FINGERPRINTS • by Jason M. Harley

It was sudden. And that’s what had made it so hard. One moment they were driving down a cozy, country highway and enjoying the quiet companionship that only comes with years. And the next, the car was in the ditch and his husband was dead. Just like that.

Later, a doctor told Kyle that he was in shock; as if putting a name to an inexpressible feeling of loss was equivalent to throwing a drowning man a buoy. He turned down the opportunity to receive any further counseling.

***

Days later, all of which had been spent in bed, he felt something brush his foot in a soft caress. He smiled at the familiar gesture. And then frowned. There was, of course, no one in the bed beside him. He got some air after that.

***

A week later he was applying concealer to the dark folds of skin under his eyes that looked more like bruises than what they were. He wanted to look better than he felt for the funeral later that day. It was going to be the last time he’d see Mark — what was left of him — before the burial. He was thinking about the shovel piling dirt over the closed coffin when he felt a pressure around his waist and dropped the stick in the sink. He stared in the mirror for a long time before washing the concealer off his face. Mark had never liked it when he wore make-up.

***

Kyle started to inadvertently revise his eating and television habits after the funeral, vaccinating himself against loneliness with mindless sitcoms and police procedurals that blurred together, and filling his sense of loss with Ben and Jerry’s.

***

A week into his new routine he returned home to find the ice cream melted in the freezer, but nothing else. Later that night the television shut off after one hour and wouldn’t turn back on.

Mark was right.

But when Kyle tried to turn the front door’s knob to get some air and a little exercise nothing happened.

That was the first time Kyle really questioned his assumption. Mark had never done anything like that in life. Did that make the presence someone else? Or were people changed by death? He felt a shiver at the last thought.

***

After other select foods went bad in the fridge and the door stopped working if he wanted to go anywhere else other than to work or the grocery store Kyle decided to confront him — it — after having a breakdown in the bathroom and rocking himself to sleep in the empty bathtub.

It didn’t take it well.

And that was to be expected, assuming that anything can be expected when you’re dealing with an un-departed, supernatural presence that bears a few faint and scattered behavioral resemblances to your deceased significant other.

But a few knocked over books and shattered dishes were only the beginning.

***

The realtor blamed Kyle for the sabotage: the sold signs that miraculously appeared on his lawn, the last-minute tour cancellation text messages and emails he never sent her, and one day, even the flat tire she got on the way to an un-cancelled open-house. Whether she quit or he fired her in the conversation that followed the latest of her accusations, Kyle wasn’t sure. But the house did go off the market for good.

***

A week later he tried to leave for work but the front door wouldn’t open. Neither would the back.

By the time he’d given up on the bedroom window he could smell gas and heard the bedroom door close behind him. The sound of sheets rustling filled the vacuum of sound that followed the click of the door’s lock. Turning back from the window he watched the duvet peel back from the rest of the bed, followed by the under sheet. They folded into neat triangles on the bed Kyle hadn’t made. He hadn’t, in fact, made the bed in weeks now that he thought about it. But someone had been. Had it been him/it? Was any of this really Mark?

He looked around the room but there was nowhere to go. Eventually, feeling tired, cold, and numb, he lay down on the bed, resigned.

“Show me who you are,” Kyle whispered. The need to know was all that he was left with.

He let himself think back over the last few weeks as he was slowly tucked in. The gesture seemed loving until the covers passed his jaw and kept going. Was this the price of being brushed by the fingertips of the man he still loved? That his motions and intentions would become twisted by the gulf between them?

As the moments passed and Kyle found himself unable or unwilling — he didn’t know (and didn’t care) which — to move, clarity began to settle over him like a shroud. As he felt himself growing lightheaded in the soft darkness of their cold bed he found himself suddenly attuned to details. Precious ones: the gentle caress of impossibly light fingers brushing through his hair and the rough but familiar prickle of a well-groomed beard on one of his smooth cheeks. He even thought he heard the ghost of a sigh, the kind that Mark had made when they lay down together. It was a sigh that told him that everything that had been wrong with the world had suddenly been made right again in Mark’s eyes.

Whether his vision blurred from a lack of oxygen or the tears that rolled down his cheeks, he couldn’t say. Mark had come back. And that — not how, not what Mark might be, nor what he thought-wanted-needed Kyle to become in turn — didn’t matter. He let out a sigh of his own as the touches became more material with every breath he exhaled.


Jason M. Harley is a professor of educational technology and psychology. He spends his days hopping between university labs and lectures and his nights hopping between fictional worlds. Sometimes it’s tricky to tell where his days end and his nights begin, however, given the nature of his research. His fiction has appeared in Perihelion Science Fiction and SQ Mag. Follow him on Twitter @JasonHarley07.


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 average 3.3 stars • 29 reader(s) rated this

Every Day Fiction

  • Paul A. Freeman

    I liked this story. Very spooky. My main problem though was it became another ‘that’ fest – 27 I counted. ‘It was…’ openings are also a bit of a turn off for me. However, the storyline was strong and thought-provoking, which is really what’s most important.

    • I agree abut "It was..." openings. It was an immediate negative stimulus as I started reading. "...a dark and stormy night" and "...the best of times and the worst of times" have been done ad nauseam.
      • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
        I admit to always having thought "It was a dark and stormy night" a great line. Seriously and without shame. That sort of thing can work if handled properly...
        • Go for it! In your next story :)
    • S Conroy
      I really don't understand what the issue is with "it was". Is it that it's considered outdated? Or overused? Or is it purely a personal taste issue?
      • Paul A. Freeman
        A long time ago, when I was teaching English in Southern Africa, the first composition my 'O' level class wrote consisted of 36 essays, all beginning 'It was....'. They'd had it drummed into them that this is how a composition starts. Basically, the indefinite 'it' is a lazy, safe beginning, hardly likely to excite the reader. Well, that's my take, anyway - part personal, part in response to overuse.
        • :)
          • S Conroy
            :-)
      • When I read an "It was..." opening line, I immediately want to know "What was" especially in short fiction. Then, in this story, to follow "it" with "that's what had made "it" so hard. Two totally wasted lines that could have been put to better use. I have read numerous times, in short fiction, to start in the middle of the action, start after the traditional starting point. I draw a distinct line between effective "flash fiction" and rambling prose stuffed into(or stretched out to) a 1000 word limit. That's why I may seem harsh on my comments about so many stories here. No, that's why I AM harsh on many stories here.
        • S Conroy
          Interesting. I understand the gripe in a general way, though I don't share it. Such an opening drives me to read on and find out what exactly "it" is. In this case "it" is interchangeable with "the death". I can see that it's more of a place-filler in "It was a dark and stormy night", although I share Sarah's fondness for this last; it has a feel of "gather ye round the fire and listen to my tale..." Admittedly "The night was dark and stormy" would have a similar effect and save a word. In any case I am pretty confident you don't like either version :-) I think it's practically impossible to completely bracket ones own personal tastes when ticking the "good" and "bad" boxes. This story resonated with me, so I figure the writer had the skill to draw me into his world. I didn't see it so much as horror as a psychological profile of someone dealing with grief. I imagined a complex (love-hate?) relationship in life turning into an even more complex one after one partner dies. Hm. Ok... I'm rambling. In flash-format what I think I might be trying to say: One person's rambling prose can be another person's nifty story.
          • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
            I think beginning with "it" rather than your word-saving construction lends a timeless/mythic feel to an otherwise pedestrian opening. Makes something a tale rather than just a story.
          • S Conroy
            Yes. Indeed. I'm inclined to agree - with the caveat that a certain voice putting exactly the right emphasis on "the night" might also do the trick for me.
          • Loved the "ramble" and your interpretation, thanks for your comments!
          • Paul A. Freeman
            The proof of the pudding is that this story has stayed with me into the following day.
          • Happy to hear, thanks for sharing!
    • Thanks for your feedback Paul and glad you enjoyed it over all.
  • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

    This was such a gentle, well-meaning horror story that I could hardly feel any chills. I didn’t get any sense of who these men were before Mark’s death so his transformation into a malevolent presence wasn’t disturbing enough. Just too passive for me.

    I think you threw away the chance for a genuine shiver by revealing the end too soon. Kyle obediently lying down in full knowledge he was going to die took away both poignancy and chills. I’d much prefer the smell of gas as the very last thing we, and Kyle, experience. Three stars.

    • Joseph Kaufman
      I'm still trying to figure out if this is really horror. Do you think the "it" actually existed? It seems at least somewhat possible that this was a man slowly killing himself with grief -- at least heartily sabotaging his own life. Though, I am not sure that turning on the gas and pulling covers over your own face would technically work as a suicide method...until the gas went up from a spark or somesuch. That being said, I was waiting for Kyle's memory to dredge up something horrible he had done before the crash (or perhaps causing the crash) that would give Mark's spirit something to feel vengeful about. Of course, then I might have considered things a bit too predictable. I'm tough to please. *smile* Overall I quite enjoyed the read! However,I was a bit confused by the standalone, "Mark was right." Mark was right about what?
      • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
        Mark was right that Kyle should get off the sofa and do something. Or so Kyle thought, since Mark wouldn't let him out the door. I was a bit thrown by Kyle using that "it." If he was indeed feeling a malevolent rather than loving presence, his passive acceptance of everything that followed made him not a very interesting MC, and Mark wasn't vivid enough to compensate for that. I thought this was a good concept with strong potential that hasn't gotten there yet. Kyle's grief didn't move me--the sense of loss wasn't powerful enough, so the destruction of his will--real or imagined--wasn't either.
        • Joseph Kaufman
          I can see what the "Mark was right" is meant to convey, and it makes sense as events transpire, but in immediate context it felt a little abrupt. I thought the list concept (while it does turn off some readers) delivered the grief well. It made me feel disconnected a bit, thereby nailing the "numbness" factor of such tragic loss. Still, your point about there needing to be more emotional....oomph is something to think about.
          • S Conroy
            I thought it was a lot more than a list. It isn't static. Things go from almost pleasant to bad to definitely worse, and then - from Kyle's perspective at least... - to not so bad at all...
      • Thanks for your comments Joseph and glad you liked it!
    • Thanks for your feedback Sarah as well as your earlier comments. It is on the gentler end of horror stories; one more focused on playing with the idea of a ghost as something between a loved one and an "it" than terrifying the reader—not that terror isn't a noble goal of the genre ;).
      • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
        I'm all for the vertiginous feeling of dislocation and indefinable unease in horror rather than anything more overt. And great stories are built from the MC who finds that everything his life has been built on is false--or becomes false. Was Mark angry because yet again, Kyle the bad driver insisted on taking the wheel? Was that quiet companionship of years Kyle refusing to face the strains in their relationship? I needed these two characters to have some personality. I wondered if it was some interestingly subtle misdirection when Kyle felt that pressure on his waist while attempting to apply concealer. That was indeed a lovingly intimate physicality--rather than, say, a shake of the shoulders or grab of a forearm. Makes one hear Mark saying "you know you don't need that--I love you as you are," rather than, perhaps "I hate when you paint yourself." We don't need all the answers, and of course too much coloring in of their natures will take away the fun. But I thought you told us a bit too much we didn't need, and too little of what we did.
        • Thanks for sharing your thoughts Sarah. Was happy to read that you enjoyed the moment in front of the mirror; one where both love and opinion were communicated. And maybe a hint of something else...
  • I lost interest half-way through the list of “happenings” and skim-read to the end.

    **

  • Jill Spencer

    A very Henry James-style horror story. The creepiness grows as the uncertainty does. Is Kyle being haunted by his dead husband? Is he merely suffering from grief? Is some other supernatural entity haunting him? Is Kyle’s grief becoming a crippling psychological problem? We can’t be sure. And at the end, if Mark’s ghost is the supernatural force in the house, was Mark the loving spouse Kyle thought he was? I enjoyed the ambiguity.

    • Thanks so much Jill, delighted to hear you really connected with the story and themes I was exploring.
  • S Conroy

    I lapped it up. One of the better stories I’ve read here recently. I thought he nailed the grief reactions and I love how the creep factor gets creepier and creepier. And then another last little twist…

  • Jeffrey Yorio

    Cute and interesting. The only way to see a ghost is to become a ghost. The story is passive and yet it worked for me in how the emotion was conveyed, for both of them.

    • Thanks for the feedback Jeff and glad you connected with the story.
  • amanda

    “It” was well written but uninteresting. 2 1/2. stars. Writer did not successfully create horror. Keep writing. Just wasn’t my cup of tea.

  • Sam Rapine

    Gradually, disconcertingly spooky. I dug the progression of the haunting, and the idea of innocent love growing twisted makes for good, ubiquitously personal horror. However, several moments where the narrative swerved into large, somewhat philosophical speculations really jarred me out of the pacing of the moment. Mostly:
    “Was this the price of being brushed by the fingertips of the man he still loved? That his motions and intentions would become twisted by the gulf between them?”
    That question, and similar ones, come across on their own just fine, and in the story’s context, including these questions makes for a bit of a speed bump. Good read overall, though.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts Sam, and delighted that you enjoyed the story.
  • That’s and it’s, that’s and it’s, where does writing go from there. One of Stephen King’s chapters in one of his fantasy novels devotes the “that” to a degree I think he is having fun with the rest of us writers. Is the storytelling good, bad, lazy? Up to you I think. I was amused by King pushing our buttons on this (“this” another that-it?) I had read the book recently and went back to the chapter to see how many that’s I could delete. Seventy-five percent was my effort. Yes, I said it is up to you. My personal thought is to use these only when you have painted yourself in a corner. The hope is if the writing is good enough, you will not have to.
    I apologize this comment is only relevant to the other commentators, and not specific to the story.

  • This story captured the sorrow and pain of loss so very well. It was quite a sad tale for me–even the ending. I didn’t mind the “thats” as others have commented on. I didn’t even notice them (and I usually notice stuff like that). Another mark of a good story, IMO.

    And while I’m really not a fan of hauntings/ghosts in a story, this one worked well for me. It did turn a bit creepy, but aren’t all ghost stories? Thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks so much Scott, it was intended to stir emotion and I'm glad it pressed the right buttons.