December 16, 2022
Second Place Winner - CWA First Chapter Contest - “Eternity”
By Amy Strong
TRACK 1 – I RAN
I’m going to die tonight. And I’m fine with that. I’ve wasted a whole life in forty-six years. Two decades of being a drunk followed by a chaser of ovarian cancer. God is a wicked bartender, indeed.
I’ve been in hospice care three weeks, but I’m not dying fast enough, so I’ve decided to refuse all food and water. My husband has gone to call our daughter, in case I end up going tonight. I doubt she’ll come. She hasn’t spoken to me in years.
I rub my feet together, cricket-like, beneath the starched sheets. Pale calves pass each other without touching. Two sharp hipbones rest like headstones beneath a cover of bony fingers. Cancer is the best diet I’ve ever been on.
There are some downsides, though. A bedsore is eating away at my lower back, an acid crater of throbbing pain. I haven’t washed my hair in weeks, so it’s matted instead of curly, dirty grey when it should be honey blonde. I have a constant sore throat, which makes it difficult to swallow. I’ve lost all muscle tone, too. I can’t go to the bathroom on my own. I can’t even sit up. I’m a living skeleton trapped in a dead jellyfish.
How did I end up here, in this hospital bed, withered to nothing and waiting for death? I used to be beautiful. I used to be a gifted cellist. I had so much potential, limitless in my youth. But then I became a mother—a shellshocked mother—and after that, a drunk. Now I’m a small-print obituary waiting to happen.
I caress the spot on the inside of my left wrist where my daughter’s name is tattooed. It’s a flowering vine, “Mira” it says. Her name means peace—what a joke. My daughter never had peace, and she never will. I drank away her childhood, then I got sick the moment I got sober. She’s angry at God, angry at cancer, angry at me.
A nurse enters the room. I bet she’s come with the end-of-life paperwork. She’ll probably ask me to reconsider. The night staff here is notoriously religious. They’re all born again, and we’re all dying. When she closes the door, I pretend to be asleep.
The nurse pulls a chair up to my bed. I wince as it scrapes the floor. She sits down next to me and starts humming a song. It’s the same two notes over and over, long and low, a stretched-out siren. Her voice has a gravelly edge that scuffs away all sweetness.
Now she begins stroking my hair, petting me the way you pet a dog when you’re putting it down, nice and slow so it knows it was loved. Her hands smell strange—sumac, moss, maybe a hint of marijuana. Most nurses smell like rubbing alcohol.
I want to tell her to stop, but then she’ll know I’m awake, and we’ll have to talk about how much God loves me. So I fake a snore but end up choking on unexpected phlegm. It goes down thick, the flavor of spoiled milk.
The nurse pauses while I cough, her hand hovering above my head, then resumes her petting once I’m still. “Shay-na,” she finally sings, making a chorus of my name. “You wanna leave this hospital bed and go to the happiest place on Earth?”
I turn my head away from her. My thoughts slosh like a water balloon. “I don’t wanna go to Disneyland,” I slur. “My Make-a-Wish was for a vibrator.”
She should laugh—it’s a joke—but of course, she doesn’t. This is the terrible thing about dying. No one has a sense of humor about anything. They think every conversation is the last.
“Not the happiest place,” she snaps. “Your happiest place, the one you used to talk about in treatment.”
Treatment? What the hell is she talking about, treatment? If she had read my chart, she’d know I refused to do chemo. And what would she know about happiness anyway? She’s a night shift nurse at a hospice house in rural Maine.
I flop my head sideways to scowl at her, but everything looks smeared. A machine beeps in time with my heart. I lick my lips, but my tongue refuses to cooperate. It just lies there, fat, hanging out of my mouth, like I’m expecting snowflakes any minute.
The nurse tsks. “Boy, you really are a mess.”
You have no idea, I think. My external self is nothing compared to my internal state, which is embroiled in a constant civil war. Half of me has spent her life running from her mistakes. The other half has been praying for redemption. Those two halves are fighting now, even as I lay dying. One is itching to go. The other is lingering, hoping her daughter will arrive and offer some kind of absolution.
The nurse snaps her fingers. “Shayna—focus. I can’t sit here all night.”
I blink again to clear my vision. The scene crystallizes as I open my eyes wide, throwing daggers at her with a glare. And that’s when I realize she’s not a nurse.
She’s a middle-aged woman with ratty red hair dressed in a black serape, itchy wool where scrubs should be. Wiry whiskers poke out from her chin. Her skin is ashen, light grey. Her fingernails are caked with dirt, which surely can’t be sanitary.
This isn’t right, I think. I should call for help. But what I whisper is, “I’m sorry, who are you?” She cracks a smile with chipped teeth, yellowed out by time. “You don’t remember me?” she replies, a smoker’s growl. I shake my head no as my vision swims.
“Octavia,” she says. “I was the herbalist at Meadow Woods.” She brings a gnarled hand to her mouth and mimes throwing back a drink. “What was it, your sixth or seventh time in rehab? You were working through some heavy shit, as I recall—unplanned pregnancy, shotgun wedding. You had to give up a job with an orchestra, am I right?”
I nod at her, wide-eyed. I remember an herbalist at Meadow Woods, but I don’t recall ever speaking to her. She sat in the corner during group therapy, which must be how she knows these things. I remember her knitting most of the time.
Octavia grunts as she stands up. “I’ve come bearing gifts,” she says, and she reaches into her serape. She pulls out a syringe, which she uncaps with her teeth, along with a tiny glass vial. Now, this is my actual wish, to get a shot of morphine, but I promised my husband I wouldn’t take anything for the pain. Even though I’ve been sober for two whole years, he’s still afraid I’ll die an addict. He guards my sobriety the way the Ringling Brothers guard tigers—with confidence, but also with cages.
“I promised my husband I wouldn’t take morphine,” I croak.
It feels like my throat is full of splinters.
“It’s not morphine,” Octavia scoffs, as she spits the cap onto the floor. “It’s more like an ejector seat. It gets you out of your body so your body can concentrate on dying. It’s for people who are having trouble letting go.”
She jams the needle into the vial and starts drawing liquid into the syringe.
“I’m not having trouble—,” I murmur, but she talks over me.
“The outbound trip is—how can I put this? A little weird. But you get to be young again, so it’s worth it.”
I stare up at her. She’s squinting at the syringe, flicking it with her middle finger.
“Young again?” I rasp. “What does that mean?”
Octavia rolls her eyes and sighs. “You’d think people would just say yes, but everyone wants an explanation. Okay, here’s the deal. You pick a favorite memory, and you get to relive it. I’m guessing, for you, it’s the night of your twenty-first birthday. This drug will take you there. It’ll let you go back in time. How does that sound, sunshine?”
It sounds amazing, to be honest, too good to be true. My hands start shaking beneath the sheets. “How does it work?” I ask. “And is it real?”
“Oh, it’s real alright,” Octavia chuckles. “Your spirit will eject from your body and inhabit your younger self for the duration of the memory. But when the memory’s over, you have to come right back. Your body will be ready to die by then, so don’t make it wait.” She pauses for a moment, then raises an eyebrow at me. “And don’t even think about fighting the return trip, either—you’ll just get stuck in The Ether.”
“The Ether?” I softly repeat.
Octavia slaps a finger to her lips and ducks down beside my bed. A nurse is approaching my room. Her shadow lingers outside my door, then turns and goes the other direction, dark and ominous like a circling shark.
“We don’t have time,” Octavia whispers. “Do you wanna be young again or not?”
The next question leaps from my throat like a frog, unbidden.
“Why me?” I choke. “If you were there at Meadow Woods, then you know I don’t deserve something like this.”
Octavia smirks as she shakes her head. “You wanna know what I saw at Meadow Woods? I saw a girl who got lost, a girl who got buried by the woman you became. That girl loved music. She loved dancing. And she’s still alive inside. Don’t you wanna see that girl again, be that girl again, even if just for a moment?”
“Yes,” I whisper. Then I add a nervous, “Maybe. I’m not sure.”
In my heart, I know that Mira isn’t coming, but I still feel torn, like I should wait for her. What if I miss my chance to say goodbye? But what if she never shows? I will have passed up the opportunity of a lifetime—or deathtime, I guess.
The nurse re-appears outside my door. Her shadow grabs a clipboard, then looks it over before walking away. “Did you print the end-of-life paperwork?” she calls to one of her colleagues. “Her husband will be back any minute.”
“It’s now or never,” Octavia hisses. “Are we doing this or not?”
Yes, I nod, eyeing the needle.
Octavia squirts a stream of liquid up into the air. It makes a slender, dotted arc, then lands with a splat on the sheet. She leans over and presses my face to the side. Her hand is gnarled like a clump of tree roots.
“Start picturing it now,” she says, as she searches for a vein in my neck, “that dance club where you spent your birthday in 1990.”
“’93,” I correct.
“Remember it with as much detail as you can so you end up in the right place. Okay, I got a vein. You ready?”
I nod and close my eyes. Octavia slides the needle into my neck. I suck my teeth as it goes in. A warm pool of apathy floods my conscience when the drug begins to flow.
“Alright,” she says, “tell me about that place.”
“It’s called Eternity. It’s a New Wave dance club in Chicago. I spent my twenty-first birthday there. That was the best night of my life, the last best night, before I got pregnant and started—"
“Details,” Octavia interrupts. “I need details. What does this place look like?”
Details? Okay. Let’s see.
“There’s a mahogany bar by the entrance. It’s bathed in blue light from above. There are three red velvet booths on the opposite side. A black-and-white dance floor is at the other end. The walls are violet, lined with etchings like spiderwebs.”
“More,” Octavia encourages. “What kind of people are there?’
“There’s a DJ with a mohawk. There’s a couple of bartenders, too. The place is packed with twenty-somethings high on coke. My two best friends are with me. This was their idea. They know I love Depeche Mode and The Cure.”
“And where are you? What do you look like? Are you wearing something special?”
“I’m on the dance floor,” I say, “dressed in a gold bodysuit. I’m wearing lip gloss, coffee-brown. My hair is wild and curly, like a lion’s mane. I’ve got gold polish on my nails.”
“And what are you doing?” Octavia whispers.
“I’m d-d-dancing.” I stammer, because something is happening. I can feel it in my chest. A door has opened, an escape hatch for my soul. I’m drifting away, oil separating from water.
“Hey—stay in the memory,” Octavia insists, tapping at my arm. “Focus on your senses. What do you see? What do you hear?”
“A disco ball is throwing sparks. Laser lights are pulsing. A smoke machine is spewing fog into the air. ‘I Ran’ is playing by A Flock of Seagulls. Oh, wow—I can actually hear it. I can feel the crush of bodies, too. I’m drinking champagne. I can taste it. It’s like I’m really there!”
“That’s it,” Octavia says. “Okay, you’re gonna feel a little sting.”
And then she pumps the last of the drug into my neck, and it’s much, much more than a sting. It’s an army of barbed-wire centipedes burrowing their way into my ear. They’ve been poured from a vat of molten silver, these creepy-crawly hounds of hell. They’re everywhere, swarming all over me, running down my body, weaving in between my legs.
And now they’re in my feet. And now they’re in my chest. And now they’re in my head, devouring me from the inside out. And all I can hear is the nurse, rushing into the room, yelling, “What are you doing?” And then my husband, “We said no drugs!”
I try to scream, but it’s too late. I’m already gone. Everything is gone, the bed, the room, the world I knew. A Flock of Seagulls continues to play as the centipedes pull me across the stretchy expanse of time. We go tripping along like fingers plucking a violin.
Then we’re skimming the floor of a cold, waveless ocean. I taste sand as we race along the bottom. We explode up through a layer of ice and shoot into the sky, then pause in mid-air, beneath a full, shining moon.
“Where am I?” I cry, alarmed to be up so high. The landscape below looks like the arctic circle. The centipedes release me, and I continue floating, weightless.
Welcome to The Ether, they transmit, the waystation between worlds. The comet will take you to your happiest memory. When the memory is over, we’ll bring you back, and the door to your body will re-open.
“No way,” I say. “Where’s Octavia? I want to go back to my body—now.”
Just wait for the comet, they say.
“What comet?” I shriek.
The bugs point their antennae toward a spot in the bruise-colored sky. Slowly, it begins to twinkle. A glowing ball takes shape, about the size of my yoga ball at home. It has a diamond tail that trails off into a whisper of dust. Soft purple fog swirls around the edges. It starts moving toward me, so I scamper away in mid-air. Then it stops, so I stop, too.
You have to get on, the bugs say, gesturing to the comet.
“Uh-uh,” I balk. “One wild ride was enough.”
But it’s the only way to get to the memory, they insist.
“I don’t want to go to the memory. I want to go home!”
Suddenly, I feel a tickle in my stomach, a playful twinge, like the drop of a roller coaster. A sparkling energy is spiraling all around me. I breathe it in with an orgasmic gasp. The pain of the bedsore is gone. I can swallow again, too. My papery skin is plumping up. My hair tumbles around my shoulders in perfect ringlets. I’m becoming young again.
I hold my hands up in front of my face, and my wedding ring evaporates. Gold polish appears on my nails. I turn my wrists over, and the tattoo of my daughter’s name unwrites itself. It’s like the last twenty years never happened. It feels so good to finally be free of suffering—not just physical, but mental, too. My insides are warm and gooey, and my mistakes don’t seem to matter. I never want this feeling to end.
The comet turns to go. It’s ready to leave, with or without me. “Wait!” I call. My voice has that desperate bottom-of-the-bottle edge. I’m scared to take another trippy, psychedelic journey, but I don’t want to lose this intoxicating youth.
I thrust my arms out in front of me and rocket across the sky, then mount the comet, where the head meets the tail. I take hold of starry reins and kick my heels into its sides. We shoot away, as if we’ve been shot from a cannon. Lights flash past, and everything feels terrifyingly cold. I shut my eyes against the kaleidoscopic blur. There’s a low moan of downward sound as we zip through a puddled tunnel. I hear music echoing from other dimensions—conversations, too.
Suddenly, we stop. When I open my eyes, we’re hovering three feet above a sidewalk, snow-capped, with icy boot prints in twos and fours. I slide off the comet’s back and step cautiously to the ground. I’m standing in front of a broken-down building.
This can’t be Eternity. It looks like it should be condemned. The siding is hanging off the exterior walls. A fire has burned a gaping hole in one corner of the roof, and there’s a notice of “Code Violation” on the door. My two best friends should be here, but they’re nowhere in sight. The only person I see is a homeless man yelling at rats. All the other buildings on the block are boarded up. This is not how I remembered it at all.
A truck goes by on the street trailing a cacophony of cans, and I whirl around in surprise. There’s a soapy message written on the back window: “Brooke and Tony—January 5th, 2019!”
2019? I just came from 2019. I was supposed to go back to 1993. Somehow, I’ve landed in the wrong place and the wrong time. Am I still even me?
I spin back around. There’s a port-hole-sized window in the door, so I rush forward to check my reflection. I’ve got a riot of blonde curls framing a doll-plump face. My skin is luminous peach, glowing in a way I had forgotten was possible. I’m wearing a gold bodysuit, just like the night of my birthday. I’m still twenty-one, thank God.
Slowly, I become aware that ethereal music is playing. I put my ear to the door. It’s coming from inside. I shield my eyes to peek through the winter-fogged window. I see an empty dance floor, a deserted bar, a DJ booth.
An older man with soft, sad eyes slips past me and holds the door. I could swear that we’ve met before. He stares at his shoes as he asks, “Miss, are you coming in?”
Then I see a neon sign blink to life above his head.
It says, “Eternity, $5 cover.”
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