Jen walked to clear her head. She had always done so whenever she had something to decide or whenever life’s stresses made her feel overwhelmed. She walked until she had her problems all sorted out.

So, when she got the out-of-state job promotion and the marriage proposal within twenty-four hours of each other, she put on her walking shoes and went to the park.

Jen entered the park through the south gate and started around the perimeter path. At this time of day, runners clogged the path. After ten minutes of hearing people puffing their way by her, she looked around for somewhere to sit.

To the right, there was a path up to a viewing point with a wooden bench. Jen walked up the path and sat down. She took several deep breaths to clear her mind. She glanced over at a plaque attached to a short plinth next to the bench.

“In memory of Agnes, who loved this park so much.”

Jen smiled at the loving tribute.

Well, Agnes, Jen thought, what should I choose? Marriage or job?

“That’s a tough one,” replied the voice of an old woman. “I chose marriage over college, but went to college later, after the kids were in school, so I ended up having both. Can’t you figure out a way to have both?”

Jen stopped and looked around. She stood up and turned all the way around, scanning the area for the source of the voice. There was no one up here at the viewing point. The only people she saw were the joggers and walkers on the path below. She sat down. Now that she thought about it, the voice wasn’t coming from somewhere else, but was inside her head, although it was definitely a separate entity.

“You asked me a question, so I answered,” said the voice. “Now you answer mine. Can you have both the job and the marriage?”

“I asked you? Who are you? Am I going crazy?” Jen asked, aloud.

“Yes, you asked me a question. I am Agnes. No, you are not going crazy. And you needn’t speak aloud. I can hear your thoughts. Now, would you like to talk about your problem or shall we go another round of ‘How is this happening?’”

Jen looked over at the plinth again. A dead woman was speaking inside her head. That was ridiculous. She was overwrought, that’s all. But, if this is how her mind wanted to deal with her dilemma, she’d just let it. It was fine. Maybe this was a good way to do it, have a “conversation” about it in her head. Of course, Jen had had internal debates before. Who hadn’t? But, never did it seem like one voice in the debate was a separate person.

Whatever. Go with it. It’ll be fine.

“Exactly,” said Agnes. “Just go with it. That’s what most folks do.”

What? Wait, I need to know more. How is this happening? Are you a ghost?

“I don’t know the hows and whys. Nobody ever sees me, they just hear me in their heads. I know that I’m not always here. Sometimes, I’m nowhere. I can’t explain it better than that. I either don’t exist or I don’t remember that other time when I’m here in this place. When I am here, I get to talk to people. It’s only ever people who are sitting on the bench. Some of them don’t hear me. Others hear me and get scared and leave. Some talk back and we have a pleasant chat. Who are you going to be?”

I guess I’m already the person who talks back.

“Good! So, what’s the problem? You’re trying to decide between a job and a man? Or a woman? I died a while back, but I’ve kept up. About time gay folks could marry, too. Who cares who loves whom? Anyway, what’s your deal?”

You get right to the point, don’t you? My deal is that my boyfriend Jonathan proposed to me last night, and I said yes. And then, this morning, I got offered a promotion to a job that I have been working toward, but it’s on the other side of the country. If I marry Jon, we’ll have to stay here because his job is tied to this city. If the promotion was for a position here, I’d have no problem.

“Oy!” said Agnes, “Jen and Jon? I’m already leaning toward you taking the job and not the guy, just because your names are too cute.”

I thought you were here to help me with my problem, not to make fun of me.

“I can do both. Deal with it. My first thought is if you’re even thinking about taking a job over getting married, then you aren’t madly in love.”

I love Jon!

“I’m sure that you love him. I said you aren’t madly in love. People who are head-over-heels in love don’t think rationally about their options, which is not a good thing, actually. I’m glad that you think enough of yourself to consider putting yourself first.”

I’ve been working toward this promotion for years. I just thought that the offer would be here in the city. There’s a guy retiring next year. I thought I’d get his job. And then, they throw this at me and if I don’t take it, it might look like I don’t want the promotion at all.

“I see. Tell me more about Jon. What is he like? Does he want children?”

Jon is a lawyer, an assistant district attorney. He’s ambitious and hard-working. We enjoy the same kinds of things. He wants children, but I don’t. At least not right now.

“Is he good in bed?” asked Agnes.

Jen blushed.

Yes. I don’t know why I told you that.

“Who am I going to tell? And it’s a factor, don’t kid yourself. Now, I’m going to ask you a question and I want you to be completely honest. Do you want children?”

No, I don’t. I really think I won’t ever want any. But, everyone says that I’ll change my mind.

“Eh,” said Agnes, “Maybe. But probably not. And it isn’t fair to Jon to not be honest about this with him. People who want children should have them and people who don’t, shouldn’t. In my day, people had kids without a thought of whether or not they wanted them. It didn’t turn out well for those reluctant parents or those unwanted kids.”

Did you want your kids? You said before that you went to college after the kids were in school.

“I also had kids with no forethought. It was just something you did back then. Turns out I enjoyed being a mother, but I always had my own hobbies and interests apart from them. I wasn’t one of those—whadda-ya-callits—helicopter moms. I went to college when the youngest was in first grade, got a teaching certificate and taught high school English until I retired. The kids and I had similar schedules while they were in school. It worked out well.”

So, you think I shouldn’t marry Jon because he wants kids and I don’t?

“No,” said Agnes, “I think you should be up front with him. Don’t say you don’t want kids just now. Tell him you don’t want kids and you can’t guarantee you ever will.”

That will be a hard conversation.

“Yes, it will. But do it, anyway. Now, about this job. Do you love it?”

Love it? No. I’m good at it. I like the money and the perks. The promotion comes with more money and more perks. I like the lifestyle that the job allows me to have. And this is the first time I’ve admitted that. First time I’ve admitted that I don’t want kids, too. What, exactly, are you doing to me, Agnes?

“I’m getting down to the truth. People usually know right away if they want to marry. People also know if they want a certain job. You think you are weighing these two things that you want, but I think that you truly don’t want either.”

Jen realized Agnes was right. She didn’t want to marry Jon, and she didn’t want the promotion. In fact, she didn’t like her job at all, and her relationship with Jon had stalled a while ago. She stayed with Jon because leaving was a big decision. The relationship wasn’t horrible, it just wasn’t great. It was easier to coast along.

Shit, Agnes. You just blew up my life.

“You’re the one who sat on the bench. You talked to me first.”

I guess I did. So, what now? Are you going to help me figure out what I want because all we’ve figured out here is what I don’t want.

“You said you liked the perks of your job and the lifestyle it affords,” said Agnes. “Be specific. What are the perks? What does the money allow you to do?”

Well, I work with customers, which I like, and I get to travel. The travel allows me to explore other places. I often plan my vacations while I’m on a business trip by asking the locals about hiking and nature walks in the area. The money also allows me to own a cabin upstate in the woods. I go there every weekend and holiday that I can manage. It costs a lot to park an SUV in the city, so the job pays for luxuries like that. I’m not by nature a city girl. That’s why I come to the park and walk around. It helps me clear my head. It’s the quietest place around.

“So you like working with customers and you spend your life trying to get away from where you live?” asked Agnes.

Well, when you put it that way, it sounds crazy.

“It is crazy! Okay. Don’t overthink this, just say the first thing that comes into your mind. When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?”

A forest ranger.

“What was your major in college?” asked Agnes.

Communications and marketing because sensible people don’t major in botany and environmental studies. People need to work a real job when they get out of college. You can’t get a job wandering around in the woods. Oh my god! I sound just like my father!

“Sheesh! Fathers!” said Agnes, “Killers of dreams. Why do you think I chose a husband over college? My father threatened to disown me. He thought college was for finding a husband and I had already found a guy to marry me. Lucky for me, my Harry was nothing like my father. He was the one who talked me into going to college. I said to him, ‘But, Harry, I’ll be 35 by the time I’m finished college in four years’ and he said, ‘How old will you be in four years if you don’t go to college?’ I applied the next day. So, what would you have to do to get a job where you spend your days in the woods?”

Jen sat on the bench, astonished at how quickly her thought process had turned into something else entirely. It was originally a pros and cons list, a weighing of two options, and it had turned into an upheaval of her entire life. She found she was smiling, and she realized she hadn’t smiled so spontaneously in quite a while. She could do this. It was possible. She could say no thank you to the job, she could say no thank you to Jon. Moving to the cabin year-round sounded like heaven. Her friend Emily, who did nature walks, guided hiking tours and mountain biking tours, could help her. Jen had helped Em out with larger groups in the past and had also subbed for her occasionally. Suddenly, everything fell into place. She had some hard conversations ahead, but she found she didn’t dread them at all, because they would lead her to where she wanted to be.

“So,” said Agnes, “You’ve got it all figured out, haven’t you? I think you’ll be fine. Go! If you’re ever back in the city, stop by and tell me about your new life. Go, sweetie.”

Thank you, Agnes. I don’t know how… just thank you.

“You’re welcome, darling. Bye, now.”

Jen stood up and started down the walkway to the jogging path below, grinning from ear to ear at the thought of what she was about to do, looking forward to this new life she had not even dreamed of until a few minutes ago. An old man stood at the bottom of the walkway, neatly dressed, waiting for her to pass before he continued on his way up to the viewpoint. Jen almost said something to him, but got a hold of herself before she blurted out to a stranger that she had just had an epiphany while conversing with a dead woman. Good heavens! He’d think she was crazy. The thought made her smile more broadly.

The man nodded at her as she passed.

“She’s amazing, isn’t she?” the man said, “My Agnes.” Jen stopped and stared at him. He winked at Jen and continued on his way to sit on the bench.

© 2018 Liza Cameron Wasser