Title of the story is: White Haze. The genre could be considered fantasy/paranormal. Word count is 8,226.
Sweat runs down my cheek and drips from my chin. My shoulders ache and my chest burns. I stab the shovel into the ground and look up. She’s looking at me with sweat glistening on her face from the harsh sunlight. I wipe my brow and tell her to hand me the seed.
From her pocket, she removes a tiny object, round, with hard ridges that are almost like spikes. She hands it to me. Sunlight graces the edge of the hole. I plant the seed and jump out.
She looks at me. “You have anything you want to say?”
I look to the flatlands behind us, the empty field and the house about three miles from ours. The sun bleeds orange light over the land like a severed artery, and though the world has its own set of colors—green, brown, and blue—all has been blanketed in the giant star’s saturation. The wind kicks and dust lifts from the arid terrain and funnels into a twister, rising high into the sky and dissipating. What trees surround us bend and sway with the wind, the pine needles howling as the air wisps through the branches.
I shake my head.
She closes her eyes and kneels before the hole. The shovel is next to her, and the shadow of her and the tool stretch out over the bull grass. She raises her clasped hands to her mouth and whispers. The gusting wind ceases, and I hear her say ‘amen’ before she runs her hands over her thighs, stands, and brushes her knees off.
“Let’s cover this little guy and get it some water,” she says and looks at me. “I hope this works.”
White surrounded me, silence engulfed me, and cold burrowed into my core.
Haze drifted with slow ethereal movement; swelling, then shrinking. Pillars were hidden in the fog, disappearing when the haze thickened. I sat up and noticed people walking about with empty expressions on their faces. Their footsteps were muted. Their legs were hidden in the haze. There was no color.
I rubbed my temple. Pain surrounded the left side of my skull. At the back of my head was an incessant urgency to remember something. Yet the pain stopped me from pursuing that need, planting me in this foreign landscape.
A stranger approached me, bent, and held out a hand. He had white hair and wire rimmed glasses. His smile gave just a hint of color to his otherwise whited-out face. I took his hand and he pulled me up. Cold gripped me from inside and I shivered. My teeth chattered, but there was no sound.
“Good morning,” the old man said, his voice cutting through the white and yet suffocated by it.
“Cold,” I said, then pushed hair from my face. “Why is it so cold?”
“You’ll get used to that.”
The pain in my head increased, pumping. The urge to remember returned, and I wanted to reach into my mind and pull out whatever was causing this great agony, what felt like would explode if I didn’t figure it out.
The old man looked at me. “You doing all right? You look paler than most.”
“Most?” I said, and put the heel of my hand on my head. “What’s going on here? What’s with this place?”
He toyed with his glasses. “I couldn’t explain even if I wanted.”
“Where are we?”
The old man looked around. “Might be able to say it’s a holding station.”
I stared. “You mean a prison?”
He gestured to those appearing and disappearing from the haze. “You see any prison bars?”
Weariness kicked in, and standing became too much. “What’s happened?” I closed my eyes against the throbbing hurt. “Why am I here? What the hell is going on?”
The old man said, “There’s a bench over yonder, we should sit.”
Pain spiked my brain as if someone drove a metal stake into it. I held out my hand and the old man guided me. Out of the white, the bench appeared. He helped me down and I heaved a deep sigh that disturbed the haze. The old man joined my side, swinging an arm over the bench’s back.
People came and went—figures dressed and faded in white, forgotten when the haze took them—some passed glances, but there wasn’t an ounce of vitality on anyone’s face. The silence of their movements made me quiver; this wasn’t the world I knew, this was someplace else.
I looked at the old man.
“You said something.”
I shook my head. “I didn’t.”
“Yes you did. You said something wasn’t right.”
I rubbed my head. “What happened to me?”
“I can’t answer that. I have no idea where you’re from or what you’re supposed to be doing. But you are here, and there’s something you need to know.”
Screeching sounded from afar, and I raised my attention to the shifting haze. People who had been moving about halted and turned. The sound grew louder, and I recognized it as a subway train. The white parted and formed a pathway, revealing tracks and tunnel openings.
“This a train station?” I said.
“You could say that,” the old man said.
“Dear Jesus God!” someone shouted. People turned. The haze shifted. It was a woman, her hair brown with streaks of white around her ears. She wore glasses, the lines on her face copious, tracing around her features like race tracks. Her face was locked in an expression of realization and fear.
“I remember!” she said. “Oh my God, I remember what happened! I remember it all!”
The train entered the station. The doors opened in silence.
Everyone turned to the woman.
She whimpered. “Don’t make me leave.”
Red light beamed from the open train doors, coloring the colorless world, saturating a pathway from the train to her.
“What’s going on?” I said. “What’s she remembered?”
The old man looked at me. “What we are all here to do.”
“Please,” the woman cried. “I want to do so much more. I can’t leave. I can’t! I need another chance!”
The pain in my head grew worse. I closed my eyes and rubbed my temple. The woman’s cries filled my head, echoing within the empty caverns of my memory.
“I’m sorry,” she said, speaking to someone. I tried to look up, but the light created new pain in my head, putting pressure on my haggard brain. She continued to beg. “I’m so sorry! Let me talk to my husband. Let me at least tell him I love him!”
Understanding struck me and the pressure disappeared. I looked at the train, saw the woman enter the red light, pleading as she went, then the doors shut and her cries were silenced. The train began to leave.
I looked at the old man. “I’m dead!”
The man returned his attention to me and gave a single nod. “You got the first step right.”
The last of the train exited the station, and silence resumed its ironclad grasp upon the desaturated world. My eyes grew heavy, and I leaned over and closed my eyes.
The bedside window is open, the air is thick and heavy with overnight rain. Birds sing and a hawk screams. The radio comes on and the DJ talks about the weather, how the so far defunct summer is coming to an end because the heat begins today. When it comes time to switch to sports, he tells me to open my eyes because there’s something I need to see. I roll to my side and slap the snooze button, yet that only kills the music. The DJ tells me to open my eyes.
I open them.
She’s there, looking over me, her blue eyes bright, her smile so wide I can see the pink of her gums. Her curly hair spills out around her, framing her face, showing off the youthful cheeks I said would follow her to old age.
“Come on, sleepy butt! I got something I wanna show you!”
I swing my feet to the floor and slip on a pair of shorts. She pulls me along before I can get a shirt. Out into the sun we go. Morning has just arrived, bugs zip around my head, light berths from the eastern horizon, illuminating soft yellow that fades into the light blue sky. While the air is hot and sticky, there is still a residual cold in the wet grass, a soft and cool layer of air hovering over the ground like a fine mist.
We enter the garden, and the sunflowers look amazing, so do the radishes and tomatoes, but we haven’t come for that, we’ve come for what we planted behind the bushes on the north side of our property. We round those bushes, and there, standing out from the mound of dirt is a single sprouted leaf.
“Well look at that,” I say.
She pumps her fists into the saturated air. “This thing loved the rain last night! And here I was worried the poor guy drowned.”
“With the hole as deep as I made it, I’m surprised it didn’t.”
“We need a name!”
“A name?” I look at the leaf, then back to her. “Is it a boy tree or girl tree?”
Her brows tighten, a question she had not thought of.
“How about Luvora?”
“Lu-vor-a.” I nod. “It’s a good gender-neutral name.”
“It doesn’t even sound like a name.” Her face goes to work as her mind processes my proposal. In the past, she was the one to give names, ones that were always simple. Our cat named David Thomas. Her Mustang named Doug. The look on her face says how bad she thinks the name is, but she bites her lip and nods. “I can live with that. Luvorka it is!”
“You mean Luvora, right?”
“Yes, yes, of course!” She hugs me. “We have our own tree!”
I hold her body close to mine, gazing over the flatlands, how it’s sprinkled with diamonds in the sunlight. I smell the wet grass and listen to the birds and cicadas, and revel in the feeling of home.
I opened my eyes and saw the haze.
The old man sat next to me, the others of this world having returned to waltzing around in silence. My attention went to the old man, who watched me with a look of pity.
“What?” I said.
“Not often we get someone who blacks out after seeing the train.”
I turned to the crowd. Images came to me; a compost heap, garden tools, the flatlands and an alfalfa field, a wedding ring sliding onto a delicate finger. They flashed so fast I could barely comprehend what I saw. I shook my head and rubbed my eyes, then raised my attention to the people and their carefree struts.
“Is this normal?” I said.
“These people. Here. All just…you know.” I waved my hands. “Acting like being here is no big deal?”
“How do you mean?”
“I mean, they’re dead, right? If I know it, they know it, doesn’t that bother them?”
He observed the silent crowd. “Every so often, we get someone who wants to deny and fight. They create a lot of ruckus, but they never last long.” He shook his head. “In some ways, they’re the lucky ones.”
He looked at me. “Because they get to move on.”
“And what about that woman?”
He raised an eyebrow. “Which one?”
“The one just taken. She made a lot of noise over remembering. Didn’t seem like anyone really minded that much.”
The old man gave a half-hearted grin. “If you only knew how long some of these folks have been here…how hopeless the wait can be.”
“So…so wouldn’t someone like that try to sneak onto the ride when it shows?”
“No one wants to get on the train.”
I stared. “No one?”
He shook his head. “Not the one that’s been coming.”
I observed the tracks running through the station.
“Is this a train station? Where does the train go?”
“It’s a station alright, but where it leads I have no idea.”
“No,” he whispered.
I clasped my hands. “How long have you been here? How long is someone stuck here?”
He shrugged. “Time is different here, so it’s impossible to really know. Have you had any firings?”
“Flashes or images of important things. Your mind gets wiped clean when you get here, I think so we don’t immediately panic about the impermanence of our mortality. For those who have transcended, they began with receiving images, first randomly, then after a while they connect and memories form.”
Dancing curtains. White. Thin. Swaying in the wind. I shake off the vision, but it returns, this time with a voice calling for me, the voice of the woman who wants me to wake up, the voice of the woman who helped plant the tree. I dropped my face into my hands. Pain returned to the left side of my head, though dulled in comparison to the first wave. The slow throb rattled my brain, forced white into the edges of my sight.
“What in the hell is wrong with you?”
Another man. Tall and thin, his head shaved and a great gray beard hanging from his square jaw, his alert eyes pierced mine with intensity. His face was a maze of lines and wrinkles, wrapping around his eyes and mouth in a never-ending pattern.
“Who’re you?” I said.
“Don’t know. Do you?”
I stared. “I wouldn’t have asked if I did.”
“I bet you know none of us know who we are. So why ask a question you already know the answer to?”
“I didn’t,” I said. “Again, that’s why I asked the question.”
“Yes, you wanted to obtain information, but you’ve gotten all the information you can get from anyone here.”
His face was so worn and withered it reminded me of leather, and there seemed to be a problem with his hip, noticeable in the way he struggled to stand and walk. His eyes were green and alert.
“What’s with your hip?” I said.
“Broke it.” He slapped it a few times. “Came to me in a dream. I think God did it to me so I could learn from it. I sat over in that corner not long after I showed up and whispered to God to give me an answer to my ailing side. A little later I got an image of myself skating on ice and slipping. Heard my hip snap.” His eyes focused as he considered me.
“You been here a while?” I said.
He let out a bark of laughter, one that would’ve filled the air with joy, but the white stole it away. “Been here since I can remember, but wait! That’s everyone!” He let out another bark.
“You were given images from God?”
He nodded. “Yes, yes I was. He came through for me in a big way, but He hasn’t given me anything since, and…well, I can’t tell how long I’ve been here but it sure as shit feels like it’s been too long.”
I looked at the old man sitting next to me. He nodded. “Some never remember.”
“What happens to them?”
The man pointed to a woman in a maroon dress. She was impeccably put together, but in her eyes was a look of such vacancy that any emotion inserted into them would have been better than the emptiness present. She looked around, confused, uncertain, touching the side of her neck, then put her attention on her matching colored purse, and fumbled about it. She removed a phone and looked at the lock screen. Whatever color had been present on her complexion vanished and she screamed in silence. The haze stirred, swelled, and concealed her in white.
When the fog settled, she was gone.
I walked about the white with the people.
Everyone had the vacant stare of an individual who had given up the hope and possibility they would ever remember who they were. Those in the center of the crowd were the most lifeless, and it was them who walked with their arms hanging before them, their heads tilted to the side, their eyes glossed over.
Through the sea of white, I noticed a stitch of color, and headed for it. I shoved hands in my pockets and avoided eye contact. As I shifted through the crowd, I came upon the woman in the maroon outfit. She was still looking at her phone with her back facing me, after a moment, she peered over her shoulder. There was an expression of great bewilderment as she studied me, but she stowed away her phone and turned.
“Can you help me? I’m…I’m trying to find my son. Have you seen him? He’s about your height, maybe a little taller, with long hair and big, black glasses. I’ve been trying to call him but…he won’t answer.”
I shook my head. “No, ma’am, I haven’t.”
Her face tightened, and she scratched the back of her head. “I…I could’ve sworn he was just here. I was walking over to the concession stand to get food and a drink…a hotdog and nachos, that’s right, and…” She drifted, her colorless eyes staring into the fog. She looked at me, and there was a moment where light ignited within her eyes, like she was coming to a realization, but emptiness returned to her gaze and she carried on, her brows pinched together.
I moved on, glancing over my shoulder as the woman in maroon asked another the same question she had asked me. I came upon the tunnel running through the station, where the train rolled in, and peered into the black hole. Reaching out for the darkness, my hand stopped at the black veil as if touching glass.
“Won’t do ya any good.”
I turned to the voice. It was a young boy, perhaps sixteen, maybe younger. He wore red DC shoes.
“Done gone tried that, man.” He shook his head. “You tryin’ to escape?”
“I don’t know.”
He looked at me as if I were playing him. I sat down and he came forward.
“Yeah, went and tried it out for ya, man. Sorry to tell you. Sucks ‘cause I’d like to know how to get out of here. Been here forever, dude.”
He showed me his bare wrists. “I ain’t got no watch, and I lost my phone forever ago. What you here for? Wait, do you know why you’re here?”
I shook my head.
“Fuckin’ A. No one does. You hearing the shade everyone’s throwin’? That we’re dead and tryin’ to remember why we died? Isn’t that fucked or what? Don’t look like anyone is trying for anything.” He kicked the haze. “Get any dreams?”
“No. Do you?”
“All the time. Hate ‘em. Makes me feel like I’m not here. Like, I’m dying or lost contact with wherever I’m supposed to be. It’s…like, I went to lay down to take a nap, and someone went in my brain and took out all the shit I was supposed to remember.” He shook his head. “Weird to say, I bet, but, dude, I’m tellin’ ya, something about this place ain’t right. Everyone here be walkin’ around like they lost connection with themselves and I tell ya, that ain’t goin’ to be me. Plus, they all stare when the train comes, then just act like nothing happened when it leaves.”
“So that last stop…?”
“Totally the norm.”
I studied the boy, noticed that not only were his shoes bright red, but his shirt was navy, and his khakis were brown.
“Know your name?”
“Trent. Can’t quite remember my last name ‘cause I’m pretty sure I hit my head somewhere before getting here.”
“Is it a dull throb, on the left side of your head?”
Trent looked at me with bewilderment. “How?”
“Someone come at you with a two by four?”
“Don’t think so. How come you know your name?”
He raised his eyebrows. “It’s my name. How can I not know it? You’re given the name when you’re born. Wait, have you forgotten yours?”
“I don’t know if I even have a name.”
“Oh man, that sucks! Hey, have you had any memories?”
I didn’t answer.
“Hey, well, check it, man. If you wanna get some answers, take a nap. I hate the dreams, but you might dig them. Plus, we got nothin’ but time in this dump, so might as well catch up on sleep anyway, right? The chill of the place kinda makes it hard to get any decent rest, but some is better than none. It’s my answer to everything.”
“Hit a roadblock, time for a nap?”
“Yeah, dude! Can’t tell ya how many times it’s saved me.”
I turned away, gazed into the black hole of the tunnel. “Don’t know if I need saving.”
I looked at him, surprised.
“Don’t take it personal! We all need it. You at least seem a little more with it than the rest of these dudes.”
“This place is like some kind of marijuana induced dream.”
Trent smiled. “Yeah it is. But listen, that train is gonna be here soon.”
“How you know?”
“Got a feeling.”
“Not much of a feeling guy, Trent.”
He rolled his eyes. “Okay, fine. Check that chick over there.” He gestured to the woman in maroon. “She’s been gaining color to her outfit for, like, a while now, and she’s acting a little more alert.”
“I…I don’t think that’s what’s going on with her.”
“No, dude, listen! She’s coming out of it, waking up from the trance everyone is in, and that train is gonna show up when she remembers what she’s doing here, and I’m gonna jump that train when it leaves.”
“Can you do that?”
“Fuck if I know, man!”
I smiled, then noticed the color on him, and compared it to the woman in maroon. “You sure you don’t buy what people are saying about this place?”
“Psssh, please, this is some kind of gag place, you know? It’s a maze, or some part of one, and when I jump that train, Imma get outta here and be free as a bird!”
My attention went back to the woman, her attentiveness to the surroundings and the disconcerting look on her face.
“Hey, you wanna jump this train with me? We could not be stuck here like the rest of these losers.”
I got to my feet. “I’m going to snooze on it.”
He pointed at me and gave a crooked grin. “Now you’re thinking. When you hear her scream, you’ll know it’s time.”
I didn’t give my word, yet I didn’t deny it either. When I found a corner to settle into, I closed my eyes and let the cold white drop me into a deep sleep.
“It’s been a while,” she says and looks at me. I look at her. “Been a while since we looked at our tree Luvorkian.”
I narrow my eyes at her.
She smiles, sets her cup down. “You want to check on it?”
“It’s a tree. It’s not going anywhere.”
“Could be drowning in this rain.”
I don’t argue this. What I say is, “We’ll get soaked.”
She stands. “Since when has the weather been a deciding factor in your life? Since when did the things on the outside influence what goes on within?”
I stare with crinkled brows. “You serious?”
“We must venture outward.” She points towards the garden. “To our place of destiny, the place we must hold sacred and dear to our hearts!”
“We go where no one has gone before. We embrace that which everyone upon this planet spends their life looking for.” She looks at me, shrugs, then says. “We go to the great muddy trenches in search of our friend Luivorky!”
“You’re messing up the name on purpose.”
She looks at me with feigned confusion, then backs into the rain. “I’ve got to have some way to make it interesting. Levorkian sounds nice.”
“No it doesn’t, because it’s Luvora!” I say. “There’s nothing hard about the annunciation, either!”
“It is when you have a lisp!” She turns and runs.
I call her name—a name lost in the rain—and run after her. The tree is fine. We both know this, and visual confirmation of the tree gives us the chance to laugh and play. We wrap up in each other’s arms and she laughs with her head tilted to the sky. I kiss her neck and relish the sound of her voice. She touches my face, her fingers warm, and I consider her blue eyes.
She smiles. “It’s only a name.”
“It’s more than that.” I wipe water and hair from my face.
The tree is beside us, now two leaves instead of one. Her bun has fallen apart, and I undo the last of it and her thick curls roll down around her. Soon they become black wires tracing across her face, and I push them aside to her see her bright eyes. Her youthful cheeks are filled with color.
“It’s more than just a name.” I whisper.
“Say mine.” Her eyes focus on mine. “I like it when you say my name.”
And I do, many times, to the point where she’s giggling as I shout her name into the raining heavens—a name I can’t remember. We kiss, and when we disengage, she whispers my name into my ear.
But I don’t hear it.
“Hey man, wake up.”
I turned away from the shaking, saying let me sleep a moment longer.
“No dude, wake up!”
I denied the request, telling them to come back in a few, I’ll be ready then.
“Dude! Wake the fuck up!”
I opened my eyes. Trent knelt before me, his hair pushed back and his eyes wide. Color invaded every part of him, and the expression on his face was that of worry.
“I am dead,” he whispered. Tears welled in his eyes. “I’ve been fucking dead for…a while. What am I gonna do?”
I rubbed my face, my eyes. “What happened?”
He shook his head. “No. You don’t need to know. It was…it was ugly, okay? Getting into shit I wasn’t supposed to and that fuckin’ train is gonna come for me, and I ain’t got the balls to go through with it, man. You gotta hide me!”
“You need to calm down, it can’t be that bad. You’re getting what everyone here wants.”
“No one wants what I’ve gotten! I’ve fucked up! I’ve fucked up so bad!”
From afar, the screeching of the train sounded. Trent turned to the call, tears spilling over his cheeks. “You need to hide me!”
“What am I supposed to do? Stash you behind a pillar? Dig a hole in tile?”
“We gotta do something! I’m not ready. I’m not ready to…to…end!”
The haze surged like fire, and orange invaded the white. People of the haze stopped and took notice, eventually turning to us, then Trent. He took in his appearance, noticing all color had returned.
“Please,” he said, putting hands on my shoulders. “Help?”
The train pulled in, hissing to a stop, and the doors opened. Red light burned the haze away, creating a line through the white, and people backed away from the traveling path maker. It led right to us, to him. Yellow motes of dust glittered within the red beam.
“I’m gonna get tortured! Ripped apart! I won’t get to keep my body! You want that for me?”
My mind raced with things to say, with what I could do, yet all I said was, “I don’t know what to do!”
He stared at me with disbelief on his face.
A tall figure stepped out of the train. At first, I believed it to be a man, but no man was this tall, this thin, or this obstructed. Within the white, it wasn’t anything but a dark figure, yet it traversed along the red path, and from the white came the figure; a tall gray being with arms and legs as long and thin as tree branches and a neck like a llama’s. Its head was shaped like a guitar pick, the top end wide and the mouth area tiny. Massive triangular eyes looked down at me, and then Trent. Its mouth was no bigger than a coin slot in a game machine. It had no nose.
This being reached out its long four fingered hand to Trent and, shaking, he faced the entity. It stared him down with its immense black eyes, his reflection shown in the organs’ wet shimmer.
He raised his hands, sniffling, crying, and said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t know…it would…create so much pain. Please don’t punish me.”
The being did not move.
“I’m just a kid! I…I can make mistakes.”
A coldness took over me when I leaned forward. I watched my reflection move in the being’s eyes. “Trent, did you hurt someone?”
“Killed someone,” he corrected.
I stared at him, moved over so I could be in front of him, then looked at the being.
It was staring at me.
I backed away from Trent.
It returned its attention to the boy.
“What do ya say, huh? Another round?”
The haze did not move. The people did not move. There was no sound except for the occasional hiss of the train.
Slowly, it shook its head.
“Fuck it!” Trent yelled, and ran. The being roared, a sound that did not come from its tiny mouth, but from every pore of its body. Haze blasted away from the being like an explosion. Horns ripped through the being’s back, claws extended from its finger tips, and the tiny mouth widened, opened, and the lower jaw jutted out, unleashing a row of ragged sharp teeth from of its lower jaw. Horns sprouted from the side of its head and wrapped around its massive under bite. Its eyes burned to life, and the being reached for Trent with its skinny arm and snatched him. Trent tried to kick free, then tried punching the hand holding him, but the being was twice the size it had been. It snarled at the boy. Trent looked at me and reached out.
I couldn’t move.
The being walked to the train with its prize. It ducked and—somehow—slipped inside the train. Trent wept without control, but when the train doors shut, his cries ceased.
The train departed without a whisper.
I open my eyes and watch the wind play with the curtains.
Daylight beams through the open window, the wind smelling of honeysuckle and thistle. Birds are chirping and crickets sing their verse when given the chance. Someone is singing, and it rolls me out of bed and gets me on my feet. I rub sleep from my face. It’s a cool morning, unusual for what we’d been having compared to previous summers.
I gaze out the window and she’s in the garden by the tree. Though the sun is bright in the clear sky, its rays do not reach her as she plants under the shade. All the land is deep and rich green, with the only artificial sound the train about two miles out. I take a deep breath of the living world and throw on a shirt and robe.
The sun is warm but the wind is cool, and I tighten the robe around my body. Her hair is different, and while the length is as I remember, along with her curls, her once brown hair has turned bright silver, and it’s been tied into a ponytail where the wind plays with the faded curls. She stops humming and turns to me, smiles, and holds out her hand.
I take it and sit down. Luvora’s leaves rattle in the wind, and the woman takes time to finish her task and removes her garden gloves. When she looks at me, I see in her eyes the look of a woman who I’ve known for a long time, and she smiles.
“What brings you out here to our tree, mister?” she says. Her voice still has a dainty quality to it, her lisp still present, and it makes her sound far younger.
I take her hand in mine. “I just wanted to see you. Feels like you keep getting up earlier and earlier. I can’t find you sometimes.”
“I’ll be here. If you can’t find me, look out here, because this tree is the best tree.”
I take her in my arms. Her smell is something I love and won’t soon forget, one that comes from her hairline.
“I never want to leave,” I whisper. “I want to be here with you.”
“You know where to look,” she says. “I’ll wait for you.”
And it’s here I say her name once more, a name I swore never to forget but can’t recall. I close my eyes and try to remember, yet nothing comes.
“I miss you,” she whispers.
I opened my eyes.
The woman in maroon stood over me, eyeing me in a way someone might look at a stray cat. I sat up and leaned against the wall.
“You were talking to that young man,” she said, looking at me with her green eyes.
“Yeah,” I said, and ran a hand over my face. “What’s with people here? How come no one helps one another?”
“That young man went to Hell. You don’t stand in the way of someone’s judgement. Never.”
She shook her head in a tight manner, as if to tell me what would happen was far too terrible to mention.
I saw movement over her shoulder and noticed the two old men walking towards us. The taller one, with the beard and withered face, approached with huge and attentive eyes.
“What’s going on? I saw the show, but why is Miss Tie-Dye talking with you?”
The woman turned to the visitors, looked at the man with his long gray beard, then the one with the glasses. “He wants to know why no one tried to help that boy.”
“Whoa,” said the withered man, holding out his hands. “I know you’re new here, but you don’t do that. Ever.”
“What happens? Did no one else feel for him?”
The man with glasses shrugged. “It was his choice that put him there. We can’t stand in the way of that.”
Withered man looked at the woman. “No one has spent more time here than you, Miss Maroon. Why don’t you tell him?”
She went back to shaking her head quickly. “You…you won’t ever leave.” She rubbed her arms, folded them, and looked at the men. “When was the last time the good train showed up?”
Silence loomed amongst us. It was the withered man who said. “It’s been a while.”
The man with glasses nodded in agreement.
“There are two trains?” I said.
“Yes,” the woman said. “But it feels like the good one hasn’t been here forever. Maybe it quit working?”
“I don’t think it works that way,” the man with glasses said.
I was about to ask her how you could tell the difference between the two when her eyes lost focus and she stared through me. Her shoulders straightened and she sat with her legs folded under her. I looked at the men behind her, who were confused by her noticeable change.
She touched me, a sensation I felt upon my skin—cold. Her eyes took focus, but they shifted from green to blue, and when they looked at me, it was far too much like I woman in my dream.
“Do you remember?” she whispered. She was so close to me I could see all the lines in her lips. “I’m here.”
I was leaning away from the woman as she leaned into me. “Where?” I managed.
“Where I’d always be.”
I gasped, broke free, and her eyes changed from blue to green and she shook her head. Confusion was all over her face, as if she had no idea how she had gotten here, how she was in the middle of a group of guys, and hurried to her feet and left.
The two men stood beside me in silence.
“Has that ever happened?” I said.
The man with the beard shook his head. “No…not once.”
I thought a moment, watched her fade into the white. “Has the train ever not come before?”
“Oh yeah. Happens a lot.”
“Why would that happen?”
“It could be for several reasons. You’ve come at a time when those of color are few, but there was a time when many of those with color were here, and the train never picked them up. She was a part of that group.”
“What happens to them?”
The old man shrugged. “The train doesn’t come, but they don’t stay here. They go back to reality, the ole land of the living. Not as a member, but as a guest without a pass to leave, if that makes sense. You get like her, and do what you’ve been suggesting, you’ll wander both realms.”
“Helping someone? I’d be punished?” I looked from one man to the other.
The man with glasses nodded.
“I’d become a ghost?”
“Both in our old world and this one. She has to fight to remember who she is. When she remembers, she vanishes, when she can’t…she’s here.”
I mulled in thought, and after studying the crowd of vacant stares, I said, “What if someone did something, something important, and when everything was coming back, you realized there was one thing you needed to get done, but didn’t.”
“Because you wound up here?” he said.
“Hope it didn’t happen to me,” the one with the beard said.
Images flashed; the night sky, the crescent moon, the stars, the tree. The woman—my wife—knelt before a dug-up hole and her hands clasped before her.
“I’m going to need you to promise me something,” she whispers from behind her hands. I smell honeysuckle, feel the warm and wet air against my skin and realize I’m under the tree with her. Her hair is silver like the dream, and she turns her lined but elegant face to me and smiles.
“What’s that?” I say.
“If you go before me, I want you to find me and tell me you haven’t forgotten me, and that you’ll wait for me in Heaven.”
I nod. “I’ll come back for you.”
“Yes, I promise.”
Back in the haze, the two men were staring at me.
“Let me ask you something,” the man with the beard said.
“Did you just get some kind of gusto image? Cause you lit up like a Christmas tree.”
I looked at my outfit—a suit—and reveled in the blue radiating from the fabric.
“I think so,” I said, and stared into the white while in thought. Then a name rose in my mind, and it rushed forward and burst from me. “Gwendolyn.”
The haze stopped. The men stared.
“I need to be alone,” I said, and left.
There had been a time when I was little, where I had gotten up early and seen the flatlands washed out like everything was here. Fog covered everything and sound had a weird way of not traveling, and even as a kid I was in awe of just how quiet it was. While everything was buried in white, I knew the world underneath had color, and it kept me grounded.
Walking amongst the haze and knowing there was nothing beneath the surface, I tried to fish out the color within the world, searching for anyone who had the saturation like Trent had. Color glowed from my own body and outfit, but the only other bit of color I saw was the woman in the maroon dress, trying to use her phone with brows so tight a crease formed at the middle of her forehead.
She looked at me, running her colorless fingers over her forehead. I followed her hand and realized her hair was bright blonde, so bright I believed she must have colored her hair. She pushed her hand into her hair and approached me, and with all the color in her clothes, it was almost enough to think she was leaving soon as well, but the dead white complexion of her skin told me a different truth. She swayed her arms back and forth like she was walking, but there was no sound of her footsteps, no shift in her body as she moved—she levitated to me.
“You look bright,” she said. “Got someone on your mind?”
“My wife.” The cold haze graced the back of my neck and I shivered. “You ever get tired of the cold?”
Her face twisted when I asked, and I knew by her confusion it was something she no longer felt.
“You miss being alive?”
Now she looked at me with her green eyes and said, “All the time. I try to reach out to my son so we might talk, remind him that I haven’t abandoned him but…” She shook her head. “He doesn’t pay attention.”
“You ever have the feeling you missed out on something, when at the time, you felt you couldn’t have been anymore in the moment than you were?”
She narrowed her eyes. “You mean wishing we could go back and do things differently?”
“I mean for every moment I was alive, was I really taking in everything to the best of my ability? Was I really appreciating the moment? The happiness? And sadness?”
“I don’t know if the regular person does. If what I remember of the real world is right, we were pretty good about making ourselves hurry along. Not a lot of us are given the chance to take in the silence and breathe, most would think it stupid anyway.”
“Forty years together with my wife and all I can remember is her name and certain times we talked.”
“It’s when you were most there.”
“That’s why you remember them. You have to focus on them while falling asleep; you can talk to her when the memories become reality.”
“As long as she’s listening.”
I brushed past her, stopped, and turned. “Do you want to leave here? I mean, do you really want to leave?”
The woman in maroon looked at me closely, and color rose to her cheeks. “I…I can’t leave my boy. I know he could hear me if he would just listen. It’s so hard to remember everything.” She paused with a finger bent over her upper lip. “Talk to her, and remember what you need to say so you can leave this place!”
Memory invaded me.
She sits on the deck looking at the tree towering over the garden and the surrounding bushes. It casts deep and long shade over the backyard. The setting sun beams through thick leaves, changing their color from green to gold.
The alfalfa field has been hayed, and sit in giant rolls over the flatlands. From the deck, I see our neighbor’s farmland, the cows grazing and wandering around. The distant train calls from afar. To our north, there’s humming of a radio playing as another neighbor works in the garage. Robins run about the dried bull-grass.
“So, why did you name it Luvora?”
I tear free from my admiration of the land and focus on her. “It’s a good name.”
“It’s actually not, but what made you pick it?”
“It’s a special name.”
I sigh, then say, “Before my mom died, she told me to close my eyes and focus on something that meant something to me, so…I imagined a tree. She said to give it a name, and I picked Luvora. She told me as long as I held onto that creation, it would be the place all my dreams came from. And it would be the place she’d visit me.”
“Only when I slept.”
I snapped out of the memory. The woman in maroon was next to me, and she helped me to my feet. She gave a tiny smile, then walked away, fading into the white. I hurried to a corner and closed my eyes.
I dream of the tree and Gwendolyn is there.
I approach, listening to my own footfalls in the grass. It’s night. The stars are out but the moon is nowhere. Her eyes are closed, and in the summer night, the air is oppressively hot, dry, and pressing down on my back and shoulders, but it’s a feeling I enjoy. Locusts buzz and from the distance frogs chirp.
I sit next to her, fold my legs and clasp my hands. She’s much older than my memories allow to see. Lines traverse her face and mouth. But because she is asleep, that great youthfulness about her is still prevalent, even in the way she’s slouching against the tree with a hand gently touching her cheek.
“Hi,” I whisper, and wait. The orchestra of night becomes overbearing. Gwen stirs a moment, sits up, then her head lolls to the side as she sighs in comfort. “Baby, I’m here,” I urge, and again she shifts, this time with her face towards me.
“Len?” she says, and I’m taken back by her voice. Old did she appear on the outside, but the essence within her is just as young as I remembered.
“Hi Gwen,” I whisper and smile. “I miss you.”
“I miss you, too.” She sighs. “Why did you leave me?”
The explanation, though I have no idea what that could be, is right on the tip of my tongue, but the simplicity of her gentle accusation throws me onto the ground and bolts me to it. How could I justify this? My absence?
“I’m sorry,” I say, and know the real answer is still on my mind, what happened to me, and if I wanted to, I could see what it was. In that moment of reckoning, I saw the swaying curtains, remembered the feeling of the cool air brushing through the thin cotton, and knew the pain in my chest that had kept me up all night was no longer something I could ignore, because it busted through to the forefront.
Gwen’s panicking screams fill my head and echo over the land. It makes Gwen furrow her brows, turn away and ball into a fetal position.
“I’m here, baby,” I say, and she turns to me slightly. “I haven’t left, but I need to.”
“It’s my next stop. But I’m here to tell you I’ll be there when it’s your time. I haven’t forgotten you, and I’ll be waiting for you. I also wanted to tell you that I love you.”
She smiles—a faint one, and faces me. Gwen takes a deep breath and lets it out, and for the first time in years, relaxation settles into her shoulders.
“Good night,” she says.
I smile. “Good night.”
Night shifts to white. I look to the sky, observe the stars and then Luvora. It towers over me, sways in the light breeze. I put my hand on the trunk, and as the white takes over what’s left of reality, warmth and vitality tickle my fingers.
I opened my eyes. I rubbed my chest, recognized the old familiar pain present for months, maybe years, then removed my hand and the phantom pain disappeared.
“Lancaster,” I said. “My name is Lancaster Cobb.”
The train arrived, pulling in slowly and stopping with a hiss. It idled before the doors opened. Baby blue light spilled out and burned off the haze. From open doors stepped out the tall and lanky entity. When the being walked towards me, the people did not rush to move aside, they stared at the being with awe, and once it was standing in front of me, I noticed a navy-blue shade to its large, dark eyes.
It bent and studied me. I observed my obscured reflection in its eyes. It held out its hand and the long fingers unraveled before me. I considered the offered hand, then looked up to the being.
“May I ask a question?”
The being kept its attention on me.
“Will you look after my wife? Gwendolyn? When she comes here, please let her come to me.”
The being turned its head to the side, like a child might when hearing something that doesn’t make sense, but the being gave a slow and single nod.
I wrapped my hand around a pair of the being’s fingers. I approached the train and as I drew closer, the world changed from white to blue, and the coolness of the realm melted away to an embracing warmth. I hesitated before stepping through the open door, feeling fear, then entered and blue light overtook me.
In that final embrace, I stood beneath Luvora with Gwen. I held her in my arms and swayed back and forth. I closed my eyes against the setting sun and smiled. Birds chirped. The sun was warm. Her smell was rich.