He’d been walking circles around the nurses station unnoticed for the last half hour. I sneaked a few glances his way as Grandma started to tell us about her next husband.
“Gaston was lost like Fred. He just never seemed to be in the same world as the rest of us.”
There was something about this man that chilled me right to the bone. Although it could’ve been the draft—I was sitting directly below a vent in the ceiling.
“He was the creative type. He wrote graphic novels about ghosts and ghouls. I hated his drawings; they were terrifying! He was quite the artist, but he busied himself with his comics. Never had time to do anything else. He was a ghost himself, really.” Grandma’s voice faded into a low mumble as I became enraptured by this odd man, who seemed all too familiar to me.
His skin was pale, nearly the same color as the thin white t-shirt tucked in his corduroy pants. He had an awkward gait—bent forward, hips crooked—as if in the motion of sitting, or maybe he was just constipated. He walked on the sides of his feet and stared ahead of him at something not in the room with wide, worried eyes, occasionally raising a shaky finger to point at it. His mouth was so small, it was almost nonexistent, the creases in his lips blending in with the hundreds of wrinkles on the rest of his face. He babbled on and on as he pointed, but I couldn’t make out the words. The nurses paid no attention to him, focused on whatever work that was in front of them. It was almost as if everyone was going out of their way to ignore him . . . or maybe they just didn’t see him.
It reminded me of the day Pawpaw died. After saying my goodbyes, I sat outside in the waiting room. Mama and Grandma stayed with him to the end, but I couldn’t have my last memory of Pawpaw be his dying breathe while he lay in a hospital bed, tubes coming from his arms and nose, sparse hair on his head from all the radiation and chemo, crying because he feared what death would be like. I didn’t know if Pawpaw was religious at all, I’d never seen him in church, but I prayed that he believed in God, that he was in a better place now, that he was at peace.
In the waiting room, I watched doctors and nurses walk by, orderlies push gurneys into the elevators, family members rush through the halls to find the rooms of their sick loved ones. Normal hospital traffic. However, one person had caught my eye—so quickly that I’d stopped crying. She pushed an IV pole in front her her, two drip bags hanging from the hook. I thought maybe she was a nurse because of the hot pink scrubs she was wearing, but she had that frightened, searching stare of a lost patient who had wandered from her room. Hospital staff walked past her, looking down at whatever was in front of them on their clipboards. She stood in the hallway for several minutes, invisible to everyone but me, then she turned and walked into what looked to be a conference room and never came out. Eventually I mustered up the courage to follow her, and when I looked inside, the room was completely empty, and there was no other door on the other side.
It wasn’t too uncommon to see ghosts in hospitals. People did and do die there, but I’d hoped Pawpaw had moved past this realm. Being dead among the living was a fate worse than death itself; you were unable to touch or feel or speak to the ones you loved, and no matter how hard you tried to gain their attention—clanging pots and pans, turning on radios, slamming doors—no one would ever see you.
Seniors died in nursing homes too, right? Could their ghosts remain absentminded residents?
The man’s eyes drifted down to meet mine, and his mouth widened into the shape of an O, expressing shock that someone had actually seen him, and he picked up his pace, walking straight toward me.
I spun around in my chair, lowered myself so that my head was hidden behind the back. Maybe he had poor eyesight. Maybe he would lose track of where I was and wander somewhere else. My stomach did a back flip and sank in my gut, resting on top of my bladder. I crossed my legs to hold it in, waiting for the perfect moment to escape to the bathroom.
“Gaston just never paid attention to anything. He was so busy reading his comics, he didn’t even see the stairs in front of him,” Grandma was saying, oblivious to the fact that I had missed more than half of the story, and might have inadvertently summoned a visitor to our circle. “Broke his neck right on the bottom step. Scary thing is one of the characters in his book died the same way, almost like he planned it.”
Shivers shot down my spine. I looked up at fluttering ribbons hanging from the vent above my head to see if the air conditioning had kicked on.
“I still have the comic. It’s in my room . . . Meg, if you don’t believe me.”
I jolted from my seat, not from being startled by Grandma yelling my name, but because the strange white man had abruptly appeared again, standing behind Grandma’s chair and staring directly at me with his wide, worried eyes.
© 2016 Nortina Simmons
A to Z Challenge theme: 26 Husbands–26 Unusual Deaths
Read next: “H” is for Haunted Harry.