The bracing cold barely fazed the revellers as they made their way to the town centre. Unseen, a solitary figure walked among them as they hurried towards their meeting point in the town square, a distant choir of angelic voices beckoning them on. Sensing their excitement and common purpose, the unsettled phantom followed. How often she had witnessed the scene: the enactment of their hopes and dreams for the year to come, a dream she was no longer a part of. A welcoming touch, a word of kindness, the hopes of a better tomorrow, all the things that gave purpose and meaning to life, were now denied her. Stripped of memory or hope her unhappy soul wandered through the crowd.
In the early days of her passing she had wished for a sign, anything that might trigger her memory as to how she had become trapped in a world between worlds. There had been no heavenly light at the end of a tunnel, nor loved ones to welcome her into the Kingdom. She knew only the lonely and cold embrace of purgatory.
Stripped of name and countenance – for ghosts she soon learned cast no reflection – she lived her life vicariously, choosing at random any group or individual who offered some kind of temporary solace from her sombre thoughts. She had witnessed the joys and loves of countless families and individuals. Inevitably, such experiences were bittersweet and served only to bring home to her how utterly alone she was. Of her many hauntings one family in particular stuck out: the young Lawrence couple and their only child, James. It was her meeting with James that made the encounter all the more memorable. She could still vividly recall her meeting with the seven-year-old on that snowy Christmas Day morning so long ago.
Again, it was a single random act of curiosity that had drawn her to the Lawrence household. On entering she was immediately struck at how different it was to the others in the street. Clearly, this was the home of a less affluent family. In the corner of the room stood a Spartan Christmas tree, its drooping branches lacking little in the way of decoration, other than homemade baubles and wraps of tinsel. She stooped to read the labels on the four lovingly wrapped presents at the base of the tree. They were all addressed with the same name: ‘James’. Saddened by the scarcity of gifts, she rose to her feet and made to leave when the sound of movement in the darkness caught her attention.
As she stood by the window a small hand, holding a brightly lit torch, appeared from behind a slowly opening door. Then a head appeared, followed quickly by the body of a small child clad in pyjamas and dressing gown. This, she surmised, was the recipient of the gifts that lay beneath the tree. He crept stealthily into the room on slippered feet and closed the door behind him.
She smiled as he hurriedly tiptoed to the tree, his face beaming with anticipation. Scanning the presents with his torch he began jumping up and down with glee.
“Yes! Yes!” he whispered, excitedly punching the air with his fists.
His childish outburst over, he sat cross-legged in front of the wilting branches and picked up the largest of his presents and began feeling it, his eager little fingers exploring it in minute detail to ascertain what lay beneath. The others were explored in the same manner. Then began the inventory.
“Fire truck.” he said, placing the largest present in front of him.
The next gift went to his left as he announced, “ Cowboy outfit.” .
“This one’s easy.” he declared of the third gift, laying it on his right, “Eagle Annual.”
Picking up the last of his presents and shaking it he said, “Hmm. Don’t know ’bout this one, but I bet it’s good anyway.” Placing it between his legs, he picked up the largest present again and fondled it. This, his unseen visitor guessed, was his favourite.
She laughed inwardly as she watched him play with the unopened gift, mimicking the sounds of its engine and siren as he pushed it along the carpet. Then suddenly he stopped, his head turning slowly to face the window.
“Hello.” he said, timidly.
This had never happened before, and was so unexpected that she just stared at him in astonishment.
“Are you one of Santa’s helpers?” he asked, “Only, you don’t look like one.”
She looked down at her faded jeans and worn out shoes and jumper, and laughed. “No, I guess I don’t.”
“I think you must be, cos I can see right through you.”
“Can you? Then I guess I must be.”
“You look awfully tall and sad for an elf.
“Maybe it’s cos your ears haven’t grown properly.”
“Yes, your probably right.” she said, smiling at his naivety.
“Bet you know what this is.” he said, holding up the smallest gift that had baffled him earlier.
“I’m sorry James, I don’t.”
“But you must know. You’re one of Santa’s helpers.”
She had to think quickly on her feet now. “Yes, I am, but I don’t wrap the presents. I just help deliver them.”
“Oh! Okay then.” With that he momentarily resumed his play before looking up again asking, “What’s your name?”
Caught completely off guard she struggled to come up with a name befitting an elf, but couldn’t.
“I’m afraid I don’t have a name.”
“That’s silly. Everybody has a name.”
After a brief moment’s silence she replied, “Elves have to earn their name by helping Santa.”
“Oh! Well if I was Santa I’d call you … Little Ears.”
She chuckled. “Well when I see him, I’ll tell him what you said.”
“Are you hungry? I am.” he said, getting to his feet and pulling a Christmas stocking from the mantle piece, tipping its contents onto the floor. “There’s oranges, tangerines, nuts, and some chocolate. Chocolate’s my favouritest. Do you like chocolate?” He held out a small bar to her.
“No thank you. I’m not hungry.”
As he unwrapped the bar she asked, “Aren’t you going to open your presents?”
“Oh, no. I have to wait for mom and dad to get up first. They like to watch me open them.”
“Yes, I suppose they do.” she said.
Do elves get presents?
“No, they don’t.”
“What makes them happy then?”
“Watching others open theirs I guess.” she smiled.
Popping two squares of chocolate into his mouth he began studying her intently.
Feeling a little uncomfortable under the intensity of his gaze she asked, “What is it, James? Why are you looking at me like that?”
“I was just thinking about how you feel”
“I feel fine.”
James laughed. “I meant how you would feel if I touched you, silly elf.”
“Oh, I see. Well there’s only one way to find out.” Squatting low, she held out her hand.
He approached her cautiously, reached out and touched her fingertips.
“You feel like a snowman!” he said, withdrawing his hand, “But that’s probably cos you live in the North Pole”
“Now try holding my hand properly this time, James.” she encouraged.
The plucky youngster did as he was asked, only on this occasion his hand passed clean through hers, as she knew it would.
James laughed out loud. “Wow! That was fun. I felt tingly all over.“
“Well now you know how an elf feels.” she laughed.
In truth, she too had felt something: it was the soul of an innocent. In her wanderings she had encountered many souls and each one was different, but there was something about James’ that was quite unique.
“Mom and dad will pee themselves when I tell them I’ve be talking to an elf with little ears. They probably won’t believe me. But when they see you …!
“No, James! You mustn’t tell anyone about me.” she cut in, “It must be our little secret. Besides, most grown ups can’t see us and there aren’t many children who can see us either. Only the very special ones can.”
“Hope I’m one of the special ones.“
“Me too.” she said, adding, “I’ll make you a promise; that as long as you can see me I’ll come visit as often as I can. How does that sound?”
James was overjoyed at the prospect of having such a special friend and for the next five years their friendship flourished, until one day fate intervened.
After one of her more prolonged absences from James, when she continued her seemingly never-ending search for her former life, ‘Little Ears’ eventually returned to the Lawrence’s. Six weeks had passed and the scene that welcomed her was far from what she had expected. The house was now little more than a burned out shell.
Her desperate search for the Lawrences was proving fruitless. Being trapped in her spirit body made it impossible to follow normal lines of enquiry. Despite this she continued to visit the house during its renovation in the hope of learning anything that might give her a clue as to the family’s whereabouts. The bombshell was dropped late one afternoon when she overheard a conversation between two workmen at the house.
“It’s a cryin’ shame, Bob.” she heard one say to the other, “An entire family wiped out overnight. I heard they had a little kid, too.”
“Yeah, so they tell me. Don’t know that much about it to be honest.”
“Me neither, but that’s what I heard anyways.”
Devastated by the loss of her only companion, Little Ears vowed never again to befriend another living soul and left, never to return.
Many changes were to take place over the next ten years, one of them being the current New Year’s Eve firework display being held in the city centre. It offered Little Ears a brief distraction from her forlorn circumstances, and to feel like she was alive again, a part of the living mass of humanity she had been ripped from so long ago.
The bronze statue of the cavalier on horseback gradually came into view as they crossed the bridge leading onto the square. By now a large crowd had congregated at its base. Only two minutes remained of the old year. Here and there people were looking at their watches in anticipation.
The choral music from the tannoy finally began to fade out as the time approached. The New Year was now only seconds away as the voice from the speakers, in unison with the crowd, counted down the remaining ten seconds. A spontaneous outpour of ‘Happy New Year’ erupted from the eager crowd as the heavens exploded in a pyrotechnic display of colours and patterns.
Sitting atop the statue, Little Ears watched the celebrations unfold. From her vantage point she could see the distant horizon and the brightly lit towns and villages that lay between, each illuminated under a canopy of exploding colour. Beneath her the partygoers were in full swing, dancing, singing and carefree.
Though she was no elf, Little Ears could be just as mischievous. One of her favoured party tricks was to put in an appearance in photographs. In the south corner of the square she noticed a small group of friends had congregated to have their picture taken. They had recruited the help of a bystander to take the photo and he was in the process of framing the shot when she put in her début, just as the flash fired. In the blink of an eye, she appeared at the photographer’s side to see her handiwork appear on the digital screen. It was just as she had expected. To the left of the group was a strange, amorphous light.
The young man scratched his beard and looked up. “I’m sorry but it hasn’t come out very well.” he said, apologetically. Deleting the image, he took another snap. This time there was no troublesome artefact. Thanking him, the group moved on.
For no apparent reason the tall stranger began to chuckle to himself. “And when did you learn to do that trick?” he suddenly asked.
Little Ears looked around, convinced he was talking to someone else, but there was no one close at hand to hear him.
He turned and looked directly at her. “Yes, I’m talking to you.” he announced.
Little Ears was flabbergasted and a little embarrassed at having been caught out in her childish prank.
“Cat got your tongue, Little Ears?”
“How do you know my name?” she stammered.
“Because I gave it to you, silly little elf. I know a lot of water has passed under the bridge since we last saw one another, but I didn’t think I’d changed that much.”
The penny finally dropped.
“James! Is it really you?”
“They call me Jamie these days – but yes, it’s me.“
The urge to hug him was almost overpowering. “You’ve grown so much!”
“That’s what happens to us mortals on this side of the veil.” he joked.
“I thought you’d died in the fire.”
“I would have if mom and dad hadn’t sent me to stay with my gran on the day it happened.”
“I kept visiting from time to time, but when I heard that you’d all died I stopped. There are so many things I have to ask you that I don’t know where to begin.”
“And there are a lot of things that I have to tell you, but this isn’t the right place.” he said, having become aware of the attention he was drawing to himself, “I think we need to find somewhere a little more private.”
As they walked toward the city park, they talked of the night they first met, and of the years of their friendship. Learning that he had become a fire fighter didn’t come as much of a surprise to Little Ears, given his history. What did surprise her, however, was when he told her he had learned at the age of ten that she was no elf, but a spirit.
“But why didn’t you tell me you knew?”
“Well I wasn’t sure whether you knew, and I didn’t want to shock you.” he replied.
“Do you still have that old fire engine you used to play with?”
“Oh, that’s long gone.” he told her, “I have a real one to play with nowadays.”
They both laughed as they entered through the park gates.
“Do you know the greatest gift I got on the night we met?” he asked.
“Wasn’t it the fire engine?”
“No. It was the gift you gave me when we touched.”
Little Ears was puzzled.
“It’s because of that gift that I can help you, move on, Ellen.”
She stopped dead In her tracks. “What did you call me?”
Jamie pulled up. “Your real name is Ellen Carter. You were born on December the ninth, nineteen seventy and died under tragic circumstances in November of nineteen ninety, after running away from home two years earlier.”
“AlI this happened because I was a runaway?“
“No. There’s more to it than that. You were running from something you couldn’t face up to or deal with. You had a serious drug addiction.”
“I was a drug addict?”
“I know you might find that hard to take, given that you no longer suffer from withdrawal symptoms, but once you left your physical body that was to be expected. Running away from home only worsened the situation. Without guidance and help you drifted into crime and other unpleasantness in order to feed your addiction. What I’m telling you I learned from surviving family members and newspaper reports.”
“You’ve spoken to my parents? Where do they live? How are they?”
“I’m afraid both your parents passed over several years ago. The majority of what I’ve learned is from your brother and sisters. Your mother died less than a year after your death and your father three years later.”
Little Ears looked him squarely in the eyes. “Was that because of me?” she asked.
Jamie tried to evade the question. “Does that really matter now?”
“Yes it does!”
“In the case of your father, not so much.” he said.
“And my mother?”
“Well, according to your siblings she died of a broken heart, but …”
“Please, just don’t try to sugar coat it, James!” she cut in, angrily. “If I did such terrible things then I don’t deserve to move on.”
“And I’m supposed to tell your parents this, am I?”
“You’ve spoken to them?” Little Ears seemed genuinely surprised by the news.
“What – you think you’re the only spirit I can communicate with? Of course I’ve talked with them. They’re waiting for you as we speak!”
James took a calming breath before continuing. “Look, the only reason you’re still here is because you’re punishing yourself for what you did. The trauma of your death and the heartache you brought upon your family were just too painful for you and so you wiped them from your memory. But there’s a small part of you that still seeks forgiveness and peace.”
Seeing her demeanour was calmer, Jamie motioned her to follow, leading her deeper into the park.
“Tell me how many spirits you see in the park,” he instructed.
“There aren’t any. Just me.”
“If you could see with my eyes you’d know how wrong you are. There are actually quite a few.”
“Then why can’t I see them?”
“For the same reason they don’t see you or any of the others for that matter. It’s part of the torment they believe they must endure for their earthly sins. The truth is they’re no more in purgatory than I am. What they’re experiencing is a kind of mental projection created by their own minds.”
“But you’re real, this city’s real, what’s happening is real, isn’t it?”
“Of course it is, but you and others like you are stuck between two worlds; this one and the next level of existence. There are several realms a spirit must visit before it can enter into heaven. Each one serves as a cleansing process for the soul. Those who have led a relatively blameless life can sometimes skip those realms that have nothing to teach them.”
“How do you know all this?”
“Because of the gift you gave me. It eventually enabled me to speak with my spirit guide, and it is through him that I learned these things. I’ve helped many lost souls pass over into the light all because of you. He’s also the one who told me where I could find you.”
“Is that why you’re here now; to help me cross over?”
“Yes. I think you’ve suffered enough Little Ears. But first you have to witness the things you’ve been running from all these years. Don’t be afraid of what you see. They’ll seem very real to you, but they’re only the distant memories of long ago.”
As they resumed their walk, Jamie announced, “We’re almost there.”
Little Ears could feel a panic welling up inside her. “Where are you taking me?”
“To the place of your death.” he replied.
They walked in silence until they reached a grove, a cinder track branching off into the group of trees. Jamie came to a halt. “We’re here.” he said, pointing to a small brick building at the end of the track.
“A public toilet? I died in a toilet?” Little Ears gasped.
Jamie nodded, adding, “You won’t be disturbed by anyone. They were closed down a couple of years back?”
After a brief pause she moved toward the derelict building but quickly came to a halt when she realised Jamie wasn’t following.
“Aren’t you coming with me?”
“I can’t.” he said, The place is locked up. Only you can enter.”
“But I don’t think I can do this on my own.”
He smiled at her reassuringly. “You have to be brave, Little Ears. All you’ll see is a reflection in the ether of your passing – the unveiling of a long suppressed memory and nothing more.”
After a few brief moments she turned her back on him and walked into the grove, passing through the dank cold walls and into the interior.
On entering, she felt the cold penetrating damp and began to shiver. Being in spirit form meant that she would normally have been impervious to the physical effects of the natural world. Yet, there was no denying the evidence of her own eyes and senses. She was shivering uncontrollably and goose bumps had appeared on her bare arms.
A large, rectangular skylight, let in the orange glow from the cinder trail lights outside, affording little illumination. Ahead of her lay four cubicles. Their doors were open. They were empty. As she approached she caught the unpleasant smell of stale urine. She walked tentatively toward the first cubicle, and in so doing stepped on a broken tile that cracked beneath her foot. It had given way to the weight of her now seemingly denser body.
Fear began to reassert itself, and she reminded herself that this was merely an illusion projected by the resurgence of fragmented memories onto her surroundings. When she looked down again the tile had vanished.
From out of nowhere came the unexpected sound of sobbing. She gave an involuntary shudder, and her skin crawled, as though a thousand insects were scurrying across her body. She stood, frozen to the spot, unable to coax her trembling limbs into action. The pitiable weeping was now more than she could bear.
“Please stop!” she cried out, holding her hands to her ears. But there was no respite from the sounds and visions inside her head. She was beginning to remember.
A sharp stinging pain made her wince, and the plaintive crying ceased abruptly. Something warm was trickling down the inside of her arm. Without looking, she knew what is was. Then came the tinkle of glass on tile as a bloodied syringe rolled from the furthest cubicle.
One moment she had been standing in a dilapidated toilet, staring down at the instrument of her death. The next, she was in the back of a brightly lit ambulance as it hurtled through the city streets, looking on as the medics struggled to save her.
This was the first time in years she had seen her full countenance, and it appalled her. What she saw had little in common with an eighteen-year-old. Emaciation and years of self-abuse had finally taken their toll.
“My God! What have I done to myself?” she murmured. “How could I let myself sink so far?”
Suddenly, the monitor she was attached to began to beep loudly.
“Christ” We’re losing her!” the attending medic called out to his partner.
In the blinking of an eye, Little Ears found herself hurtling through a dark tunnel toward the sound of childish laughter. She exited into broad daylight, recognising instantly the group of teenagers congregating around an ice-cream van outside the school gates, the place where it all began.
She also recognised the cocky eighteen-year-old ice-cream vendor, with the shock of curly red hair that ran to his shoulders. His liking for young girls was well-known to those who had fallen for his obvious charms. They were drawn to him like moths to a flame. Capitalising on his notoriety, in ways his employers were unaware of, he supplemented his meagre wage by selling small wraps of cannabis to his more than willing customers. Like many of her peers, Little Ears was about to be seduced into his web of deceit.
As the group drifted back into the school yard only one female remained. Little Ears watched as they chatted for a while before he eventually served her. Though she could not recall the exact details of the conversation, she knew that before leaving he’d made a date to meet her at the local carnie that weekend, a rendezvous that would alter her life in ways she could never have imagined: she would become a woman and smoke her first ‘spliff’ at the age of fifteen.
She wondered if she had known back then of her addictive nature whether she would have taken him up on his offer but she hadn’t and there was no way of turning back the clock.
She moved forward through time on an emotional rollercoaster of sadness and regret, witnessing her first run in with the law, the anguish of her parents, the rows and upsets she caused within the family, the lies and deceit, and her increasing need to find a better ‘buzz’, and the debasing lengths she went to in order to attain it.
Though remorseful of her acts, she no longer hated herself, and understood for the first time that she had been the victim of the greed of others and her own adolescent immaturity. Weakened by her dependency she could not overcome it as she grew into adulthood. Now she had to return to the place of her death to witness her ultimate act of selfishness.
In the half-light of the toilet, blinking the tears from her eyes, she stared at the empty syringe lying at her feet, then into the cramped cubicle where her inert body lay wedged between the toilet bowl and wall. Round her left arm was a tourniquet. Directly beneath it a rivulet of blood tricked down from the collapsed vein where the needle had been inserted, and suddenly she remembered the terrible choice she had made.
Sinking to her knees, she wept, “I’m sorry for everything I did, for all the hurt and pain I caused to everyone and myself.”
Looking up through the skylight she begged, “I just want to go home now.”
A sudden burst of radiant light cut through the darkness, warming her face. It was intensely bright yet did not hurt her eyes. An overwhelming feeling of love reached out to her from within, calling her, bidding her to follow. Then slowly she began to rise.
Jamie looked on at the delicate, golden lit form as it ascended into the heavens, to be lost amid the pyrotechnic display. As he made his way along the cinder track a familiar voice whispered out to him, “Thank you, James. I hope your New Year will be as happy as I feel right now.”
He stopped and smiled. Pulling up his collar against the cold he whispered, “Happy New Year, Little Ears.”
© David Calvert 2011
I am honoured to dedicate this story to my dear friend Ellen (‘Zen’) Connolly whom I have known only for a few brief months. She has faced adversity and hardships throughout her life and yet has maintained a positive attitude throughout. Her infectious sense of humour remains relatively undented and lifts the spirits of others less fortunate. I consider myself lucky to have encountered such a giving and friendly soul.
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