by Mark Jabaut
His mother’s battle with cancer ended, not with victory or defeat, but with a kind of demoralized surrender. The chemotherapy warfare and the skirmishes of invasive surgery had given way to an Appomattox of her will, and Jason wept as she waived the doctors away. At the end, his mother had found solace in her religion, something that Jason had long ago forsaken. It was the one block between them, the one subject that caused pain, and so they resolved never to discuss it.
The funeral was what his mother would have wanted, but it was nothing more than mumbo-jumbo to Jason. He coasted through the church funeral and what he thought of as the “after party” by getting drunk, floating through the sea of black and gray on a life raft of Jack and Cokes.
Jason attacked his grief this way for several weeks afterwards applying a strict regime of working hard during the day and drinking hard most of the night. He lined the kitchen counter of his apartment with liquor bottles that sparkled like stained glass in the morning sunlight.
It was likely for this reason – Jason’s grief-drinking binge – that Morgan chose to knock on Jason’s apartment door at nine o’clock on a Tuesday night, at the tail end of summer. Jason was tipsy but not yet stone-drunk, in that place where the sadness seemed a little distant and where he could find amusement in his situation and in his loss, and the insistent knocking on his door seemed to him not to portend an emergency but to offer a welcome distraction. He walked loose-jointed to the door and pulled it open.
“I need a drink,” Morgan said as she breezed past him and headed toward the nappy blue sofa. She flipped her small purse into the overstuffed olive chair next to the sofa and sunk into the blue nap, kicking off her shoes. She looked at Jason briefly, who was still holding the doorknob, and then sat up and reached for her discarded purse, fumbled at the clasp, and eventually pulled out a battered pack of Marlboro Reds. Jason noted a hint of panic in Morgan’s eyes, closed the door, and went wordlessly to the kitchen where he grabbed two glass tumblers from the cupboard, popped in a few ice cubes from the freezer, and poured in a couple of shots worth of Russian vodka. The ice crackled deliciously.
Balancing both glasses in one hand and holding the bottle by the neck in the other, Jason returned to the living room. Morgan sat swallowed in the sofa, smoking a cigarette and tapping her right foot against the coffee table. She looked tiny, childlike, darkly elfin. Jason set the bottle on the table and handed one of the glasses to Morgan which she took with a small smile. Holding the cigarette between two fingers of her left hand she grasped the glass with her right and brought it to her mouth. Jason heard the glass clink against her teeth as she knocked back the vodka in one long swallow. She set the glass on the coffee table heavily.
Jason, never one to leave a fellow drinker hanging, gulped down his glass and then picked up the bottle to give them both a refill, his throat burning cleanly.
“You okay?” he asked her as he poured the new drinks.
“Yes,” she said. “No. I don’t know.” She took a long drag from the cigarette and exhaled slowly, sending a flume of blue smoke toward the ceiling. Jason watched her concentrate on the smoke, watched her adjust her lips to alter the direction and intensity of the stream, one eyebrow bent in concentration. He and Morgan had known each other for five years, maybe more. They had met, friend of a friend, and had dated briefly. It took a short time for them to discover that they liked each other much more than they lusted after each other, and the dating ended, leaving a relaxed and deep friendship. Not that Jason didn’t find Morgan attractive – she was petite, slim but curvy with a face that could look alternatively innocent and devilish. She had hair the color of a crow’s wing, cut stylishly short.
She picked up her glass and swirled the vodka around the ice, watching it. She ground out her cigarette in the ash tray and looked at Jason, giving him a sad smile.
“How’re you doing?” she asked. “You know, your mom.”
“Okay,” answered Jason. “Not bad. Obviously, you’re not okay. What’s going on?”
Morgan’s smile faded and she began to chew on her bottom lip. “Weird shit, man,” she said and smiled quickly. That smile did not want to stay in place.
“What?” asked Jason. “Tell me.”
Morgan took another deep sip from her glass and set it on the table in front of her. She pulled her feet up and tucked them under her on the sofa. Jason thought she looked like she might cry, and he was suddenly alarmed.
“What?” he demanded. “C’mon, you’re scaring me.”
Morgan sighed. “I’m hearing voices,” she said.
Jason laughed through his nose, relieved. “Yeah, the ones that keep telling you to quit your job?” Morgan had recently survived a stretch of nearly intolerable jobs, skipping from one big advertising firm to another until finally landing a position with a small, family-owned company that she seemed to enjoy.
She looked at him hard. “Seriously.”
Jason frowned and squinted in thought. “What – you’re hearing voices?”
“That’s what I said.” Nervous hands pulled another cigarette from the pack on the table. She lit it with a blue Bic and blew the smoke toward the ceiling again. “Crazy, huh?”
“What do you mean you’re hearing voices?” demanded Jason, concern coloring his words. He realized he was feeling drunk. “What do you mean? Like – voices? People’s voices?” he asked inanely.
“No, pigeons’ voices,” Morgan spat sarcastically. “Yeah, people’s voices. I hear people’s voices.” Her foot began tapping faster against the table. “I think I’m going nuts.”
“Hey,” Jason said sitting next to her on the sofa sideways. “Hey, take it easy. Look – what do you mean exactly? What kind of voices? When do you hear them?” He reached out and rubbed her shoulder.
Morgan took a deep breath and let it out slowly, a preparing breath. Jason bathed in a cloud of cigarette smoke and vodka. “I’ll tell you,” she said slowly, “but you have to promise to believe me. I am not making this shit up.” She took another drag from her cigarette and exhaled through her nose, looking very forties-movie-starlet.
She slugged down the last of her vodka and returned the glass to the table. Jason sat back, still facing Morgan but giving her space. He held his drink with both hands and waited for her to begin.
* * *
Morgan had gone to the Nice ‘N’ Easy on Pierson to buy Pepsi and tampons, maybe a lottery scratcher. She paid the kid Malik for her purchase and left the store with a plastic bag swinging from her left arm. The sun was shining, it was a decent day for a change.
As she began down the sidewalk toward her apartment Morgan thought she heard children’s voices, as if they were playing in a schoolyard or a playground. There weren’t many kids in her neighborhood – it was mostly a younger couples-hipster-millennial part of town – and there were no schools or parks nearby, as far as she knew. She looked around expecting to see a couple of kids with their mom or something, but the street was empty. She was the only person in sight.
Then Morgan realized that the kids’ voices were very, very clear – not as if she heard them from a distance, from a playground or across the street, but like they were right behind, right next to her. And they weren’t random shouts of playful fun, instead they appeared to be specifically directed at her.
“Hello?” she said hesitantly, afraid someone would see her and think she was talking to herself. There was no answer. She turned in a circle but still saw no one. She tried again: “Hello?”
That was when she felt something brush her sleeve, like a cat walking behind her on the arm of a sofa, and one of the voices whispered loudly in her ear, “You’re it!” Morgan jumped and spun around, flailing at the air with her free hand. She stopped and froze, panting. She was still alone. No one else was there.
The plastic bag slipped from her grasp, and she heard the fizz of the Pepsi cans as some of them burst. Morgan ran, and didn’t stop until she reached her building, and the whole time the inane thought rattled around in her head: at least the tampons will soak up some of the Pepsi.
* * *
Morgan looked at the cigarette in her hand like she didn’t remember lighting it, and then took a drag. “I could use another drink,” she said. Jason nodded and grabbed the bottle and poured her another, and then filled his own glass.
Her eyebrows furrowed and she bit her lip, like it hurt to remember.
“I got home to my apartment, and I was all crying and feeling really stupid, and I hoped that no one I knew saw me running home like an idiot. The voices had stopped, and I was breathing like I had just run a marathon, and I couldn’t remember if I had really heard the voices at all or it had just been my imagination. I mean, I just had no idea. I was completely and totally fried.”
She picked up her glass, took another sip of vodka, and winced. “I should probably put some orange juice in this or something,” she said.
“Don’t have any,” said Jason. Morgan shrugged.
“I don’t like this, Jason,” she said. “Hearing voices? What the fuck?”
“Voices that like to play tag, apparently.”
“Yeah,” said Morgan, “that makes it kinda worse.” She took another long drag from her cigarette and then stubbed it out in an ashtray Jason kept on the coffee table just for her.
“Well, you said it was a kid’s voice,” said Jason. “Kids play tag.”
“Invisible kids don’t,” she said. “Disembodied voices don’t play tag. Tag is generally reserved for corporeal children.”
“Yeah,” said Jason. Then, after a pause: “What’s ‘corporeal?’”
Morgan just shook her head.
* * *
The next day it felt to Morgan like it had all been a dream. She knew it wasn’t, but the memory had that fuzzy, faded photograph feeling. She was still upset, but she wasn’t hysterical. She got ready for work, grabbed a granola bar and a banana for breakfast on the go, and walked to the bus stop. It was another sunny day – two in a row – and it made her feel better, as if the sun was baking the fright right out of her. Morgan caught the bus and went to work.
She was fine until lunch when the voices started again.
Morgan ate lunch at her desk, while most of the rest of the staff went out. She was chewing on the granola bar when she heard one of the voices from the day before say brightly, “Hi again.” She started and almost choked on a piece of granola but kept herself calm. It didn’t feel quite as frightening as the day before, so she decided to listen, to really pay attention to what the voices said to see if she could learn anything. She looked around her part of the office and saw she was alone, then quietly said, “Hi.”
She was beginning to feel like an idiot in the silence that followed, when suddenly the boisterous giggling of a group of children welled up in the room, as if dopplering into the area on a train. It was sudden, and loud, and ended like a shout. Morgan instinctively shushed them.
“It’s okay,” said one of the voices, “your friends are all gone.”
“We want to play,” said another voice.
“Yes, we want to be your friends,” said a third. All giggled merrily.
Morgan’s brain was frozen, she couldn’t think of a word in response. The voices filled in admirably. They talked over one another excitedly and chattered incessantly about little girl topics. They were all girls. Morgan was pretty sure there was not one boy’s voice. That might make sense if she was having a psychotic break, she thought, and the voices represented her different subconscious selves. But they sounded so real.
Morgan sat at her desk, her meager lunch forgotten, and listened. The girls went on, laughing, singing little bits of songs or nursery rhymes, gently teasing one another, and asking Morgan non-stop questions, none of which she answered. It didn’t seem to matter. As the lunch hour was ending Morgan heard the front door opening, and she quickly got up, scattering granola bar crumbs on the industrial carpet. She walked to the drinking fountain, and the voices seemed to follow. Jonas came in, gave Morgan a little salute, and walked past to his desk, as all the while the girls jabbered. Jonas showed no reaction. Apparently, he couldn’t hear them. Morgan wasn’t sure if that was good or bad.
When her boss returned shortly after, Morgan told her she was sick and needed to go home for the day. She grabbed her coat and left the building, watching her coworkers faces to see if any of them heard the girls, but they were all as oblivious as Jonas.
By the time she got home, the voices were gone. Off to play tag, or something, she thought. Morgan turned on the television in her bedroom and fell asleep to the national news droning on about the coming election.
* * *
“I called in sick today,” Morgan said. “I hid out in my apartment all day – the voices never came – but finally I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to talk to someone.” She looked at Jason and her face crumpled. “I think I must have a brain tumor,” she sobbed.
Jason leaned into her and took her in his arms, letting her cry into his chest. “It’s okay,” he murmured, “it’s okay. We can call a doctor first thing tomorrow if you want. It’ll be okay.” Morgan continued to sob softly into his shirt, until she fell into an uneasy slumber. Jason held her and tried to move as little as possible until finally, the scent of her shampoo in his nostrils, he too fell asleep.
* * *
The next morning, they awoke slightly embarrassed at sleeping in each other’s arms. They both sat up and rubbed the sleep from their eyes. The morning sunlight through the window blinds cast a golden mask across Morgan’s face. The apartment smelled stale, and Jason could pick out the scents of faded cigarette smoke, slept-in clothing, his own dull flatulence. There were dried vodka rings on the coffee table. Jason glanced at the bottle, saw it was half-empty and his stomach lurched.
Morgan made breakfast while Jason got on the Internet and found an urgent care facility that would probably be able to see them right away. They both called in sick before sitting at the breakfast table.
“I’m sorry about last night,” said Morgan around a mouthful of eggs. “You know how you can build something up in your mind until it’s almost overwhelming? I was out of control.”
“No, it’s okay,” said Jason. “Everyone gets one big freak-out. That was yours.”
“Have you had one?”
“Not yet,” he replied. “I’m saving mine for something really big, at a really bad time. I’m thinking your wedding day.”
She punched him on the arm lightly and laughed. “I’m feeling so much better today,” she said.
“Good,” answered Jason. “Do you want to go to the doctor? I found a place only about three blocks from here.”
“I don’t know,” Morgan answered. “I feel so much different about it today. I don’t want to go in and sound all crazy and get taken out in a straitjacket. Maybe we could just say I was feeling sick, I had a really bad migraine or something that wouldn’t go away?”
“Anything you want.” Jason got up from the table and cleared their plates. He set them in the sink and returned to the table. He sat down and looked at Morgan curiously.
“Listen – would it upset you to talk about it some more? I was wondering about something you said.”
Morgan shrugged. “I guess. What?”
“You said these voices, these little girls, told you their names. Do you remember what they were?”
Morgan frowned in concentration. “I’m not sure. Why?”
“I don’t know, it just sounded weird to me, that these voices would give you their names. You’d think that disembodied voices would want to keep their anonymity.”
She smiled. “You’re such a moron,” she said. “Let me think.” She looked up at the ceiling that had collected so much of her smoke the night before. Jason traced an old water stain on the table with his finger.
“Amy,” said Morgan, a few moments later.
“That was one of the names, Amy. I remember because it was the only normal-sounding name. The rest were all weird, like Victorian names or something. Like made-up names.”
“Like Queen Latifa?”
“No, you idiot, like – made up names.”
“Like Queen Latifa’s her real name.”
“Nooo, I mean – wait – Beleth.” Morgan sat up straight on the sofa. “That was one of them!”
“Beth?” asked Jason. “That’s not made up.”
“Bel-eth. Beleth.” She paused and stared into the distance. “That’s it. I can’t remember any more.”
“Beleth,” mused Jason. “You’re right, that is a weird name. Sounds foreign.”
They went to the medical facility together. Jason drove her in his car, a rusted old Toyota painted a dull red. Morgan called the car Tokyo Rose.
The visit with the physician’s assistant resolved nothing but was calming nevertheless. While Jason sat in the waiting room reading a National Geographic, the PA gave Morgan a brief physical exam. Afterward Morgan pranced out into the waiting room in her hospital gown and motioned for Jason to come back to the examination room with her. Jason thought she looked exceptionally good in a hospital gown.
The PA explained that he had found nothing obviously wrong with her, and that migraines could be caused by many things. He gave Morgan a referral for a CAT scan and some blood work and said that he would call her after he received the results of the tests. Morgan and Jason got back into Tokyo Rose for the drive home.
“Thanks,” said Morgan as they pulled out into traffic. The sky looked heavy as if the air itself had somehow gained weight. It smelled like rain. “I feel a million percent better. You saved my life.”
“It’s what I do.”
“No, really, you were there when I needed you. That’s true friendship. That’s the real deal.”
“The real deal?” asked Jason. “Who talks like that? I think we should turn around and go back to the doctor.”
“Shut up,” Morgan replied cheerfully. “You got time for lunch?”
Jason consulted the digital clock on the dashboard, the only indication that the car had been built in the last twenty years. “I’d better not,” he said. “If I get to work soon I can probably get enough hours in to not have to take another day of sick time.” He glanced over at her. “Are you okay?”
“You mean can you leave me alone and I won’t crack up? Yeah, I’ll be fine. Drop me at my place, Bitterman.”
“Yes, ma‘am,” drawled Jason.
When they pulled up to the curb at Morgan’s building, she turned in her seat and looked at Jason hard, eyes determined. “Thanks again,” she said. “I really mean it. And listen – cut back on the drinking. It’s been long enough. You’re okay now.” She got out of the car and walked to her door.
He watched her climb the steps of the brownstone and unlock the common door, thinking about how she was able to worry about him drinking when she had just undergone some sort of mental breakdown. She was right, of course. She always was. Jason had just been waiting for her to say something.
* * *
Jason had lost his dad to a car accident when he was just seven and didn’t really remember the man. His mother had raised him alone from then on, and in the manner of only children and mothers, particularly ones who have been pushed together due to loss, they grew very close. Not quite a momma’s boy, for his mother had never let that happen and had stoked his independence, they still shared a special relationship.
Once, rooting around in the attic of their old Victorian-era home, Jason had found an old button. This was when he was still seven, not long after the accident. It was large and opalescent and made of some stone or material that neither he nor his mother could identify. It shined green and blue when turned in the light. She told him it must have come from the sweater or fancy coat of someone who had lived in the house long before them, perhaps some rich woman, the wife of the mayor or someone important. The button became a sort of talisman, something that they would hold and look at whenever either one of them was sad about their life or their loss.
His mother had surprised Jason, all those years later, by showing him the button at the hospital. She had brought it from home, and as she lay there in the stiff hospital sheets, they examined the button and passed it between them as they had in the past, the stone glinting weirdly in the rough hospital light. It had made those last few weeks more special, this small reminder of Jason’s childhood and his mother’s young adulthood.
After she died, an orderly had given Jason a plastic bag with the hospital’s name on it containing all her belongings that she had brought with her: a thin sweater, a box of tissues, a crossword magazine, a couple of paperbacks, half a pack of lifesavers, her bible. This was what her final days had been distilled down to.
Jason searched the bag but couldn’t find the button. He supposed that someone had thrown it out, thinking it was just what it was, a button that had fallen off from someone’s clothing. He was extremely disappointed, for it seemed like it would have been the best thing to keep in memory of his mother. But they were both gone.
* * *
The rest of the week went by so fast that Jason was surprised when his boss told him to have a good weekend. Did he really lose sight of Friday, the best day of the week? Jason was exhausted – he had managed to cram a full week’s work into three days. Well, he thought, at least no one could complain that he wasn’t trying hard enough.
He also hadn’t taken a drink all week, not that three days was any great feat. Still, he felt good about himself. He thought he’d go home, take a shower, and see if Morgan wanted to catch dinner somewhere. He hadn’t talked to her since he dropped her off after her physical.
As he was leaving work, his cell phone rang, and he saw it was Morgan.
“Hey, girl, I was just gonna call you,” he said. “Would you consider letting a handsome guy buy you dinner?” He delivered the straight line expecting an insult back, but it was as if she hadn’t heard him.
“Can you come over?” she said. Her voice sounded raw, like she had been crying.
“Are you okay?” he asked. “What’s wrong?”
“Stupid question,” she answered. “Just get here as soon as you can.”
He hurried to his car and drove directly to Morgan’s apartment building, found a spot just up the street, locked the car and jogged to her door. The sky was matted with gray woolen clouds, the late afternoon air felt heavy with un-spilt rain. Morgan buzzed him in as soon as he rang the bell. She must have been waiting by the buzzer, he thought. There was an elevator in the building, but it was only three stories with Morgan living at the top, and it felt to Jason like an emergency that required the use of the stairs. He ran up them two at a time and arrived at her door winded and sweating.
Jason knocked, and she let him in. The light was dim and the place smelled funny, like a sick room. Memories of his mother’s hospital room flashed in his head. Morgan walked to her kitchen and Jason followed, noting that all the shades were drawn. She sat at the kitchen table and looked up at him as he pulled out a chair opposite her.
“Thanks,” she said. Her eyes had that wild look again, and the word “haggard” came to Jason’s mind – she was wearing sweatpants and an old tee-shirt, her hair was uncombed and greasy, her face looked gray. She picked up a cigarette that had been smoldering in an ashtray. “So, here we are again.”
“Jesus, Morgan, what’s going on?” Jason said. The room was stuffy, he felt like he was breathing her old socks and unwashed armpits. He could taste the ocean brine of her unwashed body through the cigarette smoke.
“Guess,” she said, and then went on. “They’re back. Well, they never really left. I’ve been talking to them since Tuesday. I’ve gotten to know them quite well.”
“Morgan,” Jason said, his palms flat on the linoleum tabletop, “we need to get you to the doctor right away. We should go to the hospital.”
“Oh, Jason,” she replied, disappointed, “that’s not why I called. I could get myself there if I was sure I needed to go. I need to talk to you about what’s going on. I need to talk about it. I think I’m figuring some of it out.”
“Why don’t we talk about it on the way?” he suggested. “I’ll drive, you talk. Can you put some shoes on?”
“Don’t treat me like a mental patient,” she snapped. “We’re not going to the hospital.” She stubbed out her cigarette and immediately lit another. “Do you want a drink?”
“Good,” she said, “although you may change your mind a little later.”
“Well, that sounds ominous.”
“Shut up and listen,” she said, adding, “Sweetie,” with half a smile contorting her face. She took a drag from her cigarette and blew a great plume of smoke through her nose.
“The minute I got through my door after you dropped me off, the voices came back. Like they were waiting for me to be alone, or like they were like kids, scared of the doctor’s office. I made a conscious effort not to freak out, telling myself the doctor had found nothing wrong, and if I was going crazy that I probably wasn’t in any immediate danger. So I decided to get to know the little buggers, see if I could get them to tell me why they were bothering me. Basically, talk to the voices in my head.”
“Well, that sounds very reasonable.”
“Again, shut up. I love you, by the way. So, we had this conversation. It was so weird, as I’m sure you’ll agree, but it also felt very normal. Like a regular conversation, like I was talking to you or something. I learned all their names, and they said they were here to guide me, although they wouldn’t say guide me how. I pressed them, and they just giggled. And – and, they showed themselves to me.”
Jason sat in the haze of smoke and body odor feeling an incredible sadness, like Morgan was telling him she was moving away or something. He was losing her, and that thought must have shown in his eyes, because she snapped, “Dammit, stop judging me. Just listen and give me a fucking benefit of the doubt or whatever. You’re supposed to be my best friend.”
“I am,” Jason answered, feeling rebuked and hurt at the use of the word “supposed.” “I am your best friend. Always. I’m sorry, I’m listening. I am.” All he could taste was smoke and he looked past Morgan toward the refrigerator. “Do you have any juice or something?”
“I don’t know,” said Morgan, “help yourself. Can I continue?”
Jason got up and nodded on his way to the refrigerator. “Yeah,” he said. “I’m listening.”
Morgan leaned her head back with her face pointed toward the ceiling and closed her eyes.
“So – they showed themselves to me. I don’t know how – I guess it was like a vision or something. But I was right, they’re little girls, five of ‘em, and they’re wearing frilly little dresses and they’ve got bows in their curly hair. And they’re – like dancing or skipping around this pole and holding long ribbons in their hands. Like a maypole, you know? From in olden times?”
“Yeah. And they were so cute, and so friendly in a shy, kid kind of way.” More smoke streamed toward the ceiling, and she was looking at him again. “And that was about it – for Tuesday.”
Jason opened his mouth, closed it again. He wasn’t sure what to say. He didn’t want to piss her off again. He returned to the table with a glass of water.
“So,” he said finally, “do you remember their names? Other than the first two, Amy and whatever.”
“Amy and Beleth. The other three were Alastor, Merihem and Gremory.” She counted them off on her fingers. “I commented that they were unusual names, where did they get names like those, and they said they were very old names. And they giggled, of course. They were still cute then.”
“What do you mean? What happened?”
“I began to think that they must be some kind of spirits, or lesser angels, or something. They had said they were there to help guide me, but they seemed a little simple, like if they were some sort of angelic being, that they were minor ones. What?”
Jason was looking at her skeptically. “You know my thoughts on religion.”
“So? That doesn’t affect my beliefs, does it?” She smoked. “Oh, yeah, the old family argument. The one little black mark in the perfect mother-son relationship.” He opened his mouth to complain, but she waved him off. “It doesn’t matter, just – listen.
“The next day was more of the same, giggling and nonsense and hints. I felt like I needed some air around noon, so I went out for a walk – oh, yeah, I haven’t been to work all week. Said it was the flu. So I’m walking down the street, getting a stretch, breathing a little air, the little girl voices in my ears, but I’m sort of getting used to them, you know? So I can walk down the street without appearing to be a crazy person. And – and, the girls, these voices, they start saying some weird stuff. Like, as I’m going past this one guy in a suit, one of them says ‘trip him.’ I think ‘what?’ and they all giggle. Then a little later I walk past this old woman waiting for the bus and as the bus is pulling up one of the voices says, ‘push her into the road.’ See, they’re still all cheerful, but they’re starting to tell me to do stuff to people, hurt them. They tell me to kick a homeless guy lying on a heating grate, they tell me to flip off a cop, to grab a little kid from his mother and run. I mean, all kinds of shit that I’d never do, you know, no one would, no one normal. No reasonable person. Not you. So I start getting nervous, and I head straight home where I can talk to them.”
Jason had finished his water and realized that it was ridiculously hot in the apartment, Morgan didn’t have the air on. When he walked in, he had been sweating from the run up the stairs, but now he was just hot. He felt sweat on his upper lip and his neck. He wiped it away. Morgan continued.
“When I got upstairs the voices all began to sound angry. They were like, yelling at me. So I argued with them.” She nodded. “I argued with the voices in my head. I said I thought they were supposed to be there to guide me, and they said they were.” Her face got dark, and she looked away. “Then they started saying really horrible stuff to me. Telling me to do stuff to myself. I asked them why, why they would say that, but they just giggled.” Morgan had been calm while she recounted the earlier events, but Jason noticed that she began to get more agitated as she continued. She began to bite her fingernails, and she wouldn’t look at him.
“What kind of stuff?” Jason asked. “What are we talking about here?”
Morgan took a deep breath. “They told me to – to fuck myself with a broken bottle. Shit like that. Told me to stick a knife up my ass. Jump out the window. Cut off my tits. Nice shit like that.” She finally looked at Jason, but he couldn’t read what she was thinking.
“Jesus, Morgan,” he said. “Jesus.” He looked around the room at nothing, just something to do with his eyes. “Now can we go to the hospital?”
“Fuck the hospital,” she said distinctly. “I’m not crazy. This is real. I understand that it’s not normal, but this isn’t my imagination, this isn’t my mind playing tricks on me. I’m sure of it. This is real.” She stared hard at Jason. “I need to figure this out. I need you to help me figure this out.”
“Real,” said Jason. “This is real? How can you know? How can you be so sure? It’s crazy. You’re hearing voices, you’re seeing visions – you need help. I’m sorry, I’ll do anything I can to help you, I really will, but you’ve got to get to a hospital.” Jason slouched back in his chair as if saying it had exhausted him.
Morgan just stared at him and shook her head. Lit another cigarette. Neither of them spoke. The smoke hung heavy in the thick, still air.
“No,” said Morgan. “No. I am not making this all up. This is real. You’re my friend and you’ll believe me. You have to believe me. I’ve got no one else.” She took a drag and blew the smoke directly into Jason’s face. “You have to decide: are you helping me, or are you out? I won’t let you convince me to go to the hospital. Either you help me – be my friend and help me – or go home.”
Jason stared at her, breathing her smoke and her apartment stink. This girl that he loved more than he had ever loved anyone, more than he had loved any of his lovers – this girl sitting slouched at the table, in her tee-shirt and sweats, one bare foot up on the chair and her spare hand fiddling with her toes, dirty, unwashed – what choice did he have? He knew he would do what she wanted before she asked. He never had any choice.
“Okay,” he said finally. “I’m all yours. I’m in.” He got up to get more water and slid his hand along her shoulders as he passed, for his sake as much as for hers. “So, what do we do?”
“I don’t know yet,” Morgan answered, visibly relieved. “Thank you. Thanks.” She paused. “We need to think. To figure this out. Why is this happening?”
“Aside from the possibility that you’re crazy?” Jason asked, “Which you are very definitely not,” he added quickly. “I don’t know. Why don’t we look up your symptoms on the Internet?”
“Symptoms – that doesn’t sound like you’re with the program.”
“I’m sorry.” Jason had a sudden thought. “Those weird names – what if we look up those names and see what they’re from? Maybe that will give us a clue.”
“Now you’re thinking. See, that’s the kind of thing that I hired you for.” Morgan stood and went into the living room, came back with her laptop. She set it on the table and opened it, and then plugged the cord into the wall socket. She pushed the power button and waited for it to boot up.
“Obviously, ‘Amy’ is a normal name, but those other four – maybe they’re just nonsense, but maybe they’ll mean something.” Morgan drummed her fingers on the tabletop as she waited impatiently for the laptop to power up. “Damn this thing.”
“Have another cigarette,” suggested Jason. Morgan looked at him and frowned.
“There,” she said. “Okay. Let’s Google these buggers.” Her fingers flew over the keyboard, and she hit the enter key with a flourish. She read for a moment, her right middle finger tracing lines on the mouse pad. Clicked again. Frowned. Looked puzzled.
“What?” asked Jason. Morgan pushed the laptop toward him, turning the screen to face him.
Jason saw she was on one of those web-encyclopedia sites. Beleth: In demonology, Jason read, alternately a king of Hell commanding eighty-five legions of demons or a demon goddess that looks like a wolf with wings, three eyes and four tails. “What the—” he began. “There must be other meanings.” He clicked back to the search engine and read the entries, frowning.
“What was one of the other names?” he asked Morgan.
“M-e-r-i-h-e-m,” she spelled. Jason entered it and read. “It’s a rock group,” he said, and Morgan visibly relaxed. “But also a demon. A spirit or queen of pestilence,” he read.
Morgan got up and walked over to stand behind him. In a small voice she said, “Alastor. With an ‘o.’” Jason typed and clicked.
“Alastor, a tormenting spirit, known as ‘the executioner,’ also called Azazel. What the fuck?” Morgan had her hands on his biceps and was squeezing as she leaned over his shoulder to look at the screen. Jason could smell her breath, sour and smoky.
“Gremory,” she said, and waited.
“A duke of hell that governs twenty-six legions, often appearing as a crowned woman riding a camel.”
“Look up Amy,” Morgan said. “What does Amy mean?”
“Amy’s a common name, we know about Amy.”
“Just look it up,” she insisted.
Jason read. “Amy Winehouse, Amy Fisher, ‘Amy’ by Pure Prairie League – no demons.”
Jason read silently, scrolling through page after page, Morgan’s hot breath on his neck.
“Shit,” he said.
“Where?” asked Morgan.
“Look – see it? Amy, a President of Hell, the 58th spirit. He appears in a flame, has thirty-six legions, blah, blah, blah. What’s with all the legions? They all have to have their own legions?”
Morgan walked back to her side of the table shaking her head. “They’re all demon names? But why?”
“You must have heard those names before, maybe as a kid. Maybe in church. Or maybe you read about them somewhere. Whatever. What probably happened is that your subconscious mind brought them out and assigned them to these girls. It doesn’t mean anything,” Jason added.
Morgan shook her head and looked into Jason’s eyes. “You’re doing it again,” she said. “You’re suggesting that it’s all in my head. I pulled these names out of my subconscious?” She looked off into space for a moment, and then back at Jason. Still shaking her head. “No way,” she said. “I never heard those names. I never read them. My church doesn’t teach demonology, doesn’t believe in demons. You’re saying this is in my head again, and I’m telling you: it’s not. Why these little girls have these names I don’t know, but they’re real, and they do.” She sat down in the kitchen chair again looking very small.
They were both quiet for a while.
“So, basically,” Jason began slowly, “you’re being stalked by demons. Haunted, whatever.” Morgan wouldn’t look at him, shrugged.
“What do we do, call an exorcist?” he asked. Morgan remained silent.
“If we do, we need to do it here, not at my place. I don’t want that pea-soup puke all over my apartment.”
Morgan finally looked at him and a rough laugh escaped from her mouth. “You’re such an idiot,” she said. The small smile faded from her face, and she returned to silent thought.
Jason closed the laptop and pushed it to the center of the table. He felt lost. Church had never inspired him, never even interested him. The whole religious concept seemed unlikely at best. With that background, how was he supposed to react to demons parading around as little girls talking to his best friend? There had to be a reasonable explanation.
“Go home,” said Morgan suddenly. “I’m exhausted, I can’t think about this anymore.”
“Are you sure?” asked Jason.
“Yeah. Call me tomorrow. It’s Saturday, isn’t it? Call me in the morning when you get up. We’ll try to figure out something then. Okay?” Morgan looked at him and raised her eyebrows. “Thanks for being here. I’ll be fine. Call me tomorrow.”
She walked Jason to the door and ushered him out. He heard the lock click into place behind him as he stood in the musty hallway. Then he went home.
* * *
Back at his own place, Jason dug his mother’s bible out of the box he had stored it in, unwilling yet to throw out any of her belongings, the things of hers he had brought back from the hospital. He opened it, flipping through the pages rapidly, the tiny print like hieroglyphics on papyrus-thin pages. He didn’t think he would read it. He remembered trying to read it as a child and finding it unfathomable. He didn’t want to read it. He just wanted to carry it with him, to hold it, this part of his mother’s life.
He went into the bedroom and undressed and then took the bible with him into the bathroom, setting it on the edge of the porcelain sink while he showered, sluicing the dried sweat and smoke from his body. As awkward as it sounded, he would force Morgan to take a shower tomorrow, he thought. Or strongly suggest it, he didn’t think he could force Morgan to do anything. She probably didn’t even realize that she was dirty; she was just so absorbed in her problem, so buried in thought that cleanliness had skipped her mind. Cleanliness was next to Godliness, right? Having her clean would be better for both of them.
Jason got out of the shower refreshed. He dried and dressed, taking the bible with him to the bedroom and then to the kitchen where he fixed himself a sandwich for a late dinner. The bible on the counter next to the bottles of booze. Juxtaposed. His mother wouldn’t have approved.
For the millionth time since she had died, Jason wished he had the button. It had always felt as if it emitted its own warmth, holding it in his childish hand he would feel a pulsing heat that was likely just the blood rushing through his palm but that seemed to his young mind to be the heartbeat of the stone button, as if it came to life in his hand. He would take that now. He would take that feeling again.
When he went to bed that night, he left the bible on the kitchen counter.
* * *
Saturday morning broke with a rainstorm that hammered the windows of his apartment and pinged off the aluminum awnings. The sky so dark that it felt like morning had never come, that the whole day had been skipped and gone right on to night again. Jason turned on the lights in the apartment to push back the gloom. Then he called Morgan.
Her phone went straight to voice mail. Jason hung up rather than leave a message, and re-dialed. Voice mail again. Maybe she was still sleeping. He was worried, though. He hadn’t left her in the best shape.
Jason turned on the television and flipped through the horde of children’s shows and half-hour advertisements, finding nothing to watch. Turned the television off. Looked at the cell phone and thought about calling. Finally made up his mind.
He pulled on his Nikes, pocketed his keys and his cell phone, and at the last minute grabbed the bible from the kitchen counter. With it under his arm he made his way to his car and drove the short distance to Morgan’s place. The rain had stopped, and the air felt scrubbed clean of the summer’s heat. Splotches of blue began to appear in the sky as the slate-colored clouds broke up. The storm had dissolved the month-long torrid run of stupefying humidity. It felt promising. Jason parked and looked at the bible lying on the passenger seat. The thought of him walking into Morgan’s apartment holding the bible like some late-night movie exorcist made him feel ridiculous; he left it in the car and got out and walked to her building. He pushed the buzzer and waited. He pushed it three more times before there was the answering buzz of the door lock, and he pulled the door open and entered the building, feeling a familiar anxiety.
When Morgan opened her door, Jason saw that she was clean, her hair still damp from a shower. She smiled and ushered him in and gave him a big hug after she closed the door.
“Right on time,” she said, turning and walking toward the kitchen.
“Am I?” he asked. “I tried to call you, but you didn’t answer.”
“Have a seat at the table, breakfast is almost ready. Do you want coffee?” Jason immediately became aware of the singed smell of fresh coffee, tinted with bacon and burnt toast, and his stomach rumbled.
“Please,” he answered. She came from the kitchen carrying two mugs of coffee, steam rising from them and trailing behind her like twin exhausts. She set them on the table.
“I was in the shower,” she said. “Why I didn’t answer when you called. Sorry.” And back to the kitchen.
Jason sipped his coffee. It was hot but delicious. Morgan returned with two plates holding a couple of lightly fried eggs, two pieces of toast and a pile of bacon. She placed one before Jason and set the other on the table opposite him. She went back to the kitchen once more and came back with forks, knives and napkins. Jason had already begun attacking the bacon.
“This is great, thanks,” he said. “So, what’s going on? You’re like – clean, and happy. And cooking. Is it all over?”
Morgan neatly cut a small piece of egg with her fork and slipped it into her mouth. “Noooo,” she said, “you’re not getting off that easy. It’s still happening. But I feel like I’m getting a handle on it. I think I’ve got something I can work with now. And I realized,” she continued around a bite of toast, “that I hadn’t been taking care of myself through all of this and that it could only help things if I cleaned myself up, help my thinking and my general whatever – state of mind. Cleanliness is next to Godliness.”
“That’s what I said!”
Morgan frowned, confused. “When?”
“Last night, when I was thinking about you.”
“You were thinking that I was dirty and needed to get cleaned up?”
“Yeah,” answered Jason. “No. Not that you were dirty. That getting cleaned up would be helpful and all. Helpful to your state of mind, like you said.” She stared at him for a moment and turned her attention to her breakfast.
“Course, you were a little ripe last night,” he added.
“I knew it!” she accused. “I smelled and you didn’t tell me!”
“I thought it would have been obvious to both of us.”
Morgan chewed off a bite of bacon and shrugged. “Whatever,” she said. “Okay, updates. I’ve got lots to tell you. You want more coffee?” Jason shook his head. “Alright, I think I’m making sense of all this. I’m being tested.”
“Tested? By who?” asked Jason, already knowing the answer. He felt even better about not bringing the bible.
“By whom,” she said. “By God. I think this might all be a test from God.”
“A test from God? Jesus, why? Are you serious?”
“Yes,” she said. She leaned back in her chair with her coffee mug in her hand, most of her food untouched. “Let me explain.”
“Please.” Jason had finished his bacon and eggs and sat chewing on toast.
“Last night, I met someone else. I mean someone else came to me, spoke to me. The weird little girls are still around, but I’ve got a new guest, and I think she’s an angel. Or he’s an angel, I’m not sure. I don’t know if angels have genders. Anyway, this non-gender-specific angel-person came to me last night, kinda like you would picture – long white robes, tall, a hint of wings or something at her back, but not clear, not clear enough to see them. And her face is all obscured, almost fuzzed out like on those television shows where they want to hide the identity of the person they’re interviewing, you know? And she’s tall, I think. I get the sense that she’s really tall, like taller than a human can be. And she tells me not to worry about the little girls. She’s got a sexless voice like motor oil – smooth and flowing. And kind of dark, a dark voice. Says the girls can be confusing, and she’s sure as hell right there. She tells me not to worry.” Morgan had spoken faster and faster as she ran through this accounting, and she ended a little breathless.
Jason chewed his last bite of toast. “So, this super-tall being with a ‘dark’ voice tells you not to worry, and everything’s okay now?” He swallowed and picked up his coffee. “Sounds fishy to me.”
“I didn’t say everything was okay,” Morgan said defensively, “I said I think I’m beginning to figure things out. I wasn’t getting it. So this angel or whatever comes and says, ‘don’t worry, you’re doing okay,’ like she’s trying to guide me through this.” She took a sip of coffee and stared at the plate in front of her for a moment before lifting her eyes to Jason’s.
“I’ve thought about it, and I’ve thought about it, and I think it’s a test of my faith. Like Job was tested, kind of. I haven’t been the most faithful church-goer, but I’ve always been a believer, and I think God wants to know if he can count on me.”
“Count on you?” Jason repeated, his face scrunched in disbelief. “What does that mean? Does God want you to help him move? What, you’ve got his back?”
“I’m serious,” she frowned his way.
“You think God is concerned about how often you’re going to church? With religious wars in the middle east, genocide in Africa, and black kids killing each other here for Air Jordans, God wants to know if you’ll be there to back him up? Is that what you’re saying?”
Morgan stood up and began to clear the dishes. “I didn’t expect you to believe me,” she said, her voice steady. “I know your thoughts on this matter. You think religion is a joke, fine. You can think whatever you want. I’m just telling you. I thought you’d want to know, maybe help.”
“God is testing you,” Jason laughed. “Come on. Listen to yourself. You’re not making sense. What, he’s trying to make you crazy, see if you’ll choose belief over insanity?” He finished his coffee and set the mug on the table with a clunk. “It’s a pretty close border line there – how is he going to know which choice you’ve made?”
“Jesus, Jason,” Morgan moaned over her shoulder, taking the plates and silverware into the kitchen. “Laugh in my face. That’s the kind of reaction I should have expected. I should have learned from how you treated your mother.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” Jason demanded. Morgan returned from the kitchen empty-handed. She stood with her hands grasping the back of her chair.
“Your mother was very religious,” she explained calmly, “and you never took her belief seriously. You laughed behind her back.” Jason folded his arms across his chest and stared at Morgan, saying nothing.
“You laughed behind her back,” Morgan repeated, “and even as she lay dying in the hospital, you wouldn’t budge an inch. You wouldn’t give her that one little piece of solace, you wouldn’t, just, even accept her belief.” She stared hard at Jason.
Jason stood up slowly from his chair, heat rising in his face. He made himself stay calm. He looked at Morgan, saw truth in her eyes, and rejected it.
“Fine,” he said. “I came here to make sure you were okay. Well, apparently you are. Good, I’m glad.” He looked at the floor and then back at Morgan. “I’m going now,” he said and turned and walked to the door.
“Jason,” Morgan said behind him, a plea to wait.
“Call me,” he said, and shut the door calmly behind him.
* * *
By the time he got home Jason was over his anger. What a stupid argument, he thought. Why did I get so upset? She pushed my buttons, so what?
He thought about calling her, or going right back over to her place, but decided against it. Better to let them both cool off a little. He could call her on Sunday, maybe ask her if she wanted to go to church with him. That ought to get a laugh out of her.
Jason had brought his mother’s bible with him from the car, and he picked it up and sat on the blue sofa with it in his lap. He flipped through it until he found the Book of Job. He read the first few lines, flipped pages back and forth, and then set if on the coffee table. It was still unreadable. It might as well have been written in Cyrillic.
Thinking he might check his e-mails, he went to the bedroom and fired up his laptop. There was little of interest – a few messages from his buddies, an invite to a happy hour next Friday, and the usual crap from the stores he had made the mistake of listing his e-mail address with. Then he had a thought. He Googled “bible” and “job,” separated by quotes to try to avoid offers to work as a bible salesman and found references to the story on Wikipedia. He clicked the link to see what they had to say.
Now this is how the bible should be written, he thought. There was a detailed but clear synopsis of the entire story – actually too much detail for Jason’s taste, but he could skim. He read through what he took to be the important highlights just to see what Morgan was on about.
Jason had known – it was general knowledge – that God had tested Job by making his life miserable. Or he thought he had known. It appeared, according to the on-line encyclopedia, anyway, that the whole thing was some sort of experiment run by Satan with the consent of God. Satan contended that Job was only pious because he was rich, so God allowed Satan to make Job poor, and give him diseases. It was kind of like that movie Trading Places with Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy, Jason thought, but with fewer laughs. Like it was all done for a bet – ruin the guy’s life and see who was right about how he’d react. Winner gets a dollar.
Jason read a little more to try to see if the reason for this bet made any sense. The writers of the on-line encyclopedia suggested that the story was about explaining the existence of God in the world along with the existence of evil and suffering. The old ‘Why do bad things happen to good people?’ Jason was not impressed.
He wasn’t sure if something like this could be the actual reason behind Morgan’s hallucinations. If he wanted to be honest, that’s how Jason still thought of them. To accept that Morgan was being tested by God, or tested by Satan at the behest of God, would demand that Jason accept the existence of God. Which, while he wouldn’t rule the possibility completely out, he did not feel compelled to do. To believe that these things were demons, well – that was right off the crazy scale. With apologies to Morgan, he added to himself.
Deep down, Jason still believed that Morgan’s difficulties were more of an organic or mental nature, rather than a spiritual one. He wanted to believe her. He truly did. He had tried his best to listen to her objectively, but he couldn’t bring himself to accept any of her theories. He just didn’t have the faith.
Jason figured that they would have to agree to disagree, and hoped that Morgan got over this soon.
* * *
It was black when the phone rang, the only light in the bedroom provided by the furtive creeping beneath the blinds of an orange glow from the streetlamp outside Jason’s window. He sat up groggy and reached for the cell phone, opened it, and noted the time and the caller i.d. It was three a.m., and the call was from Morgan. Either wigging out again, or calling to drunkenly apologize, he thought.
Jason opened the phone and pushed the answer key and placed the phone to his ear. He was no longer mad at Morgan, so he tried to keep the annoyance out of his tone.
“Hello?” he croaked; his night voice still creaky from sleep. There was background noise, like the television was on, but no one spoke.
“Morgan?” he tried again. This time she answered.
“Jason?” she said, sounding far away. “Hi.”
“Morgan, what is it?” he asked. “Are you okay? What’s going on?”
“What?” she asked. “Oh. Wait a minute.” Her presence left the phone and returned shortly. “Sorry. I thought you called me. Stupid. I called you, huh?”
“Yes, you called me. I just answered the phone. What’s wrong with you? Do you feel okay?” She sounded very drunk, or almost drugged, to Jason.
“I feel – I don’t know.” Morgan said this very slowly, as if it was an especially important question, one she needed to get right. “I – I think things have gotten worse. I’m not so sure anymore what’s going on. Yeah, things have definitely gotten worse.”
“Morgan, it’s hard to hear you. Turn off the television or whatever. What’s going on?”
She laughed a little, through her nose. “Oh, Jason, the girls are barking at me. I can see them, they’re still the same little girls, but they’re barking. They open their mouths to speak and dog barks come out. It’s not right.” Jason waited. He was scared for her again, she needed a doctor, but he knew better than to suggest it. “And the angel? I might have been wrong there.” That little laugh again. “She showed me her head, I can see her head now, and that’s from a dog, too. She has a dog’s head. A what, a Doberman? Is that what it’s called?” Jason wasn’t sure that she was asking him. “A Doberman Pinscher. Head. Angel body, dog head. Leathery, bat-like wings. She’s looking less angelic by the minute. Jason!”
“What? What’s wrong?”
“At least I can’t understand what they’re saying when they’re barking. They can’t say those horrible things to me in barks.”
Jason pressed the phone harder to his ear. “Morgan? I can hardly hear you. Turn the television off.”
“Television?” Sounding drunk and confused. “I think there’s a big test tonight. I think tonight’s the night.”
“Morgan, what are you talking about? I can hardly hear you.” He realized he was almost shouting into the phone. “Do you need me to come over? Do you want me to come over?” There was a long pause where Jason thought she might have left the phone.
“I have a message for you. From the angel. Or the not-angel. Whatever.” She laughed distantly. “No. Don’t come over. Call me tomorrow. Okay?”
“Okay, I’ll call you,” he said, confused. “What message? What are you talking about?”
“Find your brown jacket,” she said, and hung up.
Jason sat, lost in the swirl of sheets and the dark of the bedroom. He folded the phone closed and set it on the nightstand, watching it until the blue-glowing screen faded out. Morgan had sounded bad. He needed to do something but felt powerless against Morgan’s will and her threats to their friendship. He needed help. Perhaps he could call her father, he lived in town. Tomorrow was Sunday and he would be home.
Jason sunk back into his pillows and tried to fall back to sleep.
* * *
Sunday morning Jason woke groggy but determined. He showered and dressed and, grabbing his keys and his wallet, went out to his car. The air was warm and dry, the sun a silver coin in the sky. Jason stopped at a Dunkin’ Donuts and picked up two coffees and drove directly to Morgan’s building. He had to park nearly a block away. As he walked up the street with the two coffees, he saw an ambulance pull away from the curb, lights on but no siren. Shit no, he thought. It was probably completely unrelated, but it made him nervous. He picked up his pace and felt sweat begin to bead on his forehead in the cool morning air.
There was a man standing in front of Morgan’s building, staring into the empty street. He wore jeans and a gray sweatshirt, a baseball cap, and what looked like slippers. Except for the cleanness of his clothing, Jason would have guessed that he was homeless, mostly based upon the slippers. As Jason got closer the man began to look familiar, and he realized that it was Morgan’s dad, an older and more beat down- looking version than he had last seen, but definitely her father. Jason felt a combination of relief at having someone to share Morgan’s illness with, and fear.
“Jack, I was just thinking about calling you,” Jason said as he reached the man, but he didn’t seem to hear. “Jack, it’s me, Jason,” he tried again, still holding the two coffees in his hands. The man finally turned his attention from the street to Jason as if it took a great will. He looked at Jason a moment until recognition dawned on his face.
“Oh, Jason,” he said. “Yes.” He looked at the coffees and then back at Jason as if trying to understand their relationship. He looked back out at the street.
“She’s gone,” he said.
“Who’s gone?” asked Jason. “Morgan? Was that her in the ambulance? Is she okay?”
Jack continued to stare at the street as he worked his tongue around inside his lips, pushing them outward. He was frowning.
“Jack,” Jason tried again, “who’s gone? What are you talking about?”
“She called me last night – well, this morning, really. I don’t know what time. Said she was calling to say goodbye, that the angels had let her call to tell me goodbye. Didn’t make any sense. But she sounded – I don’t know – not scared, really, but worried, I guess. She wouldn’t answer when I tried to call back, so I came over.” He looked at Jason, and Jason saw he was crying. “She jumped out her window. She’s dead.” He focused on the empty street again.
“Dead,” said Jason. “No.” Jack made no comment. Jason turned and looked at Morgan’s building as tears welled in his eyes. Her apartment was around the back, so Jason couldn’t see the window that she leapt from.
“You can’t go up there,” said Jack. “The police have it taped off. Told me to come back tomorrow.” He looked toward Jason and then back to the street. “You can’t go up there.”
Jason stood with his back to Jack, feeling frozen. He looked at his hands and saw the two cups of coffee, inelegant and inadequate. He turned and handed one to Jack who took it and held it, not drinking it but just something to do, something to hold. Jason set the other cup on the edge of the sidewalk. He stared again at Morgan’s building. I didn’t think you’d do that, he thought.
Jason returned to his car and drove home in a blurry daze. His apartment felt hollow and stale. He poured himself a small glass of vodka but resolved not to drink it.
Oh, Morgan, he thought. I wanted to make you well, but you wouldn’t cooperate. How could you believe your visions were angels? Why would angels allow or encourage you to kill yourself?
He began to review their recent conversations, to somehow make sense of it. To see how badly he had failed. Morgan had been troubled but had always seemed in control until that last middle-of-the-night call when she had sounded disturbed, drunk, out of it. He should have gone then. He should have gone to her. Maybe she had even been asking him to, but he hadn’t been able to read the signals in her voice. Or hadn’t wanted to.
But no, he remembered, he had asked her if she wanted him to come over, and she had said no. She had told him to call her in the morning, and while she had sounded fucked up, she hadn’t sounded suicidal. She had wanted to talk to him in the morning, hadn’t she?
And then Jason remembered the other thing she said – that the angel had a message for him. It had seemed so incongruous that Jason had totally pushed it from his mind. Morgan had said the message was that he should find his brown jacket.
He got up from the chair he had been sitting in and went to the hall closet. His stomach felt empty and raw. Jason didn’t think he even owned a brown jacket. He pushed around through the coats and hangers and pawed at the shelf above. Nothing brown. Then he thought of the tan shirt that was slung over the back of a chair in his bedroom. It wasn’t a jacket, but it was made from a thick, flannel-type material, and he sometimes wore it as a second layer. Maybe that was what she meant.
Jason went into the bedroom and picked up the shirt. He held it in front of him and examined it. There were two breast pockets that had flaps you could button closed. He thrust a hand in one and felt nothing. Then he tried the other pocket and felt something small and hard. He grasped the thing in his hand and pulled it out. It was the button, his mother’s and his button. The button he had been wishing he had.
Jason sat on the edge of his bed and tried to think how it could have come to be there. During one of his last visits to the hospital the morning had been unusually cool, and he had worn the shirt over a tee shirt. He had later taken it off and laid it on a chair next to his mother’s bed. He realized she must have slipped the button into his pocket sometime then, while they were watching television or while he had gone to the cafeteria to grab a quick meal. That was why he never found it in her hospital bag – he had had it all along.
But how could Morgan have known? She hadn’t been at the hospital, and he hadn’t worn that shirt since that day, it had been sitting on that chair in his bedroom ever since. Morgan would never have had an opportunity to find it there, if she ever had the inclination or even any reason to look. So how?
Morgan had said that it had been a message from the angel, or whatever it was, but that was bullshit. Wasn’t it?
The button burned cold in his hand like a pebble from an icy creek. Morgan had somehow given him this last piece of his mother. Had she even known what the message meant? Had she known what she was saying, or had something been speaking through her? Something that killed Morgan, but also gave him back this lost gift. What was the meaning of that?
Jason walked out to the kitchen and set the button on top of the bible that still rested on the countertop. He picked up a bottle of vodka and looked at the label, and then set it down next to the bible and button.
And then he sat down and stared at all three.
© 2021 Mark Jabaut All rights reserved.
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