The last thing I remember was feeling disjointed and there was a distinct roar behind my ears. I'd just slid the needle in, and I was awaiting the happy rush of the heroin as it entered my system.
But something was wrong. I lost my sense of feeling. Or rather, I lost my ability to use my senses. I remember knowing that I was doing a fish dance on the bathroom floor of the Goth Gallery, but there was no feeling. No sound and all I could see was the ceiling and walls shake and melt around me. All I could think was, That was some bad shit. Aw fuck no, not like this.
The colors began to fade as the world edged in gray and faded to black.
I could feel something.
It felt like flesh.
I knew I was screaming, but all was bathed in silence.
I was grabbed and dragged out of the darkness.
Slowly I stood and looked around. I was in a cemetery and there was a man standing before me. He was tall and dressed in a black leather trenchcoat.
He smiled, "Are you ok?"
The sound of his voice hit me like a fist as I began to remember. I remembered the overdose and I couldn't breathe.
Somehow it didn't seem to matter and I lost it. I began to weep uncontrollably. Suddenly he was there. Holding me in powerful arms, whispering words of comfort. When I began to calm down, he showed me the tombstone. My tombstone and it started all over again.
Slowly, I recovered. He picked me up again and set me on my feet.
I finally managed to ask, "Who are you?"
He looked at me carefully for a moment, then said, "My name is not for you to know yet. I'm a Ferryman and the one who freed you from the caul, never forget that."
"The caul, the thing, the place you were in after the end. Be grateful it was me and not one of the others"
"No. There is a price for your freedom. Part of that price is that you tell me about yourself first. That is the way."
"Uh, the way of what?"
"The way of the dead Denise. Welcome to the Shadowlands."
"Well, my name is Denise, Denise Baker, but you knew that. How did you - never mind you'll probably just say something cryptic right?"
The guy just smiled. He was a weirdo. Cute, but definitely a weirdo.
I felt a strange compulsion to tell him about my life and a feeling that even if I wanted to, I couldn't lie to him. It kinda pissed me off a bit.
So I continued, "Well, I was born twenty-four years ago on March 12th in Cincinnati, Ohio. I guess I've had a pretty average life up 'til the last few years. My father, Bob, is an architect. My mother's name is Anne. She's a part-time legal secretary and a full-time Mom.
"My oldest brother is Bob junior who is two years older than I am and in the Coast Guard. He's stationed in Miami. Jon is two years younger and followed me to ASU on a football scholarship.
"I've always had a problem with sibling rivalry. What came easy for Bob and Jon, I had to struggle for. From grades, to the respect of my parents, I have never felt equal. My only great success was receiving an art scholarship to ASU and finally being able to escape Cincinnati. Of course, Jon had to ruin that by following me out here.
"He's okay I guess, but annoying y'know? All he could think about was football and swing dancing. Dense y'know, like most guys-uh, no offense."
He smiled that creepy smile of his again, "None taken."
"Well, a knee injury ended his plans. While I have never been exactly close to Jon, I helped him through the worst of it and he took up journalism. As usual, he excelled at it. Still, through the course of his recovery, we were able to bury the hatchet. I even began to like him. A bit."
I stopped and looked into his eyes. They were deep and green and it was getting harder to be creeped out about him. He was still smiling, but it seemed softer, safer.
He reached into his coat, pulled out two cigarettes lit them and handed me one, "Yeah I had a brother once too. Nice enough, but a real asshole sometimes."
He began to look more real. Like a person instead of an apparition. Shrugging off his coat, he sat down with his back to a tombstone. I looked around, shrugged and sat with my back to my own. A sense of peace washed over me. And a deep sense of regret.
He saw the look on my face, "This place is important to you isn't it?"
"I dunno, I've never been here before. Where are we?"
"Still in Arizona Denise. After you died you were interred here at the city cemetery."
"You mean I'm not home? Why didn't they take me home? My parents I mean? Why those"
I was pissed. The Ferryman, now looking like a goth guy a little older than me asked, "What's wrong?"
"Well its just I mean I hadn't really planned on dying y'know, but when my Grandma died she said if anything were to happen, that me or my brothers could be with her. She was great, and I was still a kid. It made it easier, knowing that someday I'd be with her again. Why didn't they bury me with her?"
I looked at him again and yelled "And will you please quit it with that damn smirking? I"
I lost it. I just collapsed against the stone, but this time it was gales of laughter. It broke me up. Here I was, an aspiring goth artist, having a smoke with the Grim Reaper and complaining about where I'd been buried. It was too much.
"So Denise, why did they leave you here?"
"I dunno, II know. Jon. They left me here because of Jon."
Flicking away his cigarette, the guy looked at me soberly, "What happened with Jon?"
Well this was it. Dark secret time. I inhaled slowly and began: "The one great passion in my life has been painting. It's been the only thing I've ever been good at. My style has always been based in sex and horror and my favorite artists are Salvador Dali and Clive Barker. As my passion for expressing the grotesque grew, my grades at ASU began to drop. I guess they had a problem with the subject matter.
"Keeping my latest "failure" a secret from my family, I began to cut classes to paint. I began to show my work around and gained some local notoriety. I even made some money designing tattoos for some friends and classmates. After a while though, it became hard to come up with new ideas. In order to help the creative process, I turned to drugs. I got addicted. The drugs and the raves I began attending led to a lot of great, meaningless sex. Late last year, it all began to spiral out of control.
"I got pregnant. I don't know from whom.
"As the drugs began to siphon off my savings, I realized I couldn't afford to keep the baby. Pooling together the last of my money, I drove down to Tijuana, for a cheap abortion. On the way back, my car died. Finding myself stranded in Mexico with no money and a burning habit, I turned to stripping. For all that I did, I could barely afford food and a place to stay.
"Topless dancing became nude dancing. Lap dances turned into prostitution and porn. The months flew by and I just got lost in the whole lifestyle."
He lit another pair of cigarettes and handed me one. I realized I was shaking a bit.
"Thanks. After a few more months, I hit bottom. Swallowing my pride, I scraped together enough money for a bus back to Tempe. With the pain of withdrawal burning inside me, I went to find Jon. He would help. He would keep it from the family, y'know? He would give me money. He owed me that much
"When I left for Mexico, I was too ashamed to tell anyone where I was going. Jon and my folks tried to find me. The only clue he had was that I'd last been seen with some of my weird goth-type friends around the campus. Probably the first place he checked was a joint called the Goth Gallery."
"What is this place?"
"Well, the Goth Gallery is just outside of the campus grounds in a small strip mall. It's a combination art gallery/cyber-café. The front is a pretty typical café with drinks and yummy things to eat and computers and old books and knick-knacks. They've got the best Chai and espresso in the area. The back is an art gallery with stuff from local artists and the whole thing is done up in post-modern Addams Family.
"The owner of the place is my friend Dawn. Like me, she's a redhead and a goth. We look enough alike to be sisters. But she keeps her hair way shorter than mine. Same blue eyes, same taste in music and all that. She was like the big sister I never had. She used to give me lots of great advice on art and technique. Sometimes I got more from her than from the classes.
"Dawn helped give me a start in the local scene by letting me display some of my stuff at the Gallery. And she still has some of my work hanging there as far as I know. I think she was in love with me, but we never got to explore that. She really tried to help me out, but I guess I was in a bad place towards the end.
"Y'see, after I got back, I went looking for Jon. I checked for him at the paper that he used to write for, I checked at those swing dance halls he used to frequent. But everything led back to my old stomping grounds.
"He of course checked in with Dawn. The only lead she had was this guy I'd been seeing right before I got pregnant. His name was Chris, and he was a street poet. But the crowd he ran with was real hard-core. He made several references to them, and I thought they were involved in that whole bloodletting scene. When Jon had exhausted all other avenues, he started investigating them. From what I hear, Chris must have turned out to be banging with a local gang. While there was no proof, word is they killed Jon when he began to ask too many questions.
"I felt responsible. And I tried to explain things to my family, but they refused to have anything more to do with me. I think they blamed me too. I guess I blamed myself too."
He nodded, "That makes sense. People on this side tend to stay close to certain things and places. Fetters. My guess is either your grave or your corpse is a fetter, keeping you here in the Shadowlands, but also keeping you from oblivion."
"So this is like a second chance?"
"If you like. But you'll find the stakes are much higher here. Death isn't an option, and there are things far worse. What happened to you next?"
Well, he asked, so, "I fell off the wagon. I spent the last of my cash on some heroin and set up camp at the Goth Gallery. I spent an entire weekend shooting up and painting. Dawn tried, really tried to save me. But I snuck into the men's room and gave a dealer friend a quick blow-job to score one more hit. Just one more. But the shit was bad, and I guess I died."
"And ended up here," he finished for me.
"Yeah. I guess this place makes sense. Either this or the Gallery."
He stood up, "Okay then, let's go."
We walked together through silent streets. My paintings were always of a world like the real world, only darker. The landscapes were always full of a hidden menace just below the surface. This is the world I'd entered. Now I knew why they called it the Shadowlands. Buildings tilted at crazy angles and seemed super-imposed over older, more beat-up structures.
Eventually we got there. The Goth Gallery was pretty much as I remembered it. Low ceiling, cheap comfy furniture. Some new paintings decorated the walls. I entered the back gallery, where Dawn usually hangs the local artists' stuff, and there she was.
Dawn looked like she'd lost some weight. She was standing in front of a display that I'd never seen before, and -
No. I recognized it. It was a painting of us that I'd done a year back when we went to Malibu for the weekend. It was the weekend we almost kissed, but I'd been an asshole about it. She forgave me and we became better friends. Beneath the painting was my old set of brushes. She'd made a display out of them with my name on a placard and the whole thing was surrounded by dried red roses.
All the pain and loss began to well up inside. In my mind I could hear laughter. And when I closed my eyes, I saw him. Tall and lank, he looked like Jon. But his face was bright yellow and he smiled,
Hey baby. Looking good.
His voice sounded like silk and sandpaper.
Nice to meet you. Tell you what, I'll make this easy for you. Forget the guy, forget the girl and come with me. I can offer you the one thing they can't baby. Peace. Just come with me, and I'll put you in a place where there will be no more sorrow. No more shame. No more sucking dick for heroin. Nothing but blissful peace.
Again he smiled. Awful and dark and wide and I felt myself falling into it. A sudden slap brought me to my senses.
"Snap out of it!" the Ferryman growled, "Look! Look at your friend. That is your reality. That is why you are here. The shadow inside you will only seek to drag you to oblivion."
"How did you"
He just pointed and I saw a dirty hypodermic hanging out of my arm. Slowly, it began to fade. He was pointing again, this time at Dawn and his hand looked skeletal.
Just then I didn't know what I was more afraid of. Slowly, I looked at Dawn.
She looked like she'd been crying.
I could barely hear her mutter to herself, "Why Denise?"
I looked at her and knew that I had to stay. I knew that Dawn and the Gallery was my real home.
The Ferryman was standing behind me. He had a knowing look in his eyes, "This is your place Denise. Your Haunt. A place of comfort and power and regret. Don't stray far from it. Or her. I have to leave now."
"Leave? But I have so much, I mean how do I-"
"I'll be back Denise, as soon as I can. My payment has yet to be met. I'm sorry I haven't the time to teach you what you need to know. Now. Give it to me."
I didn't know what he meant at first. Then without thinking, I reached into my pocket and pulled out two pennies. I gave him one.
"Very good," he said, "I'll be back for the other sometime. You have a great strength Denise. Learn how to use it before it's too late."
With that he seemed to grow to twice his size, And his trenchcoat became a cloak, blacker than anything I'd ever seen before. A large scythe was in his hands and his pretty face was now a grinning skull. He left the room like a curtain in a breeze.
Dawn had left the painting and was waiting on some customers. Music was playing in the background and a few freshmen were oohhing and ahhing over the décor as they opened up textbooks.
I sat down against the wall with my knees curled up into my chest and cried.
Somewhere in the lands of the dead, a bell was ringing.