Here's something I never told anybody. You remember Cheryl's brother Martin, the one who died way back when, before we lived out here? I saw him two winters ago, going through our garbage cans in the backyard. I'm sure as hell glad it was me who saw him, rather than Cheryl or one of the kids. Though come to think of it, they wouldn't any of them remember Martin. The kids, I mean. What? No, it was definitely him. Wait, I'll tell you.
It was real early on a Saturday. I was sitting at the kitchen table, having my coffee. The rest of the family like to sleep in, sleep all day if you'd let them, but I always get up at five even on weekends. I just happened to glance out the window and there was Martin, rooting way down into one of our cans, like he thought he might find a nice steak dinner in there.
He had a long grey beard that was all scraggly, and his hair was sticking out all over the place. He looked a whole lot older, and he'd never had the beard before, but I knew it was Martin right away. First, because he'd always had these big bushy eyebrows, and he did this funny thing with them. It was like, he'd get distracted easy, and he'd raise and lower his eyebrows like he was thinking real hard about something. You'd catch him doing it all the time. That was just one of the weird things he did. So here he was still with the eyebrow business going.
Plus, he was wearing this old army overcoat of mine, which he'd borrowed off me a long time ago and never gave back. It wasn't at his apartment when we cleaned it out, so I figured he might have been wearing it when he jumped in the river. It had big pockets you could put a lot of rocks into.
Anyway, at first I thought I must be still asleep and dreaming or something, but then I let go of my damn coffee cup and dropped it right in my lap. Hot black coffee, too. I was awake, all right. I guess I yelled pretty loud, because Martin looked up all of the sudden, and saw me back through the window. He just stood there staring at me for a minute with his mouth hanging open, and then he took off like a rabbit around the garage. I went to the back door and yelled "Hey Martin!" but he was gone.
I still wasn't sure I wasn't off my nut, but I went out after him. Looked like I'd pissed my pants with the coffee all over me.
I looked in the alleyway but he wasn't anywhere around. I was really spooked for a minute, but then I thought to check the garage door. Sure enough, it was unlocked. I gave Cheryl hell about that later, but as usual she blamed it on the kids.
I went into the garage and there he was, trying to hide behind my utility bench. He was peering around the side of it. I said, "OK, Martin, the jig is up now. I see you back there." He just ducked and didn't come out, so I said, "Now look Martin. You're trespassing on my property here. I know it's you and I order you to come out from behind that utility bench. Now, Martin!" He started crawling out before I even got done saying that.
He got up to his feet, staring at me wide-eyed like it was me who was the dead guy. He backed away and bumped against the wall of the garage. He looks me up and down and says, "What's that all over your pants?"
I said, "You freakin' startled me and I spilled some coffee! Now what the hell is this, Martin? It's been, what, fifteen, seventeen years? You're supposed to be dead."
"Leave me be, Roger," he says. "I didn't mean anything. I'm just a poor lost denizen of the spirit world. I didn't know that was your garbage.. Honest."
"A what? A denizen? You mean, like, a ghost?" I said. This bit didn't throw me for a second. "How come if you're a ghost you got to go through people's garbage cans, Martin?"
He says, "Us forsaken shades must wander the earthly plain as penance for our wrongdoings in life." Then he started going like "woooooo" and moving along the wall toward the door waving his hands around in the air, trying to look spooky and distract me so's he could get to the door and run, but he tripped over a concrete block and fell on his ass. Some denizen.
So I talked to him. I said, "That's very feasible in your case, Martin. But why haunt around here? You lived your whole life over on the other side of town. You come here to haunt us? Did we do something to you? Why spook us up, huh? Especially after the big mess you left us with."
"I didn't know you guys lived in this neighborhood."
I wasn't going to let him off. "You ever see your mom in the spirit world, Martin?" His face twisted up for a second, but then just went slack. "She only lasted about six months after you took the big jump. We all knew about the troubles you were having with Denise, and your job, and the credit cards and bad checks and all that. Plus, your little Johnny Walker Red hobby. No, I wouldn't necessarily blame you for taking the easy way out if it was just you, but I believe that a man's got to take responsibility for his damn family."
"I'm sorry," he says. "I can't change it now, Roger." He looked straight at me, not challenging, but not fazed at all, it seemed like.
"But you can always say 'I'm sorry,' huh? By the way, did you know that sweet little Denise married your so-called buddy Rick? They only waited about six weeks. They live out in California now. They breed puppies, I heard, Dobermans or some damn thing."
"I don't care," he said. "I don't want to hear about it."
"Well, I'm not one to dredge up the sordid past, Martin. But I must say, I did think you'd at least gone through with it. I mean, they never found the body, but, the car on the bridge, the note, everything."
"What did you guys do with my car?" he says.
"Who, us? We didn't do anything with it, Martin. It got took. You didn't even have any damn insurance. Do you know how much the whole shebang cost us? If we'd known back then that you didn't really commit suicide--"
"I did so!" he said, glaring at me now, angry. "I did commit suicide!"
"You jumped in the river?" I said.
"And you stayed in until you drowned?"
He flapped his arms, sighed, and the anger seemed to go right out of him. "Roger, you don't understand. You don't know how it works. I'm still in there."
"You're still in -- where?" I said. "Where?"
"The river," he said, almost in a whisper.
"In the river? You're still drowning in the river?"
"Yes," he says.
"All these years later," I said. "As we're standing talking here right now, you're still drowning in the river."
He nodded, closed his eyes and spoke in a real flat, resigned voice. "I'm there and I'm here. But mostly I'm there. People on this side of the mortal divide don't know. You never get off the hook, even when you're dead. That's all. I found out." He blinked like he was waking up and kept working his eyebrows up and down for a minute or so, staring at me, or more like, through me. Then he stopped with the eyebrows and just stood there, staring.
What he'd just said was really giving me the creeps. So finally I said, "OK, Martin, look. Let's not dwell on it." Then I had a thought and said, "You know, let's not stand out here in the cold. Come on inside a minute, for a cup of coffee, and we'll talk just a little more. You still drink coffee?" He nodded yes, eagerly.
Now, I knew I was taking kind of a big risk doing this, but I figured the kids wouldn't be up for awhile, and Cheryl you need a pair of cymbals to wake up. After all, the guy used to be my brother-in-law, so I guess I figured I owed him that much. Not that I really owed him anything.
I hurried him through the yard and we came into the kitchen. Martin livened up some as soon as we got inside. He was looking around in there like he was in the Sistene Chapel. The place is pretty nice, we've put a lot of money and sweat into it.
"Wow," he says, "what are all those little pots and pans on the wall? You cook with those?"
"They're just decorations, Martin," I said. "Sit down." I poured the coffee and handed it to him. This was going to be a short visit.
"Hey, this is a nice place, Roger! You've done well, huh?"
I sat down at the table with him. "I've got no complaints, Martin. I've worked hard and held my own. But that's beside the point right here. The reason I invited you in here is because I want to make sure you do the right thing."
"What do you mean, Roger?" He was sitting back in his chair and sipping his coffee, getting pretty cozy, it looked like to me.
"What I mean is, I can't have my family haunted by the ghost of a dead relative, who's a skeleton in the closet to boot. It's just going to get everyone upset. You know that Cheryl's always been an emotional person. And then there's the kids. They're young and impressionable. We've having a hard enough time getting them to concentrate on their schoolwork."
"So you got kids now too?" He smiled, and you could see he had a bunch of teeth missing. He didn't smell too good either. "How many?"
I sighed and shook my head. "Three."
"No kidding! Got any pictures?"
"Now, don't get started, Martin. You're a ghost now, and you don't want to start getting nostalgic about your mortal existence. We really just can't have you around here. If you have any shame, if you care anything about your family's well-being, you'll haunt some other neighborhood, or preferably some other city."
"Does Cheryl ever talk about me?" he asks.
"No Martin, what with your mother and all, no. You're not a popular subject around here. Not a popular subject with anybody in the family."
For a second there I thought he was going to cry, but he just got annoyed. "It's not fair," he says. "Nobody feels any compassion over what happened to me at all!"
"What happened to you, you did to yourself, Martin. Now, when I invited you in here, I expected that you would have your coffee, listen to some good advice, and leave. I don't owe you anything. Matter of fact, that's my overcoat you're wearing, which I only loaned you and you committed suicide in."
I was surprised at how he reacted to that. He looked me in the eye again, all serious, and said, "I need it, Roger. It's all I have to keep warm with. Even we woeful revenants get cold on these chilly nights." He was clutching the coat together at the front like he was scared I'd take it.
"Keep the coat, Martin. Just go ahead and keep it. It's yours, OK? But just, go somewhere else, and do whatever it is you're doing.. Penance, whatever. But, somewhere else."
He grinned. God, he had maybe four teeth. "Thanks a lot, Roger. I really need it. And don't worry about me, I'm gone with the wind."
So that was it. He finished up his coffee and went out the door and through the yard to the alleyway, real light on his feet just like a real ghost. He didn't turn around to wave goodbye or anything. I didn't see which way he went, he just disappeared. It was like he'd never been there at all, almost.
No, he's never come back, and I hope to God he never does. May he rest in peace, wherever the hell he is.
Pete Risley is the author of the crime novel RABID CHILD, published by New Pulp Press in July 2010. http://www.newpulppress.com/