Time Of Our Death. Paul D Aronson.
The walk to Donald’s was uneventful. We walked in near silence, each one of us quietly taking in for ourselves what had happened to us, and what may happen still. I can’t speak for anyone else, but my mind was on the why of it all. Why, out of all the kids on that bus, were we the ones to die? Why couldn’t we have survived with the rest? Was God punishing us for some act we committed? I would say no to that one. After all, the five of us came from three different circles in the high school food chain. Brian and Kelly came from the upper echelons, from the very top of the social classes. Donald and I came from the low end, nerd and metal head.We both made decent grades, but our families were working class, and most of the time we went unnoticed by classmates outside of our circle. And then there was Lori. She came from the invisible class. No matter what she did, no one was going to take notice of her. For all her punk and goth fashion statements, all it got her was weird, ‘oh no, there goes the teenage witch’ looks. Taking that into consideration, being a ghost would probably be an easier transition for her.
Within minutes of our walk, we had left the riverside road and were traveling along the two lane blacktop that would lead us back into town. This particular road would take us directly through a small neighborhood with the upper class sounding name of South Maine Heights. The funny thing about the name was that it was neither upper class or in the state of Maine. I guess the developers in our small town wished to be somewhere else, too.
South Maine Heights was where most of us lived. We would reach Donald’s first, a small ranch style house with Christmas decorations up year round. As we were only days away from Halloween, it looked pretty weird seeing Santa Claus and Freddy Krueger on the same porch. But as the five of us approached the front yard, this wasn’t the first thing to draw our attention. No, the first thing was the fact there were busted bags of groceries on the walk. The contents were strewn everywhere, and a glass milk jug had shattered, looking like liquid snow flowing into the dead October grass. The next thing we noticed was that the front door was standing wide open, and from the interior of the house the sound of a loud, mournful wail. In this , I knew news travels fast, and as I looked over at Donald, he cast me a look that said, ‘I don’t want to go in by myself.’
I turned to the rest of them. “Well, I guess the news is out. We’re going in to see what has been said. Ya’ll are welcome to if you like.”
To my surprise, everyone somberly nodded and fell in behind us. Even Brian and Kelly were with us on this. I guess they figured when it came their turn to go home and face the music, they were going to need support, too.
When we stepped over the threshold, Donald was in front. He hesitated when he saw his mother collapsed on the couch in the living room. Normally, she was a doting woman whom some would call over productive, and others over bearing. She was the kind of woman you said, ‘Yes, Mam’ or ‘No, mam,’ to, other wise she would cut you a look that let you know you wouldn’t disrespect your own mother this way. Even Gene Simmons wouldn’t stick his tongue out at that woman. But today, she was different. She was an emotional wreck, who demanded not respect, but an answer to the only question in her mind, “Is my boy alright?”
A neighbor, Mrs. Haversham, was sitting beside her trying to reassure her the best she could. “I don’t know, Mary,” she said. “They are still pulling kids out of the river.”
If you had asked me in that moment, I don’t think she was being very reassuring at all. Still, her less than positive response barely registered with Don’s mother. “We have to go over there,” she said. “I can’t lose my baby. I just can’t. He’s all I got.”
“We should just wait. I’m sure we’ll hear something from someone soon if…”
“No! I have to see my son. I have to see my darling Donald.”
She got up from the couch and composed herself enough to breeze past us. Instinct made us all get out of her way, as the two ladies went out the front door. We all stood in the doorway, watching them head next door to Mrs. Haversham’s car. Donald looked about ready to collapse. He stepped into the living room and plopped down on the couch in the same spot where his mother had just been sitting. I noted he didn’t pass through the cushions.
“Don, it will be alright. Your mom is a strong woman. She will make it through this.”
He looked up, tears rimming his eyes. “But will I?”
“What do you mean?”
“Chris, How can I do this? She will never know how much I love her.”
“I’m sure she knows.”
“Maybe we can leave a message for your mom,” Lori suggested. “You know, just to let her know you’re okay.”
“But I’m not okay! I’m dead!”
“Well, maybe we can let her know you didn’t suffer. It might make it easier for her to deal with.”
Brian snorted. “Yeah right. We could leave a note on the frig that says, Hi Mom, I’m dead, but gnarly as hell. Just hanging out with some other people who are dead , too.”
Despite his intended sarcasm, I smiled. “You know, that’s not a bad idea.”
I crossed the room and made my way to the kitchen. Everyone followed me, even Donald, who was trying hard not to cry anymore. I pointed at the photos of he and his mom scattered across the door of the refrigerator, held in place by alphabet shaped magnets. I took the magnets and began to move them around, arranging them to form actual words on the stainless surface. When I was done they spelled out: MOM NO CRY I LUV YU.
Everyone seemed to admire my ingenuity, but before we had time to discuss the possibilities or repercussions of this, we heard someone come through the front door. I peeked into the living room. It was Donald’s mom. Mary Smalls had returned, mumbling something under her breath about forgetting her head if it wasn’t fastened on. She turned and came into the kitchen , breezing right through me. Whatever she had come back for, it was forgotten when she saw the refrigerator and its message from beyond.
She stopped in her tracks. Her hand flew to her mouth as if to stop the gasp that was trying to escape. Tears ringed her eyes, spilling down her cheeks.
“I though it said not to cry,” Brian mumbled, his sarcasm on display even in emotional moments.
“Oh, Donald,” Mary sobbed. “ My baby.”
Don rushed to his mother, but didn’t touch her. “Mama, I’m sorry for all the things I put you through. I’ve been a bad son.” Fresh tears streamed down his ghostly cheek. “I’m sorry I put the snapping turtle in the bathtub that time. I’m sorry I told Aunt Beth she was a cow. I’m sorry that time I said you drove daddy away. I’m sorry..”
“Oh man, this is horse shit,” Brian exclaimed. “She can’t hear you.”
Mary Smalls smiled. “It’s okay.”
I looked at her in alarm. “Holy crap, she heard you!”
“That’s crazy. We’re ghosts. She can’t hear us.”
“It’s okay,” Mrs. Smalls repeated.
We all looked at her and began trying to talk to her at once. Lori was saying, “Can you hear me?” Kelly piped in with “We’re here. Can you see us?”
It was then I realized she could neither hear nor see us. She was just trying to reassure herself that things were going to be okay. She reached up and touched the refrigerator magnets.
“I must be going crazy,“ she said. Then she swept them all to the floor. “My son is alive,” she spoke to the ceiling, as if God was hanging up there somewhere over her head. Then she turned on her heel and walked back into the living room where she picked up her purse off an end table. Then she was gone back outside to Mrs. Haversham’s waiting car.
I watched her through the window as the car pulled out of the driveway and headed in the direction of the river. “I guess we better go,” I said.
Donald had a forlorn look on his face. “She believes I’m alive. It’s not going to be easy for her at all.”
“We tried, buddy. There’s nothing else I can think of to do right now.”
“Perhaps I should wait here for her to get back. Maybe I can help somehow.”
“I don’t think there’s anything more we can do to help,“ I replied. “I’ll stay with you though if you want.”
“Oh my god,” Brian said. “Why don’t you guys kiss already and get it over with?”
I shot him a look, but didn’t bother giving him a verbal response. Instead I kept my focus on Donald. “Why do you want to do, buddy? Want me to stay with you or you want to take off with us?”
He wiped his runny nose. “Take off where?”
“I guess to other houses. See how the rest of our families are dealing.”
“That’s lame, dude,” Brian complained. “We’re ghosts. We can do anything now. Why do we want to go home when there so much fun stuff to do?”
“Shit man, anything. The sky is the limit. You can go anywhere. Do anything. Screw with people’s heads. Have fun. Do crazy shit. Any thing we couldn’t do before, we can do now.”
“Except live,” sobbed Donald.
“Suck it up , crybaby. We’re dead. Deal with it. Make something of it. Be a badass for once, be like me.”
Lori shook her head. “You’re not a badass. You’re a dumbass. Don’t you care about anything except picking on people?”
“Hold on, let me think on that one a minute. Okay, nope. I don’t care about nothing. And certainly not about how my fucking family is holding up.”
“So shut up,” added Kelly, coming to her lame ass boyfriend’s defense. “Not everybody wants to sit around cutting their wrists like you.”
That hurt. It had to. I’d heard a rumor the year I left middle school that a girl had tried to kill herself in science class, instead of dissecting a frog. I didn’t think of Lori as the one who did that, but the way Kelly said it, it seemed like she knew something the rest of us didn’t.
“Screw you,” Lori mumbled, and walked out the room.
Donald tried to give both Brian and Kelly dirty looks, but it didn’t faze them. So instead, he followed Lori out. “Hey, wait up,” he called.
I looked at Brian, then at Kelly. I started to say something, then just closed my mouth. It was useless. They would never understand. Being nice to someone outside their social bubble was an alien idea.
I left them in the house and went outside, where both Lori and Donald sat on the porch. “Everybody okay?” I asked.
“She’s such a bitch,” Lori lamented. “I don’t know why God even lets people like her exist.”
“Apparently he doesn’t,” I replied, trying to lighten the mood.
Donald sighed. “It’s a shame we had to put up with their kind every day, and we cant escape them even in the afterlife.”
I nodded. I knew exactly what they were both talking about. Brian had been picking on Don and I since grade school. I’d managed to escape it a little , but my long hair and cigarettes hadn’t shielded me much this year. “Well, I guess the good news is there’s nothing they can do to either one of you beyond hurt your feelings. Were all dead. There should be nothing to fear.”
“There’s plenty to fear,” Lori said.
“Like how long is this going to last? Are we doomed to this forever, or are we suddenly going to see a big light and get whisked off to heaven? Or hell, as it may be?”
“I wish I knew. Perhaps its like in the movies, and we have unfinished business to take care of before moving on.”
“Actually, death does finish my business.”
I looked at her, but she wouldn’t make eye contact. “Hey look Lori, what she said in there, those things don’t matter anymore. So what if you tried…”
“I don’t want to talk about it anymore. I want to go home, check on my mom. My sister is still in school unless they let all the schools out because of us. “
“You want us to go with you?” I asked.
“No, you don’t have to.”
“You came here for me,” Donald said. “The least I can do is repay the favor.”
“You don’t have to owe me anything.”
“I’d still like to hear about the dream,” I said.
Donald looked at me, then her. “What dream?”
She sighed. “I guess I’ll tell you on the way. Come on.”
“Where we heading to now?” I heard Brian say from behind us. I don’t know how long he’d been standing there, but it was apparent no matter how bad they pissed people off, they still didn’t want to be alone.
“Lori’s,” I said. “To check on her mom. Then I guess we’ll head to my house.”
“Cool,” he replied. “I guess we’ll tag along. Might be fun.”
“You don’t have to. You can do whatever you want. Knock over mailboxes, go on a panty raid, whatever floats your boat.”
“It would float my boat to knock you on your ass, smart mouth.” He held his hands open. “But seeing things are the way they are, even that wouldn’t be fun.”
“Whatever Brian.” I turned to the others, letting him know I wasn’t wasting anymore time listening to his mouth. “Okay, let’s go.”
“Wait a minute,” Donald said. “There’s something I need to do real quick. Wait for me.”
We watched him skirt around Brian and Kelly, as he went back inside the house. The four of us stood outside waiting, divided by the porch steps. Lori and I at the bottom, Brian and Kelly still on the porch. It was very awkward, and for a briefmoment I thought Kelly was going to apologize. She was looking at Lori like there was something she wanted to confide, and then before she could, Donald came back out.
“Okay, I’m ready,” he said, walking past us down the front walk.
“That didn’t take long, “ I said. “What did you have to do?”
“I left another message for mom.”
“Oh yeah? What was it?”
It was Brian who asked, and I didn’t think Donald was going to tell him. There was a slight hesitation, but then he replied, “I told her I was sorry.”
“I’m sure she understands,” I reassured him.
“Not everything she won’t,” he replied, and before I had time to answer him, he stepped out into the road right into the path of a mail truck. Of course, it went straight through him, but not before both Lori and Kelly screamed in warning. Then they laughed, realizing physics were different now, and all their old instincts would need to be shut off.
Donald however thought it was great. “Wow, what a rush!”
I could only shake my head and smile. Maybe the afterlife wouldn’t be so bad after all.