Donald swirled the wine in his glass, staring into the deep red liquid, then he drank half of it in one gulp. He placed the glass on the table and began to prod a piece of dry pot roast with his fork.
“Then what happened, Daddy?” his agitated daughter asked. Donald was startled as if he had forgotten he was at the dinner table with his wife and daughter. Moreover, he had forgotten that he was in the middle of a story.
“Oh, well,” Donald said, “that was it. The man was dead, and plenty of people stopped to help, so I just drove on.”
“But you were a witness,” his daughter said.
“There were plenty of witnesses,” said Donald. “One more wouldn’t have mattered.”
The truth was that the accident had so shaken Donald Greene that he was five miles beyond before he realized that he hadn’t stopped. It was the victim’s expression that had surprised him. The man sat up behind his stalled car on the shoulder of Interstate 65, probably having heard the roar of tires on the warning strip, the series of grooves cut into the pavement to alert drivers that they have strayed from the road, and he looked straight at Donald. They made eye contact just as the SUV struck the man and killed him. It was an expression of confused curiosity.
A horn sounded in the driveway making Donald jump. “Gotta run,” Donald’s daughter said. She left the table and headed straight for the door.
“Jane,” Donald called, “where are you going?”
“It’s just a party, Daddy,” she said. “Just a bunch of friends. You know.” She was gone before he could say he didn’t know.
Donald turned to his wife. “Did you know about this, Helen?”
“I told her to ask you,” Helen said. “I thought you would at least find out where she would be. I have to go, too. I have art class tonight.”
“I thought art was on Tuesday,” Donald said.
“It’s a special class,” Helen said as she took her dinner plate to the kitchen, “for…advanced students. Jim is showing me…us…special techniques.” Donald neither liked nor trusted Jim the art instructor. He picked up his wine glass and finished off the contents.
He cleaned up after dinner and then went to his home office. He poured a large brandy and took a long sip then put the glass on the large mahogany desk. He took a deep breath to calm himself then jumped at the unexpected knock at the front door. The knock was soft, almost timid. He opened the door and looked into the face that bore the same curious expression he had seen before it had been crushed.
“Hi Donald, I’m Henry Jenkins,” the man said by way of a brief introduction. Donald’s mouth hung open as he stared, but he reflexively stood back and let the man enter.
Henry walked into the office and settled himself into a comfortable leather chair without ceremony. He was still wearing the blue jeans and the unbuttoned flannel shirt over his plain white T-shirt that he was wearing when Sondra Lewis strayed from the road and flattened him. He looked pale. Not as one who rarely went outdoors, but faded somehow. Donald followed, not sure how to react to this apparition.
“Would you like a brandy?” Donald offered.
“I’m not sure I could drink it even if I did want one,” Henry said.
“How did you know my name?” Donald asked.
“I’ve gotten to know you quite well recently,” said Henry.
“But we’ve never met.”
Henry smiled. “So you’ve told me.”
“Why are you here, Mr. Jenkins?” Donald asked. He poured another brandy to settle his nerves.
“I was hoping that you could tell me, Don,” Henry said. “I’m a little lost here, and the afterlife doesn’t seem to come with an instruction manual.”
“I didn’t cause your death,” Donald said. “Hell, I don’t even know if you’re real.”
“I think they call this surreal,” Henry said. “But instead of having this same conversation every time, just set aside your denial or disbelief, and help me figure this out.”
Donald rubbed his temples. “Why do you insist that we’ve spoken before?”
“Look, Don,” Henry said, “your life seems to be moving along in a straight line like always, but time’s a little slippery in the afterlife. Since I died I’ve been bouncing around from now to then and into tomorrow. One second I’m talking to you and the next I’m watching myself get splattered again. The instant replay is getting old.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Jenkins,” Donald said, his brandy snifter quaking in his unsteady hands, “I can’t help you.”
Donald had not intended to fall asleep until his wife and daughter were home, but he woke with a start and sat up in bed. He was still wearing his clothes, but the bedside lamp was off, and the bathroom light was on. In its glow Donald could see Henry sitting on the foot of the bed. “Why are you here?” Donald asked, his heart racing.
“I just told you, Don,” Henry said, “I don’t know.”
Donald saw that his wife was asleep next to him, and he urged Henry to be quiet. But the pale man said that he didn’t think anyone but Donald could hear him.
“Besides,” Henry said, “she’s worn out from her special session tonight. By the way, your daughter had a special session herself tonight, but her new friend slipped her enough drugs that she didn’t realize it.”
“You son of a bitch,” Donald hissed as he swung at Henry, missing entirely, or possibly passing through the wraith, and landing on the floor. He rubbed his wrist and looked up at Henry who was shaking his head.
“You’re a slow learner Don,” Henry said. “Maybe you should get some sleep, and we can continue this in the morning. For me it will be just like that,” and he snapped his fingers.
Donald rubbed his sore wrist while waiting for his morning coffee to brew. Henry sat on the counter swinging his legs. “Told ya,” he said and snapped his fingers as he had last night.
Donald did his best to ignore the apparition.
“Hey, Don,” Henry said, “Let’s just put your family problems aside and try to figure this thing out.”
“I don’t have family problems, Mr. Jenkins,” Donald said.
“There’s the first one,” Henry said.
“Please leave,” Donald pleaded.
“I wish I could, Don,” Henry said. “I wish I could figure out how to leave. I wish that I could stop showing up to talk to you and stop revisiting the accident to see myself get crushed and watch you drive away with that Wow, I didn’t expect to see that…wonder what’s for dinner expression.” Donald grabbed his keys and briefcase and trotted to his car. He drove faster than his usual distracted pace hoping to put distance between himself and Henry Jenkins.
“Do you know what else I wish?” Henry asked as he sat in the passenger seat of Donald’s car. Donald started at the sound of Henry’s voice and swerved. He was taking the longer backroads as he had since the accident, avoiding the Interstate. “I wish,” continued Henry, “that I could tell my wife that I miss the way her hair smells. I want her to know how much I love the way her eyes light up when she looks at the kids, and the way she touches my arm when she talks to me. But for some reason I’m stuck with you, Donny boy. I can’t even haunt the chick that killed me.”
“That’s not my fault,” Donald said, his white knuckles gripping the wheel.
“No,” said Henry, “it’s not your fault, but somehow I feel that you’re the key to why I’m stuck here.” He looked at Donald who was once again trying to ignore Henry. Donald turned the volume on the radio to an almost painful level, and Henry sat sullenly and stared at him.
Once at the office, Donald accomplished little more than cancelling his appointments for the next day and telling his boss that he needed to take tomorrow off. The boss had agreed that Donald had looked a little worn lately but hoped some extra rest would set him right. There was little sleep that night, and the morning coffee did nothing to help.
“Not going in to work today?” Henry asked Donald as the ghost settled back into the leather chair. Donald said nothing and poured scotch into a highball glass. “Where’s Helen, Don?” Donald took a deep drink. “Another special session with artist Jim, Don,” Henry said. “That’s where. Con artist if you ask me.”
“I didn’t ask you,” Donald said through clenched teeth.
“And it might interest you to know that little Janie is skipping class right now to meet her new friend,” Henry pushed on.
“Shut up,” shouted Donald. “Mind your own business and stay out of mine.”
“That’s what I’m telling you, Don,” said Henry. “I can’t, and it’s not my choice. Don’t you think I’d rather be checking in on my own family? Don’t you think I’d rather spend eternity watching them grow up instead of watching your family fall apart?”
Donald opened a desk drawer and took out a revolver then checked to see that it was loaded. He clicked off the safety and said, “I told you to shut up.”
“Come on Don,” Henry said calmly. “I need you to help me figure this out.” Donald leveled the revolver at Henry and squeezed off a shot. “Hey, man,” Henry said, “You’re going to ruin this chair shooting at me like that.”
Donald finished off the glass of scotch and pulled back the hammer on the revolver.
“Donald, don’t be stupid,” Henry said. “You have to help me out, buddy. I can’t see my family, but you could.” Donald considered this and filled his glass again. “We would have been going out for pizza and bowling tonight,” Henry said. “You ever bowl, Don?”
“Not for twenty years,” Donald slurred.
“We take the kids over to the Skyline,” Henry said. “They have special lanes for kids, you know, no gutters, shorter lanes, smaller balls.”
“Where’s the challenge in that,” Donald said.
“It’s not supposed to be a challenge, Don,” Henry said. “It’s just supposed to be fun.”
Donald lifted the revolver and placed the barrel under his chin.
“No, Don,” Henry said, “I need your help. If you shoot yourself…”
Henry looked up at the crimson pattern on the ceiling while the revolver clunked on the floor.
Donald looked at Henry’s outdated car stranded on the side of Interstate 65. The blue jean clad legs were sticking out from the rear as afternoon traffic rushed by.
“Well, that’s just great,” said Henry who was standing beside him. “Just freakin’ great. Welcome to the afterlife, Donald Dumbass Greene.”
“Just warn yourself,” Donald said pointing to Henry’s legs under the car.
“I’ve tried. I can’t see myself.” Henry furrowed his brow. “That me,” he said pointing under the car, “can’t see this me.” He pointed to himself as Henry under the car sat up and looked toward the traffic, and in an instant he was crushed. “Happens every time,” Henry said.
“Why did you look at me, Henry?” Donald asked. “Just before you were hit you looked at me as I drove by.”
“I don’t know,” said Henry. “Maybe that’s why were stuck like this. We made eye contact at the moment of impact and our souls got locked together.”
Donald looked at the oncoming traffic and saw his BMW beside the SUV that was already dangerously close to the shoulder. The driver of the SUV was chatting on the cell phone that her air bag would slam into her face momentarily. Donald began waving wildly, and Henry, though he had tried this before, waved along with Donald. Henry under the car sat up. The spatter was horrific.
“What was I thinking?” asked Donald.
“Don’t worry, buddy,” said Henry, “you had to try.”
“No, no,” said Donald. “What was I thinking just as I looked at you?” Henry stared at him. The reel had been rewound and the oncoming traffic hummed by. Donald kicked at the warning strip which hadn’t worked in the case of Miss Lewis who ignored the sound as if leaving the road were of little importance. Donald looked at himself approaching. “I was thinking that she would swerve back.”
The tires of the oversized Lincoln left the road and Henry under the car sat up. Donald saw himself tense up as he sped past the crash site. “I thought that she would swerve, but that’s what I was thinking afterward,” Donald said. “What was I thinking before?” Henry watched him think. The scene was reset. The cars approached.
“My anniversary,” Donald snapped his fingers. “I forgot my anniversary was today.”
“I’m sorry, Don,” Henry said, “But what does that have to do with…”
“That’s what I was thinking, Henry,” Donald said. He looked at his oncoming car. “I’m thinking right now that I can make a quick stop at the next exit and pick up some flowers, Helen’s favorite chocolate, and maybe a necklace at the jeweler. But I forgot it all after I saw you die.”
“So how’s that supposed to help?” Henry asked, but Donald didn’t answer.
Donald stared at himself in the approaching car. “Anniversary,” he said. “Flowers, chocolate, jewelry.” He made a fist and hit something imaginary in front of him. The cars were close. “Flowers, chocolate, jewelry, horn.”
“What?” Henry said.
“Horn,” Donald said, still pounding at the air. With each punch he said, “Horn, horn, horn.”
Donald checked his watch. He still had time to save his anniversary. He could pick up a few things at the next exit where there was a strip mall. Flowers, chocolate, jewelry. That’s it, he thought. Flowers, chocolate, jewelry, horn. “Horn?” he said to himself. He glanced at the SUV beside him, straying to the side. There was a stalled car, one man under it, and two men beside it. One looked eerily like…
“Horn,” he said and pounded at his BMW’s horn. Henry under the car sat up and looked toward the BMW with the wide-eyed driver and blaring horn. Sondra Lewis dropped her cell phone and pulled hard at the wheel of her SUV.
“Then what happened, Daddy,” asked Jane.
“She sideswiped the car,” Donald explained, “but no one was hurt. I pulled over to see if I could help, and gave Henry a ride home.”
Helen looked from the vase of blood red roses and smiled at her husband. She had been sure he would forget again.
“So,” said Donald, “Who’s up for some bowling.”
Helen and Jane looked surprised. “I’m supposed to go to a party tonight,” Jane said. “Cindy wants to introduce me to this guy she says is nice.”
“He’s not,” said Donald. “No party.”
“Bowling, Donald?” Helen said. “Really?”
“I thought we could meet Henry and his family at the Skyline,” said Donald. “Unless you already have plans, Helen.”
Helen smiled. “No plans, Dear,” she said. “Bowling sounds fun.”
B. C. Nance writes fiction and poetry in his spare time and has been published in The Writer’s Post Journal, Inwood, Indiana, and the anthology Filtered Through Time. By day he is an archaeologist specializing in historic sites and has published several archaeological reports. He is a native of Nashville, Tennessee.
Image by David Bleasdale