Penumbra by Jay Caselberg [horror]

Penumbra by Jay Caselberg

You know, it’s a funny thing walking through the valley. Thy rod and staff and all that stuff. None of it matters a jot. There is no tunnel. There is no white light. There is no comfort. All of that is there to mollify, to give the fearful something to hold on to. I, for one, am not one of the fearful.

There were no particular fireworks when I passed. It was something of an anticlimax, truth be told. The only things that really change are the priorities, and now that the priorities are set, I have a plan.

You’ve got to have something to hold on to. Do you believe in love at first sight? That place where you connect with someone and you know, without a trace of doubt, that you two are meant to be together for ever. It was a rude awakening that it didn’t quite work like that, was not necessarily meant to be that way. I’m not sure which was greater, the shock of my passing, or the magnitude of that realization by itself.

Suddenly, without warning, I was gone; she was not.

ghost \ˈgōst\


The spirit of a dead person, especially one believed to appear in bodily likeness to living persons or to haunt former habitats.

The center of spiritual life; the soul.

A demon or spirit.

A returning or haunting memory or image.

  1. A slight or faint trace <just a ghost of a smile>
  2. The tiniest bit <not a ghost of a chance>

A faint, false image, as:

A secondary image on a television or radar screen caused by reflected waves.

A displaced image in a photograph caused by the optical system of the camera.

A false spectral line caused by imperfections in the diffraction grating.

A displaced image in a mirror caused by reflection from the front of the glass.

I rather liked that last one.

When I read that definition, it makes me laugh. Apparently, I am a ghost, but Jennifer, to all intents and purposes, is my ghost.

Can a ghost have a ghost? Apparently so. See numbers 2 and 4.

Well, having been convinced that was the case, I set about to exorcise the particular ghost that was haunting me. Is that recursive? Perhaps so, but it’s real. Then again, I wonder whether 6c provides an adequate description of the separation of realities between the corporeal and non-corporeal worlds, if we were to think of them that way.

I needed to pass that diffraction grating to manage what I was to deal with my non-corporeal nature. Only then could I set about doing what I desired, to step beyond that veil between. I was more than a false spectral line—so much more. And I planned to do something about it.

The very first time I saw Jennifer, it stopped me in my tracks. I knew right then and there—in that very instant—that we were meant to be together. We were at a coffee shop. I was waiting for my drink to be delivered—a nice, skinny cappuccino—and she was in line, waiting to be served. Shiny, auburn hair, pale complexion, perfect skin, and blue eyes almost verging on indigo. She happened to glance across as I was watching, and in that brief moment of eye contact, she gave a little half smile before looking away to attend to her order. I knew with certainty that that look contained my destiny. It was only the first of many. In the weeks and months to follow, she would show me how much she loved me in so many different ways, all of them full of the meaning that only Jennifer could convey. She was so very special. And, of course, I loved her back.

Imagine my surprise when I made my unplanned rendezvous with the truck that smashed me against a wall. That hadn’t been in any of my plans, and it was just too cruel. There was so much more I still had to do. Of course, above all, there was my life with Jennifer and everything that went with it. That was the most important thing.

I loved her with all my heart and soul. It’s an interesting concept that last one—soul.

So, here I was, removed from the mundane—transported, aware, but still removed. It took me a while to adjust. In this place, the sunlight filters through like greenish, glimmering water. The Moon is no different, though the touch of its light is more blue. It is as if we swim in the world, among you, in and out of the streets and buildings that we used to walk in body. Although I could sense that there were others here, I could not see them, could not touch them directly. I didn’t even bother reaching out to them, trying to make contact, for there was only one sole thing that mattered.

For the first few weeks, I labored over trying to get Jennifer to notice me. Perhaps I would have given up and simply drifted away were it not for the fact that our bond was seemed so strong. I had to be with her and I knew she had to be with me. I concentrated all my will into manifestation, becoming solid, whatever it was, and that was part of the problem. I didn’t know what it was. There is no primer, no instruction manual that tells you what to do. One moment you are there, and the next you are here, slowly spinning around, seeing but not understanding, trying to come to terms with what has happened. The whole thing with the truck took place so fast, and then, here I was. Sometimes I wonder if it would have been different if my death—there, I’ve said it—would have been slow and lingering, giving me time to prepare.

It seemed that I would have the time to prepare now—all the time in the world.

That’s not to say that there wasn’t some sense of urgency about my plan. I was, now, just as I had been when the truck wrenched me from life or at least that was my perception. I had not changed, except for the fact that I was whole again, instead of some gruesome smear against a wall. I presumed that would hold true for her.

I wanted us to be together as she was right now, maybe not as she might be in ten or twenty or thirty years. Sometimes we mark the passage of time by the frequency of those periods of boredom. Since I had been here, I have never been bored. But then, watching my Jennifer was never boring.

First, I tried to whisper in her ear. I thought if she could hear me, there was the chance she’d recognize my presence and we’d be partway there. I did that for a few days, but with limited success. The most it elicited was a brush with one hand at the side of her face, as if she’d been bothered by a persistent insect. It was something. I took hope.

Next, I tried touch. My fingers passed through her arm, drifted unregistered through her shoulder, passed uselessly through her hair and left me grasping nothing. I jumped up in front of her, but she walked right through me—not even a shiver. My frustration grew.

My next recourse was her dreams. I’d heard about people being haunted in their dreams, though I preferred not to think of what I was doing as haunting. But I couldn’t help but think about it in those terms. You know the stories. Someone sees their long-lost love in their dreams. And then, one day, they meet somebody new and get the blessing from their dream lover, allowing them to move on with life and set up house with their latest love. Well, that wasn’t going to happen here. I was sure of that. It was me and me alone that she was destined to be with. Our love was pure.

I returned to waiting, watching, desperate for that moment when she would close her eyes and drift to sleep, her form curled within her bed, shimmering vaguely through the water veil that separated us. I moved closer to watch her eyes, hungry for the tell-tale movement that would signal she was deep within the throes of a dream. At last it came, and I was there, at the perfect moment.

I was lost.

How was I supposed to get into her dreams?

Several times I tried, and each time I failed. Awake or asleep, she was unaware I was there. If I didn’t manage something soon, I feared she would move on with her life, despite her love for me, despite my love for her. Eventually, people do. It might take some of them longer than others, but eventually they moved on. I had to face up to that.

I was weak.

The next few days, I took a different approach. I followed her. Over and over again, I summoned my will, tried to make myself known, tried to make her see me. Nothing. I felt myself fading. I started to question the purity of our love. If I couldn’t make her see me, if she didn’t recognize my presence, how strong could our bond really be?

Then came the moment I’d been waiting for. I saw her striking up a conversation with another man.

Something sparked inside me, something raw, something that blossomed like a flame and filled my senses. It was fear. Jennifer was talking to someone new. It was her first step to moving on. There was no way I could allow that to happen.

The fear—the desperation—filled me and I grasped it, held it and shaped it. I forced it through my resolve, my desperation and gave it a new form, willing myself to be there, to be there with her.

She gave a start.

“What was that? Did you…?” She shook her head.

The guy she was with looked around. “What?”

“I just thought that, for a moment… No, forget it. I guess I’m just seeing things. Just my imagination. I haven’t been sleeping that well.”

I haven’t been sleeping that well. Had I managed, at least in part, to achieve what I had set out to do? I wasn’t sure, but now it didn’t really matter. I had my proof.

For the next two weeks, I practiced. I needed to get this right. I stayed away from Jennifer altogether. I tried it on other people, those that I had known before. I didn’t want her to get used to me, not yet. Too much depended on it.

Gradually, I became more confident. Little by little, I gained strength, bunching that will, that raw emotion, and shaping it into something I could use.

Once I was secure enough with my new ability, I formed a plan. I started following her again, tracking her movements, re-familiarizing myself with her daily routine and the moments that would serve my plan. And finally, at long last, the time was right.

It was the end of the work day, even though time was not really something that mattered to me. Jennifer left her office among the rest of her colleagues and headed down the street for her journey home. The evening was dark, chill, an oily sheen across the buildings and streets. There was something special about the look of the evening, even through the watery green of what I saw. It was auspicious. About ten minutes later, she reached the station. As she passed through the barriers, I followed, close behind. Already, I was holding my will, starting to build it, forcing it into a tight, bunched shape deep within me. She reached her platform and passed along its length. Still I followed.

Jennifer stood there on the platform edge. All around her, commuters stirred. I had to pick my moment. If I was the slightest bit off, my plan wouldn’t work. Perhaps it would be today, perhaps tomorrow, but the conditions had to be right. Below, the rails started to thrum, rattling slightly in their stays. We were close. I summoned my will, driving my energy, all my power, all my desire into a hard knot, ready to release. Further down the track, the square silver front emerged, pushing out of the tunnel, the broad glass windows, yellow and opaque, oily in the station lights. She and others turned to track the approach. Now. This was my moment. I released my hold on that balled up energy and thrust it into single effort of will. There! She saw me. This time she couldn’t ignore me.

She drew in a sharp breath. “What the—?”

She took a step back, her heel twisting in the confined space, forcing her to stumble backwards. Her ankle turned.

And then she was falling back, back and down.

Her descent played out in slow motion, and I watched as the faces around her turned to open-mouthed stares A hand reached out to grab her too late, and still she was falling. The train swept down and impacted, consuming her tumbling shape.

And then she was gone.

Within me, the joy burst upwards, filling me with my love for her.

Finally, finally, she was there and I was there with her. At last, we could be together. We would be together, forever.

“Jennifer,” I said. “Jennifer.” Drawing her out of her initial confusion. I understood that disorientation. After all, I had been there too.

There was a little frown and she spun slowly to look at me. Her gaze traveled up and down and then fixed on my face.

“Who the fuck are you?” she asked.

Not quite the reaction I had expected.

“Now, come on Jennifer, don’t be like that. It’s me, Adrian. I know you’re confused. It’s a bit hard to come to terms with at first, but you’re here now. Just take a few moments. Take your time. You need to get used to it. It will get easier soon.”

She drifted back, away. “I don’t know you,” she said. Her voice was expressionless. The statement was flat. “I don’t know you.”

“Jennifer. Please. Come back to me. I worked so hard to make this happen, so we could be together.”

“I repeat,” she said, her features becoming severe. “Who the fuck are you? I don’t know you. I’ve never seen you before in my…my…life.”

She turned around and around. “My life,” she whispered.

Realization of what I had said came to her then, and she turned back.

“You prick, whoever you are. You did this? You did this to me? What gave you the right? What made you think this was something that—”

She ran out of words.

“Jennifer, please,” I said, imploring now. “We were meant to be together. You must see that.”

She lifted an incorporeal hand then, warding. “I don’t know you. I have never known you. Stay the fuck away from me.” A moment’s pause. “It was you. It really was you. I remember now. I remember…what…happened.”

Her face transformed—a grimace, teeth bared—and then a growing growl that issued deep from within her.

“You prick! You sick fuck. Stay the hell away from me.”

Little by little, she backed away, bunching her fists. For a moment the light grew, cutting through the watery waves of greenness, and she was gone.

What she said was true, I suppose. We never really met. We never had a conversation. That didn’t mean that I didn’t love her with all my being. I thought she understood, that we had a connection. She sent me so many little signs. Those fleeting glances, those little half-smiles. All of them told me I was right. How could I have been so wrong? I couldn’t have simply been mistaken for so long, could I? I knew she loved me.

Jennifer was gone. I didn’t know how to find her, not in this place. Whatever dreams I had had dissipated with her.

I was alone again.

I couldn’t be alone. Not here.

I turned my attention back to the world beyond the veil, back to where we had all come from.

I knew now that Jennifer had been a mistake. She misled me. She was crafty. But she taught me. My desire for her, no matter how misplaced it had been, schooled me in what I needed to do. Now I knew better.

Somewhere out there was my one true love. Her name might be Bronwyn, or Samantha, or Jane. I would find her and I would love her, and she would love me back, once she realized I was there.

And then, then I would make sure that we could be together, that we could be together for ever.


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