The passenger across from me was obviously itching to talk to someone and decided it must be me. Pushing his eyeglasses up, he cleared his throat and began.
“Have you ever seen a ghost?”
I looked at him as if he must have lost his mind, yet I could see that he was quite sincere in his question. As I didn’t immediately answer, he took my silence to be a negative reply and continued on.
“I’ve seen a ghost; at least I’m pretty sure I have.”
I suppose I could have made it easy on him and said ‘do tell’ or something inane like that, but I didn’t want to encourage him. I should have realized that he needed no encouragement.
“It was last year. I had gone to the cottage for the summer to recover from an auto accident. My injuries weren’t severe, but emotionally I was a wreck. Gillian had died on the way to the hospital. We had been husband and wife for only two hours.”
Turning to the window, his hand trembled as he pushed his glasses up again. Silently I wondered why he didn’t get them adjusted, or simply buy a new pair. His clothes, though rumpled, were custom tailored. Apparently money wasn’t an issue unless his circumstances had recently changed. I noticed he still wore his wedding band.
If Phillip died before me, would I continue to wear my wedding band and if so, for how long? It was a rhetorical question. Of course I would continue to wear my ring. I admired that about my fellow passenger. His devotion to his beloved Gillian was touching.
Having regained his composure, he turned to me once more. I wonder what demons tormented this poor young man. As upsetting as the memories were, he felt compelled to recount them. Perhaps it was an effort on his part to find closure. If that was the case, how could I deny him? My heart thawed a little and I smiled at him.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “even after a year it hurts to speak about it.”
“Don’t apologize; it takes time to get over a loss like yours.” Under my breath I added, ‘some people never do.’ My thoughts turned to Phillip again. If he had been the one who died, could I casually discuss him with a stranger a year later and not tear up? What would it say about the depth of my commitment if I could?
“I had been at the cottage a couple of nights and just couldn’t settle down. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, and I wondered if this is what the rest of my life would be like. I wondered why I didn’t die instead of Gillian or why I hadn’t died with her because emotionally I was dead.” A finger pushed his glasses up.
Was he aware he was constantly doing this? Should I mention it somehow?
“I spent the third day drinking scotch. I passed out or fell asleep. I’m not sure which. A sound outside the window startled me. I looked out the window and thought I saw Gillian. Her forehead was bloody, as was the hand that reached out to me. I rushed out into the night air to help her, not fully comprehending in that moment that she was dead and buried. Of course Gillian was nowhere to be seen.”
“I’m certain that you believe that you saw your wife, but often when people are grieving they have trouble letting go. You said you were exhausted, you had been drinking and were half-asleep. Gillian was on your mind. Moonlight reflecting on the glass could have tricked you into thinking you saw your wife.” I could tell he wasn’t buying it.
“If that was the only time I saw her, I might believe that. But you see I saw her several times after that. The next time I saw her I was able to follow her partway down the path before she vanished. I sat down and cried. What did she want from me, if she was trying to tell me something why did she disappear? I woke up chilled and soaking wet from the early morning rain. I had a high fever for the next three days and was still no closer to understanding what Gillian wanted.” A finger pushed his glasses back in place.
“Did you see your wife during your fever?”
“Not once, but as soon as I was better I saw her again. She hadn’t come up to the window this time. I happened to look out toward the lake and I saw her by the boathouse. Rushing out to where I had seen Gillian standing, she was now nowhere in sight. Thinking she was waiting for me in the boathouse the way she used to, I stepped inside and called her. I heard something that sounded like a moan and took two steps forward. The third step was into space and I plunged into the water below. The seaweed and my clothes conspired to keep me underwater and I decided not to struggle. Why should I? If I died I would be with Gillian again.”
“Obviously your survival instinct took over.”
“No, not at all. If my brother hadn’t seen me going into the boathouse, I would have died that night.”
“Your brother was at the cottage as well? Had he seen Gillian?”
“Concerned about my well being, Stan decided to come and check up on me. He arrived at the cottage to find all the lights on and the door ajar. He heard me calling Gillian and headed toward the lake in time to see me enter the boathouse.”
“So your brother fished you out of the water? Did either of you see Gillian?”
“Stan pulled me out and gave me mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. I was not terribly grateful at the time and my brother couldn’t understand that I wanted to be with Gillian. He didn’t believe I saw her and thought I was overcome with grief and suicidal. He stayed with me a few days, which were totally uneventful. I did not see Gillian again until after Stan left.”
“Don’t you find it strange that Gillian never appeared while Stan was there?”
“I can see where you are heading with that but no, I didn’t find it odd at all. Gillian and Stan never got along. Outside of their love for me, they had nothing in common and took great pains to avoid each other whenever possible.”
“What happened the next time you saw Gillian?”
“Stan left and I saw Gillian again that very evening. She was heading down the path toward our favorite picnic spot. I called to her to stop, but she continued on and I tried to catch up. I was just a couple of yards away when she stopped and turned to me. I stopped short and in that moment lightning struck the tree behind me. Startled, I jumped. If I hadn’t, the falling tree would have killed me. When I turned back to Gillian, she was gone.”
I wondered if my fellow passenger was aware that every time he saw Gillian he had had a near death experience. As I watched him pushing up his glasses, I wondered how to broach the subject. I decided that a direct approach would be best.
“Are you aware that every incident you’ve recounted regarding seeing your late wife is marred by a near fatal accident?”
“It wasn’t apparent at the time but yes, eventually the thought did cross my mind.”
“What conclusion did you arrive at?”
“I began to think that Gillian was drawing me into a fatal situation so that I could join her.”
“If Gillian loved you so much, would she not want you to live?” I wondered at the selfishness this spirit displayed, if she truly tried to lead her husband to death’s door.
“Perhaps, or perhaps she can’t bear the thought of eternity without me.”
“Sooner or later you would join her side. Surely she could wait for that day without hastening it?”
“That became my thought as well. Why was she in such a hurry for me to join her? In that moment I realized how strong my will to live was. I no longer ventured out when she beckoned, I ignored her beseeching call.”
“And did she finally give up?”
“Not at all, Gillian took my reluctance to join her as a direct challenge. She haunted me day and night. I was exhausted and constantly in danger of making a misstep. I gave up driving an automobile for I could no longer trust my senses and reflexes. Gillian distracted me in every vital and critical moment, yet I still managed to avoid certain death. Truly, I do not know how much longer I can withstand her efforts.”
“Have you sought help? Have you spoken with a priest, a psychic, or an exorcist? Perhaps if you can help her come to terms with her own death, she can wait for yours to occur in due course?”
“No one has been able to help or offer any hope. I’m afraid that I will be joining her sooner rather than later.” He pushed up his glasses again.
“Don’t give up yet. You managed to survive her attempts thus far.”
“I don’t know what I can do that I haven’t already done. Gillian grows stronger while my own strength ebbs.” He dropped his head into his hands and wept.
* * *
The waiter’s concern grew and he discussed the situation with the conductor.
“So what do you think? Should we call for someone to meet us at the station?”
“I don’t know what kind of help anyone can give. The passenger hasn’t posed a threat to any of the other passengers or himself.”
“True, but he’s been talking to himself in an agitated manner ever since we left the Chicago. He needs help of some kind.”
* * *
I knew they were right; he did need help but not the kind they could offer. I went to look for Gillian to give her a piece of my mind. If she didn’t agree to leave him alone I would take infinite pleasure in thwarting her attempts to hasten his death.
My thoughts turned to Phillip once more. I knew he loved me and mourned my passing. I could have wished for him to join me, but our children needed him more than I did.