“Six Minutes, Twelve at the Most” by Gillian Ramos
The last thing she remembered was flying.
The car frame groaned and settled, shattering the last window. She dragged herself out of the wreckage and stumbled to where the woods met the road. She brushed shards of glass off her sweater and tugged her sleeves over her hands to ward off the damp February. Hair matted in a trickle of blood coagulating along her jawline.
The air was still and silent. No animals chattered in the trees, leaves mushed underfoot as she paced in a wobbly circle in front of the crumpled, hissing truck. The heap was wedged between a rock and utility pole. Wires swung low overhead. Streetlights burned a steady yellow as far as she could see. The throbbing in her head faded only to be replaced with a creak and a crash, the pole succumbing to the impact of the truck. The lights above her head blew out with a poof and the smell of heat mingled with vapors from the truck. A light went on in the house across the street. She saw curtains swing side to side in the window, and what looked like – what she hoped was – someone calling for help.
She closed her eyes against the glare of red and blue lights. She covered her ears to block out the whine of approaching sirens. Neighbors flicked on their lights and wandered into their yards. Some craned their necks to see in the dark. Others rushed back inside to hug their sleeping children. Still others huddled together in the road, illuminated by the lights of the rescue squad. The street flooded with color and sound and bodies. She dropped to her knees in the soggy leaves, curled her body into a tight ball, begged for quiet.
She awoke, surrounded by whiteness. She waved her hands in front of her face to make sure she could still see. Her skin looked pink and undisturbed. She ran her fingers through her hair. No blood, no glass. She rubbed her eyes and blinked tightly several times, waiting for her eyes to adjust. The bright white shone as brightly as before. She stood and walked forward, hands out in front so as not to bump into anything she could not see.
The space felt as endless as the open ocean, uninterrupted whiteness as far as she could see.
“Hello?” She felt foolish for calling out to no one. Her voice echoed in the emptiness.
A new voice called back to her, a tentative hello.
“My name is M – – – ,” she replied, in hopes that the other voice would reveal him or herself.
“Hello, M – – -. It’s nice to meet you.” The other voice was clear now, as though she and the speaker were standing face to face. Yet there was nothing before her but space, no rooms or corridors where another person could hide, but she felt comforted by hearing another voice.
“I’m sorry, I can’t see you. There was an accident. I hit my head and my eyes must be acting funny.” She waved her hands in front of her face again, just to be sure that her eyes still worked. Ten slender fingers with ten neatly clipped nails and a small silver ring with a blue stone. “Are you my doctor?”
“Doctor? No, I’m just here. I’m D – – -.” The voice was small, seemingly embarrassed by not belonging to someone important.
“So, this isn’t the hospital?”
“No, you didn’t make it to the hospital.”
“Am I dead?”
“Yes.” D – – -’s voice was soft and apologetic. M – – – pictured her as a young girl, younger than herself. She thought of her little sisters and the way they whispered bad news.
M – – – began walking through the white space. She reached for her neck and instinctively rubbed the spot high on her chest where two charms, a cross and an anchor, once hung. She felt no chain between her fingers. It must have snapped when she was thrown through the window.
She marveled, as she walked, about the fragility of everyday things. She lost so much in the leaves. Not just her belongings, but her being. Here she was, whole and unscathed, while elsewhere, she was bloodied and bruised. She was reminded of a theory she had studied in her last science class, something about a cat, a sealed box, and some gas. Without looking in the box, it was equally likely the cat was dead or alive. You could not know for certain without looking in the box.
No. She frowned. She was most definitely dead, no matter how you looked at it. She hated the permanence of the word, the way the final D thudded in her mouth when she said it aloud. The more she said it, the less it sounded like a real word. She was dead. Dead dead dead dead. Did anyone else know?
On second thought, she was a little like that cat in the box. Her parents and siblings, nestled in their beds, had every reason to believe everything was okay. This second thought made her sadder than she ever thought possible. She rubbed her eyes and prepared for tears, but all she felt was a vast, nauseating emptiness.
“This isn’t heaven,” D – – – continued. “I thought it was when I first got here, but that would be pretty disappointing.” She giggled slightly. M – – – was certain that this voice belonged to a very young girl who was both chatty and bashful. M – – – remembered being this girl. Her youngest sisters still were her, safely ensconced in their preteen years full of laughter and whispers.
“How did you get here?”
“I’m not sure.” M – – – stopped and shifted uneasily on her feet. She imagined D – – – doing the same. “I remember riding my bike and I remember it starting to rain. And a man who said he could drop me off at home, but that’s about it.”
“And you’ve been here ever since?”
“I have. I’ve seen a lot of people go to heaven from here, but never anyone like me.”
M – – – was comforted by the mention of heaven, and relieved that this boundless plane of white wasn’t it. She remembered her Sunday school lessons about the place where God calls His children home and loves them for eternity, where everyone is reunited and at peace. Her heart ached for D – – – and her loneliness in the white space.
“What do you mean, like you?”
“Missing. All anyone ever found was my bike. My parents didn’t have a lot of money, so I think people stopped looking for me pretty quick.”
“Is that why I can’t see you?”
“Pretty much. Your body and soul went together. I don’t have a body anymore, as far as anyone knows. So, here I am, I guess.”
M – – – nodded. She crossed her arms across her chest, relieved to feel the softness of her own skin and clothing.
“How long ago was it?”
D – – – hummed softly for a moment as she considered her answer. “I don’t know. Time doesn’t really work here, you know?”
“What’s the last year you remember?” M – – – thought about her parents’ New Year’s party and their jokes about the Mayan calendar.
“Oh, gosh. My dad was really mad about the president getting in trouble for lying,” D – – – said slowly, pulling together long-lost memories. “He had to stop being the president all of a sudden and someone else took over.”
“That was …” M – – – thought back to her last history class. She remembered reading about Richard Nixon, but the memory was foggy and distant. Another thought struck her – she knew in her head that her last history class was only a year ago, but what was a year? She was already losing her sense of time.
She began walking again. She hoped that Richard Nixon would come back to them.
As she walked, she tried to build a timeline for herself. She knew it had well past midnight when she got into the car, neither late at night nor early the next morning. Somewhere in the in-between, where nothing good ever happens.
D – – – returned to the topic of her father. She had seen him passing through the white space. He passed through quickly, but D – – – did not believe he had gone to heaven. He had been an angry man, prone to hitting is wife and wanting to have sex with her friends. The day D – – – disappeared, she recalled vaguely, her father had thrown his shoes and a drinking glass at the television as a news anchor detailed Mr. Nixon’s departure from the White House. D – – – had run out of the house, grabbed her bicycle from the driveway, and pedaled off in the Florida sunshine.
M – – – wondered what happened to D – – -’s mother. She wondered what would happen to her mother. Her father. Her sisters and brothers, cousins and friends. Her heart sank at the thought of all the people D – – – didn’t talk about. She got the sense that D – – – was old enough to go to school and have friends of her own, but young enough that they might still be called playmates.
The white space was quiet. D – – – was quiet again. M – – – thought she heard sniffling and reached out her hand. She looked at her hand grasping at nothing, felt embarrassed, quickly clasped her hands together. She flexed her fingers nervously, waiting for her companion to make a sound. The sniffling continued.
“D – – -, if you’re still here, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to ask about things that would make you sad. I guess I’m still not sure how this all works – I didn’t know we could get sad here.”
M – – – sat down and hugged her knees to her chest. She knew she was alone in this place. She thought maybe God sent D – – – to greet her, to explain how and when she could enter heaven. But D – – – knew as little as she did. D – – – had spent an unfathomable amount of time waiting to be called to God, and wasn’t sure that it would ever happen. M – – – thought back to a lifetime of Sunday school lessons. She had been taught that heaven was open to those who were prepared to enter; those whose hearts and minds were open to their celestial home. Those who had been deemed good and worthy. Those who were unafraid.
There was no time for fear as the car flipped and rolled. She had dozed off in the back seat, her stomach sloshing warmly with sugary mixers and French fries. She remembered being jolted awake as the brakes squealed and the truck veered sharply. The truck teetered at the edge of the road’s narrow shoulder when they finally stopped, toppled under its own bulk. Over and over down the embankment. The tinkling of glass as she flew and the cold hard rock against her temple when she landed. Had she prayed? She could not remember.
A chill ran up her spine. She was afraid now. She feared her surroundings, the absolute whiteness and silence that stretched in all directions. She feared the uncertainty of waiting in this space and the possibility that there were other, less kind voices lingering around her.
“How long have I been here?” she asked the emptiness. “How much longer will I be here?”
She wondered what God would sound like when He called her to His side, if He called her at all. Was she even prepared for Him to call her? Could He see her now, cowering in the white space, doubting her readiness for heaven? She hoped He could not, or if He could, that He would understand and take pity on her.
She sighed and rested her chin on her knees. It didn’t seem fair that D – – -’s angry father had been able to pass through so quickly, even if he had not gone to heaven. At least he knew where he was going. M – – – thought about the possibilities – perhaps he had been sick, or old and ready to go, or simply through with living. All of these things had one common thread: That he had been able to say his goodbyes.
M – – – turned her head to one side, her cheek pressing into her soft pants. She decided that her improper goodbyes were why she was here, waiting. She had waved to her father, yeah-yeah-ed her mother when she said to call if she needed anything, no questions asked. Her siblings were scattered about at sports practices or friends’ houses. They would be together again over breakfast the next morning, bubbling forth with stories about the night. Her stomach suddenly felt light and quivery, the way it did every Sunday morning. And if there were no more Sunday mornings?
“I think we stay here as long as someone still needs us.” D – – -’s voice was clear and certain. M – – – was startled to find that she was no longer alone.
“But if someone always needs us, doesn’t that mean we don’t get to leave?” M – – – felt panicky at the prospect of being stuck in the white space. She did not want to see the people she loved pass her by forever. She did not want to be the last to join them at their final destination, only free to enter heaven when there was no one left on earth to miss her.
“We-e-e-e-ll,” D – – – stretched the word until her next thought was fully formed. “I haven’t seen my mom yet, so I think she’s still alive. And I think she might hope that I am, too, and that someday I’ll go home again. She still talks to me like I’m with her.”
“You can hear her?”
“Sure. You always know when someone needs you. They ask.” The certainty in D – – -’s voice made her sound less like a little girl. M – – – thought back to her baby sister’s last birthday, how she walked a little taller now that she was in double digits, practically a woman, she had declared over pancakes. There would be no more birthdays. No more pancakes. The corners of M – – -’s mouth twitched downward and her eyes prickled with the first warm hint of tears.
D – – – kept talking softly. M – – – ’s eyelids grew heavy and her head drooped. She wished for sleep, and an awakening, in a bed, surrounded by people – doctors and family members, their faces glowing with relief. She opened her eyes to the same white space, a sweet little voice filling her ears.
“You have to love them, just like real life. People always love each other, even when they’re not together.”
“Faith,” M – – – whispered.
“Yeah,” D – – – whispered back.
M – – – grew anxious in the silence. Dread rose in her chest as she wondered whether her family knew where she was. She had not yet thought about what happened to the other girls in the car. She sighed emphatically and waited for D – – – to answer her. No answer came. She was alone again. Her legs stung as she stretched and stood; she began to walk through the white space once again.
In the distance, she heard a telephone ring.
Gillian Ramos currently serve as a blog contributor for the Cobalt Review site. Her work has also appeared in Dr. Hurley’s Snake Oil Cure (June 2011) and The Lit Pub (December 2011). As of Fall 2012, she will be a Fiction MFA candidate at Sarah Lawrence College.