This idea, and the next two that come after it, came during one of my ‘stare at a blank surface until you start to hallucinate ideas’ sessions. It was actually pretty productive. In the space of 2 hours (I was in class at university, go figure) I thought of 3 ideas and wrote their titles on my arm so I wouldn’t forget. I find that if I can think of a title and write it down, the story becomes complete and I can start working on the details in my mind. The three titles were: shadows on the wall, the patient, and deal with the dead. Probably none of those titles I’ll actually use, except maybe the first, cos it’s cool. I haven’t written that one yet, though, so I don’t know. This one is the last title, and I decided to rename it something slightly less corny. Enjoy!
By Ben Pienaar
To dig one’s own grave is usually meant as a metaphor, but in his case Sol Gammon decided to take it literally. He’d already done it metaphorically, and now he’d done it for real, too, and looking into the gaping hole was understandably depressing. He’d considered making his own gravestone as well, but thought it would be too difficult, and not really worth the effort. Keeping his body out of the way was one thing, but let the living take care of his damned gravestone, and all the other extraneous junk to boot.
Besides his horrible sadness, Sol felt nothing in regards to death. He looked forward to it, a little bit, and that was certainly more than he could say about his life. He had siblings and parents still, though he was distant with them, and had no family or friends of his own. He was just a ghost on earth, and the truth was he already thought of himself as dead. He even looked it, with his pale face and grey hair and not an ounce of fat on his body. It often surprised him when someone spoke to him, and he always wanted to shout back at them: ‘What are you doing? Can’t you see I’m dead?’
He turned away from his freshly dug grave and tossed his shovel aside. He reached into his pocket (he’d put on his only suit for the occasion) with a grimy hand and took out a razor blade. He’d wanted a gun, but they were impossible to get hold of if you barely had enough money to afford eggs for breakfast. It didn’t matter – at least this way he’d have time to position himself in his grave and look decent.
He took a final look around at the graveyard and breathed the night air. The moon was shining low in the sky and gave the whole place a delightful melancholy air. It was perfect, he decided. All in all, a very nice way to die. He almost smiled.
He put the razor against his wrist, closed his eyes, and – ‘Stop!’
A voice came from somewhere straight ahead. He looked up, so shocked he almost staggered back into his grave. There was no one there. Ahead of him, only gravestone after gravestone. There was a hill in the middle of the cemetery with a leafless tree standing atop it, and that was where the voice seemed to come from. Absurdly, he wondered if there was someone hiding behind it.
‘Hello?’ he said.
‘Don’t do it,’ the voice said, and this time it was closer. He squinted in the moonlight and thought he saw, somewhere between himself and the silhouetted tree, a wisp of something black. It was a ghost, he thought. It had to be. Or else a very realistic hallucination. He hoped it was the latter – it would give him yet another good reason to finish himself, whereas this voice only promised a conflict he didn’t need.
It drew closer, and then the wisp became something solid and he saw that it really was a ghost. Not only that, but a woman ghost. She was dressed in a badly fitting shirt and long pants, and he thought to himself that whoever she’d been, she was far too pretty to wear such ugly things. Despite her looks, her expression was hollow. She had dark circles around her eyes and was decidedly malnourished.
She stopped a few feet away from him and simply hovered (he couldn’t see her feet – they seemed to blur into darkness) above the grass. Her hair waved about in the air the way seaweed does deep underwater. He’d thought her pale, but now he decided that it was not her natural skin colour, but the colour it had adopted: silver moonlight.
‘Please don’t do it,’ she said again. Her voice was soft and full of sorrow.
He let his hands fall to his sides for a moment. Despite himself, he was curious. She was after all a ghost, and so must know things about death that he didn’t. Maybe it was extremely unpleasant.
‘You don’t want me to die?’ he said. ‘But you don’t even know me.’
She shook her head. ‘It’s not that. I see it in your eyes and I know you’re going to do it no matter what I say.’
‘Ah. Well that much is true,’ he said, and lifted the razor again.
‘But there is another way to do it. A way to help someone else at the same time.’
That made him hesitate, and her silver eyes fixed on him, pleading. He thought he recognized something in them, for a second. She seemed to him to be someone he’d once known for a time, vaguely, and then forgotten. He recalled a girl who’d gone to his high school, Judith, who’d died in a car crash. He opened his mouth to ask her name but she spoke first.
‘Do you know what makes a ghost?’
‘Well. I wasn’t ever really sure whether to believe in ghosts or not, to be honest. You’re the first one I’ve seen.’ He half smiled.
She smiled back, gently, and he realised she sympathised with him. She knew what it was like to face death, to know it was certain and be forced to accept it.
‘Unfinished business,’ she said. ‘Things that have not been complete, things that haunt our souls just as we haunt the earth.’
‘Oh.’ He lowered the razor again, though reluctantly: he saw where this was heading. ‘Listen, Mrs…’
She hesitated, as if debating whether to tell him her name or not, and then said, ‘Harrow’. That, too, seemed familiar, but he couldn’t think where from. ‘Mrs Harrow,’ he went on, ‘I see what you’re getting at and I really can’t help you. I mean I can, strictly speaking, but if I do postpone my end and help you out for a bit, then I’ll have to do it for every other dead person that comes to me. Besides, you’re forgetting that I don’t care about a single thing anymore – why else would I be here?’
But she was shaking her head. ‘You’re misunderstanding,’ she said. ‘I don’t want you to do anything. In fact, if you make a deal with me, you’ll be able to go on to the place beyond, where I couldn’t go.’
She nodded. ‘All I ask is that you give me what you don’t want any more. Make a swap, give me your body, and you can die in peace, and,’ she added, eyeing his razor, ‘with far less pain.’
He stared at her for a minute, incredulous. ‘I can do that?’ She smiled.
‘Why haven’t I ever heard of other people doing it?’
‘Haven’t you?’ she seemed surprised. ‘You mean you’ve never heard of someone suddenly acting different to their usual selves? Or claiming to be someone or other returned from the dead?’
He opened his mouth and then closed it again. They stood in silence for a long while, and he could almost feel her frustration, her desperation.
‘Please,’ she said at last. ‘I have a daughter. She was orphaned when I was…’ She didn’t finish, but his expression softened as he inserted the last word in his own thoughts: Murdered. Somehow, it seemed to fit with his memory of her as well. He recalled a flash of her face in a newspaper countless years ago and then he knew, and with that knowledge he suddenly realised what her real motive was. Perhaps she did have an orphaned daughter, but he didn’t think that was all her ‘unfinished business’ consisted of.
Smiling now, he nodded. ‘I’ll do it.’
The relief spread across her face and he thought she would have cried if she had tears. Incredibly, he saw one emerge from her eye nevertheless, and it shone like a jewel. ‘Thank you so much, sir,’ she said.
‘It’s Sol,’ he said. ‘But I’m old and tired, now, so please do what you have to do. And by the way, Ms Harrow, if it’s not as painless as you say…’ he winked, ‘I’ll haunt you.’
She smiled and wiped the tear from her eye. ‘Agreed,’ she said. ‘Now, close your eyes.’
Sol let the razor drop from his hand and spread his arms wide, closing his eyes tight and tilting his head up to the skies. This, he thought to himself, was the best way. As she moved towards him, he felt his whole body relax and his heart begin to slow. He felt like he was floating away on a cloud. Yes, in the end, this was the way to die.
‘It’s over, now.’ The shock of hearing his own voice spoken at him was enough to make him open his eyes and spin around. He laughed when he saw himself, still a sick looking man but now with a fresh glint in his eye. His mouth was turning up at the edges for the first time in years.
When he looked down at his new form, he saw he’d become shade of himself carved from moonlight, and understood that he was looking at his soul: hers was now in his body.
‘Well, it’s been good doing business with you, I suppose,’ he said. ‘Though I’d have preferred you not lie to me about it.’
Her smile on his face faltered. ‘You knew?’
‘That it was murder you were after? Oh, yes.’
‘Come on, now. Who wouldn’t want to kill the man who murdered them? I understand why you kept it from me, but still, I’d have done the deal all the same, you know.’
‘Oh.’ Her face (his face) was oddly blank, and then another grin spread across it. He didn’t like that grin. It wasn’t pleasant and it was certainly like no expression he’d ever made. ‘Goodbye, then. Maybe one day we’ll meet again in the place beyond, Sol.’
With that, she turned and walked with his body to the gravel path that led to the front gates. He watched her go, feeling uneasy, and looked around at the moon. The final road was there, he saw. It showed like a glimmering bridge to the moon, and he had only to walk it to leave this place forever, but he hesitated. That grin.
At last, he decided that the bridge wasn’t going anywhere, and he followed the path after Ms. Harrow, feeling his visible form disappear until he was nothing but a floating thought. He moved effortlessly down the street and through walls and caught up with her in a few minutes.
She didn’t see or sense him, of course, and he had a feeling that she was absorbed with getting a hold of her new body. She walked uncertainly down the street. There was something very wrong about her expression, now, and again it was one he didn’t recognize on his own face: blankness. And worse, while it wasn’t familiar on his face, he thought it would definitely look familiar on her face. He’d seen it there, before, he was sure.
A sick feeling seized him. He had a bad feeling about the soul that was in his body, and he was quickly realising that he wasn’t going to find answers soon enough just by following her. He’d find them at the cemetery.
Sol glided through fences and buildings as quick as the wind, and came to a stop beneath the lone tree. It was from here she’d materialized, so here was the best place to search.
He passed only a few graves before he found her, and then the sight of the stone told him all he needed to know. Not just Harrow, but Victoria Harrow. No words of sorrow beneath that name, and rightly so: she was not the victim but the maker of victims. He recalled the surprise on her face when he’d told her he’d know she intended murder.
Even as he turned his head up at the moon, he knew the bridge was gone, and he wasn’t disappointed. He stared up at it and howled long and ear shatteringly loud – but only to the dead.
Quiet as the breeze, he went to find her.