Estimated reading time — 21 minutes
I haunted them and they never knew it. Mama, Papa, and my little brother Jacob; they always looked right through me, for two years never detecting even the slightest sign of my presence. Have you ever felt the bitter outrage that boils inside you when you’re being ignored? Well what happened during those years was even worse than being ignored. At least if someone ignores you, they still know you’re there. My very existence remained unacknowledged, and the madness of my situation fed into itself daily. I couldn’t leave the area around Papa’s wheat farm, some unknown force kept me bound to that place, and an opportunity to exit had never presented itself. I didn’t even know what an exit for me would look like. With no outlet to express my frustration, and nobody to communicate with, my ire and ill will grew, soon consuming the entirety of my thoughts.
If you don’t yet understand, I’m dead. For the two years immediately following my death, and before I came to this place I’m at now, I was the one and only ghost on my family’s farm. Perhaps, in hearing the story of my life and demise, you might learn how to avoid some of the mistakes I made. So please pay attention, because there’s a lesson in here somewhere, but I’ll leave it for you to figure out what it is.
It was 1950, and Papa’s wheat farm had been doing well. The war had brought an economic boom, which continued well after the soldiers came home from the battlefields of Europe and the islands of the Pacific. I was twelve years old, and my brother Jacob was seven. He was fun to pick on, and it was my enjoyable hobby to get him in trouble as much as I could. I loved to intentionally leave messes, like spilled milk, that he would invariably get blamed for. Sometimes, I’d complain to Mama that he was bothering me when he wasn’t really doing anything wrong at all. It felt good to see him get scolded and run off to his room, crying his denials. I’d laugh when that happened, and I’d embrace those incidents in my mind, because those were the moments when I was the good child, the one who wasn’t getting into trouble.
But the overall best thing about having Jacob around is that he would sleepwalk. When this happened, he was almost always in a highly suggestible state. Since his bedtime was an hour earlier than mine, I had many opportunities to sneak up to his bedroom and put suggestions into his mind. If left alone when sleepwalking, he probably would’ve never left the upstairs part of the house, but at least half the time, I could get him to do nearly whatever I asked of him.
I’d tell him things like, “Jacob, take your pillow outside and lay down on the grass.” Then I’d laugh to myself as he actually attempted to leave the house with his pillow in hand.
Mama and Papa were aware of his problem, and kept a close eye on him. But they had no idea about the manner in which I was exacerbating the situation. It was only after several incidents, that one night, Papa finally overheard me giving Jacob some sleepwalking instructions.
“Jacob, go throw this over the banister,” I told him as I placed his favorite toy truck in his hands. We were standing right outside of his bedroom.
I turned around and saw that Papa was upstairs too. Clearly, he’d heard me. I jumped back in surprise, unable to think of anything to say. After several awkward moments, I ran off to my bedroom without speaking a single word. I felt shame and guilt, but most of all, I just didn’t want to get into trouble. I could hear Papa walk Jacob to his room and put him to bed. Through the wall I could hear him speak some comforting words. When Papa came to my room a few minutes later, I pretended to be asleep. He stood in my doorway for a moment; he probably knew I was really awake. He stepped inside, covered me with a blanket, and left. I spent the next hour awake in bed, wondering and worrying about what would happen the next day.
Papa finally got his chance to talk to me while I was eating breakfast the next morning. He entered the dining room and sat down at the table. He spoke in his always calm, but firm voice, “Mary, what were you telling your brother last night, about the toy truck?”
“Nothing, Papa. Why?”
“Now Mary, please don’t lie to me. I took a break from the fields just to come talk to you. Please, tell me what you said.”
I felt my annoyance and anger rising up. I wasn’t going to let Papa blame Jacob’s sleep walking problem on me.
“It’s not my fault he sleepwalks!” My voice came out louder than I’d intended.
Papa sighed, then took a moment to contemplate before speaking again, “Nobody said it was your fault, but I need to know what’s going on with you two.”
I didn’t want to admit what I’d been doing. To admit that I’d been giving Jacob suggestions while he walked in his sleep meant that everything would come unraveled. Papa and Mama would know how I’d been treating him. I thought that they would finally figure out all my secret misbehaviors. The idea of everything coming down at once overwhelmed me. I’d always been quick to anger, a trait that I’d inherited from neither my mother nor my father. In that regard, I was unique within my family. Now, I could feel the fury coming up. There was a small part of me that tried to stop the upcoming eruption, but the anger couldn’t be sequestered.
“Leave me alone!” I screamed. “I hate you Papa, and I hate Mama too.”
At that moment, I really did feel hatred towards Papa and Mama. Why did Papa have to question me? Why did he have to pry? And Mama always agreed with Papa. She was in on this too.
Papa was stunned and could say nothing. I’d shown my anger and frustration many times before, but I’d never spoken to him like that in the past. I could see that he was more hurt than mad. That didn’t matter to me.
It was a Wednesday, and a school day. I got up, grabbed my two schoolbooks and ran out of the house crying, heading down the driveway toward the distant dirt road, and then to the school. Normally I would’ve walked with Jacob, but there was no way I was going to wait for the brat that morning.
I got halfway there before I stopped. I didn’t feel like going to school. I’d stopped crying, but the thought of sitting in class while an adult lectured me didn’t appeal to me that morning. I’d never skipped school before, but even having the thought was a liberating feeling. I walked down to a nearby pond and relaxed under a tree, picking dandelions and blowing their tops off. When I tired of that, I tore some pages out of my books and spent some time folding them into paper airplanes. Then, I walked along the shore of the pond, getting my shoes muddy and wet. After a couple of hours, finally bored but still upset, I decided to walk back to the farm. I figured, when Jacob showed up at school without me, the principal would’ve called my house to make sure everything was okay, so Mama and Papa probably knew I was missing. I didn’t care about that. I cut slowly through the fields, heading towards the house, but with no real goal in mind.
It was May, the time of year when the wheat that had been planted in winter was harvested, and everyone was even busier than usual. Reaching the edge of a field, I saw that Peter, one of the farmhands, was harvesting the wheat atop Papa’s big combine. Usually it was Papa who drove the machines, but not right then. Maybe he was out looking for me? The thought of him frantically searching made me laugh. Peter drove the combine up to the grain truck and began emptying his load of wheat.
Peter had been in the army, and Papa had hired him right after he came back from the war. Papa said that all the soldiers who charged into enemy fire on that beach, like Peter had, deserved to have a job waiting for them when they got home. Peter had two bullet wounds on his left arm to prove his bravery, and they could be seen whenever he wore short sleeves. He never really talked about how he got them, though.
Mama never trusted Peter. “He’s irresponsible and he drinks too much,” she’d argue with Papa. But Papa wouldn’t hear it. Sometimes, late at night, I could hear Peter cry out from the bunkhouse. Bad dreams, I guess. The other hands would yell at him to shut up, and he would. Usually, Peter was good-natured, but there was a part of him that always seemed a little distant, and he sometimes snapped at the other farmhands with little provocation. However, he was always nice to me and Jacob, and seemed to enjoy our company. Peter was one of my favorite people on the farm.
Still feeling angry and bored, I saw that I had a unique opportunity. The big machines, especially the combine, were fascinating to me. I knew Papa would never in a million years let me ride on one of the machines with him. But Peter? With his friendly demeanor towards me, I knew there was a chance he’d let me.
Peter turned and looked at me. “Hey there, Mary.” He smiled, “Shouldn’t you be in school?”
“Teacher got sick and let us all go home.” It was the best lie I could think of. Then, trying hard to mask my still simmering anger, I continued, “I’m glad I ran into you, Peter. I wasn’t expecting you to be here.”
Peter chuckled and grinned. “Well you never know where I’ll pop up. Maybe we were just meant to run into each other today. My grandfather always told me, there’s no such thing as accidentally running into somebody.”
It seemed Peter was starting in on one of his philosophical conversations, and while I usually liked hearing him talk, at that moment I only had one goal in mind.
With a fake smile, I made a request. “Hey Peter, do you think I can I ride up there with you?’
“Don’t ask that Mary, you know I can’t have you up here.” Peter’s smile wavered a bit.
“Please, Peter. I’ll hold on real tight. You’re the only one who’s nice to me.” I used a slightly whiny voice, and I made my eyes appear watery by squeezing my eyelids together tightly for a moment.
“Please? Pretty please?”
Peter paused and wiped the sweat off his brow. He took a small flask out of his pocket, opened it, and took a quick sip before considering the request.
“Well fine, get up here and hold on, but don’t let your daddy see you up here. We’ll both be in big trouble.”
The truth is, I was somewhat hoping Papa would see us. Not because I wanted Peter to get in trouble, but because I wanted to see Papa get mad. I was already in trouble anyway.
I climbed on top of the machine and swung my legs over the metal crossbars that provided the only protection to whoever might be in the open cab of the combine. Peter revved up the engine and drove slowly forward. As he drove, the wheat was pushed slowly underneath the machine by the big spinning reel in the front. The crop was cut, threshed and separated all at once by this giant mechanical beast.
Rather than trying to enjoy the ride, I scanned the field looking for any sign of Papa. Peter was sitting in the only seat, so I awkwardly squatted in the small space next to him, holding on tight to the horizontal bar.
Peter looked and smiled. “Hang on now, we’re gonna turn around.”
Peter reached the end of the row and I redoubled my grip on the bar, but my attention was focused on trying to spot Papa. As the combine swung in a big arc, its wheel slipped into a large rut, jolting the whole machine. My wet shoes slipped from under me, and though I tried to hold on, my sweaty palms easily betrayed me. I slid under the protective cross bar and landed atop the giant, spinning reel. I saw the panic on Peter’s face as I slipped, but he was too slow to react and couldn’t stop the machine in time. My scream was cut short as the reel carried me over, and then under the giant combine. The machine carried forward and overtook me, and its gnashing, unforgiving cutters quickly ended my life.
Here’s something you probably don’t know about being dead, your feelings become simplified, and it’s incredibly difficult to have more than one emotion at a time. With practice, the dead can learn to maintain control over their thoughts, but that may take years. Watching life move on without me, I couldn’t help but feel anything but anger. I don’t know if I can explain it satisfactorily, the hollow feeling a lonely ghost gets while watching the living… watching, hating, and eventually despising them. There’s no sleep when you’re dead, no break you can use to reset yourself or your thoughts. There’s no point at which you wake up feeling better, those moments simply don’t exist. Sometimes, strong memories are triggered by sights, sounds, and even smells, and your emotions may go in an entirely different direction. But normally, your feelings are like a freight train, unstoppable and headed only one way.
Two years, alone, yet surrounded by my now despised family. I spoke to them daily. I told them I hated them, but they never heard me.
“I hope you die, Jacob.” It felt good to say it to him after I saw that my wooden doll house was now in his room, stuffed full of his toy cars.
“Go to Hell, Mama.” I’d say as she sat wistfully in her rocking chair, looking out the window towards the wheat fields.
“Papa, everything is your fault. I hate you.” I’d say that to him every day.
And Peter? I loathed him most of all. Of course, he had to leave the farm after what he’d done to me. He spent eight months in jail for his negligence. I heard Mama talking on the phone, telling a friend how he’d gotten off easy, on account of his war record and the fact that his father had once been an important man in the county.
Even though Peter wasn’t there, I’d speak to him too, “Why do you have to be such a drunk idiot, Peter?”
I watched as holidays passed by, all celebrated without me. Seasons cycled through, and the world around me began to change. Jacob got bigger, Papa hired new farmhands, Mama took up quilting again. Me, I stayed the same.
It was in May of 1952 when something different, something amazing, finally happened. Someone heard me speak. I was in the house with my family, spewing my hate towards everyone, yet to no one person in particular. Jacob had gone to his room to sleep, and Mama and Papa were listening to a radio show. I was upstairs in my old bedroom, looking at the blank walls.
“I hope this place burns down.”
“Why?” Came a curious voice from behind me.
I turned and found Jacob standing right next to me. For once, he was looking at me instead of through me. His eyes were open, but with the blank look on his face. I’d seen that look before. Jacob was sleepwalking, which was something he hadn’t done in a while.
My surprise momentarily subdued me, and I could say nothing in response.
“Why do you hope the house burns down, Mary?”
“You, you heard me, Jacob?”
“Yes Mary, I heard you.” His voice was monotonous.
For a moment, a very brief moment, I felt a tiny bit of relief and happiness, but the anger wouldn’t relinquish its domination over me, and quickly returned to the forefront.
Trying to see if Jacob would still be susceptible to my suggestions, and allowing my hate to guide me, I spoke, “Jacob. There’s something I want you to do.” Keeping my voice calm, I continued, “Follow me to the end of the hall.”
Jacob was a good listener, and together we moved down the hallway. Then, with minimal effort, I encouraged Jacob to go find Mama and Papa. They were in the kitchen, and didn’t notice Jacob as he slowly and silently walked up behind them.
“Tell them that you hate them, Jacob.”
Jacob had a confused look on his face. His mouth opened, as if to speak, then closed again.
“Say it Jacob, if you want me to be happy.”
Jacob finally spoke to Mama and Papa, “I hate you.”
They both turned around, surprised.
I spoke another instruction to Jacob, telling him what to say, and he complied.
“Both of you are stupid fucking bastards.”
Mama gasped at hearing her little son say such a horrible thing. I didn’t even know what all those words meant, but I’d heard the farmhands use them when they thought nobody else was listening to them.
“Jacob sweetie? What’s wrong?” Mama looked closely and seemed to be able to tell that Jacob was asleep. She looked back at Papa, who nodded his understanding. He had a concerned look on his face.
Mama guided Jacob back upstairs, and then sat with him while he settled comfortably into his bed. She sang a quiet song to help him relax. I stayed the night in his room, waiting to see if he’d get up again, but he slept through until sunup.
The next morning, I watched as Jacob sat eating his breakfast at the kitchen table. He was reading from a book called 1001 Riddles for Children while he ate. Mama was cleaning the dishes.
“Hey Mama, what’s full of holes yet still holds water?”
Mama pondered the riddle for a moment, “I’m not sure, angel.”
“A sponge!” Jacob laughed aloud as he said it.
Mama laughed too, “That’s a good riddle, Jacob.”
Then, Mama took a more serious tone, “Jacob, do you remember coming downstairs last night, after you went to bed?”
“Nope,” Jacob said as he thumbed through his book looking for more riddles.
Mama didn’t say anything else about it, but it was clear she was troubled by the incident.
Over the next two weeks, Jacob had three more sleepwalking incidents. Each time, I was able to exert control over him. And each time I had him go into Mama and Papa’s bedroom and express my hate to them. I could tell they were getting more concerned, almost scared, by these nighttime visits. Jacob seemed unaffected by these experiences and was always happy in the morning. Soon though, I became bored with this activity, and sought out something else I could do with Jacob, but with my single-track mind, new ideas were difficult to create.
One afternoon, I overheard Mama talking on the phone in the kitchen, her exasperated tone caught my attention, “Can you believe it? He came to the farm yesterday! He wanted to talk to us, but one of the farmhands stopped him, told him to leave. They said he’s camped under the trestle.”
Mama paused as the voice on the other end spoke, then she continued, “Well yeah but we can’t kick him out of there, that’s not our land.”
Mama listened for a moment, then spoke again, “Well they said he wanted to apologize, but he was drunk. He’s a real mess apparently.” I could hear an amount of bitterness come through in Mama’s tone, and I could see tears at the corners of her eyes.
Mama continued with the conversation, but I quickly grew tired of listening and left the kitchen. An hour later, I figured out who she’d been talking about when I saw Papa outside arguing with another man. I looked closer. It was Peter he was arguing with. I could hear them both clearly.
“Please, Mr. Ford,” Peter cried, “I just want to tell her I’m sorry.” Pleading tears streamed down his face, and he struggled to stand up straight.
Papa’s words were clear and deliberate, “You need to go. I don’t want you to come back. You have no reason to be here. Go away, and if I hear about you camping out around here any more, I’m gonna let the sheriff know.”
Peter stood silently, then gave the only apology he could give, “I’m sorry for what I did. Please tell the missus for me, I’m sorry.”
He turned and slowly walked towards the road, defeated. Papa stood in place, watching as he grew smaller in the distance. Finally, Papa turned, and looking at the staring farmhands who’d collected nearby, told them to get back to work.
Peter had come to apologize for the second time in two days, but Papa had refused to listen to him, and wouldn’t let him talk to Mama. Peter had failed at his task, but his presence had succeeded in accomplishing something else, reminding me of my own death.
And that’s when I got the new idea. I had died as a child, why shouldn’t Jacob die as a child too?
“Jacob should die, too.” I spoke it to myself, repeating it several times. I asked myself why he should get to live, and I couldn’t think of a good reason. If Jacob died, I’d have someone who could see me, and someone who could hear me. Not just when he was sleepwalking, but all the time. I could tell him what to do, dominate him. It’s what he deserved. Mama and Papa didn’t deserve to have Jacob. I did.
“Thank you, Peter,” I said to the small, forlorn figure disappearing in the distance. “Thank you for the idea.”
Once I had the inspiration and the goal, it was surprisingly easy to devise a plan. Jacob was becoming more and more responsive to my nighttime directions, and it seemed that he could sleep through almost any sort of disturbance. I’d be able to lure him out to the train tracks that ran along our farm. Every morning around 5:30 AM, the train passed by. It was nearly always on time, to the point that Papa was able to rely on it as a wake up call. It would do the job for me, its huge locomotive would smash Jacob, and he’d be mine.
That night I watched my family as they went about their nightly routine. They ate dinner, they laughed at Jacob’s jokes, he told them about school, they told him he was a good boy. For just a moment, I remembered myself eating dinner with my family. A fleeting happy thought passed through me, but it faded quickly. My hatred was too great to let it take root.
The evening passed by, Jacob completed his homework, took a bath, and went to bed. An hour later, Mama gave Papa a hug and went to bed as well. Papa stood alone for several minutes, looking silently out the window towards the wheat fields. Then, he too retired for the night. Silence and stillness took over the farm. The night air was warm, and the moon cast a silvery glow over the ground.
I waited in Jacob’s room through the night, my always present anger was tinted with giddiness as I imagined how it would be to have a ghostly Jacob by my side. I’d make him do what I wanted, and I’d laugh as Mama and Papa cried over his broken body.
Finally, it was time. The train would be coming soon. I called out to Jacob as he slept, using my most pleasing voice. At first, he didn’t move. I’d never actually caused him to sleepwalk before, each time I’d only interacted with him after he started on his own. My plan depended on him getting up when I asked him to, and I was suddenly a little bit worried that I wouldn’t be able to rouse him.
“Jacob, Jacob.” My voice was musical and sweet.
Finally, after a couple of minutes, Jacob mumbled a tired response, “What is it, Mary?”
“It’s time to get up Jacob. I have something fun I want to show you, but you have to come right now.”
Jacob sat up and looked around the room. The blank look on his face told me he was still asleep.
“Where are you, Mary? It’s dark.”
“I’m over here, just follow my voice.”
Slowly, Jacob got up, walked out of his room, and followed me down the hallway. The house was eerily silent, save for the creaking of the wooden floors under Jacob’s feet and the ticking grandfather clock on the first floor. The moonlight streamed in through the cracks of the curtains, and slowly, slowly, Jacob made his way towards the top of the stairs.
“You’re doing good, Jacob. I have such a surprise for you, and after that we’re going to play and have fun, you’ll be mine, Jacob, always.”
He slowly descended the stairs, his eyes open but his mind still fully asleep. We proceeded through the living room, moving past the rocking chair where Mama rocked me to sleep when I was small. On the grandfather clock, I could see it was 5:25 AM. Perfect. The train would be there soon, and I just had to get Jacob out the door without making too much noise. Papa always slept soundly, but Mama woke easily.
“Careful, Jacob, open the door easily. If you open it too quick you’ll hurt me. You don’t want to hurt me, right?”
Jacob unlocked the door and slowly pulled it inward. Papa kept everything well oiled, so it gave only a slight creak. Jacob stepped forward and pushed past the screen door, making his way onto the front porch. The screen door, on a tight spring, slammed back against the doorframe as he let it go.
“Jacob! You idiot! Be careful,” I hissed at him.
I’d told him to be careful, and that little brat couldn’t even follow a simple direction. Mama and Papa’s room was right above the front door, and I could hear Mama’s concerned voice drift down to us. She was speaking to Papa, but her words were indecipherable from my location.
“We need to hurry up, Jacob. Let’s go, or you won’t get your surprise.”
I led Jacob as quickly as he’d go. We walked to the outskirts of the farm, past the old drinking well near the edge of the property. The tracks were waiting for us on the other side of a fallow field. It took Jacob a few minutes to slowly amble across the terrain, with my constant redirection goading him on. In the background, I could hear Mama and Papa, they were outside calling for Jacob, yelling out his name. It didn’t seem as if they’d spotted him yet.
I laughed, “You’ll never find him in time.”
“Find who?” Jacob mumbled.
“Shut up, Jacob. I’m not talking to you.”
Jacob’s cherubic face glowed from the moonlight, and a soft morning wind passed by and gently rustled the wheat fields. I could still hear Mama and Papa, sounding more and more frantic, looking desperately for their “only” child. Off in the distance, the train horn sounded.
“We’re almost there, Jacob.”
Several moments later we made it to the tracks. I could hear the train heading towards us, and the rails began to vibrate. The sound of the approaching steam engine grew ever louder, and its headlight was visible in the distance.
“Stand right here, Jacob, on the rail. No matter what happens, don’t move. If you move I’ll be really, really mad at you.” Jacob’s mind was still open to suggestion, and he stood with both feet upon one of the rails.
I waited patiently as the train approached. It was a loud, unstoppable monster rumbling down the tracks. It would show no pity, but Jacob didn’t deserve that. Closer, closer, only ten seconds away now. Its light began to bath Jacob’s body in an eerie glow.
I saw Papa across the field. He finally spotted Jacob and began running frantically towards us, but he was at least seventy yards away, an impossible distance with the train nearly upon us. I positioned myself over the rail directly across from Jacob so that I could look at his face. I held out my ghostly arms, and Jacob responded by holding out his.
Jacob was still standing on the rail, facing me, when the train’s screaming horn finally made him wake up. Wide eyed and confused, he jolted into consciousness. He looked right at me, then at the train speeding towards us, then at me again. Could he still see me? Jacob stayed there, paralyzed by his fright and confusion, with the roaring machine merely seconds away.
Behind Papa, I could see Mama fall down to her knees, screaming in desperation and anguish. Her scream, even over the roar of the oncoming engine, rang loudly through the night. All of her sorrow and agony was contained in that one scream. It was powerful and unmistakable. I realized suddenly that I’d heard Mama scream like that before. But when? Then, I remembered; I’d heard that exact scream at my funeral. Without any warning, a memory was triggered, a memory I couldn’t suppress any longer, and temporarily, I was locked in a moment from two years earlier.
My funeral. I’m watching, nobody can see me, nobody knows I’m there. My family and relatives are gathered at the family plot, with our barn visible in the background. As my wooden casket is lowered slowly into the dry earth, Mama screams out in sorrow and despair. Papa puts his arm around her and tries to remain stoic. His eyes are quivering, and as my casket reaches its final resting spot, he breaks down into tears, sobbing out loud. The strongest man in the county, crying unashamed as his little girl is laid to rest. He and Mama are comforted by relatives, Jacob buries his face against Mama’s hip, “Why did she have to go away, Mama? I miss her so much.”
I finally remembered, I had been loved.
Mama, Papa, Jacob, they had all loved me, and they all had mourned my loss. No matter how much trouble I had caused around the farm, no matter how much I talked back to Mama, and even with all the times I picked on Jacob, they had loved me unconditionally. A deluge of happy memories pushed through my mind like water spilling through a broken dam. These were memories my mind had refused to process for the last two years. I remembered coming downstairs Christmas morning to find the wooden dollhouse that Papa had made for me, I remembered all those nights Mama held me close and rocked me to sleep in her rocking chair, I remembered Jacob following me around the house, idolizing me and trying to act like me. I remembered the whole family going into town to get ice cream. Everything good. I remembered all the good times.
I had been loved, and they still loved me.
I looked up from the train tracks into Jacob’s terrified eyes. I still held my ghostly hands over his outstretched arms, and he looked right at me, crying. The train bore down upon us, with its horn screaming and its brakes squealing. I pulled my guilty gaze away from Jacob and looked directly into the light of the train. I no longer wanted to see my little brother die.
“I’m sorry, Jacob.”
Papa was still thirty yards away when I felt the train pass through me. It was a massive force, and even in death its raw energy and cold iron gave me a shiver. The train continued on through. Its forty unstoppable, fully loaded cars careened past our farm, over the trestle and into the cool morning, still attempting to slow down.
I’d done something monstrous, but I didn’t want to be a monster anymore. I looked down with regret. Stillness began returning to the air, and the noise of the train started to fade. I turned and looked down the track, trying to spot Jacob’s body, scared that I’d be successful. I saw nothing. Where was he?
Then I heard it, Jacob sobbing in a ditch not more than ten feet from me.
“You alright, Jake?” It was Peter talking. Both he and Jacob were lying in the ditch, covered in dirt, scrapes and tears. A broken whiskey bottle was next to Peter. It’d fallen out of the large pocket of his overalls, which were stained wet with the former contents of the bottle.
Then I realized what’d happened. The man whose stupidity and carelessness had gotten me killed, the man whose recklessness had caused me to feel so much hate, had just saved my brother’s life. Even though Papa had told him to leave the area, he’d stayed, sleeping outside in the dry wash under the trestle. From his encampment, he’d seen Jacob approach the tracks and had come running up from behind me as fast as he could. Despite his drunken stupor, he’d had enough focus and coordination to tackle Jacob off the tracks not more than half a second before the train passed. I wondered, when Jacob had looked at me after waking up, had he really seen me, or had he been looking through me to Peter?
Papa arrived seconds later, and held Jacob tightly in his arms. He looked at Peter, and though he didn’t say a word, he gave a nod of acknowledgement and thanks. Finally Mama got there, crying hysterically, but with a sense of relief. She gave Jacob kisses all over.
Looking at them, I finally understood the real reason I’d wanted Jacob to die. It wasn’t because I was lonely, it was because I’d been jealous. He was alive and I was dead. He still had Mama and Papa, and I didn’t. He’d grow up, and I never would. And as I thought about it more, I realized that I’d been jealous of him since before he was even born. Being there, watching my family hug, I was finally able to let my feelings of anger, bitterness, and jealously recede. It was as if the train, instead of sweeping away my brother, had swept away all the hate. The love for my family had always been there, and it felt good to finally acknowledge it.
“I’m sorry, Mama. I’m sorry, Papa. I’m sorry, Jacob.” That felt good to say, even if they couldn’t hear me.
Then I looked at Peter, “Thank you, Peter, for saving my little brother.” It felt good to say that too. I didn’t hate him anymore, I couldn’t. My mind felt much clearer after being able to shed the anger of my death.
I watched them all for several moments, until finally, I noticed a light far down along the train tracks. The rails weren’t vibrating, so it couldn’t have been a train. Mama, Papa, nobody else seemed to notice it. It was calling to me, telling me to follow it, telling me to come home. I felt like the light had probably always been there, I just hadn’t been able to see it until then. I understood that it was my time to leave, my time to move on to whatever was next.
As I began moving down the tracks, I turned one last time to look at my family. I spoke softly to them, “Goodbye, I love you all.”
I turned again and continued towards the light. Jacob was still sobbing, but between sobs, I heard his soft, barely audible voice speak out, “Goodbye Mary, I love you too.”
Check out author Thomas O.’s debut collection of short scary stories, The Seer of Possibilities and Other Disturbing Tales, and his recent release, Three Truths and Other Unsettling Tales, both volumes now available on Amazon.com.