Crossing Over by Julie Paul

“I’ve got a favour to ask you,” Gwen said. “Even though you’ve already done so much, just by coming down here.” She chewed on her cheeks as if her teeth belonged to a fish. Nibbling herself from within, like those goldfish Roy had seen in one of his wife’s magazines—they used them in pedicures to eat dead skin off the feet.         

            Roy gave the slightest nod. Obviously his sister was still not back to her old self.

            “Fluffy’s Canadian, as you know,” Gwen said. “Born in the Okanagan. I want to take him back to his native soil.”

            Roy’s expression soured. “Oh, no.”

            “I have a plan,” she said, brows high.

            He held up his hands. “If it involves me taking a dead cat across the border, then I’m not interested.”

            The crying began. “But I promised!”

            “You promised who?”

            “Fluffy!”

            “Oh, Lord.” She was worse off than he’d thought. “The poor cat’s gone, Gwennie. He won’t know where he’s buried.”

            “Exactly,” she said. “We don’t know what happens after we die, do we? Well, what if we rise out our graves and live again? Wouldn’t it be better if we knew where we were?”

            Roy thought about this logic for a moment. He thought about Marjorie, his wife of forty years, resting, hopefully in peace, just a few kilometres from home in White Rock in a park-like cemetery. “But wouldn’t Fluff prefer to be close to you? If he does… return?”

            Gwen looked at him like he was the mad one. “Yes, but I’m not dead yet. And when I am, I’m going back to Canada, too.”

            “I thought you liked it better here.”

            She sighed. “I do. But that’s not the point. I was born in Canada, and I’m to be buried there.”

            That was a heads-up—yet another job for Roy. “I can’t take a dead cat across the border,” he said, though he had no idea if what he said was true. Then a bright thought came to him. “Ashes, though. Yes—what about that, Gwen?”

            She looked horrified. “You want me to burn him up. You want a … a … box of ashes to reconstitute itself into a cat in the next level?”

            She’d been playing too many computer games, or consulting TV psychics. “Well, no, but I’m sorry. I’m still not doing it.”

            Oh, the wailing, then. She lost it, and ran upstairs. Roy had to get outside, away from her stuffy house, Fluffy’s hair on everything. He had to go home. He would pour on the sympathy a little more, go to Powell’s Books, stock up on novels and a golf book or two, play a round with Gwen’s neighbour Frank, and leave after dinner. Get out of Portland—land of doors, if you spoke French. The door to leave was fully open. He could be through all of Washington by midnight, cross the border quickly, be home by 1:00 am. Not far off his typical bedtime: he was one of those rare geezers who could actually stay awake past nine and sleep in past six. It wasn’t good for his golf schedule, since most of the old farts were on the course by seven.

            He tried to live a balanced life, to keep the loose ends tied and the holes filled. At least, the little holes. The Marjorie hole was not easily filled. How could it? Four decades together. It felt like the hole in the ozone. And Gwen? Not a loose end he enjoyed dealing with—a sister lonely as a lighthouse, all by herself in Oregon. Truly alone now, with Fluffy gone. It was going to be a long year ahead.

            He heard the bath water running. Roy tapped on the bathroom door.

            “Hey, Sis,” he called. “You okay?”

            Nothing.

            He knocked again. “Gwen?”

            “I’m taking a bath, Roy. Use the other toilet.”

            “No, I don’t—I’m just going to Powell’s, okay? Then to play a round with Frank.”

            “Fine. Lock the front door.”

            “Dinner at five?” Roy asked. “My treat?”

            She didn’t reply.

            He would get her a box of good chocolates. Or maybe a book on grieving. Something about losing your best friend. Roy knew what that was like. But he was okay now, wasn’t he? Well, good enough. He hadn’t needed any books. Or if he had, no one had given him one.

* * *   

Books purchased; balls hit; beer consumed. All in all, a decent day. But when Roy came back to Gwen’s place, with pizza, book bag and grocery store wine, he couldn’t find her. He set his treasures down and found Gwen’s body on the living room floor, eyes open.

            “Gwennie!” he cried, and rushed to kneel at her side.

            She blinked at him and reached her hand in front of her, as if sweeping the sunlit air.

            “Can you speak?” He shook her shoulders. “Did you fall? What’s my name?”

            “Meow,” she said. “Meeeeoooow.”

            “Gwen.” Roy jostled her a little more. “What’s going on?”

            She continued to paw at nothing. “This was Fluffy’s favourite place to lie,” she whispered. “And all this time, I never knew what the fuss was about. But look! It’s the dust floating. All along, he was watching the beautiful dust.” Then she curled up onto her side and started purring.

            “Gwen,” Roy said sharply, now on his feet. “I bought you something today. Come out into the kitchen.”

            “Meow?”

            “Like a human. Come on, now.”

            She did as he asked. Gwen had needed his guidance before—the time she wanted to leave a burning letter in her ex-boyfriend’s mailbox after she caught him cheating on her, the time she decided to quit high school and hitchhike down to California with a hundred bucks to her name. She’d listened to him then, too; perhaps she was a little flighty, but at least she was compliant.

            When she was sitting down at the table, he gave her the book he’d found: How to Let Go and Move On after a Loved One Crosses Over. She took it from him, still mute.

            “Might be useful,” he said. “Now how about a glass of Chardonnay with your pizza?”

            Gwen nodded, already leafing through the book. Maybe he’d hit the nail on the head.

            While Roy chatted on about his day during the meal, she said nothing. Gwen just ate and drank and read little bits from the book, then stared into space. The sound of both of them chewing made Roy feel queasy; it reminded him of their mother. Their father always said she had exceptionally thin cheeks—he covered his ears when she chewed.

            Finally Gwen spoke, interrupting Roy’s monologue about the bad shape the putting greens were in. “I feel like ice cream.”

            “Sounds good. Got any?” Had that been a suggestion in the book?

            “No. But there’s that store two blocks away.”

            “Let’s take a walk,” he said. “You could use the fresh air.”

            “I can’t. I’ve got a bad blister on my foot.”

            Roy sighed. “Okay, I’ll go. Any flavour in mind?”

            “Something caramel. No nuts.”

            Uh-huh. Enough of those already.

* * *

Gwen had moved down to Portland when she was in her forties, deep in an affair with a man who’d told her she was a goddess. Then, after marrying her and eating through her money like a termite, he left her for another goddess, and she was stuck in the United States with a great waitressing job and no love. Roy had tried persuading her to return to Canada but it hadn’t worked: she always said she had even less to come home to than what she’d be leaving. Not that he wanted her close by, by any means; he was thinking about the health insurance and who she’d come to if anything went wrong. Luckily she’d been healthy enough, up until now. Now she was just being ridiculous. 

            But still, he went to the store for her. He was back within fifteen minutes, and found her in the living room, watching television. Good girl. Move on.

            “I’m heading home after this, if that’s okay,” he said lightly, finishing his bowl of ice cream. “Better to go when the traffic’s good.”

            “Okay,” she said, and smiled serenely at him and then back at the screen. That was the first smile he’d seen all weekend. He felt good, leaving her, like a decent brother, helping as much as he could. He tucked a hundred dollar bill in her coffee canister before he packed up his car and aimed for the border.

* * *

The drive up I-5 was uneventful. Except for a stop in Olympia to get coffee, it was straight through to Canada. As predicted, the border lineups were short. Once the guard waved him through with a “Welcome home, sir,” he felt more at ease. It was always like this, even though he liked the States well enough. Something to do with national pride, and the lack of personal firearms, but mostly it was the distance from Gwen. That line between countries was a decent fence, a good arrangement. Each had a country to themselves.

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            Was it mean, to think of his only living relative in this way? Or was it par for the course, after a lifetime of weirdness and demands on his time? She’d been a whiny child, given to insane fits of jealousy, and this continued once they were adults. Roy had been a successful owner of a hardware store while she had nothing to fall back on, but she’d made her choices and so had he, and he’d said as much, more than once. When their parents died, though, he was all she had, as far as family went. He’d been luckier than Gwen in this regard, too; he had Marjorie’s family to call his own.

            This was his train of thought when he hit the raccoon, just a few kilometres from home. By the time he circled back to check on the poor thing, it was too late to do anything but drive away. Another statistic, another victim of territorial wars. Humans were winning by a long shot. If Marjorie had been with him, she’d have told him the story—again—about the time she ran over a fisher, up north, in the Sixties, and how she hadn’t seen one of those animals ever since. He never knew why she’d want to see another one: she’d turned around to look at the dead animal and nearly had her ankle bitten when it snarled back to life right in front of her. He missed her stories, even after a dozen retellings.

            Roy was exhausted by the time he pulled into his parking spot. He left his luggage and golf clubs in the trunk and after a quick splash of milk and Bailey’s, he fell into a solid sleep.

* * *

The phone woke him at seven the next morning.

            “Thank you,” said Gwen.

            “For what?”

            “For coming. For the book, and for the visit.”

            “You’re welcome.” He lay back down, his head foggy. “Is that why you called?”

            “Yep,” she said. “That’s all. What are you doing today?”

            Roy yawned. “I just woke up.”

            “More golf?”

            “Yeah, most likely.”

            “Good for you. Well, I won’t keep you.”

            She hung up before he could say goodbye.

            Long distance used to be way more expensive, Roy thought. Too bad that had changed.

* * *

Roy got up, did his thing, called his golfing buddy Stan and made a plan for a round at ten. There was an odd smell in his car when he started it, but then he remembered the raccoon. He’d take it through one of those deluxe car washes on the way home.

            Stan was waiting for him, cart already rented. He drove them both over to get Roy’s clubs from the car. When Roy popped the trunk, the smell was worse.

            “Lord,” Stan said. “You got a dead body in there?”

            “I hit a raccoon last night.” Roy reached for his golf bag. Half the clubs slid out before he could pull it out of the trunk. It felt heavier than normal.

            “You feel okay?” Stan asked. “You’re not stroking on me, are you?”

            Roy did not feel okay. He pulled the bag out and removed the rest of the clubs.

            Below them lay a familiar-looking book: How to Let Go and Move On.

            Below that, a thick plastic bag with a note taped to its top. An address in his sister’s loopy script for a place called Shady Pastures.         

            Roy sat down on his bumper. “Shit,” he said. “She did it anyway.”

            “What is it?”

            “You don’t want to know.”

            “Well, can we still play a round?”

            Roy did not know how he was going to get the smell out of his car, let alone after another few hours of heat. “Go on without me,” he said. “Seems I’ve got a job to do.”

* * *

He found the street he needed on the map in the glovebox. It wasn’t more than three miles. As he drove, he called his sister on his cellphone, despite the fact that he didn’t want her to know that number.

            “You found him,” she said.

            “You’ve got some nerve.”

            “He was my baby,” she said. “I just want to make sure he’s taken care of.”

            Why was this his job? Marjorie had given Roy instructions for her funeral and burial, and had even written her death announcement out on the back of a prescription bag. It was a good thing; he’d been practically comatose. She was the planner of the family. Planning just seemed to naturally fall to the women he knew; Gwen was no exception to this pattern.

            Before he lost his cool, he had to remind himself of the tragedy: her only love was wrapped in plastic in the trunk of his car. In half an hour, it would all be over and he could catch an afternoon round if it didn’t rain.

            “Okay,” he said to Gwen. “I’ll call you when it’s said and done.”

            “I’m going to light some candles right now,” she said. “Oh, and Roy?”

            Her thanks would not be enough of a payment for this, but it was better than nothing. “Yeah?”

            “Make sure they bury him on his back. That’s how he used to sleep.”

* * *

Roy checked out the pamphlets at Shady Pastures before speaking to anyone at the front desk, but he was still in shock over the prices. No, he would not be needing the complete package including a bronze paw, a memorial service, a gold-plated plaque and the release of a hundred butterflies.

            He decided on the “Simply Passing Through” option, which included a canvas bag and a bouquet of flowers on the grave site. He brought Fluffy to the back door and tried to leave.

            Oh, not yet, sir, they told him. We need someone from the family to witness the burial, and you need an appointment. But he was in luck, they said. They could do it immediately; there had been a cancellation from someone who still couldn’t bear to put their diabetic ferret down.

            And so he stood by the small hole in the ground—with Gwen on speakerphone after some strong encouragement from the director to include the bereaved for closure—as the burial of Fluffy took place.

* * *

Just before she passed away, Marjorie had told him that golf would get him through the worst of it. He’d believed her. It had seen him through a few rough patches, and she’d been there when over the years he’d said, to whoever would listen, more than once, if I didn’t have golf I’d be dead. What a dolt. As if golf had carried him through losing his store to fire and rebuilding again, or the skin cancer scare, or the murmuring depression that set in once he retired. It was Marjorie. She’d just said golf to give him something to focus on, the way in the game itself you have to zone in on one thing only—getting that tiny ball across all that land and into the hole. And what for? Just a way to pass a little bit of time in his long and lonely days without her.  

            Roy got back into his stinking car and hit the button to open every window. He ran the car through the first automatic carwash he found and then, too tired for golf—his buddies wouldn’t believe his story, anyway—he headed for home. Then he changed his mind and headed for Marjorie.

            At a roadside stand, he bought a bunch of dahlias, her favourite, although the ones she’d grown had been more vibrant, puffier.

            He placed the flowers in the vase he kept at the front of their joint headstone, moved it from its position in the centre so the blooms would cover his name and let hers show. Then Roy used his fingers to rake the stray leaves from the grass above where she lay. He just wanted to sit down with her and talk. Who was the weird one now? 

            He’d brought Gwen’s book with him from the car. To protect his golf pants from grass stains, he set it down on the plot and sat his old bones on top of it. With his back resting against Marjorie’s name on the headstone, Roy began, in a shaky voice, to tell her about his day.


Previously published in my second story collection, The Pull of the Moon, Touchwood Editions, 2014. https://www.touchwoodeditions.com/book/meteorites/ and recorded for podcast on Stories Less Spoken, Episode 2, Dec. 30, 2020. https://www.storieslessspoken.com/copy-of-episode-one


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