I found out in the most interesting way that I died. My plan was to stay in all weekend. The first time for a while. I was simply going to watch the college football triple-header, but then I realize I have nothing to drink, no pizza, no chips nothing for breakfast or lunch next week. No point starving in the process. It’s an early October weekend, but not too cold. I throw on some shorts and head out. And who do I run into? Literally, run into. Lake Montgomery.
I hadn’t seen her in years. I was looking into the freezer section at the grocery store contemplating whether I should buy waffles or not. I turn around and we practically knock each other over. The box of whole-grain waffles tumbles to the floor. I say excuse me, reach down retrieve the box and as I do, I recognize my former co-worker.
I say excuse me again more to get her attention this time. We both said excuse me the first time at the same time. I got sort of a strange look from her the first time. Well, the look was there but it wasn’t exactly at me. It was as if she was trying to figure out what she had run into or what had run into her. She frowned and her eyes scanned the area as I watched her while picking up the box of waffles.
Yet she couldn’t pinpoint an object. Or my voice for that matter. It was as if she didn’t hear me trying to get her attention. “Lake,” I say. “How are you.” Nothing. Am I invisible? I think. I know she recognizes me. It was right here in this store that we worked just over two years ago. She worked in produce and cashier. I unloaded trucks and stocked shelves. She wasn’t in uniform.
I asked, “Lake, are you on vacation this week? Did you quit?” No response. Her eyes darted right, darted left under scrunched eyebrows. I waved my hand in front of her face. “Hello... Lake,” I said. The look said to me she was still trying to figure out what almost knocked her over. We collided pretty hard. Hard enough to knock her off her path. “Lake it’s me. You okay?” She was holding the back of her arm. Massaging it.
I noticed I was still holding the freezer door open. The cool air was still blowing on my face. Maybe Lake simply felt the cool air from the freezer. “Lake. Hey, how are the kids? Is Juan still managing the downtown store?” I ask. No response. She’s simply ignoring me. Speaking of kids, her daughter Sierra bends the corner cuffing a box of Honey Nut Cheerios, family size, like a football.
She waves and before I can reply “Hey, Sierra,” she spikes the box of Cheerios into the basket.
“Where’s the closest Carvel,” Sierra asks me. “We’re going to buy an ice cream cake for my birthday party? I haven’t seen Lake in two years, she would be about nine going on ten. But I saw Juan--Lake’s husband, Sierra and their son Langston about four months ago at the school I teach. It was Juan’s birthday. It was a Friday and Langston made a point of telling it that they were going to Six Flags to ride the rollercoasters for his birthday on Saturday--to Sierra’s chagrin. It’s not your birthday, Langston. It’s dad’s birthday--she reminded him.
Lake’s hand stopped moving along her bicep and tricep. Her eyebrows still scrunched. Her eyes, her face relaying a different message, focused on something new in a different direction. Her dark brown eyes dart down then up giving Sierra the once over. “Who’re you talking to?”
Sierra looks over at me, then back at her mother, then back at me, then back at Lake. A miniature image of her mother. Thin, light brown eyes and dark hair. “Your friend,” she replies.
“What friend?” asks Lake.
“Mr. Conley. The teacher who used to work at this store with you,” Sierra states.
“Where?” Lake turns and looks right in my face. Then turns and looks behind her.
Sierra’s face is now with the puzzled look. “Right there,” she replies pointing to me.
“Sierra...Nevermind,” Lake says shaking her head quickly from left to right as if shaking off a distant memory and returning to the present. “Let’s go.”
Sierra looks at me, throws her hands up in the air, let’s them fall back to her side grabs a box of strawberry filled waffles from the freezer and walks down the aisle.
I smirk and shake my head. “She’s not going to let you have those since you just put that big box of cereal in the basket.” No sooner does she get around the corner of the freezer section does she come walking back frowning. I open the freezer door and she places the waffles back.
“So why won’t she answer me,” I ask.
She stops. Looks at me for a moment without saying a word. A look of realization crosses her face. “It’s not that she doesn’t want to,” Sierra says. “I don’t think she knows you’re here.”
“What’d you mean she doesn’t know I’m here?” I ask.
“It just dawned on me. She’s not able to see you now that you’re transitioning to the afterlife. I should have thought to ask that before I started talking to you in front of her,” states Sierra. “But how would it look to ask everyone I meet if their dead or alive right after they say hello.”
“Yeah. That would be strange on top of talking to thin air.” I reply.
“You see how mom looked at me when I was talking to you,” she says. “I need to find some way to discern what realm I’m talking to without tipping off the person in the physical realm that I’m talking to someone in the spirit realm. So you see I’m between a rock and a hard place as dad likes to say.”
“Wait a minute,” I reply. “You think I’m dead or dying? It’s obvious Lake can’t see me. Something happened, but what?”
Sierra replies, “I was hoping you could tell me. How is it you don’t remember dying? It had to hurt.”
“You read enough to know that you don’t have to die in a gun battle like those video games you’ve been going over to your friend’s house to play to die. I could have died of natural causes quietly and peacefully.”
“Natural causes,” she replies. “You don’t look elderly to me. And I don’t play violent video games.”
“I just stare at her.”
“What?” she replies fighting to conceal her mother’s smile. “I don’t. It’s against my principles.”
“You’re principles...Sierra half the world knows you don the headset and beat some of the best players in the world. Most of the time they think it’s Juan,” I say. But you’re friends have witnessed you in action using your father’s gaming profile. And...it seems you’ve been getting some supernatural help.”
Now she looks directly at me. A full smile on her face. “What do you mean some supernatural help?” she asks.
“Some new friends of mine in the spirit realm informed me they were once pretty good gamers and they’ve been helping you quite a bit. This explains you’re fast progression. You’ve been cheating!”
“Okay. I do, on occasion, receive some other realm assistance,” Sierra says looking to my right from where I heard the voices ask me to inquire about the gaming help she receives. I can now hear the voices talking and laughing beside me but unlike her, I cannot yet see them.
“Sierra. They say Lake is coming,” I inform her. “She’s looking for you. Do you and these spirits talk all the time?”
She’s already looking to the end of the freezer aisle. “I know, I heard them.” She laughs. “They say to tell you they have names.” I let her know that I heard nothing. She informs me that they tune her out sometimes just as she tunes them out when she doesn’t want to talk or hear from them. And so that’s a--no--to my question.
“How would he know your names if you haven’t told him...boys,” she says to the spirits with exasperation. “I’m not telling him anything. You can introduce yourselves. Looks like Mr. Conley won’t be returning in his physical form so he’ll be able to see you along with hear you.”
“I’m not?” I ask.
“Not likely,” replies Sierra. “You’re beginning to become more in tune with the spirit realm. Soon you’ll be able to see them, as well as, talk with them.”
“How do you know I’m not like you?” I ask.
“Persuade mom that if we get cereal, waffles and Log Cabin syrup, my brother won’t go off the rails on a sugar high.”
“Good point. Hard to do since she can neither hear nor see me. By the way, she already knows Log Cabin is sugar-free. No high fructose...Nevermind.”
“Sierra,” Lake says standing behind us. “Didn’t you hear me calling you?”
“You told me to put the waffles back,” Sierra replies.
Lake looks at her and shakes her head. “Why are you acting so strange? Who are you talking to over here?”
“This is a good time to explain to her you can hear and see spirits,” I say.
The boys, her gamer friends tease her. “Yes, Sierra tell mommy about your special skills.”
“Shut up,” she snaps, out loud.”
Lake’s eyes go wide. “What did you say?”
“I mean. Mom. I think you’re friend Mr. Conley died.”
Lake pauses. “Who?... Who told you that?”
“I think dad mentioned it,” she replies.
“When?” asks Lake.
The boys shake their heads. She puts a hand to their faces. “You’re not going to tell her?” I ask.
“Don’t remember, we’ll talk,” Sierra tells her. “After my birthday party,” she answers looking at me. “So it seems you’re fully transitioned now that you can hear and see the spirits.”
“What?” asks Lake.
Sierra replies, “I said. When was the last time you heard from Mr. Conley.”
“It seems so,” I reply looking at the various faces from all different walks of life young and old who are transitioning or have already done so. “I guess it’s time for me to go,” I tell her. “Let me know if you need help with homework.”
“I need help with homework,” she replies.
“How about you try doing it first then ask me for help.”
“I’m busy. I have a party this weekend,” she states.