Mitch exploded through Lavender’s bedroom door, through a cloud of perfume like roses doused in gin, panting, gasping as he tumbled not onto her rug or her bed but onto the linoleum of a hospital floor.
It reeked of blood. Of bleach. Love Will Tear Us Apart whispered coarse over the intercom, dying away to silence in a supernovic burst the moment he climbed to his feet. He felt every ache, then, in a rushing wave: the glass-bitten lacerations carving him like Christmas ham, the abrasions painting his palms blush-bride pink, the agony of what was probably a twisted ankle—all on top of the bone-deep pains of an aging body thrown to rabid wolves. Staring down that endless void of blistering white-on-white, of antiseptic clean, bright and belligerent, Mitch felt like a dish rag blasted by an industrial tumble dryer one, two, three too many times. He felt he would die soon. He thought maybe he was dead already; that maybe the movies got the cheesy sentiment right somehow: this was the tunnel, the ivory light leading to silver gates, and that maybe he’d see Lavender there. That thought got his feet moving, but as soon as he started limping he stopped, halted by the same.
Was he ready to see his daughter again?
What would she say?
Would she hug him?
Would she tell him it was alright, that he’d tried his best? Or would she glare at him through tear-pearled eyes and declare a year’s time alone in the clouds had done nothing to encourage forgiveness?
Mitch pressed his hands into his eyes. Dragged them down his face, across scrapes and grime and stubble. He wasn’t dead yet. The pain told him that much. The pain was supposed to stop when you died.
But he knew he’d run into her anyway—only it wouldn’t be her. Not truly. Not at all.
It would be Pando. Always Pando. Not Lav. He repeated this under his breath as he staggered down the blanch-bright aisle, a mantra he prayed he’d believe when the time came to believe it.
Mitch strode the deserted halls of Our Lady of Mercy Hospital, muttering: “It’s not Lav, it’s not Lav.” He walked past a mustard mop bucket overflowing with gray water and drowned beetles. He stepped over a pair of earbuds blaring static.
“It’s not Lav,” he said, “it’s not Lav.”
Even as he looked up and saw her.
It was her. Wasn’t it? It had to be. Not that he could tell. At the end of the hall stood a figure shrouded in an alabaster sheet smeared with great streaks of red, a bleeding phantom in a waxen wonderland. And it was a ghost. Underneath.
Mitch crept to the creature. Reached, shaking. Grabbed the sheet.
“It’s not Lav,” Mitch rasped, desperate now, shaking now, quavering and trembling and shuddering now. He mustered his soldiers and tugged the sheet to reveal her face—
Unblemished, unscarred, unbloodied.
“It’s me, dad,” said Lav, in a tender voice reserved for abused dogs and frightened children. “It’s Lav.”
There were no open windows or doors, but from somewhere outside, Mitch heard the aspens quake.
“No.” Mitch shook his head slowly, then vigorously. “No, you don’t even look like her.”
“Well,” she chuckled. “You never did take enough pictures, did you?”
Illustration by Ichisip RR Galle!