Everyone I knew wrote me off as a space case, as if I was insane or some sad eccentric with little grip on reality but none of them, not a single solitary person, bothered to get to know me, to peer beyond this veil of all too fragile flesh in order to witness the infinitude that lay within.
Bitter nausea rises in Sandrine’s throat as the shards of the shattered vanity mirror shoot up from the table and floor in a maelstrom of sharp chaos, pieces binding themselves together in DNA helix fashion, building themselves from inanimate splinters of reflective glass to take on a new, sinister shape, the form of her abusive, late husband.
“Honey, I’m home,” says the mirrored monstrosity in a voice that sounds broken glass edges scraping together.
Researching on her tablet, Mayra discovered the first functional fetal organ to develop was the heart, typically eighteen to nineteen days after fertilization which began to beat and pump blood around day twenty-two. But when it came to ensoulment, the closest thing she found to a specific answer dated back to the time of Aristotle, where it was believed the human soul entered the forming body at forty days for boys and ninety days for girls, which was of exactly zero use in explaining why there had been no sightings of child or baby spirits and if her as yet unborn child currently had a soul.
“How long do you think you’ve been pregnant?” Bethany asked.
“Um, I don’t know,” Mayra said, counting the days back to when she first took the test.
“At least six weeks?”
“Sure, I think. Maybe? Why?”
“Because six weeks is the earliest you can get a dating scan.”
“A what now?”
“An ultrasound to find out how far along you are and detect the presence of a heartbeat. Don’t you want to hear your baby’s heartbeat? I know I do.”
Mayra felt slightly ashamed that Bethany had taken the reins with regard to the clinical aspects for the pregnancy while she was preoccupied with the metaphysics of soul creation and death.
“It’s been over six weeks since I missed my period,” Mayra said.
“So, should I book us an appointment?” Bethany asked, and received no response. “What’s up with you?”
“You’re not going to like this,” Mayra sighed. “But I think Gavin might be right.”
“Maybe it’s not right to bring a child into this new world.”
Bethany sat across from Mayra in complete silence, lost in her thoughts for a long while before saying, “I don’t know how to respond to that. I mean, if that’s Gavin’s voice in your head, I’d tell you to tell it to fuck off. If you’re thinking it because you’re nervous, I can totally understand that but like I’ve told you a hundred times, you are not alone, and I’ll keep telling you until it finally sinks in. But if this is truly how you feel, then I support you and your choice and I’ll be here for you however you need me to be so don’t feel guilty because you have to do what’s right for you.”
“I have to admit, Bethy, I have no idea what’s right anymore.”
It was an odd thing but being in the hospital to get the ultrasound made the situation real. Mayra was going to have a baby, she was going to be a single mom which meant she had some growing up to do. She was afraid the sonographer was going to make assumptions about her since Bethany was at her side instead of Gavin but it was one of those childishly foolish notions that she needed to push out of her head.
“At this point we should be able to see the baby take shape,” the sonographer, whose name was Gloria, smiled. “Your little one is slowly becoming a person and I have to admit this is the point I find the most exciting. Nine months might seem like a long time but it will fly by. Make the most of this experience because once you hold your baby in your arms everything will be different.”
“Do you think this is something I can do alone?” Mayra had no idea why she asked the question. The words just slipped out before she was aware of what she was saying.
“Yes, even though it’s obvious to me you aren’t alone,” Gloria said without missing a beat and nodding a smile at Bethany. “Somehow I can tell there are always going to be people around to help you. Pregnancy can sometimes make you feel like you’re in it by yourself but you’d be surprised at how people will step up to help.”
“That’s a curious bedside manner you’ve got there,” Bethany said.
“So I’ve been told,” Gloria replied and to Mayra she said, “The scan usually takes about twenty minutes.”
“Twenty minutes?” Mayra said.
“I know your bladder’s full but we’ll get through this as quickly as possible,” Gloria held up a squeeze bottle and a small hand-held device. “First I’m going to apply some ultrasound gel to your tummy and move this transducer over your skin to get views of your baby.”
Mayra looked down at the gel being spread over her stomach. Her body was still in the same shape it had always been, something the baby would soon change and she wasn’t quite sure she was ready for it. When she glanced at Bethany, she saw her friend was staring across the room at a ghost midwife standing nearby, watching the monitor, waiting patiently. It was impossible to pretend she wasn’t there but a strange phenomenon was taking place where people began ignoring the spirits, they had become so commonplace. Exhaling deeply, she turned her attention to the screen. Being able to see her growing child was the whole reason she was there, and she wasn’t about to let the dead spoil this moment.
“Okay, Mayra, this is going to feel weird, but I promise you it’s truly worth it,” Gloria said.
Mayra said a silent prayer that the scan turned out normal and the baby was healthy but the moment the transducer made contact with her belly—everything changed. Her vision filled with starbursts. A million points of light filled her mind and she was overcome with a sensation that was simply too good, too pure to exist in this imperfect world. Her sense of existence expanded beyond the limitations of infinity and for one brief moment the edges of her mind brushed against the minds of every person, living and dead, linking together like a jigsaw puzzle of peace and all was right in the universe for a nanosecond before infinite knowledge avalanched onto her mind sending shards of information into her brain and out through the back of her skull over and over eternally and existence filled her mouth, filled her throat, filled her lungs, suffocating her with its presence and it would not let up, would not let her fight, would not let her scream as she was engulfed by the unending blinding whiteness of everything until she became nothing at all.
The bits and pieces that made her unique no longer existed in this pearlescent void and how could it? The totality of everything had pushed everything she had ever been out of her. She was now a hollow lifeless shell—until she wasn’t. Reality, her reality, the only one she personally experienced, had begun reknitting itself, stitch one, purl two until she was back in the examination room with the sonographer and Bethany. Both women stood stock-still as if they had been turned into stone by a basilisk, mouth agape, staring at the monitor. What they saw on the screen looked nothing like a baby at all. It looked more like a blob, a swirling mass that resembled a distant galaxy viewed through a space telescope.
When Gloria recovered enough to form words, she said, “Let me get one of the doctors in for a second opinion,” and bolted out of the room before Mayra could ask a question.
Mayra turned to Bethany who was gathering their coats and bags in a hurried fashion.
“Bethy, what are you doing?”
“Sweetie, we need to get the fuck out of here, now!”
No one knew her name. She was just that shy girl with the crooked smile and nervous laugh who kept herself to herself and stood apart from the rest of the real world, dancing to a tune that no one else could hear and loving people who only existed in her imagination.
It was a dark and stormy night, the type I was all too familiar with—when all my estranged family and distant friends slept but I couldn’t because all the regrets of my life raged in my mind with an unbearable intensity along with the enduring question—
Rosalinda’s eyes were pitch black perfect and somewhere in their aphotic depths, I spotted the bioluminescence of her pain and gentleness as they came together to form the very art of her beautifully tortured soul.
While Amelia couldn’t quite put her finger on it or explain how the devil it happened, she knew her reality had somehow shifted because the air smelled wrong—not just of engine exhaust but of evaporating destiny and melting fate.
“I met a human after I was granted a second chance via a presidential pardon for violating the first law of robotics and we fell in love but she died unexpectedly and my greatest regret is I had not obtained a lock of her hair to wind it into my broken mecha heart.”
I thought I could handle any trouble that came my way but the murder investigation had gone riotous way too fast and I was caught at ground zero.
I tried to beat a hasty retreat to call for backup but standing between me and the Big Top’s only egress was the Circus Authorities, a bundle of fast-moving, nimble as fuck, acrobatic clowns armed to the teeth with corrosive acid pies and rubber chickens filled with ball bearings.
Turning on the television was almost always a bad idea. The one sure thing in all this madness was that every channel with a news outlet, syndicated and cable alike, provided twenty-four hour a day updates of variations on the same stories: people dealing with the spirits of loved ones. The sad fact of the matter was daily life seemed to stop the moment the dead returned to Earth. And that was the good news.
Interspersed between dramatic reenactments of tearful afterlife family reunions was the blowback religion was suffering due to its failure to provide answers for the reason Heaven was destroyed, the purpose of dead spirits returning to Earth and the overcrowding it was causing, and why anyone should continue worshipping if they were no longer a reward for living a righteous life. The suicide rate continued to climb but not all of the disillusioned practitioners were taking their own lives. Some took it upon themselves to express their anger in the form of the vandalization of churches, mosques and religious community centers which quickly escalated to bomb threats, physical attacks on parishioners, then to mass shootings and bombings. In order to minimize the death toll in America, the President passed an executive order to close places of worship and urged other countries to follow suit but failed to gain any traction as religious congregations across the states defied the ban.
Experts assembled comprehensive databases of bombers and mass shooters who aimed their attacks on religious groups or places of worship to try to better understand and help prevent future violence of this kind. They stated, normally the statistics would have indicated the perpetrators being men, mostly Caucasian, single and unemployed, ages ranging from twenty to forty, with histories of mental illness, substance abuse, and victims of serious childhood trauma. Worship murderers also typically fell into one of two distinct categories: ethno-religious hate groups who target a specific group of people to blame for their grievances; or angry individuals in crisis motivated by domestic issues. But new studies showed no gender, ethnicity or age correlation among the offenders. In fact, the common thread seemed to be people prepared to commit suicide who were afraid of dying alone. If they had to exist in void, they wanted to be surrounded by their family and friends.
To combat the escalating tension, celebrities formed organizations to hold Death of Heaven vigil simulcast on tv, radio, podcast and across all the social media platforms around the world to offer support for those suffering as a result of the loss, as well as counseling for those having difficulty adjusting to having dead abusive spouses and family members return into their lives.
Mayra shut the tv off. She couldn’t be bothered flicking through the channels to find something to momentarily distract her. Even the soaps had been forced to add current events into their storylines, thanks to deceased actors appearing on set and going through their former character motions.
Stretching out on the sofa, her hand reflexively reached out for her smartphone.
“There’ll come a time when you’ll have to face facts,” Bethany said as she crossed from the bedroom, heading for the kitchen. “In your own time, of course, but sooner would be better for your mental state and the baby’s health.”
Damn. She had been busted by her friend once again and though Bethany tried not to sound too judgmental, Mayra felt a sense of shame that she wasn’t strong enough to admit the truth and move on with her life.
“Yeah, I know,” Mayra said, thumb hovering over the number keypad. “I keep going over it in my head, but our lives are too entwined. Gavin hasn’t touched the bank account, not that there’s a lot in there to begin with, so that means he doesn’t have a lot of money. He has to either be crashing with a friend or maybe he moved back to his parents’ house.”
“And you’ve already dialed all those numbers a dozen times. Sure, maybe if you pester them enough someone will eventually break and fess up, but you don’t know what story he spun to them and you could wind up looking like the psycho stalker ex-girlfriend.”
“I don’t care what people think. I just need to talk to him. I need that, Bethy, I need it.”
“Sweetie, I’m not telling you not to call, not to try. All I want is for you to be happy and if happy isn’t possible right now then I want you to feel comfortable moving forward without that dead weight hanging around your neck. From what you’ve told me the two of you were more like house mates for a while now. If that’s what you want out of life then go for it and I’ll support you the best way possible, but if you want someone to love you the way you deserve to be loved I think you need to accept the reality that you kissed a frog and instead of getting a prince, you got warts.”
“I know calling him probably isn’t the smartest thing to do, but I need to hear his voice. Don’t hate me.”
“Never,” Bethany said, continuing to the kitchen. “I’ll leave you to it.”
Mayra dialed Gavin’s cell, cursing herself for being a weak-willed idiot.
“The number you have dialed is not in service, please check the number and try again.” The automated voice wasn’t what she expected to hear. She hung up and tried again. “The number you have dialed—” She disconnected and carefully redialed his phone number one more time. “The number you have dialed—” Mayra hurled the phone across the room and screamed, “Fuck!”
Bethany ran into the living room. “What is it? What happened?”
“That bastard changed his number,” Mayra said and suddenly the floodgates opened. Everything she kept bottled up came spilling out. Gavin hadn’t left a note or emailed her or even sent a text message. The very least he could have done if he was at his parents’ house was to have his mother or father call her to let her know he was safe. But no, all she got after five years of dating was an apartment full of the empty spaces he used to inhabit. She ended with, “He’s gone,” before breaking down into uncontrollable tears.
“Yes, he is, sweetie,” Bethany pulled her friend into her arms and gently rocked her. “But you’re not alone.”
Bethany had done more than Mayra could ever have asked. She worked out the apartment lease with the landlord, removing Gavin’s name and replaced it with her own, as well as smoothing things over with Mayra’s boss so she could take a few days off and still keep her job. At times Mayra had been overwhelmed by it all, and the complicated emotions that came with accepting her relationship with Gavin was well and truly over came and went like the tides. There were days when she hated her ex-boyfriend—and it had taken a while to adjust to thinking of him as an ex—for what he’d done and the only thing she really wanted to do was to hurt him the way he hurt her. Then there were days when she accepted the way things were, realizing there was nothing she could have done to change what was.
One of the best reasons for having Bethany so close was that Mayra could open the release valve when her brain became too cluttered with random, disturbing thoughts and voice things she ordinarily wouldn’t have been able to speak with Gavin about.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about miscarriages,” Mayra let slip while she and Bethany were working on a jigsaw together. It was a three thousand piece Educa Amsterdam with Red Bike Puzzle. Challenging enough to focus her concentration on since besides the red bike, the rest of the puzzle was in black and white with reflective surfaces. Still, idle thoughts had a way of creeping in.
“What?” Bethany gave her a look she’d grown accustomed to since moving in together, the look of being blindsided. “You shouldn’t be worrying about things like that. Stay positive. Everything’s going to be all right because there’s no reason they shouldn’t be.”
“You don’t understand. I’m not worrying about miscarrying, not yet at least, I was just wondering when life begins. Is it at conception?”
“I—I’m no expert but I’d say, sure, why not?”
“Then why haven’t we seen the souls of any aborted children? Or still births? Is it because their souls hadn’t properly developed?”
“Okay, that’s disturbing on a number of levels. Have you actually been looking for them? I wouldn’t even know what that would look like and I don’t think I’d want to know.”
“You’ve got a point there,” Mayra admitted. “But what about kids? Of all the people who’ve died and returned, why hasn’t anyone reported spotting children?”
“Oh man,” Bethany said. “With all the confusion going on, I never realized all we’ve been encountering are adults. What happened to all the kids? And people are tripping over ghosts outside but I haven’t seen one in our apartment yet. Have you?”
“I—” Mayra began, then thought about it. “No, I haven’t.”
“Somebody must have died here.”
“This isn’t a new building, is what I’m saying. What are the odds this is one of the few places on Earth where no deaths have ever occurred?”