This story is by Brittany Raschdorf and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
The irony of how perfect this day is for a funeral is the only thing I notice at first. A gentle breeze blows freshly fallen leaves across the cemetery. Fog billows in the distance. The sun falls in patches on the green grass like a quilt. And yet a bitter chill seeps under my skin, making me shiver more than death itself. The air here is unnaturally cool–wherever here is.
I’m alone. The casket is here, waiting for the rest of the funeral party to arrive so they can lay my body to rest. I glide my cold fingers across the smooth mahogany. I can feel pressure building behind my eyes, but no tears come. I can’t bring myself to mourn my death.
When did I get here?
Something tells me it doesn’t matter. My time here is already fading. I can feel the weight of gravity slipping away slowly as the cold continues to press in. I am no longer tethered to this world. The weight of it has fallen from my shoulders. And yet I can sense the pressure of pain.
But it’s not mine.
I turn to find her tear-stained face. Her porcelain skin has dulled under the weight of death. Her shoulders look as if they will fall in on themselves. I run to comfort her.
“Misty, I’m so sorry. I never wanted to leave you.” I reach for her hands.
She doesn’t look up; she doesn’t respond.
I can feel the warmth of her hands, like fire to my frigid fingers. She drops Lexi’s hand to pull on her gloves. Little Lexi, dressed in black, looking so serious. There has never been a day when Lexi wasn’t smiling. Her Downs Syndrome kept her safe from the evils of the world; her light was never dimmed by its demands. But today, the weight of the world is written in the lines of her face. My death has eclipsed her smile. My cold, static heart can still sense the ache of regret.
“I’m so sorry, Lexi.” I stroke her flaming hot cheek, noticing my fingers are growing stiff.
My time is running out.
I kiss Misty’s lips, savoring the feel of their warmth. The smell of her perfume reaches my nose, and it’s almost too much to bear. How can I leave her behind? How did her scent reach me here, in this ephemeral place?
“Good bye, Misty.” My heart aches for all the things I will never get to share with her. I’m thankful that while I was with her, I did share everything. She alone knows my darkest secrets.
But I didn’t tell my sweet friend, Prosperity, enough. I’m walking toward her, choking on that regret. This was all for nothing. They killed me for what I told her, and I didn’t even tell her enough to help her. She’s standing next to Hudson, holding back tears. She’s a fighter. I know she can overcome them. They may have her now, but they won’t always. I can see what lies within her–she has a good heart. But I can sense the evil that has intertwined itself in her life; it’s alive.
I need to tell her more. I have to warn her.
“Prosperity, I need you to listen to me.”
She doesn’t look up.
I grab her hands, but she can’t feel my touch.
“Prosperity!” I’m yelling, desperate. “Listen to me. Please.”
I grab Hudson by the shoulders. “Help her! You can keep her safe. She needs to get away from them!”
He doesn’t even blink in my direction.
My words can’t penetrate their world.
“It’s not too late, you know.” A voice as icy as my skin reaches my ears.
Fear raises the hairs on the back of my neck as I turn around, realizing that I am not alone here. A man who looks as if he just crawled out of a freshly buried casket is standing off in the shadows. His skin is an unnatural shade of gray.
I take a step back, unsure of this man, if that’s what he is.
“You need to tell her more. You are the only one capable of setting her free.” He nods his baldhead toward Prosperity.
I step in front of her, not wanting him anywhere near her.
He takes a step forward, into a patch of sunlight, and I can see his face clearly. His skin is still a strange shade of gray, but there is something fluid moving on it. It looks like a tattoo, but the shapes it makes change without rhythm. The ice in the air amplifies as he moves closer.
“I can turn back time for you. Give you a second chance.” His face shows no emotion, but his eyes make me uncomfortable.
“Why would you do that?” I don’t trust this creature.
“Because she should know.” He walks around me, behind Prosperity.
My stomach knots when his stone colored fingers caress her shoulders.
He smells her neck, shaking his head. “Nothing.” He mutters to himself. “I miss the smells the most. Every once in a while, when you are near those you love, their scent will travel through. It’s cruel really. You can see them, smell them, and touch them. But they never even know you are there.”
“What happens to me if you send me back? How long would I have?”
The ink covering his face morphs into a new pattern—something sinister I can’t make out as his lips turn upward in a smile.
“Until you die again. You could live to be a ripe old man; grow old with Misty.” He steps away from Prosperity, walking toward Misty and Lexi.
“Wait.” I can’t let him near them; can’t let him touch them. “What’s the catch?”
He turns, folding his tattooed hands together. “It’s simple really, I send you back, and once you return to me, you stay here with me for the rest of eternity.”
I look around, wondering what this place is.
“Think of Misty. Sweet little Lexi. Think of what they will do to Prosperity if she never learns the truth. Do you want that hanging over you forever? Those are the scars you will bear if you choose to be selfish.” He taunts.
As the words hit my ears, piercing my chest with the weight of their truth, a small black spot forms on my hand. It’s just a blob, like a drop of ink fell from the quill of a pen; but it begins to move, taking shape.
“Where do I go if I don’t stay here?” I look away, not wanting to see what shape the ink is forming on my flesh.
“That depends on what you believed when you were alive. You may go to Heaven. Most go to Hell.” He snickers, pleased.
“Where are we now?” I shove my hand into my jacket pocket as the ink continues to spread. I can feel it slithering up my arm.
“This is the Spiritual Realm. Those who have shared a body with one of us stop here to unload their cargo. Those patterns forming on your skin, those are the sins of the demon that haunted you on the earth. Once he removes himself from you, your own sins will start to take shape. You need to decide before that happens. I can’t send you back once you’re inked.” As the words leave his lips, the ink from my body begins to float from my skin, like it’s evaporating.
It begins to take shape beside me, slowly forming another man—another demon.
I can hear Misty sobbing in the background as they begin to lower my casket, the sound of her pain making this decision so much harder. Do I keep my sins in exchange for a lifetime with Misty, and a chance to help Prosperity? Or do I accept forgiveness, leaving them behind?
The ink is completely gone now; my cold, dead flesh almost looks alive again. The demon beside me is just getting his bearings. He stretches, and his bones crack with the movement.
“Home sweet home.” He smiles.
The tattoos covering his exposed skin look familiar—scripts from movies I’ve starred in. They fade away and are replaced by new tattoos, but I know what it means: we share the same sins. If I choose to go back to my former life now, my eternity will be spent tempting people with evil, securing the weak a place in hell. If I have to burn in hell for the rest of eternity, I can face that. But I can’t face choosing that fate for someone else.
I walk to Prosperity’s side, whispering goodbye. She is a fighter; I have to trust that God has a plan to save her without me. Next I go to Misty, kissing her warm lips one last time, pulling her and Lexi in for a hug.
Then I turn to give the demons my answer. “Go to Hell.”