Furniture shopping was mostly the same in death as it had been in life, though admittedly a little less full of possibility. They’d both been here before. Wandering an IKEA with someone significant, laughing with the excitement of planning an ideal life together, flopping down on fluffy model beds to test them and examining utensils in Kitchenware. The magic of IKEA was a palpable thing, the way buying a mahogany tea-stained coffee table with someone felt reinvigorating and true. But how many times could you truly believe in a new beginning, he wondered. Dating while dead was strange. But you had to do something to pass the time.
He took Angie’s hand. They’d been dating for around 60 years now—one did things slowly in the afterlife—and she still made him feel like a giddy schoolboy. She squeezed his hand, and he smiled at her. She was older than him; not by much, but enough so that he felt confident in his wrinkled skin. She kept her white hair in a plait down her back and her face was thin and crumpled, but her eyes were a striking blue.
He had been a widower for the last twenty–some years of his life. Maura died of a heart attack when they were 54 and she found out he’d cheated. It nearly killed him too, but it didn’t, and he often wondered in the long years that followed whether dying would have been easier than living without her. He always saw a permanent indent in the mattress where her body should have been, even when their daughter visited and tore him away from their wedding bed, made him buy a new one. He hadn’t gone with her on that trip to IKEA. But the new Sultan Finnvik Memory Foam mattress still looked and felt incomplete without Maura. Missing her was a pain he had grown accustomed to. Angie was the first woman he had even really looked at since that day. He was new at this. He was regaining his footing.
They stopped at a stand of stainless steel knives and Angie fussed over them. She had been a chef, in life. “Ooh, this is great. I love the feel of this one.”
She launched into a story about some incident in the restaurant when the knives had all blunted and the dinner special was steak.
“So it’d be pretty sharp of us to get this set, eh?” He made a feeble attempt at a joke and she giggled like a teenager, wrapped her hand around his forearm and squeezed.
“Yes, let’s.” Her hand was warm on his skin. They dropped a box of knives in their cart and shuffled forward, slowly.
When he had first arrived, he’d spent all his time looking for Maura. He’d woken up in a white room, a little dazed and confused but happy to be where he was. He’d filed out to the auditorium with the others who’d arrived that minute and watched the short orientation video. Death, the voice intoned, is an eternal peace. Welcome. The voice explained how food worked (all–you–can-eat buffet), how to get around (sky rail or by foot), and what the rules were (none), accompanied by slides of rolling hills and pictures of various food items. He’d automatically looked for a red EXIT sign in the auditorium, a habit ingrained in him by his firefighter dad, but there was none.
Then his search began. He knocked on every door. He called all the Maura Greens in the phone book. But when he ran into her old friend Betty, she told him that Maura had requested to be in another district, away from him. That when she’d heard he was coming, she’d taken her number out of the directory and closed up her place. His heart had ached. He had waited so long to explain, to ask for forgiveness. He spent the next hundred years pining. He made no friends. Spoke only occasionally to people from life, his mother, his old friend Roy.
From Roy: “You wasted a lot of life over her. Now you’re going to waste death too?”
He didn’t respond, but he felt something flicker within him. Then he turned and left the room, gone to feed the geese down by the lake.
Another hundred years later, the pining was slowly stopping. He had begun to make some friends. They all played bingo together and drank tea, and sometimes laughed so hard his head spun. Angie was among them. They had gotten along from the start, and one day he tentatively brushed her fingers with his, unsure of how to do anything. He had once been filled with bluster and bravado, but the years of solitude and self-blame had taken his confidence. Then she held his hand back, firmly, and he felt like a bird taking flight.
Now they were at IKEA, shopping for a new life, and he had not thought about Maura in years. Thought instead of the new fire Angie’s presence had kindled in his chest, warming him from the inside out. He had given her a set of keys to his place last week, and she liked to come by when he was out feeding the ducks and putter around in the kitchen, make some tea and leave it by the piano keyboard. It was nice. It was nice having someone again.
There weren’t many people in the store. He’d noticed that not many people shopped in the afterlife. Most seemed pretty content with what they had. But there were still stores for those who wanted them, IKEA and Macy’s and cute little knick–knack shops. Nothing required any money. He was at the farthest edge of his section of Death than he’d been before. He figured they kept the stores far away on purpose.
They were in Bedding and she smiled mischievously at him. “Shall we try this one out?” The bedsprings creaked as they laboriously clambered on. He started chuckling and telling her about a time his daughter had fallen asleep in a bed in IKEA. “We looked everywhere but under the covers!”
She laughed, a real hearty laugh, and happiness swelled within him. How long it had been since he had felt like this. He tucked her head against his chest. This section of the store was deserted but for a blonde woman he could see looking at towels in Bath.
“You make me feel good again,” he said softly to Angie.
The blonde woman turned and his heart nearly stopped; it was Maura. He felt himself tense. No, it wasn’t Maura. Just a woman with similar hair and the same curve to her mouth. He hadn’t thought of her in half a century. He’d begun forgetting to hate himself, now resented this blonde woman for making him remember. He felt jolted back to an unpleasant consciousness, filled with an unsettling sense of urgency, like this moment held all the importance in the world. He took Angie’s face in his hands and kissed her, tried to pour into her all the hope he had left for starting over. All the hope that the afterlife could be a better life, the hope for new beginnings, new coffee tables and fat armchairs.
Illustrations by Julia Masters