As Maggie Sullivan walks to work, kids dressed up as pirates and superheroes pass her by. No one notices her blue and purple scrubs; no one says Happy Halloween or offers her candy. It’s just as well, she figures. As soon as she enters the large waiting room, a sign declares NO MASKS. Next to the fake cob-webby stuff up on some of the large windows, another sign declares NO CANDY. Especially anything with peanuts, though this prohibition is pretty much a given now wherever Maggie works. While the hospital is willing to open its doors on the one night where it is said their morgue could rise up and walk the earth, they aren’t taking any chances with anaphylactic shock. No patrons of the ER may wear masks and they may not have peanuts. This is a government building. What do you take us for, anyway? But Happy Halloween. We respect all nationalities, sexualities, and creeds. Just please no peanuts and we need to be able to see your face for our security cameras.
Maggie sets her bag down on the front desk.
“Are you ready for tonight?” she asks, smiling wide.
Luke, the doctor on-call, sighs. He takes another patient from the full room and then disappears behind a curtain.
“Don’t look so excited,” another doctor calls to Maggie. “You’re the one to deal with head wounds and drunken men tonight.”
“Same as every other night,” she quips. “But I have faith I will be given something more interesting.”
“A trick or a treat?” Luke asks, poking his head out of the curtain.
“Maybe both,” Maggie smiles. She takes a seat at the front in-take desk and begins her shift.
Working usually makes Maggie feel better. The order and precision that comes from keeping track of patients when they first walk in becomes even more exciting when it’s Halloween, even with no candy or masks. This will probably be even better than a full moon. Though most people have tried to disprove lunacy and lunar cycles, Maggie knows better. The human body is eighty percent water and the moon is responsible for tides; if the moon can pull and prod bodies of water, why not our own bodies? There is also shared lunacy. If someone thinks they can attribute their behaviour to the full moon, then they will do that crazy stunt they’ve been wanting to. Up until 1940, there was still a lesser murder charge that held the moon and the murderer equally culpable for a crime.
But Halloween is different, Maggie is sure of this. This is the night where the barrier between the dead and the living is at its thinnest. This means that an ER room, where many people are already flirting with death when they walk through the doors, becomes downright occult. Maggie is not quite sure what she expects tonight, aside from the standard flu symptoms and domestic cases, car crashes and kids who have fallen and need stitches, but she wants something more than a séance or an eerie supernatural tale. Maggie knows that if she gets to see a ghost tonight, she’s asking for something back.
Some would call it a deal with the devil or scrying a possible future. Maggie just calls it good communication skills and knowing how to ask questions. Spirits have always been known for their insights and connections. It’s not what you know, Maggie repeats, it’s who you know. Though most ghosts probably don’t have the ability to grant Maggie any special request, they can put her in touch with those who can. And quite frankly, she’s sick of waiting or being put on hold, especially when it comes to hospitals. She had to wait long enough to realize she had cancer and she’s not willing to wait through cycles of chemo to see if it gets better. Treatments are always framed in conditional language. If, maybe, perhaps, possibly, we will see. Maggie has grown tired, beyond the illness inside that is draining her life, of wading through vague language. She wants something more solid – a better insurance plan.
After all, there is no Make A Wish Foundation for adults, like there is for sick kids. Most charities figure that if you’re an adult when you’re sick, you’ve already had a chance to go to Disney Land or be rebellious. You have to find your own way to get your needs satisfied. So Maggie is looking towards Halloween. It’s why she fought for this shift even though her supervisor wanted her to rest a while longer. Tonight is the one night where she can greet death head-on and also get something good out of the bargain.
When a man walks in with a plaid shirt torn at the front and sits down, Maggie thinks the night has started. She waits at the front desk, helping another man with a broken arm get his x-rays started, for the man in plaid to move. He sits in the rickety waiting room chairs, watching the TV on mute, for a long time. Maggie steals glances, never lingering too long. His nails are dark, possibly covered with dirt. He seems really pale, but that could be the fluorescent lighting. Maggie knows that she looks pretty pale now too, though she’s avoided mirrors the past few weeks. She should probably be a little kinder before she automatically starts thinking this guy is one of the un-dead.
Maggie’s heart falls when the next time she looks, plaid man is gone. Coming and suddenly going in an ER room is not that uncommon. Sometimes people come for small injuries because they feel as if that is what their mother told them to do. When they realize they could spend all night here, they leave. Maybe plaid man had a broken thumb and after looking at how many broken arms and twisted ankles there were, went home to set it himself.
“That guy left awful quick,” May, the other nurse taking patients tonight, remarks.
Maggie nods. “No rest for the wicked.”
May shrugs and takes a patient. Maggie is left alone again at the front counter, taking names and writing down numbers.
Ever since her diagnosis, Maggie feels as if she’s talking more and more in platitudes. In epigraphs for her future headstone. She used to think that death made someone really contemplative about life. It made people think things through, make a bucket list, and write epic poetry. But getting diagnosed with cancer when you’re barely in your thirties doesn’t turn you into the Picasso or Dylan Thomas that you thought you wanted to be when you were younger. It makes you depend on platitudes and quotations taken out of context. A diagnosis makes you morbid, even more than before, and you want to stare into open wounds of victims and see if you can see yourself in there.
What was it that Nietzsche said? Maggie thinks. If you stare into the abyss, the abyss will stare back. But Nietzsche was crazy, anyway. She’s stared into how many open wounds now and the only monster she’s really come face to face with is the one that is growing inside of her, duplicating cells in a rapid succession and eventually turning her blood into puss. There are no monsters, she thinks. Not really, not in the way we’re used to seeing them, dressed in green costumes and made from the body parts of others.
After attending to another fallen woman with matching black eyes, Maggie sits behind the desk. She waits and looks up when she can. But there is nothing, other than the old squeaking of the nurses shoes in the ward, to keep her company.
Another woman comes in shortly after. She’s standing next to a man that’s dressed like Jason Voorhees from the Friday the 13th films. Maggie points to the sign again that declares NO MASKS and the guy hunches over as he removes the hockey mask. Maggie goes over to the girl, noticing the large flesh wound on her forearm, before she’s brushed away.
“No, no,” the girl says. She puts her other hand over the wound, making Maggie’s stomach turn for a moment. Oh, make up, Maggie soon realizes. The woman is talking again, frantically moving her hands and pointing to Jason. He remains hunched over, a large hand over his stomach.
“I think I swallowed some razor blades,” he says.
“Urban legend,” Maggie states. “The only people who have died by Halloween candy were murdered by someone within their family. Unless you’re girlfriend here is turning the tables on you, I’d say you just ate too much.”
“No, he’s really sick.”
“What if some creepy person heard the story and tried to make it real?” the guy argues. “They could put razor blades in apples because he heard about it. All it takes is an idea, man.”
“Right, okay,” Maggie says curtly. “We’ll take an x-ray and see what we have, then.”
“Thank you. All I ask.”
Maggie smiles and nods as she passes the couple off to Luke. The patient is always right, Maggie thinks, at least, until a doctor comes along. If only it were so easy to deny cancer and make it work. She has still not look at the lab results from her latest test, but she knows the standard forms, the sad eyes she has been given, and the silence in certain tones of voices. She knows what death looks like, even if she is sometimes fooled by fake wounds on teenager’s arms.
There are lots of unrequited deaths in the hospital, lots of opportunities for ghosts to linger between the halls and the rooms. Maggie has seen more than one terrible car crash, stabbing, and domestic case pushed too far. Not to mention unfair diseases and children dying young. The Make A Wish Foundation can only do so much for terminal kids, especially those with imagination. Disneyland may not be a child’s first choice for a wish. Instead of accepting Goofy’s handshake as a fair enough trade for life, these kids come back and wander around, seeking better wishes, the same way Maggie wishes she had a chance to be asked what she wants before she dies.
What about the ghost of past selves? Maggie wonders in between patients. Every seven years all the cells within a person’s body have become brand new. Decade to decade, you are a new person– at least from a biological standpoint. Could those former selves and cells reform and walk around? What if they took another trajectory in your life? Here is the ultimate use for string theory, Maggie thinks. Maybe if she had taken that art class in college, and dated the woman from the class who always asked her out, she would not have become a nurse with phase-three cancer in her stomach.
The more that Maggie learns about cancer, beyond her medical school days, the more she thinks it’s a ghost, too. Cancer is like those new cells reforming to make new selves. Cancer gets down inside of you and rearranges what you once knew. It walks around inside of you, and it lives in Maggie now, like a shell.
It is clearly getting too late for this.
Maggie goes back to her post, after checking on Jason and his girlfriend again. There are no razor blades, but alcohol poisoning is a likely suspect. He is getting his stomach pumped. His girlfriend waits patiently by his side, and refuses coffee when Maggie offers. She takes her own mug back to her desk, and in between quiet moments, picks up her book to read.
You can’t work in a hospital without seeing a few Stephen King books tossed around, broken spine and wrinkled cover from being shoved inside a bag so much. Same thing with memoirs, too. Maggie often feels as if she is reading the library of the books left behind, from either death or remission. Many people, when they leave the hospital, leave behind everything they took with them. The flowers, the cards, Oprah’s book club. They want to start again and not think about what happened between the four walls.
Maggie looks around. There is nothing new or strange. She sighs and goes back to her charts, her books, though the cracked spine of her memoir making her feel weary and bored.
Ghosts let people know they’ve come through flickering lights and cold spots, right? That’s what all the shows say and that’s what Maggie has learned to look for. But those cold spots are hard to find in a hospital with its AC always cranked, even during winter. If the lights ever flicker here, the generator goes on. So many people’s heartbeats depend on electricity that they’re damned careful it does not go out, not even during electrical storms, not on anyone’s watch. If there are no warning signs for ghosts, then there is no way to tell you are haunted. And that’s the problem with ghosts, isn’t it? Maggie thinks. They follow you around and move things and make you think you’re crazy. But Alzheimer’s patients do that enough. Children do that. Even Maggie is doing it now, moving books and charts and forgetting where she put them. But she’s not a ghost, she’s sure of it. The staff here keep talking to her and treating her like she’s a fragile set of china dishes.
“I’m not dead yet,” she joked around with Luke one night. He stared back at her, silent. Apparently death is only funny when the real punch-line is much farther off.
Another person comes into the ER. Maggie looks them up and down, searching for a marker or something that makes them new and strange. But there is nothing. Maggie does what she needs to do.
When the clock reaches midnight, she looks out at the waiting area. She looks past the cob-webby doors and into the black night. The moon has moved away and is now above the hospital, around the other side. There is no one else coming, Maggie thinks. There is really nothing else here, no way to make a deal.
Ghost stories are out of date, anyway, she figures. The golden age of ghost stories, of Henry James and Shakespeare’s Banquo seeking revenge and regret, has long since passed. The house is no longer as haunted as we think it will be, not with so many apartment buildings and condominiums popping up each time Maggie walks to work. Houses were only seen as haunted because so many people died inside them. Now, that special place is reserved for the hospital. Even then, the medical building has a hard time keep spirits. Quite frankly, Maggie thinks, it’s just because people simply live a lot longer. It makes it harder to be an angry ghost when you’ve died in a hospital at age eighty of a heart attack. The older we get, the less we hear about ghosts. The less death scares us, maybe. Though Maggie knows that last platitude is not quite true.
Maggie likes Stephen King, in spite of his strange narrative choices, and she thinks he’s mostly right when it comes to ghosts. Cars are haunted. Even cell phones and e-readers are haunted. Every single thing that is new carries around a ghost inside of it, the ghost of a former life, of a perceived golden age. Even Maggie’s heard it come out of her voice a few times already: back in my day, when I was young, before all of this happened. Ghosts work their way into our language and remind us about what used to be. It’s hard growing up and watching the world change. So people haunt the present in order to remember the past. It’s another form of nostalgia, another form of love and life.
Maggie looks up again. There are deserted magazines, candy wrappers, and even Jason Voorhees has left behind his mask. There is another sign, further in the hospital, which displays the request NO CELL PHONES. No candy, no masks, no technology, and from what Maggie can tell, there are no links to the spirit world to be made tonight. She sighs as she leans back in her chair.
If there is a ghost here, Maggie thinks, it’s me.
Just past midnight, Maggie hears a slight knock on her desk. She looks up from her book, sees nothing, and stands up. The top of three tiny heads become visible. All boys, maybe around age seven or nine. One is dressed like a dog, a cowboy, and the other does not appear to have costume. He could be somebody from a television show that Maggie has not seen before, because they don’t keep the large TV in the waiting area turned to that channel. None of the boys have treat bags or masks that they need to discard before getting deeper into the hospital. Though the dog-boy has large dark brown patches under his eyes and other animal features drawn onto his skin, he is still very recognizable.
“Hello,” she greets.
“Sorry we’re late,” cowboy says. “We’re here to see a friend.”
Maggie looks behind them. No adult has come, but she notices a key around one boy’s neck that does not belong with his dog costume.
“Where are your parents, guys?”
“They’re coming. Parking the car.”
Maggie nods. Especially on one of the busiest nights of the year, the parking lot would be worse than a mall on Christmas. “I see. It’s a real nightmare down there.”
“We wanted to see our friend since he couldn’t come out with us,” the cowboy explains. “Can you take us up?”
“Visiting hours are over…” she says, trailing off. She looks back and finds May, who waves to her. Maggie turns back to the boys. The small one at the end, wearing all black, smiles.
“Well, when you put it that way,” Maggie says. She grabs her cardigan off the back of her chair and throws it around her shoulders. She points them to the elevator down the end of the hallway, which they move ahead to before she has a chance to utter anything else.
Inside the elevator, the small boy without a costume runs forward and presses the floor. When Maggie asks him if he’s sure that’s the right area, he nods his head. The number eight glows red from the other side where she stands. Oncology, she recognizes. Her stomach turns. She laments the boys’ friend, but also feels oddly at home.
Dog-boy and cowboy joke around and talk with one another, talking about cars and trains that they have stored away somewhere. The cowboy pets the dog-boy under his large floppy ears and then makes sure dog-boy’s pinned-on tale wags.
When the small boy to her side, dressed in black, picks out a cell phone from his pocket, Maggie eyes him for a moment. She allows him to finish what he’s doing – probably texting a parent who’s in the middle of the snake-like parking garage – and then she taps on the elevator wall for his attention.
“You guys can’t have cell phones here. It interferes with the signals.”
The little boy in black nods. He folds his phone and puts it in his pocket.
“It’s okay,” she says. She folds her arms across her chest. “Do you mind if I ask about your costumes?”
“I’m my dog,”
“I’m a cowboy.”
The boy in black is silent.
“I’m a collector.”
“Is that from a TV show?” Maggie asks. It sounds like something along the lines of Bob the Builder. Cody the Collector, a sequel or spin-off.
He shakes his head. “I collect things.”
“He got me more toys,” dog-boy says.
“And candy for tonight,” the cowboy says. “We’re going around and collecting things.”
“How nice of him. I’m sorry we had none in this building for you guys,” Maggie says. The two other costumed boys say it’s fine in unison, but the other one remains silent. Maggie narrows her eyes. The boy is staring straight forward, his hands behind his back. He is waiting patiently.
The cowboy produces his lasso and pretends to wrangle up the dog. They talk together in the made-up language of children, the kind that speaks of a connection that someone eventually grows out of and into the more bureaucratic language of cultural codes and shared idioms. Without the make-up around the dog-boy’s eyes, she would swear that he and the cowboy were twins.
“He also likes wishes,” the cowboy says. He peers up at Maggie, his lasso now by his waist. “You know?”
“Like birthday wishes? Candles on a cake?”
“Yeah. And other kinds.”
Maggie opens her mouth to respond, but the dog-boy jumps forward.
“Did you wish to be a nurse?”
“No, I grew up to be a nurse. I went to school, studied really hard.”
Dog-boy sighs and rolls his eyes. He repeats, “So you really did wish to be one?”
Maggie narrows her eyes. She wants to disagree again, mostly because wishes to her do not signal real work. They magically appear, happen from thin air, like a genie from a bottle or a sudden cure for cancer. But these kids are using them as a way to articulate desire, want. They are wishing for candy, not because they don’t want to go through the motions of getting it, but because they want candy. You wish for what you want. Even if it ends up meaning that you have to get it for yourself. They are making decisions with their wishes, decisions that could end up changing their lives.
Maggie smiles. “I guess I did, then.”
“What else would you wish for?” the boy in black asks.
“That’s obvious,” Maggie says. She leans down on her legs and smiles at the small child. “Three more wishes.”
He smiles back at her. The elevator dings and they step outside.
In the hallway, the three boys run past her. She shouts at them a quick command to stop, but she does not repeat herself. She smiles at the way in which the dog-boy’s ears flap as he bounces. As she walks towards the oncology nurses’ station, she spots the now familiar face of Theresa, another night nurse. She sees Maggie and waves a quick hello.
“You’re here awful late,” she says.
“I’m taking some kids to see their friend. Zachary, I think?”
Theresa’s face falls. Maggie knows what those facial muscles mean and does not say anything. She looks at the ground, and then back up.
“I’m sorry,” Theresa says.
“Yeah, me too.”
Maggie remembers the boy slowly, in bits and pieces from her former shifts. She brought him cherry popsicles and read to him from his Marvel comic books. He was partial to Captain American. All the good little boys always are. The rebellious ones want Iron Man or The Hulk, like the little boy dressed in black. He would be a good Deadpool, too, Maggie thinks. But the boys who want to be Captain America, they’re just good little guys who really want to help but never get a chance to grow up.
Maggie excuses herself and walks down the hallway to tell them. She hopes they’re not too scared when they find an empty room or grieving parents. Maggie has done a million death speeches before. She has pronounced DOAs and watched as car crash victims die in her arms. She is used to death, even wishing for it to cross her in a tangible form like tonight. But there is something about these three young boys that she wants to protect without using those platitudes and cheap speeches they taught her in nursing school. She wants to tell them the truth. “Sorry,” she rehearses the new speech inside her mind. “Sometimes you just don’t get what you wish for, or what you deserve. I know and it sucks.”
After her first step down the hall, she feels her cell phone vibrate in her pocket. Embarrassed that she has left it on, she takes it out to quickly shut it off. The message, from an unknown number, stares back at her.
“Consider yourself given three more,” the text reads.
When Maggie looks up, she watches as all three boys, plus another one, run out of the room. She recognizes the red and blue markers of the cape as it trails around the door.
“Happy Halloween,” Maggie says with a smile.
Evelyn Deshane’s work has appeared in The Fieldstone Review, Hyacinth Noir, and Wilde Magazine. In 2013, she was the runner-up for A&U Magazine’s short fiction contest. She is the poetry editor for Prosaic Magazine and has worked on the digital collections of poet P. K. Page. She lives in Waterloo, Ontario. Find her at: http://paintitback.tumblr.com.