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Through storm thrashing on the panes of thin windows or raised voices tearing at the flesh of frail, young ears, still Belinda Rose slept through the night as a babe in the most tranquil place on Earth, and still she woke aglow in the flood of morning light that seemed to bathe exclusively her in its glory, as thanks for the smile she blessed the skies with.
And the sunken-eyed folk who wandered around the wet streets with places to go and things to do that they did not want to do but nevertheless had to be done were always suspicious of her, for though they walked in ruins she came in twirling and dancing upon the same streets. Sometimes they wondered if they were missing something: was it such folly to have never been disillusioned? Did she see the streets paved in gold--were they really? Or were they the cracked, littered mess that they, the wise and weary, saw?
A small boy with hair mussed and a fixed pout upon his face creeped along the edge of a building, as if he meant not to be seen by anyone of any importance. It was Sunday morning and most were in the chapel, at least all the little boys were. He slinked on through the streets and saw Belinda Rose bent over a gate ruffling the fur on a dirty white dog that stood on its hind feet and yapped at her playfully.
"That's old Rogers' dog!" he shouted over to her, almost as a warning.
"So?" She averted her attention from the dog to the boy, still beaming ear to ear.
"Are you sure you should be petting it? I don't know if Rogers likes people doing that."
"Well, why should it be his business? The dog likes it, and I think it's rather the dog's business that I'm petting him."
This seemed a satisfying response to the boy, so he walked off and left Belinda there by the fence alone.
In a few minutes the wind had picked up and began to bite at poor Belinda's bare ankles, for she had long grown out of the pants that she was wearing, but had never obtained new ones. The smile faded from her face for the smallest fraction of a second and the light seemed to go from the sky, but it was merely for she had blinked. She turned to go home, but in the brightest of spirits, quite unlike most children who have to go inside for any reason.
When she returned to the little blue house all the children would stare quietly after her, wondering how this frail ray of sunshine would fare in the unknown. It was as if she was gone forever to them, and then forever lasted only a brief quarter of an hour and she came skipping out again. Then they would clap their hands and reform their dancing circles and hiding games.
When the night came it was because Belinda Rose had become sleepy and lay herself down and closed her lids. The light was no more. In a few hours, it would be again.
On one of these nights Belinda was awakened by a most peculiar chill in the room that danced along her back and the skin upon her little limbs. She opened her eyes and outside the window the stars seemed to pulsate furiously--they brightened as they winked at her, seeming to apologize that the Sun was not yet available to greet her at such a time.
She inspected all of the corners of the room and struggled to see into the darkness of her closet, and for a second was suspended upside down as she tried to make anything of the mass of obscurity beneath her bed. As any child of her age, she was not satisfied even after these brief but thorough inspections, and commenced to open her mouth to shout for her mother. But she encountered a startling difficulty--she could not part her lips.
The same chill that seemed to have run down her arms and spine was now clasped gently like hands across her face. They had no form, and were not cruel, but rather seemed quite reluctant to do this.
Belinda's eyes expanded beyond any conceivable capacity. She beheld the beginnings of a figure--if it could be called that--all drawn out in a sort of vapor by the side of her bed. In about half a second she was certain she was seeing a ghost.
Then it spoke.
"Hello Miss Belinda, I'm really very sorry that I have come in so rudely, but I must explain a few things to you."
She found herself leaning closer to the thing that spoke, though she knew not why for it had no exact position in the room--it was everywhere, and perfectly audible from all corners.
"Why are you whispering? Can they hear you, or just me? Can they see you, or just me?"
In a fraction of the time it would have taken other children to do this, she had surpassed the initial fright and had reached the stage of intense fascination, and even assumed a slight air of irritation, as if she had been casually awoken in the night by something trivial.
"Well I've got you up at a most inconvenient hour; it would be a terrible thing to shout at you, too."
"Go on. Have you a name?" She also whispered.
"Yes--well, no. Well, it is not of importance to you. Do you have no desire to know why I came? What things I must tell you?"
"I have never had an intruder, especially not one like you, and I always thought if I were to have one I'd like to be on good terms with him before asking of his intentions. I don't like to be rude either, sir."
Had the features on the ghost's face been more distinguished and had there been light in the room, they certainly would have assumed a rather bewildered expression by now.
A pause, and the ghost spoke again: "Child, I will explain your situation to you seeing as you do not understand it, and that is all right, for I've met much older people who did not understand it either."
"Well, what have you to tell me?" She started rubbing her eyes. It was a very odd hour and her wide eyes began to shrink again, began to hide back behind drooping lids.
"I must tell you that--well, that you are dead."
At this Belinda Rose almost laughed aloud. She thought, ,Oh what a dream! This will probably terrify me in the morning! Oh have I stories now, what a dream, what a dream...
"But you need not be frightened! You are quite safe, you see, for this is heaven. Have you not taken notice that when you arise all the world is aglow? That all those around you do not seem capable of emanating such light? Surely you have learned these are the delightful oddities solely attributed to angels!"
Still she was only a little girl, and fell quickly and deeply asleep just after the ghost's last words seemed to fade away.
* * * *
Rogers pulled himself out of his sagging, creaking bed and walked with bare, callused feet into the bathroom. The tiles were cold and unpleasant, but the dog had chewed up his slippers a few nights prior.
Darkness still wrapped itself around the sleepy world and had not yet given way to any light. It would not for quite a while--it was the morning of the winter solstice.
The old man let the water run out of the faucet for about a minute 'til it was fairly warm and kind to skin the long night had touched and chilled. Then he stumbled about blindly as he did every morning, turning on the lights one by one, and calling forth complaints from the weary floorboards as he did so. Most would turn off the lights as they woke up in the morning, but Rogers felt he had no need for light while sleeping and found it easier to rest in total darkness. And gray December skies dimmed the rooms even in the daytime hours to the point where one could not perform even the simplest of tasks without the aid of a lamp or two.
The house had many windows, two of them running on parallel walls that almost touched both ceiling and floor because of their size. These allowed Rogers to thoroughly survey his surroundings when he felt the need to. One of the grander windows gave view to the yard; Rogers peered out this one and found something strange. The yard seemed empty but he had let the dog out earlier that morning.
He grumbled a few things, went to get dressed, and came steadily down the mass of creaking steps, making his way to the back door.
Upon flinging it open, he saw the dog on its hind legs reaching over the little fence and licking the hand of a girl who seemed to greatly enjoy ruffling the matted fur. When she heard the door, she turned and bid good morning to the old man, not stepping back in the least bit with fright or discomfort.
"What are you doing up so early? Shouldn't all the children be in bed?"
She sat down on the pavement by the fence.
"Couldn't sleep at all. I had a terrific dream!"
Seeing as this wasn't reason enough to the old man, for he did not divert his attention from her and the dog, she added:
"And why are you up so early may I ask?"
"I'm up wandering about at this hour because I am an old man. You are the farthest thing from that, so you see it saddens me that you should be stolen from rest by such peculiarities."
"Then why do old men do that?"
"Oh, there are pitiful reasons it'd do you best not to hear."
The girl jumped up off the pavement and nearly pranced over to the gate at hearing that one. She asked if she may come into the yard and hear about them.
The old man sighed. He figured she would never be in his position anyway, so he opened the gate and then seated himself and his guest. He considered how children seemed to possess a mechanism that faded with age: any uneasiness aroused within the heart of a child could be vaporized by explanation, and even a rationalization deemed dissatisfying by adult standards would seem substantial in alleviating more youthful burdens.
"Dear child, I feel death is upon me every day, you see, and it seems I have not a moment to lose! If I am not up at this hour I may never see it again. That is all."
Belinda, though stirred by how succinct the old man was in giving his reasons and suddenly disturbed by the melancholy that seemed to hang about the whole house, met this statement with a great amount of empathy:
"Oh, how terrible! That is just how I feel! It is all because of this fantastic dream I had--would you like to hear of it?"
Rogers did. He was wondering what terrifying thing could put a little girl in an old man's position in just a night. He nodded for her to continue.
The girl was quite excited by now and nearly jumped off the seat in making her wild gestures to stress the importance of her dream.
"This ghost came to me, and he told me I was dead! Of course I almost laughed in his face, but then he told me that this was heaven and that I must be an angel and things of that sort. Then I fell back asleep, if it is possible to do so in a dream, and so I've been up all morning looking around and thinking how odd heaven is! How much like Earth!"
Rogers looked at her, slightly awed, and slightly offended.
"I think that ghost may have meant to pay me a visit instead."
"Why do you say that?"
"Because my time is past, child! Look around! Maybe it is just me but I see death all around, especially in this winter where all is silent and frozen and still."
Belinda did look around her. She saw nothing of what Rogers spoke.
"It is not so! There are still the evergreen trees and the birds that sing--they are living, are they not?"
"Oh but a lonely world where only the evergreen trees and the birds that sing stand among us in the land of the living..."
"But it is not so! What of you and I?"
"I am an old man awaiting death and you say you have had a prophecy tell you that you have already been greeted by it. If it is true, I should say we have already departed the land of the living."
The girl now possessed a gleam in her eye and arose to make her case with earnest fervor.
"No, sir, it is not so! For I see all these wonderful things, for I see heaven! And you, you are so saddened by everything that brings me joy, and you only see sorrows and the dried leaves instead of the green pine needles that thrive. And we know there cannot be both sorrow and joy in heaven, but that the only place that we can find both these things is on Earth, and so you see, sir, I believe we are both very much alive."
Belinda Rose found herself standing, and so she sat herself back down, and the old man's eyes looked as though they had, like spring grasses, been slicked with dew. The frost was heavy in the air and had settled itself upon every surface imaginable, and the sky yellowed a bit as if morning had finally decided to break after so many sleeping hours.