CHAPTER ONE from VANISHING BY DEGREES
A Novel by David Orsini
The lift-off comes when we are least expecting it. We ascend as if our bodies are space capsules hurling through an endless void beyond the rims of earth. We’ve been told to be ready at all times. So familiar are the days that precede it, though, so apparently safe from malevolent harm or from murderous enemies, that we are no longer anticipating the rapid fire of a rifle or the barrage of bullets tearing through our flesh and hurling us across the long corridors. Those corridors, spattered with our blood and cluttered with our crumpled or sprawling bodies, go on gleaming with polished surfaces and with the afternoon light of the June sun that streams incandescent rivulets through the panoramic windows. But the sunlight cannot retain the tranquil glow that, only minutes earlier, it brought to the southwest wing of our school in Green Hills, Maine. The glow has turned eerie, touching as it does our fallen and disfigured bodies.
There has been no Code Red warning. There has been only our split-second awareness that a killer is in our midst and firing bullets from his AR-15.
Even my ability to predict the future has failed me. My devious ways have clouded my foresight. I have not anticipated this terrifying moment when a killer is rushing upon us.
“It’s Henderson!” Dion Williams shouts, his deep, usually assured voice tightening with fear.
The jagged sounds of the shooting cause all of us to turn and to pause, though only for a moment. A tall figure at the opposite end of the hall is heading toward us. He is wearing a helmet, a camouflage combat uniform, a flak vest, and army boots. His large, rough hands are grasping the AR-15 that he has just fired. He is Henderson. He’s often posted photos of himself on Facebook and on Instagram wearing that same uniform and wielding the same rifle. With swift strides he is moving toward us, past the sprawled and bleeding body of Ms. Patel, our biology teacher, and past the bullet-battered body of Mr. Marchand, our Advanced French teacher and our JROTC instructor.
“He’s shooting at us!” Dion yells, still not quite believing what he sees.
Henderson keeps firing his rifle, moving with methodical steps toward us.
The eleven of us, close friends ever since we bonded in the first grade, have been walking at a brisk pace. We left our biology class only minutes earlier and are making our way at the end of the crowd of other juniors and seniors that, like ourselves, are hurrying on to their next classes in the southwest wing. Now, without another word, we eleven friends and the twenty other students who are there turn from Boyd Henderson and race across the corridor, weighed down though we are by our backpacks and impeded by our scrambling and jostling. Some of us bump against one another. Some of us push forward the hastening figures in front of us. A few of us scream with terror.
A bullet flies into Alessandro Bianchi, who has been running beside me. His forehead blows open, and brain tissue scatters on the air and on my left shoulder in the same instant that his long, muscular body keels over, rests momentarily on his knees, and then falls face down.
I keep running, pushing my way with zigzagging trajectory beyond Jayden McDonald, Dion Williams, Shiloh Jackson, and Ari Bachman as bullets mow them down.
I race past our computer wiz Jason Teng, beautiful Chloe Bradbury, and good-natured Brenda Flynn as they fall away behind me. The rat-tat-tat of Henderson’s rifle is singeing the air with the velocity and heat of its bullets.
I run faster, always zigzagging through the long corridor ahead of me. I feel flushed. I hear my ragged breathing.
I trip over the fallen body of Sonia Janowski, the sheen of her amber blonde flowing hair covered in blood and with bits of her flesh.
Then, suddenly, our school’s champion swimmer Abigail Emerson and I are the only ones running.
I am only vaguely aware that she is falling.
In those final moments, there flashes through my mind the full realization that I am not going to reach the emergency exit door that stands a hundred feet ahead of me. I, Cassandra Winslow, having lived for a mere eighteen years, am being thrown out of life.
“It isn’t fair!” my mind protests and then protests once more. “It isn’t fair!”
I wince at the burning sensation of the bullets entering my back and the sight of the blood gushing out of my chest. I hear, though only for an instant, the thud-thud-thud of the bullets just before they cut their way into my neck and blow massive holes into my brain.
I die in that very moment, the world that I had known so briefly scattering away into explosive flashes of darkness and coiling back into its own brightness that I can no longer fathom.
This is the moment of my liftoff. My Spirit springs free of my earthbound body. My whole being glows as though it is a ghostly spacecraft in search of a mystical orbit. All at once I am a Shadow, traveling on a beam of light into a supernatural reality.
I go out of ordinary time and enter the world not of the dead. I have left my dead self far behind me, back there, within Earth that is time-trapped and temporary. Sojourn, the new world that I enter, is also time-bound. But it is tethered to a more quickened, supernatural time that precedes the journey into the Eternal. Spirits, Shadows, and Shades live here. It is a vast world that never seems crowded. Apparitions, Phantoms, and Specters also reside here. Capacious rooms and long, wide halls and corridors fan out with sinuous velocity. Space keeps winding and curving and meandering even as it spreads its voluminous dimensions into still wider rooms, corridors, fields, plains, avenues, and whole cities.
Eventually, in varying episodes here in Sojourn and back on Earth, I shall be a Shadow, an Apparition, and a Phantom. During the first months of my training in the Afterlife, I shall acquire the appropriate powers of each kind of ghost. Right now, my being is entirely a Spirit only at times. For the first months after my death and all through my training in ghostliness, I shall appear to be full-bodied, even though my body of flesh and blood, yoked as it is to the Spirit-Life informing it, is vanishing by nearly imperceptible degrees. Gradually, I shall be a fully radiant Spirit.
So Mr. Steerforth explains, shortly after our arrival here. Our orientation packet of information tells us that his first name is Robert. He is answering Dion’s question about why our bodies sometimes glow so brightly that the light appears to consume or conceal them or, possibly, makes them disappear.
“The light here has a way of doing that,” Mr. Steerforth calmly answers him. “For now, Spirit-light will take hold of you every once in a while. It wants you to get used to it. It wants you to be comfortable. So don’t you or your classmates or your teachers worry about losing your bodies and turning into Spirits. Each of you has always been a Spirit. Now you need to learn how to be a Spirit without a body.”
My earliest experience of the supernatural world is this meeting with Mr. Steerforth. He is a manager of things here, though he is not the commanding officer. Call him a meticulous advisor, if you like. He is one of the leaders who will decide what is going to happen to our group now that we are dead to our earthly lives. But I’ll tell you more about that later.
First, I want to tell you more about Sojourn. It is a natural satellite of Earth that is located in a transitional space between our homes in Green Hills, Maine, and the First Heaven. It is a haven and a temporary place for those of us who are waiting to make the journey to The First Heaven. Sojourn is invisible to even the largest telescopes, the swiftest spacecraft, and the most advanced NASA instruments. We, the earthly dead who have recently arrived here only to discover that we are not dead in Sojourn, have not lost our memories of Earth or our yearning to return to the places that knew us well and the people that gave us their unconditional love. Perhaps, we shall never lose that memory or that yearning. But we are millions of miles away from Earth, which is The Second Heaven and the one that most human beings never recognize as a treasure beyond price and as a world filled with miracle workers and beneficent Spirits.
“Some folks do manage to see Earth for what it is, though,” Mr. Steerforth tells the thirteen of us during the first day of our orientation. “A few philosophers, maybe, and a poet or two. Surgeons, nurses, schoolteachers, scientists, and caring parents—the ones who value life and who always work to make things better.”
As he speaks, his lanky body sometimes glows. Its amber sheen moves in and out of brightness that on this first day leaves us awed in an altogether different way. I wonder whether he is a god or some holy messenger. Whenever the brightness covering him becomes dim, we see Mr. Steerforth as the man he must have been in the moment that he died. His oblong face, with its forehead, cheekbones, and jawline similar in size; his slightly tousled dark hair; and his well-groomed beard give him the look of a college professor who may be in his mid-thirties or even forty.
Jayden McDonald has the same idea.
“Were you a college professor?” he asks.
“I was a vice-president of a steel corporation in Pennsylvania.”
“Did you like it?”
“I had a great life. I enjoyed every minute of it.”
“You must miss it very much.”
“In the beginning I did. But I’ve learned to accept who I am now. All of you will, too, eventually.”
“How?” Sonia Janowski, with her scientific interests, asks him. “How did you die?”
“A brain aneurysm. It was a quick death.”
“Sixty-two years ago.”
“Where did it happen?” Jason Teng, our high school’s computer wiz, inquires.
“I was involved in a symposium of global business leaders. It was a lovely summer day in Brazil. I’d been speaking to ninety-nine other corporate leaders about the importance of diversifying our products and our markets. I believed that what I was saying was meaningful and helpful. I felt that everyone who was in that room appreciated what I was saying. I remember thinking that I was living through one of my happiest days. That was my last thought before I keeled over and fell away from the speaker’s podium. That was the moment I died, without a warning and without a chance to say goodbye to my wife, our two sons, and our daughter.”
Ari Bachman quietly studies him. He begins to regard him now as one like all of us.
“You know then,” he says. “You know the pain that doesn’t leave you. You know how it feels to be cut off from earthly life when there are so many years that you haven’t lived.”
“Yes,” Mr. Steerforth answers him. “I know. It’s true that I lived twenty-five years more than most of you lived. But I wasn’t supposed to die at the age of forty-two. My father lived for ninety-six years. My doctor thought I was going to live to be a hundred. Only a week before I died, he told me that I was in fine shape. But that’s how life is. Sometimes, it plays tricks on us.”
His brown eyes look straight at us with interest and even enthusiasm. Death has not deprived him of his keen-eyed glance or of his easy-going manner, anchored as it is to a gentleman’s reserve. Right away, we know where we stand with him. There will be no pretense between us. There will be no hedging of truth or casual lies meant to keep us from dealing with the tragedy that has enfolded us.
“You’ll get used to the way things are now,” he tells us, nudging us toward a hope that now seems impossible for us to attain. “You’ll stop feeling sorry for yourselves.”
He pauses, observing the effect of his words upon us, here in the conference room where we are seated at a long table suitable for a symposium that invites questions and answers and an exchange of ideas. The thought enters my mind that such a table, with its mahogany sheen and its solid structure, might also be suitable in a Hall of Justice, where prosecutors and judges oversee grueling interrogations. But, with the wiliness that has often served me well, I push that dark thought down into the deeper corner of my awareness. I want to believe that Mr. Steerforth is really on our side. My intuition tells me that he will always be on the level with us. But he will also call a spade a spade. When he evaluates the ways that we conducted ourselves while we were alive on Earth, he may not be as friendly as he appears to be. My insight tells me about the easygoing man he used to be. My knack for interpreting the future sends ominous flares about his more recently acquired hardheartedness as a Spirit who is both hunter and prosecutor.
I suppress my apprehension. I concentrate on this specific moment.
Now all of us are listening with the concentration that his words merit. In this hour at least, he understands our sorrow and our longing to go back to the life that has finished with us too soon. Even when Ari cries out angrily, his voice stifling deep sobs, Mr. Steerforth understands.
“I want to go back,” Ari says, his words rising out of his angry whisper and finding the deeper notes of a plea. “I want to be with my mother and my father. I want to see my brother and my sister. I want to ask them to forgive me.”
The room falls silent, though only for a moment. Ari has dared to reveal his emotions. He has broken the silent pact that has always existed between each of us separately and with all the others we have called our friends and acquaintances.
Now Ari’s anguished crying pierces through the silence. The cries that he tries to suppress rack his muscular frame and leave him breathless and despairing. He is not used to crying. He was a cross-country champion, a goalkeeper for the soccer team, and a first-rate boxer. His manly self-image has never before permitted crying. His face is flushed, and tears roll down his cheeks. If we were back at school on the Earth that has abandoned us, some of us girls and a couple of his soccer teammates might hurry to comfort him, once we had gone past our awkward hesitation. But Ari’s cries are filled with such profound grief, and his body is so contorted by the pain of even deeper sobbing that we do not move from our chairs. Instead, straining to maintain control, yet failing, all of my classmates burst into angry tears and bitter moaning. Even Ms. Patel begins to weep, discreetly covering her face with her hands while our wailing unsettles the precise orderliness of the conference room. Only Mr. Marchand refuses to weep. War-hardened and fatalistic, he and Death are no strangers. On many battlefields in Afghanistan, he has seen his friends die, and he has killed enemies. Now Death has overtaken him. It was in the cards. It was his fate. Weeping won’t change things.
Instantly, three women who are Mr. Steerforth’s assistants leave their places at the table and hurry to comfort those of us who are crying or, at least, to help us tamp down our fears. They bring us rallying words and soothing water from Sojourn’s magical springs. Here, in this supernatural region, we require no other food or drink.
One of these women is big-bodied, tough-minded, and unsentimental. The other two are very slim and immaculately groomed. Later, we shall learn that the two women who come forward to greet us first of all are sisters and that they spent their earthly lives in Boston, Massachusetts. Today, they appear to be separated by a generation, though our group will learn in the days to come that they were born within a year of one another. They died a few years after they entered their nineties. The older, big-bodied sister, who appears to be nearly forty, is Mrs. Howard Adams. The other Spirits sometimes address her as Maggie. She is the first to come forward to greet us. When she was alive on earth, she was a registered nurse who assisted her husband in his practice of internal medicine. She and her husband were the same age. But he died when he was thirty-eight, shot down with their three children by a teen-age serial killer at a ski resort in Aspen, Colorado.
The second woman coming forward to greet us is Mrs. Adams’ sister, Miss Melanie Dickinson. Today, she appears to be a blue-eyed blonde woman of twenty-two. The man that she loved saw her on Earth for the last time when she was that age. That was the year when her fiancé, Captain Randall Johnson, was killed in the Second World War. Always, during the many years she lived on earth without him, she worried that in the Afterlife her fiancé would not recognize her because she had grown old. Shortly after her arrival in Sojourn, though, she was elated to learn that she could choose to be the age she was when her fiancé last saw her on Earth.
She is going to tell us all these things and more during the days of our training.
While she was alive on Earth, Miss Dickinson enjoyed platonic friendships with many eligible men. But she never accepted their proposals of marriage.
“I’m already married,” she used to tell them. “I’m married to the Spirit of a brave man who died fighting for your freedom and mine.”
My foresight tells me that we are going to meet her fiancé very soon.
Miss Dickinson is a self-assured woman. She owned a successful dress shop in Boston. She also designed an impressive line of dresses and gowns that became a national brand.
These sisters do not try to cheer us. They know that such a response to our grief is inappropriate. Instead, they choose words that nudge us toward the probability of hope and the possibility of rescue.
The third woman is no less encouraging, though far more artificial. She is Mrs. Robert Steerforth. My classmates, teachers, and I have learned that her first name is Amelia, though we never address her by that name. She is a well-groomed, sophisticated woman who had hosted many grand parties for her husband’s business associates and their wives. She also led fund drives for the poor and the disabled and for high school graduates in need of college scholarships. Those are impressive credentials that convince most of the group that she is on our side. But I recognize her type. Beneath the decorum, there exists a cynical view of human beings and an unforgiving nature. For this meeting, she chooses to appear as a woman of forty, though she died when she was ninety-two. Her auburn hair is pulled back to make a neat coil at the nape of her neck. If you saw her, you would probably say that her oval face, her hazel eyes and upturned nose, and her sculpted cheekbones make her a lovely woman. But my classmates and two of our teachers, who are sitting at the conference table, uncertain of our surroundings and traumatized by the loss of our earthly lives, regard Mrs. Steerforth’s kind manner and her heartening words as more important than her attractive appearance.
Only I see through her. She will be giving all of us a hard time.
“Everything will be all right,” she tells us, as she offers the spring water to Ari, Chloe, Brenda, and me. “You’ll see.”
“It’s only natural that you feel this way,” Mrs. Adams explains, the equally contrived calm of her demeanor and encouraging voice working their solace upon Sonia, Abigail, and Shiloh. “You’ve just begun your journey.”
She offers the same show of compassionate solace to Alessandro, Ms. Patel and Mr. Marchand.
Miss Dickinson echoes similar sentiments. But her words are heartfelt and sincere. She stirs my trust.
“Be patient,” she advises Jason, Dion, and Jayden, “and don’t worry. You’ll be happy again. I promise.”
The spring water helps us. So do the kind words. But only when Mr. Steerforth, with a prayerful gesture, clasps his hands does our crying cease. All this while he has been observing us with apparently sympathetic eyes as he stands by his chair at the head of the table. It is in this instant that I realize his prayerful hands contain supernatural powers. He could have offered those powers minutes earlier. But he prefers that we cry ourselves out. He respects our anguish. He believes that in this hour at least we should not suppress it. He knows that it is impossible for us and for anyone else to deny the tragedy that has happened to us. He understands that, anchored as we are to this natural satellite of Earth, we carry with us our memories of the lives that we had never stopped wanting to live, even during those times when we confronted disappointment or worked our way through uncertainty and through our own fallible individuality.
“You’ve had your cry,” Mr. Steerforth says, his manner fatherly yet matter-of-fact and emotionally detached. “There will be other times when you will cry again, because you’re thinking of home. As Mrs. Adams told you, crying is a natural response to everything that has happened to you.”
Mr. Steerforth’s words give us pause. I need to know his answer to Ari’s plea about going back to his parents and his friends. My classmates and our teachers want to know, too. I raise my hand and wait for Mr. Steerforth to peer my way and, with a nod of his head, signal me to say what I have a mind to ask him.
“Will we ever be allowed to go back?”
With no hesitation, he answers me.
“Eventually. For a day, a week, a month, or even a year. But only as benevolent Spirits or unrelenting Phantoms or wily Shape-shifters. Unless the Evaluation Committee decides that you should have the chance to relive your last week or month or year on Earth. You will know the answer to that after some of you have reviewed your lives with the Evaluation Committee and with your group.”
I tense up. The prospect of talking about myself with a committee of strangers and with my classmates and teachers does not appeal to me.
Resentful and impatient, I ask another question, fragmented though it is.
Mr. Steerforth notices my displeasure and smiles in the face of it.
“We are a committee of five. Captain Johnson heads the committee. Mrs. Steerforth, Mrs. Adams, Miss Dickinson, and I assist him.”
I probe further.
“What do you do? What is it you are looking for?”
“We want you to tell us the truth about yourselves. We already know everything about your earthly lives that has been important. We know about the good that you have accomplished. We also know the mistakes that have blemished some of you. Nevertheless, we want to find out whether those among you who have done wrong can be honest with yourselves and with us. We want you to tell us about the most grievous wrong that you have committed.”
He pauses. He studies our reactions to his words. Only after that does he tell us more.
“Those of you whom the committee calls will become involved in an important conversation with the Five Spirits and with some of your classmates and your two teachers. You will need to explain the dangerous wrongdoing or grievous crimes that your earthly lives concealed and for which you have not paid the full penalties. I’ve already mentioned that we know the lives that you have led. We are calling you to account for your behavior.”
“How long will that take?”
“That depends on how long it takes for each errant person among you to tell the truth. There is much for them to tell. There is something that all of you can learn. Afterwards, there will be even more to do.”
Hearing this brief exchange of words, my classmates and my two teachers become uneasy. I can imagine what they are thinking. Being accused of wrongdoing that they have probably taught themselves to forget will make death an even more lacerating experience. Being compelled to review the lives that they no longer possess will intensify the anguish that is burning through their souls.
I feel the same way. Anger is rousing the rebellious part of me. That part is no stranger to me. I can’t help myself. With a voice both sullen and grating, I lodge a protest.
“It will be too painful!” I exclaim. “Reliving our mistakes is a bitter kind of punishment.”
Mrs. Steerforth comes into it now. Her confident voice, with its steely edges, never wavers. She is nudging me forward—and not only me, but also everyone else in our group.
“All of you can bear up to it, if you try,” she says. “Admitting your most grievous wrongdoing will set you free. You can begin a clean slate after that, here on Sojourn, before you make your journey to the First Heaven.”
Miss Dickinson coaxes us now. Her voice is more soothing than Mrs. Steerforth’s, but no less insistent.
“Make a good beginning here,” she says, “if the Evaluation Committee calls on you. Tell us what we already know. Tell it to the group. Own up to it. Stare it down, if you must. But tell it as it really happened, no matter how painful it is for you to recall it.”
Murmurs of uncertainty rise from my classmates and me. Once again, I guess what they are thinking. Jayden McDonald speaks out now for all of us. Tall and good-looking with brown hair and blue eyes, he was the captain of our tennis team and an equally first-rate soccer player. He was also known for his good humor and his friendly disposition. Here, in this Sojourn moment, his words sound as troubled as they are melancholic.
“Each of us made so many mistakes while we were living on Earth,” he says, his gravelly voice searching for answers. “How do we choose? How can we know which of our mistakes harmed others or ourselves most of all?”
“You will know,” Mrs. Adams answers him. “When you recall your life back there on Earth, you will understand, possibly for the first time, what you did well and what you did badly or failed to do. Your memory of it will be like a dream that unspools itself while you are awake.”
“Or like a nightmare,” Mrs. Steerforth says, unwilling to deny the anguish that yokes itself to the memory of our most grievous mistakes.
Once more, I raise my voice in protest.
“It’s not right!” I declare. “It can never be right. There are no killers among us. You should be going after Henderson. He is the killer. He is the monster who killed all of us.”
Mr. Steerforth comes back into it.
“Yes,” he agrees. “Boyd Henderson is everything you say he is. He is a killer. He is a monster. His actions are unforgivable.”
I push forward.
“He’s the one who should confess his sins. He’s the one who should call himself a foul murderer.”
“Henderson has already been dealt with,” he says. “Two days after you died, a state trooper from Roanoke, Virginia, killed him in a shootout that took place on a mountain trail there, in the midst of giant redwoods, white pines, and Siberian elms and in sight of a magnificent park and lake.”
Nobody speaks. Our breathing comes faster. Mr. Steerforth’s words weigh heavily upon us. After these conflicted seconds, Shiloh Jackson breaks through the silence and speaks his mind. He is a Native American. His wiry physique and tawny skin enhance his good looks. While he was alive, he made many friends and excelled at hockey and boxing. He acquired an enviable reputation for his rigorous discipline and his realistic appraisal of things.
“Henderson deserved what he got,” he says, his voice raspy and bitter. “It’s too bad he couldn’t be shot over and over again. Always.”
No one in our group disagrees. We merely listen and cloak our consent inside the new layers of stillness.
Mr. Steerforth has more to tell us.
“Shooting Henderson again and again won’t be possible,” he explains. “He will be brought before The Spirits and prosecuted for his crimes. If the First Spirit condemns him, Henderson’s body will vanish for all time. Even his Spirit will disappear for all eternity.”
Once more, a hush falls upon all of us. To vanish so completely, to disappear forever—the mere thought disconcerts and appalls us. That is a dying different from our own. That is death made unremitting and irrevocable.
My body trembles before the bleakness of that thought.
As though she means to solace all of us, Miss Dickinson softens her voice while she offers more information to the entire group about our public confessions.
“Tomorrow, our committee will begin hearing the testimonies of those among you who are being called to explain your lives,” she says. “Tell the committee why your life on Earth counted for something. Tell us about one of the good things that you accomplished. Tell us about one of the things that you did not do and should have done. Tell us, also, about the mistake you made that hurt someone who trusted you.”
Again I lodge a protest.
“Isn’t it enough that we have been murdered? We’ve been cut off from our lives when we had hardly begun them. What good will come from our reliving what we’ve lost? What’s the good of our humiliating ourselves by confessing our sins in public?”
“Good will come from it,” Miss Dickinson says. “You’ll see.”
Mr. Steerforth tells us more.
“Once again I must remind you. We already know about your lives,” he says. “If those of you whom the committee calls declare the truth of who you are, the committee may change the fact of your dying and the dying of every other member in your group.”
His words astonish us. It is hard to fathom what we are hearing.
Mr. Marchand, who had withdrawn to the privacies of his own anguish, makes contact with the group once again. Excited, he begins speaking in French.
“Cela peut-il être vrai? Pouvons-nous vraiment récupérer nos vies sur Terre?”
The Steerforths and Miss Dickinson have no trouble understanding him, even though he speaks at a fast clip. Neither Ms. Patel, nor my classmates have any difficulty understanding him. Nevertheless, Mr. Marchand repeats his questions in English.
“Can it be true? Can we really reclaim our lives on Earth?”
“Sometimes,” Mr. Steerforth says. “Once in a while, the committee finds reasons to push the clock back, so that those persons who have recently died can return to Earth and replay the scenes of their deaths. On special occasions, some of those persons who have died escape death in the new scenario.”
Now Alessandro, one of Green Hills High School’s excellent boxers and swimmers, asks the question that is goading the uneasiness of all our classmates.
“Does that happen very often?”
“No,” Mr. Steerforth answers him. “Only in rare cases.”
Mrs. Steerforth offers us a further clarification. She reminds us that even in Sojourn nothing comes free.
“On the other hand,” she explains, “there have been instances when all but one of the dead are given back their lives on Earth. But a situation like that occurs only when one person in the group is willing to sacrifice herself or himself, so that the others may reclaim their lives.”
“Will that happen to us?” Ms. Patel asks. “Will one of us be asked to sacrifice his or her life, so that all the others may go on living on Earth?”
“Maybe,” Mr. Steerforth says. “Maybe not. Let’s find out what happens.”
“That is why the testimonies that some of you give tomorrow are so important,” Mrs. Adams warns us. “The committee will be judging you as individuals and as a group. Follow Ms. Dickinson’s advice. Be brief. Be honest. Your fates depend upon what you tell us about yourselves.”
Mr. Steerforth says more. He wants to set us straight. He prefers that we understand the journey that we are about to navigate.
“Even if the committee allows your group to relive your last day or even your last year on Earth, that will not happen until we hear the testimonies of those whom we call to tell about their lives and after we determine whether your going back will really make a difference.”
This news does not dismay us. In fact, it pleases and surprises everyone in the group. It gives us time to hope that we might, after all, go back to our lives on Earth. The news surprises us in other ways, too. The thought of going back not only exhilarates us. It leaves us with a vague apprehension. Which of us will reclaim our lives? Which of us will die again?
Instantly, I begin searching my past life. I ferret out incidents when I did not behave well. I recall the times that I betrayed my friends, mistreated anyone who challenged or competed with me, and lied to my parents. I explore the ruthless part of my nature. I sift out the malice and the envy. Then I back away. The memory of the imperfect being that I was becomes a bruised and scalding awareness. I do not care to revisit those scenes.
I panic. I try to remember all the times when I did the right things. I search for clues. Frantic, I cannot recall the scenes that validate my kindness, generosity, and empathy. If they are there, they have been lost inside the welter of other scenes that brand me self-centered, deceitful, and untrustworthy. I cannot bear to remember them. I cringe at the thought that, on the following morning, I shall have to confront the committee who already knows the tarnished facts of my life on Earth.
I try to devise a plausible narrative that will excuse my wrongdoing and that will enhance the good that I have accomplished. In my imaginary narrative, I equivocate. I use language ambiguously so that what I call my good intentions will deflect the disappointment and hurt that my erring conduct has wrought upon others. But I cannot go on with it. I wonder what I will say to the committee and how they will judge me. They are hunting me down, and I am unable to hide from them.
I hide me from myself.