But not each other
| DEAD LAST|
The wind blew, spreading the sand across the path. The building stood empty for years beyond count; only those who had lived there knew why it was abandoned. Nothing human had lived there for dozens of years; the locals weren’t even sure why it still stood. The howling desert storms should have made it a ruin years ago.
No ‘For Sale’ sign stood in the yard, because those that had been put there had faded into scrap before being replaced. Finally the practice was stopped; no one would buy the place, and the agents recognized it as such.
He moved slowly through the old house. He had been here a long time, and probably would be here for a lot longer. He had lost the ability to leave; here or anywhere. He couldn’t accept his loss, which turned out to be his greatest loss of all.
Still, there existed those to whom success was a pipe dream; people who lived on the edge of survival. Such a group was the Wellsers family. Brad Wellser was the father, a salesman who lived for a sucker and a drink. They were part and parcel of the same thing to him; without suckers, he couldn’t drink. The fact that he would look no further than family and friends for such victims left him an unpopular person with either group. Only his wife and daughter stayed with him now; his wife Margaret because she knew no other way to live and daughter named Livy, a young lady of unfortunate circumstance and appearance. Her life was composed of insipid dreaming, romance novels and nervous perspiration.
Her mother was quite the opposite, she was a dry stick of a woman who lived from hour to hour and day to day with no greater ambition than to see the next time period out. She was one of those who measured success by existence, and was afraid to strive for more. She wasn’t always that way, but years of living with an abusive husband had taken its toll on her.
Such was the menagerie that pulled up in an old, beat up station wagon outside the abandoned house on the edge of nowhere. They climbed out and stared at their new home. The new home stared back. A feeling of hopelessness began to pervade the scene, but neither seemed to greatly care. Hope had actually been missing from both sides for a long, long time. Seemingly coming to terms with this, the family turned as one from the house and began to unload the car.
Usually a move is accomplished with something like hope; but this was sadly lacking in the Wellsers family. There was a frequency that made moving a chore that robbed the event of any sense of adventure. That eviction notices usually preceded such moves did nothing to enhance the experience.
With practiced ease, they quickly moved everything from the car and set about settling in. Brad began drinking almost immediately, while Livy and Margaret fixed things up just well enough so that it was comfortably bland. They had achieved the ability to make every place they lived in look almost identical to every other place they had lived in. In a lifetime of insecurity, they both took what comfort they could from their surroundings. The living room featured a couch and a recliner chair that had seen better days. A large mirror over the mantel had seen and reflected both in its day. Surprisingly, in the corner stood a weeping statue of the Virgin Mary. Margaret got it from a yard sale at a really cheap price. Neither her nor any of her family were believers, save at the bargain-hunter’s altar.
Bartick was a little slow, and the place had been deserted for so long, so it took a long time before he realized what had happened. He had been invaded! Strange belongings clogged the place. He thought about how he felt about this. Then he thought about what he thought about how he felt about this. He wanted to fade out, but decided he would decide what to do. He had to face up to his invasion manfully and with determination. Having decided this, he sat down and tried to decide how he felt and what he thought about having reached this decision. Not being good as such things, instead he began to do the usual, and began to cry.
Livy woke to the sound of crying. She lifted her head from the pillow, wondering who could be crying. Having very little mind to make up, she made it up quickly, and did what she usually did. She ignored it, put her head back on the pillow and went back to sleep.
The next day dawned in dull grey. The desert house stood alone against it, but utterly failed to stop the light from infusing the area. Margaret and Livy rose rather later, as usual.
Brad didn’t. Hours dragged by, and still no Brad. Not known as an early riser, neither woman was concerned until the morning had passed and afternoon was wearing on. Margaret, after learning years ago that one did not attempt to wake the lord and master unless an emergency were in the offing, decided against any prompt action. Still, the hours wore on, and as he was equally adamant about having his dinner on time, and, since this was as strict a rule, she bravely sent in Livy to wake him, while she carefully took up position in the bathroom, ready to deny her part in the plot.
A moment later, Livy’s voice cut through the silence. “MOM! COME HERE, QUICK!”
She hurried into the bedroom, and stopped. Brad Wellser lay there, pale as a wax candle. His eyes were wide open, staring as if death had snuck up and given him a wedgie when he least expected it. Both women stood and stared at him. Death was something beyond either of them, and it gradually began to seep into the unused portions of their minds that they really ought to do something. A death in the immediate family called for a reaction of some kind, but neither of them could come up with any ideas.
“Well, shouldn’t we do something?” Livy asked.
Her mother shrugged her indifference. “Yes, we should.”
“Well, what?” she demanded, after a few moment’s silence.
Again she shrugged. “Well, no use wasting the dinner. Let’s eat, then we’ll decide what to do.”
Livy looked startled for a moment, but it was not a good look for her, so she abandoned it. She mirrored her mother and shrugged, then slowly left the bedroom and made their way to the kitchen. They ate the chicken stew that was the staple of their diet.
By the time they had finished eating and washing up, the day had advanced well into evening. They both sat down to watch a little television, and that turned into a lot of television. Before they knew it, midnight had rolled around, and they were no closer to deciding what to do about the dead guy.
“Let’s go to bed and sleep on it,” said Livy. “We can decide what to do in the morning.”
Her mother made a face. “I don’t want to sleep next to a dead man all night long.”
Livy shrugged. “Okay, you can sleep on the couch. You made him do it often enough.”
She looked at the lumpy, old couch, and shook her head.
“Forget it! I think I’ll sleep in the bed.”
Livy looked at her quizzically. “Won’t it bother you, him lying there, all dead?”
Margaret shrugged. “He’s never really been all that alive, you know. Can’t make that much difference. Good night.”
“Good night, Mom.”
They turned out the lights, and retired to their respective rooms. Margaret squirmed at bit at first, but gradually she fell into a deep and restful sleep; the first in many years. The lack of snoring and concern about her late husband’s erratic and sometimes violent behaviour allowed for a certain amount of relaxation in her repose. She did dream of her husband, oddly enough in the Wizard of Oz, skipping down the yellow brick road, singing ‘If I only had a life’. She chuckled to herself, rolled over, and the dream had passed into the oblivion of sleep. Her husband lay beside her, enjoying his oblivion as well.
Bartick gradually became aware that he was not alone. It was not so much that he was not alone in the way that he was not alone before, but rather a new way in which he was not alone. A large pair of eyes was staring wildly at him.
“WHO-O-O-O-O are you?” a frightened voice asked.
Bartick smiled. “Excellent! I haven’t heard anyone do a barn-owl imitation in years!”
Brad Wellser stared at him in shock, for the first time in his life (and death!) at a complete loss for words. He emitted noises that Bartick found quite entertaining, but were certainly not intended to be so. He was new to death, and had not thought seriously upon the subject at all in his life. Now, here he was, a front line participant, and he had no idea how to proceed.
“As to who I am,” Bartick continued, “I am Bartick, Tom Bartick, but most people call me just Bartick. That is, when most people called me anything at all.”
“And you are dead?”
Bartick shrugged. “I would assume so. My bills stopped coming in, so it seems I’m dead.”
“And I am, too?”
Bartick grinned maniacally. “Presumably so.”
“Is there any way out of being dead?”
“Well, there was Jesus, but he had a lot of rules you needed to follow. I presume you did not follow them.”
Brad shook his head.
“I thought not. Neither had I. I had planned to, but I never got around to it. Never paid my life insurance, either, come to that. I was never one for planning for death.”
“Ah, why are we still here? I had always assumed that stuff about life after death was a crock of shit.
”Bartick grinned. “Well, you were wrong. Hell of a way to find out, eh?”
Brad started. “Hell? This is hell?”
“Nope,” Bartick told him.
“Then where are we?”
“Still at home.”
“Well, I am, anyway.
”So am I,” Bartick told him primly.“ And I was here first.”
“But, the house was empty when we bought it!”
“Well, not quite. I was here then, and still am.”
Bartick shrugged. “No idea, really. Perhaps because they never buried my body.”
“They didn’t? Why not?”
“They never found me. I’m still up in the attic.”
Brad looked up. “I didn’t even know there was an attic.”
“Hence the problem. No one does. They never found my body because it’s hidden in the attic that was used for smuggling booze, many years ago. I was, ah, inspecting a shipment when I passed out, then died.”
Brad smiled. “There are worse ways to go.”
Bartick nodded his agreement. “Indeed. In fact, I would love nothing more than to be alive so I could have one last drink. I haven’t had one since I died.”
“How long ago was that?”
Bartick shrugged. “No idea. When you’re not alive, there is no way to tell how much time is passing. It must have been a while, though.”
“Well, if you’re here because they didn’t bury your body, why am I here?”
“Presumably, because they haven’t buried you, yet, either.”
“Why not?” he demanded, indignantly. Bartick grinned. “Ah, your wife seems to prefer your company in your present, ah, lifeless state. Look.”
Brad looked on, and noticed that he was still in bed, his wife fast asleep beside him.
“She just hasn’t noticed that I’m dead yet, that’s all.”
“You died yesterday. She knows. She seems to like you that way.”
“Don’t be absurd! And how would you know how long I’ve been dead?”
Bartick smiled. “Lucky guess. You’ve been visible for a while before you could speak. But don’t worry, you’re secret’s safe with me!”
Brad did not find this at all amusing, but his wife’s waking up diverted his attention.
Margaret came slowly awake, and rubbed the sleep from her eyes. She suddenly sat bolt upright in bed, staring wildly. A moment later the rising sun flooded the room with light, and she stared at nothing. For a moment, she thought she saw two people there at the foot of the bed...
She laughed, and rose quickly. “Good morning, Brad, you worthless bastard!”
“Loved you dearly, did she?” Bartick chuckled at the red-faced recipient of Marg’s comment.
"Say, Brad, you’re starting to stink, you know that?"
“Perceptive, too, I must say.”
“Who are you talking to, Mum?” Livy inquired from the other room.
“Oh, good morning, dear. I was just chatting with your father.”
“Did he answer?” she asked, smiling.
“Well, not exactly, but then, he’s never been this polite before, either.”
Livy laughed, as did Margaret. So did Bartick, but then, no one could hear him.
“So, what do we do with him?” Livy asked. “We can’t leave him there forever, you know.”
Margaret shrugged. “You’re right, but we have another problem. We were getting regular cheques from his company before he died. We lose that now.”
“What about his insurance?”
“Lapsed, years ago. He drank all our money away.”
“Damn him!” Livy spouted angrily.
“Both of them! My, you were a popular one with your family, weren’t you?” Bartick laughed.
Brad suggested he do something physical with himself that he hadn’t been able to do for years.
“That still leaves us with what to do with him,” Livy said after a moment.
Margaret looked thoughtful (an unusual look for her, and one that Brad didn’t recognize). “I think I have an idea. No one knows he’s dead. Why don’t we keep it that way?”
Livy looked puzzled, a look that Brad recognized easily.
“What do you mean? How can we keep anyone from knowing he’s dead?”
“Simple. We won’t tell them. No one knows, anyway.”
Livy trying to think was a little like an anvil trying to make itself float, but Brad quickly caught on to what she was saying.
“You damn bitch!” he cried, while Bartick laughed again. He hadn’t enjoyed himself so much in longer than he could remember.
“Look, we’ll bury him out in the yard. If anyone calls for him, just say he’s out.”
Bartick howled with laughter at that.
“I’ll put his clothes on, and drive the car around a few times so that no one gets suspicious. No one will know, and we don’t have the money to give the bastard a funeral anyway.”
Livy thought about it, but didn’t have the imagination or will to object. “Okay,” she all she said.
“Does that count?”
Bartick didn’t pretend to misunderstand.
“No idea. We’ll have to wait and see, won’t we?”
“How do we tell?”
“Simple. When they stuff you in your hole, you either leave here, or you stay.”
“What happens if I leave?”
“No idea. Never having left, I cannot say what happens if you leave. Or if I left.”
“What do we do in the mean time?”
“Well, we can wander about rattling chains, moaning and generally scaring the crap out of people.”
“Will they hear us?”
“Not a chance. They have to be certified bugaboo before they can even begin to hear any of that.”
“Then what’s the point?” Brad demanded, getting annoyed.
“Dunno. Adds to the general ambiance of the place, I guess.“
Silence. Brad looked at Bartick, wondering what he was going to do.
“What do you normally do to pass the time?”
“Wonder what I’m going to do to pass the time.”
It didn’t sound like an answer. It was.
“The name is BARTICK!”
“Whatever. Have you been afraid?” Brad asked seriously.
“Every single minute since I died. I can’t even remember what it’s like not to be afraid.”
“What are you afraid of?”
Bartick looked troubled, turned, then simply faded away. Brad looked at the place where he had been for a long, long time. It gradually occurred to him that he should be tired and want to sit down, but he didn’t feel tired. He really couldn’t feel anything, except afraid. He stood there, feeling afraid for a long, long time. He wandered about the house, then looked into the mirror over the mantelpiece. He couldn't see himself. He wasn't there, not even to himself. If he could feel anything, he would have shivered from the cold.
That night Margaret and Livy buried Brad in the yard. They did it quickly and efficiently, and were soon back in the house. They washed the dirt from their hands, and were quickly seated at the table drinking a nice, refreshing cup of tea. Although neither noticed, Brad remained with them throughout the ordeal, shouting at them. He wanted a proper funeral with all the trimmings, but even had the ladies been able to hear him, they would have ignored him anyway, as Bartick took great lengths to point out.
Brad, now sufficiently buried, felt that it was time something happened to him. He waited, but nothing did. He waited some more, and nothing continued to happen. After a few minutes, it was evident that nothing whatsoever was going to happen.
Bartick apparated beside him. “So, still here, eh?”
“Piss off, Barf-face!”
“Garcon, they’ll be two for dinner tonight!” Bartick yelled.
Brad picked up a vase and hurled it at the smiling ghost. At least, that was what he intended. His hand passed right through the vase, but even had he been able to lift it, he could not have hurled it at Bartick, besides which it would merely have passed right through him anyway. Bartick would have explained all this, but he was too busy laughing.
Brad began to swear and curse, not knowing how to vent his rage. He didn’t want to be here, and had no way of knowing what to do, or how to do it. He was completely at a loss, and felt angrier than he had ever felt in his life.
“Say, Brad, did you notice the effect your departure was having on your wife and daughter? I know how terribly they must miss you, but their grief doesn’t seem to have harmed them in any way.”
This was true. And Brad had noticed this being true. Like two wilted flowers that were put in water, the ladies were now looking decidedly more life-like. There was colour in their cheeks, They even smiled every now and then! Like it or not, Brad had to admit that they never looked that way around him. And he must have been the reason why they hadn’t. The thought did nothing to improve his temper. To not be missed was bad enough, but to actually have them enjoy his absence was adding insult to injury. Anyone else would have reflected on this, but Brad was too caught up with himself to even see the implications.
Time had passed, but, as Bartick had said, there was no discernable flow to it. Bartick was suddenly there beside him. He had that stupid grin on his face.
“I’m leaving,” Brad said firmly.
Bartick’s smile deepened. “Something I said?”
“There’s no reason for me to stay here, is there?”
Bartick sang: “Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home!”
“God, you’re a pain!”
“Well, I’m off,” Brad said, walking to the door, then through it.
“See ya!” Bartick called, then laughed.
Brad walked into the blazing noonday sun, wondering why he could not feel the heat on his face. He walked for awhile, then simply seemed to fall asleep.
He woke, or came to, or opened his eyes, or whatever it was he did to reappear. Bartick stood before him in the living room.
“Well, look who’s back! Long time no see! Where’ve ya been, these past few minutes?”
“What happened?” Brad asked.
“You tried to leave. You walked out into the desert.”
Brad looked at him for a minute. “And?”
“And you came back. Missed my company, I daresay. Longed for the vision of my beautiful face, no doubt. Became lonely for the sound of my voice, beyond question.”
“God, I wish I could hit you!”
Bartick grinned maddeningly. “Well,“ he finally told him, “you tried to leave, but you belong here. You can’t just walk away. You saw what happened when you tried. You’re here for good, you know. With only me for company.”
Brad tried hard not to, but he was feeling utterly retched and desolate. He began to weep, softly at first, then he collapsed to the ground in a burst of tears. He had never felt so helpless in his life. He wept for a long, long time. Bartick, quickly realizing his misery would find no companionship here, faded into the shadows.
Time seemed to have passed again. Dusk drifted gently down into the heat of the day, cooling it like a refreshing bath. Brad sat, alone and lonely, utterly dejected, while his wife and daughter sat peacefully in the yard. His body lay under the soil here, and flowers were blooming openly. Bartick stood in the background, not seen, but noticeably present to Brad.
Livy, like the flowers that surrounded her chair, was beginning to bloom into a healthy, normal young lady. Margaret also was becoming more animate in her life and losing some of the disinterest in life that she had shown previously. Brad reflected that everyone and everything seemed to be enjoying his death tremendously.
“Mum, why did you marry Dad?”
Margaret looked sad for a moment. “I know it’s hard to believe, but in his younger days, your father was a handsome, well-spoken gentleman. I was also very lonely, and he was better than nothing. I knew he had his faults, but I was sure I could live with them. What I didn’t know was what it would cost me to try to live with them. I had you the first year we were married, but he couldn’t stand being a father. He couldn’t deal with the responsibility. When I got pregnant just a month after you were born, he got drunk and knocked me down the stairs. I lost the baby, and could never have another child again.
“He said afterward that he was very sorry, and that it was an accident, but that he was glad there would be no more kids. He meant it, too.”
Livy sat there, not knowing what to say. “Why, Mom? Why was Dad the way he was?”
“Because he hated himself, and drank to forget that he couldn’t be everything he thought he could be. He didn’t want to be a loser, but that is what he turned into. He wanted to be a good and true husband and father, but he simply didn’t know how. And he couldn’t admit he didn’t know how. He thought everything would come naturally to him, and when he found he had to work hard for everything, he resented it. He hated it, and himself for not knowing how to deal with any of it. He really wasn’t a bad person, you know. He just lost himself, and never found it again. He was always dead last at everything, but couldn’t see that it only mattered to him and not to me. I tried to love him, but he couldn’t accept that, either. I lived in hope that someday he would wake up, and find that I did love him, but I guess I hoped in vain.”
They watched the sun set into the distance, turning the far hills into purple and pink towers. The flowers smelt lovely in the soft summer air, and Margaret slipped her arm around her daughter’s shoulders.
Livy looked surprised at her mother. “I love you, dear. I know I never told you that, but it’s the truth.”
Livy hugged her mother. “Thank you, Mother. I love you, too. I loved Daddy, as well, but he wouldn’t have believed it.”
Marg smiled. “Probably not. Still, it doesn’t hurt to say it, even now. Who knows? He might be able to hear you.” They laughed and walked arm in arm into the house, enjoying each other’s company.
Brad sat for a long time in the darkness, thinking. He had not thought of certain things for a very long time. His mind began to reflect upon something other than his own misery for the first time in years. He had sucked so much life from both of them, and to hear them say that they loved him moved him more than he could say. He found feelings within himself that he hadn’t felt for many, many years; not since he was a child. He reached into a place within himself and touched something so solid, so real, that it staggered him.
Bartick materialized before him. “So, how’s the fertilizer du jour doing now?”
Suddenly he looked at him sharply. “What happened? You’re fading!”
Brad looked at the ghost before him, then suddenly ran into the house. He looked into the mirror and saw himself. What was happening?
As he watched, Bartick screamed behind him. “You can’t leave! YOU CAN’T LEAVE! WHERE THE HELL ARE YOU GOING?”
Brad smiled, but didn’t answer. He looked into the mirror again, and couldn’t believe he could see himself. He could see himself! He reached inside, and touched the Source again. He hadn’t realized how solid life could be, and he took into himself like a fish taking in water. The life source embraced him, and he accepted it completely. Bartick screamed at him to stop, to come back, but Brad didn’t want to, and could not have, even if he wanted to. The Light shines, and no darkness can stop it from doing so.
Bartick furiously turned to look in the mirror. And saw nothing. He could not see himself. An acknowledgment of his own emptiness, though he could never admit that. Overcome by his own denial, he faded into silence.
Keeping up the facade, Marg and Livy went on living and growing stronger. Eventually, Margaret remarried, and although Livy remained with them for the rest of their days, the hidden burial of Brad Wellser was left undiscovered. He was reported as missing, and, as there was no one who greatly cared, only a modest attempt was made to find him. Still, neither Marg nor Livy ever forgot him, and he lived on in their love. After a few years, they moved away from the deserted area, then returned to live in a comfortable old house in the city.
Outside, flowers continued to bloom in the sands at the edge of the desert. The house once again stood abandoned, save for a lone, sad figure that drifted in and out of reality, like the sands that drifted across the pathway.