Halfway Down the Hole

There's a ghost in the car.

It speaks in silence. It fills the holes of conversation. It is absence, as deep as a well, as black and cold as a December night.

I can see it in your eyes. You're thinking of him, too. I remind you of him, and you, me. We don't look at the backseat. We can't bear to see his sad, lifeless, eyes. His body so bright it's blue. His arms rest lazily on our headrests. Like a dog, he yearns for our attention.

If only one of us would say something, something funny or witty preferably, the memory might erase itself. Escape into the void, like so many forlorn thoughts and scraps of dreams. If only he would just go away!

I reach for the volume knob on the dashboard. A cranky, grating, guitar rises in anger. But it doesn't fill up the hole. There's still a mark, barely visible, but there if you know where to look, like the shadow of ink beneath a weak spread of whiteout.

*

We're brothers without the blood, you and me.

When our parents married, we were like hatching chicks, just beginning to understand the world. You're older by six years so our relationship, at first, was strained and distant. But then we merged as I got older. I don't know if I aged too fast or you too slowly, but it was like we were both reading the same book and somehow ended up at the same chapter and now were free to discuss characters and references and narrative possibilities. Our lives (the stuff that makes up life: likes, dislikes, favorite foods, movies, TV shows) melded together like lovers after a night of passion.

Remember that day we went to the movies? Paid for one ticket and saw four movies? Marathon-runners in dim shadows. The soles of our shoes sticky from popcorn oil. Our eyes glazed and dark-tinted.

What happened to us?

*

Oh, right.

Death.

Death erases. Death creates fissures. Death destroys.

But it didn't have to be this way, did it? Why did we let money and greed get in the way of family? How does that happen?

When he died, he took us with him, halfway down the hole, like Hamlet jumping into Ophelia's grave.

I can't believe he would have wanted it this way.

*

We arrive at our destination: The Aquarium.

He loved fish, so we decide to come here on the anniversary. Do you remember that huge tank we had in the old house, with the different habitat zones, and the three-dozen fish? Angelfish and transparent fish and whiskered-old-man-fish all living in peaceful, utopic, harmony.

The first exhibit upon entering the aquarium is a massive kelp tank. Tentacles of fleshy green sway like trees in a spiraling tornado. They fall and dip and almost seem to collapse until another breathe of unnatural current picks them up and then they're dancing again. It's hypnotic. Sharing the tank are fish the hundreds of colors of flowers. They float with the currents, drunk with laziness.

Darkened halls branch out from the tank. They look like vague choices in a dream. The Jolly Jellyfish to the left, the Mysterious Sea-Floor to the right, and in the center we're already gravitating towards it, the safe route The Monsters.

The tank is the size of an IMAX screen. It's empty of plant life and decoration but the monstrous fish still crowd each other for room. Tunas half the size of automobiles, benign sharks as quick and sly as stray cats, and shy stingrays hug the ground. There's stadium seating, but we stand inches from the tank, like disobedient children in front of the TV.

In the glassy, fish-eye, reflection, the two of us stand together but a space apart. Faintly, watery, I can see him standing between us.

*

It was only after the funeral that the rift began.

There was a chapter break between one day and the next. A bright, optimistic chapter (despite the hospital scenes) followed by a dark, wounded, little brother of a chapter.

It was like a war. Rather, a battle for scraps. Between my mother and yours, and us in the middle, victims. Watch for stray bullets.

After a while, after the dust and pain had cleared, we got together in secret. I don't remember how it started. Did you call me, or did I call you? Are we betrayers? Or loyalists?

*

When we step outside, it's raining. The droplets fall in wide tear-shaped bombs that explode noisily upon the concrete.

We're in no hurry to return to the car and the ghost. We sit on an uncomfortable bench with a roof and chain-smoke cigarettes. Unsupervised children slosh around in puddles and shriek at each other. Parents giggle. Couples clutch each other's arms and look lovingly in each other's eyes.

The weight of it all makes me sad. Maybe it's the memories. The brilliant past, so full of light and color and humor, the somber, slow, secretive present, and the dim future, wet and blurry.

I blurt out, "Why do we do this to ourselves?"

You look at me like I'm old and senile. "Huh?"

"This," I shout, waving an arm, indicating everything. "What do we hope to gain? He's following us. He's crushing us." I choke down a tear. "And I don't know how to let him go."

"Relax, man," you say, speaking soft and sage-like. Like the real flesh and blood older brother I always wished you'd be. "This won't last forever, this pain. Life goes on." Platitudes. False hope. I'm offended.

"Bullshit!" I shout. "Look at us." Sad, sorry, sacks of flesh compared to the children so overflowing with life, I mean. (But I can't seem to say.) "Life doesn't go on. Life stops. It freezes. Here, right now, in this place and time, it just plain stops. Why are we still holding on?"

I'm crying now. Rain and tears everywhere. I can feel a tightness on my heart and my throat is scratchy from smoke.

"Life goes on," you repeat. More to yourself than to me. You look away and I know this will be the last time we ever see each other.

*

On the way back, we don't listen to music. We let the absence fill us, in search of answers. Answers in the darkness: in the blank stare of endings, in the emptiness of black screens and empty pages. It fills the little car until we can barely breathe.

In the backseat, the ghost lies down, closes his eyes, and waits.

About the author:

Elad Haber would like to dedicate this story to the memory of his stepfather, Joseph Dekel.