R.W. Van Sant
From the Synaptic Overload Anthology
When a person dies suddenly, witnesses often comment that “He never knew what hit him.” What happens to such a soul, when the ability to perceive returns to them, lacking worldly stimuli. Can they understand what happened to them? Might not confusion lead to a desire to escape and return to the world they knew and those who love them?
Alfred couldn’t see. He was embraced by a white brilliance so strong that the sheer intensity of it overrode his optic nerves. Even the act of waving his hands frantically before his eyes only resulted in a barely perceived blur. Even clasping them tightly over his eyes made no difference, the brightness came from everywhere and permeated everything. Even his hands could not shade his light-sensitive eyes.
Something was horribly wrong with his eyes. Light that bright should have brought with it searing pain, yet there were no sensations of pain. In fact, he felt nothing at all. It was neither hot nor cold. He couldn’t perceive even the slightest breeze. Alfred stood erect, and his foot pressed against something solid but undefined. The ground beneath him wasn’t hard, yet it didn’t give under his weight. He had to be somewhere inside, a hospital perhaps.
One step at a time, Alfred moved blindly forward, arms stretched before him lest he run into a gurney or the wall, he found nothing. “Hey,” his voice fell flat on his ears; there was nothing to reflect it back. “Let me out.”
No response. There had to be a nurse’s station close by. “Help! Can someone help me?” Nothing. He started to count his steps, over a hundred paces, but nothing changed. No hospital room could be that large. Maybe it was a large auditorium. Had there been a natural disaster, a nuclear blast perhaps? He remembered reading that if a person saw an atomic bomb blast, it could have burned their retinas. He’d remember it though, wouldn’t he?
Why then was there no one around.
He wandered aimlessly for an indeterminable amount of time. Under such conditions, how could one define time? Memory of self ebbed and flowed through his consciousness. He knew who he was. Alfred Jacobs, married and the father of four. He was a postman. He knew all this, yet he couldn’t remember what had happened, how he came to be where he was. He would have to find a way out. He needed to get back to his family. If there was a disaster, he had to get to them. They would need him.
A sound greeted his ears. Alfred strained to discern its nature, it was a voice he was sure of it. It beckoned from someplace far distant. He listened and walked, hands stretched before him, fingers spread wide as if to feel the direction of the sound. Slowly, steadily with each step, the voice grew in volume until it had become an almost human-sounding singsong. Still, he couldn’t make out the words. It was, however, the only sign of life in the desolate whiteness and he would follow it. Perhaps the person behind the voice could help him or tell him what was happening.
Alfred stumbled along at a slow pace. In the countless steps he’d taken, already his feet had yet to encounter the slightest impediment. There was not so much as one imperfection in the floor. Even so, he feared that the next step would end with a fall.
Another sound crossed his ears, a soft sobbing. It was louder than the other, more defined and close at hand. “Is anyone there?” He called out into the empty whiteness.
“Are you real?” a woman’s voice met his ears.
“Yeah, I’m real.” He said. “Do you know what happened?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
“Where are we?” he asked.
“I don’t know. I was on an airplane. I fell asleep. I can’t see anything.”
“Neither can I. Look, I’m coming to you. Keep talking till I find you.” He moved slowly, taking small steps for fear of stepping on her. First, his hand felt long strands of very fine hair, then a shoulder.
“That’s me,” she said.
“Sorry.” The man felt down her arm until he found her hand. He grasped it tightly.
“Thank you,” she said. “Have you found any of the others?”
“No, you’re the only one. How many others are there? I heard someone singing, was it you?” he asked.
“No. We heard it too. We were trying to find a way out, and I lost Sheila, she got tired and let go. Please don’t let go.” The woman pleaded.
“Who is Sheila?”
“She’s my daughter.” She said.
“Don’t worry, we’ll find her,” Alfred said. “Sheila!”
“No, it’s no good. At first, an older couple came by. They stayed with us for a while then gave up and went away. Then the man with an accent, but he left, too. Now Sheila is gone. I called, shouted, and yelled. She let go. They all let go, then they all went away,” she said. “You’ll go away too.”
“Come with me.” Alfred pulled on her hand. “We’ll find out where the voice is coming from together. A doctor probably found your daughter.” Alfred listened carefully, and he could hear the singing again. “Come on. It’s this way.”
“No,” she said. “I’ve had enough. I’m going to Sheila now.”
Alfred felt the woman’s hand slip away from his own. “Don’t go. Please, I don’t want to be alone here.” She didn’t answer. He no longer had any sense of her at all. He stumbled around in circles waving his arms, trying desperately to feel even a brush of her skin. “Please come back, lady!” There was no response but for the beckoning song.
She had to be nearby, but he couldn’t find her and his family needed him. “I’m sorry. I’ll send help.” His fear of falling forgotten, Alfred ran toward the sound.
The sound grew as he ran, becoming more distinct. It wasn’t a single voice, he realized. Many people were speaking all at once. He pressed further and recognized individual voices. The sound was the combined voices of his family, and they were calling out for him.
“Honey, I’m here.” he called, “Children!” He still couldn’t see them. There was only the light. It stood in his way, stopping him from joining them. He defied it. Alfred summoned all his resolve and continued moving toward the voices, willing the overwhelming whiteness to dissipate as he ran. He felt like he was asleep, fighting his way back to consciousness. A black dot broke the whiteness like a signal flare. It was impossibly far ahead, yet it was something to focus on. He turned all his concentration on the blackness, willing it to grow.
At last, it grew, forming a tunnel in the whiteness. He ran toward the dark patch with everything he had. His family waited in the darkness. A cold breeze struck him full across his body as he plunged in.
The whiteness vanished, and the world returned. Alfred found himself lying in the dirt. Only the distant blinking of a convenience store sign lighted the cold night. Tall weeds grabbed at his feet as he walked toward the parking lot. He knew the place. He was near his house.
He had no memory of how he had gotten into that field. Maybe he was mugged, and someone dragged his unconscious body into the field. It didn’t matter anymore, nor did his strange dream. All that mattered was getting home to his family.
Alfred walked the dark streets that led him to his housing development and up to his own house. Upon the door lay a black wreath. From inside the house, he could hear his wife crying.
“My God,” he thought. “There’s been an accident.”
Alfred ran up the driveway and reached for the doorknob. His hand passed through it as though it were a reflection on a pool. He tried again with the same results. He tried the doorbell, but his hand went through it and the wall. Cold realization dawned on him. There had been an accident. Something had happened to him. He was dead, a ghost.
How could he be dead? He’d know, wouldn’t he? It was a bad dream. Wake up! He tried to jar himself to consciousness, but couldn’t. What if he was in a coma, lying in a hospital bed with tubes up his nose and needles in his arms.
Dream or not, ghost or not, the front door was no impediment as he stepped into his house. His wife sat on their couch, crying into the arms of her older sister. Each in their rooms, Alfred could hear the sniffling of his children who had cried themselves to sleep.
“I’ll sleep on the couch tonight.” his sister in law offered.
“Thank you,” his wife said. “I don’t want to be alone tonight.”
“I’m here!” Alfred cried. He had made it back to them. He was home. “I’m here.”
“Why?” His wife wailed. “Mailmen don’t carry money. Not enough to kill for.”
“People like that will kill for the money in a birthday card.” Her sister said. “Oh, hon, there is no reason in it. Just take heart and believe that he’s in a better place.”
His wife broke down into uncontrollable tears.
Alfred looked at the empty hall mirror. No, he wasn’t in a better place. He was in the living room. He’d been shown the light and rejected it.
What was he to do now, haunt his family? No, he didn’t want to be the unexplained draft, or shadow that terrified his youngest child, Tina. His wife needed to mourn and move on with her life. Life needed to go on. He felt the pain, he’d lost everything, and he could no longer bear to watch the life that went on without him.
Alfred turned around and left through the front door for the last time. He left his house, his family, and his life. His soul lost, he faced the night, going out into the darkness, once again to find the light.