ANTHONY R. CARDNO
I should have moved on already. There’s nothing to keep me here, nothing tying me down. There’s no-one I need to keep watch over, no-one I need to remind how bad they are. What family is left miss me, but their pain is not holding me back and they don’t need my protection.
If I’m being honest, and why shouldn’t I be at this point, I’m only still here because I’m afraid. Afraid of what’s waiting. Afraid that there’s nothing. Afraid that there is and it won’t be as perfect as it’s supposed to be. Afraid that it will be that perfect and that I won’t be worthy.
Yeah, I know. Everyone wants paradise, and everyone’s afraid they haven’t earned it. But I don’t think most people get to choose when they find out what comes next. If they did, I think there would be a lot more ghosts running around.
Not that there aren’t ghosts. There are. I mean, I am one, so of course there are. The thing is, most of the ones who don’t move on are tied to a place or a person, some connection so strong it overpowers the universe’s dictate that it’s time to disconnect from the living world.
But there don’t seem to be many ghosts like me: ghosts who are just too damned afraid to go through that portal to wherever. Full of fear because we’ve heard so many stories of the afterlife, and so many of them are horrible, and what if?
That’s all that’s holding me back. Just “what if.”
Maybe if I’d lived a longer life, I wouldn’t be so afraid.
There’s Mercy in the Verse
Music forgives, absolutely and completely. No judgements about who you are, how you live, what you love, where you go, why you feel. Even when I was alive, music was a safe haven. It sheltered me, shielded me. It motivated me. And now, it keeps me tethered to the living world.
Well, live music does. Recorded stuff is fun to listen to, but it doesn’t connect me to anyplace. It doesn’t make me feel like my heart is still beating, regardless of how much I may have liked a song when I was alive. But live music, fostered and fed by the musicians playing it: live music gives me a reason to stay where I am, even though it’s far from where I died. When a band is playing live, I feel alive. I hover. I’m in the crowd but not of the crowd.
Except on those rare occasions when I get so caught up in the performance that I do become part of the audience. The people in the crowd around me never see me. I think some might feel me, if I happen to start to coalesce right where they’re standing. To most of them, I’m nothing more than a cold draft, maybe a hazy spot in a photo. I only become truly visible to the people playing, and not even to all of them. It’s a rare thing to have happen. There has to be a real deep connection to the music or the musician. Since most live music is a cooperative creation, that connection to the musicians is seldom strong enough on its own.
Lately, the acts playing the Kendrick House have not given me what I need. It’s been a lot of ska and heavy metal and rap: forms I can appreciate but have never really loved enough to build a connection to or through. I’m afraid that too many shows without an emotional connection to the music will send me on my way.
Two bands have already played at the Kendrick House tonight. The opening act was a very local trio of teenagers, just starting out, called “Television Inactivity.” They’re good, the lead singer’s got a bit of a growl when he really gets into it. But even the twenty or so friends they brought don’t seem to be paying them much attention, preferring to flirt with the merchandise guys for the three touring bands. The first of those bands, a Pennsylvania-based quartet called The Small Space, were also good, but something about the energy of their performance makes me think they’ll be pursuing solo projects before too long; I get a little bit of energy from their enthusiasm, but not enough to fill the nearly-empty coffers and prevent moving on. The headliners, Damnation Hopes, were one of my favorite bands, before, so I’m hoping their performance will form the same bond in my death that I felt when I was alive.
The band playing right before the headliners is called Small Town Beginnings. Four guys: guitar, bass, drums, singer. The name sounds country, and there’s a bit of a twang to some of the guitar work, but they’re definitely on the punkier side of pop. I’ve seen posters for them over the past year, but I’ve never seen them live. Partly because they’ve never played the Kendrick House before, but mostly because they were just starting to tour and release music when I died. They haven’t hit it big yet, even in this world of digital downloads and easy social media word-of-mouth, but they seem to be committed to trying.
It’s a hot night, in a venue that was never known for being well ventilated. By the time their second song is over, most of the band is shirtless and sweaty, and the crowd is responding, hooting and whistling and encouraging them to take off more.
The guitarist is the only one still with a shirt on. He’s got curly red hair cut close, freckles across his face and fore-arms. A shy smile when someone in the crowd calls his name, Dane, and suggests that he “take it off like the rest of the guys.” The looks on his band-mates faces tell me Dane’s not likely to take that shirt off no matter how the crowd pleads. He’s too shy. He might even be a little afraid of the crowd’s attention. His shirt, and the guitars he straps over it, are the buffer between him and his fear, just like music is the buffer between me and mine.
“We’re gonna slow things down a bit, if that’s okay,” the lead singer announces. Someone in the crowd whistles approval. A guitar tech comes out and swaps Dane’s electric guitar with a nicely modeled acoustic-electric. “Dane wrote this next one,” the lead singer continues. “He hopes you like it.”
I do. From the first simple notes teased out of the guitar strings, I feel the connection I’ve been missing for the past month. I watch Dane: his eyes are closed, totally into what he’s playing. I hear the lead singer, I hear the bass and the drums, but I’m focused on Dane. Through the first and second verses and the chorus, I don’t take my eyes off of him and he doesn’t open his.
Then the instrumental bridge kicks in, and it’s nothing I’m expecting: a guitar solo with a heavy flamenco flourish. What twenty-ish-year-old pop-punk songwriter works flamenco into their repertoire? It’s so unexpected and yet so perfect that it pulls a happy laugh out of me.
And Dane’s eyes snap open. He looks right at me, like he heard me. Which is impossible. People sometimes sense me, occasionally actually see me for a moment … but no living person ever hears me.
Dane looks at me, and I can’t look away. That shy smile reappears on his lips, and there’s a bit of a twinkle in his eyes. He sees me. And I think he likes what he sees. Which scares me almost as much as letting go of this world and moving on does. I want to look away, but I don’t want to look away. So I stay engaged, keeping eye contact, and I smile back almost as shyly as Dane smiles. He likes that, too.
Then one of his guitar strings breaks, and he looks down. He’s good enough to recover, to adjust and play without the string until the end of the song. The lead singer comes in with the final verse and chorus. But our connection is broken. By the time Dane looks up at the end of the song, it’s like I was never there. There’s confusion on his face as he scans the crowd, not finding me. There’s nothing I can do. I can see him, but he can’t see me. He may never see me again.
A Story in the Chorus
My name is Corin. I’m nineteen years old. I’ll always be nineteen years old, never a day older or younger.
My death wasn’t traumatic, sudden, or violent. My body simply decided to host some cells that didn’t get along with the rest of my cells. The not-nice cells eventually outnumbered the normal ones, and my body slowly shut down.
My family was with me, having made as much peace with what was coming as anyone losing a child, a brother, an uncle, could. Towards the end I couldn’t talk, but I could see and I could hear. They played my favorite bands.
While I had the energy, I tapped my finger in time.
Then I couldn’t even do that.
Then I was gone.
Except that I wasn’t. My family may have made peace with my passing, may not have held me back or needed my presence to feel uplifted. But I wasn’t ready, afraid to find out what comes next.
I still am. So I gravitate to the music.
A Bridge to Get Us over the Sea of Doubts Before Us
There’s a gap between sets while Small Town Beginnings tears down their gear and Damnation Hopes sets up. Canned music, the hits most of these struggling bands post YouTube covers of, pipes in from the Kendrick House sound board (Dylan, their sound guy, is one of the better local venue sound guys; his girlfriend Allisyn runs lights most nights). With no place else to go until the headliners start, I linger in the middle of the room. The crowd parts around me, without even realizing it. It was a relief to find out that the living won’t actually walk right through the shades of the dead. I’m sort of drifting there, wondering if I should just float up to the ceiling and stop forcing unaware mortals to alter their stride, when I see Dane breaking away from his band’s merchandise table. He’s moving through the crowd, being polite about blowing people off. He’s obviously looking for me.
Looking for me. Looking at me. Looking right through me.
I wave, even though I know it’s a futile gesture because no one ever sees me when there’s no live music playing. And Dane blinks, the way you do when you’re seeing little floaties in your vision. I saw a lot of those towards the end, so I know what that blinking looks like.
He couldn’t really have seen my wave. But, what if…
I hum what I can recall of Dane’s flamenco-flourished guitar solo. Dane cocks his head, steps closer. I stop humming when I can’t remember any more of the riff, and he starts to turn away again.
“Please, see me,” I whisper. It comes out more hopeful than I feel.
Dane’s head snaps toward me, and he takes one more step in my direction.
And then he sees me. He really sees me. His eyes light up the way they did when he saw me from the stage. The shy smile returns.
“I thought you were gone,” he says.
Spinning the Soundtrack to Our Beautiful Chaos
“I’m right here,” I answer. “My name’s Corin. Corin Broaddus.”
“Dane Clark.” If that smile could get any sweeter, any shyer, it somehow does. “You really liked that solo, huh?”
“I liked the whole song.”
“Cool. So, are you hanging out for the last set?”
“Yeah, I’m pretty much here for the duration.” I like where this is going, but I’m not sure I can bear not telling him the truth. “But, uhm, I should tell you … I’m a ghost.”
“Yeah, I kinda guessed, the way you blinked out so suddenly, and then blinked back in just now.”
“You don’t seem very surprised.”
“Remind me to tell you about the rest of my family some time.”
“You don’t think me being a ghost and you being alive is a problem?”
“Not for me.”
And then he leans in to kiss me. And I really expect him to fall right through me, or for the same force that diverts people around me in a crowd to redirect him. Because that’s how these things go, right?
But his lips touch mine. I feel the pressure of them, feel his intake of air. And then there’s a rush of energy, a surge through me that sounds like every song I’ve ever loved, with Dane’s flamenco-flourish repeating over and under and through all the rest.
This – this mixture of music and love and an embrace more sweet and sure than any I shared with any of the guys I dated while alive – must be what the paradise I’m afraid of is made of.
And suddenly the music stops, but there’s other noise: a crowd whooping and hollering and cheering Dane on. I hear the lead singer of Dane’s band say “I swear, they weren’t there just a second ago, I was freaking out over where Dane went…”
And I realize: they can all see me. They’re not freaking out that I … we… just materialized from nowhere. They don’t care. They’re just happy for Dane, happy for us, happy to see music bring two people together.
I’m not alive again, that much I know. I still feel like a ghost, just a more solid and visible one. But now it’s not just the music keeping me in Kendrick House, keeping me from moving on. Maybe I don’t need to move on.
Damnation Hopes takes the stage, immediately breaking into my favorite song of theirs, an anthem of inclusion and community that got me through the worst moments of my terminal illness. Dane hugs me tighter and we sing along with the rest of the crowd, at the top of our lungs. I kiss the top of his head. I don’t pass through him. I’m here, he’s here. We’re here.
Maybe love is paradise and I don’t need to fear anymore.
I think I’ll stick around a while and find out.
Note: Paradise Fears is the name one of my favorite indie bands. Several of their songs (but most importantly, “Sanctuary,” “Battle Scars,” “The Warrior” and “What Are You Waiting For”) have helped me through tough days. The lyrics that appear as section headers in this story are from “Intro,” the first track on their “Battle Scars” album. I hope they don’t mind my use here. Thank you Sam Miller, Cole Andre, Lucas Zimmerman, Marcus Sands, Jordan Merrigan, and Michael Walker.