Four Months after Herbert Died

“For all 68 years of his life, being overlooked had been a norm. Finally, it seemed that being overlooked had fallen in his favor.”

A dark hallway with a shadow of a man in the background

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Herbert Duppin died quietly. Hunched over another heinous tax form for another nagging client, Herbert had been irritated to see the numbers blurring on the page again. But then the dour-faced accountant had felt a slight twitch somewhere in his head. And the next thing he knew, his smoky see-through soul was standing next to the desk, staring glumly at his body, which was facedown on the papers. “Well,” Herbert sighed forlornly, a fruitless effort now, but a well-engrained habit, “That’s that.” At least he wouldn’t have to finish the 549H forms.

Herbert, or Herbert’s soul, rather, assumed a position in the broken recliner situated in the corner of his little gray apartment. Apparently he weighed a lot less without his body, so the floppy reclining mechanism didn’t send him pitching backwards anymore. Truth be told, he soon came to enjoy his “retirement.”

After two or three days, old Doris McHagathy upstairs tattled about the smell. What an irony, he’d thought, since Doris smelled like a stray cat dunked in pickle juice herself. After the paramedics removed Herbert’s corpse, Herbert comfortably watched a moving team empty out the apartment. To his great satisfaction, all his tomes of tax law were designated for the dumpster. By the time the team finally took the recliner, Herbert wasn’t even sad to see it go. The apartment looked cleaner and brighter than it had in years.

In the fourth week, Herbert discovered that without the weight of his body, he could achieve a wonderful, sort of slow-motion, astronaut-like bounce. By Friday evening — with a good running start — Herbert was able to bounce just high enough that he could pop his transparent head right through his ceiling for brief peeks into McHagathy’s apartment. Thereafter, he discovered that Doris’ horrible cats had no problem seeing him. He spent a delightful Sunday popping his screaming head up into Doris’ apartment, sending her increasingly frazzled gnarly-toothed cats yowling onto Doris’ lap.

By week five, Herbert came to terms with the fact that Death had overlooked him. For all 68 years of his life, being overlooked had been a norm. Finally, it seemed that being overlooked had fallen in his favor.

But then, at the start of week six, Herbert heard a key slide into his door.

“This is the vacancy, Frances, one-bed, one-bath,” the landlord swung the green door open into the apartment. “We’d be willing to do the paint job you requested with our own maintenance staff.” The landlord held the door open for the prospective tenant.

Herbert wooshed over to the center of the room. “A roommate, huh?” He muttered aloud. But just before his instinctive dislike of almost everyone could kick in, Frances shuffled into view.

Had Herbert not already been dead of a stroke, the vision he saw now might’ve killed him.

Ms. Frances was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen.

“Oh, it’s got such potential, doesn’t it!” Frances put her lovely hand to her face in delighted surprise. Realizing she wore no ring, Herbert felt his non-existent heart skip a beat. Her green eyes looked like all they ever saw was potential. Lost in her smile, Herbert forgot about the landlord until the man strode straight through him, momentarily dispersing Herbert into mist.

Still rematerializing, Herbert heard the landlord shiver.

“Ah, seems to be a draft. We’ll get that checked while we paint.”

“Funny,” Fran said, “It seems almost a little warm to me!”

Throughout week seven, Herbert anxiously supervised as a work crew painted his apartment powder blue. Finally, on the following Monday, Ms. Frances Honeybom happily took up residence in Herbert’s apartment. Ms. Frances liked watching old game shows, but she would scold the hosts vigorously if they made fun of any participants. She giggled at squirrels. She loved to bake. She was every bit as charming as Herbert had anticipated.

The only thing about Ms. Frances that bothered Herbert was her perceived death wish. The woman had no sense of self-preservation. She stood on rickety footstools. She pulled herself up using unstable furniture. Herbert was constantly bouncing behind her, stabilizing and steadying anything he could. Worst of all, she forgot almost everything she put in the oven. Herbert had to spend several days teaching himself how to set off her egg timer.

One Sunday afternoon, as Herbert straightened a few of the knickknacks on the windowsill, he heard Ms. Frances returning home. He nearly burst into vapor when she ushered none other than Doris McHagathy in after her. King George, the lumpiest cat of the seven furry gremlins that Doris kept, traipsed inside on his owner’s heels.

Herbert and King George instantly locked glares. But then a stunning sound filled the apartment. Herbert looked up in shock. It was the sound of Doris laughing.

“Fran, I can’t thank you enough for inviting me.” Doris plunked down an empty brownie tray. “I know I must seem like some kind of crazy cat lady.” Herbert snorted. “But it does get lonely. And the cats have been so skittish lately.”

Fran gently patted Doris’ arm. “The cats must have been picking up on your stress, dear. I’m so pleased you could come. And I think it’s a noble thing you’ve done, telling the shelter you’d take the old kitties.”

Doris beamed. “Those poor old cats don’t deserve to be put down anymore than we do!” King George executed a loving, if wobbly, figure eight round Doris’ legs. Then he plopped down and gave an audible yawn. Herbert found himself laughing along with Fran and Doris.

“Well, Doris,” Fran said, getting the door for her, “The group would welcome you any time.” King George blinked accusingly at Herbert, then waddled out the door after Doris.

Ms. Frances, Herbert mused, had such warmth, such patience. Even Doris was pleasant and noble when Ms. Frances was around. That night, about three months after Herbert Duppin had died, he found himself quite clearly in love.

Just one more short month later, Frances Honeybom died with a bang. After grabbing a third tray of cookies out of the oven just moments before they burned — thank goodness she’d apparently set the egg timer — Frances felt suddenly lightheaded. Within the span of two seconds, she stumbled backward and toppled over the open oven door. With her wheeling arms, she knocked atop herself both the plugged-in toaster and a pot soaking in soapy water and … well. The next thing Fran knew, her silvery transparent spirit was standing beside her rather frazzled looking corpse and a sputtering toaster.

Fran teetered around, still not quite used to being disembodied. She came face to face with a handsome elderly gentlemen in a tweed suit. “Hello,” Fran said shyly. “Are you Death?”

“I’m Herbert,” Herbert stuttered. He was suddenly very glad he’d died in his work suit.

Right then, Death materialized in a dramatic whirlwind of black smoke. He extended his bony arms upward.

“Frances Honeybom,” Death intoned from the depths of his black cloak. “Your time has ended. You will now follow—” Death suddenly noticed that Frances wasn’t the only transparent figure before him. “Who are you?”

“This is Herbert!” Fran chirped.

Over the next 10 minutes, Herbert helped Death consult an enormous scroll of names and dates. Herbert was a great help — organizing data had, after all, been a strength of his for some time. Although Herbert didn’t notice, Fran was terribly impressed by his forthright professionalism.

Four months after Herbert had died, Death issued Herbert a very sheepish apology. Death then raised his arms again. “Ahem, ah, Frances Honeybom and Herbert Duppin, you will now follow—”

“Well hold on now,” Fran interrupted. “Why so hasty? How long until Doris dies?”

Death raised his hand in warning, “Death is a mystery that— ”

“October next year,” Herbert volunteered. He had peeked ahead.

Fran clapped her hands together, producing an adorable mushroom cloud of fog. “Well that’s grand!” She was quite impressed with Herbert’s foresight. “Not one of Doris’ sweet animals has but another few months left either. Death, dear, why don’t you just come get Herbert and Doris and I and all the cats together at once in October?”

Death raised a bony finger in protest.

Fran wasn’t having it. “Now really, what a fair way to make it up to Herbert!” She gestured cheerfully at the Tupperware of cookies on the table. “Take the cookies when you go, won’t you? Shame for them to go to waste!”

Death withdrew his protesting finger back into his robe. He stood there awkwardly for a moment. It was hard to say what he was thinking given the large, black hood.

“Are those chocolate chips or raisins?”

Fran seemed insulted. “Chocolate chips, of course!”

Death stood still a moment longer. And then, “Just don’t go anywhere. And keep the cats nearby! Cats tend to wander.” He cast his arms wide again, “I shall return in October.” Then he disappeared in another whirlwind of black smoke. A moment later, the Tupperware of cookies vanished as well, engulfed in a similar, albeit miniature, whirlwind.

Herbert and Frances turned toward each other. They both fiddled nervously.

Then Herbert ventured, “I can teach you how to set an egg timer off?”

Fran’s cheeks turned a charming shade of slate gray.

About 20 minutes later, in an office in the basement, the landlord groaned and started a hunt for the keys to Apartment 203B. He’d received about 20 phone calls in half an hour from residents about the newly rented room. Twelve calls had been from that ridiculous cat lady in 303B. She was panicked about some new loud noise or whatnot. The other eight were from neighbors. All had the same noise complaint.

Apparently, an egg timer wouldn’t stop going off.

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Comments

  1. I agree with all above. This was unusually fun and delicious. Definitely one of a kind!

  2. A delightful romp through the nether worlds! Ghost stories are seldom such fun! or so romantic. or so witty. or so engaging. Egg timers will have a whole new meaning for me.
    Put me on the mailig list for any new Jessica Federle stories!

  3. Wow! A fun loving ghost accountant – just in time for tax season. What a delightful ghost story. Charmingly funny ghosts, death, old cats, unpleasant neighbors, aging buildings. Wonderful story with an unexpected ending. I love Jessica Federle’s story telling style and look forward to seeing much more of it.

  4. Oh, Ms. Federle. What a wonderful tale of dark humor (combined with shock–literally) you present here! I’ve never read anything like it before. Imagine, ‘death’ having a personality and a love of chocolate chip cookies!

    Your descriptive style is unique, imaginative and VERY creative, if you don’t mind my saying so. I hope others follow suit here in reading this gem on the Post’s website, and leave their comments as well.

    This story even has aspects of ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’, ‘Bewitched’, ‘Desperate Housewives’ and ‘The Twilight Zone’ very cleverly blended. Oh yes, and the film ‘Heart and Souls’ from ’93 (when Downey jr. still made creative films). Now the only question that remains is: will Herbert and Fran need Jennifer Love Hewitt (from ‘Ghost Whisperer’) to free them from being earthbound spirits?

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