Horla Fiction (July 2020)

 

MY COLLECTION OF DEAD FRIENDS

by GUIDO EEKHAUT

TODAY it is Harry who visits me. Yesterday it was Tom, but today Harry makes his appearance. After I saw Tom yesterday, the meeting with Harry is not much of a shock. I mean, after having seen Tom, I’m less afraid of Harry. As if I actually expected, after yesterday, for another former classmate to make his appearance. Former, as in dead. Because both Tom and Harry have recently exchanged this earthly existence for an eternity none of us paid any attention to while alive.

Harry looks good, everything taken into consideration. He is wearing frayed jeans and a sweater with some message on it. I cannot read the message. Not because it is written in a language unknown to me, but because the letters don’t come into focus. That’s weird: I wear my glasses. I ought to be able to read with my glasses. But not the message on his sweater.

Like Tom yesterday, Harry doesn’t have anything to tell to me. He steps into my flat without knocking. The door is not locked, but you do not walk in on somebody without knocking first. Maybe it’s because Harry is dead, and he forgets his good manners. Or maybe he just doesn’t care.

The appearance of Tom was a shock to me. He died about a year ago on his motorcycle, while overtaking a truck. Nobody understood exactly how the accident happened. Little was left of his motorcycle, and neither of Tom. Maybe he ended under the wheels of the truck. Yesterday Tom had nothing to say about the accident. Actually he did not speak at all. He came in, looked around the flat, ignored me. That was bizarre, almost as bizarre as his appearance. He ignored me, which he would never have done when alive.

I asked him the obvious questions you ask people when you think they have risen from the dead, or whatever. The other option – that I was suffering from a delusion – did not really come to mind, just because Tom seemed so lifelike. He was just Tom, like I had known him for years. It didn’t look like he’d been in an accident. He came in, glanced around for a moment, and sat down on the sofa. He also laid his feet on the coffee table. My wife hates it when people do that.

My wife never really liked Tom much. She liked none of my friends, actually. They all drank too much, and they made too much noise. Eventually they refrained from watching football in our flat because my wife constantly had comments about their behavior. Well, I married her, and it’s her flat. That happens when you marry a young and rich woman.

Tom did not say anything. He clearly hadn’t anything to say. Which is bizarre, given the fact he’d been in that accident and was now dead. You assume a man would have a few things to say under these circumstances, about walking into the light and about eternity and the afterlife. You might assume he would have found answers to some of the fundamental questions of humanity. But not Tom. He didn’t say a word. He just sat there. I offered him a beer, and he did not respond.

Eventually, after half an hour, he got up again. He still said nothing, no goodbye or anything, and simply walked out of the flat. The door closed behind him. It was as if his visit had been an illusion, a dream, whatever. But I stood up and felt in the sofa where Tom had sat. I could feel his body heat. I smelled his odoUr. I knew he had actually been present. I was not crazy – unless I imagined that warmth and smell as well.

And now Harry makes his appearance. My wife is once again out at work. She told me she will be late and that I must prepare something for dinner. Which is not a problem. I have nothing on my hands these days. But now Harry is there. He too walks in just like it’s routine. I am scared again, although slightly less than yesterday with Tom. Harry also ignores me. He looks around, at nothing in particular. I say his name, but he does not respond. It’s a conspiracy. Can the dead conspire? Are they aware of each other? Is there such a thing as a community of the dead?

I can ask Harry, but he clearly has no intention to speak to me. He ignores me, as if I’m not there at all. Can the dead see the living? And what are they doing here, in our universe?

After having hung around in the kitchen and having sat for a while on one of the kitchen chairs, Harry leaves again. He closes the door behind him. Silence is all that remains, except for his vague body odour.

What do I tell my wife? Do I tell her that both Tom and Harry suddenly reappeared in my life? Harry died of cancer eight months ago. It quickly went downhill with him. There were no more than four months between diagnosis and death. We were all firmly shaken by his ordeal, although he was very brave about it. Elizabeth, Harry’s wife, is still seeing a therapist. She speaks of living abroad, where nothing reminds her of Harry.

*

My wife returns while I’m almost finished preparing dinner. I decided not to mention Harry, just as I didn’t mention Tom’s visit yesterday. We eat, and I drink a beer. My wife talks about the people at work, whom I hardly know, except for those I met at some party or something. I hardly have a social life since I retired. I write, that’s all I do. And I read. Sometimes I give a lecture, or there’s a book signing. I do these things on my own, because my wife does not know anyone in the publishing world. And she isn’t interested in meeting my readers.

I have some friends, of earlier days, and we sometimes meet. Tom and Harry were part of that group. Since they died, a heavy blanket seems to have fallen over our circle of friends. We saw each other at the funerals, and then again a couple of times. But things were no longer the same. The pub where we used to go, suddenly seemed dark and not very welcoming. New people were hanging around the pool tables, young people, who hadn’t been there before. They made too much noise to our liking. I suggested we try to find another place, but that has not happened yet.

Last week I was told that Lucas is sick too. Cancer. It doesn’t look good for him, they told me. The group is getting smaller. The proces of natural selection is gearing up to full speed.

And when we meet again, do I tell them I saw Tom and Harry? That they were both in my flat? Without saying a word? They probably think I’m getting off my rocker or something. That my mind is failing. A brain tumour. Because you cannot explain the appearance of two dead friends in your flat.

So I tell them nothing.

*

It is October and it is getting cooler. Whenever I venture outside, I wear a sweater over my shirt, and an overcoat. And a scarf. I do not like the cold. I really want to live somewhere in the south, where I could spend the winter. My wife however does not want to quit her job, although we can afford it. So we stay here in the cold.

I visit the coffee shops in the center of town, taking along a book or two and one of those large notebooks I use for stories and prose fragments. There’s no shortage of coffee shops in town. Whenever regular shops disappear, some sort of pub, bar or coffeeshop replaces it. This is a student city, and students these days have plenty of money for lattes and mochas and cakes and stuff. I live in a city of young people who assume the life of digital nomads.

I too am a digital nomad, although I don’t always carry my laptop with me. I often prefer to write on paper, with a fountain pen. I know it is old-fashioned, but that’s who I am. A cliché.

I hurry out because I no longer want to be visited by deceased friends. I don’t have many deceased friends, but at my age there are at least a few. I don’t want them visiting me. I’ve locked the door behind me, assuming they cannot open locked doors, those dead friends of mine.

How does it work anyway? I smell their faint odour and can feel their body heat, all of which indicates a material presence. They cannot walk through walls or doors, I assume. Anyway, I am out of the flat. Whatever they decide to do when I’m not there does not really bother me.

I am still not sure if I will tell the story to my wife. We don’t have secrets for each other. But this story is so unlikely, so bizarre, she will assume I’m not right in my head. She might direct me to a neurologist. I avoid problems by saying nothing. So I keep this secret for her, only to protect myself.

*

Harry is back the next day. Why he returns is a question I cannot answer. He walks in, like before, and remains standing at the door for a moment. As if he’s indecisive. As if he’s considering all his options. He is wearing that same sweater again, with the message I cannot decipher. The words are vaguely familiar to me, and I know I should be able to read them, but fact is I cannot. That sounds contradictory and bizarre, but everything is bizarre. Actually, Harry never wore that kind of sweater. Not with text on it.

I know what this is. This is a message exclusively for me. Harry cannot talk, so he tries to communicate through the words on his sweater.

The door opens again. Harry steps aside. My wife enters. She’s home early and greets me cheerfully. She often works late, but today she decided to call it a day early, and here she is.

There is no indication she has noticed Harry. He stepped aside, to give her space.

“I’ll get dinner ready,” she announces. She drops her bag on the armchair and glances at me. “Is there a problem?” She frowns at me, but still cheerful. “Didn’t you expect me back so soon? Are you hiding your mistress in the bedroom or what?”

She’s much younger than I am, and in every respect beautiful, and I have no reason to keep a mistress — as she knows all too well. She avoids Harry, as if she’s aware of his presence, and at the same time not. As if she does not know he’s here, but has the presence of mind to not bump into him. “Have you been writing?” she enquires, while disappearing into the bedroom.

I tell her I have written an entire chapter of the new book. An entire chapter. Few writers work as fast as I do. I can write seven or eight pages a day, easily. Often more.

“That’s nice,” she says, from the bedroom.

Meanwhile Harry hasn’t shown the least interest in me or my wife. We don’t seem to exist at all to him. Except that he moved away to avoid my wife, avoided colliding with both her and the door. So he must be aware of his surroundings.

By means of simple observations I try to deduce the rules of his universe. His universe. He’s dead, so he no longer belongs to my universe.

Then he’s suddenly gone. I didn’t see him leave. He’s gone anyway. My wife walks out of the bedroom, in jeans and t-shirt. “I’ll get dinner started,” she says. She’s an excellent cook. And she likes to cook. A few moments later we’re in the kitchen together.

“I was thinking about Harry”, I say.

“About Harry,” she says.

“And how he died.”

“Much too young,” she says, while stirring the pasta in the boiling water so it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan. “It’s a terrible disease.”

I just want to check whether the premises of my reality are still the same as hers, a reality in which Harry died of cancer. The man I saw in the flat twice is not Harry, that much is clear.

*

Nothing happens for a week. Tom and Harry no longer visit. The universe seems to have regained its normality. Then, just after midday, while it is raining outside, Tom returns. He wears jeans and a black t-shirt, in spite of the cold weather, and he is dry. His clothes are dry, his shoes are dry, his hair is dry. He can’t have walked over. He has not been outside. No, of course not. He comes from somewhere else.

Like earlier he enters and closes the door behind him. There he stands, observing the universe and ignoring me.

“Hi there, Tom,” I say, loud and clear. Remaining silent is not an option. Not a sensible one, anyway. Whatever or whomever he is, he is here for a reason.

But he’s only interested in the flat.

The weird thing is the message on his t-shirt. When he came in, it wasn’t there. No message. A plain black t-shirt. Now there are yellow letters on it. Letters that have no meaning for me. This is frustrating. They mean something to Tom, and they should tell me something about why he’s here, and give meaning to his universe, but I remain in the dark.

“What you want, Tom?” I enquire, even though I know my attempt at communication is useless. At the same time I know he’s aware of his surroundings.

Then, suddenly, I know what this is. This is a warning. Tom and Harry turning up, trying to warn me. Using the text on their sweater and shirt. I am ill. I have a serious illness. Maybe a brain tumour. That is why I am imagining my dead friends. I see them because they want to tell me I’m going to die too. I have to get professional help at once, a doctor, a hospital, so that I can be saved. Therapy, surgery, irradiation, the works. There’s still time to save me, but I have to get it done fast.

Fear grabs me by the throat. Death is imminent. All this is terrible.

I get up and fetch my mobile. I find the number of my physician. When I look up, Tom is no longer there.

*

Another week later, and my wife drives me back to the flat, after a visit to the hospital. “So,” she says, “a lot of trouble for nothing.” She is relieved. There’s nothing wrong with me. No tumours, no abnormalities. There really is no reason for concern, the doctors tell me. I am healthy. There’s nothing wrong with me.

My wife has taken the day off, but she has brought her laptop and retires to the other bedroom, the one I often use as my writer’s den. I sit in the living room and read a book. I am still drowsy, so I’m not really registering what I am reading.

And there’s Harry again, with that bloody unreadable sweater. Like before, he’s ignoring me. And I do not speak to him, not to disturb my wife. Now that she knows I’m in good physical health, I don’t want her starting doubting my mental capacities. She’s already wondering why all of a sudden I needed those exams. In her eyes I’m probably a hypochondriac.

Harry is just standing there. It is the same sweater as before. It probably is the same message. What’s the problem with him? Why is he here? There’s nothing wrong with me. What is the message about? Is it really a message? Does the dead Harry predict the future? Is life an absurdity, and aimless, and does only our illusion about the existence of time and matter keep us going?

My wife enters the living room. She says: “I’m not feeling too well, all of a sudden.” She leans against the table. “Not at all.”

“What’s wrong?” I ask. She is never ill. Influenza epidemics overcome the rest of us, but not her. She never even gets a cold. But now she does not look well. Her skin is almost yellow. And she’s sweaty.

“I should have told you before,” she says, “but with those exams of yours…”

“What?” I say.

She holds her left side. Painfully. “I have these stinging pains here, for a while now…”

On the left side of her abdomen. Where her pancreas is.

“Maybe I should go in for a physical too.”

I turn towards Harry. He now looks directly at me. As if he finally has noticed me.

And I can clearly read the message on his sweater.

 

 

***

Guido Eekhaut lives in Brussels and is a prolific writer of crime and suspense novels, fantastic and speculative fiction and books for young adults. 

He came to genre literature after discovering the work of Jack Vance at the age of fifteen, and that of Ursula Le Guin, Michael Moorcock, M. John Harrison, J. G. Ballard, Thomas Disch and many others. Later he enjoyed Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges, Angela Carter, Haruki Murakami, John Hawkes and Jonathan Lethem.

He started writing short stories in the Eighties, winning several literary awards. A number of his stories have been published internationally. He has written widely for magazines and newspapers.

His first novel, a post-apocalyptic tale The Circle Years, received the Literary Award of the City of Brussels.

After winning the Hercule Poirot Award in 2009 with his first crime book, Absinthe, he published nearly a score of books, some regular and traditional crime, others diverging from the genre into the more literary, psychological and speculative fields. He has been shortlisted twice for the Dutch Golden Noose crime awards.

This is the fourth story that we have published by Guido Eekhaut at Horla. For his other stories please enter his name in the search engine that can be found at the top of all of the site’s pages. An interview with him can also be found.

Title photo – Jr Korpa on Unsplash

Horla standard disclaimer – image has no direct connection with the fiction