It’s too busy here. I’ve been here for a few weeks and I’m still not used to it. Before I got here, I read somewhere that this chaotic mess of a place welcomes two people every second. That’s 6,316 people every hour; 151,600 people each day. I’ve never been anywhere quite as lonely.
All my family, all my friends are back home. I couldn’t get in touch with them if I tried. Trust me, I’ve tried. I’ve tried everything. And I’ve come to a conclusion. A sad one, maybe, but a conclusion all the same.
The only thing I can do is wait. While I politely wave to those families in their working attire in my backyard, their children playing with spare parts from the mills, I’ll wait. While I uselessly listen to some political podcast with my dad as he does the dishes, wishing I could put the dry ones away at the very least, I’ll wait. While I sit in the spot my best friend still saves for me at lunch, my head in my hands as our friends walk on eggshells around her, I’ll wait.
Feeling like I’ve died all over again, I’ll wait and I’ll wait and I’ll wait and I’ll wait.
Erin Forester arrived today. I could tell she had just gotten here from the look of despair she wore on her face that will surely remain stitched into her skin in the days to come. It starts that way for everyone. They materialize into this world like a memory in the mind of the griever, holding themselves stark upright in defense of the unknown. It doesn’t take long before they notice that their limbs are more transparent than they remember, that their distraught, teary loved ones can’t hear their screams. They’ll try for a little while to ignore leaders they’ve read about in their history textbooks and soldiers with holes in their heads, and for some it actually works. But The Moment always comes. And it shows no mercy.
The Moment rips into you as a child rips into a shiny gift at Christmas. With each slice comes another realization that stings hotter and hotter. First, that you’re dead. Second, that you’re not in Heaven. Third, that you’re all alone. That third one doesn’t affect everyone, though. Some are even happy to be here as long as the rest of their family comes for the ride or as long as they can reunite with their beloved past pets. I was not some. It’s clear Erin wasn’t either.
I stumbled upon her on my daily walk to school. In the corner of my eye I caught her stick straight blur of blue hair twisting this way and that way as she paced in front of a quaint house I had memorized years ago. It had never occurred to me that someone from school could have lived there, one measly street away from my own, especially a someone that’s been a classmate since my elementary school days.
“Hey!” I called out from across the street. A handful of kids chasing each through passing cars looked up. “You’re Erin Forester, right?”
Her eyes met mine and I was briefly reminded of the crush I had on her in third grade.
“Wait, you can see me?” she exclaimed, rushing forward only to jump back as a car sped passed. From my spot across the street, the dried tears caking her cheeks were as clear as day. I nodded in response.
“Oh my god,” she choked out, her hands covering her mouth in shock. “You’re Aurora Witherell.”
“The one and only.”
“B-but you’ve been dead for, like, two months now. We had a whole week of assemblies dedicated to you. There are still pictures of your face all over the school.”
Denial. One of the five stages of grief. I surely wouldn’t be the one to push her into the next stage, to keep the process going, so I simply shrugged. A smile that tried to say, “I’m sorry” hung loosely on my face as a fresh round of tears glossed over her giant hazel eyes.
“No, no, no, no,” she repeated, her head twitching from side to side. “No, no, no!” A wave of dead air bulleted into her, the impact so strong that she could only crouch to the ground upon exhaling. The explosion shook her body as her head fell to her crossed arms.
My clouded feet didn’t make a sound as I ran across the pavement to her side. Still, she started to speak before I could utter a word.
“Why can I feel my heart hurting?” she asked, her words muffled by the snotty sleeves of her cardigan. “Why does my body still produce tears? Why did my clothes die with me? This doesn’t make any sense.”
“Not a whole lot makes sense here,” I admitted, sitting down beside her. At least we have each other now. Maybe we can make some sense together. “But that was kind of the case in life, too, wasn’t it? Not a lot making sense?”
“Maybe.” Her gaze laid on the sprinkled remains of an autumn leaf. “But still…”
She grew silent after that.
Ex-classmates bubbled into being with time, walking cautiously on the sidewalks from every which direction. All their colors were brighter than they would ever realize and more solid than they could ever appreciate. They saw each other and called out to each other and held the door for each other at the entrance. We stayed seated on that curb.
“Where is here?”
“Hmm?” I jerked myself out of my trance to face Erin Forester, the acquaintance I only ever watched from afar.
“You said not a lot makes sense here, but what is ‘here’?” No more tears were falling.
“Well, out there,” I gestured to the pack of sleeping cars in the parking lot, their owners disappearing into the great brick building for a while. “That’s home. And here is the afterlife, as they like to call it,” I said, watching a burned up little girl calling out to a beaming old lady nearby to come see the ladybug.
“Nana! Come quick!”
“I’m coming, dear.”
The bumpy, discolored hands of the little girl cupped themselves over the creature.
“Nana! Come on!”
The beaming old lady hobbled over with just a tad more energy.
The burned up little girl gasped as the ladybug took flight, straight through her bumpy hands.
Ms. Kisler stood at the front of the room, talking to the class about what to expect when they got their credit cards in the future. Interest rate this, charged quarterly that. Erin Forester and I were there to learn pre-calculus, maybe soothe our souls with a game of pretend as if we still belonged there. Like children playing house, dreaming of life to come.
“So, what was your big plan?” I asked in a low tone, leaning towards her as if I could cause a disturbance by screaming bloody murder. “What were you gonna do when you finally got out of this place?”
“I was gonna die.” She shot my dumb, speechless self a sad smile that seemed to go on forever. Instinctively, my gaze flickered to her neck. Not a rope burn in sight. There was a different story to tell. Instead, “What about you?”
A distorted collection of noise invaded my ears, the class simultaneously getting to work as Ms. Kisler set them free.
“Well, first of all, I was going to, somehow, scrap together enough money to attend GWU, George Washington University, in Washington, D.C.. I was gonna major in English and creative writing and minor in biology so that if my writing career didn’t take off, I would become an entomologist instead. Or maybe do both at the same time, who knows? I was going to live in a crappy apartment filled with plants where my pet rats would help me write my novels, working at the local Starbucks to get by. One day, a girl with the most beautiful hazel eyes the world has ever seen would come in and become a regular. I would have her order memorized within a week and would write little notes on her cup to make her laugh. Eventually, I would gather up the courage to ask her out. We would have a fall wedding and teach our kids how to dream and love each other more than we ever thought possible. We would end up here one day far in the future, maybe in 2085. Either way, we would be together.”
Erin Forester and I locked eyes for a moment. Two sad smiles sat at the back of a high school math class, as blinding as a sheet of stretching clouds on a sunny day. A student walked between us. The lock was broken.
It’s too busy here.