Unfinished Business

So, I’m dead.  Now what? My name is James Marshall, although everybody calls me Jimmy, I’m 16 and I’ve just died.  It’s surreal.  I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.  Looking down at my broken body, at the red tinging my spiked-up brown hair, the earring that had been torn from my ear.  The man, man was the wrong word, the boy who killed me was crouching by his crappy Ford, his head in his hands.  I could see a ‘recently passed’ plate on his back window.

I don’t blame him for hitting me.  I was the one in the rush, the one who wasn’t looking where I was going.  I had been running late.  I had just won my Go-Kart Club league and we were going to have a party to celebrate.  But I’m dead.  So, now what? Why was I still here? Shouldn’t I be in heaven singing with a heavenly choir or more likely being tormented in hell.  I smiled and thought of the party, the vodka I’d be shotting, the joints I’d be smoking.  I was definitely more of a sinner than a saint.

And then I heard her scream and my heart broke.  I turned around and saw a woman in her forties running towards me.  Well not me.  My body.  She clutched onto me and rocked back and forth.  Could this really be my mum? Sure, she had her greying-blonde hair, but her eyes were blue, not red raw.  Her clothes were never this mismatched.  But it was definitely her crying.  I hadn’t seen her cry like that since particularly bad days after – ah, it wasn’t worth thinking about that pillock.

I tried to hug mum, but I went straight through her.  And she was still how howling.  Horns were blaring.  Everybody was still talking.  It was so loud.  Drilling into my brain.  Suffocating my senses.  I had to escape.  I ran to the only place I could think of.  Home.  The front door was wide open and in the lobby was the landline phone, lying in two pieces.  I glanced at the photos of me and mum and then jumped.

I ran into the kitchen and tried to turn off the cooker, but my hand went straight through the controls.  And the cooking pot continued boiling over.  I groaned and went upstairs to my bedroom.  Glancing at the clock, I saw it was 7pm, 06/06/18.  The party would have already started.  I wonder if they had been told the news yet.  I collapsed onto my unmade bed and cursed, as one of my Formula 1 posters fell down.  I tried picking it up and swore as my hand passed through.  Why couldn’t I touch anything? Why was I still here? Why me? What am I supposed to do now?

“Ah, come on Jimmy,” I said, breathing deeply, “pull yourself together.” I sniffed and wiped my eyes.  There must be a reason for all this crap.  There had to be.  Maybe I had unfinished business.  I snorted.  I was 16.  What unfinished business did I have?

I fell back onto the bed and next thing I knew I was waking up.  I looked at my clock and saw it was 9am.  I was late for school.  Jumping out of bed, I went to grab my backpack, only for my hand to pass straight through and that’s when I remembered.  I took another look at the clock and saw it was 9/06/18.  Had I really been asleep for 3 days? But that wasn’t the only thing that was weird.  My room was tidy.  My posters had been stuck back up.  My bed had been made and there was clean laundry on my desk.  I heard voices.  I headed downstairs and saw a group of people all dressed in black.  My eyes naturally went to my mum who was sitting down, clutching onto a cup of tea, staring into nothing.

At the far wall, there was a coffin.  I swallowed, as I realised it was my coffin.  The lid was open.  Taking a few deep breaths, I stepped forward.  They had dressed me up well.  I was in my best suit and my hair had been cut.  My poor excuse for facial hair had been shaved off and my earring was back in my ear.   I didn’t look like I had been in a car accident at all.

“What the hell are you doing here? You shouldn’t be here.”

I jumped and turned around, but I realised my mum hadn’t been talking to me.  Instead, she’d been talking to…wait, what was he doing there?

“He’s my son, Lizzie.  I have the right to be at his funeral.”

“No, you don’t, Bill.  You gave up that right when you stole my car and abandoned us, 10 years ago.  Do you remember that?”

“And how many times have I said I’m sorry? How many times have I tried to make things right?”

“It doesn’t matter how many times, because you still left in the first place.  You were entitled to know about Jimmy’s death, but I told you I didn’t want you here.”

“I’m his father.”

“Were.  You were his father.  Not anymore.”

Dad didn’t respond to that.  Wait, why was I calling him that? He wasn’t my dad, just the biggest pussy in the- I sniffed mid-sentence and wiped my eyes.  God, I just wanted to run upstairs and cry, but no, I wasn’t going to run away.  Not like that coward.  He still hadn’t said anything, so I stood toe-to-toe with him.  Close enough to see the shadows under his eyes, the dandruff on his crumpled suit, smell his cheap aftershave.  My breath was coming out hot and heavy, my legs were shaking, my hands were balled into fists.  My nails were digging into my palms.

“I know you can’t hear me, but you need to go now.  I’m not letting you hurt mum again.”

Dad looked at mum and sighed.  He held out a card.  “I’m staying at this hotel for a couple of weeks.  Come see me so we can talk this out.” When my mum didn’t take it, he placed it on the table and left.

My mum ran into the bathroom and I held my head in my hands.  I looked around and spotted my three friends, Ginge, Katie and Liam, in one corner and joined them.

“That was all a bit intense, wasn’t it?” Ginge said.  Although Ginge’s real name was Nathan, we unimaginatively called him Ginge, because of his ginger hair.

“What do you expect,” Katie replied, “you know better than anyone how that dick abandoned his family.”

“But the man made a mistake.  He’s apologised again and again and has always tried making it up to Jimmy, but Jimmy has never wanted to talk to him.”

“A mistake? Nah, a mistake is when you buy the wrong milk at the supermarket, not when you run out on your family.  And why should Jimmy talk to him? Jimmy owes him nothing.” Ginge didn’t respond to Katie and everybody fell silent.

“Well, at least something good came from this.” Liam said.

“And what’s that then?”

“We finally got rid of Jimmy’s paedostache.”

There was a silence, before everybody laughed and then Katie slapped Liam.

“Ow.  What was that for?”

“Ok, so that moustache was horrible, but this is Jimmy’s funeral, you dickhead, you can’t say that there.  And at least he doesn’t wear his hair in a godawful top-knot, unlike some people, Liam.”

Although I hadn’t been offended by Liam’s joke, I was always laughing at his dark humour, I like how Katie stood up for me.  The two of us had always had a flirty banter, and people always said we’d make a good couple.  And although she was hot, with the body of a model, long brunette curls, freckles and make-up that was always on point, after a few dates, we’d agreed that we were better off being friends.

“Do you think Lizzie should talk to Bill?” Liam asked.

Katie shook her head.  “Why should she? Why would she want to talk to that wanker?”

“For Jimmy.  He was my best mate, he was there for me.  For all of us.  Even when he was hurting, he was there.  And I’d know he’d want something good to come from his passing.”

I reflected on Liam’s words.  I had always tried to be there for them.  I knew what it was like not to have anyone.  And maybe Ginge was right.  My dad had come back on occasion, he had tried to talk things over, but I had always thrown things back in his face.  Because I didn’t want to talk to him.  I hated him.  He was a coward.  He abandoned me just as I won my first club league race.  I wanted him to see me win that so much.  He promised he wouldn’t leave and he did.  And that was the 7th time he had done that too.  Can you believe it? 7 times when I was in my go-kart club, he upped and left.  Went driving around bloody Lamborghinis.  And when we confronted him, he said that he just wanted to get his old life back, but that was just bollocks.  He ran away because he was scared.  A scared little boy who couldn’t handle being a man.

But maybe that’s why I was still here.  My unfinished business.  It was too late to sort things out between me and my dad, but maybe I could help him and mum.  She had been left behind too.  My mum had re-emerged from the bathroom.  She cleared her throat.

“Thank you everyone for being here and I’m sorry about what happened earlier.  The hearse will be here soon, so if we could all make our way over to the cemetery.”

Everybody began shuffling into the cars outside and I joined my mum in her car.  We drove to the cemetery and the ceremony began with that old Tracy Chapman song from the 80’s.  The one about fast cars and trying to escape to a better life.  My mum played it all the time, as a kid.  And then my mum, holding a crumpled piece of paper, began speaking.

“This isn’t going to be a good speech, because there are no words to describe how I feel.  Weak, alone, empty, but those words aren’t enough.  They never will be, as Jimmy was my rock.  Ever since…ever since…he’s always been there for me.  And I’ve always tried to be strong for him, but when I was weak, he was strong for both of us.  And now he’s…and I’m…” And mum’s voice broke and she started crying, while I stood by helplessly.  Katie ran up and hugged her, before taking her back to her seat.

After the funeral had finished I was back home with mum.  Honestly, I didn’t know why I was there.  Katie and the others were going to have their own private party to remember me, but I didn’t want to go.  Being at my own funeral was disturbing enough.  Besides, I needed to fix things between mum and dad.  But how? My mum wasn’t going to see him out of her own volition, so it was all down to me.  What the hell could I do? I was dead.  I couldn’t talk to her, but then I remembered those ghost stories I heard growing up.  How people had claimed to talk or see ghosts of their loved ones.  How they would see items move or hear music play.  I always thought it sounded like bollocks, but I had to try.

Mum was lying on her bed.  I knelt by her and stroked her hair.  Even though, my hand was going straight through, I persevered.

“Mum, go see him.”

My mum stared at the wall.

“Mum, please go see him.”

My mum blinked and looked around, before shaking her head and continuing to stare at the wall.

“Mum, it’s me.  Please go and see him.”

My mum leant up.  “Jimmy? No, of course it isn’t, stupid woman.”

I gritted my teeth.  This was going to be harder than I thought.  I knew what to do.  I ran downstairs and snatched up the card that dad had left.  Or at least I tried to, but my hand went straight through.  I swore and with all my willpower, I reached out and tried to pick it up.  It worked.  I was holding it.  And in my surprise, I dropped it.  Ok…I need to concentrate.  Focussing all of my attention, I picked up the card and ran upstairs.  I was so excited.  This was going to work.

But, as I saw my mum, I dropped the card by her bed.  Seeing her so broken, shattered my focus and I couldn’t pick the card back up.  But she wasn’t aware of anything.  I swore again and hit out with my fist, knocking over the bedside lamp.  It tumbled to the floor and the bulb shattered.

Mum shot up and looked around.  “What the hell is going on?” She asked, as she inspected the lamp.  She saw the card on the floor and picked it up.

“How did this get here?” She groaned and threw it on the table, before rubbing her eyes.

“Come on, Jimmy.  Think, man, think.” I clicked my fingers and started singing.  That old Tracy Chapman song from the 80’s.  It was mum and dad’s favourite song.  When they first started dating, they listened to it all the time, mum used to tell me.

Mum looked around and hummed.  I continued singing and mum smiled.  I kept singing, willing for her to get the message.  She picked up and looked at the card.

“Yes, come on, mum.  Go see him.” I said, before singing the chorus.  Mum stood up and headed downstairs.  I cheered, as I followed her to her car.

A twenty-minute drive later, we had arrived at my dad’s hotel.  I followed mum to his room.

“Oh, Lizzie, I’m so glad you’re here.  Come in.”

I looked around at the room, which was a mess.  Clothes were strewn everywhere, and the bed was unmade.  I could definitely smell alcohol.

“Lizzie, let’s talk, I’m so-”

“Shut up William and listen to me.”

My stomach sank, as I realised what was about to happen.  I prayed that I would be proven wrong.

“I wasn’t going to come here, but some weird things have been happening at my house.  I thought I heard Jimmy talking to me, I thought I heard him singing to me.  Our song.  Do you remember it? And I thought that would be just like Jimmy.  Always wanting to fix and help everyone.  And then I realised we wouldn’t need fixing, if you hadn’t broken us in the first place.”

“God’s sakes, Lizzie.  How many times do I have to apologise? How many times do I have to make it up to you?”

“That doesn’t matter, because you still left us.  10 years ago, after you promised you wouldn’t, you left Jimmy alone at the race tracks.  He was six years old.”

“I didn’t leave for good, did I? I came back, I tried talking things over, but neither you or him wanted to listen to me.”

“And then you left again and again, and every single time I took you back, I felt stupider than before.”

“I’m here for good now and I want to explain.”

“You already explained once.  You gave me that crap about wanting your glory days back, when all you wanted was a younger woman without a kid.  What? Do you think I had forgotten about Natalie? She was the blonde at the Lamborghini showroom you were always flirting with.”

“I told you then and I’ve told you again and again.  I never slept with her.  I never cheated on you.  I would never do that.”

“But you would have liked to.  And that’s why you left.”

Dad roared and hit the wall.  “That’s not why I left.  I told you.  I was scared.  I was a coward.  I couldn’t handle being a dad or a husband, but I’ve changed now.  I’ve grown up.  I want to make this work.  I still love you, Lizzie.”

“But I don’t love you anymore, William.  And I don’t want you coming back again.” And mum left.

I cried out in frustration.  This wasn’t supposed to happen.  They were supposed to live happily ever after.  I jumped, as dad screamed and smashed a bottle against the wall.  Seething, he watched mum drive away, before throwing a chair across the room.  He snatched up his car keys and stormed out.

“Jesus, dad, what the hell are you doing?” I followed him into his car.  He sped out of the car park and onto the main road.  Horns blared, as my dad cut everyone off.

“Dad, you need to calm down.  You need to stop.”

But dad weaved in and out of traffic, ran through red lights, all while going faster and faster.  I swallowed, as I watched the speedometer rise: 20, 30, 40, 50 mph and we were in a 30 zone.

“Dad, stop, you’re going to kill yourself.”

But dad cut off another car.  It screeched as it lost control and careened into the curb, but my dad was already speeding off.  We were rushing towards a red light at the intersection, but dad wasn’t slowing down.  He sped through the red light and then did a hard left onto a narrow duel carriageway.  Behind us, I heard cars slam into each other.  A 50mph sign flashed by, but dad was going faster.  60, 70, 80.  And in the distance, I saw a reticulated lorry coming from the opposite direction. And then dad crossed the solid white light, into the other lane.  And I realised what he was doing.

“Dad.  You can’t do this.  Please stop.”

But dad kept driving.  The lorry was blaring at us.  We had maybe 15 seconds left.

“Dad.  Stop.  Turn off now.”

Ten seconds.  Eight.  Five.

I yanked the steering wheel and we swerved off the road, missing the lorry by a whisker.  We bumped up on the hard shoulder and I yelled, as we cartwheeled across the country field.  And, finally, we came to a stop, right way up.

“Dad.  Oh God, are you okay?” He seemed to be alright, the air bag had deployed and protected him.

“Jimmy, is that you?”

Could he see me? “Dad, it’s me.  God, how could you do something like that? You coward.  How could you do that to mum?”

Dad looked around.  “Jimmy? Mum? Lizzie…”

“Dad, please go and talk to her.  She still loves you.  That’s why she said those things.  You have to make this work.  For me.”

“Jimmy? Is that you? Is that really my boy?”

“It’s me, dad.  Now, go to mum, please.”

And dad left the car and started running.

He banged on the front door of the house.  “Lizzie, are you there? I need to talk to you.”

“Bill, why are you here? What the hell happened to you? You’re bleeding.”

“I saw Jimmy, there was a car crash.  I don’t know.  Please let me in, we need to talk.”

Mum sighed and nodded, and dad went into the living room.  I joined him.

“Bill, what the hell are you talking about? What’s going on?”

“After you left, I was so angry and I was drunk and I started driving and I wasn’t thinking and there was this lorry and I wanted to drive into it, but at the last minute, the car swerved.  And I think it was Jimmy.  He saved me.”

Mum frowned, but I could tell that she believed him.

“You said you saw Jimmy.  I saw him too.  And he saved me, because he wants us to work this out.  And I know this won’t be easy.  But we need to do it.  For him.  Our Jimmy.”

Mum whimpered and began crying, before slowly nodding.  “Okay, we’ll do it.  For Jimmy.”

The two embraced, before dad laughed.

“What is it?” Mum asked.

“You’re playing that Tracy Chapman song, aren’t you? Our song.”

I smiled, as I could feel tears coming.  I jumped, as I heard a honk and I saw a go-kart outside of the house.  I didn’t understand at first, but then I realised that I had done it.  I had done what I was supposed to do.  And it was time for me to go.  I left home and strapped myself into the go-kart.  Upon the horizon, there was a wall of white light.  I raced towards it.  I didn’t slow down, and I didn’t look back.

*Author’s Notes*

This story was a sequel to my story Fast Car.  It didn’t begin life as a sequel; rather it was something I had started writing in my creative writing group, and as I continued with it, it became the story it is now.

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