“Miss Rosie Wolfe. Rosie Wolfe?”
I open my eyes. A girl shakes my shoulder. She wears a creamy-colored shirt with black pants. She looks to be about my age. Maybe a little bit younger. Her eyes look scared. Nervous, maybe.
“Thank goodness you’re awake. I was worried you weren’t gonna pass over.” The girl hands me a piece of paper. “She’s been waiting for you for ten minutes. She hates to wait, so you better get up and go to her office.”
Then the girl leaves.
“Who?” I call after her. My voice comes out hoarse and tired. If she hears me it doesn’t matter, because she doesn’t come back.
That’s when I realize I’m in a hospital. Only I’ve never seen a hospital room like this. The sheets are dark gray, and so are the walls. There’s a cold feeling in this room. Like someone left the
window open somewhere. I glance at the walls around me and there’s not even one painting. When Dad stayed in the hospital, there were at least a few images of flowers and happy things. These walls are blank.
I get out of bed, walk to the door, and peek outside into a hall.
Two women head in my direction. They wear the same outfit as the girl. Flat cream-colored shirt and black pants. A few feet from them is a desk. Another woman sits there.
I take a deep breath and go to her.
She types fast on her computer, like maybe each hand is in a race with the other.
Before I can say anything, she speaks in a grumpy tone.
“What’s the number say? Anne has yet to direct someone into the right room.” She types for a minute more and then glances up at me. She looks like she hasn’t slept in a hundred years.
“Uh, the nurse gave me this,” I say, handing the old woman the piece of paper. She glances at it, and then back at me.
The air feels cold, but I don’t have goose bumps. I don’t even feel cold, but the air does. Like when I breathe, I can feel a chill on my lungs, or throat.
“It says, ‘Go to room thirteen.’ That means go to room thirteen. What’s so confusing about that?” She holds the paper up for me to look at.
She has an annoyed look on her face. Like I’ve ruined her day.
“And if you believe that that girl is a nurse, then you’re in trouble. If that girl was left in charge of someone’s care, I can’t imagine what would happen. Dead or alive,” the lady says.
I feel my face go red. I shouldn’t be embarrassed; I don’t know her. Does she have to be mean? Is it part of her job?
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I guess I didn’t know which room that was.
Where am I? Is my mom here? Maybe staying in a different room?”
I can still hear Mom’s voice in my head.
Calling my name.
She sounded so far away.
Just the thought makes me want to cry my eyes out in front of this grumpy old secretary. Or whatever her job duties are. Maybe she’s the nurse and the last girl was the secretary? Either way, I do not like it here. If I wasn’t sad before I certainly am now. This place is about as inviting as the hotel in a horror movie. Even the carpet is gray and depressing.
I hope Mom’s okay. What would I do if something happened to her?
The lady laughs and shakes her head.
I didn’t think it was possible to laugh without smiling, but I guess this lady has accomplished it.
“Just go down that hall.” She points to her left.
I hesitate, and then walk down the way she points.
The walls are that same gross stormy-gray color. It reminds me of a dark cloud on a summer day. I hadn’t noticed before, but some of the doors have numbers written on the front.
Ten. Eleven. Twelve.
Did my room have a number on it?
The farther down the hall I go, the bigger the numbers get. And the bigger the numbers get, the warmer the air feels. Everything around me seems to get brighter. I glance back at the nurse, and it’s like a stormy sky hangs above her head. Even though she’s just a little ways from me, she’s almost in a different world. A sadder world.
When I get to the end, I see a big door with the number thirteen on the front. Next to it is a desk, with another woman in the same outfit as the first two. Only this lady doesn’t look as grumpy. She’s actually pretty. With light-colored hair, and bright skin.
For some reason when I look at her, I know something bad has happened.
As happy as she looks, is as scared as I feel. The more she smiles at me, the more I know fear. I probably look like I’ve seen a ghost. I feel like I’ve seen a ghost.
“Stay calm,” I whisper, but it’s hard to because I’m all alone with these strangers in this grim, depressing place.
Strangers and mean secretaries and nurses who have no idea where to direct people.
Just stay calm.
“Are you Rosie? She’s been waiting more than fifteen minutes for you. What was the holdup?” When she speaks, her voice cracks, like she’s spent her whole life smoking up a storm. I wasn’t expecting her to sound like that.
I try to say something but she interrupts me again.
“Just go in. She doesn’t like to wait.” The lady gives me a funny face after she says this. My bad feeling gets worse.
I’m surprised when I walk into the room. There’s another woman, yes, only this lady has long white hair, light skin, and glassy blue eyes. She wears a black dress and sits at a desk that I would imagine a rich businessman would have in his office.
“Rosie. Finally. Please come in. I don’t have all day. Sit.” The lady gestures to the chair in front of her desk.
This room doesn’t look like it should even be in a hospital.
It’s nothing like the halls or the place I just woke up in.
The walls have photos all over. Pictures of this woman with famous people. Dead famous people, actually. Gandhi. Elvis. Lou Reed.
Whoever did the Photoshop knows what they’re doing. How did they make the images look so real?
I look back at the woman. She must be in charge here. She must be the one to help me figure out what is going on.
Am I sick?
Even worse, is Mom?
My hands shake.
The lady points to the chair again, so I sit. There’s a stack of papers on her desk.
“Are you here to help me?”
Am I asleep? I hide my hands under her desk and pinch myself.
The lady glances at me.
“Are you a nightmare?” I pinch myself again. I can’t feel a bit of pain. Maybe I am dreaming. I really, really hope I’m dreaming.
“Stop pinching yourself. Everyone thinks that the first day.” Guess not.
I glance down at my hands under her desk. How did she know?
She sets a piece of paper in front of me. Tiny text covers the front and back, and there are two lines at the bottom that I assume are for signatures.
“What’s this?” I ask. “And how did you know I was pinching myself?” She looks at me and smiles, just a little bit, but doesn’t say anything.
A contract? It’s hard to know because the font is so tiny. Whoever printed this didn’t plan on someone reading it.
I start to panic, but I take a few deep breaths. Mom taught me
when I’m nervous to just breathe, even if I have something to panic about.
Everything is fine.
This office smells like nothing I’ve ever smelled before.
It smells so good I can almost taste it.
Strawberries? Peaches? Why didn’t the rest of this place smell nice? Out in the halls it almost felt sterile. Or maybe I imagined it that way?
“That’s your work contract, and to be honest, there’s no point in reading it. It’s nonnegotiable. If you don’t sign it, you’re not free to move on.” She opens a drawer and pulls out a pen. There’s a black heart at the top. Like something I’d find in a party store.
“Sign at the bottom and I’ll give you the first of the three names,” she says.
She looks bored with me. Maybe she has somewhere else to be.
Either way, she’s not very pleasant to be around.
Rude and impatient. And she hasn’t even told me what’s going on.
“Move on to where? Three names for what? I want to go home,” I say. I glance down at the paper and then back up at all the pictures.
This woman with all these dead celebrities. All these look-alikes.
Am I in a circus or something?
“Where’s Mom? Did she get hurt? Why am I here?” My voice starts to rise. I know I need to relax. Try to breathe, but I can’t.
How did I get here?
Why is this happening?
“Who are you? What is this place?” I stand and back toward the door. Now my legs shake.
“Wait one moment,” the woman says.
She gets out of her chair and walks to the door, then shouts, “Anne, I have had it with you. Your only job was to tell her and you forgot? Get out of here. You’re on probation for the next seven days.”
She slams the door shut and sits back down in her chair. She picks up the phone on her desk and clicks a number. “Hi, yes, that girl has been a pain in my ass since day one. I’d like her moved to a different department, please.” She hangs up the phone.
For someone who just screamed her brains out, she’s not even flushed. Her hair hasn’t moved.
I’m in a crazy home.
I’m in a peach-smelling crazy home.
My nerves must have gotten the better of me, and Mom must have admitted me.
Did I have a breakdown because of Dad?
“Rosie, I have some news,” the lady says. She gives me one of those faces.
The faces that say, I’m sorry but . . .
“I knew it.” Tears rush up on me.
I have lost my mind because of Dad.
The breathing didn’t keep me sane.
Neither did the cooking.
I’ve turned into a total cuckoo bear.
“You didn’t survive the accident,” she says.
She hands me a tissue.
“Huh?” I say. I sound like a lost child.
“I know it’s a lot to take in right now, but I’m busy. So if you could get the cry over with so you can start your work, I’d appreciate it,” she says.
She doesn’t look busy. She looks like she’s trying to ruin my life.
“Is this some sort of joke? Who are you? Why am I here? This isn’t funny!” I shout at the woman, and she doesn’t even flinch.
Someone’s playing a game with me.
Someone’s trying to make me think I’m crazy. That’s what this is.
“I’m not really crazy. I know this is a terrible trick,” I say. I try to use a tough voice, but I sound even more like a crybaby than I did before.
“Carrie didn’t like your outfit. You walked home to change. Only you never made it. Remember that white dog you tried to keep from getting hit by the truck? Do you remember now? You’re dead, Rosie. It was your time.” The woman uses a bitchy tone when she speaks.
But . . .
It all starts to come back.
The walk home.
I saw that dog for three days. Then that evening it just appeared in the road. And that truck was going to hit it.
Mom calling my name.
The rain on my face.
“Good. You remember,” the lady says. “I don’t have the time or interest to let you grieve in my office. Take this information and get out. Thank you.”
She opens another drawer and pulls out a folder.
“You’ll get your second name after you gather the first soul. I’ll be checking up on you. Me, or one of the girls.”
I glance at the dead celebrities again.
This isn’t where you go when you die.
None of this is right.
“If I’m dead, where’s my father?” I ask. “My mom always told me when we passed on he would be waiting for us. That he would be here. We wouldn’t be alone.”
Mom and I talked about it a lot. It comforted me. Helped calm me down when I was missing Dad more than usual.
“I can’t believe Anne didn’t give you any of this information. Okay, here’s the deal. You sign that piece of paper.” She leans across the table and points to the line where my signature goes. “Then you take this name.” She shakes the paper in front of my face. “And you collect the first person’s soul. I send you two more. You collect them. And bam, you get to move on to paradise. Your dad will be there.”
She pauses and lets out a big sigh.
“If you refuse, you get to stay here and work in the office forever. Or until something significant happens.”
She sits back down and hands me the Sharpie.
“So what’s it gonna be, Rosie? Because, to be honest, nothing significant ever happens.”
I take the paper from her.
Someone’s personal info is written on it.
I read about his job (retired garbage collector), his interests (walking his dog), stuff like that. There are suggestions, in bold, for how I might go about taking him.
Perching on his shoulder.
Pretending to be an injured animal.
Acting as if you have an important message to bring him.
I can’t read anymore.
I think about that white dog again.
I fed him leftover food the night before I died. He’d come up on the back porch and scratched on the door.
I was nice to him. And then he kills me?
“I have to kill this person?” I ask. “I’m a ghost, and I have to kill people?”
Maybe I’m in shock.
I can’t really be dead.
The woman puts her hand on her forehead, like maybe she’s growing a headache in there. “You don’t kill any of them. You bring them their fate. And you’re not a ghost, Rosie. You’re a Reaper,” she says.
So that dog brought me my fate? It sounds to me like he killed me, caused my death.
“Haven’t you ever heard of the Grim Reaper?”
I think of the cartoon Death with the hood and that long scythe thing. Even after Dad died, I figured, your body just stopped working, and you moved to your next life. I never thought some hooded figure came and took your soul.
“Yes, I’ve heard of him,” I say.
“That’s me. I’m the Grim Reaper. I bring death. And you get to help me,” she says, holding out her arms. Like she’s posing. Or modeling her tight black dress. I guess she does look nice in it.
It feels like I’m caught in a terrible fantasy novel. Something so unbelievable it can’t be true.
This woman looks nothing like Death. She doesn’t even look evil. She just looks bored, and annoyed. And classy. How can Death be classy?
“Why can’t you do it? I don’t want to do your job,” I say. Who else will appear on this list? What if someone I know shows up?
What did this man ever to do me? This Martin Gables.
How can she expect me to take his soul? What if he has kids? What if he’s happily married?
“Because that’s not my job anymore. The only people I take are world icons. Like the pope, or Lady Gaga. See?” She points to the picture of her and Gandhi.
They both smile in the image.
I just stare at the picture.
She looks a little bit younger, but it’s her all right. Gandhi looks exactly like he did in all the pictures I’ve seen of him at school, or on the Internet. Only this picture winks at me.
“What the hell? He winked,” I say.
“There is no hell. Only work,” Death says.
I know in my gut, she’s telling the truth.
“No more questions? Good. Now get out of here. Or stay and work with me forever. But the sooner you collect the souls, the sooner you get to see your father.”
I stare at her for a second. Her face light, and her hair so fair. All of her so bright.
She’s the reason Dad is dead.
“Scoot!” she says.
I walk out of her office. Not sure where to go.
The door slams behind me. The lady at the desk outside of the Grim Reaper’s office jumps.
“I’ll get Brandy. She can walk you through the steps so you don’t have to go back in there,” the lady says. She gives me a face that says, I’m sorry. I saw that look on so many faces after Dad died.
The lady stands up and hands me a tissue.
“The shock will wear off, I promise.”
She must know I’m dead.
Is she dead too?
The whole room feels dark and sad now. The bright feeling it had is gone. The sad gray walls. It’s the type of place that would be cold all year round. The kind of place only the dead would be banished to. The kind of place you’d imagine your worst nightmare taking place. I breathe in deep and feel that cold air in my lungs. Even though I don’t feel it on my skin, it’s enough for me to get chills.
I suddenly want to cry. Just burst out into tears.
I want my mother.
I just want to go home. And from the sound of it, that’s never going to happen again.