I glanced down at my ID tag. My mother would be thrilled. This was going to look wonderful on my college applications. The more community service the better, well, as long as it’s voluntary and not mandatory. I’d been assigned the duty of reading to the children today since it was my first day and they didn’t have anyone to train me to do the more difficult jobs.
I stepped off the elevator at the pediatric floor and three of the souls I’d passed on the previous floor stood watching me. I nodded to them. “Hello,” I said brightly and they all seemed surprised. I turned and followed the directions the front desk volunteer had given me. It didn’t take me but a few moments to realize the pediatric floor was full of wandering souls. I walked past kids in wheelchairs watching me with curiosity. I smiled and said hello as I passed by them. My heart began to ache for reasons other than my loss.
Seeing the little smiles on their pale faces wasn’t easy. A little girl with long, red, curly hair caught my attention. She stood at the door to her hospital room staring, not at me but on either side of me and behind me with curiosity before looking directly at me. I slowed my walk and glanced back, realizing that most of the souls I had smiled at and spoken to were following me. She could see them. I stopped and studied her little, sweet face. She was standing up with the use of what appeared to be a walker. She glanced back at them again and smiled warmly and then her little eyes found me. “Do you see them?” I asked in a whisper, afraid others would hear me and think I was insane. She nodded sending her head of red curls bouncing around her.
“Do you?” she asked me in a loud whisper. I nodded.
“Cool,” she replied, grinning. I winked and then continued on my way to the activity room. I couldn’t stand and talk to a child in the halls about the souls we could both see without drawing attention. I’d never met anyone else who could see souls. It was hard to just walk away from her knowing little face. But I knew I would see her again. I intended to find her later.
I found the sky blue door with the quote, “Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.” - Dr. Seuss, painted on it in bright colors.
This was where I was supposed to be. I opened it up and immediately found the shelves of books to the right.
I turned back and smiled at the souls who’d followed me inside, “Do any of you have a suggestion?” They all studied me and some drew closer to watch me or touch me. I couldn’t feel them. “No one?” The room remained silent. I sighed and turned back to the books. “Very well, I’ll pick one out myself.”
“My favorite is Where the Wild Things Are.” I spun back around thinking a soul had finally spoken. The souls were all watching the little red headed girl from the hallway. She was standing at the open door smiling at me. “They won’t talk to you, you know. They can’t,” she said as she walked inside.
“They can’t?” I asked staring down into her eyes that appeared so much older than her little body.
She shook her head sadly and sighed. “No, I’ve tried to get them to. They like for you to talk to them.” She paused.
“Well, some of them like for you to talk to them but they can’t talk back. They are souls fighting their return so they stay here and wander aimlessly.” She glanced back over her shoulder at them with a sigh. “But they start to forget who they are or why they are here. It’s sad, really. If they would have gone on in the first place then their souls would have been given another body and another life instead of this pointless existence.”
I walked over and sat down on the chair in front of her.
“How do you know this?” I asked, amazed someone so small could know so much more than me about the souls I’d seen my whole life.
She shrugged. “I guess he didn’t want me to be scared.
They are scared of him, you see, and he didn’t want me to be scared of him. He didn’t want me to be scared of them either.
And I think maybe he didn’t want me to become like them.” I shook my head trying to figure out who she was talking about. “What do you mean? Who is he?” She frowned and the souls who had gathered in the room vanished. “They’re scared of him, like I said. He’s the only thing they do remember because he was the last thing they saw while alive. Silly, really, it isn’t his fault. It was just their appointed time.” I froze at her words and grabbed the arm of the chair I was sitting in for support.
My heart started pounding in my chest as I asked, “What do you mean by ‘appointed time’?”
She studied me a minute and then whispered, “It was their appointed time to die. Just like mine will come soon.
He told me. He wasn’t supposed to but he can break the rules if he wants. No one can stop him. It’s ultimately his decision.” I swallowed the bile in my throat at the mention of this little girl talking about her death.
“Who told you?” I asked again.
She shook her head. “Don’t look so sad. He said this body I have is sick and once I die I’ll get a new body and a new life.
Souls aren’t forced to wander the Earth. Only those too scared to go on are left here to wander. If you chose to leave the Earth you’ll return in a new body and a new life. Your soul will, however, be the same. He told me the man who wrote my favorite books, The Chronicles of Narnia, said that
‘You are not a body. You have a body. You are a Soul’.” She smiled at the idea like it was brilliant.
I took a deep breath to calm myself before asking one more time. “Who is ‘he’?”
She frowned. “The author? C.S. Lewis.” I shook my head. “No, the ‘he’ that has told you all of this.
The ‘he’ that the souls are scared of.” She frowned and turned around to leave. “No, wait, please…I need to know who he is,” I begged.
She glanced back at me and shook her head. “Until it’s your appointed time you can’t know.” She left.
I held the book, Where the Wild Things Are, in my hands, ready to read as the kids filed in, but she didn’t come with them. I forced a smile and cheerful tone as I read the words I remembered from my childhood. Several kids requested other books when I finished and numbly I got each book off the shelf and read them their request until the nurses insisted it was time to return to their rooms for dinner. After several hugs and ‘thank you’s I headed back down the halls.
This time I didn’t bother to smile at the wandering souls.
They couldn’t help me. I was pretty sure the only one who could was the little girl who’d spoken to ‘him’ and deep down I feared I knew exactly who ‘he’ was and what it was he did.
* * * *
“I have a surprise for you,” Leif announced as he sauntered into my living room at seven that night. I peered up from the textbook lying open on the table and smiled at him. Seeing Leif helped ease the hollowness inside me. He bent down, kissed me on the lips softly, and then laid a brochure down in front of me on the table.
“Gatlinburg, Tennessee?” I asked, reading the brochure in front of me with the image of a snowy mountaintop with a ski lift and festively-lit streets.
He beamed and sat down in the chair beside me. “A whole weekend of skiing and shopping. My grandparents have a cabin up there we go to this time every year. I spoke with Miranda and she has got the go-ahead from her dad.
He’s covering the cost of travel and spending for her and Wyatt, and my parents want to treat you in return for all your hard work in helping me achieve an A in Speech.” He grinned wickedly. “And because they knew I wouldn’t go unless you did.”
Going on a skiing holiday wasn’t something I wanted to think about right now. Emotionally, I was barely hanging on and I needed to find Dank. I just couldn’t figure out how I was going to find him exactly.
“Wow.” I forced a smile. He took my fake smile as encouragement and opened the brochure. He began talking about all the things to do on top of the mountain. I was trying to wrap my mind around how I could tell him no when my mother walked in.
“Hello, Leif, have you eaten yet? I brought home Chinese from the meeting with my literary agent. Are either of you hungry?” she asked.
“I’m starved,” Leif said with enthusiasm.
“No, thanks,” I replied. The thought of food turned my stomach. I realized Leif was telling my mother about the ski trip and I panicked, trying to think of some way to stop this.
“Oh, that would be perfect, Pagan. Aunt Margie has asked us to come to the ranch for Thanksgiving but I hated to take you back there to witness her mourn her first Thanksgiving without Ted. She needs me and I could go if you were spending the holiday in the mountains with friends.
I won’t feel like you’re suffering at all. That is just perfect.
Leif, thank you. I need to call your parents tonight and get details. I want to send money with her, though, I don’t like the idea of your parents paying for her.” Leif shook his head. “Oh, no, ma’am, that’s not necessary.
They want to pay for her. She has been an answer to their prayers with my Speech grade this year. They couldn’t have paid for a better tutor.” He flashed a wicked grin down at me and then smiled politely back at my mom.
They were planning this as if it was a done deal. Mom wasn’t going to tell me no or question it. I had no way out unless I wanted to hurt not only Leif, who didn’t deserve it, but Miranda too. She was no doubt thrilled about the trip and even though all I wanted to do was search for Dank, I couldn’t. At the moment I wasn’t sure how to begin to look for Dank. My plan had come to a crumbing halt. In a sudden burst of hope I’d checked Ebay for Cold Soul tickets thinking maybe if I went to a concert I could see him and know he was real. I could wipe out all these fears stirring inside of me that he was something I couldn’t have or touch. Even if I could afford the tickets I couldn’t afford the travel cost to get to his upcoming concert dates.
“I guess that’s what we need to do tomorrow,” Mom said brightly. I had no idea what she was talking about.
I stared up at her and frowned. “What?” She rolled her eyes. “Go buy your snow gear, silly. You’re going to need heavier winter clothing as well. Oh, this is going to be so much fun! I’m so excited about this. You two do your homework and I’m going to call Margie and let her know I’ll be there Thanksgiving.” Mom left us and Leif turned back around, smiling triumphantly, a box of fried rice in one hand and chopsticks in the other.
“She is cooler than cool, I swear. Wyatt’s parents put up a little fight. She was so easy.” He kissed the top of my head as he walked back around to sit down at the table. “You better call Miranda and tell her the good news before we get started. She’s waiting to hear from you.” I nodded and reached for my phone. I was going to have to act excited for Leif’s sake, and hers. The phone rang once before intense squealing erupted on the other line.
“Please say she said yes, please, please, please,” Miranda’s voice sang on the other line.
“She said yes,” I replied with a smile in Leif’s direction.
“FANTABULOUS! We’re going to have such a good time.
Shopping in the snow. How romantic is that? I mean really does it get any better than snow on quaint little streets full of shops? No, it doesn’t. However, I’ll warn you now, I’m not putting my foot in a ski. No way. I want to shop, not visit the ER for a big ‘ole ugly cast. Are you going to ski?” I glanced at Leif who could obviously hear her voice over the phone. He was nodding with a big grin on his face.
“I don’t know that I have a choice in the matter.” I replied.
“Ugh, well, I do and I’m not doing it. I mean, you fall and get cold wet bottoms. No way. Not going to do it.” Leif chuckled. “You wear a snow suit, Miranda, it keeps your bottom dry,” he called out loudly.
“Whatever, still not doing it. Oh, I need to call Wyatt and tell him. We have got to go shopping for real winter clothes.
You’ll have to put your community service aside for one afternoon or possibly two. Okay, well! SQUEEAAAA! I’ll talk to you later.” She hung up.
I closed my phone and laid it down on the table. “She may be a little hard to live with the next two weeks,” I said jokingly.
Leif nodded. “I think you may be right.” He leaned back in his chair. “So, tell me about this community service.” I didn’t want to talk to him about this. I stared down at the notebook in front of me.
“Well, I’m working as a volunteer at the hospital. Today I read books to kids.” I hoped that was all the information he needed. I peered up at him and the admiration in his eyes made me feel like a terrible person. I hadn’t gone to volunteer because I was concerned about others. I’d gone to find answers. However, I’d found all the answers I was likely to get there. She had just been a kid, but she had spoken like she knew exactly what she was talking about. Tomorrow I thought about talking to the elderly I knew didn’t have much time left to see if any of them would tell me if they had seen this “he” she referred to.
“You’re one special girl, Pagan Moore, and I’m incredibly lucky,” Leif said, gazing at me with an emotion in his eyes I didn’t deserve.
I shook my head. “No, I’m as normal as they come. Trust me. Now, let’s get some homework done.” I needed to change the subject before I broke down in tears and admitted what a horrible person I really was. I used Leif as a comfort and I had for so long. Now, I was using sick people to help me find Dank. Would I stop at nothing to find him? Was love meant to be this intense?
“Okay, this week we are faced with the challenging question: Should high school students rely on the aid of coffee in the mornings? Real deep, huh?” I managed a laugh I didn’t feel and reached for my laptop.
“I think we need to google this one. Because I for one think coffee is the nectar of the gods and, yes, we need it desperately. However, I’m thinking your teacher thinks differently.”
Leif shrugged. “I hate the stuff so I’m no help. Do you really think the internet is going to have information on this?”
I glanced over at him as I clicked enter. “Um, yes I do. We will have the health conscious groups’ arguments and Starbucks arguments both at our fingertips in just a second.” Leif leaned over, peered at the screen, and grinned. “Cool, so which side do I take for this speech?”