All Stories, General Fiction

The First Symptom is Death (Part II) By Leila Allison

Keeper’s eternal eye opens in the sleeper’s mind, and the two become a selfless one. This doesn’t mean a lack of selfishness–the meaning is literal–no sense of I is present; no sense of Other intrudes. There are no assessing thoughts affected by personal prejudice; nor questions; nor judgements; nor reactions; nor guesswork. Only a pure stream of information passes across the stage of the sleeper’s mental theatre. The players, though strangers, are known to the sleeper, and the recent past returns to its former place in the now.

It’s approaching sundown on October twenty-third. Thommy Lemolo enters the cemetery alone through the main gate, which she locks behind her. Thommy is young, tall, broad shouldered, and attractive in a way that is singularly Thommy Lemolo. She has private access to the cemetery on the strength of a ruse she has concocted for her employer, The Torqwamni Sun, and which had been agreed to by the pushcart Powers That Be in the Charleston city government. Ostensibly, Thommy is writing a series of Sunday supplement articles, which celebrate the seventy-fifth anniversary of New Town Cemetery’s Dow Lady ghost. Throughout the cemetery there are well-hidden infrared cameras, motion detectors, and sound recording equipment, which had been set up by Thommy and her associate, the paper’s mailroom kid, Joey. Although the equipment is useless other than recording the nocturnal activities of a surprisingly large cemetery raccoon population, Thommy’s doing a fine job on the series. Regardless, her actual reason for privacy is something that not even the most credulous Sun reader would buy into, as well as something that she cannot share with Joey, even though she’d like to.

Thommy is carrying a large tote in one hand and a shillelagh in the other. Bone cancer killed Thommy’s lower right leg when she was a teen. She’s nimble on her prosthetic, but descending long slopes unaided often brings on a case of vertigo–which is the only concession she makes to the long ago amputation of her limb.

She lays the tote on the ground in front of the oak tree as though it were an offering to a druid god. Yet solemn gestures don’t associate well with Thommy. She has a wonderfully active face that is always smiling or getting ready to do so. She smiles now. “Lewis, where the hell are you? Holy-moly, what was up with all that lightning around her the last three days? Sorry I’m running late. Hope you’re not mad. I had to kick a senior citizen’s ass on the way up here. Old bag cut me off when I hooked a left on Corson.”

Lewis gathers-to at the base of the oak. He never worried about her arrival. He also knows that Keeper had a reason for causing Thommy to run behind. “Are you sure that it played out like that, Thommisina?” Lewis says. “For some reason I picture you as the type of person who hooks a left from the center lane.”

“If that crack means that I believe in vehicular Darwinism, well then, so what?” she says. “If you can’t handle a little formula one action out in the wild then you ought to get yourself buried.” Thommy then winks at Lewis and nudges the tote with the shillelagh. “Speaking of getting yourself buried.”

“A wit as always,” he says. His Spirit is extremely well gathered-to, for a change. Under normal circumstances his ghost-pattern is barely visible to the eye. But today is a special occasion, and he will not be as vividly reproduced again for many years to come.

Thommy’s smile fades just a touch. “Ever since I claimed your ashes I’ve had this lingering deja Vu,” she says. “I can’t reach the thought behind it–something very old.” She shrugs, and her smile reestablishes itself. “You’ll be happy to know that your urn has spent the weekend beside my TV. You’re all caught up on The Game of Thrones. Sorry for you to find out this way, but the pushcart, cut-rate mortuary that torched you mangled your name.

Lewis steps forward and glances at his urn as Thommy removes it from the tote. Urn is perhaps too strong a word to describe the black plastic container, on whose lid is a label that says “Louis Coughland.”  He laughs, “Typical,” he says. He then becomes thoughtful, “Just think, thirty-two years of living reduced to a box of dust. How much does it weigh?”

“Maybe seven or eight pounds,” she says. “About as much as an infant. ‘Spose there’s irony in that.” She consults her phone. “We’re nearing showtime.”

Lewis turns and faces west. A gray coffin lid of November clouds hangs low in the sky, save for the west. The Olympic Mountains await the setting sun as they have every day for eons, yet Keeper remembers the west before the mountains were thrust into the sky; Keeper remembers a world before people and names.

“Tell me when to pour you into the oak,” Thommy says. She already knows that this is to be done at sunset–but not at the visual sunset, which happens when the sun’s light travels across

93,000,000-miles of space at roughly 186,000 miles-per-second, which takes a bit over eight minutes. The sunset she refers to is sunswitch, which occurs while the sun appears to be hanging over the mountains, but is in fact gone.

“We’ve got a couple of minutes,” Lewis says. “Maybe you ought to loosen the lid.”

“Already done,” Thommy says. “I ain’t no rookie, you know. Maaan, I’d be a rockstar grave robber…Bam!”

“I’m going to miss you,” he says.

“How so? You’re not going anywhere for a hella long time.”

“That’s true,” Lewis says.  Only Emma will be going away, for now. But for nearly seventy-five years, she had minimal interaction with the living. It takes great power to get me across to you. As you already must know, those lightning storms were arranged by Keeper as a means of absorbing energy for the tasks to come. And you have probably deduced that it is no accident that there isn’t a soul anywhere near the cemetery, except for you. Yet even Keeper needs to rest; even Keeper needs to save resources.”

Lewis pauses. There’s something he wants to know, but he isn’t certain how to phrase it. So, he blunders along. “Out of curiosity, how did you lose your leg?”

“Cancer,” Thommy replies. “You getting senile? I already told you that long ago.”

“No,” he says. “What happened to get the cancer noticed?”

“I broke the leg when I caught my foot in a hole while playing softball in high school,” she says. “If that hadn’t have happened, something else would have. Two tumors had whittled through most of the fibula and tibia the same way beavers chew down trees. Since I’ve shared with you, how about cluing me in on something that I’ve wondered about you since your deathday. You see, Joey, pulled up a lot of info on you–”

“How is it that someone with a Master’s Degree from Chapman wound up a homeless junkie?” Lewis says.

“Yeah, something like that.”

“Dope, especially coke and heroin, are both very equal opportunity employers,” he says. “When my parents died when I was twelve, my Grandmother Louise took me in. She was all right except for being hideously addicted to Percodan. Like all pillheads, she’d chip here and there off her script and wind up a day or two short before her refill was due. Dopesickness–trust me–is pure hell. I often wound up selling a phantom migraine at the ER on her behalf, to get her over–to get her well. She’d give me a couple of the pills I’d won for her out of gratitude. By the time I was in my junior year at college, I was already crushing and snorting oxy tabs. After that, it’s the same old story, told a zillion times over.”

Thommy nods sorrowfully. Lewis finds her poignant, because, like a child, her face conveys the higher qualities–compassion, humor, sympathy–in their purest forms. Yet there is always an odd juxtaposition found between her expressions and her words. “I bet death is the ultimate rehab.”

Lewis laughs. Then he again looks west. “It’s almost time to pour me in. Best get it ready.”

Thommy carefully removes the loosened lid. She looks inside, holds it toward Lewis, and says, “That old lady almost caused me to spill you. I think the chunky stuff is bone. The scientific word for that is eeeeewwwww.”

Lewis takes a look. “My doppleganger looks awfully dusty.”


“Emma and I love you, Thommy,” he says. Before she can reply to that he says, “Now.”

Thommy pours Lewis’s ashes into a large knothole that had recently opened in the oak. Like every other action directed by Keeper, the task goes smoothly, there are no unexpected surprises. It’s like this has already happened, Thommy thinks.

Without perceptible pause, nor in an interval which can be measured, nor even properly be described as “immediately,” or “suddenly,” dusk in late October is replaced by a world in which the midday sun stands high in the fuzzy, white sky, and in which the temperature is at least thirty degrees warmer.

Thommy would drop the empty urn if it was still in her hands, but it has remained in its time.

“What the fuck, how the fuck, and when the fuck is this?” she asks Lewis in an awed whisper. But there’s no Lewis to whisper to. Ever since her interaction with the Spirits had begun, Thommy has experienced much that would dissuade a fainter heart, but she has never felt the tingle of fear until now. But her trepidation eases when unseen Lewis speaks softly to her mind. “Everything’s all right, now,” he says. “Welcome to the first day of summer in 1943. Walk toward Emma’s family plot, while it’s still here.”

Still in possession of her trusty shillelagh, if not access to her vocabulary, Thommy unzips and removes her jacket and follows the winding path down the hillside. She takes a look around and absorbs the sights. Although New Town is essentially the same as it is in her times, there are fewer grave-rows, and the walkway is still composed of its original cobblestones (which were replaced by utilitarian concrete squares in the 1970s).

The neighborhood outside is much larger and cleaner than the T-Hill district she knows. This puzzles Thommy until she remembers that 1943 was in the middle of World War II and that due to an influx of wartime workers at the Naval Shipyard the Charleston population was almost three times the size it is now.

What hits her most is the condition of the automobiles parked in the streets. Seventy plus years into the future, you’d never see a ‘42 Packard that hasn’t been fancied up and babied by its owner. Here in 1943, however, that type of car is hardly a classic, and the vehicles are obviously in humdrum everyday use and are in varying degrees of cleanliness and repair, as are the cars of the current day, and any other current day, for that matter. This little thing strikes a bittersweet note in Thommy’s soul. Nearly everyone in the houses she sees, except for the very young, were almost certainly dead just five minutes ago. But their cars are out there waiting to take them places all the same.  The condition of the cars is so remarkably now that it makes her think that life passes so quickly that there are times when it feels like it is already over. Still, Thommy is Thommy, and her effervescent personality rarely darkens for long, no matter what when she’s at.

“Lewis–Do you think Keeper can help me boost that gold Hudson over there? Maaan, I wish I could bring that whole block home to Ebay.”

“There she is,” Lewis says with a tone that Romeo must have used to describe Juliet.

Thommy is about twenty feet away from Emma, who is standing at the foot of her daughter Mary’s grave–perhaps again wondering why the only person she had ever truly loved was murdered by God after only six years of life. This Emma is much older than the Spirit Thommy knows, but it is clearly her.

Suddenly, Emma stiffens and lets out a muffled cry of pain. She falls, and her head makes a horrible cracking sound when it strikes Mary’s tombstone.

Out of the corner of her eye Thommy catches glimpse of a man hurrying toward Emma.

Then everything stops. Save for Thommy and a light breeze ruffling the hem of Emma’s dress, time has ceased to move. Lewis appears and he turns Emma’s body over and begins to whisper to her. Thommy cannot hear what he says, but when she hears Emma slur “Yesssh,” time resumes, and once more, without any sense of pause or action, she finds herself alone in the graveyard in the present.

Thommy absently puts her jacket back on. She is still standing twenty feet away from where Emma had fallen. She approaches the Wick family plot and finds just one grave, that of Robert. Emma and Mary are gone…

Keeper exits the sleeping person’s mind, and Lewis’s ghost begins to speak:

“When you awaken, you will not remember everything except an emotional echo left behind by the dream that Keeper has given to you. That, plus something quite prosaic. There is a water tight bag which contains an envelope with a thousand dollars in it inside the knothole of this tree. It is yours. Although it is not my business what you do with the money, perhaps you might use it to give yourself a second or third or fiftieth chance at a better life. The money was left there by the Great Cszminoothe, but she is a dream to be had at another time.”

Lewis stands and gazes into the treeline that occludes the eastern horizon. “Did you know that all the graves face west?” he says. “The mourners get a view of the mountains, not the departed. Even in death we are often shortchanged.

“The hitch that Keeper had me lay twice in Emma’s mind–the first when I dipped and met her in 1902, and the other you just saw at the second time around for her first point of dying, worked. Keeper had absorbed not only Emma’s Spirit, but Keeper had waited and took in Emma for a sum of time equal to that Emma had lived–seventy-four years, four months, one week. In that time she dipped and gained an insight into the human heart never glimpsed by another human being; such is the enterprise I am in now. She improved although she’d have no literal memory of her time as a Spirit, her improvement was something that had become encoded in every atom of her being. Keeper had to hold Emma for the precise amount of time she had lived, as not to cause a harmful anomaly. The end result was that instead of remaining in a loveless and abusive marriage, as such was expected back then and still holds sway nowadays, Emma left Robert and took Mary home to England, where Mary lived to be ninety-four and had six children. Those six begat thirty-two more. I could go on, but I think you get the soul of the thing. There are a great many people in the world–some who have lived and died– that had never existed before.

“Thommy returned to New Town the next day and filled me in on the details, after an all night internet session. She was worried that among the extra people that one of them might blow up the world, but then she decided that one of them might just save it as well. I can no longer have contact with Thommy, unless she happens to catch my glimmer as other people have. But she spoke to me for a long time anyway. And during her oratory she mentioned how surviving cancer had made belief in ghosts much easier, and she had made casual mention to having lost her right leg to the disease when it was detected after she had been struck by a car and had suffered a fractured tibia while she had been jaywalking.

“Thommy hadn’t lied to me then nor when she had told the tale of breaking her leg while playing softball. The former is true today, the latter had been the case for eleven years.”

Lewis kneels before the dreamer. He has been speaking a long time, and he is aware of the first pink streaks of light in the east. Soon he will dip.

“Thommy didn’t make it the first time,” he says. “Yet she was alive and had a parakeet named Roy and worked for the newspaper all the same in another timeline. The timeline in which a myopic descendant of Emma and Mary had struck her with a car forty-seven days before that softball game. Somehow Keeper and I had weaved those lines into something new. Just a bit over six weeks extra time had been enough to staunch the cancer. The softball timeline features Thommy dead at seventeen, and her ashes distributed at her favorite places as well as a few leftover grams–enough to produce a Legend– haphazardly spread around the foot of this oak, back in 1996. Emma had never been sent to dip Thommy, thus she never knew that she had died. Keeper sent me into Thommy’s Legend on that last day. For I was having second thoughts about reaffirming the hitch I was to lay in Emma’s mind at her point of dying, so she might come back to me. Keeper showed me the finer way.

“We’re big on paradox here on the other side of reality,” Lewis says as the morning gloaming increases. “How a woman already dead may take a hand in retrieving her own life is something that not even a supergenius like Cszminoothe might answer. It is, and that’s all we need to know. Take care, you menace to society, you. Remember what I said about the money. Also, don’t underwrite your Legend, you never know who’ll be dropping by.”

Before he becomes someone else at sunrise, Lewis indulges himself with the vision he had on Emma’s last day. A long time from now, near the end of his peculiar conscription, an obviously ill Thommy Lemolo will come to New Town Cemetery. Lewis hasn’t seen her in decades, but he knows it is her, as he knows that her long slumbering cancer has awoken and means to take her.

Thommy pulls something from her pocket and puts it in her mouth and bites down. With the last of her strength she sits down at the foot of the changeless oak. “Lewis,” she says. Her breath is short and halting. 

Lewis gathers to and says, “Oh, Thommy, what have you done?” 

She gasps, “Will I… Will I?” 

And at the precise point in which her mind approaches its last thought, Lewis kneels before her, kisses her and says, “Yes, darling, you will remember everything.”


Lelia Allison

Links to the saga:

A Journey Begun In Lovers Meeting

It Varies From Fool to Fool

The Long Second Chance

A Most Confidential Source

Legend Dipping

The First Symptom is Death – part 1


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