Authors: Darynda Jones
“Falling. I remember falling.”
I looked over at the woman I was talking to. She lay huddled in her bed, a Bugs Bunny comforter pulled up until only defiant strands of chestnut hair were visible. And she was still half asleep if her lack of response to my predicament was any indication.
“Mmm-hmm. Keep going,” she said, her voice groggy and muffled under the bedspread.
“But that’s it. I don’t remember anything else.” When she didn’t reply, I glanced down at the nightgown I was wearing and tried to piece my memories together. What happened. How I got here. Where here was.
I turned and looked out the woman’s apartment window into the cool city night. I could make out streetlights and the dark shapes of buildings looming near, but everything was different now. Concrete objects seemed distant, uncertain. The light emanating from lampposts seemed more a suggestion than an actuality. All light did except for
, the woman’s, I realized, looking back at her.
She shimmered like liquid gold, sparkling and brilliant even through the comforter. And she was the only thing I could focus on, could really see.
Lithe fingers curled over the top of the blanket and a dark head appeared, eyes still closed, face glistening and incandescent. Her eyebrows slid together in groggy annoyance and she tossed an arm over them as though to block out the world. Soon her breathing evened out again, and I figured she’d fallen back asleep until she spoke.
“So that’s all you remember? Falling?”
Surprised, I straightened my shoulders. I was sitting on her dresser, as the only chair in the room sat buried under a pile of clothes. “Yes.”
“Considering the fact that you’re here,” she said, scrubbing her forehead with the back of her hand, “I’d say your stop was fairly sudden.”
I swallowed and licked my lips, but they had no taste, no texture, like I’d just been to the dentist. With head bowed, I asked a question I already knew the answer to. “Am I dead?”
“As a doornail in August. What time is it?”
Stifling a hiccup of sadness, I looked at the clock on her nightstand, but the numbers, as familiar as they were, no longer made sense. It didn’t matter. She’d propped herself on an elbow and was peering at the clock from behind a mop of unruly hair. Then she looked back at me, and my breath caught. Her eyes were beautiful, deep set and bright gold. Looking at them through the long strands of her dark hair was like looking at a panther’s eyes through the heavy, sharp leaves of a jungle. The image was ethereal.
“Couldn’t you have died later?” she asked, her voice thick with fatigue. “Like around, say,
I started to answer but realized she didn’t expect me to. She’d pushed off the bedspread to reveal a Blue Oyster Cult t-shirt and unfolded herself into a lengthy stretch accompanied by the loudest yawn I’d ever heard. But even that couldn’t break her spell completely, and I wondered what she was. Maybe she was an angel, I thought as she crawled out of bed and headed for the door. Maybe she was stuck on earth, sent here to help those who had passed. What a noble creature.
“Wedgie alert,” she said before adjusting her boxer-like underwear.
I blinked and tried to turn away, but it happened so fast, I didn’t have time. Which was awkward for me, but she didn’t seem to mind it a bit.
“If we’re going to figure this out,” she said, holding up an index finger, “we need coffee and lots of it.”
I followed her into a tiny kitchen that made mine look like Carnegie Hall.
kitchen. I turned to her with a huge smile. “I have a kitchen. I remember it.”
“Wonderful,” she said, scooping coffee into a filter. “Unfortunately, so do about five billion other people. But it’s a start.”
“Yes,” I said, rounding her snack bar to have a look around. “But mine is much, much bigger, with terra cotta tile and granite countertops.”
She paused and leveled a hard gaze on me. “Are you dissing my kitchen?”
“No!” I said. I’d offended her. “Not at all. I was just trying to—”
“Just kidding.” She chuckled to herself. “I thought about expanding once, but my attention span isn’t long enough to see it through. Plus, I’m renting. You were saying?”
“Right.” I eyed her with the uncertainty of someone who’d bet on a horse only to find out it was missing a leg. “Who are you again?”
After setting the coffee pot to brew, she turned and offered me her full attention. “I have to warn you, it’s going to sound bad.”
Make that a three-legged, partially blind horse. “Okay.”
“My name is Charlotte Davidson, but call me Charley, and I’m the grim reaper.”
The breath in my lungs fled as I stood there, looking her up and down, trying to wrap my head around what she’d said.
She smiled knowingly. “Don’t worry. You don’t actually need to breathe. Do you like hazelnut?”
After a long moment, I asked, “What?”
“In your coffee?”
I blinked and glanced back at the pot. “I can drink coffee?”
“Oh, no. Sorry. I was just wondering if you liked hazelnut in it. You know, when you used to drink it.”
Swimming in a sea of confusion, I asked, “What does that have to do with anything?”
“Not a darned thing, sadly. Hazelnut rocks.” She reached into a cabinet for a cup. “But it might jog your memory. Do you like chocolate? Jelly beans? Crystal meth?”
I gasped and looked around for a mirror. “Oh, my god, do I look like a meth head?”
“No.” She shook her head. “Absolutely not.” After casting a furtive glance over her shoulder, she added, “Or, well, not much.”
Looking down at my arms, I realized they were a bit skinny. And my coloring was bad, but couldn’t that be chalked up to the whole death thing? If only I could remember who I was, how I died. I just remembered falling. That was it. And reaching out for something as I fell, but what?
“Is it normal for people to forget who they are after they, you know, pass?”
She shrugged while stirring her coffee. “Doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. Especially if the death was particularly traumatic.”
“Maybe I was murdered.” I tried so hard to remember, to push past the fog in my head. “Wait. I can’t drink coffee. I couldn’t even when I was alive.”
“I think it nauseates me.”
She grabbed the cup and walked into her tiny living room. That was when I noticed a small, painfully thin man in her corner, his back to us, his bare toes hovering several inches off the ground.
“Told you it would jog something. Coffee is multifunctional that way. Maybe you were sick. Were you in the hospital?”
I pointed. “There’s a guy—”
“Oh, that’s Mr. Wong.” She sat at her computer and nudged the mouse to bring things out of hibernation. “Hey, Mr. Wong,” she said, offering a wave. “How’s it hanging?”
“Hovering. Yeah, you’ll get used to it. So, any idea what your name is yet?”
I refocused on her but kept tabs on Mr. Wong from the corner of my eye. “Not really. Is he dead?”
“Sure is. And he doesn’t talk much, either. Have a seat.” She gestured to the chair beside her desk, so I sat down while she logged onto a database. “I’m going to check out recent deaths, starting with the Albuquerque News Journal, see if anything local rings a bell.” As she waited for the server, she folded her legs in the chair and propped her chin on a knee, careful not to spill the coffee she held in both hands, and I realized she was wearing thick knitted socks. Her hair, which hung just past her shoulders, was still in utter disarray. She looked like a kid on Saturday morning, waiting for the cartoons to start.
“You don’t really look like the grim reaper.”
“I get that a lot,” she said, then leveled a pointed stare on me, “Mary Jane Holbrook.”
“Who?” I asked.
She looked back at the screen. “Oh, crap, never mind. She was like eighty-four when she died.”
I looked at the screen as well, but the colors pixelated and made me dizzy.
“Damn, she looked good for her age.”
“Why can’t I see right?”
“You’re on a different plane,” she said, studying the screen. “Things don’t always translate well. How about Jennifer Sandoval?”
“Doesn’t sound familiar,” I said, shaking my head. “Do I look like her?”
“No idea. I’m on the police blotter, now. No pics.”
Another memory surfaced, one so unbelievable, so horrid I bit my lip to keep from gasping. I had to be remembering it wrong. That couldn’t have happened.
“I got nothing,” she said, refocusing on me from behind her cup. She took a long draw, eyeing me from head to toe. “Not to mention the fact that you could have died anywhere in the world and, quite honestly, anytime. I’m not really getting a read off your gown or hairstyle other than you probably died sometime within the last twenty years.”
“Twenty years?” I asked, appalled. “You mean, I could have been walking around for decades?”
She nodded. “But time doesn’t really work the same on your plane. It’s not as linear. But things are starting to come to you, right? Did you remember something else?”
It must have shown on my face, the horror of realization, the crackle of dread that rushed down my spine. “Yes, but it can’t be right. I just…It can’t be right.”
She cast a sympathetic gaze from under her lashes. “You can tell me anything. I have a very stringent confidentiality rule. Well, that and nobody would believe me anyway.”
I glanced down at my hands, or more importantly, my wrists, but they were unmarred. But I remembered falling. Maybe I’d jumped off a building or a bridge. “I think I committed suicide,” I said, shame burning my face.
“Oh. I’m so sorry, hon.” She put a hand over one of mine, and though I couldn’t seem to feel anything physically, I could feel warmth radiating off her, pure and inviting. I suddenly wanted nothing more than to cry. How could I do such a thing? I loved life. I remembered. I wanted nothing more than to live, to be healthy and normal.
“Wait,” I said, glancing back at her, “if I’d committed suicide, wouldn’t I have gone to Hell?”
She squeezed my hand. “It doesn’t work that way, though many religions would have you believe it does. Sometimes our physical bodies send us to a place we just can’t seem to crawl out of. It’s not our fault.”
I felt a wetness slide down my face, surprised that I could still cry.
“Can you tell me what you remember?”
I wiped the back of my hand across my cheek and took a deep breath. “I just remember deciding to die. It was a conscious decision.” I pressed my mouth together to keep from bursting into tears. How could I have done that? What kind of person did that make me? I took the sacred life that was given to me and threw it away. Like it was nothing. Like I was nothing.
“Sweetheart, there are a hundred reasons why you could have made that decision.” She gestured toward my nightgown. “Again, you could have been sick. Sometimes…sometimes cancer patients will take their own lives, often for very unselfish reasons.”
I scrunched my brows together in thought. Cancer didn’t sound right, but I got the distinct feeling she wasn’t far off the mark. When she cast a quick glance toward my abdomen and turned away just as quickly, I looked down and noticed the soft fullness that rounded my gown. A gasp escaped before I could stop it.
“I was pregnant?” I almost screamed the question in disbelief. Both hands flew over my mouth as I looked at her. “Please tell me I wasn’t pregnant when I committed suicide,” I pleaded from behind them.
She put her coffee cup down and took both my hands into hers, and only then did I realize she could feel me. I was solid to her and yet I could pass through walls. I’d done so while trying to get to her, to her light.
“We don’t know that,” she said, her voice strong and reassuring. “I’ll find out what happened to you. I promise.”
The sincerity in the golden depths of her eyes reassured me.
“But right now I need a shower.”
After another quick squeeze of my hands, Charley left to get dressed. As she did so, I studied her apartment in lieu of trying to remember anything more. I no longer wanted to know who I was. What I was. I ran my hands over my belly as I perused her book collection, a gesture that seemed as natural as breathing, as though I’d been doing it a long time. I didn’t look very far along, but certainly far enough to be showing. Perhaps six months? Maybe a little more?
My heart contracted, and I forced myself to stop thinking about it, to pay attention to what I was looking at. Charley had books by Jane Austen, JR Ward, and everyone in between. I’d never read
Sweet, Savage Love
, but it must have been really good. She had three copies. After that, I careened past Mr. Wong’s corner and toured the rest of the tiny box-like dwelling in about thirty seconds flat. I thought about trying to strike up a conversation with Mr. Wong, but he seemed to be meditating, so I sank into Charley’s overstuffed sofa and let my mind wander.
It paused at a place of longing, at a need so desperate, so overpowering I was willing to give my life for it. Like a teenager who knew she would just die if Daddy didn’t buy her a new car. Were my desires so superficial? I couldn’t help but wonder, because I had no idea what it was I longed for. Had I committed suicide because I wanted something and couldn’t have it? Could I be that childish? That callous? Especially with a baby on the way?
“Ready?” Charley asked.
I opened my eyes to darkness and had to concentrate to gain my bearings. But I seemed to be slipping, falling into oblivion. Then I saw her light in the distance and traveled toward it until I was in her living room again.
“You okay?” she asked.
She’d showered and changed into jeans and a white hoodie. Her hair had been pulled back into a ponytail and I saw her face fully for the first time. What a beauty she was. I wondered if she knew.
When she started another pot of coffee, I furrowed my brows in question.
“This is for my friend Cookie. She lives across the hall,” she said as she scribbled a quick note. “She’ll be over for coffee soon, but we have an errand to run.”
“We do?” I asked. Maybe she’d figured something out.