by Jo Withers

We knew it was mean but when Dad started losing his mind, we persuaded him he was dead already.

We didn’t have the cash to fork out on a nursing home and he’d always said he’d rather die than spend his last days covered in shit and tubes in hospital. He’d worked the same dead-end factory job all his life, scraping together the mortgage one brick at a time. We were damned if we were going to kick him out when he needed shelter most, but he was a demanding old git.

Being dead was good for him, it massively lowered his expectations. He didn’t keep harping on about us taking him out for the day or sitting up in his cold bare room to keep him company.

It didn’t take much to convince him he’d passed on, his relationship with reality was pretty tenuous by then. We just waited until he was deep asleep one night, then crept in and made black hollows of his eyes with my sister’s makeup, then rouged a big, red hole on his temple like he’d knocked his head. We told him we were the only ones that could see him, got a few friends round and told them to swear he wasn’t there, told them not to answer when he spoke.

He was good as gold after that. He seemed to really relish his new role. He started sleeping in the day so he could wake up in the early hours and have a good moan in the middle of the night, wailing like a banshee with a hangover. Me and my sister didn’t mind, we’d given him plenty of trouble in the teenage years, crawling home with God knows what coursing through our veins, banging pots and pans together in the kitchen when we got the 3 a.m. munchies. We let him have his fun, plugged earphones in and went back to sleep.

He was a lot easier to feed too. Before his phantom death we’d spend hours sitting by his bedside spoon-feeding him mash and porridge like he was a toddler and he’d purse his lips or spit it out to prove the point. It had irked us doing it for him, we didn’t mind with Mum because she was there when we were spitting toddlers, but he’d never suffered our slop projectiles. Now that he was dead, he didn’t need to eat the same. We just left him a huge smoothie by his bedside, luminous green and swamp-thick, full of spinach and kale and all the organic crap the doctors say is good for bones. We told him it was ectoplasm, that he’d fade away to nothing if he didn’t drink it, and he slurped it through a straw like it was thirty-year-old scotch.

The weird thing was, death made him a nicer person; I started to look forward to spending time with him. He’d never shown a wisp of softness when we were growing up, Mum told us his own Dad had quickly knocked that out of him. Being dead broke his defences, his history came spilling out, the lashings he’d been given by teachers for the tricks he’d played in middle school, the time his father made him eat a bar of soap for cursing, the time his father locked him in the dark for days for standing between his mother and his fist. He started talking about Mum a lot too, said his chest burst like a shotgun shell the day he saw her, a girl of nineteen, dancing with her friends in a field when they should be picking peaches, her cornflower blue dress, the blossom in her hair, the sweet smell of ripe fruit.

A few nights later, after I’d crept in to touch up the rotting patches on his forehead, he woke with a start and started sobbing. I’d never seen him shed a tear before, didn’t know what to do as his back lurched up and down like an old machine leaking oil. Through gasping sobs, he said he’d dreamt about her. “Why?” he wailed over and over. “Why have I been left here? What did I do?” I called my sister and we sat on either side of the bed, held him between us. When he’d calmed down, he said he wanted a priest, he wanted to repent, he wanted to be exorcised.

We were in too deep by then. We couldn’t admit he wasn’t really dead, it would shrivel his mind completely. So, we paid my pub mate Jonny to dress up and come over one night. He was the most qualified person we knew. He’d been married in church and we’d all got drunk as stoats in the bar after his kids were christened.

He came dressed in long, white robes on a windy winter evening, carrying a battered bible under his arm. He sprinkled water over the bed and pressed a thumb into Dad’s forehead, then flicked the good book open and started reading psalms. Dad lay sweating under Jonny’s sanctimonious gaze, waiting for his sins to smoke out of his ears or send his head spinning.

After half an hour, I’d had it. I started motioning to Jonny to wrap it up, tell him he was absolved and call it a night, when suddenly, in the middle of Psalm 55, there was an almighty flash of blinding white as though lightning had struck right in the centre of the room. Jonny shot backwards like he’d been burnt and ran out screaming. As the light faded and the room was quiet, we saw Dad dead on the bed, really dead this time, wide smile fixed on his waxen face like a teenager in summer, and swirling through the cloying musk of death was the unmistakable aroma of plump-juiced peaches.

Jo Withers writes short fiction from her home in South Australia. Recent work is featured or forthcoming in Milk Candy Review, XRAY, Versification and Best Microfictions 2020. Jo occasionally tweets @JoWithers2018.
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