The morning was better. She was waiting for me; she had set out the tea, a spoon, and my favorite cup, and the kettle was in the bottom of the sink with its lid off, waiting for me to fill it with water. She was better at being dead than most people. After what I saw the day before I thought she must have been expecting it. It is easier to deal with something you are expecting.
“Good morning,” she said. She looked at my cheek and winced away. I could see in the kettle that it was still red. She looked again, and winced again, but did not apologize. I was grateful.
I made the tea. She had chosen something flavored with pomegranate. It was a gift, a bad joke from someone I had known for a little while. I wondered if she knew. Sometimes they could pick up on things like that. She would at least have noticed that the box had never been opened.
“If you call in sick you can get started on getting me home,” she said, watching me watch the tea steep. It was more than a suggestion but less than a command. It was a kind of request I could not turn down, and I did not want to, but I did not want to do what she asked.
I watched the tea steep. She moved in closer, a line of ice all down my spine. Close enough to freeze, but not to burn; she was better at being dead than she had been at being alive, and when she finally caught my eye I saw that she knew it. So I said, “Get me the phone,” and I called in sick to work, and I drank my tea. I liked the flavor very much. It made me nauseous anyway.
I took her to see a man who had once wanted to be my friend.
“Pomegranate on your breath/ and there has been another death,” a painting of Santa Muerte he kept behind the counter said. He looked up from his book.
“She likes to state the obvious,” he said. He closed his finger in the book and turned it so neither of us could see the title. It made her curious. I didn’t care. “I only ever see you when someone has died.”
The painting muttered something in Spanish. I still didn’t care. “She fell,” I said. “She didn’t mean to, and then she did, and I didn’t understand until—after.”
His name was Peter, and he was a rock of faith; he looked at me with nothing in his face. “I don’t do that anymore,” he said.
She pulled the glasses I had given him from the cash register’s drawer without opening it and balanced them delicately on his nose, careful not to touch him. He shivered at the chill of her and shivered again at being suddenly able to see her so close.
“Can you help?” she said.
The painting said, “He says yes now, or he says no, / but I will stay and he will go.” She gave it an edge of a smile, and looked at him, and waited.
“I will do as I am bid,” he said after a minute, rolling his eyes, and asked, “Would you step away, please, I have to write this down.”
He took out what he called his “Should Not Be” notebook and wrote down everything I told him, about her, about when she had changed, about the shadow I saw after she fell. “You were stupid, I thought you were good at this,” he said, very evenly, and I let him, because it was at least two kinds of true.
“Be polite,” she said, and ran her hand just above his, a threat of a caress.
Peter had met a ghost before and did not flinch.
“Don’t,” I said. “Please can we just. I want you to go home, I want to get you home,” and I was pleading with all three of them, her and Peter and his painting of the Santa Muerte. I looked at them and they looked at me.
“The hour yet is not too late/ for chance and facing of the Fate,” the painting said. Its voice was soft, like it was trying to be reassuring. It was and it wasn’t.
Peter turned away and held up what he had written. We were quiet as it muttered to itself finding the heart of the story. She watched like a magpie watches the glint of a watch.
“It’s done,” he said when the painting too was quiet. “You’ll hear back when you do, I guess. I’ve done all I care to.”
“But not all you will,” I said. I didn’t mean to, but the Santa Muerte had said that he would go, and he was still safe behind the counter of his bookshop.
“Leave it,” he said roughly. “Leave it, and leave here. I’ll tell you if I hear anything, but get out.”
I left first, and she followed.
“And that will do it?” she asked. She was still moving her legs to move forward. In my head I promised to work so fast she never forgot that much, at least.
“It will do something,” I said. “Peter’s a…I don’t know. Anymore.” I didn’t, but I didn’t think it mattered, not yet. “But the Santa Muerte helps where she can, and her bones are scattered throughout the land.” I said it like the painting would, and heavily enough so that she knew it was a ritual, a prayer.
The streets were empty. Both worlds were shadowy and grey. I wanted to be home, or safe in my office-mouse cubicle with a nice stack of data to enter, but I owed her at least this much.
She put herself in front of me and I stopped.
“I do not know yet whether I will thank you or curse you, but I will wait until the end to find out,” she said. Her hands were wrapped around my arms, over my coat. She was solid enough not to go through it. The cold of her still hurt.
I nodded, because she looked into my eyes like she wanted something. “I’m sorry,” I said, and I was crying again, and that hurt worse than her chill.
“Don’t apologize,” she said. “Not again. Not until this is over.”
She let go of my arms and straightened and was gone like a light going out. I was suddenly so tired that I had to lean on a streetlamp until I could walk without shaking. I don’t know how long it was.