Her slender fingers danced mesmerizingly on the old piano. They skipped gracefully over the keys and hesitated not once. The soft requiem enveloped the air in a mournful thickness that left me curiously desperate for more of the sound. I wanted to weep, but tears would never fill my eyes again. My obsession with her music was becoming almost disgusting, but it was not something I could control.
In me rose an emotion I could not describe. The mere angst of it sent me spiraling into thoughts I could not bear to indulge in. The frown of her brow caused a crease in my own. I sat at the piano beside her, unable to rip my gaze from her face. It was a beautiful one, yes, but that was not what caused me to stare in awe. There was something in the way she simply did not care to dress up her features with paints, as I had seen other women do. Her air was one of dignity and confidence, yet she was not arrogant.
She could not see me. Of that I was certain. The very thought awakened in me a freedom and a desire I was desperate to give in to. My arm stretched seemingly of its own accord, fingers tingling.
She was elsewhere, engrossed in the melodies her own hands were creating for an audience she was unaware of. I saw the music as she did: not merely as notes, but as stories bursting to be told. It danced, swirling with color and weaving to collide into itself beautifully.
Surely, she would not notice the feathery touch of a nonexistent hand. The lungs of my past began to scream for air and my heart pleaded to beat as I drew closer to her. The feeling confused me, as I knew I was no longer alive, so it could not have been possible.
Suddenly, a golden light appeared in my peripheral vision. I looked away from her grudgingly and turned toward it.
It moved farther to the right.
No matter how far I turned, I could not get the light in front of me. Instinctively, I knew I must find the source of the brilliant light. I fiercely focused my attention on it, gaining nothing more than a headache for my efforts.
Behind me, she continued to play and the music swelled suddenly. At the climax of the melody, I realized the light’s glow had begun to grow stronger. I cocked my head, shifting my focus to the music instead. I matched my breathing to the rise and fall of it, watched her hands intently, and refused to let the now blinding brightness of the light distract me.
It expanded further and further until I could see nothing except the strange gold color. Yet I continued concentrating on her music, somehow knowing it needed more attention. What the light would do to me, I had no idea. I did not understand my curiosity toward it either.
All at once, the light exploded behind my eyes. I braced for a headache or a sort of pain I assumed would follow. When nothing seemed to happen, I cautiously relaxed. And then the voice spoke.
Lovely, isn’t she? The murmur seemed to come from a mouth extremely close to my ear. I could even feel a warm breath tickle the side of my face. I slowly turned, suddenly very afraid.
There was no one there. Yet, I could sense a presence beside me just the same. The voice had been whispery, yet obviously powerful. It was neither a man’s nor a woman’s. It seemed to fill my entire being with its timbre.
Oh, you won’t find me. I am everywhere and nowhere.
I scrunched my nose, confused. What did that mean?
Who are you? I hoped the invisible being could hear my thoughts.
It does not matter. I am to tell you about your choices.
It seemed I was not going to be given any excess information until it was decided so. It stayed oddly quiet for what seemed a few minutes, but may have been merely seconds.
And then the voice spoke again.
You have three days.
I grew impatient. Three days?
A terrifying low chuckle resonated through my body. Patience. Yes, three days to determine you and your lovely female’s fate.
I gripped the piano bench. Fate? I... I’ve already died.
This time, the voice laughed outright. You didn’t think death was the end did you, Darling?
Somehow, the endearment made me even more afraid.
The voice tsked. I now see you did. It is not so. Now. You have two choices.
I gulped. I could only hope I was better at making decisions while supposedly dead than when blood had flowed through my veins.
Look at her.
I slowly turned back around. Her brow was furrowed again as she studied the sheet of music in front of her. I tilted my head to the side, looking at her side profile, the shape of her nose, the curve of her lips, the emerald green of her eyes. I reached toward her again, but hesitated.
Go on, the voice urged suddenly. She won’t feel your touch.
I drew my hand back to my side. I did not trust the thing that spoke in my mind.
I heard an exasperated sigh. Alright, be that way. Maybe if I present your choices to you, you’ll rethink not touching her.
I huffed. Yes, by all means. Make my death more complicated.
I’d appreciate it if you weren’t so haughty, the voice snarled.
I rolled my eyes, but stayed silent.
Thank you. Now, as I was explaining, you have three days to make this decision. Perhaps you’d like to keep your girl completely safe from harm? I can feel your hope. It’s disgusting, by the way. Hope is useless.
I took a deep breath, willing myself to remain calm. What can I possibly do to protect her?
I could hear the smile in its voice when it said, Spend the rest of your miserable eternity in darkness.
I swallowed hard. Darkness?
A sigh. Yes, would you please listen? Endless floating... alone... in an eternal darkness. However. She will never be harmed. She will live a long life, die of old age, blah blah blah.
My mind raced. The darkness had never considered itself my friend. An eternity without the sun? Without color? In a place void of the liberating touch of another human being? I didn’t think I could possibly stand it. But... her. She would be safe. Wasn’t that worth giving up everything in the world? One glance at her face told me it would be. Still, the thought of what my fate would be chilled me to my bones.
Yes... I can sense the internal debate. But wait. There is another option. You stay with her forever. You were in love with her in the before and you’re in love with her now, in the after, aren’t you?
I squeezed my eyes shut and nodded, though I wasn’t certain the voice could see me. That can’t be it. What’s the catch?
The deep laugh sounded wicked this time. You’re clever. Either that, or I’m getting predictable. You stay with her forever, but she gets penalized for every terrible, cruel, and murderous thing you did in your life.
I flinched. ...Penalized? What exactly do you mean by penalized?
The voice growled. So many pointless questions. It could be different for every one. She could trip over a curb and scrape her knee for a lie that you told. She could break a bone for an affair you decided to indulge in. The worse the sin, the worse the consequence.
I clutched my stomach, feeling nauseous.
I do hope you didn’t sin too often in your wretched life, the voice sneered. You have three days to make your decision or she dies and you will spend the rest of your existence alone.
Abruptly, I could sense the being disappear. And thus, my thoughts were mine alone once again.
Two impossible options.
Either I live the rest of eternity in despair.
Or she lives a life filled with pain.
Most would assume the choice should be obvious. Save her.
It, unfortunately, is not that simple. I, for one, am not a selfless person. I certainly do not want to be in despair. I do not think any human being would.
Seeing her in pain would be just as unbearable.
I studied her face, this time reaching toward her with no hesitation. Forgetting for one glorious moment that I was not alive, I tried to stroke her hair. It would not be. My hand slipped through her skull. A shiver shook her ethereal body and she straightened unnaturally, gasping.
I recoiled immediately, fleeing to the opposite side of the room.
No. I couldn’t cause this one pain.
Over the next three days, I desperately tried to put the decision out of my mind, convincing myself I had another day.
She took over my whole being. She never left my sight nor my mind. She played more music and I was never tired of it. She slept peacefully and I traced her features with my ghostly fingers. The nights she slept fitfully, it was I who noticed.
Yet, she grew weaker with each precious, passing day. The selfish part of me became annoyed at the frailty of the living.
The soft side knew it was no one’s fault but my own.
On the third day, I still could not make up my mind. I waited nervously for the voice to return and reprimand me. But it never came.
I relaxed only slightly, telling myself it was it’s generosity that gave me another day even though I had done nothing to earn it. Perhaps it was because of the tangible connection that tied me to the girl. Perhaps it pitied me. But I knew I could not push my luck. I would decide tomorrow. I would.
On the third day, we went to the lake.
On the third day, she slipped from the boat.
On the third day, she saw me.
I do not recall the exact details of her death. I only remember her face. It was her face that had kept me near and her face that would drag me away.
The water swirled around us, overwhelming any sense of comprehension. She struggled to claw her way back up to the top, but it was no use. I could do nothing except try to scream, try to sob. I couldn’t. I think that was the most torturous part of it all.
Suddenly, everything became still. The water still churned, but she had gone limp. In that moment, I could feel her heart sputter. It felt like it was from my own chest, which I knew to be impossible.
She floated in front of me. Her long hair swirled around her head and her eyes were wide open. I froze. For the first time, it seemed as if she saw me instead of looking through me.
She mouthed something, but it was lost in a flurry of bubbles. I tilted my head as if it could better my hearing.
She tried again.
It was a mere whisper in the great body of water, but I knew it to be my name.
Her heart paused, weakly stuttered, and then stopped completely.
On the third day, my everything left me.
And I was alone as I had been when my heart beat.
How careless of me to assume the afterlife would be lovely.