“But know this; the ones that love us never really leave us.”
— J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
“I’m back!” Holly announced. She set her newly acquired coffee on the low wooden drawer, next to her purse. “Sorry it took so long, the line was forever . . .”
She crossed over to the other side of the bed, carefully moving aside the attached tray. She peered at the IV bag, which was dripping steadily.
“Hm, looks like you’re doing good. I mean, I’m no nurse or anything, but . . . ”
The smile slipped off Holly’s face as she gazed at her grandfather’s, which was sunken and wrinkled and thin. His wispy white hair lay soft against the high-positioned pillow, and tubes went from his nose to the noisy machine at Holly’s side. His eyes were closed. As they had been for the past two weeks.
Feeling as though an enormous hand had just grabbed her heart, Holly shook herself and said very brightly, “Well! Anyway, like I said, everything seems fine. The coffee isn’t great, but what can you expect from a hospital cafe, am I right?”
She gave a little laugh, the sound of which died quickly in the small room. Skirting around the bed again, Holly retrieved her coffee and sat back down in the nearby chair, close enough to see her grandfather clearly but not be in the way of the equipment.
“Speaking of the cafe, I think I knew one of the guys in line,” she told her grandfather. “Or at least, he seemed familiar. You ever see me with a tall man – and rather dark and handsome, if I may say – wearing this awesome long black coat?”
Her grandfather, of course, didn’t reply, but Holly wasn’t bothered by this. She continued, “He was waiting for his coffee at the register, and he must’ve had a heckuva complex order, ’cause I paid and got mine before he did. I wish I could remember where I’ve seen him before . . . ”
She gazed off into space in thought. The room was full of flowers, tidily arranged by Holly and her mother, whose work prevented her from coming as often as Holly did. But then, no one came as often as Holly. Her grandmother was home in bed, too heartbroken and ill to come visit. It was like she’d already thought of her husband as dead, Holly had angrily told her mother one day. She’d shrugged and said it was just how some people coped. Holly’s aunts and uncles also claimed to be too sad or too busy to come, but Holly secretly felt that they were just too lazy to deal with it. Well, she was here, as she always had been. As the only grandchild, she and her grandfather had been very close, and even though she was well into her thirties, she’d burst into big sobbing tears when her father had called to tell her Grampa was in the hospital – for good this time, it seemed.
And ever since, she’d come every single day, forgetting about work and social activities and friends and other family members. She wasn’t going to miss when he opened his eyes again, when his brown eyes would meet her matching own, and he would smile in that crooked way of his. She was going to be there.
Still pondering, Holly’s gaze fell on the photo album that one of her uncles had brought. She’d gone through it multiple times in the past fortnight, retelling old stories to her grandfather about every picture.
“Maybe that’s where I’ve seen the guy,” she mused aloud. “Maybe he’s an old friend of yours?”
Holly stood, tossed her empty coffee cup away, retrieved the album, and settled back in her chair. She cracked open the leathery spine to the yellowed plastic pages with rows and columns of photographs. A talented scrapbooker, her grandfather placed each picture with meticulous care and numbered them down to the day, month, and year. She traced her fingers over the first ones, black and white faded photos of her grandfather as a little boy.
The man she’d seen outside was young, so Holly flipped to the more recent years. She wasn’t entirely sure what she was looking for, but she somehow felt she was on the right track. Ten years ago, she recognized nobody. Eight years ago, nada.
“Where’s Waldo?” she muttered under her breath.
But five years ago, there was something – or rather, someone.
It was a photo from a disposable camera they’d used at a theme park. Holly was mugging for the camera, while her grandfather roared with soundless laughter. Behind them was a waterfall, and way off to the side (the picture wasn’t entirely centered), was a group of other visitors: a young couple, a stroller with two babies – and a tall man wearing a long black coat.
Holly stared and squinted, bringing the album closer to her face. The man was out of focus and blurry; it wasn’t conclusive.
She remembered that trip vividly because her grandfather had taken their whole family to the theme park as a way to prepare them for the emotional news the next day: the cancer was back.
Feeling as though someone had just walked over her grave, Holly continued slowly flipping through the pages.
At first she thought she was imagining things – who knew what kind of chemicals were floating around in a hospital, anyway?
But as she got closer to the present, it certainly seemed as though the black-coated man was getting nearer and nearer the camera. At first, he was usually way in the back, almost impossible to discern from other people or surrounding scenery. In photos as recent as a year ago, however, the man was very close, though Holly could not make out his face. He always had it turned away.
The most alarming thing was that Holly could pick the man out in the background of every single photo that had her grandfather in it.
Thoroughly spooked, Holly slammed the album shut and stood up, trembling. The book fell to the floor. Even though she wasn’t supposed to use it, she darted inside her grandfather’s bathroom. She felt sick.
The room stunk of medicine and illness and death, and Holly smothered a sob and quickly washed her face, not even bothering to grab paper towels to dry as she bolted back out.
Her grandfather naturally hadn’t moved at all and if anything, looked more still than before. Holly shot a glance at the heart rate monitor, still beeping steadily.
Against her better judgment, she picked the album up again and examined the remaining pictures. The dates were damning. There was the man reflected in the mirror of her grandparents’ home on the day her grandfather had to hire a live-in nurse when her grandmother couldn’t keep up anymore. There was the man buying an ice cream in the park on the day her grandfather wanted to leave the house for once and go to the park, despite his wheelchair. And there was the last picture of the day, two weeks ago, when her grandfather said at the end of his ninetieth birthday party at his favorite restaurant that he was happy but tired and ready to go home. The man in the long black coat was standing right behind her grandfather’s chair; so close, he was nearly touching him. His face was turned forward, and he stared straight into the camera.
Once again, the book fell to the floor as Holly dropped it. Her hands flew to her mouth, and she moaned, trying to contain her anguish. The heart rate monitor seemed to be making slower beeps now.
She stood there for awhile, letting the tears that she had denied herself for so long flow down her cheeks. She cried and cried, but still without making a sound. She didn’t want the nurses to come in. Not yet.
When she had somewhat contained herself, Holly left the room, making her way down the myriad hallways. No one noticed or cared that her eyes were all red or that her cheeks were stained with salt and wet. It was a usual sight.
She passed through the final set of doors to the waiting room. She stopped there, feeling the doors close behind her.
The only one in the room, sitting on one of the uncomfortable chairs, perusing a magazine, was the man in the long black coat.
He looked up when Holly came in. Their eyes met, and Holly knew that what she had suspected probably from the instant she’d seen him earlier, that what she feared, was true.
The man was suddenly there right in front of her. His eyes roamed over her face, and though Holly felt no judgment, she looked away. It was hard to stare at him; even in the pictures, your mind wanted to skip over his presence. Wanted to deny his existence.
As if from a long distance, Holly heard herself say, “Is it time?”
He said nothing, just gave a nod that was somehow both kind and melancholy.
Quite without knowing how, Holly and the man returned to her grandfather’s room. The heart rate monitor hadn’t yet started flashing red and beeping to alert the doctors, but she knew it would soon. It was only a matter of time.
Death silently went to the side of the bed. He gazed at her grandfather’s face.
“You have his eyes.” His voice came from everywhere and nowhere.
Holly could only nod, tears having started up again.
For the first time, she saw Death smile. It was the most beautiful thing Holly had ever seen.
He reached out a hand – and touched her grandfather’s chest.
The heart rate monitor burst into frantic activity, and Holly turned toward the door to see a nurse down the hall look alarmed and then swiftly come toward the room.
When she turned back, Death was gone.
And so was her grandfather.
In loving memory of my great-grandmother, who always encouraged me to learn, to read, and to write.
I got this from a Tumblr prompt, and though I think it was supposed to be more creepy, I decided to go a different route and make the mysterious photo person be Death – who can be creepy, I suppose, but if Discworld’s taught me anything, it’s that Death is just doing their job, and if Harry Potter taught me anything, it’s that we should remember our loved ones who have passed on, but also to cherish those who remain and to keep on living.
(I’m not sure if I should make this part of my Memento Mori series, but if I do, this would be a one-shot backstory kind of thing.)