Adam’s head pulsed again with a dull, throbbing pain and his left hand felt like it was split in two. He rolled to his side with a groan, reluctant to open his eyes in case they decided to fall from his skull. As his brain ceased its attempts to implode, Adam’s senses rapidly tried to measure the environment around him. Even with his eyes tightly shut, he could make out quite a bit.
The surface on which he was sprawled was decidedly solid with a rough, grainy texture that indicated wooden floorboards. The air around him was quiet and still, and very cold. Despite the temperature, the atmosphere was oppressively thick and weighed down on Adam like a mound of wet blankets. Floating through the musty air were faint wisps of vanilla, accompanied by an unfamiliar sweet-smelling flower and a vaguely metallic scent.
When the pain in his head finally subsided, Adam tentatively opened his eyes.
He was in a room. It was a very small room, the size of an average backyard swimming pool. Thin shafts of moonlight drifted in through a single dirty window, barely illuminating a chaotically unmade bed and scattered piles of papers and old clothes.
Everything in the space betrayed a neglectful past, from the dust-covered remains of a ceiling fan to the vast expanses of peeling paint on the walls. Directly under the faded windowsill was a shabby wooden desk, accompanied by a shabby wooden chair. The desk itself was mostly bare except for a few loose newspapers, but the chair seemed to serve as a makeshift coat rack. Fastened to the wall next to the window was a cluttered bulletin board that -- except for a few gaps of crumbling corkboard -- was coated with newspaper clippings and faded photographs. Across from the window was a single closed door. The absence of a lock made it fair to guess that the door led into and adjoining room instead of a public hallway.
Groaning again, Adam lifted himself to his feet. One of several questions he had was answered; at least he knew where he was. He shuffled over to his bedroom door, ignoring the stiffness in his knees as he struggled to remember why he was on the floor to begin with. If he didn’t know better, he would have guessed that he was hung-over. But that was impossible. He could barely afford his apartment as it was, with nothing to spare for any form of alcohol.
His thoughts were interrupted as he reached the door. He tried to open it, but it refused. Again and again he tugged at the tarnished metal handle, but the door stubbornly resisted. He tried kicking it, beating it, even head butting it -- though he doubted that the latter would work anyway. All to no effect. He finally surrendered, assuming the doorknob had jammed or the rickety doorframe had shifted slightly.
To his dismay, similar attempts across the room proved the window to be just as immovable. His hopes of contacting someone outside were equally futile; through the stained window glass it was obvious that the city streets were barren of everything but dirt and moonlight.
Frustrated, Adam flopped down into a cross-legged position on the floor. He knew he couldn’t call for help. He couldn‘t afford a cell phone, instead relying on the payphone two floors down near the landlord’s apartment. And shouting would do no good either. His fellow tenants had long ago proven their determination to be left alone, especially in the dead of night.
No, he decided he only had two options. He could wait and hope one of his friends -- or at least one of his co-workers -- missed him enough to check on him, or else he could come up with a clever way to un-stick the door by himself.
He was deep in an endless cycle of half-baked ideas when two things happened at once, causing him to fly to his feet and slam into a wall.
The first was a sharp jab in the middle of his back. The second was a voice.
“Are you awake now?”
As Adam’s heart climbed back down his throat, he found the voice’s owner.
Sitting on the edge of his bed was a girl, no more than ten years old. In contrast with the dingy surroundings, she seemed to shine as if she alone was sitting in sunlight. Her curly golden hair was gathered into a single ponytail, which was draped casually over her shoulder. Tucked behind one ear was a trio of small purple flowers which Adam thought he recognized as carnations. The girl was clad in a lace-trimmed black dress with white stockings, and around one wrist she had tied a bright red handkerchief.
Her face was arranged in an expression that was half annoyance and half amusement.
“So, you are awake,” she said, her bright sky-colored eyes peering deep into Adam’s. “Took you long enough.”
“I… who… you were….” No matter how many times Adam considered it, he was sure that the girl wasn’t in the room mere minutes ago. He collected his thoughts and tried forming his question again.
“Who are you?” he asked at last.
“Who am I?” the girl repeated. “I am me. Who else would I be? And who are you? Or do you even know?”
“I… what?” Adam was taken aback by the strange question. “Of course I know. I’m Adam. But who are you? How did you get in here?”
“Same way you did,” she said, idly twirling her ponytail. “Through the door.”
“But the door’s stuck….”
“Is it? I must be mistaken, then.”
Though he refused to let it show, Adam was unnerved by his visitor. The girl’s tone was light, even playful, but Adam couldn’t help feeling that she was just toying with him. Something about her enigmatic speech and piercing gaze was incongruous with her childlike appearance.
Adam kept his expression unconcerned and casual as his journalist instincts kicked in.
“Okay, you are you,” he confirmed as he stood and straightened his jacket collar. “That makes sense, I guess. Do you have a name, or should I just call you ‘you’?”
“You’ll probably call me that anyway. It wouldn’t be polite to keep referring to me by name. It would sound like I wasn’t even here.”
She touched a finger to her chin thoughtfully. “But if you absolutely have to know my name, it’s Emma.”
“Okay, then. Emma.” Adam leaned against the door, trying his best to seem nonchalant.
“So how did you get in here?” he asked. “Did I leave the hall door unlocked?”
“Technically, no. But it’s not really important. Wouldn’t you rather know why I’m here?”
“Uh… sure. Why are you here?”
Emma crossed her arms stubbornly. “Nope, can’t tell you.”
“But you just said…”
“I said I can’t tell you. You can either take a guess, or accept it and move on.” She leaned forward and cupped a hand to her mouth, as if she was about to reveal some great mystery.
“I really should tell you,” she whispered, “that the absolute last thing you want to do is look in the corner there.” She pointed behind her to a two-foot gap between Adam’s bed and the peeling wall.
“Why?” Adam asked warily.
“Can’t tell you. Just that you really won’t like it.”
Emma shook her head, but said nothing more.
The long silence seemed endless, and Adam felt his curiosity rising to a boil. What could possibly be hiding behind the bed that this strange girl forbade him to see? The answer to the many mysteries of the evening? Or perhaps some kind of trap? His eyes darted from Emma to the dark gap, and back.
Emma’s eyes were narrowed in warning, but Adam couldn’t help thinking that she was curious too. Obviously not about what her mysterious thing was, but rather about how Adam would react.
With a start, Adam realized that he had been inching forward subconsciously, as if his entire being was itching with an overwhelming need to know. The metallic smell was much stronger now, adding to Adam’s sense of foreboding. He shrugged his shoulders, took a deep breath, and looked over the edge of the bed.
He instantly wished he hadn’t. He felt the bile rising in his throat. He wanted to scream, wanted to run. But something held him rooted to the spot, staring.
Lodged in the narrow space between the bed and the wall was a human body. Or, at least, what used to be a human body. The entire thing was covered in bruises and glistening blood, and both legs were bent more times than was natural. One of the hands had been split completely between the middle and ring fingers, all the way down to the wrist.
The man’s face was heavily laced with lines of blood, with even more of the shining liquid seeping from a large circular dent in his skull. The now-recognizable stench of blood was overpowering.
When Adam’s brain had completely absorbed the horrible scene he leapt back, almost crashing into his chair. Still, he couldn’t remove his eyes from the mangled corpse.
“What… what the hell is that?!” he demanded, his voice rising to an impossibly-high pitch.
He finally turned his head and glared at Emma. “There… there’s a dead guy here!”
Emma nodded, her face calm and expressionless.
“Why?” Adam forced all his attention on the girl to avoid looking at the man. “Why… is there… a dead body in my apartment!?”
“I dunno,” Emma said at last with a shrug. “I don’t know why he’s here. Do you?”
As Adam once again repressed the urge to vomit, his mind flew into overdrive. Do I know him? Why is he here? Who did this?
A sudden jolt of ice shot through his spine. He didn’t remember what had happened before he woke up. Could it be…?
“Did I kill him?”
“No,” said Emma casually. “Well… indirectly, maybe. But you couldn’t have done this yourself.”
“Then why is he in my room?”
“Your room? It’s his room.”
“No, it can’t be, it’s definitely my…”
Adam’s eyes frantically sped across every detail of the room again and then slowly moved back to the corpse. As if an artist was sketching it, the features of the dead face came further into focus. Frozen in horror, Adam recognized the messy brown hair, the angular jaw, the eyes lined with years of fatigue.
“…is that…?” he breathed hoarsely.
“I’m afraid so,” came Emma’s gentle reply.
Adam dropped to his knees and dry-retched. It can’t be…. It’s a nightmare, right?
He slapped himself across the face, eager to prove it was all a dream, but the resulting pain negated this. Once again, his eyes lifted and stared into the gap behind the bed, into his own face.
“It’s me.” He collapsed onto his back and stared up at the ceiling. “It’s me, isn’t it….”
“It is,” Emma answered. “I did warn you not--”
“But… but it can’t be!” Adam rolled to his knees and locked his eyes onto Emma’s. “That can’t be me! He’s dead and I’m not! I feel fine! How can that be me?”
Emma leaned back and peered, first at the corpse and then at Adam. “It certainly looks like you. You don’t have a twin, do you?”
“No, but… it just doesn’t make any sense! How can I be dead?”
“I dunno. You would know better than me.”
Instantly, fingers of mistrust seized hold of Adam’s brain.
“Who are you?” he asked again, well aware of the accusation in his voice. “Why are you here?”
He charged forward and seized the girl by her shoulders. “Did you kill me?!”
To his shock, Emma’s face remained blank as she answered. “No, I didn’t,” she said coolly. “And I’d appreciate it if you took your hands off me.”
She brushed off his grip with no effort at all, as if Adam was no more than a cobweb in her face.
Adam shrank back, his rage melting into alarm.
“What are you?” he quavered.
“I told you already,” Emma said flatly. “I am me. That’s all there is to it.”
Adam tried to find the words for what he was thinking.
“Are you… Death?”
“Death?” Emma repeated. “Am I Death? I’ll have you know you’d be just as dead whether I was here or not.”
“But if you’re not… then what are you?”
“Look,” the girl said, irritably plucking at the red scarf around her wrist. “I could sit here all night listening to your pointless questions, but--well, no, I don’t think I could, honestly. The point is I’m not interested in your questions. Only your answers.”
“Answers…? To what”
“Just a few generic things. I already know your name, and by the looks of you” -- she jerked her head towards the gap behind the bed -- “I can guess how you died. There are still a few things I’d like to know.”
“And what if I don’t tell you?” Adam retorted angrily. “If I really am dead, aren’t I the one who’s supposed to get some answers?”
Emma frowned. “I realize that this is a traumatic moment for you, but I’ll ask you to try and mind your manners.”
“Or what?” Adam laughed derisively. “What could you possibly do to me?”
For a few moments, Emma said nothing. She merely stared at Adam, her bright blue eyes piercing him so sharply he could almost feel it.
“Let me put it this way,” she said with a very final tone. “You don’t get to leave unless I take you with me. So it’s in your best interests to be agreeable. Got it?”
Adam hesitated. He wanted to yell, or just outright refuse to help. For a brief second he even considered making a run for the door, not caring if it opened or not.
His thoughts were interrupted as Emma cleared her throat loudly. “Got it?” she repeated sharply.
Though he felt numb all over, Adam managed to nod slowly.
“That’s better. First things first, take a seat. You look too pathetic down there.”
Hardly aware of what he was doing, Adam hoisted himself to his feet and staggered over to the chair by his desk. To his dismay, the old wooden chair proved as uncooperative as the door. Again and again he yanked at the chair, trying to drag it away from the desk to allow himself to sit, but he couldn’t so much as unsettle a single coat of the chair back.
For a long moment he stared at the immoveable chair as if he could dislodge it by willpower alone. Finally, he heard an exaggerated sigh behind him, followed by several light footsteps.
“Well if you’re going to look that miserable about it….”
He turned to see Emma standing next to him. She gently nudged him out of the way and, with apparent ease, she drew out the previously-immobile seat for Adam, who dropped unceremoniously into it.
“Okay, now, that looks a bit better.” Emma resumed her perch on the edge of Adam’s bed, carefully smoothing the front of her black dress.
“Now that you’re all settled, it’s quiz time.”
“Well, not so much a quiz. More like a survey. Think of it as the ultimate exit poll.”
Adam paused as Emma’s remark rattled around in his head. Then, almost involuntarily, he smiled weakly.
“Exit poll,” he repeated. “I get it. Good one.”
Emma stared at him for a moment, her eyes calm and calculating.
“Right,” she said. “Moving on….”
She held up her hands as if writing on an invisible clipboard.
“Name of deceased: Adam Block. Age…”
She peered over her imaginary chart with an appraising eye. “Twenty-nine? Twenty-eight?”
Adam shook his head. “Thirty-four.”
“Really? You look older than that.”
“Then why did you guess--”
“Moving on. Gender: I’ll assume ‘male’. Nationality: irrelevant. State of residence: unimportant. Address: 2121 Who-Cares Road….”
For some inexplicable reason, Adam felt the numbness and terror slowly fade away. In spite of himself, he began to relax. He wondered if this was intentional on Emma’s part, to make him more open and forthcoming for her survey.
“Are there any questions I can answer,” Adam asked, “or is it just more of this?”
“Manners, please. Watch your manners.” Emma’s voice was firm, but Adam thought it lacked the cold sharpness from earlier.
“Here we go,” she said. “Last occupation?”
“I’m a… was an investigative journalist.”
“So you were a reporter?”
“Yes, I was a reporter.”
“Were you any good?”
“Yes, I was. Never Pulitzer-good or anything, but I was okay.”
By now, Emma had dropped all pretense of her invisible clipboard. Instead she watched Adam closely.
“And how would you describe your quality of life?”
Adam was taken aback. “Could’ve been better, I guess. Y’know, this all sounds a lot like some kind of customer service bit.”
“Right right,” Emma said, impatiently fidgeting with her red handkerchief. “So, quality of life: not so good?”
Adam gestured around at his decaying living space. “As you can see, I don’t exactly live out of the Ritz-Carlton.”
“Were you happy?”
“Was I… what?”
“Were you happy with your life, yes or no?” Emma said, a tinge of irritation around the edges of her words.
“I guess so,” Adam responded quickly. His interviewer’s icy tone quickly dispersed the fog in his mind. The entire room snapped back into focus and Adam’s brain homed in on two things. There was the inescapable fact that he was no longer alive, and the impenetrable mystery of this strange girl. Despite her jokes and casual comments, Adam was reminded that she wasn’t as innocent and childlike as she appeared. There were wisps of some ulterior motive that he had yet to discover, and he refused to let his guard down until he shed some light on his situation.
“I wasn’t exactly unhappy, I mean,” he continued.
“Despite the… charming living conditions?”
“It’s not that bad,” Adam insisted. “Well sure, it’s a little messy, but it’s comfortable. And it could be worse.”
“Yes, I can see that.” Emma glanced pointedly at the gap behind the bed.
“And you probably had friends?” she continued to Adam. “A close family?”
“Not so much. What’s left of my family lives across the country, and I don’t… didn’t really have any friends. Never have the time.”
“And it still wasn’t that bad?”
Adam shrugged. “I accepted it. Sure, it could’ve been better, but it could’ve been a lot worse, too. I was earning enough to pay for rent and food, and that’s all you really need, right?”
Once again, Adam noticed Emma anxiously playing with the red scarf on her wrist. She must have noticed his gaze, for she stopped abruptly and folded her hands in her lap.
“Moving on,” Emma said quickly. “What do you believe happens in the afterlife?”
Adam blinked. “That’s a pretty big change of subject, isn’t it?”
“Not really. So what is it? Heaven? Reincarnation? Or poof! and that’s it?”
“I guess I’ve never really thought about it,” Adam said truthfully. “I’m not deeply religious or anything, but I’m not exactly a cynic, either. It could be anything, as far as I know. Maybe a better place, maybe the same place. Who knows?”
With a start, Adam thought of a question that should have been obvious to him. “So what isthe afterlife like?” he asked eagerly. “Is there a heaven? Should I be -- I dunno -- getting ready to meet Jesus?”
“How should I know?” Emma snapped. “I asked what you think happens. Just stick to the questions!”
In all honesty, Adam never expected cryptic Emma to answer him directly. Still, the sharpness of her tone surprised him. He felt that he was getting closer to finding some actual answers, if he could only direct the conversation a little more….
“Anyway,” he said casually. “It doesn’t matter what I believe, does it? There has to be only one right answer.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Emma said, turning her attention back to the red handkerchief.
“No. I’m just guessing. But it makes sense, right? It can’t all be true at the same time. Is there a heaven or is it karma? Is there a single God or an entire pantheon? Or do I just get shuffled back into the life cycle? It’s a whole series of dichotomies, isn’t it? One or the other….”
He glanced up at Emma, who was staring despondently at a spot on one of the dingy floorboards.
“Or… maybe I get to choose,” Adam continued. “Maybe it depends on what I think should happen. If I choose to believe in reincarnation, then Hey! reincarnation happens. Or if I choose to just stay…”
Adam broke off in mid-sentence to find Emma staring at him, her hands shaking visibly and her eyes misting.
“Stop it, right now,” she repeated. “You don’t get it. You don’t understand at all.”
“Don’t understand what?”
“This isn’t one of your stories. You can’t just BS your way through this. You don’t get to just talk and talk and then things will be fine. This is it. You’re not alive anymore. This is the end. This is death. That’s how it is.”
“But is that all there is? Do I have to stay like this?”
Emma leapt suddenly to her feet. “What do you want me to say?!” she shouted, her voice echoing through the musty air. “D’you want me to sit you down and say ‘It’ll be fine, you’re going to meet God! You’ll get to see your friends and family in the afterlife! You’re starting your next life as a sheep or something!’ Would that make it all better? Is that what death is supposed to be?”
Adam said nothing in response, but apparently Emma didn’t need any more encouragement.
“It’s the same thing every time,” she said. Pacing furiously across the dusty floor, she kicked a pile of shirts out of her way. “All people want is to be comforted; they want someone to hold their hand. But in the end, they all decide to move on anyway. They all think there’s something better out there, and they leave. They’re scared at first, but then they’re not scared. Why is that? What am I missing?”
She glared at Adam, as if demanding an explanation.
“You,” Emma said, jabbing a finger in his direction. Adam almost instinctively shrank back from the intense focus of Emma’s gaze.
“Why aren’t you afraid? Why aren’t you begging me to bring you back to life?”
“Is that even possible?” Adam asked, more out of curiosity than hope.
“Of course it’s not possible!” Emma barked as she continued her cross-room ranting. “But that doesn’t stop people from trying anyway. They beg, they plead, they offer anything they own. And I have to say no. And then comes the shouting and the crying. But it all ends up the same way: people move on. They move on to whatever comes next.”
Emma halted on the spot, absently stroking her handkerchief.
“Why couldn’t I have…?”
A sudden epiphany clicked into Adam’s brain. Something that explained this unexpected outburst from the otherwise-reserved and otherworldly child in front of him.
“You died too.”
Her head snapped up to meet his eyes. Adam was unnerved by what he saw. He was deeply unsettled by the tears streaming down the little girl’s face.
“How did it happen?” Adam coaxed gently.
For a moment, Adam was sure that she would brush him off again, that she would insult him and demand that he mind his own business. But then…
“I did it,” she said softly.
“You did it? You… killed yourself?”
Emma nodded. “I was only ten at the time, and naïve and stupid like most children. My parents were divorcing, my family was breaking. My whole world was falling apart. Foolishly, I thought I could bring them back together. That because they loved me, I could fix everything.”
With shaking fingers, Emma untied the scarf. Adam fought hard to keep his face calm as the red cloth slid aside to reveal a long slash mark across Emma’s wrist.
“There was so much blood,” she said. “I didn’t know there would be. It hurt more than I thought, and I was scared. I wanted to turn back. But it couldn’t be undone. My mistake was made, and nothing would change that.”
She leaned heavily against a wall and slid down to the floor.
“He came to me, like I came to you. He was kind, he comforted me. He told me not to be afraid, and that it wouldn’t hurt anymore. But I didn’t believe him. I demanded to go back to my family. He said I couldn’t, but I demanded all the same. Over and over I told him to send me back. Again and again I begged until finally he relented. He did the only thing within his power. He let me stay behind.”
“You mean, he left you…?”
“I told you that you can’t bring someone back to life. But you can send someone back to the living. They can’t be seen or heard. They can’t be smelled or felt, except by those who are also dead. It becomes our job, our responsibility, to look after the dead until they can move on to whatever’s waiting for them.”
By now the sky was brightening outside, sending waves of soft light wafting through the grimy window panes. In spite of this, or perhaps because of Adam’s new understanding of her, Emma seemed diminished. The bright glow that seemed to surround her in the beginning had faded completely. She was no longer the mysterious and fearsome specter, but a miserable and hopeless girl.
Before he knew what he was doing, Adam joined Emma on the floor.
“I’m so sorry,” Adam said at last, trying his best to be reassuring. “Is there anything I can…?”
“No,” Emma said, wiping her eyes on her sleeve. “I’m just being selfish again. I just hoped…. See, there is one way I can move on, but you can’t help me after all.”
“I have to find a replacement. Someone as desperate to live again as I was. It’s been decades and I haven’t come close. Like I said, everyone accepts it eventually. Even you. You’re not afraid of death anymore, are you?”
Adam realized that from where he was sitting he could see himself -- his real self, behind the bed. And it didn’t scare him. For some reason, the idea that he was truly and definitely dead was just another fact. Something regrettable, but ultimately of no great concern.
“No, I don’t think I am,” he answered. “Sorry.”
“Don’t,” Emma said. She rubbed her eyes with her scarf and glanced out the window at the building sunlight. “Don’t be sorry for me. Be sorry for my replacement. See, I can only be happy by making someone else as miserable as me. Isn’t that awful?”
“Maybe you’ll get lucky and find an altruistic coward someday.”
“Yeah, right.” Adam was relieved to see the faint traces of a smile at the edges of her mouth.
A tapping sound broke the stillness of the room. Perched outside the window was a little bird, a sparrow. It pecked insistently at the glass before vanishing into the daylight.
Emma nodded and lifted herself to her feet.
“Looks like it’s time to move on.”
Adam stood as well. “Okay, I know I don’t know where I’m going, but can I at least know how I’ll get there? Is there a… light, or something?”
Emma smiled. “No, but there’s a bus.”
“I feel like I have to thank you.”
“People usually don’t ask about me, and it’s more helpful than I thought it would be.”
Adam nodded. “I’m just sorry I can’t write it all down.”
“Oh, I’m sure there are plenty of stories wherever you’re going,” Emma said with a laugh. With the slightest of efforts, she pulled open the fading door and beckoned for Adam to follow her.
Adam started toward the door before stopping abruptly.
“What’s wrong?” Emma asked.
“What’ll happen to me? I mean… me?”
He pointed to the gap between the bed and the wall.
Emma shrugged. “Don’t worry. Everyone gets found eventually.”
As Adam passed through the doorway to his room for the last time, Emma gave a little chuckle as she pulled the door closed.
“Ironically, it’ll probably make for a good news story.”
The door shut behind them with a loud click that echoed through the still sunlit room.