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Today's Story by Nicola Belte

He was born old, born sensible. There’s twenty-four years between us, in human years. We’d cause a scandal, in real life.

Slowly Light Strengthens

It’s my idea, the fair.

“It’ll do you good,” I tell him, and shuffle him in and up the stairs before he can retreat to the garden. I run a steaming hot bath, and pour in lavender bubble bath, fanning my fingers through the water to puff up the foam, and sprinkle in a handful of red rose petals.

He mutters something under his breath, but I’m used to that. He’s been getting grumpier and grumpier lately; making the china tea-cups rattle in the cupboard, bending the cutlery and shattering glasses; making all the TV channels turn to static.  I’d seen it before, with others, and I wasn’t too worried, it was good for spectres to let off steam, it helped them to adjust. I wasn’t really worried until he started sitting out all night in his shed, moaning at the perfect moon like a wolf with a thorn in his paw, his wails making the wood creak and splinter.

“We can get in together,” I say, imagining me scrunched up behind him, scratching strawberry shampoo into his hair and buffing his back with the loafer; exfoliating all of his misery and sending it back down the plughole like the silly big spider that it was.  I dry my hands and light small, gold candles, and line them up along the windowsill, their flames pretty, orange blurs on the frosted glass. He frowns.

“You’re becoming a right Percival Poltergeist,” I joke, and move forward, trying to unbutton his cape, but at the mention of his job, he stomps off, gets into our bed, and pulls our embroidered cotton covers up over his head.

He’d loved the crumbling castle right up in the highlands of Scotland; the puddles of water on the heavy stone steps, the gusts of wind that stole his breath as he looked down from the tallest turret at the tourists and the archaeology students and the ghost hunters, like lord of the land.  He’d loved the catacombs in Paris, creeping through the crawling corridors, breathing down the necks of the visitors, running off and tittering behind a pile of bones, like a child-playing-knock-door-run.  What he didn’t love was The House of Horror on the end of the run-down pier, a garish ghost train set against a grey sky and listless ocean, where sticky fingered teenagers climbed into the carriages just to get off with each other, chugging out the other end laughing and covered in love-bites. You needed to be flexible, here, sometimes you were a sultan, others a serf; you had to give everybody a chance, it was democracy at its finest, and he, a liberal in life, just moaned that it was unfair.

He’s too serious, too poetic to be dead.  You need a sense of humour. You need to know how lucky you are, how free. I tell him this, all the time; when I’m taking the top off his hard-boiled egg, when I’m cutting his bread into soldiers, when I’m pouring cream into his coffee.  All the things that he used to like, before, but fresher, richer, here.  Everything is.

“We’re going out” I say, to the sad mound beneath the blankets, feeling the walls of our perfect house sighing around us, “now.”

He sits on the grass, perched on his coat, like the ground is a marsh that wants to suck him in and chew him up. It’s Halloween Fest, from the other side of the divide, and somehow I’ve got him to dress up as a traffic warden, while I’m a nurse. We’re realistic.  A wrist watch winches his wrist like the fingers of the over-anxious, over-bearing parent that time is, and I’ve painted bags under my eyes and bought a plastic stethoscope, which dangles with delicious irony, like a necklace, above my heart that has already stopped.

Music blares from the rides; horns toot and pistons hiss as metallic tentacles fling banshees and phantoms in colourful pods into the furthest corners of the night. The smell of sweet, fried onions and buttery popcorn fills the air as I squeeze in next to him, and run my fingers through my hair.  I couldn’t be happier.

He’d never have come to a festival like this; definitely not just before, and not even when he was younger. He was born old, born sensible. There’s twenty-four years between us, in human years.  We’d cause a scandal, in real life.  Nobody here bats an eyelid.  I remind him of this, all the time, kissing him in the street, leaving smears of cherry red lipstick all across his white collar.  I like to see myself on him; flutters of my black mascara on his freckled shoulders; the crescents of my fingernails in his back; scratches on his chest.

When I was alive, I was always moving, job-to-job, place to place.  My dad disappeared before I was born, and my mom was like a leaf in a gale, blowing from man to man, town to town, crisis to crisis, which maybe explained why I went the way that I did, the way that I ended up dead just short of my twenty-sixth birthday.  I learned that life was just a house of cards, and that the fist of fate would topple you, unless you kept ahead of it, kept moving.

It’s funny really, that now, now I’m putting down roots, saving for a rainy day; planting flowers, filling my home with non-stick pans and expensive rugs, things that will last.

‘It’s not so bad’ I say, handing him a hotdog, ‘I wasn’t sure about The House of Horror when I started there myself, but now, I wouldn’t go elsewhere.  It’s easy, it’s fun.’ He frowns, smudging at a dollop of ketchup on his cuff.  It’ll come out though, stains always do, here.

“I just didn’t think it would be like this,” he says, sadly, “so tedious…so average.” But I know he isn’t talking about his job. I put my arms around him, trying to take in some of his sadness, to take it away.

The night that we met, he was sitting on the precipice, looking down into the void.  I was a volunteer, then, patrolling the cliffs with flashlights and silver shock blankets, trying to stop the just-crossed from Ultimate Expiration.

I like to think of us as Samaritans, nothing like those crazed pro-life zealots that the media make us out to be.  I wasn’t blind to reason. I’d agreed with them, that the dead could move on, into oblivion, if so inclined; I’d heeded all their arguments that this simulacrum of life; this endless city where the sun always shined and the fruit grew plump and there were never any flies, wasn’t for everyone. But surely, life is life?  In any guise?

I coaxed him back, stroked the greying hair at his temples as he sobbed on my shoulders, and told me that he missed his wife.  I gave him a cup of sugary tea, a shoulder, a sofa, my heart. I didn’t tell him that I was lost myself, it didn’t seem to matter.

“I know what you need” I say, catching the flickering lights from the corner of my eye, pulling him up from the ground and dragging him towards the ride. I was hoping that this one would be here, that maybe it would make him see how good he’s got it, make him see how good we are. How good I am.

He counts out his change and I take our tickets from the headless man behind the counter, and lead him into the bright red carriage, the one that looks like a London bus.

“The Living-Train! This will be fun!” I say, and he forces a smile.  He’s trying.  He hates the word-play, the oh-so-ironic-we’re-dead-and-loving-it-vibe; to him the undead are stoned adolescents, lost between realms, happy to sit and play Xbox all day as life goes by behind the curtains.

I hold his cold hand as we’re jolted off into the darkness and into the house; straight through the maws of a giant, gruesome politician, with burning red eyes. I fall into him as we’re jerked towards a police woman in a crisp, blue uniform, who waves her finger at us, growls, and starts running after us, truncheon aloft.  Something brushes across his face, and he startles, a clothes-line full of money, blowing in the wind, as sickly orphans with haunted eyes and ragged clothes claw at them.  I giggle and scream, but he stays silent, so I dig my nails into his palm and he winches.  I want to check that he’s still there, that he’s real.

We move into the scary bit, where the mirrors bulge and distort the mannequins.  Old people groan in their beds, in agony; bald-headed cancer victims stagger along, pulling IV drips behind them, dogs bark and howl and foam, and cats screech and scratch.  Babies rattle at the cages of their playpens, vomiting up pulped carrot and shitting out green diarrhoea as horns honk and music blares and shouts echo around the walls.

The carriage takes a series of bumps and drops, and then we burst through the doors and into the air, the carriage ebbing uphill, carrying us up to the higher level.

“It’s the same layout as work’ I say, as we chug-chug-chug along, pleased at my observations “This is where Mandy would stand, with her skeleton suit on, this is where Albert dangles from the rafters…”

He doesn’t speak and his face is grim; his jaw clenched in the ghastly green luminescence of the ride.

We sit at a plastic table by the quaint hot-chocolate hut, the one adorned with tea-pot shaped lanterns, as the ghouls make crepes with hazelnut chocolate spread, lemon and sugar. I bash our mugs together, in toast, but he doesn’t drink his.  I take a melting marshmallow from my cup, and offer it to his lips. He turns his head.

“Well, that was fun,” I say, “aren’t you glad we haven’t got to worry about any of THAT anymore? I mean, we’ve got everything that we want here, haven’t we?” My voice sounds tinny, like it’s coming through a tannoy system. I sound like I work for the tourist board; like a politician trying to force-feed the populace some gruelly policy. It’s the voice I use to lure people back from the ledge.

I take a sip of my perfectly-sweet hot chocolate, but I shiver. He won’t look at me, just stares down at his fingers, at the pale lasso of his wedding band, at his feet beneath the table.

“I’m just tired, love,” he says, and I feel tears prickle in my eyes. He looks like a ghost.  I want to tap out messages to him, like incantations from an Ouija board, to see if I can draw him back.  It’s outlawed here, the board, and the crystal ball, they’re barbaric, they compromise liberty. But is there liberty in love?

The sun is coming up, but it’s freezing.  Bodies lie sprawled across the field that is covered in crushed cups and beer cans and pizza boxes. The rides have stopped; the headless man manoeuvres the gears for the Terrifying-Tunnel-Of-Life, and turns it off. I can see his head yawning in the nook of his arm as he makes his way towards the car park.

“Well, let’s go to bed then,” I chirp, “A good sleep and you’ll be right as rain.”  I fake yawn, and pick up our rubbish; our stained serviettes and paper plates from our cinnamon donuts and our mugs, one empty, one full.

He waits, up ahead as I walk to the bin, and I can see the rays of light right through him. I think of his imprint in the bed next to me; his toothbrush next to mine.  I drop the rubbish on the floor, and jog back, quickly, and he’s there, he is.  But I know that he’s already gone.


Nicola Belte lives in Birmingham, U.K, and is a part-time MA Writing student, part-time factotum and in-between time writer of increasingly weird fiction.  She has been most recently published by Flash Fiction Online, Menacing Hedge and The Lovecraft eZine, all of which you can find at her blog, here: http://nicolabelte.blogspot.com/