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And now, the story…
“What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?”
Sheila asked that question with a playful tone, like she expected me to come back with some tale of teenage hijinks. The kind of thing that’s technically illegal and dangerous, but teenagers do all the time. I worried at my bottom lip, hoping that puppy-dog eyes might distract her, but she fixed patience into her smile, and her eager brown eyes hinted that she knew I had a story to tell. I lay back on our picnic blanket, lush suburban park grass beneath it cushioning my head, and stared up at the high sky, pale blue with wisps of clouds too small to form distracting shapes.
“Come on.” Excitement trembled through her voice, as though she grew more certain every moment that she’d found something she desperately wanted to know. “No secrets between us.”
“Well, I did steal a classmate’s house key in third grade. I didn’t use it or anything. He just couldn’t go inside until his mom got home. Got him in trouble for losing it, but I caught hell when the truth came out.”
“Cold,” she said, undeterred, “but not your worst.”
I rolled on my side and furrowed my brow at her smug, raised chin, her confident posture and arms-crossed finality. God, I loved her, but this wasn’t the time to say it. “I don’t know,” I said slowly. “That was pretty obnoxious.”
“Nice try, but I saw the look.”
“Something big flitted behind your eyes. Some deep secret. Maybe something you haven’t even told Paul.”
“Nice try, but I’ve known Paul forever. If I did it, he knows.”
That got me a silent harrumph shivering through her posture, but if I hoped to deter her inquiry, I was mistaken. Her next words hit me like cold iron. “You’re telling me there are things he gets to know that I don’t?”
I hesitated, my mind reeling for something to say that wouldn’t lead to my sleeping on the couch that night. Possibly for that whole weekend. Sheila could hold a grudge with both hands.
“Tick tock, mister. Your next words better be good ones.”
“All right,” I said, not trying to cover the weary fear in my voice. I should have known this would come out sooner or later. “Are you sure you want to know?”
“I’m sure you better tell me.”
“Fine.” I sighed. “I used to raise the dead.”
Sheila sucked her lips in and blinked in thought. I gave her time.
“You mean you dug up corpses? Like resurrectionists or grave robbers?”
“Not as such.”
“So this is some kind of metaphor for—”
“No. Dead things up and moving around. My fault.” I dropped back onto my back and closed my eyes. “All my fault.”
“You’re serious. You’re telling me you used to make zombies.”
“Not zombies.” I squished my lips while I thought about that word for what felt like the two thousandth time. “Not the way you think of them. No shambling or moaning or eating brains. One minute a dead body, the next … well, still dead, but moving.”
Sheila was quiet. Sheila was never quiet, but this time she was. I didn’t hear her move, and she said nothing for so long that I finally had to open my eyes and blink against the bright sunlight before I could reassure myself that she still sat there, posture poster perfect, but a worried look crinkling her beautiful eyes.
“Tell me about it. If you mean it. If you honestly believe you’ve brought the dead back to life, or undeath, or whatever, you need to tell me everything. And I mean right now. Because if this is a joke, Harrison, I’m not laughing.”
“Look, I didn’t mean to do it, all right? I didn’t spend late nights with arcane tomes or indulge in Satanic orgies or any of that horror movie stuff. It just … happened, like the way a regular kid will break a window and then hide and pretend he didn’t do it. It was just like that, the first time.”
“The first time?”
“Do you want to hear this or not?”
“No. But I think I need to.”
“All right then. Let me tell it.”
Back when I was a kid, this town used to have more empty lots. Bunches of them. Half the downtown you saw when you moved here last year, it didn’t exist back then. Just open, empty fields, not even sidewalks or curbs between the wild grass and the blacktop. During the summer after fifth grade, Tom and I ran wild down there every day. Us, and Paul, and Kenny and … Orin. Man, I haven’t thought about those two in years.
Anyway, there was this stray dog, a scruffy little mutt we called Nightshadow. He lived in one of those fields, and whenever he was around he would chase anything we wanted to throw: old tennis balls, dilapidated baseballs, Frisbees, sticks, even Paul’s busted G.I. Joe. He let us pet him, sometimes, but most often he didn’t let us get that close. He didn’t growl or threaten, just backed off most of the times we tried. Just as well, none of us wanted to brave telling our parents about the stray dog we befriended, even to try to adopt him. In fact, I don’t think adopting Nightshadow ever occurred to any of us. He was just a fixture of the fields, someone to play with.
What happened to him?
I’m getting to it.
One day toward the end of summer, Tom and Kenny and Orin were off at soccer camp and Paul and I decided to go play with Nightshadow. But when we got to his field, we saw this other dog, a big Rottweiler. We should have known he was trouble by the slow approach, the visible teeth, the angry snout. But we were just stupid kids who thought every stray dog was going to be like Nightshadow, a good boy abandoned by bad luck. But that Rott, someone must have abused him, because he did not like kids.
We didn’t know anything was wrong until the Rott was close enough for us to hear the growl. We turned and ran for our bikes. The Rott caught Paul. You’ve seen that scar covering most of his calf? That was from the Rott. Paul was screaming and I was crying. I didn’t know what to do. I tried to find a rock to throw because I was too scared to approach the snarling dog that gnawed on my best friend’s leg.
But then here came Nightshadow, a thunderbolt of shaggy growling fur hitting the Rott’s hindquarters teeth first. The Rott let go of Paul and the dogs went at each other. I grabbed Paul and started dragging him, both of us sick with terror and tears.
Even then I knew our first stop was the hospital. That big St. James place has been there longer than I’ve been alive, and it was about three blocks from our bikes. Those three blocks took us forever though. We got to the hospital a screaming, crying, bloody mess.
We both got nuclear-war busted over that one. Grounded until the start of school. But the worst part, that was what I heard that night. My dad got off the phone with Paul’s dad. Paul’s dad had gone looking for the Rott so they could have it rabies tested. He found two dead dogs. Two. The Rott, and Nightshadow.
Bad as I felt about Paul, I felt worse about Nightshadow. I cried for days, railing against the heavens as only a ten-year-old can about the unfairness of life that a good and noble dog like Nightshadow could get killed. Nightshadow should have won, should have killed the Rott and lived to play another day with us. I wanted it, no, I demanded it. And I cried. Tom still gives me shit about how much crying I did over a stray dog.
It was about a week later, a Tuesday night. I was taking the garbage out to the curb. I heard a familiar bark from the street. Nightshadow’s bark. I looked up, excited, thinking maybe that Paul’s dad had got it wrong, that maybe Nightshadow was only pretending to be dead. Or that maybe he hadn’t seen Nightshadow at all. It was about eight o’clock, but still light out, so when I looked up I had a good view of what used to be Nightshadow.
He stood, or tried to, in the middle of the street, shaking on unsteady legs. All the fur on Nightshadow’s belly and hindquarters was matted and crusted. I thought it was mud. God I was a stupid kid. No rain all summer, and I thought it was mud crusting that fur.
“Nightshadow!” I cried, and ran to meet my friend, but he staggered back a couple of steps the way he always did when he didn’t want to be petted. I started babbling to him about how I thought he was dead and what a good boy he was, and then I heard my mom yell for my dad. My dad stormed out of the house like I’d broken a neighbor’s window (Quit grinning. Like you’ve never done it?) and yelled for me with that rising last syllable that always told me I was in trouble. “Harrison!”
Having had enough trouble for one month, I shrugged an apology and ran back up the driveway. Mom started into me about stray dogs, but Dad interrupted her. “Jill, there’s something wrong with that dog.”
“Want me to call someone?”
“No, I’ll take care of it. Take Harry back in the house.”
Mom shooed me inside with words and both hands while Dad got something from the garage. I don’t know what he went for, but what he told my mom when he came back inside gave me another week’s worth of crying. He said, “The poor thing was hurt. Might have been rabid. I had to put him down.”
“That’s terrible,” said Sheila.
“I know.” I was back on my back, eyes closed, but this time my head was resting in her lap.
“He couldn’t have taken him to the vet? Your family’s not exactly broke.”
“Wouldn’t have helped. Nightshadow was dead.”
“Oh, come on, Harrison. Obviously the dog was only hurt during its fight with the Rottweiler, and Paul’s dad made a mistake when he went to check.”
“Sure,” I said with a sad chuckle. I opened my eyes and saw that she had one eyebrow raised in disbelief. “I’ll skip the second time I raised the dead, then, and go straight to—”
“No skipping. So far I haven’t heard anything that makes me think you raised the dead, however it might have looked to you at the time. I’m not letting you get away with bypassing another—”
“Fine. This one’s a bit gruesome though.”
Sheila set her lips into a line that left no room for debate.
Through my early teenage years we used to see my Gamma, my mom’s mom, every other Saturday like clockwork. Tom and I had to abandon any social activities that didn’t involve team sports so we could visit with our grandmother. We loved our Gamma, but that kind of regular command appearance doesn’t sit well with teenage boys. Our friends were off playing and we had to spend the glorious sunlit hours sitting up straight, keeping our shirts tucked in, playing Parcheesi, and pretending it was the best possible way we could think of to spend a Saturday.
After more than a year of this, Tom and I began to fantasize about getting out of those Saturdays. We signed up for more team sports when we could, but our limited athletic talents kept those from helping much. We devolved down to the kind of fantasies you don’t want to admit to, like Gamma having a car accident on her way over so she couldn’t come.
“I know. We didn’t mean it. We just got really sick of Parcheesi.”
Anyway, it was the second Saturday in May and Tom and I were talking about car crashes when the phone rang: Gamma’s car got hit. It was bad.
“Did you cause that too?”
They’d rushed her to the county hospital, which was all right, but not the one we would have chosen. She died before we got there.
Mom was a basket case for days, but Tom and me, we blamed ourselves. Stupid really. Everyone makes idle wishes like that sometimes. No one wants them to come true – certainly we didn’t – but we couldn’t help blaming ourselves.
Every night before I went to sleep I begged God to forgive me for what I’d done. I begged Gamma to forgive me, wished it hadn’t happened, wished it was all a nightmare and that she’d come back and play Parcheesi with us. All week I prayed like that, before I went to sleep, and every time I thought about it during the day.
The closed-casket funeral was set for one o’clock that next Saturday. At eight o’clock that morning the doorbell rang. There on the front step was Gamma, collarbone and shoulder broken and dragging halfway down her torso, where ribs were visibly broken behind the brown stains covering her blue flowered dress. Her head hung limp on her right shoulder, like her neck was broken too, but the moment she saw me she smiled at me, the same smile she used to give when she was proud of my grades or my performance in some school play.
She just stood there and smiled at me like nothing was wrong in the world, except that she couldn’t raise her left arm to pinch my cheek. The worst part was Mom. Mom came up behind me, funeral details in her hand like she thought some neighbor needed directions. She took one look at Gamma and fainted on the spot.
I wasn’t much better. I babbled something at Gamma about how she was not supposed to be there because she was dead and how the funeral was at one and how sorry I was and on and on. I didn’t see it at the time, but looking back now I realize that only my first words really reached her, that she was not supposed to be there. It showed in little things, like a tremble in her lips and a little flop in her neck, like she was trying to nod or shake her head.
Either way, she turned and walked off. I didn’t know what to do, so I shut the door.
When Mom came to, she didn’t remember seeing Gamma, and I didn’t ask, not like that. She just remembered fainting and blamed it on stress and the heat, not that it was that hot. I don’t know what happened to Gamma after that, but I remember noticing that the pallbearers didn’t seem to have any trouble with the coffin, like maybe it was a little light.
“So, a child with feelings of intense guilt and loss imagines seeing his dead grandmother.” Sheila blinked innocent eyes at me. “Not exactly evidence of an occult phenomenon.”
“You think I was hallucinating?”
“I think that you twice went through huge traumas around death, had some perfectly understandable delusions and drew some unmerited conclusions.” She shrugged. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to ruin this for you, if that’s the right word, but I don’t think you did anything. I think you just had a rough time growing up.” She stroked my forehead and said, in a gentler tone, “But I’m glad you’ve shared these details too. I had no idea.”
“So I was imagining Nightshadow’s return too?”
“I think you mistook a similar looking dog—”
“No. I mean his second return.”
This was during freshman year of college. I was taking that Psych class – yes the one where I met you – when we did that unit on death and how we deal with it. Well, I was telling Paul about it one night, and as the hour grew later we started reminiscing. Before long we got around to talking about Nightshadow and I told him about Nightshadow’s return. He didn’t believe me any more than you do now. He thought it was a trick of the light, or of grief, that had me seeing Nightshadow in some other stray, some wounded dog that my dad had to put out of his misery.
It was late, and we’d had more than a few beers, and I admit, he almost had me convinced, despite Gamma, despite the other times I hadn’t mentioned. I didn’t want any of it to be true, and Paul was giving me a way out. So I leapt on it, tried to convince myself that it was all in my head, that none of it had ever really happened.
But I couldn’t help thinking back to Nightshadow. I thought about him a lot over the next few days, how much fun we’d had playing with him, how brave he’d been to go after that bigger dog, how stupid I’d been to never try to get him adopted, or just to get my parents to let me adopt him. I couldn’t help thinking that if I’d done something different, been more responsible, Nightshadow would not have died that way.
It was about a week later. Paul and I were walking back to the dorm from campus late after a triple feature of old 80’s comedies when we heard a bark we both recognized coming from an alley across the street. We looked at each other and crossed over as soon as it was clear.
We both saw him. The light wasn’t good, but we both saw him. Nightshadow, unsteady on his feet, matted rear fur like last time, but this time his head hung limp and his fur was dirtier. Still, his eyes stared at us and his tail wagged like it was trying to propel him through water. His mouth hung open and his tongue tried to pant, but no saliva dripped.
Paul and I looked at each other. Paul didn’t know what to do, and I had to see how he reacted.
“Nightshadow?” said Paul.
Nightshadow barked, tail wagging even faster. Paul and I tried to step closer, but Nightshadow backed away a few shaky feet.
“It’s him,” said Paul. I only nodded, guilty over the dog’s death and now twice guilty over its return. Paul looked at me like I was the expert. “What do we do?”
“I don’t know,” I said, but I lied. My heart felt like it had contracted into a solid lump that fell into my stomach. If Nightshadow had come back, then so had Gamma and … so had Gamma. I knew what I had said to make her go away, and now I had to say it to Nightshadow.
But I didn’t want to. Nightshadow had been such a good dog, and it was my fault he died in the first place. And in the second place, because after I had called him back from the dead, I had gotten the poor dog killed a second time when my dad ‘put him out of his misery.’ Must have been why Nightshadow’s head hung limp that way. That was my fault too, and now it was my fault that Nightshadow had come back yet again, called by my guilt and sadness to bring me more guilt and sadness. Maybe to make me acknowledge the wrongs I’d done, and make me try to find some way to right them.
But I didn’t see how. What could I do to help a dead dog? I couldn’t fix his neck, or his legs, or anything else that was wrong with him. I couldn’t take back the fact that I’d gotten him killed not once but twice. I couldn’t set him back the way I found him, happy and playful in a field that even during my college freshmen year was already a shopping center.
So however much worse it made me feel, however much I didn’t want to do it, I had to send the poor dog back to his rest. And so with tears in my eyes I knelt and said in the firmest voice I could manage, which wasn’t very, “Nightshadow. You’re a good boy, Nightshadow. But you don’t belong here. You hear me, boy? You’re dead. You’re not supposed to be here, boy. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry for everything, but I can’t change this. This world is for the living, and you’re dead. You’ve got to go back, boy. Go back, Nightshadow.”
I said “go back” a few more times, and Paul joined me as though it had ritual significance. The dog caught on pretty quickly, and with one swinging look over his shoulder he limped away.
“Where did he go?”
“Back to his grave.”
“How do you know?” Something in her tone made me open my eyes again, and Sheila’s were red-rimmed and shiny with unshed tears. “How do you know where he went?”
“I don’t, any more than I know where … where Gamma went. But they had to have gone back to their graves, hadn’t they? People would notice a dead dog and a dead grandmother running around out there. It’s not as though they could pass for living.”
“But you don’t know for sure.”
“So you believe me?”
“I…” She clamped her jaw shut, blinked rapidly, and wiped her eyes with the backs of her hands. “I guess I do. Or at least—”
“Don’t say you believe I believe it.”
“Ask Paul if you don’t believe me.”
“It just seems to me—”
“Doesn’t matter,” I said. Shelia gave me an affronted look, so I continued, “I don’t mean it doesn’t matter if you believe me. No, wait, I do mean that, just not for the reason you think.” I had to sit up because she clearly wanted me off her lap now, but it was just as well. I needed to sit up so I could face the unpleasant truth I was about to share with her. “You’ve got me thinking about death again, and Nightshadow, and people I’ve lost. Which means it’s going to happen again soon enough. Then you’ll see. Sometime in the next week or so you’ll have a chance to meet Nightshadow, or Gamma, or … or Gamma.”
“That’s the third time you’ve tried to not mention someone to me. Are you trying to tell me there’s someone else you think you’ve brought back from the dead?”
More than one, but I picked a name. “Paul’s high school girlfriend, Carla. She’d had a skiing accident.”
“Don’t tell me.”
“You wanted to know.”
“Was it bloody?”
“Like you said. I’ll see soon enough, right? No need to go into more details just now.”
That topic spelled the end of our picnic. We tried to change the subject, tried to joke about television shows and connect about books we loved, but after less than five minutes we gave up. The bright sun had lost its power to cheer us, and we packed up to head for home.
Home. In the back of my mind I worried about another death, one that hadn’t happened yet but might have started that day: the death of our relationship. I loved Sheila, and I was pretty sure she loved me, but I had dropped quite a bomb on her today. And it hadn’t gone off yet. It just sat there ticking. No, the explosion would come all too soon when she found out the hard way that I hadn’t made up a word of what I’d told her. Could she stay with me even knowing that sometimes the dead will come to visit? If she could, I’d propose to her that night.
I thought I had days to fret about this, but it turned out I only had hours. I had only thought about how long the previous instances had taken to manifest. I hadn’t thought about the fact that we were living back in my home town, only blocks away from the place where Nightshadow lived and died. I hadn’t thought about the fact that I’d called him twice before and now he knew the way.
We were on the sunlit edge of dusk when we heard a scraping sound from the front door of our four-plex front unit apartment. I was sitting at the kitchen table reading the evening paper, maybe eight feet from the door. Sheila was sitting on the couch in the living room, channel hopping news stations, maybe ten feet away from the door.
Neither one of us processed the sound until its third repetition.
“What’s that noise?” asked Sheila.
I grunted something noncommittal, more interested in the analysis of the proposed public transit expansion through downtown. But now that she called my attention to the sound, I couldn’t not notice it, and it started to bother me. About its sixth repetition I finally got up, which made Sheila get up too. Apparently her curiosity had only been held in check by my inaction.
We stood side by side when I opened the door. There on the step stood Nightshadow, shaky, matted, head lolling, but tail wagging and dry tongue hanging out like a doggy smile. He backed off a step, forepaws trying to spread and lower him in a playful pose, but his rear legs couldn’t manage it. The poor thing fell, then dragged itself to its feet again.
“Ni…” Sheila’s voice cracked so she steadied herself and started again. “Nightshadow?”
I nodded. Nightshadow barked, a more gravelly sound than I remembered. I turned to look at Sheila, to see how she handled seeing the truth of my story, but she didn’t look at Nightshadow. She just stared at the air above him, as though she couldn’t take the sight, couldn’t bring herself to see the playful abomination on her doorstep.
“Don’t look away from him, Sheila. Nightshadow deserves better than that. That dog—”
“You’re not going to deal with this? But this is part of who I am, this—”
“No. I’m not looking away from him. I’m looking right at him,” – she drew a deep breath – “or rather, I’m looking at his ghost.”
I turned and stared at Sheila, slack-jawed and eyes crinkled in confusion.
“I … I can see ghosts. Not everywhere, and not all the time, but sometimes, when I’m around the dead.”
“All right,” I said. Who the hell was I to question her? I had brought poor Nightshadow back from the grave three times now. Guilt and shame prickled heat through me at that thought. The poor dog. My friendship meant he would never rest in peace. And if his ghost was right there… “So his ghost is here? What does that mean? Is he stuck? Can we help him?”
“Maybe … maybe we can help ourselves.”
“What do you mean?”
“When I see a ghost, I can talk to it.” She shook her head. “I can’t talk to Nightshadow. He’s a dog.” She started waving her hands, excited now. “But I can talk to people, even when they’re ghosts.”
“How does that help us here, much less poor Nightshadow?” Nightshadow barked at hearing his name again, and I felt a sad smile cross my face. I reached out to scratch his head. I couldn’t help myself. His fur felt dirty, and the skin beneath was too soft, squishy soft. But he hadn’t really decomposed properly, given how long he’d been dead…
Sheila continued talking as though I weren’t fixated on the dead dog. By the time I tuned back in she was saying, “We’d need an agent or something. I don’t know much about show business—”
“Yeah.” Sheila seemed to notice that I was petting the dead dog. She dismissed the first thing she thought of saying with a shake of her head, then said, “You can call people back from the grave, and I can talk to their ghosts! We’ll be rich! Famous!” My jaw dropped in shock, as she went on about television specials and live tours. She didn’t even look at me as she babbled about exploiting the dead, not until I cut her off.
“I’m going to take Nightshadow for a walk. I’ll be back later.” I chose not to add, ‘to get my stuff.’ I loved Sheila, but I could never live with a woman who could look at the dead and see only dollar signs. “Come on, Nightshadow. I don’t think either one of us belongs here.”
Dead dog by my side, I walked off into the growing night.
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