Authors: K.D. McEntire
“I'll rot? If I stay here?”
“Most souls do, yeah.” Wendy glanced at her watch. “Look, I don't mean to be a bitch, but class is almost over and my coach is going to wonder where I got to. I had to lie to her just to get out here and try and find you. I didn't have to do that, I could've just ignored you.”
I should've just ignored you
, Wendy thought bitterly. It'd been stupid to assume some random flicker might be her mother. Stupid and, seeing those tree branches, dangerous.
“So you're some sort of angel or something? Helping souls move on?”
“Something like that.” Wendy stopped and tapped her wrist. They were almost at the first clearing and it seemed a safe place to drop her branch. “So what'll it be? Stay or go?”
The ghost squared his shoulders and, cringing like a child about to get a shot, said, “Do it.”
Closing her eyes, Wendy opened the gates within and let the light pulse through her. It was over in a moment; the man cried out only once.
As the heat ebbed from Wendy's fingertips she heard the distant whistle. Trudging back to the track, Wendy kept her eye out for the sub but, despite all her admonitions, she'd already left. Wendy was halfway across the field before she remembered the flowers at the fence. She debated turning around to retrieve a handful—what were the chances of the sub checking up on her alibi, after all?—but decided it was better to cover her bases. Forcing her tired legs into a lope, Wendy hurried back to the fence and gathered up two handfuls of the blossoms, nicking her fingers on thorns in the process.
Bright yellow buses trundled down the road toward the pickup point and Wendy could hear the distant shouts of other students slamming lockers and pouring out the side entrances toward the parking lot. The sub really had forgotten about her.
It had, thus far, been a truly shitty day. Glancing down at her handful of blooms, Wendy realized that she was dirty and scabbed, sweaty and clutching the flowers like a tired little girl. When the memory hit it was like a punch to the gut.
The unexpectedly icy highway had taken many drivers the night of her birthday; now, a week later, the afternoon roads to the cemetery were thick with headlights. Her father stayed home with the twins while her mother escorted Wendy to Mr. Barry's funeral. When the wrapped coffin slid into the muddy hole at her feet Wendy dropped her armful of roses, turned, and buried her face in her mother's shoulder, inhaling the deep scent of vanilla and wood-smoke to center herself, to calm her tears. Easing her away from the mound of bruised petals, her mother hummed a little tune, so softly Wendy felt the vibration more than heard the song, and a blessed cool descended over her, easing the hot knot in the pit of her stomach.
“Soon, soon,” her mother whispered for her ears alone. “Be strong, Wendy-girl. It's almost over.” Her hand cupping Wendy's elbow was warm, her breath mint-sweet. Wendy, calmer, took the time while the mourners were tossing spades of dirt onto the coffin to pray that Eddie would be okay. He refused to sit shiva with the rest of his family and wouldn't leave his room, even for the funeral. Eddie was, simply put, a wreck.
Wendy and her mother drove home after—to collect more flowers and food for the
reception—and Wendy blew hot breath onto the window as the cold rain fell, drawing sad faces in the fog. Her mother ran into the house, returning with platters overflowing with deli meats and eggs, a small wicker basket of cookies, and a crockpot filled with hot lentil soup.
When they arrived Mrs. Barry hugged Wendy's mother close in the foyer. She was a large woman and the black of mourning did little to slim her figure. Wendy's mother was swallowed in Mrs. Barry's voluminous embrace, the tattered ribbon pinned to Mrs. Barry's chest poking her on the cheek. “Mary, I'm so glad to see you.”
“I'm so sorry for your loss, Moira,” Wendy's mother replied gently. Wendy hesitated in the foyer, startled by the warmth her mother displayed for Mrs. Barry. Her mother wasn't a harsh woman by any stretch of the imagination—she volunteered at homeless shelters up in the city and made a point of tithing regularly—but she rarely allowed anyone outside their family to touch her. She was protective of her personal space.
“Winifred,” Mrs. Barry sniffled, drawing out a humongous linen handkerchief and honking loudly into it, “be a dear and go fetch Edward. He's being…” she hesitated, and Wendy felt the urge to turn away from the too-real grief etched across her face as she struggled not to cry in front of her guests. “He's been difficult this week,” she finished. “If anyone can get him to come down, I know it's you.”
Wendy glanced at her mother. “Go on, dear,” Mary said, gathering the basket. “He needs you right now.”
The staircase wall was lined with pictures: Eddie and his father posing with a Ringling Brothers clown, Eddie and his father posing with Goofy at Disneyland, Eddie and his father fishing, Eddie and his father at Dodger Stadium. The last picture was a formal family portrait of Eddie and both his parents posing in the park. Eddie was perhaps five at the time and his mother was thinner in the picture and happier, her mouth not so pinched and drawn. Only Eddie's father appeared ageless in the photo; the photographer had perfectly captured the perpetually happy grin he had worn all the years Wendy had known him.
“Eddie?” Wendy tapped on his door with one knuckle, eyeing the shrouded hallway mirror shivering in the upstairs draft. “Your mom told me to come get you, but I'll go if you want.” She gently pushed the door open. The room was dark. “Eds?”
“I'm not going down,” Eddie said from somewhere in the black. Wendy squinted and could just make out an Eddie-shape huddled in the corner under his bunk beds. The lower bunk had been pushed out from under the top and was against the wall; a trundle bed sat beside. Clearly, Mrs. Barry had guests sleeping in Eddie's room. It even smelled like old person in here, like Nana's perfume and mothballs.
Wendy eased into the room and shut the door behind her, leaving them both in the pitch darkness. With the door closed the clink and quiet conversation from downstairs was pleasantly muffled, the room warm. Wendy edged around the detritus of the visiting relatives until she found the bunks and slid to the floor beside her friend.
“Any room under there for me?”
Eddie lifted the comforter without comment and Wendy wriggled until she was flush against him, shoulder to hip. She laid her head on his shoulder and they sat in the muffled silence for a long, long time.
“I'm not going to cry,” Eddie said suddenly. He shifted and Wendy heard the scratch of his nails against the gauze still taped across his forehead. “Everyone keeps telling me that it's okay to cry, but I've tried and I can't. So I'm just not going to.”
“My mom says it can take some time for the shock to wear off,” Wendy offered. “That it's okay to not cry right away.”
“You haven't cried yet?” Eddie sounded surprised. “Didn't you like my dad?”
“Dummy,” Wendy replied kindly. “I loved your dad. He was awesome.” She gingerly felt around for his hand. The knuckles were bound in plaster. It was the arm he'd broken. “But it still isn't real yet, you know?”
“Yeah, I know.” Eddie sighed deeply and switched his broken arm out for his good one. “Wendy?”
“I'm mad at him.”
Wendy nodded. “It's a dumb way to die.”
“He always got on me about my seatbelt but his didn't even save him.”
Wendy nodded again. “Cars are dumb.”
Eddie fell silent and Wendy scratched her knees; the thick hose her mother insisted she wear were itchy against her scabbed legs, her good shoes were too tight and pinched her toes. Eddie sighed and Wendy, moving on instinct alone, held Eddie's hand, humming her mother's favorite melody softly in the dark.
“That's pretty,” Eddie said and laid his head against her shoulder. He may have slept, Wendy wasn't sure, but they sat still and quiet together, two children in the dark.
Hours passed, and when it was time for Wendy to leave she leaned forward and brushed a soft, hesitant kiss against Eddie's mouth. He inhaled and she knew he was awake; he tasted of soda and saline and salt. It was an apology and an entreaty and a promise of friendship.
It was her first kiss.
They never talked about it, even though Wendy knew it had been Eddie's first kiss as well. She never told him that she tasted his tears. She never told him that she'd lied about not crying yet herself.
They'd been damn near inseparable ever since.
Now, years later, when Wendy, freshly scrubbed after gym, thought she'd been forgotten for sure, she found Eddie waiting for her at her locker, book bag at his feet, earphones plugged into his ears. He took the flowers she handed him without question—merely popped open a leftover ziplock from some old lunch and slid the blooms inside—and, taking her elbow, escorted her toward the parking lot, bopping to the tinny music pulsing out a beat.
Jon was waiting for them at the car, demolishing the last of a bag of tortilla chips as they approached. “Finally! Where were you two?”
“Sub in gym,” Wendy said glibly. “Held me after.”
“Suck.” Jon hopped in the back and plugged earphones into his phone as Eddie dialed the radio to the oldies station. They jockeyed to join the line of cars exiting the parking lot.
“I wasn't expecting you two to pick me up,” Wendy said as Eddie, craning to see in the rearview, carefully maneuvered around a VW Bug. “You know, after everything from this morning. I figured on catching the bus home, give you time to chill.”
“Like I'd let a little thing like that bug me,” Eddie snorted. “Some friend I'd be.”
“You weren't at lunch. I thought you were mad at me after all.”
“Had stuff to do.” Eddie glanced sideways at her. “Missed me, huh?”
“You,” Wendy sniffed, “owed me lunch.” She held up a wrist and sucked in her cheeks. “Do I look like I can afford to lose weight?”
“Uh huh. Well, how about I get you tomorrow, ‘kay? All the pizza you can eat.”
They reached the front of the line and Eddie turned left. Wendy frowned. The way home, or to their usual after-school haunt, was right. “Where are we going?”
“Eddie's taking us to see Mom,” Jon said. “I asked him to.”
“Yeah? I thought we went last week.”
“Yeah,” Eddie said, punching the gas as the lights behind them flashed and the Caltrain whizzed by. “You went, but Jon didn't. Remember?”
“Right.” Wendy sank back into the seat and closed her eyes, letting the Supremes wash over her in a harmonic wave. The afternoon heat was pleasant on her cheeks, the faint breeze sweet. Once they were on the highway, Eddie reached over and brushed a stray hair off her cheek and gently squeezed the back of her neck.
Assured that Eds wasn't angry with her, Wendy relaxed and let her thoughts turn circles, brooding over the ghosts she'd spotted the night before. They had slipped away before she could ask if they'd seen her mother. Not that she could blame them; the Light under her control had taken down a pair of Walkers. It was unlikely any spirit would be willing to help her…but she had to try.
ometimes Jon liked to visit with their mother alone. While he went inside, Wendy reclined the passenger seat and counted in her head, breathing in on the even beats and out on the odd. She was just sinking into a zen place when Eddie pounced.
“So what happened in gym?” he asked, zipping open his backpack and checking his cell.
Her breath hitched. “What makes you think anything happened in gym?”
“I know you. You prefer to shower at home unless you're really gross. The sub only had us walk the track, so I know you couldn't have broken a sweat there.”
“I ran the track, thank you very much,” Wendy replied stiffly. “New personal record.”
“And…I jumped the fence.” Wendy glanced over at Eddie and winced. “What? I saw something. I thought it might've been my mom, I went to go check it out.”
“What, are you stupid? Wendy, those woods are full of eucalyptus and there's a lot of wind today. You know better than that.” Eddie tucked his cell away. “You could've been hurt.”
“Hey, after all those accidents last fall I thought they cleared out all the eucalyptus!” Wendy protested. “But you're right. There's a guy back there.” She grimaced. “It's gross.”
“And you didn't do anything about it?” Eddie straightened and slapped the dashboard. “Wendy, that's probably illegal or something!”
“Hey, I took care of him!”
“You mean that you took care of his soul. Not his body. Right?” He glanced at her face and shook his head, disgusted. “Of course you didn't. Shit.” Eddie sighed. “I thought you weren't going to go around just reaping any ol' soul anymore. Didn't you say that you have more important shit to do now?”
“I do.” Wendy sighed and rubbed her eyes. This entire day had left her exhausted and it wasn't even over yet. She longingly considered skipping the evening patrol, but knew she wouldn't. She couldn't. “Look, I'm tired, I had a crappy night last night and a crappy day today. I saw a ghost and I wasn't exactly thinking straight. Mom took me training in those woods more times than I can count. I just figured that maybe it wasn't out of the question that if her soul got lost, it was wandering around there, okay? Lay off.”
“Sounds like your mom was the one who was nuts,” Eddie said. “She trained you out there? I mean, it's not exactly grizzly central, but there are snakes and shit, yeah?”
“I may have seen a snake or two,” Wendy conceded, “but it's not like we did
our training out there. The woods behind the school were just a good place to learn how to climb and jump and run. They weren't that big, so there was little chance of me getting lost, and if I messed up there no one would see. I could get up and try again.”
“Huh. I guess I just figured you did it all in graveyards.” Eddie shook his head.
“Let me tell you a trade secret, Eds.” Wendy leaned conspiratorially forward and pitched her voice low. “Ghosts hate graveyards. Unless it's right after a funeral, the chance of finding a ghost in a graveyard is nil. Vampires, on the other hand…” Laughing, Wendy ducked the playful punch Eddie sent at her shoulder. “What? Don't you believe in vampires?”
He snorted. “With you around, I'd believe almost anything, but I draw the line at vamps.” He glanced up. “Oh, hey, there's Jon. You ready?”
Wendy grabbed her backpack. “Let's go.”
As they passed through UCSF's Neuro-ICU doors, Wendy took a deep breath and squared her shoulders, wishing that she had just caught the bus home after all. A new nurse was on duty. She was stricter than the nurses normally were and wouldn't let them onto the ICU floor until both she and Eddie had signed in and she'd jotted down the addresses on their driver's licenses.
Eddie returned his wallet to his back pocket and waited until they were well away from the nursing station to whisper in Wendy's ear. “A little power-hungry, methinks.”
“Shh,” Wendy whispered, stepping past him into her mother's room. The neighboring bed was surrounded by baskets overflowing with pansies and roses, marigolds and cheerful carnations. Cards and stuffed creatures cluttered the bedside table and the window was open, the curtains parted. A fresh breeze scudded the aroma of fresh-cut greens in thick clouds across the room. Behind her Eddie coughed and waved a hand theatrically in front of his face.
On the other side of the curtain, her mother's side of the room was empty of furniture except for the bed, the table, and two plastic chairs stacked against the wall. Eddie navigated various beeping and wheezing machinery to unstack the chairs as Wendy leaned over her mother and pressed a gentle kiss to her forehead. “Hi Mom,” she said and took her mother's hand. The skin was loose across her knuckles and the bones under Wendy's fingers felt delicate, breakable.
“Hi,” Eddie echoed, nudging the chair against the back of Wendy's thighs. She settled on the edge of the chair and he sat beside her, quiet for once.
Wendy sniffed and squeezed her mother's hand again. “So,” she said, “I think you're looking better. Isn't she looking better, Eds?”
“Much better,” he agreed easily. “Up in no time.”
“And Dad came by yesterday,” Wendy continued, as if Eddie hadn't spoken, “so I know you're not getting lonely over here. You've even got a new neighbor, right?” She glanced over at the curtain separating the beds and was unsurprised to note the young woman in a gaping hospital gown peering around the edge. The silver cord dangling from her navel was thin and brittle, worn away in places, literally hanging by a thread in others. The woman, no more than twenty or so, seemed tired and weak, and her shape drifted away into nothing at the knees.
“Though,” Wendy added in a softer tone, “not for that much longer, I guess.”
Eddie, catching her glance at empty space, winced. “Bad accident?”
“Looks like. She's hardly there. She's gonna fade pretty fast.”
A brusque rap on the doorframe made them both jump. Wendy dropped her mother's hand. A young doctor, one of the few Wendy didn't know, lifted the clipboard off the wall beside the door, sweeping aside her strawberry-colored braid to rifle the papers. Even in scrubs she was tall and elegantly put together, the sort of long-legged, cool-eyed beauty you'd expect to see strutting a catwalk instead of perusing charts. Beside Wendy, Eddie shifted uncomfortably, and Wendy felt a flash of irritation. Just that morning he'd been declaring his undying love and now he was shifting so the long tails of his overshirt covered his lap. Wendy snorted.
The doctor's eyes flicked over the room, pausing a moment to consider the neighboring side, and then she smiled apologetically. “Sorry to interrupt, but I'm here on my rounds.”
“No problem,” Wendy said, rising. It didn't seem as if the doctor had overheard them, but the last thing she wanted was another person thinking she was crazy. “I'm Wendy.” She glanced at the bed and the emaciated shape of the woman beneath the sheets. “This is my mom.”
“Oh, you're one of Mary's daughters?” The doctor crossed the room in three quick strides and offered her hand. When Wendy took it she pumped brusquely twice and dropped it. Her palm was hot to the touch. “I'm Emma Henley. I'll be assisting Dr. Shumacker on your mother's case during my residency.”
“Nice gig,” Eddie interjected. “Liking it so far?”
Emma looked coolly down her long nose at him. “Yes.”
“Don't mind Eddie,” Wendy said. “He's an old family friend, and my ride out here. Dad leaves me the car, but I don't like driving around the city and Eds is good company.”
“Yes,” Emma said, glancing at her clipboard and moving to the side of the bed. “I met your father yesterday. Very nice man. He's well-liked around here.”
The soul of the woman in the neighboring bed drifted closer and peered at the clipboard. “Where are my charts?” she asked, waving her arms wildly. “Where is my boyfriend? He was driving. Is he here? Can I see him?
Why won't anyone talk to me, damnit.
One of her flailing hands passed through the clipboard. Wendy tensed; sometimes the living could feel the cold when the dead or dying were near. The doctor, concentrating on the papers in front of her, didn't seem to notice anything amiss.
“Well, that's Dad, you know,” Wendy said brightly. “He's always been, you know, super friendly.” She paused, struggling for a way to answer the soul's question without appearing morbid. “Looks like there's a new neighbor for my mom, huh?”
“Hmm?” Emma glanced up. “Oh, yes. Things were busy in here for a few days, guests coming and going.”
Emma raised one slim, perfectly manicured eyebrow. “I really can't say.”
“Right, right,” Wendy agreed. “Silly me. It's just, uh, I got a look at her and it doesn't look like…it just looks like an accident.” Beside her the soul sobbed softly, tangled blonde hair dangling into nothing as she wept, over and over:
“Accidents happen,” Emma agreed and slipped to the left to examine a read-out on one of the beeping machines. “All too often, I'm afraid.”
“That's life,” Wendy said, giving up any attempt at subtlety. “Look, I know you can't tell me anything, and I know this is going to sound so very grotesque, but can you tell me if her boyfriend survived? Whatever accident it was, I mean?”
The doctor stiffened and for a moment Wendy was certain she'd gone too far with her questions; Dr. Henley was going to order her out of her mother's room or perhaps call security to escort her off the premises. Then the doctor sighed and rubbed the bridge of her nose.
“Wendy,” Emma said slowly, “why do you care? Do you know Lauren?” She winced. “The patient, I mean?”
At the sound of her name the soul wept harder, shivering from the effort.
“No,” Wendy replied carefully, “but if I'd been in a big accident like that, one that landed me in a coma, Eddie'd be here every free moment, like my dad is for my mom.”
“And how do you know that she doesn't have people in here every evening?” Emma crossed her arms over her chest. “School's only just let out for the day. Most working stiffs don't get off at three, you know.”
“The chairs were over here,” Wendy said simply, amazed that the answer came to her so easily. “I know Dad and Nana were here yesterday, and Dad always stacks them when he's done. There's no guest chair on her side of the room.”
The corner of Emma's mouth twitched. “You're observant.”
“I'm here every week or so.” Wendy shrugged. “You learn how things work.”
“I shouldn't be telling you this,” Emma said, relenting. “And if you tell anyone that you got this from me, I'll deny it. Get it?”
Collecting the clipboard off the bedside table, Emma made a note in the bottom corner. “Good. Your instincts were right. The boyfriend was driving and he was D.O.A. They had to work all night to keep her going.”
Dead On Arrival. Wendy winced as Lauren's sobbing ratcheted up several levels to an almost earsplitting decibel of anguish and pain. “Oh man.” She surreptitiously glanced at the soul beside her and sighed. “So she's not going to survive, then.”
“There's no proof of that,” Emma said stiffly. “She could pull out of it any day now.”
“None of my business. I got it.” Wendy reached down and squeezed her mother's ankle. “Thanks for being cool about it. Anyway, how are things looking here? Same old, same old?”
“Yes. I'm sorry.” Emma patted Wendy on the shoulder and once again Wendy was struck by how warm the tall, thin doctor was. The hospital itself was kept at a comfortably cool temperature but Dr. Henley was baking. Wendy wondered if she should mention it. “That's nothing to worry over though, I promise. I don't want to get your hopes up, but one day I'm positive your mother will pull through.” Emma winked and smiled. It was obvious that the expression was meant to be comforting, but it fell short. Still, her eyes were kind, and the fingers on her shoulder were gentle. “Call it a good feeling.”
That tight smile ended Wendy's inner debate. “That's good at least. Hey, look, this is going to sound strange, but you're so
Are you feeling okay?”
“Am I?” Emma pressed her wrist to her forehead. “I guess I am. Must be picking something up; I'd better stop by the nurse's station and grab an Advil.” She laughed. “Word to the wise, Wendy, don't go into medicine unless you've got the constitution of a bull. Being around ill people will knock you out every time.” The pager at her hip beeped and Emma set the clipboard back in the plastic holder beside the door. “I've got to get that. It was very nice meeting you, Wendy.”
“You too,” Wendy said.
Once Dr. Henley was well away, Eddie patted the seat beside the bed. “Jon can wait a little longer. Come, chill for a few.”
“I'm so tired,” Wendy admitted. “I'm just not sleeping right, Eds.” She settled onto the seat again and stared at her mother's face. “You know, to be honest, I don't think it matters how long I scour the city or how many…how many souls I reap along the way. I don't think I'm ever going to find her.”
In the corner, Lauren had finally quieted. The bad news had been a blow; she sat with her back against the wall and her hair dangling into her lap, forearms resting on her knees. Wendy's heart went out to her but the translucency of her soul spoke volumes—Lauren wouldn't need help crossing over. “I just wish I knew why Mom's different than the others.” She sniffed and scrubbed her cheeks aggressively. “DAMN! I mean, this sucks. This just sucks. Mom knows this stuff backwards and forwards, Eddie. I'm still just in training. I can't. I can't. I can't do all this by myself anymore, you know? I'm only reaping the ones who get in my way and I'm still struggling to get by. I don't know how Mom did it; she must have been a frickin' superwoman. I need help.” She hung her head. “I need help finding her soul before she ends up like