She opened her mouth and then clamped it shut. How dare he ask her that? “We don’t talk about those things,” she said. In the waiting room, you didn’t talk about what had happened before. “Once you’re dead, and a ghost, it doesn’t matter how you got here.”
He didn’t flinch. He kept staring at her. Then, back still braced against the wall, he slid down into a squat, comfortable, as if he intended to be there for a while. “If you tell me how you died, maybe you can help me.”
Help him how, why, with what? Ghosts didn’t help ghosts, but oh, that’s right, he wasn’t a ghost. Damn. This wasn’t the way her job worked.
Glaring at him, she chewed her lower lip, chomping on it like it was gum, but it didn’t help. She could feel her anger slipping. His eyes looked sad and beautiful and perfect like the morning sky on a summer day.
Her arms relaxed at her side, but then she folded them across her chest, refusing to let go of her last bit of stubbornness. “Why do you want to know how I died?”
“I said it might help me find the truth, help me believe if I’m a ghost or not,” he said quietly.
With a sigh, she caved. “Okay.”
Kneeling in front of him, she spoke slowly. “I lived in a small town in Ohio, a clay mining town. My family’s house was on the other side of the railroad tracks.” She gulped a breath. “People back then were on their own young, and to keep from messing up real bad, you got married young, way too young.”
Adjusting her position, she folded her legs beneath her and took another deep breath. “My husband disappeared one day and was gone a long while, and I missed him for a long while, but then a neighbor friend and I got to talking, and picking corn and okra together, and after a while, a long while, we were in bed. We were just thinking about doing it. I had all my clothes on.” She scrunched up her face. Why did she tell him that part? Didn’t make any difference to the outcome.
“Well, truth is I was thinking about doing it, but my neighbor was more than thinking. Except wouldn’t you know it, the night I decided to think about being with another man, my long-gone husband came back home.”
“Sounds like bad luck.”
Poppy cocked her head. “It wasn’t too bad. I died quick.”
“I didn’t mean that.” Henry’s voice was low.
She got up from the floor, pulled a plastic chair out of its row, placed it in front of him and sat down. That was enough about her. “What about you? When did you die?” she asked.
“You didn’t what?”
She clapped her hands together sharply, and then pointed at him shaking. “You are definitely dead. I’ll give you the ghost part, but you’ve been here for decades.”
“Can you really tell how much time passes here?” He waved at the room. “I know I’m not on Terra Firma.”
She squinted at him, puzzled.
“Terra firma, Latin for solid Earth,” he explained. “I know I’m not on Earth, but I’m not dead.”
She rolled her eyes. “Look, you died in 1944, at the end of World War II.” She felt obligated to help him get a grip on reality. “Besides, you saw that boy I tried to save. You hit him. If you did that then you’re dead because he was in the light.”
She exhaled, frustrated. “It’s just the way the powers-that-be help ghosts like us reach, you know, the Promised Land.”
“You believe that?”
“Just because you don’t believe, don’t ridicule me.”
“No, I’d never do that.” Rising from his squatting position, he stepped toward her.
Abruptly, she stood up, and tried to back away from him, but the chair got in her way.
When he stopped, his body was close, not touching her, but really close. He was barely a breath away.
“Tell me the rest of it,” he whispered. “Tell me exactly how you died.”
Christ. The way he looked at her and the vibration in his voice, well, it was like his eyes and words were conspiring, tricking her into wanting to tell him. Everything. “The man I was with was named Billy Sanders. He was a big, smooth-talking man. ”
Henry nodded. “You like men.”
“I loved men,” she said quietly. “It wasn’t a problem. I enjoyed them. When I was real young, I just got distracted by the pretty ones, like you.”
He tilted his head and frowned a little. “So you’re here because you cheated on your husband.”
She inhaled sharply. “No, I didn’t.”
“Tell the truth.”
“He’d been gone more than three years. I believed he was dead. Had to be dead for not coming home. He loved me like crazy, and I didn’t need any other man after I married him. But after all those years I got lonely.”
She remembered how she hated the gossips that thought she hadn’t loved her husband. She wouldn’t have gone near Billy if she thought Tommy was still alive.
“So your husband found you with this other man and killed you?”
Her leg started shaking. She hadn’t told this story in, well, ever. “Why do you need to know this? We’re ghosts. Our lives are done. Finished. ”
Abruptly, Henry started digging into his trouser pockets. Seemed like he was agitated. She couldn’t blame him. The conversation wasn’t going the way he wanted.
With his hands in his pockets, he walked over to the soda machine. When he pulled his hand out, he was holding a quarter. He dropped it into the slot just as she was about to tell him that quarters didn’t work in the machine. But by then, the soda can had clanked into the bottom of the bin.
How come quarters worked for him?
He turned. “You want a soda? Or a beer?” He looked back at the machine for a moment. “Did you notice this machine has something called light beer?” His head swiveled as he looked around the waiting room, his eyes narrow, observing the things that didn’t match up, she imagined.
“I don’t drink beer,” she replied.
He tore open the soda can with a flip of his thumb and took a long sip. “This tastes good.”
He extended the can to her. “Want a drink?”
She thought of something funny and scary. “Are you Satan, tempting me with a Cherry Coke instead of an apple?” She laughed. “You’d have better luck if you fixed the coffee machine.”
Straight-faced, he shot a glance at the coffee machine. “It doesn’t work?”
“Come on Henry. You’ve been here long enough to know that.”
“I thought it worked.” He took another swallow. “You do know, I’m not the devil, but I still need you to tell me how your husband killed you?”
“I didn’t say he did.”
Henry raised a brow. “He didn’t kill you?”
“What difference does it make if he did or didn’t?”
He put the soda can on top of the vending machine and stepped toward her, wrapping his fingers around her arms and looking deeply into her eyes. “I don’t want to spoil the surprise.”
His hands were incredibly warm, but not blisteringly hot, which she’d expected for some reason. Still, bargaining with him didn’t sound like a good idea, but she went with it anyway. “If you tell me how you died,” she said. “I’ll tell you who killed me.”
He raised a finger. “Remember I’m not a ghost, so not dead.”
“Then tell me how you got here.”
He took her hand and led her to a bench in front of the picture window she’d never seen before.
Henry sat first, and patted the spot next to him. She sat down, not as close he had indicted, but not too far away.
“Go ahead,” she said. “Tell me.”
He rested his elbows on his knees and folded his hands beneath his chin. She bet he was having a hard time coming up with a story. Why didn’t he just accept the truth, she wondered?
When he sat up, he exhaled loudly. “I was sent here, not by death, or the devil, but by the powers-that-be.”
“What?” Her mouth hung open in surprise. “I’m supposed to believe that you’re one of them?”
“No, not one of them, sent by them.” He nodded toward the coffee machine. “It works, I promise you can have as much coffee as you like, and the vending machines always take my quarters.”
“But you’re not…”
“No, I’m not a ghost, like you, but I am here to save a soul.”
“So who are you trying to save? There’s no one left here but the old couple.” She glanced over to where they were sleeping, but they weren’t there. “Where did they go?”
“It’s just you and me.” Henry lifted a leg over to the other side of the bench. Straddling it, he faced her.
A thought caught her off guard, but her mouth opened with a question. “Are you here to save me?” she asked.
“If you’re not a ghost, and you’re not dead, what are you?”
“You wouldn’t believe me.”
“Try me,” she said.
“As soon as you finish telling me about the night you died.”
“That wasn’t our deal.”
“Tell me,” Henry insisted.
She patted her throat, the pain of being choked still fresh. She felt Henry’s staring at her, waiting. She looked at him, and knew she was going to say it.
“Billy Sanders killed my husband the night I died. When Tommy, that was my husband’s name, walked in on us, he looked at me, as if his life had been ripped out of him even before Billy shot him.”
She gulped back tears she refused to shed and waited for Henry to say something, or look at her with disgust or pity.
“When Billy shot Tommy, I screamed and couldn’t stop screaming. I guess Billy wanted me quiet, and he went crazy. He still wanted to do it, and I didn’t want to and I wasn’t naked, and he tried to take off my dress, and he…put his hands around my throat.”
“So Billy killed your husband first, and then killed you.”
The tears she’d fought to keep from falling fell, and she dropped her head into her hands, and sobbed.
She felt Henry’s hands on her shoulder, coaxing her to look at him.
When she did he wiped her tears, and with a half-smile on his lips said, “Your bad luck was that your husband came back a day late. He was gone too long, and he never blamed you. He always blamed himself.”
Turning away, she stared at the floor. “How would you know what he thought?”
“I told you I was sent here by the powers-that-be.”
“What are you Henry Taylor?”
“A man who came back too late, and then waited too long to admit to his wife that it wasn’t her fault.”
“Yes, and no, and maybe,” he said. “I am forgiveness and guilt, and shame, and love.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I’m not a ghost,” he said. “I’m not dead. I am the man who has loved you for a long while, and just couldn’t get home.”
She stared at him, looking into him, through him. She saw the handsome, strong, powerful man she fell in love with long ago, and the man she’d watched for an eternity in the waiting room, meld into one being.
He squeezed her shoulders. “I was stolen, tossed in prison for nothing,” he said, “But I couldn’t get word to you. When Billy killed me, I thought it was my fault, what I deserved for not finding a way to get back to you sooner.” He swallowed. “You thought I was dead, but I wasn’t, just helpless, watching him kill you, and at that moment…” His voice broke. “The moment I knew you were dead, I knew I would never rest until I could be with you again.”
“Oh my God.” If was as if she was seeing him for the first time and the hundredth time all at once. “You’re not Henry?”
“I’ve been watching you for a long time, Poppy Green. Or I should say we’ve been watching each other. Dancing around what we wanted to say from what we didn’t want to say. And today is the day we get to stop dancing.”
Henry or Tommy, whoever he was, grinned at her with more love in a smile than she thought possible. “Why did you say you aren’t dead?” she asked. “I’ve been here, dead, and waiting forever.”
“Because I’ve always loved you and that has kept me alive.”
“How could you love me?” she sobbed. “I cheated on you.”
“No, baby. You got lonely. That’s all. “He leaned forward and kissed her on the cheek and her heart skipped a beat. The way it used to when Tommy touched her.
”What happens next?” she asked, looking deeply into his eyes.
“If you believe in me.” His hands cupped her face. “What happens next is we live.”
When his lips touched hers, she closed her eyes, and concentrated on the feel of him. The way his mouth moved against hers, how his arms circled her waist, and how close he held her body to his. His breath hitched when her tongue responded to his, and then she felt his heart beating against her breast, as she matched his desire with a kiss that would last an eternity.
God, what if he was right? What if they were alive? Then, again, did it matter? As long as they were together and she could feel him, touch him, and kiss him. There was no need to fear life or death or the waiting room.
Poppy opened her eyes.
Want to read this story in one post? Visit the Waterworld Mermaids Free Read page and click on the story title. Come back on Monday with the next installment in Ghosts in Mermaid Lagoon with a story by Dana Rodgers.