Caren Hahn

What Comes After: Chapter 1

Death isn’t what you think it is. I’ve been dead for three years, and it’s nothing like I expected. I say three years, but of course that’s in mortal terms. We still measure our time that way even though we don’t age. We have seasons, but they’re artificial. Nothing ever dies or grows. It just is. But it’s hard to let go of the golden beauty of autumn or the pristine awe of a fresh blanket of snow. And really, who doesn’t like summer?

So we hang onto our seasons even though they don’t mark the passage of time the way they do for you. Instead, they’re just trappings for our world: a strange and beautiful world that reminds us of what we lost and hints at what’s to come.

What is to come?

No one really knows. I’ve talked to hundreds of people, maybe even thousands. None of them can tell me, because they’re all stuck here too. But I’ve seen it done. When someone is ready to pass, it’s like you can see every wonderful moment they’ve ever had shining in their eyes. They practically glow with it. This can go on for minutes or for days. Everyone gathers around to say their goodbyes, and we watch as the light inside of them brightens until it consumes them. And then they’re gone. We look around and see joy reflected in each other’s eyes, and we know that someday it will be our turn.

Someday, when we’ve learned to let go.

“This is beautiful, Lorna.”

“Thank you.” I fidget in my chair. Not because I’m physically uncomfortable, but because it’s an ingrained habit from a lifetime of mortality. I cross my legs and tug at my pant leg, just as I would have done when I had a tangible body.

“I’m curious why you wanted to describe our world.” Teresa is a short young woman with skin the color of the smooth buckeyes that I loved to gather as a child. Her tight curls are pulled out of her face with a wide elastic, and when she smiles, her whole face lights up in a way that makes me smile too. I wonder what Teresa was like as a mortal, but I’m not here to talk about Teresa’s life. That’s between Teresa and her therapist.

She’s still waiting for an answer.

“Just thinking about it, I guess.”

“Have you been thinking about passing on?”

I shrug. “Isn’t that the point?”

“This is the first sign I’ve seen that you’ve been curious about it. How do you feel when you think about it?”

“I don’t know. Nervous, I suppose. But also excited. They always seem happy to go. So it must be a good thing, right?”

Teresa fingers the long gold necklace draped over the front of her pale cream blouse. “As far as we know, yes. That’s why we’re here.”

“I just wish I knew if I could see them when I pass on.”

“Your family?”

I nod. “Writing letters like this is nice, and I suppose I could still do that if I passed on, right? I mean, it’s not like these ones get to them anyway. They’re just glorified journal entries. But to actually see them and know what they’re doing…Mindi will be graduating from high school next year. I don’t want to miss that.”

“And you think you might miss it if you pass on?”

“Can you tell me I won’t?” I challenge.

Teresa holds my gaze and shakes her head. “Here’s what I do know. Everyone I know who’s passed on loved their kids as much as you love Mindi and Alex. Letting go doesn’t mean forgetting. It doesn’t mean they don’t still miss them.”

“Then what does it mean?”

Teresa’s dark eyes look thoughtful. “If I knew, I wouldn’t still be here, would I?”

* * *

I walk out of Teresa’s office into the bright sunlight of a crisp autumn day. After three years, I no longer instinctively put on a sweater when a cool breeze blows. If I wear a sweater it’s because I choose to, not because the weather dictates it. Sometimes I wear one on a blistering summer day, just because I can.

“I know that look.”

I smile even before I turn to greet the man bounding down the steps toward me.

“What look?”

“You’re going to the Memory Bank, aren’t you?” Reif asks, one eyebrow cocked in an accusation.

“I hadn’t decided, but now that you mention it…”

“Nope. No memories for you. Let’s go get a coffee.”

I grin. “I’ve seen people held back for lots of things. Children. Money. Failure. Regret. Even pets. You’re the only one I know who can’t pass on because he won’t give up his coffee.”

“Really? I’ll bet it’s what got most of these people out of bed every morning when they were alive. You’d think more of them would mourn it properly.” He looks around the green space where people are milling about, sitting on benches or sunning on the grass. Two teenagers throw rocks into a pond, trying to hit the other bank. It’s a scene of perfect tranquility, but Reif’s brow is creased into a frown above his blue eyes.

“Why would we need coffee when we don’t even need sleep?” I object. “If giving up coffee means I never have to be tired again, it’s a trade I’m happy to make.”

“You never were a purist, though. A true connoisseur would never think coffee was just about the energy boost.”

“Give yourself a couple more years and then see what you think.”

Reif only arrived six months earlier. The first words he asked me were, “Do you know if this place has a Starbucks?” When I told him that without bodies there was no need for food or drink, he responded with, “You mean after all those years of weekly Mass I ended up in Hell after all?”

I didn’t mind giving up all those “pleasures of the flesh” as Reif calls them (always with his eyebrows raised suggestively). Food, sleep, sex…I feel so much freer without them that within only a few months of being here they diminished to a distant dream. But that isn’t the case with everyone. Some people will visit the Memory Bank just so they can torture themselves reliving a particularly gratuitous moment of their history. It never works that way, though. As immersive as it is to visit old memories, it isn’t truly living them, and I always feel a little hollow and empty when I’m finished.

Yet somehow that’s where I always want to go after therapy.

“Just one.”

We stand outside the Memory Bank, its polished glass doors reflecting a cascade of golden leaves glittering around us.

“You’ll regret it.”

“Nah.”

“You will. You’ll get all sad and wish you could cry but without tears you won’t feel any better.”

I glare at Reif. “You haven’t known me long enough to know how I feel.”

He laughs. “Six months in this place is like an eternity. I know you better than I know my own sister. Come on, let’s go take flying lessons.”

“We can’t fly,” I say, annoyed. He already knows this.

“What’s the point of not being able to die if we can’t fly?”

“We’re already dead! You really have no understanding of what we’re doing here, do you? I swear, Reif, it’s no wonder you can’t pass on.”

“Do you think I can fly after I pass on? That just might be worth giving up coffee. Come on, let’s go check out the Arrivals.”

He grabs my elbow and tugs gently, sending a buzz like a pinched nerve up my arm. It’s hard to break these habits from mortality, so easy to forget that touch is another thing we lost. I join him, knowing that I can return later. Reif won’t always be there to distract me.

I follow him to the plaza at the bottom of the hill where the newcomers arrive. Dozens of gates circle a large courtyard, their tall pillars glowing white with each Arrival. People gather around each one, waiting to greet friends and family mere seconds after they’ve died.

The gate nearest us is surrounded by a large crowd, their skin varying shades from dark to light but many of them sporting the same broad nose and round eyes. They’re chatting excitedly, beaming at each other. I feel a twinge of jealousy as their skin takes on a sheen. I’ve seen this before. Whole families who wait to pass on until the last child or cousin or sibling joins them and they can all pass together.

A gray-haired woman materializes in the gate, stooped and bent with age. She scarcely glimpses the crowd waiting for her when her face lights up with such joy that years fall away with her smile. Within moments, she and the crowd gathered near her all glow with a transcendent light. It overwhelms my vision and I have to turn away. When the light ebbs, the whole family is gone.

“Wow,” Reif says. “That’s the most I’ve ever seen pass at once.”

But my attention is caught by a girl who has appeared in the neighboring gate, a look of pure terror on her face. She stumbles backward, gasping. I step forward, then pause, looking around.

“Where’s her Greeter?” I nudge Reif.

He shakes his head. “She looks pretty skittish. And young, too. What do you think, seventeen?”

“I’m going to talk to her.”

“Good idea. I’ll catch up with you later.”

He jogs away and I hurry over to the girl. She leans against a pillar, looking up at it in bewilderment.

“Hi, my name’s Lorna,” I say in my best putting-people-at-ease voice. I worked as an event coordinator in my old life, and being able to read a room was as necessary as keeping a client’s expectations aligned with their budget.

Her eyes dart around in a panic. Where is her family? There’s always someone here to greet new Arrivals, but this girl is all alone and clearly unprepared for her death. The young usually are.

“It’s okay, you’re safe,” I say gently, trying not to scare her.

She’s dressed in jeans and a hoodie, with red Converse shoes on her feet. Her hair is a deep auburn and falls in waves past her shoulders. She looks like she should have just walked off a school bus with a backpack full of high school textbooks. I feel a pang of sorrow for whoever is expecting her to come home that day.

When she speaks, her voice is strident. “What happened? Where is he? Am I…?”

Who is supposed to be here for her? I don’t know what to say. I’ve never been assigned as a Greeter, so I’m not sure of the routine. And it’s been three years since I arrived myself.

“I’ll try to answer your questions, but let’s go. They’ll need to use this gate for someone else.”

I offer my hand and the girl takes it tentatively. Then she jerks her fingers away.

“It doesn’t feel the same without a body,” I explain. “But you’ll get used to it.”

I don’t touch her again. Instead, I lead her down an avenue to a park where the trees grow tall and the grass never needs trimming. I keep the Arrival plaza in sight in case someone comes looking for the girl.

“Am I dead?” she asks, looking at her hands. Her skin is freckled and smooth, her fingers long and delicate.

“I’m afraid so.” I’m not smiling now. “I guess it must have been sudden?”

The girl peers at me as if she doesn’t quite see me clearly.

“I know it’s hard,” I say. “It was hard for me too. But there are people who can help you.”

“Where am I? This doesn’t look like Heaven.”

I shrug. “People call it different things. I think of it as a waiting place. Some call it Limbo, but I never much cared for the Inferno.”

She frowns in confusion.

“Hmm, you’re probably too young for Dante. Basically, this is where we wait before passing on to whatever comes next. What most of us assume will be Heaven.”

“How long do we wait?”

“That depends on you. There should have been someone to greet you when you arrived. They would be the ones to explain it all. To tell you how it works.”

“Can’t you tell me?” Her wide eyes remind me of a frightened animal and fill me with an overpowering urge to wrap my arms around her. She must be close to Mindi’s age. It’s been so long since I’ve felt the weight of my daughter in my arms.

I keep my hands at my sides and check over my shoulder to see if anyone from the plaza is searching for the girl. But the only people I see are waiting expectantly at the gates.

How to explain…

“Death isn’t like you think. I remember when I was mortal, everyone was so afraid of dying that we did everything we could to avoid it. And if someone died…prematurely…that’s all we could think about. No matter how they lived, or what they accomplished in life, if they died unexpectedly or tragically, that’s all we mortals could think about. But here, none of that matters. Death is just a transition.”

“Transition?” The girl jumps to her feet. “Death is no transition. It’s horrible. It’s a nightmare. It’s…” She looks as if she’s about to cry, but—as I know well—without tears it’s impossible. She gasps as if trying to catch her breath, a remembered behavior from a lifetime of relying on lungs.

“I’m sorry, I’ve never done this before,” I say apologetically, wanting to comfort her however I can. “Usually people are assigned to meet new Arrivals. For me it was my aunt. She’s passed on now, but she’s the one who helped me when I came. Having a familiar face made all the difference. I’m sorry that you’re stuck with a stranger. And I’m sorry I’m saying it all wrong.”

The girl looks at me again and her breathing calms.

“It’s okay. I just…” She trails off into silence.

“Would it help to talk about it?”

She shakes her head.

“Can you at least tell me your name?”

“Jackie. Jacqueline, but I like Jackie.”

I smile. “Nice to meet you, Jackie. Welcome to the afterlife."

Hunt at Owl Creek: Chapter 1