I dreamed. It was a better way of living.
It was maybe an hour after Val had been resuscitated — an hour after he’d been brought back to life.
I drove, while he recovered. I hadn’t said too much, since I didn’t want to startle him. He’d been in something of a daze.
But I had to ask: “What was it like?”
“You died, Val,” I said. “What was it like?”
“Noth–” he stopped for a second, then continued, “Nothing. I don’t know if I don’t remember or if nothing was actually there. It– it didn’t feel good.”
“The Angel of Death didn’t take your soul,” I said. “Maybe that’s it. That doesn’t mean anything, you know? Doesn’t mean there’s nothing after death. You might just not’ve gotten to the something part.”
“Yeah.” He rolled down the car window, sticking his head out a little. His short blond hair danced in the wind.
I was thankful to see a gas station coming up. My stomach growled. Hadn’t eaten in a while. Hadn’t really slept, either.
I mean, I hadn’t been moving much, but being around the Angel of Death made me tense. Damn tense.
I parked the car outside the station. “You want to come with me, or would you rather wait in the car?”
“I’ll wait,” Val mumbled.
“Alright,” I said. I got out and walked towards the gas station, stepping over the curb and opening the gas station door. A bell rang and the gas station attendant looked at me.
“Pump three,” I said, taking out a twenty and slapping them on the counter. I looked at the snacks that lay below on the gas station shelf. It all looked so good: cookies, candy bars, chips. I grabbed two small bags of chips, a bag of sunflower seeds, and a candy bar. Slapped another five onto the counter.
The gas station smiled at me. His hair looked a little thin. “Hungry?”
“Yeah,” I said, cradling the sunflower seeds and the two chip bags in my arm while I opened the candy bar. “Very.”
I took a bite. Really hadn’t realized how hungry I was. Everything had been so insane and–
“Where you going?” the attendant asked.
“Far,” I said, mouth full of chocolate. It was filled with caramel, which made it harder to talk.
The attendant let out a bit of a chuckle. “Not much farther left to go.”
I took another bite of the candy bar. “Friend and I want to see the Celestial Wall.”
“Ah,” he said. “You’re one o’ those nuts.”
“Yeah,” I said, struggling to speak, “one o’ those nuts.”
“You’re not going to find any more stations on the way there,” he told me.
“Wouldn’t have said it if it were a lie,” he said, chuckling some more.
I slapped another five on the counter. “Better fill the gas cannister, too.”
“Yep,” he said. “You better.”
I left the gas station, opening the door so that the bell rang again. Threw my candy wrapper into the trash can and walked towards the car. Val sat there. He looked off, still.
We were only a day’s ride away from The Celestial Wall. I hoped Val would be ready. I needed him to be ready, just like the world needed him to be ready.
But it didn’t look good. Damn it, it just didn’t look good.
I threw the chip bags into the car. “If you want some chips, they’re all yours.”
Val grunted. I filled the car’s tank, then filled the gas cannister. Got back in the car and drove off. Val hadn’t eaten any chips. I rode for a couple hours.
Passed by two more gas stations on the way to the Celestial Wall.
— — —
I woke up — not in the car or in my bed or in some godforsaken burned-down wheat field.
I woke up on Lusu’s couch. I stared at the beautiful high ceiling. Made me feel like I was in a temple. I slapped my cheek a couple times, trying to get back into this world, into this timeline.
Damn. I really got lost in the timestream, that time.
I wondered how long I’d been out for.
Shiver rolled down my spine. There was something creepy about being left alone in someone else’s living room. Especially Lusu’s. The last time I’d seen her here, she’d been crying. The time before that, I’d pegged her as a potential murderer.
I rolled off the couch, landing on my feet. Felt sore. Must’ve been out for a while.
I looked around the room. Had a nice chandelier, which I hadn’t noticed last time. A murder investigation sometimes makes you forget to notice the little things. Which is dumb, since it’s the little things that help you crack the case.
I noticed my book, Godkiller, still sitting on the bookshelf. Shook my head, walking into the kitchen.
Lusu stood there, pouring herself a drink. She fought a smirk when I entered, setting the bottle on the table. “You’re up. That’s funny. I thought you were dead.”
I smirked back. “You often leave dead guys laying on your couch?”
“The Hero took Val’s bed, so that seemed the best place to put you.”
“What happened back there?”
She rubbed her hand with her nose. Took a sip of the drink. “I don’t know. I… What’ll you have?”
“I don’t much feel like drinking right now.”
“I’m alright with drinking alone,” she said, “but only if I’m actually alone. If I’m in someone’s company, I expect them to drink with me.”
“I want to go for a drive,” I said.
She set down her glass and gave me a look. “You just got lost in the timestream for three days.”
“You really think driving’s a good idea?”
“I guess not,” I said. I took her shot glass and poured myself a shot. Knocked it back. “I’ll go for a walk.”
“What are you so desperate to do?”
“I need to clear my head.”
“George, we need to talk. That dragon probably turned on us because Val was dead. The instructions were invalid, so–”
“I know. I know that Val’s dead.” I wiped sweat off my brow. “I just wish I understood. Wish I knew. Who killed Val. How did he… Why did everyone… I don’t know,” I said. “That’s why I’ve gotta go for a walk.”
“I’ll be here,” she said.
“Yeah,” I said, walking out the room.
— — —
I was half-surprised to see that Stellavia’s temple was still open. I was even more surprised when I walked inside.
The room was dark, people sitting in the pews, watching a woman dancing at the front of the Church. I stood at the end of the aisle, watching her. She danced like Stellavia had danced, all those years ago. She danced like I remembered Stellavia dancing, back when everything seemed so awful.
Then again, wasn’t everything better then? The past was always better than the present — it was when we’d had less times to make mistakes. I always wished I could live in the past — make the mistakes, instead of regretting them.
But I was projecting. That wasn’t what her dance meant to communicate at all. There was a sort of… I don’t know. Grace? Art?
She was beautiful, and I felt like I was a part of her. That’s how I should’ve felt, after all. If she was a representation of the universe, I was a part of her, in a way.
But that wasn’t right. Stellavia was supposed to be dead. She was dead, dammit.
Then again, hadn’t Val come back to life, only to die again?
Maybe I’d gone mad. Maybe this whole world was my creation.
I don’t know. How could I know? Everything came back to haunt me, and I was too crazy to stop fighting.
She’s alive. Stellavia’s alive.
I was crying. At this point it didn’t really matter, did it? I was a cryer. I was sad. Through it all, that part of my identity had always remained the same.
Stellavia danced in the dim light of the temple, lithe limbs flailing about. Her whole body sparkled with stars, with life.
If only the real universe had been half so pretty, half so inviting.
The lights rose, so I quickly brushed the tears off and made my way to an empty pew.
People slowly poured their way out of the temple. It was an interesting sight to see. Some fled, others shuffled. A few mingled, but before long everyone had left. Only Stellavia remained.
She hadn’t left the temple often, when I’d known her.
“I didn’t realize you were alive,” I told her, yelling across the span of the temple.
Something about her looked strange — plain. In the light she’d looked so beautiful, but that didn’t matter. She was alive. She was alive.
Dead God, she’s alive.
“I’m glad you’re here,” I said. “It was good to see you again. Sometimes I thought I wouldn’t miss you. Sometimes I thought the pain would go away. But you know something? It didn’t. Until now, of course. Now it’s like the pain never even existed.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, staying on the stage, not getting any closer, “but I don’t know you.”
I laughed. That should’ve bothered me, but I laughed. How important could my identity be, in the face of this? How important could my identity be, compared to the miracle of a friend — a necessity — being brought back to life.
“I switched bodies with an elf,” I said. “I don’t know why I thought you’d recognize me. Look, it’s not important. I’m just an admirer — an admirer as we all should be. And I’m just so happy to see that you’re alive, that you’re well. You know I thought this was the end of the world?”
She didn’t respond to what I was saying, which I found odd. But I didn’t want to be ungrateful for the miracle. I didn’t want to push at the illusion so that it broke, so I kept talking, talking to fill the silence, the void.
“I’m sorry I neglected you for all those years. I’m sorry I… it was just hard to watch you, sometimes. It was hard to believe anything could be beautiful after,” I couldn’t find the words I needed. “Life can seem so miserable, but it isn’t really. Because there’s moments like this — moments where everything you thought was wrong ends up being right. Doesn’t matter how many times someone dies. They always come back to life, often as something else.”
Stellavia’s silence would’ve deafened even the strongest of ears. What was she thinking? What did her thoughts look like? What would they sound like, if vocalized?
The two of us sat there, her not saying anything and me obviously having said too much. Couldn’t she recognize a miracle when she saw it? Couldn’t she be happy that we’d been reunited, that we could happily be friends?
I got up out of the pew and began walking towards her.
“Don’t get any closer,” Stellavia said.
“What?” I asked. “What’s wrong?” I kept moving closer.
“I told you not to get closer.”
I kept walking towards her. “I came to worship you. Is that so wrong?”
“Look, I don’t know you.”
“You know me.”
“I said I don’t know you.”
“Same old man — new flesh,” I said. “It’s me, Stellavia. It’s me, George.”
She stood up when I was within a few feet of her. And it was then I realized what was wrong — the light wasn’t hitting her body properly. Her skin didn’t have that depth — that depth which suggested eons of space, which suggested that I could stick my hand in and find nothing but the chill of ancient galaxies.
She’d been painted on. She was paint. Mostly painted black, with white dots where stars should be.
She was a joke — a spectacle — a mockery — a bastardization — a pale imitation of the universe that we’d made in an attempt to recreate the real thing. But you couldn’t recreate the real thing, could you?
There was no going back. The moment had passed. The spark was gone.
I grabbed her arm.
“What is this?”
“I’m not Stellavia,” she said.
“What…” My thoughts stumbled. I couldn’t think of what to say.
“Get your hands off me!” she yelled.
I let her go — no complaints.
“How dare you,” I yelled. “How fucking dare you.”
“Get out of here,” she said.
You finally try and accept the world, after all the grief and misery it caused you. And this is what happens?
This is the fucking result?
“You bastard. You sacrilegious–”
“Get out of here.”
“Fuck you,” I roared. “How fucking dare you come into her house and mock her like this.”
I didn’t want to admit it, but tears rolled down my face. I was just so damn mad.
“It’s worship,” she whimpered. “If you don’t like it, leave.”
I spat at her feet.
— — —
I stood before Beckett’s house with its chipped white paint and its missing roof tiles. I stood before it and felt comforted.
*knock* *knock* *knock*
Breathe in, breathe out.
Stellavia’s still dead. Stellavia’s still dead and it’s all my fault. I should’ve told the world was Val Rador really was. I should’ve said that Blake and Val were one of the same. Maybe if I’d warned her, things wouldn’t have gotten so damn far.
Beckett opened the door. Looked up at me, confused.
“You’re that elf bitch from the hospital,” she said.
My face sank. But I’d expected this. There was nothing to be upset about, since I’d expect this.
“Glad you’re not in a loony bin coma, or whatever,” she said. It was strange, hearing her talk to me, like I’d never heard her talk to me before. But I was still just happy to hear her voice. “You’re not crazy, are you?”
I shook my head. “Beckett, it’s George.”
She looked at me askance. “The George I knew was flat-chested, human, and often drunk.”
“Will you accept one out of three?” I asked, my voice soft. “I’ve had an interesting day.”
As soon as I said ‘interesting’, her expression changed. She seemed to recognize me, like I’d known she would. I hoped it was the details of my life that defined it — not the big picture.
“George?” she said.
“I remember you being there for me when my dog died. You laughed and said that life was a bitch. It was an awful joke to make at an awful time, but it made me laugh. You were there when my mother died. You called her a bitch, too. You were there for me when I tried killing myself. I remember all that. It’s important to me. Do you see me, Beckett? Do you really see me?”
She sighed, looking up at me. “George. What the fuck happened to you?” Tears streamed down my face yet again, so she said, “Gimme a hug, you stupid bitch.”
I leaned down and gave her a hug.
Dead god be damned, I felt safe.