I want to believe in God, but I doubt that 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 felt like we could get along again, even if I let Him exist again out of sheer desperation. It wouldn’t be like when I was little and He was bigger than the world, which was hard to imagine even for an imaginative child. Hell no. It would probably be more like, ‘Ok, you can come out of the bottle now, I’ve got my three wishes, are you ready?’ I shake my head—in disbelief, I might add—and laugh to myself, and it rattles something awake inside me. It’s bittersweet to let myself feel something, however small. I remain true 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 just a window through which I poke my head in and out between daydreams. Memories like slow-moving tropical fish swim through my mind, some real, some slightly fictionalised by my loneliness, my boredom, and my need to ramp up my badassity here and there to make the stories better. Most are about a man I met at the end of my life. Five months before the end, to be exact. I am sure I’ll never see him again, but my heart still glows at the thought of him, and the memories keep me company these days—or however you look at time around here. After all, it’s not like I’ve found anything to look forward to. I might as well look back, at 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 in his fist. Before him, I kept putting my heart in the hands of men who fussed with its weight and eventually decided they wanted something lighter and a little cooler. But in those short, short months, he seemed to not only accept but desire the darkest, most daring versions of me. It was the most intimate connection I have had, and I find myself longing for more time to see where it could have led. Tick, tock. If only I could truly accept that I have been clocked out for a while now. But how could I? For the first time in my little life, I was experimenting with revealing myself to an audience (of one), and there was still so much of me to reveal. Of course, I also made a lot of mistakes. Some days I pushed the wrong buttons and completely forgot about what brought the good out. Still, I fell asleep peacefully on those nights because I knew there was always the next day to make it right. If only I knew it was ending. We had only just begun. It all seems so close that I wish I could just grab it and stop this.
A short knock on the door snaps me out of my daydream and brings me back to the dreaded now.
‘Come in, Milena,’ I say, and Milena comes in cheerfully with a tray, which she places on the bed.
Normally I’d say she’s infectious, a delicious little ray of sunshine in the form of a petite blonde girl without a care in the world. Yet, I only give her a smile. I’m not in the mood for her. As sweet as she seems, she’s strange and evasive. I desperately long for something to comfort me other than a smiling girl who knows everything but won’t say anything.
‘In-between mainlining coffee into my eyeballs I am at your service, you know,’ she says and sits down on the bed, patting the space next to her to get me closer. ‘But you’ll have to ask for me. I have others to take care of, too.’
‘I know,’ I sigh, playing with my food, ‘or I think I do. But I was fine.’
‘Lies,’ she laughs, reaching out to give my shoulder a quick squeeze. Her touch sends shivers up and down my spine. ‘You just weren’t ready to have 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 says nothing.
This game can’t be won, not when I don’t even understand what we’re playing.
‘Listen,’ she says, ‘just get ready. I’ll meet you at the end of the hall. After today, everything will be much clearer. I promise. You don’t have to be afraid.’
‘I wouldn’t even know what to be afraid of.’
Milena leaves the room before I have a chance to protest again. I spend another minute or so staring into space. Something about her life—if she even sees it that way—flows clean, with passion, like fresh water. She could not trip over her demons if she tried.
For a moment I forget who I am and see in the mirror a beautiful girl getting ready. She has clear eyes, soft lips, cheeks with a hint of blood, dark eyebrows, and hair that curls with life. I run a finger over my lower lip, over my cheekbones, over my shoulder. I am not put together at all, nor am I broken. I just am, though I’m not sure I could answer any of the big questions: who, what, when, where, how.
‘You’re not dead,’ I remember Milena saying to me when I first woke up here. ‘That’s all you need to know right now. If you were like, really dead, you’d be all the way over there.’
‘Then what am I? In a coma?’
‘On a trial,’ she replied calmly, grabbing an apple with both hands. ‘You’ll go back, don’t worry. Here, take a bite, you need to eat something,’ and tossed me another apple.
‘Wait, so I’m not dead? Can I just go back to my life if I play along…?’
I took a bite, and the juiciness felt incredible. It felt like life, dear life.
‘Nope. And nope.’
The corridor opens into another garden. On the other side of the perfectly mowed lawn are my answers, neatly stored in a room the size of my old living room. As we walk in, my eyes fall on Minerva holding something—‘Just paperwork, nothing of interest.’ She waves me over and indicates that we should sit down. There are comfy orange armchairs scattered around the room, and in front of me is a large screen covered with a navy blue sheet. Milena sits down next to me, and I don’t dare tell her that there isn’t enough room for both of us. She’s light as a feather and doesn’t seem to mind. Gently she puts her right arm on mine and leans against me.
‘Ready?’ she asks, and I nod my head.
I lie. The real reason I don’t ask her to leave my side is because I’m scared. I feel like I’m slowly peeling out of my skin, and the tenderness of a touch is comforting.
Minerva takes a seat in an armchair at the far end of the room, sitting cross-legged and fiddling with her papers. She’s dressed in black and beige, her red hair pulled up into a 50s hairstyle, her fingernails long and uneven. She’s not good with details, but she’s determined as all hell. Just the sound of her voice sends a shiver down my spine, and I know that what she’s to say won’t be easy to refute.
‘She’s one to nibble her fingers,’ Milena whispers to me.
I want to smile, but Minerva raises her head and looks at us. My breath stops for a moment and I can’t swallow.
‘Can I have a glass of water?’ I ask, looking straight at her.
She gestures for Milena to get us something to drink, and as my companion leaves the room, I feel a part of me leave with her. 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 get started. Don’t worry,’ she smiles politely and looks at the empty seat next to me, ‘she’ll be right back. Birthplace?’
‘Don’t worry, I’ve got that one right here. Age of transition?’
I close my eyes for a moment as her words pierce me.
‘No, no,’ she laughs, ‘try again.’
‘Not married? It’s complicated?’
Minerva looks at me sternly and scribbles something down.
‘I’ll hold that against you later,’ she mutters. ‘What was the name of that dog you’d in your previous life?’
‘I… Am I dead?’
Minerva stares at me, expressionless and impassive. Milena comes back in just in time and hands us both a glass of water with a slice of lemon and some mint.
‘Milena, what was her dog’s name again? Ava here doesn’t seem to remember.’
‘Sangre,’ she jumps, and I look from one to the other with wide eyes. 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 moment, then a grin shows across her face.
‘Was that a joke?’
‘No. Well, it was a joke at first, yes. But after five years, I…’
‘You nothing. Okay, this is it. Let’s get started,’ she says, dimming the lights.
I breathe in and try to relax, but can’t even touch the glass.
The first person I saw in here was Minerva. After that came Milena. I was a nervous wreck at first, and Minerva didn’t make it any easier. She gave me a stern look while I peppered her with questions, and then asked for Milena. Moments later, this beautiful angel of a girl walked in. She politely kissed Minerva on the cheek and said that she’d take care of me from now on. I felt like a piece of meat—only lifeless. Minerva turned around and told me, just before she left the room, that I’d see her again when it was my turn. Milena gestured at me to drop it as another question formed 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, get the screen ready for me, please.’
Minerva snaps her fingers, and Milena takes no offence at the gesture, but walks over to the screen. You can tell she’s used to commanding a space, but she likes the girl. I do not think anyone could dislike Milena, which annoyed me at first because I selfishly hoped she would be my friend and confidante here.
‘I am not meant to be your friend,’ she explained to me later, when my mind seemed to be a little more open, or too tired of ruminating; whichever fits the narrative best. ‘I am here to guide and support you in the processes to come. I know you like me, Ava, I can tell—and I like you too—but do not tie yourself to me, please. You’ll forget all about me when you leave this place, but if you attach yourself to me, you’ll take parts of me with you into your next life, and that’s not right. You have to find your own…’
‘Into my what now?’
She waves me off.
‘Minerva will explain it to you. I am nothing more than a companion, remember. I can not tell you anything, but I can tell you that everything will make sense to you soon, and then you can start getting ready for the next…’ she bites her lip and looks away.
I suddenly like her even more. For a second, she looks and feels human to me. And as for the question…
The screen shows a series of photos of me at various ages, along with some demographics and other notes that I can barely read, let alone understand. I gave up trying to understand how they know what they know about me when Milena checked to see if my mental faculties were normal by asking me to confirm a number of very, I mean very, private things she had listed earlier. A quick glance at the papers she was holding told me she had not made anything up, but her face revealed nothing.
‘You are sort of dead, Ava, that’s why you are here. Of course, we know all about you. That’s what we deal with, as you would say. What did you expect? That you would be a mystery to us, too?’
She clicks a few buttons on a strange-looking remote now, curses softly as the screen takes a few moments to load, then puts all the papers away and sits next to me with her arms crossed. I am no genius when it comes to body language, but something tells me she’s uncomfortable, though she must have done this before.
‘Ava… you… ah… wait a minute, no, that’s not right… there we go, it started. We will start here,’ she points to the screen and I see my eight-year-old self walking in circles in my parents’ living room.
I am taken aback, 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, ‘that was you at the tender age of eight, running around like a little crazy person when your parents asked you to greet their guests, am I right?’
‘I… why eight? It’s happened before.’
I have so many questions, but I already know that if I asked them now, they would go unanswered.
Minerva pauses the video and turns to us.
‘Milena, did you tell her something?’
‘No,’ she answers quickly, without any emotion in her voice. ‘You asked me not to.’
‘Ava… listen now. We’ll take a look at your life and analyse your good, or bad deeds. We’ll start at seven—eight for you, since you haven’t done anything particularly important at seven—because kids younger than that can’t be responsible for much yet, so we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. If they get here before that age, we send them to another department that deals with them differently than ours. Then we add it all up. The karma you’ve accumulated are the points you can spend on creating your new character. Does that sound right?’
‘Fantastic,’ I mutter, my jaw dropping. ‘Is this a joke?’
‘No, Ava, this is you in your entirety. If this all seems like a self-parody, that’s on you, too.’
‘That’s not what I meant.’
Milena squeezes my hand again as I gasp and Minerva squeezes Play again.
‘Shut up,’ she says, ‘Karma isn’t something static. It’s all a matter of interpretation, and you want Minerva to like you.’
‘Can I get a second opinion?’ I whisper in her ear as she pushes me away, but I know she heard me.
‘We’ll get to that later,’ she says, ‘For now, let us introduce you to you.’
Act 1. I’m eight years old. I’m running around in circles in my parents’ living room, oblivious to them and the six other adults who’re trying to either catch me or have a conversation with me. I take over the room, jumping around on the sofa, ducking behind tables and chairs, spinning and screaming and making a complete scene—and an idiot out of myself, albeit an excusable one, I think, because I’m eight. Minerva doesn’t seem to agree with me. I hear her draw a long line on the paper and then put it all away again. I don’t know exactly, but I think I know what it means. Milena presses her lips together, but says nothing.
Act 2. I’m either eleven or twelve, I cannot remember. I looked pretty much the same throughout my preschool years. I’m at school reciting a poem in front of the whole class and the parents who bothered to show up. The camera, if I may call it that, zooms in on my teacher. Mrs. Barley stands in the corner, hidden behind a curtain, whispering my lines to me. I say them, but I say them very softly.
There are kids booing me and parents telling me to speak up, but I ignore them until the end. This isn’t my show, it’s just a silly play to impress the 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 the monthly little performances we put on together to boost our self-confidence. Ms. Barley was a firm believer in the power of public speaking, no matter how introverted you were. She said it was our choice whether or not we wanted to do that later in life, but she wouldn’t let us finish school without knowing that she’d raised a generation of capable young almost-adults.
Minerva looks down and goes back to taking notes while the movie plays. I decide not to watch it again. Whatever the verdict, it won’t change anything if I focus on her. And who knows, maybe someone will take notes on how I watch them instead of watching the movie reel of my life.
Act 3. I’m fourteen, almost fifteen in this one. My hair is longer than ever, dark brown, beautifully worn in a mane that everyone stares at. Someone presses a flyer into my hand on the street and asks me to model for him. I smile shyly and keep walking. I don’t see it, but I remember—that night I cried myself to sleep. I said no because I knew I couldn’t model, not because it might’ve been a scam. At that age, doubts began to creep up on me. I had nothing in me, no depth and no spark, I used to think. And like most women, the real me, despite all the polish, my most real self will always be fifteen years old.
‘I get it, I get it,’ I say, breaking the silence before moving on to the next scene. ‘I’ve wasted some chances to make the most of my abilities—but what’s your point? So has everyone else. Also, can I talk to your supervisor?’
‘There’s no such thing here, my dear.’
Minerva’s blunt voice comes like a slap in the face.
‘Can I tell her?’ Milena intervenes, and Minerva slowly nods her head.
‘Sure, sweetheart. You need to practise anyway. Good girl.’
‘Shut up, Ava,’ Minerva says again, and all I can do this time is keep my mouth shut.
I turn to Milena, who’s sitting so close to me that I can almost feel her warm breath on my face. All this time she hasn’t let go of my hand, but now she does.
‘Ava, this might come as a shock to you, because you seemed quite content with your life, but we decided to kill you, not because you did anything 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 in your mind and you’ll see what I mean. What comes first? The faces, the feelings, the successes? The streets, the summer nights, the could-have-beens? The almost-friends, the almost-lovers, every single almost-there? The dreams that seduced you but were too fast to chase, the last cigarette you washed down with beer before you had to find your way back home alone, the delicious feelings you could not find on your own so you kept going back for your fix? The cup of coffee that warmed your hands on a cool autumn day? The last sigh you exhaled after crawling into bed, finding the most comfortable spot and 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 the fiery part of you was the best part, but also the scariest part? How every time you smiled they knew they had jumped through all the right hoops and got something right, because they got you? How they left you because you somehow became too much, even though you felt you were always too little? How quickly you used to bounce back from each blow until… But wait, you are not dead yet. I was just about to say until the one that knocked you out, but that probably has not happened to you yet. That’s good. Good for you. Believe me, you do not want to be dead. You want to stay alive and make your own decisions for as long as possible, 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 paths you can take from here, and most of them are about staying alive.’
I look at her through all the tears I did not show her until the end of our first meeting. It was short, really. They cut it short because I did not look relaxed enough, they said. Ah, on earth as it is in heaven.
‘As what? I just want to be myself.’
She sighs. We’re in the garden, under a tree, and the cool breeze makes me shiver.
‘Ava…most people are pretty excited about starting over at this point. At least that’s what they say. ‘
‘Yeah, well, I was excited about my life, thank you. My small, beautiful, pointless life.’
Because I love life, 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 sadness as much as the next person, but I’ll even take that if it means I can dive further into the deepest part of my soul. After all, the exit is always through the wound.
My body, however, feels strange and unfamiliar. It’s becoming a separate entity from my soul. I’m being expelled from my inner home.
They are asking me to recreate my whole heart. I can’t help the horrible feeling that a part of me is leaving it, and it’s my favourite part. The part that makes me, me. I’m so hurt that I feel like I’m bleeding myself out.
‘There’s still a lot you can save from it,’ Milena says. ‘You can keep a lot of yourself, Ava. You just can’t go back to being… Ava.’
‘Thanks, I guess, but that doesn’t make me feel any 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 I only get to keep a few pieces.’
‘We’re very sorry. I know I’m sorry. But it’s our duty to look at people’s lives and pick out the ones that… well, we told you.’
A question burns inside 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 many others around me trying to understand the news and sort out the complexities. I’m doing my best to stay attentive and alert. If I look my strangers in the eye long enough, I can easily tell which are more aggressive and which have the kind of personality that borders on playful. I see many faces just like mine—bizarrely detached, but not quite.
Despite the differences, these are all people grieving the loss of a loved one who’s still alive, and it takes being one of them to fully grasp the immensity of that feeling. The more I observe them, the less I want to keep track of the differences. The more everything falls silent within me.
And then there’s Calvin. I meet Calvin today, knowing nothing about what he is 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 ever seen, dead or alive, but that’s not what intrigues me about him. Calvin is sitting on a bench with a notepad on his lap, doodling away and laughing as if he’s just discovered a way out and fears the flow of ideas will dry up.
‘What kind of person laughs in here? This is all terrible,’ I ask aloud, surprised at the tone of my own voice.
I sound so bitter and angry that I’m taken aback when he looks up at me with a smile.
‘If you ask me? An interesting one.’
His voice is deep and surprisingly calm, and I find myself taking a few dazed steps because I’m at a loss for words. But he’s more.
‘Do you want to take a look? Sit down.’
I sit next to him, curious. It’s a bunch of doodles, bullet points, and half-sentences, and I realise he’s…
‘Brainstorming how to make a hero,’ he smiles. ‘I figured I might as well focus like crazy on my next life, since I screwed up the last one. How you define yourself here determines what you can do when they let you go. Plus, planning relieves you of a lot of the stress that comes with uncertainty, so it’s a party on the inside for me. I’m Calvin.’
He puts his hand out, and I want to snap at him for everything that’s gone so terribly wrong since I’ve been here. I can’t believe another human being would embrace the madness like this.
‘And I’m dead!’ I yell, ready to run a soft cloth over all my memories to keep them shiny and keep me away from lunatics like him. ‘And so are you!’
‘That’s exactly why I’m planning my next life. I’ve been dead for a while and I’m starting to get bored. Although, I’ve to 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. Assuming, of course, that ‘live’ would be the right word in this case.
to be continued