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Dead At Heart

There are plenty of interesting ways to die – Fall in battle, Get mauled by a bear, Strung up by the King’s men for treason. Me? I fell out of a tree. Yep, that’s right. At the ripe old age of fourteen summers, David Chalmen, fell out of a tree picking an apple for a girl he was sweet on. Legend made. I slipped on moss and took a nosedive straight towards the ground, heard my own neck snap before everything went dark.

When I woke up I was still on the hilltop, where the lone apple tree stood, the grass no longer green but a murky grey. The sky no longer blue but a still white. The sun hung in the same shade as a bad bruise. I still held the apple, it was far from the delicious looking fruit that Mandy Simmons had demanded I retrieve for her. The apple was thin, withered and black, it looked like it would kill a man stone dead. So I took a bite out of it anyway. I knew I was dead from the moment I had opened my eyes, so to hell with it, the first thing I would do is take a bite out of the prize I had thrown my life away for. Needless to say it tasted like shit; the texture of ash and just as dry. I immediately spat it into the dirt.

I spent the next few days exploring the landscape of what I had assumed to be purgatory, too harrowing to be heaven and much too dull to be hell. The world of the dead was nearly a replica of the world of the living but with all the colour, all the life, drained away. The only noticeable differences were the obelisks that I found scattered across the terrain, big stone things that looked absolutely pointless. They rose at least fifty feet, I felt like each and everyone of them challenged me so I did the only thing I could think of, and tried to climb one. I nearly reached the top when an eye opened in front of me on the obelisk, scared the death out of me. I hit the ground harder than I had when I fell from the tree, apparently you can’t die twice in purgatory but you can gain a sore arse from the experience.

Days soon turned into weeks, months, years and then time became something long forgotten. I wandered the land looking for others. I had imagined there would be others. In the end I begged for there to be others. But there was only me. I wasn’t all lonely though, strangely I found that it’s the living that haunt the dead. Several days after my attempt at climbing the obelisk I walked into a town neighboring my home. The town itself was empty but I could hear voices on the wind. I ran from building to building searching for the whispers, the laughter of children, the sound of a couple arguing in the distance but every time I drew near the sound would dissipate, leaving only the sound of my own foot steps. It was maddening, back when I was still new to death I had a child’s mischievous hope that being dead wasn’t all bad. I figured I would at least be able to haunt, tease, prank and entertain myself with the same tomfoolery that I had in life. Death was boring.

For a time I stayed as far away from the inhabited areas as I could. Exploring the countryside or simply just wandering, lost in my own thoughts for that is all I had. Eventually though I kept being drawn back into town, chasing the ghosts of the living so hard that I felt I could explode. It was cruel and I certainly didn’t deserve it. One of my adventures into a town led me to a tavern. I was never allowed in any alehouse or taproom when I was alive, of course with my friends I had tried to sneak in several times but were always thrown out on our rears or earned ourselves a clip round the ear for attempting such boyish dreams of drinking before we had met maturity. It seemed petty now but no one could stop me from sitting at the bar and so, there I sat. 

The apple was sat in front of me on the bar, whole as if my teeth had never broken the wrinkly skin. The damn fruit followed me everywhere, every time I threw it in frustration, kicked it into the distance or reluctantly ate the thing in anger it would appear in front of me again. Sometimes all it would take was for me to turn around, and there it was, other times it appeared days later but always the apple was my shadow. It had come to the point where I now spoke to it as if it were a person. At first I spoke to it of my hate, my anguish, blaming the fruit for my very demise. There is, however, only so long a person can hate a piece of fruit., Eventually I began retelling the tales of adventures my friends and I had. I spoke to it of my mother, and of how she would tell me stories even when I proclaimed myself an adult and too old for such nonsense. I missed her stories now.

At the bar I imagined the apple frowning at me as I asked it for a glass of its finest sweet summer cider, it was not amused. The tavern was in my hometown, and the town itself had changed over time, buildings appearing out of thin air, roads built in and out of the centre,and farmsteads swallowed as the place grew, however the tavern remained unchanged from when I had snuck in as a boy, so it felt like home to me. After a time I could hear conversation starting to pick up around me as I sat on the bar, staring at my accompanying apple. The ghosts came early that day, funny how I should call them ghosts when in truth I was the one dead. It had taken years but I finally managed to catch some of the conversation that happened in the world of the living. I found the tavern and other places of social gathering to be the best places to eavesdrop. A big man sat next to me and gave out a bellowing laugh, the kind a drunk man gets when he finally catches on to a joke. I could see the people in the bar as flashes of translucent blue, incorporeal but still the most real people I had in my life.

It took awhile before I finally caught on to what the big man had roared laughing at. He was repeating a story about a boy who thought himself the best climber in all of town. The boy had boasted this to the prettiest girl in town, and in turn the she had challenged his claim and requested that he pick the fruit from the tallest branch of the tallest tree…. I knew the rest of the story. The man laughed again and my anger rose. I knew the attempt would be fruitless but went to pick up his mug and throw it across the bar, for an instance I felt it. I felt the feeling of the solid wood on my hand, I felt the liquid inside slosh as I applied force to the container… but then my hand passed right through it. Startled, confused, and in disbelief but even more so when mere seconds later the mug flew from the man’s hand, slid along the bar and shattered against the tavern wall. I heard the sound of objects breaking, the sound of other mugs being thrown off the bar in the wake of the one I had thrown. At that point I panicked, I was both excited and scared. The ghosts of the living all made an uproar, terrified by the paranormal disturbance, and then they vanished. Gone as fast as they had appeared.

I ran. Ran through the streets of my hometown, ran through the hills and valleys until I was as far away from everything as possible, once again I sought to hide. This was a different kind of hiding though, I hid for the very same reason a child hides when they’re in trouble and that is what I wanted. I wanted to be in trouble, I wanted someone to come find me and rebuke me for throwing the mug across the bar. After countless years in this desolate world I was finally able to change something, to force people to recognize my existence.

After my discovery I tried time and time again to effect the world of the living. At times I succeeded. Small things really. I was able to move objects very subtly, like the hands on a clock or pushing a bowl of sweets closer to a child as her mother’s back was turned. Eventually I worked out that the more I willed, the more I resolved to make something in the living world move, the more likely it would be to be able to do it. After spending time in purgatory with very little to do my desire for entertainment was a strong one. Whenever I could, I relived my boyhood mischievous ways; taunting, teasing, pranking –  I felt I had some life back in me. I suppose if I had not died that day under the tree I would be well into my years as an adult, more mature, however in this world between heaven and hell I had not aged a day, mentally or physically.

Once again for a time – for that is all I had, time –  I wandered the land playing mischief where I could. It was a hard earned thing where I had to exert every fiber of my essence in able to make an object move, but it was worth it. However even the most mischievous pranks can become repetitive and eventually I grew bored of the little terrors I was able to inflict upon the world. Don’t get me wrong, when given nothing to do I was quite happy to haunt a local family or make mischief with some stuck-up busybody, but even the dead get restless.

One day I found myself wandering the hilltop with the apple tree once again. I came here often, as if drawn to not only the place but the point in time in which I died. I still had the apple with me, it had appeared in my hand as I reached the base of the hill as if it too wanted to return home. The tree in which it came from was still standing tall in the center of the hill. I had no animosity towards the tree, it had played a part in my current situation, yes, but it was no more to blame than the apple I held in my hand.

As I reached the base of the tree I sat down, my back against the trunk, to watch the grey grass sway and the purple sun hang in a near-colourless sky. It was at that moment I heard giggling, a boy stood in front of me, incorporeal like any other living ghost. He laughed and pointed towards the top of the tree. For a moment I had thought he had aimed his gesture at me but I turned around to see a young girl climbing from one branch to another. Immediately I knew dread, I watched as she climbed higher. It was hard to see details on a person due to the ghost’s translucent nature but the girl looked to be of a similar age to me, I had only hoped she was a better climber. She wasn’t.

It only took a second,  then the girl slipped on the very same branch that I had slipped upon, her fingers wrapped around the very same apple I held in my own hand, withered and dry. The girl fell, unlike me she had the grace to fall backwards instead of face-first, but from that height, no matter her position, she would be dead. Instinct drove me to my feet, I ran to make it in time, willing every fibre of my being, every inch of my willpower that I would be able to catch her. As I reached the spot in which she would violently meet the ground, I tossed the apple and placed my arms ready to catch her, fully expecting her to fall through me, crash into the ground, ending her life as a similar fall had once ended mine.

She hit me. I mean, really hit me. The full weight of her body against mine, I cushioned her fall. Just for a moment in time, for a brief second, she was nestled against my chest. In that instance the world was no longer dull. No longer the bleak landscape where colour failed to exist. For one whole breath I could see the world as I once had. The sky was blue, the grass was green and the girl who looked up at me as she was cradled in my arms, held a delicious red apple. I exhaled, for what seemed to be the first time in a decade, and the girl fell through my arms, dropping gently to the floor. All at once, the world once again became washed out, the colour drained from my vision, the girl became a ghost, and then disappeared. Rolling to rest at my grey and dusty feet,  the apple lay; shiny, round and red.

Simon Shugar - Fantasy Author