Nova recognised the sensation of lying in a hospital bed: the itchy roughness of the sheets, the hardness and stench of the mattress, the cold, dampness of the air, and the general lacklustre mood that permeated the space around her. There were faint sounds of people running and speaking in the darkness, with only a beam of light spreading from the door. The only difference this time was the sharp pain ringing through her head, enough to overwhelm her dizziness.

She had done it, again. And it was only March.

Well, perhaps it could set a new record, she thought, resisting the urge to bang her head against her bed. Not like she could do it anyway — her head felt so heavy she wondered if she had been implanted with a bowling ball in her sleep. Oh no, this was worse. Her head was bandaged.

She stifled the cry coming up her throat and forced her eyes shut. There was pain in her ankle (also bandaged), pain in her back, her shoulder blade, and even her butt.

As usual, Nova’s primary concerns were the damages and cost her little accident may have incurred; by damages, she was worried about the staircase and possible spillage of blood; and by cost, she was worried about the repair and hospital fees which she must find some way to pay for.

She paid little heed to her injuries — after all, any impairment could easily be adapted to and dealt with.

It was hard to calculate it all in the midst of the dizziness and a horrid pain in her head, but as Nova struggled to form a sum, a cold sensation crept up along her blanket with a rustle. She cracked open her eyes, and there, looking even more unearthly in the darkness, was the same boy she had seen earlier in the day.

He retracted his hand once he noticed her gaze, and hid himself in the shadows of the curtains, his chin so low it was almost touching his chest. His wide, child-like eyes would glance up every so often to peek at Nova’s expression, but Nova’s lack of reaction seemed to make his chin sink all the more each time, till it was close to impossible to see his eyes.

Nova was calm as she spoke, her voice cracking as she tried a whisper. “Come here.”

He didn’t move.

Now that her vision had adjusted to the darkness, Nova wasn’t surprised to see that it was already night. The sky outside was pinkish with clouds, and not a sign of the moon anywhere. There were about three other people in the same ward with her, and judging by their lack of movement, she was certain that they have all fallen asleep. Her bed was the closest to the door, which was really just a large hole in the middle of the wall, but there was a large curtain sheltering her bed from its light, allowing her to see the boy without obstruction.

Nova cleared her throat and repeated herself, patting the side of her bed. “Please, come here.”

It was always strange to see the different ways ghosts move. The boy did as she said, floating over without any motion, his eyes focused on the floor. He looked young, around fifteen years of age, and wore a yellow cartoon shirt faded from overuse, black shorts, and no shoes. Since the clothes they appeared in were usually the ones they wore at death, Nova held back a wince at the realisation that the boy might have died at home.

“I’m… I’m sorry,” he began, and then bit his lower lip.

“It’s okay,” Nova said. “I was clumsy.”

The boy remained staring at the ground as his fingers fumbled around each other.

“What’s your name?” Nova asked, when it seemed like he wouldn’t start speaking.

The boy glanced at her for only a second before he redirected his eyes to the floor. “Sean.”

“Sean,” Nova repeated. “How old are you?”

“Fourteen.”

“And why were you looking for me?”

He flinched, and for a moment Nova regretted her efficiency in broaching the subject. A shiver seemed to travel through his figure, dispersing it into mist, as his fingers rubbed against each other.

A sense of unease rose inside Nova, though somehow it felt foreign and unusual, as though it didn’t belong to her. She couldn’t name any reason why this young boy would make her feel this mix of emotions… of fear and hesitation, of anxiety and desperation. But, just as quickly as it started, it faded into nothingness.

And Sean looked up, determination in his eyes.

“I-I want you to talk to my parents,” he said. “My father doesn’t want to see my mother, and I don’t want them to fall apart. Please help me convince them not to.”

“Fall apart?” There were many ways to interpret this statement; the most obvious one stood staring in Nova’s face. “Divorce?”

The word itself seemed to have some kind of an effect on him, but Sean kept his cool, and nodded. If he still had a body, Nova was sure he would look as pale as, well, a ghost.

Nova stifled a sigh. In the past, every time a ghost approached for her help, she always had one question in her mind: would she regret helping, or would she regret not helping?

This case, it wasn’t just an issue of granting a last regret, but fixing a broken marriage. If that alone wasn’t complicated enough, she also had to fix it as a messenger of their dead child.

“You realise you are asking a lot of me,” Nova said.

Sean nodded. Of course he knew that. It must have been the reason why he was so anxious.

“You want me to talk to your parents,” she said. “What do you want me to say?”

“T-Tell them that I don’t want them to get a divorce!” Sean said. “Or… Or I’ll haunt them for the rest of their lives!”

Nova stifled a laugh. “Aren’t you already haunting them?”

Sean held back his reply.

“I’m not really fond of letting too many people know of my abilities,” Nova said. Telling others often tore open old wounds she would prefer sewn shut; the people closest to her know nothing about it, and convincing strangers of her powers often took more energy and pain than she would like to expose herself to. Also, it was just really strange to open up to strangers about something so personal.

“I’ll need to act as though I knew you while you were alive. Right now, please tell me as much as you can about yourself, and big events in your life, as well as your parents, who they are, and how I can find them. The best details are the ones that only you and your parents would know, and the second best details are the stuff you will tell your friends.”

The more Sean spoke, the more his nervousness seemed to ebb away. He talked about his childhood, how he wanted to be an astronaut, and then later a pilot; how he would piece together wooden puzzles of horses and cars and planes; his schools, his friend that liked to catch frogs and release them the next day, his teacher that taught him the difference between steel and copper; and the video games he often played and replayed. Because he was an only child, he had no playmate at home, and found himself getting rather distanced from his parents because of their work schedules. Often times he would be alone, and neither of them will be back till late at night.

Despite that, Sean vividly painted scenes of his father and himself, of how they often played video games together and how Sean often won, of how they often got into ridiculous arguments about ridiculous things, but laugh over it the next day.

There was something about listening to someone else’s stories that Nova loved; not just because it was nice to imagine a happy episode in their life, but also because it was like listening to a fairy tale.

Sean continued long into the night, and though Nova had no intention of doing so, she found herself lulled into a comfortable sleep. Sean must have realised it and left in the middle of the night, though Nova was sad to admit that she had no idea when.

In her dreams, she saw her father, her brother and herself, playing video games together, and saw herself beating both of them. In her dreams, she fought with them over ridiculous things, and laughed about it the next day. In her dreams, she was as old as she was, but her father and brother were of the same age as when she saw them last. Then she was alone again; her father’s sleeping face passing them in the coffin; her brother’s bloodied smile as he perished in her arms.

It’s nice to listen to people’s lives, Nova thought, as she opened her eyes to a dimly lit ceiling. Sean was already gone, but the sun hadn’t appeared. She could feel a familiar heat choking her, mucus flooding her chest, and an ache beneath her ribs that tore her insides. She closed her eyes.

As Nova felt tears leak beneath her eyelids, she found herself drifting away, sinking lower and lower… until her soul landed onto something soft and warm, cradling her. She felt the large hand of a man stroking her head, the laughter of girls and a woman cheering her on. Nova’s fingers were pressing on something hard and cold, each pressure bringing out a musical note. This was… a piano? Strange. When did she ever play a piano?

The cold on her fingertips spread to the rest of her body. The laughter and cheers stopped. The brightness and light fell away. There was only darkness.

And a sob. Someone was crying. Someone was wiping her cheeks and rubbing her eyes…

No, it was herself. She was crying. She was all alone, abandoned, thrown away.

She felt her fingertips graze a piano again, but they never made the same sound.

Someone was calling her name. The voice of a woman. The woman apologised, placing her warm lips against Nova’s forehead, and then walking away with quickly. Nova tried to call for her, but she couldn’t make a sound. There was a mist between her and the woman, a mist taking away all of her sense, clouding her eyes and mind. Nova wanted to scream. She wanted to run after the woman and ask for an explanation. But before she could, hands held onto hers, and the large hand of the man stroked her head again. She couldn’t protest. She held fast. And the mist increased, becoming concrete, becoming a wall.

Someone was calling her name. A different voice. A man. He sat at the head of a long table and stared at her with ferocity. Nova cowered.

“Why?” he asked. “Why?”

There was no anger in his voice. Just grief. His expression fell away into one with tears, as his sobs joined a chorus of others. Everyone was crying. She stood… no, she lay before them, on a white bed. They collapsed by her side, their tears soaking the sheets, and all she could do was watch. A window, narrow but long, stretched across the wall to her right. There weren’t curtains on it, just steel rails, lined against the glass. Sunlight was filtering in, getting brighter, brighter, brighter…

The Duet Paradox – Inferno :: TO BE CONTINUED ::