The kettle whistles, and I stand up, putting away my phone. I wasn't boiling water before, but it's not surprising - Florence usually stops by at around this time.
I wander into my kitchenette, looking around. Sure enough, Florence is hovering just in front of some of my upper cupboards, looking for something.
She doesn't look up as I enter the kitchenette.
"Where do you keep your tea cups?" she asks in her high, rather reedy voice.
"One cupboard to your left. Don't use the porcelain ones, they were a gift from my mother," I say. She reaches through the cupboard door and pulls out two dainty, ceramic tea cups with rose patters painted on them.
As soon as she puts them down on the counter, they become corporeal again. I watch her with interest - I always wondered how the "becoming solid" thing worked, though Florence won't answer any of my questions about it.
"You know, you could warn me before you stop by. You nearly gave me a heart attack when the kettle whistled," I say, taking out a box of tea bags.
Florence glances at it disdainfully but doesn't say anything, and I shake my head, knowing how she looks down on tea bags.
"Flo, we both know that I can't afford your fancy loose leaf tea. You'll have to settle for this," I say.
"Fine," she says, picking up the kettle and pouring out water for both of us. Wreaths of steam float up from our cups. I pick mine up carefully and the two of us head to the living room.
"You need to repaint your walls," Florence observes. "Or you could just use wallpaper. There was this pattern I used to love, it would go beautifully with your furniture."
She stares off into the distance, lost in memories.
"Is this ginger tea?" Florence continues after a pause. "My mother used to make the most lovely ginger tea. You know, I'd like you to meet my mother sometime, I'm sure you two would get along."
"I'm not ready to die just yet, Flo," I say with a wry smile.
She sighs, shaking her head.
"Maybe someday," she says.
"I'm only twenty two," I say.
"And I'm one hundred and fifty, what's it to you?" she replies tartly. "Age doesn't make the slightest difference. And I'm sure you'd come back, most people do for at least a short time."
I sip my tea.
"We should go out sometime," Florence says. "Take a walk down King's Street, I'd like to see how much everything has changed."
"You know that nearly everyone here is living, and they aren't as friendly to the dead as I am," I say. "They've taken to this awful method of banishing spirits. I don't want you to get hurt, and . . ."
I trail off, not knowing how to tell her what I mean. I don't want to lose her, I was so alone before she showed up.
"Oh, all right," she agrees reluctantly. She takes a sip of her tea.
"You should get a pet," she says suddenly. "A cat maybe. I used to have a little tabby, and she was so lovely. It would keep you company."
"I have you to keep me company," I say. "And pets are a lot of work."
"Not cats," Florence says. "And you won't have me forever. I'm getting old."
"But you can stay forever," I say. "You're already dead, what's going to hurt you now? Other than those banishers."
"I'm just, well, sometimes I get tired," she answers. She sighs, and then stands up, finishing her tea. "I really should get going," she says, putting her cup down on the coffee table.
She winks out of existence.
I finish my tea, then pull out my phone. I can't help think about our conversation. Something about it bothered me. I know Florence won't be here forever, but still.
I check my watch and blink in surprise. It's already nearly six, which means that Florence stayed much later than usual. For some reaoson, that makes my mood sink and my stomach twist into knots.
Something seems wrong, but I don't know what it is.
I try not to think about Florence's visit as I chop vegetables and boil water for rice. Eventually, I sit down to eat dinner, looking out the window where the sun is just beginning to set.
The way the fading light paints the sky pink and red and orange is beautiful, but it feels like a bad omen. An end to the day that could signify an end to something bigger.
I brush it off, place my dirty dishes in the sink, and go to bed.
The next day, I find all the dishes clean, and a note in Florence's loopy handwriting that says, "Do your own dishes next time! I'm not your mother."
My nervousness gets worse - Florence never does the dishes, so why would she start now?
The next day, I thank her for it, reminding her that she didn't have to. She's unusually quiet, and for most of her visit, I try to make bad jokes and talk about things and bring everything back to normal.
I know nothing is normal, though, and I have a suspicion of what's going to happen. I don't want it to. I have no idea how to stop it.
Florence is pretty much my only friend. Without her here, I'd be alone, utterly alone. No one to talk to, no one to gossip with, no one at all.
When she visits me again, I bring up my suspicions.
"Are you . . ." I pause, trying to think of the best way to phrase it. "Are you thinking of leaving soon?"
"Well that's a bit rude, don't you think?" she says, stirring her tea with a spoon. I notice that she avoids answering the question, but I don't press it - her silence is enough.
I want to beg her to stay. I don't want her to go.
The days pass, and the lingering feeling of dread doesn't pass, but she's still here, and I start to think I was overreacting.
Today, as I watch the sunset with her, her head on my shoulder (I can sort of feel it - warm and tingly like that part of me has fallen asleep), I sort of hope we can stay like this forever.
"I want to see Lane's tavern," Florence says. "You said they turned it into a cafe, whatever that is. We could pick up some coffees or something."
"I thought you hated coffee," I say.
"It would be an interesting experience," she says. "And maybe if I add enough milk, it won't taste like anything."
I sneak a glance at her - this isn't like her: no snappy retorts or criticisms. Her face is soft in the evening light, her eyes staring at something that only she can see.
"Well, maybe next time you come," I say, not expecting her to take me up on my offer.
We do go the next time she comes, though. She remarks that coffee is just as bad as she remembers, and we laugh together. Everything is okay, until we get back to my house.
"Emi, I have something I want to tell you," Florence says, looking for serious than usual.
"What is it?" I say, knowing and dreading what she's about to say.
"I need to go," she says. "When you die, you'll understand. I can't stay here for much longer."
I nod, not trusting my voice. When I get my breathing steady, I try to speak.
"But, you're my best friend, and I-" I choke back a sob. "I don't want you to go."
She holds me while I cry, and though I can just barely feel warmth where she touches me, it's still almost comforting.
"It'll be okay," she whispers in my ear. "Get yourself a cat or a dog. Focus on your life. You'll be okay."
She stays for three more days. I feel it immediately when she's gone.
I start to drink black coffee in an effort not to think about her. I leave the house more, but only to sit in the cafe and stare blankly out the windows.
I eventually get myself a cat. We get along well together. Ren has Florence's dark green eyes, too.
I miss her.
But, like she said, I'll be okay.
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