I awoke in an uncomfortable pullout bed. My heart was pounding. My heart? Was I alive? I felt alive; discomfort, pain. The sun cracked through the window, revealing a sparse one-room camper-trailer. There was a bed, a sink, a toilet, and a freestanding hotplate in place of any kind of kitchen. I threw off the thin flannel blanket.
That was when I realized what I was wearing; a long sleep shirt and plain white underwear. It was appropriate for the abnormally hot weather, but I figured I should put on some pants before going exploring. I opened drawer after drawer, revealing bright colorful clothes. They were in various states of disrepair and judging by the tags, they were all from Walmart. At the bottom of the lowest drawer was a military uniform with the name ‘Greyson.’
“Nate!” I shouted. He had to be here. The very idea filled my heart with joy.
“You up, Babe?” shouted a familiar voice.
“Yeah, Nate.” I cupped my hand over my mouth, trying not to cry. “Where are you?”
“Outside, just enjoying the sun.”
I could hear his voice so clear. Pants or no pants, I needed to go outside. Opening the front door I was greeted with a thick, humid wave of heat. Somehow, although the trailer has no visible air conditioner, the cheap-looking walls seemed to have kept out the majority of the native weather. The air was uncomfortably warm, not unlike an oven. Was this Arizona, Nevada? No, those places were dry. This was a moist humid heat; maybe Florida, or Mississippi.
Just outside the door was a man in a wheelchair, chain-smoking while looking into the bright, morning sun. He wore an open blue button-down shirt, revealing his emaciated chest and a visible chemo port. “Hey, Raven. Sleep well?”
I was frozen in place. This was a vision of Nate that I’d never seen before. He looked weaker, sicker, but at the same time strangely content. “Yeah, you?”
“Just enjoying this beautiful day.” He reached out his arm, inviting me in for an embrace.
I took him up on his offer, sitting on his lap. Nate felt thin, frail, but he was alive; living breathing, speaking. My hand was shivering as I touched his ring finger. Were we married? “Today day is really beautiful.”
He patted my back, his hand felt rough, but soft, tender. “Could you call out, take the day off work? I feel like I never get to see you.”
I have a job? “What was that?”
“I know money has been tight, and you don’t have any more sick days but,” he said with a shrug. “I kind of miss just holding you like this.”
“Yeah, absolutely,” I said happily. “I’d love to skip work.” Then a realization hit me; I don’t know where I work. “Nate, Baby, I’m still kinda sleepy, do you know where I keep the work number?”
“I think it’s in your phone under, ‘fuck this place.’ Unless you changed it.” He held me closer, resting my head to his shoulder. “But that would mean you’d have to go inside, and I’m not ready to let you go.”
At that moment, I tried to convince myself that everything past meeting Nate had been a dream. He never died. I never went insane with power and killed his ex-wife. I never stole her baby. Lola was not my daughter. Annie was not my wife. I was a nurse who ran away with the man I love, to live in a trailer, in an abnormally warm part of the word.
But then why did I not know what city or state I was in?
“Nate,” I pressed to my lips to his ear, taking in his familiar smell. “How much do you think it would cost to take a cruise to Alaska, from where we are?”
“Alaska?” He laughed. “You know I wouldn’t last a day in Alaska. That’s why we moved back to the deep south.”
“The deep south,” I echoed, trying not to sound like a question.
“You’re happy here, right? I mean not ‘happy.'” Nate made the finger quotes, as his vice turned slightly nervous. “I know you’re not overjoyed to be in Mississippi or working at Walmart. But at least we’re together, we have each other.”
“Of course.” I was a little disappointed. Mississippi was not a place I would ever agree to. Although I kind of liked the idea of the trailer; a temporary home that we could pick up at a moment’s notice. Or did I?
While the trailer had some magic source of AC, it had no wheels. It was never meant to be moved. So I was essentially trapped in Mississippi. My stomach sank. “I think I’m going to go find my phone.” There had to be more clues on my phone.
Nate held me tighter. “Or we can take a drive. Maybe seeing me would sway your latest supervisor’s mind.”
“Um, sure, that sounds fun.” I looked around for a car, our car. It was a beat-up Ford truck. I was prepared to get off Nate’s lap, but much to my surprise he started to wheel us to the car, with an unexpected amount of upper body strength.
Nate spun me around with flirtatious confidence. “Do you want me to drive?”
“Uh sure.” I still wanted my phone, or at least the chance to get to it. “I going to go check inside, for my cell. Even if it’s dead I just like having it.” I kissed Nate’s cheek soft and slow, brushing my lips against his rough stubble. “I’ll be back, I promise.”
I went inside and located the nearest electric outlet, looking for a place where my phone would be charging. There, I found a late model smartphone from a company I’d never heard of. The image on the lock screen was of Nate and me kissing. My ring finger was facing the camera, twirling a lock of my hair. ‘Cute.’
I walked back to the truck, going for the passenger side door. Once I saw the interior of the vehicle it all made sense; the two seats were specially designed for Nate’s limited mobility.
He was able to pull himself into the driver’s seat and drive using mainly his arms. “Babe, do me a favor and load up my wheelchair, just in case.”
“Just in case?” Was he not paralyzed? “Yeah, sure.” I loaded his wheelchair into the truck bed and off we went to Walmart.
The drive was quiet, uneventful. We passed miles of dead grass, trailer parks, and gas stations. I took the opportunity to scan through my phone. Hopefully, there were more pictures, maybe even a few saved messages. We apparently got married in Las Vegas, at one of those quickie chapels. On our honeymoon, we drove across the desert taking pictures along the way. We looked so happy. I looked at the date of the picture and the current date on my phone; we’d been married for just over a year.
My smile was as wide as the Mississippi river as we pulled into a massive parking lot. A Walmart stood in the middle of a row of shops, like a massive crown jewel. On closer inspection, each of the shops was a Walmart department; an eyeglass store, a coffee shop, gym, juice bar, and even a massage parlor. It was almost beautiful.
Nate parked the truck in a space close to the front. “We’re here, welcome to Hell.”
I chuckled as I got out, stepping back into the heat. “You’re not kidding.”
“Babe, I think I need my chair.” Nate opened the door all on his own, turning ninety degrees, to hang his legs out the side.
I climbed the truck and somehow grabbed his chair, lifting it over my head before tossing it at the ground. It landed perfectly.
“Nah,” Nate said with a chuckle. “On second thought, I think I’ll be fine.”
“Fine, but I get to give you a ride.” Nate did the rest, his body looked remarkably strong as he moved into his chair. Only then did I realize the chair was completely manual.
How did I not notice that? “Do you need a push?” I felt the need to ask. As a nurse, I knew what kind of muscles it took to use a non-electric wheelchair.
“I’m good.” Nate spun around as if he had done it a thousand times.
I couldn’t help but smile. “Well, you look good.” Nate was sick but he could care for himself; he wasn’t a burden, just a reason to take the day off and go exploring. According to the pictures on my phone, we’d gone on all sorts of adventures, from Nevada, through Texas, and even up into Colorado.
I placed my hand upon his back, as we entered the nearly empty Walmart. “This is creepy.” Looking around, I could spot an old woman behind a register. It was the only one open out of the dozen or so present.) But I guess that was fine since there were absolutely no customers.
When I turned my head, I caught sight of a tall muscular man with long hair who was filling and arranging the garage-area of carts. “Bobby?”
The man turned. It was, in fact, my brother. “Raven?”
“Oh, my God!” I screamed, rushing in for a hug. “How are you here?”
Bobby was about to speak, his eyes shifted. It was as if his mind went blank. “Your shift doesn’t start until noon.” His voice was distant, like a typical retail worker. But yet he didn’t push away from the hug.
“I was hoping to take the day off,” I said with a forced smile. “I even brought Nate to gain some sympathy.” I reached for his hand, squeezing it tightly.
“You’ll have to ask the manager,” he replied in a robotic monotone. “You have to go alone.” He motioned to a set of stairs that disappeared into a backroom. It was only then he released my hand.
I turned looked to look at Nate. He waved and smiled. “I’ll be right here when you get back.”
I climbed the stairs. The first few were straight, then they started to curve, like a lighthouse. Steeper and steeper, higher and higher, until the final step which was a good two feet high. At the end of a small hallway was a faux-wooden door with the word, ‘manager’ written in black permanent marker.
I opened the door to the sight of Becca. She looked younger, admittedly more beautiful even in a manager’s uniform. Her eyes seemed to sparkle and rainbow streaks in her hair shimmered with a flash of metallic brilliance. “Hello, Raven I’ve been expecting you.”
“You’re the manager?” I asked. My voice was a mixture of nervousness and laughter.
“One of many,” Becca said with a smirk, as she twirled a lock of her hair. “This is a big place.”
“I was wondering if I could take the day off?” I asked confidently. “You know, my husband is really sick and might require medical attention soon.”
Becca laughed and opened a drawer to reveal a pack of gum. “I know you’re lying but this is your special visiting day in my domain.” She smacked her gum a few times, before holding it against her teeth like some kind of high school stereotype.
“Hell is subjective; eternal damnation for a mouse can be heaven for a cat. Take the day off, explore the town in that spiffy little truck of yours. Just be sure to check the schedule on your way out.” She motioned to the door. A thick, three-ring binder started to form out of flames, burning towards the floor. When it was finished, the binder hung on the door, attached by two rusty nails. “I wouldn’t want you to miss any shifts.”
“Sure.” I did as she asked, lifting the black plastic cover. I learned that most people had on average thirty hours a week; low enough to not be full time but high enough to get annoying. I wanted to ask her if the hours ever varied, but the desire to get the fuck out was much stronger.
After carefully making my way down the stairwell, I took a breath, basking in the light of the sales floor. The store smelled of stale air and store band coffee. I looked around for Nate since he was not waiting at the exact same spot I’d left him. He’s not a damn puppy.
I looked towards the parking lot, Nate was sitting in his chair, staring out at the sun. “Nate?” I walked closer. I could see he was holding a try of two cups of coffee. So the last thing I wanted was to startle him. He was frozen in place, like a mannequin, waiting for me to return. I gently tapped his shoulder. “Hey Nate, I have good news.”Nothing.
I walked around to the front of his chair. Only when we made eye contact did he reply. “Hey Raven, you good?”
“Uh, yeah,” I said with a forced smile. This was not normal. Was this even Nate? “I’m just going to say goodbye to Bobby, first.”
“Oh, ok. I’ll meet you in the car, or by the car anyway.”
I nodded, trying to remain calm. As soon and Nate was out the door, I ran to Bobby. Although no longer by the carts, Bobby wasn’t hard to find. “What’s happening, where are we?”
Bobby had been standing at the register, collecting unwanted items to put on the shelf. “I don’t know. I feel like I’ve been here forever but I know we haven’t.” He ran his fingers through his hair. As we started to walk towards a wall of DVDs. “I don’t think anything here is real.”
As he started to place a few movies back into their alphabetical locations. I couldn’t help but notice the titles. They all looked like actual movies but with one major change; Harry Potter was a Hispanic female, James Bond was a cartoon with a talking cat, among others.
I found them uniquely intriguing in their own ways. “What’s real anyway? Are you happy?”
Bobby glanced at me with a chuckle. “Did you seriously ask if I was happy stocking shelves at a Walmart?”
“How about ‘content’? Are you content?”
“I’m not depressed or suicidal if that’s what you’re asking.” With the DVDs completed, Bobby started to walk towards the women’s clothing department. “It’s not a horrible existence, especially for hell.”
“Why do you think this is hell?” I asked looking at the display of summer clothing.
“Because we’re dead. We fought so hard, only for our shitty lives to be yanked away, like some kind of trap door.” He put a shirt back on a hanger and folded a pair of jeans before turning to me. “And now this is our prize; our eternity. At least you have Nate. that’s what you always wanted.”
“But what do you want?”
Bobby sighed. “It’s difficult to want for anything when you never had anything. I never had a family or true love, or anything that I would run headfirst into the fires of hell for.”
“Ok.” I really wished he wasn’t so confident about this place being the actual fire-and-brimstone Hell.
Bobby took out the next items, a toothbrush, toothpaste, and soap. “Plus you only get to choose for yourself. My spirit has free will, so if you see a new cart-guy next time you come here, that’s why.” He headed towards the health and beauty section, which luckily took us back in the direction of the entrance.
“I understand, but if this is a choice, what’s option B?”
“I think the way all this works is; you need to completely say no to option A before you get to see option B.” He finished his basket of items and walked me to the door.
I honestly hoped he was wrong. “I’m not ready to do that.”
“I know. But I think I am.” Bobby looked up at the sunny sky. “You’ve had a family, love, peace, even happiness. You’re in more of a position to know what you truly want.” He placed his hand upon my shoulder. “You should get going.”
“Yeah, I guess.” I looked at the truck. I couldn’t see Nate from where I stood.
“Ask Nate to drive you to the beach. ”
“The beach, in Mississippi?” Mississippi had some decent beaches but nothing special, as far as I could remember. Oh yeah, I almost forgot: this isn’t the real Mississippi, this is the underworld.
“I’ve never seen the ocean here, but I kinda want to go.” With a comforting half-hug, Bobby turned around, back into the store.
As I made my way to the truck, I couldn’t help but think about his final words. Bobby was going to leave, that much was certain. I truly hoped he found his ocean.
“I’m ready,” I said, looking around. I was expecting to have to help Nate put his chair in the truck bed. But somehow he had done it all on his own.
“Where to, Babe?” Nate asked from the driver’s seat.
“Can we hit the beach?” I put my feet up as he drove.
We passed miles of dead, desolate farmland, boarded-up houses. The world seemed to be empty, abandoned. It was creepy, but it was all ours. I reached for my phone, taking photo after photo. The bizarre scenery evolved to a rocky coastline until we reached the beach.
“How this spot?” he asked, pulling in to a parking space.
The world seemed to move in slow-motion, my vision flickering in and out of focus. “It’s beautiful.” The beach itself was too rocky to set foot on, but the view was to die for. I scooted from my seat on to my husband’s lap. “Say selfie!” I lifted my phone and snapped a pic.
“You’re such a dork.” Nate lifted the phone, taking a second pic as he kissed me. “That’s what I love about you.”
I rested in Nate’s arms, feeling the warmth of his body, the strength of his heart. “How far back does the seat go?”
“Always.” With his shirt already open, I kissed his slender collarbone.
Nate reached for my hand sucking my fingers, before cupping my face. It was then I realized how little I’d been wearing. It almost made me embarrassed for having gone out in public wearing just an oversized sleep shirt.
We made love for what was only the second time, in my memory. But this so different. There was no fear, no pain. Nate moved his warm hands under my shirt, caressing my skin. “Could you be happy here?”
I said the only thing I could. “Yes.” Looking into his dark blue eyes, the world froze. “I-I want to be here. I want to be with you.”
The world went black as if someone had just turned off the sun. I nervously looked at Nate. He opened the door and with us both adjusting our clothes we took our first steps into the newly formed night sky.
“Yes! score one for Lilith!” said a female voice. It was so far away I could barely hear it.
But once I turned, it was clear. Becca, in her young, beautiful form, was standing with Leo. Under the light of the moon, the ocean looked like a stage. And they way they were posed reminded me of the ending of a late- nineties fighting game. Becca was gleefully happy, confident while Leo was simply turned away.
I was suddenly scared. Had I made the wrong choice? I kissed Nate’s cheek, searching his eyes for comfort.
Nate patted my back, nervously rubbing my shoulder. “It’s going to be alright. You just have to believe that.”
“Ok.” I closed my eyes to focus my mind in prayer. “Leo? Are you there?” I felt a rush of cold. “Please, I’m so sorry.”
I felt a hand lift my face. The fingers were long, elegant. I wanted so badly for it to be Leo but I would not be surprised if it was Becca. “Leo, is that you?”
I opened my eyes to see, well, nothing. What?
Then I felt the source of the cold. Leo took a single step in my direction. His massive wings flapped a single time, like curtains on a massive stage.
I blinked the wind from my eyes, rubbing them. “Ow!” When I opened my eyes, Leo was standing right in front of me.
He tilted his head like an owl, staring at me with intensity. Leo looked pissed.
“Did I choose poorly?” I was mentally preparing myself to get struck by lighting.
Leo sighed. “You chose what was in your heart. God gave all creatures free-will, it’s not my place to hand down judgment.”
“So you are disappointed.”
Leo pressed his finger to his chin, in thought. “I’m disappointed you didn’t even want to see what I had to show you.”
“Can you give me a hint?”
“Not really, but it would have been different.” Leo raised his head, giving an approving a nod.
Nate reached out and shook Leo’s hand. “Hey, man.” Their friendliness seemed a little bit creepy, but that was not where my mind was primarily focused. Nate still had a visible chemo port, but his body looked stronger. He was no longer emaciated and he even seemed a little taller.
Wait a second, this feels a little too familiar.
Leo smiled. “Hey yourself. You’re looking good, Adam.”
What in the holy name of fuck-? I turned to the man I had been making love to just moments before. “Are you Nate or Adam?”
Leo placed his hand upon my shoulder. “Nate Geryson and Adam Severgine are one and the same.”
“Um, no. I don’t think so.” I couldn’t help but laugh. “You can’t be serious. I mean, unless they’re from alternate realities.” Actually, considering everything I’d been through, that sounded pretty accurate.
“Nate, Adam, your father, and thousands of others all share the same fractured soul,” Leo explained.
“I don’t understand.”
“The man that you have pledged your love to is..”
“Nate?” The word slipped out of my mouth before I realized how dumb I sounded.
That I understood.
Becca appeared at Leo’s side, with the grace and confidence of a comic book villain. “To bad so sad.” With her highschool girl voice, she remained me of a flower child Marylin Monroe, crossed with Harley Quin, the infamous DC comics character.
Leo chuckled and rolled his eyes. “The rivalry between angels and witches has been going on for centuries. Sometimes we win, sometimes you win, history has it all written down.”
“Yeah,” Becca said with a smirk. “We’re going to keep playing this game until the earth gets swallowed up by the sun.” She twirled a lock of her hair like a beauty queen or a barbie doll. “Then we’re going to start a new religion to fight over the souls of aliens and zombies.”
Leo turned to her, his hair shimmering like ocean waves. “But zombie don’t have souls.”
“Ok fine, we can fight over the souls of the rock-people who became animated after the nuclear apocalypse.” Becca boosted herself up, taking a seat in the bed of our truck. She was now looking down on all of us. “But thanks to you, the soul of the original Adam is a little closer to becoming whole.”
“Becoming whole,” I repeated. I understood. I was a witch. I was a daughter of Lilith. This place was my heaven.
Leo approached Becca and shook her hand. “I’ll see you at the next one.”
“You bet your ass, you will.”
Leo turned to Adam/Nate giving him a half hug, sandwiching me in the middle. “I don’t have any answers for you, no happily ever after. You’ll still have to write your own stories here. I believe in both of you.” Leo took a step backward, then another, his wings flapping in the wind.
I fully expected him to fly away like a stereotypical angel, but instead, he teleported, vanishing into a dot of light.
Becca jumped down from the truck. “Well, you two have fun.”
“Thanks.” I guess.
This is not the end of my story.