The Hallway of the Afterlife

I looked down for a second to reply to a text, and when I looked up, headlights blinded me. The next thing I knew I woke to a horrible stench, like rotten milk mixed with burning flesh. Cool marble pressed against my back. Plaque coated the ceiling and clung to the walls. As I sat up, a shadow in the corner of the room rustled. “Hello?” Am I in a coma? 

“Rise,” the shadow’s voice came out garbled.

I stood, the joints in my legs popping. The woman shuffled forward out of the darkness, revealing bluish green skin and a black smock dress. The smell grew stronger the closer she got to me. God, am I dead? 

“Yes.” The woman held out her bloated arm to me. “But I’m not Him.”

The dark room around me couldn’t be Heaven, but it also wasn’t hot. So, could it be hell?

“This is not Heaven or Hell or Purgatory. This is eternity.”

“So this is all there is?” All of those Sundays in church for nothing?

“It wasn’t for nothing. There are other worlds. Maybe your God has a kingdom in one of them.”

“And how do I get to those other worlds?”

The woman took a few steps closer. “Take my hand. My mansion has many halls, many doors. Behind one of them you may find what you seek.”

“And if I refuse to go with you?”

Her hand fell to her side. “Then that is your choice.”

“But what will happen?”

The lights flickered and the woman turned to leave. “Eternal darkness. An eternity of nothing.”

“Wait.”

She didn’t.

I tried to walk towards her, but my legs wouldn’t move. “I haven’t chosen yet.”

The plaque ran down the walls and spread across the floor towards me. Solid darkness descended from the ceiling. I felt her voice whispering inside my head, Remember when you wanted everything to stop? When you crashed your car on purpose but woke up in the hospital? In your heart, you decided a long time ago. 

 

The Good Kid

Once upon a time, the bully broke every one of Sasha’s crayons. Luckily, crayons still color no matter how many times they break.

Once upon a time, she was forced to sit next to him while they built with blocks. She was minding her own business. He knocked her tower down and went back to building his own. Did he want her blocks? She stood up and kicked his tower over. He cried. Guess who got in trouble?

Stupid, meaningless things can stick with you. Sasha still remembers that bully, the way he made her feel like the whole class was against her. You probably feel like you were the Sasha when you were little. But in someone else’s story, Sasha is the bully. You’re the bully.

She had a best friend back then. Once upon a time, Sasha and her friend had pretended to cut each other’s hair. Kids do things without thinking; don’t judge them. So, her friend went to the bathroom, but Sasha didn’t know that. She walked around the whole classroom with her scissors up, cutting the air. When she sat back down, the teacher found brown hair all over the floor. Only two girls had brown hair, and Sasha was the one with scissors.

“Sasha, did you cut your hair?” The teacher already knew the answer.

Sasha put down the scissors, afraid to get in trouble. “No, it was Melody.” Melody’s hair was lighter than the hair on the  floor.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

The teacher put Melody in the corner even though Melody swore she didn’t do it. Kids can be mean.

My Darling Adriana

It’s said that evil breeds evil, and I believe that’s what happened on that fateful day thirty years ago. I was there, right there in the back row of the play watching the beautiful Adriana dance across the stage. Yes, I was in love with her. Her strawberry blonde curls are only second best to my own ringlets. We were both beautiful, and beautiful people love other beautiful people. It’s the law of attraction.

Well, I was going to confess my feelings that night, but when I went backstage after the performance, she was groggy and crying. She kept rambling about some man, some secrete admirer. My cheeks flushed. Instead of concern, I felt jealousy. So, I left the flowers with her and went home. It wasn’t until the next morning that I heard she had died. Pills, they said. She was “sad.”

I couldn’t investigate further without revealing my feelings for her. Affection is one thing, but admitting love is another. It wouldn’t do. I let it go.

How could I live so heartbroken? What’s the secrete to moving on? I got married. The first man who looked my way had my heart, or what was left of it. I took in his affection and twisted it. I convinced myself that he loved me enough for the both of us, that his love was so important that it had to be requited. It was only bearable because he indulged me. I had the best sewn dresses in the city, and he enjoyed flaunting me almost as much as I did.

But I grew bored and one day, he mentioned Adriana. At first he said that he knew her. I might’ve poured him more brandy. He said he had been her admirer. He said he ended things because she’d been with others before. How could he marry her after that? He said she was the love of his life. I might’ve poured him too much brandy.

People are kind and forgiving to grieving widows. Maybe love breeds evil.

What Good Girls Do

Disclaimer: The following short story involves adult topics.

Jasmine’s legs stuck to the leather seats of Ricky’s car. With the windows down, they zipped past the neon lights of fast food joints until they were on the back roads. Ricky pulled over and cut the lights. Jasmine checked the time on her phone. “Why did we stop driving? I have a final tomorrow morning.”

Ricky took off his glasses, put them in the glove compartment, and grabbed something small. “Well, we went to dinner and a movie.” He reached his arm around her. “You’ve been leading me on all night.”

“I lead you on every night; I like flirting.”

“When people go on dates, they usually want more than flirting.”

“So this is a date now?”

“You don’t want this?” Ricky winked at her, and she cringed.

Laughing, he moved back and held up a small baggie of Adderall. “Relax.”

She grabbed it from him and examined the round, orange pills closer. “What’s the dosage?”

“45 mg.”

“That’s more than usual.”

Ricky shrugged. “I got a good deal on them.”

“Thanks.”

“Big chemistry final tomorrow?”

Jasmine nodded, shoving the pills in her purse. “I need to get back to study.”

Ricky turned off the car.

“What the hell?”

“I thought maybe I could help you study.”

Jasmine rolled her eyes. “Ricky, I’m gay.”

“I know, but you gotta be careful with those pills.”

“Okay, Mom. After chemistry I’m done with them. Can we go?”

“Promise me.”

Jasmine raised an eyebrow. “Are you serious? You’re my supplier. If you wanted to cut me off, you would have.”

“I’m looking out for you. If I would’ve let you go to the sellers, they’d have screwed you over.”

“Fair enough. I promise. Now let’s go.” Jasmine was already swallowing the first pill dry before Ricky started driving.

Adulting

I switch the radio over to my mix CD from high school, boy bands and sad country songs, as I pull off the highway into my hometown. It’s not small or anything. It’s a suburb. But it’s called the Island. For the most part people grow up here and stay here. That won’t be me.

With the windows rolled down, I pull off onto the back roads. They’re paved. I didn’t grow up in the sticks.

My high school is the same brick that it was when my parents went there. Marching band music floats into my car from the football field. My throat tightens. It’s been two years and I still can’t look that way without remembering. By the time I reach my childhood home, I can’t breathe.

Nostalgia hangs in the humidity. Ghosts of memories pass up and down the road: playing kickball with the neighbors, selling lemonade, riding my scooter. I block it all out as I go up to the front door. The doorknob is silver instead of gold. Some things do change.

But the little things aren’t big enough. It’s the same street with the same people. I could start a game of kickball again. I could jump off the garden wall with a plastic bag as a parachute. It would be like nothing’s changed.

***
I’m not a child.

I refuse to feel like a child.

***

I load up my car for my last semester at college. The panic settling on my chest has been building for a year. What am I going to do after I graduate? I have a plan, but doesn’t everyone?

I don’t care if you’re going into the medical field, there’s no foolproof plan for your life.

Pulling onto the highway, I blast my radio to drown out the screaming fear in my chest.

8:02pm

The clock on the mantelpiece stopped ticking at precisely 8:02 pm. I know. I was there. This is exactly how it happened. 8:02 doesn’t sound like a menacing number. Eight and two add up to ten, a perfectly even number. So why did the Devil make my wrists ache at that time?

I know it was the Devil because my Jesus oil painting fell to the ground. I jumped up as fast as an old lady can jump and hobbled into the kitchen to grab the salt. I keep Kosher salt in the cupboard for times like these. Kosher salt in hand, I sprinkled it all over the window sills and in the door ways. Now I haven’t read the Bible word for word, but somewhere I heard that the Devil don’t like salt.

Well, the clock didn’t restart, and my wrists kept hurting. So, I grabbed my emergency crucifix from my nightstand and my Bible from the bathroom, and I went into the living room, the heart of the house to confront the Devil. Sitting in my recliner, I poured a circle of salt around myself and raised my holy objects. “Devil, come get me now!”

All of the lights in the house went off, and my wrists ached more than ever. Maybe Kosher salt is the wrong kind, or maybe only having the New Testament section of the Bible weakens its power. Regardless, a dark figure manifested in my living room, and I swear to God it was ten feet tall. Now how’s an old lady stand a chance against the Devil? Well, I stood up outta my chair and screamed, “God commands that you leave my house!”

God must’ve been laughing at me though because he didn’t come down. He didn’t smote my house with lightenin’. He didn’t flood my house with light. He didn’t give me superhuman powers. But the Devil sure stood taller. Damn thing grew another three feet and opened up a pair of scaly wings. I thought he was gonna drag me down to Hell, but then I remembered that he makes deals.

When one door closes, another opens. So, yeah I made a deal with the Devil to save my skin. I get to live for five more years, then the Devil gets my soul. It’s a good trade really. I never use my soul anyway.

Wrong Side

You died and woke up trapped on the other side, the wrong side. On one side of the window, your life plays out without you. Your seat at the kitchen table goes unused. Your bedroom is a guest room. Your best friend has sleep overs with someone else. On your side of the window is eternity, dark and empty. So, you stay by the window where you can glimpse sunlight and loved ones.

Do they really not  remember you? When grandpa died, his entire existence wasn’t erased. Is this hell?

At some point, it hurts too much to keep watching. You turn away, facing eternity. You wonder what will happen if you walk into it. Are there motion activated lights maybe?

The longer you stare into the darkness, the more you start to imagine things. First, you imagine demons and monsters, their claws reaching for you. Then you become numb to the fear. You start imagining that you’re in a comma and you’re making all of this up. You try to force yourself awake, try to feel the scratchy hospital sheets against your skin. You imagine that you took too many pills. You’d been depressed, right? Isn’t that the term for someone who comes home from school and cries over their homework? Aren’t there some mean girls who bully you? Isn’t middle school hard?

No. You were mostly happy. So what happened? You try to think back to your last memory before waking up here. But you can’t be sure. The harder you try to remember your life, the less you recall. You turn back to the window, but it’s frozen over. You rub your hand against the glass, but it’s impossible to see through. You search for a latch, but there isn’t one. Can you feel pain? You smash your hand into the glass, and it shatters. The window, the broken glass, the light all disappear, and nothingness closes in around you.

Wordless War

We argued and broke up over the space of a few glances and some whispering. Our friends were in our dining room. In the middle of dinner, my girlfriend shot me a look, excused herself, and escaped to the kitchen. I took the hint and followed her.

Her back was to me, her blue dress accentuating her curves. I tried to kiss her neck, but she stepped away. I reached for her, but she crossed her arms.

“What did I do?”

Her eyebrows scrunched together. Her eyes narrowed. 

I guess I hurt her feelings. “You’re right. I’m stupid. I’m sorry.”

My hand cupped her chin, but her eyes slid away. I kissed her anyway. Her lips barely moved. Her voice was barely audible. “You should go after dinner.”

That was it. I didn’t get an explanation. “Please, I’m sorry. I love you.” But my words sounded hollow.

She put her engagement ring on the counter.

“But I love you.”

She turned away without apologizing. When we rejoined our friends with the ring in my pocket, I felt nothing.

The Dream Friend

Macy pulled her unicorn beanie on before climbing into bed, but when her mom came in to say goodnight, Macy stuffed the hat under her pillow. Moms and Dads don’t believe in special dreams. Macy tried to tell them about her dream friends once, how they came into her room one night, but her parents just nodded and did the grown up pretending-to-listen thing.

After Macy’s mom kissed her and left the door cracked, Macy yanked her beanie back on. Her dream friend Elenoir said that without the hat, Macy wouldn’t be able to see them anymore. But the first time Macy saw them, she didn’t have the hat on. She hadn’t done anything different that night except wake up mid-dream to find shadows crowding her bed. Elenoir had been there and Franny and Teddy. Their parents were there too, probably to make sure they made it safely. At first, Macy didn’t think they could talk. When she asked how they got in, they didn’t answer. Instead, after an hour of staring, Elenoir spoke up, “You’re not afraid?”

Macy had shook her head. “Why would I be scared? I’m dreaming.”

From then on, Elenoir had visited Macy every night that Macy had had on the beanie. Laying back, Macy squeezed her eyes shut and pretended to sleep until Elenoir showed up. “Macy, are you sleeping?”

Macy grinned. “No.”

“But we’re here, so you must be asleep and dreaming.”

Macy sat up. “I don’t think I’m sleeping. Pinch me.”

Elenoir backed up. “You can’t touch me, remember?”

“I can’t touch you. I have to wear this hat. Why are there so many rules?” Macy pouted.

“Because only special people can see dream friends, and the only way we can figure out if you’re special is by seeing if you follow the rules.”

Macy huffed. “That’s silly.”

“You’re silly.” Though Macy couldn’t see Elenoir’s features, she could hear the smile in Elenoir’s voice. “Let’s play one of your board games.”

Macy jumped up and went to her closet to show off her stack of games. “Pick any of them.”

Elenoir knelt beside Macy. “Let’s play your favorite.”

Macy reached for a glossy red box in the middle of the stack. The tower tilted, showering her with boxes and playing pieces and cards. Yelping, she hurried to adjust the boxes, but the hall light clicked on, flooding Macy’s room. Elenoir disappeared, Macy shoved her unicorn hat under her bed, and Macy’s mom stepped through the door. “What are you doing up? You should be asleep.”

Heat rushed to Macy’s ears. “Me and Elenoir were just playing.”

“You can play with your imaginary friend tomorrow.”

“She’s not imaginary!” Macy’s hands shook with rage, taking her and her mom by surprise. Tears stung Macy’s eyes as she knocked the rest of the board games to the floor. “Elenoir is my best friend! She’s real!”

The anger drained from Macy’s mom’s face, replaced by worry. “Macy, honey, I know moving to a new house and a new school is hard, but you’ll make friends before you know it. If you’re mad at me and Dad, we can find someone else for you to talk to. For now, just go back to bed and we can clean this up in the morning.”

Sick to her stomach, Macy let her mom usher her into bed. Once the hall light was off, Macy closed her eyes and rolled to face the wall, mad at Elenoir for getting her in trouble.

“Macy, don’t be mad at me.” Elenoir’s weak voice sounded off in a way that Macy couldn’t place. Macy tried to ignore her, but she felt Elenoir creep closer. “Please, Macy. You’re my best friend too.”

Macy kept her back to Elenoir. “Are you imaginary?”

“Do you think I’m imaginary?”

“Maybe. Why can’t I see your face or your clothes?”

Elenoir didn’t speak. Annoyed, Macy rolled over to face her. The darkness covering Elenoir’s face was gone, replaced by a face of scarred flesh. “I was real once.”

Smudged

The hardest part is that I had to let him go. As my train pulls away, I turn to watch him watch me leave. But he’s already gone. Last night was our last night together. I told him I had to go follow my dream. He said he couldn’t leave town. That’s what happens when you meet “the one” too early.

My eyes are dry as I pull my portfolio from my bag. I flip through the sketches. None of them are of him. They’re all strangers. It’s easier that way.

My interview with an art gallery in the next town over is in three hours, but my heart beats lethargically. Outside, the sun is cold. Inside, the lights are dim. I close my eyes, but his face burns in the dark. Pulling my sketchpad from my bag, I flip to a clean sheet and start working on his jawline.

Something is wrong. Every detail is perfect, from his stubble to his arching eyebrows, but it feels flat. Lead and paper can’t capture him, never could. Flipping the page, I start over. But now his lips are wrong, too thin. Then too thick. I start again and again until my hand smudges his face. The harder I try, the more he looks like a stranger.

When I reach the station, tears blot my portfolio. A year’s worth of sketches are ruined. I exit the train and buy two tickets, telling myself I’ll board whichever comes first. The trains arrive at the same time. Without looking at the platform numbers, I board the one on the left and accept my fate.