I’m sitting on my bench. It’s been two weeks since the woman in white came, changed her mind, and left. Or maybe two days, or two years; it’s hard to tell. Time passes differently for ghosts. All I know is saving her wasn’t the act to free me from the bench.
I smell the salt air as the ocean crashes on the rocks below the cliff. I hear the sea birds chattering as they dive for one last meal before nesting for the night. The Sun fades and the Moon takes over.
A drunken rendition of “Freebird” draws my attention to my next visitor. He staggers along the path towards my bench, a shoe untied and one shirt tail waving in the night breeze. He sips from a brown paper bag between lyrics.
The pull starts with a light tingle of electricity, all over my form. A wave of vertigo follows, so violent I could empty the contents of my stomach over my boots, provided I had contents… or a stomach. My world settles and there is no doubt my tipsy visitor is my next project.
He’s near the bench, facing me, swaying in a wind only he can feel.
“Hey, buddy, I hope you’re ready for a show,” he says.
“You have a long way to go to beat your singing.”
“Heh, smartass. Dontchu worry about a thing. It’ll be over in a minute.”
He sways to his right and shuffles toward the low fence a few yards before the cliff. I join him, leaning next to him on the fence.
“So what brings you here to entertain me tonight?” I ask.
“Stupid job. Ten years I gave them. Helped through some tough times, and after ten years, what thanks do I get? They fire me. Fuggin boss. He’s probably just makin’ room for that creep nephew of his.”
“Man, that’s a bad break. I hear you, but it’s just a job. It’s not worth a belly flop onto the rocks below.”
“Pah, it ain’t the job. It’s her. I have to go home and tell Carli, and when I do, she’s gonna leave.”
Now we’re getting somewhere. I hope he’s the one.
“I didn’t want to go home,” he says. “I couldn’t face Carli, not right after getting canned, but I had to go somewhere.”
“And the bar seemed like the next best idea.”
“Ya, it did, smartass. And after a while, it seemed best not to go home at all.”
He hikes a leg onto the fence and tries to haul himself over. He loses his balance near the top and falls in a heap on his original side of the fence. I can’t stop an involuntary chuckle.
“Screw you,” he says.
“Buddy, there are other jobs out there, but I think we’ll cross gymnast off of that list.”
“And cat burglar. We should probably cross cat burglar off the list, also.”
He looks up at me in anger at first, and he begins to laugh.
“You’re right, I guess,” he says. “You got all the answers, smartass. Let’s see you get over the fence.”
“I thought you’d never ask.”
I step a few paces away and begin a slow trot towards the fence. I get to the spot where I should jump, and instead, I somersault through, and stick the landing.
His laughter stops. He lies frozen for a moment, staring in disbelief.
“You’re a ghost,” he says.
“That’s one way to put it, I suppose. Lost soul is another. Corporeally challenged? That one has a nice ring to it, let’s stick with corporeally challenged.”
“Wait a minute. Ya, I thought you were familiar. You’re that Healey kid that went over the cliff when I was a teenager twenty years ago. You were all over the papers, ya, I knew it.”
It is my turn for disbelief. Twenty years? Damn, I’ve been dead for that long? I also don’t realize how long I have been standing here quiet.
“So,” he says, “This is your punishment?”
I snap out of it. “Huh? What do you mean?”
“Your punishment,” he says, standing up. “You killed yourself, and now you’re doomed to haunt the cliff, stopping others for all eternity.”
“Doomed is kind of a strong word,” I’m starting to feel like myself again, “And I don’t know about eternity. That seems a bit extreme.”
“Oh. You have a release date?”
“No, not exactly. More of a release quota.”
“Quota?” he asks.
“Ya, a quota. After so many saves, I get released.”
“Oh. How many?”
“That’s the tricky part. I don’t know”
“But there is a number?”
“Yes, predetermined by some sadistic, cosmic lottery.” Even I think that sounds crazy.
“And who told you that?” he asks.
Leave it to me to be the ghost that gets freaked out by the living. “What do you mean?”
“Somebody had to tell you about the quota. The ghost you replaced, maybe?”
“What ghost? There was nobody here when I died.”
“That’s odd,” he says. “It’s been a while for you, but you couldn’t be the first person to think of this place for a suicide. I thought there might have been somebody else, and you helped him fill his quota so he could be released.”
“No… There was no one here.”
We’re both quiet in thought. Seconds pass that feel like years, and for all I know they are. We look at each other, dead in the eyes, as we both come to a grim realization. He’s brave enough, or strong enough, to put it in words.
“Maybe there was.”
Shut up. “Excuse me?” I ask.
“Maybe someone was here. They just didn’t stop you.”
“And why not?”
He doesn’t want to answer. I did just lash out at him more harshly than I intended, so I’m not surprised. He kicks a foot in the grass, looking everywhere except in my direction. Finally, he takes a deep breath and meets my stare with an expression of sadness and resolve.
“There is no quota,” he says. “You had to die so the ghost here before you could be released. You took his place.”
“That’s crazy.” I know it isn’t.
He says nothing, just shrugs his shoulders.
“You don’t know that’s true.”
“You’re right,” he says. “Do you know it’s false?”
He’s got me there. It’s my turn to kick at the grass and look around aimlessly. Another round of silence passes, broken only by the crashing of the waves.
“I’m sorry, Healey,” he says. He turns toward the path back to town.
“I never did catch your name,” I call to his back.
He looks over his shoulder without breaking stride. “I’m Jeff. With a ‘J’”
“Well, Jeff with a ‘J,’ didn’t you come all this way to finish something?”
He stops. After a short beat, he turns, and with an expression of pity this time, he says, “Ya. Ya I did.”
“All things considered, I think I’ll take my chances with Carli.”
He returns to his path, and is soon out of sight.
I feel the tingling of the pull again, only now it feels sharper and stronger. Instead of vertigo, I feel a rending and twisting sensation, as if someone is reaching down my throat, grabbing an ankle, and yanking me inside-out through my mouth.
The night is darker than it had been. The crashing of the waves sound like barrels of broken glass poured on concrete.
Days pass. I guess. I don’t know. The Sun rises and sets, but it never gets brighter than twilight. Just me, I guess. The living who walk along my path seem to be enjoying the weather.
Jeff with a ‘J’ comes around every now and then. Carli is with him. I try to talk to him, but, he can’t hear me. Or he’s good at ignoring me.
The Sun sets. No stars, only a dim Moon to light the deep dark of my night.
A woman passes through me and sits on my bench. Her hair is darker than the blond I remember, with a few strands of grey. Her eyes don’t sparkle like they used to, and they are bloodshot and puffy from crying. I know her. Fiona, my girlfriend at the time of my fall. She looks to the Moon.
“I’m sorry, Ryan,” she isn’t speaking. I think I’m hearing her thoughts. “We were both mad. I didn’t think I’d upset you that much. If I thought you were going to kill yourself, I never would have let you walk out.”
“I didn’t jump.” She can’t hear me.
With all of my will, I shout, “I didn’t,” over and over, all with the same result.
“I tried to carry on,” she thinks. “It wasn’t the same. I would hear something funny, or finish some project, and I would want to tell you, but, you weren’t there. The empty never left. It just got bearable. I met other guys. Eventually, they would do something to remind me of you. The empty would come back, and I would find some way to drive them away. I almost ruined Jim’s life as bad as yours.”
Fi, that’s not what happened. I did walk out, but I just went for a walk. I tried to cool off. I was going to come back. I could never stay mad at you, Fi. I saw a flower growing, just past the fence, and I wanted to bring it to you. I went to pick the flower and part of the cliff crumbled. I lost balance and felt the Earth disappear beneath me. My last living thought was of you. So much more I want to tell her, all drifting unheard into the universe.
Fiona stands and tosses her phone under the bench, “I just want the empty to stop.” She walks toward the fence.
Fi, don’t do this. You’ve got it all wrong. She swings herself over the fence as I chase her through it, trying to grab her, trying to make her stop. She passes through my efforts.
“Oh, Ryan. I hope I get to see you again after.”
You won’t, Fi, I don’t think that’s how this works. If I could actually scream, it would hurt. You don’t understand, Fi, PLEASE STOP.
Fiona takes a step further than the cliff edge.
And I am replaced.