“Gracie?” Mavis’ voice called up, from downstairs.
“I’m coming!” Gracie called back, tying the drawstring on her sweat pants and heading toward the bedroom door. “Don’t shoot me, okay?”
A joke! Good sign…
I followed Gracie downstairs to where Mavis unloaded two cartons of ice cream onto the coffee table.
“I said I was sorry!” She laughed, looking relieved at Gracie’s improved appearance. “Don’t I at least get points for barging in here to rescue you, even if I did nearly make you ruin your carpet?”
“I suppose,” she said.
“You look better,” Mavis said, handing Gracie a spoon and dropping to the couch. “You were looking a bit…um…”
“Hideous?” Gracie interrupted.
“No!” Mavis responded, throwing a napkin at Gracie. “I was going to say…tragic. You looked a bit tragic, when I was here, earlier.”
“Tragic,” Gracie repeated, with a thoughtful nod.
Mavis grabbed a carton of vanilla ice cream from a paper grocery sack and removed its lid, before handing it to Gracie.
“So…what’s the dill, pickle?” The blonde asked, grabbing her own carton and spoon. “What happened, and who do I have to kill?”
“You mean, besides the dirt bag that broke into my car?” Gracie replied bitterly, taking her first spoonful. “Blake Tracey.”
Mavis’ first spoonful stopped short of her mouth.
“Wait…Blake Tracey?” She asked, pointedly. “6’5,” blonde, perfect teeth, drives an orange and black Camaro?”
“You know him?!”
“Yeah, he’s our neighbor! He and his wife bought the house next door to ours, last winter. What did he do to you?!”
“Oh god, I don’t even want to say it! Especially now that I know you know him! I’m too stupid to live…”
“Don’t you dare say that, Gracie James!” Mavis scolded, shaking her spoon at the girl. “Whatever happened, it was 100% his fault.”
“How do you know?” Gracie asked, with a small laugh. “I haven’t told you the story yet.”
“Because,” Mavis replied, “you are my friend. That makes you right and anybody else wrong, always. Especially if they’re male. That’s just how I roll.”
Mavis held her ice cream carton up, and made…a toast?
“Chicks before dicks,” she said, dramatically.
Gracie raised her carton to “clink” it against Mavis’.
“Chicks before dicks,” she agreed, the crude phrase sounding strange from her lips.
“So,” Mavis continued, finally taking a bite of ice cream. “What did that douchebag Blake do you?”
Gracie took a deep breath and released it.
“Well, he asked me out on a date, right? Then…”
“Wait, hold up!” Mavis said, stabbing her spoon into her ice cream, and leaving it there. “He asked you out?!”
“I know,” she said, sweeping a strand of wet hair from her eyes, “he’s married. I didn’t know it when he asked me…but I sure found out after the fact.”
“Oh my god,” Mavis breathed. “Gracie, I am so sorry. That sucks, big time. How did you find out? Wait…back up. Start from the beginning. How did you two meet? How did he ask you out? I’m sorry, I know I’m asking a million questions, I’m just trying to make sense of all of this. Blake and Kim just always seemed so…happy. I never in a million years thought he’d be the cheating type. I mean, I’ve had barbecues with these people, for Christ’s sake! I’m usually such a good judge of character. I just don’t get it.”
“He’s an amazing liar,” Gracie replied sadly. “Not even a liar, really. More like a…”
“Con-artist?” Mavis suggested.
“Yes,” Gracie said. “Exactly. We met at the spa. I never date clients. I mean, ever! But I thought we had this…connection…something special. So when he asked me out, I said yes. We went out to dinner and he said everything right. Everything. We’d just met, but it was like he knew me, somehow. He was so perfect! And the way he looked at me…like he saw me, you know? Really saw me! I can’t explain it. He has those gorgeous blue eyes, but that wasn’t it. It wasn’t in his eyes, but deeper than that. He looked at me as though he loved me, Mavis. And I totally fell for it. I fell for him. I swear, I would have married him that night, if he asked. It’s crazy, I know, but I would have! Instead I just slept with him. I can’t believe that I did that. After one date! I am such an idiot.”
Gracie’s lovely face dropped into her hands, and her shoulders shook with the unmistakable tremor of silent sobbing. My stomach turned and though it felt like I should leave the room, like it was wrong to listen in on the conversation, I could not seem to leave.
“Oh, honey,” Mavis soothed, putting her ice cream aside to lean over and embrace her friend. “When a liar lies to you, it is not your fault for believing it! It’s their fault for lying! You are a good person…a much better person than me…and that S.O.B. doesn’t deserve your tears! You know what? I’m going to tell his wife! I’m gonna call her up and tell her right now!”
Mavis leapt angrily to her feet and Gracie reached up to grab her arm.
“Don’t,” she said, shaking her dark, damp hair. “She already knows. I went to his house.”
“You ratted his ass out?!” Mavis exclaimed. “Rock on, girl! What did Kim say when you told her?”
Gracie shook her head again.
“I wish it had happened that way,” she said, swiping a stream of tears from her cheek. “But I went to his house not knowing about her. He forgot some things in the hotel, and…”
“You were bringing them back…” Mavis concluded.
“Yep,” she said. “And his wife answered the door.”
Mavis pressed her fingertips to her lips.
“Oh my god,” she gasped. “Was Blake home? What did he do?”
“He pretended not to know me,” Gracie said in a hushed, miserable tone. “He said I was crazy…or a liar…”
“He denied it happened,” Mavis responded, “after a night like that? This guy deserves a world of pain! I’d say we burn his house down, but that wouldn’t be fair to Kim. Maybe we should just chop his nuts off!”
Woah! Nice friend ya got there, Gracie!
Gracie laughed, drying her tears with her sleeve.
“No,” she said, smiling. “That won’t be necessary. But thanks anyway. I just want to pretend like this never happened. Chalk it up to the fact that all straight men are evil incarnate and move on with my life.”
“Not all of them,” Mavis argued, returning to her ice cream.
“Yeah,” Gracie agreed. “I think you got the last good one. Mason is such a teddy bear and he absolutely worships you.”
“Well, like you said, he must be lovable for me to become Mrs. Mavis Davis! What a horrid twist of fate. At least that’s something you can be glad to have avoided.”
“What do you mean?”
“Doucebag, Blake,” Mavis explained. “If you’d have married him…”
“I’d have been Gracie Tracey!” Gracie concluded, with a laugh. “Oh my god…what was I thinking?”
“That he was hot,” Mavis replied, with a shrug. “If I was single and had met him under different circumstances, I would have done exactly the same thing.”
“Thanks, Mavis. I am so glad you came by, today.”
“Well, it’s not like you gave me much choice!”
Gracie looked confused.
“What do you mean?” She asked.
“You called and hung up on me twice!” Mavis exclaimed. “I was starting to think you were being held against your will, or something. Afraid to talk!”
“I didn’t call you,” Gracie replied, innocently. “Not even once.”
“Well, your phone did!” Mavis laughed. “If it wasn’t you, who was it?”
Gracie looked confused for a moment, then broke into a knowing smile.
“I must have butt-dialed you, or something,” she said. “Sorry.”
“No sorries, necessary. I’m glad I came over too. But you know what? All we’ve talked about today is men. I think we’ve had quite enough of that, don’t you?”
Gracie nodded emphatically.
“Absolutely,” she agreed. “Let’s talk about anything else.”
“Ooh!” Mavis exclaimed, straightening up, excitedly. “I am reading the greatest book! It’s set in 1840’s Boston, and there’s this young, beautiful, Irish immigrant who comes to America to escape the whole, ‘potato famine’ thing, only to end up practically a slave to this evil landlord, until…”
Alrighty…Chuck is OUT!
I left the room at that point, pleased that my Gracie seemed to be on the road to recovery, but having zero interest in taking part in the females’ little “book club.” I was heading upstairs when I ran into Rodge, who had been watching the scene in the living room, from the upstairs landing.
“Now, will you look at that,” he said, with a slight smile.
“Look at what?”
“Look at Gracie. She’s smiling and laughing and pigging out on ice-cream…”
“You’re welcome,” I said, proudly.
Rodge gave me a dirty look, but there was amusement in his eyes.
“You did the right thing here, for once,” he said, grudgingly. “How does it feel?”
“Strange,” I admitted. “But damn good. She’s going to ditch me now, isn’t she? Now that she has a real friend.”
“Quite possibly,” Rodge replied. “They seemed really hit it off the other night, but…what’s going on down there, right now? That is female bonding, buddy. I think we are going to be seeing a lot of Mavis Davis around here.”
“Fine with me,” I said dropping to a seat, my legs dangling over the edge of the landing. “She’s pretty hot. Maybe we’ll get lucky and they will decide to start getting all ‘experimental’ with each other, one of these nights…”
“God, you’re a pig!” Rodge said with a disgusted expression.
I snorted, playfully.
“Just messin’ with ya, man! Sheesh. Where’s your sense of humor?”
“Definitely not in the gutter, like yours.”
“Well, sorry for not being high-brow enough for you, Rodge! I’d say you should go find better company but…”
We remained on the landing for a while, listening to the two hens in the living room cluck-cluck-clucking about books and movies and hopes and dreams…until my head was ready to explode. Why was I still sitting there?
“Let’s do something,” I said to Rodge, standing up.
“Like what?” He asked, suspiciously.
I tried to think of some way to pass the time that didn’t involve leaving the townhouse.
“Let’s play cards,” I said, with a shrug. “I saw a deck on the guestroom nightstand. We can play poker, or whatever you want.”
Rodge considered my invitation carefully, looking for any possible tricks or manipulation on my part, but found none.
“I can’t handle the cards,” he said, finally. “So we’d have to figure out some way for you to…”
“We’ll make it work,” I interrupted, heading to the guestroom.
It was late when Mavis finally left the townhouse and Gracie came back upstairs. She walked past the guestroom’s open door, then took a step back to peer inside.
“Chuck?” She called, sounding concerned.
“Yeah?” I asked, from my seat on the carpet.
“Did you put the playing cards on the floor?”
“Yep. Just me, don’t worry.”
“What are you doing?”
“All by yourself?”
I looked at Rodge and Rodge at me.
“Did your friend leave?” I asked, changing the subject.
“Yep,” Gracie replied, sitting on the bed. “We had the greatest talk! I feel so much better. Better than better. I feel…kind of great! Thank you for calling her, Chuck. I know it was you.”
“Guilty as charged,” I replied, grinning like an idiot.
“How did you know?”
“That another woman would help so much? How did you know that’s what I needed? I didn’t even know what I needed…”
“I didn’t,” I admitted, without thinking. “Wasn’t my idea.”
“Who’s was it, then?” She asked.
Again, I looked at Rodge, and Rodge at me. It was about time the guy got some credit!
“It was your friend…”
“Chuck, no!” Rodge interrupted, before I could say his name. “Thank you…but no. She doesn’t need to think of me right now. No more tears.”
“My friend?” Gracie prompted, after a moment.
“Yeah, Big-G. Your friend,” I replied, flippantly.
“God told you to call Mavis?”
“In an indirect sort of way.”
Gracie considered my statement with an uncertain expression, then stood.
“Well, however it happened,” she said, “I’m truly grateful. And tired. I think I’m going to turn in, now. I’ve got to go to work tomorrow and grovel for forgiveness. They called fourteen times, can you believe it?”
“Wow,” I said, feigning surprise. “Don’t worry though, I’m sure they’ll let it slide.”
“I hope so, but really, why would they? Two ‘no-call, no-shows’ are grounds for termination, and I’ve had three.”
“Yeah, but the boss being in love with you will surely help.”
Gracie looked taken aback.
“What?” She asked. “What boss?”
“Jooooshua,” I teased. “That boy has got it bad! I don’t know how you’ve managed not to see it.”
I meant to make Gracie laugh, but failed epically. The girl didn’t look amused. She looked…intrigued.
“Joshua?” She said dreamily. “Really…”
Great job, Chuck! Way to put the thought in her head!
“So, I was just thinking,” I said, trying to change the subject, “you know what would be nice? Let’s watch a movie together tomorrow! After, you get back from work, of course. We’ve never just curled up on the couch and watched a movie, and now that you’re feeling better, it could be nice to spend some time…”
“Actually,” Gracie interrupted, excitedly, “I have plans tomorrow night!”
“Yeah! Mavis is teaching this women’s kickboxing class at the gym that I want to try, then we are going out for sushi.”
Gracie shrugged and gave a sheepish grin.
“I know, it’s a little out of character for me,” she said. “But Mavis is right! How can I know if I like something until I try it? I need to try new things! Get out in the world, and…”
“You’ve tried new things with me!” I argued. “Lots of them.”
“Yeees,” Gracie replied, carefully.
I was sure she was thinking of the infamous “strip-club debacle.”
Oh, to have a time-machine…
“I know not all of them worked out,” I admitted, but we’ve had some fun, haven’t we? Remember karaoke? You rocked the house!”
“That was amazing,” she agreed, grinning ear to ear. “And that’s exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about! I need more of that. And Mavis says…”
“So now Mavis is the expert on the subject?” I spat, bitterly.
Gracie’s eyes grew wide.
“Jealous, me?! And of a woman? Of course not!”
“You sound jealous.”
I heard Rodge snicker and turned to face him.
“You do sound jealous,” he teased.
“Oh, shut up!” I demanded.
Gracie took a step back.
“Excuse me?” She said, angrily.
“Don’t get your panties in a twist,” I said, with a false laugh. “I was just teasing you! Shut up, don’t worry about what I may or may not be feeling, and go have fun with your girlfriend tomorrow! You deserve it, Gracie. Truly.”
Gracie looked relieved.
“I thought you were serious there for a minute!” She laughed. “I was like, what the hell? Chuck’s freakin’ out on me! What kind of guardian angel wouldn’t want me to have a friend?”
“Yeah,” I replied. “Wouldn’t that be strange.”
The girl waved in my general direction and turned to leave the room.
“Goodnight, Chuck,” she said, as she passed through the doorway.
“Goodnight, Gracie,” I replied, after her.
I felt Rodge staring at me, and turned to face him, once we were alone.
“What?” I asked.
“You have to let her go,” he replied. “It’s time.”
“I don’t have to do anything,” I responded, angrily collecting cards from the floor.
“If you love her, you do.”
I suddenly felt the cards slip literally through my fingers…like they weren’t even there…and scatter to the carpet.
THAT was odd…
“So, what would you have me do?” I asked, ignoring the phenomena. “Just, poof! Disappear? Go silent on her? It would break her heart.”
“I’m not so sure,” Rodge replied, staring at my hands.
Apparently, he’d seen it too. I reached down to recollect the scattered cards and was relieved to find that I could grasp and hold them again.
Must have been a fluke.
“By all means, stick around, Chuck,” Rodge continued. “but yeah…go silent. Quit distracting her and bossing her around. There was a time when Gracie really relied on you, but now…I think she’s ready to spread her wings and fly. You have to let her.”
“Could you be any cornier?”
“You know I’m right.”
“Look,” I said, dropping the cards on purpose, this time. “I won’t stand in her way, okay? She can come and go as she pleases, have sushi or falafels or anything else Mavis talks her into, but I’m not going to just…stop talking to her! She still needs me.”
“You know what I think?” Rodge said, cocking his shiny head to the side. “I think you need her. She makes you feel alive. But you are not alive, Chuck! You’re dead! You had your life! Let Gracie have hers.”
Rodge struck a nerve, and I felt the sudden need to move. Without a word, I rose to my feet and left the room. Down the stairs and out the front door I went…where I knew Rodge could not follow. I chose a direction and began to just walk, with no idea where I was headed. Just wanting to clear my head, I walked the streets of Provo aimlessly. I tried my best to forget my conversation with Rodge, to forget about sushi and kickboxing and Mavis-freakin’-Davis…but failed miserably. Things were changing all around me and I had never felt less in control of the world around me. Nothing was going my way anymore, and I didn’t like it. Not one bit.
About a mile from home, I turned a corner and observed a couple, struggling under a streetlight. They were ghosts…I could tell even from a distance. But what were they doing? The girl turned in somewhat frantic circles, her hands dug into her long, wavy hair, while a lanky boy danced around her with his arms wide open, trying to get her attention.
“Emma!” I heard him cry, circling as she circled. “Emma! Look at me! Yes! That’s right…now listen…wait! Stop it, Emma! Look at me!”
I watched the curious scene for a few minutes, as the couple circled around and around. This mess was none of my business, but I was glad for the distraction from my own problems.
“What in the holy hell are you doing?” I asked, trotting toward the scene.
The boy stopped for a moment and turned toward me, but Emma kept circling and gazing around with a vacant expression.
“Who are you?” The boy asked, sounding tired.
“And what are you, Chuck Butkis, the ghost police? Are we disturbing the peace or something?”
“Hardly,” I replied. “Just a guy out for a walk.”
“Well, keep walking then. I’m busy.”
With that, the boy turned his attention back to Emma, bobbing and weaving to try to force eye contact. He wasn’t trying to be rude to me, that much was clear from his tone, but he was desperate.
“Ohhh,” I said, suddenly understanding. “I get it.”
“What you’re doing.”
“What I’m doing,” the boy replied, beginning to sound annoyed, “is getting nowhere, fast.”
“Exactly,” I said with a shrug. “You’re wasting your time. She doesn’t understand what’s happening. Doesn’t know that she’s dead. She’s a ‘Lost’ ghost.”
The boy stopped circling and approached me aggressively.
“My sister is not lost!” He growled.
“Woah, there!” I exclaimed, throwing my hands up. “I meant no offense! It’s just a term I came up with for ghosts like her. The ones who are confused…who don’t understand…”
“Oh,” the boy said, relaxing a little. “So, you’ve seen others like her?”
“Great!” He cried, taking an eager step toward me. “What do I do?! How can I fix her?!”
I shrugged, helplessly.
“I have no idea, buddy,” I said, honestly. “But you can’t force them awake…that much I know.”
The boy looked crestfallen.
“Well,” he sighed. “I have to keep trying. I’m not leaving her behind.”
“Ah,” I said, with a nod. “You’re a ‘Missionary,’ then.”
“Never mind. I just meant that this girl is your unfinished business, right? The thing keeping you from crossing over?”
“I guess. I just wish I knew what to do! This is all my fault, and I have to make it right.”
The boy nodded, and his eyes grew wet with tears.
“I was driving, when we crashed. Emma was sleeping in the back seat and…I got tired too. I should have pulled over. I should have…but I didn’t. We were getting close to home and I just wanted to hurry up and get there. I was being selfish and stupid and now…here we are.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, wishing I could put a hand on his shoulder.
“When the light came for us,” the boy continued, “I wanted to go in but I couldn’t get Emma to go, so…”
“You should have just gone,” I said, without thinking.
The boy shot me a hateful look.
“How could you even say something like that?!” He shouted.
“Because its true!” I shouted back. “You can’t save her, kid. I know, it sucks, but that’s the way it is. You had the opportunity to go to heaven! I don’t understand people like you…and Rodge…”
“It doesn’t matter. I just mean…your sister doesn’t even know that you’re here! Not really. You can’t help her. Why stick around and suffer?”
The boy’s brow furrowed and he looked at me like I was completely stupid.
“Because,” he said, shaking his head. “That’s what you do, when you love someone! You don’t just leave, when times get tough. Maybe you’re right. Maybe I can’t help her. But I’m gonna be here for her…even if she doesn’t know that I’m here. Now, if you don’t mind, please leave us alone.”
The boy turned from me and I did not dare refuse his request. He was a ghost on a mission, after all. Nothing I could say would sway him, any more than anything he said could sway his sister. I felt for the kid. To stay so close to someone you love, only to have them oblivious to your presence. What fresh hell that would be! And wasn’t that exactly what Rodge was asking me to do? To stand by and watch Gracie live her life, without my intervention, without even speaking to her? I would be suffering as much as that poor kid under the streetlight…and by choice! What insanity!
I walked away from the boy and his sister, circling one another once again, and continued to contemplate my situation. Despite my intentions, I had managed to harm Gracie, as much as I’d helped her. Maybe even more. No…definitely more. My heart sank and I winced at the thought. Rodge was right. Gracie would be better off without me.
As if in response to the thought, a “black spot” began to materialize, in the darkness. Deeper than the night, the spot began to swell and spread into a gaping maw, waiting patiently for me across the street. There it was again…the hell-mouth. The stench of it wafted on the autumn breeze, and I plugged my nose to try to block the smell. It didn’t work.
Staring at the disturbing hole, leading to who-knows-what, for the first time in a long time, I considered accepting its invitation. As much as I hated to admit it, Rodge was right. Gracie made me feel alive. I was losing her, I could feel it, and once she was gone…I’d be right back where I started. Haunting the city streets looking for something, anything to make this eternal existence tolerable. Or worse, sticking around to silently watch her move on, without me. I wouldn’t let her go. I couldn’t…but I had to. It was the least she deserved. My life had started out rough, there’s no arguing that, but so did Gracie’s. While I grew up to lash out at the world, punishing everyone else for my pain, Gracie grew up full of hope…full of love and faith…only to be continually beaten down, by monsters like me.
The mouth began to make the familiar “sucking” sounds which signaled its impending closure, and I knew I had a decision to make. Go home to Gracie and say goodbye, to forever watch over her like the ghost that I was…or give up and end it all, then and there. I took three steps toward the hell-mouth. Then I took three more. I felt a stream of energy pulsing through me, as I grew nearer the entrance, drawing me further and further into the void, and I began to panic. In my mind’s eye, I saw Gracie…I felt her…and I knew that oblivion was not the answer. I might just be trading one form of eternal punishment for another, but I would stay with Gracie for the rest of her life. Someday, I might actually be able to help her. And when that day came, I would be there, no matter what. The boy was right…that is what you do, when you love someone…
Ripping my soul away from the current, I ran straight back to the townhouse, knowing the hell-mouth would be gone before I reached the front door. And I was glad.
No more taking the easy way out, Chuck. For the first time in your life, you’ve committed to something other than yourself.
The next morning, Gracie woke up early. I watched her shower and dress, watched her munch a bowl of corn flakes and brush her teeth, all the while noticing that she had not spoken to me yet. She didn’t wake up and say “good morning, Chuck!” Like she used to. She didn’t ask for advice on what to wear or tell me about her dreams, like she had a million times before. She just went on about her business…without me. It should have made what I was about to do easier, but it kind of hurt.
“Gracie,” I called, as the girl grabbed her purse to leave for work.
“What’s up, Chuck?” She asked, smiling in my direction.
“There’s something I need to talk to you about.”
“Well, come on! We can talk about it in the car.”
“No,” I said, dropping to sit on the living room couch. “Let’s just do it here.”
Gracie looked concerned.
“Oh,” she said, crossing her arms protectively. “Okay. What’s going on?”
“I need to go somewhere again,” I lied. “Not forever, but…longer than last time. Then I’ll be sort of in and out for a while. So you probably won’t be hearing from me much…”
“Where are you going?” Gracie asked, with an expression that was sad, but understanding.
“Classified,” I said, with a sigh. “Top-secret, angel business, and all that.”
“I’ll miss you,” she said, and my heart sank.
“I’ll miss you too, Gracie,” I said, my throat tight. “But I’ll still be coming around, so no worries, okay? And if you need me, just call! Seriously…for anything at all…if you need me...”
Gracie nodded again, and I realized that there was nothing more to say, on the subject.
“You better get going,” I said, after a moment.
“Yeah,” Gracie replied, but she hesitated. “You’re really coming back, right? You’re not just going to disappear on me…?”
“I promise, Gracie. I won’t leave you.”
“Good. Talk to you later, then.”
“No,” Gracie corrected. “Not goodbye. Talk to you later.”
“Alright, alright,” I conceded, with a melancholy chuckle. “Talk to you later, sweetheart.”