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The ghost of Nancy Pendleton stood in the shadows of the crowded emergency room, leaning against the wall like a forgotten broom that didn’t get stashed where it belonged. There she had died, and there she had stayed. Her mother had cautioned her enough as a kid that if she got lost to stand very, very still, until someone came to help her. She wasn’t lost at all, but she figured the same principle applied.
She pressed her forehead against the glass partition, peering at her frightened relatives in the lobby. She didn’t mind not being able to see her reflection. Greasy hair that was blonde on a good day, a hoodie and an MP3 player were her defining, yet generic, attributes. She wouldn’t turn 20 next week. That she didn’t mind either. No final exams, no wrinkles, no older sisters, no snotty kids she’d have to raise. No problem. And apparently she got to keep the MP3 player in the afterlife, a detail which amused her. She swiped the touchscreen back and forth between two of her favorite songs, trying to drown out the wailings of the dead man next to her.
Her despondent companion, Peter (who was not really her companion at all, but a balding middle-aged man who had seemed to be stuck to her side for the past day) was still whimpering quietly to himself. He pounded his palms against the glass partition, leaving behind invisible sweaty handprints. Nancy busied herself by flicking away the chipping paint on her nails, trying to appear as bored as she felt so as to alert the universe that it was her time to depart this situation for something more interesting.
“They can’t hear me!” Peter had screamed incessantly after he could not get the nurses’ attention. When he couldn’t touch the doctor’s arm, he hyperventilated. After that he dramatically slid down the wall into a sitting position and sobbed like a child, resigned to his fate of a spirit stuck between worlds. Nancy sighed and tried to ignore him.
It was at that moment, the one in which she had almost given up, when she saw him stalking toward her. He weaved through the crowd with ease, sidestepping tables full of needles and carts full of medicine. After debating whether he resembled Cary Grant or Liam Neeson – or a curious amalgam of the two – Nancy was distracted by the fact that he was looking at her.
“Hello,” he nodded gruffly. “I’m Jeremy, and I’ve come to take you with me.”
“Oh no, he’s the devil,” Peter moaned, curling into a ball. “I’m going to hell…”
“Shut up,” Nancy commanded.
“Are you ready?” He addressed Nancy.
“I don’t know where we’re going,” she replied.
“You don’t have to,” he assured her.
Jeremy reached out his hand, seemingly about to grab her elbow, and then he paused. A long, confused moment happened in which he started across the room, gazing at the bed closest to the door.
“No,” he said under his breath. “No, not today; this can’t be right.”
“What?” Nancy was annoyed. She had been waiting the longest.
“Can someone please tell me what’s going on?” Peter insisted, standing so close to Nancy that she could hear him breathing. Funny that he was breathing, she thought.
“That woman – the one in the bed -”
“Oh, from the bus crash? She was in the bed next to me,” Nancy told him, looking at the folded white sheet adjacent to the bed where her corpse had begun to rot, “Her name is–”
“Andrea,” he said, his face a wall of stone eroding under an onslaught of unidentifiable emotion. “She’s my wife.”
There was so much palpable silence emanating from Jeremy that Nancy was afraid of it filling up the room, separating the two of them like a sea between continents. It was uncomfortable. So she asked the obvious question:
“How – how is that possible? Aren’t you an angel?”
“This isn’t my real job,” he stated enigmatically. “But that is my wife, and she’s on that bed.”
“She doesn’t look so good,” Peter commented. Nancy turned to him, glaring.
“Not helping,” she whispered, and then to Jeremy, “So can we go now? I mean how does this work? Do you take me, do I follow you, or what? Let’s do this.”
“I can’t; not with Andrea here,” he refused, rooted to the floor.
Jeremy stared at her for what seemed like a sizable portion of forever, and Nancy and Peter both devoted their unbroken gaze as well, as if six eyes would help Andrea decide whether she would live or die better than her husband’s two. Hospital staff milled around them, oblivious to their presence. A doctor brushed through Nancy, a silhouette of a touch, and she shivered. She had been waiting for that to happen for three days, and it hadn’t yet. Until now. Her sisters would brush through her the same way, she thought.
Death means there’s nothing left for me here, she realized. It’s not that Nancy had illusions of sticking around, but…there was no option. She had to leave. What takes life’s place?
“Jeremy?” Nancy asked. “She’s going to die, isn’t she?”
“I think so. Yeah.”
“What happens after this? To me and Peter, I mean?”
“We’ll get Andrea first, and then she’ll come with us. I’ll show you all at once.” He almost looked happy.
With her last breath, Andrea slipped away. Nancy immediately looked around.
“Where is she? She’s going to appear, right? Materialize? Ghostify?”
“It takes a second. Just wait,” his mouth hung open a bit, and she could hear his breath quicken.
Thirty seconds went by, and there was no Andrea in any form. Then one minute, then ten, and each was worse than the last. Nancy sensed a cold uncertainty creeping under her skin, despite the fact that she could not feel the air.
“She’s not appearing,” Nancy finally blurted out, “I mean her ghost–”
“But she died–”
“–and she’s not here,” Nancy finished, desperate to understand, but he gave her no answer. He simply exhaled.
“Do you mind,” he sighed, all of the previous vigor stripped away from his voice, “if I wait here with you for a while?”
In that moment Nancy Pendleton realized that she didn’t really know the purpose of a soul. She felt his emptiness, his nothingness, in her brief moment of empathy she knew that she had even less to offer him.
She lifted her face toward him; the beginnings of ghost tears as real as any living person’s were glistening under the fluorescent ER lights. The crowds buzzed around her; the doctors and nurses fought back and forth, but they were all going to die. They are all going to die and they are all going to disappear. Nancy favored Jeremy with a brief, sad smile.
© 2013 Taylor Wendt
Image © www.flickriver.com
Taylor is the managing editor of this magazine. She published her own story today because she has a sinus infection and she was too lazy to read the piles and piles of submissions that accumulated in her inbox over the weekend.