Barry McCallister was lecturing a creative writing class on the wonders of Edgar Allen Poe when his cell phone rang. Several of his students tittered since it was his rule that cell phones must be powered down during class. Angry at the interruption, he hit ignore and continued reciting Poe’s poem, “Eldorado”.
Barry had taught creative writing at Bellmore University in Chicago for three years. During his tenure, he had written three novels, but only one had been published. Barry still taught while awaiting payment of his advance. Barry enjoyed teaching but longed to be a successful author. He hoped his novel Blood Mist would put him on the best seller list.
Attempting to ignore the interruption, Barry began to recite the poem again, when his phone beeped at him insistently. Stepping into the hallway, he told his graduate assistant to take over.
Glaring down at the screen on his phone, Barry saw four words that turned his blood to ice: Your Mom Is Dying. Flipping the phone shut, he reentered the lecture hall and dismissed the students, reminding them of the assignment he had given at the beginning of class. Grabbing his briefcase, he ran out of the room without glancing back.
Barry jogged down the hallways and out of the building into the cold November day. The steel gray sky matched his darkening mental state. Almost running, he made his way across the campus to Lodge Hall, the building that housed the English department. Once inside the comfort of his messy office, he redialed the number from his missed calls list.
“Barry?” An unfamiliar voice with a slight southern accent said on the other end of the line when they picked up. “I’m sorry, son, this is Ed Wilson, your mother’s neighbor. I got your number from her address book. She’s in the hospital. You need to come quick. The docs say she ain’t got long.”
“What’s wrong with her?” Barry said, pinching the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger.
“She didn’t tell you?” Ed said, sounding surprised. “She was diagnosed with cancer. About three months ago, now. I assumed she told you.”
Shock and pain flooded through Barry as he fell into his chair. His mother had cancer and hadn’t told him. Why had she kept it from him? Their relationship had become a little distant during the past couple years, only because he had been working so hard on Blood Mist and hadn’t been able to travel to California to see her. But they had talked on the phone all the time. Why hadn’t she mentioned it?
“I’ll get a flight immediately, sir.”
“Call me Ed, I was enlisted,” Ed said, then paused. “I know she wants to see you. Don’t take too long, son. I don’t think she has the time.”
“Thanks for calling me, Ed,” Barry said, then asked a hard question. “Just how close are you and my Mom?”
“Not as close as you’re insinuatin’. We played bridge once in a while, and occasionally sat on the porch and watched the sun set, or had supper at either her place or mine, but that’s as far as we took it. I suppose if you were to ask if I loved your Momma, I guess the answer would be yes. But she wanted to keep our relationship friendly.”
Barry didn’t know how to respond to this. He wondered what the old man wasn’t telling him, because he knew there was something, could tell it from Ed’s voice. Barry decided to drop it for now so he could start searching for plane reservations.
“Ed, I’d better get going so I can find a fight. I’ll see you soon.”
Barry ended the call and sat at his desk for a minute, thinking about all the things he didn’t know about his mom, not the least of which was her cancer diagnosis. Booting his laptop, he connected to the internet and booked a very expensive flight to California.
Ten hours later, Barry walked into St. John’s Hospital. Out of three children born to his mother, he was the only one remaining. His brother, Tom, had died when he was ten and Barry was eight. Tom had slipped during a family camping trip and fallen into a river. Searchers found his body two days later at the base of a waterfall. His younger sister, Patty, had died of an undiagnosed aneurism just last year at thirty-five years old.
Barry’s mother and father had never recovered from Tom’s death. Barry’s father had passed away five years ago after a massive heart attack. There had been a lot of silence around their house after Tom’s death. They had stayed together until Barry entered college, then divorced. Barry was certain they’d still loved each other. They just couldn’t get past losing their first child.
Barry waited in line at the busy emergency room reception desk. When he finally got to the front of the line he asked the receptionist where his mother was and she directed him to the Intensive Care ward on the fourth floor.
Taking the elevator to the fourth floor, he followed the signs to the Intensive Care Unit. A sign on the door directed him to use the phone next to the door for entry. Another sign said visiting hours ended at 8:00 p.m. and it was now past eleven. Barry picked up the phone anyway and waited for someone to answer.
After three rings, someone picked up and said “ICU, this is Frank.”
“Hello, my name is Barry McCallister, my mom is a patient.”
“Visiting hours are over at… Oh wait, absolutely, Mr. McCallister. Wait outside the doors and I’ll escort you back.”
Hanging up the phone, Barry waited outside the double doors for the nurse to arrive. He knew if Frank was so eager to allow him entry, his mother couldn’t be in good condition. The last time he spent any time in a hospital was when his father was dying. He remembered thinking the ICU reminded him of a jail ward for the dying. You were locked behind closed doors and the only way in or out was if someone judged you worthy.
When the doors opened, Barry was greeted by Frank, a tall, broadly built registered nurse in light blue scrubs. Frank resembled a male model with spiky frosted tipped hair and even white teeth, but his easy manner made Barry feel comfortable.
“How is my mom?” Barry asked, as Frank led him inside and let the doors close behind them.
“Her vitals are stable,” Frank said. “Your mom is a fighter. She was awake for the last couple of days and seems like such a nice person. Early this morning she lapsed into a coma, so I wouldn’t expect much communication, but I know she’ll be happy you’re here. Are there any other family members coming?”
“I am the last of her family,” Barry said. “What kind of cancer does she have?”
“Oh, my. You didn’t know?” Frank said, surprise reflected in his voice. They stopped at the nurses’ station and Frank pulled a binder out of a rack on the desk. Looking through it he glanced at a piece of paper and said, “She has an aggressive form of lung cancer. This disease spreads quickly. She went through Chemo, but it really was too late by the time they found it. If it provides you any comfort, she isn’t feeling any pain. I wish I could give you more hope.”
Barry, nodded, trying to hold back his emotions. Once again, Barry wondered why she hadn’t told him.
“Right this way,” Frank said, putting the binder back in the rack. Frank lead him to his mother’s room. The death room, his writer’s voice said in his mind. His mother lay on the bed with IV lines running into both arms and a tube delivering oxygen into her nose.
Frank pulled a chair that resembled a clinical version of a lazy-boy recliner around so he could sit next to the bed, then asked if Barry wanted a cup of very bad coffee. He accepted and a minute later Frank brought him a Styrofoam cup full of the thickest brew Barry had ever seen. He took a sip and winced, then thanked Frank, who smiled wanly and left the room. After a few sips, the strong brew grew on him.
Barry watched his mom’s chest rise and fall. He had never before seen her this sick. She hadn’t even needed oxygen the last time he visited, which was two… no, two and a half years ago. She still had been getting around pretty well.
Now, she lay in a hospital bed, an intravenous drip supplying her with fluids and medication, her thin body diminished by the ravenous effects of the cancer. What little hair remaining on her head stuck up in short wisps, but she had lost most it during chemotherapy. This was no longer the tough, vivacious woman he had grown up with. Barry lost control and wept silently, his chest hitching with sobs.
After a while Barry slipped into a fitful doze. His recliner was more comfortable than a plastic chair, but only slightly. When he awoke gray light filtered into the room through the dirty windows. This side of the hospital faced north, so he would get indirect sunlight all day.
Standing, his bones creaked and, after a few pops, he decided to take a walk to stretch his aching body. Walking up to the desk, Frank was going off shift. Barry bade him good-day and walked out.
Barry walked the corridors, following signs, taking the elevator to the second floor in search of the cafeteria. Waiting in a line filled with surgeons eating before their first procedure and nurses coming on or going off shift, he ordered a “breakfast platter” consisting of bacon, eggs and undercooked hash browns and wheat toast. While awaiting his meal, he filled a waxed paper cup with orange juice and another with coffee that made the stuff in the ICU seem like gourmet. Returning to the “grill” he picked up his breakfast, paid and found a table near a window that looked out upon the dawning day.
Eating, he watched the sun rise above the horizon and wondered if his mother would survive until the sun retreated again this evening. From the look of things, he doubted she would last through the day.
Finishing his meal, he tossed the remains in the trash and took the elevator to the first floor. Walking outside through the front doors, he was accosted by the cool air and dampness that permeated the morning.
Walking around the hospital, Barry searched his mind for answers to why his mother had kept an illness this serious from him. Had she thought he didn’t care? He had called her on the phone just two weeks ago and she’d sounded fine.
Looking up he found he had circumnavigated the large hospital and had arrived back at the main entrance. Checking his watch, he was surprised an entire hour had passed with breakfast and the walk. Reentering the hospital through the sliding glass doors, he returned to the fourth floor. Calling into the nurse’s station inside, someone new answered the phone and a nurse came to the door and admitted him.
The nurse left him by the door and he walked along towards his mother’s room. When her room was in sight, he thought he saw someone standing in the corner near the window. Who had allowed this person access to his mother’s room? Barry thought maybe the old gentleman had gotten lost while visiting someone else and wandered into the room by mistake.
Approaching the room, the person he thought was there turned into a shadow. Shrugging his shoulders, he took his place next to her bed. An hour later Ed Wilson sauntered into the room, shook Barry’s hand and introduced himself.
Barry estimated that Ed Wilson was in his late sixties, around six-feet-four, but couldn’t have weighed more than one seventy. Rangy with silver gray hair, a quick smile and even sharper wit, Ed seemed the quintessential westerner. His deep voice seemed to carry even when he whispered. Barry led Ed outside into the waiting room and updated him on his mother’s condition.
“I’m so sorry about your momma,” Ed said after Barry finished. “She’s a great lady.”
“Yeah, I know. So far she’s toughing it out,” Barry said, trying to sound positive, but feeling miserable. Barry had a feeling there was more to Ed and his mother’s relationship than Ed was willing to admit.
“She’s been sick for a while. She did the Chemo even though they told her the best she could hope for was a couple months. She hoped you would come and see her. I thought she had told you what was goin’ on. I swear before Jesus I would have called you long ago had I known she was keepin’ it a secret.”
“There’s nothing you can do,” Barry said, grasping Ed’s hand. “Sir, she had some ways about her that were mysterious, you did all you could and I thank you for letting me know now.”
Tears welled up in Ed’s eyes and all at once, he drew Barry to him in a fatherly embrace. When they separated, Barry told the old man to go in to sit with his mother for a while alone. Ed thanked him and went back into the ICU.
Time passed slowly in the hospital. Once Ed went home, Barry sat beside his mother’s bed again. Right before lunch, he heard a throat clear behind him. Turning around, he saw dapper looking gentleman in a suit, standing where he had seen the shadow earlier. Barry blinked and the man was still there.
“Can I help you?” Barry asked, wondering if the man had wandered into this room by mistake.
“No, but I think I may be able to help you.” The accent was undoubtedly British.
“Who are you?”
“I am many,” the old man said, smiling gravely.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“What do you think?” Enigmatic, the man smiled again.
Barry’s temper began to rise. What the f*** was this guy’s malfunction? How the hell did he get back here?
“Before you get angry, why don’t we take a moment for clarity,” the man in the suit smiled. “Think of me as a guide. I help the living and the dying to move forward.”
Barry blinked wondering what the hell the eccentric old bastard was trying to tell him. Thinking for a moment, trying to place what he had just heard, but thinking all the while it sounded like a cheesy line from some b-movie.
“I believe theologists and a few writers like yourself are fond of referring to me as Death.”
“You know, the Grim Reaper? The last thing you’ll ever see in this world?”
“I know,” the old man said, waving his hand and rolling his eyes. “Everyone’s vision of me is different, but I am really Death.”
“I’m going to call the nurse and have you removed,” Barry started to rise, but the man held out a hand and Barry fell back into the chair, his legs like rubber.
“I guess you might be expecting something like this.” All at once the man morphed into the traditional figure Barry thought of as Death. Shrouded in torn robes, he became the scary vision that had haunted Barry’s childhood. The thing extended long, bony fingers towards Barry.
Barry felt all the air sucked out of his lungs. Then the old man was just a suited gentleman again, brushing the arms of his suit absently, smiling warmly at Barry.
“Now do you understand?”
“I don’t usually appear to anyone, except the subject for which I came,” Death said. “But you seemed lost, so I thought it might be a good idea if we chatted. We don’t have a lot of time though.”
Barry was certain lack of sleep was causing his hallucination. Standing, his legs supported him this time and he walked out, looking for a nurse. Bells rang at the station but no one appeared.
“They’ll be busy for a while. One of my colleagues is helping another soul a few rooms over,” he heard the man say behind him. “Why don’t you get a coffee and sit.”
“I don’t want to,” Barry said, then stopped cold. “Wait, there are more of you?”
“I guess I should have said I am one of many,” Death said, then noticing Barry’s grimace he waved a hand. “Don’t be childish, Barry. I am not a monster. You need to hear what I have to tell you.”
“I can think of nothing you could say that would comfort me.”
Death, if that was truly who he was, shrugged and smiled again. “I can’t say you’ll be comforted, only that you may understand. I hate the word closure. It is so overused, but you may, achieve just that.”
Barry filled a cup from the pot behind the desk, then reluctantly went back into his mother’s room, falling heavily into the recliner.
“Barry, I know you are having trouble with this, but I am not a figment of your imagination. I will help your mother and you as well, move on. Without me, she would be stuck in limbo forever and that would be cruel.” The old man shook his head. “I assure you, she does not find me frightening, instead, I appear as an old friend.”
“You are monstrous.”
“You think so?” Death sat on the window sill, but appeared to be floating above it. “I will have you know that the paintings and representations of reapers are a gross exaggeration by men who were afraid of death. We have always been on the side of the living. We are not pawnbrokers of the dead, but guides enabling the dead to cross to the next level. We communicate with the living on an upper level, helping them to grieve, but also helping ease their pain.”
“So you say,” Barry was sure this old man, was a figment of his fertile imagination.
“You are not imagining me, Barry. Yes, I hear your thoughts. One of the perks that come with being Death.” Death reached forward and gripped Barry’s shoulder hard, causing pain. Then Barry felt a drawing sensation like the old man had tried to take something from within him.
“Sorry, lad. I sometimes do that without realizing it,” Death said.
“This sucks.” Barry said, and now he felt shame because even to him he sounded like a sniveling, whining brat. “Is there anything I can do to stop you?”
“Nothing,” Death said. “And believe me you wouldn’t want to.”
“Well, then f*** off and leave me be.”
“Inelegant, but I understand. Before I leave, I need to tell you something Barry. Call it… a message. You are a writer and you should be able to explain it well enough to get the point across.
“You’re asking me for a favor?” Barry asked. “Go to hell.”
“There is no such place, Barry.” Death said solemnly. “Look, your body is made to last many years longer than it does. Almost from the time of conception, poisons and environmental stresses begin breaking you down on a cellular level. Technology and other pressures have shortened the lives of every human by centuries. Sadly, no one listens to those who are enlightened.
“I am not here to give you a lecture about global pollution and its effects on mankind. Nor am I here to convert you religiously. I am simply giving you facts to think about. Humans bring death upon themselves. We do not kill. Humans do a fine job on their own.”
“What do you want from me?”
“You are a writer, tell stories. I have read your work. It is better than you think. The problem is, your attitude gets in the way of your message. Stop writing and tell the story. Tell this story. Think of this as a new beginning. She would want that.”
Death stepped forward and placed a hand on his shoulder, squeezed softer than before, then disappeared like smoke. At the same time, the monitor next to his mother’s bed hummed as her heart stopped beating. Barry sat for a moment waiting for something else to happen, but nothing did. No one came running. Tears coursed down his cheeks as he took her hand and held it.
After a few minutes a nurse came into the room and turned off the alarm. Barry sat with her until orderlies came in to transport her body to the morgue. They waited patiently as he gathered her few belongings and Frank, who had returned for his shift, led him out into the waiting room.
“You don’t need to see that, trust me,” Frank said, leading Barry out of ICU and into the waiting room. “Is there anything I can get you?”
Barry glanced up at the nurse and smiled wanly, “No, I have everything I need. I think I’ll head over to her place.”
“Can I give you some advice?”
Barry nodded his head, using his hand to wipe his face.
“Go get a hotel room. Wait for a day, you aren’t in any hurry. Just give yourself time.”
Barry smiled and thanked Frank for his concern, then took the elevator to the first floor and asked the volunteer at the information desk to call him a cab.
Outside, the air was still humid and clouds had formed, threatening rain. Barry breathed deeply and waited for his cab. When it arrived, the driver asked where he was headed. He almost gave the driver his mother’s address, but instead told him to drive to the nearest decent hotel.
After renting a room, he called Ed Wilson, told him of his mom’s death, then asked the old man to join him for dinner at his hotel. Ed reluctantly agreed. Maybe the old man knew they both needed a friend that night.
They met in the dining room just after eight and enjoyed a steak dinner. During the meal, Ed shared several stories of his adventures with Barry’s mother. Barry realized the old man had been in love with his mother. They laughed, but underneath the stories, sadness prevailed. Barry realized his mother may have looked at Ed as a friend, but the old man had been in love with his mother. It was hard to imagine someone other than his father being in love with his mother, but that was just the child in him. Ed had loved his mother a lot.
Retiring to the bar, Barry ordered a Scotch and after a slight pause, Ed joined him. Barry continued hearing stories about trips they had taken (Ed had been a long-haul truck driver in another life) and on Ed’s boat (Ed owned a charter fishing boat).
“We enjoyed each others comp’ny. Son, I been married three times an’ all three turned to shit, pardon my French. I got two kids who wouldn’t piss on me if I burst into flames like Moses’ bush. Your mom was the first bright spot in my life in years. We were as close to being a couple as two people can get without sex. I loved her and would have done anything in my power to protect her. But she told me the other day, there was nothing anybody could do. It come on quick and it broke her doctor’s heart to tell her she didn’t have much time.”
Barry drained his Scotch and ordered another. He motioned to Ed, but the old man shook his head.
“I already need a cab to get home,” he said draining the last drop from his glass.
“Something weird happened to me while I was in her room today,” Barry burst out. He hadn’t intended to say anything about the visitor, lest this man think he had gone insane in his grief. “I hope you don’t think I’m crazy. There was a man…”
“Guy in a suit, looked like one of those British butlers?”
Barry had been in the process of taking a sip of his freshened drink and choked. Ed slapped him on the back, trying to help him get his breath. Barry saw Ed, his eyes closed, shiver like someone had dropped ice down his shirt.
Ed nodded grimly. “Whatever he was, you had to be looking at just the right angle to see him. I saw him the first time about four months ago. You’re mom was in the hospital with pneumonia. I brought her some flowers and he was in the room. When I walked in, he was gone like smoke, but there was a smell, lilacs, I think. She was sick, but she had a smile on her face. About two weeks ago, before she went into the hospital, your momma talked to him for about three hours.
“Then about four days ago, after she went into the hospital, he was there again. She had been in and out of it over the course of a few days, but holding her own. There was something about him. I gotta tell you, he scared the shit out of me. Not much can do that. When I asked about him later, she said he was from the hospice organization. I knew she was lyin’, but didn’t say nothin’. Your momma liked her secrets,” Ed sighed, then leaned closer and lowered his deep voice. “The vibe I got off him screamed evil, but he gave her peace for a few days, so I left it ‘lone.”
Barry felt gooseflesh rise on his arms and the hair stood at attention on his neck. The old man seemed genuinely frightened, but he had validated Barry’s encounter.
Tears drifted down from Ed’s eyes and he excused himself, telling Barry he would see him at the house the next day. Barry watched until he was gone, feeling a connection between them. After a couple more drinks, the bartender closed for the night.
Barry stumbled to the elevators and went up to his room. As he rode the car up, he was certain he felt that hand on his shoulder again.
The following summer, Barry once again found himself in California. This time he was on a book tour, promoting “Death Wears Armani”. His new novel was atop the bestseller’s lists where it had resided since hitting the streets three weeks before.
Barry stood behind a table stacked with copies of his book, when a familiar deep voice rang out in front of him. Ed smiled and gripped his hand, then set down an obviously used copy of his book. Ed apparently dog eared his pages.
“I never asked anyone to do this in my life, but would you sign this for me?” Ed said, staring down at his feet like a kid asking a girl for a date.
“Are you kidding, you are one of the main characters in this rag. Of course I would.”
Barry signed the title page with a message thinking him for his support and for taking care of his mother. Barry had dedicated the book to her and to Ed.
“You know I miss her every day, but I know she is in a better place,” Ed whispered, wiping his eyes. Barry thought he saw something haunted in his eyes, the Ed smiled and the look was gone.
Barry nodded silently. He wasn’t sure he believed in all that, but he hoped what Ed said was true. They agreed to meet up after the signing for a drink and Ed ambled away.
Several more people stepped up to the table and asked him to sign their books which he did, with a smile. This was a part of being a writer most of his ilk hated, but he loved it. It meant that he had finally created something people wanted to read.
Later, as he was packing up, his publishing assistant which was a fancy title for tour director prodding him to get moving, he heard a familiar voice that chilled his blood.
“Can you sign just one more?”
Barry looked up and saw Death standing in front of his table. Taking a book from his bag with shaking hands, he opened it to the title page.
“Who do I make it out to?”
“I think you know,” Death said, the infuriating smile crossing his lips again. Barry wanted to rip it off his face.
Barry signed it to his mom and felt warmth rise in his face. When he finished, he held it out to Death, who took it, impassively.
“By the way, I’ve been talking to your friend, Ed.”
Barry looked up and Death was gone, as was the book he had signed. Barry fell into the chair, thinking about what Death had said. Ed was in trouble, he knew it. Within seconds, Barry made his decision. Calling out to the young woman who had brought him to the store, he told her to cancel the rest of his appointments for the next day. He knew he needed to spend time with Ed, find out what was wrong. He wouldn’t make the same mistake he had with his mother.
Leaving the bookstore, he took out his cell phone, scrolled down to Ed’s name and hit send.