Saturday, March 25, 2017
Yeah, he'd skipped last period. It wasn't like he wasn't going to pass History. He'd aced all the tests and reading was done for the semester. Only thing left was the Lit term paper due Friday and he’d be done. Time until summer marked in long, boring hours in little square cells. Newbie idiots wasting time with irrelevant questions. Buzzing drones putting him to sleep. Water torture would be better. Time to go to the woods and chill.
The far gym door was the only one that didn't have a camera on it. A security hole found when Quinn the Quarterback pushed him out of it into the rain. After a little begging, Carly,this fat girl with a crush had let him back in, with Coach Woody none the wiser. They ended up kissing in the cafeteria later. Too bad her Dad didn’t let her date.
Grabbing a ball, he’d shoot hoops in sequence until he could slip out the back, Jack. Jericho High School might be run like a prison, but some inmates knew how to bust out. The route went across the baseball field to the gap in the left field corner. On the other side was the trailhead. The path went down into a pine thicket then left into laurel thick enough to hide anyone. His place was hundred yards further, an old lean-to some hobo built years before. It had a chair and a small bookshelf filled with sci-fi picked up from yard sales. Paul would occasionally play his phone. But the quiet of the woods was drew him there.. No stuck up rich kids making fun of his black shirts and long hair.
It all went away when he saw the leg, the foot hanging on the creek bank. The smell was horrible. Paul didn't ever remember calling 911, just the cops showed up and hustled him back the ball field. Random questions from different officers. One pulled him aside and gave him a pat down. No cuffs, but they did put him in one an unmarked car where a lady asked a few more questions. A man in a suit, who appeared to be the lady’s boss came up and said we needed to go to the office for a statement. But before they did, they called Mom. He begged them not to. But the cops said she had to be there because he was a minor.
The interview itself was easy. Who are you? Tell me about your day? Why were you in the woods, et cetera... Paul answered mechanically. He didn't mention his spot, though. Just that he was walking through the woods. They asked if he knew the deceased.Not really and it was the truth. His name was Barry, but he’d never said his last name. Once or twice, he had panhandled Paul. Mom said he was drug dealer and he should stay away from him.
What he didn’t say was Barry had stumbled into the shelter last week with a six pack. As they split the beers, he talked. Confessed was more like it. Mom was right: Barry had been to prison. A buddy of his asked him for a ride, which turned into a robbery. Wrong place at the wrong time was how he’d put it. Did three years and here he was. He didn’t say where and Paul figured it wasn't smart to ask. Too much information lead to judging happened and Paul got judged too much already.
The interview was winding down when Paul remembered something. He'd walked up to the 7-11 after school Wednesday to get a drink. Barry was talking to an old lady in the parking lot, next to this ancient VW bus. They asked if he could describe her. He hadn't paid much attention, but the van looked like something from a Hippie archive, gross green and covered with flowers. The woman had long curly gray hair done up like a bird’s nest and wore a flower dress that hung down past her knees. It wasn't like they were shouting, but the conversation looked kind of serious. Barry waved and went back to talking. It was the last time he had seen Barry alive.
It was almost 11 when they left the station. The car ride home was quiet, but Paul could tell Mom was going to blow, which is what happened as soon as they got home. He turned over his phone for skipping class. That was fair. But she kept going on about how he was going to end up a worthless drunk like Barry and his Dad. Time to leave.
"I told you not to go back in those woods!"
Those were the last words before the door slammed behind Paul. Mom meant well. But she sure wasn't helping. He pulled the hoodie close to ward off the chill air. Barry had been a weird dude, sure. You weren’t supposed to die out in open and alone. But, when you don’t have family, I guess that happens. At least Dad, for all his faults, had me. Even Mom stayed there to the end.
The night air was cool and helped his mind slow down. And as it did, the questions started. The lady detective said he’d been dead a couple of days. But how about before, a blanket or something? It wasn't like he could have stopped him drinking. Paul thought back on his Dad. Dad was still more or less functioning up to the end, but always with a pint of vodka in him. The threats of death when Mom would pour his bottle in the toilet. And the car trips. How they didn't die in crash amazed him. He would go to work, put in his hours, come home and drink night away.
Barry and Dad were similar in another way. They were generally were calm people. You could tell them they were on fire, Dad would shrug his shoulders, Barry just stared.
Was Barry Dad's ghost? He felt a sudden chill. Maybe he'd been haunted all this time and never realized it. But it didn't make any sense, though. Barry didn't look like Dad. With a shrug of his shoulders, he walked on. He looked up and was stopped dead in his tracks.
The old lady’s vomit rocket was parked not fifty feet in front of him, flashers on and engine cover raised. A time machine glowing in the moonlight. She was sitting beside it, flowing curls dangling over her stocky shoulders and crying. Her body shuddered on each breath.
The hairs on the back of Paul's neck rose. He thought about crossing to the other side of the street, but instead, a pull like a chain drew him in. The scent of patchouli mixed with some really bad weed invaded his nose. A bird like voice floated in the air, repeating something over and over.
"I didn't mean to do it. I thought it had been his time."
The words escaped Paul before his brain engaged.
"What did you say?"
The old hag jumped like she had been shocked. She quickly got to her feet.
"None of your...oh, sorry." She gained her composure. "Just an old friend of mine passed last night and I...well, I wish I had been there."
"Yes." The hazel eyes widened. "Did you know him?"
"Sort of." Paul shrugged. "He'd stumbled into my place in the woods a few weeks ago. He was pretty drunk and I let him stay under my shelter until he sobered up."
The broad face became placid. She leaned into him.
“You gave him comfort?”
Comfort? What was she talking about?
“I guess. All I did was sit there. He talked until he passed out.”
The woman smiled.
"Since you are here, can you give me a hand?"
Paul was hesitant. There was something creepy about this woman. But the alternative was back home to Mom and her screaming.
"Sure. What do you need?"
"Have you ever worked on an old car?"
"No. My mom doesn't drive and she sold ours when my Dad died."
"That's O.K." A wicked grinned cracked across the face. "I could tell you had a loss. I saw it when you waved at Barry. Probably not one of my clients', though."
It was Paul's turn to stare wide eyed.
It was all she could to keep from laughing.
"I guess you deserve an explanation. The wrinkled hand grabbed his and shook it..” My name is Kari, Kari Summers. By day I design and sell jewelry, mostly at craft shows and such. But at night...let's just say I help those who...are transitioning."
This description didn’t help Paul's mind at all.
"From this plane to the next.Those who might be having..."
A sense of rage started deep in his center.
"You help them die?"
"Oh, not actively, Young Man." Kari quickly said. "I know it sounds like I smother them or something, but no. There are folks, broken and lonely ones, who find themselves alone when their time comes. I help them along."
She pulled a travel mug out of the van and took a drink.
"When I was a young girl, I sat with my Grandmother when she passed. My mother couldn't do it. When she was in the room, Grandma would get fidgety and restless. But when I came in and held her hand, she became as calm as a pond. A force put our hands together over her heart. It slowed and stopped. As the last breath came, she smiled in relief and ecstasy."
She offered the mug to him. He shook his head. Putting it back in the cup holder, she continued.
"Mom began calling me Death Angel. Didn’t like it at first. I thought it was creepy, as you probably do. But as I got older, I realized the gift. Over the years, I have helped many take those final steps over the bridge. And this is where your friend comes in. Barry had come to me, begging for money. At the first look, I knew his time was short. But I wasn't sure if he realized how short."
A lightning bolt flashed behind Kari. Paul wanted to leave, but it was like his shoes were nailed to the pavement.
"I decided to stay in town to see if I was needed. Later that night, I was walking in the woods where they found him. He came behind me and grabbed around my neck. He attempted to...have his way with me." Tears came to the old woman's eyes. " I touched his heart and...it stopped."
Paul sunk to the ground as the thunder rolled. Barry was as bad as Mom said. The tears came and he wailed. Kari read his mind.
"Oh, no, Honey." Placing her hands around his shaking shoulders. "I have no hate for Barry. He thought I was vulnerable, but he misread who I was. Yes, I would have lead him over the bridge with a kiss and a hug. It’s the happiest way to go. Instead, he made the choice to crash over the rail."
Paul slowly found his voice.
"You said it wasn't his time."
"No. It was supposed to be tonight. And now, because of what happened, he is between the worlds."
"Any way to get him back?"
"Not from this world, I'm afraid." Kari smiled. "You did him a favor by speaking to him. Your voice will accompany him wherever he goes through the ether."
She closed the engine bay of the van.
"Oh, one other thing. Your Dad was at peace with the universe when he died. So are you."
The hug was unexpected. She slipped her hands under his shirt as she kissed him deeply. The heart turned cold and the taste of bitter almonds filled his mouth. Silently, the shell lay down at her feet, smiling.
“Enjoy your trip.”