TW: Hospitals, death/grief, implied abuse, death of a sex worker (offscreen), drug jokes.
The Civic Hospital was quieter at night than I’d imagined or remembered, and only the adrenaline in my system kept my nerves from shattering. I told people it was hospitals in general that pissed me off, but at the end of the day, everything came back here. My mother had dropped us off here with name tags and a change of clothes. Johara had been brought here in a rush, the children’s hospital too far away, and died in an operating theatre. Gurjas had worked nights here, in the psych ward—and, I thought with a grim smile, though I couldn’t remember it, this could very well be where I’d briefly been held.
It figured, really, that the city morgue would be here, too. For all that the General was supposed to be the central branch of the Ottawa Hospital, a surprising amount happened here instead. This one was closer to downtown, after all, and closer to me.
Still too quiet, too echoing, too drenched in death and sickness and fix-me and hurt. I didn’t like it here. The good news was that everybody we were here to see was already dead.
I pulled the neckwarmer up over my face and the tuque down over my ears, making sure my hair was covered. They were a bit conspicuous this early in the fall, but it was the best thing I could come up with. At least it was a weirdly cold October—that was my excuse.
Will had taken a different route. She’d vanished into my bathroom with a bottle of Manic Panic and emerged with dark green hair, three more piercings than normal and her makeup scrubbed off. At my questioning glance, she shrugged and grinned. “Gender is my bitch. And my dysphoria shuts up if it’s a disguise. I like disguises.”
I didn’t bother asking about the piercings. It seemed perfectly in character for her to have far too many. But walking down the hallways and trying to remember where the morgue was exactly was nerve-wracking enough. Technically, I’d been there before—
—this might be unsettling but we have to ask you as the next of kin—
—but the map on my phone was much more reliable, which was notable, given that the map was shit.
“No wonder that’s not working for you,” Will snorted. “It looks like it was drawn by a grade schooler on Sketchup. Come on. This way.”
“You know where it is? You could have said something!”
“It’s not exactly a pleasant memory,” she grumbled, and I frowned slightly, but let it drop. I still didn’t actually know anything about Will. Close with Avery, sure. Mind-reader. Trans woman. Shady past. Lots of vague outlines, with a severe shortage of details. I couldn’t decide whether I was fine with that or wanted to know more; I wasn’t good at connecting with people. My first relationship, such as it was, had fallen apart because I hadn’t ever bothered calling her. It hadn’t occurred to me that I should.
The empty hallways echoed with our footsteps, and I swallowed the lump in my throat as I waited for some nurse or attendant to round the corner and ask what we were doing here. But nobody did, and before long, we were standing in front of a nondescript door marked only with a sign that said PATHOLOGY.
I remembered the door, suddenly, and fought the nausea in my stomach. Yeah. Yeah, this was the place.
“Door’s locked,” Will mumbled.
“Not a problem.” I pushed past and dug into my pocket for a paperclip. I’d been smart and grabbed a few before we left. You never knew when you had to pick a lock.
“My, my,” laughed Will as I worked at the lock. “The plot thickens.”
“I only learned because Bill and Alice were always late home from work. They never got around to giving me a key and sitting on the steps during winter wasn’t any fun.” I gave the paperclip another wiggle. “We’re just lucky they don’t have a keycard on this door.”
“I wonder why not.”
“Why else? Money. Besides, only crazy people would want to break in and steal a body.” I was rambling and I knew it. It was a mix of bad memories, and the creeping horror of what was on the other side of the door. I was tough. I wasn’t supposed to mind this stuff. I talked to dead people (well, at least one) all the time. This shouldn’t bother me anymore.
The heavy door creaked open onto a dark room, the vague shadows of what looked like lab equipment looming out at us. Will nudged me in and grappled for a light switch as the door swung closed behind her. The fluorescent striplights flickered to life, and the white lab tables with their steel equipment reflected the flickers back up at the high ceiling. I couldn’t have felt more out of place.
“Alright,” Will said. “I don’t really remember this part.” I glared up at her, and she shrugged. “It’s been a while.”
“Were you breaking in then, too?” I asked, then immediately regretted it. That wasn’t fair. There were plenty of reasons for somebody to visit a hospital mortuary, none of them good. I’d been here to identify Johara’s body, to make sure they had the right girl. Like there was any chance they didn’t. I’d watched it happen. (I thought I had. Jo said I had. I didn’t remember.)
Will looked at each of the three doors on the far side of the lab in turn, and for a moment, I thought she was just ignoring me. Then she sighed. “Nope. Dead brother. I think it’s the, uh, door on the left.”
Jesus. I couldn’t imagine being so casual about Jo. Then again, it wasn’t like she was dead dead. She was just…
I distracted myself by following Will across the lab. She was right—the door said in small but legible capital letters, MORTUARY.
I took an unconscious step backwards. This had seemed like such a good idea in the light of day, going and talking to other murder victims and finding out who had murdered them (Kiera you know it’s Kiera she couldn’t have made it more obvious)—it was what Jo had been pushing me to do all this time, after all. But I wanted to go home. I hated ghosts. I hated them. I hated seeing how they’d died, or hearing their pleas for help I couldn’t give, or seeing through them like they were made of water or smoke or tissue paper. I didn’t want to be able to do this—I didn’t—
I thought about Kiera. The way she’d looked at me, like a butcher sizing up a shank of meat. The way she’d casually given me more money than I’d ever seen in my life to hunt down some teenage girl. It didn’t matter whether she was the responsible one or not—she knew something, and she was involved.
I could be scared on my own time.
“Fine,” I tried not to snap. The door wasn’t locked. Will opened it, doorknob firm in her hand, and even before she turned on the light this time, I could see the eyes and shapes of the dead rising up to greet me.
They didn’t know I could see them, yet. Instead, as the bulbs above them cast their rays through their gaseous shapes, they watched curiously as we quietly moved into the room.
Will glanced into the corners. “No cameras?” she asked curiously.
“There’s probably a small one somewhere. See if you can find it.”
I’d never seen so many ghosts in one place before. The dead gathered in some places—memorials in particular, churches, temples—and I avoided those places or managed to block out what I could. But here… Here, they were sitting on the tables, perched on top of the freezer cabinets that held their bodies, cross-legged on the floor, and all of them waiting for… for what? I didn’t know.
They were all staring at me. Or, more accurately, at us.
They don’t look like grave-robbers,” commented one older man, tuque tugged down over his ears, and he scratched at his beard.
“I don’t think it counts as grave-robbing if we’re not buried,” added a different ghost. “Besides, we don’t exactly have anything useful.”
“Maybe they want our organs.”
“Our organs are dead, Janine. I saw it on Grey’s Anatomy. They’re useless unless we’re alive or just died.” Then she paused thoughtfully. “None of you died while transporting cocaine, right? Because there was this one episode of NCIS—”
A girl a few years older than me walked-slash-floated up to me, looking me right in the eye. Then she poked me in the nose, although her finger went right through, and instinctually I tried to bat her finger away. “Woah. You can see me?”
“Yes,” I snapped finally in irritation. “And I’m not stealing anybody’s organs, thank you.”
The entire room fell silent for a heartbeat. Then the uproar started.
“Do you know anybody called Khaled—”
“The family in the Lord Halifax, did they get into—”
I clapped my hands over my ears, frustrated tears gathering at the corner of my eyes. This was why. This was why I didn’t talk to the ghosts I saw. Any other power. Anything else. If I had to have some sort of weird ability—
“Hey, hey, hey. Leave her alone.”
At first I thought it was Will talking. But it didn’t quite sound like her, and when I opened my eyes, I saw her standing a little away from me, an impressed smile on her face and one of her eyebrows quirked. The crowd of ghosts backed off, and the girl who had poked my nose gave me a wry smile. “Sorry. They got excited. I get it.”
“You do?” I asked, trying not to feel dumbfounded.
“Yeah. I’m Elena.”
Once the name came out, Will’s eyes lit up. “I knew I recognized that voice!” Then her face fell. “Damn it. I—I’d hoped you moved.”
“Hey, Willow.” Elena flashed Will a sad smile. “No such luck, sorry. Shit happens.” That was a pretty casual way to talk about the fact that you’d died.
“You two know each other?”
Will nodded. “Elena taught me how to use Backpage. We worked together a few times—you have no idea what I’m talking about, do you?” She looked a little awkward at that, scratching at the industrial piercing on her earlobe. “S’pose that might be for the best,” she murmured under her breath, sounding a little embarrassed.
“I feel like I’m supposed to.”
Elena laughed, black curls bouncing. She reminded me of Johara, I realized with a flash of something I couldn’t describe. Shock, maybe. Unacknowledged grief. “I’m a sex worker. Or was, I guess? Which I guess is why nobody heard about…” She let it trail off. “And a Salt elemental, too. Which is the real reason Will and I know each other. Always happy to keep her company when she’s having a bad day.”
Will rubbed one of her arms. “I wish I’d known,” she said quietly.
“It’s not your fault. They only found my body a week or two ago, and I’m labelled as a Jane Doe.”
They were talking about it with a casual affect that had to be fake. I was trying to keep up, but the seriousness of it all was weighing on me more than I could describe. “Elena, you’re a Salt elemental?”
“That’s what I said. That’s why I told this lot to give you space.”
“Are there any other Salt elementals here?”
Elena fell silent, then turned around to look at the rest of the mass of ghosts. They began talking among themselves, and I wondered if any of them had done the math. Ghosts could leave the place where their body was, but especially in the first few weeks and months after their death, it was hard. Gurjas was unusual in that respect, and it showed just how determined he’d been to get back to his wife that he hadn’t just wandered the Flats for a while.
First, three people stepped forward. Then, with growing confusion, five. Confusion turned to anger as the five turned into seven, then eight.
Eight, out of twenty.
That was a pretty high number. But it still couldn’t be everybody. It was what I had to work with for now.
Work. This is work. Get your shit together.
“Do any of you remember how you died?”
There was a scatter of exchanged looks. Elena in particular looked uncomfortable. Belatedly I realized that it was a sensitive question; Johara’s death had been bad, sure, but I was asking a group of homeless folks, sex workers, and unclaimed victims what had happened to them. “I—We’re trying to catch somebody.”
“What do you mean?” Elena asked.
Oh boy. Oh boy, I’d been right. They didn’t know. “Um. Um, it looks like—” My mouth went dry.
It’s okay. I can do it, came Will’s reassuring thought. I didn’t feel any less cowardly, but I nodded.
“It looks like somebody’s killing Salts.”
“What? What the fuck?” Elena’s mouth hung open, and she shook her head. “No. Nuh-uh. That’s suicidal. It—it must be chaos out there.”
“It’s… not great. We’re making it work.”
“And what happens when you can’t?” she shot back. “Jesus. How many people is this girl responsible for?”
Responsible for? Kiera? Then – no, not the murderer. She meant me. She was asking how many people – how many other elementals – I was responsible for keeping stable.
With a sudden rush of dizziness, I realized she was the first person who’d asked that.
“We’re not—Elena, I swear. I’m not going to put her in harm’s way.”
“You better not,” Elena seethed. “I love you, Will, but there’s plenty of issues in the elemental community without some freakshow picking us off—”
“Elena,” I interrupted. “We don’t have a lot of time. Do you remember how you died?”
She took a deep breath, calming down—a bit, anyway. “Not… as much as I should,” she admitted. “I mean, I knew there’d be some memory gaps. Almost nobody remembers their death, I don’t know why I thought mine’d be different—anyway, I think I was stabilizing somebody.”
“It didn’t work?” Will asked, eyebrows knitting in instant concern.
“I think it did, at least for a bit. I have no idea if it was them or somebody else, though. I don’t even remember what they looked like. I just remember what they asked me—” Elena’s voice faltered.
“I think I’m broken,” came another voice.
I stopped. Then I looked up at the group of Salts that had come out of the group. The one who had spoken was an older man, his hair long and braided. “That’s what he said. I think I’m broken. And then—” He frowned, but I could see the injuries—still fresh, his death—on his neck. A slash, like from a knife, deep in the junction of his shoulder and neck.
I was feeling sick again.
“Je souviens aussi,” said somebody else. “But, nothing else.”
I hadn’t even known that ghosts didn’t remember their own deaths. Another thing nobody had ever told me. I supposed it had never occurred to Johara to bring it up and Gurjas—aha. Gurjas would have assumed I knew. I was a pretty pathetic medium.
“…I’m sorry,” I said, which was all I could think to say.
Elena smiled sadly. “Just find out what happened. Because I don’t… I don’t think they meant it.”
“Meant to, what, hurt you?” I asked, and Elena nodded –
“That’s not what I remember,” said somebody else.
“What do you remember?” I turned to who had spoken.
This Salt was in maybe her 30s, with an undercut and—as I stared at her—different injuries. The others’ injuries had largely faded, but hers were so different from the older man’s and Gurjas’s that I wondered if we had two killers. The cuts were all over her body, staining her skinny jeans and white tank-top a darker grey, and entire pieces of her upper arms were—god, they were missing. Gurjas’s death looked almost like whatever the bladed version of a hit-and-run was—a single slash, maybe a second. Whoever – or whatever – had killed this girl had been an animal.
“She was running away from somebody. She was scared, so scared, and all alone.”
Something clicked in my head. “Do you remember what she looked like?” I demanded, more roughly than I meant to.
“Teenager, long black hair. Real skinny. Weird eyes —I don’t remember the colour, but… off.” Her voice broke a little. “I hope she’s okay.”
A teenager, with long hair. It might be Kiera, but I couldn’t help but think about the missing girl. Jaylie, Gurjas had called her. I knew the two were connected – Kiera’s single-minded pursuit gave that much away – but I still didn’t know how or why.
“Do you remember—” I swallowed. “This one’s hard, I’m sorry. When did you…”
“Die? September 15th.”
Shit. Shit, shit, shit. She’d died weeks before Gurjas. The timeline made no sense. I glanced around, trying to piece the testimonies together. A killer, lashing out – with a knife? An apologetic murderer? That didn’t sound like Kiera.
But if there were two people there…
“Do you know her?” The Salt asked me, eyes searching my face.
“I – I don’t, no. But somebody else does, and I think she’s safe.”
“Oh, god. Oh, god, thank you. She was so scared.”
Of course she was. Kiera was after her. And if she was an elemental – well, anybody would lose control, right? Of course she’d try to find Salt elementals.
It still didn’t quite work. I wanted it to work; it was a good story, with Kiera as a villain and a helpless victim to protect. It was the phrase that was bothering me. I think I’m broken. It could be Jaylie. It might be Jaylie. There was no reason to think otherwise – and I filed that away in the back of my head, wondering why I was questioning it anyway.
“You’ll make sure she’s okay, right?” the Salt asked me, desperation underlying her voice. She was wavering a little in the air, the bloodstains on her arms and clothes looking darker and darker all the time.
“I will. I promise.” It was an easy promise to make. The upside was, wherever Gurjas had sent her, she was still there… as far as I knew.
The Salt nodded. “…Good. I trust you.” She closed her eyes, a misty breath leaving her mouth. “I’m glad.” She began to fade, the edges of her hair becoming foggier and foggier as I watched. Then, slowly, she began to disappear.
“Wait—wait, no, don’t—” I wanted to ask her to stay. But I knew what was happening—one of the few things I did know. Whatever else had been going on in her life, this was what had been tying her here. She’d died with a little girl on the run, afraid that she was the only one who knew that somebody was in trouble. Even the promise that somebody else was looking out for her…
I trust you.
My eyes began to sting. Stop it. I had work to do. But I couldn’t stop staring at the place where she’d been. It had happened so quickly. Was it so simple? Answer the right question. Make the right promise.
Suddenly, Will grabbed my shoulders, cutting into my reverie. “Jamal,” she hissed. “We gotta go.”
“What? What is it?”
“I found the camera. Or I suppose, it found us.”