“Can I go to my funeral?”
I turned slightly, sighing. “Ah, yeah, sure, if you really want to.”
I, myself, had stayed far from the funeral. What did it really matter? All that I’d leave behind would be a headstone proclaiming Rory Bradford with my dates of birth and death.
“Because,” the woman continued, and I turned my attention back to her, “I told them to cremate me, and I just want to make sure they do that.”
The woman had a definite Southern drawl; she was easily in her eighties. She hadn’t returned to the glory days of her youth–not all people did. I had somehow reasoned that this was because some people are just born with older souls, though I wasn’t sure how that made sense.
“Because my eldest–Webster–he was wanting a traditional funeral, and I just know that’s what he’s going to do.”
I nodded slightly, leading the woman into the hospital elevator. “You can stop by the funeral if you want to, Miss–?”
“Ingrid O’Dell. Shouldn’t you know that?”
I turned slightly, beckoning her to follow me into the elevator as I squeezed into a space between two doctors. “No, Miss O’Dell–”
“Mrs. O’Dell. My husband passed about three years ago. I’ll be seeing him, won’t I?” Her voice, for the first time, sounded slightly worried. I was used to this tone; it was her unusually demanding tone that had caught me off guard.
“I’m sure you will, Mrs. O’Dell.” I leaned against the wall, waiting for the elevator to begin its ascent upwards. “I’m sure you and–”
“My husband’s name is Robert,” she said, her large, bulbous nose sticking up. “But shouldn’t you know this stuff already, sonny?”
I rolled my eyes. I got this reaction a lot, actually. “Mrs. O’Dell, I believe you’re getting me confused with your guardian angel/”
“Well, then, what are you?” Her Southern drawl had a certain snap to it that most New Residents lacked.
“You’ll meet your guardian angel, and your husband, and anyone else once you pass over.”
“And if you’re not my guardian angel, that would make you–?”
“You can think of me as a guide,” I responded, waiting as the doctors left the elevator. Some part of my mind reasoned that, as we had reached the top floor, we’d left the mortal elevator and had entered a new one that only Mrs. O’Dell and I could use. Even though the elevator had stopped, we had continued rising.
I glanced at Mrs. O’Dell. Her face had tightened slightly–most newcomers weren’t used to this sensation, but I’d become so familiar with it that the slight thrill had completely left me.
“Yeah.” She didn’t seem satisfied, so I continued. “I’m what you may call the Angel of Death. I’m your personal escort to your ultimate reward, Mrs. O’Dell.”
She relaxed slightly as we moved past the hospital, past the clouds, and….
“Now, Mrs. O’Dell, you just need to walk right up to those pearly gates and–”
“Oh, I see them!”
“I can go with you if you want.”
“Well, I think I can make it. I can see Robert now!” She straightened, waving her hand girlishly and smiling. “Hello, honey-lamb!
I resisted the temptation to roll my eyes; I was certain I’d never used sickening pet names with Clio. I waited until I was sure that she’d made it to The Gates, then turned downward, back to Earth.
I stopped at a rather run-down house. As an Angel of Death, I knew when I was needed. It was an odd sense, like a small voice whispering in my ear, though I never knew the specifics. With Mrs. O’Dell, I had known that an elderly woman was about to die, but I couldn’t have told you where or why. It was like a magnet: whenever there was someone who needed my guidance, I just knew where to go and was there.
I peeked into the window; an elderly man, though not nearly as old as Mrs. O’Dell, was lying in a bed. His wife was holding his hand, crying slightly. I shifted, thinking that I should give them some privacy–it wasn’t quite time for me to come in yet, but it was getting close. I settled myself upon a rotting stump, trying to ignore the wife’s weeping.
That’s why I had stayed away from my funeral; I hadn’t been able to take the idea of seeing Clio cry like that. I’d seen enough of her tears when I’d died. It had been a fast death–one bullet, straight to the head; I never felt a thing.
Drive-by shooting–that’s what my escort had told me. He’d had to pull me away from Clio, crying over my body. Even after he’d convinced me to take hold of his arm and we’d begun to rise, I had continued to stare at the scene: blood soaking the street, mingling with the slowly melting snow; the box of chocolates still held in my hand; the red rose I had given Clio tossed on the ground.
Strangely, I felt no sort of anguish at the memory. It was just a fact: I’d died in a drive-by shooting on Valentine’s Day. It should have made me sad, but the good thing about being dead (and traveling upward, of course) was that there was no pain, sadness, or anger. The memory of my death was simply met with nonchalance.
The sound of the man’s wife shook me from my thoughts. I detected a strong English accent and rose. Well, at least I had a name this time. I found myself in the room, standing before the body, the man himself staring strangely at his sobbing wife.
“George,” I began, and he turned to me.
“Who are you?”
I sighed. This was about the twelfth time I’d done this today. “You can think of me as a guide….”
“You do realize that I’m her guardian angel, right?”
“Yeah, I know.”
I turned back to the other angel. Within my many visits to Clio’s apartment, I’d gotten to know him fairly well. His name was Terrence Marsh, and he’d been killed during the Vietnam War. He hadn’t kept the uniform he’d died in, but instead wore a simple blue t-shirt and jeans. I, however, had kept the clothes I’d been wearing on that Valentine’s Day–a gray t-shirt and a jean jacket with khakis.
“Rory?” His voice curved around his words, his eyes widening as he waved a hand in front of my face.
“So, you’re saying that we’re not allowed to visit our loved ones, Terry?”
Terrence deflated slightly, raising an eyebrow. “I told you my name’s Terrence, Rory.”
“Uh-huh, yeah.” I walked around him, following Clio into the kitchen. I could tell by the smell that she was making spaghetti, which had always been my favorite. Clio was listening to the radio, her red hair pulled into a messy bun. Her bangs were falling across her angular face; her soft were set into a frown.
I felt myself grin and stroked her cheek gently, though I knew she wouldn’t feel anything. Even if she did, she’d merely brush away my invisible hand.
There’s a difference between visiting loved ones and stalking loved ones.”
“Oh, I think that’s a bit of an overstatement, Terry.”
“Terrence! Terrence, Rory!”
“Okay, fine, fine. Terrence, I think you are exaggerating.”
Clio had finished the sauce and retreated to the bathroom. I could see steam slowly escaping through the crack under the door. She’d always taken hot showers–so hot that I’d often complained about her turning the bathroom into a sauna. It was one of those little quirks that had caused me to fall in love with her.
“Rory,” I heard Terrence behind me, but I ignored him. I’d listened to the same arguments again and again.
“You do realize, Rory, that she’ll never get over the grieving process if you don’t start leaving her alone?”
And here came the arguments again. Yes, the grieving process.
“And you really need to let her–”
“Get on with her life?” I finished.
Yeah, yeah, I knew my inability to move on was hurting her more than me, but I couldn’t bring myself to leave all together.
Which is probably the reason why I’d asked to be an Angel of Death. There’s more than one of us; different angels handle different people, and besides, we need a break sometimes. I hadn’t been able to completely leave Earth behind–I’d just begun to get used to the place. My childhood had been filled with wonderment, my adolescence with confusion, and I’d just started to realize that life was all about love. I wasn’t ready to leave forever, so I’d kept myself around by being an escort.
“Rory, you need to consider giving Clio some space. You just can’t come popping in here all the time!”
“Terry–sorry–Terrence, I don’t come ‘popping in here all the time.’” My voice was high pitched and thick with sarcasm. “I keep plenty busy!”
“And when you’re not escorting New Residents, you’re here. Have you even stayed Home for more than a few minutes?”
“Ah,” I waved Terrence away. A song had begun to play on the radio–one that I was very familiar with–and I’d begun to listen to it. “I’m not really ready for the whole angelic choir bit, okay?”
I turned my attention back to Clio, who had come out of the shower. She was wearing a light blue robe; her towel had been fashioned into a turban, hiding her hair.
She stopped in the kitchen, turning to the radio. She listened to it for a moment, biting her lip. Our song was playing, loud and clear. I noticed, with a slight pang, that she rushed toward the radio quickly, turning the station. A country song replaced the other, and she continued cooking. I was surprised that she didn’t turn the station again; Clio hated country music.
“You know, that was our song.”
Terrence opened his mouth to speak, but I continued.
“‘Babe’ by Styx. Personally, I think it’s the only decent song that Styx ever put out. We were going to the airport when we were first started dating, and she was driving me to catch my flight. I had business in Chicago and–”
“Right before you got out of the car, this song came on and the two of you said your goodbyes with it playing in the background, and you kissed.”
“First kiss,” I corrected, smiling at the thought of her lips against mine.
“Yes. You know how I know that, Rory?”
I wasn’t listening. Instead, I was watching her. She had walked past a small table in the hallway, and I couldn’t help but notice that there was a picture of me upon it. I was surprised that in all my visits to the apartment I had never seen it before. I stared at it strangely; I’d almost forgotten what I looked like: curly black hair, brown eyes, and a strong face.
“You know how I know about Clio’s first kiss?”
I opened my mouth, but Terrence cut across me. “It’s because I was watching over her when that happened, because I’m her guardian angel, and–”
“I’m needed elsewhere.” I finished the sentence for him, turning to leave. I wasn’t really needed for at least another ten minutes–Earth time, that is–but I was tired of his complaining. The way he went on, you’d think I was doing something horrible.
I didn’t visit Clio again for a while. It wasn’t that Terrence had gotten to me, it was simply that I’d been busy. Another Angel of Death had needed to stay Home because his wife was coming up to join him. I’d volunteered to escort his New Residents, so I’d been very occupied. Now, however, I’d finally found time for a break, and I was using it wisely.
I turned and waved to Scott. He was a young man–dead only two years longer than myself–and he’d been my guide to Heaven when I’d been shot. He and I had formed a quick friendship, and he’d acted as a mentor when I’d first become an Angel of Death.
“Nice to get the chance to meet up with you, Rory.” He leaned against the check-in counter of the nursing home.
“Yeah–busy, busy, busy.”
“Nice to get the chance to talk.” Scott looked around room, turning back to me. “So, who’re you picking up today?”
“Beg your pardon?”
“Escorting? Do you know who it is?”
“I’m not getting anyone.” I shook my head, looking to the door, and smiling.
Clio had walked in. She looked very well composed compared to what Terrence had told me about last night. He’d caught me on my way inside, saying that she’d drunk herself to sleep, looking at pictures of me. I’d responded by asking if they’d been the ones from Coney Island or Niagra Falls.
“Oh, come on, Rory!”
“I should have known this is why you wanted to meet here.”
“What?” I asked again, but I wasn’t really listening. Clio’s hair was in a very neat bun and she was wearing a beautiful skirt.
“Rory, you do realize that obsessing is a sin, don’t you?”
I turned again to Scott. “Is it?”
“Yes. Well, actually, its gluttony, but it’s the same basic thing–over-indulgence. You know, over-indulgence can kill you. That’s why its one of the seven–”
There was only one bad thing about being friends with Scott: he was a perfect know-it-all, which–once a person became an angel–wasn’t merely hyperbole. I’d turned a deaf ear to him, watching Clio as she walked into the room of a woman I knew I’d be visiting in about two weeks. They began talking, and Clio quickly made the old woman smile.
“Are you even listening, Rory?”
“Yeah, I’m listening. Even though I don’t really think wanting to watch over my girlfriend is a terrible thing, Scott.”
“That, Rory, is the reason why I am an Angel, First Class, and you are an Angel, Second Class.”
I rolled my eyes. “You know what I need, Scott?”
“To spend a bit more time in the Afterlife?”
“Nope. All I need is to get some poor guy to wish he’d never been born, then–” I snapped my fingers in front of Scott’s face. “Bam! Instant upgrade!” I rushed forward, following Clio as she left the nursing home; an hour must have passed, though it felt like no more than a few minutes.
“Ha, ha, ha!” Scott chided, hurrying to keep up with me. “Funny, Rory.”
Scott sighed deeply. “You know Tobias Smith?”
“Back Home? Yeah, what about him?”
“He’s been dead since 1654, and he still doesn’t have his wings. You wanna end up like him, Rory?”
“Please, I have eternity to get my wings. I can wait a little while.”
“Scott, come on! You mean to tell me you don’t check in on your wife and kids?”
“I do, but–” Scott stopped, shaking his head. “Never mind.”
“Good.” I continued to watch her until I heard Scott turn.
“Where you goin’?”
“I have to be at Children’s Hospital. I’ll see you later, Rory.”
I waved goodbye, returning my attention to Clio. I couldn’t do Scott’s job, couldn’t stand to watch parents crying over their own children.
Clio was pulling her scarf against the winter chill, looking at the ground as her high heels left small prints in the snow. I turned into the same café that she did, taking a seat in the empty chair beside her.
Latisha had been Clio’s friend since kindergarten, and was possibly the most bubbly person that I had ever met. She was a black girl with extremely curly short hair. She took a seat across from Clio, so I didn’t have to move.
“Hi, Tish,” Clio gave a wan smile, and Latisha frowned.
“Clio, you were doing it again, weren’t you? ”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Tish.” Clio unfolded the menu, holding it in front of her face.
“Clio!” Latisha reached across the table, pulling the menu down. “Girl, you know that Rory wouldn’t want you feeling like this.”
“Yeah, Clio,” I whispered. I really didn’t want her thinking about me. I wanted her to move on… even if I couldn’t.
“Tish, I’ve not done this in weeks, it’s just–” Clio bit her lip again, looking to the ceiling.
I noticed that Clio’s eyes had grown glassy, and I reached forward to take her hand. She moved it though, reaching for a tissue from her purse. “It’s just that, tomorrow’s exactly a year, and–” She began crying, and I looked at the table. Grieving process–yeah, I’m sure I had disrupted that quite a bit.
“Clio…you know what Rory would tell you if he was here?”
Clio gave a shadow a smile. “He’d tell me to stop crying because–”
“A pretty face like yours doesn’t deserve tears.” I finished with her, smiling. “See, you still remember. I’m not really gone as long as you still remember things like that.”
“Yeah, Clio. You know he’d say something like that.”
Clio wiped her eyes, and leaned closer to her. “Listen, it’s just because it’s so close. I’d been getting better, Tish. Honestly, I had.” She sighed, setting her hand again on the white table cloth. I seized the moment and set my hand upon hers, though she didn’t seem to notice.
“Then I started seeing all those commercials–and the stores with all the hearts and cupids, and–” Her voice trembled. “And roses and boxes of chocolates…”
“Oh, Clio….” Latisha reached across the table and patted Clio’s hands. “I know it’s hard, but you’ve really got to start remembering all the good times you had with him. He wouldn’t want you to just remember the day he… passed.”
“No, Clio,” I whispered.
“I know, Tish. And I know that he would want me to, but–”
“Yes! Yes, I want you to!”
“But it was just so sudden. One minute he was kissing me, and the next he was….” She began crying again and Latisha handed her a tissue.
“Dead,” I finished for her, and sighed. “One minute we were together, and then I was gone. Yeah, I know.”
“You know, Tish,” Clio sniffled slightly, her cheeks and eyes red. “There are still times I can smell his cologne.”
“What did I tell you?” I turned harshly to see Terrence standing behind me.
“What?” I snapped, though I didn’t stop touching her hand.
“She needs to move on. She can’t if you keep showing up as a reminder.”
“Yeah, I know, but I–”
“You need to move on.” His tone was definite. I knew he was right, but, somehow, I couldn’t bring myself to admit it.
“I need to go, Terrence.” I had risen, when I suddenly stopped. “Terrence?”
“Could you keep an eye on her for me?”
I heard the smile in Terrence’s voice. “You know I will.”
So I’d been dead a year; it didn’t feel as though it had been that long. I stood outside a hospital room, waiting for the familiar long beep, signaling that it was time for me to go inside. I made a mental note on the name outside of the room:
The hospital–so bland and depressing with its white-washed walls and linoleum floors–looked strange with its red hearts and pink Cupid’s arrows. I was instantly reminded of the phrase “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Hospitals were filled with death and illness, and yet the nurses had attempted to make it look warm and loving in honor of Valentine’s Day. I knew it was Valentine’s Day because a doctor had given a nurse twelve roses. I had also noticed that the doctor was wearing a wedding ring, and the nurse wasn’t.
I’d ignored it though, my thoughts instead with Clio. I wondered what she was doing for Valentine’s Day, and, for the first time, I hoped that she wasn’t thinking of me.
“Rory? You actually here for work this time?”
I looked up to see Scott standing in front of me. “Yeah, for M. Jenkins here. You?”
“There’s a three-year-old in intensive care.”
“Don’t tell me.”
“Okay, okay. I know you don’t like hearing it.” Scott looked around, suddenly uncomfortable. “Guess I’d better leave you to your work then. See you later.” I gave a curt nod in farewell, tapping my fingers against the wall, waiting….
“Rory!” I jumped at the mention of my name. Terrence was standing in front of me, eyes wide.
“Terry? This is an… unexpected surprise.”
“Rory, you need to go Home.”
“Now? But I have to get–”
“I’ll get him, Rory.” Scott suddenly appeared behind Terrence, his face tense.
“But you have that three-year-old–”
“She still has a little while, and–” Scott stopped as a long beep echoed from the room behind me. “Go, Rory.”
Terrence approached me, setting a hand across my shoulder. “It’s Clio.”
Car accident–that’s what they’d said. She’d been going to my grave to place a rose on the headstone when a drunk driver had hit her–head-on collision. I stood beside the pearly gates, tapping my foot anxiously. I knew that Clio was going to walk through those gates; she had to.
A small, nagging voice in the back of my mind reminded me that she’d been drinking more since my death.
She never hurt anyone with it, though, and Clio isn’t much of a drinker. She doesn’t like the taste at all–drinking herself to sleep probably means a glass of wine.
Terrence stepped beside me, and–as though he had read my mind–whispered, “She wasn’t drinking that much really. I made it sound worse than it was–trying to get you to leave her alone.” Terrence looked to the ground. “But I guess that doesn’t matter.”
“It’s my fault.”
Terrence grinned; I was surprised by how much softer his tone was. “Nah, you know Clio. She would have been visiting your grave today no matter what.”
I nodded, knowing that was true.
“Who’s bringing her?”
“Avery. He’s getting the young adults now that Scott’s moved to children.”
I didn’t respond, but kept my eyes on The Gates; I had walked through them once, though it seemed like a lifetime ago. Well, in a sense, it was. My grandma and grandpa had been waiting for me, and I had rushed to them, confused and slightly scared from the shooting. And, now, I was on the other side of The Gates, waiting for Clio, who would be confused and slightly scared from the accident.
“If it makes you feel any better, she died immediately. Just like you, Rory,” I heard Terrence whisper. “No pain.”
“Good, I just–” I stopped. The Gates had opened, and an Angel of Death that I’d seen only once or twice before was leading a young woman Home.
She looked even more beautiful than I remembered. Her hair shone more brightly, and she seemed to be more graceful than she’d ever been on Earth. Her grandparents and a few uncles had surrounded her, though her eyes were still wide and slightly unsure. I moved slowly towards her, smiling. The group had surrounded Clio, blocking her from my view, but I continued to move forward, my grin broadening with each step I took.
“Clio,” I said, my voice much stronger than I had ever heard it.
The group moved aside, and I could see her properly. She was wearing the same white dress she’d worn on the day she’d driven me to the airport; her hair was in a bun, as it always was.
For a moment, she seemed to be in shock, then her features fell into the first smile that I’d seen her wear in a long time. “Rory?”
She grinned so deeply that her whole body changed, and she leapt into my arms, nearly causing me to fall. “Whoah,” I exclaimed, holding her more tightly against me.
I met her eyes, and we stared at each other for a long while. I hugged her more closely, and she wrapped her fingers between my curls.
I allowed my forehead to touch hers. I looked into her eyes, and whispered so that only she could hear, “Happy Valentine’s Day, Clio.”
She smiled, her lips coming closer to mine, muttering, “And where were we?”
“Before I left?”
“I’d say we were about here.”
I closed my lips upon hers, and felt my eyes shut, as we shared a kiss–a kiss that we could continue for all of eternity.
Copyright Sarah Davidson 2020