“The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living.”
— Marcus Tullius Cicero
I really wanted to say something cliché like, “I should’ve known you’d show up,” but I refrained. She probably knew what I was thinking, anyway.
She always had.
Unlike other ghosts, whose comings and goings were marked by a generic burst of cold, she was more like a beach breeze, soft and misty and vaguely smelling of something pure and ever-changing.
Her presence wafted around my head, and I inhaled deeply, letting the scent mingle with my feelings of pleasant surprise, guilt, and foreboding.
I opened my eyes. It was still night, or probably early morning, and the only light in the bedroom came from Michelle’s fluorescent form. She was hovering near the window, gazing at me.
“Well,” I began, easing my body against the headboard to sit up properly. “I should’ve known–”
Her voice was unusually curt, and I closed my mouth with a little snap.
“You had a visitor last night. Someone looking to move on.”
I had been hoping for a little pre-conversation, to catch up on old times, but clearly, Michelle was all business today.
Smoothing out the blankets over my knees, I said, “Yeah, it was a boy. Pretty modern, last few decades at least. Looking for a girl.” I arched an eyebrow at her. “Do you know him? Or did you?”
Tenses were tricky with ghosts.
Michelle didn’t answer. Her gaze slid from mine to the window. The gauzy curtains were dirty, I noticed idly.
“Something’s happened. Something bad. The dead are . . . restless.”
I considered this. Ghosts didn’t technically qualify as dead, since they still remained in the mortal realm. Due to their “unfinished business,” their souls broke free at the time of their death and wandered around until a Reaper could find their loose lifelines, or they managed to move on by themselves or with help from someone like me. But ghosts didn’t like being called Undead, because well, that was quite a different kettle of fish altogether.
“Jay?” Michelle had come nearer during my reverie, and I could plainly see the pale scars across her translucent nose and the tangles in the dark curly afro that framed her head like a warm cloud.
It hurt to look at her, and I turned away.
“The dead aren’t my business anymore. I’m too old now. Too beat up.”
“I sent him on his way,” I said, talking to the wall. “I couldn’t help him.”
“Forty years ago, you would have done anything to–”
I threw the blankets off with one fierce movement, and fumed as they simply phased through Michelle’s body.
“Forty years ago, you were by my side! Forty years ago, we helped ghosts together! Forty years ago, you weren’t ONE OF THEM!”
It was an old argument, and resignation settled in her eyes as she listened to me rant childishly.
I growled in frustration, and heaved myself out of bed to stalk over to the window, shoving aside the dirty curtains. The backyard was thankfully empty, and I could see the swings moving slightly in the night breeze.
Then, Michelle was there, floating in front of me. She reached through the glass and cloth to touch my face, and her hands were cold and tingly, but it had been so long . . . so long since we’d last made contact that I didn’t care, but tilted my head into her palms, eyes closed, placing my own hands on top of hers.
We stood there like that for a long time.
As ghosts have near-infinite patience, I had to be the first to break the silence, and I asked quietly, “. . . Why did you stay away so long?”
A frown crinkled her forehead and mouth, revealing the small wrinkles that had had begun to appear on her otherwise youthful face. She always did look younger than she was. Had been. Whatever.
“I was angry . . . And time . . . is different for us,” she said slowly, meaning ghosts. “I don’t notice the seasons passing . . . or the days and months going by . . . And I had gone so far away . . .”
She cupped my face more securely to stare into my eyes. “But I am sorry. I just . . . I have to help them. The others. To move on, like we used to do together. That’s my Purpose.”
I smiled at her using that word instead the hated “unfinished business.” A ghost’s memories were usually convoluted at best, forgetting everything except their Purpose. But Michelle remembered much more than the average spook. She could also hold a grudge longer, hence why we hadn’t seen each other for more than a decade. She hadn’t been able to tolerate my quitting the ghost business, and had flown off one day and never come back. With her face so close to mine now, it was almost like nothing had changed, like we were still together.
I knew better.
“But the dead aren’t moving on?” I said, suppressing a sigh and moving her hands away, wanting both to never move from this spot and for her to just leave me alone. “They’re restless, you say?”
Michelle nodded earnestly, floating higher near the ceiling to look down at me. “Helping them move on has become difficult. There is something fearful happening in the Underworld, and the Reapers are distracted. More people are becoming ghosts, more Purposes are unable to be fulfilled. Death has become involved.”
That was intriguing. If Ol’ Skullface himself was dealing with an Underworld crisis, there might actually be some serious trouble brewing. But . . .
“What do you need me for? How can I possibly help? I have no business with Death,” I said. “Yet, anyway.”
“You’re the best Liberator in the world,” she said, sounding proud. Obviously, she remembered my being conducive to flattery. “Ghosts need your help. Humans need your help. The Earth needs–”
“My help, yes, I’ve gathered,” I said, cutting her off with a sweep of my hand. “And let me guess, if I don’t, they’re just going to come here anyway, right?”
Michelle nodded, looking somberly out the window, and I remembered my un-updated security system. I ran a hand over my eyes and sighed.
There was only one way out of this.
“Where can I find Death?”