“Hey, mate,” a familiar voice said from my left.
I looked over to see the garden gnome sitting on the arm of the couch. A sigh escaped me after I blinked my eyes a few times.
“Great,” I muttered. “You again.”
“Exactly!” the gnome said without moving its lips. “Me again.”
“Go away,” I mumbled. “You’re not real.”
“Are you sure about that?” the gnome asked slyly.
“Yeah, I’m sure.”
I reached out to the gnome, sure my hand would pass right through it since it was nothing more than a figment of my imagination—a figment that had followed me around for the last three days after a binge on what I had thought was absinthe at a local watering hole in San Elira. I still didn’t know what I had consumed, but I knew it wasn’t absinthe even if it was the same electric-green color. My fingers bumped up against the solid ceramic gnome, sending it crashing to the floor.
“Owwww!” the gnome cried, its voice muffled. “What the hell, Mike?”
I peered over the arm of the couch to see the gnome face-down on the wooden floor. I blinked a few times. This isn’t real, I reminded myself. None of this is real.
“I’ll ask again,” the gnome said, still face-down on the floor. “Are you sure?”
“Fuckin’ great,” I said, reaching down to pick the gnome up. “Now you can hear my thoughts as well. What the hell was that shit?” I asked myself, remembering the silky, smooth, slightly sweet taste of the liquid I’d gotten smashed on.
“It’s what the locals call ‘Silandra,’” the gnome answered after I put him on the roughly hewn coffee table in front of me. “I heard it was a beverage the natives concocted a thousand years ago.”
“That’s what you heard, huh?” I asked, deciding to go along with the hallucination.
I checked my surroundings beyond the couch. I was in a small bungalow or shack somewhere near the beach. The low roar of ocean waves breaking on the sandbars mixed with the slight rustling of tropical vegetation outside the shack.
“And what exactly is this ‘Silandra’?” I asked after turning my attention back to the gnome.
“It lets you talk to the gods,” the gnome said solemly.
“And you’re God?” I asked. I folded my arms across my chest.
“No, no,” the gnome replied. “Of course not. You don’t think I’d appear to you as a ceramic garden gnome if I were God, do you?”
“I don’t know. I always heard God reveals himself as all kinds of things. You know, grilled cheese sandwiches, weirdly shaped potato chips, the exhaust manifold of a ‘68 Camaro, that kind of thing.”
“I’m going to go out on a limb and say the natives probably didn’t believe in that particular ‘God,’” the gnome said. “Theirs were more like snakes and panthers and all that.”
“So then what are you? Besides a garden gnome. And besides a figment of my imagination.”
“Maybe I’m your spirit guide,” the gnome said, its tone suggesting it might very well be correct.
“Okay, spirit guide,” I said sarcastically, “how about guiding me back to the hotel.”
“Nah,” the gnome said. “I’ve got another idea.”
“Good for you,” I said, standing up. “Tell me all about it after I get back to the hotel. Or tell the walls all about it. I gotta jet. Later.”
“Wait!” the gnome cried as I opened the door to exit the shack. I looked back. “Don’t you want to at least hear my idea?”
“Not really,” I said with a laugh then walked out into the afternoon sun.
The light breeze took away some of the sun’s intense heat. I saw a path leading from the shack toward the beach and another leading into what looked to be dense jungle. The tang of ocean in the air made me close my eyes and take a deep breath.
“You should take this path,” the gnome said.
I looked down to see it sitting in the middle of the dirt path leading into the jungle. I groaned and turned toward the beach.
“Come on, Mike, just humor me,” the gnome said from three feet in front of me. “It will be worth it, I swear.”
“Stop doing that,” I growled. “I’m not going anywhere with you.”
I kicked the gnome on my way by. It sputtered and spat after landing face-first in the sand. I looked back, expecting to see it struggling to turn over for some reason. My toe banged into the gnome just as I realized it wasn’t where I’d kicked it to.
“Please?” it asked.
I reached down and picked the small ceramic statue up.
“How about I smash you into a million pieces?” I said, holding it out in front of me.
I glanced around to make sure I was alone, though I doubted the locals would be too shocked to see a stupid tourist standing on the beach talking to an invisible person. The alcohol flowed freely on Torina Island, especially on San Elira’s beachfront boardwalk. Even better was the freely-available marijuana that rivaled the best stuff produced back in the States.
“You really think that will get rid of me?” the gnome asked.
“Fine,” I said. “What the hell do you want?”
“To show you something.”
“It better not be a fuckin’ camp full of cannibals with a pot of boiling water waiting for me to show up and be the main course,” I said.
“Don’t worry, it’s better than that,” the gnome said. “Come on, into the jungle we go!”
“This is stupid,” I said to myself even as my feet propelled me back up the beach and onto the path leading into the thick foliage.
“You’re the one talking to a garden gnome,” it said. I shoved it under my arm and held it against my side. “Oof, you stink,” it complained.
“Yeah? You think you’d smell so good after a drunken bender on a tropical island?”
“I don’t have skin or pores or any of that stuff.”
“Of course you don’t,” I mumbled, careful to step over any stray roots or fallen trees.
The jungle quickly became a dense chamber of green and brown. I thought of asking the gnome to conjure me up a machete to hack through the vines and roots that impeded my progress. I stopped for a moment to look back, wondering how such a well-worn path had turned into a nearly impassable blockade of vegetation. I decided against it, sure I’d eventually wake up to find I had used my hand to karate-chop everything while hallucinating it was a machete.
“Are you sure this goes anywhere?” I asked, pushing another thick cable of vines to the side.
“Every path goes somewhere,” the gnome replied cryptically.
“Listen, Confucius,” I said, “I don’t need your zen bullshit. I need a goddamn flamethrower or sword or something. What I really need is to toss you into the weeds and go back to the hotel.”
“It will be worth it, I promise,” the gnome said. “But the easiest paths always lead to the biggest disappointments.”
“Sure,” I said, refusing to get pulled into the gnome’s metaphysical nonsense.
The path opened up for a few hundred yards before once again becoming a tangled nightmare of leaves, branches, and roots. I looked up to see where the sun was at, not wanting to still be wandering through the jungle in the dark. The canopy above me blocked out the sun other than a few thin shafts of light that filtered through it. I assumed it was mid-afternoon, but with the deepening gloom as I progressed down the path, I couldn’t be sure.
“I’m never drinking absinthe again,” I said to myself after detouring around a pile of rotting logs. “Never smoking weed again either.”
“But not ‘never listening to a garden gnome again’?” the gnome asked from my armpit.
“Just a little farther,” the gnome promised.
Just a little farther turned out to be three more hours of slogging through the jungle, first up one hill then down another. Twice I crossed over small streams, and once I nearly crossed paths with something as large as me. I only caught a glimpse of dark but shiny fur then heard the rustle of leaves as it bolted from somewhere off to my left. I stopped for a minute, sniffing the air as if I was a bloodhound, but the gnome reassured me nothing would bother me as long as I stayed on the path.
Each time I complained we were getting nowhere and turned around to head back to the hotel, the gnome talked me out of it. I began to worry the effects of the Silandra I’d drank wouldn’t wear off, that I’d be like some of the patients in a mental institution who ate a tab of LSD and never returned from their trip. That worry morphed into concern that the garden gnome was somehow controlling my mind, if only subtly, to keep me moving forward along the path.
Sometime later, I assumed an hour but it could have been days for all I knew since the dim jungle seemed to only have a single, uniform level of luminance, I stepped out of the jungle and onto a small, flat disk of grass. The sun was almost directly overhead, which caused me to wonder if I truly had walked for a full day through the jungle since it couldn’t possibly be earlier in the day than when I’d started down the path.
“Don’t worry,” the gnome said. “Time is kind of weird here.”
“Is that so?” I asked, turning my attention to the small pyramid in the middle of the clearing. “Where are we?”
“We’re at the thing I wanted to show you!” the gnome said brightly. “See? It wasn’t that hard, was it?”
I checked my hands to make sure I hadn’t imagined them to be machetes. They looked like my hands as far as I could tell.
“In about ten steps, things are going to be… a little weird. But don’t panic.”
I pulled the gnome from under my arm and looked it in the face.
“What do you mean ‘weird’?” I asked.
“Uh huh,” I mumbled.
I decided to keep going along with whatever fucked up hallucination I found myself in. I walked toward the stone pyramid, marveling at its condition even though it looked to be even more ancient than the ones I’d visited as a kid in Mexico with my parents. Between step ten and step eleven, something… shifted. It felt like a mix of me turning over in my sleep and a screen wipe between scenes in a movie.
The sky was no longer bright with the afternoon sun. A strange, purple-ish twilight had replaced it, even though the sun was still clearly visible. I heard a rustle behind me and turned to look. My muscles froze at the sight of two very large cats. I didn’t know if they were panthers or jaguars. They prowled along the perimeter of what I assumed was the barrier between the world of sunlight and this new world of twilight.
“Don’t worry about them,” the gnome said from where I held it at my side. “They’re just here to make sure nothing comes out with you when you’re done.”
“What does that mean?” I asked, unable to take my eyes off the majestic creatures and their shining, ethereal fur.
“Goddammit!” I yelled. “Getting tired of you telling me that.”
“No doubt,” the gnome said with a sniff. “Well?” it asked after I remained rooted in place. “Shall we get on with it?”
“There’s not gonna be like… some dudes with war paint and sharp knives waiting for me so they can cut my heart out and offer it to their gods or anything, right?” I asked.
I didn’t feel scared, but I figured that had to do with the Siladra more than anything. Anyone in their right mind would be wild with panic by now.
“Nah,” the gnome said with a chuckle. “You got to tone down that imagination of yours.”
“Says the figment of my imagination that led me to a pyramid in a jungle on a Caribbean island,” I said with a shake of my head. “Now I’m talking to myself. I bet I’m standing in the parking lot of the hotel, screaming at children or pissing on everything but imagining this shit.”
The gnome guffawed. “That would be funny as hell!” It coughed then cleared its throat. “Well, maybe not that funny. The local cops aren’t keen on tourists causing trouble.”
I nodded as if everything happening was as ordinary as any other day. I resumed my walk toward the pyramid. When I first saw it after entering the clearing, I thought it to be only fifty feet from base to its top. As I approached it, the pyramid seemed to somehow grow smaller. By the time I stood at the bottom step that led to the top, I was sure the pyramid couldn’t be more than twenty feet tall.
“Pssst,” the gnome whispered loud enough to hear back at the hotel. “Go on up.”
“What’s up there?” I asked, keeping a wary eye on the top just in case an Aztec god or fanged spirit animal were waiting for me.
“Your evil twin,” the gnome said, then cackled for a long time at its own joke.
“Stay here,” I said, placing the gnome on the first step.
“Roger that,” it said, but I’d already left it behind.
I saw the hazy figure before making it to the top step. I paused, unsure of what to do, then once again decided to keep going. I stopped again three steps later when I saw my father sitting on a stone bench in the middle of the pyramid’s flat roof. I wasn’t sure if the top of a pyramid was called a “roof” or not, but I also wasn’t sure if I was strapped into a straight jacket while rolling around on a padded floor in a state hospital.
“Hello, Michael,” my father said, slightly raising one hand to wave at me.
“Bullshit,” I said. “I’m out of here.”
“Come on, son,” he said after I turned to descend the steps. I tried to block out his voice but the sound of it brought on too many memories. “Sit down for a bit.”
“No fucking way!” I screamed, hearing my voice echo across the clearing. “This isn’t real! You’re not real! I don’t want to do this anymore!”
My father shook his head, but the way his lips turned up in a smile opened the floodgates holding back my memories of him. It was the same small, knowing grin I remembered from all the times I had played well in my baseball games, showed him the A’s on my homework and report cards, and told him about my first girlfriend. It broke my heart to see it again, to hear his strong, deep but soft voice in my ears.
“Just for a little while,” he said, patting the bench next to him. “Humor me.”
I felt tears streaking down my cheeks as my feet shuffled forward. I wanted the hallucination to end. I didn’t want to talk to a dead man. But I was powerless to do anything other than envelop him in a hug. The unique scent of him, a mix between his shaving cream and deodorant, made my knees buckle.
“It’s okay, Michael,” he whispered, holding me up while I broke down, my body hitching as I sobbed like an infant. “There’s nothing to be afraid of here.”
He held me for what felt like forever. I didn’t want to let go. I couldn’t let go. I hadn’t been able to touch my father for six years. I suddenly didn’t care if I was hallucinating, bashing in windows during a psychotic rampage while dreaming of being with my father. I didn’t want to let go now. I was afraid if I did, he would become nothing more than a smoky haze that dissipated into the twilight.
“It’s okay,” he said again, then gently pushed me away. “It’s good to see you, son. You’ve grown up.”
I broke down again, unable to resist the sudden surge of emotions that blasted through me. My father smiled at me then helped me sit down on the bench. I wiped my eyes after getting control of myself, but almost lost it again when he put his arm around my shoulder.
“Wh-why?” I asked. “Why are you here?” I leaned my head into his shoulder. “Where are we?”
“Because you called for me, and I don’t know,” he said. I leaned back and looked at him, seeing a glint of the twilight sun in his eye and the grin on his face.
“I called for you?” I asked once I was sure I wouldn’t start crying again. I couldn’t help it. My hallucination had somehow become more real than reality.
“Yep,” he said and gave my shoulder a light squeeze.
“When?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he replied. He seemed as puzzled by the question as I was. “All I saw, or maybe felt, was you standing on a beach. I could almost smell the ocean, almost feel the breeze.” He seemed lost within a memory that he couldn’t quite hold on to.
“I think I’m drunk,” I said. “Or on drugs.”
“Probably,” Dad replied as if it was the most likely answer. “But it doesn’t matter, does it?”
“I guess not,” I said. I wiped my nose with my forearm then sniffed loudly. “I love you, Dad.”
“I love you too, Michael,” he said, giving my shoulder another squeeze. “I’m sorry we left you alone.”
“Is… is Mom here?” I asked, suddenly hopeful that I would get to see her again. “Sharon?”
“Your mom and sister are fine,” he said. “We’re together.”
“Together? Where are you?”
“I don’t know,” he answered. “Or maybe I can’t explain it in words that would make sense.”
“Is it… heaven?” I asked, afraid of the answer.
We’d been a family of atheists, though I couldn’t remember any of us being the types who shoved it in others’ faces or posted our beliefs on social media. We had been a quiet, happy family who toed the line between true atheism and light agnosticism.
“No, not the type of ‘heaven’ you’re thinking of,” he said with a laugh. His face grew serious. “I guess it could be. I’ve never really thought about it before now, to be honest.”
“Michael… It’s just not something we think about,” he said gently. “Wherever we are, we’re happy, content, sometimes amazed. But I can’t explain how or why because it’s so different than this place, the ‘real’ world that you live in. Concepts such as day, night, food, entertainment, whatever it is we do in our lives, what guides us as we go forward on a physical plane… they don’t exist for us.”
“Is it boring?” I asked, unable to imagine what kind of afterworld my mother, father, and sister existed in.
“No, it’s not boring, but that’s another one of those concepts that doesn’t really have any meaning anymore.”
“What about love?” I asked, remembering all of the minor and major signals that my parents exuded when they were alive that let me know just how much they loved each other.
“Oh yes,” he said, leaning into me for a second. “That’s one that is, I don’t know, still available to us? I’ve never really thought about any of this until now, so I might not be the best source of answers on this subject.”
His tone, while gentle and respectful, suggested I was wasting whatever time we had by quizzing him over his afterlife experiences.
“Where’s Mom and Sharon?” I asked. I looked around as if my mother and sister would be standing next to me.
“They’re here, but not here,” he said. “Whatever is allowing you and I to have this meeting is too weak to let all three of us through.”
“Why you, then?” I tensed up at the accusatory tone that I heard in my voice. “I mean, did you guys have to choose or something?”
He grinned and patted me on the back. “The connection between you and me is stronger than between you and your mom or you and your sister.”
I felt like a piece of shit for a few moments. I didn’t want my mother and my sister to think I loved my father more than I loved them. I had always loved them equally, even my rotten, annoying little sister. At least, that’s what I had convinced myself to believe ever since they were taken from me.
“They know you don’t love me more than them,” he said, somehow attuned to my thoughts. “But you have to admit, you and I had a closer relationship thanks to hockey, baseball, and our love of terrible movies about zombies and black magic cannibals.”
It was my turn to laugh. Memories flooded through me of the times my dad and I had spent an entire afternoon and evening zoned out on movies that made my mom and sister complain loudly about in the background. Dad and I were always teammates in video games, tennis, no matter what we did unless it was an activity that pitted us against each other. It wasn’t like I hadn’t done a ton of activities with my mother and sister either, but Sharon preferred to cry and scream for Mom or Dad when we wrestled, and Mom wasn’t a big fan of most things a young boy—then a teenager—would be into.
“Are you guys happy?” I asked, breaking the silence that followed my trip down memory lane.
“Of course,” he said. “Why wouldn’t we be? We’re together, and we’ll always be together.”
“Even without me?” I asked, unable to stop myself from the sudden flash of jealousy that they’d be happy without me around.
“Oh, Michael, of course not,” he said, wrapping me up in a tight hug once more. “But you have to understand that wherever we are, it’s not a question or concern.” He saw the hurt look on my face. “I’m not explaining it right,” he said with a frown. “It’s like you’re with us even though we know you aren’t, that you’re still here, on this plane of existence. Or it could be that we inherently know that one day, one of your days, anyway, you’ll be with us. We’re together already, but yet we’re waiting for you to join us.” He grunted and shook his head. “I hope that doesn’t sound creepy like I’ve come to steal your life force so you’ll have no choice but to join us.”
I laughed. It was funny, and it was exactly how I remembered my father’s sense of humor, but my laugh was mostly to cover the next round of waterworks that I could feel building in my eyes.
“It’s cool,” I said. “I mean, I’d go if I could, but I’m guessing that it’s not my time or some other ‘fate’ thing that happens to us, right?”
He shrugged. “Another mystery. But I’m pretty sure you can’t come with me when it’s time to return.”
“Did it hurt?” I asked, finally blurting out the question I had wanted to ask them for the last six years.
“The accident?” he asked. I nodded my head. “I don’t think so. I don’t remember much.”
“What about Mom or Sharon?”
He paused, as if asking them on some sort of telepathic phone call. “No, they don’t remember any pain.”
“Were you frightened?”
“I don’t think we were frightened either,” he answered after a few seconds. “I remember being curious. There was blood, then fire, then nothing for a while. Then I found your mother. She had already found Sharon. That makes it sound like we were wandering around in a field, but I don’t remember how I found them. Only that I did find them.”
“Okay,” I said softly. “That’s been bugging me for six years.”
“Six years?” he asked absently. “That’s all it’s been, huh?”
“Yeah, why? Does it seem shorter or longer for you?”
“That’s another ‘I don’t know’ answer you probably don’t want to hear. Time is… it’s a thing, I suppose, but it doesn’t have a lot of meaning for us anymore.”
“Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”
“It’s neither, if that makes any sense.” He glanced at me to see me shake my head. “I didn’t think it would. But it sounds less eerie than me telling you that you’ll find out one day for yourself.”
“As long as you don’t use your monster voice,” I said, sharing a laugh with him at various memories where he’d scare the daylights out of me by surprising me from hiding when I was a kid, then chasing me around while growling in the world’s most evil, terrifying voice.
“I hope I can remember that,” he said. “But I’ve shared it with your mom as best I can just in case. At least we’ll have those memories for the here and now if they fade once this window, or portal, or whatever it is closes.”
“Do you guys miss it?” I asked in a low voice. “Life, I mean. You know.”
“No,” he said. He frowned when saw my face cloud over. “Don’t take it like that. Sitting here in this wherever place, I miss you so much, Michael, that I don’t have words for it. I can feel your sister and your mother’s sense of loss, of grief that you’re alone now, though those emotions are almost unfamiliar to us now. I think it’s this place that allows us to experience things we’ve long forgotten or no longer need. But our loss and grief is only temporary, of that I’m sure. It too will fade once this link closes.”
He gripped my jaw lightly and turned my head to look him in the eyes.
“Remember,” he said in his most serious Dad voice, “everything that means something here… it’s unnecessary where we are. I’m sorry I can’t explain it better than that. The only thing that comes even somewhat close to a fraction of a fraction of the physical plane is ‘peace.’ Maybe ‘love and peace’ but I’d feel more comfortable sticking solely with ‘peace.’”
“Good,” I whispered. “I’ve been torn up inside since you, uh, you know.”
“I know. I don’t know how I know, but I know. Even if it’s meaningless to know in our world, I know.”
“What about Grandma and Grandpa Donaldson?” I asked, my brain suddenly curious if they were able to hang out (or whatever it was they did) with other members of our family who had also passed on. “Grandma and Grandpa Keller? Uncle Rick?”
My father stood up. He stared down at me until I rose from the bench. He put his hand on my shoulder, then pulled me in for a hug. I felt the tears burst from my eyes once again. I somehow knew it was time for him to go. I dug my fingers into his shirt and told myself I would never let go again.
“Listen to me, Michael,” he said in my ear. “You have to let go of me, of us. Just for a while.”
“I can’t,” I said through sobs. “I won’t. I don’t want you to go, Daddy,” I blubbered, suddenly four years old again.
“You must,” he whispered. He pushed me away gently, my fingers slipping through the ghostly material of his shirt. “I’m sorry we never got to say goodbye, Michael. But you have to let us go for now and get on with your life. I love you, son.”
He stepped away from me. I fell to my knees, unfeeling and uncaring about the hard jolt I felt from the ancient concrete. My father took another step back, then one to the side, his corporeal form fading in the twilight. I blinked once, then twice as I saw another ghostly shape begin to materialize beside him.
“Momma…” I wailed, my hands reaching out to her as if I were a baby and needed her to pick me up off the floor.
“Michael,” my mother said softly, her voice floating on the light breeze.
Her form became solid for a few seconds, long enough for her to kneel before me and place her hand on my cheek. The feel of her touch jolted me as if I’d been struck by lightning. My brain spun up into overdrive as every emotion I had ever felt toward her crashed into various memories of her as they zoomed around inside my head. The scent of her hair, of her skin, the “Mom perfume” that she always wore, all of it exploded within me at once and I closed my eyes to savor it for as long as I could.
I opened my eyes in time to see her dissipate in the breeze. Sharon stood in front of me, her form shimmering as if she hadn’t mastered how to make herself solid like my mother and father had. She smiled then looked down at her right hand. I followed her gaze, feeling a million more emotions erupt within me as she ever so slowly flipped me the bird. I’d taught her how to hold her fingers when she was seven and I was nine. My mother threatened to send me to a boy’s reformatory after Sharon ratted me out when she was caught doing it. Dad had given me his most unfriendly expression and a shake of his head, but years later we had a good laugh about it—though my mother never once admitted she thought it was funny.
I reached out to her, taking her hand in mine. I felt a hum through our tenuous physical-metaphysical connection, as if she were a high-voltage power line. I rose from my knees and hugged her before she could disappear like my mother had.
“I love you, Mikey,” she said, her voice fading along with her physical form.
“I love you, Sharon,” I whispered to the last wisp of my sister.
I sat on the bench for a while, my thoughts shuffling through everything that had just happened. I looked up at the twilight sun at some point, but it remained where it had been stationed since I’d arrived. Some time later, I decided I had better get back to the hotel, to my life. When I reached the bottom of the pyramid, the gnome still sat where I’d placed it.
“You’re alive!” it exclaimed, as if it had expected me to be consumed by demons from another dimension.
“Eat shit,” I said without looking at it as I stepped off the pyramid and walked toward the path leading into the jungle.
“Gee, you aren’t even going to thank me?”
I turned and rushed to the pyramid, a scream of rage erupting from my throat. I picked up the gnome and threw it as hard as I could against the ancient stone. I could have sworn I heard it both giggle and scream in pain when it shattered, but that was nothing compared to the explosion of blinding, paralyzing pain in my head the moment it broke into a thousand shards.
I turned and ran toward the jungle, my head a burning magnesium flare, the two large cats now appearing in triplicate. I stumbled down the path and into the jungle, neither cat doing more than sniffing the air as I passed by. I ran blindly through a jungle now consumed by darkness. I heard a growl, then a loud roar, then the sounds of two animals clashing in mortal combat. I turned my head back, afraid they were pursuing me, only to trip on an exposed root. My world went as dark as the jungle the instant my head connected with the dirt.
“Goddammit, Michael!” Tara screamed at me. I felt a foot kick me in the back. “Wake up, goddammit!”
I grunted and opened my eyes. My girlfriend’s shoes were a foot from my head. She saw me wake up and kicked me again, this time in the thigh.
“I’m sick of your shit, Michael! Where the fuck were you? Why does this always happen?”
Her torrent of shouted accusations pierced my eardrums as if they were nails being driven in with a hammer. I suffered a few more kicks before she fell to her knees in the sand and began striking me in the chest with her fists.
“You’re a fucking loser, Mike! I’m done with you when we get home!”
“Stop,” I croaked, attempting to get my hands up just in case she decided to hit me in the face a few times.
“I swear to god, Michael Keller, I’m going to fucking leave you right here on this beach in a pile of your own fucking puke.” She began to cry, her hands no longer doing their best to pummel me with furious blows. “All you do is get wasted and then disappear for days at a time!” she sobbed. “I can’t take it anymore. You can’t even stay sober on a trip where you’re supposed to dry out!”
“I’m sorry,” I said, then spit out the sand that had somehow lodged itself in my mouth.
“You’re always sorry,” she said with resignation. “That’s all you do is apologize. I’m done with it. I’m done with you. I want to go home.”
“What day is it?” I asked. I attempted to sit up but only made it high enough to get an elbow under me.
“Jesus Christ. What day is it? It’s fucking Thursday, you asshole!”
I blinked a few times. My last coherent memory was Tuesday night at the beachside barbecue. I mentally retraced my steps until I arrived at the part where I had drank half a bottle of what I’d thought was absinthe.
“How long have I been asleep?” I asked groggily.
“How the hell should I know?” she yelled, taking a last shot at my chest with her fist. “You disappeared for almost two days! I’ve been going fucking crazy! Everyone at the hotel has been going crazy!” She had to stop screaming at me long enough to get control of her tears. “We thought you were dead!”
“I think I was,” I mumbled, my mind latching on to the pyramid, the jungle cats… my father. My family.
“It’s not funny!”
I clutched her shoulder then lifted myself up into a sitting position. I tried to wrap my arms around her but she resisted. When I wouldn’t let go, she relented, but refused to do anything more than soak my already damp shirt with more tears.
“I’m sorry, Tara,” I said in her ear. “I’m really fucked up inside.”
She pushed me away hard enough that I fell backward into the sand.
“You don’t get to use that excuse anymore,” she said in a cold, emotionless voice. “I get it, your parents and your sister died in a car crash just after they’d called you. I totally get it. I’d be fucked up too, but Jesus Christ, Michael, it’s been six fucking years. All you’ve done in that time is try to kill yourself.” She took a deep breath. “If you want to kill yourself, just do it quickly, okay? I can’t take anymore of this slow suicide. I can’t let you take me down with you, and that’s exactly what’s happening. I can’t watch you do this to yourself anymore, no matter how much I love you.”
Tara stood, glaring down at me for a few seconds, then turned to walk away.
“Stop!” I said as loud as I could muster. “Please. Stop.”
Her feet came to a halt but she didn’t turn around, didn’t even turn her head back to look at me.
“I’m sorry. I know ‘sorry’ isn’t good enough. I… promise I’m done.”
“I don’t believe you,” she said, still refusing to face me.
“I know. I don’t blame you. But something… I don’t know. Something happened this time, when I blacked out or whatever I did. I don’t know how to explain it, but I think I… I don’t know. I’m at peace now, I guess. I’m ready to move on.” I picked myself up off the beach and walked to her, wrapping my arms around her from behind. “With you. Without their ghosts and my regrets.”
“I don’t believe you,” she whispered. I felt her body trembling against mine, then a tear as it rolled from her cheek onto my arm.
“I know. I don’t blame you. So do what you feel you have to do to be happy. If that’s without me, I understand.”
Tara turned around within my prison of arms. Her piercing stare made me uncomfortable, but I held her gaze to let her know I was serious.
“What happened?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I answered. She tried to pull away, as if I were going to continue to lie instead of telling her the truth. “Honest, I don’t know how to explain it,” I said, keeping her locked up. “But something happened. That’s all I know. It’s probably just the absinthe or whatever it was I drank, but I guess I just finally dealt with all of it. I’m sorry I ran off and left you hanging.”
“You left me all alone on goddamn island in the middle or nowhere, you asshole,” she growled. “I thought you were dead!”
“You said that already,” I said, hoping the grin on my face wasn’t too flippant. “I’m sorry. I really am.”
“You’re an asshole.”
“And you don’t know what happened to you? You just got shitfaced then ran off into the jungle and had a vision, then wandered back to the beach so you could pass out in the sand?”
“Something like that,” I said, feeling my heart lurch in my chest at the last few moments of my time at the top of the pyramid. The touch, the smell, the sound of their voices made me close my eyes involuntarily as I stepped back through the memory as if it had just happened seconds earlier.
“Michael?” she asked. I opened my eyes. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” I said, then kissed her on the forehead. “I am. Do you want me to escort you to the airport so you can go home, or…?”
“You’re an asshole,” she said again. Her lips met mine for the briefest of seconds before she too was gone. “Well, are you coming?” she asked from a few feet away.
“Sure,” I said cheerily, ordering my brain to put my feet in motion.
“Don’t forget your stupid garden gnome,” she said, her eyes focused on something behind me.
I looked back and nearly fell down from the wave of deja vu that rolled over me. The garden gnome was in the dirt, head-down, buried up to its waist. I walked over to it and bent down to pick it up. I thought I heard the faintest of giggles from it, but it was just the wind.
“Where’d you steal that stupid thing from anyway?” Tara asked, hands on her hips as she waited for me to catch up.
I pulled it from the sand and returned to where she stood.
“From my spirit guide,” I said with a wink.
“You’re an asshole,” she repeated once again, but this time she slid her fingers through mine before pulling me along toward the hotel.