Disclaimer: The Fault in Our Stars and its characters belong to John Green.
It never feels decay but gathers life
From the pure sunlight and the supreme air.
Athanasia by Oscar Wilde
A lover of metaphor like myself would be quite thrilled to find that heaven is a town where diners serve the best slice of blueberry pie you never had when you were still alive; bookstores always have copies of whatever it is you are looking for (even those rare out-of-print titles, and yes, even the complete Price of Dawn book series and An Imperial Affliction); movie theaters somehow screen films the way you want them to end and show life on earth live, as well as your favorite memories, like as they happened they were being caught on camera all along; and a pack of (unlit, still, of course) cigarettes lasts forever.
Except it is not a metaphor. Heaven is really like that. For me it is, anyway. It's not different for everybody, because the town I'm in (which I like to call Mayhemville, not to be ironic, but simply to honor Max Mayhem) is also eternally home to a handful of other souls. However, it's not entirely the same for everyone, either, because said town only has a population of 361. Can you travel to other people's heavens? I don't know, to be honest. I've never really tried to. Besides, I have only been here for less than two months, and it's like learning to live all over again. I am still getting my footing.
Anyway. I think my house was a preparation for heaven in disguise, 'cause one thing they don't tell you about the afterlife?
They go as far as to put them behind the counter at No Sham, right under the shelf lined with bottles of Guinness. No Sham is a bar owned by Mr. O'Brady, an Irish hockey fanatic who was a sheepshearer in his past life. Happy Hour is the Best Hour, it proclaims in bright green cross-stitch. Pictured underneath is a foamy 8-bit-esque mug of beer, cross-stitched as well. The presence of bars and drinking in heaven loses its novelty once the other (much better) facts are revealed, much to my relief.
It's like I never even left home in Indianapolis. Re the encouragements, I mean, not the alcohol.
But of course I did, and I'm not about to forget it. Another thing they don't tell you about the afterlife is, the loved ones you left behind would not be the only ones in mourning when you're gone. The way I see it, I'm not gone—they are. They lost one damn person. I lost everyone.
I lost her, so I think it's apropos I get to be mopey, too.
I'm well aware that it's not really fair of me to think this way. Sometimes, I just can't help it. Other times, I just don't care.
She makes me wonder if Anna from An Imperial Affliction got to have a heaven like this, only it's Californian, or maybe she's in a field of tulips, or maybe she's still tending to her cholera research foundation from beyond the grave.
Or maybe she doesn't get a heaven at all, and her whole life will remain ending right in the middle of a
But I don't like dwelling on that thought, even if it haunts me enough. Hazel makes me think of AIA makes me think of Hazel. And that's just one of the vicious cycles I underwent and keep undergoing minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day.
Today I sit at my front porch, feet propped up on a milk crate full of books and comics. Some days I have both legs and some days I don't, although I feel the same either way. When I first arrived here I didn't have my other leg, but when I woke up the next day it was there. I was so happy I did jumping jacks right on my bed—we get houses fully furnished to our liking as soon as we get here; I chose not to question it—and went to tell Hazel Grace.
Obviously, I couldn't get the message to her.
When my leg was once again prosthetic the day after that, I wasn't exactly celebrating, but then it appeared again three days later and I got the gist. Now, both limbs are present, and I chose to enjoy it by sitting and flipping through the fifth issue of Watchmen, if only because treating it normally feels so good I can hardly believe it.
I'm reading the last panel when Denny walks up the porch steps and kicks softly at the milk crate. I finish reading Fearful Symmetry before I look up at him. "Daniel," I acknowledge, and hand him a random book from the stack closest to me.
He looks down at it. "The Hobbit?" He shrugs and puts it in his back pocket, which I take to mean he will, at the very least, give it a try. "Hey, Gus," he says to me, leaning on one of the posts.
Denny is one of the few people I knew from my old life that I found again in Mayhemville. We met in Memorial a few months after I was first diagnosed with osteosarcoma. He was a year older than me, and he had Kaposi's sarcoma. He introduced me to The Price of Dawn. Two weeks later, he died.
Post-personhood, he is neither older than me nor affected by cancer. In fact, I barely recognized him without the telltale dark spots all over his skin, and with more meat on his bones and a full head of hair. "Daniel Garber," he'd said on my first day in the afterlife as he took my hand and shook it. "I lost consciousness and hit my head on your bedpost at Memorial." His voice was full and strong, like he was a politician making empty promises about abolishing poverty instead of narrating what was possibly a traumatizing experience for the both of us.
I'd known what he was talking about the moment he said it. That had been the first time ever I laid eyes on him. I just couldn't respond; everything was still a doozy to me.
He took this to mean that I hadn't recognized him. "You rushed to my side?" he added, sounding less sure of himself this time. "You helped Nurse Collins lift me up and get some smelling salts for me?"
I nodded. "I remember you. When you woke up you called me Phil because—"
"You looked like a really young version of that pretty guy from The Hangover, yeah."
"Not anymore?" I wondered aloud, amused.
But he only shrugged and put an arm around me, already leading me somewhere. "Let me show you around, Augustus Waters."
"To what do I owe the pleasure?" I ask now, since if I didn't, I'd have to wait for Denny to reignite the conversation, and hell could freeze over and he still won't speak. Actually, scratch that. I heard from the gossip circle of older women at the diner a couple days ago that hell actually has frozen over and they've found a new activity for torture: Being dragged across the ice by cuddly wuddly polar bears. Naked. And everyone you ever dated and went to high school with will have dreams of it happening to you.
Denny looks to the left, then to the right, before he directs his gaze back to me. He swallows. "Do you think Marcy will go out with me?"
"Denny, Marcy is a perpetually fifteen-year-old girl who died at a 1957 Spelling Bee due to asthma before she could kiss somebody during a basement game of Seven Minutes Behind the Washing Machine, or whatever it is they did those days. I'm pretty sure she wants to bone you." Also, I think, but I don't add, I wouldn't mind at all if she stopped trying to play that kissing game with me all the time.
"'Bone' me." He rolls his eyes, hands raised at his sides forming peace signs with the fingers bent, which I guess is an attempt to make quotation marks. "You would never say that."
"Right you are. This is Mayhemville. Maybe instead of saying 'boning' we're supposed to be saying 'fleshing.'" I pause. "Yeah," and I adopt a skater accent that I remember from sitting through the Bill and Ted movies and Dude, Where's My Car? with Isaac, "she totally wants to flesh you, dude."
"Stop, that's not even funny."
"My man," I tell him, once again adopting my normal manner of talking, "just go for it. This place isn't exactly crawling with teenage boys, is it?" There were less than twenty of us, in fact. "And you have nothing to lose, is that right?"
"No buts. There are only ands in this life, Daniel Garber. No ifs and whens and—"
"I get it," he says abruptly, but he is smiling. "Damn it when you get all philosophical on me, Waters."
"Take her to the park, introduce her to Nintendo, go dance the Hand Jive with her, I don't care, just do it," I tell him, "but not now. Sit, please." I gesture to an empty stool at the far end of the porch.
He does as told and drags it closer to where I am. "Don't mind if I do." He balances the copy of The Hobbit on his lap and plants himself on the stool. When he does, he looks me up and down and nods, as if having just made an important decision. He asks me, "Remember when I said you look like a young Bradley Cooper?"
"Of course." He was the only one who did.
"You still kind of do, you know. But not entirely. Just sort of."
I give him a grin that Hazel Grace would call one of my real smiles. She would not be mistaken. Then I lift a dusty game out of the milk crate. "Chess?"
The opening bars of a Stravinsky composition begin to bleat out of the speakers at the movie theater. I leave Denny right as I'm two moves away from a sixth consecutive win and run to it, as I do every time the song is played, so I can see who the new arrivals are. I can imagine him scratching his head, wondering what's wrong with me, as the chess pieces hang suspended in the air for the shortest of seconds before falling to the ground as a result of my haste.
Every time, I rush due to a mixture of curiosity, hope, and longing, which results in either surprise or a hint of joy, but mostly disappointment. The names—two to six of them at a time—are always listed on the marquee as those they belong to burst, disoriented and confused, but glad nonetheless, out of the double doors to cinema two like honorable guests at a parade. I can say that I'm waiting for someone—anyone—I know to get here. A celebrity, even, perhaps. But the truth is, she's the only one in mind each time.
And each time, I am both relieved and saddened that she has never walked through those doors. Somehow, I just know that when she passes, the ultimate destination would be Mayhemville.
It has to be.
A big crowd has gathered at the Cineplex before I could get there, and I can't see the names of the newbies. There's a collective statement of "Welcome!" and "Hello!" from the citizens, and even some ooooh-ing and ahhhh-ing from a few folks.
"Please, give her some space!" I hear the bowling alley attendant, Damien, say, followed by a string of everyone else's opinions, observations, and billions of questions.
"Ooh, she's pretty."
"Would you look at those eyes!"
"That dress makes her look like she walked out of a Barbie ad."
"No, it's definitely Teen Vogue material."
"What's Teen Vogue? Is that a radio program?"
"No, Marcy, it's not."
"Do you think she was a ballerina?"
"She seems nice enough."
There's only one arrival this afternoon. And she's, well, a she.
Finally the crowd parts, and I square my shoulders. Hazel Grace Lancaster or not, this soul needs a reassuring smile and a friendly face.
Unfortunately, I can give neither of these things to her, because I've been caught too far off-guard.
I disagree with whoever said that her dress makes her look like she stepped out of a Barbie commercial, because that's not the case at all. I really liked it on her once; it feels like a long time ago, but I know it hasn't been that long. She lights up when she sees me, like—I can't help but think it—like she's undergoing a PET scan. Her smile at me is tentative, but it's knowing and affectionate all the same.
I can't seem to find words. Me. Augustus Waters. Wordless.
I feel like I need to get up off the ground although only my feet are touching it. I have so many questions. Some are being answered right now, but they're being flooded out by more and more new ones. Forget surprise, or joy, or relief, or disappointment. I don't know how I feel, and I don't know how I should feel.
I've imagined a certain moment in my head so many times. And I've tried to prepare myself the best way I can. I thought I had it all planned out, every possible scenario thrown at me. I'd been afraid, so afraid, of the possibility of her not even recognizing me, or worse, me not recognizing her. I've heard of such events taking place, and it seems that everyone thinks something like that could make heaven less of a haven than it is. I can't help but agree. But I was ready for even that.
Yet no matter how many times I've worked out the likely outcomes of that moment, the one where she is at my side again, and to never let her go is actually conceivable, I'm simply at a loss when it comes to this moment.
Because this moment is not that moment.
Caroline Mathers, the ill-fated love of my pre-Hazel Grace life, stands before me, and she is stunning. Not to mention her brain is in prime condition and isn't turning her into a rude bitch when I least expect it. This Caroline and the word Stumpy don't belong in the same sentence, let alone the same lifetime. Especially not the same universe.
For her sake, I hope she doesn't remember the last few months of her life.
"Well?" she prompts. "Is that really all I get?"
I gaze at her a bit longer. Okay, if I'm being truthful, gape is more like it.
Finally, I manage a weak, "It's good to see you, Caroline."
The rest of it, she'll get later.