Writing Prompt: Imagine Life as a Ghost

The writing prompt “Imagine life as a ghost” was posted on reddit today–this was my take on it:

I stood in the rain and it passed through me. The jackets and umbrellas of my family flapped and bucked in the October wind, but I didn’t feel it or smell the wet leaves that covered the ground. Preacher Davis read from his Bible only a few feet away—I was sure I’d recognize the words if I could hear them, but he was as silent as empty space.

The world was no more muted to look at than anyone would expect for a dismal autumn day, but every other sense was gone. I couldn’t feel my own weight on my feet, or the fingernails of my clenched fists biting into my palms. I only knew I was naked by looking down.

It was like a terrible dream. I’d tried to get their attention for the whole first day, but no amount of yelling or grabbing seemed to reach them. It was simple exhaustion that had finally made me accept the inevitable. If I couldn’t hear and feel my own sobbing, how could I expect them to?

I stood behind my wide headstone through the whole silent service. My buddies and my cousins hustled to their cars as soon as it was over, ducking out of the rain and the cold. My son stood there crying for a long time, his wife’s arm wrapped around him and her head laying against his arm. She held my grand-daughter too—a precious little bundle with alert brown eyes.

Finally even they were gone.

As soon as they were out of sight, the workers hired by the funeral home stepped in. It took them only minutes to bundle up the soggy sheet of artificial grass that they’d spread to keep the mud down and pull apart the metal frame that they’d used to lower the casket. My casket. It held a body that didn’t seem like part of me anymore.

They backed a small dump-truck of dirt up to the open hole and in seconds the casket was hidden forever. They gave it a lick and a promise with a rake and then they were gone too. I stood there alone, looking over the field of carved stones and feeling no more alive than any of them.

Something moved at the corner of my eye and a gravelly voice spoke. I hadn’t heard that voice in more than twenty years, but I knew it instantly. “Well, boy? Are you gonna join us or are you just gonna stand here and mope all day?”

I took the picture above in Drake Cemetery (Adams County, OH) in December of 2015.

Vignette: “Worse than Death”

Getting sentenced to death is bad. Reading about your own execution because the St. Louis Post-Dispatch accidentally releases the story on their web site early is worse. After that, you would think that waking up in a pine box three days later would be a nice surprise.

Not so much.

Waking up didn’t surprise me—that’s what always happens when I die. The surprise was being in an actual pine box. I had given my attorney clear instructions and plenty of money to make the arrangements. I should have been in a nice padded casket with several useful hand-tools that were supposed mementos of my supposed earlier career as a carpenter. That was partly an inside joke and a nod to my famous ancestor for starting the whole mess, but mostly it was just practical. You can eventually break out of a casket and dig your way out of a grave with your bare hands if you keep coming back to life every time you suffocate, but I don’t recommend it. You never really get over that kind of thing.

So I had a moment of panic. OK, it was a lot more than a moment. I’ve been around long enough to accumulate a few PTSD triggers. With help and time, I’ve worked through some of them, but this is one that has stuck. You don’t want to know all the details about the next few minutes; let’s just say it got very loud and very messy in that box. I hammered on the boards until my hands bled. I’d have had broken fingers if there was enough room in the box to swing that hard.

About the time I was winding down from sheer exhaustion, the rational part of my brain finally decided to offer up the observation that I was still breathing just fine. That took a few seconds to percolate. I waited until my heart stopped pounding just to be sure before I luxuriated in several long, deep breaths. Then tried to pretend that I wasn’t a complete idiot while I carefully ran my hands over every inch of the box that I could reach.

It took longer than you would think. There was absolutely no light and not much room to move, but eventually I wormed an arm up and found the air-holes drilled in the boards above my head. They were about an inch wide and, with some twisting, I could get a finger through and hook a knuckle on the outside edge. I could barely feel cool air coming in through the holes, so I guessed there were more holes somewhere else. Probably in the end by my feet.

The bad news was that I could feel nice straight seams between the boards on all sides. The whole thing was made of good solid 2x4s, not plywood. There was no flexing or bowing at all, and no hardware on the inside. No nail-heads for me to pick at or screws to twist. And no hinges.

I got the message, and I was scared. Whoever did this knew who I was, and they knew they couldn’t kill me.

They also knew they didn’t have to.

Prelude to Southern Blood (part 3 of 3)

Start with part 1.

This material is (a) for mature readers and (b) contains elements some readers may find disturbing.

When the workers found his body the next morning, they only knew it was him because his truck was nearby. The Adjudant’s report stated that there was no way to know how he died, since jackals had found his body during the night and little was left of it.

Before long, the workers were nodding sagely and telling each other that this was bound to happen — they had tried to tell him. One of the men found an uncommonly flat stone nearby and declared that it was exactly the kind of stone that a jinn would make its home under; no doubt he had struck his foot against it in the dark and had failed to beg the pardon of the jinn. Perhaps now the overseers would listen!

They didn’t. Within the month a replacement arrived and drove them harder than ever to make up lost time. The flat stone, however, remained carefully untouched by the tramping of the workers. They also began stealing salt to ward away the Hidden Ones; for the next year, the worker’s barracks were better salted than their food.

The disappearance of the house-girl was noted, but no one was particularly concerned. The Adjudant speculated in his report that she may have indirectly caused the death of M. Joubert by running off into the night and provoking him to foolishly pursue her. She was a servant girl; such things happened.

Prelude to Southern Blood (part 2 of 3)

Start with part 1. This material is (a) for mature readers and (b) contains elements some readers may find disturbing.

His other fears about the position had been farther from the mark. True, it was quite hot here, but one acclimated. His quarters beside the river caught the breeze from the water, and the workers, being native, seemed to hold up well in the heat.

And certainly Paris was far away, but Marrakech had its own delights and it was only a dusty hour’s drive to that retreat. Alard had first met the young lady beside him only six months ago, on one of his visits to Marrakech. She was a lovely Berber flower, sixteen years old then, and shy around the few men of France who made their way into the dingy brasserie where she was serving.

He had smiled at her, and treated her gently. He could never be entirely sure if it was his respectable position or the presence of his security detail, but when he inquired as to her cooking and cleaning skills they parted with her easily enough. She had ridden in the back of the truck when he returned to the labor camp the next day.

He had made her bathe, of course, and instructed her in how he expected his house kept and what spices he liked and didn’t like in his food. He was especially clear regarding how she was to treat the officials who would come from time to time to check on his progress.

That night, he had given her her first wine. She had tried to refuse it, being musulman, and he had been forced to strike her once. She was not a stubborn girl and, after that, he had no further difficulties with her. He smiled and smoothed her hair tenderly as she sniffled and grimaced her way through first one glass, and then another. When her eyes had begun to lose focus, he took her to his bed.

She had cried a little, that first time, but he was more than twice her age and knew that this was normal. She would need time to learn the things that pleased him.

Six months later they were stretched out on the boards at the end of the scaffolding, high in the air, under a blazing field of stars, and he told her that she had made him very, very happy indeed. He buried his face in her hair, softly tasted her lips, and caressed the slight swelling of her belly that he had noticed only the night before.

With only the gentlest pressure — just enough to communicate his desire, and no more — he guided her face between his legs. While she took him in her mouth and did what she had become so very good at, he lay back and considered that he was really in no hurry to get back to Paris.

He savored every moment and made it last for as long as possible. She did as he had taught her, and stayed on him until his last shudder had quieted. When she sat up at last, it was with the grace that only the young retain after bending for so long.

He planted his foot below her breasts and shoved her backwards. She was gone before she’d finished wiping her mouth.

Afterward, he finished the wine and dropped the bottle into the diversion channel far below. He was vaguely disappointed that he couldn’t hear the glass shatter over the sound of the water pouring through the rocks. As he made his way back along the scaffolding, he was already planning his next trip to Marrakech.

One bottle of wine was not enough to prepare him to find her waiting for him in the truck.

Prelude to Southern Blood (part 1 of 3)

Southern Blood was the working title of a thriller that I started and shelved. I hadn’t yet learned the benefits of outlining and the story wandered off into the weeds somewhere around the half-way point, never to return. Still, there were parts that I liked, and it seems a shame to let them rot in a file.

The prelude to Southern Blood is self-contained enough that I can share it as a series of short posts, so I thought it would be fun to dust it off and put it out there for you.

This material is (a) for mature readers and (b) contains elements some readers may find disturbing.

Morocco – August 1931

The steel scaffolding rattled in the dark. Every footstep started shivers that some quirk of the design would amplify, raising metallic pops and squeaks from two or three tiers away — just far enough that one could never tell where they were coming from.

It was easy to forget that the huge structure supported hundreds of men and tons of equipment all day, every day. That it had done so for almost three years with never a failure. Things were always different at night.

Alard Joubert had counted on that, and deliberately left his flashlight locked in his truck. The light would have spoiled the ambiance, and worse, might have been spotted from the labor camp… which would only have led to awkward questions. He didn’t need it anyway: The sky was thick with stars, and he knew every board and brace.

Besides, with a young lady clutching delightfully at one arm, he needed his other hand to carry the wine.

He had had grim notions when he accepted this position. Five years — maybe longer — at the edge of a brutal desert, surrounded by ignorant natives, eating camp food. And so far from the lights of Paris! In the end he had reluctantly agreed because his father-in-law had gone to great lengths to secure this commission for him, and it would catapult him far above his peers when he finally returned.

Already the dam was taking shape. Even from the heights of the scaffolding, he could hear the water of the N’Fiss churning through the diversion channels and smell the wet concrete of the evening pour. There had been setbacks, as there always were in an undertaking of such scope, but the universal cures for such things were simple diligence and a refusal to tolerate laziness and excuses.

He had learned the hard way that the Moroccan reputation for superstition was well-earned: For the first three months they were chronically behind schedule because some worker would refuse to drill or blast for fear of upsetting the jinn that he thought lived in this or that hole in the ground. They would still be digging the first diversion channel if he hadn’t had the Adjudant deal with the problem. No one had expressed a concern about the jinn since.