Content Warning: Mild foul language, gore, death.
Skin sagged on his bones like melting wax. A chunk of flesh had pulled away from his bicep and hung like a red tongue. Deep lacerations on his shoulder revealed gashes of congealed blood and tissue. Fitzgerald Nicholas Bartleby, Jerry, as he was known in life, sat on a bench, watching children laugh and squeal as they chased each other across the unnaturally verdant Astroturf of the local playground. Jerry came each morning and chose the same wrought-iron bench in the center of the park; it was his favorite ritual. The cemetery was becoming crowded, and everyone was always in such a foul mood, so Jerry relished these moments where he could get away from all the negativity and enjoy the happy scenes of the young and the living.
“Yo, Fitz!” someone called.
Jerry turned to see his new grave neighbor, Wayne, crossing the grassy lot between the cemetery and the park.
Jerry grumbled under his breath, “seems he’s found me,” but raised his maimed right hand in a polite wave. His pinky finger dangled from a tendon.
Wayne looked like a light pole—tall and skinny, and wearing all black. He was covered in patchy sores, with teeth beyond restoration, and cheekbones that jutted out of his face in hard, sharp angles.
“Good morning, Wayne. Looks like you’ve discovered my hiding spot.”
He joined Jerry on the bench and rubbed his palms together. “Man, you’ve been holding out on me. Look at all these hot mamas.” His craned his neck, not even trying to be discreet. He was, after all, a dead man, and entirely invisible to the living. “Whoever invented spandex…mmm mm, good stuff.”
Jerry shifted away from the man. “I don’t come here to ogle, Wayne. I’m looking for someone.”
Wayne scratched his thinning hair. “I gotcha, I gotcha.” He elbowed Jerry in the ribcage. “No judgement from me. So, who are we looking for? What’s your type? Blonde? Brunette? Curvy? Athletic?”
“No, Wayne.” Jerry rolled his eyes. “It’s nothing like that. If you must know, I’m searching for my soulmate.”
Wayne raised his eyebrow. “Now?” He gestured to the cluster of organs spilling from the gash in Jerry’s stomach. “I think it’s a bit late for that.”
“Well, obviously. No, I mean I’ve already met my soul mate.” Wayne looked confused so Jerry continued. “She comes to this playground sometimes with our grandchildren.” Jerry’s eyes roamed the parking lot for any sign of her car.
Wayne leaned back on the bench and stretched his emaciated legs out in front of him. “Okay, I gotcha, I gotcha. Got that old time love, okay. Yeah, I guess mine’s still walking around out there somewhere, otherwise I wouldn’t still be here, right?” He laughed, a rasping sound, then his face grew serious. “It’s a sick game, don’t you think? Being stuck here until our soul mate gets hit by a bus or something. Then we get to, what, hold hands and skip on to glory land together?” He picked at a scab on his cheek. “This isn’t a first-grade field trip. I don’t need an afterlife buddy.”
Jerry scanned the playground. “You’re thinking about it the wrong way.”
“Really? Okay, tell me how it is, grandpa.”
“Alright. Imagine you have met your soul mate; maybe you’ve known them for a few months, a few years, or even decades. And that part of you that makes you you, that part that outlives these bodies, is somehow connected to them. Like part of their soul has been woven with yours, and vice versa.”
“Okay,” Wayne twitched.
“And when it’s time to leave, to go to whatever lies beyond, it’s nice to know you’re not alone—that your kindred soul is there to make that jump with you.”
Wayne dug at an open sore on his wrist, half listening. “Yeah man, but not everybody finds someone like that. I never loved anyone enough to think they coulda’ been my soul mate.”
Jerry scratched his white stubble. “Well from what I’ve gathered, it isn’t always a lover—our kindred soul. I met a woman back at the cemetery who finally passed over when her twin sister died.”
“Man, that’s wild,” Wayne said.
“So, you’re telling me you can’t think of anyone who could have been your soul mate?”
Wayne sighed. “Maybe someone from when I was a kid. My best friend in the whole world—Jessica. We did everything together. But my family moved away, she stayed behind, and that was that. Never saw her again.” He exhaled and turned, pointing a thumb at Jerry’s hacked up body. “But anyway. I’ve been meaning to ask, what got you, man? Must have hurt like hell.”
Jerry looked down at his legs, turning one over so the exposed bone showed under the missing chunk of flesh. “It was a couple years ago now. Reckless boat driver. I was swimming and they didn’t see me. Sliced me up like a tomato.”
“Yep. What about you?”
Wayne leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees, spine protruding from his back like gnarled wood. “I guess it was a little bit of everything, but in the end, it was the heroin that got me. Just didn’t know when to quit. Or really, I guess I couldn’t quit.”
Jerry nodded. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
“My own damn stupidity.”
“It’s all so clear when it’s over, isn’t it? What we should have done differently.”
“You’re right, man.” Wayne nodded his head too forcefully and one eyeball popped out and rolled near his feet. “Oops. Sorry you had to see that.”
“It happens,” Jerry said.
They sat in silence for a few moments, watching mothers push their toddlers in swings, or guide them up the rungs of ladders. A man in a baseball hat held a small boy under the arms as he tried to maneuver the monkey bars. When the boy slipped, the man caught him and spun him in a circle and they both laughed.
Wayne coughed. “I wish I’d been more like that.”
“What was that now?” Jerry looked at Wayne.
Wayne pointed at the pair. “You know—like a family man. A good dad. Someone a kid could have looked up to.”
“Mm,” Jerry didn’t know what else to say. He shifted on the bench and crossed his legs, exposing three missing toes on his left foot.
Wayne sat up straight and leaned closer to Jerry. “Say Fitz—”
“Jerry, sorry. Who’s that over there? I haven’t seen her around.” Wayne pointed to a red-haired woman on the other side of the playground. Her head was jacked at a 45-degree angle, and her broken collarbone had pierced through her skin.
“Must be newly dead,” Jerry said.
Wayne stood up, stretched his scab covered arms, and strode toward the woman. “Dead or not, she’s still hot. Wish me luck, Fitz.”
“It’s Jerry.” But the comment went unnoticed; Wayne had already ducked under a slide and was making his way toward the broken-necked redhead.
Jerry sighed, and let his eyes wander around the playground. He paused to watch a small girl with wild curls gather rocks by the edge of the playground. She had collected too many to fit in her tiny hands, so she sat down, took off her shoes and both socks, and began to fill them with the rocks. The fabric sagged with the weight of them. Her mother noticed and tried to dump the rocks out and put the socks back on her feet, but the girl threw herself on the ground and began to sob.
“Oh, just let her have the rocks,” Jerry laughed to himself.
As the girl lay on the ground crying, another child came and knelt over her, apparently concerned by the outburst. She patted the crying girl on the head, offered her a wilted dandelion, then stood and ran back to her caretaker. Jerry lit up when he noticed the do-gooder was his very own grandchild, and she was running back to his Brenda—his soulmate. Brenda embraced the girl and kissed her on the ear. Then she shooed the children off to go and play. A boy and a girl.
They’re getting so big, Jerry thought. He watched the boy pump his legs on the swing, going higher and higher. The wind ruffled his hair and whipped it around his face. The girl had already made another friend and together they were pretending to cook with sticks and grass. Jerry felt an ache in his displaced guts—a longing to be near them, to smell the sunshine in their hair and feel their sticky hands in his own. He believed he was crying, though no tears came.
A shadow crossed over Jerry as his dear Brenda walked to the bench and lowered herself beside him. It killed him all over again that she couldn’t see him, couldn’t hear him. The sight of her next to him almost convinced Jerry he was alive again, that everything was as it used to be. He reached out his good hand, the one with all fingers still intact, and caressed her cheek.
Brenda inhaled sharply, and touched her face where his hand hovered, contained in its separate dimension, hidden by the veil of death. She tucked her hair behind her ear and smiled. Jerry could see where grief had left its mark, in the lines on her forehead, in the droop of her lips, but she was more beautiful than ever. He wanted nothing more than to be reunited but wouldn’t wish a single second to be taken from her allotted time on earth.
“Grandma, come try my soup!” the girl called, holding a fistful of moist grass.
Brenda laughed and rose from the bench. “Coming!”
Jerry followed Brenda and the children around the playground, standing nearby as they shot out of the slide, or spun on the merry-go-round. And when they all packed up to leave, he walked as far as he could, until he reached the perimeter of his freedom—the farthest he could wander from the confines of his burial place. He looked on as they loaded into the car and drove away, blowing a kiss as the car finally turned out of view. “I love you all.”
Jerry trudged back toward the cemetery, feeling older and deader, if it were possible. Then he stopped and squinted as a ball of orange fluff bounded from the graveyard. Its tongue flapped as it sped past Jerry, barking. “What in the—”
“Jessica? Is that you?” Wayne ran toward the yapping Pomeranian, arms open wide. “Jessica, come here girl!” He knelt and embraced the dog, who licked his patchy, pockmarked face. Then, a light exploded from in between them, wrapping them in a syrupy bubble of some unearthly substance and in a flash, they were gone.
Jerry laughed, shaking his head. “I did not see that one coming.” He continued toward the cemetery, thinking about another one of his grave neighbors—an interesting fellow who wholeheartedly insisted that his cat was his soulmate.
Jerry looked behind him where Wayne and his long-lost dog had just made their jump to the beyond, together. “Maybe, just maybe he’s right.”