Lethe

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Chapter 50

Chapter 50: Home

A chrome bulldog flashes into view just before the bumper of the eighteen-wheeler slams me down, bounces me beneath the undercarriage. Wheels churn over me. The truck squeals to a stop.

I lay beneath the trailer, completely unharmed, as numb as ever. Hydraulic fluid drips on my face and rolls off like quicksilver.

The heavyset driver hops down and peers under his rig. Red-faced, panting, he stares for the longest time. His eyes look straight into mine.

“Sorry about that,” I say.

The driver’s cheeks quiver. He scans the pavement, gets up and paces to the end of his rig and back, scrambles into the cab and pulls away. I lay on Port Watson Street staring up at the thinning clouds.

I get up and plod across the avenue and cross several storm-ravaged blocks. The devastation fits my mood.

The grand old trees lining Central Avenue have lost a few limbs but all remain erect. I cross a park kitty-corner to reach my house, the little ranch I have lived in since I turned four. The weeping willows in back are still intact and still hold my old tree house with the rain-warped plywood walls. Not a leaf or shrub in my yard seems disturbed by the storm. I wish I had stayed home that day.

I step out onto the street. Something sinuous and translucent snakes down the front of my house. I scurry back to the park, retreat behind a hedge, peer over the top.

The tip of the strand rears and curls like a question mark, looking for me, but I’m right here. Are ghosts that difficult for them to sense?

The strand slaps against the front door, probing the gap I seal with a rolled up towel in the winter. It finds a space and shuttles into the house. For long minutes I watch, wondering if I should escape. But where would I go?

The strand backs out from under the door and creeps down my front walk. Dark bulges squeeze down its length, extruding as little black blobs. Done, it coils and springs into the sky. Its black spawn wriggle off the walk and into the grass. A jogger runs by, oblivious to their writhing.

I step out from behind the hedge and cross Elm Street, examining the sky for any sign of movement. Out of habit, I veer towards the mailbox. Oddly, it’s empty. Did someone fetch the mail? Does that mean someone’s home? But who? The driveway is empty.

I step carefully over one of the black blobs as it creeps through the overlong grass, stretching and contracting like a leech. I would have mowed if I had known I was going to die. Reacting to my presence, the blob extends pseudopod-like feelers. I’m tempted to slam my foot down and squash it, but for some reason I leave it be. I’ve always had a soft spot for invertebrates.

I find the spare key where I always leave it, on the steps of the side entry, under a deceased geranium.

I open the door. Someone’s been here. There are flowers and cards in my kitchen.

A denim purse lies by the phone. My sister’s—Diane. How did she get up here so quickly from Stony Brook? She doesn’t even own a car.

I hear the TV on in the living room. I pause on the threshold of the dining room. Diane’s there, sitting in my easy chair. Calling hours aren’t for another day, but it appalls me to see her by herself. She looks horrible, hair askew, face all puffy and inflamed.

I slip inside the room, keeping to the shadows, working my way to the sofa, in the periphery of her vision. I settle onto it slowly to avoid attracting her attention. My mass depresses the cushions slightly.

Diane’s head flicks in my direction, but she looks straight past me towards the dining room.

“Hello?” she says, calling into the kitchen. “Is someone there?”

I stay silent and still. She straightens up in the chair, smooths her hair.

“Hello!” she calls, louder. She rolls out of the easy chair and grabs a lacrosse stick from an umbrella stand. She slinks right past me, turning the corner into the dining room like a TV detective. She checks the bathroom, locks the basement door.

I regret coming into the room. I’m not ready to be seen, not like this, not by my own sister. I get up from the sofa and slip behind some drapes.

The drapes are still swinging when Diane comes back in the room. She stares, lacrosse stick cradled across her front like a goalie. I notice the drapes bulge slightly around my form.

“Whoever you are … get out of my house … or I’ll call the cops!” She’s got her cell phone, thumb ready to speed dial.

“No!” I say, stepping out from the drapes.

Diane gasps and stumbles back.

“Diane! It’s me,” I say.

“Dan?” Her mouth shapes unvoiced words.

“I didn’t mean to scare you,” I say.

“How …?”

“I’m just … visiting. Don’t worry, I’ll leave soon.”

“No,” she says. “Please … don’t leave. I mean … this is your house, too.” Tears burst from her eyes. She puts down the stick and steps towards me. “No matter what … you’re still my brother.” She rushes forward and tries to hug me. Her embrace feels blunt and remote, like a force transmitted through miles of stone.

She pulls pack and shudders. “Gosh, you’re so cold,” she says. “Can I get you a sweater … a blanket?”

“That’s okay, Diane. It won’t help. I don’t … feel … anything.”

“Sit. Sit down,” she says, rocking on the balls of her feet, looking confused, flustered. “I can make you some breakfast, but … I suppose you don’t eat … do you?”

“I … don’t.”

“I can’t believe it’s really you standing there,” she says. “You sound a thousand miles away … through a bad connection.”

“I didn’t mean to surprise you like this.”

Her eyebrows pull together as she squints at me, trying to resolve my form.

“Can you even see me?” I say.

“Sort of,” she says. “You bend light, so things look warped through you, like antique window glass.”

“Good to know, I guess.”

“What’s it like,” she says. “Being dead?”

“I don’t recommend it,” I say. “Live to be a hundred if you can. It’s not so great … on the other side.”

“Shit! Don’t tell me that,” she says.

“Maybe … it will be different for you,” I say.

“What are you doing here? Is there something unfinished … that you need to accomplish … to be free?”

“Not really,” I say. “I just wanted to come back. But I wouldn’t have come if I knew it would be like this.”

Diane’s eyes flare wide. “I should call mom and dad. They’re landing in Syracuse on a red-eye. They’ll be renting a car and driving.

“No,” I say. “Please don’t mention that you saw me. Let’s keep this our secret, okay?”

“But why?” says Diane. “We’re family.”

“Mom will freak,” I say. “You know how she is, and I don’t want to give Dad a heart attack.”

“Too late,” says Diane. He’s already had one … when he got the news about you.”

“What?”

“Well, not exactly a heart attack. Angina, but they say he’s gonna need stents when they go back to Florida after the funeral.”

“Oh Jeez,” I say.

“It’s gonna be hard staying mum about this,” says Diane, frowning. “Maybe, I’ll say you came to me in a dream.” Her eyes shift. “Does Gina know about this? Have you seen Gina?”

I look out the window at the willows, avoiding Diane’s gaze. “Not yet.”

“She came by the house yesterday,” says Diane. “We had coffee together, looked at pictures and cried.”

“That’s nice,” I say.

“What’s … wrong?” says Diane. “Are things… were things alright with you two … before…?”

“Things were fine,” I say.

Diane studies me as if she’s trying to read my body language, but there’s nothing to read. Ghosts spill no tells.

Diane skitters over to the basement door. “The spare bedroom! I can fix it up for you. The house is going to be full this afternoon and there you can have some peace and quiet. Unless … you want to hang out up here … with everyone.”

“No,” I say. “Too many eyes.” I look out the window at the willows. “I think I’ll hang out in the tree house.”

888

Later that morning, folks start showing up at the house. I watch Mom and Dad arrive in their rented Camry. Who knew a guy with no innards could feel like he’d been punched in the gut, but that’s how I feel when I see them lumber out of the car, weighted by grief.

I hang out up in the willows all the rest of that day, in the rickety eyesore that had once been our castle. Diane comes out to visit from time to time, under the pretext of needing time alone. Everyone leaves her be, gives her the space she needs to grieve.

Mom pretty much stays in the house. I catch glimpses of her through the windows. Dad comes out from time to time to trim the bushes and weed the flower beds.

He steps right into a patch of those leechy-things without noticing them. Those little buggers have homed in on me in the backyard. One made it halfway up a willow before I was able to flick it off with a twig.

Aunts, uncles, friends, neighbors and strangers I’ve never seen before come by during the day to drop off casseroles and fruit salads and such, but the big show will come tonight at the wake.

The calling hours and service will be with closed casket. The funeral director strongly advised Diane not to peek. Was my body really trashed beyond the skill of an undertaker and his cosmetic wax? It made me curious to see what’s left of me. I won’t be shy. It’s my body after all.

If I looked halfway decent, I might be tempted to possess myself the way Haurvil took over Mr. Corduroy. Rigor mortis by this point, I suppose, would make that impractical. And who knows, the properties of Shades in Lethe might differ from Ghosts on Earth. I wasn’t sure being a Zombie would be much of an improvement over my current condition.

When cars start pulling out of the driveway in the late afternoon, I climb down out of the tree house. Diane, wearing a black skirt and top, runs right past me in the middle of the lawn.

“Diane! I’m right here.”

She skids in the grass, her heels flopping over.

“We’re going to the wake,” she says, breathless. “Want a ride? I can sneak you into the trunk.”

“No thanks,” I say. “I think I’d like to walk.”

“Walk? Really? You can walk?”

“What do think I do? Hover?”

“I honestly didn’t know,” she says, touching her finger to her chin. Her eyes flick towards the driveway. “Gotta go. Mom’s looking at me like I’m nutso. See you there?”

“So to speak,” I say.

She runs over to the idling Camry and it pulls away.

I follow after it, but a ripple shimmies my leg. I have stepped on a leech and it’s dissolved a piece of my virtual foot as if I have stepped in acid. I hobble away and the remainder of my soul flows in to fill the void, but I’m that much lighter now. It seems someone aims to reclaim me piece by piece.

I pick my way over to the sidewalk, watching carefully where I step. I stop and look back at the house and see a man in dark clothing standing at the corner of the block, staring up the sidewalk. I start towards town and he starts after me.

Coincidence, I tell myself. My own sister can’t see me, how can he?

It’s a lovely afternoon, more sun than cloud, although the clouds overhead are stacked pretty high—Michelangelo clouds, as Gina calls them—thunderhead wannabes.

The sidewalk I stroll along is the one I learned to ride and crash a bicycle on, the one my beagle Lucky would trot down every day to fetch me home from primary school.

I pass lots of people out for walks. The oldest and the youngest folks seem more likely to notice me than anyone teen to middle-aged. An octogenarian lady steps aside as I approach, as if I’m the angel of death. A baby in a stroller points and laughs at me. Dogs like me more than they ever did in life.

That guy, he’s still following, keeping half a block away as if he knows exactly where I am.

The funeral home, a bloated, over-expanded Victorian, is tucked among black locusts on the edge of the business district. Dark-suited attendants loiter by orange cones and “Funeral Parking Only” placards. Turnout, so far, is rather light, though it’s probably still early.

There’s a guy standing with a bulky briefcase across the street who doesn’t seem to be part of the funeral home staff, nor does he seem interested in sharing condolences with my family. I don’t know why, but I get the feeling he might be a lawyer, one of those ambulance chaser types, but his nose rings, mullet and pony tail make that seem unlikely.

I walk around the building, down a drive tucked along the side. I enter through a propped-open door and pass through some offices, avoiding the more public spaces until I reach a side door opening into the chapel/viewing room upstairs.

My casket’s a beaut—polished walnut, pewter hardware—overkill for something destined to be covered with dirt, never again to see the light of day. I would have been fine with a rental for show, and something cheap and piney for the actual disposal.

A steady flow of people trickle in, high school friends, employers from my various summer jobs and many faces I don’t recognize. Both my parents are weeping softly. Mom, especially, goes through heaps of Kleenex.

I suppress the urge to join them. I’d love to be able to tell them not to worry, that I didn’t feel much pain, that I’m doing okay, even though I’m not. Maybe Diane can do that for me.

About an hour into it, when I’m starting to get bored, Gina walks in. She’s alone. She kneels at the casket, prays, and then goes and sits by herself off to one side. Diane whispers into Mom’s ear. Mom goes over, gives Gina a hug and gets her to sit with the family.

After a while, when she gets up to leave, I slip along the wall and follow her out into the entry. She pulls out her cell phone and reads a text. I come up behind her; I can’t see what it says.

“Gina,” I say, softly, because there are people nearby. She jumps, fumbles her phone, swoops down, snatches it up and rushes out the door, tossing wide-eyed glances over her shoulder.

I hurry after her. An Escalade pulls up to the curb. Gina climbs in and slams the door. That guy she was with is driving. She collapses against his shoulder as they roar away.

I sink, and just when I think I can’t get any lower, the lawyer guy, the one with the nose rings and the bulky briefcase comes out from behind a street lamp and tosses a handful of powder in the air. It twinkles down like pixie dust and sticks to me, stinging. He comes at me holding the briefcase out front as if it’s rigged with a bomb.

I dash back into the funeral home, down the stairs and into the depths of the mortuary, exiting from an open window in the embalming room. I run back home as fast as I can.

888

When Diane comes home, she finds me in her room. I tell her what happened: “I think there’s someone after me.”

“What do you mean?” she says.

“There are these folks. They collect souls. Permanently. I think I saw one at the wake.”

“You’re … kidding,” she says.

“No shit, Diane. They’re after me.”

“But … why? Why would they bother with you? What are they, like … Ghostbusters or something?”

“Something like that,” I say. “I don’t belong here. I think they want me back.”

“Was it that … creep? The one who kept hovering outside? The one with the nose rings?”

“That’s the one.”

“Eeuw! That guy stank,” says Diane. “He tried to hide it with cologne. Dad was about to call the cops on him but Mom talked him out of it.”

It takes me an hour to scrub that sparkly dust off. The only thing that works is a rusty, old Brillo pad. Diane is reluctant to help me at first, saying that she kind of likes the sparkles, because they outline my form—until I tell her how much they burn.

She vows to protect me, staying up till four with the lacrosse stick cradled in her lap. Now she snoozes in her bean bag chair. The blinds are drawn. The door is locked.

I spend the night in Diane’s closet, under a dozen birthdays’ worth of plush toys and Barbies. She lent me her iPad to keep me occupied. The touch screen is just sensitive enough for me to operate. I go on Facebook and update my page, searching and friending half-forgotten friends, catching up with their lives, not letting on what happened to me.

Folks who know of my death call me a hacker or a sock puppet. Gina logs on, posts a sweet remembrance in one thread, an accusation in another. She writes: “Sick, sick, sick! You’re a goddamn sicko.”

It’s amazing how far and wide the news has traveled. Even Alan Hydeck, my best friend from third grade who moved to California when I was nine, posts a memorial on my wall.

I have a decent amount of savings but no will. I don’t even know what happens to bank accounts once you die, if they freeze until the Government gets their share or if they get transferred to your parents’ accounts automatically. But I figure I might as well take a shot at redistributing my ‘wealth’ as I see fit.

So I go on Amazon and order a nice Seiko watch for Diane. I get my Dad the monster HDTV he’s been pining for. Mom, a big, cushy hammock with a bug canopy.

With Gina, I’m feeling spiteful, so I order her a bunch of books:

Inside Infidelity (How Cheats Think and Behave) by Karola Grünenbaum

Fidelity: What It Means to be a One-Woman Man, by Douglas Wilson.

On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss, by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David A. Kessler.

Transcending Post-infidelity Stress Disorder (PISD): The Six Stages of Healing, by Dennis C. Ortman.

I ignore my order’s eligibility for “FREE Super Saver Shipping” and check the box for overnight express delivery. I also check the box for “Add gift wrap/note.”

My note: “To Gina, with love, forever, Dan.” I figure my selection reflects mixed feelings about seeing Gina in bed with that guy not even two days after my body went cold:

1. I hate her. I hate that fucking bitch. Die. Die. Die!

2. Her reaction to my death is all my fault, a reflection of our dysfunctional relationship.

3. What she did is only natural. Her way of coping with grief.

Whatever’s left, I give to charity, equally distributed between Oxfam and the World Wildlife Fund.

And then, I indulge my virtual self: Asgard Thornbrake, my World of Warcraft Alliance warrior of steroidal bulk and CGI swagger. I stream WoW to my iPad from a Gaikai server. My guild mates have staged an important raid to go down at 06:00 server time in Roknarag dungeon, seven minutes from now. I had expected to miss this raid because Gina I would scale down my WoW obsession, and then I missed it for real because I died, but now I am back, and my promise to Gina is moot, so I’m ready to go for glory.

I count down the minutes and appear out of nowhere. I go nuts like a berserker, slaying handfuls of orcs and trolls, ignoring my declining health points until a mage sears me to death with a level 50 scorch spell.

I reappear, fittingly, as a virtual ghost in a cemetery far from the action. I gift my degrading weaponry and armor to my guild mates along with every last bit of my virtual gold. I cancel my account. Asgard Thornbrake is no more.

I feel fulfilled. I feel empty.

The sun is sneaking past the blinds, so I crawl out of the closet and slink out of the house. True or not, sunlight makes me feel safer.

Diane’s iPad tucked under my arm, I cross the dewy lawn, which seems clear of leech-y landmines. I climb back into the tree house, relishing the sway of the trees and the pressure of the wind as I surf the web, catching up with the NBA semifinals I had missed.

A man walks by the house. A few minutes later he walks by again. The kitchen door opens. Diane peeks out into the yard. She dashes to the tree house in her pajamas.

“Dan?”

“Yeah, I’m here.”

“What are you doing outside? There’s a guy out there.”

“I saw.”

“Come on, get back in the house!”

I start to climb down the tree. A ring of black blobs creep up the bark. I leap down to the lawn and roll.

Mom opens the kitchen window. “Diane! Lacrosse, really? In your nightie? Get inside!”

“Just a sec,” says Diane.

She opens the steel casement door leading into the basement.

“Get in,” she whispers. “Lock it and I’ll open the other door from the inside.”

I comply.

“Are you in?”

“Yes!” I snap.

“Well, I can’t tell.”

The steel door clangs shut and I set the latch. Footsteps clatter down the basement stairs. The other door swings open. I slip through and she slams it.

“There, you’re nice and safe and you’ve got the run of the whole basement.”

“Oh joy,” I say.

888

I recline on a pile of dirty clothes that I never got around to washing. Gina’s stuff is intermingled, a bra, panties, a pair of jeans.

I listen to the familiar rhythms of footsteps on the kitchen floor, Mom’s heavy thump, Dad’s syncopated limp, Diane’s flighty pitter-patter. I hear the garage door open. The Camry starts up.

The door opens a crack.

“We’re going out for breakfast!” Diane whispers down the stairs. “You okay?”

“Fine,” I say.

Mom yells for Diane to hurry.

“Later,” she says.

I roam the basement, a graveyard for board games, appliances and exercise equipment. The pool table’s loaded with old pots and pans and casserole dishes. My old trombone gathers dust in its case.

Metal scrapes metal from a casement window in my Dad’s work room. I peek around the corner. A dark shape crouches before it; prying a blade against the latch through a crack in the glass. It’s the man from the sidewalk.

I look around for something sharp, finding only a broken pool cue.

I stalk up to the window. The man’s knife nudges open the latch. The window tips open. I jab the cue into the back of the man’s hand. He grunts. The knife drops into the basement.

I thrust again, puncturing his thigh. He yells, blood turns his grey slacks black. He crab crawls back from the window and rises, leering into the dark basement.

“No worries,” he says, clamping a handkerchief against his wound. “We’ll get ya soon enough. We know where ta findya.”

“Who are you people?” I say.

“Bounty hunters,” he says, limping away towards the walk.

888

A limousine brings the family to St. Mary’s for the funeral service. I stay home, ensconced back in Diane’s closet with the mercenary’s knife. It’s a Gerber DMF, a black and toothy switchblade. Why the man needs such a weapon against a ghost baffles me, unless part of his job is reaping souls from the living. Clearly I’m dealing with a higher order entity here, not one who needs to resort to employing raccoons and bees as assassins.

The plan is, after mass, during the procession to the cemetery, Diane will get her friend Susie to peel away from the procession to Cold Brook Cemetery and rush her back to the house, ostensibly to fetch her camera.

I watch the clock on Diane’s dresser, and right on time, Susie’s car pulls into the driveway. The kitchen door opens. Diane trots in and snatches her camera from the counter by the toaster.

“Dan? You here?”

“I’m out the door,” I say,

Diane locks up, opens the back door of Susie’s car to toss in a sweater. I hop in. We race back to the cemetery, where the interment ceremony is just getting underway.

It’s a glittery day. The sun twinkles in the wet grass. It’s almost worth coming back just for these glimpses of what used to be mine. I love this world, and I miss it, even though it surrounds me.

Lots of familiar faces here, even more than attended the wake. People from work. My old townie friends from Ithaca.

I see Gina standing alone, sobbing. I thread my way over to her through the crowd, careful not to bump anyone. I get beside her and reach for her hand, but catch myself, remembering the effect my touch has on people.

“Gina … don’t cry,” I say, softly.

She gives such a start she almost inhales her tongue. She looks at the people around her, and up into the tree canopy.

“I’m here,” I say. “Don’t be scared.”

“Dan?”

“Where’s your friend?” I say.

“Dan? W-where are you?”

“I’m right here.” I touch her hand. Her hand flies back as if she’s touched a hot stove.

“Sorry,” I say. “Didn’t mean to scare you.”

She shields her face with a program. “I … I don’t believe in ghosts. I don’t.”

I sigh. “Neither do I.”

“Why are you here … talking to me?” she says.

“I just didn’t want you to feel too bad about me. I’m doing okay.”

“Go back, Dan. Please? You don’t belong here.”

“Can’t Gina … kinda I’m stuck.”

“People … are staring,” she says.

“Never mind them,” says Dan. “How’re you doing, Gina?”

“It’s been … hard. Really hard.”

“Though … I see you’re getting plenty of comfort.”

Gina holds a handkerchief up over her nose and mouth. Her eyes go everywhere, she doesn’t know where to look.

“What do you mean by that?”

“That guy. The one who picked you up from my wake. The one you’ve been sleeping with.”

“How do you know that?”

“I came by your place, Gina. I saw you two.”

“That’s … really creepy, Dan. You shouldn’t go sneaking around like that.” My grand-aunt Nellie gives Gina a queer look.

“I’m dead,” I say, as if that excuses my stalking.

“Mark’s been a big, big help,” says Gina. “This has really been hard on me, Dan. You have no idea.”

“On me, too.”

“Obviously,” says Gina. She turns. Her eyes try to find mine. I notice a sparkle or two still clinging to my torso from the mercenary’s dust. “So that really was you? On Facebook?”

“Yeah,” I say. “I’m the sicko.”

Something blackish moves among the headstones down the hill, arcing around the proceedings. And then there’s another, converging from the opposite direction.

“Gina, I don’t want to drag this out. I just wanted to say good bye. That’s kind of why I came back. To say goodbye.”

“We should talk,” says Gina. “I can meet you in the park afterwards.”

The man with the nose rings steps around a monument and strides down a paved walk.

“Can’t,” I say. “I gotta go. I just want you to know. I loved you. I really did.”

“I love you too, Dan.” She tears up afresh. “Are you going … to Heaven?”

“Not quite.”

My Dad shovels ceremonial dirt; my Mom and her cousins toss flowers onto my coffin. Something moves behind a bush. It’s a guy I haven’t seen before, wearing blue jeans and T-shirt, carrying a blocky toolbox.

“Dan?” says Gina. “Dan? You still there?”

I scuttle over to Diane’s side, whisper to her so only she can hear.

“They’re here,” I say.

Diane wheels around and spots the guy with the toolbox. Her eyes narrow and she stalks up to him. He’s got his eyes so fixed on me, he pays no heed to her approach. Diane shoves him. He stumbles against a tombstone. Bystanders swarm to her aid.

I escape through the crowd. A woman in a purple dress reaches into a purse and tosses a handful dust in the air. A stinging cloud wafts down and clings to me, highlighting my form in a constellation of sparks that collect and magnify the sun. Rays refract as if I’m a prism, leaving a rainbow shadow in my wake.

The man with the nose rings comes trotting after me. I dash through a forest of headstones, careening off the marble and granite slabs. Another man, the one I stabbed at the house, comes running across an access road to head me off, gripping a tool box like a football.

I veer down an alley between two mausoleums. The pierced one skids in the moss at the other end, blocking my way. He unlatches his briefcase. The other guy comes up behind me, unsnapping his toolbox. I’m trapped.

Before they can reach me, my world blinks out.
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