“Take me to where people go when they die.”
Clarion extended his homemade tickets in his scuffed hands. The people at the front of the bus laughed nervously; the bus driver’s non-existent eyebrows climbed up past his widow’s peak.
“Joke’s over, kid. Where do you really want to go?”
Clarion nodded his head insistently. He extended his hands further, the tickets so close to the driver’s face he leaned back slightly.
“No joke. I want to go to the place where people go after they die. Daddy said I could go check it out.”
He had, in fact, asked his dad multiple times, to travel by train, boat, plane, and car. But it hadn’t gone anywhere. It’s hard to travel when you’re a kid. People get suspicious. His dad had shrugged and put his head in his hands, as he often did, and said, “Whatever, Clarion. Do whatever you like. Go find your place. Leave me alone now, please.”
So Clarion had made his own bus tickets.
His attempts to follow the ghosts who came to him, whether at home, school, the supermarket, or the park—he never sought them out; they always came to him at random times of the day and night—never worked. Oh yes, they would come to him and talk, and reminisce about their lives, sometimes for hours. Clarion never got bored, even when their stories repeated. Clarion could understand them even if they spoke German, Greek, or Chinese. He’d never learned those languages. But when the ghosts left and he tried to follow, they disappeared in a fog. Clarion was the best at hide and seek at his school, yet he couldn’t find them after they vanished in that fog.
Clarion’s favorite visits were when he talked to his mom’s ghost for hours under the lemon hybrid tree in their backyard that always stubbornly gave more tangerines than lemons. His mom told him regularly to keep an eye on his dad. She never said why. But she’d talk at length, about when she was a girl and she left melting ice cream on her babysitter’s chair, because she could; her struggles with high school and how painful it was to be the school dork; her love of riding her bike after a thunderstorm, pedaling as hard as she could towards a rainbow; her passion for reading random books and spouting facts to strangers, no matter how uncomfortable it made them. Clarion had tons of memories she’d given him. But she never talked about her death.
He followed her one and only instruction. He watched over his dad when he came home from work, nibbled on his crusty bread and expired slices of ham, and went to bed without saying good night. Clarion watched as his dad lost his job, drank too much, and fell asleep in front of the TV, weeping at some romantic comedy he didn’t know the name of. He tried to remind his dad about friends, and that he should go out and talk to people. He asked his dad to play ping-pong like they used to. But his dad never listened. He drank instead. Clarion tried hiding some of the bottles every now and again, but there were too many. And he didn’t want to make his dad unhappy. When his dad did drink, at least he didn’t cry. Clarion wished sometimes his mom had tips for watching over his dad, but she had none.
Clarion tried following the ghost of his mom many times. He would follow her, and the world would gradually lose its luster, its timbre; he was the only thing that wouldn’t change. He’d be able to see his striped shirt, full of mustard stains and chocolate sundae smears, as vividly as he could see his freckled hands, his skinny legs rife with scars. The world around him would turn off like a sleeping computer, but Clarion was not afraid. He knew it made him weird, but he didn’t know what it was like not being weird. He would follow the ghost without fear, but after a while his mom would merge with the fog of dimness and he would lose her. If he walked sideways or backwards, he would find his way out and end up exactly where he had started following the specter. It wasn’t just with his mom; he’d tried following the ghost of his next-door neighbor, the kid at school who’d drowned, the lady at the park who crashed her car, the man at the supermarket with the booming voice who died from a stroke. All with the same result.
If ghosts could come to him, there had to be a way for him to go to them. Everything had an entrance and an exit. Or so his fifth-grade teacher said. Thus Clarion had started his search for the land where people go after they die. He thought he should name it the Land of the Dead, but then it would sound too close to the places he’d read about in his friend Daniel’s books—books full of weird beings, monsters, gods and places more exciting than Fiji, where Clarion really wanted to go one day. He wasn’t sure his friend’s books were accurate.
Instead, he called it the Plaza of the Dead.
It didn’t look like today would be Clarion’s lucky day. The bus driver did not look friendly and neither did the people on the bus. Clarion said, “I do have tickets, you know.” He looked at the ghost of his mom, in the back of the bus. She was shaking her head. Her thick red hair swung and shimmered faintly over her freckled face. She hadn’t approved of his plan from the beginning. But she couldn’t change his mind.
“Stop wasting our time, kid. Get out,” the bus driver said.
So Clarion backed out and huffed miserably as the bus left without him. His mother stayed on the bus.
“Can’t anyone help me find the Plaza of the Dead?” he asked the world at large. A few adults walking by eyed him and ignored him. Some said, “Play somewhere else.” Clarion sighed dramatically. He had to go and see for himself. Nobody could help him. Not even Daniel’s strange, exciting books about cultures and death around the world answered his questions. None of them matched his perception of the Plaza of the Dead.
A few weeks later, he asked the next-door lady’s ghost again about that time she wheeled around the countryside on her tractor and drove it into a river but survived. He loved that story. But she frowned, and her rheumy gray eyes blinked like an owl’s.
“Clarion, I don’t remember that story.”
Clarion frowned. “What do you mean? You tell it to me every time you come.”
She shook her head. “I don’t remember.”
“Okay. Can you tell me about that time you threw a teddy bear at your brother and he put spiders in your bed afterwards?”
She shook her head again.
“I don’t remember.”
“I don’t remember,” a woman who’d cut herself, said to him.
“I don’t remember,” a teenager who’d died in a motorcycle accident admitted.
“I don’t remember,” a businessman who’d overdosed on Valium confessed.
They crowded around him, sheepish, their forms more translucent than Clarion was used to.
“But you told me just last week that your favorite memory was going to the prom and meeting Derek there. You guys went to an ice cream place and had the best praline ice cream ever,” Clarion said to the woman with long blonde hair.
Clarion turned to the teenager with bangs hiding his eyes. “And you, you told me again, just the other day, that you loved going to the beach with your grandma and enjoyed drinking a martini with her even though you weren’t supposed to. Your favorite memory was finding a huge conch shell washed up on the shore, and you tossed a coin to see who would keep it.”
Finally, Clarion reached out his hands to the businessman with a wine birthmark on his cheek. “And your first time in Osaka. The first time you saw Osaka Castle, almost buried by the skyscrapers but standing proud despite it all. Really, you don’t remember?”
The ghosts shrugged, more depressed than alarmed. They sat down and avoided looking at each other. Clarion had never seen them this untalkative. They always talked his ear off. He noticed he had to squint to see them. That was unusual. Clarion asked after a while, “Talk to me. Tell me anything. They can be new stories. I love listening to you talk!” But the ghosts groaned. The ghost of the businessman finally said, “Why do you persist in talking with us?”
“You came to me first,” Clarion said, hurt.
The woman who ended her life said, “We feel more relaxed than we ever felt. Thank you, Clarion. But now what do we do?”
Clarion didn’t know what to say.
Clarion started hearing a lot of I don’t remembers from the ghosts who’d come to him for years. However, he had newer ghosts, the ghosts of a girl who’d been beaten to death by a drunken father, an old man who fell from his ladder and broke his neck, a young teacher who died in childbirth. They didn’t forget their memories, and they didn’t fade. But his mom’s ghost… She was definitely losing her memories. He could barely see her anymore and it scared him.
One night, she came to him and sat next to his bed. She touched him, but he didn’t feel it. He sensed her presence though, and woke up. He had to strain his eyes to see her.
“Mom? Are you okay?”
“I am losing you. I don’t know why. It’s harder and harder for me to come here,” she whispered.
“Can I help?”
She laughed ruefully. “I don’t think so. Maybe, though. You surprise me.”
“What do you remember, Mom? Do you recall any of your stories?”
She clasped her hands and frowned. Clarion sat up fully and looked at her, anxiety rising as her form almost melted completely into his bedroom. “No, I don’t.”
They both sighed and Clarion was struck with suspicion.
“Do you remember how you died?”
“Can you tell me?”
But she tensed and stood up, her face disintegrating then coalescing together again.
“Your dad is coming. You might find your answers there. Come find me, but try something new.”
She walked away into that pathway of shadows and dimness and she murmured, “I love you.”
He didn’t get to answer her because his dad did come in his room, for once alert and awake, not huddled over with some invisible pain.
“Clarion. Sorry to wake you. But there is a full moon and the tide is high. We might be able to catch some fish.”
Clarion gaped at him. His father hadn’t gone fishing since Clarion’s mom died five years ago. He hadn’t seen his dad this excited in too long.
His dad blinked. “To celebrate! I… I got a job offer. Nothing is confirmed yet, but it’s a good step.”
Clarion looked up at his dad and smiled. This was the best news he’d heard in a while. If his dad had a job, maybe he’d finally be happier. When Clarion’s mom found out, and she would, because he would tell her, he knew she would smile too.
Clarion wasn’t a big fan of fishing, but he remembered that when he and his dad used to fish, he’d sat in the boat and talked with his dad while his dad did all the work. Tonight, he could help his dad celebrate.
They made it to the bay in just under three hours. The night’s domain stayed untouched, with stars and clouds that gleamed so brightly they hurt Clarion’s eyes. Even as his dad huffed and puffed from pushing the boat out into the bay, Clarion couldn’t stop looking at the sky, so wondrously open and clear. He could see the Milky Way, stretching to infinity over him. He snapped to himself and took out the fishing poles, the tackle and gear from the car, the smell of the fish bait, salt, and algae curling his nose. He hauled it all to the boat, where his dad had cracked open a bottle of beer already.
“Come, Clarion. With some luck we can find some good bass tonight, have an actual meal that’s not frozen for once.”
Clarion nodded. That would be nice indeed.
He and his dad climbed into the boat and paddled together, the swishing of their oars piercing the underlying humming of the night full of toads and cicadas. As they rowed, Clarion kept glancing at his dad. His dad was smiling dreamily, his face relaxed.
“Why fish with me?” Clarion asked as they stopped rowing and readied their fishing poles.
His dad shrugged, not meeting his eyes.
“It’s a good night. Look, you can see Cassiopeia here. And there! Do you recognize Draco?”
Clarion followed his father’s finger. Yes, he could see the constellations, and many more he didn’t recognize. So bright, so bold, so real, unlike most of Clarion’s life. He contemplated the stars for a bit as his father guzzled his beer and waited for a fish to bite. Finally, he asked, “Dad, when did you meet Mom?”
He’d heard the story from his mom’s ghost already, but he wanted to hear it from his dad. His dad sighed and tapped his bottle on the floor of the boat.
“You always ask the randomest questions. So much like your mom. Okay. I met your mom when she graduated college. We happened to live next to each other. She was an odd duck. She talked to herself a lot. She obviously lived in her head quite a bit. When you talked to her, it was always like you’d interrupted a scene going on in her mind. She’d start to talk to you, and then pick right back up where she’d left off in her head. She was a loner; she kept trying to make friends, but people gave her a wide berth. We got to know each other because we liked going to the same ice cream shop across the street. I never knew what she was going to say. She might say, ‘How are you?’ one day, and the next, she’d say, ‘You know, the biggest galaxy out there is thirty times bigger than the Milky Way and it’s called IC1101.’ She and I started talking and we could talk for hours about things that were interesting, creepy, weird; it was never anything mundane.”
Clarion’s dad smiled and reached for another beer bottle. He was teetering slightly. Clarion smiled too, marveling at how his dad described a memory his mom had described a certain way. His mom had told him that their friendship had been natural and they hadn’t even flirted in the years they’d known each other. When they’d decided to marry, it really was because she’d stated one day, “Marrying wouldn’t be a bad idea for us.” But Clarion had a more pressing question to answer. He had to know…
“Dad, how did Mom die?”
His dad hissed and his hand started shaking.
“Why… why do you have to ask this?”
“I have to know. It’s important.”
His dad glared at him and then softened. Opening a beer bottle and chugging it down, he said, “It was purely my fault. I was supposed to bring the car in for repairs. It was my responsibility. The airbag had a recall; they asked to bring the car in. I kept forgetting about it. So did your mom. One day she takes the car out to buy groceries. And a damn old fool careens into her, speeding on the highway, and the impact kills her on the spot. The airbag explodes in her face. She… she died… because of my neglect.”
Clarion’s dad sobbed and looked up at the sky, where light was dawning languorously, pale as a corpse. Clarion sat still, silent, seeing the dimming ripples of the reflected constellations slosh in the water. They still hadn’t caught a fish. Bottles rolled around and clinked a song of emptiness as stronger waves lapped at the boat, pushed by a sudden wind, chilly and austere. He wished his mom were here. She would know what to say. Then he brightened.
“Dad. I can see her. Mom, I mean.”
His dad stared at him, eyes red and puffy. “What?”
“Mom’s ghost comes to me. We talk. I can see other people’s ghosts too. When people die they’re not truly gone. That’s why I want to go to—”
Clarion stopped short as his dad seized him by the arms and shook him.
“How dare you?” his dad howled. “Spouting your nonsense and imaginary crap here, now? When people die, Clarion, they die. They are gone. They don’t come back.”
“They come back to me,” Clarion said seriously. “I can’t follow them back, but I’m working on it.”
His dad passed a hand over his face.
“It… it, it doesn’t work that way. Whatever you think you’re seeing is not real.”
“But it is! They tell me about their lives. I can tell you about our old next-door lady. She had a string of puppies she rescued in Prague when she used to live there and—”
“This isn’t a game or a joke, Clarion!”
“Dad, I’m not joking! I can see the dead!”
“No you can’t! You can’t,” his dad shouted, his voice echoing across the bay.
Clarion murmured to himself, “If you could see Mom, she would tell you to believe me.”
“Enough!” his dad shouted, his face pasty, features thin as a blade. He pushed Clarion hard, and Clarion’s back thudded against the side of the boat.
Clarion was keenly aware of how his dad’s chest heaved as he breathed hard, of the movement of the boat as it steadied against Clarion’s impact, of the now shrill sounds of birds hunting and celebrating the rising day. Clarion steadied his own breathing as his dad loomed over him, a shadow of anxiety and tremors. He cleared his voice and tried again.
“I don’t know why other people can’t see them. I can, I—”
Clarion jumped as a wretched sob came out of nowhere and the next moment he was underwater, a tomb of rushing sounds and gray thick water bubbling around him. He paddled awkwardly up to the surface; he couldn’t swim very well. One thing he did know was that his feet didn’t touch the bottom.
“Dad, help me up. Please!”
All he heard was water trickling from his ears, his own splashing and the sound of someone crying deep, jagged sobs. And a whisper. “You’re too much like her.”
“Please, Dad! I can’t swim!” He splashed more and more frantically, struggling to keep his head above water. His heart was beating fast, his legs kicked furiously, but water still kept spilling into his mouth. The current was pulling at him, pushing him away from the boat. They were too far from shore. He couldn’t swim all the way in, even if he did manage to best the current. The only person who could get him out was his dad. And his dad was crying.
Clarion tried to fan his fingers and propel his arms, remembering to kick his legs, but he kept doing it wrong. Daniel had tried to teach him, but Daniel hadn’t been very good. Clarion didn’t want to die. Then he thought that maybe, just maybe, this could be a way he could follow the ghosts to where they lived. He forced his muscles to relax and kept his head above water. He let the current gently steer him into the dying night, and as it did, he thought about his mom, about his other ghosts. The stars were out again, the stars of the Milky Way, so many, just blinking and sparkling down on him. They filled his vision, he could float all day in this nasty water; the stars were his friends. A numbness crept upon him and he smiled. He had to relax. It was important.
“Take me to where people go when they die,” he whispered over and over, shivering, snot trickling over his face.
He could see nothing but the stars. Huge, white diamonds that almost had a texture if he could just concentrate enough. And then he realized he was floating in space. Not in water, but in outer space. A pool of black, a black so deep it could no longer be considered black. This black had the depth of eons of reflection. And in that black, Clarion drifted, like a fish, surrounded by stars that glittered coldly. He kicked his legs and he surged forward smoothly; it was the most natural thing in the world. He wasn’t cold, he wasn’t hot. A strange ringing echoed around him; he couldn’t hear his own breathing. He twirled in the void, and he laughed. Clarion was completely lost and confused, yet this didn’t scare him. He wasn’t drowning. Now he had to figure out where he was and if he was anywhere close to his destination.
He let the darkness and the starlight flow around him, a gentle cradle of universe debris carrying him forth.
“Take me to where people go when they die,” he said firmly, thinking of the ghost of his mom and all the ghosts he’d ever interacted with. A cold touch tugged at him, pulling gently on his arms and his legs, and he drifted forward. Still, expectant, he let it take him. It was hard to judge time in this place, wherever he was. He didn’t know if he had been dragged along for a few seconds, a few minutes, a few hours, or an eternity.
All at once, Clarion felt a minute vibration around him, an abnormality in the air. His eyes shone as in front of him, a diamond-shaped portal scintillated into existence, pulsing like a heart, a nebulous filigree of silver dancing around its edges. It thrummed and expanded, then shrank down again, still keeping its shape. At each point of the portal, skeins of some silver-white material knitted themselves together and materialized into a praying mantis. Clarion had seen many strange things, but this was something else. Four praying mantises appeared, one at each point of the diamond portal, the vibrant green of their bodies a shocking flash of color in the tenebrous night of the universe. Their mandibles twitched, and their forelegs worked furiously as they spun what seemed to be a web, connecting to the portal. Clarion felt this was right. This was the place he had to go to.
As he floated through the portal, blinding light coursed around him and through him. It felt like he was sinking into running velvet. It was warm and comforting, and he drifted along peacefully. Clarion pushed through, but then, all at once, he was projected backwards. When his eyes focused again, he saw the praying mantises regarding him with their neutral, abnormally clear eyes.
“You cannot enter,” a raspy voice echoed, grating against Clarion’s ears.
The mantises stopped looking at him, their forelegs not stopping their work.
“Only the dead are allowed to come through.”
“If the dead can come through to my world, I should be allowed to come to theirs too.”
One of the mantises pointed its middle legs at Clarion.
“It doesn’t work that way. The dead are allowed to come to your world, though it is not encouraged. But the laws are clear. A living being cannot enter this portal.”
“Oh yeah? What happens if someone living does enter?”
The mantises paused for a moment before resuming their weaving.
“That does not happen. It cannot happen because it is not possible.”
Clarion would have stamped his feet if he could have, but instead he floated upside down and crossed his arms.
“Then why was I able to enter the portal? Why was I kicked out?”
The annoying raspy voices were silent, and Clarion huffed.
“The boy is right. He was able to enter. We pushed him out. But he would have entered the portal otherwise.”
The mantises conferred amongst themselves, their forelegs twitching madly, heavier webs emerging from them.
“Are you sure you’re alive?”
“Yes. But I belong here,” he said quietly. “I can see ghosts; they come to me all the time. They find me, whether they’re ghosts from my town or across the globe. They talk to me. I have tried following them, but I couldn’t. I’m on the right path. This is it. I can sense them. Let me through.”
Clarion was sure, beyond a doubt, he would find his mom through the portal. He was also pretty sure he would find his other ghosts. Ghosts, he’d come to realize, had footprints. A particular scent, a particular whiff of memories, a pang of emotions that clung to them. He sensed that and more through the portal.
The mantises squeaked and stopped weaving their webs. Clarion couldn’t hear everything they said, only snippets.
“…Could he be…”
“Haven’t had one…”
“Help the situation…”
“…need a Ferryman…”
“…he the one?”
Clarion approached the portal in a few gliding moves. The mantises didn’t look up.
“Look, I’m right here. Let me through.”
One of the mantises pointed at him again. The others squeaked again and huddled in next to Clarion.
“The dead can come out, but the living cannot come in. This is how it has always been.”
One of the other mantises, its body mottling to a darker green, chittered, “But there might be one exception. A blessing for us if it is true. You might be the Ferryman we were promised, many galaxy births ago. What is your name?”
The mantises scratched their bodies, their weird, creepy legs bending in ways that made Clarion flinch.
“You seem to be the right one.”
“The laws are too specific,” said one mantis.
“Or too vague,” said another.
“While you figure it out, I’m going in,” Clarion announced.
He focused on the recognizable scent of his mom. A particular combination of pecan cookies, never-ending mirth, a sense of wonder so much more intense than his, and finally a dagger of regret, so strong it almost hurt him physically.
Clarion glided through the portal. Light coursed around him and embraced him almost like his mother did. A roaring filled his ears, then stopped just as suddenly as it had started. When Clarion was able to refocus, he smiled. The Plaza of the Dead was peaceful. Ghosts gamboled in a glade where lakes shone like polished topaz. Trees bowed dignified over valleys and prairies, and the sun shone valiantly, never obscured by any clouds. It was beautiful. No screaming, no tears. Clarion recognized a few of the ghosts here and there, and he waved at them. They waved back. He noticed tunnels full of muted light, arching away from the glade. He’d never seen so many ghosts in one place. The ghosts of a woman who’d died from scarlet fever, a young boy who’d died of polio, a man who’d died in his sleep, a girl who’d been run over by a car, twins who’d been strangled by their uncle, wandered about, avoiding other ghosts like there wasn’t a crowd.
The ghosts of schoolchildren played together, kicking a ball that vanished and reformed. Clarion saw old couples sleeping, young brothers snoozing, grownups with blank stares on their faces talking to themselves in murmurs he couldn’t hear. Clarion strained to hear them.
Clarion closed his eyes and soaked up the presence of the ghosts. A huge almost overwhelming swarm of emotions and memories rolled over him, but he pushed it away, snatching at a few here and there, trying to focus on one at a time. There. He felt sorrow from a man who’d died after hanging himself. He had lost everything but his wife over such a short time. Once, he had been full of smiles. Clarion detached his gaze and focused on another ghost. There, a little boy who wished he had never followed that strange man in the crowd. A love of dinosaurs, Oreo cookies, playing Scrabble with his mom, enveloped Clarion before terror wiped the rest away. Clarion hurriedly looked for another ghost. There, a woman who’d poisoned herself and her children because she didn’t want to keep being unhappy and could find no way out.
Clarion turned around and looked an old man’s ghost in the eye, one who’d died from partying too hard. Clarion smiled, the man’s presence infectious. He saw ghosts who stared down at the floor, and he focused on their thoughts. Their thoughts chased each other, round and round, suddenly stopping and snarling. Fear and confusion knotted Clarion’s stomach. From these ghosts he felt alienation, rage, profound jealousy so intense it took his breath away. Images started forming in his mind and he pushed them away. They made the knots in his stomach worse.
Daniel’s books were wrong. Death, the land of the dead, wasn’t anything like it was in those books. The good and the bad weren’t separated from each other. People didn’t get judged. There weren’t any adventures or trials the ghosts had to face. What were they doing here, though?
“You truly are the Ferryman,” said a voice, which Clarion recognized as one of the guardian praying mantises. He looked around, but saw no one besides the ghosts.
“What is a Ferryman?” Clarion asked out loud, embarrassed at having no idea what was going on. The ghosts looked up as one, and gazed expectantly at him.
“Someone who eases the transition between death and the next life. Ghosts here are awaiting their next vessel to be born in a new life.”
Clarion thought for a moment. “How do I help them out? I don’t know what to do.”
“You already have. What do the ghosts do when they come to you?”
“They talk to me. They tell me about their lives.” Clarion started as he saw his mom in his peripheral vision, waving at him, with tears streaming down her face, yet a smile beaming at him. She looked proud. Sad, but proud.
“Yes. The ghosts have to let go of their memories to be able to go into their next life. People can go insane if they don’t—the human species is quite susceptible to this.”
Clarion frowned. “I don’t understand. Why do they talk to me?”
“You are a part of this world and the world of the living. Only you have the power to absorb their memories, and so ease their passage into the next life. It is their payment to you for helping them transition. The laws explain this. It’s just we’ve never had a Ferryman before. We’ve been waiting a long time for you.”
“How did the ghosts manage before I was born?” Clarion asked. He understood a little, but he was confused too.
“They transitioned on their own, but the process was much slower. There would be backlogs in this world, of too many ghosts who couldn’t go on to the next life, or wouldn’t.”
It all started to make sense now. It was like a major traffic jam.
“So I’m the Ferryman.” He was starting to like his new title. “Do I have to sign anything?” He knew that’s what adults did when they wanted to make something official.
Clarion saw his mom approaching him, her arms out, beckoning him like she used to when they played hide-and-seek, when she was still alive. He could barely see her, but he sensed her more distinctly than ever.
“Every so often, when we have too many ghosts, we will ask you to come here, and spend time talking with each of them, relieving them of their memories.”
“What happens when all their memories are gone?” Clarion asked abruptly.
“I think you know,” the mantis said simply.
Clarion’s throat was clogged all of a sudden. A stinging sensation prickled at his eyes, but he forced the tears back. Maybe he did know. He looked fearfully at his mom, but she was still there. Only just. What was holding her back?
“Do you, Clarion, accept your duty as Ferryman?”
“Oh. Oh yes,” he replied, focusing. It would be a cool job. Certainly better than the jobs he’d heard about in school. He could be as weird as he liked, and help the dead as the Ferryman. That was a win-win.
Clarion sat down and put his knees up. He was starting to feel cold. The scenery around him started to fade.
“Clarion of the Dead, you are now officially the Ferryman of—”
But Clarion didn’t hear the last part.
“Clarion,” his father gasped, hauling him back in the boat. “I’m so sorry. So sorry!”
Clarion’s head lolled as he felt rough hands poking at him. His head swam and he was cold all over. All of his limbs ached. What had happened? Where was he? With effort, he saw the fishing tackle by his feet. The fishing poles were strewn in the boat like broken trucks. His dad hovered over him, his hair wild, his eyes wide and terrified.
“I was drowning,” Clarion trailed off.
His dad looked down.
“I pushed you out of the boat. I’m sorry. I’m a horrible person. A bad dad. If you want to call Child Services on me… I understand.”
Clarion looked at the beer bottles filling the boat’s hull. He stared back at his dad.
“You need to stop drinking. I can’t keep watching over you. I have too many people to watch over now.”
From the corner of his eye, Clarion saw a child’s ghost swimming in the bay, a boy, along with a girl. He focused. They had been brother and sister. They drowned when they snuck out in their parents’ boat and capsized.
His dad blushed and sat down awkwardly in the boat.
“I miss her so much. Your mom. The pain… I can’t deal with it. I want to join her. I don’t deserve to live.”
Clarion’s throat tightened. The pain in his dad’s voice. It rivaled the pain of some ghosts he’d talked to who had had horrible lives.
Clarion gasped as he saw his mom, standing in the boat with them, watching his dad tenderly, a miniscule sigh escaping her.
“Dad. Mom is still here. She is here right now.”
“Clarion, come on,” his dad said weakly.
His mom sat down next to Clarion and brushed her hands through his hair. Clarion felt her faint touch and he leaned into it. He got a sense of urgency, that feeling he got from people when they talked fast to him, even as they jogged away.
“I know you can’t see her. But I can. She… she needs to go.”
Clarion’s mom nodded her head approvingly.
“You are holding her back, Buckaroo Billy,” Clarion said plaintively.
His dad’s eyes widened.
“H-h-how do you know that?”
Clarion’s mom had told him a while ago the pet nickname she’d given his dad. Clarion knew his dad had never shared that with him.
His mom stood up and paced in the boat, her form passing through his dad’s. He shivered and looked around longingly, a frown on his face.
“Mom,” Clarion said, his voice cracking. “What is holding you back? I know you’re here for a reason.”
She paused and crossed her arms.
“I can’t leave until your dad promises to take care of you. To live, to be the man I fell in love with. Kind, funny, distracted. Not a man who drowns his own child,” she finished, glowering at his dad.
Clarion was about to transmit the message to his dad, but his mom continued.
“Ask him, Clarion. Or I can’t give my memory to you. I can’t move on.”
“What memory is that?” Clarion asked.
“My death,” she said.
“Dad, the Plaza of the Dead is real. I have a job there now. You have to live. I miss Mom too. She won’t stay here forever.” The tears came again, and this time, he didn’t wipe them away. “I will miss you if you go too. Please stay. Forgive yourself. Mom isn’t unhappy about dying. She’s unhappy you almost drowned me. You’re a better guy than that.”
His dad breathed deeply and started crying again, his hands shaking. “Oh my god. Oh my god. I almost killed you. She is right. Oh my god. Oh my god. I suck.”
“You don’t suck!” Clarion roared. “But you will suck if you keep treating me like that. If you keep drinking. If you let death get you before your time.”
His mom gave him a thumbs-up, and whispered, “Go, Clarion.”
Clarion, surprised at himself, stilled his voice. He sighed. He continued more softly.
“Live, Dad. Stop drinking. For me. For Mom. Trust me. Please?”
His dad looked at him and swallowed hard. The desire for death was still there, buried deep in the pain. But Clarion saw something else. A will to keep going on. A stubbornness that had been for too long repressed.
“I will, Clarion.”
Clarion nodded. He could see just faintly the outline of his mom’s ghost.
“Clarion, I have to tell you how I died. Now that you have your father’s version. Let me give you mine.
“I knew the car needed to be brought in. But I kept forgetting. Your dad had a lot on his mind with work. I wanted to get you guys moon pies and angel food cake for a little party I was preparing. I was driving, and then I was dead. I never saw it coming. I didn’t even feel pain. Death was… easy. I could have moved on. But I wanted to keep seeing you. Your father. The way your father fell apart… That hurt. That hurt more than death ever did.” She bit her lip.
Clarion gazed at his dad, who stared at him, with fear and awe on his face. Clarion cleared his throat.
“Mom says death was easy. What you did afterwards was hard for her. You must keep your promise. Or I will stay in the Plaza of the Dead, Dad. It’s a cool place. Living with you sometimes sucks really bad.”
“Clarion… I don’t want to lose you too. I will take care of you.”
Clarion’s mom smiled wide. She got up and cracked her knuckles, although Clarion heard nothing. She held out her hand. “I want to go now,” she said eagerly.
He took her hand. He knew, instinctively, it was for him to lead. He looked at the sky, with its infinite stars. So clear, so bright, so inviting. He stepped out of the boat and so did she. Their feet didn’t break the water. He walked with her, out across the bay, focusing hard on the Plaza of the Dead, letting the stars fill his vision. A dull roaring and white light flickered around them.
“I love you,” he said, voice tight.
“Why thank you!” she said, laughing.
And he knew she didn’t recognize him at all. And that was okay.
“Go, you can go,” he said as a foggy tunnel materialized in front of them. There was water here too, but their footsteps didn’t mark the waves. She walked away from him, her form vanishing completely, just a faint hint of pecan cookies, never-ending mirth, a delightful sense of wonder trailing behind her. No regret, no pain.
Clarion walked backwards and eventually found himself back in the boat with his dad. He threw himself at his dad, and they both did what they should have done a long time ago. They cried together long and deep as the dawn broke over them, lighting the boat with a gentle touch of coral and apricot. While they cried, the ghosts of the boy and the girl splashed around and laughed, edging their way towards Clarion to talk to him.
French-Venezuelan Sophie Jupillat Posey pursued her love for writing and music at an early age: at the age of eight, she wrote her first poem and she has been writing poems, novellas, novels and plays ever since. She enjoys innovating her art and seeking inspiration from the richly eclectic world around her. She studied writing and music at Rollins College. Sophie’s short stories and poetry have been featured in magazines such as The Halcyon, Festival Writer, Art Saves Lives International, Masque and Spectacle, Perspectives, Long Island Literary Journal and the Mulberry Fork Review. When she isn’t writing or composing music, she teaches French at United Cerebral Palsy in Central Florida.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Clarion of the Dead”:
We loved this heartwarming variation on those who can talk to ghosts. The theme is one we’ve seen before, but author Sophie Jupillat Posey added just the right sensual touches to take us to a new place with it.
We especially loved the opening with Clarion’s homemade bus tickets to an unusual destination that catches the reader’s attention immediately. We believe that’s an very important element to any story’s opening.