Hide-and-go-seek was the order of the evening. Two days of rain with no signs of stopping meant mud, mud, and more mud. Jenn already knew where the kids were. They always hid together and in the same spot. Twins like to stick together, it seemed.
“Where could they be?” she said convincingly as they giggled somewhere in the house. She tiptoed down the hall and peeked into their room. “Goodness, I will never find them! Maybe… here!” she shouted as she dropped to the floor and pulled the covers back.
“Err, guess not…” she murmured, searching the empty space under the bed. “How about… here!” she shouted again, this time at an empty closet. They’re really making me work for it this time, she thought. Nothing in the bath, no one in the laundry… she knew they were too scared to venture in the basement but decided to check after she’d exhausted all other options.
Jenn noisily stamped down the stairs to announce her presence, hoping to elicit some giggles and shuffling. “I’m going to find you!” she sang. She stopped, noting the uncanny silence. With a five-year-old boy and a five-year-old girl, the only silence she ever experienced happened while they were sleeping—and even that was often interrupted by nightmares.
“Jordan! Casey! Come on kids, you win! I give up!” she shouted merrily. “Olly olly oxen free! You win!” she shouted with slightly more urgency. “Mommy’s not playing anymore. Come on now, it’s time for dinner!” Still nothing. “All right, how about this? If you come out now, we’ll get a big cheesy pizza, two buckets of whatever flavor ice cream you want, and we’ll rent a movie! But, you have to come out now!”
A minute passed, and the panic set in. “All right, kids, come out now. If you don’t come out, you’re going to be in trouble, okay?” she shouted in her serious voice. “Jordan Oliver Jones, you and your sister come out this instant!”
Jenn suddenly heard movement above her and sprinted up the stairs.
“What on earth took you so long?” she fussed as she reached the ground level. “I was starting to get wor—” Jenn froze. The front door was wide open. She knew she’d locked it. She was obsessive about locking the door and checked it at least twice a day. She ran out onto the porch, dizzy and nearly hyperventilating. “Jordan! Casey!”
She ran inside and called the police. Jenn wasn’t thinking clearly.
“Yes, I need help. My children are missing! Cherry Street, 43 Cherry Street, I was playing hide-and-go-seek with them and I couldn’t find them and I searched everywhere and then I found the door open and they’re not here! They’re gone!” she shrieked, the panic building.
“Is there anyone who might want to take them? Could they be with their father? A relative? The neighbors?” asked a calm voice on the other end of the phone.
“My family doesn’t live near here and the neighbors are out and…” Jenn’s stomach knotted up. “Oh god, their father. I… I have a restraining order against him. He shouldn’t even— He’s not supposed to be in town or anywhere near or—”
“Ma’am, I want you to go inside and lock the doors, just to be safe. Make sure all windows are latched as well. I’m sending a dispatch unit to patrol the area. Can you do that for me?” the operator asked in a soothing voice.
“Yes, yes I— Okay, I’m inside,” Jenn panted.
“Good. Thank you. Can you tell me about their father?” the officer asked.
Jenn shuddered as the memories flooded back. “He… he murdered his ex-wife in our home. It was all over the news. Jeremy Picking, he—”
“Oh, yes. Yes, I remember,” the officer interrupted. “Shouldn’t he be—”
Jenn waited for her to finish and heard silence. “Hello? Hello? Are you there?” Jenn tried another number, and there was no dial tone. She jumped hard at the sound of a loud knock at the door. She saw what looked like an officer’s uniform through the frosted glass and rushed to unlock it.
“Are you okay, Jenn?” It was officer John Daley, an old peer of Jenn’s from high school and police officer in town for over a decade. “Gosh, you got here fast,” Jenn sighed, relieved to not be alone anymore. “The kids, John, they’re gone. I—”
“Don’t worry, Jenn,” John interjected, holding her shoulders as she started to weep again. “They’re probably just running around the neighborhood, messin’ around. I’ve got two cars out patrolling right now. Just stay inside and try to keep a cool head. We’ll find ‘em.”
Jenn locked the door behind her again and paced the floor, wringing her hands, peering out the window, and re-checking every potential hiding spot. As she crawled out from under the dining room table, she suddenly noticed motion on the second floor of the house next door. Her breathing stopped. They were supposed to be away for the weekend. A light in the attic flicked on, and the curtains swayed. Jenn walked right up to her window, close enough for her nose to touch the glass, when the light suddenly flicked off again. Jenn yanked the curtains closed, feeling exposed. She ran through the house, checking the locks again, roughly pulling all the curtains closed.
She reached the glass door in the kitchen and came face-to-face with her neighbor Todd, screaming loudly enough to make him jump. Todd frowned, breathing heavily, and shook his head, “Jesus, Jenn, what is it? What happened?”
Jenn cracked the door open, the chain lock still in place. “Sorry Todd, I—” She suddenly remembered he was supposed to be out of town. “Wait, why are you here? And why are you in town?”
Todd looked slightly offended, “Well, Crissy and I got into a big argument over how her dad always treats me and, while it was pretty rough, I am being spared a trip to see the in-laws. But, yeah, I got home like ten minutes ago and saw Officer Daley leaving, so I figured I’d come check in on you and see if everything was okay.”
“Oh, yeah, it’s just…well, the kids, we were playing hide-and-go-seek and I couldn’t find them and then—” Something shiny glinting by Todd’s side caught her eye. He gripped a pair of shears in his left hand. Todd followed her eyes down to see what had stopped her so abruptly. “Wh— Oh! Sorry, yeah when I was crossing the back yard to get to yours, a lot of brush was getting in my way so I thought, ugh, I thought I’d just get on it and, uh, you know, get it out of the way, and, uh…you know, you don’t have to talk to me through the door,” Todd smiled taking a step forward.
Jenn didn’t flinch. Her mind was racing. The phone line was down, Todd had appeared out of nowhere, the shears, the phone, the kids, the shears. Jenn slammed the door in Todd’s face and locked the other two bolts. “Hey!” Todd shouted and banged the door with the fist holding the shears. “I just want to talk!” he shouted, still banging the door. Jenn ran upstairs and tore through her father’s old chest, desperately clawing around for the old 9-millimeter. Why would Todd want her children? Was he trying to get her alone? His wife was out of town, and he was always flirting just a bit too much.
She found the gun just as she heard glass shattering downstairs. She silently loaded and cocked it. As much as instinct told her to hide, she couldn’t, not with Jordan and Casey’s lives at stake. She crouched down, surveying the first floor from the top step. The kitchen door was completely obliterated, and Todd lay sprawled out on his chest. It had to be Jeremy. He took the kids and now he was back to take her. This can’t be happening, she repeated in her head over and over. She cracked. She couldn’t take the tension any longer. “What do you want from us?” she screeched down the stairs.
“Jenn?” she heard John shout back. “Oh god,” she cried out as she raced down the stairs. John stood in the living room facing the kitchen with his pistol drawn. She threw her left arm around him, keeping the gun out of sight. She wasn’t entirely sure if it was legal for her to have the weapon. “Todd was here, he’s not supposed to be and he had these big shears and I freaked out,” she wailed into his shoulder, “I think Jeremy was here, there’s blood everywhere-”
“Don’t worry, I showed up just as Todd broke the glass to get in through your kitchen door. I shot him; it wasn’t Jeremy,” he said stroking her hair.
“But… but I didn’t hear any gunshots,” Jenn said confused, thinking surely Todd had been stabbed. “Silencer,” said John, “I didn’t want to shake up the whole neighborhood if I didn’t have to.”
“Oh… right,” Jenn exhaled, “Are my children at his house? Did you find them? Was Todd even involved in that or does he just have amazing timing? Is he… is he going to be okay?”
“Sh, sh, sh,” John said, holding her tighter. You don’t have to worry about John or Jeremy or any other man ever again. I’ll make sure of it. Now, how about some dinner?”
Jenn pulled away, frowning, “John, I can’t exactly eat right now. My children are missing,” she began tearing up. John continued smiling. “How about I go with you and we look for them together? You know, help the other guys you said are looking?” Jenn offered.
“Let them do their job, sweetie. They don’t need any help. These are professional police officers. We‘re going to find little Jordan and Casey.” Jenn stopped moving, trying to remember when she’d told him the names of her children. They went to the same high school together, but that was all. He didn’t know anything about her children. In fact, he hadn’t even asked for their descriptions to tell the dispatchers who to look for.
“We’ll get a big cheesy pizza,” he continued, “two flavors of ice cream and, hey, maybe we’ll even rent a movie to get your mind off of things.” Her heart dropped, her stomach flew into her throat, and her breathing grew short and shallow.
“John, how do the dispatchers know who to look for?” Jenn asked slowly.
“I told them what they look like, Jenny. You really need to calm down,” John said with a new note of seriousness to his voice.
“John, how… how do you know what my children look like?” Jenn asked, gripping the gun still hidden behind her back.
John’s smile faded and he took a step closer, his fists clenched. “That’s really not important, Jenny. Don’t you want your children to be found? Don’t you want them safe? Don’t you want your children back, Jenny?”
“Why do you keep calling me Jenny?”
“You ask a lot of questions,” John shouted, making Jenn jump. “That is what you liked to be called in high school, wasn’t it? When we still hung out? Before you met that freak, Jeremy, and cut me out of your life completely!”
“John, where are my kids?” Jenn shouted back.
“Jeremy’s children are none of your concern anymore!” John roared.
Jenn pulled the gun from behind her back and pointed it at John, shaking, praying she loaded it correctly.
“Todd didn’t break the glass door, did he?” Jenn asked softly. “Did he?” she shouted.
“He was just another man that wanted to get to you,” John slurred lazily, unfazed by the gun, as he plopped down on the couch. “You know, if you shoot me, you’ll never find them.”
Jenn felt her will slipping as she sobbed. “What do you want?” she whimpered.
“Sit,” John ordered, “and give me the gun.” Jenn did as she was told and collapsed into the armchair. “Did you even notice how much I cared about you in high school? I never stopped caring. I’ve been watching you and keeping you safe for years, Jenn,” John spat.
John continued his diatribe, relaying stories from high school that Jenn barely remembered. As he ranted, she noticed a light out of the corner of her eye. It was Crissy. She was home from her parents’ place. Please come here looking for Todd, Jenn thought to herself. Please, please, please. Jenn kept her eyes focused on Todd as she noticed Crissy crossing her backyard in her peripheral.
“I can keep you safe. No one will ever touch you ever again. Think of Casey. Think of little Jordan. I’ll keep them s—” John and Jenn jumped as Crissy’s screams interrupted them. She’d found Todd. Jenn seized the moment to snatch back the gun. John lunged for it, setting it off.
His face froze, his eyelids drooping. He’d taken a bullet straight to the gut. John staggered backward, crashing to the floor. Jenn ran to Crissy, who held Todd in her arms. He drifted in and out of consciousness. “There’s no time to explain! Please, I need to use your phone!” Jenn begged. She helped Crissy drag Todd to the front yard just as two officers screeched to a halt in their patrol cars. Four officers with guns drawn rushed toward the house yelling for Jenn and Crissy to lay down. Apparently, neighbors contacted police at the sound of the gunshot.
The officers didn’t immediately comprehend why one of their own was lying on Jenn’s floor after her children went missing; however, after hearing knocking coming from John’s patrol vehicle, they found Jordan and Casey unharmed in the trunk. John survived but was fired and sent to a psychiatric ward for counseling.
Dating sucks as an adult. The only way to meet new people is either on the internet or in a bar, and I’m not comfortable trying to start a relationship with someone I’ve come across in either of those scenarios. At 28 years old, not being romantically interested in any of my unmarried friends or coworkers, I figured I was just doomed to be single the rest of my life.
But then I met her.
I was walking home from my favorite local comic book store, nose buried in my newest purchase, when I walked straight into the woman of my dreams. Her piercing blue eyes crinkled a bit at the corners as she laughed at my bumbling apology. She looked down at the ground briefly and tucked a bit of her dark brown hair behind her ear before looking back at me and sticking out her hand.
“I’m Miranda,” she cooed as I shook her hand. She was beautiful, and I was hooked.
Introductions turned into small talk, small talk turned into conversation, and before I knew it, my watch informed me that we had been sitting on the grass next to the sidewalk for 2 hours chatting. I regretfully announced that I needed to get home, then nervously asked Miranda if she would like to meet me the next night for dinner. She agreed, and we set the time and place for our date.
I was over the moon the rest of the night and most of the next day. My nerves kicked in on the way to the expensive Italian restaurant we decided on. It suddenly occurred to me that we hadn’t even exchanged phone numbers. What if she was just being polite and had no intention of coming? What if she was in an accident or her car broke down and she couldn’t make it? A million scenarios raced through my head as I began to sweat and my heart started to race. My stomach was in knots when I walked through the doors of the restaurant, but the bad feelings fell away as soon as I saw her standing in the corner wearing a purple dress that perfectly complimented her slim figure.
The hostess looked at me funny when I asked for a table for two, and my anxiety perked up again. My panic had left me sweaty, and I was suddenly aware that I had run my fingers through my hair a few times while in transit. I must have looked a mess despite my nice pants and shirt. I used my hands to ensure my hair was put back into place and wiped my forehead with my sleeve as I followed the hostess and my date to a table in the corner of the eatery.
The date went amazingly well. Miranda let me order for both of us, telling me that she trusted my judgement. We chatted and laughed through the meal like we had known each other forever. The world around me could have been in shambles and I wouldn’t have noticed; I loved being with her so much.
Of course, the joy of new love was short-lived, otherwise I wouldn’t be posting this here, of all places.
We decided to go for a stroll through the nearby park after I paid the bill. I worked up the courage to reach for her hand as we happily walked along the concrete path lit by soft yellow lights. My fingers linked with hers, and just as I felt how cold her skin was, I noticed that she had stopped talking and the air around us had grown tense.
My first thought was that I fucked up. I looked at her, already asking if she was alright.
She changed. Her skin had turned a bluish-gray, marked with deep purple bruises around her throat. The left side of her face was so rotted away that I could see her teeth through her cheek. The bright blue of her eyes was now covered with a milky film, and they stared at me with a hatred so deep that even the bravest soldier would have likely cowered.
I choked on a gasp and tried to back away, but she strengthened her grip on my hand so that I could only move as far as our combined arms’ length. My fingers throbbed and the muscles in my hand and wrist started burning while I tried to pull free from her grasp. Her fingers were so decomposed that I could see tendons and bone, but they were strong. Inhumanly strong.
My yells for help echoed off the surrounding trees. I pulled with all my might, but Miranda wouldn’t let go. She just stood there in her dirty tattered dress, staring at me like I was the worst form of scum. My heart was beating so hard that I could feel it pounding from my chest to the top of my head. Tears streaked down my hot face. I stopped yelling. Even if my labored breathing allowed the effort, I knew no one could hear me. I fell to my knees, forcing myself to stare at the ground instead of the rotting woman before me. I begged in between panting:
“Please, please don’t kill me.”
Miranda started laughing then. Not the musical laugh that had hypnotized me earlier, but a deep, menacing cackle that made me shiver. When she stopped, she crouched down so that we were face to face. She tilted her head, the bones in her neck cracking and popping with the movement, and grimaced.
“I said the same thing, you know. Didn’t help me one bit.”
She brought up the hand that wasn’t on the verge of breaking mine and stroked my cheek, leaving a sticky trail of rotten blood behind as her skin tore on contact. Once she met the base of my jaw, the tender gesture ended and she wrapped her hand around my throat. She pushed me to my back and brought her other hand to my throat as well as she straddled me. I gasped and fought, alternating between trying to push her off of me and attempting to pull her hands away. The edges of my vision grew hazy, the picture of her ghoulish complexion blurred, and I was sure I was about to die.
Just before I lost consciousness, she lowered her face until it was just inches from mine and screamed. I brought my hands to my ears to try to block out the piercing shriek and shut my eyes tight. After a brief moment, I realized that the pressure around my throat was gone and I could breathe again. I rolled onto my side, coughing and rubbing my throat, as Miranda’s screams faded into echoes.
She was gone.
I laid on the ground for a few minutes until my breathing and heart rate returned to a semi-normal state, then I ran to where I had parked my car at the restaurant and drove home.
It took a few days for the bruising around my neck to heal, but physically, there was no permanent damage done. I counted my blessings, and haven’t gone on a date since.
Reading Time: 4 minutesA few years back, I worked as a nurse in the geriatric unit of the hospital in my hometown. There was one old woman there with pale blue eyes whose mind was still fantastically sharp, and her desire to socialize and make new friends set her apart from most others living in that wing of the facility. That woman and I soon became close for this reason. Her name was Yana, and I still miss her every day since she passed.
The strangest thing about Yana was not her accent (which I could only place vaguely as Eastern European), nor her disinclination to talk about her past (which means I never learned exactly where she had grown up.) No, what fascinated me the most was that a strange young man, badly mutilated and plainly blind and mute, would visit her every single day. His hands appeared deformed, seemingly eroded at each digit down to the first knuckle. But each evening, a little after dinnertime, he would visit and they would sit together. She would read to him, or sometimes sing in her frail, old voice. Sometimes they would just hold hands in silence. Finally, I gathered the courage to ask her about this man, and in a strange moment of openness, she agreed to tell me the story:
“My sister and I were the only surviving members of our family after our father passed away in 1964. These were very hard times for my old country, and Father had grown so sick that we were eventually forced to allow him to starve, rather than waste food to comfort him as he inevitably died. Sister had been losing her mind little-by-little before all this happened, but I could see in her eyes, as we buried Father, that she had finally gone somewhere far away inside herself. I remember the crows, perched in thick groups like clots of preening black movement, watching us in the cemetery from all of the rooftops. We moved to bury Father quickly, because the crows were as hungry as we were…
Sister took to begging in the streets, sometimes trading sex for rides into the city nearby in the hopes that her begging would be more profitable there. It was during these terrible times that she conceived a son – a bastard whose father was not known to her but who was certainly some manner of predatory monster. This was the only kind of man my sister knew in those days of her life. The child was delivered healthy, happy, and with a glowing spirit that broke my heart, because I knew that soon the young boy’s eyes would look like mine, and like my sister’s. Even on the day he was born, I knew his beautiful, joyous innocence could not last.
Sister did not care for her son as she should have – as God and goodness alike demand that a mother should care for her child. She would not change the boy’s soiled diapers, leaving this to me instead, and would ‘forget’ to feed him even when his hungry wailing was ringing shrill and miserable through the whole house. Eventually she began to take him out begging, using the child as a prop with which to elicit the sympathy of strangers. She was most pleased when he looked his worst, and even complained to me once or twice that she could raise no money at all on days that he looked ‘too healthy.’
I can never forget her final act of cruelty against Vasily (I named him myself after Sister could not be bothered). It was morning, and I had walked outside into our yard to smell the air. The child was lying motionless on the ground there, and seemed quite dead – smeared as he was with his own blood. His little fingers and toes were black with frostbite; Sister had not even bundled him in anything when she laid him down hours ago in the dark of night. The crows, which were as hungry as we were, had plucked his beautiful eyes and tongue from his still-living body. I grabbed him up with tears already pouring down my cheeks, thinking that I had claimed a corpse. It was only when he stirred against my breast that I realized he might be saved.
I swaddled him as warmly as I could, and fed him something before rushing him down to the home of the town’s only doctor. I nearly beat down the front door with my fist, and he answered with sleep still in his eyes because it was so early. I paid him with all of the heirloom jewelry from Mother that I had been able to hide from Sister over the years. An hour or so later, the doctor told me Vasily would live, but asked that he be allowed to monitor the child for the rest of the day. I told him that this would be fine, as today would be a busy day for me. And indeed it was. By evening I had smashed Sister’s head to a flattened pulp with the cast-iron skillet from our stove, obtained a train ticket for passage out of our home country, and made plans to give Vasily the best life that he could still yet have.
Vasily – my son now – knows nothing about any of this, of course. I told him only that he was adopted away from a situation which he was likely not to survive. The mirthful optimism I saw on his face when he was born survives to this day inside his heart. Sister, in all her malice, had only managed to suppress it for a while. And now, almost 50 years later, he still visits his elderly mother every single day.”
She beamed with pride as she finished her story, and would say no more. And she was right, Vasily loved her so much, and wore no resentment on his face for his injuries. He always seemed to be smiling pleasantly, even though (in his blindness) he often didn’t know anyone was looking. He visited her every day until she died, and he was holding her hand when she passed. I knew from his interactions with hospital staff that he understood spoken English, and so at Yana’s funeral I told him that I had been a friend of his mother’s. I told him that she was the most amazing, wonderful woman I had ever met. His sad, grateful smile grew deeper, and he nodded his head. His response came in sign language.
Reading Time: 5 minutesEver just stand back and admire the presence of even the simple atmosphere around you? The aroma, the embellishment, or the hands in motion on an old antique clock, making the room seem alive? This was my reaction as I stepped foot into my newly purchased house, with my beautiful fiancée.
We both grounded our feet to the hardwood floor below us; a feeling quite rewarding, as we were both used to worn out carpets and concrete basements throughout our lives. The ceiling was at a pretty high altitude, an easement of my claustrophobia. There was a fireplace tucked into the wall to the left of the room, mirroring the warmness of that instance. Spiraling stairs led up to the second floor, delivering a dramatic addition to the scene before us. There was, however, an even more elegant and interesting part unparalleled to the rest of the house. It was the wallpaper.
Colored in black, gray, and white, the paper on the walls was obstructed by designs. In some areas, simplistic black lines danced just inches from the bottom of the wall. Around other corners, the designs would change to outlines of various things, like staircases and lamps. Unlike most wallpaper you’d see in a home, this house has a different look with every couple of steps taken. Almost like its sole purpose was to be offbeat to the rhythm of the rest of the building. I’m sure some folks wouldn’t be very fond of the look, but I found beauty within the artistic disruption.
My partner mirrored my love for the place, bewildered as she turned around each and every corner. This, after all, was a much needed changed. She was still a little shaky from her divorce a couple years back. Her past marriage hit a wall, just as her abusive ex-husband often did. He was always unsupportive when it came to her art, not to mention violent whenever he drank. It was a refreshing sight to see her eyes widen above a gracious smile, with our new chapter coming to a start. We decided to get an early rest, around 7 o’clock, right before nightfall.
I was struck completely awake by a loud bang in the middle of the night, like caffeine manifested into a drumbeat. My fiancée was still asleep, as being a deep sleeper rendered the noise ineffective. The bang was accompanied by soft, inaudible voices. These ambiguous communications eventually came to a halt and were followed by the sounds of scratches, reminiscent of a cat clawing at the walls. I contemplated my choices, but ultimately decided to cautiously search my new place of residence, just in case someone had broken in. Being a new neighbor might have meant that we were fresh target practice for burglars in the area. Exploring, to my dismay, left me with more questions, rather than the answers I was looking for.
Exiting the doorway to my bedroom, I kept as silent as humanly possible, so as not to alarm the potential intruder. I was not armed, but vulnerability didn’t shake me as much as my curiosity or the vibration of the initial thump.
Suddenly, I spotted something that sent chills throughout my body. What caught my eye, as I turned my head, made me blink more than once. You might think me insane, but I swear I saw something behind the wallpaper move. A mini silhouette, that seemed in sync with the black lines embedded in the paper covering the wall. The figure ran across, escaping around the corner. It’d be the first time I’d ever say this, but I followed the miniature person on the wall.
Approaching the next hallway, things got even more peculiar. I swore I saw the “human” in the wall, pop out into the hallway, and dash away. Immediately after this confusing occurrence, the wallpaper turned yellow in color and became plain. Any designs disappeared, as if someone freshly painted over both sides. Overtiredness was what my mind deemed an answer to all this chaos. Trying to conjure up some comfort and at least delay the perplexity, I made my way back to bed and fell asleep, convinced that I slept walked and dreamt my adventure up.
The morning after, waking up was not so easy. I only got about a few hours of sleep before my lovely lady woke me with a smile brighter than the sun, shaking me like an earthquake, and holding an odd-looking marker in her hand. She stared at me with a grin saying, “You’re the sweetest man I’ve ever made contact with, the love of my life. You made my heart melt with the words you spoke to me in the middle of the night last night!” Then gave me an everlasting kiss.
This had me quite baffled. “What do you mean?” I asked.
“How silly of you!” She exclaimed. “You know you handed me this marker and told me you wanted to be with me forever, welcoming me into your home. You then proceeded to reassure me that nothing, not even the walls could come between us. It was so wonderful and cute to hear.”
Obviously, all of this puzzled me beyond belief. I knew for a fact I wasn’t even in the bedroom most of the night, never mind even speaking a word to her. She was passed out.
Instead of trying to explain what was on my mind, I looked her in her brown sparkling eyes and responded with, “Oh of course, my apologies. I’m still half asleep. I love you so much.”
Hopping out of bed, still a little shaken, I took a few steps towards the door. “I’m going to make us some delectable breakfast; some of your favorite bacon and eggs that I make for you,” I let out while proceeding to leave the room.
“Okay! I’m going to sit here and draw you and I with this, a symbol of our new life together,” she smiled, gesturing towards the marker in her hand.
“Just let me know when the food is ready.”
Before heading down to the kitchen, I wandered off to check out the guest room. It was on the same floor as the bedroom and still unexplored fully compared to other sections of the building.
The tinted glass door was a queer choice of entrance to an interior space, nevertheless a division made for temporary residence. In opening it, my mind flipped a switch to discomfort. The walls were a deep red shade, the floor was made of (what seemed to be) paper, and the bed was in the exact same arrangement as my own. But this wasn’t what made me uneasy. Roughly sketched humanoid faces, side by side across the walls, stared me down. Despite the eyes of ink surrounding my claustrophobic self, I felt alone at that very moment. I had a sudden sense of disconnection from reality and became severely cold. Moments later, I escaped this state of invasive uneasiness, but only by something far worse. A screech. One of a female tone.
Panicked, I ran, stopping at my bedroom doorway. Flustered, my eyes glistening from the beginning of tears, the bewildering sight of our door stood wide open in front of me. Straight ahead on the red paper wall, a picture of my fiancée’s face had been drawn across it in black ink, with her nowhere in physical sight. I searched all about the house, but she had vanished. All that was left behind was a letter on the floor with a repeating phrase…
Reading Time: 21 minutesThe red lights are only making the pain worse. It is an immense, earth-shattering pain, in my midsection and in my head. I try to move, but I can’t; I try to speak, but I can’t do that either. It hurts too much, and my voice obeys me no more than do my joints or my muscles or my bones or my mind.
And yet still there is movement. I can feel myself being lifted up and placed on something – a bed, maybe, or – no.
“Alright!” one of the EMTs says, and several others then roll me into the back of an ambulance, and climb in behind me. But I’m already fading fast, and feeling an inexplicable heat, by the time those doors are shut.
One EMT, a blonde woman, shoots me a curious little look, just as I’m slipping away, and says aloud, “Wait. Wait, I think I know…
”…we’re made of that stuff, right?”
I turned around. There was a woman there, red-haired and about my age, give or take, and she was alarmingly beautiful. But how long she’d been staring at the exhibit alongside me I had no idea.
”I said ‘you know we’re made of that stuff, right’?” She nodded at the museum wall, which depicted in detail the births and life cycle and deaths of stars. I pursed my lips.
”We’re… made of stars?”
”Yep. Isn’t it awesome?” She stepped up beside me and moved her arm across the diagram as she spoke. “I just watched a documentary about it last night. Stars are just fusion factories held together by their own gravity. They start off fusing hydrogen to helium, and then they keep going on and on, fusing heavier and heavier elements until they’re fusing the heaviest stuff. Then they exhaust their fuel and collapse under their own weight, and they blow off their outer layers and pretty much shower the galaxy with all these random elements, some of which are eventually used to create life.”
”Yeah. I’m Robin, by the way.” She extended her hand, and I shook it.
”Uh, hey. Brian. Nice to meet you.” There was an awkward pause before I said, “Alright, I got one for you. If you replaced the sun with a black hole, what would happen?”
”Depends on its mass.”
”Nope! The answer is – drumroll please – nothing. I mean everything would get dark and cold, but we wouldn’t fall in. Earth’s orbit would remain entirely unaffected.”
”IF the black hole had the same mass as the sun.”
”What you said would only be true if the black hole in question happened to have the same mass as the sun. Which it wouldn’t, because the sun isn’t massive enough to collapse into a black hole.”
”Yep. Me one, you zero. Sorry, pal.”
”Alright.” I said. “You’re on. Whoever gets the most points by closing time buys drinks.”
She smiled at that and punched me in the shoulder, just light enough not to sting. ”Alright, loser. Come…”
“…on,” the EMT says. There is a flurry of activity around me, and there are voices, too, and blinding lights, and a cooling down of that monstrous heat.
One of the paramedics is looking me over. Then he looks to another colleague – the blonde woman – and he shakes his head, slowly.
“This one’s gone, Rachel.”
But she continues running tests, running diagnostics, placing a soft hand on my arm in case I’m awake enough to appreciate the comfort. I am. Barely. But I’m fading fast, and that heat is coming right on back as I do.
“Not yet he’s not,” she says. There’s pain in her voice that she does her fruitless best to conceal. “I already lost one earlier, Todd. I’m not losing…”
”… another one!” Robin said, and I laughed and agreed and we rushed to the back of the line.
”See? Told you you’d like Ferris Wheels. Can’t believe you’ve never been on one before today.”
She shrugged. “Never thought they were as extreme as roller coasters, so I wasn’t interested.”
”Well they’re not supposed to be ‘extreme.’ Ferris Wheels are for all the parents waiting on their kids and sick people trying to relax their stomachs so they don’t puke funnel cake all over the pavement.”
”And adorable young couples, apparently.”
And just then we were waved into the next seat. We sat ourselves down, and moments later the great wheel began to groan and protest and, finally, to turn; it dragged our cart around its underside and then lifted it up, up, up to the top of its crest, where we could see the whole city at twilight, and the ships in the harbor that were backlit red with the setting sun, and the clouds that were lined at their tops with just a little bit of starlight. Robin snuggled up next to me and put her head on my shoulder, and I put my arm around her waist. For a moment then I could’ve sworn the empty seat in front of us move on its own, and furrowed my brow. But then Robin spoke.
”Thank you for being here with me,” she said. I didn’t respond with words;I just kissed her on the head and held her tight, as the Wheel began taking us…
“…down on the eighteen hundred block of Gardersdale,” one of the EMTs says. “Yeah. Yeah. Another one, I know. Hell of a fucking night, isn’t it?”
The conversation is muffled again in short order. I’m drifting in and out, but the jostling of the room and the sound of an engine tell me we’re still in the ambulance.
The other paramedics, for their part, continue running tests and checking my vitals, and as they work I try to remember what’s happened. But it hurts. Dammit, does it hurt, almost as much as that rushing heat, and the effort is further disrupted when the ambulance hits a bump in the road and I nearly spill out of the gurney. But Rachel puts her steadying hand on my chest and says, “Hang in there, Brian. We’re almost…”
”…there!” Robin pointed at the interstate ramp, and I took the turn and put St. Thomas Vineyard away in the rearview.
”Still can’t believe Mason got married,” I said. “He’s only known that girl for what, a year? Less?”
Robin shrugged. “They were in love.”
”They hardly knew each other! They don’t know if whatever they’re feeling is genuine, life-long love or just new relationship googley-eyes that hasn’t worn off yet. I guarantee it – and I’ll put money on this – they’ll be done within a year. Just watch.”
”You don’t know that,” she said. There was a brief pause, and then she added, “We’ve been dating for two years.”
”So… how far off do you think we are?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. Haven’t really thought about it.”
”You haven’t thought about it? At all?”
”I mean of course I’ve thought about it. I just… I don’t know if we’re ready, you know?” I looked over at her, but she just stared out there at the rain with her chin in her palm. So I continued. “Think about it like this: people prepare their whole lives for jobs, right? They start going to school as soon as they can talk, and they’re not done till they’re in their twenties, and it’s all so they can get a piece of paper that says ‘hey, hire my ass, I’m smart enough to work.’ But marriage? Nobody trains for that shit. People just hook up and say, ‘hey we’re twenty five, or twenty eight, you’re cute, I’m cute. Let’s spend fifteen thousand dollars on a giant ceremony and then live as glorified roommates for five years until we’re both fat and hate each other and get divorced because neither one of us knew or cared how much work this thing would require.”
There was a longer pause then, before she said, with a degree of seriousness I wasn’t in the least bit prepared for, “Is that where you think we’re headed? ‘Glorified roommates?’”
Quickly I calculated an avenue of retreat. But I calculated wrong. “No! Not you,” I said. “Not us. I mean most people, you know? Most people just dive in and either get divorced or stick it out till someone gets heart disease. The divorce rate is more than fifty percent now in the US. But the ‘I-don’t-love-you-anymore’ rate? Shit, that’s probably close to ninety by the time everyone hits middle age. I just want to make sure you’re the right person, you know?”
If ever there were words I wish I could’ve taken back, it were those twelve. She said nothing, but I saw her reflection in the window, and the little tear that welled up in the corner of her eye said more than words ever could.
”Listen, I… that came out wrong. I just meant-”
”Can you drop me off at my car, please?”
”I thought you wanted to come over-?”
”I don’t feel good. Please?”
And we drove in silence for a while, as the rain picked up its pace and fell in sheets and in torrents. After another twenty minutes I made the turn onto my street and parked, and once I did she got out without so much as a glance and walked across the road to her own car. I ran to follow.
”Robin, wait!” I grabbed her lightly by the arm. It was slick with rainwater. “Talk to me. Please?”
”What do you want?”
I blinked. ”I want you to talk to me. I just s-”
”No. I mean with us. Where do you want this to go?”
”Where do I want this to go? I want to be with you! Listen, I didn’t mean to imply that – that I don’t want that. I just want us to be smart about it. You know?”
”Well maybe love isn’t something you can calculate on a fucking spreadsheet, Brian!” She was shouting over the cacophony of the storm. “Maybe it’s just this thing you feel, you know? And maybe it doesn’t make any damn logical sense. Maybe it’s not supposed to. But that’s part of what makes it special; it’s an adventure; it’s a ‘jump off a cliff with me’ type of thing. And yeah, sure. Not everyone survives the fall, I guess. But if you find the right person, then-”
”A ‘jump off the cliff with me’ type of adventure? Come on, Robin! We’re not writing up a damn dating website profile here; this is real life! There are kids involved, and finances, and house buying, and mortgages and all that shit! Not every day is some cute little romance comedy. This is half your life we’re talking about. Two-thirds, even. Okay? All I meant was that you have to be prepared for it. I just-”
”I thought we were prepared.”
”What do you mean?”
She dug through her purse for a moment, and then held up a ring that was brilliant even when covered in the rain. I felt my heart skip at least a full beat.
”Is that, um-”
”It was my mom’s,” she said. “She gave it to me before she died. She said, ‘find your partner in crime, Robin. Find someone who’ll sweep you off your feet. And jump off a cliff with you.’” There was a pause before she added, “And at the time she said it I thought I knew exactly who that person was.”
I tried for a moment, but I knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that there was no combination of words in the English language that could be strung together to right this ship.
”Good-bye, Brian.” She kissed me on the cheek, and rubbed the back of her hand on down it. And then she turned and got in her Civic, and drove off until I couldn’t see her tail-lights at all through the pouring of the…
“…rain’s comin’ down hard, boys,” another of the EMTs said. “Careful when you unload him.”
There were grunts of acknowledgement, and then the back of the ambulance flew open and the sound of the storm utterly exploded into it; I felt the rush of wind, and the rain pelting my skin in sheets, and together they helped a bit with the oncoming heat that still I couldn’t place. And then I felt movement. The gurney dipped and hit pavement while the paramedics held me down. And then there were shouts, and lights, and running feet, and then the hospital door…
”Open?!” I shouted. The man behind the counter shot me a look. But I shouted it again, over the sound of rainfall and through the glass. “I said, are you open?!”
And then he pointed at the sign saying the opposite, and went back to reading. But I wasn’t taking no for an answer; I dug out my wallet and pulled a twenty from the fold, and slapped it flat up against the glass. Within seconds the paper was soaked with rainwater. But it got his attention, and he rolled his eyes, and the door clicked and whirred and slid open.
”Make it quick, man.”
”I know, I know. I will. Thank you so much.” I ran down the aisles and then, true to my word, made it back to the counter in less than a minute. The man put down his book, and processed the sale.
”Date night?” He said, as he bagged the card after the flowers. I smiled a bit.
”Something like that.” And then I thanked him and ran back out to my car, and got inside, and took out the card and scribbled on its inner sleeve the words, ‘Jump off a cliff…
“…with me, with me!” A doctor running alongside the cart motioned to some nurses in the hall, and they ran to follow. He turns to the EMTs. “Is he stable?”
“He’s slipping. Heart rate’s falling, breathing slowing. Not good. Mumbled something about being too hot earlier, but if anything his temperature’s too low.” Someone shows the doctor a chart. He reads it as he runs, and his face is grim.
“Shit. Alright,” he says. “Let’s…”
”…move!” I shout at the car I’m passing. “Just a little rain, assholes.” But it wasn’t. It was a lot of rain. Sheets and buckets and torrents of it, in fact; it’d long since turned the dirt to mud, and it swept up against my windshield like ocean surf, and the road was slick with little rivers of it than ran on down past the pebbles. I was going far, far too fast for such conditions. But I didn’t…
“…care about that,” the doctor said. “I just want to get his fluids up. Rachel!”
The woman from the ambulance runs up and discusses my condition in harsh whispers with the doctor. As I fade, and as the damn heat floods on back in, it becomes impossible to hear what they’re saying. But it’s abundantly clear from the body language that she hasn’t yet give up…
’…hope for a reunion with these guys?’
’Well, Bolan and Snake say they’re against it, entirely. So that doesn’t bode well. But on the other hand, Sebastian’s said on multiple occasions that he’s willing to do it for the fans. And look what happened with Guns N’ Roses! Few years ago nobody wouldn’ve thought they’d get back togeth-‘
I switched the radio off, and then wrapped both hands around the wheel with such force the knuckles turned white on the grip. The car hit seventy miles per hour. Seventy five. Seventy nine. The windshield wipers were flying, but they weren’t going fast en-
I slammed my foot on the brakes as the lights of activity in the road came in out of nowhere from the rain. The car jolted and shuddered and fought for traction with the pavement, and I felt the tires squeal and the metal of the car grind in…
“I don’t care if he wants to protest!” the doctor snaps back. “You tell him to wait in the damn lobby like everyone else!”
The nurse accepts her orders and heads back out into the hallway. “I’m sorry, sir,” she says. “You can’t see him until-”
“Until what?! That’s my son in there! That’s my son! That’s-” and then there’s a scuffle of feet, and more shouts as a security guard drags my father from the wing. Rachel pauses as she hears the shouts, and then her eyes well up a bit with tears, and she looks at my face and appears to realize something. But she doesn’t say what. The shouts continue, but they fade. And so do I. And in comes the heat as I do.
“That’s my son!” Dad says. “That’s my boy! Let me see my boy! Stop! Please…!”
”…stop!” The police officer had both hands up as my car barreled towards him. “Stop! Stop the car!”
Finally there was a jolt and a shudder as the tires gained control at last, and the car slammed to a halt. Both the officer and I sighed in relief, and then he approached my window and tapped the glass with his knuckle. I lowered it.
I shouted over the rain, “I’m sorry, sir! Roads are crazy out here. You okay?”
He ignored the question. “I’m gonna need you to sit here for a bit, okay?” He said. “Just until the accident’s cleared up.”
”Its bad.” He nodded in the direction of the wreckage, and then he said again, “Just sit tight! We’ll waive you over when there’s an open lane.” And then he ran off into the storm.
I scanned the scene. There was a man on the side of the road, I saw, sitting on the pavement with a poncho for the rainfall and his head in his hands. His SUV was totaled; the front end was bent and twisted and hideously mangled.
But the other car was in far, far worse shape than that. I squinted hard, and could only make out panels of white amidst charred black chunks of metal and the force of the rain. But it was enough.
It was a Civic.
Oh, God. Oh, God, no. No, no, no.
I got out of the car and left the door hanging open in the rain, and then I ran forward, at least until the officer caught sight of me and ran back over and grabbed me by the shoulders.
”Hey!” He said. “I told you to wait in the car! What’re you-”
”ROBIN!!” I shouted over him. “ROBIN!”
And then I saw it; a fleeting glimpse of movement, a white sheet flipped on a gurney. A strand of red hair fell from the right side and hung there as the EMTs carted away the body.
”ROBIN!” I screamed. “That’s my girl! That’s my girl!” The officer was confused and stunned and did the only thing he could think to do – drag me back to my car.
”No! Stop!” I was inconsolable but in no shape at all to resist. “Stop, please! That’s my girl! Let me see my girl! Please, stop!”
One of the EMTs, covered in blood from the waist up, turned to look at the spectacle. But then someone shouted her name.
“Rachel!” The doctor says. “You with us, or what? Let’s go!”
She blinks as she stares at me, and then says, “Uh, yeah. Sorry. I just realized, this guy was-”
“Just get the charcoal, please? We don’t have time.”
And she does; she runs off to fetch exactly that. And then I feel a hideously invasive sensation – a tube is being placed in my nose, and then I feel it falling down, into my throat. I’m too weak to gag, but I somehow manage to clench my fist. A nurse sees the movement, and he holds me down to steady me.
”…Whoa, whoa, you okay, man? My roommate stumbled back as I threw open the door. I charged past him. “You’re comin’ in hot!” He said again. “You good, bro?”
But I ignored him. I went to the bathroom, and I leaned up against the sink for a long moment, and I grabbed my temples and set my jaw and sobbed without a sound; aching, wracking, heaving sobs. I heard a knock.
”Hey, man,” he said. “You good, dude? Anything I can like, get for you? Or-?”
”I’m fine,” I managed. It wasn’t convincing in the slightest, but I didn’t care. I opened up my phone. There was a text from Robin there, from this morning.
It read, ‘I love you,’ and they were all at once the most beautiful and the most painful words I’d ever read. ‘I love you.’
I love you, too. I’m coming. Hang on, baby. I’m coming.
Then I backed out, and found my dad in the contacts list, and typed, ‘I love you, Dad.’
Moments later I got a response: ‘I love you too, son! You okay?’
But I ignored it, and then I threw open the cupboard, and I grabbed an old…
“…bottle of pills,” a nurse said. “Swallowed the whole damn thing. Lucky his roommate called it in when he did.”
But the doctor is incredulous. “Well. That remains to be seen, now, doesn’t it?” Then he turns to the door. “Rach-”
And she pushes it open with her elbow before he finishes. “I got it, I got it. I’m here.”
“Alright!” He says. “Fingers crossed, people. Let’s see if we can’t save a psycho!”
There are isolated chuckles. Rachel, though, almost snaps at her superior for the insult, but then someone says, “Here we go!”
And then there is thick, wretched black stuff funneling down that tube and down into my throat. I’m almost desperate enough, but not quite strong enough, to resist it. I can feel it sliding, and hitting bottom, and pumping, and pulsing. My heart rate is erratic; my breathing is erratic; my ability to comprehend the situation is every bit as erratic. I struggle as much as I can against the restraints, but all my effort and all my strength of arms musters up not more than the faintest whimper.
But Rachel hears it. She moves to my side, and she holds my head, and says, in soft enough a whisper that only I can hear the words, “Don’t follow her, Brian. Don’t follow her. Please, Jesus. I need him here. I need this win.”
But I begin to fade all the same. One by one, as the spikes on the EKG slow to sporadic pulses, I see the nurses turn to each other and shake their heads. One by one by one, that is, until there is only a trembling Rachel there, and she’s holding on for me tight enough for everyone in the room.
“Call it,” the doctor says, just as the darkness swirls in and I feel like I’m starting to fall away.
The conversation carries on as I pass.
“Two thirty two AM,” one nurse says.
But I can hear Rachel screaming in protest – “No! He’s not gone! There’s still time, there’s still time to save him, there’s still…”
But she’s wrong. I’m already gone. Her voice, and her face – those things are behind me as I pass. They’re fading away into the darkness that’s consuming me, and swallowing me whole, and throwing me to the winds.
And just when the magnitude of the situation dawns on me – then comes the heat. There are monstrous amounts of it. It rips and tears and scorches and scalds, and had I the ability to scream out or even to breathe I would’ve done so until my throat was hoarse. But then there is a new pain. A different pain.
A hand reaches out of the blackness, and it grabs my left-side forearm with such mighty force that the resulting pain eclipses that of the heat, and the nails of that hand rip right through the flesh. And then I’m being pulled, and there is a rushing wind. It is cool and refreshing and beautiful, and suddenly I’m somewhere else entirely.
I blinked. The darkness was gone, and the heat with it, and that sensation of being devoured. Instead, those things had been replaced with starlit clouds as far off in every direction as the eye could see. But my arm stung like hell all the same. I looked at it. There were nail-marks, I saw. Four deep cuts beneath the inner wrist and a fifth on the side, in the shape of a hand. They bled a bit. And then I heard an all too familiar voice.
I stood up, slowly, and I turned, holding my damned stinging arm while I did it, and said, “Robin. Robin, w-what was that? That darkness? And the heat, and th-”
“Its where you would’ve spent your eternity, Brian, had I not pulled you out.”
I had no words other than the weakest, “Thanks.”
“You know,” she said, holding her own arm. “Suicide’s not exactly what I meant by ‘jumping off a cliff.”
I blinked again, and took a long, deep breath. “Yeah. I guess I didn’t think things through.”
“Not sure you fully realize how much of an understatement that is.”
“Well, maybe I don’t. But you know what? I’d do it again, Robin. I’m serious.”
She nearly rolled her eyes, but I doubled down on the sentiment.
“What I said? Out there on my street? I’m sorry. I mean it, I’m sorry. You were right. Love isn’t about taxes or headaches or just tolerating each other until we’re seventy. It’s like your mom said. It’s about sweeping your girl off her feet. It’s about jumping over cliffs with someone, and not knowing where you’ll land, and not caring, as long as you get there together. And if this is where we land, wherever this is, I’m okay with that.” And I leaned in for a kiss.
But she stopped me with her hand before it landed, and I opened my eyes.
“I can tell you’ve been working on that speech for a while,” she said.
“Over and over again In my head, in the car, until… until I got to the scene of the wreck.” I looked at the ground, and then back up at her. “And I realized, right then, that if you fucking left the earth itself than I would, too. So here I a-”
“I was wrong, too.” She cut me off.
“W-what do you mean?”
“About love. I was wrong. My mother was wrong. It’s not just about crap you see in rom-coms and greeting-cards, Brian.”
Again I blinked. “I know that! I know, it’s – it’s something you feel in your heart; that defies logic and reason. Not something you can put on a spreadsheet. Like you said earlier.”
She sighed a bit, and then said, “Can I show you something?”
“Uh, I guess so. Sure.”
And then she took my hand, and Infinity rolled in and faded back out, and all of a sudden we were somewhere else entirely.
“Are we -?”
“On the Ferris Wheel? Yep. Turn around.”
I did, and there we were, past Robin and past me, on the seat above and behind us. I remembered it like yesterday; we were staring out at the whole city at twilight, and the ships in the harbor that were backlit red with the setting sun, and the clouds that were lined at their tops with just a little bit of starlight.
I rustled in my seat a bit and it moved, and past Me saw it and looked like he was about to speak. But before he did, past Robin said “Thank you for being here with me,” and got a kiss on the head.
“What do you see?” Robin said.
“Us. A year ago and change. I remember that day like it was yesterday. Your mom had just died, so I took you here. To get your mind off things.”
“You did. That was the first day in months I’d felt truly safe and truly at peace. That was love.”
“I know it was. And I still love you, just the s-.”
“It’s a kind of love,” she said, cutting me off again. “And it’s absolutely beautiful when it lasts. But can I show you something else?”
“Uh… okay. Yeah.”
She took my hand again, and again Infinity itself rolled in and out like the tide, and then we were somewhere else. The hospital, it looked like. St. Joseph’s.
“What do you see here?”
I looked around. Nurses running up and down the hallway. Doctors reviewing notes and talking to their patients.
“I don’t know. A hospital.”
She nodded in the direction of a particular room. “Look in there.”
So I did. There was a woman on the cot. She was emaciated and hairless and deathly frail, and the Doctors inside were shutting off the last of the machines.
“A dying woman,” I said. “Looks like cancer.”
“Yep. And what about there?”
I looked down. There was a nurse crouched down in front of the same door and talking to a girl – eight or nine years old, if I had to guess – in silly voices. The girl had been crying, but the nurse managed to make her smile a bit, even as her mother died on the other side of the door.
“Looks like a nurse comforting a little girl.”
“That’s right,” Robin said. “And that little girl will remember that nurse for the rest of her life – even if they never meet again or so much as exchange names – as the lady who came to her in her darkest hour and made her smile.” She turned to me. “That’s love, too. Just as beautiful and just as precious as what we had.”
“What’s your point?”
She didn’t answer; she just stuck out her hand with a sad smile, and I took it. Infinity faded in and back out a third time. And then we were in the waiting room.
“See that?” Robin pointed to the corner of the room, and I squinted.
“Oh hey! What’s Dylan doing here?”
“He called the ambulance when you didn’t come out of the bathroom,” she said. “He knew something was wrong, and when they drove you off he followed them here. Been standing there ever since, asking for information on you every time a nurse walks by. He’s starting to annoy them.”
I watched my roommate for a bit, and sure enough he grabbed a nurse, and asked her a question that I couldn’t hear. She said something pleasantly dismissive, and he nodded, and then leaned his head back up against the wall and closed his eyes.
“Wow. I uh, I had no idea he cared that much.”
“That’s love, too, Brian. Would you do the same for him?” But she held out her hand again before I could answer, and I took it. For a fourth time Infinity blinked.
And then I was in the emergency room, looking down on myself. I was covered in vomit from the charcoal and the pills, but I was still, too. Deathly still. Most of the nurses and the doctor were still walking out the door.
But Rachel wasn’t. She was crying openly now, and making no effort to hide it. She reached for something. A needle, it looked like, or a syringe.
“What’s she doing?”
“You’ll see soon enough,” Robin said. “But that there? That’s also love.” She held out her hand once again and said, “One more.” And I took it.
And then we were in the parking lot of the same place. The rain was coming down harder than ever.
“Turn around,” Robin said. And I did. And then I stopped; There were no words.
It was my father in his car. He was holding a Bible up to his chest with both hands, and he was crying in a way no child should ever have to see their father cry.
“And that there?” Robin said. “That’s the kind of love that can move mountains.”
I put my hand up against his window. He didn’t seem to notice.
“He can’t see you, Brian. Not from there.”
I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand. “Okay,” I said. “I get it. I fucked up.”
And then she released my hand, and all of a sudden we were back in the clouds again, under the stars. I wiped another tear before it fell. “So now what? It’s too late for me to go back down there. I’m already gone.”
Robin took another step forward, and said, “Maybe not.” And she put her hand on my temple, and my eyes rolled back.
And then I saw it.
*Rachel and I are on a beach. Our child is playing out in the surf, and the sun hits her hair just right, and for a moment it is made of gold.
And then the image fades, and another one takes its place.
A birthday party. I have silver hair at my temples. Rachel does too. But it doesn’t matter. Our little girl is turning ten.
And then that image fades, too, and is replaced by another, and another, and another; each one yielding another moment where someone loved someone else enough for it to break through the clouds and be seen forever, even if the moment itself lasted only for a heartbeat. Finally there is an image of Rachel and myself on a porch as old as we are, and she holds my hand and says, “I’m glad you didn’t follow her.”
And I say back, “Me too,” and I kiss her on the head.
And then Robin pulls back her hand, and there we were again, standing out there in the clouds together.
“How did you do that?” I asked.
She shrugged. “Time has nearly no meaning in this place. I’ve been here for a while, Brian, and yet the doctors haven’t even left your operating room. Don’t think too much about it. Just think about what you want.”
“That,” I said. “Was… was that my future?”
She shrugged again. “Could be. I don’t know what you saw, and I don’t need to know. Was it enough?”
I nodded, and she stepped forward again, and said “Then go and get it.”
“I’ll miss you too damn much.”
“Well there’s nothing wrong with missing someone,” she said. “That just means love lasted a little longer than what ignited it. So go ahead and miss me. You owe me that much. Feel the loss; stand up to the storm like a man, and memorize the pain, and learn it inside and out, and let it roll over you in waves and run its course. And then one day you’ll wake up and realize you have scar-tissue where the skin used to be, and you’ll be stronger than the grief ever was.”
“I can tell you’ve been working on that speech for a while.”
“Like I said. I’ve been here for a while.” And then she kissed me, one last time, and for the briefest moment all the little scars and cuts and scrapes and nicks in my heart were filled up and made whole, and she said, “You’re made up of the stars, kid. Now go light up the world.”
And then she was…
“…gone, Rachel. Okay? I’m not gonna tell you aga-”
But I shot upright before the doctor could finish the thought, and I gasped for air when I did and grabbed at my chest with more strength than I’d had in hours. There was a needle in it; a bolt of life to the heart, and Rachel broke down in tears when she saw me.
“Well I’ll be damned,” the doctor said. “Welcome back to the land of the living, son. And Rachel?” She turned around. “Good work, kid. Made me proud.”
And he left, and she turned back to me and tried to hide a smile while she did it. “Hey there. How’re you feeling?”
“Better than dead.” There was a pause before I added, “Hey. I’m glad you got your win.”
She took my hand and squeezed it. For a moment she paused when she saw a scar below the wrist that looked like the result of fingernails dragging through flesh. But then she dismissed it and said, “I am too. And you’ll get yours. Okay? I promise you will.”
I said, “I know.” And with that she got up and left the room to go save someone else’s life, while I took out my phone, and opened up the most recent text, and hit reply.