Amelia regretted taking this new client the moment she rang the doorbell to the woman’s apartment. Or at least, she regretted bringing Morty with her.
The device in her handbag wouldn’t stop buzzing until she either checked it or distanced herself from the subject of the alert. Given her luck, it buzzed for Ms. Dupree. Amelia couldn’t cancel a third time on this meeting, so she opted to check it before the door opened. She retrieved Morty from her bag and went through the usual steps. The screen confirmed her fears:
Name: Ida Mae Dupree
B: April 26, 1934
D: January 9, 2019
A tingling sensation rippled through Amelia’s body and concentrated in her stomach. She’d not yet met Ms. Dupree in person, but they’d talked over the phone a handful of times.
Amelia liked her thus far from their short conversations, so she considered gifting her the seven years now. The potential of a debilitating illness coupled with the sound of slippered feet shuffling on the other side of the door stayed her hand. She’d wait to find out more from Ms. Dupree herself before gifting her years. It would be easy to claim she was taking a photo for her promotional materials. The door opened as Amelia stuffed Morty back into her bag.
“Ms. Dupree? Amelia Layne. It’s so nice to finally meet you in person.”
Ms. Dupree had the presence of a typical grandmother—plump, short gray hair permed into little ringlets, thin skin etched with wrinkles and specked with liver spots and freckles, and a warm smile that said Amelia would be well-fed during her visit.
“Oh now, don’t bother with that mizz stuff. We’ve talked enough that you can call me Ida. Come in, come in.” She stepped aside to let Amelia into the hallway. “Here, let me take your jacket.”
Amelia set down her bag and portfolio. “Alright, Ida then. I’m sorry we’re just now getting to meet in person. I hope it hasn’t delayed your publication schedule too much.”
“That’s one of the great things about self-publishing, dear. I get to make my own schedules.” Ida winked as she hung the jacket in a closet behind her. “And besides, the first time was only your doing. The second time was all me. But that’s life, and we’re meeting now, so it all works out in the end. How are you feeling by the way? Your head, was it?”
Amelia touched the spot Aasma stitched up the day of the accident. The cut healed cleanly, and Aasma removed the stitches last weekend during their second coffee meeting. It seemed forever since the crash, but it had only been two and a half weeks ago. Ida was the client she’d been on the way to see that morning.
“All better. Just a few stitches and they’re gone now.”
“Good to hear. Shame about that train accident, though. Decent folk dying in batches—seems the Lord’s abandoned us sometimes.” She shook her head and limped down the hallway to the living area.
According to Morty, Ida would die a few months before her eighty-fifth birthday. Amelia wondered if the limp might be related to her impending cause of death. Ida was still mentally agile and would benefit from an extra seven years if she were physically sound, as well. Hell, the entire world would benefit from this woman’s extended life. Her poetry and essays were iconic. Amelia needed to find out more about Ida’s health without coming across as nosy.
“And how are you feeling?” Amelia asked as she followed her into the sitting area. “When you called to cancel our second meeting, you mentioned an unexpected doctor’s appointment? I hope everything’s alright.” Well, so much for not being nosy.
Ida waved off the concern. “Nothing major. An upper respiratory infection, but when you’re my age, everything hurts so you get everything checked.” She took a seat in a gold and burgundy brocade chair and motioned for Amelia to take a seat across from her. A tea service set and a plate of pastries were already set out on the table between them. “Did you get a chance to read through my manuscript, dear? I thought it might help with your designs.”
“Yes. I loved it. Your work is inspiring. ‘Letters to a Young Maiden from an Old Crone’ was especially touching.”
Ida smiled at her, pleased with the praise, and lifted the tea pot. “Cream or sugar?”
“Just a bit of sugar.” Amelia returned a smile which weakened when she felt Morty vibrate again through her bag. Strange. It had already picked up Ida. From her experience with it, Ida’s information should stay on the device until Amelia sent her years or until she left Ida’s apartment. It wouldn’t ring again.
Ida handed her the tea cup and the plate of pastries, from which Amelia selected a mini scone. “Thank you, dear. That one was difficult. It’s not easy to give advice in a way that doesn’t sound condescending. Especially coming from the old to the young.”
“No, it felt affectionate. Like it was coming from a place of love.”
Ida smiled again. “Good. Now, why don’t you show me what you have in mind for my cover and promotions?”
They spent the next twenty minutes going over the materials Amelia brought with her, including three options for covers, several flyer layouts, and two separate book videos that Amelia played for Ida on her tablet. Morty droned in her bag throughout the presentation.
“Do you hear a buzzing sound?” Ida finally asked.
Amelia set aside the tablet and picked up her handbag. “Yes, I apologize. I forgot to set my phone to silent. Excuse me.”
Ida nodded and settled back in her chair to replay the last video.
Amelia grabbed Morty and flipped it open. With it aimed in Ida’s direction, she pressed the button to allow it to bring up the woman’s information again, just so she could get it to stop ringing. She still hadn’t determined if additional years would help or harm Ida, but she had time to figure it out. Morty displayed Ida’s information again, but then the screen went blank and the buzzing resumed. That meant someone else nearby was destined to die.
Crap. Why the hell didn’t this thing have an OFF button?
“Everything alright, dear?”
Amelia grimaced. “Yes, sorry. It’s this phone. Some of the buttons don’t work right. I’ll just turn the ringer off.”
Amelia held Morty in front of her and walked in a small circle as she pressed the side button. If the other person it picked up was in a nearby apartment, she’d deal with it later. She just needed the buzzing to stop.
She turned in the direction of the rooms to the left, and it was then the buzzing stopped. Amelia’s heartbeat pounded in her own ears as she waited for the information to pop up onto the screen. Ida lived in a corner apartment, so there was nothing else beyond those rooms but empty air. That meant the other person Morty picked up was inside the apartment. Another guest or a family member. A spouse, perhaps? The display flickered with the answer:
B: April 4, 2009
D: December 4, 2018
This both confused and alarmed Amelia. A nine-year-old child was going to die weeks from now, but a child without a last name. Why would he—assuming it was a he—only have a last name?
It must be Ida’s grandson or nephew, but she wouldn’t know for sure unless she just asked. Again, she’d have to find a diplomatic way to do so.
“Got it figured out?” Ida asked.
“Yes, sorry about that. The ringer’s stuck on vibrate, but it’s obnoxiously strong for a small phone.”
“Perhaps you should get a new one?”
“That’s what everyone keeps telling me.” Amelia left the phone open and active as she slipped it into her bag and settled back into the chair. “I hope it didn’t disturb anyone.” She gestured in the direction of the back rooms.
Ida shook her head. “No, dear. It ain’t that loud. And it’s just me and Langston here.”
Amelia subdued a shudder. So, it was someone Ida knew, perhaps someone who lived with her. And now that Ida mentioned him, it opened the door for Amelia to ask about him.
“Oh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize you had other company. Is Langston your grandson?”
At that, Ida laughed. “More like my child. But he’s not feeling too good these days. Here, I’ll go fetch him so you can meet him.” She got up and disappeared behind one of the closed doors.
Amelia heard her cajoling and encouraging the boy, and she immediately felt guilty for having him roused. Ida said he wasn’t feeling well, and that could be anything from the flu to something more serious. The child would deserve more time if the sickness was surmountable. The fact that he was supposed to die next month wasn’t encouraging.
Ida emerged from the room with a dog in her arms. “I guess momma will carry you, then.” She waddled back to the chair, settled in, and patted the dog’s rump. “Poor boy is still recovering from a tumor they removed last month, but the vet said he’s already looking better.”
Confused didn’t begin to describe Amelia’s state of mind. She looked back once at the bedroom door, and then to the dog in Ida’s arms. The pudgy basset hound flicked his eyes from her to the pastries on the table and back to her.
Amelia cleared her throat before asking the impossible. “Um, this is Langston?”
“Yep, this is my boy. Hasn’t been spared the treats, as you can see.” She laughed as she rubbed his round, furry belly. The dog wagged his tail in response. “What’s wrong, dear? Not a dog person?”
Amelia stumbled her way through a response. “Oh, no. I mean, I love dogs. I just . . . you said he has cancer? How old is he?”
“He’s nine, so not a spring chicken to be sure but doing much better now, I think. He had intestinal cancer, but they caught it early. The vet said he could live another three or four years.” She scratched behind his ears, and he lifted his head into it. “Good thing, too. I couldn’t do without him. He’s been my sole companion for the last decade, haven’t you, boy? Haven’t you?” Langston wagged his tail again and stole another glance at the pastries.
“I’m sure you’ll both be with us for many years to come.” Amelia bit her lower lip at the lie, but it seemed the appropriate thing to say.
Ida hugged Langston to her before setting him down on the floor. He padded over to Amelia and looked at her expectantly, with eyes that said either a head scratch or a cookie would be appreciated. She reached down and obliged him with the scratch.
“I’m feeling a bit weary these days, to be honest. Not sure I have many years left.” Amelia made to protest, but Ida waved her off. “When you get to be my age, dear, death seems less like an unwelcome ending than a long-lost acquaintance you anticipate seeing.”
“But you still have so much to offer,” Amelia said.
Ida chuckled. “The mind’s willing, but the body isn’t. It’s okay. I’ve lived a good, long life, so when death is ready for me, I’ll be ready for him. All I want is for Langston to be with me for the rest of my journey.” She reached over to the table and picked a shortbread cookie from the tray. Langston ambled back over to her, tail wagging at full force. “These are his favorite,” she said, handing him the treat.
They discussed the changes Ida wanted and set up another meeting next week to review and approve the final products. Amelia left the apartment and walked down the three flights with her mind a tornado of questions, the most prominent of which was, What in the hell?
Was Morty going to start showing her information on every pet due to die in the coming year? Every single animal? Dogs? Cats? Goldfish? For the past three weeks, she’d seen countless numbers of dogs on leashes, cats glaring out apartment windows, and even a snake curled around its owner’s neck, and Morty had nothing to offer on any of them. Either all those animals had several more years left—which she highly doubted—or Langston was a special case.
Memories of all the pets she’d ever owned filled her mind as the Lyft driver navigated the noon-time streets back toward her neighborhood. After dropping the promo materials at her place and grabbing a bite to eat, Amelia headed over to the kid’s park.
In the past two weeks, she’d cobbled together enough information from social media and basic online records to get an overall picture of the Walden family. There was no mention of illnesses or medical issues, but Amelia found that only somewhat encouraging news for little Lizzie. She’d also taken to hanging out at the park to learn their daily routine.
She settled onto the bench and checked her phone. It’d be another fifteen minutes before they’d stroll by. At that moment, the cloying chime of an incoming call offered her a distraction. Her heart jumped into her throat when she saw Rufus’ name on the display. She was tempted to ignore the call, but the last time they’d exchanged texts, she promised she’d text more later. That was more than three weeks ago, so she was pushing the definition of later. She sighed as she pressed the “answer” icon. She’d put him off long enough.
“Hey, I wasn’t sure you were going to answer. How are you doing?” As she grappled with how to answer him, he added, “I’m sorry. That seems like such an inadequate question.”
“It’s alright. I’ll just give you an inadequate answer. I’m okay.”
“I’ll take any answer you feel like giving. I’m just happy to hear your voice.”
Another pause seeped in between them before Amelia cleared her throat and spit out the next rote thing that came to mind. “I meant to call you last week. Time got away from me.”
“I understand. You need your space, and I want to respect that.”
“Thank you. I appreciate it.” Another long silence followed.
“It’s time we talked, Amelia. About moving forward, in whatever way that happens. I’ve been in a holding pattern for six months now. I can’t stay here.”
“Can we meet for dinner?”
“Oh, Rufus. I don’t—”
“I won’t ask for anything you can’t give, but I need to know something, Amelia. I need a direction.”
She closed her eyes and sighed into the phone. She understood what he needed from her. Stay or go. Reconciliation or release. He wanted to know if they still had a future together. The answer was no, but that was only clear to her. It was time she made that clear to him, as well. “Alright. When?”
“Saturday after next at Mariano’s. Can you do seven?”
“Sure. I’ll see you then.”
She hung up, closed her eyes and leaned her head into her hands. The wooden slats of the bench seat creaked as someone sat in the empty spot next to her. Amelia didn’t expect to hear the voice that spoke to her, but she knew it instantly.
“Well, you’re definitely honing your stalking abilities.”
Amelia lifted her head to find Cue staring at her. “What are you doing here?” she hissed.
“I sensed you may have some questions.”
“Questions? I’ve had ‘questions’,” she said, signaling air quotes on the word, “since the moment you yanked me from the river. Why are you just now showing up?”
“I’m a busy man, Amelia.”
“And what is it you do exactly? You weren’t very clear about that.”
“No, I wasn’t.” He studied her face before continuing. “But there are some questions I cannot answer.”
“Can’t or won’t?”
“Won’t because I can’t. And because you’re not ready for some of those answers.”
“Well, how about the answer to this: am I being punished for jumping off that bridge? For trying to kill myself?”
“It doesn’t work like that, Amelia. Despite everything you’re told, the afterlife isn’t a judgement with rewards and punishments.”
“Then what is it? Because the only reason I’m not chucking this . . .” she paused to retrieve Morty from the bottom of her bag and brandish it at him, “. . . at your face right now is your threat of a coma.”
“I had nothing to do with that. That was your doing. And I appreciate how difficult these choices are for you, deciding who gets more time and what it might mean to them.” Amelia chuffed at his words. “But I can’t tell you more than what I’ve already told you. Sorry,” he added as an afterthought.
Amelia quelled the impulse to throw Morty at him anyway, and pivoted to a question she hoped he could answer, a question that was high on her list at the moment. “So, what am I supposed to do about dogs?”
“Earlier today, I was at my client’s apartment, and this damned device starts going off.”
“Oh, yes. Ida Dupree. January death. Lovely lady, gifted poet. She’s lived a long, full life, if that’s any consolation.”
“Well, it’s not, but according to Morty, she’s not the only one living there who’s going to die.”
“You named your mortality determinator Morty?” Cue’s forehead wrinkled as a slight smirk teased at his mouth.
Amelia ignored the question. “She has a dog, a basset hound named Langston.”
“And his name showed up, too. He’s going to die next month. Am I supposed to do something about that?”
Cue’s smirk melted into a frown as he narrowed his eyes at her. “You’re saying a dog appeared on the mortality determinator?”
“Yes.” She smacked Morty down on the bench seat. Cue picked up the device and examined it, the furrows on his brow deepening. “Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I don’t like dogs; I love them. But is this thing going to go off for every animal in New York? Isn’t it enough I know which people will die within a year without it showing me their dying pets, too? Am I supposed to give out years to hamsters as well as humans?”
When Amelia finished her rant, Cue looked up at her with a confused expression that mirrored her own state of mind. “It’s not designed to show you animals, just people. Are you sure it was the dog’s information? Not someone nearby? The downstairs tenant perhaps?”
“Unless she named her dog after the neighbor’s kid, then no. The readout said Langston. No last name. Nine years old. And it was the middle of a school day, so you tell me who else that could be. It was her dog.”
Cue rubbed the side of Morty with his thumb as he considered this. “Is he important to her? I mean, more than just a pet, more than the usual amount of care people have for their animals?”
Amelia thought back to what Ida said. She couldn’t do without him and wanted him with her till the end. “He’s all she has. No immediate family nearby, and she’s a bit of a recluse. So yeah, that dog is everything to her.”
Cue nodded as he slid Morty back across the bench to her. “It shouldn’t be possible, but I’ve been wrong before. If Ms. Dupree’s bond to Langston is as strong as you say it is, her love could make it possible.”
“What does that mean?”
“She values his life more than her own, or at least, to an equal degree. So, you have a unique opportunity here, Amelia. One I’ve not seen before.”
“Meaning I could give Langston more time?”
“Yes, but of course, that’s up to you. You could extend both of their lives, or just hers, or just his. You could let them both go in peace.”
She grabbed up Morty and squeezed it so hard, the edges of the case dug into her palm. “I’ve owned lots of pets, and I loved them all. They were family. But I don’t know if I could say their lives had equal worth to a person’s.”
“But is this about whose life is worth more? It’s not an either/or case.”
“I know that,” she snapped.
Sure, she could give them both more time, though Ida herself said she’d lived long enough. She was ready to go, and Amelia would respect that. But she wanted—no, needed—Langston with her, and that wasn’t going to happen. Langston would die nearly a month before Ida, and what kind of month would that be, without her dearest companion by her side? Amelia knew the answer to that. It’d be a period of grief and unconscionable loneliness, perhaps even equal to what she’d experienced after Millie’s death. Amelia could solve that with a year. Just one year.
But, was a dog’s life worth a year she could otherwise give to a person? A dying child? A celebrated poet? Many people would say yes, though perhaps more would disagree. It wouldn’t even be a question for Ida. “I don’t know what to do here, Cue.”
“I can’t guide you in this, Amelia. These are your years. It’s up to you to decide how to use them to give the most meaning to others.”
From across the playground, Amelia caught sight of Lizzie in her pink coat and her mother as they approached and then passed by the park. Apparently, it was too cold to stop and play today.
“But what happens if—” She turned her attention back to Cue but stopped short at the sight of the now-empty spot next to her. She scanned the area with a huff of disgust, even knowing it was a futile gesture. Cue was gone.
Amelia pressed the doorbell and waited with a stomach full of jittery nerves. She spent an entire week mulling over her options in regard to Ida and Langston, because she knew today would be her only reasonable opportunity to follow through on the decision. Standing on the threshold of that decision didn’t make it any easier.
The door opened to a face that wasn’t as cheerful as the last time she was here. Ida’s eyes were red and wet, and she wiped at her nose as she ushered Amelia through the door.
“Is everything alright?” Amelia asked as she handed Ida her coat.
“Oh, yes. Forgive me, dear. I’m just a bit of an emotional mess today, but I didn’t want to cancel again. Please, make yourself at home.” She led Amelia to the sitting area, which was devoid of tea and pastries. “Sorry I didn’t have time to prepare anything. We’ve only just returned from the vet.” She motioned to Langston, who was sprawled out on a large dog bed next to Ida’s chair, looking rather cowed and uncomfortable with the plastic cone around his neck.
“Oh, no. What happened? Is he going to be alright?” Amelia hated to think her decision had been made for her.
“Yes, fortunately. He had an obstruction in his intestines. Turns out it was only gallstones, but I thought maybe it was another tumor . . .” Ida choked back a sob as she reached down to stroke Langston. “I apologize, dear. I’m an awful mess, I know. I just couldn’t bear to be without him, and I’m so relieved he’s going to be okay.” She looked up at Amelia, her eyes shining with tears. “It’s amazing how much they become everything to you, you know?”
“Yes, I think I do.”
Ida straightened, apologized once more, and clasped her hands in front of her. “Anyway, I’m excited to see the final products you’ve brought, but I must go straighten myself up first. I’ll be back in just a moment.”
Once she left the room, Amelia pulled Morty from her bag, where it had been buzzing nonstop since she entered the apartment, and knelt next to Langston. His tail moved in a tired yet hopeful wag.
“You’re a good boy, and I know you’re tired, but she’s going to need you. Do you think you can do one more year? Stick around for her last couple of months? It would mean everything to her.”
Langston wagged his tail again. Of course, that wasn’t a true response to the actual question, but Amelia knew that if he could answer, it would be a firm yes, because Ida meant everything to him, as well.