A/N: Believe it or not, a lot of this piece was inspired by the movie All Dogs Go to Heaven, which I watched last night for the first time in years (I saw it on sale for $5 in Wal-mart last year and had to add it to my DVD collection, since it's one of my all time favorites). I guess you'll see for yourselves what I mean when you read it. Enjoy, and let me know what you think. :)
Brennan's shoes slipped over the wet asphalt as she followed her partner, ducking into an alleyway between tall brick buildings. Booth charged ahead, gun first—aside from apparently being a marathon sprinter, the perpetrator was also armed. He had fired a few wanton shots behind him on the street during the chase, all of them thankfully missing their intended targets and ricocheting off of street signs and the faces of buildings.
What they had thought was a lengthy alley between the two buildings, however, ended up being shortened considerably by a tall chain link fence blocking the way. Cornered, the suspect turned on Booth and Brennan, gun pointed outward, hands shaking dangerously. Booth kept his gun trained on the man, who eyed Booth momentarily before shifting the focus of the muzzle on Brennan.
"Drop the weapon," Booth growled, keeping his gun steady and level. The perp shook his head vigorously.
"Uh uh, no way," he said. "I didn't do nothin'."
"We know you killed Jake Newman," Brennan said, voice calm despite the weakness in her knees she often felt when a loaded gun was pointed in her direction. "DNA evidence has you tied to the weapon, the location, and the victim. You killed him."
"You don't know nothing, okay?" the gunman insisted, his voice higher than it had been, gun trembling so badly in his hand that he looked like he might drop it at any moment. It was what Booth was praying for.
"Put the gun down," Booth insisted again, and the gunman turned the weapon towards Booth. He opened his mouth as if to speak, but instead a bullet grazed Booth's right hand, causing him to gasp in pain and drop his own gun. Seizing the opportunity, the perpetrator bolted past the two of them towards the main street. Brennan immediately darted after him, knowing Booth was not severely injured, and reached out for a handful of the man's jacket. He had one foot in the street as she did, and she yanked him back onto the sidewalk with the swift motion. He shrugged one of his thick arms out of the jacket and with the other swung Brennan around, caught off-guard and still grasping tightly to the article of clothing.
Like a sick game of crack-the-whip, she was swung into the road, stumbling and losing her balance, barely able to catch herself. It did not matter either way—an oncoming Toyota was more than happy to break her fall.
She regained awareness of her body in pieces, one by one. First she felt her hands, the sensation of life traveling up her arms, creeping up the back of her neck and into her facial muscles. She wiggled her toes and clasped her hands, feeling for broken bones. Everything felt completely fine—in fact, she hadn't as much as a headache.
But I was hit by a car, she thought vaguely. The thought ran through her head a second time, suddenly with much more weight, and her eyes snapped open.
She was definitely not in Washington D.C. anymore. She was lying in a narrow hallway, softly lit at one end and dark at the other. She could feel something like Berber carpeting beneath her where she lay, slightly scratchy against her bare arms. The inside of wherever she was smelled cheap, like corrugated cardboard and plastic tacked together to create the outward features of a home without any of one's stability. She sat up, then stood, resting a shaky hand against the wall to steady herself. After a few calming breaths she progressed down the hall, towards the dim light. Everything seemed to be filtered through a dusty lens, like she was walking through an old memory. She just couldn't remember ever making a memory of a place like this before.
The light came from where the hall turned and became a very small, square kitchen. A battered dinette table was covered in delicate blue and white Dutch china pieces, as was a shelving unit on the wall behind it. The blinds on the windows were drawn, lacy curtains covering them, but a dusky yellow light glowed through them nonetheless. Her feet shuffled across the patchy linoleum floor, scuffed and worn from what looked like years of use. One of the oven burners was on, and a tea kettle whistled happily atop it. She pulled the kettle off and turned off the burner, as calmly and rationally as she would in her own home, then shook her head and had to wonder what the hell she was doing.
She passed through the kitchen into the living room. A huge television with a bright blue screen took up a far corner, two reclining chairs focused on its glow. One chair had stacks upon stacks of old magazines piled next to it, some high enough that they were taller than the chair itself, while the other had a small glass table with an ashtray and a roll of Necco candy tarts on it. She remembered those—her father used to love them, would buy rolls and rolls of them at the gas station. She would crawl up into his lap in his chair as a little girl and they would eat them together while they watched the evening news. She didn't like the green ones—the best ones were pink.
She reached down for the roll of tarts, but her attention was recaptured by a picture frame sitting on the edge of the glass table that she had not noticed before. It was battered and the glass was cracked along the corner, but that wasn't what made it interesting. What was interesting to Brennan was that there was no picture in the frame at all. It was just a frame, standing upright on a table, empty. She looked up on the wall behind the chair, and realized that it was also covered in hung frames of various sizes and shapes, all empty. Where family portraits, school photos, childhood snapshots should have hung, there were only empty holes. She turned towards the other wall—it was also covered in picture frames, and they were also empty.
She felt extremely uncomfortable in this bizarre room, and headed towards the unassuming door in the wall just behind the stacks of magazines. She jiggled the brass handle until it finally turned, the door swinging open with relative ease.
As completely peculiar as she had felt the inside of the house to be, nothing compared to what she saw outside the front door. Everything was a filmy light eggshell color—the dusty ground beneath the house, the indistinguishable partition between the horizon and the sky, whatever sky there might have been. It was hard to actually make out anything—the visibility didn't seem to extend more than fifteen or twenty feet. The only thing she could even remotely compare it to was a very bleached out sepia-toned photograph—grainy, still, stained.
She stepped hesitantly off the front porch, and was relieved to feel solid ground beneath her. She sighed, and realized that for the first time she was able to hear herself many any sort of noise at all. Aside from the whistling tea kettle, she hadn't actually been aware of any sounds around her, made by her or anything else. Now she heard herself, the sound of her exhaled breath, and then became aware of something else, too.
Clocks. Not one, or two, or even ten, but the sound of hundreds, or thousands, of clocks ticking, all out of sync with one another. It was not an overwhelming crescendo, but more like the gentle roar of thousands of barely audible ticks. It was almost like standing next to the ocean at night and listening to its magnitude, if only the ocean kept time. Really though, it did, or does—whether or not she could refer to reality in the present or past tense she was still unsure. She shut her eyes and let the sound surround her from all sides, filling her. She had been wrong—it wasn't thousands, it was millions, it had to be. It sounded like stadiums filled with clocks, countries filled with them, just ticking away.
When she opened her eyes, she was stunned to see just that around her. As far as the eye could see, tarnished silver hand-watches, hanging in bunches on slender chains like bananas from heavily-weighted branches. The trees themselves were like grey, colorless willows—so tall their height couldn't be estimated, their thin streamer branches bent all the way to the ground from the weight of the dozens or hundreds of palm-sized, round clocks clinging to each one. It was at once absolutely marvelous and completely unreal—Brennan felt very much like Alice in Wonderland, and despite her complete bafflement and disbelief, she found herself smiling from the sight.
"Dr. Brennan?" Suddenly a voice overwhelmed the ticking, which had become as much a white noise as any gentle sound you hear for long enough. Brennan spun in the direction of it and saw a short, dark-haired girl peering around one of the clusters of clocks, brows knit in a pleasant bewilderment, smile touching her pale face.
"A-Amy? Amy Cullen?" The girl nodded. She still wore that hospital gown, the same kind she had stood in, so completely helpless, the last time Brennan saw Sam Cullen's daughter alive. The time she had told her that her terminal cancer was a mistake, a sick accident that could have been prevented. When she told her that she shouldn't have had to die, but would anyway.
"Are you a turner too?" Amy asked. Brennan gave her a blank look.
"A what?" she asked. "Amy, what is this? Where am I?" Amy suddenly looked solemn, stepping out from behind the laden branch of clocks and approaching Brennan. She was bare foot, but the crumbling earth (or semblance of earth) was undisturbed by her footfalls.
"It just happened, didn't it?" Amy asked. Brennan's brows knitted together, and she was finally, for the first time since she opened her eyes here, feeling the full extent of her confusion.
"What? What happened?"
"You died." Brennan felt the breath catch in her chest, and she coughed a little.
"I… no," she said. "I'm not… this is…"
"It's not Heaven," Amy said with a little head shake. "Or Hell. But you are dead. I'm sorry, did you really not know? It must have been an accident, then." Brennan worried her bottom lip between her teeth, looking around at the dusty, colorless plane they seemed to be sharing, filled with the ticking of a million clocks and void of anything else.
"I got… I got hit by a car," Brennan said, swallowing loudly half-way through. "I must be in a coma. This is some… this must be my brain positing a scenario, a dream-like sequence of imagined events while the brain attempts to—"
"You're dead," Amy interrupted bluntly. "It'll be a lot easier if you just accept it now. I guess it's probably harder when you don't know you're about to go—I knew I was dying, so when I got here, it kind of… it made sense, I guess."
"Made sense?" Brennan repeated incredulously. "What about this makes sense? What is this place even supposed to be?" Amy shrugged.
"It doesn't really have a name," she said. "It's not Heaven, and it's not Hell."
"So this is supposed to be, what, someplace in the middle?" Brennan asked. Amy shook her head, lovingly touching one of the clocks near her arm as she did so.
"No, that's earth," she said, with a tone that suggested she very badly wanted to add 'duh' to the end of that sentence but chose not to out of courtesy. "This is just north of the middle, I guess. It's on the way up. It's kind of like the Purg, but for good people."
"Purgatory, hello?" Amy said, rolling her eyes. "It's sort of a half-way point between here and the Gate."
"The Gate?" Brennan snorted. Amy sighed impatiently.
"It's not a real gate," she said. "Or, I don't think it is; I've never actually seen it. People just think about it that way, so it's easier to call it that, you know? That way everyone knows what you mean."
"So everyone comes here first?" Brennan asked, having decided to suspend her disbelief momentarily and let Amy, or the figment of her damaged brain's imagination that had taken the form of Amy, explain.
"No," Amy said with a headshake. "Not everyone. Most people who go up, go straight up, I think."
"How do you know?" Brennan asked. Amy paused for a moment, then smiled.
"Wait for it," she said. Brennan opened her mouth to argue but Amy put a finger to her lips, and Brennan acquiesced. After a few seconds she felt what Amy had been waiting on—the ground beneath her feet gave a slight, seemingly involuntary shudder, and it felt as if the very atmosphere around them gave a relieved exhale. It was something that blew softly across her skin, seemed to lift off of her, like tension clearing.
"They go in groups, I think," Amy finally said after the event happened. "Because, you know, people die like, every half-second, but that doesn't happen constantly. It only happens every few minutes, and I think it's a group of them going up."
"To the Gate?" Brennan reaffirmed. Amy nodded.
"Yes," she said. "To the Gate."
"Why do they get to go straight up?" Brennan asked. Amy sighed weightily.
"I think," she began, putting heavy emphasis on the word 'think'. "Now, don't quote me on it, but I think if you've got some kind of unfinished business, or if you were really wronged in your death, like a murder, you come here. Everyone else, they're done with their time on earth, so they just go. But the people who come through here… well, like me, you know? I got a raw deal, some guy hacks up bodies for parts and I get cancer and die. How is that fair?"
"It's not," Brennan said.
"What happened to you?" Amy asked.
"I told you, I was hit by a car," Brennan said. Amy shook her head.
"No, I mean, was it an accident, or did someone push you?" Brennan shrugged.
"I'm not really sure," she admitted. "I guess it was a little of both."
"That sounds about right," Amy said. "Most people who come through here, it was one or the other, or both."
"But a lot of people die for the wrong reasons," Brennan argued. "And I've only seen you here so far. Where's everyone else?" Amy smiled.
"This isn't like earth," she said. "You can see me because you knew me, and I can see you because I knew you. You wouldn't see someone unless there was a good reason to."
"But you see a lot of people," Brennan pointed out.
"And I have a good reason to," Amy said mysteriously. "And besides, not everyone stays here anyway—a lot of people end up going to the Gate."
"And the others?"
"They become turners," she said simply, as if that were in itself an explanatory answer. Brennan sighed, running her hand back through her hair.
"Are you going to tell me what a turner is?" Brennan asked.
"Better," Amy said, taking Brennan lightly by the hand and tugging her towards the endless forest of clocks. "I'll show you."
Brennan followed Amy as she trekked a narrow path between clusters of clocks, each ticking away quietly, her fingers running gently over the bunches as they passed. She hummed to herself, almost seeming to be unaware of Brennan following her until she stopped suddenly.
"This one," Amy said, grasping one of the clocks in her hands and pulling it away from the cluster, thin chain still fastening it to the group. "Hold this." She thrust it into Brennan's hand before she could argue, and the moment the cool metal touched her hand, she felt an unexplainable sorrow, one that nearly moved her to tears.
"Close your eyes," Amy instructed. Brennan did, and no sooner had she blocked out the present image than another one formed, like a movie reel playing across the insides of her eyelids. It was a toddler, wandering dangerously near to the edge of a pool, unsupervised. She saw the world through the child's eyes—the bright colored floats bobbing in the water, the fluffy white clouds dotting the bright summer sky above. A quick glance through the window saw an inattentive babysitter babbling on her cell phone, and somewhere in the distance a dog barked. The child leaned forward, her toes curled around the edge of the pool, to dip her fingers in and see how cold it was. She leaned in further, and further…
"No…" Brennan murmured under her breath, eyes twitching back and forth beneath her lids, though only Amy could see or hear it. Brennan was too deeply engrossed in the two year old's head—she was the two year old, about to topple head-first into the deep end of the family's pool. Amy saw Brennan's face contort with fear.
"Hey, hey," she said, tapping Brennan on the arm. "Open your eyes!" Brennan did, pain searing through her chest, breathing rapidly.
"She fell!" she said, eyes wide and anxious. "She fell, she's just a little girl, she fell into the pool and the idiot babysitter isn't watching her, she's going to drown!"
"No she's not," Amy said stubbornly, taking the clock into her own hands and inserting her thumb nail between the front and back covers, prying it open. Inside there was not a pristine white face with numerals along the edge, as one might expect from a clock. Instead it was open, as if the face had been removed, and revealed a thousand miniscule gears, all crammed within the space of the small clock, all turning smoothly. Sitting atop the gears on a thin dais in the center was a slender red clock hand, spinning around almost like a compass searching for magnetic north. The spinning was erratic, and it occasionally quivered in one still place for a minute, before spinning madly in the opposite direction. Amy felt for a small knob along the edge of the clock, and turned it between her thumb and index finger slowly, as one would when winding a clock up. She shut her eyes in concentration, winding the dial, but Brennan couldn't see why. There was no time to set, and it didn't appear to be affecting the gears any. After a few moments, though, she saw that the thin red hand began to move more slowly, more calmly, moving in clockwise circles like a normal second hand would. Amy opened her eyes and smiled.
"That's how it's supposed to look," she said, noting the circular motion of the hand. "Not all crazy like it was." She shut the clock face and handed it back to Brennan. "Now hold it." Brennan did, shutting her eyes, and was suddenly small and under water. She saw bubbles rising before her face, floating lazily towards the surface of the water, and realized it was her own air. The little girl was still drowning—what had changed? Her question was answered when there was a sudden, mighty splash in the water far off, and she saw a dark tawny Golden Retriever splashing across the pool towards her. The dog took the child's shirt in its mouth and dragged her to the surface. The last thing Brennan saw before she opened her eyes was the brightness of the sun.
"Wow," was all she could manage when she opened her eyes. Amy smiled and nodded.
"That's what a turner does," she said, taking the clock gently from Brennan's grasp and letting it fall back into place on the bunch, as if nothing had ever transpired. Brennan sighed and shook her head, unable to wrap her superbrain around what she had just seen, just felt. This is one hell of a coma.
"But Booth said that God preordained all of the happenings of Heaven and earth," Brennan thought aloud. "So how could one change the course of another's life like that? Does that mean God doesn't know what's going to happen?"
"He knows," Amy said, continuing down the path and clearly expecting Brennan to follow, which she did. "He knows who's going to get turned in time, and who isn't. It's just a matter of me or someone else getting there in time to do it."
"Then if he knows, why does he still let bad things happen?" Brennan asked irately.
"You mean, why did he let you die?" Amy asked. Brennan felt her stomach clench.
"Or anyone else," she tacked on. "It doesn't matter—if God is so loving and just, why did you get cancer and die? Why did I get run over? Why do I spend every day at work trying to solve murders?" Amy paused on the path, turning to face Brennan and looking her straight in the eyes.
"I don't know," she said finally. "Of all the things I've figured out up here, that's the one thing I haven't. I guess if I got to the Gate I could ask Him myself, but I haven't gotten that far yet, so I don't know." Brennan sighed, and continued to follow Amy as they wandered in a seemingly aimless way through the forest of clocks, Amy touching as many as possible as she slowly passed them, searching for that feeling.
"Booth was wrong about another thing, then," Brennan finally voiced a few minutes (or years, or centuries, or lifetimes—what was time anymore anyway?) later. Amy looked over her shoulder at her.
"About what?" she asked.
"Guardian angels," Brennan said. "He always said we had guardian angels, angels that God sent to look out for us. There's nobody looking out for us—maybe if we're lucky a, a turner will perform some kind of miracle time trick and help us out, but nobody's keeping watch over us, are they?" Instead of rebutting the comment, Amy just smiled, the corners of her eyes crinkling with sincerity.
"Your mom is really nice," was her response, catching Brennan completely off guard.
"Your mom," Amy repeated. "She's really nice."
"You know my mom?" Brennan asked.
"Yeah, she was the one who found me when I first got here. She explained pretty much everything to me. Really nice lady."
"She's a turner?" Brennan asked, feeling like she was reaching for some piece of information that was just barely out of reach, mentally or otherwise. Amy nodded.
"Yeah," Amy said. "She is. And you know that thing you said, about guardian angels? She found you, a couple of years ago, before I got here. She was walking and she felt something awful and she saw you in the mountains somewhere. I dunno, she didn't tell me the whole story, or if she did I don't remember, but she found you and she's been holding onto you ever since. You know if it weren't for her, you'd have died a long time ago. I thought even someone as hard-headed as you would've seen that by now." Brennan felt her heart ache with longing in her chest, her mind churning.
"Why didn't she go?" Brennan asked, feeling her eyes moisten. "Why didn't she go all the way, to the, the Gate? Why is she stuck here?"
"She's not 'stuck'," Amy said. "She chose to stay, and you know, for a genius you're pretty damn slow sometimes. Why do you think she chose to stick around?" Brennan did not speak, her breaths coming out rushed, haggard.
"I… I don't… this isn't…"
"She stayed for you," Amy said plainly. "D'you really think she sits around here making tea and waiting for you to get into trouble just 'cause she likes to? You think she does it for her health? She sticks around here for you!"
Of everything Amy said, two words ran through Brennan's mind on high-speed repeat, like an out of control record player—making tea.
"Oh my God," Brennan choked. She turned and bolted, running as fast as she could through the thick clusters of clocks, brushing past them and feeling errant jolts of joy and pain, frustration, elation—all emotions that were not hers, that she did not want any part of. The metal clocks bumped against one another as she passed and sounded in rows like wind chimes. Soon the dilapidated home came into view, and she scaled the steps in one leap and threw the door open.
The house was empty, and quiet. Nevertheless she tore through it, room after dusty room, searching almost frantically. Her search came up empty, and she ended up back in the kitchen, standing in the middle of the worn linoleum dejectedly. Amy let herself into the house and wandered quietly into the room where Brennan stood. They both noticed the tea cozy covering the kettle, and the freshly washed mug drying in the rack. Amy had been right—this was definitely not Heaven, because in Heaven Brennan did not think she would find herself doing dishes.
"She was here," Brennan said, seeming to deflate before Amy's eyes. "Mom was right here, and she just…" She trailed off, and silence hung between Amy and herself. But it wasn't silent, not like it had been in the house before—now there was a soft, singular ticking sound. They both noticed it, and simultaneously saw the small, tarnished silver clock sitting on the dinette table, nestled in between two chipped blue-and-white bowls. Brennan reached out for it, but Amy held her arm back.
"Uh uh," she said, shaking her head. "If that's what I think it is, you shouldn't touch it."
"Why not?" Brennan asked.
"Because you're dead," Amy said. "I mean, if you're here, you're dead. But I think, I mean I'm pretty damn sure that's you, sitting on the table. I've seen your mom carry it around so much…" she trailed off, seeing the pain flash across Brennan's face. "Anyway, I don't know how that can happen, if you're dead but you're still ticking. You're not supposed to tick when you die."
"Maybe I'm not dead," Brennan said.
"If you were alive, you wouldn't be here!" Amy insisted.
"Maybe they resuscitated me?"
"Then you'd be alive, not dead."
"Is there a cusp between the two?" Amy frowned, rubbing her eyes with the heels of her hands and throwing them down at her sides frustratedly.
"I don't know," she said. "This hasn't ever happened to me before."
"That makes two of us," Brennan quipped, staring at the clock and feeling increasing anxiety well up inside of her, for a reason she could not pin.
"I don't know what this means," Amy growled to herself. "I-I-I don't know what to do here. Do I touch it and see what's happening?"
"Let me do it," Brennan said.
"No," Amy insisted.
"Why not?" Brennan nearly yelled at the teen, feeling extraordinarily tense.
"Because what if you touch it and you die!"
"I'm already dead!"
"But you're still ticking."
"So what, then? What's the worst that can happen? If I'm here, I'm dead."
"Maybe," Amy said. Brennan glared.
"Maybe?" she hissed.
"I don't know, yeah, maybe!" Amy shouted. "I mean, it practically never happens, but sometimes…"
"Sometimes what, Amy? What?" Brennan insisted, both of them yelling at this point, completely overwhelming the quiet but steady tick of the clock on the table.
"Well, sometimes I see people here and… and then later I see them again," she said nervously. "You know, see them like, on earth. Alive."
"You could have said that before," Brennan said, throwing her hands up in the air. "I might not be dead!"
"Well, I thought you were!" Amy defended loudly. "I mean, I think you are. But you're still ticking so, you know, I don't know! Your mom would know, but I don't know where she is, and I don't know how much time you have."
"Dead would imply eternity," Brennan huffed.
"But if you're not dead, there's no telling," Amy said, gnawing her thumb nail. "Shit, shit! I don't know what to do."
"Well you better do something soon because I don't want to die," Brennan snapped.
"But you're already dead," Amy insisted, almost pleaded. Brennan slammed her hand down on the small table, knocking several of the blue and white dishes to the floor and shattering them.
"I am not dead!" She grabbed the clock in her hand and was overwhelmed by excruciating pain. It was like being bathed in fire, a burning, almost melting sensation overwhelming her nervous system so that she could not feel anything, see anything, think of anything but the feeling of melting away from her body like hot wax from the wick. She tried to scream, to breathe, but her lungs felt ripped from her, torn from her throat and cast aside. With her eyes screwed shut she could see nothing but darkness, feel nothing but the fire, inside and out, and hear nothing but a gentle tick, tick, tick…
She opened her eyes and saw her mother standing before her, in blue scrubs, scribbling something on a chart. She blinked hard, and suddenly it was not her mother, but a slender woman with short black hair and tanned arms. She tried to say something, some poorly formed string of syllables that came out as a moan, and the nurse jumped in surprise.
"You're up," the woman observed, smiling widely. "Welcome back to the world. I'll go let the doctors know you're awake, and that poor man, he's been waiting for so long…" The woman shuffled off, most of her words lost to Brennan. Every bone in her body felt broken, and she observed that several of them were in casts, or worse, wrapped in surgical dressing. What day was it? Her mouth was so swollen that she probably couldn't ask the question even if the nurse had been present to hear it. That was fine, though. For now she was content to be silent, and listen to the monitors beep quietly, steadily, like the ticking of a clock.