My friends. I have a few NYC Midnight Writing Competition failures to report. I’m getting a bit behind with my regular admissions of ineptitude. Here’s one (another following soon).
Technically speaking, this one hasn’t actually failed yet and still awaits the judges axe, but I am not brimming with confidence. I thought I’d get in early to create a liaissez-faire impression.
The challenge itself was for 2500 words. I was assigned ‘ghost story’ (I almost threw in the towel immediately upon learning this)/ ‘a lawbreaker’ and ‘serendipity’.
Read it if you have absolutely nothing else to do ….
Here’s a tip about the Afterlife, should you somehow manage to read it before you get here. Try to use the bathroom before you die. The induction process takes almost forever (though most things take longer) and the queues are horrendous. I almost embarrassed myself. As if I wasn’t already feeling a bit down about things.
And some of the questions they ask you are ridiculous. Cause of Death, for example. Suicides are the only ones who can provide an honest answer. And suicides, believe me, are a bit of a laughingstock around here. For the rest of us it’s just educated speculation, at best. Because death is not something you remember. My last living memory was of standing with Clive in the exercise yard and that it was really noisy. Then it all goes blank.
“Murder,” I told the woman, because I thought that’s probably what had happened, as there was a bit of a gang war going on at the time, and because I thought it sounded good. But there’s no such thing as street cred around here. Nobody cares about that stuff. Nobody cares about anything. There’s nothing to care about, as it turns out.
They ask you about previous employment too, as though experience counted for anything in eternity.
“Bank Robber,” I boasted, and she wrote it down as unblinkingly as if I had said. ”Bank Manager”. It was a lie. I’d robbed about half a dozen drugstores and a gas station. I’d never graduated to banks. Lying is ok here, though. So, nobody bothers. In the very place that one might have been expecting retribution and accountability for sins and mistruths, there’s an honesty system operating. Go figure.
Everyone gets a job. There’s still no such thing as a free lunch. But the employment process is entirely random. I am now an Associate-Professor of Archaeology at the local university. I have no idea of what I’m doing. Nor does anyone else. I’m lucky in that archaeology has become a bit meaningless in eternity, anyway. A guy claiming to be Tutankhamun dropped by my office the other day to use the photocopier.
Some people think it’s like a prison. But they’ve never been to prison. You can go anywhere you want to go. It’s just that there’s nowhere to go. I realise now that there never was.
Clive, my old cellmate, viewed prison as an acknowledgement of one’s achievements, and not a penalty. “All good serial killers want to get caught,” he informed me once, “and that’s why we set up patterns that the police can follow. We leave our signatures everywhere. It’s all about being noticed.”
Clive murdered seventeen librarians over twelve states and in the course of less than five years.
“Why librarians?” I asked.
“Prostitutes had been done to death by the time I got going,” he explained to me, “and I thought it important to come up with something original, but it was never personal.” A bizarre report during the 80s listed that quiet profession, in several states, as statistically more dangerous than rodeo riding. That’s the kind of thing that Clive used to hang his hat on.
I find it still hard to believe that he held no grudges, though. Clive is illiterate. Librarians, clearly, are not. Maybe that had something to do with it.
“And look around you,” he continued, waving his arms about inside the concrete walls and iron bars, “everything’s on the house! Free! And the television reception is excellent.” I sometimes think that there might be a link between illiteracy and blind optimism.
I should make more mention of Jane, the woman who inducted me here, and acted as my sponsor – just in case you run into her. She used to be a professional golfer. She had her head sewn back on after a multi-car pile-up on the I-90, and it was a botched job, so she seems always to be looking at someone about 3ft to her left. It can be a bit off-putting at first.
“Who do you want to haunt?” Jane asked me, towards the end of the induction process.
I hadn’t given it a thought. I didn’t realise it was an option. Nobody had ever haunted me, as far as I could tell.
I considered nominating Clive because I couldn’t, at that point, completely dismiss the possibility that he had murdered me. But there didn’t seem much point to it. He wasn’t easily scared and was due for lethal injection sooner or later anyway.
So, in the end, I nominated Sarah, my wife, but not because I had any intentions of terrifying her. I just thought it might provide a chance for us to be close again. I had a romantic notion of watching over her, of protecting her somehow.
The final part of the enrolment form was an application for future reincarnation. “Do I just tick the box?” I asked Jane.
She shrugged her shoulders. “Everyone else does.”
The day after my interview Jane showed me about and helped me get a feel for the place, although there is nothing much to feel. Death is a bit like life with all the feeling sucked out of it. Every road leads to everywhere else and then back again. Like a maze. There are bars and restaurants and supermarkets and places to walk the dog. But there are no dogs. My work at the university pays enough to afford the rent and a few nights a week at my local bar, the Last-Drop. It’s Jane’s local bar, too, where she brings all her new inductees. So, it’s a bit of a fresh crowd. The burgers are terrible and the music is worse, but the beer is cold.
My haunting approval came through after a couple of months, along with an instruction guide, A Poltergeist’s Handbook of Visitation, and directions of where and when to report. My initial (and only) training was set for the following Friday afternoon.
I arrived at the phantasm facility at the appointed time, where I met an overly officious and overtly homosexual man named Albert (previously a funeral director – those guys seem to get all the good jobs, somehow) who handed me a photograph and a set of headphones and sat me in a tiny room before closing the door behind me. “Concentrate on the photograph,” Albert told me over the headphones. It was a picturesque scene featuring three children playing in an English country garden. I tried to concentrate and when the lights went out there was a low-pitched howl in the headphones and I was magically transported into that very English garden and I could see the children playing. I could move around and smell the freshly cut grass. Then the children spotted me and ran away screaming. The lights went back on. The entire process took about five minutes. It was both ludicrous and vaguely disturbing.
“That was just a simulation. You’ll be fine,” said Albert, when I emerged a little shocked from the darkened room. “You’re on for every second Friday, ten-thirty to midnight.”
The real thing was nothing like the simulation. For the first couple of times, when the lights went out and the same strange howling noise came over the headphones I saw and heard absolutely nothing. I had a vague sense of being somewhere else but it seemed to me that nobody else was.
“It takes time,” Albert assured me, clearly bored by the same advice he must have given everyone, “any sort of usable manifestation can take months to develop. Just keep concentrating. The tricky stuff, like rattling windows and moving things on tables, can take years”. He wasn’t very encouraging.
But I persisted (there wasn’t much else to do on a Friday night) and eventually made some progress. The first verifiable visitations were disappointing, though. Mostly it was just a grey mist through which I could detect movement and little else. I was conscious of my own body and could see my hands in front of me. I thought I recognised the kitchen table but, other than that, I really couldn’t be sure that it was even my own house that I was invading. Slowly, with each consecutive attempt, things became clearer and I could find my way around the place without constantly walking through walls and losing sight of myself in the process. Sounds became identifiable and I thought that I could smell her in the air. Every now and again I’d recognise a flash of her green eyes. Nevertheless, I wasn’t getting the results I was hoping for. I had optimistically imagined witnessing some tears, to be honest. Some heartfelt mourning over the loss of the great love of her life. But she seemed to be coping very well with it all. Several times, as I achieved further clarity, I heard her laughing. She seemed mostly to be in bed, and the only positive sign I could take from that was that her sleep had become uncharacteristically restless, which I decided to take as symptomatic of her post-trauma.
I got into the habit of dropping by the Last-Drop for a few drinks with the other ghouls on the way home after a haunting, to compare notes. Nobody else was having much luck either. One fellow had managed to sufficiently distract his father-in-law whilst driving such that the car ran off the road and ploughed through a group of eight-year-olds waiting at the school bus stop. We all got a bit drunkenly teary over that together.
It was on about my eleventh or twelfth haunting that I realised not only that Sarah wasn’t sleeping alone, but that she was, quite brazenly, enjoying not sleeping alone. This was no post-traumatic reaction. She was really into it. The woman had become insatiable. It was painful. The more I could see the less I wanted to see.
But it was hard to look away.
Soon I had begun visiting the Last-Drop before each haunting, in an attempt to pre-emptively dull the pain. But it did nothing for my concentration, and my attempts at holographic incarnation became increasingly hopeless. Some nights I found myself madly leaping up and down and wildly waving my arms in an attempt to disturb their pornographic demonstrations, but the best I ever achieved was to slip over on items of discarded underwear and fall headfirst onto the bed. “I think I might have just felt the earth move,” she murmured.
The worst of it came one evening when I’d sobered up sufficiently to recognise her lover. It was Michael, my defence attorney. I was furious. If only he’d put this sort of effort into my case, I’d be still alive today.
Later, in the bar, whilst I was complaining about my unwanted voyeurism experiences, Jane placed her arm gently around me, “Don’t worry,” she whispered, “nothing lasts forever.”
“Yes it does,” I snapped back, “Isn’t that what this place is all about? Everything lasts forever.”
“Well, yes. You have me there. But you get used to it.”
One night, when I got home after work, a note had been slipped under my door. It was from Clive. He’d transited into the Afterlife and wanted to catch up. He hadn’t lived long enough for lethal injection, as it turned out. He’d died peacefully in his sleep of heart failure instead. So much for justice.
We agreed to meet at the Last-Drop on the following Thursday and, when I arrived, he was dressed in bright red shorts and a green tee-shirt yet wearing a tie. He was circulating cheerfully amongst the other deceased drinkers and tapping his feet to the music.
He had lost none of his former optimism. “How good is this place?” he exclaimed as I approached, holding up a half empty glass of beer, “they’ve got everything!” The glass was still half full for him, of course.
“What’s with the tie?” I asked.
“They gave me a job in real estate.”
He filled me in on the details of my own demise, which had not been, technically speaking, murder. “Just your stock standard prison riot,” he explained, “the guards got a bit excited and you copped a stray bullet. The boys and I said a few words over your body before they dragged it away. You would have loved it.”
“I’m genuinely touched,” I told him.
By this time, I’d slackened right off on the visitations. There’s only so much of other people’s undeniably sensational sex life that you can watch before your self-esteem starts taking a dive. I only haunted my former house now and again in the hope that they’d have a furious argument. But they seemed to be made for each other. I supposed they deserved a bit of privacy.
Jane had been right. I was getting over things.
“But,” I complained to Clive one night, sitting with him and Jane at the Last-Drop, “I’m still trying to make sense of it all.”
“The hardest thing of all is to find a black cat in a dark room, especially if there is no cat,” said Clive.
“Confucius. I’m studying Eastern Philosophy in my spare time.”
“Clive, you’re illiterate.”
He wasn’t insulted. He was amused. “Haven’t you heard of talking books? You work at a university. Where the hell have you been?”
Where the hell had I been?
Still. It was a bit of a turnaround from murdering librarians. And I told him so.
“And where did that get me? Or them?” he sighed, “in the end we all turn up here anyway. And I ran into one the ladies the other day. A charming woman. We’ve made our peace. Serendipity.”
He stood up, smiled, and walked away.
When he had disappeared out the door, cheerfully whistling to himself, I turned to Jane. “Really? I don’t get it. Philosophy? Clive? Why?”
“Why not?” she whispered toward somebody over my right shoulder.
“What sort of answer is that?”
Her demeanour was that of a patient teacher speaking to a failing student. “Haven’t you worked it out yet? Why not is the only answer. For there is no why. Everything just is,” she paused for a moment before finishing, “and isn’t.”
So that was the moment, I suppose, of my own serendipity. Not in a blinding flash. More like a dull thud. There was nothing to be revisited in the past. Or in the future, for that matter. A ghost was doomed to haunt only himself. Everything just was. And wasn’t.
Something like that. Don’t ask me what cats have got to do with it.
And so, when my application for reincarnation was finally approved, I politely declined the offer. I suppose I just couldn’t see the point of going back to the end of the queue.
And besides. I think I might have a bit of a thing going with Jane.
3 thoughts on “Life After the Afterlife”
Frankly find this brilliant. Check the judges’ credentials.
You are way too kind
What I am, is honest.