Writers’ Week Contest Entry: Afterlife

writers' week writing contest

Afterlife

by April Spencer

There’s a stigma associated with being dead. People start talking about you like you’re not there and stories get told, but not the way they really happened. It’s like it’s suddenly ok to just make stuff up because you’re not around to defend yourself. Well I’m still around and there’s nothing that’s going to stop me from making sure everyone knows how this story really ended. I’m gonna show them just as soon as I finish attending my own funeral.

That’s right. I’m at my own funeral. Everybody’s wearing black like they cared and even Uncle Harold managed to find a suit and tie. Shoot, I didn’t even know he owned one. From the way he’s pulling at the collar, he didn’t know he owned one either.

And what’s with these funeral places anyway? They all look like they’ve been designed by some old lady that keeled over dead as soon as she finished picking out the swirly wallpaper and mauve carpets. Mauve. What kind of a color is that anyway? Since when did I recognize mauve?

That’s been happening to me a lot lately. You know, ever since I’ve been dead. I know stuff now that I’m sure somebody told me when I was alive, but I never really paid attention to it. When was Eisenhower president? 1953-1961. Rhubarb leaves are generally considered poisonous but you can eat the stalks and still be fine. The US government chose to classify it as a fruit instead of as a vegetable for the purposes of their food pyramid due to the fact that its most common use is in pies and other desserts. I mean, seriously, why do I know that? I don’t even know what rhubarb looks like!

Rachael’s birthday. June 9. Now there’s one that hurts me. Why couldn’t I remember that when I was alive? That’s her over there in the corner. Her eye makeup’s running and her eyes are all red from crying, but she still looks good to me. I think she always will. Even in her funeral getup.  I remember that dress. She wore it on our first date, but without that jacket to cover up her shoulders. She has the most beautiful shoulders. I never told her that. Now I guess I never will.

There’s my coffin. It’s all steely bluish looking without too many frills, thank God for that. From this side of the grave though it just seems like an awful expense to go to for a shell of a body that’ll be buried in a couple of days. I mean, I’m right here. That weird looking husk of a thing isn’t me. I can’t believe they let the makeup artist from the local high school drama department do my face. I look strange and lumpy. It’s like there’s powder clumped up in all the wrong places. If reincarnation is true I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do theater after this. The worst part is all these people walking by saying how good she made me look. Ouch! I was a pretty good looking guy to begin with, I mean, before she went and messed me up.

Huh. That older lady standing there pretending to cry is my Aunt Margaret. She’s already convinced half the family that Rachael’s pregnant and I committed suicide when I found out because I couldn’t stand the thought of having to make Rachael an “honest woman.” What century does she think this is? And it’s not like I don’t love my Rachael. I just never got around to marrying her is all. When Rachael doesn’t have any baby Aunt Margaret’ll probably go around telling everyone she had an abortion so she wouldn’t have to be reminded of me all the time. Venemous little gossip.

Oh well. There’s no use getting all upset about it now. This party’s boring anyway. I should just go. I’ve got something I gotta do. I gotta find out who killed me before the cops decide they’re gonna nick my girl. Or worse, before those geniuses that offed me realize they missed and try again for her.

Rachael. I pause before I leave to take one good look at her again. She’s giving my mom a hug and they’re both crying their hearts out. My baby’s standing there sobbing with nobody but my mom for comfort. It just ain’t right, you know? I’m gonna make this up to you, baby. I promise. I turn around and walk through the wall into the parking lot.

There’s some serious perks to being dead. You can go where you want, when you want, and nobody’s got anything to say to you about it. That is, unless you run into some other ghost that makes a scene. Lemme tell you that was probably a lot spookier than realizing I was dead- realizing that I wasn’t alone. See, one minute I was passing out in the worst pain I’ve ever experienced- felt like my eyes was burning up and my stomach was gonna eat itself. The next thing I know I’m standing outside my body looking at it all twitching and making a general mess of itself. When I got over the shock of seeing myself lying there and I realize that I’m dead, then I see this little kid in the corner. Some little girl’s just sitting there looking at me with these really big eyes. How long had she been there? I mean, this is my house! Rachael and I have lived here for three years! How did I not know this little girl was there?

Well then the little girl, she gets up and takes off, see? Runs right through the wall! That’s when I think to myself that maybe I can do that too, me being dead and all. So I run after her just to see where she’s going. That’s when I realized I’m not breathing. I mean, my body’s going through all the motions, but there’s no effort involved- no air going in and out, right? So I go faster because I can and all the houses and the yards around me are just one big blur and I start laughing to myself ‘cause when I was a kid I used to dream about stuff like this.

When the new of moving around so fast wore off, I stopped and looked around me some and realized I didn’t know where the hell I was, so I turned around and tried to find my way back. It’s really weird those first few days of being dead because you still think you gotta get outta people’s way when they walk by you and you gotta use the door to get into someone’s house. Then I remembered that girl and I started just walking through stuff.

First wall I walked through there’s this little kid stuffing a dolly in the toilet. Boy is his sister gonna be mad! Next wall I see the kid’s mom burning dinner, but she doesn’t notice because she’s on the phone with some Jane all talking about how she stuck it to her man’s floozy. The conversation was pretty funny looking ‘cause she was flinging sauce around the kitchen with her spoon while she talked. I kept walking. In some places there were people that just stared at me. That’s how I know. When somebody can see me it means they’re dead like me. Only that day it was just creepy so I kept on walking.

Eventually, I came out onto a basketball court and there were a bunch of guys playing a game — dead guys. It was funny ‘cause the basketball was a fuzzy looking green ball of light and when they made a basket, the net didn’t move at all. They also had to cram the ball right into the hoop ‘cause it didn’t rebound off the backstop and dribbling was tossing the ball up and down in the air instead of bouncing the ball off the ground. I busted up laughing the whole thing looked so crazy.

Then this big black guy goes poof right in front of me. I mean, a second ago he was on the court and the next thing I know the guy’s right up in my face asking me what I’m laughing at. If I’d been alive I think I might have choked on my own spit right there. You know how that happens sometimes? Instead I just stared. It was like I knew this guy or something. Then it hit me.

“Dude! Haywood! Is that you?”

The big guy shoved his face even closer into mine. “What’d you call me?”

“Haywood! Dude, we used to hang together in college! You were chasing some little honey named Shaisha and then one day you were just gone, man! Gone!”

Haywood squinted into my face for another minute and then he started laughing. “Brender! Brender the Mender! Haha! I’s just messin’! You that guy that could fix anything! Whatchu doin’ on my side of town?”

“Well I went out for a run, and I wound up here,” I told him. By then we’d drawn a crowd of just about every dead guy on the road and I realized I was conspicuously outnumbered as ancestors go. I must’ve looked a little nervous ‘cause Haywood says,

“Don’t worry about that kind of stuff now. You dead, man! What’s a brother gonna do to you? No. No. You gonna be just fine. Say, how long you been dead, man?”

“An hour, maybe?”

“Whoo! You just a young’un! Well, you just stick with me, B, and I’ll show you the ropes.”

And that’s how I learned how to be dead.

Hanging with Haywood was pretty awesome. Well, after I got over the shock when the ball they were tossing back and forth turned into this scrawny little kid that calls himself Grunt. Turns out that human-looking thing isn’t necessary. Ghosts can take any appearance they want, but mostly they just look like they remember looking when they were still alive. I guess that’s why I don’t see too many old people around. Hey! Maybe that’s why Haywood looks all muscley too. I bet that’s the way he saw himself when he was alive. I wonder what I look like. I mean, ghosts don’t really show up in mirrors.

So, anyway, Haywood showed me some of the finer points and advantages of being dead, and we spent most of the evening wandering through people’s houses and a few strip clubs. Don’t judge! What do you think a guy’s gonna do when he realizes he’s a ghost?

At first I thought it was great. Then I just got all mopey thinking about Rachael. Haywood must have noticed because he started asking me all kinds of questions like maybe there was some other joint I’d rather haunt. I didn’t know what to tell him. I mean, how do I explain that we’re out here doing stuff we’d only dreamed about before (a man who wants to keep his woman should NOT attend strip clubs while alive, I’d learned) but all I could think about is Rachael? What kind of prude had I turned into? And when did I start using the word “prude”? Look at me all dead and talking fancy!

Anyway, Haywood got this look on his face and pulled me through the wall so we could talk alone. Then he looked me real hard in the eye and asked me,

“You leave a woman behind?”

I nodded. I must’ve looked pretty miserable ‘cause Haywood started looking concerned.

“Got any kids?”

“No,” I answered. I ran my hand over my head and rubbed it a few times. “No kids.” Man. Rachael always wanted kids. Haywood put his big old hand on my shoulder.

“A’ight. You just hold on there. Here’s what we’re gonna do. You tell me where you keep yo’ lady and I’ll take you there. Follow her around for a while. Make sure she’s ok. I’ll keep checkin’ back in, an’ when you’ve seen enough we’ll go out again.” He slapped my shoulder. “Ain’t no use bein’ dead when you can’t enjoy it, am I right?”

I took a deep breath and stared hard at the broken glass on the ground, you know? Shoved at it a little with my toe. Of course, it didn’t move, but I was suddenly fascinated by watching my toe go through something. Then I quit stalling and just nodded. See, I didn’t think it would be this way. I’m dead! It’s supposed to be the end! Now I’m some kind of ghost, right? So why do I still have this thing for her? Why do I still feel like the world will end if I don’t get to sleep beside her tonight? Hell! Do ghosts even sleep?

*

                So there I was in front of the door of the house I shared with Rachael. What was it gonna be like, seeing her again but not being able to touch her or talk to her — tell her everything is gonna be ok? What was it gonna be like to watch her cry for me? I wasn’t sure I wanted to have this experience, but I’m already dead, so it’s not like it’s gonna kill me. I walked through the door.

Inside the house was dark. It was almost ten at night and since I died before the sun went down, it wasn’t like I’d left a light on or anything. The TV was flickering in the living room. I was watching it while I ate dinner. Damn salad! My girl thinks she’s fat, but I tell you she’s just right in my book. Problem is, come the end of the week, there’s only salad left in the house and I’m not one to shop for groceries. So my last meal was a salad with the weirdest sour tasting vinaigrette ever! Does that seem right to you? Even guys on death row get a steak! Stupid diet food. Eh, I digress (whatever that means).

So I walked through the house and there’s my damn body lying on the floor right where I left it! Guh! I looked terrible! But why was I still on the floor? That’s when I realized that Rachael hadn’t come home yet. And that’s when I realized Rachael would be the one to find me. It made me feel all quiet inside. Pensive — that’s the word for it. She was gonna walk in here and see me all messing up her carpet. Then she was gonna realize I’m dead. I wished to God at that moment to have somebody, anybody else walk through that door before her. But nobody ever comes over here. And nobody else has a key.

It was horrible. It was worse than horrible. It was the worst damn thing I’ve ever seen. She came through that door looking all fine like she does when she’s working. She looked for me in the living room. She shook her head at the dirty dishes in the sink. She turned around and saw me half in the bathroom and half in the bedroom curled in on myself and smelling up the place. It figures. You leave your body for a couple of hours and it takes a dump like a brand new puppy. There it is seeping into the floor there. Gross!

I can’t even find words for what happened next. Nothing can describe the look on her face. She was saying, “oh God,” over and over and “no” mixed all into it until it was just gibberish coming out of her mouth while she tried to check and see if I was breathing and call 911 and hold me and I don’t know what all else all at the same time.

The next fifteen minutes lasted for, like, a week. She was on the floor next to me talking and rocking back and forth and her hands were just moving all over not really doing anything and my puke was soaking into her pretty dress and… the whole thing just went on forever, you know? At some point she started crying and that’s what really tore me up inside. I just wanted to tell her, “Look here, baby! I’m still here! I’m right here and everything’s ok! Everything’s gonna be just fine.” But when I reached for her my hands went right through her and I remembered I was dead and that’s what started this commotion. Then I just didn’t know what to do. I sure never felt this helpless when I was alive. By then she was screaming, you know? That full on wail from deep down in her throat women get when they’re just sobbing their hearts out. That’s my baby, my Rachael. She’s sitting there crying for me. I had to get outta there. I couldn’t take it. I left her just rocking and holding me — my body — and wailing like there would never be a smile on her face again. I’m so sorry, baby. Oh, God! I’m so sorry, Rachael.

I walked through the wall and waited a ways down the street so I couldn’t hear her anymore. I tried to remember how to breathe and then realized that I don’t breathe anymore — I’m dead. But for some reason I felt like I needed air. I just kept gasping over and over trying to suck in the air something in me still thought for sure I needed. Felt like I was going crazy I’m telling you. It was really scary crazy.

Well then the cops showed up and the coroner and who knows what else. I wandered back down there when I saw Rachael open the door to let them in and kind of stayed in earshot to hear what they had to say. Rachael almost pulled it together for them. They had her phone a friend and while they worked over the house, that girl, Patty, Rachael sometimes has drinks with? Yeah, she showed up and held her and patted her back and told her stuff that didn’t make any sense but the sound of her voice seemed to kind of soothe my girl and help her out when she had to answer questions. I was starting to have trouble breathing… or not breathing… again when I heard this officer tell Rachael they might need her to come down to the station and answer some questions later. That they’d have to wait until after the coroner’s report came through.

Questions? Down at the station? Now I know I’m dead in the house and all, but, I mean, I just died, right? There’s no need to go dragging people into some precinct and get them all stirred up over nothing. Sometimes people just get sick and kick it, right? That got me to thinking. I did get sick awful quick. And I was dead a few hours later. But I’d been feeling just fine all morning. So what killed me? Some little germ? Maybe I had cancer. People can have cancer and not know, right? Or maybe I’m allergic to salad. No. That’s crazy talk. I’m not allergic to salad.

I’ll spare you the details, ‘cause the next part of everything was pretty boring. I decided I’d follow my body down to the morgue and kind of hang around until they figure out what all happened to me. I was not expecting what they found.

Oxalic acid. Yup. I didn’t know what it was either. Apparently, after you wade through their big fancy jumbo words, it’s a common ingredient in rust cleaner and wood bleach. Since it seems highly unlikely that I’d been chugging either of those recently and the vomit they collected (ew!) didn’t contain any of the other chemical markers for heavy cleaners they decided I must have gotten it some other way. With a little research and a few more tests they narrowed down the culprit to rhubarb.

You remember what I said about rhubarb in the beginning? Yeah. It’s poisonous when you eat the leaves. Come to find out, the roots are poisonous too. So I was thinking about that salad, right? Then they said I’d have had to eat, like, 11lbs of rhubarb leaves in one shot in order to get to the fatal poisoning level. I can eat a lot, but I swear that salad wasn’t that big!

That’s when I remembered the dressing. That was the nastiest vinaigrette I’d ever put in my mouth. The whole time I was eating it I was thinking this stuff could peel paint off the walls. Guess I wasn’t too far off. And I’d put it back in the fridge! What a stooge I am! It’s still sitting in there waiting for Rachael to decide she needs her little rabbit lunch! Can’t do much about it while I’m dead though, right? So maybe I need to find a way to be a little less dead.

Here’s what I know: somebody whacked me. I don’t appreciate that very much. Now I’m gonna do whatever it takes to find that guy and get a little of my own back, you know what I’m saying? I figure all those ghost stories the crazy bats been telling can’t be all wrong. Maybe I can make some noise and rattle some cupboards. A little light show in the middle of the night could be fun. Maybe I can scare him enough to turn himself in?

Ok. I admit, it was a dumb-assed plan. But at least I set out to do something instead of just wailing around haunting the neighbors and playing basketball in the park.

Just as I’m about to leave I hear some officer say now they need to send someone back to my place to search for poison, and they really gotta ask my girl a hard line of questions. Rachael. Like, what do they think they’re gonna get outta her? It’s not like she’s the one that…oh. Oh, no. Don’t even go there. Don’t even think you gonna accuse my girl of killing me with no rhubarb salad dressing. Only they don’t know about the salad dressing as of yet. In light of who they’re pointing fingers at, I’m not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing they haven’t found the poison.

Poison. As soon as I thought that to myself I got this cold chill. It all just hit me. Somebody killed me. Somebody KILLED me! Just as sure as they held a gun to my head and pulled the trigger, somebody out there killed me! And they’re still walking around with a smile. Why I oughta…

Rachael. They’re calling her down here. I think to myself I gotta stay and make sure they don’t try and pull none of this good cop/bad cop racket on her. She’ll never see it coming. Hell, they could probably get her to confess to killing JFK in the state she’s in! So I stayed. I don’t know what I thought I was gonna do, but I stayed.

In comes my girl like a babe in the woods, and I do mean that both ways. Look at all that dark hair spilling down her back like that. And she’s making a sweatshirt and jeans look like a million bucks. Guess she skipped on the makeup today, but she does that when she’s feeling pretty low, see? It’d probably just run all over the place anyway. Always does when she cries. Look at her. She’s all alone and these two bears are gonna question her. I braced myself for the worst.

They started out making nice and all, so when they got around to telling her they thought I’d been murdered (there’s an ugly word!) she just broke down all over again. What a mess. My poor girl. And there I was and I couldn’t do nothing about it. Then they go and start making suggestions. She’s sitting there trying not to sob all over the table and they’re making implications, asking about our relationship and what did she know about oxalic acid.

Now, my girl? She’s real smart. She knew right away the whole thing about oxalic acid and rhubarb, but she didn’t know yet that’s how I died. So I can see they’re thinking they’re on to something ‘cause she just up and explained that it’s some kind of juice in rhubarb leaves and that’s why you can’t ever eat them, right? The leaf juice is poisonous. She just tells them all this right up front and matter of fact.

Well they get to looking at each other like they know something and my girl, she’s just sitting there watching this whole thing, and that’s when they tell her that’s how I died. Now something you might not know about Rachael is when it comes to food she’s really smart. I mean really smart. She’s got this gig right now as a food critic for some snooty paper in town. She gets invited to all the snobby restaurants and sometimes she goes to some private chef’s dinner party with all the rich schmucks. So she sits back in her chair and just looks at them.  That’s when it started to get good.

They started asking her about her cooking habits and how often she uses rhubarb and if she keeps it in the house, yada, yada, yada. Then they’re asking her if she keeps certain cleaning supplies in the house (we don’t), and how she thought I might have come in contact with a sufficient amount to kill me (she had no idea). And that’s when they brought up her job. That’s when they started to really get to the point. Let me tell you, Rachael was brilliant. She looks them dead in the eye and she says,

“I don’t like what you seem to be insinuating, gentlemen. I’m no longer inclined to speak without my lawyer present.”

How do you like that? She called them “gentlemen” all nice as you please. Talking all firm and smart! Heh! They never knew what hit them! So now she’s all lawyered up and she gets into this private room with her lawyer, Dottie Gang. Well, I thought that was going to be the end of that, but when they got themselves in there I about died again from what I heard.

Ms. Gang was being all business and consoling and telling Rachael that nothing would ever stick if prosecution tried to pin the poison on her. And that was when Rachael dropped the big one: somebody might be after her. Now who in their right mind would wanna kill Rachael? I mean, even when she writes a bad review she’s always so nice about it you’d barely even know. It’s what everybody loves about her. She tells it like it is but there’s just something about the way she says it that keeps you from hating her. Well, Ms. Gang got her talking and here’s what she said,

“The other night I was out at a private party review and I’d been having a lot of trouble with my cell phone. You know how sometimes the little icons don’t work so there’s messages sitting in your voicemail for hours and you don’t even know it? That could be a disaster with my career, so I’ve been calling my voicemail myself every hour or so just to be sure.

Well, I was at this party and I asked if I could use a private room for a moment to check my voicemail, and the chef said I could use his study. So I checked my messages and, as I was finishing up, the chef walked in and started asking me how I was enjoying the party so far and he offered me a drink he’d brought. My hands were full so I set my phone on his desk to take it, and that’s when we noticed that our phones were the same. I’d set mine down right next to his, see? So we talked about the icon problem I was having and I grabbed my phone and dropped it in my purse as we walked back out into the party.

I didn’t think a thing of it until after the party when I was in the car and I checked my messages again. There was this really raunchy message on the voicemail like some woman who’s trying to sound sexy and really likes it rough. Well, I thought that was weird and all so I looked at the caller ID to see who it was had left me the message. I thought it was a prank call by Patty or something, but the ID said it was Hazel Tang! Well, I don’t even know Hazel Tang so I was more confused than ever! I started to think it was a misdial when I realized that none of the incoming calls were familiar. Not a one! Then, when I closed the call log I noticed the background picture on the phone wasn’t mine. That’s when I realized the phone probably wasn’t mine either and I remembered the chef’s phone and mine looked the same.”

Dottie Gang is a shrewd kind of woman and she was starting to look a little bored. To be honest with you, I was drifting off too. But there was something about the way Rachael kept playing with her rings and waving her hands around. See, she only fidgets when she’s scared and she doesn’t know if she should be. And she wasn’t looking up a whole lot, which is weird for her. That’s when she looked the lawyer straight in the eye and said,

“Dottie! The chef was Stanton Fin!”

Ms. Gang’s eyes narrowed for a second and she stared real hard at Rachael. “Rachael, what are you trying to say?”

“Listen! I’m sure this is important. Fin’s company is in negotiations with Tang’s to merge and create some sort of computer super-company! They’ve been real hush-hush about it so, of course, everybody who’s anybody in the food industry knows. People like to talk when they eat. But what if Fin is sleeping with Tang’s wife? Everybody knows how possessive Tang is! The merger wouldn’t stand a chance and from the way the rumors are running Fin needs it and he needs it bad!”

“Rachael, don’t waste my time. What does this have to do with you?”

“When I gave the phone back to Fin, there was no way to cover up the fact that I’d already listened to his voicemail and I was so scared and flustered by the whole thing that I didn’t know what to do, so I just admitted it right up front that I’d accidentally checked his messages and that’s how I realized it wasn’t my phone. We both had an awkward laugh and he got my phone, and I just drove home and tried to forget the whole thing. You know how I am about being embarrassed.”

“Rachael!”

“I’m getting there! The cops just told me that Brender’s death was caused by oxalic acid. That’s the stuff that makes rhubarb leaves so poisonous, ok? They said it was found in incredibly high concentrations in his body. Do you know why I was supposed to be at Fin’s private party?”

“No, Rachael.” Ms. Gang kind of sighed here. “Please tell me.”

“He was unveiling his new signature dish: chicken sautéed in a special rhubarb sauce! Dottie, do you know how much rhubarb he must have gone through to create that recipe in the first place, let alone how much he’d need to make enough dishes for the party?”

Dottie Gang was quiet for a minute. Then she started playing with those trendy glasses she wears, tapping them on her hand.

“Rachael, this is all completely circumstantial. Do you understand? There’s nothing but a hunch here that would even suggest Stanton Fin is behind all this. And do you know what they’d do to us if we even tried to chase this down? Fin’s lawyers would ruin you, then me, then you again just for thinking it. There’s nothing we can do but keep this whole thing to ourselves and, if you’re right, hope something else slips out and gives us something to go on.” And with that, Ms. Gang started shuffling papers into her briefcase.

Rachael just sat there and chewed on her lip. She knew she’d been schooled and there was nothing she could do about it. She looked so small and scared. Heck, if I thought a guy like Stanton Fin was after me, I’d be damn scared too! Well, ok, he already got me… and since I’m dead now it’s not like there’s a point in worrying, right? I say that a lot, don’t I? The part about me being dead? I’m starting to annoy you, aren’t I? I’ll try to cut down on that. It’s just all so new, and it all happened so sudden it’s like I’m trying to remind myself every once in a while.

Where was I? Oh, right. Stanton Fin. So Rachael agreed to keep her mouth shut and went home to see to some last minute funeral stuff. That was yesterday. Funeral was today and I already told you about that little shindig, so now I’m going to go hang around Fin for a while and see what kind of dirt I can dig up. I wonder where Haywood’s been? He said he’d check back in on me, but I haven’t seen him. Ah, he probably came by the house while I was haunting the morgue. Bet if I need him he’ll be back in the park playing ball. Wonder if I can remember how to get there?

So here I am walking up into the skyscraper side of town. At least that’s what we call them. They’re the biggest buildings around, you know? Up here we’ve got just a few huge corporate office buildings. I mean block-out-the-sun, blight-on-the-view, modern towers of glass and steel.  The best offices in two of those buildings are owned by none other than Stanton Fin and the infamous Wan Lu Tang. That guy! The things they say about him! Whoo! It’s lethal just to breathe his air, if you know what I mean. He is one piece of work. From what I hear his wife’s just as bad — a real cold fish if you believe the rumors. She’s got some real balls on her if she’s cheating on him and trying to get away with it.

Oh, here’s Fin’s building. Not too many people here this time of day. Now to find some proof that this is the guy that wacked me. Old Dottie Gang might be an amazing defense lawyer, but she says we need some proof, so proof is what I’m gonna get! I’ll just follow this lovely couple onto the elevator. Hello, everyone! Don’t mind the ghost. I don’t take up much room! Heh-heh. I’m such a kidder. Maybe that’s why the lobby’s so empty. Everybody’s in the elevator. Do people really dress like this for work every day? The last time I saw this many ties in one place was in court! Well, besides my funeral. Bad luck. That couple I followed in just got off on the floor for divorce lawyers. Bummer. They looked so right for each other somehow. Wow. This is a really big building. I think I’ve already been in this elevator for three minutes. Hup. There’s my stop.

Ok. So. Secretary lady’s already gone home. Most of these offices are empty. There’s the boss’ lair. Think I’ll go take a look-see.

Man! Would you look at the paintings in here! They call this stuff art? It looks to me like a little kid got into my paint cans and just made a mess everywhere. And the statue. I mean, what is that even supposed to be, anyways? Nice little filing cabinets with cozy little locks. I could probably do them with a screwdriver, but that church guy was right — you don’t get to take your tools with you. Oh, let’s see. Here’s the spiff’s laptop. It’s just sitting out here on his desk like he’s sure nobody’s gonna mess with it. Must be nice. Check out this chair! It has captain written all over it! Reminds me of something off one of those space shows I watch on TV. Ensign! Bring the bow about thirty degrees, then full speed ahead! Haha! This guy has a paperweight. What kind of man has a paperweight these days? Really? What are those things used for anymore? Not only is it a paperweight, but it looks like some kind of froo-froo food. What is up with this guy?

Look at that! My hand passed right through his laptop. Should have known. So I guess I won’t be jimmying any locks or hacking any emails or doing anything really important after all. What did I think I was going to do? For that matter, what exactly is it I can do? Hmmmmm. I can watch. I can listen. I can still smell stuff. What does that leave me?

Oh, God! Somebody’s coming! Where am I gonna hide? Oh, wait. They can’t see me. Hoo. That’s a relief. She just walked right through me! That is so weird. I’m never gonna get used to that, I swear. Who’s that she’s talking to? Oh. She’s on the phone. She’s talking to Fin! She’s getting into one of those filing cabinets. She’s gonna take that file over to Fin’s place. Here’s a break! I can follow her and see if I can catch the old man doing the nasty! Ha ha!

*

                So here we are in Fin’s ridiculous house. I mean gates, guards, dogs, the whole nine this guy’s got out here. This nobody-can-see-me thing is kind of convenient sometimes, you know? Hey, did you like how I didn’t say anything about me being dead that time? I’m paying attention, see? Maybe I should pretend I’m invisible and it’s some kind of superpower! Maybe it’s some weird side effect that nobody could have predicted that now I’m invisible I can’t even touch stuff anymore! What’s that thing they say sometimes? Out of… phase! Yeah! That’s it! I’m not dead! I’m just outta phase! Like I’m in another dimension or something! Heh-heh! This is really cool.

I don’t think I’ve seen so much glass all in one place since my Aunt Frannie’s estate sale. She had taken up collecting the breakables like some old ladies do and, I mean, they were taking over the house! Not here, though. This guy’s got so much house, I think the only thing’d ever take over here is a reenactment of Noah’s flood. Is that a glass building there? Huh. Looks like a whole little model block built here out of glass. Hey, this is the skyscraper block! I bet he wants to take over some of those little businesses that’re still holding on down there and build a few more towering monstrosities. That’s what it looks like anyway. Funny they’re all made of glass here since, you know, light actually goes through glass. People on the far side of the block from the sun better give up on their window boxes he ever gets this thing built.

This has got to be the biggest assed kitchen I have ever seen. I think my whole downstairs could fit in here. What’s he doing in this place? Coaching little league? There he is still all schnazzy in his working clothes with some dumb striped apron over top. Doesn’t he know he looks… you know… of a “questionable inclination,” you might say? And he’s supposed to be some lady killer. Er. Lover. I’m the one he’s supposed to have killed and, let me tell you, I don’t look nothing like no lady. I don’t even resemble my mama!

There’s his phone. Yup. Looks just like Rachael’s. I can see now how she might have picked up his by mistake. I keep telling her she needs to let it get beat up a little or get one of those pretty little covers for it. You know, nothing like a big scratch to let you know what phone is yours! But she always told me she wanted her phone to look all professional and stuff. She’d say, “It’s bad enough that I’m fat, Bren. I don’t need to be fat AND cutesie like those old lady critics. I gotta be professional!”

Listen to this guy schmooze to his phone. Now that’s not the way you talk to your mother. I wonder who’s on the other end of that conversation because, by the way he’s talking, he’s looking to get some tonight! He just keeps calling her “darling” and smiling all smug. Yes. I just said “smug.” I’m dead now. I can talk how I want.

Nine? He’s not gonna meet her until nine? It’s barely six right now. What am I supposed to do until nine?

Wait! Did you just see that? Something just disappeared around that corner over there. If I didn’t know better I’d say it just disappeared through that corner and you know what that means.

Huh. Nothing back here but a big old hallway and some fancy looking poofy cat. This guy doesn’t strike me as a cat kind of guy, but whatever. Between the poofy cat and that apron I’m about to take his man card.

Well, whatever it was I saw, it sure wasn’t the cat. Cat’s not tall enough. Ho! Wait a minute! There it is again! Here we go running it down!

Through the closet. Through the study. Then some weird kind of room with lots of plants in it reminds me of Colonel Mustard and a candlestick. Through the wall. Nice looking lawn with plants that don’t belong here growing in perfect little mulch beds. Dog. Guard. Ivy. Through another wall. Street! There! It’s some girl running through stuff just like me like she’s trying to get away!

“Hey! Hey you! Where you going?” What does she think she is? A rabbit? “Hey! What’s your name? Why you hanging around Fin’s place? He kill you too?”

Now that got her attention! She’s stopped and all looking at me like a skunk on the road in the headlights.

“He did, didn’t he? He killed you too! I was right!”

“No… yes… maybe. I don’t really know.”

I stop a few feet away from her. We’re standing in some plaza with little stores all up and down and cars running through us. She’s kind of cute in that geeky punk way that was popular a few years back. She’s got little pigtails and her hair’s some kind of pink. She keeps looking at my shoes with her hands shoved as deep in her pockets as they can go.

“Well, girl, you’ve got nothing to fear from another guy who’s already dead, right?”

She’s looking at me over those geeky glasses. There’s something in that direct stare she’s giving me that’s downright uncomfortable. And she’s giving me the eyebrow. You know what I mean. Women only look at you like that when they mean something. Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to figure out what, exactly, it is that they mean.

“You even gotta ask that question means you haven’t been dead very long.” She’s squinting at me and looking me over now. “How’d he get you?”

“You ever hear of rhubarb?”

“Yeah. The freakshow grows it out behind his secret love nest in the burbs.”

“Well, apparently that stuff can kill you.”

She’s shaking her head at me. She looks confused.

“He uses it when he cooks all the time and he’s obviously not dead.”

“It’s something about the leaves and it’s all very complicated. Did you say he has a love nest in the burbs?”

“Yeah.”

“You wouldn’t happen to know who it is he’s been taking there, now would you?”

She’s looking all around now like she’s scared somebody’s gonna catch us talking or something. I wonder what she’s so scared of. I mean, she’s already dead. What’s she so afraid of? Maybe she knows something I don’t. Hell, if she’s been dead more than a week she probably knows a lot of stuff I don’t know. I’m gonna try something else.

“What’s your name? I don’t want to keep calling you ‘girl.’” Nothing. Wait for it. Hup. She’s looking right at me again. Now she’s back to looking at my shoes. Come on, girl! They’re really not that interesting.

“I go by Lucy.”

“All right then, Lucy. My name’s Brender and I’m gonna get right to the point ‘cause I don’t got a lotta time here, see?” I don’t know why she looks all startled. What’d I say? Never mind. “My woman’s still alive and she thinks Fin tried to kill her and got me by mistake. Now she’s one smart cookie and I’m over here trying to see if she’s right, ‘cause if she is I gotta do something real quick or the cops are gonna try and pin me dying on her.”

She’s staring at my clothes again. What’s up with her? Can’t she just look at my face? Maybe this is what women feel like when they complain we’re looking at all the “non-important” things.

“How sure are you that it was Fin and not your woman put you down?”

“I’m damn sure. No chance in hell Rachael’d do something like that to me!”

“All right. I’m just askin’.” Now she’s looking at a tree. Hello? I’m over here! “So what do you need me for?”

“Problem is we got no proof. Lawyer called everything ‘circumstantial evidence’ and told Rachael to keep it shut.” She’s nodding at me like this is what she expected. “Now, Rachael seems to think Fin’s love life is what started this mess. You seem like you know where this love nest is. I wanna see it.”

Lucy’s looking at her own shoes now. Maybe she’s wondering if she should swap mine.

“Going there is a waste of time,” she says. “All you can do there is watch them get it on. And, trust me, it’s disgusting.” And she’s back to the tree again. “You wanna get Fin? Come with me to her place. It’ll be a better use of your time.”

I don’t have any idea what she’s talking about. “Who is ‘her?’”

“The woman on the phone. She keeps records on Fin.”

“What kind of records?” I’m still not sure where this is going, but paper trails have gotten quite a few men arrested if you can believe what you see in the movies.

“You know Fin owns that company that manufactures computer parts, right? Well, he’s about run it into the ground, only nobody really knows about it but him, her, and the guy that doctors his books.”

“Ok.”

“She’s got her own angle going. She’s working both sides to make sure Fin and Tang merge because, somehow, she’s the one who’s going to make out really big on the profits.”

“How?”

“I don’t know. She’s into some kind of trades or stocks or shareholding… whatever… and she’s married to one and sleeping with the other. While I never really understood that part, it seems to me she’s keeping her options open.”

“So Fin’s little playmate is Hazel Tang?”

“Oh, God! Don’t say her name here!” Lucy’s looking around all frantic and now she’s walking away. Guess I’ll follow.

“What’s the big deal? Lucy, wait up!”

“Are you crazy? Or do you really just not know anything?” She looks so panicked it’s almost funny, but there’s something about how she looks everywhere at once and how fast she’s moving away from that plaza that’s kind of got me spooked. “The Dragon has influence here and there. You don’t think a calculating bitch like that would leave some realm out of her control, do you?”

“The what?”

“The Dragon! You know who! Don’t you DARE say her name out loud or we’re dead! You hear me? DEAD!”

This conversation is starting to clue me in on just how little I know.

“Lucy, I don’t know a thing about Haz… er… the Dragon… other than her name, her husband, and that she likes to talk dirty to rich man’s voice mails!” Lucy stopped walking.

“She left a voicemail? Was it to Fin?”

“Yeah. Is that a big deal or something?” Uh oh, now she’s walking again.

“Yes. It means she’s getting careless. She’s starting to make mistakes. I’ve been waiting for over a year for her to get comfortable. She obviously felt safe if she left a voicemail for her lover. That means the time to act is now.” Lucy’s picking up speed now. Things are starting to blur and we’re going through walls willy-nilly.

“Uh, Lucy? Are we going somewheres?”

“Just keep up, ok?”

*

                “Lucy!? Where the hell are we?”

“Sh!” She’s all creeped up next to this brick wall and looking around like she thinks people can see us or something. Her green hoodie turned black sometime while we were running and I’m not entirely sure how. You know, there’s other stuff not the same anymore too. It’s like little details keep changing around. There’s a butterfly clip in her hair for a while and then it’s just gone. There’s a pin on the hoodie that looks a little like a fairy and then it’s some weird kind of beetle. Her glasses change styles and then the pin is back but this time it’s an owl. Even her hair changes shades. What is up with this ghost?

“Ok. I need you to try something for me, got it?” She’s looking right at me again and her eyes have that intense do-or-die kind of glare.

“Um. Ok. Sure.”

She’s kneeling down next to the wall and looking around again.               “I want you to try to move that piece of grass, got it?” I’m sure I blinked a couple times and just stared at her like she’s crazy. “I know you can’t normally do it on your own, but I’m gonna help you and then it should work, ok? Now move it! We don’t have much time!”

Now I’m sure I’m looking at her like she’s crazy. Here I go reaching out to this really tall piece of grass. You know that kind that grows in places where they forget to weedwhack that’s just one tall stalk with those little tiny seeds at the top? My hand goes right through it. See? Dumb idea. She’s shaking her head at me.

“No. You have to really concentrate. Do it again.”

Riiiiiiight. Here we go again. I try it again and this time her hand moves with mine. Great. Now I’m going crazy. I think it moved. She’s sitting there looking all pleased and a half so maybe it wasn’t just my imagination.

“Again,” she says to me. Are you kidding? Nope. She’s totally focused on this stupid piece of grass. So we try it again. This time the grass definitely moved. She’s nodding, and she looks like she’s getting excited about something. Now she’s getting up and creeping down that wall again. She’s waving to me like she wants me to follow her.

“Lucy! I have no idea what we’re doing here and I’m not going any farther until you tell me what’s going on. For all I know you’re just wasting my time.”

“Shhhhh!” Uh oh. She’s looking mad now. “Keep your voice down! And if you like your unlife you’d better keep your head down too!”

I’m not entirely sure if I like my unlife or not, but I’ve been told you shouldn’t make decisions during times of emotional stress and I’d guess that dying and finding out somebody’s trying to kill your girlfriend all in the same week definitely qualifies as that kind of situation, right? So I crouch behind this stupid brick wall and move closer to her so we can talk quietly. “You feel better now?”

“Shut up and listen.” Oooo. So now she’s getting snippy about it. “Ok. I’ve got this idea, but it’s a long shot and I need help. I can’t move anything by myself, but I learned from this crazy old lady how to work with another ghost to try and affect stuff around me. She used to have me move stuff around with her to annoy people.”

“You’re talking about movie stuff! You know, like that movie where the guy dies and somebody frames him or something and he uses that old lady can talk to ghosts to communicate? Didn’t he throw a coffee cup across a room or something?” Now she’s looking at me like I’m the one that’s crazy.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about, but it’s not movie stuff ‘cause I’ve done it before. Only, most of us aren’t strong enough to do it alone. Only the really old ones can do that and most of them are crazy.” She’s looking around again like somebody’s gonna hear us. What’s this talk about “old ones?” Who are they?

“So I’ve been following the Dragon around and watching what she does. That’s how I know she’s keeping copies of Fin’s ledgers — the real ones, not the ones he sends out to the shareholders. She keeps them in her office here in this building and I figured out exactly where. Tonight she’s gonna be with Fin and we have this perfect opportunity to send an email to her husband, Wan Lu Tang. I wanna tell him about the affair, Fin’s books, and where to find the ledgers. I don’t know what you know about Wan Lu Tang, but, trust me, that’s all we’ll have to do and he’ll shake it all out from there. He’s completely jealous, and he already suspects the Dragon’s been cheating. If I do this right, he’ll take down both Fin and the Dragon and we both go home happy.” She’s turning away from me, so I reach out to grab her to get her attention, but my hand slides through her shoulder. Concentrate. Right. I try it again and bump her this time. She looks back at me like she’s impatient.

“Luce, what’s in it for you? Why you doing this?”

She’s looking back down at the ground again like she’s remembering something.

“Dragon’s the reason I’m dead. That’s all you need to know so stop asking questions and do what I do. There’s this scary old witch lady of a ghost from Salem that hangs around her office sometimes, and she’ll tell the Dragon we’ve been here if she sees us. Salem shows and we’ll really be in for it.”

“Wait! The Dragon can see ghosts?”

“No! Yes. Just Salem. The Dragon called Salem here in one of her weird little séancey things! Now, shut up and follow me! And no more questions!” Lucy’s moving down the wall like we’re about to infiltrate some enemy HQ and there’s snipers on the roof. I guess from her perspective that’s exactly what’s going on. I wonder if she’s not walking through the wall and straight into the building because she’s afraid the old lady’s here. This is one crazy girl, this is. She’s stopped at the end of the wall and she’s looking every which way again.

“Boo.”

OH GOD IN HEAVEN! It’s not like he said it loud or anything, but that one word was enough to make me and Lucy come unglued from the very ground! I mean, I’m sure I flew six feet straight up in the air. Just as I was about to beat the hell out of whoever was behind me, I realized it was just Haywood having fun with us. He must have snuck up behind us when he saw us sneaking around. Lucy’s all the way to the next building over by now, but she seems to have realized nothing’s attacking me. I think she’s coming back. Yeah, laugh it up, Haywood. Very funny.

“Dude! You shoulda seen yo’ faces! Hahahaha! Bet I just scared you to death! Hahahahaha!”

“Yeah. You’re a funny guy, Haywood. Now what the hell are you doing here?”

“I’s just passin’ through and saw y’all sneakin’ around. Thought I’d come on over and see what’s up.”

Here comes Lucy and she is pissed. How am I gonna explain Haywood to her? Eh, I’ll catch up Haywood while she stalks her way over here.

“I hung around the morgue and found out somebody killed me, dude! And then I found out the guy that probably did it was really after my girl! I can’t let him do nothing to Rachael, so then I started hanging ‘round him and ran into this kid, Lucy here, and she seems to know more about what’s going on than I do. We were just about to sneak into this building here and do something about the whole mess when you came and scared the life outta us. Now you know.”

Haywood’s eyes still got a bit of that twinkle, like he’s up to no good, but he’s settled down a bunch since he heard I was murdered and Rachael’s in trouble. And now Lucy’s here to fill in any of the blanks. She doesn’t seem to be in a sharing mood, though.

“Do you know this guy?” There’s that hissy tone women get when they’re pissed off.

“I do, as a matter of fact. Lucy, this is Haywood.” Guess she’s probably not gonna shake hands if she’s glaring at him that way.

“Seems to me, Miss Lucy, that you might need yo’selves a lookout. In’t this where the old witch shows up time to time?”

Lucy’s eyebrow just went up. That’s not always good when it comes to women, I’ve learned. At least she’s not glaring at him anymore. Wait a minute. Did Haywood just mention the witch?

“Hey! How come everyone knows about this witch but me?”

Now Haywood gets to glare at Miss Lucy. “You didn’t tell him?”

She’s doing that eyebrow thing again.

“Shoot, woman! You don’t just expect somebody to walk into that building without tellin’ ‘em what’s on the line!” Now Haywood’s looking all over like Lucy’s been doing. Something really has these two spooked! “You ain’t gonna tell him, I will.”

I once heard of a game called, “Spite and Malice.” I think Lucy’s face right now would have been the picture on the front. “Be my guest.”

“Look, Bren. This ain’t no walk in the park here. You remember the Salem witch trials from school, right? Well this ghost is the witch they were really after, only she was alive then. She was one scary mother back then and she’s even worse now. They got her in the last set of trials in 1693, and even that was an accident. She got too comfortable one day and thought they’d given up the hunt. I don’t think they ever realized they’d finally got her.  Think about it, dude. That was over 300 years ago. She’s had a good long time to work on her mojo. The longer we’re dead the more control we get over whatever’s left of us, and she’s got control in spades. You know how live folks can’t see us? Well, when she wants to be seen, they can see her. I hear she’s got some descendant here in this building and she hangs around to make sure her line carries on. Oh, and watch out for Salem’s stick. She’s morphed part of herself into this big ol’ stick she carries and it packs quite a punch.”

Lucy’s got her arms crossed like the babysitter trying to scare the kids into going to bed early. “Are you done yet?”

Haywood’s grabbing my arm. The look in his eyes is the most serious I’ve ever seen him. “You sure you wanna go in there, Bren? From what I hear this witch is one of the only things can kill a ghost.”

How do you kill a ghost? Whatever. I gotta see this through — for Rachael. “I’ll do it.”

Haywood’s still staring at me hard in the face, like he’s making sure I’m not just trying to show off or something. He’s really spooked.

“If you boys don’t get a move on, this whole plan is shot to hell.”

“You’re not taking Bren in there without me.”

“Fine. You keep a lookout and we’ll do the job.” Lucy’s checking out the building again like it’s all settled. Well she might feel that way, but I’ve got a load to think about. I mean, this is a ghost story people tell their kids, right? There’s nothing to be afraid of, right?

Here we go, sneaking around the wall and running in through the back wall of the building when Haywood signals the all clear. All that ghost talk and this sneaking around makes me feel stupid, like we’re a bunch of kids playing pretend and trying to sneak cookies from the jar when Mamma already offered to give them to us.

Inside it’s up some stairs and through some doors until we’re way back in the Dragon’s office. She’s sitting there at the desk with her short dark hair tucked behind her ears and her perfectly manicured hands tapping away at her laptop. She keeps checking her watch with that same smug smile on her face I saw on Fin’s. Whoever said couples start to look like each other was definitely right in this case. Creepy. Maybe the cat’s hers. I don’t see any cat hair on that perfectly fitted black dress, though. And she has some legs on her. She’s too thin for my taste, but I can see why a guy like Fin would go for her. There’s something about her perfectly straight hair and her perfectly lined eyes in her perfectly clean office that makes you feel like she’s in control of the entire world. That kind of thing makes a man want to conquer… or kill… but it usually makes you want to kill her, not someone else.

Look at this office! No wonder Luce calls her the “Dragon.” Ain’t nothing in this place that’s not red or gold colored. And everywhere I look there’s dragons — pictures, sculptures, leering, sneering, growling, snorting and grinning their open-mawed grins. Mawed? Mawed. There’s another word I didn’t know I knew.

Haywood’s staring at Lucy with that wild eyed are-you-out-of-your-mind look. “Here? Out of all the offices in this building you had to come here?” Haywood’s voice is coming out all hissy like Lucy’s was a few minutes ago. It’s not like the Dragon can hear us, but old habits die hard and I keep looking from Haywood and Lucy to the Dragon thinking any minute she’s gonna look up and sound some kind of alarm. I was even holding my breath there for a while until I realized I don’t breathe anyway and that was just stupid. Lucy’s ignoring Haywood and just staring at the Dragon with this weird light in her eyes. I think that’s what pure hatred might look like. Matter of fact, Lucy looks a little like some of these dragons in here. Haywood’s got a movie-perfect version of a scared lookout going on. He’s scanning the walls and the door like he’s ready for anything. He’s even checking the floor and the ceiling!

Now Dragon Lady’s getting her briefcase and getting up out of the reddest office chair I’ve ever seen. It looks a little more like a throne to me what with them gold dragons climbing up the sides. Maybe that’s the point. And now she’s outside the door and locking it with one of the most complicated security systems I’ve ever seen. What does the woman do that she’s got to have all this security for?

“Hey! Get over here! We gotta get typing!” Lucy’s hissing at me again.

Never in my life have the keys on a laptop looked so intimidating. We’re trying to type a ‘d’ but the key’s not going down. I’m concentrating so hard that I’m sure I’d be sweating if I was still alive. I’m leaning into it like I’m trying to push a car, but there’s still nothing.

“You have GOT to try harder!” Lucy’s got little beads of sweat showing on her forehead from concentrating. If I could see myself I’m sure I’d have them too. But, somehow, she’s convinced it’s my fault. Just like a woman.

“Lucy! I’m giving it the best I got!”

She’s looking at me like a schoolteacher that’s about to give me an “inspirational talk.” “Come on! You can do better than this!”

Now Haywood’s cutting in. “Give it a rest, girl! He’s been dead less than a week!”

I think Haywood’s annoyed at her giving me all this grief because her brilliant plan isn’t exactly working. Here he comes. She’s looking like she’s about to cry or throw up or something equally unpleasant.

“GAH! That’s what I get for bringing a noob!” She’s pulling on her pigtails now and shaking her head back and forth. Her hair keeps changing colors and every now and then her glasses change styles again.

“What’re you tryin’ to do, girl? I been dead for quite a while now. Maybe I can help.” Haywood’s always been that save the damsel in distress guy. “Here. Why don’t we all try it together and see if we can get this party started? A’ight?”

So Lucy’s taking this deep breath and wiggling her head around and jumping up and down a few times. Now she’s back over here and all three of us are focused on the letter ‘d’. Heh-hey! Would you look at that? It came up on the screen!

Now Lucy’s telling us one letter at a time what to press and it’s slow going, but we get the password in. She seriously needs to get an afterlife if she’s been haunting this “Dragon” so much she figured out her password. We were doing great until we tried to double click. The double clicking isn’t working at all. It’s like we just can’t get it together or something.

“Oom, cheh, oom, oom, cheh.”

What is that?

“Um, Haywood?”

“Just go with it. Oom, cheh, oom, oom, cheh.”

Haywood’s beatboxing. Now I know we’ve all gone crazy. He’s got his free hand up in the air, and, every now and then, he flicks it twice. Oh! I get it. He wants us to click to the beat. Let’s see. Weirdest idea ever, but it’s working.

So letter by letter this email’s coming out in some assistant’s email account. Lucy says this guy’s a plant by Wan Lu to keep an eye on Hazel. Apparently Hazel  knows he’s a plant and doesn’t do anything really incriminating around him. Bet this guy’s gonna get one helluva raise when Tang sees this email. We’ve told him about the affair with Fin, how Fin’s been swapping books, and exactly where to find Hazel’s copy of Fin’s real ledger. Lucy even told him Hazel’s at Fin’s tonight instead of at some benefit gala she said she was going to. This is definitely gonna tick the old man off.

What is that smell!? It’s like old garlic mixed with last week’s road kill. It gets really strong and then it’s just gone. Haywood and Lucy don’t seem to smell it so maybe I’m just imagining stuff.

Send! And the email’s in the wind! Success! A few more clicks and the computer will be just the way we found it.

Now I think I’m hearing some low chuckling noise. Creepy.

Uh oh. Maybe I’m not imagining things. Lucy’s eyes are all big and Haywood’s not moving anymore. It’s like we’re a bunch of bunnies and there’s a fox nearby.

“Well, well, well. Look at all the pretty children.” There’s this old woman across the room holding a big old walking stick, right? She’s looking right at us and she’s laughing in this creepy cacklely dry snapping twigs kind of way. It’s giving me goosebumps. So this is Salem.

Lucy and Haywood are backing away from the desk, but I’m just frozen there, like I can’t take my eyes off this ugly old lady. It’s like this huge weight has me rooted to the floor. I can’t even move my fingers!

“Did you bring me fresh meat for dinner, children?”

What in the world is she talking about? I know Haywood said she could kill a ghost, but eat one? She’s staring right at me. OH GOD! She just did that poofing thing Haywood did the other day. She’s all up in my face and I can smell that garlic and something really foul again.

“What a tasty little soul, you are,” she’s saying right in my face. “A sweet little morsel.”

“Leave him alone!” Haywood’s got that tone like he’s trying to sound brave, but he knows he’s about to get beat to the ground… or wet himself. Now Salem’s looking at him. Suddenly, I feel that weight lift off me and I can move again, and I can tell you that’s exactly what I’m gonna do. I’m running! From the other side of the room I can see her moving toward Haywood now.

“Tsk, tsk, dearie. You’re getting stale. Why don’t you just leave me to my snack and I’ll maybe see to you when I’m a little more desperate?” Haywood’s rooted to the floor. I stop running. I’m beginning to think when the old lady looks at you, you can’t move anymore until something makes her look away. She’s stroking her finger under Haywood’s chin. I’m getting the shivers just watching her.

“Run! She’s a soul eater!” Lucy’s words aren’t making sense to me. If the witch lady is a soul eater and I’m dead… then… oh, wait… uh oh!

When the hag looked away from Haywood to Lucy, Haywood backed through the wall of the building. Glad he escaped, but Lucy’s trapped with that witch moving in just staring her down. Lucy’s cringing away from her but she can’t quite get enough control of herself to actually make a run for it.

“Lucinda, darling! How nice it is to see you again. The last little friend you brought my way was well preserved and, oh, so tasty.” And the witch starts laughing again and she’s laughing so hard to herself that her wrinkles are twitching. The next thing I know I’m being shoved through the floor and Haywood’s streaking past me across the room and tackling Lucy and they’re going through the wall! Now I’m confused because I’m falling through floors and I don’t know where I am and I finally get myself stopped when I hear the old lady calling, “Here, ducky. Come here, precious. I promise it won’t hurt… MUCH!”

Oh, God! She’s behind me! Run! There she goes again with that chuckling, cackling thing she does. I am headed for the way out. Too bad I don’t know where the hell that is! Wall. Office. Janitor. Mop. Concrete wall. Dirt? Go up!

Isn’t this the back of the building? Yeah. There’s that stupid brick wall again. And there’s Lucy peeking out from behind it. Hey! Why am I on my face? Ghosts can’t trip on stuff, right? There’s that laughing again. I tripped on her walking stick! She’s coming up through the dirt after me!

“Haywood!”

And like an open receiver at the end of the football game here he comes! Er, more like a linebacker because he’s headed straight for Gramma! And he sacks her! Sort of? It’s like she kind of got knocked off balance, but he kind of went through part of her. What the? And she just sent him flying through the building wall with her stick! I’m outta here. Only I can’t seem to get my legs under me. I can’t run! I can feel all that weight again and I can’t run! Here she comes all leisure-like and strolling up on me laughing her creepy assed laugh like she’s got all the time in the world. She’s real close now and I’m starting to feel tingly on the side of my face where she’s holding her hand out to me.

“Just a little taste, sweetums?”

It’s like there’s this fog misting off my face toward her hand and the more fog there is the colder and more tingly I feel. I’m realizing that this can’t be good when, out of nowhere, the weight just lifts and I’m running pell mell like a dog chasing cars. Lucy snuck up behind the old witch and now she has both arms wrapped around her saggy face and the witch is trying to throw her off… or maybe she’s just leaning to the side? Lucy’s falling through her! This is the most bizarre fight I have ever seen! And now Salem’s getting mad. Here I was standing there to see if Lucy’s gonna make it out when I should’ve been running.

Gramma’s winding up with her stick thing and taking the biggest golf swing I’ve ever seen. There goes Lucy through the brick wall. If she’s smart she’ll stay back there. If I’m smart I’ll start running.

Here we go again with the cement shoes. This is getting old real fast.

“Why don’t we just stay here, little dinner? All this running away is trying my patience.”

I see Haywood. He’s just come through the wall and he’s looking around trying to figure out what’s going on. And this is where it’s really weird. Before it was just weird. Now we’ve moved on to weird. Haywood did that blurry run really fast thing and was gonna superman punch old Gramma but instead she just says, “Ah, ah, aaaah!” And when she starts saying it she’s all in one piece and while she’s saying it her head, like, unzips down the center. Haywood’s fist is punching through the air where her head used to be and it just recoils back out. Then her head just zips itself back up again and now she’s facing him and he can’t move and I’m running away.

“Down, boy!”  There’s Haywood flying through the air again with the greatest of ease. That is some super staff she’s got there. Like something out of a video game. I stay dead, I gotta get me one of those.

Wait. Why am I still running? Why hasn’t she stopped me? Looking back over my shoulder, I realize we’re not alone. Over in the parking lot Tang’s getting out of his luxury SUV. He’s buttoning up his suit coat like he means business. I recognize him from the papers. That’s a lot of bodyguards following him. Two of those goons are looking right at us. They must be ghosts, too.

Witchy’s just looking at the two dead guards one to the other and back again, like she’s thinking, and they’re starting toward her like they mean some kind of business. Tang must have realized if his wife had otherworldly protection that he was gonna need some too. Geez! How many people around here are into this séancey stuff?

Salem seems scared. I’m not sure if that’s comforting or if it means we’re all in even bigger trouble than when we started. She’s backing away as the guards pick up speed.

“Well, this has been fun, dearies, but I really must be going. Ta ta for now!” And I’m telling you with that Granny just blurred off to parts unknown. Here we are just staring at each other and wondering what happens next. The two goons don’t seem to care too much about Haywood and me. They’re just looking all around like they’re lookouts for Tang.

Here comes Lucy, sneaking around the wall again. Goon 1 just raised his eyebrow at her but he doesn’t seem to care much she’s here. So now what?

“Brender!” Lucy’s talking all quiet to me and eyeing the goons like she’s not sure if they bite or not. “We need to go back in. We have to make sure he sees the ledger.”

“Why,” I’m stupid enough to ask. Of course she’s not gonna give me a straight answer, right?

“We just do, ok?”

Yup. I was right. “Well what do you need me for? You can see for yourself.”

“If I have to move something I’m gonna need both of you up there. Now follow me. Geez.”

When a woman gets a tone like that I’ve learned not to argue, no matter how stupid that might seem. I’m guessing gender rules are still the same when you’re dead. So here we go, back into the building, back through the walls and the halls and into the Dragon’s office.

There’s old man Tang, if you can call him old. You know how hard it is to tell sometimes. They don’t age like us white guys. Tang’s gonna look middle aged and all dignified forever, right? Lucky him. Anyways, he’s got a filing cabinet open and he’s flipping through some book. I’m gonna guess that’s the ledger. He’s turning really red there. His bodyguards are getting edgy. Ho, there he goes. With one sweep of his arm, dragon statues are flying everywhere! I’m ducking out of habit, but one of the pieces just went through me anyway. And he’s still going. Dude, he is really wrecking shop. The desk chair sure won’t ever be the same. And he is cussing up a storm! Wish I spoke Chinese. I might learn a thing or two.

“He’s gonna find her.” Lucy’s voice seems to have lost its usual bite. Now it’s more like the cat that got the canary.

“What’s that?”

“He’s going back to the car and he’ll have someone track her down. Then they’ll go and find her.”

Lucy’s hoodie is purple this time and it’s back to having a zipper front like the green one. Her hair’s more of a wine color than pink now and she’s got this look on her face — grim satisfaction comes to mind. She looks some kind of innocent and dangerous all at the same time. I don’t think I’d want that kid mad at me.

“What? You telling me you speak Chinese?” Now really, how likely is it that a little punk girl like Lucy speaks Chinese? She’s giving me that don’t-ask-don’t-tell look. Eh, whatever.

“Ok. So what now? You sure he’s gonna be able to find the place?” She’s watching Tang throw his tantrum now but she’s nodding at me.

“Oh, he’ll find her, all right. You wanna go watch the show? Be my guest. I’ll definitely be there.”

Haywood’s looking at me to see what I’ll say. I think seeing a guy with this kind of… apoplectic? Yeah, that’s the word! Apoplectic rage catch his wife in bed with a guy who’s trying to screw over his business could be at the very least, mildly entertaining. Haywood’s just shrugging over there. Guess he’s going along for the ride.

*

                Did I say mildly entertaining? This is way better than that! This guy is huffing and puffing and he’s gonna blow this house down! Heh-heh! We walked in with a full complement of Tang, four of his live bodyguards, his two dead ones and the three of us! Looked like a football team taking the field for the homecoming game, you know? And there’s Fin and Hazel all comfy cozy in his little love nest. When Tang started talking he was pretty quiet and controlled and then somebody adjusted the volume knob ‘cause it got real loud in here really fast. He’s not throwing things this time, but his phrases are all coming out clipped and he’s pointing all over the place, and waving his arms, and carrying on about how she’s dishonored him after all he’s done for her, and… well, you get the picture.

Now the conversation might as well be private ‘cause most of it’s in Chinese, but it’s pretty obvious he doesn’t have a very high opinion of Fin. That Hazel has quite a set of lungs on her! She’s screaming right back while she’s trying to keep a sheet wrapped around her and I tell you what: it is impossible to intimidate someone when you got nothing on but a sheet. Hahaha! This is one of the funniest things I have ever seen. Better than late night television. Definitely better than that so called reality TV. At least they’re not throwing things yet.

Looks like Tang’s done. He’s just motioned to his bodyguards and two of them are not so gently escorting what I’m gonna say is the soon to be ex-Mrs. Tang out of the room and the other two are closing in on Fin. In my opinion the whole beating up thing is like golf — it’s boring to watch and only fun to play if you’re winning. I’m gonna follow the missus.

*

                Compared to everything else that happened the next part was downright boring. Tang took his lady downtown and practically threw the ledger at them and demanded they arrest Fin for whatever the muckety muck word for cooking the books is and then he made this big deal about them being sure to arrest Hazel too as Fin’s accomplice. So they send somebody out to pick up Fin, which shouldn’t be too hard after Tang’s associates are through with him, and they take Hazel back into a room for questioning.

Soon as they shut the door and flip on the recorder Hazel rolled on Fin like a bulldozer. She started telling them all kinds of things about him saying she was just keeping records on his arrangement, not involved in it. The only part I really cared about was when she started telling them she thought he’d killed somebody and that he kept a jar of what he called “secret nectar” in the fridge and she wasn’t supposed to touch it because it was poisonous. He said it was the culmination of his greatest culinary experimentation and blah, blah, blah. The important part is that they sent a guy over to check her story and, sure enough, there was a glass jar in the fridge with something weird in it. Test came back pure concentrated oxalic acid.

Now you remember I told you Rachael’s lawyer was pretty sharp? She’s got ears in the police department that keep her informed on the juicy gossip goes on inside the precinct. Well, Ms. Gang took her informant out to lunch a couple days after Fin’s arrest and that little tidbit about the rhubarb juice slipped out in conversation. Soon as lunch was over, Dottie Gang called Rachael and told her about it and they get my girl off the hook with the cops by matching Fin’s juice with the oxalic acid mixed in the vinaigrette they found when they searched our house. BAM! Just like that, everything’s happily ever after. Well, almost. I’m still dead and that’s not likely to change soon.

So here I am back at home. Haven’t seen Lucy since she saw her Dragon get her comeuppance. There’s another word I didn’t know I knew. Haywood comes around once in a while and we roam the streets to see what kind of fun we can find. You know, that was a good thing the three of us had working together like that. We really made it happen; made a difference and all.

And there’s my girl. The funeral hubbub’s all died down. The extra food everybody makes you when somebody dies is all gone and she’s back to eating salads again. I’ve tried a few times to get what’s left of me all organized and be visible to her like they say Salem could, but it never works. I wish it did, though. Then I could be lying here next to her for real with my arm tucked around her just the way she likes it. I can still smell her shampoo and I can still see every pretty eyelash and look at every pretty curve, but it’s just not the same as being there — I mean really being there.

Can you miss somebody who’s right in front of you? I think you can. I think this ache in my heart that’s no longer beating is exactly what that feels like. And it’s just gonna be this way, ‘cause this ain’t no movie where the ghosts disappear when they make something right, even though I kind of hoped it would be. Here I am and here I’ll stay. But in a way I really am still with Rachael and that makes everything ok. So goodnight, baby. You make the afterlife worth living.

7 thoughts on “Writers’ Week Contest Entry: Afterlife

  1. […] it! Frying Pans and Fires No One Can Make Me Mask of Innocence Where They Come From Afterlife The Farmhouse *Writing prompt inspired by Jeff Stanger Work, Writing & Freelance, Writers' […]

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  4. Roscoe says:

    Really liked what you had to say in your post, » Writers’ Week Contest Entry: Afterlife April Spencer's World, thanks for the good read!
    — Roscoe

    http://www.terrazoa.com

  5. Hi, just wanted to tell you, I enjoyed this blog post. It was funny. Keep on posting!

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