– Joseph Conrad
So what exactly was the challenge all about?
RFW: “We’re looking for chilling stories of ghosts and haunted locations – and maybe even love from beyond the grave. A romantic element is essential, but we’re looking for stories with a thrilling edge of fear to add to the romantic tension building between our hero/heroine.”
The maximum number of words is 1,000 but I’m afraid I went over quite a bit (it’s hard to stop after you start, you know!).
Her arms lifted, and a gasp escaped from Anne-Marie’s lips. The gasp came out strange, though. Icy, almost. Anne-Marie stared at her arms — they were transparent, as if they weren’t there except as a ripple in the air. She moved her fingers one after another, and there went five ripples. She glanced down, and realized her long, once beautiful blonde hair was also transparent, like cellophane noodles. And so was her floral dress, the one Kenneth had bought her for their anniversary months ago. The one she had been wearing the day of the fire.
“W-What am I?” asked Anne-Marie to no one in particular. Her voice had also changed — it was several octaves higher than it used to be. “What have I become?”
Anne-Marie moved to the side, feeling claustrophobic, and looked at the bottom of the case. She screamed. There, right beside Anne-Marie was her own corpse, more than half-decayed. She was in her own coffin.
Three weeks had passed since Anne-Marie climbed out of her grave and discovered that she’d come back as a ghost. Waking up next to her own body wasn’t the only surprise. Returning to earth as a disembodied spirit had its advantages — Anne-Marie could now walk through solid objects, walk through the air and become invisible at will. If she didn’t want humans to see her, they didn’t. And if she wanted to move an object or walk through it, she could. The afterlife had so much to offer. But all Anne-Marie wanted was to know about Kenneth. Was he all right? How did he escape? Did he miss her, and if so, what did he say at her funeral?
“No,” Anne-Marie whispered. “No!” That night, she filled the town with her screams, cursing the name of God and terrorizing children in their sleep. She watched from behind windows as mothers rushed to their young’s beds, holding tiny heads against their chests and assuring them it was only a bad dream. Her heart hardened at the sight. Nobody was there to hold her, or tell her that everything would be okay.
Her only consolation was that Kenneth was still alive — he had to be — and that he would surely reach out to her if only he knew she was here. In some form, at least.
Anne-Marie could bear it no longer. The next day, she went into the city and floated up to the seventh floor of the investment company where Kenneth used to work, hoping that he was still there. Sure enough, just as Anne-Marie reached the glass window of Kenneth’s office, she saw him.
There he was, standing against the door in a gray pantsuit with his hands in his pockets, looking flawless as ever. There was that dark brown hair and caramel skin, long nose and curled mouth. The fire hadn’t left a single burn on Kenneth, at least none that Anne-Marie could see. Her eyes drooped and she cocked her head to the side, smiling dreamily at the man who had asked for her hand. Kenneth was alive and well. And still so handsome. The sight of him was enough to make her feel almost warm again.
Then, movement on the other side of the room, behind the curtains that blocked part of the window, caught Anne-Marie’s eye. The smoothing out of a skirt. The adjustment of eyeglasses. A woman came into view: a pretty blonde woman with long legs and red lips. Anne-Marie watched as she walked toward Kenneth, her heels making a small clicking noise against the tiles, and gave him a kiss.
Kenneth put one hand around the woman’s waist and the other around her neck, and kissed her back. With overlapping lips and tongue and passion that he had never seemed to put into the kisses he’d once given Anne-Marie. They were locked in a tight embrace now, as if they were determined to put as little space between them as possible.
Disgusted, Anne-Marie looked away. Being a ghost was living hell now, for try as she might, she just couldn’t get tears to come falling down her cheeks. How could Kenneth do this? It had barely been three weeks since the fire, and here he was kissing another woman. Hadn’t he missed her, or at least wondered what she would think if she saw him right now, cheating? No, he probably hadn’t wondered that, and — as much as she wanted to think of it this way — he wasn’t cheating. Everyone thought Anne-Marie was dead.
I am dead, Anne-Marie thought, angrily. Her life as a human being was long over, but Kenneth’s wasn’t. He had already moved on and left her behind. I can’t let that happen. I can’t let him do this to me.
She waited until Ms. Long-Legs left the office, her poker face on and her hair clipped into a tight new bun as if nothing had happened behind closed doors.
Kenneth was alone in his office now, straightening his sleeves and walking toward his desk. Now was Anne-Marie’s chance. She slowly floated through the glass window and right into the room until she was hovering above Kenneth. It took him eight seconds to realize he wasn’t alone, and he whipped around to find a rippling Anne-Marie by his side. He let out a sound between a yelp and a wail.
“Darling,” Anne-Marie purred, and put one icy hand on his shoulder. Kenneth jolted out of his chair.
“Who–who are you?” he said, wide-eyed and transfixed by her lucid presence. “What are you?”
“Oh, my dear Kenny.” Anne-Marie watched as he flinched at her old nickname for him. She took a leap toward him, and he took several steps back. “Kenny, don’t you know who I am? I’m Anne-Marie, your true love.”
“No, that’s not possible. Anne-Marie is dead,” Kenneth said, shaking his head back and forth as if trying to get rid of what was right in front of him. “She died in that fire.”
He took another step back, and Anne-Marie realized he was barely a few feet away from the glass window she’d spied on him through. Her eyes darted to his temples, where beads of sweat had begun to form. She smiled sweetly.
“I’ve come back for you,” Anne-Marie said. “Soon, we’ll be together forever and you won’t leave me again. You won’t have a choice, if you’re just like me.”
“Just–just like you? But, no,” Kenneth stammered. “You’re not real. This isn’t happening.”
“Oh, but it is. You made this happen, honey, when you decided to leave me behind in that terrible house.” Anne-Marie’s tone was suddenly icy. “Now it’s your turn to know what it feels like to be left behind by your entire world.”
“No!” Just as Kenneth turned his back, Anne-Marie swooped down and pushed him with her icy fingers until his face met the glass window.
Blood everywhere. Broken shards flying in the air. From the seventh floor down, Anne-Marie was falling, falling, falling with Kenneth. Her hand held onto his shoulder, refusing to let go. And even as the wind blew roughly against his broken and ensanguined skin, he turned his head ever so slightly and saw her face plunging forward next to his. Seconds before Kenneth’s body hit the pavement, he looked at her in the eye and seemed to notice her for the first time. He uttered his last word as if it was a question, “Anne.”