The following story also appears in my short story collection, An Optimist’s Journal of the End of Days and Other Stories, published via Venetian Spider Press.
Ethan’s first shock was waking up in a coffin. His second was realizing that it wasn’t a prank played by fellow carousers after another night’s drinking binge. He gazed upon the proof; his parents sat amid other black-clad mourners – his friends, coworkers, his estranged sister, and a pastor in a tweed suit.
He felt his jaw drop, but when he looked down at his body it was still closed. Strange that he should feel the same without a body. He strained to remember the details of his death. No bruises appeared on his face or hands, but then he remembered his sister, Alicia, telling him that funeral parlors employed makeup artists. That was probably why.
He sat on the coffin’s lip and watched the crowd. How depressing. His parents were upset, and the only “friends” that showed up were drinking buddies and a couple dry-eyed people from the office – probably so they could get the day off. He had no wife, no children, and now that he had all the time in the world, he realized he’d never really lived.
Why was he still here?
He remembered some movie, years ago, said ghosts needed to complete “unfinished business.” Something to do with taking care of things they should have during their lives. There must be something he needed to do…
He knew what it had to be, but he was still a bloody coward, even dead. However, necessity pushed him forward.
He needed to find a psychic.
Zelda the Magnificent had chosen her name with care. She called herself ‘Zelda’ after F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife, and she felt the aura that came with the name fit her profession rather well. Closing her eyes, she let her fingers hover over the glowing crystal ball. A small blue-haired octogenarian peered into the orb.
The globe’s light burned more brightly as Zelda pressed her foot farther down on the pedal beneath the table.
“Well?” said the old woman.
“Hush,” said Madam Zelda, flooring the cold blue steel. “The dead come and go as they will. They feel no more the rush of mortal life.”
“But I’m paying by the hour!” complained Zelda’s only paying customer.
“Your husband will come soon. I feel it,” said Zelda.
“Don’t forget to ask him about the insurance policy!” said the woman.
All the lights extinguished, even the ball, plunging the room into darkness. A luminous, ghostly form stood behind the old woman.
“Who the hell are you?” asked Zelda.
After Zelda’s client had been told their session would reconvene at a later time (for a small fee), Madam Z returned to her workplace, switched on the lights, and demanded an explanation.
Ethan didn’t know where to begin. After a few minutes of confused stuttering, he blurted, “But you’re a psychic!”
“No, that’s just what I tell my clients,” said Zelda, taking off her wig and lighting a cigarette. “Now, what I want to know is what the hell you’re up to. You can’t seriously think I’m going to fall for your ghost trick.” She made scare quotes in the air around the words ghost. The cigarette danced loosely in the corner of her mouth as she spoke.
Ethan walked through the table to prove his point.
“Holographic projector,” said Madam Zelda.
“What do you think this is? Star Trek?” asked Ethan.
“I don’t know. You supposed to be an alien or something?”
“I’m a ghost. I’d think that’d be obvious to a psychic.”
“Try again, Sunshine.”
Ethan concentrated and pushed coins around the table.
“It’s your table.”
After repeated tests of his veracity, Zelda finally conceded Ethan was telling the truth. She leaned back in her chair, sipped a mint julep, and let Ethan unfold his plans to her.
“So, all I need to do is break in, do your dirty work, and I get a cut of the profits?” she said.
Ethan nodded with enthusiasm.
An hour later, Zelda’s clunker was parked behind Ethan’s former residence. After the ghost had checked everything out, he gave her a thumbs up, and she walked to the back door. The key was under the mat, just like he said. With security like that, its a wonder he lived as long as he did, she thought.
Once inside, she scanned the cramped house for the object of their desire. Ethan hovered over the desk in the corner. Apparently, his parents hadn’t cleaned everything out yet. Too soon after the funeral, probably still trying to make sense of it all, blah blah blah. All she cared about was getting the job done so she could make a profit and they could both depart.
“It’s in here?” she asked.
She pulled open the drawer. It was unlocked. The papers were there, just as he’d promised. She slid them into the envelope she’d brought, then took out another paper and a pen.
Licking the envelope closed, she stuck several stamps along the top edge, and walked outside. Ethan followed her closely. She walked to the corner. “Now, you do your part, as promised.”
Ethan took the pen, concentrated, and scrawled his signature along the bottom line.
“Ready?” she asked, holding the envelope before the mailbox. Ethan waited a moment, then nodded again. She dropped it inside. “There,” she said. “You’ve submitted your manuscripts to a publisher. If accepted, I’ll be left the profits. If not, you still submitted your work. Your business is finished.” She smiled. “You can move on now.”
Ethan grinned. Then the ground opened beneath his feet, and he plummeted. The portal closed, leaving behind only a small whiff of smoke and the smell of sulphur.
Zelda wiped her hands on her pants and sighed. “They never think that far ahead,” she said to no one in particular. Then she turned once more to the house to retrieve any valuables before the parents showed up.
**image courtesy of BigFoto.com