Not for the first time in his life, Ashley awoke outside.
“Huh,” he thought, eyes closed against the deadly sunlight trying to wheedle its way into his skull. It had been quite awhile since he had drunk so much that he hadn’t made it home. He took a few minutes to make absolutely certain that he was, in fact, outside and not in some elaborately decorated bedroom. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d found himself in a room that took the organic theme far beyond reason.
The ground, if it was ground, was soft yet solid, a firm cushion against his back and lanky legs. “My back isn’t sore,” he realized. “Maybe I should switch to a firmer mattress.” These and other random thoughts filtered languidly through his mind as full consciousness took hold. The carpet under his thick fingers was either grass or an extremely convincing composite, something that might be used on a golf course during a drought year. Somewhere nearby he could pick up the sounds of a million birds making more noise than should be allowed in the early morning. “And those are definitely cars whisking by. Suppose I can’t put this off any longer.”
Ashley opened his eyes gingerly, expecting the exquisite agony that is the price of having a wild night with his pals Jim, Jack, and Jose. To his complete and utter surprise, though the brightness did cause momentary discomfort, there was no vengeful stab from the hangover goblin. The sky above him was not the clear blue of a perfect summer’s day, but the opulent white of a summer’s day before the storm hits. He didn’t know much about weather or the portents the sky can convey, so he merely sat up as carefully as he could, watching for signs of nausea and any part of the evening that might not have stayed in his stomach after he passed out. He must have passed out, must have fallen off the wagon last night, or else why would he be waking up here, wherever here was?
Sitting, legs splayed before him, Ashley finally saw where he was. “A cemetery?” he asked aloud. It was perfectly obvious. Directly across from him was slab of granite about three feet wide and two feet high with two names and two sets of dates carved into its shiny face. There was a Star of David centered over the names. Someone else might have been distraught to find out that they had slept off alcohol poisoning in a cemetery. Someone else might not have been a 29-year-old high school drop out who had spent the majority of his youth getting trashed and waking up in far worse places. Ashley was unaffected by his setting besides the normal bemused curiosity as to what turn of events had led him to that resting place.
“Hi!” spoke a girl in a yellow sun dress sitting catty-corner to him in front of another tomb stone. He was surprised by her sudden greeting, but found it was still too early to be physically startled.
He chose instead to take everything in stride and responded with a coolly disinterested, “‘Sup, homey.” She laughed. People always laughed when he said that. He liked to think that it was his thug charm, but it was probably because he was a six and a half-foot tall ginger with a hint of Brit in his American accent, a remnant of a childhood across the Pond. He still hadn’t forgiven his parents for that. No one ever takes you seriously as a gangsta’ if you are constantly reminding every one of Mickey Blue Eyes. Being saddled with the name “Ashley” didn’t do him any credit, either. Really, it was no surprise to anyone when he started drinking.
To her credit, the girl didn’t laugh very long, or in a mean, snickery kind of way like most people did when they thought he was being serious rather than ironic. She must have been ten or twelve with a sweet smile that would only be improved when the mess of wires got removed. Ashley’s parents couldn’t afford to get him braces, which he was thankful for. The promise of a perfect smile in a few years is an empty one when you know that you would never live that long once the kids at school saw you. Gangly and pock-marked he was as a growing adolescent, a victim of cruel genetics and a mother that insisted that lots of important and powerful men were named Ashley and that ballet lessons were an excellent place to meet girls.
“I’m Charlie,” she said, tucking back her poorly cut brown hair. Someone had taken the kitchen shears to her hair in a fit of economy, probably with the careless “How hard can it be?” thought still echoing through her head. And had given her a boy’s name. Ashley felt an immediate affinity for the little lady.
“Ashley.” That being the end his repertoire, he took to examining his surroundings and attempting to piece together the clearly epic adventure he had last night. It was proving more difficult that usual to recall anything. He hadn’t had a drop of booze, especially the hard stuff, in over a year. He’d promised Sally, his live-in girl friend, that he’d sober up and all that. The trauma she’d suffered from her alcoholic mother had kind of made it essential that he find a new hobby or else find a new girl friend. The likelihood of that happening, especially finding a girl friend who was willing to do what she did in the bedroom (i.e. share it with him), was enough of a motivation for him to go cold turkey.
Staring intently at a line of ants passing near one of his old brown shoes, he tried to remember if they had fought. A butterfly of panic fluttered in his bird chest. He told himself that he would remember a fight, that he wouldn’t come home too drunk to remember a fight. He may be a royal shit and total screw-up everywhere else, but he never broke a promise. And, sure, he’d been under lots of stress lately. They both had. The baby was reeking havoc with his sweet Sally, turning her into a spiteful harpy one minute and a trembling sick little girl the next. He couldn’t wait for the morning sickness stage to pass. “Morning sickness, by freckled ass,” he thought. He should sue whoever coined that B.S. phrase. Morning, noon, night, or a-friend-ate-a-peanut-next-to-me-two-days-ago-and-she-happened-to-get- a-whiff-of-it-from-some-residue-on-my-shoes sickness, they should call it.
“Nice day,” Charlie said, lisping a bit from her hardware. In his reverie about pregnancy affliction misnomer, Ashley had nearly forgotten the little girl. His attention re-attained, he turned it fully on the girl. She was a little thing, scrawny even, with a plain face and large brown eyes. Her freckles, he noted, were cute and delicately splayed across her nose. They were probably the result of spending a healthy amount of time outdoors, which might also be why she wasn’t suffering from the obesity epidemic afflicting young Americans.
Ashley took a moment to verify her opinion of the day, exaggerating his movements into a comic portrayal. She obliged him with another laugh when he stuck his finger in his mouth and then held the newly wet digit in the air to check the wind direction. “I believe you’re right. You should look into a career as a weather girl. Do me a favor. With your left arm, point to the left. Little higher, too high. There! Perfect. You’re a natural.” He’d always had a way with kids. It helped that kids rarely had the insight to look down on him for being a failure in life. They mostly just saw a tall, silly clown. Luckily for him, children in the States were taught at a very early age that tall men with red hair are supposed to be funny and may also be hiding McNuggets about their person. “So what’s a future TV star like you doing hanging around a place like this?” he asked when she’d finally stopped giggling.
“Oh, I’m waiting for my parents,” she replied matter-of-factly. “They’re visiting my grandparents.” Her little pointed chin indicated a middle-aged couple standing a few rows down by an older looking monument. There were fresh flowers at the base, pretty white daisies.
“Oh,” Ashley replied, nonplussed. “Sorry.”
“They died a while ago. I was a baby.” Ashley nodded like he knew what that was about, when really he didn’t. His grandparents still sent him Christmas cards with $5.00 and pointed notes about how he should visit them more. “I think they just feel bad coming here and not visiting them.” That being a mildly cryptic remark Ashley asked her to clarify. “Well, they visit me all the time.”
The middle-aged couple were walking up his row now, solemn and silent. They stopped in front of Charlie and the woman bent down to lay a bouquet of wild flowers before the little tombstone the girl was leaning against. The flowers and the woman’s bare arm disappeared into the girl’s torso. But that wasn’t right. The couple stood there a minute or so, staring blankly through the girl. Then they walked away, leaving the girl where she sat.
“Wait, you’re dead?” Ashley cringed. He hadn’t meant to blurt it out. He glanced around furtively, but the parents were already out of hearing. “Sorry, I…”
“It’s okay, Ashley,” she giggled. “I’m used to it.”
Ashley’s imagination went wild. He had always had more imagination than was healthy. It was why he had dropped out of high school. You don’t need a complete education when you’re going to become rich and famous in the big city. He had gotten all the way to the big city before he realized that his dreams hinged on having some sort of useful skill and his skill set included sleeping and, well, sleeping.
He was imagining signing a movie deal with Bruce Willis when Charlie said, “Besides, you’re new.” His thoughts came to a sudden and fatal end. “I wasn’t sure if you were going to come up, but I’m glad you did. They don’t come up unless someone visits,” she said, indicating the stone across from him. “It’s so lonely without someone to talk to. I don’t like going to sleep.”
Ashley stared at her, not sure if she was serious or just a lot crueller than she had originally appeared. “I’m not dead,” he finally said, feeling stupid as he said it. Of course he wasn’t. For that matter, he didn’t think she was either. “I don’t think you are either. I can’t see through you. Ghosts are see-through.” Flawless logic.
“How would you know?” she asked, her eyes all wide in amazement.
“Um, ‘cuz that’s how it is in films.” The look she gave him screamed utter disbelief. “I don’t know, but wouldn’t I know if I was dead?”
She looked a little sad then. “Not always. At first, lots of people just pretend or try to leave. Sometimes, they just go to sleep.” The way she said sleep made it sound like she meant something else.
Again, Ashley racked his memory, hoping for some clue as to what had happened last night. He couldn’t recall anything, nothing at all. He couldn’t even remember what he’d said to Sally when he left for his stupid job. Suddenly, he was on his feet, pacing back and forth, pointedly ignoring the stone that had been behind him when he awoke. “No, see, if I was dead, I would know. I’d feel different, or something.”
“You don’t?” Now she was all confusion. Standing up, he could see the name on the tomb stone behind her. Charlene Isla Gaiman, Born – 1991, Died – 2001. His pacing stalled, looking down on her pale, little face. “I haven’t felt anything for years,” she muttered morosely.
It struck him then. No back pain, something he’d woken up to for six years since that bicycling accident. Also, he wasn’t limping from what he told everyone was a football injury because saying you hurt your knee trying to lift up an overweight ballerina was a sure way to get further injury. He could feel the ground under his old brown shoes but he couldn’t feel the heat from the sun directly overhead. He could see the trees whipping around at the edge of the cemetery and see the leaves blowing about as the wind picked up. Looking down, he realized that the wind wasn’t touching him at all. His faded, black suit hung limp and wrinkled as usual. He hated this suit. “Why am I wearing this suit?”
He didn’t expect her to answer so was surprised when she said, “You were buried in it. My parents put me in this stupid dress because they wanted me to look pretty. I never liked it though. I couldn’t ever play in it ‘cuz it’ll get dirty. Mom never liked me to get dirty. Little girls aren’t supposed to get dirty. She cries about it sometimes when she visits.”
He couldn’t help himself, and so asked, “Why?”
“‘Cuz I was playing kickball in the yard with my little brother and some of the other neighbor boys. The ball went in the street, I got hit by a car. It’s also why my brother’s in therapy and why he turned gay.” Ashley stared at her some more. “She talks to me a lot, especially when her and dad fight.”
There was an awkward silence then. Ashley kept trying to prove to himself that he was alive, going so far as to pinch himself only to prove that not only was he awake, but that pinching hurts even when you’re dead. Charlie wrapped her arms around her knees and gazed forlornly at the ground. As a last resort, Ashley steeled himself and turned around. There it was, plain as the freckles on his face, hands, and everywhere else on his body: his name carved into a cheap slab of granite. Ashley Simon Spencer. Yes, parents are cruel, though not as cruel as a classroom full of twelve-year-olds. No inscription besides the dates. Sally probably couldn’t afford it. He was a little surprised she could afford the plot. He plopped down on the grass and just looked at his name. He tried to run his fingers over the letters but they just passed through the stone like it was made of smoke.
“How did I die?”
“I dunno,” she replied. “I was an early riser. I woke up right away. The old lady who hit me passed out and my Dad didn’t talk for a week.”
Ashley’s Dad hadn’t talked to him since he’d moved out. He wouldn’t even return his calls. Ashley had told an answering machine that Sally was pregnant. “Sally!” Instantly, he was on his feet. “I have to see her, make sure she’s okay.” Filled with sudden urgency, he bolted toward the street.
And found himself right back where he started. “We can’t leave,” Charlie muttered. “We just stay with our bodies forever or until we fall asleep.”
“But, what about my girl friend? She’s pregnant. I can’t let her go through that alone.”
“Well, unless she can have a baby here and can see dead people, you’re screwed. I’ve been stuck here forever. Are you gonna whine about everything, now? I hate when they just get mopey. I thought maybe you were gonna be different.”
For a moment, Ashley was reminded of how annoying little girls could be. He wanted to yell at her for being selfish. He was dead, apparently, and his girl friend couldn’t work because she was pregnant. He wasn’t ever going to meet their little boy. No catch or football games or tree houses. He was looking forward to watching her do that with him. She was much better qualified to teach the little guy sports. But now, he couldn’t even watch. He could do nothing. Nothing. And he didn’t even know how he’d died. And she was just a stupid dead kid moping because he wasn’t being fun enough for her. He opened his mouth to yell all of those hurtful things at her but stopped himself just in time.
“I’m sorry,” he mumbled instead, sitting down yet again. “I’ve never been dead before.” He gave her a small smile and wiggled his over-large ears until she giggled again.
“It’s not that bad, you know,” she said. “There are always people here and they like to tell their secrets. And if you get bored, you can go down to your, um, body and sleep for as long as you want. That’s what most people do.”
“But you don’t like to sleep,” he replied.
“I did it once, but it was scary,” she answered with a shudder. “You close your eyes but you don’t dream or anything. When I was little I used get scared about going to sleep. I was really sick once and falling asleep felt like I was dying. I had to take sleeping pills for months and I hate pills.”
Ashley fought the urge to laugh. “So you don’t like to sleep because you’re afraid you’re going to die?”
“No,” she sneered with a glare worthy of any ten-year old. “I’m scared of not waking up. I’m dead but I’m still here, you know?”
Looking at her, he did know. “Maybe when you go to sleep here, you wake up somewhere else.”
“Yeah, right,” she muttered. Clouds had piled up above them and finally broke, drenching the visitors but leaving the smattering of ghosts untouched.
Sally brought the baby by weeks later. He was tiny. She knelt at the grave and cried quietly and told him that they’re baby boy had been born 3 months early, but he was strong and the doctor said he would grow up just fine. She told him that she named the boy Simon after his granddad. She told him that she was staying with his parents and how she missed him everyday.
“My momma is going to jail forever, sweety,” she said grimly, drying her tears on the little blue baby blanket. She got awkwardly to her feet and placed a baby pacifier on top of the stone. Ashley stood still when she stepped into him to place a wet kiss on the cold granite. The baby cried softly and she stood back, cooing at the bundle softly. “I testified against her yesterday. She’ll pay for what she did to me for all those years and for taking you away. I’m so sorry, baby.”
Ashley watched her walk away, dumb struck. There wasn’t anything to remember. He knew that now. It was a normal day. Work, home, dinner, and bed, like clockwork. The same boring routine they’d kept up all week because excitement was too stressful and expensive. They’d said good night and he’d gone to sleep just as she’d rushed off to expel whatever had upset her stomach. She didn’t want him around when she was sick. It made her feel ugly, she said. So he’d fallen into yet another anxious set of dreams about money and babies, with her mother mixed in because he’d finally convinced Sally to tell her about the baby. He’d been so caught up in nightmares that he hadn’t heard the front door break open, though he had come around when Sally had shrieked. Groggy and disoriented, he’d opened his eyes to a pistol in his face. The drunken woman pulled the trigger before he was even sure he was awake. Sally had screamed until the neighbors called the police.