Although the place had been wiped clean of ghosts, there was one that had not been persuaded to go. One that was so much a part of the fabric of the house and the people who lived here, that it had refused to make that final journey along the Highway of the Dead.
Looking at me warily from the corner of the room, the ghost fiddled with its over-sized granny glasses, the pattern of the wall paper behind it showing clearly through the insubstantial body. The forehead just above the left eye had been stoved in and something fluid glistened inside. This was how it remembered the injury it had received, a vague recollection of an outrage perpetrated on a body it no longer possessed.
I held out my hand and it came.
A wave of loneliness crashed over me casting me adrift on a vast featureless sea under a leaden sky, moorings cut, compass broken. But now there was a lifeline because we had a connection, a conduit through which, with a little luck, the spirit would yield its secrets.
Grudging details came at first, like reluctant suitors on a first date. In life it had been called Anne, but what had rooted it here in death was buried deep down under the surface like a sleeping leviathan. My death sense began to whisper to it, threats and enticements in equal measure, prodding the monster to wake. The two shape-shifters in the room with me whined, afraid of something that would never be the quarry of mere tooth and claw. Death however had no need for such hot-blooded seductions.
Capitulation when it came was as sudden as it was complete. My death sense swarmed eagerly over and around the spirit in spun filaments of blue and silver light. The ghost gained more solidity and in the process the extent of the head-injury was more evident. Previous reluctance forgotten, it, she, now wanted to tell me everything and the trickle of information became a flood.
When the last the frenetic jumble of images slowed, I pieced them into a sequence that started with two boys, the younger with short fair hair, the other a loose limbed teenager. There was now a third child, a girl, all of them playing in a fast flowing stream swollen with recent rain. The rich scent of damp earth carried with it the tease of summer and the children’s laughter hung on the warmed air. A brief moment of suspension and then I was inside the girl, Anne, and into a running commentary: a loop run by this forlorn piece of ghostly consciousness for more years now than it had been alive.
Adam starts saying that Phineas fancied Jenny so we laugh and Phineas tells us we’re being stupid. That just makes it funnier though. Stupid is as stupid does, mum always says. It’s kind of cold in the shallows of the stream and maybe that’s why mum has told us not to play here, but my big brothers are here so it’ll be okay.
Phin lifts a big rock and shouts to us to come over and see what he’s found underneath. I think he’s playing a joke on us for laughing at him because he can be mean like that sometimes. But then Adam shouts to me to come see. I turn too quick and put my foot down hard on a stone that moves when I stand on it. I lose my balance and fall face down into the river bed, smacking my head hard and everything goes black. Then it’s weird because I’m above my body, looking at it face down in the water. There’s a growing pool of red around my head and I think it must be blood, but how could it be, there’s just so much of it? I watch the red bits spread in the water and shout at my brothers as they pull me onto the bank. They look so funny with their mouths flapping trying to pick me up and Phineas even blows air from his mouth into mine when they get me onto the bank. Yuck, why are boys so gross? I really hope Amanda Strathmartin didn’t see that because she’d blab to the whole school about how I was snogging my brother and then I’d have to go to a new school and it would all be just be stupid.
But then some men with stretchers come and take me away, well not me, just my body, but can’t be right, ‘cos I’m here, amn’t I? Anyway, I’d better stay by the river and wait for mum to come get me because I don’t know if I can move. It’s so cold out here and now I don’t know how long I’ve been waiting. Now it’s dark and I start to cry ‘cos mum’s not come for me. She must be really angry with me this time, because she’s never not come before. After a while though I get the hang of things and find that if I really try, I can move. It takes ages though and it’s quite hard to do, so as I head off in the direction of our house I have plenty time to grump about why they’ve just left me behind.
I finally make it back to the house in a total strop and all I want to do is find mum. But the door is open and the house is empty and that’s never happened before – not that I remember anyway. Where have they all gone?
Now it’s all changed and somehow I’m floating above my own body. I must be in hospital ‘cos people in white coats are shouting and putting metal things on my bare, naked chest with electricity coming out. Either that or I’m in the loony bin. Amanda Strathmartin would really love this. I think about this for so long I start to feel funny. I can see mum and dad just outside, dad being held back by more people in white coats. What does he think he’s doing? Maybe I’m dreaming or something, maybe that’s it and it’s all okay. I try to call to mum and dad, but either they can’t hear or my voice has packed up. Dad’s face is all red and mum looks like she’s been crying. I float near the ceiling and next thing, hear this man with a stupid pointy beard say: “She was dead on arrival, it’s no use. Simon, better get someone to tell the parents.”
They can’t mean me can they? What is dead anyway? How can I be dead if I can still think things and see and hear stuff? But everything changes again and now I’m back at the house and it really does look as though someone has died because dad has his black suit on and the boys have their hair brushed in daft side partings which makes me laugh because I know how much they hate that. Today, though they don’t seem to mind that much. Dad’s face is all screwed up and he smells of that stuff adults drink that makes them act all silly and embarrassing.
“What is it dad?” I say and touch him on the arm but he doesn’t hear me. I find mum in the kitchen crying and she won’t pay attention to me either. What’s wrong with everyone? Are they playing a joke to teach me a lesson about being in the stream? But the boys were doing it too, so how is that fair?
But then I have a thought which makes me think that maybe I have gone loop the loop, like Jackie MacLean’s mum when her husband ran off with the baby-sitter: they’re not ignoring me on purpose, I’m dead and this is my funeral. It must be because I don’t have a body and now I don’t have a mum, dad and two stinky brothers anymore. Did I do something wrong? I shouldn’t have played where mum told me not to, but I wasn’t bad enough for this, was I? Maybe if I say I’m sorry, it’ll come all right again. I’m a bit worried about mum and dad to be honest, hope they’re going to be okay because they look awful upset…