Benjamin strolled into Taylor Woods Nursing Home knowing somebody was going to die. Popping an orange Tic Tac into his mouth, he nodded at the secretary and headed off towards the East wing. He didn’t need a guest pass. She knew who he was, and based on the raise of a single eyebrow, she was curious. He peeked back, curious if she was watching to see which room he walked into. She was.
“Howdy Ms. Gail,” Benjamin crooned as he walked through the door at the end of the hallway. In this wing, lunch was served on trays as all residents were no longer able to make it to the cafeteria. The floral and disinfectant smell of the nursing home was so strong that he couldn’t make out the menu.
Ms. Gail wasn’t speaking. He blew out the breath he wasn’t aware he was holding. Had he expected her to stand up and dance at his arrival? Nobody did that, even if they didn’t know about his gift. Or curse, depending on the day.
Saying Ms. Gail was pale would be an understatement. As Benjamin approached her bedside, his own pale skin looked tan in comparison. Her breaths were shallow, so he knew she was still with him. And even though her eyes were closed, he knew she’d awaken any second.
“Ms. Gail,” he sang as he swept her grey bangs off her forehead, “wakey, wakey.”
“What are you doing?” The female voice came out of nowhere, causing Benjamin to pull back abruptly, nearly bumping into the table next to him. His breath was caught in his chest as he looked at Ms. Gail, wondering how she could look so serene and scare the crap out of him at the same time.
“Behind you, genius.” He could almost hear he eyes roll with the sarcasm. Turning on his heel, he turned to face the most angry, attractive girl he’s ever seen. His mouth turned down in a frown as he took in her striped scrubs. What was she and why was she wearing that? With her hair pulled back into a severe bun, not an ounce of make-up and no smile whatsoever, Benjamin was less than pleased at her arrival. Granted, it appeared she was carrying in lunch, but Ms. Gail wasn’t going to be eating it. Waste of Ms. Scrubby pants time.
“I’ll ask you again, what are…”
Benjamin held up his hands, “yadda, yadda, I heard you. Geez. Don’t you know Ms. Gail here is sleeping?”
The girl’s eyes turned wide and when she spoke her voice was barely a whisper. “She’s been sleeping since this morning. She must be sick.”
Benjamin guffawed, which received an ugly look. “She’s old.”
“Old people can be healthy.”
“Not in the East wing. You of all people should know that. I assume by your – ahem - apparel that you volunteer here.”
She ignored his jab. “I’m optimistic.”
She sighed and rolled her eyes. Yup, she was an eye roller. Lovely. “Did you check in?”
Benjamin raised his shoulders and put on his best fake smile. He was told he had great teeth, it’s just that nobody ever sees them. “Of course. How else would I have gotten past the guards?”
The girl narrowed her eyes at him before walking farther into the room and dropping the tray off on the table. She was so close that he could smell her. And the best part was that she smelled like soap. Not a crapload of perfume that most girls his age wear. Or like a meadow of flowers that had been bottled by an awful bath shop, but like actual soap. He sucked in a deep breath as quietly as possible. She shot him a look. Her eyes were deep brown like dark chocolate. They matched her hair perfectly.
“Are you staying here long?” She asked.
He shrugged his shoulders, an act that his aunt despised. From past experience, he could be out in five minutes or an hour. Time was never really a factor to his parting. He could leave as soon as he received the message.
“Okay, well, don’t eat her lunch. It’s her favorite.”
Benjamin wrinkled his nose. It smelled atrocious. “What the hell is it?”
The girl blanched at his language. Apparently she wasn’t a swearer. “It’s some good shit,” was all she said as she turned on her heel and stormed out. Or perhaps she was.
Benjamin watched her walk out and nearly leaped for joy at her absence. He popped another Tic Tac in his mouth and pulled a chair up to Ms. Gail’s bedside. Her breathing was very shallow, and as he picked up her hand to hold it, her skin was loose and cold. She was nearly there.
“Ms. Gail,” he said in a sing-songy voice, “it’s time to talk to me.”
“Ms. Gail. I’m going to eat your lunch. I hear it’s your favorite.” With his free hand he raised the stainless steel dome off the plate and got an eyeful of mashed potatoes, turkey slices, and pudding. Not bad, he thought. But it smelled awful. “Or not, Ms. Gail. The food is all yours.” He watched her, waiting for any sort of response. “But I have a feeling you won’t be eating lunch today. Shocking, I know, seeing that I’m here.”
Popping another Tic Tac, Benjamin sat back and waited with Ms. Gail’s hand still in his own. Sometimes passing the time was the worst. He always liked to remain close as possible to the nearly deceased, so it’s not like he could take out a book and sit back and wait. He needed to remain focused, because sometimes the message was a single word and whispered during the final breath.
The wait was brutal. About twenty minutes later, the girl in scrubs came back in to collect the tray. She scowled when she saw Ms. Gail hadn’t eaten a single bite. Benjamin smiled when she looked at him, curious why he didn’t sample anything. Five minutes after that, Nurse Gladys came in to check Ms. Gail’s vitals. But as soon as her eyes landed on Benjamin, the message was clear.
“Oh Lord,” she whispered as she walked into the room. Wringing her hands, she came closer to Ms. Gail’s nearly lifeless body. “Not her.”
Benjamin shrugged. “Not up to me. You’re going to have to speak to my boss.”
Nurse Gladys struck him with her sharp eyes. “Don’t be glib, young man.”
“Have you seen what I bring? I can be nothing but glib. And maybe a tad sarcastic. And pessimistic.”
“How long does she have left?”
Benjamin raised his shoulders. “Beats me. It’s not me who decides.” Seriously, why does everyone think he’s the angel of death? Yes, perhaps he’s a messenger of sorts, but not an angel. No one would ever describe him as an angel.
“Is she comfortable?”
“Is she on meds?”
“Then probably.” How the hell was he supposed to know?
“Mr. Benjamin. I see you in here every few weeks and you never come baring good news. So pardon me that I’m not thrilled to see you. Ms. Gail here is a good one.”
“Ma’am?” Man, he thought, that word sounded so foreign escaping his mouth, “I don’t want to be here anymore than you want me here. Trust me. But I think it’s time you face the facts that everybody dies. Everybody. You. Me. Ms. Gail. Everyone. And I think as a nurse you should know that.”
“You’re a pain in the ass, Benjamin.”
He already knew that. And he was prepared to retaliate, because really, no one but his aunt can call him a pain in the ass and not get a few choice words for him, but Ms. Gail chose at that moment to open her eyes and try to speak. Nurse Gladys rushed to one side of the bed. Benjamin leaned in closer, his hand never having left hers.
“Ms. Gail. My name is Benjamin. I’m listening.”
At first her words were garbled, as if she had a mouthful of water she was trying to speak through. With great effort, she swallowed, her neck moving as she did. Benjamin tried to keep his eyes on Mr. Gail’s eyes, even if she had a hard time keeping them open.
“My love,” She choked out in barely a whisper. “My love.”
“Is he waiting for you?” Benjamin urged. “Go to him.”
“No,” was all she responded.
“Gail’s husband died years ago. She’s all alone.”
Why didn’t she want to go to him then? He was used to many people’s final words being directed towards their spouses who had already passed on. And when they were ready to move on, many people mentioned seeing their spouses on the other side.
“Love,” she repeated, and Benjamin was ready to rip out his hair. If all he had to go on was love, he’d never be able to help her. Leaning back in his seat, exasperated, he looked at Nurse Gladys.
“I have no idea,” she said, holding up her hands in defense.
Benjamin waited for Ms. Gail’s next words. Her lips were moving as if she was trying to put the words together. If anything, his role has taught him patience. Although, he often sucked at being patient. He tried, though, and that’s sometimes what mattered.
Three minutes of silence passed before Ms. Gail spoke again. “I haven’t seen him…since…I was seventeen. He was my love. My true…love.” He breathing was becoming more and more labored as she spoke, forcing Benjamin to lean in mere inches from her face to hear her confession. “I’ve never loved anyone more than him. Not even Billy.”
“I’m sure he knew, Gail. You can rest now, knowing that he’ll know. Either he’ll meet you, or you can tell him yourself.” He looked up at Nurse Gladys who was just watching him with wide eyes. He wasn’t used to doing this with an audience, but what was the point of kicking her out now. She was a forty-year old nurse with sharp finger nails. He was a seventeen-year-old guy with an attitude and a few muscles. No doubt she could claw him to death if he told her to leave, and then who would be around to act as the final liaison between one world and the next?
“Listen to me, Gail. I may not look like a stunning boy. My hair is too long. My aunt tells me I look like I don’t shower. I have a foul mouth. But, I’m much smarter than I look.” He didn’t miss Nurse Gladys raise her eyes in doubt. He shot her a look. “I’m a firm believer that we have many loves in our lives, but we have one soul mate. Make sense? Doesn’t mean you didn’t love your husband. Doesn’t mean you hated your choice. It just means that sometimes people aren’t meant to be together during one’s life for whatever reason. Fate is a funny thing. A crappy thing, sometimes, but funny. Who knows how this guy from way back when would have worked out. He could have been the one. Maybe not. Maybe your husband was. But in my opinion, everyone gets a do-over. You’re going to go off, see your soul mate in another world. And then you’re going to come back and do it all over again. Understand?”
He didn’t expect her to nod or say yes. He also hadn’t expected her to be dead.
“Why’d you say all that?” Nurse Gladys asked as she lifted Ms. Gail’s wrist to check her pulse. Benjamin couldn’t miss the tears in the corners of her eyes. He shrugged.
“Because, she had to know. It’s what I believe. And I think at that point, it was a lot better than me saying ‘hey, yea, you messed up. You married the wrong guy. You’ll never see your true love again.”
“So you told her she’d come back?”
“Yea,” was all he said. He took one final look at Ms. Gail, who had passed away with a hint of a smile on her lips, and walked out the door. He popped another Tic Tac and prepared for the flash that that would inevitably follow within the next thirty minutes. His job as liaison was to help the dying with their final confessions. His “gift” in return, if he had to call it that, was that he got a lovely flash of somebody whose time on the earth was about to be up.
“Did they get their closure?” His aunt asked him as soon as he barreled through the door. How she always knew exactly when he had performed his job was beyond him. Maybe it was the way the door crashed into the wall behind it. Or the sneer that didn’t seem to leave his face.
He threw his backpack on the ground and pulled out the chair. The wooden legs scraped the tile underneath, a noise that generally incited a reaction from his aunt. He looked at her, but she seemed to be swallowing her words. Her lips were tight as she waited for an answer. He sighed and ran his hands through his hair. He really should get it cut. “She got her closure, yes.”
She nodded and turned back towards the stove. “What was it this time?”
He let out a laugh. “Love.”
She let out a small laugh as she shook her head. “It’s always love.”
“People put too much stake in it, that’s why.” He reached for the salt and pepper shaker at the center of the table and toyed with them for a bit.
“You’re young, Benjamin. Someday you’ll understand.”
Doubtful, he thought to himself, not daring to say it to his aunt. His aunt and his uncle have been together for over thirty years now. Together they raised five children, all of whom - unfortunately for Benjamin – have moved out of the house. At the ripe old age of three days old, she took Benjamin into her house and loved him as if he was her own son. She loved him in a way that he was certain his mom would have, and that thought had always brought comfort to him.
He shook his head of all thoughts and changed the subject. “What’s for dinner tonight?” He forced his voice to sound happy, as if he didn’t just witness death for the umpteenth time.
She was stirring something in a pot on the stove. And even though the question should have been an easy one, she paused. She was wearing an oversized sweatshirt and a pair of leggings, a look he loved on the girls in his class, but not so much his aunt. She may have been closing in on sixty, but she still dressed like a twenty-year-old on the prowl.
“Stew and a talk,” was how she responded, and Benjamin’s stomach sank. Shit. Whenever his aunt wanted to discuss something with his uncle present, she added it to the dinner menu. What was it today? His grades? His attitude? His penchant for seeing people die?
He rotated the pepper shaker from one hand to the other, trying to dispel his nervous energy. He hated when his aunt was angry with him for something. She loved him the most when no one else could or would. Still, she had a lot to be angry about. They never saw eye to eye on much, which generally had her sputtering out prayers to dispel the devil from his grasp on Benjamin’s soul. “Should I be worried?”
Her back remained turned to him. “I don’t know, Benji, should you?”
He sighed. “Don’t call me Benji. You make me sound like a 3-year-old.”
She didn’t miss a beat. “Then stop acting like one at school.”
And there it was. School and his attitude. He’s had some run-in’s in the past with teachers, and students, and the principal. Hell, back in the eighth grade he once had an “encounter” with the crossing guard because she laughed at his hair. Back then he wore it spikey thanks to a crapload of gel. That one giggle out of the mouth caused him to push her in the shoulder, and never again wear hair gel.
So what had he done this time?
What hadn’t he done really? He wracked his brain trying to remember his day before the nursing home. Between Ms. Gail and the flash that followed, his brain power has been seriously depleted. Still, if the principal called home, he must have done something pretty bad.
“I’ll be upstairs,” was all he said. She remained silent, but she turned to face him. She was a beautiful woman, and from what he could see from old pictures, looked like an older version of the mom he never met. Her dirty blonde hair fell down to her shoulders and was nearly always up in a ponytail. His family was known for their thick hair, and he had followed in the trend. She shared his green eyes and a few freckles scattered under eyes. And they were both tall. What traits he received from his dad he wasn’t positive. Perhaps his attitude.
“Benji,” her low voice made him turn back around and face her. He didn’t bother to correct her on the nickname. “I just wish that you could have met her.”
Her? How had she known he was thinking about family? “It’s alright,” he responded in an equally soft voice, unable to meet her eyes.
“She’d never let this fly. But then again,” Her eyes turned softer, “I have a feeling you’d be an entirely different boy if she had survived your birth.”
“Maybe,” he muttered.
“If not,” a smile slowly stretched across her face as she grabbed the wooden spoon out of the pot, “she’d have made it right.”
“Yea.” And he chose that moment to retreat to his room in the attic, not wanting his aunt to see the tears that collected in the corners of his eyes.
Throwing his book bag on the floor, Benjamin sank into his twin bed positioned under a tiny, circular window – the only window in the entire room. He ran his hands over his eyes and allowed them to wander through his hair as he dissected his day. He had about an hour until his aunt and uncle joined forces and reamed him out for his outburst during religion class. Sure he went to a catholic high school, which in a way was amazing because all the girls were required to wear short Berkeley skirts, knee-high socks, and tight, white, button-down shirts. But in a whole different way, Benjamin had a very hard time grasping onto religion. Any religion really. Dealing with death nearly every day, and having lost his own mother, he had a hard time understanding where people went after they died. Sure Catholicism told him people went to heaven, which sounded fine and dandy. But what if that didn’t happen? What if people simply perished and that was it? Game over? Or what if the game never ended, and people were brought back for a second chance, in a whole different body and life? The possibilities were endless, and sometimes he had a hard time agreeing to just one theory.
So yes, when Sister Jo mentioned how wonderful heaven was and how everyone should strive to be something great on earth to earn their place, Benjamin had to speak up. Sure he was an ass about it. Sometimes he couldn’t help that. But when Sister Jo brought up his mother, Benjamin had had enough. Perhaps he had threatened the nun, maybe mentioning that her entire occupation had been for nothing, because when she died she’d have nowhere to go. Was it evil? Yes. But was bringing up his mom evil? Obviously.
Why he was given a detention for expressing his opinion was beyond him. But he guessed that’s what catholic school was all about; conforming to their thoughts and beliefs. And if Benjamin was unable to do anything, it was conforming to other people’s thoughts and beliefs. So swell, he couldn’t wait to eat some strew and talk about religion and his mom and authority and blah, blah, blah. He needed a nap.
Sleep was not meant to come easy to Benjamin tonight. His problem was that he had too many thought bubbles hanging above his head, all demanding his attention at the same time. In one bubble was his conversation over stew. Not really a conversation, but more like a trial in which he was required to remain mute. His uncle yelled at him for being a pain in the ass smart aleck at school. ‘He didn’t spend his hard-earned money to send a pain in the ass through catholic school just so Benjamin could throw it all away.’
Even if Benjamin wanted to fight back, he couldn’t get a damn word in. Was it his idea to enroll in the local catholic institution? No. Was he actually happy in public school? Kinda. Did he have friends at his old school? Enough to satisfy him and make him look less like a loner. But now? No. He had nobody. He was odd. A little crazy. And he was the boy with the sixth sense. For about a year everyone called him Bruce Willis, until Benjamin finally snapped and yelled that Bruce Willis’ character was dead. DEAD. It was the young boy who had the sixth sense, AND BENJAMIN CAN’T SEE DEAD PEOPLE.
Not technically, at least. It’s not like he’s visited by the dead on a daily basis. He just gets to see when certain people are going to die, and if he knows who the person in his flash is, then he has the opportunity to save them. But what Benjamin has learned over the years is that nobody listens to a teenager who’s telling you that you’re going to die. They look at you like you’re growing twigs out of your head. So how many people has Benjamin actually saved? Well, one. Does this sadden him? Not in the least. It’s not like he doesn’t try to help.
The other bubble that was weighing down on him was in regards to the flash that came to him soon after leaving the retirement home. It was just a quick snapshot of what was bound to happen anytime from the following minute to the next couple of weeks. Never longer than two weeks. He saw a man who he was pretty certain he had recognized choking on something. And he hated choking flashes. Hated them. His hair was dark and wavy, his eyes were bulging, and he was wearing a diamond crusted cross around his neck. If anything said religious to Benjamin, it was a man who declared his allegiance with a crapload of expensive jewels. That’s what being a catholic was all about in his opinion: spending one’s money to build a lavish church, or wear the very best clothes to Sunday mass, or giving out a huge donation to the church. What should Catholicism be about? Giving to the poor? Sure, it’s nice to give a donation, but that doesn’t solve the problem. Jesus had it right, “give a man a fish, you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish, and you have fed him for a lifetime.” Was that Jesus? Hell, he went to catholic school and wasn’t even sure who he was reciting anymore. But still, that’s what Benjamin thought religion should be about, regardless of who and what you believed in. Unfortunately, he saw it all as a giant popularity contest, and he hated popularity contests.
Benjamin could feel a lump growing in his own throat and he swallowed it away. Unfortunately for the guy in the flash, Benjamin had no clue who he was. He had no way to warn him to what, stop eating solids? It sounded ridiculous even inside his head. Imagine how he’d sound if he ever actually met the guy. “Uh hey, sir, don’t eat anything, okay. Not on a day when you’re wearing a diamond encrusted cross, which I’m assuming is every day, and what I’m assuming is a striped dress shirt. Who am I? Just your friendly, neighborhood grim reaper. Now carry on with your day. Good luck.” Yea. He sounds insane. And unfortunately for the man in the flash, his passport had been stamped. Destination: Who knows where?
“I’m sending you away,” was how his aunt greeted him the following morning for breakfast. What the hell happened to a simple “good morning and hello”? Benjamin threw his bookbag on the floor next to the table set for one and slid into the chair. Grabbing the gallon of orange juice, he poured himself a glass and took a swig, ignoring his aunt completely. She was back at the stove again, flipping something or another that smelled like French toast. Her back remained turned to him.
When Benjamin didn’t respond, she turned, one hand on her hip, one holding a spatula, and leered at him. She was back in her spandex pants again, and he took another sip so as not to wince at her. He had no clue where she was sending him away to. If she was kicking him out, then swell. Sure he had nowhere to go, but he was almost eighteen. He had to grow up sometime. Perhaps his job at the movie theater would give him enough cash to rent a place on the other side of town. That whole area was pure crap from his view out in the glamorous side of suburbia where everyone’s houses were made of brick and cedar.
“Benjamin Robert, where the heck are you? I swear I just saw your eyes roll to the back of your head.”
He needed a quick response. “Thinking.”
He blew out a heavy sigh. “The goodness of God and all his creatures.”
She narrowed an eye at him. “God hates liars.”
He bared all his teeth in a cheesy grin. “But Satan loves them.”
She rolled her eyes and threw two pieces of French toast on his plate with a huff. He thanked her through his teeth as he reached for the syrup. She never once moved from his side. “My church is having teen weekend.”
Shit was the only word that came to mind to sum up his feelings for where this talk was going. He scooped up a major helping of his food and stuffed it into his mouth.
“I signed you up.”
No! He chewed his food as fast as he could so he could retaliate. He bit the side of his mouth instead, resulting in severe pain for such a stupid part of his body and a metallic taste that clashed with his food. Still, his injury was better than his aunt’s plan. He didn’t need a weekend with the Jesus freaks. Hell, wasn’t it enough that he was forced to spend seven hours every day with a school full of good catholics? And look how well that was working out for him. He had a nun who hated him. And peers who mocked him. He chewed and chewed, damning himself for attempting to swallow such a large portion, then stifling a laugh for damning himself as he was about to embark on bible thumping weekend.
“It’ll be good for you,” his aunt continued, knowing she had the upper hand while his mouth was full. He saw a hint of a smile on her face as she turned and walked back to the stove, twirling the spatula in her hand the entire way. If she hadn’t taken him in and raised him, he’d have smothered her for her schemes. But she did, and as much as he sometimes hated to admit it, he was under her roof. And there was no way his meager paycheck from the movie theater would pay for a rat-infested piece of crap apartment on the other side of town.
“I hate religious people.”
His aunt turned around so quickly that he found himself sinking deep into his chair. She walked towards him, using the spatula as her guide, her eyes narrow and dark. “Listen up, Benji. You’re uncle and I have raised you and loved you as our own. We’ve raised five children who are all outstanding members of the church. How can you possibly say you hate religious people?”
He shrugged. “They give me the creeps.” He had never been much of a follower. When he saw groups of people all participating in the same activity, he generally ran in the opposite direction. That’s why he never played soccer, or was a boy scout, or paid any attention to the priest when he was forced to attend mass on Sunday. He hated cult-like things, and church to him was a cult.
She looked at him pointedly. “You talk to the dead.”
“I don’t talk to the….God,” he shook his head and laughed. “You’re just as bad as everybody else.”
She raised the spatula at him like a sword. “You’re going. I’m not raising a Wiccan under my roof.”
“A Wiccan? Are you serious right now? When have I ever, EVER praised the devil? Not praying does not immediately mean I’m a devil worshipper. Geez.”
“Well maybe this weekend can help you understand what I thought we had already taught you. You go to a catholic high school for crying out loud.”
Benjamin sighed. Not this shit again. “I’m busy.”
They had a staring contest for a solid ten seconds before she looked away. Ha. He had won. At least one thing was going his way this morning. Damn tongue and bible thumping weekend.
“You’re lazy. And a heathen. You’re going or I swear to the Lord above that I’m going to kick you so far out of this house that you won’t know where you landed.”
“My mother would not approve.”
“Well she’s not here to make the tough choices. I am. And it’s my way or the highway.”
“But I have work.”
“My way or the highway, Benji.”
“I asked you not to call me that.”
“And I asked you to try this weekend out for me. Who knows, it might help you with your problems.”
“I don’t have any problems.”
“Honey, all you have is problems.”