Today marks the publication of the fourth of our top five stories in the 9th annual Voorheesville Short Story Contest. Our second place finalist, Sadie Dowd’s “The Middle,” is a story that approaches the theme of this year’s contest, “A Roll of the Dice,” by taking the reader on a mind bending journey to a fascinating version of the afterlife. As our judge put it, “This was an interesting twist on a story about the afterlife because it played with surrealism in a fun way…you seem to assert that a true gamble is one in which the stakes are high and the result is unknown. I would love to read what happened next for Eva!” Us, too! We hope you enjoy it!
When I open my eyes there is nothing but a stormy sky above me. A sheet of gray hangs over my head like a canopy, but there’s no rain yet. I sit up and rub my eyes. Did I fall asleep? I don’t remember going outside, let alone falling asleep outside. My memory is hazy, and my thoughts are slow as if they’re moving through honey. What did I put in my body last night? I chuckle softly to myself at the thought, but the sound comes out dry and hoarse. Funny, I don’t remember even going out last night, or even leaving my house. I open my eyes, and blink a few times. I rub them again quickly. My view is the same. I rub them a third time, this time with the heels of my hands, digging into my skull. My view, or I guess lack thereof, is a sea of the same gray of the sky all around me. It isn’t a dark gray, but it isn’t light either. It offers no sense of where I am or where anything is. It stands around me, unmoving and solid, almost like a wall. It must be fog, I conclude trying to rationalize what I’m seeing, but I’ve never seen a fog so dark. This fog is thick, it’s the type of fog where forwards or backwards doesn’t matter, all sense of direction is lost in it. I reach my hand out tentatively expecting to see it vanish within the murky substance, but it doesn’t. It is perfectly visible. With a fog this thick you’d think it would be eaten by it, but it doesn’t. I take a couple of uneasy steps forward, and nothing happens. Not that I expected an explosion or something, but the lack of anything happening is somehow eerie. That uneasiness courses through me, and I look around, desperate for a sign of anything. A tree, a road, a house, even a pebble would make me feel better. I whip my head from side to side, getting desperate for some sign of…anything. I take a couple more steps forward, and almost feel nauseous at how disorienting this fog is making me feel. I mean there is nothing, literally nothing in sight. There could be a house four feet ahead of me, but what if I go that way and the house was actually to the left of me? I could try walking to my right to find a road, but what if a highway is all but a few steps behind me? Well, that couldn’t be because I hear no cars. Suddenly as if someone has slapped me in the face I remember that I have hearing. I crane my head to the side trying to open my ears I guess. I wait for a few moments, and there’s nothing. I suck in a deep breath and hold it, and then try listening again.
I remember reading somewhere about the world’s quietest room, where they had soundproofing all over the walls so sound would be absorbed instantly. I remember how short and stagnant the sound of a clap was in that room. It was odd hearing a place so quiet. Now I’m wondering if this is what it felt like for the man who clapped, the suffocating silence surrounding him crawling into his ears and forcing him to strain for any hint of a noise with some desperate feeling of hope. There is nothing. No wind, no cars, not even so much as a cricket to tell me where I am. The only sound is the beating of my own heart, which is starting to move up my throat, and drum loudly in my ears. I let out my breath in a big exhale, and it sounds like the loudest thing I’ve ever heard. Desperation for a sound, something so simple, so stupidly simple makes me almost pass out from delirium. How could I be standing here, frozen, waiting for a gust of wind to remind me where I am, that I’m really here? Well of course I’m here where else would I be.
Where is ‘here’ though?
Where am I?
I remember when I lost my mom in the park when I was six. I didn’t scream or cry or ask for help, I just started running. Running around the park like a chicken with its head cut off, dodging any worried looking adults, and practically falling on myself when I would see someone who looked like her. I just ran, and ran and ran. I remember how my heart pounded in my chest, and how my lungs felt so tight that every breath made me feel like I was about to burst. Sweat stuck my hair to my little cheeks, and I remember the sound of my little feet hitting the pavement. But most of all I remember the panic, the fear. When you’re that young you can’t think rationally. You think ‘I’m never going to see her again’, ‘She left me here’, but mostly ‘Where is she?’. Those thoughts almost swallowed my little body whole. You become so overwhelmed with fear that you end up just crying in a puddle of chubby arms and legs in the grass until your mom scoops you up and asks what’s wrong. Except my mom isn’t here to pick me up, and I can’t start crying. I guess I’m thinking of this because being here makes me feel six years old again. Except I’m now running through fog, not a park, and I’m not looking for my mom, I’m looking for… well… anything. I didn’t even realize I had started running until my heart wasn’t just in my ears but in every part of my body. My arms, my legs, my ribs, my head, all stand strong against the steady slam of my heartbeat as I run. I can feel my breath catch in my throat against the heavy lump that has been sitting there since I woke up, but I refuse to stop. I run, and I run. My legs strain to keep my pace, and my lungs get tighter and tighter with every step. I can’t stop. The thought of running full speed into something briefly makes me nervous but at least then I will have found something. I run, and I run. There has to be something, there has to be something. I repeat those words to myself over, and over as I feel my legs start to give out from under me. I run, and I run until I trip and I stumble. I catch myself with my hands on the ground, and force myself against every screaming ache in my body to stand back up.
“God” I breathe face up towards the sky as I catch my breath, with my hands on my hips. My chest heaves with each humongous breath I take. I gasp, and choke on the air I force into my lungs, and I start to sit down until I hear it.
My eyes fly open wide like dinner plates.
I whip around like an animal, my hair flying wildly all around me as I thrash my head from left to right.
Click, click, click, click
It sounds familiar, like a sound I’ve heard before… like the keys clicking on a keyboard. I feel stupid for the thought. Who would be typing on a keyboard in this type of fog.
Click, click, click
Then I see it.
A desk about twenty feet away.
With a woman behind it.
And she’s typing on a keyboard.
Click, click, click
She appears like a lighthouse on a stormy sea night, practically glowing amongst all the gray. I start to walk towards her, then I stop. Why is she out here typing at a computer? That’s weird no matter how I try to rationalize it. Should I even approach her?
Click, click, click
What if she’s some type of…crazy person? Or am I the one going crazy? I stare at her for a few seconds and realize that from that far away in this thick fog, I shouldn’t be able to see her, or she should at least be murky. Oh god what if I am going crazy, and hallucinating? What if my mind has created some weird sick vision so I could stop freaking out? I take a few steps back, and then realize with a cold rush up my spine…she’s all I have.
Click, click, click
If she’s a hallucination she’ll just vanish right? Before I can stop myself I find myself standing in front of the desk with the woman. She doesn’t look up, or even acknowledge my presence. Her dark long hair hangs by her face in ringlets from a bad perm all around her head. She’s got a pencil sticking out from behind her ear as she types.
Click, click, click
“Um, hi-” A long finger with a pointy fake red nail attached shoots up in my face to shush me. I flinch back a bit, and then feel my face heat up. I’ve never been told to shut up so rudely in my life. “Excuse me-”
“You did all that running around,” she finally glances up at me, her voice thick with a nasally Long Island accent, and her tone loaded with her apparent annoyance. “Why don’t you catch your breath or something?”
Click, click, click
I blink a few times in bewilderment. I glare down at her, and open my mouth to say something else when the left side of her face appears to slide off for a second. Her eyelid and mouth sag, and droop hanging off her face. The skin on her cheek becomes loose and dangles for a moment. I barely choke back a scream as it seems to readjust itself back into its previous position. I feel a cold sweat on the back of my neck. Did she have some type of stroke, or seizure? But it didn’t look like a stroke or some sort of facial spasm, it almost seemed as if her skin became loose on her skull.
“Name?” She speaks as if nothing happened, with the simplicity as if we’re in a doctor’s office, and she’s about to give me ten forms to fill out while I wait for my appointment. She looks up at me through long mascara covered eyelashes underneath blue eyeshadow with an impatient look on her face.
“Are-Are you okay?” I ask, still shaken, and clutching my hand to my chest.
“Are you okay, hmm haven’t heard that name before, but I try not to judge.” She smirks to herself as she continues typing. Her voice is so nasally, it reminds me of Janice from Friends or Fran from The Nanny. I almost want to mock her voice right back at her for her snarky response, but I bite back my words.
“Your face. it just… slid off for a second” I might’ve put it better if she hadn’t been so rude, but saying it like that I think sends a shiver up my spine instead of hers.
“You want me to report it to corporate?” She asks with a roll of her eyes, “are you gonna tell me your name kid or not?”
“Eva.” I snap, not really understanding why I answered at all, and she ignores my tone. I know this is crazy, giving my name to a woman at a desk in a thick fog, but for some reason despite her nasty face and attitude, I feel compelled to tell her.
“Eva’s your full name?”
“Evangeline Brown.” I say folding my arms over my chest defensively. I’ve always hated my full name. Evageline sounds like it belongs to a princess, someone great. It felt like a big name, a name someone spectacular would have, and I was just wearing it.
“Cute, real cute.” She types a little bit more, “parents’ names?”
“Anna, and Steve Brown” I mumble, still not sure why I’m answering. She opens her mouth to ask another question, but I cut her off with the question currently burning a hole in my gut.
“Where are we?” The question shakes in my throat in a way I don’t like, making it sound like I might cry, but I refuse to.
“Bora Bora!” She looks up at me with a ‘seriously?’ look, and I start to say something snappy, but this time she cuts me off, “the middle honey.”
“The what?” I ask more confused by her second answer than the first.
“The middle, you know the place between the good and the bad?” She explains with a shrug, and then snaps her fingers like she’s just remembered something, “purgatory”.
A cold silence falls between us. I can feel my heart beating in my ears, practically shaking my brain. That can’t be right…There’s no way that I’m actually…
“Ha,” she laughs loudly, clapping her hands. “you should see your face.”
I blink rapidly, feeling my stomach turn and twist with emotion, as well as my head spin with confusion. I stand in silence listening to her laugh for a few minutes, not being able to produce words, or even string them together in my mind.
“I love doing that,” she says still laughing, “But seriously we are in purgatory”.
“What?” The word slips out of my mouth dumbly, but I don’t know what I would’ve preferred to say instead, because my mind is suddenly as blank as the space around me.
“Purgatory,” she gestures around us, “This is it honey.”
The way she said it I’m not sure if she meant ‘this is it’ as in ‘this is purgatory’, or if she meant ‘this is it’ as in the gray, the wooden desk, and she is it, that’s all there is. Neither option is one I can think about for more than a second without feeling sick.
Despair is a funny thing. When you see scenes in movies where a character collapses in grief at the news of another character dying, and they lay on the floor sobbing and screaming you think, ‘That’s despair’. It looks like something loud, something that hits you like a truck suddenly that you never saw coming. But despair for me isn’t a loud truck. It’s like a snake slowly slithering up and around my spine, its scales dragging on my bones as it reaches my skull and hisses into my ears so loud I can’t think. It’s cold and tight, holding me so I can’t breathe, I can’t hear, I can’t think. Constricting so tight waiting for me to bend and break. All I can do is stand frozen staring forward, waiting, hoping, and praying it’ll go away, that it’ll find a more interesting victim to constrict until they break. I feel a giggle escape my lips, and I cover my mouth, then a laugh slips through my fingers. It starts small, like a few chuckles, and giggles, until I can’t control it. Suddenly I’m laughing so hard my stomach hurts, bending over with the ache. I’m gasping for air in between laughs, fighting for each breath. I can feel tears come to my eyes, and roll down my cheeks, but I honestly couldn’t say if they’re from me laughing, or the despair still clawing down my back.
“Wow!” She says, letting out a small uncomfortable laugh, not finding my apparent comedic outlook on the situation so funny. “You know most people cry, or faint, but you’re really something honey.”
“Sorry” I say, flicking away my tears still laughing, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me, I just can’t stop”. Another fit overwhelms me, and my face is wet with fresh tears, and my stomach threatens to burst if I don’t stop. Everything is gone, everything I’ve ever loved, enjoyed, or even mildly took pleasure in. No seeing my family again, my friends, no drinking coffee in the morning, no smelling the air before it rains, no looking at the clouds, no people ever again. Everything I’ve ever known just gone in a snap. Perhaps I should try to pinch myself awake, make a big show insisting this is all a bad dream, but I can’t make myself do that. Even if it would be the ‘normal’ thing to do, I just can’t. Maybe because I know she’s right, maybe because I can just feel it in my bones that she’s telling the truth. The finality of this loss of everything only makes me laugh harder.
“Normally I can’t get them to stop blubbering after I tell them,” she says absent-mindedly twirling a piece of her frizzy hair around her finger as she stares up at me like I’m a fascinating exhibit at a museum. “It’s always ‘please I was good!’, or ‘this can’t be right!’ like if you were so good you wouldn’t be here you know, but with you it’s, I’m a real stand up comedian”.
“It’s just funny”, I finally speak clearly, sucking in deep breaths and calming myself down. “I lived my whole life to just end up here,” I chuckle to myself again, and run a hand through my hair. “How did I end up here?”
“You wanna know how you died?” I was asking the question more to myself rhetorically, but her question does pique my interest in a sickening way. I don’t even need to respond, as soon as I lock eyes with her she knows my answer. She types loudly for a few moments with a gleam in her eye I don’t want to dissect until she finds what she was looking for. “Car crash, apparently you were dead on impact”.
“Car crash?” I echo, and she nods. Something flashes in my mind, bright lights, a blaring horn, the sound of shattering glass, and then quick darkness. I shudder, and wrap my arms around myself. Her answer was so simple, so quick. It was like she was just reading off the nutrition facts on the back of a cereal box. I feel a sense of disappointment, but I’m not sure why. The obvious answer is that I’m disappointed that I died, but for some reason I know that’s not it. Perhaps it’s the simplicity of it, car crashes kill millions, and now I’m just another number to the tally. Even in death I couldn’t be something special. I stare at my feet for a while just thinking. The other option is that it was so quick. Most pray for a quick painless death, but something about knowing that I died in a second carves a hole in my stomach. I was a little girl at one point, I learned how to walk, how to talk, how to read, how to write, how to make friends, make enemies, how to drive, how to live on my own, how to be my own person, I am a person.
Or I was a person?
Now I’m not really sure what I am. I know that for a person who was someone who lived a life, to be able to die in a blink can’t be right, it just can’t be fair.
“Now you look like the others,” that Long Island accent snaps me out of my thoughts. I had almost forgotten that I’m not alone. “You’ve got that ‘this isn’t fair’ look on your face”. I swallow my anger because she got my thoughts so spot on.
“So you don’t know my name, but you can see how I died?” I ask with a raised eyebrow. I don’t really care about her answer, I more wanted to distract her from prying further into my psyche.
“I didn’t make the system kid, I just use it”. She shrugs, unbothered by the stupidity of a system like that. “Speaking of asking you questions, we got more we need to go through.”
“For…what?” I ask now confused, “I died, and I ended up in purgatory…Isn’t this it?”
“I’ll get there when you answer my questions,” she rolls her eyes at me and readies her fingers on her keyboard, “how old were you?”
Her use of the past tense sends a shiver through my shoulders.
“So no boyfriend,” she asks, glancing at me through her thick goopy lashes.
“Can’t imagine why,” she mutters and types a bit before asking the next question, “you religious?”
“No,” I answer, and then think of something before she can go to her next question. “So what religion is this?”
“Pardon?” She asks with a brows raised with slight annoyance that I’ve interrupted her questions yet again.
“Like who got it right?” I mean she called this place purgatory, and that’s Christian I think, but she also called it the middle and I’m not quite sure what religion that comes from.
“How should I know, I’m stuck here all the time,” she says with a shrug, and she leans back in her desk chair.
“Well…don’t you have, like, a boss or someone you answer to?”
“Not really I just sort of appeared one day,” she says, shaking her head annoyed by this conversation it seems. I open my mouth to ask for more clarification, but she cuts me off, clearly eager to end this discussion. “Look kid, I don’t know what goes on outside of my department, I don’t know if there’s a god, or a a monkey with wings up there. I just know there’s a good place, a bad place, and a middle.”
“Like a heaven and hell?”
“If you want to call it that, sure, but I don’t know who’s running things, I’ve never heard from a big man upstairs, I just was placed here one day with a set of instructions and I got to work.” She indicates to her keyboard, “work that you are preventing me from doing.”
“Who does this work you’re doing go to?”
“I. Don’t. Know.” She pauses between each word to emphasize them, “and I don’t really care. It’s simple enough for me. The people who were good get to go to the good place, the people who were bad go to the bad place, and the people who were just okay-” She points to me “-come here. Whoever is running those places don’t bother me so I don’t bother them, it’s a great system.”
I stare at her silently for a moment.
“No more questions, fantastic, now let’s get this moving” She clears her throat as she settles back in, but my curiosity is still burning a hole in me. How could she not care? I mean people have dedicated their whole lives to believing in something, and to not know who got it right is infuriating. I can’t imagine the religious people who come here and are met with her… or whatever she is. “Were you a good person or a bad person?”
“Uh!” I sort of chuckle to myself thinking about it, “wouldn’t that type of awareness have prevented me from ending up here?”
“The way you just answered is why you ended up here,” she says with daggers in her glare. “Just tell me which way you leaned.”
“No good person says they’re a good person,” she rolls her eyes. “I’m putting bad leaning.”
She types for a minute, and takes the pencil from behind her ear to scratch the back of her head. As she does so her hair begins to slide off her scalp in one big piece. It almost looks as if a wig is sliding off her head, but she’s not bald underneath. Her scalp almost looks like it’s made out of spaghetti with long tendrils pulsing and twisting wildly. Only a moment passes before they all move at once to grab her hair and pull it back on. I lock eyes with her, and I feel sick.
“What are you exactly?” I can hear my voice shake a little despite me not wanting to show I’m scared. I don’t know why, I just want her to think I’m brave, and not completely freaking out at the fact her head has a thousand little arms.
“I just work here,” she responds, not looking up at me. “You can think of me like the great secretary of the middle.”
“You’re not human are you?”
“No, at least I don’t think so. If I am than I must’ve done something so bad that they thought ‘the bad place isn’t bad enough we have to put her in the middle and make her answer nosey dead peoples’ questions all day,’ She drops her voice to be much lower, and chuckles to herself at her own joke for a minute. At this point her weird little sarcastic comments don’t even phase me. I mean I’m dead, what could she say that could shock me more than that? Perhaps that’s a symptom of this place, there’s some force coming from all around me forcing me to be calm, and that’s why this situation isn’t making me curl up into a ball and scream.
That, or maybe I’m just crazy.
“Okay,” she says, wrapping her fingers on her desk with a huge toothy grin. It’s almost like she has one too many teeth in her mouth. “You, ready to know your fate?”
“This isn’t it?” I blink.
“No!” She rolls her eyes and continues, “I mean, it could be if you wanted, but that’s not what I’m going to say.”
“Then what are you going to say?”
“You can be reincarnated.” Her eyes and teeth gleam as she speaks, with that same unnerving gleam from earlier.
“Sure,” she leans forward against her elbows on the desk. “But you have two shots at your next life, you either reincarnate as someone living the good life, maybe the child of some billionaire, and you get to live the high life in some mansion with butlers out the wazzoo.”
I can feel my heart beating with excitement, my hands clenching with the thought of being able to just be reborn into a life like that. I wouldn’t have to do anything, I wouldn’t have to work, I would’t have to try, I would just pop into existence.
“Or,” I can see her watching my every move, every change in expression she’s tracking, and whatever I have on my face is pleasing her. “You’ll be reincarnated into a bad life, maybe you’ll be born homeless, or in a country torn apart by war. Or maybe you’ll be born to a kind family and live sickeningly happily until you turn eight, and your family gets into a horrible car crash, leaving you the only survivor, and suddenly you all alone.”
Now my heart is pounding for a different reason.
“Do I get to pick?” I know the question is dumb, and I know the answer, but some part of me is clinging to the idea that she’ll say yes.
“You look like you’ve figured that one out already,” her smile only widens if possible. She can’t be human, she just can’t. No human could ever look someone in the eye with a smile big enough to blind a hundred people after telling them that. I feel nauseous and then wonder if I can even throw up here. Suddenly I recall something she said.
“You said I could stay here if I wanted?”
“You can,” she says with a frown.
“Have others chosen to stay?” If others have chosen to stay, then maybe I could find them, and at least I wouldn’t be alone. I could stay here with a few others, perhaps it would be better than facing whatever gamble reincarnation is.
“Oh sure,” she says, tilting her head. “They give me some long speech about how they’d rather spend eternity here than risk living horribly, and they walk off all proudly, and I always wonder if one of them changed their mind and wanted to be reborn instead after walking away…”
She leans forward, even more if possible.
“But what’s funny is… I’ve never seen the same person twice.” Her giddy grin seems to almost touch her ears like the Cheshire cat.
I swallow dryly as I stare into her big brown eyes. Something about them is freaky, well everything about her is freaky, but her eyes are especially creepy. They aren’t the big soft brown eyes people say look like cows, but they’re beady and empty, sort of like a rat’s.
“They just vanish?”
“Well I’m not exactly going to get up and look for them,” she says, “Who knows, maybe they’ve all found each other and are living in some big happy town they’ve magically built out of the gray walls, gray floor, and gray sky!”
She claps her hands as she says it with mock enthusiasm, and I briefly wonder if the sound of me slapping her would echo or not.
“I guess that’s a gamble you’ll have to make,” she shrugs. “But hey, I’m sure your parents raised you well enough to make the right decision.”
“Don’t talk about my parents-” I stop suddenly, and blink. My parents? My… parents? Who are my parents? My mind spins, desperately trying to remember something, anything about my parents. Who are my parents? Weren’t we just talking about them? This confusion feels like when you forget a dream right after you wake up even though you were just having it, and you start to wonder if there was ever a dream at all. It feels like imaginary hands in my mind grasping at smoke.
“What?” She snaps me out of my daze. “You look like you’ve just forgotten something.”
She smiles so big, I’m sure it must hurt.
“Why am I forgetting?” I ask raking a shaky hand through my hair, “why can’t I remember them?”
“Oh that’s right,” she smacks herself lightly on the head like something slipped her mind. “I almost forgot to mention, there’s this uh… rumor, or common belief I suppose that I’ve been hearing about… Hmmm… How does it go again, gosh I’ve been so forgetful lately- oh!”
She looks at me apologetically.
I grind my teeth so hard I’m sure one will crack.
“Oh I remember now,” she smirks. “It goes something like…how you lived your last life will determine your fate in the next.” She chuckles with a shrug, “the things people come up with right?”
How I lived my last life? How did I live my last life? My memories slip away from my mind as if they were never there. My childhood, my adulthood, everything I was fades away quicker than I can keep up with. Did I have any pets, any friends, was I married, did I have kids? I can’t remember any of it, not even what I had for breakfast this morning- or wait, when did I die? Was it morning? Did I eat breakfast?
Was I good?
This isn’t fair, how am I supposed to know if I should be reincarnated or not if I can’t remember if I was a good person.
The realization hits me, and I find myself locked in the gaze of those beady dark eyes again.
“That’s why I’m forgetting isn’t it?” I ask clenching my fists at my sides, “so the choice will be a fair fate?”
“Wow, aren’t you a smart one,” she says sarcastically.
It makes sense of course. Why would a bad person pick to be reincarnated if they knew they were going to live horribly? The sudden amnesia makes it fair, it makes you face your true fate. Understanding it doesn’t make the knowledge any better.
“Better decide quick honey,” she says absent mindedly looking at her nails. “Sometimes when you people don’t decide fast enough I decide for you… It’s funny what I can get away with if I call it fate.”
She laughs quietly to herself as my mind races with what little it has left in it. What are my options here? Walk until I hopefully find someone else in an endless abyss, and risk walking into nothingness forever, or potentially sign myself away to live horribly for my next life?
Think come on think.
Was I bad?
Was I good?
Is anyone else out there?
“I’ll give you ten more seconds,” her voice seems to echo in my head.
Who was I?
I wasn’t bad was I?
I couldn’t have been that good if I ended up here.
What if she’s lying about the whole thing. What if this is all some elaborate dream?
Come on, think… think of anything.
Please remember something, please.
Please, please, please,
Who was I? What was my name?”
What was my name? What was my name?
“Send me back.”