It feels good to laugh again.
To close my eyes, throw my head back, and just . . . laugh. Peals bubbling up freely from my throat; body shaking with mirth. Nothing holding me back, nothing in the way. Just this moment.
I deserve it.
I’m sitting at a restaurant, a friend on either side. I’d tried to tell a joke but messed it up—got the punch line the wrong way around—but we laughed anyway, because we could, because life is free and why on earth not. As I open my eyes, a smile lingering on my lips, I feel the warm yellow light bathing my face; smell the delicious aromas wafting to me from the table.
I look up, and the dead man is staring back at me from the street.
I freeze, smile vanishing. This can’t be. It’s not possible. He’s dead.
I’d killed him myself.
He’s dressed well tonight; immaculate suit, expensive watch, polished shoes. He sees me looking and winks.
I look around, desperately, to see if anyone has noticed. No one has; the chatter continues on unabated.
When I turn back, he is gone.
By the time I reach my apartment, I’ve almost convinced myself I’d imagined him. I take off my suit, kick off my shoes, lay my watch on the dresser. I reach out, switch on the light . . .
“Miss me, kiddo?”
I pause, then slowly turn. He’s sitting on my bed, dressed now in just a white shirt and pants, his bare feet cross-legged underneath him. I shake my head wildly.
“No. No! You’re not here. You can’t be. I killed you.”
He spreads his hands wide, as if inviting me to look at him. “And yet, here I am.”
I don’t respond, defiantly—desperately—refusing to pay him attention. I lower myself onto the bed—he scoots over to make room—and close my eyes.
I just need to sleep.
His voice is the last thing I hear.
I squeeze onto the subway car in the morning, cling to a pole for balance. I look around, distract myself with the latest ads. Out of the corner of my eye, movement catches my attention. I crane my neck to see.
The dead man is waving at me.
I wait until the doors are about to close, then jump out. I run to a different train, catch it just in time.
I sit down, wipe the sweat off my brow with a trembling hand.
The dead man next to me hands me a tissue from his briefcase.
At work, I run into the bathroom, turn on the faucet and splash my face with cold water. I look up at my face—pale and drawn, eyes bloodshot, hair in disarray.
This can’t be happening, this can’t be happening, this can’t be happening.
A toilet flushes behind me. The stall door opens and the dead man steps out.
He walks up to the mirror and adjusts his tie. “Don’t worry.” He smiles at me in the mirror. “We’re old friends. You’ll get used to me in no time.”
I shake my head frantically. “I don’t understand. I killed you. How can you be here? I killed you.”
“Please.” He slaps me on the back. “Haven’t you read the Bible?” He walks to the door. “You can’t kill sin.”
He strolls out.
Time loses meaning. It passes in a blur, me sitting by my desk, head in my hands, trying not to listen to him as he talks. I do things, meaningless tasks I forget the moment they’re done, and maybe I have a conversation with a coworker—I can’t quite remember—and I think my boss stopped by and told me something, and I think I smiled dutifully and nodded, and I think I even wrote it down, but maybe I’m wrong, because when I look down all I have written, over and over again, is help.
I look up and see that I’m at a bus stop. It’s night now, and I don’t remember walking here—I don’t really know where here is—all I know is that the dead man is sitting next to me and he’s still talking, still chattering endlessly in my ear, and I don’t want to fight anymore, I just want him to stop, I’d give anything to make him stop . . .
At first I think I imagined the words. Then I turn. A large African American is sitting next to me. I frown at him.
He gestures to my hand. I look down, see that I’m holding my keychain in my hand—funny, I don’t even remember taking it out my pocket—and I’m tracing my fingers over the metal tag, over and over again.
The tag with that date engraved in it.
The date I stopped.
“Ele . . .” My throat is weirdly dry. I have to cough, clear my throat before I can form the words. “Eleven months.”
He pulls out his own keychain and shows it to me. “Thirty two.”
Thirty two. Somehow, I can’t quite wrap my head around that. “It get any easier?”
He snorts a laugh, only it doesn’t sound very funny. “No.”
I don’t reply.
He turns to me. “You feel it, don’t you? The need, the itch? You were doing so well and then something triggered it—a smell, a sound, heck you probably don’t even know—and suddenly it’s all you can think about. Suddenly you’d do anything for one more time, just once more.”
I don’t say anything; I don’t need to. We both know
“And all the reasons you quit don’t matter anymore,” he continues, “Because you need it, need it like you’ve never needed nothing before, and it’s not fair, really, it’s not fair because you quit and you were supposed to stay quit, but it don’t work like that, does it?”
I swallow. “How . . . how do you make it go away?”
He shrugs. “Hell if I know. Ain’t got no tricks for you, kid. That itch—it’s gonna drive you crazy. Keep you up at night, won’t let you concentrate at work. It’ll go away, eventually, but it’ll come back. It’s like the tide—comes and goes, and when it comes it’s a tsunami.”
The dead man next to me waves at me, tries to get my attention, but for once, listening to this stranger’s words, I’m able to ignore him. “So what do you do?”
“You keep going, kid. You make it through a day. And when you do, you make it through the next day. It’s all we got.”
The bus arrives, and he stands. He wishes me good luck and boards.
I don’t follow.
I watch the bus drive away, then turn to the dead man. He’s arguing with me, telling me it won’t work, but I’m not really listening anymore.
I glance at the keychain once more, then put it away and stand. I start to walk, and the dead man comes to walk beside me but for once I don’t care, because it’s OK if he’s there.
He talks and he screams, and his voice echoes in my head and it’s agony, but I grit my teeth and smile anyway.
Because he hasn’t won yet.
Eli Landes is a marketing copywriter by day and a fiction writer whenever he can squeeze in the time. He writes about pretty much anything and everything, but everything he writes has a little bit of novelty to it; a little bit of different. For more—including unique, never-before-published short stories—follow him at his blog, regardingwriting.com.