Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode four hundred and fifteen.
Tonight we present Coffin: Moving, Part 3 of 3
This week’s episodes are brought to you by the Earth Station One podcast
Flash Pulp is an experiment in broadcasting fresh pulp stories in the modern age – three to ten minutes of fiction brought to you Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings.
Tonight, Will Coffin, urban shaman, and Bunny, his increasingly sober apprentice, eat pancakes and aid a man haunted by his past.
Coffin: Moving, Part 3 of 3
Written by J.R.D. Skinner
Art and Narration by Opopanax
and Audio produced by Jessica May
The Denny’s stood at the low tide between breakfasting retirees and office workers on a panickedly short lunch break. Only three other booths were occupied, beyond the trio of customers clustered in the corner, and one of those appeared to be the store’s manager entertaining himself with online trivia instead of instructing the waiter in heavy eyeliner to clear the last of the Grand Slamwich wreckage.
Bunny gave the kid a nod, and the kid nodded back.
“Napkins?” he asked.
“Nah, I’ll take some of the s##t water you folks call coffee, and maybe a two buck pancake stack?”
“We’re only supposed to sell the cheap plates as a side.”
Bunny raised a her brow and shrugged. Coffin waved off the topping-up of his mug, and their interviewee, one Douglas Holloway, continued to gently weep into the collar of his polo shirt.
When they were once again alone, the crying man worked at clearing his throat, then asked, “how did you find me?”
“How badly do you want to be free of -” began Coffin, but Bunny overrode the statement.
“His ex put us in touch with yours,” she said to Holloway, “but don’t worry about that. We’ll get to the haggling and details, just give us the rundown on your wife and girlfriend.”
To Bunny there was something familiar in Holloway’s stunned yet exhausted face that left her with the impression that he’d simply been waiting for this particular dam to break.
“Arlene died five years ago,” replied the widower. “It was eighteen months after we were married, and we were infatuated with each other till the end. We’d known she had a fight in front of her when we went down the aisle – her chemo meant all of her wedding photos were hairless – but she was the sort of person who was strong enough not to wear a wig.
“We were the classic goofballs-in-love couple, content just to be close to each other; to hold each other. She seemed magical, and I always assumed somehow that that would win us the war.
“She died at home. I did my damndest to make it as comfortable and peaceful as possible, but by the end there was a miniature hospital set up in our living room. It was like a pocket universe in there, an eternity of listening to her ragged breathing over constant Law & Order reruns. I still change the channel as soon as I hear that damned theme. When she let go I was at the bed’s edge, holding her hand, and she was surrounded by her sisters. I thought it was the hardest moment I’d ever have to survive through, but that I’d done the right thing.
“My first notion was to move away from the memories, but two years later I was in the same bungalow, alone with our mortgage and our corgi, Sycamore. Every time I stepped onto the living room carpet I could feel the anxiety of those last days creep in, but I hadn’t finished paying the bills for high powered narcotics and medical staff.
“Even if I couldn’t escape, things changed around me. I spent a lot of hours at the kitchen table with work I’d taken home, just to avoid the rest of the house. If I wasn’t working, Sycamore and I patrolled the block. Despite my evasions, or more likely because of it, I got promoted. I made new acquaintances around the neighbourhood.
“The second January after Arlene’s death I met Selena. I wasn’t looking to. I’d spent so long focused on the next set of reports, and the next patch of sidewalk ahead of me, I hadn’t realized how far I’d gone with my head down.
“I was re-tying a shoelace outside the local Starbucks when she exited with a white chocolate mocha. One of the tallest ladies I’d ever seen, and with a smile as friendly as a children’s television show host.
“She said ‘excuse me,’ because she walked near me while I was hogging the sidewalk and she’s the sort of person who’d rather be polite than annoyed.
“As she’s adjusting course though, she reaches into her pocket and retrieves a dog treat shaped like a bone. Sycamore sits, which is a trick that I’d forgotten Arlene had taught him, and she tosses him the mini-femur.
“That dog was all the family I’d had for two years, and I loved it like a child, but for whatever reason it’d never struck me to carry treats with me. It sounds kind of stupid, but it was just different than anything I’d known until then. Somehow that brought my chin up.”
The tale paused as the narrator was distracted by his audience straightening in their seats. Before he could turn to identify what had roused them, however, the waiter strolled by at a near trot, a plate tucked tight to his side, out of sight of his trivia master manager.
With a twist of his wrist the low mountain of pancakes slid across the largely empty table, stopping just short of Bunny’s coffee.
There was no opportunity for a thank you before he was beyond hearing range.
“Don’t stop now, Dougie,” said Bunny, while twirling her syrupy fork encouragingly, “we haven’t even gotten to the spooky s##t.”
“We dated for six months,” answered Holloway. “A lot of movie theaters, diner dinners, and dog parks with Sycamore. When we started spending the night together it was always at her apartment. Eventually I moved the dog dishes and I almost sort of forgot that I had another home.
“Then I got a funny letter: I’d accidentally paid off my mortgage while I wasn’t paying attention.
“Now, it’s not like I’d ever forgotten Arlene, but I’d had some time away. Selena loves renovation shows, and we kind of jointly arrived at the idea that we should do some repair work before putting the shack on the market and maybe looking for a fresh place together. Thing is, the more effort we sunk into projects, the more it began to feel like a new house – our house.
“One night we were both exhausted from a day of basement drywalling, and we decided to just sleep in my, uh, our, uh, the old bed – the bed that was there – instead of heading back to Selena’s.
“I woke around three in the morning thinking I heard someone talking in the dark. I pulled on pants and went down the hall to the living room, and for a second I thought I saw Arlene’s face.
“Now, I should be clear, it wasn’t a huge ‘Arlene, is that you!?’ moment, it was more like thinking you see a person standing in a corner, then realizing it’s actually that robe you draped over a chair with the shadow of a lamp behind it that looks like a head.
“The only thing out of place was that Sycamore was sitting perfectly upright in the middle of the carpet, but I was so tired I assumed that I’d heard him growling at dreams and went back to bed.
“With the seal off, so to speak, we spent more and more nights there. We were already investing the majority of our evenings tag teaming plumbing, or hoisting hammers, so why leave?
“When we first, uh, made love in the old house, I later awoke thinking I heard Selena crying. I actually prodded her until she responded with a clearly still sleeping “no.”
“It happened again the next night, then everything went smoothly for about a week.”
“The calm before the s##t storm,” said Bunny, through a mouthful of fluffy batter.
“Yeah, then the screaming started. I couldn’t see where it was coming from, it just chased me from the sheets, then around the house. I kind of stopped when I was rampaging along the hallway for a second loop, because – well, it’s incredibly terrifying, but after a bit you lose steam when you can’t see the source of your panic.
“Selena, wearing only my stained work t-shirt, comes running, and suddenly she’s slapped across the face, hard. It kept going, like someone clapping to count time, and then gained momentum into a hail storm.
“I’d never seen her cry before.
“I followed her through the door, but she was in her car and on the street before I could catch up. Her place was close enough to walk, but it was cold, so I decided to risk going back inside to pull something on. Besides, I needed to get Sycamore.
“Everything was silent when I re-entered. I whistled for the dog, but he didn’t come. I found him in the living room again, sitting at attention.
“The call came before I was done packing. Everything had changed for me in the moment I’d seen Selena with that dog treat, and everything had changed for her in the moment she’d been chased from the house by an invisible hurricane. She was clearly having difficulty making sense of what had happened, but it seemed to her that it was my fault.
“While I was sitting there at the edge of the bed, crying, I heard laughter. I knew that giggle. Without even realizing I’d fully accepted all of the implications, I started a screaming match with a ghost.
“‘How could you do this?’
“‘How could you? I’m dead!’ she shrieks back.
“‘You had it easy, I was the one who had to keep living” – and on and on.
“At some point the door slammed shut, and I somehow fury’d myself to sleep.
“The alarm clock woke me for work, and I went in on automatic. Tried texting Selena, but she ignored it. I ignored the ignoring by staring at reports. I went home.
“While I was watching Sycamore sniff around the backyard I heard Arlene say, ‘I’m sorry.’
“That was – I dunno, three months ago? Since then it’s just been crying, every night. Sometimes it’s me, sometimes it’s her. I’d like to try and reach out to Selena again. I miss her – but at the same time, the woman I loved, whatever is left of her, is somewhere in that house. I swear, some nights the bed shifts with her weight.
“I want to move on. I want her to move on. I just feel so guilty.”
Washing away the pancake crumbs with a deep pull of coffee, Bunny said, “in a situation like this, it’s really nobody’s fault. You can’t blame Selena for running off after getting in a one-sided slap fight with Sue Richards, and you can’t blame Arlene for being pissed she’s been trapped in your empty living room until you started f##king another lady in her bed – but you also can’t blame yourself. You didn’t know she was lingering around until she was furious enough to get all Amityville about s##t.
“We think your ex-wife needs to date and we know just the fellow. He’s also into Law & Order and cuddling. He currently has a thing for a lady named Laila, but all you sentimental motherf##kers have the same problem: You need to learn to move on.
“Actually, Laila’ll probably be looking for a new place soon, you should meet her. You might make a nice couple.”
In unveiling her solution, Bunny did not delve into the complicated game of telephone that was communication between the dead. Adding to Dougie’s sense of guilt would not get him any closer to moving, which was clearly the opening step.
In the end, Holloway agreed acting as dating coach to his dead wife was worth at least a nicely pawnable ratchet set, and Coffin had to nod in agreement.
Matchmaking was not his usual sort of work, but rent was due.
Flash Pulp is presented by https://www.skinner.fm, and is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.
Intro and outro work provided by Jay Langejans of The New Fiction Writers podcast.
Text and audio commentaries can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org – but be aware that it may appear in the FlashCast.
– and thanks to you, for reading. If you enjoyed the story, tell your friends.