Poppy Green hadn’t thought about men in that way since before she was killed, but here she was, thinking about them. Well, not them, just one, and she sure wished it wasn’t true. She remembered how silly and reckless those thoughts used to make her, and she didn’t think she ought to be that way now. After all, being a ghost wasn’t an excuse for being sloppy or forgetful.
Sitting in the waiting room, midnight, the rain pounding against the windows, Poppy shifted in her seat as Henry Taylor walked through the double doors. Heading for the vending machines, he didn’t look her way as always. He went straight to the section of wall between the machines. It was like his perch, or his piece of the rock.
Sighing, Poppy stared at the tile floor. There was no reason under this moon or any other for her to want Henry Taylor. Yeah, he was a ghost like her but also a good-for-nothing-son-of-a-gun. No better than the men she’d known before she’d passed. Back when any fool in a pair of trousers could trick Poppy into bed. Easy.
She’d never been able to see beyond a man’s outsides. And Henry’s outsides were too damn pretty to ignore. Sparkling dark eyes, sinewy muscles rippling up and down his forearms, a strong jaw that twitched when he got excited. Well, shit, she’d never been able to resist a guy like that. For that matter, who could? Made no sense having to control those urges. And she wasn’t about to lie to herself about it either—not even under the threat of eternal damnation.
Okay, that wasn’t true. She was scared of eternal anything when it came to the waiting room. Though Henry had intrigued her from the first moment she saw him. It was as if she’d known him forever. Although some of her ghost friends said that only meant she’d been in this version of purgatory too long.
Teetering on the edge of out of control, she glanced over at Henry helplessly. There he stood with his soldier boy haircut and big brown eyes. Crisply pressed uniform trousers and jet-black suspenders to hold ’em up. He also was wearing the hell out of a bright-white T-shirt, fitting snugly over his broad chest and massive shoulders, showing off his pecs and deltoids.
Damn. That shirt glowed like sunshine against his ebony skin.
She’d heard he’d died in World War II, serving his country honorably. In fact, he usually wore his dress blues and, like a soldier, stood straight-backed and stern in the waiting room.
Though today, he seemed different, somehow.
Standing tall with his back against the wall, legs crossed at the ankles, arms folded over his chest, he seemed more relaxed than other times.
Suddenly, his head turned in her direction and Poppy froze wide-eyed. It was as if he’d felt her watching him, or worse, could read her mind.
God, did he just wink?
Yes, Lord, that’s exactly what he’d done. He’d winked at her.
Next his lips curled into a smile and his dimples deepened in a way that, well, it took all her fleeting self-control not to trot on over and give him a big fat kiss on his sexy mouth. How dare he put a devilish grin on his face and make her want to shimmy out of her underpants.
A boom of thunder and she jerked her head toward the picture window and away from his scrutinizing gaze. The night’s rain had escalated into a driving storm.
Not a subtle way for the powers-that-be to remind her she had a job to do, she thought.
Purposefully, Poppy uncrossed her legs, tugged the hem of her skirt over her knees and folded her hands primly in her lap. She wasn’t going to get her job done thinking about Henry Taylor. That was for damn sure.
Chin raised, gaze striving for sharp, she looked around the waiting room.
It could be any hospital in the universe with its dirty white walls, rows of plastic chairs and vending machines. Except for a few oddities like a handful of ghosts and the soon-to-be-dead scattered throughout the other-worldly space. At least the soda machine dispensed Cherry Coke and Dr Pepper, she mused, and also light beer. Though the machines didn’t take quarters.
Of course, Poppy only had quarters in the pockets of her red dress when she died.
The coffee machine didn’t work either. When she first arrived in the waiting room, she thought it was her fault. She loved coffee and figured the powers-that-be were sticking it to her. Eventually, she decided she couldn’t blame herself for every little thing that went wrong in purgatory. In the afterlife, it wasn’t all about Poppy.
A spark of electricity crackled from the ceiling. She looked up.
The lamps were long rows of iridescent light fixtures, unkind to old eyes and pale flesh. Luckily, Poppy’s skin was a caramel-brown and took to the light beautifully. It also helped that she’d died young, barely twenty-five and wearing her favorite red dress, cut low in the front with her long kinky black hair freshly pressed and curled.
Scooting to the edge of her seat, eyes narrow, she contemplated her options. It was time to find someone to save, although she preferred to call it a haunting rather than saving. Sounded more ghostly.
An old man in a black suit sat next to a heavy-breasted woman with big, smiley eyes. She was holding a Bible, which meant the old girl was good to go.
Next to them a couple of kids around eight years old sat crossed-legged on the floor, playing an imaginary game. She wrinkled her nose. No worries here, either. Too young to haunt. She didn’t like scaring children.
Then she spotted him, and immediately knew, she’d found her newest assignment.
Huddled in a corner on the other side of the room a young man, mid-twenties, sat with his head down. Shoulders slumped, boots kicking at the tiles, he wiped his face with the back of his hand roughly.
Was he crying?
Poppy leaned back in her chair, thinking. People reacted different when they arrived in the waiting room. Some knew exactly where they were, even why. Others hadn’t figured it out or didn’t care, and of course a handful were scared shitless or worse, in denial.
She took a deep breath. No point in wasting any more time.
She rose to her feet and sauntered toward the young man, giving a quick glance at Henry on her way. She wanted to make certain he was where she could see him if she needed reassurance.Which didn’t make sense, but the thought crossed her mind, anyway.
A moment later, she was standing over the crying man. She bent forward at the waist, hoping to attract his attention. Make him raise his head and look at her. Then she could see his eyes, and know whether to haunt him or leave him alone.
He didn’t react though. He was lost in tears.
Plopping down in the seat next to him, she spoke, as if to no one in particular. “You think it’s ever going to stop raining. I swear the weather here is always the same. Dark skies, and rain, rain, and more rain.” She watched him intently to see if he responded in any way.
She shifted in her seat. Her butt was getting numb.
Absently, she glanced at the others remaining in the room. Not one of them looked at her or the young man. The old man and big-breasted woman, who had put the Bible away, were holding onto each other. The children were curled up on the floor in the fetal position, asleep. Exhausted by waiting.
It did take a lot out of you.
Then the old man, the woman and the children vanished. There weren’t any other ghosts or almost dead in the room, other than she and Henry, and the young man. Usually a few more ghosts would hang around. But not tonight. It was just two ghosts and a crying man who wouldn’t talk.
Poppy cleared her throat. “Believe in me,” she said quietly. “I’ll get you back to the world. Tell me what you did and we’ll fix it–together.”
He didn’t budge. Just kept his head down, staring at his hands, and the thick layer of calloused skin on his fingertips she could see from where she sat. She also could feel his chest aching from his sobs.
She wished he’d stop crying. He should be pissed off at death. “You aren’t all the way dead yet. You’ve still got a chance. ”
Gulping sobs, he still stared at his hands.
Poppy had to get him to respond. People wanted to be chosen, that’s why they waited. They wanted a second chance.
“Look at me, or if not at me, look around. You’re in the waiting room.” She paused, letting the words sink in. “Kind of like purgatory, but not in a Bible way. Don’t you understand? You have an opportunity and you’ve got to grab it.”
Sniffing loudly, he rubbed his hands over his face and sat up straight. He then squared his shoulders as if he’d made a decision.
Was he finally paying attention?
His breathing was choppy, and lifting his head, his eyes focused on her. His lips trembled, and his eyes filled with rage.
The crying young man leapt to his feet, and fast hands pulled the chair out from under her. She was on her butt on the tile. He bent over her, tears flying, and mouth shouting, “Who do you think you are? I can see you. You’re not a ghost. I’m not dead. I’m not dead!”
On her knees, Poppy raised her hands, palms out, in submission, wanting to calm him down.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Henry in motion, moving away from his wall, closing in on her and the young man. His body tense, he looked ready to pounce. She shook her head, no, and looked at the boy. “Please. Take a breath,” she said softly. “What’s your name? Tell me your name.”
Hunching forward, she made herself small, unthreatening. “I am not here to hurt you. I can only help.”
“Stop talking,” he said, his voice shaking. “Just stop talking.”
He pumped his fists at her, and then went morbidly still, except for his eyes. They darted around the room, glaring at invisible faces, challenging anything to see him. “Why won’t they look at me?” Then he turned to her. “Why can’t they hear us?”
His chest heaved and his eyes bulged.
“There’s no one here but the three of us,” she said.
Fiercely, he grabbed her by the shoulders, yanking her up from the tile, her feet dangled off the floor. His big hands wrapped around her throat and squeezed, and it hurt. Like when she was in bed with the man who wanted to strip off her red dress. This one had her by the throat, and squeezed and squeezed.
Stars. Thousands of stars floated in front of her eyes. She was going to pass out. Christ. She didn’t want to pass out. A ghost didn’t faint and shouldn’t have to worry about being choked to death.
Make him stop. It hurt. It hurt. She couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t see. Everything was going black.
“Get your fucking hands off her.” A male voice boomed.
She was on the floor again. Sprawled, legs and arms akimbo, her red dress up around her thighs. The madman’s hands weren’t around her throat anymore. They were in front of his face, trying to fend off a barrage of blows. He was getting his ass whipped.
Clawing at the tile, she scooted away from the swinging fists. Poppy blinked hard to clear her vision. When her eyes opened wide, she couldn’t help but smile, but quickly covered her mouth to hide it.
Wouldn’t you know it? Henry had come to her rescue.
The fight was over seconds later. And Henry was at her side, a light sweat on his brow, as he reached out his big hands, offering to help her up.
She scrambled to her feet on her own, not wanting to be too much of a damsel, but mostly she was embarrassed. Offering up her ghost-haunting services hadn’t gone well.
Pulling her skirt straight, she combed her fingers through her hair and brushed the curls off her shoulders, except for a few strands she left hanging over one eye. “Thank you for helping a girl out.”
“He was hurting you.” Henry shoved his hands in his pockets. “I don’t let that happen to a woman if I’m nearby. I would have intervened sooner, but…”
“Yeah, I know.” She cut him off. Then she messaged her throat, still a bit undone about being choked. “But I asked you not to.”
“I know, and I waited as long as I dared.” He shrugged. “Until it was clear he would’ve killed you.”
“That’s odd, you worrying about me getting killed when I’m already dead.” She looked over her shoulder at the man who’d choked her. He’d slid to the floor and was sitting cross-legged, near the swinging doors, still sobbing. “I guess I made a bad choice with that one, huh?”
Henry nodded in agreement. “You didn’t sound sincere when you offered to save him.”
“You were listening?”
“The conversation got loud.”
Then it dawned on her. Had he just insulted her? “You said I didn’t sound sincere?” Her voice rose. “You saying this was my fault?”
“I think you wanted to haunt the first person who didn’t turn away.”
Poppy wrinkled her brow, confused. “Well, yeah, that was the plan.”
“It wasn’t a good plan.” Turning, he marched toward the soda machine.
She placed her hands on her hips. Watching his backside as he neared his spot against the wall, she huffed, and just like that she was mad. In her decades in the waiting room she didn’t recall seeing him save or haunt anyone. How dare he criticize her?
She stomped after him. “When did you become the expert on saving souls?” She went to poke him in the back, but he spun and faced her and she almost jabbed him in the chest.
She dropped her hand, self-consciously and placed it on her hip. “How come you get to pass judgment?”
He wrinkled his brow and shook his head. Weary, like he didn’t want to say what was on his mind. But then he did. “Your skills of persuasion could use some work.”
“You don’t have to be rude,” she replied. “Besides, I’ve never seen you haunt anyone.”
He chuckled. “I’m not a ghost, Poppy.”
“What the hell do you mean by that? You’re dead. I’m dead. I’m here. You’re here. That’s who we are and what we do. The waiting room or purgatory, whatever you want to call it–this is where we find souls to haunt, and help them fix what they screwed up.”
He backed into the wall as if it had the power to pull him into place. “Tell me how you died.” His eyes were a fire burning into her. “You’re a pretty girl. Can’t be more than twenty-five. How did you die?”
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 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.