This is a multi-part story. Today we present Parts One, Two and Three. Check back tomorrow to read the concluding Parts Four, Five and Six. Copyright is held by the author.
Part one: the ridiculous beginning
“YOU MAY speak now. You may tell me what you’re thinking.”
He carefully stepped forward, creeping close to the edge, expecting the familiar effects of his vertigo — the shakes, the sweats and, at times, the tears. He felt none of these symptoms, just numbness.
The young girl sitting next to him tossed a fist-sized rock over the edge. “What do you think?”
“I think, what’s the point in killing yourself if there’s an afterlife?” He took another look into the abyss. The drop to the bottom had to be at least a mile, maybe two miles to the bottom. He looked back at her. “This is not what I expected. This can’t be death?”
“What were you expecting? The absence of pain? Sweet, comforting darkness?”
“I expected, at least, the absence of awareness, which is why I made the choice to end my existence. I wanted to be Elijah J. Larson: dead man, not dead man walking.”
“Surprise,” she replied without a hint of irony. “Most people would be grateful.”
He looked out over the mountains where a large yellow moon riddled with craters hung high in a crimson sky. “I don’t want to explore strange new worlds. I don’t want to be a creature of the night, a ghost, an apparition, or whatever I have become. I want to die. I don’t want to think or feel.”
He watched the girl pick up another stone; it looked like an amethyst. For years, his wife, Helen, had worked at a gem store, a haven for rock hounds. Every night she would come home excited about new acquisitions and new discoveries. He hated that her interests bored the fuck out of him.
She tossed the stone into the depths. “I hoped you at least wrote a decent note, an explanation for your narcissistic act.”
He felt the familiar sickness in his gut, the angry snake he could not kill. “Yes, but I suspect she won’t be happy. It was a bit snarky and too short.”
“Do you remember it?”
“Every word. Apparently dying has improved my memory. I remember every insult and indignity I have suffered and every hurt I have inflicted. Interesting place you got here.”
“The letter, please.”
“I wrote two drafts, but the first one was too long, six pages of self-indulgent despair. The second was more to the point. I wrote: ‘Dear, sweet Helen, my love, my life. Nothing works — the therapy, the drugs. The pain will not subside. I’m sorry, Eli.’”
“My head throbs,” the girl said.
“I never said I was a writer.”
The girl stood. “The note to your daughter?”
He paused before answering. “I’m sorry, but that is no concern of yours.”
“Suit yourself,” she said. “Come, I have an idea.”
“A constructive one, I hope.”
“Of course,” she said. “I think you should try again.”
“Try what again?”
“Killing yourself. I have a theory.”
“An explanation to where I am would be more helpful. This is all a bit disconcerting.”
“No. No,” she said. “Where you are doesn’t matter.”
“It doesn’t? Why?”
The girl sighed with frustration. “Look. Do you want to die or not?”
“I’ve already died.”
“Yes, and it didn’t stick. It appears that you have fucked up the most basic human experience.”
“You’re welcome. Now, listen and learn. You have to admit that your first effort was a bit blasé, cliché. I suspect you need an effort a tad more creative to achieve the effect you desire, to please our masters.”
“We have masters?”
“Unlike the birth of the universe, which was all chance and fancy-pants math we don’t understand, the afterlife is definitely a matter of design.”
She offered a wry smile that was not unpleasant. With a little meat on her bones, she might have grown to be an attractive woman. He assumed she had died, too, not that he really understood what was happening. Immediately, or what seemed like it, after he had pulled the trigger, he awoke at the base of a sprawling willow tree surrounded by bugs and flies and unsettling shrieking and baying animal noises from creatures unseen. She was standing over him, dressed in a black skirt and white blouse, looking as if she had come home from middle school. She looked to be about 12, a waif with long black hair. She held two walking sticks.
Before he could ask the one thousand questions on his lips, she tossed him a stick and said, “No talking, just walking.”
Without a better plan, he followed.
The girl placed her hands on Elijah’s back and guided him to the business edge of the cliff. An acidic wind kicked up. Now Elijah felt the uneasy nervousness he always felt when he approached an edge.
“You’re shaking, Eli. What’s there to be afraid of? You’ve already died. What could go wrong?”
“I could end up paralyzed.”
“You’ve been watching too many bad action movies. The human body can’t survive a fall of 30 metres much less 3,000. Your body is going to break apart into teeny-tiny pieces: hundreds of pieces no larger than a golf ball. No, Eli, you’re going to die. Die hard. Die badly.”
“I thought I was already dead.”
“Yes, Eli, you are dead. Quit worrying about the details. Learn to live with contradictions. Trust me: Neither God nor the devil gives a shit about logic.”
“There’s a God?”
“How the fuck should I know? It’s a figure of speech,” the girl said and gave him a hardy push.
Part two: the section where you are supposed to laugh
HE AWOKE lying on his back, half-buried in sand, staring up at one mother of a large yellow sun. He was naked except for a pair of running shoes: Adidas, the brand he wore in high school, when he was young and stupid and cared only about the miles logged, the hills ascended — the blissful days. To his left sat the girl. Her hair was tied back in a ponytail. She looked older, maybe 16 or 17. Her acne had cleared.
“When you scream,” she said, “you sound just like Moortje did after my sister shoved it in the oven.”
“Who is Moortje?”
“Your sister baked your cat?”
“You couldn’t put it in skillet. It wouldn’t stand for that.”
“Your sister baked your cat?”
“Yes, we’ve established that fact. Did you lose your memory in the fall?”
He ignored her. Reasoning with teenage girls was a fruitless endeavour. He recalled the horrific arguments he had with his daughter. They fought about everything: her studies, her boyfriends, her clothes, and even her hair, particularly its colour.
The girl tossed a handful of sand onto his belly. “Do you still want to die?”
He thought about it. Before he went into the cellar with the shotgun, dying was all he thought about, incessantly. His therapist had called it “looping,” a toxic fixation on a negative outcome.
He studied the girl. He knew her from somewhere. She seemed liked a living memory. “Who are you?”
“Just a girl,” she said, looking at him with a mixture of sadness and boredom. “Some said I was clever. Some thought I was too clever. Mumsy said I talked too much and didn’t mind my manners.” She tossed another handful of sand on him. “Well, Elijah? You haven’t answered my question.”
“Yes, dying. We’re not going to get anywhere if you don’t pay attention.”
He frowned. The idea of going anywhere did not interest him, even strange new worlds with strange young girls. “Yes, I believe so. At least I don’t want to remember all the rude things I said to my daughter. I don’t want to remember how I treated my wife.”
“Did you slap your wife around? Fuck your wife’s girlfriend?”
He winced at her vulgarity. “No, of course not. Heavens, no.”
“Then why were you a bad husband and terrible father?”
He didn’t have to think long. “I treated my wife with passionate indifference as if she didn’t matter. I shoved all my fears and anxieties onto my daughter.”
She looked off into the distance. Hills of sand rolled to the horizons. “Come, I have an idea. It’s a bit wicked. You may not like it.”
Rising to his feet, he said, “What’s there to like?”
“This is your plan?”
“I admit it’s a tad derivative,” said the girl. “I prefer to call it a classic.”
They stood before a stone altar in a deep, desert valley. The sun had set, but a large, blue moon had risen, hanging 45 degrees above the horizon, illuminating the landscape as if it was still day, but one cast in a cool glow.
He and the girl casts long shadows, as did the hairless and slender, naked man standing beside the altar. On the altar lay an assortment of tools, each primitive and sharp and designed to tear flesh or crush bone.
“I think,” the girl said, “that for your suicide to stick you need to suffer, physically suffer, on a level equal to that of your emotional pain.”
“In your opinion, falling thousands of feet and being shredded into hundreds of body bits doesn’t constitute sufficient suffering?”
“You were dead before you bounced off the first outcropping. Heart attack. You died almost as fast as when you took a shotgun blast beneath your chin, which, by the way, was rude and selfish. I believe your daughter found your headless body.”
“I doubt it; it would have required her leaving her room and lifting her sullen eyes from her phone for two seconds.”
“Bitterness is neither attractive nor interesting, and here, in this timeless place, it is not constructive.”
He watched the girl. During their long hike across the desert, the girl had grown at least four inches, lost her baby fat, and eschewed the ribbons in her hair. She now possessed the casual elegance of a mature woman in her early 30s. She wore a set of diamond earrings, and a gold Star of David pendant hung around her neck. Despite a steady wind, not one grain of sand blemished her black, sleeveless dress. “You look as if you stepped out of Vogue magazine, sometime around 1955. You’re wearing Christian Dior.”
She cocked a puzzled look at him.
“My wife loved fashion. She knew all the major designers, past and present. The styles. The influences. Every Christmas, she and my daughter, Maudie, would take the train to Chicago and go shopping at all the major department stores, searching for the perfect dress, the perfect outfit, a year’s worth of pennies saved spent in one afternoon.”
“You didn’t mind, on your shitty salary?”
“Jesus, what a mouth! No, I didn’t mind on my so-called meager salary. It made them happy.”
“I would love to have gone shopping in New York or Paris.” Her voice trailed, disturbed by a thought she dare not share, which she didn’t. “But I didn’t, and nor shall I ever. I am here, you’re here, and look at us, chitchatting when there’s work to be done.” She pointed to the stone surface. “Hop on, Gumby.”
“How much more suffering must I endure?”
“Hard to say. My work is more art than science.”
“Your work? Where are we? What are you?”
“I’m not a what, Eli. Do I look like a thing?” She waved him onto the table. “Now get on, Eli. This is what you want, no?”
He considered her question. “Yes,” he replied and complied. The stone was surprisingly warm — even comforting.
The punisher stepped to his side and deftly placed a crown of thorns onto his head, causing a rim of blood to form on his skull. He then presented Eli with a set of black nails in various lengths between six and 12 inches. “Do you have a preference, sir? The wrists or the palms?”
He turned to the girl. “Now, you’re just being silly.”
“It’s an oldie but a goodie,” she said, tears slipping down her cheeks.
Part three: where your heart breaks
HE LEANED over the side of boat and dipped his hands into the sea, cupping a handful of the thousands upon thousands of stars being reflected in the water. When he and the girl had first arrived, thirst and headaches plagued him, as if his walk in the desert had finally taken hold, more so than the hours on the punisher’s table. Desperate for water, he feared he must now die of thirst, the next in a series of agonizing demises the girl wanted him to suffer, but, thankfully, the water proved free of saline.
He took a deep drink and settled back against the inside of the boat. He did not want to look at her. He wanted to sleep, his closest escape to true death — the absence of awareness and dreaming. Yes, he still wanted to die, but without the girl’s trials.
The girl banged an oar against the boat. “Eli!”
He sighed. “Yes, dear.”
“Have you ever thought about what it would like to be eaten alive? There are sharks here. They are similar to Earth’s sharks, just bigger and with sharper teeth, who might consider gnawing on you if we ask them politely.”
“Another brilliant idea from the girl who won’t tell me her name. Let me sleep on it.”
“I’m serious, Eli.”
“Of course you are.”
“Dismissing me will not serve you well, Eli.”
“I will take my chances.”
“Well, it’s rude. Manners count. Even here.”
“And where the hell is here?”
“How the hell am I supposed to know? I possess neither a sextant nor the required star charts.”
“Being evasive will not serve you well, either.”
She frowned. The girl still looked to be about 30. Still fashionable, she wore expensive-looking athletic clothing, perfectly pressed and right off the shelf.
He wore the same torn, stained sweats he had worn the evening of his suicide. With a sigh of despair, he looked up at the sky, a beautiful, star-soaked night scape. It was a world of continuous night. He could not tell whether he and the girl had been in the boat for a week or two months. He lost the ability to discern time. He could no longer trust his body clock. After all, he thought, I am dead. Undead. Super dead. Something.
“Aren’t you bored? I know I am,” he said.
“Are you at all bothered by the tedium of our existence? All you do is row. All I do is sleep.”
“I like to keep productive.”
“I don’t know what I am supposed to do, or to think.”
“You could finally answer my question, Eli.”
He groaned. “Tell me your name.”
She smiled and rowed. Stroke. Stroke.
“At least tell me where we are we going.”
“To the library,” she replied. “I have an overdue book I have to return. It’s a diary of young girl. Quite tedious.”
Another stroke. Then another. Effortless and relentless.
He leaned forward, eyes locked on hers. He knew her from somewhere. “How come you don’t get tired? I’m exhausted.”
“I keep in shape. I swim laps around the boat while you sleep. I take vitamins. I shoot my veins with heroin.”
“Jesus. Give me a straight answer. After each of my —”
“Resurrections? Don’t get delusions of grandeur, Eli. You’re just some dead douche bag with a streak of narcissism.”
“Stop it. At least tell me why you age and I’m the same age as when —”
“When you blew your brains out, leaving your headless corpse for your daughter to find?”
“Tell me who you are. Why you’re with me. What all this means.”
“I want answers,” he said. “I’m tired of dying; three times is not the charm and, no, I am not considering what it would be like to eaten. Not now. Not ever.”
“You should. It might give you the perspective you need.”
“Perspective? On what?”
“Isn’t it obvious?”
“So all this is a life lesson?”
“Hardly,” she said. “You’re dead, Eli. Never forget what it means.”
“What does it mean?”
“You left your wife and child broken hearted and without decent insurance. You abandoned them. Being sick does not give you an excuse.”
He slumped back against the boat. Above, shooting stars raced across the heavens.
“Do you really think my Maudie found my body?”
“I have no doubt.”
“Jesus. I left a note. I tried to explain,” he said. “I tried to tell her that it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t anyone’s. I told her I clinically depressed, and I never thought I would get better. You can’t blame a man for becoming ill. I just wanted the pain to end.”
“Maudie’s a smart girl,” he said. “She won’t blame herself.”
The girl ceased rowing, momentarily letting the oars lay in the water before setting them inside the boat. She reached beside her and grabbed a slice of pizza, cheesy and dripping over her clothes. He didn’t see that one coming. “Do you want one?”
“No,” he said. “I’m not hungry.”
She took a bite. “It’s damn good.”
He exhaled. His breath tasted of rotting flesh.
When she finished eating, she rested her arms on the oars. “You know, Eli. Before I passed, I made sure Mumsy knew I didn’t love her. To emphasize my feelings, I never hugged her. I never offered her help when she struggled with household chores. When she spoke to me, I was polite, but nothing more. Every day, I told Father how much I cared for him, how much I loved him. Never Mum. I was cruel, a real bitch.”
“You were young.”
“Yes, I was young, but not unaware, not daft. I knew I was being mean. To Mumsy, my cruelty was equal to the cruelties of the world in which we lived — the suffering, the slaughter, the treachery, and the betrayals. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” he said. “I also know who you are.”
“We shall see.”
A gentle wave rose up and lifted the boat. For a second, they rode the swell. He waited for her to continue, hoping for more, but silence punctuated her story’s end.
“Is that why we’re here?” he asked. “We’re being punished?”
The girl shook her head. “I don’t know why I am here, but it’s always the same. You arrive, and then you leave. I’ve lost count of how many schmucks I have shepherded across the desert, or the sea, or the mountains, and lands too absurd to even name. It appears endless, but I keep going. I endure.”
“You want peace, then,” he said, thinking he was being clever. “You want to rest, just like me.”
“No, you fool. I don’t want anything of the sort. I want to live.”
Check back tomorrow to read the conclusion of this story.