The mother’s howling could be heard down the hallway as they wheeled the girl in.
Charles caught a glimpse of her as they transferred her to the bed next to his, separated only by a curtain, pulled back to allow the movement.
She looked like she was in her early twenties, maybe even a teenager. Her face was pale, her eyes closed.
“Why did you do it, Allison?” Her mother–the howling woman Charles assumed must be her mother–cried. “How could you try to leave us like that?”
A nurse tapped her on the shoulder. “Mrs. Keeley, we need your help filling out a couple forms.”
“Oh, of course,” the mother said, but still held on to her daughter’s hand as if she never wanted to let go.
“Will you come with us to the nurse’s station?”
“Will Allison be alright?” the concerned mother said.
“Of course. We’ve stabilized her. She’ll be fine in no time,” the nurse said kindly.
As the mother went with the nurse, Charles observed the girl with interest and disgust. A suicide attempt, was it? How stupid. What a crazy world, where someone like him, who wanted to live, was condemned to die; yet someone like this dumb young brunette, who wanted to die, was able to live.
That night, Charles could not sleep, although he dearly wanted to. He tossed and turned, feeling weak in all his joints. Not much longer, the doctors had said. His liver was shutting down, and soon all the other organs would follow. Charles turned to the left and saw the girl was awake too, staring at him unapologetically as her mother snored in the chair next to her.
“So. You tried to kill yourself, huh?” Charles said.
“Huh?” the girl blinked, with effort. “Oh. Yeah.”
“Stupid,” Charles said. “Why would you do that?”
The girl’s eyes narrowed. “Why shouldn’t I?” she rasped. “You’d do the same if you were in my shoes.”
Charles attempted to roll his eyes. “I can’t stand you self-centered young people. Always harping about how much you want to escape your suffering, and you don’t have the balls to really go through with it. I would switch shoes with you in an instant, for the chance to live. Youth really is wasted on the young.”
The girl–Allison–her mother had said, sneered at him. Or appeared to. “Well, lucky you, when you get out of this hospital you can get back to your handy-dandy life.”
“I’m not getting out of this hospital.” Charles replied matter-of-factly.
Allison blinked at him.
“My organs are failing. I’m going to die here.”
The girl was silent. And then she asked, “What do you want to live for, anyway?”
“Plenty of things. I have a business competitor to snuff out. I have a girlfriend to win back from the sleazeball who stole her from me, so that I can dump her in revenge. I have parties to go to, money to make, people to flip off, cocktails to drink, yachts to buy, stuffy aunts and uncles to tell off…”
Allison snorted. “Doesn’t sound like much of a life. You’re better off dying.”
“Easy for you to say. You’re going to live. I don’t have a choice.”
“Who says you don’t have a choice?” The voice came from nowhere and everywhere, all at once. Charles and Allison started, terrified.
Slowly, a dark figure materialized in between their beds.
“Who are you?” Charles demanded.
“I am Death,” the shadowy figure said. “I have come for you, Charles Lawson.”
“No!” Charles shrieked. “I won’t, I won’t go with you!”
“You must,” the figure replied calmly. “Unless…”
“Unless what?” Charles said. “Please, I’ll do anything!”
“Unless Allison Keeley chooses to switch with you.” The figure pointed a ghostly finger at the girl in the next bed.
“What?” Charles gaped. He looked over at Allison. “This will solve both our problems…” he started.
“I’m almost tempted to refuse just because you were so rude earlier,” the girl said drily. Then she sighed and turned to Death. “Okay, take me instead of him.”
“Are you certain?” the shadowy figure said.
Allison closed her eyes. “I’m certain.”
“So. You’re back,” Bruce said with distaste as Charles walked through the office doors. “Thought you were a goner for sure with all your partying. Well, better luck next time.”
“Of course I’m back, stepfather,” Charles replied. “I’m sorry for your disappointment, but Lawson Enterprises wouldn’t last a day in your hands.”
“I’m the only one who can keep this company afloat, you fool!” Charles’ stepfather said, storming away.
Charles smiled as he made his way to his office. But there was someone there already.
“Who are you?” he snapped.
“I’m…the general manager,” the man replied.
“No you’re not, I am.”
“Excuse me, but I was hired six months ago to take your place when you were hospitalized, and they never notified me that you were coming back to work.”
“Well, I am, so butt out!” Charles snarled. The look on his face was so ferocious, the other interim manager took one look and fled.
Charles muttered under his breath as he made his way to his comfy desk chair. He took a deep breath and released it, to calm himself down. His mind reflected back on the events of the past few days.
“It’s a miracle!” All the doctors said in disbelief as Charles rose from his sickbed, hale and hearty, the morning after Death came to visit.
They were similarly befuddled at the tragic case in the bed next to him. The young woman’s heart had mysteriously stopped beating overnight, although they had pumped all the drugs from her stomach. Her mother had been absolutely inconsolable.
No one had come to see Charles while he was lying sick in the hospital, and no one seemed particularly pleased when he showed back up in their lives. He hadn’t minded too much that none of his friends visited while he was sick, perhaps they were busy and didn’t understand how serious his condition was. But when he returned to their circles, he was disconcerted when no one asked how he’d been.
Of course, Wendy had thrown him out upon taking one look at him, but that was to be expected. He had yet to explain his latest affair to her, and she had tossed him for another younger upstart. Oh well, he was sure he could buy his way back into her good graces in time.
Charles sighed, opened his eyes, and let out a scream.
“Glad to see you too,” the girl in front of him said drily.
“You…you…you’re not dead?” Charles said.
“I’m not sure, I’ve never been dead before. But you’re the first person who can see me.” Allison reached forward, and though Charles shied away, her hand touched his shoulder…and passed right through it.
“You’re a ghost?” Charles said in wonder.
“I guess,” Allison said. “Just to make sure, I tried jumping off a bridge, but nothing happened.”
“What…have you been doing since that night?” Charles gulped.
“I don’t really remember,” Allison said. “Walking around. It’s weird, walking in the middle of the freeway without worrying about cars hitting me.”
“Well, go away. I have work.”
“Work?” Allison said. “Doesn’t look like you’ve been doing much work these past few weeks.”
Charles jumped. “You’ve been following me around?”
“Yeah. Weird thing, actually. It seems like I can’t wander too far away from you. That’s why I was walking on the freeway–following your car. Every time I tried to sit down, I’d just find myself tailing your car anyway.”
“Teal blue BMW, right?” Allison said. “Didn’t realize you’re so rich. Oh well, old men always have their toys.”
“Hey! Who are you calling old? I’m only…”
“Fifty-nine, for your information!” Charles shouted.
“I’ve never met a fifty-nine year old who talked like a teenager and acted like a baby,” Allison said. “You forget I was forced to tail you these past few weeks. I even heard some of what your so-called friends called you–playboy, cheater, money-grubber, selfish, never did anything good in your life for anyone…”
“Just saying. I didn’t make it up, I overheard it.”
“If you were tailing me for weeks, how come I never saw you ’til now?”
“How would I know?” Allison said, turning and crossing her arms.
“Hey! Don’t sit on my desk!”
“Why not? It’s not like I’m disturbing anything.”
“Hmph.” Charles turned on his computer and pretended to ignore the ghost-girl sitting cross legged on the surface of his table.
“Can you at least move aside so I can get some work done?”
“Only if you promise me something.”
“What?” Charles said grumpily.
“Take me home.”
“Sorry, I don’t take home teenagers. I may enjoy some things in life, but I’m not a pervert. Plus, you’re not even corporeal.”
Allison shuddered. “You have a sick imagination! First, I’m not a teenager. Second, I meant, since I’m forced to stick to you for some horrible reason, I haven’t been able to go home yet and see my family. I need you to take me.”
“What family? Weren’t you trying to kill yourself to get away from your family?”
“What do you know about my reasons? I had depression, okay?”
“Depression, schmession. Who cares? I’m busy, can’t you see?”
“Then take me after you’re done with your ‘work.'”
“Can’t, that’s happy hour at Leslie’s Pub. I can’t miss it.”
“Didn’t you nearly drink yourself to death last time?”
“What do you mean?”
“I overheard the nurses talking about you when I was half-conscious.”
“Whatever. Either way, I’m not taking you anywhere.”
“Then I’ll just continue sitting here.”
“Fine. I’ll take you home after work. Go sit on the sofa over there.”
With a smug smile, Allison moved to the sofa Charles indicated.
“You don’t seem depressed to me,” Charles said.
“I don’t feel depressed anymore,” Allison said.
“So do you regret switching your life for mine?”
Allison looked thoughtful. “I don’t know. In some ways, not really–I never had much to live for anyway, and the depression was so bad…even when I got slightly better, I knew the next round would be just as bad, even worse. I grew tired of waiting for it to come.”
“Didn’t you try medication or something?”
“Tried; didn’t work.”
“Well, we’re here,” Charles said, pulling his car up alongside the house Allison had indicated. “Go ahead.”
Allison looked back at him. “You have to come in with me.”
“I already explained: Because I can’t go places without you. If you stay here I can’t go in.”
Charles sighed. But before he could move, a young man and woman walked down the sidewalk. Allison gasped and ducked.
“Didn’t you say no one could see you but me?” Charles said.
“Yes, but,” Allison straightened up slowly. The two new arrivals really did look right through her, Charles noticed.
“Don’t feel bad, Terry,” the girl was saying. “It’s not your fault.” And for the first time, Charles noticed that the young man had tears streaming down his face.
“I know, but I don’t know why I didn’t do more for Allison when I could. Now, Mom’s dying, too. She’s always had diabetes, but now she doesn’t even try to take care of herself. She says I’m already established and she just wants to go join Allison. Her heart is absolutely shattered. I wish I could turn back time…” he broke into great racking sobs as the girl comforted him.
“Who are those two?” Charles hissed at Allison.
“My brother and his girlfriend,” Allison said, looking pale. “Mom’s dying?”
Charles didn’t know what to say. Allison closed her eyes and leaned against the headrest next to him. “Let’s get out of here.”
“Where to?” Charles asked.
Allison read him another address.
“Where is this place?”
“My best friend…or my former best friend.”
When they arrived, Charles didn’t even need to step out of the car before he heard the screaming from the house inside.
“What do you think you’re doing, Samantha Leeds? How could you stay out all night until 4am on a school night? Come back here, young lady!”
The door banged open and a girl with purple hair wearing tattered jeans staggered onto the front porch. “Come off it, Ma,” she said. “What does it matter if I stay out on a school night? Life doesn’t matter anyway!”
“That’s your friend Samantha?” Charles said.
Allison gasped. “What happened to her? Samantha used to be an athlete–happy and sporty and…and…not like that!”
“Just because your friend Allison ruined her life, doesn’t mean you can do the same, Samantha Joy! Do you hear me?”
“What do you know about Allison, Ma?” Samantha screamed. “If someone as talented and popular as Allison doesn’t think her life is worth living, then what good is mine?”
The girl staggered past Charles’ car, and only then did he see that she was still drunk.
“Wow,” he said. “She’s in pretty bad shape.”
Allison covered her face.
“So? Where to now?” Charles asked.
Allison gave him another address.
“What is this place?” Charles said.
“The graveyard,” Allison replied, looking forward.
When they arrived, Allison stepped out of the car and Charles followed–but only after she glared at him and indicated with a shake of her head that he had to come along.
“You looking to see where they buried you?” Charles asked. Allilson didn’t answer, but she walked purposefully ahead.
Finally, they reached a plot. Charles read the name on the tombstone. “George Keeley. A relation of yours?”
“My dad,” Allison said. “He died of alcoholism.”
“Ah. Is that why you had depression?” Charles asked.
“Who knows?” Allison shrugged as she knelt in the grass. “I don’t ever remember feeling very good. Ever.”
Charles sighed, and sat down beside her. “Me neither,” he said. “Usually a bottle or two makes it feel better. You ever tried that?”
Allison gave him a disgusted look. “My father died of alcoholism. What do you think?”
“Just saying,” Charles shrugged.
Allison rolled her eyes. “If it weren’t for the fact that I was really too tired to be alive, I wouldn’t have traded my life for a low-life like you,” she said. Then she sighed. “But I’m still conscious now. Not a fair trade, after all.”
“Why did you want to die so bad, anyway?” Charles asked. “My life sucks, but I still want to live and enjoy it.”
“You don’t understand that feeling of being tired, do you?” Allison said. “Just tired of it all. Nothing makes you happy, nothing is worthwhile.”
“Is that how you feel now?” Charles said.
“I don’t feel anything,” Allison said.
“Seeing your family and your friends fall apart because you’re not here…doesn’t make you feel bad?”
“Sure it does,” Allison replied. “But what can I do about it? I can’t come back to life. I have no choice.”
“Who says you have no choice?”
Charles and Allison looked up simultaneously. The familiar shadowy figure stood before them.
“Am I gonna die now?” Charles said. “Not fair. You said I could live!”
“You can,” the figure said. “I’m not talking to you. I’m talking to her.”
“You can live again,” the figure said. “If…”
“If what?” Allison said suspiciously.
“If Charles here agrees to switch with you.”
“What? You mean give up my life for her?” Charles said.
“It was her life, initially.” Death pointed out. “She gave it to you. But it’s up to both of you–if you want, you can switch. But you must be willing to give your life up, and she must be willing to take it back.”
Allison looked at Charles, and shook her head. “Forget it,” she said. “I know this guy isn’t going to want to give up his precious life. I made my decision.” She started to walk away, but within five feet, she seemed to run into a wall. With a grunt of irritation, Allison turned to Death.
“Can you at least make me unconscious? I don’t want to be stuck to him forever.”
“You won’t be,” Death replied calmly. “Once the two of you decide forever which one of you will die, and which one will live on, you will be separated for good.”
“Well, then, hurry up and tell the big guy you want to live, then,” Allison said, not looking at Charles. “I won’t stop you.” She turned away.
Charles opened his mouth, and then paused. He thought of his ex, Wendy, and the multiple exes before her, as well as the multiple women he had cheated with. He thought of lonely weekend nights downing bottle after bottle. He thought of his stepfather and his deceased parents, his no-good friends who didn’t care. And then he thought of Wendy’s brother and friend, and her mother. All who loved her and cared for her.
“She can have it,” Charles said.
“What?” Allison started.
“I said, you can have your life back. I don’t want it.”
“What are you talking about?” Allison said, “Didn’t you say you had business competitors to snuff out, girlfriends to win back, money to make, etc, etc?”
“How important is that compared to a mother whose life depends on you and a friend whose worldview depends on you?” Charles replied. “I haven’t done anything in my life to cause people to love, admire, or care about me, but you have people who need you. You take your life back.”
Allison stared at him.
“Go on,” Charles said. “Take it.” Then he turned to Death. “Give her her life back. I don’t want it.”
Death seemed to smile. “Very well,” he said.
Allison awoke to sunlight streaming through her window, and the sound of her mother’s soft sobs.
“Allie! You’re awake!” Mom said as she rushed to Allison’s bedside.
“Hi Mom,” Allison said. “I’m sorry for scaring you.”
“You scared me awfully!” Mom sniffed. “Don’t ever do that to me again, young lady.”
“I won’t,” Allison promised.
When the nurse came in to check her vital signs, Allison looked over at the bed next to her. “Where is the old man who was there before?” she asked.
The nurse hemmed and hawed. “Uh, he was moved,” the nurse said, and then scurried away.
“Honey, how did you know there was a old man there before?” Allison’s mom asked. “You were unconscious all this time.”
“I just…guessed,” Allison said. “Never mind.”
Weeks later, Allison was walking along the sidewalk when she ran into a familiar looking man.
Allison gasped, then pointed. “Charles?” she said. “Charles Lawson?”
The man blinked at her. “You know me?”
“Weren’t you in ____ Hospital for organ failure a few weeks ago?”
The man stared, shocked. “How did you know?”
“I was your hospital roommate,” Allison replied. “I thought Death had you.”
The man frowned. “Young lady, that is not a polite thing to say to someone you’ve just met,” he said.
“But we didn’t just meet…” Allison started.
“Let it go,” said a voice behind her. “He doesn’t remember you.”
Allison turned and started. “Death!” she said.
The shadow was more corporeal, and not so dark as before. Allison felt it smile. “I am not Death,” he said.
“Then who are you?”
“I am Choice. I follow you all wherever you go. I help you hone your character.” Choice nodded at Charles. “He was running his life into the ground. As were you. But when you met each other, you both learned to think of someone besides yourselves. He chose to give you life, I chose to give him life. But I had to take something in exchange, so I took his memory of the exchange.”
“I see,” Allison said, not seeing at all. “Thank you…I guess.”
Choice smiled as he began to fade into the background. “Remember,” he said. “Even in the darkest moments, you have me. I will always be with you, as long as you live.”