The man stood. He did some stretches, side-to-side, back and forth. He clasped his fingers and stretched his hands in front of him. He turned around and looked out the window.
“Not much of a view,” he said. Mr. Little said nothing. The man turned around to face him again.
“You said something about living again,” Mr. Little said in a soft voice.
“Yes,” the man said. “I did.”
“Does this mean that you can send me back?”
“No, I can’t, Ernest. I’m sorry.”
“But, then what did you mean?”
The man sighed. “If you were a Buddhist or a Hindu or belonged to some other faith that believed in reincarnation, and were a true believer, then it would be no sweat. I’d send you back, and you’d get to do the whole Life thing all over again. Some view that as a curse, of course. But in your case, you might find it desirable.”
“Well, not if it meant having to live a whole different life. I’d want the life I had, only with some changes.”
“Right. Well, I can’t do that, either. Like I said, I have rules that I have to follow, just like you and gravity. I can’t break a rule just because I don’t like it.”
“Like humans and ‘thou shalt not kill,’” Mr. Little said.
“Good, very good. You’re getting it. No, what you can do is help give life to others. In time you’ll find that just as rewarding. Let’s take a walk.”
The man walked around his desk and to the exit door. Mr. Little followed him. They walked through the still-empty waiting area and to an elevator lobby, which Mr. Little did not remember seeing earlier. The man pushed a button and the doors opened. An elevator. They got in and he pushed a button marked G. Mr. Little felt the sort of rush one experienced in a skyscraper express elevator when it began to descend. They continued for a time until finally he could feel the breaks kick in. Then they stopped. The doors opened.
The man stepped out first, and then Mr. Little. When the doors closed, they disappeared. Mr. Little looked all around and saw no sign of an elevator shaft or even a building. They stood in the middle of a park, with trees, a large, grassy playing field, picnic tables, and a sandy playground with swings and jungle gym equipment.
“That was like a sky elevator!” Mr. Little said.
“Yeah, it was, wasn’t it?” the man said. “You really liked that science fiction story with the sky elevators, didn’t you?”
Mr. Little nodded, but then his attention went into the distance when I saw a group of boys standing around another sitting on a swing. The boys standing laughed and smirked while the seated boy wore a small, withdrawn face. Eventually the group of boys walked away, leaving the boy alone in the swing. The boy clutched tight the chain and began kicking the dirt underneath him. The boys walking away laughed hard and loud.
“Let’s go visit the boy in the swing,” the man said.
Apprehension took hold of Mr. Little as soon as the boy came into close view. Déjà vu caused him to examine his surroundings again. He had no idea what city he was in, what state, or even what country for that matter. Yet its familiarity haunted him. At the same time, he realized that for the first time since going through the light, he felt something other than equilibrium. For all the walking he did in the long corridor after passing through the light, he never felt tired. For all the while he spent in the waiting room, he never felt bored or even really noticed the passage of time. Now he experienced something akin to anxiety, as if he were breaking out in a cold sweat. But it wasn’t him. He looked at the boy in the swing and saw that he was sweating. And his nostrils shot out short, shallow breaths of disturbed air.
Mr. Little stared at the boy, and then he looked up into the distance and saw the group of boys still laughing and slapping each other on the back. Soon they rounded a corner and disappeared.
Meanwhile, the boy on the swing stood on the swing seat and began wrapping the chain around his neck. He reached as high as he could so that he would dangle from the chain once he finished.
“No!” Mr. Little said. “Don’t do that!”
The boy stopped, though he did not look in Mr. Little’s direction.
“He can’t hear or see me, can he?” Mr. Little said to the man.
“No. But keep talking to him.”
“Listen, I don’t know what those kids said to you, but they were wrong. OK? Whatever they said, they said it to hurt you, but don’t let them. Look, you have someone in your world that loves you. You mother? Does your mother love you?”
The boy held still, as if he heard Mr. Little.
“That’s right,” Mr. Little continued. “Think of your mother. Think of her at your funeral. Think of how sad she would look. Think of how lost her heart will be for the rest of her life. Think of how you’ll be nothing more than an unsolved puzzle, and that she’ll be blaming herself for not solving it in time. She’ll hurt like you won’t believe. That’s not what you want to do.”
The boy climbed down, sat on the swing seat and began gently swinging.
“Listen,” Mr. Little continued, “I know what you’re feeling. You want to end the pain. And you want to hurt the people who caused you the pain, right? You want them to see you hanging from this damn swing so that they’ll freak out. Well, listen. Listen! It might not work out that way. They might freak out or they might just laugh at your dead body hanging there.” The man touched Mr. Little on the shoulder, but Mr. Little kept on. “They won’t understand the connection between your body and their words. They will have learned nothing. And meanwhile, you’ll be like me. Dead. And you’re just a kid, hell, you haven’t even begun to live yet. So listen, I know you can hear some of what I’m saying to you. Don’t do it, alright? Just think about your mother. Think about people who love you. It’ll be alright.”
The boy looked up in the direction of Mr. Little’s face. Mr. Little ran his hand through the boy’s hair. For an instant, it felt as if he could feel the strands of the boy’s hair brush through his fingers. The sensation caused Mr. Little to stare at his hand. It felt real, if only for an instant. And the boy began to brush his hair, thinking something had gone through it.
The boy looked less upset. He took a deep breath, and then got out of the swing seat. He began walking away, across the sandbox and then out into the open field of the park. He continued into the distance, walking in measured paces and with a calm demeanor, until he reached the street corner where he dashed across so as not to miss the light.
“Should we follow him?” Mr. Little said.
“No, I think he’ll be OK for a while. You did good, Ernest, you really did. I think you got through to him.”
Ernest smiled, for the first time since passing through the light. He sat in the swing and the smile faded.
“Did an angel do the same for me when I was his age?”
“Quite possibly,” the man said.
“Because that’s what saved me. I was about to drink a bottle of bleach.” He snickered in spite of himself. “God, how bloody awful. Anyway, before I could even open the bottle, I started thinking of my mother in a black dress at my funeral. It was like someone planted that image in my head. It was so strong. And all those things I said to that boy, that was what went through me mind. And I couldn’t go through with it.”
“What caused you to almost take your life?”
“Boys teasing me at school. Calling me a sissy, a faggot. You know, the usual bullshit. But they still got to me. I let a lot of things get to me, during my life, and I never became whole as a result. I need to follow that kid for a while, to make sure he turns out OK. If I can do that, then maybe I’ll feel a bit more whole.”
The man nodded, satisfied. “You know, Ernest,” the man said, “I was going to take you back to the office. That was your office, by the way.”
“I thought it looked familiar.”
“Memories are kinda funny after you pass through the light. They came back to you after a while. You would have recognized it eventually. Anyway, I was going to take you back to the office and tell you that your other option was to just stay in that office and keep shuffling papers. That’s what you did your whole life, hid in that office and shuffled papers. And you got cross when people interrupted you on the telephone or with office visits. So, your ideal heaven, the one you dreamed of all your working life, was to just sit in the office and not face any interruptions and just go on about your work for all eternity. I was going to take you back there, but now I don’t think I will.”
“No,” Mr. Little said. “I don’t think that will be necessary.”
“Well, if you ever change your mind, just head to any elevator, push the highest floor on it, and you’ll end up back in the lobby outside your office. It’s up to you.”
“Free will even after the end.”
“Yep. That’s the way it works. I better get going.”
“Wait, just a minute. How will I know where the boy is? How can I find him again to check on him?”
“You’ll know. You knew he was being bullied and you knew why. Your instincts are good, Ernest, real good. I think you’ll do just fine.”
With that, the man walked away. As he walked into the park, a bright light enveloped him and he vanished.
Mr. Little sat in the swing. The park did look familiar, but he didn’t know where he was. In time he reasoned that it was the circumstance, and not the location, that seemed familiar.
Eventually, he got out of the swing and walked across the open field beyond the sandbox, following the same path that the boy had taken. He knew that he’d eventually catch up with him.
© 2013, gar. All rights reserved.