Hey guys, Rob here. Happy Halloween! So a friend of mine texted me and he’s like, “Dude! Do a story about this creepy island I’m working on!” Usually I’m like okay, great, thanks, whatever, and then I do what I want. But this time he got me. See, his job is to map areas, and he told me about Hart Island. It’s a tiny island off the coast of the Bronx in New York City, in the Long Island Sound, and it’s basically a giant mass grave. It’s where all the people who become the responsibility of the city are buried: the homeless, stillborn children, people who can’t afford any kind of burial, and bodies that are unclaimed. There are a million people buried there, with more every year, making it the largest potter’s field in the world. And on top of that, it’s got an abandoned psychiatric hospital, and even old cold war missile silos. Wow. Seems like the perfect creepy Halloween setting, maybe for a zombie story, or nuclear zombies, even better! But then this story spilled out of my head, the story of a woman named Ruth.
Listen to the Audio (14 min):
Read the Story (2,350 words / 8.5-minute read):
Written and narrated by Rob Dircks
Well, this is strange.
The last thing I remember is dying. It wasn’t a struggle. I wasn’t kicking and clawing to stay alive. One minute I was drunk, like extremely, fall-down-an-entire-flight-of-stairs, out of my mind drunk, feeling less than my usual belligerent self, and the next minute I was, ironically, actually falling down an entire flight of stairs in some fleabag motel in Brooklyn of all places. I remember whispering to myself in that last moment, not “Please spare me and just break several bones,” but instead, “Whatever. Let’s just get this over with.” Life had not been kind to me. But to be fair, I had not been kind to it either.
And now I’m here.
I don’t know where here is, though. I believe I’m on Earth somewhere, on a small island. Not some paradisical – is that a word? – paradisical beach with palm trees and a hammock and an airport novel and a pina colada. No, it’s like a bomb went off here, abandoned buildings and trenches full of caskets, and clouds and rain. I can see a bridge in the distance. I think it’s the Throgs Neck Bridge, which would put me somewhere just south of the Bronx. Great. And it’s cold. Really cold.
I don’t know how I could be feeling cold. When I first woke up, if that’s what this even is, is this waking reality? When I first woke up, I looked down, and there was nothing there. No feet, no legs, no clothes, no body, nothing. No eyes to even be looking down with. I flipped out, understandably, wondering if this was hell, or some really poorly marketed heaven, or some extreme hallucination I was going to wake up from. But it’s been at least a week. I’ve watched the sun set –when it’s not raining – a bunch of times past the bridge. No I’m definitely here. This is definitely happening.
Okay, let’s break it down: I have a consciousness, I’m thinking, therefore I am, right? I have no brain, obviously, no respiratory system, no sensory organs, so how am I thinking and feeling? And why am I so freaking cold?
Wait. It’s what that teacher said, I forget her name, but it was in tenth grade. It stuck with me, that jarring thought, you know those memories nobody else would ever recall, but for you it’s like a post-it note permanently stuffed into the folds of your brain? Anyway she was teaching us about the religions of the world, and she said that in buddhism, there’s this thing called “no self,” and a good way to think about it is that I’m not thinking, but thinking is happening. There doesn’t need to be a “me” doing the thinking. Just the conditions of thinking have to be right, and thinking will spontaneously happen. What a weird thing to tell a bunch of stoned tenth graders.
You know what, I’m just going to call it what it is: I’m a ghost. It’s ridiculous, I know. I don’t deserve this shit. It was supposed to be hammocks and pina coladas, not some bombed out buildings and a bunch of guys in hazmat suits.
Yeah. On top of the rain and the muck and the caskets and the cold, there’s an army of guys in hazmat suits, just to add another layer of creepiness, bulldozing the ground and burying the dead. Every day. All day long. Rain or shine. Not that there’s any shine.
One of them looks right at me.
“Hey. You just gonna watch me? Or you gonna introduce yourself?”
Holy shit. What the hell is happening? I look behind me – not that I’m actually looking, again, I don’t have eyeballs – to see if he’s talking to someone else, or maybe a ghost he can see or something. Or he’s just insane. Or I’m just insane.
“You. Yeah. You.” He points.
Fear grips me. I start running – no legs, but you know what I mean – running as fast as I can, up the hill and into the trees.
It takes a few days, but here I am again, spying on the hazmat suit guys, I mean what else would I be doing, there’s not much going on here on Hell Island. I can’t tell which one of them talked last time, they’re identical, but then one turns around, and starts walking directly toward me. My heart – if I had one – starts racing.
The other workers call out to him. “Hey, Al. You talkin’ to another one of your invisible friends? Ask ‘em if they need a fresh sheet. Ask ‘em how many holes they need. Trick or treat. Bring me back a Tootsie Roll.”
The Al guy puts up his middle finger without turning around, and keeps walking to me until we’re face to… wherever my face would be.
“Don’t listen to them. They’re a bunch of fucking idiots.”
“Oh right. You can’t speak. I get it. This is gonna sound weird, but just sorta imagine that you’re talking. It’s okay. I’m not gonna hurt you.”
Um. All right. What’s with the hazmat suit?
“Oh, yeah. You have no idea what’s going on here. Can you smell?”
Of course I can sme– I suddenly realize, however, that I hadn’t been aware of using my sense of smell yet, and as soon as I do it hits me like multiple tons of bricks, the stench of death, and I vomit. Imaginary vomit, but still.
“Yeah. That’s why we use the suits.” He walks past me, a hundred yards or so, I guess to where it’s safe to breath without puking, and he takes off his mask and sits on a rock.
“I’m sorry for how you died, Ruth. No one should have to die like that.”
Wait. You can see that? You know my name?
“I don’t know. It’s just a thing. As soon as you guys open up a little, I get a pretty good picture.”
“What. You think you’re the only one, Ruth? There’s a million people buried here. We’re sitting on a million people right now. Hart Island’s the biggest potter’s field in the world.”
Then where is everybody?
He shrugs. “I’m not the answer guy. I just see what I see. Usually around one of you guys a month. I don’t know what that works out to percentage-wise.”
So are you like the gatekeeper? Is this purgatory? Why is it so cold? What the hell is going on?
“I have more questions than you, Ruth. I mean, what the fuck? This is weird. Those guys think I’m fucking nuts. I’m talking to thin air.”
I laugh. God, I haven’t laughed in… Hey, Al, it’s Al, right? You actually do this as a job? Like on purpose? Like are the benefits really amazing or something?
His turn to laugh. “Rikers Island. You don’t exactly volunteer for this job. And you don’t exactly get paid.”
Silence. For a long time.
“Yeah. I did something bad. Wish I could go back and do it different. Got forty to life, but if I’m good I only got fifteen more.”
I wish I could go back too.
“You know what I would go back to? I’d go back to twenty-three, me and two buddies bought an old beat-up Cadillac, we used to take it out to Jones Beach, Ocean Parkway there, and open it up, we’d be doing like a hundred and ten, and we were away from it all, and nobody could catch us even if they wanted to. If the top was down I swear to God it was like flying. I swear to God. You know what I’m talking about?”
No. Wait. Yes. When it was really hot me and my older sister used to get out the old Slip-N-Slide, right there on the front lawn, and I’m telling you, you have never heard such insane laughter, or seen so many kids magnetically drawn to something from all over the neighborhood. We’d crouch down together, counting down 3-2-1, then run like hell and let it rip, and yeah, just like you said, there’d be a moment in there where there was no gravity, no friction at all, just the water and the sun and my sister and me and the howling of a bunch of ten-year-olds. By the end of the afternoon we’d have prune fingers and little scrapes all over, and one of us would have a sprained whatever. But it was worth it. It was heaven.
She called me Baby Ruth. Like the candy bar.
“I like that one. It’s got nougat.”
Yeah, not the biggest nougat fan actually. Although, it is candy, and you know what they say about candy, right? It’s like sex…
“…when it’s good it’s great, and when it’s bad… it’s still pretty good.”
We both chuckle at that one.
So Al, just want to confirm, this is where we fall in love, like Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore, right?
I’d say that’s a tom-A-to/tom-AH-to kind of thing, unless you know something official.
“I’m pretty sure it’s official. DemEE. I get some internet time tonight. I’ll check.”
Al is back today, with a crumpled up piece of paper from the crappy printer at Rikers, and sure enough, it’s DeMEE.
Well. Mystery solved. My final unresolved issue is settled. I can stop being a ghost now.
“You are gonna stop. Very soon.”
Wow. You certainly know how to keep it light.
“Sorry. I’ve just seen this a lot. The whole thing lasts a couple of weeks, max. You’re not really a ghost, or spirit, or soul or whatever. You’re like a ripple, some leftover thinking that just hasn’t petered out yet. Like when you blow out a candle, you know, that little smoke at the end, you can see it, and smell it, but then it’s just gone.”
Well, that sucks. I mean, what’s the point then? Really, Al. I know you’re not answer guy, but try.
“I don’t know. All I know is you talk, and I listen. I don’t think it’s some grand thing. It just is. Life is random. And you gotta make of it what you need to, and I gotta make of it what I need to.”
So what do you make of it?
He shrugs. “I don’t know yet.”
I float away. I’ve finally learned ghosts – or whatever I am – don’t need to walk.
“Hey. Where are you going, Ruth? I still got some time.”
I’m being dramatic. I’ve always wanted to walk away from a guy like this, like it’s the end of the story. Like Patrick and DeMEE. It beats fading away like a wisp of candle smoke, forgotten. Thanks for being the guy I can walk away from, Al.
Al nods and smiles, and I float off into the sunset. It’s raining, so you can’t see the sun, but still.
Fifteen years later, an old, beat-up Cadillac pulls up to a suburban house in Ohio and parks across the street. Al gets out and pops the trunk. He rummages through all the packages, God this trunk could fit a whole other car, this is way too much stuff, and at the bottom – of course – is what he’s looking for. He plucks it out, heads to the house and rings the doorbell. A woman cracks the door open an inch, wary. He can’t blame her, greeting some big, tattooed stranger.
“Who the hell are you?”
He holds out the box, a brand-new Slip-N-Slide. She opens the door, not knowing whether to take the gift, or push him down the porch stairs, or call the cops.
“It’s from Baby Ruth. She said it was heaven.”
She takes the box, hands it to the little kid who just appeared, hiding behind her legs, excited. The woman doesn’t smile exactly, but she nods at Al, and her eyes get a little wet, and that’s his cue to move on.
He plops back into the driver’s seat and pulls out an old school printed map, none of this modern smartphone bullshit for Al, and grins as he checks another one off the list. He thinks about that Waffle House he saw a few miles back, about getting a giant cup of coffee, because he still has a long way to go.
I hope you enjoyed that short story. And thank you again for tuning in to Listen To The Signal. I’m Rob Dircks, author of the Where the Hell is Tesla? science fiction series, The Wrong Unit, and the #1 Audible Bestselling novel, You’re Going to Mars!
Copyright ©2021 Rob Dircks