what it’s like to fall in love when you don’t have a heart
sydney khoo (University of Technology, Sydney, Australia)
Artwork by Marichelle Crick
You don’t remember your death.
In the afterlife, consciousness is flimsier than cotton candy—little grains of memory that liquefy and distort, dragged into delicate strings that collect and intertwine.
At first you think that’s what you are: a cloud of vague, not-quite memories, hovering over a sea of strangers. But when you descend, the waves crash through you, and you think maybe you’re mist—a thin vapour of nothing.
It’s hazy how long you wander, uncertain if you can be lost if you have nowhere to be. Then a gaze passes over you, too slow. Stuttering.
You don’t remember your death, just like you don’t remember your birth. But this, you think, you will never forget.
“Wen Ri,” the mouth says. “Like Wendy, but not. You?”
You don’t know your name. You probably have one. Had one. Maybe you lost it when you lost your body—your memories. You’re not sure you’ll find the latter if you no longer have the former.
You try to say this, but you have no mouth. No lungs or vocal cords or tongue or teeth.
“That’s okay,” Wen Ri says aloud, unbothered by passers-by throwing passing glances. “You can find one you like. You have time.”
Actually, you learn, it’s hard to grasp time when you’re dead. Light and dark don’t filter through quite the same when you don’t have eyes, and you can’t make out the sky. Though you’re sure you should be able to, you can’t seem to read clocks.
“The numbers all melt together, right?” Wen Ri says, cooking what you can only guess is dinner: fried rice with cubes of ham from a tin and frozen peas from a ziplock bag. “I can see it when I’m not focusing—which is pretty often.”
Wen Ri laughs, then looks to you, as though to check you’re laughing too. But you can’t laugh.
You can’t even breathe.
Whenever Wen Ri sits, anywhere, you reflexively search for a space beside them—a gap in the bench, a space on the subway, another chair at the table—then, you remember you don’t have a body and you wouldn’t be able to sit anyway.
“It’s just muscle memory,” Wen Ri says, thumbing through channels. “You’ll unlearn it eventually.”
There’s a comfort in knowing it won’t be like this, always.
You hover, close enough to touch.
There are moments—on peak-hour trains, in supermarket check-out lines, at invite-only parties—when Wen Ri speaks to you, voice clear and unwavering. There are moments when Wen Ri looks at you, gaze unflinching.
In those moments, it’s like everyone else is a ghost and you’re the one who’s alive.
Occasionally, Wen Ri converses with the living. The people they choose to trade words with, to your surprise, wait patiently whenever Wen Ri turns to you, explaining references, before continuing the conversation where they left off.
These people don’t see you, or hear you, or feel you; but they don’t object when Wen Ri pauses to talk to empty space or cackle at nothing in particular.
You know it’s not normal. You know in the same way you know the sun is warm and clocks tell the time. It takes you a while, but you work it out—
You’re not the first ghost to come into Wen Ri’s life.
And with that, you understand you won’t be the last.
You’ll disappear for real one day, you’re sure. As cotton candy dissolves on the tongue, you’ll become nothing but a vague sweetness in Wen Ri’s mouth. And even that, too, will fade.
“You do realise cotton candy is a tangible thing, right?” Wen Ri murmurs, lashes fanned over their cheeks. “And even if it wasn’t—even if it wasn’t something I could touch with my hands—that doesn’t mean it’s not real.”
Even half-asleep, Wen Ri is right.
And you are still a ghost.
What you dread more than disappearing is the reverse. You staying and them leaving. Slipping from you like the numbers on clocks, like the world through your fingers, like a dream upon wake.
“Do you dream?” Wen Ri asks, wriggling their toes in the sand. You can’t feel the wind, but Wen Ri’s hair lifts and tangles. “I’ve never met a ghost who sleeps.”
What a strange question. No, you don’t dream. Of course you don’t sleep. How can you? You don’t exist.
Wen Ri laughs like you’ve said something funny, and you can feel it—the sound tingling and rolling all over.
A wave washing over you, instead of crashing through.
In that moment, you are alive.
Or maybe that’s wishful thinking.
sydney khoo is a non-binary and queer writer, born in Australia, to Malaysian-Chinese parents. Though typically drinking bubble tea in Cabramatta, or reading fanfiction in a McDonald’s carpark, they can occasionally be found writing nonsense stories at cafés with their dog Gizmo. Follow them on Twitter @sydneykhoo.
Marichelle Crick is a Filipino-British illustrator currently based in London. She has helped bring to life the works of authors, podcasters, and dungeon masters with inspiration from her dual heritage and lifelong love of SFF media. Find her on Twitter @magpieandrobin.