BY DIANA CORBITT
What will I tell people?
Definitely not the truth.
The nurse finishes shoving pillows under my full-leg cast, and as she walks away, I study the contrast between my coffee-colored toes and the surrounding fresh white plaster. I wiggle them. A sudden throbbing pain behind my eyes makes me stop. I squeeze them shut, surprised at how good the darkness feels. Ugh, what have I done? All I want to do is sleep.
Too bad Dr. North is feeling chatty.
“Elbie, you may not agree,” the old man begins, “but you’re very lucky that all you ended up with was a broken leg and a concussion. If you’d fallen a different way, struck your head a different way, who knows what could have happened? You might even be paralyzed.”
“Do you hear that?” Mom leaps up from one of the two visitor’s chairs. “Paralyzed. At eleven years old.”
“I didn’t do it on purpose,” I grumble. Preferring not to make eye contact, I look past them in time to see a sopping-wet white man stride past the doorway.
“We know that,” says Dr. North. “Just try to get a grip next time, you know?” He grabs his bristly mop of salt-and-pepper hair with both age-spotted hands. “You might not believe it, but I did crazy things too, when I was your age.” Parting his hair with his fingers, he bends over to show me a pale two-inch scar on the top of his head. “See that? Got this when I was ten. Nearly drowned that day.”
Frowning, Mom studies the doctor’s scar until he straightens up, then looks at me, one eyebrow cocked.
I frown back. “Dang it, Mom. You know why this happened. It was the…the...” Again, the back of my eyes throb, demanding I close them. With a frustrated groan, I obey.
“Yeah…I know.” Her voice softens but only for a moment. “And how long do you think you’ll keep that cast clean?”
I slowly raise one eyelid to find Mom squinting down at me, her walnut-brown arms crossed high over her chest. I blink to keep her in focus. How’s a guy supposed to answer that question?
Thankfully, Dr. North is pretty cool, even though he’s like 70. “Casts aren’t supposed to stay clean,” he tells Mom. “They’re supposed to be written on.” He pulls a red Sharpie from his lab coat pocket and uncaps it. “Okay, Elbie. Where would you like your first autograph?”
Head aching and still feeling pretty stupid, I couldn’t care less if the cast stayed cottage-cheese white the whole time I have to wear it. “Wherever you like,” I mutter, hoping he and Mom will take the hint. I cut the overhead light a dirty look and shut my eyes again.
Mmmm. Darkness. I love it.
After a few seconds, I hear the Sharpie’s cap click back into place. Maybe if I keep my eyes shut, they’ll think I’m sleeping and leave me alone for a while.
“If you think I’m stupid enough to think you’re sleeping, you’ve got another thing coming.” Mom’s warm breath tickles as she whispers into my ear. “But don’t worry, baby. I’ll let you rest now. Your father and I will come see you later this afternoon.”
I open my eyes a crack. Now, the sopping-wet white man I’d seen earlier is standing inside my doorway. We make eye contact, and he looks surprised. The others don’t notice him. Well, Dr. North did say I might hallucinate. As I wonder whether my strange visitor is real or not, Dr. North steps between, blocking my view.
“If it was just the broken leg…” North says, rapping the fresh plaster with his knuckles, “you’d be on your way home right now. But that melon of yours has a pretty good lump on it, and you’re still a little woozy, so I’m keeping you overnight. Just for observation.”
For a moment, Mom’s eyes get all glossy, and I expect her to lose it right there, but she gets it together fast and says, “You okay with that, Elbie?”
Afraid nodding will bring me more pain, I smile and say, “Umm-hmm.” After several goodbyes and cheek kisses, I watch through slitted eyes as the two of them tiptoe toward the now empty doorway.
Before he leaves, Dr. North turns the lights off and promises to check on me after lunch. I give him a thumbs up. Peace, finally.
But then that wet white man I saw earlier pokes his head into the room. Either he’s lost or somebody else is. Before I can ask which, he’s gone again.
What is up with that guy?
Oh, well. I’ve got more important things to worry about. I close my eyes, wondering what lie I’m going to tell my friends.
If they’re going to believe me, my story has to suit my personality. And that’s going to be tough, because it also has to be boring.
The truth is neither of those. In fact, it would probably make Theresa and Kerry wet their pants laughing. Normally, I’d enjoy that. But not this time. Laughing with me is one thing. Laughing at me? As my best friend, Joey, would say, that’s a whole different bowl of wax.
It happened when I was getting ready for school this morning. As owner of Bird Mortuary, Dad was out for an early collection, so Mom rushed me to the emergency room herself. If it wasn’t for the off-and-on headaches, I’d have enjoyed the experience. The leg didn’t hurt much—as long as I didn’t put weight on it—and I got to ride in a wheelchair, something I’d always wanted to try.
Well, now I’ve tried it, and it’s definitely not worth staying off my skateboard for eight weeks. Ugh, I suppose it could have been worse. I could have broken both legs.
I imagine Joey taking in my lies, his round face a blank as he struggles to keep his eyes on mine. Normally, a person with Asperger’s tries to avoid eye contact, but with his teachers’ help, Joey’s gotten better at it. They’ve also spent a lot of time showing him how to read people’s facial expressions. And that’s what I’m afraid of. What if those teachers taught him to tell the difference between lies and truth? I draw the covers up over my nose, wondering if that’s possible.
So, what kind of explanation are those guys going to accept?
That I broke my leg falling out of the tree in our front yard?
Probably, but why would I be up a tree at seven in the morning?
That I built a parachute out of bedsheets and jumped off the house with it?
But why would I do that? Science Fair was last month.
Ugh. This is not what I want to do.
As I grow my list of lies, I nod off. After a while, I get the feeling that I’m being watched and open my eyes. That weird white man I keep seeing is standing in the open doorway, and he’s glaring at me like he just realized I’m the kid who put a rock through his living room window.
Lunging into the room, he raises his chin at me and says, “You know where he is, don’t you?”
“Huh?” Still feeling a little dopey, I blink to get him focused.
He sticks his nose in every corner, water-sopped head swiveling like a computer chair. Is this one of those crazy guys you hear about on the news? And why is he so wet?
The bathroom door is half open, and the light’s off. Noticing, he turns toward me, soggy green tee shirt clinging to his skin, large pale-gray eyes daring me to lie. “You’re hiding him in there, aren’t you?”
“Me?” Heart beating through my hospital gown, I blink hard, hoping I’m just dreaming. “Who would I be hiding?”
“Well, I’ll see for myself, if that’s okay.” The guy disappears into the dark bathroom, which I also find weird, since, if he’s in there to search the place, why not turn the light on? I ignore the pounding in my head and sit up, groping around my bedclothes for the little button that calls the nurse. Dang it, where the heck is that thing?
Realizing I can’t run because of my stupid full-leg cast, I’m just about to scream my lungs out when a short round Asian woman wearing tight-fitting blue scrubs wheels a food tray into the room. “Well, you can’t be feeling too bad if you’re sitting up,” she says, grinning a huge gap-toothed smile. “Hi, Elbie. My name’s Anita.”
Terrified, I point at the bathroom and shout, “Look out! A crazy man just came in here looking for someone! He’s in there!”
“Seriously?” Abandoning the food tray, Anita pushes the bathroom door inward and flicks on the light. “Well, he’s gone now. Maybe you just dreamed it.” She turns back to me. “Is that possible?” From the smile on her face, she definitely thinks that’s what happened. Maybe I should too.
“I don’t know…I guess.” Feeling confused, foolish, and a little dizzy, I lie back and stare at the ceiling.
“Hey, no biggy.” She wheels the tray over to the bed and positions it over my upper legs. “I hope you’re into tomato soup and grilled cheese. I love both of them, but if that’s not your thing, I can bring you something else. They’ve got a pretty good—”
“This is fine,” I say, partly to stop her talking, but also because I really do like her choices.
“Here, let me raise you up.” Anita hits a button on the remote, and as the head of my bed hums upward, I spot that strange white man as he walks past the open doorway.
“There he goes!” I gasp. “The guy in the bathroom!”
“Where?” She looks at the obviously empty bathroom, then at me. “Are you saying a man just walked into your bathroom again?” From the look on her face, she doesn’t believe me. And maybe she shouldn’t. Dr. North did say one of the symptoms of a concussion is hallucinations.
“No,” I tell her. “He was walking down the hall. Should be easy to spot, too. The guy’s all wet.”
Obviously trying to humor me, she steps over and takes a peek up and down the hall. “No wet guys out there,” she says with a shrug. “Only dry ones.”
Not sure what to believe anymore, I try to eat my lunch, but even though grilled cheese and tomato soup is my all-time favorite meal, I can’t eat much because I keep spotting that guy walking up and down the hall. I push aside the food tray just as Dr. North comes in, all smiles.
“Feeling better?” His grin fades at the sight of my half-eaten lunch. “Not into tomato soup, or has your stomach started bothering you?”
“Neither. I’m just confused. There’s this guy I keep seeing walk up and down the hall. Am I hallucinating? I mean, why would they let him do that when he’s dripping water everywhere. The dude’s soaking wet.”
As I complain, the doctor nods, and once I’m finished, he goes back and pokes his head out the door. “I don’t see any water, Elbie.”
“You don’t?” I raise myself up on both hands so I can see the hall floor. “Huh. I guess I…” I flop back down. “Maybe I’ve been sleeping more than I thought.”
Dr. North rolls the food tray against the wall. “That’s okay, kiddo. Like I told you earlier, hallucinations are just one of the symptoms of concussions. You banged your head pretty good this morning, but you should feel better by tomorrow. Maybe even sooner.”
After checking my eyes and peeking into my ears, he tells me I’m doing fine and leaves again, promising to stop by before he heads home for the day.
I lie back. What else can I do? I sleep.
The sound of familiar voices wakes me. I open my eyes just as Joey’s curly-haired sister, Theresa, steps into the room, followed by her best friend, Kerry, the tallest English girl I’ve ever met. Or should I say, the tallest girl I’ve ever met.
After the hellos and a few knocks on the cast, I ask where Joey is, surprised he isn’t with them.”
“He’ll be here in a minute,” says Theresa, still admiring my big plaster leg.
“Thanks for coming. I… uh…” I blink hard at Kerry, then at Theresa. “…how’d you even know I was here?”
“You didn’t come to school today,” says Theresa. “Joey was worried, so he called the funeral parlor after he got home from school.”
Oh-my-gosh, did Mom tell them what happened? She couldn’t have. If the girls knew, they’d have cracked up the minute they saw the cast. “So, what’s taking Joey so long?”
Before either girl can reply, Joey walks into the room carrying a bouquet of flowers and followed by one very sopping wet white man.
I throw up my arms. “Oh, heck no. I don’t want him in here.”
As if I just announced I’m running for president, Kerry stares at me with her two-tone eyes, one brown and one green. “What? You were just complaining about Joey dawdling.”
“Not him…” I point at the figure behind Joey. “…the wet dude.”
“Crikey,” says Kerry. “Your mum warned us you might behave a bit wonky.” She frowns down at the lump on my head. “Well, don’t fret. In a few days you’ll be—hey!” She looks wide-eyed at the sudden goosebumps rising on her arms. On everyone else’s arms too. “Am I crazy, or is there a ghost in here?” She throws open her backpack. Knowing Kerry, she’s looking for her ghost chasing equipment.
A ghost? Here in my hospital room? If there was, Kerry would be the only one of us who can’t see it. I look around, and then it hits me. As Theresa would say, holy crabs. The wet guy isn’t crazy at all. He’s just dead. Having lived over a funeral home my whole life, I’ve seen more ghosts than I can count. Has this concussion rocked my brain so hard that I can’t tell who’s dead and who’s not?
I rub the goosebumps off my own arms. Yup, it’s definitely colder in here with that ghost around. Why didn’t I notice the sudden temperature drop when old spooky came in here before? As Theresa introduces herself and Kerry continues to root through her backpack, I study him more closely. As I expect, his feet aren’t touching the floor, but hovering about a half inch above it, something I definitely would have noticed earlier if my head was on straight. No wonder Dr. North didn’t see any water on the hallway floor.
So, there he stands alongside the flowers Joey brought me. Same wet jeans and shirt, both stuck to his skin in places. Same brown hair, still glued to his head like he just pulled it out of a water bucket. But the pale-gray eyes are different. They’re not angry or accusing anymore. They’re sad, confused…and scared.
“Elbie, meet Gideon,” Joey tells me. “I just told him he’s dead.”
“So, you didn’t know until just now?” I ask.
The ghost shakes his head. “I guess that explains why everyone else was ignoring me.”
“Folks who can see ghosts are rare,” I say. “You’re lucky you found us.”
“Ask him how he died,” says Kerry. With an ecstatic gasp, she pulls out her infrared camera and turns it on.
Looking from face to face, Gideon shrugs. “I’m not sure.” He plucks half-heartedly at his clingy wet tee shirt. “But if I had to bet, I’d say I drowned.”
“Ugh! The battery’s dead!” Unable to see or hear ghosts herself, Kerry elbows Theresa, who repeats what Gideon just said. “This is so unfair.” Kerry stuffs the camera back where it came from and, with a frustrated grunt, hitches the backpack onto her shoulder. “Why should you all be able to see ghosts when I can’t? At least tell me what he looks like.”
“Like he just climbed out of a swimming pool,” Joey tells her.
“More like a river,” says the ghost. He raises both hands and rakes his dripping hair back from his forehead.
“So, you drowned in the river?” I ask him.
“I guess. That’s the last place I remember being…before I showed up here, of course.”
Theresa squints at him through her glasses. They must be smudged, because she takes them off to clean them. “If you don’t mind my asking, Gideon, why are you still here?”
“What do you mean?” As if driven, the ghost wanders over to the bathroom and looks in side again.
“He’s looking for someone,” I tell them.
Unaware that the ghost has moved, Kerry asks the vase of flowers who they’re looking for.
“Ahem,” says Theresa. Seeing she’s gotten Kerry’s attention, she tips her head toward Gideon’s new location. “He’s over there now.”
“Right.” Kerry winces as a flush creeps across her cheeks. “Would someone please ask Gideon to stay in one spot? It’s a bit…” Her gaze drops to her shoes. “…frustrating.”
“Oh, you can ask him that yourself,” says Joey. “Gideon can see and hear you fine. You’re the one who can’t—”
“Yeah, yeah.” Still grumbling, Kerry slumps into one of the visitor’s chairs.
“So, who have you been looking for?” Theresa asks Gideon gently. “Maybe we can help you find them.”
The fire I’d seen in Gideon’s eyes earlier returns. “My son!” His pale eyes dart around the room. “My little boy. The last time I saw him, he was paddling around in the river. I told him to stay close to the shore, but he wouldn’t listen.” He pounds his fists on his thighs. “When he went under the water I dove in after him, but…”
“Did your son drown too?” Joey asks him.
“No, I…” Anger faded, his hands begin to tremble, and he suddenly seems smaller. “I don’t know.”
For a moment, Theresa’s arms raise up as if she’s going to hug him. She must realize it’s impossible because they quickly drop to her sides. “Well…either way. We’ll do what we can. I promise.”
“Let me get this straight,” says Kerry. “He’s looking for his son, and he doesn’t know if the boy drowned or not.”
“Exactly,” says Joey.
Kerry stands back up. “Okay, then let’s start by getting the boy’s name.” She looks at where everyone else is looking and says, “His age will probably be helpful too.”
“Jimmy,” says the ghost. “He’s ten years old, and his name is Jimmy.”
With a nod, Theresa grabs Kerry by the arm and pulls her toward the door. “Come on, Kerry. We’re going to the admitting desk. I’ll fill you in on the way.”
They dash off, leaving the three of us in uncomfortable silence. Joey sits down and pulls out his phone. Still chilly from having Gideon around, I tuck my arms under the covers, and for a while, just lie there with my eyes closed. But it’s hard to sleep knowing there’s a ghost in the room. I open my eyes. Gideon is standing next to Joey, frowning at him and his phone the way you see adults do when they think whatever you’re doing is a waste of time.
“I never thanked you for the flowers,” I say. “What kind are they?”
“Tulips.” Joey answers, eyes still on his phone. “I don’t understand the logic, but Theresa says people in the hospital are supposed to get flowers. It was her idea to kill them. They were growing in our garden. You’re supposed to look at them until they start shriveling, then throw them in the garbage. He looks up at me. “But not the vase. That’s why I was late. I was borrowing it from the nurses’ station.”
“Well…thanks. I’ll try to remember that.”
“It shouldn’t be hard,” says Joey. “Speaking of why we had to bring you flowers, your mom wouldn’t tell me how you broke your leg. The girls and I were discussing it in the elevator.” He glances over. “Did you trip over the cat and fall down the staircase?”
I hadn’t thought of that. Skunky does have a tendency to do figure-8s around people’s legs. I nod and say, “Yeah, how’d you guess?”
As I’d hoped he wouldn’t, Joey studies my face, his own expression blank, and after a few long seconds says, “That’s not what really happened, is it?”
“So, how did you break your leg?” the ghost asks.
If Joey wasn’t there, I’d tell Old Spooky to buzz off, but I can’t. Oh, well. At least the girls aren’t here right now.
I close my eyes and say, “I fell in the shower.”
“But that’s not the whole story, is it?” says Gideon.
Ugggh. “No.” I look over at Joey. Even though he’s back to playing his video game, I know he’s listening.
“Just spill it,” says Gideon. “I’m a ghost. Who am I going to tell?”
“Well, Theresa, for one.”
Joey looks up. “Was there a spider in the tub?”
Grrrr. How does he know? “Yes,” I say through gritted teeth. “A big old Daddy Long Legs. Thing was huge.”
Standing up, he stuffs the phone into his back pocket. “I distinctly remember telling you Daddy Long Legs are not poisonous.”
“Maybe so. But they’re scary as heck.” I glare at him, daring him to say otherwise.
But he doesn’t. Instead, he nods, as if I’ve just confirmed his suspicions. A moment later, the girls are back.
“So, what’s up with Jimmy?” I ask, happy to change the subject. “Did you find out what room he’s in?”
“He’s not in any room,” says Kerry. “And he’s not dead—or at least his body’s not in the morgue.”
“Oh, God. Thank you.” Eyes pinched closed, Gideon covers his mouth with his hand. After a bit, he throws up his arms and shouts, “He’s alive! My boy is alive!”
Seeing everyone grin, Kerry takes the second visitor’s chair and says, “I’m guessing he’s happy?”
That’s when Dr. North pops in. “Hey, looks like a party. Hi, kids.” Oblivious to Gideon, he nods at my friends as he strides across the room to my bedside. “So, feeling better?”
Am I? “Well, my leg’s still broke, but my head definitely doesn’t hurt anymore. At least right now. And I don’t feel dizzy or confused.”
“Excellent.” The doctor then shines his little flashlight in my eyes and smiles. “Looking good, kiddo. Barring any unforeseen circumstances, you’ll absolutely be going home tomorrow.” He peers over his shoulder and says, “Besides the broken leg, your friend here took quite a hit to his noggin this morning. Did he tell you how it happened?”
Seriously? Is that really so important? With all the ghost stuff going on, the girls hadn’t even thought to ask me. Thanks for reminding them, Dr. North. He chuckles at my now scowling face and turns, but freezes when Kerry stands up. I expect him to say something like, wow, aren’t you a big one—which is what she usually gets. Instead he surprises me by asking, “Hey, weren’t you on that reality show?”
“Yeah,” says Kerry. “Ghosters.” She tips her head at Theresa. “Her too.”
“Yeah, I remember you both.” Dr. North’s eyes sparkle as he looks from one girl to the other. “From what I recall, you kids got a lot of attention with your playacting.”
Kerry lets loose a snort. “Playacting?” At least five inches taller, she blinks down at the doctor, her lips pressed in a tight smirk.
“Sounds like you don’t believe in ghosts,” says Theresa. She steps forward and offers her hand as she introduces herself.
“I’m a doctor,” North says as they shake. “I believe in what I can see.”
“Us too,” says Joey. His own gaze is aimed at Gideon, who throws up his arms and marches over to me, “Do you see?” says the ghost. “Do you see what I’ve been dealing with? Everyone ignores me!” Face crinkled in a knot of frustration, he kicks my tray table, sending it rolling across the room. Too bad our non-believer was looking the other way.
Doctor North spins around. “What’s wrong, Elbie? Is your headache coming back?”
“I didn’t do it,” I tell him. “The ghost did.”
“Oh, so we’ve got a haunted hospital now?” He chuckles. “Sure, sure.” With a wave, the doctor heads for the door. “Okay, kids. I’ve got a couple more patients to visit, and when I get back, I’d like to see you gone. Elbie’s grumpy, and he needs his rest.”
The others try not to smile, and I do my best at look the part as we wait for the doctor to leave the room. Theresa even creeps over to the door and takes a peek.
“He’s way down the hall,” she tells us. “In front of room 319, talking to another doctor.”
“Okay, says Joey. “So, how are we going to find Gideon’s son?”
“Easy,” I say. “We Google him.”
“Good idea,” says Theresa. “She turns to the ghost. “What’s Jimmy’s last name?”
“Google him?” Gideon blurts, startling everyone but Kerry. “What the heck is that?”
“A Google search,” says Joey. “You know. On the phone.” He holds up his cell.
“That’s no telephone I’ve ever seen. It’s a plastic toy. You were playing with it earlier.”
“That’s true,” says Joey, “but it’s also a phone. And a computer. That’s the feature we use to Google things with.”
“Google.” Frowning, Gideon wipes away some of the water that’s been dripping down his forehead and looks from one face to the other as if he’s just caught us cheating. “And wallet-sized telephones with computers in them. You kids should be ashamed of yourselves. Do you really think I’m that gullible? A computer would fill this whole room. Everyone knows that.”
Wait a minute. How long has this ghost been walking these halls?
“Gideon,” I say. “Do you know what year this is?”
“Enough with the jokes. I thought you kids were better than that.”
“I think I know where Elbie is going,” says Theresa. She steps slowly toward the ghost. “Please. Tell us what year you think it is.”
For a moment, Gideon just scowls, but then something must click, and the crease between his brow unfolds, leaving behind some of the fear I saw earlier. “It’s 1962.” Again, he searches our faces. “Isn’t it?”
“What’s he saying?” Kerry whispers to Theresa.
“Actually,” says Joey, “it’s 2019.”
“That’s a lie.” Gideon rakes his wet hair with his fingers then clenches them into fists. “Why, that would mean I’ve been searching these halls for—”
“—57 years,” says Theresa.
Hands limp and shoulders slumped, Gideon starts to weave a little. A ghost can’t pass out…can it? If he wasn’t already dead, I’d be worried. “All this time.” he murmurs. Chin dipped to his chest, he starts to pace the room. “All this time…all this time, I’ve been looking for my little boy.” Smiling sadly, he shakes his head then raises it to Joey. “So that Google thing will find my Jimmy for me?”
“I can definitely try to Google search him. But I’m going to need his last name.”
As if he were still living, the ghost heaves a deep sigh and says, “It’s North. Jimmy North—I mean, James.”
“James North?” I chuckle. “Are you serious?”
“Isn’t that your doctor’s name?” Kerry asks me.
I remember how, just this morning, Dr. North had parted his salt-and pepper hair to show me the scar he got when he was ten. “Don’t bother Googling, Joey. It’s him. He said he nearly drowned that day.”
“What are you talking about?” says Kerry.
“I’ll explain later.” I look from Kerry to Theresa. “Would you two please ask Dr. North to come back here?”
“Sure,” says Theresa. “But what do we tell him?”
I look at Gideon and smile. “Tell him there’s somebody here who’s been looking for him.”