[I previously posted this story on r/Nosleep and removed it because I’d been feeling insecure about it. I had called it ‘Unforgiven’, but am renaming it because that technically isn’t a word.
I recently found the story after thinking it was gone forever… and decided I’d go ahead and share it again!]
I wish she’d die.
That invasive thought came like it always did, as though it were set on a timer. It was finally morning, but I felt as though I’d been in a fist-fight with my nightmares. I was always tired, but I never wanted to sleep—the memories kept me up at night, then replayed while I slept. I had someone to blame—the woman who had hurt me. Even now that she was in prison, she managed to have some power over me. Justice hadn’t been served… if it had, I wouldn’t still be suffering… right?
I wish she’d die.
Maybe then I’d get the relief I needed. I stared up at the ceiling, internalizing that dark wish– one I’d never act on, because that would make me the villain. I had to pray instead that someone else would take care of it for me. That happened in prison all the time, didn’t it?
I closed my eyes, taking the prescribed deep breaths. I knew I was getting too worked up, and I hadn’t even gotten out of bed yet. I counted each breath… Like the doctor told me to do, even though it didn’t work. I was even told not to think about it, not what happened… or my condition, as though somehow it might just go away. I tried to follow their instructions, but I couldn’t stop the thoughts, or the nightmares.
My bedside table was a chaotic display of fluorescent orange bottles and crunchy flowers. Prescriptions, and old bouquets from well-wishers who had long given up on me. People stop sending flowers when you take too long to get better… right around the time they stop caring. The dead flowers reminded me of that every day.
I wish she’d die.
I took my time getting out of bed, absently smoothing the sheets as though they weren’t ripped to shreds—evidence of the battles I fought even in my sleep. I grabbed my phone off the bedside table and skimmed through texts from my mother:
“Stop doing this.”
I hadn’t called her in months. I’d call her later, but first I needed to take a shower. The film of nightmares left my skin sticky, the long t-shirt sheer to the point of indecency. I felt disgusting! Taking a shower used to be a cure-all, I would always feel better when I was clean. It wasn’t so simple now because I never felt clean.
I gathered my towel, and a change of clothes before heading to the bathroom. I didn’t bother turning on the light, the high window in the room let the sun stream in just enough that I wasn’t stumbling around blind. As I brushed my teeth, I deliberately kept my eyes trained on the faucet so I wouldn’t have to see my face.
My phone started to vibrate again, more texts punctuated with an occasional call. I didn’t pick up. I didn’t want to talk to her because I wasn’t better yet. I knew she’d just tell me to snap out of it, like it really was that simple. What would answering her calls really accomplish? I’d only give her more reasons to worry. She didn’t understand what I was going through, what that woman had done to me.
I wish she’d die.
The lights flashed brightly, as if in response to my dark thought. In the darkness, the sudden intensity burned into my ill-adjusted eyes. It only lasted for a moment before the light winked out, leaving only the square of sunlight from the window. My first instinct was to rationalize it, but doubt quickened my pulse. Maybe I was just imagining things? I made sure to double check the switch, flipping it on and back off for good measure. Lately, I’d been prone to hallucinations so it wasn’t completely out of the question that I’d imagined it.
Trying to shake it off, I undressed and stepped into the shower. It didn’t take long before something strange happened—the shower curtain began to draw back. I caught it with my hand and tugged it back into place. Even though there was no one here, the thought of the curtain opening and letting anyone—even the mirror— see me, was enough to freak me out. I didn’t want to be seen; not by myself, not by anyone!
I tried to be dismissive, but it didn’t last. My hands were shaking as I reached for the faucet, ready to retreat back into my room and hide. Before I could, the curtain was ripped down and left spreading on the floor like a dark, pooling stain. Startled, I couldn’t help but scream! As I ran for the door… a woman materialized from shadow, someone I’d never seen before.
“Who–?” I shrieked, but before I could even finish the question she vanished, leaving me face to face with the mirror that I’d been avoiding. It was so dirty, far dirtier than it should have been—to the point it couldn’t even reflect. On its surface, written in the grime—a message:
The words sent chills through me. I tore my eyes away, more convinced that I needed to get away from this place before my mind cooked up even darker delusions.
“I’m having a nightmare.” I rarely spoke these days, to hear it under these circumstances was particularly jarring. I bolted, reaching for the door and cried out when I realized it was locked from the outside. At this point I was well beyond terror, throwing my shoulder against the door to break it down.
“No! This isn’t happening!”
I heard a sigh behind me; turning slowly, full of dread: there she was again, the woman I’d seen in front of the mirror. I knew she’d never left. Locking up with terror, I could only stare. There she stood, with dark hair that fell in the way that shadows do; her lips were violet, accentuated by bloodshot eyes. I could feel her contempt, judging this dark world of mine.
“What do you want?” I managed to ask her. She turned away from me, looking into the old mirror—perhaps she could see something in it that I couldn’t.
“Why won’t you look in the mirror?” the question she asked caught me off guard. “You’ve neglected it completely.” As if she sympathized, she touched the tarnished frame—not even glancing my way. It was like she wasn’t here for me— she was here for the mirror.
I wish she’d die.
“I know. That’s not what I asked.” She’d heard the words I’d never spoken. I was caught off guard, leaning against the locked door.
“Well…” I felt compelled to reply, though the question was hard to answer. “I know I’m not who I used to be. I don’t want to see that.” If she found my answer strange, she gave no indication.
“I can make her die. You know the price.”
As she said so, the words sprang to mind: two graves– Hers… and mine. My grudge against the woman who ruined me had taken over my life. I had stopped living for anything else. In a sense, she had killed me. The person I was, and the person I could be—
Did it really have to be this way?
I didn’t know how I’d never asked that question. This fatal choice… I was being offered the revenge I’d wished for, but the price to pay was steep. I could choose that path, but was that what I really wanted?
Yes, the darker part of my heart cried. It held so much power over me, and yet–
“No… I won’t be her victim twice. I won’t follow her into Hell, she can go there herself.”
The apparition finally looked at me, she was smiling– softening into something less ominous. The mockery and contempt she wore dropped away like pretense.
“Yes… she will be judged, but not by you. If you continue down the path you’re on, you will be destroyed.” I knew she was right. My fixation on murder couldn’t possibly end well, I needed to move on with my life.
Before I could even finish the thought, the woman was gone. So was the darkness and filth that once filled my house.
I turned towards the mirror. For the first time… in a long time… I saw my reflection. I was still myself, there was no one who could have changed that— except for me. When the phone rang, I picked up and smiled into the receiver. The healing had begun, I knew I couldn’t shut myself away any longer.
“Hi mom… I’ve missed you too.”
I’ve always had an aversion to the cracks between things.
You know– tiny, dark spaces where a hand barely fits, but often ventures—in search of something lost. It’s always something important you lose in those places, isn’t it? Car keys, a watch, a cell phone—things that will have you groping the darkness without much thought.
The worst for me was the cracks in the couch, those narrow pockets of darkness. It wasn’t a rational fear, but knowing that didn’t help. I took measures to avoid searching there, obsessively keeping track of my things so I wouldn’t lose them in the first place.
For example, my keys always hung in the same place, and my cell phone was either charging or clipped to my pants. The television remote took a little more ingenuity; even though I had a place for it, it always had a way of ending up between the cushions. I’d know exactly where it was, and go fishing in the cracks with a pair of tongs because I couldn’t bear sticking my hand down there.
I was tired of living like that, I hated myself for being afraid of something so benign. I couldn’t help it though, I had an instinct that all the logic in the world couldn’t shake.
I thought I’d found the perfect solution when I found the string.
Braided neon nylon—I bought a spool of orange, the color of construction crews and traffic cones. I tied a string around the remote, leaving six feet of length to dangle and drape over the coffee table.
It worked beautifully.
The remote was always easy to find, that string was easy to see. When the remote inevitably found its way between couch cushions, I’d reel in the string at a strategic angle. It worked well, why wouldn’t I try it with other things too?
I bought more neon nylon string, several spools in different colors: orange, yellow and green. I tied them to everything small and easily lost. My headphones, my charger, the kitchen scissors… even the salt and pepper shakers!
It worked so well, I brought the strategy out of the house too. I tied the yellow strings to things that should always be on my person; my phone, my keys, my wallet… if I ever saw yellow, I’d know I lost something. My pockets were always bulging with balls yellow string; for peace of mind, it was a small price to pay.
At work, I tied green strings to things that fall in that space between the wall and the desk; the pens, tape and stapler. It was an orderly chaos, those neon nylon strings. There was a method to my madness, but no one else understood it.
When my boss called me into the office about the complaints, I did my best to explain. He didn’t get it, but he couldn’t make me stop. I could do whatever I wanted, so long as the items were my personal property and I wasn’t tying them on company time.
With time, my house resembled an art project rather than a living space. Bright orange strings draped across every surface, in every direction—carefully laid out, strategically placed. Walking around become an exercise in balance and flexibility, but still… it was worth it.
Of course, there is no such thing as a perfect solution; the problems with this method of organization began to present themselves before long.
The strings tangled; it became hard to tell which strings attached to what. I spent a lot of time maintaining, untangling everything and monitoring the cracks between things to see if any thread lead into the dark.
I stopped inviting people over, it was too tiring to explain. No explanation I could give seemed adequate. I knew it was strange, but it made me feel safer. I was in complete control, the puppet master in this colorful world.
There were other problems too; the slightest movement would cause a chain reaction, the strings constantly quivered and rustled softly with only the slightest touch—even a breeze through an open window was enough to cause constant motion. I always saw movement in my periphery, only to realize it was the string when I turned to check.
At night, I’d wake up because several strands would swipe softly against my skin. Once I realized it was just the string, I’d relax and fall back asleep… but that initial moment, half asleep, when you feel an unexplained touch…? Terrifying.
After a while, I got used to the poking and prodding of the strings and stopped noticing… until the night I woke up on the floor.
I wasn’t sure why I’d woken up at first, reaching for the blacklight on my nightstand… only to realize I was touching carpet. Unable to see in the dark, I waited for my eyes to adjust. Before long, the furniture around me took shape… only slightly darker than the blackness around me.
Once I was better oriented, I was able to sit up to reach the nightstand; I felt resistance as I found the light, and realized with the neon illumination that I had somehow become tangled in the strings.
Thick bundles of cord were coiled around my calves and left elbow, pulled taut. The strings stretched out the door and down the hall, vibrating and twisting—braiding together, as though to form a thick rope. I tried to reach down and untangle myself, but it was too difficult.
Panic set in when my body unexpectedly moved, the knots tightened by a sharp pull—I slid across the carpet, towards the door… becoming more tangled as I struggled. I caught the door frame with my free hand before I could be yanked out, the door frame creaking in protest as the wood strained and warped.
I heard things breaking in another room, and the soft scrape of objects being dragged… all of the strings were moving in one direction— the persistent tug didn’t stop. My grip grew weaker as I held on for dear life, until my sweaty fingers slipped. Splinters of wood bit into my skin, and once again I was reeled into the deepening darkness, down the hall.
I fumbled for furniture, anything I could catch onto… and found nothing. I felt like a fish on the end of a line, the catch of some unseen monstrosity in the dark. It was not a gentle current, knocking me into walls and the various objects that joined me on this harrowing journey.
Raw terror almost sent me into a blind panic, but my survival instincts kicked in. Nature and genetics hadn’t bestowed me with sharp claws, but I still had teeth– and I used them, tearing like an animal at the strands that had twisted about my elbow. The friction tore at the corners of my mouth, but I ignored the pain and bit down as hard as I could, sawing at the threads until they frayed and snapped.
It worked, though my mouth was burning and bloody– long, limp strands of string hung from the crook of my elbow… now I had control of both arms. I started ripping off my pajama bottoms— screaming in pain when I dislocated my ankle to slip free from the massive knot. I felt like a coyote in a trap, doing what I could to free myself even if it meant an injury.
Free, I hobbled down the hall on one foot, it was easy enough to dodge the undulating strings as they began to converge into one thick mass. I turned on the hallway light, using the wall as support as I eased myself slowly towards the kitchen. I was in bad shape, covered in rug burn and blood. Adrenaline kept me moving even when I shouldn’t have been able to stand.
Not much was left of the kitchen. Everything I’d tied had already been pulled into that tangled body… fortunately; the knife block hadn’t made it far. For practical reasons, I hadn’t tied strings to any of the knives. Although the block had been knocked to the floor, the knives were still safely housed inside. I grabbed the biggest one with my least injured hand.
Armed, I limped after the strings into the living room– the source of the pull. When I turned on the lights I could see objects catching on things, getting stuck. Everything was converging on the couch, in the gap between the left armrest and the cushions.
Now that I was closer to the source, I could hear it… a sucking sound, wet and smacking, as though my couch were enjoying a plate of pasta, noodles of string being slurped into that cramped abyss.
Pushing back the disbelief, I got to work with the knife—hacking inelegantly at the writhing neon vein, freeing what possessions I could before they were all sucked down that bottomless maw.
I didn’t save much, but it was better than nothing. At sunrise, I paid the paperboy $100.00 to dump the couch on the curb for me, and another $20.00 so he wouldn’t ask questions.
Even at a distance, from the safety of my window… I could still see those neon nylon strings, a spray of orange twisted into the frayed ends of rope. It stuck out of the gap, only a few inches in length— as if to bait me to reach out, and reel the darkness in.
I could reclaim all I’d lost, with just a pull of the strings. But no, I wouldn’t take the bait. I knew something was waiting on the other side to pull me in. No… I’d let my lost things stay lost.
For all my fear, I’d somehow neglected to remember that a string can be pulled from both ends.
My husband’s last words were an accusation. Nathan blamed me for his death even before it happened by his own hand. Nathan had always been like that, in life and in death, always finding ways to make his mistakes someone else’s fault, usually mine.
“You didn’t care enough, Ivy. This is your fault.”
Some way or another he’d twist things, until I was on my knees and begging for forgiveness. His last words were intentional, one last shot from the grave…a guarantee that I’d never be free. His death was my fault, he wouldn’t let me forget it. Death guaranteed the last word, an argument won and closed forever.
We’d been in the middle of a messy divorce when it happened. Nathan kept the rent controlled apartment… I slept on a friend’s couch. To be honest, I didn’t care; the scratchy fibers of the couch felt like freedom, something I hadn’t had for a long time.
The only real point of contention was our dog, Piper. That, and the fact that Nathan didn’t actually believe I wanted a divorce; he thought I was trying to prove a point. While he waited for me to ‘come to my senses’… he used Piper as leverage. It broke my heart when he refused to let me see her. On the rare days he allowed it, Nathan was sure to remind me what an act of benevolence it was.
My threshold for his bullshit only lasted a good year and a half into our marriage before I started worrying over ways out. The prospect of divorce was enough to get the pews at church abuzz with scandal, which I desperately wanted to avoid. I procrastinated—and tolerated—until Nathan’s bullshit went beyond emotional abuse and became physical.
How did I even get to that point?
My answer shouldn’t come as a surprise: I rationalized the red flags. When we met, Nathan was 28 and I was 18. I’d been eager to prove I was an adult and made mistakes learning what that actually meant. Nathan was an attractive man, made even more attractive by his apparent maturity. His initial possessiveness was flattering; I didn’t realize he considered me a possession until we were already married.
With a divorce already underway, I was actually happy. My life was far from perfect, but the feeling of throwing off the yoke and becoming my own person again was exhilarating. If I could walk away with only one thing, I wanted it to be Piper. Nathan refused to give up his leverage, claiming I was too irresponsible and unstable to keep her. Unwilling to let him win even one more time… I planned shamelessly, intending to get my dog back at any cost.
Nathan didn’t expect it, but I was equally capable of guile. I knew what he anticipated—and frankly, I didn’t have much pride. When I was ready to make my move, I didn’t hesitate to humiliate myself. I let him think he won, showing up one morning and crying on his stoop. I begged him to take me back.
“I made a mistake!” I kept my head down submissively. The theatrics were necessary; an argument at the door wouldn’t resolve anything. If I showed any sign that I wasn’t there for him, I’d only find myself on the wrong side of a slammed door.
Barely able to contain his smugness, Nathan let me inside. Immediately, his lecturing began—he steered me into the living room almost gleefully. My future ex husband loved being right, he loved it so much that I might’ve gotten off easy… if I’d really been there to reconcile.
I grabbed a handful of tissues, dabbing at my face as I continued to blubber. I had cried a lot over the years—ugly crying, not the pretty kind you see on television. My face goes bright red and puffy about ten seconds in; it’s not something you can fake. Hiding my face was the only way to guarantee Nathan wouldn’t catch on.
“Let’s talk about what needs to change for this to happen. I’ll take you back, but you’re going to have to try harder.” Nathan gloated, the words sounded rehearsed. He picked up a notepad with a list of demands, further proof that he’d fully expected my return. Knowing him, he’d type it up and have me sign it when he was satisfied with the ‘terms’… he wouldn’t let me ‘pull this stunt’ again.
I pretended I was too overwrought to listen. I leaned forward, burying my face in my hands with a burst of unintelligible apologies I didn’t mean. Piper had already waddled over on her short, stubby legs—giving my knee a comforting lick. The corgi bought my performance as readily as Nathan did. I reached down to pet her, unable to resist; it had been too long since I’d seen her.
Nathan sighed, tossing the notepad on the coffee table with an audible thwack. He wasn’t angry (he thought that he’d won after all)… but his patience wore thin.
“I’m making us some hot chocolate.” He declared, “Try to get yourself together please, this is embarrassing. I don’t want the neighbors to hear you crying again.” nevermind that he was always the reason I cried, he added: “You’re making us both look even worse than you already have. I wish you had more self control, but… we’ll address it. Things will get better, for both of us.” he said that with authority, but the corners of his mouth must have been quirked in a barely concealed smile. No matter what he said, he was actually delighted. I knew that without looking. I heard Nathan get up, strutting victoriously down the hall.
That was what I’d been waiting for, a moment alone.
I made my move then; scooping up Piper and heading out the front door. My friend Nadine was my waiting getaway driver, peeling off the second I jumped in the car. We escaped to a symphony of squealing tires and the accelerating rhythm of my heart.
We’d made it. I had Piper, and walked out without so much as a scratch! I couldn’t help but grin, hugging a bewildered but excited corgi to my chest. Nathan had underestimated me—victory was sweet.
“That was badass!” Nadine howled with laughter once I recounted the story back at her apartment. We were all safely nestled in her living room while a Netflix binge played, ignored, on the screen in front of us.
“Badass?” I snorted. “All I did was cry until he left the room—then I grabbed her and ran. There’s nothing badass about that.”
“Standing up to that douche canoe IS a huge accomplishment, don’t try and downplay it Ivy. With all you’ve been through… you’ve got guts.” Her smile was infectious, I couldn’t help but smile too, but there was still a niggling worry in my stomach.
It wasn’t over yet.
That night, Nathan called me over and over. When I didn’t pick up, he left messages. I didn’t block him, I always kept his messages for court. The messages escalated from annoyance to fury—and even begging. It was shocking at first, because I’d never heard him cry before. It didn’t make me happy, it made me… uncomfortable. I couldn’t help but listen—driven by morbid/masochistic curiosity.
Then came the final voicemail. He was no longer crying or screaming… his words were perfectly level and assured:
“You didn’t care enough, Ivy. This is your fault.” his voice held the tone of an ultimatum, but I just laughed. He was used to making demands—he was used to me obeying. He didn’t even bother following it up with a threat. For a moment, I thought I was free… his words no longer had power over me.
I didn’t know that these would be his last words to me…his last words to anyone. I got the news in the morning: Nathan was dead, a self inflicted gunshot to the head. Is it bad that my first feeling was relief?
The police deemed it a suicide in record time, thanks in part to a note he’d left me (I declined to read it).The final voicemail suddenly had an unnerving perspective; a grip I couldn’t shake.
Nathan had the last word, there was nothing more I could say. I became a widow, with no need for a divorce. Dutifully, I dealt with the aftermath. I didn’t smile… it wasn’t a victory.
About a month after his death, I moved back in to the apartment we’d shared. I was reluctant, but knew I couldn’t stay on Nadine’s couch forever. The old apartment was a haunting collection of bad memories, I tried to fix that: I got rid of everything. I used my savings to buy new furniture, trying to make the apartment look and feel completely different.
It didn’t work because Nathan had never left.
I heard him. Felt him, but… I never saw him. It was enough to keep me in denial, I fell back into a pattern of stubborn rationalizations just I had in our marriage.
At night, Piper would bark at something unseen. I’d hear creaking footsteps creeping down the hall; a slow and deliberate tread, like a predator waiting to be noticed. The building must have been settling. I’d pull up the covers, trying to ignore the oppressive weight of anxiety as I curled beneath the blankets.
Denial didn’t stop the footsteps from coming closer, closing in on my cowering form. At the foot of the bed I’d hear Nathan’s voice; his words woven with shadows, a tapestry of woe:
“You didn’t care enough, Ivy. This is your fault.”
A footstep followed each syllable; the mattress warping under his weight as he climbed under the covers too. I had to be imagining things… I told myself it was the guilt. Guilt I didn’t even need to be feeling. I’d tell him so, a wavering whisper… but that just made him laugh with incredulity at my gall.
It was was worse when he didn’t laugh.
I’d feel the bite of his fingers, gripping my throat with invisible hands. I’d be paralyzed with fear, gasping for breath while his tongue would trace the contours of my body, leaving an icy trail of putrid saliva and my own cold sweat. Time always seemed the slowest then. I couldn’t move, but his grip was just tight enough that I could still scream.
“You did it to yourself!” became my shrieked mantra in the middle of the night, every night. A prayer before the sun started its descent. Medication, meditation, none of it helped. I was haunted, terror lurking in every shadow and unexplained sound. I wore a necklace of fingerprints, bruises circling my neck.
My nights became increasingly difficult to explain away. I lost it when I woke up one morning to find a ring under my pillow—my wedding ring, long abandoned. The simple band was a gleaming circle of etched gold, engraved with my broken promise: ‘Forever Yours’.
I dropped it in the toilet, flushing it down with stress induced vomit—but that wasn’t the end of it. The ring appeared under my pillow the very next morning, within a stinking water stain and a single dirty hand print next to where my head had been.
The next few days were a repeat of the same, with alternating methods of disposal. It didn’t matter, the ring kept reappearing, until one day it wasn’t under my pillow. A moment of relief was cut painfully short—it was on my left ring finger.
I couldn’t get it off, no matter how hard I tried! Trying only made it worse, tightening until my skin began to bulge and discolor. It didn’t stop, even after cutting off my circulation… The metal bit into my skin, blood seeping out and running in rivulets down my hand and arm as I tried to drive to the hospital.
The gold was unnervingly cold, even when my skin was glistening red… my wedding ring remained immaculate, gleaming without a drop. It didn’t stop, even when I stopped resisting and parked my car in the middle of traffic— screaming in agony— the ring continued to chew through my finger, until it was off completely.
It was only when my finger fell off and rolled under the driver’s seat that the pain went away, giving way to a tingling numbness. I finished the drive to the hospital, managing to find my lost digit… but not the ring, it was gone.
The finger couldn’t be reattached. While it wasn’t a life threatening injury, the loss of my ring finger was symbolic. It was a message: I was never going to get married again, I still belonged to Nathan.
The ring did not reappear after that, but I couldn’t sit still and wait for Nathan to find new ways to hurt me. I knew he would, because the more I tried to ignore him… the angrier he became.
Without any other options, I went to church. It seemed silly even to me, but I didn’t know where else to turn. After services were over, I waited patiently for the congregation to disperse… I kept my head down, not making eye contact with anyone. I didn’t want my plight to become gossip, so I wouldn’t speak up until everyone else had gone.
Except in passing, I’d never spoken to Father Dan. Although I faithfully attended every Sunday service, I’d never felt comfortable asking for his help directly. Of course, I probably could have used his help a long time ago… ‘taking responsibility’ for my mistakes and enduring had not ended well.
Father Dan noticed, taking a seat beside me once the church went quiet. His eyes were warm, his face lined with years of genuine joy and sorrow; he was a man who had heard and seen it all. I’d always found him intimidating, he wasn’t exactly what you pictured when you thought of a priest. He was scruffy, with calloused hands and skin that was almost perpetually sunburned… I wasn’t sure how he found time to get a tan, let alone the time to overdo it!
Once I was sure we were alone, I told him all that had been going on since I’d moved back into my old apartment. I didn’t hold back, finding it surprisingly easy to be honest with him. I showed him my left hand, missing a finger. To my credit, I didn’t even cry. To his credit, he didn’t interrupt me once—just listened quietly to my entire story, withholding judgment.
“This isn’t your fault.” He told me once he was sure I was done. I smiled wearily when he said that—it did sound a lot more convincing coming from a priest. “Where’s his body?” Father Dan was getting right to business.
I was surprised, but answered: he’d been buried at Memorial Park Cemetery. I watched as he wandered over to his office… only to return moments later with a shovel and what I assumed was a very old bible.
“Father, can you explain before I get the wrong idea?” I laughed nervously, eying the shovel. He smiled, not at all surprised by my reaction. He answered decisively, speaking slowly in the scripted way people do when they’ve explained something a thousand times.
“His body needs to be burned.” He explained, “Unfortunately, since he’s buried…” he nodded towards the shovel by way of explanation. “I’ll also perform a… divorce.” He added, “I’m assuming the courts didn’t deem it necessary to issue a decree of divorce upon his death?”
“They didn’t, there wasn’t a need. ‘Till death do us part’, right?” except Nathan hadn’t parted after all. I felt tears build pressure behind my eyes, but I managed to keep them in check.
“That’s poetry. Death isn’t an end, it’s a beginning. If you were happily married, would you really want to be parted from someone just because you’d died?”
“… No.” I admitted, although I considered that a big if. If I was happily married.
“I have the authority to perform a divorce for the dead. That won’t sever his connection completely, but… the cleansing fire will.” I didn’t pretend to understand, but I had hope. Without further argument, we both made our way to Memorial Park Cemetery.
It felt like the setup to a bad joke: A priest and a widow walk into a cemetery… only neither of us were laughing. However, for the first time since Nathan’s haunting had begun—I felt safe. Father Dan waved at the groundskeeper as we walked through the gate. The groundskeeper waved back; not batting an eye when he saw us with a shovel conspicuously in tow.
My fears that we would be caught were quickly proving unfounded, this must not have been the first time Father Dan had to perform this kind of service. It was broad daylight, but that didn’t seem to be a deterrent. No one bothered us.
“Is this really okay?” I bit my lip, watching him press the shovel firmly into the dirt covering Nathan’s grave. I was surprised to see a priest doing this sort of heavy labor—when I offered to help, he wouldn’t have it. Father Dan was considerate of me, pausing every few minutes to offer a kind word or reassurance even when his breathing became labored from the task at hand.
“You’re so comfortable at a time like this… have you done this before?” I finally felt comfortable making conversation, breaking the one sided silence to ask.
“Many times, unfortunately.” He answered, “Don’t worry, this isn’t illegal. You’re the widow, you have the authority to allow this. Breathe, Ivy.” his smile compassionate, his tawny eyes crinkling at the corners.
“It’s just… I don’t know…” But my reaction must have been common, because he was calm and patient throughout. I’d always thought Father Dan was stern and serious from where I’d sat during the Sunday services, now I saw that I’d misjudged his character.
When the casket was unearthed, he had me step into the grave where he read a passage from his book. All I had to do was repeat after him, with my hand placed on the dirt caked coffin—carefully enunciating every syllable, although the recitation wasn’t in a language I understood.
With that, we were divorced apparently. It was so simple I almost wanted to laugh—a lot easier than anything I could have hoped for in a courtroom.
I kept my distance while he salted and burned the body, adding a dusting of a strange black powder from a satchel at his waist. I tried to ignore the smells and sounds of burning flesh… It wasn’t pleasant, even if he’d been dead for a while.
I refused to leave, even with assurances that I didn’t need to stay. I needed the closure, so I waited as the fire burned unnaturally hot and bright—watching a column of black smoke rise dramatically up into the sky, as though Nathan were giving us both the finger. The thought didn’t frighten me, it made me smile.
It was only when the body was reduced to ash that I braved a look inside what was left of the coffin. I almost wasn’t surprised to see two golden rings, spotless and gleaming amid the ashes. Our wedding bands. Father Dan picked them up, despite my immediate protest—having lost a finger, I was naturally reluctant to see them in anyone’s hand.
“Remnants like this have their uses within the Church.” He assured me, “Don’t worry, without Nathan’s malice tied to this Earth any longer… they are rendered inert.” While I didn’t feel completely convinced, I decided to believe him. This wasn’t the first post-mortem divorce he’d performed, I didn’t even want to know what else he’d done or how often! Some things are best left to the experts.
“So he’s…?” of course, I had a million and one questions. Father Dan predicted them and answered before I could even find the words:
“Gone. Without a physical body or marriage to tether him, he will go where he’s meant to go now. Take a shower before sunset, and you’ll be cleansed as well.”
The muddy priest fished through his pockets and extended a business card, pressing it gently into my hand. Confused, I glanced down to read the embossed golden print: Father Dan’s Plumbing and Exorcism Services. As my eyes met his with questions, he grinned sheepishly.
“My services are primarily word of mouth, I don’t advertise because I only take on special jobs.”
“You’re also a plumber? Is that … allowed?” it wasn’t that I’d cause trouble, but the question stumbled out of my mouth anyway before I could think better of it. By ‘special jobs’, I guessed he didn’t mean clogged toilets.
“Only as an extension of my ministry.” he explained, leaving it at that. He mopped at his brow with a handkerchief that had seen better days, exhausted yet exuding a sense of deep satisfaction.
“Thank you, Father.” I whispered gratefully, tucking away the card. I had more questions, but I decided it was better not to ask. I already felt like I knew too much, I didn’t need or want to know anymore.
“Go home Ivy, you’re work here is done. You’re no longer beholden to your ex-husband. Your duty has ended here.” with a final pat on my shoulder, he sent me on my way. “See you next Sunday.”
The first thing I did when I got home was take a long shower, washing away the events of the day and the past few months, watching my worries wash down the drain. Nothing happened, even when the sun set. I’d grown so used to nights of terror that I didn’t completely trust the peace and quiet at first, but that initial apprehension melted quickly.
As I lay down to sleep, curling up with my corgi. I murmured a quick, sincere prayer…I took comfort in the fact that Nathan was gone. Remembering Father Dan’s words, I smiled: he will go where he’s meant to go now.
Who would’ve thought I’d be relieved that Hell exists?
Do you smoke? I used to.
Don’t worry, I’m not about to list a million and one reasons you shouldn’t. I won’t insult your intelligence—you know exactly why you shouldn’t smoke.
You don’t need me (or anyone else) to tell you. I’ve been victim many a holier-than-thou lecture, I’m not about to subject you to the same. Smoking is one of those habits that people feel comfortable judging you for, so long as it is out of ‘concern’ for your health. We’ve heard it all before.
No … I’m going to give you one more reason to quit. Only one. It was enough to get me to stop, maybe it will be enough for you. If it’s not, I’ve done all I could. What happens after you read my story is entirely up to you, and frankly—none of my damn business. Hell, just putting this out there is going ‘above and beyond’ any sort of moral obligation. I don’t give a shit what you do, I don’t even know you.
Yet, here I am: typing this out while wondering if I’m a fucking nut. But you know what? I quit cold turkey, and though my health is probably a lot better—that perk still comes second to the fact that I’ll never see one of those things again.
A couple years ago I was reluctantly attending a wedding. My ex Lissa, the one that got away, was about to be forever out of my reach. I didn’t want to be there, but I also didn’t want to be an asshole… so there I was, hunched in a pew and pretending to be happy for her. I guess I sort of was, but I was also feeling pretty damn sorry for myself.
After the excruciatingly long ceremony, I excused myself to have a smoke outside. I had no interest in attending the reception and watching Lissa look so happy with someone else. At this point, I felt as though I’d fulfilled any obligation our continuing friendship had wrought: I’d gifted some fancy blender that makes soup off her registry, I’d watched the ceremony, shed a few happy tears and borrowed the tux.
Now I just had to wait until the earliest time I could leave without looking like a dick.
A smoke break would at least give me an excuse to step away from the bustling celebration. There was a designated smoking area outside, frustratingly far from any of the entrances. It was early spring, the sky was still winter-dark and it was cold as fuck… but it was still better than being inside, so I made the walk and fished out a smooshed pack of Camel Lights.
I’d borrowed the tux from my younger brother who’d made me swear I wouldn’t smoke while wearing it—but I couldn’t bring myself to care. I needed this! Smoking would take the edge off this miserable evening.
A woman was already standing at the oh-so classy ash tray garbage can combo. I didn’t recognize her, but that didn’t mean much– I hadn’t been paying attention to the other guests. What surprised me about her was her dress… it was white.
Even I know that’s a faux pas. Only the bride is supposed to wear white at a wedding—and I knew that the entire church had been rented out for this event, so it wasn’t like this was some errant bride from another wedding. No, her dress was an act of rebellion—a petty gesture that my bitter heart could appreciate.
Clearing my throat, I approached; making noise because I didn’t want to startle her, giving her a chance to hear me coming before closing the distance between us. The woman had her back to me, not bothering to turn to acknowledge me.
I didn’t take it personally, just drew out a cigarette and lit up with an almost frenzied desperation. The first slow drag was incredibly satisfying, dropping the tension in my shoulders like fucking magic. I exhaled, watching the smoke pollute the air in front of me with satisfaction.
Turning my attention to the pale woman, I felt up to a little small talk. Having a cigarette in hand put me at ease, even knowing it was nicotine addiction rather than any real relaxation benefit. I couldn’t help but stare at her—she was remarkably thin, her silhouette could be accurately described as a skinny rectangle. The absence of curves was… disappointing but not a deal breaker. It’s not like I was looking to pick her up anyway, though I wouldn’t say no to a good pity fuck if anyone offered. What can I say? I was heartbroken.
“The ceremony went on a little long, didn’t it?” I flicked my ash into the tray before taking another drag, still observing her back. “I’m Rick, by the way.” The woman turned her head slightly in acknowledgement, but didn’t turn around. I caught a glimpse of a soft, orange glow—the cigarette between her lips, though I couldn’t make out her face through the dense cloud of smoke that had filled the air around her.
“Your dress is beautiful.” I complimented, still admiring it— the gown was strange, long and form fitting. Hauntingly beautiful, made of an unusual fabric that has turned brown and curled at the edges—it reminded me of an old map, in color and in texture (at least, from what I could see). I don’t pretend I understand fashion, but as unusual a sight as she was, I was drawn in.
I don’t know how long I’d been standing there making one-sided conversation, but it was time for a second cigarette. I sighed as I took inventory of my pack—only two cigarettes left before I’d have to buy more. Not enough to get me through this evening. The first cigarette in the pack had been inverted for luck, but I felt far from lucky.
Feeling as though I was bothering the woman, I decided I’d wrap up the respite and go back inside. She clearly wasn’t up to talking, but in a last-ditch effort to be polite I figured I could at least offer her a cigarette. I really wanted to see her face, or hear her voice. There was something about her, so mesmerizing… though she’d done nothing but stand there and smoke in silence. I felt compelled to seek her attention, I just couldn’t help myself!
“I have two cigarettes left. Want one?” I drew one out, extending my hand to present it hopefully. The woman turned to respond, and my heart caught in my throat when I finally saw her. The woman was little more than a skeleton wrapped in paper, her face perpetually obscured in a pale cloud of writhing smoke. The only thing I could make out through the haze were two glowing orange spots like two cigarettes in the dark—I realized only then, as she gazed back at me… that those were her eyes.
She was no longer beautiful, the mysterious and pale visage was replaced by a tar-stained specter of smoke, paper and bone. I was frozen by the realization, dropping the cigarette I’d been offering. I just stood there, stuck on stupid as she—it— glided towards me with ominous purpose. My mouth hung open while my brain screamed at me to do something besides stand there like a fucking moron!
But I couldn’t.
The creature placed dead, yellowing hands upon my shoulders and leaned down so her face was level with mine. I began to sputter and cough from the dense smoke, choking on the thick miasma. Skeletal fingers dug into my shoulders, tearing holes into the fabric of the jacket. As I felt its touch on my skin, it burned! Yet I couldn’t even let out a hiss of pain as I continued to hack and gasp for air.
Pressing what I could only assume was her mouth against mine, the monster began to inhale deeply—each breath rattling her bones. I stopped coughing… but only because I was suffocating. It was as though the breath was being sucked out of my lungs, leaving me cold and empty—left only with the burn of agonizing pain. I wasn’t even granted the ability to scream, as she continued to inhale… tasting my smoke-stained lungs, my vision beginning to tunnel into darkness.
All I could see were those burning eyes, yet I understood that this was a blessing. I no longer wanted to see her face. I closed my eyes, unable to do anything to fight back… so I thought about Lissa. How beautiful she’d been in the wedding dress as white as her radiant smile. At least she was happy, she didn’t need me … there was no one to regret leaving behind. I knew I was going to die, and I accepted that.
I passed out.
I was surprised to wake up. I was on my back, soaked from the morning dew under the faint light of a barely-risen sun. I just lay there for a long time, staring up at the cloudy sky in confusion and horror. My shoulders and lungs hurt. I briefly entertained the idea that my aches and pains contributed to a nightmare… but when I sat up, I saw the holes in the ruined tuxedo jacket.
I’d offered that bitch a cigarette, but she’d smoked me instead. It still hurt to breathe, but… I was alive. I got to my feet, and found the near-empty pack of Camel Lights resting on top of the ash tray. Inside, I found my last cigarette—the first of the pack, inverted for luck. Was it luck that kept me alive? I have no fucking clue, but I pocketed the pack. I still keep it in my pocket to this day, either for luck or as a reminder. I’m not sure which.
The urge to smoke didn’t disappear overnight. But every time I reached for that last cigarette, something stilled my hand. I began to see tall, pale people with smoke covered faces everywhere I went, backs turned and dressed in outfits like burnt paper. I call them Smokers. They stand there, waiting for someone to offer them a smoke—not knowing the creature would take it from their very lungs. I don’t think it’s an experience you’re meant to survive. I was lucky.
Eventually, I stopped seeing Smokers. I know they’re still there, but… I’m not their prey anymore. I’d been smoking since I was 13—I’d heard every reason not to smoke and more, but it was one of those monsters that decided it. They are the only reason I needed to quit smoking.
If I still haven’t convinced you, at least keep my story in the back of your mind: and for the love of God… don’t offer cigarettes to mysterious, mesmerizing strangers!