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The Dark Ghost

Heather Petsche

     "I have kidney stones?  But that's so unromantic!"  Larissa Brant exclaimed in despair as she thumped her head back onto the hard hospital pillow.
     "Yes, well, they didn't actually show up on the x-ray, but, um, I'm fairly confident that's what it was."  Dr. Ikeson scrunched his long nose and swished his black brush mustache from side to side. "Yes.  We've pretty much ruled out the appendicitis.  Maybe we'll do more tests later if you don't start feeling better.  Um, in the mean time, drink lots and lots of water. OK?"  The puny man pushed up his glasses, smiled weakly, patted the bedspread, and scurried out of the room.
     "Sounds great," Larissa muttered under her breath as he left.  She had never felt such pain in her life as she had this morning.  It radiated along her back, her side, her stomach.  She doubled over, she couldn't breathe, couldn't bear to sit still, but it hurt worse to move.  There was no escape from it except through the morphine they had given her here.  She was feeling just fine now, but she wanted to know exactly what that pain had been so that she could ensure that it never happened again.
     She stared up at the blinding white ceiling.  She turned her head to the left.  White wall.  One window looking out upon the parking lot – not the prettiest landscape.  She looked in front of her. White.  She looked to the right.   Stained, ugly curtain.  Hospitals are depressing places, she thought to herself.  A nurse entered wearing one of those garish uniforms, the ones with neon geometrical patterns and stretchy pant cuffs.  At least it gave the room a little bit of color.  The spiky haired nurse scowled at Larissa and seized her chart off the end of the rock hard bed. 
     "Hello . . . Larissa," she said, reading it.  "I'm Judy and I'll be your nurse today.  Let's just take your temperature," she said, roughly sticking a contraption into Larissa's ear.  "Hmm, normal.  How about your pressure," she muttered, placing the cuff around Larissa's arm and squeezing that ball until she thought her arm would fall off.  "Fine," Nurse Judy commented noncommittally.  She replaced the chart and waddled away without so much as a smile.  Nice service, Larissa sighed.  She heard a stirring behind the ugly curtain.
     "Are you finally awake over there?"  Larissa stretched to pull the curtain back a ways.  Luckily it was her other hand that was tied down by the IV.  There in the bed next to her lay an elderly woman with short, curly snow-white hair and glasses.  "I'm Millie, your roommate!" she said brightly. 
     "Oh, hi," Larissa said.  "I'm Larissa." 
     "Yes, I know.  I overheard the nurse say so.  My, she's not a happy camper, is she?  I tell you, if you're going to be a nurse, you ought to be a friendly one.  Otherwise you're just not cut out for the job.  Now, that Nicholas – have you seen him?  He's a volunteer here, and so handsome.  I'd say he's just about your age my dear.  An incentive to get up and brush your teeth."  Suddenly Larissa saw her mother coming through the doorway.
     "Mom!"  she exclaimed, relieved.  She was normally shy with strangers, and this lady must like to talk a lot.  She seemed like a nice person, but Larissa really didn't want to deal with her right now.  Her mom smiled brightly and sat down in the stiff, uncomfortable chair near the bed, holding out a furry little stuffed animal.  It was a monkey, Larissa's favorite.
     "Look what I brought you, Larissa!"  She said cheerfully. 
     "Thanks, Mom," Larissa said, taking the soft monkey in her arms and squeezing it to her chest.
"I'm sorry, honey, did I miss the doctor?"  Larissa nodded.  "Go figure.  We waited all morning for him and he shows up hours later just when I step out for coffee." She took a sip of the hot liquid and Larissa noticed how tired her mother looked.  "Well, what did he say?" she asked.
     "Oh, that doctor doesn't know anything, Mom.  He says I have kidney stones, but he couldn't find them on the x-rays."
     "Kidney stones!  Larissa, I've always told you that you don't drink enough water!" her mom exclaimed.  Larissa rolled her eyes. 
     "Please, Mom, don't start.  Maybe it's not really kidney stones.  He didn't seem sure."  She glanced in Millie's direction and lowered her voice.  "I mean, isn't that only an old person disease anyway?  I'm sixteen!"  she said emphatically.  Her mother shook her head.
     "You can get them at any age.  And you know as well as I do that you don't get enough water!  I'm sure the doctor knows what he's talking about, dear." 
     Larissa sighed heavily.  Sometimes she had imagined what it would be like to be in the hospital with some horrible sickness, like cancer or something.  It would be so tragic and romantic.  Everyone she knew would come visit her and tearfully confess how wonderful they thought she was.  And, of course, her ex, Ryan, would admit he was wrong and stupid for breaking up with her, and plead with her to take him back.  Yep, that was how it was supposed to go.  Gross, embarrassing, unromantic kidney stones were definitely not included in her plans.
     "I read in a magazine once that you have to drink 12 glasses of water a day after having kidney stones," Millie piped in helpfully.
     "Twelve glasses!" Larissa yelped, "that's way more than the recommended amount!"  She had a sudden flashback to the time when her nosy, gossipy great-aunt, who always complained about her various health problems, told her she knew a woman once who drowned from the inside out by drinking too much water.  Surely that would happen to Larissa if she were forced to do this!
     "Hi, honey, what do you want for dinner?"  She was startled back into reality by a woman's loud, nasal voice.  She looked up into the face of Ethel the food service lady.  She was dumpy and wore a hair net and rubber gloves.  Never a fashion statement one should make, Larissa thought, looking her up and down.  But at least she was smiling.  "We've got ham with raisin sauce or pork cube casserole," she offered enthusiastically.  Larissa cringed.  That sounded worse than school food.
     "Could I just have some Jell-O, or some mashed potatoes, maybe?" 
     "Sure thing, hon," Ethel agreed and turned patiently to Larissa's roommate.  "What about you, Millie?" she asked.
     "Oh, I think I'll have the pork cube casserole.  That sounds just delicious, doesn't it?"  What an optimistic woman Millie is, Larissa thought.  Ethel recorded their choices on her nifty little computer pad and left smiling pleasantly.
     "It's getting late, Larissa.  Shall I call your father and tell him to bring me an overnight bag?" she asked, looking at her daughter in concern.
     "No, Mom," Larissa answered immediately.  "You've been up all night.  Go home and get some sleep." 
     "Well, if you're sure, dear," her mother said. Larissa nodded.
     "I'll be fine, Mom."

     *     *      *

     Larissa woke in the middle of the night from some strange dream she'd been having; she couldn't remember it now.  In fact, she couldn't even remember where she was for a moment.  Then she glanced around her at the eerie whiteness of the room, so white it glowed in the darkness.  She looked down at her sore hand with the IV, which she had affectionately named Darlene.  Yep, she was still in the hospital.  And now that she was awake, she didn't have to strain herself to hear Millie's loud snoring behind that flimsy curtain. 
     "Hello, Larissa."
     Larissa jumped, as much as she could jump after laying in that horrible bed all day.  There in the chair beside the bed sat a young man, about her age.  He had brown hair and eyes, pale skin, and a sensitive, intelligent look about him.  His eyes and smile were kind.  Who was this mysterious midnight visitor, she wondered?  Then she noticed he was wearing some sort of hospital gown, though it seemed rather old fashioned compared to her own.  He must be a patient here.
     "Hi," Larissa finally said back after studying him.  For some reason, she was not afraid. 
     "I'm Nicholas Tompsen," he said, offering his hand.  Larissa shook it with her good one, the one that didn't have the IV in it.  He was so cold!
     "Nice to meet you," Larissa said, thinking, great, here's this really cute guy and I haven't showered in over 24 hours.  She knew she didn't look her best.  "So, what are you in for," she joked, hoping he didn't know why she was lying there.  Then again, she remembered, he had known her name.  He must have looked at her chart and seen the unromantic kidney stones.
     "Actually, I'm just visiting right now, but I was treated here once when I was thrown from my horse," he said.  His voice was so soft she felt lulled into a trance.
     "Oh, you ride horses!" Larissa said brightly, feeling inadequate.  She knew nothing about horses.  Her voice sounded loud and silly in the dark, quiet room.  Even Millie's snores had subsided. 
     "Well, most people did, then," he said matter-of-factly.  He paused.  "Did you know this used to be St. Anne's Hospital, back when it was first established in the late 1800's?" he asked, changing the subject rather abruptly, Larissa thought.   She had no idea how old this place was.  It was called St. Stephen's now.  She shook her head, and looked out the window at the snow swirling in the parking lot.
     "Of course, this place has been completely rebuilt overtop of that one," Nicholas continued.  "But I think I stayed in this very room."  He said, looking around at the too-white walls.
     "When were you here?" Larissa asked, confused.
     "March 4, 1918," Nicholas answered promptly.  "I was trying to tame the stallion my father had just purchased.  He was a wild one, but I'd tamed many a fierce horse before him," Nicholas said, looking down at the white floor tiles and remembering the scene.  Larissa stared at him.
     "1918? Did you say 1918?" she questioned him.  He looked up at her, startled, as if he had forgotten she was there.
     "Yes," he said, as though that were not unusual.  Larissa looked around uneasily.  Was this guy an escaped patient from the mental ward upstairs or something?  Now that she was more awake and could think about it, it was awfully strange that he was wandering around freely in the dead of night.  But he was smiling to himself now, he had already gone back to his story. Larissa decided she would humor him for a while.  He seemed harmless.
     "They called the horse Dark Ghost, because he was all black, but he had this silvery-white streaked mane, and a mark on his chest as well.  He was a fine animal!  He'd nearly thrown Father the day before, and my father could ride," Nicholas said proudly.  "He told me I'd best stay away from this one, but I didn't listen.  I was seventeen – invincible."  Despite herself, Larissa grew interested in the story.  She felt a calm hush settle over the room. 
     "What happened then?" she asked, leaning forward, careful not to disturb Darlene's tubes. 
     "I rose early that day, at dawn, just before the rest of the house hold.  We lived on a farm, you know, and Father and Mother would be up soon to do the chores.  The sun was just coming up over the hill, and the dew was heavy in the grass.  I crept into the stables, breathing in the scent of the hay and the horses.  I approached Dark Ghost slowly and fastened the saddle on him.  Then I led him out of his pen, patting his head all the time and stroking his muzzle.  He seemed to take to me right away, Dark Ghost did; he wasn't skittish at all.  I walked him about for a while, but soon I felt confident enough to mount him, and we cantered around the hay field.  He was splendid.  We could have gone much faster – this was no plow horse!  But I held back."  Nicholas stopped, and Larissa felt he was coming to the part of his story that was difficult for him.  She waited breathlessly as he closed his eyes.  Finally, he sighed deeply and went on.
     "My young brother Robert must have heard me get up, as we shared a room, and he followed me to see what I was up to,"  Nicholas continued, and then smiled fondly.  "He was only five.  Standing there in his undershirt with his hair sticking in all directions.  I was concentrating on Dark Ghost so hard, I never had any idea that he was there watching us.  Robert was so excited when he saw that I had seemingly tamed this wild horse.  He rushed forward suddenly, coming up behind us, shouting my name loudly.  Dark Ghost was spooked, badly spooked.  He tensed, and in a flash he took off running as hard as he could.  I was caught off guard; I had turned to see where my brother's voice was coming from.  I struggled to hang on, and to rein him in.  But he was racing, and all my ‘whoa, boys' couldn't stop him.  In a matter of moments we reached the wooden fence that bordered our fields.  I gathered the reins to prepare Dark Ghost for the jump, but he had other plans.  He stopped in an instant, and I was thrown head-first out of the saddle.  Poor Robert saw it all.  I heard him screaming as the field passed by me in a green blur.  He ran as fast as his stubby legs would take him back to the house to wake our parents.  I lay there in the wet grass.  The last thing I remember is looking up at the blue sky for a moment before I lost consciousness." 
     Larissa was enthralled with his story.  She stared at Nicholas as he fiddled with his hands, impatiently waiting for him to go on.  When he spoke after a moment, his voice seemed even quieter and farther away than it had been before. 
     "They brought me here, to St. Anne's, and I lived out the rest of that day.  I woke only once, to find my family there praying over me.  They were all crying.  The doctor said I had internal injuries beyond repair.  I think my spine may have been broken, but I have no way of knowing.  I slipped into a coma shortly afterwards and never woke from it.  Sometime near midnight I died." At this, Larissa gasped in shock.  Woah, this guy really was crazy.  He thought that he was dead!  She pressed the nurses' call button on the side of her bed, and the small yellow light flashed.
     "Don't be frightened," he said, seeing the alarm on her face.  "I'm in heaven now.  But I came back tonight to see you.  Because you remind me of someone I used to know."
     "Me?" Larissa asked in surprise. 
     "Yes, Maggie – Margaret, really.  She lived on the neighboring farm.  Maggie.  She was sixteen, with dark curls and pink cheeks . . ."  Nicholas smiled broadly at the memory.  "We were sweethearts.  It broke her heart when I was killed," he said sadly.
     "What happened to her?"  Larissa asked.
     "She never married.  It's all right now; she'll be joining me soon."
     "Nicholas," she began, not even sure what to say to him, but when she turned back to the chair, it was empty.  Quickly she glanced around the room – there was no one.  It was completely still.  Nicholas was gone.  Larissa wondered if she had dreamed the whole thing, and then she looked up at that IV bag above her and wondered, what exactly are they giving me?  In a minute, Nurse Judy entered, her frown firmly in place. Oh, no, Larissa thought, why is this woman still here?
     "Do you need something?" Nurse Judy asked, hands on her substantial hips. 
     "A – a glass of water," Larissa responded.  The nurse pursed her lips and then sighed.
     "Just a minute . . ."

     *     *     *

     Larissa awoke to the sound of that hideous curtain being pulled back.  A woman's head poked around it and spoke with the gravelly voice of a long time smoker.
     "Kidney stones, huh?  Hurts like a bitch, right?  Hell, when I had my attack I just dropped to the floor." 
     "Have you met my daughter, Kim?" Millie called cheerfully from behind the curtain. 
     How nice, Larissa thought.  "Oh, hello," she said weakly.  She really did not want any more visitors in this place.  Then she noticed a figure in the chair next to her.  Startled, she turned to see who it was.  Surely not – that had been a crazy, drug-induced dream last night . . ." 
     "Mom!" she exclaimed, relieved. The head retreated back to the other side of the curtain.
     "Yes, I'm here, honey.  Did you sleep well?" 
     "Um, sort of," Larissa lied. 
     "Guess what, Larissa," her mom continued brightly, "You get to come home now! I brought you some clothes and your toothbrush!" 
     "Mom," Larissa said, "that is the best news I have ever heard."
     Within the hour, Larissa had cleaned up and was ready to go.  She bid farewell to Nurse Judy, who was almost smiling now that one more patient was out of her hair.  She also informed Ethel that she would not be needing the shepherds pie or the salisbury steak.  Darlene was finally out of her poor vein.  Larissa was actually smiling as her mom tried to figure out the wheelchair. 
     "Would you like some help, Miss?"  She looked up at a young man with brown hair and eyes, pale skin, and a look of concern on his familiar face.  "I'm a volunteer here," he explained, seeing her confused, surprised look.
     "Nicholas?" she breathed.  Now it was his turn to look surprised.
     "Well, yes . . . Nick.  Nick Tompsen.  Have we met before?" he asked apologetically.
     "Yes!  Last night!" she exclaimed, thinking, this crazy guy did not even remember coming to my room?  "You told me that story about falling off of your horse.  You thought you were a ghost!" she accused him.  Nick raised his eyebrows. 
     "Nick, is that you?" Millie called.  He pulled back that curtain and smiled. 
     "Grandma Millie!  How are you today?"
     "Oh, I'm just fine, dear.  Your Aunt Kim was in earlier."
     "She's your grandmother?"  Larissa exclaimed. 
     "Oh, have you met my roommate, Larissa?"  Millie asked smiling.
     "Well, I don't think so," Nick said, "But she seems to know me!"
     Oh, how embarrassing, Larissa thought, feeling her face get hot.  "Yes, you came in here last night and told me about your horse," she said firmly. 
     Her mother was looking confusedly from one to the other.  "Larissa, what's going on?" she asked finally.
     "I'm sorry, Ma'am," Nick said, turning to her.  "I'm not sure."
     "The Dark Ghost!" Larissa said impatiently.  Nick shook his head, puzzled.
     "The Dark Ghost!"  Millie exclaimed, looking at Nick.  "Your Grandpa Robert had a horse by that name.  It threw his brother Nicholas and he was killed. You know, he was sweet on my sister Maggie."
     "Maggie!  Yes, the one I look like," Larissa said, relieved that Millie knew what she was talking about. 
     "Why, yes, you do, dear.  I've been meaning to tell you so.  Those pink cheeks and dark curly hair.  Isn't she a pretty girl, Nick?"  Millie asked, poking her grandson in the ribs. 
     "Uh, yes, Grandma," he blushed.  Larissa was looking up at him in disbelief.  I really was visited by the ghost of Nicholas Tompsen! she thought. 
     Nick cleared his throat. "So, the ghost of my great uncle visited you last night?"  he asked, confused. 
     "Yes!" Larissa and Millie responded together. 
     "He stopped by my bed, too," said Millie.  "He said that soon he and Maggie will be together at last."
     Nick looked back and forth from his grandma to Larissa.  "Okay," he said finally, doing his best to accept this unusual fact.  He hesitated.  "Can I help you to your car, Larissa?" he asked again, holding out his hand to her and smiling widely.  She found herself putting her hand in his and smiling back.
     "Yes you may, Nick," she said. 
     "Bye, Millie!" they called. 
     "Goodbye, dears!"
      And Nicholas Tompsen, the dark ghost, watched as his great-nephew and Larissa Brant with her unromantic kidney stones went together out the door.


I want to thank my creative writing class for all of their comments and suggestions.  Also, thank you to Terry for his input and for giving us the opportunity to take this class and improve our writing.  And, thanks to Heidi Feller, writing center consultant, who gave me a conference on this story. 

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