Good Intentions

I hunkered down near to the rail track. I was just outside town; I’d spent the day there, panhandling without much success, but I didn’t want to spend the night in an alleyway or doorway. Small town folk, especially cops, didn’t like hobos, so I’d walked a mile or so out of town and found myself near a small rail shed, obviously used for storing equipment. I planned to move on the next day. There wasn’t much shelter, but the weather was warm and the sky was cloudless. It wasn’t the worse place I’d slept. I’d lost my job as a meat packer in Chicago in January 1933; I’d drifted west hoping for salvation. Six months and no luck later, I found myself in Colorado, still hungry, still poor.

I was about to drift off to sleep when I saw a figure standing over me. I tensed, it was normal for railroad cops to hassle us drifters, moving us on if we were lucky, beating the crap out of us if we weren’t, but I hadn’t expected to encounter any so far from town. My eyes focused and I realized it was an old guy, maybe seventy.

“Please, I mean you no harm. I live in the house on the other side of the gorge. I know what it’s like to be poor, to be homeless in these hard times. I’d like to offer you a hot meal and a warm bed for the night.”

The rail line ran alongside a steep gorge before turning south into town. I looked across the gorge to the warm yellow lights of a mansion. This guy was obviously loaded, probably ran a charity or something. I didn’t normally accept such generosity, but I was starving. The offer of food was too tempting.

“Okay, thanks.”

“Excellent, now just follow me.”

The old guy headed across a bridge that extended across the gorge. He reached about halfway, stopped, turned and motioned me to follow. I stepped onto the bridge.

“Come on, young man. Keep up!” called my new friend.

I took another step and found myself falling. I felt a crunch, then nothing.

I woke in a hospital bed. A nurse stared down at me.

“You’re awake. Good.”

“What happened?”

“You fell, luckily for you a tree broke your fall. It also broke your ankle, your femur, your arm and four ribs, but if it hadn’t been for those branches, you’d probably be dead. The others are.”

“The others?”

“You aren’t the first to fall. Didn’t you notice the bridge is out?”

“I guess I didn’t.”

“You guys never do, just straight across the bridge without looking, then boom, you walk right over the edge.”

“Isn’t there a barrier, to stop people falling?”

“There was, but the town can’t afford maintenance men anymore, so when it fell into the gorge last winter, it was never replaced. There have been five deaths since then, all drifters.”

“What about the old guy? I saw him reach the middle of the bridge.”

She smiled.

“He’s Henry Lansing. The millionaire owner of the Lansing House, the big mansion you can see on the other side of the gorge. He built the house in 1860, built the bridge over the gorge in 1863. He died in 1892.”

“Huh?”

“By all accounts he was a very decent person. He got upset after the war by the sight of dozens of ex-soldiers wandering through town, moving from railyard to railyard. But instead of getting the police to move them on or arrest them, he’d come over the bridge into town and invite them back to his place for food and a place to sleep for a couple of nights. Converted one of his stables in a barracks.”

“I don’t understand.”

“His ghost still walks, comes over the bridge and invites people back to his place. He’s still trying to do good, all these years after his death. You guys hunker down at the rail shed, he appears, invites you over. The mansion is still lived in and looks welcoming, but there’s one problem. He can walk across the bridge. You can’t.”

“So…”

“Exactly, he doesn’t know the bridge is out. You follow him, watch as he walks over the bridge. It’s dark, you can’t see the planks, but you can see him, so you follow. When he steps off onto the missing part of the bridge he stays where he is. When you do it, you fall.”

“So, it isn’t malicious? Evil?”

“No, but the outcome is the same. After all, they do say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I guess he still sees the bridge as it was, doesn’t realise he’s killing you.”

I wasn’t sure whether or not to believe her.

“One thing always makes me wonder though.”

“What?”

“What he thinks when he arrives on the other side with no one following him. I wonder if he gets upset?”

There was no answer to that.

∼ RJ Meldrum

© Copyright RJ Meldrum. All Rights Reserved.

The Drifting Snow

The wind blew the dry snow across the road, reducing the visibility to about five feet. Don was forced to slow the car to a crawl.

“We’ll never get home at this rate.”

“Better late than never.”

It wasn’t a good night to be traveling, but they had no choice. They were on their way back from the crematorium. Grandma had died on Christmas Eve, her heart finally giving out as she took the garbage to the roadside at minus twenty.

“I’ll miss her. I loved her so much,” said Linda.

“You were her favorite. She always went the extra mile for you. Remember when she punched that kid who was bullying you?”

She smiled at the memory, looking out the car window at the snow-covered fields.

“She always loved this weather. I thought she was crazy, but it was her favorite time of year. She was such a tough old lady.”

“She had to be, living by herself on the farm.”

“She was so stubborn. Didn’t want to sell up after Grandpa died. She might have lived a bit longer if she hadn’t had to drag those bags to the end of the driveway every week.”

“Well, she’s at peace now.”

Linda glanced out into the darkness. The wind blew across the open landscape, lifting the snow into huge whirling clouds. She saw something moving in the drifting snow, a figure.

“What was that?”

“What?”

“I saw a shape in the snow.”

“A deer?”

“It looked like a person.”

“In this weather? No way.  It’s minus thirty out there.”

“We should stop.”

“I guess, it could be a stranded driver.”

He pulled over and Linda got out.

“Hello? Is anyone there?”

There was no response. The snow was blowing into her face, the flakes sharp against her skin. Her face started to freeze. She knew she wouldn’t be able to stay outside for much longer.

“Hello?”

A figure appeared, standing about ten feet away. It was human.

“Grandma?”

She spoke without thinking. The figure danced and twisted in the wind. It whispered to her.

Go no further…”

The wind stole the rest of the sentence.

Linda’s nerve failed and she bolted for the safety of the car. Don looked up as she climbed back in.

“Anything?”

“No.”

She thought back to the words she’d heard.

“Just be careful. Drive real slow.”

“Slower than I have been?”

“Yes, I have a feeling.”

“Okay.”

Don crawled along at a snail’s pace. A pick-up truck roared past them, horn blaring. Its taillights disappeared into the snow. Suddenly Don braked. Hard. Even at such a slow speed, the car skidded for a few feet before crunching to a halt on the icy road.

“Look!”

He pointed in front of them. The road crossed a narrow bridge. It had collapsed. The taillights of the pick-up truck were visible in the water below. If they hadn’t been going so slowly, they would’ve had no chance of stopping in time. Linda, suddenly aware of what had happened, looked out at the drifting snow and silently thanked Grandma for looking out for her, one last time.

∼ RJ Meldrum

© Copyright RJ Meldrum. All Rights Reserved.

Live While You Can

Sarah sat at the reception desk. She was on night duty and was alone. The night was hot, stuffy and the air conditioning was barely functioning. The breeze from the open window was very welcome.

The area was called ‘the one-way ward’ by some of the staff. It was the wing of the oncology department where the hopeless cases received palliative care to ease their last days. The name wasn’t meant to be cruel; it was an attempt to inject some gallows humor, to lift the somber atmosphere.

There were eight private and semi-private rooms in the area, all within easy access of the main desk. It was an easy job. The patients were drugged to the eyeballs, heavily sedated. They slept away their last few hours.

Sarah’s eyes closed without her even being aware she was falling asleep. The book she was reading slipped from her fingers and landed with a soft bump on the desk.

She woke with a start. Glancing at the computer on the desk, she realized fifteen minutes had passed. She checked the monitor. No alerts.

A man walked out of one of the semi-private rooms. Sarah knew there were two teenage girls in that room. Her hand flashed to the security call button.

“Don’t,” he said.

Her hand froze. All she could do was stare at the man.

“Come with me.”

She rose and walked towards him. Her mind was screaming; this was insanity, he was going to kill her and do terrible, unspeakable things to the helpless patients. She couldn’t stop herself, some external force was driving her legs. She stood beside him, unwillingly compliant.

“Walk with me.”

He headed into the next room. She followed, still trying to force her legs to move towards the reception desk and safety.

The two patients were both men in their forties. Yellow skin was stretched over cadaverous faces. They lay, eyes closed, on their death beds, surrounded by technology that was unable to save them. The drugs kept them pain free, that was all. The chemotherapy, the radiotherapy hadn’t worked for them. Modern medicine was making huge inroads into treating cancer, but there were still people for whom no treatment had worked.

The man walked up to the nearest bed. He stroked the forehead of the patient.

“Dream, my brother.”

The man in the bed, still unconscious, suddenly smiled. His eyelids flickered and his mouth twitched.

The man moved to the next patient and did the same. The patient responded in the same way.

“Follow me.”

Sarah followed.

Her companion moved from room to room, touching each patient on the forehead speaking the same words. Each time the patient responded in the same way.

They returned to the reception area. Sarah felt herself released from whatever hold he’d had over her. She felt weak, her muscles ached.

“You are now free to call security.”

Sarah didn’t.

“Who are you? What did you do to those patients?”

“Gave them life.”

“Life? They’re dying.”

“The life they would have lived, had they not been here. In their minds, they are living, falling in love, having children…working, travelling, laughing, crying. Everything they are going to miss.”

Sarah believed him. She had seen the patients’ faces.

“Who are you?”

“I’m cursed. I’m blessed. This is my life, my part to play.”

Sarah, a believer, whispered.

“Are you an angel?”

The man smiled.

“Angel or demon, it does not matter. I am here. That is all that matters.”

He walked out the doors of the ward.

“See to your patients.”

Sarah did as she was told, moving between the rooms, checking each patient carefully. They were still now, but it wasn’t the stillness of sedation. It was the stillness of death. Each one, every single one had died. Sarah supposed in their dream state they had lived full, rich lives and died, surrounded by family and friends. Her unknown visitor had given them quite a gift, but he’d also given her quite the problem. How was she going to explain how the entire ward of patients had died all at exactly the same time?

∼ RJ Meldrum

© Copyright RJ Meldrum. All Rights Reserved.

Parting Shot

He’d brought her to visit his home town. Since this was her first time visiting, he decided to show her his childhood haunts. First was the ruined cottage, sitting by itself on a rural road.

“This place used to scare the crap out of me.”

“Why?”

“It was haunted.”

“You really believed that?”

“I did. It had a creepy vibe. Maybe I should see if it still does.”

He walked through the front door.

“I can’t feel anything. Whatever haunted this place has gone.”

He walked further into the ruin.

“There’s an entrance to a cellar in the floor here. Never noticed that before.”

The wood was rotten and it splintered. He fell through into the darkness, stopping only when his belly jammed in the entrance.

“Give me a hand to get back out.”

“I don’t know if I’m strong enough.”

“I’ll push. You pull.”

His face changed.

“What’s wrong? Are you hurt?”

“Something’s touching me.”

“What?”

“Something’s stroking my legs.”

“You mean a rat?”

“No, I can feel fingers.”

She knew he wasn’t joking.

“GET ME OUT!”

She grabbed his arm and pulled as hard as she could. Nothing.

“PULL!”

She gave a heave. He popped out of the hole like a cork from a bottle. He lay in the dirt, panting.

“What was it?”

“I don’t know, but it felt like a human hand.”

“It couldn’t be. Nobody’s down there.”

“I know, but let’s get the hell out of here.”

Before they could move, a voice spoke from the darkness of the cellar.

You kids come back real soon…

They ran away from the thing that still haunted the cottage.

.

~ RJ Meldrum

© Copyright RJ Meldrum. All Rights Reserved.

The Store at the Center of Hell

You probably don’t know this, but Hell isn’t all burning pits and brimstone. Hell is cleverer than that. Hell is personal. It picks apart your psyche like the layers of an onion, exposing the torments that are perfect for you. Then, those torments are inflicted on you…forever.

Damn clever, wish I’d thought of it. I really wish I wasn’t part of it.

Every morning I wake in the same small back room. I open the door and head into my store. It isn’t really my store, I woke up here, presumably just after I died. The layout is reminiscent of those old-fashioned general stores you used to find in every small town. Wooden counters and shelves. Tin cans, dry goods. Brands you’d never heard of before. Newspapers for the men, magazines for the ladies, candy and ice cream for the kids. Cigarettes, some booze. Lightbulbs, rubber bands, tin openers; items secreted in dark cupboards, stuff you may only ever need once in your life. Cocktail umbrellas, apple corers.

This is my hell.

It’s not as if I was a storekeeper when I was alive. I was a firefighter. A pretty damn exciting, cool job. The ladies loved me; all I had to do was tell them I was a fireman and…well, I’m sure you can guess. Good times. All I remember of my death was smoke, flames and a collapsing roof. Then, I woke up here.

I don’t know how long I’ve been here. I suppose it doesn’t matter.

At this point, I’m sure you’re wondering where the torment comes in. Running a wee store in hell doesn’t sound too bad, does it?

Well, let me enlighten you. You see, I’m not just playing the role of storekeeper. I am the storekeeper, that’s my whole world. I spend my days dusting and rearranging, fussing over what prices to lower, where to stack my tins. Making sure my newspapers line up with ninety-degree angles. I dream about stock-taking. I am the ultimate, totally consumed, archetypal storekeeper. And who is the natural enemy of all storekeepers? You don’t know? Guess. Correct; shoplifters. Little, shitty thieves, stealing from good, honest, honorable people. To steal, to shoplift, is a crime, it’s a sin, it’s an outrage.

Sorry, got a bit carried away there. I’ll get back to my point. You see, I only have one customer. It’s Old Hob himself. Every day at four o’clock he comes into my store. I’m where I usually am, standing behind my counter. I watch the old bugger wander in, casual as anything. Every day I ask the same question.

“Can I help you with anything, sir?”

The answer is always the same.

“Just browsing.”

I watch him as he wanders around, between the shelves. I watch him as he takes items, examines them and then carefully drops them into the pockets of his long, black coat. I stand, unable to move, unable to speak, while I watch him defile my beautiful store. My blood boils, I feel my blood pressure skyrocket. It feels as if I’m having a stroke. I want to scream, I want to stop him, hurt him, kill him, but I can’t do anything. My soul, my storekeeper’s soul, is rent asunder watching this travesty.

And then, his pockets full of my wonderful goods, he smiles and heads to the door.

“See you tomorrow, storekeeper!”

The door closes behind him and I can finally move. I spend the rest of the day, every day, restocking my shelves, mourning for the lost items. Grieving for the money lost, despairing that I allow this to happen, dreading the next day. My head hurts, my heart aches.

I told you, Hell is clever.

~ RJ Meldrum

© Copyright RJ Meldrum. All Rights Reserved.

The Price of Revenge

“Mr. Roger DeMontfort-Jones?”

The voice startled DeMontfort-Jones out of his reverie. He had been engrossed in the latest share index prices. He looked up to see two men standing at the entrance to his office. One was tall, the other small, bent and twisted.

“How can I help you, gentlemen?”

“It is we who have come to help you. We are here to offer you an unusual and highly unique service.”

Salesmen. DeMontfort-Jones waved his hand dismissively.

“Just leave your brochure with my assistant down the corridor.”

“Our service is not one that has any accompanying literature. It can only be offered to those who have been specially selected. It requires an ability to provide adequate recompense.”

“You mean, whatever you’re selling is expensive.”

“Quite. You see, very few people are ever allowed to join our club. The service we offer has certain expenses. Therefore, the membership fee must reflect that.”

“Okay, gentlemen. Let’s hear what you’ve got to offer.”

“Reflect on the words I am about to say. Reflect carefully. These words describe our unique service. The words are ‘unpunished crimes’.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Think about it. Think about all those times when a driver has hogged the road, refusing to pull over. Remember when somebody’s dog defecated on your lawn and they refused to pick it up. Think of all those rude shop assistants and bank-tellers, the sloppy waiters who can’t be bothered to be polite. These are all unpunished crimes. Not recognized in law, but enough to drive any normal man to desperation. Remember the annoyance you felt, the unrequited fury. But there was nothing you could do about it.”

“Until now,” said the other man, then continued.

“You have been selected to join our club. For a very reasonable fee you’ll have the satisfaction of seeing these crimes punished. We will eliminate five of these unpunished criminals for you. You choose which ones. All you do is make one phone call and then leave the rest to us. Imagine the satisfaction, knowing that the moron behind the counter will never bother a decent citizen like yourself again. Or the driver who lifts his middle finger to you will never sit behind the wheel again. Imagine the pleasure you will get from knowing that.”

DeMontfort-Jones understood exactly what they were saying. He had spent years getting to the top, crushing careers and swinging massive deals. He was the most respected and feared financial broker in the city, but he was still affected by such annoyances. He felt the pleasure of revenge already. It was a wonderful feeling.

“I’ll buy it, gentlemen. I’ll buy your service.”

“Excellent, welcome to our club. Now, all you have to do is provide us with one million pounds. A banker’s draft, if you please. And please consider, the quicker we get the money the quicker you can start choosing.”

DeMontfort-Jones practically ran out the office. It only took him thirty minutes to get the money. His private bank asked no questions. The two men were waiting patiently in his office when he got back. Both were still standing. After the money had been exchanged, the small man handed him a piece of paper.

“That is the number you call. You only have five. Use them wisely. You will never see us again. Good hunting.”

The two men left. DeMontfort-Jones slumped into his seat. He began to convince himself that he had been ripped-off, that it was a con. Had he just pissed away a million pounds? He was tempted to call the number to see what happened, but a voice in the back of his mind reminded him ‘only five calls’. He didn’t call. Instead he smiled. Imagine if it wasn’t a con. That doorman would be first. The one at his apartment building. The stuck-up little sod. Then it would be the guy next door. That prick insisted on playing movies at three a.m. with the volume turned up. He could easily think of at least a dozen people who deserved to be ‘punished’. His paranoia vanished and he decided he might have to renew his subscription to this club.

He sat for half an hour, debating who, out of his list of candidates, to choose. There was a knock at his door.

“Come in.”

The tall man and the small man walked in again.

“Mr. DeMontfort-Jones?”

“What the hell? I thought you said I would never see you again.”

The two men looked at each other. The small one spoke.

“Ah. I see you are one of our members. It’s always a pity to have to make a visit to one of our own, but business is business.”

DeMontfort-Jones stared at the pair, noticing slight variations between them and his first visitors. These two weren’t the same pair. Close, but not the same. They were probably chosen that way. The tall man spoke.

“I’m afraid you have been selected by one of your fellow members for punishment.”

“What did I do?” he squeaked, realizing the implications of the tall man’s words.

“I’m afraid to say you carried out an unspeakable crime. Not more than one hour ago you cut in front of our member and stole his parking space. Our member was most annoyed, but luckily not so distracted that he omitted to note your car registration.”

“But I was in a rush. I was rushing to get my membership fee. I was rushing to get your damn money!”

“I’m sorry. No excuse is accepted. We do have our rules you know.”

DeMontfort-Jones saw the gun in the same instant the small man fired. He died with the small consolation it definitely hadn’t been a con.

~ RJ Meldrum

© Copyright RJ Meldrum. All Rights Reserved.

Tiny Freezer

The delivery man dropped off the new freezer. Part of the store’s deal was to take the old one away. As he loaded it onto the truck, he asked. “How did it die?”

“Pardon?” asked Melissa.

“The freezer. How did it die? It isn’t very old.”

Weird, she thought. Might be something to do with store’s return policy. “The storm last week. The power went off. When it came back on, the freezer was bust.”

“Good to know.”

He loaded it onto his hand-truck.

“R.I.P. tiny freezer.”

He stroked its white surface, as he gently placed it into the delivery truck.

That was really creepy, Melissa thought, but decided not to say anything. He was a big guy and she was on her own. She quietly closed the front door and watched as he drove away.

A couple of days later she decided it was time to fill the new freezer with food. She went shopping and returned with a car full of groceries destined for the freezer. As she climbed the stairs from the basement, after filling it with her purchases, she noticed the front door of the house was open. She closed it, disquieted.

She entered the lounge and saw the delivery driver sitting on the sofa.

“I checked it. The condenser had blown. The manual clearly says to unplug it in case of a surge after a power cut. You didn’t.”

“What?”

“You could have had the condenser replaced you know, you could have fixed it, but no, you went ahead and had it destroyed. Euthanized. You killed it. You murdered that tiny freezer. It was only a baby. There can be only one punishment for that.”

He rose from the sofa.

Brian came home from work at six, to find the house dark and empty. Shrugging, he guessed Melissa must be out for a walk. There was no note and she didn’t answer her phone. He decided to get a head start on dinner. In the basement the floor was covered in thawing packs of food. Melissa had obviously forgotten to load the new freezer. He opened the lid and recoiled. His wife lay, curled in a foetal position, in the frozen compartment.

∼ RJ Meldrum

© Copyright RJ Meldrum. All Rights Reserved.

The Last Door

I know I’m lying in a hospital bed. I know I have been here for a long time and I am unlikely to recover. I have heard the nurses whisper about me. I lie on the uncomfortable mattress, my flesh penetrated by needles and tubes. I am surrounded by machines that click and beep. I am unconscious and yet, somehow aware. I dream, or at least I think it’s a dream. I find myself walking in a dark corridor. I come to a door. It is painted yellow, decorated with rainbow stickers and smiley faces. I enter and find myself in a green park, the sun shining and the sky blue. Small children are running around, playing. Adults stand close by, monitoring. I recognize my mother first, then myself, deep in a scrum of children. I look to be about five or six. My mother looks so young. Her clothes are incredibly dated; her youth, my age and the fashion dates this time to the early 70s. I have somehow travelled back in time. I try to speak to my mother, reach out to her, but it’s clear that this is a vision, a memory. I cannot interact with the people around me. My heart aches to see her so young, so healthy. If my calculation of the date is correct, she has another thirty years to live before the cancer takes her. I see the cigarette in her hand and hate it. If only I could tell her to stop, to save her own life. My heart breaks when I realize I cannot change the future.

A force compels me to move, I walk through this idyllic scene, headed to an unknown destination.

The next door is black, skull & crossbones stickers plastered across it. Yellow police line tape crisscrosses the wooden panels. I recognize this door, I decorated it this way when I was fifteen. A snotty little goth, trying to be cool. I open the door and smile with embarrassment at the scene in front of me. The teenage me, dyed black hair, black skull t-shirt and a poor attempt at mascara sitting on the bed with my friends, all dressed exactly the same. Some dreary music plays in the background. There’s a girl on the bed too, the girlfriend of my best friend. It takes me a mere second to realize she’s looking at the younger version of me, not him. My teenage version is too interested in showing off his new leather trousers to notice. Her eyes tell the story, she likes me, she wants me to like her. To notice her. I fail to do so, I’m too focused on showing off. I curse my younger self. What a fool I was, she could have been the love of my life.

A push from behind impels me to move again. I come to another door.

This door is pastel blue, a soothing color. Inside the room is a nursery, decorated in gentle colors, with toys scattered around. The room is clean, bright and sunny. A tiny baby lies in a crib. I’m standing over it with a woman I don’t recognize. I look to be about thirty. This is an interesting scene. Not only is the woman a stranger, but I also never had any children. I had a wife, but she isn’t here. I never lived in this house. I wonder why I’m being shown this scene. I never regretted not having children, never really thought about it. Is this an untravelled road, a path my life could have taken, or is it just a dream? Wish fulfillment, from some unspoken subconscious desire? I wish I had the answer.

I’m pushed again, there is no time to ponder.

The third door is a rich burgundy, a solid color that speaks to me of success, money and complacency. I recognize this one, it is achingly familiar. I know what to expect. Inside I see myself. I am sitting in a wood-lined study, surrounded by leather bound books. This is my home, the place I worked my whole life to afford. The books are the ones I spent a lifetime collecting. I am old, with a wrinkle-lined face and grey hair. I’m reading a book, an anthology of Victorian ghost stories. My dog sits at my feet, warming herself in front of the log fire. I pause, this is last month, the day before I tripped and fell down the stairs, ending up in this hospital bed. This was the last day I spent in my beloved house, the last time I saw my dog.

The force insists I continue on. I have no choice but to obey. I reach another door.

This door is grey, almost hazy. I have the sense that this is it, the end of the line. It wasn’t a dream after all. I have really seen my life, my lives, the real and the possible. The branches I could have taken; the ones I chose to take. My life in high definition. I reach out to touch the handle, to pass through this door. I know it’s the last one, that whatever follows will be infinite. Was my life good? I ask myself. Did it fulfil me? Did I leave a good legacy? Did I ever act foolishly, selfishly? Do I have regrets? I answer yes to all those questions, but that is life. It must be painted in blacks, as well as whites. I feel a huge sense of sorrow, but I’m grateful I had the chance to reflect on my life, to see some reminder of my bygone days. I don’t want to leave yet, but I know I cannot stay. The sorrow diminishes to be replaced with hope. Perhaps there really is something on the other side of this door. I draw a breath, realizing that, in the real world of my hospital bed, this may well be my last. I exhale, then turn the doorknob and pull the grey door open. I enter.

∼ RJ Meldrum

© Copyright RJ Meldrum. All Rights Reserved.

Signal to Noise

He regained consciousness in the hospital corridor, finding himself standing in the middle of a stream of people flickering past without pause.  He was dimly aware he couldn’t be seen.  The world he had emerged into was grey, faded and separated from the world he had just left.  It was also silent.  He reached out to touch a nearby nurse, but his hand, insubstantial, entered her arm and passed through without making contact.

As soon as the time of death was recorded most of the staff cleared the emergency room, moving onto the next crisis.  She stood over his shell, stunned, ignoring the nurses who fussed around him, tidying up the detritus of the failed attempt to save him.  She thought back to the accident; they had been walking across the road, moving from pub to pub, then boom, the taxi had hit him.  The next few minutes were a blur; a scream, bystanders arriving, the police, the wail of the ambulance, the emergency room and the medical staff.  Then this, the unnatural quiet.

He found himself floating down the corridor towards an unknown destination.  The world around him was moving faster and faster, the people mere blurs.  He was slowing down, fading from the mortal realm as his life energy dissipated.  He was moving between worlds.

She left him and stepped out of the triage room.  The policeman, who had diplomatically waited outside, agreed to meet her the following day to take a statement.  She signed the required documents and received unwanted, rushed condolences from the harassed admin staff.  It was the week before Christmas, the busiest time of the year for the emergency department.  Falls, fights, drunks and car accidents overwhelmed the staff.  With nowhere else to go she went home, getting back at about ten o’clock.  She left the house in darkness and slumped onto the sofa in the lounge.  An involuntary shudder shook her thin frame, memories returning.  The worst thing was she hadn’t had the chance to say farewell to him, he hadn’t regained consciousness and she knew her whispered goodbye as he lay dying hadn’t been heard.  That, above all, was unbearable.

He started to notice other shapes around him.  Diaphanous, smoke-like figures floated next to him.  The real world, the world of living people could still be seen, but it was blurred, as if observed through a film of ice.  His mortal energy was almost gone, but one thing kept him focussed on the world he had just left.  Her.  He didn’t know if he could, but he knew he had to try.  Concentrating, he steered himself towards his goal.

She tried to sleep, but found it impossible.  She rose and made some tea, watching the darkness out of the kitchen window.  She hadn’t cried yet, the emptiness she felt had driven out every other possible emotion.  She knew with the coming of the dawn she would have to start phoning.  It was then the emotion of the truth would overwhelm her.

He reached for the pay-phone praying he was still able to lift the receiver.  Around him, the shapes of his new companions whirled and danced, some grieving and some celebrating.  His companions were fading away, just as he was, but he had to do one last thing before he left the mortal world.  His fingers, through sheer willpower, made contact with the receiver and he managed to find the strength to lift it.  He had to reach her, had to say goodbye.  The shapes around him scattered in confusion at this merging of the two worlds. 

She finished her tea and rinsed the mug.  The early morning sun was streaking the eastern sky with reds and yellows.  She knew she would have to reach for the phone soon, to start the task of letting friends and family know the news.  Suddenly, shockingly the phone rang.  She lifted the receiver and placed it to her ear.  A crackle of white noise made her wince, but some hidden emotion kept her from hanging up.  She strained to listen.  A voice spoke, faint beneath the crackling.  The voice was achingly familiar and she gasped when she recognised it.  The voice spoke a simple message, over and over again.  All too soon it faded to nothing amongst the overwhelming white noise, but it had been enough.  He had said goodbye.  Tears flowed down her face.

∼ RJ Meldrum

© Copyright RJ Meldrum. All Rights Reserved.

All Hallows

It was the end of October. The summer season was over in the sleepy seaside village of Foreness. Chris checked his watch. Four fifteen. He had driven from the final, insane argument with his now ex-girlfriend, stopping only to pack a small suitcase before he left their home for the last time. He walked down the promenade towards the pier, but it was closed.  Standing on the edge of the promenade, his hands resting on the green painted metal fence, he looked out to the grey ocean. He was totally alone and that suited his mood. The whole town seemed deserted, with ‘Closed’ signs up in most of the shops, arcades and hotels on the front. He hadn’t seen a single person since he had arrived. Lost in his own brown study, he remembered he had been brought here by his parents three times in his early teens. He had loved those holidays in the dim and distant past. Holidays that seemed to last forever, full of adventure and joy. And now he was back. He needed somewhere to escape and he had instinctively chosen Foreness, this place of childhood happiness, memories of a time when there was no pain, no sadness.

He walked down the nearest steps down onto the beach, finding a discarded deck chair to sit on. Sitting near the concrete wall, he looked out to the sea as darkness fell.

Waking with start, he rubbed his eyes, not quite believing he had managed to fall asleep. He checked his watch. It was seven thirty. He supposed he better find somewhere to sleep for the night. Climbing the steps from the beach to the top of the seawall, he was amazed to find the promenade was crowded with people. There were about fifty, all staring out to sea. It was an incongruous sight. There was no buzz of conversation, no-one was talking.

He walked up to the nearest person, a man of around fifty years old.

“Hi. How are you doing?”

The man didn’t immediately respond, his attention focused out to sea. It took a few moments for the words to register.

“Um, yes. Hello. As well as can be expected, I suppose.”

“I’m Chris.”

“Philip.”

“Nice to meet you Philip.”

Philip was staring back out to sea. Chris did the same, trying to work out what these people were looking for. He couldn’t see much, just the beach and the edge of the sea. After that the darkness was complete. Away in the distance he could see a tiny speck of light from a fishing boat.

“Can I ask what you are looking for?”

Philip looked at him in amazement.

“What?”

Chris was suddenly aware he had said the wrong thing.

“I thought you were one of us.”

“No.”

“It’s normally only this group who come here on this night. The locals leave for the night, to give us space.”

“I’m not local, I just arrived this afternoon.”

“That would explain it.”

Philip lapsed into silence, continuing to stare out into the darkness. A few moments passed, then Chris knew he had to ask.

“Why are you all here then?”

Phillip spoke without taking his eyes off the shoreline.

“Have you ever heard of the H.M.S. Forstall?”

“No, sorry.”

“No surprise. It was sunk by a U-boat in 1942. All hands went down with her, a total of two hundred and thirty-four souls. October the 31st, 1942.”

“Oh, okay.”

“Seventy-four years ago tonight. And it happened just out there, just off-shore. It’s a war grave now.”

“And you’re here to mark the occasion.”

Chris glanced at the other people. Some were old, some were young. Most were middle aged. Chris guessed they were the families of the lost sailors.

“I am the grandson of one William Henry Partridge. Able Seaman, aged twenty-five years old on the night the Forstall sank. My mother’s father. She is getting too old to make this pilgrimage, so now I do it. My boy will take over in a few years.”

Suddenly there was a shout from further down the line of people.

“They’re here!”

The people starting moving, down the steps to the beach. Philip turned to Chris.

“You may not want to see this.”

“Why? What’s happening?”

Philip smiled. A dark smile without happiness or humor. He gestured at the other people.

“We come here, on this night, not just to remember, but to meet them. The crew return to shore, once a year. Every year, on the 31st of October. I think it’s because they died on All Hallows that they are able to return the world of living. After all, this is the night when the veil between worlds is the thinnest, when the dead can return. All we, the living must, be here to greet our families and pay homage to their sacrifice.”

“That’s not funny. What a horrible thing to say.”

Philip smiled the same smile.

“Why do you think the town is deserted? On this night, the dead return and we must be here to greet them. Come with me, if you think I’m lying.”

Philip walked down the steps. Chris stared at him for a moment, then followed.

Later on, in the daylight and well away from Foreness, Chris tried to piece together that night. Those few hours when he saw the dead emerge from the sea to be greeted by their extended families. But it wasn’t a complete picture. His mind had blanked out a lot of what he had seen, almost as if he had been drunk or drugged. He retained some memory, but only brief flashes. Memories of darkness, of white faces, of naval uniforms and of figures stumbling through the waves back onto the land. Memories of the dead returning from the sea. He didn’t remember making his way back to his car, after, but he guessed Philip had helped him. He vaguely remembered driving out of Foreness, tears streaming down his face. He remembered begging his girlfriend to take him back and she agreeing, just as tearful as he was.

As he grew older, he always remembered the night at Foreness on the 31st of October. Those broken fragments of memory never lost their clarity. He always wondered if those families still met on the promenade to greet their long lost relatives. He guessed they must, but one thought often kept him awake at night; what would happen on the night when the families no longer gathered to greet the crew of the Forstall? When the new generations of the families simply forgot or no longer cared or believed. What would the sailors do, where would they go, when that day inevitably came?

~ RJ Meldrum

© Copyright RJ Meldrum. All Rights Reserved.