by Ron Burch
The boys quietly scratch at my front door and whisper through the cracks: “Alma, Alma.” The whispers always wake me. If I’m wanted at this time of night, someone is going to die.
I have been days without sleep, care giving to Mary, the poor soul. She outlived everyone in her family but her grandson. She fought, oh she fought it, but she went softly when the third sun came up. Her tattooed grandson cried like a little boy.
I should tell the boys to go because I am so tired but they whisper, whisper.
It rained earlier this evening. I watched it fall until it put me to sleep. I put on my heavy coat and boots. Grabbing my small brown bag, I push open the door. These are not the boys I expected, the ones usually sent to me, the ones from the fine homes in town who arrive in their sleek cars, taking pictures of themselves and me when they think I’m not looking. Boys who never had to worry about life.
But not these boys with their hair wild from bed, tears turning their eyes red and their noses full of snot. These are poor boys. You can tell from their shoes and clothes. From their reed-thin bodies.
“You have to come with us,” the tall one demands.
“I can’t,” I whisper.
“We need you, Alma,” the other boy with a sad thin moustache says.
Everyone needs Alma. That’s all I hear anymore. It makes me weary.
“No.” I’m in service to the men and women of the town. They are the ones who provide this room for me, for my free food and the little TV. They are the ones who watch over me as I watch over them as they’re dying.
“Please,” the tallest one says.
“We will all get in trouble,” I reply. If my neighbors saw these boys, they would complain. They would complain about me, about the boys and where they want me to go.
“Please, you need to come now.” The tall one tries to stand even taller. There is something in his face that breaks before he covers it up, trying to protect himself. It makes heart jump at the moon.
“Meet me outside,” I whisper and close the door.
My neighbors are nosey. They can get us all in trouble. Especially Mrs. S next door. In case the boys woke her, I wait a minute until she trundles back to bed. She doesn’t like to stand on her bad hip. Soon, I will visit her in the night.
Alma is not my given name. I remember my name but I don’t say it. It is not me any longer. Alma is the name I was given here after they discovered I had the gift. They say the word translates into something profound, but it’s been nothing but a pain in the ass to me. It wears me out, especially as I get older.
Or maybe I am tired of this life. Weary of being awake most of the time, someone always lingering at my door. Maybe this calling is not for me anymore. Let me go back to my double bed that only sleeps one now, let me sleep undisturbed for a long time. But I know the people will come calling.
I help the dying go where we, the living, cannot go yet. Not alone. I walk with them, giving them the strength to go. I help them release the fear and let it fly away back to the living. The dying should have no fear is what I whisper to them. There is peace there. I don’t know if that is true or not.
Out in the dark cold, we walk to a faded blue pick-up truck, the metal bed rusted through, tires sitting low, back bumper tied on with yellowed white rope. In the truck bed, wooden gates are fastened to the sides, gates for moving animals and produce. I tighten up my coat, my boots wet from the ground. The tall one opens the passenger door for me.
Leaving my town, we drive up to the leafy green hills surrounding it. Larger houses become smaller houses, built at odd angles on steep hillsides, homes supplemented by tires or random pieces of wood and metal, propped up to survive. The homes are spread out, their yards filled with junk — appliances that no longer work, swing sets that have rusted away. The boys are quiet, in their own minds, staring at the road in front of us. Not even the radio plays.
We drive for an hour, taking the switchbacks, the engine straining from the climb. We keep heading up, into even poorer neighborhoods. I haven’t been in the hills for years. Sickness lives here because the poor don’t have the means to drive it away.
A small white house, assembled from scrap, appears behind the hill. The truck coughs and whines and slowly crawls up a dirt driveway that curves through the front yard, almost like the snake that eats itself.
There is something wrong in that dark house. I can feel it knock against my chest.
It was crazy to come up here. What if someone from the town needs me and I’m not there. Perhaps during the day I could come up here with an excuse, but if they need me now, and I’m not there and one of the town folks dies, I could be in trouble.
The truck shudders to a stop near the crooked front door. One boy jumps out of the bed and opens my door for me. I take my time. I stand and draw in a deep breath. I move my hands around, shaping the air, saying my words under my breath. The boy steps back.
The tall boy opens the door into the dark, the two surrounding me as we go in. Distant candlelight leads us, their circle around me, protective, guiding me without touch.
The boys herd me further back into the dark house. We pass through a small kitchen with a duct-taped microwave, the stove top dirty with pans and food. Gnats fly around my face as we walk through.
The boys fall back as we approach an open door with pale light emanating from it.
This is where it comes from.
The boys remain in the hall, either from respect or fear, and I, alone, walk inside. The room’s small in the dark, even the shadows can’t make it larger. There is one lamp, on a bedside table, throwing a small cone of light onto a young woman in the bed, underneath damp green sheets and an off-white cover. Her eyes are closed and her long black hair flows over the pillow and across the bed like roots trying to take hold before it’s too late.
She wheezes, trying to get a breath, like a car trying to pull a load larger than it can handle.
We are near the end.
Sideways to me, a young man with thick curly hair holds her left hand in both of his hands. “Don’t go,” he says repeatedly to her.
“I was asked to come,” I say. “By the boys.”
He acknowledges me and looks for the boys, who are still in the hall. From the floor, he grabs an old white coffee mug, flinging it at them. The boys scatter and the mug breaks across the floor.
“I am the Alma,” I say.
“I know who you are,” he roughly replies, turning back to the woman in the bed.
“You’re not needed.”
“She needs me,” I respond.
“You will not take her away.”
“I don’t take anyone away,” I say. “I came here because I was asked.”
Gently, he moves stray strands of her hair from her face, his eyes on her. “Her younger brother,” he states. “It’s not up to him to decide.”
I decide to find the brother and ask to go home if I’m not wanted. Then she moans. It is chilling, a sound that beats a stick against my spine.
The woman in the bed mumbles. The sweat breaks across her face and neck, dampening her pillow dark. She moans again, showing her bottom crooked teeth, trying to eat her pain.
“Can you make her not hurt?” he asks, wiping off her forehead with a small damp sponge.
I pull a wood chair across the floor. “What’s her name?”
“Lila,” he says softly as if he treasures the name itself as much as he does her.
From my bag, I take three candles of different lengths, setting them on the table to light. As I say my words, he jams his hand over my mouth.
I shrug off his hand and turn to him. He is younger than I thought. He wears a simple silver ring on his left hand, the same ring that matches her’s. The pain flows out from him, like a stream of water, emptying, emptying.
“Not that,” he says. “You must keep her here. You must bring her back to me. Ever since she fell into this sleep weeks ago, I can’t wake her.”
“She’s going,” I reply, lighting my candles, each with its own match.
“No, he says, his face tightens ugly. “You must keep her.”
“The people I come for,” I say, “are not to be kept here. They leave.”
“If she goes to the other side,” he says, pushing his face into mine, “you go too.” He chokes out that last sentence as if there’s a great wall of water building inside him and if he talks too much, it will break and rush out, destroying whatever is in its way. He is suffering as she on the bed is suffering. He hurts and he wants the hurt to stop. If I fail to keep her here, which I will because it doesn’t work that way, his grief and anger may hold more power over him. Would he hurt me? I don’t think so, but I have been wrong about men before.
“I don’t keep them,” I say. “I help them get where they’re going.”
“She’s not going anywhere,” he spits out. He grabs my wrist. He doesn’t want to hurt me. He wants me to understand. I look down at his hand turned into a fist around my bone, staring, and he releases.
The woman on the bed moans. He moves to her like a man trying to prevent another from drowning. He cradles her gently, whispering to her.
I stand and think that perhaps I should go. I extinguish and pack my candles into my bag.
“Please stay.” I hear from behind me.
“I can’t help you.”
“You are going to stay and help her with the pain,” he says, standing.
When a spirit is ready to go, it cannot be stopped. It can only be helped along. Like an insect on a glass door. It flaps its wings, trying to get to the other side and perhaps the door might get opened, giving the insect a chance to fly free or you can help it. You can open the door and with a wave of your hand usher it to the outside, to where it belongs.
I don’t say any of this to him. He wouldn’t understand.
Grief is greedy. It gives you no options. It closes them down. His ears can’t hear my words. His brain will block them out, it will censor them. Grief only wants what it wants.
“Fine,” I say, moving him out of the way. “I’ll stay for her because she needs help.”
“You will save her.” That is still not a question. But she needs me.
“I’ll do what I can.” I sit in the chair next to her. I take the candles out of my bag again and light them. I remove the ball of herbs, laying them on her chest, directly on the heart, on top of her black t-shirt with tiny hearts on it.
I say my words to myself, placing my hands on her. She groans and I whisper.
I don’t know how to keep someone here. I can’t make them leave either. That’s not what I know. I can’t cure sickness. My job is to help them leave. It’s not magic. I don’t believe in that. Yes, I feel things from a person who is dying but anyone could if she would just open up herself to it. There’s something about me that calms down the spirit, the soul, whatever you want to call it, brings it peace. That’s all I know how to do.
I place my hands on her stomach and I can feel her in there. Her skin burns out and the sweat between our skins seems to bubble.
She is ready to go. I can feel it even when she and I aren’t touching. It comes off her like a small blue flame. She won’t last through the night.
“The cancer has,” he says, trailing off.
“I’ve seen it before,” I say. He touches my shoulder in thanks, I guess, I’m not looking at him. I shrug away from his touch, letting him silently know that I don’t like that.
His wife is younger than he is with a natural beauty I will never have. These are the women men die for, one way or another.
I whisper my words to her. I tell her it’s all right. We’re here for her.
She begins to slip away. I can feel her body lessen. She chokes and he’s right behind me. “Do something!”
“I told you, I can’t.”
I can’t save them. I’ve tried before. I tried that with Will, my Will when his lungs hardened and he couldn’t breathe. That was long ago, when I was young, young like this couple, and Will and I were poor. I’ve lived poor. I don’t want to do it again. Poor is what took my husband away from me. Poor is what kept us from medical help. From pills or surgeries that might have saved him. When it was his time to go, I couldn’t stop my Will from going. And since I couldn’t stop it, since I didn’t dare to stop it — I’m not a doctor, I can’t fix the body. And I don’t dare try to stop what the soul does, what it wants to do and where it wants to go. There are others beyond me who control that. That’s how I lost my Will, who would place flowers in my hair, flowers he would pull off neighborhood plants and bring them home to me, my Will who could play his old guitar and sing his made-up songs to me, songs that he once sang to me in my dreams. I didn’t want to be reminded of those days. I take pills to stop the dreams.
I say my words and she’s comforted. Her pain recedes. She’s ready to go.
From behind me, I hear him. He knows that she’s ready. He can feel it just as I can. The closest always know. I can see his life without her. I know because I too went through it. Dreams and memories who visit when they wish. Who don’t leave when you ask. Who barely leave after you do things to yourself, after you take pills and drink and turn your mind into a puddle, still with all that, it lingers. It lingers for years. Only the living hurt from death.
He sobs. Just as I did when I couldn’t stop my husband from leaving. I put my hands to her and say my words.
Her breathing becomes irregular. I’m going to lose her. As I lose every one.
I see him look at her. Like I looked at Will.
So I pull hard. I pull with my insides. I pull with my words. I pull the hardest I ever have. I will not walk her there, not yet. I pull. I say, come back. I say, open your eyes and say goodbye to your love, give him the peace you will find. I pull and pull until I am drained, as everything falls out of me, emptying me as I bring myself and the chair tumbling backwards and over.
And she gasps. Her eyes open. He sees her and falls into the space I just occupied, banging both knees hard on the wooden floor. He takes both her hands, and his eyes run, and she looks at him and smiles and whispers something to him, something so faint even I cannot hear it, and he smiles back, which makes me smile, and then holds her with both arms as she quietly leaves. Stillness. Peace.
He roars and comes at me. I hold him until neither of us can cry longer.
The drive back to the town is slow, weighted with absence. The husband wanted to drive me. The word will get out that I saved her. I probably will lose my room, I might even lose being the Alma. But, sometimes, there are more important things.
As his pick-up truck slows near my building, he offers me a few dollars. I don’t take them. When he pulls up in front of my place, putting the truck in park, we have no words for each other. He nods at me and I get out, closing the door behind me, letting him go to where he needs to go now.
The sun’s starting to come up over the buildings. I yawn, sleepy, as if I’ve been up for years. In a few minutes, it’ll be morning and people will be out living their lives, going to work or the store, sweeping up their porches and having their coffees, and maybe when I lie down, I will have the dreams again, of old songs I’d like to hear one more time.
Ron Burch‘s fiction has been published in numerous literary journals including Mississippi Review, Eleven Eleven, Pank, and been nominated for The Pushcart Prize. Bliss Inc., his debut novel, was published by BlazeVOX Books. He lives in Los Angeles.