I woke up Sunday morning with the sense that something had gone wrong. That something terrible had happened. It wasn’t a precognitive feeling – like there had been an accident I hadn’t heard about yet. I felt more like you do the morning after you unexpectedly lose someone you love. That hurt, lost feeling you get as you prepare to face the prospect of a life without someone you were drinking and laughing with two days ago. The emotional limbo that sits between holding onto the happy past and facing the bitter future. I was grieving. My heart was hurting and I had no idea why.
I’m lucky, or should I say, smart enough not to have a regular nine-to-five job. I work as a freelance writer and a limited part time CNA with a medical staffing agency. I also do a little painting and photography on the side. Basically, I’m the type of person whose work only keeps her as busy as she wants to be. So that week, I decided not to be all that busy. Professionally speaking, that is. Instead, I spent the next few days aimlessly wandering around my apartment: listening to music, watching TV, eating junk food, fighting ogres with my guild online. At night I would generally force myself to sleep. But on Wednesday night I couldn’t. I must have stared at the ceiling above my bed for hours before I just couldn’t stand it anymore.
I switched on the lamp next to my bed and stared at the ceiling for a couple more seconds, groaning in frustration. I slipped on a pair of comfortable jeans and a t-shirt that complimented my frame. Standing around five-foot ten and weighing in at about one ninety, I’m what people like to call “curvy.” I’ve got a face most people pass over in a crowd. Don’t get me wrong. It’s got its charms – namely dazzling, brown eyes and a pretty smile – but it’s not something that tends to catch the eye. My hair is dark brown and straight. I keep it shoulder-length and simple so it’s not too much of a hassle. It was a little wild due to several hours of tossing and turning. Nothing a quick run with a brush couldn’t fix.
I made a quick phone call and left, eager to get a lungful of fresh air but I froze when I opened my front door. My eyes locked onto the apartment across from mine. Number 808. I wasn’t really sure why. I hadn’t seen Scott or Barbara in almost a week and I wasn’t particularly close to either of them. I shook my head and kept moving. After yawning my way down eight stories, I got off the elevator, stepped outside and came across Mrs. Hannigan.
I liked Mrs. Hannigan. She was nice. A bit too rigid for some people but it was only because she cared. She had a quiet but firm authority that could make you forget that she wasn’t your grandmother. A God-fearing black woman in her seventies, she was always trying to save my soul. More than one of her dinner invitations turned into blind dates. She meant well but she was a little to old-fashion to understand the phrase "I don’t swing that way." A similar problem with the word "agnostic" got me a lot of invitations to church.
I hadn’t seen her in a while but I knew it would happen soon. This was as good a time as any. I was a little surprised, though. A few months ago, Jacqueline Hannigan wouldn’t have been caught dead outside of her home after midnight. Nevertheless, there she was sitting on the top porch step puffing on the one vice she couldn’t kick. I sat down next to her.
She looked at me and smiled. “Good evening, Persephone.”
“Evening, Mrs. Hannigan.”
She looked at her watch. “Or maybe we should be saying ‘good morning’. You couldn’t sleep either?”
“Yeah. One of those nights.”
“I heard that, honey.” She took a long drag off of her cigarette, took a moment to inhale it and blew it back out. “Where are you off to at this hour?”
“Going to visit my aunt. She keeps weird hours. I think we’re going to have tea or something.”
“Oh, how nice. But you should really put on a jacket, baby. It’s a bit chilly out.”
It wasn’t. It was the middle of summer and being so close to the river the nights were hot and sticky. “Had to sneak out to get a smoke?”
“Oh, yes. You know Harold won’t let me smoke in the house.”
“He quit so you both have to suffer.”
“You know it!” We had a laugh at her husband’s expense. But her smile quickly faded. “You know, I tried to call Carol a few times today.”
“My youngest,” she nodded. “Every time I called she pretended like she couldn’t hear me.” She frowned.
“How long’s it been since you talked to her?”
“About a year. It’s all my fault.”
“All your fault?” I asked incredulously.
“Don’t get me wrong. Carol is stubborn and surly. But I was her mother. It was my job to make sure we patched things up before I…” Her voice trailed off and I knew she was getting there. “Before I…” Tiny, liquid crystals formed on her eyes. She gasped and brought a trembling hand to her lips. “Oh, my God, Persephone! I died!”
“Yes, ma’am. You did.”
“A couple of months ago.”
“Oh, my goodness gracious. I-I can’t remember! How did it happen?”
I reached over to gently take the cigarette from her hand and crushed it out on the ground.
She sat silently for a little bit. Then she started to sob. “My baby! I didn’t get to talk to her before I went away. Didn’t get to tell her how much I loved her!”
“She knew.” I reached over and took her hand. It was cold and leathery and wrinkled but still so very strong. “Mrs. Hannigan, I was at your funeral. A lot of people were. Including your daughters. All of your daughters. And there wasn’t one of them that doubted how much you loved them.”
She breathed a breath of relief. “Oh, thank God! Thank God!”
Seeing her so happy was almost enough to make me forget my own grief. With every breath she seemed to push away her fears and concerns. It was like watching her get younger. “Are you ready?”
“I think so,” she said. “What happens next?”
Her answer pulled up in a green ‘88 Bentley Continental. He got out of the car and sauntered up to us whistling an upbeat tune. He liked to dress to the nines when he was picked someone up. Said it was their special day and he wanted to make them feel like it. He was wearing a brown pinstripe suit with a matching trilby hat. He walked with a thick, cherry-oak cane and seemed to almost dance with his approach. Mortimer Lester didn’t look at all like the Grim Reaper people were expecting but he did look like a guy that might be named Mortimer Lester. He was tall and lean and always happy. He was probably within arm’s reach of seventy-five but he looked like a man looking forward to his late fifties. Under his hat, he had a full head of bright, silver hair and his blue eyes blazed with playful exuberance. He was always sporting one of those smiles that people get right before they surprise someone they love. You know, the one that says “I know something you don’t and I can’t wait til you know it too.” He was handsome and charming. Just the way Death should be. “Jacqueline Hannigan?” he said.
“That’s me,” she answered a bit hesitantly.
He offered his arm. “Your chariot awaits.”
When Mrs. Hannigan looked at me, I gave her got my most comforting smile. She stood up and took Mort’s arm. I stood up with them. Always a gentleman, he opened her door and closed it after she got in. Then he turned to me and said “You’re up awful late.”
I shrugged. “Trouble sleeping.”
He looked up at my building, the ever-present enthusiasm fading from his face. “I bet.” He kept staring for a few seconds before he looked at me and his smile reappeared. He patted me on my shoulder and made his way to the other side of the car. “Get a hold of me, kiddo!”
He drove off into the night. Then I got in my car and did the same.