Habella Peace was a woman of indeterminate age and origin, although every now and then I could detect a bit of the Sea Islands in her lilting speech. She called herself a death doula, someone who eases the passage from this life to the next. I didn’t know her well, but I saw her often. The people she cared for almost always ended up at the Charleston mortuary where I worked the nightshift.

My job at the Delande Home for Fine Funerals was simple. I made myself available afterhours to receive deliveries. For that minimal effort, I was given a small monthly stipend and the use of a rundown carriage house at the back of the property. The arrangement suited my needs perfectly. My family had been in the death care business for generations so I wasn’t squeamish about bodies and the hours allowed plenty of time for my studies.

The garden that separated the carriage house and mortuary was used by the bereaved for meditation and reflection. I tried never to intrude upon their privacy, but on the day of Agnes Brant’s funeral, the death doula lingered for so long among the allspice that I finally went outside to ask if I could be of assistance.

She greeted me with a numinous smile. “I’m Habella.”

“Yes, I know you by reputation.”

The eyes twinkled behind the netting of her veil. “As I you, Alice.”

“Really? I have a reputation?”

“Indeed you do, child. I’ve come to make you an offer.”

Her lovely cadence blended so well with the sultry sea breezes that I found myself strangely enchanted. She was tall and reed-thin with skin the color of melted chocolate. Despite the heat, her silk suit and whites gloves were immaculate and when she moved, I could smell raindrops and lemon verbena.

She carried an oversized pocketbook in the crook of her left elbow and in her right hand, she clutched one of the flyers I’d put up in local businesses announcing my availability to do odd jobs around the neighborhood. Nothing was too small or tedious so long as the task didn’t interfere with my graduate studies at Emerson University or the hours required of me at the funeral home.

“What’s the job?” I asked.

“You are aware of Mr. Simon Straiker? He has recently moved into the area. His house is just down the way.”

“I’ve heard of him, but we’ve never met.” The whole street had been abuzz with his purchase of Culleton House, a rundown Gothic Revival that stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb amidst its pastel neighbors.  For several weeks, workers had swarmed the property from sunup to sundown and then suddenly all activity had ceased, followed by the hushed rumors of a serious illness.

Habella confirmed the gossip.  “He is a very sick young man.  Blessed with the face of an angel and the wealth of a king, for all the good either has done him. He is alone and dying, poor thing. He’ll not live to see his thirtieth birthday.”

“I’m very sorry to hear that.”

“My job—my calling—is to prepare him for his journey and when the time comes, to facilitate his transition.”

The back of my neck tingled a warning. My mother had once talked of transitions. Death doesn’t come easy for some, she would say as she mixed the embalming fluids and inserted the cannula.

Funny how the thought of death and dying didn’t particularly trouble me, but memories of my mother could send me into a funk that would sometimes last for days. I tried to shake off the encroaching gloom as I returned my attention to Habella Peace. 

“Simon is at that point in his journey where he requires constant attention, but I have other duties that need minding,” she explained. “He has a nurse and there’s Cook and the housekeeper. He doesn’t want for care or company, but he is surrounded by old women. He needs a youthful presence. Someone who smells of springtime.”

I gave her a dubious glance. “What exactly do you have in mind?”

“You will come once a day to Culleton House and read to him.”

“That’s it? Just read to him?”

“He likes the old stories. Classics, you might say.” She paused to take my measure. “I should warn you about his tastes, child. He has become fascinated with tales of ghosts and vampires and immortality. I suppose it only natural for someone in his condition to be consumed by the afterlife.”

Another warning chill eased up my spine, but I merely nodded. “I understand.

“Money is no object,” she said and named a figure that stunned me. An adage leapt to mind: If something is too good to be true…

I fought off common sense with another old saying: Beggars can’t be choosers. My cupboards were empty and tuition loomed. “All that just for reading to him?”

“For two hours a day. When can you start?”

“I haven’t accepted.”

“Do you require more money?”

“No, I just…” I drew a breath and released it. Who was I kidding? Of course, I would take the job.  I had no other prospects and I couldn’t go back to my aunt. Not after everything she’d done for me already. It was high time I stood on my own two feet. My chin came up and I said briskly, “I can start today. The sooner, the better, in fact.”

Habella gave a satisfied nod. “Come at four, child, when the air is starting to cool. Simon likes to read with the windows open to the garden.”

“I’ll see you then.”

I went back inside and settled down to study for the rest of the morning. Normally, my psychology textbooks kept me engrossed for hours. A passionate student, I would often lose all track of time, oblivious to nightfall and hunger until the ringing of my phone or the bell at the back of the mortuary would summon me out of my dream world.

But that morning my thoughts kept drifting from my studies to Simon Straiker. A simple Google search revealed a plethora of fascinating details. The Straiker family could trace their roots all the way back to the founding of Charleston, but the line would end with his passing. He had no siblings, no extended family, no wife or children to carry on the Straiker legacy.

His whole life had been one tragedy after another, it seemed. He’d been kidnapped at a very young age and held for ransom. Upon his return, his parents had been so terrified something else would happen to him, they’d kept him isolated and he’d grown into a reclusive young man who lived for his work.

I felt a strange amity with Simon Straiker. I had also been isolated as a child, not by fear or wealth, but by my family’s profession. No one had wanted to play with the little girl who lived in a funeral home.

Not that I’d minded so terribly much. My mother and aunt had been young and playful and offered all the companionship I needed. Once my grandparents had passed on, the sisters raised me together as they ran the family business. We had been happy and reasonably prosperous until my mother’s illness had eaten up most our savings and my aunt had been forced to sell the mortuary to the Delande family. She had been offered the position of director at one of their new facilities and it was only through her persuasion—or coercion—that I had ended up in the carriage house, still a student at twenty-two, scraping by on that paltry stipend and whatever odd jobs I could pick up along the way.

Speaking of which…

At quarter after three, I rose from my desk to shower and change clothes, foregoing my usual shorts and tee for a cotton skirt, tank and sandals. I packed a few books in my backpack and set off down the street for Culleton House.

I’d walked past the sprawling mansion on any number of occasions and had often stopped on the street to admire the ornate trim that looked faintly Arabesque. Despite those weeks of frenzied renovation, the grounds and exterior remained untouched. The wrought iron gates hung askew and weeds overran the front garden. I scanned the weathered stone facade until my gaze lit on an upstairs window where Habella Peace stood watching me.

Unease prickled, but I kept my nerves in check and even managed to lift a hand in greeting as I entered through the sagging gates. Darkness was hours away, but a perpetual gloom settled over the besieged garden.

The housekeeper opened the door with a silent glower. In response, I gave her my brightest smile.

“I’m Alice Morningstar. Habella asked me to come.”

She moved aside to allow me to enter. “Wait here.”

I stepped across the threshold into a large foyer with checkerboard flooring, dark-paneled walls and an oak staircase that rose to a wide landing. At the top of the stairs, someone stood silhouetted against the light streaming in through a long window. The shoulders were slumped, the head bowed and I thought for a moment it might be Simon Straiker himself. Then I realized it was nothing more than a statue.

When I turned back to the foyer, Habella stood before me. She looked very different from the woman I’d spoken with that morning. Her silk suit and white gloves had been replaced with a loose cotton blouse and a full skirt that hung to her ankles. Her long hair had been braided and coiled around her head and she wore not a speck of makeup. She was older than I had originally thought, but not so much wizened as timeless.

“Alice.” She took my arm and I found myself pulling away from her touch, though I couldn’t say why. “Simon is in the library. The room has always been his favorite and it’s easier on all of us not to have to deal with the stairs.”

I followed her down a long hallway lined with ancestral portraits. At the end of the corridor, Habella slid open heavy pocket doors revealing a sun-washed room with floor to ceiling windows and a wall of crowded bookshelves. Most of the furniture had been removed to accommodate a hospital bed that had been placed in front of the open French doors.

Simon Straiker’s head was turned toward the garden, but I could see enough of his profile to take in the paper-like quality of his skin and the brittleness of his cheekbones. A lock of blond hair fell across his forehead, giving him a tragic, youthful air that tugged at my heart. He lay so still I thought he might be asleep—or worse—but when Habella called his name, he turned his head, trapping me in the bluest gaze I’d ever encountered.

“This is Alice. She’s come to read to you this afternoon. Would you like that, dear?”

He didn’t answer but instead continued to regard me with unblinking concentration. He was so pale as to almost disappear against the sheets, but those eyes glinted yet with life and with something I didn’t want to name.

“Simon,” Habella said with gentle firmness. “Do you wish for Alice to stay?”

Into that awkward silence came the tinkle of a bell, followed closely by a second ring.

“Will you be all right if I leave the house for a bit?” Habella asked him.

The bell tinkled twice.

The realization hit me then with the force of a physical punch. He could no longer speak. He communicated by way of a small bell that had been tied to the index finger of his left hand.

I glanced at Habella, who was smiling. “He likes you,” she said.

“I-well, good. I’m glad.” The blue gaze remained fixed on me and I said with as much cheer as I could muster, “I’m sure we’ll get along just fine.”

He tapped the bell against the bed twice. Yes.

Habella beamed her approval.

The bell tinkled twice, paused, and then tinkled twice more.

I looked from Simon to Habella in confusion.

“He’s given you a name,” she explained. “He has rings for all of us, don’t you, dear?”

Two tinkles. Yes.

Then, two tinkles, a pause and two more tinkles. Alice.

The tone of the bell altered slightly with the force of his taps. He gentled the pressure until it became almost a whisper.  Alice.

I nodded in understanding.

“I shouldn’t be gone long,” Habella said, as she bent to kiss Simon’s brow. She seemed very pleased with the way our introduction had gone. I waited until she left the room, and then approached the bed tentatively. “May I sit?”

The bell tinkled twice. Yes.

I sat down on the chair next to the bed and opened my backpack. “I’ve brought some books, but you may prefer something from your own collection.”

A single tap of the bell. No.

“Very well then. Habella tells me you like the classics.” I pulled out my battered copy of In a Glass Darkly and held it up for his inspection. “I thought we would start with “Carmilla.” It’s always been a favorite of mine.”

He tapped the bell twice and I settled in more comfortably. I read straight through, pausing occasionally for a drink of water and to check on him. He lay with his face toward the garden and I could barely discern the rise and fall of his chest, so shallow was his breathing.

By the time I reached the end of the story, he had fallen asleep. I closed the book and returned it to my backpack. Then I got up and browsed his bookshelves, finding such esoteric treasures as The Golden Bough and The White Goddess before wandering out to the garden.

A breeze blew through the trees, rippling the leaves and arousing an inexplicable disquiet. I ran a hand up and down my bare arm as goose bumps rose in the warm air. I had the strongest urge to exit quickly and quietly through the garden gate, to hurry away from that withering place and not look back. Instead, I backed my shoulders and returned to Simon’s bedside to wait out my time.

Habella returned a little before six smelling of herbs. “How did it go?” she asked as she saw me to the front door.

“Fine, I think. He fell asleep before I reached the end of the story. At least, I think he’s sleeping.”

“He gets weaker by the day. His journey will soon take a new turn. We must all be ready when the time comes.”

“May I ask…?”

“Cancer,” was all she said and I nodded.