A work of fiction
By AJ Rien
I did not kill myself. The car did. I didn’t cut myself, hang myself or hurt myself. The car did it. So I didn’t choose death, it chose me. I just want to be clear about that.
It is not for the dead to explain their deaths to the living. I have an uncomplicated identity with an uncomplicated death. But for context, let’s just say two steps forward, no steps back. It was easy, so miraculously easy. The car flashed over my breaking body. Blood and bone flew into the warm summer air, and then it was over. The car did all the work. I was just minding my own business. That’s all.
It’s funny, though. When I’ve thought of the afterlife, the hovering hypothetical in the sky that optimists worship and pessimists ignore, I imagined nothingness, a void of stillness and darkness. I’ll admit I’ve never been the creative type. I am one of the pessimists. But never in my wildly dull dreams could I have imagined this.
The first thing I notice is the mist. Actually, the only thing I notice is the mist. It’s thick like paste in looks and texture alike. I wave my hand less than a foot away from my face and it disappears, buried in fog. I swish my fingers through the air. The sensation is kind of like moving my hand through water. Even so, the experience is too particular to pin down exactly. There is some surface beneath my feet levitating me, but I have no way to identify it. It kind of feels like ground, but it’s also a bit mushy. I don’t know, maybe it’s mud. But like I said, I’m not the creative type. Or the happy type. For all I know, it could be pillows or puppies, but whatever. I take two mindless steps forward on the mud puppy pillows and am sent flying.
Perhaps flying is the wrong word for it. Floating might be more apt if it wasn’t for the speed. My figure shoots up (or what I assume to be “up”) towards some excuse for a sky, and falls down, stomach hovering and adrenalin pumping. Fear shoots through me. I’m terrified, but also giddy with anticipation. Worst comes to worst, I’ll just die again, right? Or I’ll just keep falling forever. That wouldn’t be too bad, I guess. After a few moments of sheer panic, I hit the ground unharmed. I grip something long and silky. I’m pretty sure it’s grass. I bring myself to my knees. I’m surprised by the lack of injury, but equally intrigued. Curiouser and curiouser, as they say.
“What were you expecting?”
The voice is calm and bemused. It’s a female voice, elegant and even. I can’t see her through the cursed fog, though.
“I-I don’t know,” I reply, still frazzled, “Pain, I guess.”
She laughs. “You people can be so amusing: seeking to avoid pain and yet expecting it all at once? It’s quite strange.”
I blink through the mist as if I can blink it away. No such luck. My mother used to say that I’m blind to what’s right in front of me. I’ll have to learn this odd world with my other senses.
“What ‘people’ are you referring to, exactly?” I ask, shifting from my knees to a seated position.
“How do you mean?”
“You said ‘you people are amusing’, like you’re not one of them—I mean—us. Who are you?”
“Which question do you want me to answer?”
“Both, if you don’t mind.”
I hear her wistful sigh. “By ‘you people,’ I mean humans that have killed themselves. They’re the only sorts that pass through here, beside myself. I am not a human.”
I glare into the void. There’s a large array of follow-up questions I should ask, but some misplaced sense of outrage forces the wrong reply out of my mouth.
“But I didn’t kill myself!”
Bemused laughter greets me.
“Hey, are you listening? I said I didn’t—”
“I heard you, little creature,” the elegant voice giggles, “You are so adorable.”
I roll my eyes. I’m getting nowhere fast.
“I’m not as adorable as you’d like to think, Lady.”
In fact, I’m not adorable at all.
“Besides,” I add, “isn’t it kind of sick to find suicidal people funny? I didn’t kill myself, so I don’t have direct ties, but still, that seems pretty callous.”
There’s a pause.
“You’re using the wrong language: ‘suicidal’ implies the want for the destination, but, as of yet, not the actual fulfillment. So no, I don’t find suicidal people funny. Those who have committed the act, however...” she trails off chuckling, “You’re not implicitly funny, but your reactions are—what’s the word? Unpredictable.”
I stare forward half-angry, but still undeniably intrigued. What the hell is wrong with this woman?
“What the hell is wrong with you?”
“Come with me.”
Out of the white oblivion, I feel something akin to a hand take my wrist and pull me to my feet. I let it pull me further. For the first time, I feel the weight of my body. My feet trudge along the grass as they did when I was alive. She wanders forward, twisting and turning. And then, all of a sudden, the grass disappears from beneath me, replaced with a hardened surface of some kind. I nearly stumble, but her arm catches me and pulls me on. It’s the strange catalyst for curiosity, but no less effective. I burst into a dizzying array of questions, each less coherent than the last.
“Where am I?”
“Of course. Wasn’t that what you were hoping for?”
“In mortal terms, you’ve been dead for five hours.”
I should stop myself. I know the answer already. I don’t want to hear it again, I don’t need to hear it again, I wish she wouldn’t—
“Because you couldn’t live.”
I could laugh at such a frank response. It’s almost childlike in its simplicity.
What comes out is not so much a laugh, but rather a huff.
“I didn’t kill myself! You have the wrong person. The car killed me. Let go!”
I yank my hand away.
“Are you even listening? I’m telling you you’re wrong. What are you doing? Who even are you?“
I hear her draw breath. “I am Death.”
My eyes widen. “What? What are you talking about?”
She laughs again. “I could never understand you, right? I don’t know what you’re going through, what drove you here, what it’s like to go through your life every day just living with yourself? Is that it, little creature?”
My nostrils flare with fear and anger alike.
“No,” she’s too calm, “No, I’m not.”
My free hand grips my other wrist. I shake with fury, fear, and any other emotion I can find as my nails dig into my skin.
“What are you going to do to me?”
I shouldn’t feel as scared as I am. I’m already dead, what more can Death do to me? Kill me twice? If anything, I should be thrilled.
I hear her movements across the ground below, breezing towards me and upon me. Pressure on my shoulders, a kiss on my forehead. I want to free myself and ask more questions, but I can’t: it’s too wonderful.
“I am Death, and it’s over now. You have nothing to defend here, nothing to explain. You can relax, little creature.”
A stream of silent tears course down my cheeks. I’m stiff, I’m tired. I’m so, so tired. So I cry. What else am I supposed to do? She knows I’m weeping, but still, I try to hide it. Nevertheless, the pressure on my shoulder slides around my body, embracing me in a cocoon of kisses and softness. I feel lifted again, light and swimming like before. And in her all-encompassing figure, I fall asleep.
The fact that I woke up at all was bad enough, but she’s gone, and so is the fog. It takes some getting used to. I squint at my surroundings. I’m on a park bench tucked under a pavilion of some sort. The cement beneath the bench winds from side to side and back, and though I can’t see behind me, I figure I’m on some sort of square. The terrace is elevated. The cement cuts off in front of me to reveal two long sets of tracks, one red and one blue. A blank sign hovers from the pavilion. It’s metal and hangs by a rusty chain at the very center of the roof. I figure the text must be on the other side. The whole aesthetic feels like a miniature subway station, complete with the deranged madwoman sleeping on a bench. What lies below the concrete draws me back to reality, or whatever reality is in the afterlife. Beyond my sanctuary, white grass blows as far as the eye can see. It’s aglow in silver mist, a thin veil that’s hovering at only a foot’s width along the ground.
I sit up and continue to stare forward at the blank sign hanging by the rusty chain. I’m about to go over and read it when she walks by, trotting lightly up the steps like she has a destination. I only look over to her when she sinks down next to me. It looks like she’s a teenager, but I’m not really sure. Blonde chin-length hair, green eyes like emeralds and porcelain skin like an egg make her seem precious. I hate her already, but not as much as I hate looking like her exact opposite.
Her ruby lips curve into a smile when our eyes meet. Her lips part to speak. “Hi, how are you?”
I blink in surprise. Her accent is a thick southern and quite upbeat: the exact opposite of Death herself I suppose I shouldn’t be too shocked, but her cheeriness takes me off guard, and I frown.
She notes my frown and frowns back.
“I’m sorry,” I stammer, “I just thought you were…never mind.”
She breaks our gaze and stares forward. “You thought I was the Angel of Death.”
“The…” I trail off.
“The Angel of Death: the one who led you here.”
“Um…Yeah, I just wasn’t sure that she was, you know…an angel, per se.”
The girl grins. “Wasn’t it obvious?”
I sit in silence, and upon reflection, it doesn’t seem so unbelievable.
The girl giggles. “Surely you didn’t think Death would be a demon or some other evil thing.”
I’ve never once thought death could be evil. I feel stupid.
“I never saw her,” I say matter-of-factly.
She laughs at this. “Of course not! No one ever sees the Angel of Death!”
“Well,” she explains, “don’t you think that if people could see Death coming, they’d run from her? It’s a lot easier to be invisible and subtle in her line of work.”
She sighs. “Of course, those rules don’t apply to us. We’re the ones who go looking for her. I think she likes us best because of it.”
I don’t know what to say apart from what I’ve said a million times.
“I wasn’t looking for Death, she just found me.”
“Oh, really?” The girl’s disbelieving grin says more than words ever could, “So how did you die?”
I shouldn’t have spoken up first. I shouldn’t have walked right into that question. Now, here I am, with a gun to my head, begging for my right to remain silent. I venture a defense.
“I’d rather not say.”
The girl rolls her eyes. “Whatever. It’s not like it matters to me. You’re here either way.”
There is a long pause in the conversation after that. It’s uncomfortable. I need to fill it with something.
“What’s your name?”
The most generic question one could ask. I get less and less creative each time I speak.
She glances back at me with a joyful smile.
“Velma: Velma Elliot. I’m 15…well, I guess I was 15. I’m from Texas. I shot myself! How about you?”
She’s very frank, more than Death herself.
“Beth,” I mutter, “Beth Garrison. I’m 22, I’m from Detroit, Michigan and I…”
And I got ran over by a car. Something keeps me shy, though. I don’t know what it is, but I can’t tell Velma the truth. Maybe it’s her happiness, her relief, that fineness I can’t feel without the Angel’s kiss, no matter how much I try. For some reason, I don’t feel like she’ll understand me.
When I glance back over at her, she’s smiling sadly. “My stepfather.”
“You were wondering why I killed myself.”
Now I really don’t know what to say.
“It doesn’t matter now,” she mumbles, “We’re both dead now. We’re all dead now.”
I remain frozen.
“You want to know how I did it?”
“I grabbed the gun off the wall and shot him in the head while he was watching T.V. Told him he wouldn’t be touching nothing no more. Then I pulled the trigger over and over and he fell and then-”
“Stop,” I order, “You don’t have to tell me.”
“Sorry. Just wanted to talk is all.”
That’s it. I need to understand this. I jump up from the bench.
“How can you be so okay with this?”
She tilts her head in confusion. “With what? Death?”
“With this! This! The fact that something so horrible has happened to you, the fact that you’re still conscious, the fact that you’re still alive.”
“We’re not still alive, silly,” Velma shakes her head.
“You know what I mean!” I shriek, “This world, this afterlife around you.”
I fall back onto the bench, head in my hands. “Don’t you see? You haven’t forgotten anything. You remember every awful thing that brought you here and you always will. The only benefit is no more pain for the future, but even then, what good does it do you?”
I feel tears running down my cheeks. I’m shaking and I don’t know why. I’ve never been particularly empathetic, but I really feel for Velma right now. I don’t look up at Velma, but I feel her hand graze over my shoulder. Perhaps she’s more of an angel than she cares to admit.
“Hey,” she croons, “It’s over now. That’s why I’m okay. It’s all behind me.”
“No, it’s not,” I wail, “It’s not, I’m still me! You’re still you! Nothing has changed!”
Velma raises her eyebrows. “What were you expecting?”
“I don’t know,” I sniff, “Eternal sleep, I guess. The lack of anything.”
She laughs. “Well, that’s boring.”
“Yes, but at least it’s silent.”
“Only for a little while, though, right? Before you leave.”
“What do you mean?”
“Before you move on,” Velma shoots me another sad smile, “Beth, we all have to move on. Once you let the past go, there’s not much pain you can feel. That’s the secret.”
I’m ashamed of my tears. She’s alright; I shouldn’t be crying for her. She’s all right. I’m all right.
A breeze sweeps around us all of a sudden, carrying with it the whir and toil of metal on metal. I spin my head to my left. From the horizon emerges a train. An old-fashioned locomotive all in black with a horn, smoke and everything. Nothing about it seems anachronistic, for some reason. I would’ve expected no other train to come rumbling down these tracks.
Velma stands up promptly. “Well, I think that’s my ride. It’s on the blue line, right?”
I continue to grasp for answers. “I think so, but wait, where are you going?”
“Blue line. Look.”
I stand up beside her and walk over to the metal sign I initially intended to read: Red Line: Hell. Blue Line: Heaven. My jaw drops.
“I wouldn’t wait for the next line, if I were you. Next one might be a bit of a gamble,” Velma giggled, “Wanna take this one with me?”
I struggle to find the words. “I…have a choice?”
No. This can’t be.
“Sure,” she shrugs, “If you kill yourself, you get to choose where you want to go. A gift from the Angel of Death for choosing her.”
“But I didn’t choose her! I didn’t choose anything. I can’t choose. Hold on a moment!”
The train approaches and stops short. It’s a passenger car with velvet curtains covering the windows. Inside, passengers are laughing and joking at booths about one thing or another. They look too happy. Velma’s equally ecstatic as she climbs up the stairs into the car.
“Come on! It’s leaving! Do you want to stay or go?”
I can’t move. I can’t choose. “I-”
The horn sounds.
Velma doesn’t look too surprised. She nods as the train leaves the station, waving and laughing all the way. It looks like she’s about to head into the main cabin, but before she does, she grips the edge of the door for balance and yells back at me:
“Ask the Angel if you have any questions! I’ll see you later!”
I wave in a daze, unable to utter a syllable. The little old train disappears into eternity, and I stand immobile at Suicide Station, left with the choice I never wanted.
My broken body slumps back over to the bench. I’m still shaking. There’s been a mistake. I didn’t kill myself. I have to make the Angel believe me.
“Angel! Death!” I belt the words like a challenge, an order. The world remains unchanged, but I’m not desperate. She’ll come. If memory serves, Death is always pleased to be welcomed.
A gradual mist blows in from beyond. It is the fog and I again feel I’m being lifted into the air.
A voice, collected and chiming like church bells speaks. “May I help you, little creature?”
“Please,” I beg. “You must understand. I’m not afraid of you, you’re just an asshole. I did not choose you. This is all a misunderstanding. I didn’t kill myself. I don’t deserve the choice you’re offering.”
There is no response for some time. When Death speaks, she sounds weary. “Why are you lying to me, little creature?”
“I’m not lying, I’m telling you what happened.” I’m exasperated at this point. It shouldn’t be this difficult.
Death sighs and the mist begins to fade. I feel my feet land on the pavement at the station. I look around. Is she gone? No. No, she is not gone. She is right there, sitting on the bench. Lady Death is a child. Lady Death is every child. I cannot give her a face or a name. She merely is what she is.
I must appear confused, because the Angel explains. “You are not afraid of me, so there’s no longer anything for me to hide.”
Her eyes penetrate my soul. “Will you stop hiding, little creature?”
I figure I look no less confused. “I have nothing to hide from.”
The Angel sighs once more. “Very well.”
She doesn’t watch me when she continues. “Your name is Beth Garrison. You’re 22, the second-eldest of your five siblings.”
It’s true, but what does it have to do with anything? I fold my arms.
“Your older sister, Mary, had a child, Katie, when you were 20.”
“March 17, 2013.”
Oh no, no, no, no—
“Mary had to go run some errands, so you decided to take Katie to the park.”
“That’s enough,” I pray that my voice has as much authority as I think it does.
“After a while, you got hungry, but you didn’t want to get up. You called Katie over and gave her 20 dollars. You told her to run across the street to grab you both a candy bar.”
“No,” I insist, “That’s not what happened. I don’t have a niece, I don’t know a Kat-”
“Your niece, Katie,” Death continues unhindered, “Got run over by a car crossing the street. She died instantly.”
“Stop it, stop it, that never happened, stop it!”
“Your sister blamed you. Your parents blamed you. But more importantly, you blamed yourself.”
It’s not true, Beth. She’s lying. It’s not true.
Death stands up from the bench and walks over to me. “You vowed then and there that you would never make a choice like that again, that you would never put anyone in harm’s way.”
I’m shaking as her hand rests once again on my shoulder. “But it wasn’t that easy for you, Beth. Soon enough, every choice filled you with complete terror. You couldn’t go to a grocery store without spending hours looking at different varieties of milk. You were afraid that the wrong choice would, in some way, destroy someone.”
“You’re lying,” I manage at last.
“You couldn’t leave your home.”
“You couldn’t get yourself out of bed.”
“Will you just shut up?”
“It wasn’t even about Katie anymore, Beth,” the Angel’s tone wavered between caring and forceful, “It was about you. And that’s when it all snapped.”
I look Death in the eye once more.
“You couldn’t live with yourself anymore, and even though you didn’t know it yet, you started choosing again. You walked out of your house, walked down to the highway and walked right through. You did that, Beth. It was all you.”
It’s not true. Why is she tellling these lies?
“It was a strange act of progress and regression alike. But that’s what you’re best at, isn’t it? Even stranger is how this place dimmed your pain,” the Angel muses, to no one in particular. “You and Velma Elliot, despite your terrible truths. You were both doing so well.”
She looks back at me. “But you’ll never be as happy as Velma unless you accept what’s happened, Beth. What I’ve just told you is true, but do you remember what I told you earlier?”
I shake my head. I can’t speak.
“You have nothing to defend here,” she continues, “Nothing to explain. You can relax. You, the real you, can finally exist. You can let go.”
“No, I can’t,” I’m still shaking my head, “I don’t want to choose. I want you to make me sleep forever.”
The idea sounds even better now that I’ve said it aloud. I feel my spirit returning as the lies fade behind me.
“I want you to make me sleep forever,” I repeat.
But the Angel merely giggles like a child, like Velma. “You’d be surprised how many humans ask me for such a favor.”
“Can you do it?”
I hear her sigh. “I’m afraid not, little creature.”
“Screw you, then.”
“Little creature, there are no people I love more than those who select me. You do not fear me and embrace me readily; how can I not adore you for that? But you see, the universe is a machine. It is always moving, always flowing, like a river.”
“Like a train,” I mumble.
“Yes, and if humans were to sleep forever, they would be like stones cast into an intricate clock, bits and pieces that would stop the world in one way or another. That, I cannot allow.”
“Is there anything you can do?” I’m panicked now. There has to be a way to avoid choosing. But as long as I can’t convince her I didn’t kill myself, I’m stuck in the mud.
But the graceful sigh comes fast and quiet. “I can only offer you heaven or hell, little creature. It is my greatest gift. I’m sorry.”
I sigh. “Why are you like this?”
“I am Death. I brought you here, but that’s it. Everything from now on, you must do for yourself.”
And just like that, she’s gone. I look around for the Angel, but she is nowhere to be seen. She came here, ignored my pleas, lied to my face, and gave me nothing. Wait, why am I sad she’s gone? Good riddance.
I pace the length of the station’s pavement. I’m furious and humiliated. There has to be a way I can get out of this. I’ll think of something.
But then I realize: I didn’t choose to be here. None of this is my fault. Why should I choose my way out? I laugh. A brilliant way to cheat Death, if I do say so myself.
A train rumbles down the tracks. I don’t look at the line to see which it is. That would defeat the purpose. With my eyes closed and my face lit with the contentment I’ve been seeking for so long, I take two steps forward. My feet teeter onto the train stairs and my hands feel for some railing. I find the edge of the passenger door. The train sounds its beautiful horn and rumbles to eternity. I smile brighter, my eyes still shut tight.
As of right now, I’ve yet to open them.