“How do you know?”
“I talk to the dead, remember? And not just ghosts,” she added, “but those who have passed on.”
“Passed on to heaven?” I asked.
“Passed on to something,” she said. “Neither heaven nor hell. A spirit world—and it’s waiting for you.”
I didn’t believe that. I believed in heaven and hell, and I was certain, as of this moment, that I was going to hell. “Well, it can keep on waiting. I’m not ready to pass on.”
“I need to work some things out,” I said.
“And then what?” she asked.
“And then I will accept my fate.”
She nodded. “But for now, you hope to change your fate.”
She looked at me with bloodshot eyes. Sitting on the couch, she had tucked her bare feet under her. Now her painted-red toes peeked out like frightened little mice.
“Nice imagery,” she said, wiggling her toes. “So you still can’t remember why you are going to hell?”
“No,” I said.
“But it was something bad.”
“Very bad,” I said.
“Bad enough to burn forever?” she asked.
“Somebody died, I think.”
“So you’ve said, but you still don’t remember who or why.”
I shook my head. “No, but it happened a long, long time ago.”
“And with your death,” she added, “it was the first of your memories to disappear.”
She was right. My memories were disappearing at an alarming rate. The earlier memories of my life were mostly long gone. “Yeah, something like that,” I said.
“And now you’re afraid to pass on because you think you are going to hell, even though you can’t remember why you are going to hell.”
“It’s a hell of a conundrum,” I said.
She nodded, then got up, padded into the adjoining kitchen, and poured herself another drink. When she came back and sat, some of her drink splashed over the rim of her glass.
“Don’t say a word,” she cautioned me.
I laughed and drifted over to the big bay window and looked out over Los Angeles, which glittered and pulsed five stories below. At this hour, Los Feliz Boulevard was a parking lot dotted with red brake lights as far as the eye could see. I had heard once that it was one of the busiest streets in the world. Standing here now, I believed it.
After a while, Pauline came over and stood next to me. Actually, some of her was standing inside me. She shivered with the sensation, apologized, and stepped back. Ghostly etiquette.
I thought of my sweet music teacher. According to the paper, she had been murdered just days away from her sixtieth wedding anniversary. Sixtieth.
Anger welled up within me. As it did so, a rare warmth spread through me. Mostly, my days were filled with bone-chilling cold, minus the bones. But whenever strong emotion was involved, such as anger, I became flush with energy. And when that happened—
“Hey,” said Pauline. “Someone’s making a rare appearance.”
And so I was. So much so that I could actually see myself reflected in the big sliding glass door. Next to me was Pauline, looking beautiful but drunk. Bloody wounds covered my body—in particular, my forehead, neck, and chest.
I didn’t get to see myself often, and despite my anger, I took advantage of this rare opportunity. Pale and ethereal, I was just a vague suggestion of what I had once been—and I was growing vaguer as the years pressed on. There was stubble on my jaw, and my dark hair was indeed askew. Eternal bedhead.
“But you’re still a cutie,” said Pauline, giggling, now almost entirely drunk.
And with those words and that infectious giggle, my anger abated and I started fading away again.
“Tell me about your murdered friend,” said Pauline.
“She wasn’t necessarily a friend.”
She explored my mind a bit more. “My apologies. Your piano teacher from grade school.”
“Why would someone kill her?” she asked.
“I don’t know.”
She paused, then nodded knowingly. “I see you intend to find out.”
“And perhaps save your soul in the process?”
“That’s the plan,” I said. “For now.”
“You do realize you have limits to where you can go and what you can do, right?”
I shrugged. “Minor technicalities.”
The girl could see me, and amazingly, she wasn’t afraid.
Since she and her mother were new tenants in the apartment building I haunted, I swung by to say hello like any good neighbor. And by “swinging by,” I mean I walked straight through their front door and into their living room.
To my surprise, the little girl immediately looked up from where she was sitting at a desk in the far corner of the room. Her eyes impossibly huge and innocent. She was young, perhaps seven or eight, about the age of my own daughter.
Hey, maybe they’ll be friends.
I was in a low-energy state, which meant I was just a murky drift of ectoplasm that was vaguely humanoid and barely visible, even to myself. It would take a keenly aware medium to see me now.
But she sees you now, I thought.
Indeed. And a thrill coursed through me.
She stood slowly from her swivel chair. I could hear her mother in the other room, unpacking and singing contentedly to herself, unaware that her daughter had just made contact with the Great Beyond.
The girl approached me carefully, as if walking a tightrope. As if, remarkably, she was afraid of scaring me off. Tough girl. She stopped ten feet away. There was a smudge of chocolate in the corner of her mouth. I could see her brain working behind those impossibly huge eyes.
“I’m not afraid of you,” she said. “I see ghosts all the time.”
I smiled and impressed the image of a friend into her mind.
“You’re a good ghost,” she said, nodding. “Some ghosts are not good; some are bad.”
I next tried impressing the images of my daughter and wife and my apartment down the hall, but none of this got a response from her. She was attuned, but not highly attuned. Like a deaf musician.
“You don’t have to talk if you don’t want to,” she said. “Mommy thinks I make up the ghosts, anyway. Maybe I do. Maybe ghosts are just figmentals of my imagination, like she says.”
Despite her bravado, there was still a touch of fear in her eyes. I smiled reassuringly, but I wasn’t sure if she could see the fine details of my smile. She studied me a moment longer, shrugged, then plodded back to her chair. Once seated, she swiveled around and faced me, her bare feet dangling just inches from the faux-hardwood floor.