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Jump to the Prelude
Angeline opened her eyes to the sorrowful wailing of several men, women, and children. Confused, she sat up—on the soft bed in her solitary bedroom.
Yes, she remembered, this was where she’d been before she’d fallen asleep last night. Then, Zach had visited the room in her mind.
What she didn’t remember was having so many people around her. Zach Junior and his wife and their daughter, Little Angeline, and so many other Steele relatives surrounded her bed.
“What’s going on?” she said, squinting at the bright sunlight.
Someone had pushed back all the curtains. They’d opened the windows, too, letting in the winter wind. It smelled of snow that had settled down on the dormant cornfields that were called so for practical purposes, not because they were actually dormant. They sheltered insects and birds throughout the cold season. Life overflowed there, just in a quieter, gentler, and slower way compared to life during the growing season.
The snow had frozen overnight. Angeline could smell it melting, that release of the scents of plant matter and dirt that had been trapped inside the ice. It was a crisp day.
“Mother,” said Junior, tear streaks covering his face, “we thought you were— we thought— you were— dead. You weren’t moving. We pushed back the curtains, but you weren’t waking up. You weren’t reacting to any noise, any light, nothing. You were breathing, but it was like you were dead. The doctor was just here. He said we had to take you to a bigger hospital, and even then you might not ever wake up. We didn’t know what to do.”
Angeline stared at her son. He was a grown man of thirty, right around that age when she had last seen Zach in this world. By now, she’d thought that she’d know for sure who Junior’s father was. The boy was, well, a boy, and didn’t boys take after their fathers?
This one hadn’t. This one took after his mother. He had the same green eyes as her, the same stormy temperament, and the same restlessness. Thankfully, he also had the same intelligence and big heart—if it wasn’t too arrogant to say so—and understood from a very early age that there was a reason his mother didn’t take them to a big city. They were here, with the Steeles, to stay.
Junior didn’t have long fingers like Zach. Junior didn’t have a babyface like Gus.
He also wasn’t as tall as Zach. He wasn’t as broad and huge as Gus.
Junior was Angeline’s. And just as she’d never questioned that, he’d never questioned it. He’d never blamed her for his fatherlessness; never expressed his wish for a father figure. For that, Angeline loved her son even more.
A full-grown man with his own family and land, Junior was. Yet he had momentarily lapsed into the helplessness of childhood because he’d thought that his mother had died. Age didn’t matter when it came to the fear of losing one’s mother. Angeline remembered feeling the same terror when she’d lost hers. For a moment, that memory of terror and the terror that she saw on her son’s face were so real, she thought that she’d dreamed everything that had happened in the chaos.
But there were two shadows looming behind Junior. They weren’t as dense as the worm shapes, but they were of a similar shade, and there were definitely two. Flip and Flop, the reapers, had crossed to this world with her. She wasn’t imagining things.
“It’s all right,” Angeline told Junior, hugging him. “It’s all right. I’m not dead.”
Junior and Little Angeline and all the Steeles joined in the hug. They cried some more while Angeline thought, So, this is what happens when I leave that room in my head.
Her consciousness or her soul, whatever was the name of the thing that drove the human machine, left this world to join another. To beforeworlders, it looked as if she were in a coma of sorts. This was what Zach had been concerned about when he’d said that he didn’t know what would happen if she left the room with him.
Now she understood. And now, she had to go back to that room to leave it again.
“Kids,” she said.
She was glad that she’d come back to see her child and his child and his wife and everyone else again. How crazy it’d been of her to think that she could just leave without saying goodbye!
But say goodbye she would. The son she loved had his family. He had relatives. For those people, those who could surround him in her absence, she’d left New York and come here. Now was the time for her to leave. There wasn’t going to be another chance to choose the moment and method of departure.
© 2022 Ithaka O.
All rights reserved.This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.No part of this story may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author.