This story is by Katherine Ruud and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Exactly a year after the accident on West and 13th, Emily didn’t meet her friends at the cafe like she always did. Louise waited anxiously outside the cafe, scanning the crowd for her but finding nothing. Caleb had seen the signs over the past week. It pained him to acknowledge it, but he knew Em was gone.
Louise had seen signs too, but if there was one thing that she always excelled at, it was clutching onto the good, even after it had rotted away into nothing. As the minutes collected into an hour, panic twisted her stomach. Mark came outside and put a solemn hand on her shoulder.
“Lou. Em is gone,” he said, gently. His voice was soft, more than a little sad. “We all loved her, but Caleb really needs us right now. It’s going to be different for him.”
“I know.” Louise’s voice cracked sharply as she burst into tears. Mark pulled her close, watching as her tears rolled down her face and then vanished. They were so focused on Emily that they didn’t think to move out of the way of a young woman who’d just crossed the street. She passed right through them, gasping as the cold pulled the air from her lungs. In her shock, she dropped her phone, which skittered towards the storm drain. Louise instinctively stuck her foot out, stopping it from falling in.
“Sue? Are you okay? Sue?” the voice on the other line said. The woman stared nervously at Mark and Louise, but she looked right through them. She bent down and picked up her phone slowly, blinking at it in mild disbelief.
“Y-yeah. I’m fine, but Christ, that was weird. It got, like, really cold all of a sudden and I dropped my phone, and– I have no clue how it didn’t go right into a storm drain,” she replied. Sue stepped up onto the curb, glanced over her shoulder one last time, then proceeded to make her way into the coffee shop.
“You’re welcome,” Louise sighed. She followed after, passing through the door and taking a deep breath. The warm, inviting aroma of coffee and banana bread filled her lungs, and she couldn’t help but take some small comfort in it. She managed a smile at Caleb, who put on a brave face and smiled back.
“Go get your coffee. I’ll be here,” he said. Louise nodded and made her way to the hand-off plane. She waited patiently as order after order was delivered: caramel latte, cold brew with half-and-half (Em’s favorite, she almost took it for that very reason but decided against it at the last second), mocha, vanilla cappuccino, and then, finally, honey vanilla latte. Louise grabbed the cup, lifting a spectral copy of it away from the counter just as someone came to collect the real drink. It was Sue. Still on the phone, still focused on a million things at once. She grabbed her drink and disappeared out the door, ponytail swinging cheerfully behind her as she went.
“Thanks for the coffee, Sue,” Louise said, smiling. Sue couldn’t hear her, but it was easier to believe that her presence could still somehow be felt than to admit that she was an island. An invisible island, one that ships sailed past over and over again, never even knowing it was there in the first place. She turned and found Caleb at the table again, this time with Mark. They were talking quietly, occasionally waving frigid air at patrons who almost sat down on top of them. Louise slid in next to Mark, across from Caleb.
“Whatcha snag?” Caleb asked, nodding at Louise’s drink.
“My favorite, actually. Believe it or not.”
“No shit? That’s great, I love it when that happens,” he said, grinning.
“That happens to you every day, jackass,” Louise laughed. Mark snorted into his chai, and Caleb threw his hands into the air.
“It’s not my fault that Steve has excellent taste and this place is on his way to work,” he said, chuckling. Then, Caleb’s eyes widened as he surveyed everyone’s drinks on the table. “I don’t think we’ve ever had a day until now where we all had our favorites at the same time,” he said. Louise and Mark thought about it for a moment.
“You know what, I think you’re right,” Mark said.
“Well, we’ve still got one drink left,” Louise said, quietly. The mood at the table shifted. A long, heavy silence settled between them before Mark took a long sip of his chai and spoke again.
“So… Emily Faded. Did she say anything to you before she… went?”
“Not really. Just that she felt lucky. Lucky to have us, even though a part of her wished we could’ve gone on and lived normal lives,” Caleb said. The sound of screeching tires and shattering glass echoed in the back of their minds, but Louise was the only one who remembered the sirens. She was the last one alive. She’d died in the ambulance.
“She loved you more than anything,” Louise whispered.
“Yeah. She loved you guys more than anything, too.” They sat in silence. A barista called out a drink, a cold brew with half-and-half. Caleb leapt up and just managed to grab it before the customer took it and disappeared. He brought it back to the table, set it down in the empty space next to him. They all stared at the drink wondering the same thing, but not knowing how to talk about it. They wondered what was going to happen now that it was just three of them. Which of them would be next.
Four days later, when Caleb’s hand passed through his coffee cup, they had an answer. Mark managed to grab it for him, but Caleb swore it tasted different now that he knew it was going to be one of his last ones. They spent the day doing Caleb’s favorite things– reading comics, catching a movie, visiting an arcade.
It was such a good last day.
Several months later, while Louise and Mark were walking hand-in-hand at the park, a young couple who looked uncannily like Em and Caleb walked past them with their dog. Tail wagging, he made direct eye-contact with the two ghosts before being pulled away. Mark smiled and kissed Louise on the top of her head. Times were different without the other two, but times weren’t always bad.
“What do you think Fading is like?” Mark asked.
“I don’t know,” Louise admitted. “But I like to think of it as finally coming home.”
“Do you think they’re together? Caleb and Em, I mean?”
“…I really hope so. I can’t imagine doing any of this without you,” Louise said. Mark was quiet for a long time. In the end, he just squeezed her hand and kissed her again. It was hard to comfort someone about the unknown. Especially when he knew she was going to be the last one again.
The next morning, Mark stopped right as they entered the cafe. He managed a tired smile and said, “Can you grab my chai? Amy just walked in. I’ll save us a seat.”
“Okay,” Louise replied.
“Thanks. I love you,” he said.
Louise turned. Walked to the counter. Grabbed Mark’s chai. Turned around, and he was nowhere to be seen. “Mark?” She called, looking for him. He was gone.
“Mark?” Louise cried. Clutching his drink to her chest, she paced around the cafe, brushing through people, who gasped and remarked that it was ridiculous to have the AC on in the winter. She looked everywhere for him, and after going so far as to walk sobbing down the street and stand in the middle of West and 13th, she knew that she was truly alone. Em, Caleb, and Mark had all Faded and left Louise behind.
Every morning for weeks, Louise would grab four drinks from the cafe, sit at their old table, and drink hers in silence. One morning, Sue visited the coffee shop and sat down with her laptop. Louise sat across from her, drinking an identical honey vanilla latte, talking idly and pretending she could hear her. She cried when Sue left. She went to the dog park, just to be seen, but the dogs ignored her.
A week later, Louise couldn’t even smell her coffee anymore. It was tasteless, bland. Music seemed quieter, colors seemed dull.
And then came the day when her hand passed through her coffee. Sue took it and left her standing at the counter in shock. Louise made her way back to their regular table, her heart hammering in her chest. She felt strange, warm, happy. A comfortable fatigue settled in her chest. Everything was shifting in and out of focus. The world turned black, then white, and then a brilliant shade of verdant green.
Somewhere, off in the distance, Louise heard laughter. She felt a hand slip into hers. She opened her eyes.
Home. She was finally home.