“W-where are we going?”, Nick said, and the hooded figure motioned to him and then around him, and Nick didn’t ask again, something holding him back from doing so, something telling him he wouldn’t like the answer… The room blurred around them, and suddenly Nick stood outside, on the curb opposite his house. The masked figure motioned for the building, and Nick took that as a signal to go inside – however, when he stepped in through the door, the hooded figure didn’t follow him.
And inside, Nick was shocked to find an elderly woman standing close to a younger couple, none of whom he knew.
“Wait, I… I’d never sell this house, I earned it working my ass off in my online business! Every brick of this thing I had to work a full hour for!”, Nick said in surprise, and it was then that the others in the hallway spoke up.
“Mom, are you sure?”
“Yes I’m sure, your godfather told me to ‘do with the place whatever the hell I want’ and I want it torn down.” Nick became more and more confused every passing second. Who was this woman? How did the young man’s godfather have anything to do with his house? And why would anyone want the house torn down? It was lovely, exquisitely decorated even when it stood all bare and empty. But it felt cold to him – so very, very cold. Nothing inside it had remained. He found himself wandering the rooms and the first thing he discovered was that Ellis’ apartment had been redecorated with colder colors on the walls. The warmth of the mechanic clearly had left with him.
“Mom? I… you’re absolutely, positively sure that Uncle-“
“Yes, Rob, I’m absolutely positively sure. Your godfather isn’t really in any state to care about this house anymore. I wanted to give it to you, but you said it reminds you too much of him and his cold heart, and you don’t want little Nicola and your new baby to grow up in a house that’s haunted by him… so it’s getting torn down. The sale of the property netted me a nice little sum, half of which goes to your two darling children…” She smiled and went outside, and Nick found himself being pushed to the door as well.
Nick watched as his house was torn down to the very fundaments, feeling as if it was his spirit being broken. That house represented so much to him, and to see it carelessly torn down like that…
“…Who were they? And why would this guy’s godfather have anything to do with my house?” The shrouded spirit again motioned to the side, the surroundings changing around them swiftly until they stood in front of another familiar building. His office.
The garage at the ground floor was flourishing, and he could see a stream of young girls issue from the door leading to his office and the ballroom, but the middle floor looked empty, and when he moved inside, running up the stairs swiftly as he didn’t have the patience to wait for the elevator, Nick found a notice posted on the door of his office.
“…Out of business? Bankruptcy? W-what the hell?” He reread the notice again, which outlined that his business had gone bankrupt in the very distant future, and that the property had been sold to pay off debtors. But how could that have happened? His business was flourishing back in the present, he paid all his taxes in time… Nick couldn’t imagine anything ever going wrong. Then, as he turned back to the stairs, the spirit stood waiting for him already, beckoning Nick to follow silently. They headed into the garage, where a scarred, white-haired man stood wiping his hands on an oil rag – he had an air of youthfulness around him, despite his clearly aged appearance, and one of the younger mechanics walked up to him.
“Mister Davidson? There’s someone asking about ‘Give in style’…”
“Tell ‘em tuh go to the second floor… An’ how many times do ah have tuh tell yeh, Dave, call me Keith.”, the man said, and Nick looked at the man in surprise. Keith – as in Ellis’ friend and colleague, Keith? The young mechanic that had come up to his desk one day? He had a hard time believing that the young man he knew from the present would age so well, because he didn’t look a day over fifty which he probably wasn’t.
“M-mister Davidson, I can’t call my boss by his first name, that’s not right! …S-so there’s something up there after all? I thought that was just an empty floor…”, the young mechanic said, and Keith sighed, shaking his head.
“Nah… used tuh be a comp’ny up there, owned by a real shark’f a man, called Nick Masters. Real cold feller he was – ruthless business man. Owned th’entire buildin’… But then he started tuh git intuh trouble ‘cause people sued him fer not livin’ up tuh his advertisements… Nick could’a gotten off, prob’ly, if’n he treated people better’n he did… but since he didn’t, he got a real hard fine an’ things spiraled outta control. Ended up havin’ tuh file for bankruptcy. Mah previous boss, Bob Tanner, once rented this place from ‘im, so when ah saw it went up fer sale, ah bought this ‘ere garage – never really forgave Nick fer bein’ strict with the rent…”, Keith said with a grin, and when the young mechanic looked at him, the question clear on his lips, he shook his head softly. “…Yeah, Nick Masters, he was tha’ bad’f a person. If’n yeh met ‘im on the street, he prob’ly would’a bowled yew over an’ not even ‘pologise for it…” Nick turned to his ghostly companion again, having heard enough – and, though he couldn’t bring himself to admit it, feeling deep shame rise within him.
“…So my house is gone, my company is bankrupt… I never had friends… my family? How about my family?”, Nick suddenly asked, and the ghost nodded softly, the scenery around them blurring again until they stood in an overly light hallway, with chairs set every so often to create convenient points of rest, and side-tables with potted plants providing a bit of ambience. An elderly man shuffled through the hallway, wearing carpet slippers and a housecoat over a scruffy-looking shirt and pants combination, but he read a newspaper as he went. The shrouded figure accompanying Nick pointed ahead, to an opened doorway at the end of the hallway, and Nick briskly moved in there to hear the same people he’d seen before in his house. Their voices made him freeze in the doorway, however, looking at them as they spoke.
“Mom, you should tell miss Henriksen, so she’ll at least know he’s… gone, you know? She keeps asking about it – how he’s doing, if he remembers her yet, if he remembers her ‘sweet uncle’ yet…”, the young man said.
“Rob, miss Henriksen’s just an incredibly nosy woman, and she’s got no business whatsoever with my life. If she wants to think I'm still visiting him, let her. I only told her I was visiting him to stop her from asking awkward questions, anyway. He taught me that, anyways – he taught me to lie. Only good thing he ever did, because it made things so much easier in the end.” The older woman rolled her eyes, staring down at her cup of coffee – that was somehow familiar to Nick, though he didn’t know who it reminded him of.
“Mom… please, I… I want to know too… What about Robby’s godfather is so horrible… and how you can say that the only good thing he ever did was teach you how to lie…”, the young woman said softly, and the sigh that followed was the only sound in the small apartment aside from a loudly ticking clock for a full minute. And then the older woman spoke, her voice weary and telling of her age more than it had been before.
“My brother was a real jerk, Emily. I don’t mean ‘rude and obnoxious’ – I mean you hated him the moment you walked into the room, because he just made your skin itch. He became like that when I was about twenty-five – right around the time our mom started to get into bad health, too… and he became even worse when he lost his work. It could’ve been resolved if he’d just not been such an asshole. If he’d been prepared to give those people a refund. …Even his lawyer was surprised how he’d let things go as far as they had – but, of course, if anyone commented on that, he gave them a good earful of cursing. Things went downhill so fast – not only his work, but his health… He got into this nursing home where all the nurses hated him, all the other people hated him, and where he suffered. Every week I’d go in and visit him… every week he said I shouldn’t bother. Every week he said I wasn’t worth his time. And then, I listened to him. I felt a lot happier then, just… giving him up. Letting him go. It became convenient, because around that time I met David – uhm, mister Hedlund – and started seeing him, well, with more than friendship in mind. So I just told people I was going to visit my brother, but instead I went to David – and gradually I started feeling less bad about never seeing him. It certainly made it easier when I heard dementia set in – he’d forget that I never visited, and people stopped asking questions soon. …Anyways, he still had one other visitor every week. Which, presumably, is miss Henriksen’s ‘sweet uncle’. “ Something about her words made Nick move into the room to look at her – really look at her, at her face – but there was no need. The photographs on the walls told him all he needed to know.
“A-anita?”, Nick said, looking nonplussed. His sister’s face had sharpened over the years, her dark hair had whitened completely, and her dark green eyes, once so mysterious, had lightened with the years and now seemed to shine with an almost ghostly lightness. “T-then that awful guy she was talking about… that’s me?”, Nick asked as an afterthought, his mind already focused on the next part of their quest of discovering the bleak future laid out for him. And even though he couldn’t deny anymore that it was about him, the young man confirmed it even more.
“…You never saw Uncle Nick, Emily, darling, but he’s every bit as bad as mom says. He was never pleasant to be around. I never visited him when he was in that nursing home – at first I told myself ‘I’m studying’, ‘I’m arranging my marriage’, ‘I don’t have time, I’m too busy with work’… But the plain and simple answer was that I just didn’t want to go. Uncle Nick was unpleasant, horrible to everyone he met… he had no friends, and just one hour together with him made sure you didn’t want a repeat of that unpleasantness. Come to think of it, the only one that didn’t seem to mind was this one guy that always sent him letters. He’s probably the same guy that went to visit him weekly in the end.”
“…S-so no one visited him anymore before…?”, Emily said, and to Nick’s horror both his sister and her son didn’t seem too bothered by their own answers: shaking their heads, they even managed a soft smile. “That’s horrible!”, the young woman said, and Anita looked at her daughter-in-law with a weary glance before speaking again.
“…If you’d known him, you wouldn’t have said that, Emily, darling…” The shrouded spirit appeared next to Nick so suddenly the con man nearly jumped in fright, but then he sighed and looked at his ghostly companion.
“…I’ve seen enough. So in the end, no one can stand me, and I’ll probably die alone…”, Nick said, thinking of Ellis and how the hick maybe had still cared from afar, unable to approach him – or unwilling to, after the way he’d hurt him – and it was as if the spirit had heard his unspoken words, because the scenery around them already had started to shift.
This time, however, the scenery was all the more macabre. They stood in the cold dark of the night, on a snow-covered graveyard, at a grave marked only by a wooden cross yet clearly no longer new. Grass had grown all over it, unkempt and messy-looking even through the snow, and since no one bothered to tend for the wooden cross the data carved into it had become illegible as the wood had been covered with algae crusts and marred by the elements. Nick blinked and then looked at the shrouded figure again, confused.
“…I… Is this… my grave?”, Nick asked, and the figure nodded, exhaling slowly and deeply – a raspy sound seemingly coming from deep within the shrouds, which fluttered – and pointing at the grave. “…a poor man’s grave... Not even my name’s left of me… Can’t blame the world. I had this coming, didn’t I? …But… I’m curious… the flower… I mean,” Nick said, exhaling and looking at the tiny little brownish leaves peeking just above the snow, “someone cared enough to put it there. But… was it Ellis? And if it is Ellis, why’d he stop?”
The shrouded figure pointed into the distance with a greyish hand, and at the same moment a little light flickered in the distance. Nick didn’t doubt for a second that the light was where Ellis was – maybe the hick was coming to bring him a fresh flower… He wanted to see Ellis, wanted to see if the years had been kind to him. But most of all, he just wanted to see one person – just one – that didn’t think he’d been a waste of space when he was still alive. Just one person that mourned him, that remembered him fondly.
“Ellis!!”, he called, knowing full well that the hick wouldn’t answer him, because he couldn’t hear him. But he couldn’t stop himself. “Ellis!!” It was hard to see in the dark, but the figure crouched on the ground was easy enough to spot, and Nick dropped to his knees in front of him, knowing that he wouldn’t be able to hug his former employee. “Oh, god, Ellis, I-“ He halted suddenly – because the figure in front of him didn’t move. He looked a bit better and noticed what the figure was.
It was a stone statue of an angel holding a lantern, and the flickering flame of it illuminated the headstone it was perched over. Nick’s heart froze as he read the text.
“Ellis John Mason, beloved son and brother – born 10/17/1985, died 12/25/2045…” He shook his head, still on his knees, and slowly he lowered his head to the headstone, until it rested against the cold stone. He felt sad – unreasonably so, even considering that he’d just acknowledged the fact that Ellis meant so much to him earlier that night – and he softly whimpered out a plea to the unresponsive granite. “…Why? Why’d Ellis go so young? He was… just sixty… A-and-“
“…Uncle Ellis…”, came a soft voice, and Nick turned around to see a sweet-looking woman walk up to the grave, holding a Christmas wreath. “…Uncle Ellis, it’s me, Claire… you know, Keith’s little baby girl… I just… came to bring you your Christmas wreath… i-it’s been, what, three years now? I miss you, a-an’ dad misses you…”
“And I miss you…”, Nick added, still looking up at the woman where she stood – he faintly noticed how she looked to be in her late twenties to early thirties, with auburn hair that she’d tied into a neat bun – but she continued softly, and her words caused Nick to very nearly cry.
“…God, it still breaks my heart to think of how your heart really always was your weakness. I mean, I know that one guy… Nick? Yeah, Nick, wasn’t it? I know you loved him. I know you turned down about twenty dozen women because you loved him. Dad always said how you thought it was ‘unfair’ to the ladies if you’d encouraged them. …But… I wish I knew if it really was Nick that actually broke your heart in the end. I know you died of a ruptured coronary artery, but you knew you had to mind your stress levels. You knew that so well. It… it must’ve been something Nick said… I just wish I had the courage to go and ask him. H-he mustn’t get many visitors anymore with you gone… a-and sometimes I think that’s maybe for the best, but then… then I think of what you’d say about me thinking that and… oh, uncle…” She wiped away a tear that threatened to freeze on her cheek and then placed the wreath in the shadow of the stone angel’s hands, smiling weakly as she did so. “…L-look, uncle Ellis, holly… you… you always said you like holly… I… Good night, uncle…” She walked away again, and Nick wound his way back to the shrouded figure slowly, every step making him feel heavier. His house had been torn down, his company bankrupt, his family hated him, and somehow he’d managed to be so cruel to Ellis that the hick had died…
“…I know now…”, Nick said to the shrouded figure, his tone dull and defeated and his eyes showing that same pain as he looked at his ghostly companion. “…I was horrible… if I want people to let me into their hearts, I’ve got to be kinder. If I want to have a positive influence, if I want people to remember me… if I want people to respect me… then I’ve got to treat people with respect… and kindness…”, he said. And in the end, he added just one more thought, one tiniest fragment of inner monologue that he didn’t voice.
‘But what hurts the most is seeing Ellis’ grave all the way on the other side of the cemetery, as if he meant nothing to me… as if even in death I’m not allowed to be close to him… close to Ellis…’ Suddenly, the shrouded figure took one step to him and pulled him aside – the feeling of those cold, clammy, ghostly hands on him, even though there was a layer of fabric between that dead-looking skin and his own, made him shiver in disgust – and then it spoke to him, its voice grating like a rusty iron fence creaking.
“…You caused him to die… you caused his life to end…”
“W-what?”, Nick said, shocked. His previous disgust was forgotten as he placed his hand on the shrouded figure’s arm in turn, wanting to shake it. “…I d-don’t understand, how could I-?”
“…You caused his heart, his big and loving heart, to stop… After all you took from him – his job, his home, his happiness, his chance at life as a married man, his heart – you had to take his life as well…”
“…N-no, I’d never… I realized that I… that I loved him! I realized that!”, Nick said rapidly, but the shrouded figure shook its head.
“…You broke him in one second, Nicolas… you broke him and ended his dreams, his hopes, his love, in one second…”
“N-no! No, don’t say that! I-it’s not true! It can’t be true!”, Nick now shouted, trying to clasp his hands over his ears to drown out that grating, raspy, cold voice of his ghostly companion, but it grabbed his hands with ease and spoke darkly.
“…and the worst thing is that Ellis used his last breath… to whisper your name…” Nick felt as though his own heart had stopped, as though his blood had frozen in his veins.
“No… no, no no…”, he whispered, over and over, sagging to his knees on the surprisingly soft ground of his grave. The pain he felt was without compare, without relief, without hope for forgiveness. Ellis would hate him for an eternity for taking away everything from him… Ellis… the one person that had ever truly loved him, perhaps… The one person that he’d let into his heart when he’d made it his goal in life to keep everyone out… He looked up at the shrouded figure again, eyes and cheeks stained with tears, feeling sick to his stomach, feeling as though he had been pushed and dragged through filth, through glass debris, through fire. “W-why would you… t-tell me that? W-what are you… t-tha-that you’re so cruel…?”
A gust of wind blew past him, pulling at Nick’s clothes, and the shroud flew off the figure, blowing away into the distance – but Nick didn’t notice anymore. He finally saw who the figure in front of him was.
“The only one… that can be so cruel to you, Nick… is you…”
It was him – a dead, withered, desiccated version of himself, white-haired, his skin marred with wrinkles and lentigines, his eyes sunken, his teeth mostly gone. His suit hung tattered around his deathly slender and greyish form, patches of skin pulled tight over bones showing. Dead eyes stared at him, and the sight of the dead version of himself made him finally fall to his knees, his stomach heaving, but nothing coming. It was then that the figure took one step towards him, reaching out for him – Nick scrambled backwards on his hands and knees, wide-eyed in shock and horror.
“N-No… no, get away!! H-ha-haven’t you shown me enough?!”
“…Just one more thing… just one more sight… just one more realization…”, the ghostly version of himself said, and Nick shook his head vehemently. However, he’d scrambled right to a dead end – the ghostly, dead version of his future self had him cornered between a tree, a headstone and itself, and Nick resorted to one last plea.
“N-no, please, no…” But already the scene changed around him, and Nick found himself standing in a room smelling of vomit, urine, and bleach. A TV blared loudly inside, and he saw a mess of unruly white hair stick out over the top of a musty-looking red sofa. Walking around the chair, he looked and saw himself sitting there. From the moment he looked, Nick noticed that he was dead. His skin was white, his face drawn into a somewhat pained grimace, his hand laying uselessly on his lap.
And suddenly Nick knew what’d happen even before he saw the other man enter the room.
“N-nick, ah brought yeh somethin’ tuh eat t’day…”, Ellis said – he looked good, Nick mused, at sixty – still vital, still with that youthful fire in his eyes and that warmth in his voice even though much of the light had been taken from him. He saw the effect years and years of living on hope and distant affection clearly, and if his resolve to find Ellis and set things right again had been strong before, it was unstoppable now. But then the hick moved to the sofa as Nick had done, and he gasped as well. “N-nick!! Nick, aw hell naw… N-NURSE!! NUUUUUUUUURSE!! M-mah… ahh… m-mah friend, he’s… call a doctor!! Call an ambulance!!”, he said, his voice showing clear panic, and the nurse tried to calm him down. But then, very unceremoniously really, Ellis grabbed for his chest and sagged, slowly, onto his knees, his breathing reduced to short, pained gasps as the pressure built up on the inside.
“Sir?!”, the nurse that had come running said in clear shocked realization, but it was too late. Ellis’ eyes were already rapidly losing their fire, and his breathing was shallow and futile. His heart had started bleeding out.
“N-niiiiiiiiiick…”, came the soft sigh, like a final plea, and then Ellis’ eyes stared up at Nick, unseeing…
…and just as Nick spoke in the night, he woke up in a bedroom brightly illuminated from outside, Ellis’ name on his lips.