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One foot in the grave, p.2

One Foot in the Grave, page 2

 

One Foot in the Grave
 


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  “I’m not afraid of dogs either.” As sad as it is, I kind of agree with him. I mean, look how fast Carl moved on.

  Dad frowns. “I don’t want my little girl to grow up to be a mechanic. You’re going to college.”

  I roll my eyes. “There’s nothing wrong with being a mechanic. They make a killing. But for your information I’m not interested in being a grease monkey. And I am going to college.” I say that with confidence, because I’ve already researched school loans.

  The one time I brought up getting a school loan, he said no, that he could afford it. But I know after his time on the unemployment list, money is in short supply.

  Which is part of my reason for taking auto tech. I don’t want Dad to have to fork out money to fix all the little things that go wrong on an old car. The more I know about the Mustang, the more independent I am. And I kind of like my independence.

  But eventually going out on my own means I’ll be leaving Dad alone. Who’ll watch out for him?

  Pumpkin paws at my leg, wanting another taste. I ignore him.

  “Besides, you probably already know everything the class covers,” Dad says.

  “Because I had a good teacher. But I could still learn a few things.” I smile. He’s right. I spent a lot of time under that car—with Dad. He put himself through college working for a garage. Together we redid the Mustang’s engine. It was my fifteenth birthday present. Our neighbor had put a for-sale sign on the car, and the moment I saw it, I wanted it.

  Not because I’m a car freak, or a Mustang freak. But I’d seen a picture of one my mom used to own. Honestly, I didn’t plan on getting my hands dirty working on that car. At first Dad insisted, and then he didn’t have to insist. Not because I enjoyed working on the car, but because of how much I enjoyed spending time with him.

  It was our first real bonding experience. Before that, I’d always gotten a feeling Dad didn’t know how to parent a daughter. My first bra and the whole starting-my-period experience almost killed him. And not once has he said the word “sex.”

  Working on that Mustang gave us something in common.

  “Speaking of cars,” Dad says, smiling, “I’m about to make your day.”

  “Really.”

  “Yup. I got your insurance card in the mail.”

  “Yes!” I do a little victory dance in my chair. When he lost his last job, he had to cut the insurance on my car, so I haven’t been able to drive it for almost two months.

  “So I can drive it to school tomorrow?” I ask and squeal a little.

  “Yeah.” He chuckles. “You and that car.”

  Thrilled I don’t have to walk to school anymore, I dish a big bite of stew into my mouth and taste it for the first time. It’s good. “You sure you don’t want a bowl?”

  “No.”

  He sips his water. I eat. The almost empty echo in the house reminds me how big it is. All our houses in the past have been small, older. They seemed to fit us better.

  “Have you made any friends at school?” Dad asks.

  I almost lie, then decide against it. “Not really.”

  A sudden puff of steam rises from my bowl. A chill runs down my spine. I continue to eat and ignore it. Pumpkin hauls ass out from under the table and darts under the sofa.

  Dad frowns. “You should put yourself out there more. Make some friends.”

  I point my spoon at him and force my eyes to stay on him. Just him. “Says the man who never puts himself out there.”

  “I’m around people all the time.”

  “Dead people don’t count.” I lift a brow and take another bite.

  “Not just dead people.” He turns the water bottle in his hand. “Did you get into the honors classes you wanted for next semester?”

  “I think so,” I say. Good grades mean a possible scholarship. I’m going to need one.

  My next intake of air brings with it a hint of jasmine. I remember smelling it earlier.

  Dad leans back in his chair. “There’s an antique car show going on downtown this weekend. I thought we’d go. Hang out. Talk cars with people.”

  “Great idea.” I finish my last bite of stew and go rinse out the bowl and put it in the dishwasher. Then I pull out containers to store the leftovers.

  I hear his chair scrape across the floor. “I’ll put the stew away.”

  “I can do it.” I take a deep breath. The jasmine scent is stronger now.

  “Don’t you have homework?” he asks.

  “Yeah, but it’s not—”

  “Then go. You do too much around here,” he says. “You should be hanging out with girlfriends and not taking care of a household.”

  “I don’t mind.”

  He steps closer and brushes my hair off my cheek. “I swear you look more and more like your mom every day.”

  I’m surprised at his words. He hardly ever mentions her. Right then I see a familiar sadness in his light brown eyes. I go in for another hug. A short one.

  When I pull back, I look at him. “You still miss her, don’t you?”

  “A little.” He turns back to the Crock-Pot, away from me. Maybe away from what he’s feeling.

  I fill Pumpkin’s food bowl. The cat comes running. I stare at Dad’s back. Even his posture seems extra sad.

  “How was work today?” I ask, wondering if that’s the problem. Hoping that’s the only problem. He swears it doesn’t affect him, but I know it does.

  “The same.” He moves to the counter and lifts the lid off the Crock-Pot. A big puff of steam rises. He looks back. “Go do your homework. I’ll close up the downstairs. I think I’m going to retire early with a book.”

  I stand there and watch him pour the stew into two bowls. “Did you get a new client today?”

  He frowns up at me. “I told you, a mortician should never bring his work home with him.”

  But Dad does bring his work home with him. Or maybe his clients just follow him. Like right now.

  The young woman stares at Dad, looking as if she’s walked out of the yellowed pages of an old photo album. She appears confused and lonely, wearing an orange sundress and jasmine perfume.

  Dad can’t see her, can’t talk to her.

  But I can.

  Chapter Two

  Before I go upstairs, I give Dad a shoulder bump, afraid three hugs in a night might be too much. Then I grab a handful of cookies and head upstairs. Once I’m at the landing, I turn and look to see if she’s followed me.

  She hasn’t. But Pumpkin has.

  The woman will find me sooner or later. They always do.

  It started happening about a year and a half ago, right before we moved from Dallas. At first it freaked me out. Like really freaked me out. But then I realized not one ghost had done anything to hurt me. I’m not sure they could.

  Or maybe I just want to believe that.

  Most of them just want to talk. Some of them need something. A favor. But that’s okay, because I always ask a favor of them too.

  So far, none of them have been able to help me. But I still help them. And it’s not always easy, either.

  Like the favor for Bessie.

  She’d bought life insurance six months ago, but neglected to tell her daughter.

  I couldn’t go up and just tell the family that Bessie had insurance. So I copied and pasted the insurance logo from their website so it’d look legit. I printed a label, addressed the letter to Bessie, put the policy number at the top. I wrote the letter as if it was a reminder to her that they were still waiting for her to pick up a copy of the policy.

  I was going to just mail it, but since I’d stolen the logo I feared sending it through the US Postal Service might make it a federal offense. Instead, I spent an hour last night drawing a postmaster seal to make it look like it had been mailed. Then I spent another thirty minutes forging the company president’s signature which I’d found on the website.

  I thought it looked quite convincing. It’s one thing I’m good at: drawing, copying things. Not u
sually forging signatures. But now I realize that if anyone questions it, Kelsey might be able to point a finger at me, since she’d seen me outside the house.

  Great! Something else to worry about.

  I get to my bedroom door and leave it open.

  Returning to my bed, I sit. Wait.

  I’m barely situated when she appears. She looks pretty in the dress. Her hair is blond, hanging in a nice neat wave. Confusion mars her lovely face. I’d had a spirit, an elderly man, last year that hadn’t realized he was dead. Giving that bit of news was loads of fun. Not.

  I’m hoping this won’t be a repeat of that case.

  “You can see me, can’t you?” she asks.

  I nod. When it first started happening, I tried pretending I didn’t. But something always gave me away. They’d move. I’d jump. They’d talk. I’d listen.

  I discovered it’s easier to just deal with them, to get them to pass over. That’s the best part. Seeing them go. They are all different. Bessie was that falling star. Some of them become a bolt of color. I can’t really explain the feeling, but when I see them cross over, there’s this sensation like . . . I did something really good. Like I’ve just checked off one item on Destiny’s to-do list.

  Truthfully, this isn’t anything I would have chosen. But that’s kind of the point. I didn’t choose it. It chose me. And for that reason, it feels like fate. As if turning away from it will screw up some underlying purpose for my life. This doesn’t stop me from sometimes resenting it.

  The woman gets tears in her eyes. She’s young, but older than me. Maybe in her twenties.

  “Is he your father?” she asks.

  I nod.

  “He’s a nice man.”

  They all tell me that. That he respects them when he drains their blood, and when he fills them back up with embalming fluid. They say when he gets them ready for the funeral he takes his time. Looks at photos of them and tries to get it right. They tell me he even talks to them, but he never answers them when they talk back.

  I get up to close the door, so Dad won’t notice me talking, but then I hear it. The sound. That little noise.

  My chest fills with a heaviness. I lean against the doorframe and fight the tears stinging all the way up my sinuses.

  Who knew the sound of ice filling a glass could be so sad? Sad because I know he’s pouring himself a drink. Probably the first of many tonight.

  This morning I had to wake him up before I went to school. Normally, he beats the sun up. He looked as if the sun had already beaten him up, but at least he went to work. Would he tomorrow? Is he going to mess up and lose this job, too?

  He’s a good man. He’s the only family I have. I love him, but I’m pretty sure he’s an alcoholic. And I don’t know what to do.

  He’s so proud that he’s hiding it from me. He’s so afraid to let me down. And he is. He’s letting himself down too.

  Anger stirs my gut. I’m tempted to storm downstairs and rip open his secret, try to stop him, but I’m afraid he’ll just drink more then. At least if he’s hiding it from me, he’s not drinking all the time.

  I shut the door and turn to face the ghost, but she’s gone.

  That’s fine. I’m not really up to talking right now. I need to figure out how the hell I’m going to help my dad.

  • • •

  Two hours later, I’ve finished my cookies, my homework, and my pity party. And I’m no closer to figuring anything out. I go to take a shower. A short one. Wet but clean, I step across the hall with a towel wrapped around me. I can’t help stopping to listen for the sound of the fridge spitting out more ice. Thankfully, only silence whispers up the stairway.

  I try to tell myself that he’s okay. He’s not drinking too much. But from what I’ve heard about alcoholism, even one drink is too many.

  He’s never told me he’s an alcoholic. I read about it in Mom’s diary. I found the small leather journal in a box tucked away in a closet when we moved last year. There were only a few months’ worth of entries, but I treasure every word.

  The older I get, the more I ache to know everything about her. Did she hate fish like I do? Did she cry at a drop of a hat when she was on her period?

  When I told Dad I’d found her diary, he’d seemed upset, but he didn’t ask me to return it. And I didn’t offer. I kept the photographs, too.

  Dad had given me a few photos a couple of years before when I’d asked him about her. I still wonder why he didn’t give them all to me then. Does he still miss her that much?

  I step back into my room. Pumpkin stands on the edge of my bed, his orange hair puffed up around his neck, his ears tucked back to his head. I know what that means.

  “She’s back,” I say and turn around. Then I see . . . not her, but him. I almost scream. Air bubbles up in my throat.

  I don’t even know why I’m so startled, except I was expecting it to be the same woman in orange. It’s not.

  He’s standing there, a good foot taller than me, dark brown hair, blue eyes. Young. My age. Eyes wide. Eyes that are checking me out.

  I suddenly feel naked. Oh, hell, I am naked, except for a strategically placed towel.

  “Get out!” I look down to make sure all of my important parts are covered. Unfortunately, the towel is small, and either my top or my bottom is going to be a little compromised.

  His eyes lift up, wide with surprise, and he . . . smiles.

  Smiles.

  “Hi,” he says.

  Hi? You don’t say hi when someone yells for you to get out! I scowl at him.

  “Sorry,” he says, which is better, but he doesn’t sound sorry. He doesn’t look sorry. He looks happy. Like I’m a present that’s already unwrapped.

  “I said get out!” I even stomp my foot like an angry two-year-old.

  He fades. Only then do I realize another reason I was so startled. He was different. For a fraction of a second I thought he was . . . real. Alive.

  All of the spirits in the past looked like faded photographs, aged and kind of yellowed. He wasn’t faded. He was . . . bright. He was . . . too young to die.

  I hurry to my closet, shut myself in there, take a few deep breaths, then pull on a pair of sweats and a t-shirt.

  When I step out, I look around. He’s not there. Pumpkin peers at me from under my bed skirt.

  “Is he gone?” I ask my cat as if he might answer.

  Then I smell it. That same scent I got earlier when walking home. Aftershave. Or deodorant. They all come with their own scent. Each different, like a fingerprint.

  But this one is almost familiar. It’s a boy smell. A cute-boy smell.

  Carl used to smell similar after he showered. I used to really like that scent. When I take another deep breath, I also detect a hint of jasmine.

  Oh, crap! Does that mean I have two spirits? I’ve never had two at a time. I’m not sure I can handle that.

  • • •

  “Have a good day, Sweetie.” Dad squeezes my shoulder and picks up his briefcase and lunch bag. “Be careful driving. I left the insurance card on the coffee table. You have enough lunch money?”

  “Yeah. Thanks,” I say without enthusiasm and spoon some Lucky Charms into my mouth. I’m still pissed at him.

  Although I didn’t have to wake him up this morning—he was packing himself some stew for lunch when I came down—he appears to be dragging. I’m not an expert on hangovers, but I saw Carl moving around like a sloth a couple of times after indulging in too many beers.

  When Dad walks out, I spoon-chase a pink marshmallow around my bowl, then just drop the utensil with a thump on the table. What am I going to do about him?

  I sit there listening to Pumpkin crunch on his kibbles. Then bam, I realize I’m not relying on the go-to source that’s helped me through most of life’s issues—my first period, sex, how to use a condom—hey, I wanted to make sure Carl did it right.

  Yup, Google had saved me. I run upstairs, sit at my desk, and type in “alcoholism.” Ten minutes later, I
’m more confused than when I sat down. It’s not that there’s not any advice. There’s too much.

  And reading it makes me aware that I have no proof that Dad’s drinking. Or that he’s really an alcoholic. I only read it in a diary written before I was born. Yeah, I heard the ice last night, I know he lost his last two jobs after showing signs of irresponsibility—sleeping late, calling in sick—all of which he’d never done before.

  But is that enough to draw this conclusion?

  Other than the two job losses that he swears were due to other issues, I have no proof. I’ve never seen him so much as consume a beer. Never seen him stumbling, slurring his words. Never even smelled it on him.

  I need proof. But maybe I don’t have it because I haven’t looked for it.

  Snagging my backpack, I run downstairs, drop it on the table, and rummage through the cabinets. Nothing. No liquor. No evidence.

  I turn around and stare at Dad’s closed bedroom door. I move toward it, reach for the knob. Turning it is so hard. This is Dad’s room. He’s a private man. Invading his space feels . . . wrong on every level.

  Something else feels wrong, too. Silence. So silent I hear the living room clock counting time. Tick. Tick. Tick. It seems to be the only sound in the house.

  My heart starts to keep beat with the tiny sound. The slight thump in my chest makes me realize I’ve stopped breathing. My gaze shifts to the clock on the living room wall.

  If I don’t leave for school now, I’m going to be late. That’s all the motivation I need to let go of the doorknob. Later.

  I cut off the kitchen light, throw my insurance card in my backpack, and fly into the entryway.

  And come to a rubber-sole-skidding halt.

  He’s standing in front of the door, blocking it, looking too bright, still smiling. I inhale to confirm his scent. It’s there. Still familiar. The aroma takes me back to being close with Carl. Back to being intimate with Carl.

  “You going to school?” His voice is deep, almost husky.

  “Yeah,” I manage, and rub my thumb and index finger on the backpack strap hanging off one shoulder.

 
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