MitcHELL

Cole Hardman
Jan 3 · 18 min read
artwork by Graham Hardman — https://instagram.com/graham_hardman/

INT. 12TH STREET CHAPEL — MIDDAY, SEPT 23

The foyer of the chapel is relatively empty, and the hard rubber of Dirk’s shoes smacks the floor. Scents of vanilla and damp roses and perfumes swirled by angelic fans above his head slather him with a semi-visible cloak of smoke that fails to hide the deeper smells of that ancient place: rotten wood, mold-splotched carpet, spiders dead and dried in hidden corners, sweat, wine, and even blood. A large poster advertisement for Hereafter, which shows the dead playing golf, vacationing in the simulacra Bahamas, and communing kindly with the living on what looks like Christmas or some other dimly-lit holiday, sits in the corner of the small room. Pamphlets in a pouch on the poster advertisement are available for the taking. Each pamphlet is emblazoned with RJ’s inhumanly happy face, and Dirk grabs one while students flood around him. The students don’t appear to notice him. Maybe they think he is a part of the mourning family and better left alone.

The floor of the foyer is delicately white like cracked eggshells, and the air is crisp. But when Dirk steps into the chapel, he is assaulted by the populated heat of collective worship. The chapel is darker than the airy foyer, but it is illuminated by rainbow paintblobs of light that ooze out of the stained-glass windows set in every wall. Flickering white light glimmers in points like stars in an aurora from atop various dripping candles set in copper pans and silver-skinned candelabras between vases of roses and lilies and daisies and other fragrant feathered things that grow in colors of green and gold and red and white and lavender. There are cards students have signed and stuffed animals like sacrifices the French trapper would have loved placed all around the room. Kids crammed in pews adjust their pants and pick their noses and text while they wait for someone official to rise above the nervous crowd.

Dirk moves to a seat in the last empty pew along the back wall of the room. The kids around him are bent up over their phones. Some have motion-stimulated battery-saving phone cases, and these shake their phones like high-tech maracas to keep the juices flowing. The lucky kids near power outlets in the wall have moved flowers and offerings and pictures to accommodate their phone chargers, and they sit attentively engulfed by digital blue halos — but the others, whose phones are slowly dying in their hands, murmur assurances to their loved ones as they fade away. A DESPERATE BOY next to Dirk seems especially alarmed.

DESPERATE BOY

I swear on my life! I won’t let you die

again — I’ve got a charger in my bag

and we can go out to the foyer if

you’re getting low. And we can even leave

if it looks like there’s no place to charge…

Meanwhile, a GOSSIPING GIRL sitting ahead of Dirk speaks in a low voice to a friend, who cocks her ear like a cup to collect the delicious words.

GOSSIPING GIRL

I heard that RJ left a note. It said

a bunch of stuff about how he didn’t want

to live in Indiana anymore,

how racist his adopted grandpa was

and stuff like that, and how he’d been talking

with his mom and dad for months, since May,

and how they had a room all ready for him

to come and live with them — some real weird stuff.

And his adopted mom still won’t believe

he hated them the way he said, or that

he wished they never brought him to the states…

Hush: the electric life in the room quickly subsides to a cloud of anticipation when the double-doors on the horizon of the back wall are opened. A man in a purple robe with a gold rope around his neck, who also happens to be the high school principal, MR. KIDDERMAN, walks in. Mr. Kidderman wrinkles his impressively bald forehead into three creases, perhaps symbolically, and steps with authority to the pulpit protruding behind the coffin. The pulpit is flanked by the same picture of RJ that is on the pamphlet Dirk is holding. Small lights go out all through the room as phones disappear into pants and jackets and purses. SOME STUDENTS whisper —

SOME STUDENTS
(decisively sad)

I’ll see you in a minute.

Other students take one last energizing shake of their phones and rub their aching forearms. Everyone watches Mr. Kidderman at the pulpit. The polished wood of the casket below him glimmers in the candlelight, and the overflowing red silk of that final bed rolls out like a useless tongue reluctant to reveal the secrets of its holy guest. Mr. Kidderman gestures magnificently, but mechanically, towards the hidden body.

MR. KIDDERMAN

We all know why

we’re gathered here this morning, but I think that some

people are expecting me to talk

about the consequence of RJ’s actions

because, besides the representative

picked to minister Hereafter in this town

you see before you on the stage, you know me

as the strict principal who roams the halls

in Mitchell High School.

Mr. Kidderman lashes the room with a forceful stare, and the last of the lights from half-hidden cell phones are quickly smothered.

MR. KIDDERMAN (CONT’D)

I’m not here to talk

about the consequence of taking your life;

instead, I want to tell you all about

the miracle that RJ was, what he meant

to people in our little patch of earth,

and how, thanks to the future we are forging

as the first Hereafter Hub in the rural part

of our great state, RJ still has a chance

to make a difference as a part of our town

thanks to the strength of the memories we share

and the impact RJ made in all our lives,

which we all feel so painfully today.

Something escapes from the room, and Dirk notices. You might consider it a sigh, or maybe even a laugh, but it is more like an audible essence of blame that shifts from the audience with the dismissed sense of consequence. Suddenly the people in the pews, who had seemed nervous before, but who we realize now were only feeling very guilty, are baptized by the innocence of their ignorance, and the real power of Hereafter is displayed.

MR. KIDDERMAN (CONT’D)
(maybe shaking with emotion,
but most likely composed and
sturdy as a limestone house)

First, I want to tell you all about

my own experiences with Hereafter,

and how it changed my life. When I was young,

when people still got married when they were young

enough to forget they didn’t know what they were

supposed to do, or how to get it done,

my wife was killed in an accident just off

Highway 60, out near CVS.

She obviously died too soon to be

placed in Hereafter, but before she died,

she bought me a hunting dog, despite how much

she hated all the hunting that I did —

God bless her soul for putting up with me,

as old-fashioned as I can be — as a present

on our anniversary. And that dog

survived my wife until last year, when it died

from ripe old age. I’ll tell you the truth now —

when that dog passed away, it felt just like

my wife had died all over again, and when

I thought about them reuniting in

the afterlife, my wife and the dog she bought me,

I realized it didn’t help me much with grief

despite my faith. I thought it was a sin

to place a person in Hereafter then,

but it didn’t seem so bad to place a dog

in the app, if it would help me settle with

the grief I felt. So that was what I did.

I called the people who worked on the app

when I was feeling low, and I asked them to

make an exception for this dog of mine.

The woman on the line told me it wasn’t

possible that instant, but that they were

working on a thing called AfterPets

as we were talking, and she put me on

a list of people who would be the first

to try it out. When I got my dog in the mail,

I felt a bit led on to think that this

robot in a box could take the place

of the dog I knew from when he was a pup

until the day he died. But I was wrong!

I went through the now familiar process of

placing someone in the app, but with

a pup instead, and when that little robot

came to life, I realized all the relief

Hereafter brought to people — and how could that

be so bad, or be a sin to partake in?

I threw myself into the task of becoming

a convert to the app, and I’m proud to say

that, in the end, I was instrumental in

making Mitchell a Hereafter Hub.

And my greatest hope is that, when we go through

the process of placing RJ in the app

today, that Mr. and Mrs. Johannesen,

that you, Lisa, and you, Jeffry, both feel a bit

of that relief, and that this processes helps

you start your journey to a happier life

full of all your loving memories.

Mr. Kidderman places both hands on the podium, gathering his strength, and smiles at two people sitting in front of the coffin, who you could assume to be LISA JOHANNESEN and JEFFRY JOHANNESSEN.

MR. KIDDERMAN (CONT’D)

Most of you knew RJ from class — perhaps

he sat beside you during social studies,

or maybe he was in your home room, and I know

that many of the athletes here will miss

RJ on the soccer field next year.

But he was more than that: RJ was a great

member of our community, one who,

some might say, we never deserved, but who

came to us in search of peace and comfort,

and most importantly, for family.

I know that Jeff and Lisa gave him all

they could afford to give, when they decided

to bring RJ into their loving home.

Mr. Kidderman gestures towards Jeff and Lisa Johannesen with the same mechanical wave of his hand that he previously used to indicate the hidden body of their son.

MR. KIDDERMAN (CONT’D)

It would have been so easy, when they found out

that having children of their own would be

difficult at best, to move on with

the rest of their lives. But Lisa wouldn’t have it.

She knew the good that they could do for a child,

and all the good that it would do them, almost

like the way we use Hereafter now

to fill the hole in our hearts, and she convinced

her husband to adopt a child. But not

just any child. She wanted to adopt

a child from somewhere life was harsh — a child

who needed saved. And so we got RJ.

We watched him grow from just a little kid

of 3 or 4, with habits you couldn’t help

but love despite their backwardness and the way

you never thought he’d smile until he did,

and it made your day. That’s the RJ we met

at first, and then he grew into a strong,

passionate young man, who did his best

to make this town a better place to live.

Whether it was down at Tulip Street

working with the church, or with the school,

working on the floats for the parade,

one of which we’ll see two days from now

in the glory of his handiwork — there wasn’t

a single boy in school who matched him in

the shop — RJ was always dedicated to

the task at hand in a way you had to admire.

RJ worked hard in the classroom, and he

was on his way to being the top of his class

before the tragedy. As a sophomore,

he already had four letters on his coat

and more at home. He was the type of guy

that you could count on in a pinch, that much

was certain, and I think it is still true

to say he’d never let you down. You see,

RJ had the demons of his past

to battle on his own, and even though

Jeff and Lisa tried their best to help,

and RJ gave them all his worst, he couldn’t

overcome the suffering he left

when his parents brought him here. In the end,

those dark memories got the best of him.

Mr. Kidderman pauses, and the audience seems to reach deep into a well of reverent silence.

MR. KIDDERMAN (CONT’D)

I started by saying that I didn’t want to talk

about the consequence of RJ’s actions

because I don’t believe he was at fault

in what he did. As sad as it may seem,

and just as strange to think of when you’ve spent

your life in relatively blissful

relaxation here in Mitchell, the world

beyond our town is sometimes harsh in ways

we can’t imagine. And the truth of it is,

even though we do our best to spread

our wealth of knowledge and beliefs, and to help

with the bit of money we can make,

even though we don’t have much to give —

but we do give, like Jeff and Lisa here,

what we can afford to give — we can’t

do enough to heal the whole wide world over.

RJ was a victim of our human weakness,

but not our will to help. Nobody here

is guilty, but he’ll be most sorely missed.

Mr. Kidderman, perhaps finished now with missing the dead boy, or maybe distracted by the secret joy of fulfilling his favorite public service, smiles at Jeff and Lisa Johenessen. He waves for them to come to the stage, and they stand. Dirk, almost coming out of a slumber after Mr. Kidderman’s sermon, peeks around the students ahead of him to get a good look at grieving parents. Jeff and Lisa are dressed like they’re about to board a tacky cruise — Jeff in a floral Hawaiian shirt and Lisa in a sundress. Lisa still has her straw sunhat on, perhaps pressed down tightly over the undone curls popping out beneath the brim. Something about her suggests a sense of urgency, grief, or even fear despite her dress, especially compared to her husband, Jeff, who turns around like a gangly graduating student to smile awkwardly at the crowd before leading his wife up to the stage. Mr. Kidderman takes Lisa’s hand, and the three people standing by the coffin form a chain of holy power passing from Mr. Kidderman, through Lisa, out to Jeff’s fingertips, and onto the tablet.

Jeff Johannessen touches the tablet, and it blooms into a blue life.

MR. KIDDERMAN (CONT’D)
(very formally stiff)

Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has

not yet come. We only have today.

Let us begin.

A light on the tablet flashes. You might think it was magic, or a miracle, but Mr. Kidderman has just announced the program’s starting phrase — nothing more or less. But the noise that moves through the room, whispers like a rustling of unsure leaves, would leave a person thinking less of logic and more of haunted houses. Lisa Johannessen smiles a half-laugh of relief.

MR. KIDDERMAN (CONT’D)
(like a doctor at the
start of an examination)

Was your son a smoker?

JEFF JOHANNESSEN

Never that I know of — maybe once.

LISA JOHANNESSEN

Just once. He stole a cigar on New Year’s Eve,

when we had gone to sleep, don’t you remember?

MR. KIDDERMAN

Did your son drink alcohol?

LISA JOHANNESSEN
(ashamed, but before Jeff
can answer)

Yes.

The Hereafter placement ceremony commences in much the same way it has around the world this last year, from foggy London to lopsided San Francisco, as smoke from the candles condenses around the casket and obscures the stage. Voices from outside the church almost lurch into being in the quiet of that sacred ceremony.

CUT TO:

EXT. 12TH STREET CHAPEL PARKING LOT

The Aggressive Protester from earlier, the one standing on the truck, is gone, but a small group of chanting people have since filled his space. Shelly is standing next to the bed of the truck, waving her sign.

SHELLY

Software can’t feel!

Programs aren’t real!

A single reporter, who traveled all the way from the Times Mail in Bedford, talks to the elders loading orange bibles into an old car. Shelly seems distracted. A thought settles on her face, bending her brow into a bow that lets a worried prayer fly.

CUT TO:

INT. HANNAH’S BEDROOM

Hannah is sitting on her bed. The lights are out in her room, and we can see that the program she was working on has crashed again — her computer monitor is spinning, spinning, spinning. You might think she was asleep, but when the afterversion of her father speaks from her phone beside her, Hannah opens her eyes. She rubs the tears from her cheek and lets her hand linger above the phone as if she can’t decide whether or not to turn it off.

PAUL

You’re doing awesome, Han. It’s not your

fault at all. It’s mine. I should have

fought your mom to get you out of

Mitchell before you got all rotten —

genius girls like you should live where

you can thrive. It would be so easy,

Han, and I could do it for you,

just like that. You wouldn’t even have to

take a breath or lift a finger.

BACK TO:

INT. 12TH STREET CHAPEL

Smoke continues to pour from the candles, obscuring the stage more and more and giving the scene a sense of magic all abracadabra and hocus-pocus. Something truly religious is about to happen. Dirk watches intently with the other kids, their eyes seemingly glued in their sockets.

MR. KIDDERMAN
(with all the airs of a
colorful ring-master)

That’s it!

Jeff and Lisa Johannessen smile shyly and the crowd becomes even more transfixed than it was before. Even the shuffling feet and adjusting of clothes grows quiet, and you can clearly hear the protesters shouting through the thick walls in the heavy silence. Mr. Kidderman laughs with joy, or maybe relief. A boy beside Dirk shivers in anticipation.

MR. KIDDERMAN
(with principal)

Now — let’s say hello to our friend RJ.

A bright white light and a fine blue writing, which was barely visible, and which Jeff Johannessen had been manipulating as the ceremony progressed, both disappear from the screen of the tablet. A void gapes in their wake — you can see the reflection of the CROWD OF PEOPLE in the emptiness — but soon the empty screen is filled by the enigma of a floating face. Delicately, like an electronically perfect doll, the afterversion of RJ smiles at the crowd. A hushing doubt grips the room.

CROWD OF PEOPLE
(speaking in unison)

Hello, RJ.

RJ
(in an unearthly simple
midwestern way)

Hey there.

RJ winks. His charisma is suave and rat-packish in a way that people who claim to have known him will tell you it never was before. You almost expect him to light a cigarette. What harm would it do him now? The blue background behind him shimmers like an unpolluted Mediterranean sea free of yachts, cruise ships, Greek myths, etc., all confined to the white shores of the tablet’s edge.

RJ (IN TABLET)

Please, I

would appreciate it if you

all came up at once and paid your

due respects. You can download

me immediately after

if you link your phone to the tablet,

and I will be available for

download on Hereafter later.

A thumbs-up appears in the tablet’s text line under RJ’s face, and Mr. Kidderman steps off the stage with the Johannessens. RJ is running the show now. The students rise from their seats as a mass that disturbs the settled smoke above their heads and sends it reeling in wheels and swishing cats-tails of blue mystery. Some of them have only seen dead people in the app before, and now is their chance to see a real body and to marvel at the living face floating in the screen beside it.

Dirk rises with the students surrounding him. Together, they form a wobbly line of leaning people leading to the open casket. It moves quickly. People grimace for a moment at the body RJ left behind, hurriedly and a little disgusted at the formality of it, or maybe turning their noses at the artificially clean smell, before they move towards the tablet. RJ greets each one with a kind hello and invites them to press their phones to the screen. They do. Their phones vibrate in their hands after receiving the new life, and when they turn it over — there’s RJ smiling back at them.

The students, once they have their friend in their pockets, go skipping by the mourning parents. But you might understandably question how grieved Jeff and Lisa Johannessen are. Jeff especially seems delighted, and in the brief lull of activity that comes as each passing person pauses to consider the look of peaceful rest that a mortician has placed on his adopted son, Jeff talks to the face floating in the tablet about sandy black volcanic beaches, afterversion friendly cruise activities, and what good the ocean air and sunlight is sure to do them both. After the kids say their bit about how thankful they are for RJ, mostly speaking to Lisa, they parade out of the church and disperse into the town.

Dirk walks with the rest of them up to the casket. When his turn comes, he looks down at RJ. His gaze lingers. Maybe he remembers a moment since forgotten, when Shelly brought RJ over with a group of friends. Maybe they were even introduced. Something about the plastic quality of the face in the casket demands an everlasting memory as a token, and Dirk seems to struggle for one. He rubs the screen of his phone through his pants, and Flori sets it buzzing. Dirk has lingered too long. He turns to the Johannessens and speaks to Lisa.

DIRK

I wish I could’ve helped.

LISA JOHENESSEN

I’m sure you did —

JEFF JOHENESSEN
(interrupting)

We tried

the best we could, and it’s all that we could do.

A beat passes. Lisa seems to melt like one of the candles surrounding them.

JEFF JOHENESSEN (CONT’D)
(talking to RJ floating in
the tablet)

Apparently they’ve rigged some way that we

can spend a day in the spa together. I bet

your mom would love that more than anything —

it’s been so long since someone treated her

like that — all mudbaths, real messages, the works…

Lisa smiles apologetically, and Dirk turns away from the Johannessens. He starts down the corridor created by the pews and the lurching line of people, but, maybe it’s the chemical smell of the body in the casket, or perhaps some vision, maybe a spirited illusion, you would have a hard time saying what, but something has its hooks in him like the perfumed tendrils of a supernatural jellyfish. Dirk finds it difficult to breath — you might even think he was having an anxiety attack. He manages to make it back into the foyer, and he stands there, leaned against a glass wall, taking deep breaths in the abundance of light. From in the lobby beneath the cool air of the fan, breathing the fresh air deeply, Dirk stares back at the candle-flickering dark room where rainbows leak through hidden windows and dance with the dead. The tablet at the end of that far room glows like a light leading through the proverbial tunnel to heaven, or hell, or maybe somewhere in-between.

While Dirk stares into the room, a man, the Aggressive Protester from before the funeral, who now stands at the front of the line near the casket, screams in the church like a banshee.

AGGRESSIVE PROTESTER

I won’t let you make another one like him —

not my son! — not another monster!

The man delivers a windmill punch to the tablet RJ is floating in, cracking the screen and sending it flying across the room like a shooting star. Mr. Kidderman runs after its glittering form, but the Johannessens stand transfixed and staring. Jeff looks like he might laugh. Everyone watches intently, as if a new part of the funeral, perhaps something like a post-credit scene that sets up a sequel, is about to begin. The Aggressive Protester takes the hand of the boy in the casket and holds it up for everyone to see.

AGGRESSIVE PROTESTER
(as if waving goodbye)

This is your boy.

Two athletic kids in letter jackets break the lull of the moment with a bit more violence than necessary. One athletic kid drags the Aggressive Protester to the ground, leaving RJ’s pale hand to hang outside his coffin, and the other boy grinds a knee into the Aggressive Protester’s back, pinning him with spinal pop. The smoke settles.

It all seems finished and over with until Lisa Johannessen begins to sob. Jeff puts an arm around her and tries to coax her to stop. He probably tells her to remember that in a couple of quick hours they will be on a cruise — and not to worry. The cruise probably even accommodates Hereafter passengers. There will be loads of games us living people can watch our afterchildren play. You can even bet on the games, if you want to! But you don’t have to. It will be fun, it will be different, and we will feel alive…

Whatever Jeff says, he can’t calm Lisa. She builds up speed and magnitude until she’s heaving sobs that shake her frame and threaten to rip off the flowers stitched across her dress. Suddenly animated, she breaks free of Jeff and strides to the protester, leaning down towards his shining bald head like a fish teasing towards a hook.

LISA JOHANNESSEN

You ruined everything.

We were all so happy, and you ruined it.

Mr. Kidderman pulls Lisa away. He hands her the tablet. It looks the same besides the shining crack that splits RJ’s face in two. RJ smiles at Lisa, assuring her that everything will be alright while she sets him back on the stand.

RJ winks delightfully and the students start passing through the line again. Their phones buzz like bees. Someone starts playing Amazing Grace on a harmonica over the loudspeakers. Mr. Kidderman stands with Jeff and Lisa in a corner, discussing the future, and and Dirk turns unbelievably green. He starts to sweat. The foyer is suddenly too close to things too personal, and he leaves the church in a hurry.

CUT TO:

Lit Up

Welcome to Lit Up -The Land of Little Tales. Here you can read and submit short stories, flash fiction, poetry - in brief, your own legend. We're starting little. But that's how all big stories begin.

Cole Hardman

Written by

I’m an engineer with a passion for poetry and literary theory. Find more at: http://poetwithnoface.com/

Lit Up

Lit Up

Welcome to Lit Up -The Land of Little Tales. Here you can read and submit short stories, flash fiction, poetry - in brief, your own legend. We're starting little. But that's how all big stories begin.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade