The moment her father died, a dense fog settled into the hospice room. Distantly she heard the heart monitor flatline, a high-pitched drone that made its home in the back of her head. She held his hand. It was still warm. A nurse came in, moving in exaggerated slow-motion, checking her father’s pulse, calling a code in room 182A. Nova could barely see the other nurses or the doctor through the fog, even as they tried in vain to restart her father’s heart. All she saw was him. Her Daddy. All she heard was the whine of the heart monitor.
The parade of people thinned and she felt a hand on her shoulder. The heart monitor stopped. She looked up from her father’s hand and saw a nurse rolling it out of the room. Nova turned back to her father, confused. Why would they take it away? He needed that.
The hand on her shoulder squeezed and a voice, muffled, asked her to follow her. The speaker’s other hand gently took her arm and lifted. Nova stood, still holding her father’s hand. Her guide began to steer her away, so she squeezed her father’s hand one last time. I’ll be right back, Daddy.
The fog covered everything. Her guide took her down a hallway that felt miles long, mist and shadows passing her by. They came to an office and she was set in a chair in front of a desk. A door clicked shut behind her. Nova stared at her hand. It could still feel the ghost of her father’s crinkled skin.
Nova looked at her guide, a woman with red hair. That’s all she could discern. The rest of her face had been eaten by the haze of the room.
“I know this is difficult. I am very sorry. There are only a few forms you need to sign. Don’t worry about the bill, for now. That will be sent in a few weeks. I can also recommend some grief counselors if you’d like.”
Nova’s forehead scrunched in confusion. Forms? Bills? The first piece of paper that the woman with the red hair slid towards her mentioned human remains removal. The line requested the funeral home address. But her father was just down the hall; he wasn’t ready to go to the funeral home. There must be some mistake.
She looked up at the woman in confusion, trying to see past the fog to catch a glimpse of her eyes. Surely this was all a mistake. If she could just look her in the eye and explain-
“Ms. Hill,” a hand reached forward and cradled hers, the one that had just cradled her father’s, “I really am sorry for your loss. Your father is dead.” The hand released hers and Nova realized the woman had given her a pen.
The fog cleared as Nova felt tears slip down her face.
The forms all signed and settled, Nova stood to retrieve her belongings from her father’s hospice room. The woman with the red hair didn’t follow. The walk back to 182A was short, half a minute at most. She opened the door to an empty bed and held back the tears that threatened to overtake her again.
The remnants of her stay here for the last few weeks only took a few minutes to pack up. A few books. Her laptop and charger. Hot Pocket wrappers and granola bar crumbs. As she cleaned, she heard the door open. She didn’t look up.
“Ms. Hill, I’d like to extend my condolences. I’m a representative from the TSA.”
Nova continued cleaning. It wasn’t right that all these people needed to talk to her so soon. Least of all this one.
“I know this is a difficult time. I’d like to remind you that you should be receiving a text from our association within the next few hours as to where to bring your father’s Keepsake Item. I just have to check, to ensure it’s delivered properly; do you know what your father’s Keepsake was?”
Nova nodded, still refusing to look at the person at the door.
“Oh good. I’ll let the agency know and we look forward to seeing you within the next few days. If you have any questions at all, please feel free to message our text line. We always have grief counselors available to walk you through the process.”
Nova didn’t respond. The presence at the door stayed for a few moments longer before their footsteps retreated down the hall. She pursed her lips, stuffing the last of the trash into the garbage bin beside the bed. In all the forms and days spent preparing her father’s funeral, she’d forgotten about the TSA.
As she walked out of the hospice center, she looked at her phone contacts. There were a few calls she had to make. One to her brother on the East Coast. One to her estranged mother who wouldn’t care but would pretend to. One to the funeral home to set a day for the wake. One to the newspaper. The last one reminded her that she best head to her father’s condo. She’d left her rough draft of his obituary there. The phone calls would wait until she was sitting at his kitchen table, all the information in front of her.
She slumped into her car and tossed her phone to the passenger seat. It bounced once, then buzzed, its screen lighting up. A text. Nova checked the notification, her car idling.
This is a notification from the Traveling Soul Association. We are currently narrowing down the location of your loved one’s soul transfer. Please ensure the safety of your loved one’s Keepsake and be prepared to have it delivered in a timely manner. We wish you peace and clarity in your time of sorrow.
Nova grit her teeth and slammed her phone back down into the passenger seat. Vultures. Her father hadn’t even grown cold and they were after his things. She drove erratically to his condo, frustration weighing down the gas pedal.
When she arrived at his door, the keys shook in her hands. There was no good reason for this, she told herself. She’d been here plenty of times alone. He hadn’t lived here in weeks. But when she opened the door and looked in, seeing all his furniture, his tchotchkes, the pictures on the wall; she broke again. Nova closed the door behind her and let the tears overwhelm her.
It was easier to regain herself the second time. She set herself to work, hoping that keeping busy would dull the ache in her chest. The calls to the funeral home and the newspaper were the easiest. Calling her brother was harder. He cried over the tinny airwaves as she sat at the kitchen table were the three of them had shared breakfast as adults together, her father grinding fresh coffee beans for their visits. She hesitated when making the last call. Her mother wouldn’t care but he was still the father of her children, a man she’d been married to for fifteen years. Nova felt anger welling, filling the hole in her heart with rage instead of hurt. Before she could dial, though, a text message popped up.
This is a notification from the Traveling Soul Association. We have successfully mapped the soul transfer of your loved one. Please deliver your loved one’s Keepsake to St. Mary’s Hospital in Naples, Nebraska by June 22nd at 1:15 AM. Thank you for your assistance.
Nebraska by June 2nd? Nova looked at the calendar hanging next to her father’s landline. That was in less than two days! She let her teeth grind as she rolled over the shipping options in her head. Shipping her father’s Keepsake express would cost her a small fortune. Nova slammed her phone on the kitchen table and walked to her father’s bedroom.
The door opened with a soft creak and the stale scent of his cologne wafted her way. Tears threatened again, but her anger kept them down. She swallowed an unvoiced sob and opened his walk-in closet to look at his Keepsake.
The rocking horse still stood in the back corner, as it had ever since he’d moved out of her childhood home. Its painted blue eyes and black, flowing mane peeked out at her from among the work shirts and carefully pressed pants. Her fury softened as she met its gaze. There were so many good memories attached to that horse. It may have been her father’s Keepsake, but it was part of her life, too.
Anger quelled for the moment, she pulled the horse out and brought it into the kitchen. She still didn’t know how she was going to have it delivered, but at least it was out. With a long sigh, she picked up the phone and called her mother.
She took the news as Nova had expected, but caught that Nova was upset about something else and asked after it.
“It’s his damn rocking horse,” Nova said, staring at it in its cobalt eyes, “I have to get it to Nebraska in less than two days.”
“Ah, they found his soul then?” her mother asked.
“Yeah. I don’t know how I’m expected to get this thing shipped. It’s old. Real wood. And big.”
“Probably cost a bit.”
Silence crackled. Nova didn’t know why she expected an offer of help. It wasn’t as if her mother was helping pay for the hospice or the funeral. Why would she offer to help with this?
“You could always drive it out,” her mother finally said.
Nova closed her eyes and bit the inside of her cheek. “I don’t think that’s an option for me right now. I need to be here.”
“Why? You said the funeral’s arranged. You’ve had it planned for weeks. There’s not much else you need to do right now.”
“But the stuff in the condo needs to be sorted and the place cleaned and-“
“I think you’d benefit from a day or two away. You’ve been cooped up with your dad and death for weeks. Get away for a few days.”
“I don’t think-“
“Did I ever tell you that I hand-delivered my Grandma’s Keepsake? I met her. Her soul.”
Nova stopped short. She couldn’t think of what to say.
“Listen, I know you don’t want to take my advice. But I think you should go. Feel better, Nova.”
The call ended.
Nova stared at the rocking horse, its lacquered wood and old paint dull under the kitchen fluorescents. Even if she did ship it, there was a chance it could be damaged en route and her mother’s words kept bouncing around in her skull, like an echo of hope.
I met her. Her soul.
Could she meet her father one more time?
She sat at the kitchen table, her phone beginning to buzz with a few people hearing the news and offering condolences. A feeling told her the buzzing would get worse the further the news spread. The rocking horse met her gaze.
Nova stood up, letting impulse take her. She set her phone to Driving mode to silence the notifications and pulled up her GPS. If she started now, she might get halfway there by dark.
She loaded the rocking horse into her backseat, covering the legs with blankets and stuffing pillows around it. When she turned the car on, she looked in the rearview mirror. The blue eye looked back. Nova pulled out of the condo’s parking lot and hit the “Start Navigation” button on the GPS.
The twists and turns of the roads led her to the highway she would follow for the rest of the trip. She checked back on the horse. Still upright. Nova settled in for the rest of her drive, some 800 miles to the land of corn and soy.
The high of impulse only took her the first ten miles. After that, she sat silent with her thoughts, brooding over the fact that she was driving to give away her father’s most precious belonging. It wasn’t fair. The horse was his, yes, but it was part of her life, too.
Pictures in her baby book showed her sitting up on the horse, her father’s coarse hands holding her upright while she smiled. One of her first memories was of him rocking her, her holding onto the handles that protruded from the horse’s mane and seeing open plains stretch across her imagination, her trusty steed below her, her father watching over her. She remembered the day she’d asked to have the horse, the day he’d told her no. How just as her stuffed dog Barrels was her special toy, the horse was his. He was happy to share, though.
The miles wore on and the land around her grew flat. She supposed, if she ever had kids, they’d have to do this for her too. Only Barrels could be fit in a reasonable shipping box. The horse was an outlier. All Keepsakes she’d ever heard of or seen were small- her mother’s was a locket. Her brother had a toy train. One boy she’d dated in high school had shown her his puzzle box. No one she’d ever met had something as large as the rocking horse in her backseat.
Daylight faded and she pulled into a rest stop. She didn’t want to bother with a hotel. She had no extra set of clothes or toiletries. Nova locked the doors and leaned her seat back, laying down with her head next to the horse’s saddle. She dreamed of her father rocking her gently, the smell of his cologne and polish of the horse intermingling in the sweet scent of childhood.
Her phone alarm woke her, and, after a quick restroom break, she returned to the highway. The land was flatter than yesterday. After another hour or two she could see the road meet the horizon miles ahead. Open plains stretched before her. Her trusty steed sat behind her.
The GPS instructed her to turn off the highway in the late afternoon. Nova had not eaten more than a granola bar since leaving her father’s condo yesterday, but the cool voice of the GPS’s alert made her stomach turn. The whole ride she had refused to think about the destination. Now it was here.
She pulled into the hospital parking lot and parked in the visitor section. It was early. From the text she’d received, the horse didn’t have to be delivered until one in the morning. She looked wearily at the horse behind her and then at the hospital’s front entrance. It would be uncomfortable no matter how many people were in the waiting room. Nova opened her car door and started unloading the horse.
It’s not every day someone walks into a hospital with a rocking horse and she received a number of stares as she made her way to the front desk, the curves of the legs banging into her thighs. The nurse smiled. Nova showed her the text from Traveling Souls. She was instructed to take a seat and wait to be called.
Nova pulled out her phone to wait, the rocking horse at her knee. The number of texts she’d received were now in the double digits. She put her phone away. She wasn’t ready to handle those yet. She put one hand on the horse’s mane, treasuring the feel of the smooth wood, and tried not to think.
A voice called her name and when she opened her eyes, the fog had returned. A nurse came up to her and asked her to follow. Nova stood, carrying the horse by its saddle. It was the only light in the haze. Warm, comforting, and clear in her mind while the rest of the hospital faded.
“You’re actually very lucky,” the nurse said, her voice sounding as if she was speaking from another room, “The mother had an appointment to induce labor, but ended up going into natural labor the night before. The baby’s just been cleaned and introduced to the family. Did the TSA give you notice or was it just luck that brought you here?”
“Just luck,” she mumbled, thinking of the unread notifications on her phone.
They arrived at a door. “She’s just through here.”
Nova swallowed, clutching the rocking horse. “I get to see the baby?”
“Yes. It’s a courtesy we allow people who hand-deliver Keepsakes. I can’t tell you her name, though.”
Nova nodded. She took a deep breath and opened the door.
“I’ll be right out here,” the nurse called after her.
Nova stepped into the room, empty but for the fog and a bassinet in the center. Her legs shook as she stepped forward, her grip on the rocking horse tight, her hands sweaty. She stepped up to the bassinet and looked.
A baby girl lay wrapped in pink blankets. She was sleeping. Her tiny fingers clutched at the edge of the blanket. Nova let out a wobbly breath. The baby stirred and half-opened one eye.
Bright blue. Like her father’s. Like the horse’s. She felt something familiar in the soft gaze and her heart held on to it, even as the baby slipped back into sleep.
“I brought you your horse, Daddy,” Nova whispered, the fog dissipating as tears ran quietly down her face. “I hope you have as much fun with it as you used to. I know I had fun.”
The baby didn’t stir. She set the horse beside the bassinet, letting it gently rock into stillness.
Her eyes held on to the baby girl, trying to gather every detail, any further trace of her father. Then she tore herself away from the bassinet, wiping her eyes free of tears. She didn’t turn back. A faint scent of freshly ground coffee beans and her father’s cologne followed behind her.
“Love you, Daddy,” she whispered.
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I really liked the premise of the Keepsake here, and the idea of baring and sharing your soul to others in a tangible way--very interesting, well written. Good job!
Thank you so much! :)