Book of Jo: When bad things happen to mostly good people
Parts 24 & 25: Afterlife, after death
September 23, 2016
Friday, 12:00 am
I’m walking down a long, dark hallway. I’ve been here before, and this knowledge scares me. I hurry down the endless corridor, to the door with the red handprints. Except this time there are four sets. I know what I’m going to find inside: my mother and Jenna, dead. I take a long, deep breath and open the door. I’m almost blinded by white light.
“Come and visit for a while,” says a familiar voice. “We love you.”
I step across the threshold and allow my eyes to adjust to the brightness. I see subtle lights within lights. I take a long, deep breath, and feel warm and relaxed, as though I’ve just stepped into a jacuzzi. A white gazebo waits in the middle of a lush, overgrown garden. I smell gardenias in the air and a breeze tickles my face.
I cautiously approach the gazebo, which is so radiant I can hardly focus my eyes. I just make out three figures clothed in white. A silver bench brings itself into being, rising from the grass. It is flanked by heavy, white flowers shaped like upside down bells. I sit down — why not? — and watch the flowers chime and sway as the wind picks up. The sky slowly shifts from blinding white to pearly gray.
Now I can see that two of the figures on the gazebo are women with long, dark hair.
“Hello! Hello?” I call.
The two women turn around. One is Jenna, just as I remember her, but somehow brighter and happier. The other is a tall girl of sixteen who could be Jenna’s sister. She is taller than Jenna with an athletic build. Her arms are brown and strong, and golden lights glint in her dark hair. In this setting, she could be Demeter, goddess of the harvest. Then it hits me. This is what my mother looked like as a girl.
“Don’t recognize your own mother?”
“No, not really,” I say. “You look beautiful. Are you OK?”
“We’re wonderful,” says Jenna, twirling.
“The universe is layered with meaning. There are many realities,” says my mother. Now I’m sure it’s her. She frowns and squints at me. The sky is getting darker. The wind is cool, almost icy.
“But you’re here early,” she says. “That’s not allowed. You can’t cheat the game.”
“What? What game?” I ask.
“The game you must play,” says Jenna.
“I don’t know what you mean. What game?” I’m getting impatient, and my voice echoes unpleasantly in my ears. The third figure on the gazebo, clearly a man, slowly turns and looks at me. He is wearing a white suit. It is Brad at twenty, when he played college lacrosse. He waves to me.
“Don’t give up,” he says. He adds something — a greeting, a joke, a warning? — but I can’t hear it. The gazebo is pulling away and getting smaller. The sky is charcoal gray now. The plants and flowers wither before my eyes. I hear a loud bell like a fire alarm. I run and run and run.
And then I’m awake. The digital clock reads midnight. I’m alone in my room, and it’s eerily quiet except for my phone, which is chirping and blinking. I think about turning it off. I want to sleep the rest of the night in my Xanax haze and find my way back to that garden of light. I have questions. So many questions.
But fresh death has a way of making every call, every text, a possible portent. I carefully take the phone from my nightstand, handling it gingerly as I would a deadly snake. I look at the messages, and my heart drops into my stomach. The snake has struck. Brad is dead.
September 23, 2016
Friday, 2:00 am
“There’s going to be an autopsy,” says Dr. Morris. “We’ll find out for sure if your brother died from the AVM in his brain, or from other causes.”
By “other causes,” Dr. Morris must mean drugs and alcohol. I think back to the two tablets I tucked into Brad’s pocket at Jenna’s memorial dinner. Could he really have died from two Xanax, no matter how much he’d been drinking? I don’t think so. I really don’t think so. But I’m afraid to ask.
“I don’t believe it. I still don’t believe it,” says Ashley, her voice raw and hoarse. Her face is red and swollen. Snot streams freely from her nose. I hand her a tissue. I’ve taken to carrying a large stash of Kleenex everywhere I go. I would offer one to Berry, but she doesn’t need it. Her eyes are tired but dry. Dr. Morris stands perfectly still and silent with a miserable expression on his face.
“I want to know,” says Ashley in a calm, quiet voice. “I want to know if I have an AVM in my head, and I want to know right now.”
“We talked about your options the other day,” says Dr. Morris. “I gave you the contact information for our chief neurologist, Dr. Whitlow. Remember? He can help you decide what to do. The facts of your case haven’t materially changed.”
“Haven’t materially changed? Are you out of your mind? My brother just died. That seems like a pretty big fucking change to me.”
Dr. Morris is flustered. In our culture, we’re supposed to treat doctors — even the fledglings — with the deference older societies reserved for nobility. He tries to sputter a reply, but Ashley cuts him off.
“Listen, doctor. My mother, my sister and now my brother have all died from burst aneurysms over the past few days. I’m terrified, and I just want to know if I need to start making funeral arrangements for myself.” Ashley is full of determination, galvanized by rage. I admire her ability to be fully present in this horrible moment. I still have one foot in Xanax-land, a cool place where emotions are wrapped in cotton and look like white, puffy clouds. I can stay safe on the ground while they careen across the sky.
“Don’t you want to know?” Ashley is pointing at me. I re-focus my eyes and grasp for an answer.
“Sure. I guess. Why not?”
Ashley stares at me, scowling and hurt. I realize I’ve been too flip. I try to care, but I want to slip back into my Xanax meadow with the soft blue sky. I feel weary and disoriented, like I’ve just disembarked from a very long flight to a foreign land. Everything is new and different and somehow wrong. The last time I was here, I was terrified for my unborn baby. Now my baby is gone, and I’m a hollow, empty shell.
Ashley is staring at me. Hard. I feel the weight of disappointment and the heat of her anger. I make one more effort to engage. I look at Ashley, then at Dr. Morris.
“Do you have a neurologist on call right now? Maybe he could check us out tonight?” It’s a solid, practical question. I am pleased.
Dr. Morris looks at us and sighs. We must look terribly pathetic and borderline insane. I wonder if he’s going to refer me and Ashley to the psychiatric ward where we can spend some time with our father. He pulls an electronic pad from his coat pocket and touches the screen for what feels like hours.
“I’m going to page Dr. Whitlow, and ask him to meet us here,” says Dr. Morris.
Ashley smiles, and I feel incrementally brighter. Now the neurologist will be in charge of this frightening mess.
“Excuse me,” says Berry.
We all turn around. Berry’s face is blank and pale. Guilt washes over me, as I realize how badly we’ve neglected our brother’s widow. She is frowning slightly and looking up and to her right. I turn my head in the same direction, wondering what has engaged her attention, and then I see it. A sign prohibiting cell phones and web-connected devices.
“Is it OK if I step outside to make some calls to Brad’s friends? I’ll be back in a minute.”
Before Dr. Morris or anyone can answer, Berry is walking away, taking long strides toward some unknown future.
Book of Jo is a homeless novella that is going to crash on Medium for a few months. I will release new parts on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, until the whole story has been posted. Enjoy!
Read Part 1.
Read Part 2.
Read Parts 3 & 4.
Read Parts 5 & 6.
Read Parts 7 & 8.
Read Parts 9 & 10.
Read Part 11.
Read Parts 12 & 13.
Read Parts 14 & 15.
Read Parts 16 & 17.
Read Parts 18 & 19.
Read Parts 20 & 21.
Read Parts 22 & 23.
Read Parts 26, 27 & 28.
Read Part 29.
Read Parts 30 & 31.