"South America certainly is lovely this time of year." Lounging on an outstretched blanket, Charles Condomine, middle-aged novelist and profoundly unsuitable human being, sipped a tropical drink and gazed out at the crashing waves.
The morning was warm, not too humid, and the beach was practically barren. It had been months since Charles left on his grand adventure across the world, following his intuition—which, truth be told, often led him astray—and writing as he traveled. His wives, however displeased they were, followed after him, practically haunting him, unwilling to let him live any semblance of a normal life.
"Charles, darling, you can't assume all of South America is lovely at this given moment," Elvira said disdainfully, eying her fingernails.
He waved a hand dismissively. "Nonsense," he said, "I'm sure the entire continent is enjoying this beautiful morning. Look at the sky, feel the heat. It's splendid."
Ruth pursed her lips and looked longingly at the empty glass by Charles's side. "What a fool you are, Charles, to think you know enough about the world to make such grandiose assumptions. It's very presumptuous of you—not that I'm surprised."
"Oh, keep quiet, dear, you're really rather exasperating," Charles said. "I'd like to enjoy this morning without your tiresome comments."
From the doorway, a lithe girl in a conservative dress flinched. "Sorry, sir, I'll do my best to keep my mouth shut from now on," she said. After a moment of thought, she added, "Though I didn't think I said anything…"
Ruth and Elvira stifled their giggles. Mortified, Charles leapt up from his spot on the balcony and addressed the employee directly. "I apologize," he said, "I was drafting dialogue for a story I'm writing. I'm a novelist, you know. Do forgive me."
The poor girl's cheeks flushed, and she offered a half-bow. "No need to apologize, sir. I'll take my leave now. Good day!"
"There now," Charles said, ruffling his hair.
"Charles, you must be more careful," Ruth said. "Ever since we rematerialized, you've been awfully remiss."
He sank onto the bed and buried his face in his hands. "Can you really blame me, Ruth?"
She crossed her arms and pouted. "Of course I can, Charles," she said. "You've always been negligent at the worst possible moments."
"I can second that," Elvira said. "Charles always had a way of acting out of turn and refusing to accept the consequences. I fear he'll never grow out of this childish immaturity."
Leaning against the nearest wall, Ruth sighed. "I'm afraid you're right."
"This dynamic is absolutely intolerable," Charles groaned. "Why must you both berate me?"
"You deserve it," Ruth said matter-of-factly.
"After all, it's your fault we're still here," Elvira said. "Why shouldn't we unite against the very man who damned us to hell on Earth?"
Charles raised his head and peered at his spectral wives with widened eyes and pouting lips. "Surely that accusation is a shade too cruel," he whined.
"Not at all," Ruth said stolidly. "If anything, it was too generous."
Defeated, Charles reclined on the bed, fingers splayed across the lavish spread. He draped an arm over his face to cover his eyes. "What am I to do with you two?" he said absently, his voice muffled.
Ruth placed herself by his side and stroked his hair. He didn't move. "You really are vile, Charles," she said softly. "I honestly can't believe I wasted the last five years of my life with you. It's a shame; it's really a damn shame."
She placed her hands in her lap and lifted her eyes, first to Elvira, whose lips curled earnestly with a faint trace of venom, then to the sky beyond the window as the sun began to set. Elvira followed her eyes and stared, her gaze absent.
"How far will you go, Charles?" Elvira asked suddenly. He uncovered his face to peer quizzically at her. "Will you spend the rest of your life running away like a spineless coward? Will your sloppy novels be able to support this lifestyle?" She turned to him, her eyes livid and liquid fire. "How long do you expect to continue playing this ridiculous game?"
He sat up suddenly, limbs moving like those of a puppet. "This isn't a game, Elvira," he said. "I'd have stopped playing by now if it were."
Silence set in. The sky outside changed colors, as if gold paint had been scattered throughout. As the sun settled into the water, Ruth rose and smoothed out imaginary folds in her dress. "Well," she said, "it'll be dark soon. You'd better order dinner."
"I'm not hungry," Charles said with an air of defiance. Ruth's eyes flashed in the dimness of the room.
"Planning to starve, Charles?" Elvira said with a sneer. "That just won't do." She began to pace, her stare never faltering. "You're not the type to wither away and die passively. I'm sure you'd prefer a nobler death, something really exciting, wouldn't you?"
Rising from the bed, he said, "I'd much rather not die at all, truthfully."
"If we're lucky, you never will," said Ruth. "I'd much rather die a thousand times over than spend an eternity with you."
Gritting his teeth, Charles said, "I surely would have liked to know your true feelings years ago, before I married you, if you feel so strongly."
Ruth cocked her head, peering down her nose at him. "As would have I," she said. "It'd have saved me a great deal of trouble. And I wouldn't be dead."
"Enough bickering," Elvira said. She waved a hand languidly about, as if to waft away the putrid smell of conflict. "Really, your squabbling could easily give a girl a terrible headache, you know."
"As much as we've grown closer, Elvira, I must say you are out of line," said Ruth.
"Have you considered how irritating your constant stream of insults can be? I'd swear it makes my temples pound—and I haven't got blood anymore, so that's truly an accomplishment," Ruth said triumphantly.
Charles held up a hand, but his wrist was limp. "Girls, please. Though you may not be able to experience them anymore, as metaphorical as you'd like to be, I, on the other hand, am fully capable of suffering from near-constant dreadful headaches."
Without any hesitation, Elvira and Ruth simultaneously said, "Good."
Groaning, Charles donned a sports jacket and shrugged his shoulders into it. "Enough," he said. "I'm going to dinner now. Feel free to follow me. I won't so much as spare a glance in your direction."
"Oh, but how will we survive without your loving gaze?" Elvira taunted with a demure smile. "Don't be so cold, Charles, dear."
He swept out the door, slamming it behind him, leaving his ghostly wives in agitated silence.
Ruth collapsed on the bed, pounding the comforter with a single fist. "He's as irascible as ever. I expect our presence has only made it worse."
"Certainly," Elvira said, her voice cold. "I hadn't wanted to come back at all, and now I'm stuck here. I can't imagine him being more upset than either of us. We can barely travel between here and the spirit world for any length of time, but he's free to carry on his life as he pleases. It really is unfair."
Now laying on her side so she could look at Elvira, Ruth sighed. "I wish things had been different. Our marriage really wasn't so bad, you know, before all the chaos," she said.
Elvira's face became dark. "Indeed," she said flatly.
"I don't blame you," Ruth said, and Elvira's expression broke. "I really don't. I gather you were deeply in love with him. As was I. And you were so young. It's a pity this whole thing turned out so sour, isn't it?"
"It certainly is," Elvira said. She fiddled with the chair upon which she sat, prying at a button sewn loosely into the cushion until she freed it from the thread. For a few moments, she observed the object, staring at it intently, before speaking again. "I apologize."
"Not nonsense. I did some awful things. I hope… I hope that you'll forgive me."
"I mean it, Ruth. Please, just accept it."
Ruth sat up less than gracefully. "Very well. I accept. Thank you, Elvira."
With an easy smile, Elvira sank back into the chair and gazed out to the balcony. The sky had grown dark, and the moon shone brightly. "What are we to do, Ruth?"
"How do you mean?"
"Are we going to haunt Charles for as long as he lives?" she asked. Her voice, Ruth noticed, was heavy, weighed down by something greater than sorrow.
Crossing her ankles, Ruth smiled bitterly. "I don't know," she said. "What else could we do? We can't go back to the spirit world, not permanently, anyway. We've really no place else to go—unless you've a sudden urge to venture to the Psychical Research Society. I'm sure Madame Arcati and her mystic peers would be thrilled. They'd probably have an aneurysm or two from the excitement alone."
"I'd rather not," Elvira said. "I'd like to do something while I'm here, on Earth. It's awfully boring, you know. There's not much we can do, so I suppose we're trapped with Charles, at least for a little while."
"What a miserable business," Ruth moaned.
Having risen from her seat, Elvira moved beside Ruth and patted her arm comfortingly. "There, there," she said. "We'll get through it. We might as well have as much fun with it as we can while we can."
"I suppose you're right," Ruth said. The room filled with silence once more, then Ruth spoke again, a mischievous gleam in her eye. "Shall we venture down to the dining room and pay our darling Charles a visit?"
Squeezing the other woman's hand briefly, Elvira smiled and said, "I should like nothing better."