Beep. Beep. Beep. Becky backed the delivery truck up to the rear entrance of the funeral home and set the parking brake. Just the thought of this delivery made her chest tighten and she squeezed the steering wheel until her knuckles were white as funeral lilies. What is wrong with me today? You would think that after all this time I would get over this. She leaned her forehead against the steering wheel and closed her eyes. Just concentrate on the flowers. After a few moments the aroma of roses, orchids, and lilies calmed her. By mustering all of her willpower, she delivered the floral arrangements to the funeral home.
When she made it back to the truck, her breathing returned to normal and her hands no longer felt clammy and cold. She told herself that nothing worse could happen today, but before she could drive off, her phone vibrated. It was her ex-husband.
She stared at the phone for a moment wondering if she should answer. She hadn’t heard from him for over two years. You know he only wants money. But he could be in trouble again. Who’s going to help him if I don’t? A wave of unwarranted guilt washed over her. She sighed, and tapped the phone. “Hello Nate.”
“Hello Becky,” he replied. His voice seemed strained like he was having difficulty forcing the words from his mouth.
“I’m not giving you any money.”
“I’m not calling for money.”
“Then what do you want?”
“I need to speak to you in person.”
Becky took in a deep breath to firm her resolve. “I don’t think so.”
“It’s a matter of life and death.”
“Whose life and death?”
“Mine. But you have to promise that you won’t tell anyone.”
Becky clenched her teeth. For years she tried to save her ex-husband from himself, even after the divorce, but to no avail. But she still loved him and her heart ached when she thought of how much the man she once loved had suffered. “Okay. What time? Where?”
“Tonight. At your flower shop.”
The bell hanging on the front door jingled as the last customer left the store. Becky turned the sign in the door to “Closed” but didn’t lock the door. She looked up and down the street for her ex but didn’t see anyone.
She worried as she swept up all the dead flowers from the floor. What does he want this time? Matter of life and death? Just mentioning of the word death made her chest tighten and her hands clammy and cold. She frowned and bit her lip as she scooped up the dead petals and tossed them into the trash. When she turned around she was face to face with a man dressed in a black suit. “Whoa! You startled me,” she said as she clutched at her chest. “I didn’t hear you come in. Can I help you?”
The man gave her a thin, toothless smile. “I’m here to meet someone.”
“Meet someone? I’m about to lock up.” Becky looked the man over and her stomach crawled up her throat. “Are you a funeral director? A mortician? All you have to do is call our number and we deliver.” She could feel the necrophobia seizing her like some invisible boa constrictor tightening around her chest and making it hard for her to breathe.
“I prefer to do my work in person.”
Becky moved behind the counter hoping to regain a sense of security. “When’s the funeral and what would you like? I can show you some samples.” She pulled out a binder and plopped it on the counter.
The man sauntered around the room with his hands folded behind his back. “Why are you afraid of me?”
“Afraid?” stammered Becky.
The man turned to face her and gave her the same thin smile. It was the same smile used by every funeral director she had ever met. “Yes, afraid. Your heart rate is elevated, you have shortness of breath, and your skin is cold and clammy.” He shook his head. “Why have been afraid of me for so many years?”
Becky swallowed and unstuck her thick tongue from the roof of her mouth. “Look Mister. . . ?”
“Mister Black. Mister Mort Black.”
Becky gripped the counter and steadied herself. “Look Mister Black, it’s closing time and I’m going to have to ask you to leave now.” She grabbed a brochure and offered it. “Just call us tomorrow during business hours and we’ll be glad to help you.”
Mister Black looked at the brochure, but didn’t take it. “I’m not here for you.”
The bell on the front door jingled and Nate shuffled into the store with the help of a cane. “Hello Becky,” he said with forced breathing. “Hello Mister Black.”
Becky’s mouth dropped open. She barely recognized her ex-husband. His hair was all gone and his once athletic build was nothing more than ashen skin on brittle bones. “Nate?” She shook her head as if trying to awake from a nightmare. “You know this man?”
Nate nodded and moved closer to the counter. “He’s here for me,” he whispered. “He’s here to take me home. Deliver me.”
Becky frowned and shook her head. “Home? Deliver? I don’t understand.”
Nate leaned on his cane and shook his head. “Pancreatic cancer. It’s ironic really. All the years of drugs and alcohol didn’t kill me, and along comes pancreatic cancer and does the job in just a few short months.”
“Irony is almost universal in death,” said Mister Black, “as well as fear. But truthfully, neither is necessary.”
Nate looked at Becky with tears in his eyes. “I’m sorry for all the pain I caused you. You have loved me more than I ever deserved.” He glanced at Mister Black. “He gave me a little extra time so I could see you before I had to go.”
Becky wanted to rush around the counter and wrap her ex-husband in her arms one last time, but instead she steadied herself on the counter and tried not to pass out. Tears began streaming down her cheeks.
Nate pulled an envelope from his jacket pocket and placed it on the counter. “This is for you.” He reached out and put his hand on hers. “Goodbye Becky.” He turned and nodded at Mister Black. “Okay, I’m ready.”
“No!” shouted Becky, but Nate collapsed and fell to the floor. She hurried around the counter and put her cheek next to his face. He wasn’t breathing. She put her finger on his neck and searched for a pulse. Nothing. He was dead. When she looked up at Mister Black she expected to see the cold face of death, but instead she saw kindness in his eyes, and his thin smile had been replaced with the look of satisfaction, like an artist who has finished a great work.
An apparition of Nate appeared beside Mister Black, and smiled at her.
“Becky,” said Mister Black, “I love to see the flowers you deliver to the funeral homes. You always seem to add compassion to the arrangement. When we meet again, you have no need to fear.”
Nate and Mister Black locked arms and walked through the display window in the front of the store and disappeared.
The anguish on Nate’s face had been replaced with peace, and she felt the phobia that had plagued her for so many years melt away. She knelt beside the body for a moment as her breathing returned to normal, then stood and plucked the envelope from the counter. The papers had a musty smell as she pulled them out and unfolded them. It was the life insurance policy they had taken out on Nate right after they were married. Her name was still listed as the beneficiary.
Becky arranged the flowers for Nate’s funeral, and delivered them without a panic attack.