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Monday, January 6, 2014

The Friendly Ghost

Danielle Marroquin skipped down the hallway of the Sacred Heart Hospital of Minneapolis, seemingly unaware of how frail she really was. Her once round, rosy cheeks were sunken and hollow, the skin pulled tight across her bones and deathly pale, her wide, laughing eyes the only thing still bright and vibrant about her. 

She wandered the hallways alone at night, and with the corridors partially darkened to save energy, she was a ghastly, chilling sight. The parents of other children in the pediatric wards, the lost souls who hadn’t set foot outside of the building since their children were brought there, had become familiar with the otherwise phantasmagorical specter in the hallways, and had lovingly taken to calling her Casper, the friendly ghost.

 The nurses and orderlies at the Sacred Heart Hospital of Minneapolis also called her ‘the ghost,’ but more from fear than mirth. They saw her paleness, the patchiness of her hair and the waver in her step all as signs of the inevitable: she had a bizarre, unknown blood disease that was slowly leeching away her life.

 In spite of her prognosis, Dani had lived for quite longer than had been predicted, far past any reasonable medical expectations, and even though she had been found starving on the streets with no relatives or birth certificate to speak of, she had remained looking roughly seven for the past three years. Stranger still were the infrequent visits by the people who claimed to be her friends. They came always at night, later than normal visiting hours, stayed for short periods of time, and left as quietly as they came. They were ghastly themselves, all with the same strange sickness lingering about them despite their almost elfin beauty.

Despite several rumors that her visitors were in fact the founders of a child slave ring, or that they were actually her parents but too poor to care for her, the three men and one woman who consistently showed up were never barred entry for two reasons. The first was because the head nurse of the floor was certain that these people held the key to Dani’s identity if pressed hard enough.

The second was because the entire staff was certain that Dani’s time was growing ever shorter, and the visits seemed to give her a great deal of joy. The staff at Sacred Heart expected to find her dead at any moment, so the idea of barring the only people with a connection to her life before her admittance to the hospital was unconscionable.  

Dani slept most of the day, sheets pulled up over her head, with the blinds closed. She had been that way ever since they had found her outside the facility shivering in the cold, and although the tests to see if she had Cutaneous Porphyria all came back negative, she had always shown a severe reaction to sunlight.

Once the sun dipped below the horizon, though, Dani would emerge from her cocoon and her pale form would begin to silently prowl the various wards of the hospital, as playful and happy as any little girl. She wore her white nightgown, buttoned to her throat, and dragging on the floor behind her as if she was from a different era even though she was seven-years-old. The staff of the all-night coffee stand had nicknamed her their mascot, and she could always coax a treat off of one of them before she continued her midnight walk, stopping only occasionally to stare at certain patient’s rooms.

The nursing staff had almost immediately noticed the correlation between Dani’s stops and the next day’s death toll. Without fail, every room that she paused at would see a death the very next day, usually quietly and with little pain. For some of the more critically injured or terminally ill patients, her visits were not only welcomed but impatiently awaited, since the little girl had yet to be incorrect. She had become a harbinger of ill tidings and yet, the nurses had come to appreciate her accuracy, and when Dani visited a patient the nurses knew to call the family to make their last goodbyes.

What was upsetting was when the doctors and nurses were confident of someone’s recovery and Dani visited. Instead of calling the families of one of these patients, the nurses would call the doctors in a panic. At first the doctors, who wrote their dismay off as unscientific superstition, ignored them but when Dani’s accuracy had reached a level beyond any human explanation, they began to pay attention. Occasionally, a patient who had been recovering from a run-of-the-mill appendectomy received a visit, the nurses and doctors would begin reviewing that patient’s case hoping that Dani was wrong but, without fail, the inevitable happened.

 Jenny Britton was one of the younger nurses on staff and the youngest nurses were usually assigned to Dani. Caring for, or rather watching Dani, was a rite of passage for new nurses, who were often teased at their initial fear of the little girl. The situation, however disturbing, imbued the nurses with a sense of humility and tenderness not always found in hospitals. Jenny, like the dozens of nurses who cared for Dani before her, would sit in her room during the day as she slept, occasionally checking her barely perceptible vitals.

She had been there for barely two weeks when she had her first shift of watching the girl, who lay in her bed as still as the grave. A heart monitor was attached, as it always was during the day, and it only made the occasional slow bleep. By her pulse and life signs, she should have been in a coma and yet she mysteriously slipped out of her bed each night with more energy and life than many of her healthy counterparts.

Jenny ate her boxed sandwich from the cafeteria covertly as she watched the sun go down out of a tiny rack in the heavily shuttered windows, and even though she was not supposed to eat in the patients’ rooms, she crunched the BLT with extra gusto, since she hadn’t managed a meal since her shift had started that morning. She set down her sandwich and stood up to switch on the bedside lamp as the last vestiges of natural light faded over the horizon, and when she turned back around to see the bed it was very suddenly empty.

The little girl was standing by the chair that Jenny had been sitting in for the past few hours, her fingers resting on the edge of the sandwich box with almost no weight. She looked up at Jenny when she felt the nurse’s eyes on her, and the intensity of the little girl’s stare along with her strangely cat-like movement made Jenny recoil.

 “Hi, Jenny. What are you thinking about?” Dani asked sweetly.

Jenny fought to swallow the inexplicable fear that had surged up inside her. She finally managed, “I was just eating…”

Dani looked back at the sandwich and leaned her nose in to sniff at it, “Is it good?”

“Uh…well, no. It’s cafeteria food…” there was a sudden rush out in the hallway as four nurses and the ER doctor on call rushed past, heading towards the sudden low screech of an alarm that shattered the relative silence of dusk.

Dani lifted her head and smiled softly, the twitch of her lips far sadder than tears, “They are going to put up a valiant effort, but I’m afraid that Mrs. Sylva has gone from this world.” her words were not those of a child, and the solemnity with which Dani looked at Jenny was deeply unsettling.

All that Jenny could manage was a hoarse “What?”

“Everyone has their time.” The smile grew wider on Dani’s face, and far more enigmatic, “Well, in varying degrees, anyway. Mrs. Sylva lost two sons in Vietnam. Her husband, once a vibrant man, never recovered from the shock and committed suicide three years later. Her scars are dramatic. You need to know where to look. Doctors don’t have a clue, probably never will. They’ve always suspected that aging and disease have a spiritual component. I acquired the ability to measure a person’s health and vitality a long time ago.”

“How do you know that Mrs. Sylva is dead? She was doing really well yesterday.”

“How do you know that you are hungry? Or that you need to sleep?” Dani shrugged and sat down on the edge of her bed, her legs swinging back and forth, “I just sort of know. You are new here, aren’t you?”

“Relatively,” Jenny blinked at the little girl, “Seriously, though. You can tell that Mrs. Sylva is dead?”

“I can tell when anyone here dies. I can tell if they were dying when they first arrive. There are the ones who slide easily either way: back into life or into death. Then there are the ones that linger, who suffer, whose souls are wedged between worlds. I help those ones.” She shrugged and jumped down from the bed, “Enjoy your sandwich.”

Jenny started as the girl skipped out of her room, her feet making no sound on the linoleum. She hurried after the girl, her heart hammering in her chest. When she had caught up, she kept pace beside the girl who seemed to be making her way down an invisible but strict pathway that she never strayed from for an instant.

She stopped systematically in front of a dozen doors until she finally pushed one open and sauntered inside. Jenny followed and found herself standing beside a man who was slowly dying from old age.

“You are trying to understand what I am, aren’t you? I suppose what you are searching for is a word. Think of me as a barometer.”

“A what?” Jenny looked over at the man and a sudden chill rushed over her, “Is he…?”

“Dying? Yes. He is also in extreme pain.” Jenny reached for the man’s wrist and turned the wristband so she could read it. Mr. Graham lived what I suppose the world would call a good life. He raised three children, he was faithful to his wife, attended church regularly. That sort of stuff.”


“Religion, government, his family, they promised him a lot and delivered little. Mr. Graham was passed over for promotions and raises because he wouldn’t falsify the reports that his bosses wanted changed. His wife, disappointed at his meager earnings quietly dated some of his best friends. His daughter in spite of all of his warnings got pregnant and married a bum who to this day he is still supporting.” The little girl slid a hand over the man’s arm to where an IV pumped saline into his system. She neatly pulled it out and despite Jenny’s horrified gasp she set her lips over the wound and took a small sip.

Jenny found herself staring at the little girl, her eyes as wide as they could go. Despite what she was seeing, Jenny couldn’t get herself to run or to scream. The little girl pulled her mouth away and demurely dabbed at the blood on her lips, her eyes fixed on Jenny.

“I am surprised that you didn’t scream. I am more surprised that you didn’t try to stop me.” Dani smiled and her teeth were red and dripping.

Jenny breathed, “Does it…are you hurting him?”

“No.” Dani looked over at the man and patted his cheek affectionately, “I have eaten his pain, I absorbed it. Right now, he is sleeping the best that he has in years.”

Jenny felt herself swallowing hard as something stirred deep inside her brain. Everything was familiar in a horrifying way and she cleared her throat compulsively, “Why…why are you showing me this?”

“Why?” Dani walked over to her and took her hand, “Because I am hoping that you will forgive me.”

“Forgive you?”

Dani’s eyes were suddenly intense, and her grip on Jenny’s wrist grew tighter, “Because all I eat are the dying, and I cannot sustain myself like this…” she stroked the nurse’s wrists and pulled her closer, “I need healthy blood.”

Jenny screamed and sat bolt upright in her bed, her eyes wide and her chest heaving. She cast about her for a moment before she realized that she had just woken up from a bad dream, and her body was so slick with sweat that her hair was plastered to her neck and shoulders.

She let out her breath and cupped her face in her hands as she tried to quiet the shaking of her limbs, and that was when she noticed the dozens of tiny punctures that ran along her hands and arms in delicate sets of two. She stared at them until her alarm clock rang four hours later, and it wasn’t until she had gently touched one with her fingertip and felt the light sear of pain rush up her skin that she began to scream.

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