This story recently won 'Runner-Up' in the Parlor of Horror's 2016 short fiction awards and is also part of my collection 'Dreams of Thanatos' - now available to all new subscribers for free - click on the image at the end of this post to download your copy.
I had a dream on the anniversary of her death. In the dream, I heard her unmistakable voice calling me, then I saw her and she was so real, I could almost touch her again. Everything about her hit me deep in the chest, I sat bolt upright in our big empty bed. My breath gasped, sweat beaded itself on my cold skin. I could still hear her voice in the dark. I rationalized there were only two possible reasons why I could hear such a thing. I was either hallucinating, or what I heard was her ghost whispering in my ear. Then she was gone again.
I lay down and listened, my breath held in my chest, afraid to break the silence. The dawn light bled through the cracks in the blind as I strained my ears, listening. Listening for her sweet voice, playing her words over repeatedly in my weary mind –
‘There’s no turning back.
There’s no turning back now.’
I longed for her touch, the feel of her soft cold skin, her beautiful words carried on her sweet breath. The memories came flooding back – projections of my need. As I began to drift back into sleep, I thought of the way she played me with her brown eyes, teasing me, imparting so much desire . . .
The radio-alarm went off, waking me violently. I checked the time and acknowledged the precious two hours of sleep I just had, turned the screeching alarm off and got out of bed. I passed her photo in the hall on the way to the bathroom. It was the only photo I had of her on display: an enlarged black and white shot of her sitting on a beach in a lotus position, gazing mystically into the sun, long black hair out behind her in the breeze, framed by a silver expanse of ocean in the background. All the other photographs had been secreted in an old suitcase in the attic; some memories were just too painful to look at in such quantity.
I went to work, exhausted. Throughout the day, I thought about the morning’s events. Waking up with her pristine voice whispering in my ear from behind, thinking she was beside me in bed – it was so real. Must be stress, I reasoned with myself. Loneliness does strange things to a man’s mind.
Ghosts don’t exist. Do they?
The day finished quickly and I gladly closed the office door and loosened my tie with a yawn. Outside, the day had turned to night. On the way home I heard a song she used to love on the car radio. I passed the streetlight down the side road where we kissed beneath for the first time, then the church where we married. I stopped at the bottle store before turning into my street and our empty house.
The voice came again. The same words, her voice seemed closer than before, I could almost feel the skin of her soft lips against my ear. I woke with expectation – she wasn’t there, just the dim light cast across the sheets and a hangover from hell, twisting its evil blade between my tired eyes. As the days fell into each other, her disembodied voice seemed to talk louder. The same words –
‘There’s no turning back now.’ ‘There’s no turning back . . .’ adding emphasis that began to take on an ominous air –
‘There’s no turning back . . . now. There’s no turning back, for YOU’ and so on.
My nerves were stretched to capacity. My mind was tumbling over itself, trying to bridge the gap between reason and a slow-turning madness.
The voice was unmistakably hers, the intonation painfully real. Her name was, is, Alicia. We had been together for seven years before she left. We had a passionate relationship to say the least. A veritable love and hate fest, with more making up and breaking up than we both needed. We had met at the office and soon fell for each other. A drunken bout of knee-trembling sex against a photocopier in the stationary room after a work party, heralded the official beginning of our tumultuous relationship.
I didn’t want to think about the inevitable disintegration of our passionate affair, but it eventually happened and that was that. As Alicia said, there was no turning back now. We were young and had aged well together, into our fifth year, we even started talking about marriage and children and then she got a new office manager. I heard the talk among my colleagues. At first, I thought it was mere gossip, as office talk usually is. Then I saw his eyes undress her as he sauntered past her desk across the way. A coy look as she pretended to shuffle papers, her eyes caught in his swagger.
She started working late. I asked around discreetly and no one else knew of any overtime available. Then she ‘transferred’ to another floor, promoted as she put it. The evenings became a waiting game. I tried to impress with the usual chattels of love – the flowers, gourmet meals, expensive perfume. In short, I tried to purchase her affection as I had exhausted all other means of reconciliation. When she did arrive home, she was always freshly showered and well mannered, courteous almost. A peck on the cheek that made Grandmother’s kisses seem like incestuous advances. Her back turned toward me perpetually. A ‘not tonight’ was the standard response to my romantic overtures, every night.
Good old Mr Forgiving tried to get on with things, forget her indiscretion and lies and pretend that she still loved me. I knew she didn’t love me at all – not even a fraction of desire was left in her cold heart. I started to think things – what could I do, how could I get her back? The migraines kicked in and I started to drink heavily. It seemed to block reality out, for a while, and then she didn’t come home one night. But that was over a year ago; that was then, this is now.
Things started slipping. I called in sick three times in one week. When she spoke in my ear, no longer whispered now, in those frenetic waking hours – I started ‘feeling’ the words. After two goddamn weeks of visual and auditory apparitions I started feeling her. I felt her tucked against me at night, relishing each second, stuck between the ecstasy of the moment and agony of the inevitable realization that she wasn’t actually there. Her full tanned breasts against my back, soft lips brushing my shoulder, hands soft so soft like silk caressing. Supplicating my disbelief. and her photo – I can’t explain it, but she seemed to move within, animated, changing pose each morning – one day staring at the sun, black and white – next, a different tilt of the head, her hand rested on her leg just so, next . . . and then she was there. Not quite, but I could see her. Some copper coils of her hair on the pillow next to me, a fleeting glimpse of a smooth-brown shoulder. Then she’d fade away again.
The anticipation drove me delirious – I lost my mind, my heart pumped desire and love to every cell. Whatever she was, ghost or hallucination, I hungered for each second – a panacea for the sad soul. If her memory was just an indentation in the bed where she slept, I could’ve lived with her this way if it weren’t for the words – ‘There is no turning back for her NOW’ screaming in my brain, like a loudspeaker next to my ear, almost painful.
I tried to shut it out to no avail. The migraines increased, nausea, bursts of white spots before my black ringed eyes. I couldn’t shave, the sound of the razor sent blasts of pain ripping through my spine to brain. I took a month’s leave from the office – they gladly gave it to me – “You need a break Harry. You’ve been working too hard lately. Rest up. Take a break. Come back when you’re better, ok?”
Sometimes I’d like to kill those patronizing bastards, just walk in one day in Gucci suit and tie, axe in hand. Walk into the office – “Good morning Miss Secretary, Mr Boss . . . I’ve come to kill you!” Chop chop chop chop chop . . .
Then she was there one morning – “My love, my love. There’s no turning back for us now” she said, completely naked. Her burning eyes glowing hypnotically. Her hair coiling like twisting black snakes, framing her beautiful deathly countenance. I tried to touch her. She reached into me, cupping my pulsing heart in her taloned hand. I could feel it. She withdrew and walked into the bedroom. I followed. She wasn’t there . . .
I couldn’t eat. I looked in the mirror, my gaunt pale unshaven face stared back at me forlornly – eyes blackened, pupils dilated, trembling . . . my heart quivered delicately under my rib-cage, then missed . . . a beat. It felt like it, my heart, was encased in ice. I felt sick to my stomach. Where was she? I decided that it was the sleeping that did it – maybe I was reciting a spell I had lodged deep in my subconscious mind – dreams or something that kept conjuring her up every morning. Invoking the muse at every breath, so to speak.
It had taken exactly one year and twenty-one days after our break-up, or should I say her ‘disappearance,’ before I realized I could not go on without her any longer. I mean she was with me all the time, all day and night now – naked, following me around the house, hovering above me on the ceiling – whispering to me indescribable things, obscenities of the vilest nature. She had started to taunt me, yet my love grew stronger as if with a will of its own – then she started to slap me – ferocious backhanders that rattled my teeth and left droplets of nose blood on the white walls.
Half of me wanted to leave, just run as far away as I could. Pack the car and put a match to the godforsaken house as I escaped, but the other half – the stronger half, wanted to stay – couldn’t leave. Besides I knew if I tried to escape, I’d look into that rear-view mirror and those black cold eyes would be boring into my soul, her white forearm draped around my neck, her blue lips mouthing the words – “There’s no turning back now . . .”
That day I ordered in a couple of one-liter bottles of gin – I’d discovered booze could block her out for a while. I began to drink sitting with my back against the bedroom wall, watching as she undulated like a snake on the yellow duvet on the bed. Her once tanned now white body arched, her full breasts swelling with her movements, her hand pressed deep between her thighs – pink tongue darting across her full lips. Moaning. I gulped the gin quickly – ten mouthfuls, my jaw clenched and then it was easy. Half a bottle, she began to fade out like bad TV reception. Each drink twitched, erased another part of her lithe form – I couldn’t take any more. I knew I had to be rid of her once and for all. Rid of everything.
I stumbled to my drunken feet, pulling drawers out, cupboards open, photographs letters clothes newspaper clippings onto the floor. I looked over my shoulder, her head and torso moved on the bed. Her arms, legs, pelvis – gone. I stared at what was left of her, tears spilling down my face. She mouthed her silent words again – “There’s no turning back.” Her eyes glazed, hair disintegrating, writhing crumbling like black maggots, her skin peeling into nothing. My head was spinning. I threw everything in the bathtub, all the photographs, letters, clothes, newspaper clippings – fire – I opened the window. Smoke blew out.
I shuffled down the hallway past her photo now completely metamorphosed from the original. She was facing me, arms outstretched like Christ. Her blank eyes pleading. The sun behind her a ball of blazing fire. Wild hair dancing blackly around her gaunt white face. I took the photo and threw it through the bathroom door into the fire with the other memories. I’m sure I heard her scream, but it wasn’t a scream of pain – rather, a triumphantly defiant roar.
I sat down on the toilet next to the burning bathtub and put my head in my hands. Flames ran up the plastic shower curtain dropping molten lumps of fire like napalm on the linoleum. Flames licked the walls and the black smoke billowed from the bath – I saw her again, I couldn’t hear anything except the roar and burn of the blazing fire – the smoke melded together, transformed into her unmistakable snake-like coils of hair twisting and swirling, reaching for my gasping throat. Long black fingers of smoke in my eyes, in my ears – forcing my mouth open in wrenching breaths, reaching deep into my burning lungs. My heart felt like cracking ice trapped between my rib-bones. The flames burned red and blue but no heat – just intense cold – so cold. I shivered, inhaling my last breath of her love – her fading words hissing in the black smoke, echoing in my dying ears – “There’s no turning back now. There’s no turning back . . .”
2016 (C) William Cook