When author Colson Whitehead first heard about the Underground Railroad as a child he imagined a subway beneath the earth that escaped slaves could ride to freedom. He tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross that when he found out that it was not a literal train, he felt “a bit upset.”
Now, in his new novel, The Underground Railroad, Whitehead returns to his childhood vision of an actual locomotive that carries escaped slaves through tunnels.
There’s a boy on the bed that should be Claire’s. Or rather, the ghost of a boy; he’s ever so slightly translucent, his body hovering a centimetre or two above the covers, though the book he holds in his insubstantial hands seems real enough.
‘You’re Kevin,’ she says, and the ghost-boy yelps, the room’s other contents shaking in the poltergeist-breeze of his shock.
‘Shit!’ he says, and in the split second it takes for his dropped book to hit the floor, he vanishes and reappears a little to Claire’s left. This time, he’s standing, one hand rubbing sheepishly at the back of his neck.
‘Sorry about that,’ he says. ‘You snuck up on me. You’re Claire, right?’
She laughs. He’s not even the weirdest thing she’s seen this week, and besides, Jody said he’d be up here.
‘Yeah, that’s me.’ She slings her duffel off her shoulder, nods at the now-vacated bed. ‘You mind if I crash?’
‘Hey, it’s your room.’ He steps aside to let her pass - an unnecessary courtesy - and Claire nods in thanks, dumping her bag on the chest of drawers before flinging herself on the mattress.
It’s not a big room, but it’s clean and fresh, and there’s enough space on the shelves that she can spread out her meagre possessions without feeling cramped. It’s more than she’s had in a long time, and a part of her wants it so badly, it hurts. It’ll do, she tells herself.
For now, it’ll do.
‘Being a ghost must suck,’ she says idly, crossing her arms beneath her head. There’s a bunch of old glow-in-the-dark stars stuck to the ceiling, though whether they’re mapping out any real constellations, Claire doesn’t know. Maybe she’ll look it up later, if she’s feeling bored.
‘Not so much,’ says Kevin. Apparently taking the comment as leave to stay, he stop-start flickers his way to the tiny wooden desk, pretending to lean against it. ‘I mean, yeah, ordinarily, you die, you stick around, you eventually go nuts and live out the rest of your unlife as a B-grade horror movie villain until or unless you get salted and burned, but me?’ He grins, the expression wry and sharp. ‘I died when Heaven was closed for business. Couldn’t go up, couldn’t go down; nobody could. It was kinda unprecedented.’
Claire blinks, surprised. ‘And that made you special or something?’
‘By ghost standards, yeah. I can interact with things -’ he leans forward, poking the sole of her shoe just hard enough that she can feel it; Claire sticks out her tongue in response, ‘- and control the whole disappearing act, but best of all, I stay coherent. No mental-spiritual disintegration.’
‘Cool,’ says Claire. ‘Go team ghost. That happen to all of you?’
‘The ones who stayed behind, yeah, but the others I was trapped with, they’ve mostly moved on now. Once Heaven reopened, a bunch of psychopomps came for us -’
‘They’re a type of angel,’ says Kevin, somewhat apologetically. ‘Specifically, a type of reaper. They escort the souls of the dead from point A to point B.’
‘Oh. Right.’ Claire bites her lip, heart twisting at the memory of her mother. ‘Are they nice?’ she blurts, hating the word even as she says it. Nice. Like anything to do with Heaven is nice. ‘I mean, I know most angels are dicks, but I’m willing to grade on a curve.’
‘They’re okay, I guess,’ says Kevin. He shoots her a shy smile. ‘Kinda preachy.’
Claire makes a sound which is hopefully closer to laughter than tears. ‘I’ll bet they are. So, what - you didn’t like the sales pitch?’
‘Pretty much. With everything going on down here, I figured Heaven could wait. Plus, you know.’ He ducks his head, scuffing a spectral sneaker against the edge of a faded rag-rug. ‘I couldn’t leave my mom.’
Claire shuts her eyes, squeezing them against the threat of tears. ‘Yeah,’ she says,voice suddenly hoarse. ‘I get that.’
Kevin falls silent, and Claire takes a moment to get herself under control - a moment which, seconds later, is broken by a triple-rap on the doorframe.
‘Love what you’ve done with the place,’ drawls an unfamiliar voice.
Scrubbing her eyes with the sleeve of her hoodie, Claire sits up, and finds herself staring at a pale, dark-haired girl wearing charcoal sweats and a red tank.
‘Alex,’ says the girl, by way of introduction. She’s peering at the room like she’s never seen it before, which is clearly bullshit, as this is her house, but the smirk on her face says she knows exactly what she’s doing. ‘You’re Claire, right? The angel-baby?’
‘And you’re the vamp-bait,’ Claire snarks back. ‘Charmed, I’m sure.’
Alex laughs. ‘I like her,’ she says to Kevin. ‘She’s got spark.’
Kevin rolls his eyes in a way that could generously be termed affectionate. ‘I’d tell you two to just lay ‘em out and measure, but I’m not sure that works with boobs.’
‘I’ve got an angel sword,’ Claire says, smiling. ‘We can measure that.’
Alex laughs again - genuinely, this time - and flashes her two thumbs up. ‘Welcome to the wayward daughters’ club,’ she says. ‘First rule: always bring your own weaponry.’
‘Noted,’ says Claire, who grudgingly thinks that Alex might be maybe okay. ‘Anything else I should know?’
Alex grins. ‘Dinner’s at six,’ she says. ‘And if you play nice, I’ll fill you in on the rest of our noble sorority. Spoiler alert: we’ve got three baby hunters, Donna Do-Good and a hot werewolf. We’re quite the motley crew.’
And with that, she turns and saunters out of the room.
Claire watches her go, then raises a brow at Kevin. ‘Is she always like that?’
He sighs. ‘Pretty much. But you get used to it. Oh!’ He straightens. ‘Shit, I almost forgot - I’m meant to tell you my mom’s going to take you to get a tattoo tomorrow.’
‘Get me a what?’
‘An anti-possession tattoo,’ says Kevin, patiently. ‘You know, like Sam and Dean have? So demons can’t enter your body and control it?’
Claire perks up. ‘Awesome!’
‘Also, uh -’ he glances at the door, lowering his voice, ‘- I’m not really meant to mention it yet, but you should probably know, there’s a series of books about the Winchesters, like an actual gospel about their lives, only instead of, like, holy scriptures, it ended up as a bunch of pulp urban fantasy novels. They have a fandom and everything.’
Claire’s mouth hangs open. ‘Are you shitting me?’
Kevin grimaces. ‘Really wish I was,’ he says, then hesitates. ‘You, uh. You’re in them. Because of the whole, uh, Castiel thing. It’s kind of a major plot point. And I just, I thought - Charlie Bradbury, you know, she works with Sam and Dean, we email sometimes and she sent me digital copies of them all, and I thought that maybe, one day, if you wanted, you could, uh. Read them. See how it all went down. If you wanted.’
Claire thinks of Sam, who got to know his dead mother later in life; Dean, who’s both a minigolfing doof and a murdering Knight of Hell; and Castiel, who wore her father’s body to save the world. The whole world, apparently, though that seems impossible. She’s pretty sure Dean was exaggerating to make her feel better, but if there’s really a way to find out the truth -
‘Claire!’ Jody calls up the stairs. ‘You wanna come down, let me give you the tour?’
‘Coming!’ she yells back, and swings her legs off the bed. She looks at Kevin, studying his face. ‘The books are really true?’
He makes a face. ‘Luridly so.’
‘Then yeah,’ she says, and smiles. ‘I think I’ll give them a try.’
“I love everyone who’s ever ‘gotten in trouble’ for being outrageous on the red carpet, like Björk in the swan dress. I think that if you can upset people simply by being original you are definitely succeeding at being an artist.”