Jerrod and the Undead Bucket List
by Rachel Coles
Jerrod watched as the doctors, nurses, and assistants swarmed around his body, inserting lines, pushing various liquids, and checking various bodily signs.
They were all saying the same thing. He was dead.
For the moment, everything seemed surreal and dreamlike, and he didn't feel much of anything. So he just kept watching.
He heard the nice young red-haired doctor that he'd fantasized about yell, "Clear!" and jolt his body with the AED paddles. With nothing else to do, he perched himself on a wheeled table nearby and tried to stay out of the way until the frenzy subsided.
The steady tone of the monitor continued, and Red-haired Doctor frowned and after a few more tries, put the paddles away. She put her hand on Jerrod's neck, at his non-existent pulse. "Time of death, Oh-one-hundred hours. This sucks -- he was one of my favorite patients."
"He was a horny bugger." A dark-haired nurse with an olive complexion snorted.
"Yeah, but he was a cheerful horny bugger. All the way to the end. You gotta appreciate persistence."
Most of the staff who were cleaning up the equipment nodded, or shook their heads and crooked a half-smile before they dispersed.
Red and the nurse who had called him a bugger stayed for another minute and gazed at his body, after paging the pathologist in the morgue.
"He was stubborn. If anyone could have beaten that cancer with the new treatment, I thought it would have been him. He was too much of a pain in the ass to die." The dark haired woman put her hand on Jerrod's foot and gave it a squeeze.
"I know," Red said. "But it was experimental. We don't even know if he got the new treatment or if he was on the traditional meds. It was a double-blind study." She sighed. "I guess we'll find out soon. Not that it matters now."
Jerrod hopped down from the table, a move that would have had him panting and sagging to his knees a month earlier. He stuck his chin out over their shoulders and looked between them from one to the other.
He wondered if they would be able to hear him in the death-dream. "Can I get something to eat? I'm starving. Even that nasty cream of wheat you got here would be nice. A beer would be even better."
Neither of them twitched at his presence.
The dark-haired nurse said, "He used to tell me he'd marry me, once he got out of here because he loved hummus. I told him, 'I'm Punjabi, not middle-eastern.' And so he'd say, 'That's okay, you can make me curry instead. I need some spice in my life!' And then he'd make a kissy-face at me."
"That has never been more true than now, doll," he grinned.
The red-haired doctor broke into a horse-whinny laugh, accompanied by a sudden burst of laughter from the Punjabi nurse.
"I'll have to inform his family," the doctor said. "This is going to be a crappy morning." Then they both grew silent, nodded at him, and returned to their shifts.
He stood alone, staring at the body that had plagued him with infirmity for the past few years. He reached out and touched his own foot as it lay motionless on the table. His hand went through it. The foot looked normal enough, as though the man on the table that was supposed to be him would start wiggling it. He didn't. He looked asleep.
Is that what I look like when I'm asleep? Jerrod wondered.
But there was an emptiness to the cast of the face, like no one was home. The body was just an object. He realized in that moment that he wasn't dreaming. The body was his body, or had been. And he was not going to wake up from this.
He sat down again on the table. The shock and grief never came though. He had regrets, of course, things he wished he had done, or done more often. Who didn't? Having more sex, eating more ice cream, telling his incompetent manager to fuck off. But there hadn't been anything he could do about those things when he was alive, and none of it mattered anymore. At least he didn't have to sit in a slowly collapsing body, like sitting in a house where the roof was falling in and the walls were molding.
Well, I'm not in hell, like Lila said I'd be, he mused. And I don't see no angels, so I must be here on Earth still. What the hell do I do now?
He walked out onto the ward and stood as people ran right through him.
Okay, that mystery is solved. I'm invisible and not solid. He waved his arms around and started singing "Get Your Motor Running" at the top of his lungs. No one held their ears or told him to be quiet. So they didn't hear him either.
He saw a chocolate cupcake on the counter with a bite out of it. He figured at this point that undead people who couldn't get attention couldn't be choosy, so to further the experiment, he went to lick the frosting off. His tongue went through it without any frosting sticking. The cupcake looked the same as it had.
Oh, crap. I was afraid of that. Maybe I really am in hell.
He confirmed his suspicions by walking up to a pretty medic and grabbing her boobs. His hands went through her shirt, her bra, and most likely through her skin and whatnot -- he didn't feel a thing, and neither did she. She ignored him and kept filling out paperwork.
Yup. In hell, Jerrod thought. Can't eat, can't even feel up a pretty woman, let alone...What now?
Dead people were supposed to take stock of their lives at some point, so he meandered back into the room with his body, stared at it and waited for some revelation. None came. So he wandered through a few other rooms. People sometimes had revelations in hospitals, didn't they, on the brink?
In one room, a car accident victim surrounded by his family talked about suing the teenager whose vehicle had been slammed into his car. She was somewhere in the hospital too. The driver who'd caused the wreck had run. But he blustered along to his relatives and the lawyer on the phone about the girl. "So what if she wasn't the initial cause, her car should have been farther from mine, so she was partly responsible, right? And those bills weren't going to pay themselves."
God, was I that much of an asshole when I was in an accident ten years ago? His spirits sank a little as he wondered again if this really was hell, and these were the damned souls. But the nurses and doctors still seemed nice, and the young women as pretty as always.
In another room, a middle-aged woman yelled at her son over the phone to stop being useless, then moaned about her aches, and demanded more pain medication. Then she resumed her tirade over the phone. "Honest to Christ, James! I let you live in my house after school, for five more years, and this is how you act toward me? Ungrateful piece of garbage! I should have known that all you want is my social security check and my pain pills!" A muffled voice issued from the cell, and she yelled right over it, "That's not the point! I couldn't work because of the pain, but I still get your father's check, and rightfully so! That bastard never treated me like anything but a whore. So I worked for that money, and you're not getting it!"
Jerrod tiptoed from the room. No one had heard him so far, but just in case she was special, he sure didn't want to start with that one. He wondered what God, if He/She/It existed could be trying to show him, other than the recollection that people were total snaky bastards, at least when the outside world wasn't looking.
In the next room was a young woman. The doctor had just left.
She started crying and wrapped her arms around her shoulders.
He bent close and looked at her chart. Stage 4 breast cancer. After a brief flash in his mind of the 'Save the Tatas' bumper stickers he'd always admired, he stood back up and saw the tears streaming down her face.
She sighed, and he wished for a second that he could slip into people's minds. Maybe he could with practice, just like on Ghost. He screwed up his ghost face in concentration, but all it did was make him feel like he had to poop, which was strange because he had no colon. His own experience with cancer had shown him that at this stage, excising her tatas hadn't saved her. Nothing would. He sat by her bed for a little while as she cried, and wondered what he could do to get through to her. At least this was something he knew a little about.
"It'll be okay, girl, uh, Gia." That was her name from the chart. "It really will. Dying wasn't so bad. In fact, I feel great! No pain. Now I just have to figure out what to do next. So if you don't mind, I'll sit here with you for a spell. I don't have anywhere else to go. And maybe you could talk to me. I'm listening...If you want to do it naked, that's fine with me too."
She didn't hear him, but she sighed and wiped her face, and she looked toward him. Her tears dried up and she looked a little better. "That's my girl. It'll be okay."
He rested his hand on where hers appeared to be. His fingers went through hers, but he left them there anyway, half in and half out of her palm.
She lay back on the pillow and closed her eyes. In a few minutes, she was asleep, and her creased face smoothed.
He stood still for a long time.
In the morning, she stirred, and he moved. He realized he had been sitting there all night, motionless. And he wasn't even cramped. At some point, his thoughts had wandered. They were a jumble of memories from as early as five years old to now. But everything seemed clearer than it ever had in life. Yesterday, he'd had trouble remembering what he'd eaten for breakfast. Maybe because it was always accompanied by jello and mush for that last stretch until the end. Not much to remember there. But now he could remember each grain in the mush, and each flop and wobble of the jello on the spoon, as though he were seeing it now.
He drew his attention back to more enticing pastures, as he watched the still-attractive young bald woman reach across her bed to the night table for her phone. It was one of them new-fangled smartyphones. She tapped it into life but didn't talk on it. Instead a screen popped up with a keyboard that she typed on. It was a memo. The heading was Bucket List.
She began typing bullet points of the things she wanted to do before the end, under the heading:
Hate Disney, Kennedy space center instead --
see shuttle launch???
Eat ossobucco in Little Italy, New York
Have sex with Egyptian guy from The Mummy
Eat a new flavor of ice cream every day
See brother's new baby, and say goodbye
Ride a Ducati motorcycle down the Autobahn
Do a striptease at a club and have all the
guys put money in my g-string...
The list went on, and if he hadn't already felt bonded to this young woman through her similar ailment, he sure did now. "Ossobucco, oh Honey, if I were alive, I'd take you myself. That and the striptease, I'd love to help you with. If you change the Ducati to a Harley, you'd have a deal on that one too. A Bucket List. Wish I'd made one of those sooner," he said to the air.
"You still can. Don't you have somewhere to be? Family you can haunt?"
Jerrod leaped and turned around.
There was a bald man around his age, with rheumy blue eyes, standing in the doorway.
"Who are you, and where did you come from?"
"I'm her Daddy. Can't you see the family resemblance?" The man rubbed at his bald head and glared at Jerrod. "Stop staring at my daughter like that or I'll send you out the window. I can touch you, you know."
Jerrod swallowed on an absence of spit. "How can you see me?"
"Because I'm a ghost, you dumb redneck. Just like you."
"But I didn't see you earlier."
"This is a hospital. Did you think you'd be the only ghost around?"
"I didn't see anyone else."
"That's because you were stuck in Bitch One and Bastard Two's rooms, watching them make everyone else's lives miserable. Fortunately for us, they aren't likely to cross over any time soon...unless someone murders them."
"I was only in there a few minutes."
"No. Go look for your body if you don't believe me."
He ran down the hall, and this time he noticed other spirits everywhere. Some of them were milling around aimlessly, others followed people around, still others hovered over people in the beds. Along the ceiling of the hall near his room, he noticed darkness in one of the corners. It was not black, but gray. It was so gray and devoid of any color that the air seemed to be sucked into it. He caught the briefest glimpse of eyes from the center. They blinked, and the fog around the entity began seeping through the air toward the people going in and out of the double doors. As they passed through the fog, the color drained from their cheeks and eyes and a bewildered expression crept across their faces. Then they shook it off and kept moving.
He ran past the gray octopus ghost, wondering what it was. As he passed, a freezing chill gripped him, and the milky eyes latched onto him. He felt numbness spread through him, and the gray eyes began dissolving his memories. He broke away with a jolt, and then ducked into his room and prayed it hadn't followed him.
Then he noticed that the place he was now wasn't his room anymore. There was a young gay man and his partner whispering to each other. The chart indicated that they'd occupied the room for a week.
He sucked in air that didn't exist, held his breath and looked out the door. The octopus was still there. And there was no way back to Gia's room except past it. So he kept his cheeks inflated and his head turned away as he ran past it again. When he had been a kid, he remembered hiding under the covers, convinced that the creeping fingers under the bed couldn't grab his feet if he was all covered up. And if he couldn't see them either, he'd be even more invisible. His no-lookey trick seemed to have worked and he burst in on Gia and her dad. Gia was typing away on her text thing. Her dad looked up.
Jerrod shook his head. "I don't understand."
"You were in here a while." He regarded Jerrod intently. "I didn't thank you for what you did for Gia the other night by the way. Just stop looking at her like she's a stripper."
"But that's on her bucket list."
"I don't care, I'm her father, and you're my age."
"How long was I remembering, sitting here?"
"A week or so, give or take. I see you ran into the Grays. You look a little pale around the gills."
"There are more of them? What the devil was that? Was there an octopus in the hospital?"
"It was once a person."
"It got lost. Half the buggers you see around here are headed that way."
"What do you mean lost?"
"They never figure out what to do with themselves. I'm here for Gia. Folks who have families have it easier sometimes. They wander away and find them. We can follow them around forever, helps us stay together."
"How long have you been following them?"
"For them, it'll be nine years next week. Where's your family, by the way?"
"I'd chased a lot of them off, I guess. My son came to see me, but not my sister. Or my ex-wife. My parents were dead a long time ago across the country, and I have no idea where they are now."
"Well, maybe you better get moving on your own bucket list. Don't you think?"
"I doubt they'll be interested in having me around. They didn't even stay to see me gone. They checked in, and then went back to their lives." He slumped down against the wall, realizing how much that hurt. Losing his body didn't. It was that no one he cared about had noticed.
The other old geezer came and sat next to him in silence for a few minutes. "Tell you what. If you behave yourself, you can stay here with us until my daughter joins us. In the meantime, you figure out what you're going to do next."
Jerrod nodded. "Thanks. How about I help her with her wishes?"
"The ones without sex, you mean," Gia's Daddy said. He curled his hands into fists, displaying large, scarred knuckles.
"Of course," Jerrod said quickly. "What about the ones with food? And the space shuttle launch?"
"If you can find a way to arrange that, I'll give you a kiss myself. I think a motorbike ride might be a tad more realistic if it were around here. The Autobahn might as well be outer space."
"Well, sir, you've got a deal. I don't know how to arrange it, but it seems like a few pints of Ben and Jerry's shouldn't be out of reach."
Gia shifted in her sleep with her laptop on her legs. Her blog page was still up. The two ghosts peered over her shoulder at the text.
So here I am. This is the end of the road. I guess I was an optimist, and I really thought that everything would work out if I just hung in there. Well, I'm probably radioactive enough to power a nuclear plant for a year. A head of hair, no tits, and lots of chemicals later, and the cancer won. I wish I could be more cheerful, but at this point, what difference does it make? As you know, my boyfriend ditched me last year because the process was too hard for him, and I'm done making excuses for him, and done taking crap.
On the up side, I guess I can eat anything I want now without worrying about getting fat. So the first thing on my list is ice cream, every flavor, pints and pints. I want to be Augustus Gloop in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, without drowning myself prematurely in a sea of chocolate syrup, of course. And then, before I get too huge to fit on a bike, I want to ride a racing motorbike, preferably a Ducati. I suppose going to Germany to ride it, is out. But maybe old Route 66 will do. Cuz who cares about speeding tickets, woohoooo! Suck my road dust, coppers! Maybe I can ride it right into Little Italy and get a nice Italian dinner.
Also before I get too huge, I'd like to screw the mummy guy from The Mummy, if you're listening Mr. Actor out there. Free sex from a still reasonably attractive girl in a punk-rock, shaved-head kind of way. Free sex and no strings attached, but you're not getting my X-Box in my will, so don't even think about it. Finally...I'd like to watch the shuttle launch, so I can imagine myself on it. I mean right there.
When I was a little girl, I dreamed every night of looking back at the Earth from orbit, and seeing how little we were and how big the galaxy was beyond that when I turned the other direction, away from Earth. Knowing everything is so vast, it kind of helps, you know? Sometimes, being insignificant next to a freakin star is kind of comforting. Makes me think that all those atoms and quarks and bosons and whatever else they've named, that they are alive somehow, and that we all just get recycled. Maybe next time, I'll be a star, literally. That'd be cool.
Anyway, that's how I want to say goodbye. I'll probably only get to do all those things in my head, except for the ice cream. A trip to King Soopers isn't really a tall order for my mom. But, maybe if I aim hard enough with my thoughts, after the last blog you hear from me, you'll hear about a new star discovered somewhere in a nearby galaxy. That'll be me. Signing off for now, Gia.
Jerrod wanted to cry, reading her blog. "I like this kid, Pops. She's a smart cookie. What is your name anyway?"
"Mick Slater. Yeah, my girl was always special. If this hadn't happened, maybe she would have made it to space. She was planning on joining the Air Force, and she was going to go for engineering or physics once she got her GI bill. My wife can get her the ice cream, and the Italian food. But if it were my last act as her Dad, I'd get her that view of the shuttle, or space."
"I'll do whatever I can think of. Her list is mine." Jerrod looked at Gia, asleep, and decided that if he had to hunt down the ghost of Neil Armstrong to help, he would.
An hour later, neither of the men had any idea how to put Gia close to space. And hunting down Neil Armstrong's ghost didn't seem any more likely. Jerrod wandered out to the nurse's station to try for food again, or make himself heard, while Mick stayed with his ailing daughter.
There were more sweets behind the counter, crème rolls this time. He put his fingers right through the sticky glazed brown frosting. He hung his head and concentrated on the taste of the crème and chocolate glaze on his fingers, as it melted with his touch. When he looked up, his hand was right through the roll and part of the counter.
I'm not going to be outsmarted by a bunch of Ho-hos! He stared at one of the nurses as she picked up a roll and took a bite. He thought about being in her mouth and tongue, and tasting the sweet that way. He didn't get a rush of white creamy sugar, from her taste buds. He didn't see from her eyes, or find himself in her head. But he felt an echo of flaky, waxy chocolate and smooth fake cream, as the taste faded in the back of his mouth.
As with Peeps, he realized that they didn't taste as good as he remembered from life, but he stood still in shock as it sunk in that he had taken something, some experience. Maybe he couldn't communicate to the living yet, but he could get something from them. And that meant that he was half-way there. What if that bridge could go both ways? What if just as he could taste the ho-hos a nurse ate, a ghost could share an experience too? But if they couldn't actually taste anything except through the living, how would that work? Square one.
Then as she devoured another ho-ho, and he tasted it, the memories of his childhood sugar treats came back to him, the marshmallow fluff, the pixie stix, the spun sugar Easter eggs, all the things that he thought tasted great at five years old, or seven or ten, but the vivid memories betrayed his fondness for them now. They hadn't been so great, just like the ho-hos Nurse Pleasantly Plump was eating now.
When he was halfway back to Gia's room, the idea struck him as he sifted through memories trying to find a one of good Halloween candy. Ghosts had memories. Hell, that's probably all they were, strung together with a personality and old habits. That was what he had to share. Well, not him, he didn't have any memories that a young woman like Gia would be interested in, but maybe someone else did.
He blazed into the room to find Mick crouched by Gia's bedside, a frown marring his features, matching the one on hers. She was repeatedly pushing the pain medication button. Apparently, it wasn't doing much good anymore.
"I hate this. I hate seeing her like this. I'd love to talk to her again, but I don't want her to come over like this. I'd rather see her get married, give me some grandkids I can spook. Join the military and go into space. Anything but this. Everyone says you should never survive your kids, but I didn't and I still have to watch her go like this."
Suddenly, the loneliness of the Grays and the lost looks of some of the other ghosts around here didn't seem like much of a mystery. And even the ones who had families didn't always want to hang around them, like him, so they hung around where they died instead. Jerrod pictured what kind of ghost the cranky abusive woman from the other room would make someday. He felt sorry for her son. And he recalled suddenly, that there had been no other ghosts in that room. No one wanted to be around her, alive or dead.
He continued, putting the revelation away for later. "I found something. I tasted ho-hos when I pictured myself in the nurse's mouth. It wasn't like possession. It was just kind of vicarious. I wonder if it would work in reverse? If we could picture something and send those thoughts or tastes or whatever."
"Yes." Mick let go of Gia's hand. "I do that sometimes with Gia. When the pain is really bad, when she's crying. I sometimes put thoughts in her mind of our fishing trip when she was eight. She loved fishing. Never caught anything but boots, weeds and other fishing lines, but she'd get so excited when they nibbled. That was one of the happiest times I remember."
Jerrod's jaw dropped, and since he was a ghost, might have dropped through the floor if someone had been watching. "You knew about this?" His voice was incredulous. "And you didn't say anything? If you already had the manual, why didn't you share that with me before I went out again and started trying to lick the nurse's food?"
Mick's face sagged, and Jerrod noticed the strain, how drawn and faded the man's face seemed. He was exhausted. "I didn't think of it. I've been a little busy."
Jerrod shook his head. "No, I'm sorry. You're right. Well, what now? She wants to see a shuttle launch. I never saw one, except on television. You?"
He shook his head. "I've never been much of an advertiser, but maybe it's time we start recruiting help. The odds are against us that someone's been to Kennedy, but many heads are better than two."
"You're out of luck." A droopy-jowled ghost named Ted muttered as he looked out Gia's room at the far corridor, where a gray hung from the ceiling, perched in a corner like a great transparent spider. "Old Kaleb saw a launch once, but he's nearly a goner. He's more like one of them now." He nodded toward the Gray. "He used to be pretty well-off, traveled everywhere. Took the wife and kids on vacation all the time. Lost a bunch of investments in the crash after 911. He couldn't take living like a normal person and working for a living, so he offed himself. He kind of screwed it up, so it took him a while to cross over here. His wife and kids visited, until he died, but he never recovered after crossing. He's always been a little...off."
Mick stared out the door at the Gray. "Where is he?"
"In the basement, the morgue, with the other weird ones. There's a lot of Grays down there. Nests of them."
"I don't care. I'll go talk to him." Mick's eyes burned and his face grew brighter.
"I ain't coming with you, not past those." Ted backed down the hall away from the Gray-haunted corridor.
"I'll go with you." Jerrod said quietly.
"Who'll stay here for Gia?"
"She's not going anywhere right now. Hey Ted?" Jerrod chased the man before he disappeared down another hall. "Be a man right now. At least stay and watch the girl."
Ted looked uncertain and then nodded and cautiously followed Jerrod back to Gia's room. He took up a post by her bed. "Okay. I'll secure this area then."
"Brave soldier." Mick replied drily.
"Thank you." Jerrod glared at Mick. "He's here, so let's go."
Ted was right about the nesting Grays. After they scooted past the one in the corridor, and edged past three more on the way down, by the ICU, they arrived at the morgue. It was a dim cold unpleasant place, and there were a hell of a lot of unhappy ghosts. The temperature was below what it should have been, even aside from the refrigeration. Grays lined every corner of the rooms, and hunkered along the ceilings of the hallways, watching and stewing in whatever strange thoughts crossed their minds. Their dull white eyes sought Jerrod's attention, pulled at him, but he steeled himself from looking at them.
The pathologist bustled about, bopping and dancing to a tune he was playing on Pandora radio. The sound seemed to fall muffled into a well, muted by the soft filaments surrounding the Grays. Ghosts that appeared halfway-Gray hunched along the floors, ignored by the pathologist. Jerrod stared at him in wonder. He seemed unaffected by any of it. But he also seemed unaffected by the bodies he autopsied. He was lost in his own thoughts as he measured and peered at organs, engrossed in his work and the music.
"How do we find this guy? I don't know what he looks like, aside from the description Ted gave, which was kind of vague. He said he won't even look like that anymore." Jerrod ventured.
Mick looked nervously around the main examining room. "I don't like these odds. We don't even know if he's here. Just Ted's assumption. But Gia's running out of time. Ask and ye shall receive." He cupped his hands, and spoke into the room. "Is Kaleb here? Kaleb, any of you Kaleb? We need your help."
Some of the ghosts ignored him, some of them watched with hollow eyes in almost transparent faces. Some had filamentous material oozing out of their orifices, and they scuttled toward the two men on limbs that had become gaunt and spindly. One reached out toward Jerrod's foot. He drew it back in alarm before the creature could touch him. "This is nuts. What was I thinking? How are we even going to communicate with these people...or whatever they are?"
The creature that had reached out to him tried again, and Jerrod jumped. It looked at him with its hideously deformed visage. Jerrod could feel the emptiness in its eyes, and he avoided looking, but it scuttled after him. It made a noise when he retreated. It was a groan. He looked. For the moment, its eyes were no longer empty. Its face was intent. It had been trying to get his attention. And Jerrod noticed that it was a he, or had been. The creature's cloudy eyes were full of floaters and film, but Jerrod could see the man's former humanity, and that he was struggling for another moment to maintain it. He and Mick looked at each other.
"Are you Kaleb?" Jerrod avoided the eyes still. But the creature shook his head, and extended one of his arms toward the dark right corner behind the examining table. Then his eyes went blank again and he crept toward Jerrod in a way completely unlike his earlier purposeful communication.
Jerrod dodged the reaching limbs, and went to the other side of the table where Kaleb was supposed to be, the last place in the gloom he wanted to be. It seemed backwards. He was a ghost. Weren't people supposed to be scared of ghosts, instead of him being afraid. But he was. Terrified.
He could feel Mick next to him, but neither of them took their eyes off of the mass of fibers floating in the corner like a cobweb wafting underwater in the deep ocean. Within the half-cocoon, a spindly insubstantial body rested. The eyes that peered out at them were almost devoid of humanity.
"Oh, you have to be kidding."
"I'll talk to it. She's my daughter."
"Talk to what? There's nothing there that can help us, I don't think. It can't even remember being human...if that's even Kaleb. I'm not sure what you're going to get out of that, except being turned into something from the phantom version of War of the Worlds. I'm sorry."
Mick turned to Jerrod as the half-Gray phantasms scuttled and bumped around them and crab-clustered in the corners. His haggard eyes were tormented, not the same eyes as the seasoned spirit who had calmly introduced him to the weird world of afterlife, earlier in Gia's room. "She's my kid! I don't care how this ends. I told her when she was a little girl, on those fishing trips, that I'd bring her the moon if I could. Well, I'm going to do just that."
"But she'll be able to talk to you soon." As soon as the words left his mouth, Jerrod knew it had been the wrong thing to say. Apparently being a ghost didn't improve social skill.
"Then it'll be too late. I'll still have failed her."
"But if you disappear here, then she'll lose you all over again!" Jerrod almost yelled. His words fell into a room that despite the loud rockabilly music, seemed too quiet, listening.
"If that happens, take care of her for me, okay?"
"Stop being a stubborn jackass!"
Mick approached the creature that had been Kaleb. He stared into the depth of the gray mass, into the milky eyes. Their look sucked the remaining color from Mick's appearance. He shivered and started talking to it. "Kaleb, I need your help. I need you to remember. I need a memory from you, you selfish bastard. Snap out of it and do something for someone else for a change!" As he spoke, his color drained and he sank to the ground, weak. His phantom limbs thinned until they were skeletal. But he kept talking. " I heard about you, you chicken-shit asshole. You couldn't take living like the rest of us, so you abandoned your wife and kid. Well here's your chance to make good. You're going to help my kid!"
The Kaleb creature had been staring at him. The cataract lenses bore into him, sucking him into the grayness like an insect being wrapped in sheets of web. But as Mick yelled at him, the milky eyes unfocused and closed and then opened, roaming the room. They blinked as though trying to clear fog from the creature's thoughts. Then the eyes started to clear slightly. They were the dull eyes of a drunkard, but they were no longer whitish-gray. They were muddy brown, and belonged to an addled man, twenty years older that he should have been. Only the eyes had changed.
Mick scrambled back and closed his eyes and kept hollering at the creature. "This is your chance to be something useful. You lost a bunch of money, who cares! You had a family! I got a daughter. She needs to see something good before she crosses over to here, or to wherever she's going. She needs to see the space shuttle. Like you did. Remember? You were happy. Remember that, the shuttle? You couldn't just have bought that!" He rasped from the ground.
"Hey Kaleb," Jerrod chimed in. "The shuttle launch! It must have been amazing! You were one of the only people in the world ever got to see one of those." Jerrod could feel the soft nudges of the other ghosts against him as they began to crowd in on him. He closed his eyes, refusing to leave.
And suddenly the air vibrated with energy from great fires coming from the tail of the rocket in front of them. The huge metal tube rose into the sky, a few fragile humans invisible in its tin can hull. He saw the deep blue of the sky and knew that beyond it was the velvet black of the abyss and the fires of the myriad distant stars. The rocket would stretch toward them until the people inside could see them unobscured by oxygen.
Jerrod opened his eyes in shock and a strange vision faced him for a few seconds, where the Kaleb creature had been. It was a ragged man's face formed roughly from the lumpy whitish substance of the spidery mass. But his eyes were fully human. He gazed at Jerrod and Mick, nodded once slowly and then his eyes closed.
Jerrod didn't wait to see what would happen next, he grabbed at Mick with both hands. It was like trying to haul a bag of loose cement powder. Mick's form ran around his fingers like quicksand. But slowly Mick rose from the mire of the surrounding ghosts, and fled for the exit with Jerrod at his rear.
Gia's face was sallow and drained as she lay on her back. Her arms were too weak to hold her smartphone anymore and but she had it by her. The annoying music of Angry Birds penetrated the room as she moved her fingers against the screen and smiled. Hers was truly an alien generation, Jerrod thought as he watched the dying young woman. Her mother hovered at the foot of her bed to make room for her friends who helped her to finish her internet game. Several pints of specialty ice cream were scattered about with chunks scooped out into a bowl in front of her. Dabs of ice cream decorated her pale dry lips. She licked them with a true beaming grin that for a few seconds took years away from her face, so she might have been sixteen again. Next to her bed, on the other side of her, a life-sized cardboard stand-up of the actor in The Mummy glared down at her with his sultry eyes. Someone had inked a speech bubble next to his mouth, "I must have you Gia, my Anaksunamun!"
"Thanks, guys! You're all dorks." She snickered until she coughed, and then rolled over and looked at the cut-out. And her friends grinned back at her and squeezed her hands, maintaining their smiles until her eyes slowly closed in sleep. Then their mirth faded. They looked at each other and filed out while she slept.
Mick sagged by the side of the bed, still recovering, as Jerrod sat by him. He put his hand on Mick's hand, with the strange sensation of resistant magnets. Mick put his hand on Gia's face. His thin fingers floated through her. She didn't move or give any indication that she knew the men were there. The two men closed their eyes and pulled up the memory of the rocket shooting into the intense blue sky, the heat from the blast even from a mile in the distance, the long silver gleam with a fiery tail as the rocket shot toward the stars. As they imagined sending the memory into Gia's head, her heartbeat fluttered and the brain waves on the monitor rose in jagged wild peaks, and she smiled.
Jerrod stared at the young man in front of him as he popped open another beer and chugged it and then put it on the pyramid. A dirty coverall smeared with a day's worth of grease from cars and the logo for Rick's Auto on the breast, was strung from a kitchenette stool of the tiny apartment. Sitting on the table underneath the beer can pyramid and underneath a bag of weed, was a textbook about how to score well on the SATs. The spine hadn't been cracked. Scattered around the room, intermixed with posters of girls on shiny cars, were images of the ocean, more specifically of life in the ocean, shots the young man sitting in front of the Playstation, had taken with an underwater camera and scuba gear that sat packed in the back of the crowded closet. There were scattered application packets from a couple universities lying around, brochures for marine biology programs.
Mick and Gia gazed around them at the mess.
Gia grinned and reached for the bag of weed under her father's glare.
Then Mick's face shifted to amusement as her fingers went through it, and he just stood and enjoyed her frown. "Oh, have fun with that, Sweetie."
"I'm dead, give me a break!" she protested. "It's not like I'm breaking any laws!"
"Just laws of nature," Mick said.
Gia rolled her eyes. "You gotta be shitting me! After the cancer, you'd think I'd get to have some fun."
Mick just smiled.
Jerrod looked into the face of his son engrossed in the video game as he ignored the practice tests that were soaking up beer on the table. He concentrated, conjuring memories of one of the few times he had tried, really tried to get his son to apply himself to his schoolwork.
"Hi, Sam," he said. "Remember the time I told you to study, or you'd end up dumber than your old man? Scared you a little, didn't I? Made you want to do the work. Well, think about how I ended up, dead, dead broke, and alone with the cancer. Where do you think them video games, beer, and weed are gonna get you?"
Sam blinked, looked suspiciously at the just-emptied beer can. "Kee-rist. What made me think of that? It ain't like old Dad's around to get on my case -- or anywhere else..."
Jerrod grunted, stared at his hand, remembering how it felt when he'd cuffed Sam on the back of the head to get his attention -- not hard, about like hitting him with a Nerf ball. He took a swing and damned if the boy's hair didn't stir a bit.
Sam sat up very straight, his eyes wide.
Jerrod leaned in close and yelled, "Get off your sorry ass, and pick up that study book!"
Sam didn't hear him -- couldn't, as Jerrod had no lungs or lips or tongue to shape the words into sound -- but somehow, he seemed to get the point. He picked up the SAT study guide, shook off the beer that hadn't completely soaked in, and opened it.
"Verbal, Part 1A -- analogies. Angry is to enraged as happy is to..."
© 2011 Rachel Coles
Bio: Rachel Coles is a medical anthropologist living in Denver, Colorado. She works in public health and emergency preparedness and lives with her husband and Rosa, her 'six-year old going on sixteen'. The Coles are consummate science fiction nerds. Rachel's husband loves drawing strange stories, and she loves writing them. Rachel began writing when her daughter kept asking for scary stories at bed-time and had gone through everything in the library. She began making them up, and then writing them down. As it happened, when she wrote them down, they stopped being appropriate for children...
Rachel's stories have appeared in Death Head Grin magazine ('The Lonely Miner', April 2010; 'Tribulations of a Jewish Vampire', December 2010), The Horror Zine ('Orphans of Lethe',August 2010; 'Enkidu'), and Screaming Dreams ('Greta and Gargan').'Orphans of Lethe' will be published in a horror anthology called What Fears Become by Imajin Press. The book has gained a positive review from Fangoria magazine.
E-mail: Rachel Coles
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