by Sarah Hozumi
Click here to listen to this story on the Kaidankai podcast.
Despite the vehement protests of his 16-year-old niece, Matt Porter was pronounced dead upon arrival at the emergency room. His family was ushered to a private room to grieve, all while his niece yelled at the doctor who had delivered the crushing news that he was wrong. It was common for family members to deny reality, especially in grief, and the doctor did nothing to stop the girl from hitting him and trying to push him back toward the room where her uncle now lay to rest.
The problem was... Matt was still alive.
He could remember being in his house, feeling intense pain in his chest that radiated to his left arm, then hitting the floor. He remembered hearing someone tearing the door down at his little house, feeling people lift him up and place him onto something that seemed to float through the air, then hearing a voice, though he didn’t know whose, and he didn’t know what they were saying.
Matt could understand he was in a hospital. He could hear the doctors and nurses fluttering over his body, trying to make it work again, and he could feel them ripping his shirt off and placing cold pads all over his chest. He could hear the one, long, beep the machine gave.
Then, silence. He felt the bed his body was on being wheeled into another room. More silence.
He tried to open his eyes, but they refused to work. Matt was trapped in darkness, his body laying a traitor to his commands. Not a single finger agreed to help him. Only his senses seemed to stay with him, tormenting him with information from beyond his body that he could not respond to.
Hello? He inwardly called. His lips didn’t even twitch. Can anyone hear me? I’m still alive! Hello?
There, in his personal darkness, a second voice.
Hello? Who’s there? You can hear me?
The voice laughed. A small voice, Matt thought. Lonely somehow.
Of course I can. Who are you?
I’m Matt, he said. Can you get someone to help me? I’m still alive, but everyone seems to think I’m dead.
I know, the voice said. I saw the whole thing. Your heart isn’t beating. By all rights, you should be dead, but something is trapping you in your body.
I should be dead?
The words seemed to freeze Matt over in panic. He struggled to think as the voice answered.
Yes, yes, dead. I can feel your soul being pulled onward, but something has anchored it here. Trapping it. You should most certainly be dead. Do you want me to help you?
Yes, but I don’t want to die, Matt said. I still have a family who needs me. My niece.
Matt’s ears informed him the door to whatever room he was in had burst open. The wails and cries of his family tore through him far worse than the pain of the heart attack. If he could have clawed his way out of his body to reassure them, he would have.
He felt the hands and arms of his family hugging his body, smoothing his hair, straightening the hospital gown the nurses had kindly changed him into.
For ten minutes the family stood around his body and cried. Mostly it was his mother. Matt tried to get their attention somehow, but nothing. The voice he had heard before had fallen silent.
At last, the family began to file out of the room. He could hear someone’s breath still in the room, however, even after the doors had closed. Light footsteps approached him, and he could sense someone near his right ear.
“I know you’re still in there,” he heard his niece whisper. “I know you are. I’m going to get you out of here.”
Kat! He yelled. Kat, I’m alive! Help me!
The funeral was held two days later. The funeral services had offered embalming, much to Matt’s supreme fear, but his mother had rejected the offer. His father wanted him cremated, but his mother turned that down, too. Matt spent the entire lead up to the funeral and the duration of the funeral attempting to move his body somehow. He focused on his hands, his toes, his eyebrows. If even one small part moved, maybe someone would notice. Maybe someone would save him.
Even as he heard the coffin shut over him and his panic elevated to an entirely new level, Matt still held onto hope his niece would save him. During the funeral, he had heard her insist to anyone who would listen that Matt was still alive, but no one believed her. They suspected she was in denial.
The coffin was slowly lowered into a newly dug grave. If his lungs would cooperate, Matt would’ve begun hyperventilating. He wanted to bang his hands and legs against the coffin lid, he wanted to shriek at everyone that they were burying him alive. He wanted them to hear, to notice, but his body was like a muzzle, dragging him down into the grave still and silent.
As Matt screamed again and again for someone to notice him, he couldn’t help but hear the shovels hard at work pouring fresh dirt over the coffin. Soon, the sounds of the shovels grew muffled, and silence reigned.
I can’t die like this, he thought. I can’t. Not like this. I have to get out of here. I have to live!
Hello? Save me! Get me out of here! Please!
Out? Oh no, my dear friend. No, no, you are meant to die. Then, I’m going to take your body. I think I could get your body out. Not you.
Matt felt numbed with fear. He had completely mistaken the voice for someone who might help him.
Who…who are you? He managed to ask. A ghost?
Yes, yes, a ghost, the voice said. I’ve been waiting a long time for a suitable body. Yours seems perfect. Your soul has kept it warm for me, shall we say, and as soon as I figure out how to cut this anchor from you, I’m going to swoop in and have a body again. Sound good?
Help! Matt cried. Someone help!
Hm, the voice said. I’m patient. I can wait.
Hours rolled past, during which time Matt ran himself ragged trying to find a way to make his body move again. Nothing. No sounds came to his ears to suggest his struggles were being met with success.
If he focused, if he poured every ounce of his mental capacity into the single task, he could almost make his lungs work. His heart could almost feebly beat for him. No part of his body was anywhere near ready to dig him out of a grave, however.
Stop fighting, the voice said. You’re just making me wait longer.
Shut up, Matt snarled and went back to focusing on his heart. There, a single beat. He was sure he could feel it beat once.
His ears alerted him to the sound of someone digging above. He could hear metal scraping against the coffin lid.
“Kat, seriously, we’re going to jail for this,” he heard his nephew say.
“I know I’m right,” Kat said.
The two pried open the lid to the coffin.
“He looks…the same,” his nephew said.
“Of course he does,” Kat said. “He was only buried a few hours ago. Help me get him out of here.”
“Jesus!” his nephew screamed. “Did you see that? His finger twitched.”
“Told you,” Kat said.
Had his finger moved? He hadn’t even been focusing on moving anymore, relief had so overpowered him. His niece alone hadn’t abandoned him.
With great effort, his niece and nephew dragged his body out of the coffin and down a dirt path. The sound of crickets chirping and the cold wind suggested it was night as they pulled him into the backseat of a car. They managed to lay him across the seats and threw some blankets over him.
For what seemed like an eternity, Matt lay in the backseat while his niece and nephew were out of the car doing something. He had no idea what was happening, and he dearly wished yet again his eyes would at least open.
At last, he heard them open the trunk, throw the shovels into it and close it. They opened the front doors of the car, both breathing heavily.
“We’re still going to jail,” his nephew moaned as he started the car. “We just stole a body.”
“No one’s going to notice,” Kat said. “The site looks just like how it did this afternoon.”
“Someone’s going to notice a body in my apartment, Kat!” his nephew cried.
“You just said you saw his finger twitch,” Kat said.
“So? It was hard to see anything in that hole even with the full moon. Maybe I was just seeing things, and now we have a dead body.”
“Just give me a day, OK? I told you I called that guide, right?”
“The spirit guide you found online?” His nephew’s voice sounded derisive. “You’re just trusting someone from online saying they’re a ‘spirit guide?’ This person you found is either going to come and kill us all or steal our money.”
“You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t believe me,” Kat said. “So stop making fun of me.”
“You’ve always had a thing for dead things, I’ll give you that, but this is a whole new level. This is going to go very, very badly.”
“Just shut up.” Kat turned her head toward the backseat. “Don’t worry, Uncle Matt. I found a spirit guide online. I think she can help.”
Spirit guide? Matt had to agree with his nephew it sounded like a scam.
“I told her to meet us at Leo’s apartment.”
“You gave her my address?” His nephew’s voice rose an octave. “I’m going to die tonight.”
This is perfection.
Matt inwardly flinched to hear the ghost’s voice so close to his own. A chill stole over his soul as he attempted to somehow push the ghost away. It was too close. Uncomfortably close.
I thought I would have to dig this body out of the grave, but here are two children who did it for me. Perfection. You can keep your anchor to the living, I have realized. I just have to push you out of the body, not sever the tie to life.
It felt as though knives were scraping against his mind, and Matt screamed.
“Did you hear that?” Leo whimpered. “Did you say something?
Matt could vaguely understand he could hear his niece turning around in her seat to look at him. He wanted so desperately to reach out to her, but it felt like the knives were trying to slowly chisel him out of his body. The pain snapped his attention from everything, though his ears continued to faithfully register everything they heard.
Let go, the ghost said.
The last remnants of Matt’s soul were, at last, severed from the body. He immediately felt a pull onward, as though trapped in rapids pushing him over a waterfall, but something kept him in the car. If he concentrated through the panic, through the pain, he could almost make out a kind of golden chain keeping his soul near his body. The chain seemed to be leading to the front seat of the car.
He dimly saw his body was beginning to move, though he no longer occupied it. The ghost, he thought. What was it planning?
Matt could hear more clearly than in his body in this new half-form of life, he realized, and he could make out the sounds of his bones aching from disuse as they were suddenly commanded into movement. The ghost made his body slowly, shakily, rise to a sitting position in the back seat.
“What the hell is going on back there?” Leo’s knuckles were white as he gripped the steering wheel, and he dared not look behind him.
Matt could now see, though he viewed the seats from slightly above. The pull toward whatever awaited the dead was unrelenting, but the golden chain he could almost make out held firm. This allowed him more focus beyond the panic of being pulled from his body. His hands on the chain, he managed to pull himself to sit next to his body in the backseat.
Kat turned around and screamed so loudly Leo’s car swerved in the road. He managed to correct it just as a car on the opposite side of the road raced past.
“What?” he said through clenched teeth.
To his horror, Matt watched his head manage a single, unsteady nod.
That’s not me!
“What the hell is going on?” Leo said.
“Uncle Matt is…he’s sitting up. He just nodded at me.”
His nephew swore under his breath as they finally pulled up to a parking space just outside his apartment.
Leo mercifully lived on the first floor, and now that the body could almost stagger, they were able to put the body’s arms around their own and half-walk, half-drag it into Leo’s apartment without making too much noise.
The niece and nephew carefully put their uncle’s body onto Leo’s couch and then both stood before it, staring. If they stared long enough, they could see an errant finger twitch, the chest rising in a quick breath before stilling. Their uncle appeared to be fighting to live.
Matt had followed them into the apartment, pulled by the chain. His endless screaming at Kat and Leo fell on deaf ears. Even the ghost didn’t seem able to hear him any longer. For the first time since his heart attack, Matt felt completely alone.
What was the ghost planning to do with his body? What if the ghost hurt his niece and nephew? Would he be forced to be there, unable to do anything at all except watch? The thought drove him back toward his own body. He wanted to take it back, though he had no idea how.
The ghost seemed to sense Matt’s soul approaching, and it managed to lift up a hand and bat the soul away, though a bone seemed to break in the hand in the process. Kat and Leo jumped and screamed at the same time as the hand stilled.
“Uncle…Matt…?” Leo whispered. He worked up the nerve to gaze into the eyes, which were open but unblinking. “Are you in there?”
The two jumped again when they heard an urgent pounding at the door.
“The guide,” Kat said.
Leo seemed unable to look away from his uncle’s body as he nodded, almost absent-mindedly.
“That’s not our uncle,” he whispered as Kat opened the door.
A young woman burst into the room as soon as the deadbolt had been slid open. She surveyed the two teenagers, the man on the couch with his unseeing eyes, and a space just next to the body.
Matt felt a rush of hope that this woman seemed to actually see him when their eyes met. He began shouting.
That’s not me! A ghost took over my body! Save the kids!
The woman frowned at him, though to Kat and Leo it seemed like she was frowning at the air.
“Are you Celea? The guide?” Kat’s voice faltered with uncertainty.
“I said, get out.” Celea’s eyes were now locked on the body on the couch. “That’s not yours. You can’t take what’s not yours.”
Kat backed away from the guide. She was about to ask Leo to call the police when the body on the couch began emitting what was a mixture of a dusty cough and what could have been mistaken as a laugh. The two teenagers backed toward the wall in profound fear as they heard the creaking of bones and the tearing of skin as the mouth was made to smile.
“I’m sorry,” Celea said, her unwavering eyes on the body. “I’m sorry I didn’t get here sooner to guide you, but this is not the way.”
“Do you see that?” Kat said. Leo’s eyes were locked on the haunting view he had of pieces of his uncle’s jaw muscles now visible. “There’s a boy.”
“A boy?” Leo looked around the room. “What boy?”
At long last, the guide seemed to remember the two kids in the room. She turned to acknowledge Kat, their eyes locking.
“You see the boy?”
Kat managed to nod.
The ghost seemed to sense the slight distraction and rose the body into a standing position. More bones creaked and moaned, muscles and skin tore from the sudden abuse of movement. It looked as though the body would collapse at any moment.
Celea sighed and pointed her hand at the body. The chest was pulled toward her, despite the arms weakly attempting to cover it.
“Come on,” she said, her eyes on the chest. “This is not your place.”
The ghost was pulled from the body, and the body fell in a heap back onto the couch. Kat made out the shimmering of another body outlined in the air just before the guide. If she squinted her eyes, she could barely make out a scowl on a little boy’s face. He was maybe 6.
I was alone for so long.
“I know, but this anger only hurts the innocent.” Celea pointed toward the ceiling, and Kat could feel a great warmth radiate from it.
“What the hell is going on?” Leo whispered into her ear.
I may go? The ghost sounded hopeful.
“Go,” the guide said.
The warmth faded, and with it, the outline of the boy.
“Thank you,” Kat said to the guide. She wanted to hug the woman, but the woman was staring at Kat’s stomach. Her eyes lowered toward Kat’s feet, then the floor. She seemed to be following something that led her up toward the ceiling again.
You see the chain? Matt asked. What is this?
“A chain binding you to the living.” She turned back to Kat. “You are trapping your uncle’s soul here.”
“Then, he’s really dead?” Leo said.
“No!” Kat shook her head again and again. “No, no, he can’t be dead. He can’t. We were supposed to play the piano together tomorrow. He just bought another piano so we can do duets. How can I do that when he’s…when he’s….” Kat fell to the floor. Celea’s eyes followed her as the chain fell with Kat to the floor.
The guide knelt in front of Kat, and she put a hand on her shoulder.
“You are as I am.”
“Yes.” Celea closed her eyes briefly with a heavy sigh. “But this goes against the nature of our power. Our gifts are to help guide the spirits onward. You are binding one here. Because of that, a drifting spirit took advantage of the chains to inhabit the body you seem to have dug up.”
“But Uncle Matt can’t die yet. I’m not ready yet.” The tears poured down her face without her wanting to acknowledge them.
Celea smiled as kindly as she could. “This is wrong. Let him go.”
The smile faded. She stood and faced Matt.
“Don’t worry, I’ll free you.”
Thank you, Matt said. Now that he knew his niece and nephew were safe, the pull toward the warmer waters beyond seemed inviting. The chain seemed to chafe at his skin, though he knew he no longer had any.
“No!” Kat rose to her feet.
The guide’s voice had fallen into a flat, cold tone.
“You are untrained. You have no idea what to do to stop me.”
“Please,” Kat said. “Please, I’m begging you, keep my uncle here with us. We have his body ready.”
The guide gestured toward the dirt-covered, torn body that lay in ruins on the couch.
“That body is no longer fit for life. It is fit to peacefully decompose underground, where it belongs.”
She pointed a single index finger at Kat’s stomach, and Matt’s niece doubled over as if in pain. Leo ran to her side, having no idea what was happening except this unknown woman had brought pain to his sister.
“Stop it!” he yelled. “Stop hurting her!”
“It will stop soon.” Celea dragged her finger through the air until it reached toward the ceiling.
Matt watched as the links of the chains loosened, then broke apart. Nothing held him back as the pull onward grabbed hold of him. He managed a grateful smile toward the woman before he disappeared.
Kat watched as the guide turned to leave, her work done. The hatred she felt for this unknown woman permeated the room, poisoning it.
“I’ll never forgive you.”
The guide hesitated at the door only long enough to speak, her voice full of sympathy and disdain:
“One day you might understand.”
Then, she was gone.
Sarah Hozumi is a translator and rewriter who has lived near Tokyo for about 14 years. To read short stories she’s had published, and to read her blog mostly about all things Japan, please visit sarahhozumi.com. You can also follow her on Facebook at sarahjhozumi.
A True Friend
by Tim Law
Click here to listen to this story on the Kaidankai podcast.
“I think I may have made a new friend today,” I told Mom while we sat at the dinner table eating.
It was pizza night, my favorite. A perfect ending to a wonderful day.
“That’s great, Abby,” Mom said between mouthfuls. “What’s her name?”
“His name, don’t you mean?” I replied with a smile.
Mom coughed as she struggled to swallow the piece of ham or cheese she was chewing. I wasn’t sure if I needed to thump her on the back.
“Ok, what is his name, then?” she asked, her voice tinted with an edge.
“Tony,” I replied. Thinking of him, I said, “He’s kind of shy and really cute.”
After I said the 'C' word, well, we continued eating, but in silence. I wondered if I’d said too much.
The following day at school, I hung out with Tony again. I got some weird looks from the other kids but I stared them down, I had a reputation for being tough. It seemed strange to me, though, that even the teachers seemed to ignore Tony. They acted as if he wasn’t there. In science he knew the answer to this question about compounds and his hand shot up. Easily he was first, but Miss May didn't call on him. She waited, like, a minute before know-it-all Cindy put her hand up. I smiled when Cindy got the answer wrong for once.
“You’re so much smarter than the rest of us,” I told Tony during lunch break. “Even Cindy can’t hold a candle to what you know.”
Tony gave me his sandwich to try. Liverwurst. eeewwwwwww. I’m not surprised he didn’t eat it. I offered him some of my leftover pizza but he didn’t seem too keen on that, either.
“Are you up to anything tomorrow, Abby?” Tony asked me when we walked home together that afternoon.
“Hey Scabby Abby!” yelled Peter Paulson as he ran past us. “Talking to yourself again!”
“What an idiot,” I said to Tony and we laughed together.
I threw a stone and almost hit Peter, Tony picked up a bigger rock but little Peter Paulson was such a chicken he ran off before we could throw anymore.
“You’re psycho, Scabby!” yelled Peter, but by then he was so far away and running so fast that Tony and I could barely hear him.
“Come away with me tomorrow, Abby,” Tony said.
“We can’t go anywhere tomorrow, Tony,” I answered. “We’ve both got school, remember?”
He surprised me by asking that. I’d never skipped school a day in my life. I just knew my mom would hit the roof if she found out I’d gone off with a boy instead of learning.
“Please, Abby," begged Tony, "promise me you’ll not go tomorrow.".
He held my hands tight and looked deep into my eyes. We’d stopped walking then and I had to look away. Tony’s gaze was intense like he knew something he wasn't telling me.
“What do you know, Tony?” I asked, but Tony went tight-lipped and didn’t say another word.
The next day he wasn’t at school in the morning. Little miss know-it-all aced the math test and got to stand in front of the whole class while our teacher Miss May pinned a big gold star on her shirt. I was sure if Tony had been there he would have let me cheat and then all three of us could have gotten stars. By lunch, he was back at school.
He took me by the hand.
“What are you doing, Tony?” I asked as he pulled me towards the gate.
“Abby, you’ve got to go,” he insisted. “There is something you need to see.”
Tony was freaking me out, I’d never seen him so worked up.
“Ok! Ok, I’ll go,” I told him. “But I’m seriously sure my mom’s going to kill me.”
As we left the school grounds I noticed another boy, Michael, sneaking off, too.
“Where do you reckon he’s going?” I asked Tony, but Tony seemed more interested in us than Michael. Michael was an odd kid, he’d tried to kiss me once but I’d shown him who was boss.
Tony dragged me along the backstreets of our town in silence. I would show him, too, who was boss too if he tried anything stupid. He didn’t though. Instead, Tony took me to the dead end of town, the cemetery where they bury all the old people.
“So, what do you have to show me that’s so damned important?” I asked.
Tony just pointed to the stone we stood in front of.
“Read it!” he demanded, arms folded, waiting for my reaction.
“Here lies…” I began. “Anthony Fuller?”
I turned to ask Tony what was going on but he was no longer there.
“Born March fourth, 1985,” I murmured as I continued to read. “Died August third, 2000, aged fifteen.”
My mom was a Fuller before she met my dad. I tried to remember if she’d ever mentioned a brother, but my thoughts were interrupted by two sharp sounds from the direction of the school. Following that, came two more. I thought the worst and ran all the way back there just as fast as I could.
As I neared the school I saw that it was in chaos. There was a lot of activity around a few ambulances, and Sheriff Dossie was there speaking with Michael’s dad. Michael was in the police car in cuffs. I felt sick to my stomach. What if I’d been there, what could have happened to me?
“Oh, my God! Abby, thank God!” cried my mom when she spotted me.
She broke away from a group of parents and enveloped me in the biggest hug.
“Where the hell have you been?”
We all looked on as two of my classmates were taken away, one dead and one barely breathing.
“Mom,” I whispered, relief making me shake. “I’m pretty sure my uncle Anthony just saved my life.”
Mom kissed the top of my head as tears streamed down her face.
Tim lives with his family in Southern Australia in a little town called Murray Bridge. He is pretty sure that the Library where he works is haunted, although it is quite new so he is still trying to figure out why. Tim is starting to discover the joy of telling horror and ghost stories, exploring the darkness that he did not know was there. "A True Friend" was an opportunity to challenge himself to write in the dark and the light simultaneously. Not all ghosts are evil and not all monsters are under the bed.
By Paul Stansbury
Click here to listen to this story on the Kaidankai podcast.
“Something has been sucking my dreams and thoughts from my head at night for quite some time,” said Katsuki, wiping a tear away. “Now it has started happening during the day.”
She eyed the paunchy, balding man sitting behind a cluttered desk. The office was cramped, resplendent with twenty-year-old décor.
“Honestly, I haven’t slept properly in months. Now I’m starting to blank out when I am awake. I’m worn out. I feel I’ve lost my creativity. Dr. Goettle, I don’t know if I’m going completely insane or not.”
“Actually, I am not a doctor. I am a Licensed Social Worker. You can call me Herbert if you like. None-the-less, you’ve come to the right place,” he assured, looking up from the file folder on his desk at the petite young Asian woman. Her face was drawn, making the dark circles under her eyes more pronounced. She sat on the edge of the chair, fumbling with her clutch.
“I’ve dealt with the dream disorders of hundreds, if not thousands, of clients. Probably the most of anyone around this area. You might say dream disorders are my specialty. You were referred here by a Dr. Taradash for parasomnia?” he asked.
Katsuki dabbed at her eyes with a tissue.
“Yes, I didn’t know where to start, so I started with my General Practitioner.”
Herbert held up a sheet of paper from the folder, examining it through his thick glasses. “Dr. Taradash reports you complained of trouble concentrating, fatigue, feelings of guilt, loss of interest in hobbies and loss of appetite. If a client comes to me with such complaints, I will assume it can only be a result of psychological or physical conditions. I see Dr. Taradash ordered a full battery of tests to determine if there were any physical conditions which would cause your symptoms.”
“Yes, she ran everything she could think of, but couldn’t find any definitive physical reason for what’s happening to me.”
“It’s evident from her notes,” said Herbert, “she didn’t test for psychological conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, insomnia, or the like.”
“Dr. Taradash said what I described sounded like sleep terrors, nightmare disorders, or something she called nocturnal cognitive arousals.” Katsuki giggled. “She said that the last one had nothing to do with sex. So in the end, she said I should see someone who specializes in dream disorders. I checked the internet, and you were the nearest one.”
“A sterling recommendation,” grumbled Herbert.
“How long will this take?”
“Keep in mind that therapy isn’t like getting a prescription for antibiotics; take it for two weeks and that’s it. That aside, I think we can make significant progress in six visits. Before we get down to business, why don’t you sit over there,” he said, pointing to a well-worn sofa on the other side of the room, “and make yourself comfortable. Clients find it more relaxing than that straight back you’re sitting on.”
“Okay,” said Katsuki. She moved over to the sofa and sat down. Herbert picked up a legal pad before plopping down in a club chair next to her.
“Where were we?” asked Herbert. “Oh yes, therapy isn’t something one can quantify. What I mean is, one can’t readily say it will take this many or that many sessions and then everything will be okay. Understand?”
Katsuki tugged at her ear and looked away. “I guess so.”
“Good, now that we’ve settled that, you say you’ve lost your creativity. What is it that you do?”
“I am a producer for a content creation studio that helps build brands, launch products, and expand our clients' reach.”
“I bet that pays well,” said Herbert.
“Not as much as you think,” said Katsuki. “After paying off student loans and living in the city, there isn’t much left over.”
“I guess there is a lot of stress in a job like that.”
“No more than most other jobs,” countered Katsuki. “I already talked with Dr. Taradash about that.”
“Any relationship issues?” asked Herbert. “Boyfriend troubles?”
“The reason I ask,” Herbert explained, “is the fact that dreams may be ways of confronting stressful emotional circumstances in your life. And when you sleep, the brain operates at a higher emotional level. Consequently, the brain may make connections regarding feelings that the conscious self wouldn’t make.
“It is interesting that you cite losing creativity. One theory is that dreaming helps facilitate our creative tendencies. Artists have claimed some of their most creative work came from dreams. People have what we call the logic filter, which is present when we are awake. It can restrict your creative flow. On the other hand, your thoughts and ideas have no restrictions when you’re sleeping. What that means in your particular case is yet to be determined, but may speak to the parasomnia suggested by Dr. Taradash.”
“The only stressful thing in my life,” huffed Katsuki, eyes glaring at Herbert, “is the fact that something is getting inside my head. If that’s what you mean, then I agree. My question to you is: are you going to help me find out what it is and help me get rid of it?”
Herbert stroked his chin, searching for an answer. “Well, whatever it is, we will certainly work together to determine its nature and origin and through discovery, eventually map out a strategy to deal with it. First thing is to order up a battery of psychological tests and assessments so I can establish a baseline.”
“First Dr. Taradash, now you,” said Katsuki. “Test this, test that. This is taking too much time. I’m going crazy while you are giving me tests. What tests are we talking about?”
“For starters, I suggest a Rorschach, TAT, and MMPI. Then the Beck Depression Inventory, PTSD Symptom Scale Interview, and an insomnia questionnaire. There are some others we can use if necessary.”
“What are all these tests going to tell you?” asked Katsuki.
“As I said, they will establish a baseline from which we can begin to delve into what is going on with you.”
“When will we get around to getting rid of whatever it is that is sucking the life out of me? I can’t go on like this much longer.”
Herbert wrote something on a form and handed it to her. “If it’s okay with you, I suggest a follow-up session after the testing and assessments. Give this to Tad at the reception desk and he will schedule a time for your tests and next visit.”
“So that concludes my explanation of the results of your evaluations and tests,” said Herbert. “Do you have questions?” He had been droning on for the better part of an hour, discussing an endless array of graphs and tables. Even the comfort of the sofa couldn’t keep Katsuki from squirming.
“Yes, I see all the graphs and tables,” said Katsuki, “not that they tell me anything I didn’t know before I spent half a day taking them. You have yet to tell me how any of these,” she said, slamming the test results on the table, “explain what’s eating away at me and how I get rid of it.”
“Well, ah… ah…,” stammered Herbert, “in a nutshell, the results are inconclusive. If I were looking at these results without the knowledge of your complaints, I would say there was nothing to indicate anything was wrong. That sometimes happens. As I said, these tests were only meant to establish a baseline.”
“So you don’t know anything more about what’s going on than when we first met and now two sessions are wasted,” spat Katsuki.
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that.”
Ignoring the last exchange, Herbert asked, “Has anyone in your family experienced anything similar to what you say you are experiencing?”
“I don’t know. Why do you ask?”
“Sometimes mental conditions run in families.”
“Mental conditions?” asked Katsuki.
“I’m not saying there are mental conditions in your family,” soothed Herbert, “but it is always helpful to know family history. Perhaps, as an assignment, you could do some research. Talk to your relatives and see if anyone has had similar experiences to yours and what came of it. Tad will schedule your next visit.”
“So to close today’s session,” said Herbert, “do you remember the assignment I gave you the last time we met?”
“Yes,” answered Katsuki.
“Did you talk with anyone?”
“You’re being a little passive-aggressive today,” said Herbert.
“Okay. Did you find out anything of interest?”
“Sōsobo said she knew what was happening to me,” answered Katsuki.
“So-so-boh? Who is that?”
“My great grandmother. She emigrated from Tōno as a little girl.”
“Where is tow-no?”
“Tōno is a small farming village in northern Japan.”
“So, what did she have to say?” asked Herbert.
“She said I am possessed by a Baku.”
“Did you say she said you are possessed by a backhoe?”
“A Baku, B-A-K-U,” huffed Katsuki. “Sōsobo said the Baku were created from the spare pieces that were left over when the gods finished creating all other animals. She said they are dream-eaters. Sometimes they are benevolent, other times they can be evil…”
“That’s very interesting and all, but I was hoping for something more concrete.”
“Concrete like what?”
“Like, if members of your family ever had similar experiences to yours. Did your so-so-boh tell you about this back-who when you were little? Maybe she planted a seed in your adolescent psyche.”
“Oh, no, the old ones do not speak freely of such creatures for fear of disturbing them. This was the first time I ever heard of it. Sōsobo said it definitely is evil. When she described it, I recognized it immediately as what I have seen and that it was real.”
“What is it you have seen?”
“So you’ve seen the back-who? This is new information. Why haven’t you mentioned this before, or did you just think this up?”
“Oh, I didn’t just think this up!” protested Katsuki. “You see, sometimes I think I dream I am awake when it comes. I thought maybe it was just part of a bad dream. However, after hearing Sōsobo describe it, I know it is real.”
“So what does this back-who thing look like?”
“It has the body of a frog, wings and claws like a bird, and a humanlike head with black eyes that never shut. Its skin is mottled. From its mouth, pale tentacles writhe out, wrapping tight around my face and arms while it feeds.”
Herbert rolled his eyes. “That’s a pretty fantastic creature you’ll have to admit. Still, it could just be a recurring dream image.”
“I’ve got photos,” Katsuki shot back.
“Photos of what, the back-who? I can find any number on the internet. Not real photos, mind you, but drawings and paintings.”
“No, not photos of the Baku, but photos of what it does to me.” Katsuki fumbled in her clutch and brought out her cellphone. She tapped on the screen, then handed it to Herbert. “I took these this morning,” she said.
Herbert examined the photos for a few moments. “I see a photo of you with a number of lines, creases and indentions on your face and arms. This is easily explained. This happens frequently while we are sleeping as a result of lying on wrinkled sheets and pillowcases. Not much of a case to prove the existence of your back-who, I’m afraid.”
“But I tell you it is true. Why won’t you believe me?” pleaded Katsuki.
Ignoring her question, Herbert continued. “Maybe next session, we can try some Hypnotherapy. It is a trance-like state in which you have heightened focus and concentration. It can prove to be an effective method for coping with stress and anxiety. No drugs, just verbal repetition and mental imaging. When you’re under hypnosis, you’ll feel calm and relaxed, and more open to suggestions. Tad will get you scheduled.”
“Well, you may not think we have made much progress with the hypnotherapy today,” puffed Herbert, “but I think a breakthrough is coming very soon.”
“You’re right,” barked Katsuki. “I don’t think we’ve made any progress.”
“Well then, we can try some medication to reduce your anxiety.”
“Won’t that stuff make me dull? Beg your pardon, but I don’t want to walk around like a zombie. That’s as bad as what is happening to me now. What I want is to be rid of the Baku once and for all. Frankly, I can’t see that I have accomplished anything of value through four visits.”
“Please don’t give up at this point, Katsuki. It is oftentimes when things seem most hopeless that the major breakthroughs are just around the corner. I wouldn’t want all the work we have accomplished to go for naught just when, in my opinion, the foundation for true progress has been built.”
“What does any of that mean?” demanded Katsuki. “You just suggested medication to dope me up, then in the same breath, tell me that I’m ready for a breakthrough. I don’t think you know anything about what’s going on with me.”
“Unfortunately, that’s the way it goes sometimes with therapy. One step forward, two steps back.” Herbert stopped and wrinkled his brow. “Whoops, I meant two steps forward and one step back. You know what I mean.”
“Yes I do. I think you had it right the first time.”
“Don’t forget to check out with Tad.”
“I was hoping we would have made more headway during today’s session,” sighed Herbert. “I see you are still latched on tight to the notion that this back-who is the source of your troubles. Seems like you have put more confidence in your so-so-boh than a trained health professional. Would you be willing at least to consider that your recollections of this creature are dreams themselves?”
“I told you before, the Baku is real, not a dream,” said Katsuki. “Sōsobo said so and I know so.”
“Well, I hoped we could’ve avoided a confrontation on this, but in deference to your claims and those of your so-so-boh, I’ve done my research,” snipped Herbert, “and there is no evidence whatsoever that back-who exist. They are myths, creatures of Japanese folklore. Legend has it that if you wake up from a nightmare, you can call on the back-who to take it away. Even little children were encouraged to summon these back-who to eat their bad dreams. Did your so-so-boh share that with you? I don’t think so. I think she related a fairy tale her parents used to tell her when she was a child. I know this is hard for you, but you will not get well until you accept this reality.”
“Sōsobo would not tell me fairy tales when I am hurting so much. My Baku is not a fairy tale. It’s real and devouring every thought inside my head.”
“You are asking me to make a professional diagnosis on the basis of a silly Asian fairy tale designed to frighten little children,” whined Herbert. “We can’t make any progress if you insist on clinging to this fantasy. I think we’ve done enough for today. Think on what I’ve said and we'll pick this up in our next session. Don’t forget to see Tad on your way out.”
Katsuki bounced into the room and took her usual place on the sofa.
“You look pretty chipper today,” said Herbert. “I was a bit worried when you called Tad and said you had an urgent need to see me today. What do you want?”
“You’re right, Herbie. I guess you could call me chipper, if that means my Baku is no longer an issue for me.”
“You’re telling me your back-who is gone?”
“Yes, and I’m not being passive aggressive. It’s a simple yes, the Baku is gone.”
“Really, that’s good to hear,” said Herbert. “What happened to bring this about?”
“I spoke with Sōsobo.”
“What did she have to say? Did she come up with some folk remedy to banish your back-who?”
“In a manner of speaking,” answered Katsuki.
“Well, I’m all ears.”
“Sōsobo said if a Baku remains hungry after eating one’s nightmare, it may also devour their hopes and desires as well, leaving them to live an empty life. That is what happened to me. She went on to say it seems some Baku have an insatiable hunger. In fact, they are undeniably gluttonous when it comes down to it. That’s when she told me what to do.”
“What was that?”
“Sōsobo said all I needed to do was to show my Baku a more plentiful source of dreams on which to feast.”
“And you accomplished that?”
“Sure did, so I won’t need your services anymore, Herbie. You see, just before I came here, I put it in my mind that there was another who knew more about dreams than anyone. My Baku took the bait and now it is gone. I suggest that you prepare yourself for a visit.”
“You’ll figure it out, eventually.”
Herbert sat motionless; eyes glazed over.
“Herbie, did you hear what I said?” asked Katsuki.
Herbert jerked his hand in front of his face as if batting at a fly and blinked his eyes. “I apologize. I thought I saw something,” he mumbled. “Then, my mind suddenly went blank.”
Paul Stansbury is a lifelong native of Kentucky. He is the author of Inversion - Not Your Ordinary Stories; Inversion II - Creatures, Fairies, and Haints, Oh My!; Inversion III – The Lighter Shades of Greys; Inversion IV – Another Infusion of Speculative Fiction; and Down By the Creek – Ripples and Reflections. His speculative fiction stories have appeared in a number of print anthologies as well as a variety of online publications. Now retired, he lives in Danville, Kentucky. www.paulstansbury.com
Flight Through the Storm
by Eric Dawson
Click here to listen to this story on the Kaidankai podcast.
You’ve got the guy in the seat to the right, flick-licking Pringles from his palm with his ugly red tuber of a tongue. Then there’s the college girl to his left and across the aisle—furiously flicking through photos on her phone like the world’s about to end, but who then pulls her white hood over her head and falls right to sleep.
In front of her, still across the aisle, is perhaps the oldest person John has ever seen, desiccated and shriveled with a frazzle of white hair and blotches of pinkish scalp showing through. Her hands are sucked down to the very bone, with black veins worming just under the surface of the skin.
“She might die on this flight,” John thinks. And that reminds him that he is going to die one day, too. Would it even matter if the plane went down? Would it matter if his life were snuffed out—whether in a panic of seatbelt buckles and decompressed mayhem or at home in bed, of old age?
A passenger from an earlier flight had left a People magazine in the seatback in front of him. The top half of Ryan Gosling’s face peeks over the pocket, eyes twinkling, as if letting John in on their own little secret.
And then a muffled thump.
Something is happening in the back of the plane; John hears a noise, a clatter, followed by a scuffle of movement.
He cranes his head to see, as do a few others, but a flight attendant is blocking the way. He rises, squeezing himself out of the seatbelt, twisting to look around the people in the aisle. The passengers standing are trying to grapple with something. Maybe someone collapsed from a seizure.
John glances at the old woman, who only stares straight ahead, passively.
And the college girl: still asleep. And Pringles guy, now onto other adventures with a jumbo-sized bag of Skittles.
Does anyone care?
“Sit down, sir. Please.” It’s the flight attendant, a stocky redheaded woman who looks like she could handle herself in a Wisconsin barroom brawl, but whose voice now sounds panicked. And then John realizes what she’s dealing with: a bearded man with a shaved head, white T-shirt and blue-green tattoos running along both arms.
Pringles man looks back, chomping slowly like a cow chewing its cud. College girl stirs in her sleep. And the old woman? Not only is she not staring ahead passively any more, but she is doubled over now, as if gasping for air. Had she seen the scuffle? Is the stress sending her into cardiac arrest?
“No one treads on me.” The bearded man steps back from the flight attendant and a man in a business suit who’d been watching observantly, as if ready to step in and help. Bearded man spins around and clocks business suit in the face, who falls backwards. In another sudden movement, and using the seats for leverage, he kicks the flight attendant in the stomach. She gasps for air, falls onto the floor with a thud and a whimper.
College girl, awake and bleary-eyed now, flips her hoodie back to see what the commotion is about, unhooking earbuds as she does.
Pringles man drops the jumbo bag of Skittles onto the floor, which now dart every which way like frantic tadpoles.
But the old woman? She has collapsed forward, and seems not to be moving. Her face lies smushed against the tray table, plastic cup of apple juice on its side with juice cascading over the tray.
John unbuckles his seatbelt. He doesn’t know what he will do, or why he is even getting up, but thought blurs into motion. The bearded man, seven rows back, now waves something in the air. Shit, John thinks: a gun. No, no. Not that.
Before another word, before whatever white-supremacist rant the man has planned, the gun goes off. Someone shrieks and everyone looks back. The man with the gun stands there, jaws set in a seething grimace. John sees the hole in the plane’s window. It is small, and it whistles like a tea kettle, but nothing else happens. The window didn’t blow out. The side of the plane didn’t come tearing off. They’re safe. For now.
“Enough!” John yells. “This woman’s hurt.”
He doesn’t know why he said it, but he did. Maybe this would be a distraction, a way to divert the situation, and perhaps the bearded man will calm down if he understands he has just moved past mere words. The gunman, facing towards the front of the plane, stares at John and breathes hard, and just as John is wondering what to do, thoughts in a helter-skelter panic, he sees another, shorter man, rising behind the one with the beard. Would he tackle him, risk his life to save the plane? John takes a step forward, hoping this will keep the attacker’s eyes on him.
But this is not what happens at all. The new figure, with a buzz cut and a confederate flag tattoo on the back of his neck, claps the bearded man on the shoulder, nods with stupid and conspiratorial glee, then turns to face the back of the plane.
The two are working together.
“You say something?” the man with the beard asks in a low voice. He has calmed his breathing now, and he seems to be channeling whatever movie bad guys he’s seen.
College girl looks to John.
When confronted with life, glaringly and profusely in front of him, he wants it, no matter how ugly and bad. He’d been on his way to New York to take care of his father’s house a few weeks after the funeral, and he’s tired; he doesn’t have time for this.
But then again, does anyone have time for a life to end?
Before, the thought of death had been a distant idea, a tar-tingled gulp of fear; now, however, it is a fact, not much different from the Skittles rolling across the floor, the apple juice soaking into the plane’s carpet, or the college girl’s white earbuds. All facts. All pieces of reality. As is this moment. As is his heart-pumping life, standing before a stranger with a beard who holds a plastic, 3D-printed gun, aimed right at John’s chest.
“This woman,” John says. “She’s hurt. Just let me see and then you can tell us what you want.”
The man doesn’t say anything, so John slides across the aisle, places his index and middle fingers on the jugular. He feels for a few seconds, moves his hand: nothing. No pulse. He doesn’t say that he doesn’t know much about medicine beyond what he’d learned from a few first aid classes, but he knows enough to know a pulse. Even still, he keeps his face stern. If people think him an expert, that might buy them all some time.
The old woman’s skin has already grown cold; it feels like parchment paper that has been left in the fridge.
“I think she’s dead,” John pronounces.
College girl gasps.
The gunman falters for a half second, but then, as if realizing everyone’s watching and he’s the one putting on the show, resumes his former commando stance.
To his left, a muscly kid in a CSU T-shirt catches John’s eye and starts to rise, ever so slowly. Oh shit, John thinks: another one? But then, before anyone even understands what’s happening, the kid throws himself at the bearded gunman, grips the gun in his hand. The two struggle, arms interlaced, and John moves forward, wondering how to help, realizing he should but not sure how. The gun flails right and left as the two fight.
Then the friend with the confederate flag whips around and pounds CSU in the head, and the bearded one pulls back, aims, and shoots the boy in the gut. The kid groans, rolls over, florets of blood sprouting around the letters on his shirt.
“Tommy, I had him,” confederate flag says. “Save the bullets for later.”
“Fuck you, Ed,” the bearded one says. “You’re supposed to watch my back. The bullet was so no one else tries nothing stupid.”
John thinks about trying something stupid, but he also knows he’s no hero; he has known this his whole life.
College girl starts to cry, softly and to herself. She thinks of her mother, back in Denver, and her whole family. She wonders if this is how her life will end, wonders if this is what it has all been leading up to: a single moment that means nothing. But then she senses something move in her periphery, and she looks to the old woman. Did the old woman shift? Did steam rise from her slumped-over form? Strange, she thinks.
“Tommy and Ed,” John says, fearful about using their names, but knowing it’ll get their attention. “My name’s John Ramirez, and I’m not going to do anything crazy. I just want to keep things calm. Is that okay?”
“Shit right you’re not gonna do anything crazy,” Ed, the one with the confederate tattoo says, smiling a smile tinged with acrid yellow. He smells like nicotine and despair.
A moment is all we ever have, John thinks, like this moment. He feels a trembling deep inside him, senses the terrible fragility of this snippet of time, 32,000 feet in the air, as he and a group of scared strangers wait for what’s next.
The man with the Skittles bag, T-shirt stretched tight over his belly, has peed his pants. A mother a few rows up clutches her daughter, eyes red from crying. The college girl studies it all not with fear but with sadness, and she, like everyone else, sits there, poised as in a tableau. John has no idea what to do. Is there anything he could say that would change things? He senses desperation in these two men, their eyes empty of imagination or empathy. Eyes that convey only tangled knots of confusion and need.
The boy with the CSU shirt lies on the floor, now soaked in blood; the flight attendant is conscious, but barely moving; and the businessman who’d been hit is now sitting up, holding his bloody nose and watching. Not even consciously, not even religiously, John sends up a wordless prayer, a desperate hope that someone will hear. And someone does. But not God. Not exactly.
My name is Ethel. I’m neither here nor there, though I’m not sure where I am.
My name is Ethel. I believe that’s who I am. Or who I was.
I’m from Heathsville, Virginia, a place of cornfields and smudged baseball caps, oyster shucking down by the Rappahannock River and neighbors singing at Coan Baptist Church. These images come to me all at once: a life. My life.
My name is Ethel, though I’m not sure what that name means any more.
It’s an empty name, a word. A leaf fallen from a tree after a storm.
I’m in this dark place that’s neither here nor there, unfamiliar and intimate all at once.
I’m 89. Or was. What’s a number, anyway? What’s an age? I’m dead now.
“Dead.” I say the name and let it roll around the cave of my mouth, feel it, almost laugh. It’s a funny word, a little bud of a word, harmless and comical. Everything seems so far away.
I’m dead. I think I understand this, but I don’t feel like I thought I’d feel; I’m a leaf fallen from a tree after a storm.
“Everyone, remain calm. This is your captain speaking. Please remain calm. We’ve been informed of the situation. We can land soon. We ask that no one do anything drastic. We can land in Dayton. They’re waiting for us. No one needs to get hurt. Please. There are people on the ground willing to negotiate.”
“Fuck that,” the one named Tommy, the bearded one, shouts. “We’re past talking.” His eyes are spidered with red capillaries, ruby-red suns setting behind a tangled mass of branches. He’s desperate, John understands, and empty. The man believes he needs this senseless act of violence to feel like he’s alive. John senses this in the man, knows there’s nothing any of them can do. He’d been ready to ask what they wanted, but now it seems pointless. He knows what they want: the same thing any such men want: to fill the emptiness with more emptiness.
John sees the college girl, the boy on the floor, the hurt flight attendant, and something in him starts to shift. Taking a step forward, he stares down the man with the gun.
My name’s Ethel, but that’s a name my parents gave me. Their names are Ione and Campbell. Isn’t that funny? A name is a name is a name.
As a little girl, I used to repeat my name until it lost all meaning, and that’s what this feels like now.
I’m neither here nor there: an intimate blackness lingers at the corners of my existence, and I know I won’t be in this no-place for long. I’m here in this darkness, but the sights, sounds, and smells, return to me, like a life in bloom. Or an exhalation.
I see the varnished wood of my rocking chair on the shadowed porch.
My grandson, Johnny, on my lap, drinking a glass of chocolate milk, which he dribbles onto his overalls.
Crows cawing in the cornfield.
My wedding day, and the thrill and fear of the future, hands clutching lace of the dress.
Buckets of fried chicken on our green tablecloth.
My husband’s hand with its leathery creases, the restrained warmth.
And now I see him: my husband, dead these many years, but so close. Is that his smell? Old Spice and corn husks and flannel shirts with just a hint of mothballs.
Everyone I’ve ever known. I sense them, smell them, in that place on the distant horizon.
I wasn’t perfect, but who is?
“Just let us land,” John tells the man. He feels himself stepping out of his body, looking at himself from outside himself, but as he’s saying the words, he knows the man’s not going to listen.
“We’re not landing,” the man named Tommy says. “The world will remember this day.”
John now feels it in him, a seething hatred for these men, for all little men who need to prove their mettle through spittle-filled rage and violence. Men who think they’re men but aren’t.
John clenches his fist, but Tommy notices the subtle movement, cracks him in the face with the back of the gun. He falls.
“No stupid shit,” Tommy says, baring his teeth, looking around the plane as he does.
John lies on the floor, near the old woman’s hand. He feels something sticky and wet under him. Is it the apple juice—or blood? His left cheek throbs, but he remains where he has fallen.
“The world will remember us,” Eddie yells, jugular bursting in his neck. “The war begins today.”
John stands slowly, wipes the blood from his cheek. “So you can make a world where assholes win?”
Ed and Tommy look surprised, but hold their stance. John has never felt this way before. He’s in a moment, experiencing an eternity, and it could all end now, but can there be an end to a moment when each instant is eternal? He steps closer, only two feet from Tommy.
“Shoot me, you prick. Show us all what a brave man you are.”
“Fine,” Tommy says, and he jams the gun into John’s chest, squeezes the trigger.
My name is Ethel.
I am a leaf fallen from a tree after a storm.
There is a merry-go-round swirl of colors and memories around me, but now I feel something else. I’m drawn towards the light on the distant horizon, like a sunrise in the Appalachian Mountains, a slender white line just before dawn breaks, but I feel something else. I hear something else. What is it?
My name is Ethel. I’m 89. Or was.
I died on United Flight 117, headed to New York to see my sister, who’s sick in the hospital. They said I shouldn’t go, but I said I must.
I remember the men screaming, saw the twisted man with the gun, and something in me finally gave out. Our world is broken, and something in those men is broken, too, but the anger and fear rose up in me and allowed me a gentle collapse. Like a flower drooping at nightfall.
Then I saw the apple juice on the floor.
And that poor man’s spilled candies.
And the feeling of a warm hand on my neck.
These things return to me in a continual movie-reeling present, and I see the other memories there, too. The things unfinished and unsaid.
I’m not a bad person, would never want to hurt anyone, but now I see all those unfinished moments laid out before me now, like a corpse’s organs on an autopsy table.
I didn’t do bad things, but did I do anything to stop the bad things I saw? When my husband told racist jokes, I sat in stoic silence, and sometimes even forced a smile. When Greta Stallworth calmly explained how all Jews, Muslims, and Catholics were going to Hell, with a hint of glee on her face, I didn’t question her for a second. The small cruelties I witnessed over almost nine decades add up, like small cuts that can bleed a person out. But what did I do? Not much, I’m afraid—and I can see my life now for what it was: a life not of bad, but not of good, either.
All the unfinished moments lie before me, and I remember them and feel them calling me back, offering me this chance to finish them, to finish this life I hadn’t quite completed.
But then again: is a life ever complete?
This world is an urn cracked through and through, but I see this one crack, and I want to try to fix it. Death is giving me this chance.
Everything slows. The firing pin explodes into a condensed fireball of lightning, and the gun, still jammed into John’s chest, shudders. John feels this crushing rush, and he senses the vibrations of the bullet rocketing through the barrel, can sense its force heading towards his heart that beats fragile and red. He hears the miniscule vibrations of the bullet, and he sees the faces of the passengers, frozen in time—the Pringles man, the college girl, the boy with the CSU shirt, the businessman—and he feels a sudden upsurging of warmth towards them, an understanding of who they are, that they want the same things he does: an escape from the emptiness.
Even the face of the man with the gun pointed at his chest doesn’t seem worthy of hate any longer. Nor the one named Ed. They just deserve sadness. Because they’re empty puppets. Leaves fallen after a storm.
Under the vibrations of the plane’s engines, the vibrations of the bullet throttling at a rate of 1,700 miles per hour towards his still beating heart, the vibrations of the crying and the fear, John feels something else: another vibration.
My name is Ethel.
I am no longer a leaf fallen after a storm.
I am the storm.
Just before the bullet can touch him, the world stops completely.
No one remembers what happens after, but memory doesn’t matter. What matters is that she is there now, an angel of darkness rising from the quiescent form of an old dead lady on a plane, slumped over seat B32. And this swirling form of shadow shudders the entire carapace of the plane, encompasses the bodies of the two men, and suddenly they, too, see their lives in front of them, in an unfurling all-at-onceness, terrible and bleak.
And so this dark angel envelopes them, implodes lungs and bones, cartilage and capillaries, gun and bullet, but there is no blood, no pain: there is only existence blurring to nonexistence, a whiff of two lives now blotted out, an iron bell’s last toll on a winter’s morning.
John slumps down onto the armrest of the seat, not sure how he’s alive, or what happened. Flickers of darkness move around the plane’s interior, like raven’s feathers, and the sound of a barely heard scream, an echo in a distant valley, disappears into the vibrations of the universe around them. He sees the other passengers as for the first time, eyes still vibrant with fear.
“What was that?” A voice from the back of the plane asks, delicate and afraid. “What just happened?” The boy with the CSU sweatshirt moans, and the college girl rises from her seat, kneels at his side, places hand on his shoulder, whispers that everything will be okay.
John starts to open his mouth to say something, but he can find no words.
My name was once Ethel, but I can barely remember anything about that life any longer.
I am a leaf fallen from a tree. Or the hushed quiet after a storm.
Eric Dawson lives in Denver, CO, and when he’s not wandering in the wilderness, he likes to read all things speculative. He has attended writing workshops at Aspen Summer Words and Kenyon College, and he has he has recently been published in Carmina Magazine, The Chamber Magazine, Fiction on the Web, and Black Sheep.
by C. S. Fuqua
This story first appeared in Brutarian, 2003
Click here to listen to this story on the kaidankai podcast.
The sound of metal slamming into meat usually amused him, but this time, the meat was his own. Pain exploded, bones shattered, and the world spun in slow motion. He caught a glimpse of faces, some indifferent, some stunned, one shielded behind a scarf that hid all but her eyes.
The car rocked to a halt as Eiichi Takada hit the ground with a nauseating thud. From the fringe of consciousness, darkness—that teasing taste of death—flooded in. Sky, faces, leaves twitching in the breeze—all faded to black, and Eiichi smiled, certain that he was finally free.
Gentle wind touched his cheeks, slid up his face and over his head through thin, white hair. Voices hummed like bees in a summer field. His eyes opened to murmured amazement. A hand helped him to sit up. He grimaced and rose awkwardly to his feet. He swooned, but the pain was bearable. How long had he been unconscious? No ambulance, no police—not too long, he reasoned. He smiled as best he could and bowed to the gathered crowd. He backed toward the sidewalk, toward Yasukuni Shrine’s entrance, hands humbly pressed together before his face, thanking the people for their kind attention.
"Let me assure you, I’m okay. I’m fine," he said, "nothing broken, nothing damaged. Only the wind knocked out.” The driver of the car that had hit him begged him to go to a hospital to be checked by a medical doctor, but Eiichi refused. “I’m fine…fine.” He bowed again to everyone and turned away with diminishing pain. In time too soon, the pain would vanish altogether.
The shrine’s entrance door closed behind him, and, finally, he could take a moment without anyone watching. He leaned against the wall and closed his eyes. Hushed voices echoed through the building, and he imagined the whispers of ancient warriors enshrined here welcoming him. Many of the men he had fought for in the Pacific were enshrined here as well, some branded as criminals for the acts they had directed against the enemy. War is war, Eiichi argued bitterly in his mind. Atrocities matter only if you win. Every act is relevant only to who prevails. One country’s warriors are another’s criminals.
He pushed off the wall and exited the building into the shrine’s garden where a small pond provided distraction for children and the old people who watched them. Carp lolled in the pond water, lazy and fat from hands dropping an endless supply of food pellets. He refused to feed the fish, detested the way their expectant mouths worked like suckling infants. Pain stabbed up his leg, and he caught his breath, rubbed a hand over his moist face as three children squatted at the pond’s edge, giggling, tossing food into those indolent mouths, pellet by pellet. The old man sighed as the pain in his leg lessened. Perhaps he would see a doctor…but, no. He shook his head. He would be fine. He was always fine.
Eiichi had visited this shrine dozens of times in recent years to offer prayers to and for his ancestors, the great warriors. And he offered prayers for the men who had given him his orders, men he would have died for. Had I only been so fortunate… he thought. His face flushed with sadness and shame. He should be enshrined here, not a visitor, living what seemed to be an endless life. Who would remember him if he died today? Who? his mind shouted.
“I’m tired,” he whispered.
He turned to the sound of laughter, gaijin, foreign tourists exiting the building. His jaw tightened with their laughs. They should not be here, he thought. Not on Yasukuni Shrine holy grounds. Too many proud ghosts here, some of their weapons displayed inside, even a Zero Fighter from the Imperial Japanese Navy. Those planes had screamed overhead as his unit took the island so many years ago. The Imperial Army had been invincible in the beginning, fashioned by the gods for the emperor’s desire, an army to vanquish the world and take it as its own. Faces loomed up in memory, and he centered on a single set of eyes, weary, pleading. Why, he wondered, had her riches been so important?
The foreign woman with the two men stood tall, hair a fiery red, eyes as green as droplets of mountain water. Eiichi looked away. He had not seen such eyes since the war. Anger welled in him, anger seeded by failure.
The children squealed, and Eiichi glanced over to see one of the boys pick up a frog he’d stepped on. It lay lifeless and bloody in his hand. He jabbed the frog at the other two, generating another blast of squeals as they bolted away. The boy started to toss the frog aside, but something about it caught his attention, and he examined it more closely. His smile faltered. One of the other children called. He glanced up, then looked back at the frog. Abruptly, he dropped the frog into the pond and ran after his friends. Water splashed in the sunlight as carp thrashed over one another and slid back into the depths.
Drops of mercury glitter in the shaft of sun through the open window. “On the lips,” his superior instructs.
Her naked body reeks of decay and filth. Eiichi wants to vomit. “She needs water,” he says
“On her lips,” the officer repeats slowly, sternly.
The woman, one of the younger whores, groans and rolls her head, fighting to regain consciousness. He lowers the dropper, squeezes two silver beads onto her pale lips. The liquid breaks into a hundred spheres, collects in the corners of her mouth. She licks, the drops moving over her tongue, down her throat. Tomorrow or the next day, Eiichi will bury her carcass. If she had only given herself willingly to the commander, to the others, to him…perhaps her death would not be so tortured.
He grimaces at the thought because he knows it’s a lie.
When darkness settles, he steals back into the room, places his hand over the woman’s mouth and nose. Her eyes open briefly, at first frightened, but peace slowly fills them, and they close. She puts up no fight, her life easing away under his hands. Holding back tears, he bends and kisses her forehead.
“The water shimmers like a billion drops of mercury, doesn’t it?”
Eiichi jerked around, startled by the voice, deep and sultry, not like the Japanese women to whom he was accustomed, yet the woman’s Japanese was impeccable. He directed his gaze quickly back toward the pool, embarrassed by his surprised reaction. He nodded. “Hai. Yes.” Odd comparison, water and mercury, he thought. He stole another look at the woman.
She sat erect, face forward, but she was covered completely, a flowing dirt-brown skirt that fell to her ankles, feet clad in worn suede shoes, laced tightly with their soles chipped and thin, a bulky, unremarkable blouse that hung on her like a parachute caught on the branches of a bare tree, and, over her head and part of her face, a gray scarf, leaving only her eyes unveiled. Those eyes, faintly hazel if the sun hit them at a specific angle, unnerving. The woman’s gaze narrowed at him, as though she could hear his thoughts. Her eyes swirled with the muted color of emeralds, and Eiichi thought he could see his own reflection. He looked away.
“You have relatives honored here?” she asked.
Eiichi detected a Kyoto accent. Perhaps, he thought, her father is gaijin, American or European. That could explain those eyes.
“Iie,” he replied. He paused a heartbeat. “Men I knew.”
He turned back to her with the mention of the word, found her still staring at him, those eyes steady and filled with knowledge. He shook his head, unable to hold her gaze. “I’m no warrior.”
In the front room, the room where the women had once gathered with men for nights of laughter, drink, and songs, couple by couple escaping to rooms upstairs, to beds where magic could be had for a fee, Eiichi and two other men did as their commander instructed. They brought in the whore’s trunks and cases and opened them to find riches beyond their belief. Fine silks, furs, jewelry, silver, and gold. Trunk after trunk. But the American Navy, she’d told them, had limited evacuees to one lightweight piece of luggage each. Only one. She refused to leave such riches behind. Not after so many years, so many men.
Eiichi laughed with the others as they ripped the clothes from the cases, shredding them with bayonets. They howled as Washiyama flung himself back against the wall, his hands above his head in the same position they had nailed the red-haired whore’s. “Ssssss,” Washiyama hissed, lowering his hands to his chest, fingers wiggling like smoke.
The laughter caught in Eiichi’s throat. The woman’s flesh had charred and bubbled as the commander pressed the glowing red bayonet to her nipples. She gasped, but refused to scream, the gasp itself vanishing into the soft, wet sound of the bayonet suddenly slicing down and through her sternum and belly to her pelvis. Eiichi had been certain the whore heard and saw the men cheer as her insides splattered at her feet.
Eiichi backed away, his smile gradually melting as the others howled and whooped. Two of the men performed a macabre dance of death in her blood, grabbed her hair, and pulled it out in fistfuls. She’s lucky, Eiichi told himself. Her ultimate fate would have been the same, but she had refused the commander’s demand for sex. When he forced her, she slipped a knife from under her mattress and sliced out at him, slashing the flesh at his waist, barely missing his penis, winning the moment only to secure torture before death, crucified in the same house where she’d made so many men feel like gods. Eiichi could still hear her gasps, haunting him even more than the screams of the other women as they were raped into unconsciousness, then murdered by whim when their bodies could no longer serve the troops’ desires.
“Women should never refuse their men.”
Eiichi’s breath caught, and he turned, stunned from his thoughts by the statement. “Pardon me…what did you say?”
The woman’s eyes crinkled, and he knew she was smiling behind the scarf. “I said nothing.” She shifted, cocking her head slightly. “Tell me, what do you think of war?”
He looked down, still shaken by his memories. Should he chant the modern mantra, that war is evil, that the true enemy is war itself? That’s what he’d heard since the defeat of the Imperial Army, since the Americans dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And he agreed. But sometimes, sometimes…
“Sometimes,” he said softly, “war is necessary.”
“For men like those enshrined here?” she asked.
He nodded. “For everyone.”
“Ah, perhaps. But war makes criminals of innocent people, doesn’t it? And victims. Always victims.”
“It is war,” Eiichi said, so softly that the breeze nearly hid his words. He glanced up to find her eyes still centered on him, shimmers of the pool playing in them.
“Yes, it is war. Criminals and victims,” she said. “In cities, in jungles, deserts, the sky, on the ocean…on islands.”
He felt as if she’d punched him in the chest, but he held her gaze for a beat longer, and then he rose, wincing from the pain that lingered. “I’m sorry, but I must go.” He started away, only to pause as the woman spoke again.
“Do you need help?” she asked. “I saw what happened—the car.”
“I’m okay,” he said, “just tired.” He took a step, but pain ripped up his leg. Voices howled in his head as he crumpled to the gravel path. Blackness threatened to engulf once again, but he felt hands immediately catching him under his arms, lifting with gentle strength, setting him back on the bench. The voices faded, leaving only the breeze, hissing through the cherry trees.
The woman knelt before him, and Eiichi could almost see her face behind the scarf. Her eyes searched his own, unblinkingly. “You must rest. Let me help you.”
“It isn’t necessary.” He started up.
“I believe it is.” The woman took him firmly by his arm, assisting, becoming his support, his nurse.
Eiichi cradled the cup in both hands, fingers warmed by the tea within. He raised it to his lips, sipped, his gaze peering over the edge at the woman before the sink, washing dishes that had been left from his morning meal of rice and miso soup. He lowered the cup, careful to keep his face relaxed and without emotion, but he could not stop looking at the woman. She was not young, but she was beautiful, at least to him. Her eyes were not green, as he’d first thought, but brown, like his, only her eyes reflected and enhanced color, especially green, and her hair was straight and black, with white intermingled. She was tall for a Japanese woman, taller than Eiichi, and slender, strong. She glanced over her shoulder and smiled as the wind rattled the small window of his fourth-floor apartment.
“Spirits are restless,” she said softly.
Eiichi chuckled. “Perhaps my parents.” He glanced toward the altar, insignificant in the far corner of the room. An incense burner sat between two grainy black-and-white photos of a man, woman, two boys, and a girl. They stood at the ocean’s edge with boats visible in the background. A seagull floated overhead. Everyone was grinning.
Shinto by definition, Eiichi had never believed the tales that spirits of those who’d gone before surrounded the living. Some said that the ghosts of those wronged in life haunted those who had wronged them until the living begged the ghosts’ forgiveness and prayed for the ghosts’ release to pass into the land of the dead. If he had believed such nonsense, how could he have done the things that were necessary during the war? How could anyone do such things to one another, crimes committed in the name of self, family, country? In recent years, though, since he had begun visiting Yasukuni Shrine, he sometimes imagined whispers, but immediately discounted them as an old man’s imagination.
The woman finished the washing and crossed to the table. Instead of seating herself, she leaned toward him, hands flat on the tabletop, fingers spread wide, and said, “You live alone. Ever married? Have family?”
“My sister and brother died many years ago,” he said. “As for the rest…” He waved his hand weakly, attempting to dismiss her question as well as the feeling that she was interrogating him. “I never married.” He shrugged, directing his gaze to the tea in his cup. Light played on the surface, faint images swirling. His breath caught, eyes narrowing.
No, his mind insisted, but, yes, he had seen it, the image of a woman, arms stretched and tied overhead, her body naked and bleeding, soldiers mounting her, one after another, her eyes staring straight at him, silently begging for help, for relief, mercy.
He closed his eyes, tried to brush the image from his mind, but the woman refused to go.
“How many?” came the voice from across the table.
Eiichi opened his eyes, drew a breath as he looked up to the woman. “I don’t understand.”
“How many people did you kill?” she asked. No emotion, no hint of accusation.
He drew back slightly. What type of question was that to ask? How dare she…
“I think,” he said, “it’s time for you to leave.” He fumbled with his hands, started up. “Thank you for helping me…”
She grinned, her mouth wrinkling in a strange twist that unnerved him. “Takada-san,” she said softly, “you don’t need to fear me.”
“I-I don’t fear you,” he said, but his voice was weak. “I’m just…tired.”
“We’re both tired, Takada-san. But we will rest soon.” She leaned over the narrow table and kissed his forehead. A moment later, she was at the door, donning her shoes, tying on her scarf, telling him, “I’ll see you tomorrow. When you’re better, we’ll return to Yasukuni Shrine together.” She was out the door before he could protest.
“How many times have you died?” she whispered. Her eyes reflected flecks of leaves stirred by the breeze.
Eiichi wasn’t sure if he’d heard correctly, so he acted as if he’d heard nothing as she opened the entrance door to the shrine.
A week had passed since the accident, since this woman had begun coming to his apartment, helping him, talking to him. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had such companionship, someone to talk to, male or female. Before the war, he had found friendship and conversation with women as easy as he did with men, if not easier. The war had changed him, though. In all women, he saw the same woman, her eyes pleading and accusing, her body a toy to abuse, to discard, her tongue silent in death. The closest thing to intimacy after defeat had been the rehearsed moans of prostitutes who took his money when his needs grew unbearable. Was the friendship developing with this woman a shadow of what marriage could have given him, could have spared him? It was a question to which he’d never know the true answer, but he wanted to imagine that perhaps he had found some semblance of intimacy, someone with whom he could talk on a regular basis, not someone paid to listen while servicing him as a man.
The woman looked around sharply, eyes narrowing in concentration. “Listen,” she whispered. Eiichi paused in the doorway. “Hear them?”
Eiichi cocked his head slightly, listening, searching. Voices echoed in the shrine’s halls and rooms. The wind behind them rustled leaves. Children laughed in the garden. “What…?” he began, but the woman raised a forbidding finger.
“Listen…” she hissed.
Eiichi felt the weight of his years as he bowed his head, closed his eyes. Then—was it imagination? Hushed voices mingled with the breeze, a rumbling of cadence, too soft to understand, rolling softly. The breeze caressed his neck and tousled his hair. Then, the single word “lonely” emerged from the whispers as a slow sigh.
Eiichi’s flesh crawled, eyes snapping open as a degree of despair and loneliness he had never before experienced filled him. The hallway spun before him, receding into blackness, followed by the sensation of falling.
Eiichi woke confused and breathless, the sun warming his skin, and he realized he was in the shrine’s garden. Carp broke the pool’s surface in luxurious, languid rolls. He felt the weight of a gentle hand on his shoulder, and he detected the sweet odor of flesh. He could not deny the stirrings of desire, even now.
“It’s okay,” came the woman’s voice. “You passed out. I brought you out here.”
“You…?” Eiichi asked.
She squeezed his shoulder reassuringly, then removed her hand, folding it into her lap.
“You muttered something as you fell. Do you remember? Something about being alone.”
Eiichi swallowed, his head shaking denial, but he did remember. He looked toward the building. So many souls. “How could a warrior be lonely here?” he asked.
“Warriors,” the woman said, “are not lonely. Warriors do not cry out in death.”
He turned to demand an explanation, but she was already walking away.
“You shouldn’t come here everyday,” Eiichi said.
The woman chuckled. “I’m here because I want to be.” She half-twisted from the dishes in the sink. “You interest me.” Her voice, deep and rich, expressed emotion he had not heard directed at him since his youth, since the special girl in high school. They had promised to marry. Then came the war, and he went away. When he returned, he could not face her. He hoped that she’d assumed he’d been killed. In many ways, he had been.
But this woman—she was different, independent and confident, a mystery within herself. He knew nothing about her, and when he asked questions, she turned them back to him. He didn’t even know her age, but he liked her presence, so he never pressed the issue, fearing he’d frighten her away.
Finished, she crossed to sit beside Eiichi on the small sofa he had purchased years ago when his bones became weary of sitting on the floor. “It’s like America,” he said, and laughed. She settled beside him, then reached for his hand. Eiichi blushed, bowing his head, face warming, but he did not resist her grasp.
“Tell me about the island,” she said softly. “Was there resistance?” She drew a deep breath, let it out slowly.
Her eyes find his, briefly, and beg him to end the misery. Same as yesterday and through the night, in the early morning darkness, in his dreams. Rivulets of blood have run from her fingers, dried across her wrists, down her arms, leaving crusted puddles where sensuously long and painted fingernails had once inspired fantasies. He glances down, the blood on her thighs, down, her crippled feet, down, her bloody toes. He contemplates the bayonet on his rifle; too obvious. Instead, he could come in tonight, smother her as he’d smothered the other woman. She would die, but at least her death would be gentle compared to what she’d already been through, what she would be put through tomorrow, the next day, for as long as life clung to her. If he came here tonight, alone, her suffering could end. His fellow soldiers would not realize the truth.
Laughter rises, and Eiichi looks around to see the commander entering the room, the blade of the bayonet he carries glowing red. Eiichi’s gaze again finds the woman’s. Her eyes are still locked with his when the bayonet scorches her breasts and slices down.
Eiichi’s head remained lowered. How could he tell this woman or anyone of the horrors committed in the name of honor and patriotism?
“You found hardly any resistance at all,” she said. A pause, then, in a voice that felt as though it originated in Eiichi’s mind, the woman whispered, “Tell me about the women.”
Eiichi’s face twisted with memories, pleading eyes, screams. He started up, but the woman’s hands engulfed his arm, pulled him back gently. Then, suddenly, they moved over him, caressing, probing, gently making him her prisoner. Her mouth found his, and his eyes filled with tears. So many years. Not even prostitutes would come to him now.
His hands reached tentatively at first, then hungrily, vanishing into her clothing, racing over her tender flesh, thirsty for her breasts, her thighs, her warmth. She eased him back with strength that he had once possessed. Her fingers opened his trousers; his hands buried themselves in her hair, her head moving, her mouth moist and warm on him. She slid up his ancient body, kissing, suckling. She lifted herself above him, then lowered her hips to take him gently, fully inside.
Nearly weeping, Eiichi closed his eyes as she moved on him, her hips swaying on his. She guided his hands to her breasts, urged him to take her nipples between his thumbs and forefingers, to squeeze, squeeze harder, until he felt the warmth of blood streaming into his palms, running down his arms. She lowered herself, her mouth caressing his ear, her breath a murmur of voices, asking, “Is this what you craved? Never forced. Mercy, mercy, once, twice…”
Her weight abruptly lifted off his chest, and her thighs tightened hard against his hips, crushing. His eyes opened, and a scream built in his throat. The half-clad body of the woman he had watched his comrades nail to the wall towered over him. Her breasts hissed and bubbled, her flesh ripping, viscera flowing onto him, her red hair falling around him in thick patches. Her hands rose sharply, and he saw the knife, the point stabbing down, sinking into his chest. He screamed, nothing more than a gurgle consumed by the chant of whispers.
He woke to a searing fire in his chest and the sound of spraying water. His fingers rose slowly up his body, sliding over his stomach to his chest as he struggled for air. Gradually, he caught his wind and eased himself up, fighting the pain that had already begun to diminish bit by bit. He looked around the room, dazed, eyes settling on the figure in the kitchen. Wind whispered through the apartment’s open window. The woman wore the same skirt, blouse, and scarf she had worn the first day he’d met her. His heart quickened as he remembered. Had it been a dream? No, at least not everything. The aroma of her skin still lingered on his own. He twisted around on the sofa, setting his feet to the floor.
“You’re awake. Good.” She did not turn away from the sink where she swished rice through cleansing water. “How do you feel?”
He drew a breath. “Tired.” He swallowed, trying to comprehend. “I-I had the strangest…dream.” The words came in hushed puffs.
The woman withdrew her hands from the water and dried them on a small towel, laid it back on the counter, and faced him.
Eiichi’s mind swam as his gaze met her eyes, sadly vibrant, green-flecked.
The woman sighed softly. “How many women did soldiers kill on your island?”
Sweat glittered on his face. He’d accepted the whispers, but the hushed screams frightened him. Tears filled his eyes, and he sank to his knees beside the pond.
“Stand up, my love,” the woman said. He stiffened, disappointed but not surprised that she’d found him. He had sneaked away from the apartment, had left while she was out. “Stand up,” she repeated.
“They whisper and whisper,” he said.
“They will continue to whisper long after the sun turns this place to ash. Their kind will whisper forever.” She smiled at Eiichi, her eyes crinkling, reflecting carp that rolled in the water. She stepped beyond him and walked silently away.
Eiichi struggled to his feet and started after her. Her pace quickened.
But she was gone.
The whispers swirled in his mind. He pressed his hands to his ears, then flung them down, clenched into fists, and fled the garden for home.
Eiichi prayed that she would be there, waiting, but he found the apartment hot and empty. He knelt before the altar that bore the pictures of his mother, father, his sister and brother, himself. “What must I do…?” he asked, rocking on his knees. He lit a stick of incense, and, as the smoke washed over him, the answer came.
He went to the kitchen and found the knife, similar to the one the dream woman had used. Kneeling again before the altar, he raised the knife slowly before him, blade pointed inward. “Help me,” he whimpered to his parents, and the knife plunged. He gasped, his face draining. Blood sprayed onto his hands. His fingers flexed, grasping the knife more firmly. He drew a final breath and yanked to the side. Flesh parted, bathing his hands in the life that flowed out.
A warm breeze swept over his face. He opened his eyes to a pale ceiling. Curtains fluttered in a shaft of sunlight.
“How many women died on that island?” came the voice.
He lifted his head. The woman stood beside the altar. He snatched a breath in pain. How did I get to the couch? He pushed himself up on his elbows, memory flooding back. Blood stained the floor where the woman stood. Eiichi looked down at himself, his shirt ripped and stiff with blood. Why am I still alive? He placed a hand inside the shirt to find himself whole.
I stabbed myself, his mind shouted. I saw my own bowels fall out.
“I did not dream,” he whispered.
“My love,” the woman said, “there are no dreams.” She took a step toward him.
Another. “How many died? A hundred? A thousand…?” She stopped, reached up, her fingers removing the scarf, her hair falling loosely around her face to her shoulders.“And you…the car before the shrine, the knife…how many times, Eiichi?”
He shifted, unable to understand, terrified.
“How many…?” The scarf slipped from her fingers and drifted down.
Eiichi’s feeble eyes filled as he twisted off of the couch and fell to his knees, bowing to her, his face going to his hands as he wept. “I am sorry,” he sobbed. “What could I do?” Eiichi raised his head slowly, his body trembling in pain and despair.
“An act of mercy…?” the woman whispered.
“For one, yes.”
“You gave her escape...”
“Yes,” he sobbed.
“But the woman nailed to the wall…?”
“I was going to,” he whispered, “only…”
“You didn’t have time.” She paused a heartbeat. “And all the other women—the ones who did what was asked of them only to be tortured and killed—a lack of time for them as well?”
“I did what I could,” he shouted. He rose on trembling legs. “I tried. Please,” he begged, “leave me in peace.” His voice abruptly hardened. “I’m tired,” he said. “So very tired.”
Eiichi spun awkwardly away. The curtains fluttered. He took a step, another, and plunged through the open window, the ground slamming into him.
Questions came in awed murmurs. Eiichi struggled for breath, gradually getting the air he craved. His head thrummed with the beat of his heart. Then he heard her voice, thanking others, urging them out, the door closing, the breeze washing through the open window, the curtain flapping.
“Open your eyes,” she said, her voice floating above him. “We’re both tired, Eiichi, and we’ll rest. In time. Open your eyes.”
He obeyed to find his own sallow reflection in the gaze that hovered over him.
The woman knelt beside him, her hands loosening his shirt. She lowered her mouth to his chest and kissed gently.
Eiichi’s lips quavered. “Why…?”
Her gentle lips caressed his neck, slid to his ear, her breath moist and hot. “How many times,” she whispered, “have you died?”
C.S. Fuqua’s books include Fatherhood ~ Poems of Parenthood, Walking After Midnight ~ Collected Stories, Big Daddy’s Fast-Past Gadget, Native American Flute ~ A Comprehensive Guide, and White Trash & Southern ~ Collected Poems. His work has appeared in publications such as Year's Best Horror Stories XIX, XX and XXI, Pudding, The Horror Show, Pearl, Chiron Review, Christian Science Monitor, The Old Farmer's Almanac, The Writer, and Honolulu Magazine.
Linda Gould hosts the Kaidankai, a weekly blog and podcast of fiction read out loud that explores the entire world of ghosts and the supernatural. The stories are touching, scary, gruesome, funny, and heartwarming. New episodes every Wednesday.