I often wonder what it would be like to escape life in a way that couldn't be undone. There seems like a beautiful romance in embracing the haunting mystery of what could have been, instead of accepting the irrevocable truth of what never was.
Like so many other nights I was consumed by these dark thoughts. I tried unsuccessfully to banish them to the farthest reaches of my mind. I just wanted a few hours sleep. I wanted to dream. I wanted to wake to the warming sun embracing my face like a lover's kiss. But sleep was a lost cause. I sat up defiantly, fighting against the four darkened walls that seemed to be closing in on me. I was trying to be happier these days – but more than that – I knew that I wasn't.
I lived in an isolated cottage that had been built decades ago. I could tell it had been quaint in its time, but now it was a complete eyesore. It had its charms though. It stood so close to the beach I could almost skim pebbles through the ocean from my front door. The crunch of waves colliding into the rock-face below was the only thing I heard all day long. As those same waves continued to roll in, I was now more awake than ever. I twisted over and grabbed for my phone: 2.56am. No one in their right mind would start a day this early – not unless they owned a bakery – but I couldn't get back to sleep. The air was scorching, even with sunshine still hours away.
I slowly lurched myself out of bed. My clothes stuck to me, desperate not to yield. Yanking the material away from my damp skin, I decided a run might clear my head. But I couldn't handle the smothering feeling of sweat caked onto my body. I would indulge in a shower first. The bathroom was the only room in the house clinging to respectability, perhaps just needing a lick of paint here and a polish there. The shower had a mystical essence to it, and I knew it was weird to have such a spiritual connection to taps and tiles, but in there the rest of the world faded away.
I soaked up every drop of water the nozzle extinguished. Each one struck my bare body and descended to the drain below. My worries lessened; my anxieties weakened. With some hesitation I turned my hands to the familiar squeak of the taps. I stepped onto the lush bathmat and inhaled a cloud of steam. The rest of the world existed once again. I dried myself and returned to the damp heat of my bedroom. Before I could talk myself out of it I threw on my running outfit, bolted out the door and emerged into the muted night air.
I made my way through darkened streets, having abruptly decreased my run to a saunter. My surroundings looked both comfortingly familiar and hauntingly distant. Nothing eased my thoughts. In the low light of surrounding street lamps I grew more anxious; shop windows took on an eerie glow. I caught my reflection, stopping to look at the stranger I didn't know any more. I returned my focus to the path ahead. Distracted by thoughts crashing on top of me, I was slow to notice flashing lights off in the distance. I moved closer and a brutal realisation hit me. The red and blue flickers repeated sequentially, the source coming from around the corner of a building. Inching closer, my heart raced in time with the lights. I had to see the cause of this dazzling disturbance to the shadows.
I placed my hand on the rough texture of the building's brick wall and peered around. The scene was strangely calm. I sensed something terrible had transpired, but order was being restored with morbid efficiency. Two police cars and an ambulance were parked near the railway bridge – the one that seemed to lead so hurriedly out of the town. From my vantage point it was hard to discern specifics. I crept closer. It was not out of voyeuristic necessity; I was simply overtaken by a basic human impulse to help.
Loose bits of asphalt crunched under my shoes as I delicately traversed across the road and onto the grass. On the softness of my new foothold I floated along like a ghost. Sweat dripped over my forehead. I brushed hair away from my face. In the space of just a few short breaths I approached the hill overlooking the bridge. All manner of rational thought escaped my brain. I had to know what had happened. I crawled to the apex of the hill and peeked over. There was nothing I could do. There was nothing anyone could do. He lay there, like a real person, but somehow not.
What I did next I couldn't rationalise. Without thinking, I wrenched my phone from my pocket and took a photo. That image would never leave me. That face was frozen in time. It was full of fear, hope and potential. It was still full of life, still full of questions. Now I was full of questions. Maybe he just wanted it all to be over. Maybe he'd been through such pain that nothing in his life could overcome it. Maybe this was the best he'd ever felt. I knew how alluring the feeling of escape was.
The paramedics had done all they could. The body was covered over. A life was finished, just like that. He was barely a teenager. I looked back at the picture I'd callously taken. It was blurry; it was imperfect. That seemed fitting. I retreated back down the hill and gazed up at the night sky. Through a faint haze I stared at the stars imprinted above the horizon. They were pristine and simple, but everything else made less sense than ever before. All I could do now was make the long walk home and try to sleep. All I could think was whether I'd ever sleep properly again. My life had changed forever, by someone I'd never even known.
I scrounged together a couple of restless hours sleep, but that boy haunted my dreams. He was entrenched in my head; his face implanted in my psyche. The next morning I flicked open my laptop, its whir breaking the deafening thud in my head. I transferred the photo to my computer and stared transfixed into it. I zoomed in, closer and closer. Eventually the image became nothing but a blur of pixels. I desperately wanted to know what had plagued that boy. But how could I? How could anyone? We all bring a unique set of experiences to the turning points in our lives. We can try and understand what someone else is going through, try and relate to it, but we never really can. Never can we comprehend the exact type of pain another person might be dealing with. I checked online to see if it was just a tragic accident, but found only early news reports. I had the lingering sense this wasn't an act of luck, but an act of fate. I had to get away from thinking about it.
I scurried through the house towards the kitchen. The floorboards cracked, sending me looking over my shoulder. It felt like I was being followed. I brushed it off as my fragile mind getting the better of me. The sunlight poured through the dusty windows in the kitchen and blinded me with its intensity. It was a comforting feeling after last night. I stood still, letting it settle on me for a second. It warmed my face like nothing else could. I turned away and blinked rapidly to get my weary eyes back into focus. The room became discernible again and my attention shifted to the doors and drawers – all inexplicably open. My breath shortened, a wall of confusion staring back at me. I knew I had some temperamental hinges, but not like this. Every cupboard door was open, resembling a line of eyes watching my every move. Every kitchen drawer pointed back at me like an outstretched finger of accusation.
I dashed out of the room and through the house, every creak penetrating through my skull and striking my core. I tried to rationalise it; could the house have been burgled when I was out last night? Nothing was taken – not that there was much to take. Darting into the bathroom, I clutched onto the shower curtain. I closed my eyes, slowing my breaths as best I could. I started to gain a sense of composure and opened my eyes again. The comfort of the room sank away as I felt something else wrong. I turned around, but nothing was there. I'd been certain I felt a presence, but there was simply my over-active imagination.
I leaned into the mirror and examined my face closely. I looked exhausted. Just then my fringe, falling down over my bloodshot eyes, was uncontrollably swept from my face. It felt like an invisible hand sweeping over my forehead. I reasoned it was a breeze making its way through the open window. I was perplexed, I never opened that window. Some kids must have broken in. I pictured them looking at my ten-year-old television and withered pot plant wondering why they'd wasted their time. I defiantly closed the window and decided to recover by spending the day at the beach.
It wasn't until late afternoon when I returned home. Sand was wedged between my toes, seawater coated my hair, and the sun settled over the horizon – but somehow I still wasn't distracted. I returned to the emptiness of the house and I felt it in the pit of my stomach. I thought back to the boy at the bridge. I unmistakably saw myself in him. What if one day my loneliness made me snap like that? Was the path I found myself on sending me towards the same demise, somewhere in the distance?
I stood rigidly still in the shower as the water engulfed me. Each drop stirred a different pang of sensation: pain; regret; sorrow. A dozen emotions were hitting me all at once. I bowed my head completely under the nozzle, letting the water pour over my hair. I prayed the drenching sound would drown out everything else. I ran my fingers back through my hair and flicked away a handful of thoughts. With every drop that followed the thoughts came back ever more intensely. The waterfall around me transitioned into my own tears – one indistinguishable from the other. I cried and cried, falling to the floor and huddling myself into a ball, the water cascading over my back. Only when I opened my eyes again did I realise the room had been plunged into darkness. The darkness in my mind became real around me. The only tangible sense in that moment was the deafening sound of water falling over me. I stood up in abject fear.
I fumbled for a second before turning the taps off. The room fell into a silence as foreboding as the darkness surrounding me. I listened intently between intermittent drips. Were the intruders from last night back for my pot plant? The whole house was deathly quiet. I reached my hand through the shower curtain and swung through thin air a few times before laying my fingers on the reassuring fabric of my towel. Wiping the last tormented drips from my body, I wrapped myself tightly in the towel and stepped out from the confines of the shower and into the steam-filled room. I was just gaining composure when the room was abruptly thrown back into light. I observed a haze of steam and a vague impression of my arms hanging beside me. Feeling my way to the basin, I wiped the mirror of its obscuring moisture. Pulling my hand away from the cool glass, a droplet ran down the surface, echoing the tears I'd just expelled. I changed my focus from that single drop to my own reflection and saw what a toll my breakdown had taken. I splashed my eyes with water to try and get focus back. I looked at myself again. I'd never felt so alone in my entire life.
“I'm sorry.” Those were the two little words that broke the spell of silence overtaking me. They sent chills all over my body. I looked around, but nothing was there. My trembling hand reached over and turned off the still-running tap.
“Who's there?” I replied, trying to hide the utter fear settling over me. Even as I spoke I realised how dumb I sounded. When you're in your own real-life horror movie you don't engage your attacker in polite conversation. You run. I looked around for something – anything – to defend myself with. A can of hairspray became not the weapon of choice, but the weapon of circumstance. I rationalised I could style this person to death.
“I'm sorry.” The same words – in the same tone – emerged from the bedroom, almost like an echo. It had to be the burglar from last night. I deduced it was a kid whose guilt had gotten the better of him and he was here to apologise. I quickly pulled on my clothes and tiptoed into the bedroom, my wet hair still dripping over me.
“It's okay,” I replied. “What's your name?” I waited for an answer but heard only silence. “You're not in trouble. Just tell me your name,” I added. Still I received no reply. I flicked the light switch on and saw the room was untouched. A sigh of slight relief came over me. “Are you hiding?” I asked, starting to think whoever it was had fled already. “I promise you're not in trouble. I just want to make sure you're okay. What's your name? My name's Holly.” I heard a shuffle behind me and quickly turned. Still I saw nothing.
“My name's Chester,” he said finally. His young voice was as clear as day, but he was still nowhere to be seen. I made my way cautiously around the room, checking every possible crevice someone could fit in. I looked behind my dresser and under my bed, but he was nowhere to be seen. “You're a really good hider, Chester. I bet you're great at hide-and-seek.”
“You have no idea,” he said almost jokingly. I was about to probe further when he continued: “I'm too old for that, Holly. I've been standing here the whole time; right near the bathroom door.” I flung my gaze back to the half-open door, steam still oozing its way out.
“What do you mean, Chester? I can't see you there.”
“I'm here. I've been here the whole time.” I looked closer. In that instant my whole concept of life and its realities were shattered. Chester wasn't there, but then – somehow – part of him was. It was unreal. Before my disbelieving eyes a form started to appear in front of me. The steam was still creeping its way out of the bathroom, and in a way I could not rationalise, settling over and constructing the indistinct – but very real – outline of a child's arm. I stood there, not knowing what to say.
“What's wrong, Holly?” Chester's voice snapped me out of my cocoon of bewilderment. This couldn't be happening. I deliberated over the logical conclusions. Was I dreaming? I hadn't been sleeping well enough to dream. Over-tiredness then? Possibly. Alcohol? I sure needed a drink, but no – this was really happening. I had to reply to this boy who apparently wasn't there, but somehow was.
“Nothing, Chester. I just kind of feel like I've seen a ghost.”
“Well, you have,” Chester said. I had no concept of how to reply.
“What do you mean?” I nervously inquired.
“You heard me. Come on, you're a smart girl. Your hearing couldn't be too bad either. I said: 'You have.' You have seen a ghost. You're still seeing one. Maybe this will help.” I saw a figure literally step into the cloud of steam settling in the room. Suddenly, there he was. There was Chester, from head to toe. He was as white as, well, a ghost.
“This can't be real.” I declared.
“Come on, I've come to terms with it. And it clearly affects me more than you. Surely you can deal,” he said with a smirk. I looked even closer at the apparition standing before me and there he was: the boy from the railway bridge. The steam gave him a type of ephemeral presence – from his outfit to his facial expression. It was all there, and it defied all logic.
“Need more proof?” he asked, holding out his arm and shooting a look of sarcasm. Chester gestured to his outstretched arm. I slowly walked over to him, holding out my own shaking hand. I felt nothing discernible, but as I dispersed the steam with my own hand his arm simply disappeared. I stepped back and sat down skittishly on the edge of the bed.
“So, you threw yourself off a bridge?” I asked bluntly.
“I did,” he said, almost with nonchalance.
“Did it … hurt?” I probed, wondering if I could ever actually go through with it.
“It didn't,” he replied simply. “Guess that means I did it right.”
Contemplative silence passed between us just for a moment. Chester was the first to break it. “I know you were there.”
“Call it ghostly intuition,” he joked. “It really is true that when you die your spirit immediately leaves the body. You were the first person I saw. You need to work on your hide-and-seek.” I laughed, relaxing ever so slightly. “So, when I saw you there I just had to follow you,” Chester added. “I mean, look at you! You're gorgeous!” I couldn't believe it, a ghost was hitting on me.
“And then when I saw your house,” he went on, “well I just had to give haunting a whirl. I mean, this place was begging for it.”
“So, the open window; the kitchen cupboards; that was all you?” I asked intriguingly.
“Sure was!” he said with a brash sense of self-satisfaction. “We can't physically move things, but we do get some nifty abilities. And I know it was a bit unoriginal, but hey, I was new at it. At least I didn't go for creepy writing on your bathroom mirror! You may also rest assured I was a perfect gentleman. There were opportunities to sneak a peak, but I didn't take them.” I laughed again and looked away, embarrassed by the gaze of a mischievous ghost. The laugh subsided and I looked back – he was beginning to fade entirely.
“So, why?” I asked, desperate to know. “What was so bad about your life?”
A sense of regret and sombreness came over the misty, evanescent outline of Chester's face. I'd never seen that emotion so vividly in even someone living. He exhibited a world of pain.
“No one cared,” was all he replied.
“I'm sure that can't be true. You seem like a great kid,” I said, trying to be as reassuring as possible.
“I'd like to give you a more interesting story, but I am afraid it's all pretty pathetic: parents who wished they'd never had a school dropout with no prospects; and not a friend in the world. I was convinced there was something wrong with me, and I hated myself for that. That's all there is to my lame little story.”
Disbelief was hard enough to deal with, but it was now superseded by heartache. I was hurting for this kid; for what he had been reduced to doing and how much of myself I could see in him. I had to ask him one more question. “Why were you apologising before? Why were you saying sorry?”
He was close to disappearing completely. His hands and feet had vanished and his body was quickly following.
“I felt sorry … for you.”
“What do you mean?” I replied, caught off guard.
“I spent a lot of time with you the last day or so. You can learn a lot about someone who has no idea you're there. I didn't know much when I was alive, but I sure as hell knew that look – the look of someone who's questioning it all. I could see it in you, because I knew you could see it in me. I know that's why you took the picture; why you studied it – trying to work out why. I know you wondered if you could do it too. But I also saw you agonise over it, wishing you could fix it. I can't thank you enough for being the one person who finally cared, even if it was too late.” I smiled at Chester in a way I had not smiled for awhile. He had nearly faded away, but I knew he was content with going. “All I can say is: you don't want to know more about death than life. Trust me.”
With that he was gone. I called out his name a few times but there was no response. The room fell silent except for the familiar sound of waves outside. The minutes and hours ticked away that night. I slept soundly, and I awoke next morning to the warmth of sunlight on my face. It was a reassuring feeling I loved so dearly. It was something that filled me with optimism. That day I walked the streets and took all the little things in. I stopped letting my demons get the better of me and simply existed.
Later that afternoon I visited the railway bridge. The sun was setting behind trees beautifully in the distance; their silhouettes a prelude to the impending darkness of night. Final glimmers of light bounced enchantingly off the metal surface of the railway line. I wondered if I actually had any control in the direction my life was taking, or if perhaps it was being mapped out perfectly without me even knowing it – as exactly as that railway line collided into the horizon. I clambered down the hill and made my way to where Chester had escaped all those questions. I laid a rose for him. At that moment the wind picked up, as if he really didn't appreciate the feminine touch I had brought to his place of rest. I smirked, satisfied this was adequate payback for his haunting. Without warning, the evening train roared over my head, across the bridge, and escaped into the distance. It left me instilled with a new sense of hope. Perhaps the horizon wasn't quite as far away as it seemed.