Michelle Ann King writes science fiction, fantasy and horror from her kitchen table in Essex, England. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, at Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, and Interzone, and her short story collection Transient Tales is available now. Find more details at www.transientcactus.co.uk
TO HAUNT HIS OWN EXHAUSTED HEART by Michelle Ann King
Ewan turns the corner and drifts along a new street. At least he thinks it's new, although in truth it doesn't look much different to any of the others he's wandered down before, in the fifty years since he died.
He pauses beside the wall that separates the driveways of two identical red-brick bungalows. Is it fifty? Or more, now? He's not quite sure. He used to mark the anniversary each year, but it started to feel like a pointless and rather egotistical gesture. He hasn't bothered for a while, now.
A large, sleek crow perches on the end of the wall and tilts its head, as if considering him.
'Boo,' he says.
At first he thought that animals — especially birds — reacted to ghosts, but now he thinks it's just random skittishness. But then again, who knows? There don't seem to be any rules as to how any of this works, which remains one of his great disappointments. He'd thought there would be more to it, somehow — that there would be answers and revelations. Enlightenment.
Silly, really. Life had never been in the habit of giving people what they expected, so he's not sure why he thought death would be any different.
The crow lets out a croak and takes wing, so Ewan wanders on. It's snowing — or sleeting, really; more like thick, white rain than snow — but at least he doesn't have to worry about losing his footing on slippery pavements and breaking a hip. He doesn't feel the cold either, no matter how low the temperature drops. One of the few compensations for being dead.
There are a lot of other ghosts about, as always. Some trudge along the street, some mill around in apparently aimless patterns. Most simply stand or sit where they are, staring at nothing he can see.
A few look up as he passes, and one even nods, but nobody speaks. It's not a surprise; there aren't many who bother to maintain their conversational skills.
Newcomers often try, at first — they search for old friends, or attempt to make new ones — but they soon find the world is different now, and it all takes too much effort. Most people don't have anything to say that anyone else wants to hear, anyway. In that respect, nothing much has changed.
So they wander, instead. They drift.
There are exceptions, of course. Some people still have a connection to the world, an anchor that keeps them steady: the desire to watch children grow up, to celebrate the successes of family and friends — or, sometimes, the failure of enemies. The most vibrant ghost Ewan ever met had been gleefully sharing the prison cell of his murderer for the past fifteen years.
Ewan thinks he should probably envy these people. Or at least, to be inspired by them. But his loved ones are long gone and he himself died peacefully in his sleep at the age of eighty-nine, of what would now be described as cardiovascular disease but in those days was simply called old age. There's no blame to lay, no vengeance to seek, unless he’s going to haunt his own exhausted heart.
He slows down and glances at the house on the corner coming up. Has he wandered past it before? He's not sure; it's getting harder and harder to tell them apart. Or maybe he's just seen them all, now.
The sleet thickens, turns into proper, fluffy snowflakes. Ewan holds out a hand, and it seems as if they rest on his palm for the barest moment before continuing on.
He watches them fall, then does the same.