“I miss you,” she told me, and the phone crackled static into my ear.
“I miss you too,” Really, it was all I could say. “Is the hotel room nice, at least?”
“There’s no cable. For two hundred bucks a night, you’d think there would be cable.” She laughed. I laughed with her.
The laughter died, and silence sat between us for a moment. “How long are you in Boston?”
“Three more days. The course wraps up Thursday afternoon and if we wrap up early, I can fly out that night.” There was a note of grim satisfaction in her voice. I felt sorry for her students.
“And two weeks after that, I see you.”
There was another pause.
“I miss you.”
I hung up the phone, frustrated. It had been another two hour conversation with no resolution, laying utter waste to the evening. “I miss you” was what it always came back to, “I miss you” and that was all. Not “I miss you enough to do something about it.” Not even “I miss you so much I can’t do this anymore”—not that I wanted to hear anything along those lines, either. Just “I miss you”, a placeholder that let us vamp from phone call to phone call to phone call, and on through the night.
On average, we had about five of these conversations per week. The question of “what next” always sat there in the middle, too big for us to ignore or handle. Occasionally we’d get close—there’d be an “If my headhunter finds me something in Raleigh…” or “My project wraps up in October and I can think about something new then” – but that was always where it ended, with maybes and delays and nothing more.
The clock on the stove told me that it was 10:30, and any thoughts of getting real work done that evening were pure fantasy. Through the blinds, I could see that the evening’s clouds hadn’t been making idle threats of rain. It was coming down now, hard and steady and dull. Irrationally, I prayed for a bolt of lightning, a roll of thunder—anything to break up the flat sound of water pouring off a poorly built patio. Instead, all I got was the sound of more rain.
Suddenly the apartment seemed tiny and stifling. I took a deep breath of hot air, let it out slowly, and grabbed my keys off the kitchen table. In the corner, the white glow from the computer monitor tried to lure me back for another hour’s pointless labor. Even catching a glimpse of it made my eyes ache.
“The hell with it.” Going outside to get rained on suddenly seemed much more appealing than staying inside and caged. I let myself out the front door and into the night.
The night air was cool and wet, and each breath tasted sweet, heavy with the taste of rain. A low roll of thunder grumbled to itself off in the distance, a late arrival on the scene, and I briefly entertained the notion of going back in to turn off the computer.
“No,” I told myself, and banished the notion of responsible computer ownership from my mind. Let the damn thing fry, if it came to that; if I went back to shut it off, I wouldn’t be able to tear myself away for the rest of the evening. And right now I wanted, no, I needed to be away from it, to be away from the apartment and all the clutter I had stuffed it with and most of all the damned phone, which kept reminding me of how damned temporary everything that I was doing really was.
A walk wasn’t an answer. But, it would do for relief, at least for a little while.
And so I walked around one building, and then another, and then suddenly I was at the front of the apartment complex, with the steady hiss of tires in the air to tell me how close I was to the main road.
That’s where the girl was sitting, directly underneath one of the streetlamps, and I couldn’t take my eyes off her.
She looked twenty, or maybe twenty-two. Her hair was long and black, and water had matted it to her face. A long grey skirt was plastered to her legs, the hemline just above her shoes, and she had a white blouse that had done a masterful job of not turning see-through in the rain. She looked up at me, her eyes catching mine, and the corners of her mouth quirked up in a look that said, “I see you looking at me, and it’s all right”.
And as she smiled at me from across the sort-of road, I saw that the raindrops were falling right through her.
“Hi,” she said. I blinked, and rubbed my eyes. Maybe it was a trick of the light. Maybe I was tired and seeing things. Maybe…
A leaf blew through her face. She blinked, as if she’d felt it, and then tried again.
“Hi,” she said.
“Hi.” It seemed the right thing to say.
“Nice night for a walk.”
I looked left, and then right. “Kind of crappy, really. I wouldn’t be out here if I actually liked my apartment.”
“Ah. Bad layout?”
“More like bad karma.” I blinked. “Ah, hell, that was out of line. I don’t usually throw a pity party in front of a total stranger. Can I start over?”
“It’s okay, really.” She stood up, slowly. I think she was trying not to alarm me by accidentally falling through the lamppost, or the sidewalk, or the shrubbery behind her.
I took a step back. “Is it? Because—and you can tell me if I’m wrong here—I think I’ve just seen a ghost.”
She opened her mouth, said nothing, closed it again. Her smile faded, and she looked down at her shoes. Suddenly, I felt like an idiot.
“Look, I’m sorry.” I could feel my face heating up with embarrassment. “That was a stupid thing to say. It’s just in the light, it looked like, well, I thought I saw-“
She cut me off, her eyes still focused on her feet. “No, you’re right. Most people don’t notice.” She wrapped her arms around herself and swayed a little.
A car drove down the asphalt between us, too fast for the road it was on. Its tires kicked up veils of water. I got soaked. The ghost just stood there, shivering now. “Asshole,” she said without rancor, and turned back to me. “I talked to him last week. He tried to pick me up.”
“I’m not surprised, actually. You certainly are attractive, for someone who is…I mean…” I caught myself. “This is sounding a lot worse than it actually is, I swear.”
She threw back her head and laughed. “No, no, please don’t apologize. Really, I should thank you.”
“For talking to me like a person, even after finding out.”
I bit back the first few replies that came to mind. “It seemed like the thing to do,” is what finally, lamely passed muster.
She kept her grin. “Believe me, it means a lot.” For a moment she paused, and looked worried. “You can still run off and scream if you want.”
I shrugged. “Why would I?”
Neither of us said anything for a moment. All I could think of was junior high dances, the boys trying to work up the nerve to talk to the girls and the girls too nervous to answer.
“So.” I waited for her to say something with a few nouns and verbs in it, and when she didn’t, I stumbled onward. “Can I ask you a question?”
She gazed at me, wide-eyed with mock surprise. “What happened to me? Why am I here? Have I seen Elvis?”
Somehow, my lips had managed to go dry in the middle of the downpour. “No, actually. What I really want to know is—look, I know this is kind of weird, but—what’s your name?”
The ghost blinked. “My name. All that song and dance, and the only thing you want to know is my name?”
I blinked back at her. “Well, not the only thing, but it’s a good place to start. But if it’s not something you want to tell me…”
“Oh, relax. That’s not it at all.” She pursed her lips. “Usually people want to how you died. No one’s ever asked my name before.”
“I’m a rebel,” I said.
She smiled sadly. “No, no you’re not.” She paused for a minute, then crossed a rubicon. “My name is Anna.”
“Nice to meet you, Brian. Do you want to know the rest of it?”
I made a noncommittal gesture and sat myself down on the curb. Cold water immediately soaked through the seat of my jeans. “If you want to tell. I figured that sort of thing was too personal to ask about. I mean, I know I won’t want to talk about it when I…oh, crap, I’m doing it again. Let me start over.” She snickered, and I hurried on.
“I’m just surprised to find a ghost here, of all places. I mean, this apartment complex is maybe three years old. There aren’t any abandoned houses falling down or old battlefields or cemeteries or anything. It’s not the sort of place you’d think would be haunted.”
“Are you finished?” Anna looked amused, but her laugh was gone.
“Possibly.” I coughed into my hand. “Look, do you want to come in out of the rain? I mean, I know it’s going right through you and all, but that can’t be comfortable.”
“It doesn’t really feel like anything,” she said, “and I can’t go inside. I’m not allowed to leave right here. It’s nice that you asked, though. It’s really sweet.”
I pushed myself to my feet, painfully aware of the massive wet patch across my backside. “That doesn’t make any sense,” I said, and walked over to where she stood. “If you’re not from here, why are you stuck here?”
She turned away from me, her shoulders hunched. “I don’t know,” she said in a small voice. “I don’t know why I’m here, and I don’t know what I have to do to get out.” Abruptly, she faced me, and her eyes were bright. “I mean, it’s a nice apartment complex, and I’m sure you’ve got a weight room and all that good stuff, but it’s not where I want to be. I want to go home, Brian. I really want to go home.”
Instinctively, I reached out to hold her, but she shrank away. “Don’t. That just makes it worse.”
“Don’t be. It’s not your fault.”
“Even so. Seriously, though do you have any idea why you’re here?”
Anna didn’t look at me. Instead, she started pacing back and forth, three steps in each direction and then a quick heel turn. Rain splashed through her and into the puddles underneath. “I told you, I don’t know. It’s not something I ever thought about until it was too late.” She stopped, blinked, and finally looked at me. “Do you ever think about it? You should. Why are you here, Brian?”
I grimaced. “Cheap rent.”
The ghost shook her head. “That’s not funny, and that’s not why you’re here. Well, it’s part of it, but it’s not a real answer.”
I felt a frown and a headache coming on. “Why is this about me all of a sudden?”
“Because I want it to be,” Anna replied. “And I’m cold and I’m dead, and I’m tired of answering questions. Is that a good enough reason for you to answer one for me instead, or do you want to cross-examine me a little more?”
I turned and walked away a few steps. My shoelaces dragged on the wet asphalt behind me. “Fine. You win. What do you want to know?”
Her words drifted over my shoulder. “Turn around and face me.” Sheepishly, I did so. Her eyes softened a bit. “Just answer one question for me, same as I did for you. That’s all I’m asking.”
“You want to know why I’m here?”
She nodded, and leaned down to pat her hand against the curb. “Right here. In this place, of all places, at this moment of all moments.” She pointed to the apartment complex’s rain-drenched sign. “In the entranceway to the Pine Meadows apartments, on a rainy night in Apex, North Carolina. Here.”
“I don’t know.” It wasn’t what I’d been planning on saying, but the truth of it couldn’t be denied. I could see her face tighten, and I hurried to explain. “No, really, I don’t know. I mean, I’m standing here because I was taking a walk until I ran into you. I was taking a walk because my apartment was just pissing me off, and my apartment was pissing me off because it’s full of ten years of a temporary lifestyle. I’ve got a girlfriend in Ohio but she’s got a good job and doesn’t want to leave, so it doesn’t make sense to be permanent here, but I don’t know if I want to go there, either, because I might hate it and we might not work out. And maybe I like my job and maybe I don’t, and maybe they’ll blow me out the door in the fall when my project ends. But in the meantime I’ve got a place for my stuff and a place to sleep, and a way not to have to actually get on with my life.”
She watched me. Her eyes were very large, and her lips were pressed together in a tiny “o”. “Is that all?” she finally asked.
“I’m not sure.” I thought for a moment. “It might be.”
“I see.” As she talked, she twirled a strand of hair around her index finger. “Why did you tell me that?
I blinked. “Because you asked.”
“So I did.” She looked thoughtful. “What do you expect to happen now?”
“I don’t know,” I answered. “I thought maybe telling you about my situation might, I don’t know, might help with yours. That it might help you figure out what to do.”
“I see,” she said, and whatever bemused affection she’d had for me was gone. “Get out of the rain, Brian.”
She looked at me, looked through me. “You heard me. Go home.”
I ran my fingers through my hair. “Why?”
Her eyes were full of pity. “Because of what you just told me. I think I’m waiting for someone, Brian. I don’t think it’s you.”
“But I want to help.” There was a whine to the words as they came out, and I hated myself for saying them.
“Do you really?” she asked.
“I think so,” I mumbled, ashamed. “You shouldn’t be stuck here.”
“That’s not what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that you shouldn’t be stuck here.”
“That’s not fair.” It was almost an apology.
She raised her hands to me. Water fell through them. “Neither is this.”
“There has to be something I can do.”
She laughed, bitterly. “Why? Why does there have to be something you, of all people, can do? You don’t even know how to get yourself out of here, and that’s just a matter of packing some boxes and writing a check. You don’t have the right to try to help me, Brian. Not now. Not yet. Maybe not ever.” She looked angry and scared and desperate, all at once, her eyes wild and her hair streaming out behind her in a wind I couldn’t feel.
“I’m sorry. I’ll go now.” I took a few steps, then turned and looked over my shoulder. “I’d like to come back and talk to you, if I can, Anna. If that would be OK.”
“Why?” she asked.
“Because I want to help.”
She shook her head. “No, you don’t. You just think you ought to try.”
Her words hung there between us for a few seconds. “Maybe you’re right,” I heard myself saying. “But if that changes, can I look for you again?”
“If it does. Don’t come by to ask me if it has, though. You’ll know.”
“And you’ll be here?”
She nodded, once. It suddenly struck me that she was very beautiful. “I’ll be here,” she said, and I could see tears streaking her face through the rain. “Don’t worry. I’ll be here.”
The light on my answering machine was blinking when I got back into the apartment. I didn’t bother playing the message back. I knew who had called, and why.
The number I needed was on a scrap of paper next to the phone, the half-legible legend “hotel no.” scrawled on top of it. I found it without any trouble, peeking out from under the pile of junk mail I’d tossed on the counter. Picking it up, I looked at the clock. It was after eleven, late but not too terribly so. Not later than I’d ever called before, certainly. Not later than she’d called me on occasion.
Reflexively, I dialed. I heard two rings, and then a sleepy, “Hello?”
“Hi.” I said. “I have something important to tell you.” There was dead air on the line, the hiss of a not-quite-perfect connection.
She waited a couple of heartbeats before asking. “Yes?”
I thought about it for a moment. Thought about what I was going to say, and what I might say to Anna the next time I saw her, if there was a next time. Thought about the apartment and the job and computer waiting for me in the corner, thought about how I’d gotten to this place and when I might someday leave it behind.
And I thought about Anna, trapped here, waiting patiently in the rain.
“I miss you,” I said, and that was all.