Authors: Tim Pratt
“Sure. Want me to call Nicholas and set this up?”
“Not just yet. Go to Darrin, find out how he’s doing. Perhaps he’s overwrought enough already, and further steps are unnecessary. You don’t mind playing the concerned girlfriend, do you?”
“Nah,” Echo said. “I like Darrin.”
Ismael believed her. Echo was entirely capable of simultaneously liking someone and betraying them. There was no distance between her whims and her actions. She was the most alive and thriving person Ismael had ever known, though she was more like a cancer than a flower. When he’d first met her a year ago, he’d thought she was a good candidate for suicide, but she was wholly immune to despair despite the dire straits she’d been in back then, and seemed oblivious to the influence of Ismael’s depressive aura. She had better uses than dying, anyway. She wasn’t exactly his Renfield—Nicholas fit
description better—nor his Dr. Watson, nor his faithful companion. He wasn’t sure there
a shorthand to describe his relationship with Echo. She would help him, for as long as he kept her entertained, and she seemed to find him very entertaining. “Go on, then,” he said. “And let me know what you think of Darrin’s mental state.”
Echo blew him a kiss, dropping the shotgun on the ground—she got bored with her toys easily—and strolled around the side of the house toward the gate. Ismael considered picking up the shotgun, but didn’t bother. Let it rust.
The wheelchair moved, so Orville supposed the dead woman must be pushing him, and his legs moved too as the chair shifted, which caused distant pulses of pain deep in his bones, or what was left of them.
“I’m hurt bad, huh?” he said, throat dry.
“Not as bad as me.”
“Wait.” Thinking was like swimming through honey, but he tried hard, and things got a little clearer. “If you’re dead. A ghost. How can you push me in a wheelchair?”
She sighed, pausing in their forward motion. “I just
. I don’t know how. It’s not like there’s a Frequently Asked Questions file I can refer to here—there’s no user guide to being dead. All I know so far is that nobody except you seems to see or hear me, and I can move things around, though it feels weird when I do, and takes a lot of concentration. Unless I really try, I just sort of . . . skim along the surface of things. I don’t know if I got any of the other powers that come with the standard ghost package. I tried things out while I was waiting for you to wake up, and I haven’t had any luck flying or walking through walls or possessing people or puking ectoplasm, but I think I could handle rattling chains in an attic, snuffing candles at dramatic moments, opening kitchen cabinets, and throwing china plates at a wall. All of which I could have done when I was
, too, so it’s a shit deal.” The chair started moving again.
“I’m sorry,” Orville rasped. “You sound so angry. Maybe being angry is why you can’t . . . move on.”
because I was given shitty directions, and you’re damn right I’m angry. I
figure out that I can’t get too far away from you, for whatever reason—maybe our souls got tangled up when we both jumped, who knows? I tried to leave the hospital a while ago and everything got . . . fuzzy. I started to lose coherence, to forget who I was and what I was supposed to be doing, and I think if I’d pushed on much farther I would have just fallen apart. Worst of all, it
, like being swarmed by fire ants, which is apparently the only really powerful physical sensation I can experience anymore. The pain went away when I came crawling back to you so it looks like we’re stuck together. Which is why I’m taking you on a little trip.”
Orville looked around. The hospital corridor just outside his room had been brightly lit, but the woman had guided him down other hallways, and once into what looked like a broom closet, except they’d slid through the chemical-smelling darkness and out the other side into another corridor. Now the chair rolled down a dim hallway, fluorescent lights overhead sputtering, more than half of them burned out. The floors were filthy and slick, and occasionally the wheels made a squelching noise, as if rolling through organic debris. They passed doorways framing darkness, and sounds emerged from some of them—bells, whispers, weeping. “This isn’t the hospital,” Orville said, and his mind felt clearer than before, and the pain below his waist was more insistent.
“Well. I could argue semantics with you. This
the hospital, or maybe a part of the hospital that was never built, except in a place where there was a nuclear war or some
scenario with flesh-eating vampires living in the wreckage. It’s sort of like the mad whimsy wing of the hospital.”
“You’re kidnapping me,” Orville said, feeling dumb for not realizing it before, drugs or not. “Take me back! I’m
“Yes, you’re hurt. But I’m not kidnapping you, I’m helping you.” Orville tried to twist around to look at her, but moving his head too quickly made everything spin. A sudden stabbing pain in his chest made him gasp—hadn’t the woman said something about broken ribs? God, it was like having shards of broken metal inside him. What had he done to himself? What would become of him? He thought of grabbing the wheels, turning the chair around and trying to get back to his room, but there was a sound like distant howling, and the corridor was very dark, and he was lost, and afraid.
Suddenly there were lights again, and the hallway was clean and wide and brightly lit. Everything was chrome and translucent white plastic, and the tiles on the floor cycled in colours, from orange to yellow to green. It was like some spaceship sickbay from an unusually stylish vintage science fiction film.
“This is better,” she said. “I was worried there for a minute, when it was so dark. Ismael showed me this place once, when I got hurt on one of our exploring trips, but I wasn’t sure I remembered the way.”
“Where am I? Who are you? What is this?” Orville was rapidly becoming sober. He felt balanced on a sharp edge, a brief window when he was lucid but not yet overwhelmed by pain. The pain was building, though, like a storm in his body, and he was afraid to let his hands leave the armrests of the wheelchair, afraid of dropping them to his lap and brushing the wreckage that had once been his own ordinary, healthy legs, two things he’d never appreciated before.
“You’re in the hospital,” she said. “
hospital, anyway. Briarpatch Memorial.” The chair rolled around a sharp curve into another corridor. There were signs on the walls, but Orville couldn’t read them. The letters were sinuous, not quite Arabic, but closer to that than anything else Orville could think of. “And I’m Bridget. As for what this is . . . I’ll explain more once we get your legs taken care off. In the meantime, just relax. You’d planned to be dead this afternoon, so anything else has to be an improvement, right?”
She pulled open a bright blue door with a square window set at eye level, tugging like it weighed a ton, until some mechanism clicked and it locked open. Then she wheeled Orville into the room, which was small, barely big enough for the chair. The walls were studded with coloured crystals, some small, some as big as fists. “Don’t worry,” she said. “This should only take a minute.” A moment later, the door shut behind him with a click.
“Bridget?” he said, but she didn’t answer. She was gone, and the tiny room made him feel closed-in and short of breath, claustrophobia starting to wrap its tendrils around him. What was this? A gas chamber? Was she trying to finish the job he’d started on himself?
The crystals on the walls began to pulse and glow, yellows and purples and reds, and then Orville’s eyes blurred, or else the room blurred, and his body became a distant and tenuous thing. Phantom sounds rose around him—bird calls, string music—and Orville wondered if he was having a seizure, if the jump had opened lesions on his brain. He’d read about such things, about patients undergoing brain surgery who experienced vivid memories, so real they thought they were reliving past moments , and that was happening now, only these weren’t
memories. He was making love to a woman, with dusky skin and black hair, and he’d never done that, too ashamed to hire a prostitute and too shy to pursue other channels. Now he was playing basketball with his friends, and he knew their names, knew they played every weekend, knew he wasn’t any good at the game but he loved it anyway. Now he was on a ferry, leaning over the bow, looking out at the water, leaving some kind of life behind, heading toward something new. A cascade of experiences he’d never actually experienced washed through him, little snippets of existence, conflicting and mutually exclusive memories fluttering by.
And then it stopped. He was back in the crystal-studded room, in his wheelchair, completely lucid, with no pain in his legs or chest. But, oh, the pain in his heart; the pain of seeing what might-have-been, or could-have-been, or what was only dreamed-of, or desperately-wanted.
The door opened behind him. “C’mon out, Mr. Troll,” Bridget said. “You’re all fixed up.”
Orville rose from the chair, his legs whole again, and he turned to look at Bridget. She was a beautiful woman, but angry, and tired, and, yes, dead. There was no mistaking her for a living person. It was hard to say why. She wasn’t waxy, she wasn’t translucent; she didn’t look dead. He thought it might be because she wasn’t breathing consistently, wasn’t blinking enough, wasn’t producing body heat. He could see her, and hear her, but she seemed shifted halfway out of reality. She was a walking, talking evidence of absence.
“That room . . . what is that room?”
“I don’t know how it works. Ismael brought me here when I got hurt, I told you that, and he said it’s a place that sort of . . . fishes the probabilities. It doesn’t heal you, exactly, it just finds a version of you that never got hurt in the first place, and makes that body the reality—lets the likelihood of health achieve immanence.”
Orville pushed the chair out of the little room. “I saw things, but the memories are fading, it’s like they were a dream . . . I played basketball, I made love to someone, things I never . . . but I
better now.” He was in a hospital gown that hung open at the back, and was embarrassed now that the drugs were out of his system. He kept the chair between himself and Bridget. He suddenly sneezed, then sniffed. He could only breathe out of one nostril, and not very well. “Except now I’ve got a cold. I didn’t have that before.”
Bridget laughed. “I think it’s a decent trade, don’t you? New legs in exchange for the sniffles?” She stepped past him and looked into the small room. “I wanted to bring you here to heal you, but I also wanted to try something. If it could make your legs work again, maybe . . .”
“Maybe it can make you alive again?” Orville said. “Bring you a body that never jumped off a bridge?”
Orville stepped aside and gestured. “Go on in.”
Bridget stepped around the chair and into the crystal-lined room, and Orville shut the door gently after her.
He peered in through the high window set in the door, but nothing happened—the lights didn’t dim, the crystals didn’t glow. After a few moments, Bridget lowered her head, said “Open the door,” and emerged from the room. “No good. It doesn’t even recognize me as a potential patient.”
“I’m sorry,” Orville said, awkward as if at a stranger’s funeral. “I guess this isn’t what you expected death to be like.”
“I expected to be basking in the light of the next best thing to heaven by now, not—forgive me—stuck haunting a failed suicide.” She balled her hands into fists, and seemed very small and lost in her enormous puffy red coat.
“You talked about the light,” Orville said. “I don’t really remember, I was on a lot of drugs, but didn’t you say something about the light I saw in the water when I jumped? It was—”
Something clattered far off down the curving corridor, a noise like ball bearings falling into a steel pan. Bridget stared at Orville, her eyes wide. “Fuck,” she said. “What was that?”
“I’ve never been here before.” Orville took a step back, away from the sound.
“Ismael said this place was uninhabited, like it was a place too implausible to actually support life, but—”
The clattering came again, and this time the noise continued, a sound like marbles rolling down a steel chute, and getting closer.
“Let’s get out of here.” She set off down the corridor. “I might be dead, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still dangers.” Orville went after her, his legs operating as well and painlessly as ever—maybe better. He was acutely aware of his bare ass hanging out as he ran, and of the noise, which had now grown to roaring waterfall proportions. Now that he was sober, Orville could see the stranger properties of these hallways, including the ghostly corridors that shimmered in the corners of his vision, disappearing if he looked at them directly. Some of the passageways seemed more tangible than others, and occasionally as he passed these insubstantial side-corridors the air changed, growing hotter or colder or wetter or more dry.
“This way,” Bridget said, shouting to be heard over the roar, and she darted hard sideways, disappearing from view, passing through a wall. Orville hoped it wasn’t some ghost-trick, hoped he’d be able to follow, and he hurled himself after her. As he turned, he caught a glimpse of the hallway behind him fraying away into threads of silver and darkness, like a rapidly unravelling piece of cloth, and he realized the noise was the sound of the hallway disappearing. Then he was through the wall, back in the half-dark asylum hallways they’d passed through in the wheelchair. He leaned against a wall, and Bridget flung herself at him, hugging him tightly—at least, it seemed she was hugging him tightly, but it was more like standing in a stiff breeze than holding a human being, and it was profoundly dissonant, seeing her clinging to him, but being unable to feel her warmth or weight at all.
He tried to pat her back, but it felt like wind on his palm, and she pulled away.
“I thought you were lost,” she said, standing before him. “I thought you were going to die!”