—Chapter 1—

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Life is a bastard. I used to think there was some flexibility to it; I thought that surely, if a man took the path of righteousness, there would be something worthwhile for him on the other end. Well I’ve been up and down that path more times than I care to count. I’ve been at the lowest chasms and highest cliffs of humanity, I’ve scoured the trail in between, and there were even times when I searched for some other route. And yet, I’ve found no more peace as a holy man than I had as a lowly one. Life really is just a bastard. I know that now, and truth be told, I think the lord’s known it from the very start.

First He tried to hide it in an apple. When that failed miserably He decided to drown the world, as one does. But even after the flood, the people knew that something wasn’t right. Those were the days of Babel, and working together as a single people under a single language, the Babylonians built a tower in order to speak with the lord. There, from atop their mighty tower, they asked the lord a simple question.

“Almighty Creator, why is life a bastard?”

To which the lord promptly responded, “Listen you little shits, you try making something that’s perfect. Now bugger off!”

And the lord divided the people into peoples, and He gave them different tongues, and He smashed their tower to dust. And for a while that worked. He even gave us a book which claimed to have all of the answers in it, in case we ever wanted to question Him again. But I’ve read that book since I was a boy, and I’ve yet to find the lord’s answer to the only question on my mind in these present days of turmoil.

Why is life a bastard?

Our tower may have been smashed, but we’re nearing a second Babel with each passing day. In fact, it’s quite possible we’ve already built it here in San Samarra. From my steeple, I see a building that stands out. It’s not immaculate. It’s not even particularly tall. But there’s a woman sitting on the edge of its rooftop, and it seems to me like she’s asking the lord a great many questions. If she jumps, then I’ll know the lord answered those questions truthfully. If she jumps, then I’ll know that life is a bastard because the lord made it that way by mistake. If she jumps, then I’ll climb over the edge of this steeple and I’ll jump too. But until she falls from that edge, I’ll stay here in my steeple, with a cross hanging around my neck.

Because I don’t hate the lord. I respect Him for trying. However, out of the same respect, I wear a ring around my neck as well. It’s the ring of a mate who tried just as hard and failed just as completely. Right now two names are engraved on its worn surface: Sarah and Daniel. There’s plenty of room for two more names though, should the need arise. The first name is my own, which is Aidan. The second name is the lord’s, and with the time left in this world, I’d be glad to etch in whichever name He feels like using.

The ring brings back memories. I never knew Sarah, but I knew Daniel when the two of us were young. We grew up together in Northern Ireland, the best of pals and all that. But because life is a bastard, my family moved south one summer, and I didn’t hear much from him after that. Sometimes he would write, but over the months his words became impersonal. The last letter I received from him arrived on the day he turned seventeen. It was impossible to mistake the letter for anything but a goodbye.

He ran away from his home shortly after that, and for the longest time, nobody knew where he went. His family gave up hope and moved to the states. The younger brother made it big as a musician, but life is a bastard, and now all the lad has to show for it is the nicest gravestone for miles.

And that’s where the story should have ended. Both brothers were dead, or might as well have been, and the parents were thoroughly heartbroken. Boohoo, tragedy, tears all around. But of course, that’s not where the story ends at all. After twenty seven years of respite, the story picked up again on what felt like a normal and bastardly day, which began with a less-than-pleasant time at work. The familiar sound of shattering glass resounded through the bar, and although it was impossible to feel any enthusiasm, I responded without much hesitation. A bottle had been knocked to the floor by two regulars. They exchanged unpleasantries as I was cleaning up beside them.

They were the only two at the bar, but for a grey afternoon, that was more than usual. The man in the vest had arrived first. He’d given us each a smile, sat down, and kept to himself, saying he didn’t want to get us sick. I believed the fella. Clearly he was ill, as proven by the sniffles that would sound off every thirty seconds, without fail. And clearly his intentions were well enough. After every sniffle he would chuckle, smile, and apologize for showing up.

The moment Leonard entered, Jack’s friendliness left. As the two argued, their words were still marked by a sniffle every thirty seconds, but no smile to match it.

I finished sweeping up the glass, and the bartender addressed the two, whose conversation had grown quite loud. “Alright boys, that’s enough out of the lot of ya.”

The man in the vest shut his mouth and returned all attention to his drink, reclaiming what was left of the smile he’d entered with. The man in the cap continued to bark at his acquaintance.

The bartender leaned in between the two. “Leonard, I know you can hear me. We have this conversation every week.”

“I hear ya Rick. I just don’t much care for what you have to say.”

I walked to the storeroom to toss the broken glass, but before being on my way, I couldn’t help but comment. “Rick won’t tell ya this Leonard, but there are other bars in Belwyn, and you’re welcome to any of ‘em.”

I set about rearranging the items on the storeroom shelves, trying to distract myself from the fact that nothing needed to be done that day. The conversation in the other room was growing louder once again, but I paid it no mind. I was too preoccupied with pretending to care. Besides, it was a grey afternoon, and nothing much ever happened on grey afternoons in Belwyn. Nothing much happened in Belwyn at all.

It took a blatant scream before my attention was called back to the other side of the storeroom door. I returned as Leonard was holding a jagged edge to Jack’s vest. The four of us stood there at the bar, not one of us saying a word, and not one of us making a movement.

I looked to Rick. He looked back, but he risked nothing further. Jack sniffled.

All too soon the glass shimmered and then disappeared, time and time again, into a tangible human being. From behind the bar Rick tried to pull the aggressor away, but the damage was being done and Rick was unable to help it. Ripping myself out of disbelief, I ran to Leonard and wrapped myself around him, trying to restrict the slippery bastard. He kicked at my shins as our arms wrapped themselves into entanglement. He swung his razor shard for all his worth, but I kept its edge away as I pulled him to the ground. Unable to make contact with at anything, Leonard tossed the piece of glass, hitting Jack yet again. After seeing Leonard forfeit his weapon I relaxed a bit. He snapped his head upwards in return, and as I recoiled from the flash, Leonard got loose.

Leonard slammed the door behind himself, and Rick asked if I was well. With my face twisted, I retorted, “What the bloody fuck do you mean am I well? Help him, he was stabbed amadán!”

Rick ran to the other side of the bar, where he looked the bleeding man over. “Oi, can ya hear me Jack?” he asked, speaking directly into Jack’s face. Getting a weak response, but a response all the same, Rick looked over the man’s wounds as I grabbed the phone to call for help.

An ambulance arrived, as did the police sometime later. Once they had left, Rick called it a day. He told me to go home and get some rest. So after a less-than-pleasant time at work, I returned to my flat, where I was soon taking part in my favorite pass time: fuck all. The blinds were shut, the television was off, and I was sprawled out on the couch being a lazy sod.

Only something strange happened. For the first time in weeks, maybe months, I heard a knock.

I stood up and went to answer the door, but before I was even off the couch, there were second thoughts in my mind. I was tempted to say that the person chose my room by mistake. After all, there were dozens of people living in the building. Not to mention, as I stood from my couch, my bed suddenly looked very comfortable. But since it was such a rare occasion, and I was already up, I didn’t see the harm in investigating.

Before walking out, I stepped into my bathroom and glanced at the mirror. Looking back was a strapping old face framed on all sides by a tangle of red hair. I flashed a smile, telling myself that the black eye Leonard had given me wasn’t all that noticeable. After running my fingers through my beard to smooth down some of the more blatant imperfections, I turned and opened my door.

I don’t know who I was hoping to see on the other side. An ex maybe, or a drunken acquaintance. But the man standing in the hallway startled me. He was ghostly in appearance. His face was scarred and hollow. It was clear the man had once been blonde, but his receding hair had lost most of its colour, and the remaining strands wafted in the air as though they too wanted to leave him. He had been adjusting the cuffs of his black jacket, but when he noticed that I’d opened the door, he looked up. He smiled, and it was only then that I recognized the spectre.

“Danny?” I questioned, hardly saying the name out loud. Apparently ghosts could read lips, because he nodded, and his shoulders shook in a brief laugh. I stepped into the hall, but left one foot behind, to stop the door from closing. Just in case. “I’ve hardly recognized ya.”

“You don’t look so different,” the man regarded. His voice struck a swift blow to my chest, and I had to force my next breath. The voice hadn’t changed. Danny used to speak softly, like he hadn’t a care in the world. And despite this man’s otherworldly qualities, he too spoke just as soft. “I suppose it’s been a while.”

I just stared. His presence was petrifying, even if that presence was a head shorter than me and a good deal narrower. He swayed from side to side, and it was impossible to tell why. Perhaps he was nervous. Perhaps swaying is just something dead people do.

I managed to reply to him, “Aye, twenty years at least.”

Giving a sideways nod down the hall, Danny asked, “Would you care to take a walk?”

I took another step forward. The door swung closed behind me, and with that, I was trapped with the ghost of my old mate. I asked him, “So what’s brought you back around here?”

“A few things,” he shrugged as we walked. “You mostly.”

“I’m flattered, truly. But why now? Stop me if I’m wrong, but surely you’ve had plenty of chances to come back from the dead over the years.”

 He laughed. “Is that what I did? Nah, there are a few people I’d like to give a good haunting, but you’re not one of them.”

“I want to believe ya Danny, I do. But it’s eerie shite like that that’s making it difficult.”

“Well for what it’s worth, the pathetic friend you used to have is gone,” Danny said, tapping his temple. “The man before you is a new friend. One longing for simpler times.”

“Sounds more than a little contradictory, don’t ya think?”

“Story of my fuckin’ life,” he said as we turned off of the sidewalk and into a park.

Things were quiet for a while as we looked around. My gaze wandered anywhere but towards the ghost by my side. I did my best to keep a calm look about me, but in my pockets, my hands wouldn’t stop fidgeting. Danny looked cool and collected, like terrorizing the living was something he did every day.

I asked him where he’d spent the last twenty seven years of his life, and he said Sagemont. I asked him why, and he wouldn’t say. I asked him what he’d been doing in Sagemont, and he said he’d been a musician like his brother, only not dead. I asked him why, and he wouldn’t say. I pointed out that he was doing that eerie shite again, and he acknowledged that he was. When I asked him why, he finally responded, “I don’t think you’ve grasped the meaning of ‘I won’t say.’”

We found a bench to rest at. It wasn’t exactly a nice day for a walk. Nice days in Belwyn were extinct, it seemed. But the wind wasn’t too bothersome, and the clouds weren’t too grey, and so we sat on that bench for a while, not saying a word as we took it all in.

Silence between us used to be a comfortable thing, when we were young. What was the need for words when you knew what someone would say anyways? But the man sitting beside me was a stranger—he told me so himself.

“So what’s brought you back around here again?”

Danny reached into a jacket pocket, and retrieved a bundle of euros. For the first time since he knocked on my door, his smile disappeared. “Well I have this now, which is something. Not much really, but since I don’t have any plans, I thought it might interest you.”

My eyes grew wide for a moment, and I leaned close to give him a sharp whisper. “Put that away; you don’t know what people would do to get their hands on it.”

“If they want it they can have it, there’s plenty more.”

“Christ, it’s no wonder you’re smilin’ so much.”

“I don’t like to think that has a thing to do with it, actually,” he said as he stuffed the bundle back into his pocket. “It wasn’t worth the price, not by a damn sight.”

“And what would that price be?” I questioned. He wouldn’t say, so I sighed and looked away. “Well would ya at least tell me about that pendant of yours?”

“This?” he asked, pulling on the slim silver chain around his neck.

There was a ring at the end of the chain, which he held between two of his fingers for me to see. It was made of a lustrous metal, I never did figure out exactly what, and a series of thorny vines had been engraved along the outside. Squinting closer, I spotted a line of tiny letters on the polished inner surface.

“There’s a name on it,” I noted, as though he were somehow unaware.

“Yes, Sarah.”

“You didn’t off and get married, did ya?”

Danny didn’t say. Instead, he tucked the ring away and leaned back. “Enough carry on about me now. What’ve you been doing these days?”

“Not as much as I’d like to be, I tell ya,” I responded as I leaned back with him, spreading my arms out over the wooden bench. “Seems the world became a craiceáilte place since we were kids.”

“You know I still can’t understand you when you launch into phrases like that,” Danny admitted, and as the words came out, I could see his smile resurfacing along with them. “But I doubt if it was anything pleasant.”

“Still haven’t taken your ma’s advice and learned your own language?”

“What use is a dying tongue anyways?”

“It’s not dead as long as there’s someone to speak it.”

“But being the last one keepin’ it alive must get lonely,” he countered. Rather than admitting how entirely correct he was, I glanced off at the sky. The clouds didn’t seem to be getting any lighter. “Sorry if I’m being difficult,” he said. “I’ve just been doing a lot of thinking in these last weeks. Not all of it about you, not even most, but—”

He stopped mid-sentence, as though there were a pair of unseen hands at his neck. I asked him what was wrong, but he just shook his head, clenching his fists. After doubling over in a sharp inhale, Danny expelled a long and aggravated breath.

I began to put a comforting hand on Danny’s back. Began to.

I just couldn’t bring myself to it. I retracted the gesture. Instead we sat on the bench, physically near each other, but separated by twenty seven years of emptiness. Rain drops fell in lieu of tears, and the park goers dispersed. All except for me and Danny. It was only when I started to shiver that he spoke up.

“I’m sorry I bothered you, just go home.”

“And where will you go?” I asked.

Danny’s pained expression tightened even further. “I have a hotel room across town. I can walk. It’s not far.”

I stood, and in the cold Belwyn rain, I offered Danny a hand. “Why don’t you come on back to my flat? If nothing else, it’s closer.”

“The distance doesn’t matter much anyways. I could get a cab,” he pointed out as he stared up at me.

“Up to you mate, but I like the idea of spending the night together. It’d be a bit like old times.”

Danny reached up and took hold of the lingering gesture, bracing himself on it as he rose to his feet. We stood there as if frozen by the chilling rain, hands and eyes locked together, until Danny raised his voice to be heard against the downpour. “It’s good to be back in good company an’ all, but this rain is fucking ridiculous!

“Sneaks up on ya, doesn’t it?” I projected as we strode through the downpour. “Not much rain in Sagemont I gather?”

“East England, I’m surprised it’s not a desert!” Danny told me, shouting over the growing roar of the torrent.

Splashing through the puddles, Danny’s eyes exhibited a familiar glimmer—one which finally matched his smile. As the two of us stumbled our way into the flat, I heard the sound of my own laughter, a sound I hadn’t even realized I was making.

“What are you so cheery about?” Danny asked.

“Nothin’ special, just reminded me of the days you and I would bunk off and go sailing. D’ya know the time I mean?”

“When not thirty seconds after we’d left the docks, the storm of the fucking century passed over Glendive? Of course I remember; we were scared witless, but it didn’t even pale in comparison to when your mam found out!” Danny exclaimed, eyes still glimmering.

Walking down the hall in drenched shoes, I asked him, “So what sort of millionaire dresses like some punk from the seventies?”

“One who was a punk in the seventies?” he suggested. “Or maybe one who can’t quite come to terms with how much he’s got.”

“And how much would that be?” I asked, taking a key from my pocket and sticking it in the door.

“Just shy of thirty million.”

I stopped rotating the key mid turn, my breath needing to be forced once again. “Thirty million did you say?”

“Aye, at least that’s in actual euro. Apparently there’s more in assets. I never cared to learn the full number.”

Exhaling, I opened the door and we stepped inside. “If this is a joke, well fuckin’ done; I believe every word of it,” I said as I kicked off my shoes.

Removing his soaked jacket, Danny said, “If only I could be so lucky.”

“Still won’t tell me where the fortune came from?”

He released an abrupt laugh, and shook his head. “There’s nothing fortunate about this. Although I suppose us reuniting is something, isn’t it?”

I agreed with him as he took a look around the room, not that there was an abundance for him to look at. I ambled over to a mini fridge and grabbed two beers, offering one to Danny. Waving it away, he said he’d never touch the stuff again.

“Well brilliant, more for me.”

I closed the fridge with both bottles in hand. Danny dropped onto the couch, and asked, “So how’ve the years treated everyone in my absence?”

“Depends on who you’re asking about,” I said as I sat beside him. Over the course of the evening we reminisced over the past, and I told of what our various acquaintances had made of themselves. Some people had ended up better off than others, but most of their lives had been on par with my own. We didn’t talk much about our personal lives. He didn’t care to say anything, and I didn’t have anything to say.

A few hours had passed before we agreed that we were exhausted. He spread out on the couch, and I took the bed. Sleep came within minutes, but in those minutes I had a thought. I thought, for a few minutes that night, that maybe life wasn’t a bastard. Maybe life as a whole wasn’t that bad.

I wish Danny would’ve read my mind and slapped me, because it was the dumbest thought of my adult life.

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© Ray Underscore Thompson, July 2015