Annie was being punished.
It was hard to tell what for or how long it had been. Time wasn’t something that really made much sense to her anymore.
She had been torn from her life and that was enough to make it precious even though she had been rather tired of it before that point.
She could only remember a few times in her existence when she’d been as terrified as she was now. Once when she was little and it was Christmas time, she’d lost her mother in a crowd and it had been dark and cold, freezing her with terror. Suddenly a giant Father Christmas had been illuminated in the store window and her heart had pounded and she’d screamed until her mother had found her again.
The first time Owen had hit her was the second time. She’d gone out to tea with an old schoolmate who happened to be male and during an innocent recounting of her day Owen had exploded with an ugly rage, pushing her against the wall. She’d had one split second of realizing that her life was going to be like this and it had chilled her from head to toe.
The third time was when Mitchell had gone off to kill Herrick and George had left to pursue his own life (or so she’d thought at the time) and she’d been left all alone with sudden voices in her head and people crying out around her in anguish. The seconds before the other ghost had appeared and clued her in to what was going on had seemed to stretch forever.
Then there was being dragged into Purgatory. She had wanted to go but not like this, not with someone’s blood on her hands, not really being able to say goodbye, with her promise to George hanging over her head. The corridor pulling her backward was dark and deep and appeared to be endless.
When she could finally see again she was in a white room, a white counter along one wall, white doors along the walls leading to somewhere. There were other people there but they mostly didn’t pay attention to her, almost like they couldn’t see her. There were forms lined up on the counter and the only thing she knew for certain was that she had to fill them out.
People came to and from the room but Annie seemed to stay forever. No one spoke to her, and when she tried to speak to them she was ignored. Other people could leave the room but she couldn’t. When she tried, the door vanished and reappeared on the other side of the room. Sometimes people vanished and even though no one said anything she could feel the fear in the room. There were strange sounds, whispers and bells and buzzers, and she couldn’t ignore them no matter how hard she tried. The unknown was what was so terrifying about this place, this Purgatory. She almost wished whatever punishment they had lined up for her would just happen and then at least she would know.
In the isolation she let her thoughts drift to George and Mitchell and Nina and her longing for them intensified until it seemed to rest underneath her skin like a volcano under the surface of the earth, only waiting for an opportunity to erupt.
She had one moment of clarity and it happened when she was thinking about Mitchell and his almost death, about how conflicted she’d felt, knowing she couldn’t leave him, but knowing her door was waiting for her. Thinking about that moment made her current separation worse. She would give anything for a door leading back. She needed to know what had happened at the facility. That was the worst part, the not knowing. What had Kemp done to George and Nina? What had become of Mitchell? She focused all her thoughts on Bristol and their home and suddenly there was a large pop in her ears, a tingling all over her body, the volcano of longing erupting. She could feel what to do, how to access the knowledge that she wanted.
Almost without any idea of how it was happening she could see what was occurring to the people she loved. She saw Mitchell and George and Nina; Kemp was there too, and a bleeding Lucy. She didn’t know where they were; it was neither their house nor the facility, but Lucy was lying prone, Mitchell kneeling next to her, and Kemp was holding Nina with a sharp stake to her neck. A fierce anger rose inside Annie and she wanted to make him pay for what he’d done, for the contempt he’d shown for her decision to live, his selfish desire to arrange the world to his own design, and for his brutality against her friends, even Lucy, whom Annie had always felt rather indifferent about.
The rage was white hot and she almost felt like she was glowing, her body even more insubstantial with her desire to make him hurt, and to free her friends from his influence.
From what she could tell Annie had always been more solid than other ghosts, like she somehow remembered what a body was supposed to feel like, but now she was weightless, perfectly free of any kind of tether. With a wave of her hand a door appeared in front of her and she was through it, rent-a-ghosting quickly to Kemp, catching one brief glimpse of her friends before she’d shoved Kemp back through the door and flung him toward the darkness as far as she could throw, his screams echoing in her head over and over.
The weightlessness left and her stomach boiled over with lead, exhaustion flooding her. She was back in the white room and she was shaking all over, curling up on the ground, hardly able to believe what she’d just done. The dark fury she’d felt was gone, leaving her twisted and broken inside, ashamed and so relieved at the same time. Kemp was gone and a part of her would never be sorry for it.
She was there alone, no one else to see the quivering mess on the floor that had once been Annie Sawyer. She got herself under control slowly, standing, but she had one last bit of longing left and somehow she was able to see her friends, to see George and Nina and Mitchell.
"Annie!" said George.
"Can you hear me?" she asked, holding her hands up, wishing she could touch them.
She was nervous. Things were happening. They were angry with her, whoever they were. She could just tell. It was like there was something unlocked inside her - she had secret access to the other side and how it worked. She was still confused, still lost, but something inside her knew what was happening, like she’d spun the dial to the right frequency at last.
"Yeah!" cried Mitchell. "We can hear you and see you."
"Are you guys safe now?" she asked.
"Yeah. You saved us," said George.
"Annie," said Mitchell, his voice broken, "are you okay?"
"Yeah, yeah," she said, not really wanting to scare them. "It's just a bit complicated. Um, I miss you."
"Oh, we miss you too, Annie," he burst out.
"What's it like there?" asked George.
She didn't want to say, she didn't know what to say, but it poured out of her anyway.
"We wait. We each have a number and we wait for someone to call our number, and then we move to another room and we wait there. But then people disappear and no one ever mentions why. And there are bells and there are buzzers and there are whistles. We have to…we have to fill in this form. And the people. The people behind the doors, they whisper. I don't know what we're waiting for to happen, but sometimes I wish it would-it would just happen. I'm really frightened of what it might be." She paused and looked over her shoulder again. "They're…they're really angry with me for getting Kemp. Because they say there isn't a form for that.” The images of George and Mitchell had knelt in front of her, putting their hands to match hers as she held them up. “I-I have to go, but, please, don't forget me, will you?"
"No," said Mitchell.
She thought she’d always remember that quaking feeling, the sobs hoarse in her throat, the tears stinging her eyes, a shadow of physical pain that felt all too real, while she watched them cry. But then her brief reprieve was over, and she could feel the anger and watchfulness around her grow. She had to leave them.
Things were different after that. She wasn’t in the waiting room - well, sometimes, but there was a different white room, with a grating like a prison, a simple bench the only thing inside it.
People came to see her, giving her forms to fill out. She couldn’t ever remember what was on the forms though she felt like they were more like tests than forms. There was a right answer – she just didn't know it. She couldn’t remember what the people looked like either. Sometimes she thought they looked like pictures of news anchors and commercial actors she’d seen on the television. Others appeared as wispy see-through specters. She hated the Gray Man but she never remembered that until he came back again.
He was thin, so thin, everything about him bland and gray and normal and somehow terrifying. His voice grated in her head, his touch was freezing, and he kept asking her questions she didn’t want to answer. When he didn’t like the answers or when she didn’t answer, he would sigh and talk to her about the thing she didn’t ever want to remember. Dead men with sticks and rope.
It lasted forever, though time still didn’t seem to mean anything, and then during one visit the Gray Man told her they were building a special room for her because she was so wrong and then no one would ever see her again.
She closed her eyes and thought of Bristol again, but, just like always, she could never find it. Instead, she thought of Mitchell, of how he hugged her, how he made her laugh, how he hated to admit he didn’t know something, how much pain he went through, how he never knew he needed them as much as they needed him.
And then there he was, like a picture, just behind the grating she clung to.