Chapter One: Madame Zenayda and the Telepathic Teen
What I like about Clive
Is that he is no longer alive.
There is a great deal to be said
For being dead.
—Edmund Clerihew Bentley
A figure looms in my blurred vision. It’s what the sci-fi people would call “humanoid,” that is, people-shaped but not a human person. Large, with a dignified bearing, but I can’t see details. Am I going blind?
“Where am I?” I ask, aware even as I say it how trite it is.
“This is The Periphery.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Of course you don’t. If you did, you wouldn’t be here. This is your proving ground. Your obliviousness brought you here. Understanding will free you.”
The figure fades from view and I realize I’ve been hearing the rhythm of ringing cash registers and beeping fryers in the background all along. My vision clears, although things still seem oddly distant. An air of unreality hangs over the familiar fast-food restaurant where I eat lunch almost every work day.
What am I doing here? A moment ago I was working, giving a fake good-news medium communication to a young woman who wondered if her late grandmother had gone to heaven in spite of her abrasive personality. Now I’m in Tommy’s Topnotch Eatery, not my office in central Orlando. Why can’t I remember walking over here? And what did that—that entity or person or whatever mean by obliviousness. Oblivious to what? Oh. That’s what he said: If I knew, I wouldn’t be here.
A movement out of the corner of my eye, wispy and unsubstantial but human in form. I turn to look directly at it. His mouth moves in a gap-toothed grin. “Yer new here, ain’t you, honey?”
What? “New where? I come to Tommy’s all the time. Why do you look semi-transparent?”
“Like you don’t. Check it out: we’re neither one of us all there.” He laughs, a rasping wheeze of a chuckle.
I look down. Sure enough, I can see my blue work caftan through my pale white arms. Eerie.
“These other people look solid enough.” I gesture at the patrons scattered among the restaurant’s garish orange laminate tables.
“Some more’n others.” He laughs again, pointing with his chin to a beefy family hunched over their burgers like stocky trolls. The relentless overhead fluorescents make their faces look unhealthy, but they are clearly alive.
“Seriously, what’s going on here?”
“And you call yerself a medium. Don’t you know dead people when you see ’em? Or were you faking it all these years?”
Dead people. He means me. And him. Both dead. I freeze, stunned. I never expected to be dead today. Someday, sure. Not today! My kids! My grandkids! I want my life back. I wait, childishly hoping the universe will agree to my demand to return to life. Nothing happens.
This is nothing like any concept of the afterlife I ever heard of. Where are the harps and angels? Or the flames and pitchforks? I feel I’ve been misled all these years. “Heaven” is a cheap restaurant in a crowded earthly city? No, this won’t do at all.
If I’m going to be a ghost and haunt a place, it ought to be a gloomy old house or an ancient cemetery. That’s just a romantic stereotype though. Spirits sometimes hang around where they died, and how many people really die in haunted mansions anymore? It’s quite out of fashion. I certainly couldn’t tell you the last time I visited a mansion. Or an ancient cemetery, for that matter.
I ask the man, or ghost, “How do you know I’m a medium?”
“When I was alive, I useta walk the neighborhood all day. Seen your storefront, seen you.”
“I was at work just a moment ago. Why would I be at Tommy’s now that I’m dead?”
His choking laugh is getting annoying. Can’t he clear his throat? Maybe not. Can dead people change anything about their bodies? I try to cough. No. I guess he had a cough when alive, and I didn’t, and we’re both just as we were before the transition. I have to wear this outré caftan and turban for eternity. Damn.
“We don’t have to transition where we died at. You should know that. All depends on where your mind is at the moment you pass. I reckon you was thinking about gettin’ yer lunch, so here you are.” He laughs again, rasping and coughing. “So near and yet so far, right? All this food and we can’t eat a thing. Ironic, innit?”
The odor of grilled burgers and seasoned fries would have appealed to me when alive, but now it is just background information, like the perfume of a passing customer and the whiff of tobacco smoke coming in the door from someone smoking outside.
“How come you’re here?”
“I’d been sleepin’ rough in the woods behind here. I reckon it was pneumonia carried me off. I’d been coughing something bad. Folks told me to sleep off to the side by myself, said I was wakin’ ’em up.”
Poor guy. Sick as a dog and his friends ran him off.
“No, I mean, when you first arrived, did that big entity-guy say you had been oblivious?”
He tips his head and squints at me. “Say what now?”
“What did he say was the reason you had to be here in The Periphery?”
“You trippin’, honey. Never heard ’a this entity you talkin’ about. No priffrey, neither.”
“Then why do you think you’re in this halfway sort of place and not in heaven?”
“Gots to make up for my wrongs. I do what I can to he’p folks. Come here not knowin’ what happened, they’s confused. I can at least tell them what they died of, set they mind at rest.”
“Hunh. So what did I die of?”
He drifts closer to me and looks into my eyes. “You got blown pupils. Did you get hit in the head?”
“I can’t remember. I don’t see how I could have.”
He drifts around behind me. “’Nuthin’ wrong with yer head. Probably a stroke then. Either way, your pupils are wide open like from a head injury or stroke.”
I guess I could have stroked out. At sixty-eight years old it wouldn’t be unheard of.
“How do you know so much about it?”
“I was a combat medic in ’Nam. Saw lotsa injuries. Whatever happened, yer dead now.”
I close my eyes, hoping when I open them I’ll be solid again. Is this how I spend forever, listening to this guy hack, unable to sleep, rest, eat, or change anything physical? Geez. What was that play where two guys stood there talking the whole time and nothing actually happened?
“Waiting for Godot. I saw that on TV once. For something with no action, it was surprisingly interesting.”
I wheel about, looking for the source of this new voice that answered my silent thoughts. Crap. Someone hears me thinking. That’s awful. No privacy in my own head? Lord, what will people think of me when my inner thoughts are known? This is a disaster. I need to get out of this Periphery place, it’s terrible.
If this is bad, how much worse must Hell be. That entity, whatever it was, said I would be freed when I was no longer oblivious. I assume and hope, freed to go on to Heaven or whatever better place there is.
My obliviousness. Something I did that I didn’t know was wrong? Well, I can’t imagine any deity approving of making a living by faking mediumistic powers and psychic readings. But I had to make a living, and I did help people. And is that even what they’re talking about?
The voice that had answered my thoughts came from a willowy young man wearing a form-fitting Champagne-colored shimmering silk evening dress. What the hell?
“What the hell, indeed,” he said. “Do you suppose this is hell, or should I expect a further destination?”
I try thinking my question: Why can you hear me thinking?
“Because I’m a telepath. Talk about hell. Can you begin to imagine attending middle school and high school as a young gay man and being able to hear what the other kids are thinking about you?”
I feel a surge of painful sympathy. That would indeed be horrendous. I would have hated it myself, and I was fairly ordinary in school.
“Thanks,” he said. “You do seem to get it. I appreciate the sympathy. My uniquely unfortunate combination of differences is why I’m dead. On my seventeenth birthday I realized my life would be an endless gauntlet of pain and horror, and I put an end to it. That turned out okay. Dead people don’t care what other dead people do, and not having bodies we don’t do anything anyway.”
I look more closely at his gown. Did it shimmer like that when it was solid, or is it caused by the semi-transparent ghost effect?
“It shimmered. It has metallic threads woven into it. Lovely, isn’t it?”
It is. The Champagne color flatters your skin tone. It harmonizes with your freckles and complements your light coppery-red hair. It’s a better thing to be wearing for eternity than this outlandish pseudo-Gypsy caftan.
“Nonsense. It suits you. Nice and swirly, drifts elegantly when you move. So much better than, for instance, ragged cutoffs and a torn T-shirt. You can’t be too careful when you dress in the morning. What you’re putting on might be your forever outfit.”
Ha. Too bad nobody tells that to the living before it’s too late.
“I know, right? But people rarely expect to die that day, so they might not heed the warning.”
I notice I haven’t heard that annoying cough in a while and turn to where the spirit had been. Gone.
“He left. He comes and goes. Likes to be outside.”
He was nice, although that cough was a bit bothersome. Hey—when you first got here did some kind of being say anything to you about being in The Periphery and being oblivious?
He frowns, thinking. “Maybe. There are so many spirits around, I don’t remember who said what.”
This would have been a tall, indistinct-looking guy with a lot of gravitas. Not just a regular spirit.
“Sure.” His face lights up. “You mean the archangel.”
“He looked like the painting my Nana Edna had on her wall. She said he was the Archangel Gabriel. Some kind of Old Testament messenger or something. He didn’t say oblivious though. He said, ‘Let it go.’”
“Let what go?”
“I have no idea, so I just blew it off. No clue what to let go of.”
What do you—we—dead people—do all day?
“Anything we want, I guess. It’s not like we’ve got jobs, school, or appointments.”
How long have you been not alive? What have you been doing during that time?
“The passage of time isn’t really meaningful on this side. Like I said, no appointments or jobs, what’s to keep track of time for? I don’t really do much. Drift around listening to people. Meeting new people like you, that’s always interesting.”
Can we go other places?
“Sure. Nights, I usually check out the action at a bar or two. Days, the community college has stuff going on.”
What brings you to Tommy’s Topnotch Eatery?
“I used to come here for lunch on school days. It was a Wendy’s franchise back then. I did have a couple of friends, and lunch with them was the only part of my life that was tolerable.”
What year was it when you turned seventeen?
“What year . . . I haven’t thought in those terms in a long time.”
What was happening in the news?
“Yeah, yeah! My mom had this whole chart on the wall, keeping track of the players in the Watergate scandal. President, um, President Nixon, burglars, Deep Throat.”
Okay, I remember that. It was the early 1970s.
“So what year is it now?”
Two thousand and nineteen.
He counts on his fingers. “Damn. I’ve been dead for nearly fifty years. That feels like a long time, now that you point it out.”
Do you feel any differently now than you did when you first came to this place?
Frowning, he considers. He meets my eyes and says, “You know, I do. Hanging around the colleges and clubs, I can see that gay guys have it much better now than we did when I was alive. Not perfect, still plenty of prejudice, but it’s easier to find people who accept you. That eases my heart. I don’t feel so bitter anymore about how kids treated me back then.”
Maybe that’s what the Entity wanted you to let go of: bitterness.
He nods and tips his head side to side, considering. “Could be. I do feel lighter and calmer than I ever have.”
Tell you what, no way I’m staying in this shadowy half-world for fifty years. I’ve got to get on to whatever’s next, hopefully some kind of heaven or paradise or nirvana type place.
“It does get repetitious here. Same lame lines being tried out at the bars, same anxieties and struggles at the college. But how would you get out?”
Ever watch that TV show, Ghost Whisperer?
“No. TVs in bars and restaurants are usually tuned to the news or sports, so I haven’t paid any attention.”
Is there a way to know where someone has that show on? Can we change channels?
“I’ve never moved anything physical. I haven’t looked for anything in particular. I just take what comes along wherever I am.”
Think about it. How can we find a place that has that show on? Maybe at someone’s house?
A look of enlightenment crosses his face. “We could do a lightning tour of a neighborhood. Float along through all the living rooms until we see that show. You’ll have to let me know; I don’t know what it looks like.”
I don’t see a clock in here. What time is it?
“God, I don’t know. Who cares?”
TV shows come on at certain times. But if we hit a channel that plays marathons of syndicated shows it won’t matter. It’s worth a try.
Ghost hands linked, we skim through house after house like Peter Pan and Wendy taking off for Neverland. One family home after another, like a fast-forward on a film. Messy homes, painfully neat homes. Rooms full of kids, old women sitting alone. A kaleidoscope of modern American indoor life.
There, this one. Stop and watch. An episode of Ghost Whisperer is just starting. We hover as episode after episode reels by. Being dead is a great way to watch TV. I don’t get hungry, don’t have to shift position to ease my joints, I don’t even have to pee. There are significant advantages to being disembodied. Complete concentration, and thank God this lady has TiVo so we don’t have to suffer through the commercials. All three of us are having a great time, immersed in the stories of unresolved interpersonal problems sorted out after death.
The living woman pauses the show and picks up her cell phone. We listen as she stumbles through an apology to what seems to be her grown son. Mending fences before death—good idea. She hangs up smiling, so I suppose the son responded positively.
The teen says, “That light they show at the end of each episode—I wonder if it’s the same thing I’ve seen once in a while lately. I know the show is fiction, but they could be right.”
“You’ve seen a light?”
“Lately I have, a couple times. It’s very warm and inviting. I never knew what it was all about until now.”
A few episodes later the full-day marathon comes to an end. Our living hostess switches to the evening news, and we drift outside.
So what do you think?
I slowly rotate, scanning the now twilit neighborhood. The only lights I see are the streetlights beginning to flicker on, and lighted windows in the houses. I look at the boy. Do you see that light around here?
He also turns. I imagine I hear the swish his gown would make if it were physical.
“There! At the end of the street. See it?”
I look, and look again, but there’s nothing there.
“You don’t see it. If it’s like in that TV show, then that means it’s for me.” He takes my hand. “I like you. I hate to leave you here. How come you can’t see it?”
I still have things to do here. I have to become aware of something. I don’t know how to do that, but I’ll find out.
He shifts restlessly. “Now that I know what that light is all about, I’ve got to go see it up close. I hope you can do whatever you need to do. Maybe I’ll see you on the other side, later on.”
Before I can reply he has wafted quickly into the distance and vanished. Dang. I liked that kid.
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