Ch. 70 – Postlude (1)

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Ever since his mother had passed away that way, Junior had been afraid of his own death. He knew that it was the exact opposite of what she’d told him to do. (“Don’t be afraid of death,” she’d said on their last day together.) But how could he not be afraid?

It had happened on one sunny winter day. His mother, then sixty years old, had breathed but had been unconscious.

Then she’d recovered her consciousness. That was when she’d told him about a hotel and how he shouldn’t be afraid of death and how on the other side, people treated death in a kind, professional manner. That period of lucidity had lasted only for half a day.

And then she’d returned to breathing but being unconscious. She’d stayed so for three years until her heart stopped.

In those three years, many doctors visited the Steele family’s farm. Research papers were written about her.

“What a miracle,” everyone said. “She’s breathing but can’t perceive a thing that goes on around her. But she’s not getting bedsores and there’s no hint of muscle atrophy. She’s not eating, yet she’s not losing weight. Every test indicates that she’s healthy. It’s fascinating.”

The family discussed various options. To put Grandmama Angeline in a hospital or not?

“But why?” Junior’s wife said. “It’s not like they’ll give her any sort of treatment. She isn’t in pain. She isn’t a hassle to any of us here. She’s just sleeping.”

Sleeping, for three years.

Every morning before going to the field and every evening upon return, Junior had visited his mother in her bed. And every time, he’d held his finger in front of her nose, checked her pulse at her wrist, and pressed his ear against her heart in a hug.

One evening, she wasn’t breathing anymore, there was no pulse, her heart had stopped beating. Just like that.

For three days afterward, Junior refused to have his mother put in a body fridge. The thing that scared him more than death was the thought of not dying yet people thinking that he was dead. He didn’t want to put his mother through something like that.

Even after burying her, he visited her grave every morning and every evening for three full months. After checking that no one was listening, he shouted at the grave, “Mother?”

She never answered. That relieved him, which made him feel bad, but just a little, because truly, being buried alive was worse than being buried because one was dead.

For fifty long years thereafter, Junior led a happy life. He didn’t visit his mother’s grave as often, but always at least once a week. He saw his daughter, named after his mother, grow and get married and have her own children. He and his wife never had a passionate relationship, but that meant that they didn’t go through passionate disappointments, and that was okay with him.

This was just a guess, but Junior had always believed that his mother used to have a refined and passionate life somewhere else that wasn’t the countryside. The way she handled teaware so carefully, the way she took plenty of time to do her hair, and the way she hummed while she gazed out of the window told him so. She had someone she missed dearly. A lover. His father, maybe. And although the sight of yearning was beautiful, he thought it must hurt a great deal.

He’d never regretted choosing a different kind of life. A peaceful life. A repetitive life. Often, at night, he did dream about a dozen alternate lifestyles he could have had, ones with more excitement and adventure. The stormy, restless side of him required that he be allowed to dream, at least.

But dreaming was all he did. That sufficed. Dreaming didn’t necessarily mean that he resented reality. He was happy where he was and with whom he was.

At any rate, fifty years after his mother’s death, Junior lay on his deathbed at home. He was afraid. Oh, so afraid of death as well as what would come after. He couldn’t decide which was more terrifying: that there was nothing after death or that there was a hotel where people treated death in a kind, professional manner.

How was he supposed to navigate that hotel? Why had his mother told him such things? What if he became unconscious, only to wake up later, to realize that he’d already been buried?

He’d asked his wife and daughter to please not bury him or put him in a fridge for at least three days after his death. They’d both promised to watch him day and night during that period of time.

But what if he woke up on the fourth day? Or on the fifth day?

Ah, this worry was worse than death itself.

“I thought starving was bad enough,” a woman said on the left side of his bed. “But when you’re starved to the point of delirium, you aren’t this worried about dying.”

“I still say starving is the worst,” a man said on the right side. “You wish to be dead without knowing what comes next. That’s terrible.”

Junior would have jumped out of bed if he could have. But his body was heavy. Panic built up. He hyperventilated. Realized that he wasn’t inhaling or exhaling. Wondered how, then, it was that he thought he was hyperventilating. He was going mad.

“This makes me doubt that he’s Zach’s son,” the man said.

“Oh, you never know how he would have grown up if Zach had had the chance to raise him,” the woman said. Her voice sounded teary.

“Still. Zach found it so easy to accept death. He wasn’t this afraid.”

“I can’t stop this.” The woman sniffled. “Oh, why am I crying?”

“There, there.”

“It’s like seeing the grandson I never thought I had.” Then the woman told Junior, “Because, honey, your maybe-father is like a son to me.”

“Hush, don’t tell him too much.”

The woman ignored the man. “So, don’t be afraid, dear,” she whispered into Junior’s ear. “And don’t feel bad about being afraid. Ignore everything this man says.”

It was nighttime. These people weren’t one of Junior’s friends or relatives. The friends and relatives were exhausted because he’d been dragging on the process of death for many days. (Not that they were angry about that or anything.) They were drifting in and out of fitful sleep on chairs and couches in this room and the adjoining room. Those who were awake read a book or spoke in low voices. None of them were paying attention to him at this particular moment.

Most importantly, none of them wore a ridiculous black dress, the kind that women from the renaissance period wore in paintings hanging in art museums. Also, that man, on the other side of the bed, he wore the male counterpart of the ridiculous dress, which meant that he looked even more ridiculous. Women sometimes wore all sorts of dresses for formal occasions, but men? Men didn’t wear stockings these days. That was outrageous. Men also didn’t wear capes. It was unbelievable. Besides, that man wrapped the cape around his abdomen. Did he really think that was going to cover up the fact that it was of an incredibly substantial size?

Who were these people?

“Who are you?” Junior said, and to his relief, he could hear his own voice.

“We’re here to take you to the other side, my friend,” the man said.

And just like that, the couple from the renaissance painting grabbed his hands and pulled him out of his body.

Junior gasped. He was gazing at himself, lying in bed, eyes half closed. No one had noticed it yet. All the friends and relatives were still dozing off, reading, or whispering to each other. Apparently, he hadn’t made the slightest sound.

“Don’t tell me that there is a hotel on the other side,” Junior said.

“Oh, you betcha, there is one,” the woman said.

“Holy shit,” Junior said.

“Language, young fellow,” the man said.

Junior stared at him. This man in the ridiculous cape had to be at least a generation younger than Junior. Probably around his daughter’s age. How insane, then, for him to call Junior “young fellow”—

“You have no idea how old I am,” the man said.

Then the surroundings blurred and they stood in a boat, carried by a gentle river.

© 2022 Ithaka O.

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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.
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