Andrew Billings didn’t know that he had died, and so he went about the morning as planned. After lacing a loose sneaker, he started down Juniper Hill Road, picked up Willow, and then headed toward town, his usual five-mile jog on that comfortable May day no different than any other, at least on the surface.
Less than two miles into his routine, Andrew received the first of the calls. He felt the phone vibrate in the pocket of his jogging shorts, missed the next call a tenth of a mile later while crossing the street, and ignored the third. By the sixth, he sensed something serious was afoot and answered.
A deep inhale sounded over the steady cadence of his heartbeat, broadcast in his ear, and the whisper of the wind as he continued forward at a dogtrot.
“Drew, thank God,” said Bella Carson. “When I heard the news …”
Her voice hitched with a sob. He imagined her cheeks, red from rosacea, now damp from tears.
“Bella, what’s wrong?”
“Tell me I’m not speaking to a ghost, please,” she said.
Andrew wiped the back of his free hand across his forehead. The sweat was warm and plentiful. Still, a shiver cut through his body heat, a sensation he hadn’t suffered in some years but was too intimate with to deny or ignore.
“Bella,” he snapped.
She started to answer. The cell phone cut her out by announcing another call was coming through. The little screen flashed a number—the restaurant. Karl.
“Say again, Bella?”
More tears followed. “It said you were dead, Drew. I didn’t even know you were ill. A mistake, oh thank the stars!”
Andrew dug in his heels. The miles slammed into him. His next breath came with difficulty. The chill returned. He fought it, failed. As it tumbled, Andrew heard the lone important word.
Sweat cooled. The chill worked beneath Andrew’s skin, that old frosty state he recalled so clearly. He found the newspaper in its little blue plastic dedicated mailbox, as he did every day. Unlike men half his age, he still preferred to read the events of the world, near and far, in newsprint, not on an electric tablet. Getting to the proper section seemed to take much longer than the actual few seconds. Suddenly, his fingers were all thumbs. His perspiration had transformed to grease. The pages stuck to his flesh. Oily newsprint bled across his fingertips and palm.
Obituaries. There were seven. The third down bore his name and likeness.
Andrew S. Billings, 41.
Andrew “Drew” Billings of Corinth passed away Saturday, May 11 at the Endicott Valley Hospital following a brief illness, surrounded by his loving family. Born in London’s East End, Drew became a naturalized U.S. Citizen. He was the son of the late James and Maria Billings and worked most of his life in the restaurant trade, recently at the Seabreeze Bistro, which he managed with his business partner, Karl Saunders. Drew is survived by a brother, Cristobal; two uncles, Emile Bolek and Alfred St. Onge; and various cousins, nieces, and nephews. Funeral arrangements: a celebration of his life will be held on Tuesday at 9 a.m. at the Terry Hargin Funeral Home on Main Street, Corinth. Burial will follow in the Vislorette Cross Cemetery.
His shaking hands steadied. Andrew drew in a deep sip of air, held it, and then just as deeply let it sail. Blinking cleared his gaze. Andrew’s eyes zeroed in on the names. Cristobal. Emile Bolek. Alfred St. Onge. He’d always known their names before, and had never forgotten them after. The phone rang again. He thumbed the power off.
Already, that part of his past that he’d tried to sweep beneath the rug, lock in a vault, and encase in concrete was oozing out of its confinement. Taking over. Taking back what the new had so long denied it.