“Three Nights in Budapest”
Allegra didn’t ask any questions. He watched a piece of lint hover over her wispy hair before it flitted away from the yellow incandescent light to hide in shadows. She didn’t notice. A few papers littered the kitchen counter. Dust collected around window frames, on a small unused corner table, and between the central-air register vents, high up on the wall. She didn’t notice anything.
Her burger leaned to one side, drippings spotting the crinkled foil wrap.
“You should eat. It’ll get cold,” Andrew said.
She turned men’s heads two years ago. Now, dark rings circled two pale eyes that sank back in a head that posted on a threadlike neck. Skinny arms terminated at withered hands. A scratched gold band clung to the knuckle of her ring finger.
Allegra looked over and dropped her hands under the table top.
Andrew took a large bite of his burger, wiped away the grease, swallowed, and looked up at the ceiling. “She drinks like Pop did. I don’t trust her with Chrissy.”
Allegra pursed her thin lips. “You should have gotten her help.”
“I think that’s why she ran off. I don’t know.”
“She never said anything to me.”
Andrew stared. “I’m going to take care of Chrissy.”
“You quit the training program. You can’t even take care of yourself.”
“I was confused. I’ll go to trade school after this is all fixed.”
A small bit of light shone in Allegra’s eyes. She reached over and touched his arm. “Do you any have fond memories of us? Of you and me?”
Andrew furrowed his brow, but he took her hand. It felt hollow and warm. “Pop always told that stupid story about the trip he had won over the telephone.”
Allegra laughed. “Three nights in Budapest. Ma wouldn’t go, because she knew it was a scam. Pop thought she was cheap. He never got it.”
“You and I would imitate how he held an imaginary phone to his ear, retelling the story for the hundredth time.”
“Even on their anniversary.” Allegra dropped her smile. “Wished they hadn’t drunk the wine.”
The flower bouquet, trampled and scattered on the floor, remained a vivid
“Ma had a cut and a black eye. I tucked her into my bed that night.”
“You loved her.”
He pressed Allegra’s hand tighter. “I’m haunted by it. Maybe if I took Chrissy on a trip, things would change. I could move on, too.”
Life looked around and saw a gap into the Mortal Plane—unusual, because she hadn’t opened the gate, and no other Heavenly Entities were nearby. Elijah may have willed the gate from the main office; if so, Life’s supervisor exercised more power than imagined. Inside the gap, the Harbinger saw an outline of a room and it’s furnishings, but the immersed room was swimming in layers of a milky ethereal substance and the room revealed no details. Cloudy particles, something Mortals could not see, moved around a bed, a chair, and two human forms: one lying on the bed, another sitting in the chair.
Is Death in there? Life may not have been told everything about the training. Elijah had refused to answer any questions before she left to meet Death. Elijah only applied his usual dead-eyed stare and a “His will be done” response.
Life tried to recall mistakes she might have made. What if an Entity had reported that time she applied the Bread of Manna on a tree hosting a family of nesting squirrels? Life had only meant to revive the rotting trunk before it fell over. Too many crumbs caused the tree’s leaves and branches to violently grow, and the growth scared the fuzzy animals away.
Dr. Klarney stared at me. I don’t like when people stare, thinking thoughts that blame me for a struggling relationship. If they walked in my shoes, they might change their view.
A hot flush spread on my face. I tried a crooked smile. “Sorry, I’ve never been to a—”
“Mr. Grelling, you don’t have to be cuckoo to visit a shrink. I’ve helped lots of people quit smoking.” Dr. Klarney smiled back.
My toes relaxed; I curl them up good and tight when I’m nervous.
I didn’t want to shut down the relationship with Nelson because of my smoking habit; I’ve quit partners because I couldn’t stop and this was my last chance to make a relationship work. But it’s not my fault—it’s an addiction.
“My lover doesn’t like it.”
The doctor’s laugh sounded like a wheezing donkey—one, two, and three strained brays. “My wife would have me knocked off in a heartbeat. I should hire a food taster to make sure I’m not poisoned!”
I couldn’t help but laugh.
“Please, sir, have a seat and tell me about yourself,” Dr. Klarney said.
I hadn’t noticed the poster-size print of Edvard Munch’s The Scream until now. The only available chair was directly below it and butted against the wood-paneled wall. I walked over and tried to move my seat, but the chair wouldn’t budge.
“I anchor all the office furniture to the building. These days, just too many thieves,” the doctor said.
I sat down under the cartoonlike tormented person. A smoker’s patch began to feel like a better option. “Interesting print. The one above me.”
“I hate it. Reminds me of my brother, Dean.”
I cleared my throat and tried to be diplomatic. “Is he bald?”
“He’s dead. Shot himself because he thought he was turning into a houseplant.”
“I’m sorry. That’s tragic.”
“I’m not. It was a real pain having to water and fertilize him all the time. Ever see a man stand in a giant pot all day?”
I curled my toes again. “Um—no, can’t say I have.”