Contest #32 shortlist ⭐️

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Submitted on 03/13/2020

Categories: Fantasy

I wake from dreamless black into a semi-conscious haze. My body moves, pins and needles firing, forcing me to rise before I’m fully awake. I’ve fallen asleep in a chair, an old functional armchair with thin cushions. I’ve a feeling it’s not the first time I’ve done this.

I force myself to rise, still wondering who I am. I push myself up with my hands, gnarled knuckles, prominent veins, blueish tips to the fingers. Some old sod then, I thought.

I look round the strange yet familiar room, at the old furniture that in itself seems as confused as I do. A clock is ticking. I look and see that it is just after 7:30. Morning or evening? I don’t know. 

Next to the clock is a long, thin, aged mirror. I go to look in it. A long, thin, aged man looks back. Sparse, thin, white hair sprouts from the sides of his head, my head. I look round for a comb or something to tidy it. There’s nothing, so I use my hand to flatten it – to no avail. It’s alive and it wants to be up and doing, unlike me. The cheeks are reddened where underlying blood vessels have decided to call it a day. A thin beak of a nose hooks down over thin lips and bisects the face. I smile but think better of it when I see the remains of my teeth. But the eyes. Though bloodshot and rheumy, there’s still a brightness in them, and that blue. Those eyes were handsome once. I’ll take the eyes.

I turn from the mirror and notice there’s a door. A cat that I hadn’t noticed before is waiting to be let out. It sees my notice, meows, lifts its tail in acknowledgment, and then sits again at the door. I move over to the door and lift the latch. That’s all there is, just a latch, no lock, no bolt. Just a latch.

The cat trots out and I open the door to a sunny day. The chatter of the birds suggests that it’s morning rather than evening. I step outside. A crow lands on the rail of the porch.

“Elias, Elias,” it screeches.

Who’s Elias? Is it the crow, the cat? Or is it me? Am I Elias? Having a crow to remind you of your name each morning sounds like a dumb idea.

The crow flies off and I go down the steps look round at the patch of earth within the confines of the picket fence. I spot a chicken house and go to open the door. Six fat brown chickens trot out into the garden and start to root around for grubs. I scatter some seed for them. I open the top of the coop. Three eggs. I take them out, already relishing the thought of fresh eggs for breakfast, and put them in a basket that was lying on the top of the coop. 

I hear a noise behind me. There is a goat, demanding to be milked. A clean pail is close by, as is a stool, so even though I wouldn’t have been able to tell you how it was done, I sit down and milk the goat. I’ve obviously done this before.

I turn to look at the garden. There’s plenty of vegetables, plenty that I can harvest for use later on. To me it looks like autumn. The vegetables in the garden look ready to be harvested, apples on a gnarled tree waiting to be picked. I look beyond the picket fence at the surrounding woods. Here, the trees are in bud as if it were early spring. I check back at my garden and wonder how this can be.  I go to the small gate but find that although I can see the catch, my hand does not respond to my brains instructions to lift it, and I am not able to pass into spring. I must stay in autumn.

I sigh, turn back, and gathering the eggs and the milk, I go into the house to make breakfast, reflecting that it is a good autumn day. A slice of bacon I find in the pantry goes well with the eggs, though I don’t know where the bacon comes from.

After breakfast, I look round my small house. There’s just the one room, no stairs to a bedroom, no bed, not even a small cot to be seen. Maybe I always sleep in the chair. No wonder I get pins and needles. One thing is odd though. There’re two chairs at the table, and two sets of crockery; two cups, two saucers, two plates, two teaspoons. There’s a good supply of coffee and tea, though how I’d get more if I ran out, I don’t know. I potter around after breakfast, first in the house, then in the garden.

It’s afternoon and I’m lifting a few carrots for my supper later when the young woman arrives on the spring side of the fence. It’s Carrie. How do I know that when I’m not sure of my own name? Just do. She’s older by about ten years since I last saw her, but she’s still young, still attractive. My heart lifts at the sight of her.

“You’ll be wanting tea, I expect,” I say, before she’s notices me.

“Elias?”

So my name is Elias. That’s good to know. “Who the hell else did you expect to be here? Santa Claus?” I laugh, both at my own joke and from the joy of seeing her, while Carrie just gapes. “Now, get in here. I could do with a slice of your mother’s cake. I’ll go boil the kettle.” How did I know about the cake? Same way I know about anything, same way I knew who Carrie was, same way I knew how to milk a goat. The important things I just know. It’s just my name I don’t know.

I was inside putting the kettle on the stove when she walked in. “Hope you shut the gate after you,” I said. “Don’t want Mr Fox getting my chickens.”

“Yes, I remembered to close the gate.”

There’s something wrong, something tragically wrong, but I can’t talk about it until I know what it is, so I talk about other things. “Leaf tea Carrie,” I say as I poured hot water into the tea pot. “None of that bagged rubbish. Do you have real tea? Bet you don’t.”

“No, I’m afraid I take the easy way out.” She must have seen the look of disappointment on my face, because she added, “But mum uses leaf tea sometimes.”

She watched as I brought out my two cups, my two saucers, my two plates for a slice of cake each. “Wondered if you’d still be here,” she said as I poured the tea through the strainer into each cup.

“What, wondered if I was dead?” I ask casually.

“Sorry, shouldn’t have said that.” And suddenly I see it.

“What you mean is how come an old guy like me is still alive?” She fiddles with her hands in her lap. It’s time to face the issue. “Maybe you wonder how come I’m alive while your child didn’t even get to draw her first breath.”

She brought her head up fast. “No, I’m not thinking that at all. I would never wish you dead. Never.” She pauses. “Though I did wonder if you’d still be around. I mean, I’ve known you as an old man for almost thirty years now. And today, I learn that my mum knew you too.”

“And your grandmother before her.” I remember each face now, these women, this family. I don’t let on how far back they go. “So, why aren’t I dead?” I lean forward and look into those brown doe eyes with my once handsome blue ones. “How do you know I’m not?” And I laugh to kill the awkward moment.

“How did you know about the baby?”

“Just did, somehow. Though not till just now. I expect that’s what you’re here to talk about, isn’t it?”

“No, I just went for a walk, to clear my head.”

“And you just happen to have that coin on you? The one I gave you as a child when you got lost that time? The one that you know brings you here?” I sit back as I watch her. “So, what did the doctors say?”

“Don’t you know?”

“That’s not how it works. You need to say it.”

Carrie sighed. “They said it was just one of those things. It happens. Shit happens.”

“Exactly. Shit happens. Sometimes there’s no reason for it. Happens to a lot of women.”

“About one in eight pregnancies, or some such figure.”

“God’s way of saying not this time.”

“What if I don’t believe in God?”

“Nature’s way then. And don’t say you don’t believe in nature.” There’s a pause, so I sip my tea and bite into the cake. “Your mum sure makes a good fruit cake Carrie. Nice and moist, not too heavy.” She remains silent, still too many questions unanswered, the first about... “Now, tell me about why you and Tony aren’t comforting each other? What was it he said to make you run here?”

Carrie doesn’t question how I know her husband’s name. Neither do I. She sips her tea, preparing herself for what has to be said, for what she hasn’t even told her mother. “You know, you’re right about leaf tea being best. I’ll start getting some proper stuff, even if it’s only for the weekends.”

“Stop prevaricating young lady. What did he say?”

Carrie sighs as she puts down her cup. “He said I didn’t even want the baby.”

“And did you?” She stares straight into my eyes, wonders at the audacity of the question. But she has to be honest.

“Okay, Tony wanted a baby, I wasn’t so bothered. Someday yes, but not right now. When I got pregnant, it was a shock at first, but I was just starting to get used to the idea, starting to look forward to it, when I had the miscarriage.” She shrugs. “Does that answer your question?”

Honest at least. “Tell me how she was conceived.”

“What?”

“No, not the actual mechanics. Good lord, I may be an old fool, but I know what’s required for that. What were the circumstances of the night she was conceived?”

“She?”

“Fifty-fifty guess. Your family always seems to have girls.” So many mothers and daughters down the years. “And calling the child she is more polite than it. Now answer the question, what about the night she was conceived?”

“Christmas party, too much to drink. Forgot, you know.” Carrie shrugged and squirmed.

“So, do you think Tony might have tricked you into it?”

“What? No, I mean that night was more me than him. He just went along with it.”

I pause for a period while she takes this in. “So, when you lost the baby, how did you tell people; family, friends, colleagues.”

She thought before answering. “I phoned mum first. She phoned dad because he then phoned me. It was good to know they still communicate. And she told the rest of the family. Then I called Jen. She’s my best friend and I work with her. She told everyone else, so by the time I went back to work, everyone knew.

“Hmm. So you had to tell two people. Am I right?”

“Yes, I guess.”

Nearly there. “And Tony, what is it he does?”

“Tony?”

“Yes, what’s his work.”

“He’s a medical rep. Goes to surgeries and hospitals selling medical products.”

“So he’s not in one office each day?”

“No, but it’s the sort of work he prefers, being on the road.”

“And did they know you were pregnant?”

“Well yes. He was really excited about it, couldn’t wait to tell as many people as possible.”

And therein lies the issue. She just didn’t see it yet.

“So each day when he went to surgeries, each day when he went to hospitals, they had no idea that this disaster had happened in his life. What do you think they said?” Carrie said nothing, just looked at me as I played out the scene. “They would have said, ‘How’s that pregnant wife of yours Tony?’ wouldn’t they, or words to that effect? Except you weren’t pregnant anymore, and each day, many times over, he would have been asked the same question, and each day, many times over, he’d have to say the same answer. He had no Jen to spread the word. He had to do it himself.”

“I’d never thought about it that way.”

“No, and what do you think they’d say then? With the best will in the world, what did they say? I bet it was something like ‘How’s Carrie feeling?’ or ‘Give my love to Carrie, we’re thinking of her.’ I bet there were very few, if any, who asked how he was coping.”

“Don’t suppose there was.”

“And yet it was his baby too.” Carrie sits back and sips her tea thoughtfully, but I know I’m not quite done yet. There’s still one thing to get past, and that thing is…

“So, you haven’t told me about Alice yet. Tell me about Alice.”

The scathing look she gives me says it all, this is a step too far. “Why don’t you tell me,” she snaps. “You probably know more about her than I do.”

“But that’s not how it works Carrie? You have to tell me.”

It’s a while before she speaks again, but I’ve nothing else to do so I wait. “Alice was Tony’s first wife. He loved her, she got sick, she died.”

“That it?”

“Oh yeah, and it’s pretty hard competing with a dead woman sometimes.”

“You sound angry.” Carrie says nothing. “So, what do you know about her?”

Carrie shrugs. “Just that she was the love of his life, she was perfect. I bet if she’d lived, she wouldn’t have lost a baby.”

“But she didn’t live did she? In that respect, you’ve got one up on her. You’re here, you’re alive.”

“Tony doesn’t want me, he wants her.”

“Tony knows he can’t have her. And he can’t talk about her either, can he?”

“Talk about her? Why would he talk about her?”

“Because before she died, before you, she was the most important thing in his life.” I pause a little before I continue. She won’t want to hear this. “You know all about which sports he likes, which teams, which players he supports, right? And you know about what type of TV shows he watches, what food he likes, what songs he sings and how badly. You know about all those relatives of his, the mad aunts, the generous uncles, the unruly nephews. You know what he smells like, you know about that mole on his right shoulder, the one you keep an eye on, just in case it changes. Yet you know nothing about a woman that he adored, who was his childhood sweetheart, the one he spent so many years with.” I pause. “Don’t make Alice a taboo subject. Let him talk about her. You may find that she’s not as perfect as you think she is. Maybe, she always burned the toast, while you make perfect toast.” 

Carrie’s sudden laugh broke the tension in the room. “Is that why he says I make good toast? Because Alice didn’t?”

“How would I know? I’ve never met the woman. But you won’t know either unless you give him permission to talk about her.  Look, even though Alice died, Tony decided he wanted a second chance of happiness, of family life. And he chose you to share that with.” I go back to eating cake while she takes all this in. For me, it’s the only thing that’s important right now. And I slurp my tea noisily, because I’m old and old people should be allowed these little luxuries.

“Is there any chance for us?” Carrie eventually asks.

“Do you want it to work?”

“Yes. Of course I do.”

“Well then, you’ve got some talking to do to make it right, haven’t you?”

“And babies?” She’s almost afraid to ask.

“What about babies?”

“Will there be any?”

“What you two get up to when you drink too much after a Christmas party is entirely up to you. Or what you do in a cottage in Wales.”

Why do I speak about a cottage in Wales? I don’t know, and I don’t think Carrie does at first, but then a light goes on inside, and I realised it means something to her after all.

Carrie leaves shortly after. She doesn’t hug me, I don’t think there’s enough of me to hug, and she leaves my autumn existence, stepping back into her spring world. I watch as she walks away, but don’t stay there for too long. There’s a chill in the late afternoon air that creeps into my old bones. The crow settles in the apple tree.

“Elias, Elias,” it croaked.

“Yes, my name is Elias,” I answer back. The cat appears as I go back through the door, eager not to be left out. Before I shut the door, I look out at my autumn world, and the spring world beyond, wondering if I’ll ever get to winter.

That evening, after I have eaten my meal and cleared away the dishes, I go to sit down in my old functional armchair. But before I do, I find a scrap of paper and an old stub of a pencil. On it I write ‘My name is Elias’, and place it beside the long, thin, aged mirror. I don’t want to trust my identity to a crow next time I wake.

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2 comments

Chloe Lim
06:18 Mar 23, 2020

Hi Barbara, I was assigned to you for this week's Critique Circle. Wow, I really enjoyed reading this! At first it was a bit slow to get into but I really loved that you started off slowly and let off only a few hints to get us to start realising the twist - that our protagonist isn't the one who meets up with a ghost, but he IS the ghost. Excellent writing!

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Barbara Eustace
08:55 Mar 24, 2020

Thanks Chloe. I originally wrote it from Carrie's point of view, but it didn't flow as well.

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