Best friends Kate and Daniel die in a car crash, but discover Heaven is, well, boring. They leave and begin visiting other afterlives, and discover their wanderings may have a greater purpose.
My best friend Daniel and I died when we were twenty-four. It didn't occur to me that we could die. How many times have you heard that? We were young, healthy, in our prime, blah, blah. Death was never on our minds.
I’d believed that your youth is the time of greatest potential, but when you’re a dead piece of meat in a crushed Toyota, your potential for greatness drops to zero.
Truth be told, my potential for greatness had never been that high. In high school, I fit in comfortably enough with the “smart kids,” but I never won any awards or tried out for any scholarships. I just got by. In college, I focused mostly on hanging with friends and pining after my best friend. I dropped out midway through my junior year.
When I visited home for the holidays, my parents ignored the white elephant of my college failure in order to craft the illusion of a happy family, but my grandmother wasn’t buying it. She was one of the few people I trusted, simply because she didn’t feed me bull****.
Christmas afternoon, she pulled me aside. “Kate, we need to talk about this college thing.”
I rolled my eyes. “Grandma, I told you-”
She waved me silent. “When I was a young woman, President Kennedy said that we were going to go to the moon, not because it was easy, but because it was hard.” She pointed outside her window at the night sky. “Most people take the easy route. Can’t blame them. It’s easy.” Her eyes flitted toward the living room where my father was working on keeping the couch firmly planted on the floor. She’d never said a bad word against her son. Then again, she didn’t have to.
Obviously, this time she was talking about me, too. I had taken the easy route since high school; going to Sarah Enigma University instead of University of Tennessee or Duke, then dropping out with no major declared, no stellar grades in one specific area that would set me on my path.
That night, I was still ashamed, defiant and angry. I patiently nodded while Grandma Melissa made me feel worse and worse, then went out to have a beer with Daniel, my best friend, roommate, and long unrequited love.
Daniel and I had a place in Boone, NC, close to the SEU campus. I was working for a florist and Daniel had become a clerk at Belk in the Boone Mall. We were both fully entrenched in our single twenty-something lifestyle. Other than actual success, death was the next-furthest thing from our minds.
Unfortunately, the car crash that took my life also killed Daniel. When we died, our obituaries didn’t say, “he never got caught cheating his way to his BS degree, which he used to sell men’s clothing at Belk,” or, “she chose her college based not on building a bright future, but because she was in love with a guy who treated her like a sister.” They trumpeted how everyone liked us: how close I was to my grandma and how Daniel came from a tragic background, only to end his life tragically. They also went into great detail about our work with the local homeless shelter.
The funny thing is, Daniel only worked at the homeless shelter because his girlfriend Kayra Nhoj worked there and he wanted to impress her, and the night of our death was the first time I had gone with him. The papers didn't say that, either, nor did they say how reluctant I had been to go.
What can I say? Desperation has always scared the shit out of me. When I was a Girl Scout (which the papers mentioned) I cried when we took Halloween candy to a nursing home to brighten the residents' day (unmentioned). Uncomfortable with the stale smell and the toothless grins, the dingy nightgowns and the hopeless vacant looks, I trailed behind the girls in my troop. I peeked into an open door and saw an ancient man struggling to get out of bed. His hospital gown hung open at the back, and I could see his spindly legs, his sexless, nonexistent butt, and his knobby spine. I was sure he would shatter if he fell. Before I could look away, he slipped and scrabbled at the bed's supports, but went down.
I screamed and ran to get a nurse, who took care of it with such calm command I wondered if she were a robot. How could anyone human not run and hide from the vision of people decaying before they’d even died? I never told anyone this. Not my grandmother, not even Daniel. He always invited me to go to the shelter and help out with him and Kayra, but I always refused. The night of our deaths, he finally snapped.
"What is your problem?" he yelled at me. He was driving me to the library so I could read while he slopped soup into the trays of the hopeless or whatever it was he did. Rain poured down. I had nothing but a light sweater, and I cursed my lack of planning.
"I just don't like it, okay? I can't handle it!"
"Don't you even care? These people need our help. You can give it to them."
I was silent.
"You can't catch it, you know. You won't leave and find out the super has locked us out of the apartment, your teeth are loose and you have scabies."
"Oh, come on. You're only there because of Kayra. If you broke up tomorrow, you wouldn't go back."
"That's bullshit. And quit blaming me for your issues. You’re just afraid."
"I never denied that, I just-"
"You just don't have any empathy, that's all. Christ, Kate, sometimes I wonder if you care about anyone but yourself."
We pulled up to the curb in front of the library and stopped with a jolt.
"I'll pick you up in two hours. Be ready," he said, not looking at me.
I stared at him for a moment but he never looked my way. I sighed and got out into the rain. I didn't watch him peel out, and refused to react when he splashed a large puddle onto my back.
Inside, I dripped on the carpet while a librarian watched me uneasily. I didn't blame her; I was soaked. You don't want a wet sponge - nor a woman resembling one - near books.
Daniel was wrong. It wasn't a lack of empathy, it was too much. I cared so much for these people that I was afraid I wouldn't be able to help them at all, that my work would be emptying the ocean with a bucket. I'd rather feel bad about my inability to empty the ocean while I was on dry land than while drowning in the depths, so I stayed away. How can you combat poverty and old age? I wasn't a politician. I wasn't a philanthropist.
Daniel had once told me that if he could give someone a meal and a smile, then that was worth it. These people didn't have much. Therefore they didn't need much to make it better. I would bet my life that Kayra told him that. Perfect Kayra.
But that didn't mean it wasn't true.
I squelched over to the pay phone and called a cab.