With apologies to my longtime readers, I have decided to repost the first chapter of my as yet unpublished novel, for the benefit of my new twitter and Facebook friends! I hope you enjoy what you read here and find inspiration in it!
Each chapter begins with a poem.
I could tell you life is fleeting.
But that’s a truth everyone knows.
It doesn’t bear repeating,
Isn’t worthy of a refrain
Read while a tired body lies in repose.
As it’s a fact that too often shows
How little control we mortals maintain.
-An excerpt from the poem Nothing Is Forever by Madeline Mailer
Death, Part 1
Terrence McDonald is 55. The year is 2045.
The TV is on, and I’m on the couch, leaning as far back as I can. My heavy, indecisive brown eyes—their lenses blurred ever since my tumultuous entrance–flutter between open and shut. I am half-watching half-listening to a football game on a Sunday afternoon. Was that the doorbell?
“Who is it?” I call out, expecting to hear my daughter Megan’s voice. These days she is the one person who visits me. The only person who knows I’m making my home in this little oasis fashioned from wood felled by my own hand.
“Terry, it’s Mom. I’m here to help you move.”
My mom? That’s not possible. She’s…
Wait, to help me move? Oh, God.
I rise from the couch and glance back at my lifeless body. Five-foot-eight standing up, but now it’s slumped over, grayish-blue. A few stray locks of the black hair my father gave me spill over into my unseeing eyes.
Shit. I still had more I wanted to do, damn it! Was it my cerebral palsy? We’ve co-existed forever. Has it somehow—in its slow, indirect way—finally done me in?
I turn back around toward the TV, and I see my mom materialize in front of me, a concerned look on her face.
“Are you okay?”
“No, of course not!” I scream. “So is that it? I’m dead. Just like that?”
She doesn’t say anything, but her silence says everything.
“How? How did I die?”
Mom puts her hand on my shoulder like she always did when I was a kid and I was upset and needed some time to calm down. “You don’t remember?”
“No, Mom. If I remembered, why would I ask?”
She is silent for another beat. “If you don’t remember… then it’s probably best if I stay quiet for now. My job is to take you Home.”
“I am home,” I shoot back.
“You don’t understand. Where I’m taking you… this is a different kind of Home. This is the place where you’ll find out what happens next.”
“Is there any way around this? Any way at all?”
These words are as close as I’ve ever come to arguing with my mom. That’s because arguing with her does not come naturally to me. And, considering the life I have, I never thought I’d hear myself plead for it.
“No, Terry. I’m sorry, but there’s not. You know that, if there were a way, I’d tell you what it was. But this has been decided.”
I pull away from her. Am I frightened? No, not exactly. But I am… disheartened.
Before I can get too far away, she takes my hand. “Come with me, Terry. I love you.”
It’ s been so long since my mother said those words to me—I love you—that I’d forgotten how true and convincing they sound in her voice, and how much I missed them—and her.
Without warning, we’re not in the cabin anymore, and I find myself in a house so familiar I am comfortable in seconds. The smells are familiar. The floor plan. The art on the walls. This is a replica of the home I shared with my wife, before she got sick and I moved into the cabin.
“See, it’s not so bad,” Mom is saying. “I picked it out and furnished it myself. Just for you.”
It is a nice place. Much nicer than I’m used to these days, that’s for sure. Not that I have anything but a vague idea where we are.
Now that I’ve calmed down some, it isn’t just this new house I’m appraising. I’m also getting my first real good look at Mom in twenty years. Hers is a face looking as youthful today as it appeared in the photograph announcing her entrance into womanhood—taken in her eighteenth year. I remember seeing this picture in a family album decades ago.
“You’ve got all the comforts you’re used to,” Mom explains. “Along with a couple you might have forgotten about.”
“So this is where I’ll be living now?”
The frown on her face hints at the fact that things aren’t that simple. “Well, that depends on your appointment, but I sure hope you will. Your father and I are just down the street.”
“Yes, he made it.” She smiles.
“Everyone has an appointment when they first get here.”
“What happens? Who is the appointment with?”
“I can’t tell you, Terr.” Mom takes a seat in the first of three chairs arranged in front of my large television screen. This is the only liberty she’s taken in the design. The original home had two chairs in front of this television, because two was enough for Mattie and me, but I sense Mom gave me the extra seat in case I should have company over. “Those who have been through their own appointments, like me, are expressly forbidden from sharing any details with newcomers, like you. Each one is different based on the soul and the life it concerns.”
“Ah.” Now I’m nervous. And not just because I get the feeling at this moment that Mom is spouting some section of a well-rehearsed monologue. I wonder if, at this appointment, everything in a person’s life is considered.
“Yes, everything is considered,” Mom says.
I shoot her a confused glance. Did she just read my mind?
“Oh, I’m sorry. We don’t often use spoken words or languages here. I mean, we can. And we will, especially in cases when explanations or announcements need to be delivered to a large number of people. God prefers spoken language Himself. But it’s more common, for those who have been Home a while, to communicate telepathically. I thought that was what you were doing.”
I shake my head.
“Well, in a few days, once you’re feeling acclimated, let me know. You can call me on this.” Mom produces what looks like a cell phone. “That’s a direct line to me and me alone. When you’re ready, I’ll come and pick you up and take you to your appointment.”
But first, she thinks, get some rest. You look terrible.
I am a little tired, but what do you expect? I’m dead.
“You’re getting the hang of our telepathy already.” She laughs, gives me a hug. “I’ve gotta get back to cook your father’s pot roast, or he might go a little nuts.”
Sounds like Dad. A hungry Carl McDonald means an irritable, hard-to-deal-with Carl McDonald (I was going to say hard-to-live with, but the word doesn’t fit).
Mom pats my shoulder and disappears. This new Home is going to mean some big adjustments for me.
I’m going to guess it’s taken me the better part of three days—spent resting and recuperating from life–to convince myself that I’m really dead and, secondly, that I’m ready to face whatever might be in store for me. I have to guess at how much time has passed because, as it turns out, this new home of mine–furnished by my mom–does not include a clock. Not one. I only discovered this flaw after she departed, so there was no way to readily remedy it. Stores specializing in electronics aren’t plentiful in The Afterlife.
Wait, that’s not true. Maybe they are. I don’t know what lies beyond these four walls yet. I’ve barely moved since I got here. But I am as prepared as I’ll ever be for my personal appointment, so I pull out the cell phone Mom gave me for just this situation. It doesn’t require dialing. My connection to her is immediate.
“Terry?” she says.
“You’re ready for your appointment?”
“Okay.” She pauses, a bit too long for your run-of-the-mill pause. Something’s bothering her. “Okay, I’m glad to hear it.”
“What’s wrong? You’re gonna pick me up, right?”
“I was planning on it, but it looks like your Grandpa Jack needs to be picked up today.”
“Oh, you mean he’s-”
“I’m sorry, Mom. Boy, he lived forever, didn’t he?”
She laughs. “Pretty darn close. I’m just glad he got to go out the way he wanted; peacefully, in his sleep. Anyway, your dad and I have to be there for him, but I’m sending your old friend Charlie out to you. He’ll get you where you need to go, no problem.”
Charlie. How nice it will be to see him again. It’s been a long time. This isn’t the only thought I have upon hearing Charlie will be here soon, but it’s the only thought I feel comfortable sharing, in case Mom can read my thoughts through the phone as easily as she could standing in the same room.
“Okay, thanks. Tell Grandpa Jack I say hi.”
“I will. And you call me when you and Charlie get to your appointment. Otherwise, you’ll have me worried.”
We hang up, and I wait. There’s the sound of tires churning gravel and then a knock at the door twenty minutes later… I think. I answer it.
“Charlie Ewell’s limousine service.” He smiles and nods his head toward a jet-black vehicle closely related to a town car that’s parked nearby.
I step back. Blink. Once. Twice. He’s still there. My mind doesn’t know how to make sense of this.
It really is Charlie. Well, of course it is. Mom told you he was on the way. Yet despite my mom’s assurance, there is this part of me that snickers at most religions, labels them NOT FOR ME, and I never warmed all the way up to the idea of Heaven. Therefor, even after seeing her again, I doubted that my old friend Charlie would show up. You’re telling me Charlie will be here! Charlie? Yeah, right.
Just like I couldn’t bring myself to argue with her—Charlie can’t possibly be on his way, Mom!–I can’t deny it now.
“It’s you,” I say.
“Sure it’s me,” Charlie says, as though he’s just shown up to my most recent—and last?–birthday party, cheer on his face, a gift in his hand.
“Like, really you.”
“Yeah. It’s really me.”
“I know it’s a lot to take in when you’re new,” he says, “or when you’ve just come back. I was so glad when your mom called and asked me if I would pick you up. I’ve missed you so much.”
“Same here,” I admit. The initial shock of seeing Charlie is ebbing slowly, like adrenaline leeching out of my bloodstream after an earthquake.
“It’s so good to see you, Charlie.” We enfold each other in a backslapping, how-have-you-been hug.
When we’re apart again, he says, “And you, Terry. It’s just now dawning on me how odd this circumstance is.”
“True. But under what other circumstances would we see each other?”
“Good point. In one of your dreams, maybe. You ready to get going?”
“Sure. Is there a set time we have to be there? My mom always said it’s better to be early than late, no matter what the occasion.”
He throws his car keys in the air, catches them, as we make our way down my temporary home’s front steps.
“Don’t worry about time anymore,” he reveals. “Time is a human invention. It is seldom kept here.”
“That would explain the lack of clocks.”
“Which always throws newcomers off. And don’t be nervous. Sure, no one who’s been through an appointment can tell you what your appointment will be like. That’s because appointments are unique to each soul, but they aren’t to be feared. Your appointment is a place where you will get the chance to ask questions and learn.” Charlie flashes a quick grin. He opens one of the back doors for me, and I see that in the car rides an elegant woman. “Terrence McDonald, this is my wife, Patty Ewell.”
Patty turns in her seat, puts out her hand. “It truly is a pleasure to meet you, Terrence. I’ve heard a lot about you.”
I give her my hand, as is customary, but can find no words. I’ve never met Patty before. She passed away the night I made Charlie’s acquaintance.