This story is by Heather Ann Shannon and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Abraham sits at his desk, fountain pen tap, tap, tapping on the hard burnished walnut. It keeps time with the skritch, skritch, scratch of the branches just outside the west-facing windows. The ruby light of the setting sun fills the study, bringing it to life. Josephine holds her breath as he furrows his brow in thought.
He is a dark silhouette in the ruddy glow. His eyes narrow in focus on some obscure place as the pen clicks the wood. One single page lies in the center of the red-tinged desk, skewed at a diagonal, the writing smudged in his left-handed scrawl.
Across the desk in an old wingback chair, Josephine sits, bowed and broken, aged and worn, watching. Her hands grip the arms of the chair as she studies every feature of his face. Like everything else in this room, it is tinted by the setting sun.
“You must give up this endeavour, Abraham. It’s time to give up and let it go.” She says, her voice a raspy plea. One she’s repeated countless times before.
He shakes his head in denial. His innocent naivety is apparent on his youthful face. “Just one more letter. One more letter and I will convince them. They’ll agree to the new terms. Just you wait and see.”
“They won’t. You know that. I’ve told you before,” Josephine is adamant, knowing something Abraham doesn’t remember. “I told you they’d do anything to have it!”
Thumping a heavy hand against the desktop, the pen snaps and ink splatters the paper. As black as it is, it fades with time, long seconds passing by as they stare each other down. The antique electric lamp with silk shade and crystal embellishments trembles from the impact. Josephine flinches. “Dammit, Josephine, I am not sellin’ my daddy’s land! I don’t care what happens! I would blow it up before I sell it!”
She can see his spit fly as he screams at her. She doesn’t even blink. She would have once, but no longer.
Instead, tears fill her eyes. Knowing what’s coming. There’s nothing she can do to stop it. “You need to move on. Please!”
“TCHIK!” A hole appears in the glass behind his head. “Hhhck!” Small cracks burst out around it, radiating like the unnatural burgundy of the sunset.
In an instant, the 45-calibre enters his skull, then his face melts as the vision of blood spatters in every direction. The bits of pen rock, roll, rock – stop.
Josephine starts, feeling ice where the bullet once grazed her shoulder. The horror. The realization. The heartbreak and agony. It’s impossible, but here he sits in the setting sun. No amount of time can ease it.
Time. The passage has left this room untouched, unravaged. Her care of this room has left a shining patina on the old wood furniture. It is just as he liked it. Clean, polished. Everything is just so. She is the only thing out of place. The digital watch on her wrist, her modern clothes, and the security latches on the windows are the only new items in this room unmarred by time. This single moment is unchanged, running in a loop every bloody sunny Sunday evening right around sunset.
“I told you. They killed you, Abraham.” Josephine sighs, her rasp cracks as she watches his now headless form start to fade. Whole and pristine, the window frames the view of the dark, barren trees, poisoned by the mine they wanted so desperately. The brittle branches creak and groan. If only Abraham had never found that vein of silver. One cannot change the past.
“How many times have I told you? I had no proof of the threats. They won. The dirty bastards! I had no choice but to sell them the land to keep the house. Your daddy’s house! I raised the boys here.” She’s told him this before. The words change a little each time, but the event never changes. “They went to school just like you wanted. Got married and had families. We have thirteen grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren.”
She doesn’t know what to say to make him let go and move on. Her heart breaks, again. If only he could find peace. Yet she can’t seem to let him go either. If she could, she would have moved away years ago after the boys went their own way. Watching him, seeing his face for only a singular angry moment, is enough to keep her here. Even if it means reliving the worst moment of her entire life.
Josephine knows she’s the walking definition of insanity. She’s spent her whole life talking to the headless apparition of her husband, over and over, expecting a change. Sitting up, she resolves to be strong. “I’m tired now, Abraham. We can’t keep visiting like this. I don’t want to see this happen to you again.”
“I can’t – I can’t do it anymore.” His silhouette shimmers. The house trembles and the trees sway in the distance. The land is restless. As if tied to his spirit. The window rattles, as do the crystal whiskey glasses and empty decanter. Startled, she gasps. This is new. The tremor reminds her of the morning’s newscast. “Was it you? The collapse of the mine… Was it you?”
The mutilated form of her husband rises from his chair and turns to the window. Shivering, she wonders if headless ghosts can see. If so, what was it he saw? The road to the mine? The men she saw on television? A loud groan startles Josephine as the house settles. Her heart begins to race. She can feel the heavy, thump, thump-bump, thump in her chest.
Yesterday, the land shook. An earthquake. The mine collapsed. Killing six men during a routine inspection. Six dirty, greedy, corrupt officials met their end. While the killers were never brought to justice, their greed caught up with them in the mine.
Today, Abraham has left the ritual behind. Despite her uncertainty, Josephine can’t help the small brittle smile forming. A spark returns to her eye. “It was, wasn’t it? You got them!”
Whenever she enters this room he is here in his chair, waiting for her to sit in hers. “Do you visit the mine as often as you do me?”
Silence grows between them. His headless form becomes translucent as he turns to face her. The setting sun is brighter than any evening that’s come before. It’s eerie rather than enlightening. Its brilliance hurts her eyes for a moment, but then the pain diminishes as the sun settles on the horizon. The lamp on the desk flickers as Abraham’s dark silhouette fades, shivering and shaking in the red haze before turning translucent and whole once again. Her heart squeezes tight at the sight of him.
She realizes he must be at peace now. But why hasn’t he departed for the afterlife?
Anguished, gazing up into his eyes, Josephine cries, “They got what they deserved! What are you waiting for? You can finally move on!”
Her heart aches, but this time it’s different. Pain grips her ribs in a vice. Catches her breath in a tight grasp. Lightning shoots down her arm and into her jaw as she clutches her chest.
Abraham reaches his hand over the expanse of walnut separating them, and understanding hits her. The pain is as intense as her fear of the unknown, but she trusts him. Her voice rattles as she pleads, “Abraham? Take me Home.”
Tears spill as she reaches for him. This body feels so heavy, Josephine thinks, as the strength leaves her. Stunned silence swells as she sees the flesh and bones of her gnarled hand tear apart from the supreme buoyancy of her ethereal soul. Aware of her physical form dropping slack into the chair, she hears her last breath and is free. Rising – up – over; until she is right beside her beloved.
Darkness falls. The sun has set.
She reaches for Abraham, meets his eyes, and for the first time in seventy years, her hand doesn’t go through his. A brilliant white light blooms from their loving grasp.
“I’ve been waitin’ on you, darlin’.”