“You okay?” No answer.
The body lay facing the alley wall, as unmoving as the concrete beneath it. Roger Walker wanted to reach for the man’s wrist to check for a pulse. Spine-racing chills nixed that idea. Putting his ear close enough to the man’s mouth to detect a breath weirded him out too. Instead, he studied the man’s chest to see if it was rising and falling. “Oh my god!” Roger’s pulse accelerated.
Sebastian Stone, the fictional soldier in the new book Roger was struggling to write, saw corpses everywhere once back home in Chicago from his violent tour in Afghanistan. But that was fiction, a creation of Roger’s mind. This corpse appeared real.
Being the dead of night, there’d be no person to alert, no car to stop. He had to do something and reached into his pocket. No phone. Crap, he’d left it in his apartment when he rushed out to take his mind-clearing midnight walk. Cursing his forgetfulness, he hurried home down Lovecraft Road to do his civic duty.
He found his phone on the door-side table where he’d left it. Fumbling, he pushed 9-1-1. A drowsy-voiced female answered. Had his call roused her? He rattled off what he’d seen and where, adding, “I never saw a dead body on the street before. My mother and father were in caskets.” Too much information.
The operator coughed out that she would dispatch a patrol car to the scene. Satisfied, he hung up and took in the small living room of his one-bedroom apartment. Hemingway’s leash still hung on its hook. Four months since he last walked that dog, putting Hemingway down still stung.
The apartment, tiny but efficient, suited him and the hours he spent with his imagination and his personal battle to find the right written words. His wife, now ex-wife, had been no match.
The wailing siren, accompanied by flashing lights, sped past his street-side floor-to-ceiling window. He emptied his lungs in relief. He had done his civic duty, and that felt good. Exhausted, he collapsed on the small sofa, and sleep came fast.
Roger blinked at the light and discovered himself still wearing his clothes and sneakers. The corpse in the alley! The siren had blared past last night, while the flashing red light had lit up his window. He clicked on the local news; watched it ten, twenty, thirty minutes without seeing any story on what he’d reported. But WNTX made a huge deal out of every purse-snatching, robbery, or mugging. Corpses for them would be headline news, or so it seemed. Why not this one?
Roger exited from his modern glass apartment building into thick, damp air. Rain was gathering in the darkening clouds, and he had forgotten his umbrella. Still, he kept walking.
He returned to the crime scene. No police tape. He stepped closer. No chalked outline on the alley’s pavement. Police would never leave these proceedings undone. But why here? He must know. Otherwise, what had his civic duty been for?
A steady drizzle dripped down from the clouds by the time Roger entered the police precinct’s station. A musty smell pervaded. The balding desk sergeant eyeballed Roger approaching as if he were just another problem in a day that would be filled with them. His sharp stare prompted Roger to speak.
Roger’s words came in fits and starts. The cop’s dark eyes narrowed; still, he punched keys on his computer, gazed at the screen, and looked bemused.
“No body. No blood. Nothing.”
Roger felt like he’d just fallen into a freshly dug hole. “But I saw something.”
The man in blue’s face reddened. “Did you now? Look, there were no bodies found or even reported overnight.” His lips twisted. “Let me tell you one more thing, bud. We don’t take kindly to people calling in false reports.” He broke into a smirk. “Must’ve been drinking something
wicked last night.”
“I wasn’t. Was out taking my nightly walk… to clear my head. Do it every night of late.” Too much information.
The sergeant’s face grew decidedly hard. “Guess you didn’t clear it out enough.” He peered past Roger. “My day’s too busy for any more nonsense.”
Roger turned. A line of people now stood behind him. Flabbergasted, he left. Had he seen a drunk? A homeless person? If so, had they gone before the cops got to the alley? No. He’d called out a few times to the person and gotten no response, not a snore or even a slight muscle movement.
Beyond the front doors of the station house, the drizzle was now a downpour. Roger pulled his light jacket over his head, and soon the downpour lessened back to a drizzle. He pounded the streets, wondering what the hell happened to the dead person. Sebastian Stone certainly had pondered it after seeing his first corpse in the book. Could someone, most likely the murderer, having returned and removed the corpse, then taken the cold, stiffening body somewhere it wouldn’t be discovered? Between the time he’d stumbled upon it and the sirens blasted past his apartment, no more than twenty-five minutes could have passed. Probable? More of a possibility.
He was not a detective. Not a mystery writer either. He might have sold more books if he were. Then he wouldn’t be teaching uninterested community college students three days a week.
Still, he had to know.
Between the classes he taught on autopilot, he spent the next few days at his laptop, scanning newspapers, seeking reports of missing persons or dead bodies found. Nothing. And when he attempted to work on his novel, a PTSD saga of an American soldier home from Iraq, nothing came, his mind as erased as a blank chalkboard. Writer’s block.
Another aimless class—did kids care to learn anymore?—ended. In the college cafeteria, Roger met his friend and fellow teacher, Charles, who had helped get him the job here. Coffee cups lay on the table before the two men as Roger spewed out his guts, going on about his writer’s block and the disappearing corpse.
His colleague listened, enraptured, not even touching his coffee cup. Then he gave him a therapeutic stare. “Look, Rog, you’ve been under a lot of stress lately. What with researching the new novel, losing your dog, signing the divorce papers…. ”
“Chuck, have you ever known me to say something like this, even during the divorce?” Claire had said many ego-busting things; one still stung: You’re a third-rate author. A possible cause of writer’s block.
“No…. Still, it wouldn’t be so bad for you to return to the gym and swim a few laps. Or take up running again. You haven’t done either since the divorce became official.”
Pain dug deep into Roger, tightening his chest and stomach muscles.
“Just saying it can’t hurt.” Charles finally grabbed his coffee cup and took a gulp.
“Well… I’d started taking late-night walks not long after Hemingway was put down… to clear my head. Midnight walks. But since the night of the corpse, I haven’t… Maybe tonight
would be a good night to return. Christ, if I don’t take a walk, my head might explode.”
Charles finished his coffee. “Go for it.”
Midnight came, and Roger strolled the streets near his building, his steps, at first tentative. He imagined faceless bodies like those Sebastian saw in his new novel. As in the book, these corpses almost immediately dematerializing. What the hell. Had to be his imagination, plagued by writer’s block, pulling the weird stuff from his unfinished work. His head cleared, his writer’s block was unblocking, he could almost see it drifting away like a ghost.
Another body appeared before him!
Roger froze. The corpse seemed as real as the building it was propped up against; its head drooped down by the chest, the face not visible. No snores, no breaths—as still as the midnight hour.
At a dog’s barking, Roger took a few steps. But something stopped him. He faced the corpse again. No corpse! Just an empty space. He gawked and gazed. No wonder the cops hadn’t found a body. Sweat beads bloomed on his forehead. He fled the scene.
Roger sat in the college library, a lone man under the expectant gaze of hundreds of books. His table topped with many books while he focused on his computer screen, seeking any meaning online for what he’d been seeing. So far, every example he’d discovered dealt with dreams: symbols of toxic relationships, mourning beloved lost ones, feelings of loneliness, depression. Then he opened what must be the sixteenth book and found his answer: self-doubt. Self-doubt must be it. The novel he’d been trying to write was definitely a slog, a demanding test
of his ability as a writer, an ability his parents had doubted, his once-wife had ridiculed, and the lackluster reviews of his first book had fed into.
He closed the library book. It dealt with dream interpretations, not mental projections into the real world. He left his stacks of books for some hapless library assistant to shelve. No psychic powers existed in him as far as he knew. Nor did he possess a sixth sense or second sight. He couldn’t move objects like these books back to their shelf spaces. Nor could he bend spoons, read minds—or contact the deceased. So why was this happening —and why now? All he knew was he hadn’t created a word since it started. He left the library with no more understanding as to why than when he arrived.
The next body, lit by a streetlight, lay prostrate on the pavement before the building next to his. Curious to see the dead man’s face, he bent down to push the bloated corpse over. Surprisingly, there was no foul smell. Why? His heart was drumming like the Foo Fighter’s Travis Hawkins. His hand went through the body like it was air. Roger almost fell over but—luckily—regained his balance.
Gone, vanished, disappeared like some abracadabra stunt. His mind became a graveyard of lifeless thoughts, none making sense. Had he been dreaming, sleepwalking? He pinched himself. The sharp pain answered that. He staggered into his building, heading to the safety of his apartment where he would keep out the ghosts of midnight.
Roger stammered through the following morning’s class on Poe, of all things. He stumbled over thoughts of the American Gothic author’s work, haunted by his own demons. He hammered
his pen against the desk, then paced like he was trying to dig a hole in the tiled floor, and shouted what was probably nonsense at the blackboard. Students began filming him on their phones, ready to share on Instagram. Great, now he was a laughingstock. If only they knew.
After class, he joined Charles for their coffee break.
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost, Rog.”
His friend reared back in his chair like he’d taken a phantom blow. Recovering his composure, he said, “Seriously, Rog, you need to see someone who can help you.”
Roger remained silent, his stare distant.
Charles cocked his head. “Look at you. You’re pale as a… disheveled….”
Roger wasn’t shocked. He’d seen his reflection earlier but had been too off-kilter to do anything about it. As for a psychologist, none could offer sufficient answers to help Roger discover a rational reason for what he was experiencing. So he humored his friend. “I’ll think about it.”
Charles went slack in his chair. Did he know Roger was blowing smoke, would never seek therapy, would never submit to a shrink’s analysis?
Roger’s writing grew more blocked. Night after night, he found himself staring at a computer screen of few words.
The mountains of Afghanistan…
In the mountainous terrain…
Afghanistan’s treacherous terrain…
Sabastian scanned the elevated terrain. “These mountains,” he said to no one in particular. “These mountains are full of ghosts.”
Roger slammed his desk. With no change in sight, were his writing days numbered, destined to lecture forever to bored students killing time in class? An author who couldn’t write was as good as dead.
Trembling, he needed to clear his head.
A full moon lolled in the inky sky, looking down on Roger. He began counting his steps to keep himself calm. When he reached one hundred, it felt as if it was working. So he continued. One hundred-fifty… two hundred… five hundred. At one thousand, he reached his building, its glass shimmering in the moonshine, beckoned him inside.
He pushed the elevator button for his floor. A corpse! In the elevator. Standing? No, it can’t be. Sure enough, the dead body, bloated, its skin reddish, stood behind him, reflected in the elevator’s polished steel wall. The face was turned away. He forced himself to look. When he craned his neck, the cadaver was gone. Fear shackled him like a chain and pulled him out of the elevator, down the carpeted hall, and to his apartment’s door. His hand shook; unlocking took all his concentration. He heaved a breath. With an awkward push, the door swung open, and he stepped inside.
Behind him, the door closed with a whoosh and a smack. Dead bodies everywhere, standing,
leaning, lying, sitting, some were even floating in all states of bloating and redness. He stumbled through the room, arms flailing through camo-garbed corpses that vanished instantly. He crumpled into his desk chair, facing a dead body on his computer screen. He ignored that one and opened the file of his new novel—and the corpse had his face.
“Oh my god!” Roger screamed. “Oh my god!” These ghosts, he knew, had been telling him something all along. He opened the desk drawer and pulled out some pages of his new novel. Gazing at them almost blindly, he tore them into pieces, knowing he wouldn’t write again. And then he fled his apartment, leaving the door unlocked.
Early the following morning, the building’s super found a computer beside Roger’s lifeless body in the back alley. Before lunch, the cops uncovered a printed page on the floor below the printer:
Sebastian Stone saw dead faceless soldiers wandering the streets of Chicago.
Philip Goldberg’s work has appeared in many publications, including trampset, Dillydoun Review, Straylight, Raven’s Perch, Main Street Rag, and Evening Street Review. Flash Fictions and microfictions have appeared in On the Run, Blink Ink, 50 Give or Take, and Riding Light Review. Stories have also been included in Best of collections, earned the honor of being a finalist for the 2021 James Hurst Award, and received a Pushcart Prize nomination. He is currently shopping his novel.