The Uppers put in a lot of effort to make us feel at ease here in this waiting room. Given the environment, it makes sense.
Superficially, the walls were peaceful pastel colors – pale mint green, thin sky blue, sunset cloud peach - with tall, crystal clear windows. In reality, this large, open room depicted various landscapes, each one tailored to our individual tastes for maximum relaxation. The ambient sounds sent into the room and your seating matched this. If you pictured the white sand and teal waters of a tropical beach, you might hear gentle ocean waves and distant seagulls, and feel the warmth of tiny sand grains beneath your soft beach towel, maybe shielded by a mild umbrella. If you pictured a vast, verdant plain with storm clouds sliced by lightning, perhaps you’d hear persistent rain and rolling thunder, and feel the cushion of your bench swing with the porch roof sheltering you from the rain.
Mine was a lush hill draped with a cascading waterfall that emptied into a peaceful brook. I heard the rush and subsequent flow of the water occasionally peppered with bird calls. I sat perched on a cool, comfortable boulder with the creek surrounding me on all sides. It was so soothing, not just because of the memories of my son it inspired. The melodic murmurs of the small river and the constant rush of the waterfall had always lulled me into a state of serenity that was hard to match.
There were a total of 10 of us in the waiting space. Were it not for the customized surroundings, the large room would feel tense and prickly. All of us had been through the multiple rounds of qualification, so we were all anxiously hopeful. We had persevered through the arduous narrowing down from 100 people, then 50, then 25 and now 10. Only one more round of cuts into five people before the one lucky soul would be chosen as The Selected. Only one person each year.
“What are you in for?” I asked, leaning over to the person closest to me. She was an older woman, maybe mid- to late-fifties, wearing yellow daisy-colored slacks and a warm mahogany-colored sweater. Her auburn hair was obviously dyed and she was adorned with very meticulous makeup. She had a distant stare and her thin hands rested gently in her lap.
After a moment, her gaze focused and she looked at me. “Pardon, sugar? I’m sorry. I couldn’t hear you over my grandbabies,” she said with a honey-colored Southern accent and a kind smile. “They’re loud little critters but I love bein’ around them. All 8 of ‘em. Even if they pay me no mind. Just bein’ in their presence… always feels like home.”
“I can understand that. All I said was ‘What are you in for?’ Joking, obviously,” I replied sheepishly. My jokes didn’t always land, especially for people who didn’t know me.
“Oh,” she chuckled. “Nothin’ original. Just old lady stuff.”
“’Old lady stuff’?” I asked perplexed. “What are you, mid- to late-fifties?” I raised an eyebrow. I honestly didn’t think she was old enough to be here.
“Get outta here,” she said, putting her hand up to her rosy cheek. “Honey, I’m 76!”
“No way!” I said with my eyes wide. “You look great!” I chirped.
“Yes, ma’am, 76,” she nodded. “But I thank ya for the kind words,” she said leaning over and giving me the friendliest, cutest wink. “But what about you? What’s a pretty little lady like yourself doin’ up here?” She sounded genuinely interested. Which made me feel a little guilty for not wanting to share my story with her. After all, she had shared with me immediately without me even prompting. It was still surprisingly hard, even though it happened so many years ago.
“Well, I… It’s a long, painful story. You don’t want to hear it. It’s pretty dark.”
“It’s not like I got anything else to do but listen to your story.” She shrugged and said, “But if you don’t want to share it, I won’t pry none.” She leaned over and patted my hand warmly.
She was so inviting. And that small gesture gave me a flicker of courage. Because he used to do that when he was trying to cheer me up.
“No, it’s fine,” I sighed. I need to let it out to let it go. Enough time has passed. Plus, how can I get where I want to go if I’m hesitant to talk about it, right?” I said with a nervous chuckle. She bobbled her head sympathetically.
I uncrossed my legs and let my feet sway in the gentle current. That always helped relax me. I peered down at the water, my espresso-colored curls framing my vision. I took a deep inhale of the crisp air and began.
“I had a son, Jeremiah. He was 16 at the time. He came home one night after I had already gone to sleep – I started work at 6:00 AM so I was usually in bed no later than 8:00 - and he forgot to lock the door back, like he did sometimes. I love him but he could be so spacey…” I rolled my eyes fondly at the bittersweet memory.
You can do this, I told myself. You’ve been able to talk about it before. I tried to focus on the small waves rippling and swirling around my softly swinging feet. I braced myself on my rock with hands at my sides.
“Anyway, around 2:45 AM, a man snuck in the house. He didn’t steal anything. Apparently, he went straight to my bedroom. I awoke to the sound of duct tape behind yanked from the roll. You know that sharp, loud rip noise? Before I could even react to the dark, masked figure before me, he taped my mouth shut, then taped my hands and feet to the bedframe. He raped me and suffocated me with my pillow. I couldn’t kick or scratch or even scream loud enough because of the tape. Later, as I was watching from here his interview with the police, I saw Jeremiah tell them he never heard a thing. He wouldn’t have. He slept like the dead.”
I sighed with relief knowing I was almost done. “Anyway, he found me the next morning.” I nodded and looked toward my waterfall, which was reassuring me with its long “shhhhhhh.”
I looked over at my companion, who was clearly stunned. Her painted mouth was agape and her crinkly hand with cherry-colored nails was gripping her chest.
“Oh my god,” she finally said, blinking. “That is just one of the most awful stories I’ve ever heard!” She swung her legs around – I had imagined her in a rocking chair, but maybe not – and turned to face me. She leaned in and cupped my hands in both of hers.
“You are so brave. I am so sorry that happened to you.” She gave my hands a soft shake with each “so.” “And Jeremiah… Poor thing, to find his mama like that.”
I looked down and my hands disappearing into hers. I guess I had started to cry, because I saw a teardrop splash onto her delicate skin.
“I’m sorry,” I sniffed. “I didn’t even know you could cry in this place!” I joked weakly.
She scooped her head down to look me in the eye and used her thumb to sweep away a tear.
“Honey, you got nothin’ to be ashamed of,” she said in a sweet, maternal voice, shaking her head. Then, in playful tone, added “And, sweetheart, anything is possible here,” she said with a half-smile.
“That’s true,” I agreed. I almost felt a smile of my own forming, but another wave of sorrow snuck up on me before it could crystalize. More tears sprinkled down onto her hands.
“It’s just… He’s older now. And he blames himself. He always has! And he’s always had problems with depression, especially after that, but lately, it’s gotten worse. He has a wife and kids. Well, had a wife. She died in an accident last year. He feels absolutely destroyed that another mother in his life has been stolen from him.”
The words were pouring out. She was looking at me now, heartbroken, but letting me continue without interruption. She must have known I needed that. This last part didn’t flow as easily though.
“He has even… attempted to… you know… join…” River, waterfall, leafy bushes on the banks… Breathe. But the sobs erupted from me. “I just want him to know that it’s not his fault! It was never his fault! For either of our deaths! He has to know that. He has to. Otherwise, I’m worried he won’t be able to live with himself.” I’m not even sure how much she was able to understand through my heaving, tearful quakes.
She got up from whatever her seat was and came and gave me a caring embrace. I was surprised at how big a hug could come from such a slight woman, and even more surprised that I actually liked the hug. Normally, I hated being touched after such an emotional outpour.
“It’s okay, honey. Let it out. I know it hurts to talk about. But, remember, you can’t plant a flower in your garden unless you dig up some of that dirt to bury the seed, now can ya?” She released herself from the hug and went back to cupping my hands in hers. “What I’m sayin’ is you gotta uncover and get rid of some of the bad to make way for what’s good.”
Not realizing I had been holding my breath, I exhaled and said, “You’re right. That’s a good way to put it.” I looked up toward my crystal blue sky and shuddered, imagining my sorrows tumbling off me and being carried away and cleansed in the benevolent river.
“Anyway, enough about me,” I said. “Why are you here? What’s your story?” I could feel the weight lifting off of me but I still welcomed the opportunity to shift the focus away from me and my tragedy.
She released my hands and leaned back in whatever seat she had. “Oh, like I said. Just typical old lady stuff,” she said waving her hand.
“Well, it’s not like I have anything else to do...” I grinned, knowing she wouldn’t be able to argue against her own statement.
“My my.” She couldn’t fight off her satisfied smile. “I do believe you make an excellent point. Well, then, since you asked…” she folded her hands in her lap.
“I was lucky. Far more fortunate than your poor soul, I’m afraid. I went peacefully in my sleep. I was in a nursing home, and sure, I would’ve preferred somewhere else, but my family had just visited me the night before so I was in good spirits. I don’t know exactly when it happened that night. I just never woke up! And now I’m here with all you lovely people,” she said beaming at me. I admired how she talked about it all so fondly.
“It didn’t hurt one bit. And since it happened without me knowing, I wasn’t even afraid. Truly, I couldn’t have asked for a better way to go. I’m very grateful for that, I really am.” She smiled warmly off into the distance, probably watching her grandkids play again.
I prodded on. “And, what is your goal if you get chosen?”
“Oh. Yes, of course,” she said snapping herself back. “Well, ya see, my son, Allen – he’s 44 now – and he’s got terminal skin cancer.”
“Oh, no!” I gasped.
“Yep. Malignant melanoma. And he’s getting towards the end now. You know, he’s comfortable, not in a lot of pain, in great hospice care, got all his affairs in order and all that…”
When she continued, it was the first time I noted even a hint of mourning.
“But, he’s scared. His thoughts don’t always make sense because of the chemo and the strong pain meds, but I can feel his fear. He’s just very uncertain about what comes next, ya know? And nothin’ scarier in this world than uncertainty.” She nodded to emphasize her statement.
“I just want him to know there’s nothin’ to be afraid of. That it won’t hurt, that he’ll be in this beautiful place with wonderful people. And he’ll get to see me! He and I were always very close.” She grinned with a twinge of pain.
“So, anyway, to answer your question, that’s my story and that’s my Fulfillment aim.” Her radiant, openhearted smile returned to her face. “Hope I didn’t bore ya.”
I was about to say “No, not at all,” when one of The Uppers walked in.
She was a tall, beautiful woman in a plush, rose gold colored robe. She spoke in an open yet authoritative tone. For me, anyway. Like everything else, her appearance and demeanor were tailored to each person.
“Hello and welcome to the fourth round of Qualifications.” She looked around and smiled at the ten of us.
“In the previous rounds, we scanned your memories, read your essays, and witnessed your presentations. This round will consist of an interview between yourself and three Uppers. We will ask you questions designed to determine the details of your Fulfillment plan if you are chosen. Common examples are being present for the birth of a child, making amends with a long-time adversary, inspiring a loved one to overcome an addiction, etc. Any altruistic goal which you would like to accomplish as your ‘mortal’ self.
“After we’ve conducted each interview, The Uppers will deliberate briefly to decide which five move on. We will announce those five immediately after all of the interviews have been conducted.
“The final round, the Selection Round, will be held tomorrow. The five chosen today will be gathered together before the three Uppers. Each of these five will make their final presentation in front of the other contenders and The Uppers, who will then vote anonymously on who shall be The Selected.
“As you know, should you be chosen, you will be awarded exactly one week to spend on Earth working toward your Fulfillment. You may schedule when your week starts depending on what is appropriate for your particular Fulfillment, as in the example of a birth or other scheduled major life event. Please note that you will appear in corporeal form but not as a physical entity; you will remain a spirit but will have all the appearances of a normal human. You may choose up to three Recipients, three people to whom you want to reveal your presence. However, we recommend the fewest possible since we do not want to re-traumatize anyone at the second loss of a loved one. We strongly urge that you make your Recipients immediately aware that your time with them is limited, for similar reasons.
“Are there any questions thus far?” She paused and patiently looked around the room. After the ensuing silence, she continued.
“With that said, our first interview will be with Tabitha Grantville,” The Upper concluded with a smile.
The woman next to me slapped both hands down on her knees with a peppy “Alright then,” and hoisted herself up.
I smirked to myself at the irony of the fact that I had been sharing such intimate moments with this woman whose name I didn’t even know. Even so, I felt a bond had gently coiled around us and swaddled us together, even in this short time. I even felt a little sorry for the former-life me for not having the opportunity to have a relationship with Tabitha in our previous lives.
As she started walking toward the Upper, without even thinking about it, my hand shot out to find hers. I looked up at her admiringly from my stone perch, while she looked down at me affectionately, possibly from the green grass of a yard where her grandchildren where whooping and chasing each other.
I said sincerely and evenly, “I hope it’s you. I really do.” I smiled, noticing that little pools of tears were beginning to form in my eyes.
“Oh, baby, thank you. But I’d be just as happy knowing that Jeremiah’s mama… Why, I don’t even know your name!” She giggled. “What is your name, sweetie?”
“Oh, right!” I laughed. “I’m Amalia.” I shook the hand I held in mine in a mock formal gesture.
“Well, then, Amalia. It was very nice to meet you.” She returned my handshake and curtsied. Then, she startled me when she swatted my hand away.
“Oh, stop with that nonsense. Come here.” She threw her arms open, stood me up, and drew me in for a hug. I cackled as my feet steadied me beside my boulder in the cool, clear river water.
Still embracing me, she said in almost a whisper, “Now, listen here. No matter what happens, no matter who they choose, just know that I love you.” Her emphasis on those last three words was truly touching.
She released herself, we beamed at each other one last time, and she turned and began to follow The Upper.
“I love you, too, Tabitha,” I whispered as she was halfway out of sight, the vision of her faint yellow, strong brown and lucid red wafting behind her.
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Very well written! I could make out that you have paid a lot of attention to details and the emotions that you have put your characters through a lot of emotions. Great writing!
Thank you so much! 🤗🙂 It's a premise that has been floating around in my head for years so I'm glad I got to get it out there.