Chapter 6: Misgivings
Shock. Denial. Anger. I am well acquainted with the phases of grief—from both sides of the coffin.
My first encounter with tragedy, or at least the first I truly grieved, happened when my beagle Lucky was taken by a truck on Port Watson Street. Plenty of pets had died before Lucky. I had cried for my goldfish, Sam, for Christ’s sake. But Lucky’s was the first death I denied, the first that bewildered and angered me, that no Popsicle or toy could make me feel better.
It happened again in middle school when my best friend Artie was felled by leukemia. I got violent then, vandalizing the playground up the street, starting brush fires in the woods. And then I crashed into full-blown grief, retreating into my room with Artie’s old Pokémon cards, taking all my meals alone for four days straight.
Unlike some kids, I was blessed with robust grandparents (apart from Mom’s Dad, Grandpa John, killed in Vietnam before I was born). So I never had to deal personally with a death in my immediate family—until my own. Death doesn’t get any more immediate than that.
Shock hit me hard the first day I found myself floating in that Sargasso-like sea off Lethe. My denial was necessarily brief. It’s hard to divert one’s mind from one’s demise when one is tangled in seaweed ten feet under.
Anger got me free of that seaweed and bobbing to the surface. I stayed angry, when I was awake, but as the weeks went on, I fell out of consciousness more often than not, settling into something that truly felt like death, or what I thought death should feel like. I am angry right now, but that anger does me no good on the mountain. It just turns the screws tighter.
Grief. Denial. Anger. Been there, done that. Acceptance?
I sit on the rocks huddled in Sabonis’ overcoat. Why had I driven home through the storm instead of waiting until it passed? What was my rush? The pain in my gut sharpens. Yes, I was meeting Gina for dinner, but she could have waited. Five minutes, and the storm would have blown over. My head pounds as if my brain is ready to burst out my ears. Trees would have fallen, but without me under them. I convulse. Sciatica-like jolts zip down my limbs.
I punch a lichened stone and bloody my knuckle. It stings like a bugger, and the more I dwell on it, the more my nerves twang, fading only when I cut my thoughts adrift.
I can’t obsess here, not on this mountain. Harping on my hurts brings only agony. Forget, and the pain goes away.
My neighbor, Abigail, watches me and tut-tuts.
“I know that look,” she says. “That’s the look of someone who’s not doing such a good job of Clearing out their little heads.”
“Oh, shut up!” I rise and stumble and stub my unshod toe.
“Honey, don’t think I don’t know what you’re goin’ through. The quicker you accept your fate the better off you’ll be. Trust me. I learned these things the hard way.”
I descend, careening off ledges like a pinball through bumpers. The pain eases. The queasiness dissipates.
“Don’t you go and do that child! Don’t you backslide on me now!”
I glare back at her. She looks at me all smug with her chin tight, lips scrunched. Apart from her race, she is a dead ringer for the late Mrs. Bagdiak, my seventh grade math teacher, who for all I know might be her sitting on one of these boulders herself.
“Miss Bianca ain’t gonna stand for such nonsense. Uh-uh. No.”
I slide a little farther down a smooth slab of stone on my butt.
“Oh, come now,” says Abigail. “Get back up here. You got to feel a little bad to do a little good.”
I ignore her, inching even farther down. I keep descending, seeking a place where I don’t have to listen to her.
There are other folks about, but their attentions are dissipated, faces blank as coma victims. Some glance my way, but they all keep their mouths shut. I don’t know how Abigail ever expects to Clear, being such a busybody.
I reach a spot just above an undulant layer of cloud. Mist laps at my bare feet, scuffed and bloody, but oddly numb.
Something solid swirls through the fog. Sabonis pops out, looking, sounding and moving truly like something that has just stepped out of a grave. His face contorts in a mask of agony, his breaths rattle and rasp. His legs quiver and jerk with St. Vitus’s Dance.
“Lower,” he gasps as the clouds billow up and obscure him.
I glance over my shoulder, take a breath, and plunge into the mists. I catch up with Sabonis just below the cloud layer. Already, he looks more human, less zombie, and I’m feeling immensely more comfortable myself.
“All of this … it’s bullshit, all of it,” he says, voice as croaky as a five pack a day smoker. “Maybe Lethe used to make sense, but it’s all broken now. It’s … all bullshit.”
I don’t know what to say. Lethe still confuses me. Not Hell. Not Heaven. What else could it be, some kind of Purgatory?
“I guess we got no other choice, right?” I say. “I mean, we’re dead.”
Sabonis’ eyes gleam like anthracite on the verge of bursting into flame.
“Life,” he says.
“But … we’re dead.”
“We can’t … un-die.”
“Who says?” Sabonis gazes through a gap in the cloud bank at the ocean, opaque and dull as tarnished silver. “Delgado goes back.”
“The guy who stole my cat.”
I sit on a ledge and cup the fine bones of my smooth little chin in my delicate girlie hands. At least I won’t have to shave anymore. No more stubble. No more nicks.
“I want my overcoat back,” says Sabonis.
“You gave it to me.”
“I want it back.”
“Only after I get some other clothes.”
“Scarce commodity in this place.”
“I’m not going around bare-assed.”
“It’s cute enough.”
“Don’t even ….” I say, my face warping in disgust.
“You wanna go back?” he asks.
“Not sure about the living part. But … would you go back. Live or not.”
“Hell, yeah,” I say.
“I got another boat,” says Sabonis. “Piece of crap. But it floats.”
“Why … do you need a boat?”
“Because the way back is out there in the ocean. Makes sense. Everyone comes in as a Floater. Delgado brings stuff in from out there. Reason he stole my cat is because the Collectors trashed his boat. The bastard was supposed to take me with him. But who needs him? I mean, you remember floating in, right? You remember where you crossed. Right?”
I didn’t, really. But I felt it was in my best interest to pretend I did.
“Yeah. Sure,” I say. “I do. I remember.”Sabonis’ eyes get that twinkle again. “What are we waiting for? Let’s get off this miserable heap.”