The Dead: Book 17 (frag. 4)

Submitted by Ken Watts on Sat, 01/31/2009 - 15:08

HIS GUIDE GESTURED to a stairway, leading to a second story apartment.

Arnold's jaw dropped.

"It's... It's my old apartment!"

"Go on up."

They ascended the stairway to a paneled door.

Arnold instinctively reached into his pocket, and then, to his own surprise, pulled out the keychain he had carried in his twenties. He opened the door.

She was standing in the middle of the room, waiting.

He was overcome with emotion—too overcome to do or say anything. He took a step forward, then stopped dumbstruck.

She smiled.

"Hello Arnold."

"Jo!"

She stepped into his arms.

At first he was simply overwhelmed. This was the moment he had been waiting a lifetime for, the moment he had never completely believed would come. It was, still, for him, more fantasy than real.

But he found himself quickly entering the reality, the present moment.

It did not live up to his expectations.

There was something in her kiss that was different than he remembered. More familiar, easier, less timid—less reserved. But at the same time it was more reserved. He pulled back, confused.

She wrinkled her brow.

"What's wrong?"

"I—I don't know. It's... Everything is different. Not what I expected."

She watched his eyes for a moment, then nodded.

"I think you'd better sit down."

She took a chair by the fireplace, he sat on the couch opposite. It was unmistakably his old apartment, but larger, somehow. And he hadn't had a fireplace, though he had often thought of putting one there.

She settled herself, and waited until he had done the same.

"Look at me, Arnold. How old would you say I am?"

For the first time since he walked through the door he saw her and not his memory of her. He considered.

"You're young still. But not as young as you were when we... I'd say late thirties."

She smiled.

"How gallant. I do remember, you know—how we played those games about age back there. It doesn't matter here, you know. I look at least forty-five, wouldn't you say? Honestly?"

He chuckled, embarrassed.

"If you insist."

"I do. Have you looked in a mirror yet?"

He remembered the shop window.

"I'm only twenty-something!"

"That's where you peaked, my love. You stopped living when I died, and although you did get older physically, you never really aged."

"But you..."

"I kept on living. Here. I grew, and changed. What you sensed in my kiss was the experience I lacked back then."

"Experience? You mean..."

She laughed.

"Well, actually I didn't. No. I meant life experience. Growing as a person, coming to understand your place in life, who you really are. But the answer to your question is 'yes', as well."

"I thought we'd be..."

"Married?"

She shook her head.

"There's no marriage here. They got that part right in Sunday school, don't you remember?"

"Then how did you get this..."

"Experience? I said no marriage. I didn't say no love. There's plenty of that. All different kinds, including physical."

"Without marriage? Without commitment?"

"It all depends on what you mean. Back on Earth marriage was mostly an economic arrangement. It was for raising a family, making sure that everyone got provided for. Or it was a matter of property rights. Neither one applies here."

"So, if you just get tired of someone you just..."

"Do what, my dear? 'Cast them aside'? 'Throw them on the rubbish heap?' It's not like that here. I have a great many very close friends here. I have physical relationships with some of them, others not. We have all eternity, as far as we know. Nobody's jealous, or hurt. You'll see."

"But what about commitment?"

"This isn't Earth, dear. I'm very committed to all my friends. But the kind of thing you mean—well, it does happen. You remember the Wilson's?"

"The couple who used to live at the end of the block?"

She nodded.

"They're still here, still living together in the same house. She still grows those wonderful roses. He still tinkers in his workshop. As far as I know neither one of them has a closer friend than the other, and I'm quite sure neither has another lover. But it's not because of a promise they made, or a legality of any kind. It's because that's what they've wanted, what they still want. And I'll be very surprised if they don't go right on wanting it forever. They're not the only ones, either."

"But that's what I mean. It's the same thing. Can't we..."

She waited.

He sighed.

"You don't want that, do you?"

She shook her head, a little sadly.

"And, right now, you don't want anything else. Forgive me, my dear, but from my perspective you're, well, you're about twelve—metaphorically speaking, of course. I could enjoy a fling with a younger man, especially if it were you, but not if you weren't enjoying it just as much."

"But what will I do?"

"Live a while. Settle in. Meet some people, look up old friends. There's all the time in the world. When you feel differently, I'll still be here. And you'll be older. We were peers, back then, you know. Until then, I'll be just as much of a friend as you want or need—not a bit more. I won't intrude, if you'd rather I didn't."

"I suppose you mean I should gain some 'experience'?"

She laughed, and this time he detected a hint of the laugh he remembered. She leaned forward, and her voice became confidential.

"Personally, I'd suggest you start with an angel. They're very nurturing and wise, and very accomplished and eager as well. Excellent teachers."

"An angel?"

She nodded.

"I'll introduce you to Lilly. You're just her type. And the things she can do with those wings..."

"With her wings?"

She lowered her voice.

"Trust me."