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.
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.