by P.D Addio
Jason walked into Jackie’s room. He stood over her as he had on their first meeting. Her eyes were sunken and her skin had grown gray. It clung to her skeleton like Saran wrap so that she more closely resembled a breathing mummy than a living person. Jason lowered his head again to get a closer look.
You know what they say,’ she whispered through a hoarse voice, “you can pick your friends and you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick a corpse’s nose.”
Jason smiled, ‘How are you feeling today, beautiful?’
‘I feel wonderful,’ she struggled to get the words out and spoke haltingly.
Her eyes were barely open and Jason could tell that she was having difficulty focusing them on him, ‘My doctor” she paused to cough, then continued, ”and my hospice nurse came by this morning. They brought the real shit with them this time. I mean, I’m talkin’ about some primo morphine, man.’
‘What’d your doc say?’
‘I asked him if I’m gonna be able to run the Boston marathon next month,’ Jackie broke into a violent coughing fit. She regained her composure and continued, ‘He seemed to think the odds were against it.’
Jason smiled again, ‘What do doctors know anyway?’
‘You’re tellin’ me. Last week, I asked him how long I got to live. He says’ He says ‘three weeks, that’ll be a thousand bucks.’,’ she paused to search her memory for the punch line, ‘I says, ‘I don’t have it right now,’ so he gives me another three weeks.’
Jason laughed, ‘I don’t know what I’m gonna do without you, Jackie.’
His eyes began to well up, ‘These last months have been’ I don’t know. I mean’ before you” he choked on his words and turned his head away in an attempt to gain his composure, ‘Fuck, I’m just so fucking scared for you. It has to be terrifying where you are right now. I’m just so fucking scared.’
‘Hey look, Sparky. Don’t sweat it. Don’t worry about me. I’m ready to go,’ she stared at him intently, searching for her next words, ‘This is gonna sound like the morphine talking, but I’m actually excited. I mean, it’s not everyday you get to find out if there’s actually an afterlife. You spend your whole life wondering what happens at this moment. It’s like’ it’s like the end of a pretty good movie. So, I don’t know, but now that the check’s already in the mail, I honestly just can’t wait to see what happens next.’
The tears streamed down Jason’s cheeks, ‘Say, I got you a going away present. Let me go get it,’ Jason stood up and started for the door.
‘Wait, before you go, give me a hug, kiddo.’
Jason bent down and embraced Jackie. She grabbed his neck and held with every bit of strength she could muster, ‘I love you, Jason. Please don’t forget me. Don’t let me disappear.’
‘You know I won’t, Jackie,’ she let go and slinked back into her bed, exhausted, ‘I’ll be right back.’
Jason went out to his car and retrieved his gift for Jackie. He came back carrying a black Run DMC tee-shirt, ‘I thought you could” Jason stopped in mid-sentence, noticing that Jackie’s eyes were closed. He hovered over her again, placed his index and middle finger on her carotid artery, but felt nothing. He leaned down, stared into her placid eyes, and kissed her on the lips.
Jason left the house. The full pine trees and bare oaks that spread across the neighborhood were caked in snow and covered in ice from branch tip to trunk and formed a crystalline canopy. Dusk was approaching and snow began to fall in round, fat flakes. Jason walked to the center of the yard, pulled a large black wool cap from a pocket in his jacket and put it on, along with a pair of leather gloves. He pulled his hood over his head and laid down, his arms folded over his chest, stuck his legs straight out and stared into the sky. He thought to himself that the flakes looked the way stars might to an astronaut passing them as he sped through space.
The clouds were cottony and pink from the setting sun and they swept slowly across the sky like giant glaciers. Jason laid still until time lost track of him. The snow built up all around him until it covered everything but his face. A warm sensation swept over his body and his eyelids gradually gained weight until they shut.
He drifted. When he opened his eyes, he found himself in the dead of night in a valley crowded by colossal mountain silhouettes. The stars flickered like tiny, silent bonfires; their light emitting a dim glow over the landscape, casting it in shades of gray. The floor was covered in a bed of wild flowers stretching to the horizon that captured and amplified the light of the stars, shining like a bright neon blanket of reds, purples, and yellows. A thin dirt path ran beneath Jason’s feet and meandered ahead like a trickle of water between the toes of a giant. A breeze calmly flowed, whistling a soft, hypnotic tune. Mist cloaked the land in gray spectral wetness, breathing long and delicate.
Jason walked along the path until it ended at a circle of fifty or so figures gathered around a fire, dressed in multi-colored robes and hoods that shrouded their faces. The robes were tinted in the same fluorescent colors of the valley flowers and swirled on the fabric in smooth motions like creek water over rocks. They were as blindingly bright as molten lava freshly bubbled from the earth and Jason had to squint to look at them directly.
The gatherers did not seem to notice Jason. Their attention was focused squarely on the center of the flame. Jason walked into the circle and the gatherers parted for him without turning their heads. Inside, he saw Jackie standing, her eyes transfixed on the fire. He walked beside her and took her hand. Her face appeared as it had earlier that day, still pale and emaciated. She wore a bright white robe that reached the ground and trailed several feet behind her. It had wide sleeves that dangled at her sides and a large hood that hung at her back. She looked at Jason and smiled nervously. A vigorous wind blew across the valley and sent the grass into a wild and primitive dance.
The pops and crackles of the fire startled Jason, causing his face to flinch and his arm to involuntarily fly up to protect his face. It emitted a smell like burning flesh that he hadn’t experienced since he placed his hand over a candle during a power outage when he was three. The odor made his eyes water and the insides of his legs tremble like jelly. He looked over at Jackie again and she flashed him another smile– still nervous, but more serene– reassuring him and quieting his trembling body.
Studying the flame, Jason saw his own reflection. Letting go of Jackie’s hand, he approached it and gazed into the eyes of his image. He was drawn by its pupils, which looked like two black suns set in the center of a galaxy of spider’s webs. They pulled Jason’s eyes into their orbit and he acquiesced. A silence washed over his ears and eyes, pure and total, muting his every nerve and consuming him with a euphoric feeling of warmth.
Suddenly, he saw the circle of gatherers and the fire from far above the ground. The flame climbed high in the air, illuminating the valley in a blinding light. It was then quickly extinguished, leaving a pile of ashes. Darkness enveloped again.
The circle of gatherers dropped their hoods, revealing their heads to be giant dandelions. The breeze picked up again and scattered their seeds. The robes were left standing like phantoms in space. A pink cloud formed over the earth and opened up in a downpour, the liquid melting the clothes into the ground, their colors growing dim as they seeped into the earth. The ground drank thirstily and the pile of ashes disappeared into it.
From this spot, a coconut tree sprang rapidly from the ground, reaching to the sky. One of its fuzzy spheres fell, landing softly on the moist, tender ground. It hemorrhaged down the middle and split open, revealing an infant, red and radiant; screaming shrilly and shaking with the terror of its first gulps of life.
Jason awoke in the center of Jackie’s yard as the night gave way to morning. The trees glimmered in the sunlight and their branches, straining to hold the weight of the frozen precipitation, dropped shards of ice and packages of snow with scattered thuds. The snow had ceased falling. Jason opened his eyes and calmly lifted himself to his feet, brushing the white powder from his body and face. He walked down the center of the empty street in strides long and light.