Blue Tag Sale
By Beth Cato
Lindsay was surprised to be named the beneficiary of Grandma’s soul. Most folks’ souls just drifted free immediately after death. As old-fashioned as Grandma was, Lindsay had expected hers to do the same.
“Mother would do this, just to be difficult,” said Lindsay’s mom. She paced back and forth, a black matte bag with satin handles swaying from her arm. It looked like something from a high-end retailer, but it bore the silver monogram of the funeral parlor. “And you wouldn’t believe the piece she chose to be put in. It’s an old blue carnival glass vase. It might have actually been worth something.”
Mom set down the bag. After some rustling, she pulled out the object in question. Lindsay couldn’t help but smile. She recognized it; that vase had sat atop Grandma’s piano as long as she could remember.
The carnival glass was blue with an iridescent tinge, narrow as a column and flaring like an orchid’s petals at the top, except now it had been modified. A bell of silver capped the petals. Near the base was a fixture like a miniature faucet lever, a dime-sized silver mesh just below it.
“That was Grandma’s choice,” said Lindsay, studying the device. She had never seen one up close before. They were the sorts of things she would spy high up on a shelf while she and Grandma were out antiquing. What was she supposed to do with this? God knew she never dusted as she should.
She repressed a shudder. The very concept of dusting off her Grandma’s soul container on a regular basis seemed wrong. She flashed back to the image of Grandma, laying there in the hospice for months and months. The way Grandma had to be shifted to avoid bedsores. The way she soiled herself. None of that was like Grandma. It screamed of wrongness.
The vase, for all its elegance, was wrong, too.
“You know what I think about your grandmother’s choices.”
Lindsay did. Because, as her mom liked to remind her, Lindsay took after her Grandma in all too many ways. They had the body type, all hips and a strut of a walk. That same mousey brown hair, though Lindsay only remembered Grandma’s as white. That same penchant for bargain-hunting and keeping-things-simple.
Lindsay definitely had not inherited those traits from her mom.
Mom continued to study the vase with thin-lipped disgust. “The man at the funeral home said it was her wish that no one in the family be told until weeks after her death. He said Mother wanted us to mourn as if she was already completely gone.”
Or celebrate that Grandma was gone, in Mom’s case. No. That was too harsh. Mom loved Grandma. They just never got along. Mom loved her Lexus and Nordstrom. Grandma was content in her K-mart sweatpants. Never the twain shall meet.
“Well, I’ll be glad to have her here.” The half-lie emerged with ease, simply to contradict Mom. She wanted Grandma here, yes. But this wasn’t Grandma. Lindsay accepted the vase, hefting it. If anything, it felt lighter now that it contained a soul. It was unnerving. “How does this work exactly?”
“There’s a brochure in here.” Mom lifted the bag. “Souls can’t last long outside of a body, even preserved in a vessel. I think they estimate about six months of communication left, on average. Fifteen minutes or so a day. The color becomes more vivid when the soul has energy stored up.” She motioned to the vase. The blue was bright as if in a direct sunbeam. “You turn the knob here. They have a voice approximation installed inside, so it’s supposed to sound like her when she speaks.”
“Hence this little thing like a speaker at the bottom?”
“It’s pretty bright right now. Want to say hi?” Lindsay couldn’t resist the dig.
Sure enough, Mom turned away as if she could conceal her repulsion. “Lindsay, my mother’s dead. I accept that. I don’t want to talk to some part of her spirit that’s been crammed into a jar.”
“Vase,” Lindsay corrected.
“Whatever.” Mom moved towards the door.
“Do you know when Uncle Bill and Uncle Seth are clearing out Grandma’s place?”
Mom looked back at her, rolling her eyes. “No, I don’t. And I already told you, you don’t need any of that old crap. If you want new furniture, I can—”
“—get you new furniture,” Lindsay said, finishing the line in Mom’s prim tone. “I don’t need anything fancy, Mom. Not your sort of fancy.”
“No.” Mom’s expression said everything. Her hand rested on the doorknob.
“See you later, Mom.”
“Yes. See you later.” Mom’s eyes drifted to the vase one final time, and then she fled through the door.
Lindsay plopped down on the hard wood of a thrift shop-scavenged pew, the vase clutched in both hands. This was weird. Surreal. She stroked the cool ribbed lines of the glass. Was Grandma really in there? Taking a deep breath, she twisted the lever at the bottom.
There was the slight pop of a valve releasing and a hiss of air.
“Lindsay?” The familiar quavering voice sounded distant, as if carried through a long tunnel.
“I’m here, Grandma.” Tears filled her eyes. However faint her voice, Grandma sounded stronger than she had a year ago, when the cancer and chemo had taken her on a long, slow decline.
“I see you. I see your whole living room.”
Lindsay jerked back, glancing around her apartment with sudden self-consciousness. She should have remembered that aspect from learning about this years ago. Grandma’s soul was gradually seeping out, whether the valve was open or not. She was becoming, basically, a ghost that drifted in the space around her vase, which was one of the big reasons why most people didn’t store their souls anymore, not unless it was out of spite. Grandma wasn’t like that, but Lindsay would have never expected Grandma to have her soul contained.
“Guess it’s a good thing I don’t have a boyfriend,” Lindsay said, trying to keep her voice light.
“You should have a boyfriend, pretty as you are.”
There was a long pause.
“So I’m dead.”
“Yes. Three weeks now.” Tears flooded her eyes again. “I’ve missed you so much.”
“Oh, Lindy-Lou. Those last weeks . . . or months? They were so hard. It was like I was barely awake, wasn’t it?”
Lindsay nodded, one foot tapping against the leg of the pew. “Yeah.”
“So, those kids of mine dump my house yet?”
“No. Mom hasn’t said much about it, but I know they plan to.”
“I sure miss that old place.” Yearning creaked in her voice. “I have a lot of good memories there, me and Papa. I wasn’t there at the end, was I?”
“No. You were at the hospice for four months.”
“Four months. That long.” Lindsay could picture the disbelief on Grandma’s face. “Do you think . . . do you think I could go home? See the old place?”
Lindsay looked at the clock. She had homework to do, but this was Grandma asking her for a favor. Grandma, dead and stuck in a piece of glass. “Sure. I can drive you over. I guess . . . I guess I turn this thing off?”
Lindsay didn’t want this power. She had already said her farewells—said goodbye to Grandma every week at the hospice, wondering each time if it would be the last. Now, it was like Grandma was a prisoner all over again, and Lindsay was the one in control, control she didn’t want. Waves of longing and frustration rocked her. Why did Grandma put this on her? Why make her go through the grief again?
“You just turn the valve there. It’s supposed to be easy.”
“Yeah.” Her fingers, boneless and lacking the strength to do the deed, clutched the knob.
“Lindy-Lou. I’ll still be here, even if I can’t speak.” Grandma’s husky voice softened. “It’s okay.”
She nodded and took in a deep breath as she twisted the lever shut. Having Grandma’s soul in her vase was better than nothing, but it still wasn’t Grandma.
Lindsay stroked the hard lines of the vase and shivered at the coldness of the glass.
Lindsay didn’t want to open the valve again once she reached Grandma’s house, but she knew Grandma was already drifting close by and could see what her granddaughter saw. Lindsay set the vase on its customary spot on the piano and twisted the lever.
Grandma didn’t speak for a few moments.
“I see they’ve already been busy.”
“Yeah.” Anger burned in Lindsay’s chest. Mom had lied to her. Boxes stacked in crude brown towers, and black marker labeled the fates of Grandma’s precious belongings: eBay or thrift store. Lindsay knew she shouldn’t have taken Mom’s word; she should have driven across town and checked on the place for herself.
But that would’ve meant visiting Grandma’s house with Grandma gone. Even now, it wasn’t the same. It didn’t smell right.
“I always was something of a packrat,” Grandma said, her tone dismissive. “This is one of the things they warned me about when I did the paperwork for soul-containing—that I’d have to face the consequences of my death and let go.”
“Then why did you do it?”
“I wasn’t ready to die.” Grandma’s heavy sigh rasped through the vase’s speaker.
Lindsay closed her eyes. She hadn’t been ready for her to die, either, but she had told herself that Grandma’s passing was for the best. Stopping the pain and all that.
“Why did you…” She couldn’t finish the sentence.
“I wasn’t ready to die yet,” Grandma repeated gently. “I figured if I stuck around for a while, I might be useful. Maybe someone will decide they want my Spam rice recipe, after all.”
That coaxed Lindsay’s lips into a smile, but her emotions were a muddled knot in her stomach. She still couldn’t phrase the question that kept racing through her mind: why had Grandma chosen to be with her? Grandma had to know how painful this all was and how hard it would be to say goodbye, as her soul faded away into finality.
“Now, Lindy-Lou,” Grandma said, “I know you’re busy with school things, and the drive over was long. Leave me here tonight. I would like one more night in the old place, in the bed that Papa and I shared. I never had that at the end.”
“Okay.” Lindsay picked up the vase again and headed down the hall. Grandma’s room was in the same stripped condition as the rest of the house. Bare mattresses sat askew on the bed frame. She nudged them straight with her knees and set the vase at the head of the bed.
“Thanks. Go ahead and close the valve. I just want to wander a while.”
“Okay,” Lindsay said and turned the lever. Here she was with a chance to talk to Grandma again, and she didn’t even know what to say beyond one-word responses. Lindsay stopped in the doorway. “I have classes all morning and work in the afternoon. I’ll be back to get you about suppertime, okay?”
She paused, waiting for a reply, pulling out the key to Grandma’s front door again. Oh, how stupid. With the valve shut, Grandma couldn’t speak. Lindsay clenched her fist, the key cutting into her palm.
Lindsay tried not to think of the contained soul all day long, so of course, thoughts of Grandma plagued her every five minutes. Grandma, her emaciated body like that of a third-world child, stretched out beneath those stark white hospice sheets. The way Grandma always made sausage, gravy, and fresh biscuits for Grandpapa every Saturday and Sunday morning. Grandma’s voice, so thin and tenuous, emitting from a vase of carnival glass.
The granddaughter almost didn’t want to fetch the vase again. People always talked of souls as eternal, but it didn’t really seem like Grandma, without her body and smile and the lingering scent of White Shoulders perfume.
She unlocked Grandma’s door, rehearsing the pleasantries about her day that she could say aloud for the vase. Her footsteps echoed in the darkness, and she stopped cold.
The house was empty.
Frantic, she dove for the light switch. It didn’t work. She jerked the cord for the blinds. They lurched open crookedly, granting scattered beams of light into the room. The furniture and boxes were gone. She staggered down the hall, knowing the bedroom would be the same. Empty. Her cold fingers fumbled to pull out her phone.
“Hello?” Mom answered on the first ring.
“Where is Grandma’s stuff? Where is Grandma?” That’s what she wanted to scream, but couldn’t. She was the one who had left Grandma there. For one day, that’s all. She never thought this would be the day they’d clear out the house.
“Oh. Why are you there? I was going to tell you…”
“I came because Grandma asked me to. Was Uncle Bill or Seth here today?”
“Neither of them, I think. Bill was going to hire a crew to clear out everything. Some college kids—”
Icy coldness trickled through her veins and almost sent her to the floor. Other kids her age wouldn’t recognize a soul-snaring vase. Oh, God. Grandma’s soul could be in the trash, or on eBay.
“Where?” she choked out. “Where did they take everything?”
“Lindsay, there is nothing in that house you need. It’s junk. You don’t need more junk.”
Her eyes opened wide. “Mom. I’m twenty-two-years-old. If I want more junk, that’s my decision. What company did he use?”
“I can ask—”
“No. I’ll do it.” For the first time in her life, Lindsay hung up on her mother. Fingers quivering, she looked through her contact list for Uncle Bill.
The Tricounty Renewed Hope Thrift Store on 7th and Anders was not a place that Lindsay had often visited, but she was familiar enough to know they had a donation drop-off in the back alley. According to the men Uncle Bill hired, most of Grandma’s things had been left there. One of the men remembered putting the strange vase that had been sitting on the bed in a donation box.
She walked toward the alley, her pace brisk. Mountains of boxes and plastic bags flanked either side of the back entrance. She eyed the boxes. They didn’t look like the ones from Grandma’s. The only comfort she took was that there was no way that Grandma’s vase had been sold so quickly.
But the vase could’ve broken, releasing her soul all the faster, or Lindsay might not be able to find it at all. Anxiety thrummed in her heart. No. She had to find Grandma.
“Hello?” She stood in the doorway to the back room. Shelves and racks of clothes overflowed. A pervasive musty odor tickled her nose. “Hello? I need help finding something that was donated by accident.”
No reply. She didn’t even hear footsteps. Well, this couldn’t wait. She walked inside, looking every which way for those particular plain brown boxes or familiar furniture.
“Grandma? If you can hear me, maybe you can do a ghost thing and knock some boxes over or something?” Lindsay didn’t know if that was possible with a vase-bound soul, but it was worth a shot. She spied a familiar couch arm and heaved up a large black garbage bag. Yes, that was Grandma’s ancient couch. She sucked in a breath. Getting closer.
She shoved some other garbage bags aside. There were the brown boxes, but her heart sank. There had to be two dozen of them, some big enough to hide a crouching adult. Which one held Grandma?
The top box drifted into the air, just a few inches, and then set itself down again. Lindsay grinned. Grandma was listening.
The sealing tape roared as she tore it back. Delving past a thin layer of newspapers, she spied the shimmer of blue glass. She fumbled the vase out and rotated it in her hands. It looked fine, the blue as bright as it had been the day before. She turned on the valve. Air escaped with a sharp hiss.
“Grandma, I’m so sorry!” Lindsay blurted out. Tears flooded her eyes. “I didn’t know they were emptying your place today and—”
“Lindy-Lou. Shush. All’s well.”
Grandma’s soothing voice cut through her panic and straight to her heart. She clutched the vase against her chest, sobs wracking her body.
“I thought I lost you again,” she whispered.
“I will fade away eventually. You know that.”
“I already saw you fade once. I don’t… I don’t think I can deal with that again, but I don’t want you to go, either.”
“I was sick before, barely awake at all. Now you may get fifteen minutes to chat with me every day, but it is me, Lindy-Lou—just as if we were on the phone. Now, dry those tears. I need to show you something.”
Lindsay mopped off her cheeks with her sleeve. “Show me something?”
“Yes. Walk around these boxes, and look at that clothing rack. Go about seven shirts in… yes, right there.”
With one hand hugging the vase close, Lindsay looked through the rack of already-priced clothes. Her fingers rested on a frilly yellow sun dress. The crispness of the cloth showed it was barely worn.
“Look at the maker.” Grandma’s voice was faint, the speaker pressed against Lindsay’s breast.
Lindsay looked at the tag.
“It was made by 9 Cats in the Sun. That’s a designer label. This thing probably cost over $500. I had one of their skirts years ago—”
“Yes, that blue nautical one. I remember.”
Lindsay burst out laughing. “I was panicking, and you were shopping?”
“Well, I couldn’t wander far. I had to occupy the time somehow. Grab it, girl. Blue tags are half off today. That rack isn’t supposed to go out until tomorrow.”
“That’s pretty devious, Grandma. Don’t make me worry about your soul.”
“I’m not devious. I’m cheap. Besides, you can tell your mother you saved up to buy that thing. She’ll never know that means $2.50 and not $500.”
Tears brimmed her eyes again, but this time with joy. “I missed shopping with you so much, Grandma.” She pulled the dress from the rack and let it drape from her arm.
“You’re forgetting something,” Grandma said.
“This vase is merchandise, too. Grab that sticker off the table there and put it on this thing.”
Lindsay balked. “Grandma, no. I’m not putting a price sticker of $1.99 on you. That’s just wrong. No.”
“Lindsay.” The voice was raspy and gentle. “You’re not putting the sticker on me. Just the vase. When my soul is all drifted away, that’s what you’ll have left. It’s not me any more than my body was.”
Lindsay’s fingers hovered over the sticker. “I know,” she whispered. “But it’s hard…”
“Tell me about it. I’m the one who’s stuck in a vase,” Grandma chuckled.
Lindsay closed her eyes briefly, nodding to herself. “I love you so much, Grandma.”
“I love you, too, Lindy-Lou.” Grandma said it sing-song, just as she had when Lindsay was little.
The blue sticker just fit on the bottom of the vase. “It’s a blue tag, too,” she said. “That’s means you’ll be half off.”
“You know me. I’m all about bargain shopping.”
Lindsay had never realized how much she missed these moments with Grandma. Breathing in the mustiness of old cardboard and the sharp chemical taint of mothballs, Grandma with her—everything felt right. And even though she couldn’t see the look on Grandma’s face, Lindsay knew her soul felt the same way.
This was why Grandma had chosen her, chosen to stay in that vase. Even if they just shared a few minutes a day over these next months, the moments would have more value and more weight than all the time they had during Grandma’s awful last year.
“Want to take a look around the store with me?” Lindsay asked. “Maybe you can find something else.”
“Oh goodness, yes! I haven’t been able to do this for forever! Let’s go for a quick walk around. I don’t have much voice left today. Be sure to go straight to the kitchenware! Maybe they have some Revere silver today…”
Lindsay couldn’t help but grin as she slipped out into the brightness of the main store, Grandma’s presence a comforting weight on her arm.
Active member, SFWA I’m a writer of novels, short stories, essays, magazine articles, and poetry. Most of my writing is in the realm of speculative fiction–fantasy, science fiction, and subgenres therein. Since technology hasn’t created a way for me to beam fresh baked goods around the internet (yet).
Visit The Offical Beth Cato Website.