A Little Like Hope by Jason Jackson
Grief can be a difficult thing to write about well. It’s often, sadly, too familiar to the reader. We have heard it described in a similar way many times before. It can be too sentimental and saccharine, with characters becoming better versions of the selves they were before death. Writing about grief can often hit the right buttons in the reader—a relatively easy thing to do—but in an unearned fashion.
“A Little Like Hope,” by Jason Jackson, is a story about grief, but it comes at the topic in a different and unique way. Jackson uses dialogue as the primary craft element in the story—the comfortable dialogue of a married couple—to both explore their relationship and to develop each character. Dialogue is also something that’s incredibly difficult to do well, but Jackson manages, in under 800 words, to show us these characters and their relationship in detail. The grief that’s shown here is real and true and universal. The final line will stay with you, long after you’ve read this beautiful story.
O was twenty-nine when he died, and now he lives in my head. He says it’s like swimming. He can’t breathe.
“You don’t have to,” I say. “You’re dead.”
But he just sighs. At first, there was a lot of shouting, but now he’s usually quiet, and there’s just his heavy silence.
Sometimes I think he might have died all over again.
O was my husband, and we did everything together. Apart from die. I don’t think he’s forgiven me for that.
“Is that why you’re in my head?” I ask him. “To make me feel guilty?”
“Do you feel guilty, Rachel?” he says, but he already knows.
O didn’t die cycling, although I often used to think that he would. He always wore a helmet-cam, and he’d play back his journeys on the computer.
“Idiots,” he’d say, watching as another car missed him by millimeters.
I wanted to tell him that he was the idiot for cycling when he knew how much it frightened me.
I hated him for that.
And now he knows.
“I can see all of your secrets,” he says.
This is something they don’t tell you at bereavement counselling.
“I don’t have any secrets,” I say, pointlessly.
He just laughs. It’s not a nice sound.
“You’ve changed,” I say.
“I died,” he says.
This time the silence lasts all day.
Most days, I still look at photos. O never knew how to stand in front of a camera. He’d cock his head too far to the right, or he’d slump one shoulder too far down in an attempt at nonchalance. I used to make fun of him about it.
“Christ, I look like a prick,” he says.
But I’m crying too much to answer.
Sometimes, in the morning, I wake up and my fists are clenched, my teeth too.
“You’re like a snare drum,” he says. “You need someone to hit you.”
I don’t say anything.
“Sorry,” he says.
“Now who feels guilty?” I say.
It only happened once. Before we were married. We were travelling, six months. For two days we’d waited for a bus, and then it was cancelled again. It was the kind of heat that can turn you into someone different for a while.
It doesn’t matter what I said to him that day to make him, although he still thinks it does, and it wasn’t just a slap.
A slap is an open hand.
“What do you want me to call it?” he says now, in that voice.
Another secret: sometimes I’m glad O died.
Once, in Lima, we saw a village built on a huge rubbish tip. The waste spread for miles. There was a storm of birds, wooden shacks made of weathered planks, and crouching people, picking and scraping at the expanding outskirts of the dump.
There was a smell I will always smell.
“Our lives were built on mistrust and deceit,” he says.
“Dying has made you really pretentious,” I say.
I can feel him smiling. He says, “We argue as much now I’m dead as we did when I was alive.”
That’s something else they don’t tell you at bereavement counselling.
We were flying back into Heathrow at night, and he was looking down at the lights. I could see past him, out of the window. Illuminated jigsaw pieces of the city. Green, red, blue, orange and white.
“Everything we’ve seen,” he said. “Nothing’s like home.”
It was when I knew.
Better or worse. Richer, poorer.
But no one tells you about when they go too soon.
O died when something in his blood stopped working the way it should. It has a name, this thing that killed him, and sometimes he says it in my head, over and over, a mantra, or a prayer.
“Stop it,” I say. “Stop stop stop…”
“Did you love me?” he says.
“I thought you knew all my secrets?”
He doesn’t say anything, and then later, when I’m trying to sleep, I think he’s gone because I can’t feel him at all, I can’t hear him, and I think about what he said about swimming, and I think he might have got lost or drowned or something horrible, and I get out of bed and I say to the darkness of our bedroom, my bedroom, “Where are you?”
There’s a moment that’s full of something like fear but a little like hope until he says, “Don’t worry. I’m not going anywhere.”
JASON JACKSON’s prize-winning writing has been published extensively online and in print. So far in 2018 Jason has won the Writers Bureau competition, come second (for the second year running) in the Exeter Short Story competition, been runner-up in the Frome Short Story competition and had work short-listed at the Leicester Writes competition. His work has also appeared this year at New Flash Fiction Review and Fictive Dream. In 2017 he was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Jason regularly performs his fiction around the south-west of the UK. He tweets @jj_fiction