There are words that we overuse so often that they lose their original meaning. Awesome. Awful. Fantastic. Perfect. Terrible. Unbelievable.
Overwhelming. In that first Transition—and there have many since, and no, I’ve never gotten used to it—I discovered what it means to be overwhelmed, suddenly and completely, in the truest sense of the word. I found myself turned upside-down/inside-out, buried/drowned, and shocked/numbed by the impossibility of it all.
The utter lack of sensation. But isn’t that a sensation in itself? Paradoxes upon paradoxes. An infinite nothingness. An instant eternity. Lost in free-fall while simultaneously locked in a breathless paralysis. There is no mechanism in Transition for measuring time; no heartbeat, no genuine physical sense whatsoever, and yet somehow that single moment began to feel like the sum total of existence.
And of course that first time I had no idea what was happening. For all I knew I was dying, or dead. I know I was beginning to despair.
And then I was somewhere else.
Any sense of relief at being released from the abyss was obliterated by a staggering shockwave of vertigo. I stumbled a few lurching steps, fell to my knees, and fought the urge to throw up. “Dizzy” is a comically inadequate word for the sensation. The world was spinning with maniacal abandon. I had a brief flashback to the fifth grade playground, the only time I ever tried the old bend-over-and-put-your-forehead-to-the-end-of-the-baseball-bat-and-spin routine. For some reason, that memory calmed me down. I choked back my nausea, pulled my head up, and looked around.
I was in a large, colorless space, a gray chamber of indefinable dimensions. I was not alone. Perhaps ten or twelve feet away, a naked man lay face down in an awkward heap. I caught some movement out of the corner of my eye and turned in time to see a woman, also naked, fall stiffly onto her back, like a cartoon character suddenly pole-axed by shock.
Then, a little beyond her, another naked man suddenly just appeared. There was no little flash of light, no slow fade-in, no twinkling fairy dust, no special effects at all. He was simply, suddenly there. His eyes rolled back into his head as he too collapsed.
Within seconds, there were three more. Two collapsed immediately. But one woman staggered a few steps, then tried to steady herself, bending over with her hands on her knees. This may have been a tactical error—she blurted out “Shit!” and keeled over sideways.
Undaunted by her failed effort, I struggled to my feet and immediately fell down again. Never mind. Sometimes you really do have to crawl before you can walk. So, fighting down diminishing waves of nausea, I crawled over to the person nearest me, the first man I’d seen. He was a young man with a full head of wavy black hair. He was deeply tanned around his neck and head and from his upper arms down, quite pale elsewhere—a “farmer’s tan.” His right arm was crumpled beneath him. I turned him partly over. He had a delicate Sal Mineo face. His eyes were glassy, but I felt for a pulse in his throat anyway. He was dead. I closed his eyes and turned away to crawl over to the next person.
As I moved across the floor, I realized that it was not really flat, but had gentle slopes and knolls like an artificial meadow. It was the same gray as everything else, and somehow both hard and soft at the same time, as if molded out of some alien rubber. I came to the pole-axed woman, still flat on her back. She was little more than a girl, pale and slender, with long blond hair so light it seemed to lack any color at all. She looked familiar; she had been in a queue with the kids and me—a couple of the girls had complimented her on her beautiful hair. I gently shook her shoulder. Her eyelids fluttered slightly and she turned onto her side with a tiny whimper. I might have been able to rouse her, but I knew she wasn’t ready. Right now, she was better off unconscious.
By now, the last woman to arrive was trying to sit up again. She managed to get to her hands and knees, said “shit” again, and threw up. “Shit, shit, shit,” she said between heaves. It seemed entirely possible that shock had reduced her vocabulary to that one word.
I sat back on my heels. The vertigo seemed under control. I took a deep breath. Thankfully, the stench of her vomit wasn’t drifting my way; my lurching stomach wouldn’t have tolerated that. In fact, there was a background smell here, but it was hard to nail down. A bit earthy, a bit metallic, not unpleasant.
I decided to try my feet again. Somehow I managed. I also finally realized the obvious: I, too, was naked. For some reason, this really pissed me off. I took a deep breath, ready to shout out at whatever forces were responsible for all this, but what could I say? “Curse you, you inhuman bastards?” If there were some macrocephalic aliens from Star Trek watching us on a floating TV somewhere, I wasn’t going to give them the satisfaction.
Instead, I exhaled sharply. I must have startled the “Shit” woman—she gasped. I turned toward her. She had crawled away from her puddle of vomit, and sat on her heels, turned slightly away. I don’t think she had realized she wasn’t alone until that moment. Now she turned and saw me. She seemed about my age, maybe a bit older, but not yet forty. She had shoulder-length amber hair, currently understandably a bit disheveled, big light-brown eyes, and probably thought of herself as ten or twenty pounds overweight.
An emotional parade passed through her eyes: shock, terror, awe, finally relief as she recognized that I was a fellow traveler. Her big eyes filled with tears. She opened her mouth, but didn’t say anything. Apparently “shit” didn’t apply.
“You okay?” I tried.
Again, the flicker in her eyes. She had been only seconds away from coming completely unhinged. It was taking all she had to pull herself together.
She sniffled and wiped away her tears. “Peachy,” she said in a rough whisper. She managed a wobbly smile.
I walked toward her slowly, giving her a chance to wave me off if that was what she wanted. But she was okay. Her eyes dropped involuntarily to my groin, then she blushed and looked away. I decided to risk a joke: “Hey, it’s a little cold in here, okay?”
She let out an odd little barking laugh, and looked back at me. Her eyes seemed a little more stable. “Thanks,” she said. “I needed that.”
I sat down next to her, careful to give her a little space. “I’m Graham.”
“Leslie,” she said quietly. She shifted a little, plainly feeling awkward. Who wouldn’t? I started to say something, but decided against any more lame jokes. Come here often? Hubba-hubba.
Finally, she broke the ice. “Sorry. I don’t have much experience making conversation with naked strangers.” She was sitting with her arms around her knees. So was I. It provided a tiny modicum of modesty.
“Me either.” I caught her eye. “Some,” I said, “but not much.” She barked her little laugh. “Actually, you’re my first,” I amended.
This didn’t even earn a chuckle. After a few seconds, she said a little timidly, “I’m sorry; I’ve already forgotten your name.” I reminded her. “Right. Graham. Like the cracker.” She took a moment, and then said, “Graham? Are we dead?”
Dead? I wasn’t expecting that. It had never crossed my mind. I shook my head. “I don’t think so. No. I mean, do dead people throw up? Besides…” (I paused, then decided that the plus to her psyche should outweigh the minus) “…at least one of these others really is dead.” I nodded toward the first poor guy I’d seen.
She took this in. “We need to check on these people,” she said, and began to stand up, but she was still a little wobbly. I stood first and offered her a hand. We turned to the nearest of the others.
There were seven of us altogether in this gray twilight zone, four women and three men. Two of the women were also dead. The one unconscious man seemed to be fading, his breath shallow and his pulse weak. There was nothing we could do for him. By now, the blond girl was semi-conscious, unable to shake her shock, lying on her side, drawing herself into a fetal curl. Her whimpering had a familiar pattern to it; I leaned close and heard her whisper, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done…” as her fingers fluttered at her throat, reflexively feeling for something, probably a crucifix or a Saint Christopher. As she curled up tighter, my inner choirboy whispered a word to Saint Jude, the last hope of lost causes.
Leslie knelt and stroked the girl’s hair. As she murmured some calming sounds, the girl’s eyes fluttered and closed. Her restless hand found her mouth and her thumb disappeared between her lips as her index finger curled around her nose. Comforted now by this primal instinct and Leslie’s soft murmurings, she rolled over and rested her head on Leslie’s knees, then seemed to fall asleep.
Leslie seemed content with this arrangement for the moment, so I decided to let them be. “I’m going to take a look around, okay?” Leslie looked up sharply. I understood. “I won’t go far. See you in a minute.” She held my eyes, then nodded and turned her attention back to the girl.
I walked a few paces away and for the first time really studied our surroundings. There was no source of light. It came from everywhere and nowhere; we cast only the barest hint of shadows, gray on gray. The gray floor somehow became gray walls without discernable transition. The walls seemed both distant and almost within reach. The more I looked, the harder it was to understand what I was looking at. It was like trying to read at the far edge of your peripheral vision.
I tried walking toward a wall. After several paces I was no closer, but its nature was subtly different: I could now see columns, or thought I could. I looked up—the columns closed in high arches, or extended so far that they merged in my vision. Directly overhead, a ceiling or sky sparkled dimly. Twinkle lights in gray plaster? Or stars shining through a silvery haze?
I had walked further along this eerie architecture than I intended—I turned to measure my distance from Leslie and her sleeping charge. Somehow they were still only a few paces away. My vertigo took a lap around my head, threatening to come back with a vengeance. I walked back over toward them. Leslie looked up and gasped in surprise, then gently pulled herself out from under the sleeping girl. She stepped carefully around her, then ran to me, threw her arms around me, and pressed her head against my chest.
She held on tight, her whole body trembling. I was beginning to remember our nakedness. Then she stepped back, her hands on my upper arms, and looked urgently up at me. Up this close, I saw that her eyes weren’t really hazel after all; one was light brown, the other green. Hard to pull away from. Her voice was a little shaky: “What did you find?”
What to say? “Nothing. More of the same.”
Her grip on my arms tightened. I don’t think she was aware of it. “You were gone so long. I was starting to think you weren’t coming back.”
I could see the flickering edge of desperation in those arresting eyes. I had thought I had covered more ground, but it had only seemed like a minute or two to me. “Was I gone long?” I asked gently. After all, to her maybe I had.
“Forever. Hours. I don’t know. I watched you walk away. I looked down at that poor little girl, and when I looked up again you were gone.” Tears ran down her face. “I’m barely hanging on here, Graham. Please don’t leave me again.”
I certainly wasn’t going try and argue that I’d only been gone a few paces away for a few brief minutes. After all, we were both at the same croquet match; one person’s mallet was the other’s flamingo. I just promised I wouldn’t leave her again. I barely knew her, but it may have been the most sincere promise I’ve ever made. I think about that every day.
She relaxed her hands, then hesitantly pulled them away. “Thank you,” she said. “Sorry to get all Scarlett O’Hara on you.”
We walked a few steps and sat down again, this time with our shoulders touching. “‘Graham,’” she said. “That’s a nice name.”
“Thanks. Grandmother’s maiden. I like it. I think my brother Gareth got the better deal, though. Right out of King Arthur’s court.”
“Yeah. That’s nice, too.”
“Leslie’s a pretty name.”
“No it isn’t. It’s just a name. I think my mother chose it out of a book. She liked it because it was good for a boy or a girl.”
“Is it? I always thought it was lazy.” She sighed. “So did my brother Robin. And my sister Casey.”
I laughed, although I wasn’t sure if she was joking or not.
“So, Graham. Where were you? When, you know…”
“At Disneyland? Really? Me too.”
“I think we all were. I’m pretty sure I remember seeing your little sleeping friend in the Pirate’s queue.”
“Huh. Who’d have thought Armageddon Ground Zero would be at Disneyland?”
I couldn’t resist. “I guess it really is a small world after all.”
She coughed out a little chuckle. She was just being polite.