I was always afraid of the dark, so when the blackness ended I had no idea how much time had passed. When afraid, time is irrelevant. While living a nightmare, minutes could pass, then hours, or even days.
I woke up lying on dewy grass. I was alert as if I had been asleep seconds rather than hours. Was I even asleep for hours? I didn’t know the answer. In fact… I didn’t know anything.
As I sat up and surveyed the world around me, I was perplexed. Thought I was on a flat expanse of silvery green grass, I couldn’t see where the field ended. In fact, I couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of me because of the thick, light gray fog that was so dense it almost took on a bluish tone. The fog felt like a tangible thing, like I could cut though it with a knife.
I couldn’t stay there forever, so I decided to walk into the fog in front of me. It swallowed me up as I moved. I kept walking and walking with no sense of direction or purpose. I finally saw a shape in front of me. It was absolutely clear that this person was a little girl. She approached me; she had a crop of honey colored curls dangling from her head and past her shoulders. She wore a lavender dress, a brown coat, and had no shoes on.
“Hello,” she said. She didn’t sound at all like a little girl when she added, “It’s about time you got here.”
“What?” I asked, looking around. She could only have been addressing me.
“You took a long time to find your way here,” she said. “Come walk with me. We’ll talk.”
I didn’t have any other choice. I went with her.
“So, where am I?” I asked her as we went along. She held my hand, leading me through the fog. “What and I doing here? How did I get here?”
“I think a better question would be: Who are you?” The little girl provided.
I was about to reply, but then I realized… I didn’t know who I was. I couldn’t remember my name, if I was a boy or a girl, how old I was, what I looked like, or even what my life was like. How was that possible?
I looked down at myself for the first time. I was a girl, I was sure of that much. I wore a white dress with tiny purple flowers on it, and I was wearing white sandals. I was dressed for the summertime, but I wasn’t sure what the weather was like in that place. I couldn’t feel warmth or cold, wet or dry. I looked at my hands: they were thin and fair-skinned, with perfectly manicured nails. I reached up to my head and pulled my hair in front of my face. It was silky and light blonde.
“Blue eyes too,” the little girl provided, seeing that I was checking myself for physical traits. “You’re quite the English rose, or so it seems.”
I speak with an accent? “I don’t understand. Why don’t I know anything about myself?”
“Because you’re dead,” she said simply.
This hit me like a sack of bricks. “What?”
“You died, but you got lost,” she explained. “This is the place between places. It’s the only thing between the physical world and the afterlife. You strayed here, and now you must find your way out.”
“How can I do that?” I asked.
“There are six levels of the afterlife. You and I are in the first level,” the little girl gestured around. “This represents your level. It shows you how your slate has been wiped clean. It’s barren, like your memory. In the coming levels, you will have to find one person who has died and is trapped here and help each of them escape.”
“You must help guide them out,” the girl said. “Each level become harder because you must bear the physical and emotional weight with them in order to free them.”
“After I do this,” I asked warily, “will I get my memory back? Will I know who I am and how I died?”
She explained, “Right now, you only have one clue to your life, and it is inside your mind.” The little girl tapped the side of her head. “It’s one word.”
“No,” she shook her head. “It is a single word that has something to do with either your life or your death. Only you know it.”
I thought for a moment, and before I could react the word came to the forefront of my mind. No images, no reason, just a word.
“Heather,” I said. The word rolled off my tongue strangely. I didn’t know what it meant.
“Heather,” the little girl repeated. “That’s what I’ll call you, then.” In front of them, a form shimmered to life: a bright red door, with a rusty number 2 on it. Underneath of it, scratched crudely into the surface of the wood, was one word: Helix.
“That’s the second level,” the little girl said. “The boy inside is called Helix, just like you are called Heather. You will regain your entire memory after level six. This is where I leave you,” the girl let go of my hand and stepped back. “I’ll see you on level six.”
As she turned and began to move away, I called out, “Wait!”
She turned again. “Yes?”
“What are you called?” I asked.
She gave a small smile. “Hummingbird.” And with that she was gone.
I turned and opened the door, and as I stepped inside the field was sucked away. In a rush of wind I was inside a long, dark hallway. I hate the dark, I thought as I quickly moved towards the end. There was a light, and as I approached it and went through it I came into a doctor’s office. A doctor in a white coat was holding a clipboard and talking to a woman. She was crying. They didn’t notice me. I went over to the stool and picked up the clipboard.
Suddenly, the woman got up and hastily grabbed her purse. I followed her out, dropping the clipboard on the floor. I couldn’t lose her. I opened the back door and entered with her and she still didn’t notice me. Was this the person I was supposed to help, or was she leading me to the person I was supposed to help? She was still crying as she drove.
Soon we had pulled up to a house and she went inside. She went up a set of stairs we came into a room. It was covered in toys and colorful wallpaper, and there was a crib on the far side of the room. As the woman leaned over it and spoke softly to the baby inside, I joined her.
It was a boy. He was dressed in a blue onesie and he was looking up at us, but there was something about his expression that wasn’t quite… there. It looked like he was staring right past us, right through us.
This baby wasn’t normal, and soon I realized that this baby was Helix. He was called Helix because he had a genetic disease. Something told me he didn’t very long past this age.
I had one chance. The woman didn’t notice me. I picked up Helix.
The woman turned to me. Her face was full of rage as she grabbed at me and cried in accented English, “Give me back my baby!”
I ran with him out the door, the woman clawing at our heels. The long, dark hallway reappeared as we ran from her.
“Don’t take my baby!” she pleaded. “Please God, give him back to me!”
As I reached the door at the end, it was the red door again. It had a big 3 on the front, and under it a new name was carved: Hollow.
As I opened the door, the woman lunged at me. “Don’t take him away from me!”
The wind took us away and something told me she wasn’t talking about me anymore.
The scene changed, and Helix looked up at me with big, unrecognizing eyes as he glowed brightly and disappeared from my arms.
I was now in the middle of nowhere. The sun shone strong and harsh on my exposed shoulders as I tried to find out where in the world I was. Gnats flew around me and I promptly swatted them away as I went along.
There was a small stream running up ahead, and I could see a few children crouching next to it. They were all African, which led me to believe that we were indeed in their homeland. They couldn’t have been older than eleven and each was thoroughly emaciated. They each filled two buckets with water from the dirty stream.
One of these boys was Hollow. They were hollow inside from hunger – it was easy to tell. Which one was it, though?
The four boys got up and moved together, talking in feeble yet swift African dialect. The smallest struggled to keep up, and the largest helped him keep along.
I traveled with them, and the sun seemed to get hotter as they went along. Soon, the smallest began to fall behind and the others didn’t notice.
We came to a village, and the first thing I noticed was the armed men. One of them wielded the Somalian flag. The four kids gave one bucket to a man who poked a rifle at them, keeping the smaller bucket for themselves. The smallest one gave over his bucket, but the man looked inside and saw that it was half full and spewed angry words at him I couldn’t not understand.
The largest boy began to argue, and quick as a flash one of the men drew his gun and shot the boy in the chest. As I rushed to him, it was clear to me: Hollow didn’t describe his death, it described his life.
The men became aware of me as I scooped up the boy in my arms. The men drew their guns at me and I ran back into the desert, bullets flying at me all the way.
The door wasn’t far away, but the men were gaining fast. The boy was bleeding on me.
The red door had the number four on it, and underneath it said: Hearth. I opened the door and as the wind carried us away, the blood disappeared and the boy vanished.
I was now inside an old house. It was cozy and warm and full of life. All the furniture was old-fashioned and the rug was dusty. A fire burned strong and bright in the fireplace, sending warm waves in the room as an old woman sat in a chair, reading a book. This old woman was obviously Hearth because she was sitting right in front of one, but where was the challenge? What was keeping her from escaping?
She was the first one to see me before I took her through the door. She smiled and said, “Oh no, another one?”
“What do you mean?”
The woman closed her book. “I’ve seen people like you all my life. All over the place. This time’s no different.”
I understood immediately. “You’re a medium?”
“Correct my dear,” she stood up and came to me. “You want to take me? Go ahead. I want to leave so badly. I’ve been ready since my eighty fifth birthday,” she gave a dry, coughing chuckle. “Maybe you’ll be able to get me to escape this time. We should start moving now, or else he’ll come for me again.”
“Who’s ‘he’?” I asked as the floor began to rumble and picture frames fell of the walls, shattering on the floor. The old woman just sighed.
“My husband just doesn’t like to let go,” she said, moving towards the door.
I looked back as something fell off the mantle and made an audible crack. It was an urn, painted like old china, and out from it poured someone’s ashes. A great wind whisked the ashes up in a spiral and a wrinkles, rage-ridden face erupted forward as we ran down the dark hallway.
“I know you can hear me!” the booming voice addressed Hearth. “I know you can see me! Don’t ignore me!”
The woman, for the first time, looked scared of this man as they went down the hall. She was going as fast as she could, but it wasn’t fast enough. Why was the hallway so long this time?
“Leave me alone!” Hearth cried as she stumbled on a floorboard. “You can’t hurt me!” That didn’t seem to stop him.
“You’re mine! Come back!” He cried, surging towards us.
The red door was within our reach. It had a number 5 on it, and underneath it was a word: Hinder. I threw the door open as the ash covered us, and the wind carried him away.
“Thank you,” the woman said as she glowed and disappeared. “He can’t haunt me anymore.”
Still frazzled from the last encounter, I turned and saw that I was in a city. I was in a dark alleyway and the noise around me was of bustling cars and moving people.
I went around to the front, out of the alley, and saw that there was a sign for the bar flashing in bright lights above the complex. I looked inside and saw that it was nearly empty. It was late.
I pushed my way inside. I’d never been in a bar before – or I didn’t think I had, at least. Nobody saw me. I looked around, but there was only one person: a man sitting alone with several glasses piled up in front of him.
I didn’t know what Hinder was supposed to mean, but it had to be him. The bartender went over to the man and took his glasses away.
“Another whiskey,” the man asked, slurring his words.
“You sure?” The bartender asked. “You’ve had a lot.”
“Just give it to me,” the man snarled as the bartender poured him another glass.
“Troubles with the wife?” The bartender asked. “How’d the trial go?”
The man didn’t say anything, he just downed half the glass in one gulp and put money on the table and left.
I followed him down the street as he stumbled towards the corner. Taking a few more hasty lefts, he began to jog away and I had to run to keep up. We ran like that for a long time and I was beginning to grow tired when we came up to bridge. Oh no, I thought as we made our way to the apex.
He stood there, looking down for a good long while, and then before I could react he jumped up, swung his legs over, and jumped into the dark, swirling water.
“No!” I shrieked, and before I could stop myself I climbed over the bar and jumped in after him.
The water hit me like a wrecking ball to the gut. I felt like I was being punched all over my body. After a few moments of struggle, I saw the man’s arm come up from the water and I forced my way against the rapids to search for him. Hinder’s eyes were closed, his mouth agape.
I pulled him towards the riverbank. I was physically fatigued and my arms were on fire as I tugged his upper body onto the embankment. I coughed the water out of my own lungs and then went to work getting the water out of his.
Am I too late? I thought with a jolt as Hinder didn’t respond. I looked up and saw that we were both in front of the red door. The number on top was 6 and there was one familiar word on it: Hummingbird.
It might not have mattered at all, but I reached up and pushed the door open, dragging Hinder’s limp body inside. The wind came up around us and his eyes fluttered open. He looked older up close; late forties, maybe.
He looked at me as he glowed and disappeared and simply said, “You saved my life.”
That’s the thing, though, I thought with a pang in my chest. I didn’t. In that moment I understood why his name was Hinder: life just seemed to hinder him.
The last level was Hummingbird’s. As the scene formed around me, I thought: Why does she need my help escaping if she can already leave?
Immediately, something was strange about the scene. It was dark, and I hated the dark. Also, I was sitting down in a confined space, and I wasn’t alone. Hummingbird was sitting across from me, her head tucked into her knees.
“Hummingbird?” I asked. “What’s going on?”
“Shh,” she said quietly. “Or they’ll find us.”
“Who will find you?” I asked. “What’s going on?”
She lowered her voice to an almost inaudible whisper. “Do you know why I was able to leave and find you?”
“No,” I replied.
“I’ve been here longest,” she said. “I’ve learned how to move round in the levels, but never how to escape. I need your help.”
“How long have you been here?” I asked.
“Since 1944,” she said.
Then I put it all together in my head. Her coat was not hiding her arms, and I could clearly see that she was wearing a thick, brown armband embroidered with the Star of David. 1944…
There was shouting outside, faint but clear. I couldn’t understand the language. They didn’t come in the room.
“Where are we right now, Hummingbird?” I asked.
“We’re under the floor,” she said.
“Are there other kids?”
“They’ve all been taken,” she replied.
“How do you remember all of this?” I asked. “Why do you have your memory?”
“In 1944, I died in a concentration camp,” she recounted. “I came to this place and escaped the levels on my own. I helped five people and earned it, but I wanted to go back and help other people get through, so I left the afterlife and came back. I expected I’d be able to escape again and again when I was finished assisting the dead, but I couldn’t do it, so I’m stuck here. I’m called Hummingbird because that was my nickname in real life.”
“I’m going to get you out of here,” I stated.
“You can’t,” she said. “They’re everywhere. We only have about two more minutes before they come into this room and take me away, just like every time before.”
“Two minutes is enough time. Come on,” I pushed the board up and let the light in, hoisting her up and out with me. We moved quietly across the floor and towards the doorway. We moved towards the stairs.
Suddenly, there was a shout and a man came around the corner, wielding a gun. He shot at us and missed, so we ran as fast as we could as the man gathered his group and came after us. We met another group at the bottom of the stairs and we bolted out the door onto the streets, where more and more men began chasing us down the street.
I could see the red door, but I could also hear the twenty men chasing us. Hummingbird and I ran, avoiding the bullets. We crashed through the red door and the wind blew the men into vapor behind us.
“Are they gone?” Hummingbird asked after a moment.
“I think so,” I said. We were surrounded by light and a new scene had not developed. I had completed the six levels… now what?
In front of me, four figures developed out of the light. Hearth was holding Helix, Hollow was no longer shot, and Hinder was alive and sober.
“You saved all of us,” Hummingbird said. “Now it’s time to get your memory back.
Hummingbird moved in front of me and reached up on her toes, pressing her fingers to my temples, and suddenly I remembered everything.
I remembered my happy childhood, full of light and beauty and smiles. My parents loved me and provided everything I needed. I got straight A’s, volunteered on the weekends, and helped those in need as best I could in my everyday life. I was a faithful member on my church and I was going into the Peace Corps when I was nineteen and they were going to pay for my college education when I got back… had it not been for the car crash.
It happened so suddenly. I didn’t see him coming. My sister lived, but I died.
My mother planted heather on my grave.
“Come on, Heather,” Hummingbird tugged my arm as the six of us walked straight into the beckoning light. “Let’s go home.”
And so we did.