She parked on the side of Black Cat Lane and sighed. Let the engine run a little longer. Let the heat warm her a little more. The radio played a song. It always did. She knew the words and didn’t sing them. She couldn’t. Every song, every movie, every bit of the car, of the house, all strings from her to him.
Winter had started choking the life out of fall. Previous seasons had driven by without her noticing. She couldn’t remember a sunrise or a light rainfall.
Black Cat Lane had no sidewalk. A road so old the painted lines to tell you whether you should keep to your side of the road or not had faded to match the pavement they had once been painted on. Norton Park was nearby. A cranberry bog behind her. The outskirts of Big Island Forest.
The damned spot.
It sat near a slow incline of the road, which wound around to a smattering of houses. A patch of sand, three feet from concrete edge to concrete edge of the road. She left the engine on, the lights on, the radio playing a song on, and got out and walked to the damned spot.
She pulled up a handful of the sand, beaten and weary from many cars and trucks riding over it, a surprise to those who never drove on this road, a known quirk to Plathmore residents, a spot many had demanded to be paved over, a patch that had taken the life of him.
She felt each grain of sand. How many she held in her hand.
If you went a little fast over the damned spot, that quick jump from comforting concrete to unsure sand confused your tires. Caused a few accidents. Not enough for the town to do much about it. You hear about them in towns like Plathmore, during those months when the tourists go away and the world becomes a little quieter.
She drove on this road. Once. Found his car smashed into a tree. She looked at that tree.
She let the sand flitter away between her fingers. Took out a half-pint of whiskey. The brand didn’t matter. It was whiskey, and that’s all she needed to know. Enough for one last gulp. That last bit of whiskey. How it goes down so easy.
She cast the bottle aside. He would have chastised her with this casual bit of littering. She had left the car door open. The engine rattled like a sick cement mixer. She took the keys from the ignition, felt the car shudder and go silent. A year ago, she had enough money to buy a brand new car. Would have been her first. No point afterward.
Nighttime on Black Cat Lane. The hum of a streetlight, the occasional dying gasp of an insect, a distant rumble of a truck on Route 62. This was where she was supposed to meet someone. The Old Guard.
How they all told her to get over it. How they said they didn’t find his body. Maybe he ran away. Maybe he’s still alive. Move on, they say. People can say things so easily when they think they understand another’s problems, another’s pain. Only that person can know when they can move on. When the pain can ebb away and disappear and leave you alone.
She hated the pain. Hated the words all the others said, thinking they were good friends, a shoulder to cry on, an ear to chew. She wanted none of it. None of their comfort. None of their words. Words might help, but words never solve anything.
She unlocked the trunk. Let the door tremble open. At one point, someone, maybe her dad, maybe someone from work, suggested finding someone else. Go out. Meet people. You’ll find that special person. That One. The one that you say something to, expecting a laugh, a warm response, a mutual understanding, and the reply is contrary to your expectation? No connection, no anything. Nothing internal to what you think with what the other person thinks. This occurs every day, among the myriad interactions with other humans. You keep trying. Then, a spark, a glimmer of understanding, a connection occurs with another. The other person laughs at your esoteric joke, shares the same humor, comprehends your philosophy. They smile when they see and feel your presence. They feel absolute when you are around them. They are positively challenged by you. And you them.
When she reached into the trunk for him, his body wrapped in trash bags, she thought of how that was what she had, and what she had lost.
Someone told her that could be changed.
She had wrapped the body as neat as she could. It seemed right, using trash bags and duct tape. The freezer he bought was supposed to be for all the steaks and chicken they could live off for barbecue after barbecue for years. She took the tapered end, by the red gas can, and pulled that out of the trunk first. Then she reached for the rounded end, where the duct tape had been wound ever so neatly. To ensure that face remained as still and pretty as she remembered.
To even move on would be the one time she would almost laugh. The suggestion of finding another. You don’t look for a replacement for the one that makes you feel complete. Sure, you might find someone that fits that little hole in one’s self to a degree. But once you find the person that fits you perfectly, that makes you feel like yourself no matter what, when that piece is gone, you’ll find a piece that fits it to a degree, but you will never find the perfect fit again.
Her hands slipped pulling the head-shaped mound of trash bag. The body fell to the ground. No thud or grunt. She tucked her arms under the neck and where she thought his knees were. She bent her own knees so as not to ruin her back, sucked in a great deal of air, and lifted.
The body came off the ground with relative ease. Surprised she could lift him. Then again, he was always smaller than he made himself out to be. One of his myriad endearing characteristics; how he thought and spoke of himself like this great blob of fat. He wasn’t. Even if he was, she never would have cared. It didn’t matter to her what he had looked like. He was wonderful. He was beautiful. No matter if he weighed a hundred or a thousand pounds.
She turned around. The damned spot was maybe ten feet away. She was halfway to the damned spot when the body in the bags rippled. The plastic squeaked and cried, wanting her to put it down. Leave the body. Leave it all.
Someone stood beside the damned spot. A foot near the sand.
Her breath quickened. More puffs of vapor from her mouth from the cold. She felt the sand under her feet and stopped. Should have brought a knife. Still no cars. No signs of anything on Black Cat Lane. Good. She didn’t know how long this would take. How long it would mean for her to complete the task.
First, she would have to unwrap the body.
The body hadn’t been limp. A year in a freezer lets a body become stone. She more worried bringing the body through the front door. It was closer than the basement bulkhead was to the car.
She pulled the tape away. Great rends opened up in the trash bags.
His car’s front had crumpled into itself. A great hole in the windshield where he had flown through. Had the car been a few feet to the right when he spun out at the damned spot and collided with the tree, he would have torpedoed right into that tree.
Meaning she would not have been able to collect him and do this.
She had been on her way back home. To him. She ran late at the restaurant. In his car was a take-out container from another, better restaurant. He was going to surprise her with food. Even though she was running late, she still sometimes liked to take the back roads home. That’s how she found him. He was twenty feet away. Not breathing. Neck broken at an angle a neck shouldn’t be going. Placid eyes, their color so dim.
She removed the wrapping around his head.
His eyes were closed now. Frozen shut. She patted his face, because it felt like the thing to do right now. Those eyes would be open soon. Those lips would part and open and say, “Hello, baby.”
And everything would be in its right place.
She removed the rest of the bags. The police had asked her what he was doing on that road. Where he might have gone.
She said she didn’t know to any of it.
“The Old Guard,” that someone said, standing by the damned spot. Said more to someone than to her.
He had on the same clothes from that night. Faded flannel shirt she bought him because she liked how he looked in it, even though he liked solid-colored shirts. Jeans that he never wore high enough because it hurt his back, whatever that meant. Sneakers he should have thrown away the day after he wore them since he would go through so many shoes, but these ones he just loved and wouldn’t get rid of.
She positioned him square in the middle of the damned spot. She made a small mound of sand for his head, even though he was still frozen.
That meant it was time for the next step.
In the trunk, she had a gas can. A matchbook. A rag. She brought those items over and placed them on the side of the road.
In the glove compartment she had the book. She took that last.
It was simple black. She was unsure what the cover was made of, who wrote it, what the symbols meant on the cover, slightly embossed gold symbols that told everything about what you need to know of this book, which was nothing.
She opened to the first page. One symbol. An almost inverted cross, with two lines intersecting at the point where the cross bars met. A circle surround it. This was the first symbol to write.
The night she found him, before the ambulances and the cops and the bystanders, as she sat in the cold grass, his body a few feet away, someone approached her, from behind the car. The someone looked old and frail one moment, young and hale the next. Features wreathed in shadows. “When you learn,” the androgynous voice said, “you will bring him back.” The someone handed her this book. “The Old Guard knows.”
All the trauma and feelings that came with him beside her on the ground blunted this someone’s appearance, this someone’s gift. She couldn’t say anything, do anything.
Except accept the book.
Every day, she had studied the book. No one else had seen it. She never showed it to anyone. Never told anyone. Never tried to decipher the symbols by looking them up in books at the library, or consulting anyone who might have an idea of what they are. It made sense to look at the symbols every day, read every page with nothing but symbols and letters that shouldn’t be next to other letters.
A week ago, it began making sense.
A few days ago, the text began forming words that rang true to her.
The first passage in the book, so long had it been a mishmash of letters and incongruous symbols, formed a sentence in her head.
Death is never the end as long as there is life, as the Old Guard knows.
The words themselves had made sense, but not what the saying did. She often caught herself walking by the basement, walking in the basement, outside by the bulkhead, or any time something reminded herself of him, why had she done it. Taken his limp body, devoid of life, from the crash, brought him back home, put him in the freezer. It was crazy. She was not crazy.
She knew exactly what she was doing.
But the why haunted her a bit. Had that someone (which she had rarely pondered on) not been there, would that have been the catalyst to take his body away. And for what?
The someone, the other, its words.
When you learn, you will bring him back.
Sometimes, at the most desperate and despair-riddled moments, one will believe anything someone else says.
She knelt beside him, touched his forehead, his left hand he always insisting upon using for holding hands, just because it felt right, and whispered. She said words of dread meaning. Words that held designs that had echoed throughout time and space. She almost lost her concentration at that last thought. She completed the first incantation. At least, she believed she did. The book said this was the beginning.
She then poured the gasoline all over him. The smell of it in the chill air held an odd sweetness to it.
The book had said in her mind that through fire would one rise again. It was a story older than that of the phoenix. The book described a man many millennia ago, who had wandered from one world to the next. He arrived at the cold orb that would later be called Earth by its developing inhabitants. There, he was deemed a demon from hell, a person not a person, and killed by hanging. They burned his body in the hottest flames they could create. This fire, at first, killed this visitor to a young Earth. Then, through the ashes the bent and hirsute people left to cool in the chill, he found himself reconstituted and experiencing sensations and detecting more around him than he once thought existed. The fire had cleansed him of a more corporeal form.
Through fire, she could bring him back, better than before.
Not that he was broken before. He never kept the toilet seat up. He always told her to put her seat belt on, and while she made a face and sighed and let him know that he was being a nudge, she still put it on and smiled inside.
She missed him.
She held the matchbook. From the restaurant that she met him, the restaurant that still despite the laws had sneaked around the non-smoking section and still handed out matchbooks. She pulled the middle one from the front row and struck it alive.
The someone stood back, watching.
She was about to touch the flame to the rest of the matches and throw it onto him to light him up, and as he burned alive she would recite the next incantation to find his soul in the Other and bring him back.
She thought this was what she was supposed to do.
A year. Time, who you are and what you do, there’s so much that can’t matter when one loves another. It transcends the more bullshit aspects of a life. You ignore small flaws, you ignore a couple big ones, because you see the person as the person that you get to spend a good long while with.
That is not something you turn your back on. That you let pass by, let yourself heal from. You try to heal, you try to let go, and you know that maybe you will reach a point where that other fades away finally. Where you can turn around and walk forward knowing where you are going, instead of walking with your head turned slightly around to make sure that maybe, just maybe, that person isn’t still there, waiting for you to come running back and tell you everything will be all right and you will be together.
The fumes of the gas caught the flame of that single match. A brief wind when there had been no wind blew against the match and the fumes. She didn’t know the gasoline fumes were the actual flammable part of gas. The rest of the matches ignited. The flare-up reacted with the fumes, and sent a sliver of flame from the matchbook to just above his frozen body. She jumped back, fell on her ass, and watched as he became engulfed. The words came from everywhere.
The words, his words again. She dismissed them as in her head. They were in her head.
The fire danced about his body. She repeated the words she understood to be the ones that would bring him back from the Other. That’s what the book called where one went when they died. As long as the body stayed, the soul, or something, this part she became lost in, could return to where it belonged.
She thought this is what the book was saying.
“You shouldn’t have–”
The words halted. The fire froze. She stopped repeating the words the book told her to repeat. The fire hovered above the damned spot. She stood and slowly approached. Reached out a tentative hand. Felt no heat from the unmoving fire. She knelt beside him, her knees crunching in the sand.
His eyes were open.
His mouth was open.
She finished the incantation, finished the words she thought the book told her to say.
The fire shuddered and came alive again. A column of it latched onto her arm, tried wriggling around it to eat away at her jacket, burn though her shirt, to get at the warm flesh and make it warmer. She yanked the jacket off and flung it to the side of the road.
The screaming continued from him. The tasting of life again. His body broke through its frozen pall.
A car horn joined in the screaming, behind her.
A truck, with all its lights on. A man in the glare stood out of the truck. He let go of the horn. “Are you OK?”
The fire spread across the sand. Whatever fueled it, she didn’t know.
He sat up. Still screaming.
The man got back in the truck. The headlights diminished. The truck pulled away, tires squealing. She didn’t watch the taillights disappear around a bend.
He stood. His limbs flexing and turning about and his body writhing around like an engorged snake.
She didn’t waver in her stance. The book said this would happen. Now for the third incantation.
She wished she could have a better last memory of him when he was alive the first time. She came home late again. Nature of the business, he always said with either a shrug or a kiss on her forehead. They did nothing of consequence that late night. They had had sex the night before, and while she wanted to again, she felt lazy. Tired. Not even a yearn to shower. He read. He had just started it. While some details are so there, so eidetic, the last book he had been reading wasn’t. Was it short stories? The way he laid on the couch, piles of pillows behind his head. His feet up on the opposite arm rest. Socks on his feet. She could never remember his feet without socks, or shoes, or the boots she loved.
He stood before her. His neck still at that odd angle that shouldn’t be. He didn’t blink. The fire continued over the sand, over the damned spot on Black Cat Lane.
He opened his mouth. “Thank you.”
It was not his voice. Not anyone’s she had ever heard. It vacillated, those two words, across endless tones and intonations.
“I can’t tell you how much this means to me.”
Somewhere, in the middle of those words, she heard his voice. His true voice. She thought she did.
He opened his mouth again. His lips did not move. His eyes, either. Always on her. “You have done a great service to the Others. The Old Guard.”
The someone came beside him. “We shall prevail again.”
“I…I don’t…” She heard his voice again in the legion of the ones that came from his mouth. In the background.
His voice was screaming at her to run.
“You will be remembered and cherished.” His hands rose from his sides, still stiff. The back-light of the fire intensified. “If only we had gotten to you sooner.” The hands were on her shoulders.
“I…” His voice in the background. He screamed run away, run now, run–and had been cut off.
She stepped backward. Toward the car. His hands tightened on her shoulders.
“I…you’re not him.”
He shook his head. “He is here, with us, as one of the Old Guard. There will be so much time for answers, to answer questions. There are more. So many more. I thank you. The Old Guard thanks you.”
He pulled her close. “He thanks you. You have what you want. Now we have what we want.” He closed his lips on hers.
As the world caved away, she felt him. The real him, sad and just out of reach. She shed one tear.
Closed her eyes.
The dark enveloped her. She lost her body. Watched the world fall away and wither into nothing.
He was there. So close. She didn’t know how to reach him.
The triumphant cries of others around her. And him, yelling to turn back.
She couldn’t. This was as close as she would get him. Drifting in the dark. Out of reach. The voices of many crying and laughing around them.
Even though she screamed, even though he was out of reach and always would be, she accepted this. This was better than life where he wasn’t there. This was better because she could feel him near, just there, wherever they were.
Daniel Brophy has been writing for nearly ten years. He has finished less than that number of stories and books. He has had one short story published, but that was six years ago and the name of the now-defunct publication escapes him. Born with a thirst for words and stories, Daniel owns enough books to open a small library, or to re-enact the ending of the Twilight Zone episode where the bookworm breaks his glasses at the end (spoiler alert). Thankfully, Daniel has eyes like baseball legend Ted Williams, so broken glasses are not a problem. It should also be noted that his pop culture acumen borders on worrisome, due to a Tarentino-level of knowledge.