Memento Mori: Six – Three Libras

Alone With the Dead:
Memento Mori
by Andrea Speed

Six – Three Libras

He actually thought he might make it out. Considering how his life had been running lately, Gryphon had no idea why. It seemed overly optimistic.They were passing by the emergency room, heading towards the lobby where patients in various states of need and impatience sat in hard plastic chairs, when he sensed someone, too late for him to tell Clay to choose another exit.

9.jpgThe emergency room’s sickly green and white coloring gave way to a cozy bookshop, the warm white lighting bouncing off shelves of polished mahogany, where books overflowed the shelves in a manner suggesting planned chaos. It was a way to be orderly without actually appearing that way, the devious work of a store owner who had put way too much thought into calculated warmth.

He found himself standing beside a red velvet overstuffed armchair, where the ubiquitous bookstore cat, black with a red collar, was draped across the top, cleaning its face with its paw. There was a small side table with a fake Tiffany lamp beside it, and one hardback, high brow novel sat upon it, with two worn and far trashier thriller paperbacks beside it. Outside, rain streaked the windows, and revealed a gray and busy street corner, clearly at odds with the homey, quiet interior of the shop.

“Oh, thank god,” a man said, startling him.

He turned around in time to see a guy, probably no more than nineteen, put a stack of books on the check out counter. He was tall and lean, with skin the color of coffee, his tightly curled black hair cut low to his scalp, his glasses rimless and almost invisible against his face. “Something really weird is going on here,” he said, a flurry of motion as he went behind the counter and retrieved a raincoat, shrugging it on over his beige sweater and blue jeans. “None of the clocks seem to be working, and I can’t get a hold of anyone, or leave. I know that sounds nuts, but it’s true. And I just know I’m late, and Katy is gonna kill me.”

“She can’t kill what’s already dead.”

He looked at him sharply. “What?”

Oh, he hated these, yet he got them more often than not, the people who didn’t know they were actually dead. Sometimes it was simply due to the fact that their death was so sudden it caught them completely unawares, or the nature of their injuries gave them a kind of traumatic amnesia. But sometimes, they just didn’t want to believe it, and denial was enough to keep them going. Odd how that worked.

He wondered if he could pet the cat, and did, feeling the soft fur under his hand. But the cat ignored him, and he wasn’t sure if it was because he couldn’t interact with it, or because it was being a cat. “What’s the last thing you remember?”

The man – whose name was Sylvio Jones, a college student who worked happily in a store named Book ‘Em (the name alone should have been a crime), and came from a mixed race and cultural background, being that his mother was Italian, and his father an American; they met when the senior Jones was stationed over in Italy with the Army – just stared at him, not comprehending it or not wanting to. ”What? Who are you?”

“A friend, of sorts. What’s the last thing you remember, Sylvio? Did you leave?”

“Leave?” he repeatedly dumbly, giving him that ‘I’m talking to a crazy person’ stare Gryph got so much it was no longer funny. “What are …” But he looked off towards the science fiction section, a confused look scudding over his face. “Wait … I do remember leaving …”

And at the same time he did, Gryphon saw it too, like it was his memory and not Sylvio’s. Leaving the shop early – Jade came in fifteen minutes early to cover that last bit of his shift, so he could leave early and meet Katy’s at DiMartini’s’s for dinner. It wasn’t so much raining as it was gushing, a Pacific Northwest equivalent of a monsoon, rain slipping under his collar in spite of the coat and hood, soaking him within three minutes of leaving the shop. At the corner, the rain was coming in almost horizontal, and he could barely see the “walk” symbol across the street. He stepped out into the crosswalk, and barely heard the rumble of an engine, going way to fast, the hiss of tires on wet asphalt …

Here the memory was fragmented, broken into sharp slivers that were more feelings than anything completely tangible. There was a vague sense of impact, and sense of forward momentum … but then nothing; there was nothing coherent, nothing quite solid. Still, there was enough that Sylvio understood what had happened to him. “He hit me! That asshole hit me!”

“He did indeed. And you died in the emergency room of … well, whatever hospital this is. I’m afraid I wasn’t conscious when they brought me in, and I never did get the name. Still, you’re dead. I’m sorry.”

Sylvio – called Sly by his friends – stared at him in disbelief, hands clenching and unclenching on the counter like he was grabbing at imaginary straws. “But … how can I be dead? I’m nineteen; I had a date with Katy. We were starting Hamlet next week … I was Rosencrantz …” He sat down heavily on a high stool perched behind the counter, and his shoulders sagged, posture caving in to defeat. “I can’t be dead. Things were finally starting to go good for me.”

“Hey, I understand. When I was dying, I was pretty pissed off too. But, look, Sylvio, I have to go right now. I’ll be back, I’m just a little busy right now.”

His look was accusing, anger just starting to bloom. “Who the hell are you?”

“Name’s Gryphon. Don’t make fun.”

“What the hell are you? You just said you weren’t conscious when you were brought in, and then you said you were dying. Which is it?”

“Well … both. I was dying, but I got better.”

“That’s a Monty Python joke.”

“Yeah, kinda, but it’s also my life, which is kinda sad.” The look Sly was giving him suggested he thought he was being a smart ass. Oh well; he’d been accused of much worse. “I’ll explain as much as I can as soon as I can, okay?”

Sly scowled, looking down at the books on the counter as if they might have some answers. “Why do I always get stuck with the weirdoes?” he muttered.

Gryphon thought that was his line.

*****

In spite of general concern for him, Clay and Shane took him back to his motel. He assured them he’d be okay – he was hardly alone, was he? – and had time to wonder where the fuck he’d left his car before he stumbled to bed. The others taunted him for the fact that he even wanted his shitty car back, but he ignored them.

Time flew by, mostly in a feverish haze. He slept a very long time, troubled by sweats that soaked the sheets and vague dreams that were nothing more than fleeting images that dissolved like tissue paper in the rain when he woke up. He was aware that some of his passengers had been using the opportunity to do some stepping out as well – sometimes he found the t.v. on, even though he had no memory of turning it on, there was an inexplicable pizza box sitting on the floor along with cans of soda, although he had no memory of eating anything, or even calling for pizza. Did he even have the money for it? Distressingly, there was a wad of bills on the nightstand. Nothing big, but still disturbing.

When he fell asleep, when he got up to go to the bathroom, he hard rain pounding the roof, draining into the gutter outside the window. But when he finally awoke, feeling a bit better and less helium headed (like it was going to float away), bright sunlight was bleeding through the gaps in the shockingly ugly mustard colored curtains. His bladder ached, and his mouth was so dry it felt like his tongue was glued to the roof of his mouth. “What time is it?” he muttered, peeling the sheets off. It smelled awful, like a place where used shoes went to die, and he wanted to blame the pizza boxes, but he suspected it was him. “How long have I been sleeping?”

I think it’s been about two days, Mr. Aronofsky said. We’ve been worried.

No we haven’t Taneesha sniped.

It’s a good thing you’re up, Ruby interjected, as he stumbled blearily to the bathroom. You’re gonna be meeting with Clay and Shane tonight at five thirty, Roseland bar. You know, the dive up the street.

“I am? Why?”

’Cause you’re goin’ ghost huntin’ with them tonight.

He stopped, sure he couldn’t have heard her right, but no matter how sick he was, there was no way he could have heard her wrong since she was in his head. “What? Why?”

I got you a gig, that’s why. They’re goin’ ghost huntin’ tonight, and you’re going with them. They‘ll pay you.

Well, that was something. “How much?”

A third of their usual fee … which probably means about forty bucks. But that’s forty bucks you don’t have right now.

Very true. Still, he hated the idea, and even though he mulled it over while taking a long, hot bath, washing the days of fever sweat off of him, he never grew to like it. He just knew this would be something he would regret. Still, he wasn’t sure how to get out of it.

His face itched terribly, and he was sure it was the two days’ growth of facial hair (you couldn’t be allergic to your own hair, could you?), but he couldn’t find his razor, and wasn’t quite energetic enough to bother looking for it. Maybe once he was done ghost hunting, he could go buy himself a razor. First, though, he had to go find his car.

Mr. Aronofsky – always the responsible one – had already paid the motel for the next few days, so he wouldn’t be evicted. (Gryphon refused to ask where the money came from. He just confirmed that he had done nothing violent that would require leaving town before nightfall.) Hugh also told him he’d probably lucked out and just had a form of viral meningitis, which generally had to clear up on its own with fluids and bed rest. Of course, viral wasn’t supposed to be as severe as bacterial, so he had no idea why he passed out, or why his fever got so high, but Gryphon was willing to chalk it up to his infectious brand of bad luck.

The streets looked different in daylight, almost like another country, but he figured out where he was, and had very vague memories of parking the Buick down the street from the Red Dog, in a strip mall parking lot. As it turned out Sly knew this part of Portland well enough to instruct him on a shortcut that carved about a half mile off his journey, although Sly was reluctant to say anything. I don’t get this at all, he admitted, sounding somewhat hostile. Why am I here? What exactly are we supposed to do?

If we knew the answer to that, we wouldn’t be here, Ruby replied unhelpfully. But she did have a point.

Unbelievably, his car was still in the lot, neither towed away, covered with tickets or fliers, or stolen. Stolen? Hugh said, clearly sounding amused. No one would steal that piece of crap if you left the doors open and the windows rolled down in a bad neighborhood.

“I will have you know this car is a classic,” he replied icily, slightly embarrassed to discover that he’d left the driver’s side door unlocked.

A classic disaster, Taneesha said.

“Okay, everybody shut up about my car now, or we’re gonna hit karaoke night at the El Toro.”

You wouldn’t dare, Hugh challenged. That would torture you as well as us.

“Ah, yes, but I own a Richard Cheese CD. I can take whatever those drunken secretaries can belt out. Can you?”

That shut them up, like he thought it would. Although Ray asked Who’s Richard Cheese?, and everyone was too busy sulking to answer him.

All of his stuff was still in the car too, his meager belongings shoved into duffle bags, and he drove back to the motel to change into clothes that smelled stale, but better than his eau du fromage his current clothes were giving off. He needed to hit a laundromat soon, although he didn’t feel quite up to it yet.

He went to the Roseland early, and had two beers and a rather sad plate of microwaved Buffalo wings while waiting for Clay and Shane to show up. To give them credit, they were spot on time, in spite of their day jobs. Which, according to Ruby, they needed to have, simply because ghost busting just didn’t pay that well, and some of the equipment was expensive. It didn’t seem to give this venture much hope at all, but hey, he didn’t traffic in hope. The dead had no hope – how could they? The worst thing that could possibly happen to them had already happened; there was no up from it, and the fact that there was no further down didn’t seem like a bright spot.

The guys both worked for Martin’s AirTech, a place that installed heating systems, ducts, and air conditioning systems, mostly for businesses. Their boss was a friend, and gave them half a day to a full day – depending on level of business – to ply their ghostly trade, suggesting he was a saint on earth. They had brought a van – Clay’s, apparently – and Gryph got in the back with all their equipment, which was thankfully deactivated so he didn’t blow anything up. Clay offered him his seat up front, but Gryphon declined, because sometimes he could be hell on a car’s electrical system, especially if he was close to it. (That’s why he liked the Buick – it weathered his electrical storms better than most. So what if it was a clunky rust bucket?)

They both did the standard thing – ask him if he was okay, all that shit – and even though he wasn’t exactly feeling a hundred percent, he lied and said he was fine, as it was easier. But Clay gave his facial hair a funny look, which he felt was unsporting.

You know what this means, don’t you? Hugh asked, as Gryphon settled into the back, between the case containing the video camera and something he couldn’t name in a black suitcase, but it looked sufficiently menacing.

“No, what?”

You’re Curly.

Oh great – the third Stooge. How had he known his life was adding up to that?

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