Chris and Ann sat side by side at a wooden picnic table several yards from a small parking lot aside a two-lane road into the state park. The road was jammed with cars that hadn’t moved during all the time they had been there because it was too narrow to handle as much traffic. Chris leaned forward, forearms on his thighs, and Ann sat again with her legs pulled up in a fetal position. A few people parked their cars in the grass aside the road and took to their feet across the same path that brought Chris and Ann from the plane’s wreckage to the picnic bench. Some of the people had cameras, but most had tears.
“Can these people see us?” asked Ann, watching them run by.
Chris waved at the cars lined up as they attempted to get in to the crash site. “Could be they’re just not in a waving mood. Maybe someone they know was on the plane, and they’re trying to find out if they survived. I don’t know how they got out here so quickly. Didn’t we crash like maybe a half hour ago?”
“No idea. My parents are gonna be crushed when they hear about this.” She slammed her forehead against her knees. “I don’t know if my dad’s heart can take it.”
“I hope my kid is okay,” he said solemnly and softly.
His words sparked a confused glare from Ann, as if she gained an awareness that he had not. She opened her mouth to speak, thought better, and saved it. Then she hopped off the bench and strode to a nearby trash can. She kicked at it and yelled, “Son of a bitch!” However, her foot passed through it, and it remained undisturbed. Her momentum pulled her forward unexpectedly. She stumbled but regained herself. She reached to grab and shake the can, but again she moved transparently through it.
“That doesn’t make sense,” said Chris as he stood.
“Hey!” yelled a tearful Ann. “You’re going criticize me for getting upset when I’m thinking about my parents dealing with my death? Who the fuck made you the boss?”
“No, that’s not what I meant,” he pleaded. “It doesn’t make sense that we can sit on this bench without falling through it, but your hands and your foot went right through the trash can.”
Ann looked from the can to the bench to Chris. “Oh. Sorry. I really don’t usually curse like that. Hey, we’re getting upset. So much for the peaceful thing.”
“It’s all right. I guess we’ve got some new things to figure out. I just want to know, that’s all. I like answers. I don’t like the unknown.”
Ann wiped the back of her wrist across her nose. “Yeah, like all those ghost movies. You know, when Patrick Swayze was trying to hug Demi Moore. And the thing with the penny.” Chris looked at her blankly as she looked back confused. “Ghost? You never saw the movie Ghost?” She rolled her eyes.
“Sorry, no.” He was not proud. “I like to live in reality.”
“Reality? Well, seems it is your reality now.” She shook her head and walked a few steps. “No wonder you’re having trouble getting along with your wife.”
“Hey, how do you know I’m not getting along with my wife?” Chris stood firm. “That’s not fair. And it’s not nice.”
“I’m sorry. Really, I’m so sorry. I really don’t know what it is. These things about you are popping into my head, and I swear I don’t know why.” His eyes fell to the ground.
“Just please try to be more sensitive.”
“I will, I swear. I mean, I promise.” She moved to put a hand on his arm but hesitated. He pulled away, fearing another shock. He looked at her with a slight smile, enough for her to know it was all good.
“Let’s try to figure this thing out,” he said. “What we’re supposed to do. Why we’re here. Whatever.”
“I think what we were supposed to do was follow everyone else and go to heaven or whatever that light might have been. But for whatever reason, we didn’t want to go. So that’s why we’re here.”
“I know that,” he pointed. “But what I mean is now that we didn’t go, now what? What’s supposed to happen if people don’t go? Do we just – I don’t know – wander around? Is there a place for us? Or do we just do whatever we want?” He blinked and let his lips fidget with what he wanted to say.
“How about,” she paused, “how about we figure out why we didn’t go.”
Chris stepped away as if she weren’t there and headed along the road against all the cars that were trying to get into the park. Ann shook her head and quietly followed.
After a two-mile trek downhill, opposite the cars and more emergency vehicles, they reached the entrance of the San Bernadino County Preserve. Chris looked up at the sky, found the sun, looked left and right, left again, then started walking. “This way.”
“How do you know?”
“The sun’s going this way, so this must be west. Los Angeles is west of here. I’m not sure what we’re gonna do, but I figure that we’re probably better off getting to a city instead of out in the mountains here.”
“Right,” she said, raising her eyebrows in a short twitch. “Because there’s more for ghosts to do in the city. Ghost board of directors who can tell us what to do.”
“That’s not what I said.”
“I know,” she darted. “It’s what I said. I’m dead, but I’m not stupid.” She worked to keep pace. “So,” she started, paused, continued, “what do you think about those stories where ghosts have unfinished business or something like that? You know, like when they’re stuck here because there’s something they didn’t do or something like that.”
Chris shook his head. “Makes as much sense as anything else at this point. Those other people on the plane were somewhere. Most of them I guess went. I doubt we were the only ones who ran away.”
“I wonder what we have to do.”
“You mean something like we’re supposed to accomplish something before we go to heaven or wherever there is we’re supposed to go to?”
“Well, there’s that,” she said, “but I meant more like – do we sleep? Do we eat? Go to the bathroom? Those kinds of things.” Chris smiled. “Don’t laugh. I’m serious. We’ll have to deal with that eventually. Probably.”
“Yeah, I guess, but can’t you look at this with a little more, I don’t know, significance?” Chris shrugged. They walked on for a bit before Chris continued. “Are you trying to say you have to go to the bathroom?”
“No. I’m just thinking out loud. Trying to make conversation and make the best of this. Whatever this is.” She looked at Chris for a reply, but he was not paying great attention to her. “Hey,” she jumped in, “don’t be rude. I’m talking. You’re the reason I’m stuck here, so at least be polite about it.”
He stopped. “I’m not the reason. You kept saying you didn’t want to die.”
“Yeah, but I didn’t say I didn’t want to go to heaven.”
“Well, you told me you didn’t want to die, and you didn’t seem like you wanted to go with those other people, wherever it was they were going. And it seemed like to go with them was to be dead, or admit to being dead, so running was all I could think of,” he argued. “Nobody said you had to follow me.”
“It was kinda hard not to follow you when you wouldn’t let go of my hand, in case you didn’t notice that part,” she barked. “Oh, big scared baby,” she mimicked. “Please hold my hand. I’m afraid.”
“That’s not what happened,” he snarled. “I was trying to let go, but something was like, magnetic or something. And don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talking about. You felt it too.” Chris stopped when he noticed that Ann was gazing at the tops of the hills that lined both sides of the road. “What are you looking at?”
“Look up at the sky. Notice anything?”
He squinted, put a hand over his brow to block the glare. “I don’t think so. What?”
“The sky. It’s different. Not really as blue as it usually is. Looks a little greenish to me.”
He looked again. “Now that you mention it, maybe a little.” They continued.
“You feel tired at all?” he asked.
“Nope. Feel like I can walk all day.”
“Let’s run.” Chris began a trotter’s pace and turned backwards until Ann caught up.
“Can’t we just take it easy? Relax a little?”
“I want to see if we’ll get tired.” He ran a little faster but had to slow to let Ann catch up again. He put in a few jumps and leaps that brought a curious stare from Ann. “C’mon. Faster.”
“I’m not a runner.”
“Neither am I, but I want to test things out.” He quickened his pace. “I’m gonna sprint ahead. I’ll wait for you up ahead.” He broke away and looked back after a few steps but couldn’t tell if Ann had slowed or if he had gained greatly. Within a minute he disappeared over a small hill as Ann slowed to a stroll. As Ann reached the top of the hill, she focused on Chris sitting at another picnic bench about 100 yards ahead. As she approached, he kept glancing at a hilltop that rose more than 500 feet behind him.
“Something up there?” she asked.
“I don’t know.” He stood, hands on his hips. “As I got here, something told me I should go up there.” He looked at her. “You tired?”
“No, just didn’t feel like running. Gives me a headache, shakes up my brain or something.”
“Even this time?”
“You sure, or are you just assuming because that’s what usually happens?”
“Not sure, but I don’t like the interrogation?”
“Just trying to learn, that’s all.”
“You think we should go up that hill? Let’s go.”
“Yeah. Wait though. Tell me more about what you felt. Why do you think this hill is important?”
He shook his head. “No idea. Just felt it.”
“What did you feel?”
“Can’t answer that either.”
“Tell me this. What do you think you’ll find? Try to imagine what you’re gonna see.”
He looked at her differently. Then he looked up to the hill again and closed his eyes. “I see something moving. It might be a snake.”
“A snake is important?” She looked up the hill.
“No. I’m just saying that’s what I feel is there. Might be a hundred other things up there too, but that’s what I feel so far.”
“Okay. Let’s go.” Ann took the first steps until Chris stopped her.
“Wait. Run this time. Challenge yourself. Let’s see what we can do. What we can handle. Let’s see if you really get a headache or if it’s just a memory. C’mon.”
He ran ahead, followed by Ann who kept a close pace, side by side every step of the way. Her steps flowed effortlessly over rocks, around shrubs and trees for roughly a quarter of a mile until they reached the crest at the same time. There they stopped and stood in silence.
The other side of the mountain dropped the same 500 feet they had climbed. There was a flat valley floor of about a hundred feet before another hill rose, but only half as big as the one they had just climbed. About two miles beyond that smaller hill was a mostly green field with a blackness gouged down the middle. The smoldering wreckage of an airplane was at the end of the gouge, surrounded by two dozen fire trucks, ambulances, and other emergency vehicles. The flashing lights of the trucks were like fireworks. Although it was mostly sunny where Chris and Ann stood, there seemed to be a black mist hovering over the wreckage. The ends of the cloud curled around, as if a giant, dark parachute was floating above.
Ann sat as before in a fetal position, hugging her knees against her chest as Chris sat cross legged beside her. As they watched above the devastation where small flickers like twinkling Christmas lights rose from the mess and flowed up into the umbrella-shaped darkness overhead.
“I guess they’re done,” Ann said.
“Those lights. That’s those people. They didn’t have something keeping them here, like we did.”
Chris reached a hand to Ann’s back to silently agree but was met by another zapping spark that threw his hand away. She arched her back and leaned forward as if the spark carried a pinch to it.
“C’mon,” said Chris.
“Let’s get out of here. If we have unfinished business, we’re not going to solve it here.”
“What about the snake?” asked Ann. “You said there was a snake. You had a strong feeling. We should find out if you’re right.”
Chris curled his lips then put his right hand to the back of his neck as his eyes scanned left and right.
“Look.” Ann pointed down to the flat stretch between the larger hill they’d just climbed and the smaller hill. Two parallel snakes, metal lines, were joined by endless slats running as far as the clouds would allow. From the east came a musical “hoot” and a low grumbling as a train approached.
They shuffled and hopped down the 500 feet decline. Chris glanced back towards the top of the hill expecting to see clouds of dirt and scattered rocks following them, but there was nothing. Their feet left no trace of having been there.
The plane was forgotten as they reached the tracks at the bottom. A simple dark point slowly defined itself as an approaching mass of metal and noise.
“Umm. Question.” Ann was shouting over the approaching monster. “You’re not planning on jumping on that thing, are you?”
“Yes,” Chris said, eyes focused on the train.
“Next question. Why?”
“Don’t know. This must be the snake that I was thinking about.”
“Just because you were thinking about it doesn’t mean we should jump on it. I think about pizza, but I don’t jump on it.”
“Really? That’s the best you got?” Chris looked away from the train to see a sheepish grin and a shoulder shrug.
“I’m just saying.” Ann smiled.
It was a freight train, slowing down because of the slight curve that reached around the larger of the two mountains ahead of it.
“Let’s go,” Chris barked while backing up, almost stepping on Ann who barely moved aside in time, moving regardless if Ann would or would not join him.
Chris trotted until one approaching car caught his eye. It was silver tank with a black trucking beneath and ladders at each end that reached up to a platform at the top center of the car. As the train slowed on the bend, Chris waited for the front end of the car to pull even, and then he reached for the ladder. He was surprised at how easily he pulled himself aboard and quickly turned to help Ann, but he was further surprised when he saw she was already aboard at the other end of the train car. They smiled and pulled themselves to the top of the car before meeting at the center where they climbed over a small railing to a four-by-eight foot metal grating where they had a good view of the park as they headed west towards Los Angeles. They settled on the metal floor.
“This shouldn’t be comfortable,” said Ann. “It should hurt like hell on my ass.” Chris looked away.
“I guess it’s part of our condition. I would imagine we’re not going to feel pain. Not feel tired. Cold or hot. You’re wearing a light sweater, and I have a long-sleeve shirt under a sweater, but you’re not cold and I’m not sweating. Not even after running down that hill and chasing a train.”
“Yeah,” she replied, “I can grab hold of a train ladder, but I couldn’t touch that trash can.”
Chris shrugged, sat silent, and enjoyed the views of hills and trees. They sat with their legs hanging off the platform, arms folded on a railing, and chins resting on forearms like two kids watching a July 4 parade somewhere in America.
“Okay,” said Chris, “people in the cars couldn’t see us. Sometimes we can touch things. I bet we can figure this out. It’s like a puzzle. This might be fun.”
“Didn’t you say you don’t like the unknown? Isn’t the unknown the reason why people love puzzles?”
“Yeah,” he tried, “but when the unknown becomes known, that’s great. Like when you struggle through a really tough math problem. And then you solve it, that’s a great feeling.” She smiled when he did.
“Maybe this is like a chance to renew ourselves,” she said. “Like when a kid moves to a new school. Kids from your old school already had you defined, but at the new school you could start over. Be different.”
“You mean be someone other than yourself? Pretend to be what you’re not?”
“No, not like that,” she whined. “I mean sometimes kids label you unfairly, and you can’t really do anything to change it. Not unless you move. This is kind of like that.”
“I went to the same school, same town my whole life,” he said softly.
“I’m sure there’s comfort in that. You get lifelong friends that way, but I don’t know anyone from my school years. Couldn’t find anyone even if I wanted to.” Ann looked at him, and he felt questions were coming next. “You seem really at ease about this.”
“What do you mean?”
“What I mean is, shouldn’t there be more important things to think about?”
“Like what?” he asked.
Her mouth dropped. “Family? Dealing with loss? Grief? You said you have a kid. Aren’t you worried about him? Right now nobody even knows that we’re dead yet, and you’re already moving on to figuring out the rules of being a ghost, or whatever we are. Don’t you have any feelings for what others will go through?”
He looked down. “Not anymore,” he said, barely above a whisper and softly enough for her to focus on what he might have missed.
“You wanna talk about it?” she asked.
They rode the train in silence and watched things go by, living things, flying, crawling, and scuttling from the sun into the cover of trees. Chris turned to say something but stopped open mouthed. He watched her hair, down past her shoulders but on her shoulders. She watched, but he still said nothing, just turned away and reached his hand out, fingers spread, from the moving train. She followed his hand and then reached out too. He turned back towards her, reaching again but this time pushed her hair briefly off her shoulder and watched it easily fall back in place.
“Why were you on the plane?” asked Chris. There was such a delay that he assumed she hadn’t heard the question. He began to ask again.
“Was going to visit my husband.”
“In Los Angeles?”
“Yeah. Business trip.”
“Do you want to go look for him?”
“I don’t know. I thought about it, but it might be really rough. I mean, what if I find him and he gets the news while I’m there? That would be painful to see.”
“I’d be with you if you wanted.” With Ann’s silence, he continued. “I mean, I’m not trying to pry. It’s not my business. I just thought maybe, you know, support.”
“I know. It’s okay. I’m just confused.”
“Of course we’re confused, but we gotta try something. That whole thing about unfinished business. It could be anything. Maybe we’re just people who don’t want to go anywhere else. Maybe we like it here so much that some other kind of a heaven kind place won’t seem better to us.”
Ann stood to get a better view of a large city as the mountains fell away to the side.
“I was thinking about going home,” she said.
“Me too,” said Chris.
“Well, South Jersey,” she corrected herself.
He didn’t notice that she looked at him a little more closely, as if she had something to say but keep it to herself instead.
After another ten minutes of nothing, Chris stood abruptly. “This is wrong.”
“Wrong train. I had this thought about a train, but it’s the wrong train.”
“How could you know that?”
“No idea, but I just know it.”
Ann leaned over the rail to watch the blur of the millions of rocks that created a bed of support for the railroad ties and tracks.
“So,” she paused, “you wanna just jump off?”
“It’ll be fine. We won’t get hurt.”
“How do you know?”
“I just know. I can’t explain it. You somehow know things about me, and I somehow know certain things too. C’mon.”
He walked along the top of the rounded tank until he reached the end where he deftly backed down the ladder almost to the wheels. Ann followed slowly.
“There.” He pointed ahead to an intersection between the tracks and a road where a crossing gate was down and red lights were flashing. Ann watched as Chris kept his right foot on the ladder and let his left drift over the gravel aside the tracks.
“Are you nuts?” Ann yelled over the rumbling of the giant, metal wheels that were just inches away. “You’re just going to jump off a moving train?”
“And you think you’re going to land like a cat and just walk along the side of the tracks?”
“Right behind you.” She smiled, stayed a few steps above him, and watched as he almost jumped, then almost jumped again, then once more. “Yeah, that’s what I thought.”
“We can’t get hurt.” he yelled. “We’re already dead.” He pushed off and landed a little more gently than he expected and easily ran alongside the train, keeping speed with Ann as she prepared to follow.
“See. You can do it. Jump.”
Echoing in her ears were the words, “I’m already dead.” She did exactly as he had – reached out her left foot and pushed off with her right. She landed exactly as he did, as if coming to earth in a parachute before running alongside the tracks. She glided down the sharp, six-foot slope of the gravel to the flatter ground. Both proudly and sadly, she realized how she could not remember the last time she had such a feeling. She ran a little faster and passed Chris who had stopped. She turned with a little extra energy and smile in her step as she ran back to him.
Chris was motionless, expressionless, except for a concerned focus. His eyes were locked on something that Ann was yet to detect.
Question 1: I’m not 100%, but I think I have not yet stated ages for Chris and Ann. What do you imagine each of them might be in years?