I was sitting at my kitchen table, going over different photography packages. It was late, and the single bulb hanging from the ceiling did little to illuminate the pages I was looking at. I sighed, stretched, and checked the clock. Quarter to midnight. Jesse would be home from his shift at the hospital in about 20 minutes.
I put all the papers back in a manila folder, marked "WEDDING," along with various menus from caterers and play lists from bands and DJs. Jesse and I could look over some of it tomorrow, when we both had a day off.
I changed into my pajamas, a silky cami and polka-dotted silk pants—and went to put Jesse's dinner in the oven. As I preheated it, I felt something behind me, and I turned to see a ghost.
I sighed. I was tired, it was late, and Jesse would be home soon. And if all went according to my plans, we would not be mediating when he got home. Our activities would probably be more private. And not happen in the kitchen. (Though, actually, it had before.)
But this ghost in question was a little girl—about six, or so—and I always felt obliged to do my most to help kids move on.
"Hello," I said, forcing cheerfulness. "What's your name?" She looked over me with far more intensity than most ghosts do, much less children.
"Ava. Ava Lillian Helmer. You're Susannah Simon, aren't you?" Simultaneously my heart sped up and my lungs ceased oxygen production. I looked over the girl's face, and absorbed her name.
Ava had been my favorite name six years ago. Lillian was my grandmother's name. And I had become quite close to Jim and Carla Helmer. And I found myself looking into her bright green eyes… assessing her blonde curls.
I suddenly found myself sinking into a chair, gasping for breath. Ava looked at me quietly and calmly, patiently waiting for me to get a grip. But I suddenly was forced back to a time, 7 years ago, when I was a sophomore at college.
It was almost the end of the semester, and a bunch of my friends and I were meeting at a bar in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC. Finals were over, and we needed to let loose.
But what should have been a carefree night of underage binge drinking was not so. I was in a very foul mood, because of a phone call I got from Jesse earlier that day.
"I can't come down this weekend," he said. He was going to Johns Hopkins to get his medicine degree, and was an hour's train ride from me. Every other weekend, we would take turns taking the trip to visit the other, and this was the fourth time—third in a row—that Jesse had cancelled his trip to DC.
"But finals are over," I pleaded. "What's keeping you back?" He was silent. "What? What are you not telling me?"
"I can't come because I have an important meeting tomorrow, with the Study Abroad advisor."
"Study abroad? What are you talking about?" I hadn't heard about this before.
"Querida, I'll be spending the fall semester in London. Possibly the spring semester, too. That's why I can't come down, I need to discuss the details with the advisor."
The words rang in my ears. I couldn't comprehend them. "Querida, are you there?"
"When were you going to tell me this?" I growled into the phone. "Were you even going to inform me you're spending a year three thousand miles away from me, before you left?" He sighed.
"Susannah, of course I was going to tell you. I just told you. I'm sorry I can't spend more time with you. You know I would rather be with you and your friends than having to stay here in Baltimore for a meeting. But I can't. I'm sorry." I said a few more angry words, then hung up on him.
The conversation burned in my mind as I found Cee Cee (who was going to George Washington) and three of her friends, and two of my friends from American University. They looked at me questioningly as I greeted them sullenly, then ordered a shot of vodka, downed it, then ordered another.
"Suze, what's the matter?" Cee Cee asked hesitantly as I downed the second in two gulps.
"Who says something's the matter?" I asked, looking at the empty glass.
"You don't like hard liquor. You hate vodka." I shrugged. She frowned. "This isn't about that call from Jesse, is it?" I groaned. I already had a headache mixed with my buzz. "Suze, relax. It's not the end of the world. You have the whole summer with him—not to mention a totally reasonable excuse to take a trip to London in the fall." I shrugged, and swallowed the last bit of alcohol in my glass.
Suddenly, a familiar voice sounded from behind me. "Well, well, well… look who we have here." I turned, and saw Paul. I'd forgotten he went to school in Washington, at Georgetown. We'd only spoken sporadically since graduation. "I don't believe you turn twenty one for another seven months, Suze," he chided quietly, as to not alert the bartender (not that he cared—half the people here were obviously younger than 21). Then he raised his voice. "Another of what she's having for her. And one for me. Make them doubles."
"Paul," Cee Cee said, irritated, "Don't encourage her. She's already had enough. Give her time."
"Rough day?" Paul asked, as the bartender slid the glasses in front of us. He sat down next to me, and started nursing his vodka slowly.
I didn't usually drink, I remembered in a slightly drunken haze, because I'm not usually a happy drunk. I was the one who would brood and get angry. And being in a bad mood to start with didn't help, and my problems seemed to quadruple with the two shots of liquor in me, so I started swallowing the third in fairly big gulps.
"Easy there, tiger," Paul said, gently taking the glass from me. "Tell me what's the matter."
"It's Jesse," I confessed irrationally. Paul suddenly seemed more intrigued.
"Trouble in paradise?" I shook my head.
"No. No trouble, we're very happy. I'm just… I'm just mad, because he is going to England next year, and I'm stuck here. And he didn't come to see me this weekend like he was supposed to."
"That wasn't very nice of him," Paul said, easing his chair closer to me and wrapping an arm around my shoulder. "Leaving you alone… let me guess. He's done this before?" I nodded. "Let me help you take your mind off of it. Come on, let's go dance." It took a few more minutes of persuasion, but eventually Paul pulled me off my chair and onto the dance floor.
After three beers and two more shots of vodka between us, and a shared whisky sour, and dancing that got steadily closer and more intimate, to tell you the truth, Jesse was pretty far out of my mind. So far, that when Paul kissed me, I didn't push him away. That when his hand snaked up my shirt, I didn't shout. And when we slipped out of the bar while Cee Cee (who had been keeping an eye on us) was preoccupied with her roommate Janelle, who was making out with a 45 year old married man in the corner, I didn't protest.
The cab ride back to his dorm was quick, and filled with drunken groping and messy kisses. The elevator ride up to his room was much of the same, and we made it through his door quickly (though not without one of his neighbors seeing us and giving Paul a whoop of congratulations.)
I didn't remember much after that. Only that I woke up the next morning squished against him in his single bed, my head pounding and my heart throbbing. I got out quickly, and didn't call him or make any effort to see him. He called me twice, but I ignored it, and he stopped trying.
I had managed to push it out of my mind—or so I told myself—until two months later, when I was back in Carmel and the tell-tale signs started, and the nausea I had been feeling increased tenfold when I finally went to the doctor and had my condition confirmed.
Jesse didn't know what was the matter with me. I refused to tell him that I slept with Paul, and therefore couldn't exactly explain that I'd become pregnant (I doubt he'd take the "Immaculate Conception" excuse). He was kind enough to not comment on my weight gain, and tried to bring me closer to him though I was pushing him away. When he left for England at the end of August, it hurt. A lot. I missed him terribly, and I dreaded returning to school myself—mostly because I knew that if I did, everyone would know I was pregnant.
But a few weeks before the beginning of the term, my grandmother in New York fell down the stairs of her apartment, and broke her hip. She needed help, and there wasn't anyone else. So I took a leave of absence from school, and went to New York to stay with her. She's the only one who knows that I was pregnant. As she got better, she began helping me, accompanying me to the OB-GYN and giving me advice when I sorted through the files of hopeful couples the adoption agency sent me. And thus, she was with me, injured hip and all, when I gave birth to Ava Lillian on February 10.
Satisfied that Ava was with a loving family, and that my grandmother was better and independent again, I returned to school the next fall a year behind most of my friends. Jesse was concerned about me, as I was obviously depressed and pretty alone in New York. I didn't let anyone come to visit me, nor did I go to visit Jesse in England. I need to focus on Grandma, I said. I was too busy.
We managed the long distance, though, despite everything I was keeping from him. He returned three months after I gave birth, and our relationship resumed with new vigor. But for years, even after he proposed to me, I still felt guilty. Not only about him, but Paul too. I never told him I'd gotten pregnant. And I never planned to, either.
But now, here she was. The fruit of our indiscretion. And she was dead.
Suddenly, I thought I was dead too. Tears burned my throat, and I struggled for words. "Wh…what happened?" I choked out. "Your parents, did they--"
"Mommy and Daddy are very sad," she said. "I was sick. The doctors didn't have the right medicine." A sob broke loose from my mouth, and she looked at my sadly.
"Mommy always said that, though I was their daughter, she didn't give birth to me. She said that you did." I cried silently, nodding.
I couldn't help but wonder. What was she sick from? Was it something she inherited from me? Was it my fault? Here she was, my child—my baby—and she was dead. I'd never known her in life, save for an occasional brief letter from Carla. And that can hardly constitute as knowing one's child.
She saw a picture of Jesse and me on the wall. "Is that my daddy?" I shook my head. "Who is, then?"
"Your daddy… was an old friend of mine," I explained vaguely. "I'm going to marry that man."
"But I thought mommies and daddies had to be married to have babies," she said, and I almost chuckled through my tears at her sheltered naiveté. Then again, she was six.
"No, honey. No they don't." I paused. "Listen, Ava. Jesse… the man in the picture… doesn't know about you. Neither does your father." She wrinkled her eyebrows.
"Oh." The door opened, and we both looked in the direction of the doorway. Jesse came in, looking tired and glad to be home. He took in the sight before him—his fiancé, sobbing, and a little girl ghost—and dropped his coat on a chair and hurried over.
"Querida, what's wrong?" he asked, taking my hands and kissing them gently. "Are you alright?" He wiped the tears from my face, and cradled it in his hands. "Susannah, what's wrong?"
"I like you," Ava said, then to me, "I wish he was my daddy." This brought out a new flood of tears. I wished the same thing. Desperately.
Jesse looked perplexed at the remark. He looked her over, and said, "What's your name?"
"Ava Lillian Helmer," she said simply. "Can a lot of people see ghosts?" Jesse shook his head.
"Very few. Susannah and I, we're very rare." Suddenly, without thinking, I asked her a question.
"Ava, could you see ghosts, when you were alive?" Jesse looked at me, obviously confused. Why would she be a mediator? There were so few of us, why even bother asking the question?
But between Paul and me, she must have gotten some sixth sense.
She nodded. "I think so. I never talked to them. But Mommy could never see some of the people I could see. She always said I had an active imagination." She stumbled slightly over the last phrase, clearly her mother's words. She looked at me quizzically. "You see ghosts, and I see ghosts. Did my daddy see ghosts, too?"
Suddenly Jesse's hands dropped from mine. He pushed his chair back roughly, and stood up. I could practically hear his mental gears working, taking in her appearance. The cryptic comments. My excessive show of emotion. He stumbled slightly.
"Susannah. Is she…?" he trailed off, and my sobs started anew. I nodded. I heard him take a deep, shuddering breath. "Tell me, then. Please. Did her father see ghosts too, Susannah?" I felt frozen. But I inclined my head slightly. Enough to cause Jesse to swear violently in Spanish, and storm out of the room, pushing a chair over as he went.
"I'm sorry," Ava whispered. "I forgot. I didn't mean to."
"I know, honey," I cried, and I pulled her into my lap. "I should have told him. It's not your fault."
"I know why I'm still here," she said. "I want to meet my real mommy and daddy. Can I meet my daddy?" I nodded.
"Yes, baby. You can. But I need time." She nodded, and dematerialized.
I walked carefully into the living room, where Jesse was sitting, his elbows on his knees and his face in his hands. His hands were shaking—whether from tears or rage, I don't know.
"Is she gone?" he asked in a surprisingly calm voice. He didn't look at me.
"Yes," I whispered. He looked up at me, his eyes filled with pain and hurt. But he kept his voice calm and even.
"Tell me what happened. Everything." And I did.
At the end, he was quiet for a long time, and stared out the window.
"Does Paul know?" I shook my head.
"No." I looked at my hands, and I heard him stand up and walk toward me. I couldn't look at him.
But there was a click, and I turned and saw that he had placed the phone down on the table next to me. Then, without another word, he squeezed my shoulder gently and left the room.