Ms. Josephine’s shop, Earth Plane.
Time to die . . .
“You’re ready,” Ms. Josephine says as she steps back. She’s been painting on me for 15 minutes. I feel warm creature guts and who knows what else making little warm spots on my body.
“You look cool, Jack,” Ricky says as he studies me like a piece of art. He nods, “That would be a badass tattoo!”
“. . . and safe, too,” Ms. Josephine added as she walked around behind me.
It’s a good thing that this chair is vinyl, I said. Because, if not, I would be leaving bug gut stains all over it.
“All dat’s just life in different forms,” Ms. Josephine said. “Dem creatures, dey would be ’appy to be a part of all dis. Dey do deir part, just like we do.”
“Okay,” I say as I lay back, “I’m ready.”
Ricky nods to me, turning to Ms. Josephine. Everybody was ready for me to die. This is my team. My squished bug, blood-painting ethereal family. He glances at his watch again, “The time is eleven-fifty-one.”
And I see him eyeing that syringe of IK-1009 again. The death drug. The thing that will kill me so that he can bring me back. “Not until I’m dead, Ricky.”
“I know,” he says with a grin. “Now shut up and die.”
11:51 am . . .
Ms. Josephine approaches me, her face becoming much more serious. “I want you to look at my eyes now, Jack. And you just listen to my voice.”
She takes each of my arms, by the wrist, and places them on the armrests of the barber chair. “Dere, now. Close your eyes . . . and just tink of mine. Nothin’ else in dis world matters now but da color of my eyes. You focus on dat. Just dem eyes.”
And so that’s what I did. Nothing else. It’s actually quite difficult to think of nothing. But, lucky for me her eyes were so unique, and similar to the dead girl’s eyes, that I had plenty to take my mind off of what I know is about to be the most horrible experience of my life.
This is like knowing you are about to get eaten by a pile of giant ants, nice and slow, bit by bit. Like treading water in a pool of hungry sharks. Like being the next in line to get clubbed in the head by a pissed-off caveman.
But all I think about are their eyes. Ms. Josephine’s, and Kristen’s. The only two women in my life—and one of them is dead, the other speaks to the dead. Oh the stories I’ll be able to tell.
“. . . just listen to my voice, child. We’re establishing a lifeline, right now. You and me, we’ll be connected when you cross. And don’t be afraid to talk to me. I won’t be able to see you, but I’ll surely be able to communicate wit you.”
I wanted to ask her just how sure she actually was. I mean, I don’t think she was the same person performing this gig 300 years ago. And if she was, I’m not sure how much of it she remembers. Three centuries is a lot of time for forgetting! I’ve forgotten things from three weeks ago.
“. . . Keep your mind on my eyes,” she warned. “And don’t worry, I ain’t forgot nothin’.”
By now I should expect that. And I’ve got a theory about it. I think that, because she is somehow connected to the other side—Deadside, or the Land of Sorrows, or whatever it’s called—she can use that to connect with my mind. Thus, she can hear what I’m thinking sometimes.
“. . . Most times, child. Most times.”
See, there it is again. We’d make a good gambling couple, her and I. If this whole walking on the Deadside thing falls apart, we’ll always have Vegas.
“. . . okay, child. Slowly, I want you to open your eyes.”
As I did I noticed that there were considerably more candles flickering. Lots of them—maybe hundreds.
And Ms. Josephine looks different. Her eyes, they look brighter, and almost . . . hollow. She looks blind, like someone who has been born without sight looks. And I don’t move a muscle.
“. . . now listen,” she says, and her voice is clear and cautious, “. . . I’m goin’ to be countin’ down some numbers. You will be walkin’, wit each number, down into a dark pool of water. Imagine yourself surrounded by trees, but it’s so dark dat you can’t tell what kind of trees. Da only smell you know is pine smell.”
Like the car deodorizer Ricky has hanging from his rearview mirror.
“’Ush!” she scolded me. “Just da smell of pine and dem trees is all dat’s around you. And you’re totally safe. Nobody can touch you ’ere. So now, all you got to do is walk down into dat calm pool of dark water.”
“. . . Black as da bottom of da ocean,” she says, her words becoming longer and stretched. Her pauses pregnant and elongated.
“. . . Black as da space between da stars.”
And I start to feel the hum coming.
“. . . and you goin’ step down towards da water wit each step . . . tirteen . . . twelve . . .”
The hum is growing, pressing me from every direction.
“. . . eleven . . . ten . . . your feet enter da water . . .”
The hum is becoming a roar, now. And I can feel pressure on my face, my ears feel like I’m descending under water. My arms are so heavy I couldn’t lift them if I had to.
“. . . wit each step, da warm water raises ’igher . . . nine . . . da water is to your knees . . . eight . . . you feel it on your waist . . .”
And I’m actually feeling the water. It’s warm on my skin. And it lifts as her words seem to shift in pitch and tone, lowering. She’s Ms. Josephine, but through some spiritual synthesizer. I think this is how I felt when I was coming back from my neurosurgery.
The world falling away.
Reality becoming the only true fiction.
“. . . da warm water, it’s up to your stomach as you lower yourself into da pool . . . seven . . . it’s at your chest . . .”
6 . . .
My neck is just inches from the surface. I trust her, I believe in this . . . but I’m scared. The water, even though it’s warm and comfortable, I know it’s going to drown me at some point. My transition is going to be through my worst fear.
My nightmare is my portal.
5 . . .
“You’re goin’ be fine, child . . . keep moving down into da water . . .”
4 . . .
The water is touching my lips, and it’s all I can do to breathe. And now I’m sinking, and I don’t think I have the power to turn back. Something is dragging me deeper. It’s like gravity is in control now, and I can’t fight back. I have no choice.
This quicksand of my worst phobia.
My escape from life, through an imagined death.
I’m being killed to be alive . . . among the dead.
3 . . .
“. . . don’t ‘old your breath, child. Dere’s nothin’ to fear . . .”
And though her words are soothing, I am totally and completely terrified. Scared stiff, peeling-my-fucking-skin-off panicked!
I see nothing but murky blackness in front of me. My lips are closed, not letting the water in, and I feel my body getting warm. My chest and lungs are burning, and I need air. Need air.
And distorted, calming words aren’t going to help me.
2 . . .
“. . . breathe in da water, child . . . don’t fight dis . . . dis is exactly the way it’s supposed to be . . .”
I feel this dizziness, as my lungs fight for a breath. I know that the second I part my lips, that’s when the real nightmare begins. My mouth opens, I’m dead . . . end of story.
“. . . Quit strugglin’ wit dis . . .”
My air is gone. The fire in my chest has grown epic. I don’t have a choice, now. I can’t fight it. I’m shaking and quivering, and in so much pain that I can’t feel the roar anymore. I lose. That’s it. I can’t win.
And so I take a breath, and in doing so, the warm water rushes into my mouth, traveling down my throat and into my lungs. I’m drowning now, and the burning has now been replaced with an intense stabbing pain. Like sharp sticks being thrust into my chest and lungs.
Stabbing, stabbing, stabbing!
I try to scream, but nothing comes out of my mouth. This losing battle with life and death, it’s in vain. Now comes the truly ghastly part of this . . . while the pain starts to collect each and every cell in my body—like a cancer—all I can do is wait.
I’m watching me die. Full horrifying, tormenting suffering.
This isn’t Death Lite, this is the original, with all the original flavors.
And there’s no point fighting at all. The pain can’t get any worse than this.
So I give up.
1 . . .
“. . . Look for da light in da darkness . . .” Ms. Josephine’s voice says. It’s her again. That soft, sweet voice made of honey and flowers. Her comforting words. I trust her. I have to. Because I’m not dead—or I am—but peacefully.
The warm water that was killing me slowly, calculating my worst fears and expanding them to the depths of my madness, that water is like a warm blanket now.
“. . . Find da light, child . . . and swim to it . . .”
I don’t see any light. It’s all dark, and I’m alone. Just her words, that’s all I’ve got.
“. . . Find da light!” she said sternly, “. . . you can do dis, you’re da one. Find it, now!”
Man up, or back down. Damn this! I’m stronger than this. I have to be.
I start turning around, in every direction. I start swimming, around and around. And then the thought hits me, I don’t need the air, anymore. I’m like the sharks. I’m not a victim. And so I begin to change my mindset from that of a helpless human, to something that more resembles a predatory animal.
Side to side I swim, my body gliding along in this darkness, and I am no longer afraid. I have beaten my fear. And the moment that this thought coalesces in my mind, I see a tiny ray of light, filtered from somewhere to my right. I swim towards the specks of light, and they grow brighter and brighter.
They change from little bits of light, to a thin line. And that line becomes brighter and brighter until I can almost reach it.
When I get to the line of light, I notice that it seems like a surface to something. A rip in a large piece of black fabric, maybe. A tear in the dark backdrop of my reality.
“I found it . . .” I say to Ms. Josephine. I hope she can hear me.
“. . . good, child,” she says, and I can hear the relief in her words. “. . . now reach through dat tear and into da light . . .”