By Matthew B. Rose
Ian looked out the window of the house. What had once been a cloudless, sunny day had turned into a stormy, rainy night. It was a night for sitting at home and reading. It was a night for sipping hot coco, not for being out, and definitely not for driving. Ian wished that he were home. He wished he did not have to go out and drive on a night like this.
Why did he agree to come to the party?
Sandy walked over to him, putting her hand on his shoulder. He turned and looked at her.
“Are you sure you want to go out on a night like this? Peter and I always have an extra bed for you. You know that.”
“I know, I know. Your husband already said something to me. I can’t tonight.”
Peter walked up behind them.
“Why not, old pal? You too busy to hang out with your old friend for a night?”
“No, it’s not that. It’s just, I have to hurry home. I have a big interview tomorrow. It’s for the job at…”
Sandy interrupted: “You mentioned it. You want to teach at that college in God knows where.”
“It’s just over in the mountains for crying out loud.”
Peter jumped in: “Yeah, well, you should stay here and leave in the morning.”
“Can’t do that. I would have to wake up and go back home, pick up my papers, then drive to the college. Staying here would, no offense, take up too much time.”
The married pair stared at their friend. Peter put his hand on Ian’s arm.
“Look, if you’ve really got to leave, by all means, leave. Don’t let us stop you.”
Ian moved his hand and grabbed Peter’s. They shook hands.
“Thanks man. I knew you would understand.”
The three of them broke apart. Sandy went to the back of the house, towards the closet. Peter and Ian walked towards the door. Peter patted Ian on the back.
“Hey listen, if you can, call us when you get home.”
“Who are you, my mother?”
“Yes. Now brush behind your ears young man.”
They laughed until Sandy arrived with Ian’s coat. After the hands were shook and cheeks were kissed, Ian opened the door and stepped out onto the front step. Peter stood in the doorway.
Ian turned to look.
“Drive carefully. Too many accidents happen out there on nights like this.”
“Yeah I know. I will.”
“Take care. Pray for me.”
“Will do. You for me, ok?”
Ian walked quickly down the walkway to his car. The rain was harder than it seemed. He fumbled around in his pockets, trying to find the keys. He drew them forth and opened the car. He settled down into the driver seat, put the key in the ignition, and turned it to start the engine.
Nothing happened. The car would not start. Ian tried again, holding his breath. It started. Ian sighed and pulled out of the driveway.
* * *
The rain was really pouring now. Ian could not see out the window, even with the wipers going at full speed. The forest surrounding the road seemed dark, like the night rain itself. Ian squinted to see the signs on the road, each one seeming harder to read.
It took him awhile to realize that he had no idea where he was. He suspected it when the road he had been driving on grew narrow. Yet, he did not know it for sure. That is why the sign took him by surprise.
Ian slammed on the breaks, swearing. He rolled back, looking closer at the sign he had passed. He checked his watch: it was 20 minutes until twelve. He swore again and fiddled in his pocket, pulling out his cell phone. He scrolled through his list and dialed. The phone on the other line rang twice.
“Hey Peter, its Ian.”
“Hey Ian. What happened? I thought you would be home by now.”
“Yeah, well, I got lost. Can ya help me?”
“The sign here says that I’m 20 miles from Charlottesville. I’m surrounded by woods.”
“Oh, hey. I know where you are. Keep going that way for about 15 miles, then get on the highway. You should be ok after that.”
“Alright. Thanks. I owe you one.”
“That’s what you said last time.”
“I mean it this time, ok?”
“Yeah, sure. Call if you get lost again.”
“I won’t get lost again.”
“Bye. Good luck tomorrow.”
Ian hung up the phone and put it back in his pocket. He turned the key and started the car, pulling onto the road. The rain continued to fall hard, pounding on the windshield.
* * *
The rain fell at a different pace. Before the drops had pounded Ian’s car so hard that he wondered if there were dents in the hood. Now there seemed only to be a misting drizzle. Still, the outside world seemed miserable, as if the whole world was crying.
Ian had his high beams shining on the road ahead, showing everything. Everywhere there were trees: trees on the left and trees on the right. His eyes were beginning to tire, burning under the stress of the drive. He glanced again at the clock, trying to focus his eyes: 11:59. He needed to get home. If he hurried, he could still get six hours of sleep. As long as nothing else stopped him, he would be fine.
With that thought in his head, he slammed on his breaks, skidding forward another ten feet.
He looked out the rear window. He saw a heart wrenching sight. There was a girl, no more than 15 years old, standing on the side of the road. She wore only shorts, a T-shirt and sandals. Her hair was matted against her head, which never tilted up from its downward glance. Had she even seen him drive by, Ian wondered to himself. He put the car in reverse and drove back until the car was parallel with the drenched girl. Ian opened the door.
“Hey, do you need a ride?”
The girl tilted her head up, slowly brushing aside some of the soaked hair that covered her face. Her eyes were dark blue, darker than any Ian had seen. She seemed pale and shivered involuntarily as she stared. Ian suddenly felt a shiver down his back. His neck tingled as the tiny hairs rose slightly. He felt an urge just to drive away, leave this creepy girl. He was in a hurry anyway.
“Here,” Ian got out when he gathered himself. “Get in. I’ll drive you.”
The girl slowly climbed into the car, dripping water on the seat. Ian got out and closed the door behind her. He scurried behind the wheel and started the car, pulling it back onto the road.
Ian looked over at his new passenger. She seemed to shiver less but was still pale. She held her hands in her lap and did not look up.
“So, where exactly am I taking you?”
The girl looked up and pulled back her hair, which had fallen again into her face.
“I, I live on Maine Street.”
“Well, that’s a start. Do you have an address?”
“3545. It’s a big house with a blue door. There’s a rose garden in the front, but one of the roses won’t bloom.”
“Hey, you live close to where I live. I know your house. I used to bike by it every day.”
“Sure, I guess.”
The girl turned her head back towards the front of the car. She looked out the window in a blank gaze, never blinking. Ian had not noticed that she wasn’t blinking until just then. He had figured that she was blinking, but he just never noticed because he was driving. Puzzled, Ian spoke again to the girl.
“I hate to interrupt your deep thought, but what’s your name? You do have a name, right?”
“Colleen. Colleen Heart.”
“That’s a very pretty name.”
“Are you named after a relative?”
“Oh. Okay then.”
Ian looked over and noticed the girl rubbing her shoulders. She gave a shiver and wiped her nose. She did not sniff though; she just wiped her nose with her finger.
“You look cold. Here, take my jacket.”
Colleen looked up and took the jacket from Ian. She put it on her shoulders and wrapped it around her arms. She then looked out the window.
They drove on in silence. Ian checked her every few moments, just to see if she was warming up. He even turned up the heater. He body had stopped shivering and her voice had become less weak. However, her face and hands were still pale. Ian did not ask any questions about this, just questions about her family, school, and interests. This in turn was followed by a period of silence, broken only one minute into its stretch. The silence was broken not by a question of Ian’s but one from Colleen.
“Do you ever think about death?”
“Yeah. Do you ever wonder what happens when you die?”
“I guess you go to Heaven if you’re good, Hell if you’re bad.”
“Are you Catholic?”
“Yes. Well, I kinda haven’t been into it as much as I used to. I still go to Mass and Confession, if that’s what you mean.”
“I was wondering because you forgot to mention Purgatory.”
“Purga... Oh yeah, I forgot about that. I remember learning about that in school. It’s the place for cleaning, right?”
“Yes. I learned about it in class this year. It’s where the souls who are good but not ready for heaven go.”
“So they say.”
“That got me thinking about ghosts.”
”Oh ghosts. Ghosts don’t exist. They’re just stories told to frighten people or get money. Nothing more.”
“No. I think that there are different types of ghosts. One type is unable to do anything: they just appear and repeat their death. They died horrible quick deaths. Thus they are unable to prepare for Heaven; that is their Purgatory, to revisit their death over and over again.”
“What about the ghosts that hurt people?”
“They are demons and evil spirits, trying to drive their victims away from God. If they provoke fear into their victims’ hearts, the soul hardly recovers. They draw in the living person by a tale that seems innocent and harmless. Then they attack.”
“That’s a pleasant thought. But what about the ghosts that don’t hurt people, but do things, like move chairs and stuff.”
“They’re ghosts that are trying to communicate to the living people in the house. They usually are from heaven and are trying to lead the living back to God, since they have turned away.”
“And there is one more type of ghost. That type interacts with people. These spirits are always from heaven and try to lead the living back to God. More often than not, they are saints, and therefore register as visions from Heaven. But sometimes the spirit is not recognized as a saint; therefore the communication is not looked fairly upon.”
“Wow, you know what you’re talking about. You sound very adult.”
“So that’s what you think ghosts are.”
Colleen looked at him closely and nodded.
* * *
The car pulled up to the house on the street. The house was exactly as Colleen described it, down to the rose without a blossom. The night sky was clearing up and the moon was peaking through the thinning clouds. Colleen looked up at the sky through the window.
“I guess you should get going,” Ian mumbled. Colleen nodded and opened the door. She began to get out of the car but then stopped and started to take off the jacket.
“No, no,” Ian said. “You can keep it. You still look cold.”
Colleen smiled at him. She had a beautiful smile, like the moon that shined above them. Ian could not help but smile back. He felt calm, certain that, whatever he had to do, he would succeed.
“No problem. I’ll pick it up tomorrow.”
She got out of the car and went up the walkway to the front door. She rang the doorbell and waited. Ian did not watch her go in; he pulled away onto the long road towards his house.
* * *
The dawn broke, spilling its yolk-colored sun through the windows of the apartment. The alarm clock sounded through the room. It could not echo, for the mess scattered around on the floor and on the furniture absorbed the sound. The body in the bed shifted and reached for the buzzing annoyance. It fell to the floor. Grumbling, the man got out of the bed and turned off the alarm. He stretched and looked at the time.
Ian threw the clock aside and hurried into the bathroom. He showered, brushed his teeth and hair, and ran into the bedroom. He threw on the suit he had picked out and ran to the kitchen, grabbing an apple. He ran down the flights of stairs to the main lobby, exiting through the double doors. It was then, as he stood outside in the cold morning air, that he realized that he had forgotten something.
He almost turned and went back into the complex when he remembered the previous night. He remembered giving the jacket to the girl and saying that he would pick it up in the morning.
Shaking his head, murmuring to himself something about Christian charity, he entered his car and closed the door.
* * *
The house looked different than it did when Ian had driven by it last night. Of course, it could have been that last night was dark and there was not enough light to see the true details of the house. Something, however, just did not seem the same. The house looked different, almost sadder. The flowerbed was in shambles; even the roses were wilted, except for the one with no blossom; that alone stood tall. The paint looked faded, and the house itself looked like all hope, all life therein, had drained away.
Ian walked up the walk to the door. He looked for a doorbell but could not find one. He turned his head and raised his fist to knock when he noticed the knocker on the door. Shrugging his shoulders, he knocked. A few seconds later, as he stood outside, he heard the shuffle of feet coming towards the door. He straightened up and fixed his tie.
The door opened a crack, and an eye looked out at him.
“Yes.” It was a woman’s voice. It sounded younger, not too many years older than Ian himself, but felt worn, as if the voice itself had been tortured for some unknown sin.
“Yes? What is it?”
“I’m here to get something from your daughter. I’m the one who brought her home last night.”
For a moment, the woman looked up at him through that crack in the door. Slowly she opened the door. Ian looked at her. She was still in her nightgown. Her eyes were red and wide open, swollen with tears that seemed to threaten to deluge forth at any second. She did only look about 35, but she had wrinkles on her face that made her seem to be twenty years older. Ian started to speak but couldn’t.
“My, my daughter?” The woman’s eyes began to water. She looked up at Ian, her mouth agape.
“Yes. I believe her name was Colleen.”
“Oh Sweet Jesus.”
The woman slid down to the floor in the doorway. Ian moved quickly to help her. He moved her into the kitchen and searched for a glass of water. She cried constantly, so loudly that Ian was sure that she would pass out if she did not stop. He brought her the glass as she struggled to control herself. She sipped the water, and then looked up at Ian.
“Colleen was my daughter.”
“She died three years ago. No, more like four. Yes, four. She was riding home with a friend in a car. It was raining and the driver was young. The police said that there was alcohol in his blood. He was 17; she was just 15. I always thought she was too young for him. Anyway, we got in a fight and she stormed out. I was still angry at her when I got the call.”
She sniffed and wiped her nose.
“We buried her in her graduation gown. She was so happy that day, her graduation. She had the biggest smile.”
Her words trailed off into another stream of tears. Ian stiffly patted her on her shoulder.
“I had a dream last night that she came back, that she stood over my bed. I dreamt that she said goodnight, like she did when she was little. I could have sworn she sat down and hugged me. She looked terrible, as if she had been through a storm, yet looked so happy. She practically glowed.”
She cried again. Finally she began to compose herself, wiping the tears from her damp eyes.
“I’m sorry for this show I’m putting on. I must look horrible. I’m sorry, but there is no way you could have seen Colleen last night. You must have been mistaken. Maybe you dreamed it or something like that.”
Ian was quiet. He stood up as the woman began to rise.
“Thank you for helping me. Sorry for the um...”
“It’s no problem, really.”
She led Ian to the door, seeming to have recovered herself. As he walked out the door, Ian turned.
“What cemetery was she buried in?”
“St. James’, down by the church. It was our parish.”
With that, Ian walked back to his car. He opened the door and entered as in a trance, slowly closing the door and, finally, driving away.
* * *
The sun did not shine, for a cloud had covered it. It was not abnormal, but unique, since it was the only cloud in the sky that day. It hung over the cemetery, never blowing away, never releasing the rays of the sun down upon that place of rest. Elsewhere in the world, even in different parts of the town, the sun shone as normal, even, as some commented, brighter than normal. Then, as strangely as the cloud appeared, it faded away, showing the life-giving rays of the sun onto the desolate bed of the empty shells resting in peace.
Ian’s car pulled up in the driveway of the cemetery, the only movement as far as the eye could see. He was struck not just by the lack of sunshine, something he had just been riding against in the early morning, but the complete and utter lack of sound. There was not even a cricket chirping in the silent realm of the dead. Ian rubbed his eyes as he exited the car. When the door closed, the echo of the slam carried off into the wind.
Ian had rescheduled the interview in the car, on his way to the cemetery. The revelation that Colleen had been dead was almost too much for him. He had called the school and regretfully said that he would not be able to come that day; it was rescheduled for the following day. So now, Ian was here to visit the forgotten, the abandoned dead, the loved ones who were loved no more.
Each grave was solemn. Ian read the names and dates, touching the stones, saying silent prayers for those who had no one to pray for them. He noticed that many had holders for flowers, but the flowers had long ago withered away. The holders themselves had crumbled, until only the bare rusty wire remained. Everything was gray or brown; the colors of warmth had faded with the flowers.
It was then that he saw the grave. It was obviously newer than the surrounding inhabitants, those silent residents, yet seemed already worn, abandoned. The name was the same and the date was correct, showing that this fair maiden had died only four years before. The epitaph simply said “Only the good die young.”
He saw none of this. He could not take his gaze from the ground in front of the headstone, the ground only so far above the decayed body beneath. His face lost only a little color at first, but soon became pale, almost translucent. He started shaking, as his body became suddenly cold: he could feel the warmth leaving him. He lifted his hand to his face, scarcely believing that he could be awake. Then he bent over and touched the burst of color that shone like the missing sun through an overcast sky. He then held the color close to his heart, feeling it, surprised by its dryness and warmth. He then began the long walk back to the car. Only this time he wore a wide smile. This time his mind was not troubled but triumphant. This time the sun shone down upon him as the strange cloud drifted apart.
This time he carried his jacket in his arms.