CHAPTER ONE: IN BAD TASTE
It is an unsettling thing to wake without skin. This was the first lesson Aidan learned. He opened his eyes, only to realize that there were no eyes; he had nothing to his name except a poor skeleton in a narrow pit of earth.
Of course, he didn’t exactly have his name yet, either. He was gazing up at a jarringly blue sky and four high dirt walls that told him nothing whatsoever about himself. The sun was shining on the top of his skull from somewhere beyond the mouth of the pit. Its soft rays disturbed dozens of tiny ghosts—pallid grave-bugs that skittered over his legs, into his eyes, and under his ribs. The traversing of what he had left to call a body by these small bloated things was, of all the sudden sensations which swarmed his newly quickened being, the most terrifying. Several sharp clicks broke the stillness as he lifted his head towards the distant sun and uttered a broken gasp. There was no one to hear it.
A few hazy thoughts began to creep their way through his mind. He couldn’t quite make them out, but as he fought to focus he became aware that the persistent sliding and slithering came from something real—something pressing against the bone-walls of his brain. Something that certainly wasn’t a stray thought.
He grasped at the walls of the pit, seized by the urge to get out and away from the worming in his head. His motions were feeble and uncoordinated—his limbs trying desperately to remember how to function. It was a cramped space and the walls were damper than they looked. They kept sliding out from under his fingertips, but the sheer horror of the slithering in his head was a greater force than the dirt monolith in front of him. He managed to scale it, one trembling foothold at a time. The clinging grave-bugs were jostled away by all the scraping and twisting. They fell like raindrops and vanished into the earth.
Once freed, he stumbled in frantic circles, shaking and slapping his head. Dirt and worms dislodged from him like confetti; a good dozen crawling things dropped from his eye sockets alone. By the time everything slithery had slithered away he had no strength left for anything except collapsing on the dew-covered grass. He lay there, staring up at a flock of wispy clouds and watching their vague mists drift across the blinding sky. It began to weigh on him that this was wrong. Exceptionally wrong. He ought not to think, move, see, or hear…all of which he most certainly did.
This was a failed graveyard. It hadn’t been able to keep its seeds in the ground. What if there were families nearby and what if they didn’t want to see a skeleton stumbling around and beating itself in the head next to their loved ones’ final resting places? He was in bad taste.
True, the worms had been awful. But when his bones finally remembered how to stack themselves one on top of the other, he forced himself back to the edge of the pit. Its welcoming maw grinned at him, and he met it with a solid lump of revulsion. He couldn’t go back in. Could he? A certainty that someone would come across him and be repulsed by his inappropriate existence grew and threatened to overwhelm. What business did he have wandering around?
He swung one leg reluctantly into the pit, but then a non-worm-based thought forced its way through. Someone had dug him up. They must have; there was no other explanation for the open pit or the mounds of dirt piled on either side. He lifted his head to look at the grey slab of stone that stood mere feet away. Staring him right in the eye sockets were the words “Aidan Lawrence.” The headstone gave him two dates, which together pronounced him thirty-six years old. Thirty-six years. That was a short time to have been living.
He withdrew his leg from the jaws of blissful death and stood beside the only other thing that knew his name. It knew more than that; it knew he had been somebody, and what was more, it knew that something terrible had happened to him. How could he slink back into the ground now? He wanted to know more. He backed away from the pit, regarding it with definite mistrust. It had tried to trick him back into its crusted gullet. Not for a moment did he consider that he had died of some natural cause or disease. No, someone had planted him there, and he had almost willingly climbed back.
Aidan left the headstone behind and moved along as best he could. Each step was an effort and every second made his fear of being seen increase tenfold. But, despite his slowness and nerves, he eventually reached the edge of the dead men’s lots. He could see a gravel road that led down and away from the cemetery. It was just beyond the gate, which had been left wide open. At first he thought how careless this was of the keepers, but then he remembered that cemeteries were not built to keep the dead from leaving. He might be in bad taste, but he had every right to go where he liked.
He stepped out into the world beyond the gate and everything changed. Literally. The instant his feet carried him off cemetery grounds, there was a sudden dimming of light and a torrential wave of static that drowned out sound. He thought for a moment that this might be what dying felt like, though he couldn’t remember the first time his life had come to a close and therefore had little to compare it to.
Gradually, the static lifted. He should have found himself on the gravel road, but his feet were resting in dust. There was no road that wound away in the distance through hills dotted with telephone poles and the skyline of a city visible from miles away. Instead there were dark, leafless trees in rows that marked a pathway of dead grass and swirling clouds of dust. He had done something wrong.
But just as he was thinking of turning back and trying again, Aidan saw someone moving through the trees. It was a woman. She was tall and pale, dressed in what looked like a hospital gown. Her dark hair was plastered wetly against her face and in her arms she held a newborn baby. He tried to call to her, but all that came from the reluctant movement of his jaws was a disgusting creaking sound.
She passed by without noticing him. Her child was crying, whimpering to itself and looking around in bleary confusion. Suddenly Aidan found himself wondering if the baby belonged to her at all. What if she was spiriting it away from its parents like the old stories of women in white? A vivid memory of the tale raced across his mind. He had heard it some-other-where, some-other-time; but he couldn’t remember any more than that. He couldn’t recall how it ended, or whether the ghost targeted children or led men astray. Either way, he was too late; the woman drifted out of sight down the dusty path, and the child’s cries were lost to heavy silence.
More and more people began to appear. Groups and individuals moved along the road, their faces intent upon the ground or straight ahead, staring at nothing. They were of all races, all sorts, but each held the same distracted look, making them seem part of some strange migratory flood of spirits. They were mere shells of men, women, and children, floating past Aidan with eerie grace. Some came whole, others came wounded, but one by one they were all drifting to the same place.
Aidan fell into step beside a group of blood-stained young men. They were wearing military uniforms, but their clothes were so ruined by blood and battle that Aidan wasn’t sure of their country. They each gave him a vague nod and then returned their attention to the road. A chill settled deep in Aidan’s spine as he hitched along with them, and he wondered why he wasn’t as enthralled as everyone else. Why didn’t he know where he was going, like they seemed to do? Obviously, he must still be doing the afterlife wrong.
Soon the rows of barren trees ended. Aidan was struggling to keep putting one foot in front of the other, to the point where the soldiers would occasionally give him a gentle shove to help him along. Every step felt like he was slugging through water, and he could feel his bones shifting and creaking. He also found that his concept of time seemed to have become greatly skewed, or perhaps it was simply unnecessary now. Either way, it merely added to the torture. He could not have told how many miserable hours or minutes had passed, only that it was an eternity before anything at all happened to break the painful march.
But at last, people began to depart. The road had led them into a canopy of lampposts that bent their glowing heads over the traveler’s glassy eyes and shone through their bodies. Every so often the next step would be someone’s last, and they would float off into the gray sky with their mouths dropping gradually open in a slow dawning of surprise. Aidan wanted to ask what was happening, but the sight left behind a warning to remain silent. By the time they reached the last of the lampposts, only Aidan and the soldiers were left. Ahead loomed a great white bridge that spanned a chasm filled with the same dust. It curled like smoke around their ankles.
One of the soldiers, whose brown skin was flayed and burned in places, turned to Aidan and said something in a language he didn’t understand. It sounded like a question; when he extended a hand, Aidan thought he might be asking whether or not Aidan was going to come with them. Their feet were already leaving the ground.
Aidan tried to speak, but the creaking of his jaws had only managed to evolve into a dry hiss. Regardless, there was nothing in him that wanted to drift away into oblivion. He was no grim pilgrim and had no destination, nor did he desire to stay on the road forever. That left him with only one option: to cross the white bridge.
If the soldiers wanted to go nowhere, that was up to them. Aidan shook his head and took a step back, and the flayed soldier lowered his hand. As one, he and his companions nodded their farewells and drifted up into the grayness–disjointed shades in the dark.
Aidan faced the bridge alone and soaked in its disturbing sense of finality. His legs trembled, but he took the first step onto the white stones. He watched where his feet went, afraid to catch a toe on a crack and stumble off into the void, but despite his best efforts the ever-present mist made it difficult to see.
He was beginning to wonder if the white stones would deposit him anywhere at all or if he would just keep walking forever, when another lamppost loomed into existence. He could not see what lay beyond, but it was enough to encourage him and quicken his pace. At least until he fell.
How he fell was a mystery for about ten seconds. His legs simply seemed to give up and whisk themselves out from under him on their own. In protest his arms flailed wildly, and he landed hard on his front. There was a sickening noise as his skull met the bridge. White pain shot through his head, but it was not enough to blind him to the sensation of hands clamped around his ankles. He couldn’t muster enough strength or coordination to kick, but he painfully turned his head to see who had hold of him.
There was a face. It stared out of the mist with mad eyes that gleamed silver in the light of the lamppost. In his brief glance, Aidan couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman, young or old. All he could see was an open-mouthed grimace of fear and desperation…and then he realized that it was trying to climb. It had reached out to grab him from somewhere within that void of swirling mists, and now it wanted to use him as leverage to escape. Frantically, Aidan tried to move, to kick the fiend away; but its silver-eyed face sunk out of sight. Before he knew it, he was falling.
(Look for part 2 of Chapter One next week! Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook @companyofsouls for updates and related content!)