Fiction · 05/31/2017

Postmortem

Tom didn’t understand why, when given the opportunity for a free car in the afterlife, Stacy would choose a piece-of-shit Camry. He stepped from his truck, leaving behind the climate-controlled seats, authentic leather, and expensive GPS that had guided him here. Fresh blood circulated through his legs and feet, and he stretched against his truck, massaging three weeks of sitting out of his sore muscles before walking over to the Camry. He plucked an unlit cigarette from between his lips and pressed his face against the driver-side window. Despite the cloth seats and scratched vinyl, the same expensive GPS jutted from the dashboard — standard issue for everyone entering Purgatory.

The ground rumbled, and Tom steadied himself against the Camry as the landscape shifted yet again. Purgatory occasionally did this, apparently, restructuring itself as an ever-evolving maze — adding curves to previously straight roads, shrinking entire mountains, moving the locations of forests. It was disorienting. But this time, the restructuring worked in Tom’s favor, and a dirt trail opened through the woods, exposing a pond on the other side. After lighting his cigarette, he followed the trail. His footsteps turned the ground gray, and when he touched the bark of a tree, the leaves lost their color.

Branches crunched under his gray footsteps, and he considered his apology to Stacy. I’m sorry. I should’ve been there when you died, no matter what. But he didn’t want to sound unsympathetic. No, he needed to come across as wise. Death was supposed to make people wise. I got to thinking during the drive over, and I finally understand what you meant when you said you didn’t love me anymore. That was better.

He first glimpsed Stacy through the trees. A family of five ducks fed on the bread she tossed in the water, and occasionally neon colors radiated across the pond. Stacy delighted when this happened, clasping her hands against her chest and spinning in circles, her golden hair firing streaks of sunlight through the woods. At first Tom levitated from his excitement — six or eight inches above the dirt trail — overwhelmed from seeing her again. But after returning to the ground, he shielded his eyes from the light, annoyed by the overall obnoxiousness of the moment. Not wanting to waste any more time, he marched to the edge of the pond and waved his arms, hoping she’d notice him without having to yell. Soon she would acknowledge the sacrifices he’d made to find her again, and she would accept his apology and agree to enter Heaven holding hands across the console of his new four-door F-150.

He tossed his cigarette in the water, watching as Stacy broke another piece of bread and giggled. A gray ripple spread from his cigarette, polluting the water and eventually reaching the ducks and turning them into floating gray statues. Stacy paused from breaking bread. She examined the back of her hand before dipping her fingers in the water. From her touch the water regained its normal color, and the ducks returned to life, quacking and pecking at the bread as if nothing had happened.

Strange, Tom thought.

Thick bushes and gnarled vines sealed both sides of the pond, and Tom removed his shoes and socks and waded in the water. Stacy glanced as if his presence didn’t matter to her, and this made Tom wonder if she’d recognized him. For two years they’d dated and talked about a family and kids and a future. After her diagnosis, their relationship didn’t fail from a lack of love but from the stress — the inevitable loss of one person passing on and the other having to stay. Sure, Tom had made some mistakes, but nowhere in his dreams had he imagined having to swim to the other side of a pond to meet his true love in the afterlife. They were supposed to meet in the middle.

For the first time he realized how pale his skin looked in comparison to the colors around him, and he swam underwater, embarrassed, leaving only his head visible.

“I found you on the GPS,” he said.

Stacy tore a few pieces of bread and sprinkled them around her, giggling while petting the ducks. Tom cleared his throat and watched a mountain in the distance as it moved with the changing landscape.

“Aren’t you glad to see me?” he said.

Stacy swam circles with the ducks, and upon touching the beak of the smallest one, its feathers changed from gray to red. Apparently this was some sort of accomplishment. Stacy clapped her hands, giggling.

“Damn, Stacy,” Tom said. “Didn’t you hear me?”

She paused to look at him. The ducks paused from eating to look at him, too. It occurred to him that maybe the ducks weren’t ducks at all. Maybe they were fully aware and comprehending beings. Stacy waved her hands above her head, quacking like the ducks, neon light rising from her body. “Quack, quack, quack,” she said. “Quack, quack, quack.”

“Listen, I’m sorry if you’re still upset,” Tom said. “But damn. You have no idea what I’ve sacrificed to find you.”

The ducks circled around her, all of them turning the color of fire. Stacy exploded with joy when this occurred, kissing each one on the beak.

You shouldn’t be here, Tom, one of the ducks said.

Tom didn’t recognize the voice. “Excuse me?”

I told you I didn’t want to see you.

“But—”

Why are you here? another duck said.

I told you I didn’t love you anymore.

“You were sick,” Tom said. “You didn’t mean it. Surely you didn’t mean it.”

You’re holding onto the past. Why are you doing that?

“I don’t understand,” Tom said. “Please shut up. Please make them stop.”

Stacy disappeared underwater. When she resurfaced, her hair was brighter than ever before, and Tom turned his head away from the light. The landscape shifted, and the parking lot from which he’d arrived no longer stood on the other side of the woods but was perched on the plateau of a great mountain in the distance.

“What is this place?” Tom said. “I don’t understand.”

The ducks dispersed from protecting Stacy, returning to the pieces of waterlogged bread floating in the water.

“This is ridiculous,” Tom said. “I didn’t come here to talk to ducks.”

I don’t love you anymore.

I don’t love you anymore.

I don’t love you anymore.

“Seriously, make them stop,” Tom said.

I don’t love you anymore.

I don’t love you anymore.

“Shut up.”

I don’t love you any

“I said shut up!”

A blue vein appeared along the length of Tom’s forearm, color returning to his skin. Jesus Christ, he thought. He was tired of this shit. He rubbed the scar on his temple, exhausted from weeks of over-analyzing Purgatory while driving over here. Death was supposed to end the suffering. That was the whole point. He hadn’t pulled the trigger to make things worse.

He swam to the opposite shore and gathered his shoes and socks without looking back. After reaching the parking lot on the plateau, he leaned against the door of his truck to catch his breath. His feet were sore and his knees hurt. Hundreds of feet below, Stacy’s hair glowed like a sparkling diamond in the shadow of the mountains. He leaned his head against the window of his truck. Tom, Tom, Tom, he thought. Do yourself a favor and stop thinking so much. Just stop it.

The landscape shifted again, and the plateau became an island, floating in air. He walked to the edge and looked down at the clouds circling below. This time, the distance between he and Stacy didn’t frighten him, and he felt their connection loosening, the knot tying them together coming undone. He didn’t need a GPS to tell him what to do next. Nor did he need a rational explanation. The sky called to him with the promise of taking him far away, and he counted to three and then jumped.

The sound of air rushing past his ears was at first overwhelming, but before long it faded into nothing, like white noise, and he smiled as his mind drifted away into a peaceful state of nothingness. And without his thoughts interrupting him, he spread his body to the wind, barely conscious as his arms transformed into wings and his skin into feathers — not his arms or his skin anymore, but contributions to a communal body, belonging to His wings and His feathers — and for a brief moment Tom was flooded with jealousy upon realizing everything that was previously his was about to belong to someone else. But the sound of nothingness soothed him again, and he relaxed into the wind, yielding to the transformation until there was no longer a distinction between his and His — until he could simply appreciate, without distraction, the beauty of the colors streaking behind him in the sky.

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Nicholas A. White is an MFA student at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. His stories have appeared in Pembroke Magazine, Permafrost, Fiction Southeast, Pithead Chapel, Literary Orphans, and elsewhere. For more information, visit www.nicholasawhite.com.