I sat cross-legged in my room, staring sadly at the ephemeral figure in front of me.
"Life is short, and this world has no hold on me. When I die, we will see each other again." I spoke with quiet certainty. I knew I would see the girl in front of me again. In my life she had been my best friend, but her own life had ended long ago. It was time for her to move on.
Sad eyes met mine, capturing them in that way only a spirit's can. Shadows flickered through them – distant memories of the life she had led, and she reached out a faint hand to my face. A familiar icy cold washed over me, and my hair stirred despite the lack of wind. I felt her voice as she whispered a last goodbye. Then I watched as the form in front of me slowly faded away. She was gone.
The first time one of my friends left me I was desperately sad, but since then I had become used to the cycle. The dead did not belong to this world anymore. It was a happy thing when they found the strength to move on.
I sighed and stood up, wandering restlessly through my room. I had decorated it myself, and it was all black and gray, a cavern of shadows. It was a haven for the dead, and a haven for me. Sometimes I wondered if I belonged to this world either. I heard my mother's soft voice calling me to supper and winced. Even though I was hungry, I had no desire to eat. I often skipped meals, a bad habit, I knew, but since none of my friends ever had to eat, I rarely saw the point. Anyways, I tried to keep my distance from the living.
At first I had tried to make "normal" friends, living friends. But there was something about me that frightened other people. Maybe it was my distant eyes, always focused on the unseen world. I did try not to focus on "nonexistent" things around other people, but I'm not sure how successful I was. Or maybe it was the way I dressed. I wore black and gray all the time. My mother had once likened my clothing to a shroud. I suppose she was more right than she knew. Or maybe it was the way my hair and clothing would blow about even without any perceptible wind. Ghosts didn't affect other people, but they certainly affected me.
My attitude couldn't help either. I knew exactly how fleeting life was, and living in two dimensions gave me different perspectives than most. Whether people saw me as creepy, delusional, emo, or supernatural I didn't know. Perhaps it was a combination of these things that drove them away. I shrugged. I didn't need the living anyways. When my parents had been too scared to raise me the dead had stepped up to the plate. They had done everything but provide me with physical comfort, but I was used to it, and the lack of contact had never troubled me until recent months.
I left my room reluctantly and dragged my feet to the kitchen. Two spirits were already there, a boy named Jonathon and an elderly woman he took care of who refused to tell me her name. They were inseparable. I wondered if they had been related in life, but they could just as easily never have met each other before. Death broke old bonds and formed new ones.
My gray dress blew to the side as Jonathon waved and began talking excitedly about something that had happened. Apparently he had met someone new. I couldn't pay attention, however, because my parents were waiting for me at the table. I saw their frightened eyes follow my swaying dress and bit back the unexpected wave of sorrow that swept through me. I was used to their inattention and fear. Why did it suddenly hurt so much?
"Excuse me," I said, partly to my parents and partly to shut Jon up. "I'll just eat in my room, okay?"
My mom forced a strained smile. "Of course dear. I already fixed you a plate." She handed it to me carefully, so as not to have to touch my hand. I have been told that I am extremely cold. When I shake hands with new acquaintances they always shiver and rub their hands. I always thought it was their hands that were uncomfortably warm, but I barely know what warm flesh feels like. Physical touch was the one thing the dead could not give me and the living went out of their way to avoid giving me. I suppose when she first had me my mother must have held me, but she abandoned the practice as quickly as she could.
Back in my room, I shifted the food on my plate around moodily. I didn't know why, but recently I had felt lonely, even surrounded by all my friends. They drifted around my room, a constant presence, but they could not comfort me, not the way a living friend could.
I leaned against one of the dark pillows scattered across my floor and squeezed my eyes shut. I had never cried. I wasn't about to let myself start now. I had managed this long on my own. I could keep going.
At last I pulled myself together and threw my unwanted food away and forced myself to sleep.
When I woke in the morning, Mariel, a long-time friend of mine who had lived, as far as I could understand, some time in the Civil War era, was the only one in my room. She was sitting perched at the foot of my bed as though she had been waiting there all night. For all I knew she could have.
"Today is Christmas Eve," she announced in that soft, shy voice I had grown to love. "I don't think you should stay inside today."
"Why not?" I asked, astounded. I only went outside when it was an absolute necessity. The light of the sun hurt my friends and kept them away.
As if reading my thoughts Mariel responded. "It's overcast and snowing today. I'll be by your side as long as you want me."
Since she had never asked for anything that I could remember, I decided to oblige her. She directed me to put on my nicest warm black dress and boots, fussing over me like Grandma Ellie. I regretted the analogy as soon as I made it. Grandma Ellie had been the first to take care of me, and the first to leave. Her goodbye still hurt. I took a deep breath and directed my thoughts away.
Mariel helped. She was too eager for us to go outside to let me brood for long. I followed her without enthusiasm, but once I was out in the snow I gasped, looking around me in amazement. The world was a winter wonderland.
"This is beautiful Mariel. Thank you!"
"Oh, no. Don't thank me yet." Mariel gestured to the park. "There's someone I want you to meet." Was this the same person Jonathon had been so excited about?
I always liked meeting new friends, so I smiled and practically floated after her, but I stopped short when I saw the figure sitting calmly on the park bench. He was clearly one of the living. Snow had settled onto pale hair and long gray coat.
Before I could glare at Mariel for leading me to a living person, the man looked up and waved to us. His stunning violet eyes were focused on Mariel, though by rights he shouldn't have been able to see her.
"Mr. Ivan, I brought you a new friend!" She laughed shyly and twirled a few feet away from us.
My heart skipped a beat when he met my eyes, and it melted when he smiled. "I'm Ivan. What's your name?"
"I… I'm (name)." I flushed scarlet as I stumbled over my name. I just couldn't get over my shock. "You can see spirits too?"
He nodded. "Of course. I'm sure we will be very good friends, da?" He cocked his head in mild question, and all I could do was nod. No wonder Mariel had been so excited.
Speaking of which, I couldn't see Mariel. Ivan noticed me looking around.
"I think she left for the moment, but not to worry. She'll be back." He held out his hand. "Would you like to walk with me?"
We walked and talked for hours. By his side, I felt my loneliness slide away. I had found a friend in the living. I could hardly believe it.
After that, we found every excuse to hang out. My parents didn't really care whether or not I was seeing some one. As for my friends, they became Ivan's friends too. They rarely gave us a moment alone, unfortunately, so when he kissed me for the first time, a year after we met on another beautiful Christmas Eve… well, we got a soundtrack.
As the years passed, Christmas Eve became a very special day. It seemed as though all of the momentous things in my life happened then. It was the day I met Ivan, the day we had our first kiss, the day he proposed to me, and the day we married. A year after our blissful wedding day, it was shaping up to be another momentous Christmas Eve. I was nine months pregnant that day, and I was hoping our child would be born that day.
We had made a habit of walking around together every Christmas Eve, but for obvious reasons that didn't work this time, so Ivan built me a sled as an early Christmas present. I could barely believe it when he allowed me to open my eyes and I saw the sled with a big bow wrapped around it.
As we rode through the snow I snuggled up against his arm, warm and comfortable. When I saw the headlights of the approaching car I had no idea what was going to happen until it slammed into the sleigh. I remember searing pain, and then there was darkness.
I woke up slowly. I felt no pain, for which I was grateful, but I sat up carefully, just in case. White walls and life support machines surrounded me. I was in a hospital, of course. When I turned to the side I saw Ivan sitting next to me, his chair drawn up close to my bed.
A smile swept across my face as I saw him sitting there, but if faded slightly when I saw the tears slipping down his cheeks.
"The baby," I whispered. "She didn't survive, did she?"
He shook his head.
"Oh, love." Sorrow almost consumed me as the realization sunk in. I had never felt like I belonged to this world. Maybe I wasn't allowed to bring someone else into it, either. I bit back a sob. I still had Ivan. "Don't cry. We still have each other."
I reached out a hand to wipe his tears away. It went right through his cheek, meeting no resistance. Icy shock coursed through me as I realized what that meant. It couldn't be!
A sympathetic nurse padded up to Ivan. She ignored me completely as she laid a hand on his shoulder. "I'm sorry, sir. She's gone. We did everything we could, but the trauma…"
He didn't say a word. He didn't have to. His eyes said it all. Pushing the nurse's hand away, he stood and walked towards the door. I paused to watch the nurse wheel my body away before sweeping after him.
I stayed by his side as long as I could, but before many months passed I felt a tug pulling me away. It was time for me to go.
I wrapped Ivan in my aura, murmuring a last farewell. I didn't belong here anymore. Maybe I never had.
"We will see each other again," I promised him.
"How?" Pain choked his voice. "I should have told you a long time ago. I am the personification of the country Russia. I'm practically immortal."
From my new perspective his words amused me. "Ivan, love, nothing lasts forever. Not even a country. There will come a day when Russia, too, will fall. And when that day comes, when you die, I will see you again. I will wait for you."
I felt myself fading away. He reached out an arm as if to catch me and hold onto me for a little bit longer. I only wished he could. The last thing I heard was his loving voice.
"Goodbye, my sunflower."