With each step forward the young woman’s blue dress swayed at her weary knees and her curls blew out behind her. The sun was beating down on the road and the train tracks beside her, making the breeze more welcome through her hair and across the bare skin of her arms. She pulled the brim of her hat further down over her face. The rays of the sun made such fair skin object to its heat, but the flowers beside her begged for more, turning their bodies to bow in gratitude. The woman observed them longingly, wishing for the same sense of satisfaction. She had already walked a long way and had no idea if she was close to her destination. How much longer was she supposed to go? She had been walking aimlessly for what felt like days. Though her body was tired, it was the best she had felt in years.
She came to a crossroads, pulled out a paper from her purse and looked down at the address curled up in her hand. It had her next life all planned out on it but not an inkling of which way to go or how to get there. Frustrated, she crumbled it. She recalled what the man at the gate had said, trying to make sense of it. “Walk the road until the crossing, where you will take the right road, and find that it never ends.” She looked down, brows furrowed. He smiled at her and beckoned her away from the train and through the gate.
The right didn’t seem like the right way. The right side was dark and filled with shadows across the horizon. Not a good place for a young lady to be alone, not that she was all that young. However, the traveling had somehow made her feel renewed. Straight ahead was the same road continuing on, eventually blending with the horizon. There was a haze in the distance and she swallowed hard thinking of the idea of walking even further in this heat. She didn’t even have sunscreen and she would surely resemble a lobster soon enough if she kept on this way. Perhaps the left is the way to go, she thought.
The left was bright, but the hills looming in the distance provided a goal. As she stared, a figure appeared. It was a black dog, with hints of white around his nose and belly. Her face lit up at the sight. “Luke!” She exclaimed. When he finally approached, she reached down and felt the old familiar softness of his short fur. He smelled like the familiar scents of lavender and grass, like home, and the life she left behind. As he always did, Luke patiently sat in her embrace until she was content and ready to move onward. When she finally wiped the tears from her eyes and stood, Luke circled her once, as if checking to make sure all was clear, and walked along the path he came from. He seemed to know it all too well. Following her old friend, they took a left and fell into step together; his tail swinging in tune with the sway of her dress. The direction pleased her. The left was the road less traveled, the hand less used, but the one she relied on.
She could only look ahead for so long, getting antsy at it’s implications. Glancing to the right, the woman noticed they were being followed. It was a shadow, but there was something strange about it. The shadow traveled through the field under the rays of the sun as it should, but it did not have an owner. Beside her, Luke’s hair rose on his back and he broke his stride to lunge after the shadow, which quickly retreated and dwindled to nothing at his advance. Is this the right way? The woman wondered. Stray shadows weren’t too comforting. Luke returned to her side and lead her over the hill she had been watching and waiting for since they left the crossroads.
Over the hill, the road slowly changed from dirt to cobblestones. It was still surrounded by grass and flowers, but the flowers were more numerous and varied. With more flowers, came more hills. She turned around quickly and could longer see anything past the hill even though they had come so far. The shadows in the distance had been blocked by the hill, and only grass loomed into the distance.
As the woman and her companion got closer she could see the new set of hills were much smaller than the one they had climbed. They only stood about 10 feet high and fairly close together. There were too many to count. They were shaped like domes, like grassy igloos. Each had its own circular oak door facing the road and windows that popped out on every side. Luke brought her to one of the doors and sat thumping his tail on the cobblestones. The woman’s brows furrowed once more, a position they seemed to favor lately, and Luke cocked his head to one side. He pushed on her hand with his nose, reminding her of the paper she had been holding there. She checked the paper again. 100 M Avenue. The same address was scrawled in tiny words on the cobblestones lining the edge of the house. This was finally it then, her new home. She gasped as the paper seemed to start burning at the edges, slowly moving to the center before it completely disintegrated. The pieces were taken away by the wind and scattered beneath her feet, fading into the stones.
The stones in front of the house had flowers coming out through the cracks. The trail of flowers continued out onto the sides of the walkway, then continued to go up the curves of the little domed house through the grasses that covered it. There were vibrant roses, daisies, lilies, and more. Some she couldn’t even name, an oddity for her who had spent so many years in her garden. The flowers were more beautiful than she had ever seen. It must’ve been the colors, she decided. Everything here seemed more vibrant, the sky, the grasses, the flowers. Now that the woman had finally stopped walking, she realized, it really was a breathtaking sight.
She went to open the door but hesitated and took a moment to pick a few of the flowers that stood out to her. She shifted her flowers and bag to her right hand and grabbed the round wooden doorknob with the other. The flowers shook slightly in rhythm with her nervous hands and chose to look around for a few seconds more. All of the other little hill houses around her had the same broken cobblestone path leading up to the same round door. But not all of them had flowers, and none of them had nearly as many flowers as her’s did. She was proud of her little garden and thought of all the wonderful things she could do with it. Though they were beautiful, they could certainly use some arranging. And perhaps she could help out her neighbors. Why do only I have such a beautiful garden? She thought with a sigh. They have certainly had more time than I have, I just got here! Unless that’s the problem.
The presence of flowers weren’t the sole defining feature of the homes. Every house had another individual token; the keystones at the peak of each door were marked. Her’s read ‘Nancy Robinson’. That’s my name! She remembered as her eyes widened and covered her mouth in surprise. How could she forget such a thing? She thought about that for a minute. Nancy had even forgotten on her whole journey here where she was going and who she was, yet it never dawned on her. Perhaps it was a good thing she did not continue walking straight ahead at the crossroads. Would I have ever remembered? Or continued to wonder? She questioned. Had Luke not appeared to guide Nancy in the right direction, she may have never arrived here. This whole thing would be harder than she thought. Cautiously, she read the numbers next to her name, recalling their meaning. 1944-1994.
Curiosity took ahold of Nancy and she peered at the other homes. The one next to her was vacant. Others were marked with a series of names and dates completely unfamiliar to her. Whole lives whose stories Nancy had no knowledge of.
Finally, she opened the door and flowers fell through the sky to her feet. Nancy watched curiously as they planted themselves into the ground and added to the many plants. They didn’t’ fall from anywhere in particular, just right out of the sky. Luke pushed his way into the house from behind her, reminding Nancy to stand up straight and head inside. Before she could, a buzz went by her ear and made her jump. A bee landed on the brim of her hat and she flailed her arms about to make it go away. She rushed inside and slamming the door behind her in a panic.
Nancy relaxed against the door behind her and breathed a sigh of relief. “I shouldn’t have picked the flowers,” she huffed, blowing a stray hair from her face. “How are there bees here, anyway?” She asked aloud. Then again, how was Luke here? Since Nancy had suddenly recalled her life and what had become of it outside the threshold of the house, she had a grip on the reality of the situation. Not that she was part of reality anymore. Everything was coming back in a blur, making Nancy’s head reel. Her life, her death, and where she was now. It was a lot to digest at once. Is this Heaven? She questioned.
Nancy looked around for any clues. Instantly she felt more at home as she saw a small table with a blue glass vase already filled with water. It was perfect for her freshly picked flowers. She set down her bag and placed the flowers in the vase. There was a fresh cup of coffee on the table which she picked up eagerly and sipped. She sat in the chair next to the table and savored the taste. It was delightful.
Nancy closed her eyes for a moment, anticipating to wake up from the dream. She blinked a few times to regain her sense. Everything was still there, exactly the way it had been moments before. But she had to admit, despite her doubts, the little house was roomier inside than she thought it would be. There was one big room with large windows on each wall, letting natural sunlight illuminate the place and provide warmth. The warm colors, abundance of plants, and sounds from outside made it feel homey. There was a small fireplace in the corner and a big comfy couch, complete with a neighboring stack of books and magazines on a bookshelf. All of which, she noticed, had been favorites of hers during her lifetime. And, she supposed, in death. On the other side was a kitchen set filled with everything she would need to make any meals, although she had yet to be hungry. She opened the fridge, which she noticed was already stocked with some of her favorite things.
There were three doors in the room, one had a calendar on it, and strangely, was locked. One day in October was marked with a red circle. She would have to talk to someone about that. Who, she had no idea. Surely, if this was Heaven, God had much more important things to tend to than Nancy’s locked door.
A second door went out the back of the house where she could see a large lake. It looked familiar, like the place her family used to visit every summer. It’s waters were a rich blue and it was surrounded by the clearest sky that seemed to kiss the mountain tops around it. The mountains went all around the cluster of hills and the lake, like a protective wall. The homes resided in the center of it all; deep lakes surrounded bright green forests, surrounded by low mountains, creating a series of naturally carved rings. This door was hard to part with but she pressed on.
The last door was ajar, and lead to a cozy bedroom with a bed, dressers, vanity, and a closet. Next to the bed was an end table with a picture of her little family of three. She toyed with the rings on her favorite hand, the left one. The whole house, Nancy realized, was covered with similar pictures. She smiled, picking it up.
As beautiful and quaint as her little home was, Nancy couldn’t help but feel there was something missing. The pictures were reminiscent of a life she missed and though they brought back fond memories of her husband and daughter, they couldn’t quite replace the people. Regardless of the quaint home and all its treasures, she was alone. Will it always be this way? She wondered, her smile fading to a frown. The one thing she did have though, was Luke. She returned the picture where she had found it and left to look for him.
Luke had gone out the back door, the one with the most beautiful views, and onto the porch. Nancy followed with a treat in hand, one she found in a box on top of the fridge. Luke took it greedily and it was gone in one second. Death hadn’t changed him or appetite, either. “How long have you waited here?” She asked the dog, “What have you been doing all time alone?” He gave no response other than a head tilt to the side, as she suspected. It was relieving to know that the rumors were wrong, dogs did in fact come to Heaven. As well as bees. She scrunched her nose at the thought. As alone as she felt, Luke hadn’t had anyone when he came here and probably even had to find his own way. Perhaps it was good she convinced her husband to get a border collie, they were smart dogs after all. Unless, perhaps, the neighbors had helped and treated him well. The two sat in silence while she thought and looked out at the lake. The water was calming and shimmered like diamonds in the sunlight, drawing them in like a fire crackling under the stars. It was peaceful, yet it couldn’t calm the waves forming behind Nancy’s eyes, ready to crash on the shores of her cheeks at any moment.
After a time of sitting by the lake, the sun was starting to fall slowly from its peak and Nancy decided it would be a good time for a walk. She would have plenty of time to think and be sad later. Or tomorrow, or the next day. The two walked back inside and over by the door. Luke’s leash was hanging by the door and he eagerly sat as she put it on. Together, they bolted out the door.
There were two things Nancy noticed on her walk. One of these was the periodic falling of flowers from the sky, like rain from a singular cloud.
The other, was the dogs. While there were lots of others out for a stroll, strangely there were more dogs than owners. The single dogs were friendly, but were all entangled with the task of sniffing down some unknown trail. She frowned at the implications and decided to watch the ground instead.
They got a few hundred yards down the road and found a large circular courtyard with a large fountain filled with coins, gardens, and beautifully decorated cobblestones. A couple emerged from a nearby house outside of the central area. The man in question was tall and imposing, but had a big-bellied laugh that made his petite wife, and everyone else who was around for that matter, smile at its infection. The small woman looked in Nancy’s direction, and recognition stirred in her eyes. The tiny woman waved to Nancy excitedly. They were her parents.
The house was similar to her own, but had different qualities. Outside, she was sad to see, were less flowers. Inside, however, was like a museum of their life together. A desk, filled with her father’s old stamp collection. Shelves with her mother’s favorite knick knacks, some which were replicated in her own new home. Even shelves of souvenirs from numerous trips around the world. Despite all the reminiscent decor, what drew Nancy’s eye was the presence of a calendar on a door similar to her own. It had no visible marker and was open to the month of December. She supposed the door, like her own, was also locked.
“There is a calendar on a door in my house, just like this one. What does it mean, mom?” Nancy asked, pointing towards the calendar. Her mother and father were milling around the house as they always had, making things welcoming for company. Her mother straightened a few pillows on the couches and her father was creating some sort of cocktails over by the kitchen counter.
“It’s your window…to the living world” She sighed, “It is a curse. It is a blessing.” Nancy’s mother sat down on the couch and crossed her legs.
Nancy moved across the room and sat on the couch opposite her mother. “So I can see them? …My family?” Nancy paused, thinking, and leaned forward on her knees. “Didn’t you want to see me?”
The old woman patted her knee and gave her a smile that didn’t hint at her age what-so-ever, “You will understand when it’s your turn, my dear. But to put it simply, we are granted one evening a year to visit the living. It is a day you know well, and one you have always fascinated over with those horror movies of yours. All Hollows Eve, or Halloween.”
Nancy’s eyes lit up in excitement, but only briefly.“What if…no one comes? And why only once a year?” She asked and put her head in her hands.
“It’s a risk you have to take. But you will grow used to the feeling when a loved one is near. You will feel in your bones when someone stands at your headstone. And on that day, when the time comes, if someone is there, or not, you can decide to go through.” She paused as she took her fresh made martini from her husband. “We wanted to see you, and your brothers, but no one ever came in the evening at quite the right time. We were like ships passing in the night. But we saw someone once, it was your Aunt Margaret. We were so ecstatic to see her, but we couldn’t stay long.” She finished and took a sip from her drink.
“Nancy,” Her father chimed in and presented a fresh cocktail, “If you could visit every time you felt them near, you would live after death thinking of nothing else. You would lose yourself, become obsessed. It is to protect us from ourselves, and protect the living from the same fate.” He sat down next to her on the couch and placed his arms around her.
They stayed like that for a while. A fraction of their family was rejoined and the spoke for hours. They continued to chat about other things, Nancy’s life, her family, her cancer. Her parents death, how they lived through it all these years. There was an endless supply of words to be shared to make up for the time they had lost. They didn’t dare waste any other moments that afternoon, and all the ones to come.
Before their final farewell for that particular evening, her mother left her with a warning. “Though we live in a place without evil, we must beware the shadows. They do not threaten us but they threaten the living. And they too can visit the living world, but only through us. They are drawn to the presence on Earth of souls that found their way. You are a beacon to the lost and hopeless. They never found their way and became lost to the darkness, never finding peace or the home for their soul. Though they won’t get you here, they can follow you on your travels and on Earth. They will grab you if given the chance, and use your body as a vessel to attack the living, all while you watch through tainted red eyes, trapped in your souls mind. They come unexpectedly, and they come in waves, a sea of darkness.” She said as she gave Nancy a hug and lead her out the door.
* * * *
Frequent trips to her parents home made Nancy’s heart ache more. She longed for her husband and her daughter and she ached for her neighbors. She had become familiar with them over the year and their families who walked among the living. Her neighbors were all once great people. Margaret, who was a mother of 8, but still managed to work, cook, and maintain a beautiful house. Three doors down there was Joe and his wife Helen who had met, married, and died during the war. They all lived peaceful lives in the bodies of their glory days, not an ache or pain to be found. Nancy was the same, she looked as she had at 25 and felt as limber as she was then. But for some reason the pains of the heart could not be fixed quite the same way.
Her thoughts continued to wonder as they often did those days. Rain started to fall outside the house and Nancy strolled over to the window to watch with a fresh cup of coffee. The drops were steady and they filled in the cracks between the stones with little rivers. She shivered with pleasure and took a sip of her steaming coffee. The warmth of the cup and the crisp rainy-air were an intoxicating combination.
The new flowers that had landed on the vacant house next door basked in the rainfall as they did in the sun, drinking in its life. The rain picked up speed and the sky grew darker. There was quick strike outside the house next door, followed by a loud burst of thunder. In the wake of the lightning, a girl appeared. Nancy tensed, was she hurt? But the girl was smiling. Nancy’s shoulders relaxed and she leaned on the sill, watching the girl. She was young, no more than 8 or 9, wearing a little yellow dress ordained with a big blue satin bow tied around the back of her waist. Her big blue eyes stared into the sky and widened as she noticed the rain was falling but she wasn’t wet. Her blond curls still bounced with vigor as she jumped in the puddles in front of her new home, one she would live in alone for a while. Nancy frowned at the sight, the girl was so young, she couldn’t imagine what had happened. She made a mental note to go visit the child the next day.
Nancy moved from the window to look at the calendar, it was October 31st, the same date circled in red and if it wasn’t raining at that moment, there would have been a nice sunset over the mountains.
She felt the familiar sense she had grown accustomed to over the year. It was like goosebumps, but pleasant and always welcome. She had a visitor upstairs, come to say hello. Her fears of taking the leap to find no one waiting were qualmed. Nancy slowly pushed on the door and it gave in, revealing a staircase. She walked up the stairs and up to a large window, big enough for her to fit through. The stairs continued beyond it to an unclear destination. Without a missed step, she walked right through.
Nancy pulled herself up and saw the grasses that covered the roof of her home and the same flowers. The only difference was the grass was becoming limp in places and the flowers withered.
The approaching night was dark and chilly, nothing like the home she had been growing accustomed to. However, there was a peace about it. It was quiet except for an owl whose call resonated throughout the open field that was bare of buildings, but marked with life – life that had ended. Rows of headstones mirrored the homes of her neighbors beneath the grass. She looked down by her feet to see her own. Her eyes watered and danced with her own ghosts of a life that ended earlier than she would have chosen. Next to her headstone was a new one, not yet marked with a name, but marked with an abundance of flowers and freshly turned soil. Her eyes moved to fix on a familiar image approaching and it brought her back to the present.
A beautiful young woman looking slightly younger than Nancy was walking up the grassy hill towards her headstone. The ends of Nancy’s lips curved up in a solemn smile. The young woman was her daughter. Though many people did not come to a cemetery with pure intentions of visiting loved ones on Halloween, her daughter did.
Her daughter’s face was young and alive, but her hazel eyes gave away her thoughts, glazed and somber. She had come on Halloween, both of their favorite holidays. Nancy’s daughter knew her fondness for all things that went bump in the night, no matter how much they scared the girl when she was young. Horror movies were so frequent in the tiny household that the young girl, never having seen the movies, began to learn when not to enter the room by identifying the music alone. As she grew older, she developed her own love for the spirit of Halloween. She loved wild fantasies found in her novels of the magical and supernatural, reveling in the impossibilities as opposed to Nancy’s delight in the thrills of a scare.
Beneath her long black coat and hat, the girl was still shivering. She held a single flower, a daisy, between her reddened hands. October wasn’t usually cold, but occasionally winter came early on Long Island. Nancy supposed the daisy was from her garden. She had always planted daisy’s outside the girl’s window since she was young, one of the few flowers that enjoyed the crispiness of the fall season.
The girl looked up when she stopped walking and her eyes and mouth opened wide at the sight of Nancy. Without saying a word, she hesitantly took a step forward and held out the flower to Nancy with her left hand. The two rings on her ring finger sparkled in the rays of the falling sun, reflecting the pink and orange sky.
Nancy reached out and grabbed the flower, shoulders falling as she grabbed it. She smiled, this time one that spread across her whole face and danced in her eyes. The young woman smiled back, the same one she had since she was a little girl.
Nancy opened her mouth to speak but something was moving in the distance through the trees. It was the Shadows. The sun determined that her time was limited as it was, but Nancy knew their presence meant even less time. She couldn’t bear to part from her daughter and back to her lonely hovel. The young woman continued to look at her, brows furrowed, unable to speak, but still out of confusion rather than fear. Her daughter couldn’t see the Shadows, Nancy realized, not yet anyway. She hung on for a second longer to absorb everything before moving back.
That instant was just enough for a shadow to sneak up behind the young woman and start to rise from the ground. It was small and not as imposing as Nancy expected, with rounded features and big yellow eyes. But one look into them and Nancy saw a flicker of pain and longing. Before she could blink, it grew larger and its eyes grew darker seemingly dancing with flames. The yellow was tainted with orange, it’s melancholy laced with anger, before turning red with hatred. Nancy knew she had to leave. Something grabbed at her ankle and she spun to find another lost soul, it’s big yellow eyes staring up at her, looking to steal away her foothold on Earth. Luke emerged from the grass and latched onto the Shadow, tearing and throwing the thing into the distance. He ran back towards the portal and gave Nancy a hard look.
Nancy pulled herself up straight and hurriedly started to descend the stairs through the grass. Though her time was limited, she couldn’t help but look back. A young man came up the girl and placed his arms around her waist. She was pointing at the headstone and speaking animatedly about something, their meeting, Nancy supposed. Their peace was more important than her selfish desires. Nancy’s face twisted in a pang as she turned her back.
Her whole body was through the window in the middle of staircase, except her hands, still holding the flower. She wanted to take the daisy with her, but the flower wouldn’t come back through the ground, it stayed put as though there was some sort of an invisible barrier. Yellow eyes peered through the other side of the window and reached out with sharp claws to grab her hands. She quickly pulled them back through, leaving the flower behind.
* * * *
A few days later, Nancy opened her door to find the same flower poking out through two cobblestones. A bee flew over to indulge in its fruits and she smiled at the faint sound of its buzzing. Everything she desired would come in time, she just needed the patience to weather the storm. This wasn’t the end of a road; it was the beginning. She smiled, recalling the gatekeeper’s remark. She had all the time in the world, this new world, to watch and wait.
* * * *
There is a town beneath the grass, bustling with plants, animals, and people, that reflects an empty and somber one above. Some people never make it to their town, and their souls continue to wonder, becoming lost to themselves. In this town are the remnants of many different lives, some whose stories are known 6 feet above, others whose have been forgotten 6 feet below. Though they have found their peace, they still long for their loved ones who walk among the living, some who have forgotten them and others who witness their presence, if only for a moment. As for Nancy, even as time went on her garden continued to grow. Her daughter visited often, leaving her letters of the life and love she experienced, until they could meet again.