The Fiction and Poetry of Jason Thibeault

To What Do We Owe The Dead?

When Paul arrived on my doorstep, at 12:41 am, he was already dead. Or at least that’s what I thought when I opened the door, bleary eyed, stifling a yawn with the back of my arm. Even in the darkness of just past midnight, the near-full moon peeking out from behind patchy clouds disturbingly bright as I rubbed the sleep from my eyes, it was impossible not to notice his brown hair greasy and listless, his slightly stooped shoulders, and the general air of, well, deadness that seemed to hang on him like the plot of a B-movie. And if I had any doubts that he was dead, the deep gash across his throat, just under his chin, dispelled them with a certain finality.

“The graveyard is just around the corner,” I mumbled as I started to close the door, wondering how strange it was a corpse and knocked on my door when everyone in the sleepy little Mid-West town knew that I only dealt in ferrying spirits down the river, not lifeless bodies to internment; and those same town folk also knew that I had very set working hours which were definitely not at almost one in the morning. Even as I was pressing the door closed, a chill snuck in and I shivered, forcing me to ease up on the door to cinch my black terry robe tighter. In hindsight, that may have been the moment where it all went wrong because before I could completely shut the door, before I could finish the argument in my head about just getting up and making some coffee or crawling back into bed, a very scuffed and derelict old boot followed the chill into my home. When the door thunked against it, I looked down and sighed.

I opened the door again and turned on the porch light. It was a glaring insult to the otherwise darkened street, casting its luminosity into my unkempt yard, onto the sidewalk, out past the curb. It was as if I was calling attention to all the faults of an otherwise idyllic little house, exposing it for what it, and I, was.

Taking a step forward, I looked more closely at who had interrupted my sleep.

“You know who I am, right?” I asked, stuffing my hands into the pockets of my robe as more of a symbolic gesture to ward off the cold rather than doing anything to keep me warm.

He nodded slowly, each time the gap in his throat widening and closing like the mouth of a fish.

“Then you know that I only ferry spirits,” I said, pinching the bridge of my nose. This was no way to start off the week, I thought. “Me? Ferryman. You? Dead guy. There’s nothing I can do for you.”

He stared at me, his eyes wide and unblinking, exposing me, like the porchlight, in all my indiscretion.

Then, with slow, deliberate movements, as if his arm were on a string, a marionette in some farcical production at my expense, he wiggled his wallet from the back pocket of his faded blue jeans and held it out for me like a talisman.

We both looked at it, him with a haunted stare, a wanting gaze, mine one of annoyance.

Sighing, I reached out and snatched it out of his pale, white hand.

“I still don’t know what you expect me to do,” I said as I opened the billfold and slid the license from its plastic pocket.

“Paul Deschantes?” I asked, looking up at him. He nodded slowly again. I looked away from the gaping gash in his throat and wondered if I would ever eat sushi again.

I slipped the driver’s license back in place and took a quick inventory of the rest of the wallet. One American Express credit card, slightly worn. One health insurance card. I wonder if his coverage included becoming a zombie, I thought. A quick search of the remaining wallet pockets turned up empty. No old, worn fortune cookie papers. No notes to himself about picking up milk or grabbing flowers for an anniversary. No pictures. I thought about the emptiness of my own wallet and wondered what conclusion people would come to about me if they found it lying on the street.

“I don’t take credit cards,” I said, thrusting the wallet back at him. Paul didn’t move to take it.

“Take this, I don’t want it,” I said, louder than I had intended; but, quite frankly, the whole situation was starting to grate on me. I had decided that I didn’t want to be up, that I didn’t want coffee, that all I wanted was to slip back underneath the covers. Ferrying spirits nowadays was exhausting, and I had already worked late the day before. It made me reminisce about before, when I just had to pilot the boat up and down the river. No paperwork, no record keeping. Only, I never got used to the smell of that river and getting away from the stench was almost worth the shackles of technology in managing the flow of souls from this world to the next. It had taken me a long time to convince the Big Guy that I needed a regular work schedule. My new contract stated my obligations began at eight and ended at five, with the occasional overtime if needed, which was pretty much always. Still, there was nothing in my new contract about standing in the cold, after midnight, dealing with the living dead.

“Okay, I’m going back to bed,” I said. “Get off my porch or I’m calling the cops.”

With that, I shut the door more quickly this time, and headed back to my room.


Ever have one of those moments when you wake up suddenly, for whatever reason, and don’t realize where you are? For me, it’s a breathless moment of panic, when, for a split second, I feel like I’m back of the barge, hanging onto my long pole, having been awakened by someone throwing a coin at my head. And so, when my alarm clock blared at seven in the morning, I slapped at it a little too hard in that moment of panic, as if I was flailing at the next incoming coin. The clock crashed to the floor where it continued its abysmal cacophony. I pulled the covers over my head and wondered why I felt so tired. Then I remembered. Paul, the midnight zombie.

Maybe it was just a dream, I thought, staring into the hot darkness underneath the blanket knowing that the knocks would start in an hour. If there was one thing you could count on, it was the promptness of spirits looking for a ride to the promised land.

Frustrated, I kicked off my bedding and thought about installing one of those video doorbells with a motion sensor, so I could see who’s at the door from the comfort of my bed. Amazon Prime can probably deliver same day, I thought. Sighing, I admitted that installing a video doorbell right now wouldn’t solve the problem of last night and that if anyone should know about hindsight being twenty, twenty, it was me.

A quick shower, three cups of coffee and two aspirin later, I was ready to greet the line which would have undoubtedly formed. Worse than the DMV if you asked me. But, no one could say I wasn’t efficient. I had been known to process a thousand spirits an hour when I got into a groove. Get them in, take their money, stamp the form, speed them along. No muss, no fuss.

“Oh well,” I mumbled. “Let’s get the day started.”

You can imagine my surprise when I opened the door to see Paul exactly where I had left him.

“What the fuck? Why are you still here?” I asked. Tendrils of stream rose from my plain white mug and filled the space between us. Paul stared at me, unblinking.

“Seriously, answer me! This is my house, man. I mean, do you have no fucking respect for personal space?”

Slowly, he raised his hand and pointed at his throat.

“Shit,” I said, putting my coffee down on the small wooden table by the door where I usually left my unopened mail, often for too long. I looked down at my watch, which read 8:01, and peeked around Paul, expecting a line of angry spirits wondering why their passage to the next life was being held up by some shambling corpse. But there was no line. Rather, the spirits were huddled together, probably about fifty or so of them on the other side of the street. Even from this distance, I could see their agitation. If they had been any more substantial, my neighbor would have been raving at how they were destroying his petunias. Sighing, I stepped out past Paul, careful not to touch him in fear of getting some unimaginable stain on my pressed white shirt and looked left and right.

I live in a picturesque little town, on a picturesque little street, lined with old, towering sycamores that shower picturesque little homes in patchy sunlight and pleasant shadows. Some are painted red, others yellow, a few blue. There is even a lime green one at the end of the block. Mr. and Mrs. VanDyke. But I don’t really know them. I don’t really know any of my neighbors, save for Randy next door, the CPA, and I only really know him because he does my taxes. No, it seems that people don’t want to get very chummy with the one guy on their quaint little street who processes spirits for a living. But just because I don’t have any real relationships with anybody else living on my street, didn’t mean I wanted to be the brunt of neighborhood gossip. Quite the contrary. I was happy living in the shadows, on the periphery of everyone’s perception. Just another Joe living on just another street. That’s how the Big Guy liked it too. Anonymity, he always said, is the cornerstone of our operations. That meant no Instagram. No Facebook. Any work done online had to be completely scrubbed. Of course, that made for very strange browsing sessions where I would get ads about adult diapers next to Omaha Steaks.

Anonymity, though, was out the window if my neighbors started coming out and noticed the corpse on my porch. They would surely start talking then.

I turned back to face the crowd of spirits. More beleaguered travelers had joined the swelling ranks.

“Come on, come on,” I called out to them. “Door’s open, business as usual.”

But the mob didn’t budge.

I looked back at Paul, looked back at the spirits. Paul. The Spirits. Clearly the problem with the whole situation was standing on my porch.

“Great,” I said, pulling my phone out of my pocket and texting my boss. After correcting a couple of auto-corrections that would have made for a very interesting conversation (screw you, Apple), I tapped the little send arrow button.

Got a problem here. Corpse on my porch. Spirits won’t come near the house. Advise, please.

The Big Guy was usually quick to reply, especially during business hours. Sure enough, I hadn’t blinked twice before his text beeped back.

Your problem, you deal with it. Need I remind you that you’re the one who didn’t want to pilot the boat anymore?

I squeezed my phone with the intention of breaking it and then took a deep breath and slid it back into my pocket.

Fine, I thought, I’ll deal with it.

“Hey, you,” I said, waving politely to the spirits in some vain attempt to placate their growing agitation, and walked up the three steps leading to my front door. “Paul. You can’t stay here. You gotta go,” I said, walking around to face him. The gaping hole in his throat spread open exposing something raw, red, and wriggling inside. Nope. Nada. No more spicy tuna maki. Ever. “You’re scaring away the customers.”

Paul didn’t budge.

Steeling myself against the intensifying zombie stench, I stepped even closer until we were nose-to-rotting-nose.

“Get. The. Fuck. Off. My. Porch.”

And that’s when I noticed something. Despite all the indications that the man before me was dead as dead could be, there was a twinkle of life in his eyes, a vibrant shine that, for just a moment, reminded me of a deep blue sky on a warm June day. They entranced me, pulled me in, spun me around, sent me headlong into a maelstrom of doubt and wonder. I guessed I hadn’t noticed his eyes last night in the porch light. In fact, I’d never seen eyes like that. Most spirits were listless and grey. And I made it a point of avoiding eye contact with the living. Too much to explain if people made eye contact with me and were suddenly forced to confront all their sins. Super awkward.

“You aren’t totally dead, are you?” I whispered.

Paul shook his head.


I tried to think quickly. What was protocol in this situation? Should I alert the authorities? Should I wheel him to the emergency room? Should I sit him down and make him breakfast? What do the almost dead eat anyway? How do they eat? Does he shove food into the gaping hole? Okay, breakfast was off the list.

Unable to answer the questions I was posing to myself, I took a bit more stock of Paul’s appearance. He wore a rumpled red and green flannel shirt and faded blue jeans. The big black boots, covered in scuffs and dirt, belonged to a working man. His hands were calloused and muscular, his nails extremely short, either from heavy manual labor or a nervous disposition. In just a few seconds, I concluded Paul was probably a neighbor.

Many of the people in the surrounding houses worked at the local factory. I had no idea what the factory made or what people did there, and never really thought of asking. I figured, though, that the factory was the whole reason for my picturesque little town’s very existence.

Paul definitely struck me as the factory type.

Neighbor or not, he wasn’t my problem. None of them were.

My job, my obligation, was to get spirits to where they need to go, nothing else. It wasn’t my job to be neighborly.

“Listen, things are going to get really bad here if you don’t get off my porch,” I said, backing away and reaching for my coffee cup just inside the door. I took a sip. Dammit, nothing worse than cold coffee. I put it back down.

But Paul made no indication he planned to do anything other than stand there.

I clenched my fists, digging my nails into the palm of my hands, and then relaxed again, trying to remember my therapist’s words, you are the only one responsible for your feelings.

I shrugged.

“Go fuck yourself,” I said to Paul and shut the door.

Time to watch Netflix.


By day three, I was desperate.

First, I’d run out of aspirin, so my headache was reaching apocalyptic proportions. That may have been exacerbated by the deluge of emails and texts from The Big Guy, citing rules and regulations I didn’t even know existed. Most of them kept referring to my eternal damnation if I didn’t get back to work. But what was I supposed to do? Paul was still standing outside the door, clearly waiting for me to do something that I had no clue about.

Second, I’d run out of whiskey. This was especially bad, considering I’d recently stopped hiding it in my coffee and started just drinking it straight.

And before you ask, “why didn’t you just order some more from Amazon?” I did. I’m a Prime member, I know the perks. Same day delivery just like the video doorbell. Except the delivery guy wouldn’t come to the door with Paul standing there. So, I told him to go around the side, but Paul would beat him there. I’ll admit, I was impressed how fast that damn corpse could move. I tried them all. Walmart. Target. Door Dash. Uber Eats. Same problem. Paul wasn’t going to let anything get past him until I did what he needed, whatever the fuck that was.

And third, my ass hurt. Yeah, I’ve got a comfy leather recliner facing my TV, but you try sitting for sixteen hours straight for two days and tell me how your ass feels.

Oh, yeah, there’s a number four. I watched everything worth watching on Netflix. They really do have a shitty selection of movies and shows. I hope that the six billion dollars they’re spending on creating their own content is better than the billions they wasted licensing the garbage they have on there now.

The small digital clock by my TV read 8:17 A.M. Standing in my robe in the living room, holding my coffee cup, I stared at the door. I knew Paul waited on the other side. He’d been standing there every time I opened any door leading out of the house. And the spirits were there too. So many of them. They spilled into the adjacent streets, the alleyways, spread across the well-manicured lawns. They hung off the eaves and the sycamore branches and sat on car roofs. And all of them clutched their money for passage. Some had silver coins. Others had crumpled bills. But they all had something to offer the Ferryman for their passage.

As I stared at the inside of my front door, for the first time in all my existence, I felt adrift. I felt like a boat without an anchor, tossed by the waves, going where life decided, where I had no control, where I had no say. Before Paul came, I knew what I was supposed to do. And I was damn good at it. But now? I felt like someone had cut me loose from the dock and was waving at me as I disappeared towards the horizon.

I stepped to the door once more and begrudgingly opened it.




“Okay, okay,” I said. “I give up. What do you need me to do?”


My dining room, which spilled into my living room, was not much to speak of. A single, round wooden table with four wooden chairs. First apartment furniture from IKEA. Furniture for someone who gave no fucks about furniture. Sitting there, across from Paul, I reflected on my decorating choices, or lack thereof. My TV, on a black IKEA stand, the veneer on the top lifted slightly at one corner (a mishap during construction), my once-plush recliner, the little table by the door, the table I sat at. Although, to be honest, I didn’t even really eat at the table, preferring to balance a plate of food on my lap while watching reruns of Friends on Netflix.

When did I stop giving a crap?

Maybe it was when I transitioned to the house, gave up the boat, the pole, the robes, the whole bad-ass-out of-Hell image. Or maybe it was always like this? Maybe the job had always been the only thing to define me?

Sighing, I reached out for my coffee.

We sat in silence for a good thirty minutes. My coffee was stone cold, but I drank it anyway, more out of habit than necessity.

“I get that you can’t talk,” I said, pointing to the gaping hole in his neck. “But I don’t know where to start. I need to know what you want.”

Paul opened his mouth a few times, his lips moving to form words, but his breath gurgled out through the gash before it could ever reach his lips.

I looked down at my coffee cup, wishing for whiskey instead. But there, in the brown swirly mess of Keurig Nantucket Blend, steam long since gone, I found inspiration. I suddenly knew what I needed.

“Serena,” I whispered.

I drained the dregs of my coffee in one gulp, gagging.

“You ready to take a walk almost dead man?”


Paul was more than willing to leave the house, so long as I was leading the way. In fact, he followed at my heels like an obedient dog.

“Let’s go out the side,” I said, not eager to deal with the mass of angry spirits hovering in front of my house. I grabbed my keys off the hook by the carport door. Only when I opened it, a wall of spirits, jammed shoulder-to-shoulder, hip-to-hip, filled the space around my car. Every one of them held up money as soon as they saw me, shaking it in my face. I raised my hands in defense.

“Can’t, sorry, be back soon,” I said, even as their angry energy surrounded me. It radiated off them. Combined with the cold coffee sitting in my stomach, I felt nauseous. I fought back another gag reflex as I put my head down and pushed through. I glanced back briefly to make sure Paul was still following and saw the spirits giving him a wide berth even as they crowded around me like moths to a lightbulb. Claustrophobic, I fought hard to breathe as dollars and coins and trinkets were pressed into my face by ghostly, menacing hands.

“Help us, Ferryman,” they whispered. “Help us get to the other side.”

Soon, it was almost deafening. All I could hear was their low wailing as I stumbled, slamming into the driver’s side of my car. I fell to my knees, closed my eyes, and covered my ears to block out their incessant demands.

This has never happened before, I thought. They have never spoken to me.

“Ferryman, do your job!”

“Ferryman, take my money!”

“Ferryman, help me!”

It was almost unbearable as they hissed and screamed at me.

And then it stopped. Just like that.

Gasping for breath, I opened an eye and raised my head. The spirits were gone. As I slowly stood up, I realized they had all backed away, shaking their heads and averting their eyes.


I watched him meander towards the spirits, first in one direction and then the next. He had his arms extended like Frankenstein and shambled around the carport as if the entire scene were some macabre reenactment of a low-budget horror movie.

He turned to me and smiled.

You heard that right. The corpse smiled at me. I wasn’t sure if I should smile back or cry, but it was the most genuine smile I had ever seen. I took a couple of deep breaths and quickly formed a plan. I stepped behind Paul, pointed in the direction we needed to go, and let him lead the way.

God, I really need some whiskey.


The spirits parted as I guided Paul in front of me. The situation was worse than I had thought. The word dire came to mind. Spirits were everywhere, more than I had ever seen at one time. It gave me a new appreciation for my profession. If I wasn’t efficient in ferrying spirits beyond the veil, the world would be overrun with the dead. In fact, I wondered how long we had before the spirits started intruding on the living. How angry did they need to get before they became palpable to the real world? Something told me that was going to happen sooner rather than later.

The Big Guy…

I reached for my front pocket. No phone. I thought about stopping Paul for a moment and heading back to get it, but what good would it do me? Paul was the problem. The spirits wouldn’t come near me so long as he was there, and he was sticking to me like glue until I figured out what he needed me to do. Receiving a barrage of email and texts was only going to heighten my already growing anxiety. I shrugged and kept walking.

“Onward my mostly dead friend,” I said as I directed Paul to take a left at the street, “it’s a way off.”

It must have taken us thirty minutes to walk to Serena’s. Thankfully, the path to her house was easily navigated through the alleyways and side streets, past trashcans and basketball hoops, past closed garage doors and the occasional motion-sensitive light. Even though most of the neighborhood was probably at work, I didn’t want to chance someone stopping me and asking who I was or what I was doing with a zombie. Despite not really knowing anyone, I did have the feeling that my neighbors had a certain standard for where they lived. Lawns were kept short and green. Flower beds were regularly trimmed. Leaves dusted up. A dead guy was clearly outside those parameters. But most of the houses backed up to shared alleyways, where my neighbors could escape home without being seen if they so wished, tucking away into their garages without being seen. Stuck with an open carport, I envied them.

Serena lived in a little, light blue bungalow at the end of a cul-de-sac. It was nestled in the shadows, shrouded from prying eyes by the leafy branches of several huge sycamores. She’d replaced the original bulb with a blue one to match her house. When it was on, she was open for business. Of course, knocking was still polite, but I didn’t have time for niceties. So, with Paul leading the way, we pushed the door open without even breaking stride.

“Ferryman,” Serena said, sitting at the small round table in her entry way, “I’ve been expecting you.”

I stepped out from behind Paul.

“Jesus, you look like shit,” she said and took a long drag on her cigarette.

“You don’t happen to have any whiskey, do you?”


Draining the 18-year Macallan, I looked at her across the table. We hadn’t said a word since she poured me two fingers of golden amber. The warmth settled my stomach and my nerves. I put the glass down and signaled for her to hit me again. She poured another drink from the bottle and put it on the ground.

In all the times Serena and I had crossed paths, I had never really noticed her until now. I stared at her for a moment, taking in her chestnut brown hair, how it framed her round face, how it fell across her shoulders. Her green eyes, despite the haze of cigarette smoke, were piercing. Her delicate nose and high cheekbones screamed of her European ancestry. God, she was attractive. I felt my color rising and looked down, trying to calm the sudden rush of blood.

“That’s my good stuff,” she said, clearly not noticing my sudden interest in her appearance. “Looks like you needed it.”

Feeling a little more under control, I raised the glass to salute her and smiled, draining it again.

“So, who’s your friend?”

“Paul Deschantes,” I said against the burn of the whiskey, “meet Serena Moliere, town psychic.”

Paul, still standing by the open door, blinked at her.

“Medium, Ferryman. How many times do I have to tell you that I’m a medium?”

“Sorry, sorry,” I said, putting the glass down and leaning back in the red, paisley patterned chair. It wasn’t very comfortable, but I wasn’t complaining. The crystal ball in the center of the table, nestled in a bird’s nest of red velvet cloth, mocked me like an angry eye. I wondered briefly if it really worked and if The Big Guy was watching me through it.

“Three days without a customer,” Serena said, using one cigarette to light another. “People aren’t coming out of their homes when they get back from work. I think they can sense the angry spirit energy. Are you going to fix this mess?”

“Well, that’s kind of why I’m here,” I said.

I told her about the past three days, about Paul appearing on my door, about the gash in his neck making it impossible for him to speak, about all the spirits milling about, about how pissed The Big Guy was right now. I even started to tell her about how I was feeling, about being adrift, when she held up her hand.

“I’m not your therapist,” she said.

“But you said you were expecting me?”

“Yup, saw it in the tea leaves. Didn’t see Paul, though. That one I missed.”

“What should I do with him?”

Serena gave a sort of exasperate shrug.

“How am I supposed to know? You’re the one who deals with all the dead. Can’t you just dig a hole and stick him in it?”

“I should bury him? But he’s only mostly dead. Could you condemn an almost dead guy to eternal darkness, with nothing but worms to keep him company?”

Serena looked thoughtfully at Paul as she brought a new cigarette out from the folds of her dress and lit it against the nub at her lips.

“I guess that would be pretty shitty of you.”

She flicked the ash of her cigarette onto the wood floor. The thought of a pile of ashes at her feet revulsed me. I didn’t understand how people could be so dirty.

“So, you don’t know what his story is?” she asked.

“No. Like I said, he can’t talk so I can’t ask him.”

Looking away from her piercing eyes, just as another rush of heat filled my cheeks, I stared at the crystal ball and was suddenly struck by inspiration.

“Can you?” I asked, my voice laced with desperation. “I mean, can you touch him or something and read his mind? Maybe the crystal ball can help?”

“Jesus, Ferryman. I’m a clairvoyant, not a god damn comic book super hero,” she said, shaking her head. She looked over at Paul, who hadn’t moved the entire time I had been talking with Serena.

“Maybe you should take him home?” Serena suggested. “Maybe there’s someone waiting for him? You said you got his name from his license, right?”

I almost gasped.

“I didn’t even think of that. Of course! That makes total sense.” I practically jumped up from the chair. “Paul, give me your wallet.”

Slowly, Paul extracted the wallet from his back pocket and handed it to me.

“15749 Mary Lane,” I read. “Crap, that’s just a short walk way.”

“You better get going then,” Serena said.

I looked up from the license and, without thinking, stepped to Serena and kissed her on the forehead. She shooed me away.

“I’ll send you a bill,” she with a sly smile as Paul and I headed out the door.


We walked briskly back the way we had come, well as briskly as a corpse can walk but it was a decent pace. As a travelling companion, Paul was ideal. He kept away the spirits lurking in the shadows between the houses, and he didn’t talk. Something about the visit with Serena, about really seeing her, gave me pause and I felt the words coming out of my mouth even before I had a sense of forming my thoughts.

“I’ve always been so focused on my work,” I said to Paul, although it could have been to no one in particular. “Everything has been about processing, processing, processing. About being as efficient as possible. About how many spirits I could ferry across in a single day. But I’m beginning to wonder if I am missing something, if there’s more to life than just serving one’s purpose.”

I looked at Paul for confirmation, but he only stared ahead, oblivious to anything except his own path on the road.

“I guess I didn’t really have time to get to know anyone in the neighborhood. I was always so focused on my job. But maybe that was just an excuse for something else.” My voice trailed away as memories about missed block parties, dinner invitations, and summer get-togethers around the pool filled my head.

How many times did I turn people down until they stopped trying? I wondered. How long as it been since anyone living has stepped onto my porch and knocked on my door?

The questions were revealing, the answers painful.

A gentle breeze rustled the leaves, filling the air with the soft, warm smell of life, and taking the low moan of the spirits away. I stopped for a moment in the middle of the street, letting the fragrance and the silence wash over me, thinking of the kiss I’d planted on Serena’s forehead and all the missed moments.

“Morning, Ferryman,” a voice said.

I snapped my head around, searching for the source. It took me a bit to find her, surrounded by spirits in the front yard of a small, yellow house. She stood there, stooped with age, holding a rake for the fallen leaves that didn’t exist yet, her long grey hair laying on her shoulders like a familiar blanket.

“Morning,” I said back, raising my hand in a partial wave.

“Is that Paul with you?” She asked.

“You know him?”

“Of course. He’s been my neighbor for years. Lives in the house at the end of the street. Makes great margaritas.”

I began to walk towards her when Paul put a hand on my shoulder, stopping me for a second as he stepped in front and shooed the spirits from the yard. Many of them glared at him, and then at me, as they drifted away.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know you,” I said.

“Grace,” she replied, holding out a wrinkled hand. “Grace Renfrew.”

I stepped forward and took the proffered hand, admiring the firm grip but surprised at how cold her grasp felt.

“Hello, Paul,” she said, patting him on the shoulder. “Didn’t think I’d ever see you again. Terribly sorry to hear about what happened.”

“Wait, you know what happened to him?”

“Of course! It was big news. We don’t get many people murdered on our quiet little street.”

“Murdered,” I whispered and then looked at Paul, trying not to focus on the gash. “I guess I should have realized that.”

Paul shrugged.

“Yeah, real tragedy. Single guy, living alone. Found in this house a few days after when one of neighbors noticed the smell.”

“But he’s not totally dead,” I said. “He’s only mostly dead.”

“Must have wandered out of his grave,” she said as she leaned on the rake for support. “Happens, you know. Some unfinished business keeping his spirit from leaving his body.”

“I’ve never heard of that happening,” I said.

“No offense, Ferryman,” she said, staring hard at me with her striking blue eyes. “But you are a bit of a shut-in.”

“Have you always lived here?” I asked, shifting my weight and looking away from her gaze.

“My whole life,” she said. “Seen so many people come and go, been involved in so many lives, heard so many stories. Ain’t that right, Paul?”

I swore that Paul smiled at her.

“I remember when you first moved in,” she said, turning to face him. “You were so shy, almost like the Ferryman here. So, I walked up to your door and practically barged in with a plate of cookies. What did it take? Three cookies before you were telling me your life story?” She chuckled, but her steely gaze never left Paul’s face. “I remember you telling me about when you were a kid, about living in Southern California, about the time you stole some strawberries from a field at the end of your street and only narrowly escaped the farmer’s grasp? About how you ran home to hide only to have to answer the door a few minutes later for that same angry farmer demanding to speak to your parents. And boy did you get a whipping from your step father after that, didn’t you?”

She laughed again, only this time it was a cackle, filling the quiet street with the notes of her mirth. Paul’s smile grew at the sound until he was grinning ear to ear.

“Oh, you want me to tell that story, too?” She asked, winking at him before turning her gaze on me again.

“You got time, Ferryman?”

I returned her stare, thinking about all the spirits that needed tending to, about my work, my purpose, and about Serena.

“Well, I still don’t know what he needs me to do,” I said. “So, yes, I guess I do have time.”

This time, she winked at me.


By the time Grace had finished recounting Paul’s stories, the sun was dipping below the houses and the long shadows of dusk were creeping along the street. The evening traffic, as people returned to their homes from work, had dissipated and the neighborhood had once again settled into a quiet slumber.

I felt spent.

Never had I listened to someone talk for so long. Grace’s energy in recounting Paul’s life stories seemed almost endless. But looking at her now, I could see the age in her face and her body and wondered how long before I’d find her standing in the line leading to my front door. Suddenly, I was sad for Paul, sad for all the dead who didn’t have a voice to tell their stories.

“I feel like we’ve taken up too much of your time,” I said as I put a hand on Paul’s shoulder. “I really should take him home.”

“Is that what you think he needs?”

I looked at Paul and then down the street. I shrugged.

“I don’t know, really,” I whispered. “But I’m going to start there.”

Grace chuckled again.

“Good luck to you, Ferryman,” she said, extending her hand for the second time. I shook it, again surprised by the firmness of her grasp and the chill of her touch.

“And, Paul, wonderful to see you one last time,” she said, dropping the rake to give the corpse a firm hug. “I think we’ll see each other again soon.”

She pulled away from him, picked up her rake and gave a little bow, but otherwise didn’t move.

“You aren’t going to head inside for the night?”

She smiled.

“Not yet,” she said as she leaned into the rake again and looked off towards the setting sun. “I have always enjoyed this part of the day, the moment between the hustle and bustle of the day and the calm of the night.”

I looked at her and then at Paul and then back at her. There was something about the whole encounter with Grace that struck me as odd, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I caught movement out of the corner of my eye, more spirits massing around the corner of the house, eager to confront me but wary of Paul, and suddenly, the gravity of my situation returned.

“Goodbye, Grace. It was a pleasure to meet you,” I said as I turned and left the yard, Paul in tow.

It was a short walk to Paul’s house and we did it in silence. I glanced at the homes as we walked, an occasional shadow floating behind pulled drapes, and wondered what the people were doing inside, if they were recounting stories of their day or lives to each other, and then thinking about Paul, about how if we hadn’t run into Grace, there might have been no one else to know his story. I didn’t notice I had passed Paul’s house until I realized he was no longer at my side. I stopped and turned around to see him standing in the middle of the street, staring at it. I walked back to him and put a hand on his shoulder.

“Let’s go inside,” I said.

The closer we got to his front door, the more it became apparent that no one had lived there in quite some time. Weeds grew plentifully through an unkempt lawn and the blue paint was flaking off the siding. The house felt cold and unused, shadows hanging off the eaves. Even the door seemed unwelcoming. I looked back down the street, towards Grace’s house and wished that I had asked her how much time had passed since Paul’s murder.

I turned the handle on the door, expecting it to be locked, and was surprised when it opened easily. A cold darkness spilled out.

Glancing at Paul, who remained expressionless, I stepped across the threshold.

I stood alone in the foyer for a bit, flooded with memories and thoughts about the stories Grace had recounted, piecing together Paul’s life in the house. I imagined him coming home from work and turning on the lights, putting his keys on a little table by the door, wandering into the kitchen to grab a beer before sitting down to watch TV.

He was just like me, I thought. Alone.

But then I remembered how his smile had grown at each story Grace told and a new vision filled my mind. I imagined a neighbor knocking on the door to come and talk, saw them sitting together in that same living room, smiling and laughing as they told stories and talked about life. I saw more people join them until the house was filled with their voices.

I hadn’t realized I had wandered into the living room until Paul put his hand on my arm. I turned to look at him in the darkness and realized he was smiling again.

“I had a life before being the Ferryman,” I whispered. “I remember when I was a little boy. I remember playing with friends on warm summer days. I remember a lake nearby where I grew up in a little village somewhere, in some country, in some place I can’t remember anymore. But I do remember one time when I caught water snakes with my dad in a little creek, how slippery they were and how the crawfish nipped at our bare feet in the cold water.”

A sob caught in my throat as I looked at nothing in particular.

“There have been many Ferrymen,” I whispered. “When one gets tired, the Big Guy retires him and finds another. For all eternity, we have been steering the board until I stepped out, until I decided I didn’t want to do it that way anymore.”

I look out the backdoor, watching the final vestiges of the setting sun. But they were far from final moments. In fact, they were more of a beginning rather than an ending, and soon, the stories were spilling out of me as quickly as the tears, while Paul, his hand on my arm, just listened.


I don’t remember when I left Paul’s house, or why for that matter. I just know that at some point in the early hours of the morning, I was walking up the steps to my home, Paul’s stories mingling with my own, my lips tingling from the kiss I had given Serena, and Grace’s steely gaze burning into my soul.


The alarm went off like it always did, although I didn’t feel like I’d slept at all, haunted by the previous day’s events. As I pulled myself out of bed, I wondered if Paul would be on the porch again. I wondered how many spirits stood in line now, waiting for me to give them their passage, afraid of coming close to the mostly-dead corpse. Sighing, I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and headed into the shower.

Dressed again in my red robe, I lamented the fact that I didn’t have any coffee or whiskey. I looked down at my watch. 8:00. I shrugged and put my hand on the front door.

Only one way to find out, I thought.

I slowly pulled it open.

No Paul.

Just the warm morning sunlight and an orderly line of spirits waiting for the Ferryman. As if none of the previous few days had ever happened.

I stepped out and looked down the line. It was longer than I had ever seen, stretching into the distance and around the corner. And that’s when I saw Paul. He was standing in line with all the others, clutching his dollar for passage. He waved at me. But I didn’t see the mostly-dead corpse that had dogged me for three days. I saw the little boy who got caught stealing strawberries. I saw the man entertaining neighbors at his home. I saw in him every story that Grace told last. And I saw the compassionate soul who listened to me through the evening as I cried out a lifetime’s worth of memories.

I smiled back as I looked at the first spirit.

“Are you ready?” I asked him.

I followed him into my home and shut the door.

“Ferryman, here’s your money,” the spirit said. “I’m ready to pass from this world.”

I looked into his eyes and thought about Paul and Grace and me.

“Actually,” I said as I took the proffered coin, “my name is Dale. And why don’t you tell me your story first?”