Authors: Nate Gubin
Tags: #Fiction & Literature
Hugh pushed back from his desk. He couldn't tell how long he had been there. Ages, it felt like. He was reading about Connie going to the store for more shampoo. He worried that he had lost his place in her file, that he was so bored that he had skipped back a month in the text and would have to read everything over again. The best part was ripped out and buried beneath Ms. Swindon. He shuffled the stacks of paper, trying to find his place in Connie's life. Then he realized it didn't matter. He realized he might as well start over, start at the beginning. It didn't matter if he finished Connie's file because he'd be reading it, or something like it, forever. He buried his head in his hands and sobbed.
Across the office Ms. Swindon caught sight of this in one of her mirrors. She cracked an evil grin and celebrated with a small packet of Brie-flavored bread crusts.
Hugh stood and shrunk out the door into an alley where his whimper grew into racking wails. Eyes to the ground, he slowly plodded along the dusty streets until he heard a deep undulating note from a sour-stringed instrument. He headed toward it.
The near south end of the Kingdom wasn't all doom and gloom. Small cafés had shoehorned their way into weathered old buildings and set up small stages. They supported the arts, but only if they were the dark arts: rhyme-less poetry full of depression; rhythmless, loathsome notes of baritones; low black keys plodded on hollow pianos.
Hugh pulled the rickety café door open, walked inside and sat at a small table. He watched the old man drag his bow across the cello string, an expression of deep pain in his eyes, the vibrating string making the crying noise for him.
Hugh missed music. He missed everything about life but most of all, he missed her.
"I miss you ..."
He slumped his head into his hands and stared at the lonely cello.
Hugh's acquaintance, a twenty-something Pakistani man named Patrick, slid into the small chair next to him. "Hello, Hugh. Today seems especially horrible, doesn't it? The sky is just a little grayer today and I get the sense that things will only get worse." Patrick's real name was Kuukburi, but he changed it when he emigrated to America and discovered stylish clothes. Introducing himself as Kuukburi while dressed in a slim-fitting Calvin Klein funnel jacket just didn't seem appropriate.
Hugh shrugged his shoulders ever so slightly. "I don't want to talk about it."
Patrick held a lit cigarette constantly but never put it to his lips. There was no nicotine in the Kingdom's cigarettes. The smoke was odorless and tasteless, gray with wisps of oily black. Patrick held them so he had something to do with his hands. That, and they fit the look he was going for. He slowly turned his head and spoke to something far off in the distance. "Wish it would end but I know it can't. Don't know how we go on like this. Wish we could all die from this death." He turned and looked at Hugh. "Know what I mean?"
Patrick was svelte and wore tight pants on his slender legs. His hair was short and neat and he wore the deepest blue, almost black dress shirt untucked with the collar open. Classic black loafers in a semigloss with no socks completed a well-put-together look. He was out of step with the rest of the dead. Putting effort into his appearance smacked of self-esteem. Pride in the kingdom of the hopeless bordered on sacrilege. "You look especially miserable today, Hugh. I mean, I can really see it in your eyes, that exhausted ugliness, you know, when depression starts to fester into that bottomless black feeling."
Hugh turned away, rubbing the pain in his forehead with one hand, clenching his chest with the other.
An intense young woman with black hair and chopped bangs took the stage and read from tattered papers.
"Death is everywhere, all around us, the murdered black swan is not swimming along on Hades’ canal, it is mired, worthlessly floating in a dead tank of gelatinous festatude. The vulture circles in a gray sky, not soaring ..."
Patrick leaned over and whispered, "She's the next big thing. They say she's so dark she absorbs all the light in the room. Even the light from the candles gets sucked into her hollow despair."
"Really, is that what they're saying." Hugh looked off.
"What's a matter with you, man?” asked Patrick. “You are usually into being brought down by some dark sunken word chant."
Hugh parked his elbows on the table and held his head in his hands as if trying to stop the bleeding. "I'm miserable."
Patrick nodded. "We're all miserable, that's why we come here, to feel miserable and sorry for ourselves."
"It's worse than that. It's misery and regret and longing ..."
"Yeah, man, I know, I hear you, this is so horribly sad, isn't it." Patrick stared at the poet who had stopped reading and started moaning. Measures of moans built into wails crescendoing into shrieks of the same phrase over and over again.
"Our souls a gaping wound. Our souls a gaping wound ..."
"I hate it here." Hugh looked up at Patrick. "I hate the smell, I hate the dust, I hate this feeling in my chest, my lungs flapping around inside my body like rotten gourds hanging from a dead heart."
Patrick nodded. "That's good, that's real good. You should get up on stage with that."
"I miss the wet smell of air, I miss the warmth of the sun, the brisk cold of winter. I miss music, real music, with drums and horns and ..."
Patrick nodded in wide-eyed agreement. "This is dark and deep man, you are bringing me down. Keep going."
"I miss ... I miss ..." He swallowed hard and gave up his tenor. "I miss Lily." His head collapsed back into his hands.
A long silence ensued, as Patrick stared at him.
"You're so lucky to have that broken heart, lost love thing going. That's so much sadder than what most people have. I mean, I just have died too young, wasted life, regret and all that. But you have that desperate longing for someone you will never see again. That's epic sad."
Hugh droned from behind his hands, "I want to go back. I want to see her again, I want to hold her and kiss her. I want to tell her I love her. I want a second chance to make things right. I want a second chance to love her, a second chance at life."
Patrick stared at the limp glow of his cigarette and then stabbed it out in an ashtray, watching the last of the smoke limply waft away. In a monotone brood he recited to the dead cigarette, "There are no second chances."
He offered Hugh a fresh cigarette. "Smoke?"
Hugh looked Patrick in the eyes and the base truth gasped from his soul. "I would do anything,
, for one more chance."
Hugh's words hung in the dark cavern while Patrick slowly bowed his head. "I know." He swallowed on the sour thought and slowly shook his head.
Outside the café a hammer tapped against wood.
Hugh looked up and out the smudged café window at a fierce little man nailing a notice to a dead tree. Brandishing a crooked hammer. he punished the small nails into the corners of the parchment.
Hugh quietly walked up behind him and read the notice as the man cursed a bent tack and pried it out with the hammer's rusty claw. "These damn little things. My job would be almost bearable if it wasn't for these stupid nails. Why can't we have tape down here, or maybe even staples?" He dropped a nail and bent over to search it out in the dust.
He had crossed over after a failed heart transplant. They took out the old one before checking to make sure the new one would fit. Classic rookie surgeon mistake.
Hugh leaned in, encroaching on the man's personal space, to get a glimpse of the notice.
SAMHAIN CASTING CALL
ONE DAY ONLY
BRING FIVE MINUTES OF PREPARED MATERIAL
"Do you mind?" The fierce little man looked back over his shoulder.
"I'm just trying to read it. Casting call?" Hugh stepped forward, further encroaching on the fierce little man who stuffed his hammer into his satchel and turned in a tizzy.
"Really? You can't wait? Can't allow me the courtesy of just a few feet of space so I can do this frustrating errand and get back to my lowly suffering?"
Hugh stepped back. "I'm sorry, I'm sort of new around here, I've never seen anyone posting a notice."
"We only post it once a year, and we only post it to this tree. It's a casting call for ghosts. Do you have any experience haunting?" The fierce little man tilted his head and looked Hugh up and down.
"Well, not really, I mean ..." Hugh leaned in and continued reading.
SUCCESSFUL CANDIDATES WILL BE ALLOWED TO CROSS OVER TO THE LAND OF THE LIVING FROM SUNDOWN TO SUNUP ALL HALLOWS’ EVE.
"Cross over ... you can go back?" Hugh lit up.
"Only for one night. It's for professional ghosts only." The man poked his sharp words into Hugh's inflating spirit.
"Honestly, I don't think you have a shot,” the man continued. “You're not very gaunt and your eyes aren't very hollow. You're more of the 'oh poor me' kind of spirit. Pathos doesn't play well on Halloween."
Hugh was confused. "But if I pass the audition, I can go back?"
The fierce little man buttoned up his satchel. "They're looking for ghosts with more active emotions. Anger, scorn, revenge." He hushed his voice and took a step into Hugh. "Just between you and me ..." He took a step back and looked Hugh up and down again. "I wouldn't waste your time." Head held high, he duck-toed his size eight Florsheim zippered ankle boots down the street.
Patrick slipped up to Hugh's side. "You're missing it, man, she's reciting her big one. Hollow souls, bitter black wind of forever night."
Hugh stepped face to face with the notice, rereading it, making sure it wasn't a hallucination. "There is a way, I can go back, I can ... I can see her again. I can see Lily!" His lungs almost inflated, and although the smiling muscles in his face had atrophied, his eyes beamed with hope.
Patrick took a step back, a great worry souring his gut. "I don't know about this, man."
The Shackles of Hope
Ana sat alone in her secret garden studying her flowers. Debating with herself, she asked what would be more painful, letting go of the memories or holding onto them. She had been in love once but she walked out on him. Left him crying and alone. She didn't have a choice. Cancer clawed her into a grave, leaving her beloved husband of thirty-three years to fend for himself, half his soul missing.
Ana’s full name, Anastasia, was derived from ancient Latin. Supposedly it meant resurrection.
Her tortured existence in the Kingdom, desperately clinging to memories of her love above, was proof that there's nothing in a name.
Hugh popped through the hatch and into the garden. Excited, he paced. "I can go back. They're auditioning for ghosts. I can go back and see Lily."
Ana sighed and nodded her head. "Halloween."
"Why didn't anyone tell me? This is it, a dream come true. I can see her, tell her I'm sorry, tell her I ..."
Ana shook her head and pointed a stern finger at him. "Listen to me, Hugh, and heed my warning. Life is for the living. Time marches on up there and you ... you have been left behind."
"But I can go back," he blurted.
Ana kept her finger up, trying to pin her warning on him. "It's selfish to communicate with the un-lost and still loved. You should just hope she's forgotten you and moved on with her life." Ana looked to her flowers, lowering her voice. "Trust me, I know of what I speak."
Hugh shook his head. "No, if there's a chance for me to be with her again, to tell her I love her ..."
"Love?" Ana looked back at him. "Love doesn't exist anymore, not down here. Not for you, not for any of us."
"But I still love her, every bit of me loves her, dead or not."
Ana scolded him. "Dead is right! Death, death reigns supreme in this place! To love is to battle the reaper beyond the bitter end." She composed herself and met Hugh face to face, her voice low and foreboding. "Be very serious now, Hugh. There is a place far worse than this miserable Kingdom. The dead who hope and love are sent there and tortured beyond measure."
Hugh stood defiant. "I'm not afraid. I'd risk anything to be with Lily again."
Ana shook her head, frustrated. "You're being foolish. They give you one night to walk the land of the living as a ghost, a horrible shell of your previous self. Loved ones will recoil in horror at your sight. Any fond memories they may have had of you are replaced by bloodcurdling horror. It's selfish. You did enough to her by dying while she still loved you." She grimaced as the last sentence stabbed into her. She looked up at him with pleading eyes. "Don't make things worse. It's only one night out of eternity for you, but it's the rest of a preciously brief life for her. Let her go. If you truly love her, don't go."
Her warning finally got through to him and he deflated. Slumping against a stone ledge, his head hung low. "If I let go of her ... then I'm really dead, all the way through."
Ana looked down at him, a wounded child. She fought the urge to soothe him. She knew something but it was the worst thing she could tell him. Best if he didn't know, best if he never hoped for love and Lily again. She swallowed her empathy down, but the graceful sweeps of her flowers betrayed her best intentions. She choked up a word. "There ..." She tried to steady her resolve but it was no use. "There is something you should know."