When I was twelve, I killed a boy. We were on the fifth floor and messing around on the benches by the window. It could have been me that fell, just one of those things. It was ruled an accident, no charges were brought, but the Fates had a punishment for me. I grew up with his ghost. I watched the changes in his body and face as we struggled through puberty together. He was there on the playing fields and the park where we drank 20/20 and watched horrible videos on our smartphones. We sat exams together. When I went to the end of year prom in the airport Hilton, this dead boy was there, in a suit and with a ghost-girlfriend from the other side, pale and radiant from the grave.
Eighteen now, and off to college. A dead boy who was now a dead man had the halls room next to mine. Every bar and house party and club night, he’d be there dancing alongside me. We graduated together. I went to train at Elemental Law, and would see him standing in the aisle of the bus, suited and booted on his way to his first job at Fundamental across the street. Sometimes I wouldn’t see this ghost for weeks or months. Then I’d run into the dead man at a corner table reading a book by some dead writer, walking the pavement across from mine in some forgotten part of town. Our lives could not diverge too far. I tried changing cities but I got this awful umbilical pain at the base of my stomach that no doctor could pin down to any diagnosis or treatment. And the grey blossoms of the grave began to show on my face.
Weeks became months became years. Outdoor raves and house parties became barbecues and gatherings and golf on a Sunday. I stopped worrying about money. I got married. I bought a house in the suburbs. The house across from us went up for sale, and a ghost-couple moved in. My wife gave birth. Her labour was not difficult, but she reported to me that she felt a cold whispering presence in the empty bed next to hers, and caught something of the solidarity of women in pain. Sure enough, over the next few years my kids were playing with ghost-children in the local park. I had a dog and he had a cat, a skeleton-cat that gambolled around in the road and had a purr like a goddamned chainsaw.
Time caught us in different ways. The boy I killed lost most of his hair, while I had to give up smoking after a cancer scare and then ate so much I became fat and slow for the first time. Years became decades. Children became grandchildren. Across the street, the ghosts of the children of the boy I killed became men and went out into the world, worked, studied, partied, travelled just as he and I had. We would have these big family gatherings and I could always hear, from the house across the street, the click and rattle of his Saturday congress. The world began to change in ways I didn’t understand.
We retired together, and one afternoon in the pub twenty years later I ended up drinking at the bar with him. I took a swig of my pint, looked into his face – we were both so old now, but somehow he still seemed like a kid – and said: “I have carried you all my life. Am I done?” The ghost said: “Who knows. Perhaps it was me that carried you.” And there had been so much to think about, pensions and loft insulation and the state of the world, all this white noise that had kept out that simple image of the window, overlooking the fields where we used to play Wall and Tick and five-a-side together, and remembering now how it had felt when the energy in our bodies spilled over and the sun began to go down over the grass and the high wall and the woodland beside it.
Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981 and lives in Leeds. He recently completed a full-length novel and his short fiction and criticism has appeared in various print and web journals. He blogs at maxdunbar.wordpress.com and tweets @MaxDunbar1.