The pregnancy test had been burning a hole in Mayra’s handbag since day one despite the best efforts of the fall of Heaven and the spirits of the dead returning to earth. She found herself wishing she had told Gavin as soon as she had gotten the results so that this part, the hard part, the having the discussion part would have been in the past. How easier it would have been to simply slide this card into the deck of the events of the last week to minimize the impact of her boyfriend’s possible response. She meant to practice breaking the news to Bethany but the sudden reappearance of her dead mother put the stick in the spokes of that plan.
Now, here she was standing in the living room doorway, pregnancy test in a white-knuckle death grip behind her back, heart pounding as she watched Gavin type away on his computer keyboard. That was how he spent his time recently, in online forums chatting and debating theories and wading through propaganda with complete strangers about the almost hourly updates that contained more opinions from unqualified experts than facts. The only person he had not had these conversations with was her. Their relationship was changing, partly because she had changed but in his own way, Gavin had changed, as well.
Nothing to it but to do it, Mayra thought and mustering her courage, she cleared her throat, “Gavin?”
“Yeah, babe?” her boyfriend said over his shoulder.
“We need to talk.”
That got Gavin’s attention away from the keyboard. He swiveled in his chair to face Mayra and said, “Uh-oh. We need to talk never ends well.”
“That’s not necessarily true.”
“Okay, prove me wrong. What do we need to talk about?”
“First, I need you not to freak out or get mad at me for not telling you sooner but with all the craziness going on there never seemed to be a right time,” Mayra pulled the pregnancy test from behind her back and held it out to him. “But, congratulations, you’re going to be a dad.”
Gavin stared at the test for a long moment and exhaled slowly.
“It’s wrong, a false positive, because you got the implant—” he said.
“It isn’t one hundred percent foolproof.”
“But we barely—”
“I know, but it doesn’t only happen based on quantity, sometimes it’s just the quality and you’ve got powerful swimmers,” Mayra said, hoping for a laugh to lighten the moment but all she received for her effort was a stone-faced glare. “Well, aren’t you going to say something?”
“How long have you been sitting on this?” Gavin asked.
“Just before the Heaven thing.”
“So, you’ve had time to process but you left-field me and expect me to have a prepared response for something like this?”
“No, I expect you to tell me how you feel, what you’re thinking, anything! Just say something.”
“You want to know what I’m thinking?”
“Of course, I do.”
“You won’t believe me.”
“At that exact moment I was thinking, I love you.”
He was right, Mayra wasn’t buying it, but decided to test the waters, asking, “Does that mean you’re happy about the news?”
“I’d want nothing more than to bring a baby into the world with you. But I was also thinking about us.”
“What about us?”
“You’ll be going back in school in a little bit and I’m trying to launch my career so what kind of life could we provide for a baby?”
“We’d make do like everyone else,” Mayra said with far more aggression than she planned.
“I don’t want to be like everyone else. I don’t want to squeak by and live paycheck to paycheck. And look at this place—”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“It’s a dump! I don’t want our child living in a place like this. I know it sounds old-fashioned but our child should be living in a house with a swing in the backyard. We should be married, and have money in the bank and a college fund for an ivy league school.”
“We could get all those things,” Mayra said.
“When? With what? Forget your gap year, you’ll have to put school on hold indefinitely, and the little bit of money I’ll be making will be stretched so thin we might as well be on Welfare.”
“So, what are you saying?”
“Maybe, you know, we should, I don’t know, get it fixed?”
“Fixed?” Without realizing it, Mayra’s hand rested on her stomach. Was it too soon to be experiencing a strong maternal instinct?
“Wait, before you fly off the handle, I need you to hear me out,” Gavin rose from his seat, took the pregnancy test out of Mayra’s hand and placed it on the coffee table before leading her to the couch. “Think about what’s going on in the world at the moment. No more Heaven, ghosts are popping up everywhere and who knows what else is waiting around the corner. For all we know the worst may be yet to come. Normally, I’d never consider asking you to do something so drastic but everything is different now and it’s changed my view on a lot of things, one of them being I’m not certain I want to bring new life into this world if when they eventually die they’re just going to wander the earth endlessly. Watching videos of people losing their shit after encountering loved ones they’ve laid to rest is heartbreaking and I can’t do that. I don’t want our child living with our ghosts and god forbid something happened to our son or daughter I wouldn’t be strong enough to deal with the daily reminder of his or her spirit.”
Mayra had never seen Gavin’s eyes so full of fear and pain. “But what if that doesn’t happen?” she offered weakly.
“You mean if things get better? If we discover a solution? Then we try again but we plan for it this time. We start on the right path, get married, finish school, put some money aside for a college fund, build a line of credit, buy a house for our new family.”
“You want to get married?”
Gavin slid off the couch onto the carpet on one knee, dug into his pocket, produced his set of keys and systematically began removing keys from the keyring one at a time. “I’ve been mulling this over in my head since all this craziness began and the only thing I’m certain about is no matter what lies in store for us, I want to face it together with you.”
“I haven’t had the chance to pick up a ring, so this will have to do,” Gavin held up the empty keyring between his thumb and forefinger. “Mayra Critchlow, will you marry me?”
Mayra looked down at the carpet, trying to work out how to sort through all the thoughts buzzing in her head. “I-I don’t know,” she muttered.
Gavin gently place his hand beneath Mayra’s chin and brought her head up until she met his gaze. Was it her imagination or was there a light shining in his eyes, eyes now moist with tears?
“If you make an honest man of me, we can start again and get it all right this time around,” Gavin said. “I’ll be the man you need me to be. I’ll be the husband that will make you proud, I swear.”
It was an instinct really, the reaching out to touch her mother’s face as she had done so many times as a child and Mayra had not expected to make physical contact but hoped she could feel something, a vibration perhaps or a tingle of static electricity, anything to confirm that her mother was actually standing in front of her. Unexpected was the resistance her palm encountered upon making contact with her mother’s intangible cheek, only for an instant, before it passed through and the café went dark.
When Mayra awoke, or rather, when she was finally able to piece herself back together to the extent she realized she had eyes to open, she found herself curled into a fetal ball, shivering within the enormous palm of God. No one told her the hand belonged to God, she simply knew it to be so. With no effort at all, for her body seemed to have no discernable weight, she lifted herself first to her knees then to her feet where she was able to perfectly balance herself on the tips of her toes like a ballerina en pointe in a ballet performed in zero gravity.
Beyond the palm, all of existence was a white devoid of heat in every direction she cast a glance. She opened her quivering mouth to speak, to question, to beg for clarity, understanding but her voice issued forth like song. Not lyrics but actual music and each of her emotions were represented by a different instrument, rising to a crescendo, filling the vast whiteness, crowding it with vibrations until…her voice cracked.
The music ceased instantly. She clutched her throat and forced herself to make a sound that would not come. Gravity returned and she crumpled onto the palm creating an impact crater that sent hairline fractures spiderwebbing out from the palm that ran up along each of the fingers. The hand shook under the force of a great tremor and began to segment and divide and fall away like so much debris. She hopped from the bits that fell away onto safer purchase until there was nowhere else to go. The hand disintegrated and Mayra, no longer weightless, began falling into the white void and she was covered by a slimy coldness that slowly took over her entire body, a bitter frost that shot straight through to her marrow and filled her mind with an image of being buried in the cold damp ground in a coffin-less grave as her body slowly succumbed to lifelessness.
Then she was no longer falling and eventually the glacial pearl environment dissipated in cloudlike swirls revealing the café beneath like an underpainting brushed onto canvas by an expert hand. At first, the interior and the people who surrounded Mayra were merely shapes, two-dimensional. Then details were added and the shapes took on definition and depth of field separated near from far but her perception was off. She realized she must have fallen to the floor because the shape she was now able to make out as Bethany hovered over her, mouth opening and closing rapidly. Her best friend was talking to her, obviously trying to revive her, but the words sounded odd and the café itself no longer smelled right.
Adina’s ghostly face registered a look of concern. She reached down to help her daughter up but Mayra shied away from her touch. As much as she loved her mother, if coming into contact with her brought about this feeling, she promised herself she would never do it again.
“Bethy, get me out of here, please,” Mayra said, teeth chattering.
“Are you sure you’re all—”
“Please!” Mayra demanded.
“All right,” Bethany said, helping her friend to her feet and wrapping her own coat over Mayra’s in an effort to warm her.
At the café door, Mayra turned, saw her mother’s confused expression and said, “Sorry, Mom. I just can’t,” before exiting the café.
Outside, the spirits of the dead were everywhere, crowding, overcrowding, the streets. They had come in their thousands and moved past scared witless pedestrians in lock-step like a multi-headed beast or a shoal of fish to some unknown destination. The only sounds to be heard were the shoes on pavement as people scrambled to get out of the dead’s way and the distance screech of car tires.
“I can’t tell you how much I don’t like this,” Bethany said, trying to mask the fear in her voice as they made their way quickly to the nearest subway station.
“There are more dead people wandering around than the living,” Mayra said, carefully avoiding coming into contact with any of the spirits.
“Makes perfect sense if you think about. Heaven is real, was real, which means reincarnation is a load of bullshit, so all the righteous livers spend the rest of eternity in paradise and now that paradise has gone poof on us, where else would those souls go except the place they originated from?”
Apparently, word of mouth spread not to get too close to the dead because on the subway, people were doing their level best to avoid touching the spirits who were taking up seats and pole spaces, which meant the living had to squash together to make enough space for them all. The air in the train car was filled nervous tension but that had not stopped people from pulling out their smartphones and filming the ghosts but the dead were not bothered one bit. They seemed like they were going through the motions of trying to live the life they’d had before they died.
Mayra wasn’t ready to go home to deal with Gavin so Bethany suggested they go to her apartment. Fortunately, there were no spirits wandering around in her place.
“Small miracles, eh?” Bethany said after checking the entire apartment. “Now let’s see if we can get something into you to warm you up.”
“That would be nice, thanks,” Mayra followed her friend into the kitchen and took the seat nearest the radiator.
“So, your mom…that was weird, right?” Bethany said, rummaging through the cupboards. “What was the like, I mean, if you’re okay talking about it? You nearly scared me half to death, passing out like that.”
Mayra exhaled slowly and tried to explain as much as she could, avoiding the dream or delusion or whatever it was. It, along with the initial dream seemed personal, private, something meant for her alone.
Mayra took the tablet from her bag and over hot bowls of soup and coffee that still couldn’t chase the cold from her bones, they several live streaming news broadcasts. Unlike the news reporting delay of The Knowing, the dead returning made the headlines instantly.
Reporters were made of questions, but none of the hastily gathered experts had answers. They discussed what they believed had happened, which coincided with the assumption Bethany came up with. When a psychic was brought into one station to try to communicate with a spirit roaming the news studio and concocted some phony message about the dead returning to restore peace but who ran away in sheer terror the moment the spirit attempted to touch her, the tablet was turned off.
They sat there digesting the events of the day in silence for a while the way people who have known each other for a long while can be in each other’s company without the need to fill the air with random babbling, when Mayra broke the silence:
“Oh my God, I am the shittiest friend in the world!”
“What are you on about?”
“I never considered what you must be feeling, being an atheist and all.”
“First, not an atheist,” Bethany clarified. “Or an agnostic. I know religion is a touchy subject for you, which is why we don’t do spiritual talk. Unlike people who need to label themselves as a nonbeliever and pass judgment on people’s religious beliefs, I’m cool with you believing in what you believe in as long as it leads you to do no harm.”
“Bethy, I don’t want you to think I judge you for not having a—”
“Belief system? I do have one. I believe we aren’t smart enough to know our origins and this includes Big Bang and evolution, but we’re arrogant enough to assume we do with authority. Sometimes I wish I could just conform and go along with the flow. You’d figure it wouldn’t be that difficult. You know how super religious my family is, forcing me to go to church every Sunday when I was small. Sometimes we’d spend the entire day worshipping if our church visited another church for evening services and I’d be furious that one of my two-day freedom from the drudgery of school had be wasted this way. I tried to believe, tried really hard to feel the holy spirit but it just wasn’t in the cards for me. Then I hit my teens and made a bold stand to stop going to church by pretending to be sick, too sleepy, or what have you, which was initially ignored but eventually I wore my folks down and they allowed me to skip church. The trade-off? I was given a host of choirs that needed to be completed before I could go outside to play. They meant it to be a punishment, they wanted to break me, make me relent, but to me it was the ultimate get out of church free card. I even tried to lessen the blow by telling them I was a practicing Deist who accepted the existence of a creator on the basis of reason but rejected belief in a supernatural deity who interacts with humankind. And they tested me on it by making me write several essays describing my belief system and worship methods. But I still hadn’t felt a connection to a higher power so I tried agnosticism on for size and eventually gave up trying to force myself to believe in something just because everyone else does. Turns out I’m not a joiner.”
“But you’ve acknowledged that Heaven is gone so you must feel something,” Mayra realized her words came out stronger than she meant and hoped her friend had not felt attacked.
If Bethany was bothered, it did not show. She answered, “Sure, I feel something just not what you think. I don’t automatically assume that heaven not existing is the cause of what I’m feeling because it’s a place that doesn’t exist for me. It didn’t exist before all this and it still doesn’t now. What I feel is that something is different, the same way you feel when you move to a new neighborhood or start a new job or enter into a relationship with someone new. You suddenly become aware of space within your existence and that space is new and because it’s new, it’s a void. Picture the space as an empty glass and everything you do in the new job, neighborhood or relationship adds something to the glass, knowledge, familiarity, routines, skillsets, whatever. Each day, a drop gets added to the glass. It ceases to be empty the moment the first drop lands but it isn’t by any stretch of the imagination full, either. I’m not explaining it right because I still haven’t figured it out myself, so I know it doesn’t make sense to you, but that’s how I feel. I discovered an empty glass and it’s slowly, very slowly, filling up with something new.”
“I sort of understand but I don’t understand,” Mayra said. “Does that make any sense?”
“Completely,” Bethany smiled. “Now, why don’t we talk about what’s eating you?”
“What do you mean?”
“You’ve got your own life, I’ve got mine. When we catch-up, we usually do it by text or phone but you needed to see me in person, which indicates something serious, and not at your place or at mine, which means you’re trying to avoid getting emotional, so what is it?”Wow, Mayra wondered, Am I really that obvious? “Bethy, you’re going to hate because there is something I want to tell you…but I think I owe it to Gavin to speak to him first.”
Although Mayra had some very clear and solid memories of her mother, most of what she knew about Adina came from the stories her father used to tell. Of course, she was only able to properly hear the stories after the debilitating grief of her mother’s death had abated, after the many counselling sessions, and when she was finally able to cope, when she became afraid she was forgetting her mother, she hounded her father to repeat the stories over and over again and bless his heart, he did so despite the pain it caused himself.
“Adina grew up with her mother in a single parent household,” her father said. “Some men aren’t meant to be part of a family, so her father left as soon as the pregnancy was announced. Your grandmother kept a full-time job and took on extra work to help make ends meet which meant your mother had to fend for herself around the house. Her relationship with her mother was mostly good, they were more like sisters than mother and daughter but as work slowed down, money became tight and job offers became scarce, her mother started to drink and that put a strain on the family income and their relationship.
“Your mother was a little older than you are now when she had to get a part-time job after school and when her mother’s drinking problem got worse, school was no longer an option as she had to start working full-time in order to pick up the slack. Then, because misery loves company, your grandmother met a guy who liked lonely women who liked to drink. He moved in shortly afterward and suddenly there were three people living in a one-bedroom apartment but only one and a half of them were working. Her mother’s new boyfriend somehow became the man of the house without actually bringing home any of the bacon. He never got fresh or raised a hand to your mother but just because he wasn’t physically abusive, that didn’t make him a good guy. He was a passive aggressive prick—”
“Dad!” young Mayra chided.
“Sorry, kiddo, but some things you just can’t sugarcoat. He was a prick, and I never want to hear you using that word.”
“But you just said—”
“Never mind what I said, and quit interrupting unless you want me to stop telling the story. Is that what you want?”
“No,” Mayra wanted to prove her point but wanted to hear the more so she gave in.
“Okay, so he was a loser, is that better, a jerk who was quick with a snarky comment or a put down that sucked every iota of positivity out of the room. After an exhausting journey of maneuvering around the adults’ rocky relationship, and after an argument that was an aggregate of all the pettiness that had occurred between them since the day they first met and after her mother sided with the prick over her, your mother packed her belongings and left home and never looked back. Years later, when she learned of her mother’s death, she regretted not having the strength to stay and force that loser out of their lives and help her mother sober up. Of all the regrets in her life, that was the biggest.”
Then Mayra’s father told her about convergence points but her young ears at the time heard it as virgin points and she thought that it had something to do with the Virgin Mary because that was the only association she had with the word at the time so she thought virgin meant holy. Years later, even when she realized what her father actually said, she still thought of them as virgin points because some names just stuck. Her father believed that things like fate and destiny weren’t stored in people because there were simply too many variables involved within a human being and their free will. He thought fate actually ran beneath the surface of the planet like ley lines or energy and purpose that connected at certain spots just waiting for a collision to occur in order to activate a destiny.
He firmly believed that the 22-year-old Adina, with a battered suitcase in her hand and nowhere to live stepped on and activated one of those virgin points when she ran into a childhood friend she hadn’t seen since she left school to work full time. After a bit of a catch up and explaining her situation, her friend said she was sharing a place with two other childhood mates and offered Adina a place to stay until she got back on her feet. It was a one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx and after some hemming and hawing the roommates gave the okay. The two roommates shared the bedroom while Adina and her friend took the pull-out sofa. They all worked at a temp agency and got Adina a job there as well. They were scratching and surviving, just barely able to make rent and bills.
“Then one day your mother had her hands full with bags from some greasy takeout joint, not looking where she was going and she bumps into a man…”
“And that man was you,” Mayra chimed in.
“Say, have you heard this story before?’
“Only a bazillion times.”
“I can stop telling it,” her father teased.
“So yes, your mother bumps into me and she drops the take-out food she bought with the last of her money and just stares at food scattered all over the pavement and began laughing until it turned to tears. Naturally, I offered to replace her meal but your mother wasn’t big on the idea of accepting handouts so she turned me down. It took me a good fifteen minutes to convince her it wasn’t a handout and there were no strings attached and that I’d feel terrible if she didn’t allow me to make up for my mistake.”
“But you said she bumped into you.”
“Sometimes being kind is better than being right, you’d do well to remember that. Reluctantly, your mother let me take her to a diner that was close by and there was a Help Wanted sign in the window. The place was packed, filled with angry customers trying to get the attention of the overburdened waitress on staff. So, your mother, still not totally sold on accepting anything from a stranger, marches up the owner and offers him a proposition. She offered to work a shift immediately in exchange for a meal for herself and for me and if she didn’t screw things up royally, he’d take the sign down from the window and she gets the job. All it was going to cost him was two meals so of course he accepted, and watching your mother work and handle the irate customers with patience and kindness, that’s when I knew I was going to do everything within my power to marry that woman. And you know what, kiddo? It turned out the very spot we bumped into one another was the same place she ran into her childhood friend. That’s when I knew convergence points existed.”
But Mayra knew virgin points hadn’t always brought about good luck for that very same spot was where a taxi hopped the curb and ended her mother’s life while she was on her way to work.
Mayra bit down on her lip and her voice quivered as she said, “Mom?”
Adina, translucent in the light of the diner, turned around slowly, cocked her head slightly, her eyes registering a familiarity she couldn’t quite place. Mayra realized that she was only a little girl when her mother last laid eyes on her.
“Mom, it’s me, Mayra.”
Adina’s expression brightened and her kind smile broadened as the recognition came.
“This is bad,” Bethany said, approaching Mayra from behind.
“You’re wrong. This is great,” Mayra replied. “I’ve got my mom back.”
“No, you’re not thinking this through. Your mom being here, all those other spirits being here means we have proof that Heaven’s gone. What does that mean for us? If there’s no Heaven, what happens when we die? Are we going to get stuck wandering Earth for all time?”
Bethany’s concerns were lost on Mayra, whose total concentration was on her mother. She reached out to touch her mother’s face, and suddenly everything went wrong.
Bethany Hamilton, face buried in her smartphone, might have missed the place completely if Mayra hadn’t spotted her and tapped on the window. She had been sitting lookout because the café was a small and easy to miss, nestled in a nook that was hidden away in the downtown side street. It hadn’t changed much since she had last been here, the chairs and tables were arranged differently but the rescued furniture, now fit for retirement, and the stained and color-faded, peeling wallpaper were the same. In an age where designer coffee beverages were all the rage, it was one of the few places you might be able to get a café au lait but the chances of that were only slightly better than winning the state lottery.
The only other customers were three elderly people, two women and a man, who sat at separate tables with their coffee and bagels but were engaged in conversation with one another.
The shopkeepers bell, a small brass bell mounted on the door by a hooked spring steel bracket, chimed when Bethany stepped inside with a Starbucks Iced Salted Caramel Mocha in hand.
“I was just about to call you,” Bethany said as she kissed Mayra’s cheek and sat in the booth across from her.
The waitress brought a chocolate egg cream and placed it on a napkin square, laying a wrapped straw beside it. She looked at Bethany, “Get you anything?”
“A menu,” Bethany answered to which the server merely pointed to the menu slotted in the metal condiment holder on the table. Bethany gave an embarrassed little shrug, thanked her and the woman went away.
“How’d you ever find this place? It’s so middle of nowhere in the heart of everything.”
“My mom worked here, she used to bring me when I was little,” Mayra said listlessly. She pointed to a stool at the counter over Bethany’s shoulder. “I’d sit at right over there and sip the best chocolate egg cream in the world and read comic books while she served tables. I just need to be in a familiar place right now, with familiar people.”
Mayra stared through the egg cream.
“What’s wrong, Mayra?”
“This is about that Heaven thing, isn’t it?” Bethany whispered the word Heaven and Mayra thought, What an odd thing to do. “Honey, you have to get past this.”
“How do you past the obliteration of Heaven?”
“What? No, I meant, you know, passed the crazy thoughts.”
Mayra puzzled over this a moment before Bethany’s meaning dawned. “You think I’m going to commit suicide?”
“I…well, you know, look at you. You’re a fragile wreck. And there is this epidemic going around.”
“Epidemic,” Mayra said to herself. She shook her head to dislodge the memory of the news reports. “You’ve got the wrong end of the stick, Beth. Taking my life? I-I just don’t have that in me.”
“I didn’t really think so, but just in case, you know? Erring on the side of caution and all that.”
“How are you dealing with it?”
Bethany sipped her drink and answered, “Optimism or denial, maybe. I’d like to think that nothing more is going to happen. That somehow we all suffered some freakish mass hallucination.”
“It’s been over a week and the anxiousness hasn’t subsided. I’m constantly on edge like I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
“What other shoe could there be?”
“It seems like everyone else is thinking something has happened, right? But what if it’s actually something is happening? What if the Heaven thing, as you call it, is just the precursor for something bigger?”
“Bigger like…” Bethany stopped in midsentence, her eyes sliding off Mayra to look out the café window. “Holy shit. I think I found your other shoe.”
“My other shoe?” Mayra said, puzzled and traced her friend’s eyeline and saw…well, she couldn’t rightly say what she saw at first. Her first impression was pastel shapes moving along the sidewalk but as comprehension focused in her mind she saw that the shapes were actually people that were somehow wrong. These people were translucent like faded photographs, no, more like images viewed through celluloid held against a light. She wiped at her eyes with the heel of her palms and looked again. If what she was looking at was really there she knew there was only one name for what she saw: spirits. Spirits of the dead. This was exactly what she was expecting, the very proof the world needed to get off its collective backside and do something, but she found now that it was here, all she wanted was for it to go away.
She wrenched her attention back to Bethany to run a few of the theories flooding her mind but over her friend’s shoulder she spotted a spirit walking through the café door dressed in a waitress uniform in the same style as their server. This outfit was dated, something she hadn’t seen since…
Mayra rose from the table and moved tentatively toward the spirit whose back was to her. Bethany called after Mayra trying to stop her from making contact with the spirit. This was uncharted territory for her and she wanted to protect her friend in case the unthinkable happened. But she need not have worried for Mayra stopped at arm’s length from the spirit. The faded figure turned around as if sensing something and Mayra saw something in its features, the sad way its eyes slightly drooped at the outside corners, the way its mouth curled into a kind smile. She bit down on her lip and her voice quivered as she said, “Mom?”
Linda Wilson, a 16-year old girl from Tulsa, Oklahoma suffered severe carbon monoxide poisoning and was rushed to the hospital but later died. Her mother, Mary, made a statement to the authorities that her daughter killed herself after she had a nightmare that “Heaven had been destroyed by the Devil.” Following the dream, she constantly asked family and friends if they felt the same emptiness, the same pointlessness of life. Her family attempted to divert Linda’s attention and told her that what she was feeling was only temporary and it would pass, but she wouldn’t listen. The following Sunday, when her family went to church, the girl stayed behind complaining of an illness. When the house was empty, authorities say, she dragged the barbeque grill from the backyard into her bedroom, sealed the door and window with garbage bags and packing tape. She then filled the grill with charcoal briquettes and lit them. Mary, sensing something was wrong with her daughter, left church early and discovered Linda still alive but in a critical state.
The Metropolitan Times, August 17, 2017
Nearly one week to the day after the bizarre dream, Mayra finally got her wish though not in the way she wanted. The Knowing had finally made the news in the form of a story bearing the headline:
TEENAGE DEATH BY HIBACHI DUE TO FEAR OF NO HEAVEN
And as was often the case with tragic news, Linda Wilson’s death opened the floodgates. Every type of news outlet from tabloids, the news hour, and morning shows to prime-time magazines, network and cable evening news and print news magazines were filled daily with related death stories, such as:
A man who committed suicide by slitting his wrists on his wife’s grave in Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York; the murder-suicide of a family in Sri Lanka; the self-immolation of a woman on the streets of Guyana. A middle-aged man in the UK who held up signs on his live Twitch stream, apologizing to his friends and family for the pain he was about to cause them before placing a Glock G43 to his temple and pulling the trigger. Reports came pouring in from all over the world, Kazakhstan, Cote d’lvoire, Suriname, Equatorial Guinea, Lithuania, Sierra Leone…
A wave of emotions crashed down so hard on Mayra she felt as though she was unable to breathe. She stared at her laptop screen, not quite able to fully take in the list of suicides that grew longer as each day passed. Gavin sat on the couch beside her and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. Mayra leaned against him and kissed the back of his hand, grateful for the support.
“I don’t understand,” Mayra said.
“We knew nothing good could come of this,” Gavin sighed.
“But mass suicide? How could this be the only option for so many people?”
“Babe, we all just got the eternal rug pulled from under our feet. That’s all some people have to live for, the thing they desperately cling to as they suffer their way through a lifetime of daily hardships and bullshit. Without that, what’s the point? Why does it matter if you die sooner rather than later? Without some sort of great reward for completing life as a decent human being, you’ve got no advantage over some scumbag that’s been shitty all their lives, or all the sex pests and murderers, so why not choose to end your existence on your own terms? The only thing awaiting you is the same eternal nothingness that exists for everyone else.”
“So, you’re saying you’re okay with this, that we should sit on our hands and do nothing to help these poor suffering people?”
“Why are you trying to make me out to be some heartless monster when all I’m trying to do is play devil’s advocate and see things from another point of view? You know what, don’t answer that. Let me try it from a different angle, something’s that’s been rolling around in my head for a few days. If the Heaven we know, let’s just call it Christian Heaven even though I’m sure its scope is much wider than that, but if our Heaven is gone how can we be absolutely sure that we aren’t now being judged by another religion’s rules about getting into an afterlife that doesn’t conform to our belief systems? What if, instead of Saint Peter at the Pearly Gates, we wind up coming face to face with Hades or Anubis or some other wacky being?”
“Gavin, if you’re not going to take this seriously, I don’t know why we’re bothering to have this conversation.”
“Just because I can’t name the various religions’ afterlife gatekeepers doesn’t mean I’m not serious and if you took a step back and looked at it objectively you’d see the thought has some merit. Before this Knowing business nobody knew for sure that Heaven existed and if one version of heaven can exist why can’t others? Who’s to say our religion was the only one to get it right? And if I felt my soul was going to be rerouted to some foreign destination…well, all I’m saying is I get it. Now might be the time to make the decision to shuffle off this mortal coil in the hopes I wouldn’t end up in Valhalla or some junk like that. My only worry would be winding up in Hell, if that place is even still open for business. I mean, can one exist without the other? Aren’t they a package deal?”
“I don’t know, but that can’t be the way it works,” Mayra said, setting the laptop down on the coffee table. “Hell, to me, is the place where people are sent who need to be punished for purposefully living terrible lives. People who are so depressed they don’t feel they have any other choice shouldn’t automatically be sentenced to endure unending torture among the truly evil. Shouldn’t they instead be helped by someone in Purgatory? Shouldn’t there be someone to examine the cause of why the person felt the way they did? Shouldn’t they be allowed to expiate their supposed sins before going to Heaven? Not that I’m sure there’s truly a right reason to hurt the people who love you by taking your own life, but if they don’t believe they have another option, I hate the thought of Hell being the consequence for that.”
“But that’s not for you to judge, is it?”
“The Bible states anyone who commits suicide is a sinner, babe, end of story. If someone punches their own ticket, their designated next stop is Hell,” Gavin took Mayra’s face in hand and turned it so that she met his eyes. “You’re one of those people who wants to believe that Heaven is a truly good place, but how good can it be if it excludes good people who don’t happen to be Christian or Jewish or the religion du jour?”
Mayra hated to admit it but Gavin had a point and she was ardently defending her position on the rules governing a place that no longer existed. When the silence in the room grew deafening, she picked up the remote and clicked on the tv. On CNN, Cardinal Timothy Michael Dolan, Archbishop of New York, was delivering a live speech broadcast from Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, addressing the issue of how the seeming absence of Heaven was going to affect the living going forward and all the souls that used to reside there.
As if he knew, Mayra thought. She could tell from that same absence of hope expression on his face that he had no more knowledge than the rest of the world. But she knew why the speech was necessary. The church always laid claim to having inside knowledge, albeit limited, on the way God and the afterlife equation worked and the recent rise in the suicide rate meant people could no longer pretend what they felt wasn’t real. But this telecast, although presented as the official religious word, wasn’t going to be enough. Instead of trying to pacify the masses with false assurances, the church should have introduced a new doctrine to try to help everyone come to terms with what Heaven being gone truly meant.
“Well, that was a waste of time,” Gavin said. “So much for the church being clued in to what’s going on.”
But Mayra realized the problem was bigger than that. Before The Knowing everyone lived in a world where hope existed but now that hope was gone. Perhaps even forever. Without hope of a reward for living like a decent life, of continuing existence on a higher plane, what was to control the savage base nature that lurked within us all? The loss of Heaven changed life of the planet in ways she couldn’t even begin to imagine. But when she looked at Gavin it seemed another normal day to him. Like he never cared all that much about what might come next. Again, she questioned if he truly believed in God, which made her wonder if she was truly still in love with him. Loving him was easy. Seeing him as the man she wanted to be with for the rest of her life… she shook her head and pushed the thought aside again. There were far too many more pressing thoughts in her mind for her to start questioning their relationship status, especially if she was misreading the situation in the midst of all the confusion. What she really needed at this moment was a healthy dose of Bethany.
The above excerpt is a work of fiction but if you have been affected by any of the issues raised here, or are thinking about suicide, or worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline may be able to provide help and advice. Call 1-800-273-8255. Click this link and you can find someone online immediately and find other phone numbers to call for immediate help, and also find resources to help someone you know who is having suicidal thoughts. There is even a text-for-help option for U.S. Veterans. Someone is available to help 24 hours everyday.
As swiftly as it had arrived, the voice inside her head departed and all Mayra was left with was the sound of breathing, but not just her own. Beside her, Gavin was also sitting up, a bewildered expression playing on his face. “I had the craziest nightmare, babe. There was something going on but not on Earth and somehow Heaven got destroyed.”
But she knew it wasn’t a nightmare, it was a realization. Heaven was gone. And just as she knew it was the truth, she also knew that everyone else in the world knew it, as well. Without a word passing between them, they sat in bed for what seemed like hours in stunned silence, their breathing synchronized in the darkness, experiencing the loss together but separately.
Eventually Gavin succumbed to fatigue and went back to sleep, but that was not an option for Mayra. She was made of questions and speculation so she pulled the tablet out of her messenger bag and padded quietly on the balls of her feet out of the bedroom and into the living room. Settling on the couch, legs folded beneath her, she reached for the remote and turned on the tv. Clicking through the twenty-four-hour news channels and even the syndicated stations that ran local news, she was trying to get confirmation that other people felt the disappearance as well, but there was nothing. Well, almost nothing. She thought she noticed something in the faces of the news anchors, a lack of expression but something else too. It was difficult to work out but she read it as either the absence of hope or the longing for something lost in oblivion. Was she imagining it? Conjuring clues to prove that she and Gavin weren’t alone in this? That she wasn’t as nutty as she felt? Too many strange emotions were at play within her, all happening at once, competing for her attention.
She turned the tablet on and just as she had done with the tv, she searched internet news sites and social media and found nothing. She began to doubt herself. Surely if other people felt what she had someone would have posted about it. The thought crossed her mind to post something herself, but she couldn’t find the words to express it properly, so with a sigh, she turned off both tablet and tv and went back to bed.
Gavin was sleeping on his side facing her so she slipped herself beneath the sheet and pressed her back to his chest in the little spoon position and wrapped his arm around her belly. She wanted him to feel it, the life growing within her. She wanted him to know without her having to tell him, the same way he knew about Heaven.
But it was no use, she couldn’t sleep so she spent the morning at the kitchen table staring at her laptop, nibbling her bottom lip and absently stirring a mug of coffee. Gavin shuffled in, rubbing sleep from his eyes and laid a gentle hand on her shoulder. He kissed her temple on the way to the coffee pot. “Did you get any sleep?”
“I tried,” Mayra answered. “But my mind won’t shut down.”
He poured himself a cup of coffee and took a sip. “I guess your hand won’t either.”
Gavin pointed at her hand raking the spoon in continuous circles in the chipped coffee mug. “If you stir that any more you’re going to drill a hole through the table,”
“Oh,” she let go of the spoon.
He glanced at the empty stovetop, said, “Guess I’m making breakfast?”
“Sorry,” she said, pointing at the laptop. “Distracted.”
“Anything interesting in the news?”
“Absolutely nothing. Just the same old trivial nonsense. No mention of what happened.”
“I’ve been thinking about that. If the media could prove it’s real they’d be on the story quick fast and in a hurry, but this feeling,” Gavin shook his head. “It not newsworthy right now. There’s no proof that what we felt meant anything.”
“I don’t know how but I’m certain everyone felt it, Gavin, even if they’re incapable of understanding it, they felt it. That has to mean something.”
“Come on, I’m not stupid, babe.” Gavin grabbed four eggs and an open pack of bacon from the refrigerator. “Of course, everybody feeling it means something, but how does the media report about a thing like this until something concrete happens? We need signs and even if the sky opened up and a winged angel appeared and made an official proclamation, people would still find some way to debunk it as a Hollywood movie promotional stunt or something. Far easier to shrug it off as a nebulous possibility than deal with the frightening reality.”
Mayra nodded with an audible sigh. “So, what happens next?”
“Nothing good,” he pulled a skillet from the wall mounted pot holder and placed it on the stove over a low flame. “When people come onboard to the fact that Heaven is gone, that there’s no great reward at the end of the journey for living a good life…” he let the sentence trail off as he peeled bacon strips and carefully laid them in rows to sizzle on the hot skillet. “Right now, I think I feel safer with people not believing it happened. The moment that changes is the moment we start running out of options.”
“So, we just pretend the world is the way it’s always been?”
“That’s just it, babe, the world is the same. Even with the absence of Heaven it doesn’t change the fact that we need to live our lives.” Gavin held an egg in his hand, “How do you want ‘em?”
“Scrambled,” she answered but wasn’t really hungry. She also wasn’t the sort of person who was good at pretending things were fine when they weren’t.
Mayra was eager to get to work. She convinced herself she needed a distraction but the truth of the matter was she needed to get out of the house. Although Gavin was being incredibly and unusually adult about the situation, she felt the nagging suspicion that he wasn’t as invested in Heaven’s disappearance as she was, which led her to think, did Gavin actually believe in God or the afterlife? Had she unknowingly been living with a secret atheist? She wasn’t even sure if there was such a thing as secret atheists, but she knew some space needed to be put between the both of them.
She worked as veterinary receptionist at the Calumet Animal Hospital. It was a temporary job, kind of, sort of, loosely related to her field of interest. At least that’s what she told herself to keep her spirits up. She was on a gap year between earning her bachelor’s degree and starting a graduate program. Her goal was to become a marine biologist. The time off from her studies wasn’t so much a mental break as it was a necessity. Her grants didn’t allow her the luxury of living on campus so she and Gavin moved into the cheapest one bedroom they could find to make ends meet. Only Gavin was in between jobs at the moment so the burden fell on her to bring in some income until he got back on his feet. The animal hospital was the best fit as it was within a comfortable walking distance from their apartment and offered a ton of overtime.
But work wasn’t the distraction Mayra hoped it would be. Just as with the tv news reporters, she saw in the faces of the clinics’ clients the same longing.
During lunch, she picked at the yogurt cups and grapes she brown-bagged from home, still not hungry. When one of her coworkers, Susie, asked, “What’s the deal? You’re usually all energetic and talky.” Mayra brought up what she now referred to as the knowing.
“Maybe you should give tv and the internet a break,” Susie said.
“I just can’t believe there isn’t anything on the fact that Heaven is gone.”
“How do you report on something like that? Without sounding crazy? I mean, maybe, despite all the religious flag waving, most people don’t care because to them it’s something that never existed in the first place. Finding out Heaven’s gone wouldn’t change anything for them.”
This was no use. It was like talking to Gavin. But perhaps they both were on to something. What if it wasn’t a lack of caring, but shock. It was definitely a hard thing to wrap one’s head around especially if people stopped to consider how the world would be affected by the absence of Heaven.
“And maybe people are changing religions,” Susie continued. “With Heaven confirmed, what’s to say other religious or mythical afterlives aren’t real also? Plenty of alternatives to choose from.”
Sighing, Mayra stood, gathered her lunch and dropped it in the trash. Even though her shift was half over, she knew it was going to be a long rest of the day.
Despite the fact she called it an early night and how utterly exhausted Mayra was when she slipped between the sheets, sleep simply would not come. Every time she closed her eyes she saw the digital display of her pregnancy test reading:
It would have been called fitful if she actually managed to fall asleep even for an instant, instead she tossed and turned, trying to force her mind to relax, dreading the effects of a sleepless night on her ability to get through the work day tomorrow, or later today if she was being accurate. Mayra eventually realized she was achieving little more than gnawing away at her sanity, so she closed her eyes, sighed heavily and when she opened them, she found herself in a dream.
One, two, three, shoot! Scissors. One, two, three, shoot! Paper. Mayra’s right hand, balled in a fist, pumped at subliminal speed, slamming into the flattened palm of her left as she shot rock, paper, scissors in a seemingly random order that somehow anticipated her opponents’ throws and eliminated them one by one. That was how she knew this was a dream because all her life she had been absolutely shit at playing roshambo.
She was at a public pool, one she knew very well. It was located in the heart of Claremont Park in The Bronx, a mere fifteen or so long blocks from her childhood home. Her nose was filled with the scent of chlorine which was how everyone knew when the pool had officially opened for the summer because the smell burned nostril hairs and stung eyes from a city block away.
Mayra wore her first ever and favorite floral two-piece swimsuit, the one her mother let her choose by herself which fit perfectly when she was eleven years old but not so much now that she was a full grown, fully developed woman. It still served its purpose by covering up the bits that needed to be covered but she was showing off way more skin that she was comfortable with which made her self-conscious. A quick glance around the pool confirmed that no one was staring at her so her anxiety eased slightly.
It was summer recess and most of Mayra’s friends were here, both from school and her neighborhood. She was an adult but her friends were children which wasn’t bizarre seeing as that was how she remembered them, all except for Bethany, also an adult, who was the only person she managed to stay in touch with throughout the years. Incidentally, Bethany was also wearing a two-piece swim suit and hers fit perfectly which she found unfair to say the least.
Mayra had been a lucid dreamer from the time she remembered her first nightmare and certainly before she knew the ability had a name. And she was quite familiar with this particular dream because she had it many times before. The pool was some sort of anchor point for her, probably because it represented some of the happiest times of her life, when the summer was the best time of the year because it was fresh with the promise of childhood freedom and full of adventurous possibilities.
They were gearing up to play Sharks and Minnows and as Mayra demolished the competition during the selection process, she was the shark. Kicking off her rainbow flip flops, she dove into the water and took a position in the center of the shallow end while her minnow friends formed a line along the lip of one side of the pool.
“Fishies, fishies, cross my ocean!” Mayra challenged.
The minnows jumped into the water, some diving straight in, some cannonballing, and Bethany, who wanted to make the biggest splash, took a running start, jumped high in the air and pulled one leg to her chest, the other one sticking down toward the water as she bent back at a 35-degree angle. The minnows started swimming to the opposite end, giving the shark as wide a berth as they could in the crowded public pool. Mayra remained still until the first minnow was about to swim past.
“Shark attack!” Mayra yelled and began swimming at a frantic pace. The school of minnows shrieked, laughed and paddled as fast as they could trying to reach the other end of the pool, the safe base, without getting tagged. But the shark knew which minnow she was after, the one who lagged behind all the rest and Mayra caught up with Bethany easily but didn’t tag her immediately. The shark swam past her best friend and placed herself directly in the minnow’s path.
The minnow crashed into the shark and before she could back away Mayra lifted an index finger out of the water and booped Bethany’s nose, smiling, “Tag. Guess who’s shark chow?”
“That’s so unfair,” Bethany slapped the surface of the water. “You always pick on me cause I’m the slowest!”
“I pick you because you always do that stupid can opener dive to try and splash-blind me. Don’t hate me just cause I’m a water baby.”
“Oh yeah? Well, have some water, baby!” Bethany’s hands flew to the top of Mayra’s head and dunked her underwater.
Oh, am I going to make her pay, Mayra thought as she play-struggled beneath Bethany’s hands but wasn’t worried. Luckily, she managed to hold her breath in time and the water was shallow, that is, it was shallow until the pool bottom dropped away quickly and water began rushing past her and she realized she was plunging straight down like an anchor.
And then the water wasn’t water. It was more like mud. Mud that stopped her descent and left her floating for a moment before propelling her back up the way she came but when she resurfaced, she was no longer in the park pool. It was suddenly twilight but not eigengrau, the dark grey color seen by the eyes in perfect darkness, this was an inky darkness so pitch she couldn’t tell where mud-water met sky or whether she was facing a swimming pool edge, a shore or some other land mass or simply more water. She was completely adrift, disoriented and had no means of navigation, not even the faint light of night stars. Her world was now liquid and gas black in every direction. A strange and illogical thought hit her, Was I in the deep end of the pool? followed by, How long was I underwater?
“Okay, Bethy, joke’s over!” Mayra’s head was on a swivel for a sign of somebody, anybody else in the water but there was nothing. “Bethany, this isn’t funny!”
“Polo,” a voice called out but she couldn’t tell if it was Bethany or one of her other friends because it was so distant.
“Bethy? Is that you?”
“Polo,” the voice said again still far away but Mayra knew the direction it came from this time.
“Marco!” Mayra shouted and when she heard Polo confirm the location, she began swimming toward it. She paced herself because she had no idea how far out she was or how long she needed to keep up her strength. She occasionally called out “Marco” and listened for the “Polo” reply to make sure she was swimming in a straight line in the dark.
Then her swimming became labored, something was pulling her in the opposite direction. She was caught in a rip current! She forced herself not to panic because it took a clear head to escape. She knew, despite the sensation, that the rip current wouldn’t drag her underwater, it would only pull her straight out to sea. She was a decent swimmer so she wasn’t in immediate danger of drowning unless she exhausted herself by trying to fight the current that was stronger than she was. Normally, she would have either swum in the direction of the nearest breaking waves, which marked the current’s edge, or parallel to the shore to escape the current, but as she couldn’t see the shoreline in all the blackness, Mayra swam perpendicular to the current and prayed for the best. With any luck, the current she was in was an average one, less than thirty feet wide, and not a larger one that could have reached up to two hundred feet.
After a while she began getting tired so she floated on her back to conserve energy. This was usually when she would have woken herself up, during a lull in events, but this time it wasn’t working. Mayra remained inside the dream, staying afloat and attempting to relax until she drifted past the breaking waves. She felt the rip current becoming weaker. When she felt confident that she was ready to give it another try, she rolled over in order to begin swimming diagonally away from the current. Her face was momentarily beneath the water’s surface as she turned over but when it emerged she saw that it was no longer dark. The sky was unusually clear and the deepest blue she had ever seen in my life. The water was no longer dark, in fact, it wasn’t blue or green or clear or any color she had ever seen water be. It was a pearlescent white whose texture was liquid silk soft against her skin. Off in the distance she could see what looked like a shoreline but she couldn’t be sure as it reflected an intense white light even though there was no sun in the sky.
“Marco!” she called out and waited for a Polo that never came, so Mayra swam toward the shore hoping it wasn’t some sort of water mirage. Turned out it wasn’t. The water began getting shallower and when it was chest-deep, she planted her feet and walked to shore. The ground beneath her feet wasn’t soil, sand, gravel, pebbles, cobbles, rock, or shells, it was soft, almost as if she was walking on air—no, not quite that—like the fluffiest cotton as to make her feel nearly weightless. Just then, the silliest thought crossed her mind, The reason there are no clouds in the sky is because I’m standing on top of them.
Suddenly, with what should have been a start, Mayra realized she wasn’t alone on the shore. There was someone else standing directly behind her. Normally, she would have recoiled but she somehow sensed she wasn’t in any danger. She turned face to face with a being bright enough to cut the eye. Their face was in a constant state of flux, shifting from the familiar faces of people whose names she couldn’t recall, to images of other things that existed beyond her understanding and therefore defied description. From their body (their because the being standing before her was neither male nor female so she automatic used the nonconforming gender pronouns, they, their and them) which was pure light, a series of wings protruded at odd angles. She counted at least thirty before giving up but there could easily have been a hundred or more. The wings were emerald green, covered with saffron hairs, and appeared to be liquid by the way they reflected the light and by the faint brush strokes they made in the air as they gently flapped. On each wing were different faces of various hues and genders with unblinking eyes full of intelligence and understanding that spoke innumerous languages, none of which she understood but found beautiful nonetheless. She could have stood there motionless for the rest of her life, staring at the marvel she knew to be an angel, enveloped in wave after wave of peacefulness and contentment and acceptance and unconditional love.
Without warning, Mayra was slammed in the back by some sort of wave of vibration that knocked her off her feet and pressed her into the soft ground as if it had its own physical weight. She thought it might have been an explosion but there was no thundering boom. But she felt a vibration in her chest, shaking her so hard it made her teeth rattle.
She looked up stunned and glanced around and saw a crack appear in the distance of the silky milk white waters. An impossible crack that became longer and longer, stretching and slicing through the waves, traveling toward the shore. She watched as it divided the waters and the cotton soft shore, branching off along the way like ground lightning. Anything that got in its way became cracked as well as it went on through and kept going. Although it was impossible to tell how, she knew it was alive, sentient, angry and on a mission.
Unable to move, pinned to the spot in fear, Mayra watched as it snaked slowly in her direction for a moment then shot out rapidly! She squeezed her eyes shut and screamed. Then she felt something grab hold of her wrist and pull her along. Opening her eyes she discovered she was no longer on the ground but flying. No, not flying, being dragged through the sky by the angel, a pale thin hand emerged from the white light body and secured itself around her wrist. Her body whipped up and down and left and right like a flag in a gale storm but she felt no pain as if divorced from the stress of the physical demands on her ragdoll body. Perhaps it had something to do with being within the angel’s aura. She ventured a look behind and saw with astonished terror that the crack had leapt from the shore and was forking its way through the air itself. As the angel flew faster, the crack not only matched speed but it was slowly gaining on them, plotting an ominous path toward her flapping feet. She tried to call to the angel but found it hard to breath with the wind whipping in her face.
Mayra turned her head back to the crack that was now only mere inches away. The angel began flying in an evasive pattern and she quickly lost sight of the crack. She twisted her head desperately, this way and that, but was unable to see where it went. It wouldn’t remain a mystery for long. The crack had zigged and zagged until it was above and behind the angel and herself. It plummeted toward them. Then Mayra felt a sharp pain in her left heel and heard the horrifying sound of flesh tearing. She let out a blood curdling scream and shot a glance down to her leg and her mind froze. The crack was cutting through her flesh, muscle and bone and traveling up her ankle, calf, thigh…
The angel stopped, hovering in midair and pulled Mayra up by the shoulders. The mouths on their shifting faces opened and closed, speaking to her but she couldn’t hear anything over her own screams as the crack separated her crotch, her torso, her breasts, her neck and finally her head.
Mayra sat bolt upright in bed, shivering. Her nightshirt, drenched in sweat, was now see-through. She wrapped her arms around herself, trying to stop the shaking. She immediately became aware of a voice that struck like a shaft of light through the fog clouds existing between her dreaming and consciousness state, illuminating a series of images which flashed at an ultraliminal speed. The voice, not her own though it came from within her, translated these images into a thought, a single phrase that repeated itself. As it rose in intensity and severed the last tether of sleep, she parted her lips and whispered, “Heaven is dead.”
Some believed that existence itself was an ever-expanding canvas and human lives were merely tiny splashes of colors within a much larger, universal painting, while others saw it as a tapestry with human lives being bits of thread woven to make patterns undecipherable by mortal eyes with limited vision who were only allowed to view the tiniest of portions of the tapestry’s back side. Mayra Critchlow, however, thought of existence as a great tome and a person’s life merely an anthology of stories, not always sequential, that when bound together told a coherent narrative. And her life was about to embark on a new chapter that began with her period being late.
It wasn’t earth-shattering news or even that big a surprise since Mayra had always been what her mother called a natural born stresser. Even before she knew how to communicate effectively, she made a habit of sweating the small stuff and when she hit puberty stress carried in tow a condition known as secondary amenorrhea. Her reproductive system was affected by high levels of anxiety which caused her monthlies to temporarily stop. This time, though, it felt one hundred and fifty percent completely different and she suspected something wasn’t quite right after her friend (what a stupid term of endearment for menstruation) was two weeks late. The lead up remained the same, days before her mood soured, she turned grumpy, her chin broke out and her stomach ached constantly but Mayra became concerned when it stopped as quickly as it began. All the symptoms simply vanished. The next logical solution was pregnancy but she couldn’t have been pregnant because of the Nexplanon implant and her boyfriend Gavin wore condoms for extra protection every single time they had been together, which was less often in the past few months.
A Google search of Why is my period so late? inevitably led her to six other reasons her cycle might be a bit wonky. Among the options were major weight loss or excessive exercise—neither of which were the case, a thyroid irregularity, Polycystic ovary symptom, Chronic diseases like Celiac, low dose birth control, and premature menopause. Needless to say, she was not a fan of any of those choices.
Another website suggested waiting ten days after her cycle and taking a pregnancy test even if conception was used. So, Mayra tamped down the panic of possibly having a chronic disease, hormone imbalance, or failing ovaries and snuck out of work the following day before her lunch break and bought a pregnancy test. She decided not to grab one at home because Gavin was there and if she popped out to the store after they had just gone shopping, it would have raised a red flag. And then there would have been the sneaking of the test into the house and bald-faced lying to him if he inquired what she went to the store to pick up. It all seemed silly but she decided to go the easy route and not make a thing out of something that didn’t need to be a thing.
Mayra was tempted to take the test in the restroom at work but as she stepped into the stall she considered if that was the memory she wanted to keep if the result was somehow positive? Would it have been disrespectful to Gavin and even more so to the baby? Besides, if the test was positive, there was no way she could have concentrated on work and she would waste most of the afternoon on the phone with Bethany, doing the whole talking in code thing, which might have been fun but it would have been frustrating as well.
Exhausting just about every last drop of self-control she had, Mayra managed to wait until she arrived home and made a beeline to the bathroom, pecking Gavin on the cheek as she sped past. She never experienced a longer five minutes in her entire life and after the stick delivered its answer she paced the tiny bathroom space in a daze not quite able to handle it. There was a part of her that was tempted to go back to the pharmacy and buy one of each different test brand they had, as if she could get some cosmic do over.
She stuffed the pregnancy test and packaging in her purse—no sense in him spotting it in the trash before she had the chance to tell him—and opened the bathroom door. Gavin was right there in the doorway, rushing past her, undoing his belt buckle.
“What the hell were you doing in here so long” he asked, shoving his boxers and pants around his ankles before plopping down on the toilet. “I need to take a killer dump!”
She stared into his eyes, searching for what she did not know, but she knew she hadn’t found it and all of the courage suddenly drained from her.
“Uh… a little privacy here?” Gavin gestured for her to shut the door. “Unless you’ve developed a scat fetish?”
There was no way they would be having the pregnancy discussion today.
I awoke to a stranger standing at the foot of my bed but far more unsettling was the fact that he was dead. I was certain of this because I could see the chest of drawers behind him through his ephemeral body.
“Do not be alarmed,” the man said in soft tone that registered just above a whisper but was perfectly clear in the surrounding silence of the bedroom which had never known this level of quiet before. “I realize my sudden appearance in your home has come as a surprise to you due to the fact that you and I have never met and that I am a ghost.”
Of the million questions buzzing in my hypnagogic brain, the one that bubbled to the surface was, “What do you want from us?” and my voice cracked in a manner that made me sound considerably less brave than planned.
I tried to will my wife awake, hoping that she might collect the children and get them safely out of the house while I somehow distracted this spirit. I even slid my hand beneath the duvet, slowly as not to draw attention, in order to nudge or pinch her awake to no avail.
“Please know that I have no intention of haunting you or bringing any harm to you or your loved ones,” the ghost said.
“Then why are you here?” I replied loud enough to wake my wife but not the children because I couldn’t risk them coming into the bedroom to see what all the commotion was about.
The transparent man smiled, “You may speak as loudly as you please. I have spread a calming essence over your wife and children so that they might rest soundly as you and I converse.”
While I must confess I knew nothing of ghostly lore or a sleep-inducing essence, I sensed the apparition what speaking truthfully. I asked, “What could we possibly have to say to one another?”
“As I explain my situation, I ask that you refrain from pitying me and my circumstances for life is not a gift we keep but one we borrow and must one day return. Death is inevitable as you will one day learn.”
“Pity you? I don’t even know you!”
“Of course, where are my manners? The things one forgets once the embers of life have been snuffed. My name is Hamid Tahan and I am–pardon me, I was an Emirati merchant in Dubai.
“In the latter part of my short existence I had been diagnosed with prostate and esophageal cancer. Sadly, it was discovered in its very late stage due to my laxity in caring for my health. My illness defied all forms of medicine and treatments and according to my physicians I had only a few months to live.
” I am ashamed to admit that I had not lived a particularly good life. I never really cared for anyone, not even myself. All that mattered was my business. Though I was very rich, I was never generous and I tended to be hostile to those around me.
“But when it was far too late, I regretted it all. I discovered that there was more to life than the mere acquisition of money and I knew in my soul that if universe in its infinite wisdom bestowed upon my a second chance I would live my life a different, far better manner.
“As my mortal time drew to a close, I willed most of my properties and assets to my immediate and extended family members, as well as a few loyal friends and schools in the United Arab Emirates. I gave alms to charity organizations across the globe, as I wanted this to be one of the last good deeds I did on earth.
“And I almost accomplished the task in its entirety but my health had deteriorated more rapidly than was originally estimated and I lost my battle with cancer before I could close out my final account. This is my reason for contacting you.”
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“I have studied you from the great beyond. I see that you are a good man, a kind and generous man even though you are struggling to keep your lovely wife and beautiful children comfortable in the face of the impending bankruptcy of your company. I can help you with this.”
“Help me? How?”
“I could reveal the location of my final, secret account to you, provide you with the codes and information to transfer the funds into your account. Trust me when I say it is more than enough money to pay off all your debt, provide for your children’s futures and allow your family to live comfortably for many years to come. The only thing I ask in exchange for this life-changing abundance…”
“Ah, the catch,” I sighed. “There is always a catch.”
“…is your life,” Hamid Tahan continued.
“I have come to an arrangement with The Powers That Be that I can be reborn if I performed a random act of kindness on a complete and utter stranger and of all the several billion candidates on the planet, I chose you.
“The only drawback for you is that this gift requires a sacrifice. Now you must ask yourself if you love your family enough to die for them? I have seen what lies in store for you and your family and I could not in all conscience live with myself, perdon my turn of phrase, if I did not try to help prevent it.
“You might be thinking to yourself that this is some sort of hoax or a scam but if you reflect on it a minute your will feel the certainty of my offer because it has been classified as a Universal Truth. These truths cannot be forged. They are constructed of unconditional honesty.”
I most certainly believed it to be some form of treachery but true to his word, I felt an overwhelming assurance that he his claim was sincere. I opened and closed my mouth trying to form words but none were forthcoming.
“You need not give your answer at this moment,” he said. “But I would advise you to decide before the week has concluded. The money will be of little use to your family beyond that point.”
“Wait! What’s going to happen to my family? If you know, you have to tell me!” I wanted to leap from the bed and take hold of the ghost and shake the answers from him, which was an irrational thought but it didn’t matter because I was unable to move from my spot.
“I apologize that I am forbidden to reveal any more to you. Please think deeply on my offer and despite your decision, know that you and your family are in my prayers. May the universe be with you, sir,” the phantasmal being who was once Hamid Tahan said as he evaporated into the dark shadows of the room.
And as I watched the gentle rise and fall of my sleeping wife’s chest I was left to ponder, if I valued my own life over the financial security of my family.”
In the midst of a tantrum burst of emotions, Robson stomped into his room and slammed the door shut so hard the picture on the wall to the right came free of its hook and crashed to the floor. It was one of his favorites, a print of a painting depicting a young boy and girl building a snowman with the caption “Snowmen fall from heaven…unassembled” across the bottom. The glass and the frame were cracked and now it was ruined just like everything else in his life! He kicked over his wastebasket, the plastic one with Captain America and all the other Marvel’s Avengers on it and discarded candy wrappers and other bits of broken junk he no longer had a use for skittered across the floor which only made him angrier.
He threw his head back and screamed, “Why can’t you give me what I want? Why can’t I eat what I want to eat and watch what I want to watch on tv? I’m sick of this stupid house and I hate you both! I can’t wait until I get older and leave here forever!”
And the rage kept spilling out until he had expelled all the air from his lungs and the rant became a coughing fit, but he didn’t care. He pulled in a deep breath of new air and let out a frustrated and sustained, guttural bellow so loud it vibrated his eyeballs.
When the red mist of fury lifted from his vision and he was left with nothing more than the fatigue of ages pressing down upon him, he heard a soft rap on his door. He had no desire to respond, so he didn’t but the door handle turned slowly and his father pushed his head inside.
“Got it all out of your system?” his father asked with no trace of anything being out of the ordinary.
Robson didn’t answer, he couldn’t answer, the fatigue wouldn’t allow it. But as his father entered the room and surveyed the damage, the young boy stood firm, and let his breath out through his nostrils in a defiant hiss.
His father picked up the cracked picture frame and examined it as he walked past Robson to sit on the bed. He patted the full-size mattress, indicating for his son to have a seat but the boy didn’t move. “Come on, it’s not going to kill you to sit next to me. I just need you to listen to what I have to say and then I’ll leave you alone to continue being mad at us.”
Reluctantly, Robson dragged his feet as if the gravity in the room had suddenly increased and plopped onto the bed as far away from his father as he could manage.
“A shame about this picture,” his father said. “Your mother and I bought this for you because it was the first thing you actually asked for. You pleaded with us and made your case so succinctly that we had no choice. At the time, we didn’t have the funds to spare but sometimes the happiness of the people you love is worth more than money.
“The reason I’m bringing this up is to talk to you about sacrifices. You’re too young to fully understand this but everybody in the world has to make them, no matter how young or old they are. And you may think the things we ask or tell you to do is unfair but that’s only because you don’t see the bigger picture and there’s no real reason you should at your age. Our job as your parents is to take care of the big important stuff so that you can live the easiest life we can manage to give you. But it’s also our duty to prepare you for what’s to come and we planned to wait until you were a little older but since you’re so eager to grow up, let me tell you what life holds in store for you.
“As you get older, you’re going to learn that even the people who were never supposed to let you down probably will and someone who has the same opinion about you…you will let them down, as well. That includes the three of us, champ. We’re eventually going to let each other down.
“You’re going to fall in love one day and your heart will get broken and it will probably happen more than once and it will get harder to love with each passing break. And most likely you’ll break a few hearts yourself even if you remember how it felt when yours was broken and try to avoid doing it to someone else, it’s going to happen.
“Despite your best intentions, you’ll fight with your best friends, blame a new love for things an old one did, complain because time is passing too fast, wish you had your childhood to do over again to get things right, and you’ll eventually lose someone you love which includes me and your mother.”
Robson sat motionless, staring at the cracked glass and broken frame, unable to meet his father’s gaze because he felt the sting of tears in his own eyes. “What do I do?” he said in a small voice.
“What do you mean?”
“To stop all the bad things from happening. What do I do?”
“Well, you can start by not taking the good things and times for granted but do take too many pictures, laugh too much, and love like you’ve never been hurt…because every sixty seconds you spend upset is a minute of happiness you’ll never get back. But before any of that, you should go apologize to your mother, she was really upset by some of the things you said.”
Robson hopped off the bed, turned his back to his father and wiped the tears from his eyes with his shirt sleeve. He walked to the door with a purpose but stopped at the door jamb and said over his shoulder, “I don’t really hate you, you know.”
“I know, kiddo,” his father smiled. “Now, go give your mother a great big hug and kiss and shag your butt back in here so we can straighten this room up.”
The little boy took off like a shot out of the room yelling, “Mommy! Mommy! I’m sorry!”
His father stood up, righted the wastebasket and carefully tilted the broken glass into the little plastic bucket. He caught sight of the caption on the picture and thought, Snowmen aren’t the only things that require assembly, sometimes family bonds do too.