It’s not supposed to happen like this.
It’s just not.
This is how it’s supposed to happen: I walk into my sweet, sweet editor’s office—his name is Monty—at The Ether Gazette, a laid-back online newspaper, and ask him to give me a little advance on my pay. You know, nothing out of the ordinary, just the usual sum he’s advanced a couple of times over the past year.
Well, maybe three times. Or four.
But how many times doesn’t matter.
What matters is that this is how it’s is all supposed to happen. But it’s not going to happen like this, because Monty is dead.
I don’t realize that when I rush into the newsroom today. But right away, I see something is off. His desk, tucked away in his back office that faces the front door, is empty, and Doreen, the secretary, is crying.
Actually, that’s not so strange, the part about Doreen crying. Doreen cries a lot. Even when she watches TV shows. Especially when she watches TV shows. But even so, things are strange.
The newsroom is almost empty. Besides Doreen, Harold, the managing editor, is there too. A knot of interns whose names I sometimes forget are sitting quietly in the corner, whispering much more quietly than the average college intern.
But no one else is there.
“What happened?” I say, but I don’t get an answer. The room is hushed like a wake, and no one is paying attention to me. I clear my throat and ask a bit louder, “Did something happen?”
Doreen jumps. “Oh, Justine, I tried to reach you.” But then she covers her mouth with her hankie and starts bawling again. Harold, who also happens to be her son, pats her on the back.
“What happened?” I say. My eyes dart to the empty editor’s office, then around the room. My boss isn’t here. He isn’t anywhere.
He’s probably in the bathroom. Yeah, that’s it. He’s in the bathroom.
“We tried to call you over the weekend,” Doreen says, at least I think that’s what she says, but her face is in her hankie.
“Oh, right. My phone.” I put my stuff on my desk right near the door. The funereal feeling makes me do it slowly, gently, as though not to show disrespect. “I forgot to add minutes to it.” Which isn’t strictly true. I am holding off on adding minutes till I get my advance.
Fiscal responsibility and all.
But with everyone crying—well, with Doreen crying and everyone else looking sad—now is not the time to think about my phone plan. I want to put off asking “What happened?” again. I don’t think I’m going to like the answer. I lean against the desk for support.
“Where’s Monty?” I look at his still empty editor’s chair.
Doreen breaks into gurgles of weeping, and Harold sits up straight. He says, “Justine, we tried to call. But . . .”
“But what?” My voice, even to me, is barely audible.
“He died Friday night.”
I lose my footing even though the desk is supporting my weight. He can’t have. My eyes dart to the bathroom door. Any second now, he’s going to walk out. He’ll let loose a belly laugh and holler, “Got you!” Then he’ll pretend to shoo us all back to work and threaten to fire us, even though he absolutely never, ever, ever would.
But, of course, he doesn’t appear.
I look at the sad faces around the room.
“What did he die of?”
Harold pats Doreen’s back again as she melts into an impersonation of Niagara Falls. I feel like I’m losing my footing. Harold’s words come in pieces, all muffled and echoey like the transmission line is bad. But I get enough to know it was a heart attack.
My head starts to hurt. It’s a familiar feeling, but I can’t put my finger on why. Slowly, the reason dawns on me. It’s the same feeling from when my parents died. One minute, I was finishing a senior paper at university, ready to hand it in barely over the wire of my extended deadline, and the next, I have the cops on the phone telling me my parents died in an accident. All at once, my support system was knocked out from under me. I was a Raggedy Ann doll with no perch, a marionette with no strings.
Just like I feel now.
A mug appears in front of my face. I blink my eyes. It’s Harold, holding tea. I can’t remember if he asked me whether I wanted any. I can’t remember whether I said yes. I take the cup, my hand feeling all jelly-like.
“Why don’t you sit down?” Harold says.
I nod, at least I think I do, and I round the desk to take a seat. “Where is everyone?”
“We’re officially closed for the day,” Harold says. “But we couldn’t get you on the phone, and we didn’t want to give you the news in an e-mail. Mom wanted to come in, to be here for you.”
Doreen blows her nose. “I know how much Monty meant to you.” Then she starts weeping again.
“And you’re here for Doreen,” I say.
He nods and pats his mother’s back again.
I feel jealous of Harold. He has Doreen to lean on, even if she is wet and snotty.
“What are they doing here?” I tilt my head towards the gaggle of interns. Their presence is annoying. Sure, they get my coffee and gladly lend a hand when I’m running late on articles, but they’re intrusions now. This is a family matter.
Even if, technically, it isn’t a family matter. But still, a sort of family matter.
I mean, Harold and Doreen are officially, genetically, certifiably family.
I’m grandfathered in.
“We didn’t tell them,” Harold said. “Didn’t have their contact info.”
Right. And eager beavers that they are, they won’t leave till they fulfill their internship duties to the second and squeeze every single college credit out of this that they can.
Which is unfair, I know, but I’m grieving. Recrimination is part of the healing process.
Harold goes back to Doreen’s desk, asks her if she needs more tea, or something. I’m not really listening. Monty is dead.
How can he be dead? How can he just leave us like that?
I don’t know how much time goes by. I can’t face going home. I can’t face my roommate. I know what will happen when I walk in the door. She’ll turn around at her work desk—she works from home—and ask me whether I have the rent I promised. And then I’ll have to let her know that I don’t and before I have the chance to tell her it’s because my boss died, leaving me orphaned again, she’ll lecture me on how it’s two months late and how is it that she’s still supporting me (she isn’t, but whatever) and yada, yada, yada. And I’ll break into tears and then she’ll feel annoyed because I made her feel guilty and just the thought of it makes me cry too, only unlike Doreen, I don’t carry hankies with me and I wipe my nose on the back of my hand and sniffle and it’s gross and I look around my desk trying to find a spare piece of napkin that isn’t too dirty, but all I can find are a bunch of crinkled to-do lists that I never fully implemented. Suddenly, a napkin, as if by magic, appears in front of my face. It’s in the hand of an intern. Larry, I think. I take it and thank him.
Maybe it’s not so bad that they’re here.
A family needs to support each other at a time like this.
Not that they’ve earned the right to be family just yet.
At some point, I need to ask Harold what will happen to us, the staff. He’ll probably take over as editor. For a second, I consider asking him for the advance, but no. It would be so inappropriate. Monty’s body isn’t even cold yet. Or technically, it probably is, but in terms of grief, it’s still, still, still . . .
I blow my nose. I’ll have to get flowers for the funeral. No expense spared. I still have a little room left on one of my credit cards. I’m pretty sure I do, anyway. I know, I know. Debt is bad. But debt, it pales in comparison to Monty. I owe him. He took me in after my parents died, paid me a decent wage, snuck me a Christmas bonus each year even though no one else gets one. At the very minimum, I owe him some darn flowers, don’t I? I start to daydream. What if . . . ? What if he isn’t really dead? He was healthy. A heart attack sounds really suspect to me. It’s not like he stuffed his face with pork rinds day in and day out. I clutch onto that tenuous hope. What if the phone rings? It’s a doctor. Even over the phone, his teeth are straight and white, but not bleached white. Natural white. I shake my head. That doesn’t matter now. What matters is there’s been a mistake. Monty’s not dead! He was in a coma, but he’s just woken up. We can go visit him and, and, and—
Then I stop. That’s a ridiculous scenario. Because of privacy laws, the doctor wouldn’t call us. Dr. Handsome would call the family. Monty had—has—a surviving grandson. I’ve seen his photo in his office bathroom. The grandson isn’t bad looking, actually, even if the photo is a bit fuzzy. Any minute now, the grandson will give us a call, tell us it was all a mistake. Monty is alive, recuperating, waiting for visitors.
A gust of wind, as cold as the Grim Reaper, snatches me out of my reverie. Someone’s opened the door. My jaw drops. It’s him. It’s the grandson. My heart leaps. I was right. Monty isn’t dead. Even I didn’t truly believe my daydream, but it turns out to be true. I’m too surprised to say anything. My mouth is still hanging open, but my relief gives me the presence of mind to take in his features. In the photo, he was scrawny, in a fuzzy, Polaroid kind of way, and his eyes were all squinted up against a sharp light. But now, boy, he’s filled out really nicely. His eyes are big with lush eyelashes that, to be honest, make me feel a teensy bit jealous. I have to crane my neck to take him all in because of how tall he is. Oh, my gosh, it hits me. He looks just like that knight in shining armor from my old picture book. Just like him. The wave in his dark brown hair. The slightly bronzed tone, as though he just came in from saving a damsel in distress from the distant, sun-drenched beaches of Acapulco. The green eyes—
“I said, what is going on here?”
I shake my head. That was the grandson talking. He looks annoyed, which is weird. Shouldn’t he look happy now that his grandfather isn’t actually dead?
Which can mean only one thing.
My stomach plummets back into my knees.
“I’m sorry,” Doreen says. She blows her nose and totters towards the grandson. She envelopes him in a hug and rocks him back and forth. “So, so, so, so sorry, my dear.” The grandson’s hands are stretched out, as though he doesn’t quite understand how hugs work. Slowly, he brings one hand in and pats Doreen on the back while using the other to push her away. “Where is everybody?” he says.
Like that’s the most important matter at hand.
“We thought it best to decree the day off to honor your grandfather,” Doreen says. She takes him by the elbow and points at me, then at her son. “This is Justine Tyme, and this is my son, Harold Blitz. We all loved your grandfather so, so, so—”
“Day off?” the grandson says.
His eyes are round, as though Doreen just told him aliens landed and took over proofreading. Maybe he’s still reeling from the shock of Monty’s death too.
“Yes, dear,” Doreen says. Her voice is quiet, soothing. “To honor your grandfather.”
The grandson—I still don’t know his name—shakes his head. “No wonder this place is going under.”
“I understand, dear,” she says. “This is hard for you. We all have our ways of coping.”
The grandson takes his coat off. “We weren’t close. I assume that’s my spot over there?” He points at Monty’s empty office.
“Excuse me?” Harold says.
“I’m taking over from my grandfather.” Under his breath, he says something that sounds like, “if there’s anything left to save.”