Lois Cloarec Hart
Leah grimaced at the noise emanating from the party across the hall. The apartment block was old, and the walls between units were thin, but even if had they been made of cinderblock, it would have been impossible for it to absorb the sounds of raucous partying. It had started over an hour ago, and judging by the volume of traffic outside her door, included most of the tenants in the small building. Not her though. Never her.
She briefly considered calling the superintendent, as futile as she knew that would be, then wryly decided that in light of her plans for the evening, a little noise wasn’t going to make much difference.
Returning her attention to her ancient PC, Leah reviewed the letter she had just finished. It was much shorter than the other five that were now neatly printed, signed, sealed in envelopes, and stacked on her desk, but then those were for family, and this one was to her boss. She had considered whether she should even write this particular letter, but her boss had been good to her, and she felt she owed the woman an explanation, as well as an apology for leaving her short-handed at such a busy time in the office.
After changing a couple of words, she hit the print button. As her printer groaned into action, Leah surveyed the neat arrangement on the top of her desk and rechecked her list to ensure she hadn’t forgotten anything.
“You haven’t. After all, you are meticulous to a fault. Even your own mother says that.”
Leah sprang backwards, her chair thudding against the wall as she frantically scanned her tiny apartment for the source of the voice. She found it in an instant, lounging indolently on her couch, and her mouth fell open in amazement.
The silver-haired, silver-eyed apparition raised one eyebrow and glanced down the length of her own sleek body. “What? Did I forget a button or something?”
“I — who — what — why are you — how did you get — who the hell are you?”
“Almost all of the five ‘w’s’, very good. You really should’ve gone to journalism school instead of taking office management.” The phantasm nodded approvingly, then yawned and lazily swung her long legs over the side of the couch as she stretched her slender arms over the back cushions. “Now if you’d like to rephrase your question in a somewhat more coherent fashion?”
“Who in God’s name are you?”
The specter smiled. “Funny you should ask.” She suddenly whipped a hand towards Leah, who flinched and instinctively covered her face. When nothing happened, she reluctantly dropped her hands and saw a large, glittering, opalescent badge seemingly hanging in mid-air in front of her face.
“Agent 713, GRD, at your service, but you can just call me Jeri.”
The badge disappeared as instantaneously as it had appeared, and Leah was no further enlightened than she had been. “GRD?”
“Grim Reaper Division.”
“Grim Reaper? Then you’re Dea...”
“Not exactly. I’m just a senior operative, pulling the night shift for this district. Sucks, too. I had plans for tonight, but Agent 12086 whined his way out of duty, so I got the call-up.”
Leah shrank back in her chair and Jeri looked at her curiously. “Hey, look, there’s no hurry or anything. Take your time. Finish your arrangements. Make some phone calls. Watch some television, if you want. It’s cool. I’ll just hang out and wait for you.”
“This isn’t happening.”
“Look, kid, I wasn’t the one who made the decision. We just pick up afterwards, so to speak.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be...I don’t know...nicer, or something?”
“Nah, you got us confused with the GADs.”
“Yeah, the Guardian Angel Division. They don’t do suicides. That falls to the GRDs, and that would be me, at least tonight. 12086 better get his ass back on duty tomorrow night, though. I’m not putting off my plans again, especially since I did my time in the trenches eons ago.”
“But why can I see you? Is that normal?”
“No, actually it’s not. Kinda surprised me too, but the separation between planes of existence is never as wide as most folks assume. I’m sure you’re familiar with legends of ghosts rattling their chains, troubled spirits haunting the places that they lived… Am I losing you here?”
Leah shook her head numbly.
“Good, cuz I don’t mind answering questions or anything, but I didn’t mean to interrupt you. You just go ahead. You’ll find out all this stuff soon enough anyway, especially the troubled spirit stuff.”
“I’m...I’ll be a ghost?”
“Well, you aren’t exactly leaving this life peacefully, are you? You’re going to leave some big hurts behind, and that’ll count against you.”
“No, I’m not. No one is going to give a damn!”
Jeri looked pointedly at the small pile of sealed and stamped envelopes. “Uh huh. So your mom and dad, your brothers, and your favourite cousin — they’re not going to give a rat’s ass that you offed yourself?”
Leah dropped her head in shame. That had been the biggest sticking point in her planning. When she had finally made the decision, she had, as was her wont, carefully examined every aspect. She had considered all manner of means, even going up to the rooftop of the building to check things out before rejecting jumping. There was always a chance that someone might inadvertently get hit when she threw herself off, and besides, she couldn’t bear the thought of being a public spectacle. That had also been the reason she had eliminated the idea of stepping in front of a subway train. She didn’t own a gun, had no beam from which to hang herself, and so had finally settled on a quiet death in her own tub. She had already set out the razor as well as the bathing suit she planned to wear; she didn’t wish her naked corpse to be the butt of gawking eyes.
She knew she would be missed at work on Monday, since she had never been absent a single day, so her body would be found fairly quickly, minimizing the nasty aftereffects. She had neatly laid out a note for the police telling them who to contact, and had left a letter detailing her final wishes alongside the necessary documents her family would need to settle her affairs. She ensured that her bankbook — which contained sufficient funds for a simple burial, the keys to her modest car, and passwords for her computer and bank accounts were all accounted for. She even packed up most of her belongings in boxes for easy disposal. Writing the letters had been the last, and most difficult step.
No matter how much she tried to convince herself that her family was better off without her, Leah knew that they would never understand, and never forgive themselves for what she was going to do. But even knowing the grief she was going to cause those she loved most, she couldn’t set aside the longing to be gone from a world in which she just couldn’t seem to find a place to fit.
“Shit, not again! Are they repaving the whole damned city?”
As traffic slowed to a crawl for the third time since she had left her office, Dara slammed her steering wheel in frustration.
“Ouch! Yeah, that’ll help. Breaking your hand is sure to get traffic moving again.”
Dara sucked on her stinging fingers for a second as she grumbled to herself. It had been a long day at the office, and she had been looking forward to going home since about two p.m. However, just as they were about to close, a distraught man had come into the constituency office with a serious problem and she hadn’t had the heart to shoo the poor fellow away just because it was almost closing time. The man’s son had been arrested while traveling in Thailand, and he was frantic to get information on how he could get the young man legal assistance and bail him out.
Her colleagues had left with a wink and grin, as Dara made phone call after phone call trying to get the pertinent information. She had eventually confirmed that late afternoon on a Friday wasn’t the best time to try and contact anyone in authority, and she had finally had to tell him to return first thing on Monday, when she would try again.
With traffic stalled, Dara glanced sideways at the leather carry-all on the passenger seat, reassuring herself that she had brought the reference material that she would need to dig a little deeper. She hoped to use the information to have the problem solved by the time the constituent returned on Monday, but at the moment it was the two envelopes tucked into the side pocket that brought a smile to her face. The letters didn’t belong to her, but they might finally buy her an introduction to her shy neighbour — the one she had been fruitlessly trying to get to know for the last month.
Dara had noticed Leah almost immediately after moving into the building four months earlier. They often left for work at the same time, and she always made a point of saying hello. The other woman always replied politely, but her eyes were usually downcast and Dara hadn’t been able to get a read on her. That the reticent stranger was deeply introverted was certain, and there had been scant opportunity for the newcomer to assuage her curiosity.
Her neighbour hadn’t initially set off Dara’s gaydar, but she had been stunned at the sight of Leah dining at the Raintree Women’s Club with Georgia Nichols a month earlier. In fact, that sighting was what had kindled her latent interest in Leah. Dara knew from firsthand experience that Georgia was a shark in a thousand dollar suit. The high-powered corporate lawyer was a “love ’em quickly, and leave ’em even faster” kind of woman, and not someone she would have pictured Leah with in a million years.
Dara had been with a group of friends celebrating a birthday that night, so she hadn’t kept a close eye on the unlikely duo. When she had happened by their table an hour after the initial sighting, they had already gone. The next morning when she encountered Leah in the hallway, she had been tempted to say something about seeing her the night before and ask how she had enjoyed the club, but something in the other woman’s pale, drawn face left Dara’s friendly words stillborn. Her first instinct was to sympathize, sure that Georgia had taken advantage of her withdrawn neighbour, but she was fairly certain that even such a small kindness would be unwelcome.
Now, fortuitously, the mailman had erroneously stuck Miss Leah Garrison’s mail in her box, an easy enough mistake since they lived next to each other in apartments 404 and 406. Dara had been carrying the two envelopes around for three days, carefully planning on how and when to return them.
Tonight was to be the night, which was why it was doubly frustrating that she was so late arriving home from work. Dara had envisioned dropping by with the mail, and casually asking if Leah would like to join her for dinner at a nearby café. She didn’t doubt that the woman would be home. Her quiet neighbour didn’t seem to have any social life at all, except for that one date four weeks previous.
As the traffic slowly started to move, Dara glanced at the car’s chronometer, and addressed the plastic, bobble-headed hockey player perched on her dash. “Not even nine yet, Gretz. There’s still time. And if she’s already eaten, I’ll just ask her out for a drink or a late movie or something.”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
Jeri snorted. “Right. Like I haven’t already seen every permutation of grief and despair in the universe. I’ve been on this gig for more millennia than I care to remember. I’ve seen things that would curdle your soul, kid, so don’t be telling me that I wouldn’t understand.”
Leah took refuge in frustrated silence.
“Tell me, anyone planning to burn you at the stake, or draw and quarter you in the town square just because you’re a little different from the other village women?”
“No, of course not.”
“Uh huh. Anyone threatening to use a hot poker on your mother’s eyes and tongue if you don’t recant something you know to be true?”
“Your daddy forcing you to marry a fat old pervert forty years your senior, because your husband-to-be can afford to buy some nubile young flesh and you rank lower than the family cow on the scale of things?”
“You know that’s not the case.”
“Then what’s so bad about your life that you want to end it?”
“I thought you knew everything.”
“Well, I would if I’d read your whole file, but I just scanned it to pick up the salient details. You know: name, place of residence, expected time of death, disposal of soul — that stuff I got nailed. I told you — you weren’t even supposed to be my case.”
“I know. 12086 pulled a fast one on you and he’d better not think he can do it twice.”
That actually got a smile from Jeri. “There you go.”
Leah had tried to explain herself to her family in the letters, but was certain that she had been as ineloquent on paper as she normally was in person. Suddenly she felt an urge to clarify her situation once and for all, even if the one hearing her explication was only this bizarre apparition.
She tried simplicity. “I don’t fit.”
“So? Who does?”
“You and six billion other people. Get a cat or a dog or a goldfish. Buck up and get on with your life... Not that it matters to me one way or another.”
“Pets aren’t allowed here, and even if they were, it wouldn’t be enough.”
“So — what? You want real live people in your life?”
“You’ve got family and friends. You should be grateful. Some people don’t even have that, and many that do would gladly trade places with you just to be shed of them.”
“You’re not listening!”
“You’re not saying much that makes sense.”
Leah stared angrily at Jeri, who was watching her in a cool but attentive manner. “I want one special someone — who loves me above all others; who cares if I wake up and don’t feel well, or get home too exhausted to make dinner; whose eyes light up when I walk into the room.”
Jeri shrugged. “So, go get that someone. What’s the hang-up?”
“It’s not that easy. I moved here six years ago to look for work, and I still don’t really know anyone except the people at my job, and they’re all too busy with their own lives to even ask me over for Sunday dinner. I thought that, over time, I’d meet people, make friends, maybe find that certain someone to settle down with. But it never happened. I don’t know how to talk to people here. Hell, I don’t know how to talk to people anywhere, even at home — where I knew everyone because I’d lived there all my life. I left home because I knew I had to get to a bigger place, but I don’t know where to go to meet people like me.
The specter idly scratched her nose. “Leaving home doesn’t make much sense to me. Seems to me if everyone you loved was back there, it wasn’t the smartest move to come to the big city, so why’d you do it?”
“Because I didn’t fit there.”
“We’re back to that again, are we?”
“Why, cuz you’re queer?”
Leah winced. “They don’t exactly recruit you GRDs on the basis of your diplomatic skills, do they?”
“Nope, not a lot of call for diplomacy in my profession. But you evaded my question.”
“That’s only part of it. Sure, I didn’t go to the Senior Prom at home, or anything else for that matter, but I thought it would change when I moved here. I’ve gone to a few bars and clubs over the years, but no one even talked to me. I mean, I know I’m no supermodel or anything, but I don’t shatter mirrors either, do I?”
Jeri surveyed her critically. “Well, you might want to try walking to work occasionally rather than driving all the time, but other than that, you pass muster pretty well.”
Leah self-consciously crossed her arms over her stomach. She had been trying to shed the same twenty pounds for as long as she could remember, with little success. She caught herself briefly considering walking to work on Monday, then remembered that she wouldn’t be going to work on Monday, or ever again.
“Look, kid, this is certainly not my field of expertise — way too touchy-feely for me, but at a guess I’d say it’s the vibes you’re throwing off, not the way you look.”
“Yeah, you know — you’ve got this combination ice queen/scared rabbit thing happening. You’re not exactly inviting people inside the stockade here. It would take a woman with a lot of guts and a lot of compassion to get past your steel walls. You probably just haven’t met her yet, or you’ve been looking in the wrong places.”
“I met a woman six weeks ago.”
Leah’s voice was so seared it even made Jeri flinch, and she responded with unexpected gentleness. “What happened, kid?”
From where she sat in the endless traffic jam, Dara could now see her apartment block, and once again she shook her head over how nondescript the place was. She had taken the apartment because it was cheap and available, and on most days, not too far from her new job. Plus, if she got the promotion she was hoping for, she would be moving out of town in another year anyway. For now though, dowdy as it was, it was home, and had its undeniable attractions.
Dara smiled, and as she so often did, began to reflect on her neighbour. With increasing frequency, she had found herself waiting in the morning until she heard Leah’s door open, then she would briskly stride out, lock her door behind her and casually join the quiet woman for the short elevator ride to the basement garage. And each time she stepped into the hall and saw those soft dark eyes glance her way, a tingle started in her belly that lasted almost all the way to work.
“Oh yeah, I’ve got it bad. Who’d have thunk it, eh, Gretz? God, I’m going to get so razzed about this!”
Dara’s diverse circle of friends never tired of teasing her about her inflexible work ethic, and chiding her for not slowing down enough to enjoy some romance. She always countered good-naturedly that she only had so much free time, and if she got seriously involved with a woman, she wasn’t going to have any time for them.
In her heart though, Dara knew that wasn’t true. If the right woman came along — if Leah were that woman — she would make time for all the things and people in her life. She just hadn’t found any woman yet who was more interesting than her political work. She had enjoyed campaigning for her Member of Parliament as much as she reveled in running his constituency office. She loved solving problems and untying the Gordian knot of government red tape for the riding’s constituents. It was the most satisfying job she had ever had, and she was well aware that her boss was grooming her for higher things. She expected a summons to Ottawa as soon as there was an opening on his personal staff, and she felt the hours she was putting in were well worth it for the experience she was accruing.
Solemnly, Dara addressed the bobble-head figure. “So, what do you think, Gretz? Is she the one?” Tapping the plastic head, the doll agreeably nodded his assent. “You know, you could be right. Heaven knows I’ve never made such a fool of myself over anyone else. Hey, you don’t think she’s worried about me stalking her, do you?”
The affirmative bobble slowed but was still apparent, and Dara sheepishly considered her own behaviour. Sure she timed her morning departures with Leah’s, and yes, she usually carried on a cheerful, one-sided conversation with the woman until they parted in the basement garage. And as it happened, she did shop at the same grocery store that her neighbour did, but really, that was only because it was the only one within five kilometres of their building.
Dara grinned as she remembered an occasion at the supermarket two months earlier, before she had even developed much of an interest in her neighbour. She had been behind her in line at the cashier, and noticed a big bag of cat food in Leah’s basket. Curious, because she knew no pets were allowed in the building, she had lingered in her car when they arrived back at the apartment a few minutes apart. She had watched Leah carry the bag to the back door of the garage and disappear from view.
After her neighbour returned with an opened bag under her arm, and left the garage with the rest of her groceries, Dara traced Leah’s route. It had taken a bit of searching, but outside the back door she found what she was looking for. Tucked away in the shadow of a concrete corner, half a dozen mangy stray cats were jostling for a place at a big bowl of cat food. Charmed by Leah’s unexpected compassion, Dara had lingered for a moment, then left the felines to their feast.
“I’d like to get her a kitten, Gretz. I’ll bet if I slipped the super a couple of twenties, he’d overlook the rules, eh?”
Dara tapped the bobble-head again, and grinned at the reinforcement. The sound of a horn blasting from behind her woke her up to the fact that she had been daydreaming through the resumption of traffic moving. Hastily she drove forward until once again she was creeping along behind the pick-up in front of her.
“I know, Gretz. I’m jumping the gun a bit, eh? Let’s see how tonight goes first.”
The pain and humiliation were still so overwhelming that Leah couldn’t stop the tears that filled her eyes or the lump that closed her throat. Jeri said nothing, obviously waiting for her to compose herself, but Leah thought she detected compassion in the odd silvery eyes. Clinging to that, she forced herself to speak.
“There was this lawyer — her name was Georgia — who was doing some legal work for my company, so for a couple of weeks she was always in and out of the office. She was nice to me. I mean she didn’t treat me like an airhead answering phones like some of them do. I didn’t even really clue in that she was flirting with me.”
“You had no idea?”
“I had nothing to compare it to. I thought she was just a friendly woman, so when she asked me out on a date after a couple of weeks, I almost passed out from shock.”
“But you agreed to go out with her?”
“She brought me flowers. No one had ever given me flowers before.” Leah looked at Jeri helplessly, but the apparition just nodded encouragingly. “I didn’t know what to do. Truthfully, I don’t actually remember saying yes, but I must’ve, because the next thing I knew she was getting my address from me and telling me what time she’d pick me up.”
Leah dropped her gaze and stared at her hands. The mortifying memories assailing her made her cringe inwardly as she whispered, “That night...”
“Gotta speak up, kid. At my age, the ears are the first thing to go.”
Clearing her throat, Leah tried again. “It was a Tuesday. Maybe she was bored or something, or she was saving her first string pick-ups for the weekend.”
Leah laughed bitterly. “Ouch, is right, but believe me, I don’t have any illusions left.”
She fell silent until Jeri prompted her. “It was a Tuesday...”
“Right. She was supposed to pick me up at eight. Said we had reservations at a club she liked. I was so nervous... Hell, I was scared to death. I had to take two showers while I was getting ready because I was sweating so much.”
“Why were you so scared?”
Leah shot Jeri a look of disbelief. “You’re kidding right? I mean, she practically oozed sensuality, and she was as gorgeous as you are. Women that look like you two don’t generally give me the time of day.”
“I’d always give you the time of day.”
“Fat lot of good that does me. You’re here to bear my soul away to spend eternity in some God-forsaken purgatory.”
Jeri opened her mouth as if to object, then shut it abruptly.
“And she...well, she maybe did something even worse.”
“She didn’t hurt you, did she?”
“Physically? No, she never even touched me.”
“Okaaaaay. So what happened?”
“I didn’t have time to buy anything new, but I put on my best outfit and my mom’s diamond earrings, and curled my hair, so I thought I looked pretty decent.”
“I’m sure you were beautiful.”
“Right. So beautiful that she couldn’t keep her eyes off me — not.”
“I sense that things began to go downhill from there.”
“That’s a pretty accurate assessment. She barely talked to me on the way to dinner, but once there she talked to half the women in the club. Never introduced me once. I wondered if she even remembered my name.”
“And at dinner?”
Leah dug her fingernails into her palms, hoping the physical pain would ease the emotional, but it didn’t work. Taking deep breaths to steady herself, she continued her story.
“I don’t talk a lot, you know? I’m not used to carrying on stimulating conversations with glamourous, worldly women. It’s not that I don’t know lots about what’s going on the world, but even my family will cut me off in the middle of a story I’m telling, so I know that scintillating conversation and sparkling repartee aren’t exactly my strong suits. Usually that’s okay. I can go whole weekends without saying a word and not mind a bit, but this time I wanted to impress her. I tried so hard. I’d made myself up a little crib note with things I thought might interest her that I could converse intelligently about.”
“Sounds like a decent strategy.”
“I thought it would be, and I knew I should ask her lots of questions and let her talk about herself.”
Jeri chuckled. “You’ve been reading dating advice in women’s magazines, haven’t you?”
Leah blushed, but nodded.
“So what happened?”
“I was only on the third subject when it became very apparent that she had absolutely no interest in the things I’d listed.”
“So, did you switch to asking her about herself?”
“I tried, but the more I knew I was boring her, the more flustered I got, and the more I stumbled over and mixed up my words. By the time we finished our salads, she must’ve thought she was sitting with a moron.”
“Aiyee, not so good.”
“Gee, you think?”
“Did the evening end early?”
“You could say that. We’d barely begun our main meal when she got a phone call, summoning her away. She apologized, paid for our meals and left me cab fare, then she was gone. I felt like such a fool sitting there by myself.”
“Well, these things happen, I guess. You said she was a busy woman.”
“You don’t get it. The company I work for is a nationwide cellular company. They offer a service called Dump-a-Date. Subscribers pay a monthly fee, and if they’re going out on a blind date, they can arrange for a phone call in the middle of it. If things are going well, they just answer and hang up like it was a wrong number. If things are going badly — like if they’re bored out of their minds — then an automated menu will offer a convenient cover story for having to leave quickly.”
“You can’t be sure that’s what happened. It could’ve been legit.”
Leah shook her head despairingly. “On the phone she used exactly the words that my company programs into the Dump-a-Date as responses. Exactly! I remember the programmers laughing over it when they first set it up. The program tells you what to say, and you just repeat what you’re hearing. Voila! No more boring date.”
“That sucks big time, Leah, but everyone has had bad dating experiences, at least so I’ve heard thousands of times. That’s no reason to kill yourself.”
A bleak gaze was Jeri’s answer, and the apparition frowned. “Seriously. So you met one bad apple. That doesn’t mean the next one will —”
“I’m thirty-six. Georgia was the first one ever to ask me out. And I was such a dud that she couldn’t even be bothered to finish the date. I knew that maybe she was only interested in one night — that’s one of the things that had me so nervous — but I was such a loser, I wasn’t even worth trying to take for a tumble.”
Jeri was silent for a long moment, then she reminded Leah, “You said earlier that she maybe did something even worse than...you know.”
“Spending eternity abandoned in some purgatory?”
“Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but she did take away the last hope I had. I’ve always kind of held on to a glimmer of belief that I just hadn’t met the right woman yet, that it was just a matter of time and being patient. I kept hoping that somewhere, somehow, I’d open my eyes and she’d be standing there, smiling at me, and I’d know she was the one.”
“I think you should hold on to that, Leah.”
Leah frowned at the urgency in the apparition’s voice. “Why? Apparently I wasn’t even worth the effort it would’ve taken for a lowlife like Georgia to score, and believe me, I was so in awe of her at first that it wouldn’t have taken much. Obviously no decent woman will give me a second glance, and even if a miracle happened and such a woman did ask me out, do you think I’d have the guts to say yes?”
“So you’re taking the coward’s way out.”
A stubborn look crossed Leah’s face as she stiffened in her chair and planted her hands firmly on the desk. “I’m making an informed choice, and it’s my choice to make. I didn’t come to the decision overnight. I weighed everything carefully, and finally decided that I simply can’t face another five or six empty, lonely decades.”
“You might change your mind, only to find it’s too late.”
“Why the hell do you care? I thought you said it didn’t matter to you one way or the other?”
Jeri hesitated, started to speak, then closed her mouth firmly.
“Anyway, I don’t even know if you’re really here. Maybe I’ve already done the deed and you’re just a figment of my dying brain.”
“I’ve never been called that before. Next thing I know you’ll be calling me an undigested bit of beef.” Jeri laughed ruefully, then turned serious. “Look, I’m not supposed to get involved or anything, but let me make a suggestion. Give it a couple more days, even a week or more. Consider your options a little more intently. There are other ways to meet people, you know. You could think about maybe getting involved in volunteer work, or joining some clubs or a church or something. It’s worth a try, and what does it matter if you die today or a few months from now? At least you’ll have given it your best shot.”
Leah shook her head. “I’ve already given it my best shot, Jeri. I’ve been trying for thirty-six years. I’m bone-tired of always trying and falling short. I just want some peace. I don’t want to hurt any more.”
She stood, and Jeri looked at her with barely concealed apprehension. “What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to go mail my letters.”
“You know the answer to that question. It’s why you’re here, isn’t it?”
Leah ignored the phantom’s unintelligible, mumbled response, and took the last letter off the printing tray. She signed it, sealed it in the addressed envelope, and gathered up the other five letters. Ignoring Jeri, who had fallen silent, she grabbed her apartment key and steadily walked over to the door.
At the door Leah turned around, feeling that she should at least thank the apparition for her kind, if fruitless, encouragement, only to see Jeri fading away, a gentle smile on her ethereal face. Within seconds her apartment was empty again, and she blinked at how dull it seemed. She hadn’t realized the magnitude of the radiance her unexpected guest had been projecting. Shaking her head and wondering if she had imagined the entire exchange, she opened the door, locked it behind her, and went to press the elevator button.
As Dara approached the garage elevators, she almost jumped when one of the doors opened without her having to summon it. In all the time she had lived there, she had always had to wait at least five minutes for either of the two balky lifts. “Huh. Wonder if the super actually got off his butt and fixed the blasted things.”
Seriously doubting that the lazy man, who always smelled of corn chips and beer, would’ve bothered, she stepped inside and punched the button for the first floor. She wanted to check her box before she went upstairs, reasoning that it would look more plausible if she had her own mail in hand when she went to return Leah’s. No need for her neighbour to know that Dara had been carrying Leah’s letters around for three days already.
The tingle of anticipation had already started, and she momentarily worried that she would be so excited that she would get tongue-tied when she knocked on the door of 404, then she laughed at the very notion.
“Right! Like you couldn’t talk a politician out of a tax increase if you tried.”
Finding words — using words — overflowing with words hadn’t been a problem for her since she had started talking at fourteen months. She had even been given her own room as a child, because all of her siblings complained that she kept them up until all hours when she wouldn’t stop talking.
Finding the right words this night though, that might be a whole other matter. Dara sensed that she would have to tread carefully with her shy neighbour, and for the first time in her life, she worried that words might fail her.
“Please, if you’re listening, don’t let me say the wrong thing, okay?”
There was no answer from on high, just the rumble of the elevator as it jerked to a stop, depositing her on the ground floor. Crossing the lobby, Dara halted in front of the wall of mailboxes. She had just inserted her key when she heard the other elevator stop and the doors open. Casually glancing over her shoulder, she almost dropped her carry-all when she saw Leah walking toward her with several letters in her hand.
Leah looked up to see her vivacious next-door neighbour smiling at her. “Um, hi.”
“Hey, I’m glad I ran into you. Our dyslexic mailman put your letters in my mailbox yesterday, and I thought it might be safest if I returned them myself.”
The woman extended a couple of envelopes with a cheery grin, and Leah accepted, giving them a cursory glance.
“Bills, eh? Honestly if it weren’t for bills and junk mail, I swear I’d never have anything in my box at all.”
Leah gave the other woman a polite smile and waited for her to move, as she was blocking the out mailbox.
“I know we haven’t met formally, but heavens, given how many times we’ve ridden the elevator together, I think I should introduce myself. Dara Stoddard, at your service.”
“Leah Garrison. And um, thank you for not throwing these away with the rest of the junk mail.”
“You’re most welcome, but I have to confess I didn’t just do it just for you. I quailed at the thought of what the Postmaster General would do to me if I violated the sanctity of the mail by cavalierly tossing it aside. I’m way too young to swab floors, carve shivs, and practice kung fu to fend off attacks in the communal shower room for the rest of my life. Besides, I’d look really terrible in one of those orange jumpsuits. Could there be anything less flattering?”
Despite herself and her grim errand, Leah couldn’t help smiling at the quick, nonsensical patter. She had long ago noticed that her irrepressible neighbour seemed to bubble over with words, and she had often envied the woman her gregarious ease. She had even come to enjoy the brief morning encounters when Dara would ride down to the garage with her, riffing on whatever happened to strike her lively mind.
“No, you’re probably right. They’re pretty ugly.”
“Obviously a woman of good taste.” Dara beamed at Leah, but still didn’t move.
Suddenly the buzzer sounded to open the front door, and three people burst into the lobby and jogged over to the elevators. The women watched as a young man dropped a case of beer, only to be cuffed by one of his companions before they stumbled into the elevator.
Dryly, Leah warned, “I should probably tell you that there’s a big party going on in 405, so I wouldn’t bank on getting to sleep anytime soon.”
Dara groaned. “Terrell and JT’s place? Lord, we’ll be lucky if they wrap things up before dawn.”
“We can always hope they run out of beer.”
“Knowing JT, he hauled half a dozen kegs upstairs before it even started.”
Leah looked down at her letters, and commented shyly, “You could always drop by the party. I’m sure they’d be glad to have you, and then the noise wouldn’t bother you so much.”
“Thanks for the suggestion, but they’re not exactly my kind of company.”
“No. Personally, I like quieter company, of the female persuasion. Leah...would you be interested in getting away from all the noise? Maybe take in a movie, grab a bite to eat or something?”
Startled, Leah just stared at Dara in amazement. Was she... Is she asking me on a... No, that can’t be it.
She was silent so long that Dara blushed and apologized. “I’m sorry. That was forward of me. I shouldn’t have made assumptions. It’s just that I saw you at the Raintree Club once and I thought... Well, I guess I thought wrong. Not the first time. I’m sure it won’t be the last. Again, I do apologize.” She stepped out of Leah’s way, closed her mailbox and dropped the key into her carry-all.
Give it a couple more days, even a week or more. What does it matter if you die today or a few months from now? At least you’ll have given it your best shot.
Jeri’s words echoed in her mind, and Leah reached out to touch Dara’s arm as the obviously chagrined woman tried to step past her.
“You weren’t wrong. It was just...well, I had something I was planning to do tonight, and I never anticipated...”
“Sometimes unanticipated invitations can be the most rewarding.”
Dara’s words were soft, and the women just stood looking at each other. Leah finally realized that her hand was still on the other woman’s arm, and she slowly withdrew it.
“I really would like it very much if you joined me tonight. I’ve wanted an excuse to get to know you —even as friends, if that’s all you’re interested in.”
A friend. It was a beginning, wasn’t it? Leah could almost hear Jeri’s laugh in her ears. I guess I can wait. What’s the difference really — tonight or tomorrow or a month from now.
I believe I may have mentioned that exact thing.
Leah jumped at the sound of Jeri’s unmistakable and distinctly smug voice echoing in her head, and Dara looked at her questioningly.
Good luck, kid.
Shaking off the aural invasion, Leah smiled at Dara. “I think I’d like that.”
“So that’s a yes? You’d like to go out?”
“Yes, I’d very much like to go out with you.”
“Wonderful! Now, you have to tell me if I’m talking too much, okay? It’s a bad habit of mine; everyone tells me so.”
Leah felt a sense of peace settle over her. So she could listen — just listen — and she knew Dara wouldn’t think less of her for it.
“Let’s go up so I can change, okay? I just got home from work and I don’t want to go out in skirt and heels. Give me jeans and boots any old day.”
The women crossed the lobby and were standing waiting for the elevator when Dara pointed to Leah’s letters. “Whoops! I was talking so much I made you forget to post your out mail.”
Leah stared at the exit letters, all neatly addressed, stamped, and ready to be sent, then she slowly shook her head. “No. I don’t think I’ll mail them tonight. Maybe later...maybe never.”
Dara looked at her in confusion, then shrugged. “Okay, your call. Hey, any idea what movie you might like to see?”
“Not really. I’m open to suggestions.”
“Well, the Bijou has been doing a month-long revival of classic fright flicks. I think they’re showing the original Halloween tonight. A young Jamie Lee and hot buttered popcorn — who could ask for more, right?”
The elevator arrived and they stepped inside as Leah chuckled. “Jamie Lee and popcorn, eh? How could I possibly refuse?”
The closing doors cut off Dara’s joyful laughter.
“You cut it very close, Jericho.”
“Tell me about it. That wasn’t my intention, believe me.”
“It all worked out in the end, though, and that’s all that matters.”
“True, but she had me worried there for a while,” Jericho admitted.
“Free will can be both a blessing and a curse.”
“Yes, but that sure makes it sweeter when they choose well.”
“It does.” The thunderous yet gentle voice now echoed amusement. “And Jericho, ‘Grim Reaper Division’? I wasn’t aware that you were such a talented improvisational artist.”
“Yeah, I know. I was flying by the tips of my wings on that one, but like You said, whatever works, and I had to delay her — get her really thinking.”
“You did well.”
“Thank You. Will she be all right now?”
“You know that’s for her to decide. You gave her another chance. That’s all you can do.”
“I hope she makes it. She’s got a good heart under all the pain.”
“She has. Have faith in that.”
“I will. I do.”
“Then all is as it should be, Jericho. And now I have another assignment for you...”