Her musical laughter prickles my skin as it surrounds me. I try to stand, but trip over a piece of driftwood. Panting, I force myself up and run over the soft sand. Her voice chases me like a deranged demon. I stop to catch my breath and cover my ears.
“You’re supposed to be dead,” I groan, shaking my head. “Your black magic has bewitched me!”
She’s dead, but I can feel her presence. Shivers rush down my spine and arms. I turn, half expecting her to be there, but all I can see is the empty beach highlighted silver by the moon. I sigh in relief and start toward the dirt path that will lead to the waterfalls. The sight ahead stops me in my tracks. A shadowy form of a woman stands on the path in front of me. Two amber circles glow in the darkness – her eyes.
“Almaz?” I cry.
She says nothing, turns, and walks down the trail. Her footsteps cease and she looks to our left. I am several feet behind her still and I follow her line of vision. At the top of a small hill stands a young man. Though it is dark, there is something familiar about the way he walks. Almaz points to him. It is not until I start walking toward the masculine figure that I realize my limbs are trembling. The other man senses my approach and faces me. His glowing eyes make me stop in my tracks. I have to clench my jaw so my teeth stop chattering. I focus on his eyes that shine like gold. I feel every hair on my body stand on end. His aura is exactly like my best friend.
“Is it really you?”
He nods. Aside from his glowing eyes, his features are indistinguishable from his black shadow of a body.
“Are you well?” I ask, fighting back tears. “You’re not in pain, are you?”
“I’ve been well, Barak,” he says calmly.
Even in death, Jeremy is the same. He reaches out to me. I move closer and his hand touches my shoulder. It is warm. My knees buckle and I drop to the dirt. A wail sounds from the pit of my stomach and my body shakes in silent sobs. He stays with me and says nothing until I gain my composure. I look up at him in amazement.
“How are you here?” I ask.
“The better question is ‘why’, my friend,” he says.
“You’ve … haunted me nearly every day since the battle,” I stutter. “I’ve missed you with every fiber of my being. I’ll do anything you ask of me.”
I reach up and he takes my hand, kneeling in the dirt next to me.
“I can’t believe it’s you,” I say, choking back another sob.
“It is me,” he says.
I can sense him smiling. “You’re so warm.”
“Yes. Seeing you warms my soul, Barak.”
I take a moment to take in the sight of him, how it feels to have him close to me again.
“I need you to let me go,” he says.
His words are like a punch to my stomach.
“How can I do that?” I ask, shaking again.
“I’m dead. I have no place among the living.”
“Yet you’re here. Can’t we keep it just like this? Or I could take my life right now and join you! I’ve been alone for so long, Jeremy. I can’t go on without you.”
“Your journey here isn’t finished yet, but it will be soon if you don’t move quickly. The men from your camp have banded together to hunt you down for what you did to Almaz.”
My pulse quickens.
“So, it’s back to being on my own,” I say, forcing myself to stand and look into my best friend’s intense gaze.
“Do you still not regret what you did to her?” he asks in amazement.
Anger laces his words. My heart lurches.
“I-I thought she was dangerous to the world. She’s a woman who could make the masses love her enough to start a war!”
Jeremy shakes his head. “You made a sweeping judgement about her, because you were jealous. She was innocent.”
I back away, feeling the hope I had left burning away. Not only have I failed him, I have disappointed him.
“So now I deserve to be alone.”
“You’re never alone. When you love someone while they’re alive, a part of them always stays with you after they pass on.”
“I don’t want a part of you. You’ve shown me it’s possible for the dead to visit the living. Why can’t we continue this way?”
Jeremy wraps his arms around me. I lean into him. I fear he’ll disappear at any moment and I wish time could stand still.
“I love you, Barak,” he says quietly, “and I know you always loved me, but you need to let me go or you’ll never finish your journey.”
I clench my fists. “Who cares about my stupid journey when everyone I love is gone?”
Jeremy sighs deeply and takes me by the hand. I don’t resist when he pulls on my arm to walk with him. We stop after a few steps as a spherical ball of light floats toward us, growing in size the closer it gets. Within the center of the circle is a moving picture much like the screens I saw in the city. Two youths are racing one another through the forest. It is Jeremy and I a few years before the war. He’s laughing and I’m snarling at the fact that he won our contest to see who could run faster up the hill.
I smile as a fresh wave of tears stream down my face.
Jeremy turns his head to face me with his surreal gaze. “Remember moments like this. We were happy before the war. I am still the same boy you knew before we ran blindly into that battle.”
I wipe my tears with the back of my hand and nod. “Thank you for showing me this.”
“May our final moment together here on the beach soothe your heart.”
I rest my hand on his shoulder. “I’ve missed you so much.”
“I know, Barak, but you have to keep going. There’s a reason why you’re still here.”
I think of Almaz then and flinch. “I don’t see why I was chosen to survive. Look at me and who I’ve become.”
“It isn’t your fault that I died along with the others on the battlefield. We didn’t know they had a regiment of archers. You couldn’t stop those arrows from raining down on us. I know that’s hard for you to accept and I know those memories must be torture sometimes, but we want you to be happy. Don’t you see? As long as you grieve for us, we can’t fully rest. You still have the gift of life flowing through your veins and you need to claim it before it’s too late.”
“You’re talking to me. I can see and feel you. You’re warm to the touch. This isn’t really death for you, is it?”
“You’ll understand it more one day, Barak, but you need to carry on. If you accept that we are in a better place now and that our deaths are not your fault, the nightmares and flashbacks will come less and less.”
I nod, and grasp onto his arm. “I don’t want you to go.”
“I know,” he says sadly. “But we will be together again.”
My heart skips a beat at the the hope of being reunited with him in the future. I’m afraid to hope for it, but I trust him. He wouldn’t lie to me.
“Thank you for coming back to me, Jeremy.”
“Now, you must hurry before they catch you. You murdered a great woman and her admirers will not give you a quick death if they catch you.”
I hang my head. “Almaz didn’t get to complete her journey because of me.”
“Your act of violence on an innocent life will not go unpunished.”
“Jeremy, I …”
“I still love you and the man you were before the war still exists in you.”
I take a moment to glance over at Almaz’s spirit standing in the darkness. She’s still there and she’s watching us.
“Will she haunt me forever?” I ask as a chill permeates the air around us.
“She isn’t a vengeful soul, but even if she chooses not to haunt you, I have a feeling you’re going to be seeing a lot of her.”
“There are pictures of her all over that city.”
“I hope you’ll feel remorse for what you did to her one day. Good-bye, Barak.”
He slowly melts into the rest of the darkness. I stare at the space he was once standing in. His words echo in my ears. A flood of ice cold regret rushes through my veins and fills my heart with a dull ache. When I look over at Almaz, she is gone.
“You didn’t deserve to die, Almaz,” I say, hoping she’ll hear me. “I only thought you did in my own twisted head.”
Wild men’s rapid footsteps and angry voices fill the night air and overpower the waves’ repetitive beat. They’re coming for me. I look in the direction of the city. It’s the only way I can go now. I run. Images of her fill my vision as I race through the city. When I dart down a dark alleyway, I can hear the memory of her happy laugh. I know then that her voice will never die.