Ralph’s parents were never the same after they died. They didn’t need to eat anymore, which was a bit of an issue. It meant they often forgot his meals, so that he had to learn to cook for himself. The food was a bit… dodgy, at first, and the kitchen had almost gone up in flames on more than one occasion. But Ralph was getting better at it.
They could also walk through walls. And float upwards through the floor. Or out through the ceiling. When they were talking to him, they tended to disappear beyond a physical boundary mid-sentence, leaving him to dart through doorways or scamper up stairways, in order to continue the conversation. Ralph also had to be careful when reading his comics late at night; they could appear in his room at a moment’s notice and scald him for staying up past his bedtime. Lights out, however, had remained the same – 9 p.m. sharp.
Another thing had stayed constant, too: their bickering.
“All you do is nag, nag, nag!” his father, James Hoffington, said, as they drove through the pouring rain on that fateful night.
“Um, dad—” Ralph said, trying to get his attention.
“I wouldn’t have to nag if you actually listened!” his mother, Margery Hoffington, retorted.
“Mom? I think we’re going—”
“I do listen!” James said back.
“Dad, look out for that—”
“No, you don’t! If you listened, I wouldn’t have had to go grocery shopping in the middle of—”
“Look out!” Ralph shouted. But of course, it was already too late. His mother and father screamed in unison, their voices harmonising beautifully. And then car flew over the embankment and went plunging into the black, icy water.
Ralph managed to undo his seatbelt rather efficiently. He simply pressed the little red button and clunk! his seatbelt had zipped away, the same as it always had. He looked over at his parents and was rather dismayed to see that they were still fighting.
“Stop pulling on the bloody thing!” his father said.
“I can’t undo it!” his mother hissed. “If you’re so good at it, why don’t you undo your own?”
“Try pressing the button!”
“Mom? Dad? The water’s rising,” Ralph said, rather timidly. He didn’t like to get in between them, but the chilling liquid was filling the interior of the car at an alarming rate.
“I have tried pressing the button!”
“Then try pulling it!”
“Dad? Mom? I think we should get out now,” Ralph said.
“I told you, pulling on it doesn’t help!”
Ralph took a deep breath, completely filling his lungs.
“Well, then I don’t know what—”
And then they were underwater, and Ralph couldn’t hear their words anymore. Glug, glug, glug. It was actually rather peaceful, in Ralph’s humble opinion.
Ralph wound down the window on the rear passenger door and looked out into the endless, inky blackness. He glanced at the front seats. James and Margery appeared to still be in the throes of their argument, seemingly oblivious to the impending oblivion. He briefly considered trying to rescue them himself, but his lungs were already beginning to burn. Even though he was only a boy, he knew that if he tried to save his parents, he’d die with them. And Ralph was rather attached to The Realm of the Living. It’s where the best comics were.
Ralph slid off his shoes as fast as he could, and then climbed his way out of the open window and kicked for the surface. He could feel his heart hammering inside his chest, desperate for fresh oxygen. A few bubbles escaped his mouth and floated away. Ralph kicked and clawed at the freezing water. All around him was that icy nothingness.
He started to panic as he swam. What if he weren’t swimming to the surface at all? What if he were just swimming horizontally across the lake? Or worse, swimming down to the bottom? Into the depths? Visions of giant squid and toothy sharks flashed in the mind of the boy. Just as Ralph started to pray to God to allow him to drown before the monsters could eat him, he broke the surface of the lake.
Ralph gasped for air, feeling the cool night sky rushing into his lungs. It tasted delicious in his mouth, despite the chill. He trod water for half a minute, recapturing his spent breath.
He glanced around him, in the pitch black of the night. Mere metres away, Ralph saw the shore. He swam to it easily and dredged himself up onto the muddy bank, soggy, dripping, and gasping in the gloom of the evening, his breath visible as he exhaled.
Barefoot and soaked to the bone, Ralph began to walk the rest of the way home, socks squelching with each step. On the bright side, the rain had stopped, and he hadn’t far to walk. Silver linings, and all that.
After he had unlocked the front door with the key, which had been hidden (poorly) under the gnome that his mother had purchased and his father had hated, Ralph scrambled up the stairs, jumped out of his wet clothes and climbed into bed. The orphaned boy lay there, shivering, not thinking about anything.
After a while, Ralph fell into a deep sleep.
The morning after, Ralph had been awoken by the familiar sound of his parents having an argument.
“This is all your bloody fault!”
“How is it my fault?”
“You were the one driving the car!”
“I wouldn’t have crashed the car if you hadn’t been nagging me! Nag, nag, nag, that’s all you ever do!”
“I do not nag!”
He remembered sitting bolt upright in his bed, hair plastered to his forehead, listening intently. Ralph had nodded to himself. Yes, that was them, all right. Their voices were unmistakable. Especially when they were shouting.
“You bloody do too! Nag, nag, nagnagnag! Your middle name is Nag! Margery Nag Hoffington! That’s what they should call you!”
Ralph slipped out of bed and tiptoed to the open door, peering down the staircase.
“Oh, that’s really clever, James! Very adult too! You know, my mother was right! I should have listened, but oh no, I had to—”
Ralph threw his dressing gown on – the nice fluffy woolly thing that his mother had bought him – and slowly descended the stairs.
“And what time do you call this?” the ghost of his father said, looking at him, hands on hips. The ghoul pointed at the kitchen clock. “Ten in the morning! On a Sunday! And only just getting up! I swear he gets it from your side! Never was there a lazy Hoffington, I tell you…” And then they were off again.
“Don’t blame this on my side of the family! At least we know how to relax! Your side is all work, work, work!” said his mother, who was hovering about six inches above the ground.
“We are not just about our work!” said his father, who Ralph realised was translucent. Ralph could see the countertop and kitchen window through his torso.
“You are! You used to be fun, but now you’re just about work! What happened to you, James? I’m still fun, like I always was!” Ralph’s mother said this, and then slid sideways through a kitchen cabinet and disappeared. A splotch of ectoplasm stained the wood.
“Fun? Fun?” asked his father, with a humourless laugh. “You’re not fun! I can always—” and then his voice cut off, as he followed his otherworldly wife to wherever it was that she had vanished.
At that point, Ralph simply shrugged and made his way to the living room to watch Sunday cartoons.
There had been a good episode on, that morning.
So, now here Ralph was, riding the bus home from school because his parents lacked the physical body necessary to drive an automobile. As the other kids around him shouted, screamed and swore at each other, he played with the report card in his hands, nervously. Straight Ds, he thought miserably. They’ll bloody kill me!
“At least you didn’t get any Es or Fs,” said Tommy Harrison, who was sitting next to him. “My mom’s gonna drop dead when she sees this.”
“Mmh,” said Ralph. Tommy’s report card was worse than his, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t in for a world of trouble when he got home. He wished that this bus ride could last forever.
But it didn’t. He grimly waved Tommy away as he sulked down the steps of the bus. The ever-chipper woman behind the wheel wished him a nice day. “See ya t’morrow, Ralphie!”
“See ya,” Ralph mumbled. He slowly plodded his way up the garden path, and into the house.
He almost made it through the kitchen, before being caught. His father rose up out of the ground, arms folded, a deep frown on his face.
“Show us that report card, young man! Don’t think I haven’t remembered, ‘cause I have!” His father’s ethereal hand passed through the report and Ralph instinctively let go. It dropped to the floor. “D?” his father said to himself, looking at the piece of card on the floor. He floated down to it, sinking partially into the tiles of the kitchen floor. James Hoffington’s ghostly eyes scanned the rest of the document. “D… D… D…” It went on, his voice reaching fever pitch. “Straight Ds! Margery, did you hear that? Straight. Bloody. Ds.” He spat this last word out as if it were cold coffee.
“I heard you!” said his mother, drifting in through the wall. “Ds Ralph? Ds? Did you even try?”
“Of course, he didn’t try!” said Ralph’s father. “He got straight Ds!”
“Don’t you want to do well, Ralph?” his mother implored.
“You’ve got to study, if you want to follow in my footsteps, Lad!” said his dad.
“Why on earth would he want to follow in your footsteps? You hate your job!”
“What do you mean? It’s a respectable job, I—”
“I want to write comics for a living!” said Ralph.
His parents looked at him as if they had seen a ghost.
“Comics?” his father said, disgustedly.
“What kind of a job is that?” his mother asked.
James turned to Margery, hanging in the air. “He gets his lazy genes from you!”
“Oh, don’t blame this on me! If you let him relax occasionally, maybe he wouldn’t be so stressed!”
“Stressed? What’s he got to be stressed about? He’s in school!”
“Maybe if you spent some quality time with him… playing catch, or chess!”
“I don’t know how to play chess!”
Margery laughed. “So, he probably does get his stupid genes from you, then!”
“Don’t you call me stupid, Margery! I—”
“I wish neither of you had come back!” Ralph shouted, finally having reached the end of his tether. “I wish that when you’d died, you’d have stayed dead!”
His parents looked at him, jaws agape. Then they both slumped their shoulders and their heads dropped back; open mouths pointed to the sky. A sound like rushing static from a television set erupted from their mouths, and with an audible huff, a breeze appeared in the Hoffingtons’ kitchen. Then, like smoke, the ghosts of Ralph’s parents were whisked away.
The next few days passed much as they had done before his parents had gone. Gone the first time, that is – after they’d died. Ralph still cooked and cleaned for himself. He even did his own laundry. He watched cartoons, and read comics, and drew a few of his own. He had a new series going on, and they’d grown remarkably popular with the other boys at school. For reasons Ralph couldn’t quite put his finger on, he still went to bed at 9 p.m. He felt guilty if he stayed up later, reading his books by torchlight.
Ralph enjoyed the peace and quiet of the house. Who’d have guessed that dead people would have been so noisy?
Life went swimmingly for Ralph, after he finally told his parents how he felt. Swimmingly, that was, until one Tuesday afternoon, at the start of the summer holidays.
Ralph got off the school bus, waving goodbye to Tommy and telling old Mrs Sefferfill to have a nice summer. “You too, Ralph! See ya!” Ralph jumped down the bus steps, a spring in his stride. He crossed the street towards his home and was promptly hit by a speeding car.
Ralph awoke to his parents arguing. Again. He had a splitting headache.
“You should have been looking out for him!”
“Look out for him? I’m a ghost! I can’t stop a bug, let alone a car!”
“You should have taught him better! To look both ways!”
“There’s no way he’d have seen it in time, Marge…”
And then his mother sobbed. “I know… it’s just…”
“I know, Marge,” his father let out a sorrowful sigh, “I know.”
Ralph sat upright. He was in darkness. It felt as if he were once again under the crushing weight of that dark, frosty water. “Where am I?” he asked, fuzzily.
“How are you feeling, Sweetie?” his mother asked. Now that Ralph could get a proper look at her, he noticed she looked different. More… there. And then he realised: she wasn’t in her ghost form.
“Head hurts,” he said, trying to rub his crown. His hand kept passing through his skull.
“I’ll bet,” said his father. He was smiling. “Took that one like a champ, Pal!”
Ralph looked at his dad. He looked different too. The way he had before. Before he was dead, that was. He grinned at his father. “Thanks, Dad.”
And then Ralph remembered their last conversation. He flushed guiltily, feeling the heat of shame rising in his cheeks. “Mom…. Dad… I’m sorry about the things I said. They weren’t true. Well, the bits about me wishing you stayed dead and had never come back. Those weren’t true. The bit about me wanting to write comics – that was very true. But—look, I’m sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it, Sport,” said his dad with a smile. “We understand.”
“We understand completely, Honey. I know your father—” His dad interrupted her with a cough. “I know we can be a bit difficult,” his mum corrected. “We just want what’s best for you…”
“Speaking of which,” said James. “We need to get this mess sorted out. You’re far too young to be hanging around here.”
“Where is here?” Ralph asked, looking around. He saw only blackness. Nothingness on all sides. Except—no, there was something. Something beneath him.
Far, far below, Ralph could see lights. No, not lights. Sunshine. It was daytime, down there. Ralph squinted and tilted his head like a puppy. He focused his eyes. There was a bus. And a car. And a crowd of people gathered around something in the street. And—
“Oh,” said Ralph, realising all at once. “I’m dead, aren’t I?” He surprised himself with how matter-of-factly he said this.
His mother sobbed once more and turned away. His father grimaced and then nodded. “’Fraid so, Champ. But don’t you worry, your old man will get this all sorted. It’s just a big misunderstanding.” And with that, he turned and walked through a doorway that wasn’t there, with Margery in tow.
Ralph sat there, slightly bewildered, head throbbing, looking down at the horde of people milling about his lifeless body. In the distance, Ralph could see flashing red and blue lights.
And then he heard his parents arguing. It sounded as if they were at the far end of a corridor, only Ralph knew that wasn’t quite right. But this was a different sort of arguing, this was… arguing with another person. They were arguing together. As a team.
“This is my son!” his father roared. “Don’t you know who I am? I am James Hoffington, and you will send my son back!”
“He’s too young!” Ralph’s mum shouted. “How can you take someone so young? Have you no heart? He’s too young for this!”
After this, there was some nervous murmuring and muttering. Something that sounded like a lame excuse.
“I don’t care! Send him back! Pronto!”
There was a cough. Then a meek agreement.
“That’s more like it!” said Ralph’s father.
The voices were coming back towards him. And his head was feeling better. There was also a distinct whooshing sound.
“That’s my James,” said Margery, lovingly. “I knew you’d sort this out, Honey.”
There was the sound of a kiss.
“He’s our boy. Our son. Besides, I said I’d get it sorted, didn’t I?”
Then: “Where did he go?”
“Look down there, Marge,” said his father from a million miles away.
It took Ralph a good few seconds to realise he was falling. Back down to Earth. From where, he couldn’t quite say. All he knew was that the ground was rushing up to meet him. He was plummeting down into his lifeless body and—
After the paramedics and police had agreed that the boy was fine (not before giving Ralph several perplexed and distrusting looks), Ralph had slipped away, unnoticed. Eventually, the people on the street outside had broken up and filed away, back to their regular, mundane lives.
“Not bad,” said his father, after finishing #4 of his comic series. Ralph ignored the gooey ectoplasmic stain on the paper; he could print more.
“I really like the drawings,” his mother added, pointing to one of the more colourful pages. Ralph couldn’t hide his delirious grin.
“Not bad at all. You should keep this up, Sport,” his father repeated. And then he tousled Ralph’s hair. Or tried to, anyway.
Later that night, when all was quiet, Ralph’s thoughts returned to his parents. He extinguished the torch and put aside his comic. And fell asleep smiling. He was glad they’d come back.
They were considerably better parents, now that they were dead.
20th September 2019
Written for Reedsy’s weekly Short Story Contest