Only two things in life are certain.
Guess which one I am.
—CHARLEY DAVIDSON, GRIM REAPER
I sat watching the Buy From Home Channel with my dead aunt Lillian and wondered what my life would’ve been like had I not just eaten an entire carton of Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Therapy with a mocha latte chaser. Probably about the same, but it was something to think about.
A midmorning sun filtered through the blinds and cut hard streaks of light across my body, casting me in an ultra-cool film noir effect. Since my life had definitely taken a turn toward the dark side, film noir fit. It would have fit even better if I weren’t wearing Star Wars pajama bottoms and a sparkly tank top that proudly proclaimed EARTH GIRLS ARE EASY. But I just didn’t have the energy that morning to change into something less inappropriate. I’d been having lethargy issues for a few weeks now. And I was suddenly a tad agoraphobic. Ever since a man named Earl tortured me.
The torture. Not his name.
My name, on the other hand, was Charlotte Davidson, but most people called me Charley.
“Can I talk to you, pumpkin cheeks?”
Or pumpkin cheeks, one of the many pet names involving the fall fruit that Aunt Lillian insisted on calling me. Aunt Lil had died sometime in the sixties, and I could see her because I’d been born the grim reaper, which basically meant three things: One, I could interact with dead people—those departed who didn’t cross over when they died—and usually did so on a daily basis. Two, I was super-duper bright to those in the spiritual realm, and the aforementioned dead people could see me from anywhere in the world. When they were ready to cross, they could cross through me. Which brought me to three—I was a portal from the earthly plane to what many refer to as heaven.
There was a tad more to it than that—including things I had yet to learn myself—but that was the basic gist of my day job. The one I didn’t actually get paid to do. I was also a PI, but that gig wasn’t paying the bills either. Not lately, anyway.
I rolled my head along the back of the sofa toward Aunt Lil, who was actually a great-aunt on my father’s side. A thin, elderly woman with soft gray eyes and pale blue hair, she was wearing her usual attire, as dead people rarely changed clothes: a leather vest over a floral muumuu and love beads, the ensemble a testament to her demise in the sixties. She also had a loving smile that tilted a bit south of kilter. But that only made me adore her all the more. I had a soft spot for crazy people. I wasn’t sure how the muumuu came into play, with her being so tiny and all—she looked like a pole with a collapsed tent gathered about her fragile hips—but who was I to judge?
“You can absolutely talk to me, Aunt Lil.” I tried to straighten but couldn’t get past the realization that movement of any kind would take effort. I’d been sitting on one sofa or another for two months, recovering from the torture thing. Then I remembered that the cookware I’d been waiting for all morning was up next. Surely Aunt Lil would understand. Before she could say anything, I raised a finger to put her in pause mode. “But can our talk wait until the stone-coated cookware is over? I’ve been eyeing this cookware for a while now. And it’s coated. With stone.”
“You don’t cook.”
She had a point. “So what’s up?” I propped my bunny-slippered feet on the coffee table and crossed my legs at the ankles.
“I’m not sure how to tell you this.” Her breath hitched, and she bowed her blue head.
I straightened in alarm despite the energy it took. “Aunt Lil?”
She tucked her chin in sadness. “I—I think I’m dead.”
I blinked. Stared at her a moment. Then blinked again.
“I know.” She sniffled into the massive sleeve of her muumuu, and the love beads shifted soundlessly with the movement. Inanimate objects in death carried an eerie silence. Like mimes. Or that scream Al Pacino did in The Godfather: Part III when his daughter died on those steps. “I know, I know.” She patted my shoulder in consolation. “It’s a lot to absorb.”
Aunt Lillian died long before I was born, but I had no idea if she knew that or not. Many departed didn’t. Because of this doubt, I’d never mentioned it. For years, I’d let her make me invisible coffee in the mornings or cook me invisible eggs; then she’d go off on another adventure. Aunt Lil was still sowing her wild oats. A world traveler, that one. And she rarely stayed in one place very long. Which was good. Otherwise, I’d never get real coffee in the mornings. Or the twelve other times during the day I needed a java fix. If she were around more often, I’d go through caffeine withdrawal on a regular basis. And get really bad headaches.
But maybe now that she knew, I could explain the whole coffee thing.
I was curious enough about her death to ask, “Do you know how you died? What happened?”
According to my family, she’d died in a hippie commune in Madrid at the height of the flower power revolution. Before that, she really had been a world traveler, spending her summers in South America and Europe and her winters in Africa and Australia. And she’d continued that tradition even after her death, traveling far and wide. Passport no longer needed. But no one could really tell me how she died exactly. Or what she did for a living. How she could afford to do all that traveling when she was alive. I knew she’d been married for a while, but my family didn’t know much about her husband. My uncle thought he might’ve been an oil tycoon from Texas, but the family had lost contact, and nobody knew for certain.