“Falling. I remember falling.”
I looked over at the woman I was talking to. She lay huddled in her bed, a Bugs Bunny comforter pulled up until only defiant strands of chestnut hair were visible. And she was still half asleep if her lack of response to my predicament was any indication.
“Mmm-hmm. Keep going,” she said, her voice groggy and muffled under the bedspread.
“But that’s it. I don’t remember anything else.” When she didn’t reply, I glanced down at the nightgown I was wearing and tried to piece my memories together. What happened. How I got here. Where here was.
I turned and looked out the woman’s apartment window into the cool city night. I could make out streetlights and the dark shapes of buildings looming near, but everything was different now.
Concrete objects seemed distant, uncertain. The light emanating from lampposts seemed more a suggestion than an actuality. All light did except for hers, the woman’s, I realized, looking back at her.
She shimmered like liquid gold, sparkling and brilliant even through the comforter. And she was the only thing I could focus on, could really see.
Lithe fingers curled over the top of the blanket and a dark head appeared, eyes still closed, face glistening and incandescent. Her eyebrows slid together in groggy annoyance and she tossed an arm over them as though to block out the world. Soon her breathing evened out again, and I figured she’d fallen back asleep until she spoke.
“So that’s all you remember? Falling?”
Surprised, I straightened my shoulders. I was sitting on her dresser, as the only chair in the room sat buried under a pile of clothes. “Yes.”
“Considering the fact that you’re here,” she said, scrubbing her forehead with the back of her hand, “I’d say your stop was fairly sudden.”
I swallowed and licked my lips, but they had no taste, no texture, like I’d just been to the dentist.
With head bowed, I asked a question I already knew the answer to. “Am I dead?”
“As a doornail in August. What time is it?”
Stifling a hiccup of sadness, I looked at the clock on her nightstand, but the numbers, as familiar as they were, no longer made sense. It didn’t matter. She’d propped herself on an elbow and was peering at the clock from behind a mop of unruly hair. Then she looked back at me, and my breath caught. Her eyes were beautiful, deep set and bright gold. Looking at them through the long strands of her dark hair was like looking at a panther’s eyes through the heavy, sharp leaves of a jungle. The image was ethereal.
“Couldn’t you have died later?” she asked, her voice thick with fatigue. “Like around, say, nine-
I started to answer but realized she didn’t expect me to. She’d pushed off the bedspread to reveal a Blue Oyster Cult t-shirt and unfolded herself into a lengthy stretch accompanied by the loudest yawn I’d ever heard. But even that couldn’t break her spell completely, and I wondered what she was. Maybe she was an angel, I thought as she crawled out of bed and headed for the door.
Maybe she was stuck on earth, sent here to help those who had passed. What a noble creature.
“Wedgie alert,” she said before adjusting her boxer-like underwear.
I blinked and tried to turn away, but it happened so fast, I didn’t have time. Which was awkward for me, but she didn’t seem to mind it a bit.
“If we’re going to figure this out,” she said, holding up an index finger, “we need coffee and lots of it.”
I followed her into a tiny kitchen that made mine look like Carnegie Hall.
Wait, mine. My kitchen. I turned to her with a huge smile. “I have a kitchen. I remember it.”
“Wonderful,” she said, scooping coffee into a filter. “Unfortunately, so do about five billion other people. But it’s a start.”
“Yes,” I said, rounding her snack bar to have a look around. “But mine is much, much bigger, with terra cotta tile and granite countertops.”
She paused and leveled a hard gaze on me. “Are you dissing my kitchen?”
“No!” I said. I’d offended her. “Not at all. I was just trying to—”
“Just kidding.” She chuckled to herself. “I thought about expanding once, but my attention span isn’t long enough to see it through. Plus, I’m renting. You were saying?”
“Right.” I eyed her with the uncertainty of someone who’d bet on a horse only to find out it was missing a leg. “Who are you again?”
After setting the coffee pot to brew, she turned and offered me her full attention. “I have to warn you, it’s going to sound bad.”
Make that a three-legged, partially blind horse. “Okay.”
“My name is Charlotte Davidson, but call me Charley, and I’m the grim reaper.”
The breath in my lungs fled as I stood there, looking her up and down, trying to wrap my head around what she’d said.
She smiled knowingly. “Don’t worry. You don’t actually need to breathe. Do you like hazelnut?”
After a long moment, I asked, “What?”
“In your coffee?”
I blinked and glanced back at the pot. “I can drink coffee?”
“Oh, no. Sorry. I was just wondering if you liked hazelnut in it. You know, when you used to drink it.”
Swimming in a sea of confusion, I asked, “What does that have to do with anything?”
“Not a darned thing, sadly. Hazelnut rocks.” She reached into a cabinet for a cup. “But it might jog your memory. Do you like chocolate? Jelly beans? Crystal meth?”