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Jacob Long‘s life had been pretty uneventful up to that one rainy October day. He’d wake up at 7am, have coffee and a granola breakfast with his girlfriend Laurie, then he’d shower and go to work.

He’d never been eyed for a promotion and he’d been comfortable in his cubicle at Oracle. Coding was therapeutic for him, the routine gave him a sense of security that he thrived in.

He’d spend his Friday nights with co-workers at a bar across the street from the office, drinking tequila beer and arguing over Game of Thrones – the books versus the TV series. He’d take Laurie out every Sunday, either to a park or the movies. Everything was right as it should be, calm and predictable.

Then came October 20th, with sleet and biting cold completely out of season, followed by a big blue SUV that ignored the red light and rammed right into Jacob’s bleak Sedan. Everything faded to black under the screeching sound of metal and glass crashing into each other.

Jacob woke up three days later in the hospital. Laurie was sitting next to him, playing games on her smartphone.

His head hurt, his throat burned and his mouth was dry. To reiterate, his head felt like a lump of clay constantly stabbed with iron prods, and the pain lingered behind his eyes. He cried out, his voice rough and coarse, until the nurse came in and administered the much needed medication.

Laurie cried and kept telling him that everything was going to be fine, that he’d been in an accident and that he’d been lucky enough to survive. The doctor then came in and told him that his legs would heal, that the fractures would require time but that in 3-4 months, he’d be able to walk again.

His mother and father came in as well, kissing him and crying tears of joy, telling him that everything was going to be alright. Every day, the nurse would tell him the same thing, as the clear morphine would drip into his IV.

But Jacob knew deep inside that nothing was going to be just fine. That nothing would be alright. His rhythm had been broken. His sense of security had been scattered away. His routines had gone to hell. His granola breakfast would never taste the same again. Laurie’s voice would never sound as melodiously dull as before. And the pain behind his eye balls would never leave.

A few weeks later he left the hospital, settled in a wheelchair with casts tightened around his calves and his right arm. The neck brace itched as his friends loaded him into the taxi. Laurie filmed everything, smiling and cheering and telling Jacob that someday they’d look at the video and laugh. But the pain in his head had a different opinion.

Months went by, and the recovery process was long and frustrating. A different sort of routine had taken over. The day the casts came off felt like a national holiday, but because he was still on strong prescription pain medication, Jacob couldn’t celebrate at his favourite bar, with his co-workers and friends.

Instead he spent the night at home, with Laurie, eating macaroni and cheese and washing it down with orange soda. But a certain process had been established: from waking up in the morning until going back to bed at night, Jacob had a new set of activities to deal with.

A couple more months went by before the doctors allowed him to go back to work. He was excited, almost jumping out of his skin, eager to go back to his cubicle and the Friday night beers at Paddy’s. But the pain behind his eyes refused to let him go. It nabbed at him, like a bad song playing in the background of his head.

One late night, Jacob found himself in a curious predicament. The casts had come off and physical therapy was paying off, but still he felt shattered by the time the digital clock showed 9pm. He’d just had a quick dinner, and had decided to rest his eyes for a few minutes in his balcony wicker chair.

Laurie was doing the dishes, her melodious humming sneaking past the curtains. Jacob immersed himself into the traffic sounds coming from below – horns, engines, bicycle trills and a monotone wave of empty voices. His eyelids were pulled shut, a tired expression darkening his face.

His eyes hurt, as usual, deep where he couldn’t reach or push, but he’d somehow gotten used to it. The air grew cold, raising the hairs on his arms and the back of his head. And in that precise moment, he felt like someone was looking at him.

He opened his eyes, and high up on the ledge of his balcony was a young man – maybe in his early 20’s. His skin was paper white, his eyes almost hollowed out, abundant with shadows and darkness. His lips were cracked, and his spine was irregular, making him look slightly hunched. Bruises, indigo and dark blue bruises covered his neck and arms, and he looked worryingly skinny.

He wore a pair of faded jeans and a dirty green tee. Jacob wanted to react somehow, like any other normal human being would react to a complete stranger standing on their balcony ledge, but his body had been stunned.

He couldn’t move and he wasn’t even sure he could breathe. But for five glorious minutes – the duration of the encounter, his eyes no longer hurt and he could see everything clearly.

The boy in the green tee wasn’t the only one visiting him. Jacob looked around and noticed dozens of pale-faced men, women and children scattered across his vision field – some stood in neighbouring balconies, others stared at him from behind apartment windows, and a handful watched him from the rooftops.

You didn’t die.

Jacob heard the whisper, and traced it back to the young man in the green tee.

You didn’t die. But you can see us now.

Jacob wanted to say something, but his jaw was tightly clenched. Despite the stun, despite the cold air suddenly creeping into his lungs, despite the darkness staring back at him from inside his “visitor”‘s eyes, he knew what was happening.

You can see what you’ll become when you do die.

Not that he’d ever really believed in the idea of life after death, or some kind of other dimension such as heaven and hell for the righteous and the wicked. He’d just expected nothingness. Darkness. Silence. Nothing would matter once you gave your last breath and said goodbye to your regrets and your loved ones.

And yet, as he looked up from his wicker chair and watched the young man jump off the ledge and disappear into the traffic below, Jacob knew what he was seeing. Dead people. There was no better way to put it. Ghosts. Echoes of people who were no longer living.

He would’ve gotten up to see where the young man had gone, but his body didn’t feel like cooperating. His skin was cold like marble, and his pulse rumbled through his body. The young man in the green tee sat next to him on the balcony floor, appearing out of nowhere like a whiff of white smoke.

Jacob had to watch him from the corner of his eye – his neck was stiff, and a cool sweat broke out over his temples. But at least his eyes didn’t hurt anymore. He wanted to talk, but his lips – now dry and pale, refused to part.

The young man in the green tee didn’t seem bothered. Maybe he’d done this to other people before – other people like Jacob, whose hearts had stopped and then jolted back to life under the precise hands of emergency surgeons. Who knew?

You’re not the only one who can see us. But you’ll never hear anyone admit it. People are afraid to tell this kind of truth. It’s easier to pretend you can see or hear ghosts, than it is to actually have that ability. They all learn that the hard way.

Jacob wanted to ask him who he was. The young man looked at him, blackness pouring out of his irides.

I died here. I don’t know when, I lost track of time. Threw myself from the ledge, right here.

Jacob wanted to ask why he’d done that.

I was high, man. I think I still am. I was living off state benefits, wanting nothing but crack, and crack, and more crack. I had a lover, but he left me. My mother hated me, didn’t want anything to do with me. I was high, so high, man. I just did it. I jumped. Felt my bones crack and splinter inside of me. And then the darkness came.

The honesty was candid, it surprised him. The young man must’ve had a name, too.

They called me Jay. Mom said she’d named me after my dad, but I never met the fucker. He bailed. I don’t know how long I’ve been here, but after the darkness I just woke up here. Nothing happens, I just drift around, watch the world go by. I can’t do or say anything to change anything. I just exist and no one can see me and I can’t do anything about that either. It sucks. I just jump off the ledge once in a while to see if that will do something, but I don’t break anymore. I can’t feel anything anymore.

Jacob’s neck softened for a brief second, allowing him to turn his head and face dead Jay, who kept staring into the nothingness of a material world he could no longer experience. An overwhelming sadness took over.

Death didn’t seem like a release at all. Jacob was suddenly happy that he didn’t swallow that entire tub of painkillers in the early days of recovery. The later he died, the better.

Your girl is pretty, man. She seems to love you. You might want to consider going down on her, though. It’s the least you could do, after all she’s had to put up with.

His cheeks caught fire.

‘Honey, do you want tea? I’m about to make some,’ Laurie popped her head out above his.

Suddenly he could move and the chill had gone, but so had Jay. He looked around, confusion creasing the little space between his eyebrows. He looked up to find Laurie’s soft and round face, a warm smile flanked by full peach blush cheeks.

She’d just started work again, after months of compassionate leave. She seemed happier now that she had her own routine back.

He nodded and smiled back at her.

Five minutes later, she handed him his favourite mug, filled with hot green tea, lemon and honey galore drizzled into it. He inhaled the flavoured steam and looked around. There weren’t any dead people around him anymore. Just Laurie.

That night, he took Jay’s advice and gave Laurie a gift she’d never expected. She cried tears of joy while squirming beneath the sheets. And Jacob felt happy again, for a brief moment, despite the pain inside his eye sockets.

(to be continued)

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