Jessie and I never saw the van that killed us that night at the crossroads. It flew out of the darkness like a predatory raptor swooping down on its prey. An anxious resident who’d heard the crash called the emergency services. Fifteen minutes later, they arrived to discover the other driver had abandoned his stolen vehicle, leaving us unconscious and trapped inside our mangled car. The paramedics performed defibrillation as we raced to the hospital, however after all their efforts, they declared us both dead on arrival.
I’d passed my driving test only the week before and convinced Dad to lend me his car keys. We’d been to a movie and enjoyed a leisurely meal at Lorenzo’s restaurant. The waitress wasn’t in a hurry to disturb our special night and allowed us time to share a second bowl of tiramisu and one final espresso before settling the bill. Jessie assured me I wasn’t over the limit when we departed. I’d been careful and besides, I didn’t want to risk losing my new licence and Dad’s trust on my first excursion.
The last time I saw Jessie, she was laughing beside me in the passenger seat and she glanced in my direction. I glimpsed those intelligent brown eyes glistening above her delicate mouth and returned a smile. Jessie’s joyful round face looked beautiful in the traffic signal’s gentle amber glow, and I recall her hand stroking my shoulder as it changed to green. There was a sudden flash and then darkness.
I woke up under a flickering fluorescent tube. I guessed I was in a hospital because a man in a pale surgical gown and facemask was leaning over me. He led me down a dark corridor into an enormous hangar-sized building. It was lit by a bright white light and full of people with various ailments and assorted injuries who were waiting to be advised. My guide offered me a brochure and pen, and asked me to read the paperwork, check the small print, and sign the permission slips. They’d selected me to extend my existence, and he asked me to choose either resurrection in the spirit world or eternal reincarnation and immediate transformation into another species.
I’d wanted to discuss the two possibilities, but my guide disappeared before I could voice my reservations. The fellow waiting next to me said that he’d plumbed for the spirit world and he was adamant.
“It’s the least worst choice, lad.”
“What’s wrong with reincarnation?”
“It’s nothing but a jumped-up lottery.”
“Is that any worse than being a ghost?”
“You might return as something dumb,” he said, “like an owl, for instance.”
I shrugged. “Is that so bad?” He rolled his eyeballs and sighed.
“You’d spend your days inside a tree and screech ‘ter-wit-ter-woo’ all night long.”
So, I escaped my untimely death by enrolling as a ghost in Limbo land. The initial contract required four hauntings per month with time-off-in-lieu for exceeding client expectations. Given the workload, I’m looking forward to earthbound trips to search for Jessie and opportunities to tease my old college friends.
Existing between two worlds sounded better than the alternative, but it’s not very exciting. Now I appreciate why ghosts are characterised by mournful wailing; it’s out of boredom. We’re only visible after nightfall and struggle to get noticed during daylight unless we clatter kitchenware or smash crockery.
My demise occurred at the start of October, so at least I had Halloween to look forward to. However, during enrolment, they advised me to join the Spirits’ Guild in order to take part in the celebrations. That gave me three weeks to pass ghost training and secure my accreditation, or else I’d miss the fun.
My quandary was that I needed Guild membership to practise as a ghost, but I couldn’t join unless I had some experience of haunting. Nepotism is the obvious way for newcomers to gain acceptance. Alas, I didn’t have family connections, as all my predecessors opted for reincarnation.
I made enquiries and found an apprenticeship scheme that prepares novices for both the written and practical tests. The Guild considered my application and introduced me to Sir Robert Probisher. He was a lively soul who’d arrived four centuries ago after an inebriated misadventure on horseback.
Sir Robert was very modest, despite his formidable reputation for delivering retributive justice to villains who’ve evaded punishment. It’s nothing personal. The Guild nominates his prey and ensures the extent of the visitation is proportionate to the wrongdoing committed. Sir Robert’s work entails locating fugitives, but he’s known for tormenting them with plaintive whispers until they’re reduced to gibbering wrecks.
Bob, as I knew him, mentored me with enthusiasm, maintained a playful sense of humour and stimulated my imagination. He enjoyed hearing about modern life and inquired about the recent pandemic. Three plagues had occurred during his lifespan, and he voiced his concern about a major influx of new residents.
The Guild was monitoring the death toll and considering restricting new memberships to serious minded applicants. Bob was worried about their plans and cautioned me against appearing flippant before the examination panel. Fun is a four-letter word in their world and haunting’s a grave business.
At the end of my initiation, Bob’s recommendation made all the difference. At my interview, they congratulated me for my hard work and I received my Provisional Apparition’s Licence in time for the big night. I’d learned the theory, now I had to act upon it.
Halloween is the highlight of the year in Limbo, however I struggled to gain a satisfactory location. The Guild allocates venues and hour-long time slots, but chaos still abounds. There are queues of groaning ghouls and complaining poltergeists waiting to populate every neglected house in town.
My first pitch is an underwhelming Victorian villa that’s occupied by two mutilated phantoms. They introduce themselves as Headless Harry and Ronald Roadkill.
“We haven’t seen you before, sonny,” says Harry, who’s carrying his head in the crook of his arm.
“Have you got your P.A.L. certificate and Guild card, lad?” says Ronald.
I pull out my paperwork. “I’ve got an hour here, at nine o’clock.”
“Well, we’ve still got fifteen minutes, so you’d better scarper.”
“Blimey, Harry,” says Ronald, verifying my permits. “He’s only one of Groggy Bob’s young protégés.”
“I thought Bob had given up the ghost years ago.”
“Gone into hiding to escape her ladyship is more likely.”
“If decrepitude hasn’t nobbled him, then she’ll finish him for sure.”
Bob had briefed me about these two characters. They met forty years ago, before the seat belt laws, and both fell victim to drunken drivers. He reckoned they’d traded on their disfigurements for too long and become complacent.
“All we’ve seen is a couple of trick-or-treaters,” says Harry.
“You’re wasting your time here, lad,” says Ronald. “Push off and go elsewhere.”
Bob warned me they’d try to pull rank. Lazy seniors looking for a slow night often hoodwink a junior member.
When we’d discussed tactics before Halloween night, Bob advised me to pick a suitable spot, sit tight, and gather some handy projectiles. I consult my guide to good spook sites and discover the preferable locations in the town centre are pre-booked until after midnight. However, further afield, there’s a local beauty spot that sounds promising.
Witch Wood is a quarter-mile walkway comprising tight-packed trees and a dark canopy of entwined branches. Half way down the tunnel, there are convenient boughs that offer vantage points to monitor both openings. It’s perfect, although the prospect of spending a long night in a tree by myself is disheartening. My only comfort is a gentle hoot from an owl that’s roosting close by. The bird offers some sympathy for my predicament and her soothing cooing eases the discomfort of my vigil.
To my relief, the witching hour arrives and I hear distant giggles and see a flash of light. A young couple is tempting fate at the eastern entrance. According to legend, the veil between the living and the dead is thinnest during this time. Aloft in my eyrie, I’m toying with woody debris as they step forward, holding hands.
High-pitched wails pierce the stillness. Three prowling phantoms materialise and cavort around their quarry. Together, the teenagers endure the swirling onslaught and the lad brandishes his Maglite. The startled visitants recoil in agony, protecting their eyes from the harsh glare. Jeering at the faint-hearted apparitions, the emboldened couple continues on their way, undeterred.
Their eyes glint in the darkness as they advance.
I crack a branch and launch it towards them.
My new neighbour lets out a deep and soft hoot.
The lad stumbles but recovers his footing.
My bough creaks above their heads.
She falters and clenches his arm.
His light beam probes the shadows.
Bark fragments tumble through my fingers.
Her hand stifles a tremulous gasp.
Above them, I whisper their names.
The Maglite flashes upwards.
The startled owl flutters her wings.
Their breathing quickens.
Behind them, I hover, poised.
He swallows, she gulps.
I flare my nostrils.
She screams aloud.
He drops the Maglite.
My companion swoops down.
They run for their lives.
We both give chase.
The last time I saw Jimmy, we were waiting on a red light at the crossroads. I recollect seeing a twinkle in his mischievous eyes. The light changed to green, and I turned to see a blinding flash of light, and then darkness. The next thing I knew, people in white gowns had surrounded me. Were they surgeons or doctors? I’m not sure now. I followed an elderly woman in a facemask and found myself with thousands of others in a colossal hall that shimmered with an ethereal white light. My guide told me that people discovered their fate here. She explained they had selected me to exist between worlds and I needed to decide. It was to be either resurrection or reincarnation; I’d be fast-tracked to the new existence of my choice.
The woman seated next to me had relations who’d chosen the latter, and they’d found their loved ones and been reunited. I bit my lip and frowned as either prospect filled me with dread and I was nervous about what to choose.
I’d overheard awful things about the spirit world; the school for ghosts sounded too much like hard work. I preferred the quick fix of the reincarnation lottery, despite the slow ascent to heaven via one hundred shape changes. That’s assuming they didn’t throw me down a winding helter-skelter to Hell and eternal damnation.
I’d met a few characters in the Limbo lobby area who were destined to head down that path; a husband who murdered his wife and a lawyer who’d embezzled all his partners; no hope for those guys. However, they say it’s a gamble and there’s always a chance someone will escape their just fate.
My guide left me a pen and stressed that I had a limited amount of time to decide.
I chose reincarnation. So said, so done. They transformed me and released me back into the world again under temporary supervision.
My supervisor introduced herself as Lady Agatha Probisher and offered me a juicy mouse to eat. I was almost sick at the thought, but she assured me it was most nutritious and besides, I’d have to get used to it. She explained the diet requirements, and it was then that I realised I hadn’t thought this through. After all, I didn’t choose to come back as an owl.
In retrospect, I suppose it makes sense and is appropriate because of the time of our accident. In a strange way, a night creature suits me. Maybe next time I’ll come back as a swan, but who knows? I guess I’ll find out when it happens. Lady Probisher told me it would depend on my previous life on Earth and I won’t have a choice. I questioned my former life; had I been honest enough? Was I worthy? It made me think of all those bad things I’d done and got away with, unpunished.
“But you’re not exactly a villain, are you, my dear?” she said, reassuring me and calming my nerves.
“No, but I could have been more thoughtful or---”
“Oh, shush, dear,” she said, “My husband was an utter rogue and a rotter and he’s evaded justice for centuries now.”
Lady Probisher took me under her wing and nurtured me through the required fortnight of adjustment therapy. She’d learned the subtle art of distraction and gentle persuasion over many centuries in Limbo. Agatha, as she wanted to be known, had experienced a lifetime of regrets and was still searching for her former husband. Sir Robert Probisher had proved elusive and despite her promotion to ‘Lady-in-Chief-of-all-things-Avian’, she still couldn’t use her extensive contacts to locate him.
Agatha had almost drowned in a bathtub of her own tears after she’d heard the news of Bob’s death. After nine months of indulgence and neglect, she followed Bob to Limbo, having succumbed to the temptations of his well-stocked wine cellar. This wasn’t the end of their relationship as far as she was concerned, because she would locate him in their afterlife and give him a piece of her mind. He’d tested her patience throughout their tempestuous marriage, and their fights were legendary. Following Bob’s demise, their mutual friends had commented that they’d pay good money to watch them scrap during one of their infamous spats. Their life together had become a spectator sport and good money changed hands regularly as to the outcome of the various altercations.
Lady Probisher had sharpened both her claws and her tongue during their marriage, and they didn’t refer to her as ‘Lady Muck’ without reason. At Bob’s burial service, she’d thrown herself down into the grave and hammered her fists on his coffin lid.
“I’ll find you, Bob, if it’s the last thing I do,” she said, cursing him as the verger dragged her away from the casket. “You’ll not escape me, Bob,” she said, thrashing about and resisting efforts to lift her out of the filthy hole.
“This isn’t the end, do you hear me?”
They were yet to have their day in court and she was waiting to tear him apart after centuries of scouring Limbo and looking for him in vain.
It now occurred to Jessie that searching for her Jimmy wouldn’t be straightforward. Would she pursue him for eternity only to be mistaken for a dumb beast? How would they communicate? And how would he recognise her in her new guise? Never to meet again would be torture, but to go unrecognised would be purgatory.
Piercing cries and blood chilling wails echo inside the claustrophobic tunnel of trees as the owl and the ghost pursue the young couple through the woodland avenue.
Witch Wood is alive with pairs of eyes glinting in the dark and shadowy figures leer from behind tree trunks and twisted roots. Chirrups, squawks and barks resonate around the walkway as if they’re saying “Run, run and don’t dare come back for your very souls depend upon it.” The swirling cacophony reaches a deafening crescendo as though it’s an unholy symphony orchestrated in Hell and conducted by Beelzebub.
The teenagers are pale and breathless when they dash out of the exit into the path of a passing vehicle. There are two sickening impacts in quick succession and a screech of brakes. It’s over in a blink of an eye and the car’s inexperienced driver didn’t miss a beat. He retreated into the night; uncertain and fearing the worst, but more worried for himself and his liability.
The only two beings to witness the event couldn’t give an account of the event in an Earthly court, but they are culpable and must testify in Limbo. They’ll be answerable to their two respective supervisors and the higher powers that will determine their futures by the end of the week. Those responsible for these two young novices will have a chance to apportion the blame before a jury and a bench of Limbo’s most feared judiciary. The trial promises to be an event requiring a ticket and standing room only when Probisher versus Probisher have their moment together in court.
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Nice ending. It caught me completely by surprise. "haunting’s a grave business" gave me a good chuckle.
Hello Michael, Thank you for reading my story and leaving positive and encouraging comments; I appreciate it. Howard :)
I love the way the after life works in this story. It's so creative. I also really liked the two main couples in the story, as well as their back grounds. I'm not going to expand on this because I don't want to give anything away. This story had a bit of humor and was also touching at the same time.
Thanks Tristan, I appreciate your positive feedback. Thank you for reading my story, I’m glad you enjoyed it. HH
I like the addition of the owl and the two Probisher characters. This story was touching and humorous.
It was a well written story, and I was on the edge of my seat! Great job!
Hello Angelina, Thank you reading my story and giving me such positive feedback, it’s much appreciated. Howard :)
Love the twists and turns. Great subtle love story.
Hello Francis, Thank you for reading story. I appreciate your positive response and I’m relieved that it made sense. Howard :)
Hi! I found you because you liked one of my stories, 'Fade'. Thanks for that! This story is so good! I loved the opening line - an excellent hook. Your factual presentation in the first paragraph was compelling and interesting and made a nice juxtaposition to the more descriptive prose after they died. I especially liked the mirroring of Jessie's and Jimmy's experiences in the afterlife. I also enjoyed the foreshadowing of Jessie becoming an owl... 'ter-wit-ter-woo' :D Thoroughly entertaining and well-written.
Hello Delia, Thank you for reading my story and giving me your response. I appreciate your thoughtful comments and positive feedback. It’s tricky to throw everything together on a short deadline, so I’m relieved that you enjoyed the tale and it made sense. Howard :)
I laughed out loud at the ending. This was brilliant!
Hello Divya, Thank you for reading my story. I’m glad you enjoyed it and I appreciate your feedback. Howard :)
Awesome story, Howard! I love how the stories of your four characters intertwine the way they do—it adds such a nice element. Best of luck in the contest! —Tommie Michele
Hello Tommie, Thank you for reading my story and giving me such positive feedback. To be honest, I’m relieved that it came to together before the deadline and grateful that it makes some sort of sense. Your response is encouraging and helpful. Howard :)
I feel that—sometimes, my stories fail to make sense, even to me, when I’m writing on a deadline :) but yours made complete sense and was an incredible story on top of that!
The ending of this story was well crafted. The reunion of both Jessie and Jimmy and Sir Robert and Lady Agatha will be legendary, I just know it. The way you switched perspectives to give us each version of the afterlife was wonderful. I loved being able to understand each of their decisions, and experiences. Well done!
Hello Courtney! Thank you for reading my story, I appreciate your positive feedback and I’m glad it all made sense in the end. Howard :)
Great fun. I could tell you were British from the tone and the sense of humor. An original take on a classic subject... We don't get Ghosts over here in the US, but from the clips I've seen, this reminded me of the feckless creatures stuck back in the world...
Hello Gabi, Thanks for reading my story and leaving such positive feedback. Howard :)
Howard, I loved this! What a fun ride through the afterlife, especially all the doings of the Spirits' Guild. This one especially "cracked" me up: Now I appreciate why ghosts are characterised by mournful wailing; it’s out of boredom. We’re only visible after nightfall and struggle to get noticed during daylight unless we clatter kitchenware or smash crockery. Thanks for a great read!
Hello Swan, Thank you reading my story and giving me such positive feedback, Howard :)
Hi Howard, this a really fun take on the prompt. I liked the ending lot.
Hello Katharine, Thank you for reading my story, I’m glad you enjoyed it and I appreciate you’re positive feedback. Howard :)
This was good, humour always helps a story in my opinion. It works well here.
Thank you Graham, I appreciate your positive comments. HH