Ch. 1: It Started in the Street
So one afternoon, I woke up dead.
I blinked away the drowsiness and wiped at my eyes for any crusties. My back was to the sky and I was looking at my body, floating over it, then above the crowd that gathered to see the oozing gashes, my arm-bone poking through the flesh and the bump on my head. It was a pretty nasty one and even as a ghost I felt it. Or thought I did.
A fat man rushed to help me. Apparently he had taken an hour course on CPR and was sure it could help, so he wheezed his bacon breath into my lungs and that leaked into my rib cage through a hole the jagged bone had made. He pounded on my chest, bouncing up and down, his back jiggling and his energy fading. So he grabbed the nearest college girl by the bangles on her wrist and drafted her help but she shrieked. She wasn't about to touch my corpse. Maybe if I had showered that morning, she would've.
The driver stepped out of the car with the broken headlight and pleaded his case before his peers. “It was an accident! I didn’t see him. He just ran out and—I’m so sorry.” It was good practice for court, and if the crowd’s reaction was any indication he needed a pro’s help before he’d get off.
An ambulance came with its lights flashing but siren silent. They must’ve known it was just a body retrieval. They didn’t bother weaving through the street packed with traffic. They just honked and people pulled over—some onto the sidewalks which nearly injured other pedestrians.
I floated higher and higher and couldn’t stop myself as people disappeared then cars blended with the pavement and only by the sun’s glare off their windshields could I pick them out. Buildings turned to little squares until I was lost in the clouds and hacking as I thought they’d choke me like smoke.
My head smacked on something and it actually hurt. I griped that if that airplane or chopper or spacecraft put a dent in my head I'd put a dent in it. Instead the culprit was the shoe of a girl, floating like me.
“You dead, too?” I asked, feeling for goose eggs in my bedhead. It was a bit surprising my hand didn’t pass right through my skull and into my brain and out the other ear. I tried forcing it through the back so I could stick it out my mouth, but it just made my head hurt.
“Most people don’t ask if I’m dead. Most don’t even realize they’re dead.” She was blonde, except the hair shined in the sun and looked white. We were awfully high up. She looked about my age, like she belonged in my Lit class. But the green smock suggested Art class or Home Ec. I didn’t know what a ghost needed glasses for either.
“I saw the blood. I saw the body. I guess a lotta folks aren’t too bright.”
She pulled a book out of the pouch in her smock. She flipped to a page in the middle, without regard for which page. A pencil appeared in her hand and she scribbled something.
I stared at the sun. It was big and bright up here and it burned my eyes, but I was a ghost so it didn’t matter. I made a game of it. I tried not to blink, despite the tears forming around my shriveling eyes. When it got to be too much effort, I blinked and lost. Colorful dots were on every cloud I looked at and when I looked back at the girl, her face had them too. There were probably creams for that.
“It makes sense now. You can’t take anything seriously, and you're observant so you poke people where they're sore. It doesn't make you many friends but you do it anyway. I suppose nothing bothers you.”
“Never has,” I said and floated towards a seagull.
“Then why’d you save that boy?”
Below, the boy was in a gutter with a broken nose. He had hit it on the curb after I shoved him out of the street. The paramedics were treating his nose and crying with bandages and soft-spoken words, then they moved him in that ambulance while they called for another to pick up my body.
His soccer ball had gone under the car tire and shot through the window of a local bakery. It was flat and resting among the chocolate croissants.
That wasn’t how the day started or even ended, but I think we can agree it’s the important event of the day.
Ch. 2: New and Old Friends
I’ll take you back two days before my demise. You’d think it’d be a cheerier time with all that life and stuff.
Last Tuesday, I was walking through the parking lot. It was dark and the street lamp had been hit by one too many poor or drunk drivers so it didn’t work.
I had a hot dog from the café pinched between my thumb and forefinger as my arms swung, and then it wasn’t there. I turned around thinking I dropped it. I was ready to snatch it up, blow it off and down the rest. But someone else was already chewing it!
A pup dragged it by the bun as he shook his head trying to rip a piece off. I reached for it and the dog growled. A paper cut was more deadly than his fangs so I grabbed his scruff and lifted him. With him dangling in front of me, well, that’s how I knew it was him.
He had no collar and no fat. With the moonlight I could see the ribs and the shoulder joints under that brown and white fur and his skin was so loose that he hung two inches lower than my handful of scruff. I cradled him while he squirmed and when I bent over for the hot dog, he dove from my arms and landed quite gracefully on his snout. But when I grabbed the hot dog, he hobbled to my leg and bit at the sock.
I picked him up again and fed him a piece of the bun. He swallowed it then chewed. His gums were dripping so I tore off some meat. He nearly choked but coughed it up then chewed then swallowed again.
That’s how I found the pup and that’s how I went hungry that night. Half a hot dog isn’t enough for a college boy, but it was too much for him. He puked on my blanket.
I washed it in the sink then while it dried on a towel hook, I shivered in my bed. My arms were warm though; the pup lay on them. I woke up with his foot kicking my nose as he stretched.
The next day I left him in my dorm with strict instructions to hush if he wanted to stay. I told him the RA seemed like a cat-chick and probably had a dozen at home that her parents cared for while she was at college.
I got my groceries then wandered through the aisles until I found the dog food (it was by the flour). It was fifteen bucks for the little bag and thirty for the bag that was three times as heavy. It was a deal, sure, but it was also heavy.
I hefted the big bag on my shoulder and put my pretzels, goldfish crackers and potato chips under the other arm to balance me out. I still teetered to the cashier but I never fell. The one time I nearly did, a manager caught me and said if I needed help the carts were that way, past the registers.
I threw the dog food down on the conveyor belt and the corner blew open. A few pieces tumbled out as the bag rolled towards the cashier, Jenna. I stuck the loose pieces in my pocket with my rubber band money clip. I fished around for my debit card and found it in the fourth pocket I looked in. I always kept it there, but I always forgot that.
“You make that red vest sexy. You’d think it clash with your hair, since they’re not quite the same color but the freckles save the outfit. God’s gift, I guess.”
We had known each other since middle school. She was staying out of college until she could afford it. This job was just a day-thing and at night she taught little girls to plié and prance. She wanted to be a dancer or dance teacher, whichever, and those don’t make much so she wanted to graduate with a business degree without owing anyone any money.
She yawned then tugged at the bag. It wouldn’t budge so she pulled out a scanning gun but the barcode was on the bottom. “How ‘bout you flip it?” she commanded. My retort got lost in my panting but I did it anyway. “Since when do you got a dog?”
“I don’t. This is part of my diet to bulk up. All that ham didn’t do it and I get tired of peanut butter.”
“How do you expect to care for it? You don’t even feed yourself half the time.” She scanned my snacks and I handed her my credit card and she thrust it back and pointed to the machine, saying “Do it yourself.”
I slid it through, selected debit and punched in my pin but it said denied. I tried again but selected credit. Again, denied. “It’s the machine.”
“Lemme try,” she said. She did the same thing I did and pressed credit but again, denied.
“I’ll just pay cash,” I said. “How much was it again?”
“37.43. Why didn’t you just do that in the first place?”
I only had twenty-three ones and a ten. I could count the bills quickly and magically reach thirty eight then hand them to her and tell her to keep the change as I bolted but all this hesitation was suspicious. And I couldn’t really bolt while carrying that bag of dog food. She’d probably get mad or turn me in. She could be cruel.
“I’ve got a date later. I thought I’d take her somewhere special, where they wrap up the burgers and where refills are free. But they don’t take plastic so I needed to save my cash. You wouldn’t want to spot me this once, would you?”
“No. Don’t you got class or studying or something? You shouldn’t plan a date when you got studying.”
There was a line forming behind me and the speaker overhead called for all available employees to report to check-out. One kid sprinted there. I bet he was eager to earn his annual quarter raise.
Jenna glared at me and my rubber band money clip. The bills were wrapped around my student ID.
“I’ll just take the dog food.”
“I don’t need the other stuff. This is a better deal. More calories per dollar. So can you just get rid of everything but the dog food”
“How many times I gotta tell you to keep a ledger?”
“It’s a bank error. That’s all. They do it all the time. Last week they had about fifty dollars more than what was supposed to be there. They probably froze my account until it’s fixed.”
She shook her head and voided the snacks and charged me $32.16. I said she could keep the change or donate it to some charity but she pelted me with it as I shouldered the dog food. I stepped on a spinning quarter and left.
When I got back, the pup was on the highest shelf of the book case, standing on the micro-economics book that was still shrink-wrapped. The little guy considered diving to the carpet; he just needed to get his nerve up. But I snatched him before that and he licked the sweat on my neck then tried to bite my lips. I dragged the dog food in and he ate the bits that fell from the blown out corner.
I stayed inside with the little guy, thinking up names instead of reading about the Welsh Water Leaper, which from the drawings was just an out of place manta ray. I suggested a few names for the pup but he didn’t answer so I let them go.
He saw a bird in the window by the tree and yelped and leapt for it. His snot marks were left on the glass. No one barged in to investigate the noise so I didn’t worry about it.
The thought came up about what I should do with him but it passed when he deposited little nuggets on the carpet that I pinched in a Kleenex then tossed in the toilet. When he wet the carpet I opened the window so the place wouldn’t stink.
Ch. 3: Take a Stab. The Geezer Can Handle It.
It was my first class of the day and at noon but I wasn’t quite awake yet.
The mutt had scratched at the door until I walked him. He ran off and fell into the pond and the brick ledge around the pond was too high for him to reach. I had to rescue him and with his wet flailing it wasn’t fun. And I didn’t want him running off again--he'd probably fall into a sewage drain--so I tied my shoelaces around his neck for a collar then knotted the other shoelace to it for the leash. It made us both uncomfortable. He tugged and wanted free so I wrapped the end around my hand and the more he pulled the better the tourniquet.
That was around four.
I got to class before everyone else so I could sit in the back corner desk. It was in the old Humanities building that'd be replaced in the next decade. Most of the professors that taught there would get bulldozed too. It still had chalkboards and only seated twenty of us in cramped desks that wobbled and creaked. The thermostats were dials with red needles pointing to their settings. The plasma TVs always felt out of place, and most professors never used them. Once this professor ran out of room on the board and didn’t want to erase anything so he continued chalking his notes on the screen. There were still scratches.
The class was African and Caribbean Lit—not my favorite class, too much religion, but the professor was alright. He was a geezer with a big belly and he always wore sweater vests. He didn’t use email and he said anyone who needed help could call him until one in the morning, and they could call later but he probably wouldn’t answer. “You can try, but I’m a heavy sleeper,” he’d grumble the class before an essay was due. I don’t know who actually called him because he was a prickly man in introduction-level classes like this one. He preferred third and fourth year students because they actually read for more than the names of the “good guys” and “bad guys.”
He had just walked in. “Where were you?” he demanded.
“That depends on when you mean. Until a few minutes ago, I was in a dream.”
“Yesterday. Where were you yesterday? Don’t tell me you sent an excuse of sickness in an email.” He threw his briefcase on the table and the flaps came undone. The locks were broken. I suspect it was the brief case his parents gave him as a graduation present way-back-when. The brown leather had yellow scratches all down the side and creases like the lifelines in your palm. “It’s just as effective as you brats calling and coughing into the receiver and moaning about how you vomited up breakfast.”
“I'd never do that, but I tried to get a message to you. I tried sending an email to Kailey so she could tell you. I was too hoarse for the phone. Right when I got the message drafted I vomited all over the laptop. It shorted before I could send it. I pounded the send key anyway, and did it about a hundred times and hoped and prayed that she’d get the email. I guess she didn't. Luckily, my computer’s got insurance. Vomit insurance. It’s something most college kids need, but not for illness.”
“I won’t let you make up the quiz,” he said. He rummaged in the briefcase for a box of chalk. He brought his own because the school had stopped buying chalk around the time they stopped using dial-up. Most buildings had dry-erase boards.
“Don't worry. I won't pester you with that. We’ve got three classes together so I’ve heard the spiel on late work. My grade can handle a hit or two. Three is too many. I did the math. Normally it wouldn’t be, but mythical literature isn’t my favorite subject. Too hoaky.” I pulled out my copy of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and scanned the underlined text and margin notes I had made last weekend.
“You ought to take it seriously. It’ll last longer than anything written in your lifetime.”
“I suppose that’s one test for its merits, but it’s so skint on detail. It lacks credibility. I like some real detail even in fiction and maybe some jokes or maybe a story where the hero isn’t absolutely amazing and felling a thousand knights over the course of a year or two. It makes me think the knights are just toddlers riding about on sheep with sticks and pots-and-pans armor, and big bad Peredur comes around and bloodies them up and sends them to daddy Arthur--crying--to bolster his infamy.” I acted this epic battle out, jabbing with a ballpoint pen and guarding with a notepad-shield. “No offense to your specialty or anything.”
“It’s not something you’d understand,” he grumbled to the chalkboard. He wrote the notes for today’s class, about Achebe and some background on the traditional Nigerian religion with demons that take the replace babies. Even the shaman can't tell the difference. The shaman put on an elaborate ruse then flip a coin and guess. Heads, the baby is a demon, tails, the baby lives. Then the shaman charged an armful of yams.
“Yes, I suppose I won’t understand people who enjoy that fantasy.”
“It’s a world you won’t ever understand.” He dropped his chalk and bent over for it but his back was too stiff to bend enough. He had to spread his legs wide enough to allow tykes on trikes through and then bend over. He brushed his hands together and chalk went all over his red sweater vest. He didn’t care.
“You’re probably right, but I’ll ace the course anyway. Just wait. You didn’t think I’d survive our first class together last year and I ended up with one of the top grades after that Great Gatsbypaper. I showed you; I’ll show you again.”
“Careful," he said, "or you’ll sound motivated.”
I yawned and pretended not to hear. I closed my notes and book and counted ceiling tiles the rest of class, secretly soaking up the lecture.
Ch. 4: Back to the Streets
After class ended I packed up my blank notebook and slung my bookbag over one shoulder, then shuffled between the desks, kicking dust bunnies. But the geezer grabbed my backpack. It came off my back and I stumbled into the doorframe.
“Sit back down. We’ve got another hour together,” he grumbled. He slid my backpack across the dusty floor back to where I had been sitting.
“There’s half-an-hour before our next class. I’ll be back, Scout’s honor. I made it up to Tenderfoot and a Tenderfoot doesn’t break his promises. He might break his foot because it’s so tender, but that won’t stop me from crawling back here if I have to.”
“Read over your notes so you actually have something to contribute this time.” He turned around and opened his briefcase and pulled out a packet of Edgar Allen Poe stories—one had a guy’s hair turning to grey because he got so scared of whirlpool; how hoaky is that?
“I have plenty to contribute. I could contribute all period and no one would disagree. I’ve got the passages dog-eared and underlined and annotated and basically, if I wanted to, I could teach the next class. But I’ll let you. Old guys need something to do so they don’t get bored. And when we break into group discussions I’ll let them figure out what the author means. But for now, I’m getting lunch.” I backed away during my speech so that my back foot was out the door.
“If you’d wake up more than ten minutes before class then you wouldn’t be hungry.”
But I was already out the door and running down the steps. The geezer would have to tumble down to catch me and we’d probably both end up in the hospital. Who’d want to go to that hell?
I didn’t know what his problem was sometimes. The town was the size of a walnut. I could make it to McDonald’s at the edge of town and back in ten minutes if I ran. I wouldn’t go to McDonald’s and I wouldn’t run either. There were plenty of stores between. There was Jaarsma, this genuine Dutch bakery—it said so on the sign. They made wonderful desserts like brownies and chocolate croissants and muffins with chocolate chips in them and even some Sacher Torte. I think they had bread too.
It was always crowded though. It was the middle of the day! College kids had classes. Other kids had school. Adults had work. I didn’t mind waiting in line; I just couldn’t figure out why there was always a line. The whole town was like that. Everyone should’ve been off their lunch break, but the streets lined with cars. Some sped through the lights and others stopped for every pedestrian waiting to cross.
People salivated over every dessert’s display case then pointed at the tiniest square of fudge so they wouldn’t ruin their diet. The “traditional Dutch” milkmaid would weigh it, ring it up and as the customer fumbled through their pocket change, she’d wrap the fudge in a foot of wax paper. The customer paid and immediately tore it open and popped it in, then got back in line for more.
The line to Jaarsma’s extended along the display cases that teased customers with their moist delights, around the rack with post cards, into the connecting shop that had blue and white etchings on ceramic coasters and windmill models and all sorts of “Dutch” things, and finally it ended outside the shop with me.
A kid peeked through the window but a bunch of adults on the inside were blocking his view of sweets. He took a big whiff of the air but he could probably only smell glass and car exhaust. Gripped in his hand was a balloon and at his feet was a soccer ball. He stood on his toes to see over the adults but it only raised his four foot frame to four foot two, so he stretched higher until he wobbled backwards. His arms flailed and he plopped onto his soccer ball. It bounced under a car. He waddled over and got on his hands and feet and reached for it. While he stretched for the ball, he let go of his balloon.
The helium carried it upward until I grabbed the string then pulled the kid by his trousers from under the car. “Hang on to this. I’ll get the ball.” I lay on my back and fetched it. The kid had knocked it to the driver’s side tire but I got it.
“Thanks,” he mumbled. The balloon had a wolf painted on it.
“Where’d you get the neat balloon?”
“The fair,” he said, twisting his neck one way then the other. “The school has one.”
“My school needs to have a fair. All the kids would show up drunk or end up drunk but it’d be fun anyway so long as I wasn’t stepping through puke to get my cotton candy.”
“I had some of that!” he shrieked and let go of his balloon. I yanked it from the air and gave it back to him.
“Didja? Blue or pink?”
“I’m a boy.” He bit the balloon string until the helium dragged it upward. I handed him the slimy string.
His balloon bobbed at eye level and twisted with the breeze. The wolf glared at me.
“And why’s there a wolf on your balloon?”
“I like wolves!”
“Yeah, but shouldn’t it be on your face? Don’t they usually paint faces, not balloons.”
“Dad said it was too hard to wash off.”
“He did? Screw him. Paint belongs on your face. The greatest masterpieces of our time are done on little boys’ faces and fat guys’ biceps.”
The kid just looked at me, straining his neck to make eye contact which he felt comfortable with now that we were buds. I squatted down so his neck wouldn’t be sore in the morning.
Then I had an idea that’d help us both out. “Do you like dogs, too?”
“Yeah!” He leaned in so our foreheads were touching.
“Well I got this pup, a cute thing now but he’ll grow up big and strong (I think), and I can’t take care of him. I’d like to--he’s real sweet--but the rules say I can’t have a dog.”
“Why not?” He really sounded bummed by it.
“I don’t know. There needs to be a revolution. But that’s not important now—would you like the pup? Go on, find your mom. Ask her, not your dad. Here, give her this number and she can call me for the details. Got it? Stick it in your pocket now.” I scribbled it for him. The sidewalk was so bumpy and my handwriting so awful that I had to turn the paper over and write it again, this time carefully.
He took the paper and read it as a single number since I hadn’t used dashes or parentheses or anything. He said “Four million, and one hundred, and forty seven thousand, and three hundred and eighty two.” He let go of his balloon again and I snatched it before it went into the atmosphere. I tied a loop so he could put his hand through and not worry about it floating off, but he grabbed the loop like it was the end of the string. I figured I’d look up in a few minutes and see it headed for balloon heaven, you know, where it got to be too high and the thing’d pop.
He kicked his soccer ball and read the number over and over again. The paper blocked his view. The ball hit a fire hydrant and bounced into the street. The kid went for it, still mumbling my number. I ran for him. He didn’t see the car coming. The car didn’t see him walking between the bumpers of the parked cars. I made it just in time. I shoved him to the other curb. The car hit me.
Ch. 5: Glass-spiked Brownies
“What do you mean ‘Why’d you save him?’ Are you heartless or something?” I said, up above a cloud. It passed beneath me and I could see the rectangular cornfields around the jagged ends of town. The urban sprawl had won out over symmetry, not that it mattered. “If you see a kid drowning in a pond, you wade in after him. I don’t care if it’s prom night and you ruin a new sparkly dress. I wouldn’t even empty my pockets and let my phone get drenched. That’s just how it is.”
The girl in the green smock and glasses made a note in her book. It looked blank from where I was. “An odd sense of duty,” she said.
The clouds passed under me again, blocked my view. I had to be miles in the sky to see over clouds. I looked for birds and planes. All the birds were below and headed south.
“Don’t give me that crap about duty. I took an ethics course and everyone spent hours trying to argue why something was right when it didn’t matter why. It was right and that’s what mattered.”
When she was done journaling, she pressed her glasses up her nose with the pen.
“Unfair. I always thought if ghosts were real I’d become one the second I died. Instead, I wake up after the action’s over. I wanted to see the carnage. Like say I exploded from the inside, I wanted to pop out of my body in time to see the blood splatter. Instead I just got a corpse and some shocked people. How do I get down from here anyway? I’ve got places to go.”
“You’re dead,” she said and tucked her book back in her smock. She scrunched her sleeves up to the elbow. Her forearms were as pale as the rest of her. I guess ghosts don’t tan well.
“I know.” I kicked furiously then swam and turned upside down and spun and I didn’t move an inch downward. I might’ve even gone up a little! “I want to see that geezer complain about my absence then see how shocked he is when he hears the news. He’s so calloused his heart won’t give out from a twist like that, but his face might soften a little. He might even cry. I was always his favorite, you know.”
She was gone. I was more or less where I had been before—it was hard to tell without any landmarks except a long fluffy cloud—but she was gone.
“Hey! Where’d you go? You could’ve taken me with you or something.” All my shouting was lost. I moved around—walking, running, wriggling, clawing, squatting, whatever—until it became too much effort.
Then the clouds rose and blinded me until they were gone. Or I thought it was the clouds moving, but instead it was me! I plummeted until I realized I was falling then I stopped so suddenly it made me nauseous. Could I puke as a ghost? It might be interesting to see, and then my ghost guts would be spilled on unsuspecting bystanders. They’d never know they were covered in my reeking, half-digested meal.
While I was distracted by the thought, I was lowered again and when I noticed I stopped. I got the pattern and let my mind wander but it was hard not to notice my descent, so I moved in a jerky motion. I must’ve started and stopped a hundred times before I could walk on the ground. It was a lot easier to move there than in the air.
My body was gone; the people had dispersed except for the police officer, the driver and a few witnesses and gawkers. The car was pulled over to the side and except for the busted headlight and dented roof, it looked like every other parked car. It didn’t interest me too much.
Instead I entered Jaarsma’s, through the door. The kid’s soccer ball was in the trash, under some glass-covered brownies and the Dutch milkmaid was sweeping up the glass. Customers had cleared out but some peered through the shattered window. There was a big hole where the painted sign had gold lettering saying, “Jaarsma’s Authentic Dutch Baked Goods.” But that was gone, either in the trash, on the sidewalk or on some baked goods. I reached for a Danish behind the display case but my hand met with resistance. I punched it again and again, feeling no pain or pressure from the glass but still unable to pierce it. I hopped over the counter and reached through the door. I could grab the Danish but not move it, so I stuck my head in and licked it. There wasn’t any taste or smell. The milkmaid came towards me with a dustpan full of glass shards.
She passed me. I reached for her, to poke her in the back of the neck, to see how she’d react.
“Stop that,” the blonde ghost girl snapped. I whipped around to find her, laying on a bookcase of jars filled with bon-bons, gummies, gum balls and cookies. “When a ghost touches another person, it disrupts their psyche. It can cause anxiety, depression and even rage.”
I yanked my hand to my chest and sidled around her.
“It’s only in extreme cases. A little poke might give her a bad night’s sleep.”
I got away from the employee and got closer to the ghost girl. “Would she know it was me?” I reached for the ghost girl.
“Stop it. You’d be pushed back by her and she’d probably only have a faint sense of unease. But the longer you touch her, the worse the effect.” The ghost girl rolled on her back and stared at the ceiling then turned her head so she was looking at me. “Don’t you want to know who I am?”
“Nah. I mean a name’s just a name and there’s no one else around for me to talk to, so if I’m talking I clearly mean you.”
The milkmaid threw away a scone. It looked like it had cherry or strawberry in it. I pressed myself against the wall so she wouldn’t bump into me on her trip around the store, but she kept walking right at me. Eventually I perched on a wooden rack with lollipops sticking out. Normally it would’ve wobbled under me or broken from my weight, but it stayed put. I felt like some sort of gargoyle warding off devilish children. I scowled and hissed like the gargoyles in pictures.
“That’s only what I’m letting you see,” she said and watched my reaction. I looked away so she couldn’t see it.
“What do you mean? What are you, god or something?”
She rolled over and thrust a hand at me. “Anita Balcer—Grim Reaper.” I didn’t take the hand. I flinched and fell backward. I was floating in the air. “Don’t be scared. You’re already dead.”
“I know,” I squeaked.
Ch. 6: Dealing with Duress
“What’s wrong?” Anita said and hopped off the bookshelf. “Don’t keep backing away. You’ll make me think I’ve got cooties again.”
“Aren’t reapers supposed to, you know, kill people?” I bumped into some shelves and climbed using the cake boxes for handholds. But I quickly reached the ceiling and had nowhere to go.
“You’re already dead.”
“I know. But instincts say get the hell out.” I scooted over to the corner, just under hot chocolate mixes. Some had strawberry flavoring; some were almond and others had coconut.
“Where’ll you go? You can’t exactly open the door.”
The milkmaid had closed it. The window was covered by plastic wrap held up with scotch tape. The next breeze would knock it off but it was a calm day. I was trapped.
“Could you put your hand in your pocket or something?” I slid down and my head banged every shelf. It didn’t hurt but I rubbed it anyway. My body stretched out so my feet were between her legs. It was unnerving when her apron brushed my leg hair.
“But we have to make a deal.”
I stopped my sliding. She had to look down her chest to make eye contact with me. Good thing her breasts were small or I’d be hidden from view. But too bad she wasn’t in a skirt. I would’ve had the perfect view. “What kind of deal?
“You want your life back, don’t you?”
She reached down to me, like she wanted to help me up, but I didn’t want her bony hands on me. They might’ve been covered in flesh but they were bony just the same. I scooted under her and ran to the counter then hurdled it. I landed on a dropped stick of butter. The physics of being a ghost weren’t helping me when I slipped on it, flipped and floated through the air. The ceiling fan shot me into the wall. When I got up, Anita was over me with her hand still out.
“Fine, we have a deal.” I slapped her palm then the back of her hand then pounded it with my fist from above and below and finished with a punch. “I won’t sacrifice a baby or steal his lollipop or anything.”
“You have to shake it. Don’t you want to know what the deal requires of you? Most people do.”
“Yeah well, I want to taste sweets again and haunting a bakery is just a tease. And I can’t keep dodging Miss Milkmaid over there. So I’m in. I’ll give you my soul and do your evil bidding, but I refuse to do laundry. I don’t even do my own.”
I grabbed her hand and she crunched mine. Ghosts aren’t supposed to have bones but I felt metacarpals snapping and phalanges popping loose.
The milkmaid went into the kitchen with a tray of snickerdoodle crumbs. She backed through the swinging door, letting her rump push it open. In her hands were fresh cookies and I whiffed but didn’t get anything but memories.
“Any time you’re ready,” I said to Anita. We were still holding hands.
“What do you mean?” She reached into her smock and pulled out that book again. She scribbled something then tore the page out and flung it into the air. It went through the ceiling and I never saw it again.
“You crushed my hand; we shook; now where’s my body?”
“Oh that’ll take a few days. There’s so much paper work. I just put in the request and a three-days waiting period is standard.”
I grabbed at the book but she held it over her head. Then she brought her hand down and the book stayed in the air. I jumped for it but it went up, up, up. And when I floated upward too, I bashed my head on the ceiling whereas the book went right through.
“Three days? In a bakery? That’ll drive me nuts and I have the money for therapy. It’s expensive” I pounded the plastic wrap over the broken window. I hit and hit and hit like it was a punching bag but it didn’t budge. That scotch tape had amazing sticking strength.
“No, no. You’re only trapped in here because you’re not a full ghost yet.” She snapped her fingers and the world got foggy. It was like mist but it fell towards the clouds instead of the ground. “Go on. Hit it again. Hit it hard.”
I wound up, drew my arm back and pow! I stumbled through the plastic wrap, the jagged window edges and the brick below the window onto the sidewalk. A woman was walking my way, oblivious to me, so I backed up and went right through the window again. Back and forth, I tried again and again and it always worked. I stuck my head through, “See you in a few days! I’ve got places to go.”
I headed off but Anita appeared in front of me and I crashed head-first into her sharp chin.
“First you need a little lesson. Did you notice anything?”
“Yeah! I can go through walls!”
“I meant the souls!” she snapped. “See this fog? They’re souls of the recent dead headed to the afterlife.”
“I don’t think so. The death rate’s not that high.” I stepped to her side; she mirrored me. I stepped back; she put her arms out. She wasn’t going to let me leave.
She plucked some fog from the air. It was a long string that stretched then bounced back down and formed a ball, something like a balloon. “Humans aren’t the only ones with souls, you know. Grasshoppers, ants, dogs, mice, flowers, weeds, fungi, bacteria—”
“Bacteria? You’re telling me bacteria have souls? Alright, Miss ‘Grim Reaper.’ Tell me—do ghosts have insane asylums? I think you need one.”
She punched me in the chest then screwed in her knuckles. There was probably a dent on my sternum. “Most souls head up without any help. Human souls, however, have a lot of worldly connections keeping them here: memories, people, possessions, whatever. Now that we’ve made a deal, your job is to help them move on.”