Ross Kübler's hands were shaking. His heart was pounding fast against his chest. The doctor standing on the other side of the bed muttered something. Every word coming out of his mouth was muted. Ross looked at the doctor wide-eyed. His face turned to the person in the bed. Her skin was waxy and gray and sullen. Her eyes were shut, she looked peaceful. God, he hoped she was at peace. Her hair was neatly braided falling down her chest. He couldn't take looking at her anymore; he couldn't take it to remember her anymore.
"I'm sorry." Ross blurted. "I-I can't stay here, I-I have to go." Ross turned on his heel and raced out of the hospital.
The weather outside was nice. Far too nice to be a day that someone died. Ross had always imagined that on a day someone close to him had died it would be storming. The sky would be black with clouds, lightning would strike dangerously close to skyscrapers, hail would break the windshields of every car left unsheltered and he would be able to sit at home and bawl his eyes out over the loss of such an important life. But that morning and that day were the same as any day that week. Ross woke up and drove to hospital. Ross sat with his mother. Ross spoke with the doctors. Ross did everything that this routine required, and yet that day was not the same. The sky was still blue and the sun still shone, but Ross was empty. There was a piece of his heart missing.
Ross walked aimlessly around his hometown. He had left for New York four years ago, hoping for his big break. He kept walking. Maybe walking would bring her back. Ross didn't know how long he had been walking, it seemed like he had been gone for a millennia. All the streets seemed to have blended together. All the trees were the same shade of green. All the streets were the same shade of black. All the houses built from the same bricks. Ross could hardly tell where he was anymore. He knew this town like the back of his hand and yet, he was lost. He didn't know what to do; there was so much to do. He had phone calls to make and he had to plan a funeral and he had to write that short story for his editor and he had say goodbye and he could hardly think straight.
He didn't know how much time had passed; the sun was in the west now. Ross found himself in a park sitting on a bench. He remembered this park; the river and the playground and the swings; he remembered this bench. His mother-his mother had taken him and his sisters here as children. He stared at the river; it was less than three feet in front of him. The river water had always been cold. He wondered if that was what death was like. Cold and rushing and dark and dirty and rising, always rising, like the river. Ross looked around, he was the only one in the park, the sun was setting; it was a beautiful sunset, his mother had always loved sunsets. He missed his mother. Ross sat with his head in his hands. His fingers ran through his hair; one, twice, three times. He grabbed at his roots and pulled, releasing an anguished cry.
"Are you alright?" someone asked. Ross' head shot up. No one was here before, no one. The park was empty; it was supposed to be empty. Ross looked at the man who had spoken.
"I'm f-fine. I-I I'm just going through a bit of a rough patch right now, y'know?" Ross's voice caught in his throat. It was too soon, too soon to talk about what happened.
"No offense, or anything, but you don't look fine. Wanna talk about it?" The stranger asked. Ross stared at him, he looked nice enough. His face was friendly; he was charming and inviting, his blond hair and blue eyes. He looked like a good listener. Ross motioned for him to sit.
"My name's Niall. Nice to meet you. So, what's going on Ross?" The blond man said, extending his hand for Ross to shake.
"How'd you know my name was Ross?" Ross asked him.
"You have a name tag on." Niall said. Ross looked down at his sweatshirt. Stuck on it, above his heart was a red and white name tag. The top had a standard "Hello, my name is..." printed on it and below in the open space, Ross had scrawled his name.
That's odd. He thought. I didn't get this at the hospital. Something in his brain told him that maybe this Niall wasn't to be trusted. Maybe this man was dangerous, but loss is strange and it makes people do strange things and Ross was no exception. He opened his mouth to speak.
"My mother died today." He said. Niall stared at him blankly.
"No she didn't." Niall said.
"Yes, she did." Ross argued. "I was there."
Niall studied Ross. Sure, he looked like a grieving man. But why was he grieving? His mother wasn't dead. She was alive and well and waiting for Ross to come home. Whatever happened at the hospital was a fluke. A machinery malfunction. The doctors had him mixed up with someone else.
"Death doesn't happen." Niall claimed.
Ross stared at Niall wide-eyed. Death doesn't happen? There are a lot of things that can be denied. Then there are some things that are ultimately un-deniable and death just happens to be one of them.
"Death doesn't happen?" Ross asked incredulously. "Death doesn't happen?" He shouted. Niall nodded at him, smiling wide.
"You're sick." Ross spat. "You're a sick, twisted, disgusting little bastard, y'know that? Who are you to tell me death doesn't happen?" Ross stood up and Niall's grin vanished.
"Wait! Ross! What're you doing?" Niall asked him, panicked.
"Leaving." Ross replied. "I'm not going to sit here and listen to some stranger tell me that death doesn't exist when I watched my mother die."
"Wait. Wait!" Niall called, he was standing now too.
"What?" Ross asked his voice full of venom.
"We didn't even get the chance to talk." Naill said in a hushed voice.
"Talk?" Ross asked. "Why would I still want to talk?"
"Look, I'm sorry." Niall said. "I didn't mean for it to come out like that. Just, just sit back down and talk to me okay?"
Ross looked at Niall. He really didn't want to talk to a man who denied deaths existence. On the other hand, he really didn't know what to do. He didn't know how to get over a death, there had never been any deaths in his family that he would have remembered. He could go to a bar, that's what his best friend Aaron did when his dad died. Ross remembered how destroyed and twisted Aaron had become after he started binge drinking. Ross figured either way he would end up talking to a stranger, and he sat back down on the bench.
"Let's start over." Niall said. "Hi, I'm Niall. Nice to meet you."
"I'm Ross." Ross said. They shook hands. "Nice meeting you too."
"You look a little down Ross. Mind telling me what happened?" Ross glared at Niall who was smiling extensively.
"My mother died today." Ross said.
"I'm so sorry." Niall replied.
"It's not your fault. We knew where she was headed. But, we- we just didn't expect it to happen so soon." Ross said. "Like, when you're a kid, your parents are these amazing gods, y'know? They can fix everything and nothing can ever happen to them. They're invincible, and-and having that vision, that vision of them shattered. It's unexplainable."
"How'd your mom die, if she died?" Niall asked. Ross narrowed his eyes at him.
"Really?" Ross asked.
"I mean, do you have any actual proof that she's dead?"
"I will leave again." Ross told him. "I have no obligation to be here."
"That's true." Niall said. "But, you won't leave."
"Oh and why not?" Ross asked factiously.
"You wouldn't be able to survive." Niall informed him. Ross felt the blood drain from his face.
"Are you saying that if I try to leave, you'll kill me?"
"Me? Oh God no! But there's no telling what you'd do to yourself." Ross stared at Niall. This man was insane, absolutely crazy.
"So," Niall asked. "How'd she die?"
"What?" Ross asked. His head was still reeling from what Niall had said to him.
"How'd your mom die?" Niall asked.
"She, um, she has-she had a type of cancer called leiomyosarcoma."
"That sounds nasty."
"It is. I mean, it was. It was."
"How do you deal with it?" Niall asked.
"How do I deal with it? Did. How did I deal with it?" Ross asked. Niall nodded.
"I mean, she's been sick for a longtime, y'know? At first it was really hard. I was living in New York and it was okay. I'd visit a lot and she'd keep me updated. But over the last couple of months she got a lot worse. My sister called me and told me I should probably come back home. I got here maybe a month ago."
"Was it Erika or Eva?" Niall asked.
"Huh?" Ross asked.
"Who called you, Erika or Eva?"
"Oh, yeah. Erika called me. She still lives around here with her husband. Eva was in Switzerland." Ross paused. He hadn't told Niall about his sisters. He hadn't told him their names. He hadn't even told him he had two sisters.
"How'd you know about my sisters?" Ross asked.
"You told me." Niall said.
"No, I didn't." Ross said. "I told you my sister called me. I didn't tell you I had two sisters, I didn't tell you their names. How did you know about them?" Ross was livid. Here there was this man he knew nothing of talking to him like they had been the best of friends.
"That's a secret I'm afraid." Niall said. He seemed to be completely unfazed by Ross' out lash and was sitting calmly on the bench in front of the river as if the two of them had been talking about the weather.
"Who told you about my sisters?" Ross asked.
"Why do you think your mother is dead?" Niall asked.
"Her heart stopped." Ross said.
"Huh." Niall said.
"What?" Ross asked.
"What makes you think that her heart actually stopped?" Niall asked.
"The doctors told me. I was in the room when the monitor went flat." Ross said
"I've seen the equipment at that hospital Ross. It's not exactly top of the line."
"What are you trying to say?" Ross asked.
"Maybe she isn't dead." Niall said.
"Are you really starting this again?" Ross asked.
"Did you know that there are some pulses equipment can't detect?"
"This is ridiculous."
"It's more common than you'd think."
"You mean to tell me that I made it up? I made up my mother's death and I'm sitting here telling you about it?"
"It wouldn't be the craziest thing that's ever happened to me."
"Look, Niall. It's Niall right?" Niall nodded. Ross continued "I'm sure you mean well with this and you're trying to make me feel better even with your creepy knowledge of my life and I don't know who sent you out here, but if you could just leave me alone to grieve, I would really appreciate it."
"You think someone set me up to this?" Niall asked feigning hurt. "It makes me sad to see how little you think of me Ross. Why would you think someone set me up to this?"
"It's the only way I can think of you knowing that much about me."
"Trust me Ross. I don't know that much about you." Niall snorted.
"You know about my sisters." Ross countered.
"It's a small town." Niall said. "Tell me about your mom."
"My mom was an amazing person." Ross started.
"Is." Niall said.
"Excuse me?" Ross asked.
"Is. Your mother is an amazing person. You still have no definitive proof that she is dead."
"Yes I do."
"No you don't, but please, continue."
"Right." Ross huffed. "My mom is amazing. She used to work for this lawyer, she was a secretary. He was just awful to her, but she liked what she did. She wanted to go to law school, but she didn't get the chance so she settled for working for Mr.-Mister.... I can't remember his name."
"Polzin." Niall said.
"Yeah. Polzin. He was awful. But my mom was still really nice to him. She was nice to everybody. Everyone liked her. Everyone. We used to have this neighbor named Ms. Hayes."
"The Cat Lady."
"Yeah, the cat lady. She hated everyone. One year on Halloween she threw rotten tomatoes at all the kids who cut across her lawn. My mom one the only person on the entire block who could put a smile on her face.
"Now how could someone like that be dead?" Niall asked.
"What do you mean?"
"Your mom. She was too nice of a person to die. Nice people don't die. They just don't."
"Everyone dies." Ross countered. "Even the nice, caring, amazing people like my mother. Everyone dies. It's like Lion King. The circle of life."
"Nice people don't die. Caring people don't die. Amazing people don't die. Nice, caring, amazing people don't die. People like your mother don't die. They can't, if they did the world would cease to exist as we know it."
"So you're saying that my mother is immortal. She faked her death and got everyone on the hospital staff to play along."
"I'm saying people like her don't die."
"I'm calling bullshit on that. Everyone dies."
"I simply don't believe that."
Ross shook his head. Niall was naïve, he just didn't understand. Everyone dies. Even the most peaceful, calm, caring person will die. Ross was there. He saw it all happen. There was no denying that is mothers heart had stopped beating, her lungs had stopped expanding. There was no way she could have been alive, not after all her body had been through. It just wasn't plausible. Ross could see that Niall had so much faith in his mother being alive and Ross couldn't help but indulge himself with thoughts of his mother alive and well. Ross looked at the river. He remembered the first time he got in it. It was the summer between fourth and fifth grade, his mother had just come home from work and had asked him and his sisters if they would like to go to the park. It was blistering hot at the park and his mother suggested that he go into the water to cool off. The water in the river was the coldest water Ross had ever encountered. At the time it felt perfect. It was just what he needed. Ross couldn't help but think that maybe Niall was his river water right now. Niall was so keen on denying his mother's death, maybe that's what Ross needed. Maybe he needed a little denial. Maybe he needed to indulge himself. Maybe he needed to think that there was no way a perfect human being like his mother could be dead. Maybe Niall was right.
Niall could see the gears in Ross' head turning. He could tell that Ross was thinking over what he had told him. Niall could tell that Ross was starting to rethink everything; he could tell that Ross knew he was right. There was no way Ross' mother was dead.
"Maybe..." Ross whispered.
"Maybe what?" Niall asked.
"It's nothing." Ross said.
"Are you sure?" Niall asked.
"Yeah." Ross said.
"Do you know how to stop having a pulse?" Niall asked.
"What kind of sadistic question is that?" Ross asked.
"Not sadistic. Just a question." Niall said.
"Well, then no. I guess I don't know how to stop having a pulse."
Except for dying. Ross thought
"There are some ways, like you can squeeze a racquet ball under your arm and it stops people from picking up a pulse in your wrist."
"I thought that was a myth."
"Or there are some people who can feel there pulse and just by thinking they can slow it down a lot."
"None of this sounds plausible."
"You'd be surprised by what some people can do."
Ross looked at Niall properly for the first time. He wore a pair of baggy jeans and a green t-shirt, like Ross used to wear when he was a kid. He held a Detroit Lions hat in his hand, just like the hat Ross used to have. Niall had on old, black Air Jordans, just like the pair Ross had in his closet at home.
"Hey, Niall, how old are you?" Ross asked.
"Why?" Niall asked.
"You seem to know a lot about me. I just wanted to get to know you a little."
"I'm 22." Niall said.
"Me too. Where did you go to school? Like for elementary."
"Hey, I went there too." Ross said.
"I know." Niall told him.
"Weird. I've never seen you around town before today." Ross frowned.
"Yeah, you probably wouldn't have." Niall said.
Ross didn't know what to think of this. His home town wasn't very big, everyone knew everyone else, or at least they knew some who knew everyone. So why hadn't he seen Niall before? They went to the same elementary school and his town only had one middle school and one high school. They were the same age, they should've been in the same grade, and they must have had one or two classes together growing up. Niall acted like an old friend. If he lived here his whole life then surely he and Ross would have interacted at some point. But as hard as he tried he couldn't remember having a classmate named Niall.
Ross kicked the grass at his feet. He traced the name Niall in the dirt with his toe.
"Do you know what I find interesting, Ross?" Niall asked after several minutes. Ross' head snapped up and he looked at Niall disoriented.
"You never asked me why I don't believe in death."
"So go ahead."
"Go ahead what?"
"Ask me. Ask me why I don't believe in death."
"Okay. Why don't you believe in death?"
"It just doesn't seem real to me. It's like a dream. When someone dies, they're really just in suspended animation. They still have a soul. They still have a body, they just aren't connected. Plus, it would be sad if people died."
"It is sad." Ross interjected.
"What's even worse," Niall continued. "Is that their families don't try to help their souls and their bodies reconnect. They just forget about them."
"What?" Niall asked.
"Oh, nothing. That sounds like something I told my mom when I was little."
Niall looked blankly at Ross.
"Does it?" He asked.
"Yeah." Ross chuckled. "I was five and my mom was asking me what I thought happened to people when they died."
"Really?" Niall asked.
"Yeah." Ross said quietly. He remembered that day. It was after a really bad car accident outside of town, some kids who lived near him were in that crash and his mother was trying to prepare him for the worst. She had taped what he said and shown it at his graduation. Come to think of it...that was exactly what Ross had said to his mother. Feeling on-edge, Ross slid in his seat a few inches away from Niall.
"Why'd you move?" Niall asked him.
"I moved?" Ross asked.
"Why?" Niall asked.
"You're kinda creeping me out." Ross admitted. Niall laughed.
"You can't be creeped out by me." Niall said all traces of laughter gone.
"Why not?" Ross asked, wrinkling his eyebrows. Niall shrugged.
"You just can't." Niall said.
"But why?" Ross whined.
"You wouldn't like the answer I give you." Niall said. "So about your mother."
"What about my mother?" Ross asked.
"How long was she at that hospital?" Niall asked.
"Like just now, or total?"
"Um... She diagnosed when I was fifteen. Then she was sick on and off for the past couple of years. She was admitted full time, like, three months ago? The doctors said she didn't have a lot of time."
"Why was she admitted?"
"Pneumonia originally. But she kept getting sick. They thought it'd be better if she was in a cleaner environment."
"How does your mother feel about it?"
"Oh, she hates it. Absolutely hates it. She can't stand it there. It took Erika, Eva and I three weeks to convince her that the longer she stayed here the sooner she could come home and not go back. I mean we weren't banking on her..."
"Her soul and body getting separated?"
"Sure. Anyway, she hates the hospital. She'd rather be at home."
"What does she do when she's at home?"
"A lot of Jeopardy. My mom watches-watched, a lot of Jeopardy."
"And Project Runway." Niall muttered.
"And Project Runway." Ross said. "She liked to bake a lot too. She was writing, always writing. That's what got me interested in Journalism and publishing."
"Maybe they were lying to you."
"Who the doctors?"
"Why would they do that?"
"Maybe they saw how much you were giving up, how much you were hurting and they wanted to give you a break."
"That's one twisted way to give someone a break. Besides, giving me a break isn't their call."
"Why didn't she ever go to law school?" Niall asked.
"I dunno." Ross shrugged. "She was working to get through school and she had to take care of her younger siblings a lot. Then she met my dad and they got married. They had Erika and then me and then Eva. So then she was taking care of all of us. By the time we were in school and she was able to go back...we just weren't in a place where that was feasible."
"Does your dad know?" Niall asked.
"About mom?" Ross asked. "I dunno. I didn't tell him. Erika might have, she's probably gone to the hospital by now."
"It may be that she doesn't have to tell him." Niall said.
"Why do you think the hospital called him?" Ross asked.
"No. Maybe she isn't dead."
"Look, Niall, I really can't get started on this again." Ross said apologetically.
"Started on what?" Niall asked innocently.
"This whole denial thing. Denying my mother's death... would be... it would be nice to think that she's still here, but it would feel wrong. She wouldn't want me to do that."
"She wouldn't want you to miss her?"
"Of course she'd want me to miss her! She just wouldn't want me spending my time trying to convince myself that she is waiting at her house when she isn't."
"Well, what do you think you're doing right now?" Niall asked.
"What do you mean?"
"Well, aren't you trying to convince yourself that she's alive."
"No." Ross yelled. "I'm trying to convince you that she's isn't alive.
"Same thing." Niall shrugged.
"No, no it's not. It's not the same thing. No. You're wrong. It's not the same." Ross said manically.
"Why not?" Niall asked.
"Because we aren't the same. We aren't the same person. We aren't experiencing the same things. Look man, you're nice albeit creepy but you have no clue, no clue as to what I am going through right now. You wanted to talk, fine. I'd rather talk sober anyway. I've tried indulging you and this fantasy that maybe there is a chance my mother is alive and the whole thing is a fluke and would I like that? Yes, of course I would. But you're sitting in front of me telling me that my mother has disregarded all the laws of the universe and everything I have been told is a lie. Maybe some other time that is something I could handle. But not today, not today." Ross was standing now, breathing heavily and looking down at Niall. He clenched and unclenched his fists. He could feel that his face was red; he could feel his heart beating swiftly against his ribs.
"Why are you so reluctant to admit that maybe there is a chance she's alive?" Niall asked standing up to meet Ross.
"Why are you still insisting she isn't dead?" Ross shouted.
"BECAUSE SHE ISN'T!" Niall roared. He stepped back and took a deep breath.
"What do you mean?" Ross asked, the adrenaline was draining from his blood and he no longer felt tall, big and strong. He felt weak and small and vulnerable. Niall sat down.
"People like that. People like your mother. Good people. They-they don't just die for no good reason. They can't die, they aren't allowed to die. Why do you want your mother to die Ross? Why can't you just let yourself have this? Why can't you just deny it all?" Niall was sitting back on the bench now sobbing.
"It's not that I want her dead." Ross whispered. "I just feel that trying to fight it will make it harder to accept. It'll give me false hope."
"But that's what you need Ross. You need false hope. Ross you need to deny it. Denial helps us heal. Deny it Ross. Deny it. Deny it." Niall said.
"I'm not sure it works like that." Ross said.
"So make it."
"Make it work like that." Niall said. "Bend the laws of the universe. Make it work like that."
"I can't do that."
"Yes you can. Yes you can. Ross you absolutely can." Niall said excitedly. "You can do whatever you want. Do it. Do it."
"Do what? Niall you aren't making any sense." Ross was frightened again. Niall's childishness and mood swings partnered with the fact that Niall knew way too much about him made Ross very nervous.
Ross looked at Niall again. He gaze shifted back to Niall. The river. Niall. River. Niall. River. The summer. The summer in between fourth and fifth grade. The blazing heat. No air conditioning. Waiting. Waiting for his mother to get home. Waiting for his mother to get home so they could all cool down. The river. They went to the park; they went to the park to cool down. It was still too hot. Ross was still too hot. He told his mother. He told his mother that he was still too hot and she put him in the river. The river. The river. The river was cool. The river was cold. The river was refreshing. The river swallowed up all the heat in his body and placed him in a blissful cool cocoon. The river swept away all the hot, the river made Ross feel good. The river made Ross feel right. Ross looked at Niall again. He looked at the river. There was a river called Nile. Niall was a river. Niall was his river. Niall was trying to make the hot go away, Niall was trying to make Ross feel cold and refreshed and blissful. Ross looked at Niall. Then the river. Then Niall.
Ross looked at his shoes.
"Maybe..." Ross whispered. "Maybe, maybe, maybe."
"Maybe what?" Niall asked "Maybe, maybe, maybe what?"
"Maybe..." Ross started. "Maybe you're right."
"Excuse me?" Niall said grinning. "Say it again Ross. Say it again so I know I heard you correctly."
"I think that maybe there is a chance that you are right." Ross said. Niall grinned.
"Now that's what I like to hear." Niall said.
"I said maybe you're right. I didn't say you were. I didn't say that there is a huge chance that you're right. But I can see what you're saying."
"Don't worry Ross. You're making good progress. A little slow. But it's good." Niall said. He was staring at the river.
"What are you talking about?" Ross asked.
"Don't worry Ross." Niall said.
"What are you talking about?" Ross asked panicking.
"You're making progress. Good Progress."
"Niall, you're freaking me out."
"We'll get you there."
"Where? Where? Niall, where are you going you get me?"
"I'll get you there."
"I'm leaving right now unless you tell me where you are going to get me."
"I'll get you to bliss Ross."
"Bliss? Is that the name of some murder ring or something?"
"No. Bliss. The emotion bliss."
"You're going to make me blissful?"
"Mhmm. Blissful. Blissful ignorance."
"Why would I need to be ignorant?"
"Not ignorant. Denial. Blissful denial."
"You want me to be in denial."
Niall stared at Ross. Ross just didn't get it. Denial was the best part of grief. It was the part where you can tell yourself that everything was the same. Nothing had changed because nothing could change. There was no flux in the universe. There was no pain. There was no hurt. There was no anger. There was no depression. All there was is happiness. That was the bliss of denial. Nothing bad and all the good. That was the bliss Ross needed. That was Ross needed to feel. That was what Ross was fighting so hard to embrace. All Niall wanted was for Ross to get that bliss. All Niall wanted was for Ross to feel whole again. . That was all Niall's job was.
"Denial..." Niall said. "Is good for you. It lets...it lets you keep going on living your life. It lets you feel as if everything is normal. It keeps you sane. It keeps you save. When you're in denial, nothing can touch you. No matter how hard it tries. Denial keeps your world perfect, if only for a little bit. When you are in denial, the rest of you is just trying to figure out how to keep moving on. It's a defense mechanism. Denial is what you need. You can't keep going on; you can't keep trying to heal if you aren't in denial first."
Ross hadn't considered this before. There was no denying now that Niall was right. Ross had always thought that denial was for people who were weak; it was for people who couldn't handle the real world. Denial was for children, it was a childish emotion. But Ross knew that Niall was right and that everyone needed a little denial in their lives.
"Okay." Ross said.
"Okay what?" Niall asked.
"I'll give it a shot." Ross said.
"Give what a shot?"
"Denial. I'll give being in denial a shot."
"Really?" Niall grinned.
"Yeah." Ross nodded "I mean, it can't hurt, right?"
"That's grand!" Niall exclaimed. "Okay let's get started."
"How do we do that?"
"Well first you need to imagine your mother."
"Just think about her?"
"No. You need to close your eyes."
Ross closed his eyes.
"Now. Think about what your mom looked like." Niall said
Ross imagined his mother. He imagined her hair; it was long and it was brown like his. He imagined the wide grin she always had when he and his sister came home from school. He imagined how he towered over her. He imagined her sparkling gray eyes. He imagined her freckly skin. He imagined her small, yet strong arms. He imagined the crooked toe on her right foot.
"Now," Niall said. "Imagine her personality."
Ross imagined his mother. He imagined her cheerful demeanor. He imagined her talking politely to the neighbors. He imagined her baking for the people in the neighborhood who were sick or had experienced a death. He imagined how she was always cold, always wrapped up in a sweatshirt or a blanket. He imagined how every small thing excited her.
"Now imagine the memories." Niall said
Ross imagined his mother. He imagined how she was always cold, always wrapped up in a sweatshirt or a blanket. He imagined every small thing excited her. He imagined how the house used to smell after baking. He imagined her tucking him in as a child. He imagined the stories she used to tell them. He imagined ice skating on the river that was three feet in front of him. He imagined the Christmases and the Easters and the Thanksgivings and the birthdays.
"Now open your eyes." Niall said. Ross opened his eyes. He wasn't sure what he was expecting to happen. Maybe he was expecting to see his mother smiling in front of him. Perhaps he was expecting for someone to announce that the entire thing was a joke. Maybe he was hoping for a miracle. A phone call from the hospital admitting there had been a mix up. Ross didn't know what the purpose of the exercise was or what was going to come from. He didn't know what he was expecting when he opened his eyes. But he certainly wasn't expecting Niall's face to be in his.
"What do you think you are doing?" Ross asked.
"Your mother is very beautiful." Niall said.
"How could someone like her die? Very beautiful inside and out."
"Thanks? Again, I guess?"
"So, did it work?"
"Could you imagine your mother?"
"Clearly? Everything has to be crystal clear for this to work."
"Yeah, I saw her clearly."
"Great. Now we're ready for step two."
"There's a step two?
"Of course there's a step two." Niall said rolling his eyes. "Being in denial is a lot harder than it looks Ross. Denying things takes time. It takes practice."
"I'm going to practice denying things?"
"Unfortunately, we don't have time for that."
"There's a time limit to this?"
Ross sat bewildered. A time limit? Why hadn't Niall mentioned this before? Ross was uneasy.
"How long?" Ross asked.
"How long is time limit?" Niall replied. "It depends, it's different for everyone. But you, my friend, are running on a very tight schedule. So we need to hurry a bit."
"Schedule?" Ross swallowed a lump in his throat.
"Yes. A schedule." Niall said impatiently. "Now can we continue or are you going to keep asking me stupid, irrelevant questions."
"Why do I have a schedule?" Ross asked.
"Because," Niall huffed. "You Ross Kübler are a very busy man."
"And what happened after? After I complete my schedule?"
"You'll see. " Niall sing-songed. Ross swallowed again.
"What's step two?" Ross asked.
"Step two is... a bit more complicated than step one."
"Well what is it?"
"It's just really hard to explain."
"Well can you try?"
"I guess the best way to explain step two is to just deny."
"Deny step two?"
"No. Step two is to deny."
"Just deny it?"
"Just deny it."
"That's extremely vague."
"I know. That's why it's step two. It's more difficult than step one."
"Thank you for that, Captain Obvious." Ross muttered.
"What was that?" Niall asked.
"Nothing. So, I just need to deny the fact that my mother is dead."
"Pretty much." Niall said.
"How do I do that?"
"Oh for God sakes!" Niall exclaimed. "You went to NYU. You'd think someone as smart as you could figure out how to deny something."
"How'd you know I went to NYU?"
"It's on your sweatshirt." Niall huffed. Under his breathe he muttered. "Idiot."
"I heard that." Ross said.
"Good." Niall replied. "You are making this more complicated than it needs to be. Denial is very easily achieved. Just imagine something that exists not existing at all."
"That was more confusing than the first explanation you gave me."
"Do I have to walk you through it?" Niall huffed.
"Yes." Ross said. "If you could do that, that'd be great."
"You're like a child." Niall said.
"Shouldn't we get started, if we're to adhere to this all important schedule?" Ross asked.
"Right." Niall said. "You're right. Okay, let's get started. Close your eyes again."
Ross closed his eyes.
"What was the last thing your mother was doing when she was completely healthy?"
"I dunno. That was over seven years ago."
"Okay, what was one of the last things she was doing when she was relatively healthy?"
Ross could see it. His mother baking in their small kitchen. He was there in the kitchen. The peeling yellow wallpaper he had begged his mother to replace. She has told him she liked it. It reminded her of sunshine she said. She had a scarf tied around her head; Ross had bought it for her before he left New York. She was smiling excited to see her only son after nine months without a visit. She had been baking a family dinner. It was going to be Eva's last meal at home before she went to her study abroad in Switzerland.
"I've always wanted to go to Switzerland." She had told them that night at dinner. "Maybe I'll go once this cancer is gone."
She had always spoken about her disease as casually as she spoke about the sports teams. Ericka and her husband Manny sat holding their young son Kenneth.
"Would you like to go to Switzerland with me Kenny?" His mother had asked. "Would you like to go to Switzerland with Mimi?"
Ross and his sisters had laughed at that. Ross could see the future his mother would have with her grandchildren. In his mind it was incredibly similar to his own childhood. Fresh baked cookies on the table with a note explaining how many were for each child. Homemade meals everyday but Saturday. Saturday was always the night they got to eat out. His mother would read books to her grandchild; his nieces and nephews, his children. Maybe some night she would tuck them in and sing the same lullaby she had sung to Ross himself.
"What are you thinking about Ross?" Niall asked.
"Exactly what you told me to think about." Ross said.
"Yes." Niall said crisply. "But what is it? Tell me."
"You want me to tell you?"
"I love a good story."
"I was thinking about the night Eva left for Switzerland."
"My mom had organized this huge family dinner. Erika and her family were there. I was there, obviously. Eva was there with some of her travel buddies. We had some neighbors there, people who had known us since we were kids."
"What kind of food did you mom make?"
"What kind of food?"
"Is that important?"
"No, not really. " Niall shrugged. "But I'm a sucker for good food."
"It was mashed potatoes and fried chicken, I think."
"Eva's favorite, right."
"So this was about a year ago. We were all sitting together having a good time. My mom wore this head scarf I had gotten here before I got on the train here."
"You rode a train here?"
"I dunno. It was cheaper?"
"Why didn't to take a plane, it's faster."
"Do you want to hear about this or not?"
"Right. Sorry. Go ahead."
"Anyway. She was really excited about this scarf I got her. It was red; read was her favorite color and it had these little white and black birds all over it."
"Why'd you choose this memory to remember your mother with?"
"I dunno. It just seemed like a good one to pick. All of us were together and we were all having a good time. That night just made is easy to forget that she was sick, y'know? It was so normal. It was nice. We all needed a little bit of normal. It was good to have, y'know?"
"Okay. Niall nodded still smiling, "This is a start. I can work with this."
"That's good." Ross said lamely.
"Remember the normal." Niall said.
"What would your life be like if your mother was normal?"
"If she wasn't sick?"
"Well, I'd probably still be in New York. Erika would probably be living in Chicago. She only stayed here because she wanted to make sure mom was okay. Eva probably wouldn't be in Switzerland.
"What'd you mean?" Niall asked.
"My mom has always wanted to go to Switzerland. Her parents were from there and she absolutely adored it. She never got the chance to go though. That's why Eva went. She knew mom probably wouldn't be able to go, so when Eva got the chance to do a foreign exchange instead of going to Spain like she dreamed of, she went to Switzerland. Mom made her promise to take a ton of pictures and write everything down."
"Why'd Eva go then? If she wanted to go to Spain?"
Ross looked Niall straight in the eye. "We all have to make sacrifices for the people we care about.
"Okay. I think we can move on." Niall said.
"Move onto what?" Ross asked.
"So you have this memory, this image of your mom. Happy, smiling, healthy. Now all you need to do is just kind of shove her into your life right now."
Niall sighed. "Just...just think that when you go home tonight that your mother will be in the living room watching Project Runway and she'll have those fresh baked cookies and she'll be making the mashed potatoes that she made for Eva before she left and the scarf you bought her will actually be used as a scarf and she won't be hiding her head. Just try to imagine that."
Ross closed his eyes again. He could see it. He could see his mother sitting in their ancient brown recliner staring at their small TV screen. He could smell the clean smell of their living room. He could see the light blue walls and all the pictures of his family that hung on them. Ross could hear his mother telling him that there were cookies un the kitchen and Ross would walk into the same kitchen as before, with its ancient peeling yellow wallpaper and he would tell her that the really should redecorate and she would tell him that she liked her house just the way it was, thank you very much. Ross would bite into one of the heavenly chocolate chips cookies his mother had made. She would tell him not to eat too many cookies. His sisters and Manny and Kenneth would be coming over soon to eat dinner. Ross' mother would ask him to set the table and even though he was twenty-two and he was only visiting he would because he couldn't bear to tell his mother no. Then they would all eat together and tease each other about baby pictures and things they had done when they were children. Kenneth would fall asleep and Ross would have to carry him upstairs and put in in Erika's old room which was now filled with his mother's law books. Ross would go back downstairs and ask his mother why she wanted to be a lawyer in the first place. She would tell him about how her father was wrongly convicted of a murder, how she grew up without him for ten years. How she felt a need to make sure that never happened to other people. Manny would mistakenly ask why she never went to law school. His mother would get s wistful look on her face and her eyes would get teary. She would shake her head sadly and politely say it just wasn't in her cards right now. Eva would change the topic to how she still hadn't declared a major. Erika would tell her there was plenty of time for that. Eva asks Erika how she even knew, she barely graduated and threw her degree away, no offense Manny, but she didn't even have a job. Manny would turn the subject of conversation to Ross who would be trying to disappear into his mother's plush outdated couch. Ross would tell everyone that NYU was amazing and he was doing very well in his classes and his internship was great and he loved it and he was hoping to be offered a permanent job after he graduated, even though two of his five bosses hated him, one didn't even know who he was and the fifth was just so excited to have someone he thought he could befriend that he showed up at Ross apartment at three in the morning three nights a week much to the dismay of Ross roommate. Everyone smiles because at least one of them isn't messed up and they all go back to watching Project Runway until Eva says she's going to bed and the Erika and Manny get Kenneth and leave and it's just Ross and his mother and she thanks him for the scarf. He tells her he's going to bed. She nods and says that she loves him. He nods back and whispers that he loves her too as he climbs the stairs and turns off the lights.
Ross opened his eyes for a third time.
Niall was staring at him.
"I think..." Ross swallowed. "I think I can do this."
"Repeat after me." Niall said.
"Okay. I can do that." Ross nodded.
"My mother." Niall started.
"My mother." Ross repeated.
"Is not." Niall said.
"Is not." Ross echoed.
"Dead." Niall finished.
"Dead." Ross said.
"My mother is not dead. My mother is not dead. My mother is not dead." Niall chanted.
"My mother is not dead. My mother is not dead. My mother is not dead." Ross repeated.
"There you go!" Niall said smiling. "Now you're getting the hang of it."
"My mother isn't dead." Ross said.
"My mother can't be dead." Ross said.
"There you go." Niall said.
"There must be some mistake. My mother was too good to die; she was too nice, too nice to die. There must have been a mistake."
"There must have." Niall agreed.
"That hospital has been around for ages. That equipment is ancient, it probably just broke."
"Those doctors probably shouldn't even be practice medicine." Niall added.
"Exactly. Those doctors are incompetent. We only took mom there because she insisted. They shouldn't have their licenses. The made a mistake."
"Ain't that the truth." Niall muttered.
"They just mistook her sleep as a death. Her pulse was never very strong."
"Congratulations Ross." Niall said. "You are officially in denial."
Ross and Niall both looked at the river. Ross gnawed at the inside of his mouth. Ross could feel that something inside him changed. Ross felt childish and small
"Niall?" He said.
"Yes Ross?" Niall replied.
"I'm sorry." Ross said.
"What for?" Niall asked.
"Doubting you." Ross admitted. "You were tight, the entire time you were right and I didn't believe you."
"It's okay Ross." Niall said. "Sometimes going into denial is just as hard as coming out of it.
"So you're not mad at me?" Ross asked timidly.
"Of course not." Niall said. "Anger isn't my job."
"Then what is?"
"Where's the fun in telling you that?" Niall said. Ross shrugged and pouted. Niall sighed.
"Look, Ross. I know this whole this is very difficult. But it's a process and you have to trust the process and this, this is just the beginning. You have a long way to go. Would I like to be with you through all of it? Yes. I would. But it doesn't work like that."
Ross chuckled to himself.
"What?" Niall asked. "What's so funny?"
"The tables have turned."
"Before, I was all adult-y and now you are."
"Mhmm." Ross nodded enthusiastically. Niall rolled his eyes and looked away from Ross.
"You know that this is going to be tough, right?" Niall asked. "It's going to be dead near unbearable. You are going to cry and you're going to be angry and there are going to be some days where you won't even want to get out of bed. Grieving is like that. There are going to be days where you want to quit. And you can't quit Ross. You can't."
Ross looked at Niall solemnly. "I know it's going to be tough. But I don't have much of a choice."
"Just remember that right now you're in denial. Personally I think denial is the best stage to be in but there is a chance I am biased. This is the best stage to be in. This is the easiest stage to be in. The simplest stage to be in. Later on, you'll look at this and say it was stupid. But you know what Ross? This stage isn't stupid. This stage is useful. Some people forget. Don't forget it, okay?"
"Tell me about what you're going to do when you get home."
"When I get home, I'm going to go into the kitchen and I'm going to say hi to my mom and I'm going to hug her and tell her I love her."
"I'm going to eat as many cookies as I want."
"There you are." Niall said sadly.
"Niall?" Ross asked.
"Yes?" Niall replied
"What's gonna happen next?" Ross asked. "In terms of you and the schedule?"
"Well." Niall said, leaning back to readjust his belt. "Once you and I are done talking, I'm going to sit here until someone else comes up and sits with you instead."
"Why can't I sit by myself?" Ross asked. "Do you not trust me or something?"
"It's not that I don't trust you." Niall said. "I'm just concerned."
"Concerned about what?"
"Why are you concerned about me?"
"I'm concerned about you per se; I'm concerned about what you might do to yourself if someone isn't here to watch you."
"So you're my babysitter?" Ross scowled.
"No." Niall chuckled. "I'm not your babysitter."
"So what are you then?"
"Just someone who's trying to help."
"Why are you so secretive?"
"Why are you?"
"I'm not secretive."
"Then why won't you answer my question?"
"Because I'm not secretive."
"Oh really, so you wouldn't mind telling me what happened with Tricia Stein in fifth grade,"
"That," Ross said. "Is none of your damn business."
"Not secretive my ass." Niall muttered.
"Heard that." Ross said.
"You were supposed to."
Niall and Ross sat on the bench is peaceful silence. A bird flew out of one of the trees on the other side of the river. A bird that looked like the birds that were printed on his mother's scarf. Ross looked at the river again. The current was slow. This was probably the stillest Ross had ever seen the river. He felt calm inside.
"Niall?" Ross said.
"Yes?" Niall replied.
"You're going to stay with me through this whole thing right?"
Niall looked Ross in the eye. "Of course I am Ross."
"Good." Ross said. "I don't know how long denial is going to last and I don't think I can go through this alone."
"You won't go through this alone. I can guarantee that. You'll have tons of help."
"Thanks." Ross sighed. "That's a relief."
"I have to go check on something." Niall said standing up.
"Okay." Ross said. "I'll be here." Niall nodded and walked a couple of feet away from Ross. He took a small rectangle out of his pocket and began to type. Ross sat on the bench with his hands in his lap. There was a patch of dirt right beneath his feet. Ross swung his legs. Clouds of dust swirled around his feet. He moved his leg and kicked at the grass. Ross looked at the river again. He looked at the trees. Ross looked toward the street. He couldn't wait to get home. He had so much to tell his mom. He had to tell her about the crazy afternoon he had at the park.
He had to tell her...
He couldn't tell her.
Ross squeezed his eyes shut. No, this couldn't be happening to him. The fleeting moments of ignorance had giving him a great moment of peace. Denial was such a beautiful. But now denial was coming to a close. Draining from his veins like the river water drains into the ocean. The river, the stupid river. Ross could feel the anger bubbling in his veins.
He took a deep breath.
Ross' brain was playing tug or war. On the left side was the rational part of his brain, begging for the fairytale to be over. It pleaded for Ross to man up and face reality, however harsh it was. The glamourous façade of his live mother was taking its toll. On the right side stood the hopeful part of him. While its counterpart was begging to be let go, this side was pleading to be held onto. The two sides of Ross' brain pulled against each other hitting the sides of his skull. His head started to ache.
Ross took another deep breath.
There was still a chance he could salvage this.
He could make this work.
Niall put the phone back into his pocket and walked back to Ross. He sat down next to Ross and tussled his hair.
"What're you thinking?" Niall asked.
"I'm thinking about what I should do." Ross said.
"What you should do about what?" Niall asked.
"Being in denial."
"What's wrong with being in denial?" Niall asked hurt.
"Nothing." Ross said. "It's just..."
"It's just what?" Niall asked harshly.
"I'm at war with myself." Ross admitted. "Being in denial...it feels great and it feels right. The hopeful part of me is saying that yes this is where I need to be. But the rational part of me is saying no. No, I can't be in denial. I have to grow up and face this."
"Can I tell you something?" Niall asked.
"Rationality is for those who have absolutely no hope. If you have hope and you should always have hope Ross. If the hopeful part of you is telling you something, you have listen to it. Listen to it Ross."
"What do you mean?" Ross asked.
"You said you were fighting yourself?" Niall asked. Ross nodded.
"Let the hopeful side win." Niall said.
"Why?" Ross asked.
"You can't live without hope." Niall said.
"You can't live without water either, that doesn't mean I should submerge my head under water and never come up." Ross said. Niall sighed.
"True." He said. "But hope isn't water, you can't die from having too much hope."
"Are you sure about that?" Ross asked. Niall dismissed him.
"Hope is good." Niall said nodding, his eyes fell on the river. "Hope is good."
Ross followed Niall's gaze into the depths of the water.
"But hope isn't everything." Ross said.
"No." Niall agreed. "Not everything. But it is a large part of most things."
"What do you mean?" Ross asked.
"We wouldn't have any of the things we have now if we didn't have hope." Niall explained.
"Really?" Ross said.
"Of course!" Niall replied. "If we didn't have hope we wouldn't be here, this park wouldn't be here. The country wouldn't be here."
"I don't understand." Ross said. Niall sighed and twisted his body to face Ross.
"If we didn't have hope for the future. If we didn't hope for the best, none of the things here would exist." Niall explained. Ross nodded, still not quite understanding.
"If you saw so." Ross said.
"Fine, don't believe me." Niall huffed. "Go back to your dreamland, your place of denial, your fantasy."
And Ross did. He imagined what the years would be like with his mother at home. He would return to New York, no doubt. He would call her every Thursday, like he always had because that's what had worked best for the two of them. He would come home on Easter and Thanksgiving and Christmas if he could, and he would bring strange presents from foreign countries. He would still try to convince his mother to redecorate and she would still tell him no, for the thousandth time she liked the way her house looked. Ross would climb the rickety stairs to his old bedroom , the only room in the house where he was allowed to change the décor. The would look at the blue walls and the dust that collected on all the old baseball trophies that he didn't get because he was good, he got them because they gave them to everyone. Ross would walk back downstairs and his mother would ask him to help cook and he would complain but he would do it because he loved him mother and he knew how much she had scarified for them. Then they would all sit down and eat and his sisters would leave and it would be him and his mom. They would sit and talk and laugh, they had always been the closest two out of everyone in the house. His mother would ask him, teasingly about his girlfriend and he would admit, embarrassed, that he didn't have one and she would laugh and tell him to hurry up and find one because she wanted more grandchildren. Ross would ask his mother to tell him a story about her childhood. She would decline bashfully and Ross would encourage her, telling her that she had always been a fantastic storyteller. She would laugh and say no, it was Ross who had always been the storyteller. Ross would plead with her and she would give in and tell him the stories of an immigrant's daughter.
Years down the road Ross would ask his mother to tell those same stories to his children and she would be an old woman and she would be frail but she would tell the stories still because it was worth it to see everyone smiling and happy. Ross would be happy. His mother would be happy and alive and well.
Ross and Niall looked toward the river. The river in its splendor. The river with its current. This river had a peculiar current. It was fast in someplace, slow in others and at some points virtually non-existent. Ross considered taking of his shoes, walking the three feet in between them and the river and putting his toes in, just to see what it felt like.
"Don't." Niall said suddenly.
"Don't what?" Ross asked.
"Don't go in the river." Niall said firmly. "Not yet."
"How did you know I wanted to go into the river?"
"You'll get to go into the river Ross. I promise. But not now."
"Will you be there?" Ross asked.
"Will I be there for what?"
"Will you be there when I go into the river?"
"Of course. I'll always be here. I've told you that before."
"I'm just making sure. I'm scared."
"You're scared?" Niall asked. "Scared of what?"
"I dunno." Ross shrugged. "Everything. What's going to happen next."
"You're scared of what's going to happen next?"
"I'm more of a live in the moment kind of guy." Niall said. Ross nodded.
"What is going to happen next?" Ross asked.
"Shhh." Niall said holding his finger to his lips, he began to act childish again. "It's a secret. No one is allowed to know. Not even you Ross. Not even you."
"Okay." Ross said.
They shifted their focus to their surroundings again. The river, with its cold dark water. The grass. The dirt. The trees. The birds. The blue sky with its clouds.
Niall shifted in his seat next to Ross. He looked toward the horizon. A man began walking toward them. It was time.
Niall stood up and began to walk away.
"You're leaving?" Ross asked Niall, standing now. "I thought you were supposed to help me through this."
"Silly Ross." Niall said. "I'm only one part of the process."
"Of course there is. Don't worry. That guy over there," Niall pointed to a man who was walking toward them.
How did I not notice him before? Ross thought
"He's here to help you next. Watch out though. He gets angry very easily."
Ross sat down on his side of the bench.
And he waited.
And in complete denial.