4. Making... Friends?
He sat down to mourn Davis and worry about Heltie. He didn’t need to, he knew that, but he wanted to. Davis’s hospital room walls had been full of pictures addressed ‘To Grandpa’, and there was evidence of adult kids spending time there in the form of paper coffee cups and take-out containers filling the counter by the door or left neatly stacked on the side of the table because the garbage was full. Heltie had been exhausted, but supported. She would continue being supported, Liam didn’t have to convinced himself because it was something he knew. On a whim, he clasped his hands together and smiled as he fit the feel of her hand inside the feel of Davis’s.
The shunk sounded and turned off the grey. Liam sat in the dark with his hands clasped and counted down from three hundred and fourteen.
“Hello?” a woman’s voice yelled from a long distance away as Liam passed twenty.
“Cover your eyes!” Liam yelled back, separating each word so the yell would be clear.
“What?” she called.
He repeated the instruction at his top volume and then used the crook of his elbow to cover his eyes just in time for the shunk to turn on the bright. She yelled a few choice words in a combination creative enough that Liam chuckled. Once her words dropped below him being able to hear her, he heard the painful cries of the young animal that he’d forgotten about while trying to help Davis.
“This will end soon!” Liam called to the woman.
The shunk bringing back the grey sounded and Liam stood up to get walking. His overhead companion was a moving spec, a second spec with them, when he glanced up. He never saw the dark and bright cycle up there, but theirs rarely aligned with his.
“Hello? Who’s there?” the woman’s voice yelled. “Why do I have to keep consciously thinking about breathing?” she demanded, the question broken in two due to inhaling. Liam laughed, said a final goodbye to the place where Davis and Heltie had been, and started jogging towards both new visitors.
The puppy was in one of the small, shallow catches that Liam hadn’t seen used before. He lay on his stomach and reached down to scoop up the fuzzy potato with one hand. The crying the puppy was doing intensified – as expected – but once he sat up, some gentle rubs and a cuddle helped…? Liam flipped the puppy and checked and, cool, she was a she. He snugged her into his arms against his chest and held her close. She sniffed, nipped, and tickled at his fingers, her eyes barely open so her age still ridiculously young. It was impossible for Liam to guess what type of dog she was – he didn’t know much about dogs – but she looked mostly white and had a brown spot covering her right side that was roughly shaped like China. She was actually a pretty little pup. Liam let her chomp on his fingers a bit as he stood up and continued walking toward the new spec in the distance.
He’d been expecting a door for the puppy, but the shape waved madly and yelled for him to see her and start explaining what the hell was going on. He didn’t bother yelling back while he couldn’t see the woman’s facial features, mostly because he’d gotten the puppy calmed down and he didn’t want to scare her if he didn’t have to.
The woman was angry with his non-responses, but the anger looked more confusion- and fear-fueled than actually being mad-angry once Liam could see her face. She was dressed nicely and already standing up, although she didn’t look keen on moving, and her stare up at where Liam was casually walking let him know that – just like himself when he’d woken up here – she couldn’t see anything visible in the grey.
“What. The hell. Is going on.” She demanded when he was two turnings away.
“What’s the last thing you remember?” Liam asked.
“Overdosing,” she stated.
“Does it matter?” She crossed her arms defensively.
“I got hit by a truck,” Liam informed her.
“What is this place?”
“Honestly? I really don’t know. I just think of it as ‘the grey’ and that suits well enough.”
“So who are you?”
“My name’s Liam,” he introduced himself.
“What are you walking on?”
“The same stuff you’re standing on.”
“Touché,” she rolled her eyes.
“I don’t know too much about this place. It seems to be some kind of in-between for second chances.”
“So you’re, like what, a mortality greeter who delivers puppies to the recently deceased?” she asked, staring at the puppy in his arms as if he’d asked her to change its diaper. Liam laughed at her and shook his head, stopping above the catch she was in.
“Nope. I’m just someone else who’s in the process of dying,” he shrugged. “The same as this wee girl.” He smiled at the puppy and rubbed her neck and ears gently. She growled at him in a tiny, whiny way that made him want to let her chew on all of his fingers forever. “Mostly, I don’t want to be dead and I don’t have much reason for being alive, so I just stay here and help people with whatever they need to do.”
“Meaning what? There are tests or trials to get into whatever happens when you’re dead?”
“I don’t know about that, but there’s a test to get back to your physical self, right now in the moments you’re dying in.”
She closed her eyes and threw her head back with a sigh, her jaw working as she ground her teeth together. When her head dropped forward, it was so that she could scrub her hands into her eyes in a tired show of frustration.
“Of course there’s a test,” she muttered, scoffing out a laugh. “So, what now? I have to prove worthy of being dead by facing off with seeing myself dying?” she asked Liam.
“No, not like that,” he answered. He walked over to the stairs into the catch she was in and walked down. Even after all the times he’d done this since being able to see the catwalk and catches, he still felt like a bit of an idiot for completely missing the stairs and leaping onto the catwalk when he’d first woken up in the grey. The woman’s eyes followed his progress, her brows scrunching together as he got closer to her. “What’s your name?” he asked.
“None of your business,” she answered. His reply was interrupted before it could start by the puppy yawning.
“Okay,” he shrugged, shifting the puppy around so that she was jarred into staying awake. “I need to get this wee girl back to herself before she falls asleep here. That’s how you die out of this place,” he explained quickly. “Basically, here in the grey, you get to do the worst moment of your worst day again – but watching rather than participating – and that seems to be how you get back to yourself while you’re dying right now in your physical reality. If you choose to, you can go back to your life and try to survive through whatever is killing you.”
“What are my other options?” she asked.
Hello all! If you're having it, happy long weekend! My kids each have a four-day weekend, and the break is WONDERFUL. (That wasn't sarcasm, either, I really am really happy for the break.) The only thing we celebrate at our house for this holiday weekend is chocolate and family time, two of my favorite things ;)
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3. Lost Battles
Liam looked around at the scorched hallway and wounded men. The place this door had been in really had once been a hospital, if the abandoned and twisted gurneys could be believed. The younger Davis, recognizable to Liam only because of his eyes, crawled on his elbows to a wounded friend. Both of their mouths were moving, but sound hadn’t returned yet. The scene didn’t need sound. Liam watched Davis’s friend scream himself to death as the younger Davis tried everything he could in the thirty seconds he’d been given to save the life in front of him, and failed.
The old Davis reached out from where he was lying, tears running as freely over his wrinkled face as on the taut cheeks of his younger self. The few survivors collecting themselves and what they could, communicating through slaps and shoves and silent-movie yells to encourage and order themselves forward into the room ahead. Liam pulled Davis up, mirroring the soldier pulling the younger Davis to his feet, and stumbled after the survivors into… the grey.
The room they’d run into cracked and shattered like glass, dusting away before Liam could see anything about it in any detail. Only the after-effects of the bomb on their hearing and the clinging smell of burning plastic remained. Liam helped Davis crumple to the catwalk safely and held onto him as he cried, the returning ability to hear bringing only the broken sobs of an old man lost in a horrible worst day. Davis stopped crying sooner than Liam figured a memory like that deserved but, as with every other part of Davis’s visit so far, whatever had developed in his old age to steal his memories took this one away, too.
“Did I fall?” Davis asked, looking up at Liam.
“Just a stumble,” Liam assured him. “We landed together. Are you hurt?” he asked.
“I don’t think so,” Davis replied, sitting up straight and checking his limbs and torso. The checking motions quickly transitioned to searching pats, as if his pajamas had pockets, and Davis started looking around. “I’ve lost my glasses.”
“I’ll help you find them,” Liam answered. A new door only a few steps away had shiny, brass numbers and a window made of safety glass. Cheery sunlight was shining through the glass. “Maybe you left your glasses in your room?”
Davis looked at Liam as if only seeing him for the first time, and then squinted up at the door with the bright window. The tears staining his cheeks were completely forgotten.
“Oh. Yes. I must’ve left them there,” Davis muttered. Liam stood easily and then held down a hand to Davis.
“Can I help you up?”
“Oh, yes, thank you. What a nice young man,” Davis smiled and accepted the assistance.
Liam restarted talking about university on the short walk to Davis’s second door. Just like with the first door, sound and light burst around them as soon as Liam opened the second one; this time the hospital hallways that appeared were quietly in use and the urgent voices from the room were a hard contrast to the sunny day outside the large window facing outside. Davis followed Liam in, a nurse rushing just ahead of them and accounting for the door being opened here in reality. A woman near to Davis’s age was being restrained away from the bed by one nurse as other nurses and a doctor rushed their best to even out the erratic heart beat showing on the monitor.
“Goodness. He’s in bad shape,” Davis commented.
“Do you know him?” Liam asked.
“Nope,” Davis stated, looking at himself with a stranger’s pity.
The woman who was being restrained back attempted to reach around the nurse, stretching for the limp hand on the bed that she’d been holding, and ended up folded into a careful hug. Liam could see that she and the nurse were both crying.
“Please, just someone hold his hand so he knows he’s not alone,” the older woman pleaded before resting into the shoulder of the nurse supporting her.
“That’s… she’s… oh, Heltie…”
Liam turned his head to see Davis get sucker punched by a lucid moment. The older man backed out of the room, fresh tears on his face, and twisted away around the door to flee down a right-angled hallway before Liam could stop him. Liam skidded to a stop on his knees at the edge of the catwalk, his hand reaching in a sad parody of how Heltie had been only moments ago. Davis fell through the grey, growing smaller as he twisted and clawed at the nothing around him. The terrified expression on his face had been rendered invisible by distance when his shape dusted away.
Liam stared at the spot where Davis had been. In all his time here, in all the lives and deaths that had passed, Davis was the first visitor to fall. Liam sat on the catwalk and tried to process what had happened. He didn’t know how to feel.
The urgent voices of nurses and the unbroken tone of the heart monitor pulled his attention back to the hospital that was strangely still around him even though Davis was gone. Liam stood up and walked into the room. Heltie was sitting in the nearest chair to where she’d been standing, her hands wrapping her mouth and chin as tears poured over her cheeks to run down her wrists into her sleeves. After a few more minutes trying to bring Davis back, the doctor stopped his attempts, kissed Heltie’s head gently in wordless comfort, and then quietly left as the nurses began to turn off the machines and monitors. The same nurse that had hugged her before returned to hold the newly made widow.
Liam crossed the room and stood at the end of the bed so he was nearer to Heltie. He knew he could interact a small amount with reality, but didn’t know what to do because he could usually only touch objects; never people. She stopped the helpless crying with a sigh and a bow of her head, leaving the few errant tears waiting to fall only leaking and staining her features with sunlit grief. Liam watched as the nurse offered a brave smile and some tissues, the few words exchanged were too quick to hear well, and seemed to be the end of a familiar conversation between the two women. Nods, smiles, another hug and a few more tears were passed back and forth, and then the nurse returned to her shift and Liam was alone with Heltie.
She didn’t seem to know what to do with her hands, twisting up and ripping apart one of the tissues and then another. Her words didn’t seem to know what to do, either. Her mouth opened and closed a few times but the expected sounds never made it past her lips.
“We were supposed to do this part together,” she finally accused the room, staring at her lap as she started ripping up another tissue. “Getting old,” she stated, and then sighed. “Maybe we did and that’s why we’re here now,” she added, a few new tears adding to the etched paths on her face.
She reached out toward Davis without moving from the chair and Liam realized she’d been on the same side of the bed this whole time; on Davis’s left. He stopped her motion half way by folding her hand into his, the fact that he could feel her skin a surprise that brought tears to his eyes. The jolt shocked through her and she stared at the curve of her hand wrapping around fingers that she couldn’t see. She squeezed tighter and smiled.
Liam’s opposite hand lifted and was held. He stared at his fingers, the skin pressed by an invisible force matching the feel of Davis’s bigger hand, and squeezed gently tighter to Heltie’s hand to try and pass on the grip somehow. The room twinkled to dust, the grips on both Liam’s hands fading with the sunlight until he was alone in the grey.
2. Looking for the...
“Who are you? What is this? What’s going on?” The voice was full of gravel and each question was more of a barked command. “Identify yourself!”
“Liam Crobb, sir,” Liam answered promptly, looking down at the elderly man in fraying pajamas. He was standing at the bottom of a set of stairs connecting the catwalk to the nearest catch. This wasn’t the first time Liam encountered someone from the military, but this was definitely the oldest soldier who’d visited.
“Why are you out of uniform?” The old man eyed Liam suspiciously.
“I’m on leave,” Liam said with a shrug.
The last soldier he’d met here had been a twenty-two year old woman who told him to call her Madge, and she’d been friendly enough until he’d helped her onto the catwalk. Then she’d taken him prisoner or hostage or whatever it was she’d done by pointing a gun at him and demanding to know where she was being held, not believing that the reality of the grey was real until she discharged a nine millimeter round into his chest at close range and it hadn’t done anything other than be really loud. This obviously retired soldier just seemed…
“What is this place? Where’s my room?” the old man asked. “Where’s Heltie?” he added, mostly to himself, turning his head to glare at his left hand as if it had recently betrayed him. Liam looked in the direction his senses told him was backwards and saw a plain, windowless door typical for inside a hospital only a few turnings away. “Where did I leave my glasses…?” the old man muttered, patting at his worn out pajamas as if they had pockets.
“I think you left them in your room?” Liam offered the question kindly. The old man’s head snapped up and his eyes squinted into a glare.
“Who’re you?” he demanded, the question barked roughly.
“My name’s Liam. I’m visiting here,” Liam introduced himself again.
“Here?” the old man looked around again, squinting harder, before looking down to pick at his pajamas as if having forgotten he was wearing them. “Where did I leave my glasses…?” he mumbled again.
“Did you want me to help you find your glasses, sir?” Liam offered. The old man blinked up at him as if seeing him for the first time.
“What a nice young man,” he said, smiling. “Yes. Help would be good. I can’t seem to remember…”
“Where your glasses are,” Liam said, returning the smile.
“Yes. My glasses,” the old man repeated. “Have you seen them?”
“I haven’t seen your glasses, but I’ll help you look.”
“I’d really appreciate that.”
The old man smiled vaguely in the direction Liam was standing, but then his eyes glassed over and he just stood there at the bottom of the stairs. Liam hummed a song he remembered the tune of, but not the words for, and walked down the steps.
“My name’s Liam. Can I help you find your glasses?”
“My glasses… yes. I’m having a hard time seeing today. Do you work here?”
“Yup. I’ve been here a while. This is my first time seeing you, though.”
The vague answer and a gentle tug were enough to get the old man walking up the steps. Liam stayed to the side that dropped into the catch, keeping the old man close to the railing. Not sure what else to talk about, but understanding that he needed to stay talking so that he continued to be viewed as friendly and non-threatening, Liam talked about university and some of the classes he’d been taking. They shuffled slowly after reaching the catwalk and turned toward where a hospital door was waiting. Liam introduced himself a half-dozen more times, learning that the old man’s name was Davis.
“Like the last name, but I’m first,” Davis joked after introducing himself. Then his smile faded and his steps faltered to a stop. They were still a right turn away from reaching the door, but Davis hadn’t noticed it yet. Liam was pretty sure that was a good thing.
Davis stared around at the grey, his eyes squinting in a search for identifiable details. His free hand drifted up to wrap over where Liam’s fingers were holding his arm. Davis was larger than Liam by more than half a head in height, and his weathered frame had likely been double the younger man’s weight in the old soldier’s prime. A shudder ran through the bigger man’s body and he tucked closer to Liam’s side.
“It’s all right, Davis. I’ll help you,” Liam assured him quietly.
“Promise?” the old man asked, speaking out of some point in his childhood.
Davis held onto Liam’s hand tighter as the younger of the two started leading the older toward the door again. After a few stuttered steps, Davis’s strides lengthened to the pacing of a man younger than the current count of years in his body. He glared suspiciously at the hand Liam was keeping on his arm but bit back any words he might’ve said, grinding his false teeth instead. They reached the plain, windowless hospital door quickly and Liam stopped to look up at Davis. The same soldier who’d barked questions at him earlier was staring back.
“I know you won’t believe me right now, but my name is Liam Crobb and I am here to help you,” Liam stated quietly. Davis only scoffed in silent reply. “I don’t know what’s on the other side of this door. It’s likely going to be something bad. I promise I won’t leave you behind.”
Davis’s gaze sharpened into alarm and confusion and then swept into anger. Liam barely had time to inhale to ask what was going on before he was slammed into the door and the half-breath he’d taken was knocked back out. His feet dangled uselessly above the catwalk as Davis held him at the larger man’s eye level by the younger man’s throat. Liam knew that Davis was trying to strangle him. He also knew that it was impossible to choke the life out of someone who wasn’t living and, because of how things worked in the grey, whatever pain he experienced from his throat being crushed would be fixed in a few moments once the cause was removed. The rage in Davis’s eyes was met only with the waiting to be set down in Liam’s.
“What are you?” Davis demanded, his grip flexing tighter.
Liam attempted to inhale so that he could answer, but his throat was completely choked off. He tapped at Davis’s hands with a finger and stared pointedly at the old man. Davis dropped him as if Liam had suddenly erupted into flames, stumbling back two steps and staring with mounting horror as Liam calmly waited the few moments for the pain to subside so that he’d be able to talk again.
“You’re having a near-death experience,” Liam stated once he could. “I’m here to help you get through it.”
“A near-death…?” Davis looked down at his clothes and picked at his pajamas as if never having seen them before. “I don’t…” he began, and then his voice faded as he started patting his torso. “Where did I leave my glasses?” he mumbled.
“Do you need some help?” Liam offered, keeping his tone friendly.
“I don’t know,” Davis admitted, his hands slowing as he squinted toward where Liam was standing. “I was looking for something, but I don’t... my memory isn’t what it used to be,” he said with a self-conscious smile, his tone full of apology. “Heltie will know what it is I’ve forgotten,” he said, his hands falling to hang slackly at his sides.
“Do you know where we can find her?”
“Heltie is… she’s…” Davis’s smile faded and his eyes dropped to glare at his left hand. The moment stretched out in silence.
“Hello, Davis,” Liam pulled the old man’s attention with a cheerful greeting. “Gone out for a walk?”
“I… yes… I think I…” he squinted at the grey, searching for familiar details in the broad nothing and only barely noticing the nearby door. “Who are you?” he asked, his voice uncertain as he squinted at Liam.
“I’m Liam. I work here.”
“Oh. Right. Of course.”
Davis nodded, fronting as if he recognized the younger man, and offered zero resistance when Liam took the older man’s arm in hand and led him toward the door. The handle clicked open smoothly under Liam’s hand, and then there was a second click when the door was half-way open.
“Down!” Davis roared, throwing himself and Liam to sprawl across the catwalk. Flames followed the burning heat that belched out around and above them, the sound of the explosion a physical impact that left only numbing silence.
1. Back in the Grey
Liam stepped out of the door and looked down at the scene, watching the hurried actions of the emergency responders, and shook his head. It felt like years had passed but every time his door came up, it had only been seconds. He’d really believed the last time he’d been through that it was the last time he was going to have to. And now, here he was again, getting ready to step over his own body and walk away.
He sighed in frustration. At this point, whoever or whatever was in control of the grey should have noticed that he wasn’t leaving because he didn’t want to. Every time the choice came up, he chose to stay.
The first time had been for Kaylynd. She’d been a little girl – all of ten and half years old – who’d nearly died from drowning. Then his door had come back when he was with that friend who’d called himself Track or Trek or something like that… Trock. He’d called himself Trock, and he’d been twenty-six and into his third year of dying of cancer. They’d hung out in his hospital room for hours, just talking, as Trock's heart kept weakly beating and the machines around the bed pushed poisonous medicine and breath into his body. He’d wanted to know more about what happened after the grey, but Liam didn’t know any of that. They’d ended up skirting around the bed together and Trock had hung out in the grey for a couple of visitors (which is what Liam called everyone who came into the grey now). The emotional kicking of those few worst days had been rough and, when the hospital door came back around, Trock had decided on trying something new. He’d lain down and fell asleep on the floor beside the bed his body was wasting away on.
The third time had been when Liam was helping that kid in the wheelchair, who couldn’t speak due to whatever injury or disease he had, but there was a world of life in the kid’s eyes when Liam would ask him questions. There was a wealth of laughter in there, too, once Liam figured out the jokes that the kid thought were funny. Liam had had to cross over himself four times to get the kid and the wheelchair over to the other side so that they could get around Liam’s death scene and get on with getting the kid back to his parents. The kid even smiled, barely a twitch, and did a ‘blink once for yes’ when they got back to his room. His mom was crying hard as she cleared out the bit of food the kid had choked on, begging the dispatch operator over speakerphone for the ambulance to get to her house quicker because her son wasn’t breathing. Liam wheeled the kid up to himself and whooped a loud laugh as the scene faded, hearing as the kid’s mom started yelling wordlessly with Christmas morning levels of excitement.
After that, the door only showed up when he was alone, and for too many times to bother keeping track. The pull to get into himself didn’t come with a black-hole level of gravity anymore. The last time through, he’d done a tidy, hands-free vault over one of the responders working hard to save his life and then flipped a double-bird back at the scene after landing. He’d blown a kiss at the truck that had crunched his torso into mulch as he jogged to the open car door that would take him back to the grey.
There had been a lot of visitors since that last time, nearly a lifetime ago, and he still didn’t want to go back to living. In the grey, things were simple. There was the relief of no physical needs, as in no eating or breathing, no bathroom breaks, no sleep, no lasting pain, and none of the mental drain for worrying about how to afford all the necessities for staying alive. Emotions were what he got to keep, and for the first time in his life he had a really good handle on those. Time was different here, too. Like, really different. Liam was ninety-nine point nine percent certain that he’d been here in the grey for many, many years since the last time he’d been through the door leading to the street he was dying in the gutter of, but these emergency responders were maybe a minute into trying to save his life. He looked over the shoulder of the lady he’d seen a few times ago who was taking video on her phone; three seconds had passed since the last time he’d been here. He’d been standing here for probably all three. So that confirmed his suspicion that time only moved in this reality when he was in this reality. That made the decision to get out of here quick, before he took a forced nap into a slow fade, really easy to make. He didn’t bother getting fancy, just jumped over his body and ran for the door leading back to the grey.
After being so close to being alive again, the reminders of the living, breathing, messy creature he had been took a few minutes to shake off. The catwalk and visitor catches he had gotten used to seeing in sharp focus had dulled a little. He took a deep breath and calmed away the bustling pressure that living caused; his world here in the grey emerged clearly as he exhaled.
The grey had changed a lot since Liam had first woken up in one of the catches here… he paused and smiled at the thinking that it was the grey that had undergone the changes. A flicker of movement way above him caught his eye as he was looking around. There was another catwalk somewhere up there, complete with its own set of catches, but it was next to impossible to see due to the distance between where he was standing and – yup! – where whoever did the same job as him up there was exaggeratedly waving at him. Liam untied the torn remains of his jacket from around his waist and spun it over his head as a reply. The person up there changed their motion in answer. They were too far away to yell to, and there were no echoes in the grey, but Liam smiled up at them before he stopped waving his jacket and tied it back around his waist. They couldn’t see his face and he couldn’t see theirs, but they went through these lifetimes together and that stranger was the closest thing to a soul mate Liam had ever imagined.
He looked down after the motion above stopped to check if maybe now there were the tracings of a distant catwalk in the endless grey below and only saw more nothing. The grey expanding along all sides in the horizontal was also still empty. He knew that there were bound to be other catwalks because the one above him existed, which lead to an interesting pondering about the existence of the catwalks as a physical thing in time and space. Was such a thing was possible?
The loud shunk sounded and the grey abruptly turned off. Liam sat down, glad that he’d seen his overhead companion during this past cycle, and started counting down from three hundred and fourteen. He hid his eyes in the crook of his elbow as he counted past ten into single digits and made a gesture like flicking on a light switch as he hit zero, perfectly in time with the shunk that brought on the bright. Somewhere on his level, he could hear the pained whines of a very young animal (likely a dog, but his assumptions had been wrong before). He counted up to one hundred and fifty-nine, making a button-push motion as the shunk sounded for returning to the familiar grey.
The animal’s whining continued. Liam stood up and looked around to help determine the direction he needed to be going for getting closer to the cries. Forward this time. He’d taken three steps when the shunk came again and plunged everything into perfect blackness. He counted down from three hundred and fourteen and then up to one hundred and fifty nine.
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