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I gaze incredulously around this alien wonder of a place spread out before my eyes. My vision sweeps across an infinite meadow of gold, with foxtails soft as down and fine as threads of silk providing a carpet for the unknown sanctuary. Upon the distant line of the horizon sinks a hazy sun, like a mature, ripened peach weighing heavy on the end of its slender branch. Cutting its way through the vast sky flies a single bird, suspending itself like a marionette with a pocket of air under its delicate, paper-thin wings. I let my gaze travel over the animal’s deep violet plumage, glistening gold against the flame of the setting sun.
Enchanted, I find myself serenely exploring this strange world .Then, too soon, my reverie is broken by a phantom voice in the distance. I cock my head westward towards the sound. Was that… my name? As I begin walking, I hear my name ring out a second time. A third time, and my pace quickens. Again, and now I am running towards the voice. The foxtails whip at my legs, but I feel no sting. My chest heaves and my legs throb with exertion. The voice calls, much louder this time, and I feel that I am almost upon it. Then I stop dead in my tracks. “Allison?” I whisper.
I’ve come upon a shallow valley of wildflowers; sitting among them is an ethereal figure. Her milky skin glows like the light cast off from a dying flame, her loose brunette hair touching the space between her shoulder blades. Everything about her feels familiar, and I am roused by a decades-old image from my memory. “Allison?” I repeat, slowly and unsure. The thrum of my heartbeat fills my ears. Then she lifts her piercing blue eyes to mine, and my head erupts with memories.
I remember arriving at my dance studio at the age of ten and meeting the shy, quiet, new girl from Little Rock. We became fast friends: I, enthralled by her passion for dance, and she, attracted to my quick sense of humor. Years passed, and though we remained friends, we slowly began drifting apart. Then came the news: her family would be moving again. A picture, a hug, a promise to stay in touch, and she was gone. We tried, but soon it was obvious that our friendship was fading.
I remember that fateful night when my mom came looking for me. Her face was drawn and pale with moisture in her eyes, and it immediately reminded me of the way she looked after my grandpa died two years before. Then I recall her voice, low and husky, as she said, “It’s Allison.” My eyebrows drew in confusion and suspicion. “ She died a few days ago.” I looked away to the ground, shutting out her pitying gaze in disbelief. She was jogging, my mom told me, and she couldn’t hear the car coming. There was nothing the doctors could do. My vision blurred as tears slid down my cheeks. The rest of that night passed in a haze; I can recollect only the grief I felt, raw and overwhelming. It consumed and haunted me for months until it finally dulled, leaving the ache of loss and regret behind.
I finally pull my mind away from my memories back to the present. “It’s you, isn’t it?” I say. For a moment, I feel my confidence wavering. What if it really isn’t her? Doubt creeps unfiltered into my mind. This is crazy. And impossible. She’s… dead. Yet, as I look into her bright, introspective eyes, I see the truth. It is truly her. It’s Allison.
“You remember,” she says softly. I grin. The sound of her voice reminds me of childhood.
“How could I not?” I say. I can’t keep myself from gazing at her in amazement. It’s really her, I repeat in my head. It’s really her.
“But wait,” I interject as different thoughts begin moving inside my head. Something has shifted in my brain, and a cloud of questions rolls in. “How are you here?” The storm of thoughts rages internally and begins pouring out. “No, how am I here? I’m alive, but you’re… you’re not. What’s going on? What am I doing here?”
Allison raises her eyebrows expectantly, and I ask one last question.
“Where are we?”
She laughs softly at my torrent of questions, but her eyes soften. She reaches out with her pale hand to touch my own. “Heaven,” she whispers.
For a moment, we stand together in stunned silence. I look down at her hand holding mine, and for the first time I notice the difference between her smooth, supple hand and my own withered one. “No…” I stammer, “It can’t be true.”
She nods slowly.
I know logically in my head that it was the only thing that made sense all along, the only thing that explained why I was with Allison. Still, my body refuses to act logically. Goosebumps rise on my arms and shoulders. Cold beads of sweat pepper my forehead. I feel my head spinning and black spots overwhelm my vision. I think about my husband, my son, my daughter, my grandchildren. How could I leave them behind?
One desperate thought occurs to me in my turmoil. Where is my mom?, I think wildly. My dad? If I could find Allison, why couldn’t I find them? Amid my thoughts, I feel Allison’s hand slip away. I look up in confusion to see her turn from me, her brown hair covering her face like a curtain. “Wait,” I exclaim, “Where are you going?” I see her tilt her head at the sound of my voice. “Stop,” I plead, “You can’t go now. I just found you again.” This time I see her step falter. “Please,” I whisper.
Now she faces me again. “I’ve missed you so much… but I know what you’re thinking, and that’s why I have to go.” I shake my head, perplexed, but she presses on. “You can’t stay here with me forever, you know. You have to find your family. And I have to wait for mine, here.”
“But I don’t understand,” I say. “Why can’t you come with me to find my family?”
She sighs. “I wish it were that simple.”
My heart speeds up, and I know I can’t let her go without saying what I’ve been waiting years to say. “Allison…” I begin, but my voice is thick and cracked. “Allison, I need to tell you something. Just… please listen, okay?” She nods, her expression startled. “I…” I stop to wipe a stray tear from my cheek, “I have to tell you how sorry I am. I just… I just didn’t know that when I said goodbye to you that day, I would never see you again.” My voice breaks. “I can’t tell you how much I regret that.”
Her hand is on my cheek now, brushing away the tears. “It was never your fault we lost touch,” she says gently. “I wish I could’ve taken the time to let my loved ones know how much they meant to me.” She pauses, her eyes lost somewhere far away in the past. “The thing is, you just have to trust that everyone you left behind knows how much you love them. Just like I’ve always known that you love me. It doesn’t matter if we lost contact. To me, you’ve always been a true friend.”
I lift my head from her shoulder, wiping away the tears with my sleeve. “I’ve always felt that way, I just didn’t know if you could ever forgive me,” I say quietly.
“Forgive? There’s nothing to forgive,” she says lightly. Too quickly, though, she says, “You do have to go, though. You have to find your family.”
Still troubled by one thought, “Allison,” I begin tentatively, “Do you think…” I stop, feeling foolish about my question.
“What is it?” she asks inquisitively.
“Once I leave, will I…” My voice falters, but her kind, warm eyes urge me on. “Will I ever see you again?”
Her eyes fill with sympathy. “Honestly?” she says quietly. I nod. She twists the hem of her dress with her hands, her gaze unable to meet mine. “I… I really don’t know.”
The breath I’ve been holding stills in my chest. “Okay,” I mumble. “So, then, we should probably say… goodbye.”
She places her hand on my arm. “It’s never really goodbye, is it?” she muses. “I mean, look at us now.” I smile faintly at the grain of truth in her words. At my encouragement, she continues, “And just so you know…I’ll find you again. Someday, I will.” I turn my head, nodding mutely, afraid that if I reply, all will to leave her might evaporate. As I move to leave, she grasps my hand. “See you soon,” she whispers.
I squeeze her hand and hold on with all my strength. “I will,” I answer fiercely. Then, without letting myself reconsider, I drop her hand and leave my friend. Only the thought of my family waiting for me ahead keeps my willpower from breaking. When I can’t resist the urge any longer, I twist my head to seek out Allison one last time. When I see her, I know in my heart what she truly is: an angel.