by Rachel Abbott
My eyes are closed, ears open. I hear a blur of languages, streaming around me and fusing together. I don’t know much about languages, but as I sense people pass by, I recognize the quick rising and falling pitches of an Asian one and the melodic flow of Italian or Portuguese.
I open my eyes. They flash around like lightning.
“What is this?” I whisper.
My surroundings are bizarre. Everything is endless. There are no walls or ceilings, yet I am not outdoors. There are vines hanging from above, smooth vines with placid leaves curling nicely into the world. A rainforest’s array of vegetation accompanies them. I look up. The vines rise on and on. I can see nothing they are attached to.
The lighting of the entire place is minty green, but it is not artificial. My swimming mind can only conceive of it as what sunlight would naturally look like if it were this perplexing shade of green. I turn and let my gaze sweep with me.
There are people everywhere…I think. They are shaped like people. But they don’t have any physical attributes, no delineated features. Their outlines are filled by melting mosaics of color and pattern. Some of them are like kaleidoscopes, almost hard to look at in their complexity. Others are one solid color or a predictable pattern, like a sequence of tiles or vertical stripes. They are faceless.
Some of them have fans strapped to the top of their heads and seem to be just wandering aimlessly. I swallow hard, gripped by terror. This looks like some sort of futuristic video game, like I’m trapped inside cyberspace.
That’s when I remember I am dead.
I barely have this thought when a myriad of colors fills my vision, compresses my head. They all whir past my face, dizzying and confining. A rush of noise accompanies it, tangible noise that touches, hurts, roars. It all presses in on me, forms a tunnel, and spits me back out. I yell the whole time, but the sound is lost in the roar.
Everything is black. I can’t move. There’s a high-pitched noise sounding that has a ring of finality to it.
There are other people around, I can sense them. Maybe two or three. I think we are in a room because I feel the ringing sound die against the walls. I have a heightened awareness without my sight. I try to belt out some words, any words. I try to thrash, to peel my eyelids open, but I cannot. I am bolted shut. I don’t feel any connectedness to a body. There are no fingers to wiggle, no toes to stretch.
“Dave,” someone whispers. It’s a woman.
“YES!” They can’t hear me. I can’t hear myself.
No one else says anything. There’s a click and the noise ends abruptly. “I’m so sorry.” This voice is quiet, too. I hear quick steps and the sound of a door click shut.
The woman’s breathing gets heavier and heavier. A panicked gasp slips out. “Oh my God.”
I know this voice! It’s Sharon. My wife. I can’t see her but her image floods my awareness anyway. I think of her kind eyes and her sandy blonde hair, her slightly beefy arms and the coral sweaters she always wears. My being rockets around inside the confines of the nothing that envelops me, trying to explode out and reach her.
She starts to cry softly. There’s a small shuffle of noise and the choking sounds seem to come from lower to the ground. I think she’s…on the floor? She is wailing now.
I don’t understand what’s going on. I am a blind, silent witness to this. Like I’ve bugged the room and am desperately scanning for information.
Something slams into another thing, hard. The sound of more feet rushes into the room in a demonic shuffle. “Mom? Mom! Why are you on the floor?”
Emily. My daughter. My baby.
There is another moment of silence and then a sharp intake of breath.
More footsteps. They come closer. “Dad.” She can barely get the word out. It’s interrupted by a loud hiccup. “No. Daddy. No. No, no, no, no, no.” It sounds like she’s pounding her fist on the bed.
“Since when do people get hit by cars when they are just walking down the street?” she sobs. It all comes out like one word. “Were they not looking out the window when they were fucking driving?” She’s screaming now. “WE NEED YOU. WE NEED YOU.”
The color vacuum swoops me up again.
The vacuum spits me back out and I fling myself on the ground, consumed by grief. I can’t breathe, or move, or speak. Shaking, I try to wrap my mind around this. I got hit by a car? I don’t remember it. Before, I knew I was dead, sure of it somehow, but I don’t remember actually dying. I can’t believe I got hit by a car. I am only 45. I was not supposed to die at 45.
Sharon will be alone.
How will they afford Emily’s tuition?
I can’t walk Emily down the aisle.
I will never meet my grandchildren.
This is a hurt I dreamed of only inside my darkest nightmares, the kind of hurt that I thought would come only if something happened to either of them. They are my everything. They are the center of my universe, the reasons behind every decision I make. I start to sob.
My reality is a garden of pleasant flowers that have been ripped from their roots by a hurricane.
I’m blasted suddenly by a whoosh of air and with it, a stream of calm washes over me. I look up. One of the fan people is standing above me, their head angled down so the breeze is directed at me. I stare in confusion and it straightens its body, pivots mechanically, and walks away into the coursing river of beings. I suppose they are dead, too, I realize.
I am still on the ground. Like my wife. The thought comes like a stab, yet somehow it is not accompanied by excruciating pain. The agonizing thoughts have rested. I’m still aware of them, but the flowers have been re-planted. They aren’t alive anymore, but at least they look nice.
Someone is standing over me again. I think it’s a female. Her outline appears to include long hair. She looks like the night sky.
She holds her hand out to me and I reach out to take it.
I gasp and recoil in surprise. This is the first time I’ve looked at any part of myself. I, too, am just a color. My arm is a neutral light blue, occasional shimmers flowing through it.
“Líndo color.” Pretty color. I think if she had lips she would be smiling. I swallow and take her hand once more. She hoists me up.
When she grasps my hand, an explosion of things reverberates through my body. A fierce passion for life. An inclination toward unpredictability. The rich smell of cooking ground beef and potatoes. The warmth of a mother’s voice, the rhythm of salsa music, an unwavering loyalty. Standing now, I stare at her in wonder. She doesn’t comment on what has just happened, maybe is not aware of it.
“Eres nuevo,” she says. You’re new. She is speaking Spanish. I never learned a syllable of Spanish in my life, but I know what she is saying. I nod.
“So everyone here is…dead,” I say uncertainly.
“Yes, we are.”
I am more than comforted to have someone here to answer questions. I am a simple man: problem-solution. I have a question, I go to the information desk.
I stare around me at the curtains of vines and the colorful quasi-humans pushing their way through them. “What is this place?”
“Heaven,” she says, dragging out the word as she says it and wiggling her fingers in a rainbow shape around her head.
“This?! Is heaven?”
She drops her hands and snickers. “No. I’m sorry, no, it’s not. This is the Eighth Plane.”
I hate sarcasm. The Eighth Plane… this sounds vaguely Buddhist to me. I’m ticked, but I never show people how I feel. I’m always careful to maintain a neutral attitude. “Go on,” I say politely.
The tone of her voice gives me the feeling she knows exactly how I reacted. “You would know it as limbo. This is neither death nor life. This is the in-between place, the neutral ground, where we find our way to our ultimate fate.”
My eyes widen, incredulous, and I wonder if I have eyes. I touch the place where my face should be. I feel the familiar outline of my eyelids, nose, lips.
“Your face is still there,” the woman says. “Just, no one else can see it. It doesn’t matter anymore what you look like.”
Abruptly, she extends her hand. “I am Angelica.”
“Dave.” I shake her hand and as I do, the crowd of feelings run through me again. This time they are different. The predominant one is a sort of…dulled sadness. I stare in wonder. “What is that? Every time you touch me…I….it’s like…”
I sense her wry smile. “Like you can feel me.”
“Yes,” I breathe.
“I feel you too,” she says. “We can all feel each other.” She gestures toward the crowd winding past us.
I frown. “I don’t feel anyone else.”
“Close your eyes,” she says. “Try not to think about anything. Just be aware of what’s around you.”
This is something I am good at. I meditate almost every day.
I close my eyes and am immediately aware of the vibes. At first they are like lights in the distance and then they grow in size and brightness, like I’m a sailboat sailing closer to them. I zero in on a particularly strong one to my left.
It’s a male. He seems to possess a sort of childish optimism. Music floats through my consciousness—it’s the Grateful Dead. He’s very uncertain, he doesn’t know what will happen next, but this excites him. He can’t wait to see where he’s headed. I zoom back out and all the other lights twinkle in quick flashes.
I open my eyes in wonder and realize a wide grin is stretched across my face. Angelica is still there. I had almost forgotten about her. I can feel her even more clearly now. She is pleased.
“I like you,” she beams. “You enjoy this.”
“Who wouldn’t? This is incredible.”
“A lot of people don’t,” she says flatly. A low, deep anger paints her emotions. I’m confused, but she doesn’t want to talk about it. I change the subject.
“Who are they?” I point to one of the fan-heads, winding awkwardly and mechanically through the human river.
“They help,” she says simply. “This transition, this realization, is not easy. The fans mist a relaxer that softens the pain.”
I am grateful for it. And then guilt washes over me for thinking this. Is it wrong, to be grateful I don’t have to feel the agony? Maybe I should feel it.
“It gives you the peace you need to face what comes next,” she adds.
I feel a twinge of fear. This is it. This is the reckoning, the part when all human questions are answered. I can’t believe it’s real, that I’m really about to hear them. And then a conveyor belt appears in front of me.
Its panels are moving slowly forward. It has no railings and it, too, is that mint green. People ahead of me are already aboard, standing patiently as it glides on.
I look at Angelica. Her mood is even. “Go ahead.”
I want to ask her to come with me but I don’t. She knows anyway that I want this, even if I won’t say it, and she shakes her head with a sad wistfulness.
“Some things are best faced alone,” she says. She reaches forward and wraps me in a hug. Her essence blasts through me. She suffers a long, unending sadness, from a tragedy I can’t quite surmise, but I know it involves a fire. I intuit as well that she’s been here, in this in-between place, for a long time. She is waiting for something. I want to ask her what, but she steps back, grabs my shoulders firmly and steers me backward onto the belt. She tells me good luck and backs away.
The conveyor takes me. I feel her light fade into the background.
Others get into line behind me. I crane my neck to see what’s ahead but there is no visible end. Just a long line of people. The chatter has subsided. Now there is only quiet. Everyone is just waiting.
And then, suddenly, there are airport sounds. Feet shuffle, turnstiles crank, machines beep. I peek around the form in front of me, a body that looks like autumn leaves and smells like apple pie, and up ahead I see a series of turnstiles. Masses of people gather around them in bunches.
Hanging above them, suspended in the air and held there by nothing, are brightly colored signs. I strain to make out what they say as the conveyor crawls closer. The closest one comes into focus. It says “Buddhists.”
When we are close enough, I read down the line. Buddhists, Muslims, Jainists, Scientologists, Wiccans, the list goes on and on. Several are written in different languages but I can read them anyway. One Chinese sign reads “Taoists.”
A voice comes over a loudspeaker I do not see. It is an efficient, emotionless voice. “Please locate your religion and proceed through the appropriate gate.”
My mind races. I’m not religious. I grew up Christian, technically, but my parents didn’t build religion into their lives. It wasn’t something we ever talked about. We attended church once in awhile but I mostly just stood there and daydreamed about girls. Once I was on my own, I never went to church again. I never gave much thought to religion. What am I supposed to choose?
The conveyor belt ends abruptly. The people in front of me step off and move quickly to the side. Startled, I do the same.
“This is not acceptable!” someone shouts. My head snaps to the right to see a glowing orange man. “There is only ONE God and you cannot tell me otherwise!” He points at the line of people entering the Wiccan line. “They are wrong, I tell you! Are you seriously telling me those people are not headed to hell? Where does their line go? Don’t touch me!”
His anger emanates from him like electricity from a bug lamp. Two authoritative figures flank him. They are utterly unaffected by his outburst. “Please move forward, sir.” They beckon to one of the fan people.
I’m engrossed in the action, too mesmerized to have a reaction to it. The hordes of people around me, however, feel differently. Anger and disgust coat the air.
My attention is diverted from the drama by the voice sounding again over the loudspeaker. “Attention. Listen closely,” it mandates. “Individuals who have died prematurely, please move to the far left. Parents with living children only.”
I stare, dumbfounded.
“I repeat. Young parents with living children, continue through the archway to your left.”
This is a category?
Relieved I don’t have to choose a religion, I leave the shouting conflict behind me and move to the left. Others follow. The vibes that surround me now are ones of fierce love, instincts both paternal and maternal, and feelings similar to mine—flames of dulled but still flickering grief.
I walk through the arch and a fan-head guides me into a large room. It’s open-aired, with walls but no ceiling. The room fills quickly as we all cluster inside. Bodies press up against me and their essences course through me as they do. Overwhelmed, I pull my arms tight and try to edge into a bubble of unoccupied space.
A figure rises up above the crowd, standing on…a cloud. It’s the puffy kind, the sort that appears to be solid. The coloring of the elevated figure looks like fluffy, buttered popcorn.
“Hello, everyone,” she greets us in English. It’s a young girl. A sea of pulsing color stares back at her. “Welcome to the Eighth Plane.” Some of us murmur, "thank you," myself included. She seems pleased by the acknowledgements.
“We have a special group here.” The cloud swivels in a circle so she pans the entire crowd. “Everyone here is a parent, yes?” Murmurs of agreement.
“Whose child or children are still alive on Earth?”
A few people who had apparently only heard some of the instructions push their way through the mob and exit out the yellow archway. She waits, accustomed to this.
“And, who died young. That is, under the age of fifty.”
More people leave and I wonder who decided this cutoff.
“I am sorry for what you have lost,” she says softly. She has probably seen this scene unfold many times, but her sorrow is sincere. “Your misfortune allows you a choice, offered to you alone.”
The emotions around me are varying forms of fixed, nervous attention.
“Many of you have children in their young adult years, or even younger. You cannot be there for them in your human form, but if you wish, you can return to them now as a spirit, to guide them through the rest of their lives.”
Her words are immediately followed by wrenching emotion. It’s too good to be true. I can go back. I can be with Emily.
“But,” she cautions, “this is not without consequence. First, your child will not know of your presence. Second, those who choose instead to continue on to their final destination,” she tilts her head toward the turnstiles, “are allowed to return here, to the Eighth Plane, to greet their child upon his or her arrival. And they can be present for the Judgment. However”—she is interrupted. A woman calls out.
“The Judgment?” she says, incredulous.
Popcorn girl dislikes answering this question. Her tone is obligatory. “Everyone is judged according to the principles by which they lived. Christians, for example, are evaluated by their adherence to the Commandments.”
Again I am anxious. What about me? What about the non-religious?
Someone else yells out the question. Thank God. “I didn’t practice a religion! What happens to me?”
“It is not my place to say,” the girl says firmly. “My job is to offer you the decision at hand.” We feel finality radiate from her and know that she will offer no further explanation. No one asks any more questions.
“If you decide to return to Earth,” she continues, “you will not reunite with your child here. You will have no final goodbye. Once your child dies, you will both be transported to this place, but you won’t interact. It is possible that you will see them again, if your final destination is the same, but this is rare.”
“I’m afraid I can say no more,” she says. She is compassionate again. “I’m sorry I can’t make this any clearer. But the choice is yours to make. If you would like to return to Earth to guide your child, please continue to the left.” She and the cloud zoom towards a door. “Those who wish to move forward with their Judgment, proceed to the right.” The cloud zooms to a door that presumably leads back to the turnstiles and the signs.
“Unfortunately you will need to decide quickly. Your time is limited. If you don’t choose, the choice will be made for you. You will continue to the right.”
She soars up over the walls and disappears.
Paralyzed. Questions bombard my mind like bullets. We have to make this choice quickly? How could anyone ever be expected to instantly decide the most important thing in the world? What does it even mean to be a spirit? How would I guide her?
The people directly around me are also spinning with indecision. The same questions blur through their minds. We wish we could answer them for each other, but we can’t.
I think of Emily and my eyes well with tears. I think of her short dark hair and the way she always sneezes when the sun comes out. I think of all the soccer games I sat at and watched her score goal after goal. I was so proud. I think about the time she hugged me and told me I was her favorite person. I think about her graduation, how the rest of her life could play out. Will she really become a veterinarian the way she thinks she will?
What would she want me to do?
I lock energies with a man to my left. At the same time, we turn our heads and fixate on each other. We have both made the same decision. I nod. He holds out his hand. I take it.
Together, we move toward the path we have chosen, determined and ready to face what we must. Our hands unclasp. He goes first. And then, standing in front of the doorway, I take a deep breath. I step through it, and back to Earth.