I woke up in a haze of navy blue with a large, ugly fish gaping stupidly at me. But the strangest part was that nothing hurt. The familiar itch to light up, to get high, to do anything to immediately escape reality was…missing. Did everyone wake up each day with so little direction, so little motivation?
More fish swim past. It’s like being in an aquarium. I’m not breathing. Frowning, I finally rise to my feet, and look around. An unnecessary breath catches in my throat.
I’m staring at myself.
It’s like having an out of body experience. There I am, hands bound behind my back, ankles similarly bound and tethered to a block of concrete that’s already sinking into the sediment. I float, like a ghost, hair waving in the sluggish current and fish nipping at my pallid skin.
I don’t know how long I stood there, staring at this undeniable and unbelievable sight, poised on the riverbed like a haunting art exhibit. There’s no way this is real. It’s just a dream.
Emboldened by this conclusion, I search the body. Or try to, anyway. My hand passes right through my own shoulder as I try to hold the body still. I try several more times, but can’t touch it. As if to add insult to injury, I realise there are fish swimming straight through me, too. They don’t even know I’m there.
No one else does, either. Nobody but me and whoever tied these ropes and sent me to this watery grave. I was alone last night, and nobody will know to look for me. I need to let someone know. I need to let Jacob know. Because whoever came for me, might come for him, too.
Mind preoccupied thinking of Jacob’s wife and kids, I scramble up the bank of the river and onto the battered concrete. It’s early morning, and I wander around trying to find my bearings, eventually making my way into the subway system.
I’m still struggling to navigate this world, feet occasionally sinking through the tiled steps and riding waves of nausea as important people rush straight through me on their way to important places. Luckily, ghosts don’t pay to ride and I slip right through the turnstiles and onto the platform, stopping to look at maps of the system. I don’t come this way often — didn’t come this way often — but it’s not far from Jacob’s corner shop. I could be there in about half an hour.
A train pulled up to the platform and I got on board, trying to avoid everyone as best I could. But more people piled on, and as the train pulled away someone stumbled right into me. I wanted to throw up, and lost my balance, sinking through the floor of the train compartment and tumbling through the wheel trucks, onto the gravel between the tracks.
I sat up, watching the shrinking shape of the train trundling away and swearing.
“You must be new.”
I whipped my head around to look at the woman standing on the platform, watching me with a certain cynical pity. She was looking right at me, so I glanced behind me to see if she was looking at something else.
“Yes, I can see you, silly. Get up here.”
She bent down, offering me a hand up onto the platform. Her face was a bruised, bloody mess. I gaped at her, but she smiled.
“Yeah, I know. Five years ago. Rush hour, I’d had enough and just walked off the edge,” she walked her fingers along the air to demonstrate, “And right in front of a train that wasn’t stopping here.”
She looked me up and down. I’ve never been comfortable with other people’s attention. Especially women.
“I guess you drowned, huh? You look like a soggy rat.”
She plucked at a lock of hair still plastered to my forehead.
“Still, at least you don’t look like you put your face in a meat grinder. You’ve got a promising career of haunting trendier places, if you fancy it.”
The corners of my mouth sank in a frown.
“I don’t. I just want to go see my friend, I think he might be in trouble.”
“Ah, so you do speak.” She smiled. “You’ll struggle to use the subway if you don’t learn to concentrate properly. I guess I can show you the ropes.”
Tasha taught me how to make sure I didn’t fall through surfaces, and was even impressed at what a quick learner I was. She waved to me as I stepped on the next train going to my destination.
“Don’t forget what I said! Ride with the driver, so nobody bothers you!”
“I will. Thanks again for everything!”
“Don’t thank me, handsome. Just come back and see me sometime.”
I did as she told, and settled into the driver’s compartment, watching her slide past as the train departed.
Jacob stood behind the counter in his pajamas, bagging up purchases and handing out change. Deep furrows creased his forehead and he had a phone pinched between his head and shoulder as he muttered apologies to customer after customer. I stood in the corner, watching as poor Jacob deflected complaint after complaint that the shop wasn’t open at 6am, as the sign on the door advertised.
It didn’t open because I wasn’t there. I should have been there, instead of sleeping with the fishes. A twinge of guilt roils my stomach, though not as strongly as it would have in real life. Maybe I’m already slipping away from everything I knew. I should have asked Tasha how that works. Would I eventually forget everything but the river? What a bleak concept.
My idle thoughts were interrupted as Jacob’s wife, Lara, waddled right through me. Her stomach was swollen with the latest addition to their family, and she looked tired.
“Hey, I just dropped the kids off so I can take over here. Did you manage to find him?”
“Clearly I haven’t, Lara,” Jacob grumbled. “I’m calling his girlfriend now.”
“Oh! They got back together?”
Jacob rolled his eyes.
“They only play pretend at breaking up, Lara, you know that.”
“Don’t be mean. You’re just cranky. Here, I’ll handle the shop, you go have some breakfast and coffee.”
She elbowed her way between Jacob and the counter, shooing him away and dredging up a bright, cheerful smile from God knows where as the next customer approached.
I followed Jacob upstairs, grateful for the loss of my sense of smell as he farted on the way up. Despite Lara’s best efforts, he was still pretty rough around the edges. I guess I really wasn’t so different.
After the fifth call, I heard Melissa pick up the phone.
“Jake, it’s early. What the hell do you want?”
“I want you to kick that lazy son of a bitch out of your bed. He should have opened the shop at six this morning!”
There was silence on the other end.
“There’s nobody here but me. Kieran’s missing?”
“Yeah. He wasn’t with you?” Jacob’s tone softened from anger to worry. “Have you heard from him recently?”
“Of course not! Why would I? He broke up with me.”
Guilt seeped into the pit of my stomach again. I regularly tried to get Melissa to move on. She didn’t realise she could do better. Now she’d have no choice.
“Oh whatever, Mel, that never stops him sniffing around.”
“Well he’s not here. Sorry, I can’t help you.”
“Mel? Melissa? Damn it!”
Jacob locked his phone and stood in the living room, surrounded by debris from the kids’ morning routine. Now was my chance. I reached out, frowning in concentration as I tried to touch his arm.
The phone clattered to the ground, and he swore before bending with a grunt to pick it up. I swore, too. I couldn’t make contact with him, and instead just managed to dislodge the phone from his grasp.
All morning I followed Jacob around, exhausting myself trying to shove him, poke him, anything to get his attention. When he went to the car to pick up the kids from school, I had my perfect chance.
Cold rain had turned the car windows into the perfect whiteboard. Once he got into the driver’s seat, I reached across to write on the windshield’s condensation. Uncertainty clouded his rough features as the letters R I V E R appeared before him.
Utterly spent, I watched as he stared at the message, silently praying he would react. This was Jacob, my best friend, he would salvage my ruined body from the river. But his familiar scowl returned.
“Damn kids have a weird sense of humor,” he mumbled, jamming his key into the ignition and turning the car over.
Mouth agape, I watched the brake lights get smaller until he reached the corner and turned towards the school. Damn his skepticism! I needed someone more superstitious. Someone more like…
Melissa hummed as she laid out clothes and picked out toiletries for a shower. She was wearing an old t-shirt of mine. I stood in the corner of her bedroom after an arduous journey across town, painful ache gnawing at my insides as I realised I’d never hold her again. We’d parted on such awful terms. It was all my fault of course, but I had a feeling she’d blame herself when she found out the truth.
It wasn’t my first instinct, but I waited outside the bathroom until I heard her step into the shower and pull the curtain across. A couple more minutes and I stepped into the steamy bathroom. As predicted, the large mirror was completely fogged up. On one side was an old handprint. I raised my right hand and laid it over the print, where it lined up perfectly. There was no other evidence remaining of what we did here.
Worried I’d lose myself in memory as easily as I could be lost in the steam from her shower, I pulled back from the mirror’s edge and summoned all my strength so I could write.
i’m in the river. -k
The sounds of the last of the water swirling down the drain marked Melissa’s exit from the shower. The yelp told me she saw my message. She came out of the bathroom a moment later, looking pale despite the hot water’s flush in her cheeks, eyes wide and chest heaving. She looked around, checking behind the door and in her closet.
“Kieran? Kieran you better not have picked my lock again. It wasn’t funny then and it’s sure as hell not funny now!”
I smirked. It had been kind of funny, actually. And in my defense, I needed to set up a surprise birthday party for her…though I ended up getting arrested when her nosy neighbor called the cops, so it wasn’t the best birthday ever for her.
As she searched the house, I followed, thinking of my next step. She seemed more open to the idea than Jacob was, so I just had to get her attention without scaring her too badly.
When she got to the kitchen, I turned the tap on. Melissa screamed, jumping away from the tap and clutching at her bathrobe. Tears welling up in her eyes, her hand shot out and turned the tap off. I turned it back on, and she stared at the knob seemingly turning of its own accord.
“…who are you…” she sniffled. “Tell me what you want, please…”
Bottom lip trembling, she ran to the living room and returned with her laptop, word processor open to a fresh document. She put it on the countertop.
“Whoever you are…if you can turn a handle you can press a key, right? Tell me what you want so I can help you and you can go away!”
Relief washed over me. In death as in life, I could always count on Melissa to know what to do. No small wonder I had always crawled back to her.
I approached the laptop and paused, wondering how to tell the woman I loved and who loved me in return that my body was at the bottom of a cold, merciless river, put there on purpose by someone. There was no way that wouldn’t hurt her, and that was the last thing I wanted to do.
hey lissy. it’s kieran.
I glanced at her, and saw the blood draining from her face, mouth falling open.
i messed up again. this time it cost me big.
Fat tears rolled down her cheeks, to the hands that covered her trembling mouth.
“…no…no, this isn’t happening…”
i’m sorry. it’s real. but i need a favor.
I typed quickly, wanting her to see the whole message before she broke out into horrid sobs that wracked her body. Melissa sank to the floor, and I followed. Despite the nausea I knew it would bring on, I reached over and touched her face, cupping it with unnecessary tenderness. Her sob choked off, her breathing halted. Slowly, she raised her hand to mine.
“…Kieran? That’s you, isn’t it? You’re here…you need me. Whatever you need, I’ll do it, okay? Just tell me how I can help you.”
As she spoke, she pulled herself back up and waited with bated breath as I told her where to find me.
A cold, stiff breeze ushered litter down the alleyway as Melissa and Jacob watched the police search the area I’d told her about. Bundled up against the cold, she had hardly stopped crying since I managed to get through to her. Jacob looked fed up with the whole thing. Always the skeptic.
I stood with them and not with them, only nearby. Melissa wiped away more tears sliding down her cheeks. I wish we hadn’t broken up. That I hadn’t tried to cut ties again.
“Your computer probably just got hacked,” Jacob grunted.
She whirled on him, eyes full of fire.
“And I suppose my mirror was hacked, too? And my kitchen sink? I know what happened, you miserable jackass.”
“Ghosts’n shit ain’t real, Mel.”
“As much as I hope he’s not in there, at least if he is you’ll shut up.”
“No, if they find him I’ll know you put him there.”
Fuming, Melissa punched him, driving one sharp little fist into his soft side and turning away from him once she got a satisfactorily wounded groan from him.
Before Jacob could respond, there was a yell from one of the divers. Melissa gasped, rushing over with Jacob in hot pursuit. He managed to stop her from accosting the officers overseeing the search, but they both watched as my body was pulled out of the water.
I winced at the half-eaten, swollen flesh still marked with my tattoos, the algae sodden hair still gripping what was left of the scalp, my earring glinting in the pale sunlight. Behind me, Melissa let out an inhuman wail. I turned to find her on her knees, inconsolable in Jacob’s arms.
He rocked her, or maybe was rocking himself, eyes glued to the corpse they dragged up out of the river. Jacob shushed her and stroked her hair, just like he did his children when they had nightmares. If only that’s all this was.
“We’ll find who did this to him. I’ll find him, Mel, I’ll find him.”
“They murdered him! They murdered Kieran…” Mel choked out. “He’s gone. He’s gone. He’sgonehe’sgonehe’sgonehe’s — ”
“Shhh, don’t say that. He’s with us, okay? And whoever did this is going to pay.”
Melissa nodded, but didn’t seem to actually understand him. I crouched down to try and comfort her as I had in her kitchen, but as hard as I tried, I couldn’t touch her. She didn’t sense me as she had before.
My arm distorted in the wind, as if my very essence were being carried away.
“No…no! No no no not yet, not now, I’m not ready,” I mumbled, looking down at myself, watching my immaterialness grow. “I just need a little more time, please…”
But I was already on borrowed time. I could feel myself growing fainter, weaker, an overbearing peace I didn’t want cloaking me. Frantically, I grabbed at Mel’s face with disappearing hands.
“Listen to me Lissy, listen, I love you, okay?” My voice was growing softer, so I raised it until I was yelling. “I know you can’t hear me, but I love you and I’ll be waiting for you and I’ll never forget you okay? I know we’re not going to the same place so I’m gonna wait outside, cause I love you. I lo — ”
Melissa paused, holding her breath to stifle her sobs and shuddering hiccups. A frown wrinkled her face as she looked around. Jacob loosened his grip on her so she could move.
“What is it Mel?”
“I just…I thought I heard…”
Jacob’s expression melted into pity.
“You’ll probably be hearing his echoes for awhile, Mel.”