“It’s a nice room.”
The voice is familiar, but I can’t place it.
Am I sleeping? Dreaming?
I hear a series of melodic beeps filling the air. They have their own distinctive pitch and period.
But that can’t be right, I’m no longer…,
“Wayne, he’s waking up,” a soft voice filters into my awareness.
As far as I can tell, I’m flat on my back in some sort of hospital-if the beeps are what I think they are. The usual gentle accompanists to whatever machines are currently supporting my existence.
“Are you okay, son?”
My dad’s voice. I’ve still not opened my eyes. There is a mountain of lethargy in my innermost being. Behind that are stiffness and a reluctance to move at all for fear it will hurt too much.
I test that theory with a gentle opening and closing of my palms.
That’s not so bad.
“Look, Monica, he’s opening his hands.”
Monica? Wayne? Those are my parents’ names.
I want to push myself back into an unconscious state. This happening too fast and I’m starting to suspect that I’ve forgotten something big.
I did a very bad thing.
I remember holding the heavy thing, lying in my bathtub. I remember writing the note…
“How are you feeling?” Her voice flows like honey into the entirety of my essence. A warm hand takes mine and gently squeezes it.
No, this isn’t right. None of this is right.
I shiver as my mind rejects all that my senses are reporting.
I remember I’d made the water too hot and being surprised by how heavy the thing was. It was my first one. The brushed steel was a cool counterpart to the hot water in the tub.
It’s too much, and I feel my consciousness sliding away from whatever was unfolding here.
Instinctually, I follow the beeps back into blissful unconsciousness. They were my pathway into this room. It’s only fitting they would show me the way out of there.
I slide back into the dreams. There I remember my bathroom, the humid air filling the cramped space, condensation on the shower walls, rivulets of water snaking their way down the wall.
I remember setting the forbidden hunk of metal on a washcloth to keep it from falling into the bathwater. I see it all; I remember the unique and piercing pain. All that happened in 2027 comes flooding back to me in an instant.
In the note, I said, “I’ve been pulling this trigger since 2027.” No surprise there. There had been a massive outbreak of such acts since that time.
Everything about that year, and to a lesser extent the five years since that year, felt like the beginning of a mass extinction event. Is it any wonder people would escape however they could?
The bathtub dissolves, and I’m standing in my tiny condo in Rockwall. It’s the early nineties, I know. Judy is gone, but Redford and I are still in unit 126A. Judy had been in the B half. Redford is panting before me, happy to see me again. He was always thrilled to see me.
My condo dissolves, and I’m walking the cold, rainy streets in Wiesbaden. The year was 1985. I just received a phone call from my fiancé’s mother telling me the wedding was off. The girl had gone back to her ex and had married him. In retrospect, that had been fortuitous for me, most likely.
Hindsight is not nearly as grand as we would like to believe. Or it is, but one must step further back than just a few decades before the mosaic of patterns, coincidences, and chance meetings make any sense.
The scene shifts again. I’m pulling my clothes from her closet. It was her choice. She told me to leave, to go to my place, and take my stuff with me.
I stood there in her closet; all the bars were loaded with so much weight the bars sagged. I pulled my few hanger items off. I was shivering and shaking with the sorrow and anxiety of another breakup.
The scenes continually cycle. None of these are memories I wish to relive.
I want to be back in the hospital. It was disorienting, but the energy there felt more stable. And the two voices, though they couldn’t be my parents-that was impossible – they seemed invested in my welfare. And whatever or wherever that place is, it felt more stable than this constantly shifting jump from memory to memory.
I close my eyes and remember the beeps there. I recall the familiar voices. I felt a calmness there I’d not known in years.
“He’s back again, Monica.”
But they’re dead.
I remember attending my father’s funeral, freezing my ass off in a bitterly cold February rain in the early 1990s.
Where the memory of my mother’s funeral should be is just a mass of shame. I didn’t attend that one. I’d just been there, and that trip made me as sick as I’d ever been, both physically and spiritually. Seeing the way my brother lived. Seeing how far my mother had regressed? It was too sad. I had to get away. I stayed the requisite few days, then made my excuses and returned to Texas.
I open my eyes.
My parents are there. But this isn’t right. My dad is in his mid-thirties at most and my mom is still in her early seventies, less than a decade before her passing.
A random memory flashes through my mind. It was the experience of the bullet doing its work.
That will wake you up. It’s such a jarring memory to ambush me. I suspect it’s not done with me.
“Am I…, dead?”
Not a question I thought I’d ever ask my two dead parents, but things change, you roll with them or grow brittle. Such is life. And death, apparently.
Their tight-lipped smiles and sad nods answer my question.
“But you have a nice room here,” my dad says.
“Yes. This is much nicer than the one I woke up in, in 2020,” mom says.
“So, I guess…, you guys know how I died?”
I feel my face-which isn’t physical-blossom with a red mask of hot shame. I never expected to see either of them again. The two people who would be most hurt by my weakness.
They each press a fist to their mouth. Mom looks away, wiping her nonphysical eyes.
I wish I could undo my last actions. But that is not how life works. Some decisions can’t be rolled back easily. There are no mulligans when it comes to suicide.
“I’m sorry, mom and dad.”
It’s weird seeing them together. They’d been divorced for over thirty years. Yet here they were together again, co-parenting their firstborn son who caved in and took the coward’s exit when things got hard.
“Hey! Don’t think that,” mom says.
Did she read my thoughts?
“She’s right, son. No one knows what it was like for anyone who loses their fight with depression. It is mental illness, and we, our world, I mean, have done an abysmal job of treating it.”
That is the most I remember my dad ever saying since his diagnosis.
“So…, where am I? Is this hell?”
It feels way too nurturing to be hell, but surely it couldn’t be heaven.
When I lifted the cold metal from the washcloth, I didn’t imagine any of this. I hoped to find myself in a quiet void or a silent nothingness. I would have never expected to wake and find beeping machinery, hospital beds, and reunited parents.
“No. This isn’t hell, son. You were in…, a kind of hell, while living, but this isn’t hell,” my dad says.
My parents share a look, and my mom’s eyebrows go high. Something passes between them.
“May as well tell him,” mom says.
“But we don’t know that for certain.”
I’m confused. Tell me what? What isn’t certain?
She reads my mind again. That’s as unnerving as the remembered sensations of the 9mm slug passing through my brain.
“There’s no hell,” mom says.
“We don’t think there’s a hell,” dad says.
I wait for them to explain.
Dad launches into an extended recollection of his time since his passing. How he’d visited everyone he’d ever known who died before him, how none of them believed in hell. Some of the characters and relatives my dad mentions, he describes as awful people. The unspoken conclusion, that dad is too tactful to make, if they weren’t in hell, then there probably wasn’t a hell for them to be in.
“So, what is this place?”
They share another look. It appears death has done much to smooth over their rocky relationship. Their marriage had been a tumultuous field of thickets. They married, divorced, and then remarried. Crazy times. As a child, I’d longed for harmony, but it was nonstop arguments, bickering, and mental abuse.
“We’re not sure, to be honest,” dad says.
His voice is as filled with compassion as any I’ve ever heard. I like this version of him. I like it a lot.
“It might be purgatory?” mom says. I can tell from her tone she doesn’t believe that either. Growing up Catholic as she had, I could see why one would reach for that as an answer.
“So, no devil, no brimstone…?”
I want to say more, but my tone feels dangerous. Despite years of uprooting my superstitious side, a part of it still lives, apparently. If I say more, would this hospital and my parents disappear, and the remarked-upon things appear in their place?
I don’t know the answer to that question. I don’t want to know the answer either.
“People leave here.”
“We think people leave here.” Dad again, offering a small caveat to mom’s experience.
“Right. We think people leave here. It’s a big place. We don’t know for sure. But it’s nice here.”
“It reminds me of the Shiloh Rehabilitation center,” dad says.
A lifelong alcoholic, my dad had been in rehab more times than I could remember.
“That was a nice place,” mom says. “I thought you might make it when we visited you there.”
She smiles with such innocent tenderness at my father that it leaves me crying. In life, she hated my father.
I like this new version of my mother as well.
“So, this is like a therapeutic waystation?”
My parents smile and nod at me.
“You probably should sleep now,” mom says, patting my hand warmly. Her hand isn’t what I remember. It’s not a gnarled, tobacco-stained fist wrecked by arthritis. It’s a good hand, a soft and warm, nurturing hand. And sleep sounds like a fine idea.
But my dreams…,
“Will I dream?” I say before either of them spooks me again with their mind-reading bit.
“You will, but they eventually settle down into something you will learn how to navigate through,” dad says, patting my other hand.
“Will you guys be here when I wake up?”
“That depends on you,” mom says.
“If you want us here, we appear. We think that’s how it works anyway,” dad says.
I think about it. I remember who my parents were in life. And I look at who they are now, and I cry again. I shake my head vigorously. I want my parents to be here when I wake up again. I’m sobbing like a child again. I was 75, but I’m weeping, resting safely in the knowledge that the two people who made me will be here when I wake. They will be here and guide me in this new place, which was a most unexpected place.
The beeping ushers back down into my dreams. This time, they aren’t as unsettling; some are even pleasant.