No one could have known the darkness that plagued his mind. No one would have believed in the ghosts that led him to the edge of madness!
It started with a heartbeat. The slow, rhythmic boom of a drum in the distance. A herald of life. A herald to death. The heartbeat stopped!
Six husky men carried the coffin, their faces unsmiling, earnest, absorbed in their task. The mourners gathered around the graveside as the preacher said prayers that no one really heard. Mutterings of condolence and sympathy mingled with the wind that blew from a surly sky. A storm was brewing. Dark clouds were descending!
At the wake there were many strangers. People he didn't know offered deepest sympathy with a handshake and a kind word or two. Most of it fell on deaf ears. His mind was too numb to comprehend. The only thing he seemed to understand was that no one else could comprehend the pain he was feeling. How could they? They hadn't lost a soulmate!
That night, when everyone else had gone home and he was alone in the house, he cried. She had left him. How could she leave him? Why was she taken away from him? She was so young, 27 years old. Far too young to die!
A shadow crossed the room.
"Alice?" He mumbled. He looked up, followed the direction of the shadow. "Alice?" He called again. There was no answer, no sign of the shadow. And certainly no sign of Alice. He cried again!
He was awoken at 1.14 am by a clap of thunder. The storm was huge. Rain rattled the windows, wind pushed at the panes, threatening to shatter their defense against the cold. A flash of lightening threw shadows scurrying back to the corners of the room, even if only for a split-second. The shadows regrouped and recharged. Once more the assault of darkness draped its veil across the room. The gloom, it seemed, would never abate from his mind... ever again.
Someone called his name. Or was it the wind? Alice? Could it have been Alice? His pupils dilated, trying to search among the shadows. He was certain Alice was in the room. Another flash of lightning, a second of brilliant light.
There! Alice was there, by the foot of the bed, illumined by the flash of lightning!
"Alice!" He cried, "Is that you Alice?"
There was no reply. Only the howl of the wind, the rattle of the rain, the roar of the storm.
And yet, he was certain, she was there. He'd seen her! He had seen Alice. He didn't sleep again that night. He stayed awake, keeping vigil. Watching, waiting for Alice to return. She never did!
A week had passed. He bought flowers and went to the cemetery. As he neared the gravestone, he had seen a mourner, dressed in black. A black, lace veil over her head. It looked as though the grave she was attending, was next to, or close by Alice's grave. She held a single red rose in her hand, and he could tell, even from a distance, that she was weeping tears of sorrow. He could relate. He walked on, past a rather large family mausoleum. It had obviously stood for generations, and no doubt held generations of family members. He didn't bother to read the epitaph. He walked on. When he emerged at the other side of the mausoleum, he noticed that the lady with the rose had gone. He kept walking.
When he reached Alice's grave, he was very surprised to find the single red rose laying by the tombstone. He looked all around, but could not see the lady anywhere. Who was she? Why was she visiting Alice's grave? Where the hell did she go? He knelt down by the graveside and picked up the rose, as if it held a clue. It didn't! Was she a friend of Alice? If so, from where, or when? He thought, he knew all of Alice's friends, yet he hadn't recognized this woman. She was a stranger to him, an enigma. A haunting torment that would niggle at his sanity in the days, weeks and months to come!
For now though, he lay his own flowers by the grave and placed the rose in among them, after all, whoever she was, she had come to pay her respects to his dear, departed wife. He spoke to Alice. "I miss you," he said, "more than my heart can stand. The loneliness I feel is physical, it hurts every muscle in my body. If only I had been with you, if only I had been driving the car. If only I could turn back time!" The tears flowed freely then. He couldn't stop them.
That night he had a visitor. A friend, his best friend up until the accident. Now he didn't want any friends. He just wanted Alice!
But they were friends and he'd be polite.
"How are you, Billy?" Asked his friend.
"I'm fine, Dave," Billy answered.
"I know it must be hard for you, she was a lovely lass," said Dave.
"They're all asking for you down the local, missing your wizardry at the pool table, ha ha," said Dave.
"I'm not ready to go back there Dave, I can't face the revelry."
Both of them were feeling awkward, neither of them knowing quite what to say. Dave broke the silence between them, "Yeh, you should take your time, you've gotten a lot to cope with. You know, I'm always here if you need any help, even if it's just to get things off your chest."
"I'll manage, Dave," said Billy. Then added, "I need to spend time on my own, gather my thoughts and the like. I need to clear my head before I face the world."
Dave raised an eyebrow, but Billy didn't offer to elaborate. Awkwardly, Dave rose then and said, "Yeh, well, it's probably time I was going, Linda will be wondering where I am. You take care of yourself, Billy, and remember, if there's anything I can do to help, just call or text me. I'll help in any way I can."
"Thanks Dave," said Billy, seeing him to the door, "You're a good mate."
With that, he closed the door and gave a sigh of relief, he really didn't want any company right now. He needed Alice! He went back into the living room and looked around at all the flowers and sympathy cards. He picked up a picture of his dead wife and looked deep into the blue eyes. They were as beautiful as ever, smiling, full of life. Eyes that held love and happiness in them. Eyes that couldn't hold a negative thought for anyone. He cried again!
He awoke with a start, still holding the picture in his hand. He shivered with the cold that seemed to permeate the room, crawling, creeping through his veins, chilling him to the bone. What time was it? He looked at his watch, 11.35 pm. He had been sleeping for just over an hour. His joints felt stiff, the muscles tight. He felt exhausted, drained, completely worn out, both physically and mentally. He felt haunted by an image, the image from a dream. He tried to recall its significance, but the dream was fast-fading from his memory, as dreams often do. But that image did remain quite prominent, he just couldn't understand what it meant or why it should hold any significance at all. Nor could he shake it!
He could still see clearly, that face in his mind. It was Alice, but it wasn't Alice, it was someone else. Someone who resembled Alice. An imposter! It was that woman from the cemetery! Again, he found himself wondering who she could have been? He found himself wondering why she was haunting him?
He lifted the picture to his face and kissed it, then lay it on the arm of the sofa before rising to go to the toilet. As he crossed the threshold of the door, into the hall, he felt a sudden rush of freezing cold air surge through his body. The door slammed behind him with a bang that almost knocked him off his feet. He used a hand on the opposite wall to steady himself. 'What the fuck?' he thought. He turned to see the door was firmly shut. He tried the handle, the door opened, and after a mere second of hesitation, he stepped back into the room. He looked all around. There was nothing amiss, nothing out of place, except... the picture. He was certain he'd left the picture face up, now it was undoubtedly, face down! Or maybe he'd imagined it.
That night he slept soundly. No dreams, no disturbance, no creeping shadows or wailing specters. He woke, feeling a little bit better than he had done since the accident. He went to the bathroom to shower and shave, fully intent on clearing away the cards and flowers that had taken residence in his living room. It was time to get back into the real world, to start the process of healing.
He knew he'd never fully get over Alice's death, but he also knew she wouldn't want him to fall into depression. He'd always have the memories, and she'd always be there for him, if only in spirit.
He stepped out the shower, wrapped the towel around his waist and stood in front of the mirror. He had allowed himself to grow a heavy stubble. It was time to shave. He lathered his face and reached over for the razor. As he straightened up again, he caught a glimpse of someone standing by the doorway. He turned around, but there was no one, nothing there!
He walked out of the bathroom and looked along the hall, first to his left, then his right. Nothing. He leaned over the banister at the top of the staircase, nothing below either. He stood for a moment, watching and listening. No sight, nor sound of anything! He shrugged his shoulders and went back into the bathroom. He looked in the mirror... she was there! The woman from the graveyard, the woman in the veil, the woman who looked like, but was not Alice, stared back at him! It was only for a split-second, but it had such a frightening effect on him that he let out a yelp and stepped back from the mirror. She was already gone!
He spent the rest of the day pondering as to who she could be, this woman who looked like his deceased wife, but who was not his deceased wife. And why was she haunting him? Why was he making contact with a stranger when he'd willingly give his own life just to see Alice one last time? Could she contact Alice for him? These questions kept spinning around in his mind, but he never got any answers, they just added to his confusion.
For the next few days nothing happened. He used them to put away Alice's belongings. He stacked what he wanted to keep in boxes, threw out all that was worthless and gave all the rest, clothes, shoes, costume jewellery etc. to charity, as she would have wanted, (she had always been in favor of giving to those less fortunate). While he was going through her things, he came across a brooch he had never seen before. It was rather old fashioned for Alice's taste, in the style a 1940's or 50's film star might have worn. It was in the shape of a rose and he could tell from what was left of the peeling paint, that it had once been painted red. He thought that it must have belonged to her gran or an old aunt. With that in mind, he thought that she must have seen it as an heirloom and decided to keep it among the other, more personal stuff he had packed away. He thought nothing more of it, for now!
For months the haunting went on. Objects would disappear only to reappear in other parts of the house, he'd come downstairs to find lights on, a T.V. that he'd turned off the night before, blazing away, and the visions seemed to be growing in strength and clarity. More and more the image seemed to take on the physical appearance of Alice. More and more he found himself longing for another encounter.
One time, while eating a bit of supper, he looked across the room and saw the apparition sitting on the chair opposite him. He was startled, but at the same time, mesmerized. He just sat there staring for a few seconds, then he said, "Hello, how are you?" But he got no answer, the image just faded then disappeared completely.
The ghostly visitations continued, but he was no longer afraid. In fact, he'd often spend an evening talking to the lost soul who was gradually taking the place of Alice. The conversations were all one-sided though, as he never got any answers, just the comfort of replacing the ghost with Alice's memory. As the months went by, he saw more of Alice in his encounters with the ghost.
He was becoming obsessed. His work began to suffer, his boss had warned him he was facing expulsion if he didn't get his act together. His friends had stopped calling round to see how he was coping. (Especially after he'd told his friend, Dave to 'fuck off' when he called at an awkward moment that caused the apparition to disappear just as Billy felt he was about to see the eyes behind the veil). But he didn't care, he was content to spend all his time in Alice's company. He knew that the ghost was her, he knew she was still visiting him and he knew she'd be there when he needed her. All he had to do was to think about her and she'd appear as a shadow or a reflection. Her visits were still accompanied by cold air, but now, he could almost make out her warm smile beneath the veil. Even if it was just his imagination, he still didn't care. To him it was Alice. She had come home. And she was bringing him comfort.
On the anniversary of the accident a great fear and dread came over Billy. He felt, once more, the loss of a part of his life that he had no control over. He could almost feel Alice being pulled away from him. He spent the whole day looking among the shadows of the house, waiting for her to appear, longing for a visit from his specter. She never came. He cried again as the pain of losing Alice came back with a vengeance. It clawed at his heart, tore at his soul and ripped his thoughts apart. His rational mind was being torn asunder by dark thoughts that seemed to threaten his sanity. For the next few days there was no sign of the ghost. No sign of his beloved. Alice was missing and he had to find her, and Billy thought he knew where to look.
A year to the day after the funeral, Billy went to the graveyard to visit Alice's grave. He walked past the family mausoleum and on to the isle where Alice had been laid to rest. He couldn't see her gravestone. Where it should have been, there was a smaller, weather beaten stone, that was obviously much older than Alice's. The stone had no name carved onto it and was marked only by a half-faded carving of a rose. On the grass lay a freshly pruned single red rose!
He was distraught. The grief came flooding back in an instant. He could not control the sobs that racked his body, nor the shadows that filled his mind with renewed fear and anguish. It seemed to him that Alice had finally left him forever!
Billy dreamed that night. He dreamed about Alice. In his dream she talked with him. "I didn't see her 'til it was too late," she said. "She just stepped out in front of me. I swerved to miss her and lost control of the car, it left the road and ended in the ditch. I didn't die right away. I watched her walk toward me. She stood over me, listening for my last heartbeat. It had barely expired when I felt her invade my body. She just placed herself inside me, expelling my own soul. I didn't know what was happening, I was still confused, still trying to come to terms with my own death!
I've been trying to call you, trying to reach out for you to help me. But you couldn't see or hear me, you just saw her, she was the one haunting you... haunting both of us!"
"You never buried me that day, Billy, you buried her. She had stolen my body after years of wandering purgatory, so as she could be finally laid to rest. Now she is at peace and I have to wander purgatory in her stead!"
"But I chose to haunt you, Billy, not the highway where she haunted me!"
The haunting continues to this day.