That evening, when I got home, I decided to make a list of all the business I had that would be unfinished if I died right then. Here is the first page:
1. Finish the puzzle on the desk.
2. Finish reading all the books I want to read.
3. Learn as much chemistry as Granpy knows so I can help with his work.
4. Help Granpy finish his work.
5. Do my homework.
6. Take the math test on Friday.
7. Finish the school year with perfect grades.
8. Finish school.
9. Get a Ph.D. in something.
10. Find a way to stand up to the bullies.
11. Teach Mrs. Kinney about the Library of Congress Classification system.
12. Learn how to cook pineapple upside-down cake.
13. Make Granpy pineapple upside-down cake for his birthday.
14. Clean my room.
15. Beat Granpy at chess.
16. Become a famous artist.
17. Get to the top of the rock wall in gym class.
18. Learn every word in the dictionary.
19. Help Granpy wash the dishes.
20. Take care of Simon.
21. Find out where the little boy came from.
22. Write a book.
23. Read every book in the library.
24. Learn Spanish.
25. Learn French.
26. Learn Chinese.
27. Go on a game show and win first prize.
28. Explore the rest of the forest out back.
29. Build a fort in the forest.
30. Build a tree house.
31. Water all the plants.
32. Weed the garden.
33. Figure out how to make the kids at school stop making fun of me.
34. Help the ghosts with their unfinished business.
35. Buy a new pair of shoes and a new winter coat.
36. Watch all the top films of the 20th century.
I wrote two more pages, then I wrote “finish unfinished business list” on the list, because it was just going to keep getting longer.
The next day at school I met two new ghosts in the hallway. The first one was a boy, a few years older than me. He was wearing a football uniform and he looked very angry. He didn’t talk, just kept walking back and forth down the hallway looking like he wanted to hit someone. I was glad he didn’t notice me.
The second one was a teacher. I knew right away that he was a ghost because he was wearing really old-fashioned clothes, and no one else was looking at him. If an alive person wore clothes like that at school, everyone would be staring at him and probably laughing. He was looking straight at me, and he was saying something, but I couldn’t understand him. At first I thought he was speaking a different language, but then I realized I understood some of the words. It was English, but he had the strangest accent I’d ever heard, like he was pronouncing the words all wrong. He kept pointing at me and repeating himself, and I bet that if I had more time, I could have figured out what he was saying, but the bell rang and I had to go to class. I saw that teacher a lot of times, but only right before class, so I never had time to talk to him.
A few weeks later we had a class trip to the zoo. It was awful.
I asked Granpy if I could stay home that day, because I hate crowded, noisy buses and crowded, noisy places like the zoo, but he looked at me over his glasses with his eyebrows raised, which means he thinks I’m being silly, and he said “Princess, this is a good opportunity for learning, and the world isn’t going to quiet down just because you want it to.” He made me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and didn’t wipe the crumbs off the counter, which made Granmy roll her eyes, and then he sent me off to school.
Everyone was outside waiting by the bus, running around and yelling a lot because they didn’t have to go to class all day. The teachers were standing by the bus doors with clipboards, looking just as tired and stressed as I was, except for Ms. Fess, who was just as excited as the kids and didn’t seem to mind all the noise.
I was the last one on the bus because I didn’t want to be on the bus, and also because I didn’t want to push my way through the crowds of kids, but luckily, there was still room in the front. I don’t like sitting in the back because it’s bumpier and the kids are usually louder back there. The bus was more crowded than it should have been, because of the ghosts of a few adults who wouldn’t give up their seats, but luckily I got to sit alone and no one tried to talk to me all the way there. I tried to put on my headphones to block out the noise, but Ms. Fess made me take them off and put them back in my bag because headphones aren’t allowed. Maybe if she had to listen to the ghost of the crazy homeless guy yelling out the window the whole way, she would have let me keep them on.
The zoo itself was just a big mess. It was full of people, and even more full of the ghosts of people who loved visiting the zoo and refused to leave even though they couldn’t touch the animals anymore. It was too much work to figure out who was alive and who wasn’t, and let me tell you, that made it awfully hard to go down the paths without walking into anyone. In the end, I picked a kid from my class and decided to follow right behind him. That way, I could go right through the ghosts but not bump into any of the alive people. The girl I was following kept looking at me funny, but at least she didn’t yell at me or make me go away. She just kept looking at me with a frustrated face and sighing really loudly, and sometimes she’d stop and stretch her arms out to keep me from getting too close, but that was okay, because I could just wait until she stopped and then keep following her when she put her arms down.
The worst part was the animal cages. Everywhere there were different smells, and all of them were bad. I guess a lot of animals make a lot of different kinds of poop. We stopped at all the most popular cages, but it was all mixed-up and confused. I could tell that they had changed to zoo around a lot since they first built it, and the ghost animals wanted to stay where they had lived all those years ago. There were lions in the ape cages, roaring at the gorillas and trying to make them leave. There were lots of birds sitting on the backs of the elephants, and a few ghost alligators were trying and failing to eat the alive meerkats. I saw a great big anaconda just wandering around on the paths. It scared me at first because I thought maybe it was real, and maybe a real snake had escaped from its pen, but no one else was scared, and then I watched it slither right through a mom with her two daughters and then I relaxed.
After a while everyone’s feet were getting sore from all the walking, so we went to the sea animals show. There were a pair of performing seals, a sea lion, and even a famous dolphin. Unfortunately, I couldn’t really follow the show because of all the other seals, sea lions, and dolphins, as well as the killer whale and all the fish, who kept getting in the way and trying to steal the spotlight from their alive friends. I could see Ms. Fess watching me, though, and I didn’t want to be rude, so I watched the people around me out of the corner of my eye and tried to clap my hands and look excited at the same time as all of them. Ms. Fess didn’t say anything to me after the show, so I think it probably worked.
So I guess animals can have Unfinished Business, too. But we can’t talk to them, so we can never find out what it is.
There was one ghost in particular who really stood out from everyone else, because he was wearing American Indian clothes made out of leather, with a couple of feathers in his hair and a tattoo on his face. He wasn’t walking around looking at the animals like all the others were. He was just standing there, looking really sad and lost.
Everyone had a break for ten minutes to eat their lunch before we went back to the bus, so I took out my sandwich and walked right over to the man. I looked him in the eye and it looked like there were tears in there, trying to get out, but of course ghosts can’t cry. He stared back at me and started speaking in a language I didn’t understand at all. I listened anyway, though, munching on my sandwich so no one would come to check if I was okay like they always do when I’m just watching the ghosts and not moving. I couldn’t hear any words, it was just a long string of musical sounds that sounded lost and desperate, like a sad song. Finally he stopped talking. Maybe he realized that I didn’t understand, because he stopped trying to explain things, and instead just kept repeating one word, very slowly so I would remember it. I didn’t know what it meant, but it sounded like “oh-way-nah-seh.” Maybe someday I’ll figure out what language he was speaking, and then I can look up the word and find out what it means. I decided to add that to my Unfinished Business list.
We got back to school a little early, so the kids were allowed to run around and play for a while, and the teachers let me go to the library. I wanted to ask the librarian if she knew what “oh-way-nah-seh” meant, but she was busy helping some kids with a project, so I went and found Mrs. Kinney instead.
When I asked her about the word she said it sounded like a big load of nonsense and probably not worth worrying over. She was moving books around, like always, and making a mess of the shelves. I felt bad for the librarian, but it wasn’t my fault, and if I told her the truth, she’d think I was making up lies, because that’s what people always think when they hear something that doesn’t make sense to them.
Mrs. Kinney looked annoyed that I was bothering her while she was “fixing” the books, so I decided to ask her about herself. That’s something I’ve noticed, that if people don’t want to listen to you talk, it usually means they want to talk about themselves. So I asked her if she had any Unfinished Business that I could help her with.
She stopped walking and turned to face me with her armload of books. She didn’t look pleased, but she never did anyway. She held up her armload of books, and raised her eyebrows really high, and said, “Child, the only unfinished business Mrs. Kinney is worried about right now is gettin’ all these books back where they belong. Now, it would be lovely to have a bit of help, but you already proved you don’t understand Dewey Decimal, so maybe what you ought to be concurrin’ yourself with is your own business.” Then she turned and stormed away, and I decided that maybe it would be best to leave her alone for a while. So instead, I found the section of books on American Indians, and started looking for a picture of someone dressed like the man at the zoo.