Read short stories and book reviews by Misha Berveno.
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On Ghosts

Ghosts are real. You can’t see them, but you can feel them. They follow you. They haunt you. Some of them eventually fade away; others stay for life.

Step 1: Fill up a thin-spout pouring kettle with 400 ml of cold water. Turn on a gas stove.

Unlike what you see in movies, real ghosts are not see-through dead people. When they want to appear, they just enter your mind. When they are done, they leave.

Step 2: Use a kitchen scale to weigh 30 grams of freshly roasted coffee beans. Then manually grind them with a Japanese ceramic mill, aiming for course but even grounds.

Every ghost is there for a reason, even if that reason seems opaque to you at first. While ghosts don’t have to look like people, they come from interactions with people. Every action leaves a trail that might become a ghost for someone else.

Step 3: Heat up the French press by swishing around 50 ml of boiling water, then empty it out.

Human interactions require closure. When they are left hanging, doors that should be closed are being left ajar. Soon, the ghosts start coming in. They fill the voids. They attach themselves to words, gestures and actions.

Step 4: Put coffee in the French press. Pour 60 ml of water, stir the grounds with a spoon and let them bloom for 30 seconds.

You’ve said something without thinking, and now it’s too late. The ghosts are forming. You say you’re sorry, but the ghosts won’t leave. They are becoming part of you, and you have to live with them.

Step 5: Fill up the French press with water. Place the lid on top. Wait for 4 minutes.

There are cries for help. Someone is in trouble. You want to save them, but you can’t. You’re too young. Your body fails you. You’re stunned, left there standing and watching the pain unfold. Finally, you use all your strength to run away and hide. The ghost is unlocked.

You don’t keep your promise and let people down. You have a million reasons why, but each one sends a signal for ghosts to consider.

Someone important to you pisses you off, so you shut them out of your life forever. You think you’re done, but closure was not there.

Step 6: Press the filter down. Pour coffee into a mug.

You go through life accumulating ghosts. Some stay; some go. Some torment you; others keep out of the way and wait for their perfect moment.

You can’t avoid your ghosts forever. But, sometimes, you can try to act in a way the ghosts would have no reason to exist.

The coffee is now cold.

On Losing Everything

The first time it happened, I was driving southward on a highway across the border to see my parents in a small seaside town, about seven hours away.

I saw the flashing lights of a cop’s car in a rearview mirror and pulled over. The officer took his time.

– I’m afraid we’ll have to impound your car.

I couldn’t believe it.

– Excuse me? What … what for?
– We received a call from your … car rental. Seems like you’ve exceeded your maximum allowed cap of 500 kilometres per trip.

I looked at the dashboard. The trip meter read 525.

– How can there be a limit? It’s a rental.
– Well, have your read the terms & conditions? Says so right here.

He gave me a printout of the car rental agreement.

– Yes … no … I don’t know.

The second time it happened while my car was being taken away by the tow truck. My landlord called.

– I just emailed you an eviction notice, effective immediately. Your stuff is in the shed outside.

I couldn’t believe it.

– Excuse me? What … what for?
– I received a call from the … utility company. Seems like you’ve exceeded your maximum allowed cap of 500 kWh per month.

I checked my email. It said I’ve used 525 so far, probably due to keeping the AC on at all times.

– How can there be a limit? It’s my apartment.
– Well, have your read the terms & conditions? Says so right there.
– God, you must be kidding me …

The third time it happened as soon as I hung up the phone. A call from the airline.

– Mr … we’ve just cancelled your return flight.

I couldn’t believe it.

– Excuse me? What … what for?
– Our records show that you’ve skipped your flight today to … so we’ve cancelled the return as well, as per the agreement, of course.

I chose to rent a car one way at the last minute but was planning to come back home by plane.

– How can that be? I paid for the flight.
– Well, have your read the terms & conditions? Says so in fine print.
– What the hell …

The fourth time it happened when I tried to call a cab. The call got caught off and I received a text from the phone company instead.

– We’re sorry to inform you that, as per the terms & conditions, we’ve terminated your contract due to the excessive use of roaming.

I tried to send a middle-finger emoji back, but it failed to deliver.

So here I am, sitting on a concrete road divider in July heat with the car rental terms & conditions in my hand. I laugh. I can only laugh. What a stupid situation to find yourself in. What a stupid, stupid day.

On Dissonance

It was around 11:30pm when Monika called, waking me up from a deep slumber.

– Can you come? I need you here.
– Yes, of course.

I felt my heart beating faster. She never calls. I got up and walked to the bathroom to wash my face. Pausing before the mirror, I noticed a few grey hairs in my stubble. My eyes looked tired.

I put on black jeans, a t-shirt, a pair of distressed leather boots, drank a glass of water and walked out of the house. A pleasantly refreshing breeze embraced me as I headed to the nearby neighbourhood.

She was outside, as beautiful as ever, wearing a green cocktail dress that reminded me of summer. Her lively ever-curious eyes looked straight into mine. She took my hand and led me up the street.

– Let’s go.

We walked a couple of blocks in silence. Then she turned to me as if to see that I was still there. She smiled and my heart sank. Some things you never get over.

I thought of her often. Accidentally for the most part. It takes a seemingly insignificant trigger: a day in a year, a quote mentioned by a friend, a street corner, the hair colour of a passerby. You tend to remember the good. The bad fades away.

She turned into an alley. There was a bar we used to frequent. This night, it was crowded, smoky and loud. A band was playing. We were passing through the throng; someone I knew tapped me on the shoulder. The adjacent room was quieter, and we sat at the bar.

– Two vodkas, please.

The bartender placed two shots beside us. She downed hers. Then took mine and downed it as well.

– So what is it about?

She paused. The light from above the bar illuminated her face. Enchanting, but not mine anymore.

– I still love you.

I woke up to the trill of a ringing phone and found myself on the couch in my living room, with a book on my chest. Must had fallen asleep reading. I saw my cellphone and picked it up. It was her.

– Can you come? I need you here.
– No.

On Our Heritage

A dim table lamp barely made a difference, casting more shadow than anything.

– What’s the best thing you’ve ever done, grandpa? — Asked a little boy.

– Grhm… What you say?

– The best thing… My homework is to ask our family members about the best thing they’ve ever done.

The grandpa scratched his cheek, gazing through the floor.

– I helped a man once — he said at last — a man who changed my life.

The boy was looking at the grandpa, all ears.

– While in university, I struggled for money, doing odd jobs here and there — grandpa continued. — But one day, I saw a piece of paper on a bulletin board that read:

“Caregiver needed. Accommodation provided. Pay negotiable. Number below.”

I remember thinking: room for free and money? I called the number right away.

A day or so later, I met Martin. He was an old black handicapped man living in an elegant but decrepit two-story house on the right bank. He greeted me heartily.

During the first week at his house, I learned how inaccurate indeed it was to call Martin “disabled”. Paying next to no attention to his wheelchair and his condition, Martin was in fact the liveliest person I’d ever known. One thing he couldn’t cope with, though, was being alone.

– Not a single goddamn friend alive! — He used to say.

I lived on the second floor. Caring for Martin was nothing difficult, mostly keeping the house clean and helping him get around when he was tired. Days on end we spent talking. I got used to him. He became a close friend.

– What happened then, grandpa?

– Then he died. I came into his room one morning with a visceral fear of the end. I was right.

Later I found out that he had left me his only valuable possession — the house. I decided to sell it, but didn’t know what to do with the money. Eventually, I tracked down Martin’s birthplace, a small village in Mali. I went there with a vague idea of trying to help someone, even if distantly related to him.

I arrived one early morning and asked, in French, to see the elder. They were curious to know what brought me there, and I told them Martin’s story (whose real name was Modibo). They said they needed to discuss and invited to stay. Walking around that same day there I saw your grandma. I didn’t take the flight back.

Your father was born a bit more than a year later there. With the money I brought we built a school, which your father went to, and which kids still go to. I will show you one day. — The grandpa turned to the boy.

The boy was sleeping.

On Being Ambitious

On September 21, around three in the afternoon, Al was walking home from high school, following his everyday route: along Sinclair Street, then left and down Frederick Avenue. Unlike most teenagers, Al wasn’t listening to music. Instead, he was preoccupied with his prospects of getting into Harvard. Al was 18 years old.

Harvard, of course, wasn’t easy to get into, but it was the only university on Al’s mind. Thinking of it consumed virtually every minute of his time. Al was working hard to get the best grades while playing basketball at school. He was a decent player, but could’ve been better if actually he liked the game. Money wasn’t a problem — when Al was born, his parents set up a fund for him. They were morticians: doing very well, actually.

Al wanted to go to Harvard to study finance. In four years, as a graduate, he would join an investment bank as a junior financial analyst, from where he imagined a steady climb up the career ladder until he gained enough confidence to move on. He would then quit to start a hedge fund, accelerating his way into early retirement. Al’s plan was to make enough to get out at 40 and then devote his time to the bucket list he’d been delaying: travelling around the world, playing in a band, getting married. There will be plenty of time to do all that, he thought.

Girls liked Al. He was good-looking and seemed mysterious. Amy, his classmate, invited him on a date, but he never went. In fact, nobody ever remembered Al going on a date. He just didn’t seem to have the time. Last year, Al’s classmates went on a trip to San Francisco, but Al didn’t go. A few months ago, there was a party at Chris’s, when his parents left town, but Al didn’t come. Al’s younger sister, Mary, bought marijuana once, but Al didn’t try.

Al was approaching his house when he saw Mrs. Kingsley, a retired neighbour, anxiously standing outside.

– Mrs. Kingsley, what’s going on?

– My cat. She went up the tree and wouldn’t come down. Can you help me get her?

– Sure… No problem. – Al took his backpack off.

Between two properties stood an old oak: mighty and high. Al raised his head and, squinting, saw a small cat at the very top. He grasped the lowest hanging branch and pulled himself up. Al climbed slowly. Occasionally, smaller branches would dangerously squeak under his weight. Halfway there, Al looked down and felt the vertigo starting to crawl on him. He swallowed heavily but kept going, calling the cat’s name. Finally, the cat was almost within reach. Al extended his arm to grab her, when the branch underneath broke off, and he slipped.

You could hear a thud followed by the scream of Mrs. Kingsley. Al was 18 years old.