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Ghost of Love

GHOST of LOVE
By

Kim Bellard

Copyright © Kim Bellard 1999 All Rights Reserved

Ghost of Love

Chapter 1 It was a sunny day when I died. No, that's not quite right, I suppose. For one thing, it was more like early evening -- still light out, but it was just starting to become twilight, with that slight hint of darkness that has always seemed to me to be full of potential and excitement. It's the time that, when you were a kid, your parents always called you to come in. Thus it still had some faintly mysterious, forbidden adult world connotation to me. But you couldn't really say either that it was daytime or that it was sunny -- or that it was night, to be precise. And, to be really accurate, it was partly cloudy, not sunny. There were lots of fluffy white clouds floating aimlessly in the sky. They had obscured the sun at times during the day, providing a nice break from the bright sun, and even now were adding a beautiful reddish tint to the impending sunset. It was mostly sunny, granted, but not purely sunny. I don't know why, but it seems important to me, for some reason, to get this right, really right. I'm not sure what difference it could make, but I want to try my best. Perhaps being exact will prove to be important somehow. Words will fail me soon enough as I go along anyway, so I better try to use them right while they still apply to what I'm talking about. I guess the only accurate thing about that first sentence was the part about me dying. You'll probably think that I was speaking metaphorically somehow, because obviously if I die in the first sentence there's not much of a story left. Well, I have found out that some things that I thought were obvious are not so obvious, and that's sort of what this story is all about. No, I really mean I died. I'd better explain -- but I have to warn you that you'll have to bear with me for a little bit. It took me awhile to understand it too.

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My girlfriend Elizabeth and I were leaving a Chinese restaurant down by the university. We'd had dinner there with another couple -- Paul and Janet, old friends of ours. Janet and Elizabeth had gone to university together and had remained friends in the years afterward. Paul and I got along well, and I liked Janet too, so the four of us often went out to dinner together. We were all adventurous diners, enjoying finding new restaurants and trying out new cuisines. This was the second time we'd gone to the Golden Dragon -why do Chinese restaurants all have these silly names? -- and we liked it a lot. Great sesame noodles. It was located in a "transitional" neighborhood. The students who lived in cheap apartments around here co-existed uneasily with the long-time, generally lower income and mostly minority residents. Neither of the two camps was too happy about the presence of the other camp, and both seemed determined to stay. However, there were an increasing number of more upscale bars, restaurants and shops, as yuppies were starting to rediscover and to gentrify the area. Neither the students nor the lower-income residents seemed too happy about the changes, as prices were rising fast. Our presence was part of that invasion, I'd have to admit; maybe we weren't living there, but we were helping the colonization cause with our dining dollars. I admit, we got a small thrill out of being some of those yuppie pioneers, venturing to parts of town where our other friends didn't usually go. We loved telling acquaintances about them, expressing mock surprise that they hadn't been there yet. It had occurred to me to worry about how safe this neighborhood really was, but I'd shrugged it off. After all, it wasn't even dark yet, there were four of us, and our car was parked almost right in front of the restaurant. We'd never had anything bad happen to us in any of our other outings, and some of them were to places I was a lot more uncomfortable about. We walked out of the restaurant, Paul and I trailing Janet and Elizabeth. Paul and I were talking about the upcoming NFL season. He was a long-time Steeler fan, while I rooted for the Packers, so we amiably traded barbs about the other's team and their chances. The

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Pack is Back, I reminded him. Maybe, but only as long as Farve stays healthy, he countered. Elizabeth and Janet were off in their own conversation, no doubt talking about Paul and me or the state of our respective relationships; some conversation that we were probably happy to miss. They got to the car first and waited for us to catch up. There was a light flow of passers-by on the sidewalk, and another set of couples passed between Paul and I and our women before we could rejoin them at the car. It all happened suddenly. I paused in the conversation while Paul took out his car keys. He held the key chain out towards the car like a pointer and pressed the unlock button, and at that moment a sharp crack rang out. My first thought was consternation that his key chain had made such a noise -- had it blown up? Had the car's electrical system shorted out? The sudden noise seemed to disorient me momentarily. One second I was walking next to Paul, seeing Elizabeth and Janet waiting for us expectantly at the car. I can still see it: Elizabeth was smiling tolerantly at me, happy to have me rejoin her. She looked radiant, and I started to smile back at her. The next thing I knew, the three of them were huddled together by the car, Elizabeth kneeling over what looked like a body. She was wailing inconsolably, there were screams from surrounding people, and a small crowd was gathering. Everything seemed noisy, confusing. I felt…distant, as though I wasn't part of this scene. I got the sensation that I must have blacked out momentarily, but that was ridiculous; why would I do that? I stood, stunned, for a few seconds, trying to make sense of the images in front of me. What had happened? Who was that whom Elizabeth was cradling and crying about? And why was I still standing a few feet away?

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I came to my senses, and forced myself to move towards my friends. I tried to shout over the almost deafening noise, attempting to get their attention. For some reason, I couldn't make myself heard, and the onlookers ignored my pleas to let me through. An ambulance pulled up, almost simultaneously with two or three police cars. The police quickly pushed the crowd back, allowing the EMS workers to size the situation up. I stood in shock, watched as they rapidly loaded the body into the ambulance. For reasons I couldn't understand, they had Elizabeth get in the ambulance with the body. Perhaps they assumed she knew the person because she had been the closest to the body. Perhaps she had been hurt in some way; this thought took over my thinking and started to really panic me. Meanwhile, Paul and Janet rushed into their car and roared off after the departing ambulance. I was nonplused -- why had they ignored me, left me behind? I was very confused. Well, I couldn't very well just stand there like an idiot. I figured the ambulance would head towards the University hospital, as it was the closest hospital and took most of the city's trauma cases. It was less than a mile away, so I hoofed it over, my walk breaking into a jog and then a run. I must have been so pumped up with adrenaline that I didn't feel the exertion at all -- before I knew it I was at the emergency room, barely breathing hard. I rushed through the doors along with some other incoming visitors, and saw the same paramedics pushing the stretcher along at a rapid pace. Elizabeth, Paul, and Janet were all moving along with it, clutching at it or at the recumbent body like a talisman. The paramedics wheeled it into a bay, and the ER physicians quickly went into action. I didn't quite catch all the jargon, but they certainly seemed frantic. I stood dumbly by the curtain opening, still too much in shock to speak. Some nurses pulled Elizabeth, Paul, and Janet away from the body's side, and they brushed past me without noticing. I watched as Elizabeth went by me without a second glance, taking in the curve of her long brown hair and the tears running down her face. The sight of her took my breath away; I was so worried about her. At least she looked physically unharmed, so that was a relief.

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I just needed to find out why she was so upset. Before I tried again to rejoin them, I took a look at the body, finally getting an unobstructed view as the doctors cleared the stretcher to apply the paddles to the body's chest. Apparently the heart had stopped. You probably have guessed where this is going, but that's not fair: I gave you some clues. I didn't have that luxury, so what I saw came as quite a shock to me. It was I. I mean, it was me. That was my body lying unmoving on the gurney.

Chapter 2 Oh, the story gets stranger; you'll still have to bear with me. Our little ape brains only have so much capacity. Evolution has not prepared us for all the experiences that modern life presents us with. My brain seemed to have shut down. I couldn't make sense of what my body was doing back there, apparently dead, while I stood here feeling no different. I felt fine; I didn't seem hurt or in pain. There must be some logical explanation, I protested to myself. But I couldn't think of one. I found the three of them huddled in the corner of the visitor's waiting area, like rescued refugees from a shipwreck or other disaster. You see people like that on the news all the time, and those strangers always look so lost, so pathetic. It's different when those strangers are people you care about. There were several other knots of worried-looking people, some with what appeared to be injured or sick patients. I gathered that the ER was triaging the more severe cases, and I'd -- he'd? That body had? -- gone to the front of the line. For some reason I didn't feel too proud of that. Paul was on his cell phone, talking urgently to someone. Elizabeth was sobbing quietly in Janet's arms. I listened to Paul; he was telling someone there had been a terrible accident and they needed to get here as soon as possible. I don't know what in his

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conversation made me think it, but for some reason I concluded it was my parents he was talking to. Another not very good sign. I knelt down next to Elizabeth. "Liz," I whispered urgently. "I'm right here. Can you hear me?" She didn't register this at all, continuing to grasp the arms of her seat with all her might while Janet sat next to her with her arm around Elizabeth's shoulders. Experimentally, I put my hand on Elizabeth's forearm. Again, she didn't react in the least. It was eerie. I could see my hand touching her arm. I knew what that should have felt like. My mind wanted to register the sensation. But when I stopped to really pay attention, I realized that I couldn't feel anything. No sense of feeling came from my hand, not even the sense of mass you still get when your hand is asleep or you've had a local anaesthetic and you touch something. I seemed to be resting my hand on her arm -it didn't just pass through her arm like air -- but it was like someone else's hand, not connected to me. There were no feelings at all. It didn't feel hot, it didn't feel cold, it didn't feel the fabric of her shirt or the texture of her skin. Oh, it's a dream, I realized with relief. We'd watched Ghost on the VCR recently, so I figured I was taking cues from it. Shot dead indeed! What were the odds, I thought with relief. I must be asleep and dreaming. The Chinese food probably wasn't agreeing with me and was causing one heck of a disturbing dream. It's a hospital dream, I thought hopefully. What did those mean again? On the other hand, it seemed very realistic for a dream. I usually was an active participant in my own dreams, not a wraith-like observer. And I almost never knew I was dreaming while I was dreaming. Still, it was the best theory I could come up with.

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A physician walked out slowly from the ER. He had that air of professional sympathy on his face, the one that told you, sure, he cared about you and your problems, but also that he'd seen all this before and that he had other patients he needed to get back to. "I'm Dr. Green. Are you the people who were with Michael Finley?" he asked. They looked at him numbly, afraid of the news he could be bringing, but unable to not stare at him in frightened fascination. Elizabeth finally nodded. "It's not good," he said gravely. "He was shot in the head. Brain function ceased almost immediately. We have his body on life support now, but technically he is dead." Paul interjected. "There's no hope, then? Is there any way he could come out of his coma?" Dr. Green studied him with concern. "I'm sorry," he said gently. "He's not in a coma. His brain is no longer working. He could never recover." Paul sat down, shaken and drained. Janet hugged Elizabeth tighter and burst into tears anew. Only Elizabeth seemed to not react, but her spirits had already sunk so low that there wasn't much of a reaction left that she could have had. "I know this is very hard for you right now," Dr. Green continued softly. "You have my deepest sympathies. There's nothing we could do, nothing you could have done." He crouched on the floor, so his eyes were level with their sitting faces, and paused briefly, looking seriously at each of them in turn. He then spoke to them in an intimate air, comrades in pain. "There is something we could do to make this less of a complete loss. We'd like to recover his organs for donation. That way some other family can at least derive some benefit from this tragedy."

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He looked again at each one of them in turn, his gaze solemn. "Are any of you family? Wife, brother, any immediate relative?" Elizabeth looked at him, her mouth gaping half-open. "I'm his girlfriend," she admitted tentatively. "I guess I'm the closest one here." "We'd really like to have a relative's permission," Dr. Green said candidly. "His driver's license says he wants to be an organ donor, but it's safer if we can get written permission from a relative." Elizabeth shook her head slowly. "No, we weren't married. We weren't even engaged." The latter came out sadly and in a low tone full of anguish. Sure, Elizabeth had wanted to get married, at some point, but I'd thought we'd both agreed there was no hurry. She was sounding now like she regretted that lack of urgency. I suddenly wondered why we weren't engaged. After all, I'd been seeing her for over four years. My family thought of her as a daughter and my friends all assumed we'd get married. Paul and Janet had gotten married a couple years ago, and kept telling us we should try it. We just laughed and told them someday. I thought I loved her and knew that she loved me. But I'd kept putting it off, like an idiot. Poor Elizabeth; I guessed I'd blown that one. And who'd have thought that checking that little box when I renewed my driver's license would be used for anything? It's not like I had thought I was going to be dying anytime in the near future. I just did it because Elizabeth nagged me about not being selfish. Now look where that had gotten me! I'd have to confess: I wasn't too happy about the thought of them cutting my body up and passing out my vital organs like Christmas presents to people I didn't even know. Besides, I didn't really understand what was going on with me here; for all I knew I was going to need those organs somehow. I started to get an ache where I imagined my kidneys were. Maybe these were sympathy pains and they were already cutting up my corpse! The effect was like pricking a voodoo doll with

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pins, only the doll was my dead body. I shuddered at the thought and tried to refocus on their conversation. "…and his parents should be here soon," Paul was telling the doctor. This seemed to reassure Dr. Green; he was going to be able to get things squared away once my parents got here. Dr. Green stood up, and asked that we tell a nurse to get him when my parents arrived. I kind of wanted to go back with him and see what was happening with my body, but at the same time I was a little afraid to. I'm kind of squeamish and I could imagine the yucky things they could be doing to me. Him/it/whatever; I didn't know the right word to call that inert slab of cold flesh and congealing blood that looked like me. So I stayed put, watched the three of them trying to cope. I was really wishing I would just wake up. A few minutes later two men with police IDs around their necks came out from the patient area of the ER. "I'm Detective Reilly and this is Detective Kiowski," one of the policemen informed them. He was about my age, early thirties, medium height and stocky build, but with a no-nonsense air. His partner was a few years older and hung back slightly, his gaze wandering distractedly around the waiting room before focusing in on them. "We just talked to Dr. Green," Reilly told them. "We're sorry about Mr. Finley and about your loss. We're here to try to establish what happened and see what we can do. Who wants to tell me what they saw?" After some coaxing, each of them told essentially the same story. They just heard a noise and the next thing they knew I was down -- bleeding and immobile. None of them had seen a shot, or even a flash where a shot might have come from. It was as if the bullet had just appeared like a thunderbolt to my head. Kiowski jotted down their descriptions of where everyone had been standing when it happened, and drew a little map of the

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scene. They studied it carefully, as though it might provide a clue that they'd missed while actually present. After close consideration, they pronounced it correct. Reilly nodded. "We canvassed the witnesses on the street too," he said. "No one else saw anyone with a gun or anyone running away. No one saw any cars that might have done a drive-by. Besides, the bullet came from the wrong side for it to have come from a car." Reilly and Kiowski stood up, closing their notebooks after getting all the necessary names, addresses, and phone numbers. "Do you people want us to have a squad car drive you home?" Kiowski asked. "You're probably pretty shaken up. You might also want to have someone stay with you tonight." Elizabeth, Paul, and Janet exchanged looks. Elizabeth shook her head slightly. "We'll drive Elizabeth home," Paul offered. "We'll be OK." The two detectives started to move away, only to be halted by Elizabeth. "What happens next?" she asked. Her voice was low but firm. "I mean, with the investigation." Now it was Reilly's and Kiowski's turn to exchange glances. "The forensic guys will come up with some angles on the bullet, so we can try to pinpoint where it came from," Kiowski offered. "But I'm guessing this is a random shooting of some sort -- he was just standing in the wrong place at the wrong time." Reilly looked annoyed at Kiowski's easy speculation. "That is, of course," Reilly added dryly, "unless any of you can think of a reason why someone might want to hurt Mr. Finley."

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Chapter 3 It was another ten or fifteen minutes before my parents arrived. That was pretty good time for them, actually. They didn't really like to drive in the dark, much less come this close to downtown, and I believed there was a "Columbo" repeat on TV that this would be interrupting. That parental love does overcome some barriers, helping rush them here in a hurry. Of course, had it been "Murder, She Wrote," it might have taken longer. Everyone has their own priorities… Paul, Janet, and Elizabeth hadn't done much in the interim. They held hands like preschoolers on a field trip, although Elizabeth was missing her buddy. What little conversation they attempted drifted off after a few words. Paul jumped up at the sight of my parents, relieved to have something constructive to do. He brought them over to Janet and Elizabeth, and they all did a group hug, like some eccentric football team after a big game -- an unexpected loss, of course. My parents were in shock. I can't imagine anything harder than losing a child, although at thirty-two it was difficult to think of myself as a child. To them I was probably still little Mikey, terror on a tricycle, scourge of the second grade girls, and so on. children become aliens. Dr. Green returned, talked them through the organ business, and got their reluctant signatures. I'm sure they didn't begrudge other families the use of my organs, but in signing it they knew they were signing away what was left of me. Elizabeth cried silently throughout, with mom joining in and Janet sobbing at their sides. Paul and my father stood awkwardly by watching -- whether embarrassed at these displays or envious for their ability to openly display their feelings, I didn't know. It was close to midnight before they got ready to leave the hospital. My friend Dave showed up at some point, alerted by some unknown message system for tragedies. He I think parents must conveniently block out those troublesome teenager years when their

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hugged my parents and sat next to Elizabeth, putting his arm around her. She seemed remote from him, aware of the arm but evidently drawing no comfort from it or anything else. Everyone offered to drive Elizabeth home, or to have her stay with them. Elizabeth wanted to go home to her own home, to her own bed, and opted to have Paul and Janet drive her. She tearfully embraced my parents, hugged Dave, and walked out with Paul and Janet. Janet again had her arm around Elizabeth and was murmuring comforting noises to her. I think Elizabeth was pretty oblivious to them. I watched my parents totter off to the car. I was worried about them. They were not a couple who normally touched very much -- I doubt I'd seen them hug or kiss much in the last ten or twenty years -- but they wandered off with dad's arm around mom. They walked stiffly, like very old people. They were only in their early sixties but suddenly they seemed decades older, their bodies having been subjected to some bizarre Star Trekian rapid aging process. Of course, it wasn't their bodies that had betrayed them; it was their spirits. That left me standing by myself in the waiting room. I suppose I was still waiting for the dream to end, and I hadn't thought much about what I should do next. That should have been another tip-off that this wasn't a dream; in dreams events always seem to sort of carry you along, and you spend most of your time responding. I didn't know what I should do now. I finally decided I wanted to see how Elizabeth was doing, and that raised the question of how I would get there. I didn't have a car, and anyway I couldn't drive even if I had one. Since no one could see me, I was hardly able to grab a cab or a bus either. I kept thinking there must be rules for what I was supposed to do, but I didn't know what they were. Maybe this was more like a video game than a dream -- there were rules, but you had to learn them by trial and error.

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So I decided to walk. Elizabeth lived some six or seven miles away, so it didn't seem impossible to walk it. It would just take a while. Well, it wasn't going to get any closer standing here; I set off. The streets were pretty quiet, just the occasional car or mostly empty bus rushing by. The skies had pretty well cleared up, and there was a bright moon and lots of stars. It all seemed normal to me. I mean, I didn't suddenly have x-ray vision or anything, I didn't have any special view of heaven (or hell), and I didn't feel any different. I didn't feel much of anything. I should have thought about that. I should have really tried to understand the texture and the depth of my new existence, but I didn't. Instead, like that video game, I rushed along to see what was next, without understanding what the game was about, or what my options were. The walk went by pretty quickly, and I lost track of time. I was daydreaming, I guess, my mind trying to process all that had happened since dinner and to make sense of it. I still didn't understand if I was dead, in limbo, or just dreaming, although I'd started to be very dubious that this was a dream. Next thing I knew I was at Elizabeth's house. She lived in a small one-story, two-bedroom house. It was set on a small dead-end street in an older neighborhood, with the houses set close together. It was a little closer to neighbors than I liked, but the people who lived here didn't seem to mind. The neighborhood was close to the small, private university Elizabeth and Janet had gone to, and had enjoyed its ups and downs over the years. Elizabeth bought her house during one of the down cycles, helped by her parents' gift of the down payment. Now that the neighborhood was in vogue again, her house was worth quite a lot more than she had paid. She had no interest in moving, though; she liked the history, as well as the proximity to things -- walking to restaurants, some shops she liked, and the like. This neighborhood had been home to families for most of the forty or fifty years it had been in existence, but in the last few years her house and its companions had become popular with single people and with couples buying their first houses. Many of the

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current residents only lived there for a few years, before trading the charm for the bigger houses in the suburbs and better schools for their kids. I'd always found it hard to imagine how a family of several kids had ever lived in these small houses; they must have put some value on the closeness that our generation no longer did. Or they just didn't think about it. Her bedroom light was on, as well as one of the living room lights. Now that I was here, though, again I wasn't sure what to do. For one thing, I was outside and she was inside, and I didn't know what to do about that. Tentatively, I went up to the door and tried to turn the knob, with predictable results. It wasn't just that it was locked -- which, of course, it was -- it was that I couldn't get a hold on the doorknob. The doorknob paid no more attention to my hand than Elizabeth had; as far as it was concerned, my hand just didn't exist. I even tried to press my way through the door, thinking that if I was, indeed, a ghost, then I should be able to at least do that. After all, have you ever seen a ghost movie where the ghost can't just float through walls? Well, I couldn't. I stood stupidly outside the house of the woman I loved. Inside she was hurting, probably crying and needing comfort. I was standing outside her house, outside her world, and I was totally helpless to even stand next to her. It was very frustrating. I walked around the house, thinking perhaps a window would be open and I could slip through it. Her air conditioning was on, and so none of the windows were open. I stopped outside her bedroom window. The shades were drawn, blocking my view inside. I put my ear against the window to see if I could hear anything. She was crying softly. She must have had her head buried against the pillow, because the sound of it was muffled and dampened. It was the sound of a heart tearing, and every so often she'd let out a wail of anguish and unbearable loss. Perhaps I should have been complimented that she was taking things so hard. I was dead and I wasn't taking it so bad. Really, I didn't seem to be upset at all about my apparent demise. I started to speculate about that. Maybe I was just in shock, or maybe I'd just focussed so much on

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what was happening and how everyone else was taking it that I hadn't had time to realize my own loss. Listening to the sound of Elizabeth crying, my own loss was just starting to become real to me. I hadn't suffered any physical pain and I still seemed to be attached to my body -well, this ghostly body, anyway -- so being dead didn't seem very different from being alive. I could only see the loss through how Elizabeth was taking it. That's how I spent that first night -- standing outside my lover's bedroom window, listening to her cry herself in and out of sleep, unable to touch her or even see her. It was a good thing no one could see me, standing there all night with my head pressed against her bedroom window, listening for clues as to what might be happening inside. Onlookers would have judged me some sort of perverted peeping tom, which perhaps I now was. At one point I sat on the ground and laughed, struck by the absurdity of my situation. I mean, I didn't even believe in ghosts. OK, maybe I woke with a start at unexpected noises in the middle of the night, when the house should have been quiet. Maybe I avoided old houses with tragic pasts. But actually believing in ghosts? No; I mean, these were not the Middle Ages; it wasn't even Victorian times, with their interest in seances and other polite occult trappings. People nowadays went to horror movies, but no one really believed in ghosts, especially not me. Yet here I was, in the flesh -- or rather, not in the flesh. Hmm, the syllogism would then be: I don't believe in ghosts. I am a ghost. Therefore, according to Aristotle, anyway -- I must not believe in myself. It opened up whole new self-help book opportunities, ones I didn't know how I would be able to available myself of. At one point very late in the middle of the night, a cat walked by, on his way to stalk some prey, or to claim his territory. I'd always wondered what cats do when everything is dark and quiet and they want to go out with those curious night eyes of theirs. I suspected they liked it because it was easier for them to believe that they owned

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everything; they do in the day, too, but when someone else has to open the door for you, it's harder to maintain the illusion. I half-expected him to sense me, using those keen senses cats have that are unavailable to us more developed mammals, but he ignored me. Of course, he may have detected me and ignored me for his own typically unfathomable reasons. I watched him slink away gracefully. A noise from Elizabeth's room and I was up at the window again, cursing at the walls and the distance between us. That's how my first night went. When the morning came and I was still there, I knew for sure that this was no dream and my life as I'd known it was over.

Chapter 4 This is probably a good time for a short break, to let you catch your breath. Also, I should do some more formal introductions. As you may have picked up, I'm Michael Finley -- Mike to most people, Mick to my oldest friends and to Elizabeth. I am -- was -- thirty-two, and worked as a financial manager for a telecommunications company (e.g., the phone company, but they like us to say "telecommunications;" customers don't seem to get as mad). Let's see, I was born and raised here, in this moderately sized midwestern city, where few of the natives escape from or want to. My dad was and still is in the insurance business, acting as a broker for small to medium sized companies and their owners. He does quite well, and we grew up pretty comfortably. My mom worked as a nurse before my sister was born, but since then concentrated on raising us and volunteering to various good causes. My sister Tara is two years older. She's a lawyer, as is her husband Dick. I'm sorry -Richard. I always do that, just because I know he doesn't like it. He calls me "Michael" in return. It's a civil war, pun intended. He thinks I don't like him because he's a lawyer, but that's not true. I don't like him because he is a joyless bastard who is draining the life

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from my sister and is determined to mold my nephew into a carbon copy of himself. I'm equally determined not to let that happen, so it creates an interesting battle of wills. They met while both were associates in one of the big law firms here, and got married about seven years ago. In fact, it was at their wedding that I got the lead that led me to the job back here. Eventually Tara left the firm to start her own practice and focus on family law, while Dick stayed in the firm. He's a partner now, and is into tax law. Their son, Derek, was born five years ago. Now, Derek I like, and I saw as much of him as I could without running into Richard. I liked to think I was his best chance to grow up normal, not stifling him into politeness the way Richard wants to. I liked to bring him trucks and bats and balls, and various loud toys. Hey, he is a little boy. Plus, it annoys Richard, which is a nice bonus. Tara and I have a decent relationship. We were very close as young kids, then we went through that period of hating each other, mostly during our teen years. When I went away to college we sort of both cooled off the hate part and drifted apart. By the time I moved back to town she was married, and then soon she had Derek; she was all grown-up and we didn't have much in common. I've been reconciling to that ever since, but she's someone I always knew I could count on in a pinch. I secretly always really looked up to her, but covered that with constant kidding and putdowns. I went to college at the University of Pennsylvania. I liked the quaint, almost medieval campus, and I really got into the rowing on the Schuylkill River (I'm told putting "river" after Schuylkill is redundant, that the "-kill" means "river" in Dutch, but outsiders don't ever seem to get that). They've got these picturesque boathouses right along the river downtown that have lights outlining them, and it's so beautiful at night, the lights reflecting the shapes of the buildings into the river. The rowing was very athletic, very demanding. The group of rowers was pretty tight, and it was neither your stereotypical jocks nor frat boys. The rowers tended to be very ambitious, good students, well connected -- people who were going somewhere. They just liked to compete hard, to work hard, and to play hard. I fit in well, I thought; they seemed to accept me, anyway.

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I got my undergraduate degree from Penn and my MBA from Wharton, and was planning to stay in Philly. I liked the East Coast, the excitement of living in a big city. It had lots to offer -- nightlife, culture, diverse restaurants, local color. Things like South Philly, Manyunk, or the Main Line. I thought living there was kind of glamorous, and proudly showed off my knowledge of the city when my parents or old friends came to town. It was becoming my adopted hometown. I lived there for a couple years after school, working for a consulting firm downtown. The job was challenging, and I learned a lot, but I was on the road most of the time and didn't get to spend much time in any one place. My college friends had equally demanding jobs, so I started to lose track of them. And I started to get tired of the pace, the traffic, the crime and the grime. Then at Tara's wedding I got to talking with a friend of my dad's who was high up in the phone company, and one thing led to another: I ended up with an offer and then a job here. I debated if I wanted to be a midwesterner again, but it was a good opportunity, and, frankly, I was ready for a change. It sounds stupid, but I missed things like understanding, and really caring about, the high school rivalries. Try as I might, the Philadelphia high schools were just names to me, and I knew I'd always just be an adopted child, never a native. I wanted to come home. Somewhat to my surprise, I haven't really regretted returning, and both my social life and my career have been good since I returned. I met Elizabeth on a blind date a little over four years ago. She was a friend of the wife of a guy I worked with, and they conspired to hook us up. Elizabeth was kind of quiet, and I didn't know how I was doing with her on that first date. She had a dignified reserve about her, neither smiling nor talking unnecessarily -- just enough of both to let you know she was still interested in what you were saying. There was also an air of melancholy, of sadness, about her, although it took me a few times with her to puzzle that out.

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Physically, she was definitely good looking enough. For one thing, she's got that long dark hair; men are suckers for that. Her body is nice and lean. Still, she wasn't drop-dead gorgeous. If you were girl watching on the street, you'd watch as she walked by, but your eyes would easily go on to the next target. Now Tonya, my on-again, off-again girlfriend of that time, was the kind that you'd keep staring at until she was either out of sight or you'd decided to get up to pursue her. She was hard to forget. Tonya was twenty-five when I met her. She was on the short side, and had a cute pixie haircut that fit her well. Pixie haircut or not, she didn't have a pixie body. Vixen, maybe, but definitely not a little pixie. Tonya had generous curves and an exotic beauty. Her mother was half-Polynesian, and supposedly her father had some Native American blood in him, and both showed their influence. Whatever the mix was, it was different, it was striking, and it was beautiful. It's hard to describe, but she definitely was not the girl next door. Moreover, she exuded sensuality -- in the way she walked, the way she looked around, in everything she did. I met her at a bar soon after I moved back here and we spent the next two years getting involved, breaking up over some stupid fight, and then passionately making up. I never expected I'd end up with her, but I sure as hell enjoyed being with her. I was on sort of a break from Tonya when I met Elizabeth. At first, I didn't want it to be exclusive. Elizabeth was nice enough, and pretty enough, but I didn't think she was that special. I liked dating and had lots of women who were interested in me, and in whom I had some interest in return. I mean, I was only in my late twenties, and I liked to go out a lot. I wasn't ready to get married or get too serious. So for the first couple of months I juggled Elizabeth with a few other women, including Tonya. Tonya never minded; she wasn't afraid of the competition.

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I didn't really fall for Elizabeth until she smiled at me, sometime in that second month. I forget what we'd done that evening; probably gone to a movie or something. Elizabeth could undoubtedly tell you. Because she seemed sort of quiet and reserved, I hadn't really pushed anything physical on our dates. I admit I was figuring that this was going to be one that just faded away; I'd call her less and less, as I got more interested in other people. We had OK times together, but I didn't think either of us was all that taken with the other. We weren't seeing each other every weekend, and when we did see each other it wasn't always Saturday night, so the implication was clear that we weren't yet a couple. On that night, though, everything changed. We were on her porch saying goodnight. I was actually looking forward to getting home, maybe even calling Tonya and suggesting she come over. So I wasn't looking for anything from Elizabeth. I said goodnight and started to leave, done with another uneventful night out. As usual, I had misread her. Out of the blue, she touched my face with her hand, and gave me a smile. Now, I'd seen her smile before, not a lot or often enough, but this was different. This was my smile, a smile that opened her heart to me. This was a smile that no one else got to see, an Elizabeth no one else got to know. That was it; I was smitten. From then on, I didn't see the "pretty enough" girl I'd seen before, and that the rest of the world still saw. I saw that beautiful woman who shared the secrets of her heart with just me. We've been together ever since. Being with Tonya was like going out in public wearing the flashiest diamond you could find. It's gaudy, it's fun, and it's a little dangerous. You're always worried you'll lose it or have it taken away; you always think it will find its way to someone more deserving of its brilliance. Yet you still want to show it off while it's still yours.

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Being with Elizabeth, on the other hand, was like having a secret treasure. You want to go away and be someplace private with it, not share it with the world or risk losing it. We have -- had -- the occasional fight, but never broke up or even came close. We go -went -- to family functions with the other's family, and did things with each other's friends. She has pictures of me on her desk at work; I keep one of her in my wallet. Both our houses are filled with pictures from our adventures together. In them, we are almost invariably posed with our heads leaning towards each other, touching gently. In our tender moments, she calls me "Mick" and I call her "Liz." My family is nuts about her, and she always tells me that her family likes me a lot too. They live out west, in Colorado, so we don't see them much. Her dad is a rancher, and I always thought that he never accepted that I neither rode nor hunted. Every couple years Liz made me go camping, which I groused about but didn't really mind. I just didn't want to have to kill something for my meals. One of my favorite pictures is from a camping trip in Montana a couple years ago. In the picture, Elizabeth is holding up a big trout that she just caught, while I'm holding a box of pop-tarts I rigged up to a hook. We're both laughing uproariously. Her father hated that picture. Everyone expected we'd get married. I know Elizabeth did, although she didn't talk about it much. My parents nagged me about it every time I saw them, and my friends would periodically give me a hard time about it too. I suspected her friends wondered as well. We didn't even move in together, continuing to live in our separate houses. We talked every day, saw each other several times a week, and usually ended up spending the night at one of our houses on the nights we saw each other. We had clothes at each other's house. Still, I kept holding back, just not ready to get married. I wasn't looking or waiting for anyone better, I loved her, and I knew we got along. I was just putting it off. I figured, why change a good thing? Enough about that, at least for now. Let's see, what else? Frank Jerome is my boss, and he's also the guy who helped set Elizabeth and I up. We were peers at the time but he

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soon after became my boss, which was sometimes a little awkward. I didn't resent him for it -- he's older than I am and had worked for the company several years longer than I had -- but it did change our interactions, such as putting a damper on socializing. Paul and Janet you met. Paul is an operations manager for a manufacturing company here, and is one of these guys that I'm sure will eventually own his own business. He's very solid. No brain surgeon, but if you had an emergency that required one, he'd get you there. Janet works at an ad agency, writing ad copy. Elizabeth is a commercial artist, and often does work for Janet's firm. Both of them perceive that working in advertising as being beneath their talents somehow. Janet has -- or had, I'm not sure she still does -aspirations of being a serious writer. She's claimed to be working on a screenplay for most of the time I've known her. Elizabeth, on the other hand, is quite a good artist, at least to my untrained eye. She's comfortable in lots of mediums, but what I loved most were the simple pencil drawings she does. She can sit down, start doodling, and out comes this very captivating picture -realistic, yet stylized in a very unique way. She used to love to catch me unaware -reading, watching TV, sleeping, whatever -- and dash off a small portrait. It was sort of like living with a photographer who liked to take candid shots; I was never sure when I was a model. I used to threaten her to give me some warning, but secretly I enjoyed being the focus of her undivided attention. What I wished I had were more self-portraits of her. She hated to do them, and only did so under strict orders from me. We were left with lots of pictures of me and only a few of her. Last but not least, Dave D'Angelo is my best friend. He has been as long as I could remember. Dave is a big, good-looking guy. He has a friend in every crowd. Men like him, and women are attracted to him on the spot. I was always envious of him.

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We met in junior high, and hit it off right away -- I couldn't say why. We were friends throughout high school. He was on the basketball team; I wrestled. He played football; I ran cross-country. We went to the same parties, and he often went to the lake in the summer with my family. When it came time to go off to college, he surprised his family almost as much as I did mine: he went to Princeton while I was at Penn. He even took up rowing -- I was sure just to be able to compete against me, for bragging rights -- but I'm pleased to say that my team is ahead of his in our career rowing racing history. Unlike me, he came back here right after college, and started in the family business. We stayed in touch when I stayed on in Philadelphia, and resumed our close ways when I moved back. We played golf, started playing soccer, and went to sporting events together -- sometimes with Elizabeth, sometimes not. We'd seen each other in every possible mood, in every possible condition -- and still liked each other. Dave has never really settled down, and is either in the throes of some mad new passion or is in the hunt for one. It can be both amusing and a little dangerous to be out with Dave when he is on the prowl. Elizabeth doesn't dislike him, and has been very patient about meeting his long string of girlfriends. She swears she is keeping a list and is going to give it to him when he is old, just to remind him. She just wishes he'd grow up. And she does dislike it when he and I go out by ourselves, knowing he'll drag me to some bar till all hours. At least she trusts me. I'm kind of rambling, but since my funeral is coming up soon, I thought you might want to know a little background.

Chapter 5 Elizabeth must have fallen asleep maybe four or five in the morning. Around eight I heard her phone ring, and it sounded like she had a brief conversation with someone. I

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couldn't make out the words. Twenty minutes later I heard the sounds of a car pulling up the driveway, and hurried from my listening post to the front. It was Janet, this time sans Paul. She rang the bell, and Elizabeth opened the door. I scurried in right behind Janet, before the door could close me out again. I was tired of standing around outside. Elizabeth and Janet clutched each other in a long hug. Elizabeth had put on her bathrobe, a thick white one I'd bought her several years ago. She looked tired and worn, with red eyes and big bags under her eyes. Janet didn't look too bad, all things considered, but seemed very concerned about Elizabeth. "I've brought you some coffee and bagels," she announced, pulling away at long last from the hug. "You still need to eat and drink." "Thanks," Elizabeth said, "I'm not very hungry, but I could use some coffee." They retreated to the kitchen table, and I trouped along after them. I felt like a little kid who was being ignored by the grown-ups, only I had no way to make noise or otherwise attract their attention. I could only watch. Janet had on an expression that I would soon come to know well, a mixture of concern and fascination. Janet liked me, and knew me well enough to be affected by my untimely demise, but that just gave her entree to the real survivors of this accident -- like Elizabeth. They sat quietly for a few minutes, sipping their coffee. Despite Elizabeth's earlier protests, she did start to nibble on a bagel. Janet put her hand on Elizabeth's and leaned forward. "So," she asked confidentially. "How are you?"

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Elizabeth had not yet had practice in responding to this inquiry in a bland way. She thought about it carefully. "I don't know," she finally confessed. "I still can't really believe Mike is dead. I thought maybe I'd wake up this morning and find that last night was a dream, but when I woke up the first thing I saw was the blood on my shirt from last night. I guess I'm still numb." Janet nodded in agreement and looked serious. "It could have been us, you know? That bullet could have hit any of us. Mike may have saved our lives." Elizabeth looked at her uncomprehendingly. "Or the bullet could have just passed over us safely," she said a bit hotly. "It's not like Mike was throwing himself in front of the bullet to save us." Janet looked chastised. I actually kind of liked the way Janet was looking at this whole thing -- maybe I was a hero; maybe I hadn't died in vain -- and was a little sorry Elizabeth was having none of it. They continued to pick at their bagels, and sipped their coffee. The phone rang. They just looked at it, surprised at this ringing object in Elizabeth's kitchen, then at each other. The phone continued to ring. "Do you want to get that?" Janet asked. "I could get it for you." "Let the machine pick it up," Elizabeth said. "I don't really feel like talking." At the fourth ring the machine picked up, and the voice of a more cheerful Elizabeth urged the caller to leave a message. I moved closer to the phone so I could hear the caller. "Elizabeth, it's Frank Jerome," the caller identified himself. "I saw…" Elizabeth picked up the phone. "Sorry, Frank," she said. "I was screening my calls."

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"Elizabeth, I'm so sorry," Frank said sincerely. "It was on the news last night and in the paper this morning. It's such a tragedy. I can't believe it. How are you doing?" "Oh, about as well as you'd expect," Elizabeth said wearily, beginning to shape her patterned response. "It's still not very real to me." "Listen, Elizabeth, I know this must be terrible for you and Mike's family, but if there is anything I can do, please let me know. Mike was a good man, and a good friend." "Thanks, Frank, I appreciate that," Elizabeth told him. "That means a lot to me." They exchanged a few other cliches. Frank asked about the viewing and the funeral, but Elizabeth had no details. She promised to keep him informed and they hung up. "It's going to be a long day," Elizabeth sighed. Janet eventually got Elizabeth to shower and to get cleaned up. Tara called, and invited Elizabeth to join the family at my parents' house. Elizabeth's parents called. She must have called them when she got home the night before, late as it was. They told her their flight arrangements, which didn't have them getting in until late afternoon. Janet offered to pick them up, but they wanted to rent a car so they would have transportation while they were here. Elizabeth suggested they call my parents' house if they didn't find anyone at her house when they arrived. Paul called to check in on both Elizabeth and Janet, and Janet suggested he meet them at my parents' house as well. Several of Elizabeth's or my friends also called, having seen the news, but Elizabeth let the machine record their sympathies. Around noon Janet and Elizabeth went over to my parents'. I didn't want to be left behind again, and I didn't want to walk the ten or so miles to their house, so I slipped in the car when Elizabeth opened her door, climbing over the seat to sit in back. It was an even

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more complicated ballet to climb over the seat and out the door when we arrived, trying to get out before the door slammed in my face. I barely made it. I had visions of being trapped in the car like a pet locked in the car at a mall parking lot all day. So far, this ghost business was not too convenient. Unlike Elizabeth, my parents lived on the outskirts of the city, just outside the beltway that ringed the city. When the developers had built here in the sixties, it had been considered pretty far out. But the combination of the constant outward push of population growth, and of development spurred by the highway, had made this a very desirable spot. The developers had built good homes, with lots of green space, and people continued to want to live in this area. As I child, I thought it kind of plain, but over the years the trees and other foliage had filled in nicely. Now I was always pleasantly surprised by how lovely it had become, and I marveled at how it, too, had grown up. They lived in a very respectable two-story colonial. It really was too big for them now, but they loved the house and had done quite a lot of work on it. They liked their neighbors; they were used to the location. And they lived for their yard; they were always out doing something -- mowing, weeding, fertilizing, trimming. whatnot. My first allowances had come at the price of helping with these tasks, but I guess I didn't inherit their green thumbs, or their interest. To me, a yard was for playing baseball or football, and they were never too keen on having kids frolic in their neatly kept yard. My own yard was always in need of tending, but I was one neighbor who didn't shoo the neighborhood kids off of it. Sometimes they let me play too. There already was a small crowd at my parents' house -- several of my parents' neighbors, a few aunts and uncles, Tara and Richard, Dave, and Paul. Tara had brought Derek, who was looking pretty confused and a little frightened. My parents' minister apparently had already come and gone. Several people had brought food, so mom had a little buffet going on the dining room table. Mom kept hurrying between the kitchen and the living room, worried that her guests were well tended but also, I think, trying to use that as a

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distraction from why they were there. Dad sat in his chair in the family room, not saying much, while people sat respectfully around him. There wasn't much structure. People sat, maybe saying a couple things, but most of the time they didn't talk much. I was kind of thinking they'd tell good Mike stories, but I guess they were still in the denial or numb phase. I walked back and forth between different clumps of people, feeling again like an outsider but unable to resist. It was a kind of power, my death having this kind of effect on family and friends. Did they care so much while I was alive? Everyone wanted a piece of Derek, trying to cheer him up. I guessed it was sort of a "genes-carry-on" thing, the species just wanting succession and the individual carriers didn't much matter. As I read once, we're just meat machines that exist to propagate genes and DNA. I was childless, while the next generation was here in the form of Derek. Derek had the ball now and so he had to run with it. Them, whatever. It's a mixed metaphor, I know, but, come on, I no longer have a head, so you have to cut me some slack here. Derek liked the attention at first, but soon got tired of it. He eventually turned to that brainsucker of small children, video games. Next generation, indeed -- although if I'd been there I might have been playing them with him. Dave and Tara spent awhile talking in the kitchen, which I didn't think Richard was entirely happy about. I wasn't very surprised; they often ended up chatting at our family functions. After all, he'd known her almost as long as he'd known me. I always liked to imagine that they both were amused by their different perspectives on me: Dave couldn't see me as the bratty younger brother she saw, nor could Tara understand me as a best friend. I used to think, and to some extent still did, that Tara would have been good for Dave, although I could never bring myself to imagine that she would be his type. Maybe my cousin Annie; even I had lusted after her as a teenager. Tara was just my sister. I didn't like Richard but I wasn't sure she could do much better.

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Because I didn't think they'd be in there long, I didn't follow them in to observe. I sort of forgot about them, then was taken aback to see them emerge forty-five minutes later, looking refreshed somehow. I didn't really think much about it, but I took some glee in Richard's dark glance at Tara. You'd have thought I'd be less petty now that I was dead. Mom also sat with Dave for awhile at the kitchen counter. This I did sit in on. She had always liked him, even when he lured me to be more reckless than I might otherwise have been. She used to tell him that she thought of him like a son. Did Dave's mom ever say that to me? If so, I didn't recall it. He patted her hand and told her it was hard, but she'd get through this. Mom sniffled some, but soon wiped her tears away and smiled at him, holding his hand tightly. "You were a good friend to my Mike," she told him fiercely. "And he to me," he replied sincerely. I was touched. Mom cried and gripped his hand tighter. Around three the crowd had thinned some, and Tara, Dave, Janet, and Paul gathered around the kitchen table. Richard claimed the head of the table. Elizabeth sat with my parents in the family room. They didn't seem up to the practical details. They watched Derek play on the computer. I opted for the kitchen group; Derek was beating all my old scores anyway. "We need to think about what all needs to get done," Richard informed the group. "You know -- notifying the newspaper about the obituary, making sure his friends know, locating a will, etc. Tara, do your parents know what they want to do about a funeral?" I was miffed that Richard was taking charge, but was getting bored just watching everyone sit around and mope, so anything was better.

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They were a conscientious bunch. They put their heads together and made up various lists of things to do. I was impressed with their thoroughness, and amazed at how complicated it was to die unexpectedly. They listed all the people they could think of who knew me, agreed on who would call who, and brought mom and dad in to talk about funeral arrangements. Dad had a friend who owned a funeral parlor, so they got him on the phone and started those arrangements going. They had already talked to the minister about the funeral service, although they still needed to work out exactly what was going to happen, and when. No one knew when the police would release the body. It was weird to listen to my life being wrapped up like that. I thought they were using these tasks as a way to not think about the cause. Checking off numbers one through six on a list is easier than thinking about turning off the utilities for your son's house, calling your brother's coworkers, going through your lover's clothes, and so on. Fortunately Tara had done my will, so she had a pretty good idea things were in good shape there. Richard offered to go with my dad to help look at caskets. He stressed the importance of getting a good one, both for the burial and for the viewing. "I don't think Mike wanted a casket," Elizabeth objected from the doorway. Her appearance surprised everyone; no one had noticed her standing there. I hadn't either; I wondered how long she'd been present, and what she'd overheard. Everyone turned towards her with sympathy. "He told me he wanted to be cremated," she emphasized. Richard stood up and went over to her. He put his arm around her. "Elizabeth, why don't you let us handle all of these details?" he asked in his best client voice. "You've got to rest." She glared at him. "He didn't want a viewing or a burial. He wanted to be cremated." I was surprised she remembered that; I had to think about when we would have talked about such a thing. It had been an off-hand comment at the funeral of the grandmother of

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my friends. I hadn't put much thought into it, and can't really say I cared much about it. But Elizabeth had seized it like a dog with a bone. Richard looked at her, coolly calculating. "We don't have to decide anything now," he said, trying to avoid a confrontation in front of my parents. "We can talk about it later." She glared at him again and left. I followed her. Instead of returning to the family room, she went up to my old bedroom and threw herself on the bed. She started sobbing. I watched her, powerless to intercede. Janet came looking for her after a while, and stroked her hair until Elizabeth recovered her composure. It wasn't much, but it was more than I could offer. Detectives Reilly and Kiowski arrived close to six, about the same time as Elizabeth's parent's got there. Their plane had been delayed in Chicago, of course, so they were late and a little grumpy. They hugged Elizabeth, and expressed their condolences to my parents. The mothers hugged with that bond mothers have about children, while dad and Elizabeth's father stood manfully by. Reilly and Kiowski wanted to speak to my parents alone, but they insisted they wanted the whole group to hear any updates. "There's not much new to tell you," Reilly said. He concentrated on my parents. "Still no luck on finding anyone who saw the shooter or the gun. It will be a couple days before we get a report back from forensics about the trajectory of the shot. We're knocking on doors of buildings around there to see if anyone heard or saw anything, but it takes time." "Do you think you'll catch the murderer?" Elizabeth's father asked. I was hoping he didn't have ideas about getting a posse to go round up some suspects. "And you are?" Reilly asked curtly.

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"I'm Elizabeth's father. I knew Michael well and I want his killer to get the justice he deserves. I just hope this state has a death penalty and that I'm there to watch him die." Gosh, I didn't know he cared that much. Reilly eyed him. He was probably thinking about the chances of catching the culprit, and how many years it would take for his appeals to run out before he might actually be executed -- assuming he were convicted of first degree murder. "We'll keep you informed," he said blandly. Reilly and Kiowski thought my parents could get the body in a day or so, as the autopsy was being done today. That set up the funeral for Friday. Today was Tuesday. The two detectives left, promising to talk to my parents tomorrow. Elizabeth seemed slightly miffed; if she had been my wife or my fiancée they would have focussed on her, but since she was only my girlfriend they evidently had concluded that my parents had the closer ties. Not exactly wrong, but not quite fair either. Richard got everyone back on track. People started doing the calls to my friends and relatives, using cell phones to supplement my parents' phone line. They soon realized that they were going to need some phone numbers from my address book to make some of the calls. "Who wants to go to Mike's apartment?" Paul asked. Everyone looked at Elizabeth, who visibly shrank at the thought. Everyone was quiet. "I'll go," Dave volunteered. He looked around for another brave participant. "Oh, hell, he's my brother," Tara conceded. "I'll go with you." The two of them went off in Dave's car. I thought about riding along with them, but I thought that would be too creepy. I wasn't ready to see them go through my things. I did start to think about what might be in the house that I wouldn't really want my older sister or even my best friend to find. I always thought that one of the advantages of being dead would be that you didn't

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have to care about that kind of thing. I felt like an accident victim on the way to the hospital knowing he'd worn dirty underwear that morning. The remaining group continued to make calls. Paul, Richard, and Janet did a lot of them. Many of my parents' friends had already called or stopped by, so they were relieved of some of that chore. They sat with Elizabeth, not saying much. It was strange, to say the least, listening to these conversations. Many people had seen the news, so only a few were very shocked. The conversations pretty much were similar -- what can you say? People expressed their shock, sympathy, and condolences, and asked about the funeral arrangements. Many asked how Elizabeth and/or my parents were doing -- "about as well as can be expected" was the phase for the day. Paul ordered a few pizzas, and I was surprised at their appetite once the pizzas arrived. Dave and Tara returned eventually, just in time for the pizza. They brought my address book and some other names and phone numbers they'd found around the house. The group sat around the living room, eating pizza. A few of them were having drinks too. The conversation drifted away from the painful topic at hand. Everyone seemed relieved to talk about other things, everyday life observances. Someone turned on the television and they laughed at a sitcom repeat. Just a bunch of friends sitting around in the suburbs. I mostly watched Elizabeth, and sat near her when I could. She was fairly withdrawn, not eating much or engaging in the conversations around her. It was like a little cone of silence around her; people would sit by her and be absorbed into the silence. She seemed more lost than hurt, struggling to cope with this unexpected loss and how to deal with it. Everyone treated her gingerly, which just made her seem more fragile than she might actually have been. I wasn't sure. The crowd started to break up around nine or nine-thirty. It had been a long day, and everyone seemed drained. Elizabeth's parents, who usually stayed in a hotel when they visited due to the size of her house, offered to stay with her for the night. She declined,

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saying she was all right and could use the time to herself. She hugged my parents and left in her parents' rental car. I tagged along, sitting next to Elizabeth in the back seat. I watched her, curious about what was going on behind that dreamy exterior. She was in her own little cave, on her own little island. Her parents' car sped through the quiet streets towards Elizabeth's house. The intermittent light from the passing streetlights, as she sat in the back seat with her mother as their car sped through the quiet streets, seemed to illuminate her with an eiree glow -as if her grief was so intense that it was giving off brief bursts of energy. The alternating periods of darkness, on the other hand, seemed like times when the effort had overwhelmed her and she had retreated within herself again -- only to regroup and give off that next burst of light. It made for an interesting ride. When they arrived at her house, Elizabeth said a teary good night to her parents -- with her mother contributing most of the tears -- and slowly walked to her door. I was right behind, and this time came inside for the night.

Chapter 6 I learned something unexpected about ghosts that second night. Elizabeth stayed up for a couple hours after she got home. She had numerous messages on her answering machine, but she didn't play them. She almost seemed to wilt when she saw how many there were -- just more things for her to deal with. She changed into a T-shirt and put on her bathrobe, then curled up on the couch with her Mick box. She had always religiously saved any momentos from our time together. I'd made fun of her when I first found out about the box, but now I realized the power of it. She had a record of much of our life together -- ticket stubs to concerts, play programs,

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miniature golf scorecards, greeting cards, notes, and the like. We did do a lot of things, a diverse collection of outings, so there was a lot of stuff. I didn't like to admit it, but I never was good about sending cards and such. Oh, I'd send the annual birthday card, something at Christmas or Valentine's, but I missed most of the other holidays, and it was rare that I'd send her a card just for the heck of it. Elizabeth was always doing that. She loved to send cards, hide little notes for me to find around the house, all sorts of clever things. And she wrote the sweetest things. I appreciated them, and tried to remember to tell her so, but if she was looking for me to respond in kind she must have been disappointed. Despite that, she went over every little scrap of her collection with the greatest devotion, as though a "Love, Mick" scrawled on a card might have hidden depths that she might have missed the first time. Now I wished I'd had a "Liz" box. I'd been cavalier about keeping all the things she sent me, and watching her treasure our history made me sorry that if I had lived I never could have done the same. Even worse, no one could find it and see all the sweet things, all the precious memories, that she'd given me. They were gone, vanished almost as if they never existed. I'm getting off track. I watched her now. She was reading everything in chronological order, and I could see traces of a smile slip onto her face as she recalled a happy time. There were also the reminders of when we were having a hard patch, and she rushed over those. Her eyes teared up at unexpected times, and just watching her I thought I might as well. She took about two hours to make her way through these. It was touching to sit next to her and watch her. It was like it was a way for her to relive us being together. When she was done she put everything neatly back in the box, and stored it in her closet again. I felt claustrophobic for a second, as though that was me she'd just put the cover on and put away. In a sense, it was. Then she sat on the bed and started to cry, quietly at first, then changing to the racking sobs I'd heard from outside last night.

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"Oh, Mick," she exclaimed softly, " Mick, Mick, Mick…" Eventually she cried herself to sleep. I watched her sleep, her face still wet and smudged from the tears. She lay on her side, curled up. We liked to sleep back-to-front, spooning each other, and her laying there was like half of a picture. It wasn't like I could read or watch TV or anything. Nor could I leave the house and go anywhere. Much as I loved her and loved to watch her, there was a finite amount of time I could do that. Plus, she looked so alone and missing me. So I did the natural thing -- I got into bed with her, laying behind her in my customary position. I knew she couldn't see me or feel me, but I hoped that somehow she might know I was around and be comforted by that. Like I said, I was still learning the rules. Well, much to my amazement, I fell asleep. Don't ask me how, or even what that really means. I mean, I had no body, so how could I get tired or sleepy? But I did. The next thing I knew it was early morning. The beginning of the sunrise was sending some rays through her blinds, and the room had that diffuse, almost orange light of predawn. It was light enough to make out objects in the room, but dark enough to make everything still slightly indistinct. Elizabeth had shifted positions since I'd first laid down. Maybe that's what woke me. I opened my eyes and saw her now facing me. What's more, her eyes were open and staring at me. She screamed and bolted upright. "Mick!?!?" she half screamed, half asked. She looked like, well, like she'd just seen a ghost. Of course, I jumped up as soon as she did. Reflexively, I looked down at where I had been laying, and was startled to see the remains of an image of me, rapidly fading away.

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I can't really describe what it was like. For one second, one brief tiny moment, there was me sleeping there, and then the image melted away like a cloud dissipating. It could have been real; it could have been a dream. Whatever it was, it was gone now, as completely as if it had never been. So this was Rule Number One that I learned: if they stay in one position long enough, ghosts are visible. Or so I concluded at the time. Elizabeth was goggle-eyed, looking first at the spot on the bed where she had seen me, then searching the room wide-eyed to try to detect where I might have gone. I was startled myself, and couldn't even imagine what she was going through. Her gaze went right through where I was sitting now; apparently she didn't have any ESP or anything that helped her find me. She touched the bed tentatively, apparently testing if she could still sense my presence there. "That's it," she muttered. "I'm going crazy." Either she was too wide awake to go back to bed, or was too afraid of what she might wake to if she went back to sleep again. Early as it was, she got up and made some coffee. When in doubt, have caffeine. She sat at the kitchen table for some time, holding her coffee cup absently, and staring out the window at nothing in particular. I sat across the table from her, so that she was looking right through me. It allowed me to pretend that she was looking at me. Eventually she came out of her reverie. She noticed the answering machine, blinking away furiously. It was like a pet with a full bladder, needing to be relieved. With a sigh she got a piece of paper and proceeded to play the messages. Most were from people I knew, but there were a few people who seemed to know her well whom I didn't think I knew. All of them expressed their deep sympathy and

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willingness to do whatever they could for her. A few -- but only a few -- specifically said nice things about me. It was still too early for her to start returning calls, so she went into the bathroom. I soon heard the sounds of the shower running. There wasn't much to do in the kitchen, so I wandered over to the bathroom, noticing that the door was ajar. She must have left it like that to allow the steam to escape. Now, I've seen Elizabeth naked before. She doesn't really like to be naked, but I've seen her naked in bed, I've seen her naked while changing her clothes. I've even taken showers with her. I can't explain my sudden fascination, but I was seized with the notion of watching her shower. I know, this was crossing the line. The other times I'd watched her, it was with her explicit or implicit permission. I was both an uninvited and an unexpected guest here now. But I still stepped in the shower with her. Elizabeth is one of these rare women who look better out of clothes than in them. I did love to look at her body, the long, lean lines of her. The curve of her back, the smooth thighs with the lithe muscle underneath, those perfect calves and petite ankles. Her breasts, small but firm and eminently cupable by the right hands. Her long hair was now wet and laying flat along her neck and upper back. How I'd loved to stroke her hair, and to gently massage that wonderful back. She scrubbed mechanically, washing her body as thoroughly yet impersonally as someone might groom a horse. I couldn't take my eyes off her, knowing I'd never touch that body again, never caress her again, never feel her skin under mine as we lay making love. If I had tear ducts I might have cried from the loss of it. She did cry. At first she just stood with her head under the nozzle, soaking in the hot water like a balm. Then she gradually slumped to a sitting position in the tub, letting the hot water wash over her while tears flowed down her face. You couldn't distinguish the tears from the shower. I knelt next to her, knowing there was nothing I could do.

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"Liz, Liz," I whispered futilely. She finally had enough. She turned off the water, toweled off vigorously, and got dressed. Feeling a little guilty about watching her in the shower, I stayed in the living room while she got dressed. Elizabeth came back to the kitchen table, looking more presentable and much more composed. She picked up the phone and hit the second speed dial. "Donna?" she asked. "It's me." Donna was Donna Wakefield, her best friend. She'd left a couple messages yesterday. I thought it curious that Donna hadn't called my parents' house to see if Elizabeth was there. Then, again, Donna didn't really know my parents. Donna and I weren't the best of buddies. I didn't dislike her, but somehow we just never hit it off. I always suspected that Donna wanted Elizabeth to do better than me. It was nothing she said, just a sense I had from the first time we met. As a result, we didn't socialize that much. Elizabeth and Donna talked almost every day, and often got together on nights I didn't see Elizabeth. That was all right with me. I didn't begrudge her those nights out, and certainly her seeing Donna by herself was better than dragging me along. Elizabeth listened to Donna for awhile, and suggested Donna come over around ten. She warned Donna that her parents would probably be over later, and laughed at something Donna said. I didn't hear what the comment was, but it was the first time since Monday night I'd heard Elizabeth laugh. Her parents called an hour or so later, and agreed to come by for lunch. Elizabeth didn't return any more calls, but she did retrieve the paper from outside. She read it slowly, and spent a long time looking at the story about my shooting. It was by now only a short story in the metro section, pretty much just recapping what happened and reporting that

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police were still investigating. Yesterday's article, which was still sitting on the kitchen table, had been longer and placed more prominently. I wasn't sure if she was reading the story or reliving the evening. Donna came by a little before ten. She'd brought some flowers and some cinnamon rolls that were a special weakness for Elizabeth. They hugged tightly for a few minutes, Elizabeth squinting to block out everything else. Finally they separated. "Here you go," Donna said brightly, "Food for your stomach and food for your heart." Elizabeth gushed in that way women do with flowers. I never failed to be amazed at how much impact flowers have on women. Such a small thing, with such a big return. Maybe they do it just to train us men to do something nice -- and yet we often neglect even that. They busied themselves putting the flowers in water and arranging them. "So," Donna asked, her hand squeezing Elizabeth's across the kitchen table, "how are you?" Elizabeth looked relieved. This was a softball; she could handle this. "About as well as could be expected," she said matter-of-factly. Elizabeth recapped her day yesterday, with Donna making sympathetic noises. Neither wanted to actually bring up Monday night, not the awful event that started all this. They wanted to close the wound, not reopen it. I hated to confess it, but I wasn't finding myself liking Donna any better. Elizabeth did seem very happy to have her there, but Donna seemed to treat this whole thing as something that happened to Elizabeth -- not as something that happened to me. It was as if I was a tumor or some unnecessary internal organ that had unexpectedly been removed. Maybe that is how she always thought of me, I thought maliciously and not a little resentfully.

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All three of us were surprised by the doorbell ringing an hour or so later. The two of them looked at each other in amazement. "It's too early for my parents," Elizabeth said. "They're not supposed to be here till noon." Donna volunteered to get the door and promised to fend off unwanted well wishers. I walked to the door with her, curious myself. I think I was more surprised than Donna was to see Dave. "Donna Lou!" he exclaimed with pleasure. "I thought I recognized your car." They exchanged warm hugs and an affectionate peck on the cheek. I didn't know that Dave and Donna even really knew each other, except by name, much less were at a hug-&-kiss and knowing cars stage. And "Donna Lou"? Elizabeth came at the sound of Dave's voice and also gave him a brief hug. "I just wanted to see how you are doing," Dave said. "I figured you were probably way behind on phone calls, so thought I'd drop by rather than calling." They adjourned to the kitchen, where Elizabeth refilled Donna's and her coffee cups, and brought Dave a cup. Dave slyly eyed the extra cinnamon roll, which they offered to him. He promptly devoured it. "What's on the agenda today?" Dave asked. "Well, my folks are due around noon," Elizabeth replied tentatively. "I guess we'll go to lunch, then Donna and I and maybe my mom will go shopping. I don't have anything appropriate to wear for the next couple of days."

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They all looked slightly subdued at the thought of those next couple of days, knowing she was referring to the viewing, the service, and the funeral. I wasn't sure what something "appropriate" was. Do they make funeral dresses like they do cocktail dresses? Are they one-time use dresses, like bridesmaid's dresses, or are they reusable? Is cleavage appropriate? Dave was at his soothing, charming best. I envied him that gift. I always wondered how he could go into any situation and never appear to have any doubts about his belonging there. I wondered how he would like to be stuck in my current situation, doomed to observe indefinitely and yet evidently powerless to interact. At some point there was a lull in the conversation. Donna and Dave must have sensed that Elizabeth was working up her nerve to tell them something. She was fidgeting and looking down at the table. Finally she blurted it out. "I saw him. I saw him on the bed with me this morning." They looked at her incredulously. "What do you mean?" Dave asked, the first to recover. "You saw Mike?" She nodded grimly. "I know it sounds crazy, but I woke early and I swear he was lying next to me. He looked like he was asleep." "What happened then?" Donna asked, full of curiosity. Donna was into astrology and such, so I had no trouble believing that she believed in ghosts. Both she and Dave leaned forward to hear the answer. "I don't know," Elizabeth said miserably. "I jumped up and he was gone."

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The three of them sat for a few minutes absorbing this. Donna sneaked a few glances around the room, trying to ensure I wasn't there. That was an occasion that I especially wished I could have appeared, just to scare her. "Do you, umm, sense him now?" Donna asked nervously. "Can you feel any kind of presence?" Dave looked skeptical, but watched Elizabeth carefully as she drew herself in to put her mental antennae out. She closed her eyes to focus. I did my best to aim thoughts at her. I sat in front of her, I sat on her lap, I put my arms around her. I even kept saying her name into her ear. "No," she said, shaking her head. "I don't feel anything." I was disappointed, although not surprised. Dave and Donna looked at her seriously. Donna was still uneasy, unable to resist the occasional look around the room. Elizabeth was nervous, worried what their reaction might be. Dave was unpredictable in these sensitive moments -- he might make fun, or he might be sympathetic. You just couldn't predict. "Had he shaved?" Dave asked. It was a surprising question, but Donna gravely turned to Elizabeth, as though she were pronouncing the future. Elizabeth looked thoughtful. "Now that you ask," Elizabeth said. "He did look like he hadn't shaved in a couple of days. So, no, it looked like he hadn't shaved." The three of them considered the implications of this, as did I. It was true; I was accumulating some stubble. If that went on, it could be a problem, as I couldn't figure out how I could procure a razor in this limbo state. I was generally getting a little seedy -- not just the beard: I'd been wearing the same clothes for a couple days, I hadn't combed my hair, and I hadn't bathed. I looked more like a bum than a ghost.

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Dave's surprising question proved to be the right one. It implicitly acknowledged something real about what Elizabeth had seen, without making any judgements or putting either of them on the spot. And it was kind of funny. They laughed awkwardly. That had been a vulnerable moment for all of them -Elizabeth for sharing such a seemingly crazy thing, and Dave and Donna for witnessing that sharing. They all wanted to pretend it hadn't happened. If they didn't, they might have to acknowledge that there were ghosts, and that would put them in a whole new country, the land where I now lived. If I had been in their shoes, I'd have done the same thing. Dave got up to make his good-byes. I didn't relish the thought of spending the rest of the day shopping with Donna and Elizabeth's parents, so I decided I'd go out the door with him. I wanted to see how my coworkers were taking my death.

Chapter 7 I didn't know where Dave was likely to go next, so I didn't get in his car. I didn't want to walk downtown either, but knew there was a bus line that had a stop near Elizabeth's house. It should take me downtown. Of course, I'd forgotten that at this time of day there weren't many other prospective passengers, and the bus drivers certainly couldn't see me to know to stop. I had to wait forty minutes for someone else to appear at the stop, then another ten or fifteen minutes for a bus to pick us up. Just to be spiteful, I rode the bus standing in front of the white line. The driver ignored me. I got off by the main downtown square. Our offices are near there. I liked the downtown. Sure, it wasn't Manhattan, or even Philadelphia, but it was healthy. The

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streets were bustling during the day, and over the past couple years there had been a concerted effort to give people more reason to come downtown, or to stay there -- an entertainment district, some new or expanded department store anchors at the mall, and of course, the sports teams. There was starting to be a renaissance in downtown apartments and condominiums. So, all in all, a good atmosphere, someplace that I wasn't embarrassed to bring visitors from out of town. It had its charm, it had its history, and we natives liked it, thank you very much. It was getting close to lunch, so the streets were pretty full. I wandered around, looking at all the people. I could openly stare at people without them noticing. I could read over their shoulders, I could stand right next to them, I could make faces or funny comments at them. These were small pleasures, but about the only ones available to me. I began to wonder where all the other ghosts were. I mean, lots of people die every day, so statistically there should have been some ghosts hanging around. But I didn't see any. Perhaps I was the only ghost in the world; perhaps I just didn't know how to recognize them. I would have been instantly recognizable to other ghosts, I thought. In those crowds of people, it took some gyrations to avoid them inadvertently running into me. I wasn't sure what would happen if they did, but I wasn't yet brave enough to test it. watched for anyone else similarly avoiding real people. I even watched for people floating through things, just in case they had acquired some knack I'd not yet. Either way, there were no signs. Maybe all the other ghosts hung out someplace else, or maybe they were avoiding me because I was such an awkward ghost. It was a nice day out, and I delayed going to my old office so I could people-watch on the square. I say "people watch," but what I was really doing was girl watching. I always loved to do that, especially on a nice summer day like this one when women wear such a range of outfits. The skimpier or more revealing, the better. Even when I was involved with someone, like I had been with Elizabeth the last few years, I still enjoyed the sight of other women. Young women, not-so-young women. So I

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Woman flat as a board, women as wavy as the ocean. Women with great chests, women with nice legs. Tall women, short women. They come in so many shapes and sizes, so many colors and builds. And so many of all of those are attractive. I didn't think I had a type; they were all luscious. It was like a dessert buffet; some were sweeter than others, but most of them would do in a pinch. Some feature would catch my eye -- pretty hair, a cute face, a flash of thigh; it could be almost anything. Then my gaze would automatically slip down to her ring finger, to see if she was claimed already or not. I couldn't say why I did that -- even when the check indicated that, yes, this one was already married, my eyes still proceeded to evaluate the rest of the package. It's not like if there was no ring, I'd try to move in, but nor was it that presence of one prevented ogling. I just liked to know the status, just in case… something. The women would walk by and for a second I might wonder what they were like. If they were very good looking, I might wonder what they'd look like without any clothes on. I might even wonder what they were like in bed. That one looks quiet, but is she wild in bed? This one has such a sway in her hips even walking; what is she like with her legs wrapped around you? Is this one smart; would that one laugh at my jokes? It's silly, it's pointless. It's sexist and undoubtedly demeaning to women -- but it is entertaining. It's not like I ever made catcalls or whistled; I have my standards, after all. A very attractive woman walked by me, and for the hell of it I followed her. I'd literally lost my mind, or at least my physical head, so I was feeling some serious loss of inhibitions. My coworkers would probably still be at lunch, so I had some time to kill yet. She went into a department store and started looking at evening dresses. I watched her, mesmerized. Now, I loved Elizabeth very much, and I'd been faithful to her. But that didn't stop me from appreciating other women. I'd maintained my friendship with Tonya, for example.

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She respected my relationship with Elizabeth, while coyly hinting if I wanted to sleep with her, she'd be willing. She seemed to regard Elizabeth as a phase I was going through; she called her "the girl." I didn't keep my friendship with Tonya a secret from Elizabeth, but I'd have to confess that I didn't exactly advertise it either. I didn't tell her all the times we talked on the phone, or the lunches we often had. If Elizabeth happened to ask me what I had done for lunch on a day I'd been with Tonya, I'd tell her, but otherwise I didn't volunteer that kind of information. I guess I felt a little guilty about Tonya's continued presence in my life, even though I kept telling myself I wasn't doing anything wrong. The same was true of a couple exgirlfriends from my Philadelphia days that I kept in touch with. I might tell Elizabeth about talking to an old college buddy, but not about Alicia calling. Alicia had been the love of my life in business school, or the life in my love life anyway. Like Tonya, she persisted in the friendship long after the relationship had cooled, and apparently had no strong contenders for a serious new relationship. I liked to flatter myself that these women were still holding out some hope I'd want to get back together with them. Maybe I did still flirt some, maybe I didn't talk much about Elizabeth to them, but at least I never pretended to them that I wasn't in a serious relationship. Whether that got me any points for heaven, I wasn't sure. So, anyway, I felt a little guilty for being so attracted to this woman, but it wasn't like I could cheat on Elizabeth now. She was beautiful, elegant, tall, and looked -- oh, what was that phrase from "Body Heat," when William Hurt first met Kathleen Turner? "Welltended." Yes, indeed. Although she was probably actually younger than Elizabeth, she seemed years older in some sense, worldly and jaded. She hadn't aged more but she had experienced more. Her body had the same hauteur that she probably had; first class, aware of it and arrogant as hell about it. This was a woman who wouldn't have looked twice -- or once -- at me while I was alive.

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It was a pleasure to watch her purposeful shopping, looking through a collection of expensive dresses that Elizabeth couldn't have afforded. When she had gathered several dresses to try on and headed towards the dressing room, I gulped but only hesitated a second. I followed her in. You'd have thought that the morning's episode with Elizabeth's shower would have satiated my desire to secretly watch a woman disrobe, but it hadn't. I watched eagerly. She never took off all of her clothes, just efficiently stripped to underwear to try the new outfits on. It was extremely captivating. You can see more skin on television -- even on the broadcast channels these days -- but the knowledge that she was totally unaware of me made it extremely erotic. It was like getting a porn channel on cable unexpectedly; you know you're not supposed to, but you watch anyway just because it is new, it's forbidden, it's different. I watched until she'd finished, then stumbled out of the dressing room when she whooshed out. She bought two of the dresses. I let her walk away, still light-headed by what I had done. Two days after my death, and two days before my funeral, I was stalking strange women and goggling at them dressing. What had I become? Feeling slightly sick to my stomach, I walked over to my old office. Perhaps the gloom of my coworkers mourning my death would snap me out of it. I rode the elevator up, which was a problem -- since no one initially punched my floor, I had to ride up and down until someone got on who was going to the right floor. Once again I pondered how difficult this limbo state was. The office seemed pretty normal. I don't know what I was expecting, but somehow this air of…normalcy wasn't it. OK, maybe there wouldn't be black crepe paper hanging, maybe people wouldn't be in the mourning clothes, but, come on, people were walking around as usual. They were answering phones in chipper voices; they had their casual

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outfits on. I stopped by a few of the clumps of people chatting, in the snack room, in the halls, or at people's desks. The conversations were your everyday office chitchat, from complaining about unreasonable work deadlines to talk about upcoming weekend plans. Nothing about my death or me. I was, I confess, disappointed. I stopped by my old office. Someone had at least shut the door and closed the blinds. I couldn't see inside, so I don't know if the police were isolating it for possible evidence or if the company had already stripped my belongings. My assistant Margie wasn't at her desk, and her computer was not on. It appeared that she was off today. Good old Margie. We'd worked together a couple years, and got along well. She always asked after Elizabeth, and showed me when she got new pictures of her daughter Tiffany. She must have taken the news hard. After more prowling around, I found some evidence of impact. A couple people had taped photos of me by their desks. The people who had done it surprised me -- not necessarily people I was particularly close to, just people I said hello to passing by for the most part. One of them had been on a short-lived project with me, but we hadn't exchanged more than a few words after that. In the break room there were copies of a couple of the newspaper articles posted to the bulletin board. They had a copy of the obituary from today's paper, which listed the time and place of the viewing and the services. Someone had put up a sheet indicating that Margie was handling taking up a collection. Still, one of the articles was partially obscured by an announcement of the company picnic later in the month. Frank -- now, I was sure that Frank would have some visible reaction. I hurried to his office. His door was closed, but through the blinds I could see him inside with his boss, Larry Morgan. I put my ear against the glass wall and listened hard.

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"So Codman can finish up the capital analysis that Finley was working on?" Morgan asked. "Will he meet the deadline? What other critical projects are outstanding?" "George will do fine," Frank assured him. "Mike already had him doing a lot of the work, so I'll work with him to finish it off. I'm redistributing Mike's other projects, and will talk to my other managers about handling his direct reports. By the end of the week we should be on track." Morgan nodded. Things were under control. "What about what we talked about last night? Have you thought about it more?" Frank sighed. "I know it'd be a nice budget savings, but not to replace Mike? It'd be tough, I'll tell you. There's not much depth at his level, so the junior people would really have to step up." Morgan gave him a Jack Welsh kind of look. "But can you do it?" Frank paused for effect. "Yeah, I think so. It won't be easy, but we can cope." Morgan patted him on the arm, proud of him. "It will be worth it to you at bonus time. You'll do well on your budget goals." Frank was using me to leverage his bonus! I knew Frank, and this was only a token fight. He hadn't really pushed to replace me. He'd always assured me how indispensable I was, and how he'd look after my interests. Now, the first chance he got, he was dumping me. Oh, sure, he had protested, but it was pro forma, just so his boss would register how hard Frank would have to work to do without me. But, in essence, Frank was admitting that I was superfluous.

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I never thought I was superfluous. Sure, maybe I wasn't indispensable, but I did a good job. I worked hard; I put in long enough hours. I thought I'd be missed both personally and professionally. Apparently not. When Morgan opened the door and walked out, I timidly crept through the door to sit on Frank's couch. He was still sitting behind his desk, not looking too happy. He audibly exhaled, and looked out his window. Shaking his head, he picked up the phone. "Evelyn, can you ask Bob and Nancy to come in here?" he asked politely. They were my peers, managing the other sections in Frank's department. He fiddled with some papers on his desk while he waited for them. They showed up a few minutes later, looking worried. They'd have heard Morgan was here behind closed doors; that's never good news. "Have a seat," Frank said distractedly, gesturing to the couch. I hurriedly got up, to avoid being sat on. Bob and Nancy tentatively sat down. Frank remained behind the desk, leaning forward towards them. I leaned on a windowsill. "Good news or bad news first?" he asked rhetorically. "OK: the bad news: Larry wants us to take this chance to reduce our budget, so we're not going to replace Mike Finley." They didn't react too visibly, just acknowledged his statement with tight nods. I suspected that they had been expecting this. "What's the good news?" Nancy asked suspiciously. Frank laughed, without much humor. "Oh, more for us all to do, I guess. Or maybe the good news is that there isn't any more bad news. I don't know. Take your pick." The three of them sat in silence for a few seconds. "Today's Wednesday. I'll handle Mike's section for the next couple days," Frank said resignedly. "Think about how you want to split up the work, and let's talk about it Friday morning."

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"Isn't Friday Mike's funeral? Bob asked. Finally, someone remembered. "Oh, yeah, that's right," Frank agreed. "OK, let's talk Friday afternoon. I'll come back after the funeral. If you guys are going, you can ride with me." Evidently Frank didn't figure to be so upset by the funeral that he couldn't work. Just head back to the office. "Somebody should stay here Friday," Nancy suggested. "It's not like we're closing the office." "I'll stay," Bob offered. "I didn't really know Mike all that well." Didn't know me all that well? He'd only been in our department a year or so, but I'd been over to his house a couple times, I'd gone to lunch with him periodically. His office was two doors down from mine. I'd even gone with some other people in the office to see his wife in a community musical. How well did he have to know me to spend an hour or two at my funeral? I was insulted. "It's such a tragedy," Nancy said quietly. "He was so young to be killed." "He was a nice guy," Bob chimed in. "Too bad I didn't get to work with him longer." Frank looked weary. "I practically hired him." -- which wasn't quite true; we were the same level when I started -- "I introduced him to Elizabeth. I've been to his house. Damn right it's a tragedy." That was as good as I was going to get here. When Bob and Nancy left, I followed them out of Frank's office, then got out of the building.

Chapter 8

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I wasn't quite sure what to do next. It was mid-afternoon, and I sat in the downtown square weighing my options. Elizabeth was still probably out someplace with Donna and her parents. My parents were probably at the house, but it's not too easy to get to their house on the bus. I didn't relish the idea of taking two or three buses, requiring as many hours, just to sit and watch them grieve. It was a pleasant afternoon, so I just enjoyed sitting out for a while longer. If I still had skin or could feel heat, I might have enjoyed basking in the warm sunlight, but as it was I had to just enjoy the sights. I experimented with sitting still, in order to find out if I would become visible to anyone. I guess I wasn't patient enough, or maybe it was too bright out; no one seemed to notice me. Still no signs of other creatures like me, either. It troubled me. I decided I wanted to see Tonya, to see how she was doing. She worked out in the suburbs, so I didn't think a trip out there was warranted. By the time I got there she'd be done for the day. But she lived in one of the downtown high rises. I figured there was a decent chance she was taking the day off, or would be coming home from work shortly. By the way, you probably have formed the wrong impression about Tonya. I'll bet you had her pegged for a model, or a flight attendant, something like that. Nope. I'd have to apologize for that impression. Actually, Tonya is a systems analyst, and really is very bright. Her being bright just lets her enjoy the hunt and the chase of dating all the more. For example, all the computer geeks she works with worship her like a goddess, and she knows it -- and uses it to her advantage. She plays games with guys' heads. One of the things she said she liked about me was that I didn't fall for them, although I always wondered if that was just another game she was playing. I wouldn't put it past her. I trooped over to her building. It was a nice place, complete with doorman and fancy lobby and all. The doorman couldn't see me, of course; again I had to wait for someone to come in, so I could slip in with them through the door. Then I spent almost an hour

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riding that damned elevator -- up, down, up, down, and so on -- until someone got off at her floor. I was coming to hate elevators. I took up position outside Tonya's door. Unlike Elizabeth's house, I couldn't even peer in the windows, not unless I wanted to go outside and crawl around on the ledge. In retrospect, that probably would have been a better idea than standing around in the hall waiting for her to open the door. I mean, it's not like I could fall and kill myself if I slipped off the ledge. But old fears die slowly, and I wasn't sure what would happen if I did fall all that way. Of course, I listened at the door, but couldn't hear anything. That could mean she wasn't there, or it could mean she was there but not making much noise. Maybe she was in the bedroom crying. Maybe she was at a bar someplace drinking. I didn't know. So I stood around, feeling like a juvenile delinquent. I thought about first meeting Tonya. I'd met her in a bar shortly after I'd moved back here. I'd just broken up with Alicia, and was in no hurry to get involved with anyone. Maybe laid but not involved. I was with Dave, and she was with a couple of her friends at a table. Dave and I of course noticed her; so did every guy in the bar. We watched as a string of would-be Lotharios bravely marched over to her table, only to be rebuffed. In some cases, politely, with a charming laugh. In other cases, she clearly cut their balls off and sent them limping back to their tables. Dave and I kept a running count. Dave was in the men's room, and I was ordering another round when she materialized at my elbow. "Get me a Bud Light, why don't you?" she commanded. I looked at her, surprised to find her there and asking me to buy her a drink. But who was I to question her? "Sam, put this lady's Bud Light on my tab. Bottle or draft?"

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We fell into a light conversation. I made eye contact with Dave when he emerged from the men's room, waved him off. His eyebrows raised comically at me, and he gave me a quick thumbs up before moving on to chat up another pretty girl. I realized pretty quickly that Tonya was more intelligent than she let people think she was. But I didn't call her on it, not wanting to spoil anything. I was still trying to figure out why me and not one of the other guys in the bar -- particularly, why me and not Dave. Dave was usually much more aggressive, and much more successful, about meeting women than I was. Yet here was by far the most attractive woman in the bar trying to pick me up. Go figure. We compared histories. She was impressed by my Penn background; she'd looked at Bryn Mawr before going off to University of Virginia. "Why UVA?" I asked. She shrugged and smiled sweetly. "I wanted to brush up on that Southern belle thing," she replied easily. No, I didn't go home with her that night, but I got her number and we started going out regularly. She was a daredevil in almost every sense of the word. We went to bars, concerts, jazz clubs, plays, movies, football games, amusement parks -- you name it, we probably tried it. I just tried to hold on for the ride. She was fun, exciting, quick-witted, very beautiful, and -- OK, I confess -- great in bed. We made it almost a year before we broke up, for the first time. She does have a temper, and would shoot off cutting comments at things I said innocently. I started reacting in kind, and we escalated into fights and shouting matches. Hanging up phones, storming out of rooms, slamming doors, the whole bit. Again, I could never be sure what was a game and what was real; I didn't always believe she was as upset as she seemed to be. So we spent the next year or so breaking up, going awhile not talking, then one of us calling and pleading to try again. It wasn't healthy, and I knew it, but I'm telling you, she was like a drug. I was a Tonya addict and was having a hard time breaking the habit.

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We were still in the throes of all this when I met Elizabeth. One thing I could tell right away about Elizabeth was that being with her wouldn't be such a roller coaster ride. Maybe not quite the highs, but not nearly the lows either. By the time Tonya came looking to make up with me, I'd been hooked. Tonya was pretty hurt, and vowed to never talk to me again. That lasted, oh, about a month. We had lunch like civilized adults, and started our new pattern of discreet lunches and phone calls. She was civil about Elizabeth; she never directly bad mouthed her or questioned my choice of Elizabeth over her. She was polite, just took those little snipes, like calling her "the girl" in that teasing tone. Or she would use some occasion to remind me of something wild we'd done; I was pretty sure the implication was, does Elizabeth do those kinds of things with you? The question I never asked her was why me in the bar that night. It was around eight that I concluded I was wasting my time. If Tonya was in there, she wasn't coming out. If she was out, it could be hours before she came home. I decided to leave. Of course, it took me another hour or so to get out of her building, having to wait until the elevator stopped on her floor. When it finally did, I half expected that it would be her getting off, but no such luck. I went out to the street and debated my options. I decided I really wanted to check in on Elizabeth, so went through the whole bus routine again, not getting to Elizabeth's house till almost eleven. She was home, but now I had the same problem as Monday night. She was in for the night and no one was coming over, with me stuck outside again. My batting average was pretty low for the day. I sat on the swing on her porch. We'd put it in together, a fun little weekend project that resulted in a lot of laughs and, at the end, a rush inside to passionately make love, shower off the sweat and other fluids, then back to bed for a longer, slower, and sweeter

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lovemaking. We'd sat on this swing on many an evening, slowly rocking back and forth and listening to the sounds of the night. We'd sit with her snuggled under my arm, her head nestled in my chest. In those times I was so comfortable and at peace that I never wanted to get up. Now I sat alone on that swing. Maybe this wasn't limbo, I thought darkly; maybe this was hell. I must have looked terrible -- unshaven, unkempt, and grimy. I faced the prospect of having to watch my whole life proceed without me, unable to talk or touch or feel. If that wasn't hell, it was a good start. So I spent the night again outside her house. I couldn't hear or see anything inside. I sat on her porch and waited for the new day.

Chapter 9 I did it again. After a few hours on that swing, listening to the quiet night, I managed to rock myself to sleep. The next thing I knew I heard the sound of Elizabeth's front door opening. I was startled awake, and tried to get up quickly. It wasn't quick enough. Elizabeth stepped outside, wearing her robe and carrying a cup of coffee. She must have been going out to get the morning paper on her sidewalk. She glanced over at the swing automatically, I'm sure not expecting to see anything. But once again she caught sight of a brief frozen image of me, before it faded away as I scrambled up. She immediately screamed, dropping her coffee cup at the same time. It broke when it hit, spilling coffee at her feet. She stood with her hands at her mouth, eyes wide open.

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Her next door neighbor, Mr. Wilkenson, quickly rushed outside his house. He was a retired widower, and had known Elizabeth for several years. When his wife was alive they had "adopted" Elizabeth almost like a daughter, since her own parents were so far away and their one son lived out of town. After his wife's death Mr. Wilkenson had continued to watch over Elizabeth. He'd sometimes mow her grass, accept packages, and other little helpful chores. Of course, he watched over prospective boyfriends like a hawk. He was not at all happy when I started spending the night there. It took me several months, many suspicious stares, and, finally, some pleasant conversations until he began to accept me. I liked him. He was a nice guy, and was trying to look out for Elizabeth's best interests as best he knew how. He just grew up in a time when pretty young things like Elizabeth were usually married, and, if they weren't, they didn't openly have boyfriends staying the night. I don't think he ever got used to the sleeping over part, but perhaps he allowed himself to believe that we each slept in a different bedroom. "Elizabeth, are you all right?" he asked, concern evident in his tone. "I heard a scream and a crash." He came up on the porch. "Here, here, dear, you're shaking like a leaf." He put a paternal arm around her shoulders, patting her gently. Elizabeth tried to regain her composure. "It's nothing, Mr. Wilkenson. I just saw a, um, big spider, and it startled me. I'm OK." Mr. Wilkenson laughed a knowing little laugh, amused as always at the ways of women. Then, peering at her more seriously, he asked, "How are you, my dear?" Elizabeth sighed. "I don't know, Mr. Wilkenson, I really don't know. Sometimes I think I'm losing it. But I'll be all right." She touched his arm affectionately. "Thanks for watching out for me, as usual."

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They made small talk, and Mr. Wilkenson volunteered to clean up the mess made by the coffee cup. Elizabeth thanked him and picked up her paper. She kept looking curiously at the swing, and glanced around surreptitiously to see if I might be hiding somewhere else. Then she went back inside the house, this time with me in tow. Elizabeth again took her time reading the paper. There was no mention of my shooting; it was becoming old news, I guess, and there must not have been any new developments to report. I got frustrated reading the paper over her shoulder. We read at about the same speed, but seemed to be going for different articles. I'd be halfway through a story I was interested in, only to have Elizabeth skip over the page it was continued on. I could see that this was going to be a problem. I loved to read, and now I was going to be dependent on other people's tastes and reading speeds. More evidence that this might, in fact, be hell. This morning I scrupulously stayed in the living room while she showered and dressed. She seemed somber but not distraught, sad but not despondent. Her parents came over mid-morning, and the three of them puttered around the house for a few hours. Her dad had found a few little fix-it projects to work on, giving Elizabeth and her mom time to sit at the kitchen table and chat. Mostly they talked about people they knew in common -- I think I have a pretty complete picture of the hot developments in her parents' town -- but periodically the topic of me would come up. "Did I ever tell you that Mike and I were talking about a trip to Vancouver in October?" Elizabeth said. "He loved the 'X-Files' and wanted to see where it was filmed. Plus we thought we could do some hiking in the mountains around there. He said he always wanted to go there…" "You two did like to travel, didn't you?" her mom said tolerantly. "Your father hates to travel. I envied you that you found a man who liked to see new places." Elizabeth nodded.

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"We were good together that way." She paused, adrift in memories of our trips together. San Francisco, Carmel, the Grand Canyon, New York, Chicago, Montana, Scotland, Switzerland, Cancun; we'd packed in a variety of places in our four years together. Some were well-planned expeditions; some were quick weekend getaways on the spur of the moment. Of course, Elizabeth had photos and tickets and other physical objects to mark each trip, packed away in her Mike box. I just had the memories. They sat for a while longer, occasionally interrupted by the phone, and eventually her mom made lunch for the three of them. "Are you all right with the funeral arrangements?" her mom asked over grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup. "I know you had some different ideas." Elizabeth made a face. "It's too formal. I think Mike would have hated it." "Why?" her father asked. "He would have just wanted a big party. He did tell me he wanted to be cremated, so the viewing definitely would creep him out. I know he wouldn't like this religion deal, with the minister and the whole church bit." "You know, dear," her mother said sympathetically, "they say funerals are really for the living, not the dead. Maybe this is what his family needs." Elizabeth made a frustrated face. "I know, but -- well, I'm not family, am I? They don't seem very concerned about what I need or want."

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Her parents regarded that in silence. The unspoken response was 'well, why didn't you get married, or at least engaged?' Her mother just patted her hand. Elizabeth's eyes brimmed with tears. "I know I'm being selfish. I just hate to think that Mike is watching this somewhere and thinking that I failed to give him the kind of goodbye he would have liked." Omigosh, Elizabeth! I didn't really know what the plans were for my send-off, having been absent for those discussions, but I wouldn't blame her for failing me. I was frustrated anew. "I'm sure that, if he is watching you, he loves you and knows you did your best, honey," her father said consolingly. For once I could have hugged him. Her parents wanted to go back to their hotel to rest and clean up before the viewing, which started at seven. They asked if Elizabeth was going over to my parents' house before the viewing. "No," she replied. "They've probably got lots of family over. Donna and Janet said they'd come over this afternoon if I wanted. I'll call them, and maybe we'll take a walk or a drive or something. Why don't you come by around five, and we'll get a quick bite to eat before we go." Her parents agreed. I was in a quandary. I wanted to be around Elizabeth, yet I also wanted to find out what was happening with my parents. I felt guilty that I hadn't spent more time around them. I opted to leave when her parents did. I managed to pick up an outward-bound bus, headed to a mall a few miles away from my parents' house. From there I walked the rest of the way, not getting to their house till mid-afternoon. They had a small crowd at the house. Tara and Derek were there, plus my mom's brother Bill, dad's sister Pat and her daughter Annie, as well as Annie's kids. Everyone was out on the back porch watching the kids play. Tara and Annie were doing

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the young mother bit, comparing children and their accomplishments and periodically having to rescue them from their own playing. The older adults were content to watch. My dad was still pretty quiet. My mom was trying to be the good hostess, but it clearly was wearing on her. The others kept urging her to just sit down, that they would take care of things. My parents still appeared older than they were. They looked tired, as though they hadn't been sleeping well. I wanted to reach out and touch them, to let them know I was all right. That was pretty ironic, wasn't it? Of all the descriptions of my current state that I might have come up with, 'all right' had to be low on the list. But I hated seeing them so torn up. The older adults kept talking about tragic stories from their lives -- people they knew who had suffered or died early. It struck me as cruel somehow, like telling my parents that other people had had it worse. Strangely, though, it did seem to help. They each had stories to tell, and starting reminiscing about people and times past, mostly people I hadn't known or had long forgotten. My parents had pretty much grown up together, and had gotten married right after college. Their families had lived in the same neighborhood - for example, family rumor has it that dad had really been interested in mom's sister Cathy first, before dating mom. The story was different every time we heard it, and I think they all just had fun keeping us wondering. Dad sadly told the group, "I've lost my parents, I lost a brother, I've lost close friends, but nothing has been like this. It really hits you hard. Parents shouldn't outlive their children." The others nodded. Dad's younger brother, John, had died of cancer a few years ago. None of our family had had a child die before, if you don't count miscarriages. After a respectful silence, Bill chimed in with a story about a co-worker whose two-year-old had just died suddenly. Pat reminded the group of their parents, who each lost at least one

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child in childbirth. Perhaps when you get older these kinds of details give you perspective. Death happens, people go on. They still had Tara and now Derek. I lacked that perspective, but, after all, it was my death. I shifted my attention to Tara. She and Annie were about the same age, and had been close since they were kids. My first crushes were on Annie, although as my cousin I knew she was off limits. In the stupid way of pre-adolescents, I would often interrupt their time together to tease them or mess up whatever they were doing. Why do young boys think that acting perverse will help attract the girls they like? I guess they do it because they don't even like to admit to themselves that they like someone of the opposite sex, that the evolutionary lure still works. It's a good thing that biology and hormones have such a pull; if attraction were really based on behavior, boys and girls would never get together. On second, thought, maybe that wouldn't be such a bad thing. Our growing up would be so much easier if we discovered the appeal of sex even ten years later. Annie still was attractive, three kids and twenty plus years later. Her boys bracketed Derek in age, and the three of them were close companions, further strengthening the ties between Annie and Tara. "How do you think your parents are doing?" Annie asked, taking her eyes off the kids for a second to look at Tara. Tara paused. "It's been hard, no doubt. I'm the oldest, but Mike was the only son. What can replace that? Dad probably figures his name will die out." Annie considered that, and passed on commenting. "How do you think they will hold up tonight and tomorrow? Are they going to be OK?" Tara smiled tightly. "They'll do what they have to do; they always do. How they'll really deal with it, I don't know."

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"And you," Annie challenged. "How are you going to hold up? Do you know what you'll say at the service?" Tara surveyed the children intently before replying. "I'm still thinking about it."

Chapter 10 Everyone excused themselves by five o'clock, kissing and hugging my parents and promising to see them in a couple of hours. My mom made them a quick dinner, which they mechanically ate -- not from hunger or appetite, but from a sense of duty to keep the machines running. They showered and got changed. I was surprised at how little small talk there was, at how little conversation there was generally. I wondered how they were around each other normally. They're both pretty outgoing people, but for all I knew that was a show they put on around others, leaving nothing but silence for each other. I didn't like to think that; it turned their fortysome years together into kind of a prison sentence, with reprieves for visits. At what point do you just run out of things to say, at what point do all your spouse's stories become wearisome? I guessed I'd never get to know. At one point mom was putting on her earrings, standing in front of the mirror on her dresser. There were lots of photographs on the top of the dresser, and, as one of them of Elizabeth and me caught her eye, she started to tremble and get tears in her eyes. Dad came over and tenderly put his hand on her shoulder. "Come on, Hilary," he said kindly. "We've got a long way to go yet. Hang in there." She put her hand on top of his and held it tightly. She looked at him with gratitude and -yes -- love in her eyes, and I felt a lot better about their relationship. They would survive; they would help each other. Maybe happy would be too much to expect, but comfort was

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still possible. The touch was a small but amazingly intimate gesture, a shorthand between them that I'd never have been able to see otherwise. I rode with them to the funeral home for the viewing. Elizabeth was right. The concept of a viewing seemed barbaric to me. I debated skipping the event on principle, but I was too fascinated. I wanted to see who all turned up, and -- I admit -- I wanted to see what they had done with my body. Dad's friend, the funeral director, greeted him and mom in his unctuous manner, grasping my father's hand firmly, then holding my mother's hand in both of his, not letting go as he spoke. "I think you'll be pleased," he said. "We've done a very nice job for your beloved son. You'll be proud of him." He walked them to the viewing room and left them alone. I looked pretty good, I have to confess. Unless you looked really close -- and I was able to look really close, closer than other viewers would be able to -- you couldn't really see where the bullet had entered my head. I didn't quite like the make-up, but at least my face looked rosy. They had dressed me in one of my best suits. If you can imagine getting all decked out for some fancy event, then falling asleep, that's what I looked like. It'd look more natural if they dressed people in what they might be wearing when they were asleep or napping, but that might get a little embarrassing. It might liven up viewings anyway. I was a little afraid to touch the body. At first I approached it carefully, like a scavenger might approach a prone predator that may or may not be dead. I finally relented and touched it, quickly at first, then harder and longer. I guess I was thinking that I'd feel some special connection -- a jolt of electricity or something. This was me, or used to be. "I" used to reside in that. Maybe it would suck me back in with it, maybe it would come alive again; I didn't know.

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This body was nothing special to me; I could no more feel it than I could anything else. People started showing up gradually. Elizabeth and her parents were among the first, accompanied by Donna. Elizabeth walked in holding her mom's hand in one hand and Donna's in the other, her father trailing behind helplessly. They followed shortly by Pat and her husband. Tara and Richard came next, without Derek, whom I heard later was at a neighbor's house. Bill and his wife; Paul and Janet. Cathy and her family. Various cousins, including Annie and her husband. Several friends and neighbors dropped by briefly. Frank Jerome, Margie, and a few of the people in my unit came in a pack. Dave stopped by, without a girlfriend. I idly wondered if he thought maybe he could find a grief-stricken candidate here, someone who needed comforting. Oh, well; not my problem. More power to him if he could. He hugged my mother, and put his arm around my father, patting him on the back manfully. Two of my college buddies even showed up, looking like they felt out of place. We had kept in touch over the years, mostly by phone but also on the occasional business trip that took me east or them here. I was pleased and -- yes, flattered -- that they'd made the trip on my account, leaving behind wives and kids to say goodbye to me. I thought about who among my friends had heard but weren't able to come. I thought about which of my friends didn't even know I was dead yet. In their world I was still alive, my existence unchallenged. It was like Schroedinger's cat, the famous quantum physics thought experiment. Put a cat in a box with a radioactive material that has a fifty-fifty chance of decaying and killing the cat within an hour, and at the end of the hour: is the cat alive or dead? Some quantum physicists maintained that the cat was neither alive nor dead until you opened the box. The act of observing bestows the reality on the situation in some weird sense. That was me for the circle of people who had not heard of my death; I was alive until they knew otherwise. It made me shudder to think of it.

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Alicia. Who would think to call Alicia? Maybe word would get out through my college circles; maybe she'd see it a year from now in the Penn alumni magazine. Maybe she'd never hear. She'd call my number and not get an answer, she'd write and have her letter returned, "addressee unknown." She might conclude I'd moved and wanted to cut off ties with her, and could go to her grave thinking something different about me than I'd ever have wanted her to think. Alicia, I would have told you if I could have… My parents sat near the body. People would usually walk up to them first and give their condolences. They'd shake hands or hold hands, sometimes a quick kiss or brief hug. Everyone seemed on their best behavior about limiting crying to a few tears or wet eyes. After paying their respects to my parents, they dutifully went up to my body. I'd have given a lot to know what they were really thinking as they looked at it. Some seemed to really believe it was me there, giving their devotion to whatever god they believed in. For others it was more pro forma, standing there silently without really looking, then moving on to chat with someone in the room. Elizabeth stood for a long time, standing a couple feet away from the casket as though not sure it was safe to approach. Everyone gave her some space, standing off to the side and not rushing her. Her expression was serious, deep in thought. Maybe she was replaying happier scenes in our times together; maybe she was reconciling this…thing to the man she presumably loved. She finally walked up to the casket and put her hands on my chest. She shook her head sadly and made a thin line of her lips. I was expecting her to lean over and kiss me, but she didn't. She looked at me fondly but almost disapprovingly; I didn't quite understand that look, but, as I've said, she was kind of mysterious. When she'd finished whatever she needed to do in front of my corpse, she went over to my parents; my mom put her arm around her, and my dad squeezed her hand. They all blinked back tears. Then she sat down with her parents -- not too far from my parents, but keeping slightly separate.

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Tara was in fine form, acting as the hostess. She circulated, thanked everyone for coming, and kept things from getting too maudlin. It was as though she had to let them know that our family wasn't crushed, that life would go on. I was surprised at her; I wouldn't have guessed that she'd have such vivacity on this kind of an occasion. Richard, the old stick-in-the-mud, stood by himself, looking peevish. I guessed he figured there were no prospective clients in the crowd. I circled around him, seeing if I could spook him, but, true to form, he just ignored me. Dave also was pretty gregarious. He knew many of my relatives, and most of my friends. He acted more like the best man at my wedding than as the best friend at my funeral, mingling and helping people feel comfortable. I watched as he worked the room, crossing paths with Tara frequently. Tara gave him grateful looks for helping ease the burden. Dave cornered Elizabeth at one point. "How are you doing, kid?" he asked. "Hanging in there OK?" She shrugged and then nodded, having run out of the usual "as well as can be expected." He draped an arm around her shoulders. "So, I hear you saw Mike again," he shared conspiratorially. "What's up with that?" Elizabeth grimaced, and shot a glare over at Janet, standing with Paul talking to Pat. Dave followed her gaze, and laughed. "No, it wasn't Janet," he confessed. "Blame this one on Donna." "I don't know what to tell you, Dave," she said cautiously. "I came out on the porch to get the paper and there he was, sitting on the swing. I looked again and he was gone." Dave studied her. "That must have been weird," he conceded. "What was he doing?"

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Elizabeth laughed sharply, drawing some startled looks from onlookers. "To be honest, I think he was sleeping! It's like all he does is sleep. He looked like hell, like he just woke up and hadn't cleaned up in days. If I didn't recognize him I'd have thought he was a homeless person." I kind of resented that bit about the sleeping; hey, Elizabeth, maybe it seems like I'm always sleeping because that's the only time you can see me! It was kind of pointless to want to correct her impression, since I had no way to do so. I just didn't want her to think I'd become lazy just because I was dead. Dave was silent, formulating a response. "You know, Elizabeth," he said finally, "you might want to think about getting some help about this. Maybe talk to your priest or a therapist of some sort. Unless you really believe in ghosts." Now it was Elizabeth's turn to be silent. She sighed. "Maybe I am going crazy. I don't know what to think about it, or what to do about it. I guess I'll see what happens. " Dave squeezed her shoulders, and promised to help in any way he could. He moved on, and Elizabeth made a beeline for Donna. "Donna, I asked you not to tell anyone about what I saw," Elizabeth warned. "Elizabeth, it was just Dave," Donna said defensively. "He already knew about the first time, and I thought it'd be all right to tell him about this." Donna put her hands reassuringly on Elizabeth's forearm. "We all just want what's best for you," she said soothingly.

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"I'm sorry I reacted like this," Elizabeth said, mollified. "I'm not myself. I don't know why I'm seeing him. It's bad enough I have to look at that" -- indicating my dead body -"but having him pop up unexpectedly at my house like that is a shock." They made up and started some girl talk, so I drifted away. I hadn't planned on surprising Elizabeth like that, but I suppose I'd hoped that she'd be glad to see me, not upset. That was pretty unrealistic, I can see that now. It's always easier when you know what's happening, even if you don't know why. Having it smack you in the face, like I had inadvertently done to her, was harder. In time, the noise level of the room, so subdued at first, took on a more normal level, and the conversations were ones that you could hear at any gathering. People would periodically reaffirm that they were, in fact, at a solemn event, looking up over the casket and putting on a serious expression. They might say something trite, something nice about me and what a loss it was, then go back to some other topic. I didn't pick up any revelations about what people thought of me. Detectives Kiowski and Reilly came and stayed for about a half an hour. The crowd buzzed at their presence, and the detectives eyed the crowd back. Perhaps they expected my killer to make an appearance, maybe even break down and confess. It would make their job easier. No one did, not that I saw. They told my parents that the ballistics had come back, so they knew the type of gun and from where it was probably shot. "The apartment was a vacant one," Kiowski told my parents gamely. "It could have been some squatters, or some kids fooling around. We haven't found anything to indicate it was anything intentional. We still are checking out some leads, but the longer it goes, the less likely it is that we'll find anyone." My parents thanked them gravely, and asked them to keep trying. The detectives were non-committal.

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The real stir of the evening came late. Tonya came in almost at the end of the viewing. I assumed she was hoping there would be fewer people there, especially Elizabeth. No such luck. The room quieted as she entered, wearing a smashing black dress -- very proper for her, with a high collar, and stopping only slightly above her knees. It didn't matter; she still was stunning, and attracted every eye in the place, except for my dead one's. She stood near the back, for once unsure what to do next. Much to my surprise it was Elizabeth who broke the ice. Back sitting with her parents, she stood up, walked over to Tonya and put out her hand. "You must be Tonya," she said. "I'm Elizabeth. Thank you for coming." Tonya took her hand, and they looked each other in the eyes, as if measuring. Then, again to my amazement, they broke into a long hug. Elizabeth made the introductions to my family, some of whom Tonya had previously met. My parents regarded her warily, not wanting anything to spoil the evening. But Tonya was very polite and almost contrite, while Elizabeth was gracious throughout. It was odd seeing them together, like something out of a dream, or maybe a nightmare. Whenever I had gone someplace with one of them, I'd have these little uneasy feelings in the back of my head that we might run into the other. We never had, amazingly, but I still worried about it. I didn't know why I was so concerned. I didn't have any reason to feel guilty about either one of them, not really. I just, I don't know, thought it'd be hard on them to see me with the other. Tonya might feel rejected, that here was the person I'd left her for, and Elizabeth might feel insecure, that maybe my feelings for Tonya were still there. It was just better to keep them apart. Yet here they were, together at the oddest possible occasion, talking like they were old dear friends. As always, Tonya was calm, with that unflappable sense of self-assurance that I both liked and feared a little. Elizabeth appeared slightly nervous, almost grateful

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for the chance to play hostess to Tonya. She was bending over backward to include Tonya in the events of the day, to make her feel welcome. Tonya went up to see the body, and stood with her hands clutching the sides of the casket. She had a small smile on her face, regarding the body affectionately. To me, she resembled nothing so much as a mother standing over her newborn's crib. She stopped over and kissed me lightly on the forehead, then walked away, brushing a tear away from her eye. Elizabeth intercepted her on the way out, holding Tonya's elbow as though to prevent her from fleeing. She whispered into Tonya's ear, and I couldn't get there in time to hear what was being said. By the time I got to their sides, Elizabeth had pulled back and the Tonya was nodding. "All right, I will." Tonya said firmly. I had to wonder what that was all about. All in all, it was a non-event. The premise of a viewing seems to be so that people can confirm for themselves. Yep, that is a dead body, and it does look like him; I guess we can take him off the mailing list. That's too cold, I know. It is a help for people to gather together in times of loss; that sense of community goes back as far as tribes of humans do. It's not what makes us human, but it's the kind of thing that makes being human easier. It's a big, bad world out there, with terrible things happening to people you know. Getting together with the other survivors allows one to not face it alone. After a couple hours everyone had had it. Most of the more casual crowd had come and gone, leaving behind the hard core family and friends. I was ready to go too

Chapter 11

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For some reason, I felt like being by myself. That's ironic -- as though I wasn't already isolated enough in my own silent world all the time now anyway. But spending the night trapped with my parents or even with Elizabeth seemed too confining, too overwhelming. I couldn't help them with their grief, and I really didn't want to risk falling asleep and being discovered again. That would be too cruel, especially on the morning of my funeral. So when everyone left I let them go. I knew the church where the funeral service was going to be, and it wasn't far from here. I thought I'd just wander around all night and see the world from this quiet perspective. I checked on my body one last time, I don't know why, then slipped out the front door just as the staff was closing it for the night. I strolled aimlessly along the street. The texture of this existence is hard to describe. Within myself things felt the same. I could feel my heart beat; I could see my lungs moving. I could move my tongue; I could hear myself talk. My ears worked, my eyes worked. But it was like existing in a hologram. The world had shape, it had substance, but I couldn't touch it. I could put my hand on a bench, but I couldn't feel it. If I closed my eyes I wouldn't know if I was holding the bench or a handful of air. No, that's not accurate, for I could lean against it and not fall forward, so somehow I could be affected by the existence of it. But there was no sense of touch. The wind didn't rustle my hair, and my skin couldn't feel my clothes. My hands did my bidding, but the nerves from them didn't carry back any messages to my brain. It's hard to describe. I sat for a long while in front of a 24-hour convenience store. I watched the cars come and go, with an array of people getting in and out of them. They almost arrived in waves, quiet for long periods, then bunches of them arriving nearly at the same time. I had an image of a time-lapse movie, showing the ebb and flow over a 24-hour period. To an

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alien it might look like a bee colony or anthill looks to us. The movements look purposeful, everyone seems to know what they are doing, but the point of it all remains a mystery to the observer. I felt a little like that alien now. I didn't feel hungry or thirsty. I might long for human contact, but I wasn't going to get that in the convenience store either. It wasn't very convenient for me. Giving up on sitting there, I wandered over to a grocery store that was open all night. It must have been about two in the morning; I'd sat by the convenience store longer than I realized, mesmerized by the activity. I had to wait for twenty minutes or so at the grocery store's doors before a customer came by, since the automatic doors refused to acknowledge me. I idly roved through the aisles, waiting to see who was in the store at this time of night. There weren't many customers, so when some did come in I followed them avidly, curious about what they were getting. A few looked like young parents, getting some sort of emergency provisions or supplies for their kids. Did they flip for which of them got to come to the store and leave the squealing kids behind? A couple of the shoppers must have been working on late shifts, apparently simply doing their weekly shopping. And, of course, there were a few who must have just been out for kicks, trying to buy beer or candy or other impulse items (why weren't they at the convenience store, I wondered). I was half-hopeful that there would be a robbery attempt, just for my entertainment, but no such luck. That was stupid and selfish of me; I was just getting bored. Most of what little activity there was took place by the store's workers -- stocking, pricing, or cleaning for the new day ahead. They seemed almost oblivious to the actual customers who appeared. The customers stayed in their own little worlds for the most part as well, at least until they got to the checkout line. With only one register open, short lines formed, so sometimes they'd make nervous conversation with other shoppers in line. I guessed they were reluctant to get into much of a conversation with the odd people who

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might be out shopping this late at night, yet they were too polite to totally ignore fellow night owls. I'd have to check this out again, but I'd had enough for now. Finally, I walked to the cemetery where the funeral was going to be. With no small amount of trouble, I managed to locate my grave -- all dug and ready, covered with a tarpaulin. The headstone was simple, just my name, dates of birth and death. No inscriptions, no loving phrases. Tara and I used to come to the cemetery when we were kids, to this very cemetery, in fact. I don't remember how it got started. The cemetery had lots of grass, and it was a vaguely off-limits patch of ground -- how could we resist? We liked to explore the place. We rolled down the hills, we told each other ghost stories, we screamed and ran around. We'd spy on funeral parties. I hate to admit it, but these excursions with Tara were some of the most fun we had together. She didn't like to play sports or war games, but she was bolder than I was about invading the walled confines of the cemetery. We knew this was an odd thing to do -- that was part of the appeal. We bragged about our daring to the neighborhood kids, sometimes leading packs of them with us to show off some of our best finds. We scoured the tombstones for families losing lots of young kids, and marveled at how long some of the luckier survivors managed to stay alive. I was always curious about the couples where one had died thirty, forty, sometimes even fifty years before the other. What did the remaining spouse do all those years? Did they fall in love again? If so, why were they buried with the original spouse? If not, why not? Had they simply retreated from life, having lost the love of their life? I wondered what Elizabeth would do now. I found it unlikely that she'd be resting next to me when her time came. Would she even remember me then?

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I sat on a hill in the cemetery, the highest point around, waiting for the sun to come up. I expect I was thinking that, if there were other ghosts, other creatures like me, they'd be here. What would draw a ghost as well as a cemetery? For all I knew, ghosts were like vampires, returning to their sleeping coffins in the daylight, after a night out creating havoc for the living. I certainly hadn't seen any evidence of other ghosts in the day, so I was hoping night and the cemetery would help me find others. But I was alone. I decided I didn't like being alone after all. I'd never thought I minded being alone, but I'd never really had to be before. There was always someone I could call, someone I could do things with. Being alone was just a break from other people when I was alive; now that I was dead, being alone was all I had to look forward to. Days upon days, upon years upon years… Even when I was around these living things, I was alone. I didn't feel dead, however that was supposed to feel. But I was so isolated. I was there but not there; they ignored me. It was like being shunned. It was so rich that it almost had a texture, and that texture threatened to choke me, to overwhelm me and make me panic if I wasn't careful. Being killed certainly had changed me. That sounds trite, but all my life I'd been easygoing. I just lived, and never really worried about things. That shot to my head had had the effect of a blow to my head, ghost or not. I couldn't regain my equilibrium, couldn't get back to the Mike Finley I used to be. I couldn't relax and just accept this; it was like being the ghost of someone I didn't really know, or even really like. I moped about this for hours. Sitting in the dark cemetery reminded me about one particularly happy day that I'd had about two years ago. Perhaps I needed the memory of happier times to keep me from going off the deep end. Anyway, the memory I thought of was when Elizabeth and I were

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on a road trip to New England, driving and looking at the fall foliage. It was an unstructured trip; we found small bed and breakfasts, or we camped out; we just found our way around without a lot of prior arrangements. She had protested that we'd never be able to find places to stay in peak tourist season, but I convinced her to just relax and see what happened. It had gone reasonably well. We had stopped for lunch in a small park, which we discovered marked the remains of a Revolutionary War battlefield. Or maybe it was the French and Indian War, or the War of 1812. Some battle in some war; we were sitting where people had died long ago, fighting for some cause that I wasn't even sure of now. All I knew was that it was a beautiful setting. The park had a small forest, a modest New England mountain, and a long spread of grass. We had hiked to the high point in the park, overlooking the trees and the grass. It was just perfect. The weather was crisp and clear, the trees were at their most colorful, and the grass lay before us like a thick green rug. The trees were unbelievable colors -- bright and vivid, in a way that we didn't really get in the mid-west. It was like some mad painter had splashed them with colors not in our crayon box. We gaped and kept pointing out what we thought were the prettiest ones. We unpacked our picnic basket and spread our blanket. I had brought a big ham and cheese sandwich, heavy on the mustard and pickles, while Elizabeth had some chicken salad. We'd initially planned on just a quick lunch, but we were so enchanted by the beauty of the surroundings that we delayed leaving. We didn't see anyone else in the park, so it was just us. Us and the ghosts of those long-dead warriors. One thing led to another, and we ended up staying there almost all afternoon. Elizabeth got her sketchpad from the car, and I fetched a book, so we sat with each other just enjoying the afternoon. It was so tranquil; I remember thinking even then that this would be a day I wanted to remember the rest of my life. That was what we did best; Tonya, Dave, or several of my other friends offered the prospect for more exciting outings, but

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Elizabeth gave me the most peace. She liked to do other things too, but these kinds of times were our special gift to each other. We kidded about those ghosts, imagining them hovering over us, but it was just kidding. Neither of us believed in ghosts, and nothing was going to spoil our beautiful afternoon. It would be nice to say that I did always cherish that moment, but I had forgotten about it until this moment. In fact, I recalled that we had gotten into a fight -- over something stupid, like asking for directions -- shortly after we left the park. It didn't ruin the trip but it did take some of the glow off that day, turning it into just another nice day. Still, it had been a nice day. For some reason the thought of those ancient ghosts, watching helplessly while tourists ate over their long forgotten bones bones, reminded me of my current situation. I thought about kids playing in my cemetery, about couples having picnics there, and how none of them would even be aware of me. I'd be at best a name to them, and probably not even that; I'd be more ancient history to them than those dead New England soldiers had been to me. No, thinking of that good day hadn't really helped after all; it just made me miss being alive all the more. The sun rose, and a new day started. It had been a long time since I'd been up to watch a sunrise. The beauty of it touched me, watching how it silently transformed the world. The shadows crept along the ground, running away until they disappeared in the full light. That little red ball, so many miles away, and it made everything on this earth possible. You know, they say that if the sun exploded, we would have eight minutes before we knew about it. That's how long it would take for the light to get to the earth so we could see the destruction for ourselves. There would be no advance warning, no tipoff that this was the moment. I thought about those eight minutes, how everyone in the world would be living with a false sense of security during them. Their world, and everything in it, was doomed, yet

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during those eight minutes everything would seem normal. I thought again about Schroedinger's cat, and about the wave of news about my death spreading outward until it reached all the planets of people who knew me. Your world is what you make of it, at least until the shock waves hit. The world woke with the sun, with ever-increasing sounds of people and things waking and moving. I already missed the solitude of the night. What was that saying on the morning of a battle? "Today is a good day to die." Well, today was a good day to get buried. I stood up and started walking.

Chapter 12 I cleaned up as best I could. No water, no razor, no clean clothes, no comb. Even worse, I'd proven to myself in Elizabeth's bathroom that I couldn't see my reflection in a mirror. I could touch but not feel my hair and beard, making grooming difficult. Maybe it was just as well no one could see me. Even I didn't want to see how I looked. I was one of the first people at the church. It was the church I had been raised in, but it had been many years since I'd been there regularly. My parents still went every Sunday, but they counted themselves lucky if they could get me to go with them at Christmas. Their minister was someone I didn't know, the church being at least two ministers past the one I'd known. The church itself was beautiful. It had beautiful dark wood for the pews and fixtures, as well as plush cushions on the pews so that parishioners wouldn't get sore butts listening to their ministers urging them on the paths of righteousness. There were lovely marble fixtures, some ornate statues and busts. And my personal favorites, the fantastic stained glass windows. They transformed the everyday sunlight into colored streams carrying glorious painted stories, of Jesus and of devotion. Aside from them, though, the

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sanctuary always seemed slightly dark and solemn to me, as though that darkness reflected the sins of the worshippers there. Religion had been one of my teenage rebellions. I had sneered at my parents for attending such a stuffy church, and asked them pointedly how a "Christian" church could justify spending so much money on just a building, instead of using those monies to help feed the poor or heal the sick. "Didn't Jesus throw the money-lenders out of the church?" was my favorite accusation among all the dumb charges I leveled at them. My parents weathered that storm, probably glad it wasn't drugs or vandalism or worse. And, of course, I didn't really care. I just had to have something of theirs that I could reject, so going to their church was it. I was actually pretty agnostic. Elizabeth tried to convince me to go with her to her church -- one of those non-denominational sects aimed at capturing the thirtysomething crowd -- but I resisted. Not out of principle; I just preferred to sleep in Sunday mornings, read the morning papers and such. Still, sitting in the pew now, looking at the light streaming through the stained glass windows, I felt a little of the wonder and the fear that sitting here had inspired as a child. I thought about my youthful passion and smiled a little. It's not fair, I thought. OK, I'm dead; I'm supposed to find out who was right about this afterlife stuff. God and the devil; heaven and hell; angels and demons; paradise and paradise lost. Did it matter if you were Protestant or Catholic, Christian or Jew? Did the Hindus, Buddhists, or Moslems go to the same heaven? Did God look like his pictures? I should be finding out all this kind of stuff. Instead, I was more confused than ever. Maybe I'd been wrong about churches. We could all use a little fear and wonder in our lives. I sat alone in the back pew. The funeral home wheeled my body in early, so I had to go check that out. It looked pretty much the same, although the make-up had been retouched. No doubt all those kisses and hugs at the viewing had smudged it. I wished

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that they had been able to make me smile. That "me" looked too serious. I'd always preferred photos in which I was smiling to serious shots, yet now the last sight of me that people would have would be of me dead serious. Pun intended. But I did wish I could look happier about being dead. The crowd trickled in gradually. There were more people than at the viewing, or perhaps it just seemed that way because they were all here at one time. My family stood in the entryway, greeting the arriving mourners as they came in the church's doors. I worried that it would wear my parents out, but they seemed to be holding up. My office had a good representation -- Frank and his wife, Margie, Nancy, most of my direct reports and several of the rest of my staff. Bob evidently stayed away, perhaps scheming over how to take over my little empire. Go to it, Bob -- we'll see who comes to your funeral! They sat in a block, probably having carpooled together from work and going back afterward. At least they'd forsaken the typical casual day attire. Elizabeth was magnificent. She sat in one of the front pews, with her parents and Donna. At first I wondered why she wasn't at the doors with my parents and Tara, but decided that she may have not wanted to intrude. Or perhaps she'd simply run out of trite responses to peoples' proffered condolences; I know I would have. She looked…well, heroic, like she'd been defeated but not beaten. Her grief was obvious, as was her strength. As had been true at the viewing, she accepted well-wishers' comments with grace and dignity, thanking them for their thoughts and letting them know that mourning me was appreciated. Her head was, figuratively, bloodied but unbowed. I thought she had never looked so beautiful. Dave eventually strode in, sitting next to Elizabeth and looking very respectable. I'd gathered last night that they were each going to speak at the service. He fidgeted slightly next to her, creating a study in contrasts. Dave was usually the cool one, so it was kind of funny to see. At one point I saw her nod her head slightly at him, and pat his arm lightly. I wondered what that was about.

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I was content to sit and people watch, listening to the quiet hymns that the organ was playing. A few of the brave ones stopped again to look at the body, maybe knelt by the cross and bent their head in prayer. For the most part, though, everyone sat anxiously, whispering among their little groups. Most of the people I recognized, and I spent some time trying to figure out who wasn't here that I would have wanted to come, as well as who some of these people I didn't recognize were. Richard's calling efforts must have paid off, for his crew had hit most of the people I'd have hoped for. My college and Philadelphia life was underrepresented, but that was to be expected. I was grateful to have even a couple of them here. Otherwise almost everyone I wanted was here. I thought about getting that phone call, or seeing it on the news, reading about it in the paper. Were they devastated by the news, or was it just another in life's little surprises for them? Bad things happen all the time, usually to other people. Perhaps they felt "privileged" to be that close to something that was major news, if only for a day or so. Close enough to tell people that they knew the victim, but not so close that their lives would be irreparably damaged. They didn't lose a son or a lover. Finally the music stopped, and the minister walked up the aisle with my parents. Tara, Richard, and Derek followed, Tara's hand holding a nervous Derek's. Derek looked uncertain and scared, as if he were fearful that he was about to be exposed to some secret Christian ritual that he'd never seen before, perhaps a child sacrifice of some sort. The three of them sat in the pew in front of Elizabeth and Dave, Tara making quick eye contact with them. The minister escorted my parents to their seat in the front pew, then continued to the pulpit. Mom seemed diminished somehow, a shell of herself. Her pain had whittled away at her, leaving less of her. Dad looked solid as ever, but hung on to mom's arm almost grimly, as if afraid she'd simply drift away if he lost contact even for a second. The minister indicated to the congregation that they should stand, and started off with a prayer.

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After everyone was seated, he spoke for a few minutes. He didn't really know me, of course. I'd probably spoken fewer than twenty words to him in my life, so whatever he was saying was based more on his feelings towards my parents than towards me. He said the expected bland things -- tragic early loss, God's plan is hard to understand sometimes. Blah, blah, blah. Dave was up next. Dave gave a good speech, I'm sure. The only thing is, I don't really recall much about what he said. I know he said I was a good friend, a good son, and a good brother, but that's about it. He may have said that I'd had a good life and that he'd miss me terribly, but I couldn't swear to it. He seemed sincere but vacant to me; this was a speech he could give at lots of people's funerals. I was disappointed that there wasn't more passion, and more personal loss, reflected in it. Tara, on the other hand, surprised me. "They say that we spend the first part of our lives growing up for the outside world," Tara began, "and then spend the rest of our lives trying to grow up within our families." She smiled. "Mike will always be my younger brother. When I think of him, I confess that I'll always see that happy-go-lucky little rascal, dirt on his face and clothes ripped or mussed up. I think he may have resented that, no matter how old he got, I would treat him like that younger sibling." She paused for effect. I could see several people with small smiles on their faces, fondly thinking of that image of me as a young boy. "Mike accomplished a lot in his too short life. You know, I was more surprised than anyone when he turned out to care about academics in high school. He made the honor society, even was National Merit semi-finalist, and got in to the University of Pennsylvania. He shocked me even more by doing really well there, going to Wharton for his MBA after college. My brother the brain!

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His career was equally accomplished. He flew around the country as a hotshot management consultant for a few years, then came back here and did several jobs at the telephone company. I don't pretend to understand what he really did -- if you're interested you can talk to some of the folks here who worked with him -- but by all accounts he did very well. He was moving up rapidly, and I know he would have gone far." Tara looked out thoughtfully at the audience. This was standard stuff so far. "What I'm afraid of is that Mike never knew how proud I was of him." That got the crowd's attention. "You know, he could have done anything. For example, you might be surprised that he was an English minor in college. His creative writing teachers thought he had a future in writing, and urged him to keep writing. He liked writing, but he knew he couldn't make a living at it. So he went into business instead. Still, he was about more than just business. If you have never seen his house, you'd be surprised at all the books. There are books everywhere, about anything and everything. He loved to read and to learn. He was curious about the world. I never knew when he found time to read all those books, but he made time. He was also a good teacher. I can't tell you how many times my husband would attempt in vain to explain something" -- she paused to look over at Richard, while a low chuckle went through the audience -- "then Mike would stop by and explain it very simply. He was patient, he put things in everyday language, and he loved sharing the knowledge. I was talking to Frank Jerome and some of Mike's coworkers last night, and they said that was the kind of skill that made him such a good manager." Tara paused to take a sip of water. I could see the glass tremble slightly in her hands.

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"Let me tell you a short story from our childhood that has always touched me. We must have been in elementary school; I was probably in sixth grade and he was in the fourth. I'd gotten my first baby-sitting job, and had my pay in my bag. I had big plans for that five bucks, I'm telling you! Walking home from school, though, some neighborhood kids knocked me down and took my money. They were just elementary school kids out roughhousing; I knew who they were and knew I could get them in trouble with their parents, but I was still upset. I just sat on the curb bawling my eyes out. Well, the next thing I knew Mike came by. Rather than taunting me, as I would have expected, Mike sat down next to me and put his arm around me. He asked what was wrong, and patted my shoulders after I told him. He took me and treated me to an ice cream cone to cheer me up. I don't know where he got the money; it must have taken all of his allowance. But I knew right then that I had a pretty special younger brother." Tara gripped the sides of the pulpit and looked out at the faces. You could have heard a pin drop. "As proud as I am of him for his work, his academic successes, his friends, all the things that he has done, there's something else I'll always think of when I think of things to be proud of. That is how he was with Derek, my son. " Derek was sitting with Richard in the audience. I wasn't sure how much of what was going on that he understood, but his attention was captured by the sound of his name. "He and Derek loved each other so much. I loved to watch them play together. They enjoyed each other tremendously, whether they were reading stories, playing video games, running around in the yard. Mike would make up goofy contests, and let Derek win. Derek already loves to read, a legacy he got from having Mike read to him and from seeing all those books at Mike's house.

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Derek so looked forward to Mike coming over, or just to talking on the phone to him. Mike was his hero. And I knew Mike would do anything for Derek in return. I even could get Mike to baby-sit. The highest praise I can give to Mike is that if Derek grows up to be like him, I'll be very proud. He was the kind of man, the kind of person, that I want my son to be." Tears started streaming from Tara's face as she finished this. The minister helped her back to her seat, and, I have to tell you, there wasn't a dry eye in the place after that. I felt misty myself. The minister called Elizabeth up next, the final speaker. I wondered what kind of negotiation had gone on about who was going to speak and in what order. Elizabeth walked slowly up to the pulpit, as though she was reluctant to stand in front, and stood silently as the crowd settled back from Tara's emotional speech. She apparently had no notes or written speech, which wasn't like her. "It is hard to follow such a wonderful tribute," Elizabeth admitted, looking over towards Tara to indicate her praise. "So I'll be brief. I don't have a prepared speech, although I've thought a lot about what I want to say. Both Dave and Tara have said all the nice things that should be said today. Mike was a fine human being and he will be missed. You already know all that, so I'll try not to repeat it." Elizabeth cocked her head, preparing for whatever was coming next. "Lighten up!" she chided them, while trying to smile a brave smile. It almost succeeded -- but not quite. "We should all loosen up. Mike would have wanted us to have a good time, to enjoy each other's company and to tell outrageous lies about him. Good ones, of course." The audience smiled at this and rustled appreciatively. Elizabeth turned serious again and surveyed the audience.

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"Make no mistake about this, though. Mike did not live a full life. He didn't get his threescore and ten. He was someone's son and someone's brother, and many peoples' friend. But he should have been someone's husband, and someone's father." Elizabeth looked out over my mourners -- friends, family, coworkers, and others. She made eye contact with many of them, trying to impress on them the seriousness of what she had to say. Several of them squirmed under that gaze. "I would have been thrilled to be his wife, and to be the mother of his children," she continued quietly. "I didn't get that chance. No one else did either, so in my book Mike died not having lived the life he should have had a chance to. I don't know why that was, if it was his fault or mine -- or God's. He was the love of my life. To be honest, I don't know if I was the love of his, and that hurts more than I can tell you. But for all the things in life that Mike is going to miss out on now, there is one thing that I know he didn't miss out on, something that I was able to give him. He knew that he was loved." With that, Elizabeth walked back to her seat. The crowd sat, stunned at her intensity and the power of her message. I wasn't sure how they took it, if they were touched or offended. All I knew was my reaction. I had to find a way to tell her that I loved her.

Chapter 13

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Oh, I'd told Elizabeth that I loved her, of course. You don't go out with someone for four years and not have to tell them that you love them. These days you pretty much have to tell people you date that you love them after only a few dates, especially if you sleep with them. Kids see people in the movies and on television telling each other that they love them all the time, only to see them change their affections in the next scene. They see how all the books and greeting cards talk about love. Love is on all the talk shows, in its various and twisted forms but always at the root. So, yeah, I'd said those words. The thing is, I'd said those words before. To Tonya for sure, and the same with Alicia. Maybe to a couple of other women I'd been involved with. It was expected; it was normal. It was easy to do. Maybe too easy. Elizabeth wanted me to tell her, and I did. She told me she loved me first, and of course I had to reply that I loved her too. It's too awkward to have one person hanging out there having expressed their love without the comparable expression in return. What would you do? Tell them that's nice, like they were giving you a particularly nice compliment but otherwise let it pass? That doesn't work, trust me. What Elizabeth didn't hear was that I truly loved her, that she was -- as she would say -the love of my life. She didn't hear it because I didn't say that. I didn't say it because I wasn't sure it was true. Don't misunderstand me. I loved Elizabeth, and expected that at some point we'd get married. I just liked my life the way it was, coming and going as I pleased. It was nice to have a steady girlfriend like Elizabeth. The weekends were always booked, and I had a definite date for any weddings or other functions I might have to go to. Doing things with other couples, as a couple, was fun. The sex was good, and sleeping together was very comfortable. I could visualize life together with her. It was going to happen, someday.

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But I wasn't quite ready. Getting married meant making decisions about living together. It meant wedding planning. And it meant that in a couple years kids would be an issue. I wanted to be a father, and loved being an uncle, but I was still a kid myself. I liked having my own house, with my own tastes. I liked still being able to see Tonya, without having to explain it or get in a fight; I liked talking on the phone late at night with Alicia or other distant friends. I liked carousing with Dave or other buddies every once in awhile. When it came right down to it, I took Elizabeth for granted. I figured she'd always be there, that she would wait until I was ready. I wasn't expecting anyone else to come along, and I wasn't looking for anyone else, but, hey, you never know. Maybe a rich supermodel would stop in town and decide she had to have me. Maybe I'd win the lottery. Maybe I'd decide to move to Montana and write that Great American Novel. I didn't know. I was young and still felt my life was open to all possibilities. Getting married would preclude most of those possibilities. I knew they'd probably never happen, but I just didn't want to admit that the die of my future life was already pretty well cast. It was my way of pretending I was still a kid, that I didn't have to be an adult yet. I could postpone some of life's inevitable responsibilities. I mean, look at me -- even now, after I was dead, two days after I'm killed, I'm down on the square girl watching. So I bided my time about getting married. Worse yet, I never really made myself think about whether Elizabeth was really the one. If I had, I would have grabbed her right away It's one of the oldest clichés, I know, but you don't really know what you had till it's gone. Instead of realizing how special she was to me, and truly establishing our lives together, all we had were some memories and some dashed hopes. I could have had my Mrs. Finley; I could have had a son or a daughter to carry on my little spark of life.

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What an idiot I had been. The service wrapped up shortly after Elizabeth finished. I'd thought about who I wanted to hitch a ride to the burial with. I really wanted to be with Elizabeth, but in the end I gave in to my childish whim: I rode with my body in the hearse. funeral? Not very many. The coffin was closed, of course, and the driver and attendant seemed pretty oblivious. I'd wondered if their long exposures to the dead might make them more attuned to spirits like me hanging around; although I'd still not seen any others, perhaps it was an everyday thing with them. Either they had no unusual sensitivity to my presence, or were so jaded by the presence of a spook that they just ignored it. We rode in silence. Actually, I rode in silence, sitting next to the closed coffin. They listened to talk radio. The crowd was smaller than at the service. Pretty much it had narrowed to close relatives and friends, shedding off the more casual attendees who had gone back to their usual lives. The weather was appropriately gloomy, with overcast skies. It probably was going to rain later in the day, but for now was just kind of gray and comfortably cool. The minister gathered everyone around in a circle while he said a few final benedictions before they put the coffin in the earth. Elizabeth looked like all the beauty and courage in the world, rolled up into one package. She stood bravely, tears slowing floating down her cheeks, but head high and not afraid to let the world see her pain. Around her, her parents, Donna, Paul and Janet, even Dave stood dutifully, waiting for this ordeal to be over. Tonya had slipped into the back of the church for the service, but apparently was skipping this part of the day. I couldn't blame her. As the man who was tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail had said, if it wasn't for the honor of the thing, I'd have skipped this too. I figured, hey, how many chances does someone get to ride with their own body, on the way to their own

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I felt sorry for Derek. He was scared and confused. Tara was trying to keep from crying, for his sake, I assumed, but was holding on to him fiercely. I'm sure he felt that fierceness and was scared of whatever was making his mother that way. She was a mom first, a daughter second, and a sister third; I'm not sure where the wife part fit into that order, but definitely not until after the mother. Helping Derek through all this outweighed her sense of loss about me. As sorry as I felt for Derek, I felt sorriest for mom and dad. They'd lost their only son. You can replace friends, you can find a new lover, and you expect that at some point to lose your parents, but surely nothing can ready anyone to lose a child. They weren't crying, and in some sense that scared me most of all. It was as though they'd used up all their tears; all their emotions had already drained out. Leaving them with what? I feared they would retreat behind high emotional walls and never be able to break them down again, even with each other. I hoped not. As for me, I was curiously neutral about the whole affair. That was my body in that coffin. I was stuck in that metal earth submarine until it decayed centuries from now. It was going to be covered over with six feet of dirt. I'd always hated those horror movies where a still-living person is buried alive. That's got to be the worst, to wake up and know you are trapped, the weight of the earth above you. It used to make me shudder just to think about it. Now I was watching them get ready to lower me in my grave, with this me present and aware, and it didn't elicit any real reaction. At least I was out here instead of in there. I wondered, half fearfully, half hopefully, what would happen to this me when that me went underground. I still didn't know the rules. Perhaps this existence of mine was temporary, a grace period between dying and being put away. After that, I might just vanish, or maybe I'd go on to whatever afterlife there might be. I was curiously apathetic about which of those alternatives might occur. I just was ready to trade this already dreary existence for something else.

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A latecomer ambled up to stand near me. I was standing at the back of the circle of mourners, not wanting to get tangled up in that mass of arms and legs that couldn't tell I was among them. I'd noticed him at the service, sitting by himself towards the back. He'd looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn't place him. Nor could I get any clues from observing whom he interacted with, since I hadn't noticed him talking to anyone. Perhaps he was some distant relative, or someone I'd done business with. I really didn't give it all that much thought, but now that he was standing near me I paid him more attention. He was older than I was, maybe ten or so years. He was a distinguished looking man, dressed impeccably in a nice blue pinstripe suit; very elegant and clearly expensive. He had a neatly trimmed goatee and mustache, and wore a properly serious expression. I thought him the very picture of how someone should look at a funeral. Maybe he did this often; he was in the business, or just got his kicks going to funerals. There was something about his air that made me think all this amused him somehow. It didn't really matter; I turned my attention back to the gravesite. The minister pronounced me consecrated, and the coffin was lowered. Mom and dad each trickled a handful of dirt in the grave, followed by Tara and Elizabeth. The crowd started to disperse. The minister spoke to my parents briefly, then paid his professional respects to Tara and Richard, and a few others. I was about to follow my parents to their car for a ride to their house when the stranger spoke. "He must have been a hell of a guy." I was startled. He said this without looking at me, yet there was no one else in earshot. Once I recovered from my surprise, I decided that he was just talking to himself, and turned to go. "Don't you agree?" he continued, turning towards me.

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My mouth must have gaped open a foot. OK, maybe I'd had idle thoughts that someone could see me at the service, but I didn't really think anyone would. And if someone was going to see me, I'd expected it would be someone close to me, like my parents or Elizabeth. Not some stranger. He just smiled. "That rocks your world, doesn't it? I bet you weren't expecting some stranger to come up and start talking to you." "You, you, you can see me?" I sputtered inanely. I had to look up slightly at him, as he was a couple inches taller than I was. He was also broader across the shoulders than I was. I felt slightly undersized in comparison, like I sometimes did with Dave. No one ever accused me of being puny, but I always wished I were a little bigger. Hell, I wished I could grow as nice a beard as he did. I didn't even know him and already I was envying him; he definitely had the initial advantage over me psychologically -- as if the surprise of him being able to see me wasn't enough. "Of course," he said urbanely, like this was the most natural thing in the world. "I think we should talk."

Chapter 14 "How can you see me?" I asked. "No one else can." He smiled tolerantly. "That's because I'm not like them. They're alive; we're not." I narrowed my eyes suspiciously. "Are you the devil?" I didn't know where that had come from. He laughed, amused at the notion. "Of course not. Why would you think that?"

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"It must be the suit," I muttered. "Are you an angel, then? Have you come to get me?" He shook his head. "No, nothing like that. That's between you and God. No, I'm a ghost like you. A spirit, a phantom, a specter, an apparition. Whatever you want to call it." "I hadn't seen any others, so I'd begun to think I was the only one. Who are you?" "I'm someone like you, Mike Finley," he said calmly. "Let's talk." The cars were starting to load up and drive away. I'd heard that my parents were hosting a post-funeral gathering, and I really wanted to be there. Around us the gravediggers were shoveling dirt into my grave. It made me panic slightly, hearing that sound of loose earth hitting my coffin and filling my grave -- knowing that was it. The people in my life were all driving away, I was literally being buried, and here I stood with someone -- or something -- talking to me as though this happened everyday. I'd been waiting for another ghost to show up; now one had, but I wasn't really ready. I wanted the sense of completion on my funeral; I wanted to follow my friends and family back to carry on with the mourning. "I hate to do this, but can it wait?" I asked. "I'd like to go with my parents." He studied me. "I promise you, you won't miss anything." I looked at the departing cars in some panic, not believing I could avoid missing being at the gathering. The stranger sighed. "You're the saddest excuse for a ghost that I can imagine. And you look terrible! You look like a derelict." I looked sharply at him; that hurt my feelings. I felt the need to defend myself. "It's not like I could change my clothes or get cleaned up. How do you stay so neat?"

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He smiled; now we were getting somewhere. "This gathering you want to go to. What time is it supposed to be?" I didn't know where he was going with this. "Well, from now till probably midafternoon. Why?" "And what time is it now?" he asked patiently. He tapped his foot absently. I looked at my watch. "About eleven." We looked at each other; he looked at me expectantly, while I regarded him suspiciously. All of the cars had left; for better or for worse, I was stuck with him for the time being. "OK, let's work with that," he said, after it appeared I didn't have any more to add on the time issue. "That wrist watch of yours. Now, I can see you dying and becoming a ghost. But what's the story with your watch? Did it die with you? Do you have a ghost watch?" I just looked at him, uncomprehendingly. He tried again. "Why are you still wearing a watch, and why does it still tell time?" Gosh, now that he mentioned it, those were good questions. I'd never even thought about it. I had the watch on when I was shot, and just sort of accepted its continued presence. I thought for a minute. "Are you saying the watch isn't really here, that I'm just imagining it?" He beamed at me. "Bingo, Mike Finley. Now, what else?" I looked at him a second, then slowly lowered my eyes to evaluate my appearance.

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"That's right," he encouraged me. "There's no dirt here, so you can't be dirty. All your hair follicles are dead along with you, so you can't be growing a beard. You're not really wearing clothes, so they can't really be getting wrinkled. Get my point?" "So all of this" -- I gestured to my outfit -- "is because I assumed it was that way?" He nodded vigorously. "And I could imagine something else?" He nodded again. "How do I do that?" I asked, the question of a small child. "Just do it, like you'd imagine anything else," he replied confidently. I closed my eyes. And opened them. I was wearing one of my best suits -- thankfully, not the one I was just buried in. My hair was neatly combed and my face smooth. I even felt clean, like I'd just had a vigorous scrub in the shower. This was much better. "That's progress," he said with some satisfaction. I regarded him more carefully. He seemed so confident and at ease, beaming like a teacher with a favorite student. I still couldn't place him, although the back of my mind was furiously sorting through possibilities. Why was he being so helpful? Kind of a ghost welcoming committee? "Do I know you?" I asked. He laughed. "I know you, Michael Finley. I know you better than you know yourself." I didn't like that. I pressed him again. "Are you some relative, taking it upon yourself to watch over me?"

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He shrugged and smiled easily. "It's not important. I just thought it'd make life easier if I explained a few things. Now, tell me, what are you finding most frustrating about being dead?" I thought about that. It was kind of a long list. "Well," I admitted, "I'm getting tired of waiting for other people to open doors or give me rides. It's hard to get places." He nodded appreciatively. "That's a common first reaction. You're still thinking of yourself as being a physical being. The fact is, you can be anywhere you want to be, anytime you want to be there." That was a tall order. It seemed rather unlikely. "How?" "You just do it. It's like wiggling your ears; you don't know that you can do it, you don't know how you do it. You just do it. Just picture where you want to go." I thought for a few seconds, then closed my eyes and pictured my parents' house. They should have had time to arrive there now. I opened my eyes -- and found myself there. The post-funeral crowd was gathering, spread out throughout the house. I closed my eyes again and pictured the cemetery again. The stranger was standing there when I reopened my eyes. "Pretty neat, eh?" he said. "By the way, you don't have to close your eyes. You know, you already did this, but you didn't realize it." That seemed wrong to me, but I thought about it rapidly. "The walk to Elizabeth's on the night I was killed?" I speculated warily. He nodded. "And the walk to the hospital after you were shot, and the night you in bed with Elizabeth; you didn't experience all those times; you actually just skipped ahead."

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I had thought those times had passed by quickly; now I knew why. "Can I walk through walls and such?" I asked. "Sure," he said casually. "You can pass through the center of the earth if you want, like a neutrino. I'll warn you, though, it's very dark in there." "How is it possible?" "Look," he said. "You know that everything is made up of atoms, which are made of subatomic particles, right?" I nodded, suddenly afraid this was going to be a physics quiz. "And the spaces between the particles are pretty vast? That means that most things in the world are really made up of empty space. We just see them as solid." "So I am able to walk through atoms?" I asked, now even more confused. "You're saying the appearance of solidity is all in people's heads?" "No," he admitted. "I just threw that in to see if you were paying attention, although I have wondered if living people could do that if they had a better grasp of the world and its so-called reality. As for you and me, my friend, we can pass through things because we're not really part of that world." "What world are we part of?" I asked. It seemed like the logical question. The stranger cocked his head. "That's enough for now," he said. "You can figure some of this out for yourself. Go on to your parents' and we'll talk again." And he was gone.

Chapter 15

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One second he was there, the next he was gone. I stood absolutely still. I hadn't quite had time to adjust to the ghost world of the last few days, and now I'd found that my understanding of that world had been woefully inadequate. What did he mean when he said I could be anywhere, anytime? Sounded pretty dramatic. It seemed to open up so many possibilities that my head spun. I could understand why he thought I'd had enough for the time being. And I still wanted to know who -- and what -he was. I wasn't going to get any answers standing here. For lack of a better alternative, I pictured myself back at my parents' house. And there I was. I quickly scouted out the situation. People had formed their little subgroups. Tara, Derek, and our parents formed the nucleus, sitting in the family room. Elizabeth's parents were there as well, although not Elizabeth. Annie and her kids were also sitting there, the boys chafing at being dressed in their church clothes and having to sit on the couch with Annie. Tara had picked out a puzzle for Derek to play with, and they watched him try to jam round pieces into square holes. Get used to it, Derek. Richard was in the living room, having coffee with some of my uncles. I wondered if the coffee had some whiskey in it. Bill was tolerantly arguing with him about politics, with the rest of them pitching in desultorily. This was not where I wanted to be. Dave, Donna, Paul and Janet had staked out the deck. Donna was puffing on a cigarette. I counted that habit on the long list of reasons I didn't like Donna. Still, I joined their group. "That was some speech Elizabeth gave, don't you think?" Paul asked to no one in particular. "Was she mad or sad?"

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"Both, probably," Dave said. "Mike was a schmuck. He should have married her." Yeah, like you're ready to get married either, I thought evilly. Let him who is without sin cast the first stone… "I told her to dump him," Donna interceded. "Lots of times. She should have given him an ultimatum: a ring or the door. She just wouldn't do it." Although I'd suspected as much, this was news to me. I could imagine Donna picking at her each time they went out -- has he proposed, has he even talked about marriage? Why do you stick around? It's funny, but Elizabeth came home from her outings with Donna in moods that were not discernibly different to me than normal -- so either Donna's carping was water off her back, or I was oblivious to her moods. Dave stuck up for me, thank goodness. He just looked at her, a little annoyed. "Come on, for Christ's sake. We're at Mike's funeral. Try to be a little gracious." "I just hate to see her hurt like this," Donna said defensively. "I knew it would end badly when he hadn't proposed to her after that trip to Cancun. That would have been the perfect time." The Cancun trip had indeed been a very romantic trip. We'd been going out for about three years and were very happy. We just lazed around, took long walks on the beach, and so on. Holding hands at sunset, making love in the afternoon, sitting on the shore in the moonlight. The weather was perfect, and we had a marvelous time. I actually had toyed with the notion of proposing to her. Only a little before the trip, but as the week went on I thought about it more and more. I imagined the right setting, I thought about how I'd ask, I pictured her reaction. But I didn't do it. I rationalized that there'd be other times, other places, that I didn't want to rush into anything. That we didn't want to rush into anything.

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"Married or not," Paul interjected, "she loved him." "Yes, she did," Janet said. "But Donna's got a good point -- how long should she have waited? I liked Mike as much as anyone, but if I were her I'm not sure I would have kept waiting that long." A new voice from the door took them by surprise. "Maybe she wasn't the right girl," Annie suggested. She was leaning against the doorway, holding a glass of iced tea and looking a little defiant. They all looked at her speechlessly. "Hey, I knew Mike longer than any of you. He wasn't some creep who would just keep stringing someone along. " "What do you mean?" Donna said irately. "You think Elizabeth wasn't good enough for Mike?" Annie made a face. "No, I don't mean that at all. Don't get me wrong: Elizabeth is great; I like her a lot. But so was Tonya before her, and Alicia and God knows who before that. Lots of great women loved him. Maybe he was waiting for someone else." No one knew how to react to this. If I had been there -- well, been there in a physical state, able to speak -- I'm not sure I would have known how to react. Everyone seemed guilty to think that maybe Elizabeth wasn't the one. "Who is Tonya?" Paul asked innocently. "Tonya was that bimbo in the black dress at the viewing, the one Elizabeth escorted around," Donna said snidely. Paul nodded in recognition, appreciatively remembering Tonya now. Janet gave him that look I used to call the Tonya effect; he was going to hear about this later. "I can't believe she even showed up. How thoughtless!"

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Dave rolled his eyes. "Tonya is not a bimbo," he said with exasperation. "She's very bright and she cared about Mike a lot. Elizabeth doesn't have sole dibs on grieving him." "I agree with Donna on this one," Janet said. "It must have been hard on Elizabeth." "It's hard on a lot of people," Annie said. "It's hard on me, it's hard on Tara, it's hard on Dave. So what if Mike had former lovers who'll miss him too? That's a good thing. And, anyway, I thought Elizabeth showed a lot of class in how nice she was to Tonya. A lot of class." Dave wanted to end this. "Let's all agree -- they loved each other and it's too bad they didn't get married. Life goes on. We should remember the good things about Mike. And, keep in mind -- married or not, Mike would still be dead now. At least Elizabeth isn't a widow with a kid." That sombered them all up. I took my leave of them. Where was Elizabeth? I'd hoped I could just imagine her, and I could appear wherever she was. It didn't seem to work like that. I had to picture some specific place. At first I kept using the doors, like I normally would. After awhile, my curiosity got the better of me. Standing in a doorway, I put my hand on the wall on one side of the door and pressed slightly. Nothing happened. I furrowed my brow. The stranger had said I could do it; there must be some trick to it. I put my hand on the wall again, and pictured it going through. The wall gave way slowly. The sensation was like putting a real hand through some dense liquid, parting reluctantly behind my pressure. The sight of my arm, half on one side of the wall, half on the other, was startling. It was like a magician's trick. I pulled it out, put it back, and kept moving it back and forth,

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playing like a cat with a new toy. As I got used to it, the resistance I'd perceived at first gradually dissipated, so that the wall posed no more trouble to me than moving through the air. Having got the knack of that, I progressed to putting my whole body through the wall. At first I closed my eyes, like swimming underwater. I finally was brave enough to keep them open them while I passed through the wall, only to find that I couldn't see anything -- there was no light. I now understand why the stranger said it was too dark at the center of the earth. I wandered through the house, fascinated by the sensation of walking through walls and doors. It was so interesting that I was startled to remember that I was supposed to be looking for Elizabeth. The group of Tara and my parents had broken up; Derek was playing video games with Annie's boys. My parents weren't in sight. I found Elizabeth in my old room again. I guessed she'd excused herself to go to the restroom to wash her face, but had felt the need for some quiet here. My room only had vestiges of my childhood, my mom having long ago converted it to a guestroom. It still had some of my high school yearbooks, as well as some old trophies and a few pictures. Elizabeth was leafing through my yearbook, reading the inscriptions and flipping through some of the pictures. She did so languidly, moving in slow motion. I watched her sadly, wondering what was going on in that head of hers. Was she mad at me? Did she hate me for not marrying her? She didn't look mad. It was just like her to be interested in the yearbooks. I looked through them every so often, usually when I'd run into someone I'd gone to high school with and wanted to remember what they'd been like. But I'd have lost or just pitched them if left to my own devices. My mother had more nesting instincts, and had kept them here. Elizabeth, the constant keeper of the past, would probably love these to put in her Mick box.

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There was a knock on the door. "Are you in there, Elizabeth?" Tara asked from behind the door. "I was wondering where you were." "It's me," Elizabeth conceded. "Come on in." Tara came in, smiling when she saw what Elizabeth was doing. She looked around the room slowly, taking in the remnants of me still there. "Gosh, I haven't looked at those for years," she said, plopping herself on the bed next to Elizabeth. "High school seems like such a long time ago." Elizabeth smiled. "It was a long time ago. He looks so young in these pictures. What was he like in high school?" "Oh, he was your typical high school kid," Tara said, fondly. "Trying to impress his buddies, cocky but insecure. Afraid of yet fascinated with girls, and not willing to admit either." "Do you think of Mike as the same person then as now, or did he change?" Tara considered that. "No, I think Mike was always pretty much the same. He was always pretty easygoing. Nothing got him too bothered. He made friends, he lost friends, he moved on to new interests. He never really got into trouble. He was always a good guy at heart." "What surprised you most about Mike's life?" Elizabeth asked. It was a hard question. I mean, the obvious answer was that it had ended so soon, but I suspected that wasn't what Elizabeth wanted to know. I was curious how Tara might answer it myself. "Hmm, what surprised me the most?" Tara repeated. "I wasn't surprised about him and Derek. Mike was always good with kids; he would have been a good father." She looked at Elizabeth, realizing that hearing that might be painful. "Sorry."

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"That's all right. I think he would have been good too." Elizabeth smiled sadly. "I guess the thing that surprised me most was him going away to college," Tara concluded. "What do you mean?" Tara shook her head. "Well, first, I never thought he'd get into an Ivy League school!" she laughed. "I knew he was smart but not that smart. I was mostly just surprised he was willing to leave here. All his friends and everyone he'd known were here. Mom and dad lived here their whole lives. We never even really went anywhere as kids -- usually just to the lake -- so he didn't get this desire to go to more exotic places from mom and dad. I figured he was like most people, tied here with an umbilical cord and believing this was the center of the universe. But it didn't bother him to leave." "He did come back," Elizabeth reminded her. "Yes -- but he had gone away, he had lived somewhere else," Tara said seriously. "And look at you guys, travelling everywhere. That was my kid brother? He complained about going to go to the west side of town when we were younger." They both smiled at that. I smiled too, although they couldn't tell. It was true; most of my friends went to college around here. They scoffed at me for going east to college, thought I'd turn into an effete snob. I don't really remember exactly how or when I'd got the idea to go there. Maybe when Dave and I were watching Princeton playing in the NCAA basketball tournament, and we cheered for the underdog. Something stupid like that. My guidance counselor took me seriously, and helped out. From then it just rolled along of its own accord; I didn't have any master plan.

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I was glad I'd done it, but also glad I'd come back. It had changed me somehow; I felt I was a bigger fish in a smaller pond, that kind of thing. I suppose that was another thing that strengthened my friendship with Dave; we'd both been to the big leagues, yet had returned anyway. After that, I liked exploring. It was fun to take Elizabeth places I'd been and show off my knowledge of them, pretending to be worldly, and it was fun to travel to places new to both of us. She hadn't ever really traveled before, but she took to it like a duck to water. "I wish I'd known him then," Elizabeth said. "I wish we would have had more than four years." Tara nodded sadly. "Believe me, you got him in the best years. You brought out good things in him." I wasn't sure if Tara meant that, or if it was just something to make Elizabeth feel better. Elizabeth pointed to the yearbooks. "You know, I read the things people wrote, and I try to see if they knew things about him that I didn't, if they had some insight that I didn't." Tara looked at her quizzically. "And did you find any?" "No, pretty much everyone said he was a great guy and they'd be friends forever." They looked at each other seriously for a moment, and, for some reason, burst into gales of laughter. I was surprised, until they eventually exhausted themselves and collapsed in heaps on the bed, tears running out of their eyes. It had been some weird release for them. Either that or the picture of my long hair and consciously ragged clothes was too much for them. Finally, Tara sat up. "I guess they're not going to get a chance to," she said sadly.

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"No, I guess not," Elizabeth agreed, sitting up as well. "None of us will." They sat like that in silence for a few minutes. Tara reached over and squeezed Elizabeth's hand. "Come on," she said. "Let's rejoin the others."

Chapter 16 I beat them downstairs. Just to see if I could, I went through the floor, rather than walking down the stairs like a normal person. I just willed myself to go down, and drifted through the floorboards as easily as I had the walls. I didn't fall, not like I had weight and gravity was tugging me down. I floated down like a bubble. I guessed this meant I could fly if I wanted to, that I really could go anywhere. I made a mental note to test this out later; I wanted to try flying high in the atmosphere, racing alongside a jet plane like Superman. I found Dad in the basement, in his workshop. The guys had gotten together -- mom's brother Bill, Pat's husband Jeff, Elizabeth's dad, and a friend of dad's were with him. They were looking at dad's new computer. "You know, I made fun of it when Mike and Tara bought this for me," dad said, "but it's been great. I mean, I have one at work, but I don't really use it much. I figured I'd never have any use for this." "So what do you do with it?" Bill asked. "Oh, I get on the Internet and poke around some," dad said. "Mike talked me into putting our checkbook and such on it, and that's been pretty helpful." "Was Mike good at computers?" Jeff asked.

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"Oh, yeah," dad bragged. "He helped me inventory some of my collections in a database, and also we put our address book on it. We even used it to do our Christmas cards last year." They thought about that for awhile. "Mike helped me build these bookcases," dad told them proudly, patting some of the built-ins he and I had built when I was twelve or so. They nodded, fellow handymen admiring a job. Dad was very handy, me less so, but I'd always enjoyed doing little projects with him. Sort of male bonding. Dad never really got into golf or other active sports, but he liked to build things. When I was a small child I envied his ability to make real things using his hands, and we used to do lots of things around the house. In my teenage years I got out of the habit of helping. I was usually out, hanging out with friends or playing sports. The whole get-your-hands-dirty thing lost some of its appeal to me. Only after I came back here and bought my own house did I reacquire the interest, although not the time. "I didn't know Mike was handy," Elizabeth's dad said, looking appreciatively at dad's tools. "You've got some fine tools here." That led them into a discussion about tools, workshops, and I could see it drifting off into "Tool Time" topics. I popped up to check on mom, in the kitchen with some of the other women. They were sitting around the table having coffee. "You never picture this," mom said distractedly. "I spent most of my life worrying about things that might happen. My mom was like that." Cathy nodded in agreement; two sisters sharing the memory of yet another dead loved one. At least their mother had lived to the ripe old age of eighty, and had seen her two kids get married and have grandchildren.

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"But this? I never thought about Mike getting shot. I mean, I worried about car crashes, or tornadoes, or crazed coworkers. I guess I was stupid; I didn't think this kind of violence could touch our family." Cathy looked uneasy. Pat held mom's hand on her own, and patted mom's hand with her free hand. "There, there," she said soothingly. "You'll drive yourself crazy like that." "No one could have expected this," Bill's wife said. "There's too many bad things that can happen. There wasn't anything you could do." That got them all slightly weepy. "Our family has been so lucky," Cathy confessed. "I'm sorry that our first real tragedy was Mike. He was a good boy." Her lip trembled. This was getting me depressed. I wanted to step in and say something funny. I wanted to put my arms around my mother and tell her everything would be ok. I wanted to kid her about getting so upset about something that wasn't so serious. But I could do none of those typical responses. I could only watch. I remembered when I was a child. I'd come in running from the yard and find mom here in the kitchen. Cooking, cleaning, or sitting and having her coffee. I'd bounce in and want to tell her what I'd found or what I'd done. Or I'd be upset and want her to put her arms around me and stroke my hair. Even when I was older I'd often drop by and find her here. I'd act like the adult, sit down and have coffee with her, pretending we were equals. She'd always ask me what was going on, ask after my friends and other people in my life. She was so proud of me, so interested in my life. I might have pretended to be a peer, a friend, but I was still that little boy, wanting my mother's attention and approval. Now I'd not only never get it again, but I'd inadvertently caused her greater pain and loss than I could know. Now I watched her at that kitchen table with her troubles.

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The afternoon dragged by. Mom had arranged for some food to be catered, so the process of getting everyone something to eat took up some time and energy. It re-gathered everyone in the dining room at least temporarily. They redistributed themselves with their plates, spreading out to the family room and the kitchen to eat. After that, inertia won out. Mom went upstairs to take a nap. The group in the family room turned on the TV, and tried to watch. It was a battle between the CNN crowd and the ESPN crowd. The television gave them something else to focus on, something else to direct their comments to. Another group reformed in the kitchen. The group in the kitchen, of course, was mostly the women. Don't blame me; I don't invent these stereotypes, I just report them. Bill was also with them, as was Paul, for some reason. I think he had come in for something to drink and had just gotten trapped. He listened politely. Elizabeth was sitting with the group in the family room, hiding away in one of the oversized chairs. She looked like a small child, her feet not quite able to touch the ground, and anyway pulling her knees up against her chest. She watched the others silently, paying particular attention to Derek and to Annie's boys. They played away, oblivious to the adults and by now loosening the constraints imposed by their good clothes. Tara and Annie sat on the couch together, talking more mom talk in subdued tones. I noticed Dave corralling Donna in the hall, and sneaked up on them. "So, Donna Lou," he said casually. "How long are you sticking around?" "I'll stay as long as Elizabeth wants me to," Donna replied. "I don't know if she wants company tonight or not." He nodded sagely. She looked at him suspiciously. "What's on your mind?"

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Dave put his hands up in an implied apology. "Nothing. It's just that I was thinking, maybe it'd be good to get some people to go out tonight. You know, kind of like a wake." She titled her head flirtatiously. "Are you asking me out, Dave D'Angelo?" He shook his head. "No, no, nothing like that. I was thinking maybe we'd get a group of people. I could call some of Mike's other friends, maybe go hang out downtown. Like we might have done if Mike was still alive." "Gee, you wouldn't have invited me along if Mike were alive." Got that right, Donna. We didn't want you tagging along when Dave and I went out, I thought somewhat maliciously. Dave seemed more open-minded to her presence. "Is that a no?" he challenged teasingly. "I'll think about it," Donna said, smiling at him. "I'm pretty sure Elizabeth won't want to go, but if she doesn't need me maybe I'll stop by wherever you are." I didn't know if Dave was hitting on her or not, but if he had been I think he could have been successful. I remembered that "Donna Lou" greeting at Elizabeth's house, and wondered what kind of past they'd had. I supposed she was his type, to the extent he had a type. She was pretty in an All-American sort of way, I hated to admit, she was outgoing, and she was willing to fudge what constituted a firm relationship before agreeing to have sex. Perfect for Dave. I decided I'd done enough time here. The stranger had promised me I could be anywhere I wanted, and it was time to test it. I thought about who else I wanted to see. Tonya's apartment seemed empty at first. I could hear some soft music playing, but she wasn't in the living room or either of the bedrooms. I finally found her on the balcony.

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The sun had come out, but still hadn't warmed things up too much; she had changed into shorts and a sweatshirt and was sitting outside on a chaise lounge. Her dark sunglasses hid her eyes. At her side was a glass of wine, mostly untouched, and the portable phone. She was reading a book, a collection of short stories by Grace Paley. It was funny. Upon first seeing them, most people would think of Elizabeth as the intellectual, and Tonya as beautiful but not-so-bright. In fact, of course, both were pretty bright, but it was Tonya who liked to read and loved political and social discussions. Elizabeth was more right-brained, and preferred to draw or do creative things in her spare time. She was a putterer -- when she had free time around the house she was more likely to do something directly productive. Tonya was not the homebody type; she had no problem sitting around reading while dust collected in her house. Fortunately she had a maid who took these things more seriously. In fact, one of the things I had missed when I started going out with Elizabeth was reading. Tonya and I would recommend books to each other, argue plot and character points, and could easily spend an afternoon or evening just sitting and reading. Elizabeth didn't mind reading, and certainly had no real objection to my doing it, but she would get antsy if I tried to spend too long at it. She'd wander off to do her things in the house, or persuade me to go do something. Not a character flaw; she brought other, equally good attributes to the table. But I missed that connection anyway. After watching her for awhile, I noticed that Tonya wasn't turning the pages very fast. She kept her head down into the book, but I soon suspected she was distracted and thinking of other things. Perhaps me. Perhaps some computer program she was working on. I hadn't been able to tell what she was thinking about when I was alive, and I wasn't better at it now. Nonetheless, I watched her closely for clues; maybe she'd mouth my name. We were both slightly startled, and, I think, slightly relieved when the phone rang.

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"Hi, mom," Tonya said. "Yeah, I'm back." I was having a hard time hearing the other end of the conversation, so had to try to puzzle it out from Tonya's side. She listened while her mother asked a question. "Oh, it was very nice," Tonya said. "It was hard, you know? Harder than the viewing last night." She listened again. "Well, let's see. Dave D'Angelo spoke -- you remember Dave? The good looking one? Yeah, him. Also Mike's sister Tara gave a great speech, very touching." There was a pause as the words traveled from her mother's house to here at the speed of light, then filtered through the receiver. "Yes, she spoke too," Tonya said in a reluctant tone. "She was…sad. She regretted that Mike didn't have a chance to be a husband or a father." Tonya listened. "Yes, very sad." There was another pause, but this time I believed there was silence on both ends. Tonya was the first to speak again. "Do you want to know the saddest part?" Tonya asked quietly. "Elizabeth said Mike was the love of her life, but she never knew if she was the love of his. It's bad enough to go through a loss like this, but to do it and not have that?" Her mother said something. Tonya gave a short, almost bitter laugh. "I don't know, mom. I wish I did." I wished I knew what the question was. They said their good-byes, and Tonya put down the phone. She didn't pick up her phone again; instead, she just looked out at the view for several minutes. She had removed the sunglasses when she was talking to her mother, so now I could see her eyes. They looked thoughtful. Her eyes usually were very alive, and fairly radiated energy. Now they were receptacles -- of light, of emotion, I didn't know what all. She was looking out but her world was inside that pretty head.

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Eventually, she gave a sigh. She took a sip of wine, then got up, collecting her belongings. She put them down on the dining room table, and walked towards her bedroom, pulling off the sweatshirt as she walked. Typically, she had nothing on underneath, which had always been a treat and a thrill for me to discover. She started to run the bath and lit some candles around the tub. And she retrieved the glass of wine and the phone, putting them within reach of the bathtub. I watched her nude body appreciatively. Tonya liked her body. Me, too. At worst she was not at all self-conscious about being naked, and at best she strutted with the best of them. She was in her unconscious mode now, moving gracefully like a cat. She eased herself into the bath with a small moan of pleasure. She sat motionless, soaking in the warmth of the water. Every so often she would run her hand through the water to stir it up and bring more warm water to the top. I wondered what she was thinking about. As for me, I was thinking about the times we'd taken baths here together. We'd sit across from each other, gazing laviciously at each other, then move through the water towards each other like dolphins trapped in too small a space. I'd run my hands greedily over her soft skin and smooth curves, and we'd almost always end up making love -- sometimes drying off and going to bed, sometimes neither getting dry nor making it out of the bathroom. Sometimes just in the tub. We remained like this for some time, each of us in our solitary worlds, but only me aware of both. I was still uneasy about this turn towards voyeurism that my life had taken. It was oddly exciting, I had to admit, to watch Tonya and other people in their most vulnerable, private moments with no possibility of them knowing I was there. It was that element of access to private worlds that made it so fascinating. What are people like when you are not with them? Even better, what are they like when no one is around?

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I didn't ask for this existence. I didn't really want it. But it had left me with no option but to be a voyeur, to always be the unseen and unseeable watcher. Still, I supposed I could avoid watching certain parts of other people's lives, like this. Maybe I'd be a better person tomorrow. The phone rang. Tonya looked at it calmly, debating whether to let it ring or to pick it up. She let it ring several times, picking it up just before the machine kicked in. "Oh, hello," she said warmly. "How are you?" She listened to the caller; again, I couldn't make out the words. I'd have to complain to the maker of her phone; it was too hard to eavesdrop on it. "That's awful sweet, dear," Tonya said sweetly herself. "Not tonight, I think. I want to just stay in." The caller said something else. Tonya laughed. "No, by myself." I wondered who this was. It had to be a man, I thought. You can tell when a woman is talking to a man, and vice versa. There's just that lighter banter, that special kind of playfulness, even when the relationship isn't sexual. But I didn't know what man would bring it out on this kind of night for Tonya. It could have been me, had I been alive. Who else was like me -- or more -- in her life? She rarely told me much about her other men, although I always expected they were there. I decided I'd been here long enough, for now. Maybe I'd check back later. I flipped back to my parents' house. Almost everyone had gone, just mom and dad, their siblings, and assorted spouses. This didn't interest me. I switched to Elizabeth's house…

Chapter 17

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…and got there just as her parents were dropping her off. They walked her to the house, and her father insisted on coming inside to make sure it was safe. "Dad, really," Elizabeth told him. "I do this everyday. I'll be fine." "Lizzie, I guess we're just a little more cautious right now than usual," her mother explained. "We just want to make sure you are safe. Now, are you sure you don't want to have company tonight?" "Thanks, you guys," Elizabeth said. "I hate to leave you alone here, but I'm beat and I could use some time alone." "We may go back to the Finley's," her mom said. "They're nice people." "I thought we were going to go get a steak," her dad objected. Her mom gave him a look, perfected from years of marriage. He quieted. Hugs all around, and then they left. Elizabeth looked through her mail distractedly, throwing away the junk mail but not opening the rest of it. She went to the bedroom and took off her mourning dress. She changed into jeans and a top. Watching Elizabeth changing clothes was nothing like watching Tonya. Elizabeth hated to be naked all at once, whereas Tonya liked having her clothes off, especially if someone was there to enjoy the show. Although Elizabeth didn't have as spectacular a body, there was something about seeing her naked that used to thrill me in a way that Tonya didn't. Elizabeth gave her nakedness to me shyly, as an offering, as a gift, to be treasured just between us. She did it as if she weren't sure it was a worthy gift, not sure I'd appreciate it and afraid I might not like it. That made the sight of it all the more precious, all the sweeter.

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With Tonya, it was almost arrogant: I know it's great, if you don't appreciate it you must be crazy. That's not quite fair to Tonya, but being with Elizabeth after having been with Tonya for a couple years was quite an adjustment. I remember the first time I saw each of them without clothes. With Tonya, it had been our second time out together, I think. We'd gone dancing at some club. She loved to dance and moved fluidly, always with the rhythm but hard for a slow white guy like me to follow. She danced purposefully, watching me watching her and loving it. She'd had on this slinky, form-fitting red dress that was cut very low in back. She had been the envy of all of the other men at the club, and some of the women. I was torn between fascination and lust -- wondering if the dress was going to slip off her shoulders, halfhoping it would. When we got to her place that night, she didn't waste much time. With a deliberate stare at me, she slid the dress off slowly, revealing nothing on underneath. Just two little tattoos: a little flower at her ankle, and a small heart just above her smooth butt. She kept her row of earrings on too, but I just nibbled on the other ear. I awkwardly raced out of my clothes, her eyes gazing at me hungrily, and we made love several times the remainder of the night. It definitely did not entail 'sleeping' together. With Elizabeth, of course, it had gone much differently. For one thing, we went out much longer before we got to that point. There were a couple of dates with some kissing, but I didn't think I was getting signals that she wanted it to go further, even though she'd given me that special smile. Finally, one night after we'd been kissing awhile she stopped us and took my hand nervously. She asked, head bowed, if I wanted to stay the night, then led me by the hand into her bedroom. No lights, no candles; she was too shy. She undressed quickly, her head still bowed down, but taking quick peeks to see what I was doing. Naturally, I was also disrobing, but more slowly, sitting on the bed. I remember sitting on the bed, as she

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finally stood before me in her underwear and bra. She took a deep breath and unhooked her bra, trying to smile gamely. I love that moment when women let their bras slip down, especially that first time. There's just something magical about glimpsing the curve of the breast when it is just half covered; maybe that is why partially clad women are sexier sometimes than fully naked ones. It is especially exciting in that half second before the bra gets off; you can see the shape, the curve, and you know what is coming next. It's the anticipation that makes it so enticing. Elizabeth took hers off reluctantly, as though she knew it was something she had to do, but was prepared for me to be disappointed. I wasn't. She rushed under the covers, too embarrassed to go further. I had to hold her and comfort her for some time, telling her how lovely she was. Much to my surprise, she wrenched out an admission that she loved me, unable to even look at me when she said it. She was too afraid of the potential rejection she might get. I naturally responded in kind, having done this before, and I was rewarded with a cautious yet so grateful look in return. That was the first time either of us had mentioned the L-word, and I confess it came out more in an effort to reassure her than anything else. But it worked; she looked at me gratefully, told me again that she loved me, and that got us back on track. That was four years ago, and I never stopped liking to watch her change clothes -- even though (or perhaps because) she never really got comfortable with me watching her. So this night it was jeans. Elizabeth looked good in lots of things, but I always had a special fondness for her in jeans. They emphasized her long, lanky build, and made her look sexy somehow. She usually worried they made her look fat, but I always told her it was the opposite. I also liked that they seemed to reveal an unexpected side of her. Looking at her, you might expect a prim and proper young lady. Skirts, dresses, suits would be more expected. For a more daring look, maybe slacks or even a pantsuit. When I first met her,

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I'm not sure she owned a pair of real jeans. Despite her western upbringing, her wardrobe went from at-home sweats to nice slacks, and got more formal after that. I made her buy a pair as a dare early on in our dating; I thought it was silly that she didn't wear them. And it proved to be a good buy. Jeans seemed to reflect a more wild side of her, letting her hair down and revealing a sexy side. There's nothing more exciting than for a subdued woman to show herself to be sexy and sensual. And I knew that she was sharing what was under those clothes only with me. I don't know why I had always had this reaction. She was an artist, for heaven's sake; she wasn't some virginal schoolteacher or something. But, for some reason, when I saw her in jeans, I saw this quiet girl acting wild. She puttered around the kitchen, apparently looking for something to eat. Nothing seemed to suit her fancy, or maybe she was just restless. She put on a pair of sandals, stuffed some money in her pockets, and went out. It was a nice night out, and she started walking. I thought I knew where she was going. There was a neighborhood bar/restaurant, not too far from her house, that we used to frequent. It didn't have great food and it was never too crowded, but the food was good and the atmosphere was charming. The owner's family had run the place for decades, and somewhere along the way it had acquired character. It was an anachronism in the era of chain restaurants and the latest overpriced trendy eating place. Of the several stores, bars, and restaurants on the local square, it was the one we had been most devoted to. Elizabeth walked slowly along the sidewalk, her gaze wandering around to the houses she passed. Was she wondering what was happening in those families' lives, if they were happy or if they had their secret pain as well? Did she long for the normalcy of their lives, did she picture us settled and with a family of our own? Or was she just looking at houses?

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The owner's wife greeted Elizabeth warmly, and put her in a small booth towards the back. A trio was setting up for some live music, as usual on Friday nights. The place was about half full, the families still eating dinner and the singles not yet out in full strength at the bar. Most of the customers there lived in the neighborhood. The interior was slightly dark and slightly worn, but both just added to the charm of the place. Elizabeth asked for a beer. The wife headed towards the bar to get her one. The owner came out from the back and gave her a cheery greeting. "Elizabeth!" he said, smiling broadly. "So good to see you. And where is your young man?" Whoops. He realized almost as soon as he'd said it that he'd said the wrong thing. I didn't know if he'd just forgotten, or if he genuinely didn't know. Elizabeth didn't know how to react -- whether to laugh, cry, or just ignore it. Both of them stared momentarily, perched on the edge of that precipice. Magically, his wife appeared, and shushed him away. "Go on," she chided him, "get back to the kitchen." She turned to Elizabeth with concern on her face. "I'm sorry, honey," she said sincerely. "Pay him no mind." She sat down and took one of Elizabeth's hands. "How are you doing, honey?" she asked, squeezing Elizabeth's hand. "We're so sorry about Michael. He was a good man, and you two were such a cute couple." Elizabeth smiled wanly. "Thanks. I'm doing about as well as can be expected. The funeral was today." "I know, dear," she said. "I'm sorry we couldn't make it, what with the restaurant and all." "That's OK. Mike had lots of people to see him off."

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The owner's wife nodded sagely; at what, I wasn't quite certain. "So what brings you around tonight? You should be with family!" Elizabeth shrugged. "I got tired of being around other grieving people, so I just wanted to have a quiet night alone. But my house seemed too quiet." That seemed to make sense to the owner's wife. "How about I get you some of that meatloaf that you like so much? With the mashed potatoes?" Elizabeth smiled appreciatively. "That'd be good. I haven't eaten too much the last few days." Satisfied, the owner's wife gave her hand one more squeeze and got up. She grabbed one of the waitresses and conveyed the instructions. I wasn't close enough to hear, but I thought perhaps she gave some special orders to take extra care of Elizabeth tonight. I slid in the booth across from Elizabeth. "Liz," I whispered experimentally. "It's me. Can you hear me, or sense me, or anything? I'm right across from you, just like old times." She played with her beer bottle, peeling the label absently. She wasn't paying much attention to anything else in the restaurant, and was startled when the waitress dropped off some bread. If I was sending out any kind of vibes, her receiver wasn't picking them up. I studied her. She had noticeable dark shadows under her eyes. Her eyes were red, and her cheeks were kind of blotchy. There was no makeup that I could detect, and her hair could use a quick comb or brushing. She looked beautiful.

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I thought, ironically, that Elizabeth was made for tragedy. It brought out that darkness in her, that slight air of loss and melancholy that I'd always thought had resided just below the surface. It gave her depths that most people luckily avoid. The pale face, the long, dark hair, that air of mystery and suffering; she was a fairy tale princess waiting for her knight in shining armor. Maybe I was supposed to have been that knight, I thought. But I goofed; I got shot. Now she was trapped in her tower of sorrow, waiting for her next suitor to rescue her, wondering if he would ever reach her. I was kind of wondering myself. The waitresses brought the food, and I watched as Elizabeth ate slowly. She was a slow eater under normal circumstances, cutting things into small bites and chewing thoroughly, but tonight she was especially tardy. Either she was drawing out the time she could spend here, or she was having to force herself to get anything down. The trio got going, playing some upbeat jazzy tunes. We listened, each of us in our own worlds. It was so familiar, so close to what we might have done on a normal Friday night, that I could almost convince myself everything was the same, that I was really sitting there with her. But when I looked over at her, I knew that she was alone. She nursed that bottle of beer as long as she humanly could, and finally got up around ten. She paid her bill, and again told the owners that she'd be fine. She walked home slowly, looking up at the stars and the moon. Again, I didn't know what she was thinking. Was she looking up wondering if I was up there somewhere, or was she just admiring the light from so many miles away, the impenetrable messages from other worlds, other galaxies? She walked up to her porch cautiously, either worrying about intruders -- or ghosts. She unlocked the door and went inside, turning off the porch light as she did, and giving the porch swing one last glance -- just in case.

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I wanted a break. It was too hard to play the guessing game of what she might be thinking or feeling. I thought I might come back later to watch her sleep and maybe whisper in her ear. I pictured Alicia's condo in Philadelphia, and instantly I was there. It was dark. I prowled through it curiously, looking for clues to where she might be. It looked neat and unused, the bed neatly made and the towels folded and ready. Her shoes were neatly put away, and there were no freshly used work clothes on the floor anywhere. It didn't look like she'd come home, changed her clothes and went back out. So where was she? Still at work? Knowing Alicia, it was possible. I met Alicia my sophomore year in college, but we didn't start dating until just before graduation. She was from Philly and had stayed there after school. In fact, we lived together when I was in business school. I'd been looking for a roommate to help defray expenses, and a friend told me Alicia was going to law school and was also looking for a roommate. Well, one thing led to another and we were sleeping together before we ever got the apartment. We stayed a couple until I made the decision to return home. Alicia was slight -- a cross country runner -- but very tough and decisive. I knew even then that she'd make a great lawyer. She ended up going to work for the prosecutor's office, and was still with them the last I'd heard. Her father was a hotshot lawyer at one of the big downtown firms -- the prototypical Philadelphia lawyer -- and was less than thrilled that she'd chosen the public service route. He continued to prod her about turning in her spurs for a more lucrative practice. Alicia knew her own mind, though, and stubbornly kept at it, putting away the bad guys. She always told me she loved it, but didn't like to talk about the individual cases. I always wondered if the evil, the badness that she encountered everyday, had changed her. Each day must be like going to battle, but with no hope of winning the war; all she could hope to do was to win a few battles, to stick her thumb in a few holes in that dike.

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Perhaps the impossibility of it is what appealed to her, like a crusader fighting for a noble but unwinable cause. That intensity is what had captured me, so different from my own nature. She was passionate about everything she did. I liked to think that we balanced each other, that she needed me to leaven her life. Maybe I was deluding myself, but her friends told me they'd never seen her laugh as much. Still, I didn't kid myself that I could change her, nor did I want to. Whether she felt the same about me, I was never quite sure. Alicia had a great athlete's body -- spandex was invented for people like her -- and she was pretty, or cute, or one of those non-beautiful words. Put her in a cocktail party, and she probably wouldn't be the prettiest girl in the room. She would, however, know more people, meet more new people, and have more people gathered around her than anyone in the room. It was as if that energy she had was a force field, attracting men -- and women -- like a magnet. I know I fell under that pull. Much of the time we knew each other we had more time than money, and we didn't have much of that, but we found lots of fun things to do. We had different tastes, to say the least. She'd take me for a long bike ride along the river, along Lincoln Drive; I'd take her on a picnic in Fairmount Park. She'd drag me on a tour of the museums on Benjamin Franklin Parkway; I'd take her to independent movies at the Ritz. She'd want to go window shopping on Chestnut Street, while I'd suggest people watching on South Street. When it was her turn to pick a restaurant, we might end up in a trendy spot in Manyunck; when it was my turn, cheap eats at Reading Terminal Market. Both of us enjoyed Saturday morning food shopping, but I'd opt for the outdoor markets in South Philly, while she'd want to go to the farmers' market in Chestnut Hill. Somehow we made it work. She was nothing like Tonya or Elizabeth, I realized later, but at that stage in my life she was a good fit. I loved that fire; I admired that intensity. She pushed me to do better than

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I might have otherwise, and introduced me to her very connected circle of friends. That's how I got my consulting job out of business school. I don't know when we started to drift apart. Part of it was certainly the travel my job required, and part of it was her getting ready for the post law school part of her life. And maybe part of it was just I wasn't good at being pushed; maybe I was made for a slower pace. Maybe I just was lazy. I wasn't unhappy, and I hadn't really thought about leaving Philadelphia or Alicia. So Alicia was surprised when I came back from Tara's wedding and told her I was thinking of taking a job back here. I was a little surprised myself. Alicia had had finals that weekend and couldn't join me at the wedding; who knows what might have happened if Tara had gotten married a week later? We didn't fight about it, but I thought she didn't fight for me to stay as much as I would have expected. That may have tipped the scales some in favor of coming back here. She did offer to move, but I wouldn't hear of it. She even suggested we just do the long distance thing, but I said no to that as well. Time to move on. Alicia's answering machine indicated she had eighteen messages, so I concluded she was out of town. Out of town and apparently not checking her messages, which was unlike her. I finally found a calendar on Alicia's refrigerator. According to the calendar, and a brochure pinned next to it, she was whitewater rafting in the Grand Canyon. She'd been gone since last Saturday, and was due back Sunday. Alicia didn't even know I was dead. I wondered how she would hear. Was one of those messages from one of our mutual friends, telling her to call them? Or did the message break the news directly? Would Alicia get the message standing in some airport corridor, checking her messages, or would she at least be sitting down in a nice hotel room? Perhaps she would keep her old

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life at bay until she returned, and not hear the message until she was back and standing in this very spot. I shuddered. Even worse, perhaps none of these messages had anything to do with me, and it would be weeks, years, before she heard the news. I toyed with the notion of trying to transport myself to the Grand Canyon and finding her, but thought the odds of actually finding her were too low. And, if I did find her, what could I do? Nothing. I walked aimlessly through the deserted condo. Now that I knew where she was, I started picking up on some things I'd missed before. Photos of a guy I didn't know -- sometimes solo shots of him grinning at the camera, sometimes the two of them together. Some clothes hanging in the closet; some men's underwear in her dirty laundry hamper. Two towels hanging in the bathroom. Alicia had a boyfriend. Not at the live-in stage yet, but more than casual, I concluded. I wondered why she had never mentioned him. She knew I was seeing Elizabeth, and we talked about our lives. But she'd never mentioned this development. I couldn't find any pictures of me in the condo. There was no point in staying here. This place had no real memories for me, and it would be a couple of days before Alicia got back. Besides, I was curious what luck Dave had had in organizing his little wake.

Chapter 18 I figured Dave would collect people at our usual hangout -- the same bar I'd met Tonya in, in fact. I was right. It was one of the downtown clubs, not too far from Dave's

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townhouse. I used to kid Dave about not having a yard, and he'd tease me about being tied to the lawnmower. Still, his place being so close to the downtown clubs made some of our late night excursions easier. The bar was one of the oldest in town, although operated under a variety of names over the years. It had a great wooden bar that dated back to the 19th century. I loved the look of it, and the history it contained. Dave and I would sit at it, or perhaps at one of the booths if we had some friends with us. We'd talk trash, tell stories, maybe chat up some interesting looking girls -- me just keeping in practice, of course, like finger exercises on a piano. No harm, no foul, I rationalized. Dave thought my self-imposed restraint both admirable and amusing. When I popped in he had a group of perhaps ten people scattered around a large table. Judging from the array of pitchers and glasses on the table, they'd already been there a few hours. It was a slightly curious mix -- some of our friends who often joined us here, a couple people from work, and Donna. Dave was telling a story -- mostly true -- about one night in college when he'd come to visit. He was a storyteller par excellence, and even when I'd heard the story before it was usually fun just to hear him re-tell it. This one was no exception. We had done some bar crawling on South Street, and ended up in South Philly, looking for Pat's Steaks. We obviously made some wrong turns, ended up in a scary looking neighborhood, and thought for awhile there that we'd never be seen alive again. Some of the neighborhood kids took pity on us; instead of mugging or murdering us, as we feared they might, they walked us to Pat's. We bought them some cheese steaks, and we ended up shooting baskets with them till dawn. An unusual night, to say the least. Dave threw in some embellishments, as usual, and had the crowd alternately gasping and laughing. That was a typical night with Dave -- you ended up doing things that you normally would have more sense than to do, but somehow you'd get through it and he got a great story out

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of it. He had mellowed in the past few years, but I'd learned over the years to try to call it a night as soon as I saw that gleam in his eye. A couple of people went to the restroom, and a couple more went to get another round of drinks. In the ensuing relative quiet, Dave slid over to Donna and casually put his arm around her. "Hey, Donna Lou," he said. "How you doing?" Donna smiled expectantly at him. "Oh, fine." She looked around the bar. "So this is where you and Mike hung out when Elizabeth and I went out?" Dave nodded. "Sometimes. We liked to come here. Where did you guys used to go?" Donna named some clubs, and Dave indicated he knew them. "You sure you two weren't out trying to get picked up?" "What's it to you?" Donna laughed. "Jealous? I don't think Mike ever was." That's pretty much the case, I had to confess. I didn't give much thought to what they did or where they went, and I definitely wasn't worried about Elizabeth stepping out on me. I wasn't the jealous type and Elizabeth wasn't the flirtatious type, although Donna was. "Should he have been?" Donna looked serious. "Listen, Elizabeth had plenty of opportunities, believe me. Guys would always ask her for her number or want to buy her a drink. The last couple years I started telling her maybe she should take some of them up on it." "Why did you do that?" Dave asked, surprised at her advice.

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"Because I thought he was taking her for granted," she said. "He was never going to get around to marrying her, and it pissed me off." Dave took his arm from around her and leaned forward on the table. "Come on, Donna, don't be like that," he said reasonably. "He loved Elizabeth; he just wasn't ready yet. They would have gotten married eventually." Donna harumphed. "Yeah, well, he had four years and he wasn't getting any closer. I think he was still in love with that Tonya." Dave looked at her critically. "What is it with you and Tonya? You don't even know her. Why would you say something like that? I don't even think Elizabeth really knew her." "Women know these things," Donna said mysteriously. "I know what she's like. And I just think he had unfinished business with her. He should have figured that out before stringing Elizabeth out." "Listen, I knew Mike and I knew Tonya," Dave said. "They were just friends. I admit I was surprised they stayed friends, but I never saw anything to think it was anything more. And I'd know." Donna looked at him curiously. "Why didn't you ever go out with Tonya? She seems like your type." That was a good question. I'd sometimes wondered that myself, and used to watch for little signs from either one of them -- especially after Tonya and I were no longer quite an item. But I never saw anything. Perhaps they each were so used to being the attractor of attention that the competition from the other would have been too much. Or, more charitably, perhaps they each valued my friendship enough not to risk it by getting involved. Take your pick.

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Dave laughed. "You bet! Actually, they met here. I'd just gone to the bathroom, and she started talking to Mike. If I'd come back a minute sooner it might have been me that ended up with her…" Donna looked unconvinced. "What about after they broke up? You had lots of time to start dating her." Dave squirmed slightly. "It just would have been too weird, you know? Besides, it's not like she was giving me any vibes about asking her out. That's fine; there's lots of other women out there." I wasn't sure that I knew any more than I had before, but at this point it didn't really matter. I'd have preferred Dave going out with Tonya over Donna, that was for sure. And now here they were getting chummy. Donna leaned forward and put her hand on Dave's knee. She smiled coquettishly. "So what about you, Dave? What are you looking for?" At that moment, I don't know why, I glanced up and noticed someone sitting at the end of the bar by themselves. It was the stranger from this morning, my fellow ghost. He looked like he was drinking a beer. I quickly moved over and installed myself on the stool next to him. "Hey, don't go away. I want to talk to you." He looked over at me without surprise. "I've been expecting you." I hesitated, then asked, "Where did you get a beer?" He shrugged. "It's not real; I just imagined it to fit in with the place. Here, you can have one too." And a glass with a foaming head appeared in front of me. I picked it up and tried to drink it.

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"I can't taste anything. It doesn't even feel like I'm drinking." He waved his hand apologetically. "You're not." I slumped, disappointed that even the brief hope of this simple pleasure was so quickly dashed. I let go of the glass, only to see it stay suspended in midair. The stranger and I looked at each other, then he somehow made the glass rotate a full circle -- without losing a drop -- before floating gracefully down to the bar and melting away. Definitely not real. I eyed him. "Who are you, anyway?" He considered this. "Call me Ishmael." He looked serious, but I looked at him skeptically. "Is that a joke?" He laughed quickly. "Maybe. I've always wanted to say that. Still, it will do as well as anything else." I still didn't know who he was, but before I could get back to it he smoothly changed the subject. "So, it looks like you've figured out how to get around all right." "Yes," I admitted. "It sure beats walking or stealing rides everywhere. I just wish I could be more places at once; I feel like every choice I make keeps me from being somewhere else I want to be too." He just looked at me deadpan. "What's that look mean?" I demanded. "What did I say that's so stupid?"

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He shook his head patiently. "You're only getting part of the deal. You and I, we don't exist in space like we used to. That's why we can be anywhere we want to be. But we also don't exist in time either. We can be anyplace we want to be, anytime. I told you that." I did remember that he had said that at the cemetery. "I didn't think you meant it literally. I don't even know what that really means." "I know. It's hard to understand. Come with me." He put his hand on my arm and stood up. I couldn't feel his arm; it was no more real to me than anything in my old, physical world. But we were no longer in the bar. We were in an alley, looking at a group of young boys. "Recognize anyone?" he asked. I looked more closely, and was surprised beyond words. "That's me!" I stammered. "That's me when I'm ten. How can…" Now he smiled. "Anyplace, anytime, I said." We watched the kids scheme about something. "Do you remember what they are talking about?" I did indeed. At that moment, the sweet little Michael was telling his friends that his older sister was walking home from school with her baby-sitting money. It was my grand idea to relieve her of that money, which they joyfully did. "Not quite as nice a story as the way Tara told it, is it?" he pointed out. I hung my head forlornly.

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"I was just a kid. I didn't think about how she'd feel about it. " "And she never figured it out?" I shook my head no. "So, why did you buy her that ice cream? Wasn't that hypocritical?" I watched that little me with his friends. He was so young, so innocent. When you're that age things are so simple: school is no fun, girls are there to be tormented, your parents are dumb and just there to do things for you, and your friends are the world. "I felt bad for her. I'd never seen her cry. I just wanted to do something nice for her. She never said anything to me about who the other boys were or why they'd done it, and I never had the nerve to tell her." We were back at the bar. His beer had been topped off, but otherwise was undisturbed. There was one for me as well. "Why that day, why that memory? How did you know about that?" I asked. He smiled. "I told you the first time I met you: I know more about you than you know about yourself." I stared at him hard. "Who the hell are you?" I demanded. "Why me?" He just smiled. "Relax, relax, Michael Finley," he said calmly. He took a sip of his imaginary beer from his imaginary glass. I watched as his throat thirstily gulped the false liquid down. He was pretty realistic about this pretend drinking. Maybe he was a pretend alcoholic too. He resumed his conversation. "Why you? Why anybody? As you'll soon learn, we have lots of time on our hands. You can get caught up in many people's lives." I still wasn't sure what he meant. "I don't get it."

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He paused. "Hold on here a second." He vanished. I sat at the bar, my pseudo-beer now feeling stupid at my hand on the bar. Behind me, I could just barely overhear the conversation at Dave's table. I think they were talking about football. If I'd been there I would have been happily putting in my two cents, arguing with Dave and enjoying it. Dave looked like he missed the challenge. We could argue like only old friends can. Ishmael returned, looking none the worse for wear. "Where did you go?" I asked. He looked smug. "I just spent a year in the south of France, circa 40,000 BC" "What?" "I wanted to see the artist who drew those fantastic cave drawings in southwestern France, the famous Lascaux Cave. You know, the Hall of Bulls and all that." I must have looked blank. He shook his head. "No matter. Some 18,000 years ago some little tribe of barely evolved Cro-Magnons drew these great pictures of a hunt on the walls of caves. I wanted to see who, and try to understand why." "What are you, an archeologist?" I asked. I couldn't even pronounce the name of that cave, much less spell it. Business school hadn't covered this. He smiled, amused. "No, it's just a hobby I acquired. I've had time to acquire a great many hobbies. Haven't you ever wanted to go back in time, and see what really happened, not what the textbooks guess at?"

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"Wait a minute," I said, something he said just hitting me. "You just spent a year there? You were only gone a few seconds!" "That's lesson number two: Time is not linear, for you and I. We can bop in and out of it at will. You could relive your entire life, and reappear here almost instantaneously." If I hadn't already been sitting down I would have had to. As it was, this revelation made me sag. "What are we?" I whispered under my breath, or so I thought. "I don't know what we are," he told me seriously. "I just know some of the things we can do." I started to think of all the things I might want to witness, all the people I wanted to see. The idea was growing on me. "Wait a minute," I objected. "In my limited attempts so far, I had to imagine specifically where I wanted to be. Doesn't that make it pretty complicated to go back in time and such?" He looked at me tolerantly. "It's a skill, like anything else. You get better at picturing what you want, and there you are. Here, let's have some fun. Who is some famous person you'd like to see?" "A famous person?" "Yes, someone you've wondered about -- what they are like, what their home looks like, so on." I thought about it. "Well, Elisabeth Shue is pretty cute," I admitted.

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He nodded, pleased. "All right, now think about Elisabeth Shue. Think hard and try to picture seeing her." I closed my eyes and tried to focus my thoughts. Elisabeth Shue. Umm, Leaving Las Vegas, Adventures in Baby Sitting, various Hollywood premieres,… I was standing in, I saw, an airport. It looked like LaGuardia airport in New York. I was near a gate, and evidently most of the passengers had already boarded; the waiting area had that quiet, post-rush feel, but the doors were still open and the plane was still at the gate. The sign at the desk said the flight was headed to LA. "Very good," Ishmael's voice said. I turned and saw him standing behind me. "It's funny -- you could have gone to the Oval Office, you could have met Mother Teresa or Gandi, but, no, you want to see some movie star." He tsktsk-ted. I was a little embarrassed. "How did you know I'd come here?" I demanded. "Can you read my mind?" "No," he said, amused at the thought. "But, as I've told you several times, I know you better than you know yourself." "Why are we here? What does LaGuardia have to do with Elisabeth Shue? I don't see her anywhere. Is she on that plane?" "Be patient." We waited for a few seconds, and, soon enough, there she was. She didn't have an entourage or a friend with her. She strolled up to the ticket desk, one of the last arrivals, and checked in. The celebrity-jaded attendants pretended she was no big deal, while in my little ghost world I was gaping.

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She was wearing some slacks, a silk blouse, and a nice jacket. She looked delicious. Of course, she had on the expected big sunglasses, enough to pretend at anonymity but actually drawing attention to her. More than a few of the milling crowds at the other gates looked over at her, nudged their companion, then pretended not to notice. With a characteristic big smile at the attendant, Ms. Shue boarded the plane. I sighed. "What now?" I asked. "Should we board the plane?" "No, it gets better," he said. "Hang on a second." He grabbed my arm, or gave the illusion, and the world blinked for a second. We were still at the gate, but something was different. "What happened?" I asked. "What is different?" He just looked at me expectantly. I looked around. It all looked the same, but -"Wait a minute," I said. "It's the same scene, just a few minutes earlier. We saw this." "Right," he agreed. "Now look. Who is that good looking guy?" There I was, striding through the airport carrying a laptop and a carry-on. Judging from my looks, it was maybe five years ago. "Wait a minute," I cautioned. "I don't remember taking a flight from New York to LA. When is this?"

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He looked satisfied. "Well, in this version of the world you did." We watched as I boarded the plane. "Do I meet her?" He shook his head. "Not in this version," he told me. "She boards a couple of minutes after you, sits in first class, and you never even know she's on the plane." "I don't understand…" "Hang on." The world flickered again, and we were back at the start of the scene. We watched, and again there I went up to the gate. Only this time Elisabeth arrived a little after me. She stood in line behind me. "Turn around, you idiot," I urged my alternate self. But he ignored me and just got on the plane. "Well, this is frustrating," I complained. Ishmael smiled. "Try this," he said patiently. Same start, same beginning, only in this version I turned and gaped at her, then meekly just boarded the plane. I looked at Ishmael, disappointed. He was enjoying this. We watched well over a hundred versions of the airport scene. In many, nothing happened. In some, I saw her, but made no contact. In a few, we talked briefly. In a couple, we hit it off, and she asked that they move my seat next to hers. And in one glorious version, the plane was delayed a couple hours, so she and I sat in the bar and became fast friends. The plane was cancelled and we went off in a taxi together…

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"This is all too much," I told Ishmael. "It's like watching TV shows starring me. There's so many worlds, so many things to follow. How do you ever decide what is real?" "It's all real," he said calmly. "It's just that all but one aren't the world you lived in." I thought about the multitude of possibilities, each taking place in their own existence. "Are there versions where I don't get shot?" "Of course." That was weird. I could find out how my life would have ended up if I'd been standing a foot to the left. I could do my whole life over, see what choices I'd made, what choices I'd missed, and what the outcomes were. "Did you ever read The Unbearable Lightness of Being," I asked. "Not the movie, the original book." He nodded. "Kundera talks about how the unbearable lightness of being is that you have to make choices in life not knowing what the right ones are, not knowing how they'll turn out or how other choices would have turned out. This is the opposite. There's too many choices, too many things that happened. It makes everything seem arbitrary, unreal." "You don't really have those choices," he said sadly. "Those other 'you's do, and they still don't know what happens. And you can't tell them." For some reason that struck me as sad.

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"Why are there all these alternate worlds?" I asked, frustrated. "What does it mean?" He shrugged. "You took physics. Don't you remember Everett's 'many worlds' theory?" "I must have been asleep that day," I said sarcastically. Physics wasn't my favorite class. "Everett speculated that, at every point of probability, for every quantum particle, perhaps it actually makes each choice, with the separate choices resulting in different worlds. None of them knowing about the others." "I do vaguely recall that. And physicists really took that idea seriously? It struck me as absurd; there'd be, well, an infinite number of worlds created every second." "Not infinite," he corrected me, "but certainly incalculable. Still, that's the best theory I can come up with. We somehow can tap into all those worlds." I thought for a minute. "The future too?" I asked. "I can look at how the future turns out, all the different ones. "If you want." "In many of those worlds, I still get shot." I said. "So, I have to ask again -- where are all the other ghost mes?" "I don't know," he admitted reluctantly. We each considered that for several seconds. "Let's get out of here," I said to Ishmael.

Chapter 19

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We sat again at the bar, at the point when we'd left. The buzz of conversation picked up immediately from when we had left. Ishmael already had a new beer by his hand. I considered doing the same, but decided it was just an affectation; if I couldn't drink it, couldn't taste it, what was the point? "This is pretty weird stuff," I told him, staring down at the bar. "I think I saw a 'Twilight Zone' like this." He agreed, for once not smiling at my discomfort. "As someone once said, the world is not only queerer than we imagine, it is queerer than we can imagine," he said soberly. "You could have never guessed this existence, with all these worlds. And none of these people " -- he indicated the oblivious bar patrons --"would believe you even if you told them." "Well," he reconsidered after a second. "Maybe Donna." We sat alone with our thoughts for a few minutes. Maybe he blinked out and watched a species of dinosaurs go extinct over a few million years while I wasn't watching; it was actually possible, and I found it more than a little disconcerting to know that he could do it. Or maybe he was really just sitting here with me the whole time, being patient and giving me a chance to catch up. "How long have you been…like this?" I asked finally. He smiled ruefully. "It's a meaningless question. I've lived more lifetimes than you can imagine like this, but I could have died a minute or a thousand years before you did -- or years after. It's all just arbitrary for us." I stared at him, eyebrows furrowed. "Did you die a thousand years ago?"

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He looked down into his illusionary beer, so much like a real drinker studying a real beer that he almost fooled me. He shook his head wearily. "It doesn't matter," he replied in a conclusive tone. I let that slide, for the question seemed to cause him the only grief I'd seen him show in our short time together. I turned and watched the room, seeing Dave and my friends laughing and getting caught up in the spirit of the thing. I wished I could be with them, really with them. There wasn't anything I could do about that. I started to think more seriously about the possibilities Ishmael had opened to. It sounded kind of interesting. There more I thought about it, the more ideas I got about things I could do, things I could have never done while I was alive. Maybe being a ghost wasn't so bad after all. Maybe this was the silver lining. Things were looking up. "So," I started conversationally, "I don't know where to start. Should I go back and see all the great historical figures, see what they were really like, or should I go back to all the versions of my life, to see what I missed doing differently. I kind of liked that one with Elisabeth Shue and I." It still wasn't very real to me. I mean, really -- a life with Elisabeth Shue? I wasn't intending to do any of those, actually. Part of it was that, despite what I'd seen, I still didn't totally believe it was possible. And part of it was that what happened in this life, after my death, still held the most interest for me. Before I got to all that other stuff, I wanted to see what happened here. Poor Ishmael; he'd given me the keys to the universe, complete mastery over space and time, yet all I wanted to do was hang out in this little corner of this one little world. He smiled tolerantly at me, but with a deep sadness seeping through the smile. "Well," he said, "you'll find that going back in history is harder than you think. You can do it, but figuring out where you are, when it is, who people really are, or what they are saying is harder than you can imagine now. It's not like everyone speaks English or uses our calendar, or looks like their pictures. Plus, it's not so pretty sometimes -- people didn't

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wash very much for most of history, had fairly primitive toilet facilities, bad teeth, and so on. A lot of people died young, from things that we'd shrug at today." I could see his point. Did anyone really want to see George Washington with his wooden teeth, or Marie Antoinette with her layers of perfume covering the stench of her unwashed body? It was probably good we didn't have better pictures from times past; there were too many details we probably didn't want to see. Then, again, go visit some of our own slums, or some third world village; maybe things weren't as different as we'd like to think. It's all in your perspective. "What about looking at my life?" I asked, picturing that airport rendezvous with Elisabeth Shue. I could see getting into these parallel lives. It was no more real to me than watching a movie, but I always enjoyed the movies when I was alive. Maybe watching these fantasy lives would replace going to the movies. He sighed and polished off his drink. "You're going to do it anyway, so why bother asking me?" he asked rhetorically. "Let me give you some advice, though: stick to the life you know. Don't get caught up in all the lives you didn't live." "Why?" I asked. "I think that'd be the most fun of all." I was already starting to envision all kinds of glamorous lives I must have had some chance of living. NBA, here I come… He looked at me very seriously. It came out in a rush. "You saw the airport, and how fairly simple changes or blind chance makes such a big difference. Do you really want to know how close to other lives you were? Maybe you could have been President if you'd taken a different course in college, maybe you would have married Tonya if you'd called her back after one of your fights. Maybe lots of things. I'll put it to you this way: do you really want to see the son you never had with Elizabeth, the son you'll never pick up or hold?"

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Behind us, Dave's group roared with laughter at one of his new stories. I hadn't heard which one it was, but the surge of noise forced a temporary pause in our conversation. Ishmael looked away, regaining his normal calm. Then he looked levelly at me again. "You never knew those lives; you never regretted those choices. Do you want to spend the rest of this existence wishing you'd done things differently?" I was taken aback. I had realized that looking at alternative worlds might show me I could have lived my life differently, but I hadn't really thought about regretting that I hadn't lived them. It was bad enough knowing I'd messed up to the extent I already did. Now Ishmael was warning me that all the mistakes I'd made, all the stupid choices I'd made or not made -- well, they were out there, ready to illustrate to me what I could have done differently. I could see with real people how I could have made others happier, how I could have helped them more, how I could have even made more of myself. Kundera had it wrong; having all life's choices available to me was the unbearable lightness of non-being. This wasn't just trivial stuff; this was about the life I really had lived, and the consequences of the choices I'd made or missed. This wasn't so glamorous. "I'd tell you to go to hell," I told him weakly. "But I think we're already there." I thought for a moment, then added, "Maybe I'll stick with my old life for now." Ishmael nodded wisely.

Chapter 20 There were lots of odds and ends about my old life that I was curious about. I started with the night of my being shot. I started off with my parents' house. I was waiting for that phone call from Paul.

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They were, as I'd suspected, watching TV. Each of them was sitting in their own chair. Dad was reading a book; mom had a crossword puzzle on her lap but she wasn't paying much attention to it. Just another quiet evening at the Finley's. The phone rang. My parents exchanged quick glances. "I'll get it," my father volunteered. He got up and walked into the kitchen to pick up the phone. "Hello?" he answered. "Paul -- oh, Mike's friend?" He listened for a few seconds, and I watched the color drain from his face. He leaned forward and put his hand on the counter, resting his weight heavily on it. "What kind of an accident?" he demanded. At the sound of the word "accident" I saw my mother's head pop up and she trained her eyes on dad; mother radar at work. She held the crossword puzzle tightly against her chest. Dad looked over at her and motioned to her to come closer. "How badly was he hurt?" Now my mother stood up and hurried over to my father's side. He held the phone away from his head enough so that she could hear, and thus so could I. "It's pretty bad," Paul's voice said grimly. "He was hit in the head by the bullet. I think you'd better get here as soon as you can." Paul told them which hospital and where to go, and dad hung up the phone gingerly. He looked at it like it had been responsible for the news. "What happened? Mom insisted. "Tell me." She was struggling to keep tears from her eyes. Dad braced her arms with his hands. "They were out to dinner. Someone fired a gun and hit Mike in the head," he told her gently. "It looks pretty bad."

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Mom collapsed into his chest, sobbing. He put his arms around her and stroked her back softly. His eyes looked out the window, at some distant place I didn't know. "There, there, Hilly," he said resignedly. "We need to pull ourselves together. We have to get to the hospital." I went back to the bar, shaking my head like a terrier drying his wet fur. That was bad. Maybe I should have looked at some Paleolithic cave paintings like Ishmael did; it had to be easier. But my macabre desire to see how people reacted to my news persisted. Maybe starting with people I was so close to was a mistake, I thought. Their reactions were too pained and too painful to me. I wasn't quite ready for that. I decided to warm up with people I wasn't as close to. I sampled some twenty or so people -- people at work, casual friends, working my way to some of my relatives. I gradually got used to it. In many cases, they saw it on the eleven o'clock news. Many more read about it in the next morning's paper, where it made an initial splash on the front page, complete with pictures of a smiling me. It was an old photo that the newspaper must have had on file from when they'd carried a long-ago promotion in their business section. I was surprised at how few people really pay attention to the news. They switch to another station; they only read the horoscopes in the newspaper; they put on a CD instead of the radio in the car. It is as if people unconsciously shield themselves against the grim news of the outside world -- maybe to protect them from hearing about events like this. In the end, of course, most people heard about it from someone else they knew -someone who had actually read the paper, or someone who had gotten a call themselves. People may not like to monitor the news, but they sure love to spread it, especially when it is something juicy. Most everyone had heard the news by the time Richard and his calling cohort got around to "officially" notifying them that Tuesday afternoon.

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The reactions varied. Most everyone perked up when they heard the name; something about someone they knew! Disbelief was probably the most typical reaction: it can't have happened to someone I know! Closely following that was that urge to tell someone else -- a spouse, a neighbor, anyone who might not have heard so that they could be the first to share some new gossip. There were not, I found, a lot of tears. Maybe that came later, or maybe it was more a function of who I was watching; they simply weren't as emotionally connected to me as the people I hadn't checked in on yet. Still, I was surprised, a little annoyed, in fact, at how rapidly this ripple disappeared from their lives. They expressed their shock, they muttered their dismay and sorrow, and they passed the news along. Then most of them went back about their business -- switching over to Letterman or Leno, turning the newspaper to the sports section or the comics, whatever. I'd have done the same, I'm sure. Bad news is bad news. You heard so much of it, and there's so much of your own life to live, that we each only have a small reservoir of empathy for the departed. In public, they'd be mourners, but, behind those closed doors, in the privacy of their lives that I now had unfettered access to -- well, I just didn't matter that much. Still, there were surprises. As I'd found on my reconnaissance of my old office, some of the people I thought I was closer to proved to have surprisingly little response, while others broke into tears or genuine grief. I began to suspect that the reactions had more to do with their underlying emotional nature than to their personal connections to me. Donna, for example. She hadn't watched the news or read a paper, but got a call from Janet Tuesday morning, while Donna was at work. "Donna, it's Janet, " Janet began. "Have you read the papers? No? Oh, my dear. Listen: Mike was killed last night."

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"Killed? How?" Donna exclaimed. "We were out to dinner with Mike and Elizabeth, near the university, and he got shot." "Was Elizabeth hurt?" Donna asked immediately. No further inquiries on my status or how it all happened, just straight away to Elizabeth. "Well, physically she's fine," Janet said cautiously, "but you can imagine she's pretty shaken up." Donna said she'd call Elizabeth right away, but after putting the phone down she sat at her desk for a few minutes, toying with her stapler. She wasn't crying, and she didn't look all that upset. I had the distinct sense that she was trying to figure out how this new world looked. More time for her? Or, perhaps, who could she fix Elizabeth up with? She ended up leaving several messages on Elizabeth's machine. With some other people, I was even more surprised. Frank Jerome's house, the night I was shot. The kids were scattered throughout the house. Frank's wife was on the phone, and Frank was paying some bills. I had to spend a couple hours at the Jerome's; they didn't get a phone call. He and his wife went through the normal routine: some television, some chores, put the kids to bed, and so one. Just another evening of suburban tranquility. They eventually got ready for bed. They had a television in the bedroom, and his wife turned on the news when she got into bed. Frank was in the bathroom brushing his teeth. She picked up her book and halfheartedly started to read it.

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The news anchor opened the show solemnly saying there had been a shooting. He teased the audience that details were sketchy, but after the opening commercials came back and dramatically announced that they had learned the name of the victim: Michael Finley, age thirty-two. He sounded saddened about it. At the sound of my name his wife's head popped up. She watched for a few seconds before calling out, "Frank! You'd better watch this!" "What is it?" he said, his voice garbled by his mouth still full of toothpaste. "Just get in here now! Mike Finley has been shot!" "What?" he said incredulously, rushing in. His toothbrush hung forgotten in his hand; his mouth still had traces of toothpaste around it. At least he had spat out the toothpaste in his mouth. Frank stared at the screen until my story was replaced by a new story, a car crash that had injured several people. He looked at his wife wide eyed. "What did I miss?" "They just said there was a shooting, someplace over by the university, and Mike was the victim. They didn't have many more details." Frank sat down on the edge of the bed like he'd been punched in the stomach. He grabbed the remote control and starting flipping stations, looking for newscasts that offered any additional coverage. He managed to catch snippets on a couple of the other local stations before coming back to rest on the original station. None of the stations had specifics on where I'd been shot or how bad I was, but all agreed I was in serious condition. Frank and his wife looked at each other. "I don't believe it," Frank said. "How could this happen? Who would shoot him?"

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"I think they said it appeared to be a random shooting," his wife offered, concerned for Frank. "That's not a very good neighborhood. Maybe it was a robbery attempt." "Poor Mike," Frank muttered. "I wonder how Elizabeth is." The news was recapping the key stories at the end of their program. "This just in," the anchor said. "The shooting victim earlier this evening has been pronounced dead. Michael Finley, age thirty two, killed by what appears to have been a random sniper in the university area this evening." Frank and his wife looked at each other incredulously. The newscast closed with a cute story about some woman and her cat. Whatever grief or shock the news anchors had displayed earlier was replaced by a happier disposition. Frank turned off the television. "Unbelievable," Frank said, offended. "I've known Mike for years. You just don't think of something like this happening to someone you know…" "Come to bed, Frank," his wife said. "There's nothing you can do tonight." "I wonder if I should call Mike's parents, or Elizabeth," he mused idly. His wife pulled him down onto the bed, cradling his head with her arms. The toothbrush looked stupid in his hand. "I'm sure they already know; the hospital wouldn't have given out the name so soon otherwise. There's nothing you can do for them tonight. Now come to bed." He grudgingly agreed, and they held each other for a long period of time, not saying much. He did, to my great relief, put down the toothbrush and wipe off his mouth.

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"He never found out, did he?" his wife asked. Frank shook his head no forlornly. Found out what? "You shouldn't feel guilty. You were the better person, you deserved that job more than he did. And you took care of him after that." What was she talking about? "I know," Frank mumbled. "But I don't know that Mike would agree. We both worked on that project, but he let me get all the face time with the executives. What was I supposed to do, tell them that Mike had done most of the work? They wanted someone more aggressive, and that was me." "I know, I know," his wife soothed him. "You didn't do anything wrong. It doesn't matter now anyway." She stroked his hair and comforted him. I left when it looked like they were starting to get frisky -- on this night of all nights! So Frank had shafted me. He must have been talking about the acquisition project he and I worked a couple years after I came aboard. It was our project, but I'd had more experience evaluating acquisitions than he had. I did the lion's share of the work. Still, he'd been there longer and knew the senior executives better than I did, so I let him do all the presentations and updates. I assumed he was sharing the credit equally with me, but apparently not. Did he tell them he'd done all the work, or just that he'd supervised me? Whichever, that must have been the basis for him getting promoted over me. I suspected it at the time, but he passed the promotion off as simple time-in-grade. How naïve I'd been. For lack of a better idea, I went back to the bar, to the quasi-wake Dave had going on that night of my funeral. Dave and Donna were huddled together, head to head. I stayed at the bar watching them and the rest of the group for another couple of hours. It was kind of nice. Periodically they'd do a toast to me, and that sometimes led to a reminiscence or story about me. Most of the versions were different than my recollection, but I usually came off better for the revisions, so I couldn't complain.

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Finally, someone said they had to get going. Once that happened, everyone decided it was time to go. I could see Donna was watching Dave to see what he was going to do, and Dave was similarly deciding who might still be there if he stayed. So then it was Dave and Donna. "Well, Donna Lou," Dave said gamely. "What's up?" "I don't know, Dave D'Angelo," she giggled. "What's up with you?" He apprised her. "How about I buy you some breakfast?" Donna giggled again. I suspected she'd had a little too much to drink, but, then again, she was a giggler under normal circumstances too. "Gee, Dave, on our first date?" It took both Dave and I a half-second to figure out that she inferred that he meant he'd buy her breakfast in the morning -- after spending the night together. "No, I mean now, Donna." Dave was losing a little patience. "You look like you could use some solid food in you before you go home." Donna made a face. "I'm not hungry for food," she laughed throatily. "Let's go back to my place." Dave looked skeptical. "Look," he said patiently. "I'll drive you home. That's all, though. OK?" Donna agreed, winking at him to indicate she didn't quite believe him. Dave helped her to his car and drove to her house. Donna was half asleep, half draped over Dave. I was surprised that Dave seemed to know the way to her house. He pulled up in her driveway. "Are you OK?" he asked, fingering his keys. She suddenly turned shy.

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"Would you come in and check the house? This stuff with Mike has me a little spooked." I figured this was just a ploy to get Dave in the house, but was curious why ploys were necessary. I'd have expected Dave wouldn't need much prompting. He took her keys from her, walked her up to the door, and unlocked it. He took her inside and did a quick check through the house. "It looks fine, Donna." he announced. Donna had gone into her bedroom and didn't reply. Dave looked at the front door longingly, evidently debating whether to just walk out. He sighed and edged closer to the bedroom. "Donna, did you hear me? It looks all clear here." Donna had turned on a small light next to her bed. She was in the bathroom. "Dave? Dave? Stay just a minute, would you?" Dave sighed again and leaned against the frame of the bedroom door. Donna came out. She'd hastily reapplied some make-up, and put on a Victoria's Secrettype negligee. Drunk or not, she looked pretty good, I had to admit. "I'm sorry it took Mike getting shot to get you back in my bedroom," she said, giving him a sultry stare, "but I'm glad you're back." Dave just looked at her. "Donna, it's not going to happen," he said firmly. "Not tonight. Just go to bed." She walked over to him, and put her arms around his neck. Dave just stood there, his hands on his hips. "Shouldn't the living get whatever pleasure they can while they are still alive, Dave? I've always heard that post-funeral sex is the best. And you know it was already pretty good with us before…" Dave took his hands and gently removed her arms from his neck, holding them between the two of them. "That may be, Donna," he said. "But it's not going to happen."

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Who was this I was watching? A pretty, nubile young woman -- with whom he'd apparently already shared this bed -- was offering him a night of no-consequence, unfettered post-funeral sex. The Dave I thought I knew should have jumped at the chance to jump her bones, among other things. Donna started crying, of course, and threw herself on the bed. Dave reluctantly went over to the bed and started soothing her. I stayed for awhile longer. I still expected it would eventually end up with them having sex, just as the Jeromes had started to, but it didn't. Donna made a couple of other game attempts, but Dave dodged them skillfully. She eventually fell asleep. Dave tucked her into bed, got up, and started to leave. He stopped in the bedroom doorway to regard her again. Shaking his head, he left, locking the front door behind him. And he went home; I know, I went with him. The only explanation I could think of for his behavior was that he had some other hot date waiting at home, but he didn't. He came home, and went to bed alone. Curious and curiousier.

Chapter 21 I walked for a while after that, to try to clear my head. This life was getting too jumpy, without that comfort of continuity that life normally offers. There were so many possibilities, so many things I could see and do. I went back to Elizabeth's front porch, choosing to appear there just after she'd gone inside the house. I looked around suspiciously, as she had, to see if that "earlier" version of me was anywhere around. I was concerned that I'd start tripping over versions of me at other points in their ghostly timelines, but I didn't see anyone or anything else.

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That got me started on thinking about the lack of other ghosts, period. I just couldn't understand why I was the only ghost in the world, other than the so-called "Ishmael." Especially with all these other worlds. Presumably I got shot in most of them, so where were the other ghosts of me, spinning the dial of alternate lives? I thought of several questions that I wanted to ask Ishmael the next time I saw him. I must have been brooding for an hour or more when I heard the front door being unlocked and opened. I checked to see if I'd been sitting still long enough for my frozen image to be visible, but apparently I hadn't. Elizabeth came out and sat on the swing next to me. It was so odd; she came straight to the swing, and sat down like she was expecting someone to be sitting next to her. But she gave no evidence that she was aware of me. She played absently with her hair, twirling a strand in her fingers and looking out in the light. She was wearing her bathrobe, but her feet were bare. She tucked them underneath her in one of her favorite positions. It looked like she might have on a T-shirt under the robe, but I couldn't be sure. The night air was cool and clear. We sat there, me watching her, her watching who knows what, for some time. I lost track of time, absorbed in committing every line, every feature, every wrinkle and every freckle to memory. I wanted to soak as much of her in as I could. "Is that you, Elizabeth?" a voice called out. It was Mr. Wilkenson from next door. We'd both missed hearing him open his door and come out on his porch, and we each jumped at the unexpected sound. "Yes, Mr. Wilkenson," Elizabeth answered, "it's me. What are you doing up at this hour?" "I could ask you the same thing, dear," he said, walking over to her house and coming up on the porch. "May I?"

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She nodded and I quickly slipped off the swing just before he sat down next to her. I leaned up against the railing and studied them. Mr. Wilkenson also had on a bathrobe, but he had on socks and slippers. His hair did not look like he had been sleeping. He had a light stubble on his cheeks. In a younger man it might have looked sexy, but on him it made him look older and somewhat disreputable. The black socks with no pants on didn't help either. "You know us old people," he said, grinning quickly. "We don't need much sleep. I looked out and saw someone on your porch, so I wanted to check." "Always watching after me, aren't you Mr. Wilkenson?" she said fondly. She patted his arm affectionately, causing him to beam slightly. "So why are you up, Elizabeth?" Elizabeth sighed. "Too much on my mind, I guess. I just couldn't sleep." Mr. Wilkenson nodded knowingly; he'd been there. "That was a fine speech you made at Mike's funeral," Mr. Wilkenson said. "His sister's was very good too." Elizabeth smiled warmly, but sadly. "Thanks." They sat in silence for a little bit. "Did you really mean that about not knowing if you were the love of Mike's life? I thought you two were in love." Elizabeth smiled, or grimaced, I wasn't sure which. "I don't know," she said earnestly. "I thought I did once, but now I'm not so sure." He patted her arm tenderly, but didn't say anything for a long while.

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"You know, Betty and I were married for fifty-three years," he started. "We lived in that house" -- pointing to his own -- "for forty-six years." He was looking out at the street, perhaps imagining different days, days when he was young and his wife was alive, and packs of kids ran around in the neighborhood playing stickball or whatever kids played back then. He had a look on his face of almost heart-breaking fondness and longing, for times past and people no longer present. I thought, for once, that perhaps I knew how he felt. I had some longing of my own now. "She was the love of my life. She was the only love in my life. We got married young and never thought about it. You just do your job, you raise your family, and the years go by." He smiled ruefully. "Then one day your wife dies and you're alone. Your son is gone, out of town, and he's got his own family. Your friends move, they die, and the circle of people you know just gets smaller and smaller." He turned to look at her, the smile long gone. "I wake up every morning expecting to see her there. I mean, I had a lot more mornings seeing her there than not seeing her there, so I kind of got used to it." "That must be hard," Elizabeth said sympathetically. Mr. Wilkenson laughed mirthlessly. "But why am I telling you all this, you probably wonder. I don't know, I guess I'm just an old man with too many memories." Elizabeth patted his hand reassuringly. "I can't imagine the kind of loss you're talking about. I doubt I'll ever have to go through that, but I envy you the years you had together with your wife." Mr. Wilkenson looked at her very seriously. "Elizabeth, don't get me wrong in what I'm going to tell you. I liked Mike very much. He would have made you a good husband, and I'm sorry he's dead. But, you see, when you get to be my age you've seen lots of

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friends and loved ones die. It doesn't make it any less hard, but you come to accept that it's all part of the plan. You're a young woman. Your life is ahead of you. You find some other nice young man and you go have a life with him. Mike would have wanted that." Hmm, I wasn't so sure about that. I hadn't given much thought to what it would mean for Elizabeth's life going forward. Tomorrow, or maybe the next day, or the day after that, she was going to have to go to the grocery store. Buy toilet paper and milk and such. Maybe stop at the dry cleaners. She was going to go back to work. Friends would ask her to come for dinner. She'd watch TV, she'd draw, she'd go to movies. She'd get new photos to put in the frames where my images now resided. And, one of these days, she'd meet a guy. A nice guy, hopefully, but still a guy. He'd ask her out and she'd eventually agree. Her life was going to go on, without me. Intellectually, I knew that. I'd have told her or anyone else that I'd have wanted it that way. I'd hate to see her frozen up and dressed in mourning the rest of her life, living in the past like some high school jock always reliving that high school touchdown. But we don't live in our minds. We live in our hearts, and it hurt my heart to think of me fading slowly out of her life, like the colors in an old photograph gradually turning to gray. Elizabeth didn't look too convinced either. She nodded her head like she understood, but I knew her well enough to know that look meant that she understood but didn't necessarily agree. She'd used it on me often enough.

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They sat together in a comfortable silence for several minutes. Mr. Wilkenson asked her if she was all right, and when she said she'd be fine he got up and said he should be getting home. Elizabeth stopped him at the edge of the porch. He was inches from me and I looked at him as she asked him a question. "Mr. Wilkenson? Do you think the dead watch over us? You know, like ghosts or angels or something." Elizabeth was not one to believe in ghosts or the supernatural. That undoubtedly had been shaken by her two sightings of me, but I didn't think she was quite ready to change her worldview yet. I wasn't sure what she believed about the afterlife, although she attended church semi-regularly. She probably had vague notions of heaven, without the accompanying hell. Yuppie churches are not big on hell these days. Mr. Wilkenson smiled at her. "Of course they do, my dear," he said kindly. "I know Betty watches me every day. I believe she is hanging round here, watching over me until I die and we can go to heaven together." Elizabeth nodded knowingly at him and smiled quickly. He said goodnight and went home. Elizabeth sat for a few minutes longer, listening to the quiet noises of the night, then collected herself and went in. I followed her in. Elizabeth's house was almost as familiar to me as my own. I'd spent a lot of time here; hanging out, sleeping over, all sorts of times. I knew where she kept things; I knew the idiosyncrasies of her TV. I knew how long you had to run the hot water in the shower before it got tolerable. I knew that her kitchen always had a box of pop-tarts in the cupboard and a pint of Haagen-Dazs in the freezer, just because Elizabeth knew I liked them.

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Still, it wasn't my house. I only had a few clothes here. The photographs, the books, and the CDs were all hers. I might have helped her get some of those, and was in some of the photographs, but they were her possessions, not mine. She picked out and paid for the furniture; I just helped. She chose the colors of the walls. This was her house, not ours. And my house was the same for her. We were guests in each other's house; welcome guests, to be sure, but still guests. It was another way that we had kept our own lives, rather than committing to a life together. Oh, there were lots of good reasons to do it that way -- but there are always good reasons not to do things. Now I couldn't do anything except regret things undone. Elizabeth still wasn't sleepy, so she picked up her sketchpad and started doodling, as she was wont to do when she was distracted. She said it settled her mind, helped her to focus. She liked to just rough out quick little pictures, then decide if any were promising enough to develop further. Watching her draw was as mesmerizing as usual. It wasn't just that she was focused. I think the record for focus has to go to Alicia; when she focussed on something with that laser-like intensity of hers, that was it, that was the entire world. An atomic bomb wouldn't distract it. It was scary when you were the object of that focus, and also scary when you were left out of it. Maybe that had been part of our problem. No, Elizabeth focused in a different way. It was more that she was distracted. She had her head in a different world, the world of her art. Her body might be here, but her brain was seeing the images in her mind's world. She'd be drawing me, in this world, while I was watching her in her world. Somewhere they connected, perhaps on that piece of paper she drew on. I thought now how apt that all was; I knew now what being in a different world from everyone else was like. It was too bad I couldn't translate anything from here to there. I wished I could somehow influence her drawing, to show her I was here and was all right.

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I wished I could tell her that I loved her, that I missed her. I wished lots of things, but that didn't make them come true. I peered over her shoulder. Pictures of me, pictures of her and I together. Pictures of us laughing, pictures of us laying together in bed. Pictures of me sleeping peaceably. Pictures of me laying on that sidewalk, bleeding, pictures of me at the hospital and funeral home. Even a couple of me in my current state -- sleeping on her bed and on the swing. She had managed to show the transitional state of those images, part of me fading out as I roused. It was like capturing a dream, half remembered in the morning but even that memory fading as the dreamer wakes. Her ability had always impressed me. I never had any artistic talents, and was so astonished that someone I knew could translate this world into something else -sometimes recognizable, sometimes not. I thought Elizabeth had the gift of simplicity in her work, able to strip what she wanted down to its essence, and capture it. I didn't know much about art, but her stuff moved me, made me think about the world in new ways. That was good enough for me. Of course, I never really told her all this. Oh, I would compliment her on things she did, but she undoubtedly took it as inane boyfriend praise. In truth, it frightened me a little, this talent of hers. I didn't have anything comparable to it, and wondered if she'd decide I wasn't worthwhile if she really got into it. Once she got really into that arty world, I feared, there'd be no place for me. Despite that, I thought she was wasting her time doing commercial art, and several times I gave serious consideration to telling her she should move in with me so I could support her while she devoted herself to real art. But I didn't. That would have meant rocking the boat, that would have meant deciding I was fully committing myself to her. I never decided against doing it, mind you, and I liked to think I'd have done it when -- if -- we got married. So much for that plan.

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These pictures showed me that I did, indeed, look seedy at that time. No wonder Ishmael criticized me at the cemetery! I made sure to spiff up my current mental image of myself. But, no, even those drawings of me dead weren't the saddest. The saddest were the pictures of Elizabeth and I with a child, at first a baby, then a toddler. A child who was presumably the child we now were never going to have. She sketched and sketched until she was worn out and fell asleep on her couch, pencil still in hand. I thought about what she had asked Mr. Wilkenson at the end there. I didn't know which was worse. Elizabeth being too rational to believe I'd be watching over her, or Mr. Wilkenson believing that his wife was hovering over him all the time. I'd hate to be the one to break the news to him that Betty no longer lived here.

Chapter 22 The rest of that night passed quickly. I sat in the cemetery, sitting on my favorite hill. I could just make out my grave, sitting quietly. I could have just jumped ahead to the morning, of course, or flipped back to some other events I was curious about, but I felt like brooding. There's nothing like sitting in a dark cemetery as a recently minted ghost to help you brood. Still, this wasn't helping anything; I knew I couldn't just sit there forever. The dawn slipped into a new day. Once again, the world was waking up. It was Saturday, and everywhere people were glad to not be going to work. They'd be running errands, sleeping in, seeing movies -- all the various and sundry things one does on the weekend, catching up on the free time that has been sorely missing all week. I roused myself and went to see what the people I had cared about were doing on this first postMike weekend.

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I stopped in at Elizabeth's, and learned her parents were going to spend the day with her. Nothing against them, but I bowed out. I didn't think I could take much more small town gossip. Instead, I went to my own parents. They were getting together for lunch with Bill and his wife, which was not all that common -- both getting together for lunch, and going out for it. I assumed that everyone had wanted to get out of the house, and to let someone else do the work of cooking and cleaning. I was just glad to see that my parents weren't holing up in the house. The lunch itself was inconsequential -- they asked how mom and dad were doing, everyone talked about grandchildren. It was a reasonably normal conversation, in slightly subdued tones of voices. They talked about how pretty the service was, but steered away from any serious discussion about how my parents felt about the whole thing. Perhaps there was no need to; it was written on their faces, in their posture, by their walks. When they got ready to leave the restaurant, I decided to continue retracing some more parts of the week that I'd missed. I thought I was ready to get to some of the people who I was closer to. First, Tara's house on the night I was shot. Tara was upstairs, reading Derek a story. Richard was in his study, doing some work. The phone rang. I was with Tara, and saw she wasn't going to pick it up. I switched down to Richard, and saw that he was trying to ignore it as well. Finally, Tara yelled for him to pick it up. He answered it grumpily. It was my parents; it sounded like they were calling on a car phone. I'd bought them the car phone never expecting they'd use it: I just wanted them to have one in the car for emergencies. This may have been the first time they used it. I guess it did qualify as an emergency, although not the kind I'd been worried about. Richard put them on speakerphone so he could keep working. "Richard?" my dad asked tentatively. "Is that you?"

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"Oh, hi. Tara is upstairs putting Derek to bed," Richard replied absently. There was a pause; I suspected my parents were debating whether to tell Tara directly or go through Richard. Evidently they decided it was their job. "Can you get her? It's important." Richard looked annoyed, and yelled up at Tara," It's your parents! They'd like to talk to you." A pause, then, "can I call them back? I'm just about finished with Derek." Richard's look of annoyance deepened. "Can she call you right back?" he asked the speakerphone pointedly. "She's almost done." "Well," my father fumbled, "we really need to speak to her now. We're on the car phone." Richard sighed silently, and stood up. He walked over to the door of the study so Tara could hear him better. "Tara, they say they need to speak to you now. Pick up!" I switched back to Tara. She furrowed her brow with annoyance and exhaled forcefully. She told Derek she'd be right back, and went into their bedroom to pick up the phone. "I've got it," she said. Quickly switching back to Richard, I saw that he didn't actually hang up; he just hit mute and started working again. I went back to Tara. "Hi, mom and dad," Tara said. "What's so important? I'm putting Derek to bed." A pause. "Tara, it's your father. I'm on the car phone…" "The car phone!" Tara exclaimed, amused. "Testing it out?"

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Another pause. "Tara, I'm not sure how to tell you this," my dad said cautiously. "We're on our way to the hospital. Your brother has had an accident." Tara's hand flew up to her neck. "An accident?" she repeated. "What kind of accident? How badly is he hurt?" There was a long pause this time. I wasn't sure if the pauses were due to my dad trying to get the hang of the car phone, or to getting the hang of how to do this conversation. "Tara, he's been shot. In the head. His friend Paul said it doesn't look good." Tara suddenly sat on the edge of the bed, stunned. "Shot? How, how…" "We don't know, honey. We'll call you later when we know more." "Do you want me to come?" There was a pregnant silence. I switched quickly to my parents' car at that moment, and saw the look that went between them. I wasn't ever a parent, but I knew what that look meant. It meant -- no, let's keep the one we still have safe where she is. "No, dear, we can handle it. We'll call you later." My dad told her which hospital, and they said their good-byes. Tara remained sitting on the edge of her bed, stunned. Richard came in tentatively. "I know; I heard it on my receiver," he told her. Curiously, he remained by the door, not moving to sit next to her on the bed or to hold her. "What do you want to do?"

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She looked at him with a face devoid of emotion. "They said they wanted me to stay here. I guess I'll finish putting Derek to bed." She stood up and walked to the door. He moved aside to let her pass, but reached out for his elbow as she walked by. "Is there anything you want me to do?" he asked. "Should I go to the hospital?" She looked at him with slightly narrowed eyes. "No, I don't think that's a good idea. You can turn on the news if you like and see if there is anything on about this." And she left the room. I found her lack of emotion in front of him intensely curious; was she neutral towards me being shot, or was she avoiding letting him see her feelings for some reason? Tara went back to Derek's room and put her arms around him in a tight hug. Derek had just about fallen asleep, and he resisted the hug sleepily. Her face started to shed some tears, and she held him all the tighter. She finally laid him back down and stroked his hair, watching him sleep peaceably. Unlike the scene in the bedroom, this was a complex array of emotions -- her loss of me tied in with her connection with Derek, as if he was a reminder of me as a little boy. I watched her face and actions in a kind of fascination. Richard didn't come in. Several minutes later Tara got up and quietly went back to the bedroom. She picked up the phone and dialed a familiar number: Dave's. He picked up. "Hello?" "Dave, it's Tara." There was a slight pause; I was getting a lot of that tonight.

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"Hey, how are you doing?" Dave replied in a soft voice. It was not the voice of someone talking to the sister of a friend; it sounded more like a lover's voice. Maybe it was Dave's flirting voice, used indiscriminately. "Dave, Mike's been shot. My parents just called me." Tears started flowing down Tara's face again. It was odd that she would allow this with Dave, but not Richard. "Shot? Are you sure? How? When?" "I don't know, I don't know," she sobbed. "My God, Tara," he said. "Where is he?" She told him what little my parents had been able to tell her, and they discussed whether he should join my parents. I didn't understand why that was a big deal. He was my best friend; it was natural that the family would call him. They cautiously agreed it would be appropriate. I stayed at Tara's house for a couple more hours. Tara and Richard watched the news numbly, not making conversation. My parents called back a couple of times with updates, and told her I'd been pronounced dead. Tara cried, while Richard watched her almost resentfully. . I'd always known he was a cold son of a bitch, but this kind of behavior was shocking to me anyway. His wife's brother gets killed, and there's no hug, there are no soothing words? Throughout the entire evening Richard hadn't touched Tara even once -- no hug, no attempts at comforting her, just that one grab of her elbow at the doorway. He must have disliked me even more than I disliked him. When they retired for the evening, I got another surprise; they slept in separate bedrooms. I probably shouldn't have been so surprised; the way they acted tonight must have as much to do with their feelings for each other as for Richard's feelings towards me. I wondered how long they'd been sleeping apart.

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I got to thinking about the telephone conversation between Dave and Tara, and the more I thought about it, the odder it seemed. I thought of a good way to check something out… …I switched to Dave's car, on his way to my house that day after I got shot. Tara was next to him, as they had volunteered to go together. I hadn't really given it a second thought at the time, but now it seemed important. Tara gripped Dave's hand. "What are we going to do?" she asked. "I don't know, Tara," Dave replied. "We have to get through these next few days first. After that…" They didn't say much else, just held hands on the ride. That seemed unusual but not necessarily telling; they had known each other a long time, and both were in grief. They could just be talking about life generally. Still, it heightened my suspicions. They disengaged their hands before getting out of the car, and walked up to my door. Tara unlocked it with my parents' keys. My house was a very 1950's ranch house, in a very 1950's development. Of course, when it was built, this was the suburbs, but now was considered part of the city. It was an eclectic neighborhood -- families, young married duos, older couples who had been there since it had been built, and singles like myself who wanted that not-too-big first house. The houses were smaller than people liked nowadays, but they were just right to me. I liked the quiet of the neighborhood, and I could imagine having grown up here. Plus, it was ten minutes to downtown, ten minutes to Elizabeth's, and twenty or so minutes to my parents' house.

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I had liked my house. Friends of mine, like Dave and Tonya -- who had opted for a condo or townhouse lifestyle -- made fun of me at first. Why, they asked knowingly, would I want to have to take care of a yard, or to do house upkeep and such? But I liked having that little piece of land, had enjoyed my little space from the neighbors. It took me most of the time I'd lived there to get it furnished in every room. Even now, Elizabeth and my family told me it was too spare. I didn't have a lot of furniture, and didn't have much on the walls and such. I wasn't big on knick-knacks; no vases for me. But it was just right for me. I had my little den, with the big screen TV and my big stuffed recliner; I had my sound system wired throughout the house. I had room for all my books, scattered throughout the house. You couldn't go into a room without there being a bookcase of some kind. It had made coming home special. I missed being there on the times I stayed at Elizabeth's. I missed it now. Dave and Tara went through the house quietly. Knowing I was dead, they treated the house like it had already become a tomb, quiet and kind of creepy. It was kind of creepy; even as a ghost, I was a little spooked. I was used to coming into my house as a person. I would never come back into it like that again. I would never take a shower here again, never sleep in my bed, never watch TV from my chair. The life had gone out of the house. No wonder they didn't talk much. They just tried to complete their task of getting my address books and other useful lists as quickly and as quietly as they could, evidently hoping not to wake up whatever spirits might be dwelling in the house, even if I was among them. I wondered what Mike Finley they had seen in that house, and if it was any different now that I was gone. Was the house just a continuation of her younger brother's room, on a larger scale, to Tara? Was I the same person Dave had seen in so many dorms and apartments over the years? Do we ever outgrow people's notions of us, so that they see us for ourselves, and not just who we have been?

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Of course, maybe all we are is who we've been. That was sobering to me, given the past these two had witnessed me in. Tara paused to look at a photo collage on the wall. My mother loved to make these, recycling our old photos into decorations for Tara's and my houses. This particular one had pictures from high school and college. "Look at you two," Tara said admiringly. The photo had all three of us, in bathing suits. It had been taken at the lake the summer after my senior year in high school. "You look so young." "You weren't an old hag yourself," Dave complimented her, coming over to stand beside her at the collage. "God, you're gorgeous. I had a crush on you even then." Tara smiled. Eh? A crush "even then"? What was going on here? Was I in some weird sort of parallel universe where something was going on between Dave and my sister? I had a hard time imagining my sister as anyone Dave would be interested in. "So why did it take so many years?" Tara asked. Now her voice took on the tone of a lover, wanting a well-worn, comforting reply to a question asked and answered many times. Dave smiled tenderly. "Because I was a jerk, and you were my best friend's sister. I had to wait until it was too late and you were taken." "I had a crush on you then, too," Tara admitted quietly. Dave put on a look of mock seriousness. "So why didn't you do anything about it either? Why didn't you wait for me?"

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"Because you were my kid brother's best friend," she said tartly. "Besides, you had your hands full of those other girls. I never figured you'd give me a second look." They looked at each other with deep affection, and ended up hugging each other. They finally broke apart from the embrace, Tara sniffing and blurting out a quick laughing to cover her embarrassment, Dave hanging his head. They drove back to my parents' house, hand in hand again.

Chapter 23 So I had my first mystery to try to unravel, and I went at it gamely. When and how did they get involved? I started by checking on Dave every weekend night for the last few years. That sounds like it would take a long time, but I was learning that the concept of taking a long time was meaningless; time was whatever I wanted to be. I could live his life at the same pace as him, I could check in every hour, or at any other interval I wished. And it made no difference on the passage of time in the "current" day, i.e., life post-shooting. What I was curious about was what his romantic life really was. I was quite surprised. Yes, he went out with a lot of women. However, this was just for show. Many of them initiated the idea, although some he did ask out. But none lasted more than a few dates, and none of them he got serious about. At the time I had imagined Dave was living this wild, sybaritic life, sleeping with any number of attractive women. My friends and I envied him his charm and his lifestyle, and kidded him about all those women. In fact, I was now discovering, the truth was both more sedate and more interesting. He wasn't sleeping with anyone, as best I could tell -- despite several of the women's best

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efforts. I would have been stunned to know that had I not already known about Tara, and had I not seen him turn Donna away. He was dating these other women to cover his interest in my married sister. I'd gone back about two years before I found the old Dave that I thought I'd known. He really was, at one time, the lady-killer I'd thought he was. Something had changed that. I started going day-by-day after that, going forward in time to spot when he had "reformed." I found out eventually, although it took a lot of watching. One morning at work Dave got a call from Tara. "Dave, would you like to have lunch?" To himself, Dave smiled, thought for a second, and agreed. They met at a busy restaurant near Dave's office. It was a typical office lunch joint -ferns, burgers, salads and peppy waiters. There was a steady stream of hungry patrons crowding in and out around noontime. It was like watching hungry animals at the zoo at feeding time. Dave and Tara met in the lobby, and quickly got a table. They made small talk, catching up on everyone's lives. Dave had shared my fondness for Derek, and so it seemed natural for him to ask for a Derek update. Tara paused unexpectedly. "Well, that's what I wanted to talk to you about, actually." Dave looked puzzled. Tara seemed to have second thoughts about what she wanted to say, then took a deep breath and plowed ahead. "Dave, I'm not blaming you for what happened. We were both adults, and I was as responsible for it as you were. I'd been wanting you for so long that I just didn't think of the consequences that night." That night? What night? Obviously, I had more research to do. Dave looked puzzled too.

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"But there were consequences," she continued. Dave still wasn't sure what she was trying to say. "Tara, I've tried to be good," Dave said. "I've tried to act natural around you, and I haven't suggested we do anything…" "Dave," Tara interrupted, "I'm not blaming you. I'm really not. It's just, well, I'm not happy in my life. I'm married to a man whom I don't love. I'm married to a man that I don't think is good for my son." Good! So I wasn't the only one who thought that! Tara was smarter than I'd realized. Dave viewed her somberly, not sure what to say. That was all right; Tara had her own plans for the conversation. "It might be different if Richard was Derek's father," Tara said deliberately. Excuse me? I thought I just heard Tara say Richard wasn't Derek's father. "Excuse me?" Dave said, as if to repeat my silent question. Tara looked at Dave with wet eyes. "He's your son, Dave. Not Richard's. It was that one night, and we got lucky. Or unlucky, however you want to see it." She looked at him steadily through the tears. Now, Dave and I had talked about our views on marriage, fatherhood, all that. If Elizabeth thought I was resistant, she only had to look at Dave to see how much worse I could have been. Dave had always been the original confirmed bachelor.

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"So -- what do you want to do about it?" Dave asked, after taking a few seconds to process this information. Given the circumstances, I thought he was taking it rather well. "I don't know, Dave," Tara replied. "But I need to know this. Just tell me the truth; don't worry about hurting my feelings. Do you love me?" Dave tilted his head slightly to consider the question. His forehead wrinkled slightly in thought. I knew Dave, and I was running through the possible outs he might use to let her down gently. He knew this was a question to be taken seriously and answered carefully. One thing about Dave; he never lied to the women he dated, never told them he loved them if he didn't or that there was a future if there wasn't. As reprobate as he might be in many ways, that wasn't one of them. He thought for what seemed like a long time, looking at her intently. "I do, Tara," he finally said. "I want to be with you. I want Derek to know he is my son." I didn't know who was more surprised, Tara or me. Maybe Dave. One thing was for sure; their world wasn't going to be the same. I thought about how I'd have reacted in a similar situation. What if, for example, Alicia had shown up with a child, and told me that he or she was ours? Or what if Elizabeth had told me she was pregnant? You like to think you'd do the right thing, of course, but you never rally know until you face it. It's like soldiers in battle -- the guys who are the best in training sometimes turn out to be cowards, while it is those meek ones who end up the heroes. I didn't want to be either a coward, or a hero. I wanted to believe that I'd have accepted the responsibility of being an unexpected father if it had faced me -- but I wasn't sure. Too much of me liked things just fine the way they were. I was afraid I'd have shrugged off my involvement, maybe even questioned the paternity.

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The only thing I was sure of was that I admired Dave. No hesitation, no doubt. He stood up to that plate and faced it, knowing it would change everything in his life. Later, of course, I realized I could just find out what other versions of me had done; in some worlds, in other realities, I had been put into those situations. I could have found versions where I'd acted nobly. The thing was, I didn't want to find out how common -or uncommon -- that was. I didn't want to see even one me turning the mother of my child away for fear of disrupting my life. From that point in time, I retraced forward the next couple of years more carefully than I had come back. I was curious when they had managed to make time for each other. They were quite creative, seeing each other when they could -- lunches, Finley family events that I invited Dave to, an occasional rendezvous at Dave's condo. They'd slip a quick kiss, a hug or touch of the hands, and occasionally even be able to make love. They talked furtively on the phone, Tara often calling from her solitary bedroom late at night. I liked to watch them make eye contact across rooms, reminding each other that they were there and thinking of the other. No one was the wiser; the me of that time certainly was unaware. They agreed Dave should keep up the pretense of dating; there would be too many questions otherwise. Tara even gamely told Dave that if he found someone else he was interested in, he was free to pursue it. "After all," she said sadly, "you deserve a woman you can have a life with." Dave smiled at her and told her to be serious; he was in love with her. They discussed divorce, of course. Tara was scared of how Richard would react, how he might retaliate. She told Dave she couldn't bear the thought of Richard taking custody of Derek away from her. "He'd do it, too, just to get back at me."

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So they bided their time, each living a pretend life, and trying to figure out what to do. Over the last few months, though, their conversations had taken on a more hopeful tone. Tara believed that Richard was having an affair with one of the secretaries at work, and was getting annoyed about their separate lives under one roof. He had tentatively broached the subject of divorce. Dave and Tara began to start talking about a life together. Then I got shot. That was going to be a problem, I could see. My parents were distraught enough. Having their little girl tell them that her husband wasn't the father of their grandchild, and that she wanted to take up with the real father, my best friend whom they'd known and trusted -- well, it sounded iffy even to me. And I was dead. I checked up on Richard too. Tara was right; he was having an affair at work. She was a junior partner, and I figured out pretty easily that she saw this as a way to get ahead in the firm faster. Poor Richard actually thought she was in love with him, but he didn't hear the things she said behind his back that I was able to listen in on. It turned out that she wasn't the first. I managed to find at least six women he'd had some involvement with while he was married to Tara, and I wasn't sure that was all. Plus, it looked to me that he had started wooing her at work because he knew she'd be tough competition for him at the firm. He was thrilled when she told him that she was expecting, and wanted to switch to a smaller practice so she could control her hours more easily to be with Derek. It never occurred to Richard to suspect he wasn't the father; they were still sleeping together then, although not often. It wasn't until after Derek that they started sleeping in separate rooms. Richard also was playing for higher stakes. He was siphoning off money from both clients and the firm. He had a couple of offshore accounts that I caught him checking, and had a safe deposit box that I couldn't make out the contents of. I began to suspect

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that Richard was planning to run off, with the new bimbo and with his and Tara's money. Knowing him, he probably had some scheme to implicate someone else in whatever illegal things he'd done; for all I knew, he was going to put the blame on Tara. I'd never liked Richard, and my parents had tolerated him, more out of faith that Tara knew what she was doing than anything else. I didn't know what Tara had been thinking, especially as he'd grown colder and more distant to her. She was probably desperately hoping that charming, smart guy who'd pursued her initially would resurface, never knowing that was an act and that this jerk was, indeed, the real guy. I couldn't do anything about it.

Chapter 24 Alicia's calendar on her refrigerator had indicated that she'd be back Saturday afternoon, and I wanted to be there when she got back. It's funny; I could have skipped ahead to then when I'd been checking up on everyone else, but I was still skittish about going "ahead" in time. Going back to previous days seemed all right, even normal now; how soon I'd adjusted! But skipping forward to days I'd not "lived" or experienced still seemed uncomfortable. In any event, now it was time, in "their" world, for Alicia to get back. I went to her condo. I had been sitting at her desk for an hour or so when I heard the door unlock and open. Alicia came in with the guy from her photographs, a rangy dude with longish hair. They came in laughing and carrying their bags from the trip. Both looked tired but tanned and still excited. Knowing Alicia, I suspected that their trip had included not just white water rafting but also mountain biking, swimming, and a host of other athletic activities. I got tired just thinking about it.

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I saw Alicia eyeing the answer machine, its light blinking away furiously. Her friend caught the look too. "You said a full week, Alicia," he reminded her. "That'd be three o'clock -- another two hours." She stuck her tongue out at him. "So how do you want to spend those two hours?" she said, maneuvering closer to him seductively. "Oh, I don't know," he wondered disingenuously, "let's see. We could dust, or read old magazines or…" "Come on, Tom," she laughed, dragging him by his shirt towards the bedroom, "I think first we need a long shower, then we'll see what happens." He didn't resist too hard. I knew where this was going, and had no real interest in watching. I reappeared at three. They were sitting at the kitchen counter, finishing off bowls of ice cream. Alicia had on a light robe, while Tom had on some boxers and a T-shirt. They each still had on their fancy sports watches, with the various buttons and readouts. Alicia always liked gadgets. Apparently they didn't remove them even for sex; perhaps that was just another aerobic exercise for them, and they wanted to monitor their pulse rates or something during it. I bet Tom's had been racing. The alarm on Tom's watch beeped at three o'clock. "All right," he said, "the lady wins a prize. You may now return to the world." Alicia hit the play button on her answering machine. It solemnly informed her that she had twenty-seven messages. She dutifully took out a pad of paper, while Tom got up and headed towards the refrigerator.

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I didn't recognize the first few messages, left last weekend. There were a couple messages from Monday that sounded like work-related. Then in the midst of Tuesday's messages: "Hello, Alicia?" Dave's voice said. "This is Dave D'Angelo. I don't know if you remember me or not; I'm Mike Finley's friend. We met a few times in college. Anyway, could you call me? It's important." Dave left his number. "Who is Dave D'Angelo?" Tom asked before the next message kicked in. "He's a friend of the guy I dated in law school," Alicia said, half-listening to the next message. "I wonder if Mike's getting married." "Wouldn't he have called you himself?" Tom pointed out, pouring them each some water. "Mmm," Alicia agreed distractedly, listening to the next message. Then, several messages and an elapsed day later. "Alicia, it's Dave D'Angelo again. Look, it's really important you call me back. I don't have your work number or I'd call you there. Please give me a call back as soon as you can." "He sounds kind of pushy," Tom judged. "That's not how I remember Dave," Alicia noted. "I wonder what he wants." Then, several messages later: "Uh, Alicia, it's Casey." Casey was one of my college friends who did make it out to the funeral. "Listen, I'm not sure if Dave D'Angelo got a hold of you or not. Mike Finley is dead. The viewing is tomorrow, and the funeral is Friday. Bob and I are going out and we were wondering if you wanted to go with us."

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Alicia was taken aback. She replayed the message. Tom stopped what he was doing to watch her reaction. "My God," she exclaimed. "Dead? I can't believe it." She skipped ahead to see what further news she could find. A few messages later Dave reappeared, telling her outright why he was calling. He also gave her the times and places for the viewing and the service. "I hope you can make it," Dave concluded. "I'm sure it would have meant a lot to Mike." Alicia stared at the phone. Tom stared carefully at her, standing across from her at the kitchen counter. "So, a college boyfriend?" Tom probed carefully. "Had you guys stayed in touch?" Alicia looked up at him, slightly surprised he was there. "What? Oh, yeah. No, law school, not college; he was at Wharton at the same time. We kept in touch for a while, but we'd sort of lost touch lately." Had we? If you'd had asked me that before the shooting, I'd have said we were still in touch. But, then again, Tom's existence was a complete unknown to me, and evidently Alicia didn't think we were really still in touch. When was the last time I'd talked to her? When was the last time I'd actually seen her? I guess we had been out of touch after all. Tom and Alicia were quiet for a few moments, their kitchen tableau unchanged. Tom broke the ice. "You OK?" he asked lightly. "Is this a big deal?"

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Alicia brushed some hair off her forehead. "It's more a surprise than anything else," she answered. "I get involved with murders every day at work, but I wasn't expecting it to happen to one of my friends." Tom looked at her. "Is that all?" he probed carefully. "You over him?" Alicia gave him one of her patented 'are-you-crazy?' looks. "It's been six years. Of course I'm over him." Tom seemed satisfied. Alicia seemed content to put it behind her. I was the only one who seemed dissatisfied with her statement. They listened to the rest of their messages. I stuck around for awhile, but they behaved pretty normally. Alicia left a message for Dave, explaining she'd been out of town and apologizing for not getting back to him sooner. She still didn't seem grief stricken to me. They went out to dinner. I like to think that Alicia seemed distracted, at least by Alicia standards, but I wasn't sure. And she had a lot of messages to process; I wasn't entirely confident that any distraction she was feeling was due to me. Tom didn't bring it up at dinner, content to let dead boyfriends lie. "Kind of a kick in the head, isn't it?" Ishmael said, appearing next to me. "Doesn't seem to be too big a deal with her." "What are you doing here?" I said in amazement. "How did you know I'd be here?" He laughed. "Oh, you had to show up here sooner or later. I knew you'd be curious about which of the women in your life were crushed." He looked over at Alicia, back at the condo loading some dirty vacation clothes into the washing machine. "This one looks OK, though."

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"I guess so," I said glumly. "It was a long time ago, I suppose." "You know," he said conspiratorially, "pretty soon everything about you will seem like a long time ago to everyone. Are you ready for that?" I stared at him in reproach. "Everyone forgets me? My dying doesn't matter to anyone?" He put out his hands in a soothing gesture. "That's not what I said, and you know it. But you do have to realize that this was your life. It's just part of theirs. And your part in everyone else's life is over." I turned away and watched Alicia. "Well, I guess I lost her a long time ago." Ishmael snorted. "You didn't lose her. You threw her away." I whipped my head back towards him, offended. "What the hell does that mean?" He rolled his eyes. "Oh, come on, Michael," he admonished. "You know she would have stayed with the relationship even after you moved. And she would have worked at it. You're the one who broke it off." "I was moving!" I protested. "We weren't going to be living anywhere near each other." He just stared at me skeptically. I boiled for a few seconds, then subsided. "You're right," I admitted. "It just seemed like it would be too much work." I hung my head guiltily. "Same thing with Frank Jerome, too," he said. "He just wanted that job more than you did. It's not his fault you let him get those contacts instead of you, or that he cared more about advancing than you did." I eyed him dubiously.

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"What do you mean?" I protested feebly. "I cared." "You never really cared about your career," he contradicted me confidently. "You just had jobs. You never really thought ahead to where it was going or what you wanted." I wasn't going to admit it to him, but he was right -- damn him! I was good at my job, good at all the jobs I'd had. I enjoyed figuring things out, and I did pretty well at work. My bosses always gave me the harder projects, things that took some creativity and research. But that wasn't the same as always giving me the promotions. I'd seen some of my one-time peers get promoted ahead of me -- like Frank -- or go off into our subsidiaries or to other companies, trying new and exciting things. More than once I'd been urged to join them, to take a chance and do something different. But I was doing all right where I was, and I kind of liked knowing I could leave by six every night. I didn't really want to wrap my whole lifestyle around my job. "In fact," he continued, "you better get used to it. You let a lot of things just slide away from you. That job, Alicia, Tonya. If you'd lived you probably would have let Dave and even Elizabeth slip away from you too. Things just came too easily for you." "I don't even know how to respond to something like that," I blurted out. "I cared about things. I cared about those people. They cared about me! I wasn't a failure." He smiled sympathetically. "Hey, you're a nice guy," he said. "Of course they cared about you. I never said they didn't. I never said you didn't care about them. I never even said you didn't work at anything. Yeah, you were pretty successful by lots of people's standards. I just said you had this bad habit of letting the things you had slip away, confident that something new would come along to take its place. And, when it comes right down to it, what did you leave behind?"

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I wasn't going to admit it to him, now or ever, but -- he was right. I'd never really grown up, not to the point when I realized that the world had limits and that some of things I already had were as valuable as I was going to get. So I'd let them go, not worrying about replacing them. And now I was in a place where everything was going to slip away from me. I was a ghost watching the ghost-like life I'd led while I was alive -- passing through, but not really connecting with the people and things around me. It had all been too easy, and I'd taken it too, too casually.

Chapter 25 Tonya. I wanted to see how Tonya reacted to my death. I made a difference to her, I was sure. I wanted to see someone who was affected by my departure. Tonya had worked late that Monday night. At the time I was off getting shot, I found her at work, joking with some programmers and working at her computer. She stayed an hour or so after that, looking tired but cheerful as she shut down her computer for the night. I rode with her as she drove home, listening to a loud band, the music pulsing out a loud beat and her hand idly moving with it. She went up to her condo and flipped on some lights. She eyed the television, but evidently decided against it. Instead, she took a long bath and went to bed, where she read for an hour or so before turning off the lights and going to sleep. She looked so peaceful in her sleep, that impish grin of hers absent as she lay silently on her stomach, head turned to the side. Tonya liked to sleep close, burying her head between my shoulder and the pillow, like she was burrowing her head in the ground. Oddly, it felt like I was protecting her, and in sleep was the only time I got to feel that way.

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Elizabeth, as I'd said, liked to sleep front-to-back, my arms around her and holding her close. I didn't know which I liked better; they were each special in their own ways. But I felt I belonged in Elizabeth's bed, whereas I'd never gotten over the feeling that I was just a visitor to Tonya's. It was nothing she said, nothing she did; I just never understood why she had taken to me. The phone startled both of us. It was sometime after midnight. I had the advantage of at least having a pretty good idea of why someone might be calling her this late -- although, with Tonya, there might be lots of people who called her late. It wouldn't have surprised me. Tonya woke, checked the clock, and picked up the phone with a self-satisfied grin. "Hey, handsome," she started off, "I thought you were going to be with the girl tonight." There was a dead silence at the other end of the phone. Of course! Tonya had thought it was me. I sometimes called her late. She must be wondering why I'd be calling her instead of staying over at Elizabeth's -- and not just a little pleased that I had. This wasn't me, of course. "Umm, Tonya, it's Dave D'Angelo." "Dave? Well, this is a surprise," Tonya said easily. "To what do I owe this honor?" Dave paused again. "Umm, gee, Tonya, I don't know how to tell you this…" "Tell me what?" Tonya interrupted, scrambling to a sitting position and pulling her legs up against her chest. "What's happened?" "It's Mike, Tonya," Dave said dejectedly. "He was shot and killed tonight."

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Unseen to Dave, but visible to me, Tonya's face showed horror and surprise. Her eyes went wide, and the color drained from that pretty face. She put her hand over her mouth, while gripping the phone tighter with her other hand. "Tonya, are you there?" Dave asked after a few seconds of silence. "Yes, yes, I'm here," she said, recovering marginally. "My God! What happened?" "They were out to dinner and I guess it was just a random sniper. No one else got hurt. Tara called me and I went to the hospital, but Mike was already dead." "My God, my God, my God." Tonya repeated incredulously. "How are Mike's parents?" "Well, it hit them pretty hard, as you can imagine." "Oh, boy, I can't even imagine," Tonya muttered. She thought for a minute, her eyes roving as that quick mind of hers processed the news. "How about you? How are you doing?" "Me?" Dave repeated. "I don't know. It doesn't seem very real to me. It's kind of like getting into a fight -- you won't know how bad you're hurt until you wake up the next day. But it's going to be bad." They were both silent for a few seconds. Tonya was the first to break the quiet. "And Elizabeth?" she asked slowly. "How is she doing?" Dave considered this. I thought he was thinking both of what the correct answer was, and how to say it to Tonya. He'd always liked Tonya, and knew I was still close to her. But he probably wasn't too sure how the two of them felt about each other.

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"She's…well, she's taking it hard." "Does she…" Tonya searched for the right words, "does she have anyone to be with tonight?" Dave laughed mirthlessly, an odd reaction, I thought. "No, she's alone, as far as I know. Mike's parents offered to have her stay with them, as did Janet and Paul, and so did I. But you know Elizabeth -- she prefers to be alone." I thought it odd, the way he said that. Why did he think Elizabeth was like that? Even if she was, why did he think Tonya knew Elizabeth well enough to know that? And, more to the point, was Elizabeth like that? I naturally thought I knew Elizabeth as well as anyone else. She hadn't been involved with too many guys before me, yet hadn't seemed too worried about it -- not like some other women I knew; Donna, for example. It was true that Elizabeth seemed as content to be by herself -- drawing or just tending to her house -- as to be with anyone else. That's one reason our separate existences worked so well. When we did things, I felt curiously flattered; she wasn't making time for me because she wanted to be with someone, she was making time for me because she wanted to be with me. Still, she had other friends too -- Donna and Janet, and a few others. It wasn't like she was a recluse or anything. Yet Dave seemed to think of her like that. That was pretty much it for the conversation with Dave. He asked if she was going to be all right, and she told him she would be. They promised to talk again in the morning, when Dave might know more about the arrangements. Tonya put the phone down carefully, as though it was the bomb itself instead of just the shell that had delivered the bomb. Her eyes looked distant, but I could tell she was

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thinking hard. She abruptly got up and got dressed, throwing on some shorts and a loose polo shirt. She grabbed her keys and headed out. This was curious, I thought. Where would she go, who would she see, after getting news like this? I thought back to that unidentified caller when I was spying on her on her balcony, several days from now. It must be a new boyfriend, or the closest warm body. At least I'd get to see whom Tonya turned to for comfort these days. I rode with her in her car. She drove fast but only paid minimal attention to the road. There were not many cars out; we had the streets largely to ourselves. I just watched that gorgeous face of hers, intent on whatever was going on behind that skin covering, so I was surprised when we pulled up to our destination. It was my house. Tonya still had keys from when we were together; I still had keys to her place, too. It might not have been a good idea, letting your ex-lover have keys to your house, but we just never got around to exchanging them. It was easier than that awful scene of asking for them back. Sometimes they came in handy, such as when one of us needed to drop something off at the other's place or something. She unlocked the door and went in. It was dark, of course, except for the living room light with the timer on it. Tonya didn't turn on any more lights. She wandered around the house, her hand tracing along the walls and furniture as she moved slowly throughout the rooms. It was as if that hand, that connection to the physical things in my house, helped her feel a connection to me. Tonya paused in front of several pictures, looking fondly at the ones of me and curiously at the ones with Elizabeth. I'd taken all the ones of Tonya down, of course -- no point risking Elizabeth's ire with those! -- and I wondered if Tonya felt their absence. She picked up several keepsakes that she had given me along the way -- a picture frame here,

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a clock there, a toy or two, some antique pottery that she collected -- and held them in her hand, hefting their weight. She stopped in front of the television. I'd set the VCR to tape a couple of programs that were on while I expected to be out with Elizabeth, and the indicator light was blinking its need for recognition. Tonya smiled briefly, and rewound the tape. She sat down in my recliner and turned on the TV. With a fond look on her face, she fast-forwarded to see what programs I'd recorded. I was sorry that they weren't more enlightened; I wasn't recording the History Channel here. All right, "The Simpsons" will someday be recognized as high art, but many people still think of it as a cartoon. I had no excuse for the cheesy "Nash Bridges" rerun. Hey, I like Cheech Marin, what can I say? Clucking her tongue in amusement about my choices, Tonya turned off the TV and started wandering idly through the rest of the house again. I wasn't sure what she was thinking. She made her way through the house, her expression never showing more than a slight smile or a slight frown. The last room on this tour was my bedroom. She stood across the room from the bed, standing in the doorway as if held back by an invisible rope. Fortunately, I'd made my bed that morning. Tonya cocked her head and a sweet smile spread across her face. Memories of our times here, our times in this and other beds, must have been whirling in her head. "Mick, Mick," she said quietly. "Why did you have to go and get yourself killed?" She walked over to the bed and sat down, her feet primly hanging down the side. She looked around the room once more, the trace of a smile still playing across her face. It was almost unbearable to watch her; I knew she shouldn't be there, but it was so bold, so typically Tonya, to have come that it made me smile too. Then she shed her clothes and slipped under the covers.

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That surprised me. I hadn't known exactly why she'd wanted to come see my house, but had concluded she wanted that last look at my house, that last memory of where I lived. I hadn't expected this. Tonya clutched the pillow like she was holding me for the last time; it was a life preserver keeping the memory of me afloat. She nosed her face into the sheets, the pillow, the bed coverings, trying to get a scent. She molded herself into the slight indentation where I usually slept. And, in the end, tears started to slide down her face, at last. "I waited, Mick," she said. "I waited and waited, but you didn't come…" I became aware of a presence next to me. Ishmael looked over at me silently. He nodded in recognition. "Surprised?" he asked. "She loved you, you know." "What are you doing here?" I asked defensively. Somehow this scene seemed too poignant, and too personal, for a stranger like Ishmael to witness. If I was going to learn that Tonya still loved me like this, I should have been able to do it by myself. He was, I thought bitterly, as much of a voyeur of my ghost-life as I was of the mortals' real lives. I didn't like it. "Relax," he said, noticing my reaction to his presence. "I've seen all this before. Your life has no surprises for me." "Why are you so wrapped up with my life? Aren't there other people you can spy on?" He smiled at me comfortingly. "Well, I watch a lot of people's lives. But, the difference is, you're the only one who is here to watch it with me. It is nice to be able to talk to someone about what I see…"

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That was the second hint of frailty that Ishmael had shown to me. I thought about how lonely his existence must have been, spending lifetimes and lifetimes with no one else to talk to. Maybe having him present for some of these little revelations in my life wasn't so bad. "I'm sorry," I said. "It just seemed pretty personal." He nodded in agreement, my apology accepted. We both turned back to watching Tonya. She had fallen asleep, her face half hidden under that pillow. All the tableau was missing was my body. "I didn't know she cared this much," I admitted. "I never figured her out, if she was just playing with me or not." "Why didn't you stay with her longer?" Ishmael asked, turning briefly to look at me. "She seems pretty great." "I don't know," I stalled. "She was gorgeous, and lots of fun, but we kept fighting and breaking up." "You kept getting back together too," he noted. I turned my head towards him briefly, then looked back at Tonya sleeping. "There was just, I don't know…," I thought out loud, "…too much drama. She liked the fighting and the making up. I was never sure what was real and what was playing. I guess I just got tired of the ups and downs." "She spent a lot of time on you," he said calmly. "Even after you broke it off. She could have found lots of other guys. Didn't you ever wonder about that?"

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I wasn't sure how to respond. "I suppose I figured she was seeing other people, but just didn't find anyone she wanted to be serious about. I thought she just liked having me as a friend." He nodded sagely. "Would we…have been happy together?" I asked tentatively. He looked over at me and shrugged. "I told you, the future is a tricky thing. There are lots of possible futures, just as there are lots of possible paths." He was trying to get off the hook, but I was unable to let him go. "But, still, you must know. Could we have made it together?" He looked seriously at me for a few seconds, making a decision. Then, sighing, he took my arm. "All right, let's see." The scene was a house in one of the older neighborhoods near downtown, not too far to Elizabeth's. Most of the houses had been built in the 1920s and 1930s, and well maintained. The lots were small; the ambiance, yuppie. Ishmael and I were standing outside of a two-story house with a tidy yard and a plot of flowers along the walk. "Where is this?" I asked. He indicated for me to watch. The front door opened, and I walked out. I wasn't sure how old I was, but I didn't look too much older. Behind me came a radiant Tonya. We were both laughing and carrying rollerblades. "…I am not wearing those stupid helmets," the other me warned the other Tonya. She laughed, and told him with mock sternness, "You better not injure any vital body parts, Michael Q. Finley. I have big plans for them later!"

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They got in the car and drove off. We watched them go. "You two have been married three years," Ishmael told me, reciting as if from memory. He turned towards me, while I continued to watch that car drive off, its inhabitants blissfully unaware of us standing there. "You'll have a kid in another year, then a second two years later. A boy and a girl. You and Tonya stay married until you die, a happy great-grandfather." I was taken aback. "So she was the one I was supposed to be with? I wasted all that time…" Ishmael shook his head with concern. "I warned you, it's not that simple. Let me show you." We were in a condominium. Its balcony showed a nice view of the river; it was still here, just downtown, in the high rent district. The condo's furnishings were simple but pricey; this was all pretty expensive. It wasn't quite my style, but it was something I could have tolerated. "Where are we now?" I asked cautiously. Ishmael indicated I should check out the bedroom. I walked back, passing two smaller but well-decorated bedrooms and a fully equipped study. I felt like I was in a set from some posh home furnishings magazine. In bed, still asleep, were Alicia and I. We were wrapped up in each other, and -- judging from the disarray of the clothes on the floor -- we'd fallen asleep after rushing to bed to make love. "Whose place is this?" I wanted to know. "Is Alicia visiting?"

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"Nope," Ishmael replied, gazing at the sleeping couple with affection. "Alicia lives here, with you." "What happened to Philadelphia, her job, her family?" "You and she did the long distance thing for a couple years, then she couldn't take it anymore and she moved out here." I was stunned. "I never thought she'd move," I said, more to myself than to him. "What happens in this life?" He smiled, happy to give me a preview. "Oh, Alicia eventually becomes the District Attorney, and you become a wealthy businessman. She turns down several chances to run for Congress because she doesn't want to be away from you so much. You two stay together, are on the boards of everything, and retire to South Carolina to play golf." "No kids?" "No, no kids," he said. "Alicia had problems getting pregnant." That damn runners' metabolism, I thought to myself. Still, this life looked pretty good. "So which life was I supposed to live?" I asked in confusion. "Both of these look pretty happy. Is there one of these were I'm more in love, or happier, or something?" He shook his head in discouragement. "You still aren't getting it. I can show you a happy life with Elizabeth too, or with women you haven't even met yet. I could show you unhappy lives with each of them too. There's no one 'right' life; there's not just one best outcome. It all comes down to the choices you make. Or the choices you don't make."

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I thought for awhile, admittedly still partly entranced by the sight of those sleeping lovers, one of whom was me or someone I might have become. It was just too confusing; there were too many choices, too many possibilities. "What happens in the life I knew, now?" I asked carefully. "You're talking about lives I didn't have, choices I didn't make. What happens to the people in my life now, after the things that did happen to me?"

Chapter 26 Ishmael looked uncomfortable, which didn't fit his image. I thought I was supposed to be the uncomfortable one and him the unflappable teacher. After all, I was the newly dead neophyte ghost and he was the experienced haunter. He looked a bit haunted now himself. "Come on," I pushed. "Tell me." "It's complicated, I've told you," he hedged. "It could go lots of ways. There's no one future." He shifted his weight uneasily, and looked like he wanted to change subjects, perhaps even to leave. But he did neither. "But there's one future that's more likely," I guessed. "Right?" He nodded reluctantly. The concern hit me suddenly. I'd seen Alicia and Tonya happy, but I'd forgotten about someone more important. "What happens to Elizabeth?"

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He grimaced, as though he'd been afraid I'd ask that. He looked away, and I again thought he might be thinking of disappearing on me. I was in no mood for more unanswered mysteries. "Come on, you might as well show me," I pressured him, "I can find it for myself eventually, so you'd just be saving me some time." He looked at me almost regretfully, then nodded almost imperceptibly. We were standing in Elizabeth's house, only things looked different. Same house, but older somehow. There were different photographs, different furniture. Some of the walls were painted a different color, some of the fixtures were new since I'd last seen the place, but mostly things were just worn down. It looked to me like it needed lots of work, and the owner either didn't see it or just didn't care enough to have it done. The Elizabeth I'd known wouldn't have allowed that; she would have been on the spot, tinkering or having things repaired. She would not have liked to see what had become of her precious home. But it was the same house. I wondered what we were doing here. "Wait a minute," I said, spotting one of the photographs. "Is that Elizabeth? She looks old. Is this still her house?" I was surprised; what had happened to the puttering Elizabeth I'd known? She'd let both the house and -- judging from some of the later photographs -- herself wear down Ishmael nodded wearily. "She is old. She's seventy-five, and she's in the next room dying." I rushed into the bedroom. It was the bedroom of a sick person. I suspected that, if I were able to spell, there would be that terrible musty smell, a combination of medicine and decay -- the odor of hospitals and sick rooms everywhere. There were little bottles of pills on the table by her bed, alongside a set of glasses. The curtains were drawn, but the table lamp was lit -- albeit to the lowest setting, barely allowing me to just make out the person in bed.

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I'm not sure that I would have recognized the woman on the bed as Elizabeth had Ishmael not warned me. This wasted away, bitterly tired woman looked nothing like my Liz. Gone was her long, beautiful hair; there were just wisps of gray hair, strands that served to highlight what used to be. Her long, lean body had shrunk, and become bent and frail. Her smooth, tender skin had become wrinkled and parchment thin. Her eyes were closed, so I couldn't see those lovely eyes. I suspected that even when they were open, they were clouded over and dim. This Elizabeth -- this old, sick woman -- lay uneasily under the covers, twisting every so often. "What's wrong with her?" I gasped. "What's not?" Ishmael said sadly. "She's got stomach cancer, and it's moved to her liver. It's in her back; it's in her bones. It's a real mess. She just got released from the hospital to come home to die." "Why is she by herself?" I asked, appalled. "Where are her family, her friends? Isn't there even a nurse or a doctor who can be with her?" "She doesn't have a family," Ishmael told me frankly. "Her parents are long dead, and she never married. After you, she just…lost her confidence. It was too much effort to form new relationships. She had friends, but she preferred to be alone for the most part. She wanted to die by herself, didn't want to trouble anyone." He stared at her sympathetically. I looked at Elizabeth, overcome with alternating waves of love, concern, and sorrow. She continued to twitch periodically, either promoted by unknown dreams or perhaps random commands flickering out of her dying brain. Dave was right, I thought involuntarily. She did prefer being alone, even like this.

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"She's so close to dying," I said hopefully, "Is there any chance she can see me or sense me or something? I don't want her to die alone." Ishmael put his phantom hand on my phantom arm, neither of us feeling it but still an attempt at a comforting gesture. "No," he said regretfully. "You know the rules: you can't do anything to impact that world." I struggled to control my frustration. "There's got to be a way," I fumed. "I already know people can see me if I stay in place long enough. There must be some way I can get a message to them or something." "There's not," Ishmael said gently. "Believe me, I've tried. I've tried everything. And you've already lost that ability to let people see you; it goes away. Maybe people just stop thinking about you enough." We watched Elizabeth sleeping -- if you could call it that, this cruel imitation of sleep that gave no rest and promised no hope for an end to the pain that she must be feeling -- for several minutes. This was not how she should have ended up, I thought. This was not the woman I'd loved. Or it was, but it didn't have to be. Elizabeth should have died peacefully, surrounded by people she loved. Most of all, she should have died knowing I had loved her. I looked around the room. There were several photographs, although not as many as I'd have expected. A couple of her parents, one of what looked like Janet and Paul and a child, and a few I didn't recognize. There was art on the wall, some drawings and watercolors. But of all the photographs, of all the pictures, none were of me, and none were by her. They chronicled a life I'd never known, and never been part of. They were of a life I suspected was not as much of a life as Elizabeth had been capable of, not as

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much of a life as Elizabeth had deserved. I might not as well have existed in this life, yet somehow I felt guilty for it. "All this just because I died?" I asked mournfully. "She just stopped trying because of that?" "Why, no," Ishmael said in surprise. "It's not that. It has to do with Tonya." And he disappeared, damn him.

Chapter 27 This must have been Ishmael's version of sink or swim. I was stuck ahead in time fortyfive years after the time I was used to, and I wanted to get back. I followed Elizabeth's life backwards, skipping back in time by increments. At first, a matter of days, then, as I got more comfortable with it, by years. I dipped into her life a day or two at a time, over the course of her adult life. It was like viewing a movie backward, but I gradually put together the pieces of what had happened to her life. I saw it all backward, but I'll tell it in a more traditional manner; I now could experience time in any order I chose, but I still preferred to think of it sequentially. Old habits die hard. She never did marry after my death. In fact, she rarely dated, even when friends would try their best to set her up. She seemed comfortable on her own. She did have friends. Janet and Paul, for example, stayed friends with her for her whole life. They had a child, and Elizabeth was her godmother. I recognized her from some of the photographs in Elizabeth's bedroom. Elizabeth doted on her like a favorite aunt.

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But Janet and Paul retired to Florida, and their daughter moved away and had her own family, her own life. They all stayed in touch, but by phone. Elizabeth had a few other friends here, but no one really close. Donna drifted away, after too many fights with Elizabeth about why she wouldn't date. Now, there may have been men I'd missed, friends I didn't see. I wasn't living her complete life; I was just sampling it. But, as with opinion polls, after awhile you get so that a representative sample is probably fairly predictive of what the whole story is. As best I could tell, she never did any art on her own, not after I died. She did her work, but when she came home she had no drive to produce her own. She read, kept her house neat, watched television, and did volunteer work. That made up a life, of sorts. A few times I came upon her bringing out some of her old work and looking at it. Rather than inspiring her to do new things, it seemed to deflate her. She looked at it in wonder, like Charlie in Flowers for Algernon; she knew that once upon a time she had those talents, but now it was incomprehensible to her how, or why. I watched her particularly closely to see how she looked at the various drawings of me -did she look especially longingly at them, did they seem to have special memories or meaning to her? I couldn't be sure; all her pictures just made her so sad that it was hard to distinguish any special emotions for these. They were just more evidence of abilities that she no longer possessed, and the mystery of that outweighed any other feelings. Eventually I traced my way back to that first week after my death, back to the time I'd jumped ahead with Ishmael. By now I'd gotten the hang of jumping in and out of time pretty well, and I wanted to experiment with the alternate lives that Ishmael had told me about. That, too, took some practice, but eventually I got the hang of it. I have not been able to adequately describe the nature of this "ghostness," this condition of being an observer to the physical world without being part of it. There are words that

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could do it justice, perhaps, but I lack them. On the other hand, I do not think there are words to describe what it is like to explore the seemingly infinite array of other lives that surround everyone. For lack of a better metaphor, imagine that a life is like a tree branch. At every point, it sprouts new branches; these reflect choices made, events happening. The most likely series of events form the thickest batch of lives that proceed from there, hovering around each other like a swarm of bees. Each of those may be virtually identical to the rest, differing by only a few, sometimes imperceptible details. And, remember, each of those spouts it own set of branches. It gets very complicated, very fast. Still, by sticking to the "thicker" set of branches, one can explore what the most likely outcomes will be. At every juncture, though, there are smaller and smaller branches, reflecting the less likely outcomes. My being shot in the head, for example, was a relatively unlikely outcome -- the gun happened to go off at the time my head was in the line of sight. I survived in most of the branches of lives; it was my bad luck to be associated with the branch that dies at that point in time. Of course, that's still better than the versions where I was born with spina bifida, or was aborted in my first trimester. Things can always be worse, I've learned. Words again fail me how I could "know" what all the branches are, or which are the thickest/most probable, much less how I was able to hop between them like switching channels on a television. I just know I was able to do it. Once I got the hang of it, of course, I couldn't resist following the paths of people I cared about. I did so partly out of the desire to explore, but partly because, frankly, I was scared to go back to Elizabeth's life. I didn't want to see what choices led her to the end I'd witnessed. So I checked on everyone else first, continuing with the arc of their lives after my death.

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Dipping into people's lives was like surfing the Internet. If you're not careful, one thing can lead you to another, and if you're at all curious you can forget why you started searching in the first place. I ended up spending much longer than I'd originally planned practicing how to determine what happened to people. It wasn't too hard to figure out what was most likely to happen to them, but those lives proved interesting, so I often "stayed" longer than I probably should have. Alicia, for example, ended up happy and successful in most of the versions of her life. That shouldn't have surprised me, as she usually gets what she aims at. What did surprise me, though, was that life eventually brought her here, with or without me. Ishmael had shown me the life where she'd moved here to be with me, but, even after my death, she ends up here in several key lifelines. In some, it's attending a conference; in others, a planned trip to visit my grave and parents. Once her plane had an emergency landing here; she gets here all sorts of ways. But generally she gets here. The most likely outcome for Alicia in the world I'd known landed her here to work in the district attorney's office, and several years later becomes DA herself. A few years later, Alicia is elected to Congress, where she spends ten years. She has consistently high approval ratings in her district, and gets to be chair of a key subcommittee. Her party pushes her to run for Senate, but she surprises everyone by retiring and coming back here to head up a big philanthropic foundation. At first, I thought that was odd choice for her, but of course I should have given Alicia more credit. Her jobs in the public sector had never been about power or celebrity, and certainly not about money. No, she was truly a do-gooder, a crusader for causes that she believed in. When she saw that Congress wasn't the place for that, she opted to help people more directly. I was proud of her. She wears out a couple husbands along the way, but doesn't have children. None of the husbands was Tom, I was glad to see. Call me petty. The husbands all had a hard time keeping up with her, yet she grew tired of ones who didn't challenge her. I couldn't tell

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that Alicia was any happier when she was married than when she wasn't, and, in fact, there were long stretches in her lives where she wasn't involved with anyone. For her, the consistent theme was her work. I consoled myself that perhaps in the life with me that I'd witnessed with Ishmael, perhaps work had slightly less importance, and her private life slightly more. But that may just be vanity on my part. Similarly, Tonya ends up happy. She didn't date much after my death, for a year or so, then finally gives in and goes out with one of the dweebs from work who had been pestering her for years. He is very persistent, and very adoring. Despite herself, she ends up falling for him, and a couple years later they get married. The guy turns out to be even smarter than she is; he starts a software company, makes a gazillion dollars, and they live very happily in their many houses. They travel a lot. Usually they have one or two kids. I was somewhat surprised when Tonya quit her job soon after her husband's business started to take off. Sure, they didn't need the money, but I never figured Tonya for a woman who would let herself be dependent on anyone else for support. I should not have judged her so quickly. She uses the financial cushion of her husband to do something completely different: she starts a non-profit organization aimed at improving computer literacy in inner city schools. She wheedles donations of computers and cash out of big corporations and foundations, and she helps develop some innovative interactive teaching software. The organization gets national recognition, and Tonya has a lot of fun. I was proud of her, too. Ironically, she and Tonya end up knowing each other. It was through Alicia's foundation work that they finally meet. The foundation gives Tonya's organization quite a lot of money over the years, and they discovered that they enjoyed each other's company immensely. They weren't close friends, but stayed in touch for years. I watched their interactions eagerly, waiting to see when they'd finally realize they both had known and loved me, but I was disappointed. They rarely make the connection.

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Even though I knew by now that I wasn't going to come up in their conversations, I still enjoyed watching the two of them together, telling stories and swapping lies. Two women I'd loved, happy and successful, with hidden ties to me that neither of them realized. It made me realize that my time had indeed passed. Tonya did keep some of the old photos of me, and every once in a while, when her husband wasn't around, she took them out and looked at them. She didn't usually get weepy over them, but I liked to think I saw a fond smile there. Oh, and she often names one of her sons Michael, although that was her grandfather's name as well. I preferred to think she named him after me, especially since she sometimes slipped and called him 'Mick' in tender moments -- putting him to sleep as an infant, kissing him goodbye when he went away to college, things like that. I didn't like to admit it, but it was hard for me at first to see how little effect my death had on their lives. Alicia, all right; I'd probably already drifted out of her life, but, as much as I checked, there weren't many branches of Tonya's life where she ends up unhappy either. She was sad to see me go, but basically she was going to be happy and make life work. Both Tonya and Alicia awed me a little. Dave and Tara, on the other hand, had a more cloudy future. The most likely outcome is that Tara leaves Richard, and she and Dave raise Derek together. It is a good match. Derek recovers from the paternal surprise, and eventually comes to view Dave as his real dad, which he was. My parents naturally are kind of shocked by the whole thing, but end up generally welcoming him into the family for real. No one stays in touch with Richard, I was pleased to see. But the outcome depends highly on timing, more so than I'd have thought possible. If they admit their affair a week too soon -- too soon after my death -- then my parents don't accept them, and Richard keeps Derek. No one is quite happy. If they wait a week too late, though, Richard has time to put into place his scheme. He sets up Tara to be arrested for his embezzling, and she goes to jail. He leaves the country with his ill-gotten goods --

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and with Derek. Dave waits for Tara to get out of jail, but things are never the same between them. They view the loss of Derek as the price of their love, and it was too high a price to pay. High enough to make them stay together, so as not to squander the cost of what they had done, but too high to leave them much love to give the other. It is pretty sad. On the other hand, in the versions of life where I did not get shot, they almost always wait too long, and Richard gets his "victory." For better or worse, their chance of a happy future together are much better when I get that bullet to my head. Kind of funny, that. It was highly instructive to me to see how wildly the versions can vary, around simple things. I tried to reassure myself that the most likely version has them happy, but that still means in a great number of not unlikely versions they don't end up particularly happy. Things go even less well for my parents. My dad has a heart attack shortly after my killer is convicted. He survives, but is not quite the same. It was the final straw for his health, after not having recovered from my shooting. He retires, but he and my mom never do really recover from my death. They stay in that older state that had suddenly set upon them. They weren't broken, but they were both badly crumpled. Even the presence of Derek can't cheer them out of it. Their house becomes their fortress and refuge from the rest of the world. They stop many of their social activities, and turn within themselves. I'd hoped that at least they'd turn to each other, but that didn't really seem to happen. It was more that they were living their own separate lives, just with someone else present. They ate meals together, sat in front of the television together, but much of the warmth had drained from them. There weren't many moments like the one I caught them in before my funeral, where a simple touch from dad illustrated the deep and powerful connection between them. They were still connected, there was still love there, but it was hidden in the ice age of their isolation.

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I sometimes caught one or both of them looking again at various things that reminded them of me. The most poignant were a few cards and letters sent by people after the funeral. These weren't from people I'd known well, or even all that recently. One from a long-lost college roommate; one from a client in my old consulting job; one from a coworker at the phone company. I thought that what touched my parents about these letters was that they were evidence that I'd touched the lives of more people than I or they might have realized. Perhaps that helped them believe my life had had some purpose, a purpose that was admittedly even less clear to me from this new vantage than it had been while I had been alive. Dad's heart made mom treat him as almost an invalid, but it was actually mom who dies first. She suffered an aneurysm and died in her sleep. Dad was distraught, and died six months later. I watched him on his deathbed. A few moments before the end, he raised himself up and called out, "Hilly?" I looked around eagerly, thinking perhaps my mother was also a ghost and now she was visible to him. It had been a long time since he'd called her that; that was his most intimate term for her. But if she was there, I couldn't see her. Perhaps he was hallucinating, or perhaps she was an angel, come to take him to heaven. In either case, once again I realized bitterly that I was alone -- Ishmael notwithstanding. Of course, these were just the most likely outcomes, in the stream of that one version of my life where I had died. Along the way I explored lots of versions of all their lives, that ranged from less likely to very highly unlikely. To wit: Alicia as a porn star; Tonya as a nationally syndicated talk show hostess; my parents adopting a young Chinese girl and living until they were over one hundred. It was fun seeing what might happen, but the range of possibilities was sometimes so overwhelming that they threatened to suffocate me.

Chapter 28

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I'd mentioned that my father's crucial heart attack had happened after the conviction of my killer, so I need to backtrack and explain that. My parents found out about the arrest of my killer from a phone call from Detective Reilly. It was about six weeks after I'd died. Naturally, I quickly switched to the police station and retraced events. I found Reilly and Kiowski sitting outside an interview room, along with an attractive African-American woman. Evidently, she was the prosecutor on the case, despite her relative youth -- I pegged her for no more than early thirties. Inside the room, visibly agitated, was a young man. He was just a kid, no more than twenty or so. He didn't look too unusual; if I'd seen him in an alley, I probably would have been nervous, but if I'd passed him in the mall I probably wouldn't have thought twice about it. He had straggly blond hair, acne, and bad teeth. He had that thin, almost undernourished build of many people that you see when you pass through parts of Kentucky or West Virginia. Oh, and he had several tattoos: I counted seven just at a quick glance, and I was pretty sure I'd find more if I were ever unfortunate enough to see him with fewer clothes on. There was another man in with the accused man; I assumed it was his lawyer, judging by his briefcase and suit. The lawyer was trying to calm the other man down. I got the impression he wasn't all that thrilled to be there either, and he presumably was getting paid for it. The scraggly guy was yelling at his own lawyer, evidently forgetting, perhaps, that this was the man who was going to be negotiating any deals for him. Not that the lawyer would do anything that wasn't based on his client's best interest, of course… "Can you make the case?" Reilly asked the woman directly. She looked over some of the paper work, then turned a stony gaze at the defendant in the interview room. He looked guilty, to my amateur eye, and he looked nervous, as though

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he knew we knew he was guilty too. "Yeah," she said coolly. "We got the gun, we can place him on the scene. I can make the case." Reilly looked satisfied. Kiowski made a face. "I don't like it," he said bluntly. Reilly eyed him disgustedly. "You don't like what, Ski?" he challenged. "We got him with the gun. His prints are all over it. He lives near the shooting, and we have witnesses that place him in the right building around the day of the shooting. The guy is a two-time loser. He's bad." "I agree," the prosecutor said irritably. "The guy is bad; let's put him away." Kiowski shifted his weight, uncomfortable with being the lone dissenter. "Yeah, he is a two-time loser, but he's a punk, not a killer. He robs convenience stores. He's never shot anyone before. He's never actually been caught with a gun before. We can't even place him at that building on that evening." The prosecutor put her hand soothingly on his shoulder. "Look, I'm not saying he intended to kill Finley. I figure he was trying out the gun and it hit Finley accidentally." "That's not murder one," Kiowski objected. She took her hand from his shoulder and started to put the papers in her briefcase. She smiled at him, glancing smugly at Reilly. "You know that and I know that," she said confidently, "but he doesn't. The DA wants a conviction on this case, even if we take a plea on a lessor charge." "The guy is going away for a mandatory 25 anyway, due to the third felony," Reilly noted. "He'll take a plea to avoid getting the needle."

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The three of them turned and watched the suspect in the interview room. He had calmed down now, and was talking in low tones to the lawyer, looking every so often at the window. He couldn't see through the one-way glass, but it was clear from his suspicious looks that he knew they were deciding on his life while he was stuck there, powerless to influence it. "I don't know," Kiowski mused. "He admitted to the robbery, but he was adamant about not doing the shooting. He says he just found the gun in the trash." Reilly smirked at him. "All these years, how many guys have we taken down who don't say they are innocent? C'mon, Ski, get with the program." That's the way it went. His name was William Boyd. He had a long history of robberies and other thefts, although none actually involving any shooting. They'd caught him in the middle of an armed robbery, and found that the gun he used matched the one that had killed me. He claimed he'd just found the gun in a dumpster behind the building from which the shot had been fired, but in the end he pleaded guilty to second degree murder. He'd gone away on armed robbery twice before, and at the trial the prosecutor implied that he'd learned too well the violent lessons of more hardened criminals while in prison. To me, of course, that sounded like a reason not to send him back, but I must have been the only liberal present. As Reilly had predicted, Boyd feared getting the death penalty from a DA who was up for election and wanted to look tough on crime. Due to that, he plead guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to twenty-five years without possibility of parole. I watched him in fascination throughout the brief trial; this was the man who'd stolen my life, intentionally or not. I wanted to see what was special about him, why fate had conspired to put me in his path. But I couldn't see anything special. He was just a guy, no innocent for sure, but no killer either. It was just as much his bad luck that he got

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caught up in this as it had been mine. Between dying and going to prison for all those years, I wasn't sure that my luck wasn't better after all. I should have known, from all my life hopping, that there's nothing so special about fate. Things just happen, every possible way. Boyd was silent throughout all the court proceeding, keeping his head down. I couldn't tell if it was out of despair or disgust. I supposed it didn't really matter. My parents came to the trial, such as it was, but Boyd never looked at them. I didn't know why they came; it must have been hard on them. They must have needed the closure it would offer them. At the end, when the trial was over, they shook hands thankfully with the detectives and the prosecutor. Everyone congratulated everyone for a job well done, and everyone expressed sorrow that I'd been killed. At least my parents went home satisfied that justice had been done. Despite his bravado that day at my parents' house about wanting to see justice done, Elizabeth's dad didn't come to the trial. To be fair, Elizabeth wasn't there either. She left town the week of the sentencing, not wanting to go through the pain again. That had been one advantage of the plea bargain; she hadn't had to testify. For better or worse, the trial brought me back temporarily, in a sense: it made the front pages again the day of the sentencing, reminding that vast population who had already forgotten that I'd ever been shot. They painted a harsh picture of this repeat felon tragically stealing away a young, promising life. I was kind of flattered at their portrayal of me, but was cynical enough that it had more to do with ratings and readership than truth. I watched Elizabeth cry as she read the front pages. She'd declined all statements to the press, but a couple reporters remembered her from the funeral and mentioned her loss as an example. I watched Tonya shake her head sadly as she watched the news. It didn't make the Philadelphia papers for Alicia to see.

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I guess it brought some closure to me, too. I'd actually stopped thinking about why I'd died, since it just seemed like one of the many things that could have happened to me that day. You know, in one life I was hit by a car standing outside that restaurant, and suffered for six months before I finally died. The shooting didn't seem like such a bad way to go, all things considered. It's odd, but I didn't really identify with the other Mike Finley's in these other lives. Yes, in many of them it seemed like me, living a life I might have expected to lead. In others, I saw myself in such bizarre and unexpected twists of events that I became unreal, even to myself. Me as homeless? Me as a billionaire? I have to admit I was married to Alicia in that one; that future required her push. I did like the one where I was a big movie star, but all these lives were so unreal to me that they might all have been a movie. It made my more normal lives seem equally unreal. I watched them, wondering how "me" they were. They looked like me, and talked like me, and did things like I did or might have. They had my smile; they had my eyes. Yet I was not entirely sure if they were, in fact, really "me." They'd experienced things I hadn't. They'd made choices I hadn't. And, of course, most of them were still alive, a big difference. It was confusing to watch them, and it was especially hard to see them interact with the people I cared for, knowing that they got those chances and "I" didn't. I was growing very detached from the people's lives I watched. Part of it was the knowledge that none of their little lives was the definitive life; there were alternative lives at every point. That the people living them weren't aware of the other lives scarcely mattered to me. I had this great perch to see all this from, and lorded over it like a god. A minor god, of course, especially since I still had never found any way to affect their lives, but I liked the ability to bounce through lives. I'd lost my prurient desire to watch people in their most intimate moments, but I'd also lost much of any embarrassment about catching them unexpectedly in such moments. I'd seen it all, in some life, so it was increasingly harder to surprise me.

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The other thing that made me more detached was simply the passage of time. As Ishmael had predicted, time as I had known it lost much of its meaning as I skipped back and forth in times and in possible lives. I already could not say with any certainty how long I'd been like this. Following people through their lives, checking into the various futures they might have -- it all takes time. I didn't actually live their lives alongside them, but it took real time on my part even to follow anyone periodically through their likely life paths. How many years had I experienced in my own time since my death? I really couldn't say. It still felt like a week ago to me in some sense, but it had been much, much longer. People always say that time goes by faster as you get older. As a kid, the summer is a lifetime; a semester an eternity. As an adult, those periods of time go by with you just barely noticing; years go by before you stick your head up and realize they've passed. Imagine, if you will, how time must have seemed for me. I'd lived now -- if "lived" is the right word for it -- for many lifetimes. Time flies when you are having fun, or when you are a ghost. The two appeared to me to be mutually exclusive. I didn't like this coldness, this indifference to still livings' lives, but it served its purpose. I now thought I could find out what had happened to Elizabeth with Tonya.

Chapter 29 I already knew how Elizabeth's life was going to come out, in the life I'd known and had departed from. I just needed to find out what paths her life hadn't gone down. I wasn't looking forward to finding out. I started with the shooting. Now, in most versions of the world, as I've said, I didn't get shot. The bullet missed, by varying degrees. Of course, in some versions of the shooting, each of the four of us got shot; there was a chance for each of us. It was bad enough seeing Paul or Janet get killed, and it was horrible seeing Elizabeth die before my eyes. I didn't have the nerve to follow

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my life after that path; I didn't want to see myself happy after such a tragedy, nor did I want to live through whatever suffering those "me"s might go through. I'd thought I'd distanced myself from such feelings, but I was still squeamish about some things. If I had lived -- been shot at but not killed -- Elizabeth and I would get married, I was relieved to find out. Donna was wrong. Most of the time -- remember, each life spawns multiple possible outcomes -- I did get my nerve up enough to encourage Elizabeth to be an artist full-time. Those were good lives. She blossomed, really grew confident and joyful. And she usually ended up modestly successful. She couldn't support herself with the art, but we did all right as a family. Our kids also tended towards the art world. I even dug out my pen and paper, and wrote some short stories. I think these were some of my happiest days, my happiest lives. Ironically, in the lives were I wasn't shot at, Elizabeth and I generally don't end up together. She "usually" gets married eventually, but never really seemed as happy to me in those lives as in the lives we had together. Of course, I may be biased. She lived comfortably, and was a good wife to her husbands, but I never saw her giving any of them that special smile that I had privy to. Maybe she was happy, but I selfishly thought she was lacking something essential. More importantly, she never gets to develop her art career. In her lives without me, she still kept that Mick box, and looked through it every few years. I imagined she always wondered "what if." Sometimes we'd run into each other -on the street, at the grocery store, and so on. We'd make polite conversation, and go on our way. The me now always rooted for the me then to break down -- to look back at her, to stop her, to give her a call -- but he/I almost never did. I usually was with someone else at that point in my life -- Tonya, Alicia, or various other lovers I'd not met yet in the life I'd lived -- and I didn't want to rock that boat. I now watched her as that alive-but-foolish me walked away. Sometimes she'd turn to look at me go, perhaps hoping I'd turn around, perhaps just trying to understand why I

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wasn't in her life. Either way, it broke my heart now. I could tell from the expression on the other me's face that I sometimes felt bad about it, that sometimes I struggled with myself about turning back. But soon enough I'd just forget about it and go on with whatever I'd been doing. I'd turn to the woman at hand and give her what I should have given Elizabeth. How typical, I thought bitingly. Or maybe I did love them too; maybe they were my future. It was hard to be sure anymore. I just knew how I felt when I saw that look on Elizabeth's face. My being killed had taken away those possible married lives, seemingly. Elizabeth's life after that overwhelmingly ended up on or near the path of the life I'd lived backward, where she ends up dying alone. It was grim seeing so many paths that ended up alike, so much unhappiness. I despaired that my being shot essentially destroyed her life. I arrogantly began to believe that I was the sole cause of her happiness or unhappiness, despite what Ishmael had tantalizingly said about Tonya. My dying had ruined her life, had led her to that quiet life of increasing isolation. But that wasn't the case; at least, it wasn't quite that simple. If I looked at versions of her life stemming from the very week following my death, there wasn't such a strong likelihood for the sad lives I'd witnessed her leading countless times. Instead, there were many good outcomes for her even after I'd been killed -- perhaps even better outcomes than when I'd lived. For example, the odds that she took the plunge and became an artist went up dramatically; this was by far the most likely outcome. Her budding art career was spurred by those drawings she did of me that night after the swing. Janet saw them at her house, and persuaded Elizabeth to show them for a dealer Janet knew. They sold quickly, and Elizabeth was off. She was even more successful than when she had done her art with me, as though my death had added a depth to her work that she otherwise would have lacked. And she rarely dies alone. That, too, had to be considered a plus.

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So, on balance, I couldn't say that she necessarily ended up less happy in these lives stemming from my death than in the lives that might have happened had I not been shot. Different, yes, but my being shot wasn't the cause per se of any unhappiness she ended up having. I hadn't expected to find that. I had expected all the post-shooting lives to end up in the unhappy state Ishmael had led me to. I realized something about that week had tipped the odds, from happy to unhappy, so I carefully went day-by-day to see where the change had come. In tracing that week following my shooting, I paid close attention to the evening of the viewing, when Tonya and Elizabeth first met. I admired Elizabeth anew for how graciously she took on the responsibility of making Tonya feel comfortable, and I had to give Tonya great credit for her nerve in braving that uncomfortable situation. Elizabeth's grace versus Tonya's courage; I couldn't keep from watching both of them, replaying the scene over and over. I feared I wasn't worthy of either one of them. I did get close enough to them to hear what Elizabeth had said to Tonya on Tonya's way out. I'd missed it that first time I'd lived through -- sorry, I wasn't really living then either; that first time I'd experienced the viewing. "I'd like to have dinner some time. I think we have things to talk about. Maybe Saturday night?" Elizabeth had suggested. "Call me?" "All right, I will," Tonya had said firmly. Saturday night proved to be the turning point. Ishmael had been right -- it did have something to do with Tonya, and it apparently happened at that dinner. I was hesitating actually witnessing that fateful dinner between the two of them, but if I checked the paths of her life before the dinner to the paths following the dinner, I saw the divergence. Happy/unhappy; art/no art; not alone/alone. It was the most drastic swing I'd seen in my limited experience of seeing how people's lives could end up.

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I even went back and checked on several other people's lives to see if I could find a similar pattern. I found that, yes, at every point, there were divergences, but for most of the people I'd charted the prospects, the outcomes stayed fairly close to the likely paths I'd seen. Even Tonya stayed in her fairly narrow range of lives; that Saturday night dinner had not noticeably affected how her life ended up. Only Elizabeth seemed affected by it. There was no getting around it; I was going to have to live through their dinner.

Chapter 30 They negotiated the place over the phone during the afternoon. Each of them initially angled for a restaurant that had special memories for us as a couple. Elizabeth proposed the neighborhood place near her house, while Tonya countered with a downtown yuppie diner. We'd often gone there, at all hours of the night, and still had lunch there periodically. They finally reached a compromise on AKA Pizza, a new pizza place that had only been open a couple weeks. Unbeknownst to either of them, I'd actually already been there with both of them. Tonya had scouted it out early, and had dragged me there for a quick dinner on one of the nights Elizabeth was out with Donna. It had then been written up in the weekly independent paper, so Elizabeth had suggested we try it. I was sure that each thought they were pulling something over on the other; they each believed they had been there already with me, but sure that the other hadn't. Since I hadn't told Elizabeth about that dinner with Tonya, or admitted I'd already been there, I hoped it wouldn't come up now. Elizabeth was the first to arrive. As I could have predicted, she dressed conservatively -dark slacks and a white lightweight sweater, with sensible flats. At least it wasn't

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mourning clothes; no veil or anything dramatic. She looked tentatively around the room, and seemed slightly relieved that Tonya wasn't there yet. I wondered if the relief was at not being late, or if she secretly hoped Tonya wasn't coming. She was lucky and got a booth. The waiter took her order for a glass of wine while she waited. She played absently with her hair as she gazed blankly at the back of the booth across from her. She wasn't wearing any earrings, but I noticed that she had on several small pieces of jewelry I'd given her -- a small pin, a necklace, and a bracelet. The bracelet and the necklace were nice ones I'd bought at a jewelry store, but the pin was kind of a fun one I'd bought at a big arts and craft fair. It was made of colorful fused glass; very bright and unique. I'd liked the artist enough to buy several things, including some earrings I'd given Tonya for her last birthday. The style was distinctive, and I started to pray that Tonya wouldn't make the connection. I thought it was touching, and typical, that Elizabeth was wearing gifts from me. True, she didn't wear much jewelry, and much of what she did have was from me, but I thought that she deliberately wore it for this dinner as an unspoken claim on, and reminder of, my affections for her. Tonya showed up about ten minutes late, which for Tonya was pretty good. Unlike Elizabeth, she'd dressed up a little. She had on a clingy summer dress, cut in front just low enough to offer a small hint of cleavage and to show off her tan. She wasn't wearing any hose, and had on a pair of those clunky-looking sandals with heels that I always told her I hated, but which I sort of liked. At least they helped even out the height differential some. She looked young, fresh, and delectable. There was a sub-audible buzz when Tonya breezed into the room, which broke Elizabeth's reverie and caused her to look up for the source of the commotion. They spotted each other simultaneously. Elizabeth stood up while Tonya made her way across the room, turning the heads of the other patrons in her wake. Some of the men gaped appreciatively, getting glares from their own dates. I had to smile; that was one of the

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most fun things about being with Tonya. I also enjoyed those surreptitious glances from both sexes that I would get once she had sat down with me: both thinking, "what does he have?" -- the men resentfully, the women speculatively. I liked to wink at the women sometimes, just for the hell of it. In my current unseen state, all I could do was sigh at the memory. Maybe that's why I had really liked being with Tonya, I concluded reluctantly; maybe I enjoyed being the center of attention for once. Maybe that explained Dave, too; I wondered if I'd chosen friends and lovers in my life that drew the attention I wouldn't on my own. I hoped that wasn't it. "Hi, Elizabeth," Tonya said, her hand extended, "I'm sorry I'm late." "No problem," Elizabeth welcomed her gracefully, "I was just sitting here having a glass of wine. Would you care for one?" They settled in, and the waiter appeared, hovering over them. He was probably delighted to have this table in particular, and I expected they would get very attentive service. It usually happened when Tonya had a male waiter. "Hi, I'm Matt, and I'll be your waiter," the waiter identified politely, eyeing Tonya's neckline discreetly. "Would you like a glass of wine? We have a very nice house." "No," Tonya said distractedly, studying the wine list quickly. "I'll have a beer. What do you have?" The waiter recited their extensive beer collection, and Tonya ordered one of her favorite imported beers. Elizabeth had been studying Tonya carefully throughout this exchange. To my dismay, I saw, and saw that she saw, that Tonya was wearing the earrings I'd given her, the ones from the same artist as Elizabeth's pin. Tonya had been with me when I'd bought the earrings and the pin, and she'd known I was going to give the pin to Elizabeth.

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I wondered if she had deliberately worn them to send Elizabeth a message, or if it was just happenstance. I hoped the latter. Tonya smiled as she handed the wine list back to the waiter and he trotted off eagerly. She noticed Elizabeth looking at her earrings, and unconsciously put her hand up to them to make sure they were both still on. "Those are nice earrings," Elizabeth said coolly. "Where did you get them?" "I got them…" Tonya started, then noticed Elizabeth's pin. She started over. "Mike bought them for me at a craft fair." Her eyes met Elizabeth's, rather than looking at Elizabeth's pin. I was busted. "Very distinctive," Elizabeth commented. She was doing her best to keep a poker face, but I thought it reddened slightly. Tonya wasn't going to bite; she just smiled. Matt came back with Tonya's beer, and told them the specials. They sent him away while they looked over the menu more seriously. They compared notes on the menu, and started some getting-to-know-you small talk. Tonya told Elizabeth about growing up here, her UVA years, and that she never really thought of not moving back. "What's not to like?" she said playfully. "Besides, I don't think I could live in the South. All that politeness!" Matt reappeared, hovering anxiously. I had sat down in an imaginary chair on the outside of their booth, so I could watch both of them. I positioned myself more towards Elizabeth -- partly out of loyalty, and partly because I quickly judged that Matt was going to continue to gravitate towards Tonya's side of the booth. By the end of the evening he was going to be in her lap, at the rate he was going. Or so he hoped, I was sure.

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They ordered their food, each ordering a salad, and agreeing to share a vegetarian pizza. Neither of them could ever get me to eat one, so when I'd been out with either of them we usually ordered a half vegetarian, half sausage, or they gave in and compromised on pepperoni. I took their order as a hopeful start for some common ground. Matt took it as a way to impress Tonya; he praised their choices, and sauntered back to the kitchen, no doubt hoping she was looking. I was starting to get annoyed at him. They continued their getting-to-know-you small talk. They both seemed to want to delay whatever hard conversation they were going to have, and pretended they were just two girls out for dinner. I doubted it could last. Tonya was fascinated by Elizabeth being from the west, and urged her to share what that was like. "It's not like there were cowboys and Indians," Elizabeth told her. "OK, maybe there were, but not like in the movies. Any fighting was in the bars, not on the prairie." "Still, I think it must have been very different from here." "Think of it as growing up in the suburbs," Elizabeth said with a small smile. "Just really big yards." "How did you end up here?" Tonya asked curiously. "It's a funny story, actually, "Elizabeth admitted. "My art teacher in high school got a job at the university, and I followed him. I had dreams that I'd be a real artist. He ended up quitting my sophomore year, and I ended up in graphic design to escape this lecherous professor they replaced him with. I got a job offer from the place I co-oped my senior year, and -- well, I just ended up staying."

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That led into a discussion about their respective jobs. Tonya didn't have much interest in art, and Elizabeth knew little and cared less about computers, so that conversation didn't go far. They perked up when Elizabeth brought up some of the graphic packages she was using for some of her projects, but their interests in those didn't overlap very deeply. There was a pause while they reloaded their conversational guns. I wondered when they were going to get to the meat of the evening. Along the way they'd gotten and finished their salads, and started in on the pizza. Elizabeth ate it slowly, using her knife and fork delicately. Tonya ate with her fingers, the way I always believed pizza should be eaten. Despite her small size, she had a big appetite, and ate with great gusto. She called Matt over and switched her drink to wine. "I'm glad you came," Elizabeth said suddenly. "I'd heard about you for so long through Mike, and I just wanted to get to know you better." Tonya nodded and smiled tolerantly. "Me, too." "You're not quite what I expected," Elizabeth added carefully. I found myself quickly cataloging all the things I might have told Elizabeth about Tonya, to see where I might have misled her. "How so?" Tonya said politely. She didn't seem all that curious; Tonya was used to not fitting peoples' expectations. "Oh, gosh, I don't know. It's hard to put into words. You're even more beautiful than I'd imagined, for one thing." "Well, thank you," Tonya replied graciously. This was something else that she was used to. "I'd seen your picture, of course, so you're just as beautiful as I'd expected."

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That was a classic Tonya response; you had to be looking for the ambiguity to suspect it, and I doubted Elizabeth was. She blushed slightly, not realizing that Tonya might be implying that she fell short of her own standards. I knew Tonya pretty well and even I wasn't sure how she had meant it. "I wanted to get to know you better," Elizabeth continued bravely. "I -- I want to know the people Mike knew, and see what he was like with them too. I figured you knew him better than almost anyone, outside Dave and his family." Tonya tilted her head to acknowledge the remark, and I could almost see the unspoken thought behind her half-smile: hey, babe, believe me: I know things about Mick that Dave and his family -- or you, for that matter -- never dreamed of. She was probably right. Elizabeth would never have the confidence to think something like that. I had probably been more open, and more vulnerable with her than with anyone else, but it wasn't in her nature to believe that she had that kind of insight, even into me. "So, Elizabeth," Tonya asked between bites, "how did you meet Mike?" We were getting closer to the real reason they were both here. Elizabeth carefully finished off the mouthful of pizza she was working on before answering. I suspected it also gave her time to think about how she wanted to respond. "Friend of a friend," she finally answered. "We went out to dinner." Tonya nodded knowingly. "Love at first sight?" I had to smile at that. I might not have been able to pick Elizabeth out of a line-up after our first date; she didn't make that big an impression on me. Not till later. Elizabeth smiled wistfully. "No, not really. At least, not for Mick. He took a month or two to get serious."

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"I remember." Elizabeth looked oddly at her. "What do you mean?" "Oh, Mick and I were still seeing each other," Tonya answered casually, keeping her eyes off Elizabeth as she reached for another slice of the pizza. "I remember when he started going out with you." Elizabeth was silent for a second as she digested this news. She'd known I was still seeing other people; I'd told her, eventually. I couldn't remember exactly what I'd explained about Tonya at the time. And I was sure she'd registered Tonya's easy use of "Mick;" it wasn't hers and hers alone. This was going to get me in trouble. "Were you still…" "…Sleeping together?" Tonya interjected helpfully. "…dating?" Elizabeth finished doggedly. Tonya cocked her head and took a second to reply. "No, we weren't dating, not really." Of course, Tonya had cleverly put the possibility that she and I weren't dating but had been sleeping together into Elizabeth's mind, knowing it would be awkward for Elizabeth to ask the question that would now be on her mind. It was fiendishly clever and not a little cruel. I began to wonder anew if those earrings had been worn on purpose. This might be Tonya playing games again. This wasn't a fair fight. Matt reappeared and cleared away the dishes, chattering mindlessly. He asked them if they wanted coffee or dessert. They looked at each other for a moment, and agreed to

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have more wine. That was a signal that they were staying a while longer. Matt could barely constrain his delight. Elizabeth wanted to steer clear of the minefield that she'd been in before Matt's fortunate interruption. "How did you and Mick meet?" she asked. "You already seem to know my story." Good question, Elizabeth; I was curious how Tonya would tell this. And I was particularly interested to see if I'd finally find out why she had picked me that night instead of Dave. I wasn't sure Tonya would tell the full story, but I could always go back and compare what she said to what had really happened, and the gaps might tell me more than the story itself. I readied for Tonya's answer eagerly. Tonya smiled widely. "It was a bet," she said, self-satisfied. "A bet?" I hadn't expected this. What did Tonya mean, a bet? I didn't like the sound of that. I leaned in closer. "Well, a friend and I were in a bar, and we spotted Mick and his friend Dave. They were kind of cute, and we were getting hit on by about every other guy in the bar. I figured out pretty easily that Dave was the real lady-killer, so my friend bet me that I couldn't get Mick to try to pick me up without Dave horning in." "Is that what you do in bars, make bets about who will pick you up?" Elizabeth asked incredulously. Tonya looked at her with amusement. As I'd said early on, Tonya liked the game -- the chase, the hunt, the kill or the killing put-down. "Sometimes. It gets pretty old

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sometimes, so it adds a little sport to do stuff like that." Elizabeth stared back warily, aware for sure that Tonya lived in a world she didn't have much experience with. "And who won?" Elizabeth asked gamely, her eyebrows arched. "My girlfriend," Tonya laughed. "Dave disappeared and left me to Mick. She won the bet but I won the guy. I figure I came out ahead." Tonya seemed to glow with pleasure at the memory, while Elizabeth seemed to shrink visibly. Tonya was a whole 'nother kettle of fish than she was, and she knew she was overmatched. Still, she came to some sort of internal decision, and pressed on. "What was it about Mick that you liked?" she asked openly. "I mean, I'm not sure I'd think he's your type." I was afraid Tonya might take offense at this, although I wasn't sure if Elizabeth had meant to imply anything by it or not. Actually, I took a little offense at it myself. Didn't Elizabeth think I could attract a woman like Tonya? Tonya smiled, a small smile of wonder this time. I knew that smile; it was one of her best. It made her seem especially open and frank, vulnerable and trusting. I wished I'd seen it more when we were going out. She toyed with her glass of wine before answering. "Mick was, I don't know; he was a good guy," Tonya tried to articulate. "That's so lame, I know. Let's see. He was bright, and he didn't push me. He was easy to get along with. He was funny." She stopped, looking embarrassed at her answer thus far. She took a drink of wine, and surveyed the room. Nothing she saw captured her interest. She wasn't really looking for it to, anyway. Her interest was across the table.

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"Look," she said, staring firmly at Elizabeth. "I meet a lot of jerks. Most of them aren't very bright, and most of them think I'm some bimbo that they can fuck and forget. I'm not. Mick never treated me like that. He listened to me; he cared about me and what I had to say. It was refreshing, and the more I was with him the more I appreciated him." Elizabeth nodded thoughtfully; I wasn't sure she liked what she heard, but she agreed with it. Perhaps she was hoping Tonya had a shallower, more easily dismissed reason for being with me. She leaned forward. "So what happened?" she asked softly. "Why didn't you two stay together?" "Because, this time, I was the jerk," Tonya answered with some bitterness in her voice. "I liked riding the emotional roller coaster -- I'd find something to fight about, so we'd fight, and break up, then make up. The making up was always a thrill, but Mick got tired of the drama. You snuck in while I wasn't paying enough attention." Both of them considered this for several seconds. Elizabeth's mouth was turned slightly downward, although I was sure that she wasn't aware of it. Tonya just looked at Elizabeth, patient for Elizabeth's reaction. Matt the waiter used their silence as an invitation to stop by and ask them if they wanted anything else. They looked up at him, slightly surprised at his appearance at their side, then looked at each other briefly. They agreed on coffee; apparently they were reaching the limit of the evening. They stayed quiet while Matt brought them the coffee. "What about you?" Tonya asked after stirring a heavy dose of cream and sugar in her coffee. "What was special about Mick to you?" Elizabeth smiled a sad little smile, with a gasp of a pained laugh behind it. She held her coffee cup before her with both hands, as though to warm her -- or to protect her. I didn't

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think she was too keen to share this with Tonya, but she was too polite to say no. "It will sound silly." "Oh, come on, tell me. I promise I won't laugh." Elizabeth regarded her carefully, still not sure whether Tonya was a friend or a foe. Whichever, she wanted to get this off her chest. "I liked that he was so considerate." Tonya pulled her head back in mock surprise. "You loved him because he was polite?" Elizabeth shook her head firmly. "I didn't say polite; I said considerate. I don't mean he had great manners or was some expert on etiquette. He definitely wasn't either! I mean he thought about other people. He didn't open doors for people because it was the proper thing to do; he did it because he thought people should do things like that for other people. If he saw an old lady carrying a bag of groceries, he'd probably help her to her car. Little stuff like that. It wasn't just me and it wasn't to score points." She smiled and her face took on a fond, far-away look, lost in the memories. "Sometimes it was maddening. We'd be going somewhere, and he'd open the door for me and I'd keep walking, then realize that he wasn't with me -- he was still at the door, holding it for all these strangers. Who, by the way, almost never say thank you. But, you know, I had to love him for it." Tonya seemed troubled by all this. "That's sweet," she finally said. "I know what you mean, and I think that's a good way to remember him." Elizabeth's eyes got teary, and they drank their coffee in their own corners. Elizabeth regained her composure and started the conversation again.

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"You and Mick never stopped seeing each other, did you?" Her voice was uncharacteristically hard. Tonya played with her coffee cup. "No," she said carefully. "We saw a lot of each other, and talked on the phone a lot." Elizabeth's next question went unspoken. Tonya looked up at the challenge. "No, in case you're curious," she said firmly, staring at Elizabeth. "He was faithful to you. Not that I didn't give him chances not to be." Elizabeth nodded grimly at this admission. At least Tonya had been honest about the faithful part; I'd have died again had she said or even implied I hadn't been. They regarded each other openly, studying the other for signs of weakness, comparing beauty, wondering about love. There was a universe of emotions and thoughts going on inside both of those heads I loved so much. I could see it was going on, but even in this ghost state I was still powerless to tell what those thoughts and emotions were. Tonya recovered first. "I'll give you this, Elizabeth," she said, grudging admiration in her voice. "I didn't expect to like you so much. I can see why it was taking so long for Mike to come back." Elizabeth seemed surprised by this admission, but accepted it quietly. The compliment was nice, but Elizabeth was smart enough to realize what had picked out the real implication of Tonya's statement. "But you never really gave up on him, did you?" Elizabeth concluded gently. "No," Tonya admitted frankly, holding Elizabeth's eyes with her own. "No, I never did. You were winning the battle but I always thought I still would win the war. I was just waiting for the merry-go-round to finish so we could switch seats and I could have him back."

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Elizabeth nodded once again, not conceding but recognizing the truth in what Tonya had said. If it were anyone else but Elizabeth, she would have glared at Tonya, or thrown some wine in her face, or even slapped her. But not Elizabeth; she didn't have that in her, even to protect the memory of what she thought she had had. That seemed to end the evening. What else could they say? They weren't going to be friends; not tonight, not ever. The thing that Elizabeth had hoped might bring them together -- i.e., me -- would always be between them. They would each guard their own memories of me and keep them to themselves. Sharing would give the other too much of their own treasure. Maybe Tonya could tell her stories, just to flaunt what she and I had had, but Elizabeth would not have been able to do the same. It was that same gaudy diamond/secret treasure difference that I'd felt about them when I was alive. I thought it was telling that Tonya felt no need to ask why Elizabeth and I hadn't ever gotten married. She thought it was self-evident. If asked, both women would have answered the question that it was just a matter of time -- for Tonya, that I'd have come back to her; for Elizabeth, that I would have gotten around to marrying her. Their mutual -- but contradictory -- trust in me was frightening, and made me wonder anew if I'd have had the courage to do either. They split the check, gave Matt a nice tip, and got up. Matt looked at Tonya hopefully, perhaps expecting that he could ask her for a phone number or other encouragement, but she ignored him. He was crestfallen, I noted with some satisfaction. They walked out of the restaurant and stood in the parking lot. I followed them out. "There's something I need to ask," Tonya said nervously. "It's not easy." She looked at Elizabeth for permission to carry on. I wondered what she was leading to. "Go on."

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"It's about when he was shot," Tonya said quietly, unable to look Elizabeth in the eyes. Elizabeth paused, and gave Tonya a warning look. Tonya took a deep breath and pressed on anyway. "Did he, did he say anything? Did he do anything?" She looked up hopefully. Elizabeth took an unconscious step back, and raised her hand to her chest as if to ward off a blow. She stared at Tonya a second, trying to read in Tonya's eyes why she wanted to know this. Then she looked away, and stared far off in the distance, where I was still getting shot in some timeline. Tonya waited anxiously. "No," Elizabeth said finally. She had a pained expression on her face. "I thought he opened his eyes for a second, but he didn't say anything." Tonya seemed disappointed. I'm not sure what she was expecting. I was a little surprised at Elizabeth's answer; I had no memory of doing that, none whatsoever. Tonya looked away uneasily. "You know," Elizabeth said conversationally, startling both Tonya and me. "The doctors told me later that I must have been mistaken, that Mike was dead the second that bullet hit. They said if his eyes did open, it was just an involuntary reflex." Tonya just stared at her in surprise. "Still," Elizabeth continued, leaning closer to Tonya with a conspiratorial air, "I like to think it was more than that. I just don't know what it did mean." Tonya studied her carefully, and nodded sympathetically, but didn't say anything. She evidently had gotten everything she had wanted, or expected, to get from the evening, and was ready to go. I wasn't so sure Elizabeth felt the same way, whether she had achieved whatever bonding or closure she had hoped to with Tonya.

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"So what now?" Elizabeth asked, standing uncertainly in the middle of the parking lot with Tonya. The other patrons coming and going seemed as distant from them as if on another planet. It was just them, alone in this moment. If Tonya was as unclear as I was about what Elizabeth meant, she didn't show it. Elizabeth may have been asking if Tonya wanted to go somewhere else, but Tonya took it as more of a life question. In retrospect, and having witnessed that scene countless times, I think she was right. "Now I go and find another love of my life," Tonya said with absolute conviction.

Chapter 31 I watched them drive off in their cars. I was too emotionally drained to decide where, or when, I wanted to go next. It had proved even harder than I had anticipated watching the two of them together, especially seeing how Elizabeth had taken some of the things Tonya had told her. Something alerted me to his presence, or perhaps I was just getting better about when to expect him. I turned, and there was Ishmael, leaning against one of the cars. His arms were in the pseudo-pockets of his pants, and he'd crossed one ankle casually over the other. It was the perfect picture of the man at ease, helped by his Ralph-Lauren-looking outfit. I had long ago switched to a comfortable pair of jeans and an old shirt, so once again I felt scruffy next to him. He didn't say anything, but his quick disapproving gaze had the same effect. "How about that?" he asked. "The two of them together, again. And you thought the viewing was hard!" I didn't think it was so funny. "What are you doing here?"

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He stood up from his pose, and walked over to me. "No, my friend," he said. "The question is: what are you doing here?" I didn't reply at once, just stared at him curiously. "If you've been reviewing my life, you can probably guess," I said at last. "Tonight seems to be the night when Elizabeth's life takes a bad turn. I wanted to find out why." "And did you?" "I'm not sure," I told him cautiously. He looked at me in amusement, then apparently decided to give me a break and not pursue it. I suspected that he knew, and knew that I knew too. "That Tonya sure is something," he said admiringly, gazing in the direction that her car had left in. "Why didn't you get back together with her?" I stared dumbly at him. "I mean, she's great -- she's smart, she's fun, she loved you very much. Plus, of course, she's simply gorgeous. You know you loved how every other man envied you for being with her. You've seen how life could have turned out with her; you two are good together." "I don't know," I mumbled. "Or Alicia, for that matter," he continued expansively. "I always liked her too. A real fireball, that Alicia. She would have made you into something, that's for sure. You seemed pretty happy in your lives with her, too." Ishmael had a point. From the lives I'd witnessed, I ended up happy with each of them, and fairly successful to boot -- especially with Alicia. She had pushed me when we were together, first in business school and then in that first consulting job. Based on what I'd

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seen recently, if we had stayed together she would have continued to help drive me to being successful. "It just didn't work out that way, I guess. Besides, what do you have against Elizabeth?" I wanted to know. It didn't seem like he was being fair to her. "Oh, Elizabeth," he said easily, "she's a sweetheart -- don't get me wrong. But you've seen her lives. She's not one of these people -- like Tonya or Alicia, or Dave, or Tara, or most of the people you know -- who are going to be happy almost regardless of which path their life takes. Elizabeth just isn't strong that way. She has some happy lives, especially with you, but it's not as hard-wired into her as it is with most of the others. Why risk being with someone like that?" "And that art thing," he said dismissively, "Sure, she has talent, but she doesn't have the confidence in herself or her work that really good artists have. never really takes advantage of her gifts." "She did with me," I said defensively. I felt the need to defend her, partly out of loyalty and partly out of not wanting to see her criticized like this. It made her life seem so… empty. "I would have helped her work at it." "Michael, Michael, Michael," he said with gentle reproach. "When did you ever work at anything?" Ishmael and I had started to walk. AKA Pizza was in an unusual neighborhood -- historically blue collar, with lots of older apartment buildings, two-flats, and small houses. The road it was on had once been a major thoroughfare out to outlying cities, but with the advent of highways it had fallen on hard times. AKA Pizza was in a small strip of stores, the others of which were somewhat less affluent. I wondered which would prevail -- would AKA help draw its neighbors up, or would they pull it down? I was certain, for example, that the seedy looking patrons of the Dee Light Tavern, two doors down, wouldn't be stopping in for some goat cheese pizza. In most of her lives she

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Outside the strip, there were quiet residential streets. The yards were generally neatly trimmed, the houses and apartments were alight with life. Everything looked so settled. What would those people think, I thought distractedly, to know that two ghosts were taking a stroll past their house, going over what had been wrong with one of their lives? "Everything just came easy for you. School, work, friends, love. You just drifted from one thing to another, never really appreciating what you had or having to work for it. You just assumed that whatever came next in your life would be as good. You left this amazing woman Alicia, who could probably have ended up as the first woman President if she'd wanted to -- just so you could move back home. You walked away from Tonya, probably the only systems analyst in America who could have also been a fashion model. And the kicker is, they both loved you! It was Alicia who offered to leave her job and her family to follow you here. It was Tonya who kept working at staying in touch after you broke up, even when you got serious about Elizabeth. You heard her: she never stopped believing she'd get you back. When did you ever have faith like that?" We had stopped walking, so he could more emphatically make his last points. I resented that some stranger to me knew my life so well. Sure, I'd been a voyeur in lots of peoples' lives by now, and had witnessed things that I'm sure they would have preferred that I not. But they were at least people I knew and cared about. To adopt some stranger and the people in his life, to dig through every nook and cranny not only of the life he'd lived but also the lives he could have lived -- well, it was too much. The saddest part, though, was that he was right. As usual. He really did know me better than I knew myself -- or than I admitted to myself. "So I'm a failure," I said with a tone of despair. "Why rub it in?"

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Ishmael put his arm around me, or what would have been his arm around what would have been my shoulders had either of us actually had bodies. The effect was much the same despite the lack of actual contact. "Mick," he said, "You don't mind if I call you Mick, do you? I feel like I know you well enough to be entitled to that. It's not about being a failure. It's funny, you know. Why do you think all these extraordinary women were attracted to you?" I looked at him hopefully. I wasn't sure how this related to my feeling like a failure, but it seemed like a more promising avenue of conversation. "Because I'm cute, smart, and funny?" Ishmael laughed. "I don't want to burst your bubble, buddy, but you're not all that cute, or that funny, or that smart. There are lots of people who fit that bill more than you do." Now I stared at him balefully. He was piling it on, I thought. "So you tell me. Why did they like me?" "Oh, not just liked you, Michael," he corrected me with mock astonishment. "They loved you, deserving of it or not." "All right, loved me," I repeated irritably. "You're the expert; why did they?" Ishmael strolled a few steps, looking down at the sidewalk while evidently deep in thought. Even he was finding it hard to explain; maybe he didn't know either. I fell in step next to him automatically, now very curious as to what his explanation was. The more I thought about it, the less sure I was about why they might have loved me. "It's not uncommon," he said finally. "Your best quality is also, in some way, your worst." He stopped and looked at me. I urged him on.

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"How so?" "You just never thought about it. You didn't think you were God's gift to women, but you didn't think you were unworthy either. You just got to know them, for who they were rather than for who you might have wanted them to be. And you didn't pretend to be someone else either. I think they found that unconscious attitude refreshing. That's what made you special." Well, that was less than I'd hoped. I supposed I'd been hoping he saw some special virtue, from his longtime ghost perspective, that I hadn't realized. This didn't seem like much of a virtue. "The thing is," he continued, "it's that same unconscious attitude that let them slip away from you too. You end up pretty happy in almost all of your lives. My takeaway from your life is that life is about making choices. I told you that before. You could have been happy in lots of those lives, but many of the possible paths required you to really think about what you wanted and choose it. That's why you didn't end up living most of them. This you, anyway." We started walking again, him looking up and around at the street, me trying to keep up with him while studying his face in the uneven light of the street lights. "To stay with Alicia regardless of your move; to look behind the stupid fights Tonya picked with you; to tell Elizabeth she should give art a full shot. It didn't matter which choice; it just mattered that you make a choice. That's what makes the whole thing ironic." We walked in silence. I needed to think about what he had said. "Let me ask your opinion about something," I said after a block or so. "What do you think happened to Elizabeth tonight that caused her to veer off the happier paths?"

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He smiled knowingly at me, but didn't answer. He waited me out. "It was what Tonya said, wasn't it?" I suggested. We stopped in front of a house with a big picture window. Someone had a television going off to the side, its bluish light giving weird shading to the room. "She stopped believing I loved her." "She said as much at the viewing." Ishmael reminded me. "What was different about tonight?" I had the feeling this was more of a Socratic question than a genuine one, but I had to think about it anyway. "At the viewing, she still had hopes that she was wrong, and that she really was the love of my life," I speculated. "After seeing Tonya so sure of getting me back, she lost that." He nodded, with satisfaction at my deduction but also with some sense of loss at the pain of that conclusion. "My God," I exclaimed. "That's so unfair!" "Maybe you would have gone back to Tonya," he told me. "Or found someone new. You've seen the lives. Why should she believe she was the one for you?" I was silent again, but not ready to walk. I looked around, at this seen-but-not-felt world around us. It was suddenly creepy; alien and distant to me. I was the ghost here, I should be haunting them, but it was me with the shudders. Then it hit me. "You've got it wrong," I said firmly. "It's because Elizabeth needed me that makes it matter. Not every choice was the same." "What do you mean?" Again, he seemed more like he was pushing than actually unsure. I took a deep breath, and tried to answer.

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"Like you said, most of the people in my life go on and are happy anyway. Maybe they loved me, but losing me didn't destroy their lives." "So?" Ishmael prodded. "I was, oh, what's the right way to put this?" I fumbled, frustrated at my inability to articulate my revelation. "I was the key in Elizabeth's lock. It was me who opened her up; me who made her life come alive. We were unique to each other, and whether I died or not I should have let her know that." Ishmael looked at me with a grave expression. I couldn't tell if he agreed with me or was just humoring me. I tried again. "You look at my life and see lots of choices, most of them indistinct from the other. Different people, different patterns, but all of them and their related paths look similar. I look at it and I can see now that my paths with Elizabeth were the special ones, the ones where I really could make a difference. I didn't fail in my life because I didn't make those other choices; I failed because I never made the choice that would have made the crucial difference in someone's life. Elizabeth's." Ishmael wasn't being fair to Elizabeth. He viewed her life, her ranges of lives, and saw someone too weak, too uncertain of herself, to fully develop. I looked at her and thought about what a delicate flower she was, how she needed careful nurturing. I thought of her talent for art, and of her ability for love, as being like a small fire. It was there, and it was struggling to light fully, but it needed tending. It could be hugely big and amazingly beautiful, but it needed someone to add fuel carefully, and to guard it from too much wind or the rain. In short, she had needed me. I looked at Ishmael, proud of what I'd realized and defiant about telling him. It didn't matter if he agreed or not; it didn't matter if he understood or not. I understood now. "I

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should have let Elizabeth know how I felt about her. I realized that at the viewing, but I got distracted by all of these other possible lives. That was the point of my life, that was what I've learned from everything I've seen." "Bravo," he said appreciatively. He smiled. "Do you think I'm right?" "Probably," he said seriously. "I suppose it's up to you to decide what gives your life meaning, or, rather, what would have given it meaning." "I've got to tell her," I said urgently. "I've got to communicate with her somehow. Maybe I can steer her back into the happy lives, back into trying to be an artist. She did those drawings this week; she's so close." Ishmael smiled a sad little smile at me, and patted my arm reassuringly. "It doesn't work that way, Mike. I've told you time and time again: you can't affect them." "There must be a way," I objected almost frantically. "That's probably why I'm here, why I'm a ghost. I have to right that wrong." "Sort of cosmic justice?" Ishmael mocked me dryly. "Well, forget it. There isn't any justice, and you can't do anything about Elizabeth's life or anyone else's. If you don't like to see her unhappy, just don't watch the unhappy lives. That's all you can do." I remembered the times when Elizabeth had seen me since I'd died, and that gave me hope. "Elizabeth saw me, twice, at her house. If she could see me then, she can see me again. I can find some way to give her a message that way."

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He shook his head slowly. "The window for that is past. You could only do it then because you were still so close to being alive. You could still imagine that people could see you. You've lost that. How many lifetimes have you lived through; how many things have you done that a living person couldn't? You can't imagine yourself to be a creature that people can see anymore. No, this is your existence. All you can do is make the best of it." I was shaken. "That's horrible. I can't believe that the universe works that way. Where's the justice in that?" "Justice, again?" Ishmael repeated, savoring the words. "You're stuck on that, aren't you? Come with me. I want to show you something."

Chapter 32 We were at the scene of my shooting. Judging from the light of the sun, low on the horizon, it was just before I came out from the restaurant with the others. "Why are we here?" I said, annoyed. "I've been here. I've seen all the permutations of who gets shot and where. So what?" From the restaurant, our foursome emerged. I could hear the soft undertones of Janet's voice, talking to Elizabeth, and the sweet notes of Elizabeth laughing in response. Elizabeth looked beautiful, happy about life. Behind her, I could see Paul and myself looked adult yet almost boisterous, ignoring our women as we pretended to care about that silly sports debate we were having. I wished I'd gone ahead and taken Elizabeth by the hand, or put a tender arm around her and drawn her close. But I hadn't. "You've seen it from here," Ishmael said steadily. "Did you ever go see the shooter?"

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He had a point. For some reason I'd skipped that part of it. I knew who had done it, but I hadn't watched him shoot me. I couldn't imagine why Ishmael thought that was important. "No, I guess I haven't. I know who shot me; I don't need to see him do it." "Do you?" he challenged. "Let's go see." We switched to a room in the abandoned building next to the restaurant. At one point it must have been the living room of an apartment. It evidently hadn't been too nice a place to begin with, and it had gone downhill from then. The floor was intact, basically, but covered with dust and who knows what else. The walls had holes in them -- wood torn away, plaster stripped or punched out, a few places that looked like rats had tunneled through. There was a boy standing next to the wall that faced the street. The window was long gone, boarded up, but through the gaps between the boards I could see glimpses of our foursome on the sidewalk. The boy was perhaps nine, small and slight for his age. His clothes had the worn look of hand-me-downs: not quite the right size, thin from the use of its multiple wearers, tattered at the sleeves and pant ends. He was very cute, and had an adorable innocence about him. How anyone could maintain innocence in an environment like that, I wasn't sure -- or for how long. He was also holding a gun. It did not look cute, or innocent. It looked very evil. From my limited knowledge of guns, it looked a lot like the gun I'd seen at the trial for my killer. He was examining it, trying to figure out how to load it. "I don't get it," I said stupidly. "Where is Boyd?"

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"William Boyd is sleeping with his girlfriend," Ishmael told me seriously. "In her apartment two blocks away. Believe it or not, even that scumbag has a girlfriend." "But…" "No, he didn't kill you." My mouth gaped in surprise at this sudden piece of news, delivered so matter-of-factly by Ishmael. Was he kidding? We turned and watched the boy. He cocked the gun, and struggled to hold it up with both of his hands. The gun was too heavy for him to lift easily. "Bang-bang," he chanted, pointing the gun at imaginary targets around the room. The gun went off, knocking the boy down with the recoil. I saw the hole in the window boards where the bullet had escaped, and through that hole I could see myself lying on the ground, with the others starting to huddle around me. "What?" I exclaimed. "HE killed me?" The boy picked himself up, and went over to the window. He looked in surprise, then horror, out the window. "Oh, Lord, Lord, I shot a white man. They're going to kill me," he moaned. He looked frantically around the room, and fled out of the room. "It was an accident," Ishmael said softly. "Just like the prosecutor said. They just had the wrong guy. The boy wiped the gun off, then threw it in a dumpster, where Boyd found it the next morning. Just like he told the DA." I thought about what Ishmael had said. "Why didn't his girlfriend give him an alibi? If he was with her that night, she could have cleared him."

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Ishmael smiled. "Oh, lots of reasons. Her other boyfriend wouldn't have liked it, for one thing. She was supposed to be home with her kids. Plus, she's a druggie, and no one would have believed her testimony anyway. Boyd was so high he didn't really remember where he was that night. Boyd said he didn't do it, but the DA wanted a conviction and he was going to get it. So much for justice." I looked out the door through which the boy had run. "What about the boy? He just gets away with it?" Ishmael made a face. "An eye for an eye, and all that? Let me tell you about the boy. He, his two sisters, and his mom live in a one-bedroom apartment not much better than this. His mom has a not-so-nice boyfriend, who hits the kids and her. He has the bruises to prove it. Only now, the boyfriend is getting tired of the mom. He's starting to come after the two sisters. They are eleven and thirteen. The boy stole the gun from one of the local dealers and was going to defend them with it tonight. Only now he doesn't have a gun, and he's going to get a beating for being late for dinner. Plus, the guy he stole the gun from is going to be looking for him. His future isn't too bright." Ishmael let me absorb all this as best I could. "So, Michael Finley, what justice do you think that boy deserves?" "I, I don't know," I confessed. "It's funny," Ishmael mused. "The boy's best chances in life come from the few lives in which he is caught. He has to tell a friend, who has to tell his mom, who has to take him

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seriously, who has to call in an anonymous tip. Then Kiowski has to convince Reilly and the DA to take it seriously, and so on. So it's not too likely. Still, in one or two of those lives, he actually gets adopted by a good family and comes out all right." "So one or two lives out of, what, hundreds, thousands of possible lives?" "Millions, billions. Whatever." It was sobering. I felt worse for the kid than for me. "There really isn't any justice, is there?" I said dejectedly. "Oh, if you want a life that has what you consider justice, you can find it." Ishmael told me realistically. "It just may not be as common as you'd like. And justice isn't the same thing as revenge. I think the poor kid has a bad enough fate just living his life. He's worse off for killing you than if he'd not accidentally shot that gun. Now he's not going to be able to protect those sisters, or himself. You can imagine how miserable their lives are going to be. No, I take that back; you probably can't even imagine it, not unless you've seen it. It's pretty bleak. Of course, if he didn't shoot you, he would have gone home and tried to kill his mother's boyfriend. If he kills him, he gets sent away as a criminal -- instead it being treated as an accident like it is when he kills you and gets caught. If he fails, you know, the boyfriend takes it out on him and his sisters for years. Even when the boyfriend dies, and those poor kids get a break from the guy, there's always another boyfriend, and the pattern is pretty much the same. Nope, killing you and getting caught is as good an outcome as he can hope for. You want justice; I call that a rough sort of justice." He had a point. It was too depressing to think about. "Let's get out of here." We were back in the parking lot of AKA Pizza. I didn't know how Ishmael knew where I meant when I said we should leave, but I didn't ask and he didn't offer any explanations.

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We stood awkwardly -- well, I stood awkwardly while Ishmael watched me, cool as ever. Customers came and went from the restaurant, typically unaware of our existence. I enviously looked at the couples, walking in eagerly, or walking out expectantly. Maybe they were going home to curl up in front of the television. Maybe they would go back for some hot jungle love. Maybe they'd go out dancing, or… It didn't do any good to speculate. I could, if I wished, follow them and see what they did. In fact, I could follow them and see what would happen in each of the possibilities of what they might do. I could do just about anything I wanted -- except the things I wanted to do most. "So let me get this straight," I said doggedly. "I live forever. I can walk through walls, or move instantaneously between places. I could travel through outer space if I wanted. I can travel in time; I can even cross dimensions and see all the variations people's lives could have. But I can't impact their lives; I can't even get a message to someone I love." "Yep," Ishmael confirmed. "That's about the size of it." "Somehow that doesn't seem like such a great deal," I complained. "What the point of watching if you can't do anything about it?" "You used to watch TV, and you couldn't do anything about what happened to the characters on those shows," Ishmael noted. "Yes, but I'm talking about people I care about." "You cared about some of those television characters too," Ishmael countered smoothly. I felt we were playing a word game and I didn't know the rules.

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"I'm talking about people I know," I objected. "These are real people, people who lived their lives with me." Ishmael sighed. "You know, you haven't realized the worst of it." "It gets worse?" I asked incredulously. That stretched my imagination to the limit. Worse than this? "It depends on your point of view, but, yes, from your standpoint, it does get worse." I wasn't sure I wanted to hear this. I couldn't imagine what would be worse than this eternal voyeurism. At that point, I was starting to reconsider my initial speculation that Ishmael was, in fact, the devil and I was in some sort of hell. I hadn't been considerate enough of Elizabeth, so now I'd go through eternity watching her suffer for it. It sounded like hell to me. "All right," I finally said, expelling a breath of air loudly. "Give it to me. How does it get worse?" Ishmael looked at me carefully, gauging whether I seemed ready. "Do you remember I told you that you had lost the ability to have people see you, like Elizabeth saw you those two mornings?" I had intended to test this assertion of Ishmael's anyway, but I secretly feared it was true. I didn't feel human, and I didn't still have any real hope that she -- or anyone -- could see me. Watching her die, in several lives, watching all of the people close to me live their various lives; it had changed me. Being flesh and blood seemed an awful long time ago. "Yes," I confirmed cautiously.

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"They can't see you because you've lost that ability to imagine that they can see you. You don't know what it feels like anymore." That sounded terrible, but not so terrible that this would be the way that Ishmael would say was the worst part. If it was, I could live with that, if 'live' was the right word for this. Ishmael faced me head-on. He looked as serious as I'd seen him. Serious and sad, sympathetic and oddly affectionate. It struck me that he looked like a father having to tell his son that there was no Santa Claus. "You can't do that because you don't have any feelings," he said simply. I was taken aback. "What do you mean, I don't have any feelings? I have lots of feelings. I have too many feelings, if anything!" "No, no, you don't," he told me, putting a hand on my shoulder. "Think about it. How would you feel anything? You don't have anything to feel with. You can't feel my hand on your shoulder, and I'm right in front of you talking to you. You don't have hormones, you don't have nerves, you don't have tissue or anything. There's nothing to feel with." It seemed patently wrong, yet his logic seemed convincing. I struggled to find some flaw in what he'd said, all the time reminded by the sight of that hand on my shoulder, a hand with no mass, a hand that evoked no sense of anything there on my body. "Feelings, OK, we're talking about two different things," I tried to reason. "You mean sensory feelings. I know I don't have those anymore. I'm talking about emotions, those kinds of feelings. I definitely still have those." Ishmael tilted his head to the side. His son apparently was telling him that maybe Santa Claus didn't come to all children -- just to the ones who believed in him. He had to

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explain this simple yet very emotional concept to a child who lacked the ability or the emotional readiness to accept it yet. It probably would have been easier on us both if I'd just agreed with him and moved on. The parking lot had cleared out while we were talking. It was just us two ghosts standing in this deserted parking lot, under a light. Around us all was darkness. How symbolic, I thought bitterly. Maybe we could get a chorus of sirens to wail to complete the picture. "You're not feeling feelings," Ishmael said softly. "You're remembering feelings. All you have are memories of feelings." "Memories of feelings?" I repeated numbly. "Memories of feelings," he confirmed. "Soon you'll only have memories of memories of feelings. Then memories of memories of memories of feelings, and so on. Eventually you won't even have those." I was awestruck with the concept. He had been right; this was worse than anything I could have imagined. If this wasn't actually hell, I should find the devil and pitch the idea to him. "My God," I gasped inadvertently. "I told you," Ishmael said, with no hint of satisfaction in his voice. Just sadness.

Chapter 33

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I left Ishmael at that point. I didn't want to talk about this anymore. Surely, I tried to tell myself, surely he was wrong. But inside me there was this cold center that was telling me that I better face the music. I put myself in Tonya's car, driving away from her dinner date with Elizabeth. I expected her to head home, but soon noticed that she wasn't going in that direction. She was driving towards my neighborhood. Maybe she had another friend who lived around there, but I stoically accepted that she was going to a session at my house again. Tonya seemed in good spirits. The speakers poured out Lisa Stansfield's emotional voice, full of lust and love and other muddled emotions, yet all aimed at getting her lover back. I wondered if Tonya had that on intentionally. She hummed along with the music, its beat also causing her body to sway in time with the music. If she had had more room in the car she might have started dancing. She pulled in front of my house and turned off the car. She didn't get out immediately. Instead, she sat quietly, watching the rear view mirror for any lights from another car. One of two went by, causing her to slouch down in her seat until they had passed. It was Elizabeth she was waiting for, I realized. She wanted to make sure that Elizabeth didn't have the same idea as she did. After fifteen minutes or so, with no sign of Elizabeth, she resolutely opened her door and went up the sidewalk to my house. Tonya slipped off her sandals once in the house, and walked through the house barefoot, quiet as a cat. She again didn't turn on the lights, content with the light coming through the windows -- although she had to pull open a few of the blinds and curtains. I watched her curiously. I couldn't quite figure out why she was there, if she just wanted to be around my things, like she had after she'd heard I'd been shot, or if she had something more specific in mind. Whichever, she seemed to feel entirely at ease. No qualms about being in someone else's house without them knowing about it, no fears

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about visiting a dead person's home. Tonya never was too concerned about that sort of stuff; she really was like a cat, mindful only of what she was after. She paused in the spare bedroom that I'd used as a study. There were a few pictures scattered about, and she knew where I had slipped a couple of them of her or of her and I. She removed them from semi-hiding places and carried them with her. Next, she started looking through my books, first in the study, then in the bedroom and the living room. She retrieved a couple books, books that I recognized as ones she had given to me along the way. At first I wondered how she was deciding which ones to take, since she passed up several books I knew she had given me. Then it dawned on me that she was only taking the books in which she had written some inscription. She liked to say brassy things in these little notes to me. I took it as ways she could mark her territory, and it had always amused me. Now she was reclaiming them, so that they stayed our little secrets. She studied my CDs carefully. There were several she'd bought me over the years, plus ones I'd bought with her, or ones we'd played a lot when we had been here together. I wondered if she was going to make a clean sweep of them, take them all away. Of course, that would be pretty obvious. Dave or someone would notice the gaps and wonder who had been in the house stealing things while no one was watching. You couldn't really count me as someone watching -- at least, they couldn't. Tanya was subtler than that. With a small smile, she picked out only one. I only had to catch a glance at the bright green cover to tell which one it was: The Sugarcubes. Their first one with the unbelievable birthday song. I'd hated the CD when I'd first heard it, but I couldn't get over Bjork's voice. I learned to like the group, tolerating their weird Icelandic techno-pop sound just to hear her pour out her heart. Then she struck out on her own and really blossomed. Something about that first album symbolized something about our relationship better than almost anything. It was not just that Tanya had her own

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Bjorkian energy and impish nature. She had turned me on to joys in life that I might otherwise have missed, not just musically. The last things she went searching for were in my closet. She took out a very nice, thick wool sweater that she'd given me for Christmas a couple years ago. She always told me that it made me look especially sexy, and sometimes she would ask me to wear it on nights when she wanted us to end up in bed together. She hugged it in her arms, holding it closely to her chest as though hoping I was still in it. Finally, she took out an old long-sleeved shirt of mine. It was one I hardly ever wore, but she had adopted it as her impromptu pajamas on the mornings she'd slept in at my house. I wouldn't let her walk around the house naked, as she would have been perfectly comfortable doing, so she wore this shirt which barely reached her thighs. The sleeves were too long, and she didn't button it up very far; after an hour or two of seeing her walk around in the house like that, we'd often end up in bed together. Tonya sat on my bed, admiring her treasures. "Well, Mick," she said conversationally. I was startled initially, then realized that she was speaking to the me she remembered, the Mick of her memories; not to this me. When I realized that, I'd have to confess I was a little disappointed, even though I knew it had been unlikely she'd been aware of me. "I guess that's it. I know better than to look for any cards or letters I wrote you; I'm sure those are long gone!" She paused and looked around the room warmly. "We had lots of good times, you and I. I'm sorry it worked out this way, but it did. I just hope you're happy where ever you are." With that, Tonya got up and went to the front door, carrying her goodies and collecting her sandals along the way. She took a long last look at the house, then stepped outside and relocked the doors. She walked to her car and drove away, never looking back.

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That was vintage Tonya, I thought. Sentimental to a point, but coolly knowing when to cut her losses. She'd keep those things, I'd bet, but wouldn't look at them very often. It was the having them, and the having gone to get them, that would give them their power. They were just a tangible form of memory, not something she'd need to revisit very often. Now, Elizabeth, on the other hand, had quite a different end to her evening. I switched back to her leaving the restaurant as well, plopping myself alongside her in the car. She didn't have any music on, and she was steaming. I say 'steaming,' but that may only be because water was leaking out of the sides of her eyes. She had to periodically wipe the sides of her face. Or it may have been due to the fearsome expression on her face, an array of emotions I dared not even try to interpret. She pulled into her driveway and stormed into the house. "God damn you, Mick," Elizabeth fumed, throwing her purse on the table. If only she realized how accurate that sentence was, I thought ruefully. "Why didn't you tell me she was still in love with you?" She paced around the living room, too full of rage and pain to sit down. Then, as if making a decision, she headed to her bedroom and pulled out her Mick box and the recent drawings she'd done. "Did you love her, Mick?" she asked scornfully, kicking the box. "You couldn't have both of us, Mick," she added, kicking the box for good measure. She sat down on the floor and picked up one of the drawings. "I don't even know why I bothered," she said belligerently, and ripped it in half, then in half again for good measure. She picked up another drawing and studied it in a controlled fury. "Maybe I should have drawn her in these, what do you think, eh, Mick? Maybe standing right over your shoulder, whispering in your ear. That's how it was, wasn't it? She was

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always there." She ripped it into halves, quarters and kept ripping until the snow of little pieces covered the floor around her. She picked up the picture she'd drawn of me as a ghost in bed with her that first morning. Elizabeth had gotten it exactly right. She'd captured my surprise at being caught there, my dual sensation of being in a familiar place yet also the anguish of knowing I was in a different existence, unable to reach out and already fading away. This was one of the pictures that had propelled her on to fame in the lives in which she did become a famous artist. No one could look at that drawing and not see her greatness -- just as no one could look at it and not know that she had seen…something. No matter; she tore it into pieces too. Now, had I not witnessed her looking at some of these drawings later in her life, I might have feared that she would go on tearing until they were all just confetti decorating her bedroom for a party that she'd never have. But I had seen them in the future. Moreover, I knew Elizabeth better than that. Her fury was already ebbing. She held up one of the drawings of me. I was reading on the couch, the television on in front of me. I'd looked up, half annoyed, half amused. She paused a long time. "Oh, Mick," she whispered, pulling the picture down carefully. "You just should have told me. I knew I could never compete with Tonya, or any of the others. I'm not beautiful enough, I'm not smart enough. My body isn't perfect like theirs. I wasn't as much fun as they were. What were you doing with me?" She shook her head sadly. "I just wanted to love you. I thought, maybe, that you loved me too. If you had, that would have been wonderful. I would have been all those things that I said I wanted to be -- your lover, your wife, even the mother of your children. But if you didn't love me, I just wanted to know that, too. I didn't want to find out after you

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were dead, after it was too late and I'd given you everything I had in my heart, that maybe you weren't mine." With that, she took all the drawings, and rolled them up carefully. She picked the roll up, put it on top of the box, and carried both down into the basement. She stored them neatly in a closet, and closed the door. The look she gave was sadder than the look she'd given my casket as it descended into my grave. No wonder; I really was more dead to her now than I had been then. If only I had been alive. If I could have, I would have grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her until she looked at me. Then I'd have stared into her eyes and told her that it was her that I loved, that she was the love of my life. I would have taken her in my arms and held her safely against whatever the world might throw against us. I would have murmured her name over and over, so that she knew it was her I loved. Liz, Liz, Liz… I couldn't do any of this, of course. I could just watch as she walked slowly up the stairs from the basement, slumped unconsciously as if carrying a great weight. She mechanically got ready for bed, then laid awake in bed for much of the night, staring sightlessly at the ceiling. Believe me, I tried hard to get her to be aware of me. I laid in bed next to her all night, not daring to move. I willed myself to picture her seeing me when she rose the next morning. I tried to believe that this illusion of a body that I carried with me could be at least a visible fog for a second to her morning eyes. No luck. She got up, and didn't give me a second glance. I tried again, this time with the porch swing. I started the evening over, and I spent all night out there, listening to the sounds of the crickets and the movements of the nocturnal creatures. I heard Mr. Wilkenson get up a few times to shuffle around his house, and

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caught a glimpse or two of him peering out the window -- a one man neighborhood watch committee. That wasn't any more successful. When Elizabeth emerged, coffee cup in hand, to get her morning paper, she paid the swing no attention, even though she looked through it towards Mr. Wilkenson's house. Ishmael was right; I'd lost the ability to be seen.

Chapter 34 After that, naturally, I had to get away. Ishmael had been right a long time ago, when he warned me about revisiting my life: going over my own life, and seeing the paths I didn't take but should have, was too hard. I should have started with someone else's life; I should have adopted a stranger, the way Ishmael apparently had adopted me. So, instead, I went away for a while. I spent some time going back in history. Want to know who really killed Kennedy? I could give you the whole scoop. Virginia Dare ran away with an Indian lover, and his tribe massacred the rest of her colony when they found out. Mystery solved. Atlantis did exist, but…oh, you die yourself if you want to find out about that. As Ishmael had warned me, history is both more and less interesting than I might expect. More because, well, these historical figures prove to be real people, most of the time. They sleep, they eat, they go to the bathroom; they make bad decisions in love sometimes. They have lives that you and I would recognize. It's also more interesting because the textbooks often have things wrong, sometimes key facts. History gets lost in the past. Try as the living do to make it come alive, through careful historical research and restoration, there's just a reality about it that can never be

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captured -- unless you're a ghost like me. I wished I could go back to my high school history class and point out all the things my rather dogmatic teacher got wrong. It's less interesting because, for one thing, it takes a long time. I had to sit through many boring days of mundane events to get to the events I was interested in. And the living conditions! Ishmael had warned me, but I was still shocked at what I found. I was never more glad that I had lived in the second half of the twentieth century than I was after I witnessed how these people in the past lived. The filth! The bad teeth! The unsanitary conditions! The waste of human life, starting with one in ten or more dying at childbirth and going from there. It also was less interesting sometimes because sometimes what you found out was disappointing. Cleopatra had bad teeth. The person we now knew of as Hercules couldn't play in today's NFL -- not strong enough or fast enough. Mona Lisa was dumb as a board. King Arthur ruled a tiny little kingdom in Wales, and didn't do a very good job of that. And the future! I could tell stories of the future that no one could yet believe, of times to come when they would look as pityingly at our time as I had at times past. Things change, fashions come and go -- and come back again. Everything gets faster. Every generation complains about the next one and wrings their hands about how things are getting worse -- yet few would really trade for those "good old days." Despite everything, I found that people stay the same, basically. They want love, they value families, and they look to the days ahead with optimism, justified or not. I traveled so much that the past and the future almost blurred together. So many people, with so many possibilities. I could go on and on, but what's the point? After some time doing this -- more lifetimes than I can count -- I found myself back in my own time, sitting on the top of the hill in my cemetery. I could try to run from my life, but it was always with me. I had seen things I could have never dreamed of seeing.

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I had done things I couldn't have imagined. The universe was in my reach, as long as I didn't care about touching it. But I did. Ishmael had told me I had lost, or was losing, my feelings and my ability to feel. One feeling I seemed to have managed to hang on to, unfortunately, was regret. Having made that mistake of tracing my life, and its many possible paths and variations, I was filled with regret about the things I didn't say, the things I didn't do. Ishmael had warned me about this as well, but -- as he'd also predicted I would -- I visited them anyway. I forget whose quote it is, but someone once said you should never regret the things you do, just the things you didn't do. I understood that now, in a way that someone who can only see their one life never could. It was ironic. Watching my life now, I was struck with how little I seemed to have felt then. Ishmael had been right, once again -- damn him! He had come to know me entirely too well, indeed better than I had known myself. I had drifted my life. Nothing had mattered enough to me to really stake a claim. Alicia, Tonya, Elizabeth -- they were the leading, but not the only, examples of not letting myself care enough. Oh, sure, I'd cared about them. I'd cared about my job, too, and my family, and Dave, and lots of things. But there were always those little barriers in me, that childish optimism that whatever the world ahead has to bring would be at least equally good -- and maybe better, but definitely different. Now I was dead, and supposedly emotionless, yet I could see the error of my ways. If I had the ability for anger, I might have raged against that blithe young me. Even in those lives where I had settled down, where I had made solid lives, I looked for -- but couldn't really detect -- true appreciation for what I had. From birth till death, in all those lives, I was always looking over that next hill instead of tending to my own campfire.

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I had had the precious gift of being able to feel, and to share feelings, and I'd squandered it. If youth is, as they say, wasted on the young, then being alive was certainly wasted on the living. At least in my case. I had been living a ghost life of sorts when I was alive, too unconnected to the people in my life. As if that wasn't bad enough, now I was living with a ghost of love, a love I couldn't express nor do anything about. The price I had made Elizabeth pay for my casual attitude towards what I had, the indifference to how special she was and that we were together -- it all made my heart ache. Or would have I still had a heart, or something to feel it with. It haunted me like a real ghost, invading my thoughts and infecting everything I did. I came back to the suggestion I'd made to Ishmael: that maybe I was here -- wherever 'here' was -- so I could learn from this and somehow atone for my mistakes. He had gently tried to dissuade me of this, and I had to confess I still didn't see any way to accomplish that. I took the opportunity to switch back to that day in the New England park with Elizabeth years ago. Perhaps I could just pick a moment like that and spend all eternity enjoying it. None of this foolish back and forth, none of this what-does-this-lead-to voyeurism that I'd been doing so much of. This was a good day, or at least a good afternoon; why not just replay it over and over? I watched that younger me with that happy Elizabeth. She drew some lovely pictures of the scene, even using colored pencils for a treat. And, of course, she captured me in more than a few sketches. I seemed happy, as I'd recalled. I didn't know I was going to be shot in a couple years; I didn't know how badly Elizabeth's life might turn out or how I'd let her down. Nor did I know there were so many choices, so many possibilities, in life. I had just sat there and enjoyed the sunshine. Carpe diem and all that.

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But I often seemed happy. That was part of the problem; I usually seemed happy. If I could have read my mind then, I probably would have found no deep thoughts about Elizabeth or the magic we'd managed to capture, on that afternoon or at other times. Sure, I'd been very satisfied by the afternoon, told myself how special it had been, but it hadn't really gotten to me. It didn't make me marry Elizabeth; it didn't make me urge her to do more art. It didn't even keep me from fighting with her later in the day. I suspected that I hadn't even realized on that day how essential Elizabeth was to that perfect afternoon. I probably didn't think about it at all; if pressed, I might have said something to that effect, just to be nice, while reserving to myself the notion that I could have enjoyed that afternoon with several people. I just didn't get it. Staying in that moment, in that afternoon, wasn't any better than anything else I'd been doing. The regret was going to get me wherever I went. I went back to my own cemetery, in my own time. I'd hoped that going back to that park would ease my mind. It hadn't; it just made me feel worse about things. I sat there, for longer than there are words to describe. If being motionless was the criteria for being visible, they could have seen me from outer space. I sat and I sat, and I thought and I thought. Amidst all this internal wailing about my own life and how I'd messed things up, one other thing in particular nagged at me. I remained troubled by the absence of other ghosts. I didn't intend to think about it -- I had enough problems of my own to dwell on -- but it kept fluttering around in the back of my head until I had to think about it. Where were the other ghosts? They weren't there in alternate lives where I'd died prematurely; they weren't there in lives where I'd lived a long life. Nor did I see them in any of the countless other peoples' lives I'd followed. Maybe there were lots of ghosts but invisible to me, as I was to them, I thought wearily. Each of us trapped in our own little multitude of worlds of possible

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lives. Or worse yet was that my paranoia of that first day downtown had been correct -that they were around and they were invisible to me, but they could see me. I could imagine legions of 'better' ghosts sitting back and laughing, first at my pathetic life, now at my equally pathetic ghost life. None of these were comforting thoughts. Then there was Ishmael, seemingly always there to guide me and tell me little ghost tips and realities. Who was he, and why was he here? Why was he taking such an interest in me? He didn't seem surprised to have another ghost in this seemingly otherwise ghostfree existence. Maybe, I thought cynically, maybe he was one of all those other ghosts watching me, and he'd been sent as an emissary to help me blunder less badly. These silent graves were no help to me. They were filled with dead meat, with no spirits around. There should be lots of us sitting here, reflecting on our silly human lives. We should be sitting around having clever conversations, comparing our lives, and giving suggestions for fun parts of people's lives to observe. We should having the wake of all time, telling stories and laughing. But, no, it was just me and the squirrels, and they weren't paying attention to me. Finally, for no reason I could explain, some things began to become clearer to me. Some were answers, some were ideas for things I should try, but more were questions. I had to find Ishmael.

Chapter 35 All of the times I had been with Ishmael were times he'd appeared to me; he had found me. I wasn't entirely sure I could find him, but I had a sneaking suspicion where I might look. I was getting to know him, too.

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I went to the bar the night after my funeral, where Dave and my other friends were holding court. It was still new to them, still was the first time, but how many times had I witnessed this? The first time I'd been here as a ghost I'd still been pretty pitiful. I hadn't known about travelling in time, or about all the other possible lives I could have had, that everyone could have. Maybe that state of innocence wasn't so bad, I reflected. Sometimes not knowing is better. I glanced around, automatically checking to see if that earlier, more naïve version of the ghost-me was around; I didn't expect that I would be, but I wanted to make sure I/he wasn't. Ishmael was. As I'd hoped, he was sitting at the bar, nursing that imaginary beer of his and half-listening to the stories Dave and the others were sharing. He had on his sophisticated bar-goer's outfit -- expensive but not showy, casually elegant. Too bad there were no girl ghosts to impress. He'd already impressed me. "Hey, there, Ishmael," I said, sliding onto an empty stool next to him, "how goes the ghosting?" Ishmael looked up suddenly, and for a half a second I could have sworn that I saw some surprise or even confusion in his expression. He recovered almost immediately and looked back down at his drink. "Same old, same old," he said smoothly. He swiveled so that he was facing Dave's group, his back leaning against the bar. He held the imaginary beer in his hand. I followed suit, sans the beer. I still thought that felt too pretentious for me, although on him it looked natural. One of my friends from work was recounting a story from a few years ago. We'd been on a training "retreat," at a resort, and I'd managed to convince my breakout group to abandon the sterile training room. We'd commandeered a shuttle bus, went off and found an amusement park, and spent the afternoon riding the rides, racing go-karts, and generally blowing off steam. We snuck back to the training room just in time to make up our report, which we did on the spot. The corporate training drones never knew; I think

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we actually won one of their silly prizes for our presentation. It had been a fun day, and my friend's face shone with pleasure in the recounting of the tale. Everyone was laughing and having a good time. This was the kind of wake I'd wanted, people sitting around telling stories that hinted at why they liked me. It was too bad, I thought, that Elizabeth couldn't be here, or Tonya, or even Tara or Annie. Their lives constrained them, in varying ways, from participating in this sharing, this release. It would have been good for them. It was good for me, and I was the one dead. Ishmael and I turned back to the bar as someone else started a new story. I eyed Ishmael carefully. "You're lucky you found me," Ishmael said expansively. Had I not known that his beer was about as real as these illusionary bodies were, I might have suspected he'd had slightly too much to drink. Maybe he was imagining himself with too much to drink. It was the same thing in this existence. "I'm about to start my new project." I bit. "What's that?" "Well," he said, leaning forward excitedly, as though to tell me things he didn't want anyone else to overhear, "I'm going to retrace the migration from Africa by the early humans." "Huh," I said noncommittally. "No, really, it's pretty interesting," he told me brightly. "Just think about it: if the anthropologists are right, about sometime 100,000 to 200,000 years ago a small band of early men -- and women, we'd have to assume -- left the plains of Africa and set off to discover the rest of the world. Within a hundred thousand years or so, they had spread pretty much everywhere."

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I must have looked unimpressed. He continued. "This was all by foot, you understand. They had no idea what was out there, or what they'd find. They didn't know if there would be food, if there would be monsters, if they'd come to the literal end of the earth. Why did they go? Where they forced out? What did they think they'd find? What kind of people were these explorers?" It did actually sound interesting. When you thought about it on that kind of broad scale, it was pretty impressive. I tried to think about what I'd have done, had I been one of those early hominids, safely ensconced on my African plain. Would I have set off for unknown territories? No, probably not. I'd have settled in and had a beer. Maybe I'd have invented beer, had it not already been invented for me to settle back with. But I would stay put. Tonya would have gone. Tonya would have been one of the first to sign up, with a laugh and a smile. She'd have thought it would be an adventure, a lark. Had she known me in that life, maybe she would have teased me into coming, against my better judgement. And, you know, it probably would have been fun with her along. Most things were. If we could go to the DMV together and have fun, then this couldn't have been so bad. I could imagine discovering Italy, or the Pacific Northwest, or the Himalayas with her -awed by the beauty and proud of the journey that had led us there. Alicia -- now, Alicia would have been one of the leaders. She would have woken up one morning and declared, hey, it's a good day to walk to the ends of the earth! Alicia would have organized the whole thing, and gone off on her own had no one else been brave enough to go with her. But she probably would have pushed her current boyfriend -- the me of that time -- to go with her, and probably others would have followed. Alicia, the Amazon princess. Wrong continent though.

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Elizabeth would have stayed behind, I speculated. Unlike Alicia, who had to be going somewhere -- even a walk had to have a specific destination, Elizabeth was content to just stroll, or just to sit and think. She might have been in her little cave, wondering what to do with these images in her head -- things that looked like the world but were not quite the world. Maybe she would have invented art. Art and beer together; what a combination. No wonder we'd been a couple. Put television in there and it would have truly been paradise. I might have invited her to join me in my cave -- wait, those African primitives didn't live in caves, did they? Perhaps I was overanalyzing this… "That sounds like it would take a long time," I noted. "Oh, yes," he confirmed, with a satisfied tone in his voice. "For starters, I have to get the right band of explorers at all the right points. There may have been earlier groups who didn't get very far, and even some of the right initial group must have stopped along the way. Some of that group would have either stayed at the intermediate points or simply died off exploring. I mean, someone had to stay in France, for example. At every point there are probably lots and lots false branches. No, I expect it will take me much longer than it took them, since I have to go down so many paths to get the right ones." "So you're going to be gone for a long time?" I asked without emotion. He shrugged. "A long time by my consciousness. You'll be busy doing other things; you may not even be aware I'm gone. I could pop in at any point in time." "Of course," he considered, taking a mock drink of his mock beer, "the time frames will be hard to determine -- I expect 100,000 BC will look an awful lot like 150,000 BC to me. I haven't quite decided what to do about that." We thought about that for a few minutes in mutual silence. The wakers laughed behind us.

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"But what brings you looking for me, Michael Finley?" he asked cheerfully. "I'm sure you didn't come to inquire after my travel plans." "No, no, I didn't," I confessed. "I had a few things on my mind that I wanted to talk about." "Fire away," he said, turning back towards Dave and the crew. I turned to face him. Ishmael had always looked vaguely familiar to me, but I could never place him. Now that I thought I had the code, it seemed obvious, and I wondered how I could have missed it. I still had to ask him the questions, but I was pretty sure I already had the answers -and I didn't like them. "You know," I started in a pleasant tone, "I kept thinking about ghosts and why there might be ghosts." "It's natural, " he said breezily, but I thought I detected some uneasiness about the topic, "after all -- everyone wants to know where they came from." "I kept thinking -- I can understand one ghost. It's a fluke of nature, or maybe there is something unique about that ghost's situation that keeps him around. That's what I thought I was doing here, that I had something left undone that I had to do something about." His expression maintained his cool image, but I noticed him giving me a quick, almost worried look. He pretended to watch the person telling a story -- this one about a high school hijink -- while really listening intently for what I was going to say next. "Or I could understand lots of ghosts, everyone hanging around their lives. Even lots of multiple copies of the same person's ghosts, from all the possible outcomes from their lives."

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Now came the meat of it. I leaned towards him intently, and put my hand on his shoulder. His eye flickered to my hand, then dodged away. I suspected he knew where I was going, but he didn't say anything. He just continued to stare off at Dave and the others, trying to smile at their current story. The smile was game but unconvincing. "But what I couldn't make any sense of was two ghosts. It doesn't make any sense. One ghost or millions, OK; that's plausible. But not two. Two just doesn't work." Ishmael finally showed some reaction. The smile faded out from his face, and he started to nod his head in agreement, almost imperceptibly. "No, no, it doesn't, does it?" he said reluctantly. He took another drink from his beer, put it down by his elbow at the bar, and turned to face me full on. "So what do you make of that, Mick?" he asked doggedly, staring me in the eyes. I paused, suddenly losing some of my nerve. I looked away first. Then, almost shyly, I asked, "Ishmael isn't your real name, is it?" "It's what I'm called," he answered easily -- too flippantly, I thought. "Don't give me some Lewis Carroll nonsense about names, what things are called, what names of what things are called, and all that bullshit," I said a little hotly. I glared at him. "This isn't Alice in Wonderland." "Isn't it?" he murmured, almost to himself. Then, brightening some, "Touché on the reference, by the way. I didn't think you'd remember that." He looked over at Dave's group, almost affectionately. He was probably wishing he could just go back to listening in on them. I was tempted to just let it drop, and knew he was hoping I would. But I also knew we both realized I couldn't.

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"That wasn't the name you were born with -- was it?" I asked softly. He acknowledged this reluctantly with a brief nod, not turning his eyes away from the happy group in front of him. "What mother would name her child Ishmael?" he mused out loud. "Horrible. I don't even think Melville's Ishmael was really named Ishmael. Of course, when your own name is Herman, maybe anything else looks good…" He seemed amused by this. "And that's not what you looked like when you were alive, is it?" I prodded relentlessly. He sighed heavily, and faced me again. The sadness was evident on his face. I was so used to the sardonic, amused Ishmael that it almost broke my heart to see him like this -like seeing a photo in the newspaper of one of your movie idols caught, disheveled and surprised, in a personal moment by the paparazzi. "No, it's not," he admitted, before flashing an almost embarrassed grin and adding, "but it's how I thought I might want to look." Before my eyes, then, he began to change his appearance slowly. It was like a morphing scene in a movie, his features gradually but surely transforming themselves in front of me. He was me.

Chapter 36 He was me but not me. I never had a twin, but I've looked into a mirror lots of times. This was like looking into a mirror -- but not quite. Physically, we looked the same, down to the lines on our faces and the blemishes on our skins. Two peas in the proverbial pod.

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Yet still there was something different. Something in the eyes, something in the way he held his mouth; I didn't know what it was. It made me think, though, that this me was thousands of years older than me, that he'd seen and experienced so much more than I ever would -- or ever wanted to. Despite myself, I shuddered. I didn't know which was worse -- that time I'd first seen my dead body, or now, seeing my own ghost. In between, of course, I'd gotten used to seeing other "me"s -- all those Mike Finleys in the various versions of life I'd witnessed. But this was different; none of them was standing with me, facing me. I'd come to know and, yes, to like this Ishmael. Him being revealed as, well, me was like peeling away the curtain that hid the Wizard of Oz. Sure, I'd suspected as much -- just as I'd suspected the dead body on that long ago hospital gurney was me. But suspicions don't always prepare you for the real thing. Ishmael -- I couldn't stop thinking of him as that -- noticed, and smiled again sadly. "I know," he said sympathetically. "I look at you and I see the young man I once was. And even this you is so much older than you were when you first died. I guess being dead awhile robs you of some of your innocence, eh?" We stared at each other like two long lost brothers -- twins separated at birth. Or, in this case, at death. Around us, in the bar, things went on as before, but we paid them no mind. We knew we weren't missing anything; we could come back, at any point in time, to any point of time here in the bar. These living creatures and their fragile, onedimensional time lives could wait; we had things to talk about. "Why?" I managed to whisper. "Why?" he repeated, exhaling loudly and turning towards the bar. He rested his hands on it, and looked down at them. "Why, he asks. How can I explain?"

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"How is it even possible?" I protested. "I've never seen any other versions of me, in any of the lives I've seen myself living -- not from any of the deaths I've seen myself die. Why us?" "I was lonely," he said simply. It broke my heart. "I'm here because you were -- lonely?" I managed to get out incredulously. I'd have been less surprised if the world stopped spinning or if the sun rose in the west. He shook his head all too forlornly. "No, I suppose not. I've been lonely a long time. I don't know why you are here now. Hell, I don't even know why I'm here." "You must know," I challenged him, more out of desperation than hope. "What did you do? What was different this time? Think!" "I don't know," he said irritably. "I don't know, I don't know, I don't know! I wish I did but I don't." "I'm sorry," I apologized, my steam lost. "I just, I don't know, I just wish I understood some of this." He nodded; apology accepted. He rubbed his face as though it was hurting. A really scary thought occurred to me. "Have there been other "me"s? Other ghosts like me?" I could just imagine it -- an army of ghost clones, all identical, all searching for what they were doing here. He looked at me sympathetically. "No," he finally said. "No, you're the first. And I hope you are the last. It was hard enough learning about my life and what happens to everyone the first time. I thought it would be easier watching you do it -- but it wasn't. I don't want to go through that again."

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I stared blankly at the bar for awhile. I was aware of Ishmael watching me, his expression somewhere between concern and fondness. "Are you the same me?" I said unsteadily. "Did you live the same life I did?" He pursed his lips to consider this, or at least to consider his answer. "I think so," he said deliberately. "I was shot in the head like you were. Maybe it was one of those lives just very, very similar to yours -- but I think it was the same one." I laughed hoarsely. "So I'm really just a ghost of a ghost? It's not bad enough that I wasted my life and ruined Elizabeth's. I'm not even a real ghost!" I was chagrinned, and it showed. All that I'd been through, and now this. It was ironic, but I was beyond appreciating the irony of it. Fortunately, Ishmael was understanding. He patted my arm kindly. "No, you're real," he told me. "I don't know how, but you're real. You've done things differently than I did; you experienced things differently. You're your own ghost." Whatever that meant -- but it helped anyway. Anyone hearing this exchange would have guffawed at the ridiculousness of it, but perhaps would have been quieted when they saw the sincerity with which Ishmael told me that, or noticed the gratitude by which I received his words. I looked at him a long while, my mind racing furiously. "If I'm just a later -- or different -- version of you, and we can see each other, why can't we see ourselves or each other when we go back to visit times and places we once were in this state?" "It's a good question," he admittedly seriously. "I guess beings like us don't leave any 'marks' -- for lack of a better word -- on those time periods. Maybe there are some sort of meta-ghosts that can witness our comings and goings like we do the living."

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"Oh, great -- a hierarchy of ghosts. Ghosts, meta-ghosts, and so on. An infinite set of levels." A vision of this struck me, like some medieval picture of elephants on top of elephants on top of more elephants, all holding up the world. As the true believer told the dubious scientist who asked what was holding up the elephants -- it's elephants all the way down. In our case, though, I wasn't sure what supported our existence. Perhaps that is what came of my lacking that religious fear and wonder. "Kind of like Dante's hell," Ishmael tried to kid. I was not amused. "Well, if there are, we'll never know." I turned and watched Dave and Donna leaving; the party was over. This time, though, I knew where they were going, what they were going to say and do. I now knew things about Dave I'd never imagined while I was alive. I knew, for example, that on this night the one thing he wished he could do on this night was give -- and get -- comfort, from the woman he loved, and that he could do neither. Just like me. Unlike me, though, he was going to be able to do something about it. My death had strengthened his resolve to not miss the chance to be with Tara as soon as they could. "Things don't go so badly for him," Ishmael commented. "He and Tara end up happy, most likely." "I know," I agreed. "I was just envying him for knowing when to grab his chance." "You know, I was hoping you'd be different," Ishmael confessed out of the blue. "I was hoping that maybe your newer version of us would still be connected enough to that reality to get through to someone." "What about your insistence that we couldn't have any effect on that world?" "Well -- I was right, wasn't I?" he said, trying for a light tone but not quite hitting it. "Still, I could hope I was wrong. But it was the same for you as it was for me."

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We pretty much had the bar to ourselves. The bartenders were cleaning up, and the waitresses were clearing the tables and counting their night's worth of tips. Naked, the bar seemed larger and even lonelier than when it had been filled. Whatever human comfort there had been in here had gone. "If we've lost our ability to feel, why is this so hard on us?" I asked plaintively. "Is it any easier for you than me?" Ishmael's eyes revealed more than his words ever could. He looked around the now deserted bar, the quiet looming ominously over us. "If we still had the feelings we had when we were alive," he declared sadly, "we'd be crushed. Nothing could bear that weight, seeing all that we've seen." I nodded unhappily. By unspoken agreement, Ishmael and I went out to the nearly deserted parking lot. The few cars left must have belonged to those too drunk to drive -- like Donna -- or to those who had been lucky enough to pair up for the night. They'd retrieve them tomorrow morning, still in their Friday clothes and probably feeling more than a little sheepish about the night's events. Or, to be more charitable, maybe they would return eager and in love. I could, had I chosen, skipped ahead to find out what their stories were, but I had no interest. "Well, what now?" I asked curiously. I was reminded of Elizabeth's similar question to Tonya on what was, in their world, tomorrow night. Ishmael looked around, studying the stars in the clear sky, before coming around to regard me carefully. "I guess I'm off to Africa. Want to come?" I smiled painfully at him. Part of me was tempted, but more of me still felt my future belonged here, in my past. "No, but thanks. I'm not ready for that yet."

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He nodded his head slowly. "I thought not," he said with a slight break in his voice. "But I thought I'd ask. I guess that's it, then." He looked around as though this place had some sentimental meaning for him, and as if he might not see it again. There were memories here for us, past and current, but I wasn't quite sure why he seemed so struck by this place. It didn't occur to me until much later that perhaps this was the memory he was trying to preserve. "I guess so," I concurred. "But I guess I'll run into you sometime." "Mick," he told me seriously, bracing my arms with his hands for emphasis, "For your sake, for mine, and for Elizabeth's, I hope not." And he was gone.

Chapter 37 I was taken aback by his abruptness; it didn't feel like we had really ended that conversation. What had he meant by his parting comment? I didn't believe he was being malicious; I didn't believe he just wanted to be alone. Now that I'd confirmed my theory, I was in awe that he -- this other I -- had survived so long by himself in this literally godforsaken existence we were stuck in. I doubted I could do yet -- yet "I" had. So why now would he so blithely say goodbye to me, telling me he hoped he never saw me again? And what did that have to do with Elizabeth's sake? Well, of course, once I had time to think about our exchange, it became clear to me. Somehow, some way, Ishmael still hoped that I'd find a way to get out of this rut, to make a difference in that world we'd come from. He hadn't been able to figure out how, despite his countless years of trying, yet he still had that hope for me. It was typical Mike Finley, I thought sourly -- just walk away from the problem, thinking the next person along will take care of it. Even if that next person was me, so to speak.

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There wasn't much point in standing in this dark parking lot indefinitely. No ideas were going to come up and bite me while I was waiting here. I knew I was tired of exploring the possible lives of the people around me. Whether I was over that for good, or just had my fill for now, I wasn't sure. I didn't think it would help me with what I had to do now. For some reason I thought of a scene that I'd only had time to glimpse briefly while following Dave and Tara's lives together. This was, in fact, from the most likely life they'd have, one where they end up happy together, with Derek. It seemed like a peaceful scene, filled with several of the people I loved. And I didn't feel like returning to that lonely cemetery. I felt I could use the serenity that the Dave and Tara scene seemed to offer when I touched by it quickly the first time. So I went there. Dave and Annie were sitting on the deck of my parent's house. The event was the fourth birthday of Dave and Tara's daughter, Terri. Terri had been born two years after they got married, so Derek was now almost twelve. He and Annie's kids were throwing the football in the yard. They'd grown so much. Derek was nearly as tall as I had been; he would probably be taller than Dave by the time he finished growing. It was amazing. I stood against the railing, and watched Dave and Annie relaxing on the deck, stretched out my parents' lounge chairs, as they casually watched everyone else. Both Dave and Annie showed the passage of time. Annie still was pretty, but had a few more wrinkles than the last time I'd seen her when I was alive. I suspected that her nice hair color probably required some help to cover up some gray. Dave had put on a few pounds around his waist, and was starting to lose some of his hair. Still, they both looked good -- happy and healthy. And alive, of course. Derek looked good too. He threw the football with confidence, and had some of Dave's natural leadership with the other kids. Tara was standing near them, overseeing Terri and a couple of her friends playing on the driveway. She teased the boys occasionally, while

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they ignored her with that embarrassed air adolescents give their parents. Despite that, Tara glowed with the love she felt for her kids; no wonder Derek was embarrassed. "Derek sure has grown up, hasn't he?" Annie commented to Dave. "He's getting so big!" "So are your boys," Dave said calmly. "I'm beginning to feel like a runt. At least I still control the car keys. In a couple of years…" "Don't even think about it!" Annie laughed. She looked out fondly at Tara. "You and Tara sure make a great couple." "Thanks. It's hard to imagine that it almost never happened." Dave looked serious while he reflected on this. "How are Tara's parents?" Annie asked solicitously. They both took a quick look at my parents, who were sitting inside with Bill, Pat, Cathy, and their spouses. From having watched the outcomes of my parents' lives, I knew they weren't ever really happy after my death, but they took their comfort where they could get it -- especially from family get-togethers like this. Mom was holding Mike D'Angelo -- Dave and Tara's newest baby, who was nine months old. They'd named him after me, down to the middle name -- Quentin. I didn't know what to think of the little fellow. He might be blessed with my name, but I rather hoped he inherited more from Tara and Dave than from any of the Finley genes that had helped determine who I had been. "They're OK," Dave said casually. "I think little Mike may be a little much for them. Terri was OK, but he's a handful. No babysitting for them." "They're not what they used to be," Annie noted somberly. She took a long drink of her iced tea. "I don't think they ever recovered from Mike's death."

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"I'm a young man," Dave noted dryly, "and I'm not sure I've ever gotten over it either. But I know what you mean about them. They don't go out very much. They even have a landscaping service take care of the yard. I never thought I'd see that. You know" -- he gestured out at the boys -- "when we were kids they wouldn't have allowed us to play football on their grass. I never thought I'd say it, but I think I liked it better when they cared enough about the lawn to keep us off, just to know they cared that much about something. It's sad." I wasn't sure if Dave was being deep, or just polite, but what he said saddened me nonetheless. Those were my parents in there. Annie looked thoughtfully out at the various kids. "Do you ever talk about it with Derek?" Dave looked at her oddly. "I mean, about Mike and his death?" Dave made a face. "We've talked about it a few times. I guess he remembers Mike, but it's sort of distant to him." "My boys too." Annie temporarily looked crestfallen. I didn't know how to feel about this. Sad that Derek didn't remember much about me, and sad that he wouldn't cherish the memories of our times together like I did. Yet, at the same time, glad that my dying hadn't scarred him, that he was growing up to be a happy, healthy kid. It would be selfish, I admonished myself, to wish anything else for him. Children never value the times with their elders, at least not like the adults do. Or maybe the children don't gain that appreciation until they are older themselves, perhaps with their own unappreciative children. No matter; you love them anyway. Unseen my Dave and Annie, I smiled a sad little smile. "Terri, of course, doesn't absorb any of this. Derek is old enough to actually have the memories and to start to understand death, but he doesn't seem to think about it much. It may be better that way," Dave brooded. "We keep some pictures of Mike up, and of course his parents have that whole collection of stuff that Derek sees when he comes over here. But he was just too young to really understand."

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They sat in comfortable silence for several minutes. The sounds of screaming children filled the air, like the sound of pure joy. I looked out, imagining my children playing in that yard, my wife Elizabeth standing with Tara. It was not to be, and the absence of those could-have-been people cut my heart like a knife. "Do you ever see Elizabeth?" Annie asked tentatively. I gathered this topic came up only rarely, and with great delicacy. I wasn't sure I wanted to hear the answer, since I knew what it was going to be, but I stayed anyway. "No, not really," Dave answered at last. "You know we kept inviting her to family functions for a few years, but it just got too hard on her and she stopped coming. We thought we should just leave her in peace. She does still sends cards on the kids' birthdays and such." Annie looked over at him, wondering what he was not saying. Dave seemed absorbed in the scene in front of him. I kept studying each of them for clues to what they were thinking. "Paul tells me about her every so often," Dave said, breaking the reverie. "Paul?" "You know, Paul of Paul and Janet. Elizabeth's friends. I do business with Paul's new company, so we talk every so often." So Paul had made it into his own business; good for him. I was sure he'd do well. I made a mental note to check in on that when I got a chance. "How does he say she's doing?" Annie asked curiously.

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Dave shrugged. "I gather they're still in touch with her, but she doesn't make it easy for them either. It's like she doesn't really feel the need to be around people. She just seems to prefer to be alone most of the time. She is the godmother of their little girl, though." "It's too bad," Annie commented. Dave looked over at her again. "Yes, it is." They were silent for a few more minutes. I started to think about going in and sitting with my folks, or going out to stand with Tara. That little Terri seemed very cute, and very energetic. It would have been fun to play with her. I could see why Tara took so much pleasure in her company. I remembered feeling that way about Derek. "I read about Tonya and Alicia in the papers every so often," Annie offered. "Are you still in touch with either of them?" I smiled contentedly at this; proud that they were doing so well that they were staples in the news. "No, not really," Dave answered with a hint of disappointment. "They've gone on to do rather well, as you know. But I can't say I'm surprised." "It's funny," Annie said with a peculiar expression on her face, "that neither of them know about their connection through Mike." Dave laughed. "Yeah, yeah it is. I wonder what they'd do if they knew." He sat up and leaned over towards Annie. "Got to give Mick credit -- he had good taste in women." "Or they in men," Annie replied archly. "Point," Dave acknowledged. Unseen by either of them, I smiled again; did it really matter which way it went? I was lucky to have known each of them, and didn't care what had brought us together. Even a bet.

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"Who should he have ended up with, do you think?" Annie asked speculatively. "The rich and exotic Tonya, the ambitious and blonde Alicia, or the quiet recluse Elizabeth." Dave shot her a look. Annie had always treated my dating as a spectator sport, and I used to enjoy it. I used to be flattered by her almost possessive interest in who I was seeing and how long I'd be with them. But now it didn't seem so fun. Annie seemed to realize it too. She apologized, "I'm sorry, that was catty. I'm really sorry." "Elizabeth was -- is -- really special," Dave said in a soft voice. "I tell you -- if Mick were here now, and asked me who I thought he should pick, I'd tell him Elizabeth. I might not have been that smart when he was alive, but I've learned over the years what to appreciate." Inside, the baby cried, causing Tara to quickly glance at the house. Those maternal ears were extraordinary. Mom picked up his bottle and gave it to him, quieting him instantly. Dave and Tara made eye contact, relieved at another crisis averted. They smiled at each other while Annie observed the exchange. "So, are you going to call Mike 'Mick'?" she teased. Dave looked at her seriously. "No, I think not," he said. "We’ll let him grow into his own nicknames." You could call him Ishmael, I mused. There were worse things. It was unlikely, I conceded, but in a universe where almost anything could happen, almost everything does happen -- in some version. Just maybe not in this one. Too bad; the me known as Ishmael deserved to be remembered too. They sat in a comfortable silence again, glad for the break. Soon enough, though, Derek shouted, "Dad! Come throw us some long bombs!" Annie and Dave gave each other amused glances. I couldn't help but thinking that, if Richard had still been in the picture, Derek never would have asked him to play football

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with his friends. I doubted Richard even knew how to throw a football. Dave started to get out from his chair. "I guess I'll go see if the old man still has it," he said humorously. Annie got up too. "I'll go see if Tara needs any help." They started to walk off the deck. "You know," Dave offered, as though it was just occurring to him, "there was always something elusive about Mike." "Elusive?" Annie laughed. "Whatever do you mean?" They walked side by side out onto the grass. "Oh, I don't know," he hedged. "Maybe that's the wrong word." They reached Tara, and Dave hesitated. "Dave's just telling me how Mike was elusive," Annie told Tara. Dave looked embarrassed. Tara gave him a curious look. "Not elusive," Dave searched, looking away and holding up a hand to the boys, indicating that he'd be right over. "Maybe happy-go-lucky is a better word." Annie still thought Dave was joking, and teased him. "And I thought you were the daredevil." Dave's face brightened at the memory. "I was. But, you know, I always knew the risks I was taking, and I took them just to impress everyone. Mike, well, Mike just didn't think like that. He just did stuff and never worried about it." "It was always going to come out OK in Mike's world," Tara confirmed. "It was kind of maddening. Is that what you meant by elusive?"

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Dave rolled his eyes and smiled at the two women. "I don't know. I suppose so." He started to walk away, before pausing to add, "all I know is, where ever he is now, he's having a good time." With that, Dave trotted over to the boys, and soon was lobbing long throws to the eager would-be players. Annie and Tara watched him appreciably. If only he knew, I thought sadly. I wasn't having such a good time. I was pretty miserable, sick about the havoc I'd caused in Elizabeth's life and of the damage I'd caused my parents. It was nice that he thought of me as having a good time; I just wished I could live up to his image of me. "He's a good guy," Annie said appreciatively. Tara just smiled proudly. "The best." They stood, arms folded across their chest, while Terri and her friends jumped rope. It was such a nice scene. I stood enviously, eyeing the women, the kids playing with Dave, even my parents and aunts and uncles behind the picture window. It was such a tranquil scene that I again started to envision Elizabeth there -- maybe not with me, but with some newer love, and their child. She deserved that, in this life, not in some far off, lower probability life. All of the possible lives should have seemed equally valid to me, but I was still drawn by old ties to the lives that came most likely out of the life I'd led, and so abruptly left. This was the life that mattered to me; this was the world I'd known and been part of. I wanted Elizabeth here, now. I wanted her happy and sharing in the warmth of the love these people had with and for each other, love that Elizabeth deserved and should have had. I wanted to give her now the kind of peace that she, and only she, had been able to bring me when I was alive.

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For a few seconds the wish was so strong that I almost really did see her, as though one of those parallel universes was crashing through to this one. I could have just switched around until I found such a scene in another life, but I liked imagining Elizabeth happy in this scene, in this version of the world; not in some remote chance version. My imagination was more powerful, and more comfortable, than other realities I could have visited. It would have taken such a little change to bring Elizabeth to this party, to allow her to have continued her life happily, I thought wistfully. A few words, a look -- all she had needed was to be sure that I'd loved her. I had failed her then, and I was still failing her now. Maybe this was all my imagination. Maybe I was only a figment of Ishmael's imagination, or he of mine. Maybe all these worlds, all these lives, were no more real than my picturing Elizabeth here was. That was a dreary thought. I wasn't sure I really cared anymore what the truth was. The only thing I felt sure of was the existence of this ghost of love linking me to Elizabeth, haunting me with thoughts of things undone and words unsaid. It was more real to me than I was to myself, in some curious way. Maybe it was more real; maybe it was the only reason I was here. Ishmael wasn't quite right, I knew. We ghosts didn't lose our ability to feel, at least not entirely. But what he meant was that this existence of ours, with so much time passing, and so many events witnessed, just wore out that ability. I didn't know what the limit for feeling tragedies was, but there was a limit; you would naturally just become numb after so long. And, if it still hurt too much, you would just opt to not witness the hard parts. You would go on to some happier life. But even then, how many times could you watch even the best of scenes before it becomes old? Do you still cry at the end of "Casablanca" after watching it a hundred times? A thousand times? There just are limits. Emotions weren't designed to have to last so long.

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I thought back to how I was as a ghost at first. So bumbling, so fumbling -- so pathetic that it was almost comical. I looked at those times now, when things had been simpler somehow, with something that might have been nostalgia, but might also have been pity or even scorn. No, no, I had changed all right, and not for the better. I had lost, or was losing, the ability to be sympathetic even to myself. And Dave -- Dave was so sure that I was having a good time, wherever I was. He was thinking of that Mike that took risks without questioning them, who jumped off the plane confident that the parachute would open. I wished I could tell them that I'd lost that somehow, for nothing I'd done in this existence had been like that. All I'd been was cautious and doubting. Death had robbed me of more than my life; it had taken the essence of me too, and left me as this moping creature that I could barely stand, filled with regret. I'd been forced to trade knowing what should have become of my life for the quality that had made all those alternate lives possible -and I wasn't sure that was a good trade. In fact, I was sure it was not. On second thought, I was glad I didn't have to tell them of that loss. Then again, why did I have to give up the one to get the other? Maybe that quality of unconscious optimism could serve me now. That would be a fair trade -- giving up my living life to make a difference while in this existence, to help those left behind in that other world. To help Elizabeth. I took a long look at this scene. Tara was still holding forth with the young ones, standing with Annie at her side; still best friends, after all these years. Dave was proving himself to be more than a match for the young teenagers, and showing off a little for his loving wife. My parents, well, they weren't the happiest they'd ever been, but days like this were among the best they had since my death.

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These people were so filled with that elusive quality called life. I'd once had that. Elizabeth was down here somewhere, probably sitting in her house alone and pensive. She, too, had lost some of that spirit of life; my death had robbed her of it too. It was slowly ebbing out of her while she was still alive, so that when the end finally came it would be hard to tell when that final moment was, that separation between being alive and being gone. It wasn't fair; it wasn't right. I wanted her here, full of life, full of joy, and surrounded by other people I cared about. I wanted that air of melancholy banished; indeed, I wanted her luminously happy, as I knew she could be. I no longer cared if it was without me; I didn't have to be the cause of her joy. I just wanted her to have her life back. I wanted her confident and able to give her love again. It wouldn't take much; all I needed was just a little change in how things had happened. Ishmael had warned me over and over that I couldn't affect them, that their world and mine were separate. I could look but I couldn't touch. He knew what he was talking about; he must have had the same desires and wishes I had. He was just another version of me, after all. But the old Mike Finley, that Mick that people here had loved so much, wouldn't have believed him. Alicia, Tonya, Elizabeth -- they had all had more faith in me that I had in myself. They had seen things in me that I hadn't seen. They had loved me for my casual optimism and my trust that things would always work out. Even Ishmael had more faith in me than I had. All I had to do was do it. All I had to do was have faith. All I had to do was -- just jump…

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Chapter 38 I was so comfortable. I was not sure where I was, or how I got here, but none of that mattered. I just knew that I wanted to stay here. It was so peaceful, and I was so content. It felt like I was laying on my back, floating weightlessly. I imagined idly that perhaps I was floating on a raft in the water, in a pool somewhere. I believed I could feel some warm moisture bathing my head and body. Or maybe, I thought, I was floating in the sky. Only the clouds could be so soft, so warm and inviting. This thought did not seem in the least bit unusual to me. I had my eyes closed, and I felt like I was ready to drift off into unconsciousness again. That black abyss was so desirable; all my cares and worries would be forgotten, and I could just enjoy this relaxed state of pure happiness. But something in the back of my mind kept nagging me, kept telling me not to slip away just yet. Almost against my will, my eyes forced themselves open. At first, I couldn't see anything. All was brightness, as though I were staring directly into a bright bank of soft lights. I felt like a newborn baby, not knowing how to understand the signals coming to his brain from his eyes, and just wanting to go back to the womb. Gradually my eyes adjusted to the light, and I could make out several beautiful white clouds floating aimlessly above me. I was right, I thought with satisfaction. I'm here floating in the clouds, drifting with the winds. No where to go, nothing to do. Just lie here and enjoy it. But still there was that nagging in my head -- not yet, it urged. I couldn't understand why it didn't just let me float. Something appeared between me and the soft lights. I couldn't make it out initially, then it slowly moved closer to my field of vision and I could see that it was a beautiful woman, the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen or imagined. It was an angel, I

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concluded dreamily, come to make sure everything is fine. Yes, angel, everything is perfect, at least if only I could remember what that annoying nagging voice in the back of my head wanted, or if it would just stop complaining and let me sleep again. I peered eagerly to better see the face of the angel as she bent towards me. Around this time I began to be aware of some sounds, and only then realized that there had been a complete absence of sound in my little paradise before. These new sounds were indistinct, but started to sound like perhaps they were voices, calling from some vast distance. I decided to ignore them; what could they be saying that I would care about? The angel's face wafted closer to mine. I could see now that her mouth was moving, and that some of the sounds I had heard calling from a distance were coming from her mouth. She did not look happy, which upset me. How could anyone be unhappy here, in this paradise of comfort and ease? It was odd, I thought sleepily, that she seemed so close, yet sound took so long to get to my ears. It must be some sort of optical illusion, I decided. The sounds were voices calling my name, I recognized in amazement. Why were people calling my name, calling out "Mike" or "Mick" in urgent voices? I didn't like that urgency; nothing on my floating cloud was urgent, nothing was wrong. All was peaceful and quiet. I resented the noise, resented the calling. I should close my eyes and those annoying noises would be gone. The angel's face was Elizabeth, I realized with a start. Her mouth was forming the word "Mick" in a horrified cry that took eons to go from her mouth to my ears. She had never looked so beautiful to me, but she was so upset! Why was she so upset, I pondered sluggishly? I longed to reach out and touch her, to comfort her, but I realized I had no arms. I couldn't feel my body; I was just floating without a body on this pretty cloud.

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I was glad it was her. There was no one else I would want with me on my cloud. It would be so nice to lay here with her next to me, holding her close. It would be even nicer than just being here already was. But I somehow knew that she didn't belong here, that clouds were not meant for two. That made me sad. She was going to have to go away. I didn't want to be sad, but more, I didn't want her to be sad. That was the voice in the back of my head talking to me, trying to make me understand what I hadn't before. Oh, Elizabeth! I've learned so much, and I have so much to tell you! Only, first, let me close my eyes and go back to floating, just for awhile. My eyes started to close. Then I remembered what the voice inside my head had been trying to tell me, what that little ghost had been haunting me for. I had something I needed to do before I slept again, before I floated away on my wonderful cloud. I summoned all my strength, and forced my eyes open one more time. I found, from some reservoir of will that I did not know I had, the power to speak. "I love you, Liz," Then all went black.

THE END

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