All that remained of my life was an obituary probably no one had read and a bloodstain on the street outside a bus stop in Santa Ana. My afterlife didn’t start out any more promising.
I woke up in a room. Or at least it had the makings of a room from what I could tell by feel in the pitch dark. As I reached through the darkness, my fingers slid across smooth stones and a thick, sticky grime that covered them. With some difficulty and a lot of pain, I stood and started making my way along the wall. I held my breath with each step as I searched the floor, my mind filling the dark with bottomless pits or venomous insects, though I never found any, much to my relief.
On the next wall, I ran into a knee-high board and fell sideways, landing softly on a wool mattress and blanket. Straight across from the small bed, the only piece of furniture in the room, was a heavy wooden door. I groped at the rough wood, searching for a handle or knob, and then beat on the thing when I found none. Finally, I found a small window at about eye-level. Bars criss-crossed it, but I managed to slide my lanky arm through, and I still couldn’t find a handle.
I dropped back down to the floor. A tangled mess of brown hair fell over my face as I rested my head in my arms. My limbs, my chest, everywhere ached. For what seemed like hours, I didn’t move from that spot. I barely moved at all, sitting in total dark and total silence. Right about the time I started questioning whether this impenetrable nothingness was Hell, a soft glow came through the window in the door. From somewhere outside my small cell, I could hear the soft drumming of bare feet on a stone floor, and it grew louder as the light grew brighter.
I jumped up and peered through the bars, but stood far enough back to avoid being seen. A young woman carrying a torch walked past my door. The light was too dim to see much of anything else, but she seemed normal enough. She didn’t have any horns, at least, although her dress looked aged by about a century. Her long, dark hair was pulled into a braided bun, and two strands framed her round face. She stopped at a sconce on the other side of the hallway and was trying to rekindle it.
After taking some time to doubt, I tapped on the door. “Hey,” I said, though it sounded more like a croak than a greeting.
Her hand clutched the frills on her dress as she thrusted the torch in my direction. Her green eyes grew wide, but softened quickly when she saw me. “My apologies,” she said quietly before coming closer to me. “I didn’t expect anyone to awaken so soon. You gave me a fright.”
“I didn’t expect to wake up,” I said. “But I’m guessing this isn’t a hospital.”
“Well it is, in a sense, though not the one you’re thinking,” she said. “These rooms are intended to offer safety and rest for spirits who have recently crossed. Some need a safe place to gather their wits, lest they lose them entirely.”
Even though I already knew it, her acknowledgment that I had “crossed,” that I was dead, hit me like a sucker punch to the diaphragm. The darkness had a sudden weight about it that bore down on me. It clawed at my back, through my skin.
“Please don’t fret,” she said, placing her hand on the lower edge of my window. “I’m not any good at this. If you’ll be patient a little while longer, I can find someone who will help.” She turned away quickly and started down the hallway.
“Wait!” My voice cracked, but echoed along the stone walls.
She stopped and doubled back, pressing her finger to her lips to silence me. “Do you want to wake all the others?” she asked in a harsh whisper.
“I wouldn’t want to,” I said. “But if left in this dark, dank room any longer, I might lose my wits all over the place.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Petty threats are not becoming of a young lady.”
“How do you feel about pleading?” I asked. “I just need to get out of here.”
She took a step back as she regarded me closely through the bars. “You really should have more time to adjust, and with someone more suited to the task of helping you adjust than me.”
She cut me off with a raised hand. “Young spirits are skittish, prone to flight if they become overwhelmed,” she said. “If I allow you to come with me, you must promise to stay by my side until I say otherwise.”
“Pinky swear,” I said, sticking my extended finger through the bars.
She sighed. “I have to get the keys from the end of the hall. It’ll be only a moment.” She watched me over her shoulder for a second before she turned to walk away. My fingers dug into the wood of the door as the light from her torch grew dimmer. Deep grooves, four in a row, had been scratched into the wood under my hand. From some distant place, screams echoed along the stone walls.