Lillian

Earl, I’m coming for you. I’ll find you.

Earl woke with a start in his grey and mauve bedroom at the hospital, the moonlight streaming through the window and casting linear shadows on the floor.

Earl, can you hear me?

He could. He sat upright and rubbed his eyes hard, squinting into the dark. The room was silent, save for the buzzing of the air conditioner working overtime in the 85 degree July heat. Yet Earl shivered, his hands and arms exposed from under his warm fleece blankets. He glanced at the clock; it was 3:19 a.m.

Earl. I need you, Earl.

The voice was back again. Earl cocked his head to the left, examining the shadows for some clue who was talking, but the room was empty. He swung his feet down out of his bed gingerly, the aches in his knees coursing up and down his legs as he tried to stand on his own two, arthritic feet. With a struggle, he slowly walked over to his closet door and pulled his bathrobe over his hunched back, contorted downward by gravity as it was by his eight decades of life; each year seemed to pull him closer to the earth, closer to the grave.

I need your help.

The voice sounded familiar, like a person he once knew who was now buried in the depths of his memory; his dementia told him he recognized the voice, but it refused to identify it for him. He knew it was a woman, and probably an older woman judging by the shakiness of its sound. But he didn’t know any older woman — did he?

After carefully tying his tennis shoes and pulling his socks halfway up his legs, Earl opened his creaky bedroom door carefully and peered down the empty hall. The small hospital employed several night staff in case of emergencies, but they were usually down in the opposite end of the Memory Care Wing, oblivious to Earl’s meanderings.

“Where are you?” Earl said out loud, his voice soft and croaky in the early morning hours.

I’m right here, Earl. Come with me. The voice whispered down the hall, caressing Earl’s ears with its soft, mesmerizing sound. He followed blindly, down the hall, through the double doors at one side of the building, and out into the warm pre-dawn air. He took a deep breath in, and immediately started coughing — a harsh death rattle that was sure to wake up the staff. He stifled his wheezing quickly, and hastily strode away, as hastily as an 87-year-old with a walker could.

Aside from a few cars whooshing past — the nursing home sat right next to the most-travelled intersection in town — Grantsfield, Utah, showed no signs of life. All the better for Earl, who wanted to be alone now. All he wanted was to get where she was; he didn’t know why, but he needed to be with her, this voice that was guiding him. She must be an angel, this voice, helping him fulfill a last destiny in his old age.

“Where are we going?” he spoke to no one in particular. Only the important voice, the one he carried with him wherever he went, would recognize it.

Don’t worry, Earl, just follow me.

“Okay.” Earl tottered along following this voice as she directed him where to go. He walked onward, footstep after footstep treading determinedly north, out of town. Minutes, hours passed, and still Earl walked, out of Grantsville, west into the desert, where soon there was nothing but open land and open sky. Earl kept walking, his eyes straight ahead; it was as if he didn’t even register the mountains he’d traversed or the rising sun behind him, slowly elongating his shadow. He didn’t even feel the pain in his feet — all he wanted was to get to where she was. But she never said where she was taking him.

When the sun finally rose, and Earl began to sweat, he paused, finally feeling the ache of pounding pressure on his knees and soles. He leaned down, and took several deep breaths while resting his arms on his kneecaps.

What’s the matter, Earl?

“My legs are sore.”

He could hear the smile in her voice in his head. You always were sensitive, Earl.

So she knew him. “Who are you?” He said to the open sky. While he waited for a response, a jack rabbit hopped by him slowly, languishing in the already scorching heat.

You don’t remember me, Earl? That hurts me.

“Your voice is so familiar, but I— Where are you taking me?”

You mustn’t worry. Follow me.

Earl looked around him. He could no longer see any signs of humanity: no roads, no cars, no airplanes, nothing but a vast expanse of land and sky. He was dressed in only his pajama pants and a thin button-down shirt, but his nearly translucent skin was dripping with sweat. His glasses kept fogging up from his sharp exhales, labored as they were in the hot desert air. But the voice led him on.

We’re getting closer. Do you recognize it yet?

“No,” Earl whispered, his throat hoarse.

You will. Follow me. Hurry.

Earl hurried. From the position of the sun, he thought surely it had to be nearly noon now.

A pity, the voice said, her inflection drooping in disappointment.

“What is?”

The moon should be overhead. Not the sun. It would be more appropriate. You don’t remember the last time we were together?

“No. Who are you?”

No response.

Earl listened to the wind gently blowing in his ears. He stopped abruptly and turned in a circle, trying to orient himself. Suddenly his mind went blank.

“I missed breakfast,” he said absentmindedly. “They were going to serve sausage, egg and cheese sandwiches.”

No response from the voice. She seemed to have quieted — or left altogether, Earl  wasn’t sure which. When he realized he was alone, his shoulders drooped down further, receding into his sweat-soaked shirt, and his eyes grew wider out of fear. “Hello?” he said to the world.

I’m here, she said. Earl was overjoyed. “You are still here!” he said, grinning.

Yes, Earl. I’d never leave you. We took a vow. Don’t you remember?

“A vow?” Earl scrunched his eyebrows.

That’s right. Till death do us part.

“We—we’re married?” Earl was utterly bewildered. He didn’t remember being married. Unless….

There was a woman constantly invading his memories, his dreams, the clear ones when they came through and the broken ones when he was lucky enough to understand them. She smiled at him, waved at him in her old age; her younger self ran to him and gave him a tight embrace. Was she his wife?

“Lillian?”

The voice exhaled contentedly. Hello again, Earl.

Hers was the only face he saw in his dreams. And it was always the same dream: Her running, running, running away from him, cheekily looking over her shoulder at him, grinning, laughing, until she became smaller and smaller in the distance. Her body morphed in the distance, becoming taller and thinner, slimming down, until she was pencil then, and then — there was no one. Sometimes, Earl tried, in these dreams, if he hadn’t already woken up, to reach out to her, to chase her, to hold her close to him again, but when he thought she was just in his grasp, she morphed again, this time becoming a dagger, red-soaked with Earl’s own blood.

Now, when he heard Lillian’s voice around him again, he could scarcely remember what she looked like. In his dreams, she grew more and more faceless until she became nothing at all. He wondered if he hadn’t chased her away every time, perhaps she would have stayed next to him from the start.

Earl couldn’t understand why she was speaking to him now. “What are you doing here, Lillian?”

Keep walking, Earl; don’t stop. We’re almost there. She paused. You don’t remember? Just wait. I’ll tell you.

He grudgingly picked up his feet again, and winced when he set them back down again; Earl’s shoes had slowly filled with dirt and sand, and he could feel grit between his toes. He spent a few minutes in total silence, and then shook himself out of it. He grumbled to himself under his breath. “Of course I don’t remember. I don’t even know who you are. Why are you talking to me?”

Lillian’s voice sighed. It will all become clear in time, Earl. Stay with me. Don’t let go yet.

Earl had been so consumed in his mind, reconciling who this woman’s voice belonged to, that he hadn’t payed attention through the desert, through the salt flats further west; he hadn’t seen the freeway in the distance or the cars pulled off the road in various spots. He didn’t even notice when Lillian’s voice led him into West Wendover, the first town across the Nevada border. He was oblivious as she rushed him into down, straight down Wendover Boulevard, past the casino where they both worked for decades; she whispered in his head through the park where they shared their first kiss as high school sweethearts, past the former home of where Earl bought his first car, and the church where they got married. She beckoned him southward into the town’s trailer park, and stopped in front of the tiniest, most ramshackle trailer on the entire street.

Do you remember this, Earl?

He cocked his head. Something about the place seemed familiar, but he couldn’t quite make the connection. He was filled with a sense of familiarity but couldn’t remember ever seeing the trailer before.

Suddenly his eyes flashed, and the memory of the building raced back into his mind. He was 42 years old, standing outside this building with his fists clenched in anger. He knew Lillian was inside, doing God-knows-what with her coworker. She’d told Earl she was working overtime — she’d been “at work”  nearly every day for the past month.

Earl snapped back to reality. “Lillian?” he whispered.

Yes, Earl. You remember now, don’t you? Come. Let’s step inside.

Earl cautiously took a step forward, then hesitated, like a skittish puppy. “I don’t know.”

It’s okay. I’ll be right here with you. Until the end. Perhaps it was her voice that strengthened him, or perhaps it was a well-timed breeze, but Earl suddenly felt as though a comforting hand had grasped his own. It pulled him forward, and he walked up the steps into the trailer and creaked open the door.

The stench inside caught his attention before anything else: it was the smell of decades-old food left in the refrigerator, the malodor of 40 years’ worth of rot and decay. It hung in the air; it clung to Earl’s clothes.

This way, Lillian’s voice said, calling Earl through the kitchen. Each small room he walked through — indeed, every footstep he planted gingerly on the yellow-faded linoleum floors — hinted at a memory just out of reach.

“Lillian, is this where—?”

Yes.

Forty-five years ago, when he had last been there and saw Lillian’s car outside, he stood in the beaming moonlit night and fumed about what to do. He paced back and forth just beyond the front steps, muttering angrily to himself as he listened to their laughter from inside the house. Abruptly, he stomped up the steps and kicked through the door without any regard for the inhabitants therein. His rage stormed in front of him into the kitchen, down the hall, past the bathroom and into the living room, where found Lillian and her coworker sitting innocently hand-in-hand together on the couch, casually watching television and snacking on potato chips, the TV’s volume drowning out any noises Earl had made.

Earl retraced his steps now, decades later, with growing recollection of what happened. Every memory returned with each step he took. He had walked into the kitchen with his right hand balled up into a fist — the same hand that he now used to gingerly walk himself a single step with his cane. As Lillian’s voice guided him now past the kitchen table, wincing from the smell, he remembered storming through that same hallway all those years ago.

“What happened here?”

Keep walking, and you’ll see. I’m here to remind you.

So Earl kept going. He remembered the cross-stitched decorations on the kitchen wall and the mop that had been in the corner on his first visit here. He passed the small trailer bathroom, with its toilet and bathtub porcelain literally touching each other, and turned to the living room, where he saw them.

It was as if he had been there again, four decades ago. He saw his wife, 40 years younger, sitting next to a man he had only met before — at his and Lillian’s 10-year wedding anniversary party, of all things. The two were caressing each other’s arms, holding each other closely.

Neither of them heard Earl come up from behind. When the police came less than an hour later, after receiving reports of suspicious noise from the neighbors, there was nothing anyone can do. Lillian was gone.

But now she was with Earl again, her voice trailing him everywhere she went.

“Why did you bring me here, Lillian?” Earl said with a whimper, holding his cane so tightly in his right hand that his knuckles were white.

To give you what you deserve. What I deserve.

“I didn’t mean to hurt you. I wanted to hurt him.”

I know, Earl, the voice cooed. She pulled him, somehow, to the couch where her demise had taken place. He didn’t resist. I’ve waited so long for this moment. You can help me end this suffering, Earl.

“But… you’re dead.” Earl didn’t understand. The voice was his wife, his dead wife, this ghost that had been following him for years. Every waking moment he heard her voice, but he didn’t know it was hers. He didn’t know anything anymore. Nothing was real; everything he knew took place only inside the harrowing labyrinth of his mind. He shook his head. “You’re not here.”

Ghosts are real, Earl. Sometimes they’re just memories in your head, but they’re real.

A force pushed Earl back into the couch, in the small spot between where Lillian and her coworker had once sat together, and pulled the breath from his mouth. His body staggered backward, whiplashed, and fell limp against the back of the couch.

Goodbye, Earl, the voice breathed softly, fading out. I still love you.

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