Midnight. That’s when they leave. Warm in her small black Golf, Laura checked her watch. Eleven thirty. She turned the radio up. ABC RN babbled on. She leaned back in her seat. The moon hung above the gumtrees—yellow tonight, like a welcoming light, the round one above a door to some other suburban life.
The houses along the street squatted atop the hill, overlooking a large native park. Laura used to park opposite number 22, away from all the wailing by the river bend. Nobody bothered her much. Once a kindly neighbour lady from number 26 asked her if she were okay. Then the new people moved into number 22, and they were nosy. Smokers, those idiots. Out on the veranda day and night, giving her some real greasies. She’d worried they’d call the cops on her, but old Doc Jim said not to worry about them—too lazy and anxious to involve the police.
“Good old days, eh?” Old Doc Jim materialised inside the car. “How are you tonight, my dear?”
Laura turned the radio up. No need for them nosy neighbours to hear her talking to herself. “I’m well, Jim, thanks for asking.”
“The tenants giving you grief?” Jim asked in his hollow voice.
“No more than usual. Changing TV channels again. Watching Love Island tonight. And they done something to the fridge. The air inside is blue, and not a nice blue. Had to get out of the house earlier. You?”
He sighed and turned completely transparent for a second. “I keep playing the piano for them. You’d think Hungarian Rhapsody No 2 would pierce even the thickest mortal flesh, but alas.”
“Is it very plinky-plonky?” asked Laura, not a piano connoisseur.
Jim chuckled, shook his head, trailing wisps of his ghostly substance. He was lucky, old Doc Jim, dying in his own bed. In the house he’d built some forty years ago, now overrun by a succession of uncaring alive tenants. Her Johnny wasn’t so lucky, nor were the tortured souls by the river bend.
“It gets a bit shrill, I guess,” Jim said. “The young lady of the house fancies she hears something, but she’s too timid to do anything about it. She thinks about you quite a bit, you know. Makes theories. Has a bit of imagination, that one.”
“I just feel safer parking further away. I’m sorry it’s hard on you, Jim.”
“Ah, not to worry,” Jim said. “Only takes a bit longer to get to you. Wouldn’t miss your company for anything.”
He faded out again and Laura worried he’d disappear completely. “Are they giving you trouble, Jim?” she asked softly.
“Well, they own the house now, so the man’s obsessed with renovating. He’d been knocking walls down and building more walls. Now I have to sit in the middle of this solid oak coffee table just to get to my piano stool and oak is hard on the old knees. But the worst of it…” he trailed off.
Outside, the wind picked up, swaying gumtree branches, raining leaves onto the roof of the car. Even over the wind and the radio Laura could hear the wailing coming from the river. “You’re seeing the door again.” she said.
Jim nodded. Laura wished she could hug the sad old man, but placing your hand into his ghost-cloud and wiggling your fingers just wasn’t done in polite company.
The facts of life, she thought, or death rather. She’d learned the hard way, when her husband had died in a car crash on Western Ring Road. She’d seen the door then. Should’ve gone through with him, but he’d pushed her away. Left her with a permanent limp and an unfortunate ability to see ghosts. All the ghosts—the ones that didn’t go through the door but stayed back haunting the places where they had died. The lucky ones, like old Doc Jim, and the sad ones like the lost souls that had drowned in the river.
“I keep wishing he stayed, you know?” she said. “Yeah, it’s no fun haunting the freeway, but…” Johnny’d gone through so she could stay. She knew that too. The facts of death.
“The door’s always there,” said Jim. “I guess, it’s just me wanting to see it. I’m very grateful for your company, Miss Laura.”
“Are you thinking of going through, Jim?” She heard the panic in her voice.
“Oh, not yet, not yet.” He’d heard the panic too. “But perhaps my experience could help you in evicting your ghosts?”
“I’m not selling the house,” Laura said. She’d thought about it at the start, never agreeing with herself. “Johnny and me, we built it together. It’s perfect as it is.”
Jim sighed. “I remember when the old house burned. Fire so high I could see it out my bedroom window, up the hill and two streets away. Used to feel sorry for the couple that died there.”
“I did too. Until I got to know them. A pair of hippy bogans, annoying even in death, and still stoned. How can one be dead and stoned, Jim?”
“They won’t leave until you show them the door.”
“It’s not like I can tell them.”
“Make them uncomfortable. Reprogram the TV remote. Move the couch. Turn off the fridge.”
“Maybe I could play some of that music very loud?”
“Yes, it seems the polar opposite of the rubbish TV they’re into. Hungarian Rhapsody No 2 by Franz Liszt. Anything really by Liszt.”
Laura pulled up Notes on her phone and attempted to spell Liszt.
“L-i-s-z-t,” Jim helped. “Find some atonal music. They’d hate that. Although you’d probably hate it too.”
“Whatever it takes. Thanks, Jim,” Laura said, then, “If this works… I won’t need to escape my house, but I’ll still come to see you.”
“Of course my dear. As long as I’m here.” He was fading out again.
A minute to midnight. The wailing from the river calmed down too. Maybe at midnight all ghosts faded, Laura thought.
“We’ll never know,” Jim whispered seeping out through the car window. “The facts of life.”