The story was originally published in 2010 in Adventures for the Average Woman.
I bounce off the walls around a hospital room, scattering amber sparks in the air. Why do I do that? The only people in the room, the three green-clad nurses, don’t notice my antics. They are fussing with the machines, trying to revive an old lady on a bed. At such speed, I can’t be sure, but I don’t think my body looked so ugly when I was alive.
I almost stop from shock. My body? Yes! I am dead. I am free. Free at last from the constant ache in my bones, free from the hated wheelchair. Free from worry about my loutish grandson Colin. Why am I flying? I never believed in any god when I lived, sure I would be rotten meat when I died. Why am I whizzing in all directions like an agitated fly?
I have to slow down and think but I can’t. I fly even faster, darting from wall to wall like my great-granddaughter Lily, when she is happy. The silly girl is happy all the time; it is easy to be happy at three. Am I happy? And what am I, if my body is cooling down on the bed? Am I a demented firecracker? Nah. Am I a ghost? Unfortunately, I can’t see myself at such velocity. I only see the occasional amber motes trailing in my wake.
Eventually, I manage to grasp a chromium IV stand. I perch on top of the plastic medicine bag. Some useless drug is still dripping into the dead body.
Am I a spirit?
I look towards a dark hospital window for enlightenment. Three reflections are very busy in there. A tall green man’s reflection pumps my former chest vigorously. The reflection of a green woman fiddles with the switches on the headboard. The reflection of the third man says, “Once again, on my mark.”
Then I notice another reflection in the dark mirror of the window. On top of the IV stand, a vaguely heart-shaped blob, looking like a living amber pendant, pulses with golden highlights.
Is it me?
I switch my gaze back to the room but can’t see amber in the dim bluish nightlight, only the green wrinkles of hospital uniforms and the dull metal of the switchboard. I probably can’t see my spirit, just like I could never see my eyes, except in a mirror.
But I can see the other people’s spirits inside their bodies. Wow!
The woman’s spirit is a splash of teal. It throws turquoise confetti in my direction. The men’s spirits are both maroon, similar like twins. They don’t pay attention to me.
Why am I here?
In all the religions I have ever studied, spirits go to some deserved place after death. Where is that place for me? I take off again, slower this time. I practice circling the small chamber, weaving my way over and around the medical devices, even diving under the huge bed. The longer I exercise, the easier it becomes. Obviously, even for a spirit, practice makes perfect. But where do I fly at all? I waft closer to the woman, intent to talk to her spirit. Maybe it knows.
It flinches away. “Don’t touch me!” it screams. The shower of confetti intensifies. They sting, and I veer off.
“Stop the damn machine, Thomas.” the woman says. “She’s gone.”
Thomas stops pumping my chest. “Yeah.”
The third man turns off every switch on the board, extinguishing all the tiny lights. “Let’s do the paperwork. Why is it always on my shift?” His grumble trails off, as all three disappear down the corridor.
I linger, but nobody wants me here. My children probably haven’t been notified yet. Even when they are, they wouldn’t need me. They will use the corpse. Should I attend my funeral? Nah. I have never gone to a funeral when I was alive: too gloomy for my taste. I wouldn’t change my opinion just because I died. I would leave and search for a new abode. It ought to be better than here.
I sail to the window, attempt to push through, and recoil. An unpleasant brown tingle permeates my being. Is it spiritual pain? I shake it off and bunch myself into a tight amber ball. No brown nuisance will stop me.
I push harder, maneuvering between the stinging strands of grayish brown. I have to zigzag around them like a fish on an obstacle course, but finally, I burst outside, into the crystal-clear night, unhampered by brown.
I speed up over the lights, vibrating with joy. I am climbing to the stars. Alas, when I reach the top of the science building, the tallest in the university compound, I bump into a barrier. An invisible force field is blocking my triumphant ascent. Bummer.
Thwarted in my star-bound flight, I glance around. If I have to stay below, I might as well find myself a comfortable roost. I float above the houses until I locate a cozy roof with a blooming apple tree over it. I settle at the side of a chimney, on a nice spiritual settee, and try to sort out what has just transpired.
I am a spirit. I know it now, although I am not sure how. In my experience as a reader and a moviegoer, a spirit only stays on earth if it has an unfinished business. What is my unfinished business? I was eighty-three years old my last birthday. I have three decent children, five grandchildren, and even one great-granddaughter, my sunny, wee Lily. I buried two husbands. I worked. I sinned. I planted begonias. What is left?
Of course, I have regrets, who doesn’t? Still, the only thing really undone in my life is my writing. I started writing late, although I have always had stories in my head. They have been my best friends, my stories. They kept me going through rough times, and I hoarded them like a miser, never letting anyone know, never sharing.
I started writing when the stories could not sit inside me any longer, and when I had enough leisure to write them down. But then, my first husband died, and I had to work long hours to help the children through college. And then my grandchildren appeared, one after another, and I didn’t have time at all. And then, I had just given up. It was too hard to juggle work, husbands, children, and writing. Something had to go, so the writing went, but the stories remained with me. How many of them do I remember?
They rush to my call like old friends, at least a dozen of them, arguing which one should be written first. Real and fantastical, stretching hands and wings, they swirl around me and my apple blossoms, so dear, so close, my unborn children. I remember all of them. Do they keep me here? But spirits don’t write stories. How can I finish this business?
Then a simple and brilliant solution hits me. Of course. I must look for another body, a living one, here on campus. With so many young and foolish student bodies around, I should be able to find one and take possession. I don’t know how but I would cross that bridge when I come to it. I would live again. And this time, no matter what, I would write.
I roam the university grounds for days before I locate the first perfect body. Young and excited, she hangs on every word of her English professor, jotting notes like an automaton, her spirit glowing like a tiny pink pulsar. I sail closer and settle on the back of her chair, enjoying the sight of that shining pearl of a spirit.
“Could you, please—” I start.
The little fellow flares combatively. “Keep away, old snoop.” It pushes me away with belligerent pink waves.
They sting like the window in the hospital room. I hastily withdraw. “All right, all right. No need to be so possessive. I’m leaving.”
It blazes scarlet and doesn’t settle back to its charming pink until I reach the door.
My next candidate I find in a bar. I understand this bitter girl—I was once like that myself. I approach her more cautiously, not wanting to alert her sad, agonizing spirit. She is drunk, poor wench, and her violet spirit wavers inside her body like flame in a breeze.
“I hate him,” the girl mumbles to the bartender.
He nods sagely, wiping his beer glasses.
“I hate him.” She hiccups.
“You’re in pain,” I murmur. “Let me help, dear, let me have this body.”
The violet spirit explodes like a tipsy atomic bomb. It rushes out in a fit of drunken protectiveness, battering me with obscene lilac beams. “Thief!” it screams.
I dodge the beams.
The girl slumps over the counter. A flimsy violet string that connects her to her militant spirit vibrates like a drunken ditty. I can grab the string and slide into the body along its polished length, but it feels wrong, unwelcoming.
Cringing under the black hostility of all the other spirits in the bar, I retreat.
I search again, floating through the auditoriums and the study rooms. Maybe I can cajole that freckled young librarian to share the body with me. I like her quaint, speckled spirit. We can coexist. I am not greedy.
“Hello, darling,” I begin. “Would you share? We might become a famous writer together.”
The spirit spits out a rainbow of indignant fireflies and doesn’t answer at all. I can’t even sidle closer; the fireflies keep me at bay. I glide off.
Why are they so selfish, these young spirits? They don’t have any unfinished business. Why wouldn’t any of them leave for heaven and give up the body to me? If I wander around the university for much longer, I might go mad and start haunting the campus. They would be sorry.
I urgently need a body to start writing, any body. Two new stories sprouted to life during my fruitless search: one story about a scarf; another about twins. They itch like allergy rash, demanding a release. But the force field over the university has become stronger than ever. Believe me, I tried. And I am still short of a writing body.
Perhaps I have been going about this business all wrong? Perhaps I don’t need a young and healthy body? Any body would do, as long as it has a pair of eyes to see a computer screen and a pair of hands to type. I return to the university hospital. I prowl its floors, room by room, but even old and feeble spirits don’t want me around, clinging to their disintegrating bodies by only the thinnest of filaments.
I can’t do it. No body is available. I am doomed to haunt the university forever. Wallowing in my dejection, I hang from a hospital flagpole; I share it with a crumpled and dirty Canadian flag.
“Do you need a body?” something pipes weakly.
I take off as if stung. As I spin around, an upset young spirit gleams in blue despair in front of me.
“I was a dancer,” it whines. “I broke my spine in an accident, can’t dance anymore. I don’t want to live, but my body wouldn’t die. Do you want it?”
“Show me!” What do I care about a broken spine? I have spent the last two years of my life in a wheelchair. I hated it but I am used to it
The blue one whizzes to a private hospital room, and I follow. Its body doesn’t look good. I can’t see much in the faint nightlight, but I can see the feeding tubes, connecting the poor dancer with the life-support machines. A woman slumbers in a recliner nearby.
I pause. I must maintain the formalities. “Don’t you have an unfinished business?”
The little spirit is graying already. “No,” it whispers. “The sky calls to me. Let me go. Take the body. My parents are rich.” Its blue glow dims even more. “My mom likes dahlias.” Still hovering over the unconscious body, it offers me a slim azure thread. Its other end disappears into the body, just like the life-support tubes. “Take it.”
I grab it. I shove myself inside the body, following the thread to its source. If I thought that passing through the window hurt, this squeezing through the injured flesh is a hundred times worse. The body doesn’t want to accept me. It pinches, and scratches, and pulls the alien spirit apart, but I persevere. As I swim through the morass of agony, I soak every ounce of flesh with myself, coloring the blue thread with my amber. Finally, I settle around the core of my new host, luxuriating in the new warm pool of color. Oddly, the color is not my amber. It is not blue either. It is green like new grass. Only occasional splashes of amber and blue remind us that we existed apart before.
It feels like home.
As soon as I stop moving, I start sensing the pains of the body: my back aches, my head feels like it would split apart, and my left elbow is on fire. Only my legs don’t manifest themselves. I don’t feel them at all. My new, damaged shell would take some getting used to.
Opening my eyes for the first time in the new body, I look into the tired, stained from weeping face of a middle-aged Chinese woman.
“Jun,” she breathes, bending over my bed, her tears starting all over again. “You’re awake, dear. Thank the Lord.” She kisses me, and her tears moisten my cheeks.
I am a Chinese now? A boy? In my excitement and hurry to inhabit the new body, I didn’t notice the shape of my eyes before, and the little blue bugger failed to mention it. No matter. I can see. I can feel my hands. I hug my new mom and wince, as my elbow tugs fiercely.
“Are you in pain? Do you need another painkiller?”
I nod. I feel a stirring of love for this woman, a strange lump I have forgotten about in many years since my own mother died. The blue whiner has left a lot of identity baggage behind, but I like it. This woman is a good mom. I love her already.
“Where is dad?” I ask without thinking. Another one I love. How strange.
She smiles through her tears. “He’ll come in the morning. Do you want anything? We’ve brought you a TV and your iPod. Are you hungry, thirsty?”
“No. I won’t walk again, will I?” All at once, I want to dance so desperately, the wish burns in my bones.
She shakes her head. “Oh, honey,” she mouths.
I turn away. I know it, of course, but anguish still squeezes my throat. Can I live without dancing? Then another worry surfaces: do I still remember myself, the woman? What was her name? I can’t recall. Was it all a dream? Frantically I rummage through the stories in my head. Yes, they are all intact, even the two nestlings born in my spirit days. Or maybe they were born in my delirium. One infant story also quivers on the edge, tantalizing me with its beauty and foreignness—about a dancer in China, Liao dynasty. Where has that sprouted from? I have never studied Chinese history, have I?
Exhausted, I close my eyes. I will live again. And this time, no matter what, I will write.
Original cover art by Naum Osyno