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My Mom once gave me a tiny jewelled box just like the one in the story. Her intentions were good – as I recall I was having a lot of nightmares at the time and the idea was I could put all my nightmares into the box before I went to sleep, so there’d be none  left for me to dream. I have the box sitting on my bookshelf at home, now, and all I can think about is how many nightmares are in there by now, after all these years… Still, as long as I don’t open it, everything should be fine.

Enjoy…

Soul Box

Ben Pienaar

 

Death seldom comes quietly or painlessly, and even more seldom to those at peace with their lives. Marie Faye died in a violent chaos of twisted metal, breaking glass and fire. She would have died from her wounds: face torn to shreds, ribs, legs, arms and spine shattered, lungs collapsed. All of that would have been enough, but at the time the flames engulfed her, she was not dead yet. It was the fire that killed her, by searing strips.

 

*

 

‘She died instantly in the crash. I’m sorry.’

The news, delivered by a cop who’d done it too many times to really be sorry any more, and his twenty five year old female partner, who was herself on the brink of tears, was too much for Neil Faye. That was for the best, because instead of going to his knees with his hands to his face as he would have done, he turned and gave his only daughter the hug she needed.

Bridgette was limp in his arms, sobbing with a deep, all-encompassing grief he’d never seen or felt before. He would later, but for now he stared over her shoulder at the wall and thought of nothing at all.

More words were exchanged and the police left. Neil spoke to his daughter on the couch for a long time, they got takeaway, and she went to bed exhausted. Through all of this, Neil’s body acted without any orders from upstairs, which had gone ominously silent. He went up to bed around midnight and closed his eyes; opened them again when his alarm clock went off, though he hadn’t slept at all. He called work.

‘Hey Jim.’

‘How are you, Neil? Taking a sick day, huh?’

‘Wife’s dead.’

‘Sorry, didn’t quite get that.’

‘Wife’s dead. Not coming in. Tha…’ It was supposed to be thanks Jim, but something choked the words out of his throat and he hung up instead.

Bridgette wouldn’t wake up for a while, and he found himself driving down to the flea market, where Marie had spent so much of her time. He walked the aisles, a ghost, looking for her in the crowds. Twice he saw the back of her head disappear around a corner, another time he smelt her: fresh oranges and violets.

It was the way in which he discovered the Soul Box that he knew he’d found her. It was a powerful feeling – he knew it was her – yet when he searched for the source, he saw only a black bejewelled box the size of a closed fist. One minute he was shuffling through the crowd, the next he was staring into one of the shops that lined the alley. Not at any of the items on display, but at the black box, only the corner of which was visible to him beneath a low table stocked with jewellery. His eyes fixed on it and focussed of their own accord, his breath catching in his throat.

His sanity bent, but did not break. He fell to his knees in front of the alarmed stall owner – a plump saggy eyed woman in a kaftan – and wept bitter, grateful tears.

 

*

 

Bridgette sat on the back porch, her bare feet hanging over the edge of the deck in the icy rain, listening. Her mother had loved the rain. Her eyes were closed, so she didn’t know he was there until he sat down beside her.

‘Heya, Bridie.’

‘Hey.’

‘I know you’re probably in shock still. I know I am. But, uh, I just thought I’d get something for you, for when it gets hard, you know?’

Now she did look at him, but only for a second. ‘Oh. Thanks Dad.’

‘Here.’ He pressed the box into her hand. Black Porcelain embedded with silver jewels. Probably cheap rocks, but they reflected the grey sky with such clarity. She saw her own reddened eyes reflected back at her.

‘What is it?’

‘It’s a Soul Box,’ he said. ‘It keeps the souls of those who’ve passed. As long as you have that, Marie won’t leave you. Either of us.’

She couldn’t help but smile. It was typical of him, wasn’t it? He couldn’t be sweet without being corny at the same time. It wasn’t in her to make fun, though. She hugged him. ‘Thanks, Dad.’

‘That’s okay.’

They sat together for a while and she turned the box over in her hands until a part of it detached and almost fell into the wet grass. She hadn’t even realised it had a lid. She looked inside.

Her mother’s eye stared at her from the bottom of the box, wide with panic and pain and full of the horror of her final moments. Bridgette took a sharp breath and fumbled it. She looked again, but it was only a picture of an eye someone had painted on the bottom, bright green and white. It wasn’t even realistic.

‘What’s wrong?’ She showed him and laughed when he recoiled.

‘Jeez, Bridie.’

‘Yeah. Gee dad, no souls in here. I think you got ripped off.’

He shrugged. ‘Yeah, I guess I did. That’ll teach me to trust strange witch ladies.’

‘Witch lady? Where’d you get this?’

‘The Market. You know…’

Neither of them said a word for the next few minutes. Bridgette held the box out in the rain and let it half fill up before closing the lid again. She glanced sideways at her father and smiled. ‘She liked the rain.’

‘Yeah. She did, didn’t she?’ He put an arm around her and, for the first time in two days, she found respite from the grief that had so far threatened to consume her.

She didn’t meet her father’s eyes, or she might have seen that he was already consumed.

 

*

 

Two weeks of rain and darkness. Nightmares and oblivion alternated in both her waking and sleeping life. Her father refused to acknowledge his own sadness, smiling at her whenever he saw her, making tea, watching movies, going to work as though everything was the same. She told herself that her mother was inside the Soul Box, but she knew it contained only the painted eye and some water. She kept it by her bed day and night.

Until the funeral.

After all that rain, the sun shone in a clear sky and spring was everywhere. Fuck you, Bridgette thought. Fuck you for being happy, world.

‘So we lay to rest my beloved wife, Marie Andrea Faye. Beautiful, smart, the kindest woman I’ve ever…’ He trailed off. Bridgette hadn’t been able to take her eyes off her mother’s too fresh grave, the soil tossed and smoothed over, the stone so pristine and new – but in the sudden silence she looked up. Neil was staring, misty eyed, in the direction of the high sun. No, he was staring into the sun, without so much as a twitch of an eyelid. The hand holding his notes hung by his side. A soft breeze snatched one of the pen scrawled pages and sent it twirling over the cemetery, but he didn’t seem to notice.

‘Such a pretty face, she had.’ His voice so quiet it only reached her on the back of that same breeze. ‘Skin burnt to black flakes and blisters. Pieces of bone tearing through her cheeks. Her hair melted into her scalp. I remember the way her legs were broken almost completely backwards, like a bird.’ He gave a sad chuckle. Bridgette clutched the box so hard it threatened to shatter. Some of the water spilled and wet her palm.

‘The way she used to moan always takes me back. Especially when she was trying to drag herself over the asphalt, leaving bits of herself behind.’ He wiped his eyes and smiled.

‘Once, she said to me, “Neil,” she said – ’ And then, just as Bridgette was staring at the other serious mourners wondering why don’t they do something? He screamed at the top of his lungs, but not with his own voice – with Marie’s – and Bridgette dropped the box and fell to the grass on her knees with both hands pressed against her ears to keep out the sound of it. It was so full of pain, that scream.

It stopped abruptly and she opened her eyes as two men, one a friend of her mothers, the other an uncle she’d only met once, reached under her arms and pulled her to her feet. Everyone else crowded around, peering over each other to look at her.

‘It’s alright, its okay everyone, she’s fine,’ the uncle – Ian, wasn’t it? – was saying. He escorted her away from the others and sat her down under an oak tree. Her father cast her a worried glance and then cleared his throat and continued his speech. Ian felt her forehead and then squatted beside her.

‘Are you okay?’

She nodded. ‘Yeah, sorry, I must have had like a, a moment or something. Sorry.’

He had a trimmed ginger beard and crow’s feet like trenches in his face. ‘It’s too bad we had to reunite under these circumstances. Too often it takes a tragedy to bring family together.’ She tried to remember him and had only hazy impressions, of some event in the distant past, a grinning man in a suit and her mother’s laughter.

‘I didn’t, like, scream or anything, did I?’

He furrowed his brow. ‘No, no, nothing like that.’

‘Okay, good. Thanks. It’s just so soon, you know?’

‘Yes, of course. Do you think you’ll be alright?’

‘Yeah. I’m fine. Just freaked.’ She took a deep breath and sat up against the tree. It was good to be in the shade and away from that sweltering, inappropriate sunlight. Her father’s words floated over from the congregation. He was talking about her mother’s beauty, and the way her smile lit up a room. No burning flesh.

‘Okay. Stay as long as you need. No one expects you to be a social butterfly today. See you later.’ He got up and then paused. ‘Oh, almost forgot. You dropped this.’ He handed her a square tile of black porcelain. The Soul Box’s lid.

‘Thanks,’ she said. He gave her a reassuring nod and went to re-join the others.

She set the box down beside her, but as she moved to slide the lid into place, she saw her mother’s eye. Not the painted thing, but a real eyeball, rolling in a soup of red nerves and blood instead of rainwater, turning as though searching for something – Bridgette? – but before it could find her she closed the box.

The sound of the lid dropping into place was a heavy, stone on stone grind. It resonated inside her, making her body and mind vibrate with the weight of it, and she lurched onto all fours and vomited into the grass. She remained that way for a few minutes, panting, until the insane buzzing in her mind dulled to a hum. What was that about?

She sat back against the oak and stared at the box, wiping her mouth with a shaky hand. Just a box. She should open it again, now, to reassure herself that she was a disturbed, grieving girl and that was all there was to it.

But she didn’t.

She slipped it into her pocket, stood on weak knees and walked back to the congregation. Her father ended the speech in tears and everyone clapped and wiped their eyes.

Marie Faye was gone for good.

 

*

 

Routine became desperately important for Neil. It was the tightrope that kept him from falling into the black hole that Marie had left in her wake. He wasn’t so much balancing on it as crawling, and the end was nowhere in sight, but as long as he kept moving forward, he could continue to function.

He would wake up and have coffee and porridge. He went to work and maintained the basic level of mental ability required, only returning to consciousness when he arrived home. He had dinner with Bridie and then sat in front of the television drinking cup after cup of strong tea, watching but not seeing, until his eyes closed of their own accord.

Bridie concerned him, and she was what kept him moving forward along the tight rope instead of simply clinging to it. She’d never been talkative, but now she was downright broody. Not that he blamed her, but it wasn’t healthy for a fifteen year old girl, especially one as popular as she, to be a hermit. Her once animated face adopted the tired look of an overworked single mother. She ate without appetite and spent most of her time reading or sitting on the porch and gazing at nothing.

Curiously, she only went up to her bedroom to change clothes or sleep, and he wasn’t so sure she was sleeping much, either. On several separate occasions as he passed her room on the way to his own bed in the early hours of the morning, he heard whispering. Once he even pressed his ear up against the door and tried to hear what she was saying, but she spoke too quickly, the words running into each other like a stream hissing through leaves.

She had to work things out in her own mind, he supposed, just like he did. He wished she would talk to him, but she’d always been closer with her mother.

It didn’t occur to him that he might have been part of what was worrying Bridie so much until she came to him one night with the Soul Box. He was on his sixth cup of earl grey and couldn’t remember what show he was watching, an ad for bicep blaster 6000 screaming at him from across the living room. Her black hair was mussed and her eyes droopy, and she sat down beside him on the couch and put the Soul Box down on the coffee table.

He muted the ad and blinked at her, setting the tea aside. ‘Oh, hey Bridie. Can’t sleep?’

She shook her head. ‘Not for a while.’

He gave her a smile he hoped was reassuring rather than unstable. ‘Me neither. We just have to give it time, you know? And I’m always here for you.’

‘Thanks, Dad. Um, me too, right?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I’ve been worried. I was thinking maybe you should have the Soul Box. I really got the feeling you needed it more than me, you know? And I just… Things that remind me of her can be kind’ve painful more than anything else. I appreciate it, you know, but you need her more than me.’

He looked at the Soul Box and smiled. It was as though Marie was there in the room with them. Her warm presence comforted him more than he could say. ‘I miss her so much,’ he said.

‘Me too, Dad.’

‘Well, if you’re sure. Thanks.’ He reached for the box and she tensed up. He cocked his head, hand still outstretched. ‘What’s up?’

‘Oh, I dunno. It’s just… I have this strong feeling, you know? Like, is it okay if we don’t ever open it again? I saved some rainwater inside, and I feel like that’s her soul, and if we open it she might get lost. I know it sounds stupid.’

‘No, no. I mean, yeah, it does sound stupid.’ They laughed, the sound strange but welcome in the quiet house. ‘But I know exactly what you mean. If we don’t open it, it kinda preserves the magic of the thing, right? Like you know a magician’s trick is just a trick, but as long as he doesn’t explain how he did it, you can always believe, just a little bit?’

‘Exactly.’ She smiled.

He picked up the box, still warm from her hands, and turned it over, hypnotised by the way the light glanced off the jewels like tiny mirrors.

‘Magic,’ he said.

 

*

 

She couldn’t tell him the real reason she had to get rid of the box. He was dealing with enough on his own without having to handle the thought that his daughter might be losing her mind. There was something else, but she didn’t admit it to herself except late at night when she tossed and turned and wondered: what if I I’m not going crazy, and the Soul Box is real?

After she gave him the box, she watched him closely for signs that he was experiencing the same things she had. But he smiled at her over coffee, he asked her about her day, he watched television into the early hours, he drank more than he used to. Normal behaviour, now.

It was impossible to talk to him about it. How could she explain to him what it had been like? Her mind had twisted things so that the box became a source of dread. She left it by her bedside and didn’t go near it all day. And when she did, oh. The heaviness that settled over her when she opened her door and looked into her room; the way her stomach churned and her skin prickled, as it did strapped in to the front seat of a rollercoaster in the last moments before take off. How she’d heard her mother’s voice in the twilight hours of morning, somewhere between sleep and waking, whispering. She couldn’t quite remember the words, only that they were nasty, and mentioned things she didn’t want to hear. Once she’d woken up in a cold sweat and swore she heard the tail end of a sentence hissing at her from inside the box: Feel it burning all the way to my bones forever… How could she tell her father these things?

The night she gave the box to him, she’d fallen into a deep sleep and hadn’t woken for twelve hours of pleasant sunlit dreams. No dread, no fear – only grief, and now that the whispers were silenced, she could bear the grief.

Neil seemed comforted, but she couldn’t help but wonder if he wasn’t keeping everything to himself. He laughed too easily, smiled too often. He didn’t leave the box in his room but kept it in his pocket at all times. She never heard it whisper when she was with him, but sometimes he cocked his head to one side and his smile faltered.

Bridgette took the days one at a time, and things got easier. People died, and you moved on because you had no choice. It was sad, but no one could be sad forever, and as the weeks went by and she returned to school, and friends, and normal things, she thought of her mother less and less.

Sometimes, in her dreams, she remembered the things her mother’s voice had whispered, and she woke up with a scream in her throat. On these nights, she was glad her father had agreed never to open the box.

If there really was something in there, it would be better not to know.

 

*

 

Marie was back. Not in the flesh, of course, not in person, but he could live with that because he’d fallen in love with who she was as much as what she was. Better to have her mind and not her body than the other way around.

It was magic, alright, and he wished so badly he could tell Bridie everything, but Marie wouldn’t let him. She can’t hear me, honey, she said. I tried. And occasionally she would call out to her daughter, but Bridie never responded, and in the end, as Marie told him, that was for the best. She’s better that way, Neil. She needs to move on, and that’s okay.

He could hardly sleep the first week. He talked and talked and let all his grief and worry leak away because she was alright, she was here with him, hadn’t left at all, and even when he died one day she reassured him they could still be together. He talked because he didn’t want to hear. He was too afraid to ask her what it had been like to die, or where she was now, and she didn’t tell him. He was afraid, also, that she wouldn’t be able to answer because her voice was really his own mind giving him the comfort he needed. She sounded happy, and that was enough for him.

For a while.

Curiosity gnawed in a dark corner of his mind so quietly he never knew it was there until he started asking her the questions he didn’t want her to answer.

He would set the Soul Box on the kitchen table and talk to her for hours while Bridgette was at school. Reminiscing, laughing and joking, loving each other with words. It was on one of these occasions, two o’clock on a summery Tuesday afternoon, when he asked her, ‘Is it okay, where you are now?’ He hadn’t known he was going to ask until the words fell out of his mouth.

Are you sure you want to know? She whispered.

‘I dunno. I mean, I guess heaven is a crazy idea, when you think about it – kinda just too good to be true. But it can’t be all bad where you are, right?

It’s lonely.

‘God. I’m so sorry, Marie. You won’t be alone forever, I promise you.’

She didn’t answer, and for a long time he sat at the table in silence, squirming. How bad was it? How long had he left her there, alone?

‘Listen, just tell me what happens. Where are you? Marie, maybe I can help you somehow. Please tell me?’

A pause, then, her whisper mingling with a sudden gust blowing in through the kitchen window, she answered: ‘Open the box, and I’ll show you.’

 

*

 

Bridgette walked home with her face up to the sky, letting the sun fall across her skin in between clouds and feeling okay. There was a certain sadness beneath everything, a melancholy that would never quite go away. She was fine with that. She wouldn’t truly lose her mother unless she lost that sadness, she –

The Dread.

It was like walking into a wall. She stopped mid stride and shook her head, blinking. Was there someone behind her? No, it wasn’t that kind of dread. It was something worse, a terror without cause. She was suffocating, but no matter how deeply she sucked at the air, she couldn’t get enough oxygen into her lungs. She doubled over and fixed her eyes on the cracked concrete sidewalk, willing herself not to vomit. She broke into a cold sweat and her hands shook. Tears welled up in her eyes and dripped onto her scuffed school shoes.

She was less than a hundred meters from the street she on which she lived, but she doubted she could walk five. A vast cloud rolled over the sun and she went to her knees in a dark, empty street. Was she dying?

No. It’s the box. It’s the same feeling the Soul Box used to give you, only worse. For a minute she was paralysed with her grief, forehead touching the ground while tears poured from her eyes, but such an intense feeling couldn’t last for long without making her faint, and as soon as it relented she forced herself up onto her feet and stumbled forward, wiping her eyes. She dropped her school bag in the street and didn’t look back. Something’s happened. Oh, God, something’s happened.

She didn’t stop again, nor did she look up, her mind focussed on landing one foot in front of the other until she reached her front lawn. This time it was the smell of roasting pork that struck her, and the thin grey smoke that escaped the half open front door. She knew even then what had happened, only not why, and she collapsed onto all fours in dewy grass and screamed until she had nothing left.

He might not be dead! He might not be dead! This thought was enough to drag her back up and on, through the front door and, following the smoke, down the hall toward the kitchen. She heard the awful sound she remembered from the funeral: heavy stone grating against stone and settling into place with a final thump.

He was still alive.

Smoking, red embers settled in the black husk of his body, knees to chest in the foetal position at the foot of the kitchen counter, eyes like white boiled eggs bulging from a scorched face, a pair of scissors and a metal skewer lodged deep into each ear, lips peeled back from blistered gums and cracked teeth. Yet his mouth drew the slow raw hiss of a lifetime smoker; still alive.

‘Oh, God, Dad.’

She went to her knees in front of him, though not close enough to touch. His ashen flesh radiated heat like an oven. The floor and wooden cupboards were charcoal black, and the can of lighter fluid he’d used lay on its side. His eyeballs twitched at the sound of her voice and a pained cry escaped his throat. Then a hushed word: ‘Bridie?’

‘Why, Dad? How could you do this?

But whatever answer he might have had for her died in his throat, along with the rest of him. Fire tightened tendons in his right hand loosened, and the Soul Box fell from his grip and tumbled, without opening, against Bridgette’s knee. While she was weeping, she thought she glimpsed her father’s blue eyes in the reflection of one of the silver jewels, weeping with her.

When she managed to pull herself to her feet again with the aid of the countertop, she saw a note lying on the kitchen table. It was written in her father’s familiar block letter handwriting, scrawled in such a frantic rush it was barely legible. He’d signed the bottom of the page, but his wasn’t the only signature.

The other read: M. Faye.

 

*

 

Bridie, sweet Bridie.

            I’m going to do it. I’m so sorry but I have to do it. You warned me not to open the box and, Oh God, I opened it. Your mother only did what I asked, she showed me what happens. What happens.

            I had to go to her, Bridie, I couldn’t leave her to face it alone. I had to share her suffering.

             She didn’t die fast at all. It was slow, so slow. And do you want to know what happens? When you die, you die. You experience your death. Over and over.

            My eyes have been opened, and one day yours will be, too. I don’t want it to be a surprise for you like it was for Marie, so I’ll tell you now, my poor sweet Bridie.

            Your life is a tunnel, and it stops in a dead end, a cul de sac, a blank wall. There is nowhere left to go, so you just stay there, stuck in a rut. Life is a well that ends in mud and stagnant water. Life is a coffin from which there is no escape, and death is the dirt that keeps you in.

            Think of all those people, the children who drowned, the men who died bleeding and terrified on a thousand different battlefields across history. Think of the women insensible with pain who died in childbirth, of the innocents tortured to death over the centuries. Think of the ones who starved and the ones who were taken in inches by disease. Do you know where they all are now, this very moment?

            They’re living the last minutes of their deaths, over and over again. They’re stuck in the enclaves at the ends of their lives, where your mother is, where I will be.

            No one should have to suffer that alone, Bridie, so I went to join her.

            Maybe, one day, you could keep us company?

            We miss you so much, Bridie.

            We love you.

 

*

 

Bridgette was fine.

For a while.

Neil had killed himself in a rush, but he’d made a new will directly after Marie’s death that took good care of Bridgette. When she was eighteen, she moved to an apartment in the city, where the bustle and nightlife made her feel less alone at night. She got a few jobs, but couldn’t hold them down. She went out and got drunk, took drugs and tried to meet people.

But somehow, everything was pointless.

She kept the box beside the bed and tried not to listen to the words that escaped it in hushed secretive tones late at night and in the dark hours of the morning. There were two voices that spoke now, and they meant well, but she could hear madness behind the things they said. Their pain was becoming too much for their minds. At least they were together.

Some nights, Bridgette didn’t go out at all, but stayed in with a bottle of vodka and played music loud enough to drown the voices.

One of these nights, she stepped out onto the balcony with the Soul Box in one hand and the bottle in the other. It was a smoker’s balcony, narrow and minimalist, the railing made of cement rather than glass, so she could climb on top of it and balance, rainy air whipping into her face as she sang with the music.

Each time she reached the end of the railing she’d take another swig and then turn around, so the arm that hung over the bright lights of the city twenty floors below changed each time. First the bottle hung over the drop, then the box, then the bottle, then the box. When half the bottle was gone she tripped and accidentally kicked her radio from its perch. She watched it fall without breathing, counting ten full seconds before it shattered in the alleyway beside a metal dumpster.

In the sudden silence she stood, facing the empty night. She leaned forward and would have fallen if it weren’t for a correctly timed gust of wind blowing up against her. She swallowed another shot of vodka and coughed. She lifted the Soul Box in front of her and rested her thumb on the edge of the lid, knowing it would take the slightest flick of her nail to open it.

‘I miss you so much, mum. I miss you, Dad.’

Misssss you tooooooo, honey.

            ‘Why did you leave me?’

Haven’t lefffffft. Here foreverrrrrr.

            It wouldn’t be such a bad death, she thought. Soaring toward the pavement at ten meters a second, air roaring in her ears, the night enveloping her; it would be like flying through space. If that was to be her eternity, well, there were worse ways, weren’t there? They wouldn’t begrudge her a sense of peace in her final moments, when they had only pain, would they?

She wobbled again, regained her balance and took another burning swig. Only a quarter bottle left now.

Come to ussssss, Bridgette. We misssssss youuuuuu.

‘I miss you too, guys. I do. I hope you’re okay, wherever you are.’

She took her thumb away from the lid, closed her eyes, and opened her hand. She didn’t see the box fall so much as felt it, that heavy dread leaving her weak in its absence. She didn’t hear the sound of shattering porcelain because her knees gave out and she collapsed backwards onto the balcony, the bottle of vodka shattering against the cement.

The rain fell harder, but she didn’t notice, curled up under an alcohol blanket, weeping for her parents. She cried for them, and for all the dead, and for the fate that awaited her.

But she was alive tonight, and whatever lay ahead, she still had tomorrow.

In time, a smile found her sleeping lips.

 

 

This one started off on a bizarre premise and then, halfway through, turned into something else entirely. Reading back over it, it almost looks like two separate stories, haphazardly melted together. Both of the characters in this are disturbed in their own ways, so don’t be too quick to pick sides… Enjoy

I’ve Seen the Ghost

By Ben Pienaar

 

She made a few mistakes that would have been innocent enough if he hadn’t already picked her out. As it stood, they would cost her dearly. She took the bus home, which was bad, and she got off a stop early to walk off the burger and fries she’d had for lunch, which was worse.

 He got ahead and waited at a payphone nearby, with his back to her and his eyes on his watch. He was an exact man, and he didn’t make many mistakes. Not that there were many to make: she was a woman of routine, and like all of his victims, she would become a victim of it, too.

 Her routine was flexible in some ways, but not all. Every morning, she took one of the bottled waters from her fridge and kept it unopened, until after her lunch break. Usually the salt from the fries left her thirsty and she’d drink the whole bottle in ten minutes, which meant she’d finished it at about one forty. It was now six twenty, and she was starting to stumble.

 She hadn’t felt sick all day, but suddenly her stomach wasn’t agreeing with her, and her mouth was numb. This was important in case she tried to call for help. He waited for her to pass him and then put the phone down. She’d stopped near the alley and put her arm out for balance. It rested on the trunk of an old brown car that looked like it had seen too many years. His car.

 He saw her sinking slowly to her knees and stepped up in time to catch her before she hit the ground. He eased her into the back, giving the area a quick check before he closed the door and got into the driver’s seat. The whole thing lasted about eight seconds. He’d set up a place close, but not too close. A fifteen minute drive out of the city, then into the parking lot of a factory scheduled for demolition. He dragged her into an empty office on the ground floor, where he’d left all the other equipment.

 She was going to wake up in about ten minutes, maybe more if he’d miscalculated her weight. But then, he was careful as well as exact, and within five minutes her hands were tied to one of the exposed rafters overhead and she was half standing in the corner of the room. He took another moment to blindfold her thoroughly, padding, duct taping, and then tying a cloth around her head.

 She began to wake, shifting uncomfortably in her position, her feet looking for purchase and finding it uncertainly on the rough carpet. She groaned. He ran off the check list in his mind: black clothes, gloves, tools? Check. Bag for disposal and place to dispose? Check. Woman immobilised? Check. It was time to have some fun.

 ‘Hello, Miss Hopkins,’ he said, adding an unnatural rasp in his voice. He’d seen in done in the new batman films and thought it would be perfect for him, too. It served to both inspire fear and disguise his voice. ‘How are you today?’     

 ‘Wha?’ She was still struggling to keep her position, her knees shaking. She was still groggy, probably hadn’t quite realised her situation yet. Her hands were straining against the binds and confusion began to register. He went to the old wooden table opposite her and sorted through his tools, excitement building. He wondered if she’d scream loud, or plead with him. At length, he picked up thin, curved blade that could cut through flesh like butter.

 ‘Where am I? What’s… What’s going on?’ Her voice was harsh with fear, and he saw a light sweat on her brow, hidden by the long dark hair.

 ‘Well, let’s analyse the facts, shall we? You are a woman of science, aren’t you?’

 She didn’t respond, but he noticed she’d stopped struggling and was standing up straighter. Terrified, but composed. That, he didn’t like so much – but never mind, they always screamed in the end.

 ‘You are restrained and heavily blindfolded in an isolated location. You are a woman between the ages of nineteen and thirty. Your kidnapper is speaking in an obscured voice, and sounds relatively intelligent… If I do say so myself.’ He chuckled. ‘You were taken on your way home from work, after nightfall. Does any of this ring a bell?’

 She stared in the direction of his voice, her face blank with shock. ‘Holy shit,’ she said. ‘You’re him? You’re the Ghost?’

 ‘Yes, that’s right. Though I wish they’d come up with something better. Ah well,’ he waved a hand dismissively. ‘Media.’

 Bizarrely, she began to laugh, tentatively at first, and then hysterically. She shook in her bondage, letting out shrieks of laughter, and when it died down at last she looked almost sick with herself. She stared blindly at the ground, suddenly deep in concentration.

 He watched all of this patiently, not knowing whether to be annoyed or amused, and when she was done he leaned forward and cut a line straight down her suit top, severing the buttons so it fell open but no touching her skin. She gasped, but otherwise gave no reaction.

 ‘What was the meaning of that outburst?’ he asked, honestly curious.

 ‘I… I guess I’m just relieved.’

 ‘Is that so?’

 ‘Well, you never kill, do you?’

 ‘Not yet. I fashion myself as more of a catch and release kind of person. Murder is messy, after all.’

 ‘Exactly. Besides, it’s all about causing pain for you, right, Mr. Ghost? You wouldn’t murder unless it was necessary. So no matter how bad this gets, I’ll still end up alive.’

 He nodded to himself, a small smile playing across his lips. ‘You do seem to understand me very well, Miss Hopkins, though I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised considering your profession… But I think you’re dismissing the pain a little too easily.’

 She looked slightly worried at those words, and seemed on the brink of saying something, but a second before it reached her lips she shut them and shook her head. ‘You won’t believe until you see,’ she said, and at that cryptic remark, fell silent.

 He was certainly curious now, but above all else he was frustrated. Small electric pulses of anticipation set his hairs on end and had him licking his lips. To hell with this, he thought –time to play the game.

 He usually liked to start slow, but not tonight. He lashed out with the blade and cut a neat crescent out of her shoulder. She didn’t make a sound, but her head flicked up to look at him and she said, quite calmly: ‘you just cut me, didn’t you?’

 Irritated, he sliced again, and this time he made it a long one, from her left breast down to her right hip. That one was deeper, too, and blood descended from the gash like a red curtain.

 ‘Oh, that was big. I think I might faint.’

 He stared at her for a moment, but all he could see in her face was a kind of nervous fear, like someone waiting for a root canal, an unpleasant but necessary ordeal, to be over. Usually, they were desperately pleading with him by now, or at least screaming at the top of their lungs in agony.

 ‘What game are you playing, bitch?’ he said, and this time that rasp in his voice came naturally. ‘You think you can take away my joy by clamming up? Like you could possibly keep your mouth shut for ten minutes under this blade? Have you even seen some of my victims?’

 She nodded, and he saw with some satisfaction a sickly expression on her face. ‘I know all that. It’s just… You don’t know about my condition, do you?’

 ‘What?’

 ‘Of course, you’d never have picked me if you knew about it,’ she went on. ‘It’s a genetic disorder called Congenital Insensitivity to Pain. I’ve had it since I was born.’

 He said nothing, and the silence hung over them like death. Her voice beginning to shake from fear, she hurried on. ‘I have to check myself for injuries daily, head to toe. When I was a kid I used to hurt myself all the time and the wounds would get infected because I didn’t know –’

 ‘Stop.’ He said. She closed her mouth, and the look on her face was almost apologetic.

 Slowly, quietly, he sank into a crouch in front of her and rested the point of his knife in the flesh of her thigh. He applied pressure and watched the point disappear under her skin and pierce the tissue beneath. He looked up at her face.

 ‘Why are you biting your lip?’ he said.

 ‘The blade… it’s so cold,’ she said.

 He drew it out and felt the base of it, which hadn’t entered her yet. It was cold.

 He stood up and threw it into the corner of the room with wild fury, and then let out a stream of the vilest curse words he knew at the top of his lungs. ‘What the fuck are the odds of that? What the fuck are the odds?’

 She cringed away from him. ‘I don’t know, like, I don’t know, one in a million or something. It’s really rare. I’m sorry.’

 ‘NO! Fuck that. You’re sorry. Bullshit! You better scream or you’ll be my first murder, you understand? Scream like you’re dying or believe me, that’s exactly what’s gonna happen.’

 With that, he ran to the table, picked up a pair of scissors and turned on her. The Ghost was an angry man tonight, that he was, but he was also a careful man, and though he tore her skin and sliced her in his rage, he kept away from the arteries.

 She screamed alright, but in her fear she overdid it, or at times forgot and then underdid it, and even when it seemed right it was still horrible, wrong, unsatisfying, because he knew it was all a lie. At last, he threw  down the scissors roared in pure fury.

 And then, a split second later, it was all gone. He looked at her hanging there, bleeding in a few places, terrified but also sickeningly, frustratingly, without pain. He looked at the floor and shook his head, before going over to equipment table and picking up a syringe. He pushed the plunger and flicked the needle. There wasn’t much in there – this mixture was of a very different order to the one he’d given her earlier that day. When he jabbed it into her neck, she didn’t react, but she was out in less than a minute, and in two he’d cut her down and taken off the blindfold.

 In twenty, the place was wiped clean of any trace of him, and in twenty five, he was gone.

 

Jenna Hopkins woke up after about half an hour and realised she could see again. The Ghost had left the light on and the fluorescents stung her shrinking pupils. That was the first of the pain to return to her, and the least of it. As it came, she crawled to one corner of the room and stayed there until she’d accounted for all of it and found she could take it, after all.

 Waves of it rolled over her and then settled into a dull ache. His cuts were numerous but shallow. Still, those last screams had been genuine, and she was sure he’d have known it if only he hadn’t already believed her lie. Oh, but it was close. The scream she’d turned into a gasp, the neutral face she kept while she squirmed with agony beneath the surface, each moment a hair’s breadth away from betraying herself. If she had, she’d surely have ended up like his other victims, alive but torn beyond recognition.

 There was something else, too: She knew his voice. In his moments of rage he’d screamed in his true voice, and she heard not only his tone but the slightest Dutch accent.

 The pain was becoming background noise now, except that hideous throbbing where he’d pierced her thigh… And how she’d wanted to scream then! Her mind had gone blank in that moment, but her face had remained a mask. She wiped the tears from her eyes and stared around the room, not looking for anything in particular and not missing anything, either.

 She found what she was looking for without even moving from her little corner, because it wasn’t in the room at all but on her. She remembered him screaming at her, feeling something wet land on her right foot, and there it was still, diminished but far from evaporated. His rotten saliva. She stood carefully and, supporting herself on her good leg, dragged the other along the floor, being careful not to let any of it slide off her skin.

 He’d left her bag undisturbed just outside the office door, and before tying her to the rafters he’d taken off her reading glasses and folded them neatly on top of it. She didn’t put them on now, but took the lenses from the frames. She scooped up as much saliva as she could on one and then pressed the other on top, like a blood slide.

 DNA and a Dutch accent. Was there anything else? She had to think now, while the

memories still burned fresh in her mind. She slid down in the doorway again to ease the pain in her leg. She closed her eyes and thought, long and hard, the lenses held tight in her hand. Yes, there was a smell, too. A faint cologne. She didn’t know the name, but she’d smelled it before and it wouldn’t take long to find it again. Like wood and almonds, very distinctive – and expensive, too; few people would be able to afford such a thing. Then there was his breath. He’d come very close to her at one point, and she’d felt his breath on her neck. She was tall for a woman, but he must be short for a man, somewhere between five seven and five nine.

She thought of these things for some time, and almost swore she could see him in her mind’s eye. A small, quiet man, probably well presented and conservative. By his voice she’d put him no older than forty and no younger than twenty five. The profiler studying the case had already filled in the other basics, but these details would narrow the search immensely. Then there was the saliva. It wasn’t quite as much as she’d been hoping for, but it was more than enough to go on.

 Clothes torn, covered in dried blood and shaking from cold and shock, Jenna Hopkins smiled to herself. She was mad – sure she knew she was mad in her own way, but look where it had gotten her. Look who it had gotten her!

 She got to her feet and picked up her purse, before staggering for the exit. Her stride, uncertain and pained at first, grew steadier as she went. She’d been expecting worse, after seeing the previous victims, but those same pictures had given her the strength she needed. The press wouldn’t need to hear any of that, of course, or that she’d been aware of him days before he attacked – not of who he was, but of his presence. They needed to see her as the sharp witted victim, not a woman obsessed to the point of madness as she really was. Not that she thought and planned and that she’d perfectly predicted his reaction to her ‘condition’. Who was going to believe it, anyway? No one would buy that book.

 She made it out of the factory and stumbled out towards the road, where someone would see her covered in blood and pale with shock, and take her to the hospital. She’d be mad at first, almost babbling with fear, and that wouldn’t be hard at all after what she’d just been through. She wouldn’t remember a thing at first, except the importance of the lenses. Then the other details would slowly come to her, and she’d tell her story reluctantly, embarrassed. Let the media talk of her bravery and clear thought under pressure – her own modesty would only serve to make it more plausible.

 She hit the road and her face became a mask of blank terror. She made sure to lean too much on her bad leg once in a while to make her slip a bit and wince. The good Samaritan would be interviewed extensively as well, so it was important to look as traumatized and wounded as possible.

In ten seconds a car skidded to a stop beside her and a man got out. He stared at her for a moment, unable to believe what he was seeing, and then he rushed forward with his arms outstretched. She stumbled again and let him catch her, at which point she broke down into tears which were, to her credit, mostly real.

 ‘Jesus lady, what happened to you?’

 ‘The Ghost,’ she said, her voice weak with terror. ‘I’ve Seen the Ghost.’ She wouldn’t remember this later, but when it was retold to her she would nod, looking thoughtful and a little disturbed, and it would eventually become the title of her tell all novel.

 She let her full weight rest on him as her body gave out, but she made sure she kept a solid grip on the lenses in her right hand. The man laid her down gently and called for help, even as he took a mobile from his pocket and dialled an ambulance.

 Not long now, she thought. Not long now.

   e sHekajdfs

 

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!

Unfinished Business

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.’

‘I will?’

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.’

She gaped.

‘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.

Unfinished business.

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.

 I wrote this longhand, because it seemed like that kind of story. Also, I didn’t have my computer with me when I started. But I will say that I felt different because of it. Everything took longer, went slower, and I got into the story a lot more. Not entirely sure that’s a good thing, though, when it was done I felt really cold.

The Will

A born hermit, Samuel Frances was only interested in one thing when it came to other human beings: their money. That doesn’t necessarily mean he was a bad person – in fact he had a certain pride in the way he treated everyone with kindness and respect, no matter how much he loathed them. Not generosity, though, never that.

His desire for isolation came simply because he was so different from everyone else. They shied away from him and his eccentricities, and so he was unfriendly. They disliked him for that, and he hated them in return.

No matter where he was, or who he was with (on the rare occasions he was with anyone) he would have at least five pens with him and a notebook which he would scribble in constantly. This tended to put people off somewhat, because while you spoke to him he would continuously write while maintaining eye contact. You got the impression he was either writing down everything you said, or pretending to listen while he wrote about other things.

Then there was the bizarre contradiction he had, where he would compulsively hoard things, but at the same time throw out everything he deemed ‘useless’ or ‘unworthy’. As a young man, his room had been packed full of objects of all kinds, as well as hundreds of notebooks. If you asked him what any of his possessions was for, he’d give you a quite reasonable explanation: either it was very valuable, very useful or very rare. Even stranger, ask him for an item and he’d find it in seconds regardless of how deep in his surprisingly neat stores it was.

These were his most notable characteristics, but Samuel had plenty more weirdness, and not all of it pleasant. That, and the fact that he did everything he could to avoid people meant that he never had any real friends. That was fine by him, but it also meant that the loads of cash he so desired were out of reach for him.

When he moved out of home, he lived in a crummy one room apartment and worked as a freelance writer, which made him enough to eat and pay rent, and little else.

As the years passed he grew bitter, and he resented the human race more and more. Attempt after attempt to make his fortune through honest means failed. His hatred deepened and his mind turned to darker plans.

One day, he began to write some of the plans down in his notebooks, and they grew. At first it was only a fantasy, distant dreams, like the bullied schoolboy who dreams of massacring his school.

But on he wrote, and the plans filled notebook after notebook. Some of them were impossible – some were merely ludicrous. Others, though…

One of these he toyed with, and the more details he wrote down, the more he realised how easy it would be. On his twenty ninth birthday, he did it, and it was just as easy as he thought. No – it was easier, frighteningly so.

Two months later, Samuel moved out of his dingy apartment and into his dream house. It was a sprawling, one story mansion made of heavy wood, and it was located as far away from anyone as he could get: Northern Russia, right on the coast above Archangel. It was ultimately a huge log cabin, battered most of the year by blizzards and snow, and entirely undesirable to most normal people.

Samuel didn’t waste those big empty spaces, though. He filled them up with his great hoardes, his collections of statues from Egypt and paintings from France; Shelves upon shelves of famous, rare and valuable books; even guns.

He spent his days chopping wood for his massive fireplace (kept burning all day and night), hunting red deer in the forest, reading and, of course, writing. For the six months or more before he had to replenish supplies, or go to buy some new desired object, he didn’t see a single human being. For the first time in his life, he was happy.

Until the letter came.

Dear Sammy,

It is good to hear that you’ve made such a nice life for yourself lately. I know I was sometimes greedy, a little obsessed with those pretty rectangles of paper so full of possibility. But I made all my riches honestly. Just remember that.

P.S. Don’t bother trying to reply. I’m still in Australia where you left me, staying under a church.

            Sincerely, Your Conscience.

 

Samuel read it over and over, trying to make sense of it. Actually, what he was really trying to make sense of was the manner of its arrival. While he slept, someone had pushed it through the tiny window in his study, where he did most of his writing. He liked to keep the window open a crack because he found the cold refreshing. What really got to him, though, what really chilled him to the marrow, was the first line: Dear Sammy. There was only one person in his life who’d called him Sammy, and that was his father. ‘Was’, being the operative word – Theodore Frances was nearly three years dead.

He watched the letter burn that night, and decided to forget about it. It was clearly an attempt at blackmail. The real guts of it would come with the next letter or two. It was also, he realised, probably one of his own family members – one of them surely suspected what he did, and now, in typical Frances style, they wanted to cash in.

There was nothing else for two weeks. His life went on, and he was soon lost in the many joys of living completely alone. Every day he woke he remembered the way he used to live, remembered how he’d come to live here instead, and found he had not a single regret. He did, however, get into the habit of locking the window in his study, but by the time the second letter came he had stopped doing this regularly, and he wasn’t sure whether he’d left it open or closed the night before.

Dear Sammy,

 I’m not trying to blackmail you, really. I have a sense of honour that demands that I treat family better than I would a mortal enemy, though that’s what you are. We’re not family in the strictest sense, but I think we should be much closer than we are. People who forget their consciences might do any number of evil things, and we can’t have that.

 P.S. Don’t try to run, I’m much faster than you. I’ve already made it to Indonesia and I can cross oceans easier than jumping puddles.

            Sincerely, Your Conscience

 

Sammy stared from the note to the open window. Had he closed it? He thought so, but for the life of him he couldn’t be sure. Well, he’d be sure next time – he wouldn’t open it for anything from now on.

Not that that made him feel much better. The temperature outside was below zero, and the nearest town was almost a hundred kilometres away. Not only that, but there was no mailman for his address. Anyone who wanted to communicate did it by email, these days, which meant that whoever was delivering these letters lived very close indeed.

Not blackmail? That didn’t convince him, but if they meant what they said then they were almost certainly after revenge instead. Well, he thought darkly, let them try. He burned the letter and locked every door and window and the house. Then, he paid a visit to his gun collection.

Rushing around the house in a fever of activity, he felt like one of those paranoid maniacs you heard about, preparing for judgement day. He looked it, too: now that he was truly free from civilisation he paid no attention to personal grooming or hygiene. His hair hung in long greasy tendrils from his head. His beard was long and ragged, and his teeth were broken and yellow. He smelled like a rat drowned in sewage, and had for so long he no could no longer smell it.

By the time he was done, he felt he could have held off a small army from his house. He had weapons and ammunition hidden in various rooms, pieces of furniture arranged strategically to provide the most cover, and he balanced an empty glass above his front door frame.

When it was all done he sat by the fire in the lounge and thought about it. It occurred to him that he’d gone a bit overboard, especially since he’d only received two letters, neither of which had actually threatened him. Then again, he did not like at all what they were implying. In fact just the strange use of his name meant they must know what he did, there was no other explanation. And there was nothing they could want from him except blackmail or revenge – he was sure of that, too. Either way, if they came here, he was determined they wouldn’t leave alive.

This time he didn’t relax his vigilance at all. He had to take down the glass whenever he went out to hunt or chop wood, but he replaced it as soon as he came in, and always checked the lock on the window in the study.

On the eighth day since the second letter, he stayed in to write. He was working on his autobiography, and after finding disturbingly little to put in it had begun to embellish. He was just recounting his time living in the Siberian wilderness when he noticed the pages of his thick black book were moving slightly. An icy wind blew against his cheek.

He turned to see the window, the same one he’d checked that day, open a tiny crack. A new letter sat in the top corner of the desk, as if it had blown in soundlessly while he wrote. He reached for it with shaking hands.

Dear Sammy

I hope this letter finds you, the post is increasingly unreliable these days. I just wanted to let you know that you are wrong on both counts: It isn’t blackmail OR revenge that I come for – it is justice. As your conscience, I’ve done some thinking and I’ve decided that a man like you should not be allowed to live in this world. A drastic decision, but I am certain it’s the right one. I hope you can see my side of it, but I doubt you will.

 P.S. I’m navigating through Northern China now. It’s confusing, but as they say, where there’s a WILL, there’s a way. Isn’t that what your dear father always used to say?

 Sincerely, Your Conscience

 

No, Samuel thought, that was not what he always used to say. In fact, he’d only said it once that he knew of. It was the image that stuck in his mind when his other nightmares faded, the one that came to him only on those nights when he couldn’t sleep until the early hours. His father, chuckling through his own blood, somehow managing to make that bitter joke his last words.

It’s him, a voice in the back of his mind whispered. He’s come crawling from his grave to take his revenge. In his opinion, the letter couldn’t make it to the fire fast enough.

When it was ashes, he poured himself a whiskey and drank it by the fire, staring through the big window into the blizzard.

It was out there, he thought. An undead thing – no not that, it had to be a ghost. Of course, that was how he travelled so fast, even over oceans, and it was how he stayed invisible. No one was going to miss some rotting thing stagger around Beijing, after all. He laughed, and the sound shocked him in the silence of the big room. He hadn’t heard the sound of his own voice for months.

A ghost. Ridiculous. But it was also true – he knew that as surely as he knew he’d locked that window earlier, and he didn’t want to think about either thing for long. He wouldn’t have to, though. If it was coming, it was coming, and he was ready for it. He’d done it before, and he’d do it again, even if he had to torch this place.

He didn’t think he’d have to, though, because he was sure that ghosts only lived on belief and fear. All he had to do was confront it, face it down. Then, diminished by his fearlessness, he only had to believe that a bullet would end it and it would. That was just how they worked.

Over the next three days, he almost relaxed in the knowledge that he knew how to defeat whatever was coming. Be it a ghost, zombie or avenging family member, he was ready. Then the next letter arrived. He found it neatly placed on the front page of his autobiography.

Dear Sammy,

I’m somewhere North East of Siberia now, and it’s very cold. I think the wind’s picking up – is it this bad where you are? I don’t have guns or fire, and yours won’t work on me, either. I’m hoping you’ll make the right decision before I get there – it’ll be infinitely better that way, believe me. All this cold is making me hungry, and you’re the only meal for miles around.

 P.S. I wonder what YOUR will is going to say? Who will you leave it all to? Better get writing!

            Sincerely, Your Father.

 

That last bit was new, he thought dumbly. It was almost like it was making fun of him. Or perhaps it was meant to hint that it really was his father, in case he hadn’t worked it out yet.

His sense of calm completely shattered, he went back to the lounge and poured himself another tall drink. His hands were shaking so much that the ice blocks rattled in the glass as he lifted it to his mouth. He emptied it and poured another, and then forced himself to stop. Something or someone was coming, and he had to be ready for it. He needed to make more preparations.

First, he moved the telephone into his study. That way, if things got serious he could call the police. Maybe they wouldn’t be able to save him but at least they could catch who did it, and give him a proper burial instead of rotting in this place. For that reason he put the letter in the top drawer of his desk, in case it helped them catch whoever it was. He retrieved every last one of the guns he’d hidden and put them up in the study, so they wouldn’t fall into the wrong hands.

Finally, he raided the pantry and dragged up enough canned soup and dry meat to last him another three days, although he doubted he’d need that much. At the current rate, his father would arrive before the end of the second day. Where there’s WILL, there’s a way, he thought madly, and he believed it.

This kind of waiting was torturous. He wasn’t used to being holed up at all, and he grew madder by the second. He whiled away the hours by writing in his rapidly growing autobiography, about his brave deeds during the second world war, and the time he fought off a family of bears single handed with a broken whiskey bottle.

He was so lost in the story that he didn’t notice the next letter fly in through the window and land beside him, until he heard a glass shatter downstairs. It was surely the one he’d balanced on his front door.

He reached for the phone and dialled the police immediately. ‘I’d like to report a murder,’ he said, making himself as clear through his broken Russian as he could. He’d never taken the time to learn the language properly, since he almost never used it. Before the person on the other end could reply, he said his address twice and then hung up. It would take them a while, but maybe Theodore wouldn’t be so keen to come storming in after a few bullets went his way.

Chuckling, Samuel snatched up one of his handguns and flicked off the safety. He took up a position behind his desk and within easy view of the door. Only then did he reach for the letter on the desk. He dropped it and picked it up again, every breath seeming to force its way out of him like it was trying to escape.

Dear Sammy,

 I’m here. Your house is quite something – I never knew you were one for extravagances. I don’t know how you can stand to walk around this place without being reminded of what you did. I don’t know how you can fall asleep at night, either. It’s a good thing I came to sort you out, isn’t it?. Well I’ll see you very soon, although it’ll be hard to find the study in this mess.

 P.S. It isn’t too late to do the right thing. Just remember, if you haven’t done it by the time I walk through that door, I’ll have to do it for you.

            SINCERELY, Your Father

 

He let the letter fall to the floor and put both hands on his gun. He stared down the barrel and tried to keep it steady, aiming for a spot just to the left of the doorknob. Every beat of his heart seemed to set the barrel too high or too low, and it was impossible to aim straight.

For a long time, the only sounds were the howling wind and the hiss of his own breath. Then he heard footsteps moving down the hallway. They were slow, careful steps, but every now and then they made the floorboards creak.

So, he thought, it was a corpse. Or a person, maybe, but he thought it was a corpse. A ghost couldn’t make steps like that, and it would have come straight through the walls, never mind the front door. He imaged his father’s ragged body staggering unevenly towards the study. Mostly bone, with shreds of green skin hanging from him like moth eaten curtains. Empty eye sockets staring at the locked door.

The creaking steps drew closer and closer until they stopped right outside the door. He saw a shadow move in the crack of light beneath the threshold.

‘GO AWAY!’ Samuel shouted. Somehow, his voice didn’t rise above a whisper, and he felt like he was suffocating. Tears ran down his face, but he didn’t notice.

The doorhandle rattled, and began to turn, slowly. His father was taking his time, he knew, to give him his last chance. To let him do what was right, and redeem himself.

Screaming in that terrible whisper, he fired five rounds into the door and watched chunks of it splinter out into the hallway. He couldn’t make out anything through the holes, and everything was dead still.

The doorknob began to turn again, and then stopped. The door began to open.

His ears ringing loud in his head, he put the barrel of the gun into his mouth, his eyes wide with terror. He was still screaming when he pulled the trigger.

The door swung open to reveal a cramped study ankle deep in scattered papers and pens. The open window above Samuel’s bleeding corpse rattled loudly, and the house creaked with the constant gale winds.

On the desk, amidst hundreds of ink covered sheets, sat a half written autobiography. Rather, it wasn’t written at all, though the four hundred page exercise book was certainly half full. Over and over, Samuel had written an account of his father’s murder, followed by a copy of Theodore Frances’s original will and testament.

Only upon close inspection would the police later detect the connection between the author of this strange confession, and the one who wrote the blood spattered letter now lying on the floor: Their handwriting was exactly the same.

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