[Passing references regarding child abuse, elder neglect]
Priscilla opened her almond-colored eyes. They fluttered, looking at the highest red, curtain she had ever seen. A curtain that reached into the darkness, touching an unseen ceiling. She looked around to acclimate herself. Nothing about where she stood looked familiar. I don’t remember this. I… I don’t know what’s I’m going on.
"And now, here's our guest of honor. Welcoming, Priscilla Broooownnnnn… c'mon on in." An announcement boomed over the room.
She couldn't place the voice, much like a singer she had heard several times during her early childhood. A slit opened between the stage curtains. She paused. A soothing voice behind her ushered her forward. The crowd roared with a vocal mixture of "we love you" and "boo." She didn't know what to make of the evolving situation. Priscilla stepped across the light-wood, glossed floor to the golden-white podium, staring over the seats. Bright lights hit her eyes, blinding her to the crowd's specific faces. She could make out silhouettes in both the main room and the balcony seating without further details.
“Um…” Priscilla spun at a loss for words. The air appeared pristine as if free from all impurities. She registered a faint wood smell. The disoriented feeling gained traction as deja vu passed through her.
A silver-blue, lanky man stood next to the podium. Her head moved backward to accommodate his overwhelming height. A thorough calm eased through her as visually intimidated as she felt,.
“Sweetie, they’re here to hear what you have to say.” Priscilla stepped back to look high at his portrait.
“What am I supposed to say?” Her words unintentionally carried through the microphone.
“You fucking loser,” a rogue statement offered from the audience’s anonymity. The words lacked any echoing as if said directly into her ears. She did her best to ignore the criticism. Frustration seeds sprouted from fresh soil. Their roots dug downwards towards her heart.
“You’re a hero, Priscilla,” another obscured person screamed.
“Tell them what’s in your heart.” His long hand waved to the anonymous audience.
“Who are they?” she replied through a frown.
“They’re all here to see you. Isn’t that amazing?” His smiling face elated.
“What… how’s that even possible?”
"It's possible because you're about to cross over into a new journey of experiences. Consider this a checkpoint. But enough rattling on, tell them your story. Maybe start simple with your name." The tall man lumbered backward into the shadowed stage right.
“Get on with it already,” a deep voice boomed.
“Take your time, sweetheart,” another countered.
She turned to the podium. A long, thin dark microphone close to her full lips.
“My name is Priscilla Brown.”
“Yeah, the other dude already said that,” someone mocked at full volume.
"Priscilla is the best," yelled someone to her right, followed by individual applause.
"I grew up in Biloxi, Mississippi and went to Thurgood Marshall Elementary with my six siblings. We lived in a large house with my mom, my father, aunt, and my cousin. I played with my friends by the river and read under a willow tree."
“What did you read?” The unemotional question boomed from the back.
"Oh, yeah. Anything fiction or biographical from the sixties. I loved learning about artists and musicians. The free thinkers and open-minded artists. Dylan, Hendrix, Bowie. I would spend hours and hours reading. Sometimes losing all track of time and then my father… my father would…" Her head dropped as she remembered.
“Your father what, dumbass?”
Priscilla scowled at her memory. “He would beat me for not paying better attention to the hour. He would grab a switch off the large tree in the front yard and whoop me for being absentminded. In front of everyone. Anyone. He didn’t care. It was more humiliating than…”
“You can do it, hun,” from the upper left seats.
“Ya probably deserved it,” from the back right.
“No, no… I mean, I may have deserved it, but not in front of my family and… friends,” the last word slipped from her lips like a passing cloud. Her anger rose. “I didn’t deserve to get beat. No child does, no person does. Not a beating, not a public beating. Not like that. He wouldn’t beat the cat or the dogs. Why did he beat me so aggressively? Why didn’t he beat the other kids as much? I was a good girl most of those days. Not perfect, but not as bad as the others. My brothers did way worse without getting beaten.” Her emotions boiled.
“It’s because you were a bastard and he hated you for that.” A voice called out from the top rear seats.
She considered the idea. “No, no that can’t be possible. Just because my skin was a bit lighter than the rest…”
“A bit lighter, ha! You were three shades too light for your kin and two shades too dark for society. You were an Oreo kid.”
“But, that can’t be possible. Daddy would have left if momma had given birth to someone else’s baby.” She talked through her thoughts.
“Not if he was trapped with your family and a house to pay for.”
Her emotions boiled when she processed the 'Oreo kid' comment. "I was not an Oreo kid," she screamed, remembering all the times being in the schoolyard being teased about her light complexion. Her body trembled as it had then. She could hear the faint sounds of school harassment in her head. She remembered her father stealing disappointed looks at her sleeveless arm when he thought she didn’t see him.
“Who’s Chad Silver?” The voice asked from the bottom left.
“Chad? Chad worked for my father. Until he was fired for… for? I don’t know why. Something about taking something that wasn’t his. Stealing, I guess.”
"Maybe he stole your mother's egg," a peal of quiet laughter erupted.
“My mother was a good person and wouldn’t have slept with anyone besides my father.” Priscilla became fully flush with anger. “My mother would’ve told Chad ‘no’ and walked away.”
“Or she said ‘oh baby’ and pulled him to her bed.” A heckler called out.
“No, no, there were always too many people home. Someone was always around to see, to tell my father anything from the house.”
“What about the barn? The one near the back road. Your mother was a slut.”
"That was her private place to get away from us all. She said it was off-limits when my father was away at… work." The puzzle pieces formed in her mind. The memories of questions about why Chad's truck had been parked across the street, poorly hidden behind some trees and bushes while Sally Mae spent alone time.
“She wasn’t really alone was she?”
“Your mother was a whore.” A different voice accused.
Priscilla became increasingly frustrated. “My mother was not a whore,” she yelled. “Even if she screwed Chad, my mother was a decent and good woman.” Her face became flush.
“Even whores can be good people, honey.” A woman’s articulation added. Priscilla couldn’t determine if the point had been a slight or a compliment.
“Stop this, stop this right now. I’m not here to listen to your comments and questions. You don’t know me. You don’t know my family, my life, my experiences.” Her heart raced. She grabbed the podium sides to channel her anger.
“At least you never ruined your family for thirty seconds of happiness, Priscilla.” The voice sounded somewhat familiar as if from a person she knew long ago but whose memory faded like a picture in the sun.
“I lived a good life. I was a good person. I tried my best to help others.” Priscilla didn’t understand why she chose the word ‘was,’ but the term felt correct. “I lived through my childhood. I graduated from high school -”
“Barely” someone interrupted.
"But I did. I walked across that stage… and others too. Officer candidate school for one, for my graduate degree." Patrica paged through her life memories. "I walked so much. I walked down hallways and into people's rooms." Her life experiences became clearer. "I was a nurse. A nurse for 47 years until they forced me…"
"Why'd you get the ax, Nurse Ratchet?" Another voice asked.
“I…,” she looked at the answer with embarrassment as her head dropped. “I gave someone the wrong -”
“Stool softener?” Someone chuckled. Laughter carried throughout a section of the crowd.
"No…," Priscilla trailed off. "The wrong adrenal medicine. The patient… died. Forty-seven years of dutiful and loving care were gone in a moment. Gone." She looked at her empty hands. Tears streamed down her cheeks.
“C’mon, c’mon, finish the story already. You got beat as a kid, your mother was a bastard birther and you fucked up as a nurse. Get to the ending.”
"I don't know the ending." Priscilla squinted as if reading the tiny print on a bottle.
“Yeah, you do, stop stalling so we can get the next person through.”
She flipped through her thoughts. They stopped at a place called Shady Pines Retirement Home. “I don’t want to think about that.” She turned to the stranger at the end of the stage. “Please don’t make me talk about that place.”
“You must complete your journey to move on. You’re almost there, Priscilla. Just a bit more.” He insisted from the far side. She heard his voice as if he stood next to her.
“Yeah, quit stalling and tell us about being treated like a queen at Shady Pines.” A voice mocked.
Priscilla whipped her head around. “A queen? A queen? I was abused worse there than by my father. At least with his hand, I could justify that as tough love. There, I was ignored and neglected worse than an animal in one of those abuse commercials.”
“Ah, it wasn’t that bad, you’re exaggerating.”
"Being left in one's dirty diaper for hours at a time and getting rashes, infections and sores are not exaggerating. Being given the same food choices over and over and over isn't an exaggeration. Living in a room with a carousel of hurting, crying, yelling, and dying roommates isn't exaggerating." Priscilla found herself screaming. Sweat formed around her hairline.
“You’re being dramatic.”
She slammed her fists on the stand. “Going to the hospital with the hopes of dying, just to escape, isn’t dramatic.” Her volume gained momentum. “Stashing pills to end it all, isn’t being dramatic. Hoping every chest pain is the out, is… not… being… dramatic.” Priscilla spun to face the tall man. “Why? Why are you doing this to me? What the hell have I ever done to you?” She screamed and cried to him. Her hands balled into shaking fists.
He strode to her as if floating maintaining a powerful smile. “Priscilla, you need this. This is for your own good.”
“My own good…?” Butterflies of confusion settled on her flushed face.
“You needed to purge your deepest anger. Anger is purged through sharing. The critical ones are actually helping you for the next stage of the journey. Those supporting you are callbacks to the selfless acts you did.”
“What journey?” Her tears flowed as an unexpected calm passed through her.
“Your next life of course. You’re dead and this is the place that is helping you purge you of the pain from the last one. And, I must say, as someone who has walked across my stage many, many times, this was your best yet.” His eyes sparkled as if full of galaxies. He turned to the crowd, his elongated hands clapping. “Can we give our superstar a round of applause?”
The auditorium burst into supportive clapping. The crescendo grew as her confusion deepened.
“I’m dead?” She looked upwards at his warm smile. Her face crinkled in confusion.
“For how long?” Time stopped for her, the sounds of clapping evaporated into the background.
“For a few minutes now.”
“Will I -”
“No, no you won’t. You’ve crossed over.”
“But my kids and grandkids…”
“Will keep loving you through their memories.”
“But I have an appointment with Dr. Juliano tomorrow.” Shock held her in place.
"You have only one appointment now. When you're reborn, which will happen when the clapping finishes. Until then, you are Priscilla Brown, retired Army officer, retired nurse, mother of six, grandmother of eleven, and great-grandmother of two. Not that your total life experiences can be summed up in only these, but time is finite for us and others need the stage."
“Who will I become next?” Her eyes pleading for some clue.
“That isn’t for you to know yet.” His soft words responded. “But that journey will begin very soon.”
“Should I be scared?” She asked.
“Do you remember being scared before?”
“No, I don’t remember. I don’t anything remember before my life.”
"And you won't remember before the next. But… it is a tradition that you go out on a positive note. So, if you'll please face the crowd and tell them your happier memories, I'm sure you, and they, will feel better."
The applause sound increased around her once more. The tall man stepped to the right behind her. Priscilla adjusted herself to the crowd with a wide smile. She described a couple of special Christmas holidays, getting a puppy, getting her military commission, and the births of her children. Priscilla continued to speak through her smile as light filled the room. The applause dwindled for her. When the light subdued the golden-white podium appeared with the tall man behind it.
“And now, here’s our guest of honor. Welcoming, Samuel Monscaaaaaaasa… c’mon on in.” A hefty man bounced from between the full-length curtains, hesitantly waving to the crowd hidden behind a set of stage lights.