Class Three Haunting: Vengeance
One fine spring day, Timmy died.
He didn’t mean to. He didn’t want to. But he did just the same.
And as unexpected as that was, what came next was even more surprising.
An unknowing blankness distilled into a kernel of self-awareness. Timmy didn’t know how long he had been out, or whether he had been dreaming during that time, but he knew who he was and, with that sense, he began to fade back into existence from the nothingness that had followed that rush of stone and water.
The first thing he saw was a six and then a two. He concentrated a little harder and noticed a seven and a one on either side of the 62. And there was a three. His vision telescoped out and he realized he was looking at a piece of paper, or at least something kind of like it, being held in a hand, or at least something kind of like it. On the strip of paper was the longest stream of numbers he had ever seen in his life, or after it for that matter, held loosely by an ameobic fingerless blob of being that could only be a hand. His hand, he realized with a start.
He held up the long strip between two translucent hands jutting incongruously out of his chest, or at least the bigger blob somewhere below where his eyes were.
What just happened?
It came back to him in a flash. Bright sunlight as he pinwheeled through the air. The smell of saltwater. Black rocks eager to embrace him. And then nothing more.
He looked down at the blobby hands, but they still refused to have flesh and fingers, despite his very much wanting them to. He tried to take a deep breath, to steady himself, but he didn’t have nostrils or lungs and he actually felt quite steady once he stopped to think about it. Apparently dead people didn’t faint much.
Dead people. Dead. Really?
He stared down at his hand-stump-things a few moments longer. I… uh… appear to be dead. Forming it into words didn’t seem to make it any better, but at least it didn’t feel any worse either. Shouldn’t it feel worse?
He looked up again, staring with slight puzzlement out into the blazing white landscape around him. Or lack of landscape, really.
Hm. That’s inconvenient. He thought about Erin and frowned. That’s… that’s awful, actually.
A small shuffle of movement beside him caught his attention and he realized he wasn’t alone. He was a little startled to realize he was surrounded by ghosts, but then the blob hands suddenly made sense. He was a ghost, too.
He scratched a nonexistent itch at the back of his head (or whatever it was called after you died, he wasn’t sure) and looked down a long line of ghosts trailing out behind him. He turned and it stretched out in the other direction as well. He didn’t see an end in either direction. Nothing but ghosts in an endless blank. He glanced at a squat wide ghost at his left who looked ready to burst into cranky tears at any moment and a taller one at his right who looked ready to burst into outraged violence at any moment. And then he realized, This isn’t bothering me as much as I always imagined it would. Some of the ghosts were even smiling. This could be okay.
Nova, given his life, it could even be better.
The thought blossoming in his head was not his own and it took Timmy a moment to realize the short ghost was talking to him. He frowned in concentration and thought at the other ghost as clearly as he could. Uh… beg pardon?
The little ghost winced at the mental yelling and asked more clearly, Are you new?
Don’t worry, he assured him, a bit of sympathy in his featureless eyes. It’ll sink in eventually.
Timmy looked down, contemplating that, and the other watched him quietly. Timmy didn’t feel like he was in shock. Was he missing something? How did you-
You think too loud, he told him, turning away to his private misery once more.
Timmy shuffled uncomfortably, trying very hard to silence his thoughts, but he couldn’t help but wonder if there was some kind of ghost etiquette he was unaware of. Maybe that was what he was missing. Was there a handbook somewhere he should read? About any of this?
Resigned, the smaller ghost explained, Used to be they’d talk to you when you first showed up… explain things… sort of a welcoming committee. But they’ve been falling further and further behind since World War Four. Now they just… He sighed, closing his eyes.
A small knot of horror coiled somewhere deep in Timmy’s chest and he had to ask, How long have you been here?
His back turned, his fluid shoulders slumped and shapeless, the ghost whispered, World War Three.
No. No, no, no. That was… that was hundreds of years ago. Nearly a thousand! Timmy couldn’t stand around (or float around or whatever) in a puddle of nothing for hundreds of years! Eyes wide with horror, he stammered, B-but why?
The other ghost held up a little stub of paper, maybe five or six digits at most, and sighed, It’s all in the numbers, kid.
Timmy’s hand closed around his absurdly long string of numbers and his thoughts started to fray back out again, losing touch in the enormity of his predicament. But… but…
The squat ghost glared at the back of the ghost in front of him and grumbled, Not that it’ll matter much to you… He clenched his eyes shut, jealousy washing through him. Not with a number that high.
He could still hear the newcomer’s frantic thoughts of escape.
He sighed. So what were you? A prince? A prophet? Must have been awfully important to merit such high priority…
The idiot still wasn’t answering him. It didn’t matter. He had been there for more than eight centuries, eight centuries, and the abandonment stung a little more with each passing moment. Bitterness lent him chattiness to accompany the foul mood that hadn’t left him for centuries. May as well keep speculating about how badly he had been wronged.
His thoughts strangled short as a long strip of paper drifted down in front of him, a string of numbers that never seemed to end.
The newcomer was gone. And he had left his number.
It took him a moment to realize everything had changed. He grabbed onto the end of it, a broad smile lighting his dour little face, whispering, Yes yes yes yes-
“Timothy von Strauften of Hoth?”
A real voice. A beautifully real voice, not just a thought in his head. Lungs and throat and tongue and sound. He looked up at the white-robed angel and would have cried if he’d been able. She was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. Shoulders hunched tight to keep himself from bursting with joy, he lifted the string of numbers like an ID chip. Y-yes?
He didn’t even care who Timothy was, or where he had gone. The long wait was over.
The real Timothy von Strauften of Hoth fled. He abandoned whatever it was that had taken him to that endless whiteness in what could only be hell and went anywhere, anywhere but there. He didn’t see another being beyond the line and was a little surprised they let him go so easily. He escaped that unguarded nightmare and flew without effort, without resistance, without time. It could have been moments. It could have been centuries. He didn’t care so long as it took him away from there.
He flew until the whiteness bled imperceptibly into blackness, and then there was a horizon before him. He watched as hints of warmth and hue kissed the mountain peaks, fingers of color and light reaching along the ridges and peaks and then down into the valleys and crevasses. He watched it like he had never watched a sunrise so intently before.
There… he whispered to himself. That’s more like it.
He admired the textures and the shadows and the colors, but couldn’t help but see the similarities between it and his last sunset with Mary. And he couldn’t shake the feeling that even this would be its own kind of hell. He couldn’t feel anything. Couldn’t smell or taste the air. He wondered if he was even really seeing, since he couldn’t really have eyes. What was there for him in this world anymore? What was there for him anywhere?
Even so, he was glad to be somewhere familiar. Who knew how long he would have stood in that line? Maybe even as long as the sad, crumbling creature that had greeted him there. He puffed out a small sigh and stared straight into the brilliance of the rising sun. He could stay here instead. For however long he had. The thought of eternity was suddenly much more permanent and much more terrifying than it had ever seemed before.
The same word was rattling its way rather briskly through the impostor ghost’s thoughts at that same moment and he stammered, But- but… forever?
The caseworker laughed, her wings shifting restlessly behind her. “No, no, not forever.” She glanced down at the sheet again and explained, “It’s only a Class Three Haunting.”
But what does that mean? He may have been there for eons, but he had never gotten past the line. He didn’t know what happened beyond that purgatory of endless waiting.
She looked over at an ancient laptop screen, tabbing through a few fields. The tilted back screen nudged a flower pot full of pictures of identical ghosts with inane grins and he wished it would fall off and smash on the floor. “You only haunt until you’re avenged. Don’t worry. You’ll figure out who did it pretty quick.” She frowned. “I’m actually a little surprised you don’t already know. Most of our clients remember.” The ghost shifted nervously, keeping his thoughts still and within his own head, and she moved on with a shrug. “Then you just slip into a relative’s dreams and pester them until they take care of it.”
He glared over at an obnoxious Hang In There Kitty! poster. Why a relative? Why not just the Captain of the Guard or whatever?
“Because you can only communicate with direct relatives. Immediate family is best, but you could get by with a close cousin or something in a pinch.”
The enormity of that simple explanation slammed the scowl off his face, wiping away all emotion. He couldn’t show anything. He couldn’t. She’d know.
He stifled a whimper. How long had be been dead? Direct relatives couldn’t possibly still be alive. He clamped tighter on his thoughts.
He was saved from answering by a tiny mechanical beep from the watch at her wrist. She flailed in panic, screeching at her wrist, “Gah! I’m late!” He turned to him with wild eyes. “Time to leave!” She wrenched a drawer open and whipped out a brilliant glowing halo, perching it over her head. “Just a second.” She flicked off the lights with an apologetic, “Almost done!” and then cleared her throat and rose into the air with a majestic sweep of her wings.
The light of the halo spilled light across her crown and her shoulders, carving deep shadows and dramatic lines across her face and her body. She pointed down at her charge and her voice resonated through the narrow office in the traditional send-off. “Go, ye restless spirit, and be avenged.”
He fidgeted in his seat and whined, Do I… have to?
She paused, staring down at him, her hair swirling fluidly around her face. “Um, yes.”
Couldn’t I just-
She clicked the lights back on with a scowl. “Begone. Shoo.”
He sighed, a frown creasing his face again. Okay.
Sunlight spilled over the landscape and Timmy realized after a few moments that he wasn’t alone. He turned and the sky was thick with every kind of flying insect he had ever seen. Mayflies, locusts, moths, butterflies, mosquitoes, dragonflies, bees, and, at the heart of the swam, a lean, black-robed figure, his waist lined with glass bottles, his hood pulled high, his skeletal hand gripping a long wooden handle twisted with age.
There was no mistaking him, although the butterfly net wasn’t exactly what Timmy had been expecting. A shiver of fear rippled through him as the ancient being turned toward him. Timmy gulped.
“Ah, yes…” Death bared his teeth in a skeletal smile. “Timothy…” He drifted closer as he reminisced, “Thee I well remember: a beautiful morning, a regicide most thorough…” He paused and Timmy could almost see the broad royal estates, the bright sunshine, his cousins dying at their meal. “And thee: a dragonfly most vivid.”
And an impact most sudden. Timmy closed his eyes but couldn’t unsee his own death.
“How farest thou in thy haunting, O princeling?”
His eyes slid back open. Oh. Is that what that was? He cleared his nonexistent throat of nonexistent phlegm and lifted his chin, frowning imperiously at Death. I chose not to stay. Is that a problem?
Death stared in silence, surprise in his empty sockets. “I see. Thou wast ever eager to leave thy path.”
It was true and he suddenly felt childish. The defiance bled back out of him and he admitted, I suppose I was… None of it mattered anymore. He had left the path more thoroughly than he had ever intended and there was no going back. He poked experimentally at a passing butterfly, glad for a distraction. A dragonfly, was I? So I suppose these are-
“Aye. My little charges.” He gently reached for one and it landed at the tip of a finger-bone.
Timmy pivoted through the air, sadness in his eyes. So many of them… There had to be hundreds of thousands. Maybe even millions. What had happened here?
“Indeed,” Death agreed quietly. “So many as to make need of helpmeets. Not so since the Seventh Great War! Perhaps one shall take my place, should I ever leave it.”
Timmy leaned around Death’s narrow frame and frowned dubiously at the trio of angels scooping insects into butterfly nets with varying degrees of success. Timmy stammered for something polite to say and settled on, They look… diligent. And ridiculous, he added privately.
Death politely pretended not to hear the aside and turned as well, looking out toward a city nestled between two hills. “Aye, as they must be.” He shook his head, eyeless sockets probing over the burning city, its steady disgorge of smoke and insects. “A terrible plague, a sickness of undying. The flesh goes wrong and expels my little ones, and yet goes shambling on. Unholy monsters, without Life and seeking lives.”
Timmy looked up at him, startled. You mean… it’s true? He looked back down toward the city, eyes wide. We’d heard rumors of some medical experiment gone wrong, but I didn’t think they’d really… He trailed off, not sure what to call it.
“O the arrogance of man, that he would fain steal the very immortality of the Living God!”
I thought they’d been contained.
“Somehow or another, one always escapes.”
Timmy glanced up. He sounded resigned. Did Death ever get tired? He looked across at the interns and then down at the flaming city again. He wondered what the sickness looked like. The rumors couldn’t possibly be accurate. Could they? Huh. Another insect flitted past his face and a little smile twitched at his mouth. Why not? It wasn’t like he had anything better to do.
He folded his hands in front of him and smiled over at Death. You’re very busy. Would it be rude of me to-
Death laughed good-naturedly, waving the ghost down toward the dying city. “Go, go, indulge thy curiosity. We shall meet again. Good day!”