The Lonely Dead Pt. 1 – by Clint Westbrook

The ghosts were always around these days. Not in the sense that you could always see them, but whenever you wanted them they were there. All you had to do was ask for them and they would show up, just like magic. They looked about like you would expect if you have seen the images of shimmery, almost-people who give off a glow that made you feel just a bit uncomfortable each time you looked. Chock that up to the afterlife etherealism that surrounded them.

Jenna Conner got to see her dad every day now. She got to have tea and talk to her mom about men and dating and work. She even got cooking lessons from her ‘Gamma’. These did not always go as expected, but they were fun and she got to hear her old gamma Claire tell her funny stories about her parents when they were dating.

“Swetchums,” her Gamma would drone, “we don’t always get what we want in relationships. They’re bullshit.” Jenna would chuckle at her descriptions of ‘her wayward daughter’ and ‘that fat guy she married’ when grandma would describe busting them after a date in the back seat of her father’s old 1968 Pontiac Catalina. The sleek car had been Daniel Conner’s pride and joy, and she still drove it with the assumption that she had probably been conceived in the vehicle. “Those two were like a couple of damned rodents, just clawing and panting like animals.” her Gamma would say with a slight smile. Jenna would giggle and add the rosemary to the lamb, just as Claire told her to.

“I don’t want to know this!” she cried, laughing so hard now that there were tears in her eyes. “Gamma I have to drive that thing to work every day!”

Jenna had been 17 years old the day of prom. Daniel had been swearing in the garage, random outbursts of “Shit on a bum!” and “Fuck the first lady’s fine ass!” had been pouring from the open door. She had been writing in her journal about Bobby Jordan. She had gone to a movie with him the night before. He was a nice boy, and as long as he kept telling her she was beautiful she had let him put a hand up her shirt while they were making out. He had told her about the setup he had at Michigan State, how he had a full ride courtesy of his uncle who was paying for him to become a lawyer. “We need one successful shit in the family,” he’d sputtered in the aftermath of their teenage frivolity. “I need this, I’d be the first in my family to do anything.” She’d kissed him after that, more to shut him up than anything else. He was hot and he was fun, but she didn’t want him making more of it than what they had. Her plan was to enjoy the rest of her senior year, then go off to college and date older boys. She might even have been able to land a teacher if she found a good one.

Daniel came in from the garage covered in oil, grease, and sweat. He stank like dirty feet, and she loved that smell. He worked on his car in the evenings, kept it running. Jenna couldn’t get enough of the way her dad smelled after that. When she was little she would curl up on the couch with him to watch the news afterward, just laying there till he ended up carrying her up to her room to sleep the rest of the night tucked safely in bed.

“Jenna,” he called. “Girl, get your ass out here!” He had the biggest smile on his face. “Daddy give me a second!” she shouted back, writing furiously in her journal to finish recounting the tale of The Night She Let Bobby Get to Second Base before he could walk up and try to read over her shoulder. She slammed the journal shut as he walked up behind her and tied the book up with her ribbon as quickly as she could. “What you writing there, Punkin?” he asked. “Nothing daddy, private shit!” She swept the book into her backpack and threw it over her shoulder as he reached around her, making joking attempts to get at the book. “Daddy stop!” she giggled, and then turned and kissed him on the cheek. He melted and just hugged her. He was putty in her hands.

He then lifted her off the floor and twirled her around, laughing all the while. She squealed and struggled, trying to free herself from his grip, laughing all the while. “Daddy what the fuck!” she laughed. He dropped her to her feet and looked at her sternly. “Ladies don’t say fuck you little shit.” He had become stern. She looked at him hesitantly, a small but nervous feeling coming over her. Then the corners of his mouth twitched and they were both suddenly laughing hysterically again. Jenna had loved her father more than words could say. She loved her parents a lot, but she was a daddy’s girl and everyone knew it.

“Watch your damned language!” came Claire’s voice from the kitchen. This set them to furious fits of chuckling while they struggled to contain their laughter. “Shhhh,” Daniel hissed, stifling himself as he brought the laughter down. “Let’s go dumbass, I have something I want you to see.”

He led her to the garage, hand over her eyes. The excitement began to grow inside of her, she knew she had something big coming. Daniel wasn’t much for pomp and circumstance, but he had a surprise and Jenna knew it. He stumbled about as he led her blind into the garage where he had been working.

“Tada!” he exclaimed, whipping his hands away from her eyes. She looked around hastily, trying to see what he had been up to. Disappointment swept her as she glanced around. There were tools, a few cans of oil and paint, her old bike, and the convertible. She couldn’t figure out what he was so damned excited about. “Well get your ass in and let’s go!” he roared, laughing to himself. So he was taking her somewhere. “Daddy where are we going?” she asked as she crossed to her passenger seat. He smiled.

“Wrong side, Punkin.”

It took her a moment. She stood with her hand on the door, wanting to open it out of habit. She glanced back at him, confused, and then he lobbed a small object at her. She snatched it out of mid-air just before it smacked her full in the face. Looking into her hand she saw two keys on a small ring, a rabbit’s foot dangling over the side of her palm. “Daddy!” she cried, launching herself into his arms. “You’re going to let me drive? Finally!”

He stopped for a moment, looking confused, before bursting out into laughter again. “Get your ass in your car,” he said, “before I change my mind.” She stood back, looking at him like he was a lunatic that had suddenly burst into her home and demanded a sandwich. “Well go on now!” he said, shoving her at the car. It clicked.

She launched herself at him again, ignoring his demands for her to drive away and have fun, and began kissing him on his cheeks and laughing and shouting her thanks. Her gamma’s complaints about the noise could be heard even over the chaos she was creating in the garage. She whirled and raced to the Catalina. She was out of the driveway and on the road so fast that she could have sworn her father was still talking to the cartoon dust outline of her still standing in front of him.

Jenna’s father had given her the Catalina, and then he had given her a home. She had paid him back of course, but the payments had never reached completion. Her parents and grandmother had been killed in a break-in gone wrong and she had never gotten to say goodbye. Scattering their ashes had been of no help, but it had given her the final thought that at least they were gone, at rest. She had never been religious, none of them had, but some small part of her had begged whatever deity might exist that they would come back and not leave her so alone. She tended bar and made good money in tips, she was an attractive girl, but she stayed alone after that. Even hookups only came to the house once, and they never got to come again. She didn’t want anyone else in her life, she just wanted her family back.

Then the ghosts had come. Everyone in the world seemed to be seeing them. There had been months of pandemonium, people screaming and crying in the streets and accidents everywhere due to the shock. Jenna had seen Claire first, her gamma leaning against the counter in her kitchen. The shock had woken the neighbors, her screams waking the half of the neighborhood that was still asleep and joining the cries of those already awake and seeing their loved ones.

For weeks the country had been in panic. It soon reached them that the whole world was losing their shit. Scotland was the first to send out an international report after a man died on a boat tour of Loch Ness after seeing his wife’s spirit over the side of the boat. The man, Damion Jacobs, had lost his wife a year ago and had lost his will to go on. He had quit his job at the bank he worked at and spent the next few months traveling, eating up his savings. He had sold his house and left their young son with his mother to fly to Europe and tour old castles, see historic sites, and drink himself into a dense stupor on almost a nightly basis. When his wife appeared over the side of the railing he had immediately believed, had leapt over the side and drowned in the Loch. He was a necessary casualty to the rest of the world, they realized that it was not just a local phenomenon but a world-wide issue.

Jenna had been one of the first in her region to catch on, but she hadn’t made a big deal of it. She had returned to her home from the hotel she had shacked up in and confronted the trio of beings with anger and aggression. Laying her keys in the basket by the door she staggered into the living room to collapse on the couch. Her whole body stank of mojitos and gin, cigarette smoke on her breath stang her eyes every time she exhaled. She hadn’t noticed the silvery beings sitting on her couch until she had taken a moment to sit. The scream woke up half the neighborhood, but Daniel had rushed to her side to calm her. It had been he who convinced her to accept them. “Punkin,” he’d begun, “we just wanted to see you. We’ll go if you like.” She had collapsed to her knees and groped for him, but her hands went through him. Stories and film would have her believe he should have been cold, should have sent a chill through her body, but he simply…wasn’t. He didn’t feel like anything.

And now she cooked with Gamma Claire, she shot the shit with her mom, and she watched tv with her daddy before she went up to bed. Life had never been so perfect. She was happy right up until the moments before her death.

She lay in bed on a colder evening in early December. Christmas was coming, and she had hung shiny ornaments on a tree while her family applauded her work and exclaimed over how beautiful it all looked, she had hung mistletoe and watched her parents kiss under it as a feeling of joy and love washed over the whole room. Her gamma had given up the recipe for her mint brownies (finally!) and she had one while her parents held each other, gamma Claire in the corner heckling them fondly. She was overjoyed with the holiday season this year, and had gotten them each a gift. It wasn’t much, just framed pictures of them all enjoying life together before they had been able to walk through walls, but what else do you get a ghost?

Her father was more somber than usual, his face drawn and contemplative. As the day drew closer he had slowly withdrawn, appearing less than Claire and Jenna’s mother, Sadie. She still got to see him a lot, but less and less. It was worrying.

“Daddy will you just tell me what you’re thinking?” she asked, a quiver entering her voice no matter how hard she fought it. He looked at her and opened his mouth as if to say something, then it snapped shut so hard his teeth clicked. She locked eyes with him and stared. He met her gaze and held it, not wavering a bit. They sat that way for a long time until she finally reached down inside, remembering the day they died, and was able to conjure tears. She let them burst forth with a sob and threw her face into her hands. Daniel’s spirit leapt off the chair near her bed and raced over to her. “Punkin, I’m so sorry, please no, I’m so sorry.” She had him. “Daddy just tell me what’s wrong, what the hell is it?” she begged, hiccups punctuating her speech.

He leaned back, then sat on the edge of the bed. It didn’t move. “Jenna its just not the same.” She looked up, tears staining her face. He looked so broken and sorrowful that she began crying in earnest, her confusion palpable. “What’s not the same?” she forced out.

Daniel considered this for a moment as though he hadn’t found the full reason, he just had the holiday blues. He opened his mouth and promptly closed it, snapping it shut with an audible crack. “Christmas,” he replied at last, “Its not the same as it used to be. I can’t hold my goddamn daughter, Claire can’t roast anything for us, your mother can’t smile through her teeth because I didn’t get her what she likes because I can’t get her anything!” Daniel was crying now as well. It was harder to tell, but the sobbing sounds and the way he shook with each inhale told her all she needed to know.

Jenna considered this. Her face was still stained with tears, and she wanted to bury it in his shoulder and just cry. She wanted that oil and sweat smell, wanted to know her daddy could fix everything for her. But he couldn’t, he was dead and couldn’t fix anything now. It was up to her. “How can I fix this?” she asked.

He looked at her then, his crying momentarily ceased. He was thinking hard, Jenna could see it. She crawled out from beneath the covers and rolled over to sit next to him on the bed. She couldn’t lay her head on his shoulder, she couldn’t hold him. She had never seen her father cry, but she realized how hard it had been for him to be so close but still so far away from her. He continued to look at her, looking older than he ever had. His beard was more scraggly, his neck waddle a little more saggy than it had been. He had aged almost a decade during his cry, and it showed far too much. Love and pain overtook her and she began to cry again. She knew what he would say. “Punkin, you could only join us, and I don’t know if that would be best.”

She cried out in joy. She had wondered about this, whether or not it was possible. She had no ties to the world anymore. Serving horny frat boys in tight shirts and old men who grabbed her ass in the bar wasn’t a life, but her father was right in front of her telling her she could be her daddy’s little girl again. She could be with him and her mother, her gamma.

Without hesitation she rushed to the bathroom. He followed after her, attempting to grab her but passing right through her. She shattered the mirror with her hairdryer and grabbed the largest shard she could find. She gripped it hard and forced herself to look at her daddy. He was crying again. “Daddy will I really be with you?” she whispered, barely able to make herself ask the question. He stood tall over her, love and pain and frustration all mixing on his face. He was sick with worry. “Yes Punkin, but you’ll be dead.” That was enough. She steeled herself, and was vaguely aware of the throbbing in her hand. She looked down, saw she was bleeding profusely. She smiled and thought “That’s not enough to make me stop.” She at the mirror, met his gaze from behind her, saw the conflict and terror on his face. “Jenna,” he said, “…please.”

She swung the sharp end of the mirror shard into her neck, right at the throat. Her father screamed like a wounded animal, trying to catch her as she fell. She went straight through his arms, still expecting the chill for some reason, and he just couldn’t catch hold of her. Not yet. The pain was immense, but she barrelled through it. Her head struck the sink as she fell and it rolled her over onto her side. She lay there, and warm feeling spreading over her neck and chest. She lolled her head a bit till she saw that she was bleeding profusely. She smiled. She was dying.

Death felt like a swirl, Jenna was in a complete fog. Not a metaphorical fog, she was in a swirl of mist and blind air. The warmth had spread over her entire body now, and she could sense that she was joining the mist, ending. This was the last chapter in Jenna Conner’s life, and it was a doozie. What a story this would make, giving up a blind existence for love of family and a desire to love again.

Her father was kneeling over her, and her mother and gamma Claire were standing over her now as well. Claire’s silvery hair was a mess, more so each time she ran her hands through it. She bit her knuckles to stifle a sob. Jenna looked up at her mother, saw the deadpan expression of shock and horror as she watched her daughter bleed out. There were tears in all of their eyes. She could barely form words with her throat slashed, but she managed a weak few. “I knew there was something after.”

She looked into her father’s eyes and saw that he looked…hungry. His burnette mop had become matted and frayed, like someone had burned the end of a bit of hay. His eyes had a hint of glee, of something vicious and starved. He looked like a wolf in a cage. Had he always? “There’s not Punkin,” he hissed, “There’s nothing after.”

His teeth were sharp. His eyes were black. Not just darkened but fully black. It was terrifying. She lolled her head up with the last of her strength and saw that her gamma and mommy looked the same. They had the same sharp teeth, the same eyes. The image was terrifying. “Oh Gamma, what big eyes you have,” she thought and Jenna knew then. Knew how wrong she had been. Knew how wrong they all were.

 

* * *

 

John Kaepernick was over early the following Tuesday. He had been reading a book he borrowed from Jenna, some old noir detective story from her collection of deliciously trashy little novels, with a silhouetted man on the cover as he entered a home to find a dead family. The mystery begins. John loved that kind of thing, it gave him a sense that he could slip into the stories, to relive the glory days despite the fact that his years on the force in Allagash, Maine had been more comparable to a day off than a thrilling homicide story. But oh well, his bitch of a wife was in the ground and the lilies bloomed on her grave, what did he care? He could spend his retirement in his home with his souped up fantasies, his ghosts hovering around him.

His son, Alan Kaepernick, accompanied him to the home of Jenna Conner. Alan had big, watery eyes and a rosy complexion whenever he came to Maine, though it was strangely absent when John visited his son’s home and family in Texas. “Little shit still can’t handle the cold,” John thought, chuckling a bit. Alan looked at him a little funny. No matter, the whole lot of those cowboys thought he was turning a bit dodgy since he had passed 80 a few years back. “Fuck it, I can still split wood for my fire and make a mean chili, who gives a shit if I’m a bit off. I earned it.”

Alan’s misty glow ignored he was not an impressive man to behold. He had bit it in an alleyway behind a movie theater in Chicago while trying to stop a pair of armed thugs from getting too handsy with his wife. The whole family had their brains blown out, the mess had been unbelievable. “Too bad,” John had thought, “If the little snot had lived we might have had a shot at a real superhero here.

He entered Jenna’s house as he normally did. The scent of cookies or the savory aroma of some sort of roast usually permeated the air, her ghost Claire was always teaching her how to cook or do other little old granny things (she was kind of a fox as well!) and Jenna was always happy to share, to have John and Alan over to sit and chat. She was usually good for a glass of cognac as well, and the way Alan nagged him about his health John didn’t really get to keep it in the house anymore. He and Jenna had bonded over just how alone they were long before the ghosts came, but since then they had maintained their friendship. Jenna loved her family, and John liked them as well. They were a nice counterbalance to the pampered mess his own child had been a part of, Daniel Conner’s greasy physique reminded him of his days in the force.

The house smelled of nothing sweet or savory, but there was something foul. That was the first sign of trouble, the second were the blood flies. The were floating casually downstairs as if they owned the place. “Jenna?” John called. “Are you here?” No answer.

He looked in the kitchen. There was nothing but a bit of old food on the raised island, the flies feeding on what might have once been ground beef, but he had no interest in finding out. His nostrils clenched and he fled the room. The living room was the same, and there was no answer when he called down the basement stairs. The house felt deserted.

“Dad!” Alan called. “Dad get your ass up here, holy shit this is fucked up!”

“Where are you?”

“Upstairs! Jesus, hurry. This is bad, dad. This is really bad.”

“What is it?” There was no answer this time.

John hurried up the stairs, his bones aching and his stomach still turning from the smell of the rotted meat. The flies were thicker in the air the higher he got, the buzzing sound growing to be a steady drone in his ears. He covered his face as best he could. The drone was bad, but if one of those things actually got in his ears that would not go so well for him. He had a dread fear of bugs and things the wriggled.

He mounted the second floor and began to look around. “Where are you?” his muffled voice tried to cry, his hand attempting to shield it. “In here dad, we need police!” He ran for the door and burst into the bathroom, his hand automatically reaching for his hip where his old piece used to rest. He felt ridiculous and grabbed the door frame to steady himself. John Kaepernick took in the scene.

Jenna Conner lay on the ground, her head gashed in the forehead and her hand sliced down the middle. A bright piece of silver still showed through the black, dried blood in her neck. Her eyes bulged and her mouth was frozen in a scream. The blood had coated the entire floor and had settled around her, the body sunken and pasty. It looked like a model posing on a black background in a macabre photoshoot. John vomited on the floor, then began chastising himself for ruining a crime scene. The Conner family of ghosts were nowhere to be seen.

The police ruled it a homicide and brought out a special unit. Crime had been down since the ghosts had appeared and things like this were becoming a specialty, murder simply didn’t happen anymore. There had been a few suicides, but they were viewed as a consequence of people not being able to handle the sudden appearance of dead loved ones. The investigators made their notes and took their evidence but nothing was ever found. The case went cold and was never looked at again. When Ruth Barrins (keeper of the evidence lockup thank you very much!) flipped through the file before adding it to the stack of boxes in the back that remained unsolved she found one item that made her chuckle. Written in a scrawled hand was the statement “The flies were unbearable.”

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