I’ve been covering the night shift lately. It just makes sense. Bernie has kids and Trevor has early morning classes over at the state college in Weatherly. At our last staff meeting, Andy (our manager) kinda-sorta indicated that I should step up and cover for the other two. He likes to see his employees striving towards something—family, career, whatever—and encourages us to support each other in those ventures. It’s not like grocery store clerking is anybody’s life ambition.
Except maybe for me.
I’ve got the whole roll of produce codes memorized. I’ve folded one thousand paper cranes out of discount coupons. Those aren’t skills you can just walk away from.
Anyway, it’s one of those things I fell into and then finally accepted. Like filing an annual tax return or listening to the Plain White T’s and Dave Matthews. Whatever. It used to pay the bills and now it fills my time. Of which, I recently have a considerable amount.
Unlike Bernie, I don’t have kids or a boyfriend or really any other family to speak of. I did once. My dad was…but, well, things change. And unlike Trevor, I’m certainly not going back to school anytime soon. It didn’t really work out the first time around.
Not that I mind. Again, I’ve accepted that this is my life now. Sweet, lazy acceptance. Andy says my laissez-faire attitude does me no favors.
“If you’re not working towards something, Delilah, you might as well be dead,” he says with a sigh.
Which is super ironic, considering I’ve been dead since last Friday.
I’m not sure how no one noticed. But I guess I can’t blame them. Honestly, it took me a minute or two.
It was one of those sudden, unexpected things. I was eating a fruit salad in the parking lot out back, at around 1am, with my headphones in, listening to Dave Matthews (please stop judging me) and then BAM. Or however you would describe the unlucky and extremely unlikely event of a fairly good-sized meteorite crash-landing in the parking lot at that exact moment.
The crater took out my car and half the parking lot. Andy was interviewed on the morning news.
When I got to work the next night, he threatened to fire me for skipping out on my shift but also “how lucky were you that the night you cut out early a meteorite falls from the sky and lands in the Save-A-Ton grocery store parking lot?”
“Oh yeah, luckiest girl ever,” I answered back, a little too flippantly. Andy’s hard stare told me to watch my attitude.
But then Bernie and Trevor started complaining about having to work my shift so Andy said he’d give me another chance.
“But this is the last time, Delilah, I swear. Get it together.” Andy gave me his best you’re-better-than-this-and-I-believe-in-you nod. Which was sweet and yay for second chances, I guess? To be honest, I was a little distracted. I couldn’t really wrap my head around how I ended up back at the grocery store. My last memory was of looking up into the night sky and seeing this ball of fire coming right at me.
Come craaaaaash into me…
So, I stayed for the night shift. I didn’t have anything else to do and, until Andy said my name, I was grasping at straws trying to come up with it myself.
Delilah. Delilah Something. I confirmed, trying the name out, conceding to myself that the last name was probably far less important now than before.
Hey there, Delilah…the Dead Girl.
It’s a little surreal. This being dead thing, I mean. For starters, I don’t seem to exist outside the grocery store. I find myself making it to staff meetings and taking the night shift, as usual, but when I’m not working, I just…don’t exist? At least, I have no memories of where I come from or where I go at the end of the shift.
Of course, to have memories, you probably have to have brain matter. And I don’t really have any of that anymore. There’s still some life force at work though, because I can scan items just like I used to and my soup can castle-making skills are still literally head-and-shoulders above Trevor.
I can say “see ya” to Andy as he flies past me in a rush, winter coat being pulled on one sleeve at a time, as he dashes out of Save-A-Ton to go pick up his daughter from after-school orchestra practice or risk the wrath of his ex-wife again. I can even eat fruit salad while listening to Dave Matthews if I want to, since my iPod and earbuds appear to be in the front pocket of my paisley-print work apron, wholly intact, even though I swear they were all vaporized along with the rest of me.
I can’t taste the fruit salad and the music has some audio feedback echo-thing happening that I don’t remember from before. Plus, I don’t really sleep and I don’t feel much of anything. And I’m giving myself serious poltergeist vibes in general. So that’s all pretty new.
But it’s been a few days so I’m ready to figure it all out. My unfinished business, that is. Because that’s why I’m here, right? It would be weird otherwise.
I’ve got some ideas. I think my father was a police officer and I vaguely remember a cold case about this blonde-haired woman named Ellen or Brenda or something and she had a glass…slipper. Glass eye? Okay, maybe I’m not on the right track quite yet.
“How much are these?” A woman’s voice brings me out of my funk. Her cherry-red hair has suspiciously gray roots. She’s holding up a bag of limes from her cart.
“Um, like 2 for $1?” I answer as I scan her other items—orange juice, multivitamins, Lysol and Clorox. The combination of citrus and cleaning supplies rubs me the wrong way but I have no idea why.
“‘Like 2 for $1’?” she parrots me. “Does that mean approximately or is that the actual price?” Her attitude is way too I’m-an-English-teacher-and-your-grammar-could-use-a-little-work for 8pm at night.
“That’s the price,” I reply, adding, “It’s on the sign below the lemon and lime stand.”
“There wasn’t a sign.” She purses her lips.
“Well, that’s the price,” I repeat, maybe too flatly.
“Well, there wasn’t a sign.” She repeats herself too, but her voice is anything but flat.
“Do you want them?” I wonder, not really caring either way. I have some other problems I’m dealing with—a whole grocery list of existential, metaphysical problems. She grumbles but she places the bag of limes on the conveyor belt.
“You should watch your tone, miss,” she mentions sourly, as she picks up her bags and leaves Save-A-Ton in a huff, turning once to add, “And there wasn’t a sign.”
I’d like to believe her, but how can you trust the observational skills of someone who doesn’t recognize a ghost when they see one?
The store is quiet when Andy gets back, much later than usual, and with his eight-year-old daughter, Becky, in tow. She has a blue, Cinderella backpack on and she’s carrying her violin case.
“Wait here, honey,” Andy tells her gently, gesturing to a wooden bench just outside his office. He looks over at me, casually leaning against my cash register, and beckons me to his office with a subtle tilt of his head.
“Listen, this is way outside your job description…” Andy begins. He offers me one of the office chairs, which I take, just to make him happy. He seems agitated and his eyes are darting in a million different directions. He finally focuses on me and, realizing he’s making me uncomfortable, offers an explanation. “It’s Becky’s mom…she’s—there’s been an accident. The hospital called me when I was on my way over to drop Becky off and…I don’t know, I didn’t want to scare her, so I brought her here.”
“Is Elaine okay?” I ask, surprised that I can remember the name of Andy’s ex-wife so easily.
“I don’t know,” Andy admits, moving a stack of random papers to his bookshelf. He looks lost. “She’s in surgery. The hospital is supposed to call me with news.”
“And Becky doesn’t know?”
He shakes his head, “Not yet.”
Did he bring me in here to ask for advice? He must have friends or relatives that he might reach out to and…I suddenly have a flash of memory.
Nothing concrete. Just a moment from years ago. Something that happened in this room. I was crying. And then Andy was saying something at my ear.
It’ll be okay. You’ll be okay.
But then it’s gone again. And I can’t really bring it up. Not with him over there, in the middle of a family crisis that I’m not sure why I’m a part of.
“You have to tell her,” I mention, slowly and with a sense that he already knows this. If he’s shielding Becky from bad news, it won’t last. I’m not certain of much but I’m dead certain about that.
“I’d rather wait until I hear back from the hospital,” he argues. “I’d like to give her hope.”
The way he says that last part—
“But if her mom’s dying, you have to tell her,” I argue back. “She has to know. And no matter how long you wait, it won’t get easier.”
“I know,” he says. He’s pacing now. His hands—he doesn’t know what to do with them. He loosens his tie. His phone, perched on the desk beside a stapler and paper clips, starts vibrating.
Andy looks at me and I look at him. He picks up the phone, “Hello?”
Andy asks if I’ll sit with Becky while he goes to the hospital. He tells her enough, but not all. “You’ll stay here with Delilah, okay? And I’ll be right back. Promise.”
“Okay, Daddy,” Becky says, her voice quavering just a little. But Andy tends to exude calm, even in the worst of circumstances. I briefly wonder how I know that. The memory is still itching at the underside of…whatever I’m made of now. He presses a kiss to Becky’s forehead before he heads out.
Becky and I watch him leave, silently. There’s a tenseness to this sort of waiting that I’ve felt before. Maybe she has too. She’s only eight, but tragedy and waiting for bad news starts early. I’m trying to come up with a way to break the tension and maybe take her mind off all the what-ifs, when Becky does it for me.
“So, when did you die?” she wonders, conversationally, in a way that says she’s worried about her mother but also interested in what’s going on with me. Which I certainly appreciate.
I huff with something like relief, “Becky—how?…wait, you know I’m dead?”
She nods with enthusiasm but doesn’t offer any explanation.
Instead, she asks, “Did it hurt?”
I want to ask about the hows and whys, but I understand why she asks the question she does. She’s thinking about her mother and what might be happening at the hospital. My semi-incorporeal crisis can wait. Stepping gingerly over her violin case, I take a seat beside Becky on the bench.
“Not really,” I answer, with a shrug. “It happened too fast for me to feel much of anything.”
“Oh,” she replies, swinging her feet beneath the bench. The slush on her boots melts and drips onto the epoxy floor in small puddles. Her hands are folded together in her lap, her little wrists poking out from the wool of her winter coat. She adds, “That’s good.”
“Yeah…” I murmur, muttering, “I was never very good at feeling things anyway.”
Becky’s nodding again. As if she knows my words are true.
“My dad says that you have a lot going on under the surface.”
“Ha!” I give a half-laugh—Andy, my manager and my psychologist. “Does he?”
Becky takes her hands from her lap and grips the edge of the wooden bench. “Yup. He says that you used to have all these dreams for the future but then your dad got sick and you had to quit school and you haven’t been the same since.”
I swallow hard. Or my mortal-ish coil does. I can feel my expression contort as Becky’s words bring back a few more memories that have escaped my notice.
My dad. The smell of citrus and Clorox in a hospital hallway. Beige-colored walls. And I’m sitting on a window ledge, looking down at the river and a couple mallard ducks bobbing along in the ice-cold water.
Hey Dad, come look at these little guys.
It’s not a nice memory, despite the ducks. It makes me feel things—hollow, sad things that I don’t want to feel. And why should I? Isn’t that one of the benefits of being dead? That you don’t have to feel anything anymore?
Becky sniffs, rousing me out of my bit of introspection. She’s not crying but her hands are gripping that bench tightly enough that I know she’d like to. I rest my arm around her shoulders.
“Can you feel that?” I ask. I haven’t touched another person since it happened so I have serious doubts that I’ll be able to comfort her. But she nods her head “yes” and even leans into my embrace a little.
“No matter what happens, you’ll be okay,” I tell her. “Your dad will make sure you’re okay.”
I’m not peddling empty words here. At least, I don’t think I am. The echo of Andy’s voice is in my ear again, saying: It’ll be okay. You’ll be okay. It chases away those hollow feelings that have started to creep up on me, and I’m hoping to impart some of that secondhand to Becky.
From experience (what experience though?), I decide it’s a good time to distract ourselves with something a little less heavy. So I squeeze Becky’s shoulder lightly and give her a half-smile and a never-fail suggestion,
“Hey, do you wanna bowl for table wine?”
Aisle 4 is our lane. I’ve set up ten bottles, with a nice, cheap champagne at the front. The customer who buys that bottle will be in for a frothy, explosive surprise.
Becky grins as she takes her turn. She grins because she’s using a honeydew melon as a bowling ball, and I dare anyone who’s rolling a honeydew melon down a grocery store aisle with the intention of knocking down wine bottles not to smile. You can’t. It’s impossible.
She knocks down six of the makeshift pins on her turn and I give her a round of applause, “Well done, Becks!”
“This is fun,” she admits, almost guiltily as she hands me a cantaloupe from our custom-made grocery-cart-bowling-ball-melon-holder.
“Hell yeah, it’s fun,” I reply, answering her smile. I add, somewhat facetiously, “Look, midnight grocery store shenanigans are the main reason why I’m still hanging around this place.”
“Really?” Becky wonders, her question far more serious than my throwaway comment.
I roll the cantaloupe smoothly down aisle 4 and watch it veer wildly to the left, missing the wine bottle pins completely. I frown, not at her question but at my zero-score turn.
I step back and let Becky choose her next bowling ball from our fruit cart. She’s eight. I am (or was, rather) twenty-eight. If I’m going to have this conversation with anyone, it should probably be with an adult versed in paranormal abnormalities. But Becky’s the only person I’ve met in the last few days who knows that I’m dead, so you know what? Maybe she can help.
I answer her honestly, “I have no idea why I’m still here. At first, I thought maybe it’s because it happened out in the parking lot and maybe I’m hooked to this place because of that. And then I thought maybe it’s because I was basically dead already—”
Becky screws her little face up in puzzlement.
“I just mean that I haven’t been big on life lately,” I clarify, leaning back against a shelf filled with shredded wheat and Cheerios. “Your dad keeps telling me that I need to get it together.”
“Get what together?”
“Life. Dreams,” I sigh on the vague concepts, adding darkly, “Not that dreams would have been much use against that meteorite.”
“He just says those things because he likes you,” Becky comments, stepping up on her tip-toes to reach for a not-quite-ripe muskmelon at the bottom of the grocery cart.
“I’m a fairly likeable person,” I concede, smirking.
“No, I mean he likes you. Or liked you, I guess,” she makes the correction of tense almost apologetically, as if it’s rude to bring up the fact that I’m dead. I give her my best pshaw-don’t-worry-about-it hand wave. She continues, “He’s liked you for a long time. He says that beneath all your jokes, you’re really sad and he wishes he could somehow make you happy again. Or that somebody could, even if it’s not him. He says you miss your dad, because it was just you and him for a long time. Like Cinderella and her dad.”
“Well, that’s true,” I mutter, automatically, knowing the truth of that last part instinctively. But I wonder at the rest of Becky’s revelation. I wonder if Andy really did like me. Did I know how he felt? And also, was I sad? I can’t remember. I remember feeling numb. So much numbness. But maybe…
And then it comes back. The whole thing. All of it. Like a hunk of space rock falling out of the night sky, shattering all the peace and quiet of winter-chilled air on its way by, and then rudely smashing into a girl who was just eating a fruit salad, listening to trash music and minding her own damn business.
My expression must have turned grim. Becky holds her muskmelon against her chest, looking at me curiously.
“Do you remember something?” she asks.
“Yeah,” I answer.
“What do you remember?”
“That my dad isn’t dead.”
My mom took off early. I think her name was Ellen. Or Brenda. Something like that. She had a glass hummingbird figurine hanging from the rear-view mirror of her car. I remember watching it swing from my car seat, casting a rainbow prism on my little hands. And then I never saw it again.
I wasn’t sad because of her. It happens. Whatever.
Besides, my dad was the best. Just the sweetest, nicest guy ever. The kind who brings you jellybeans when he picks you up from school and pretends to find magic quarters behind your ear. He was a cop. I remember sitting on his desk at the station, waiting for him to finish up a hundred phone calls so we could go home and make dinner, watch movies and listen to silly pop songs on the radio.
It was just the two of us, which was an improvement on the Cinderella fairy tale, if you ask me. Fathers who love their daughters shouldn’t bring home evil stepmothers. And my dad definitely loved me.
“I love you to the stars and back, Delilah,” he’d always say.
I remember when I brought home a bootleg CD from college—Plain White T’s with their stupid one-hit wonder, “Hey There, Delilah.” I was so excited to show him because I knew he’d love it, even if it was Top 40 nonsense.
I played him the song and said, “What do you think…is this my new signature song or what?”
He smiled, swaying his head to the radio-friendly chorus. He was sweet, as he used his best cop-handling-a-situation voice to say, “It’s good. I like it. But sweetheart, why do we care about this?”
“Dad, it’s literally called, ‘Hey There, Delilah’,” I answered with a laugh, thinking he was kidding.
“Who’s Delilah?” he asked. And he was serious.
He was dead serious.
The official diagnosis was a boring combination of Alzheimer’s and early dementia. The doctors said it was too bad, because otherwise, he was in perfect shape for his age. My dad was 56 and losing his mind.
It seemed to happen so fast. And yet years passed. I dropped out of school to take care of him. My part-time summer job at the Save-A-Ton became permanent. I told Andy I needed flexible hours, if he could spare them. And then I broke down in Andy’s office, because that same morning, my sweet, gentle father who had never said a cruel word to me in my whole life had ripped the old landline phone out of the wall and thrown it at my head, growling at me to “get the hell out of my fucking house!”
Andy came around from behind his desk, concern coloring his features. I was standing there with stupid tears running down the sides of my face. And his arms went around me, holding me close. His voice whispered near my ear, calmly, “It’ll be okay. You’ll be okay.”
I felt warm and safe for the first time in a long time. It was just words and somebody’s arms around me but sometimes that’s enough.
When Andy pulled back, I saw conflict in his expression. I would have been content to be held a little longer and I think he knew that. At the time, I thought he restrained himself because comforting an employee skirts on inappropriate. But now that I think about it, he was still married to Elaine back then and well, maybe it had more to do with the fact that he was comforting me specifically.
After that, I can’t remember feeling anything. Just numbness, as Dad was admitted to the hospital. As he forgot his own name, just like he forgot mine. As the nursing care bills and the mortgage and the property taxes piled up to the point where I would never get out from under them.
When I went to see him, my dad stared at me blankly. Or, more often, he stared out the window of his room, aimlessly watching clouds drift by. He was alive, but dead to the world.
Like father, like daughter, I guess.
Becky rolls a strike with a cantaloupe. God, she’s good at this game. She gives a little curtsy as I give her more applause and a loud whistle, using my fingers against my teeth, which is something I could never manage when I was alive. +1 for being dead.
This is where Andy finds us. Or Becky, rather.
Apparently, getting my memories back messed with the visibility aspect of my ghostly existence. Becky still sees me, but it’s rather obvious that Andy has no clue I’m still around.
“Where’s Delilah?” he asks, when I’m standing right beside him. He doesn’t know I’m there. Becky and I both catch on quickly. I make some hand signals that tell her to let it stay that way.
“She had to go, Daddy,” Becky says immediately, sneaking a quick glance at me. I nod with approval.
“That woman,” Andy shakes his head, ruefully. He goes down on one knee, so he’s eye level with Becky. He reaches for her blue, Cinderella backpack, propped up against our grocery cart melon holder and helps her slip it on.
“It wasn’t her fault,” Becky jumps to my defense, careful not to let her gaze linger where I’m standing. She’s fast on her feet. “The nursing home called and it was something to do with her dad. She didn’t want to leave me alone. She was so upset, she knew you’d be angry.”
“I’m not angry, honey,” he replies. Nor is he fidgeting or anxious anymore. Things must have gone better than expected with Elaine. He confirms the news. “Your mom’s going to be okay. She’s out of surgery and things went really well. She’ll have some recovery to deal with but she’s going to be fine.”
“Oh, that’s fantastic news, Becky,” I say before I remember Andy can’t hear me. Or can he? He flinches, turning ever so slightly towards me. But then, Becky throws her arms around her father’s neck.
“It means you’ll have to stay with me for a while,” he mentions, gauging the little girl’s reaction. The single-dad thing is usually a weekend routine for them.
But Becky smiles and nods, “That’s okay.”
With the tenseness of the night dissipating, Andy finally has a chance to look around the store.
“Hold on—were you girls bowling with melons?”
Becky continues to see me for a while. She was the first one to notice I was dead, and she’s the last one to see me before I finally fade out. Andy can still hear me sometimes, I can tell. I’ll say something and he’ll lift his head, even open his mouth to respond, before catching himself.
About a week after that night with Becky and the melons, I’m hanging out in Andy’s office and I can tell he senses my presence. He looks around, before returning to the pile of expense sheets on his desk with a sad, little sigh.
“I’ll miss you too,” I tell him, remembering again how warm and safe he made me feel that one time, forever ago now. I’ll never forget it.
It’ll be okay. You’ll be okay.
When he finishes his paperwork, he tells Becky it’s time to go. They’re going to swing by the hospital to visit her mom before they go home. Becky takes my hand, in secret, leading me out to the parking lot with them. I slide into the backseat, unnoticed by Andy.
I’m still there though. It’s a lot simpler than I thought it would be, but maybe I’ve been overthinking existence. Maybe all it requires is a friendly little girl to take your hand and lead you away from the grocery store that you’ve wrapped around yourself like a security blanket.
“See? You’re still here,” Becky whispers as she tosses her Cinderella backpack beside me.
“What was that, Becks?” Andy asks from the driver seat.
“Nothing, Daddy,” she answers. Smart girl. Talking to ghosts is not something you want to admit to. But then she adds, “Can we visit Delilah’s dad too? I know he won’t know who we are but maybe it would be nice?”
“Sure, honey…” he answers, with something like regret on the edge of his voice. My obituary ran in yesterday’s newspaper. It took them a while to put it all together. When they did, I think Andy, Trevor and Bernie made a silent pact to never discuss it again—talking to ghosts and all that, I mean.
At the hospital, Becky bounces down the beige-colored corridor, leading Andy to my dad’s room. They sit with him and talk with him, even though he doesn’t say anything back. He never said anything back to me either.
When it’s time for them to go, Becky hugs me goodbye. She’s discreet and waits until Andy jumps down the hall to get a drink from the vending machines.
“I can’t feel you,” I say to the sweet little girl. I wish I could.
“But I can feel you,” she insists. If she’s lying to make me feel better, she’s absolutely her father’s daughter. I bend down and kiss her cheek and whisper a sincere “thank you” before Andy returns with two bottled waters and a, “Ready to go?”
Becky nods and grabs her coat from the chair by my dad’s bedside. She wanders out into the hall, headed towards the recovery wards. Andy delays a moment before following her. I assume he’s going to give my dad some sort of farewell. And he does, patting the older man on the shoulder once. My father continues to stare blankly out the window, at cinder-colored January skies.
I take Becky’s abandoned seat, making myself comfortable. I assume I’ll be here for a while. I’ve managed to make a decision regarding the whole being dead thing. I’m sure I’ll pass into the next world or nothingness or whatever eventually. But I’m certainly not going to the other side alone.
Andy hesitates at the door, his one hand holding the water bottles, his other cuffing the door frame. He’s a practical guy and believes in practical things, despite all his talk of dreams. That’s why he never said anything to me, even after he and Elaine split up. He didn’t think it would work—him and me. Maybe he was right.
But also, maybe he should’ve followed his own advice and risked it.
“Take care, Delilah,” Andy says the words softly, to the air.
“You too, Andy.”
I stay with Dad until the end, sitting up in that window just like I did when I was still alive, watching ducks, geese and seasons pass.
The end comes, but for real this time. He slips away in his sleep, peacefully. Everybody should go in their sleep if they can.
As the monitor flat-lines and the on-duty nurses rush down the hall, I hear a familiar shuffling behind my window perch. When I turn, there’s Dad, my dad, not the ghost that took his place so many years ago. He’s standing with his arms outstretched, beckoning me in.
“Hey there, Delilah,” he says, smiling so warmly.
This ending is way too happily-ever-after for real life and I can barely believe it. But screw it, I do. I believe it to the stars and back again. I hop off the windowsill and walk into my father’s embrace, gladly. Finally. I bury my head in his chest as he tightens his arms around me. And what’s more, I feel it.
Gretchen Tessmer is a writer based in the U.S./Canadian borderlands. She writes both short fiction and poetry, with work appearing in Nature, Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, The Deadlands and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, among other venues.