Cassie really didn’t like hospitals. They were worse than graveyards. Graveyards were where people put bodies. Hospitals were where people died.
Hope Community Hospital was not a particularly large hospital. Nor was it — the building, at least — very modern. The main building was a three-story structure that sat like a cube of concrete and stucco in the middle of what had become a city block when the city grew around it. It had originally been just that building, but at least twice in the past additional wings had been added onto it as the population it served grew, and now it sprawled over an area that could charitably be called a ‘campus.’ It had several lots situated at various entrances: there was one by the ER, at the back of the building. A couple more bracketed for each wing and provided parking for people who were seeing the specialists and private practices that operated out of them. And finally, a large central lot linked up to the front entrance of the main building.
It was the central lot that Curtis parked in, and fairly close to the hospital’s main entrance, too. Cassie was just as glad: the boy Hans’ wolf had bitten had most likely arrived via the back lot, but emergency rooms terrified her.
“We’re here,” Curtis announced unnecessarily. He reached over and gave Cassie’s hand a squeeze. She gave him a sickly smile in return. She had been trying to distract herself by running her hand through Silver’s spectral fur before Curtis had caught hold of it. It hadn’t been a very successful endeavor, even before that.
Hans had already gotten out of the car. He had been very quiet on the drive to the hospital, other than making a call to update his friend John on where they would meet him. Cassie hoped that John didn’t have far to drive — and that she could find the information they needed quickly. She had no desire to stay here longer than necessary.
“You sure you’re up for this?” Curtis asked. “We can always wait for Kels to go through the system. He has to know a cop or a physician or someone who can fake the authority to just call in and get the information we need.”
“Yeah,” Cassie agreed quietly. “But how long will that take? An hour? Two? It’s already almost three, and the days are still shorter than the nights.” She gave Curtis’ hand a return squeeze and then let it go. Nothing would have pleased her more than not having to go into the building they were parked in front of, but that wasn’t really an option if they wanted to find the victim of Hans’ wolf in time. “I’ll be fine,” she said.
Cassie got out of the car before Curtis could argue more. There wasn’t much point to it, and he probably knew that: they were already here, after all. She smiled to herself. He’s just a little overprotective. For a supposed ‘lone wolf,’ Curtis was a very social person. Or maybe it was just that all the time she spent being the only person Silver could interact with had gotten her an unofficial pack membership. Either way, it didn’t really bother her when Curtis tried to stand up for her. He always backed down if she was serious about something — and it was worth the hassle for the times that she knew she could depend on him when she was afraid of something. Like when the supernatural community went on the alert for a rogue vampire that was running around turning people into ghouls.
Cassie trotted a few steps to catch up with Hans. He spared her a worried look. Some of his concern had bled into his wolf, who was looking at the hospital suspiciously instead of Cassie. Without thinking about it, she gave his wolf a reassuring pat on the head, like she would have Silver. That sent the startled ghost scurrying to the other side of Hans. Cassie sighed. Eventually Hans’ wolf would warm up to her. Or they’d move on. But she hoped the wolf would come to accept her like Silver had. It would make talking to Hans about stuff for Curtis a lot easier.
When they came into the hospital, Cassie was immediately overwhelmed by the noise. The waiting room was packed to overflowing with ghosts and shades trying to leave the building that they were anchored to. Unlike ghosts, shades were psychic fragments left behind by intense emotions. Typically they would fade over time — but in some places the emotions that had created them were so common that they sustained the shades that existed. Hospitals were like that.
Weeping families and the violently injured or despairingly diseased far outnumbered the shades of joyous patients who’d been given a clean bill of health. All of them swirled around Hans, Cassie, and Curtis — but Silver and Hans’ wolf snarled and snapped at the spirits, driving them away from their hosts. Only Cassie cringed back from the shades as they assaulted her senses in a cacophony of sound and movement and, as she passed through the thick of them, touch.
When they got past the crowd at the doors, Cassie was physically shivering. She felt like she’d been flayed by every spirit she’d forced her way past, even though passing through them had been physically as simple as walking through a haze of mist. Hans noticed and caught her by the elbow. “Are you okay?” He asked.
Cassie nodded, but didn’t say anything. She felt a little weak-kneed. She surveyed the seats in the waiting room. Finally she picked one of several that were arranged in a small inward-facing square around a short table by one of the walls. The other clusters of chairs were occupied: either by actual patients, or obvious shades. Her stomach roiled. Shades in the ER often showed gruesome wounds. These shades embodied the worst of the disease that had afflicted the person whose soul they’d splintered off of. Cassie hastened over to the spot where she’d chosen to sit, leading Hans even as he tried to be supporting her.
Hans sat on her left. Curtis sat across from him. Cassie took deep breaths, trying to sooth her shaky nerves. Silver ventured away from Curtis to nuzzle her leg and make sure she was okay. When Hans’ wolf growled at him, Cassie reached over and gave him a stern “No.” She wapped Hans’ wolf on the nose and then gave Silver a brief scritching down his cheek and under his jaw to reassure him that she was okay.
The woman who had already been seated — who was still seated on Cassie’s right — sighed. “Those are beautiful dogs,” she commented.
“Wolves,” Cassie corrected her. She kept paying attention to Silver until he seemed satisfied. He lay down with his head over his paws and his tail wagging. Since Hans’ wolf hadn’t growled again, Cassie reached her hand out to him. He sniffed it warily and then pulled back. Cassie counted it as progress and didn’t force the spectral wolf to put up with her touch. She glanced over to the left, instead.
The woman who’d complimented the two wolves was staring back at Cassie in shock. She also wasn’t sitting anymore: She had jumped back and was now hovering a few feet in the air. “You can see me!” she gasped.
Cassie smiled and breathed out in relief. “Oh good,” she said. “You are a ghost.”
The woman continued to stare. She had long, brown hair that was done in a braid. She was wearing a white blouse with a powder blue skirt that had an image of a poodle sewn into it, and an embroidered leash running up to her waist. “I… I… what else would I be?” She asked. Then her eyes widened and she drifted forward a half an inch. “What are you?!”
Cassie sat up. “I’m a medium,” she said. “I can see and talk to ghosts. And you might have been a shade.” She nodded toward the mindless crowd at the door. “Like them.”
“Shades?” The woman asked. “I always… I mean, I thought they were just lost souls. In denial. They aren’t just ghosts like the rest of us?”
Cassie snorted. “Do you really think they’re anything like you? If you’d been a shade then you wouldn’t have been surprised that I could talk to you. You wouldn’t have had enough self-awareness to realize that was strange.” She reached her hand out to the ghost. “I’m Cassie, by the way.”
The ghost drifted forward and down, fascinated. She reached out and accepted Cassie’s hand. Cassie gently shook. It was so easy to force her way through a ghost’s form — but fortunately Cassie had extensive experience with being gentle and judging her movement to a ghost’s when she needed to.
“I’m Margaret,” the ghost said breathlessly. “Wow. Wow! I haven’t talked to, you know, an actual living person in…. I don’t even know!” She pumped her hand so eagerly that she accidentally pulled it through Cassie’s. Margaret looked at her suddenly empty ethereal hand and then back at Cassie. “What a kick!” she exclaimed. “I’m so glad to meet you. Oh, oh shoot. You aren’t sick or something, are you?” Her enthusiasm suddenly vanished and she sank down until her feet were an inch into the floor. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry: I know you didn’t come here to just hang. No one comes to a hospital for that!”
Cassie found herself grinning despite herself. “No,” she said. “It’s cool. I’m fine. No one here is hurt or ill. But you’re right, we didn’t just come here to ‘hang.’ There’s someone else: a patient who was brought here late last night. He would be an African American; we don’t know his name, but he was young and suffering from dog bites.” Cassie paused and glanced significantly at Curtis and Hans. “Wolf bites, actually. We need to find him. He is in trouble, and the doctors would not have diagnosed his problem right. Do you think you can help us?”
Margaret frowned. “Oh. Um. Probably not? Most of the time I float around here. If someone was brought in last night, it wasn’t through here. Not with that description. Oh! But maybe Doctor Lin will know something. We’re not tight or anything, but he is another ghost. Not like those… shades? Anyway, he’s no goof. And his memory is unreal. I’m sure he’ll help if he knows anything. He’s usually in the ER. Or doing rounds. I can go ask him.”
Cassie breathed out. She hadn’t realized she’d been holding her breath. “That would be wonderful. Will you, please?”
Margaret bobbed her head enthusiastically. “I’d be glad to! Just wait right here, please? And maybe don’t split right away, after? I’m really dying to have some real girl talk for once, you know?” She hesitated as though realizing what she’d said, and then laughed at herself. The chuckling made her rise up and drift back a little.
Cassie smiled back and nodded. “I might have to go, just to find our friend. But if I do I’ll come back later.” She remembered Margaret’s colloquialism and her smile became a little warmer despite the distraction of all the shades. “Just to hang.”
The ghost squealed and drifted up toward the ceiling again. “Cassie, you just put me on cloud nine. I’ll be right back.” Then she swooped down and darted through a wall, heading deeper into the hospital.
Cassie turned so that she was facing forward again. Then she leaned back, letting her head rest against the wall behind her seat. “Margaret is looking into it,” she said to Hans and Curtis. “Hopefully we’ll know something more pretty soon.” She closed her eyes and tried to ignore the ruckus that continued to clamor by the doors. “Otherwise I guess we’re waiting on Kels’ people.”
Cassie sat like that for a moment, just trying to build herself up for the eventual gauntlet of leaving. She barely heard Hans murmur “thank you” over the noise of the shades. Cassie didn’t reply. She’d try to later — but for now she just wanted to squeeze her eyes shut and try not to think of all the horrible things that had happened to the people who’d left bits of themselves at their worst moments to haunt the hospital.