"Tell us what's happening. We can see activity on your EEG. Don't be afraid. Try to speak."
This is why I love her. You can't tell her anything. She doesn't listen. She goes where she wants and when the hurricane rips the doors from the hinges, she goes faster and I'm together again. Whole. I can't be without the piece she's taken with her.
Why is it when there's a story we like, we can hear it over and over? The warriors knew good stories never die. The soul survives in bravery recounted time after time.
We know that in the end the hero lives, the dragon's slain. Our hearts race anyway with each thrust of the sword, blades flashing reflected torchlight, the burning of the soul, the gleam of incisors sharpened on the bones of great animals fallen.
We're there every time. Transported by words. We want to live eternally at the moment of triumph. Lost love regained. Everything new again.
I know how this story goes.
"This can't end well," I say. "It's a disaster. A couple of people can't stand the futility of man raging against his weakness and leave angry. Everyone else weeps. There isn't a dry eye in the exiting crowd."
"Will you shut up?" she says. "Stop talking and follow."
There's a gun between my palms. Without seeing it I know what it is. Beretta model 94F. Sights dotted in luminous paint. Rubberized Pachmayr grips enlarge the pistol stock so it fills my grip. Fifteen brass nine-millimeter cartridges pressed into the clip, the sixteenth in the chamber. Hollow point.
Safety off. Finger off the trigger along the frame. It's so easy when you see them walking with guns in movies. In real life your heart pounds so strong it's hard to swallow. Blood races through your ears and your fingers shake.
Why do I know this why do I know this why do I know this?
The moon cuts through thinning clouds and washes the lush forest to a montage of grays and blacks. The air is green in my lungs, filled with must and pollen that reminds me the earth is living. Mother earth.
Forgive us while we kill what frightens us.
"What's happening? Talk to us."
I find my mouth. "I'm--I'm following her."
"I think she's going back to the cave. I have a gun this time."
Warm droplets trickle from the papery tree leaves we brush past. My clothes become heavy, my sweater hangs from my shoulders like old theater curtains.
She's in front. Her feet splash in the puddles I can't see. Instead of being quiet, she's splashing and giggling like a four-year old. Her long blonde hair shines as it drops from her shoulders to her face to her back, falling like feathers in the thick air. I want her with me, in me, so inside there's no difference between us.
"What are you going to do with a gun?"
I tell them I don't know. I tell them I can see her face even though she's running. I can feel her even though I can't touch her.
"What's happening now?"
"I'm in the cave, she's calling for Phil."
"Tell us who Phil is."
I tell them I don't know. I tell them I don't know how I know what I know. I tell them I don't want to be here. Get me out.
"It's really dark in here," I say, in the cave. I can't see my wife anymore. She's gone on ahead and left all her fear behind for me.
And then the light on the other side. Now I understand. The cave is a bridge we've just passed underneath. The stalactites, thick mosses. It's daylight here. We're on lush rolling hills carpeted in yellow and green grasses, dotted here and there with trees casting mushroom shaped shadows. There's time here. There's air here.
"Tell us what's happening."
Close now. Why does she do it? Why bring me here? I'm holding the gun up and out. Spinning on my heels. Find a target. Something to kill. Anywhere. But there's nothing to shoot and I know the longer I stay the closer I am to the termination of myself and everything I love. She's probably dead already. I know how this goes and I want out.
"Get me out. Get me out of here."
"You can leave any time you want. We're just watching. When you want to leave, leave."
"How did she do it? How did she get so brave she could walk here without being afraid?"
A fluffy cumulus cloud passes in front of the sun. Its shadow races over the hills and covers me for a second. Then it passes.
"Are you in the park?"
I say, "Yes," and my heart sinks into my feet. I let my arms drop, and the gun falls from my fingers and dissolves into the grass. And when it's senseless to walk, I fall to my knees. It's all so beautiful, but behind the beauty is eternal lonliness. That's what I'm afraid of most--that my grave would become somewhere breathtaking and inescapable so that I would want to live to see it, but want to die to flee myself.
There's a headstone in the distance, where she's gone. It's just a symbol, I know, but I don't want to think about it. I can't keep it from the front of my mind, and now I'm standing in front of it looking down. But instead of seeing my wife's name and dates, someone has chiseled a picture of a rabbit eating a piece of pie.
Has to be a joke. It was her favorite.
"Key lime," she says, her voice either from nowhere or from in me so sharp and fast I jump.
Something like warmth embeds itself in my chest and settles, becomes part of me.
I say, "Don't leave me. Please..." but I can't talk anymore for choking in my throat. If I could cry I would. I don't remember how and she never believed that about me. Now she knows.
"Why won't you talk to me?" I say to her, but she's nowhere. The dead don't waste their time coddling the living. There are other things to do in universes far away.
When I open my eyes the light fades and I see the dark nothing inside the isolation chamber. All my thoughts flood back into me. I know who I am now, where I am, why I'm here.
A thin, hyper-bright line of fluorescent blue-white light appears in the blackness and grows to a rectangle. There's a silhouette in the light. It approaches me, kneels over me, and begins lifting the electrodes from my head and hands.
The isolation tank technician speaks in whispers, "Are you with us, Phil? What did she say to you?"
When I use my voice it cracks. I know I've been straining in my trance.
"Just to shut up and follow."
"That's what you think, eh?"
"It's my hallucination," I say as I get up out of the salted mineral water.
I pat myself down with the towel he hands me. When I'm dressed and sitting with the monitors for the debrief, there a moment I wonder if I can hold back the monsterous wall of grief about to wash over me. Did I think I could kill that with my gun?
"It all means something," says the man who's been monitoring my isolation tank experience for the past three hours. He shows me the charts from my brainwaves and heart rate. Galvanic skin response. "But it's only for you."
"Like the gun?"
"Typical male response. Guys get real Rambo out there. Then they find out you can't kill anything or be killed, so they drop them fast. You did get rid of yours, right?"
"Yeah," I say.
"But you did see her?"
"Something like her," I say, lying. It was exactly like her. I could smell her. I could feel my Dani like she was standing next to me. Now I know human presence is more than warmth and pressure. It's a wave. It's what you were and would be before you died, then everything after.
"I really miss her," I manage to say. "It's like I never knew her--you know? All those years I never knew. Then it happened and she wasn't afraid. She went into it like it was nothing. She was so brave she scared me and I haven't been okay since."
He pushes a box of tissues toward me and he doesn't know what a sensless gesture it is. I don't cry. Forgot how years ago.
"This sort of thing can't ever be the same," I say. And I get up. "I don't know what I was expecting coming here. You can't bring her back to me."
He says, "Phil, look I'm not a holy man. I just provide the experience. But I see people like you every day. Everybody's looking for something they've lost. Literally everyone, and almost no one finds it here. They leave with more questions than they came with. But maybe this will help. Someone once told me that we're made human in pieces, with big fissures where our souls belong. We stand beside another to remind ourselves what it's like to be whole, but being fulfilled is not the human condition. Because when that other is gone, we're left staring into that void born inside us, and we're reminded that not only does death take from us, but will eventually take us. All of life is learning to live with that."
When I leave the building I slide my sunglasses over my ears and up the bridge of my nose, and as I do it my car keys slide from my hand.
As I bend over to pick up the keys a piece of paper flutters past my feet.
I don't know why I pick up the filthy cake wrapper. I don't know why I know what I know.
It's the tip of the rabbit's ears that makes me smooth out the litter, makes me read the marketing on the paper.
Weeks ago someone ate his key lime mini pie and tossed his wrapper out the window of his moving car, never knowing it would detonate an explosion in my heart that would send me to my knees in a crowded parking lot, eyes tearing behind my sunglasses. Not a dry eye in the exiting crowd.
How I miss her. How I'm empty. How I hate that I'm afraid.
On my knees begging because I forgot she was here.
Next: Jennifer screams
Last: Somewhere there's a god who wants me