I called to her through the darkness and the shadow and the void and on and on, and what I got back was beyond horror. I called to my daughter, once young and free, suddenly shrouded in a blackness that extended further than sight. Things echoed back from the void. Angry, confused, frightened things. All that was visible was a black fog of confusion. But there was a light toward the end of what I could only perceive to be the horizon. A mile, maybe two.
My world had ended. Suddenly and swiftly. And my final moments told me that it wasn’t just my world that ended. It was a flash of some kind. Meteor or nuclear bomb or solar flare or stray bullet, I couldn’t tell you.
But it ended quickly. It didn’t hurt. It felt warm and then hot like a sauna then it was over. The bag of groceries I had been holding in my hand was dust, although my hands still clenched a bag handle that wasn’t there. My eyes that had been clenched shut when the brilliant white scrambled my senses were now open and seeking purchase on something, anything recognizable. The part of me that meant the most was down the road, in this mirror land, this shadow underground that might, if I was lucky, resemble the topography of my small, hometown. If so, I would find her, find my daughter, no matter what it took to get there. And I think she’s the light.
“It was the Chinese!” I heard a man shout from nearer than safe. His voice was angry and accusatory. He seemed to be getting closer and then, there he was. A spectral mutation of a man who had been transformed past his human form to show the dark art of his soul. It was wretched to behold. His chin darted far beneath his chest and his mouth, uttering that same, race-baiting phrase over and over, opened and shut in wide arches that made me think of a deep-sea fish, snaggled teeth and all. It was horrible. His red, rat-pupiled eyes darted across the dark seeking an audience and finding only me. He moved from ten feet away to breathing in my face in a split second, with an inhuman movement that confirmed we were no longer in Kansas. His wormy lips snapping that same phrase on repeat but louder and louder and more ferociously as he sought my confirmation.
I feared the repercussions of not agreeing and so I nodded frantically, “Yes, yes, the Chinese!”
But my answer did not satisfy as he confronted further, “Yes, the Chinese! Kill the Chinese!”
Thick spit flickered out from the cave he spoke from, drenching my face in a foul moisture. His teeth bared as he sought further confirmation. He repeated his new statement. I saw the light behind him and forced myself past, launching into a full sprint in case the sea creature followed. He didn’t. But I could still hear him in the distance uttering his same, familiar phrase. More cries from the dark. Howls. Shrieks. I continued, following the path of the light. It appeared to be less than a mile away now.
When I heard footsteps, I stopped and hid behind the first shadow in the darkness. This mirror world was dark but not unseeable once you acclimated. As I began up the hill toward what would have been my house, I knew I was close. I was fully focused on finding my daughter, but I couldn’t help but wonder what this place was. Perhaps some kind of hell or purgatory or terrible afterlife that was never mentioned in the religious books. And if that deep-sea monster had been a person just moments ago, what did I look like?
I moved on, panting as I continued up the hill. I heard a chirp and looked up just as a bat swooped past my head and tore the lobe from my ear. I shrieked. The bat was the size of a horse. I could see a vague silhouette moving through the shadows of the sky. It circled me. I ran for cover but before I could find shelter the bat dove again. This time it spoke.
“God punishes sinners like your daughter!” he spoke fiercely but with a spooky intelligence that chilled me. A claw reached out and clutched my forearm, lifting me off the ground as it flapped its enormous wings to gain altitude. The bat thing continued its soliloquy, “The bible says your daughter will burn. Burn! For she has spat in the face of God! She will—”
Then a hand grasped my ankle firmly, pulling me back to the shadow world surface.
“No, she must pay!” screamed the bat thing.
Another tug from the ground and my arm broke free, the skin of my forearm tearing to ribbons but free of the grotesque grip of the bat thing. I fell down, but the hand that gripped mine never let go and immediately pulled me to feet. He looked like a man but with the mane of a lion. His eyes were wide, and his lion’s teeth were bared but still somehow welcoming.
“We’ve got to go,” he spoke calm but stern in an accent that was from Georgia or South Carolina. His hand continued to grip mine as he darted perpendicular to the light trail that I’d been chasing and the daughter I sought.
We sat inside of a structure that vaguely resembled my daughter’s middle school. I was frantic. He’d led me off course from my only goal in this after death. But his calm face gave me peace from the monstrosities I’d witnessed over the last hour. His face was curiously familiar and quite handsome for having more animalistic features than I’d noticed during the initial introduction. His eyes were full black, which gave no understanding for which direction he was looking.
“They’re not all bad,” he said. “They’re just scared and their fear does something to them.”
“How do you know?” I asked.
“I’ve been here a while, and I didn’t always look like this. It’s the soul. My best guess anyway. Our appearance reflects the true us, at least in the moment. Our representation now is basically our souls personified in this world. And we all have a battle to face before we move on in one direction or the other.
“Don’t worry, I’m not one of those bible-thumping southern Baptist types. But I’ve been here a while now and I believe in, well…” He trailed off and was quiet for several moments as I processed. Then, “When I got here, I was a snake. You believe that? I always thought I was a pretty good person in life. Dollars to beggars. Monthly donation to NPR. All that shit. Except I guess that doesn’t matter much if you slither through the world when times get tough,” he looked ashamed. “But I’ve learned a lot since I got here. It feels like years, but who knows. Could have been just a few hours.”
I studied him, not sure if he was returning my gaze. He had several scars on his face and across his arms and legs where the clothing had been torn. As far as I could remember the bat creature hadn’t done any damage to the lion man. It must have come from some previous altercation.
“So what do I look like?” I asked.
He lifted his head and appeared to look at me, “I’ll tell you later.”
I looked down, worried what the answer might have been. Then remembered my most important.
“I have to find my daughter.”
His jaw clenched, “Where do you think I’m taking you?”
I furrowed my brow.
“You believe your daughter is that light on top of the hill?” I nodded. “A mother’s intuition, right? That’s where we’re going. Except it’s guarded. Guarded might not be the right word. They want your daughter. You remember how I said they’re not all bad? Well, that was true. Except some of them are. What your daughter has, from everything I’ve gathered here, is a ticket to heaven or whatever you call it. She’s got some sort of emotion or belief or maybe a talisman of some kind. All I know is that when I’ve seen that light before, it’s like a beacon waiting for something specific, something special. And at some point, either that light glows all colors and shoots into the sky, or it fizzles into blackness. But they never last long. I think the fizzle happens when those bad guys find their way in before the something special.”
My heart skipped. “We have to hurry!”
“Yes, we do. But we also have to be smart, or you’ll end up food for bat-man or who knows what else.”
“What happens if we die here?”
He wrinkled his forehead, “How the hell should I know? But I’d recommend avoiding it.” For the first time since either of us had been here, we laughed.
We traversed through shrubbery, avoiding the road where we could see shadows of misshapen humans with malice in their silhouettes. The silhouettes trudged and shouted obscenities that gargled through the darkness. I repeatedly tripped over brush, yet somehow the lion man was as graceful as a predator on the plain.
As we turned the corner of a thicket that felt very familiar, if darker, the light appeared, glorious and warm.
“We’re here,” he whispered without turning back. I began toward the beam of light, but he held out his hand to block me. “There he is. Let me go first. Once things start, you go and find her.”
He began sprinting toward the light. As he reached the clearing, a figure that looked far more like a bear than a man leaped thirty feet before landing directly on the lion man. The lion-man bellowed in pain but not fear, then the fight began. I didn’t waste time. I began toward the house, taking the straightest line to where I knew the door to be, passing with just inches between my feet and the scuffle. I heard a roar that could have also said “Get her!” and the breath of a paw swipe at my ankle. Footsteps followed behind me, along with more screeches and roars and growls. Dozens of creatures were within feet. Yet when I reached the door, they stopped, as if the light mastered them.
I slammed the door behind me. I knew where she was now. I walked to her room. The room where she’d slammed the door in my face after my poor reaction to her coming out. The door where I’d carried her to her crib as a baby. I crossed the threshold and the light was powerful, brilliant, and magnetic. There she was, holding the heart-shaped locket I’d given her as a peace offering after realizing that she was perfect and loved who she loved. The light shining from her, holding that locket, showed me just how much of a miracle she was.
“Mom? I’m here!”
“Oh, baby girl!”
And we embraced. And as we did, the light enveloped us and transported us and suddenly we were nowhere and everywhere and still here all at once. I could see the lion man and the bear, and the crushing blow that was about to be dealt to the head of my friend. I could see for hundreds of miles beyond this light and I saw a hundred, maybe a thousand more infinite lights. And I could see darkness, too. Yet the darkness was not infinite.
And before my daughter and I transcended into the infinite, I was face to face with the lion man. And he smiled, so joyfully and wonderfully as the bear man’s massive and devastating paw fell towards his face. And he said, “Look, Dove. Look at all the lights.”
And then we went into everything.
Credit: Stu Haack
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