Last in Line, One Last Time
Thanks to Erika for asking me along for another round of prompts! This time everything was based on music, with the following to select from:
1.) Heavy Metal/Hard Rock- The Last in Line by Ronnie James Dio
2.) Pop/Hip-Hop- Angel in Blue Jeans by Train
3.) Country/Singer Song Writer- I Hope You Dance by Lee Ann Womack
4.) Instrumental/Soundtrack- The Lonely Shepherd from Kill Bill Vol. 1
5.) Wild Card- The Original Theme from Sesame Street TV Series
I was very tempted by the wild card, but in the end it was ‘The Last in Line’ by Dio that really got to me. Probably because I have an unhealthy obsession with what happens to us after we die, but this story popped into my head and wouldn’t let go until it was written.
Just a warning, things to get a bit dark in the middle (and if you don’t like bombings, please be careful reading) but as always I try and get to the light at that end of the tunnel.
LAST IN LINE, ONE LAST TIME
They say time has no meaning to the dead. This is a lie. Time doesn’t vanish when you cross that line between living and not. It simply becomes less meaningful. There are no clocks to glance at. No ticking beating at your ears. Most of the dead simply ignore the passage of time.
I, however, did not.
I sat on a bench overlooking a sunken plaza. It was either sunset or sunrise, the light dim enough to be either, the air neither hot nor cold. A long line snaked through the plaza. It’s beginning disappeared through a set of double doors at the far end leaving the back end exposed.
The line moved constantly, people arriving singly, in pairs, sometimes even in larger groups, but never seeming to actually make the line longer by their presence. An old man appeared, followed by a woman wearing a pantsuit and one shoe. Over the man’s head bright letters flared declaring his name as John Schmidt and the cause of death ‘heart attack’. The woman’s name was Coleen Chen. She’d been hit by a train.
Both flinched when a smiling man with a clipboard appeared besides them. I couldn’t hear what Aiden told them from my seat, but I saw the man tense while the woman burst into a brief bout of tears that dried before I could do more than blow one bubble of my Very Cherry Bubble Yum.
The gum smacked against my teeth as I sucked it in. Aiden handed Coleen a slip of blue paper and John a slip of red. I fingered my own slip. It was as black as the bench I sat on, nothing to mark it except for the creases my fingers had worried in it over time.
It had said something once. I’d refused to read it. I wasn’t going through that line. Not yet.
From the way John’s face went as red as his slip I knew Aiden had gotten to the part about what the colors meant.
Red for the bad. The ones who’d died with something ugly on their conscious.
Blue for the good. The ones who’d died without doing anything too sinful if not having done anything particularly good.
No one’s slip was meant to be black. I blew another bubble and watched Coleen’s shoulders relax. Guess that made me special. I watched a few more appear. A boy who’d died of cancer. A girl who’d slit her wrists. Four victims of the same car accident. All got blue slips.
Bored, I stood and made my way down the stairs along the outside of the stone wall surrounding the sunken plaza. The stairs lost shape, lost their mindless sameness the further I went, until I had to go down backwards, hands gripping the steps above while my feet groped for the steps below.
No one besides me came this way. Not even Aiden. The sun didn’t brighten, the grey and blue of the sky never changed even though I was well past a count of 5,000 Mississippi by the time I reached the bottom.
Dusting my hands off I looked at the craggy wasteland stretched out in front of me. Aiden said I was insane to come down here. That I would never find who I was looking for.
The bugger could piss off.
I couldn’t exactly die trying. Not now. So why not continue the search?
The way I saw it, he had to be out here somewhere. There had to be a door back to him. I couldn’t find him that day, but I sure as hell would find him now. Hunching my shoulders, I put the earbuds back into my ears, the sounds of Easy Rider making my head bob as I started my trek.
This was my 75th journey down here. Each had ended with me back on that bench, watching Aiden, an unopened pack of Very Cherry Bubble Yum in my pocket and “I’m Gonna Walk 5,000 Miles” blasting from the iPod.
No matter how I tried, the memories of how I’d ended back up there stayed locked up tight, the only sign I’d been anywhere the extra creases in my black slip and the dust on my boots.
I kept plugging at it though. I had no desire to learn whether I’d died good or bad. All I wanted was OUT.
“One Mississippi,” I breathed as I walked. “Two Mississippi.”
Faulty memory of the end of each journey aside, I could say with absolute certainty that I’d been down here ten years, six months, five days, seven hours, and fifteen minutes. Counting kept me sane. Kept the fire burning in my gut.
By 4,000 Mississippi I had reached a giant lake. Various journeys said there was nothing in the lake but water, nothing to the east but forest, and nothing to the west but an endless plain of grass. No birds soared, no fish swam, no crickets creaked. The one sound was the music in my ears and swish of my jeans against the waving stems of grass I trampled.
Pulling my boots off I dove in. The water parted before me, feet and hands sliding as smoothly as tail and fins, propelling me forward. Barely a count of 500 Mississippi passed before I was at the northern most edge of the lake. Here countless pairs of boots (all my black, knee high Maddens) sat in messy lines.
To anyone else they’d have been a sign of futility. To me they were a sign that something in this godforsaken place changed. Even if it did it’s best to convince me otherwise. The sand around the lake faded into shale, then concrete. My breath began to quicken. This was new. I couldn’t remember encountering anything manmade before.
Pulling the last piece of gum clear I used a rock to anchor the packet right on the edge of the concrete lip. There was no other sign I’d been here yet. No human element but me and the concrete lane leading down a gradually steepening hill.
Count again established I walked. The concrete was warm under my bare feet, a strange contradiction to the temperature-less water and air. I stuck to the center where in the alive world a white or yellow line would break the expanse.
I had no expectation of anything, so the rumble took a long time to process. A nervous feeling, like the quiver against violin strings drawn by new violinists during their first warm up with the Metropolitan Orchestra, started in my belly and traveled upward.
I slowed and pulled an earbud free. Music muted, the rumble became more intense, a counter vibration up my legs to the nervous fluttering in my abdomen. Slowly, emerging around a curve I hadn’t noticed before, came a flame red Mustang. Headlights powered through the gloom and I stopped.
“No fucking way,” I whispered, then yelled it. “No fucking way!”
Nerves turned to joy, a swift BOOM BOOM POW in my heart. I ran, pelting towards the driver side door as the car’s throaty roar cut off and the door began creaking open.
“Jack!” I tripped, nothing catching at my toes. Palms slapped the hood as I tilted forward. I reveled in the pure HEAT pouring through dead skin and rebounded, using the hood to slide around the side.
The door slammed and there he was. Jack Parson. His smile lit up the sky. His figure huge and imposing in a world of gray.
“Hello, darling,” he said and caught me in his crushing embrace. Smells—whiskey and horses and Jack—slid themselves up my nose and I gasped drawing them deeper into my lungs.
Tears rose and I flung them away from me, fingers buried in the softness of his sweatshirt. “I found you. I found you. I found you.” Counts of Mississippi forgotten I repeated those words over and over until with a laugh, Jack tipped me back.
“How do you know I didn’t find you?” he asked.
That made me smile. “Because you’ve always been terrible at finding things. Don’t see why being dead would change that.”
I knew the words were the wrong thing to say when his always relaxed posture stiffened, the hands around my arms tightening. “What?” he asked.
Doesn’t he know? I knew. Even before Aiden told me.
“We’re dead.” I kept breathing in the scent of him; each hit a piece of home.
The word fell between us and I pulled away. Foreboding turned the oxygen to carbon dioxide before it could even reach my lungs. This felt familiar. Terribly familiar.
I stared into those dark eyes that I had always known better than my own and suddenly we weren’t standing on an empty highway, the Mustang besides us, but in the center of a busy city street.
A boom split the air and a building disintegrated, glass like terrible snowflakes caught in a blizzard howling down upon us. People screamed and ran, the smell of burning flesh and scorching metal realer than anything. A piece of glass bigger than my arm speared a girl through the back and she fell. I didn’t move. Couldn’t have. I watched the red seep from her, watched it stain the asphalt.
I’d seen this before. Been here before.
When I’d died.
That was me, lying there. My blood staining the ground. I’d landed on my stomach, earbuds knocked free, hands feebly attempting to roll myself over, eyes wide and frightened even as they dimmed.
“What is this?” I whispered. “Jack, what is this?”
I turned, but he was no longer besides me; the street empty of anything but panic and destruction.
“Jack!” I whirled in a circle doing my best to ignore the panic rising in the back of my own throat like sludge. Ignoring the movements of my old body ceasing. What had I even been doing down here that day? I didn’t work downtown. I never even left the suburbs if I could help it.
But I’d come. I’d been walking across this street for a reason.
Bundling the panic into a ball, I started to walk, then run. Jack. I’d come here because of Jack.
The ‘why’ of his being here remained stubbornly out of my reach as I hurried. Another building exploded. People veered every which way. Their mouths opened, but my ears were deadened to their screams, the only sound I could hear a giant roar. A piece of falling building crushed a car and I stopped. Just stopped.
I couldn’t do this. I couldn’t. Why were they making me see this? “I died good,” I whispered. “I died good!” I tore the slip out of my pocket, scrubbing at the black. It was blue. I knew it had been.
The black came off like soot now, coating my fingers. I stilled. Stared. Because the slip wasn’t blue. It wasn’t red. It was some strange mix of both. The colors seeped into one another without ever becoming purple; red lines and blue lines intermingling and tangling until it was hard to make out any color at all.
It didn’t make any sense. Pushing down a scream I shoved it back into my pocket. Somewhere a child sobbed, a man wailed, an alarm railed against the destruction.
Jack will fix this, I thought. He’ll know what’s happening.
The sound disappeared, everything stilling as those words rattled there way through my head. “Jack,” I spoke slow, testing the words, “will know what’s happening.”
A pause, the rest coming to me like the dawning of a blood-red sun.
“Because he caused this.”
The street disappeared. I stood in a grungy apartment. Our grungy apartment. He stood at the sink, speaking to someone on the phone. “It’s all set, man,” he said softly. “We just have to pull the trigger and those bastards pay. Pay big.”
Numbness spread through me as the words did. Turning, knowing what I would see, I saw myself sprawled on the couch, body stiff even though my eyes were closed in a mockery of sleep.
I’d heard him that day. Heard every word even though he’d been convinced I’d been sleeping. But instead of going to the police I’d followed him. Using the bus because we only had one car. Arriving at the address I’d seen scrawled in his messy handwriting along with a sheave of other notes, plans, pictures, shoved in the bottom of his desk drawer, seconds before it had blown sky-high. He hadn’t even attempted to hide them from me. They’d been there all that time if I’d only looked.
But I hadn’t. Not until it was too late.
“Oh, Jack,” I whispered. “Why did you do this?”
He didn’t answer; just kept talking, voice growing angrier and darker. “They destroyed us,” he said to the person on the other end. “They fucking deserve to die a bloody, bloody mess.”
A laugh left him and I watched my body twitch on the sofa, remembered the chills that laugh sent through me. I didn’t feel them now. Now rage grew, pulsing through my veins. I fingered the edges of the card in my pocket. There had to be a reason I was back here. Was seeing this.
I needed to make a decision. A better one. I walked over to my body, sinking onto the coffee table, making sure my knees didn’t brush my body’s arm.
“Don’t follow him,” I told my body. “Just call the fucking police.”
The sound of the phone slamming down made us both jerk. Footsteps thumped the floorboards and Jack appeared. He crouched down, brushed the hair from my body’s forehead with a gentleness that was at total odds to the explosive anger of the telephone Jack.
“Darling?” he whispered. “I’ve gotta go out.”
My body blinked her eyes, playing down the confused horror as sleepiness. “Go?” My body’s voice cracked. “Go where?”
Jack’s lips pulled into a smile. The bastard, I thought.
“I’ve got something to do. I should be home early though. I was thinking we could go to the lake that you like. Pack a picnic?” He nibbled at my body’s neck, not noticing the revulsion in my eyes.
“Sure,” my body squeaked, eyes darkening. “Sounds wonderful.”
It sounded horrible.
I watched Jack kiss my body, sure I’d have thrown up if I’d been physically capable. But I hadn’t so much as swallowed a piece of gum in over ten years. We both watched Jack leave and I watched, silent, as my body lurched upright and went straight to the second bedroom/closet we used as our office.
I’d known exactly where to find his notes. Known exactly where they’d be.
The knowledge sickened me.
“Call the police,” I instructed from the doorway as my body sank in a heap besides the desk. Tears ran down her face, but there was no pity left in me. “Call them right now, you stupid, stupid, bitch!”
Instead, I watched her pull on the black Madden boots, the denim jacket, iPod in one pocket, Very Cherry Bubble Yum in the other, folded bills and I.D. in the back pocket of my jeans.
“People are going to die,” I told her. “And it will be all your fault.”
Despair closed over me, cold and heavy. It couldn’t end like this. It couldn’t. I couldn’t die with this on me. I knew that as well as I knew that the card in my pocket wouldn’t allow me down either path. I couldn’t follow the reds or the blues.
Aiden’s voice came to me then, his sharp little face so clear it felt like he was in the room with me. “You can wait to be last in line,” he said. “Or you can find a way to make peace with where you are. It’s up to you.” He’d said that to me every time I’d gotten frustrated and bored and approached him. He’d never looked at me, always intent on the red and blue slips he passed out, eyes on every new person to enter the line.
Now his words took on extra meaning. I could wait. Or I could act. I’d been trying to act this entire time, but in the wrong direction. I stared at my back, watching my hands flip my hair out of the way.
And for the first time, I reached for my body. My arms slid around my back, my face burrowing into my hair. I drug the scent of me into my lungs (rose from my shampoo, Cheeto dust from lunch) and sank into my body. For a moment everything doubled: two views of the door from slightly different angles, the sensation of arms both on mine and wrapped within mine. And then I dragged in the first real breath I’d taken since I died. I smelled the mold, the slightly rotten smell of old food and dirty laundry and never cleaned carpets.
I staggered back from the door, heart stuttering in my chest, lungs and limbs shaking. The phone. I wobbled, unsteady, into the kitchen and grabbed the landline. It had been installed decades again, the plastic worn and sweaty. I mashed three buttons. Listened as a voice answered. Took another breath…
…and changed everything.