John McFarlane was an old man. He had seen eighty summers, and life held little promise for him now. He watched his granddaughter come to him, smiling prettily as she approached, and held out his frail arms to wrap her in a feeble embrace. The sweet child knew not to hug him too tightly; his body was already brittle enough as it was. So instead of the tight embrace that was her custom to the grownups she held her grandpa's chest carefully to her face as he stroked her hair with his gnarled, mottled hands.
"Good night, grandpa," she piped in her high, young voice, and showed her bug teeth as she grinned. McFarlane smiled back, pulling his sagging lips back in what must have looked like a grisly leer. The leer of a skeleton, perhaps, he thought surlily. But the child only giggled as she slid out of his arms and stood before him. "Good night, child," he replied, voice old and soft. Inwardly, he sighed.
It was another sleepless night. McFarlane lay with his eyes open, staring up at the dark ceiling. He thought of his youth, of the days of his strength and passion, all a hazy blur in his mind. He thought of his three-years-departed wife, how she had captured his dreams when he'd first beheld her. That, at least, remained clear in his mind, the memory of their first kiss, of Joanna, their first child, as she lay crying in the maternity ward. He smiled, remembering the trepidation they'd felt at raising her. In the dark, at least, he could imagine in his mind that he did not leer in a skeletal fashion, that his smile was as bright and cheery as in his youth, a smile that had gained his wife's love.
He thought of death, and wondered why he didn't fear it any longer, as he had once.
The next morning, they found Mcfarlane dead. He had died peacefully in his sleep, or so they said. He granddaughter had been the first to find him. She had gone up to his bed to wake him. But no matter how much she shook him, he would not wake. His head only lolled limply on the pillow. No breath escaped his lips. Horrified, the girl had run to her parent's room, weeping hysterically and crying, "Grandpa! Grandpa!" in her fluting voice. It was tragic, people said. Tragic and surprisingly emotional. His granddaughter had loved him very much. Whenever they saw the stricken girl they would lay a hand on her head and whisper condolences softly in her ear, and assurances that Grandpa was a great man and he was now residing in that place above the sheerest clouds, in God's realm.
The girl would then face them, tears streaming down her face. Filled with all the innocence of a young child, she would say, "I want my Grandpa back. Even from heaven."
McFarlane woke with a start. It was a grey morning, and cold wind blew lightly through the opened windows. So I did sleep after all, he thought to himself. For a few restful moments he watched the curtains billow, then with a painful lurch sat up in bed, dangling his stick-thin legs over the bedside. He enjoyed a windy morning; he liked the feel of the air on his bare feet. He winced as he brought his arm to bear, pushing himself up vainly from the bed. Dull pain shot through his legs like the bone-splitting crush of a mace on flesh. Arthritis getting worse than ever, he thought.
"Curious," he said, aloud. "Erissa!" he called with all his strength. Even so his voice came out old and weak. But his granddaughter didn't come. He shuffled to the bedpost and put on his slippers. Clutching the desk he squeezed his eyes as another jolt of pain lanced through him. "Arthritis bad today," he muttered under his breath. Painstakingly, he limped toward the door, opened it, and peered out with his rheumy eyes. The corridor was empty, the usual sounds of breakfast were strangely absent.
He ran a hand over his spotted scalp in indignation, then worry. Where'd they go? Why'd they leave me here? He thought of his granddaughter, ever caring, ever protective of her grandpa. They'd sit and he'd tell stories...No, he thought to himself, nothing to worry, they'd come back sooner or later.
He climbed down the stairs, grunting with every step, and made himself comfortable on the sofa. He settled down to wait.
It was a grey dawn on the day of McFarlane's funeral. He had been well-respected in life by the people of the town, so many turned up for the service. The granddaughter, dressed in black, cried until her eyes were red as she listened to the solemn recitation of her grandfather's virtues. People looked at her, some in sympathy, others in pity.
Later, she stood in front of the crowd, sobbing again, as undertakers carried McFarlane's heavy coffin out of the van, bringing his body to his final resting place. Solemnly, they lowered the coffin into the hole in a slow, respectful fashion, and stood aside as others shoved soil into the grave. At its head, there stood the gravestone, grey and ornate, and the epitaph stood out in clear embossing from the rest of the words.
"You lived well
And died in peace.
Rest well in heaven."
As the last shovelfuls of soil were packed onto the fresh mound, Erissa wept as she set a bouqet of crysanthenums gently onto the grave, murmuring, "I love you, grandpa," under her tears.
Mcfarlane was losing his patience. Soon, however, his impatience began to be tinged by worry. Their car was not in the garage, as far as he could see. He grabbed a cane and began pacing as well as he could across the room. He was about to give up and call a relative's house when he heard the sound of the doors opening, the distinctive double click of the latch, and the piping voice of his granddaughter. It seemed surreal. His daily routine had been so unceremoniously wrecked; he was going to give them a good talking-to.
His daughter entered the kitchen, where he was sitting now, taking a rest from his pacing. He stared out the window, deliberately ignoring her. He heard her say, "Hello, father,". He frowned. It wasn't her to be so formal. Her voice sounded metallic in Mcfarlane's ears.
"Where have you been?" he asked, pointedly.
She said nothing. Her back was on him, as she worked laboriously to unpack their groceries. For a moment Mcfarlane was chagrined. Why hadn't she answered?
He was on the point of asking her again when she turned and faced him, and Mcfarlane's words died in his mouth as an uneasy, queasy feeling enveloped the pit of his stomach. His heart fluttered. The house had suddenly turned cold. As cold as his daughter's smile, uncannily like a snake's, as her purplish lips bore down upon him like two graveworms.
Erissa sat in her room, brooding. Her mother was calling her to dinner, but she didn't feel like eating. Her thoughts floated incessantly to her grandpa. The tears threatened to fall again. "I'm not calling you again, Erissa..." her mother's voice sounded outside her door. Erissa kept quiet, lower lip quivering tremulously. "Erissa..." her mother's voice sighed outside, "please...we're all very sad about grandpa too..." the voice stopped, and began again, not so strong as before. "He loved us all, as he loved you. Come on, come have dinner...you can't hide in there forever, you know."
"Joanna," her father's voice now. "Come on, its okay. Let her be alone for awhile. We'll keep something for her." They were still whispering as they walked away. Erissa could hear their footsteps going downstairs, for dinner.
She stood up and clambered to the window. Outside, stars shone bright, painted against the dark blue sky. She closed her eyes. "Grandpa, please come back to me," she prayed, starting to weep again. "Please...please...please..."
"I love you, grandfather," Erissa said, smiling as she kissed him on the cheek. Mcfarlane endured it, trembling and eyes wide, as the soft, wet things came away. He resisted the urge to wipe his cheek. he made a tremendous effort to smile up at Erissa, who was smiling in that cold, lifeless way. "Goo..od nig..ht, child..." was all he managed to stammer.
Erissa's voice rang out again like to bite of cold steel. "What's wrong, grandfather?" she hissed, still smiling. "Are you feeling fine?"
"Yes, dear child, yes..." Mcfarlane felt ice creeping up his spine. He watched, trembling, as the girl walked out the room door. His gut wrenched in terror.
Whats happening to me? He thought wildly. They seemed...dead, lifeless, always smiling, always polite. Mcfarlane wondered at his own sanity. He touched his bald pate with a trembling hand. What's happening?
Erissa ate breakfast the next day. Her parents were cheered at this; they fed her more than she was used to. She didn't complain; she knew, with an odd maturity that belied her youth, that they cared for her and loved her more than anything else in the world. Grandpa's death wasn't the end, she thought. The world was still bright, and colourful, and shining.
She spooned up the last of her cereal and returned the bowl to the basin. She walked up to her parents, who were smiling with relief. She smiled back, and said softly, "I'm sorry, mom and dad."
The cold dawn broke. Mcfarlane knew this wasn't a dream. The world was ghostly before his sight. Quiet and dreadful. He got up, shivering, and looked around. Erissa didn't come as she was usually wont to. For once, he felt a sort of relief. It wasn't him, he knew with a wrenching certainty. But he didn't know why, or how. He made his painful, slow way down the stairs to the kitchen. The world was cold and grey. It felt strangely empty, as if he was the only man left in the universe. At table, they were already seated, food untouched before them, utensils bright and inhumanly immaculate. The old man brought a hand to his eyes as that unquiet feeling rose in him again. He felt burnt in cold fires, and his soul felt torn apart.
His feet scuffed on the floor. And at once seven dead faces, smiling one and all, turned towards him, but those were not the faces he knew. Those were the faces of death, and their dead gaze lanced into him like cold fire. He gasped in fear and loathing. A sudden stabbing pain in his heart caused his eyes to widen. Spasmodically, his hand clutched at his chest. Breath rattling, he fell on the floor, eyes wide and bloodshot, and there he lay and writhed in agony.
Seven pairs of eyes looked upon the old man's wildly jerking body, and on not one face did the cold, dead smiles flicker.
Six years passed, and the bereaved family got past its grief. Every year Erissa, blossoming into a beautiful young woman, would come with her family and kneel beside the grave of her grandfather. She would murmur silently and smile, and place new flowers on his grave.
Death was a natural cycle of life, she understood now. Death tempered life. And with that realization came a curious sort of peace, as if truths as old as the world had come out themselves and unveiled her innate fears, and purged that fear away. She pursued life with a passion, studying hard, and became an accomplished violinist who frequently performed in school. She was active in girl's soccer and tennis and won many a medal. Her grandfather would be proud of her. So proud, if he had been alive to witness her achievements.
And that was her primary driving force. And, she thought, when she, too, finally grew up and had babies, and watched them grow up and have their babies, she would remember her grandfather's kindness and loving concern, and treat them the same as grandpa treated her. And when she, too, passed, he would be there, waiting for her, strong again, arms held out in an embrace like so long ago.
She thought, and dreamed, and smiled. And was at peace.
Six years passed. Mcfarlane was eighty-six. He had survived the heart attack, alone. He sat in a chair, a pitiful, doddering old man. Cold. Always cold he felt now, and whenever anyone, even Erissa, came, he would recoil, eyes widening in rheumy fear and revulsion. Erissa would stand there, smiling and nodding with that cold dead gaze, seemingly unaware of his terror. His lips let out a soft moan. That seemed the only sound he could make now, even though his mind was lucid. But his terror was the stronger by far.
The years had driven him mad, he thought. The years of inner torment, and their slimy visages that caressed his skin, and their cold, lifeless smiles that bore down on him - he had gone mad because of them. The world had turned to stone, and all that remained was the cold. The eternal cold.
He had last changed four years ago. Last eaten three years ago. He had tried suicide once, but his strength failed him, and those terrible specters would come and watch him, smiling and nodding, showing their teeth which always seemed to be sharp, blinking eyes that were filmy and black and bleak and dead. Their gazes would strip his soul bare, and he felt cold, cold as winter. Not his body, but his soul.
He knew, at last, where he was.
He was in Hell.
Mcfarlane wanted to die. But, deep down, he knew that he could not. He knew that death would never claim him. He knew that this dread changeless illusion would stretch on unto infinity, forever unto eternity. He would never die, huddling on his chair as this ghastly terrible world flitted about him, and the only weak sound that would escape his weak lips would be cold...cold...cold...
Satre said, hell is other people.
Hell is only what you make of it.
The world is like the frozen tranquil of a lake.
Above is the sky.
Below is the water.
Lowest of all are the stones.
And that is where the stony waters reside.
'Ware the stony waters,
Where stones rise out to dry;
For there is a stone which never dries.
And that stone is death.