When I met my ex-boyfriend’s ghost in a bar just after getting fired from my job, I probably should have realized that the day would only spiral further downhill. Especially since I neither believed in ghosts, nor had any idea that Ralph had died and become one. He certainly appeared human enough when he sauntered through the door with a stupid grin on his face and plopped down on the stool next to mine.
“Well, if it isn’t Kathy! Looking to be at the top of her game, too.” He grinned.
I decided to acknowledge his presence by gulping down more tequila and taking a long drag on my cigarette. I waited for the lecture about how those things would kill me.
“You have to do me a favor, Kath.”
“If you think I’m putting down this glass, you’re sorely mistaken.”
“What makes you think that’s what I wanted to ask?”
The man was infuriating. Why couldn’t he just leave me alone? Even when we were together, he always seemed to think that I never meant it when I told him to go away. Worse, he could always tell when I wanted to be by myself, and for some reason, that usually only made him more determined to hang around.
I sighed. “What do you want Ralph?”
He mumbled something inaudible but I thought I heard the words “coyotes” and “home.”
“What?” I croaked between gulps of tequila.
He took the glass out of my hand and set it down on the counter. “Come on. Let’s go for a walk before you get too sloshed to be of any use to me.”
I protested minimally as he led me out the door. It never did any good to argue with him when his mind was set on something. We walked in silence for a while and I tried to clear my head. Amazing how just half a glass of tequila got to a person so quickly.
“What was that about coyotes?” I asked eventually.
“I want to show you something first. It’ll make explaining a little easier.” He turned down an alley that led towards the park. We walked down a gravel path to a spot overlooking the creek and Ralph pointed at a vague shape between several large boulders. I squinted at it and willed my dizzy thoughts to focus.
It was a dead body.
“Oh my God!” I gasped and scrambled down the rock. “We can’t just leave him there!”
He shrugged, but didn’t follow me to help.
When I reached the body, I felt for a pulse even though I didn’t really expect to find one. After confirming my suspicions, I turned him over and sat back in shock. The same features, the same hair style, the same everything—Ralph’s lifeless face stared up at me.
Slowly, I looked up to where I left Ralph standing, half expecting him to have vanished. He still stood there, wearing the same clothes as the dead body. His dead body. I found myself thinking that it was logical for his dead self to be wearing the same clothes as his apparition and then I wondered why in the hell I was rationalizing the situation to begin with.
“Well?” Ralph asked.
A million questions slammed into my head all at once, but all I could manage to blurt out was, “What happened?”
“Basically I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Last night, a group of guys decided they wanted my wallet, and I decided they couldn’t have it. You can probably guess who wanted it more.”
“But if you’re dead…”
“How come I’m still here?”
I nodded. “Shouldn’t you be…I don’t know…in Heaven or something?”
Instead of responding right away, he cringed and a pained look came over his face. “I don’t know how to get there,” he whispered at last.
I frowned. “Something about the coyotes?”
“They could take me,” he whispered.
This was way too creepy for me but I had to ask, “If this is what happens when you die, how come they didn’t just take you when it happened?”
“Apparently, it’s not as simple as that. When it happened, there were crows everywhere. They spoke to me, but they talked about a different place, not the one I knew was out there.”
“Did you ask them about it?” My curiosity always did get the better of me.
Ralph nodded. “They said the coyotes would have to take me there if I insisted, but that I should be careful because they’re difficult to find, and that I would only be offered help from the crows once.”
“I take it you insisted.”
He smiled without humor. “You know me.”
I didn’t respond to that, but instead began climbing back up the slope of the rock. Ralph offered a hand to help me up. Part of me didn’t expect the hand to be solid but it was. I opened my mouth to ask but changed my mind.
“So how am I supposed to help?” I asked when he didn’t say anything.
“I need a dreamer.”
I blinked. “A what?”
“A dreamer. Someone with a vivid imagination, someone who can dream up things that most people wouldn’t think of in a thousand years.”
“And you expect me to know someone like that?”
He narrowed his eyes. “Kath, you’re it.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Indeed.”
“No, really,” he said. “You are. You think it’s common for people to have such vivid dreams like the ones you used to tell me about? Or how many people could be standing in the park with a dead man and taking it all in stride like you’re doing? Not many.”
I stared at him a long moment. “All right. For the moment, let’s say I believe you. Then what?”
“How tired are you?”
* * *
It was starting to get dark at least. Normally, I could fall asleep practically on demand, but suddenly I found myself struggling. I suggested a sleep aid of some sort, but Ralph didn’t want my “lucidity” to be interfered with.
“I need you alert,” he said.
“What do you mean ‘alert’? I’m going to be sleeping.”
He frowned. “Haven’t you ever heard of lucid dreaming?”
“Heard of it, yes. Can’t say that I’ve ever done it though.”
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I’ll be there to help.”
“Whatever.” I’d pretty much given up any hope of understanding. “Just tell me why I have to be asleep in the first place.”
“Because, Kath. The coyotes are real, live coyotes. You can’t just wander aimlessly, slapping your thigh and whistling for them and expect them to come.”
“Well, I know that…”
“And secondly,” he continued as though I hadn’t spoken, “we need to contact the spirits of the coyotes, not the animals themselves. Sleeping is the best way for you to do that because your consciousness doesn’t interfere as much. The coyotes will be drawn to you, because you’re still living and you’ll still be attached to your body. They travel the astral planes often and act as guides to living travelers there. If all goes well, they’ll guide me on, and then they’ll guide you back.”
“Sounds pretty risk free,” I said.
“Well, I haven’t come to that part yet.”
If I’d been having trouble falling asleep before that, the things he told me didn’t help at all. He said other things would be drawn to us besides the coyotes—not drawn to my presence, but to his. Less amicable things than coyotes. Things that go bump in the night.
He said that we’d just have to hope the coyotes found us first. I tried not to consider what would happen if the other things got to us, but something about the idea of losing my soul made it hard to think of anything else.
I was definitely tired—got to love tequila for that—but despite my exhaustion, my mind just wouldn’t switch gears and let me sleep. To call myself scared wouldn’t quite cover it. A dead man was sitting in my room—I hadn’t quite gotten over that yet—and he was asking me to do something that put both of our souls at risk. Forget afraid; I was terrified.
I asked Ralph what would happen if I refused to help or if neither the coyotes nor the bad things came to us. His face took on a haunted look and he said he’d be lost. Stuck here, bound to this world, and unable to leave it. How could I live with myself if I let that happen to him?
I closed my eyes and watched as a lime green blob moved around on the backs of my eyelids. I tried to follow its path but it seemed the harder I tried, the faster it moved.
Distantly, I felt my eyes close just a little tighter.
I lost interest in trying to follow the blob and looked at the other flashes of color twisting and morphing and merging. They drifted along like clouds through the sky.
The muscles in my face and neck relaxed and my head pressed just slightly harder into the pillow.
In fact, the colors looked a lot like clouds—light puffy blotches of brightness set against the dark background of the sky.
The bed felt so soft, so warm, so comfortable.
I wanted to touch them, so I willed myself closer. The distance between me and the clouds seemed to stretch for an eternity, but somehow I knew if I wanted it badly enough, I could cross it.
I felt myself being pulled through what looked like a tunnel, and suddenly, the clouds were directly in front of me.
Stunned, I looked around. The clouds weren’t really clouds at all, but instead like misty patches of fog that had pictures in them. Moving pictures.
Awestruck, I started to move closer to get a better look.
“You don’t want to do that,” said a familiar voice.
I thought for sure that the voice should have woken me up, but instead I turned to see Ralph literally floating towards me. In the back of my mind, I thought I should be astounded, but somehow I couldn’t bring forth any reaction. I could only watch dumbly as he approached.
“What are those things?” I asked when I found my voice.
“Other dimensions,” he said. “You jump into one of those, there’s no telling what’ll happen. Could be good; could be bad, but I don’t think you want to find out.”
I gulped. “Where are we?”
“Just about where we should be, I think,” he replied while scanning our surroundings. “The coyotes are sure to be around here. This is the gateway.”
“Think of it as a lobby. When you visit the astral planes, this is where you start out.”
I looked around. “And the coyotes are going to be able to find us here?”
“Like I said, they’ll be drawn to you. Plus, movement works differently here. The stronger your will to move, the faster you go.”
“So why aren’t they here already?”
“They have a lot of people to guide,” he said. “But they’ll be here fast enough.”
“And the other things?”
He gave me an even look. “I can’t even imagine.”
We drifted along with no particular destination in mind. Truth be told, I just didn’t want to stay still. At least in motion I felt like I had some control over the situation.
I had to admit, it was quite a fantastic place—one that would have filled me with wonder if I hadn’t been so terrified. It had the perpetual look of the early night sky with all its swirls of purples and blues and teals in every direction. Puffs of dark clouds—or what looked like clouds—floated along, both above and below everything. A few glittering stars dotted the sky-like surroundings.
A wispy cord attached to my navel stretched downward and disappeared into the clouds below us. I guessed that it held me to my sleeping body. If I concentrated, I could still feel my head pressing into the pillow and the blankets on top of me.
Ralph had no such cord attached to him, but he was dead after all.
He stopped abruptly.
“What is it?” I asked.
He held up a hand. “Listen.”
At first I didn’t hear anything, just the same eerie silence that this place wore about it like a blanket. Then I heard it. It was the sound of wind blowing, so faint that it was the kind of thing I usually ignored. But it was getting louder. A chill crawled its way up my spine and settled between my shoulder blades. Unbelievable that wind could actually sound sinister.
“What is that?” I whispered.
The color drained from Ralph’s face. “It certainly isn’t the coyotes. Quick, take my hand!”
I gripped his hand and felt him pull me along. My head filled with the buzzing of a thousand bees for a fraction of a second, and then suddenly, we were somewhere else.
I strained, listening for the slightest sound, but heard nothing.
“How long until they find us again?”
“Not long,” he said. “They know we’re here. And they can see that.” He pointed at the cord that dangled below me.
I looked again at the shimmery cord and suppressed a shudder. “What are we going to do?”
“We’re going to keep moving. Don’t let go of my hand.”
I decided not to say that I had no intention of letting go. Somehow it just figured that the evil things found us first. I couldn’t ever do things the easy way.
We moved along, not terribly fast, but not slowly either. Both of us listened for anything out of the ordinary. Through the cord, I could feel my heart pounding in my chest.
Several times as we moved along, we had to hide. Ralph pulled me by the hand as the windy sound approached. Sometimes it seemed to come from in front of us, sometimes behind. Every time we heard it, it was louder than before. Whatever it was, it was getting closer.
I noticed that when we could hear our pursuers closing in on us, the edges of my peripheral vision went dark—dark enough to be indistinct, but not so dark to hide the movement in the murky corners of my vision.
Something waited there, and the tightness in my stomach told me it was something evil.
And still we found no trace of the coyotes. I didn’t think we’d be able to keep hiding out much longer, but I didn’t dare ask Ralph for fear that he’d agree with me. I watched his features as we fled. He stared ahead in determination, but I could see the fear in his eyes. And the loss of hope.
After a while, something happened: the sounds started waning. I started to relax a little bit, thinking that we were losing them. Maybe they decided we were too much trouble, or maybe they’d found some other prey. Or maybe, for once in my life, I’d just gotten lucky.
My relief didn’t last. The moment I felt safe, the sound returned.
Instead of a distant wind in our ears, a roaring surrounded us and seemed to reverberate inside my head. Ralph’s hand gripped mine painfully. Things moved around us in the darkness. I couldn’t make them out, but something told me I didn’t want to. I stole a glance at Ralph, but his eyes were locked squarely on the shadows in front of us.
I squeezed my eyes shut, willing it all to be a dream. When I opened my eyes I was still in the nightmare. Our stalkers stepped out of the shadows.
I’d never seen anything so terrifying. They had roughly human-looking bodies, though dressed in bulky robes such that I couldn’t tell just how human, but their skin—if it could even be called that—had the distinct lines and dull luminescence of stone. Their faces lacked the suppleness of flesh that one might expect to see on a human, and instead seemed to be carved from slate—and crudely carved at that.
Their eyes frightened me the most. They were so black that it seemed that they could devour all the surrounding light if they chose to. Just looking at them sent violent shivers all through my body.
“Time has run out for you.”
That voice would give me nightmares for the rest of my life. It wasn’t harsh or overtly menacing. In fact, it sounded more like a fluid whisper, one without the sound of rushing air to diminish its resonance. It wasn’t loud either, but I could feel the vibrations in my ear drums. If not for the abject terror that clutched my throat, I’d have cried out in pain when the sound reached my ears.
The black eyes lowered and fixed their icy gaze on Ralph.
I forced myself to draw a breath and tried to pull Ralph by the hand. “We have to go,” I whispered.
His eyes were wide and his jaw rigid. “I… can’t…”
“Ralph, come on!”
The creatures moved in a tighter ring around us.
“You cannot save him. Or yourself.” It took a step closer and bared its teeth.
This time I did scream with the pain of hearing the voice.
And Ralph refused to budge.
They closed around us in a tight right with no space between any of them and no escape for us.
I held Ralph’s hand in both of mind and did the only thing I could think of: I shut my eyes and concentrated on my body. I made myself believe that I was lying in bed, sound asleep. I felt pressure on my stomach that I couldn’t explain, but I refused to open my eyes to find out what it was.
This had to be a dream. No way could it be real.
My bed felt soft and warm. I heard the hum of my heater and saw the light on the back of my eyelids.
Something yanked me backwards, but I didn’t dare open my eyes for fear of what might be causing it. I held Ralph’s hand as tightly as I could.
Distantly, I thought I could hear the yip of coyotes, but I dismissed it as wishful thinking. Suddenly, everything went still. I kept my eyes squeezed shut.
Startled, my eyes snapped open instinctively. Bright light like I’d never seen before made me close them again.
“Slowly now,” said a voice I didn’t recognize.
I tried again, wincing as my eyes adjusted. I stood in an empty place with white light surrounding me on all sides. Ralph was with me along with a small pack of coyotes.
“Where are we?” I asked.
“In between,” said the unfamiliar voice. It had an odd quality to it, like I wasn’t actually hearing it with my ears, but with some other sense.
I looked at Ralph. “Who is that?”
Ralph nodded towards the lead coyote, which inclined its head to me.
I blinked. “In between what?”
It stared into my eyes. “In between your world and ours. As you left the astral planes, the captors tried to follow your lifeline back to your body—an experience you would not have enjoyed had they succeeded. We intervened and brought you here where they cannot enter.”
The coyote’s lips never moved, and yet it spoke quite clearly to me. I could only wonder at such a phenomenon.
Stunned, I managed to say, “Thank you.”
Ralph spoke up as the coyote nodded to me once again. “Kath, you found them!”
“Really?” I looked again to the leader. “You’ll guide him on?”
It nodded. “And guide you back.”
I grinned, but in the back of my mind I felt sad at the thought of never seeing Ralph again. I guess it was finally starting to sink in that he’d died.
“I know what you’re thinking, Kath,” he said with a wink. “You’re going to miss me.”
I smiled and pulled him into a hug. I didn’t need to say the words; he already knew them.
“It’s best we go now,” said the coyote and its ears perked.
I nodded and pulled away from Ralph. It felt so surreal to watch him walk away with the coyotes as they faded into the white light. I could do little more than stare until they went where I couldn’t see.
The coyote waiting to take me back nudged me with its muzzle. I looked down into its eyes, so timeless and deep it didn’t seem like its gaze would ever be stagnant. There was an untamed wisdom there that knew all the world’s secrets and hidden knowledge, that had seen the sacred places of the world, walked their grounds, and breathed in the clear air. I could see it all in those hazel eyes. It was mesmerizing…
* * *
I woke up in my bed still seeing the coyote’s eyes. Sunlight streamed through my window, but after being in that dazzling white light from the place between worlds, the sun seemed dim by comparison.
I’d slept all night, but somehow I felt like I hadn’t gotten any sleep in days. I stretched, preparing to rise, but then decided that I might as well spend the day in bed.
I rolled onto my side and felt myself starting to drift off to sleep again. In that special place between sleep and awake, I heard the yips of coyotes off in the distance before I fell completely to sleep.
x x x
I've heard of crows and sparrows as psychopomps, but coyotes are a first for me. As is this first tale from Ms. Kraner. Hope it won't be the last, Stephanie. Agree or disagree on our BBS, please. - GM