I found out in the most interesting way that I died. My plan was to stay in all weekend; watch college football⎯a triple-header, but then I realized, I have nothing to drink, no pizza, no chips. Nothing for breakfast or lunch for work next week. No point starving in the process. It’s a three day weekend, early October, a cool morning starting to warm up. I throw on some shorts, t-shirt, Team USA windbreaker and head out. And who do I run into? Literally, run into. Lake Montgomery.
I hadn’t seen her in years. I was looking in the freezer at the grocery store contemplating waffles or breakfast burritos. I turn around and we practically knock each other over. The box of whole-grain waffles tumbles to the floor. “I’m sorry, excuse me,” I said, reaching down, retrieving the box and as I did, I recognized my former co-worker in black sweatpants, a black long sleeve t-shirt with Ashford University emblazoned in yellow across the front and neon yellow running shoes.
“Excuse me,” I said. More to get her attention next time. Initially, we said excuse me at the same time. And I got sort of a strange look from her. 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 said. “How are you?” Nothing⎯Am I invisible? I know she recognizes me. It was in this store that we worked together just over two years ago. She worked in produce and cashier. I unloaded trucks and stocked shelves.
I asked, “Lake, are you on vacation? Did you quit?” No response. Her light brown eyes darted right, darted left under scrunched, well-manicured thick 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, Austin. You okay?” She was holding the back of her arm; Massaging it.
I was still holding the freezer door open. Ann elderly man with two cartons of Cool Whip in one hand and a half dozen eggs in the other was watching us. A reminder⎯get Cool Whip. He fumbled the eggs⎯cleanup on aisle 1. He cussed staring at his suit pants then up at us frowning. Watch out there young fella⎯but I dared not say it. He was none too happy as it was.
I remember the cold air was still blowing on my face. Maybe Lake simply felt the cold air from the freezer. “Lake. Hey, how are the kids? Is Juan still managing the hardware store?” No response. She’s simply ignoring me. Speaking of kids, Sierra, Lake's ten year daughter, bends the corner in tan cargo shorts, a black Mortal Kombat t-shirt...dragon crest in full array...and brown hiking
sandals cuffing a 2 pack of family size Honey Nut Cheerios like a football.
She waves and before I could reply, she spikes the boxes of Cheerios into the basket.
“Where’s the closest Carvel?” Sierra asked. “I’m going to buy a couple of fudge crunch ice cream cakes for my birthday party?”
I ran into Lake’s husband, Juan, Sierra and their five-year-old son, Langston about four days ago. Langston made a point of telling it that they were going to Six Flags to ride the rollercoasters for his birthday this Saturday⎯to Sierra’s chagrin. It’s not your birthday, Langston. It’s mine⎯she reminded him. And we’re not going ‘til Sunday.
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 eyes had darted 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. Sierra a miniature image of her mother. Thin, same light brown eyes and dark hair but with brown highlights. “Your friend,” she replies.
“What friend?” asks Lake.
“Mr. Conley. My teacher who used to work with you at this store,” Sierra stated.
“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 as if shaking off a distant memory and returning to the present. “Let’s go.”
Sierra looks at me, throws her hands up, let’s them fall back to her side, grabs a box of strawberry filled waffles from the freezer and follows Lake down the aisle.
I smirk and shake my head. “She’s not going to let you have those since you just put those boxes of cereal in the basket...And cake." No sooner does she get around the corner of the freezer section does she come walking back. Face: deadpan. I open the freezer door and she places the waffles back. “The Carvel’s crowded since it’s a holiday. There’s a store six, seven minutes from here⎯next exit. So why won’t she answer me?” I asked.
She stopped. Looked at me for a moment without saying a word. A look of realization crossed her face. “It’s not that she doesn’t want to. I don’t think she knows you’re here.”
“What’d you mean she doesn’t know I’m here?”
“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. But how would it look to ask everyone I meet if they're dead or alive right after they say hello.” The elderly man who tossed the eggs is staring at Sierra, at this point his frown deeper ingrained, like she’s some reptilian humanoid.
“Yeah. That would be strange on top of talking to thin air.” I replied.
“You see how mom looked at me when I was talking to you, 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.” She cut her eyes at the elderly man and smiled. “So you see I’m between a rock and a hard place as dad likes to say.”
“Wait a minute. You think I’m dead or dying? It’s obvious Lake can’t see me. Something happened, but what?”
Sierra replied, “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 to your friend’s house to play to die. I could have died of natural causes quietly and peacefully.”
“Natural causes, You’re too young to have died of natural causes. And I don’t play violent video games.”
We locked eyes.
“What?” She’s cannot 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,” But your friends have witnessed you in action using your father’s gaming profile. And...it seems you’ve been getting some supernatural help.”
“What do you mean by supernatural help?” she asked, head tilted to the side still trying to conceal the smile.
“Some new friends of mine in the spirit realm informed me they were once pretty good gamers and they’ve trained you quite well. This explains your fast progression. You’ve been cheating!”
“Okay. besides my dad, I have received training from top tier gamers who have passed to the spirit realm,” Sierra said looking to my right from where I heard the voices asked me to inquire about the gaming help she receives. I heard the voices talking and laughing beside me but unlike her, I cannot yet see them.
“Sierra. They say Lake is coming,” I informed 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 informed 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,” she told them. “You can introduce yourselves. Looks like Mr. Conley won’t be returning to the physical realm so he’ll be able to see you along with hearing you.”
“I’m not?” I asked.
“Not likely. 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?”
“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 said standing behind us. “Didn’t you hear me calling you?”
“No. You told me to put the waffles back.”.
Lake looked at her and shook her head. “Why are you acting so strange? Who are you talking to over here?” Lake stared down the elderly man. Pops stared back with a look⎯Well it damn sure ain’t me. Sierra and her friends and I chuckle.
“This is not a laughing matter, Sierra. You need to come when I call you. Do as I ask and come back. You come up missing...then what?” She glared at the old man again.
“Pshh,” said the elderly man walking away slowly, shaking his head, glaring back at Lake, then Sierra, then back at Lake leaving the store employee to finish cleaning up the eggs.
“This is a good time to explain to her you can hear and see ghosts,” I exclaimed.
The boys, her gamer friends teased her. “Yes, Sierra, tell mommy about your special skills.”
“Shut up!" she snapped.
Lake’s eyes went wide. “What did you say?”
“I said. Mom. I think your friend Mr. Conley died.”
Lake paused “Who?... Who told you that?”
“I think dad mentioned it,” she replied.
The boys shook their heads. She put a hand to their faces. “You’re not going to tell her?” I asked.
“Don’t remember, we’ll talk,” Sierra told her mom. “After my birthday party,” she answered looking at me. “So it seems you’re fully transitioned now that you can hear and see the spirits.”
“What?” asked Lake.
Sierra replied, “I said. When was the last time you heard from Mr. Conley.”
“It seems so,” I replied 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 informed her. “Let me know if you need help with homework.”
“I need help with homework,” she stated.
“How about you try doing it first then ask me for help.”