Time Of Our Death
By Paul D Aronson.
Before we left my parent’s house, I briefly considered leaving a note. Donald had done it for his mother. Lori had done it for her sister. I guess the only thing holding me back from doing the same was the fact I didn’t know what had happened to my folks, or even where they were. Did they even care that I was dead? We had gotten along during what little interaction we actually had, but to just disappear when their only son is reported being missing, and almost certainly dead, was beyond me. To say it hurt would be an understatement, and so I didn’t leave any messages.
The first thing I noticed when we got outside was the sound of the dog barking. I don’t know how long he’d been going off like that, but the tone was unmistakable. It was Jake. Glancing around I noticed the house next door had a high wooden privacy fence. The bark was coming from behind it.
Lori and I passed through the fence, proving there is no privacy when ghosts are on the prowl. Once again, Jake saw us and ran to our sides. We took turns petting him, as his nub of a tail wagged furiously. I looked up at the house. Why in the world was Jake being kept in the neighbor’s backyard?
When I voiced this out loud, Lori suggested they were watching and feeding him while my parents were gone. If that were the case I reasoned, they must be out of town, and perhaps the neighbors were the ones collecting the mail and papers. But how could they both just leave during this kind of crisis? It still didn’t make much sense.
The back door of the house opened and a man stepped out. “Jake?! What’s going on out here, boy? Come here.”
Jake looked at him and then back at me as if he were unsure to go to him or remain at my side. He wagged his tail, and I offered him a reassuring smile.
“What are you looking at, Jake?” The man came down the back steps and began crossing the yard towards us.
“Go on, Jake. It’s okay,” I said. “Let him take care of you now.”
My long time pet and companion obeyed, bounding off towards the man. It was a strange moment. Most boys grieve the loss of their dogs. Their favorite pet dies and they have to bury him in the backyard. With tears, they say their childlike goodbyes, hoping there is perhaps a dog heaven somewhere. But with Jake, I was the one who died. It was I who had to console him and let him know everything was going to be alright. Watching him interact with someone else, in this case our neighbor, let me know he was going to be okay. He would be fine without me.
Lori and I went back through the fence. Out in the yard I looked over at my house one more time. In life, I had never looked at things with the sense I would never see them again. But time was catching up to us, and everywhere I looked I saw all the things I would miss soon. Turning to look at Lori, I realized that out of all the things I had known, I would miss her the very most, unless we were allowed to step into the ultimate end together. All I knew is I didn’t want to go anywhere without her. Perhaps that’s what falling in love is all about: realizing you cannot exist without the other.
“Look,” Lori said, bringing me out of my reverie.
Brian and Kelly were walking across the road toward us. It was apparent Kelly had been crying, and Brian too looked visibly upset. In fact, he looked sort of mad.
“We got problems,” he said.
“What’s going on?”
“What about him?”
“I think he’s gone to bring us up.”
“Why?” I asked, suddenly alarmed.
“I don’t know. He came out of his house saying everyone would be fine without us, and that this wasn’t right. We weren’t supposed to be here kind of shit.”
“He said he was going to fix it so everyone would be where they are supposed to be,” Kelly interjected.
“Did he go to the river?” I asked.
“Looks that way,” Brian replied. “I tried to stop him. Talk him out of it. He wouldn’t listen. Said we were disobeying the laws of nature just by being here. I think he’s lost it.”
“Damn,” I muttered. “I guess he’s tired of waiting. He’s miserable about all this.” I took each one of them in one by one. Lori. Brian. Kelly. “We’ve all done well through this. We have something to hold on to. Despite the situation, we have discovered a certain happiness. Donald’s not happy.”
“But we forgave him,” Kelly said. “There’s nothing for him to be feeling bad about anymore.”
“I guess forgiveness doesn’t remove guilt. He just wants it to be over. He hasn’t found the same bliss we have.”
“So, what do we do? If he brings our bodies up, it’s all over, right?”
I looked at Lori , then back at him. “You don’t have anything to worry about, Brian.”
“Why do you say that? If he goes on that bus…”
“You aren’t on the bus,” I replied. I looked over at Kelly. “Neither are you.”
“Then where the hell are we?” Brian asked.
I shrugged. “I don’t know. But you weren’t on there when Lori and I went down. You both must have made it off the bus, and now your bodies are somewhere else. Maybe hung up in the river downstream somewhere, I don’t know.”
“Well shit,” he muttered. “I guess this means we can be found at anytime.”
“Or not at all,” Kelly said. She was still holding onto that one hope, and I couldn’t blame her.
“What about Donald?” Lori asked. “If he finds his body…”
“We have to go after him,” I replied.
“What for?” Brian demanded. “If he wants to end this for himself, let him.”
“I’m not going to abandon him again.”
“They are going to pull up the bus anyway. They’ll find us all eventually. You aren’t stopping him, just delaying it. “
“Maybe so. But I can’t let him go in misery. That’s not me.”
Lori grabbed my hand. “It’s not me either.”
“Well hell,” Brian said. “Might as well count us in too. There goes my big Halloween plans.”
“You’ll just have to wait a little bit to put the bag of flaming shit on Principal Whittaker’s porch.”
He looked at me, surprised. “How did you know?”
We found Donald at the river. He was sitting on the bank, staring out at the murky water. Further down the bank, search and recovery operations were set up, still making every effort to find the bus and any missing bodies, most likely ours. Inflatable boats and rafts were out on the now calm river, dredging its dark water with nets and poles. Closer to Bay Bridge, I could see divers, some with snorkels, others with breathing tanks. The problem with the diving aspect was Murray River wasn’t exactly known for being clear and clean. It was dirty, with plenty of silt and other debris, which made visibility with human eyes difficult. Waterproof flashlights could help, but I imagine not by much.
“They are on the wrong side of the bridge,” Donald said, looking up at me. I had approached him alone, the others hanging back a little but still in sight. “They need to check on the other side,” he continued. “The current has pushed it from where we fell.” Then he smiled. “They could probably use a little help.”
I sat down next to him. “Donald, what are you doing?”
“Just watching right now.”
“Okay. So what are you planning to do?”
He sighed. “All this time we have been hindering recovery efforts. That was selfish. We should have left it alone. We’re not supposed to be here like this. None of us.”
“There’s nothing wrong with hanging on to life, Donald. We just wanted to live.”
“This isn’t living. This isn’t even being dead. This is something else. Neither alive, nor dead. We are…Hell, I don’t know. We are just wrong. We are not mean to be here.”
“I know how you feel, Don.”
He cast me a serious look. “No, you don’t. No one feels like I do. I can’t do this anymore.” A heavy sigh escaped his lips. “I’m so tired. I just want what’s next.” He smiled. “And I know you do, too.”
“I’ve tried preparing myself for that,” I admitted. “But, I don’t know. I don’t think I’ll ever be ready.”
He stood up. “Sometimes Chris, you just have to take that leap.” He looked at the others behind us. “You just have to jump.”
With that, he bounded down the bank and jumped in the river.
I jumped in after him. I heard Lori yell my name, but I felt that none of the others were following. They didn’t want to find the bodies the way Donald did. I followed him down the river as he made his way for the stone pillars of Bay Bridge. Normally, he never would have made it, but as a ghost he was much more graceful and fluid, cutting through the water like Rowdy Gaines at the ’84 Olympics. I called out for him to stop, to wait up, but he acted as if he didn’t hear. Maybe he was just that determined; nothing would hold him back now. Before, he may have been riding the fence, unsure on whether to take action against our unnatural existence, but now he had climbed over it and was heading straight into knowing the truth. I’m sure he had his questions. Was there another life after this? Reincarnation? Heaven? Stages of Nirvana? He didn’t know, as neither did the rest of us, but for him, no matter what was next, it was better than the misery and guilt he felt in the here and now.
We passed under the bridge. I couldn’t quite cover the ground needed to catch up to him, so I lagged behind, still calling his name to no avail. I passed by a couple of floating divers, and watched Donald go under the water ahead of me. Instinct had me a take a breath but it wasn’t needed. I went under after him.
Plunging down into the depths, he headed for the bus. The natural current, along with the torrential rains and release of water from the dam, had indeed moved it, pushing it to roll along the river bed. The bus was now upside down, and even from a distance, I could see his body tangled up among the sabotaged wires and cables. Perhaps he saw it too, but hadn’t yet realized it was his own body.
“Donald, stop!” I screamed.
He turned back to me and smiled. “You’re going to be alright, Chris. Take care of Lori.”
“No,” I begged. “Please, don’t do this.”
He turned and looked at the bus with a certain kind of longing. It was the look of a boy who had been away a long time, but was now looking at his home on the horizon. He surged forward to the underside of the bus. I would have pleaded further, but there was no use. Perhaps, this was the way it was supposed to happen, with him staring in the face of himself.
He grabbed the body and began to untangle it from the cables that kept it down in this watery grave. He didn’t look into the face right away. But once it was freed, he took in the sight of himself for the last time.
I stopped, hovering close to him. He looked at me and smiled warmly. His ghostly face seemed to glow from the excitement. A tear formed in the corner of his eye.
“It’s me,” he said. “Look Chris. It’s me.”
“Yes, it’s you, buddy.”
“I just want to go home,” he cried. He clutched the lifeless husk to him.
I felt the crackle, the sizzling within the water, before I actually saw it. And then the static came. Like before wth Reg, his ghostly form seemed to shimmer and shift, crackling like he was a television channel halfway stuck between the dial.
One night, not long before all this happened, I had fallen asleep in front of the TV. When I woke up hours later, the usual multi color test pattern that signaled the days end of programming wasn’t even on screen. Instead, it had gone to white noise, a static pattern that almost reminded me of the cover of the composition books we used in school – black and white marbleized without a discernible picture of what it was supposed to be.
This was what was happening to Donald. A crackling static grew around him, as if he were fading out and coming back in, like a low radio signal you kept trying to find on the band. You moved the dial back and forth, and just went you thought you had it, it was reduced to white noise again.
“Donald, no,” I whispered. “Don’t go. Stay here with us.”
He shook his head, but the look on his face wasn’t sad. It was one of peace, as if all the misery was washing off of him in the water.
“Chris, it’s so beautiful,” he said, eyes focusing in on something in the distance I could not see. He let go of the lifeless, physical body he held, and pushed it gently away from him. It didn’t return to the bus, but instead started to rise in the water, heading for the river’s surface, like a buoy to mark where the bus was. I watched it for a moment, silently lamenting how it was all coming to an end. Now the divers would know exactly where to search. I looked back to Donald, now fading more out than in. “I’m glad we got to be friends again,” he said.
“I am too, “ I sobbed.
He held out his hand to me, one friend reaching for another, and I took it. It no longer felt physical. As ghosts, we had always been able to touch as if we had physical bodies simply because of our emotional ties, but now that was gone. He was no longer a ghost, but energy. I had the sensation of electricity coursing through my hand, a steady vibration and hum that seemed to be the voice underlying all human things. I was experiencing Donald in his truest form. The energy essence that made up all of us. I knew it was unending, indestructible. Yes, it changed form from this life to another realm of being, but the energy always existed, and never died. In this, I felt Donald, and indeed all of us lived forever.
He smiled, but I could no longer see it. I could feel it course through me the way static runs through your hair when you touch a doorknob after shuffling your feet across carpet. Then he was gone, nothing remaining but a shimmer of who he once was, until that too faded in the murky depths.