Resting in peace doesnt always mean not existing in this fantasy short story about life, death, and love By Author Paul Sundeson.
On a Saturday morning in October 2013, a tall narrow clean-shaven man in a well-cut gray suit stepped off the morning plane from Des Moines to New Orleans. His name was Brian Devlin. He moved swiftly through the airport and picked up his rental car at the Avis counter. A thirty-minute, GPS-assisted drive brought him to an area the in-dash map labeled as “Treme.”
He peered through hot noon light at a shotgun house, its paint worn and graying. She might be up, Brian’s mother had said. We don’t really need to sleep. It just passes the time.
Brian glanced at the dash clock. Not even two days ago, his life had been traveling in its well-worn groove. He remembered his neighbor George Petrie laughing and saying, “I want to lead my life, not follow one around.” Forty hours and a single sleeping pill, Brian thought.
You will think about what I’ve said, won’t you, his mother had asked; and he had nodded. I already have, Mom.
He climbed out of the rental Ford and stood for a moment. Then he fished out his cell phone, located a contact, thumbed Call. He spoke five words. Then he pressed End, tossed the phone into the car, and walked around the hood and up toward the shabby house. And as he went, his stride was that of a man walking out of prison after a long sentence.
* * *
Forty hours before, Brian Devlin drove his four-year-old BMW 5-Series up into the driveway of his split-level home in Holmby Hills. He shut off the engine and sat for a moment, dreading what was to come. Then, with a sigh, he climbed out, retrieved his briefcase, and trudged to his door.
“Honey?” Elizabeth trotted down the hall as he was hanging up his coat and hat. Her voice fretted. “You’re late.”
“Traffic was bad.”
“Since you insist on taking the old highway home instead of the Interstate — Well. Did you talk to Daddy? About –”
“I did.” Brian shuffled past her into the den, dropped with a sigh into his worn green armchair, and loosened his tie.
Relentless, Elizabeth came after him. “Don’t get comfortable. You know we’re going to the Petries’ tonight.”
“Elizabeth . . .”
“What did Daddy say?” Her father, Mr. Holmby, liked to call her “Bee,” and soon after their wedding Brian had seen why. She was tiny, preferred to dress in yellow and black, and knew how to make her voice sting.
Brian closed his eyes. “One more year.”
“One more –!” Elizabeth scowled. “Did you point out to him that you’re overdue to make partner? That most of that silly firm’s billing comes from you?”
“Yes,” Brian lied. Besides, it wasn’t true. His billing for Holmby, Standish, Reger was only average.
“Dammit. I’ll have to talk with him.”
“No.” Brian stared hard at her. “You are not to talk to him about this. Ever. You understand?”
Elizabeth made a noise like a teakettle about to explode. She whirled and stamped out, and Brian let his head fall against the chair’s back. Christ, he thought.
“Oh, you’re a good attorney,” Arthur Holmby had said that afternoon in his big office with the big windows that overlooked the city. “You’re a good tax man. But you don’t have that. . . the experience, I guess. Not yet.” He’d lowered his voice. “I know my daughter, Brian. She wants the best. If you need a little help, now –“
“No, Art.” Brian still had a little of what had come to him in his mother’s will ten years ago. Grayson Devlin’s last painting, Green Sky at Morning, had sold for more than the price of most suburban houses. “We’re fine. Thanks.”
“Good, good. Another year, a little more seasoning.” He’d refused to look into Brian’s eyes.
He doesn’t mean seasoning, Brian thought now. He means the fire, the drive to swarm over the other attorney and destroy his case and come up triumphant with his bloody heart in your fist. And he’s right.
I don’t have the fire. I don’t care.
“Brian!” Elizabeth called in a tone that had steel in it. “You’d better change!”
How many more years of this? Brian wondered. Twenty?
He got up and shuffled toward the stairs.
* * *
For several years Brian had been plagued with insomnia. Dead tired after a long work day or after a social evening like this one with the Petries, he would nevertheless lie in bed, exhausted but wakeful, until near dawn. The next day he would be a zombie at work, fuzzy-headed and useless.
Terrified of addiction -– his father had been a rage-filled alcoholic -– Brian rarely touched liquor and refused prescription sleeping pills. His answer for a year now had been an over-the-counter, “non-habit forming” sleeping aid. Sweet Sleep, it was called. Two little green pills, 50 mg of diphenhydramine, sent him off to a decent stretch of shuteye without dreams.
But tonight there was only one pill left.
Evening routine: Change into pajamas. Brush teeth with care, up and down, and rinse with baking soda and water, then mouthwash. (On the increasingly rare occasions when they had their increasingly dutiful sex, Elizabeth wanted his mouth clean, and he had kept the habit.) Take his two pills, and off to bed.
Brian shook the package, hoping a pill was hiding. No luck. The dose said 50 mg, two pills, and he had always taken that, no more and no less. He could throw on jeans and a sweatshirt, drive to the 24-hour Walgreens on the avenue. But rain was drumming on the roof. Sighing, Brian swallowed the lone pill. He hoped it would be enough to let him rest.
He lay, eyes on the ceiling, while Elizabeth breathed steadily in her own bed. At least she didn’t snore. Tonight hadn’t been too bad. George Petrie was a bluff, likeable fellow, and Linda seemed quiet and ladylike. She reminded him in some ways of Nora, even looked a little like –-
Never mind that. Brian turned over, tried to empty his mind. The Petries weren’t drinkers or druggies, thank God . . . he and George were due to play golf next weekend . . .
Brian found himself walking along a wide dead-end street. It was paved with small bricks, so that his shoes crunched as he walked. The street’s end was dominated by a tall ruined structure with twin bell towers; no doubt an abandoned church. There was no wind, and no clouds or sun either in a sky a peculiar shade of blue-gray. Almost the color of modeling clay. For no reason he remembered his teenage summers in his makeshift studio at the back of the big house, trying -– and in his mind, failing -– to render the visions in his head from the stubborn clay.
His teachers had liked his sculptures, however. And, more important to him, so had his mother.
“He’s good!” His mother’s voice had carried from the den to the top of the stairs, where he stood listening. “He’s got the talent, Liam. A few more years –-”
“Just because people are willing to pay you thousands for your paintings,” Brian’s father had snapped, “doesn’t mean he can hit it big too! What if you’re wrong? What’ll he have at age forty? No. He’s going to law school. It’ll give him something to fall back on.”
In his dream, Brian made a face of disgust. He hated that phrase.
To his left lay a cemetery, its rows of gray headstones sticking up like low wide teeth. A line of small brick cottages ran along to his right; white-painted gates led to narrow patios or gardens.
The architecture, he thought, looked more like Victorian London than anything he’d ever seen in this city. No street signs, though. There was something else odd about the street, but he couldn’t think what it was.
As if on autopilot, he found himself stepping through an open gate at the one white-painted cottage in the line. He knocked at the dark green door. As he waited, it came to him what was so strange about the street.
There were no parked cars . . . in fact, not a single car anywhere. No street lights, either. And no power or phone lines ran to the buildings. What sort of place is this?
The door opened. Brian turned back –- and found himself staring.
“Hullo, dear,” said the handsome red-haired woman in the doorway. “I’m so glad I was finally able to reach you!”
It was his mother.
* * *
Brian Devlin went on staring. Ten years ago he had kissed her goodbye at the hospital, had spoken at her funeral, had seen her mahogany coffin lowered into the earth. Now . . .
She looked just as she had in her famous 2002 People interview. “I was never pretty, even when I was young,” she’d told the reporter. “My face is too harsh, too strong. I’ve always had to make the most of what I have.” For the interview, she’d worn what she had on now, a long, high-collared dress of pale green with elegant gold slippers.
“Mom.” Brian’s throat felt swollen and hot. “You’re, you’re dead.”
“Of course I am, dear. Now come in. We have to talk, and we don’t have much time.”
Brian found himself in a wide sitting room with the kind of chromium, glass, and leather furniture his mother had always preferred. A scent of potpourri filled the still air. A picture window displayed the vista of the city below them, lights twinkling in the dusk. Impossible, of course; the town lay on a Midwestern plain, and there were no heights to afford such a view. This was, after all, a dream.
How can you know? a part of his mind demanded. How can you know you’re in a dream, while you’re dreaming it?
His mother settled into a chair flanking a fireplace, and gestured him to another. A fire burned in that hearth, a cheery light, but it made no crackling sounds and gave off no heat.
She took his hand in hers. That at least was warm. “How have you been, my darling? Did you marry that girl you were seeing, what was her name –-”
“Nora. Nora was her name. No. I didn’t. . . .”
He had met Nora Ackley in an art history class at the state university: a slim brunette, with direct gray eyes and a kind nature. She had loved painting as he loved sculpture. In their senior year, they’d taken a tiny apartment together near campus, and Brian had never been so content, so completely happy. He had planned to ask her to marry him at Christmas.
That Thanksgiving, she had flown to see her family in Seattle. The plane had gone down in a savage thunderstorm over the Cascades. There had been no survivors. . . .
Brian knew what he wanted to ask, but he was afraid to hear the answer. Instead he said:
“Mom, what is this? Why am I here?” He felt a sudden panic in his chest. “I’m dead too. Is that it?”
Grayson Devlin laughed. “Oh, no, honey! Not at all. See, I’ve been trying to reach you for, oh, the longest time. Whenever I tried, either you were awake, and the conscious mind has barriers we can’t get through. Or you were too deeply asleep. Tonight, the veil between us was thin enough. You must have done something different.”
The single pill, instead of two. “I guess I did. But what is this? You mean you’re not completely . . .”
“Gone?” His mother shook her head. “Some of us are, well, we exist in our own planes. I’m not allowed to explain it to you yet. I can say that what you’re seeing is not exactly what I see. Brian, this is not a dream. It seems like it, and it appears to be coming to you while you’re asleep, but it isn’t. Of course you won’t get anyone else to believe that.”
“I wouldn’t try.” He imagined Elizabeth’s uncomprehending stare, and worse, her laughter. “They’d lock me up.”
“Probably.” His mother glanced over his head as though consulting a clock. “We don’t have much time, dear.”
Brian twisted around and looked up. There was no clock, only cream-painted wall. What you’re seeing is not what I see. “Okay, Mom. What is it that’s so important?”
His mother leaned forward, holding his gaze with hers.
“Not all the dead are in their graves,” she said.
* * *
Brian felt cold wash over him. He couldn’t speak.
“I don’t mean they’re zombies or like any of those old stories.” Her voice was level, yet held an urgent note. “None of that is true. The Changer and the Three . . .” She stopped. “No. Let me put it this way. Some . . . spirits are awarded an existence like mine. Some vanish for eternity. And some . . . are given a second chance on Earth.”
“Reincarnation?” Brian found he could whisper.
“No, dear. They’re still dead. But they have a new opportunity to . . .” His mother shook her head again. “Tomorrow, Brian, look at the people around you. The everyday people. Look at them with that artist’s eye you got from me. Really look at them, and you’ll see. Then, tomorrow night, we’ll talk again and I’ll explain.”
“’Everyday people’? Can’t you explain now?”
“No. Please. I wouldn’t be making this effort if it weren’t important. Mostly to you. All right?” She rose and smiled at him as he got up. She rested a slim hand on his arm. “Now go, and get your rest.”
With the abruptness of dreams, Brian found himself standing in the wide dead-end street. Despite the encroaching dusk he had seen from his mother’s window, out here it was still daylight -– though, as before, there was no sun. The air was warm and smelled of nothing at all.
A second chance on Earth. . . .
Brian opened his eyes and found himself staring at his bedroom ceiling. His watch said 5:45. Barefoot, he stumbled down to the kitchen and began to make coffee.
A dream, he told himself. That’s all it was. But –-
Reincarnation? he remembered saying, and his mother’s answer: No, dear. They’re still dead.
* * *
“Jenny, tell Mr. Holmby that if he needs me, I’m, uh, meeting a client. I’ll have my cell.”
Brian rode down in the elevator and stepped out of his office building. It was a cool bright day, warm for October; he left his topcoat open as he walked a block up Jointner Avenue to the pocket park near the Surrey Hotel. He sat on a bench, drew a deep breath, and took his problem out and looked at it.
First: Am I nuts?
From his abnormal psych class in college, he recalled people who had recovered from psychosis saying their minds had felt either cloudy, or unnaturally clear and hyper-alert. He was aware of neither condition. Certainly he didn’t suspect people of plotting against him. Still, how could you be sure?
Table that one.
Second: Had it only been a dream? Brian recalled the potpourri. His mother had never used the stuff. Why that detail? When have you ever smelled anything in a dream, let alone cinnamon and cloves specifically? Does anybody dream about smells?
All right, then; to amuse himself, he would try what Mom had suggested. Look, really look at the people around him. Notice them. Try to imagine what their lives were like. Open his mind and use that artist’s eye. Brian hoped it hadn’t atrophied while he’d been poring over briefs, court documents, and tax returns the last ten years. This notion from his dream (Dead people? Come on!) was utter nonsense.
Brian got up and ambled south.
Jointner Avenue was the main business street of the city. Unlike other metro areas, this city had never had any suburban malls to draw business away from downtown. Now, despite e-commerce cutting in, Jointner remained a vibrant corridor with office buildings, two hotels, a Dollar Tree, a tiny newsstand, a two-story Dillard’s department store, women’s boutiques, a framing shop, a jeweler, and more. The street thronged with men and women shoppers and workers at lunch.
Brian walked, and watched. He saw the shoppers and the workers; but among them, as if for the first time, he saw the service people. A burly bearded window cleaner plied his blades on the display glass of Meyer’s Hats. A chunky Hispanic woman in T-shirt and jeans hauled trash bags through the service door of the Parker Hotel. A blank-faced young woman sat as attendant at the parking lot near the hotel.
As he dawdled, peered into shop windows, drifted through the hotel lobbies, Brian Devlin watched. He saw that these service people were essentially invisible -– as ignored, as taken for granted by the shoppers, hotel guests, and diner patrons dawdling over their lunch specials, as remoras were by the sharks they swam among and served. More than once Brian saw a business patron walk toward a cleaning lady or a maintenance man changing a light -– walk straight ahead, forcing the service person to step aside, while the patron hardly looked up from his cell phone or his newspaper. . . .
At 2:00, weary from walking, Brian stopped at the La Fonda for coffee. At the back an elderly black man pushed his wet gray mop around the tile floor. Another invisible, he thought. As the old man limped close to his booth, Brian pulled his legs in to give him room to work. “Hey, old-timer.”
The old man raised his head slowly. His face was turned in Brian’s direction, but his eyes didn’t meet Brian’s. “Sir.”
“Don’t want to get in your way,” Brian said, and smiled.
“Thank you kindly, sir.” The old man didn’t smile back. His voice was toneless and tired. “Get this floor done, I can go home.”
“What’s your name?”
The old man hesitated, as if reaching for a memory. “Lurton, sir.”
Brian was astonished to hear himself say:
“How long have you been back?”
Now Lurton raised his eyes to Brian’s. In a whisper: “Don’t know what you mean.”
“Back on . . .” Brian swallowed. “On Earth.” He found himself whispering too, though there were no other customers, and the waitress was way over behind the counter.
Lurton looked at him, and Brian wanted to get away from that steady flat gaze, slide out of the booth and run to his car and drive fast anywhere, as long as it was away.
“You know, sir?”
A flicker of humor showed on Lurton’s face. “It ain’t what They told me it would be, sir. I was wantin’ my rest, but They gave me what They said was another chance. Not much difference between this time or the first.”
“I thought you’d know, sir. The Changer and the Three.”
Brian felt his heart slam against his ribs. “Lurton . . .”
”Excuse me, sir, I got to finish.” And the old man moved away, sliding his mop back toward the kitchen.
Brian sipped his now-cold coffee with a hand that shook.
* * *
“Brian, I declare, you haven’t even touched your dinner.”
“Sorry, dear. I’m just tired.”
“I thought I’d be late getting home from the office.” Elizabeth kept herself busy selling real estate part time. “I stopped at the dealer for my car. They’d fixed that rattle, but they insisted on washing it. And the man doing it was so slow! I swear, he’d have been faster if he was dead. . . . Brian? My goodness, you look as though you swallowed a bug.”
“Uh . . I’m fine. Listen, hon, I’m whipped. Got a big day tomorrow. I’m going to turn in early, okay?”
Brian changed, swiped at his teeth, took a single Sweet Sleep from the new packet he’d bought, and climbed into bed. He kept remembering the wry, pained look on Lurton’s face. Not much difference between this time or the first. . . .
Presently Brian stood once again on the stoop of the little white cottage in the silent, dead-end street. Once again he knocked on the dark green door. His mother opened the door, beamed at him, and hugged him. “Come in, darling, come in!”
The cottage’s main room was the same as before, the teasing scent of potpourri, the heatless and soundless fire, the vista of twinkling city lights beyond the picture window. Brian was relieved. He’d been wondering if it would have changed -– though he had no idea why it should.
His mother settled into the chair opposite him. She wore a white silk blouse and black tailored slacks. “Well?” she said in a breathless voice. “Did you look? Really look?”
“I did, Mom.” Brian rubbed his forehead. “They’re all
. . . dead?”
“Do they all know? This old man at the diner downtown, he knew. He mentioned what you said. The Changer and the Three.”
“Yes. They know. I knew, during my –- I guess you’d call it my ‘apprentice’ year, in India. We all have to go through that. The Changer believes eternity is boring. It’s good to change things around for us once in a while.”
His mother leaned forward, excited and happy. “It’s so nice here, Brian. All the true artists are here! Pablo, and Remmy as we call him, though he’s very puzzled by Pablo’s style of painting, and by Jackson’s too. And there’s Norman –- oh, and the writers! Scott is nearby, and Dorothy, and Erich Maria. And Ernest, though he had to get a special dispensation, since he’d committed suicide.”
“Why, Mom? I mean, does everyone get sent back?”
His mother stopped smiling. She looked at her hands.
“Not everyone. Some, like Ernest and Pablo and me –-”
Brian hid a smile. False humility was not an emotion his mother was acquainted with.
“–- we contributed something to the sum of humanity, and the Three want us to continue.” She shrugged. “Others vanish. We don’t know what happens to them, where they go.
“Two groups get to go back. First are those who the Three think died too soon; ones who should have had full lives, but had those lives cut short. As for why, well, the Three don’t explain everything to us. We don’t know how they decide these things.”
Brian’s heartbeat thundered in his ears.
“The second group,” Grayson Devlin said, her voice still quiet, “are those who wasted what they had.
“Those who had the spark, the fire, talent, imagination. Creativity,” said his mother. “It’s rare enough; you know that. To have the gift and then waste it -– drown it with drink or drugs, or to deny it, throw it aside for utterly mundane pursuits, is — Well, it’s a kind of sin.”
Brian sat very still. “Are you talking about me, Mom?”
“But I’m not like that! What makes you think I am?”
Grayson Devlin’s smile was wistful. “I know you, my son. The moment I mentioned wasting one’s talent, you jumped, and your face got all red. It’s true, isn’t it?”
Brian thrust himself out of the chair and strode to the picture window. His reflection was tall but stooped, as if bearing a great weight. Though it didn’t show in the glass, he knew there were already streaks of gray in his hair. In a low voice he said:
“After you died, and then when Nora was killed, I just. . . I couldn’t stand the sight of the studio, couldn’t stand the smell of the clay and Nora’s paints. I threw it all away and decided to do what Dad had always wanted. Law school. It was tough, but I played it like an intellectual game. I wanted something . . . safe, something that would always be there. Something solid. You could hold a law book in your hand. And the knowledge in that book, you’d always have it. I hated the work, but God help me, I played it safe.”
Brian drew a ragged breath. “And I went to work at Holmby, and I met Elizabeth, and I played it safe there too, I married the boss’s daughter. I thought I’d be set then, I’d have a safe job and eventually I’d make partner. But now I know I won’t. And I don’t care.” He turned to look at his mother. “I’ve played it so safe I’ve played myself into a prison.”
His mother held out her hand, and he drifted over and took it in his.
“It’s not too late, Brian,” she whispered. “If you keep going the way you are, you’ll be one of those dead people, sent back for a last chance at doing what you were meant to do. If they manage it, they get to join Pablo and Ernest and people like us. But so few do. An eternity, knowing you’re dead, knowing you wasted your life and talent. It’s why I’ve bent all the rules of this place to warn you.”
Brian nodded. Somehow he felt lighter, as if he could run for miles. He knew now what he had to say. “Mom . . . is Nora here? Or was she sent back?”
“You said people get sent back if their lives were cut short. She qualifies. Is she here, or back there?”
His mother stared up at him for a long moment. Then she nodded, let his hand go, got up, and crossed to a black lacquer table. On it stood an old-fashioned black candlestick phone. As his mother lifted it and put the receiver to her ear, Brian realized that no cord led from it.
“Data Retrieval, please,” his mother said. “Steve? Hi, it’s Grayson. Doing fine, how about you? Could you get me a location on — Brian? What was her name, and when did she die?”
* * *
As his Yellow Cab pulled away, George Petrie knocked on the door of the Kerlerec Street house. Waiting in the sticky hot night, insects whining past his ears, he assessed the building with a professional eye. Creole cottage, he thought, and in good condition. I’ve got a client who’d love me to design him a place like this.
“George! You made it!” Brian Devlin grinned. “Come in, boy, come in! What’ll you have?”
George stepped into a large comfortable room filled with a mix of antique and modern furniture. The air, thankfully, was cool; an air conditioner rumbled in one window. “Scotch?”
“Scotch it is.”
As Brian built the drinks, George studied him. He’d been astonished, and in fact hadn’t recognized Brian at first, when Brian had come up to him in the bar of the Canal Street Marriott where George was attending the Architects’ Institute annual conference.
Brian wore black jeans, black leather sandals, and a white shirt open at the throat. Tanned and with a neat beard, he looked healthy and oddly happy. He and I are the same age, George thought with a flash of envy, but he looks five years younger and weighs ten pounds less.
“Can’t believe it’s been four years,” Brian said as he handed George his Scotch. “How is the old town, anyway?”
“About the same. Snowstorm last week.” George chuckled. “Believe me, nobody’s forgotten you. Elizabeth still turns green if somebody mentions you. And your boss, uh –”
“That’s it. I hear he won’t even let your name be spoken in his presence. Not many people throw away a career and marriage to the boss’s daughter. Did you really call him to say ‘Fuck you’?”
“Nope. I just said, ‘Arthur? Brian Devlin. I quit.’”
George clapped a hand on the other man’s shoulder. “Nobody blames you, though. Once Elizabeth starts to screech about
. . . Hey, I’m sorry, didn’t mean –-”
“’S okay. She’s got a right, I guess.”
“Linda saw you on one of her arts and leisure websites. You’re pretty hot in the sculpture biz, huh?”
Brian grinned again like a small boy. “I’ve sold several pieces. And a gallery on Julia Street is giving me a one-man show in January. Want to see my latest?”
Brian led George through a darkened kitchen and out onto a plant-festooned patio. On the other side, a small outbuilding contained a large well-lit studio, with racks of supplies, sculpting tools, cans labeled Castilene and Apoxie, and plastic storage bins.
From a small tripod stand rose the life-size bust of a woman. Her hair was coiled and coiffed like that of a Roman matron, and her face, while not beautiful, was strikingly handsome. George thought he detected a resemblance in it to Brian himself. “Wow,” he said. “Looks like she’s about to speak any second. What do you call it?”
“‘Not Too Late’,” he said.
“You branching out?” On the other side of the studio an easel, set so that it would receive daylight from a window, was draped with a cloth. On a wide table lay brushes, turpentine, and an assortment of paints.
“No, that’s my wife’s. She’s experimenting with — I think I hear her now. I’ll let her bend your ear about her work. Come on.”
As they stepped back into the living room, a pale young woman turned from hanging her purse on a hook by the door. Brunette, slim, she reminded George of his own wife. Unlike Linda, though, this girl had an ethereal air about her; as if, George thought, she did not really belong to this world, but was merely visiting. She smiled shyly and came over, her hand out.
“Hi,” she said. “I’m Nora. You’re George? I’ve heard so much about you!”
About the Author
A native of New Orleans, Paul Sundeson grew up on Bourbon Street. A former computer analyst and technical writer, he is currently an administrator for a local N.O. college. His “amateur detective” novel, Griffin in Steel, won the Mystery competition of the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ 2004 Colorado Gold Writing Contest. While he still lives in the city with a half-Persian and a Siberian (cats, not people).