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There were seven of us: three women and four men. None of us spoke a word aside from the thousands painted by our gazes at one another; gazes of wild confusion and suppressed horror. We did our best to remain cordial—for a while.

There were no windows in the room in which we sat. There were doors, however, two of them, and one elevator. The seats we inhabited were just comfortable enough, like the ones you’d find in a public library, perhaps. But this was no library. In fact, aside from the plethora of available seating, not occupied by the seven of us, there was hardly anything of note in the room. And, perhaps, this was what made the room so noteworthy: no stimulation of any kind. I didn’t feel my phone, or anything for that matter, in my pockets, and judging by the rest of the group’s eye contact, it was safe to assume that none of us did. There were no clocks, no windows, no books, or magazines…just the faintest hum of the overhead florescent lights.

Sevenofus

None of us even coughed.

The lack of context was blinding, and the silence was deafening. Without a clock or a window, it was virtually impossible to tell the time of day. But, by the feel of it, it was twilight: not bright enough to be day and not dark enough to be night. Even the feel of the room, itself, was…twilight-bound. It wasn’t hot nor cold. Truthfully, it was hard to feel much of anything at all.

I lifted my arm from the armrest. Thank God it could move. I reached across to my other arm and tightly squeezed the flesh. I squeezed harder, not caring if I broke the skin. I retracted my hand and swallowed deeply.

Just as I feared: nothing. I couldn’t feel a thing.

“What are you doing?” a woman’s voice said, crumbling the piling silence before us all. I looked up, clearing my voice of the hush I was sucking on. I scanned the room, locking eyes with each of the other five before I caught the gaze of one of the women who had, in this library of faces, began reading me. She appeared to be middle-aged.

“W-what do you mean? Where are we?”

“What were you just doing to your arm?” she said, lifting her finger and pointing it at me.

“I was- ” I stopped, glancing around at the other faces. I could tell we were all in the dark, here. “I was trying to see if I could feel anything. Can you?”

The woman reached down and did the same, pinching her arm. She pinched again with more force. Then she looked up at me and shook a trembling ‘no’ as her face flushed with worry.

“Are we drugged?” one of the men, an older man, brusquely said as he stared down at his own wrinkly arm, simultaneously pinching it between his forceps of fingers.

“I don’t think so,” another of the men, a younger one with glasses, said from across the empty room, “I can move.”

“Just because we can move doesn’t mean we’re not drugged,” the woman from before said, “there are a lot of drugs that can cause numbness without altering mobility.”

“Yeah man, haven’t you ever been to the dentist? You drool all over yourself, but you can still move your lips,” the fourth man, a young black one, shrugged.

Then the room got quiet again. Naturally, our eyes shifted over to the two silent women still staring raptly back at us.

What?” the younger of the two said, “Why’re you all looking at me?” She then, too, looked over to the older woman.

The older woman had an expression of surprise, words on the tip of her tongue just waiting to dive off. She contorted her mouth before speaking softly:

“I have- ” she paused, looking inwardly at herself, “I have spoken Spanish since I was born,” she admitted, gripping the armrests ever-so tightly, “but somehow I understand everything you all are saying.”

“Well, you’re doing a pretty good job at English,” the young black man said, “This is coming from a native French speaker.”

“You’re French?” the youngest of the women said.

“Yeah,” the man replied, “French-Canadian. You don’t think they got black people in Canada?” He gargled a chuckle, “I’m also Hispanic, so add that to the- “

Wait,” I interrupted, “you’ve never spoken English?” I said to the older woman. She shook her head.

“That’s not possible,” the middle-aged woman chimed in.

“How do you know?” I asked.

“I’m a nurse, but I took some classes for Speech Pathology back in college.”

“So, you’re an expert?” the black man sarcastically said.

“No,” the woman said, “but I know you can’t learn a language in a day, okay?”

The room got quiet again, probably because it was too loud within each of our minds as they raced to find an explanation that simply didn’t exist. Those spaced-out walls surrounding us seemed to beg for answers. However, none were given.

Oh my- !” the man, who was now holding onto his glasses, hollered.

What?” I said.

He looked around at our faces, squinting and un-squinting until he spoke:

“I’ve been…blind in my left eye since an accident I had when I was seventeen,” he admitted, “But I can see out of it, now.”

Okay,” the black man said, “I don’t need to be a nurse to know that ain’t how it works.”

“Everyone, calm down,” the younger woman said, “Let’s just breathe a little. What if…we all went around and told each other about ourselves? Maybe that would make- ”

“I’m not up for playing Clue,” the oldest man said, standing and hobbling past me toward the doors at the back of the room. Suddenly we all grew quiet, with only the soft crunch of the man’s shoes against the carpeted floor making sound.

And when he was, about, ten paces from the door, it opened.

In-stepped two individuals: a man and a woman. The woman, dressed in a gray gown of sorts held the door for the man, covered with a fine suit.

“Sorry to keep you all waiting,” he said.

“Waiting for what?” the black man said, confusedly. Admittedly, we all were.

Jury Duty,” the woman said with a smile. “We carefully chose each of you based upon specified criteria- “

Hol’ up,” the black man said, “if this is jury duty, where’s the judge?”

“This isn’t jury duty,” the younger of the women said, shaking her head.

“How do you know?” I piped up.

“Because, I’m a lawyer,” she replied.

Everyone,” the suited man said with a smile and hands raised, “please calm down.”

“I dunno how I got here, man,” the black man shouted.

“All will be explained shortly, I assure you,” the suited man smiled. “In the meantime, is anyone hungry?”

We all looked around at one another with stark faces. None of us were and, even if we had been, all appetites were lost now.

“We’ll be back shortly,” the woman smiled as she re-opened the door for the suited man. They disappeared into wherever the door led before anyone had a moment to protest.

“What’s in there?” I said, voice raised, at the older man who must’ve caught a glimpse. He lifted his arms and shook his head.

“Couldn’t tell you,” he shrugged, trying the door’s handle, and walking back to his seat. “It’s locked,” he said to us all. Clearly, this revelation wasn’t taken well, as several of us marched over and tried to pry open any of the doors, including the elevator, to no avail.

“They can’t just keep us locked in here!” the young woman exclaimed as she frantically handed out panic-laced looks to each of us. She was right, but at this point what could we honestly do?

After a few moments, she let out a deep, tired sigh and plopped back into her chair. Then the silence began to accumulate again as we all waited for something to happen, or for someone to say something.

“Seriously, though, how’d you all get in here?” the black man said, glancing around at the group.

I thought about it, carefully: how did I wind-up here?

--------------------

After a long silence that seemed to stretch on for days, the black man wagged his head in his hands as he let out a dry laugh.

“What’s so funny?” I said, failing to see the humor in our shared situation.

Breaktheice

“It’s always gotta be me, man. Always.”

“Always you…what?”

“I always gotta break the ice,” he nodded, “It’s cool.” The man sat up and swallowed down a breath, scanning the rest of the group and trying to match the mood of the others, lowering his voice some: “My name is Jackson. It’s not my real name, but it’s what I go by.”

“What’s your real name?” the man in the glasses asked. Jackson chuckled to himself.

Michael. Michael Jackson. Starting to see why?” There was a nervous sum of giggles that spattered from across the room before he spoke again: “I’m 32. I’m a stand-up comedian from Toronto.”

Now that made me laugh.

“Now, what’s so funny to you?” he asked with a raised brow. I shook my head.

“That’s the first thing that’s made any sense today—you’re a stand-up comic.”

“Yeah, that explains a lot,” the young woman said. Jackson nodded with a grin.

“Okay, so, how ‘bout you?” he said to her. She sat up straight, surveying the group.

“Like I said, I’m a lawyer- ”

“You’re pretty young to be a lawyer,” the oldest of the men said.

“I’m 29. Graduated from Yale when I was 27.”

“Nice,” Jackson said, “So, what’s your name? And you better not say Michael.”

“It’s Toni,” she nodded, glancing around the room, and resting her eyes on the old man. “How about you?” she asked with a raised brow. He cleared his throat before speaking:

“Well, my name is Thomas White,” he started, “I’m from Hartford.”

“What do you do, old man?” Jackson asked.

“I’m a priest.”

“Well, praise the Lord!” Jackson grinned, “Do me a favor, would ya? Start praying so I can get my- “

He stopped. We all turned to face him.

“What’s wrong, Jackson?” I said. He looked up at me with a face that could only be described as a look of confusion and terror all twisted into one.

“I can’t…curse, man. I tried to say- “ he stopped. “I can’t say it. Y’know, like donkey.”

“Yeah, you mean- “ I stopped, my throat cramping at the thought of it. I couldn’t say it either. We all looked around at one another, even more confused and afraid than we were before. Then, from out of nowhere, the old woman spoke up from her corner seat, bending the tension, but not breaking it:

“My name is Rosa Ramirez. I’m from Boston. And I’ve never spoken English in my life.”

At this point, we all believed her with a collective sum of nods and moved on.

“Hey,” the man who once wore glasses said, “uh, the name’s Jerry. I, uh, can see, now…so that’s nice.”

“Where’re you from and what do you do?” Thomas asked.

“I’m from Vermont,” Jerry said, “and I don’t have a job right now,” he shrugged.

“Why not?” Thomas asked.

“Because I don’t get handouts from saps like you, Father Thomas.”

“Whoa man, chill,” Jackson said, looking over to Thomas who was, surprisingly, quiet.

“Do you not believe in God?” Rosa asked, leaning forward in her seat.

“No, I don’t,” Jerry said, “But to each his, or her, own, I guess.”

Then it got quiet again. We were all starting to get used to that.

“Okay, who’s next?” Jackson asked. I locked eyes with the middle-aged woman. She turned to face him.

“I’ll go,” she said. “My name is Cindy. I’m a nurse in Essex, Vermont. I’m 49. Happy?”

Jackson nodded, turning to me.

The gazes of the other five turned toward me too, as my gaze turned inward, focusing on the question that had been hounding me since the moment I woke up in this place:

Who was I?

--------------------

The last thing that I remembered was the trail of blood running down my arm like a leaky faucet. I dropped a razor blade on carpet, and then I blacked out. An eternity later I woke up in the back of a swaying vehicle, surrounded by a halo of faces peering down at me with wide eyes. There must’ve been music playing because, though I couldn’t hear it, I could feel it ringing. And the light: a bright light that morphed into flashes of red and white.

Wentblackagain

An ambulance. I must’ve been in the back of an ambulance. The whiteness of the light flashed to red before everything went black again. And it remained black for a long while. This is the part where things get…fuzzy, as recollecting these memories feels like sifting through dreams to find reality. Isn’t your life supposed to flash before your eyes when you face death? Maybe mine did. Or maybe they revived me too quickly.

Honestly, I still can’t remember.

I do, however, remember a padded cell. The walls loomed over me as they taunted me with their imposing impossibility; too hard to break them down, too soft to break myself. I did try though, but not even the hardest pounding did any damage. I tried to feel something against their pillowy embrace. Maybe I was still numbed up on pain killers, probably the same stuff coursing through my bloodstream right now.

I couldn’t break the gauze I found wrapped around my wrists. It was too tight, which left my arms to writhe around in the snug constraints like worms—worms that wouldn’t die. Not even my teeth could make a dent. Why was gauze on my arm at all? Did I…cut myself? What was that place? Where was it? No windows, one door—one padded door, locked from the outside, of course.

I’m starting to see a correlation, here.

I must’ve stared at that padded door for a millennia before it opened. In stepped an officer: a dour look wiped over his face; a face I couldn’t remember—strange how memory works.

“You’ve got a visitor” he said.

“Me?” I asked, rising to my feet.

“Who else?” he mocked, looking around the empty cell.

I was escorted down a long, bleak hallway that seemed to stretch on for miles. Not an inch of sunlight touched the place. Maybe it was nighttime. Maybe.

I plopped down in front of a pane of glass, a phone strapped against the wall to my right.

None of this answered my question, however. Who was I? I peered into that mirror; the memory of it. What did I look like?

In the reflection I saw a man: pale and boney, like a starved chimp. The brightness of his orange jumpsuit contrasted with his eyes, void of most of the blueish color overtaken by veins of red.

Was this…me?

My reflection stared back at me, both judging and excusing my reason for being in that chair, a reason I couldn’t even remember. What did I do to deserve to be in a place like this?

And then, in the place of my reflection, sat a man.

He was well-groomed, a fine suit and a briefcase in his hand, with which he placed it on the table in front of him, in front of me. I can’t remember his face, only his hands. And the suit.

He gestured to the phone on the wall, grabbing his, as I did the same.

“Do you know who I am?” he said in a matter-of-fact kind of way.

I shook my head.

“Do you know who I’m not?”

His question mystified me both now and then. I sat up, a dumbfound confusion etched on my face in the reflection as I cleared my throat.

“Should I?”

He drummed his fingers along the briefcase.

“I am…not about to see you rot away in here, Trevor.”

That was my name: Trevor. Trevor. I folded my wrapped-up arm across my chest, the other still clutching the receiver.

“Are you, my lawyer?” I asked. The suited man bellowed a deep and ironic hot breath.

“Just between you and me- “ he raised a hand in innocence, “-did you actually do it? I mean, I’ll defend you either way, but all good cases start with trust, and I need to know I can trust you, Trevor.”

Did I actually do…what? Any prior memories were still a blur.

No- “ my voice pleaded.

--------------------

Hello?” Jackson said, snatching me from the memory and seating me back into the silent room, filled with faces of concern and intrigue all glued onto mine. The tension was taut.

Sorry,” I said, learning forward, “I’m…just a little…confused right now.” I rolled back my long corduroy sleeves: no cuts, no scars.

“You don’t say?” Jackson said, jokingly, “Just start with your name, man.”

“That was the confusing part,” I said, “I forgot it.” There was a hasty exchange of concerned glances from around the room before I spoke again. “But I remember it, now. It’s Trevor.”

“Where’re you from, Trevor?” Thomas asked.

“I don’t know. I was…in some kind of institution before I woke up here. I don’t know what I was in there for.”

“So, you’re a criminal?” Cindy snapped at me.

“No- well, I don’t know. I don’t think so. I had…gauze wrapped around my arms. I had a lawyer- ”

There were a few eyes that shot toward Toni. She looked at me, attentively scanning my face, then around at the others, defensively.

“I’ve never met him before in my life,” she said, “I swear. And if I did…I don’t remember it. I work with civic law for God’s sake!”

“It wasn’t her,” I said, “the lawyer was a man but…I can’t recall his face.” I looked up from searching the carpet for the face when a new question dawned on me. “Does anyone remember how they got here, exactly?”

No one answered…verbally. There were a few shaking heads, with the others devolving into maddening stares onto the floor or ceiling, perhaps for a hint of recollection.

And, after another perpetually solemn silence, someone spoke up:

“I remember taking the bus when everything went black. I woke up in some hospital or something…and now I’m here,” Jerry shrugged, clearly suffering from some amnesia, too.

We all looked around at each other, as if to say, ‘anyone else?’

“The memory loss we seem to be collectively experiencing might be coming from the potential drugs in our systems. I know about a dozen or so anesthetics that can lead to amnestic symptoms,” Cindy said.

“Yeah, but that still doesn’t explain why we’re here,” Jackson said. Everyone agreed.

We did our usual passing of the glances in the silence. I counted five. Thomas wasn’t looking at any of us. He was staring at Cindy.

“Penny for your thoughts, Thomas?” I said, snatching him back to his chair. He looked at me quietly, then back to her.

“Say what you just said…again,” he pointed.

Cindy handed a nervously cracked smile out to the rest of us. She cleared her throat.

“Uh, I was saying that the memory loss we’re having might be from the drugs in our systems.“

Thomas swallowed deeply; a flush of realization pouring over his face.

“What are you lookin’ at?” Cindy said with crossed arms to the old man. He leaned forward.

“Where do I know your voice from?”

Somehow, the room grew quieter than it already was. Desolate, even. Cindy shook her head.

“I don’t know. I’ve never seen you before. Trust me, old man.”

“I haven’t seen you, either. But I know your voice. Have you been on television?” She waved her head. “Have you- “ he stopped mid-question, eyes widening.

“What is it?” I said. He turned to me and shook his face.

“I’m not at liberty to say, son.”

“Why not?” I asked. Thomas licked his dried-up lips.

“Because it’s forbidden that I disclose a confession.”

--------------------

“A confession?” I asked, my eyes darting from Thomas over to Cindy, whose demeanor changed to a spectacle of surprise and apprehension.

“Yes,” Thomas swallowed, the groups’ collective gaze locked onto him once again, “As I said, I’m the Reverend at the Basilica of St. John in Hartford. I hear confessions every day- “

“So, what’d you confess, huh?” Jackson asked Cindy, her brows furrowing deep into her face.

“I have no idea what the old man is talking about. I’ve never even stepped foot into a church.”

Sure,” Jackson rolled his eyes, turning to Thomas, “Man, what’d she tell you?”

“I cannot disclose a confession—the sacred seal. If I did, I’d be excommunicated from the church.” The others and myself then turned our attention back to Cindy.

“Start talking,” Jerry said.

“How ‘bout you mind your own business, m’kay?” Cindy snapped.

“As far as I’m concerned, we’re all trapped in here…together. Your business is my business. Talk.” We couldn’t all help but agree. Cindy’s eyes widened as she knew she was out stacked. She sealed her eyes and sighed deeply before opening them again.

“I- ” she started, “-work at a hospital in Essex. I had a patient who was dying: suicide attempt, self-inflicted injuries,” she shook her head, “I let them die.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I mean I helped,” she confessed. Thomas spoke up from across the room:

Euthanasia,” he said, “physician-assisted suicide. I get confessions regarding it a lot.” He turned to face the woman, sincerity filling his voice, “You aren’t alone, Cindy. God forgives- ”

“Save the preaching, old man. I’ve heard it all before,” she said, shaking her head. “You think you know what it’s like to have to make a choice like that- “

“I do,” Thomas interrupted. He shook his head, trembling.

“What’s wrong, Thomas?” I said.

Nothing, I’ve said too much- “

“We’re all in this together, Father,” Jerry said. Thomas scanned the room—nowhere to conceal his feelings, now.

Ugh…in my youth I…lusted,” Thomas puffed, “Priests are not permitted to marry but that didn’t stop me from falling in love, or so I thought- “

Tommy?” a voice rang out from across the room. We all turned to see who it was.

It was the old woman: Rosa. Thomas fixed his eyes on her until he blinked to a realization. His mouth dropped.

“My God,” he slowly said, scooting forward in his chair, “how did I not see you before, Rose?”

“Hold up- “ Jackson said, “what the- “ he stopped, unable to push out an obscenity, “-is going on, right now?” Jackson spoke for all of us as we slowly were trying to piece together what was happening. Then Thomas cleared the air:

“I met Rose—Rosa—while on a retreat to a monastery in Boston,” he said softly with a cracked smile of swelling memory, “She was a prostitute: a beautiful, young Latin woman I saw from the abbey windows that looked onto the ghetto streets.” He shook his head in remembrance, “I swore to God that I wouldn’t go near her, but I walked in front of those windows too many times,” he said with a faint chuckle. “We made love, her and I. We never spoke a word to one another because…we couldn’t. I didn’t speak Spanish, and she didn’t speak English which meant she couldn’t tell anyone of my sin in my native tongue. We arranged our…meetings every week and, after the retreat was done, I never saw her again.” He looked to Rosa, “I’ve thought about you every night since,” he sniffled, turning to Cindy with a hint of anger on his breath, “so if you want to talk about making a choice to let someone goI know the pain.”

Cindy didn’t have a rebuttal aside from a sympathetic nod. We all followed Thomas’ eyes back to Rosa, whose eyes were red and moist.

“You lie,” she said to Thomas from across the room, her voice restrained yet the quietness made her seem louder, “You did speak to me: amor, all you said was amor. I believed you, Tommy. You were the first man that made me consider what that word meant. And then you left me.” Rosa began to weep, causing Thomas to do the same.

Aside from the weeping, there wasn’t a noise in the room.

O-kay,” Jackson said, bending the tension slightly, “Where’s the hidden camera? C’mon, I’m done with this, man,” he rocked forward to his feet, nodding at all of us as he walked to the doors along the wall on the far side of the room. He gave one a tug. Then another. He tried a third time with all his might before moving on to the second: nothing, still. He went up to the elevator and began mashing the buttons. Nothing happened.

And I feared that nothing was going to.

--------------------

A grueling lifetime of nothingness later, Jackson returned to his seat without saying a word. Not even a joke, which at this point was very out-of-character for him. The rest of us were quiet, too. Thomas and Rosa ran out of heartbroken tears to shed and didn’t even bother looking in each other’s direction. As for me—and the others—we were mostly in our heads, trying to figure out how to get out of this place—how to get home.

“I have a baby,” Toni admitted with a sniffle, head facing the carpet.

“I thought you were 29,” Thomas gruffly said, his voice being pretty shot after his weeping.

“I am,” she said, “You learn a lot about the legal system when you’re fighting for child support. That’s why I’m a lawyer.”

We all nodded in understanding, too weary to speak despite the fact that we’d been sitting for hours on end. It felt like an eternity.

“So, how old’s your kid?” I asked, trying to make small talk.

“She’s five,” Toni said softly, “I don’t remember where I was before here. I hope she’s okay. I miss her.”

“I miss my brother, too,” Jerry said from across the room, hands clasped as he spoke tenderly, “When we get outta here, I’m gonna go visit him. He helped me after my accident and I…said some things when I shouldn’t’ve.” He shook his head as he slumped down.

“You said your accident was when you were seventeen?” Toni asked. Jerry nodded. “So how old does that make you?” she asked again.

“I’m twenty-one,” he said. She nodded.

“Did you sue the degenerate, at least?” she smiled. Jerry didn’t.

“He, uh, died,” he said, “-died, uh, on impact. They told me they found drugs in his system but, uh, yeah…the degenerate’s dead.”

“Oh my, I didn’t know- “ she said.

“It’s fine. The family sued me up the- “ he stopped, unable to say it, “-y’know. I couldn’t help but always feel like it was my fault…my therapist said I have, what’s called, survivors’ guilt.” He nodded silently to himself before he spoke up again. “I’m in a better place, now. I’ve realized since that…well, he deserved it. He took my sight and lost his life in the process. Now he can rot in hell for all I care.”

He cleared his throat and looked around at us all, tucking his head down toward his chest as he heaved a hot breath.

“What happened between you and your brother, then?” Toni asked, refusing to let the silence resettle amongst us. Jerry bit his lip.

“He, uh—we never really got along. He always would boss me around when we were kids. After the accident he was so overbearing that I couldn’t even go to the bathroom without him watching me.”

“I see,” Toni nodded.

“Yeah,” Jerry starkly chuckled, “I do, too.”

Jackson let out a less-than-enthusiastic chuckle at Jerry’s comment, but his smile soon turned sour. None of the others saw it, too enveloped in their own personal dilemmas…but I did: the flush of panicked recognition plastered on his face. And when Jackson noticed my gaze of his, he gave me the most fearful look I’d ever seen, as if to say, “for the love of God…please don’t ask.”

I didn’t.

Instead, I turned my attention to the others. There had to be a reason we were all waiting in here, together. Rosa and Thomas and Cindy knew one another but, aside from them, the rest of us were complete-

That face. Why did it look so familiar all of a sudden? Maybe the drugs were wearing off but-

Toni—I knew her.

--------------------

It started as a memory of a memory—one long before the ambulance or institution. At least, it felt that way.

It was a room, then a face: hers. She turned and walked away from me, the room expanding in my mind as she did. It was a courtroom. I turned to my left—a man was there. He looked like a lawyer, but this wasn’t the man I saw before. I turned to my right, continuing until I was looking behind me—rows, and rows of pews.

Rowsandrows

Then a sound ricocheted throughout the space: a thud.

A gavel.

I watched as Toni grazed past me, followed by a cluster of faces that seemed all-too familiar. How could I’ve forgotten them? Bella. Eric. And Vera. My ex-wife, and our two children.

She was taking them away.

It all made sense, now: the lawyers, the courtroom, the custody trial, the gashes across my wrists…I had tried to kill myself.

I saw it all, now. The hospital bed, the nurse-

The nurse. She looked all-too familiar.

Cindy?

--------------------

Trevor?” Jackson’s voice rang through the open room. I blinked and I was back, those armrests still supporting me—dead weight.

What?” I said, dottily.

“Nothing, just…you, okay?” he said, “You look as pale as a ghost, man.”

“I’m, uh- “ I shot a glance across the room to Cindy, who was looking through me like I was going crazy. I was. “You said you euthanized a suicidal patient of yours?”

She nervously looked around at the others before speaking:

Yeah? Why? Do you- “ she stopped—she recognized me, too. Her mouth dropped open. “But you’re- “

“Does anyone remember where they were before they got here?” I looked around at the still glances of the others. I raised my voice. “Enough of the silence! We need to figure this out!”

Why?” Thomas huskily asked, reclaiming some vigor in his broken voice. I looked at him with, what must’ve been, the bleakest expression I’ve ever conveyed.

“Because I think we’re all dead.”

--------------------

The statement barely had time to settle over the group before Jackson burst into a fit of laughter; a screechy cackle that resonated throughout the room, occupied by the six of us who definitely were not laughing along. Solemn stares were pointing back in my direction, over to the hysterical Jackson, and then back to me.

“What’s so funny?” I asked across the room, somberly. Jackson calmed himself to answer.

Nothing. It’s just…a bit,” he shook his head, wiping a tear from his cheek, “a joke my dad used to tell me,” he said, clearing his throat. “I feel like I’m a character in it,” he scanned the room, nodding at Thomas and Toni before turning back to me. “See, there were these three guys, all of ‘em were dead, and tryin’ desperately to get into Heaven. They arrive at the pearly gates and are stopped by Saint Peter. Pete says ‘Listen, fellas…Heaven’s a bit too crowded these days, so I can only let one of you in.’ One of the guys turns to the others and says ‘Well, I’m a lawyer. I’m well-read, well-dressed…I’ve helped a lot of people.’ Then the next guy says, ‘I’m a priest. I’ve read the Bible, memorized it too. And I’ve been preachin’ from it for the last fifty years!’ Finally, the last guy, a brotha, turns to Peter and simply says, ‘I didn’t know we had to learn how to read to get in there!’”

Jackson cracked another grin before his second fit of laughter, looking around at all of our stares, full of ample amounts of bleakness—making it all the funnier to him.

“I don’t get it,” Thomas said, completely avoiding the dead elephant in the room. Jackson rolled his eyes back.

“Of course, you don’t,” Jackson stomped, shaking his head, “You’re in it!”

“Everyone, hold on a second!” Cindy said, looking directly at me, realizing who I truly was, “I believe him.”

She had to. She knew who I was—knew I was dead. Which, if that was the case, must’ve meant they all were, too. And given the cold, sunken eyes staring back at me, I think they all realized it themselves.

“Hold up,” Jerry said, raising a hand, “I’ve heard that joke before. Who’d you steal it from?”

“Uh, I didn’t,” Jackson said, cocking his head to left with a cocky grin, “My daddy told it to me.”

Jerry’s eyes squinted deeply at Jackson before opening wider than I thought possible, the light from above glossily coating the whiteness surrounding those dilated pupils. His lower lip drooped to the floor as he leaned forward in his seat.

“I know you,” he said, “you’re a comedian.”

“Yeah, man,” Jackson said with a nervous smile, “we established that. We’re also apparently dead so, I mean, there’s that- ”

“No, I mean I’ve seen your act before. Were you ever in Vermont?”

Jackson froze, all color draining from his face as it wilted.

“What’s wrong?” I snapped. Jackson didn’t flinch, but his face read like a book. Something horrible was going through his mind.

Jerry began wagging his pointed finger up and down Jackson’s colorless face, a tremble in his voice:

“Oh my…God,” he said, “Y-you’re the guy. You son of a- “ he choked on his slur.

“Now man…just calm down. I dunno how to explain it- “

You’re the drunk driver? B-but…you’re dead!”

“We all are,” I said. Jerry’s wide eyes locked onto mine.

“I’m not- “ Jerry’s memory caught up with him, his face twisting into an expression of disgust, like watching a car crash. Maybe he was.

Wait a second- “ Thomas said in a stern and surly voice, “you’re telling me that we’re all dead?” I nodded plainly at him. Then a bit of clarity filled his eyes. He stood, searching the room with his pale-white gaze, tracing those stagnant walls with his face. He gasped harshly.

What?” I said.

He speckled a cross across his body: first his forehead, then his chest, and his two shoulders. He swallowed. All twelve eyes were locked onto him.

“In the Church,” he said, “we have a name for this place: Purgatory.”

--------------------

If any of us had a pin to drop, it would’ve been the loudest audible sound in the place. It seemed as if we all were holding back our next breath. Maybe more than a breath.

“So, is this like…Hell?” Jerry asked in a still tone.

“No,” Thomas said, “it’s the- “ he stopped, those eyes of his going wild as he thought of the words to say, “St. John referred to this place as a place of separation, not quite Heaven and not quite Hell. It is a place of suffering, that our sins might be atoned for.” He looked around the room at us all with trembling eyes, “Have any of you read the Divine Comedy?”

The six of us glanced around. We hadn’t.

“Of course, you haven’t- “ he shook his head, hanging it to his chest, “Eternal Father- “ he began a soft prayer.

“Hold up on the prayers for now, Father,” Jackson said.

Why?” Thomas replied.

“’Cause it clearly hasn’t done you any favors before. Look, you’re in here just like the rest of us.”

“But with prayer and penance we can- “

“How long are we stuck in here?” I interrupted. Thomas looked from Jackson over to me. I could tell he didn’t have an exact answer.

“That depends,” he said.

“On what?”

“How you lived.”

--------------------

A lustful priest that slept with whores. The whore he slept with, and the envy she carries because of it. A comedian, whose gluttonous, drug-filled trip cost a man his sight. The once-blind man now slow to see forgiveness and slothful to care about anyone. A wrathful nurse, my wrathful nurse, who gave up the will to help others. A lawyer, who stripped me and countless others of their children all because of her greed. And me: a man who killed himself, all because one smack of the gavel stripped me of my pride and joy.

We were all going to rot in here for a long time. And we all knew it.

“What was the thing that woman told us?” I said, pointing direly to the door she and the man fled through.

“She said we were selected for jury duty.”

“Wait a minute- “ Jackson said, “This don’t add up right, man,” he turned to face Jerry, “If I died after our little accident- “

Little?” Jerry asked, brows furrowed.

“Bear with me,” Jackson said with a raised voice, “If that’s true, how come we both just ended up here now, even though I’ve been dead for ‘years’, apparently?”

We all looked over to Thomas, the only one who might’ve known. He shrugged forlornly.

“I, uh- ” he scrambled, a tremble in his tongue, “I suppose it might have something to do with time. I mean, it doesn’t work the same as it did on earth. This is a spiritual plane.”

“Or maybe you two were supposed to meet in here,” Toni said from across the room. We all turned to face her. She shot glances back at us, refusing to look me in the eyes. “We all inexplicably know each other. Who’s to say we’re not suppose to testify against one another?”

Testify?” Thomas asked on behalf of the rest of us.

“Yeah, like a courtroom. You Catholics always say God’s our judge, right? Well, that woman said we’re the jury—a jury of our peers. And- “

“Maybe we’ve got to decide who goes to Heaven and…who doesn’t,” Cindy interrupted, turning her head toward the elevator, taunting us with its mere presence—the mere hope of escape. “Maybe that’s the only way out of this place.”

“That is not the orthodox view of purgatorial theology,” Thomas demanded.

Dude,” Jackson said, “does any of this seem orthodox?” Thomas shook his head in disapproval.

God is our jury. He is the judge, yes, but also the jury. And the executioner,” Thomas said. “But if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to- “

“Maybe that’s it,” I said, cutting the priest off. “Confess. We all need to confess.”

Thomas began shaking his head again. The rest of exchanged concerned glances. Then a sigh rang in from across the elongated room: it was Rosa. She was shaking her head, too, but not like Thomas’: a shake of disapproval. She was shaking it in regret.

“I’ll go,” she said, “you all already know my sin of debauchery. But there’s more.”

More than being a gangbanging hooker?” Jackson scoffed with a laugh. Rosa nodded, too distraught to care about Jackson’s insulting joke.

“I have sinned against the Lord, yes. But I’ve also sinned against my family.”

“How so?” I asked. Rosa nervously looked around at us before shooting a glance to the ceiling, as if to apologize to God, Himself.

“After Thomas left, I had nothing—I had nothing before, so nothing changed—and I desperately wanted something,” she said. “I met a man; an evil, abusive man who promised me lots and gave me quite little. But the little he did give were my children: Edwardo and Valentina. Thank God that- “

“Wait, Valentina?” Jackson asked, leaning forward, “Valentina what?”

Rosa twisted her head, confusedly, at the young man.

“I…don’t know. Last I heard she was in Pickering years ago before- “

“That’s…that’s my mom,” Jackson interrupted with spit flinging from his hung-down mouth, “Abuela?” Rosa’s eyes swelled at the realization of who Jackson was. Jackson swelled, too, but not in the same manner.

“You abandoned her!” Jackson screamed, rising to his feet as he did, “You left her alone! You left us!”

“I was young. I had no money for a child. She ran away- “

“And she never let it go,” Jackson said, his once-joking manner now buried beneath a hardened heart. “You deserve to rot in Hell.”

“Calm down, Jackson,” Thomas said, patting the air.

You’re one to talk,” Jackson snipped with crossed arms, “You caused all this.” Thomas scoffed at the accusation.

“Don’t go pointing fingers, son. We’ve all sinned and fallen short of the- “

“’-of the glory of God’…yeah, I’ve heard it all, man. My mom used to tell me that one—right before she died. I wonder where God was in all that, huh? Maybe setting up chairs in here while I was drinking away my sorrow. I’m really feeling the ‘glory’, now!”

“Jackson, please- “ I said.

Trevor- ” he snapped, “I was beginning to like you. Don’t make me change that.”

Despite the room remaining unchanged since we awoke here, it felt like it was getting hotter. Or, maybe, only we were.

The tension now was wrought; tangibly so. Even the slightest movement made eyes shift in the same direction. And that’s why, when Toni sat up straight, we all couldn’t help but watch.

“Does anyone else…want to confess?”

I bit my lip and turned to face her, the heat rising in the room as it did under my boiling skin.

“How about you?” I asked, sharply. “How about you confess for all the pain you’ve caused? You have a daughter of your own—a child—how could you- ”

“Excuse me? I was a custody lawyer, I don’t- “

Toni Moray,” Rosa said, more so asking then stating from across the line of chairs. Toni turned to face her.

Yeah?” Toni wondered.

The Toni Moray? The one from Norfolk County?”

“I didn’t realize I had a reputation,” Toni shrugged.

“Oh, you do,” Rosa said, “You’re the one that got my daughter’s boyfriend out of paying child support. The reason he left your mother,” she said, looking over to Jackson. Toni raised a brow.

“W-wait,” Jackson stuttered, “You’re ‘Tori the ‘Torney?”

Toni the ‘Tourney,” she corrected him as she turned back to Rosa, “And I’m sure, if I did get him off, there was a legal reason as to why- “

“Being legal doesn’t mean being right,” I interrupted, “If that were the case, I’d be scot-free—suicide is legal again.”

“Not in the law of God,” Thomas piped up, chest puffed.

“Oh, shut up with the ‘God’ thing for five minutes, please, Thomas! Jesus Christ…do you even care about Him, or do you just like throwing Bibles at people?"

Thomas dotted another cross around his body, scowling at Cindy’s provoked and frustrated demeanor.

“You’ll be begging for that name, whom you just blasphemed, when you’re cast into the lake of fire,” Thomas said, “I thought your confession of guilt was genuine. There’s nothing ‘genuine’ about you.” Cindy was taken aback, with a hint of malice in those narrowed eyes.

Excuse me?” Cindy said, voice raised, “And what, exactly, do you know about me? Huh?”

“I know you’ve killed a man,” he said, nudging his expression toward me.

“Oh, he killed himself for Christ’s sake!” Cindy said. Thomas traced a third cross across his body with his fingers.

“Don’t act like you didn’t have a part it in!” I said, “You’re as much to blame as she is,” I said, pointing to Toni. And that’s when all the fingers began shooting across the room: Thomas to Cindy, Rosa to Thomas, Jackson to Rosa, Jerry to Jackson, and on, and on, and on, and on they went—like a circle—like a perfectly eternal circle.

-------------------

There was wailing, and weeping, and gnashing of teeth as tears mixed with hate-filled rampages, sometimes escalating to the point that those tears may’ve bled into the blood that soiled the carpet. The temperature rose, or maybe it was just the fire that couldn’t be quenched among them. And for being such a large room, it felt all-the-more claustrophobic, now.

Sir?” the woman’s voice said from beyond the wall, echoing indefinitely in the void, devoid of all Godliness.

Yesss?” the man’s smooth voice hissed, a smile spreading across his wet and thinly-veiled lips as his eyes hungrily watched the chaos ensue from within the windowless room. This man, had Trevor recollected enough, might’ve resembled a lawyer he once knew: one from the other windowless room.

“How long do they usually keep this up, sir?”

“Hmmmm…dependseternity is a rather long time, but humanity expires quickly. Usually, it gets physical after about ten ‘Earth’ hours or so. So, our seven are right on schedule. Next, they’ll try to force the others into the elevator. It doesn’t work, of course, so they’ll get all-the-more panicked and straight-up maul each other after a while. It’s brilliant, really.”

Your idea, sir?”

“Mmhmm," the man clicked, "And tomorrow, whenever that means, they’ll awake and forget it ever happened.”

“Brilliant, sir. Now, do you ever tell them the truth, eventually? Let them realize where they truly are?”

The man throatily cackled.

“It’s been said that the truth would set one free. Seeing that I have no intention of freeing these guilty souls, I therefore have no intention of telling them any such truths.”

“Brilliant, sir. Absolutely brilliant.”

As the woman and man oversaw the torment of the damned, they relished in the truth that these seven characters before them would never see the brilliance of Heaven.


Written by MakRalston
Content is available under CC BY-SA

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