Meredith knew she was dead. It was obvious. The thumping headache she discovered as soon as she stood up in her designer pajamas, the enormous stain of blood she was now standing over, not to mention the ominous silhouette - her final resting place - clumsily outlined in cheap white cello-tape on her expensive hand-woven Moroccan rug. It was very clear that Meredith was one hundred percent dead. But, not so obvious to Meredith was who killed her.
The expansive thirteenth-floor penthouse overlooks the downtown district of Dallas and glimmers in sunset hues. A few skyscrapers perch in the distance through a pink sky. Her pristine apartment sits exactly as she left it as she paces, searching for clues of her demise. Driven by a hunger for detecting who had the guts to kill her. They will pay, she thinks as she leaves her apartment, descending to the world outside, her soul fills with menace and vengeance.
She reaches the foyer and passes the concierge, barely giving an indignant glance - same as she always had. She strides toward the glass sliding doors that lead outside, expecting that they should obey her, opening at her mere presence. But tonight, and forevermore, she no longer holds presence on the physical world. She yells at the concierge, motioning to him to activate the doors, but oblivious to her, he continues watching the small color TV on his desk. She waits.
The doors slide open with a chill of air. A neighbor she never cared to know enters and greets the concierge.
“Cold night out!” exclaims the man to the concierge as he walks through Meredith. She shudders with a freezing intensity that stalls her before she escapes out the door.
Somber flickers of shadow dodge the dim streetlights as she passes invisibly, dogs bark and fit in her wake. A road bustles ahead of her, scattered with decorated shop fronts -adorned with carved pumpkin heads and limply entangled spider webs - Meredith aches from a chill in her bones as she stands alone on the sidewalk outside a convenience store. Transfixed, she gawks at a group of squealing children, little witches and werewolves, ghouls and ghosts scatter and mingle as they pass through her in excited flurries. They pass oblivious to her presence, trick-or-treating from one place to another with plastic pumpkin heads half-filled with candies and treasure, gifts from strangers. Dust swirls and drags candy wrappers into the darkness.
“I didn't grow up believing in ghosts,” a woman says in a strong southern drawl, pulling Meredith from her empty gaze. The woman emerges from behind a novelty cart, filled with giant pumpkins. She smiles at Meredith as she exhales a deep plume of smoke into the glow of neon light.
“Nice outfit by the way,” she remarks, eyeing Meredith head to toe.
“You sure woke up on the wrong side of bed this morning!” she wheezes between drags of her cigarette as smoke drifts and fades to oblivion.
Meredith gawks at the woman. “You can see me?” she asks stunned, tears of anguish welling in her eyes.
The woman stands before her utterly normal and entirely out of place. Her clothes threadbare and haggard, from another time long since passed. Her brown dress - a uniform of sorts – hugs her slim figure and sits mid thigh. The dress has short sleeves revealing long sinewy arms, covered with pink and purple scars that vein and spider web up her arms. Yellow piping outlines the hemline of her dress, it details deep waist pockets and oversized lapels that scoop slightly. A golden oval nametag is pinned lopsided to her left lapel that reads ‘Shelly’.
Shelly carries a look of worn despair in her eyes that makes her resemble someone much older than she really is. A bun of strawberry blonde hair is tied with a cheap pen at the top of her head and a few strands straggle, collecting at her shoulders. Her cheeks smoothed by blush powder, a rouge of contrasting color compared to the rest of her pale, disfigured skin. Pink burn-like scars branch upwards from the neckline of her dress, glowing in the neon light of the convenience store. A cloud of smoke drifts her cigarette and Shelly’s left eye ticks impulsively, exposing a deep sadness that lurks below the surface of skin and flesh, far deeper than any powdered rouge could ever conceal.
“Suicide,” Shelly says, exhaling the last of her cigarette, then tossing the smoldering butt behind the cart of pumpkins. “Toaster in the bathtub in case you were wondering,” her left eye ticks again; an involuntarily flicker that betrays the rest of her gentle facial features as she smiles at Meredith.
“Oh-um, I’m so sorry,” Says Meredith, diverting her eyes.
“Ahh, don’t be sorry, hun!” she says, “I had to do it, y’know. After what I did to that bastard husband of mine, he deserved it. It was all I could do to get some peace and quiet.”
“So, you… You’re a ghost too?” asks Meredith nervously, not entirely believing that these words could ever come from her mouth. I don’t believe in ghosts.
“Yep, just like you,” Shelly says. “Left to rot and wander the world for eternity, or at least it feels like it, that’s me!” Arms outstretched like a zombie, she approaches Meredith and slaps her on the arm. “It’s not quite what you expect though, is it?” she says, chuckling to herself.
Meredith recoils from the cold burning sensation left on her arm.
“You must be new!” Shelly says, her left eye flinching again as the rest of her face smiles.
“I guess so,” says Meredith, distracted as a shrill cheer from frenzied children fills the air. Sugar-fuelled and wild-eyed, the little ghosts and witches cheer and parade in awkward oversized costumes. A parent chaperone guards over them with an exhausted half-smile, their eyes tired and withdrawn. They shuffle with a dreary pace towards the next bounty. A little ghost catches the hem of their ill-fitting costume – a sheet with holes cut haphazardly for eyes - and trips, falling to the ground. The ghost cries for attention in a high-pitched squeal. A glimmer of regret pierces Meredith’s soul.
“I hate this time of year,” chortles Shelly as she kicks at an eggshell on the ground toward the retreating gaggle of children. “They run around, high as kites on candy, pretending to be dead and playing tricks on one another. But look at the parents, they’re exhausted and they know the worst is yet to come, as they’ll never sleep with all that sugar.” Pulling a half-smoked cigarette butt from her waist pocket, she holds her finger to the end and the cigarette fizzes and smolders, “thank god I could never have any,” she says, wistfully.
Astounded, Meredith looks at Shelly’s finger and back to the now lit cigarette. Shelly catches Meredith’s gaze and draws deep, exhaling a swirl of smoke towards Meredith. “Wanna square?” she asks.
“How did you do that,” asks Meredith, holding her index finger extended.
“Awwww, hun, when you’ve been here as long as I have you learn a few tricks,” she says, winking at Meredith. Shelly chuckles again. “Fifty years will teach you plent about being dead y’know darlin’. Just a shame I have to wear this goddamn thing the whole time!” she says, thumbing the waist pocket of her dress as a deep sadness lingers in her eyes.
“So, so why can’t you leave?” Meredith stammers nervously. “Why, why can’t you get to…” she pauses, unable to say the word. Her mind falters at the thought. She had never believed in a god, nor had she ever so much as considered that people die and drift upward to the heavenly gates, where angels dressed in white with perfect teeth welcome them while goddesses strum golden harps that fill the air with euphoric tones. Wide-eyed, the sparkling pearlescent gates open before them revealing the outreached arms of the almighty, smiling back at them. Fuck.
“I’m here because I’m an atheist?” cries Meredith, crestfallen. An immense wave of despair overwhelms her and she crumbles to the ground and weeps. She can’t remember the last time she cried.
“Oh hun, no, no, no… Don’t cry,” says Shelly, tossing her cigarette. She kneels beside Meredith, comforting her, stroking her back, and Meredith feels an aching chill of death descend onto her.
Meredith sobs as confusion and regret plague her thoughts. A few strands of hair cling to her wet cheek and she looks up at Shelly. The glow of the convenience store light bathes her tragic skin a starched white hue as Meredith smells the cigarette smoke lingering on Shelly’s breath.
“God…” Shelly says, air quoting. “waited weeks before coming to tell me anything at all. I was going mad…and even when I got the news, it was all bad,” she says standing, pulling Meredith up by the arm. “It looks like ‘God’s’ pretty busy right now,” she continues, meeting Meredith’s eyes. “So just don’t worry hun, alright? The day will come… Someday,” Shelly drawls with a sympathetic smile as her left eye squints.
It is all too much for Meredith and she pulls away from Shelly, her mind dizzy with thoughts of gloom. A churning claw of despair scrapes at Meredith’s gut and her mind clouds with a dense, lurking fog that strangles her thoughts, pulling her under. Meredith feels the impending doom, her destiny to forever roam the world as a purposeless ghost, a barren, worthless husk, full of bitterness and regret. It is more than she can bear. Meredith retches and throws up on Shelly’s shoes.
“Awww, come on, not again,” Shelly hisses, stepping back from Meredith and wiping chunks and spit from her dress. “I gotta wear this forever you know, it’s not like ghosts can go to the dry cleaners.”
Meredith drops to her knees and convulses again, vomiting into her expanding pool of misery below. Shelly has stepped back this time, avoiding the puddle. Meredith quakes and retches and eventually, she steadies herself and feels an enormous blinding rage rise within her, her emptied stomach has brought more than the bitterness of bile; it has brought fury, anguish, and resentment for a life now spent.
Fuming with anger Meredith shouts, “I was someone!...I had a life, I… I had anything and everything I ever desired, I could buy anything!” she blurts between gasps as sinews of spit gather at the corners of her mouth. But no one hears her cries. Meredith’s screams are met with the soft hum of the convenience store’s neon sign, pulsing in the dead of night. Shelly is long gone.
Small moths Flicker and dart at the streetlights as dawn cracks over the horizon. Meredith sullenly makes her way and her footsteps drag heavily as she ruminates a thousand desperate thoughts. Was my existence all just a farce? Have I been lying to myself all along? Am I going to be like that wretched housewife and roam the street alone forever? No! I was someone. I would never kill myself! I had it all!
She had thought she had it all.
She drifts alone through the suburban sprawl, scrambling and searching for gravity to pull her back to an existence worthwhile, to her, to someone, to anyone at all. She deliberates if anyone will weep for her, if someone will say a few compassionate, heartfelt words. Softly spoken goodbyes from a loved one with a quivering lip at her funeral. Would anyone be there curled up on her oversized bed, the sheets dampened with tears as they cry for months on end, overcome with grief and loneliness in her absence. Would there be anyone at all who even remembers her? Spattered with her own vomit she haunts the streets alone to ghastly deliberations of the unimaginable - Did I kill myself?
She arrives back at her apartment to find her assistant, Carl, studiously moving room to room with dedication. Many years earlier, Carl came highly recommended by a colleague in her circle, and shortly after that, she hired him as her personal assistant. Carl had kind, mellow grey moons for eyes and a soft jawline that gave a sympathetic, somewhat passive air to him. A dedicated employee, he had doted on her every whim and he fulfilled his duties with a devotedness to her that brought her contentment.
Now, as she watches him scurry through her apartment as he hoards her possessions, she sees nothing of the Carl that she once knew. She simmers and watches aghast as he stuffs her possessions into a large black duffel bag. Her Tiffany’s jewelry, her Dior handbags, her solid gold 16th century candelabras are all thrown into the bag with a dismissive and vengeful resentment that she never knew of him.
Carl saunters to the small painting hung above her desk and gently removes it from the wall. Meredith explodes with rage and screams at him, following him from room to room. She launches at him, throwing punches and clawing at his body in fitful bursts as her cries echo through the rooms in dead tones. Carl is impervious to her now, freed from her never-ending requests and nagging list of demands. He wanders oblivious, greedily snatching her prized possessions with rancorous glee.
He zips up the duffel bag and slings the painting under his arm and - carefully stepping over the dark stain on the rug - he makes his way toward the front door. Clinking memories of her successes - of her most beloved things in the world – jingle as he leaves, slamming the door closed on his way.
Overwhelmed and rocked with despair, Meredith slumps to the rug. Tears stream down her face as a phones ring reverberates through her apartment. She shakes and quivers as she weeps, “I’m not here!” She screams to no one in particular, violently bashing her fists on the rug. After what feels like an eternity, the answering machine finally clicks over and she hears her voice rattle from the machine with lively confidence.
“Meredith here, if it’s important, leave a message at the beep, ta!”
The answering machine emits a long hollow tone followed by a short crackled pause on the other end. A deep, gracious voice clears their throat and a booming voice fills the room.
“Hello Meredith,” says the voice as static flickers over the line,
“This is God.”