January 25, 2006
By Remy Chartier
It was only a dream; it was always only a taunting dream. For five long years, the dream, or one like it never ceased to haunt the old man.
Wrapped in only a sheet and a thin blanket on a dry and sweltering evening in July, Jacob Burnside nonetheless shivered internally, but remained ever motionless, for it was not yet time for him to tangle himself in the bedclothes. A thin line of drool wandered amiably from the corner of Jacob's drooping mouth, seeking the soft seclusion of his dampened pillow. Five years ago, Jacob would have never drooled; would, in fact, have been appalled and offended if anyone had ever said he was capable of such a disgusting action. These days, when he woke up after a long night of dreaming, he wouldn't care; Jacob never cared that the bedclothes stank of sweat, so what was one damp pillow to him?
Six silver wind-up alarm clocks rested around Jacob's master bedroom: two on each small bed-side table that stood on either side of the head of the ancient queen-sized four poster bed, and two at ease on the hand-made wooden dresser that stood against the wall at the opposite end of the room. Each of them red the same time: 4:35.
In the bed, Jacob began to moan softly, and garbled words flowed over his damp gums and escaped through his loose lips. A single tear squirmed out from beneath one of his half-closed eyelids and crawled down his temple like a maggot over the face of a corpse. The little pregnant drop settled onto the pillow where it burst.
Deep within his dream world, the bedroom was dimly lit by a strand of twilight that crept in through the corner of a heavy black drape covering the single window above the dresser. Allowing too much light to creep in would have made her pain unbearable, but this small amount was fine, even welcomed by the room's other inhabitant. In the dream, Jacob looked over at the figure huddled in a Lazy-boy rocking chair which was covered with red velvet. From where he sat on the edge of the bed, he couldn't quite see her features, but it never mattered to him. For fifty-six years he had gazed into her lovely eyes, had embraced her, and cherished her. He knew every inch of her, and she knew him just as well. Changed though she was, his beloved Arlene was everything to him. The difference in appearance, the sudden intolerance of the light, the clench of his stomach whenever he let his mind focus on each shuttering breath that escaped her strained lungs; all of it made him love her more. When, in the dream, she spoke to him, her ragged words seemed to come not from her, but from the air in her general direction.
"I'm ok, Darling. Please go water the flowers before it gets dark."
In the dream, just as on that fateful night, Jacob stood up and slowly crossed the room to her. The closer he came, the more pronounced her strangled breathing became until it drilled into his brain. He knew the doctors had done all they could to free her from this retched illness, but in the end they had failed her. They had sent her home to live out her last days in darkness. Never again could she work in the garden; never again could she be bathed in sunlight without suffering intolerable pain. He knew how hard it was for her to hold on to herself; he knew that she was doing it for him alone, for she was ready to leave this world for the next. Jacob knew he would see her there of course, for they both had a strong faith in the lord and had done their very best to live provident lives, but he knew she saw the truth; he needed her still.
When he reached her, Jacob kneeled before her and took her hands in his. Despite the sickness, her hands were as they had always been: warm, and soft; slender but strong. The calluses that came from toiling in the garden and around the house had softened throughout her last days of idleness. When she squeezed him her grip was fleeting and Jacob's throat tightened. "Is there anything I can get you, dear?"
"Water, please," she replied.
He stood up and leaned towards her. She had once had a kind face, even if age had left her slightly wrinkled. Now however, one side of it had become something else. A large bulge stretched her skin from the side of her neck to the top of her pallid head. Once, her hair had been a radiant blonde, and not long ago, a pure snow white. Now, nothing remained; the treatments had seen to that. He kissed the middle of her forehead, but she winced and looked up at him. The skin around her eyes looked puffy and swollen, but was, in fact being forced outward by the expanding tumor. It forced her eyes to bulge from their sockets.
"It's just another headache," she said. She forced a smile which presented itself as a sneer, as though the malicious parasite in her head was taking great pleasure in orchestrating her slow and painful death. Her face was only inches from his, and the scent of what was growing within her reached his nose. Jacob was reminded of a time many years ago when they had been looking after the house of a neighbor. Their neighbors – the Pattersons he was pretty sure – had had a big stainless steel fridge. They had been gone for two weeks, and when they came back, Arthur Patterson had opened his fridge, intent on cracking open Sunday beers for himself and Jacob. The smell that drifted out of that fridge was similar to Arlene's breath. When Jacob had looked inside, he had seen a fridge full of decomposing vegetables – the Pattersons had been vegetarians. Jacob had made some comment about the Jolly Green Giant's armpits after a game of giant football, and the two had laughed. Jacob saw no more humor in that smell now.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to hurt you," Jacob said. He wanted to hug her, to comfort her, but he was afraid to hurt her anymore.
"It's not your fault, Jake."
He left the room then and moved into the kitchen. The light was off and there was no window. They had lived here for twenty years however, and Jacob had no problem finding his way.
The dream always ended the same way. Jacob brought the half-filled glass of water into the bedroom. Arlene still sat in her rocking chair, but she was wheezing and gasping. When he crossed the room to her side, still holding the glass, he saw she had a hand on her bulging neck.
"Oh God, Arlene!" he breathed. "What's wrong? She didn't answer, but she didn't have to. This had happened before, and it always passed; she could always get control of it. He could do nothing to help, but it was torture to kneel beside her and wait.
This time, it did not pass. Arlene's airway had grown steadily more constricted in the last two years. Doctors said one day it would be completely blocked. They couldn't do anything. Each time they tried removing a section of the spreading malignancy, it just grew back. Now it was too late. Arlene was dying in front of his eyes, now in the dream as she had five years ago. Each breath was nearly impossible. Somehow, she looked up at him, and there was desperation in her bulbous eyes that he'd never seen before. She reached towards him; the glass fell from his hand and shattered on the hard wood floor. Cold water splashed over his bare feet. Always before, the sensation woke him, mercifully sparing him from what came next, but this time he did not wake up. This time, he felt the liquid splash over him; felt his hand being guided by Arlene's. HE shifted his feet, and when the large chunk of broken glass slid into the ball of his right foot, he didn't even notice. Instead, there was only the cool sensation of water on his feet, and the feel of warm skin as his fingers brushed her neck. His fingers clenched, and then his other hand was there, lending aid. Then he was squeezing with all his strength. He applied as much pressure as he could to her windpipe. This was only a dream! It was only a memory! But the sensation of something either shifting or giving way in her throat when he pressed was as real now as it was five years ago.
It was mercifully quick. Her throat seemed to ripple, but then her strangled breathing ceased. Her lifeless body seemed to shrink into the chair as the life left it. Jacob tried to lift her. As he put his weight down on his injured foot, the glass pressed deeper into his flesh. He clenched his teeth and sucked in a gasp as the sudden pain shot through his foot. He nearly dropped Arlene's body, but he gritted his teeth and held on. He shifted his weight off the ball of his foot and onto the flat of it and lifted her into his arms. His limbs cried out in protest as he struggled with her dead weight, but he managed to take a few steps across the room to the bed and lay her clumsily on the sheet. Her teeth were bared in a silent death grin, as though the hateful thing was rejoicing at last for having claimed its victim. Jacob couldn't bring himself to look into her eyes.
Jacob sat beside Arlene and held her hand. In the dream, just like five years ago, he felt as though he were sinking slowly through the floor. His face felt hot and his heart had not strained so hard in many years. The pain in his foot had become a dull throbbing that he was only vaguely aware of. He didn't even notice the blood that was pooling on the floor, or the little trail that led from the chair to the bed. On a subconscious level, he knew that when he finally got around to pulling the chunk of glass out of his foot, the pain would probably clear his head, but he didn't care.
Arlene's hand was cold and slick with his sweat. He remembered a time when they were still courting when they had gone skinny-dipping in a lake. It had been so wonderful to swim with her, to see her in all her beauty which was pure and unadulterated. He had wanted her then and there, but they both knew it wasn't the right time. When she had risen out of the water, her hands had been cold and wet, just like this night. With that recollection came the first pang of loss. He was no longer drifting slowly through the floor; he was plummeting a thousand miles. "Down to Hell!" he thought incoherently. "I'm going to hell … I'm going to hell … I'm going to –"
Suddenly, he froze, not sure if reality and imagination were conspiring against him. Had Arlene's grip not tightened? Had her hand suddenly grown less limp? Astounded, Jacob looked at her face, and into her eyes.
There was nothing in them. They stared strait at the ceiling; stared through the ceiling, into a world far beyond. There was none of Arlene in them anymore. Now her eyes looked as they would have to a stranger, hideous. It was as though the tumor had claimed her body as its own after it had killed her.
Jacob winced as a small voice spoke somewhere in the back of his mind. "The tumor didn't kill her, you did!"
Jacob's head snapped back as if he'd been slapped. He dropped the lifeless hand and gazed down in horror at the empty husk on the bed. "You were supposed to take care of her! Now she's dead because of you!"
"I didn't," he insisted aloud to the empty room. "She wanted it, she didn't want to suffer anymore." But how did he really know that? Perhaps Arlene had placed his hand on her neck because it was comforting; perhaps that was all she'd wanted.
"Oh yes, you provided comfort. Her comfort is eternal, while you have her blood on your once-righteous hands!"
Jacob began to sob bitterly. Even in the dream, the sound was terrifying to hear. She had reached for his hand, and he had responded, not with comfort, but with violent resolve. "She's free now," the little voice sounded gleeful; gleeful, or insane. "You murdered her, but she's free now. Oh yes, free as a bird. But you, Jakey, you played God. She's free, but you're nothing but a scared little sinner! Thou shalt not kill, Jakey, thou shalt not kill!" The voice began to chant like a mocking child who was just fast enough, or high enough to not be reached by seeking hands. "Killer killer killer, killer killer killer. That's what little Jakey is, Killer killer killer." Its voice rose several octaves until it was a high pitched screech, and it began to let out faint slow chuckles.
Jacob jerked awake, shuttering violently. The squeaking laughter pursued him, and did not faint as sounds from most dreams do. Five years of repression and self-justification ignited and disintegrated with the bitter cry that escaped his throat. Guttural and full of grief, it was not the cry of indignation, but of bitter sorrow. His love was dead, and he had dealt the fatal blow. In the eyes of God, he was a murderer, and while Arlene enjoyed the beauties of heaven, he was bound for a more fitting eternity.
Between strangled sobs he cried out, "I'm sorry! Oh god, I'm so sorry! Please bring her back to me! I don't understand why I did it! I thought it was what she wanted! I'm so sorry!"
He was answered only by that faint high chuckle, and suddenly he understood what it was. It was not the voice from his dream; it was the rhythmic song of hundreds of tiny crickets chirping the night away. The realization did nothing to comfort him. Either God was not listening or he didn't care, Jacob thought, and his remorse deepened into regret. He begged for forgiveness, shouting at the top of his lungs; screaming at the heavens for what seemed like hours. He began to thrash about in the bed and suddenly he was looking towards the open window. After Arlene had died, he had removed the heavy curtain, for the light was the only thing that comforted him. That had been wrong of him, he realized. It had been an insult to Arlene's last days. Someone was there now, sitting in the same rocking chair that had stood there since the day Arlene had passed away. He remembered moving Arlene's cosmetic table into the living room and replacing it with their large lazy-boy after the doctors had sent Arlene home to die. He hadn't bothered to move it back into the living room. The figure sitting in it now was only a vague outline in the slightest morning light that came in off the horizon. Of course, there was really nobody there. The days spent watching the outline of a shape in that rocking chair had burned a mental picture into his mind. He squeezed his eyes shut to clear his blurred vision.
When Jacob opened his eyes again, he looked determinedly at the rocking chair. The shadowy form was still sitting there, and this time he saw movement: the raising of a hand, the shift in posture, the head turning.
"Who-who's there?" he whispered. Twenty years of living in Walhachin and he had never so much as seen a prowler. He never even locked his door at night.
When the figure did not respond, he asked again in a stronger voice: "Who are you?"
He reached for one of the bedside lamps, knocking over one of the alarm clocks that clattered musically to the floor. At the same instant the figure stood up, Jacob turned on the lamp. There was a bright flash, and in that split second of light before a dead bulb burns out, he saw the face clearly. It was Arlene, and she was crossing the room towards the bed. Then he was in darkness once more. He reached for the twin lamp on the opposite side of the bed and flicked it on. There was another bright flash. She was closer now, taking a step even as the light winked out.
Jacob couldn't see! Fuzzy orange and white particles danced in front of his eyes; the brief light having burned into his retinas. He could sense something moving nearby. He struggled to sit up. He was tangled in the sheet, the blanket having been pushed off sometime during the night. Something brushed against his face and he tried to pull away. Then a hand rested gently on his shoulder. He started to pull away further, but then stopped. A tingling sensation flowed through his arm and then through his entire body. It was a comforting feeling, not unlike the sensation that flowed through him when he felt the Holy Ghost placing its soothing hands on him. He was still filled with despair, but the bitterness was slowly leaving him and his eyes had cleared.
There was movement above him then. He became aware of someone standing over him. Cautiously, he gazed up, and realized that the silhouette bending over him had gained distinct features. Through the dim morning light, he could make out the curves of hip and chest, the tracings of shoulder and neck, and a trailing of light-coloured hair that drifted mid-length down the rest of the feminine body. Then he saw the face clearly for the first time. Her skin was smooth, without the slightest signs of wrinkling. There was not yet enough light to see the colour of her eyes, but Jacob knew they would be green. It was Arleen ...and yet it was not. Arlene had always been beautiful, but this creature standing before him was somehow more than just beautiful. She looked as Arlene had in her prime, before age and cancer had taken their toll, and yet, even that was not quite right. Arlene seemed to have been perfected beyond her prime. Her face seemed to have grown brighter, livelier than ever before. Her skin was pinker, her hair not merely blonde, but golden.
"Arlene?" he did not expect a response. Arlene couldn't be here; she was dead. Jacob had dug her grave with his own hands the night she died. "The night you killed her," the chattering inner voice from his dream suddenly corrected. He tried to ignore it, but it persisted. "Think you crushed something in her fragile little neck." He squeezed his eyes shut and forced the rest of the memory into his mind. He recalled how heavy she had felt as he lowered her into the wooden coffin they had designed for just that purpose, back when they learned she had little time. Arlene told him how she wanted to be buried in something he had crafted with his own hands.
"My body will be able to rest with a part of you," she had told him. They both knew the truth; that her spirit would not stay with her body, but they both knew when the time of the resurrection of all the dead came, her spirit would be returned, and her body perfected. Thus, this couldn't be Arlene, Nobody was truly there at all, and he was simply imagining it.
When the figure standing over him did not answer, Jacob wasn't surprised. He knew it was all a graphic hallucination. So then why could he feel her hand on his shoulder? Why did he feel so peaceful?
He began to reach out, to see if she was in fact real, but as he moved, so did she. The comforting touch left his shoulder, and Arlene – or whatever resembled Arlene – stood up strait. It did not vanish, but crossed the room without making a sound. It stopped at the open door to his bedroom.
"That's not Arlene," that childish voice persisted. "Arlene's dead. She's all gone now Jakey, all gone, just like your righteousness."
Jacob felt his chest tighten. "What are you?" he inquired. "You're not Arlene, are you? You can't be."
It raised one supple hand, palm up, and beckoned to him. He thought he saw it nod once, and then it beckoned towards the door.
"Hey, answer me! – Oh what am I doing? You're not really there." He squeezed his eyes shut and Dug his fingers into them. This could not be real! "Tear out your eyes!" flooded his mind, but the pain shot through his head; it sobered him.
He untangled himself from the bed and sat up. He looked at the door to his room. The Arlene thing was still standing there, watching him with its unnatural beauty. It took a step towards him, then another. It raised one hand to its lips and then held the hand out to him; its lips were pursed. Then it turned away, and walked through the open door. It looked back once and again beckoned to him. Then it moved out of sight.
"Wait!" he leapt to his feet and groaned as his stiff limbs collapsed beneath him. He sank to his knees as twin bolts of pain sizzled through his legs and up his back. He tried to rise, but his muscles twitched spasmodically. Getting himself into a sitting position proved more difficult than he'd expected, but he made it, and began to massage his calves where what little muscle he still had was clenched, rock hard, against his skin. He was aware of something else then, an itching sensation in his right foot. It was the ghost of the cut he had gotten five years ago. He still had a scar, but it hadn't bothered him in a long time. He sensed movement and looked up to see the Arlene thing standing over him. It put a hand on his shoulder, and again, he felt that comforting tingling sensation flow through him. Suddenly his muscles loosened and the pain ebbed slowly away.
"What are you?" Wonder entered his voice and he tried to look directly into the Arlene-thing's eyes. It was too dark for him to see them, but he saw its lips move. He heard a voice then, and his skin broke out in gooseflesh.
"Come, Jake." The command was firm, but not harsh. He felt himself standing up. His legs still ached, but he could remain on his feet easily now. "Come, Jake." This time, there was no mistaking the voice, though he hadn't heard it sound that sweet in many years. It was Arlene's voice as it had sounded over thirty years ago.
"Arlene?" She turned from him then, and walked towards the door once again. He took a few steps forward.
"Come," he heard her say again. He took a few more steps, and then looked back. His eyes wandered across a picture that hung on the wall above the bed. It had been taken almost ten years ago. It was a wide shot of their bed and two adjacent nightstands. In it, He and Arlene were sitting up in bed in their pajamas; her, in a yellow night dress, and him, in a blue pair of long johns. They were both smiling at the camera with broad smiles. On either side of the bed, four out of the six alarm clocks stood like tiny guardians. Each Face showed a different time: 3:30, 4:45, 5:15 and 6:45. He and Arlene had cared little for time throughout most of their days of marriage. It was there belief that their time together should not be measured. Only when it was absolutely necessary would either of them check the real time. Ever since Arlene's death, however, Jacob had kept each clock in the house synchronized; each hour would bring him closer to his reunion with her.
"Except you'll never see her again," The little voice reminded him. "You're a killer!"
As if in answer, Arlene spoke from the doorway. "Come."
"Yes, Jakey, come. Come home. Come to hell."
"Get out of my mind, you're not real!" Jacob screamed. He looked towards the door. Arlene was gone.
"You're not real!" the voice mocked. "I'm real, Jakey, I'm in your head. You made me. I'm your sin.
You're the Devil!" Jacob screamed. He took three quick steps towards the door.
"You're a killer! You're going to Hell. You're a disgrace. You're hateful. You killed your wife!"
Jacob put his hands over his ears and crossed the threshold into the hallway. The faint light of early morning illuminated the hall in soft gray light and he was just in time to see Arlene turning the corner into the living room.
"Can't shut me out, Jakey," the voice chided. "You can't undo, can't make her boo boo all better. You were supposed to take care of her. You're –"
"Not real! Not real!" Jacob shouted, pressing the palms of his hands further against his ears until they began to hurt. "You're not real! You're in my mind!" He ran through the living room. Arlene was disappearing out the front door. "I loved her. I wanted her to find peace! I was wrong!" He chased after her. He dashed through the front door. She suddenly seemed to be moving very fast, and he began to run. His legs protested, but he didn't feel the pain. He ran faster than he had in over ten years.
He ran outside and onto a concrete porch. A raised cement block on which rested a box of dead flowers blurred and then shot past him. "They're daisies!" he shouted defiantly. "Arlene loved Daisies!" He was throwing open the peeling brown gate and stepping onto the gravel driveway before he knew it.
"You're weak!" The voice said, and it sounded angry now. "You've always been weak! Then, now and forever! You are pitiful. She wanted your love and you killed her!"
"Laa, la la la la la. Not real! All in my head. God, I'm sorry, I loved her, I'm sorry." He was running down the road now. He didn't feel the small pebbles that cut his bare feet. One particularly sharp stone sank into his right foot, right beside the healed wound from five years ago. Blood began to dot the gravel behind him as he ran.
"It's too late, Jakey!" The inner voice was screaming louder now. He was sure he could feel something crawling inside his head. "It's Arlene's tumor," he thought incoherently. "You can never repent; you've repressed it too long. You are damned! You're going to suffer an eternity! Your punishment will be unimaginable!"
Arlene was on the train tracks that cut through Walhachin like a metal wound. Before Jacob knew what was happening, she had stopped and turned, looking at him. He realized, too late, that he couldn't stop in time.
"Going to hell, going to hell," the voice sang as he tried to slow. "Going to hell, going to –"
Jacob started to scream, but a fraction of a second later, he collided with Arlene with such force that his teeth snapped together with an audible click. He tasted something sweet and coppery, like old pennies in his mouth. "Oh god, I bit my tongue off," he couldn't help thinking, and for one wild moment, he felt like laughing. Then the voice, sounding alarmed and scared now squealed at him in its child's voice: "Get away from her! She's the Devil, the Devil, The dev –"
An arm went around his shoulders, and then another encircled his waist. The voice was cut off in mid squeal, and that tingling flowed through him for one final time. An earthquake was occurring in his chest, but such a profound calm flowed through him that he never noticed. He felt only peace now. He could feel the shape of Arlene's body against him as she held him close. He remembered it very well. Arlene had had a little round belly, and a set of full breasts that had never quite lost their perk entirely with age. The arms that encircled him were not sticks, but were by no means flabby either. She had always smelled clean, and sometimes she'd warn a fruit-scented perfume. As she held him now, Jacob sniffed. The pleasant scent of strawberries flooded his nostrils.
It was suddenly twenty-five years ago, and he and Arlene had just moved here from Abbotsford. They were in their mid forties, and were tired of the big city. They were embracing on these tracks. They had been walking past them when Arlene had suddenly said: "You know what would really be wild?"
"What's that, sweetheart," he'd said.
"You remember our first date? We were lying on some old train tracks near my house, just holding hands and looking up at the stars. I said I wanted to see how far away a train could be before we felt the rumble under our heads. You said that was dangerous, and I called you a chicken."
"He'd looked at her and smiled. "I don't think too many trains come along these tracks at this time of year. It's the middle of December."
She had kissed him softly on the corner of the mouth. "I know that, but it would be fun to do it anyway, just for old time's sake. We haven't lived near train tracks in a long time.
He had agreed, and now, here he was, holding her on the train tracks. She let him go, but took hold of his hand. "Come on, Jake," she said sweetly.
He squatted down, and suddenly Arlene was no longer holding his hand. She stood over him, and he could see her smiling. He sank back onto the tracks, lying lengthwise in the hollow between the metal outer rail and middle wooden bar which separated one track from the other.
"Come on sweetheart," he heard himself mutter in a weak, frail voice. She only stood there, looking down at him. Her lips parted and her smile widened. For one wild moment, he thought it had become a grin. "The Devil," He thought, and for a second he actually saw large, bat-like wings spread out from her shoulders. Then the image vanished, and it was only Arlene standing there, looking beautiful, and hopeful. It was then that Jacob heard it.
It started out as a small vibration in his brain. He'd only ever felt it once before, back when he was nineteen, on that vary first real date with Arlene. They had both stood up a few seconds later, but he'd never quite forgotten how the first faint rumble had seemed to make his brain tingle. Then it had spread to his head, and he and Arlene had stood up and scrambled off the tracks. It took about three minutes for the train to lumber over where they had been lying.
Now, here was that same tingle in his brain, but there was something wrong. There had never been a train on the night they'd lain on these tracks.
"This is how it ends, Jakey," the voice said. There was something in the voice, it sounded like triumph. "She tricked you."
"No," he managed to breathe. He became aware suddenly of how heavy his body felt. The rumble was now growing louder and was causing his head to vibrate.
"And what is this," the voice inquired. "Is that a pain in your chest? Aww, guess you shouldn't have run so hard."
He could feel the tightening in his chest. There was pain too. It was dull it first, spreading from his chest down his left arm. With each frantic heartbeat, the pain grew, and now he could hear as well as feel the approaching train. A mournful cry escaped into the morning air. It was the familiar sound of a train whistle. The sound had always sent shivers through his body. He had woken up countless nights, lying beside Arlene and listening to that horrible sound.
Jacob tried to sit up, and couldn't. Numbness was spreading through his body. The pain was intensifying, and now he was finding it hard to breathe.
"Going to suffocate, Jakey. Going to suffocate, or be run over by a big old choo choo train."
"Not really happening," he managed to say. He struggled to look at Arlene. Arlene was gone.
"Ah," he managed to mumble, but then his chest seemed to explode. He screamed hoarsely. Then he was struggling to draw in breath after shuttering breath. The tracks were shaking all around him. Pin-pricks of white light danced in front of his eyes, and the rumbling grew.
The last thing Jacob heard before his heart ceased to beat was Arlene's soft voice whispering his name. The sound spiraled down with him as his consciousness blinked out of this world. "Jaaaaaaake"
The remains of Jacob Burnside were found three days later by a young couple. Their names were Richard and Cynthia. They had come to Walhachin to visit Richard's grandparents. After a particularly large breakfast – Richard's grandmother always made the most wonderful breakfasts – they decided to go for a walk. They had gotten only as far as the old train tracks. Richard was looking sideways at Cynthia, dreamily studying the way the sun shown on her long-black hair, when Cynthia suddenly gasped and pointed at something.
"Oh my god," she breathed.
Richard snapped his head around and gazed at what was sprawled on the tracks. His mouth snapped open, but no sound came out.
"Oh my God," Cynthia said again. "I think he's dead."
Richard ran forward suddenly and knelled beside the body.
"Jesus!" he exclaimed, His voice cracked on the second syllable "Jacob?"
Richard looked closer. He was sure it was Jacob Burnside, but for a moment his brain couldn't make sense of what his eyes were seeing. Then something clicked into place, and he drew back awquordly on his knees. Jacob's eyes were roughly the size of loonies. Something moved on one of the corneas; Richard thought it might be a fly, but it might have only been dust. Jacob's mouth was open in a soundless shout, and his bloated tongue lolled out. The tip of it was missing. Richard couldn't think of what word best described the expression on Jacob's face, but Cynthia made it easy for him.
"Christ! He looks terrified!"
"I knew him," Jacob stated. He seemed captivated by the scene, Cynthia thought. "He used to live here with his wife. I used to have lunch with them sometimes. Me, and Grandpa and Grandma. But then his wife got sick, and not long after that, she was dead. Grandpa said he was never quite the same after that. He said Jacob dug his wife's grave with his own hands and buried her in the back yard."
A little shiver made Cynthia's skin prickle. "With his own hands," she said wonderingly. "Wow."
I've hardly seen him in the last five years. I usually come up to visit Grandpa and Grandma at least once a year, and I've hardly even spoken to him. He always looked so sad whenever I did, but he sent me away whenever I tried to talk to him. "Not right now, Richey", he used to say. Grandpa thinks his wife's death made him go crazy. He said that the two of them were inseparable. They had a lot of clocks in their house, and almost all of them were set at different times. Then when his wife died, Grandpa told me Jacob started making sure they were all set to the right time, as if he were counting the hours since she died or something."
Cynthia shuddered again. "That's really creepy, and sad. What happened to his wife?"
Richard considered the question for a moment, gazing down at the exposed corpse of the man he'd known for almost all his life. Today was another scorcher, and he knew enough about biology to know that a dead body didn't last long in the sun. He wondered how long Jacob had been here.
Finally Richard turned away and looked gravely at Cynthia. "Arlene – that's his wife – had a brain tumor, and almost everyone thinks that was what killed her in the end."
"Grandpa thinks Jacob killed her. He thinks that's what made him crazy. He said he used to see Jacob sitting beside Arlene's grave sometimes. He said that Jacob was always crying, and muttering. One time he went over to see if everything was alright, and if looks and shouts could have killed, Grandpa said, he'd have been struck dead."
"That's horrible! Did he really kill his own wife?"
"I don't know. I guess it's possible. She was pretty sick, maybe he didn't want her to suffer."
"I guess… Rich, let's get out of here, okay? Seeing him lying like that, it gives me the creeps."
"Alright, sweetie. We'd better tell someone though."
He put an arm around her waist and they began walking. Richard looked back once, not quite sure how he should be feeling. Cynthia was right, Jacob looked terrified. "If there's an afterlife," he thought, "I hope you're in a better place now."
No official report was ever made, but everyone in town agreed that Jacob had died of a heart attack. Except for Jacob and Arlene's immediate family, no one came to morn. When his children searched the house, they found that the chair in which their grandmother had spent her final days was still in the bedroom, and that every one of the many clocks in the house was both set to the same time, and broken. The analog clocks with their moving parts would still wind, but would no longer move their hands. The one digital clock on the microwave could be set, but would keep resetting to 12:00 AM.
The story was soon circulating around the small town that Jacob Burnside had felt the attack coming and had returned to the place where he and his wife had their first "date" in a new town. He and Arlene were remembered fondly as a quiet, loving and friendly couple. Talk of Jacob's period of craziness was never mentioned, even in whispered conversation, but nobody who knew him ever forgot it.
At the time of Jacob's death, there were no trains running through Walhachin due to some repairs that needed to be made to the tracks a mile away. The missing peace of Jacob's tongue was never found.