Afternoons with Gladys
by Starsky Hutch 76
When Deadman strikes up a friendship with an old woman named Gladys, he doesn’t know how to break it to her that she’s already dead. Will it take a traumatic event for her to finish her final tasks and move on to the afterlife?
It was a day like any other day as Boston Brand, known to the hero-going world as Deadman, sat in the park watching as the living moved back and forth. He chatted away to the old woman on the bench next to him, not that he expected her to hear him. It was just good to have someone to talk to.
“Wow, what a looker,” he said as a young woman jogged passed him in a tank top and shorts. “I could’ve gone for her in a big way. Sometimes I really miss dating.”
“You remind me of my grandson, Tommy,” she suddenly said. “He’s quite the ladies’ man, too.”
He stared at her slack-jawed for a few seconds before he said, “You can hear me!”
“Well, of course I can hear you, young man,” she chuckled. “I may be old, but I’m not deaf. I’m sorry if I gave you that impression by not saying anything. It was just so nice to hear a friendly voice.” She brought her hand up to her mouth and said in a conspiratorial whisper, “Just between you and me, the people aren’t too friendly around here. My name’s Gladys.”
“Boston!” she echoed in a delighted tone. “That’s very distinguished.” She reached into her purse and pulled out her pocketbook. “Here’s a picture of my Tommy,” she said, handing him a picture of a young man who looked to be about college age. “That’s his roommate next to him. I don’t like to talk bad about people, but he’s always struck me as the careless sort. Tommy’s always having to get on to him about paying his share of the rent.”
“I could see where that might get annoying,” Deadman chuckled.
The two of them had been chatting for a while, when the old woman looked at her watch and said, “Oh, my goodness! Look at the time! My daughter will be home from work any minute! If I’m not there to greet her, she’ll be worried. It was nice talking with you, young man. I hope to do it again soon.”
“Same here,” Deadman said, smiling.
And with that, she vanished, literally disappearing from sight.
Wow, he thought, shaking his head. She doesn’t even know she’s dead. He’d seen it quite often with the elderly. Their deaths were so peaceful that they went to sleep and passed away, then awoke and went about their normal routines as if nothing had happened. Eventually, she would realize the truth. Until then, it would be fun to have someone to chat with.
Sure enough, she was there the next day. Unlike Deadman, most ghosts were pretty set in their ways. Often, they were also very confused. She was feeding pigeons breadcrumbs from a paper bag. When the pigeons would attempt to eat the crumbs, they would coo angrily upon finding empty air and move on to another phantom crumb. The old woman was, of course, oblivious to their plight.
“Hello, young man!” she called out happily when she saw Deadman. “Fancy seeing you here again!”
“Hi,” Deadman said, sitting down next to her.
“Yes, I’ve been coming here for years,” she said. “It’s so peaceful. The people aren’t as friendly these days. Did I already say that? I used to come here with my Bernie before he passed on. I sure do miss him.”
Having opened the floodgates, Deadman decided to just let her go on. He began meeting her at the same time every day. No matter what he had to do, he would make a point of trying to be there for their time together. He supposed he felt a responsibility to look after her until she was finally ready to cross over.
They would chat together, but mostly he would just listen to her. She spoke of times past, her husband, and her family. She told him about places she and Bernie had traveled together after he retired. They used to like to go antiquing. He found himself lulled into the same calm mood she seemed to wear perpetually.
Then, one day, as she was telling him one of her stories, she suddenly grew alarmed. “My end tables! My end tables!” she exclaimed, vanishing.
“End tables? What the–?” Deadman said, squinting in confusion. He decided to follow her.
When he reappeared, it was in a suburban home. From the stories the old woman had told him, he took it to be the home of her daughter. He looked around and saw her yelling frantically to a woman in her forties who was napping on the couch.
She reached down and tried to shake her daughter. Her arm passed into the woman who rose up suddenly, holding herself and shivering.
“You won’t be able to make her understand you,” Deadman warned her.
“Oh, Boston,” the old woman moaned, wringing her hands. “Help me… something terrible is about to happen to my end tables.”
He didn’t understand why she was getting so worked up over end tables, but it was obviously very important to her. “Don’t worry, Gladys. I’ll check on them.”
Deadman faded away and reappeared in a smoke-filled apartment. It was 3:30 P.M. in the afternoon, but everyone inside was usually asleep at this time — Tommy, because he was a medical intern, and Jeff, because he was, well, Jeff.
Tommy was suddenly awoken by screams of “Fire” coming from outside. Thinking the fire was probably in the apartment building where they lived and not realizing it was actually in their apartment, he opened his bedroom door and was met with a blast of smoke and intense heat. He quickly ran to his bedroom window and slid the window open. The smoke bellowed all around him, and he began screaming as loud as he could for anyone to help him.
Deadman looked over to see where the fire had started and found that the fire had begun on one of the end tables. Jeff had left a cigarette burning in an ashtray on one of the tables, shortly before passing out. From the looks of things, he didn’t think it was a mistake the roommate would be making again. He had been dead for several minutes already, probably from having inhaled the fumes, but it looked like the fire had got at him, too.
Flying around the building, Deadman took a quick survey of the surroundings. Tommy’s apartment building was a fourteen-floor high-rise brick apartment building that covered four square blocks. There was a main entrance on one block and another main entrance on a parallel block. More apartments on the side joined the entire building. There was no way a truck or ladder could be brought in to save him.
When he flew back into the apartment building, the heat was unbelievably intense and the smoke was even more thick. He looked in on Tommy and saw that he could hardly breathe. “I gotta get you outta here, kid. If we stay here much longer, the carpeting in your bedroom might catch fire. That is, if you don’t choke on all the smoke. ”
Deadman went back into the living room and up to Jeff’s corpse. “Aw, jeez… you’re a mess. But I guess you’ll have to do. Here goes nothing.” He flew into the badly burned body and then fought to keep from passing out from the pain. Luckily, the burns hadn’t reached his eyes, so he could still see where he was going.
First, he went to the kitchen area and wet a towel. Then he shuffled back to Tommy’s bedroom. Luckily, the smoke was so thick that he couldn’t see him coming in behind him. He placed a wet towel over Tommy’s face and proceeded to lead him out of the apartment and down the stairwell, making sure that at no time could he see the face of his rescuer, because his own was covered with a wet towel. When they reached the lobby, Deadman asked, “Are you all right?” He had attempted to disguise his voice.
“Y… yeah,” Tommy said, starting to reach for the towel.
Just then, several firemen and paramedics ran into the lobby.
Deadman picked that moment to leave the body rather than answer questions, and Jeff’s burned body slumped to the ground. Tommy pulled the towel off his face and stared in astonishment at first his roommate and then the firemen and paramedics rushing to his roommate’s side.
“Holy Jesus!” one of the paramedics said, looking back at Tommy. “You’re a hero, buddy! One second longer, and this guy would’ve been a goner! Looks like he’s gonna pull through, thanks to you.”
“B-but I didn’t…” Tommy stammered.
“Well, how do ya like that?” Deadman said, astonished to see that Jeff was now barely alive. “That guy was cold when I went in there.”
The next day, Deadman went to his and Gladys’ usual spot. She was there to greet him as usual, but she wasn’t her normal sparkly self.
“Hello, Boston,” she said wistfully.
“Hi, Gladys,” he said, noticing how sad she looked. “I… I’m sorry I wasn’t able to save your end tables.”
“Boston,” she said, smiling as she took his hand. “We both know now it wasn’t my end tables I stayed behind to make sure were OK.”
“We do,” she said mistily. “And I can’t thank you enough. I’ll be eternally grateful to you.”
“You’re going away now, aren’t you?” he said sadly.
“It’s my time,” she said. “Past time, really. And there’s no longer a reason for me to stay. I hope to see you again someday.”
“Me, too, Gladys,” he said, smiling. “Me, too.”
“Goodbye, Boston,” she said, leaning forward to kiss him on his cheek. “And God bless you.” And with that, she vanished.
Deadman gave a sigh and then took to the air. Suddenly, the park seemed far too big and lonely.