Authors: Hazel Black
Beneath the Elder Tree
All Rights Reserved. Copyright © 2014
No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form without written permission of the author.
Beneath the Elder Tree is a work of fiction. All of the characters, locations and events described in this book are fictitious. Any names or references to locations, events or persons, either living or deceased, are coincidental.
This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to others. Please respect the hard work that the author has put in to creating this work.
Image of the couple used on the cover is thanks to Mayer George / Shutterstock
- CHAPTER ONE -
This would be a morning like no other. I opened my eyes to see the light from the window above my bed oozing into the room like fog. The colours of the room were ashen. The world was in absolute silence. I was fully clothed, still wearing the same boots and black dress I’d had on the day before. I was lying on the bed with my arms crossing my chest like a dormant vampire from an old horror movie. I felt dizzy and confused as I lifted my head from the pillow. The movement of my limbs was languid like ink in water. My eyes were slow to focus on my surroundings. It was a monumental struggle just to sit up straight. That’s when the morning became truly bizarre.
I found myself staring into the eyes of a stranger. She was just a child, maybe eight or nine years old, and was perched like a stone gargoyle on the corner of my computer desk. Her hair was dull blonde, almost colourless, and hung lifeless around her scrawny neck. She was thin and pale, as if she’d been ill for a long time, and was wearing a white hospital gown that was draped loosely from her scrawny shoulders.
Her appearance was so disturbing that I instinctively tried to call out for help. No words left my lips. It was as if I couldn’t exhale, or that there was no air in my lungs at all. The initial panic was then smothered by shock as the young girl’s eyes shifted colour from pink to blue and back again.
‘Sorry,’ she said without warning. ‘Sometimes I have no control over the colour of my eyes. I know you’re probably a little confused and you might be thinking you’re going insane. You’re not going crazy though, Lucy, so try to remain calm. Take a moment to clear your mind and then simply say whatever’s on it.’
I tried to gather my senses. There had to be a rational explanation for what was going on. My desire for answers quickly overcame my puzzlement and I managed to speak to this odd child with the kaleidoscopic eyes who had invaded my apartment.
‘Who are you?’ I asked. ‘What are you doing in my home? And how the hell are you doing that with your eyes?’
‘It’s easy to do but hard to explain,’ she replied, see-sawing her head from side to side. ‘I think you’ll find it’s quite normal.’
‘Nobody can change the colour of their eyes, so it’s not quite normal. And you haven’t answered my first two questions.’
‘That’s because your first two questions are exceptionally difficult to answer.’
She rose up from her squat position then gracefully launched herself off the desk and floated through the air, as if the room had zero-gravity, and landed on the bed next to me. The mattress didn’t compress when she sat on it. She wouldn’t have weighed much, but it was impossible to have no effect at all on the bed.
‘My name is Emily,’ she said, offering her hand. ‘Pleased to meet you.’
I gazed down at her grey and feeble hand. It looked like it belonged to a dead person. I reached out apprehensively and grasped it to find her cold. Dreadfully cold.
‘Don’t let my appearance alarm you, Lucy. It’s quite natural for someone in my situation to look the way I do.’
‘What exactly is your situation?’
‘I’m not alive. Well, not living in the world you’re familiar with.’
‘You really are a strange little girl.’ A nervous laugh escaped from me as I eased myself away from her. ‘Now, do me a favour and get the hell out of here before I call the-’
‘You have no one to call on,’ she said with a confident grin. ‘No one except me.’
For someone reason I believed her. I couldn’t understand it at that moment, but I was unable to question her words. It was almost as if we were two parts of the same mind and there could be no lie between us.
It had to be a dream.
‘You’re not dreaming,’ she said, as if she’d read my mind. ‘You want it to be a dream because if this is reality, it means that the world has changed completely, as has your life, and naturally you fear that.’
‘You know, you look like a kid but you certainly don’t talk like one.’
‘That’s also quite natural for someone in my situation.’
‘Who are you?’ I demanded.
‘I already told you,’ she said playfully, a goofy grin stretching her gaunt face.
‘I don’t mean your name, I mean who you are? What are you?’
‘I’m your spirit guide.’ An unexpected sadness stung her face, and her eyes blended from vibrant pink to sorrowful blue. ‘Some people have spirits who guide them through life. Usually we can’t be seen or sensed in any way, so most folks aren’t aware of us.’
‘How come I can see you now?’
‘Only those who have died can see their guides.’
‘Are you trying to say I’m dead?’
‘In a way.’
‘In what way?’
‘Your body is dead. Your spirit is not.’
How could I be dead? I’d been perfectly fine the previous evening when I’d gone to visit my friends. I remembered checking the time on my phone. It was exactly 7pm and I’d finished my third glass of wine and was refusing to have another. The night was only starting for my band mates, but all I wanted to do was unwind in the comfort of my own home. We often met on Sunday afternoons and shared our songs, laughed, talked and got drunk. That weekend had been a busy one for me though, and no amount of encouragement or pleading from them could get me in party mood.
I zipped up my guitar case as they uncorked a fresh bottle of wine and wished them farewell. Dan and Mike just shook their heads and called me a lightweight. Susan knew me better and could see I was genuinely tired. She walked me to the door and told me she’d stop by my place the next day for a chat.
‘A chat? Sounds like you’ve got some juicy gossip to share,’ I said as I descended the tall stone steps outside her house.
‘I never have any scandal,’ she said, laughing. ‘At least not like the scandals you get yourself caught up in, Lucy.’
‘I deny all accusations.’
‘Yeah right,’ Susan said, rolling her eyes. ‘Are you sure you don’t want me to call a cab for you? It’s a long walk.’
‘The fresh air will do me good.’
‘Please be careful.’
‘Stop fussing, Susan. Go back inside and get drunk. And don’t end up in bed with either of those two losers.’
‘Give me some credit, please!’
Susan lingered by the door until I turned the corner. She wasn’t usually a worrier - it was rare that she would show such concern. The reason she was apprehensive of me leaving alone was the Ripper. There had been a spate of murders in recent months that made most women wary of travelling alone. The killings had started out in the nearby town of Rosehill, but more recently bodies had turned up in the city, and one elderly woman had been killed in Hampton - the satellite town we lived in. The press claimed it was the work of one man, who they dubbed The Rosehill Ripper.
A mixture of wine and fatigue made each forward step feel languorous. It was that lovely ethereal feeling that comes just before you have one drink too many. I was tipsy rather than drunk as I sauntered towards the centre of Hampton Town. The sun was setting behind the tallest of the buildings in the town centre, yet the air remained warm, almost exotic to inhale. It was all quite lovely.
The plan for the evening was all set. I would wallow in a hot bath for an hour while sucking my way through some dark chocolate. After that I’d curl up naked under the duvet and watch a movie on my laptop. Then a long sleep with no early morning alarm to interrupt it. Heaven.
I don’t think I had ever been so contented with my life as I was that evening. Was I still so happy when I went to bed? I didn’t have an answer to that question. There was emptiness in place of my memories of the rest of the night.
‘You’re trying to remember last night?’ Emily asked. She leaned closer to me and studied me with her azure eyes. ‘Yes?’
‘I was trying to remember going to bed last night. I can’t.’
‘That’s because there was no last night for you, Lucy. You died before you made it to your bed.’
‘I’m not dead. I can’t be dead. I’m nineteen years old! I’ve got my whole life ahead of me - at least that’s what everyone keeps telling me.’
She grabbed hold of my hand and I gasped when she lifted it in front of my face. My hand was as colourless as hers. Deep down I knew Emily was telling the truth. I was dead.
Two hours of hysterics followed before Emily managed to calm me down. My life was no more. All that I had been lived on only in the memories of the ones who knew me. All that I had planned to be would never be realised.
‘How did this happen?’ I demanded. ‘How did I die?’
‘I’m still trying to make some sense of it,’ Emily replied. ‘It would appear your heart had a weakness that I wasn’t aware of. You had some sort of attack while you were bathing. It wasn’t enough to kill you. It was the timing of the attack that was your doom.’
‘I drowned in the bath…’
‘Yes. I was on the roof of this building when it happened. I was watching the sunset and allowing you some privacy. I rushed to you when I sensed there was something wrong. I was too late. I could do nothing to reverse the damage that had been done.’
‘But how could I have a heart attack? I was fit. I’d never had any physical problems my entire life.’
‘I can’t explain it, Lucy. I knew of no physical defects in you. I did not, and could not, see this coming.’
‘Is my body still in the bath…?’
‘No. Susan came by early this morning. She raised the alarm when she couldn’t get an answer from you. Some people from the hospital removed your body about an hour ago.’
‘Now you learn to live as a spirit.’
- CHAPTER TWO -
The Spirit Life
I went into hysterics again after she told me I was to live on as a spirit. Emily didn’t try to settle me down this time. She just sat on the side of the bed watching me like a mother watches a child throwing a tantrum in a shopping mall. I eventually ran out of steam and just sat there next to her, hiding my face in my hands.
‘It’s time to get you on your feet,’ she said after a quiet moment. ‘You’ll feel better as soon as we’re on the move.’
‘I don’t want to go anywhere,’ I sulked. ‘I’m staying right here.’
‘Lucy, get your ass off the bed,’ she demanded. ‘I can’t help you if you’re just going to sit there feeling sorry for yourself. Get up!’
I was feeling too vulnerable to listen to her barking orders. Every time she raised her voice at me it was like a deep shiver rolled right through me. I grudgingly did as she told me, and carefully pushed myself off the mattress and stood unsteadily in the centre of the room. I didn’t feel stable enough to walk, but I did manage to remain on my feet for a few minutes, which was apparently very impressive, according to Emily. She said that she’d fallen over the first time she tried to stand as a spirit.
‘Dying is kind of like being born,’ she told me. ‘When you first come into the real world you have to get used to living in a physical body. When you first leave the real world you have to get used to living without a physical body.’
‘But you and I have physical bodies.’ I waved my arms in front of her sunken face just to clarify my point. ‘See?’
‘We don’t. What you’re seeing is only a representation of a physical form to help your mind deal with your new level of existence. It’s more like a shell to contain the energy that we’re made of. Within that energy is your mind, which can live in many different worlds.’
‘Different worlds,’ I sighed. This was getting more and more confusing by the minute. ‘Explain what you mean by different worlds.’
‘There is the living world, which you have inhabited for the last nineteen years. Then there is the world we are now in. I call it the mirror world. There’s also night world. Then there’s the world beyond all others - that one doesn’t have a proper name as far as I know.’
‘This doesn’t make any sense to me.’
‘It’ll all make sense in time.’
‘No, this will never make sense. How come I look like crap if this is only a representation of a body? Aren’t we supposed to have glowing halos or feathered wings?’
‘We’re not angels, Lucy,’ she replied, rolling her pulsing eyes. ‘And spirits can change their appearance. It just takes many, many years to craft such a power. I don’t think you’ll be stuck here for that long, so you’ll just have the make do with the way you look.’
A dizziness took me and I started to sway on my feet. Emily took hold of my forearms and eased me back onto the bed before I did myself an injury - if I could be injured. She helped me to sit up straight, then put her arm around my shoulders to prevent me falling to one side.
‘Don’t worry,’ she said tenderly. ‘This will pass soon enough. And when it does you will find your new world very exciting indeed.’
‘It doesn’t look very exciting to me.’
I gazed around my room and noticed the lack of colour in every object. It was like looking at CCTV footage. It was dull and fuzzy, like nothing had a definite edge. Even my guitar, that was on the floor next to my feet, was now monochrome. In real life it had an orange and red starburst body.
I instinctively reached out and swiped my fingers across the metal strings. There was no sound. I hadn’t even felt the strings properly. It was like I’d run my hand over a sheet of glass.
‘I think my days as a musician are at an end.’
‘Yes,’ Emily nodded sympathetically. ‘This world is a mirror of the real, physical world. You can walk on the pavements, you can sit on a chair, you can touch objects like you’ve just done, but you cannot influence them in any tangible way. We spirit guides have little or no power over anything in the living world.’
‘Why does everything look so dull and grey?’
‘That is the nature of the mirror world. It’s not all bad, though. Things are more vibrant when the sun sets. Night is our time.’
‘We’re stronger at night?’
‘You could say that,’ she said, a smile creeping into her pallid face. ‘You’ll see once the sun goes down - which is only a few short hours away, and that means we have to get moving. We have some work to do while the day lasts.’
‘You have duties while you inhabit this world. I’ll explain them to you soon. First, you need to understand how you have changed.’
‘I already know that. I’ve been changed into a ghost!’
‘Oh, you’re not a ghost,’ she said without a moment’s hesitation. Her words had a slight sharpness to them, almost like the word ghost had scared her, and I noticed that the colour of her eyes flashed to white for an instant. ‘Let’s get you on your feet again.’
She helped me out of the apartment and down the stairwell where I told her I needed a breather. She said it was only my mind telling me that I was weak because it was being tricked by the feeble appearance of my body.
‘Why do you need a break?’ she asked. ‘Do you need to suck air into lungs that don’t exist? Are you weak because you burned up too many calories coming down the steps?’
It took a few minutes to fully comprehend this new form of mine. Once I did, I could walk with ease and I didn’t get tired. It had simply been a mental barrier that had to be broken down. It was almost like learning to swim or to ride a bike. It hadn’t been a physical challenge as such, more so a psychological one.
‘Now that you’ve accepted that you don’t have a physical body that can get tired or be damaged, you should be able to take the next step.’
‘And that is?’
‘Passing through solid objects - like the door in front of us.’
‘How is it possible for someone to pass through a solid object?’
‘It’s not possible for anyone to pass through a solid object,’ Emily replied with a condescending smile. ‘We can do it because we don’t exist in the same world that the object exists in. Do you understand?’
‘No. I have absolutely no idea what the hell is going on here.’
‘You’ll get it … eventually. It takes time to recognize the differences between the realities that spirits exist in. Now, the easiest way to do this is to close your eyes and pretend the door isn’t actually there. You can keep your eyes open when you get used to sort of thing.’
I shut my eyes and gingerly moved forward. I had some sense of the door as I passed into it, but it represented no obstacle. I seeped through it without properly feeling anything. I did, however feel something as I stepped outside. There was a definite chill crawling over me. I opened my eyes to find the entire world appeared different than it had when I was alive. The sky was bright but had little definition, and instead of radiating heat, the sun seemed to emit coldness. The houses, that always seemed to follow straight lines, appeared crooked and fragile. The perspective of everything around me was flawed, like a child’s drawing, and I found it difficult to judge distances properly.
‘Come,’ Emily said, taking my hand. ‘Let’s make our way to the centre of town.’
The grey, blurred shapes of the living people passed us on the pavements, and I found that I could grab some of their thoughts - as if they were being transmitted. They were all so caught up in meaningless dramas like being late for work or being short on money or about how they looked and what others thought of their clothes or hairstyles. It all seemed so foolish to me now.
‘Sad, isn’t it?’ Emily said distantly. ‘So very sad.’
‘I never realised people got so worked up over the stupid little things that are of no real importance.’
‘You never realised it but you were the same up until yesterday. You used to worry endlessly about how others perceived you. You worried about what guys thought of you. You worried about what girls thought of you. You used to worry that people wouldn’t like the songs you wrote. Where you so different to the people you now consider shallow?’
‘Maybe you’re right. I guess I was pretty dumb.’
‘No dumber than those who influenced you. Society had made you that way. You weren’t to blame.’
Emily wasn’t the most pleasant girl to talk to, but she did know how to open a person’s mind. I’d already reached a higher level of understanding in the short amount of time we were together, and she said I needed to because I now lived at a higher level of existence. But for all her philosophising and grumpiness, not to mention her deathly appearance and her multi-coloured eyes, she was just a child to my eyes.
‘How come a kid like you is so brainy?’ I wondered. ‘Someone your age should know more about cartoons and dolls than different stages of existence.’
‘I’m not a child. I died when I was eight years old, and my appearance reflects that age, but I have now lived for just over twenty seven years. I think that qualifies me as an adult.’
‘That must be annoying. You know, being an adult and looking like a child.’
‘You have a lot to learn, Lucy. Appearances mean little in this world.’
‘You said spirits could change the way they look. Why don’t you give yourself a mature makeover?’
‘I said spirits who are here a long time can change their appearance. I’ve only been here nineteen years, since you were born, and that’s not enough time for a spirit guide to learn all the tricks of the mirror world.’
‘How long does it take?’
‘It can take decades for most spirits. Some can-’ She shook her head and her eyes flashed red. ‘I don’t want to talk about this right now. Let’s change the subject.’
I didn’t press her, even though I knew she was hiding something from me. I was getting a sense that there was a lot more to the mirror world than what she’d told me thus far. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know; the whole notion of being trapped in a parallel universe, or whatever it was, had me scared stiff. I just wanted to go back to my normal life. I wanted to go back to having a life.
My grim musing was then interrupted. Approaching us was the blurred image of a guy I had a bit of crush on. He was strutting up the pavement towards us and my gaze became hooked on him. I’d watched him in the local nightclub almost every Saturday night for the last year but had never built up the courage to talk to him. I slowed as he passed us and admired him one last time. He was still as alluring as ever.
‘Stop that.’ Emily’s eyes flashed red yet again. ‘Let it go.’
‘Stop what? I wasn’t doing anything.’
‘Why are you denying it? There’s no lying in this world, Lucy. We both know exactly what you were doing and it’s not permitted here.’
‘I was just looking at him, Emily.’
‘You have to forget about lust and love, Lucy.’
‘You’re just jealous because nobody checks you out.’
‘Nobody is checking you out either.’
‘At least my eyes don’t change colour.’
She stopped by a café and pushed me close to the front window so that I could see my reflection. To my astonishment the irises of my eyes were rising from purple to bright orange.
‘Why do they change colour like this?’ I wondered, moving my face closer to the glass. ‘Does it serve a purpose?’
‘It’s to do with the emotions we feel. Orange, pink and purple reflect levels of tranquillity and curiosity, blue displays sorrow, red betrays anger, white is a representation of fear.’
I stared at my reflection, purposely dwelling on the bitterness I felt about being dead. The colour of my irises rose from a subtle orange to a blazing red. Being dead was tragic. Being able to change the colour of my eyes was rather wondrous.
‘I know it looks cool but try not to concentrate on feelings that make you angry.’
‘That won’t be easy. I’m dead, you know. I’m not feeling very good about things at the moment.’
‘These emotions will pass in time.’
I allowed the anger to dissipate and my eyes returned to a more neutral colour. I continued to watch myself for a few moments more, and noticed it wasn’t just my eyes that had changed through death. My body was thinner and my skin seemed to have a sheen that made me look like a waxwork figure. There were deep shadows encompassing my eyes, and my cheeks were sunken. I looked inhuman. At least my long black hair hadn’t thinned out like my limbs had. It meant I retained some of my living appearance.
‘How come I can see my reflection if I’m not really here?’
‘Because we interact with the world of the living on a basic level. Oh, remember to stay away from flash photography. It’s the only thing that can pick up traces of us. Believe me, you don’t want to spark off any ghost stories or scare some poor tourist half to death when he uploads his holiday snaps to his laptop.’
‘So those photographs you see from time to time with smudged faces of people that weren’t there are actually real?’
‘Most are clever fakes. Some are genuine. Come on, let’s not waste the remains of the day.’ Emily took my hand again and led me along the street. ‘We have to get some things out of the way before nightfall.’
‘Where are we going?’
‘To your aunt’s house.’
‘You have only one aunt, Lucy.’
‘What are we going there for?’
‘I want you to see something.’ She gazed up at me with bleached eyes. ‘Lucy, you better prepare yourself because this will not be easy for you.’
I didn’t like the sound of that at all. She hadn’t been this serious before, even when she told me I was dead. What on earth was in store for me at Hillary’s house?
* * *
My aunt lived in a modest two storey house. It was identical to all the other houses on the street. Out front was a manicured lawn. White picket fence. A hatchback and a saloon in the driveway. The very definition of suburban bliss. Or perhaps it was suburban torture. I could never figure out which.
My pace slowed as we approached. A tower of anxiety was building in me. I could only imagine what my family were going through in the wake of my untimely demise. Only now did I contemplate the feelings of those left behind. This would not be pleasant.
When we reached the front gates I saw some familiar faces: my uncles William and Peter, and my cousins Adam, Laura and Kate. They looked dreadfully tired and their eyes betrayed how miserable they were feeling. As we got closer I sensed some of their thoughts and realised that none of them wanted to enter the house. They preferred to remain in the fresh air and not in the painful atmosphere inside. I was dreading what was to come next.