Frank woke up in the guy’s car. They hadn’t met but Frank knew him by reputation. “You’re younger than I thought you’d be.” Frank said. The guy was pale as paper and his eyes were sunken and dark. Frank was put off by his black hoodie. This guy was supposed to be the real deal, why was he dressed like a common thug?
“I wish you would have come the first time I called.” Frank groused. “Talk about overstaying your welcome. I was a babbling mess in there. I can’t imagine what people thought. Why didn’t you come sooner?”
“I don’t work on your schedule. You wouldn’t believe the timetable I’m on,” the guy said softly. He turned on the radio. The music was strange, a soft pulsing tune that was not music exactly, more like a memory of music. Frank found it strangely hypnotic. It matched the dark cityscape they were passing: skyscrapers, trees, houses, rubble, a hotel with burnt-out windows that went on for blocks, empty parking lots.
“Where are all the people?” Frank asked.
“Inside. They’re all inside,” he answered.
Frank flipped down the car’s sun visor hoping to find a mirror. He wanted to make sure he looked alright, no drool dried to the corners of his mouth, no crust in his eyes.
There was no mirror. “Ya look fine. Ya look like you always look,” the guy said.
“This is important,” Frank snapped. “I need to make a good impression.” Frank didn’t understand why the guy was being so casual. This was a one-time event, very big. Frank composed himself. He was always getting into hot water. He was easily frustrated, it often turned into anger. He didn’t mean to be such a troublemaker but it seemed like no one understood him anymore.
Frank had a question he wanted to ask. It was the question that had been on his mind since he knew the meeting was imminent.
“Where am I going? I mean, I know where I’m going, but which one of the places are you taking me?”
“I drop you at a transfer station then it’s out of my hands. I’m just a delivery boy.”
They pulled into a large concrete parking garage. Frank could hear planes lifting off and a muffled P.A. announcement. “An airport! An airport! That means up! Up means Heaven. I’m going to Heaven.”
Death pushed back his hood. His hair was silver-white. “As if there are only two places to go. You can’t just dictate where a soul will land. I have never understood the desire to simplify, to have a ready-made answer. The places you will go are as infinite as your dreams. Your imagination has always been the most important part of you. Your heart and mind are the factors in deciding fate. You composed the music and the city we drove through. This place, you created.”
“No!” Frank said. “That isn’t true. I would know what was happening next if it were true.”
“You’ve had dreams where you did not know what was coming. You are the author of your dreams but control? Elusive,” Death told him.
“Bullshit!” Frank barked. “Why are you wearing that hoodie? I would never have dressed Death in a hoodie.”
“You wouldn’t?” Death asked.
Frank stared at him. He put his hand to his mouth. It was coming back to him. The accident, a long time ago, there was an accident. A truck rolled over, a man in a black hoodie lying in the crunch and gravel. Frank remembers flashing emergency lights reflected on metal.
Frank stands alone in the airport garage. Death is gone. There are people inside the airport beyond glass doors. They have their backs to him. He can’t see their faces.
“I am the master of my destiny, captain of my ship!” Frank yells. But the words do not come out as a confident manifesto instead they come out strange and disquieting, like a lullaby sung the wrong way.
He had not been captain in years. He had been moving with the aid of others. They came and went. Some were familiar others weren’t. At times he knew who he was talking to, only to find a stranger in their place. Frank bowed his head.
“Why didn’t you come the first time I called?” The first time. That was the truck rollover. Frank had called his son a lazy, good-for-nothing. Told him he was too cowardly to face life. His son drove off angry, crashed not ten feet from the driveway. Frank called the ambulance but his son was dead before Frank got to him. He wanted to go then.
Frank looked down and saw a suitcase in his left hand and a plane ticket in his right. The plane ticket had large letters in the center. JOEL. His son’s name was Joel.
Frank looked at the people behind the glass. One man turned around to face him and stepped through the doors. “You remembered!” he said.
Frank rushed to his son. “I’m so sorry. Frank put his arms around him and pressed his son to his chest. “At first it was terrible because I couldn’t forget. Then it was terrible because I lost you. I lost you, son. How could I lose you? Don’t leave again. I’ve been so alone.”
“I’m a part of you, dad. I will always be a part of you. We all are. We will go on the journey together. We waited for you,” Joel said.
Frank whispered the terrible secret to his son. “I can’t see them, Joel. I can’t see their faces, not even my parents.”
His son nodded. “I just wanted to be the first to greet you, dad. Don’t be afraid. I’ll help you remember.”
Frank went inside with his son. He knew that with Joel by his side, he would remember. One by one, they would turn around and Frank would know his loved ones once more.
In the Bell-Red Alzheimer’s ward the attendant clasps Frank Noel’s cold hand. The urge to comfort the dead is a strange impulse she’s too familiar with. She feels sadness but relief she won’t have to chase him down the halls anymore, as he anxiously searches for someone he is sure is waiting for him just around the corner.