Ms. Josephine’s, Earth Plane.
Tuesday afternoon . . .
The first thing we did was to clear out a large area in the middle of Ms. Josephine’s shop. We took the round wooden table and moved it to the side of the room. On it, she placed several strange looking clay figurines that looked like they came straight off the set of the Blair Witch Project. There were also a bunch of creepy little symbols pressed into pieces of leather—at least, I hope they were made of leather.
The whole time we’re moving things around Ms. Josephine is telling me what to do, instructing me on crossing over.
Ricky and I are moving chairs to the sides, and to the back area of the shop, and she’s saying, “De ting to remember is dat, no matter ’ow tings look dere, strange, unreal, or frightening . . . dey are as real as dis place.”
She brought in a black pot that looked just big enough to cook a human head in. Ricky and I exchanged nervous glances, and then went back to work.
“. . . Dat world is stacked right on top of ours. Dey’s only separated by just a fraction. But you, you’re goin’ be in both places . . .”
We could smell other things burning, now. Strange odors that weren’t comforting jasmine, soothing vanilla, radiant cinnamon, or vibrant berry. No, these were more like haunting flesh, and creepy insect. And, of course, out of the back room she comes with a plastic jar full of spiders.
“What are those for?” Ricky asked.
Ms. Josephine smiled briefly, “Da tarantula has a unique life force. I like to try and borrow some of it.”
I asked her if the borrowing happened when the spider was alive or dead.
“. . . Life is a constant cycle,” she answered.
Ricky and I were instructed to bring a large chair out of the back. It was under a sheet, and it looked as if it hadn’t been moved in thirty or forty years. But as we removed the sheet we noticed that it was an old barber’s chair. Chrome metal and red vinyl. Like the ones you see in those 1950′s era mob films. The only reason I know this is because there was an old movie marathon playing on TNT a few nights ago.
Ricky called the chair, wicked sweet! I just thought it looked like the place where some guy with an Italian sounding name gets his throat slit as he lies back for a ‘little off the top’. I asked Ms. Josephine about the chair.
“It’s got a history, dat chair . . .”
And I realize that, not only do I not need any further explanation, I don’t want one.
She smiled as we dragged the heavy thing to the center of the room, where the wooden table had been. All the while, she’s over at the small table mixing things together. I expect fog to roll in any minute. I expect lighting and rain, thunder and haunting music. But no, just the quiet mixing as she talks.
“. . . If you get yourself into trouble, we’ll be ’ere. I’ll be listening to you, your lifeline so-to-speak. And when you need to come back, you just give me da word.”
“How long,” I asked her, “does it take from the time I yell ‘uncle’ until I’m safely back on this side?”
Ms. Josephine, her lips rescinded a bit as she considered my question, her eyes widening, “Oh, it varies.”
“. . . dis ain’t no exact science, child.” Then she shrugs, “. . . but we’ll get you back ’ere as quick as possible. Not to worry.”
“How many times have you done this kind of thing?” Ricky asked as he played with the barber chair. It was making disgusting toilet noises as he worked the chair upwards using the hydraulic pump.
“. . . you mean ’aving one of us cross over to da other side?” she clarified as she opened up the jar with the big furry spider and dumped it into the pot of unfathomable curiosities.
“Yeah,” I said.
“. . . oh,” she laughed to herself. “It’s been a while.”
“A while, 6-months? A while, 6-years?”
She giggled, “Da last ’uman to cross over tried it in da early seventeen-’undreds.”
Yeah, that certainly is funny. Good times. Lots of laughs. Maybe we’ll make this thing into a sit-com. That’d be nice.
“How old are you?” Ricky said, probably a bit less polite than you’re supposed to be when asking that kind of question. He may make a great doctor one day, but his bedside manner needs some work.
She didn’t answer. She just continues mixing. “. . . Jack, why don’t you sit down in dat chair and start to relax. Imagine dat you are about to take a test, or watch a television program. Somethin’ calmin’.”
I sit in the chair, not caring to argue that neither tests nor television are things that relax me. At the hospital, the word test is synonymous with prickly, cold pain and confusion. And with television—especially late night, when I watch—it’s basically the same. Only with more pain.
I lay my arm on the vinyl armrests and lean my head back. “Just a little above the ears, please, but I don’t want that new haircut look,” I say to Ricky.
Then Ms. Josephine takes a large soup ladle and scoops out a fairly big portion of the voodoo soup she had been concocting. She pours it into a small bowl, and makes her way over to me.
“Off with da shirt,” she says. “. . . Don’t be modest.”
I laugh. I’ve had doctors looking at every part of me for nearly five-months straight. And I mean every. They’ve seen places on my body I’ll never, ever see. I took my shirt off and tossed it to Ricky.
All of the sudden, something seems to spark in his mind. It must be something clever because he has that genius-gloss over his eyes. “Hold on a minute, I need to get something from my truck.”
And then he’s gone.
Ms. Josephine looks at me, figuring something out in her head. And while she’s doing mental math, or thinking of the President’s inaugural speech, I’m looking around the room at all of the strange markings that adorn the walls. These things, the faces, and abstract symbols, I know they all mean something.
“. . . Protective talisman, dey are,” she said sweetly. Dey keep you safe and invisible while you are ’ere. Dat’s what I’m going to do for you . . . to protect you over dere.”
And right then I realize that Ms. Josephine is probably the closest thing I have to a mother. The way she talks to me, the way she looks at me, it’s like I’m her son. Ricky, too. This is our dysfunctional, dimension-transcending, death-chasing family. We’re like any other family, I guess. We just celebrate our holidays a bit differently.
“I expected you to bite the head off of a live chicken,” I joke to her.
She laughs, putting her left hand on top of my right. “I did dat in da other room, child. Didn’t tink you’d want to see dat.”
I ask her what’s in the bowl.
“Dese characters, da glyphs on da walls, dey’s all marks, like prayers. Tink of dem as protective prayers, always repeatin’ demselves while we are ‘ere. It lets us look out, wit’out dem lookin’ in. What I’m goin do is paint your body with some of dese talisman . . . to keep you safe while you’re dere. On Deadside.”
“Alright,” I say “. . . but what’s in the bowl?”
“. . . un peux de tout les chose . . . ”
Great—if I spoke whatever language that is.
She laughed, “. . . I said, ′a little of everything,′ in French.”
Ricky makes his way back to us with a small doctor’s bag. “I made sure the door was dead bolted,” he said to Ms. Josephine. Then he looked at me as he unzipped the bag.
What’s that for? I asked.
“I want to take your vitals,” he explained, “just in case anything medically threatening happens.”
“Well,” I say, “I am going to be walking among the dead. Do they cover that at med-school?”
“I saw the movie Flatliners, dude. We should be just fine.”
“I haven’t seen that movie,” I tell him. “And even if I had, I don’t think that would comfort me.”
“Well, do you read medical journals?”
“When I’m done watching paint dry,” I tell him. “When there are no more strands of carpet to count.” And then I see him pull out a small bottle of clear liquid with an orange and white label. It reads: IK-1009.
He doesn’t answer as he pulls out a syringe.
“Seriously, Ricky . . . what’s that?”
And then he has this mischievous smile that quickly fades. He sucks up almost an entire syringe full of the strange liquid. He takes a breath while he carefully thumps the side of the syringe until all of the little bubbles are purged. “This is an experimental drug.”
“Oh, no . . . I don’t know about experimental—”
“You’re about to die, Jack. We need some insurance. This stuff is cutting edge. We’re talking high-speed.”
“I don’t follow,” I tell him.
Ricky’s eyes start searching for veins he can puncture with this needle. “A very intelligent scientist by the name of Mark Roth started a biotech company called IKARIA. They got DARPA funding and everything. This guy thinks outside the box. Like . . . way out.
“Well, he reads about these caves where there’s so much hydrogen sulfide that if you took one breath . . . you’re dead. It smells like rotten eggs and it’s more toxic than carbon monoxide. But it does something quite extraordinary.”
“What’s so wonderful about this magical poison?” I ask.
“It convinces our cells to quit using oxygen. Think of it like suspended animation.”
“No, no,” he says, “seriously. It’s kind of the same as those people who fall into the icy lakes and get revived several hours later. Our bodies actually make hydrogen sulfide. Early life on earth ate rocks, which were mostly sulfur, in order to survive. This is programmed into our DNA.”
“So what will it do?”
“It will keep you from using oxygen so that we can bring you back when you get back from wherever it is you’re going. But don’t worry, I’m only going to hit you with it if it looks like you’re crashing. Cause, well . . . it might, technically, kill you. But since you’ll be dead, anyway, it shouldn’t be much more than a speed-bump in the road.”
“I don’t feel comfortable with a drug that will kill me, Ricky,” I tell him, starting to feel a little light headed.
“They’re testing this stuff on battlefields, already. In the future, every paramedic and emergency doctor will have it in their shirt pocket. This is the way people will approach immortality.”
“Just make sure I’m really dead before you stab me with that thing.”
“Really dead,” Ricky repeats as he nods. “Got it.”
Ricky places the syringe on a small table nearby and grabs an electronic thermometer. He then places a plastic tip in my ear. I have gotten those things in my mouth, in my ear, under my arm . . . and, um, farther down below. The ear one is, thus far, the easiest to stomach.
He waits for a moment, and then we hear a beep sound. He pulls out the probe and makes some notes on a small notepad. He then glances at his watch.
“Body temperature is an important factor in assessing health. Your body temperature is regulated by a thermostatic control center in the hypothalamus. But you, your hypothalamus is messed-up from your injury. Normally, you should keep a temperature of ninety-eight-point-six degrees Fahrenheit, or thirty-seven degrees Celsius.
“A tenth here, or there is nothing to worry about,” he said as he felt my wrist and started counting my pulse, “. . . but any more than that, in either direction could spell trouble. A rise will make you sweat. A drop will make you shiver. I doubt that the last guy who tried this—”
“In the seventeen-hundreds,” I interject.
“. . . Yeah. I doubt they checked vitals and stuff like that. And since we’re basically breaking new ground with all of this, I’m going to monitor your body while she keeps the monsters from tearing you to pieces.”
“That’s comforting, Ricky. Thank you.”
He shrugs. Makes a few more scribbles on his pad. His final touches are some sticky pads that lead to his Lifepack-10—a cardio defibrillator and monitor that he’s got in his bag. He sticks one patch on my upper right chest, and one on my left side, just below my ribs.
“Zap, zap,” Ricky says to himself. In case I die, he’ll use these to administer enough electricity to stop my heart so that it can start again. Well, if it starts again. And with a few last adjustments on the patches he seems satisfied, and backs away. “Alright, Ms. Josephine . . . he’s all yours.”
She nods and then places her fingers into the bowl of stuff I don’t want an answer for. Slowly shaking her hands, she lets thick blackish-colored muck drip off into the bowl—she probably had too many hairy spider appendages stuck to her fingers.
Then she says, “. . . now close your eyes, child. I need to give you ya coat of armor.”
Then what? I ask.
“Den . . . you die.”