Chapter 1: I miss, therefore I am

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I want to believe in God, but I doubt He’d believe in me if I were to make Him up again. I’ve been staring into space for so long now and not once have I had the feeling that we may get on good terms, even if I allowed Him to exist again out of sheer desperation. It wouldn’t be like when I was little and He was bigger than the world, which, even for an imaginative child, was hard to picture. Hell no. It’d probably be more like ‘ok, you can come out of the bottle now, I’ve got my three wishes, you ready?’ I shake my head – in disbelief, may I add – and laugh to myself, and it rattles something awake inside me. It’s bittersweet to let myself feel something, no matter how small. I remain loyal to my tendency to shut down in moments of crisis. It’s just that I’m not sure this too shall pass.

How do I manage, then? Simple. I disconnect. Thinking requires too much efficiency, and efficiency burns you out. The reality of now is merely a window I poke my head in and out of between daydreams. Memories like slow-moving tropical fish swim through my mind, some real, some slightly fictionalised by my loneliness, boredom, and need to up my bad-ass-ity here and there to better the stories. Most of them are about a man I met at the end of my life. Five months before the end, to be precise. I’m sure I’ll never see him again, but my heart still glows at the thought of him, and remembering keeps me company these days – or however they look at time around here. After all, it’s not like I’ve found anything to look forward to. I might as well look behind then, to memories of a fuller life, and skip the nervousness I feel about this insane concept I seem to have landed in.

Some of my favourite seconds were those filled with my lips spilled upon his collarbone and my hair nestled into his fist. Before him I kept putting my heart into the hands of men who fumbled with its weight, who wanted something lighter, less full of fire; but in those short, short months, he seemed not only to accept, but crave the darkest, most daring versions of me. It was the most intimate connection I had, and I catch myself craving more time to see where it could have gone. Tick, tock. If only I could truly accept I clocked out a while ago. But how could I? For the first time in my little life I was experimenting with unveiling myself in front of an audience, and there was still so much left of me to reveal. Naturally, I made a lot of mistakes too. Some days I pushed all the wrong, broken buttons, and completely forgot about the ones that brought the good out. Still I went to sleep peacefully those nights, knowing there were always going to be the next days to make it right. If only I knew it was ending. We were only just getting started. It all seems so close I wish I could just grab it and stop this. I wish I could just go back to feeling alive. To being alive.

A few short knocks at the door make me snap out of it and place me back into the dreaded now.
‘Come in, Milena,’ I say, and Milena comes in cheerfully with a tray she places on top of my bed.
Normally I’d say she is contagious, a delicious little ray of sunshine in the shape of a petite, blonde girl without a care in the world. Yet, I merely give her a smile. I’m in no mood for her. Sweet as she seems, she is strange and evasive. I desperately crave something to believe in that isn’t a smiley girl who knows it all but won’t tell a thing.
‘In-between mainlining coffee into my eyeballs I am at your service, you know,’ she says and takes a seat on the bed, patting the space next to her for me to get closer. ‘But you have to ask for me. I have others to look after, too.’
‘I know,’ I sigh, playing with my food, ‘or I think I do. But I was doing well.’
‘Lies,’ she laugh, and reaches out to give my shoulder a brief squeeze. Her touch sends a chill up and down my spine. ‘You just weren’t ready to be asked to wait again. Get ready now, okay? You don’t have to wait anymore. It’s time.’
‘Time for?’
She tilts her head, visibly amused, but holds off from saying anything.
There’s no winning this one, I don’t even understand what we’re playing.
‘Listen,’ she says, ‘you just get ready. I’ll meet you at the end of the corridor. Things will much clearer after today. I promise. Don’t be afraid.’
‘I wouldn’t even know what to be afraid of.’
Milena leaves the room before I get a chance to protest again. I spend another minute or so staring into thin air. Something about her life – if this is what she sees it as, anyway – flows clean, with passion, like fresh water. She couldn’t stumble upon her demons if she tried.

For a moment I forget who I am and I see a beautiful girl in the mirror. She has clear blue eyes, soft lips, cheeks with a hint of blood, dark eyebrows and hair that curls with life. I run a finger along my bottom lip, across my cheekbones, across my shoulder. I am not put together at all, nor am I broken. I just am, although I’m not sure if I could answer any of those questions that I had to memorise in journalism school – who, what, when, where, how.
‘Having no ties doesn’t mean you’re not real,’ I whisper softly to my reflection in the mirror. This precious little sentence has become my mantra since I’ve been in this place, keeping me as tempered as death allows one to be.
‘You are not dead,’ I remember Milena saying to me when I first woke up here. ‘That’s all you need to know for now. If you were, like, really dead, you’d be there.’
She pointed at the building across the garden, and something in my stomach curled up in the most uncomfortable manner. I suddenly didn’t want to know anything else about that building. Big mistake. I’d love to know more now that the initial shock is gone.
‘What am I, then, in a coma?’
‘On a trial,’ she replied, just as serenely, grabbing an apple with both hands. ‘You’ll go back, don’t worry. Here, have a bite,’ she said and threw the apple at me.
‘Wait, so I’m not dead then? Can I just go back to my life after whatever-this-is ends?’
I took a bite, and the juiciness felt amazing. It felt like life.
‘Nope. And nope.’

The corridor opens into another garden. Across the perfectly mowed lawn are my answers, neatly conserved into a room the size of my old living room. As we go inside my eyes fall upon Minerva, holding a bunch of paperwork – ‘Just paperwork, nothing of interest.’ – and waving it at me, showing us to sit down. There are comfy orange armchairs spread all over the room, and a large screen covered with a navy blue sheet in front of me. Milena sits next to me, and I don’t have the nerve to tell her that there doesn’t seem to be enough room for the both of us. She is feather thin anyway and doesn’t seem to mind. Gently, she puts her right arm on top of mine and rests against me.
‘Ready?’ she asks, and I nod my head.
I lie. The real reason why I don’t ask her to leave my side is because I’m terrified. I feel like I’m slowly peeling out of my skin and the tenderness of a touch is comforting.
Minerva takes a seat on an armchair at the other end of the room, sitting cross-legged and fiddling with her papers. She is dressed in black and beige, her red hair in a 50s up-do and her fingernails long and irregular. She’s not good with details, but she’s determined as all hell. The mere sound of her voice sends chills up and down my spine, and I know that whatever she has to say can not be easily contested.
‘She’s one to nibble on her fingers,’ Milena whispers to me, and I suddenly remember the nails.
I want to smile, but Minerva raises her head and looks at us. My breath stops for a minute and I can’t swallow.
‘May I get a glass of water?’ I ask, looking straight at her.
She gestures for Milena to go fetch us something to drink, and as my companion leaves the room I feel part of me leaving with it. I wanted to get out of here for a minute or so, but Minerva wouldn’t let me. I should have known she wouldn’t let me.
‘Alright Ava, let’s begin. Don’t worry,’ she smiles politely, looking at the empty seat next to me, ‘she’ll be back in no time. Place of birth?’
‘Uhm…’
‘Don’t worry, I’ve got that one here. Age of passing?’
I close my eyes for a moment, as her words pierce me.
‘Twen-‘
‘Yes, status?’
‘I… single?’
‘No, no. You were practically married there,’ she laughs. ‘You can’t say that. Try again.’
‘Not quite married?’
Minerva looks hard at me and scribbles something down.
‘I’ll call you out on this one later, but whatever,’ she mumbles. ‘What was the name of that dog you had in your past life, again?’
‘I… am I dead?’
Minerva stares at me blankly, impassively. Milena comes back in just in time and gives us both a glass of water with a slice of lemon, one of cucumber, and some mint.
‘Milena, what was her dog named again? Ava here doesn’t seem to remember.’
‘Sangre,’ she jumps with the answer, and I look from one to the other, eyes wide open. I’d give anything to close them and wake up in my bed again, next to Sangre licking my face.
Minerva looks concerned for a minute, a smirk slipping down her face.
‘Is that a joke?’
‘No. Well, in the beginning it was a joke, yes. But after five years, I’ve…’
‘You nothing. Ok, this is her. Let’s begin,’ she says out loud and dims the lights.
I breathe in and try to relax, but can’t even touch the water.

The first person I saw in here was actually Minerva. Milena came after. I was a nervous wreck at first and Minerva didn’t make it any easier for me. She gave me a stern look while I was vomiting questions at her, then asked for Milena. Moments later, this beautiful angel of a girl came in. She courteously kissed Minerva on the cheek and said she’d deal with me from then on. I felt like a piece of meat – only a lifeless one. Minerva turned around and, right before she left the room, told me I’d see her again when my turn would come. Milena gestured at me to drop it as yet another question was forming on my lips, sat down next to me on the bed, and held my hand as she spoke softly.
‘You are not dead. That’s all you need to know for now.’

‘Right, shall we then? Milena, uncover the screen for me, please.’
Minerva snaps her fingers, and Milena takes no offence in the gesture but runs to the screen in no time. One can tell quite easily that she is very used to commanding a place, but she likes the girl. I don’t think anybody could dislike Milena, anyway, which worried me in the beginning, because I selfishly hoped that she’d be my friend and confidant here.

‘I am not supposed to be your friend,’ she clarified it for me later, when my mind seemed a little more open, or too tired of ruminating; whatever one fits the narrative best. ‘I am here to give you some guidance and support throughout the processes that will come. I know that you like me, Ava, I can see that in you – and I like you too – but do not get attached to me, please. You will forget all about me when you leave this place, but if you get attached you’ll take parts of me and put them into your next life, and that’s not right. You need to find your own-‘
‘Into my what now?’
She waves at me to brush it off.
‘Minerva will explain. I am no more than a companion, remember. I can not tell you anything, but I can tell you that everything will make sense for you soon, and then you can start rebuilding yourself up for the next…’ she bites her lip hard and looks away.
I suddenly like her even more. She looks and feels human to me for a second there. As for the asking…

The screen shows a number of photos of me at different ages, together with some demographics and other notes I can barely read, let alone understand. I gave up on understanding how they know what they know about me when Milena checked to see whether my mental capacities were normal by asking me to confirm a bunch of very, and I mean very, private things she had previously listed. A quick glance at the papers she was holding told me that she wasn’t making anything up, but her face wouldn’t give anything away when I pointed at them and gave her the look.
‘You are sort of dead, Ava, hence why you’re here. Of course we know all about you. It’s what we deal with for a living, as you would say. What did you expect? That you’d be a mystery to us as well?’
She clicks some buttons on a strange-looking remote, curses quietly as the screen takes a few moments to load, then puts the papers away and folds her arms to her chest. I’m not a genius when it comes to body language, but something tells me that while she must have done this before, she feels uncomfortable too.
‘Ava… you… ah… hang on, no, that’s not right… there we go, it’s started. We’ll start here,’ she gestures towards the screen and I see eight-year-old me running around in circles in my parents’ living room.
I am baffled, but Milena’s squeeze on my hand reminds me that nothing should surprise me. After all, I am sort of dead, right?
‘Ava,’ Minerva continues after clearing her throat uncomfortably, ‘this was you at the tender age of eight, running around like a little maniac when you parents asked you to say hello to their guests, am I right?’
‘I… why eight? That happened before.’
I have so many questions, but I already know they’d go answered if I’d ask them now.
Minerva pauses the video and turns to us.
‘Milena, have you told her anything?’
‘Nope,’ she answers quickly, no emotion in her voice. ‘You asked me not to.’
‘Ava… listen now. We’ll take a look at your life and analyse your good, respectively bad deeds. We start around the age of seven – eight for you, as you’ve not done anything notably important at age seven – because children younger than that can’t quite be held responsible for their acts, so we give them the benefit of doubt. If they arrive here before that age, we send them to a different department that deals with them in different ways from ours.
Then the karma you accumulated are the points you get to spend on your new character creation. Does that sound right?’
‘Fantastic,’ I mumble, and my jaw drops. ‘Is this a joke?’
‘No, Ava, this is you in your entirety. If it all looks like a self-parody, it’s also because of you.’
‘That’s not what I mea-’
Milena squeezes my hand tightly as I gasp and Minerva presses play again.
‘Shut up,’ she says, ‘karma isn’t a static thing. It’s all down to interpretation, and you want Minerva to like you.’
‘Can I request a second opinion?’ I whisper into her ear as she pushes me away, but I know she’s heard me.
‘Later on that,’ she says, and lies back. ‘Right now, let us introduce you to you.’

Act 1. I am eight years old. I run around in circles in my parents’ living room, oblivious to them and the six other adults trying to either catch me or have a conversation away from me. I take over the room, jumping on the sofa, ducking behind tables and chairs, spinning and yelling and making a complete scene – and an idiot of myself, though an excusable one, I think, because I am eight.
Minerva doesn’t seem to agree with me. I hear her drawing a long line on paper, then putting it all away again, I don’t know this, but I think I know what it means. Milena presses her lips together, but doesn’t say anything.
Act 2. I am either eleven or twelve, I can’t remember. I looked pretty much the same throughout my last pre-teen years. I am at school, reciting a poem in front of the whole class and the parents who bothered to show up. The camera, if I can call it that, zooms in on my teacher. Mrs Barley is in the corner, hiding behind a curtain, whispering my lines at me. I say them, but I say them very softly, too. There are children booing at me and parents showing me to speak louder, but I ignore them all the way to the end. This isn’t my show, it’s just a stupid play pretend to impress adults, so I don’t bother to do it right.
I close my eyes for a moment. Eleven. I was eleven, and this was one of our monthly little shows we put up together to up our confidence for when we went to high school. Mrs Barley greatly believed in the power to stand up and speak, no matter how much an introvert one was. She said it was our choice whether to do it or not later in life, but she won’t let us finish school without knowing that she’s raised a generation of capable young almost-adults, as she called us.
Minerva looks down and takes some notes again as the film plays. I decide to stop looking at her. Whatever the verdict, focusing on her won’t influence a thing. And, who knows, maybe someone’s taping me looking at her instead of the showreel of my life now, too.
Act 3. I am fourteen, almost fifteen in this one. My hair is the longest it has ever been, dark brown, beautifully worn in a mane everybody stares at. Somebody hands me a flier on the street and asks me to model for them. I smile shyly but keep walking. I don’t see it, but I remember it – that night, I cried myself to sleep. I said no because I knew I didn’t have it in me to model, not because it could have been a scam. Doubts were beginning to creep up on me around that age. I didn’t have anything in me, no depth and no spark, I used to think. And ah, like most women, despite all the polishing my realest self will always be fifteen years old.
I get it. These are representations of my then behaviour, for me to understand all the chances I had lost. A shiver travels through me because, just you wait, there’s so much more to see.

‘I get it, I get it,’ I say, breaking off the silence. ‘I’ve wasted some chances to do some things at the best of my abilities – but what’s your point? So has everyone. Also, can I speak to your supervis-’
‘No such thing in here, love.’
Minerva’s no bullshit voice comes like a slap in the face after all I have seen.
‘May I tell her?’ Milena intervenes, and Minerva nods her head slowly.
‘Sure darling. You must practise, anyway. Good girl.’
‘She’s not a d-’
‘Shut up, Ava,’ Minerva says again, and I can only shut my mouth this time.
I turn to Milena, who’s sitting so close to me that I can almost feel her warm breath on my face. She hasn’t let go of my hand for a moment this whole time, but she does now.
‘Ava, this might come as a shock to you, as you seemed pretty happy with your life, but we’ve decided to kill you not because you’ve done some things worse than others, but because your existence was pointless.’
I blink hard. Milena looks upset, but serious.
‘That, I’m afraid, is the point.’

There are many things that make up a life. Try it – replay a few memorable moments of yours in your mind and you’ll see what I mean. What comes first? The faces, the feelings, the achievements? The streets, the summer nights, the could-have-should-have-would-haves? The almost friends, the almost lovers, each and every almost there? Those dreams that seduced you but were too fast to be chased, that last cigarette you washed out with beer before having to find your way back home on your own again, the delicious feelings that you didn’t know how to find on your own so you kept going back to get your fix? The cup of coffee that warmed your hands on a cool autumn day, the last sigh you breathed out after you crawled into bed, found the most comfortable spot, and was ready to drift off to sleep? How you were relatable, just never enough to be included? How life was at times both your friend and your fan? How they told you that being fiery was the best thing about you, and the scariest thing about you, but every time you smiled they knew they jumped through all the right hoops and got something right; and how they left because somehow you became too much, despite you feeling you were always too little? How quickly you used to bounce back from every knock, until… but wait, you are not dead yet. I was just about to say ‘until the one that knocked you dead,’ but that probably has not happened to you yet. Good. Good on you. Keep going. Believe me, you don’t want to be dead. You want to stay alive and make your own decisions for as long as you possibly can, even if you think it sucks and you’d rather have been born a duck.

‘But wait, don’t panic. This is not the end. There are many ways you can choose to go from here, and most of them are about staying alive.’
I look at her through all the tears I didn’t let her see until the ending of our first meeting.
‘As what? I only want to be myself.’
She sighs. We’re in the garden, under a tree, and the cool breeze makes me shiver.
‘I don’t know, Ava… most people are pretty excited about starting over. At least that’s what they say at first.’
‘Yeah, well I was excited about my life, thank you. My small, beautiful, pointless life.’
I’m into vibrant living, you see. I don’t like dulling out, my focus diluting, my feelings evaporating. I like to feel manically, beautifully, as fully as I can. Sure, I hate bad feelings as much as the next person, but I’ll even take that if it means I get to keep this fantastic capacity to dive into the deepest part of my soul. After all, the exit is always through the wound.
My body, on the other hand, feels strange and unfamiliar. It’s one of those evenings when your body and soul seem like two separate entities, when you feel exiled from the home within your own heart. I can’t help the horrible feeling that a part of me is leaving it, and it’s my favourite part. My most me-like part. I’m so hurt I feel I’m bleeding myself out.
‘There’s a lot to save from it, still,’ Milena says. ‘You can keep a lot of yourself, Ava. You just can’t go back to… being Ava.’
‘Thanks, I guess, but that’s not making me feel better. Just because you’re winning a game doesn’t mean it’s a good game. And I’m not really winning myself back here anyway, if all I get to keep is some pieces.’
‘We’re very sorry. I know I am. But it’s our duty to look at people’s lives and pick out the ones who… well, we told you.’
One question burns through me and I just have to let it out.
‘Will I get to see my loved ones again?’
‘Probably, but you won’t know you love them, and they won’t know they love you.’

There are plenty of others around me, trying to make sense of the news, trying to orchestrate the complexity. I’m doing my best to remain attentive and alert. If I force myself to look my strangers in the eyes it’s easy to spot which ones are more aggressive and which ones have a personality that borders on playful.
I see many faces just like mine – bizarrely detached, but not quite. After all, despite the differences, these are all people mourning the loss of their loved ones still alive, and it takes being one of them to fully grasp the immensity of this feeling of loss. The more I watch them, the more everything falls silent within me.
And then there’s Calvin. I meet Calvin today, knowing nothing about what he is just about to mean to me. What a moment, stretching for miles in my mind.
My first thought is that Calvin is one of the most attractive men I’ve seen, dead or alive, but that’s not what intrigues me about him. Calvin sits on a bench with a notepad on his lap, scribbling away and laughing to himself as if he’s just discovered a way out and is worried the flow of ideas would dry up.
‘What kind of person laughs in here? This is all terrible,’ I find myself asking out loud, surprised at the tone of my own voice.
I sound so bitter and so angry, it amazes me when he looks up at me with a smile.
‘If you ask me? An interesting one.’
His voice is calm and reasonable, and I find myself taking a few dazed steps, lost for words.
He’s got some more, though.
‘Want to have a look? Sit.’
I sit next to him, dead curious. It’s a bunch of doodles, bullet point lists and half-sentences, and I realise he’s…
‘Brainstorming how to make a hero,’ he smiles. ‘I figured I might as well commit to my next life like crazy, since I messed up the last one. How you define yourself in here determines what you are able to do when they let you go. Plus, planning relieves oneself of the great psychic burden uncertainty gives, so it’s a party on the inside for me. I’m Calvin.’
He puts his hand out, and I feel like snapping at him for everything that’s gone so awfully wrong ever since I arrived.
’And I’m dead!’ I shout, ready to run a soft cloth over all of my memories so they stay shiny and keep me sane and away from lunatics like him. ‘And so are you!’
‘Which is precisely why I’m planning my next life. I’ve been dead for a while and I’m starting to get bored. Although, I must say… you know we’re not really, dead dead?’

The days that followed were the kind of days I would like to press pause on and live forever; sure, assuming that live would be the right word to use in this case.

to be continued

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