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Brush with Death
I was just stepping off the escalator when I first saw him. He was sitting on a bench outside the mall’s Borders, a book balanced on the lap of his dark-rinse jeans. I noticed him because, despite the book, he was staring at me, not the words on the page. Or, more specifically, he was staring at my mom. Weird. I couldn’t figure out whether to be grossed out or not, since I didn’t know what he wanted.
I glanced over at my mom, phone tucked between her cheek and the crook of her neck as she talked to a client, shopping bags swinging in each hand as she rummaged through her purse, searching for I didn’t know what.
He was still staring at her with an intensely indifferent look on his face, light green eyes probing, short pitch-black hair sticking up all over the place, mouth set in a thin line. He didn’t look more than a year or two older than me, placing him in his very early twenties at the most.
“Mom.” I tugged on her sleeve, eyes still focused on him. “Mom!”
She tugged her arm back, managing to keep an irritated look off her face. “Sweetie, please, I’m talking to a client here.” Then she spewed some legal jargon, something about an ongoing divorce case, half of which flew right over my head.
“But Mom,” I tore my gaze away from him to look at her, “do you know that guy? Look, he’s been staring at you for the past minute!”
“I’m sorry,” she sighed into the phone, “could I call you back in a minute? Yeah, kids, you know what I mean? Yes, thanks.” She hung up and looked. “Which guy, honey? There’s got to be at least a hundred in this room at the moment.”
“Right in front of us, Mom, on the bench,” I replied, shoving my hands deep in my pockets so I wouldn’t be tempted to point.
She took a good, long look before finally saying, “Sweetie, I think we need to get your eyes checked again. There’s no one there.”
What? “Mom, he’s sitting right there on that bench,” I turned my head to look, “…right…outside…the bookstore.” She was right. There was no one there, just a closed book lying on the seat.
“Aren’t you a little too old to be playing this game, Calypso?” Mom asked, walking off towards The Gap, dialing her client as she went. “Come on, I think there’s a sale on boot-cut jeans.”
I followed her, sneaking glances over to the bench every few steps. “Mom,” I protested, “please just call me Cal, especially if we’re in public.”
“I try, hun, and I’m sorry but you know your dad’s the one who named you and he hates it when we ‘butcher such a beautiful Greek name by shortening it.’ His words, not mine.”
Calypso. Such a great name for a teen girl living in the 21st century, isn’t it? It means “hidden.” My dad chose it, apparently because they could never quite see me on the sonogram. I didn’t ask for details, but if I’d just been in hiding, this guy, whoever he was, was pulling a legit disappearing act.
It was another hour before we were back in my mom’s car, our shopping finally done. Mom had something to finish telling yet another client before she put the key in the ignition, hung up, and reversed out of the parking space.
“Mom,” I said, once we were back on the main road. “Why are all your cases divorce ones? They always are.” I didn’t look at her, focusing on the passing streets and cars.
“Not always, Calypso,” she protested. “Okay, so a good number of them are, but I do what I have to in order to make money. How are we supposed to pay for these clothes and for your college education otherwise?”
“Is that why Dad filed for divorce?” I asked as she braked at a red light. “Because someone who’s had a hand in already breaking so many marriages is hard to stay married to?”
A few moments of silence – of mourning what we were about to lose – passed before Mom spoke, her voice soft but tense, frustrated. “Calypso…Cal, let’s not talk about that right now, alright?”
“Whatever, Mom.” I propped my elbow on the sill and stared out the window as we waited for the light to turn green. I turned my gaze back straight ahead before I did a double take. He was standing right there, wearing a jacket that looked too heavy for this mild weather, staring right through the glass at my mom.
“Mom…” Uncertainly, I dropped my arm and turned to look at her. “Mom, that guy’s here again. He’s still staring at you.”
“Not now, Cal, the light’s just turned green.” She lightly tapped the gas pedal, moving forward slowly but surely.
His eyes flickered from my mother to a spot just ahead, just for a second before he focused back on her, the thin line of his set mouth and the light green of his eyes adding to sinking feeling in my stomach. I looked ahead to where his eyes had gone.
“What is it, Cal?”
“Mom!” I leaned over, grabbing the steering wheel and wrenching it to the right, sending the car swerving into a different lane.
“Cal!” she yanked the hand-brake, pulling over to the side of the road. “What’s wrong with–”
She was cut off by a car zooming past, smashing into a telephone pole. If my mom had continued to go where she’d wanted to, we would have been hit. On her side of the car.
Through a cycle of breathing exercises, I sneaked a peek out of my window. He was gone. Disappeared. Again.
* * *
My mother, unlike me, seemed to have forgotten all about our near brush with death by the time we walked through the front door, stashing shopping bags in the closet beneath the stairs.
“Mom.” I turned to look at her, only to find her back on the phone, not with a client this time, but a friend. I folded my arms over my chest and sighed. Sometimes it seemed like she had time for everyone but her own family. “Mom, I’m going up to my room, okay?”
She waved at me, still chatting away to her friend, as I turned and bounded up the stairs, making way more noise than I needed to. At the top of the stairs, I stopped and turned my head in the direction of Dad’s room. Since he’d filed for divorce, he and Mom now stayed in separate rooms, as far across the hall from each other as possible.
His door was closed, probably locked, a thin line of light showing on the carpet underneath the door. Usually he kept it open; when it was closed it was as good as putting up a sign: Do Not Enter Or Man Will Bite Your Head Off Because He is Being a Grumpy Grouch. You can see why it would be easier to just close the door. It stayed closed most of the time nowadays.
I walked past over to my own room, unzipping my light jacket and ripping the Velcro apart, then tossing the jacket on a chair. As I walked past, I caught a glance of something in the mirror. My heart paused a beat, sending a numb feeling through my whole body, and I took a step back to look at it. Uh-oh. Now in addition to being numb, I was cold, freezing, like someone had slapped me in front of the air-conditioner in the middle of December. Not something. Someone.
My arm reached out, snatching a tennis racket, and I spun around, lifting it, ready to strike. It was the guy who’d been staring at my mom all day, the one who’d disappeared at the site of the accident. “Who are you?” I shrieked, my voice unusually high and shrill.
For the first time that day, something other than indifference appeared in his expression: puzzlement. Lifting a dark eyebrow, he moved his eyes away from me long enough to turn his head and glance behind him.
“Yes, you!” I shrieked, my hands starting to shake, making the tennis racket wobble in the air. “I’m talking to you!”
He turned his head back and stared at me, a chill seeping in through the bewilderment in his expression. His mouth almost in a scowl, he pushed himself off my bed and came towards me, my hands shaking harder with every step closer he took.
“Dad!” I finally screamed, when he was only a foot or two away from me. “Dad!”
It took a moment, but then my dad burst through the door, rectangular glasses slipping off his nose, shirt untucked, looking like he just woke up. “What is it, Calypso?” Unlike my mother, he yelled it almost as loudly as I did, eyes searching the room for any sign of danger.
“Dad, he’s right there!”
The guy’s eyes flicked over to my dad, then focused back on me, his mouth curling into a small, rather smug, smile.
Dad stared at me. “Who? Calypso, there’s no one in here. Are you practicing your swing inside the house again? You know your mother hates it when you do that.”
“But Dad, look–”
“Sweetheart, you have a tennis match next week,” he interrupted me, “I understand that, but keep the practice to the actual court, alright? And I promised I would come to watch you, didn’t I? I’d come no matter what, so don’t worry about that.” He kissed my forehead lightly. “Whatever’s going on between me and your mother has nothing to do with you.” He went back to the door, closing it behind him. “I’ll talk to you later, Calypso.”
I’d forgotten to keep screaming about the guy in my room, who was apparently invisible to parents. I raised the tennis racket higher, fighting to keep my hands under control. “Who are you?” I asked, meaning to shout but my voice coming in a whisper.
He cocked his head to the side, studying me like a frog in a biology lab. “You can see me.” He straightened his neck, a hint of curiosity in his eyes. “Odd. That shouldn’t even be possible. Not that it makes my job any harder.” He took a step forward.
I brought the tennis racket down with a grunt, watching in horror as the strings slipped right through him, as if he were made out of air. Hands trembling harder than ever now, I dropped the racket and took a step farther, till my back hit my dresser. “Who… What are you?” Again, my voice was a whisper. I didn’t think I could speak in a voice that was any higher.
He was giving me that look again, as if trying to figure out something about my inner workings. “Some call me Doyle,” he said slowly, glancing at my racket on the floor. “And I’ve got a job to do.” He looked up at me, completely serious again. “I just picked the wrong room…” He turned to leave, and I couldn’t miss the flapping white appendages on his back, evenly placed on his shoulder blades.
“You’re an angel,” I gasped, hitting the floor as I fell to my knees. “First at the mall, then the accident…”
“Yes, you’ve been interfering,” he said, speaking over his shoulder. “I should have been done with this assignment at least half an hour ago.”
“You mean you’re…you’re…” I couldn’t get the words out; my throat was closing up from shock.
“Certainly not the Grim Reaper,” he replied, chuckling. “But I am the Angel of Death. A scythe is completely unnecessary.”
“Is it time for me to…to…die?” I choked the last word out.
“Of course not, you’ve got several years in you yet.”
He’d been staring at my mother. I lifted my head. “Mom?”
He turned his whole body around now, looking at me. “Yes. It’s her time now. And I’d like it if you didn’t interfere. It’s not going to stop me; it’s just irritating.”
“Wait!” I reached out, grabbing his arm. Somehow, unlike my tennis racket, my fingers didn’t go through him but wrapped around his forearm. He stared at my hand on his arm, as if he didn’t know what to make of it. “Is there any way…any way that this doesn’t have to happen? Not right now, not several years from now. Can’t you keep my mom alive till she’s ready to go?”
Doyle looked up at me, though he didn’t shake off my arm. “Why? You seem to have noticed it yourself – she has no time for you or your father, just for her friends, her valuable clients. I doubt you’ll notice her absence.”
“But she’s my mother. And she can change.” I blinked, forcing tears back.
“How? Why would she change?” Doyle was still studying my face, waiting.
“I’ll help her,” I promised. “She’ll still have clients, still have friends, but she’ll make time for us. She will change. Not overnight, but soon.”
“And if she doesn’t?” he asked, manner-of-factly.
“Then…then you have your job to do, you’ll have to take her, but not yet. I need a chance to help her. She needs a chance to help herself.”
Doyle took hold of my wrist in his other hand, squeezing hard enough to make me let go of his arm. “All right, then,” he said, watching me rub my wrist at my side. “I like challenges. This will be interesting. But if your mother does not change and realize the value of her own life in a month’s time, I will come back and take not only her soul but yours as well.” He lifted an eyebrow, seeing the look on my face. “Nothing comes for free, Calypso. You want your chance, you got it, and that is the price. Do you accept it?”
I took a deep breath and nodded.
“Your month starts now.” He smiled, stepping away from me, and leaped out the open window, wings spreading wide like an eagle’s. “I’ll be waiting and watching, Calypso!”