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A Sunday Drive
“You know, I haven’t gone to church since I was a kid,” I muttered. “I’m already going to H***.”
“Maura,” Joe clenched the steering wheel tighter still, sapping color from his knuckles. “the Lord always-”
“I don’t need to hear your preaching, Joe. I’m sure there’ll be more than enough of that at church.” I wrinkled my nose, cringing at the very sound of the word.
I slouched in my seat and snapped my head toward the window, diligently ignoring the wisps of brunette that had taken the opportunity to dart into my mouth and eyes. Only when I heard Joe relent with a forlorn sigh did I swat the pesky strands back into place- back to join the rest of my flat-ironed and styled hair. Yes, apparently my hair needs to be fixed to perfection or God won’t save my soul. I hadn’t realized this magical being was so superficial.
I clenched my teeth and withheld my own sigh of agitation as I felt a steady ache winding around my tight neck. Still, I bore the pain in silence, adamantly refusing to turn my head back toward the ‘holy man’ I married.
My eye caught a flash of a mile marker, steadily counting down the miles until salvation will be forced down my throat. Perhaps I could make one last attempt at coercion.
“You know, you should be grateful I decided to come.”
“You should be grateful I’m saving your soul,” he growled.
Honestly, has he truly been brainwashed? It has only been two months since he ‘opened his heart and his mind to his savior,’ and he’s like a missionary prowling third-world countries.
“Look,” I relented, “I tried to have faith but your God has yet to show me the light.”
His pale skin flushed crimson, and he twisted his body to face me. “What about the good in your life Maura?”
“Eyes on the road,” I muttered off-handedly.
“Do you think everything just plopped on your doorstep one day?”
“No!” I snapped. “I had to earn everything I have! It’s not like some magical fairy in the sky threw it down my chimney!”
“Do you want to go to H***, Maura?”
I rolled my eyes. “There is no H***, Joe! It’s childish to think there’s a Heaven or a H***.”
“What will you do if Heaven does exist, huh? You’d never ascend to Heaven!”
I grit my teeth and turned back towards the road. After all, logic never wins against religion... in the twisted minds of the ‘faithful’ at least, and-
The truck in front of us swerved. Black smoke assaulted the sky. “Joe.”
“...After everything God has given you! Your health...”
Fire. Orange... yellow... red. Lapping bursts of flame. “Joe!”
“How do you know God-”
“STOP, JOE! STOP!”
Screeching brakes. Biting seatbelt.
White, blinding... pain.
~* ~ * ~ *~
My breathing hitched as awareness assaulted my senses.
Where am I?
A shudder rippled through my body. Cold? No. It was a wave of warmth that engulfed me. Unwinding my muscles... Soothing me. Tranquility.
Pain.. heat... fire... The car crash!
Shouldn’t I feel pain?
I tentatively curled and uncurled my fingers feeling... soft. Cotton. Sheets?
I wrenched open my eyes, fighting against that brilliant, white, blinding...
My eyes adjusted, and my scrunched face relaxed. I peered down at my body to find... white. Sheets. A hospital bed.
I shook my head furiously and rubbed at my eyes. Where else would I be after such a horrendous crash? Initially I had thought we both would-
Joe. Joe! My hand flew up to cover my gaping mouth. Is he here? Is he okay? Is he... alive?
I wrenched the sheets off, rolled out of bed, and-
I yanked my legs back onto the bed and pulled my knees to my chest, as if the pressure would slow my erratic breath.
Funny. For a brief moment I thought I had felt-
I tentatively peered over my knees and beheld-
A vast, rippled expanse of cream-colored sand.
A hallucination? A dream? Drugs?
This couldn’t be reality: There was no possible way that after a car crash I would be transported to a hospital bed in the middle of the desert.
I peeled the tangled sheets back to examine my presumably battered body and-
My body, clad in a tight-fitting, white cocktail dress, hadn’t a single blemish. There were no wounds, no scars, nothing to even hint at the crash.
I swung my legs back over the bed once more and sighed as the sand embraced my bare feet. I took a step. And another. With each step, the warm feeling flittering in the soles of my feet expanded, climbing and winding up my legs, my torso...
Stepping. Walking. Running.
My eyes fluttered closed as I simply listened to the muted thumping of my feet, felt the delicate breeze kissing my cheeks, and heard the gentle splashes and churning of the... of the sea?
I came to a jolting stop and spotted... not an ocean, no. A vast pool of deep, royal blue water. Perfectly still and eerily tranquil. Somehow, I knew it was far more expansive than all the oceans of the world. Within it, I saw little snatches, fleeting reflections of buildings, people, animals, trees... everything. An onslaught of deja vu flipped my stomach and stirred my brain. I’ve been to those places. I know those people. I was sure of it.
“Hello!” I jumped and whirled around. Relief flooded my mind, and I realized just how desperately lonely I had become since waking up. Before me stood a young man donned in a strikingly white and polished suit. Despite his pristine attire, his floppy chestnut hair and round, almost childish face muted the sophistication and gave him an air of casual conviviality.
I extended my hand. “Hello, my name is-”
“Maura,” he stated simply.
My brow furrowed in confusion and my neglected hand dropped. “How do you-”
“You have forgotten me.”
“Okay,” he nodded. Although his tone punctuated the word with a note of definitive finality, his eyes bore into mine, as if expectant of a scripted reply. I shook my head. This... this is bizarre. The sand... the pool... this ritualistic conversation...
“A-am I dead?”
“From what?” His expression remained smooth and serene with the barest hint of a frown. It was as if he truly couldn’t comprehend the question.
“Um... from life?”
“I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean.”
A flash. A blazing burst of electric pink exploded in my peripheral vision, and I whirled around to find the water teeming with spidering, violent licks of pink, deepening in color, building in brilliance.
The flaming inferno that proceeded to erupt on the water, and even in the water wasn’t nearly as shocking as it should have been. Rather, it seemed to be a logical conclusion to the vehement veins of pink and red. What was truly disconcerting were the images. Those images of the places I knew, the people I knew... burning.
My family, I realized. My family is burning.
“D-did you see that?” I turned away from the horrific scene and fought the bile clawing at my throat.
“Right there,” I insisted. “In the water.” I gestured towards the once-placid pool, steeling myself for the inevitable carnage, and was shocked by the absence of malevolent flame.
“I see happiness,” the man responded evenly. “That is what I always see.” With a nod and a fleeting ghost of a grin, the man buried his hands in his pockets and glided away.
“Um... hello?” My stomach dropped at the sheer thought of isolation. “Wait!”
Although he gave no inclination of hearing me, I dashed to catch up to him, easily falling into step with his steady, deliberate footfalls.
With each step away from the churning pool, my breath grew increasingly steady and even, as if a massive weight were being slowly- almost imperceptibly- removed from my chest. I felt the surging serenity once more, but, this time, it seemed almost forced... unnatural. I bit my tongue and winced despite the absence of pain. I needed to fight against the hazy lull. Conversation- my narrow, swollen throat expanded at the very thought- I needed conversation.
“Where are we going?”
I ground my teeth at the unsatisfying response and instinctively shoved my hands into my pockets- or at least I tried to. The feel of soft and yet-to-be explained pocketless silk only served to aggravate me further.
I devoted my attention to the rhythmic motion of my feet as they pressed against condensed sand, leaving only small divots in their wake. The sand began to spill and swirl, as if sifted by the ghost of wind. I furrowed my brow as the undulating became more prominent, and I noticed with a start that small mounds were rising from the beach floor.
The infant dunes burst. Grains of sand flew through the air like tiny suds, almost obscuring the massive tree trunks that sprung from the ground and wound into the sky. My mouth dropped open in awe and I vaguely recalled an Imax film I’d seen with Joe; it had shown the creation of an ecosystem- a forest- out of sheer desert sped up to three hundred years per second.
Branches wound out of trees and interlocked to form a high ceiling of lush emerald. The remaining sand folded into the earth, replaced with soft, loose soil and patches of knotted weeds.
I realized that my feet had stilled. I looked forward to my taciturn companion, and stepped toward him with a sudden vehemency. This man knew what was happening: his eyes scanned the newly sprouted trees as if their presence was not only logical, but entirely expected.
“Where are we?” I demanded. I allowed myself to feel a surge of gratitude for the restoration of my voice.
“The same place as before.”
“No. No we’re not. We were at the beach and there was water and-” I squeezed my eyes shut and sucked in a long breath, grappling with my hopelessly scrambled thoughts, only to deflate and drop my eyes to the ground. “I have so many questions.”
“Will you answer them?”
“That was one.”
I narrowed my eyes and diligently ignored the stirrings of rage. “But... Will you?”
His pale, hazel eyes flickered away, and the corners of his mouth sagged. Without warning, he turned on his heel and dashed through the throng of trees.
“Hey!” I gasped and sped after him. “Where are you going?” I called in futility.
I had only run a dozen steps when I slammed into the wide trunk of an obtrusive tree, and was sent hurtling toward the earth. I blinked in confusion and rubbed at my forehead. I had felt the impact- felt the hard, rough bark impale my head- but my forehead remained smooth and unblemished.
I glanced up warily at the tree, almost to convince myself it was truly there, and my eyes widened at the sight I beheld. Carved into the wood, only about the size of my thumb, was a tiny, elegant cross. My lips curled into a soft smile. For some unfathomable reason, my body relaxed. I lifted my hand- straining to drag it through air thick as mud- and simply watched as my fingertips reached toward the symbol, stretching as if magnets had ordained their path.
The instant the pads of my fingers made contact, I felt a concentrated, torturous burst of pain. I yelped and yanked my hand away, teetering and falling back onto sharp twigs and rocks in the process. I desperately whipped around my hand, mindlessly trying to shake off invisible flame. As the pain abated I grasped my fingers with my other hand and studied my fingertips, fascinated by the charred bubbles of skin. I glanced up at the tree, half-expecting to see the entire structure crumbling in flame, and found nothing of the sort. Bare bark stood before me: the cross had disappeared. I glanced down at my fingertips, idly wondering how I was going to bandage them, and found that they too had been restored.
I shakily rose from the ground, neglecting to brush the bits of grass and soil that clung to my stained white dress, and whirled around, meaning to put as much distance between myself and that tree as possible. I nearly fell back to the earth when I found a pair of cold hazel eyes lying mere inches before my face.
It was the young man again.
I balled my fists in fury. “Where did you go?” I demanded. “Why did you leave me?”
“I did not leave.”
“Yes you did,” I growled.
“No.” He began to walk away from the tree.
“Where are you going?” I easily matched his slow pace.
Before the syllable was fully articulated, the canopy of branches broke with a grating scream and collapsed into their trunks. Dust whirred through the air and the sinister trees crumbled, winding back into the earth and burying themselves in rolling, bleached sand.
I observed the transformation with convoluted acceptance: the reappearance of the beach did not surprise me, but only served to frustrate my desperate curiosity further.
“Why?” He did not alter his pace, or even blink at the question. “Why.” His eyes flickered and he turned his head away from me, but not before I beheld the stirrings of a shadowed, nefarious sneer. “W-who are you?”
“I could ask the same of you.”
“Then I am as well.”
I shook my head and willed away the devilish intrusion of irrational fear. “No.” I almost succeeded at keeping my voice steady. “You’re not, I’m-”
“Gone,” He cut in. “That’s all you need to know. You are gone.”
“But... what do I do now?”
He quirked an eyebrow. “Nothing.”
No. It can’t be... I need to know-
“Why.” It was no longer a question. “What is the purpose?”
His head drooped and a thick chestnut curtain veiled his eyes.
“What is the purpose?” I persisted. “Please!” I cried, quivering against the icy tentacles of pent-up fear slithering through my body.
His head snapped up with an unnatural crack, and his glassy, hazel eyes widened in vacant horror. His jaw dropped open, but instead of a reply, his dry, swollen tongue spilled out of his mouth, hanging pale and limp.
I couldn’t fight back the chill pooling in my gut. My eyes widened in sync with the man, but even after my expression settled into frozen horror, his eyes continued to stretch wider, wider still, until glassy hazel orbs were bulging out of their sockets. Without warning, the swollen balls burst, splattering oozing clumps in all directions, and popping the cork to a fountain of blood.
I gasped, only to inhale a thick, odious sheet of smoldering blood. I stumbled back and clawed at my slippery, tainted face. Still, I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the crimson rivers streaming onto the glowing white sand. A high screech rose above the perverse rumbling as his face’s tainted skin sagged and drooped, peeling away from his gaping, flowing sockets, and revealing torn muscle, ligament, and grey bone.
His head fell to the side with a sickening crack and the jagged outline of bone bubbled from his neck, threatening to pierce. His limp body crumbled and collapsed into a pool of water- that same pool of gaping, dark, empty water- and disappeared beneath the surface, leaving only snakes of deep crimson swirling in the blackened pool.
I wretched and fought to swallow the vomit rushing into my mouth. Only a dribble of acrid vomit slipped past my lips to mingle with spattered blood.
I turned my head from the obsidian pool to find a cloud of ghastly sand hovering in the distance. Coming closer... closer. The sand. The sand was falling. I could only gape in horror as the earth crumbled and spilled before my feet until it was gone- as distant as the sky- and I was falling, falling into nothingness.
An agonizing stabbing pain pierced through my chest, and I clawed at flimsy, sodden silk.
I couldn’t breath. I couldn’t think. Oh, the pain. Oh, God, the pain! Make it stop!
~* ~ * ~ *~
My breathing hitched as awareness assaulted my senses. My eyes fluttered open, only to be assaulted by that brilliant, white, blinding...
“Praise the Lord!”
My eyes roamed the room. Joe... mama... my sister... granny... dad... Smiling faces.
I struggled to sit, only to be thwarted by what felt like dozens of hands.
“No, baby, rest.”
“Wha-?” I croaked.
“Your heart stopped for a full minute, Maura, but God answered our prayers.”
I glanced around the room once more and imagined all those sparkling eyeballs bursting and their faces melting, mingling with that pool... that pool... that pool...
A thin, twisted grin slithered onto my face. “Praise the Lord,” I muttered.