Friday Flash Fiction – Talk About the Weather (Part Three)

Zara rubs her wrist, conscious she can no longer feel the weight of the bracelet. She wonders how it already feels like something she’s missing. She wore it through dinner, no more than an hour at most, and she remembers nothing beyond that point.

Waves crashing on rocks sending up a wall of sea spray

Image by Anja from Pixabay

The ghost watches her with patience or tiredness, she’s not sure which. Ghosts can get tired, she knows, as they ebb in and out of the world’s attention. There’s something taxing about it, draining, they’re swimmers fighting against a tide the living don’t feel. But again, this ghost belongs to someone who was alive this morning. Shouldn’t it still have a full reserve of whatever it is that sustains the dead?

“Who killed you?”

Angela Shearer shakes her head. “A question you already know the answer to is a poor use of your time.”

Zara blinks away the hope that she’d been wrong. “Ben. Did he poison you?”

It’s an educated guess. In her experience, which is limited but far from negligible, ghosts who died by violence usually retain signs of the fatal trauma. Senior Constable Shearer looks exactly like she did when they parted ways after she filed her statement, like someone who should have been off shift by now rather than anticipating a tedious afternoon of paperwork.

The ghost nods, an odd gesture of approval. “And?”

“And he drugged me at dinner and brought me here.”

Another nod. “Now you’re asking yourself, why? And who killed him?”

“I think you know the answers to those questions,” replied Zara, “and I think you’d tell me if you could. Which suggests that someone or something is stopping you.”

“I am commanded to serve and name no names.” Angela Shearer’s expression shifts, now almost a smile. “You’re very good. I think he underestimated you. If you’d had enough time, you might have seen through him.”

“You didn’t,” Zara observes. Ghosts don’t have feelings to hurt, or at least she hopes they don’t. If there are experts on the subject, she doesn’t count herself among them. “How long was he your partner?”

“Less than six months,” replies the ghost. “I was assigned as his mentor.”

Zara hears the unspoken ‘but’ in her words. “But he already had a mentor, didn’t he?”

The ghost blinks, slow and blank-faced again.

“You can’t tell me. Of course you can’t.” Zara glances back to the door where she came in, and then stares out into the cold dark through the loading window. “How about this, then – what do the other symbols on the bracelet mean?”

Now the ghost’s lips tighten, and the smile is a smirk but offers another intriguing hint of real emotion.

“Good question, Ms. Corman. The first is the symbol for quicksilver, also called Mercury. Meaning the planet, the metal and the concept of change. The second represents Libra.”

Zara frowns. “Ben’s birthday’s in March. He’s a Pisces.”

“Not anymore,” says the ghost with a sly hint of satisfaction. “But zodiac symbols have a corresponding meaning in the practice of alchemy. Libra aligns with a chemical process called sublimation, where a solid becomes a gas without passing through a liquid stage. Or-”

“Or if the process is transformed to the reverse, something made of air becomes a solid.”

There’s a cracking noise and a flutter of dust from above, as though something heavy has taken its first step, placing its weight on the concrete and steel of the lighthouse observation deck.

Angela Shearer’s ghost seems now to be fainter and more distant, without having moved.

“Good luck, Ms. Corman,” she says as a second footfall shakes the lighthouse. “Time’s up.”

“You didn’t grow up around here, did you dear?”

Helen lifted the takeaway cup lid and blew a puff of steam into the frosty morning air. She had stood aside to make way for the rest of Zara’s customers but accepted no obligation to interrupt their conversation.

Zara nodded, smiling to herself as she frothed a jug of skim milk. “Army brat,” she replied. “Born in Brisbane, but I grew up all over the country.”

“Why did you decide to settle here then, love? It’s the middle of nowhere.”

It wasn’t quite true. It was less than an hour in either direction from the Olive Coast’s stretch of beachside villages to some decent-sized towns, but being off the main highway kept the passing traffic mostly confined to tourists and delivery trucks. She imagined some blonde presenter with bright teeth describing the area as “A hidden gem” while walking along a pristine beach against a backdrop of kids swimming and gulls swooping, except that the Olive Coast’s beaches were mostly disappointing – too rocky for sandcastles and too choppy for surfing. The travel documentaries had yet to discover its secret charms, and from what Zara could see, most of the locals preferred it that way.

“I like the pace, Helen.”

“Well, you certainly moved quickly enough with our handsome Constable Dallas.” Helen slipped an exaggerated wink at her as she sipped her coffee.

Zara snorted, delighted to have her suspicions confirmed that Helen Burns was the very model of an incorrigible country town gossip and busybody. “And this is the part where I politely but firmly change the subject, Helen.”

“Ha! Well, I certainly wouldn’t want to pry, dear,” Helen replied. More a delaying tactic than a lie, thought Zara.

Helen stepped back a little and pointed out towards the sun rising over a patch of rocks jagging out of the rolling waves. “Tell me, can you see the sprites?”

A few curious heads turned, and Zara looked up from her espresso machine. As each wave struck the outcrop, a swirl of mist rose from the crest of the breaking foam, twisting and shining against the sunrise glare before dissipating. A consummate professional, Helen granted her audience a moment’s respectful admiration before dropping into her museum-guide patter.

“The sea-sprites, sometimes also called sylphs, are an unusual phenomenon particular to this area of the Olive Coast. A combination of the warmer water temperatures, movement of the cool surface air and the angle of the waves striking the rocks appear to create human-like shapes in the spray. If you watch long enough, you might see bodies in motion – jumping or turning. Some people even report seeing faces.”

Amid low murmurs and pointing, a young boy grabbed his father’s hand and exclaimed, “That one looks like you, Dad!” Others joined in, reporting their own visions: a kangaroo, a bonfire, a fire truck.

“Of course, recognizing face shapes in random patterns where they don’t really exist is a well-known tendency called pareidolia,” said Helen. “Humans are instinctively good at perceiving faces in things. The conditions here just happen to be perfect for seeing what’s not there.” A few people laughed. Zara returned her attention to the backlog of orders, but not before noticing Helen was watching her.

Zara already knew about the sylphs, of course. Ben had pointed them out the first day she had worked the van solo, a week after they first met, in the aftermath of the hostel fire. He’d later all but admitted that he’d used the local legend as a pickup line, an excuse for the nervous young country cop to chat up the pretty new girl in the coffee van. She’d found his awkward enthusiasm charming. She’d asked him to meet her at the pub that evening, and they’d been seeing each other ever since.

“Did you see any faces, dear?”

Zara snapped out of her reverie to see that Helen had resumed her spot at the front of the van. She reached around the older woman to pass a tray of cappuccinos to the family of the young boy.

“Sorry Helen, I guess I don’t have much of an imagination,” she replied, thinking of the lonely figures standing in the smoldering remains of the burnt-out hostel. “The only things I see are what’s right in front of me.”

It’s not the final Friday of the month, but I had the next part ready so why not? I’ve already started work on the next story (which will also not be a single one-and-done flash piece) so I figured I should probably get this one finished as soon as I can. Before I get distracted, you understand.

Read Part One and Part Two first though, otherwise this makes even less sense than it already does…er, not.

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