“Yep, the old girl has a temper,” he confided to Alfie once he recovered the use of his jaw. The wound still oozed pus every time he spoke. “But at least she stopped talking about that damn medium all the time.”
From the kitchen, Alfie heard something crash to the floor and instinctively, he had jumped and shielded his face from any potential airborne bacon fat. He may not have gotten the best grades when he was in school but he sure knew when to shut his mouth when a woman was mad.
So when he found himself in Clarice’s kitchen in the middle of a row, he took a seat and listened.
“Everyone has to do a job they hate!” She was shouting at the good looking but dim beefcake in front of her. He was still in his pyjamas, unshaven and scratching himself.
“I don’t want to work in a factory for minimum wage,” he yawned. “And I’m not going to either.”
“You’re just going to hang around here, eating and drinking and taking up space.” Her eyes glinted dangerously as she eyed up the kitchen knives.
“Yeah and so what? What can you do about it? You married me.” His lack of interest even annoyed Alfie who had not had to live on the receiving end of his apathy. The husband shrugged and left Clarice alone in the kitchen. When he left, she hurled a glass after him. He turned and looked at her casually, smirked and carried on.
He called back: “You sure made a hell of a mess for yourself to clean up.”
Clarice eyed up the knives again and then grabbed a broom. Furiously, she began to sweep up the broken glass. Once it was all in the pan, she looked at and then hurled it all over the room again. Alfie flinched, expecting to be cut by the glass.
“Whoa,” laughed Ivan.
“You really shouldn’t laugh,” cautioned Alfie.
“I should think not,” agreed Persephone, swishing her ghostly tail.
“She’s going to kill him,” Alfie said, remembering the way she had looked at the knives.
Time wavered, then flickered and Alfie found himself back in his own kitchen, sitting in the same chair he had always claimed was his, contemplating the body at the bottom of the stairs that no one had yet discovered.
The kitchen clock said it was Tuesday 10:05. He had been dead for 24 hours—at least according to his wristwatch–and he found himself missing the company of Ivan and to a certain extent, even Persephone. He wondered how he was going to meet up with them ever again.
Without warning, Lucy entered the kitchen, ignoring him as usual. He had no idea if she really couldn’t see him of if she really was ignoring him.
“Lucy?” he asked tentatively.
To his relief, she jumped.
“Oh Alfie!” She turned to him and seemed to be genuinely glad to see him. Her eyes sparkled with tears and he completely forgotten the ruined body that had lain in the nursing home for so many months. She sat down with him at the table. He wanted to take her hands but knew he could not.
He stretched his hands out anyway and she placed her hands in hers. For the briefest of moments, Alfie felt his skin against hers. Then the feeling was gone.
“I’ve missed you so much and since I’ve been dead, there’s so much I’ve thought of to say to you,” he babbled. “I’m so sorry about that fight we had when I hit you. I feel like—“
“Alfie, get a grip.”
He stopped. “But—“
“It’s over and we have far bigger things to worry about.”
There was that sucking sound and they were squeezed together to the reality of their daughter’s troubled heart.
Beth had always been far too sensitive for her own good, according to Alfie when he had been alive. The girl should grow a backbone and stop trying to take on the problems of the world, he had always told Lucy in their quiet moments. But now, watching Beth with tears on her cheeks and huge rings beneath her eyes, holding the hand of her ill daughter, Alfie was once again filled with such loathing he would have thumped his head against the bedpost if he thought it would hurt him.
In the wake of his own death, Alfie had thought only of his own sadness and his own feelings. He had completely forgotten that his own flesh and blood had been suffering.
Beth’s husband came in quietly and stood quietly beside her. The little girl on the bed did not move. She only made a sound that did not seem to have any sort of meaning. The girl twisted in an unnatural way on the bed.
“Hi Julie!” the father whispered, putting a hand on Beth’s back. Julie made that strange noise again and rolled her head in the pillow.
“She recognises you!” Beth said adamantly.
Her husband pressed his lips together, as if to prevent himself from saying anything. On the bed were some letters which he just glanced at. Then he left the room without another word.
Alfie followed him. Beth’s husband sat in the living room for a very long time without moving. He seemed to be looking outside but Alfie did not think he was really seeing anything.
He remembered that when Nathan had been hit by a car and the doctors had said he would be brain damaged, he had reacted the same way in his own living room. He could almost convince himself it all wasn’t really happening.
Alfie went back to Beth and Lucy.
Lucy was sitting on the bed reading the letters that had helpfully been left open. She looked up at him and Alfie knew immediately that the letters were bad news.
“Damn it Julie,” Beth said, “Just do something, prove them wrong, but just do something.” She stood up with her hands in her back pockets. “God, how do ordinary people bear it?” she asked the ceiling. Her hands had moved to her hair as if pulling it by the roots.
“This is the worst part about being dead,” Lucy said. “Having to watch.”
Ivan needed to speak to Ivan and Persephone again but he didn’t want to leave Lucy in case he couldn’t find her again. Then again, he had no idea how to find Ivan and Persephone anyway.
“What did the letters say?” Alfie asked.
Lucy turned to him and for a moment, he didn’t think she would tell him. She swallowed hard. “It’s between Tom and the doctors.” Alfie must have looked blank. “Tom is Beth’s husband. Julie is,” she took a deep breath and looked away from him, “Terminal. It was known even when Beth was pregnant.” Lucy put her head into her hands. Tom. Of course Alfie remembered him. He hadn’t been sure he would be good for Beth but then thought his serious and practical ways might be just what someone as sensitive as Beth needed. He could wade through the emotional barriers and see what had to be done and actually get it done in the same manner that Beth had become paralysed by worry.
“What did it say?” he asked again.
Lucy took a deep, steadying breath. “He wants Julie to go into a hospice. He can’t take anymore and won’t take anymore. It’s the hospice or he needs to leave.”
Alfie sat down on his granddaughter’s bed, watching her laboured breathing. “They have medical insurance?” he asked although he knew someone as practical as Tom had probably thought of such an important thing long before.
“It just comes down to the simple fact that Beth thinks Julie will get better and Tom doesn’t. She wants to stay here and he wants to move on.”
Alfie nodded in understanding and went back to the living room to check on Tom.
Tom was sitting on the couch with a beer in one hand and the remote in the other. He was snoring lightly. On the screen was a picture of Ivan and Persephone holding up a sign that read:
We need to talk
Go through the portal to your right and we’ll meet you across the street
Don’t worry about Lucy
Without thinking too much about it, Alfie exited the house, crossed the street and entered into the next portal that he saw.
Ivan and Persephone were curled up on a couch watching the television intently. Without looking up, Persephone said: “We have a situation.”
Alfie was stunned into quietness. He had a situation. He thought of Beth’s tear streaked face and Tom’s resignation.
But there was no time for that for the sucking noise started and the three of them found themselves squeezed into another hospital room.
On the bed was a woman who was elderly but not totally decrepit. She looked like she was sleeping although from the amount of medical machinery around her, Alfie knew she wasn’t simply in peaceful slumber.
To his surprise, Ivan sat beside her and rested a ghostly hand on her head.
“It’s Ivan’s sister,” whispered Persephone. “She has a tumour and collapsed today.”
Alfie looked back at her. She did not have the look of someone who had lain for weeks in the same bed and had atrophied muscles and bedsores. There was plumpness in her face and her hair had been recently styled. Her nails were evenly filed although it looked as if some nurse or orderly had quickly tried to remove the polish. Alfie had to force himself to look away from the spoiled manicure.
There was a rush of people coming into the room. Someone screamed and was dragged, still screaming down the corridor. More people crowded around the bed.
“It’s not her. It’s not her!!” someone moaned.
“I just can’t believe it,” whispered someone else.
Alfie looked from face to face. They all had the wide eyed stare of people who had been given unexpected terrible news.
“My sister was the hardest ass bitch in the world,” Ivan said to Alfie and Persephone. “She would not have wanted people to be hanging around her bed looking at her when she was unconscious.”
“What is her name?” Alfie asked, thinking there was no such thing as a lost cause. He thought of Julie and her father’s mistaken belief that there was no hope.
Ivan sighed deeply. “Her name was Sarah.”
Alfie’s son Nathan had been given a grim prognosis too. Doctors said he’s never walk again and would never recover the ability to speak. Alfie and Lucy ignored them and brought Nathan home. Lucy, who had so much experience in caring for people, spent hours massaging Nathan’s limbs and flexing lax muscles. She taught and although it felt weird to him to be touching his son’s flesh, he did it—probably far more than was strictly necessary. In time, Nathan did improve, learned to walk and talk again and except for a very slight slurring of his speech and a limp when he was tired, there was no sign that he had once been so close to death.
He was just about to tell Ivan not to give up hope when Lucy was squeezed into the room. She took one look at Sarah and then looked at Alfie.
“She won’t recover,” she said.
“I know,” Ivan said.
“How do you—“ Alfie started.
“Trust me,” said Lucy.
“And me,” said Persephone.
“And me,” said Ivan. “You don’t know my sister but I do. She would have wanted to go quick. Not hang on with every dignity lost.” Ghostly tears shone in his eyes.
“Is there a will or something?” asked Alfie. People talked all the time but he knew what mattered was the legal stuff.
“She hasn’t signed yet.” Ivan shook his head. “She wanted to talk to her kids first. To tell them she didn’t want to be resuscitated.”
“But she doesn’t need to be resuscitated yet,” Alfie countered.
“Not yet,” said Ivan.
Just then, Sarah sat up and blindly looked at them. She threw her head back and howled until she was out of breath in her lungs. Then she flopped back on the bed as if from exhaustion.
Pandemonium erupted and all relatives were shoved out of the room. Alfie had heard of some of the medical procedures on television but he was still shocked to see Sarah’s shirt ripped open and the delivery of the violent shocks to restart her heart.
Ivan was crying openly, the heels of his hands pressed to his ears.
“We got her!” shouted a doctor far too young to be making decisions about life and death. He had the look of someone who had just climbed Mount Everest.
“That should be worth one down the pub!” a colleague congratulated him. There were further cheers from the medical team.
Ivan hung his head.
Alfie and Persephone left him to have some privacy. They walked through the corridors in silence, neither knowing what to say to the other. There was a waiting room and Persephone walked to the entrance, looking in and then turned to see if Alfie was following. She jumped up on a chair to get a better look at the television.
“Do you see that flickering dot on the map where we are?” she asked Alfie.
Alfie squinted. He saw a dot alternating between red and green. As he watched it turned solid green and did not change back to red.
“What is it?”
“That’s Ivan’s sister. If the dot was red, it would mean she was dead. If it’s green, it means she’s going to recover.”
“Where is my—“ Alfie wanted to know which colour dot his granddaughter would be.
“It’s there,” said Persephone. “Do you see it? Just next to Sarah’s.”
Alfie saw two green dots. “Yes! She’s made it!!” He absentmindedly stroked Persephone, even though his hand went straight through her and he had always said how much he hated cats.
“Alfie,” sighed Persephone. “It’s not always a good thing for a person to live on and on. Green doesn’t mean the person is responsive and healthy. It just means the state of their bodies will sustain them.”
“But I don’t get it. Everyone wants to live.”
Persephone jumped down from the chair again and Alfie followed.
They entered the trauma room of the hospital. It was a massive room with green screens all over the place. Persephone ducked under one screen then poked her head back out. “C’mon Alfie,” she said.
Alfie wasn’t too sure at all about going behind the screens. Surely people wanted dignity and quiet when they were hurt. But when he saw what was there, he appreciated the injured were a little preoccupied.
The injured man was not conscious and even Alfie knew what remained of his legs was not going to be there for long.
“A double amputee. Sometimes people have the will to live through adversity and sometimes they just give up,” Persephone said.
“But surely, that is something that can be seen on the screen? If they are going to give up, the dot would show as red.”
“Nope because people always change their mind. They have good days and bad days and sometimes they realise everything is balancing out and at other times they simply reach the tipping point and give in.”
“So the dot stays green.” Alfie said flatly.
“Or they turn it red,” Persephone answered gravely.