An angel extended its hand to me when I stood up. “Follow me,” it said in my daughter’s voice.
I didn’t hesitate to take its hand.
There were ten steps between the crash and the dark. Like an anesthetized countdown before surgery, you enter the domain before you’re aware of it. I walked away from the wreck and the rubble, the angel’s hand in mine soft as silk and cold as steel. It put down foot after foot after foot, their marks on the ground glowing the red and blue of an afterimage. I kept my own feet away from them.
“Beware the puddles,” the angel sang. My daughter had never really sung. She had been more of a rhythm than a melody. She liked to dance, to snap her fingers and to tap them on the table. She couldn’t carry a tune, but she could be an excellent metronome.
I hadn’t seen her in so, so long.
When we arrived at the threeway, my shoes were wet and muddy. I tapped on my thigh to cover up the annoying sloshing sound. The angel didn’t mind. “Left or right,” it sang, “make your choice.”
“What are the options?” I asked.
“Go see for yourself,” replied the angel.
I went down the left side first, as I did the last hundreds of times I’ve gone here. The muddy ground merged into the smooth steel floor a dozen of steps in. I never knew if anyone had noticed that - there wasn’t much sound around this part. The soft ceiling ate the noises up.
There was no light in the corridor. The only light source lay at its end. It hurt to look at it for too long, yet there wasn’t much else to look at.
People who knew called it the Core. My daughter used to call it Ether. I myself had never been good with names.
The first few times facing the Core were the most impressive ones. Most didn’t even get a second time, but if one goes further, one would find that human instincts work as well here as it does outside of the darkness: anything can and will get old. This was not my first time. This was not even my tenth time, or my hundredth time. I had not wanted the Core before, and I did not want it then.
It, of course, didn’t ask to be wanted. It held no blame.
“What is this?” I asked, because all first-timers asked.
The angel’s hand in my hand splayed out. In the middle of the palm was a speaker slit. The tweeter vibrated as the voice played. “It’s your first choice.”
“What do I do?”
“Walk into it, if you so wish.”
“What do I get?”
The hand was silent for a moment before speaking again. “Nothingness.”
I waited for four seconds, then asked, feigning hesitance, “Would it hurt?”
“No,” said the angel, sweetly, in my daughter’s voice.
Again I waited before speaking up. “I want to see the other option.”
The hand laid open, quiet, as I stared at it. Then it turned over and grabbed my hand softly. It tugged me back into the corridor, and I followed its lead without a word. My socks sloshed uncomfortably in my shoes; I paid them no mind.
Steel reverted back to mud, and before long I found myself in front of the threeway yet again. “As you wish,” the angel said.
The road on the right did not lead to steel. It led to a small frame of light and a doorknob glowing red like an afterimage. It was always uncomfortably warm, as if someone had had it in their indecisive grip for a minute too long. It turned smoothly and soundlessly, just as much as the door itself when it opened.
The light from the room inside was never blinding, even though it came from the Core itself. The glass filter took out the glare, leaving nothing but the warm, comforting feeling that the thousands of figures standing between it and me couldn’t diminish.
I stood there at the door, taking in the sight. While the Core seemed like a luxury, this room always felt like a homemade meal waiting for me. It gave the visitors a longing that’s hard to quench.
It, just like the Core, didn’t ask to be missed.
“This is my second choice?” I asked, as per procedure. “What do I get here?”
The hand opened palm-up again. “Eternal happiness,” the voice played.
I waited. Then I asked, “Is there anything else?”
Again, it hesitated before singing back.
My gaze fell from the hand for the hundredth, or thousandth, time. I had acted out everything, every question, but this one. I never had to feign the stab of disappointment. I never had to let the hand slip from my grip on purpose.
“Take your time,” the voice said from next to my feet, where the hand lay. My daughter’s voice. She had never been a patient kid. That was something she had to learn - and she did learn, for my sake. She had done many things for my sake. I could never take away her choices after all that she had done for me.
“Ly,” I mumbled. “ Ly, what should I do? I don’t know what to choose...”
“You never do,” the voice said, in my daughter’s tone, and the hand turned over. Finger after finger after finger, it dragged itself towards the center of the room. The arm followed suit, and so did the body. I was on its heel, swiftly.
The angel led me to where my daughter Ly stood. It stuffed itself into her ribcage through a sliding lid on her back, closed it when it’s inside.
Ly turned away from the warm light to look at me, the hazy smile still on her lips. “People just keep opening then closing the door,” her voice played, loud and clear, despite her mouth never opening. “There’s nothing but mud out there. Why do people even wanna wander outside? Either choice is better than that limbo.”
I stared at her, my beautiful daughter, and the way she smiled. There was nothing but pure, untainted happiness in her eyes. Not even recognition. They shone almost blindingly.
She was so bright, so brilliant.
I didn’t want to lose that impression of her.
So I swallowed down my longing and said, “But I can’t bring mud inside, right? Your dad’ll be pissed.”
The angel laughed in Ly’s voice. “Yeah, that’s true.”
“Gotta go wash my feet,” I said, keeping the words from wobbling. I tugged my daughter into a hug, and the warmth from the light that had eaten up everything inside her but happiness slipped into my grasp. “I’ll be back for dinner, baby. Help dad set the table, will you?”
“Sure, sure,” the angel said, and I kissed Ly’s cheek before letting go.
I looked back too many times before closing the door behind me. From there I walked. I walked outside to the threeway, then I walked until the sky cleared and there was only ten steps between me and the carwreck. Then I ran for it, and climbed back inside.
It hurt, just as much as it did the hundreds previous times. The pain never got less sharp. Human instincts worked just as well as ever.
I took the ten steps into oblivion when they proposed it to me, and woke up in one of the bigger hospitals on Thursday, four days after the accident. My husband was there with me.
“You’re gonna need a lot of physical therapy this time,” he said as we talked about my injuries the next day.
I looked at him, and knew that he knew. Just as the first hundreds time.
“Maybe this isn’t worth it,” he said.
“She’s so, very beautiful, Giang,” I said.
His grip on my hand tightened, and his head hang low, just as the first hundreds times.
“I know,” he said, his voice trembling. “I know... Tell me about her. Is she happy? Same as before?”
I squeezed his hand.
“Always as brilliant.”
He smiled through the tears.