Wednesday, April 27, 2011

FICTION: Endings by Charlene Hardin

There are no unanswerable questions. This was Jesse’s truth and guiding principle. Questions could take time, effort, decades, and lifetimes to answer. They could not be unanswerable.

To think so was lazy.

Mrs. Periérgeia was lazy. This was not true of her daughter, Dr. Periérgeia.

Mrs. Periérgeia clung to a narrative, a fairy-story. It was a tale to tuck the children in at night, and keep them from crying out for Daddy. He went to heaven, she told them. I saw him transformed, bathed in light.

Jesse could not remember anything but the oblong box lowered into the earth.

Dr. Periérgeia sat at the top of her own Mt. Everest. She sacrificed her twenties for the climb, traded date nights for all-night study sessions, and cruises for internships. No friends. No marriage. No children. She burned the midnight oil and candles at both ends, but never burned out. She could and she did. She could be more than her brothers. She could rock the entire world and set it spinning out of orbit if she dared.

Lifting the veil on death, she would strip the hooded figure of mystery, and lay the truth out for the world to see. She planned to answer Death’s questions.

The test was simple, elegant. This was the kind of plan destined to make the designer a science legend.

The test would take time, to collect a large enough sample size. People died every day, but coming back from the dead or the brink of death was another matter. And remembering anything from the Great Beyond held even worse odds.

For this reason, she arrived early on the icy February morning to supervise the placement of the items. No student worker with a hangover and a desire for extra credit would blow it.

She placed the test items throughout the emergency room and critical care unit. The rooms sat empty, but they were chosen for their relative likelihood of being involved in a death, or at least, one extremely close call.

Dr. Periérgeia and the team placed each article high, out of sight in places only the janitor, researchers, and the occasional incorporeal patient would ever see them.

Satisfied, Jessie headed for home. The commute was difficult, considering the strange weather of late. Spring seemed right around the corner one minute, and the next, a blizzard would hit. If groundhog’s shadows really controlled the weather, the must have been doing cartwheels.

The sun was gone and the moon made its ascent as Jessie pulled out of the parking lot. The watery melt of the day returned to ice. The roadways transformed into a black ice skating rink. Jessie never bothered with chains. Her car lost control on the bridge and plunged through the thin sheet of ice covering the lake.

Frantic pushes to the window buttons, ramming them down in repetition with lightning speed. She had no success. The car sank with speed as water flooded in from unknown crevices. She slammed a shoulder against the door. It weighed a million tons. Jessie remembered the ridiculous hammer. The multi-emergency-paranoia-tool her mother gave her for Christmas. It was the ultimate just-in-case gift for an only daughter.

As the water splashed against her cheek, and her feet went numb with cold, she fumbled with the latch. She strained to keep her head above water one gasp and one lurch at a time. Her index finger brushed the sharp metal point of the hammer head. She stretched alien, icy hands toward the unseen opening. In a swift grab she removed it from the glove box.

Submerged in a blurry world of blue she hacked viciously at the windshield until she heard the crack echo in the aquatic coffin. Her neck gulped, and lungs tried to force open. She kicked for the surface, thrashing with her deadening limbs.

Finally, there was a muted pop.

Free, but now so far under, she felt the crush of the water against her body, incasing her and compressing her.

Her brain screamed: Swim!

And she did. She clawed at the water like the eyes of an invisible attacker.

She gave a violent kick. I’m not done yet!

Jesse propelled upward. Blood thundered through her veins, desperate as she was to reach its destination as her body turned to ice. The world was airless blue and immersed in crystalline ice shards of pain.

Somewhere in sight of the barrier between water and sky the world went black.

When awareness returned, she was in the hospital—her hospital—floating on the ceiling.

She looked down at herself. Her skin was a fading watercolor was of blue. The thing was a dead fish of a woman being worked over by an army of scrub-wearing ants.

The items! There they are! It worked!

Oh, shit.

In the instant of recognition, she felt herself sucked through a portal. She was a tiny droplet in a massive straw which found itself deposited in a rolling green field. One large beech tree spread like a massive living umbrella against azure sky in front of her.

An old woman playing chess sat at a card table near the winding roots of the immense tree.

Jessie approached the woman, looking around. The woman cast weary eyes full of friendship toward Jessie. She looked down at the board, and advanced a white pawn.

“Hello?” Jessie forced a smile, eyebrows raised.

The woman looked up. A thousand happy crinkles appeared at the corners of her eyes, and messy gray curls framed a face which rested on one palm.

She motioned Jessie to the seat across the table.

“Who are you?” Jessie asked.

The woman inspected a black chess piece carefully--a queen--and moved it into position near a white night. “Have you ever peeked at the end of a book?”

“What?” Jessie cocked her head to one side.

“You know, when you get curious about the fate of a character. One you’re worried won’t last to the end?”

Jessie shrugged. “Maybe I have. Once or twice.”

“Mmm hmmm…” She moved the white night out of the way. “Naughty girl,” she waved a gnarled finger, her lips twisted into a wry smile. Her eyes sparked life like burning manganese, “Naughty.” She chuckled.

Jess inspected the landscape. The green grass stretched to infinity from below the great beech tree.

“Where am I?”

“I don’t answer loaded questions, my dear, sweet, naughty girl.”

“Am I dead?”

The woman sat back and rubbed her chin. She raised her shoulders and lowered them. “You look fine to me.” She laughed.

“I was dead. I thought. Maybe I’m dreaming.”

The woman nodded. “Maybe you are.”

“I should be more upset, if I’m dead.” Jessie starred out at the green and blue horizon. “But, I don’t.” She tilted her head toward the sky.

The woman shook her head, and leaned across the checkered board. She touched Jessie’s arm with a loving pat, “Well, I’m certainly glad to hear that!”

Pointing to the black pieces, she asked, “Do you like to play chess? Or do you just spend your time looking at the backs of books?” Then she winked.

“No, I don’t know how to play.”

The old woman rose from her chair, and moved closer to Jessie. “I guess you will have to go back and learn, then.”

“Learn what?” Jessie’s eyebrow rose, causing little lines to form a question mark at the center of her forehead.

The woman placed a kind, old hand on Jessie’s shoulder. “You have to learn the chess moves, of course: strategy.” She gave a gentle kiss to the top of Jessie’s head. “It’s all in how you play. That’s elegance.”

Jessie felt a mighty pull. She was plunged backward. Her eyes opened to bright fluorescent lights, she gasped. Pain and adrenaline pulsated in her veins as air hit her lungs with a blast of splintering daggers.

Jessie spent the next several days at the hospital under observation. This left plenty of time for introspection.

She did not speak to anyone, at first. There were questions, of course. Flowers from colleagues, visits filled with polite and impolite queries about her recent ordeal came and went. She began to have pangs of sympathy for the lab rats.

The answers never crossed her lips. Jesse was unsure where to begin.

One morning, as she sat in the hospital room bathed in morning light and allowed her mother brush her long, chestnut hair as she had in childhood, she did tell someone. She told someone she uttered only rare words to over the years. And even those words had only been perfunctory acknowledgement of a holiday or birthday.

She told her mother.

“Oh, isn’t that something?” her mother said. Then, she asked, “What are you going to do now?”

Jessie turned to her mother. “I don’t know.” She opened her mouth to speak, and relaxed.

Her mother stroked her shoulder. She smiled. “You don’t have to figure it all out right now.”

She shook her head in agreement.

“Maybe there is something I’ve missed.”


“I need a new strategy.”

“What do you plan to do?”

“I guess I could learn to play chess.”

“Well,” her mother paused to hand Jessie a mirror. “I guess that’s a start.”

Jessie gazed at the reflection. There was something different hidden somewhere behind the eyes looking back. “Isn’t it?”

She stroked her hair and parted it into three rivers of silky brown which she began to plait lovingly.



“Could you tell me about Dad, again?”

Her mother paused for a moment, and smiled. “Of course.”

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