Mallan Park, Farmer’s Branch.
2:49 pm . . .
We spent just over an hour at the Taylor Residence going from room to room nodding at depressed people. These people need somebody to blame. I can feel it. This thing with her heart—the damaged myocardium—it’s not enough. They need somebody to hate. A reason for her untimely passing.
Thing about death is, it’s never timely, and it always is. The universe doesn’t have fair and unfair in its vocabulary. It only goes forward. For better or worse. If somebody’s grandmother gets hit by a bus, it isn’t because God is angry at her, or that we need to all learn a lesson about bus safety. No, it’s just because Myrna crossed the street at the wrong time. Physics killed Myrna, not fate.
People will argue with me about this, but the more death I see, the less I hope. Our lives are random. If we can carve out some happy memories while we’re here, that’s swell. But death isn’t waiting for us to finish off our bucket list, or make the final payment on our home in the Hamptons.
What I’ve learned is that the universe doesn’t seem to really give a shit about any of us. God is up there . . . somewhere. And he fits in to the equation, but I think that his job was just to get the ball rolling. Ever since, he’s pretty much just sat back and watched it all go down. And if we truly have free will, like Uriel tells me we do, then that’s the only way it could be.
But at that dark house, among those people who are beyond tears and words, I saw the fear in all of us. Randomness is much more haunting than a bad guy that we can hunt and kill. Chance occurrence is imminently more horrifying than al qaeda.
I follow Ricky’s advice as I walk with Angela, meeting people under the worst of circumstances. I nod when I can. Shake a hand or two, and keep my eyes cast downwards. Less eye contact is less opportunity for somebody to speak directly to me. That means less chance I’ll have to speak back. I’m little more than a fly on the wall.
Angela, on the other hand, she’s super good at saying just enough to people to get them to smile. She tells them not to worry. That Jesse is in a better place. That she’s smiling down at all of us right now, wondering why we’re all so worried.
Angela is strong in ways that I don’t think I could be. She’s resilient in the face of such utter sadness. And not once, not even for a fraction of a millisecond, does she seem to feel sorry for herself. There is no self pity in this girl.
And after a while we say our goodbyes and we get back in her car. She starts driving and doesn’t tell me where we’re going. I don’t ask. Wherever we end up, it’ll be the right place.
29 minutes later . . .
We pull into the parking lot near a park in Carrollton. She doesn’t say anything. She just stops the car, lets the engine go quiet, and removes the key from the ignition. She turns to look at me, her eyes as big and searching as I can remember them ever being. And I just have no idea what to say.
She swallows slowly and then gets out of the car. I follow her out and we walk to a park bench that is a formed piece of concrete on the side of a path that leads to a small creek. There are trees all over the place providing shade, and the sidewalk goes here and there leaving clean little lines in the lush green grass.
Clouds are starting to gather, and the afternoon is both bright and sunny, and dark and foreboding, depending on which direction you look. We’re faced towards the foreboding side.
Angela is gazing out across the grass, watching numbly as some ducks figure out how to get food out of tree bark. I’m not sure but I think there are squirrels up above them throwing acorns down at the ducks, just for a laugh. Ricky calls squirrels, ‘rats with buckteeth.’
And finally, still looking off into the distance, Angela says, “Who are you, Jack Pagan?”
I don’t know what to tell her. So that’s what I tell her.
“Let me in.”
I would if I could, I explain to her. Truth is, I don’t have any idea who I am.
And this isn’t a sufficient answer to her question. She turns to me, and she takes my hand into both of hers, as if she’s begging me. Pleading with me for something more. “Tell me about your family.”
I shrug, I don’t know who they are. Ricky and Ms. Josephine, they’re the only family I really have.
“Is Ricky really your brother?” she asks. “Because you two don’t have the same facial structure or skin tone. You don’t appear to be biologically related.”
She’s smarter than most people.
“So . . . I don’t understand . . . why would you . . . ”
Look, I tell her, I don’t understand anything, either. I have nothing to say.
She turns her head, hurt. “If you never open up to me, we’ll never . . . ”
“It’s not that,” I tell her. “I want to tell you about me. I want to share everything with you, but I don’t remember anything. I lost all of my long-term memories in an accident.”
I duck my head down and point to a scar on the back of my head. “ . . . see that? That’s from where something hit me. Hard. And it stole away all of my memories from before last Christmas Eve. I woke up in a hospital barely even six months ago. That’s why I’m so inept on most things. I just don’t know anything.
She runs her finger along the scar on my head delicately as if too much pressure might suddenly open it up.
I tell her, “When you think I’m being introspective and interesting, I’m just being like a child. Mostly, I seem sincere because I’m interpreting everything for the first time. It’s not an act, Angela.”
I sit up. And her hands are still touching my face. Her warm little hands, they’re just kind of resting at my neck, her thin fingers barely on my face. And she just looks into my eyes, and studies my face for the longest seconds of my life. She’s seeing my whole sordid life in the curves and lashes and imperfections of my skin.
She’s so quiet she might not exist. And we just sit there like that for a while.
Then she breaks her silence, “How did you know Jesse was going to die?”
My eyes are shifty now, looking for something to focus on so that she doesn’t see me avoiding the question. Of course, that’s a sure sign of avoidance that she picks up on instantly. And I realize that I have to tell her something. I just don’t know how much to tell.
“And the other night, at the carnival, how did you do that with those knives. I’ve never seen anything like that.”
Maybe I worked at a circus or something?
She turns my head so that we’re looking at each other again, “Tell me the truth, Jack. I mean, did you see something in Jesse? Did you notice something that, maybe a doctor would have picked-up on? Did she exhibit some kind of symptomatology that you noticed? How did you know she was going to die?”
I . . . I have a sense about people. Not all people, just some people.
“And you had a sense about Jesse, the other day at the bookstore?”
“And this sense, it told you she was going to die?” Angela says, withholding judgment.
I nod, Yes.
A tear is getting ready to escape the lower corner of her right eye. “Am . . . am I going to die?”
We’re all going to die, eventually. But no, I don’t get that feeling about you. Maybe I was a doctor in my past life, and I just saw something that would be completely understandable to somebody in that line of work.
“Then what was all the religious stuff about? You told me she needed to get close to God. Remember?”
Oh-boy. Rational people are so hard to deal with.
I just wanted her to be prepared for, you know, whatever it is that comes after all of this.
She looks at me very intently, and I can tell she’s not buying it. “I’m willing to listen, if you’re willing to tell me. Jack, I know when people aren’t being honest with me. You can tell me the truth, I won’t judge you. But don’t lie to me. If you’re going to lie to me we might as well go our separate ways right now.”
No, I tell her. I don’t want to lie. But I can’t tell you the truth. Then you’ll leave for sure.
“If you don’t have faith in me then what’s the point in us trying to learn about each other?”
I grab her hands from my face and pull them down. “Angela, this isn’t one of those conversations where I admit how many people I’ve slept with and how my ex-girlfriend is in a mental institution or anything tame like that. You absolutely will not believe what I have to say, and even if you do, you probably won’t want to ever be this close to me, again.”
“So you would rather walk away from me than to take a chance that I might not like what I hear? You’re scared that I can’t handle it?”
I sit there for a moment, just looking at this beautiful girl, wondering how I ever got to this point. This is the kind of discussion you’re supposed to have with a girl several months into a relationship, not the first week. I know that if I tell her what’s going on she’ll head for the hills.
“Fine,” I say. “I’ll tell you a story. When it’s over, you can decide whether or not you want to believe it. But I’m warning you right now, this will change you. This will undo the moorings in your mind. Nothing will ever feel safe, ever again.”
She crosses her arms, waiting for me to begin.
And so I told her about the little creatures that I see. I told her how, at those times where night and day are flirting, how the shadows started to walk around. I told her of my time in the place between dogs and wolves.
I explained how this all has something to do with me having been dead for 67 minutes. How I started seeing the spooks more and more. And what happens to certain people, those of lukewarm faith. People like Jesse and I.
As I tell her my story she is completely still, betraying no emotion or position about what I’m telling her. But slowly, as I recount the times I’ve seen the gatherers, and what happens as your soul is extricated, she starts to shiver a bit. At first it’s just a shake here or there. Then they start coming in twos and threes. Before long she is shivering like she just got out of the North Sea.
“And you saw these things around Jesse?”
“And you thought that maybe, if I turned her on to religion, that maybe she would be saved from going to that dead place?”
I nod, Yes.
“And you knew that I’d think you were insane if you explained this too me.”
Uh, yeah. Although, you may still end up thinking I’m insane. In fact, I may end up being insane. The jury’s still out.
She’s looking at me, still shivering, trying to figure out who’s crazier, me, or her for listening to me. I don’t have a good answer for that.
I might have glossed-over the part about me being able to crossover to Deadside by hypnotic drowning. I’ve left out that I may, technically, be not exactly human anymore. I may have left out those minor details. Perhaps I skipped past the part about how I was conned into letting 23 evil beings escape the confines of the Land of Sorrows to haunt the earth by a girl who I allegedly killed.
I may have left out those minor details. But you can’t just lay it all out on somebody the first time around. She’d head for the hills. With supernatural, ethereal stuff like this, you have to spoon feed it. Baby steps.
Before she speaks I say, “Look, I know that this flies in the face of everything you’re learning in college, or that you ever learned before. But it is the way things are.”
“So, Jesse,” Angela says, swallowing deeply, “ . . . she’s . . . she’s . . . ”
In the Land of Sorrows.
“And she’ll never go to Heaven?”
I shrug. I don’t know what decisions will be made on their part. I’m just the agent.