Here’s my latest short story that hasn’t been picked up so it’s about to be part of my upcoming short story collection but in the meantime, it’s here for you to enjoy.
The day that I died began with me wondering how in the hell it had come to this. Arm in a sling, face swollen from bee stings I didn’t know I was allergic to, throat sore from the anaphylactic swelling and my desperate attempts to call out and oh yes: I got all that from being somewhere I wasn’t meant to be in the first place.
So basically, one perfectly shitty day that’s led to, well, this situation. I was trying to sneak into my ex’s shed to get a box I really wanted back and had put away there because he had gotten in the habit of rifling through my things in the last days of our marriage. He was sleeping around and looking for something to pin the whole bloody mess on me.
The silly thing is, it should have been easy to just go in there and get it, I’d hidden the spare keys in a crevice under the eaves near the top of the door. There were some anxious nights where I worried that someone had seen me hiding the keys and would use them to break in and kill me. That was when I didn’t know where my husband was or when he’d come home. Back when my whole life was a question mark.
Since I’d been the one to do all the repairs, I knew he wouldn’t have fixed it. He hadn’t. What I didn’t count on was the big hive in the opening on top of the door where I had hidden a little plastic pastille tin with all the keys inside, including the key to the lock on the door.
I was perched on that wobbly wooden Adirondack chair – the one with the faded and peeling red paint – when the slat cracked and broke, me with my hand just reaching in to get the tin, reacting in reflex and grabbing a handful of bees. I landed on my arm with a crack!
I didn’t know what I was hearing, whether it was my arm breaking or the chair, but I do remember screaming in pain and my hand swelling like a water balloon, my fingers like the ones we used to make out of condoms: Texas medium of course, coloured and ribbed for even better effect. The ones we had pocketed from the drugstore where, in our 12-year-old wisdom, we were sure no one saw. The ones my mom wound up paying for when her friend Shirley – who had seen me do it and was too embarrassed to stop me – went to a pay phone in the mall to call mom and tell her that she didn’t want to have to cover the cost. If losses happen too often, she might get fired you know and being a mom of four she really can’t afford to lose this job, what will they do for Christmas?
Mom was livid. Apparently. She never told me about it. She told my brother, which was a punishment worse than she would have done. I don’t know if she knew he was so mean, I’m sure she was just asking him what he thought she should do since he is 4 years older than me. I don’t know. But hey, maybe I can ask her since, well, I’m dead.
All things considered this was a really stupid way to die. Too mundane to make the paper, ridiculous enough that I know my whole life will be overshadowed in everyone’s memories by this one thing, if they ever think of me at all. I will admit I was never the family favorite. We can’t all be the star of the show, right?
But I am now! So for my little bit of time in the spotlight, what do I do with this? I’m standing here at the foot of the hospital bed, staring down on myself, a heart monitor sounding a constant noise with flat lines scrolling across the screen and I know I’m not where I thought I’d be on this sunny Sunday in May. I think I planned to dig up the garden and turn over the soil for this year’s crop of failure. I’m a terrible gardener. But I guess you probably might have figured that out given what you know of me so far. Just call me fubar Annie. And I really am beyond all repair! Ha ha.
I should be sad. I should feel something. I don’t. Looking at myself in these quiet moments, timeless, I could have been standing here a thousand years or is it only seconds? I want to stop looking at myself. I want to see if I can put my hand through a wall, I want to fly, I want to swim underwater and circumnavigate the globe. Where’s that light everyone talks about?
A hand touches my shoulder. Hi mom, I say. It doesn’t strike me as strange that I’m talking to my mom. It should, she died five years ago. Yet here she is. I think she’s trying to say something but I can’t hear her. Maybe it’s the opioids they probably gave me talking. Maybe all of this is that. What if I’m not really here, I’m at home in bed dreaming because it’s Sunday and I get to sleep in as long as I like?
No, I know I went to the old house. I plotted this for weeks. I waited for a day he’d be out late afternoon when I had time and nobody would be overly concerned. I wonder how many neighbours even know we’re not together anymore. I don’t care. We all kept to ourselves. I barely knew them. If we’d have had kids, maybe I would know their names. Neither of those things happened and here we are.
How long does it take before anybody notices that alarms are going off and I’m dead? Were they even watching me at all? I wonder if they have tried to find someone to call and noticed there’s no one. My brother hasn’t talked to me in years, I don’t know if he even knows I left my husband. My dad died ten years ago. Work might wonder where I am but it’s not a weekday yet and they only check if I don’t answer the phone or emails, my status is showing as offline and I haven’t booked the day off. So that’s going to be a while. They’ll notice when that report is late probably. Nice to be loved isn’t it?
Wait. Isn’t being dead supposed to be all sweetness and light, angels singing, brightly lit doors, escalators and things? Maybe some apparatus that sucks you up there like a pneumatic tube? So okay, do I have to wait until my soul gets stuffed in screw top jar that gets shoved into that tube? Who is stuffing me into that jar?
Oh wait, there’s people running. It’s only been what, an hour, a year, a millennium, a minute? There’s a lot I don’t know in this state but right now what I do know is I can’t feel my feet, my mother is mouthing words at me that I can’t understand and I am waiting for that wonderful playground in the sky I’ve been promised by churches all of my life. Not that I went to church much after I left home. Pretty much only for weddings and funerals. Regardless, this better not be my afterlife.
What if I’m one of those stuck people like those ghost shows that spend their time in shut down hospitals? They’re calling out to dust motes and squirrels in the walls to communicate with them and somebody picks up what they think is a voice and it’s probably some person staked out in another room with a megaphone up against the wall so it sounds muffled; or maybe it really is someone like me stuck there staring at my lifeless body forever while eons go by outside? What if I’m just a cold spot on somebody’s temperature gauge?
Enough. I’d say breathe to myself but that’s pointless.
The frantic activity is gathering steam, more people are hovering over my bed, things being checked and reset, and oh they’ve got those paddle things. I wonder if I pretend to jump can I go somewhere. I crouch down and spring up and damned if I’m not out in the parking lot watching moths swirl around LED lights casting shadows on the hoods of the cars beneath the poles. Ooh, that was fun.
My mom is here, she’s standing by a picnic table wearing a blue striped floaty summer dress she loved. I never actually saw her in that dress but I saw pictures of her in it. She was in her twenties then I think. She’s beckoning me over. Sure mom, I’ll go over. What have I got to lose? Don’t say my life, if I’m given the choice of staying or going, I don’t have any reason to stay, I’m more a problem than anything else. A gnat if you will, sucking the joy out of the leg of hapless wanderers who flit through my life.
My mom gives me a big hug and I am flooded with love, so much so I can’t stop crying. Mom, I say in my mind, I miss you so much. I’m sorry I’m such a fuck up.
Love is warm, and she infused every atom of my being with it. I am surrounded by white light so much I can’t see. So, this is what heaven is like. Heaven is a mother’s love and you are in her arms.
My eyes were closed while I saw that beautiful light and when I opened them, mom and I are sitting at the picnic table, holding hands. “So here you are dear,” she says, “it’s so wonderful to be able to speak with you. I try to say things you know, but I don’t think you hear them. I tried to tell you that wooden chair was broken and that ladies your age shouldn’t be balancing on rickety chairs.”
I laugh from the depth of my soul at her words, oh my Lord how I’ve missed her sense of humour, and of course she is right. Middle aged and menopausal, size 0 is a distant memory for me. What was I thinking standing on that chair? Of course it was falling apart, I wasn’t there to fix it.
“Dear,” she says, “people pay attention to what matters most to them. Adirondack chairs aren’t necessarily something that matters, wouldn’t you agree?”
“I wanted my box of memories, mom, the one with my baby stuff and my old diaries. I wanted to remember stuff. I needed to remind myself that once upon a time I mattered to the world. I don’t anymore mom. I just don’t.” The strange thing is, this is the point where I should be bawling and cursing myself for being so self-pitying. I feel nothing but love radiating from mom.
She smiles. Her smile is an energetic hug.
“Mom, what’s heaven like?” I ask her, “Is that where I’m going? Are you here to collect me?”
She smiles. “It’s not what you expect.”
“I don’t know what that means, mom. Is this heaven?”
“What is the one thing you think you contributed most in your life? Tell me the first thing that comes to your mind.”
It took me no less than a heartbeat – were mine doing that – to answer. “The kitten. The one I saved. It was going to die.” I thought for a second. ‘I don’t know if it did. Did they just put it down when I turned it over? Did I save it just so it could be killed at a shelter?”
She put her hand out in the “stop!” position. “It’s better not to concern yourself with what has happened when you turn over care to someone else. It’s out of your hands. You can ask, you can plead, but what they do is up to them. It will drive you crazy if you worry too much about stuff you can’t change.”
“But that was a life, mom.”
She smiled. “I was given a dog when I was a child. It became too much, kept getting out, destroyed things and one day the dog wasn’t there. Father said he had given the dog to a farm.”
“But that’s a good thing isn’t it? More room for pup to run around?”
“When I was growing up it was common for nuisance animals to be put down. That’s what they’d say to you when they took it away. They were taking the animal to a farm, but they weren’t. Or maybe they were dumping them at farms thinking they’ll be happier there – people still do that with cats. My father swore he took the dog to a farm that his friend owned but when I was old enough to know what it meant, well, I wondered. It hurt me to think I’d been lied to, that they could do this and not feel bad about it, I hoped that just maybe this was the exception.”
“Didn’t you ask?”
“No. In truth, I didn’t want to know the answer. Would you? Do you really want to know the fate of that kitten? Or do you let it go and hope it had a nice life. Better than being hit by a car, yes?”
“Yes and no, I guess I don’t want to know everything.”
“Exactly. Sometimes what you don’t know is better for you, especially when there’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t go back and change it, it’s in the past.”
“Mom? Are you mad I couldn’t be there at the end? That I couldn’t hold you or your hand or even be in the room? I know it hurt for me that I was never able to sit alone with you in your silence and just speak my heart. So I say it to the walls. If you want to make me cry, make me think of not being allowed to do this. When did I stop being your daughter mom? And why?”
“I love you always dear. Before you were born, and every day thereafter. I didn’t put the restrictions on you, I couldn’t, I was sleeping really. Even when I seemed awake, it was all pretty much a daze for me. I didn’t know time or who or what or where, I just was. Know that whatever decisions were made, they certainly weren’t mine. I was never spiteful or mean to you. Not intentionally. I loved you dear, still do. There was no harm talking to the walls, it helps but also, how do you know I don’t hear you? I carry you in my heart, just like you do me.”
I reached out to hug her, she shook her head and pointed. For our vantage point at the picnic table, a scene in the parking lot like a hologrammatic movie screen played out in front of us. It was the hospital room, the doctors and nurses a whirlwind of activity.
Her hand grasped mine and it felt just like it always had. “You have me now darling, is there anything you want to say to me directly?”
I thought for a second. “Not really, just that I’m glad you were my mom.”
She squeezed my hand. “I’m glad you are my daughter, and I’ll always be your mom. Anything you want me to say to your dad?”
I laugh. “No, just that I miss him.”
“He misses you too.”
“Are you still married? Are you still together?”
“It’s ‘till death do you part. That would just be cruel to be married in perpetuity, what if you married a complete ass or somebody cruel? No, it’s only for as long as you chose on Earth. That’s all. But we talk. It’s different here. Relationships are respecting the energy of it; sex isn’t really a thing you know – no bodies.”
That seemed a little sad to me and I told her so. Then she reminded me the power of a hug. That was much stronger certainly than anything sexual. Her hug just now, and holding my hand, it really was just energy yet you express it differently when you have crossed over.
She told me that the truth of emotion is that light, for some it is gentle; for some, it’s very strong as it’s the depth of your emotion. Desire is a physical thing, what the body wants. No body, no desire in that way. But you do desire the beingness of someone, much like what you miss when someone dies. It’s the beingness, their energy in your orbit that leaves that gaping hole when it is gone.
Tired. I have gone from a bubbly happy lightness to very tired. Mom tells me to close my eyes and rest my head on the table. I ask her if this is where I get to choose whether to stay or go, she tells me simply that sometimes it isn’t a choice. Then I fall asleep.
There is a space where you just aren’t. You get a sense of that in a dreamless sleep, or when you are under sedation. One second you are conscious, the next you are not. Is one state more real than the other? Regardless, there were no trees falling in this forest. I just wasn’t.
“Is she your wife,” the nurse at the counter asks, “or your former wife?”
“Does it matter?”
“It does. Mister – what is your name please?”
“Stone. Mark Stone.”
“Her name is Anne Raphael. Are you married?”
“Yes, sort of.”
“And who is this?” She points to a woman – slightly younger than he is – who stands beside him.
“My wife.” The nurse glares at him. “Common-law wife. We live together.”
“I see. Now to answer my question, do you have any legal authority for Ms. Raphael?”
“Uh, I don’t know. We’re separated. Legally, documents and everything. Long time now. Like six years.”
“I see. I’m not sure if you would be considered family or not. She would normally be the one who determines that. Is Raphael her legal name?”
“Yes, I guess? It’s her maiden name, she never really used her married name, at least not like on her passport. We handed in our marriage certificates when we got separated so I guess it is.”
“If all her government documents are in the name Raphael, it is. A name is person’s own choice, and certain jurisdictions you must do a legal name change with a judge to actually change your name to your spouse’s.”
“Right, I never thought about it. She was the one who insisted she keep her name but she used the married one while we were together.”
“Okay well she’s not that now so I need a blood relative or a common law spouse who she’s designated as a next of kin to make decisions or receive information about her condition. You’re not on the list of family, but of course it’s blank, she was just brought in here. Is there a blood relative I can contact?”
“No, well there’s her brother but they don’t talk and he doesn’t live around here, at least I don’t think so, he might have moved. Her parents are dead.”
“So that’s a no. Please think about who we can contact about her condition, maybe a close cousin or someone?”
He leaves, mumbling to his partner that he’ll kill her himself if he winds up responsible for her as a cripple or something, and the nurse catches a glimpse of part of the reason why she might no longer be with him. And she thinks, she should have got the brother’s name and the city he lives anyway. Right now though, it’s probably better she’s under state care based on her condition.
When Mark and Nita got back to the house, he did what he always does when he gets home for the day. He lit up a joint and turned on the tv. Nita thought about pouring herself a glass of wine but then she thought what if we have to leave quickly in the evening? Neither of them had enough for a taxi or anything like that. One of them would have to drive. She decided it would be better if she held off. Instead, she went out to the yard to see if she could figure out why Annie would have fallen from one of their chairs.
One of the slats was cracked, and the tall grass was stamped down where she fell and there was a pathway trampled from paramedics she guessed. The chair was up against the doorway. It didn’t make sense. She heard a muffled telephone chime – she touched her pockets. Wasn’t hers. Reaching around she found it in a small purse that was under the chair. It had Annie’s car keys, some cards, her phone and some tissue. She answered the phone.
“Hey Annie,” a cheerful male voice said, “we’re all going out for a drink, want to join us on the patio? It’s a nice night out. Figured we’ve got a busy week ahead so a toast to the team might be in order. What do you say? Don’t say no, Annie, we know you’re not busy.”
“Ah, this isn’t Annie.”
“Oh, guess I’ve got the wrong number.”
“Wait, don’t hang up. This is Annie’s phone. This is Nita, I, uh, her phone is in my backyard, she fell from my chair and she’s in the hospital right now. You’re work people, right? Does anyone know who her next of kin is?”
“Wait, what? Is she okay? What do you mean next of kin?”
“They won’t tell us but I think it’s bad. I’m her ex’s girlfriend and her car was here. The neighbours said she fell off the chair and was really sick, something about bees and bones.”
“Holy shit. Sounds horrible. I don’t know who her next of kin is, that’s in her file at work, we’d have to ask her supervisor and he’s at the cottage, I think. The cell reception is the pits there. What hospital?”
“Right, I’ll give them a call.”
“They won’t tell you anything, they didn’t tell us and Mark’s her ex.”
“Yeah, I don’t think all exes are friendly, they’re doing her a favour.”
“Okay what do you want me to do? What should I do with her purse and phone?”
“Where are you, I’ll swing by and pick them up, bring them to her in the hospital, she’ll need them. Has it got all her ID and everything?”
“Yes. I don’t know if I should give it to you.”
“What’s your number? I’ll send you a text so you know it’s me, I’ll give you my details. I’m pretty sure Annie is probably flipping out without her stuff.”
“I would be. Okay.” She gave him her number and her pocket vibrated a little.
Inside the house she pulled out her phone and responded to the text with her address. Mark was calling out asking what was for dinner and where did she go? She told him the yard and dinner would be few minutes. That was cool. She pulled out a smoke and went to the front porch to wait for Gary.
Halfway through the cigarette, Gary arrived. He looked worried and showed her his phone with the text to prove it was him. She handed him the purse and thanked him for looking out for Annie like this. He told her anything for a friend.
She liked that. She was glad Annie had some friends. The way Mark talked it was like she was a hermit or something. She waved bye and put out her cigarette, then went back inside to cook dinner.
Gary went to the hospital, told the nurse he was her boyfriend and showed her Annie’s purse. He gave her the information, numbers and stuff that the nurse needed for the file and said he’d have to check to see who exactly Annie’s next of kin was but he’d do that first thing tomorrow since he’s a consultant at the company she works for. Could he see her? He asked.
The nurse checked and he was told she was sleeping; he said that was okay, could he sit with her a few minutes? The nurse said it was touch and go there for a bit, they might not let him in the room right now but he could wait outside if they don’t. He said fine.
That’s exactly what he did. He waited in that blue plastic chair outside of the room until someone shook him gently and said she was awake but maybe not very lucid, she had taken a bad fall and an allergic reaction – just be prepared she’s a bit swollen. He said okay.
There she was, moon faced and in a form of traction, her fingers ten sausages sticking straight out. If it weren’t so scary it would be funny, he thought. “How are you Annie?” he said to her as he pulled up a chair. “I brought your purse.”
She looked at him quizzically. She couldn’t place who he was. “Do I know you?” She asked.
“I wondered if you’d remember me. I tried to ask you for a drink and I found out what had happened – this is awful! I have your purse, your ex’s girlfriend had it – she answered the phone and she told me all about this and I offered to bring it to you.”
“Thanks, I’m a little shook up and on drugs, I think. You’re from my office?”
“A consultant. I started a couple of weeks ago, been trying to talk to you.”
“I see.” She winced as she tried to move her fingers and couldn’t, they were still too swollen.
Gary laughed a little. “I’m sorry, I can’t help but think your hands look like the water balloons we used to do out of those latex gloves that my mom had.”
“What’s your name again?”
She tried to think then it came to her. Gary! The one from down the block. “We used to climb trees in White Father’s Woods together.”
“That we did, and we’d run through the cemetery and light all the candles in the grotto.”
“Oh my God, it’s so nice to see you. I’m sorry you’ve found me this way but I’m glad you brought me my purse. Guess I won’t be at work for a few days.”
He smiled. “Guess not. That’s okay I’m working on a report myself so I do it on my own schedule at home much of the time. You don’t have family here, do you? Where’s Tim at?”
“Gah, I don’t know. Please don’t look him up. Nobody left but him so, nobody.”
“I’m sorry but hey, how about I swing by tomorrow and we can catch up. You never forget your first kiss.”
She smiled. “No, I actually had forgotten your name, but no never your face. We had fun way back when.” She blinked hard, trying to keep her eyes open.
“Yes, that we did. It was a good time to be alive.”
He put her purse in the drawer of the nightstand. “Sleep tight and belles rêves, my Annie,” he said, kissing her lightly on the top of her head.
She didn’t reply, she was sound asleep so he wrote out his number and address and tucked it into her purse. Someday maybe he’d tell her she’s still as pretty as she ever was, even after all these years gone by.
One day long ago and high up in a tree, they’d sworn they’d be married someday. They made blood pacts with finger pricks and promised never to ever tell anyone they had kissed. Then life swept them apart, as it usually does to preteen lovers.
Serendipity? Perhaps. Maybe it was the answer to a prayer, or the answer to a promise, or a gift from heavens above. Only time will tell.
(c) Catherine M. Harris, 2020 all rights reserved