Anyone who lived on Hillside Avenue and looked out their window tonight would not be surprised to see that there was no one outside. It was a cruel, to cold to snow night, and the wind moved what little snow hadn’t been frozen to the ground around the streets in a fine dust. A few people watched the empty street from their homes, bored of primetime and digital updates, letting themselves enjoy the emptiness.
They were wrong though. The street wasn’t empty; it just wasn’t being occupied on one level of reality.
If you were able to look past that level (some people can, but it’s something you’re born with so don’t worry if you can’t) you’d see something more interesting. Walking together, not seeming to take notice of the cold or hour of the night, was Rosaline Gallant and Walter Cronkite. Well, they weren’t exactly walking together. Mrs. Gallant was walking ahead of Walter Cronkite, pointing out houses and explaining who built them and who lived in them now.
“The Bouchards used to own that house there.” she explained. “They moved out when their last son went to college. A very pleasant Cambodian family moved in after that, though I’m embarrassed to admit I never could pronounce their last name.”
Walter Cronkite seemed to be dragging his feet behind Mrs. Gallant and not really listening to her story.
“Mrs. Gallant,” he said, with the exasperation of having to once again repeat himself. “We really need to focus.” She didn’t seem to take notice of his protest and continued on about how in the mid-seventies there had been a major development project on the street. Cronkite, despite his decades as an interviewer, grew more impatient at his companion’s nostalgia trip.
This scene is obviously absurd. This is because like the empty street, it is a lie. The tell is that both Rosaline Gallant and Walter Cronkite are dead. Rosaline Gallant died in 2010 of complications due to liver cancer at the age of 86. Walter Cronkite died a year earlier of Cerebrovascular Disease. Also, even if Walter Cronkite had still been alive, he wouldn’t have looked like he did walking down that street (not a day older than he did in the late sixties). Also Mrs. Gallant had not been able to walk on her own for 2 years before she passed, and now she strolled along her old neighborhood like she had never developed bad knees.
So another layer needs to be peeled back to reveal that Hillside Ave. is neither empty or occupied by Mrs. Gallant and Walter Cronkite. It is in fact occupied by the ghost of Mrs. Gallant and Death, who just happens to look like Walter Cronkite at the moment.
“Mrs. Gallant!” Death repeated for the sixth time, finally getting her attention. She stopped halfway through the history of her son’s prom night and looked at Death with a dazed look of fascination.
“Why Mr. Cronkite,” she said with polite fandom. “What are you doing here?” Death stopped and looked at the old woman. He knew being pulled out of heaven had been a disorienting ordeal for her, but his patience was finite due to his busy schedule and the limited social life his profession allowed him.
“Mrs. Gallant,” Death said with tried patience, “I know this is difficult but I need you to focus. Can you tell me why we are here?”
Mrs. Gallant looked at Death puzzled for a moment. Then a melancholy came over her face.
“My grandson is hurt?” she said uncertainly.
“No,” said Death. Mrs. Gallant took a few more seconds to clear her mind.
“My grandson is dead.” she said.
“And he’s missing.”
Death nodded his head and allowed the old woman to collect her thoughts. After a moment she spoke.
“Can I see my son?”
“No.” said Death “You’re here because your grandson got away from me and I don’t know where he’s gone. You are the only family member I can talk to who might know where he would hide and it’s very important we find him soon.”
Mrs. Gallant nodded her head. She then turned around and continued walking down the street. “There’s a lake at the end of this road,” she said. “Mark used to go down there with the O’Donald brothers and that girl Karen. She was a beautiful young woman; Mark was always so shy around her.”
The two continued on, Death not quite sure if he had succeeded in getting Mrs. Gallant on task or if the moment of clarity had already passed and she was wandering again.
“I remember you,” Mrs. Gallant said as they neared the end of the street where a small, lakeside beach sat deserted. “You were there when I was sick. I was so happy to see you; I’d always wanted to meet you.”
Death didn’t answer; he appeared to the dying and suddenly dead as whatever would bring them the most comfort. He had appeared as mothers, fathers, agents with contracts, packs of barking dogs, victories in war, burning buildings, carnivals, and anything else that made people susceptible to the idea of walking into the light. People didn’t run from what they wanted, not usually anyway. Mark Gallant was one of the few exceptions.
Mrs. Gallant led him into the parking lot where in the summer pickup trucks with hitched speed boats would set up their three point turns in order to lower into the water. As she neared the edge of the frozen lake, Death again lost his patience.
“Mrs. Gallant!” he said, this time letting his anger show. But before he could list his grievances she turned to him with her finger over her mouth in a hush signal.
“You want to scare him off?” she asked in a whisper. Death looked out passed her to the lake and saw a solitary figure sitting in the middle of the ice. He focused on it and recognized Mark Gallant, sitting on his knees with his head slumped down in what could have been a prayer. Mrs. Gallant walked forward and talked to Death without facing him.
“Always went to the lake when he didn’t want to be found,” she said. “Would go out to the middle and swim a few blocks down so his father couldn’t find him.” Death began to follow her out. “No.” she said with a grandmother’s authority, “Let me talk to him first.” Death moved to protest, but stopped himself. She had found him when he could not; she seemed to have a handle on the situation.
As Mrs. Gallant walked closer to her grandson, the gravity of what she had to tell him began to sink in. She remembered times when he came home from third grade bullied by a group of older boys from up the street, when he was mad at his brothers for leaving for college, and when he had to be told her cancer was terminal. She had helped him through all of that, now she had to help him again.
“Mark.” she said gently to get his attention. He looked up and his face almost made her cry. He looked like a survivor of a death camp. A soul cannot stand the elements outside the body for very long, and Mark had been without his body for hours now. Mrs. Gallant held back her terror and moved slowly towards him.
“Mark, sweetheart,” she continued, “I know you’re scared but…”
Mark suddenly got to his feet. Looking passed his grandmother, not even seeming to notice her, he fixated on a young, strawberry blond girl in a black prom dress standing at the edge of the lake.
“Mark,” Mrs. Gallant said with concern. He didn’t hear her. He turned around and began to run for the opposite shore. He only made it a few feet before his legs gave out and he fell back onto the ice. Mrs. Gallant hurried towards him while he struggled to get back to his feet. She fell to her knees and grabbed his shoulders.
“Mark honey, it’s okay. Why are you running? It’s just me.”
Mark strained for breath he couldn’t take in anymore. He rolled over onto his back and laid with in an incredible fatigue. His eyes barely opened as he looked at his grandmother.
“Mimi?” he could barely get out the words. Mrs. Gallant took his head into her arms and stroked his hair.
“It’s okay sweetheart,” she said, “I’m here now.” He went limp in her arms and started to cry from confusion and exhaustion. She felt a presence behind them and turned her head. As Death got closer Mrs. Gallant positioned herself so Mark could face him.
“Mark?” she said with a firm and reassuring calm. “What do you see?”
Mark opened his eyes and saw the girl in the prom dress. She was young, thin, with acne over her left temple. Her dress was simple, black with no real frills, but the tailored fit let her shape make it glamorous. She looked down at him with a frustrated frown. Mark struggled to escape from his grandmother’s grasp but he only had enough strength left to squirm.
“It’s okay honey.” Mrs. Gallant said firming her grip, “Just tell me what you see.”
“Karen,” he said choking back fear.
“Karen?” Mrs. Gallant said with a slight laugh “Karen Bartlet?” Mark nodded, “Sweetheart, why are you so scared of Karen?”
“It’s not her.” he said, no longer fighting his grandmother’s grip “It’s her in high school. She’s older now and doesn’t live here anymore. I died, I died in that car accident and she’s Death.”
Mrs. Gallant looked up at Death with a grin. “He’s a sharp boy.” she said. Death looked at her with the disapproving face of an embarrassed Walter Cronkite.
“We have to go now,” Death said, “He shouldn’t have been out here this long.”
Mrs. Gallant nodded and stood with Mark in her arms. He was almost weightless and she was able to lift him as if he was an infant. He kicked slightly as she stood up.
“Sweetheart,” Mrs. Gallant said sternly, “We have to go.”
“No,” Mark said weakly as he tried to twist out of her grip.
“For heaven’s sake Mark,” she said as if he was refusing to go to bed, “You’ll be fine.”
“No,” Mark said again “I won’t be! I didn’t go to church, I lied to mom and dad, I did bad things! She’s going to send me to hell!”
Mrs. Gallant laughed as she followed behind Death back to the shore. “Oh Mark, you are not going to Hell. I don’t even know if there is such a place.”
Mark looked up at his grandmother and then forward to Death “Is that true?” he asked.
Death turned around and her prom dress blew in the wind. She looked at him with annoyance, but then her face softened. “If it exists, no one told me about it.” she said. She turned around and continued her march back to shore.
Before they reached the snow covered sand they stepped out of this world and into the next. Now, no matter how you looked at it, Hillside Avenue was empty.