These are the concluding parts to a multi-part story. Read the previous three parts here. Copyright is held by the author.
Part four: the inevitable confrontation
THEY STOOD before a set of marble columns that rose into the clouds and green fields that stretched to the horizon. “We’re in a land,” said the girl, “where night falls once every 30,000 years. Really fucks with the mind.”
Eli ran his hand along a column. “I imagine it would.”
Behind them lay weeks of walking across a landscape of red dirt and dust coupled with the hiss of snakes and the buzz of flies. Along their latest walk, they had passed millions of bleached white corpses — human and alien, the dead of innumerable species.
Through the columns, he could see men and women standing before canvases. The painters looked as if they stepped out of 19th century France, donning red berets and brown coats. “Is this where impressionists end up after they die?”
“This is where we end,” the girl replied, now no more than 16, black hair and all gangly limbs and slender waist. She now carried a red, canvas backpack, the same size and style that Maudie had carried to school. The pack contained a series of diaries, which she wrote in every time they stopped for rest.
“I don’t want our time to end,” Eli said. “I have to admit. I have come to enjoy your company, your wit, even your cynical intelligence.”
“It must. I’ve run out of interesting ways to kill you.”
“I find that hard to believe,” he said. “I’ve been eaten, which wasn’t as bad as I imagined, torn apart by lions in the arena, sucked up by a twister, impaled by a —”
“.Unicorn,” she said, and they both laughed.
“You also tossed me into a volcano.”
“At least once, everyone should experience the wonderful human tradition of being sacrificed to a god.”
“That wasn’t my favourite. I never liked fire,” he said. “I’ve lost count, but it would be interesting to know how many times you have killed me.”
“Thirty-three times,” the girl said, flashing her ridiculously luminous smile. “Thirty-three times I have convinced you that you should suffer a horrific death.”
“I must have set a record for stupidity, no, gullibility.”
The girl knelt and picked up a stone. “I particularly liked when I dropped a piano on you. You went ‘splat’ just like a cartoon.”
He looked back toward the land of dirt and death. “Really, I don’t want this to end.”
“No. Don’t tease. I don’t want this to end, our time together. I’ve learned to endure. That must be worth something.”
She clawed a hole in the dirt with her fingers. Black and red ants began trickling out of the hole. Soon, it was a parade of spiders, centipedes, and hundreds of varieties of what Maudie would have called the creepy-crawlies. “You don’t even know what this is.”
“I don’t care anymore. I will die a thousand times if it allows me to stay with you. I want to take care of you. I want to read what you’re writing. I want to know more about you.”
She stood and brushed a spider from her arm. “Have you considered that this is nothing but a last moment survival experience in your brain? Right now, as the shotgun pellets are blasting their way through your jaw, travelling at 1,000 feet per second, your brain is exhibiting self-preservation behaviour and impulses. Your brain cannot accept its death, and instead of the traditional light at the end of a tunnel, it has concocted a survival fantasy — one that feels endless. Maybe this is your immortality — your perceived response to having your head splattered against the water softener.”
“I don’t believe that. Look at this world. I never read science fiction. I never read the Bible, Gulliver’s Travels, The Iliad or any of the books I should have read. I tried reading The Hobbit, but Gollum gave me nightmares. I never read Poe.
“Regarding you, I only skimmed through the pages of your book, and that was because my ninth grade English teacher made me. How could this world or any of this be a fragment of my dying imagination? I didn’t have one. I worked my whole life in sales.”
“You skimmed through my diary? Was I really that boring?”
“No. I simply had no interest in a book or any book about doomed girls. At 14, the only girls I cared about were Cindy Koepsel and Shelby Klusmeyer.”
“You won’t find them here,” said the girl, sadness softening her voice. “I understand my book sold millions. It must have merit.”
“Of course it does, but I didn’t want to know about suffering. I didn’t want to know about wholesale death and slaughter and that the dark matter holding the universe together was not empathy but indifference. I would learn that soon enough.”
“Is that why you went to the cellar? Because you realized no matter what you did or felt it didn’t matter?”
He fell silent, but soon realized she could not be detoured. She wanted an answer.
“I was depressed,” he said, “nothing more. Boring. I was the boring one.”
The young girl no longer stood before him; in her stead was an old woman, shrivelled and hunched over, her back bearing the weight of a hundred years. Her breaths were short. Purple and black bruises covered her arms and gnarled hands. Pointing a crooked finger at him, she said, “Tell me the truth, Eli, or you will experience the death I remember, a savage betrayal unequalled in the hearts of men, a betrayal as indifferent and soulless as you can imagine, yet uncompromisingly personal.”
For the first time since he had entered the cellar, the shotgun cradled in his arms, tight against his chest like an infant needing protection, he felt the swell of tears in his eyes. In all his deaths, he had never cried. He had screamed and wailed and thrashed, but the pain was more anger than hurt. Now he felt the hurt of the world in his gut, a bottomless sadness chewing up his insides.
“Is that why I am here? To confess? My sins are no worse than anyone else’s.”
The old woman rose like a question mark straightening to an exclamation point. He could hear the creak in her spine. Though she looked as if she may break apart from the strain, he sensed a strength and resolve within her that he could not match. As she inched closer, her eyes black and grey, a foul stench of soot and ash struck him. Lice infested her tattered clothing, barely concealing a body no more than bone and taunt blackened flesh.
She bared her teeth, black and decayed, pointed and sharp. “Tell me the truth, Eli, or I will send you to Bergen-Belsen, and this time you won’t die alone. You will be accompanied by your daughter, and her death will be as messy and vile as mine and as real.”
“You don’t have the power. If you say this is all a hallucination, my brain . . .”
He stopped. The landscape had changed. The world had turned. He stood naked among scores of other naked men and women, shrivelled and staggering along on a spotted ground of black feces and red mud.
He stood on a cobblestone road between rows of grey shacks surrounded by towering black, leafless trees. At the end of the road stood a black slab of a building, windowless and a good hundred feet tall. Though it held no chimney or any perceived outlet, grey smoke tinged with red vapours drifted into a cloudless, colourless sky.
To his left stood his daughter, also naked and covered with leeches, her privates protected by her trembling hands. To his right stood the girl, the same age as when they first met and clothed in rags that barely concealed her withering form. The girl was clearly dying — Typhus.
“Stop this, please,” he said. “Not Maudie, not my girl, not my baby.”
“Yes, your baby,” the girl replied, “and you have no one to blame but yourself. In life you were just another miserable wretch too stupid and self-absorbed to appreciate anything of value. You achieved nothing because you were too wrapped up in your own pity. You built bars of shadows and hid behind them. But here, you have managed to achieve greatness. You were the only one I failed to take through the gates.
“And now we shall be justly rewarded. Each one of us will be dead within the hour — the real death. No more awakenings for you, for me, or for your daughter. Congratulations, Eli. You found your peace. Good job.”
Part five: the revelation we must accept
HE STEPPED off the bottom step onto the basement floor, flinching at the familiar chill and the vile stink he could not identify. “How can you stand it down here? It smells like something has died.”
“It’s just your imagination,” replied his wife. “You have this fear of enclosed spaces. Remember how you got all nervous and sweaty at Cave of the Mounds?”
He reached for the wall and turned on the lights. “It’s not my imagination. It reeks like something has died. It’s in the walls or beneath the stairs. Hell, maybe it’s under the floor.”
“Under the concrete floor? Now you’re just being silly.”
His wife studied the stacks of boxes piled against the wall. After a few moments, she pulled a large box scrawled with the words “baby clothes” on its sides and placed it in the centre of the basement. She bent to a knee and ripped the tape off its top. “The basement is watertight, Eli. Sealed like a vault.”
Air tight like a tomb, thought Eli.
She pulled out a baby’s jumper and held it up. “Isn’t this cute? Can you believe this was once mine?”
“I can’t believe you kept them.”
“Of course! They’re in great shape. I wore many of my mother’s infant clothes. Come, Eli. Help me decide what to keep and what we will need to buy. It’ll be fun. I’m so glad we’re having a girl.”
He tugged at the collar of his sweatshirt. He had gained weight since their wedding: 25 damned pounds. To help with the bills, he got a second job working weekends at the local bakery, dishing donuts to soccer moms and meth addicts at 5:00 in the morning.
He forced a smile and joined her, thinking: A year ago I was single and debt free. Now I have a wife, a house, two jobs, and a kid on the way — way too much and way too fast.
He felt as if his gut was about to explode. How did this happen? Two years ago, I just wanted a girlfriend. I wanted a friend to talk to and affection when I was lonely, someone to kiss on New Year’s Eve. I never wanted all of this.
He had grown up taking care of his idiot sister and dumber brother, courtesy of a divorced mom with a penchant for experimental drugs and unemployed boyfriends. He hated the burden of being the responsible one, making sure his younger siblings were fed and keeping up with their homework — all in vain. They were now major league fuck-ups, exhibiting behaviour of the chronically stupid — losing jobs for tardiness, blowing paycheques at the casino, or running up massive credit card debt on toys they neither needed nor could afford. Worse, his sister had graduated from her dependence on alcohol to Oxycodone.
He looked at his wife, so lovely with her long red hair, green eyes and full lips. He could not deny he loved her, craved her, even now at six-months pregnant. She listened. She was always in a good mood. Despite a stressful job as a critical care nurse, she rarely complained. Caring and attentive, she was going to be loving mother.
I should be happy, he thought. I should feel fortunate, but I don’t. I don’t want to be a father. I don’t want to be married. I don’t want the responsibility. I’m already leading a life that is one fat lie. What will it be like when there’s a kid? How will I feel in another year, or three? What will I do when I can’t take it anymore?
Leave? Something else?
Part six: the conclusion we deserve
THE GIRL took his hand. “Thank you, Eli. Thank you for telling me your truth.”
The two stood on a wide shoreline of white sand near a tranquil sea of blue water. He wore a black suit and black sandals. She wore a white dress and white high-top sneakers. “She” was his daughter, backlit by the setting sun.
“So, it was you all the time,” he said. “How?”
She shook her head. “How doesn’t matter — never did nor will.”
“I now understand why you killed me over and over. I understand your anger. You must think I never loved you, but you would be wrong. I always loved you. It’s just that every morning, as I drove to work, I feared I would keep on driving, past my job and away from you and your mother. Then every night as you and your mother prepared for bed, I sat on the couch worrying I would lose one or both of you to illness or an accident, or to something else. Worse, I lived in constant anxiety worrying that you two would discover how I felt. I feared your mother leaving me, and I feared you would run away or do something terrible, something I could never live with.” He laughed. “I know. The irony is ludicrous, absurd.” He raised her hands to his lips and kissed them. “I guess I never learned to live with contradictions.”
“You did your best,” she said.
“And it wasn’t good enough, but I tried, Maudie. I tried for so long. In the end, I believed you two would be better off without me. I’m sorry. I’m sorry for everything.”
The girl drew him close, resting her face against his chest. “Oh, Eli, I’m not Maudie.”
He pulled back, still holding her hands, but now looking into the face of the familiar young girl, the one from the photograph that graced the book everyone knew, the one who had accompanied him on his deathly journey and one like so many who had died too young and too alone. “If you’re not Maudie, you must be —”
She brought a finger to his lips and said, “I am neither Maudie nor the girl you believe I am.”
“Then who are you?”
She kissed his cheek and drew back, and with the smile that carried all the hope and beauty and pain and suffering that only living can bring, she said, “I am Forgiveness.”