Walter glanced at the clock, willing the day to end. Elaine was in the hospital, but she didn’t want him wasting the whole day with her while she was mostly out of it. He’d have to wait until tonight to see her. Just past 12. Only a few minutes had gone by since the last time he checked. Joey's handling the shop today, he thought. The kid was so happy when Walter gave him the keys to open the store by himself.
Walter sighed and pushed away from the table, his chair scraping against the floor. Shoes tied and keys in hand, he looked out the window. Cloudy grey skies, dead leaves blowing in the light wind. He should put a coat on.
Movement drew his attention across the street. At the post office sat a large, black dog. Walter swore the dog was watching him, that he could feel its warm, damp breath against his neck.
Huffing at his own foolishness, he locked the door on his way out, pocketing the keys. When the wind tore through his dark blue cardigan, he hunched his shoulders. He forgot his coat.
Across the street, the dog was no longer there. His owner must have finished his business inside.
Walking towards his corner store, he passed the hardware store and stopped in front of the florist at the intersection. Yellow carnations were on display, adding brightness to this drab day. He should stop by and purchase a bouquet. Elaine loves flowers. Maybe she’d like some roses. She’d have preferred tulips, he knew, but it was too cold to expect any in stock.
The crosswalk light beeped, signalling it was safe for him to cross to his store. He liked that they had installed the traffic lights here a decade ago. Elaine had an excuse to come see him on her way to the library then. “I’d have had to stop anyway. Why not?” she would say.
Walter hoped she was breathing better today. Maybe it was the day they would take the oxygen mask off.
A bell jingled as he pushed the door open. It was Elaine’s idea that they should leave the bell hanging above the door. “It’s much nicer with it. Besides, it gives the place some cheerful tunes every time I walk in.”
Now, the bell only had a dim glimmer on its copper face. The screws were so loose that the bell drooped crookedly.
“Hiya, boss.” Joey grinned from the other side of the counter, his jaw working as he chewed a large wad of gum. He closed the magazine with a snap, sliding the glossy pages away to hide them underneath the counter.
“Any problems yet, boy?” he asked, slightly out of breath. Walter didn’t really believe anything had happened since opening at nine, but he was sure the kid would come up with something entertaining. He always did.
With a wet pop, the gum disappeared into Joey’s mouth again, leaving a pink speck on his pimple dotted chin. “Well, there was this man and he—”
The bell jingled to announce a customer, stopping Joey from sharing his imaginary escapades.
“Walter! Thought that was you in front of my shop.”
“Hello, George. Here for more cigarettes?”
George ambled forward, giving Walter a hearty slap on the back. “That’s right man. Boy! Two packs of red Viceroy.” Joey scrambled to obey George’s booming voice. Leaning his great bulk against the counter, George gave Walter a smirk. “Out of breath, old man?”
“Seems to me I forgot my jacket. The cold air knocks the breath right out of me.”
“I bet the wind’ll knock that bell right down before it does the same to you,” George said, eyeing the bell in question. It hung limply, daring the next customer to make it fall.
Walter thought of all the times Elaine would stop by to help in the store during spring, before tourists came charging into town for their summer camping thrills at Bird Lake, the only attraction in Birds Creek, Ontario. Elaine would polish up the little bell to a shine and tighten the screws holding it in place. She hadn’t been able to do that for months. Not with that lung cancer zapping her energy away.
“That bell has been there for years. It’ll fall the same day I go,” Walter said.
Joey slapped the plastic-covered packs onto the counter, and rang it up.
Through the large front window, Walter saw the same dog from the post office sitting outside the garage across from his store, a small shiny white ball hanging from its thick red collar. With a chill that had nothing to do with the cold, Walter left the two at the counter and made his way around back, going straight to the diner. Joey could be trusted alone a few more minutes while Walter took a lunch break. Maybe he should have some soup to warm him from this inner chill. Maybe if he had brought his coat, the biting cold wouldn’t cause an ache in his bones and shoulder, making for a stiff arm.
He sent Joey home early. Stocking shelves, Walter stopped to catch his breath. Massaging his aching left arm, he froze as he noticed a dark clothed figure in the corner near the fridges opposite him. With a blink, the figure was gone.
There was no one else in the store with him. He must be older than he thought—then again, being over 70 could be enough to see things.
Staring at the dirty floor, he thought about calling Joey, asking him to come in earlier the next morning to mop for him. Oh well. No one would notice if they left it until morning. Glancing at his leather-strapped, gold-cased watch, he noticed the hands had stopped at 12:15, around the time he had left his house this morning. Strange.
It must be almost six, he thought, gazing at the dark skies through the window. It should be fine to visit Elaine. Maybe they had finally removed the oxygen mask. Maybe, this time, she’d be awake.
He should pick up those flowers.
Keys in hand, Walter reached the door and saw a dark figure through the glass. Same black hoodie and black jeans from before. Walter yanked open the door—too hard. The bell dropped, giving one more musical ring before it landed on the floor with a clack.
Walter stared at it in disbelief before he clutched his chest and knelt. The sound of another bell reached his ears. It came closer and sounded much purer than his dull copper one had ever been. Elaine would have loved for their bell to have sounded like that.
Wheezing, he looked to the hooded figure. Walter couldn’t see his face. Slowly, the man got closer, a sparkle of light coming off from the white bell dangling from his fist. It was tied to a thick, red cord. Just like the dog’s collar.
Cold. Much too cold.
Walter collapsed in the doorway, his hand outstretched for his fallen bell, but his eyes never leaving the hooded man.
The man stopped, standing over Walter, and rang the bell a final time before everything went dark.
“Do not fear, lost soul. Your other half will join you soon.”
Meaghan Côté is a second-year student at Algonquin College in the Professional Writing program. Other than spending time with her cat, Buffy, she enjoys reading (all the time, anytime, everywhere and anywhere), creating art, reading, drinking tea, more reading, and writing! She also enjoys cooking, although the results aren't always edible.