…Huh? Where am I?
That was the very first thought that ran through Gerald’s mind as he slowly opened his left eye. His vision was blurred, but he could tell his body was slouched forward, and he deduced from the numbness on the right side of his face that his head was resting on a hard surface. He must have been sitting on some sort of padded stool, a stool that felt foreign but at the same time strangely familiar. He lifted his head and felt an odd sensation from behind his right eye as his eyelids parted. He couldn’t explain the feeling – it wasn’t pain exactly, but… something else.
Boy, I must have really clocked myself when my head dropped, he thought to himself as he shook off his grogginess. Blinking his eyes a few times, the wispy stars before them faded and his environment slowly came into focus. He could make out a dark wooden surface before him. His neck was very stiff, so he slowly turned it to look straight down, then rolled his head around in a full circle, to the right, then up, then left, and finally back down, before finally fixing his gaze at the surface upon which his head had been resting.
The dark oak bar top and golden brass trim brought immediate recollection to his consciousness. “This almost looks like O’Brien’s,” he said to himself out loud. He turned to his left and caught the decal in the window, and surely enough, he found himself seated inside his favorite watering hole. He cast his gaze around the room and found it exactly the way he remembered: the booths along the back wall, the jukebox in the corner, the hallway to the restrooms in the back. He was seated in the third of eight leather-bound cushioned bar stools that lined the front side of the bar. Immediately before him was a set of four beer taps, offering up O’Brien’s four most popular ales.
He cast his gaze beyond the bar to the mirrored wall immediately behind it. He caught a glimpse of himself there, and fearing what kind of bruising he may be suffering from, he leaned forward and took a deeper look. Everything seemed to be as he recalled: his hair was light brown but peppered with a bit of gray. The whiskery white stubble littering his chin and cheeks told him it had been a few days since his last shave. There was no sign of bruising or redness around the orbital sockets, so he just saw the light brown reflection of his irises. His nose appeared to be in-tact, smooth down the bridge but culminating in the little knob he affectionately called his “ski jump”. His face was long and his cheeks a bit full, but otherwise he looked just fine.
He lifted his hands from the bar top and looked at them carefully. For a reason he couldn’t explain, he felt a tingling numbness in his fingers and toes. He wiggled them slowly, hoping to get the blood flowing back into them to wake them up.
His eyes trailed along the sleeve covering his left arm until it reached his torso, and that is when he noticed his attire. He was wearing his favorite green bowling polo. Over top of that was his leather bomber jacket, one of his prized possessions for years. It was in fantastic shape; he couldn’t remember when it had looked this good. For that matter, he couldn’t remember the last time he had worn that polo, or even bowled in a league.
He started to feel ill at ease, and as he looked around, he noticed that the place was empty, completely empty. There was not even a bartender on duty, and Gerald knew that Mickey, the pub’s owner, would never have stood for that. And the more he thought about it, that wasn’t the only weird thing. Looking back out the window, he could see nothing. It was pitcher than pitch black. It wasn’t like night… there were no streetlights, nor headlights, nor anything else to be seen. There was nothing at all.
At long last, a bartender stepped through the doorway behind the far end of the bar and slid up casually behind the beer taps. He stereotypically pulled a clean dish rag from his belt line and grabbed a pint-sized glass beer mug from a hook above the counter and proceeded to wipe the mug down, eyeing his patron as he did so. “Evenin’, Mack,” he rumbled in a familiar deep, gravelly voice.
Gerald searched his memory. It seemed difficult to recall, but he reached down and found a name to go with that voice.
“Danny Toole, is that really you?” he asked at length in disbelief.
“You know it, Mack,” the bartender replied. “The usual?”
Danny Toole was one of the best bartenders, and friends, who had ever served for Mickey O’Brien. Even in his heyday, he was a big ol’ fella, towering at six foot six and made of solid muscle. His hair had been fire-engine red, and if he let it grow, it would curl up like little orphan Annie, but he always kept it close-cropped. His eyes were the softest shade of green.
Now as Gerald looked at him, he saw more grey than red in that head of hair, and a large and growing bald cap at the back of his crown. Other than that, he didn’t really look much different.
“Sure,” Gerald replied to the drink. He sat in wonder for a few minutes. Why did I have such a hard time remembering him? How long has it been since I’ve seen him?
As he slid a tall glass of a dark brown liquid in front of Gerald, Danny leaned closer. “What seems to have you down today, Mack?”
Mack, Mack, Mack… Gerald thought. Oh yeah. Short for MacKenzie. My last name. It had been a long time since anyone had called him that. Or had it?
A ringing bell from the door announced the entrance of another visitor. Gerald turned and watched a gentleman of average height dressed all in black enter and move to the other end of the bar, three stools down to the right from where Gerald sat. The suit the man wore looked expensive. He sported a black button-down collared shirt under it, newly shined black leather shoes, and his hair was as black as night, slicked back with enough oil to grease a lawnmower. His dark sunglasses punctuated his Johnny Cash look.
Danny stepped toward the newcomer. “What’ll it be, friend?”
“Gin and tonic,” the mysterious man replied in a pitch that seemed higher than normal for a man.
As Danny set to work preparing the drink, the dark patron looked Gerald over. When he finally spoke, Gerald detected a faint lisp in his pronunciation, almost like a hiss. “Looks like it’s just you and me tonight, my friend.”
Gerald harrumphed as he took a sip of his drink. He had hoped it would be refreshing, but it came off nearly tasteless.
The scowl on Gerald’s face was clearly picked up by the visitor. “So, what’s your story, buddy? I think we’ve all got our stories to tell.”
Gerald slid the glass away from him. “I’m not sure I do.”
The man in black laughed. “Ah, nonsense, sure you do, boy. You look to be doin’ a lot o’ thinkin’. Anyone doin’ that much thinkin’, gotta have a story to tell. Let’s start with your day today. What’s this day been like?”
That was when it hit Gerald… he couldn’t remember his morning, his afternoon. He didn’t know how he got to this bar. He didn’t remember getting dressed, he didn’t remember waking up, eating breakfast. Nothing.
Danny set the gin and tonic on the bar and slid it to the newcomer, then turned back to Gerald. “You look like you’re overthinking this, Mack. Don’t let this putz get to you. Start with this, where did you get this shirt?”
Gerald thought back and felt himself relax. “Oh yeah, the bowling league back in Springdale. Every Saturday we used to go down to the Metro AMF Bowl on Second Avenue. Chip, Lou, David. Those were some good guys.” He smiled and laughed as the memories came back. “I remember that one time I nearly bowled a perfect game, and Lou kept saying there was no way I’d keep knocking down strikes. Kept betting me, ‘double or nothing’! Man, I nearly had him, if it wasn’t for that stinkin’ last ten pin. God those were good times.”
But as he thought about it more, he realized it had probably been ten years or more since he’d last seen those guys. And come to think of it, he didn’t remember the last time he’d had this shirt on, or if it even would still fit if he tried to wear it. And didn’t he hear that the building had burnt down years ago?
He looked up at Danny, who was nodding encouragingly as if in approval. “I bet they were. That’s some of your story. Now how about that leather jacket? That thing looks pretty swanky. I bet there’s a story to that.”
Once again Gerald dug deep into his memory, this time closing his eyes. “That was my Lily, god how wonderful she was.” He opened his eyes again and continued his tale. “We were visiting the beach, walking the boardwalk in late October. You could always get such a deal then! But it was pretty chilly. The ocean had such a wonderful hue, and the waters were calm, sloshing musically onto the sand. We walked past this vendor selling jackets, and she playfully asked me to try a few on. And I did, and we had such a great time. And then she told me how great I looked in this one. It was a lot of money… but she insisted I couldn’t go home without it.”
He smiled as he pictured her face against that sunset, her beautiful brown hair flowing in the breeze, her hazel eyes that lit up when she smiled. He recalled that day like it was yesterday. It was the trip they took for their third wedding anniversary. It was also the night their first daughter was conceived.
The man in black pulled off his sunglasses then to reveal pale white irises, eyed that penetrated deep into Gerald’s soul. His face was somber and sincere as he prodded, “How long is it that she’s been gone?”
Gerald struggled to remember. Eight years? Nine? Wait, what year was it anyway?
“You boys need to leave that poor man alone,” slurred a seductive female voice from Gerald’s left. He turned to see a tall blonde woman seated on the last stool at the bar. She was clothed in a long white sleeveless silken dress with a deep V-neck and an open back. Her silky-smooth hair flowed down past her shoulders. She had penetrating deep blue eyes and smooth, pale skin, and the most delicate petite hands with freshly manicured fingernails. Gerald had not even heard her enter the room.
The man in black laughed. “It’s all right, Vicky, he’s doing just fine. That right buddy?”
Danny seemed to produce a martini glass from out of nowhere and slid it softly down the bar. Vicky scooped it up smoothly, raised the glass in a toast, and took a sip.
She set her glass down gently as she addressed the other end of the bar. “If it’s all right with you, Damien, I think I will judge that for myself.”
Gerald took a quick glance from Vicky to Damien before looking back at Danny. All three of them were focused on him and it gave him an eerie chill. But right before his eyes Danny seemed to age, and now his hair, which was peppered with red before, was fully consumed by grey, and a few wrinkles had appeared across his forehead.
Recollection began to overcome him, and then he remembered something important. Danny has been gone for a long time…ten years or more! What is going on here?
As Gerald opened his mouth to speak, Danny simply nodded, then turned away and walked back into the back room through the doorway behind the bar.
He blinked a few times before he could move. He glanced at Damien, then over to Vicky. Who did he trust more?
“What is going on here?” he asked Vicky at length.
“All in good time,” she replied, turning on her stool to face him.
“You haven’t finished your story yet,” said Damien over Gerald’s right ear, now seated on the stool right beside him.
“What more is there to say?” he asked, turning to face his inquisitor.
Damien smiled in a such a way that his eyes practically sparked. “Let’s get back to this day. What do you recall now?”
“I told you,” he replied frustratingly, “nothing!”
“Ahh-ahh,” Vicky cooed, moving to the stool on Gerald’s left, touching his hand. “You need not be frustrated. You’re doing fine.”
Gerald was confused, but he was starting to feel like he was supposed to be confused. He took in a deep breath, closed his eyes and let it out. Then he let his mind wander to his memories.
“I’m… I’m in a small room. With windows. Yes, a wall full of windows. I’m lying down, but… I can’t see well. I have some kind of covering over my face. I… I hear something. A machine, beeping. I can barely focus my eyes…”
“That’s good, good,” Damien comforted, putting his hand on Gerald’s shoulder. “That will be foggy, let’s go back a little further. What’s the last you fully remember?”
Gerald nodded, and prodded his mind further. When was it… oh, yes, it was late October, he thought? And he had come down with a cough, a wicked cough. And he couldn’t catch his breath. He needed to see a doctor. No, let’s go further back. Ah, Labor Day, end of the summer. Yes, his grandkids were going back to school. And oh yes, they had a barbeque, to celebrate the holiday. Oh, how wonderful that had been! He hadn’t seen his family in so long. Why had it been so long…?
And then it hit him like a hammer, the memories returned. It had been so hard for well over a year. Earthquakes! Volcanic eruptions! Floods! Tornadoes! Hurricanes! Mudslides! Protests! Riots! Fires! And the worst of it all, a worldwide pandemic – a virus that swept the planet and forced everyone to stay home, away from their loved ones, for a very long time. Everywhere on Earth, people were at their breaking point, and it boiled over into death and destruction! The world seemed to be coming to an end. And when a vaccine was finally released to protect mankind, the same vaccine Gerald himself had received, people went back to their daily lives, only to have the disease spread again like wildfire.
His eyes shot open and he looked back and forth between Vicky and Damien. “What is this? Who are you? Am I…?”
“Yes,” Vicky replied coolly.
Gerald’s eyes grew as wide as saucers. He fumbled for the words to say in reply. “Was this… are we… did you send those catastrophes to Earth to kill us all? Is this the end of days?”
“Oh, no, of course not,” Damien replied with a smile. “Most will always survive. That is sort of the point of it all. Of course, the human body is frail. There will always be some who must die. But the percentages are always small.”
Vickey nodded in agreement. “And the human mind is an amazing thing. It keeps developing ways to compensate for our… gifts.”
Gerald could not believe what he was hearing. “How could you do something like this? It instills so much fear in the world!”
“That is what tells us we have done our job,” Vicky confirmed.
“That is also why we are here now,” Damien added. “To help you prepare.”
Gerald’s heart was racing. How terrible those last few months had been! And while he wasn’t sure exactly how long he spent in the hospital before the end, he was certain it was at least a month. But if he was dead, it was all over. They were here to help him prepare. His anguish was a thing of the past. He was free from the insanity of the world he was leaving behind. He could let go of his fear. He was ready to go and visit his Lily and spend eternity with her. He took in a deep breath as his pulse slowed and his muscles slackened.
As he let the breath out, he sighed, “I will finally get to see my Lily again.”
A sly smile crossed Damien’s lips. “Not exactly.”
Gerald furrowed his eyebrows. “I’m not going to heaven, to be with my wife? Have I done something wrong?”
“Of course not,” Vicky soothed. “It is nothing anyone has done.” She lifted her left hand from behind her legs and produced a clipboard as if by magic.
As she perused the information on it, Gerald addressed Damien. “Well, if you’re not preparing me for heaven, then… what are you preparing me for?”
Damien’s sly grin turned a little more sinister. “We’re preparing you to go back.”
Vicky looked up from the clipboard. “This one has had quite a nice life. Maybe too nice. I recommend something third world. Or perhaps rural Asia.”
Gerald’s jaw dropped and he found himself unable to utter a syllable.
“I’ll see what’s available,” Damien replied, “but honestly, will it matter? The whole place is going to keep getting worse. A rural life may be too easy.”
Finally, Gerald mustered up the ability to speak once again. “There is no heaven? What have we been working all of our lives to accomplish, if not to make it to heaven?”
Vicky answered coldly, “Oh, all of the worthy souls were collected a long time ago. I’m afraid all those that are left are, well… less than worthy.”
“If I have to go back, then why the hell did you force me to remember everything here?”
Damien slid his sunglasses back over his eyes as he replied, “Because, my man. That is what makes it purgatory.”
With that, Vicky reached out one of her petite manicured fingers and touched Gerald square in the middle of his forehead. As his head went back, the lights went out and everything faded to black.
Did you enjoy my story? Please let me know what you think by leaving a review! Thanks, Sean BaileyWrite a Review