This story is by Laura Cookson and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
One thing they never tell you about death is how incredibly boring it is. I waft aimlessly around the upper floor of West Hogsworth Shopping Centre, ghostly Nike shoes hovering an inch above the shiny floor as I try to think of something to do.
I’ve already covered my daily ‘being dead’ checklist: I’ve thrown stolen muffins off the balcony at the shoppers below, I’ve rearranged the shop stock rooms, and turned on every tap in the bathroom. And maybe I’ve taken a peek or two in the women’s changing rooms, but don’t judge me, OK? Any guy would do the same if they suddenly found themselves invisible!
Not that it’s cheered me up much. In fact, I’m feeling kind of morbid, so I decide to visit the little memorial to me on the lower floor of the shopping centre. I shoot upwards and sweep over the heads of the unsuspecting Saturday crowds as they mill around the upper floor. When I reach the top of the escalator I plunge downwards, shooting through everyone standing on it, so that a collective shiver goes through them.
At the bottom, I hover to a stop by the memorial. After three weeks the flowers are limp and wilted, but I never got why the hell people thought I’d want flowers, anyway. Like, what teenage boy wants flowers?
I only really come back to read the notes, even though I know them all off by heart by now. I sift through them looking for my Mum’s note first: Rest in peace, my beautiful boy. You’re always in our hearts. I can feel a prickle in my eye, but it’s just my hay fever, obviously. Pollen affects ghosts too, you know! All these stupid flowers…
I wipe my watery hay fever eyes and reread some of the more ridiculous ones left by some of my schoolmates: ‘Find all the hot girls for me in heaven’, writes Mike. As if he’s ever going to heaven, after some of the stunts he’s pulled. ‘Got out of homework – nice!’ is from Sammy, and even my nemesis, that loser Ryan Green has written a note. A pretty basic ‘rest in peace, mate’, but the guy’s never had an original thought in his life, so what can you expect?
I sigh, turning away from the memorial to drift through the shopping centre listening to snatches of conversation here and there, knowing no one has the slightest clue I’m here. I could literally pull down my ghost pants and flash my butt whilst yelling the National Anthem and no one would so much as glance in my direction (believe me, I’ve tried!).
I reach the fountain in the middle of the shopping centre, and for want of anything better to do, I sit down next to two girls my age, both clutching bulging shopping bags and laughing. I smile and try to imagine that I’m just some normal teenager here with friends and not some lonely ghost freak. Then I take in what they’re saying.
“Did you see it on the news? I mean, it’s sad and all, but what a lame way to go,” the blonde girl is saying. Her freckled friend snorts.
“I know, I mean, dying falling down an escalator is ridiculous enough, but whilst taking a selfie? Cringe!”
If I could go red, I would. I petulantly swat at Freckles’ shopping bag, sending it toppling into the water. She jumps up squealing and turns to fish it out, but I’m already off, swooping up past the escalator and out onto the upper floor.
What the hell do they know? I think furiously, swiping a woman’s coffee cup out of her hand and enjoying the horrified squeak she makes. They should try being dead! They should try being alone and unnoticed, even in a busy shopping centre!
I spend the rest of the afternoon drifting around in a mood, unravelling all the toilet rolls in the bathrooms and switching the labels on the caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee in the dingy little coffee shop. Finally, when the shopping centre is empty and darkened, I perch myself on the upper floor bannister to think, transparent legs dangling.
The big question is, why am I still here?
I’d never given much thought to what happens after you die. I mean, I’m only seventeen, so I figured it wasn’t something I had to worry about for a while. Failing my exams seemed like a more immediate worry, and getting Katie Yates to go out with me. And I guess I always thought eventually I’d get a job, and get married, and maybe have a few kids… All stuff I’ll never have now.
Instead, I’m stuck in a shopping centre. Seemingly for eternity. Awesome.
But that’s what I don’t get: if people always end up hanging around the place they died, where are all the other ghosts? I mean, I know for a fact that some old dear had a heart attack and died in the cafe downstairs a while back, and supposedly a builder died when the shopping centre was being built. So shouldn’t I be hanging out with a granny and a builder right now? Where are they?
There must be some way to move on, I muse, swooping upwards and doing a few lazy loop-the-loops. All the films I’ve seen suggest I must have some kind of unfinished business, but I can only think of the maths coursework I never finished. But I tried to leave the shopping centre to go home the day I died, and I couldn’t seem to get further than the car park. It’s as if I hit an invisible wall, so there’s no way I could fetch my coursework.
So what’s a guy to do?
My hay fever is acting up again, so I just go with it and have a little sniffle at the unfairness of it all. I mournfully swoop around the upper floors, brooding and being incredibly ghost-like, when something catches my eye.
Even in the darkness of the empty shopping centre, there’s a twinkle of flashing lights coming from the arcade… the very arcade where I lost all pride and dignity two years ago, when that epic loser Ryan Green thrashed me on the dance machine. His score is still the high score, according to Mike.
I float through the shutters and make for the back of the arcade. I plug in the dance machine, and drift back to watch as the lights twinkle to life and the screen lights up, blaring music around the silent arcade. I load up the leaderboard, and there it is, still very much at the top: Tomisaloser02. The very words that idiot Ryan typed in the machine two years ago, when he beat me.
Fury fills my ghostly form… this has to be it. I can’t leave this world with this being my legacy! I can’t just be some dancing loser who died on an escalator!
I set my jaw and hit the start button with my palm and jump into place, feet settling on the dance mat as if this is destiny.
This is it… my unfinished business. A dance odyssey of epic proportions!
Here I go.
Time is a blur. Left, right, front, back, hop, double jump, left, left again, right, right again, hop… I’m an unstoppable force, transparent legs whirling with literal supernatural speed. On and on I dance, one song, then the next, until I’m flying through every single song that crappy dance machine has to offer.
I make every single leaderboard, and on every single one, I name myself RyanGSucks02.
With my final victory comes the dawn, and then the cracking of the shutters as the first employee arrives. I look up as I finish typing in the final RyanGSucks02, to see a spotty-faced guy standing in the doorway gawping at me.
I glance down at myself to find my transparent form has solidified a little, but at the same time, my fingertips are starting to fade and melt away. I give a horrified squeal as it spreads up my arm like a disease, vaporising me inch by inch. I look up at the arcade employee and see the word forming in his mouth as the arcade starts to fade from view…
“Wait…you can see me?” I cry, even as he disappears from view, and everything goes white.
“Well, of course he could!” A brisk voice says from behind me. “We’ve tried to perfect the process, but somehow we haven’t been able to overcome that minor blip where you become visible when you pass over. It’s the number one reason for ghost sightings you know! Now, what’s your name, young man? We’ll have to get you booked into the next ‘Welcome’ seminar…”