him a slideshow of my selfies. Not every single one, but a time-lapse of Meg’s transformation into Stephanie.
Sully said, after I’d shown him about twenty pictures, “I admit to some fascination with this—I’ve never seen your in-between stages before—but is there a point, or are you just showing off?”
“Wait. Sorry. I thought I edited this down better. I’ll skip ahead.” I jumped to the treadmill picture and pointed to Walter’s shadow.
“It’s Walter.” I jumped back to a picture of me in a dressing room wearing a ridiculous pink satin sheath dress I’d never buy no matter what I looked like. I enjoyed imagining the kind of person who would buy it, though. Playing dress-up was career practice for me.
I pointed to the faint shadow in the dressing room mirror. “See? He starts showing up here . . .”
“Are you crazy?” Sully asked.
“Only in a controlled way.” I flipped back to the treadmill shot, then jumped ahead to a picture of Walter in my vanity table mirror, one where he had his hands wrapped around my throat. His features were visible—the grimace that had terrified me while I was Meg. Stephanie could shrug it off.
Sully took a step back. “Whoa!”
“Didn’t hurt,” I said. “I couldn’t even feel it. But—”
Sully pulled his iPhone out of his pocket and turned on the camera. He looked around the room through his screen. He stopped with the phone aimed over my shoulder.
I got out my own phone and took a look. Walter stood there, sure as shootin’, back in his good suit again. He smiled at both of us. He looked a little wavery around the edges, but more real than he had before.
Sully set his phone to record video and aimed it at Walter. “Hey, brother,” he said. “What is it you’re trying to communicate from beyond the grave?”
Walter gave him the finger.
“Who is this man, Nutmeg?” Walter asked, turning to me. His voice was no louder than a whisper, but I could hear it.
“Nutmeg?” Sully asked, still filming Walter.
“Walter’s pet name for me,” I said. “Walter, this is Sully, my childhood friend. What are you doing here?”
Walter smiled and buried his hands in his pockets. “I’m a trifle displeased with you, sweetheart. I had no plans to die.” He sounded a little louder. His edges had stabilized. Why was he getting more real?
I said, “Neither did I, and the way you were going, it looked like I was headed there. It was you or me, and I chose survival for me.”
“So are you haunting me because I killed you?” I asked. “What do I have to do to get rid of you?”
He smiled. “Why would I tell you that?” He turned to Sully, shot him with a finger-gun, then expanded outward, as though he were inflatable and someone was blowing more air into him. His outside edge went right through me, an icy wave. I couldn’t stop shuddering; my teeth ached, and my nerves were still firing.
Sully stopped filming. He was shuddering, too; Walter had moved through him as he blew up bigger than the room. Maybe we were still inside his edges.
We put the video on the laptop and watched it. Sully shook his head, stopped, then shook his head again. “I do forgeries and hacking,” he said. “I don’t do ghosts.”
We were sitting at the study-room table with the computer in front of us. I snuck my phone up and took a selfie with me and Sully in it. There was Walter, his face more demonic than human, grinning between me and Sully. He’d grown fangs.
I showed my phone to Sully.
“No,” he said. “I love you, Polly, but I can’t—I don’t—I got no skills for this.” He grabbed his battered briefcase and his phone and left the room.
I sat back, feeling cold and alone. Sully had always been there for me, no matter what I did. I couldn’t believe he would leave me now.
But the door had closed behind him. I waited, and he didn’t come back.
I swallowed. I took a few deep breaths. I figured out my next move. Sully had already helped me set up my Stephanie identity, and I’d gotten her look down now. I flipped up the laptop lid to go online.
“Hey,” Walter whispered in my ear. “I’ve met some interesting people over here. Look behind me.”
I could hear Walter, even though I wasn’t looking at him. I sighed and aimed my phone toward his voice. He was there, looking spiffy and charismatic again. Other shadows hovered behind him. I snapped a picture. They were still just stains on the air, not solid like Walter, but I suspected if I could see them clearly, they’d look a lot like Rich, Jason, Hank, and Trevor.
“We’ve had some lovely talks,” Walter whispered.
I turned off my phone. Maybe ostrich mode would work for me: he couldn’t bother me if I didn’t look at him. I plugged in the laptop, went online, and started a new Match.com account. I needed a selfie. I looked at my most recent ones. They all had Walter in them. Well, I could edit him out. I chose one of the ones I had taken at my vanity table and cropped and blackened Walter’s image out of the picture, then posted it and set up my subscription using the new credit card Sully had gotten for Stephanie Farrell. I registered with the nickname Steffy and said I liked homemaking and entertaining.
The website showed me singles near me, and I studied their pictures, wondering who they really were. It took me a lot of dates with a lot of people to find my husbands. I didn’t want to marry anyone who didn’t deserve me.
I heard breathing in my ear. “I like Mr. TakeAChance,” Walter whispered. I turned toward his voice, then remembered I was ignoring him. Still, I looked hard at Mr. TakeAChance, and ended up sending him a message.
The next time I took a selfie, again while sitting at the vanity table in the bedroom, Walter was back beside me, looking into the phone’s camera and smiling. This time he was wearing a joke nightshirt I had bought him for our first Christmas together, flannel with little Grinches all over it. He’d never worn it while he was alive. He’d been angry and disgusted when he opened it, and I spent the rest of Christmas in bed with a lot of bruises.
“You burned that. How’d you get it back?” I asked.
He smiled and waggled his eyebrows. Had he grown a sense of humor since he died?
He pointed at the phone. “Take another picture,” he whispered. “I’ll make a face.”
He’d never been playful. I shrugged and took a picture, and then another, and another. In each he was doing a different expression. He even pushed up his nose into a pig snout, and did fish lips. If he’d been this fun while he was alive, maybe I wouldn’t have killed him.
At last he leaned forward and licked my ear while I took a picture, and I felt it. I felt it. He left a trace of slimy wetness on me.
I shuddered and turned the phone off.
I could still see him. A faint, shadowy image on the air, but still there.
I ran out of my bedroom and into the kitchen. His stain didn’t follow me. I grabbed my coat and purse and went out. I went to Green Park and walked off my shudders, then went home, to find my phone had run out of charge. When I plugged it in again, it notified me it had no more storage space.
Somehow Walter had managed to use it to take more selfies. Hundreds of them. I deleted and deleted, and there were still more.
A knock sounded behind me, and I turned to see Walter at my open bedroom door. He looked real. “Hey, baby,” he said. “You know how pictures steal a little of your soul? It works the other way if you’re dead already. Welcome me back?”
Over the past four decades, Nina Kiriki Hoffman has sold adult and young adult novels and more than 350 short stories. Her works have been finalists for the World Fantasy, Mythopoeic, Sturgeon, Philip K. Dick, and Endeavour awards. Her novel The Thread that Binds the Bones won a Horror Writers Association Stoker Award, and her short story “Trophy Wives” won a Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America Nebula Award.
Nina does production work for the The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. She teaches short story classes through Lane Community College, Wordcrafters in Eugene, and Fairfield County Writers’ Studio. She lives in Eugene, Oregon.
For a list of Nina’s publications, check out: http://ofearna.us/books/hoffman.html.