She flashed her pass as she hurried past the guard, but the man was already waving her through. Apparently, she had been to the museum so often that showing it was only a formality.
As she hurried through the galleries she ignored the riches displayed there. Her goal was the narrow bench fronting one single painting. Set in an alcove at the end of a gallery, it and the painting at the opposite end were oddities whose placement Sarah had yet to comprehend. Of the pair, her favorite showed a woman standing by a window, head bowed and listening. For the call of a lover? To a church bell? The painting gave few clues, but the clouds gathered above the woman carried the deep tints of dusk, painting the sky in tones of sadness. Each time she saw it Sarah felt a kinship. That woman, too, was listening for the voice of a dead lover; listening for the voice that would call her home.
“Hi, Sarah… Back again, I see. It looks like we have something in common, after all.” Norman Atkins fell into step, as she strode through the modern art gallery.
“Oh hi, Norm.” she said, nodding a distracted hello. “How are you?” If he responded, she didn’t notice. Norman liked her—had, from their days as high school classmates, when his shoulder was the one she peered over when a question had her stumped. He seemed a decent person, and wanted to be more than an acquaintance, she was certain.
But neither romance nor a discussion of art was on her agenda, so when he showed no sign of turning his path from hers, she said, “Can’t talk, now, Norm. I have to be somewhere.”
He slowed his steps, saying, “That’s okay, Sarah. I…I’ll see you around.”
Sarah’s heels tap-tapped on the marble floor as she hurried toward the bench, ignoring the other visitors scattered through the long hall. Unfortunately, there was a man standing in front of her painting, and she had to grit her teeth to keep from ordering him to move on. Instead, she pretended interest in a nearby seascape.
Finally, the man left and Sarah was able to slip onto the bench, tugging the zipper on her case and extracting her sketch-book as she did so. She had a partially finished sketch on the pad, but had added not a line to it for weeks. Its purpose was to provide a reason for her to be there, and to discourage others from interrupting.
“Kenny?” she whispered, as she bent over the pad. She had become adept at speaking with minimum movement of her lips over the past few weeks.
“I’m here, Sarah. How are you today?” A wave of relief spread through her, lightening her usual somber mood.
“I’m getting by, Kenny. But it’s hard…terribly hard. If it wasn’t for you I’d…” She bowed her head for a moment, then forced herself into a better frame of mind, saying, “We were talking about theater, and why—”
“You first,” the voice interrupted. “Tell me about your day. Tell me what the weather’s like, and what cut grass smells like. Tell me everything. I’ve almost forgotten.”
“Oh… Well, okay. It’s sunny, for a change, and windy, so it smells more of dust than anything else.” In truth, it was a glorious spring day, and the lawn in front of the museum had been a riot of tulips, but she’d determinedly ignored all that—until now, as she began to describe it.
Now, under Kenny’s gentle but relentless questioning she remembered. For the few minutes she spent with him she put aside Brad’s broken body. To give Kenny life, even if only via a second-hand retelling, she herself, must live once more. At first, it had been hard. Now, it was the thing that gave her purpose.
Sarah had been close to ending her life when she’d taken a seat in front of the painting, over a month ago. Nearly a year had passed since the night of the accident, but it was yesterday in her thoughts. The scent of gasoline and torn flesh still clotted her nostrils and the slick wetness of blood still clung to her fingertips. Brad’s death could never be washed from her hands, or from her mind.
On that day she sketched for, perhaps, ten minutes, before dropping her head into her hands, lost in tear-stained memories…
“Why are you crying?” She whirled, embarrassed.
But there was no one near. The gallery had dozens of visitors but none within ten feet of her—certainly not close enough to whisper.
Shaking her head, she closed her eyes and sought strength. Strength to go on for one more hour—one more day.
“Why were you crying?”
I won’t turn. I won’t look. But she was unable to keep herself from hissing, “Who are you? Where are you?” There was no doubt that the voice was real.
“My name is Kenny, and I’m… well, I’m a ghost. At least I think I am.”
That brought Sarah to her feet, shocked out of her depression but feeling more than a little anger, as she said, “The hell you are, mister. What’s going on?” Her eyes darted around the room, then to the wall of the alcove, seeking the grill of a speaker or the shape of a microphone. But there was nothing, and in any case, the voice had been real, not an electronic reproduction of human speech.
There was no answer, and it was with a great deal of embarrassment that she sank back onto the bench. People were staring.
“Crazy… I’m going crazy,” she muttered, wondering if she had imagined the whole thing.
“Crazy is better than dead,” the voice told her with great assurance. “You can take my word for that.”
Sarah just closed her eyes. After a long moment, and in a tired voice she said, “Why should I believe you’re a ghost?”
“Don’t then. What difference does it make? If I am, belief or disbelief won’t change things, and if I’m not… so what? Tell me why you were crying. No one’s sat on that bench and cried before. Were you that moved by the picture?”
And so it had begun. His name was Kenny, and he claimed not to know either why he was there, or how he died, only that he was lonely, and able to contact few of the living. He had died several years before, but remembered nothing of his death. Some details, such as the fact that he had collected vintage cars remained, but much was hazy, with attitudes and beliefs in sharper focus then the hard details of his life. But his life was not what he wanted to talk about, in any case. He wanted to know about hers.
“My life is over,” she had insisted. But that only led to a discussion of why she believed that, and of the events that led up to her being on that particular road, with that particular man, at that particular time. Since that day she had returned almost every evening, their visits a piece torn from the fabric of time—a moment of quiet talk slipped between the loneliness of work and the nightmares that tormented her sleep. They had an hour together, sometimes less, before the museum closed.
On most nights Kenny would answer her call. He claimed not to be aware of a gap when he didn’t appear, or of any time passing between their visits.
“So, what have you done this week toward getting your life back on track, Sarah?”
“There is no track, Kenny. My life is a train wreck. You know that.”
“Only because you want it that way. You cherish your pain.”
“I…. That’s a cruel thing to say.”
“True. What will you do about it…hit me?
Sarah shook her head. This was unlike Kenny. They had enjoyed wide ranging conversations, touching on nearly every subject, including her desire to end her life. But he had never attacked her grief as being unjustified.
“Tell me how it’s true,” she demanded. “Tell me how I cherish my pain.”
“Fair enough. Have you gone to a movie, or any entertainment, since Brad’s death?
“Have you had one single conversation with a man that wasn’t strictly about business?”
“I’ve spoken with you.”
“Doesn’t count, I’m male in outlook, but hardly a man. Just a collection of random particles energized by some stray ultra-violet radiation.”
“Well I wish you were real. If you were I’d have someone to talk to, at least.”
There was a long silence, then, “There are living men you’d like a lot more than me, Sarah. You just haven’t been looking.”
“It doesn’t matter. My life is like something from the X-Files. The man I love is dead and my best friend is a ghost.
“I beg your pardon?”
“I said, ‘bullshit,’ and I mean bullshit. You didn’t love Brad when he was alive, so how can you love him when he’s dead?”
Sarah slid the pad back into the case and deliberately set it aside, then crossed her arms, her face set in lines of anger.
“How the hell can you say something like that, Kenny? I loved Brad.”
“He picked your friends.”
“They were our friends.”
“Not true. Unless you’ve been lying to me?”
When she didn’t respond he said, “He told you where you could go, and when—and mostly you went only with him. You hated that.”
She took a deep breath and shrugged, but uncrossed her arms and slumped a bit before saying, “So we had a few problems. Every couple has them.”
“True, but every woman doesn’t move clothing and personal objects out of the apartment—nor pack a suitcase and hide it in the back of the closet.”
“I…” There was nothing to say. She had been getting ready to leave when the accident occurred. Brad was handsome, fun to be with—everything she might have wanted in a man. He was also a bully and an overgrown child, who had to have his own way at all times.
“Gotcha,” the voice said, quietly.
“Well it doesn’t change things,” she said, defensively. Brad is gone, and I’m in love with a ghost. And I— Damn!” What in the hell had made her say something so stupid?
But it certainly had silenced Kenny. When he finally spoke, his voice was slow, and apologetic.
“I’m sorry, Sarah. I never meant it to come to this. I wanted to help you, not hurt you. I…” He sighed into silence.
“So what do I do now?” she finally asked. “How do I go on? Do I come here every night for the rest of my life? Do I become the crazy lady who sits in the corner and talks to herself?”
“You go back to living, Sarah. You find the man who wants you so desperately that…”
There had been the sound of frustration in his words, then silence. Sarah was at a loss as to what to say, other than, “Life sucks,” but before she could, a strange voice said, “I’m sorry, sir, but the museum will be closing in a few minutes.”
“What?” Sarah turned, scanning the room. At the opposite end of the gallery a guard, who had been facing the matching alcove, now turned to face her. He leaned backward, placing his head within the alcove, before saying, “The museum’s closing, ma’am.” He hadn’t raised his voice, but the words seemed to come from only inches away.
Sarah knew her jaw was hanging foolishly open but she couldn’t help herself.
The woman in the painting isn’t listening, she’s eavesdropping!
She got to her feet to march the length of the gallery, anger building with each step. She had been duped, conned, played with, and by God, someone was going to pay. The guard, seeing the fury building on her face, and probably deducing the cause—at least in general—raised hands, palms out, and said, “I’m out of here. Just don’t leave his body cluttering the gallery when you go.” He snickered as he left.
The man on the bench turned.
“Hi, Sarah. I…uhh, see you made your appointment okay.”
Sarah closed her eyes to count silently to ten before speaking. She got as far as three.
“Norman Atkins, you are the single most despicable man I have ever met.”
“Probably.” He seemed unperturbed, and that served only to infuriate Sarah still further.
“God, I hate you!”
“No. You don’t.”
“You don’t hate me, Sarah, you’re just angry with me…and I can’t blame you.”
That brought her to a halt. Aside from the question of her hating him, how can you be angry with someone who agrees with you? She felt the weight of depression settle into its familiar place on her shoulders, and closed her eyes.
“Why, then? Why did you do it?”
“I like you better angry.”
Her eyes opened, and she booted depression from its saddle, “Okay, then, damn you…I’m angry. Tell me why you would do such a terrible thing.”
“A fair question. Define terrible.”
“Define… Norman, how the hell can you ask such a thing? You lied to me. You told me you were dead.” That sounded stupid, even to her ears.
She took a breath. “You said you were someone you aren’t.”
“No I didn’t. My name is Kenny, at least to my parents and close friends. It’s my middle name and I like it better than Norman.”
“What did Kenny do when he was alive, Sarah?”
“Uhh…he was a teacher.”
“I taught computer science before I founded Belmont Technical Institute.”
Sarah just stared. There was nothing she could say.
More gently now. “Define terrible, Sarah. I saw that guard coming, and I knew what he was going to say. A wave of my hand and he would have turned aside, as usual, and you would never have known. But I looked away so he would tell me, and so you would hear.” He allowed her to absorb that, before saying. “There’s a little plaque next to the alcove that explains how the shape of the room and the dome over it focuses the sound waves from each end of the room into the matching alcove at the opposite end. It’s called a whispering gallery, and I really expected you to notice it before this.”
He leaned toward her, and his voice was both quiet and intense as he said, “Define terrible, Sarah.”
She turned away, lest he see her tears. “You made me…” She stopped. How could she say, “You made me fall in love with someone who doesn’t exist.”
Huddled miserably within herself she heard him step closer, and sensed the warmth of him just behind. He touched her shoulder, but dropped his hand when she flinched away.
“Hate me if you want, Sarah, I deserve that. Just don’t let yourself fall back into being the way you were.”
After a moment she nodded. He was right. Brad had been a bully, and she had been about to leave him when the accident occurred. And of more importance, the accident was not her fault.
She took a shuddery breath, and felt as though she had come to the surface after an endless time underwater. For the first time in forever she could breathe, truly breathe, and it felt indescribably beautiful.
“Live, Sarah!” he demanded. “I want you to live. I want you to be the person you were before this happened—the woman I’ve gotten to know these past few weeks. The woman…” She heard the sound of him taking a breath before quietly saying, “The woman I fell in love with.”
She turned, drawn to meet his eyes, and he finished with a gentle, “Be the woman who loved me, Sarah… even if she didn’t know it was me.”
There was nothing she could say in response. It was too sudden, and too much, so in defense, she changed the subject. She glanced at her watch, then said, “They’ll come looking for us in a minute.”
He nodded. “I know. And I know this is a lot to take at once, so I won’t ask you to leave with me. But I will be here tomorrow, if you’d like to talk.”
With that, and giving her no time to respond, he turned and walked toward the museum entrance.
Sarah watched him go—a man she had fallen in love with, yet a man she didn’t really know. Or did she? Certainly, he knew her better than anyone who walked the Earth…and loved her for it.
When she had no reason to live he had asked her why she was crying, and then had become her reason. Should she love him any less because he was alive?
Her heels tapped quietly on the marble floor as she strolled toward the entrance, lost in thought.
I’ll have to do something about his wardrobe. And maybe bring him to my sister’s place to see how he reacts to her kids. And after that… She was alive again, and it felt good.
Tonight there would be no nightmares. And tomorrow? Well, she already knew the words she would be whispering, tomorrow.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
This piece began as a contest story on the old AOL Writers Club that had a strict 3000 word limit. It was my first contest win, and that was a great feeling. I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, and got here from Facebook, pressing the “Share” button at the page bottom will let others know the story is here, and give them the chance to read it, as well.
I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, and got here from Facebook, pressing the “Share” button at the page bottom will let others know the story is here, and give them the chance to read it, as well.
And if my little story pleased you, I’m glad. There are other stories posted, as well. You and others like you are the reason I write. If it did bring a moment of reading pleasure, take a moment to rate it. Feedback matters to me. And if you’re in the mood for something a bit longer. make a stop to look at my novels, and read the excerpts to see if they please, as well.