Thane Alighieri was miserable.
His collar was too tight, even with the top button undone. The tie was what was doing him in – a somber blue noose, slowly strangling him. His hair was pulled sharply back from his features, clubbed in a ponytail at the back of his neck, the length hidden beneath the black suit jacket. He was too light. His standard boots had been replaced by slick loafers, and the multitude of chains weighing down his slacks had been left locked in his room.
But it was all part of being an Alighieri.
His cousin, Leon, had called in sick that morning, and while Thane thought there were certainly better things to be doing on his winter break than standing at the back of a funeral, his family, as a whole, disagreed.
Something about being a “lazy bum.”
He had half-heartedly swept out the viewing room at sunrise, and had dragged his feet when it came to putting out the chairs. He took a good thirty minutes on adjusting the podium, and managed to vanish altogether when it came to moving the coffin and body.
Maybe they had a point about that “lazy bum” bit…
His uncle had picked up on his disinclination to work, and as people had begun to trickle in, Thane had been found (hiding out in a broom closet, re-reading his Fullmetal Alchemist manga). Ear in hand, he had been dragged down to the viewing room, and had been stuck under his uncle’s watchful eye ever since.
But as more and more people filed in, it became increasingly more difficult to keep moping.
It was the widest variety of people he had seen at a funeral yet. Young and old alike mingled together across all races, a variety of accents and languages caught amongst the low-pitched conversation. Either by themselves or in small groups, they entered the room, moving through the center aisle with barely a glance spared to the staff. Every one of them stopped at the open casket, whispered words offered to the dearly departed before moving on to find a seat.
While this was the same with most services, in this case, the people just kept coming.
Within an hour, it was standing room only, at which point Thane was tapped to set out additional chairs in the lobby to handle the overflow. Back and forth, he found himself escorting the elderly to their seats and showing the parents of toddlers to the restroom. A second viewing room was opened for the children with too much energy to sit still through the service, and his aunt took up watch, providing books and blocks alike.
Another hour, and at last, the flow of people had ebbed, and the room suddenly fell silent.
Thane had managed to find a corner to hide in, hidden from his uncle’s prying gaze by the many mourners, but as the silence fell across the room, he straightened, craning his neck to see what had caught everyone’s attention. A woman in her thirties was standing behind the podium, her eyes red, cheeks tear-stained, but she managed a sad smile for the crowd. Her mocha skin was ashen from grief, and her black hair was pulled back into a neat bun.
“My father was so very loved,” she breathed, the mic picking up the low words. “He touched the lives of so many, and I wanted to thank you all for being here.”
There was a movement in the crowd, caught from the corner of his eye, and Thane turned, frowning to himself, but there was nothing out of the ordinary – certainly nothing worth sending the shivers up and down his spine.
“For forty-three years, my father worked at the hospital. He did his fellowship there, and never left. He fell in love, not only with the people, but with the job.” She chuckled softly, shaking her head.
More flitting movement from the corner of his eye, this time from the other side, and Thane’s attention snapped the other way. He went up on his toes, trying to peer over the crush of people.
“My mother always used to say that Dad would never leave for another woman – it would be the job that took him away.” Here her voice cracked, and she bowed her head, closing her eyes as she took a breath.
There was something there, always on the edge of his vision, there but not quite real. His stomach twisted – he had a bad feeling about this.
“And after forty-three years, it did,” the woman whispered. Wiping hard at her eyes, she visibly shook herself before raising her head to give that same, tight-lipped smile. “And he never would have changed it for the world. He loved this. He loved all of you.”
A small figure stepped forward from the crowd. A child, seven, maybe eight years old. He was in torn jeans and a ratty jacket, his hair sticking up at odd angles. Even from this distance, Thane could see his feet were bare.
And he was entirely translucent.
Bold as could be, he took the steps to the stage where the coffin rested, going up onto his toes to stare down at the doctor. A grubby hand lifted, cupping the man’s cheek warmly. The boy sighed, the sound shivering through the room, but no one else’s eyes were upon the small form – all were riveted to the doctor’s daughter.
“Where most doctors hated the E.R. shift, Dad loved it. It’s where he got to meet all of you, I’m sure.” She held one hand over her heart.
The boy turned away, looking to the woman standing at the podium. He approached her, and Thane felt like he was going to be sick, panicking rising in the back of his throat. But the ghostly boy only touched the daughter’s hand, ever so briefly, before moving on, his steps carrying him through the wall just on the other side of her.
A woman came next, wearing a halter top and bellbottom pants. She leaned in, pressing a kiss to the doctor’s forehead.
“Look around you,” the daughter entreated. “These are your brothers and sisters. These are my brothers and sisters,” she corrected, fresh tears beginning to flow.
After the brief endearment, the second ghost continued after the boy, pausing once more at the podium. Another kiss was pressed to the grieving woman’s cheek, lanky arms encircling her shoulders in a warm hug, before she, too, disappeared through the wall.
Already at the casket, a group of three men, all around Thane’s own age, dressed relatively the same – t-shirt and jeans. They took turns, reaching into the casket to clasp the dead man’s hand.
“You all have your stories,” the daughter continued, the hand upon her chest now balled into a fist. “I would like to open the floor. Please know, you are not alone…”
One by one, people stood or lifted a hand from the crowd. Stories were given, told of how their lives or the lives of a loved one were saved by the actions of one Dr. Jefferson Walker. More than forty years worth of patients, each waiting their turn to share their peace.
And as many of them were offering their stories, there were still those who remained silent, tears shining in their eyes.
But throughout it all, one thing kept sticking out in Thane’s mind – why were there so many dead?
Slowly, step by step, he inched his way to the door, never quite looking away from the never ending line of spirits who were offering their own warm farewells to the recently deceased. It was a macabre entourage, and he suspected they stretched out over those four decades just as did the audience.
When at last making it to the door, Thane didn’t give himself any time to think about the repercussions – seeing his chance, he was out the door, and sprinting full speed. Distantly, he heard his name shouted as he passed the next viewing room – the ghosts were walking through the kids’ area, strolling along without a care in the world. He didn’t pause, even when his aunt dropped his middle name, darting through the mourners in the lobby.
He almost missed the sharp turn in, slipping and sliding along the slick tiles.
An empty viewing room!
A relatively empty viewing room. The spirits were still moving through, the next wall leading to the alley behind the parlor. Breathing hard, Thane yanked the double-doors shut behind him, when he went for the latch, however, he remembered how these rooms didn’t lock from the inside. Swearing to himself, he dashed for the stack of chairs and dragging one free to brace beneath the handles.
He was so very going to be grounded for this.
Turning around, he found the procession of the dead had halted, his antics having been enough to draw attention. He blanched – what was he thinking? Willingly talking to the dead?? For a moment, he considered just leaving, facing his punishment like a man going to the gallows. None of his interactions with ghosts had been pleasant thus far. In fact, they tended far more towards the negative end of the spectrum.
So what, exactly, was he doing?
Wetting his lips, he offered a weak wave. “Uh… hey?”
If the dead could gasp, every one of them would have done so at his lame greeting. A hum started at the back of his head as they exchanged looks, and one seemed to have been volunteered to step forward – a woman in her twenties, decked in sweats. “You… can see us?”
It was an out. He could pretend he was on his cell phone or talking to his imaginary friend – anything to avoid the topic of seeing ghosts. As much as he desperately wanted to do it, he knew he couldn’t. Offering a weak smile, he gave a small nod of his head.
They were inching closer, and he tried to back away, only to find the door barring his path. “What is it you want from us?” This from an older fellow, dressed in his golf-day finest.
“Um…” What did he want? Thane squeezed more tightly against the door. “Uh, to…” Why had he chased them down? Why had he risked his family’s wrath? Behind the spirits, more were piling in the room – fresh from the service as well as those who had already left and were now curious about what the holdup was. “I wanted…” What had Ve always said? “I wanted to know your stories,” he admitted at last in a small voice.
A boy near the front wearing a yellow rain slicker smiled brightly. “Why didn’t you say so?”
Thane crept back into the viewing room, his head bowed, shoulders drawn in. He had expected his aunt to tackle him as he had slinked by, but her hands had been full with the children she was still looking after. He had expected his grandparents both to take him by the ear and tell him what for, but the lobby was full, and they were passing out refreshments. He had expected his uncle to shake him, but his eyes were tear-filled as he listened to the most recent speaker tell of how Dr. Walker had saved his life after being hit by a drunk driver.
He had lost his leg, but he was alive – no one else had survived the three car wreck and even the paramedics had thought he was a goner as well.
Silence fell after the most recent tale.
Strangers were gripping hands and leaning on one another. Some stared blindly ahead, others were weeping openly. The parade of the dead had finally ceased, but along the edges of the crowd, there was a flickering of something more as the spirits continued to watch over the ceremony.
“Thank you,” breathed the doctor’s daughter. Throughout all of it, her eyes had remained dry, her her arms were wrapped tightly about herself. “Thank you all for coming to honor my father this way. To share your stories.” She paused, looking over the room, and once sure no one else had anything more to say, she gave a small nod. “We will be…” She trailed off, brows arched high as she stared at Thane’s trembling hand as he raised it overhead. “Did you have a story you wished to share, young man?”
He stepped forward, clearing his throat, pointedly ignoring the glare he was getting from his uncle. “A coup-” His voice cracked, and he flushed red. “A few,” he amended, making his way carefully through the crowd towards the dais. No one said a word as he took the three short stairs onto the platform, and paused to study the doctor’s features.
How many corpses had he seen over the years? He had grown so accustomed to the sight, he had lost track that of the fact that they had touched so many. He drew a deep breath, turning to look over the-
Holy crap, there were a lot of people!
He swayed where he stood, and he felt bile creeping its way up through his throat. What was he doing again? Why was he doing this? These people were nothing to him, and it’s not as if the ghosts cared – they were dead.
But they did.
He could see their pale faces, lingering throughout the crowd, watching him with hopeful eyes….
He cleared his throat again. “It’s not my story,” he said quickly. He closed his eyes, rocking back on his heels. “The first person Dr. Walker lost was a boy named Jordan Decker. It had been a hit and run in the seventies. Medicine just wasn’t where it was today, and he wasn’t able to save the boy. He went to Jordie’s funeral, and made a point of visiting his grave every year on the anniversary.” It all came out in a rush, keeping his eyes squeezed tightly shut.
“Danielle Nelson died of an accidental overdose, but he fought to keep her alive until her parents could get to the hospital. They arrived ten minutes after time of death had been called.
“Vickie Williams had been caught in a drive-by shooting between rival gangs, her and her brother. She didn’t make it, but Dr. Walker was able to save her brother, Danny, with her heart.
“Payton Danvers cut his wrists. He fought everyone, even as he was dying – the paramedics, the nurses, even the doctor fighting to save his life.” Thane paused, drawing a deep, tremulous breath. “But Dr. Walker did everything he could to save him, even as the guy was screaming to let him go…
“Roger Barnes stepped into traffic – an accident as it was the anniversary of his mother’s death. He was so frightened – he didn’t want to die. Dr. Walker stayed by his side, fighting tooth and nail, but Roge was too far gone, his injuries too extensive.
“Vinnie Rossi had gotten drunk one night. He was angry at the world, and didn’t think about what he was doing. He went driving through town, hell-bent on causing some destruction, but he didn’t mean to hurt anyone, much less kill two others. Dr. Walker kept it from being three innocents killed that night.
“Madeline Diaz had taken a nasty fall. She was old and sickly, dead by the time the paramedics got her to the hospital, but still, Dr. Walker tried to resuscitate.”
The stories went on and on. Thane’s voice cracked here and there, but the dead wanted this. No, they needed this, for their stories to be shared as well.
He trailed off as last, opening his eyes to look out over the gathered crowd. “I don’t tell you this to be down on the doc,” he said softly. He wasn’t sure his voice would carry, but he couldn’t go on. “He was a great man. Every last one of them – the ones who didn’t make it – he honored them. He tried so hard to keep them alive, even when they didn’t want to be, and he mourned them all. He went to their funerals, and kept a record of their names. So he wouldn’t forget. So he would be better. So he could learn and help even more.
“Anyone else would have left the E.R. Instead, he took extra shifts and even helped out at a couple of free clinics around town. He never gave up.” Trailing off, he turned to look at the doctor’s daughter. “They needed their stories told, too,” he offered, as lame as the excuse was. “Because a lot of the people here today belong to those dead, and they were too afraid to tell their stories. About how your dad gave them comfort, and stood by their sides. How he wept just as they did. How he was their advocate, and went above and beyond.” He gave her a weak smile. “They wanted you to know how they appreciated him, too.”
Drawing a deep breath, he nodded to himself, clomping his way down the steps, intent on finding a corner to hide in.
He stiffened, eyes going wide. Had he messed up? He could see his uncle’s pale features through the crowd, lips pursed to a thin line. Not a good sign. Slowly, Thane turned to look back to the stage. “Thank you,” the woman said, fresh tears making their way down her cheeks. “Sincerely, thank you.”
Okay, maybe he didn’t mess up as bad as he thought. He bobbed his head, not trusting his voice, and started towards the back of the room once more. He found his uncle’s side, settling in there, his head bowed, staring at his toes. The older man’s arms slipped about his shoulders, giving him a tight squeeze. “Good job, Thane,” was barely a whisper as the service proceeded. “But you’re still grounded.
Thane Alighieri was miserable.