Niall McGrath is from Country Antrim, Northern Ireland. His historical novel Sanctuary is due out in 2022 (Eyewear, London). He has had short fiction in journals internationally, such as Green’s Magazine (Canada), YoMiMoNo (Japan), Saccade (UK), Wrightlines (Ireland) and Breaking the Skin Anthology of New Short Fiction (Ireland).


by Niall McGrath


Ellie Mae is whizzing down the slide from the wooden platform, no fear now. Unlike the first time when I kneeled up there and she clung to me like a terrified cat, clawing and bawling. Now, I can keep an eye on her over my shoulder as I push Shirley in the toddler’s swing. Shirley is happy as she leans against the safety bar, making the seat go as far forward as she can.

There’s that guy Gabriel again, with his two boys, Daniel and Aaron, both slightly older than mine. He always looks good in slim-line jeans and collared tee-shirt. Pleasant to exchange small talk with, which we have done a couple of times.

Britney told me about him: single dad because his wife ran off with a guy. Gabriel kept the boys and she took him to court but he got custody, unusual these days, because his ex-wife’s new dude is some kind of ex-con, dealer and general hood.

Gabriel’s the one who told me why this place is called Titanic Park: he pointed out last time that there’s a bronze plaque by the drinking fountains which says three brothers from the area—who were stokers—were all lost when the Titanic went down. The park was built around the time of the First World War, so there’s a memorial fountain, with an inscription on one side to the veterans, on the other, one to three sailors who went down with the Titanic. The story goes that another brother turned up for the official opening and was rubbing shoulders with the dignitaries; handshakes all round. Only later, guys who were at school with them said the fourth brother was a stoker too, and went down with the Lusitania.

Ellie Mae hollers, “What you looking for, Mommy?” and I realize my gaze is searching the spongy, blue, all-weather ground surface. My hand touches my chest where that pendant I used to always wear, seems to be gone. Real, hallmarked silver. He got it for me, one Christmas. Splashing out on his lady. In so many photos of me, from that time, wearing it.

“Nothing, Ellie Mae, just thinking.” The little girl doesn’t wait to ask what about, because she is distracted by the next giggle-inducing hurtle down the slide.

“A look of exhaustion, perhaps?” Gabriel is suddenly beside me, smiling. “That’s what it usually is with me.”

“I wanna go on the slide now!”’ Shirley demands. She stands up, disentangles her legs from the safety bar. I help her drop down from the chains and she runs over to her sister.

I put a hand to my mouth as I watch her climb the steep steps up to the platform. “I know she can do it; I know I have to trust her, let her get on with it. She’s never fallen. Just…” I blurt out loud, as one of Gabriel’s young lads follows Shirley and rushes to the slide, too.

As Gabriel and I drift over to a bench and sit down to apprehensively watch over the little ones, he agrees, “Yeah. Those little darts of panic. Like sitting with my niece when she was learning to drive. You know she’s going to make the gap between the wall and the truck, but you’re used to being in control, in the driving seat!”

There’s a lull in conversation for a moment and I see Gabriel stare at the billboard out on the street, by the gateway into the park. This month, it’s advertising a floral perfume, with the model’s huge smiling face grinning prettily at us.

“You’ve got your kids all to yourself? I never see you or them with their mom.”

Gabriel nods. “And you?”

I nod. “He’s not around.” I shrug my shoulders.

“He’s been inside, isn’t that the case?”

I blink hard. “How d’you know that?”

“I saw you standing alone in my kitchen at a party I was having. I’m going to be honest: I heard from people who know you.”

I’m looking around to make sure no one’s overheard him. The other parents are all in a flock at the hood of a vehicle, gassing about some kindergarten social. I glance back to the slide to check on the girls. The three little ones are doing fabulously. The older boy Daniel is on the more advanced climbing frame which these little ones still view with trepidation.

I shake my head. “No way! I’ve never been to your place on my own.”

“You were only there for a minute, literally.”

Shaking my head, I tell him, “I’d remember. Why would I be there? Is this some kind of crazy chat-up routine?”

He begins corpsing, bending over, going red in the face. Composing himself, he tells me, “You’ve blanked it out. When we’re overwhelmed by something, we do that, repress it; suppress it. Black it out entirely. But it’s there, in the back of your mind, the unconscious, and can manifest itself in some ways. Signs. Symptoms.”

“Gabriel, are you a shrink?”

He shakes his head. “You know I’m a high school teacher.”

I suddenly wonder if he is some kind of sicko stalker. Should I beat a hasty retreat from the park, make sure he doesn’t follow? Go somewhere else? Ask Britney what she and others really know about this guy? Report him to the cops?

He begins to talk again. “Did you ever wonder, what is reality? What if all this is a dream-like state?”

“Are you crazy, man?” I’m annoyed. I fold my arms, huffing. I just want this creep to disappear, now.

But he says, “I was sitting on the couch. You were behind me. You came forward, laughing. Not at me, with me, kinda. You were trying to tell me something. Something held you back. I know what now.’

As soon as he says it, the scene flashes in my head. I can see myself there.

“A light blue couch. A tiled floor. A kitchen-diner. Large screen TV before me. Coffee table.” I frown, perplexed. I realize I could be describing a million such places. But I know it’s his place I see in my mind.

“You know it’s time, don’t you, Ashley? That’s why you’re here, with me.”

“What the fuck are you talking about, dude?” He’s unnerving me now. I start to get up from the bench, but he motions me to sit back down. For some reason, I do.

“There’s been signs, recently, haven’t there? More than usual. The headaches. The flashes of memories. Like, where did Shirley come from?”

“Shirley is my daughter.” I begin to tell him that I believe he is a psycho, but I pause, realizing that for some reason, I don’t want to offend this guy. “I’m starting to remember some things. You’re, well, damaged,” I say gently. “I mean, like, hurt. By what you’ve been through.”

“We’re all damaged,” he said. “Some more than others. I’m here as a friend. A soulmate, even. But that’s all. A relationship, like a romantic one, is out of the question. Not that I don’t find you attractive…” His eyes glisten. I laugh. I’m thinking, if only, when he says, “Ever wondered what it’s like to be dead?”

It stops me in my tracks. I have to catch my breath. Something resonates within me.

Shaking my head, I snort, “Stop jerking me around, Gabriel. You’re not a fucking ghost.” To prove it, I pinch his arm. Hard. He yelps, snaps his arm away. I see I’ve left a red welt. I don’t apologize; I snigger at it. It’s proof and I’m glad.

“I’m not dead, Ashley. You are.”

I sigh long and loud. I stand up. The girls are playing contentedly; otherwise I’d scoop them up and take off. Folding my arms once again, I try to ignore him. But I stand there, rolling a hip challengingly.

“These movies…the person wakes up dead,” I said. They have to be told they’re on the other side. All that shit. But I live a normal life. I’ve fucking electricity bills arriving and wifi connection bills and diapers to buy and—”

“This is your idea of Heaven: a normal life. Think about it: what was normal about your life before the party? Not much.”

So Gabriel wants to talk about philosophy. But I’ve got him: “Ellie Mae and Shirley are alive and well. I’d be parted from them if... What happened to me then, if I’m dead? Naw, you can’t make it stick. You’re some sort of sicko having hallucinations.”

“Where’s their dad, Ashley?”

“You know where. In prison.”

“Since when? Since the time you moved in to your apartment here? Around the time your grandmother died?”

“How the fuck you know about my grandma? Ah ha! You know my friends. Like blabbermouth Britney.” I shake a finger at him.

“How’d you conceive Shirley, if he’s inside?”

“He got out on ‘compassionate,’ for my grandma’s funeral.”

He shakes his head. “They let inmates out for their own parents’ funerals, partner’s, child’s, a sibling’s even, but not a partner’s grandparent. That’s something you convince yourself and others of, to maintain the pretence.”

I’m into this now. I fight for any way to win the argument. “What if I don’t really remember how Shirley was conceived? What if I got high one night and it happened and it wasn’t him? Okay, now you know the truth and I’m sure you want to talk to Britney right away.”

He corpses again. Only for a moment. “Ashley.” He shakes his head. “Look. They’re not really Ellie Mae and Shirley, are they? You even gave them their names, your mom’s and grandmother’s names.”

I glance over. My girls are on either end of the seesaw now, grinning across at each other. Shirley clings on valiantly to the handle, and thankfully Ellie Mae hasn’t the strength to lift her too far off the ground, or to bounce her too hard down. Suddenly, they transform into grown women: my mom and grandma. Just for an instant. Then back into my little Ellie Mae and Shirley.

“Ah, you saw it. That’s the reality. This, this is…”

I feel a jolt, a jerk, and my eyes blur.

Gabriel can see that I’m startled. “You sense it’s time. Time to start moving on. So Spirit is working with you, to help ease you towards the Light.’

I spin around to face Gabriel. The dude isn’t on the bench, then he is, then he isn’t. There’s just this disembodied voice.

“I’m not really here. My sons, you see them projected as they were at that age, when I did mind them. From a day years ago when you talked to me in this park. But now, now they’re sixteen and eighteen. In my now. In the real world. You hear my voice, see a manifestation of me. But I’m not living in your world.”

I slump down on the bench, as far from him as possible. He’s there again, large as life. “Why should I believe any of this? Why would you be here? I’ve heard of ghosts bothering people in the real world, but not people from the real world bothering ghosts. If that’s what you say I am! Sure, my mom and grandma couldn’t be here…”

“But they are.” He nods. “They’ve passed on, too.”

I look across at my girls’ little faces, grinning gleefully as they play, back on the slide now. I feel tears wet my cheeks. I snap angrily at him, “This is BS.”

He says softly, turning on the bench to stare earnestly at me, ‘Where’s everyone else? Where’s your father and sisters?”

“They don’t talk to me, since I took up with him. Even though he’s behind bars for now. They’re ashamed of me.”

“No! They’re in the real world. And they love you very much. And they think about you all the time. They can’t be here just now, because they’re still alive. Only your mom and grandmother are dead.”

I sob. “I know my grandma died. But my mom’s dead?”

“She’s here, with you. There’s no end, really, just transition. And they’re ready to be themselves now, with you, should you want them to do. They’ve gone along with your wish fulfilment because they know it’s been easier for you. But as soon as you’re ready, they’re here to support you.”

I snap at Gabriel, “Who the hell are you, anyway? Just some crazy dude on a park bench.”

He shakes his head, pointing at the billboard. “Ashley, I’m here because of that. Your folks paid for a poster on the billboard: Reward for information leading to an arrest. I used to pass it on my way to work every day.”

As he speaks, the billboard transforms into the picture of me that he is describing. Me wearing that lost necklace. And then the billboard becomes the perfume ad once more.

“Somehow, your face resonated with me,” Gabriel tells me. “I’m not a sensitive or anything. Maybe because your parents lost their daughter and I’d just taken on all the responsibilities of a father. Maybe as a parent, I empathised. For goodness sake, your ghost appeared in my kitchen, what was I supposed to do? Ignore it? It’s a calling, to help you. Anyways, you bug me. I figured the easiest way to exorcise you from my life is to help you, if I can.”

“What happened to me?” I ask. “You seem to be saying I was murdered. You’re implying it was him.”

“You know it was him. He’s not in prison. He’s not here in your world either because he’s here in mine. He did get locked up for a short time, but he got a mistrial. He can be re-tried if they have the evidence they need: your body. Deep down, you know this. That’s why you mirror the truth with your scenario here. You did love him. But he mistreated you. Don’t cry, Ashley. I know it’s difficult for you to come to terms. You don’t need to be ashamed that you made mistakes, trusting him, getting high when you did. Your family doesn’t care about that. Your dad and sisters love you so much and they’re trying to find you. So they can lay you to rest.”

“What?” My head snaps up from my crying.

“Tell me what happened to you,” Gabriel says gently, “so we can find you. Your remains.”

I can’t remember. I shake my head. I know it’s in there, but I can’t find it.

“I’m speaking to you right now through a medium. She found you in the Spirit world. You know you were murdered, right? That’s why it’s a trauma. That’s why you’re in denial.”

The image of Gabriel sitting at a table with a cloth cover that has constellations printed on it briefly flashes before my eyes. Refocusing, I notice at the same time Gabriel on the park bench disappears, then reappears again.

I touch my throat. He says, “In your photos, you’re wearing a silver necklace. Is that how they’ll ID your remains, when they find you? Do you know where the necklace is, Ashley?”

I automatically respond, “In the woods, half a block from his house. Buried under a tree that has a carving of someone’s initials. The initials are JB.” I gasp. “Wait, where did that come from? Nothing makes sense right now.”

“And you came into my kitchen as a ghost. And couldn’t communicate. Now, I know why. And I thought, ‘I’m not psychic enough to pick up your message, so I’ll ask a medium.’ It’s not about putting your guy behind bars for good, which he should be. It’s not even about helping your dad and family by giving them some kind of closure through a funeral for you. Now, I see it’s about helping you transition. We all gotta go to the Light sometime, Ashley.”

He pauses, studying me to judge my reaction to what he is saying. “It’s not a bad thing, to pass over. Everyone who goes say it’s a fantastic experience. And look who’s here to share it with you. Your mom and grandmother. You haven’t really got kids, but in some future life maybe you will have that wonderful experience. But really, it’s about being with fellow souls whom we love and who love us. In your plane, there’s no gender, no race, none of those things to complicate things and divide us.”

He tries to touch my shoulder in sympathy, but I see his hand simply pass through, like he is touching a hologram. He sighs and sits back on the bench. “So, I’m here simply to help. To be a soulmate, with a friendly message. A nudge on the way towards the Light. You’re there already, even if you haven’t quite accepted it yet. You’re in the Light. Just open your eyes and see.”

I look up at the sky. The sun is behind a cloud, but it feels warm.

Suddenly there’s a blinding flash of golden light, as if the sun appears from behind clouds. When I am able to divert my gaze, adjust my vision, look around again, I see that Gabriel, Daniel and Aaron have disappeared. Here one moment, gone the next.

Ellie Mae and Shirley’s shrieks of joy have stopped. Instead of my little girls skipping towards me from the slide, I hear cheerful hellos from Mom and Grandma as they stride towards me. And I don’t miss my girls because I know I still have the same souls here with me, for my mom and grandma are suddenly hugging me. They sit down with me, all chat and smiles and love as if we’ve never been apart.