I'm not going in there
All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.
—Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
Progression, twenty-two years ago…
After re-inking his pen (the one he refuses to retire despite the push to go digital), Jonathan Clement diligently scribbles on a thick page. In contrast to the thousand-year-old books wallpapering the ceilingless, octagonal room, the stacks concealing Jonathan are crisp and dust free. At a squealing sound, his dancing feather pen halts.
“Good evening, Beaman,” Jonathan guesses.
Beaman, overly muscled in a green tracksuit, adjusts his ball cap before sighing. “Looks like the week to make babies.” He cranes his neck to see the piles disappearing into the black, star-littered sky. “Have you finished with them all?”
“Finishing the last now. We have a Satellite from today’s conceptions,” Jonathan says.
“About time. The pool’s been dry for a while.”
“Indeed.” Jonathan dips his pen into the inkwell and resumes writing.
Beaman neither breaks a sweat nor topples the swaying towers while transferring books to his long industrial cart. When Jonathan finally comes into view, Beaman looks at him expectantly.
Jonathan, holding a book, rolls his chair back a few feet and removes an iron rod from the fireplace. “Beaman, I would like you to keep tabs on this one. I think he will prove to be quite extraordinary,” he says, scorching the leather book cover with the gold branding iron.
“Sure,” Beaman replies, taking the still-smoking book from Jonathan and throwing it onto the only available space on the cart. Light bounces off the book’s cover, making the name Grant Bradley and the gold pair of wings shine impossibly bright.
I’m dead. This much I figure.
Certainty jabs into my side like a knife. The glare is too bright; the black forms will not focus. I strain to hear something, anything, besides the echo of air gasping through my lungs. I’m dead, I’m dead, I’m dead! screams every breath. This is really happening.
After a few minutes, my breathing level chills out, and I open my eyes to a transformed setting. A…college campus? I did land in Hell. Super.
Surrounded by hundreds of others looking much too attractive to be dead, I ask the guy to my left, “Any idea what’s going on?”
He’s built like a lion (clarification: a lion on steroids) and his angular jaw becomes even sharper when he clamps down on his toothpick. “Uh-uh. I’ve never seen anything like this,” he answers, rubbing stubble on his chin that’s as short as his dark hair.
Overwhelmed by the Harvard-type landscape (as if I actually know what Harvard looks like), I close my eyes and think of Tate. Turns out she was right about the whole life-after-death thing. I should have figured, seeing as she’s right about everything. Until now, that is. She swore I wouldn’t die. Guess that’s finally a point for me.
“Think we’re supposed to go in?” the Toothpick Guy asks.
I open my eyes, hating the utopian landscape and equally perfect weather, and stare across the crowded lawn at a massive gray castle. “I don’t know,” I say, though what I mean is, I don’t care.
He flips his toothpick with his tongue. “I’m not going in there. Not without an invitation, anyway.” He pulls the stick from his mouth and offers me his free hand. “Marcus Riggins. Call me Rigby.”
“Grant,” I mumble. When we shake, the calluses on his hand make me feel better, like I’m not the only one who isn’t polished enough for the grandeur of this place. I scratch both of my hands through my hair. (My hair’s back!)
“You all right, dude?” Rigby asks with an interrogating look.
“Yeah!” My voice screeches out as high as a girl’s. Nice.
To play it cooler, I lower my hands from my head and clear my throat before assessing other changes. My jeans now fit my waist and butt; my chest fills out my blue sweatshirt. I wasn’t in these clothes when I died. In fact, I hadn’t worn these clothes in months. This hoodie was gracing Tate’s closet at last check and still smells like her. A hollowness spreads inside me like thick syrup.
“Welcome,” a deep voice booms, silencing the low murmurs of the crowd. The voice’s owner stands on the balcony above the open doors, sporting a red pullover and a five o’clock shadow not quite as thick as Rigby’s. “As some of you may have concluded, you have passed on from Earth. Or died, if you prefer the informal definition.”
You don’t say? I think, shaking my head. Surely everyone’s figured this out, but the shifting crowd says otherwise. OK, maybe not.
Rigby laughs at who-knows-what, and those within earshot turn to offer their disapproving stares. He answers a cute redhead with a wink and flips his toothpick. She rolls her eyes and twists back around.
“You are here to fulfill a momentous purpose,” Mr. Red continues, pushing up his fleece sleeves. “If you would be so kind as to join me inside, I will explain further.” His smile stretches even wider, and he disappears into the building.
“Guess that’s our invitation,” Rigby says dryly.
Excuse mes and thank yous drop like confetti as the crowd pushes into the building. Finding no reason to hurry, Rigby and I bring up the rear like herding dogs and finally pass through the golden doors.
Once we’re inside, Rigby murmurs “dude” and almost loses his toothpick.
Hating that my breath is taken away, I rehinge my jaw before it hits the marble floor. I’m pretty sure places like this don’t exist even outside Missouri, though having a limited number of “been there, done that” experiences under my belt, I couldn’t say for sure.
I run my finger over the black wall, hoping to leave a smudge. As if to mock me, the wall shines more brightly. I consider spitting, but think of my mom—she’d be mortified if I did something so disrespectful. My dad, however, would probably laugh. As usual, I side with my mom but push harder against the glittery marble. After wondering how the seams were hidden so perfectly, I shift my attention to the lighting. A person doesn’t have to be an electrician to know that the candles in the chandeliers, even if there are thousands of them, aren’t enough to light a room the size of two football fields.
The crowd leading the way rubbernecks like tourists. Smaller groups of people who don’t appear to be new to this place linger in and around the halls, staring like we’re the afternoon entertainment. A few girls ten feet away point at Rigby and me and giggle. We eventually spill through one of the three doorways into a heavily columned church and slide into a pew toward the back.
“Check it out,” Rigby says. I follow his eyes up to the ceiling, or, more appropriately, the lack thereof. A swarm of red, orange, and yellow birds darts across the sky like fire. I push my fingers through my new hair and sigh, hoping I don’t get dumped on by one of them.
At the front of the room, Mr. Red leans against a podium and looks up. The birds scatter in the sky and settle on the cap molding high above us, as if on cue. “Congratulations,” Mr. Red announces while I mull over the ridiculous coincidence. “You are among the chosen few to join our select team of Satellites.”
Was I just congratulated for being dead?
Everyone’s frozen, sighted in on Mr. Red. I wish I had a pin to drop. In the silence, seven haunting words pop into my head. I try to push them out, but like always, I fail.
“I’ll die if I ever lose you,” Tate had said. I was expecting an “I love you” or some other cliché. I should have known better. Tate had no idea how those words would stick with me—how they would later cut my heart in two. How could she? I hadn’t even been diagnosed yet. She’d never said them again after my death sentence, as if not saying it would keep it from happening. My parents were the same. They could talk about my disease, my treatments, even my weight loss, but never my death. Denial is easier than reality, I guess. I wonder what my mom thinks about her miracle baby now, dead at twenty-two.
And my dad…getting close to him was like hugging water. Still, I know he loves me, even if the words never came from his mouth (which they most certainly did not). This past week, he spent most of his time “secretly” crying in the hospital hallway. Since my dad is one of those loud, slobbery criers, his little fits were not as hush-hush as he thought. My mom and I played the pretend game as usual because, quote, men don’t cry. This according to my father.
“My name is Jonathan Clement. I realize most of you are feeling disoriented,” Mr. Red says, snapping me back. “You have much to learn about your new life as we prepare you for your purpose. Let me begin by saying we’ve waited many years for your arrival and are so pleased that you are here. You have been selected because you possess a chromosome arrangement that perfectly suits you for our distinguished team of Satellites.”
Perfectly suited? Right. I’ve never been perfectly suited for anything, not even Tate. Now she’ll finally realize how much better she can do. I swallow instead of hurling.
“Immediately after conception,” Mr. Red, er—Jonathan, goes on, “your lives were carefully and strategically planned, leading you on the necessary path to your arrival here. Although you were chosen based on your unique genetics, your life experiences have also played a significant role in preparing you for your purpose.”
When he pauses, my eyes dart around. Why is everyone so calm? Rigby looks at me and unclamps his jaw to pull out his toothpick. What? he mouths.
I grit my teeth and turn back to Jonathan, who’s looking directly at me. After five awkward seconds I lose the staring contest, and he continues.
“Your purpose as Satellites is one of paramount importance: to keep Tragedies, those who have faced great adversity, on their life’s course. You will each be paired with a Legacy—your mentor, so to speak. There is much to learn in preparation for this new life. Your journey will be difficult, but we know you can succeed. Each of you was, after all, built for this. Are there any questions?”
Yes, actually. I have a million, but none are very nice. To keep myself quiet like everyone else, I bite my tongue until my mouth fills with blood. After swallowing down the iron taste, the sting is gone. My teeth scrape over skin that should be split, but isn’t.
“Excellent,” Jonathan says, clapping his hands together. “Please make your way back to the lobby and form orderly lines corresponding to the first initial of your last name. Thank you, everyone.”
“That’s a wrap, folks,” I mutter.
Rigby and I wait for the masses to clear before shuffling to the perimeter of the bottlenecked crowd. Eventually, we spill through one of the three exits.
“This is me,” Rigby announces when we approach the end of the R line. “Maybe I’ll see you later, man.”
I nod and angrily scan over the hallways for the inlaid glass letter B while every cell in my body screams. I should be alive with Tate, keeping my promises to her, living out our future together. And to think I beat myself up for not fighting harder to stay alive. Apparently I shouldn’t have bothered to fight at all.
In line, I stew in anger and glare at my feet. The contrast of my dusty work boots against the brilliant marble is just another indicator that I do not belong here.
“Hello,” a dulcet voice says.
Still fuming, I raise my eyes to a tiny olive-skinned girl with a staring problem.
“I’m Anna.” She absently picks at the cuff of her sweater.
“Grant,” I mutter back.
“What do you think of all this?”
My mind puts Tate in the spotlight. I could answer so many ways: unfair, infuriating, ludicrous, a farce. “Jury’s still out,” I say instead.
She shrugs, indifferent to my reply.
“How’d you die?” My voice comes out harder than it should, but she doesn’t seem to notice.
“Car accident.” Her tongue slides across her teeth. “A really bad car accident.” She catches me off guard by laughing. Loudly.
I fail to keep a straight face and find myself laughing with her. The absurdity keeps my laughter rolling. That and the fact that the action no longer causes excruciating pain.
Anna finally catches her breath. “What’s your story?”
“Cancer,” I manage.
Everyone around us gawks, which only sets us off again. When we finally calm down, we’re at the front of the line. Anna uses her pink sleeve to dry her eyes. I like her. This makes me miss Tate even more.
“Name?” a Rastafarian guy asks dully.
Anna turns toward me, and I gesture for her to go ahead.
“Annalise Bames.” She purses her lips to keep from laughing again.
Bob Marley pushes his finger on the empty desk and a holographic screen comes to life in front of him. Unable to help myself, I push my hand through the moving text, making the red letters run along my skin. He finds zero humor in this.
Because of his obvious disapproval, I remove my hand, but honestly, the guy should lighten up a little. “Sorry,” I say with little sincerity.
Anna disguises her giggle with a cough.
When the data stops coming, a piece of paper spits out of a thin slot in the desk. Bob Marley passes it to Anna. “Welcome to the program. You will find your Legacy, Jordan, in suite three seventeen. Follow the hallway to the elevator.” He motions behind him with his thumb.
Anna waves to me and skips happily around the desk and down the hall, obviously still in shock about being dead. Unless she’s just plain crazy.
“Name?” Bob Marley asks me.
“Any chance you’d sing ‘One Love’ first?”
He frowns. So much for a sense of humor.
“Kidding!” Jeez. “Grant Bradley.”
He follows the same drill and passes me a piece of paper. “Welcome to the program. You can find your Legacy, Willow, in suite five twenty-six. Follow—”
“Yeah, I got it,” I say, yanking the paper from him.
As promised, the elevator awaits at the end of the long corridor. I expect to see a crowd or, at the very least, Anna, but the hall is empty. Unless, of course, the trite cherubs etched into the elevator doors count. They may as well be holding bows and arrows in their chubby hands.
My fist punches the Up arrow and after a ding, the panels glide open. I step in and hit number five from the twenty-three circles. The doors slide closed, trapping me with vexing saxophone Muzak. The car rockets upward and knocks me off balance. Half a second later, another ding frees me from the gold box, and the female voice from my truck’s navigation system (such a personal touch) chimes, “Have a fabulous day.”
I snicker. Tate had named the voice “GPS Jeanette” and despised the invisible woman who “always had something to say.” Tate and GPS Jeanette were a lot alike.
An iron arrow directs me left, and, after dozens of doors, I stop at 526. I suck in a breath, not knowing what to expect. The thick wood muffles my knock.
A second later, a chick with a head full of dreadlocks is in my face, smiling. “You must be Grant Bradley, the kid with two first names.” She looks me up and down unceremoniously. “I’m Willow.”
I gape back at her. Pairing me with this freak needs to be added to the list of reasons why I don’t belong here. Whoever is running this show is failing miserably.
“Hey,” I finally reply.
“How’s it going, kid?” At five feet, tops, she’s at least a head shorter than me. Colorful strings and metal charms are woven into a brown nest that barely resembles human hair. The black swirling tattoo on her chest disappears under her purple tank top.
“It’s Grant, not kid,” I correct in irritation.
When she extends her fully inked arm to shake hands, I stare, frozen in shock. This can’t be happening.
She drops her hand and flashes a grin that pops her dimples into her cheeks like piercings. “You coming in or what, kid?”
I chew on the inside of my lip and step through the door. The surprisingly large room smells like lemons.
Willow walks around the L-shaped counter in the kitchen and pulls a mug from one of the cherry wood cabinets. “Make yourself at home.” She gestures to a horrid puke-green sofa across the room.
“I know. It’s great, right?” she says after calculating my expression.
“It’s hideous,” I retort.
She thinks this is funny. “Well, that’s subtle.”
“I’m not subtle,” I say.
“So I’ve seen.”
“What does that mean?”
She shrugs and says nothing else.
I make my way toward the atrocity, the old hardwood floor creaking under my feet, and sit beside a guitar that’s seen better days. Sheet music littered with scribbles and a chewed-up pencil lay on an aged trunk turned coffee table. The ache in my chest burns.
“You a musician?” I ask over my shoulder, glad that she can’t see my face.
“Observant. That’ll come in handy as a Satellite. So, what brought you here?”
“Cancer.” I force my eyes away from the yellowed paper.
“Well, isn’t that just a kick in the crotch. Tea?”
I twist around to see her. Do I really look like a guy who would drink tea? “How about a Coke?”
“Dude, that crap’ll kill you.” She smirks at her own joke. “Water, then,” she decides, hurling a bottle in my direction. After years of my father throwing things at me, I catch it easily.
She bounces over and plops down in the guitar’s place. The instrument hits the floor with a groan. “So, kid, tell me what you know so far.” She picks at her electric-blue fingernails, completely oblivious to how obnoxious she is.
I take a deep breath. “I know I’m dead, I’ve abandoned my fiancée, and apparently I’m supposed to watch over some stranger. This blows, if you want my two cents.”
“I don’t want your two cents, but you should feel honored to be chosen. Being a Satellite is major. Very few people are cut out for it.”
“Lucky me,” I snap.
“You can sulk all day, but it’s not going to change anything. It will, however, make me crazy, so get over it already.”
Deflated, I sink into the couch even further. “I don’t want to be dead.”
She stares at me. “Done?”
“Don’t worry about your fiancée, kid. You’ll forget all about her soon.”
I sit back up. “Forget?”
“Uh-huh. Most of your memories will be gone within a week,” she says, as if it’s no big deal.
“But I don’t want to forget.” Panic causes my voice to hitch.
She laughs. “Nobody wants to forget, but it’s part of the process. I lost my memories of my husband and daughter, so I get it.” She looks at the bookshelf across the room. “It’s necessary, though.”
I try to keep my breathing in check. “Do you remember anything about them?”
She looks back at me. “Just their names, mostly. It’s critical for us to forget. As Satellites, we can’t afford to be distracted by our pasts.”
Suffocating, I tug at the collar of my sweatshirt and keep the acid in my throat at bay with a swallow. “Will you ever see them again?”
“Of course. As a matter of fact, my husband, Troy, is joining me soon.”
“What about your lost memories?”
“There’s a department called Programming that brings them back.”
Even though I’m internally freaking out, I’m able to raise an eyebrow.
“Your memories don’t die, kid,” Willow explains. “They just get buried.”
Oh, OK. That makes perfect sense. I don’t even bother to ask.
“Moving on to Tragedies,” Willow continues.
“Me being here is tragic,” I say under my breath.
“Wrong context,” she says matter-of-factly. “‘Tragedies’ is the term we use for those being protected.”
“Of course it is.”
She glares at me, repositioning herself on the ugly cushion. “Look, kid, you need to get over yourself. You’re connected to a much larger purpose now. Someone out there is going to need your help.”
“That wouldn’t be necessary if everyone had a fair shot at living,” I shoot back.
“Well, isn’t that all rainbows and lollipops,” she mocks, pouncing up like a cat.
When her mug clinks on the counter, I twist to look over the back of the sofa. “What’s wrong with everyone dying of natural causes?” I try to keep the resentment out of my voice.
“Natural causes? Come on, kid—really?” Willow laughs when my eyes narrow. “There’s no such thing as natural causes. Every person’s life is planned beginning to end, period. Your genetics make you built for this.”
“I don’t buy that. I’m as average as they come.”
She moves a tea bag up and down in her mug. “If that were true, you wouldn’t be here.”
“Well, someone made a mistake.”
“There are no mistakes.” She flings her spoon into the sink and shakes her head.
Since we’re clearly getting nowhere, I change the subject. “Can we be Satellites for someone we know?”
She leans against the countertop. “No.”
“That’s stupid! Why not?”
“Nice vocab, kid.” She comes around the counter and walks back to the sofa. “For one thing, it’s against the rules. For another, you’ve gotta be on your best game. Devastating things can happen in an instant. Get it?”
I scowl as my own D-day replays in my head: Tate clutching my clammy hand like I might die right there in the sterile office, the yellow lights making my skin look sickly and transparent, the doctor explaining all the medical terms and then dumbing them down. My brain was frozen on just one part: “Your cancer is aggressive.”
Willow interrupts my trip down memory lane. “It helps to remember that sometimes the living need to lose someone to find their purpose.”
Right, like that makes it easier to swallow. “I seriously hope you can come up with something better.”
“I’m serious. My daughter would have been a different person with me in her life, and Troy a different kind of father. Neither of us would have become what was intended. Tragedy alters people, and that change is necessary for each person to fulfill his or her purpose.”
My eyes stay fixed on a dark knot in the floor, and I bury my anger more deeply with each breath, pretending the fury won’t return. “I still say it sucks.”
Willow unfolds her legs from under her, pats my knee, and then pushes herself up from the sofa. With half an ounce of pity playing in her voice, she says, “I know it seems that way, but try to stay open minded. Being a Satellite is totally stellar. Trust me, you’re gonna love it.”