The Last Dance - Christmas Ghost Story Competition 2013 for Spine Tinglers

0

A short story:    The Last Dance By Stephen Crowley

   Sarah fluttered in a private dance of her own, a cute sway side to side as she bounced on tiptoes from one branch of the tree to the other. Carefully, she strew more tinsel across the sharp prodding branches. Candle light danced across the whitewashed walls of the lounge. A smile on her face lit up her complexion and her eyes sparkled against the tree lights. She hummed to herself in synchrony with the ipod perched on the mantelpiece as it played Time After Time by Cyndi Lauper, a song from her time with Tom.

   This was their song. From that first night they embraced at a dinner party here in Sarah’s home.

   She played the singer’s music often on Christmas Day. Tom whistled various melodies while he waited for Sarah to stop her preoccupation with anything other than snuggled up to him.

   A footstool dragged across the carpet to the sofa.

   Sarah’s eyes widened, she set her gaze upon Tom as he peered at her impatiently, feet on the footstool. His frown said it all, he wanted her to lay beside him now the fireplace glowed its warm dance.

   Sarah turned her attention back to the tree, a red bauble here, a pretty mosaic patterned bauble there.

   “Why don’t you play our song later?” Tom asked as he stretched out on the couch.

   “Just too excited dear. I spend a whole year just waiting for this one evening.”

   Tom’s smile grew to a broad grin. He sighed. “Okay. We have many hours yet.”

   “Diane and Roy will be here soon.”

   “Oh great.” Tom said and rolled his eyes. “Guess I just have to pretend I am not here again.”

   Sarah turned to Tom, her lips parted. “Just one evening Tom. Not too much to ask.”

   Tom hoisted himself from the couch. “Your wish is my command,” he joked and bowed before a peek out the bay window into the sheets of rain. “It’s just hard, you know.”

   Sarah dropped a small box of decorations. Her eyes now a steely gaze. “Just...one night.”

   Tom faced Sarah, and caressed her shoulders. “Yea, I know. Just like last year, and the year before. Just that...how it makes you look...”

   Sarah’s eyes became watery. “Don’t worry about me, let’s just have our one special evening together,” said Sarah. “Looked like Mum loved the roast. Think Dad was eager to get back home and sink some booze.”

   “Your mother was starting to get a tad drunk.”

   Sarah chuckled. “Yep, same old Mum. They keep asking me though to go over their place, but, Christmas Day must be spent here. Anyway, they see me every year.” She shook her head. “Christmas dinner was nice earlier.”

   Tom rolled his eyes again. “Yep...it looked good.”

   Sarah raised her hand to touch his ever unshaven stubble. Tom’s shoulders drooped. His eyes moved away from her to a distant stare. Sarah bit her lip. “Nothing will ever take this special day from us, look at me Tom.” Tom’s eyes met Sarah’s longing gaze. “Nothing.”

   Tom’s face lit up again with that happy complexion Sarah preferred. “Remember how cold it was on our wedding day.”

   Sarah sniggered. “Just four years ago, I hope so.”

   “Yes, you were getting the shivers waiting.”

   “Waiting,” Sarah interjected, ”For ages for your blasted car to show up. My mother was...”

   “Fuming.” Tom cut in chuckling. “And when I got there, those dagger eyes met mine, of course it was Roy’s fault. Well no...we both got hammered the night before and kind of got up late.”

   Sarah pursed her lips and then she blurted, “Yup.”

   “You were okay with it but your mum, oh boy, I thought she may grab me by my earhole and drag me into the church.”

   Sarah laughed and bowed her head forward to Tom’s chest. “I really think having the wedding just after your 30th birthday, a bad idea.”

   “Well it turned out okay, even if I was hungover for the first hour.”

   “And we are still married.” Sarah said, her face a radiant glow in the flickers of ambient light from the candles.

   Tom’s complexion became a sullen one, he reached out a hand and slid his fingers down her cheek.

   A mile away from the house, a crimson Honda Accord carefully steered its way through the sodden country roads. Sheets of rain coupled with darkness blurred any chance of beautiful views, the splendour of the countryside hidden behind a grey veil, the rain hammered on the windscreen. Diane rubbed her arms, the car heating failed to circumvent any warmth. She checked the switch, all red bars.

  “Glad we are there soon, between your car heating failing and this rain.” Diane sighed in her seated stiff posture, her fingertips drummed the dashboard.

  “Actually the heating is on. But, at least you are frustrated with the weather this Christmas evening and not young Sarah, or the weekend, like me.” Roy said, blissfully disregarding Diane’s moan and a preference to concentrate hard on the road ahead as it climbed up through a raged downpour.

  Diane threw dagger eyes at Roy. “I told you. This is the last time. I will deal with this in my own way this time. Or...” Diane paused for thought and rubbed a wrapped gift on her lap for her sister. “Well, I don’t really want the alternative.”

 “We are here then.”

  Roy pulled off the country road onto the paving circles of a driveway. Normally the valley beyond the walls could be clearly seen but mist had crept in with thick tendrils and shrouded the green pastures. Roy disembarked and gave the blurred view a moment of his time to appreciate nature even if concealed behind the seeping fog, anything to delay.

  “We should visit in the Summer from now on, you know.”

  Diane slammed the door shut with her foot as she clutched the gift in her hands, a frozen smile on her face. A strong wind shuffled through the garden foliage and brushed trees quite hard. The wind seemed to blow them towards the front door.

  Before Roy could knock, it opened, and a cheery Sarah greeted him. “Roy, come in”. They hugged. Diane strolled past, the gift box tight to her chest, and lightly kissed Sarah on her cheek. Sarah shut the door against the winds and followed Diane and Roy into the lounge.

  Diane placed the gift at the foot of the Christmas tree. For a moment, Diane, Roy and Sarah just stood there.

  Roy zipped the jacket off his portly torso, and exhaled as the warmth of the fire struck his skin, and spoke first. “So, how are you.”

  “Great.” Sarah replied as she took his jacket followed by Diane’s damp padded coat and hung them on a corner coat rack. “Business is good. Seems my gift store raised some eyes this year.”

  “Yes, well done sis. Told you your handmade stuff would do well,” said Diane with a feigned smile.

  Sarah’s jewellery adorned a wide cabinet opposite the fireplace. A mixture of bracelets, necklaces and novelty rings. A plaque showed her accept an award for ‘Entrepreneur of the Year’ at a convention in London showed a different Sarah, a less strained smile, a content woman eager to make it big in this world.

  Diane’s eyes moved across the room from the locked sitting room door, past the burning fireplace, to the wrapped gifts next to the one she just added at the tree’s foot. “I wonder, could that be a pendant, a necklace, a gem...the mind boggles,” she joked.

  Sarah giggled and waved her hand. “Oh, you won’t guess. And you will love it.”

  “So...how was dinner today?” Roy asked.

  Diane had partially opened her mouth, about to fire the same question, the icebreaker. Even the warmth of the fire failed to soothe Roy as he forced some enthusiasm from a depleted well.

  Sarah drew a smile gradually as she locked her eyes on Roy. “Just fine, lovely. Tom then sat here with me as I set the gifts down.” She paused. “And yours?”

  A moment of silence froze the atmosphere, Roy and Diane glanced at each other. Roy spoke quickly. “Oh yes, stuffed as usual, barely able to drive.” he chortled, and allowed the chortle to die quickly.

  “Okay, drinks. Roy, still a lager I take it, Diane, bacardi and lime.”

  “No, I am driving.” Roy grumbled.

  “That’s it.” Diane swiftly replied, she forced a more enthusiastic smile. Perhaps the alcohol would ease the swell of tension.

  “Okay, wait here, and I will return.” Sarah scuttled off for the kitchen.

  Diane hurried after her, eyes fixed on Roy. “Wait here.” Her tone stern and quite abrupt. Roy sighed and slid his hands into his pockets, he knew that tone meant business.

  Then he noticed something. The door to the sitting room was now open.

  Roy felt sure the door was closed when they entered the room. He took a sneaky peek through the doorway into the small room. And he reminisced. This is where he used to play poker, and kept Sarah awake all night with drunken roars of joy each time he beat Tom. The glossy beech wood poker table still present, pride of place in the room centre. Roy smiled and allowed a short giggle to emerge as he remembered all the times flicking cards across the surface.

  Roy resisted an urge to enter the sitting room, and made his way to the tree. The incandescent flickers of some of the lights hypnotic but soothing, yet still, it cut deep, a friend too close missing from this home. He felt the weight in his steps as he strolled around the room, a heaviness in his heart.

  “Hello Roy.” Tom leant against the wall next to the sitting room door.

  Roy’s eyes began to fill with water as he tapped a picture frame on the mantelpiece of him, Diane, Sarah and Tom, a snap of happy times while on holiday in France. It was a fortnight of the best fun.

  Roy turned and looked over at the doorway again.

  Tom stood there. “Missed you mate. These annual visits just...don’t add up. Can’t see me can you.” Tom sighed. “Okay, have to do the rattling chains thing then. Or maybe.” Tom eyed the door.

  Roy nodded his head as he remembered the fun evenings here; him and Tom just drunk over card games till the orange rim of dawn’s sun began to spill light through the windows. He closed the door to the sitting room, and slowly removed his hand from the handle as it clicked shut. He pulled his hands out of his pockets, then clenched his fists as he sniffled.

  “Can’t do this anymore.” His words were muffled, a tear rolled down one cheek.

  In the kitchen, Diane arms folded, watched as Sarah milled to and fro between the oven baked food, a myriad of hors d'oeuvres, and the table. Diane hunched forward and placed her hands on a chair, eyes probed Sarah for her attention.

  “Darling, we have to talk.”

  Sarah licked a finger as she tasted a chicken wing coated in spicy sauce. “Sure, whats up.”

  Diane gripped her arm. “Please sit down.”

  Sarah froze and her wide eyes stared ahead of her as she felt the pressure of Diane’s grip. “Okay. This sounds bad. Can’t it wait till after we eat, and have...”

  “I need to talk about Tommy darling.” Diane’s voice crackled a little as she studied her sister’s reaction to his name.

  In the lounge, Roy stomped up and down the carpet. “I’ll have that drink now.” He called out to the hallway knowing his voice would drift to the kitchen.

  Something caught Roy’s eye, he swivelled to peer over his shoulder.

  The sitting room door ajar again.

  “Useless door.” Roy approached it, a little haste.

  The door slammed shut.

  Startled, Roy arched his neck backwards. Then he could hear whispers beyond the doorway. And the clatter of something, too faint to determine. Roy opened the door. As he strode forward, and sauntered to the table, he gasped at the cards neatly laid out on the poker table next to towers of tokens. A hand of five cards fanned on one side where he used to sit, and another next to where Tom buried his posterior for hours on his celeste armchair.

  “Who’s here.” Then raised his voice. “Who is here!”

  Tom drummed his temple with his fingers, and stared at Roy from the armchair. He tilted his head upwards to the ceiling and then allowed a long sigh. “Still can't see me Roy boy. There is no-one here, just you and me. I chose to avoid you the past few years. But, now I am trying to reach you this Christmas. What can I do. This is the last time I shall try and speak with you buddy...c’mon...Sarah and Diane are about to argue and chat for a bit, time for a round. Tell you what, I will go first. Five card draw.”

  The hand of cards levitated, then they shuffled, raised by a chilled air and Roy felt the icy edge of the presence.

  Roy tried to squeal as he fell back into the armchair opposite where he perched himself on so many nights, so long ago it seemed. But words simply failed to surface.

  “Don’t be afraid Roy. Can you hear me now?”

  Roy nodded briskly, Tom’s familiar voice like an echo in his skull. His grip on the armchair wood so tight, it started to creak.

  “Just a quick game, and then some words old friend. Some final words Roy. I don’t want to hurt Sarah or you anymore. She must move on with her life.”

  Roy’s clammy hand still gripped the arm of the chair, breath then bursted out and in again. “Shit, T-Tom.”

  “Yes, I am here, can you see me, maybe just...look I am not very good at this. Anyway, do not be alarmed.”

  “Don’t be alarmed! Do you know how unsettling this is?” Roy stuttered and felt rooted to the chair. He lowered his voice so just a whisper came out. “So, it was...all true...Sarah has been...seeing you.” Roy’s fear soon diminished, stiffness in his limbs replaced with a lightness as he grew a smile, the widest smile.

  He could see Tom.

  “You too may be seeing me now.” Tom rolled his eyes around. “Don’t really understand it, it takes time once I wish it, some see me eventually, most never do. Guess it’s just the closest ones to the heart. Hi mate.”

  Roy expelled his breath, his fear now replaced with a joy he had not felt for such a long time. He wept. “Tom...mate...”

  “It’s okay. I have not allowed myself to be seen by you or Diane over the last few Christmas days mate, that was always to be between Sarah and myself, her special evening. But, my time has come. Now, I need you to listen carefully.”

  Back in the kitchen, Diane and Sarah sniffled, and wept. Diane rubbed Sarah’s hands.

  “I know how much you want to believe it, God knows, I want to, Roy most definitely wants to. But this bears down on us and mostly on you dear.”

  Sarah withdrew her hands, wiped some tear streaks, and settled back in the chair, a steely glow in her face. “Tom is here Diane. every year...”

  “No darling, he is not.” Diane cut in.

  “Yes, every year, he comes to my house,” Sarah raised her voice a notch, ”And we sit by the fireplace, and we talk...and then we dance.”

  Diane’s shoulders curled over her chest as she tried to find the words, and the cracked words came. “Darling, we listened to you last year, and the year before. And before that. It has been three years since we lost him Sarah. He is gone. Just over three years since that horrible Christmas night. Please don’t let me bring up all that. You have to move on.” Diane paused. “Just glad you have not mentioned Tom’s visits to Mum or Dad.”

  “No Diane, somehow I feel I don’t need to. I only told you as I needed someone to understand. Yes, sister, I know, he died.” Sarah’s puffy face and running makeup moved towards Diane’s red eyes. “I am not going crazy, I have not forgotten the police showing at my door, the details, where his car was found, I am not making this all up...he comes here, he came that very night, and each Christmas Day since, and we spend one night together before he has to go till next Christmas.” Sarah pointed towards the lounge. “He is here, now, hiding from you, he won’t show himself to you or Roy, he does not want to hurt anyone.”

  “He’s hurting you, I mean, your memory of him, this belief he visits you. And you say you see him.” Diane sunk back into the chair. “You see him.” Her tone sharp at first then it calmed. “You need help Sarah, the kind that we can’t give you. Unless you stop this...”

  “Stop what, seeing my love.” Sarah crossed her arms across her chest. “You know, it’s so stupid. He just popped out. I told him there was mistletoe growing nearby. And he wanted to bring some back so we could dance under it...so stupid...” Her voice brittle.

  Diane reached forward and lightly gripped her arm. “No, he was a real romantic.” Diane drew a deep breath. “So, unlike Roy. Though he tries. But no honey, not stupid. Not at all. It was just...a horrible, tragic and swift act of fate, and nothing else. So, do not blame yourself.”

  “Anyway, he is here tonight. So, let us open our prezzies, have a nice couple of hours before you and Roy head back.” Sarah rose quickly and ushered Diane to follow her to the lounge.

  Diane sat still for a moment, a vacant stare. “Well, I tried,” Diane muttered before she followed Sarah.

  Sarah unwrapped her gift. Diane knelt to pick up her present. “Roy darling.” She stood in the sitting room doorway and gazed at Roy, he barely looked up to acknowledge her.

  “Just here love, with you in a sec.” Roy said.

  Diane strode forward into the sitting room and kissed Roy lightly on his cheek. “Didn’t think you would ever come in here again. Not sure this year is a step forward for all of us though. She still persists with her fantasies. I don’t know what to do.”

  “It will be okay love.” Roy smiled but his slumped shoulder told a different story.

  “Thank you sister.” Sarah called as she unwrapped a picture frame of her and Tom, one taken by Diane at their wedding, now framed in silver. Sarah smoothed the glass with her fingertips, the picture offered a tactile feeling that warmed her heart.

  Diane ambled back to the lounge, a feigned smile again, approached Sarah and gave her a hug. Roy followed but stood in the doorway. “Diane, Sarah, I want you to listen for a sec.”

  “Open your gift first Roy, plenty of time for speeches.” Diane said as she handed him Sarah’s gift. Roy tried to hide a need to explain the events experienced, he clenched his jaw and unwrapped it quickly - Tom’s watch.

  “That is lovely.” Tom said, he stood behind Roy as he regarded his loved Rolex.

  “I was going to give it you last year but I forgot, so...” Sarah stopped as she noticed Diane’s face had whitened a little.

  “Did...anyone hear...that?” Diane said, her voice lowered to a whisper.

  Sarah smiled as Tom walked over to her and wrapped his arm around her.

  Roy could still see him. Diane’s jaw dropped, and colour vanished from her cheeks, she could now see him. She had unwrapped Sarah's gift, a pendant etched with the words Roy and Diane forever hung from her fingers, and the pendant slipped from her grasp to the carpet.

  Diane yelped. Roy grabbed her. “It is okay Darling.”

  “Yes, sorry but I can’t time these things very well once you can hear me.” Tom raised his hand. “Hi Diane. Yes, it is me.”

  His name slowly escaped along a long breath from Diane as she hung off Roy’s embrace. “T--o--m...”

  “It is okay Diane, he does not have much time.” Roy pleaded with Diane’s better nature not to freak out.

  Sarah’s eyes set on Tom as Roy said those words, and she rubbed the heel of her palm on her chest. “What does he mean, not much time.”

  Tom kept a reassuring fix on Diane.

  Roy closed his eyes for a moment, the realisation he had spoken out of turn as he tried to calm Diane.

  Tears began to stream down Diane’s shaky face. “How...how...are you...here...” She reached out a hand to touch Tom, but felt nothing, just a cold spot adjacent to Sarah.

  Diane swooned, Roy held her up.

  “We should go. You two need some time together.” Roy said as he made his way out. Roy fixed a sad gaze on Tom for a moment, then with Diane over his arm, exited the room.

  Sarah placed the palm of her hand on Tom’s face, wishing she for his warmth rather than just cold vapour. “What does he mean?”

  Outside, the wind howled as Roy carefully placed Diane in the front seat. He entered the car and closed the door. For a moment, Roy just glared at Sarah’s lounge bay window. Through the window, he could see Sarah, her arms in an embrace. He allowed a tear to roll and started the engine. “Goodbye buddy. Enjoy your time tonight. See you later.”

  The car pulled out of the drive and disappeared into the night.

  Sarah pressed a button on the ipod, and the first tune of Cyndi Lauper’s album started to play. Tom held a loving smile as Sarah turned to him. His hand gripped Sarah’s. She gasped.

  She felt his touch, and this time - warmth. The warm touch of flesh and bone, not the chilled wisp of his ethereal shell.

  Sarah quickly touched his face, and then held his chin, she ran her hand along his torso over the shirt he wore that night. Sarah’s fingers slapped against her parted lips as the other hand stroked his face. Her eyes bulged and a tentative smile grew. Not like before, just feeling nothing. “I can feel you...I can...”

  “Yes, just for a few hours Sarah. Christmas is about wishes coming true after all. My Christmas gift to you. Well, the powers that be gave me the gift, to give to you.”

  “How...I don’t care...just so have yearned for this moment to arrive.”

  Sarah dismissed him as just an entity despite the shirt that clung to his form, his crystal eyes, an embodiment of the Tom she knew, but for her, Tom felt as real as long ago. Sarah tried to slip her hand under his shirt lapels but her hand glided over the lapel instead - his outer form and skin fused into a copy of his former self.

  “I so want to touch you all over.” Sarah rested her head on his chest. She felt no beating heart but the love inside, all the warmth she needed.

  They swayed side to side in a gradual graceful dance as the fireplace crackled, just gentle sways to the music. Then Time After Time began to play. Tom kept his eyes closed as they swayed toe-to-toe in a hug stance. Tom squeezed Sarah’s waist a little more, Sarah’s arms snaked around his shoulders.

  And the song seemed to last an eternity. The looped album kept playing, they danced without a moment away from each other’s embrace. And some hours went by, the hours seemed like minutes to Sarah as she pressed her face against Tom’s chest.

  Then Tom gently clasped her face, and glared deep into her eyes. “This is our last dance Sarah.”

  Sarah shook her head violently. “No...No...”

  “You have to move on, I can’t allow you to keep holding on like this. You must live your life without me.”

  Sarah cried hard. “No, I can’t...do it.”

  “Yes you can. I have returned each year in answer to your wishes. But I have to let you go, you must let me go. You will be strong. You will move on.”

  Sarah clutched Tom so hard, he might have felt pain.

  Then she realised she held nothing but the warm air of the fire. And she sank to her knees.

                         ***

  One year later.

  Sarah’s house teemed with guests, her parents, Diane’s friends clinked glasses and laughed and talked about the past. Roy drank beer and played poker with some of his friends in the sitting room. The atmosphere was festive, full of joy and a happiness unfelt by the home and each of them for some time.

  At the end of the night, and the early hours of Boxing Day beckoned as Midnight approached, only Sarah, Roy and Diane remained. They stood together, each holding the other in front of the fireplace, a yearning focus on the picture of them and Tom.

 “Ready then, just once more, ready, one, two, three.” Roy spoke.

 Then each in synchrony. “Merry Christmas Tom.”

About Stephen Crowley

I write short stories and flash fiction plus currently writing novellas. My chosen genres are a mix of horror, scifi, fantasy, and drama. You can chat to me here on the blog or through my linkedin account http://www.linkedin.com/pub/stephen-crowley/4a/136/194

0 comments:

Please do not post promos (unless you are an author, and then ONLY your work). Please do comment on any fiction published here. I am keen to hear from writers starting out to published authors.