Being dead has a way of altering one’s priorities.
Okay… so he was fixated on the “dead” bit, but what else would you expect? It was a big thing to get used to.
Anyway, it was a frigid fall night and all the undead were wisely tucked away somewhere warm and sheltered, anywhere but the middle of the Guy Donnelly Memorial Park. Even the cats and the homeless had found a place to hole up. Frank was certain of this because in the middle of autumn, in the ugly hours of the night, he was strolling in the rejuvenating sun of a spring day. It was nearly idyllic: beautiful, peace and quiet all around, the rebirth of nature as he’d never taken the time to enjoy once upon a lifetime ago. He was lucky to remember such a day as this; he certainly hadn’t bothered to pay attention to them when breathing had been both unconscious and necessary.
But that was the problem. To enjoy what he had once squandered he must do so alone. Or maybe with a cat, he had yet to experiment with that. Anyway, the moment one of the undead happened along his glorious spring day would give way to the actual fall night. This was one of the first things he had learned this side of the afterlife, which briefly reminded him of Nutjob, the one who had taught him the fact. But Nutjob was gone to whatever came after the afterlife, and in a particularly gruesome way, at that, his spirit re-experiencing the death he hadn’t taken note of the first time around. Since he’d gone, Frank had poked and prodded the little knowledge he’d gained before the end, testing the boundaries and discovering the rules of his new existence. Among the things he had learned was that his memory of a place was a fluid thing. When the undead—or the living if you wanted to be picky about it—when they were around Frank experienced the uninterrupted flow of time that made up the other life, with all its changes and actions the majority of people (including Frank) took for granted. When he was alone or with others like himself he saw what he expected to see and only then if it was a place he had been, in this life or the other. This much he had learned from Nutjob. On his own he had figured out that he could decide what and when to see of a particular place. If he remembered it, he could experience it, in every detail, right down to the second. A detective’s dream, actually. Too bad it came now when the job was the last thing on his mind. The other thing he had learned was that his vision had no effect on his fellow haunts. He could see them and he presumed they could see him, but it was obvious by their actions and the expressions on some of their faces that they weren’t enjoying a balmy spring day. Whatever they did see, he was just as glad they kept it to themselves, because some of those faces were testament to suffering and torment he did not care to think upon.
Useful to know, but that wasn’t the purpose of this nighttime jaunt.
Frank put all practical concerns from his mind and lost himself in communion with the memory of a world he’d left behind. One he hadn’t appreciated when it mattered. He slipped off his loafers and ran his bare, deprived toes through the green, green grass, as he hadn’t done since he was a child. The sensation was singularly astounding; the brush of the blades of grass was like a gentle caress from the earth, the dew a moist kiss. The birdsong he could hear must have been a part of the memory, because there was nary a feather in sight, let alone a full bird. Just the same, the sound was like heaven’s chorus and a sense of peace wrapped him like a cocoon, protective and comforting. It was a part of his metamorphosis from unappreciative jerk to, well, something else. He didn’t have a name for it, but he had a conviction that it was a state vital to his eventual transcendence from the limbo he was trapped in. It had taken him he didn’t know how long as a dead man to figure out that his previous life had been just another kind of limbo, an unconscious one and all the more an offense for it because it hadn’t needed to be that way. He had taken the wonders of life for granted. A part of him suspected one of the reasons he’d overlooked the ending of his life was because he’d never really bothered living it to begin with, if not before Maya’s death, most certainly after it. Now was the time to make up for it, because let’s face it, he didn’t have much else he needed to do, and more than enough time on his hands.
Wandering the park and his memories was a way of regaining what he’d squandered, but he couldn’t help remembering at the same time what had brought him here to begin with that long-ago day; a case, of course… on a balmy spring day, a frozen corpse, of all things, was discovered in a grove of trees in the park. The case had never been solved. Murder was a given when the body had obviously been stored in a deep freeze somewhere before being dumped. The autopsy had been inconclusive though, and the dumpsite also revealed no clues, something that had always bugged Frank.
The victim had been Last-Leg, a homeless guy with an IQ of about 75. He had been an institution in and of himself here in town. No one knew his name. They all called him Last-Leg because let’s face it, that’s what he looked like he stood on—yeah, that was cold and insensitive, but it wasn’t like people stopped to think about how a casual reference can follow a person for a lifetime, so the nickname stuck—yet year in and year out, he shuffled around town in all weather with a content grin on his face. He opened doors and helped the overburdened with their bags; he hailed cabs and held buses for those running for them. Last-Leg wasn’t crazy, he was simple. He didn’t yell and carry on, he wasn’t violent, and he didn’t make a nuisance of himself. Many of the city’s residents and all of its service personnel fondly looked out for Last-Leg, just like he looked out for them.
It was bad enough that such a caring soul had been singled out that way, worse to never know how or why. Once the investigation had begun it was discovered that Last-Leg was actually Guy Donnelly, former inmate of the Brooks Institute for Mental Health a few towns over, supposedly he’d been released to a half-way house when he had progressed enough to be reasonably self-sufficient. Further digging during the murder investigation revealed the truth of the matter; poor Guy had been cast out to fend for himself the moment his last living relative passed away and the funds dried up. The institute might not have cared for him, but Frank and the others he helped every day knew how precious Last-Leg had been, so much so that the Mayor, in an effort to boost a faltering re-election campaign, had renamed the city’s park, the place where Last-Leg was happiest, after him. As far as Frank was concerned it was the only worthwhile thing the Mayor had ever done.
In that crystalline moment Frank realized two things: he was fed up with not knowing, and now more than ever he stood a chance of finding out what had happened to Last-Leg. Dare he do it, though? He thought back to the case and the little that the investigation had uncovered; there had been no injury or sign of violence and no discernable cause of death. By all indications, he hadn’t suffered before hand, which meant what Frank was about to do should cause no harm.
“Guy Donnelly?” Frank called in a breath of a whisper. He was drawing closer to where Last-Leg had been found. It wasn’t like he would see a repeat of that day. There wouldn’t be a body on the ground or cops milling around, but the place drew him anyway. Only, he was still alone. Had the man been fortunate to skip this limbo Frank was caught in? Or had he somehow found his way out of it? Either way, Frank could only think one thought: Lucky stiff! Of course, maybe he hadn’t waited long enough, or… or maybe the name Guy Donnelly didn’t hold any meaning or connection for the man.
Frank tried again. “Last-Leg?”
Slam! A violent impact threw Frank to the ground just before he reached the shadow cast by the trees where Last-Leg’s body had been found. He didn’t have the breath to yell. His mind was screaming more than loud enough though. Fortunately the lessons ingrained by over a decade of self-defense training and active duty had him rolling with the impact while throwing his attacker over his shoulder in one fluid move. He didn’t exactly bounce to his feet, but he did manage to gather himself into a crouch, his eyes tracking the threat. Or at least, where he thought the threat was, in the direction he’d sent the other person flying. That was why he tensed even further at the sensation that a thousand spiders were running down his neck… spiders with very cold feet.
He hadn’t spent years on the force and as a detective without developing a healthy set of instincts. They were telling him he was facing the wrong way.
With one eye on Last-Leg, Frank pivoted and stared into the trees. He shivered, or maybe it was a tremble, but either way it was unconscious. Something wasn’t right. His warm spring day was beginning to mutate, something his brief experience had taught him shouldn’t have been possible. Okay, so he wasn’t an expert, but there was that whole instinct thing again and Frank’s “Oh, shit!” alarm was going off big time.
Something drifted below the canopy of the trees: at first lightly, and then not so. On the fringe of the glade it was just random motes that looked like mere dust… or maybe pollen. But deeper in reminded him more of pictures he had seen in National Geographic. Pictures of blizzards in Antarctica.
He hadn’t realized he’d moved forward until a tight grip upon his shoulder hauled him back.
“No, ’Tective Frank, no! Must not… must not!”
Last-Leg backpedaled and nearly pulled Frank back on his ass. The poor guy continued to inch back and Frank let himself be drawn away—again with the instincts—but only to the edge of a nearby fountain.
There was no visible sign of threat. No sign of anything beyond trees and snow. That was enough, as far as he was concerned. Nothing couldn’t explain the localized blizzard, though—even if it weren’t the spring day Frank was remembering, or the fall night actually taking place, in the city’s long history there had never been more than a dusting of snow. There was something ominous and primal about the display before him. The threat and violence it projected; winds justifiably categorized as cutting and snow falling in solid sheets to blanket the ground, and most amazing of all—or shit-inspiringly terrifying, if you wanted to touch closer to the truth—all of it was contained within the grove.
Shaken, Frank pivoted back to eye Last-Leg. “Hey, Leg, it’s been a while.”
The man smiled despite his obvious agitation. “While, while, crock-dial.”
Frank actually laughed. Sometimes being dead wasn’t too bad. It was good to see his friend again. The guy’s innocence was a touchstone, a forgotten way to keep grounded when life exploded around you, or in this case, death.
“So, what’s up, buddy? You took me out like you were the Fridge.”
Last-Leg grinned like an… well… an idiot at the compliment. The Fridge was his favorite football player, though Frank suspected that was due to the misconception that the player opened up to reveal shelves and shelves of food, rather than from any concept of the man’s rather impressive ability to take out the other team. Last-Leg wasn’t saying a word either way. He also wasn’t offering much of an explanation on their current situation but he was looking more uncomfortable.
“Hey, don’t sweat it.” Frank tried to keep it light but Last-Leg was fidgeting and darting glances toward the freak storm. Frank knew how he felt.
“I didn’t hurt you, did I, buddy?”
Last-Leg shook his head without taking his eyes off the trees, slowly crab-walking away, only to bounce back to Frank’s side. Apparently the fountain wasn’t far enough away. Only his concern for Frank kept him there. His expression was troubled and his hand continued to dart out as if he would draw Frank away, but was afraid to touch him.
What was going on here? He had never known Last-Leg to get this worked up about anything. That in itself should have been a sign, freak weather or not. There was no way they should be seeing what they were. This region hadn’t had snow like this since the Ice Age, and Frank certainly hadn’t seen it then, unless you counted CGI images on television or in movies. That left one possibility that he could think of; he was caught in some other spirit’s vision, or something like that. He didn’t understand how, but what else could it be?
A shiver rippled from Frank’s gut all the way out to his extremities and back again. He couldn’t be sure if it was the thought of being snared by someone else’s personal hell, or a psychosomatic response to all that snow, but either way, Frank didn’t like it. His first impulse was to put his arm around Last-Leg’s shoulder and lead the guy further away from the place. Of course, that wasn’t a plan, considering how flinchy Last-Leg was. Settling on playing follow-the-leader, Frank started moving slowly off, knowing his companion would be right on his heels. Still, he looked back just to make sure.
That was his mistake.
Sure, Last-Leg was right behind him, but so was the glade. Frank caught a flicker in that near-whiteout zone. There was someone in there. My God! There was actually someone in there, and they were stumbling deeper in, not out. Even if Frank hadn’t made a career out of public service he would have been compelled to go after the person. No one could survive those conditions long. There was no way he would abandon someone to freeze to death. What was worse, he couldn’t be sure, but it seemed to him the person stumbling around in the glade was too small to be an adult.
“Hey,” Frank tried to get his companion’s attention. “Hey, buddy. Last-Leg… listen, I need you to listen.”
With an extreme effort, Frank finally got the guy’s attention.
“I have to go back, there’s someone there,” Frank went on, trying to keep it simple and still say what he needed to say. “I have to help, okay? Wait for me… wait here and I will be right back.”
He wasn’t prepared for the violence of Last-Leg’s reaction. The guy started yelling and clinging to Frank, holding him back and losing precious seconds while whoever was getting lost in the grove drew closer to death.
“No! No, ’Tective! No! Can’t!” The look in Last-Leg’s eyes was absolutely frantic. Frank wasn’t sure if the guy had enough going on upstairs to grasped the concept of ‘for your own good,’ but he certainly seemed bent on practicing it. If they struggled any harder—Frank to head back down and Last-Leg to prevent him—one of them was going to come away hurt. And yet Frank could hear a note of frustration creep into Last-Leg’s voice as he continued jabbering and had to respect the effort his friend was going to, even if he didn’t understand what drove it.
“Bad! Bad to go, Frank, the ’nowman gets you. Can’t, can’t go!”
Frank thought he could make some kind of sense out of what Last-Leg was trying to say, but it only reinforced his determination to get down to the grove as fast as he could. If there was some kind of threat there, besides the snow, there was no way he could leave anyone, particularly what might be a child, to suffer in such a situation. With a quick move and as gently as possible, he broke Last-Leg’s grip and dashed past him and across the clearing. He’d lost sight of his quarry behind a wall of falling snow and trees. It didn’t matter. He knew where to head in and was certain he would quickly rescue the lost one and be back out before Last-Leg even had time to panic… further.
Thus speaks the confidence of the foolhardy.
Within seconds Frank was lost. Completely and utterly turned around by the solid whiteness of the air he had to admit, if only to himself, snow was not his element… He never even saw a tree unless and until he ran into it. So much for the rescuing hero… who would rescue him? And now that he thought about it, what would happen to him here? Being dead, did he wander aimlessly forever, or until fortune led him out? Or by a brutal twist of irony, could he die again, since he’d somehow missed it the first time? The implications were chilling. Where did the doubly dead go, if it were possible? Somehow he didn’t think the same place as everyone else.
A movement to his left interrupted Frank’s building panic. By chance he had gone the right way. Just a short distance… okay… a very short distance in front of him was a small, shaking bundle apparently trying frantically to merge with a tree or something.
Any shelter in a storm, right? Well Frank couldn’t blame the person… child. The wind was beyond bitter and the one thing he did know about snow, thanks to that National Geographic special, was that if there was enough of it and some air to breath, it made an excellent insulator. Not that Frank wanted to put that to the test. Struggling forward against the gale, he headed toward his intended rescuee. Or that was the intention, anyway.
Frank was forced to revise his plan when the child—for child it was—lifted its head and stared right at him. The gaze was timeless and malevolent. How many had succumbed to the death in those eyes? Bitterness burned there with a heat that would hold off a hundred years of blizzard, or maybe just cause them. It was also enough to snare an unwitting soul motivated by nothing more harmful than compassion. Did the child understand compassion? Somehow Frank didn’t think so. That kid wanted company in misery.
More memories of that documentary surfaced… the one that taught Frank everything he knew about snow conditions in the Ice Age. It taught him something else, too… what a caveman may have looked like. The theorists hadn’t been far off.
In a moment of clarity they say only comes with near-death Frank’s mind made connections that he might never have picked up on otherwise. This child hadn’t wandered into the grove and gotten lost in the blizzard; the blizzard was here because of the child. Ancient and powerful beyond consideration now, the child must have frozen to death before his people even knew what that meant. Victim of what was likely the very first snow, he was trapped here just as Frank was, and thanks to the duel stumbling blocks of language and complex thinking, there was no way for Frank to help him move on.
Now would be a very good time to run. Really. If only he could. But no, endless cold was creeping through him, anchoring him to where he stood. Eventually—quite soon, actually—it would go so far as to do more than anchor, it would draw him down until he huddled like that poor lost soul across from him, forever doomed to Dante’s version of ultimate Hell.
Crap! Why hadn’t he listened to Last-Leg? (Like he’d ever thought he would say anything like that in his life! It was almost enough to make him laugh hysterically if his face hadn’t turned into an ice-sculpture.)
That was it. No way was he getting stuck here freezing his ass off for eternity! Frank fought the lassitude. Through an extreme effort he wrenched his gaze away from the cavechild’s and fought for his life. Stumbling steps turned into a pitiful crawl and heavy wet snow practically cemented his eyelashes closed, cold-drawn moisture providing the mortar. Betrayed by his own watering eyes, nonetheless, Frank struggled on, never quite sure if he was making progress, or even if he was going the right way. Again he wondered why he hadn’t listened? It only went to show that intelligence didn’t guarantee wisdom.
No one would come for him… Last-Leg has been too smart to come into even the shadow of this place. Frank was doomed for sure now. He hadn’t the energy to drag himself another inch.
He lay there in the burning snow dreaming of white-sand beaches and turquoise water, the tug of a warm sea breeze on his shirt and a cool, crisp drink to moisten his lips. What a dream. Um… a dream, right? Only far off in another consciousness, Frank felt rather more than the gentle tug of a breeze, more like the yank of a whirlwind. No, not the storm… Last-Leg, yelling and pulling, with ice dangling from his nose.
Well… that settled it. If the loony bugger could bring himself to come in here after Frank, he would just have to find the energy somewhere to help in his own rescue. How ironic… how humbling. Then another epiphany hit, one Frank would keep to himself until they were clear of the glade.
To Frank it seemed they struggled for forever, but gradually the snowfall thinned and the winds died down and finally they were out in the open, drenched in snowmelt and exhausted beyond imagination. He collapsed onto the frostbitten grass of late autumn, shivering intensely. His spring day was gone because he hadn’t the energy left to sustain it, not after barely escaping eternal winter.
Last-Leg landed hard beside him and Frank reached out to pat the guy on the back. Well… more of a thump actually, as he could only manage to bring his hand down and leave it there, rather than repeat the action in the prescribed manner of a true pat. It was pretty pitiful really, but they were both alive and he owed Last-Leg a debt of honor. One, ironically enough, he might be in a position to fulfill.
“You… you weren’t murdered, w-were you, Last-Leg?” Frank forced out through his exhaustion and chattering teeth. Last-Leg just stared at him dully. “No… it doesn’t make sense… I can’t explain how, but that… um… Neanderthal was strong enough to draw us into his memories. Was he strong enough to draw you in from across whatever divides the other life from the after life?”
Frank didn’t get an answer. He didn’t expect one. Mostly he was just working through the details out loud to try them on for size himself. He thought he was right, in which case, there was no reason for Last-Leg… Guy, to be trapped in this limbo.
“Thank you, my friend.”
Last-Leg managed a weak smile at that. He understood both thank you and friend; those were concepts he could grasp. Now for the rest…
“You are my hero, Last-Leg.” Okay… so that sounded a little hokey coming from a grown man, but it meant a lot to Last-Leg. Frank could tell by the smile on his face. “You saved me, even though you were afraid of those trees… of the snow. You saved me anyway, even though it meant going back into what killed you.”
Frank experienced a moment of doubt as Last-Leg just continued to smile and stare. “Last-Leg,” he whispered, not wanting to be wrong, “you weren’t murdered, you froze to death, because somehow you tangled with that ghost in those trees and he was too lonely or bitter to let you go.”
Was he right? Was a change taking place? It was so hard to tell, considering they’d just come out of the blizzard and still bore signs of its bitter cold effect. Frank held his breath, not sure what, if anything, would happen if he was wrong.
He wasn’t, though. Last-Leg’s smile grew wider. More of a grimace, actually and it was no illusion or wishful thinking that tinged his skin blue. Frank watched as quickly, gently, Last-Leg went to his final sleep until he dissolved into a swirl of glittering dust with a chilling resemblance to the blizzard they’d crawled out of.
Remembering the cavechild and the way the eons of bitterness had twisted its spirit, Frank made a supreme effort to diffuse his own. Not for the first time he thought of Last-Leg as a lucky stiff.