Ghosts and Women

by Vanzetti


In the constant half-darkness of Jeffrey's room, day and night had no meaning. Time was defined by pain and pain's absence.

From years in law enforcement he knew what the bullet had done to his body, and that he was bound to his bed while shattered bone and flesh re-knit themselves. What it had done to him was something else, something he didn't want to see. Unconsciousness meant more than the absence of physical pain, and he welcomed it when it came, until the inexorable hum of his body's healing--like a buzz along his nerves, even through the drugs--brought him back to himself.

He opened his eyes to the ghostly shapes of the machines that tied him to the world. And now he saw a new shape, even more ghostly: lank blonde hair, skin like paper over fragile bones and wide, staring eyes. He almost thought that she was a ghost, that he could see the machines through her body. When she brushed her hand against his arm he was surprised to be able to feel her touch. He opened his mouth to speak to her and realized he was muffled by the mask that fed him oxygen. There was more pain, from the motion.

"Hush," the woman whispered. "Hush."

He shook his head and made a noise in protest. More pain, but he needed...

"They'll hear us," she said, and glanced behind her as if she expected someone to burst into the room.

He tried to move his own hand up to remove the mask, forgetting that it was tied flat to the bed, and grunted as the attempted motion shifted something inside him.

She winced with him. "All right," she said, and lifted the mask.

He licked his lips and pressed them together. He could move his mouth enough to speak through the pain. "Mm... My... mother?" The muscles in his face didn’t respond the way they once had.

Marita shook her head. "She isn't here."

He turned his face away so that she wouldn't see his tears. He had lost his mother. Lost his mother and found his father. The truth about his father, and the truth about himself. He wasn't good enough. He had never been good enough.

When he turned back, Marita was still there. She reached out, cautiously, her hand trembling, and brushed the tears from his face with her fingers.

"Hhh... he killed her, di... didn't he?" No need to specify who he was. She drew back and looked away at the floor, her hands twisting in her lap.

He didn't kill her, Jeffrey, a voice told him from the back of his mind. You did. You brought her here, placed her in his power. Jeffrey closed his eyes but couldn't close his mind against the voice. Not good enough. Never good enough.

It was only the touch of her fingers on his cheeks which told him his tears were still falling. When he opened his eyes her hand froze, but didn't pull away. "Hush," she said, and again, "hush."



The next time Jeffrey saw her, he was sitting up in bed and feeding himself. The door opened just wide enough and long enough for her to scuttle through sideways; she made a nervous circuit of the room before coming to stand at the side of his bed. Skittish was the word his mind supplied. He put his spoon down in the bowl, very slowly, and pushed it towards her. She glanced at him through the hair which fell into her eyes and shook her head.

He cleared his throat. "Thank you."

Her cracked lips opened and her eyes narrowed. "Why?"

"For sitting with me, before."

She looked away. "They mustn't find out," she warned him. "Don't tell them that I come here."

"I won't tell," he promised.

"I'm sorry," she whispered, "about your mother."

He squeezed his eyes shut against the tears; when he could open them again, she was still standing by the bed, watching him with her head tilted slightly to the side. "Did you know her?" Had his mother, in the months of her absence, been reduced to this state?

Marita shook her head. "I knew who she was."

It was his turn to look away, to stare at the rough material of the sheet which covered him. "Because of my father." As a twelve-year-old he had screamed at his mother for driving his father away with her craziness. No wonder she had always been so eager to leave him. "Even if I had managed to get you out that day, it wouldn't have changed anything. Would it?"

"He's so powerful," he heard her say.

So powerful, he could choose a son and discard him. Your father never wanted you, the voice in his head told him. Not when you were a child and not now. You were never what he wanted.

Marita's bony fingers settled on his wrist. "You tried. That's something."

"I wasn't good enough."

She was silent for a while. "It was only... what I knew, wasn't it? Why you tried to take me with you."

A muscle jumped in his cheek, pulling at something that wasn't right and setting off an orchestra of pain beneath his skin. He dug his nails into his palms and concentrated on breathing shallowly until he could move his mouth enough to frame the words. "I didn't know..." he started. "I didn't realize..." He took her hands in his. "Then, yes. But not any more." Now that it was too late, the voice said.

She nodded, staring down at their hands.

"I'm sorry," he added. "For not seeing you, that day. Seeing who you are."

Her mouth twisted. "Not much to see."

"For failing you," he added.

She met his eyes. "You did more than anyone else."

He remembered the feel of her fingers, brushing away his tears. "So did you," he said.


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