The pearly gates weren’t what John had been expecting. He wasn’t even sure it was to Heaven that they led, just that something inside of him drew him to them. He’d expected nothingness to come after plunging the knife into his chest, given that he’d long since lost his soul, but he found that his consciousness persisted on after his demise, pulling him to what every ghostly neuron in his brain told him was the Exit.
It was the entrance to the Tunnel of Love ride, except that overlaid on the physical world was a bored ghostly figure standing at a semi-transparent ticket booth by the entrance. She was leaning on her palm propped up by her elbow when he approached, and she barely glanced at him when he came close.
“It costs one soul to enter,” she said.
“Where does this go?” he asked.
“To the next place,” she answered noncommittedly.
“I can’t imagine I’d like it there.”
She finally looked up at him properly. “You won’t like it here.”
“Well, I haven’t got a soul.”
“Not my problem,” she answered, dropping back down on her palm. “Come back when you’ve got one.” With her free hand, she made a shooing motion, and John turned and glided off.
He tried to return to his apartment, only to find that it had been torn down. With a start, he realized that he’d lost time since the incident on the beach. He wondered where Kate was, and the heart he no longer physically had ached.
A woman walked past the remnants of the building, and he tried to hail her, but she paid him no heed. Of course. He was a ghost now. The awful hunger was gone, but he could no longer interact with the physical world like he had before.
He found Kate at her workplace, which was when he realized just how much time he’d lost. While she carried a tray full of breakfast in one hand, she had a baby balanced on her other hip, walking carefully such that she dropped neither.
The glass window of the building was no barrier to John in his new ghostly form. He glided through, no one paying him the slightest heed. He was discovering there was a loneliness to being a ghost worse even than he prior existence.
Kate set the tray down on the edge of the table and began shifting the plates before the customers, a gaggle of grandmothers who cooed at the baby.
“What’s her name?” one of the grandmothers gushed.
“Jean,” Kate said proudly, “after her father.”
“Where is he, that you are here working with a babe on your hip?” asked another one of the grandmothers sharply. Disapprovingly.
“He’s passed, I’m afraid,” Kate said.
“And didn’t he leave you anything?” asked the same grandmother. One of her compatriots tried to shush her.
“That’s how life goes,” Kate said. She bounced her daughter – their daughter – on her hip. “She’s quite a gift on her own.”
With a curse no one heard, John left the diner, gliding in the direction of the bank. In the week after he’d kissed Tom out of Kate’s life, he hadn’t been idle. There had been papers he’d drawn up. But he hadn’t finished them. He hadn’t gotten them over to his lawyer’s office.
To his surprise, when he stepped through the doors of the bank lobby, the clerk looked up and said, “Welcome.”
John looked around, but no one had entered behind him. “You can see me?” he asked. “Hear me?”
The clerk gave a nervous chuckle. “Yes, sir.”
John didn’t waste time wondering. He didn’t know how long this intersection of the mortal realm and the ghostly realm would last.
“I need to see my safe deposit box.”
“Of course, sir. Do you have the key?”
John patted his pockets and discovered that he did. He held it out, and the clerk motioned for him to follow. Down the stairs they went into the safe deposit area. John asked for a pen, and then the clerk left him alone.
He rifled through his papers until he found the Power of Attorney documents he’d had drawn up. All he needed to do was sign them. When that was done, he shut everything but them back in the box and carried them up to the lobby.
“Do you have an envelope?” he asked the clerk.
The clerk produced one, and John dropped the Power of Attorney papers and the key to his safe deposit box inside, sealing it up. He put the return address as the bank and addressed it to his lawyer. He handed both over to the clerk, asking him to mail them out.
“Yes, sir,” the clerk said. He disappeared into the back, and when he came back out, he looked around in confusion, even though John was standing right in front of him. “Guess he had to leave in a hurry,” the clerk said at last. He shrugged and returned to his station. John realized that he was intangible and invisible again.
Kate had just finished her shift when the woman in the pantsuit came in. She was dressed fancier than the diner usually got – no point getting all-day breakfast grease on such fine apparel – but she did not take a seat and a menu. Instead, she asked something of one of the other servers, who pointed at Kate.
The woman strode over to Kate.
“Excuse me, ma’am, could we take a seat? There’s some business we need to discuss.”
Confused, Kate complied. The woman chose a table with a baby booster seat at it, and Kate set Jean down in it. She gurgled and cooed at the world.
“I’m Penny Mulligan,” the woman said. “I’m a junior associate at the firm that represents the affairs of Mr. John Tusk.”
Kate’s breath caught in her throat.
“What about him?” she croaked out. “I haven’t seen him-” Realizing how that made her sound, she forced her mouth shut.
Penny set an attaché case on the table and looked at her sympathetically.
“Things didn’t end well between you two?”
Kate shook her head and then gave a nervous laugh. “I’m probably better off alone. Can’t be h-” She forced herself to stop again, furious with herself for speaking so freely with a stranger. The last time she’d been so careless with her words, it had been right before everything’d gone wrong with John.
Penny reached out a hand and laid it gently on top of Kate’s.
“You aren’t alone,” she said. With her free hand, she loosened her collar and pulled her top open enough for Kate to see her collarbone. There was a nasty scar there. “Carl,” Penny explained. “My ex-boyfriend.”
“If you need protection from Mr. Tusk, I’ve got contacts who-”
“That won’t be necessary,” Kate said hastily. “John won’t bother me.”
“Are you sure?”
Kate nodded. “It’s just-” She felt her nerve shake, and her eyes were getting wet. Penny took a disposable napkin from the dispenser and handed it to her. “It’s just, never gonna trust again, you know? That’s what he left me with: this beautiful angel of a child and a lifetime of being single.”
Penny nodded. “I suppose this brings me to why I’m here.”
“What do you mean? Oh, God, why am I tell you all this?”
“Because you need to talk about it,” Penny said. “No wound heals unless you disinfect it. Trust me, I know.” She nodded at the scar on her collarbone.
Kate sucked in breath and nodded. “He was just so kind at first.”
Penny nodded sadly. “And then you never trust kindness again.”
“Right,” Kate said. “But, wait, sorry, why did you come here?”
Penny opened up the attaché case and withdrew the Power of Attorney documents. She slid them over to Kate to look at.
“These came in the mail the other day. Mr. Tusk has given you full control of his estate.”
“Excuse me, did you say they arrived recently?”
“But that’s impossible. He’s-” She caught herself and then finished, “-missing.”
Penny shrugged. “Maybe they got lost in the mail.”
“Maybe,” Kate said distractedly. On impulse, she turned and looked around the diner. And for a brief few moments, she saw him. He was standing only a few feet away, semi-transparent. He started when he saw that she could see him and then took a long step forward.
“I’m sorry,” he said softly, and then he was gone. Kate turned back to Penny.
“Did you see that?” she asked.
Penny looked at her, confused. “See what?”
Kate smiled. John had money, she knew that. If nothing else, she’d be able to afford a proper sitter for Jean. Quite possibly she could quit working altogether and focus on raising her daughter.
“Never mind,” she told Penny. She smiled at her. The other woman was quite pretty. “Have you been on a date? Since Carl, I mean?”
Penny’s lips twitched in the beginning of a grin. “Are you asking?” Doubt suddenly crossed her face. “Unless, if I misread your signals…”
“You didn’t,” Kate said. She giggled nervously. “Never dared to ask a lady out before,” she admitted.
“I only had two girlfriends back in college,” Penny said, “so I’m not much more experience than you.”
“Well then,” Kate declared, “let’s give it a shot.”
They made plans and exchanged telephone numbers. Maybe she didn’t quite trust Penny’s kindness yet, as no doubt Penny hesitated to trust hers. Maybe it’d all go up in flames, and she’s just get hurt some more. But the sudden financial security Kate had spent a lifetime missing made her wanted to try her luck.
John waited, invisible once more, until they had left. He hoped that things worked out for them. After the shit Kate had been put through by Tom and John himself, she deserved a spot of happiness.
He sighed. Eternity stretched out before him, and he didn’t know what he was going to do with it. He couldn’t just haunt Kate for the rest of her life; she deserved better than that.
A glow from the table distracted him. He could have sworn it hadn’t been there before. When he bent closer to examine it, his ghostly heart beat faster as he recognized it. He’d consumed enough of its kind in his cursed existence to know what it was.
It was a soul.
He reached out and touched it gently, and it slid into him, like a rubber band snapping back into place. It didn’t sit in him like the souls he’d consumed had. Rather, it wrapped around him like a warm blanket, like it was his soul that had been lost so long ago.
“Impossible,” he whispered. He looked up at the dim ceiling lights of the diner as phantasmal tears slid down his face.
Then he headed to the exit.