The Dearly Departed Dating Service

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The Dearly Departed Dating Service

Chapter One

 

SOMETHING IS WRONG.

Claire Holmes stopped on the top step of the decrepit Victorian and drew in a sharp, icy breath. A Michigan storm pulsed into the old house through the open screen door, the snow coating it like thick, white frosting.

An open door during a storm conjured a number of frightening scenarios. Her mind blurred with what she might find inside. As a caregiver, fear accompanied every visit to her patients. She hated the cold fact that the elderly had a habit of dropping dead.

Maybe a realtor knocked, trying to get a listing, and didn’t close the door.

Maybe burglars broke in during the night and stole the fortune Amy’s father supposedly left her.

Or maybe her patient, Amy Gardner, had walked out of her house and wandered the snow-clogged streets, dementia claiming her eighty-four-year-old brain.

Claire hurried across the porch. “Miss Amy!”

Music blasted from the house. Adele. Over the beat, a teakettle shrilled.

Claire wound through the twisted hallway to the kitchen and grabbed an umbrella as a weapon. Brilliant white light streamed from the distant room, another warning something had gone wrong. Miss Amy never wasted a penny on unnecessary electricity.

The smart thing to do is call 911. The police would handle burglars, strokes, or missing old ladies.

Claire hefted the umbrella over her shoulder like a baseball bat. Tense with worry, assaulted by the noise, she burst into the room.

Miss Amy bustled between an ancient porcelain stove and a chipped mahogany table. She sang along with Adele.

Miss Amy never bustled. Rheumatic arthritis slowed her steps. Miss Amy didn’t sing. Her Papa had disapproved of women expressing any emotions. His word ruled forty years after his death.

Miss Amy had sprung a sprocket.

Claire’s employer, Elder Care West Michigan, of Grand Rapids, (helping the elderly “age in place” for two decades), preferred such terms as dementia, Alzheimer’s and mentally incapacitated. Nut job, whacko and sprung sprockets didn’t enter their vocabulary.

Claire unwrapped her red headscarf and entered the room with the care of a police negotiator trying to talk someone down from a ledge.

“Miss Amy, are you all right?”

The woman glanced up from pouring hot water into a red enamel pot. Her face brightened in a smile.

“Claire, dear. We’ve waited hours for you.”

“We?” Claire’s head swiveled as she searched for other occupants. Amy lived alone; her family had died out decades ago. She had no “we”.

Claire recalled signs of Alzheimer’s from her training. Diminished mental capacity. Changes in mood and personality.

Amy continued talking, her blue eyes bright. “Rachel and Margaret and Albert and Dennis. You’ll meet the rest of us soon.”

Confusion with time or space.

Claire’s mouth dried as the names clicked into place.

Rachel Reardon. Margaret Arnold. Albert B. Grier. Dennis Russell Garrett.

All past patients of Claire’s, unknown to Amy Gardner.

All recently dead.

• • •

Claire’s hand trembled as she snapped off the radio. Silence rushed into the room, replaced by the rumble from the January storm. A loose shutter banged, and the old house creaked.

She didn’t understand how Amy knew of her patient load. Maybe the obituaries mentioned Elder Care West Michigan.

“Or I met them on the other side,” her patient said before sitting.

“What? I didn’t say that out loud.” Had she?

“No, you didn’t.” Amy poured a cup of tea and pushed it across the table. “Please sit down before you fall.”

“Yes, I’d better.” Claire sank onto a chair, her knees unable to support her.

What was happening? Since before she’d spotted the open front door, normal had disappeared. Before then-

Her memories froze. Before then—what?

“I can’t remember.” Dear heavens, what was happening? Dementia wasn’t contagious. She must have tripped on the steps and hit her head.

“You’re fine. Try the tea, it’s a nice Darjeeling.” Amy handed her the sugar bowl. Black and white checks had replaced the red enamel tea set.

Claire ran a hand through her hair. The conversation spilled over into uncharted territory. It was no longer a case of whether Amy had lost her mind, but if she’d dragged Claire with her. “I’m going crazy.”

Maybe the gas stove leaked and poisoned them, carbon monoxide hallucinations warping her senses. No other explanation existed.

I can fix this.

“We need fresh air.” She rose but fell back at the sight outside the kitchen window.

Yellow and white tulips bloomed through the snow.

“Oh, dear, we’re bungling this. It’s new to us, you understand.” Amy reached across the table and took her hand.

Claire lifted her gaze from the improbability of a horticulture miracle and stared at the woman she’d cared for during the last two years.

Amy Gardner didn’t look a day over thirty. The lines around her bright blue eyes had vanished and wrinkles no longer lined her face.

“Let me explain,” Amy said, unfazed. “We need your help. You know many who have passed over, and they know others.”

Six degrees of separation of the dead? This made no sense. “I don’t know where you’re headed, but a few patients have died. It happens, Miss Amy.” In the eight years she’d worked for Elder Care, dozens of her patients had died. She hated to think about losing them.

Amy leaned forward, her face intense. “With your extensive knowledge, we need you to help us find mates.”

She hadn’t heard right. “Mates?”

Amy sighed, as if trying to explain a complicated problem. “Husbands and wives. We’re lonely, and we want companionship and marriage.”

“I don’t understand. If you’re alive and I know dead people, then how can I…”

Amy’s hand tightened on hers. “That’s just it, Claire, dear. I’m not alive.”

Claire shot to her feet, the chair legs scraping on the vinyl floor. She couldn’t fix this. The situation was too bizarre.

Her breath came fast, and cold inched into her bones, despite her winter coat. “I’ll have my office contact your doctor. It’s time you met with Dr. Stephenson again.” She’d never heard of Alzheimer’s setting in so fast, and Amy spoke too well to have suffered a stroke.

“I’m not sick, dear. I’m dead. Gone. Kaput. No longer living. Walked into the white light. Bought the farm. Dead.”

New fears strangled Claire’s nerves. She fumbled to take her own pulse. “If you’re not alive, it means you’re dead, and if I’m talking to you, then I’m dead.”

“No, no, no.” Amy pressed her fingertips to her forehead. “We’re not explaining this well. You’re very much alive.”

Claire forced herself to breathe. Delusional Amy thought she’d died, which meant Claire talked to dead people, and that was insane to the Nth degree.

“Then how is this working?” There had to be a logical answer.

Amy sighed again. “We decided to only meet in your dreams. We thought you’d be more receptive to our requests if you lacked awareness, but it hasn’t worked out the way we expected.”

“I’m dreaming? I’m dreaming?” Claire paced from the sink to the table, where the tea set had changed to silver. Of course she was dreaming. Nothing else made sense.

“We’re new at this, so please forgive us. This world has different rules, but I don’t think we’ve broken any by manipulating your dreams.”

Claire reached up her coat sleeve and pinched her arm through the sweater wool. Nothing happened except the tea set reverted to red enamel.

I’m trapped at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.

“Let me get this straight. I’m dreaming.”

“Yes.”

“And you’re dead.”

“Very much so.”

“And you and others want me to run a dearly departed dating service.”

“Don’t be crass. It’s not complicated. We’re asking you to act as a matchmaker. You know people who have passed on; there must be someone for each of us.”

Amy’s calmness grated on her nerves. “No one in heaven can do this job? The patron saint of lonely hearts? An angel earning its wings?”

“It’s complicated. We’ve chosen you, Claire. We took a vote.”

No. She wouldn’t have her life turned upside down. If Dream Amy spoke the truth, Claire would wake up and not remember this horrid, horrid conversation.

“Don’t you have dead people bored with eternity who can do this for you? I don’t want the job. I refuse.”

If this was Normal Amy, Claire wouldn’t walk out, but unseasonal garden tricks and morphing teapots convinced her she was trapped in a vivid dream.

Claire picked up the red wool scarf she’d dropped earlier and wound it around her neck. She stared at Amy, expecting to see pursed lips and a disappointed expression. Instead, the woman smiled, a more deadly weapon.

“Think about it.”

“There’s nothing more to say.”

Claire walked out of the house.

 

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