The crunching of rat skulls and the jerk of a stopping vehicle jarred Liam awake.
“We’re here, sir,” the driver said.
Liam frowned as his groggy mind reordered reality. Not rat skulls. It was gravel under tires. Rubbing his temples, he barely got a glimpse of the manor before someone flung open the car door.
“Thank you,” he said to the back of the driver’s head.
The man nodded once.
Liam clutched his computer bag to his chest like a smuggler of thoughts, stepped out of the leather interior, and held his breath. Mondego Manor loomed. It was the forgotten scraps of shadows carved from clouds, the negative space of a more vibrant world. Five hundred years, two hundred rooms, and a time trove of history stroked Liam’s spine with enticing fingers. He gazed at its countless windows, spires, parapets, and statues.
“This way, sir.” Another well-dressed, stoic man—the butler, Liam assumed—motioned for him to follow. The man seemed familiar.
“Are the others here?” Liam asked as they strode across the tiny, stone skulls to a formidable door.
The doors opened from unseen hands and, like a dance, the butler stepped aside and bowed as Liam entered the manor. Two doormen stood just inside and also bowed to their esteemed guest. He felt like the Emperor with no clothes, but hey, he’d saved and paid more than enough for opened doors and genuflections.
Liam had been staring at the giant paintings all over the towering walls, and now brought his attention to the maid curtsying in front of him. “I will take you to the drawing room where the others have gathered, sir.” She reached out her hands. "I'll take that for you," meaning his computer.
He hesitated, then gave it to her. “Thanks.”
He narrowed his eyes as he followed the young woman who looked like she could’ve materialized from one of the paintings. She also seemed so very familiar. He shook the déjà vu away, knowing that the phenomenon was a mismatch of sensory input and memory in the temporal lobe, or perhaps triggered by familiarity cues. Down a long hall to his right, a dog loped from one room to another and Liam’s breath caught.
Déjà vu be damned.
“Oh, Lord have mercy, we’re here,” Cora said as the red sports car slowed to a stop.
Without a word to the driver, she grabbed her leather handbag, rotated, and gracefully rose off the white leather seat. Her black hair bounced and writhed around her broad shoulders like mating snakes. She craned her neck to take in the ten-story building while her driver went to park the car. The Empyrean soared overhead. It was sky solidified into glass and the world was its reflection.
“This way, Madam.” A lovely young woman in a sarong greeted her with open arms. Upon catching her guest’s attention, she turned, and stepped away like a ballerina on cue.
Cora smiled and followed, at peace with existence. The Empyrean was the most exclusive spa in the entire world with a waiting list five years long, and she was privileged enough to jump ahead of all those poor, waiting saps. She deserved it. After all she’d gone through in her life, all she’d fought for, all the struggle, and strife, she finally had it: wealth, purpose, respect, adoration, and identity.
Waterfalls, artfully landscaped vegetation, and Greek statues of cherubs and goddesses lined the walkway. The statue’s faces gave her an odd sensation of familiarity and she looked away.
“…All of our rare flowers are sourced from around the world.” The perky pair of legs in the sarong said, but Cora wasn’t listening.
Her guide swept through the doors as they swished open a second before that beautifully re-sculpted nose hit them.
“Welcome to Empyrean,” the attendant said with a sweep of her arm.
Cora refrained from looking like a country bumpkin in the big city, but the excitement shone past her false eyelashes. It was far more impressive than the website portrayed. Two more people appeared out of thin air, or perhaps they were statues come to life, who offered to take her bag, show her the suite, and—would she like anything to drink?
Once she was settled in her spacious top floor suite, Cora changed into her pink and gold bikini, admired her body in the wall-sized mirror, and then sat down on the California king, memory foam bed strewn with red rose petals. A tickle started in her belly, fluttered around her chest, and burst forth in a fit of giggles. With a squeal of delight, she flung herself backward onto the bed, sending rose petals whirling about. One landed on her eye and she blew it off. This was better than Heaven, or at least close to it, no blasphemy intended. Her fingers sought the golden cross between her collarbones. She wondered if Heaven would be like this as long as God had the heart not to punish her for being who she was born to be. Her elation deflated a little at these common self-flagellations. She sat up, still holding the cross between forefinger and thumb.
Besides, being gay wasn’t necessarily a sin, so why would changing one’s gender be? Unless God hadn’t come to terms with such societal progression yet.
“Sir?” the maid called after him as he turned down the hallway.
Liam ignored her, intent on following the German Shepard.
“Sir, please. The drawing room is this way.”
The thick carpet muffled his footsteps as he passed more portraits of stern faces and epic landscapes—moments of time that eluded the artist’s brush despite their earnest passion to capture them. He came to the open door the dog had gone through and peered into a dimly lit room. The spines of books covered the walls floor to ceiling like three-dimensional wallpaper. Near a curtained window an old man was ensconced in a leather Augusto chair, reading a book. The dog lay at his feet, head upon its paws. When it looked up, so did the man.
“Hello? Can I help you?”
Liam flushed. “Sorry, I just”—he pointed at the Shepard—“your dog just reminded me of my old dog from when I was a kid. His name was Dantés.”
The man looked down at his companion then back at his disturber-of-the-peace. “As all dogs do, I suppose. Come in. I assume you’re here for the writer’s retreat?”
Liam nodded as he stepped further into the warm room and sat down in a chair opposite the dog’s owner.
“I’m Gerard Polsky.” Paper-thin skin stretched over skeleton as it reached out to shake Liam’s hand. “Your host.”
“Oh! My pleasure.” Liam’s hesitation to touch death’s liaison evaporated and he shook hands.
Liam flexed his fingers and sat back in his chair. Gerard had a firmer grip on life than he would’ve guessed.
“Ever read any Alan Watts?” Gerard asked, tapping the hardback novel with his fingers.
The Shepard sighed and Liam glanced down at him. He sure looked a lot like Dantés, including the nip in his ear. He didn’t believe in assigning meaning to chance and coincidence, but he couldn’t deny that it was still sometimes eerie.
“Idiot,” his host said.
Liam looked up with a frown. “What?”
“Watts. He’s an idiot.” There was a gleam in those watery eyes.
Liam’s frown deepened and Gerard barked out a laugh that made both guest and dog jump. With a groan and raised eyebrow at its human, the dog laid its head back down.
“Unsettled by a stranger disputing your entrenched world views and sense of self?” Gerard asked with a grin. He leaned back, elbow on an armrest, and chin between his thumb and forefinger. “Funny thing is, he would probably not agree with your reaction, and would, more likely, agree with my statement.” He chuckled.
Liam wasn’t sure if he was intrigued or stung by this elderly white-o-the-wisp. He opted to argue. “He was a great philosopher who brought eastern ideas to a western audience.”
“A larcenist of jargon.” Gerard waved a dismissive hand. “A pilferer of radical thoughts before him. People like you lap it up like fruit loops. Original ideas processed and coated in colored sugar.”
“People like me?” Liam was more than stung now; he was annoyed. Who did this old guy think he was?
“You know who I am.”
Liam jerked back in his chair and gripped the armrests, his heart thudding and eyes widening. That was more than coincidence. “How did you—?”
“Know what you were thinking?” Gerard leaned forward and placed his elbows on his knees. “Where do you think you are? How many rats did it take to get you here?”
After the mud wrap, facial peel, diamond buff, and full body massage, Cora was ready to lounge next to the Olympic sized pool. She loved showing off her yoga-sculpted, and perhaps a little nipped and tucked, hourglass body. At thirty-eight she only had a couple of more years to flaunt it, or so she felt. The gender reassignment had followed her into her early twenties, so, technically, she’d only had about ten years to really enjoy being young, sexy, and female.
“May I join you?” a male voice said.
She lowered her shades in movie-star fashion and looked him up and down.
“Sure, sugar.” Two more years. She was going to lap them up like fruit loops.
His lithe, tan, and chiseled male physique lowered into the lounge chair next to hers. She raised her shades up with a grin and took a sip of her fruity, fancy mai tai. A ‘francy’ drink. She liked to make up catchy words.
“So,” the young, handsome man said as he leaned back into his chair. “What’s your excuse for Deuteronomy 22:5, ‘A woman shall not wear a man's garment, nor shall a man put on a woman's cloak, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord your God?’”
It felt like the pineapple wedge had caught in her throat.
“Excuse me?” she snapped, whipping the shades off her face.
He didn’t look at her, but grinned as he placed his hands behind his head. “You can’t wear a gilded cross, call yourself a Christian, and ignore or bend God’s word to suit your sins.”
“I—How dare you!” she sputtered as her heart hammered at this stranger’s scathing, bluntness. She sat up, hands shaking, and almost dropped her drink onto the low, bamboo table. “I—You’re…You can’t just—” She shot to her feet. The sarong slipped from her waist to the concrete as she stormed off.
She would make a complaint. Have him thrown out. How dare he assume and judge her so harshly without knowing one th—She stopped at the other end of the pool. How had he known? There was no way, just by looking at her, that anyone could tell she had been male before twenty-one. She spun around. The man was gone.
“Sorry,” someone said when they bumped into her on their way to the pool.
She didn’t acknowledge the person but narrowed her eyes. She was sure she’d seen that horrible young man before.
Liam and Gerard stared in silence at one another. A sensation of being watched, not by the old man, but of some other awareness made his stomach clench. A quick glance over his shoulder, however, revealed no one else in the room. Gerard was still smiling a smile of secrets; secrets that wriggled and clawed like cats in a sack that know the river’s embrace awaits them.
“Rats?” Liam repeated quietly.
The secrets spread further across that aged face. “Look around, Liam. Look around.” Gerard spread his arms wide.
With great effort to pull his body free, Liam dragged himself up from the chair. The bookcase caught his eye. His stride had been reduced to a shuffle constrained with dread. His trembling hand touched the spine of a book.
“Thus Spake Zarathustra,” he muttered, repeating the book’s title. He touched the one next to it. “The God Delusion.” He continued searching around the walls through random titles, his mutters becoming louder and more urgent. “Beyond Good and Evil. Nicomachean Ethics. Man’s Search for Meaning. Phaedrus. Modern Quantum Mechanics. Paradigms Lost. The Particle at the End of the Universe…” He paused on Something Deeply Hidden, and then pulled it from the shelf.
Upon opening the book, his eyes widened.
To Liam, it read. Cat’s out of the bag. Sean.
“How?” The words dried up in his throat like summer-seared leaves crunching between his teeth. He coughed and turned around to look at Gerard. “How is this here?” He couldn’t swallow. Too many dead leaves in his mouth. He jabbed at the page with a covetous finger. “This—these—are mine.”
Gerard just raised his bushy, white eyebrows and leaned back in his chair with a blasé sigh. His eyes glanced at a painting and Liam’s eyes flicked with them like a fish on a hook. The paintings. He ran out of the study, and the dog lifted its head, whining at the tension saturating the room, a stench worse than slaughtered skunk.
“I don’t…I don’t understand…” Liam stared at the hundreds of paintings plastering every wall from floor to ceiling.
He jogged from one end of the long hall and back again, then into the grand entry. Although they were painted in a neoclassical style, he knew all of these faces, landscapes, and moments in time. Staring numbly at his childhood home, he heard a voice at his shoulder.
“Ouch!” Cora sprang into a one-legged stance, resembling a francy flamingo in her pink and gold swimsuit.
Two drops of blood fell from the glass shards embedded in her sole. With a groan and her eyes stinging with tears, she hopped backward and fell awkwardly into a poolside chair.
“Hey,” she snapped at a passing waiter in tight, metallic gold, swim trunks.
The mocha-skinned man with cupcake-tin abs hurried to her side.
“There’s broken glass everywhere,” she admonished in a high voice, gesturing at the booby-trap. “Why doesn’t someone clean it up? I cut myself!”
Her tears began to flow more from anger than pain. The pool-waiter looked at the glittering glass strewn all over the deck as if someone had upended an entire tray of drinks in a rage.
“The paramedics will deal with it,” he said with a smile and placating pat to her arm.
“What?” she said, narrowing her eyes. “What do you mean? Just get a broom!” Was he joking?
“I’m sorry,” he said with sympathy. “But she’s passed.”
What the hell? She internally apologized to God.
As she stared into the waiter’s amber eyes, transfixed, she realized that she’d heard those words before. But where? A numb dread began to spread throughout her body. She was going into shock. At least her foot didn’t hurt anymore.
“Write like you’re clinging to the edge of a cliff,” Gerard said.
Liam stared at the romantic painting of his childhood home, at a little boy playing with his first puppy, and then turned around.
“White knuckles, on your last breath, and you’ve got just one last thing to say,” the two men said in unison. “…Take a deep breath and tell us your deepest, darkest secret, so we can wipe our brow and know that we’re not alone.”
It was Liam’s favorite Alan Watts quote. The dog came out of the room, tail wagging, and sat next to him with an anthropomorphic look of comfort.
“He’s trained to detect cancer,” Gerard said, looking down at the German Shepard.
Liam nodded. “I know. Dantés was special.” He patted the dog’s head and the tail thumped the soft carpet like a heartbeat.
“Are you going to be okay?”
Without looking up or giving any farewell, Liam nodded once more, turned, and walked away.
Gerard watched that young, healthy man walk down the hallway until he vanished into a room Gerard didn’t even know was there. With a sigh, he turned and shambled back to his study. Bones cracking, he sat down in his chair and picked up his book from the side table. Aquina and Aristotle: A Conversation Over Absolutes, Uncertainties, and Coffee by Liam Polsky. The old man smiled. At least it had been a good life as a writer and philosophy professor. He’d achieved so much and enjoyed his eighty-two years on this wildly whirling grain of sand.
He reached down to scratch Dantés’ ears, but the dog wasn’t there.
Cora’s tears dried to her cheeks like salty tide-pools. The nice man patted her arm once more, stood, and walked away. Still clutching her bleeding foot, she scanned the Empyrean resort: its lush, manicured vegetation, modern, gleaming architecture, and vast pool complete with waterfalls and pool-side bar. Only driven, successful people like herself had the privilege of going to such an exclusive spa. However, within the span of her stepping on glass and enduring that useless waiter, all the people had disappeared. She was the only one at the pool, trapped by shattered glass. Her palm flew to her chest when she heard the squeal of tires somewhere outside the high, protective walls.
So many rats.
Gerard thanked all the lab rats sacrificed by science in order to keep him alive another two decades. He bid farewell to that young, vivacious writer, to all those memories and moments that had created the gallery of his life. He knew, scientifically, logically, as the brain died, that this moment, this dream, was his last before fading into...
The reality of what was happening hit Cora like a semi truck.
“But,” she said, her voice quavering. “I was—”
“Driving?” That offensive young man had returned, standing in the middle of broken windshield glass with bloody footprints.
Cora stared up at him.
“You were,” he said. He cocked his head to the side.
Her palm hadn’t left her chest, and now she realized what she’d been waiting for: a heartbeat.
“Is this Heaven?” she asked in reverent awe as she noticed the same cross hung about his neck.
“Are you afraid it’s not?”
“I heard the doctor say that I… ‘passed.'” Her eyes stared through the young man she had once been. Her voice sounded robotic with unaccepting shock. “I heard someone at the crash say to ‘clear the glass.’ It was me, wasn’t it? Is my sports car totaled?” She had loved that car. Her body was rocking back and forth. “But I believe in God. There has to be a heaven. There has to be. Isn’t there a heaven?”
No one answered. Her younger self had vanished, and she was alone in a dream palace that faded into...
Excerpt from National Geographic: “In a new study, Jimo Borjigin discovered that rats show an unexpected pattern of brain activity immediately after cardiac arrest. With neither breath nor heartbeats, these rodents were clinically dead but for at least 30 seconds, their brains showed several signals of conscious thought, and strong signals to boot. This suggests that our final journey into permanent unconsciousness may actually involve a brief state of heightened consciousness."