Memento Mori: Five – You’d Prefer an Astronaut
Alone With the Dead:
by Andrea Speed
Five – You’d Prefer an Astronaut
The people in the doorway were not ones he expected: they were Shane and Clay, a/k/a Larry and Curly. As usual, it was the hangdog Shane who spoke first. “Uh, hope we’re not disturbing you, Gryphon. We just got to the Red Dog when they were takin’ you away, and -”
“No, great, I’m glad you came,” he told them, frantically looking at the i.v. tubes in his arms, trying to figure out how to remove them. Were those really needles under his skin? How could he remove them without bleeding all over the place? Was that the point? “I really need to get out of here.”
Don’t do this, Mr. Aronfosky insisted. You’re honestly ill.
I told you he has death wish, Hugh pointed out.
The pair had stopped in the swath of light coming from the open door, but he could still see from their posture they were generally nonplussed. “Er,” Shane began hesitantly. “Should you do that? I mean -”
“This is a hospital,” he interrupted, gritting his teeth and yanking an i.v. out of his arm. It hurt more than he expected and bright tears to his eyes as he felt a spurt of warm blood from the hole. Sucking in a sharp breath, he continued, “It’s teeming with dead. I can feel them, and if I don’t get out of here now, they’re gonna overwhelm me. I need to -”
But it was too late. He felt someone else in the room with them, someone not taking in oxygen, and as he reached for his second i.v. with blood slicked fingers, he just had time to say, “Oh, fuck me,” before the world went away.
One thing he had learned as an “agent” or whatever the fuck he actually was, was that all people had different ideas of a “happy place”, and some of them were pretty unique. Which was why he was only mildly surprised to find himself in a clothing store. It was a woman’s clothing store, somewhat upscale judging from the amount of silks, cashmere, tweed, and other fine fabrics on display, and the elegant dresses and finely cut suits. The carpet was a plush navy blue, the walls whiter than eggshells, and as he looked around, he found there was one other person there: a woman at the counter, folding up a pair of silk pants and putting them in a box with pink paper overflowing the sides.
She was an unremarkable looking woman, a bit overweight, probably no more than five three, long, lusterless brown hair held back in a ponytail, revealing a round and plain face, her pale eyes surprisingly flat and emotionless, the thousand yard stare of a torture victim. She could have been a zombie, if any of her flesh was rotting. “I used to like workin’ here,” she said, finishing packing up the pants. “Believe it or not. Before Ron made me quit.”
“Ron?” he asked, looking around. He didn’t see his own reflection in the mirror, but that wasn’t too startling. This was her world, not his.
“My husband,” she said wearily, but at the same time she said it, he knew.
It came in a rush, and he remembered everything, how the name came with the taste of blood and the sound of breaking bones, and how death – as painful as it was – was something of a relief, an escape from all that pain. Love was cruelty, as blunt and brutal as a hammer – much like the one he murdered her with. Oh god, he hated this; he hated being a conduit for the world’s pain, which was voluminous, unending, and wickedly creative. “Julie,” he began, running hands through his hair and trying to get a grip on his wildly careening emotions. Disgust was a big one; it was hard not to be disgusted when you found yourself beaten to death. Ray’s betrayal by his friends was absolutely nothing compared to this.
Her whole life had been a slow motion train wreck, leading up to this ultimate disaster. No Hollywood ending, no triumph or happiness, just a bloody coda that could have fit in to any horror movie. Perhaps the worst part was, when the end finally did come, she was glad it was finally over.
“I’m dead, aren’t I?” She asked, giving him a sickly smile.
He nodded, seeing no point in sugar coating it. “Yeah, I’m sorry. And I’ll get you briefed on what’s going on as soon as possible, but I really have to go right now. I’m sorry.”
She sighed and went back to boxing the pants, with the resigned weariness of the terminally disappointed. “Sure. It’s not like I’m going anywhere, is it?”
He wished he could tell her something happy or encouraging, but words tasted like ashes in his mouth. Julie Barker was one of those sad people who wandered through a painful and quietly desperate life, waiting for a payoff that never came. He couldn’t help but wonder if his life was an echo of hers, and he would end up much the same way, dying while waiting for some Godot that just never bothered to show.
He was back in the hospital room once more, holding the i.v. tube between his fingers, Clay and Shane studying him like he just projectile vomited a gallon of pea soup. “What just happened?” Shane finally asked.
“A ghost, that’s what happened. And that’s why I have to get out of here now. Can you give me a lift to my motel? That’s all I want.” He yanked out the other i.v. and watched the blood drip down his arm, too freaked to even feel pain now. Besides, it paled in comparison to being beaten to death by a hammer. It was funny how these sorts of thing gave him perspective.
He threw the blankets back, and was surprised but not disappointed to find he was wearing one of those awful paper gowns that gave easy ass access for docs who felt compelled to ram a probe up there.
“Are you saying the hospital’s haunted?” Shane wondered.
“Not haunted per se, just full of dead. There’s more than ghosts who slam doors and annoy the shit out of the living, you know; there are some who are stuck where they are, and don’t even know it.” The light from the open door let him see a bit more of the room, but it wasn’t helpful, as he could see little beyond his privacy curtain save for the shadows of other patients’ working machines. “Where are my clothes?”
He was asking his passengers, not the ghostbusters, but they both looked around, and Shane made a pointless “Uh” sound.
They’re probably in a cabinet, if they didn’t just cut them off and throw them away, Mr. Aronofsky said. Having been in the hospital a couple of times during his life – sometimes for himself, sometimes for his wife and other family members – he knew them pretty well.
I think I saw one after he was wheeled in, Hugh admitted reluctantly.
“Why don’t you check then?” Gryphon said, putting his feet on the floor and wondering if he could stand. He still felt light headed and weak in the knees, and his back inexplicably hurt (the spinal tap?), but he thought he could manage for the moment.
“Umm, you know, I’m not sure we should help you sneak out of the hospital,” Shane offered hesitantly. “We really don’t want to break any rules …”
“But you already did. This is hardly visiting hours, is it?” Thanks to Mr. Aronofsky, he knew that little tidbit.
He heard a drawer open, and both Shane and Clay looked to the left side of the room as if they’d heard a gunshot. The monitors of his unseen roommates started to sound a bit erratic, and Gryph could feel the static electricity crawling over his skin as something slapped the floor, making the two Stooges jump, and the sound of plastic sliding across the floor filed the tiny room off the ICU. It stopped at his bed, a plastic snap lid container full of clothes, and he reached down for it, saying, “Thank you, Hugh.”
I still think you’re a moron for doing this. But if you want to die this way, so be it.
His head swam a bit as he leaned over, but he managed to ride it out as he opened it and pulled out his jeans, slipping them on underneath his paper gown. He really didn’t like going commando, but for now he could live with it.
“Oh my god,” Clay gasped, sounding like he was about to pass out.
“You are the real thing, aren’t you?” Shane sounded a little winded himself.
The sense of static electricity faded, and the machines resumed their regular, monotonous beeping, as the two men gazed at him, slack jawed and pale in the sliver of yellow light. He wanted to laugh, but had neither the energy or inclination. They thought he was a fake, maybe mentally ill, and came to check up on him, and now, the true believers of the afterlife, were forced to believe something they had already dismissed.
He took off the paper gown and used it to wipe some of the blood off his arms before throwing it on the bed. He then pulled his t-shirt on (it did smell a little ripe, isn’t it?), and grabbed up his jacket, movement making him feel even more lightheaded, almost weightless. But he didn’t think he was going to pass out again, at least not now. “The real thing? Yeah, I guess I am. I don’t wanna be, but hey, we all have our crosses to bear, or some shit like that, right?” He pulled on his boots carefully, and felt winded by it, but tried not to let that show. “Can we go now?”
They remained stunned, but so much so that they acquiesced almost instantly. Perhaps they were a little afraid of him now – the man who commanded the ghost.
You don’t command shit, Taneesha snapped.
Ah, what would he do without her to keep him grounded? Probably enjoy life.
They went down the hall, and cut down the emergency access stairs, which turned out to be a bit more than he was ready for. He got a curious sense of vertigo looking down the stairwell, and had to grab on to the rail to keep from falling. Clay grabbed his arm, and said, “Are you sure about this?”
“Damn sure. I can feel them coming. I’m a magnet for them; I don’t know why.”
“Them?” Sweat beaded on his forehead, eyes flicking around nervously, as if seeking out the very things they were discussing. “Ghosts?”
“No, Shriners.” He scowled at him. “Can we go now?”
Clay helped him down the stairs, while Shane led the way, the advance guard. Gryphon felt the blood seeping into his sleeves, making the coat stick to him, but it was black and unlikely to be noticed. They were on the second floor when Clay asked, “How’d you know about my mother?”
The stairwell was cold, drafty, and many of the lights were out or flickering (was that his fault?), so it wasn’t always easy to see, making his sudden sense of vertigo that much worse. Surface and shadows seemed to jump and recede, like the staircase was moving. Clay smelled of some cloying aftershave, or maybe it was hair product since he had a beard, and softener that was just a bit too floral; it was hard for him to suppress a sneeze. “What? Oh, right.” Maybe it was due to the fever, the fact that he was still bleeding, or the general sensory overload, but he was too tired to lie. “Sometimes I just get a sense about dead people, especially if they seem to want to communicate something to the living. I got the sense your mother was very sorry, but she wanted you to know it wasn’t your fault, and she never meant to hurt you. You were her one regret. Does that make sense?”
A muscle in Clay’s jaw twitched, and he looked away, trying to hide the fact that his eyes were filling up with tears. But Gryphon had held back, not telling him that he already knew his mother, Sonya McLeod, had committed suicide when he was ten. A manic depressive woman (what would be called “bipolar” now), she waited until Clay had gone to school before straightening up his room, making some brownies, and then sticking her head inside her gas oven. Clay found the body, and the trauma of it all had set him down his path, fascinated with death and spirits. Especially since, when he was seventeen years old and in a car wreck, he was sure he had seen his dead mother, urging him to get out of the car. He did, in spite of a bad head injury, and the car was shortly afterwards engulfed in flames; had he remained inside, he probably would have died. But the fact that he had had a head injury made him wonder if he had really seen her at all; maybe, like everyone said, it was just a hallucination. Yet he kept trying very hard to prove it wasn’t, by proving the existence of ghosts.
Which he hadn’t done yet. But Gryphon knew he was probably thinking of him as his Holy Grail, the one thing that could prove it … maybe. If he wasn’t a complete loon. You can’t trust these people, Taneesha said. Beware of true believers, and people who need money real bad. Both of ‘em will sell you out, cause or cash, no hesitation.
You are such a cynic, Mr. Aronofsky said.
No, I think she has a point,Ray, the new guy, interjected. And if anybody should know, it’s me.
So speaketh the weasel, Hugh sniped.
Clay cleared his throat, swallowed hard, and finally said, “Yeah, it makes sense.”
They had just entered the final stairwell, the one that would dump them out into the front entrance – he sincerely hoped no one at the front desk recognized him in a vertical position – when he saw an elderly black man with a nimbus of gray hair, wearing one of those awful blue paper gowns, standing beside the exit door. He look straight at him, and said, “He’s after you.”
Gryphon looked over his shoulder, the stairwell yawing like a sinking ship, yet saw nothing but shadows. Some seemed to move, flicker like the negative of fire, but he was sure that was just a hallucination. (Right?) “Who?” he asked, looking back at the man.
“Who what?” Clay asked.
The man wasn’t there. Shane paused, hand on the door handle, and gave them a curious look. “Something wrong?”
What the hell was that? Ray asked, sounding anxious.
Gryphon wished he had an answer for him. “Nothing. Let’s just go.”
His stomach knotted, and he was so cold he could feel it in his marrow. Something was going very wrong here, and he was starting to understand that it was him.