FIELD OF SCREAMS
1700 word short by C L Raven
Nobody believes in ghosts anymore.
That’s a problem.
Especially when Jenkins, the ambitious head of the Shadow Council is demanding an increase in hauntings and a decrease in friendly visitations. He says we’re not running a relatives reunited organization. He’s been dead so long he’s forgotten the newly deceased like to check in on friends and family. The only family he can visit occupy the darkest corner of the cemetery. I think they put iron around their vault to keep him out.
“Half-hearted wailing and billowing curtains won’t cut it.” Even his voice was sleep-inducing. I wondered how many people had died at his board meetings. Bored meetings. “Time for blue sky thinking, people.” Blue sky thinking? We’re ghosts, not painters. It wouldn’t surprise me if during one of his meetings, someone rammed his pie charts up his PowerPoints and sent him to the big board meeting in the sky.
I sighed as he droned on about productivity and morale boosting exercises. My morale died long before I did. Its wake was a lively affair with fruitcake, shots and karaoke. There was even pole dancing. That was me.
“Connor!” I snapped back into the land of the no longer living. His voice grated more than rattling chains. “Do you have something more important to do? A life to be getting on with?”
Someone sniggered. Janice. She kissed his feet like they were the Blarney stone. She sat at the front taking notes. Jenkins hadn’t said a single thing worth remembering. She’d had a sense of humor bypass and died on the operating table.
Jenkins moaned on. “You wasted your life, you’re not wasting your afterlife too. I will not have ghosts turned into cuddly, lovable creatures, the way vampires have been! Is that what you want, Mr. Tovey? People pinching your lifeless cheeks, saying ‘ooh isn’t he cute, all dead and woeful’?”
“No.” Been a while since someone pinched my cheeks. Face or bum.
“Then pay attention.”
“Kill me,” I muttered to my best mate, Ceri. He grinned. “Whoever made him head of the Scare Department should be shot.”
“He was,” Ceri cackled. “Fifty years ago.”
“Boys!” We jumped. Well, I did. Ceri had seen war. Only fireworks scared him. And Poodles. We didn’t need to discuss scaring strategies, they should just send Jenkins into the field with a megaphone and no off button. He made clowns look like cuddly children’s entertainers. “You’re my best agents, but you’re getting slack and stale. Maybe you can develop new ways of scaring the bejesus of the living, because scarings are at a record low. There hasn’t been a crisis like this in the spirit world since Casper the friendly ghost was invented!”
He whipped out pie charts and my mind hibernated. I chose free falling from my office roof over monotonous boredom like this. Now I couldn’t escape. Hell did exist. It was a boardroom run by Jenkins. A PowerPoint presentation followed the pie charts. I slept through most of it until Ceri nudged me with a bicep bigger than my thigh. Ceri made a naked sock puppet from his hand, imitating Jenkins perfectly. I laughed. Sometimes I regret turning myself into the latest 3D pavement art, but if I hadn’t died, I’d never have met Ceri. Someone severed his parachute strings. The ground broke his fall. And his body. In several places, the worst being his neck. He’d had to go before the Decision Committee to prove he’d be an asset to the Scare Department or risk being sent into limbo. Or worse – back to life. Anyone who can bend his head at physically impossible angles has to be an asset to the team. Who could refuse a murdered Para? He was assigned to me. We’d never been apart since.
“What about standing behind people at mirrors?” I suggested. “Horror films love that.”
Jenkins gave me a look that would make Medusa jealous. “Horror films? That’s where you’re getting your ideas? Why not run a survey?”
“Nobody’s tweeted me back.”
His face contorted. I thought he was about to pop a vein. If he’d had veins to pop that is. He certainly turned an unhealthy shade of dead.
“Sweet Jesus of suburbia,” Ceri muttered. “He’s gonna glare himself to a heart attack.”
I shushed him. If I laughed, Jenkins would turn my giblets into windchimes. “We could recreate our deaths. Imagine how freaked out people would be to see me plummeting then vanishing before I hit the ground.” With my real jump, the only things I’d frightened were the pigeons and they soon got their revenge. “Modern day white ladies.”
“He’s onto something,” George, an elderly poison victim said. He was the Treasurer. “Seeing me writhe and die all over again would certainly scare the folks at my old luncheon clubs. Might even get some new recruits. The old dears love a good funeral. It’s like a school reunion.”
“I like it,” Jenkins cracked a smile. It was as rare as a party in a graveyard. That’s the image they should send into the field. “Now get lost and get scaring!”
We trooped out, slightly more enthusiastic than when we entered. Scaring people always cheered us up. Being dead was samey and boring. It wasn’t an escape from life, it was an extension with added invisibility. Ceri and I slipped through the wall and ran into the street.
“Boo!” he shouted at a small child, who screamed and bawled.
“Jenkins would be proud,” I high-fived him.
“Scaring kids is so easy it’s almost boring,” he sighed. “Shame Phillips isn’t here. He was blown up by a landmine. Recreating that would furnish our penthouse.”
“I’ll take you to the building where I jumped.”
We moved through the streets, occasionally taking taxis to frighten the passengers. We took it in turns to run in front of buses or trains and scare the waiting passengers. One bus driver actually crashed. We felt bad about that. He was four days from retirement. The scream monitors on our wrists were working overdrive today. A good day at the office. We had targets to fill just like everyone else. The more screams we collected, the bigger our bonuses were. Ceri and I had put last months’ bonuses together and bought a penthouse suite in Terror Towers, a colorful apartment block overlooking the River of Screams.
The taxi took us to the office building where I used to work. We slipped out without paying – an advantage to being dead – and passed through the revolving doors. I sneaked over to the security guard and spilled his coffee over him. He leapt up, shrieking and we hurried past. We made it to the top of the building without being seen. It was windy on the roof. I walked to the edge in the ghost of my own footsteps. We stood on the ledge, staring down at the spot where I’d splattered, taking my monthly projections with me. My boss was devastated. He needed those projections for the important meeting that morning. My suicide really soured the deal and his day. He’d snubbed my funeral.
“Ready?” Ceri asked.
People passed below us. We waited ‘til it got more crowded then jumped. The wind soared through our lifeless forms. People started screaming when they spied us hurtling towards them, pulling frightening faces. They fled like chocoholics to a chocolate cake convention. The screams intensified when we hit the pavement and vanished. From the sewers beneath, we listened to their terrified shrieks and sobs as they tried figuring out what had happened. We simultaneously checked our scream monitors, grinning. The bonuses were ours this month again. We’d notched up top level on the screamometer. The needle was having convulsions.
“We need an ambulance!” someone shouted.
“Might’ve recruited someone else,” I whispered. “That should earn us extra rewards.”
“Maybe we’ll get a company hearse,” Ceri answered.
The screaming eventually died and the sirens grew louder. We waited until the ambulance was above us then climbed back up. We slipped through the pavement, making the people who’d stuck around scream all over again. Yep. Jenkins would be proud. We danced through the crowd, reveling in their fear, our scream monitors recording our success.
The next day, Jenkins was smiling when we slunk into the Shadow Council’s review meeting. For once he didn’t reprimand us for being late. He held up a newspaper.
SUICIDES VANISH AFTER JUMP. WOMAN DIES.
“I wasn’t a suicide, I was murdered,” Ceri whispered.
“Newspapers always lie. We’ve made front page.” My real suicide got a brief five line mention on page twenty three with adverts for seedy chatlines. And they got my name wrong.
“It’s brilliant!” Jenkins enthused. “Twenty people terrified, one lady dropping dead from a heart attack. There’re rumors of ghosts running amok frightening people. The city’s in a grip of fear! I have you two to thank for that. Come out the front so everyone can see you.”
Ceri and I exchanged bemused looks but joined Jenkins out the front. Janice looked like she was chewing foil. I poked my tongue out at her. We were heroes. Jenkins grabbed our hands, raising them like the ref does to a championship boxer. I was discreetly trying to get the others to start a chant. It wasn’t catching on.
Jenkins’ secretary handed him a piece of paper. He grinned then woke the white screen.
“This was just posted on YouTube,” he clicked on a link. A video of Ceri and my jump streamed. People’s screams echoed around the boardroom. “You hear this, people? These are screams of terror! These are screams of believers! These are screams of success! Right now, forums are arguing about the authenticity of this footage. Experts are dissecting it. Never has footage been so talked about since that famous photo of the ghost on the stairs. The Scare Which Project is a resounding success!”
Everyone burst into applause. Never mind company cars, maybe Ceri and I would get yachts. Or jets. I’d wanted to pilot a jet since watching Top Gun.
“I say move over hoodies, terrorists and growing old, ghosts are the new fear in town!” Jenkins punched the air. “Long live the dead!”