It’s a mild Halloween night in Southern California and I’m holed up in my apartment. The desk lamp provides enough light to see the keyboard but no more. I do not need illumination tonight, I need courage. This is not the usual essay. There is no funny twist, no cheery moral, nothing about this is written to make you smile. But if you do, fear not. It’s good to laugh at the things that frighten us. I’m grinning now because I don’t know exactly what’s coming next. You see, the story I’m about to tell you tonight has never been written down. Not by me, not by anyone else. I’ve kept this experience close for fear of how you might look at me once you know the things I’ve seen.
Over a decade ago, when I was 16, I almost died in the hospital. Heavily sedated and in a medically induced coma, my body fought to live. It took me nearly two months to get out and several more before I could return to the world. But, this is not the story of how I got sick or how I got better.
Unconscious, dying in a hospital bed, this is the story of what happened to me between our world and the next.
It is as real to me now as it was then.
A dream one cannot wake up from becomes not a dream at all.
You have been warned.
The journey begins aboard a cruise ship docked in a wide, blue river. We gather on the deck, my family, my friends and I to wave goodbye to those on shore. The floorboards remind me of a gymnasium, they have a certain squeak and I bristle at the obnoxious noise people make with their sneakers. I’m told the sounds will dissipate once we get to the ocean, but I don’t believe them. The ocean is big but squeaks don’t go away, I insist. My protests are ignored. The sun sets behind the ship, casting long shadows across the bow. My father and I stand at the railing. I wear a life jacket because I can’t swim. We don’t talk much, content to stare at the water. I look to the riverbank and see the flat, muddy land pockmarked with uniform holes, like dimples on a golf ball. There’s a few brown tents being set up in the distance. I ask my father what’s going on. He doesn’t know. I want to find out. My father tells me to wait. The ship will get there, he says. I close my eyes.
When I open my eyes, I’m sitting in one of the holes with my father. The consistent curve of the rim and cavity makes the whole thing feel like a factory-created foxhole. No longer wearing life jackets, my father and I are clad in brown loincloths and nothing else. It’s okay if you want to laugh at that image, I do, but what comes next may damper your mirth. A haggard woman ambles into our foxhole. She carries a bright, silver knife. She’s here to make us ready. I can’t look away from the knife, but when she turns around, I try to climb out of the foxhole. The muddy sides have turned to a yellowish brown slime. I glimpse beyond our hole. The others have brown tents and are filled with people dressed like us only they are covered in bleeding scars. The purpose for the bright, silver knife becomes clear. Before I can warn my father, the haggard woman is on me, holding my leg down, exposing my thigh. With a quick swipe, the tip of her shiny blade draws a bleeding line across my skin. It hurts, but not as much as you’d think. The bleeding is the worst part. I worry it won’t stop. I yell for her to leave, I insist this is all a dream and I should wake up. I stare at my bleeding thigh. I do not wake up. When I regain my composure, the woman is gone. My father is gone. All the other people are gone. Only I remain, with my bleeding thigh, alone among the muddy foxholes. From the distance, the land looks like a giant egg-crate mattress.
I don’t know how long I stayed there or what I did to get out.
The next thing I remember is standing on the porch of the house I grew up in. It’s the Christmas season and there’s the annual party going on across the street. My parents are there, but I have another mission to complete before I can join them. There’s an old lady in the neighborhood and I need to go to her house to have a sandwich. It’s a tradition, I’m told, and even though she’s starting to lose it, it will be good for me to go. I set out walking down the moonlit neighborhood streets. When I reach the white, stone bridge over the creek near the park, the one where the walking trail goes underneath, I see two children mixing buckets of plaster of Paris. These children look like street urchins imported from a Dickens novel, although I find their clothes not unusual. What frightens me about the street kids isn’t their poverty but the way they mix the plaster, with experience. I ask them what they’re doing, feeling responsible. They tell me they’re waiting for the rain. Why the rain? They look at me as if this is a dumb question. The dogs will come, they reply. Dogs? Yes. Dogs. One of the urchins smears the plaster on the inner wall under the bridge. We will catch them, they say. I see their eyes and their eyes are not children’s eyes. I leave them to their grim work.
Continuing on my way, I come across a small, eclectic group of people I know. Several push strollers. A blonde girl from school invites me to walk with them. I decline. I have to go eat my sandwich. Before we part, I warn them about the bridge. Something is not right.
The old woman’s house, the one who makes the sandwich, is a small two-story duplex. Immediately upon entering, I’m hit with a stifling warmth, the wafting smell of vegetable soup and ointment. Her decor is pack-rat and overstuffed with junk. Navigating to the TV room isn’t easy, especially when the only light is from the glowing screen. There is a couch and its upholstery looks like crusty nacho cheese. A person could collapse here and never be found again. The old woman sits on the couch. I never see her face. I stand behind the couch. There is a sandwich in my hand and I take a bite. It’s mostly white bread, there’s very little filling. I take another bite and another. I can finish this quick, I think, and then head back to the party. Halfway through the meal, I realize I can’t swallow. The bread halves of the sandwich fall away to reveal the filling is nothing more than canvas with buttons and yarn latch-hooked on. I yank it out of my mouth, but like a clown’s handkerchief, it just keeps coming. I panic, I’m choking and this old woman is doing nothing. I stumble for the door, but it’s too far. A hand grabs from behind, pulls me up. It’s the old woman’s nurse. She takes a vacuum nozzle and hoovers out my throat. I thank her and tell her I should go. She agrees, but makes me promise not to say a word about this incident. I nod.
Outside once again, I feel the air has gotten colder. There’s a mist. It has rained since I was inside the house.
Walking back to the party, I know I’m going to pass by the bridge again, so I steel my nerves to deal with the children. The park trail slopes downward and soon I am back under the bridge. The children are not in sight. Along the freshly plastered walls, like a hunter’s mounted trophies, are the dogs. The children’s vile plan becomes clear to me now. When the rains come, the creek floods, washing all the dogs left outside under the bridge where they get caught in the fresh plaster. They make no sound. The poor creatures are dying in silence plastered against the wall. I cannot bear this and try to pull one off but succeed in only getting my arm stuck to the wall. From the other side of the bridge, the children appear. I watch in spellbound horror as they take butcher’s cleavers and sever the limbs of their prey. I struggle to free myself, the chipping plaster crumbles making a noise and catching the attention of the children. I cannot get my shirt unstuck. They look at me. In their eyes I realize they do not see me as one of them, but as another fresh body stuck to their hideous wall. They make no hurry to get to me, they’ve never had something escape before. I get my arm loose, strip off my shirt, and without looking back, I run.
Behind me I can hear them chasing, their cleavers jangling on their belt. I run until I cannot hear them anymore. Whether they still chase me, I do not know, but I never see them again.
Stumbling down stone stairs in my flight from the murderous urchins, I finally stop at the back of a large passage beneath the city. The bricks form an arch overhead. The whole places feels older than it looks, as if this was the inspiration for ancient Roman architecture instead of the other way around. I huddle behind some crates in the shadows feeling very secure in my invisibility. There are others here, in the subterranean tunnel. They wear hooded cloaks and gather in small groups. I get the sense they’re waiting for something and so I wait with them. Not much longer, I hear one whisper to another. He’s coming they say. I shiver in my shadowy corner. He’s coming. The whisper becomes a chant, an expectation of arrival hastened by the repeated words. He’s coming, they say. He’s coming. I want to know who, but already my stomach churns as if my body knows something my head does not. He’s coming. Who’s coming? I almost ask, but I see on the opposite end, matching shadows descending stairs. He’s coming. I peer above the crate, my unseen-ness protected by the attention facing forward. He’s coming. I must know who. He’s coming. The shadows grow larger and I see three figures descending the far stairs. On the left and the right, they appear to be human, I can see their feet, but the figure in the middle I can’t make out. He’s coming. I lean further to see farther, exposing my position to the room (He’s coming.), but they are too entranced with the Being on the stairs. He’s here! The final whispered cry hushes the room. In the next moment, I know I am caught. He sees me. His face I cannot remember. My guts seize up and I am chilled from the inside out. Maybe Hell isn’t the furnace we think.
I shut my eyes.
I see myself in bed.
Men in uniform put a box around me. They load me into the back of a delivery truck. I watch them drive away, floating above the road.
I drift upwards.
Higher and higher above the land, above the clouds, above the world I soar. From outer space, I look back down on Earth. I want to go farther, I think.
And so I do.
Like zooming out of a close up picture, the solar system, the galaxy and even the universe fall away from me. Alone in the blackness of existence, I come to understand that everything is a sphere. Go back far enough, and everything looks like a sphere. It’s how, I decide, we interpret reality, as a series of spheres among other spheres. And since we know other shapes exist, then this reality must be permeable. We can’t break it, but we can control it. We can be masters of our own fate. I didn’t want to be out here, alone. I want to be back on Earth, back with my people, but the terrors that chased me here won’t allow it. This makes me mad. Really really mad. My rage seethes, crackles, and bursts from my back in the form of two widespread wings of golden energy. A golden sphere of the same energy explodes from my heart encompassing my body. Within this sphere, no harm can come to me or anyone else. Outside this sphere, the wilds of an uncaring universe. I am not done yet. I enrage this golden sphere to expand bigger and bigger. It swallows up the nearby systems, the galaxies, all the way until it reaches Earth, and Earth too is consumed. I yell, I scream, I unleash my battle-cry, the last battle-cry I may ever wail, at existence itself. I am the universe, and I am nothing.
There’s a blinding, white light, and then it is gone.
I am standing in the backyard of the house I grew up in. In the moonlight, I can see four holes in the grass. They form a square, each hole one point of the shape. I stand at the bottom of this array, and I know I must go in one of them. The first hole, the one on the bottom left, has vines coming out of it. The bottom isn’t visible, the hole is more of a tunnel or the inside of a root. I know what it means. It’s a plant. I go in that hole and I join the plant kingdom. My body would dissolve away in the nectar and I would become the trees. Patient, past the point of caring what happens to those around me, but still able to watch them, to know how they live and die. The next hole, the one on the bottom right, is lined with broken glass, bent nails, and needles. The bottom isn’t visible, but when I lean in, I can hear the sounds of my friends in the cafeteria. The warm smell of chicken nugget day hits my nose. I want to jump in. The cutting edges keep me at bay. I walk over to the third hole, the one on the upper right. It’s quiet and empty and I know there is no bottom. The sides of the hole fall straight down into a blackness from which no light will ever return. It’s cold- the cold of an early Spring day that you don’t mind so much if you don’t think about it. There’s a sense of peace to this hole. No beginning. No ending. I feel myself drawn towards its endless depths. I ache, I am tired. I feel myself lean forward.
But this is not what I want.
The finality frightens me, shakes me out of my stupor. No. I didn’t come all this way to stop now. I remember the bright, silver knife cutting my thigh, and I am filled with grit. Damn the blood. Damn the pain. I don’t bother looking into the last hole. It remains unknown to me. I leap into the second hole. It hurts exactly as bad as you think.
I can hear my friends.
After three weeks in an induced coma, I wake up in the PICU of my local hospital. I don’t know when exactly these events took place, but they are as vivid to me now as they were then. What meaning I take from the experience is my own to keep. What meaning you get is your business. Great hope can come from the darkest places, but so can grand delusions.
Okay, I have a confession. There is a moral. There is a twist.
When it comes to what happens after we die, I don’t have the answers. And neither should you. Everything about my journey is told exactly as I experienced, but for one thing. All of these vignettes are completely true, except one is utterly made up.
November 1st is All Saints’ Day. Only the dead know the truth.