Chapter 1.49: Tuilla
Book One — The Hereafter
NOTE: This chapter is available in audiobook format on the TLHOC Podcast.
Access previous chapters of the book on the Table of Contents page.
June 6, 4:30 pm
It was easier than he expected.
All Richard had to do was keep picturing Keith and keep the warm tug firmly in the center of his forehead. If his attention wavered, the tug faded, but all it took was a moment to refocus his mind on the face of the man he loved and it came back.
Twice the glow crept toward his right eyebrow, and each time it did, he would jog west one block and then head south again. He was on one of these jogs, down 7th South, when suddenly the glow zipped around to the back of his head as he passed a gray building on his right. The feeling stopped him in his tracks, and he whipped around to look up at the building.
The sign read “Deseret Serenity Mortuary.”
And there, in the parking lot to the left, was Big Bird—Michelle and Pil’s big yellow Chevy Tahoe.
Richard’s senses were incredibly sharp now, and the tug that pointed him toward Keith had become painfully, almost erotically, insistent. He stepped back and looked up at the building. It was mostly gray concrete with some turrets and spires on the upper floor that made it look somewhat out of place in the neighborhood. The mortuary’s name was in flowing script on a wall made of decorative cinder blocks, painted a light tan. Like many funeral homes, he suspected this one had been an actual home for someone, long before it had been converted for such a somber purpose. And looking at the turrets and the size, it had been a large and luxurious home, in its day.
The parking lot was half-full, with maybe a dozen cars. There was a reception or other event at the mortuary today. Some mourners lingered around their cars; the women in dark dresses, and the men in wrinkled suits that looked as if they hadn’t been out of the closet since the last wedding or funeral.
But in one way, all the activity was a bit of luck. Although Richard now felt confident that he could find his way through any locked door or wall, getting into the building would be much easier if he could just tag along behind some group as they entered, sliding through the door behind them like an errant gust of wind.
The tug told him exactly where Keith was. It drew his eye to a second-floor window, just above and to the left of the main entry to the building. That area had to be the business suite for the funeral parlor. It made sense, as they would reserve the downstairs for meeting rooms, receptions, and viewings. The more ghoulish facilities would be in the basement. All the windows were covered with thick, and closed, venetian blinds. Perhaps to stop neighborhood children from trying to get a glimpse of a dead body, or maybe just to keep the atmosphere inside properly dim and somber.
The tug was incredibly specific. As he looked up at a row of six windows, he knew instantly which one held the office where Keith was. The upstairs blinds were closed and there was no sign of movement. But the tug was unmistakable.
Richard stared at the window, and the tug gave a shimmer that he hadn’t felt before.
Something in there is wrong.
The emotional envelope he sensed around his lover was chaotic, and the impression he got was that Keith was isolated, or maybe just numb with weariness. The sensations he was receiving were of someone forlorn and lost, and fear for Keith’s well-being drove Richard to action.
He had to get inside. Now.
Luckily, at that moment, a small group from the parking lot was making their way toward the front of the funeral home. It looked to be a single mother with a son and two daughters. The woman herded her brood like a mother duck toward the building. The youngest daughter seemed the most reluctant. She was maybe six, and Richard didn’t need any second sight to tell from her body language that she would rather be anywhere in the world than this horrible place.
Richard fell in behind them as they walked, staying as close to the family as he could manage without getting jostled. And when the mother pulled open the heavy glass door, the younger daughter’s reticence gave him a perfect opening to slide into the building ahead of her, behind the older daughter and the son.
He sighed with relief. He was inside. And the tug was now almost at the crown of his head. Keith was upstairs.
It didn’t take Richard long to find the stairway, although he had to navigate around some knots of people whispering in the halls, and pass a reception room with an open casket. He caught only a glimpse of an ancient, wrinkled face over the edge of the coffin before the milling people in the room blocked his view.
The stairway was near the back, in a much more isolated part of the funeral home. There was a sign on the wall there. The third line said “Administrative Offices” and had an arrow pointing up.
He rushed up the plushly carpeted stairs and down the hallway, heading toward the back of the building. Nearing his goal, he turned a corner and ran directly into a young woman coming out of an office. The impact sent him sprawling into a heap in the middle of the hallway, but didn’t affect his assailant in the slightest. He looked at her from the floor as the woman headed for the stairway.
And then he heard Michelle’s voice.
“Keith, honey, are you okay?”
Michelle had spoken softly, and now he could see her, knocking gently on a door. She was about ten yards down the hall, and he could see the universal sign for a men’s room posted above the door where she knocked.
That tug in his head was screaming now, forcing him to focus directly on a spot just to the other side of that door. Richard leaned heavily on the wall and pulled himself to his feet.
There was a long pause. Longer than he liked, but then Richard heard a grunt and a rustling that sounded very much like someone picking themselves up off the floor. He saw Michelle was getting ready to try the door, when Keith called back, his voice weak.
“I’m okay. I’ll be out in a second.”
Michelle stood there for a moment more, her hand hovering over the doorknob, before she obviously decided it was best to give him as much time as he needed. She turned and headed directly toward Richard, who had to jump out of her way to let her pass.
Richard rushed to the door, and was about to force himself through it, when he heard more sounds from inside. He heard the water running, then the sound of a paper towel dispenser. He even imagined he could hear the towel being thrown into the waste bin.
The lock clicked, and the door opened. And Keith was in front of him once again.
Two things happened in that instant. The first Richard didn’t realize until later, and it was that the hum, the tug, in his head clicked off like a switch was thrown. The second was that Richard gazed into the face of his lover, and what he saw staggered him. The single-minded focus he had been pursuing since he left Liberty Park, the desperate need to be with Keith, had become so obsessive that he had little time to ask himself the question.
Once I find Keith, then what do I do?
Although it didn’t look like his husband had been crying, his face was pale and drawn. There were dark circles under his eyes, and he looked like he had aged, even since this morning. As Keith passed, Richard reached up to touch his cheek, which still felt hard and unforgiving. As Richard followed his lover down the hall, he could see that his walk was shuffling, as if he was barely paying attention to where he put his feet.
At least he hasn’t been crying, Richard thought. I don’t know if I can bear it to see him cry again.
He thought that, but knew he was lying. If he needed to bear it, he would. He promised he wouldn’t leave his lover’s side again, ever. His only purpose now was to stay with him—to protect him, if he could—but if not, then at least to bear witness to his life, for whatever years the young man still had in front of him. There would be days, if not soon then eventually, when he’d have to endure his lover’s tears. That was the nature of life.
Richard followed Keith back into an office, which was one he had passed when he raced down the hallway, without bothering to look through the open door. As they entered, he saw not only Michelle sitting at the desk but also her husband Pil.
He had always had warm feelings toward the man, and he found himself grateful to see him there. In fact, the big man looked especially sweet and strong at that moment, as he stood up and helped Keith back to his chair. He put a big warm paw on his shoulder as the two sat down again.
“Michelle and Pil have a suggestion for a box to use for the ashes. It’s good, sturdy oak, and can be customized with Richard’s initials. What do you think?”
The man who spoke was small and slightly built, and the placard on the desk said his name was Ingalls. He embodied every cliche, good and bad, for a Funeral Director. He was a creepy little man with a kind face. A good man in a morbid profession.
Richard stepped to the desk to look over Keith’s shoulder at the catalog page the man’s bony little finger was pointing out. It was a page of urns and boxes for the ashes of the deceased.
So, they’re going to have my body cremated, Richard thought.
He knew it was what he wanted, and what he had requested in that very big, and very expensive, sheaf of legal documents that he and Keith had drawn up some years back. But the finality of it now seemed a bit terrifying to him.
They’re going to burn my body.
With everything that had happened, he’d given very little thought to the actual dead body that he had left behind. The idea that his body was still a thing hit him like that truck on South Temple.
His body existed. It was still somewhere.
In fact, he realized with a start, it could even be here, in this building.
He looked at the box the man was pointing at. It would be a fine choice. He always liked that kind of dark, rich wood. It looked a little like the trim in his office at the University.
“That seems just fine,” Keith said.
The meeting went on for some minutes more. There were papers to sign, and a few last decisions to be made. Richard found his way to a straight-back chair that was in front of a side table a few feet away from the big oak desk. On the table in front of him were brochures and bound catalogs that showed various urns and caskets. He couldn’t help but think of the grief so many families had been through, sitting in these chairs, picking out a box they could use to store their loved one, like Christmas decorations in the off-season.
Turning his attention back to droning little man and the three friends, Richard saw Pil had placed his right hand on Keith’s left arm. His huge paw made Keith’s hand look like that of a little boy. Richard felt a twang of envy, knowing that Pil could feel Keith’s warm and living flesh there in ways he no longer could. He expected to feel a rush of jealousy and even anger toward Pil, but that wasn’t the emotion that came. Despite his longing, he found he was also strangely warmed by the picture.
Both he and Keith had always harbored their own crushes on the big Hawaiian man. The two of them had often joked about it together, even imagining intimate details about him that the two of them would never know. Richard could always make Keith laugh by teasing him about his attraction to Pil, and Keith was totally unabashed and good natured about admitting how hot he thought Michelle’s husband was. Richard was strangely comforted, knowing that under ordinary circumstances, Pil’s touch on Keith’s arm would have sent a thrill up the younger man’s spine. But right now, Keith barely registered it.
Still, Richard envied that touch. He envied anything and anyone that could still be in the same universe as Keith, and despite finally being here, he still felt the distance between them to be as vast as if he was just watching this scene unfold on a movie screen. Aching with the need to be closer, Richard crossed the room and knelt in the small space between Keith and the desk. As the Funeral Director continued to drone on about options for the service, Richard put his head in Keith’s lap. Now Pil’s hand was just inches away from his face, and he could see the huge fingers stroking Keith’s arm, as gently and as slowly as he would have stroked one of those cats Pil famously loved so much. Richard became entranced by watching the fine hairs on Keith’s arm flatten, and then spring back, as Pil’s hand moved.
He kissed Keith’s hand. And then he kissed Pil’s hand as well.
A minute later, Pil’s hand retracted, and Richard saw Michelle’s hand come up to touch Keith’s arm on the other side. The smoothness of the transfer fascinated him. He didn’t think the two of them looked at each other, but somehow they just sensed that as one pulled back, the other needed to come forward. The exquisite grace of it was beautiful. Michelle and Pil were holding up Keith in his grief, and the tenderness of it made Richard’s heart ache. He longed for that sense of care and connection for himself, but felt none of it.
Michelle was in love with Keith. Richard had known that from the first. It had been obvious to him, even though Keith had always dismissed Richard when he’d suggested it, insisting they were just best friends. But now, watching Pil, he realized that there was more than just tenderness between these two men as well. There was real warmth and genuine affection in that touch, in those glances. Perhaps, even, real love.
How would Keith respond to Pil, after his grief over Richard faded? Would that love blossom for him? Would Pil break his heart? The big man had always insisted he was 100% heterosexual, and Richard had no reason to doubt it. If Keith fell in love with Pil, and was rebuffed, what would that do to him?
And what about me? Richard wondered.
It was a terrifying thought. What would he do if Keith fell in love again, whether it was with Pil, or someone else? There would have to be a time, maybe years down the road, when Keith would be ready to love again, and to find someone that could take Richard’s place. How would he be able to bear watching Keith fall in love? Watching him take down from the walls the pictures of the two of them? Watching Keith and his new lover make it a nest for themselves? Watching Keith take a new man into the bed they had shared for a decade? Hearing Keith cry out another man’s name in passion and desire?
He was approaching a well of emotion too dangerous for him to broach, and he backed away from it. Instead, he stood up and crossed the room, placing his hands on the hard wall. He leaned his forehead against the dark wood that felt more like cold cinder blocks.
I should have tried harder with Pil and Michelle.
He never really valued their friendship, despite how much Keith cared for them. He always suspected that they resented him, or didn’t think he was good enough for Keith. They had never meant enough to him to try and disabuse them of that notion. And to be honest, he was always a little resentful of them as well. He knew how much Michelle loved Keith, and that she and her husband didn’t seem to feel similarly about him always stung.
Would they have been his friends too, if he’d tried harder?
“So, I think that answers all my questions, Mr. Woo,” Ingalls said. Richard turned, and saw the little man smiling that practiced smile that was friendly, but also radiated empathy for his customer’s loss. “If you have any questions, you have my card. We’ll proceed with the cremation as soon as we have the release from the police department. I don’t think that’s going to be a problem, but it always takes a little time.”
“Thank you, Mr. Ingalls,” Keith said, as they all stood. Richard could hear relief in his voice that this meeting was nearing an end. “It’s probably best if you call Michelle with anything else you need. She knows how to get in touch with me.”
“Of course. You’re blessed to have such good friends who can take care of all these details, so you can grieve in a bit more peace. Relatively, that is.”
“I don’t know what I’d do without them,” Keith said, genuine gratitude in his eyes. He reached out to take Michelle’s hand, and Pil’s heavy, warm presence pulled in a bit closer on his other side.
“There is just one last thing,” Ingalls said, looking as if he regretted having to broach a sensitive subject. “The paperwork you signed gives us permission to proceed with the cremation as soon as we get the release from the police. That’s standard, because, as I’m sure you can understand, it’s always best to do the cremation as soon as we can. Since we could get the okay from the authorities any day, today could be your last chance to spend some time with Richard, if you’d like. It’s not necessary, of course, but I always try to let the family know…”
With a rush, it hit Richard exactly what the man was saying.
They were talking about his body. Or what was left of it, at least.
Somewhere in a viewing room or a cold locker, what remained of Richard Pratt lay on a slab, or on a stainless steel table, or maybe in a coffin—his best business suit split up the back and tucked around his chest to make it look like he was dressed up for the occasion.
Keith paused a moment and took a deep breath. “I think I’d like that, Mr. Ingalls. Thank you.”
“Certainly. You can take all the time you need. I suspected you might want some time, so I had Richard moved into the meditation lounge, which is in the basement. It’s cool and quiet downstairs, and you won’t be able to hear anything from the reception that is going on.” The group was moving steadily toward the door now. “I can take you down, and you can take all the time you need.”
Michelle led Keith from the room, but Pil lingered.
“Mr. Ingalls,” Pil said, pulling the funeral director aside before they could leave the office. “Are you sure this is for the best?”
“Yes, I think so, Mr. Kilani. I know Keith is grieving, but a few final moments with the deceased is always comforting.” Richard slipped through the open doorway in front of the two men and watched them. “I’m actually pleased he accepted the offer to spend some time with Richard. Even if it is difficult now, he’ll be glad later that he did it. He’ll find some peace in it.”
“But the damage that was done…” The big man looked down at his shoes as he ducked to avoid the top of the door frame.
“Oh, don’t worry. It’s a closed casket. Since we’re not embalming or doing restorative work, we have to keep the casket closed.” The Director put his hand on Pil’s shoulder, which meant he had to reach his hand over his own head, and closed the door behind them. “Don’t worry, Mr. Kilani. Keith will be fine.”
Downstairs, Ingalls left them in the lobby for a moment, while he went to retrieve the key to the meditation room. Richard heard Michelle ask Keith, as she took him by the shoulders, “Honey, are you sure this is okay? Do you want us both with you? To be honest, I’m not sure I can bear to sit with the casket.”
For the first time, Richard realized how shaken Michelle looked. She was only marginally better than Keith right now, and Richard felt like a bit of an ass for not even noticing. From what little he knew of the night he died, Michelle had gone through a lot as well.
“It’s okay, Mish,” Pil said. “I can take him down. You wait here. Mr. Ingalls, show us the way.” Gratefully, Michelle slumped into a chair in the hallway.
None of them felt his presence, but Richard walked behind the three men as they headed for the stairway.
I’m going to be in a room with my own dead body, he thought to himself. My own dead body.
Richard felt more like a ghost than ever, as they descended into the building’s basement.
Richard entered the room slowly, two steps behind the three men, feeling like a strange voyeur.
The “meditation room” was not what Richard expected. Despite the name, he was envisioning a cold room with steel tables and morgue drawers along the wall. Instead, Mr. Ingalls ushered the group into a medium-sized, oval-shaped room, tastefully decorated, with soft lighting and classical music that was barely above a whisper. The double doors at the back of the room, Richard assumed, led to a more cold and sterile processing area, where a visitor would be more likely to smell chemicals and see chrome instruments. But here, the primary smell was from the flowers on four equally spaced pedestals.
The casket that held his body was perfectly centered in the oval room, on a rolling gurney covered by a flowing cloth that reached the floor and hid the wheels. Richard wanted to stare, but inexplicably turned away.
Standing next to one pedestal was an older woman who must have just finished setting up the room for the visitors. She stepped back into the shadows as they entered and took a seat against the wall.
The lighting in the room was dim, warm, and pink, The candelabra sconces could probably be dialed up, but to make the room more calm and comforting, they had been left very low. Overhead spots illuminated the casket itself, leaving the rest of the room in gloom. Richard finally allowed himself to stare at the casket for a moment, trying to get some feeling from it. He knew his body was inside, but it felt to him, at that moment, like just another piece of furniture.
Other than the casket itself, the only other furnishings in the room were a dozen or so chairs set up around the perimeter, and two more simple chairs set together on one side of the coffin.
The casket itself was iridescent gray and looked very expensive. Richard had heard that funeral homes actually had “rental” coffins to use for occasions such as this. Unfortunately, he had also heard the rental fees were high, because the linings had to be stripped out, destroyed, and then replaced after the rental “tenant” had made their final departure. He hoped his shattered body wasn’t driving up the price tag for this wretched process.
Keith stood for a moment, several steps from the coffin, but then stepped forward, leaving Pil and the Director behind him. Richard could dimly see the old funeral attendant who had arranged the flowers, as she sat unobtrusively in the shadows at the edge of the room, and he wondered why she was lingering.
“I’ll leave you now,” Ingalls said. “Just come back upstairs when you’re ready. And take all the time you need.” Richard expected both Pil and the Director to leave so that Keith could be alone. But then Keith spoke.
“Pil, can you stay?” he asked, without turning toward his friend.
“Sure, K. If you’d like,” Pil replied softly.
The Director quietly slipped away, closing the doors behind him on the way out.
Keith and Pil stood together at the coffin. The older woman attendant sat quietly in the shadows. Perhaps she had stayed so that she could offer the pair anything if they needed it. Perhaps a box of Kleenex, or just to open the door when they were ready to leave.
Richard stood rooted in place, not sure what to do.
It was a strange feeling, to be in the room with your own dead body. Eventually, Richard was able to move, and crossed slowly to the other side of the coffin, looking across it at Keith and Pil, both of whom were silent, hands clasped in front of their hips, as if they were in church. Pil dropped his head, and Richard thought perhaps the big man was crying a little. But Keith was dry-eyed. Finally, his lover stepped forward and reached out a hand. He placed it lightly on the coffin, but he didn’t speak. Looking into his boyfriend’s downcast eyes, Richard too placed his hand on the coffin, on top of Keith’s. Both the coffin, and Keith’s hand, felt smooth and cold as marble under his touch.
Pil sank quietly into a chair and bowed his head. And in that moment, Richard felt he was here alone with his husband, despite Pil and despite the attendant seated silently across the room. Without a word, he placed his other hand on top of Keith’s. And in unison, both men bowed their heads.
This is surreal… Richard thought. Me and Keith, holding hands over my own dead body.
He tried to imagine the mangled and destroyed form there in the box below them, but found he had no point of reference. All he could remember was his body as it had been. He remembered his youthful body, when it was strong and able to climb mountains and ride bicycles for a hundred miles without a second thought. He remembered the exhilaration of his body when it reached the top of Mount Whitney in California, and stood with muscular arms outstretched, as if to claim the sky itself.
He remembered his body when it was young, and he was just discovering the touch of other men. He remembered the feeling of being naked with dozens of men over the years, and feeling their arms and torsos and cocks and asses under his hungry, questing fingers. He remembered the taste of their sweat on his tongue, and their rich, musky smells. He remembered how his strong, young body had responded to the touch of those men; touching, feeling, penetrating…
And he remembered the growing contrast between his young body and the one he had now, with its graying hair and sagging skin. Between his body and the bodies of the younger men he always sought out for his bed. He remembered his body changing, as knees and hips began to ache, as the thickness in his middle spread and as his strong legs weakened. And his growing desperation for those warm, young, supple men he loved, as if he could rejuvenate his own aging body by sucking the youth from them.
Now, his body was nothing but a cold, withered, rotting husk. A decaying corpse that would soon be reduced to ashes and stored in a beautiful oak and rosewood box with his initials monogrammed in gold on the lid.
Eventually, that box would end up forgotten on a shelf. Or in an attic. Or just emptied into the trash and the box used to store old receipts.
Richard was brought back to the moment when he realized that the cold stone hand under his was trembling. It was subtle, but it was constant. Richard tried to press harder on Keith’s hand, to calm the trembling, but it was clear that Keith felt nothing. As far as Keith was concerned, he was alone right now. Pil was forgotten, and he wasn’t sure that the younger man had even noticed the old attendant sitting in the shadows. And as for Richard—well, as far as Keith knew, his spirit had departed, and all that was left in this room was the old suit of clothes he had cast off as he left.
The body in the box, that Keith had made love to so many times, and who had held him night after night for the past decade, was now just empty, rotting meat. Like a tray of steak from the butcher.
Once again, the overwhelming tragedy of Richard’s existence in this strange liminal world crashed in upon him. He had been a ghost for less than a day. And already, the grief of it was tearing his non-existent heart from his chest. He couldn’t walk away from it. He had to stay with Keith. But he was also unsure he could bear it for another hour, let alone for Keith’s lifetime and beyond. But he had to stay, even if it meant that his ghostly heart had to be torn from his chest over and over again.
I’m not sure I have the strength, Richard thought, and felt his own hand tremble along top of Keith’s. As if the two were the poles of a tuning fork, vibrating in unison.
The sound of Pil weeping pulled his attention away from Keith. He looked at the blocky shoulders of Keith’s friend, and saw that they too were shaking. Pil had put his face in his hands, and despite trying to hide it, he was clearly weeping loudly. Keith’s expression remained blank. He was frozen in place, staring down at the coffin, oblivious to the tears in his friend’s eyes.
Keith didn’t speak, but he also began to weep silently. Big tears formed in his eyes, broke loose, and rolled down his round cheeks. And Richard had to lean heavily on his coffin to stay upright.
“Baby Bear, I wish I could throw my spirit back into this body,” he moaned. “I wish I could burst out of this coffin and hold you, the way I used to. With a real body. With lips to kiss you and hands to make love to you, and to make everything be the way that it was.”
Richard reached up and tried to wipe away Keith’s tears. But they felt like cast glass and didn’t respond to his touch in the slightest.
“Of course,” he said, trying to resort to the gallows humor that Keith always found both inappropriate and hilarious. “That’s probably the last thing you would need right now. Zombie Richard lunging out of the coffin at you.” He laughed, but his laughter turned to tears almost instantly, and now all three of them were weeping. Keith’s tears fell onto his side of Richard’s coffin, leaving tiny trails down the shiny surface. Richard’s tears fell from his face, and disappeared into the ether, never reaching the coffin.
Richard was only vaguely aware of the old woman rising across the room and crossing the dimly lit space toward the coffin. Her feet moved silently on the carpet, and Richard only noticed her when she stepped into the light, right behind Keith.
For the first time, Richard saw her clearly.
She was old.
Perhaps older and more weather-worn than anyone Richard had ever seen. And oddly, he saw that what he had taken for a shawl was actually a wool blanket, with a distinct Native American design woven into the fabric. Her long hair was steel gray, braided, and hung over her shoulder on one side, all the way to the middle of her bony chest.
The old woman didn’t hesitate, but put her wrinkled hands on Keith’s shoulders. She wasn’t tall, but she was still taller than Keith, and she kissed him on the top of his head. She stepped forward and put her arms around Keith’s waist, laying her head on his shoulder. And then she spoke.
“It’s okay, young one. Momma Tuilla’s got you. You’ll be okay. Momma Tuilla’s got you…”
Keith didn’t react, but just kept staring at the coffin. Richard pulled back his hand, just in time for the old woman to reach out, and put her hand over Keith’s, in a gentle and loving caress.
“My God,” Richard said softly, fear and wonder mixed in his voice. “You’re another one…”
Richard stumbled back. His knees buckled, and he fell into one of the chairs that lined the oval room. Unlike the little girl, the ghost of the old woman didn’t acknowledge him at all. She just held Keith, whispering softly, and radiating calm and care.
Before Richard could react (and later he’d wonder what reaction he could possibly have had anyway), Keith turned and stepped away from the casket, and away from the old woman. His hand slid off the coffin like a dead thing, and the old woman just stood aside and let him go. She watched as Keith stumbled toward Pil. The big man stood up, and immediately he and Keith embraced. Keith’s tears broke free from whatever dam had held them in, and he cried there in the arms of his friend, looking like a tiny, wailing child in the big man’s embrace. Pil just stroked his hair and held Keith while he cried, his own tears lost in the need to comfort his friend.
Pil whispered in Keith’s ear, “It’s going to be okay, sweetie. I have you. It’s going to be okay.”
The old woman, looking at them, echoed Pil. “It’s going to be okay. He has you. We all have you. It’s going to be okay.”
Pil held Keith even tighter. “It’s okay, baby. I’m here. We’re both here.”
Richard wanted to scream, but he didn’t. He felt as if his breath had been knocked out of his lungs, as he stared at the tableau before him. His own coffin, and behind it, the two men, and the ghost of the old woman.
He was still staring, dumbfounded and devastated, when Pil and Keith turned and left the room, the bigger man with his arm firmly around his husband’s shoulders. Keith turned once at the doorway, the tears still on his face. Richard could barely see him over the coffin that was now between him and the door. For a moment, as Keith stared at the coffin one last time, Richard had the illusion that he was looking past the coffin, and could see him there across the room, collapsed in a padded chair. He felt Keith’s name forming on his lips.
And then Keith turned away and was gone. Pil shut the doors behind them.
The room was silent for a moment, then the old woman turned and circled the coffin. She still didn’t look at Richard, and he was unsure that she was capable of seeing him. But he couldn’t take his eyes off of her. Now he saw her feet were bare, and her dress ragged and dirty. And bloody.
She circled back to where she had been sitting, in the chair at the darkest edge of the oval room. She sat silently down and went as still as stone.
Richard stared at her. He became aware that somewhere in the room was a clock, and it’s ticking mesmerized him. He stood and staggered toward the old woman. He wanted to speak to her, although he was unsure of anything he could say. And he was sure that anything he would say would mean nothing. This old apparition clearly could neither see nor hear him.
So he didn’t speak. But he leaned down and studied her in the dim light. As he had noticed, she was indeed ancient, and now he saw she was clearly Native American. Her gray hair was tied with a strip of leather, revealing a face worn and wrinkled from many years in the sun. She radiated something very ancient, very primitive, and he wondered how many decades, or even centuries, she had been walking the Earth.
Who are you? How long have you been in this room? Have you ever left? Are you mad, and is madness what I can expect?
He raised his hand, wanting to touch her face or her shoulder, although he was sure that his hand would pass through her like smoke. But as his hand approached her, the old woman suddenly turned, and her eyes opened wide. She looked directly into his face, and Richard found himself transfixed by what was either a light in her eyes, or just the reflection of one of the shaded sconces around the room.
She said nothing, but he felt as if he was being measured, examined, dissected like a specimen in a petri dish.
Panic overcame him. He needed to get away from this strange and creepy old woman. And then the sudden realization that Keith was gone filled him with terror. He could feel the empty space inside him growing. He rushed toward the closed doors of the meditation room, thinking, I can’t lose him again!
Without even consciously preparing himself, he rushed toward the double doors at full speed—and ran through them as if they were a trick of light and shadow. The brighter light of the hallway assaulted his eyes, and he stumbled toward the staircase that led to the door upstairs. As he ran, he didn’t look back at the meditation room he had just left, at his own casket, or at the strange and disturbing old woman who lived there. Instead, he just ran, up the stairs, through the crowd of mourners at the reception, and past Mr. Ingalls, who was just coming back into the building through the front doors. He had to struggle through a particularly dense group of people on the front porch, but finally broke free and dashed into the parking lot.
Big Bird was just pulling away, and he could see the outline of Keith’s face in the late afternoon glow, as they pulled into traffic and disappeared.
From a window on the ground floor, the old woman watched Richard as he stumbled to the edge of the parking lot, and collapsed there under a tree. She watched silently, for a very long time, as Richard held his head in his hands. But by the time he raised his face back to the sun, the old woman was gone.