A strange little story that came to me out of nowhere while I was burning the midnight oil for the exams. In celebration of reaching the home stretch of my horrible, horrible exams, here it is.
When she opens her eyes, she's in a park. She's lying on top of a picnic table, and above her is the blue, blue sky. A gentle breeze rustles the leaves around her. She can smell grass. The air is cool and refreshing, the kind of air that when you inhale, seems to refresh the insides of your lungs.
She smiles and closes her eyes, breathing in deeply. It's a nice place to be. Peaceful. Quiet.
Except she can't remember how she got here. Somehow, she knows that should worry her. But the thought fades away as soon as she thinks about it, leaving behind a sense of peace and calm.
Something whizzes through the air, and lands right next to her head. The table shakes with its sheer force, and the sound it makes reverberates through the air.
She peels open her left eye, and sees a man standing next to her.
He looks about fifty. He's wearing a black blazer, sky blue shirt, dark jeans and a wicked pair of black and red Nikes. He has unruly salt and pepper hair, a scruffy five o'clock shadow, and blue, blue eyes. Bluer than the skies, if that's possible.
He lifts his cane off the table and sets it on the ground, leaning on it as he takes the weight off his right side.
"Who are you?" She blurts out before she can stop herself.
She's like that – her mouth moves faster than her mind, and the words always tumble out before she can even begin to consider the consequences. It gets her into a lot of trouble.
He doesn't answer. He only cocks his head at her, and studies her. His gaze is intense, and makes her skin crawl. It's like he can see into her.
"Are you checking me out?" She sits up and wraps her arms around herself, uncomfortably aware that she is wearing a tank top and skinny jeans that cling to every inch of her body. She's used to attracting stares at the mall and at school, and it makes her feel good. But not here, with him. "Pervert!"
He rolls his eyes at her, and out of nowhere, a leather jacket appears in his left hand. He chucks it at her unceremoniously.
"Cover yourself up," he says gruffly.
That's the first sentence he says to her.
She hesitates, but slips on the leather jacket. It fits her perfectly.
When she finishes putting on the jacket, she looks up to find him lying on another picnic table that has appeared right next to hers. His arms stretched wide open and dangling off the table, his long legs crossed at the ankles. He spins his cane in his right hand idly as he looks up into the sky.
"Who are you? Where am I? And why are you here?"
He turns his head to look at her. "You have impeccable manners."
"I need answers."
At that, he chuckles, and turns to look at the sky again.
"This," he says wistfully, "is my favourite place."
"How is that even relevant to me –"
"You're here. Talking to me."
"Who are you?"
"You don't need to know who I am. I'm just… here. I'm not even sure I know why."
She persists. "How do I know I can trust you?"
He doesn't even look at her this time. "Is there anyone else here for you to trust?"
Yeah, they're completely alone. There is no other sign of life around them. It's just them, in the middle of the park. There aren't even birds or butterflies fluttering around. It's rather unnerving.
The first tendrils of fear begin to creep up her spine. "Where am I?"
"I told you. My favourite place."
"Am I in heaven?"
He smirks. "Do you believe in a heaven?"
She's huffs in frustration. She's nowhere closer to getting an answer, and he's being infuriating.
"I'm dead, aren't I?"
"Answer my question first."
"You're an asshole," she spits at him, crossing her arms.
"You're real mature," he shoots back calmly. He sees the panicked look on her face, and relents. "You're not dead."
"Then how did I get here? And why are you here?"
"Okay. Boring." He gets up, and begins walking off. "Come on. We don't have all day."
"Where are we going?" She finds herself walking alongside him. He limps, though not ungracefully. There is a rhythm to his choppy gait, and she finds it easy to walk alongside him. "What happened to your leg?"
"Infarction. Muscle died, they removed it. Used to hurt a lot."
He stops walking, and frowns down at the cane in his hand. "Good point."
And just like that, the cane fades away into nothing. When he starts walking again, he takes long strides, and there is a graceful athleticism clinging to every fiber of his body.
"Niiiiice," he breathes to himself.
"This is all yours. Not mine."
They leave the park behind. Almost immediately, they arrive at a junkyard. The rickety gates swing open in front of them. They wade through the piles of scrap metal and junk, and he brings her to a rusty old public bus.
Beckoning to her, he climbs up the steps of the bus. She crinkles her nose at him in disgust. The bus is in awful shape - windows shattered, metal crumpled and… is that blood?
"Don't be a wuss," he yells back at her.
When she climbs in, the interior of the bus is spotless. He's seated right in the middle of the very last row, his legs outstretched into the aisle.
She sits down two seats away from him. As if on cue, the bus starts to move. It's nighttime now, and they travel down empty streets illuminated by streetlamps. There is no one driving the bus, and no other cars on the road.
"This… was my nightmare," he says, almost to himself.
"Then why did you bring me here?" She can't find it in herself to be pissed at him anymore, not when he looks so lost right now. Something in her aches for him. The emotions roll off him, like water off a duck, and it splashes on her. She can feel, in her very bones, his grief.
He seems to gather himself together. He straightens up, and makes eye contact with her.
"This isn't heaven."
"You told me that already."
"You know where I am!" Her head snaps up at the unconvincing tone of his voice. Her tone of voice turns accusing. "Just tell me."
"I can't…" he smiles rather resignedly at her. "Because I don't believe in this."
"Then why are you here?"
"Ever read the book The Five People You Meet in Heaven?"
"You just said that this isn't heaven!"
"Do you think it is?"
"Please," she almost begs. She's frightened now. She doesn't want to be dead. "Please just get to the point."
"So you have read the book. That's why you're scared."
"We did it in sixth grade… So I'm dead. I'm really dead, aren't I?"
"No, you're not."
"Then why are you here."
"It's just like the book. Except this isn't heaven. And it's going to be just me."
"Tell me more."
"I can't," he repeats firmly. "Because I don't believe in this."
"You don't make sense," she stands up and shouts at him. "You don't make any sense! How can you not believe in this, but still be here in this? Get me out of here."
He isn't rattled by her outburst. "I believe that this…" he gestures at his surroundings, "is all just chemical reactions that take place in the brain when the brain shuts down."
"So this is all in my head? I'm dreaming?"
He frowns at her. "You really don't pick up the most salient points, do you? I did say, when the brain shuts down."
"So I'm not dead. I'm dying."
He looks at her, and very quietly says, "You're in a coma."
Before she can react, she sees a pair of headlights hurtling towards them at breakneck speed. She is riveted to the spot, her eyes glued to the sight of the garbage truck speeding towards them.
His gaze follows hers. She turns to look at him, to plead with him to do something, do anything, but he too, can only stare, frozen, as the lights grow brighter and brighter as the truck comes closer and closer.
She prepares herself for the inevitable crash.
I don't want to die.
But everything just winks out.
When she opens her eyes again, they're still in the bus. But all around them is white light. He's sitting next to her, and he's looking around in what can only be described as wonder.
"Huh," he breathes. "This place. Interesting."
"Interesting? Interesting? How is this interesting? We nearly died back there, with the whole garbage truck hurtling towards us at breakneck speed! I'm stuck here with you!"
"I'm not sure we would have died… Technically, we can't if this is just all in your mind."
"You don't even know what's going on!"
He laughs bitterly at that. "That is true. And for once in my life, I seem to be okay with that."
She suddenly feels exhausted. She slumps down in the seat. There's a thunk sound as she drops her head against the window.
"What is this, really? Can I please just get some answers so that I can find my way back? Or die, or do whatever I'm supposed to do?"
"Tell me how you got here."
"I don't know."
She really doesn't. Whatever happened before she found herself in the park… She can't remember.
"We can't continue unless you tell me."
"I really can't. I don't remember."
He leans in, dead serious now. "You have to remember. It's important. You know. Try harder. Think."
She closes her eyes. "I was at a party – "
"On a school day?"
"I snuck out. Mom wasn't home anyway; she was working late at the hospital. Again. Everyone was there. Then Drake broke out the vodka and the beers… It was awesome," she smiles at the memory of everyone's laughter. "Drake really knows how to throw a party..." Her smile fades as things start to get clearer in her mind. "Nick was bragging that he bought drugs. Everyone took some; otherwise, you were a wimp… And then… I don't remember anything else."
"Drugs and alcohol don't mix."
Shame colors her cheeks a flaming red. "It was my first time…"
"But you've done the alcohol before. Plenty of times, in fact."
"How do you know that?"
"I just… know."
"Who the hell are you?"
"Hell," he muses. "That's ironic, considering where we are right now."
She huffs in frustration, and crosses her arms. "It's just for fun. Everyone does it. Now what?"
"I'm going to tell you how you ended up here."
"How did you get to the party?"
"You said you were going to give me answers!"
"Just answer the question already."
"Mandy picked me, Soph and Danielle up."
"How were you going to go home?"
"Mandy would drop me off at home before midnight. Mom told me she would only reach home after midnight cos some idiot caused some administrative mess she needed to…" her voice trails off as she realizes just what he's getting at.
"Mandy was drunk. And she took the drugs. She was driving the car…" Her hand flies to her mouth. "We crashed, didn't we? We crashed…"
"Ding ding ding ding! And we finally have the right answer!"
"That's just… inappropriate on so many levels," she gasps. "What am I going to do? Mom is going to kill me. She is going to be so mad."
He sobers up at that, and leans over to look her in the eye. Very seriously, very earnestly, he says, "She won't be."
"How do you know that?"
"She loves you."
"How do you know that?"
"You are repeating a question I already answered. I just do."
"You know her?" She whispers as she looks into his eyes. They do look familiar. She would remember eyes as stunning as his. "Do I know you?"
There is a heartbeat of a pause. She holds her breath.
But he only leans back against the seat. "Again with the questions. This is about you, not me."
She throws her hands up in the air. "I don't get you!"
"Many people don't."
"Great. Just great."
He ignores her theatrics, instead choosing to get down to business.
"You were a good kid. Straight As, honour roll, class president. You were so close to your mom… What happened?"
He doesn't need to state explicitly what what was. She knows. Her grades dropped, and she pulled out of the debate and tennis teams. They began having major arguments, ones that would end with either her or her mom in tears, and cold wars that would last for days.
She doesn't answer him.
"We're running out of time. You need to talk."
"I don't want to."
"I have all day, but you don't."
"Fine. Be that way."
"She lied to me."
He gestures for her to continue. He's listening to her earnestly, and somehow, she wants to tell him everything. She can't tell anyone else. And he's here, with her, wherever they both are.
"She lied to me my whole life, okay? It makes sense, why she would spend so much time at the hospital instead of being like a normal mom."
"She told you that you were adopted, didn't she? And how exactly she came to adopt you."
She's crying now; she scrubs furiously at her face. "Both sides didn't want me, you know? They actually didn't want me."
"But your mom wanted you."
"So what? She works at the hospital all day and night, and I spend my time alone at home."
"That doesn't mean she doesn't love you," he says very gently. More gently than he seems capable of. "She loves you very much."
"Do you know how awful it feels to know that your family didn't want you."
"I do," he says very quietly. "Sucks."
"She was just going to continue lying to me my whole life, you know? She didn't even intend to tell me. I only found out because I was going through her closet to find my dress, and I found the adoption certificate."
"So? So?" she explodes, "She was never going to tell me I was adopted!"
"Now you know. And?"
"She lied. My whole life has been a lie!"
"And now you know the truth. What are you going to do about it?"
"Whatever I want to do," she sulks. "Why should you care."
"This road you're on…" he says slowly. "It's a road leading to nowhere good."
She knows that. But she can't stop herself from hurtling herself down this path. She's just so angry.
"She loves you, you know."
"If she loves me, she wouldn't have lied to me my whole life. And she wouldn't go back to work on the weekends, or whenever she gets a page. She wouldn't leave in the middle of my birthday party just because one of her stupid staff gave the wrong medicine to the patient!"
A wistful smile appeared on his face. "That does sound like her."
"I just…" The desperation just leaks out of her, coming out in a childish whine. "I just want her to be around more, you know? To show that she cares more about me than her precious hospital."
"She does. You might not see it all the time, but she does care for you more than she cares about the hospital, or even herself."
"It doesn't seem that way."
"Your mom was the only person who bothered going to find you. She thought you were dead, but still wanted to find you. She adopted you, and you brought her so much happiness. She moved away from Princeton and the very hospital she built up…"
He falters, before clearing his throat,
"… to protect you. She deliberately accepted a job at a smaller hospital so that she could spend more time with you. That time she was at the conference in Germany? She flew back immediately when she found out you caught the measles. She stayed up all night with you while you were studying for your test just last month. She's a workaholic, but she loves you more than anything else. She yelled at your grandma last Thanksgiving for calling you fat."
She perks up. "She yelled at Grandma?"
Her mom, her strong, beautiful mom, is always meek in front of her grandmother. It exasperates her, seeing her mother like that in front of her (often unreasonable) grandmother.
"She gave it to her good," he affirms. "It was the clash of the century. Epic."
"Wish I could have seen that. The last time they quarreled, we were ushered into a separate room."
He doesn't answer her. A small, sad smile tugs at the corners of his lips.
A silence falls upon the bus. Because there's nothing else around them, it's utter silence. Unnerving. It's only in complete silence that people realize just how much noise there is in real life.
Something he mentioned earlier tugs at her. "Why did we move away from Princeton? You said it was to protect me?"
He exhales heavily. "You know what the beauty of this place is? You and I… we can't lie. It's perfect, isn't it. We can't lie to each other here. But what we can do, is try to twist the truth so much that it simply isn't the truth anymore."
He's deflecting, trying to get her onto another supposedly more interesting topic. But she's smarter than that.
She cocks her head at him, ignoring his attempt at deflection. "Who was she protecting me from?"
"Is it someone you know?"
He nods just so slightly in the affirmative.
"A boyfriend? A man?"
He doesn't move.
Reading his tense posture and his trembling hands, she knows.
"It was you."
There is a bitter, bitter look of triumph in his eyes.
"It's time for you to go back." He shuffles away from her, pressing himself against the glass windows of the bus.
"No… wait. I need to know… who are you? Why did she have to protect me from you?"
"You don't need to know who I am."
"I do," she stresses. "If you're helping me find peace, or guiding me back to the land of the living… You can't be all that bad."
"That's crap. You're such a sap."
"There must be a reason it's you here, and not some other random person. In the book, there was always a reason each person appeared."
"Your mom wouldn't want you to know who I am."
"Am I going to remember this when I wake up?"
"Who knows? Just go."
She stands up, and plants herself firmly in front of him. "Show me. Show me who you are. If you don't want to talk, just show me."
He looks at her. "You don't have the time."
"If I'm never going to see you again, it doesn't hurt to show me. And this is my coma slash dream slash mindwarp. Show me."
He sighs, acting all put out by her request. But he stands up, and together, they walk towards the entrance of the bus.
When they step off the bus, she finds herself in an office.
"This is where I used to work."
He's seated at the desk, throwing a giant tennis ball against the wall. A regular thump thump sound fills the otherwise quiet office.
She catches sight of some of the knick-knacks lying around his office. "You're a doctor?"
"So you worked with my mum."
Another shrug. She can tell he's only doing this because he's never going to see her again. He's just humoring her.
She sits down on the ottoman in front of the Eames chair. There's one just like this in her mom's home office.
"So at which point in my life did I meet you? If I can't remember you, I must have been young."
Very reluctantly, he stops throwing his tennis ball. "The first time we were formally introduced, you spit up at me. Right there," he points to where she's sitting.
"I was a baby then."
He shrugs yet again. It's getting on her nerves.
Things start getting a little hazy, and he startles her by striding over and grabbing her by the arm, dragging her to her feet.
"You need to go."
She yanks her arm out of his iron-grip, and defiantly, "No. Show me more."
"You need to get back to your mom. She's waiting for you. Just go."
"Show me more."
He's frustrated now, and he shouts at her. "What the hell do you want to know!"
"Who are you?" she whispers, "I need to know."
"This," a baby grand piano appears in front of her eyes, "is my favourite thing in the whole world.
"This," a Reuben sandwich appears in front of her. She can taste it. "is my favourite food in the whole world."
He's throwing all his memories at her, and she's reliving each one of them. She knows they're real, and not some random images he conjured up.
"This," a patient in a hospital bed, smiling as one of his team members tells her that they've, against all odds, found a diagnosis, "is what I did here in this hospital."
"This," an office adjacent to a free clinic, "is where your mom used to work."
He hauls her to his office door. "You really need to go. Now. Your mom needs you."
"How come you can show me such things, but not tell me who you are?"
"You are a stubborn kid, you know that? Just like her."
She squirms in his too-tight grasp. "Why," she asks breathlessly, "Why are you doing this, and why do you care so much about things between me and my mother?"
He stops in his tracks. He offers no further explanation, but shoves her towards his office door.
"Can you come with me?"
He snorts and smacks his hand against the wall in frustration. "Does it look like I can come with you? What kind of goddamn stupid question is that? What part of 'you need to go now' do you not understand? Stop being a pain in the ass, Rachel Cuddy. Just get out of here."
"You're dead, aren't you?"
"Who knows? Maybe I'm just a figment of your imagination, or a figure your subconscious has conjured up."
"No," she says firmly. "I know you."
"No. No. Don't even think about it. I'm not an angel, or spiritual guide, or whatever. I'm just here because I am here."
"There must be some way of explaining this."
"I can't explain it, because I don't believe it. There is no heaven. Ergo, you're not in heaven, or the place you go before you go to heaven."
"This is something. It's not just in my head," she stamps her feet on the carpeted floor petulantly, "Because if it was purely in my head, we wouldn't have been at your favourite place, or in the bus, which you said was your nightmare. This can't just be all in my head. I don't know anything about you, other than what you've shown me. It doesn't make sense."
"I can't give you the answers you're looking for. I don't have them."
"You have the answer! You're just not telling me!"
"I used to have all the answers. Not anymore. Tired of making sense of everything."
"No," she insists, "No." For lack of better words.
"Yes," he replies testily. "And now, you are going to leave."
"How did you die."
"I just want to know."
"People die all the time. You, however, are not going to die. I'm making sure of that right now. And for that to not happen, you need to actually leave now."
"What is this, some last ditch attempt to find out my sob story? To know more about me?"
"It's important to me. You've helped me, and I want to know who you are."
"It doesn't matter. I'm bad, remember?"
"It matters. It matters to me. And I know you're not bad. How can you be bad, if you're here, doing this? Trying to get me to go back? Give me something… Anything. I need to know who you really are. Because you are not a bad person."
He finally succeeds in getting her to the threshold of his office. One step out, and she knows he'll be gone. She struggles against him, but her efforts are futile.
His voice has lost all its anger now. When he speaks, his voice is soft. "You really have to go. Thanks for playing The One Person You Meet in Your Coma." A pause, then almost wistfully, "Say hi to them for me."
He shoves her across the threshold. She stumbles into the hallway, twisting back, hoping to catch one last glance at him.
The white is creeping in the edges of her vision, and everything is slowly fading out.
He's walking back towards his desk, not even looking back at her. The cane is in his hands again, and he's limping slowly and painfully. All alone, he cuts a forlorn figure in the middle of his office.
There are words stenciled on the glass door of his office, but before she can squint and find out what they are, everything starts fading out. She only manages to catch a G, and a H, before the white overwhelms everything.
She doesn't know if she is imagining it, but there is just the ghost of a whisper.
Don't screw this up, mangy bilge rat.
The answer. He finally gives her the answer. He would. He knows what it's like to not have an answer.
It comes to her out of nowhere.
The first thing she sees when she opens her eyes is her mom.
"Rachel," she sobs in pure relief as she engulfs her in a hug. "You're awake. Thank God."
She swallows hard. Her throat is sore. "Sorry," she croaks in her mom's ear. "I'm so sorry."
Her mom laughs and cries at the same time. "It's okay. I love you, it's okay now. I'm just so glad you're awake."
Uncle James appears somewhere next to her mom. "You gave us a scare there, Rach. You flatlined." He lays a hand on her forehead, and smiles. "You were badly injured, but you'll be okay."
There's a thought lingering somewhere at the back of her hazy mind. She knows she has to say it, before she forgets it. It's slipping swiftly away from her, and she knows once it's gone, it'll never come back.
"Just rest, honey," her mom smiles tearfully. "Just rest. I'm here."
The words are like cotton wool in her mouth. It isn't working as well as it should be. But she tries hard. She has to say it.
"He says hi," she breathes, her words slurring as the pain meds lure her into sleep. "House says hi."