In Memory of Alfred Burrows by Deborah Landers
Grief is a funny thing. We imagine it as some kind of great sorrow, like the loud cries of utter devastation from movies, but grief can be big and small. It doesn't even necessarily involve crying at all. Such was the case with my grief. It ambushed me, in such a way that I saw it coming and didn't realize what it was until it was on top of me. And still there were no tears involved. Of course, as with most major events in my life, I found I needed to process things in my own way. So, I wrote a story.
The first time it happened, Louise couldn't remember if she was awake or asleep. She didn't remember falling asleep, but such was the nature of some dreams. She couldn't always tell.
She was staring. At first, she wasn't even sure why, but she was staring. And the man was staring back at her. She couldn't quite read his expression, though she could clearly see his smile. When her father drew her attention away, the man was no longer there when she looked back.
* * *
Louise didn't believe in ghosts, not really. She had never had occasion to feel them in places where spirits had been reported, when others with her claimed to feel something. So she wouldn't admit that she knew exactly who the man was because that would force her to confront the fact that the man was dead and she was either wrong about ghosts or she was going crazy.
She wasn't sure which the preferable option was. For now, they were dreams, just dreams.
* * *
She was engaged in a staring contest with the man. He simply stood there, offering her that Mona Lisa smile, standing without a cane.
He should have a cane, shouldn't he? She thought. Last time I saw him, he had a cane.
She jolted, realizing she couldn't remember if the man had a cane last time she had seen him. Perhaps not, but it was a notable absence this time because she was sure that he should be leaning on one.
When she re-emerged from her thoughts, the man was gone.
* * *
The next time, she was sure it was a dream. Louise was on a road trip with her mother, trying to retrieve something her grandfather had left with some strange agency. The only thing Louise knew for sure about the item was that it was made of wood.
This time, the man was standing in the doorway, blocking her path. Suddenly, her grandmother—her mom's mom—was standing beside her and she couldn't see the man.
Louise didn't say anything, but she watched as the man walked away, glad that she knew this to be a dream, but not entirely sure why.
They never did get the thing they were after.
* * *
Once, when it happened, Louise was almost certain she was awake. She was with her father when she saw the man sitting in a chair watching her. It was so like the first time she had seen him. Suddenly, everything around her seemed to stop, and she could only see the man.
Part of her wanted him to speak. Part of her was afraid of what he might say.
She broke away first this time, as with every other time, but he was still there when she turned back.
* * *
The man didn't scare her. If anything, his presence exuded an extreme sense of calm, but it unnerved her. There was something about him she wasn't quite saying yet and that was what she was afraid of.
He wanted to talk to her. She was absolutely sure of this. He wanted to talk to her for some reason, but he was willing to wait until she was ready for him to talk to her.
She didn't know when—if ever—that time would come.
* * *
His name was Alfred. It was the first time she allowed herself to name him, and still it provided her with a bit of distance from the matter.
It was a nice name, a proper name for someone of his age. It suited him well enough.
His smile was just a little brighter when she whispered it under her breath the next time she saw him.
* * *
Alfred was becoming almost a fixture in Louise's life. She didn't know where or when she would see him, whether she would be awake or asleep, but he always managed to show up somewhere.
Sometimes it was in the lines at the grocery store. Sometimes it was walking down the street as she was riding past in the car. She almost choked when she saw him standing in the back of the church on one of the mornings when she was supposed to sing.
She had gotten used to him being there for the small moments.
Louise found herself dreading something else entirely. She knew a day would come when he wouldn't be there, and she suddenly didn't want that day to ever come.
* * *
Louise looked at Alfred, staring at him where he sat in her chair. She needed to ask him. The question was pulling at her, and she knew he would answer.
She looked back at her book, forcing her tongue to remain silent. A deep sense of foreboding settled on her. She knew something would happen when she finally talked to him, and she didn't want to know what that might be.
A small whimper escaped her.
Alfred looked up, but Louise looked away. She didn't want to face him.
* * *
"Why are you here?" Louise asked. The question pulled itself out her before she truly understood what she was doing.
Alfred blinked at her. His smile turned slightly sad. He stepped closer. "Because you wanted to see me one last time."
A sob forced its way out of her mouth, though she couldn't quite bring herself to cry.
She could only watch as her grandfather disappeared before her eyes.
* * *
Alfred. Her grandfather. She saw pictures of him everywhere now that she was not trying to not see them.
Her room felt empty without his presence. She found herself looking for him every time she went out, and was disappointed when she didn't find him.
Louise couldn’t bring herself to mention this to her grandmother, unsure how she would take the knowledge that she had her grandfather's ghost following her for weeks before she finally asked the question that banished him.
She couldn't quite bring herself to believe that she hadn't killed him again.
* * *
She got used to the silence again, to the absence where he had been. She wasn't sure anymore if she had actually seen a ghost or if it was a figment of her imagination manifesting as a form of misplaced guilt.
The desperate desire to see him again had lessened, but it never quite went away. A ghost or a figment couldn't give her what she really wanted. The intense longing would hit her randomly, bringing her out of whatever she was doing.
She had taken to whispering his name like a prayer, wondering if he could still hear her when she couldn't see him.
* * *
Alfred, she thought, sitting in his memorial service. In waiting for the far flung pieces of their family to come together, it was almost two months after the event itself. After he was gone. Grandpa, I don't want to say goodbye.
She didn't see anything in the next moment, but it felt as though someone had settled a hand on her shoulder. A rough, calloused hand she remembered well.
It was a promise. She was sure of it. It wasn't goodbye, not forever. They would see each other again someday. It may not be for a while, but they would.
Louise closed her eyes and imagined him standing beside her. She could wait.
* * *
Every time she saw Alfred's picture, she felt that same assurance of soon. It was the biblical version of soon, with the unknown deadline, but it was still soon.
And she could wait.
Alfred's favorite phrase about life after all, according to her mother, was "I'm going to live 'til I die."
In the grand scheme of things, that was never long. It could never be long at all.