His smile is still the same. That’s the first thing I notice, and it’s the first thing I’m endlessly, heartbreakingly grateful for. He’s pale, not quite solid, he’s floating a little above his seat and I feel like if I blink too much he’ll disappear, but Nick Springer’s smile is exactly as it’s always been.
“It’s good to see you,” I say, and my voice only trembles a little.
Nick takes a few tries to pick up the coffee in front of him; his hands pass through it the first time, vanishing for a moment into vapor. When he manages to concentrate enough of his essence to lift it, he spills half the drink through his throat before getting any down. He chuckles at himself and swallows. The drink makes him look a little solider once he’s finished it.
“How long’s it been, Rani?” he says. “Time passes weirdly on this side. I still feel like it all just happened this morning.”
“It’s been a month,” I say. “The car crash was thirty-two days ago.”
“That long.” He lets out a whistle on an exhale he doesn’t need. “And how’s everyone holding up?”
How are we holding up? I cried for a week straight after his heart stopped. His parents haven’t gone back to work and his brother hasn’t gone back to school. We’re barely holding it together - there’s not really an up to speak of, at the moment. But I’m not going to say that to him. He has enough to worry about, adjusting to being dead.
“Fine,” I say instead, and try to make my smile like one he’ll remember. “But Nick, it’s really, really good to see you.”
Nick’s look is warm, for a minute - a kind of warm that makes a lump rise in my throat. I’m so used to seeing him laughing. For all the years we’ve known each other, the years we’ve been best friends, I’ve seen him laughing so, so often. But the warmth is what stabs deep into my abdomen and reminds me that he’s gone.
Then he sits back and folds his arms. “Anyway, there’s only one big thing I have to worry about now, and it’s Afterlife.”
Afterlife. Right. I sip my own coffee. “Tell me how it works.”
“You’ve got to build up your resume,” he says. “Most people spend their first few years here just going around doing good deeds - helping families find old forgotten heirlooms, or helping lost kids, or whatever. Then you’ve got to write a couple of ‘personal statements’ about your life on Earth and what it meant to you and the people around you. You send in the application, a board reviews it, and if they’re impressed, you’re in.”
“Sounds like a lot of work.” I frown.
Nick shrugs. “It’s not like I have anywhere else to be. And I’m made of nothing but time, now.”
“What will your first good deed be?”
He looks around the café, contemplating. “What do you think? Anyone here who can’t afford to buy something?”
“You don’t have any money.”
“Ah, damn, I forgot.”
And I laugh, big and loud for the first time since the crash. I can’t help it; it’s really Nick, still fuzzy around the edges but truly, undeniably here. I get to have him for a little bit longer. Until he rakes in enough good deeds, until Afterlife takes him to whatever beyond is waiting, I get to eat across from him on Saturday afternoons.
“Here’s what I’ve got,” he says. “Located three lost sets of keys. Helped unstick an old woman’s door. And someone on the street saw a lost cat, and I made one of the posters of it blow by so he knew who to return it to.”
“Not bad, for a week,” I say. “How many of these good deeds do you need?”
“Well, the major ones count for more.” He’s tallying it up on a scrap of paper - God knows where he gets paper on that side, but he doesn’t appear to have much of it. “If it’s this level, I’ll probably need something like ten thousand.”
My jaw drops. “Ten thousand?”
“It’s not ideal.” He leans over and snatches a piece off my blueberry muffin, popping it into his mouth and chewing with relish. “Oh, man, I missed eating.”
“Don’t put on your resume that you’re a thief,” I grumble.
“We need to brainstorm. I’m not waiting two thousand weeks to get into Afterlife. What are bigger things I can do?”
I tap my chin. “Maybe you were onto something with the lost cat. People get really emotionally attached to animals - they have to be worth more than keys. You could be the patron saint of lost pets or something.”
“Oh, that’s good.” He grins, and dear lord, his grin really is just exactly the same. “All the best ghosts have a brand. Nick Springer, patron saint of lost pets - yeah, I like it.”
He spreads his hands out on the table. “I’ll be frank. It turns out I’m no good at finding lost pets. I went around town the whole week and didn’t do a single good deed, and I didn’t find a single animal.”
I shake my head and take a gulp of my coffee. “New tactic, then. Let’s get to work.”
Every Saturday, exactly at noon, he appears. I’m not sure other people can see him - they always look vaguely at the seat across from me, like they’re not sure if they’re looking at someone or not. I don’t see any other ghosts. I’ve never seen any, except in flashes, glimpses out of the corner of my eye. Nick is as corporeal as is feasible when we have our weekly talks.
It’s so very much like before - we weren’t as strict about coffee every Saturday when he was alive, but it would be twice a month, at least. Just to chat. Just to make each other laugh. Sometimes I can almost forget about the car crash and pretend we still live in that past. Even when we talk about his application, still, I can almost forget what it’s for.
“Check this out,” he says, four months after our first meeting. “I think I’ve found my real calling. Last night I scared two guys away from breaking into a convenience store.”
“Oooh, crime-fighter Nick Springer.” I shove the rest of my blueberry muffin into my mouth; I’m not letting him get a bite of it this time. “That’s not bad. What other good deeds can you do in that vein?”
“Maybe guard people’s houses when they’re away? Distract muggers? Or maybe I could target white-collar crime.” His eyes widen. “Oh, I should pull a Jacob Marely thing and try to get a billionaire to raise his workers’ wages.”
I snort. “Nick, there are some things even the dead can’t do.”
“The dead can try.” He snaps up my mug and drains the rest of my coffee, and I swear he looks so smug I could throttle him.
A year passes. Winter melts, summer passes, the leaves fall, the world freezes. When it’s been twelve full months we tally up Nick’s good deeds again.
“The best one you’ve got is when you stopped that toddler from running out into traffic while her mom was distracted,” I say. “How can we get you in the way of more potential tragedies?”
“I think intentionally creating potential tragedies is something people go to jail for, Rani.” Nick raises an eyebrow.
“I’m not suggesting we create them.”
“Then I just have to wander into them.” He’s still writing on the same grubby scrap of paper he had a year ago. “But I need to step up my game, or I’ll be hanging around here for a century.”
I stop myself from asking would that be so bad, but I think it. It’s so natural to talk like this. It feels so blessedly normal.
“If you’re really unable to ‘wander into’ any potential tragedies,” I say instead, teasing, “I have all the knowledge and equipment for arson at my disposal.”
“I’m not going to read too deeply into that statement.” Nick pretends to scoot farther away from me. “I don’t want to be questioned in court later about anything I’ve heard from your mouth.”
“Aw, you’re a good friend.” I want to loop my arm around his, or clap him on the shoulder, but he’s not quite solid enough for that.
“This isn’t working.” His face is in his hands. “I’m never getting to ten thousand at this rate.”
“Come on.” I want to shove him, but I can’t. “You have to keep at it.”
“I thought good deeds would be easy - but I can’t give to charity without money, I can’t fix systemic problems without power, I can’t even lift heavy things when I don’t have a body.”
“Listen, I get it. I don’t have money, power, or any physical strength either.”
“We’re not giving up on this.” I have a stack of notes in front of me; I’ve taken over running his tallies now. “We’ll find you something good. Just - one step at a time, all right?”
I clench my hands over my notes. “Promise.”
Another year passes. I grow two inches and cut my hair; I start taking my coffee black, instead of with cream and sugar. I drink it every morning to get me through papers and exams. I go to bed late at night.
When winter comes again I’m applying to college; rejections come in first, then, when the weather warms, acceptances. I pack my things into boxes. I tell my high school teachers I’ll miss them, even the ones I won’t, and I tell my classmates I always liked them, even the ones I didn’t.
Nick’s smile remains perfectly the same.
“I think I pulled off a really big one this week,” he says as he sits down.
He’s more subdued than usual. His hands are in his lap, and he keeps looking down at them, like he’s not sure how to meet my eyes and talk at the same time.
“Tell me,” I say. “Wander into another potential tragedy?”
He exhales a tiny laugh. “There was a kid out on the bridge. I - I talked him out of jumping.”
I blink. The levity goes out of the air between us. “I… oh.”
“I told him,” he says quietly, “that if he died, he’d realize once he was on this side that he’d spent his life worried about all the wrong things. He wouldn’t care, and Afterlife wouldn’t care, if he did well in school or had a good career or had a life that made any sense at all. Success doesn’t help your resume here.”
I stare at him. Oh, I’m so used to seeing Nick laughing, it’s so very strange to see him serious. And yet I don’t think it’s sadness that he feels.
“He listened to you?” I say.
He looks up, and I see a gleam of something like hope in his eyes. “I also told him he’d be doing me a favor.”
I want to hug him, I think suddenly. I want to go back in time for just a second and hug him one last time. But it’s impossible.
“That’s really great,” I say instead. “I’m proud of you, Nick.”
And then the mischief is back on his face, and he stands practically all the way up in his seat to grab the bottom half of my muffin and swallow the whole thing at once.
“Goddamn it,” I say furiously, “why can’t you just ask me to buy you something, at least?”
He sprays me with crumbs when he talks. “It’s not as fun.”
College is six states away. The first Saturday I’m there, Nick appears like it’s nothing at a café near my dorm.
“This area could use a few more good deeds, I think,” he says with a wink.
There is no assistance for students moving boxes, but many find a certain incorporeal form is helping them to unpack. And a certain lost cat is returned to the English department within the first month of September.
It’s my senior year of college when it happens.
The visit starts like every other. Nick has been thriving on a college campus for four years; it turns out plenty of the professors love talking to ghosts, and he’s never had so many intellectual conversations. I’m just excited to ask him about his week. As ever, just excited to talk to him.
He cuts right to the chase. “I have something to show you.”
“Yeah?” I’m already shielding my muffin from attack.
It comes from his shirt pocket, the most blindingly white, crisp piece of paper I’ve ever seen. So real-looking it makes him seem twice as ghostly by comparison. And my chest goes cold, and my stomach clenches, because I know what it is immediately.
“Ah,” I say, and it sounds like I’ve been punched.
His smile is wavery and quiet and strange. Not like any smile I ever knew when he was alive. “Take a look.”
Dear Mr. Springer,
We are delighted to inform you that your application to our Afterlife program has been approved. Please pack any personal belongings you wish to bring with you and await our train to the great beyond.
My hands are shaking. “This is real. You’re in. You’re - you’re going.”
“I’m going,” he confirms.
I don’t know what I was expecting to feel. We’ve spent so long hurtling toward this, I didn’t have much time to think what the moment would be like. When I heard ten thousand I thought we were going to be meeting on Saturdays for another twenty years. I figured I’d be ready.
“I’ll miss getting coffee with you,” Nick says.
I shrug. It’s admirable the way my voice keeps itself steady. “I’ll bet they have better coffee over there.”
“Can’t possibly be better company, though.”
Our gazes meet. That warmth, that constant, never-fading warmth, is still so familiar. It makes me remember the week after the crash, when I cried every day, couldn’t stop crying, because it felt like a hole had been ripped out of me from the inside.
“I’m happy for you,” I say, my throat tight.
Then I push my muffin over the cracked coffee table toward him. Practically untouched. An offering. He ignores it completely; he reaches out and lays his hand, lightly, gently over mine. And I can almost feel it. It almost feels like human contact.
“I’ll miss you, Rani,” he says.
I shut my eyes. “Well, you know. One day I’ll be there too.”
“Not for a while yet, I hope.”
“Who knows how time works over there? Maybe for you it’ll only be a minute.”
He leans back from me again. I open my eyes, and I pick up my cup at the same time he picks up his. And our smiles are mirrors with the blueberry muffin between us.
“It’s been an adventure,” Nick says. “Here’s to when we meet again.”
“Here’s to that,” I say, and I smile as our coffee mugs clink together.