I didn’t recognize where I was when I opened my eyes. To be honest, I didn’t remember where I had come from, either. I was seated in a simple grey chair, and my feet rested on flat, black carpet. The walls around me were brilliantly white, glowing under the lights. There was a table in front of me, and a clipboard rested on top of it. A black pen sat gleaming on a sheet of paper.
Curiosity prickled inside me. I could feel it in my shoulders and as it danced down my spine. I reached out to pick them up but paused. I was stuck staring at my hands for a long while. I didn’t recognize them. The skin was loose around the knuckles, and there were countless fine lines cross-hatched across the backs. Not old, just weathered. Several scars marked the left one, and a single ring weighed on the right. The thumbs were perfectly round at the end, but the middle finger on the right had an awkward bump at the last knuckle. They were entirely unfamiliar, yet I knew they were my hands.
I tried shaking the confusion out of my head. I perched the clipboard on my lap and gazed down at the words. Name. What was my name? What was a name in the first place? I mindlessly scribbled in an answer, but I couldn’t make sense of the letters. Date of Birth. Birthday. June? One. One. A shot went off in my mind. Eleven! Cause of Death. What was that? I tried to work the word from my brain into my mouth. Maybe if I said it out loud it would gain some meaning. But I couldn’t find my voice. I couldn’t find my mouth, either. Did I even have a mouth? Fingers fluttered across my face, but I couldn’t tell if they had traced over lips or not. What did lips feel like?
A weight had been building in my chest, and I was suddenly very aware of it. Panic. But what did that mean? What were all of these things that I didn’t understand?
I hurried to set the clipboard down on the table and tried to take a deep breath. Was I even breathing? I pushed the question out of my mind. No more questions. Not until I had some answers.
Who would be able to give me the answers, though?
As if the thought had activated something within the room, a door to the right opened. Why hadn’t I noticed the door before? I got to my feet, collected the clipboard, and approached the threshold. The room on the other side was small, cozy. The walls were dark, but they still seemed to glow in the light. The desk placed in the center was imposing, and the person seated behind it was even more so.
“Who are you?” A voice tumbled out of my mouth, but it sounded so foreign. Shrill, scratchy, demanding. The words felt wrong in my mouth. It wasn’t moving the way it was supposed to, but I couldn’t even begin to imagine what it should have felt like.
The person had a pen in one hand and used it to point at a plaque on the corner of the desk. Shavarahamma. Just like death, I couldn’t move the word from my brain to my mouth. “How do you say that?”
“Sha-var-uh-ah-ma.” The voice was melodic and kind. Calm. Not like mine.
“Shavarahamma,” I tried slowly. The being smiled.
“Call me Amma, though. It is easier,” they explained.
“Where am I?”
“You are in between,” Amma said.
“In between what and, well, what?”
“Isn’t that just the question?”
I let the silence hang between us for a moment. Their eyes never left my face, nor did I see them blink. Sometimes the irises were brown, others they were blue. Sometimes I could even swear they looked like the eyes of animals. I sucked in a breath. “Who am I?”
“Ah, that is another good one. Come. Have a seat. Let me look at your chart.”
I moved to sit across from Amma, but I stopped as I glanced down at the clipboard. I couldn’t read my own handwriting. How would they be able to? Then again, even the words that I had been able to read before were starting to lose their meaning. “I couldn’t fill it all out,” I admitted sheepishly. “I didn’t know what it was asking me.”
“That’s okay.” It didn’t seem okay, but I handed my chart to Amma anyway and sat down. After a quick glimpse, they asked, “Do you know what death is?”
“No.” I paused. “I can’t even say it.”
Amma pursed their lips. “Death is what happens when you are no longer alive.”
“What is alive?”
“When you are a part of the universe, and you are conscious, moving, experiencing. Your heart is beating. Your mind is thinking. Your lungs are breathing. You’re alive.”
“What am I doing right now? Now that I am not living?” That didn’t sound right, but Amma didn’t correct me.
Instead, they said, “Waiting.”
“What am I waiting for?”
“To live again.”
“I get to be living again? Will I be the same?”
Amma shrugged their shoulders. “You could experience life again as–” They leaned forward and read something off the chart. “–Wysteria Petersen, or you could experience life as a, oh I don’t know, a Crosnian on BFD 311-18.”
“Wysteria. Is that me? Am I Wysteria?”
“Yes, you are.”
“What’s a Crosnian?”
“A living creature like you. They’ve got two hearts, big long snouts, and very thick, soft fur. Their planet gets very cold at night.”
“Is that place with the numbers their planet?”
“Yes, it is.”
“What is my planet?”
“You came from Earth, my dear.”
“Earth.” The word felt like cotton in my mouth. “Wait, what’s a planet?”
Amma smiled. “A planet is a mass that orbits a star. And before you ask, a star is a burning ball of gas. It fuels itself, and in doing so, it slowly kills itself.”
“I killed myself,” I blurted. I watched as Amma’s eyes widened and then slowly narrowed. They looked at the chart, reached out a hand to jot something down, and nodded.
“I was wondering why you seemed so lost. It’s common with people that die young or die suddenly in an accident. Most people that come through know that they’re dead. When a person is responsible for taking their own life, however–” Amma’s voice trailed off, and they rose from their chair. They walked around the desk and sank to their knees in front of me. “May I take your hand?” I nodded, and they reached forward. Amma’s hands were very different from mine, and I was so busy studying them that I almost didn’t hear them as they began to speak again. “You overdosed. Took whatever was in the cabinet. It started to hurt your stomach after an hour, and after another thirty minutes, you were throwing up. It was too late, though. You suffered for a moment, but soon you simply fell asleep.”
A shot like a firework went off within me, and I felt as if I had fallen through the floor, left to plummet into nothingness. There was a searing pain in my chest, and waves of heat crashed over my skin. I could feel my stomach knotting itself together inside of me as pins and needles stabbed at my hands and feet. I was looking at Amma’s face, but I couldn’t really see her.
My body ached all over. Throbbing in my lower back, stiffness in my shoulders, tingling in my arms. My eyes strained. A stabbing pain crawled its way up my neck and settled behind my eyes and ears. A weight came crashing down, smothering my entire being. I could feel my heart beating steadily in my chest, but it seemed like such a struggle for it to keep going.
I tried to focus on Amma again, but they had been replaced with a collage of faces. Features rose and fell out of the surface, melting from one person to the next. Some evoked grief. Others stirred up fear, anger, regret, disappointment, hatred. Disembodied voices flooded my ears, muttering and howling to each other. A sharp ringing pierced through the cacophony.
My breathing was becoming ragged and hurried. My pulse flickered wildly in my neck. I couldn’t tell if it was a scream or a sob, but something bubbled its way up my throat. Amma gave my hand a gentle squeeze, and almost at once, the sensations went away. The pain bled from my body, and the weight sunk onto the floor. It was gone, but the effects lingered.
My eyes burned, and I could feel something rolling down my cheek. I pulled my hand away from Amma’s and brought my fingers to my face. They were wet when I moved to look at them. “What is this?”
“You’re crying,” Amma replied.
“What is crying?” I wondered. “Why am I crying?”
Amma sighed as they pondered their next words. “You’re crying because you’re sad. You don’t remember why you’re sad, though, because you lost yourself.”
“Did you feel that, what just happened to me?”
“I could feel your pain, but I did not experience it the way you did.”
“I- That was- How could I- Is that what living felt like for me?”
“Possibly, yes. Hopefully not all the time, but seeing as you’re here–”
“Why would anyone want that? Why am I sitting here waiting to go through that again?”
“There’s no saying that you will experience any of that again. Like I said, you could go through life again as Wysteria Petersen, but maybe in a different way. You could experience life as a Crosnian. You could be someone else on Earth, somewhere else in time, in another galaxy, in another corner of the universe.”
“How?” I demanded. A shocking pain—a brew of confusion and disbelief– boils up from my stomach, and as it filled my body, I started yelling. “How! How can I be the same but different? How can I be two different things from two different places? Why do I have to go anywhere at all! Living obviously didn’t work out the first time! Why do I have to do it again? I’m tired! I’m so tired. I don’t want to do it again.” I pulled my knees up to my chest, hugging them against my body as hard as I could. I heaved stifling breaths out of my lungs. Everything felt sticky and heavy.
Amma rolled their eyes. “Oh, please, do you really think that this was your first life? I’ve seen you thousands of times since the beginning of time itself. You’ve come through here as Henry Payne from the thirteenth Aeon, Earth. I’ve seen you as a Kjilo from N’hr Al’Gu from the ninth Aeon, GN-z11. You’ve lived many lives, you’ve seen the universe through a myriad of eyes, and I’m sorry that the last one wasn’t very kind to you, but the universe is not kind. She was never meant to be kind. She was only meant to be, and you were only meant to experience her. There are many things to be experienced. Many beautiful things. And yes, there are horrible, unforgivable atrocities that happen as well, but trust me, you have been the perpetrator just as you have been the victim. You will undergo every position in the universe, experience life on all sides, in every way. The universe is not kind, however, she is fair. All we can do is be in her presence.”
I was silent for a long time. Amma continued. “Do you think there’s any other reason you are sent out there? What purpose do you think you serve when you’re alive? No matter what you do, no matter who you are, you can not control the universe. You can’t command space or time or death. Even when you think you’re something, you’re nothing. Nothing! It all means nothing. You have to be the one to give it meaning. You have to find your own meaning and your own purpose, and you do that by discovering and exploring what you can do. No matter what timeline you go into, no matter what person or being you experience life as, you have to live it for yourself.”
As my silence persisted, Amma sighed. “I can’t see into your life, Wysteria. I don’t know what happened to you, but something or a collection of somethings really got to you. They broke you down to the point where you thought there was nothing to enjoy, but there is. I can’t say you will never encounter that pain again. You’ll experience all kinds of pain in life, but you will experience so much joy. You just have to look for it. Be open to it, willing to let it happen. You’ve gotta live, Wysteria.”
“But what if it gets hard?”
Amma smiled again, but it didn’t seem happy. “Then you try harder. Sometimes you’ve got to rise up to that challenge. I promise it’ll be worth it, though. When you get a moment of genuine peace, or when you look at the sky on a clear night. When you hear your favorite song for the first time. When you fall in love. When you learn new things. It will make it all worth it.”
Something prickled inside me. Warmth spread across my skin, soothing, not burning. A melodic rhythm drummed and vibrated out from my core into my arms and legs. I couldn’t hear them or smell them, but memories of old sensations drifted to the surface. Birds chirping. Sunlight filtering through bright green leaves. A warm cup of coffee. My fingertips fluttering across someone’s face. Damp earth. A candle. Towering trees. “Is there more?”
Amma chuckled softly. “Yes. There is so much more. The universe is practically boundless. Anything you could ever imagine is out there, waiting for you.”
“When will I get to see it? I want to see all of it.”
“Soon. When it’s your time to go back. You won’t get to take this revelation with you, but please try to keep this feeling with you, in the very core of your soul. No matter what happens to you, be grateful to be alive, glad to experience, pleased to witness, honored to discover and explore. Life is a gift, Wysteria. Use it well.”