I looked up from my screen and there she was. Sitting with her head tilted down towards her lap, modestly transparent and flickering like an old film. While my emails chimed softly behind me, I watched her.
She was in her twenties, and her hair was held back in a bun. She wore a plain, dark dress with a full skirt and a pinafore apron. Her hands danced; a set of sure looping steps, her right hand rising and falling as if conducting some silent symphony. She was sewing. The rhythm of her gestures began to slow and she lifted her head to look out of the window. I studied her face and wondered what she was thinking.
“Hello?” I said, quietly. There was no response. However we had been brought into this moment together, she was completely unaware of my presence. She closed her eyes for a moment and her chest fell softly in a sigh. She began sewing again. That first day I watched her for about twenty minutes before she began to fade, and then disappeared completely. I went to the spot beside the window and waved my hands through the air. Nothing. I sat back down again. And then, because I didn’t know what else to do, I turned around and got on with my work.
I saw her every day that week. Sometimes for half an hour at a time she sat near me, sewing quietly and occasionally stopping and looking around the room or out of the window. I noticed that her dress and her hair were slightly different each day, and I realised that I wasn’t seeing one moment on a single day being repeated, but a procession of days. Days like mine, which were all much alike.
It wasn’t long before I started seeing the others.
The seamstress was joined by another woman. She was older, standing and stirring something over what was once, presumably, a stove. Then a man, balding, hunched over an invisible desk. His hand twitched as he wrote, and he stopped often and peered to his right. I thought perhaps he worked at an invisible an account book. Next there was a thin, haggard man, his battered suit covered with black soot, crouching before the bricked up memory of a fireplace.
One night, I woke in the small hours and rolled over to see, floating in the darkness beside me, a woman softly glowing. She was lying on her back, naked save for a pair of black wool stockings, arms rigid, legs spread and hips jolting. I switched on the light and she vanished.
At first I welcomed my silent, spectral colleagues. They seemed harmless, and they fascinated me. In a way they kept me company. But then each time one appeared I felt my chest tighten, and my breath grow thin and urgent. I began to dread seeing them. I started following careful routes through my home where none had yet appeared, and keeping my eyes on my screen as I worked. Even though I believed they were unconscious, just echoes, I found I had developed a horror of touching them. I shrank to lessen the risk of brushing against one by accident.
On a grey morning I was walking around the park, under the pergola wreathed with stringy roses, when I saw a transparent man raking at the ground. Despair swept through me. Of course they were here too. Thousands, millions of lives rushing past me unseen in the park, on the street, in every shop and cafe.
That night I lay curled in my bed, eyes shut tight to keep out the jostling crowd of shadows in noiseless, endless motion around me.
Beyond my door the dead seethed in greater and greater numbers. I began to watch them from my window; a crowd of people shimmering in layers of constant movement like a film played over another. The longer I watched them the more it seemed to me that there was a choreography, of a kind. Some subtle and complex dance in which everybody knew their part, but whose music I couldn’t hear. I watched them, hypnotised, until I realised what I had to do to escape the prison I had made.
When the seamstress appeared in her usual place, I took a deep breath and reached out to touch her on the arm. My fingers slipped through her like smoke. I pulled back, shivering. She felt like a breeze, or a breath. Then I let my hand sink into her. Her arm, her shoulder, her neck. I reached deep into her chest, and curled my fist inside her phantom heart. I knelt in front of her, as close as a lover, and studied her eyes, her lips, the tilt of her head. At last, I pressed my face into hers, a century collapsed between us.
Her skull was cool, and full of light.
Sarah Jackson (she/they) writes gently unsettling stories. Her short fiction has been published by Wyldblood Magazine, Ghost Orchid Press, and Tales From Between. She is a member of SFWA and Codex, and co-editor of Fantastic Other magazine. She lives in east London UK and has a green tricycle called Ivy. Her website is https://sarah-i-jackson.ghost.io.