AMC Theater, Deadside
7:36 pm . . .
I fall to the floor, and am hugged by the frigid cold. Not as bad as before, but bone chilling none the less. I see the familiar glow of the markings on my chest and arms, but this time they are relatively obscured by the shirt that Ms. Josephine gave me. On the living side it looked like something out of the 60s—blue with small amoebas all over it—but here, it’s a ripped-to-shreds old rag. And I like it. It’s very . . . me.
Can’t have a saint running around the Deadside half naked. The neighbors would talk.
I pick myself up, still feeling weak from my first sortie into the Land of Sorrows. Again, everything is warped and melted. Uneven and curved where it should be flat and straight. Gnarled instead of symmetrical. But I expect it, now.
There is little, as a matter of fact, that I wouldn’t expect.
Still, there is no real color, only the different hints at color through the various grey and blue tones. I look around, and the theater that was filled with plush velvet seat cushions and reclining armrests . . . it’s like something out of the apocalypse. The chairs are bent at odd directions, as if a bomb went off. The screen—where I just know some early Victorian Royalty is blinking seductively at somebody she shouldn’t be, back on the Earth plane—it’s torn to shreds as if it had been exposed to the elements for a thousand years.
And the ceiling, it doesn’t exist. Not really. There are giant, gaping holes in the ceiling and roof where the bluish dusk sky is peeking through. And, even though it couldn’t really be darker in this place of dogs and wolves, I can actually feel the green sun sinking away. As if, with every inch it drops on the horizon, it takes with it a few degrees of heat.
I turn around, just to make sure my body is still where I left it. Sure enough, there’s dying old me, just waiting to turn into an ice cube. Ricky’s gone. Ms. Josephine is just a pair of blind-woman’s eyes.
“Ms. Josephine,” I whisper, “can you hear me?”
“. . . Yes child . . . now go and find out what you must . . . I got a feelin’ . . .”
When somebody who routinely bites the heads off of live chickens and has jars of poisonous insects just hanging around, when they get a feelin’, chances are you had better pay attention.
“Half an hour, tops,” I say as I turn and make my way slowly down the steps between the rows of seats. I reach up and feel for my necklace. Thankfully it’s there, although I don’t relish the idea of opening it—even in an emergency, the prospect of eating whatever the hell is in the pouch scares the crap out of me.
As I go down the stairs I notice that, as before, there is a forced emptiness about this place. I can feel the presence of something, being watched, waited for . . . something. I just can’t put my finger on it. So I continue down. When I get to the bottom, I look up into the sky, partially obscured by the decaying ceiling of the theater, and I see no stars. Not one. And something seems to fly by the left edge of the hole I’m looking through.
Something fleeting and fast.
Dark and foreboding.
I decide to not look outside for fear that something out there might really make me question my decision to crossover. Not that there weren’t a bunch of other perfectly good reasons to not leap out of your own chest to chase some phantasm. Geez . . . when I put it like that I feel like a colossal moron for doing any of this.
What kind of loser has two thumbs and an unexplainable crush on a dead woman?
This guy right here.
Anyway, I start making my way to the exit that would lead to the interior of the theater—you know, where I would be buying all kinds of sugar-coated loveliness. As I make my way past the threshold, where two double-doors would normally be, I see somebody. A short, fat guy with no hair, no color, and a twitch. He’s the kind of nervous where I’d expect to see about 17 cigarette butts on the floor in front of him.
I whisper, “Hey . . . sir. ’
And that just startles the shit out of him. He jerks over towards me, half dropping as he does so. “Oh, oh wow!” he says. “It’s you. I mean, you’re you. You’re him. Here. John.”
“Very good,” I say. That covers all the bases. I asked him if he knew where I could find Kristen.
He jogged toward me, extending his plump little hand. “Stewart, you can call me Stewart.” As we shook he kind of jiggled. The way Jello pudding jiggles. I felt like getting on a running machine. I felt like watching my fat intake. Like taking my nutrition class over again.
He leans in, his voice low and furtive, “She’s in one of the other theaters, with the new arrivals. They’re explaining the way this place works. You need to be in on this. It will make all of this so much easier.”
“All of what?” I ask him. “It will make what easier?”
He glanced nervously around, his blue eyes looking like two bright marbles jammed into a wax person. His nose was big and bulbous, with large flared nostrils. He looked like a mask of a person, but not a real person. Kind of freaky, really.
He leads me down a hallway, toward another theater, whispering, “We have to be really careful about all this. Don’t want to mess it up.”
And that was the last thing he said as he half marched me, tugging gently at my shoulder. We passed by the entrance foyer where the concession stands would have been. They were empty and cold. Where windows would be there were open spaces, where the wind blew past, whistling and howling.
“How do you people live here?” I asked him.
He just shrugged as we walked. And a few moments later I could see a few other Deadsiders standing at the edge of another small hallway. They all stopped whispering to themselves the second they saw me.
Must be the glowing tattoos, I figure. They probably don’t see crossovers that often. I guess I’m a bit of a celebrity around these parts.
Stewart lifted his eyes as we approached. “He’s here. He’s here. Get Kristen!”
He led me past the gathering at the hallway, and on past the threshold to the next theater. This particular theater was much larger than the one I arrived at. This is the kind of room they would use for blockbuster films. And as I looked around, I saw the faces of 30 or 40 different souls. They all had those characteristic colorful eyes set against their corpse-like gaunt bodies.
Stewart brought me to the front row and asked if I had any questions. When I was about to answer he looked up, “Oh, there’s Kristen, right now.”
I glanced over to where I thought he was looking, and I saw her coming down the stairs from above. When I turned back, Stewart was long gone. I guess his part of all of this was finished. He’s probably going to find some quiet place to lay down in the fetal position and spaz out.
My eyes raced back to Kristen, who—as she slowly approached—looked beautiful. She didn’t have that hurried, they’re-chasing-me look from before. Now, instead of haunting me, she was looking at me with these incredibly beautiful eyes.
And even though her body was colorless, like the others, her eyes had enough energy to fill a hundred bodies. You could tell that she radiated. And the other people in there, they all followed her with their eyes, as I was.
She approaches me, stopping just a few feet away. She blinks several times. My heart, it was pounding in my chest like the Energizer Bunny. I had thought of all these very clever, very esoteric things to say to her. Words that would befit a saint or a savior. The kind of monumental and epic prose that I could imagine people repeating. You know, future t-shirts and bumper-sticker stuff.
But all I came up with was, “This is way better than my bathroom.”
And for just a fraction of a second, she smiled. And in that tiny moment between the blinks of an eye, I was just captivated.
“Hi, John,” she said softly. Her voice, it was so tender and sweet that I started feeling sorry for her, right then. How could this incredible woman, this beautiful creature, how could she be stuck in this place? This horrible cold place of dying and monsters and whispers?
“I have some questions,” I said to her. “Lots of questions, actually.”
Then, instead of answering, she stepped a bit closer, and lifted both of her hands, palms facing me, as if she was pressing against a sheet of glass that was between us. Her hands waited there until I wised-up and lifted mine. Slowly, I placed my hands near hers, leaving them several inches apart until she was ready.
Her eyes studying me, mine trying to understand hers, she touched me. And for this cold, frightening place, her hands were warm and soft. They were actually quite small as they pressed gently against mine. I suddenly wanted to grab her. To protect her from all of this. I didn’t care that all of these other souls were watching us. That they were all counting on me.
Nothing else mattered other than protecting her. Because I knew—for reasons I’ll never be able to explain—that this girl possessed a part of me. A part of me that I had no access to. I knew that somewhere along the lines of my forgotten past . . . she was important to me. I swallowed. This was the first real intimate contact I’ve had since I awoke. It felt important.
“Welcome to the Land of Sorrows, John,” she said, with her soft delicate voice. Our hands were still touching. She turned to look at the others, all of them staring at us. Apparently, they shared my enthusiasm about this moment in time.
She turned back to me, nodding,” I have been trying to find you for a long time. You are very important. You are the only one who can save us. Will you save us, John?”
Us still touching, me still being half dizzy from this whole moment, I didn’t have an answer. “I don’t know what you want,” I said. And I didn’t.
Sure, Ricky and I had read some prophetic scripture that could be taken a hundred different ways. But we didn’t have any idea what we were getting ourselves into.
“I need some answers,” I told her. “I have to know what is going on. In order to help all of you, I need to know what this place is really about.”
She nodded, pulling her hands away. The moment we were no longer touching, I started missing her. “There’s somebody,” she said as she took a half step back, turning to her left towards the group of gathered Deadsiders, “. . . that I would like you to meet. He’s a new arrival . . .”
And without another word a path was opened between the people, and a tall familiar looking man approached. His clothes were in shambles, his head lowered. But it was him. It was my favorite librarian. Rupert!
His face lit up the second I said his name. He quickly walked forward and took me into a bear hug, squeezing the heat right out of me. He backed away, holding me by the shoulders as he studied my glowing talisman and protective markings.
“Bloody hell, you’re him!” he said, astounded. “When they told me what was happening, I thought, ‘this can’t be possible’. But, here you are . . . in the flesh—so to speak, anyway.”
“Rupert,” I said, “what in the hell happened to you? We saw on the news that you got killed in a hit-and-run accident.”
“No accident, I’m afraid,” Rupert said as he crossed his arms. “Seems some people were quite interested in your book. So interested that they wouldn’t take ‘I don’t know’ for an answer.”
“They murdered you?” I said. “I’m sorry Rupert. I got you all mixed-up in this. This is my fault.”
“Nonsense, my dear boy. This is exactly the way it was supposed to happen. The fulfilling of my destiny on Earth. We were supposed to meet and everything was fated to happen just as it did. I’m proud to have been a part of all this.”
“All what, Rupert? All what?”
“You,” he said taking me by the shoulders again, “. . . you are going to save all of us. You are going to be the one to free us into the light. Jack . . .” he suddenly paused, “Sorry, John—that’s going to take a bit of getting used to.”
“It’s kind of weird for me, too,” I told him.
“We are the new arrivals here. We are all learning what this Land of Sorrows is about. It’s not, at all, what I expected the afterlife to be like. Although . . .” he scratched his chin, a quizzical look on his face, “. . . I can’t say as I actually believed in an afterlife until those little buggers were ripping me out of my human form. Quite traumatic, that.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I know what you’re talking about. But I never saw the spooks around you. I never knew you were in any danger.”
“Oh, it isn’t always the monsters that get you. Sometimes, two thugs with a stun gun and a baseball bat is all it takes.”
“That’s the past, John. It doesn’t matter.” Then he lowered his voice, glancing at Kristen, then to me, “What is important now is that we help you to fulfill your destiny. We are all, each and every one of us, counting on you for salvation.”
“That’s a tall order.”
“Yes, of course it is. But it is what you were born to do. Even the unlikely painter must create his art. And so shall you, create your masterpiece. You will be a hero. More than you can ever imagine. This beautiful young lady, here,” he looked, put his hand on Kristen’s bare shoulder, showing through her ripped shirt. “She cares very much about you. She has so much faith in you. As do we all.”
“I need answers, Rupert,” I said. Then I turned to Kristen. “If somebody doesn’t tell me what is going on, I can’t help anyone.”
Kristen nodded, placing her right hand on my left cheek. Her touch was intoxicating. “You’re getting cold, John. You need to go back. We’ll meet again, tomorrow. You need rest.”
I wanted to say a lot of things. I wanted to protest and argue, but I knew—no matter how frustrating this was becoming—that she was right. My minutes were numbered here. I was already starting to feel the cold shivers envelop my body.
“Go back, now, John,” she said. And then she took my hand and led me back towards the hallway I had just entered.
I didn’t have any idea how much time had elapsed.
Rupert was walking with us, reassuring me, “We’ll meet tomorrow. We have something very important to show you. Tomorrow, at dusk, at your apartment. We’ll be there.”
Her warm little hand in mine, we walked out, leaving Rupert at the threshold. We walked down the hall, past Stewart’s nervous wreck of a corpse. And in moments we were back in the theater where I entered, making our way up the stairs.
“. . . Ricky says you’re pushing it, Jack . . .” Ms. Josephine’s voice echoed in the background of my mind.
I wanted to stay, and go. I didn’t want Kristen to let go of my hand. Not now, not ever. But I knew that my body was giving-up, bit by bit, while I was here.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, John,” she said, taking my hand between both of hers. “We’ll explain everything then. Tomorrow at dusk.”
I started to nod, but then something inside of me was at the end of its rope. This wasn’t a sufficient justification for repeated trips to the Deadside.
“Kristen, I don’t think that is going to be good enough.”
Her face shifted into a frightened stare, “What . . . what do you mean?”
“I need to know something, anything. And I need it, now. Not tomorrow, not in some yet to be determined time when the sun sets. No metaphors. No literary license or scripture. I have to have some reason to come back.”
“What about me?” she said sadly, as if she was on the verge of crying.
I hate myself for this. But, it’s who I am. Every trip over here is one more foot in the grave. So if I do it, there has to be a purpose, even if that makes me cold and callous.
“I don’t even know you,” I tell her. “I think I care about you. I want to help you, to hold you. But I don’t have any idea who you are. This whole thing is one long nightmare. And every time I entertain it, I find myself two breaths from being on the autopsy table.”
“So look,” I say, “if you want me to trust you, then I need something. Now.”
She swallowed slowly, her mouth hanging open just a bit. I could feel her warm touch around my hand. Her breath, in little fogged puffs, it touched me ever so gently. And without answering, she started to nod several times.
As she did this, I saw the tears welling-up in her eyes. And right then and there I felt like the ugliest monster in the universe. The most cruel, vile piece of human trash that has ever existed. Who was I, a living being, to give her an ultimatum?
What kind of jerk am I?
She stepped closer, her face just inches from my chest. She then brought my hand up and pressed it to her chest. She closed her eyes, and I could see her glowing perfect eyes dancing around behind her grey eyelids. Kind of like what happens in REM sleep.
And I was instantly bombarded with a flash of memories, seconds or minutes, I’m not sure. But it all kind of raced into my soul, all at once. It’s like I was downloaded with memories. And those memories, so fast that I couldn’t decipher them, they were full of color and life.
“What happened? I said, trying to catch my breath. What was that?”
A tear slowly rolled down her cheek as her eyes opened. “Go, now, John. And when you sleep tonight, you will see the gift I have given you.”
I opened my mouth to speak but she placed her right hand over my lips, her left hand over her lips, shaking her head as more tears fell from her eyes. And as I backed away, all I saw was her shaking her head.
I turned away from her, sadder than I have ever been. Feeling worse than a person should be allowed to feel. And I reached into the corpse that was the living me, and pulled myself back to Earth side. Everything that I cared about, it was an eternity behind me . . . or a simple death.
I left Kristen there like some object.
Some broken thing.
A piece of cold meat.
Me, the savior. The saint. The one who is fated to save her. To save all of them. I left her there, crying, and I did nothing to help her. She might have been another black-n-white Rorschach inkblot.
Where is my humanity?
Because, I feel no divinity.