The nurse fussed around Sarah, pulling up the blankets, emptying the catheter, rearranging the flowers the family had brought in.
Without any sort of warning, the line on the heart monitor flattened. Sarah’s eyes fluttered open in surprise and to Ivan’s relief, she was looking directly at Alfie. Within seconds, the room had filled with all manner of consultants and other people who looked important.
A defibrillator was on standby and a doctor prepared to use it.
Alfie took one final look at Ivan and then pulled the same face he pulled when the baby was about to roll off the changing stand.
“Clear!” said the doctor, making Sarah’s body jump off the bed. But the line on the heart monitor wobbled for a second but didn’t carry on.
“Clear!” he said again. There was another wobble but then nothing but a straight line.
The team kept trying to bring Sarah back to life but if they had known Sarah was standing next to her brother in the afterlife, they would not have bothered wasting their energy.
“Hello everyone,” Sarah said politely. “Thank you for your help. It’s very nice to meet you.” She watched with a grimace as the team continued to work on her body.
“Is there still time to get Clarice to Brandon?” asked Lucy.
“By my reckoning,” Ivan answered, “There should be ample time.”
As expected, Clarice was shaken up by all the drama and not at all sure she wanted to eat. She sat in a chair in the staff room, watching the clock. She would have to make up her mind soon. She could get a cab, she thought. Or she could wait to see if Bev could drop her off on her way home.
Meanwhile, across town, inspired by—and perhaps a little jealous of—the puffin’s new found bravery, the emperor penguin was hatching a plan to persuade Brandon to call Clarice to see how things were going. He had no idea that using his remaining physical force point to call out “Ring Clarice!!!” could cause a crisis of epic proportion.
While Alfie, Lucy, Ivan plus the birds had been dealing with Brandon and Clarice, Persephone had busied herself with Nathan. She had taken a liking to Nathan even though his place stank of filthy toms.
On day she had seen that Nathan awoke from his early afternoon nap and something was different. For once, he had not managed to spill the contents of cola all over himself. Not that it mattered if he did because he never cleaned up after himself anyway. This time when he turned on the television, he could not find anything interesting.
He got up off the coach and stretched his back popping in protest. Looking around the room, he looked as if he began to feel a deep sense of self-loathing. What on earth was wrong with him? How could he let himself live like this? It was like he awoke as a different person. He could at least clear up some of the trash. That’s what I’ll do, he thought to himself, I’ll just start with the trash and then see how I feel.
It took some time for him to wade through the piles of takeaway containers and empty bottles. The cats, of course were no help either. And the stink of the place!! In kitchen, he found a good stash of trash bags and began with the arduous task of filling them. When he filled one, he immediately took it out to the bigger bins. Sweat poured off of him. When he reached seven full trash bags, he took a brief rest and looked around. Already the place looked almost presentable. There were lots of things to do, sure but it was late and he needed rest. He would make a plan for the next day after he had some sleep. As his bed was buried under a pile of clothes and trash, he made his way to his familiar place on the sofa. Shooing away a few cats, he made himself comfortable and fell into a very shallow sleep and dreamed of all the things he would need to do to re-claim his home.
Persephone watched Nathan, knowing there was something not right. She watched as he tossed and turned in his sleep and listened as he talked to himself about his to do list. She had been around humans long enough to know human habits were hard to break and could not understand why Nathan suddenly decided it was time to start cleaning up. Alfie would know what to do. In the meantime she watched over Nathan as he arose earlier than usual and started the morning with a good old fashioned wash and even remembered to brush his teeth. There had been blood in the sink from the tooth brushing but Nathan either didn’t notice or didn’t care.
Next Nathan went into the kitchen. He opened cupboard after cupboard looking for something to eat, shooing cats away as he moved around.
“Sheesh, don’t I have any cereal?” he asked himself. It was such an earnest question and Nathan was usually so quiet that Persephone thought perhaps he was directing the question at her. The cats rubbed themselves up against his legs, hoping for breakfast themselves. Nathan regarded them with dispassion. There were six of them, all toms, meowing loudly and, in Persephone’s opinion, quite rudely. Taking their food bowl, Nathan filled it then took it outside. Of course, the cats followed him, still meowing quite abusively. Setting the bowl down, he once again looked at them as if he couldn’t quite believe how he got there as they stuck their furry little heads in. One growled when another pushed him away. Another purred loudly, munching and staking his territory. Still another swished his tail and generously made way for yet another cat who had hopped over the fence to see what was for breakfast.
“Oh for goodness sake,” Nathan muttered. He slammed the door and left the cats outside. Only one of the greedy felines even bothered to look up to see what had happened.
In the kitchen, Nathan cleared the table. He threw away another trash bag full of mouldy newspapers, empty packets and bottles. He took a clean dishcloth from its wrapped, wet it in the sink and washed the surface of the table which was covered with a vinyl tablecloth. Examining the tablecloth closely, he discovered it was beyond cleaning and when he picked it up to throw away, the other side was covered in what looked like mould. Rinsing the cloth, he used some bleach to clean the table and when he was satisfied, he pulled out a chair to sit down. A pile of old newspapers and magazines slid to the floor.
“You know what?” he announced to no one in particular, “It’s time to do some grocery shopping!”
For several days, Persephone sat about Nathan’s kitchen counter watching him. It was like watching a balloon inflate. With each passing day, Nathan seemed more alive and more active. The house was slowly getting cleaner and Nathan was losing weight too. Persephone’s nose was still very sensitive, even in death and she was relieved everything smelt better too.
But after a few more days, Persephone’s relief had started to turn into concern. The flat had been completely transformed but Nathan spent his days cleaning and re-cleaning everything, taking several showers throughout the day when he got sweaty. He made massive lists and meticulously ticked off each task as he completed them. The cupboards were filled with fresh foods and Nathan took great care in making his meals.
There was the familiar sucking noise and Alfie and Lucy were in the kitchen.
“Oh,” said Lucy, looking around. She held her hand out to Persephone and stroked her the best she could. “I thought we were in Nathan’s house.”
“You are,” said Persephone. “Something’s not right.” She sat down and looked up at Alfie and Lucy. “He’s completely changed,” she told them.
“Clearly,” said Alfie, looking around. Nathan was obviously planning to do some painting and decorating as well. Dust sheets had been placed on carpet and over the furniture in the living room.
“Oh!!” said Lucy with surprise as she looked at the neat stack of papers on the spick and span kitchen table. “He’s been filling in job applications too!”
“I don’t think this is a bad change,” Alfie told Persephone.
As he spoke, Nathan came in through the front door. He had several cans of paint, trays and rollers. Putting on another pair of rubber gloves, he filled the trays and without a second thought, began painting.
“But he hasn’t even finished filling in the holes in the plaster!” Lucy said.
The three of them watched as Nathan painted, getting paint all over. He had missed several spots and had managed to get the ceiling too. There was an urgency in his movements, like he was working to some kind of deadline.
“So,” said Persephone, “how did Clarice and Brandon get on?”
As they watched Nathan make a bigger and bigger mess, Alfie filled her in on what had been happening. He hadn’t had too much time with Sarah, who had only just joined them but he was hopeful about Clarice and Brandon. Lucy told Persephone all about the birds and their heroics with the stranger in the car and the gunshots. They said they would find out more about how the date had gone a bit later in the evening.
Nathan’s uneven breathing caught their attention. He was sweating profusely and seemed disoriented. He had done a terrible job with the painting.
The strange sucking noise came again and Lucy and Alfie were transported to Brandon’s house where he was just getting dressed to meet Clarice.
Alfie and Lucy looked around. It was probably the nicest home they had ever been in. There were several bedrooms tastefully decorated and the place had a feeling of being well loved and used.
Brandon was weeping over a cup of coffee.
“Oh dear,” said Lucy looking over Brandon’ shoulder and reading the note Janie had left. “When did Janie leave?”
“This morning,” said Alfie. “She left a note and left just after Clarice had saved him.”
On the wall, the clock read 19:02. It was 58 minutes until he was due to meet Clarice.
“Oh dear,” Lucy said again. “The poor guy. Maybe it is too soon for him to go out.”
“Clarice is a nurse. She’ll know what to do,” Alfie reminded her. But, looking at Brandon’s grief-stricken face, he too was beginning to wonder if they were hoping for too much too soon.
Without warning and without Alfie and Lucy seeing them, the emperor penguin used his last physical force point to shout: “Ring Clarice!!!”
The sound of it made Alfie and Lucy jump in alarm. The effect on Brandon was far worse. He too jumped and looked around in alarm but he also attempted to run outside onto his balcony—without remembering to open the sliding glass door first. There was a spectacular explosion of showering glass and huge thump as Brandon fell to the ground, out cold.
Alfie and Lucy looked at each other.
The three birds emerged from their hiding space, looking very sheepish.
“Whoospy!!Whoopsy!!” said the penguin, hanging his head in shame.
“You bloody fool!” Alfie scolded him. “How stupid can you be?!” He if could have, he would have slapped his forehead and then kicked the emperor penguin up the backside. “Were you born stupid!” He shook his head in disbelief. “What am I saying? I’m talking to a bird!!”
Lucy looked over the prostrate form of Brandon. He had a few minor cuts but it was the lump on his forehead that worried her. “I hope he’s not concussed,” she said quietly.
“Can I just ask,” Alfie continued on his tirade, “What did you die of?” he asked the penguin.
“I was electrocuted. Electrocuted. ” said the penguin with great shame.
“Electrocuted?” Alfie asked.
“They were cleaning my cage. And I stepped on the power cord. The power cord!”
Alfie looked at Lucy in astonishment then turned back to the penguin. “You are one stupid bird,” he said. “Now what are we going to do?”
It had been going so well, Alfie thought. With Sarah in the after world, the nurse looking after her was free to drop Clarice off at the restaurant where Brandon was supposed to be waiting.
At the restaurant, Ivan was just reacquainting himself with his sister whom he hadn’t spoken to you in over a decade.
“So Ivan,” Sarah said. “What have you been doing?”
Ivan, who still a little worried that Sarah might be angry with him, told her all about his adventures with Alfie. He said life had been kind of quiet and he was just ghosting around the place, dropping in on old buddies every now and again. Sometimes he got to help people fall in love. It wasn’t a bad existence although he had been a bit lonely.
Sarah told him all about her life. She had been travelling which was probably why Ivan hadn’t been able to locate her. She had jumped out of airplanes, swam with great white sharks and had joined the Hare Krishnas.
“And then I started getting the headaches,” she said quietly. “Double vision, losing my balance. I knew something wasn’t right but I wasn’t expecting the death sentence!”
There was a sucking noise and the emperor penguin appeared before Ivan.
“I’ve done something stupid! Stupid!” he confessed.
“Oh God,” said Ivan when he had taken in what the penguin had just told him. “That’s going to be a huge problem.”