By K.M. McKenzie

(From CHM #6 December 2020)

Drive east and take a left, spoke the GPS assistant.

I was already driving east. Traffic was a disaster of concrete slabs, construction, congested narrow streets, and too many people. Mount Pleasant wasn’t a neighborhood I knew well. A left turn brought me onto a quiet avenue of neatly stacked houses with yards covered in the yellow shedding leaves of autumn.

A drive slowly sign was painted on a speed bump in the road.

My Honda was already dragging at twenty miles per hour. I eased off the gas and allowed it to drift at just below ten. The bouquet of flowers and my reticule jerked upward on the passenger seat when the car rolled over the speed bump. I repositioned them, more concerned about the flowers than the purse—the hydrangeas and lilies were fragile, shedding petals from the moment I’d picked them earlier that morning. I prayed they wouldn’t fall apart before I got to the memorial.

The florist had dubbed the freshly arranged bouquet, beautiful spirit. The name sounded right for the deceased.

She and I had crossed paths just briefly. She’d been shy and dejected, wearing a heavy coat thrown over a loose sweater with a hood that covered nearly her entire face. I had read into her appearance for what it was—someone hiding from the world. I had been there when I was younger. I’d once been the miserable young woman, lost, and hiding in my own oversized clothes. That had been a different me, someone who hated everything about myself. It was hard to remember how I’d gotten here from there. It had been a cold transformation.

Though requesting my services as a counselor, the deceased had been stand-offish. That I’d never get that chance to peel away all those layers and bring out her beautiful spirit now bothered me. She’d died a day before our first real appointment. The suddenness had cut deep into my skin.

The funeral home was an orange brick monument sitting at the end of a crescent and occupying an outsized yard, with a garden of tall, flowering plants flourishing at one end, battered by the strong winds of early fall. Behind it was the cemetery—a small gathering of people clustered near a headstone, what I assumed was an interment.

Finding a place to park proved difficult. I ended up a block down.  I pulled on my angora wool coat, fluffed my hair in the car mirror, and applied a second layer of dark red lipstick before reaching for my handbag and the flowers.

Stepping out of the car, I scanned the neatly stacked family houses. Pricey-looking. The deceased must have been raised here, or had been somehow affiliated with the neighborhood.

What would I say to this young woman’s family should the topic of our acquaintance come up? It had become a practice of mine to attend events for former clients, especially those without family or friends. The deceased had loved ones, evident by this gathering. I wasn’t certain her family knew she had sought my services, or if it wouldn’t be a violation of the professional code of ethics to tell them.

Attending her funeral seemed a natural closure to our minutes-long relationship.

I settled on telling the family I was simply a friend.

The low-rising black gate was ajar. I pushed through the narrow opening. Somehow, the steps to the stone building seemed farther away from where I stood.  As I approached, an eerie feeling of nostalgia stirred to life, warping my thoughts. My vision blurred, and my mind flooded with low echoes, distant bits of memories, jumbled words from the day I’d met the deceased. She’d murmured into my ear, or rather, I’d leaned into her, unable to hear what she was saying.

What had she told me? It felt important to remember somehow.

The silver handle of the glass door waited for my touch. I only stared at it, nerves unraveling. The sensation was surprising, coming out of nowhere. My palm turned sticky. A creak. The door opened. A swift breeze fluttered outward, accompanied by a distraught older woman, whimpering into her handkerchief. She knocked into my shoulder but kept her head down as she hurriedly descended the steps into the yard.

At the gate, she glanced over her shoulder in my direction, face clear in the daylight. I knew who she was—Kathy Jeffrey, my colleague. This confused me. Had she known this young woman?  I thought for a moment Kathy must have recognized me. The look over her shoulder lasted no longer than a second and she exited from the yard.

Maybe the deceased had been Kathy’s client.

My mind returned to the memory of the girl whispering into my ear. Jumbled words.

The open door of the funeral home creaked to a close. I stepped into the warmth of the lobby, admired the paintings adorning the walls. The spacious room was drenched in dim lighting, concentrated mainly in the front area, leaving the back in shadows. In the front, heads dipped, and shoulders trembled. About ten mourners sat in single-seat chairs forming a semi-circle, the open casket visible between them.

An older woman wailed loudly, rushing to and flinging herself at the casket, draping her whole body over it. She whimpered, nearly collapsing into the coffin, before a thin young man and a small-boned young woman rushed to her side.

“Ma, it’s okay,” said the young woman.

“My baby. Not my baby!” cried the older woman.

Déjà vu ribbed through me, as I pushed closer, determined to pay my respects to the deceased. Beads of sweat began forming on my face. I was suddenly too hot. The moment was slowing down, dogged by unease. I began to tremble, gripped by a sensation I could only describe as a stomach-churning detachment from self.

My mind shattered into a million shards of thoughts, memories, words and images.

Still, I staggered forward, pushing against the dizziness trying to topple me.

The tearful gaze of the mourning young woman found me, widening in horror. Her face shifted in and out of focus, but I knew who she was—the sister who’d answered the phone when I’d called to inquire about the deceased. Steeped in a surreal moment, I sought out the young man helping the mother to her feet. I had seen his photo, in our shared home, and the mother’s too. In those images, alive in my memory, the woman’s eyes weren’t swollen and red with tears. Happy memories of family life that was distant and familiar at the same time.

The mother’s eyes widened. She and the two young people parted as I pushed through their mix, slumping toward the coffin. The body, the deceased, the girl who’d walked into my office, hoodie-covered face, and eyes to the floor, requesting my services, whispering into my ear.

Those words—hisses that had stung my flesh, now rung in my eardrums like bells.

What had I done? I shouldn’t have come.

The sister screamed.

The room’s inhabitants broke into chaos, whispers, and yells of “what is going on?”

These things weren’t always understood. The old man had warned of confusion in the first few days; temporary memory loss. He had said to stay clear of one’s old life. Those who knew me would recognize me.

The muttered words of the dejected girl in the office arranged themselves with meaning in my consciousness. Aramaic words. A sacred phrase. An ancient ritual. The tongue was never my own but the borrowed gibberish of the old man I’d met at the shelter. Ill-fitted words, memorized without meaning over and over until they were just right in pronunciation. Nerves had gotten to me that day. The counselor in the office I had admired from afar, day in and day out. She’d leaned forward. There was a mistake in the utterance, a faulty brain … wrongness.

The cold, hard face in the casket. A new life meant the death of one’s old life and everything in it. My hands shook.  Two petals fluttered from my bouquet into the casket. Maybe it was just one. Double vision set in. Sweating through my clothes, I began to convulse, a violent shake coming from deep within me. The bouquet slipped from my trembling hand, vase smashing against the hardwood floor. Shards of glass and petals scattered.

I gasped.

The layers of my skin began to flake and fall, fluttering up into the vacuum of the room.

The woman in the coffin began to break apart. Only one could exist in the same space.  

I dashed for the exit, desperate to salvage the new life I’d stolen. My legs peeled as if made of dried, brittle leaves. There wasn’t an ache, not like the searing pain of broken limbs, or even burning. The tingling quickly evaporated into numbness, weightlessness. My last breath, a choked squeal, scooped up into the atmosphere, disappeared into the screams and horror of family and friends.

End.

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