by Alexandra M. Lucas
Every morning is different, and yet somehow the same.
I begin by exploring the underside of the latest eyelids. No matter their actual shade or dimensions, they always feel dark and heavy. When my travels first began, I often tried to keep them closed in order to avoid the usual conclusion. But even remaining asleep does not prevent the inevitable.
Now awake, I trace someone else’s fingers underneath my eyes. When I pull the tips back, I can see that they’re caked in smeared eyeliner along with a few clumps of mascara. Classy, I think, a touch repulsed by finding myself in yet another degenerate vessel.
A quick turn of my head triggers instant regret, a sudden throbbing headache illustrating just how used up this body happens to be. At first, given the sourness permeating even my extremities, part of me wonders if the finish line will come quickly with this one. It’s not as if it would be my first fatal overdose.
Detritus of all alarming variety litters the small room that surrounds the wilted mattress on which this body lies. Crumpled fast food wrappers, check. Broken needles, check. Puce pools of bodily fluids, double check. I’d happened to catch bits and pieces of Trainspotting while living out some college student’s Last Day a few years ago, so I’m largely unfazed.
The only other piece of furniture in the room is a moldy dresser, which has a cracked vanity mirror attached. Prescription bottles in various states of disarray line the back of the dresser. No two bottles are alike, each label boasting a different patient name and a different opioid. After years of over-prescribing benzos in the Before, I know the drug names as well as I now recognize the tingling approach of death. As much as I want to simply swallow every pill and move on to the next escort, I have lived with this curse long enough to know that brute force will get me nowhere.
A flicker of color at the top right corner of the mirror catches my eye. Three photos line the mirror’s frame, each of which contains two faces. The first I recognize well enough as the one reflected back at me, although she was in much better health when the frayed photo booth strip was printed. I see no trace now of the full cheeks, clear complexion, or joyful dimples that once defined this face.
But the second face, it belongs to a little girl in full bloom, with matching dimples a mile deep and a crown of daisies woven into her spritely pigtails. The two of them look so much like the largest and the smallest in a matching set of Matryoshka dolls cozied up next to one another. The carnival atmosphere in the photos even triggers a memory of a sweet and salty taste sensation I used to know well. Kettle corn, I think it is. While there is some sorrow in it, I recall a bygone fondness for strolling through county fairs with my collie Pepper. In the Before, I think, struggling to believe I had once known something outside of this prison. It suddenly occurs to me that I could have even encountered this woman and her daughter at one of those idyllic fairs. Some fairs sell daisies, do they not? I flip through the wilted scrapbook pages of my memory in an attempt to place the woman’s face. Even after countless years of this cycle, I feel a small thrill alight in my stomach at happening upon something so unexpected. Whatever has happened to the gaunt, exhausted woman reflected back at me, she had a Before. Perhaps we even wandered in that Before, together.
A familiar electricity in the air raises the little hairs on this vessel’s arms. I sigh in frustrated resignation, pulling a soiled blanket tight around these thin, bony shoulders in an effort to be warm when the inevitable happens. These Last Days seem to be growing shorter and shorter, or perhaps my patience is wearing thin after enduring so many bloody war zones, so-called “crimes of passion,” and drownings. I’ve found that warmth tends to make the jump less jarring. At least, for me.
It’s not long before someone begins to knock on the motel room door. The taps are tentative to start, but eventually they become so penetrating that even the crawling things know to skitter away from the incoming agent of death. This body’s heartbeat quickens, a sign that she can sense the prompt approach of her ending. As she tries to suppress her dread, I feel only boredom, and perhaps a touch of fatigue. Here we go again. Different story, same ending.
There’s no shame in admitting that I have grown somewhat callous after experiencing so many Last Days. Some might say it’s natural, like the rigid fingertips of a well-practiced violinist or the roughened ball of a sprinter’s foot. Even in life, I had learned to compartmentalize my wicked deeds, rationalizing the exploitation of my opioid-addicted patients away until my heart hardened into cooled magma. We are what we do, and this tedious process of dying and dying again is all I have done since I threw my afterlife away.
What, pray tell, do you think happens to the scores of demon-summoners foolish enough to wish for immortality without further stipulations? I wanted time, infinite time to continue cashing in on the opioid epidemic and lining my wallet with the blood of the vulnerable; my soul as payment seemed a small trifle. Any fool can stomp around at a crossroads at midnight, but, as it turns out, it takes true talent to phrase the bargain so as to avoid becoming an eternal soul hitchhiker. Regrettably, I lack that talent.
As the knocking transforms into banging and deep-throated threats, I feel a strange sensation on the edge of my mind. It is a twinge of something I have not known since before I became a reluctant traveler, and I can see by the morose look in this woman’s eyes that she feels it, too. Heat bubbles to the forefront of my consciousness, yes, but also familiarity and connection. So foreign is it to my senses that I struggle at first to name it. To my metaphysical tongue, the feeling is like the name of a former friend from your hometown; although once beloved, it is now difficult to recall.
The agent of death finally breaks through the flimsy door, and in the few moments of life that remain to this body, I rediscover the twinge’s name: longing. The dimpled little girl from the photographs fills my internal vision as the object of this woman’s bone-deep longing, and without thinking, I project this image into the mind of the vessel. My vessel does not see the impatient intruder brandishing a gun and the wild look of someone with little left to lose. Although the man shouts a handful of words that seem to express anger and warning, she does not hear them. Nor does she feel it when the agent of death unloads his gun in quick succession until his magazine is empty, creating a galaxy of weeping crimson stars in her torso. While I wait for fate to run its course, I wonder if the impatient intruder is a dealer come to collect on some insipid debt, although it is my experience that men rarely need an excuse to be violent.
As my vessel’s heart slows and the blanket slips from her knobby fingers, I let the familiar electricity of my upcoming transition overtake me. All we see is a memory I have manufactured from the photobooth strip on her vanity. Rather than whatever awfulness the agent of death is now delivering, the woman and I instead enjoy a sunny day at a carnival. The little girl tucks a giant tube of kettle corn under one arm and giggles with such ethereal delight that she almost drowns out the wearisome sound effects of violence. Almost.
In the infinite darkness that I occupy in between vessels, I am surprised to experience another burst of warmth in the space where my heart used to be. I never know quite how long I will have to wait, and besides, time has little meaning now. I’ve been treading water through a sea of forgetting, painfully aware that nothing I do changes the outcome.
For me, every day is a Last Day, and before I laid eyes on the dimpled little girl, I hadn’t thought to project an alternative ending for my vessels. But as I wait for the timelessness of this void to end, I finally locate the correct entry in my collection of memories. In some warm summer of the Before, the little girl with the daisy crown had smiled at me as we’d passed one another: me on my way to play carnival games with Pepper, she off to the concession stands with her mother. Even though I can’t escape through comforting visions, I concede that giving the woman a glimpse of our shared past at her end makes me feel a little less hollow. The taste of kettle corn lingers.
Another morning, another set of eyelids. But this morning is different. Truly different, perhaps in part because the bathroom mirror tells me that this next face belongs to a blue-eyed man I have not seen in a very long time. Brooks, you haven’t aged a day! I’m so startled to see my former medical colleague that I practically forget to simmer with my usual toxic brew of anxiety and indifference. A new sense of mild satisfaction and curiosity joins these feelings, marking this day as the most important day I have known since the crossroads. It is the first day that something is different.
Before I can formulate a possible explanation, electricity weaves through this body’s nimble tendons, starting at the well-buffed heels and slithering up the athletic calves and ever up. Dr. Brooks steps into the shower with the confidence and grace of an overzealous bull, and already I know he will not leave it alive. With a discerning eye, I search for something, anything that will alert me to my Before friend’s current hopes and dreams. In between the suds and steam I can barely make out a golfing trophy, two electric toothbrushes, and a gleaming Cartier watch. The last thing I see before Dr. Brooks’s inevitable fall is a second strikingly beautiful young man fast asleep in the bed. I remember meeting you at the holiday party. Sammie, was it? At the thought of Sammie, I again feel that familiar longing within my vessel, and this time, I know right away how to use it.
With every ounce of my energy, I weave the décor of their condo into another manufactured memory. Thanks to my mental distraction, my Before friend does not experience the gore and pain of his unlucky slip in the shower. Instead of shattered glass and blood, I show him hitting a hole-in-one on an impossibly verdant course with beautiful Sammie by his side. The thick fir trees that surround the green shudder in nature’s applause, and I swear I can smell their sticky needles like we’re all truly there. In the place of agony and loss, I again conjure an illusion of comfort. A part of me that I’d assumed was dead begins to mourn my colleague’s end. For a fleeting moment I can’t believe how white Sammie’s teeth are—“Crest Whitestrips, but like, every day,” he explained at that holiday party—but damn do they sparkle in the sunset.
Back in the in-between, I scramble to take advantage of whatever moments I have to reflect. I realize that the hollowness inside me has receded slightly once more, and this place does not seem as dark as it always, always has. Although I did not wish for Dr. Brooks to die, I am surprised to find that I feel glad that I was with him. If his time had to come, at least it was alongside a passenger who knew his work, and smile, and longing. With the taste of kettle corn on my metaphysical tongue and the scent of fir trees wafting through me, I dare to feel a flicker of excitement about the next visual seeds of solace that I will soon plant.
These eyelids are paper-thin, letting in light before I can even coax them open.
Bright bulbs with the sterile tint of fluorescence scream down from the ceiling, and scores of sympathy cards with uplifting messages like “Give cancer hell, Jolene!” fill a plain table by a floor-length mirror. Hospital personnel have scribbled various directives on the
mirror: “Must not stand,” “Assist with restroom,” “Attending: Kim.” When I look down at this person’s withered hands, I see healed burns that tell a story of many pies baked and a ring finger indented with the recent memory of a wedding band. The acrid smell of sanitizer and the telltale beep of a heart monitor fill the air. After a few minutes pass, I notice that the beeps are slowing.
Seated beside this person’s hospital bed is a little boy with giant eyes and box braids that click together softly as he weeps and whispers, “Gramma.” The boy hugs a stuffed dog to his shuddering chest, and he squeezes this person’s left hand so tightly that I can feel him trying to will a transfer of health from his body to hers. Even though the boy does not possess this power, I feel the elderly woman smile at him with such unconditional love and gratitude that I am ashamed to intrude on their intimate moment.
I’m only startled out of my modesty when we gaze upon this woman’s reflection in the floor-length mirror. It is a face I have seen a thousand times, smiled at every single day of my tenure as a physician. It’s you is all I can stupidly think; I hate myself for never bothering to learn the name of the woman who crafted my daily double-nonfat-three- hazelnut-pumps-no-foam without error. She always cared enough to remember, to call me her “angel” and to ask how I was doing, even if I was in A Mood. Jolene always cared.
Too quickly do I feel the beginnings of that unrelenting electric current. It is just a quiet tendril in the grandmother’s chest, but I know it well. It feels too soon. From the deepest depths of my being, I wish I could stop it. I yearn to have my own voice again, not to try to save myself, but to scream into the void, I know you! and that Jolene deserves more time.
Just as my panic peaks, a gentle voice inside of the woman interjects, “Come now, my angel. I’ve had such a long, blessed life, and my grandbaby’s right here with me. You’re here with me. It’ll be all right.”
Every jagged sound that fills my thoughts instantly quiets. Even the sparks of transition seem to slow, kindly allotting me a few extra moments to process this historic anomaly. This is the first time since my travels began that anyone has acknowledged my presence.
A flurry of stockpiled wishes and words floods through me. I want to thank her, to apologize, to ask her what she wants to see as she passes from this world, but the electricity begins to overtake her body before I can even try. Jolene squeezes her grandson’s hand back, and in doing so, it feels as if she is placing a hand on my shoulder as well. As much as I wish I could cry, I realize suddenly that the longing I feel now is mine, and she already knows everything I want to tell her and more. With the last few seconds that I remain with this woman, I keep her gaze focused on the stuffed dog in the little boy’s lap, until finally Jolene’s eyes close for the last time.
There is no in-between for me after Jolene. Instead of returning to infinite blackness to await my next Last Day, I immediately awaken in a clean, eggshell white bedroom. A pink vase filled with fresh daisies cheers up the overstuffed bookcase, and every bit of counter space is cluttered with half-full coffee mugs. A stack of mystery novels balances precariously on the edge of the mahogany desk. When I glance over at the nightstand, I can’t help but chuckle when I notice a half-eaten bag of kettle corn settled onto its side. Polka-dotted curtains billow in the breeze, a rush of fir-scented air I identify as distinctive of autumn in my small mountain hometown. As I sit up and rub the grogginess from my eyes, I hear the jaunty metallic jangling of a dog’s collar and tags. Two seconds later, my collie Pepper is lapping at my cheeks.
I know this room, of course, because it is mine. Mine. After what seemed like an eternity of living out Last Days, I have returned to my very own body. Out of habit, I gaze up at the ornate looking glass that hangs over my desk, and once I look again upon my very own face, I can’t do much more than release an avalanche of tears into Pepper’s fur.
Many years pass, and every day I am grateful to be in my own body, in my own community, with my own loved ones. I garden. I golf. Newly committed to curbing the opioid epidemic, I shift to treating those who are most forgotten and misunderstood in our healthcare system. I take my spouse to the café where Jolene used to work. I teach our children to question the way of things. I teach their children to question their parents. But, as I knew I would, I eventually do live out my own Last Day. I know it is my Last Day because, when I awaken, I feel the new presence of a patient passenger.
Just as the electricity of transition begins to fill me, I see myself walking with Pepper at the crossroads where I had struck my bargain long ago. The creature that had promised me immortality no longer has the too-alluring form of an unholy thing, but humble features and a soft golden aura. It speaks to me again, this time with a clear, resonant voice made for radio. “The ultimate gift is yours, little wanderer. But which path forward will you choose?”
The creature holds up its left palm, on which appears an emerald globe of pure light.
In it, I can see the entire universe I had wrapped around my heart in life. My garden blooms, our children play in the park, and my spouse smiles so hard that their cheeks and eyes nearly fuse together. If I squint, I think I can see Dr. Brooks swinging a driving iron in the distance. Pepper barks at the finely polished sphere.
In its right hand, the creature then manifests another glowing orb, this time in a personable orange hue that reminds me of peak-season pumpkins. In the second globe, I see Last Days playing out again and again, as they always have done and always will do for as long as life persists. There is much suffering, as I well know from my time as a soul passenger, but upon closer inspection, I notice that each person is surrounded by a cloud of shimmering sparks. As soon as a mortal’s last moments approach, the sparks envelop the person so that they bask, unified, in a warming glow.
In order to fully weigh my options, I nod to the orange orb and ask, “For how long?” “Only a century. Then it’s on to greener pastures.” Somehow the creature replies without moving its lips. Following suit, I do not move mine when I gesture at my pup as my only reservation.
The creature smiles broadly and nods. Perhaps sensing my decision and the creature’s concession, Pepper begins to leap around with excitement. I continue to believe collies to be among the wisest of our canine friends.
“C’mon, Pepper. Let’s go give some people some nice Last Days.”
Not all of us learn to be gentle or kind. Not all of us understand the gravity of our eternal task. But one thing I can promise is that everyone who transitions from this phase of existence to the next will not do so alone.
When your Last Day comes, as it comes for all mortals, I hope it is I who will be with you.
Alexandra M. Lucas is a freelance narrative designer and co-chair of the IGDA Serious Games SIG. She won the GDC Game Narrative Review Platinum Award twice, and she has delivered gender studies presentations at GDC, PAX Dev, GeekGirlCon, and Wellesley College.
Alexandra has contributed chapters to multiple pop culture anthologies, including Digital Love (Taylor & Francis, 2017), Pop Culture Matters (CSP, 2019), and Love & Electronic Affection (CRC Press, 2020). Her short story, “Manna Is Where You Make It”, was published in Whatcom WRITES: Discovery, and her poem, “Leftover”, received a Merit Award in the 2020 Sue C. Boynton Poetry Competition. Professionally, Alexandra has written for interactive novels, digital assistants, educational MMORPGs, and more.
Alexandra’s story “The Other Side” was featured in our Winter Issue: No Man’s Land.