by Kathleen McNamara
The day of his death, the boy’s mother woke him before dawn.
“Dad’s making breakfast,” she said, her form shadowy in the dark. “You’ll need energy for the hike.”
The boy loved early mornings before a trip into the wilderness. He loved the sound of his father singing as he scrambled eggs; he loved his mother’s bustling activity, the way she talked through every item on her mental to-do list. “Sandwiches: check. Band-Aids: check. Satellite phone: check.” They packed the truck after breakfast. His mother drove. His father consulted a wilderness map, coffee steaming between his knees, until a speedbump unfurled hot liquid over his lap.
“Shit and piss!” shouted the father. The wet document dripped across the dashboard, onto the floor.
“I told you the top of that mug was loose,” said the mother. She maneuvered off the paved highway, onto a mud-slick road, past a gate forest-rangers had opened for the season only three days ago. The harsh winter left record snowpack in the Rockies, but it was a warm and cloudless morning, and thick powder was dissolving to slush. Hiking gear clattered in the truck bed. The boy’s father worked as a general contractor, and a few cans of primer banged around with the backpacks.
“You said you’d take that stuff out before we left,” said the mother.
The father shrugged. “I forgot.” He turned on the radio, whistling and singing along to the classic rock station. Mountain curves turned the signal to static, but the father kept humming the same familiar songs. Sometimes, the mother harmonized in the chorus—lord I was born a ramblin’ man—and the boy felt safe and content. He’d been listening to their voices all his life, even in the womb.
When they reached the empty trailhead, the map was still soggy with coffee. “Don’t matter,” said the father, leaving it on the seat to dry. “It’s the same trail we hiked last summer.”
The path gained elevation quickly, on switchbacks worn into the mountain, snaking through families of pine. After an hour, the terrain became glacier-polished rock, slick as tile. They stopped to muzzle their boots with crampons. “Are you sure this is the same trail?” asked the mother. “I don’t remember this part.”
“Everything looks different in the snow,” said the father. “Look—” he pointed to a naked aspen, its lowest branch tied with a pink ribbon. “That’s it.” They followed him across a steep mountain spine, and the boy clomped over ice, spiky metal talons strapped to his feet. He felt alive. The higher they climbed, the more alive he felt. He ran ahead when his mother and father were struggling under their packs. They lunged forward with trekking poles, laughing to each other through tight breaths: it’s not as easy as it used to be! The boy crested a hill, then dipped into a quiet valley. Beyond the clearing, trees grew thick again. Mid-morning sun reflected blindingly on the blanket of snow.
“A fox!” yelled the boy, chasing the white-tipped tail into the woods.
His mother shouted: “Wait for us!” The boy stopped. He heard the screech of a hawk, then a woodpecker drilling through bark. Sound echoed in the cathedral of trees. He watched the white vapor of his breath float above his head.
They all felt the rumble—hunger growling in the stomach of the mountain. The boy could not see sheets of ice melting free of the granite peak above him. He wondered at the horror on his parents’ faces. The mind—he realized later, when he was dead—ignores what it cannot accept. His father pointed, awestruck. His mother ran toward her son, the top of her backpack knocking against her head.
“What?” asked the boy, but his voice collapsed with the powdered ground. The avalanche inhaled him. Battered in a stampede of dismembered trees, he felt as though he were waking from a deep sleep, his forehead moist with sweat. He thought of a day at three years-old when his mother put him down for a nap. She left the room and he climbed off the mattress, ran across the hall, and scrambled into the clothes dryer. He fell asleep in that metal cocoon, wrapped like a cat in his baby blanket.
“There you are,” said his mother, waking her son. She pulled him into her body. “I’ve been looking for you.”
Now, instead of blankets: a tidal wave of snow rolling through the woods. Instead of his mother: five-hundred-year-old trees bent like mown grass. And the boy: a bug between blades. Buried in an overturned earth.
The next thing he knew, his life had ended. And though his mouth froze open, his tongue welded to his lip, the boy began to laugh. It amused him that he could blame his end on something as rudimentary as the life cycle of dihydrogen monoxide—or, as some people preferred to call it—water.
He imagined explaining the event in one of the natural science reports Ms. Johansen made them present in fifth grade. “You might think a blizzard is the most hazardous condition on a mountaintop,” he practiced, trapped under a heavy fir. “However, you’ll be surprised to learn that most snow-related deaths in the wilderness occur when it’s sunny.”
He played at his friends, inventing their questions. “How fast did the avalanche roll?” asked Blake, talking through his head gear. “How many people are killed by avalanches every year?” wondered Sameer, who had long arms and lanky fingers and could beat all the sixth graders in one-on-one basketball. “What’s it like to die?” said flame-eyed Connie, under the wide-brimmed hat she wore during recess, her hair as pale as spider webs.
“It’s like,” he started, pretending they were all together on the jungle gym at school. “It’s like when you wake up on the couch by the TV, instead of in your bed, and it takes a while to recognize where you are. It takes a while to realize you’re still at home.”
Even in his fantasy, his friends did not believe him. “You’ll see,” he promised. He remembered their classroom, the way Ms. Johansen always said, “Science never sucks! It only pushes and pulls!” In class, they mixed ice cream from scratch, and the liquid turned to delicious fluff overnight in a plastic sandwich bag. They dissected cow eyes, and he was partnered with Connie, and they couldn’t stop laughing as they pulled on the ropey optic nerve, watching the buggy pupil search the room. And there was one week in January when they constructed flashlights from duct tape and tinfoil and empty toilet-paper rolls—miraculous!—and the boy asked his father to load up on D batteries and miniature light bulbs, so he could make ten more at home. He kept the flashlights around his bed at night, and pressed the tinfoil switch to complete the circuit whenever he heard cracks in the walls that his mother said meant the house was settling. And when he wondered if there could be another explanation, his mother had promised: “there’s no such thing as ghosts.”
The moments of his life played like this—in the endless outside-of-time that came next. It surprised him—what he remembered. The taste of his father’s lasagna. The sensation of peeling a sunburn from his shoulder in a quarter-sized sheet. Watching a bee-sting swell to the size of a golf ball on the top of his hand. All of it now seemed too wonderful to bear.
What the boy could not remember was his own name. When he thought of his mother, when he tried to recall the way she had whispered it—goodnight, after a bedtime story—all he heard was the hush of the word silenced: A——.” Like white noise on television, or the sound of a car whooshing past. Wind in the trees. He guessed: Aaron? Ahmed? Anthony? Accident? Avalanche?
In his memory, her voice cratered under its weight.
Authorities blamed tremors in the tectonic plates. “Colorado has suffered a terrible loss,” said the police chief at the televised press conference. “We are still searching for survivors.” The boy wasn’t the only missing person. A local hunter and his dog had not been found. The skis of a cross-country Olympian were discovered tangled in the denuded forest, no other sign of their owner nearby. The boy’s father fractured his spine and cracked a femur. The boy’s concussed mother broke three ribs. They said she would have died without her heavy backpack to cushion the fall. “You were lucky,” said the search-and-rescue crew, when they airlifted her to safety. “Not many people think to carry a satellite phone out here. We may not have found you otherwise.”
The boy’s mother did not expect much from this life. A working heater in the winter—but when it broke, she could survive with a steady supply of wood and a few extra blankets. Wholesome, healthy food—but if not, she’d eat frozen pizza and corndogs instead. The right to see her son grow to an adult. But if the universe chose to deny her that right—then, at least, please, the chance to bury his body.
“It’s a mess out there,” said the police chief to the mother, on his courtesy visit to the hospital. “The entire forest knocked over. Worst I’ve seen in decades. And there’s a new storm coming in. Arctic blast rolling down from Canada.” He stood in the doorway of her room and smiled at a nurse walking by. “Unfortunately, it’ll be a week before we can get out there again.”
“Any chance he’s still alive?” asked the mother.
“It’s been six days, ma’am.”
“Anything’s possible,” said the police chief, softly. When he left the room, he tipped his hat: “My deepest condolences.”
In the hospital bed, they tried to draw her misery out with an IV. The television on the wall above her bed played the baby channel. A nurse offered to change it, but the mother liked the baby channel. She remembered watching it as a new mother, in this same hospital, a decade ago. She found comfort in breastfeeding tutorials, in watching first drops of milk squeeze from the body. This is how to wash your baby, said the narrator, showing an adult hand sponging an infant’s leg. This is how to expel a foreign object from your baby’s throat if your baby starts to choke, explained the narrator, as a gray adult form thudded a faceless infant’s back. It reminded the mother of an airline safety video: human shapes without identities, human shapes acting quickly and decisively in the face of sure disaster. This is how to safely place your baby in a crib (face up, with no pillows, bumpers, or blankets). The mother kept waiting to hear the advice she needed: this is how to protect your baby from an avalanche. This is how to pretend to be alive when your baby is not.
A nurse jangled open the curtain to her room. She pressed the button that made the back of the mother’s bed shift upright, then wrapped the blood pressure cuff around the mother’s limp arm. Swapped out the bags on the IV pole. Offered the nine o’clock Percocet.
“Thank you,” said the mother, biting into its bitter chalk.
“No, honey.” The nurse lifted a flimsy cup of water to the mother’s mouth. “Swallow.”
“Of course,” said the mother, feeling stupid.
The painkillers left a rancid film on her tongue, but soon pumped heat into her veins. It started cozy like a hug, then turned her frozen blood into liquid gold. In the hazy swim of the opioids, she thought: perhaps my son is not dead. Perhaps he is only hibernating, waiting for the rest of the snow to melt and for spring flowers to pop through the freeze. Perhaps he expects his mother to rummage through the collapsed forest, to grab his hand and yank him back to life. She could find him, she thought. She’d rappel down every canyon until she did.
The police closed the mountain to visitors. Forest rangers locked the gate at the end of the road. At the bottom of the trail, they tied tree trunks together with yellow tape, a single word repeating along its ribbon: CAUTION.
No one found the boy’s corpse. He’d fallen off a cliff, down a ravine. He was tucked in the folds of the mountain. His body would stay here for eons: bones to dust, wood to stone. Decay produced a hub of activity. His stomach distended with fallen leaves and hidden acorns. He felt pressure in his head as a twig popped from his ear. Then his coffin of logs started to shake. This is it, thought the dead boy—another avalanche. His remains would be torn apart, his legs ripped from his disintegrating hips. But then claws reached his stiff arms. A massive paw scooped his back and pulled him into the light. For the first time since he died, the boy saw the silver sun’s reflection on the snow.
He was in the arms of a monster: eight-feet tall; broad in the shoulders; covered in coarse white hair. It had ice-blue eyes and smiled with three rows of arrow-sharp teeth.
“Are you the abominable snowman?” asked the boy, coughing up nettles and pinecones.
“He’s a second cousin,” said the beast. “Got an appetite for household pets. He’s wanted in five dimensions. Haven’t talked to him in years.”
The abominable snowman’s second cousin placed the boy gently on a rock. The boy slid off, then tried his ghost legs in the snow. Wooden. He felt like that puppet who asked that bug to make him into a real boy. He couldn’t remember the names now. Stories his parents had told him, books he’d read in the summer months, or at bedtime—all were evaporating with his blood.
“I’m Claude. I live up there.” Claude pointed to the peak above them. “I’ve been looking for you. You must be hungry.”
The boy touched his bloated stomach. He burped, then hawked a wad of mulch onto the ground. “What am I supposed to eat?”
“Whatever you can find.” Claude knelt down and offered a ride on his back. “I’ll show you.” The boy hopped on, gripping the thick hair on Claude’s shoulders. They climbed into clouds until they reached a deep cave where Claude lived. At its mouth, Claude had built a pyramid room from sticks. “It’s a trap,” he explained, showing the boy inside. All the boy could see was a nest of human hair, a piece of a jaw, a tongue flopping on the ground like a tail freshly pulled from a lizard. “Lousy catch,” said Claude. “It happens a lot this time of year. Tax season. Everyone dreams their hair and teeth are falling out. But wait—” He sniffed, clawing his enormous paw through the nightmare wreckage, “ah ha!” He pulled out a chicken, the bottom half of its body crispy and roasted, the top half alive and feathered, its beak opening and closing in silence, as though attempting a scream. “You can thank a new vegetarian for this one,” he said. “Overwhelmed with guilt about all the meat they’ve eaten. At the same time, they’re craving old comfort foods but they don’t want to admit it to themselves. It ends up looking like this.” He dangled the chicken in front of the boy. “Lucky for us.”
“You eat human dreams?” The boy could not believe it. He tried to remember what he’d dreamt in his life: of baseball fields with swimming pools where home plate should be, of cat-sized tarantulas who tap-danced, of a wild-eyed buck running through his house, ripping the walls with its antlers.
Claude shrugged. “I’m a scavenger. Used to eat Mastodon tusks, but they went extinct. Then I ate the tails off red-tailed alpine possums, but they went extinct, too.” Claude snickered. “Climate change—you think yours is the only dimension suffering? Actions have ripple effects.” He let out a loud harrumph. “Lucky I figured out how to build this thing.” He knocked on the wall of his dream-trap. The boy didn’t know what to say. Claude offered him the cooked half of the chicken. “At least human dreams are a sustainable food source,” said Claude, pulling off the beak and popping it into his mouth.
The boy’s parents left the hospital with stapled paper bags rattling with Oxycontin. When she swallowed one, the mother’s body felt like a drafty building, or an empty marble tomb.
“Don’t wait to take one,” said the doctor, on his last visit to the mother’s bedside. “If you wait until you’re in pain, then it will be unbearable before you can make it better.” The doctor was a nice man who wore cheerful neckties. A surgeon had inserted titanium into the mother’s chest. The doctor said some micro-fragments of shattered bone could not be removed, but might break down and be reabsorbed into the body. This could take months, or years. She should expect itching at the incision site. “If you run out and need more,” said the doctor. “Give us a call.”
At the curb outside the hospital, the mother’s sister waited for them in her van. She’d driven down from Boise to help with funeral arrangements for the boy.
“They’re going to send another search crew after this storm passes,” said the aunt, as she drove out of the parking lot. The ground was slick with snow and ice—a surprise week of freezing in early May. “And his school called—they want to arrange a memorial.”
The mother said nothing. She hugged her body to the door, watching the window crackle with defrosting ice, the top of her husband’s crutches resting near her shoulder. Her son had vanished like a Permian sea, dissolved like a glacier. The whale swallowed him, and now they were searching for scraps. Everything that brought her to this moment was wrong, thought the mother: she’d married the wrong man, took the wrong job, lived in the wrong town. She even had the wrong sister. Every moment, no matter how blissful, was wrong because it had led to this moment.
At home, the mother and father stumbled into their unmade bed. Neighbors had checked on the house, but nothing in the master bedroom had been touched since the morning they left for the hike. The father’s dirty clothes still spilled from the closet, the odor now stale. Under the musty blankets, the mother and the father lay next to each other, not touching. Dust floated in the stillness between them like grief. The mother closed her eyes. She didn’t know if she could really sleep here again. It felt like she was already asleep. Perhaps, the mother thought, this whole horrifying episode had been a dream. She often dreamt that she woke in her bed, and lived her entire day—dropped her son off at school, showed up to her job as a manager at a ski resort—where she dealt with a malfunctioning lift; salmonella in the latest shipment of scallops; only to wake up for real and have to live the day again. Perhaps, she hoped, forcing her eyes to open, perhaps this was one of those times.
But when she looked around the room, she saw her husband’s crutches leaning against the wall. He began to snore, and the mother pulled herself from bed. Swallowed another pill, then hobbled down the chilly hall into her son’s room. Stuffed animals were piled at the end of his bed. She sat down on his dinosaur sheets, then picked up a friendly white monster, its Velcro paws fastened together, a homemade flashlight in its grasp—one of a dozen little feats of engineering her son had created. She remembered the Christmas he unwrapped this toy—how he loved its googly eyes, the plush yellow teeth, the weedy ice-blue hair tufting from between its ears.
“What should its name be?” she asked then.
“Claude!” declared the boy.
“Claude?” laughed the father. “Is he from France?”
The boy invented a backstory for Claude—Claude lived in a cave; Claude spoke seven human languages and one whale language; Claude’s favorite food was red-velvet cake, which the boy then pretended to feed him. It amazed her—that this boy had come from her body, that remnants of his DNA still floated in her bloodstream, but an entire separate world existed within him, invented purely in the soup of his particular chemistry.
When her son was a toddler, on nights he fought against sleep, the mother held him in her arms, his pillowy cheeks resting on her shoulder. She smelled orange-blossom shampoo in his hair, and under that, a grassy sweetness particular to her son—the animal smell that told her this little boy was her little boy. Kumbaya, she whispered, lulling him to sleep. To feel her child’s heart beating against her chest, to fell the full weight of him in her arms, she knew: I will never be happier than I am in this moment. Now, instead of her son, she hugged the toy. The toy hugged the duct-tape flashlight. Kumbaya, she sang into its fuzzy ear, pressing the tinfoil switch.
The boy paced Claude’s cave. He could not stop moving. Budding roots sprouted from the soles of his feet. If he stood too long in one place, Claude had to unplant him. The boy stared at his arms, alarmed at the way his skin was thickening like tree bark. “Is this normal?” he asked, holding up his twiggy fingers.
“Everyone’s different.” Claude inspected the boy’s hands more closely. “Could be a side effect of the way you died.” He shrugged: “You’ll get used to it.”
Perhaps there was a scientific or medical explanation with a fancy title like hominius peridermis or arboris mortis. His friend Connie would know. She was the smartest kid in fifth grade. If only he could ask her, the boy felt certain she would tell him why his epidermis was starting to resemble bark. But Claude looked at him sadly.
“The living can’t help you.”
“You can read my mind?”
“Sure.” Claude pointed at blue bubbles floating from the boy’s ears. The boy had thought it merely a benign feature of the death dimension, the same way dust collected on bookshelves at his house. “Look closer,” said Claude. Inside each bubble, the boy saw a memory encapsulated. The week his grandmother died and he drove with his parents to Idaho for the funeral. The time Arnold the python who lived in a glass cage in Ms. Johansen’s classroom laid a surprise egg, so they changed the snake’s name from Arnold to Arnette. There were at least a dozen bubbles, each one containing some jewel of memory. When it popped, it was as though it never existed. The boy could not remember what it had contained, what part of him was now lost to the ether.
“I got something to take your mind off it.” Claude led the boy back to the trap at the mouth of the cave. “You won’t believe it! We caught a pregnant woman’s dreams: jackpot!” The boy followed him inside. A castle of donuts and ice-cream cake hugged the walls. Frosted spires swirled from the ground. A draw-bridge of sugar crystals grew over a blueberry river. It was a sculpture, thought the boy, too beautiful to eat.
“Have some,” said Claude, already digging his face into the red-velvet dungeon. The boy peeled a gumdrop from the roof of the castle and dipped it into a sherbet hedge. It tasted like tar. “What’s wrong?” said Claude, shoveling frosting into his mouth.
“I can’t.” The boy spit it out. “I can’t eat someone else’s joy.”
“Best to stick to nightmares then.” Claude nodded toward the corner of the room, where the rest of the morning haul sat in a discarded pile. Claude feasted and the boy kicked through the detritus: a pile of math textbooks; underpants covered in excrement; a dismembered leg. But beneath a heap of loose razor blades and bloody teeth, the boy spotted something familiar: a handmade flashlight. It had a tinfoil circuit, D batteries in an empty toilet-paper roll, a miniature light bulb, all wrapped together with duct tape. There were letters scribbled on a sticker at the bottom: ALM, Inc. It was his. He knew it was his. The boy pressed the switch. “Claude!” He shined the light over what was left of the castle. “I made this flashlight. In life, I mean. How’d it get here?”
“Somebody must have dreamt about it,” said Claude, face deep in the mascarpone watchtower. “Bring it here.” But when the boy tried to move, he couldn’t.
“It’s called arborophosis.” Claude had a donut around each finger and licked at sprinkles. “You’re becoming a tree. In death, our bodies undergo a transformation. You think I always looked like this?” Claude started to laugh, and the whole mountain reacted, shaking at the sound. “Sorry.” Claude swallowed, covering his mouth. “I’ve been known to start an avalanche.”
“You?” said the boy. “You killed me?”
“There’s no point being mad about it. You’ve already died like three hundred times.”
The boy wanted to know everything—what Claude knew about past lives; how he knew. What were the rules of the afterlife; were you allowed to pick your next life? But Claude couldn’t tell him. “You have to remember,” said Claude. “But it won’t work until all of this is over,” he pointed at a large bubble floating between them. “First, you have to shed the husk of your most recent life.” Inside the bubble, it was a summer morning in Yellowstone. Aquamarine gases swirled, the geyser shot into the sky. The boy tried to grab the memory, swallow it whole. He didn’t want to give it up. But when he touched it, the thin membrane popped. Just like that, he forgot he’d ever been to Wyoming.
“What do I do?”
“We’ll go back to the forest,” said Claude, uprooting the boy’s legs. “You’ll grow better down there.”
Below the clouds, the snow had melted. Fields grew thick with lush bluebells and columbine. Claude plodded through grass and over logs, carrying the boy’s stiff body in his arms like firewood. Hikers passed right by them, and the boy tried to be friendly, to say hi to strangers on the trail the way his father had always done.
“They can’t see us,” said Claude. “Here.” They reached a grove of lanky aspen, and Claude set the boy down. Immediately the roots of the boy’s legs dug into the ground. His arms were pulled out to either side of his body, and hardened like branches. Green-spade leaves popped from his veins.
“Stay with me,” said the boy. Claude ran his claws through the tuft of blue hair over his eyebrows. “Please, Claude,” tried the boy, but when he opened his mouth again, a bubble formed where the word should have been. It grew larger and larger. Inside was Christmas morning, years ago. He saw himself opening the box, discovering the stuffed monster with the googly eyes, the silly grin. He heard the laughter of his parents.
“Is he from France?” asked his father. Then the bubble popped. His parents vanished. At the same moment, Claude did too. The boy who was a tree could no longer remember how he got here. A little girl climbed on his trunk; a dog peed on his roots; teenagers carved their initials into his skin. His leaves turned amber and fell to the ground.
Because of his injuries, the father could not walk easily, so the mother searched alone. Police had found the remains of the hunter, the dog, the Olympic skier, but not her son. The path had been rebuilt since the avalanche, to circumvent obstructive logs, and sometimes the mother bushwhacked off-trail with old climbing gear in her backpack. She’d been a strong climber when she was young, and now she rappelled down canyons, looking for her son. When the harness dug painfully into her titanium-bolted ribs, the mother took a pill. She’d bought powder from a friend of a friend, and when she ran out of pills, she dissolved the powder in water and drank. She didn’t care if it made her clumsy. It meant she could search another hour. Once, in this haze, she anchored wrong into the rock, missed the pitch, and fell thirty feet. Her head was bleeding but she hardly felt a thing. Her entire body tingled as though it were asleep.
Other days, she just walked through the wilderness, waiting for a moment of clarity. She tried to pinpoint exactly where she’d last seen her son. She stopped in a grove of aspen, listened to percussive trees in the wind. A young boy appeared, sitting alone on a boulder. He stared at her. This boy was freckled and tow-headed; he had blue eyes instead of olive brown, and still, she thought: perhaps this is my son. “Are you lost?”
“I’m waiting for my parents,” said the boy. And as he said it, the parents appeared, huffing up the trail.
“Hello.” They nodded at the mother. “Beautiful day.” The boy rose and continued along the trail with his family. The mother took his place on the boulder. She leaned into the rock and drank her medicine. When she stood up, she went tree by tree, and pressed her palms to each trunk, hoping to download some ancient knowledge that might produce her son. She fell asleep on the ground and woke up shivering under the curtain of leaves. She wandered back to her car, tasting dirt in her mouth. In the beginning, she thought of nothing else in a day: just the forest, the pieces of her son that might still exist on that mountain, and the medicine which gave her the courage to look. But over time, the medicine made her weak, and the only solution for this weakness was more medicine. She found new ways to take it: through the nose, lungs, veins. She stopped leaving the house. She sat in her recliner at home, breathed in deeply, and searched with her mind. She felt herself turn into a bird, and scanned the forest from above, looking for traces of her only child.
Then one afternoon—dizzy, drowsy, and getting sicker from withdrawal—the mother saw from her kitchen window as smoke plumed off the mountain. On television, the deputy chief explained that the Avalanche Fire was less than five-percent contained, and would get worse with high winds and dry conditions expected tomorrow. “At this point, we’re focused on establishing a perimeter and minimizing damage to structures.” All those uprooted logs turned to kindling. It burned for weeks, ravaged to ash. They said the wilderness would take eighty years to regrow. The mother leaned into the sagging recliner and thought: now, I have nowhere left to look.
The tree that was his body died with the others. He couldn’t explain it—one moment he was stuck inside this useless husk, and the next moment, he was hovering above it, released.
The boy had not known it in life, but his truest self was a Fibonacci sequence of iridescent blue bubbles and it floated down the canyon, limitless.
He found the road, and followed it into town. A plaque lay in the garden outside his old school like a tombstone. In Memoriam: Adam Louis Miller. Rose bushes grew around the sign. Below it, he found a list of the members of his fifth-grade class—dedicated by. They hadn’t forgotten him. He followed the noise of laughter to the playground.
It was lunch hour, and kids ran around the field. But none of the children he saw were children he knew. Connie was not hanging on the jungle gym or riding the swings; Sameer was not dribbling up the basketball court; Blake was not playing tetherball. Even the teachers looked different. He felt hollow when he realized: perhaps too much time had passed. In death, years lasted minutes, and minutes held eternity. His friends had grown up, and moved elsewhere.
The ghost floated back to the old house where he’d lived as a boy. The paint had peeled, and some wooden planks underneath were soggy with rot. Feathery weeds crawled over the porch. He could see now: other ghosts already lived here—trapped souls circulating the walls like electricity. A buck whose head hung over the fireplace for most of the 1960s was now a high-pitched vibration inside the hearth. Connected threads of silky material colonized the floorboards in the bathroom—the spot where a woman gave birth to a stillborn during the Depression. And even the consciousness of trees cut to timber to build the house floated in the ether of the room. He knew now: ghosts lingered everywhere. It was silly to fear them, when they were so easy to ignore. The living had all the power.
He found his mother in his old room, her body bent at an irregular angle. She had withered and thinned. Her skin hung cold and gray. Her silver hair draped over her face. In her arms, she held one of his stuffed animals, a duct-tape flashlight strapped between its arms. The ghost leaned into his mother, resting on her shoulder the way he had when he was alive, and small enough that she could wrap his entire life in her arms.
“Mama,” whispered the ghost. He searched for a heartbeat. She was not breathing.
At the overdose training seminar, the nurse cupped a dummy’s neck. “Tilt the patient’s head back,” said the nurse. “Support the spine with one hand, and hold the applicator with your thumb at the bottom of the plunger.” The nurse lifted her hand to show the audience the proper grip for the intranasal spray.
The father held the naloxone the way the nurse instructed, bending over the rubber body. He imagined the dummy as his wife, whom he had not stopped loving, even though she said she could no longer bear to look at him. Years ago, when it became clear that she would never again sleep in their marital bed, the father moved to an apartment a few miles from his old house. Because of his injuries, he could no longer work as a contractor, and had picked up an hourly job stocking shelves at the local library. Each day, on his way home from work, he drove past the street where he used to live, and considered turning. He almost never did.
But that day, all through the overdose-training seminar in the multi-purpose room of the library, something felt off. A nagging anticipation hung over him, so strong it left his stomach churning. He couldn’t say why: too much coffee, maybe. After work, he stopped at a drive-thru for a burger—thought food might settle him. He drove past his old street, his mouth stuffed with fries. He wiped the grease and salt from his hand, and tried calling his estranged wife. The phone rang and rang, and no one answered. She never answered the phone anymore. She said it was because the only people who called were strangers trying to con you out of your money, but he knew that she recognized his phone number and still did not answer. He turned toward his old house.
In the driveway, he eased out of his truck, gripping the spray in the pocket of his sweatshirt. He regretted the state of the house. Were it not for the obvious neglect, and the old pain that shot from his spine into his leg, he could almost pretend he was young again, and just coming home from a job. He would open the door and find his wife reading to their son on the couch, the smell of chicken casserole wafting from the oven.
“Meredith?” he called. The walls crackled as the house settled into the foundation. He had to wear a back brace since his son’s death and was not as agile as he used to be. He tripped on a loose floorboard, catching himself from falling. He called again into the silence: “Meredith?”
The mother woke in the hospital.
“You were barely within the limits of reversal,” said the doctor. They informed her that she’d been legally dead for almost three minutes. This doctor was not the same doctor with the cheerful neckties who’d treated the mother’s injuries all those years ago. This doctor had long blonde hair, and said she knew of an out-patient addiction recovery program. She would prescribe treatment, combined with grief counseling and cognitive behavioral therapy for PTSD. “Please accept help,” said the doctor, before leaving the room. “You can’t continue this way. You may not get lucky next time.”
The father was sitting next to the mother’s tangled IV pole. He reached across the hospital bed for the mother’s hand. “I know we haven’t seen much of each other these years,” he said. “But I couldn’t survive losing you, too.” He buried his face in the blankets over her legs. “When I saw you like that, in his bed, I swear, it was like I knew this would happen, and some force told me to show up at that exact moment to prevent it from happening.” Her hands were shaking, and he rubbed her thumb tenderly to calm the tremor.
“I found Adam,” said the mother, her voice feverish. “I went to that place. I saw him there.”
The father lifted his head from her lap. He squeezed her hand. “I see Adam everywhere.”
The mother insisted—“Not like that. I saw him.” The mother explained that when she died for three minutes, she saw her own soul, next to her son’s. He was a spiral of blue bubbles, and she was a golden hummingbird, with wings that vibrated a note inaudible to human ears. And seeing her son in this form, herself in this form, she remembered what she had forgotten: that souls grew in a garden, like fruit from trees, and both she and her son sprang from one branch. They’d met each other hundreds of times, and they’d meet again hundreds more. In past incarnations, he’d been her mother, and she was his child. For three cycles, they were brothers, rivaling for the affection of their parents. Another time, she was a rhinoceros, and he was an oxpecker who cleaned her back of ticks. And in the next life, the two of them would become redwood trees. She knew the future: they’d live for centuries guarding a shoreline, their bodies home to a thousand tiny creatures. They’d survive waves of melted Arctic breaking onto land. They’d burn to dust in a wildfire after a season of drought, then be born again as ants. She’d seen it all, because all of it had already happened and was happening now. Time was fluid and layered with ghosts. Pieces of the dead stuck forever to the living. “He’s waiting for me,” swore the mother, searching her husband’s face for recognition. “He’s waiting for me before the next cycle begins.”
“I believe you,” said the father, but he didn’t meet her eyes. The mother’s body shivered and burned from withdrawal. It was unbearable to feel everything at once. The mother pushed her estranged husband’s hand off her knee.
“You don’t believe me,” she said. “I can tell that you don’t.” She reached for a paper bag the nurse had left and vomited the water she’d been drinking. The father took the bag; plopped it into the trash can. Offered her a fresh one. She accepted it, then pulled at a long cord attached to her bed until she found the dangling remote-control. The television screen blinked on and the mother searched for the baby channel. You could only find the baby channel on a hospital network.
The golden hour, explained the narrator, is the first moment of bliss between mother and child. On screen, a gloved hand cleaned an infant’s umbilical stump, then placed the squirming baby on its mother’s naked chest. The tiny mouth brushed against skin. To latch, said the voice, compress the breast like a sandwich. Rooting is instinct.
Kathleen McNamara‘s short fiction and essays have appeared in The Columbia Journal, Nimrod, Redivider, Carolina Quarterly, The Pinch, and elsewhere. She’s at work on a novel that explores the effects of nuclear weapons tests at the Nevada Proving Ground, a project which has been generously supported by the Arizona Commission on the Arts. She teaches writing at Arizona State University. Visit her at kathleenbmcnamara.com.