Now Featured in the Patheos Book Club
The Afterlife of Billy Fingers
How My Bad-Boy Brother Proved to Me There's Life After Death
By Annie Kagan
The First Thing That Happens
The Miami Dade Police left a message on my answering machine at nine in the morning. 'If you know William Cohen, please contact Sergeant Diaz at 305 . . . '
Oh no! Billy must have been arrested. Not prison. Not again. Not this late in his life.
I was shaking when I punched in the phone number.
'This is William Cohen's sister. Has he been arrested?'
'No,' Sergeant Diaz said in a soft voice. 'He was hit by a car at two-thirty this morning. I'm sorry. Your brother is dead.'
My heart went cold. Dead? I reached for a chair and sat down.
'William was coming from the emergency room at South Miami Hospital. He was drunk and ran out onto the highway,' the sergeant reported. 'William was wearing a hospital ID bracelet. We got your name and phone number from their records.'
Sergeant Diaz cleared his throat. 'Listen, ma'am, you don't have to identify the body. The bracelet is good enough. Better to remember him as you do now.'
Better to remember him as you do now? Oh my God!
Since I didn't have to view Billy's post-accident body, there was no reason to fly from New York to Miami. By the time my sixty-two-year-old brother died, he was homeless, so everything he owned was in his pockets. What I had worried about for years had now happened. Billy was dead.
Oh God, Billy is dead! My body ached so much I felt like I was the one who'd been run over. I got into bed with my clothes still on and pulled the covers over my head. Then I remembered the incredibly strange thing I'd done the day before.
Although we hadn't spoken in months, for the last week I'd been thinking obsessively about Billy. I wanted to phone him, hear his voice, tell him I loved him, but I didn't know how to reach him. Part of me was afraid to reach him. I was sure he was in bad shape.
The day before Billy died, a bitterly cold January morning, I layered on two sweaters, a down jacket, and two wool hats and ventured into the raw air. I walked across the frozen brown leaves, through the bare winter woods, and climbed down the wooden staircase that led to the bay. I never ask God for favors, but that morning I looked up at the silvery sky, raised my arms, and imagined pushing Billy into the hands of the great Divine. 'Take care of him for me,' I whispered.
Hours later, Billy was dead.
The next few days I stayed in bed, unable to do anything but drink tea. Soon, a monster storm moved through Long Island. I pushed the foot of my bed up against the window and watched the blizzard tear up the world outside.
Billy loved wild, turbulent weather, and as the wind screamed through my windows, I was sure it was Billy's spirit, making his usual racket, knocking around the sky, trying to find his way.
The storm passed and the winds subsided. I spent my days mostly in bed, crying. My long, dark, wavy hair was lank and uncombed, my eyes puffed into slits, my skin haggard.
Three weeks of post-death misery later, it was my birthday. Just before sunrise, as I was waking up, I heard someone calling my name from above me.
Annie! Annie! It's me! It's me! It's Billy!
It was Billy's unmistakable deep, mellow voice. I was startled, but not at all afraid. In fact, I felt comforted.
'Billy?' I said, half asleep. 'You can't be here. You're dead. I must be dreaming.'
You're not dreaming. It's me! Get up and get the red notebook.
Suddenly, I was very much awake. I'd completely forgotten about the red leather notebook Billy had sent me last year for my birthday.
I found the notebook on a shelf in my bedroom closet. The pages were blank, except for an inscription written on the first page.
Everyone needs a book dedicated to them.
Read between the lines.
I ran my fingers over the familiar handwriting. Then I heard him again.
It's really me, Annie. And I'm okay, it's okay because . . .
I grabbed a pen and wrote what he was saying in the red notebook.
The first thing that happens is bliss; at least it was like that in my case. I don't know if it's that way for everyone who dies. As the car hit me, this energy came and sucked me right out of my body into a higher realm. I say 'higher' since I had the feeling of rising up and suddenly all my pain was gone.
I don't remember hovering over my body or looking down on it or anything like that. I guess I was pretty anxious to get out of there. I knew right away I was dead, and went with it, more than ready for whatever was waiting.