The Dead Are Always with Us

Across the road behind a stone wall, hidden under a February depth of melting snow was an old cemetery where Will was never allowed. The attic workroom was another zone forbidden to the nine year old at his grandmother's house. It was up narrow stairs at the end of a hall behind a locked door in a lofted space under the gabled roof that expanded like the interior of Dr. Who's Tardis.  Today, the door was unlocked. Far from his grandmother three stories below, Will searched the attic in his own Dr. Who episode. He looked for clues among drying canvases and easel. A huge painting hid an old two-drawer wooden file cabinet. The canvas was dry, but the round face of a giant black telephone portrait spelled its name R-O-T-A-R-Y and warned him away.

The story he was imagining justified his disobedience. With difficulty, Will moved the painting and opened a musty bottom drawer. He found folders of letters and pulled one out. A name and address were handwritten in pencil below a postmark circle, NEW HAVEN, CONN. TERMINAL STA. OC 31, PM 1966. In the corner of the faded envelope were two stamps that said: REGISTER VOTE 5c POSTAGE.  The boy unfolded four pages of old paper. At the top of each page he saw a small dark blue shield LUX ET VERITAS banner and the word YALE on the bottom. Nine year old Will recognized the University logo and was curious about the childish handwriting:

Hey little girl:

I'm terribly sorry I didn't try to sock it to ya the other night, but am equally certain that if you understand my intentions you will readily forgive me. I've never wanted anything so badly. Let me tell you about this dream I had (it might take awhile):

A young boy is walking down a long, narrow dimly lit city street. It is late at night. His younger sister clutches his right hand and look up at her big brother now and then.

Will paused and thought of Faye downstairs.

At the far end of (over)of the street a fire is raging in a large tenement building.

As the boy walks down the street he realizes that something very strange is happening:

People are calling out for help from the windows on the top floors of a building. And their faces, as they are illumined by the licking flames, show a distressing similarity of expression, a mixture of joy and terror, utter joy and utter terror.

A tall ladder reaches up from a long white fire engine. The firemen (over) [Will turned the page] scramble up the ladder, one after another, in rapid succession. But instead of rescuing the screaming tenants, these men are leaping high from the top rung of the ladders into the fire. As they climb the ladder in their shiny black coats, their countenances betray a certain ambivalence, a mixture of utter joy and utter terror.

The boy didn't know countenances or ambivalence. Will had never seen a white fire engine. If only he were reading his Kindle, he could dictionary it instantly as he had "bilabial trill" when his mother had told him to stop doing it. Now he disobeyed and made the exasperated sound again.

The milling crowd (over)below, wailing in unison, are set upon by one of the fireman with a long, highpower hose. As they run in all directions their faces are frozen in a curious mixture of joy and terror, utter joy and utter terror.

The young boy and his sister have fixed their attention so fastly upon this scene that they do not see that the cover had been removed from a manhole. They fall in.

The little girl trembles and grasps (over) the boy's hand more firmly, as they walk down a long, dark and narrow tunnel. A few inches of stagnant water cover the surface of the tunnel. The odor is rather strong.

At the far end of the tunnel a light is shining. The boy and the girl make their way slowly, damply toward the light and find a kindly, old priest waiting in a doorway. The priest receives them (over) heartily and offers them food and warmth. When they get inside the high-arched candle-lit room, the priest turns into a witch and nails the little girl to the wall. The boy turns around as he reaches the door and sees written on his sister's face a mixture of joy and terror, utter joy and utter terror.

There was a wide space and then the handwriting began again at the very bottom of a page.

The boy got up and walked to where (over) the girl lay naked upon a round white bed. The room was filled with red light. He leaned over to kiss her but stopped. The boy walked out of the room.

Stay out of that room, Will ordered the boy.    

"Yeah, baby," he said. "Yeah, Yeah, Yeah. Lying upon a couch he came to a sudden realization. Arising he walked to the mirror. The face in the mirror had a hauntingly familiar expression, a mixture (over) of joy and terror (you guessed it) utter joy and god-damn utter terror.

He ran back to the red room with the white sheets and the naked girl. He embraced her taking care to grab her cunt very securely."

Suddenly in script it was signed, Love, Reilly







L. Shapley Bassen

A native New Yorker now in Rhode Island, L. Shapley Bassen was the First Place winner in the 2015 Austin Chronicle Short Story Contest for "Portrait of a Giant Squid." She is s a poetry and fiction reviewer for The Rumpus, etc., as well as the Fiction Editor at She is a prizewinning, produced, published playwright, and a has published four novel/story collections, the latest being What Suits a Nudist (Clare Songbirds Publishing House, 2019). Her poetry and collected works are at L. Shapley recommends the Foundation for Prader-Willi Research.


Edited for Unlikely by Jonathan Penton, Editor-in-Chief
Last revised on Thursday, June 18, 2020 - 21:41