The Living: II
If you missed part I, find it here.
The tiniest flow of air brushed by, but now in the opposite direction. She was coming back.
I hissed at my brother and shoved him around the tire. “Under the truck. Go.”
We clambered along on our stomachs and I struck my head on the metal underbelly several times, barely small enough to squeeze under. My scrawny little brother snaked along with ease. I yanked us to a stop before we emerged from the opposite side. The curb rose before us, leaving a sliver for an exit. Through the crack I could glimpse the liberation of our homey alley only feet ahead. My stomach lurched. We hit our dead end moments from safety.
The truck above us shielded the wind, but I no longer needed its indications. The hovering coils that were once feet loomed next to the truck, visible even from our vantage point.
“Hello?” she crooned once more. “Where are you, my friends? I hear you.”
I rammed my lips into Jackson’s ear, “Can you fit?”
When he cocked his head at me, I pointed at the small restricted opening between the curb and the underside of the truck. His eyes widened in horror and he incessantly shook his head. I managed a calming smile and nodded in encouragement.
He trembled and a tear finally fell from his eye. But once he rubbed his soaked cheek on his sleeve, he began to scale the mountainous curb. My jaw clenched with every scratch that sounded from his climb, but the spirit nearby kept pacing about. A breath of relief burst from me as he thrust his head and shoulders through the gap, most likely the widest parts of his body. I pushed against his dangling heels to help him the rest of the way through. He stumbled onto the sidewalk and bolted across, into the dark. He would stay out of sight, without a sound. He would keep himself safe.
“Friend?” the woman droned, our shenanigans teasing at her distorted ears.
My muscles ached from stillness as she paused beside the truck, her spectral contours wafting to a fro. She would peek underneath any second. Those empty eyes would lower to the ground and devour my soul. My own eyes squeezed shut at the thought.
A creak overhead grabbed my attention and I risked a glimpse. She hadn’t stooped her untethered form to gawk at me, but instead the truck tilted away from her and the side I hid beneath threatened the crush me flat. The piping and framework pressed in between my shoulder blades and attempted to grind me into the ground.
With my lungs moments from giving up, a startled yelp burst from my lips and I shimmied with all my might across the pavement and out from under my entrapment. Stumbling upright with heavy, stabbing gasps, I braced myself against the closest car and clasped my hands into fists to keep from shaking.
The woman balanced the entire mass of the truck on the palm of her deformed, transparent hand, no exertion plaguing her. Her outline wavered because of the misty, inexact solidity of her body, and yet I could tell her true essence stood stock still, zoned in on the curiosity that was me. The black voids of her eye sockets seemed a gateway to hell, demons on the other side clawing and gnashing their teeth in anticipation of the snack soon to come. I shrank from the prospect and prayed for a miracle.
Despite the devilish glare, she showed no intent of pursuing me. I questioned why she hadn’t taken me already. A slash of her ferocious, shadowy talons and I would be joining her in the spirit world.
As I watched, gradually, a gaping hole bloomed below her absent eyes, a new doorway to oblivion. I backpedaled from the bizarre phenomenon, staggering onto the sidewalk to distance myself. The cavity widened until it could stretch no more and a new calm fell over us.
The serenity only lasted a few seconds, and then an inhuman, rasping screech echoed across the facades of the vacant buildings. An array of pitches somehow emanated from a single being and each octave pierced worse than the preceding, a pipe organ with every key played at once. I clamped over my ears and doubled over from the agony of that shriek.
Out of sight, not a sound. That was the rule. But now I roamed with no cover. And the woman’s deafening scream was certainly considered a sound.
When I recuperated enough to erect myself fully, I hurtled down the sidewalk with clumsy balance, my eardrums off kilter. The saving grace alley disappeared further and further behind me, but I couldn’t risk leading the trouble back to my brother. He would have to fend for himself until I could escape. If I could escape.
Biting wind gradually swirled around me, converging from every direction. An eyeless wraith streamed from a doorway ahead and I veered to miss him. Then another swept out from across the street. Glancing back, the siren of a woman chucked the truck from her path and drifted after me, maintaining a steady, confident speed. Heeding the signal, more sinister billows of smoke glided from surrounding edifices, each bearing the two desolate abysses marking their undefined face. With every approaching ghoul, my speed hastened until it became impossible for my feet to maintain the momentum. I tumbled onto the concrete with a desperate cry and cowered beneath the encircling specters.
Once the woman’s call finally died away, hushed murmurs carried on within the increasing tempest. Soon, the windstorm seized completely, yet not a finger furled around me. I lifted my head in wonder. The monstrosities froze and watched me with fervent interest. Their whispers touched my ears with finesse.
“How can she be? It’s impossible.”
“She must be the last.”
My blood flushed cold when one more voice reached me from beyond the grave, but this chill had nothing to do with the wind.
The clear timbre of my father breathed, “Mona?”
I whipped around to face the departed soul. Though he blurred before my living vision, I had no doubt that this was him.
“Dad,” I choked. “You can’t be.”
The black holes in his head scanned me up and down, caught up in the same, strange daze as the rest of the spirits. “Why do you live?”
My heart disintegrated in my chest. “We were coming to find you. We were coming home to be with you.”
“But I am here now,” he insisted. “Come be with me.”
I suppressed a cry and shook my head. “We can’t. We have to survive.”
“Because the Earth needs us to,” I pleaded. “The world can’t be run by ghosts.”
“There’s no progress, no drive. The world is at a standstill. You don’t eat, sleep, work. There’s no need for production of any kind.”
“We are above needs.”
“And that is the problem. The Earth has devolved into nothingness which is why you have to let us live. Let us fix this.”
He tilted his head at me. “You say ‘we’ and ‘us.’”
My glance involuntarily darted to the alley down the street. “I shouldn’t have said it like that. It’s just me.”
The black voids seemed to narrow. “You lie."
My back stiffened in horror.
He seemed unbothered by this, curiosity his only objective. "Why do you lie?”
I glanced around at the other disembodied bystanders, all observing our conversation with inquisitiveness. I latched on to this side of them, the morbid interest, and set my jaw. “I lie because I love.”
My dad raised the uneven formation of his chin. “I don’t understand the concept.”
“Not anymore, but you did once.”
He fell silent a second. “Did I love you?”
“Yes,” I snapped.
“And you love me?”
I had to look away from this disfigured version of my father in order to answer honestly, “Yes.”
“You believe that love is worth living, worth needs?”
He contemplated a moment, and then my father floated toward his peers. The authority he showed in life almost peeked through his dull resonance. “There is another living.”
Grief closed around my throat and tears threatened my eyes. I only managed to whimper, “Dad, no.”
He whipped around to glare at me and, after studying me, he readdressed the other souls. His murky talon pointed down the street in the opposite direction from the alley. “The boy is this way. Come.”
Without a glance back, my dad led a legion of phantoms away from myself and my little brother. A moment passed while I watched in amazement as they all abandoned me at my father’s word. Not a scratch befell me and not a ghoul questioned the order. For some inexplicable reason, the leftover husk of my father had saved me.
I stumbled back to the alley, still dumbstruck by the occurrence. The second the shadows swallowed me, Jackson wrapped his scrawny arms around my legs.
“I thought you were gone forever,” he wept.
“I thought I was too,” I mumbled.
I bent to his level and brushed the tears from his cheeks with an astonished smile. “I think we might have just taken the first step towards saving the world.”
Though baffled, a grin stretched across his face to mirror mine and I tucked him against my chest, reveling in the warmth of our happy, healthy, living embrace.
© 2020 by Kelsey Garber