By JD Miller
Maurice lived on the opposite side of the day. He worked while most people slept, he slept alone while most people were awake together. And most of his friends were dead. He didn’t mind so much anymore. They were more dependable this way. He knew right where to find them, because they never left his apartment.
See, for the most part, ghosts are incredibly idle. They spend their disjointed piece of eternity standing over the grave of their former self, or staring at trees in a park. Every day, Maurice pedaled past a hundred such ghosts, who never saw him even if he saw them. On the instances when he’d seen a ghost he knew, or even just a ghost he wanted to know, it was only a matter of taking them gently by the hand, and talking quietly to them until they allowed you to carry them back home. He’d never met a ghost who wasn’t incrementally happier to live in his apartment, instead of a graveyard.
The problem is that it was much harder to take a living person by the hand and lead them anywhere. The living were unpredictable. Prone to moods, prone to abandon, prone to judgment. But tonight, somehow, Maurice had a date. With a living, human woman no less.
Which is why, in the middle of the day (usually his night) he was riding down to the supermarket on his old blue bicycle with the basket on the front, which at max capacity could hold a bouquet of mixed roses and baby’s breath, and two large cans of spaghetti sauce. He took them home, humming to himself. He nodded to the ghosts who’d preferred living in the hallway or on the stairs to his actual one-bedroom apartment. And then he opened the door, and all of the ghosts greeted him silently, smiling and nodding in the way ghosts do (which is another way of saying they don’t. They’re not a very active bunch).
Maurice put the water on to boil, he heated the sauce in a pan with fresh herbs. He went to the bathroom and trimmed his fingernails. He scrubbed again and again to get the dirt out from under them. The ghosts stood behind him, watching him in the mirror with questions in their eyes.
“Her name is Christine,” he said around his toothbrush, the foam on his lips. “She works at the front desk.”
He spat, rinsed, washed his face again. He added the noodles to the water and felt so nervous, he almost undid all the work he’d put into getting dressed and fixing his hair, just to take a shower. He needed to look better than ever, because people cared more than ghosts did.
He kept tucking his shirt back in around his belly, staring through ghosts to see the clock. “She’ll be here at 7:00 sharp,” he said, and the ghosts seemed to nod, although maybe they didn’t. It was 6:45. He put dinner on the table, which was barely big enough for two people. The ghosts stood all around him, waiting.
At 6:55, he felt like he could vomit. Had he ever been on a date like this? With a nice woman like Christine, who didn’t treat him like he was from another world? He couldn’t remember.
“I’m so nervous,” he laughed to the ghosts, wiping his hands on the tops of his legs. The ghosts all laughed back without making any noise. They put weightless hands on his shoulders, mouthed their wordless support. “I’m glad you’re all here,” he said, touching the hands. “You’ll love her, I’m sure of it.”
At 7:05, he went to the window and peeked through the blinds. He tried to remember what car Christine drove, or perhaps she was walking. In which case, he shouldn’t be so rude, so hasty. She was a real person, so real things were bound to happen. A real! Living person!
At 7:21 he sat back down at the table. He checked his watch against the clock above the stove, to make sure nothing strange had happened, but perhaps something strange had happened anyway and nobody’d told him. That wasn’t unheard of. Things happened all the time to day-people, that nobody bothered to tell night-people. Maybe someone at ‘the Top’ had instituted a third, inexplicable time change, to account for even more daylight that needed saving.
At 7:55 he untied his tie. By 8:30, he’d moved the spaghetti and the sauce into Tupperware, most of which went into the freezer, a little bit left in the fridge for tomorrow. The ghosts watched him cautiously.
“It’s alright,” he said, when one of them tried to touch his face. He smiled. “It’s quite alright.”
It was his fault for expecting too much, he thought. Christine was a nice woman. A good woman. But she was a day-person. Even if her day started and ended later than most, they still lived on opposite sides of the coin. And like with coins, there was always a good chance of things going differently than you expect.
He changed into his work clothes by 9:50. Said farewell to the ghosts and walked silently down the stairs with his bike, which he swung his long leg over in the dark. He rode long stretches with his eyes closed, no lamplight overhead, scarcely a moon. He took deep breaths.
“I,” he said to nobody, but confident that the ghosts were all a long way out of ear shot, “I am very lonely.”
The words didn’t come as a surprise to himself, or to the bike, or the night air. All of them already knew.
He hoped it would be Marissa at the front desk tonight. It would be harder if it was Christine. Not that he would hold a grudge. No, he wasn’t that kind of person.
He crested the hill, less than a mile from work, when he was accosted by flashing lights. A tow-truck and a police car, and a third car as well, upside down and flat as a pancake. He came to a stop, his feet on the pavement.
There was a woman standing not far from the wreckage, watching with her hands over her mouth. She was thin—beyond thin, in fact, she was see-through. Like a very worn scarf. There was a sense of permanent surprise in her eyes.
“Christine?” Said Maurice. He went up to her, knowing that the tow-truck driver was watching him.
The ghost turned to him in surprise. She said his name without making any noise, and he gave her a sad smile. He’d never seen a ghost so fresh before. He’d never seen one with so much semblance of life, such an imprint of a soul. He took her very gently by the hand, and spoke softly until her eyes left the overturned car. She held her other hand to her chest, like her heart was beating a million times a minute, when in reality it wasn’t beating at all.
“Come on,” he said, “let’s get you out of the cold.”
“I,” she began to say, confused. He only nodded, and smiled again. He lifted her with his hands under either arm, and her body folded up, to fit into the basket of his bicycle, like a freshly-washed pillowcase.
“You’ll be alright,” he said.
“I will,” she agreed. Or maybe she was asking a question? It was almost always impossible to tell, with ghosts.