"Last Call" is my most widely read tale, having first appeared as the lead story in the Spring 1993 issue of Strange Days magazine. The now defunct Strange Days was an illustrated quarterly speculative fiction magazine that had international distribution and a large circulation. This was my second published short story and its appearance really put me on the map as it connected me with many known authors and editors. "Last Call" is a bizarre slice of contemporary fantasy that editor Peter Bianca referred to in his opening editorial as "a great tale about the near-after and the hereafter." My Rod Serling Twilight Zone influences are definitely at work here. And graphic artist Dave Grilla did a great job of capturing the creepiness of the story with his superb illustrations.
"Last Call" appears in my short story collection, DAYDREAMS AND NIGHT SCREAMS.
Atlanta, Georgia and Elsewhere
MORNINGS WERE SO MUCH MORE pleasant now that he had kicked the bottle.
Brad Kissel sauntered down the alley leading from the bus stop to his office just as he had every morning for the past six years. His head was as clear as the crystalline morning, his stride purposeful and bouncy. Seven months since he had last let alcohol stain his lips. It had been tough, maybe the toughest thing he had ever done. Compared to licking his drinking problem, building his advertising empire had seemed mere child’s play.
It had all come crashing home one miserable hung-over morning in January. Brad had awakened on the floor of his bathroom, his cheek pressed against the cool porcelain of the toilet, his mouth tasting of stale gin and puke. Through blurred, crusty eyes, he spotted the succinct message his wife had scrawled across the top of the mirror in her peach-colored lipstick:
I can’t take this any longer. Have taken Melanie and Kelly to Mother’s. Call me when you grow up!
That is when Brad Kissel changed, when he realized what was truly important. A thousand Coca-Cola accounts didn’t add up to Sheila and his two daughters. Especially his two daughters. He decided he had suffered his last hangover. Quit, cold turkey. That’s the way Brad Kissel did everything. All or nothing—obsession or denial.
He had pulled himself up off that hard tile floor, determined to redirect his life. And he had done it, though there had been some very dark days indeed. It wasn’t until he became active in AA that Sheila and the girls had come back to him. There were still times when it took all the self-discipline he could muster to avoid stopping by a package store or bar after a tough day. Days when he felt close to giving in, going on another patented Brad Kissel bender. But all it took was the vision of Sheila’s lipstick-smeared message seven months ago. Call me when you grow up! Very direct words that kept him in line.
Brad rounded the corner leading to Peachtree Street and the entrance of his office building. Immediately, he knew something was wrong. Normally, the service entrances lining the alley were soiled and grimy, the paint peeling and rust freckling the naked metal of criss-crossing fire escapes. Today, he saw no service entrances, only shiny immaculate storefronts with unfamiliar names. Brilliant gold and silver facades gleamed in the sunlight. Usually he could smell the faint scent of urine and the reek of rotting garbage. Now, an overpowering perfumed scent filled his nostrils, some sweet fragrance like honeysuckle or lilac.
Brad slowed his pace, gripped his briefcase a little tighter. The more he walked, the longer the alley seemed to stretch out in front of him. It was like trying to go up a down escalator; the more he walked the less distance he seemed to cover. He had no idea where the alley ended. His office building was nowhere to be seen.
He grew disoriented and faintly dizzy. The sun brightened, tinged with a strange phosphorescence that gave everything a bluish tint. Oddly, the heat and humidity had disappeared. Brad actually felt cool, which he knew was impossible for Atlanta in August.
He sat down on the curb and shook his head, trying to clear the dizziness. A peculiar tingling buzzed through his fingers and toes. Panic hit him as he noticed the street was paved with glowing gold cobblestones. The curb was a bar of solid silver. A sewer grate was studded with diamonds and rubies.
What the hell is happening here? he wondered, squinting against the glare. I feel like Alice after she tumbled down the rabbit hole. He looked back up the alley, from the direction he had come. Maybe if I walk back that way, I’ll be back at the MARTA bus pickup. Then I’ll be able to get my bearings again. Brad took several deep breaths and stood, determined to retrace his path.
He couldn’t move.
His feet were rooted to the golden cobblestones.
Suddenly, Brad felt himself being tugged forward, as if he were a tiny scrap of iron drawn to a huge magnet. He was pulled to the entrance of a bar, feeling a pang of dismay as he looked up to read the elegant gilt-edged marquee:
LAST CALL LOUNGE
Great, he thought sullenly. This is all I need!
He tried to walk away but couldn’t. Dumbfounded, he stood, gazing at his reflection in the mirrored face of the building. Not sure what to do, he fidgeted with his tie, fussed with his hair.
Finally, the massive gold doors creaked open. Brad peered into the cavernous dark, hearing the usual tavern sounds: glasses clinking, the low buzzing undercurrent of voices. A piano played a soft familiar tune, but Brad couldn’t name it no matter how many notes they gave him.
The magnetic pull yanked him into the darkness. The doors slammed shut behind him with a deafening thud.
The piano went silent.
Brad blinked, trying to adjust to the dim light. The silence was oppressive. A chill raced through him as he realized all eyes were on him, hundreds of eyes, scanning him with telescopic intensity. Self-consciously, he made his way to the bar.
“Excuse me, young fella,” he said to the bartender, a slight black man with beaded dreadlocks. “Something really strange is happening, and I was wondering if you could help me out.”
A hushed chuckle spread through the packed bar.
“What problem ya have, mon?” the bartender asked in a thick Jamaican accent.
Brad looked around uncertainly. “Well . . . I seem to have lost my way going to work this morning . . .”
The bartender laughed as he toweled off a cocktail glass. “Most folks in bars . . . they be lost,” he said. “Worse the world get, better the business be. What’ll it be for ya, mon?”
“No, no . . . you don’t understand,” Brad said, leaning over the bar, his voice a whisper. “You see, normally I walk down the alley out front to get to my office—you may have heard of my company—Kissel Concepts? Fortune Five-hundred advertising firm? We’re located on the top two floors of the Equitable Building.”
“Heard of it, yah,” the bartender said, nodding. “Heard of Kissel Concepts plenty, mon.”
Brad was in no mood for this. “Well, if you’ve heard of it, why don’t you be a nice fellow and point me in the direction of Peachtree Street.”
“No can do for you, Brad,” the wiry Jamaican said, turning his back on him, pouring colorful drinks from a spigot behind the bar.
“How’d you know my name is Brad?”
“No problem, mon. Everything ’bout Brad Kissel be my business.” The barkeep turned around and set the tray of drinks on the bar, looked at Brad. “Name’s Reggie, maz Kissel. Ain’t much in your life is secret from Reggie.”
Brad didn’t like the way this guy Reggie was looking at him—the weird smile and the familiarity in his rheumy eyes, like they were long-lost buddies or something. “How do you mean?”
The Islander scratched his chin, thinking. “You had younger brudder with name of Billy, no? Die before his sixth birt’day . . . rheumatic fever, I think. Topeka, Kansas, yah? Your faddah, he be machinist for a farm equipment company . . . make big dollars, enough to put you through college at Kansas State. You study Marketing, no? Your beautiful wife, Sheila . . . you fall in love wid her at college. Two lovely daughters—Melanie, age ten, and Kelly, who be eight. I right about dis, no, mon? When Melanie is born, you move to Atlanta, you search for golden fleece. Summer, you spend time at cottage on . . . Lake Lanier, I think, and you are big Georgia Bulldog football fan. Right so far, mon?”
Brad could only nod as he listened to this strange Islander and his sing-song dialect.
“You decide you want own company after three years. Make quite the name for yourself, wid all those blue-chip accounts an’ such, yah? But it’s not all paradise, right, maz Kissel? You be more married to your work an’ firewater than to your wife . . . Even few udder women, no? Sheila, she find out, too. Not so good at Kissel house many times, eh, maz Kissel? You want I should go on, mon?”
Brad Kissel was completely stunned. Every fact was pinpoint accurate. Reggie the bartender was the Jamaican version of Ralph Edwards and they were playing some surrealistic version of This Is Your Life with him. It didn’t make sense. Nothing about this made any rational sense.
He looked around the room slowly, searching for answers, but the dull stares of strangers revealed nothing.
“What is this, Reggie?” he asked. “Some kind of sick prank? One of my employees set this up, I’ll bet. It had to have been Carpenter. He’s a practical joker extraordinaire.”
“No prank, mon. We been expecting you some time now. Take a seat. Heavy news Reggie ’bout to lay on ya, mon.”
“All right, that’s it,” Brad said angrily as he backed toward the doors, “I’ve wasted enough time in this dump!”
Reggie snapped his fingers and two burly henchmen appeared from out of the woodwork, grabbed Brad and shoved him down on a barstool.
“You be more comfy sitting, maz Kissel.” Reggie’s voice was cool, comforting, yet somehow distant. “I make sweet Slice-o-Heaven elixah for you to enjoy while we talk, mon.” Reggie slid a tall carafe of strawberry-colored liquid in front of him. Brad looked at it dubiously. “Bottoms up, dude,” Reggie said, pointing a thin forefinger at Brad’s drink. “No udder beverage here—just elixahs. No nasty firewater. No Perrier, no spring water. No tea or coffee. Just this Slice-o-Heaven elixah. Take sip. I think you’ll find it quite, um . . . spiritual, mon.”
Brad’s gaze shifted from his drink to the mysterious barkeep. Finally he said, “Where the hell is this place anyway? Where am I?”
Reggie emitted a churlish giggle. “You are now in land of In-Between—the place all God’s chillun go before the changeover and before the Day of Reckoning. This pub is only one of many Last Call Lounges, mon. We be kind of celestial chain . . . franchise that deal wid spirits of a very different kind. But don’t worry, mon. Not so bad, you see.”
Brad looked down at the carafe in front of him. “What the hell is in this? Heroin? Acid? Something hallucinogenic to make you dream up this bullshit?”
Reggie kept to his soothing monotone. “Easy, maz Kissel. No need to be so testy, mon. Don’t worry, be happy. Try elixah. I’m sure you like. One carafe increase IQ ten times . . . strip away inhibitions so you can see the way . . . God’s Way.”
I’ve stumbled into some kind of weird wonderland, Brad thought. This Reggie character is the Mad Hatter and somewhere in the crowd lurks the March Hare and the Dormouse. Maybe this is one of those alcohol-flashback dreams they talk about at AA meetings. It has all those same warped qualities.
Brad was sure he would awaken from this lunatic dream momentarily, soaked in a cold sweat. He decided to play along. “Now let’s see if I’ve got this straight,” he said, “I’ve been abducted by a UFO and brought here to try out this truth and beauty serum, after which you want me to use my creative talents to come up with an advertising slogan. Well, that’s no problem, Reggie.” Brad snapped open his briefcase and pulled out a pen and a sheet of company stationery. “I’ll just write out a quick ad campaign and you can fly me back to Atlanta. I’m sure quite a few people are wondering where I am.”
Reggie sighed. “Ever’body know where you be, mon.”
Brad quit scribbling and looked up, uncertain. “How do you mean?”
Reggie hesitated, glancing at the untouched elixir in front of Brad. “You’d make things easier if you drink.”
Brad frowned and pushed the carafe away. “I’m not touching that stuff.”
“Jolly well, mon. You want to know the hard way, I’ll tell you. Four moons ago you go to sleep at ten-fifteen. You never wake up when the sun kiss the day. Now you’re here in the In-Between, waiting for the big cyclone. To you this be reincarnation . . . rebirth . . . life in the Hereafter.”
“Come on, Reggie.” Brad eyed the barkeep suspiciously. “I’ve been off the sauce for seven months now. I just had my annual physical, which I passed no problem. I’ve never felt better in my life, and you’re telling me I, um—died in my sleep?”
Reggie nodded. “That’s what it be, mon. Your heart stop. Be thankful, maz Kissel. Quick and painless. You’re here now in spiritual form. You’re a soul. Soon you be reassigned to ’nudder physical form. Sometime it take a while for right match. God uses the lounges to store souls like fisherman uses live wells. When the right body and situation come along, you go. Simple as that, mon.”
For the first time since entering the lounge, Brad laughed, a mad cackle. “You’ve flipped your wig, Reggie, or I should say your corn rows! You need a rest. A long vacation. You’re saying I’m a ghost? If I’m a ghost why can I feel it when I pinch myself? Look, I’m pinching myself and it hurts, Reg.”
“Mebbe this will convince you.” Reggie snapped his fingers, turning on the television above the bar.
Brad looked on in astonishment as the screen filled with familiar faces. There was Sheila, flanked by the two girls, who were clutching small bouquets of flowers. They were all dressed in dark clothing, their faces wet with tears. A melancholy funeral dirge droned from a bellowing pipe organ. People—most of whom Brad recognized—filed past his family, offering their most heartfelt condolences. He sat watching for a few stunned moments, then gasped as the camera zoomed in on a glossy mahogany coffin. The camera dipped over the edge and Brad saw himself lying inside, pale and lifeless against the red satin interior. He nearly choked as he saw that his corpse wore the same gray Brooks Brothers suit he now wore. The camera panned back to Sheila, who was visibly shaken.
Brad’s face drained of color. His jaw hung open. Slowly, he got up off the stool and backed away from the bar, his eyes never leaving the screen. “You’re all crazy, you know that?” he screamed. “You’re all a bunch of morbid maniacs and I want no part of you!”
The two bouncers intercepted him and brought him back to his stool, sat him down. One of them held him still while the other forced the strawberry Slice-o-Heaven elixir down his throat. The crimson liquid dribbled off Brad’s chin and splattered across the front of his suit.
Reggie watched as Brad slurped at the elixir. The bartender snapped off the television. “This is the way it be, maz Kissel. Your karma now is in the hands of God. Only way out is through the back doors—Doors of Reassignment. Only God knows where you’ll go. Only God knows when.”
Brad loosened his tie and unbuttoned his top button. He elbowed one of the bouncers aside and grasped the carafe with both hands for some two-fisted drinking—just like the old days. He drained the last of his elixir and slid the empty carafe forward on the bar. “Hit me again, Reg. This stuff’s tasting better with every swallow.”
The more Brad drank the more unreal he felt. Euphoria and giddiness stroked his senses. He watched Reggie glide around behind the bar as though the bartender hovered half a foot above the ground. He watched a pair of cheap-looking waitresses beat a path to and from the bar, serving the mystical fruity-tasting elixir to patrons at the tables. He saw others enter the lounge in the same confused, pissed-off manner he had, and listened as Reggie gave them the opening orientation. Occasionally, Brad heard names announced over a loudspeaker, and people would disappear through the double doors behind the bar amid shouts of encouragement. The crazy thing was, the more elixir Brad drank, the more legitimate all of this seemed to him. Maybe I am a spirit, he thought, watching two more disappear through the double doors to an unknown fate. Maybe I am about to meet my maker.
“No offense, Reggie,” Brad said when things had slowed down, “but how did you get selected to God’s Welcoming Committee? What makes you so special?”
“No offense taken, mon.” Reggie smiled warmly. “I was one bad dude in my last physical life. I deal drugs through Caribbean,” he said, a faraway look misting his eyes. “On the day I died, I be on my boat between Bonaire and St. Vincent, runnin’ a load of ganja up to the Virgin Islands. The Coast Guard, they intercept me—wait ’til we be out of international waters, try to bust us, mon. We try to outrun ’em, but we lose. We worse off than a leaky banana boat since we be carryin’ more than two-hundred bales of primo Colombian redbud. Real stupid we be, maz Kissel. Some shots be fired, and me, I catch two slugs in me head. I come here. God say, ‘Reginald, the coconuts, they have fallen, mon. But I can use you here.’ God say I be good workin’ the Last Call bars. Been here ever since. No regrets, mon.”
“But doesn’t this place get boring?” Brad asked. “I mean, hanging out behind the bar and serving one kind of drink all the time has to get old fast.”
“You jivin’ me, mon? It’s never boring servin’ the Lord. This job is my privilege, an honor. I be on a first-name basis wid God. Get to meet many souls. I be free—no emotional or physical pains of the flesh for me. Is wonderful an’ spiritual here in the In-Between.”
Brad mulled this over. It still sounded like a boring life to him, though the Islander did seem happy. So did the bustling waitresses, the two gorgeous floozies he had come to know as Amber and Ginger. Brad could hardly keep his eyes off their long shapely legs that sprouted from beneath skin-tight hot pants, or the generous cleavage peeking over their tight tube-tops. If Reggie had been a gun-toting drug dealer, Brad could only imagine what sinful past lives these women had lived.
He was checking out the way Ginger’s ass moved against the silky cocoon of her shorts when he heard his name announced over the loudspeaker. At first it didn’t register. Then he heard it again, and the reality of it filled him with sudden terror.
“LAST CALL FOR BRADLEY LIVINGSTON KISSEL.”
Reggie winked at him. “God be waitin’, maz Kissel.”
Brad grabbed his half-full carafe and guzzled the remaining Slice-o-Heaven elixir. For the first time since entering this otherworldly lounge, he wished for a fifth of Johnnie Walker Black.
“No fear . . . don’t worry, be happy,” Reggie said, reading his mind. “Tough part is dyin’ . . . when you separate from physical being. Trust me, mon, the rest is easy.”
Brad stood, hypnotized, and grabbed his briefcase off the bar. In a trance, he moved behind the bar, taking baby steps toward the swinging doors.
Behind him, several patrons interrupted their drinking and private conversations to shout: “Good luck, Brad!” and “We’ll see ya next time, Mr. Kissel!” He thought he also heard a few faint strains of ‘Happy Birthday’, but he couldn’t be certain.
Boldly, Brad pushed through the grimy doors and found himself smothered in a thick, swirling mist. A soothing harp blended with mellow brass and whining woodwinds. Violins and cellos caressed his ears. Bells chimed from somewhere in the distance. He felt a warmth spread through him, a sense of well-being. Well, what do you know, Brad thought, taking it all in. Miracle of miracles . . . I actually made it to heaven.
His reverie was cut short by a strong hissing.
The foggy mists parted.
He watched as a stooped-over old woman removed a rack of glasses from a mammoth institutional dishwasher.
This isn’t Heaven, Brad suddenly realized. The mist is just steam from the dishwasher. And the orchestral music, the harp . . . it’s just a bad Muzak version of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” This is no spiritual place. It’s just the back room of a neighborhood pub. He slouched his shoulders, dejected.
“Not what you expected, is it, Bradley?” The old woman turned to face him.
He could only gape. The woman was ancient. Her face was carved with deep ridges. Patches of pink scalp showed through steely-white hair. Her hands were gnarled and liver-spotted, her knuckles swollen grotesquely.
“It never is . . .” she uttered through a mouth pinched by a lack of teeth, “. . . what my children expect, that is.”
“Y-your . . . ch-children?” Brad stammered.
“Come on, Bradley,” she said, walking toward him and removing her apron. “I don’t have time for doubters. I know Reginald has already filled you in as to my identity.”
Brad retreated a few steps. “B-but you ca-can’t be—”
“Why not?” she said, reaching out and touching his cheek with a twisted, lumpy finger. “I can assume any physical form I desire. You would never recognize me in my natural state. It would be too difficult to communicate face-to-face.”
Brad felt an electric tingle run through his cheek and shoot down his spine. She was close now, and he studied her. This near she appeared even older. Her fetid breath rattled and wheezed in her lungs. Her skin was nearly translucent, like wadded-up parchment. Brad had never seen anyone this old. This woman rubbing his cheek had survived more than a few generations. She was hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years old. Antiquity personified.
But though her physical being was used-up, there was something about her eyes. Something magnificent. They were intelligent, all-knowing eyes. Eyes that held all the secrets and mysteries of creation. Eyes that expressed youth and age, naive curiosity and infinite wisdom. Poignant, penetrating eyes. Prismatic eyes that glimmered with the colors of hope and life. As Brad stared into these celestial orbs, he realized he had met his maker. He knew he was glimpsing into the soul of God.
God removed Her hand from his face. “Better now?”
Brad could only nod.
She smiled, and he was filled with love and understanding. “Believe me,” God rasped, “your reaction is no different from most. I purposely make these meetings challenging, to test my children’s faith. We don’t have much time, my son. Surely you must have questions for me.”
Face-to-face meeting with God? Questions? Brad’s mind staggered at the thought.
“I’ll help you get started,” God said. “A common one I always hear is: with all the billions of people in the world, how can I possibly spend time with each and every one?”
Brad found his voice. “Yeah, that crossed my mind.”
“I exist in a very different dimension and time from you, Bradley. I can hold millions of these Last Call meetings in the time it takes you to blink once. Even so, my time is stretched thin. Besides Earth, I have two dozen other worlds to look after. And I’m not just talking sentient life, either. I meet with all forms of living things—all the way down to the simplest cells and protozoa.”
Brad shook his head, the concept much too large for him. “What about all the evil in the world? My world, that is. Why do you allow Satan so much leeway?”
God laughed as She grabbed another rack of glasses from the dishwasher. “There is no Satan, my son,” She said, steam enveloping Her. “That’s just a concept the early Christians employed to represent evil. They refused to believe that I could let wickedness and sin go unchecked.”
“So what are you saying? That God has a dark side?”
“No, I’m not saying that at all. I have created so much life that I can’t keep watch over all of it all the time. Rapid growth sometimes causes a dip in efficiency. A common misconception is that I can be everywhere at once. Not true. I’m powerful, but I’m not omnipresent. Some of my children can get very peculiar ideas when I am unable to check on them for long periods. Stalin and Hitler come to mind. Of course, there are many more, but they are good examples.”
“How can you not hate them? How can you forgive all the murderers, rapists, and thieves who have ruined innocent victims?”
“Hatred is so unproductive, Bradley. Like any good parent, I love all my children and I forgive them for their mistakes. After all, we’re talking the flaws of humanity. I never expect them to be perfect, though my self-righteous fundamentalists seem to think they are immune to flaws. They think they have some kind of an ‘in’ with me, which couldn’t be farther from the truth, the obsequious little brown-nosers!” She saw Brad’s shocked expression. “I’m just making a point, my son. I love all my children, but that does not mean certain types of behavior don’t disappoint me. Those who waste their lives and just go through the motions without using the unique talents I have given them irritate me. And of course, murderers and the wide assortment of nefarious types who do harm to others give me great heartburn. But they are still my children, my family. I forgive them all when they come through here. After all, the only way to upgrade a soul is to nurture it.”
Brad thought about Reggie. “Is that why you give Last Call bartending jobs to drug dealers and gun runners?”
God frowned as She wiped her hands with a towel. “You’re missing the point. Reginald was a very disturbed individual in his last life. By giving him responsibilities here, I have taken him out of circulation while nourishing his damaged soul. There are thousands of Last Call lounges, and all the employees are children of mine who went very far astray. All of this Last Call business is my way of cleaning up the cosmic environment, though it’s getting more and more difficult. There is a restlessness throughout my household that is wearing me down. I need a long vacation, but that’s just not possible. Who would take my place?”
“So I guess since I didn’t kill anybody and wasn’t a real hard case, you’re sending me on, right?”
“Yes, my son, it is time . . .” God continued to talk as She disappeared behind the enormous dishwasher. “. . . even though you abused alcohol and cheated on your wife, you will be moving on.”
Brad heard God scavenging around in the back of the room. “But what about Sheila? We had worked everything out and things were getting so beautiful between us again. I miss her already. And what about my girls? Melanie and Kelly?”
“You and Sheila will cross paths again. Neither of you will look the same or really think the same, but your souls are forever mated. Your girls? I’m not sure. It depends on so many factors. But I promise to do my best, Bradley.”
“Where am I going? What will I be doing?”
More rattling around behind the big stainless steel dishwasher. “You’ll see soon enough. All I can tell you now is that you will be born into a loving household and will eventually make a career of astrophysics. You will be instrumental in the first manned flight to Mars.”
“Astrophysics?” Brad said, disappointed. “But I’m not interested in physics. I’m an ad man, all the way.”
“You were an advertising man, Bradley,” God said, returning with a large, oddly-shaped plastic dish rack. “In your new life you will be intensely dedicated to physics and engineering.” She plopped the rack up on the front end of the dishwasher, on the rubber conveyor belt. “Get in, my son. It is time for your reassignment.”
Brad looked down at the dish rack, which was elongated rather than square, and had a large indentation in the center instead of slots or pegs.
God urged him on. “Come on, Bradley, get in and lay down. This is the way it works. Trust me.”
Strange request, Brad thought. But when it comes from the mouth of God, you believe it, no questions asked.
Brad dutifully got in the plastic rack. God touched him on the shoulder, and immediately he began to feel different. The dishwasher roared to life and the conveyor belt lurched forward. By the time his rack passed under the rubber strips, he had forgotten everything about his meeting with God. When the hot spray washed over his face and the darkness gobbled him up, he began to shrink. His arms and legs withdrew into his body until they were mere nubs. His head became smaller. Steam and coarse brushes whipped at him—a hurricane of heated frenzy (the cyclone Reggie had told him about?). His Brooks Brothers suit and Gucci loafers began to disintegrate. But Brad was not afraid. For some reason, this all seemed natural, familiar.
In quick succession, going backward in time, Brad saw key moments of his life play out on the silver screen of his mind. As each brief scene concluded, the memories were wiped clean, never to be recalled again . . .
Signing the Coca-Cola contract . . .
Sheila’s lipstick note on the mirror—Call me when you grow
up! . . .
Melanie’s second-grade play, where she played a princess . . .
Sitting in the hospital room, holding Kelly after her birth . . .
Lifting the veil to kiss a ravishing young Sheila at their
wedding . . .
Cap and gown graduation ceremonies at Kansas State . . .
Playing bass and singing with the Elastic Band, his high
school rock band . . .
Sitting around a campfire on a Boy Scout camping trip . . .
Circling the bases after hitting a Little League home run . . .
Riding his bicycle and tossing newspapers on his paper route . . .
Playing with his little brother Billy, before illness claimed him . . .
His mother and father, reading him bedtime stories . . .
Having his picture taken with Santa Claus . . .
Swatting at a mobile of winged dragons in his crib . . .
Happy fragments of Brad’s life zipped past in one-act passion plays.
And then there was darkness.
« ͼ ͽ »
THICK, GELATINOUS FLUIDS washed over him. He sensed forward movement, like he was swimming through a cylinder of gummy syrup.
The walls seemed to breathe, constricting and expanding in a rhythmic motion, pushing him along.
Far ahead, a small pinpoint of light appeared, wavering at first, then steadying as he pushed closer. The light became his beacon, a lone sun on a dark horizon. As the walls squeezed, he pushed, and the sun became brighter. He kicked and twisted, working his way to freedom.
Another kick and a push, and his head poked through the opening. A final twist and a squirm, and he was freed from his sticky imprisonment.
He felt a painful twitch around his belly. He opened his eyes, squinting in the blinding light, watching as a snaky appendage was cut away from his pink, slippery body.
Masked faces stared at him, nodding, mumbling strange sounds.
Everything was so bright and shiny, foreign and frightening.
He was handed to another masked figure, who ran a loud sucking instrument over his nose and mouth.
He began to cry in long, pealing wails.
The sucking instrument was whisked away and he was turned around. A tired woman smiled at him, uttered some sounds he didn’t understand. He stopped crying for a moment and studied her. Her expression of maternal warmth and love transcended all barriers of spoken communication.
He began to cry again. But this time the tears he shed were tears of joy.
He didn’t stop crying until he started nursing.
His mother’s milk soothed him like a magical elixir.