“Don’t look up.” The words still reverberated in my head as I woke up in the morning.
What was that dream about? I couldn’t remember, no matter how hard I tried. It was getting increasingly difficult to remember the dreams I had since I had started drinking. I was convinced I wasn’t an alcoholic, even though the nightcaps I took before heading to bed became more frequent. For the past month or so I had been waking up with a hangover, but I felt I was getting used to it. Nothing a couple of Tylenol and two shots of whiskey couldn’t fix.
But what was that dream all about? For an instant, I felt I remembered the entire dream, but then it was gone from my mind, as if that part of my brain had tripped some invisible switch and turned off right away.
I shook off the thoughts and walked into the bathroom to look at my face in the mirror. For the past six weeks, since I’d been diagnosed, I did this every day. This morning, it seemed the worst. The disease was eating me alive. My eyes were sunken and my cheeks were hollow. My chin, usually inconspicuous, jutted out like the Rock of Gibraltar. I wondered whether anyone would notice at work. I didn’t think so. I had heard everyone talking behind my back about my “alcoholism” and how I needed help, even Gina, who had never said an unkind word about anyone behind their back. Well, fuck them all. If they didn’t have the decency to come and ask me what was wrong, I had no reason to tell them.
I brushed my teeth and decided to shave. Halfway through what had become a conditioned reflex over the years, I cut myself. Immediately I was gripped by this paranoia that I wouldn’t stop bleeding. I gripped the side of the sink to keep myself from falling over and fainting at the thought. Slowly I watched in the mirror as the blood trickled to a stop. My hands wouldn’t come near my face after that. No matter; I’d go to the office half-shaven.
In retrospect I guess the fear of dying had been with me since I walked out of the doctor’s office, stunned and in shock. But I didn’t want to die in such a pitiful manner – I didn’t want to find my half-decomposed body lying in the bathroom, naked and bleeding from the face. I wanted to die in a peaceful, glorious manner – so that I would be buried with the beginnings of a smile on my face. Going to bed one night and not waking up would be much more graceful than dying there and then in the bathroom. Trying to push the thoughts of my death out of my mind, I went back into the bedroom and downed four shots of whiskey in quick succession. To hell with it.
I went to work as usual, and spent the next nine hours listening to whispered conversations outside my cubicle about my health. I headed home and hit the bottles right away.
I died that night in my sleep.
For a while I didn’t realize I had died. I walked into the bathroom the next morning when the alarm went off and tried to look at my reflection in the mirror. Instead of my pale, haggard face, I saw my body lying lifeless in the room behind me.
I couldn’t comprehend what exactly was going on. I looked back into my bedroom, and saw that the mirror wasn’t lying – I was lying in bed. I tried to touch the sleeping form, but my fingers just couldn’t make contact with the body. In an instant, I saw that I wasn’t alone in the room – there were hundreds, maybe thousands, of other people around me, all of whom I could see. All of them seemed to be quite distant, but still gave me expectant looks, as if they were waiting for me to do something. There were people of all ages – a woman carrying a baby, a child holding a toy, an old man with a cane, a man in a suit with a briefcase. They were stuck in some sort of instant, unable to move forward or backward, all staring at me as if I was supposed to do something. Then I heard the voice.
“Go on, follow them.”
I turned around, and behind me stood a man, robed in white. “Walk with them,” the man urged.
“Who are they?” I asked, still very confused and slowly growing nervous.
“They are the ones who died the moment you did. Their souls cannot reach their final destination unless you join them.”
So I was dead? So my wish had come true, and I had died in my sleep? I turned to look at my body, and the face had the beginnings of a smile on it. Just the way I wanted it to be.
“Go on,” the man repeated behind me.
“Just one more minute,” I insisted. I couldn’t take my eyes off my dead, lifeless body.
“I know it’s hard to tear your soul away from the body that has housed it for so long. But you must proceed. Your soul, and the soul of all these others, must get where they need to go.”
Fuck all the other souls, I thought to myself. I was dead. My body was now just an empty shell, soon to be overrun by insects and disintegrated. I wanted one last look at the body that I had taken for granted all my life. Fuck the man, too, whoever he was. Who did he think he was to give me orders?
As if he had read my mind, the man sighed. “Look, you’re my last one. Don’t make this anymore difficult than it has to be. I’ve had to drag all these people away from their bodies and get them here, and now you’re holding all of us up. So do me a favor and hurry up and walk.”
“Who the fuck are you?”
“I’m the one responsible for getting all of you to your final destinations. So please, turn around and start walking!”
His voice made it obvious that he was losing his patience with me. I took one last long look at my body and turned around and started walking.
“Good,” he said. “It’s not long. And remember, don’t look up.”
The phrase sent shivers down my spine. The dream seemed to leap back into my consciousness, but then jumped out again. I started walking.
I don’t know what happened after that. I walked in the direction the other people were facing. Immediately they all started moving as well. The people in front of me seemed to walk into my wall, and so it seemed to be the reasonable thing to do. I walked through the wall, and immediately I was in a huge dark tunnel.
I followed the people in front of me blindly for a while until my eyes adjusted to the light. The man who had spoken to me was in front of the line. I looked around me. I realized that the walls of the tunnel were covered with rubies, diamonds and emeralds, arranged into intricate designs throughout. Light bounced off the gems and formed patterns on the wall. Suddenly I heard the whispers.
“If you think that’s something, just look up at the ceiling.”
“The ceiling’s even more beautiful – beyond your wildest imagination.”
“Check out the ceiling – it’s more beautiful than the freshest flower or the best painting.”
Every step I took, the whispers increased in number and in volume. Soon my head was filled with the reverberations of a million voices, all imploring me to look at the ceiling. I tried to keep my head down, but everytime I looked at the floor, the voices increased in volume even more, until my head was filled with shrieking voices. Unable to bear it any more, I looked up at the ceiling.
The ceiling was nothing beautiful. I felt a tremendous flash of heat on my face, and the brightest light blinded me. My neck was stuck – I couldn’t look in any other direction anymore. I was transfixed by the light.
Several moments later, I felt something running down my cheek. I put my hand on my cheek to wipe it off, and with the hand came a chunk of the flesh on my cheek. I stared at my hand in horror for a split second.
I began to scream.
At the front of the line, the man heard the scream, paused for a second, and then kept walking. The man in the suit and with a briefcase asked, “What was that?”
“Don’t worry about it. The last soul we salvaged was just extinguished,” said the man, and kept on walking.
“And you aren’t going to do anything about it?” asked the incredulous woman with the baby.
“Because that’s the way it’s meant to be. One soul is destined to be extinguished before we reach your final destination. Only by sacrificing one of the souls can we open the gates to your final destination.”
“What will happen to him?” asked the man in the suit.
“No. His soul will dissipate and will be added to the energy of the universe.”
“And no one knows about this?”
“Only the ones who’ve walked this way before you. On Earth, they think it’s just a routine voltage fluctuation.”
And with that the man kept walking.