(This entry is an Intersection with i_17bingo. Check out his entry HERE before reading mine!)
The first time she caught him, filling out his user profile on some singles website, her heart dropped to her feet, her stomach lurched.
There he was, alone in their office, shafts of late afternoon sun slanting in golden sparkles across the hardwood floor. She'd always loved this space, so cozy and full of light. Her violin still rested in a stand beside the futon, her framed photo of their first concert together in the city, a bright-eyed couple grinning in the LED glow of Times Square, still sat on the desk beside him.
Eric had his back to the door, focused wholly on the laptop in front of him, surreptitiously tap tap tapping on the keyboard, a little crease furrowing his brow as he selected the sort of mate he desired, shared the sort of mate he would be. He glanced over his shoulder, like he could feel her watching, but, seeing nothing, went back to his task.
Feeling sick, Emily turned to leave in silence, but an agonized groan behind her made her look back.
"What the fuck am I doing?" he muttered, slamming the laptop shut. He ran his hands through his hair, making it stand up at crazy angles, and reached across the desk to gently pick up their photo. He gazed at the picture, his longing palpable. Tears filled his eyes.
He wasn't ready. Couldn't take this final step to sever their relationship and, although she recognized it really was time, she was glad.
That was a year ago, and now she knew he really did need to move on. And so did she - in more ways than one.
Dying at 26 had been rather...unexpected.
Things were just getting good in her life too! Her job at the magazine was finally taking off. After four years, they'd finally moved her out of the cubicle farm, given her a modest raise, a title - Assistant Editor - and a little office with an honest to god window that looked out on the city.
She'd been dating Eric for a little over two years then. Kind and handsome, he made her laugh and he made her eggs benedict on Sunday mornings. She was lucky to have found him in the sea of facesin the city.
Just a few months before she died, he'd taken her on a backdoor tour of Carnegie Hall and there, standing center stage, he'd asked her to marry him.
The accident had been unplanned, they usually are, she mused, but entirely her fault. Her friends had planned an engagement party for her near the end of summer, a girl's weekend in the mountains. Driving back on Sunday, down curvy country roads, she'd been a little sleepy, a bit hungover, her reaction time slowed. When her cell phone fell in the floor, she'd taken off her seatbelt to reach under the seat and retrieve it.
Too late, she noticed the dogs running out into the road, two pups chasing each other in the gorgeous afternoon breeze, tearing across the highway without a glance in her direction.
She swiveled the steering wheel to miss them, and when her front tire left the pavement she knew she was in trouble. The wheels lost purchase in the roadside gravel and in a moment she was rolling down the incline, down the mountainside, through the woods. Unable to steer, the little car was buffeted by trees as she crashed into one after another, her head smacking the dashboard, the windshield, until gravity smashed her little Honda into the stones of a rushing, rocky creek, crushing her to the steering wheel.
There was blood on her face and blood in her mouth, salty and thick. It was so hard to open her eyes. In the distance she could hear the dogs barking. Her last thought, as water filled the cab of her car was "I'm more of a cat person myself.." And then she was gone.
When her eyes opened again, she was in a a glass-walled cubicle. The air was very still around her, and although she didn't see any windows, the whole place was diffused with a soft white light, like staring at the sun through clouds. Across the desk sat a man with a kindly face. He reminded her of her grandfather - wait - it WAS her grandfather. But...he died 10 years ago.
"It's good to see you again, pumpkin," he said to her, reaching across the desk to take her hand. His gentle eyes searched hers for understanding.
She shook her head in denial but when acceptance struck, she began to cry. He came around the desk and held her until her tears slowed.
"What is this place?" Emily asked him.
"Welcome to the Bureau of Untimely Repose, Ideal Empathy Division" he replied - "B.U.R.I.E.D. for short."
There you were given the opportunity to leave your unexpectedly-ended mortal life behind for eternity or volunteer your time helping loved ones recover from your death. Emily chose to go back, to be with Eric, to grieve with him and help him move on.
The first few months were hell. They'd told her it would be like this, back at the Bureau, when she'd chosen not to cross over. Making the choice to go back, to assist your loved ones through the grieving process was the most selfless decision a spirit could make. Definitely won you a lot of points with the Big Guy, but it was certainly not without its share of heartache.
That was supposed to be the one good thing about being dead - no more sadness - but if you signed on as a B.U.R.I.E.D. Counselor, you knew you were asking for an undetermined sentence of sobbing spouses and mourning mothers, contractually obligated to stay with them until the moment they didn't need you any more.
Of course, there were other ways to go back, but they didn't guarantee an all expense paid ticket to Paradise, and she wanted to help Eric move on with his life.
That was two years ago. In the beginning it was hard, so very hard to do her job, to guide him away from darkness without letting him know she was still right beside him. She had decided to remain invisible and silent, fearing that if he knew some part of her was still with him, he would choose to never move on. His long days and longer nights of mourning stretched on interminably through the fall and winter after her funeral and often she felt beside herself with grief as well.
But she acted as a benevolent haunt, a silent grief counselor, pushing him in the right direction for healing whenever she could.
One snow-covered night she pressed his mother's number on the speed dial when he seemed hell-bent on drowning his sorrow in scotch, but was moving dangerously close to alcohol poisoning. She picked up. Hearing his mom calling to him from the handset shook him out of his stupor and he picked up the phone, thinking he must have accidentally dialed her himself. She was able to talk him down, talk him through this darkest night, and in the morning he woke, shaky and hungover but determined to get his head on straight.
Fearing Eric was becoming a shut in, one spring evening Emily went to his college roommate's house and knocked their old annual on the floor, flipping the pages to a photo of Eric and Matt on stage with their jazz band. Matt saw the picture and realized it had been a while since he saw his old friend, and called him up, invited him out for drinks. Over spicy micheladas, they decided it had been too long since they played together and agreed to revive their band, Just For Kicks, see where it led them. Eric's heart healed a little more.
As his smile returned - that grin had always slayed her, warm and gentle with one slightly crooked front tooth - the girls had started to make advances toward him in clubs when he played. He always turned them down, his heart wasn't ready for such entanglements yet.
But lately, she had seen him watching their backs as they left, and he'd begun to explore those offerings on dating sites, looking at young lady's profiles until heartache and frustration made him turn away. He was scared but she knew it was finally time for him to move on. She was ready too. She had to help him.
When he cruised those sites he was still hunting for girls who looked like her, thin and blonde, her image imprinted on his heart as what love would look like. But occassionally, he would stop on a different kind of girl, curvy and coffee-skinned, his interest piqued by dark eyes and round hips. She grinned. She'd never realized he had a thing for Latina chicks! Maybe, in this city of eight million souls she could help him find someone new.
When she first returned, Emily had stayed in their apartment all the time, nervous about leaving his side, nervous about taking her ephemeral form outdoors, fearful of being blown about the windy streets. But as time went on, and Eric grew stronger, she'd grown accustomed to the physics of her situation and began taking walks, long jaunts around the streets she had loved in life, visiting old haunts and discovering new places where the energy was right and music beckoned.
It was on one of these walks that she discovered HER. The new love for her old one.
Spring had come again to the city. On a narrow street where families strolled and flowers blossomed in window boxes, a young woman sat outside a cafe playing a blue guitar.
The sweet Spanish sounds matched her lovely face. She smiled gently at a little boy who tossed a dollar into a hat sitting on the ground beside her.
"Thank you," she called to him.
"You're pretty," he replied, "And I like your guitar," then ducked his head and ran behind his mother's legs, only to peer back at her shyly a moment later.
She laughed, her wide mouth split in a lovely grin that lit her face and crinkled her nose in a most beguiling way.
"That was even better than a tip," she said to his mom. "I'm Marisol," she waved to the boy and blew him a kiss.
Marisol. Watching her interact with her audience, the pedestrians walking by, even the animals - she reached out to affectionately scratch a pedestrian's dog behind the ears when it sidled over to sniff her hat - she knew this sweet, sexy, musical girl would be just what Eric needed to finally move on.
Now how to get him back to this spot? Glancing around, Emily noticed some flyers sitting on the railing beside Marisol. The girl was playing here later tonight for open mic night - perfect!
Like an errant breeze, she swept up two flyers and whisked them off down the street, twirling them through the air. Marisol watched their trajectory with a quizzical expression when they zipped around a corner and disappeared.
Emily headed to Eric's best friend's place first and deposited one flyer in his mailbox, then rushed back home and left the other in Eric's mailbox by the door.
Then she waited in the hall to see his reaction to the flyer. When he got home from work he looked stressed. He stepped off the elevator and flipped through the mail in his hands. Distracted, he unlocked their apartment door and went inside. He stopped by the trash and dropped a few things in the bin - a catalog, a credit card application...her flyer.
She waited until he left the room and scooped it out again. What to do?!
He walked into the bedroom and she rushed to the office.
She knew his routine almost to the minute: Come home, head to the bathroom, change into lounge pants and go to the kitchen for a cup of coffee and a quick snack before settling down with the laptop to watch his shows and lately, look for love.
She nudged the mouse, waking up his computer, and clicked the music icon on the desktop. Working fast, she navigated to a Spanish guitar station and pressed shuffle, sultry music filling the office moments before he hurried in.
"What the..." He glanced at the laptop in confusion. "Gah, what if it's a virus!" he muttered, but he didn't turn the music off as he dug in his bag for his charger.
She dashed to the kitchen ahead of him, throwing open the fridge and snatching out the bag of fresh ground coffee and hurtling it across the room. It struck the back of the trash can and the lid snapped closed just before Eric entered the room.
Grabbing a mug hanging under the cabinet, he danced in a little circle to the flamenco rhythm from his speakers and reached into the fridge for his coffee grounds, then stuck his head in when he only felt empty space. Seriously? He could have sworn there was half a bag left this morning!
Closing the fridge door, he looked with confusion around the kitchen. No coffee, but the orange flyer for an open mic night at the Mystic Grounds Cafe fluttered to the floor beside his mail. He'd never heard of it, but a pretty girl smiled up at him from the flyer. A really pretty girl. Marisol Flores, featured performer, would be sharing the dulcet sounds of Spanish guitar tonight. He turned his head toward the music pouring from the office and a shiver shimmied up his back.
That was certainly a coincidence...
Pulling out his cell, he called Matt.
"Hey man.You want to go out tonight? Looks like I don't have any coffee in the house and there's this open mic night I want to check out. It's at a place called Mystic Grounds. Oh, you've heard of it? Really? I had a flyer for it in my mail too. They must be doing some serious direct mailing!"
They agreed to meet there in an hour. Emily smiled knowingly as he took a little extra time getting dressed, holding up different shirts before settling on one that made his eyes even greener, gargling mouthwash and splashing on some aftershave as a final touch.
Eric took the subway across town. Matt met him outside Mystic Grounds and they walked in, Emily by their side, though no one realized she was there. The coffeehouse was homey and inviting, with walls the color of lemon sherbet and funky local art hanging on the exposed brick behind the stage. The guys went to get their coffee. Some other girl was on stage at the moment, performing a sad, slow ballad about loves lost and never found.
"That is not going to help my cause," thought Emily. She walked to the stage while Eric got settled and, with calculated swiftness, approached the performer's coffee, precariously perched beside her on a stool. She bumped it with her hip and the drink spilled onto the singer's cell phone. The girl squealed and turned quickly to the spill, panic on her face. Grabbing her phone, she rushed from the stage crying out "Hey! Do you have a bag of rice?" and hurried into the kitchen.
Marisol had been sitting at the counter in the back, watching the show, watching the people, and when Eric walked in she really watched him. After her boyfriend Ted had died a few years ago, Marisol hadn't dated anyone seriously, hadn't wanted the trouble, but there was something about this guy with the big green eyes, the sweet, crooked smile...she felt her eyes drawn to him again and again. When the jittery girl dumped her coffee on stage, the manager asked her to go on a little early and she grabbed her guitar.
Settling herself on the stool she looked up to find Green Eyes staring at her, expectantly from a booth. Their eyes met and she blushed and looked away and so did he! Usually calm and confident, Marisol was completely flustered. "Pull yourself together, chica" she chided, taking a deep breath and looking back at the audience with a shaky smile.
As she played her first set, she relaxed, warming to the music, finding her rhythm as her fingers plucked the strings. When the audience began to smile to one another, tap their feet, she felt the familiar warm glow of pride and happiness in her belly. She had done that, she had helped to make their evening better. She stole a glance at Green Eyes who was watching her intensely now. Feeling daring, she threw a grin, meant for him alone, and cocked her head, like a question. 'You like?' His eyes widened, and she laughed.
When she giggled, her nose crinkled up and Eric had to take a deep breath, so lovely was her face in that unguarded moment. What was going on?
He had never felt like this before, never seen someone from afar and wanted to wanted to whisk them up off their coffee house stool and hold them in his arms for a passionate tango. Was it obvious?
"Eric? Hey, Earth to Eric..." Matt laughed. Yeah, it was obvious. "If you like her so much, you should go introduce yourself, dude."
Emily watched the scene, perched on the back of their booth, gritting her teeth. Eric was completely taken with the girl on stage. She had been right about her. Marisol was right for Eric, the time was right for him to meet someone new, but this was one of those moments when being right didn't make her feel good. This was what she wanted for him all along, but Jesus, no one at the Bureau mentioned just how badly it would hurt when this day came.
When Marisol's set ended the crowd applauded and whistled and she ducked her head modestly before blowing them a kiss and stepping off the stage. Eric glanced at Matt for moral support then stepped out of the booth and walked toward her.
"Hey, that was really good!" he told her enthusiastically and held out his hand. "I'm Eric."
Eric. Green Eyes' name was Eric.
"Marisol," she answered, taking his hand. "It's a pleasure."
Her touch was electric. He felt every hair on his body stand on end when their fingers met. He couldn't stop staring at her lips, the way her tongue had rolled the rrrrrr's when she said 'pleasure.'
Jeez. What was wrong with him?
She liked his body language. His posture said shy but interested, and those eyes! Wow.
"No, the uh, pleasure is all mine," he stammered, now at a loss for words. He glanced around looking for inspiration and his eyes hit on her guitar.
"Um, I play too," he offered, gesturing at the instrument.
"The Guitar? Really?" she asked, her interest piqued. Green eyes and a musician? Score!
"Oh, uh, no. Trumpet, clarinet, a little sax when I'm in the mood."
'In the mood? What am I even saying?' he thought, mortified.
"Sax when you're in the mood?" she repeated, her mouth quirking up on one side.
'WHAT? What did I just say to this stranger? What is he going to think of me being so forward?' Marisol wondered.
'WHAT? What did she just say to me? Was she flirting with me?' Eric speculated. 'I think she was flirting!'
Recovering, Marisol said '"So you're a musician?"
"Ah, no. I'm in marketing but, my friends and I have a little jazz combo." Eric hoped this impressed her. "We play around the city, usually just for fun..."
"Cool! Well, now that you've seen me on stage, you ought to return the favor! When's your next gig?"
'Oh my gosh! She wants to see me agian?' Eric was flipping out.
"Next weekend actually. At Duke's. Have you heard of it? You should come down!"
'Oh my gosh! He kind of just totally asked me out!' Marisol tried not to do a little dance.
Eric patted himself on the back .He'd done it. He'd asked her out - sort of. Wait, he'd asked her OUT? What the hell was he doing? That was crazy.
He just met this girl! Before she could respond he was turning away from her.
"I need to...I'll be right back!" He said, cheeks burning when he noticed the confusion on her face.
He hurried away down the hall to the back of the cafe, pain stretching his chest and Emily rushed after him. He opened the bathroom door. It was a small space, a single stall luckily, and he locked himself in.
He stared at himself in the mirror, ran his hands through his hair trying to calm down.
When he looked at the face of that lively girl on stage he had felt his heart open again, felt like love might really be possible. After Emily died, God, he thought he would never love someone else, never let himself care so much again. And he owed that to her, right, to Emily, to keep her memory alive by shutting the door to his heart? But lately, he'd been wondering if that was foolish, if he really had to be lonely forever or perhaps there was room enough in there for two great loves.
Searching for clarity, he wondered aloud "What would Emily think?
His agony was breaking her heart. 'It's now or never' she thought.
"She would tell you its time, Eric. Time to move on, time to share your wonderful heart with another wonderful person who deserves it."
Emily coalesced behind him, her reflection peering over Eric's shoulder in the bathroom mirror. His eyes went wide and he spun around.
Emily was here? In a coffee house bathroom? Looking as beautiful as she had the night he asked her to marry him?
Eric reached for her, all golden hair and glowing skin, but his hand passed right through her shoulder and she shivered.
"That was weird," she grimaced. "Sorry!"
"How are you here?" he asked. "ARE you here or am I seriously losing it?"
"You know you're not crazy" she answered. "You are one of the most grounded guys I ever met. Believe it or not, I've always been here, watching over you, just like those stories they tell kids about what happens when grandma goes to the big knitting circle in the sky."
Eric smiled but then his eyes filled with tears. "I've missed you so much, everyday, every night..."
"I know, babe, but lately...Listen, we don't have much time before that awesome girl out there starts to think you're a weirdo and we lose our opportunity with Marisol! "
"We lose...? How do you know Marisol?" Eric shook his head. "Emily, when we met I knew I would love you forever. You were everything to me, this shining star of a girl. And when I lost you I thought my life was over, the brightest light gone from my world. At first, I wanted to wallow in the blackest hole that ever existed, but then I realized that, even if you were gone, I was still alive - still had a lot of living to do. And I felt so guilty! I didn't want to hurt any more but I didn't ever want to let you go. Didn't want to lose what was left of you in my life."
Emily was touched. "I know you love me, Eric, but it's time." She said gently. "You know it's time. Time to find a new star - maybe one that plays Spanish guitar. A piece of me will always be with you, but I know your heart and there is room enough in there for a whole galaxy. Now get out of here - stop talking to some ghost in a bathroom and go talk to that girl!"
"You really...don't mind?" he asked, dazed.
"Go to her! Go on, you have my blessing! This is what I want for you."
Eric reached out for her again, but caught himself. "Thank you, Emily," he whispered.
Emily smiled, pointed to the door. "Go ON! You've got about 30 seconds before she writes you off as some corporate flake!"
"Good bye, beautiful" he said, taking a final, long look at her.
"Good bye," Emily whispered, her quiet voice filled with finality. Around her, a white light flared and grew, a supernova of beatific energy, drawing her up through the building, up into the stars and then she was gone, the only trace of her a few golden sparkles blinking out in the bathroom of the Mystic Grounds Coffee House.
'You will always be a star in my sky,' Eric thought. He brushed the tears from his eyes and hurried out to meet the rest of his life.