That word used to mean so much to me. I used to be so concerned with trying to be as alive as possible, more so than the rest; I used to think I was somehow different from all the others down here, those who had given up all semblance of humanity.
But that was a long time ago. I have since come to my senses and accepted the idea that this is my life now (if you can call it "life"). I have realized that I am nothing more than one of the countless multitude existing in this place we call the Afterworld. Here, there is no danger, no worrying, no death. That is, of course, because we are already dead, and the only death for the dead lies in hopelessness. Every once in a while, you'll see some poor soul or another simply lying there, unmoving, eyes glazed over with resignation. We are all driven by our hope of someday escaping this place, and those without this hope are to be pitied above all else.
However, I could talk for centuries about the Afterworld and all its many curiosities. My main focus here is to explain my particular situation throughout the last few weeks… months… years? To be honest, I'm not entirely sure on the time frame. Time is a construct of the living and has no place among the dead. But just allow me to start from the beginning….
I had been living in the Afterworld for quite a while already. I was familiar with every turn of the road, every stone house that looked just like the ones made by the living. As usual, nothing particularly eventful had happened on the first day of my tale. The first thing I remember was walking home after a perfectly average day. Of course, the dead don't need sleep or rest, but it's a force of habit. And there was reason to believe that those who did choose to sleep were less likely to lose hope. So, I was heading to my house to try and get some rest.
I walked through the door and into the house that I had come to love over the decades. It wasn't much—it was the same as everyone else's—but it was mine, and it was the only place where I could exist in privacy. Before I headed to my bedroom, I sat down in the recliner before the TV, just as I did every day. Yes, we have TVs here. The Afterworld really is fairly similar to the real world, just less… troublesome.
I turned the TV to my favorite news channel, where they were showing yet another segment on the benefits of exercising to increase morale. Stories such as this had been common ever since the plague of hopelessness a few years ago. And, to their credit, it seemed to be working. Lately, when I had looked at people, they weren't so sad all the time; their eyes held a kind of spark, one that I had rarely seen before, and I knew that it would take only a small amount of encouragement to turn that spark into a burning flame.
And it seemed as if I wasn't the only one to take notice of this. The tone of the newscast changed—breaking news. According to the anchorwoman, there had been a spree of people going missing lately. This immediately caught my attention; people almost never went missing in the Afterworld. There was no point. After all, most missing people in the living world are found dead in a ditch somewhere. But when you take away the possibility of death, people become much more docile. The anchorwoman went on to say that everyone, every person who had gone missing, had shared one distinct characteristic: they were happy. The program cut to interview after interview with relatives, friends, anyone who could vouch for the missing. Each and every one of them claimed that their acquaintance, right before their disappearance, had been happier than they'd ever been before in the Afterworld.
As of yet, this was all just an interesting segment to me. I gave it about as much credibility as I used to give those specials about people who had seen Bigfoot. It held my attention, but it just didn't seem possible to me. And if these people were missing, they had probably just gone exploring or something. After all, the Afterworld is a big place. There are lots of sites to visit, and you could search for centuries without seeing all of it.
But what really piqued my interest was the final witness they interviewed. Thus far, everyone they had spoken to had seemed a bit… off, as if they didn't really care about what they were saying but still wanted to be on TV. However, the last person seemed to me to be the most credible. He was young, about as young as me. He must have died around the same time I had, mid-twenties. I wondered if he too had died in a car crash. Dark hair framed his face, and his eyes carried that spark that I had seen a hundred times, that burning energy that wanted to be a flame. He had my full attention.
He spoke in calm, easy sentences, but his brow was furrowed, and it was clear to me that he actually cared about what he was saying. His words, however, made my already cold skin go pale. He had seen a man—someone he hadn't known and had never spoken to—physically disappear. The scene he described was just as the others had said, one of pure happiness. The man had been with someone, a woman, whom he presumably loved. They were walking down the sidewalk, hand-in-hand. There was a sudden, inexpressible joy in his eyes, and… he was gone.
As he finished the story, the interviewee (whose name, as I had gathered from the label at the bottom of the screen, was Jase Sutherland) looked directly at the camera. His face was so determined, so piercing, that it felt as though he was looking only at me. He said that he would be conducting his own investigation, and anyone who wanted to know more should contact him immediately. His address, as he stated, was 1103 W Compton Avenue.
Needless to say, I was hooked. I had always been fairly adventurous and was never one to shy away from intrigue. Coincidentally, I knew exactly where Compton was. I walked down a portion of that road every day in my commute to and from the center of town. It would be very easy to make a quick detour the next day, just to see if all this talk of disappearing acts held any water.
So, it was settled. I made my way to my bedroom and attempted to get a full night's rest. However, excitement may have cut it short by a couple of hours. But that really isn't a problem when you're dead. By the next morning, I was just as fresh and alert as I'd ever been. Now, in a similar fashion to every morning, I walked out of my house, headed straight for Compton Avenue.
In just a few short minutes I was on the street where Jase presumably lived. Normally, I would turn right on Maple after just a few blocks, and that would lead me directly to the town plaza. Unfortunately, 1103 was farther down, somewhere after the road curved to the left. But I was determined. If I stuck to the same boring routine day after day, I might as well give in to hopelessness. No, that wasn't going to happen. Not to me. I kept walking, following the bend in the road.
Now I could see where Compton ended. Several houses down, the road came to a halt, with one house standing as a sort of guard at the cutoff. I half-expected that to be 1103. It would have added to the sense of importance that this Jase guy seemed to have for himself. However, upon further inspection, I saw that the tag on that house read 1105. Next to it, lined up on the right side of the road, was 1103 W Compton Avenue.
Of course, there was nothing special about the building's appearance. All houses in the Afterworld looked the same anyway. This one could have been mine and I would never be able to tell by looking only at the outside.
But I knew I couldn't stall forever. Sometime I would have to go up and ring the doorbell. So, summoning up my courage, I walked to the door and pushed the button. Usually in this situation there is at least a short delay as the occupant of the house walks to the door. However, Jase answered right away, as if he was waiting, possibly watching, to see if someone would answer his televised summons.
He didn't answer, so I spoke first. "Hi, my name's Sky Jones…." No answer. "I saw you on the news the other day, and I wanted to know what all this disappearing business is about."
Finally, his expression changed, though not in the way I had expected. He looked annoyed, almost tired, as he said, "Look, I was being serious. I've seen someone disappear. I'm not crazy. So if you think this is funny, go get your kicks elsewhere."
He began to slam the door on me, but I held out my hand to catch it. I had come too far to let this go. "You're not the only one who's serious. I believe you, and I want to know what's going on. If you're not planning to tell me, then I can stand out here all day with my finger on your doorbell. Try me."
Something in my irritated tone must have convinced him that I wasn't joking, so he finally opened the door and gestured inside. "Fine," he sighed reluctantly. "I'll take your word for it. Welcome to my office."
As I walked into the room that I knew to be the sitting room, I saw what he meant by "office." Papers littered every surface, save a few pieces of floor here and there. On every sheet was the same neat handwriting, scrawled in black ink. Some, in messy stacks, appeared to be written descriptions, like journal entries. Others, loose and more numerous, were drawings of all sorts of people. I bent down and picked up one such paper that lay at my feet. It depicted an older man, maybe late-forties, with enough stubble to assume that he was growing out a beard.
"Who's this?" I asked, holding the paper out to Jase as he entered the room to stand beside me.
"Martin Keller, age forty-seven. Disappeared a week ago. Last seen talking to his friends in a bar near the plaza." This answer was mechanical, hollow. It was obvious that Jase had put a lot of work into all of this, and that he'd pored over the details enough to be able to recite them at the drop of a hat.
"Are these all people who have disappeared?" I asked, hoping to definitively prove that I was in fact interested in his work.
"These are all the ones that I know of, and I'm sure there are more that I don't." He stopped here, obviously wishing to encourage more questions from me.
"So… what do you think is causing it?"
He stiffened at this, as if he was bracing himself for an unfavorable reaction on my part. "I think the news reports were right. I think they were all connected to feelings of happiness. Not one missing person was unhappy, hopeless, or even just average. Every single one was abnormally happy." He paused for a moment, as if to decide whether or not he should continue. Finally, closing his eyes, he spit it out. "I think a strong burst of happiness is enough to rekindle life."
Now, he let out a deep breath, and his expression was worried, wearied. I could tell that he expected me to either laugh or run off, but I just stood there, waiting to hear more. However, when he wouldn't offer the information himself, I began to clarify. "So… you're saying that these people were suddenly so happy that they somehow… came back to life?"
"That's what I'm implying, yes."
This all came as a shock to me. In fact, I'm amazed that I didn't return to life then and there; I was overjoyed to learn that there was even the slightest possibility that maybe this existence in the boring rut that is the Afterworld wouldn't last forever. And maybe the only reason that this news didn't cause me to live again was the little voice in the back of my head that told me not to be so gullible, not to get my hopes up for nothing.
Still, I couldn't contain my excitement. I threw my arms around Jase as if he was my personal savior. This must have come as a shock to him, because he didn't move an inch, just stood frozen in place. Eventually, I came to the realization that I was standing there hugging a stranger who, for all I know, could still be insane. I collected myself, stepping back and muttering, "Sorry," just loud enough for him to hear.
He cleared his throat in that way people do when confronted with an awkward situation. "No, no, it's fine," he said, his voice now wavering slightly.
I rushed to find a new topic. "So what does all this mean for you?" I asked, genuinely curious as to his methods of approaching this discovery. "What are you planning on doing with this information?"
"Well," he began, sliding his hands into the pockets of his jeans as he strolled to the other side of the room and turned to me, "I plan to test my hypothesis. If it's correct, than I should be able to live again. But, as I'm sure you have figured out by now, that's somewhat… difficult to do by myself." I shifted uncomfortably, and, sensing my uneasiness, Jase decided to approach the topic from a different angle. "Okay, think about all the people you've seen in the Afterworld. What's the common characteristic that all of them, especially the hopeless, share?" This question was obviously rhetorical, so I remained silent. "Loneliness, separation, seclusion, whatever you want to call it. If you look at these people," he said, picking up a handful of drawings from the floor, "you'll find that they were all last seen in the company of at least one other person. You see, that's the thing about death. It makes everyone so much less trusting, so much more independent, but what good does that do? After a while, people begin to lose touch with their personality, with everything that makes them human. In the end, they just give up. But then there are those who go out of their way to destroy that way of thinking, to reach out to other people. Those are the ones who achieve happiness. I mean, don't get me wrong, I'm sure it's possible to regain life on your own, but most people retreat so far inside themselves after death that they forget everything that was once important to them. That's why I made my discoveries public last night. I was looking for someone, anyone, who might believe me, someone who was willing to tackle this adventure together. So far, everyone who's stopped by has dismissed me as either a maniac or a conspiracy theorist. You're the only one who hasn't run. And of course, it's your decision, but please, please, consider it. Think about what I'm offering here: a chance to live again."
Now, he paused, as if I actually had to take a moment to decide. While he was talking, I had come to the conclusion that any chance at life would be worth whatever means it took to get there. After a moment, Jase held out his hand. "What do you say?" he asked with an encouraging smile.
I met his hand almost as soon as he had offered it. "You've got yourself a deal."
This is where the time frame starts to get fuzzy. After all, no one checks their watch when they're having a good time. My life flew by in the foggy daze that comes when one is absolutely intoxicated by emotion. It could have been days; it could have been weeks. Who knows? All I cared about was being with Jase.
I mean, sure, at first I was hesitant to accept this new stranger into my life. After all, we'd only just met, and I knew next to nothing about him. However, that didn't stop him from trying to connect with me. Besides, it never felt like work. He was always so easy to talk to, so much fun to be around. In fact, I soon found that all the parts of my day that I used to look forward to—those precious moment when I was alone with my thoughts—became nearly unbearable. And though my affection for Jase may have been feigned at first, everything became real so quickly. Eventually, we knew everything about each other, every quirk and every flaw, everything we'd never told anyone. With that sort of intimacy, we became, in short, inseparable.
Of course, I was frequently tormented by the idea that he didn't feel the same. Originally, there had been no way of knowing that his feelings for me had evolved in the same way mine had towards him. This was an idea that I often liked to dismiss, as any affirmation of it would most likely ruin my chances of ever regaining life, but eventually, I couldn't take it anymore. I had to know. I had to know if I was wasting my time here.
So one day, as we were walking around the town, I decided that today was the day. As we walked, we came to a small playground. It was vacant, as usual, so we took a seat on the swings. While I was gathering up the courage to ask what was on my mind, I looked at his face. He was quiet, quieter than he had been since the day I'd met him; in fact, I'd even say he was solemn, contemplative. This didn't feel like a very good omen, but there was no going back. It would be now or never.
"Jase?" I asked, breaking him out of his reverie. "Can I ask you something?"
He looked at me as though he were seeing me for the first time. There was a measure of wonder, of respect, in his gaze that I had never seen before. My tone must have worried him, because now he looked concerned. "Of course," he answered. "Anything."
I knew that the best way to ask was to say it fast, like ripping off a bandage. "Is this just pretend?"
I probably could have worded that better, and luckily, he asked for clarification. "What do you mean?"
"I mean, is this all just part of the experiment? I won't be mad if you say yes, I just want to know. Honestly. You can tell me."
He looked down at his hands in that same contemplative manner that he had been in before. Finally, though, he looked up. His face was resolute, all determination. "The experiment doesn't matter anymore." His speech was frank, but there was still an uneasiness about it that suggested that he was nervous. "Before I met you, that was all I cared about: missing people and experiments and… life." Here, he paused to take a shaky breath. "But I don't care anymore. Don't you see? If this isn't living, then I don't want to be alive. You- you are my life now, and I…" He faltered now, but soon regained his composure. "I love you."
As he said those words, I felt a whole world of conflicting emotions. The first were relief, joy, and reciprocated love. I saw that spark in his eyes become a flame, which would have excited me, had it been more permanent; because in that moment, as I reached out my hand to his, he disappeared.
The next emotions after that were shock and disbelief. I must have held my hand in midair for a solid minute before I allowed myself to believe that he had actually just vanished. Of course, I had always known that there was a possibility that that could happen, but until now it had just been one of those distant concerns that don't look quite true until you have to face them head-on. And even though I knew exactly what had happened to him, I still held on to the dumb, primal notion that there was something I could do to bring him back. I must have looked like an idiot standing there, calling out his name as I sank to my knees.
But I was never the type of person to just sit there and stew in my sorrow. I had to do something. I simply refused to believe that I would never see him again. After all, how could I? How could I be truly happy in a world without him in it? I thought that if I could just hold on to something that was his, I might not be happy, but I could at least exist with relative composure. That was as close as I could possibly get.
Immediately, I began running to his house as quickly as my legs would take me. 1103 W Compton Avenue; I never forgot the number. Without thinking twice, I burst through the door, expecting to be greeted by a tidal wave of papers.
However, there was nothing. The house was entirely clean, as if Jase had never even been there. All new furniture had been moved in, and a rather confused-looking young man stood in the sitting room. He appeared to be no more than a couple of years older than me, with fairly short blond hair that looked as though it would always be messy.
"Um… can I help you?" he asked, suspicious.
I didn't even know where to begin. "Sorry… I… uh…" Just then, the realization of everything that just happened began to hit me. Of course, I knew how the Afterworld worked. I knew that if someone moved or left, their house would immediately register as empty. And with a large number of people dying every day, the vacancies took almost no time to fill. This was the final, definitive proof that Jase was gone forever. I didn't want to cry in front of this stranger whose home I had just invaded, but I couldn't hold back the tears any longer. I broke down, covering my face with my hands as I cried for the only person in the Afterworld whom I had deigned to love.
Through my own muffled sobs, I could hear the voice of the man before me. "No, no! I'm sorry! I didn't mean… I just wanted to know what you were doing here, that's all. I didn't want to offend you or anything! Look, you can stay if you want; I don't care. I'm sorry."
Before I knew it, his arms were around me, drawing me into his warm embrace. I still missed Jase, but at least for the moment, I felt protected. "It's not your fault," I finally managed to sputter out. "I just had a really close… friend… who used to live here, that's all. And now he's gone forever."
The man pulled back now that he saw that I had sufficient control over my emotions. "Oh wow," he said sincerely. "I'm really sorry. Is there anything I can do to help? Do you want me to switch houses? Because I will, if you want."
This almost elicited a smile from me. "No, it's fine. You can stay here."
"You sure?" I nodded. "Okay, well, if you ever need anything, you know where to find me. Oh, and my name's Dylan Connors, by the way." At this, he held out his hand.
"Sky Jones," I said as I shook his hand.
He smiled a sweet sort of smile that would make anyone feel all warm inside. "Nice to meet you, Sky."
With that, I left.
Time went by in intervals of what must have been weeks. For a while, I didn't sleep, and I didn't leave my house. Jase had filled me with so much hope at the thought of regaining life—of showing me how to live—and now that he was gone, I felt myself sinking into hopelessness. I knew I was slipping, and I knew I was near the point of no return. Eventually, I'd have to join the pantheon of veritable zombies, those who now exist for no other purpose but to take up space. And I'm fairly certain that it would have happened soon, if I hadn't gotten a knock on my door one day.
Hopeless or not, I still felt obligated to at least see who was calling for me. Upon opening my door, I saw that it was Dylan.
"Are you okay?" he asked. "I haven't seen you around, and I was afraid you might have become like those guys who just stare at the sky all day long, the ones who've given up."
I didn't want to admit that he was right, so I just remained quiet. However, I'm certain that he guessed what I was thinking. "Come on, don't do that," he said, his voice holding more disappointment than anything. "You're so much better than that. You don't need to throw away existence for the sake of one guy. Let me take you to the plaza. You need some fresh air. It is now my personal responsibility to make sure that you take care of yourself."
Now, whether it was the fact that Jase had left a somewhat fillable hole in my life, or that I was beginning to warm up to Dylan, I accepted his offer. We walked down to the plaza that day for the first of what may have been hundreds of times. Every day, he would show up at my house at the same time, late morning, to make sure that I was still okay. After that, we would always walk down to the plaza. And I have to admit, the more we talked, the more I began to appreciate everything he was doing for me. When people first join the Afterworld, they tend to start off their stay by doing all the weird things that they could have died doing if they were still alive. But Dylan was here spending his afterlife with me, making sure I was still sane.
As I got to know him, I was able to reaffirm what I'd already suspected—he was one of those people who will always put others' needs before their own. He was a genuinely good, pure person, unlike any I'd ever met. I had been extremely reluctant to forget Jase, but eventually I had to force myself to admit that Dylan might have done more than just replace Jase's void. He had filled the role to more than perfection.
And for the first time in a long while, I was happy. I felt all the joy that came with having that spark of hope, and, oddly enough, I didn't care if I ever truly lived again. This was my life now, with Dylan. It was more than enough for me.
But fate is a cruel joker, a harlequin whose prime enjoyment is our own misfortune. I should have known that happiness can only be temporary under circumstances so subject to change as ours in the Afterworld.
I was sitting on a bench in the plaza. Dylan was next to me, of course, and he was telling me all about his former life. He had lived on an Iowa farm, working the tractor since his dad had fallen ill. One day, he tried to fix a malfunction with the engine and forgot to take a few safety precautions to keep the tractor in place. That's why he was here. But really, I was more interested in his stories, the ones about his little sisters or his cranky neighbors. He told them with such liveliness and heart that I could feel myself falling more and more in love with him by the second.
And no sooner had I thought this than I blacked out. The next thing I remembered was opening my eyes to see blue sky, bright sunlight, things that were nonexistent in the Afterworld. I sat up and looked around. There were at least ten people surrounding me, asking me if I was okay. I just nodded to them, trying to figure out what was happening. I felt a bump on my head, and it was at that point that I realized I was sitting on a stretcher. Next to me, my car was completely totaled. That brought it all back: the car crash, losing consciousness, dying.
At least, I assumed I'd died. There was no way that the Afterworld could have been nothing more than a hallucination. Could it? What about Dylan, Jase? I began to panic, frantically trying to find a friendly face in this mob of people. There seemed to be a million people all speaking at once, all asking me questions or calling orders to the EMTs. However, there was one very distinct, very familiar voice that came from right behind me.
"Hello again, Sky," he said softly.