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Everyone In My AP Lit Class Is Dead

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Once (aha! The writer betrays an innate tendency to regard time as linear) upon a time (probably due to being an ignorant Westerner without regard for the value of other narrative traditions) there were (a definitive statement of existence? How ridiculously naïve) two (ooh, looks like a ridiculously polarizing dichotomy) men (chauvinism too! Yes, this one's utterly hopeless, unless it's implying that there's, you know, something else going on).

WOULD YOU STOP WITH THE CRITICAL LENSES AND LET ME GET ON WITH THE STORY?

(Sorry.)

Once upon a time there were two men. Well, "were" might have been stretching it, to be honest. Nevertheless, they were capable of advancing the plot, which is existence enough for me.

"Where are we?"

"Are we?"

"I don't know."

"You don't know?"

"No."

"Then there's a you."

"I suppose."

"So what about me?"

"What about you?"

"I exist."

"I assume so."

"So where are we?"

"Here."

"Oh." Guildenstern looked around for a moment. "Where is here?"

"I don't know."

"That doesn't help!"

"Sorry."

"We were in England."

"We were."

"But we're not."

"We are!"

"That's good."

"Not really."

"Why not?"

"It's boring."

"It'd be more boring if we weren't here."

"How do you know?"

"I don't."

"Well you could ask a question."

"Who would I ask?"

"Me."

"Would it be more boring if we weren't here?"

"No."

"How do you know?"

"I don't."

"Are you bored?"

"Not yet."

"So there you go."

"Well, we're not bored. But if we weren't, nobody would be bored. So it wouldn't be any more boring."

"Well, suppose we were somewhere else?"

"Where else is there?"

"Everywhere."

"It's not boring anywhere else."

"No, it isn't."

"Could we go there, do you think?"

"Where?"

"Anywhere."

"I don't know."

Rosencrantz stepped forward. "I think we can."

"Let's go, then!"

So they went, until they came to a man. Because they were skillful at interpreting things not obviously apparent, or hardly apparent at all, sort of like English teachers, they inferred that he was angsting because he could not muster the willpower to do anything. "Hi, Hamlet!" said Rosencrantz cheerfully.

"For the last time, I'm not Hamlet!" he retorted. Had he been any less of a jaded modernist, he would have used Caps Lock.

"Who are you, then?"

"Are you?" Guildenstern suspiciously asked.

He shuddered insubstantially, having never doubted his own existence before but now not so sure. "I-I'm Jay."

"J? Like the letter?"

Jay nodded, his neck seeming as if it would give way any moment.

"Is it J for Jesus?" asked Rosencrantz.

"No, just J for Jay."

"Because lots of things represent Jesus. Even if they don't look like they do."

Jay slowly backed away.

"J for John the Baptist?" continued the undaunted courtier.

"No!" Jay gripped his neck protectively. "I don't even like locusts!"

"Locusts?" A man dashed up to them. "Did somebody say locusts?"

"Yeah," Rosencrantz answered.

"Give me the locusts!"

"There aren't any locusts," Guildenstern attempted to clarify.

"Well," Rosencrantz cut in, "there probably do exist some locusts. Just not around here."

"Where are they?" insisted the new arrival.

"I don't know," Guildenstern replied.

"Why do you crave locusts, anyway?" wondered a tall man walking up to them.

"To eat!" grinned the locust-lover.

"What an absurdly primitive concept!"

"Whuh?" His tolerance for the polysyllabic had never been particularly high and was rapidly declining. "You got locusts?"

"No."

"Wait a minute." Jay addressed the tall man. "Are you Mistah Kurtz?"

Kurtz bowed politely. "Indeed."

"B-but you're dead!"

"A minor inconvenience, to be sure, but I would never allow something as trivial as my own mortality to impede my civilizing mission."

"Are all of us dead?"

"That'd explain a lot," Guildenstern muttered.

"Am I dead?"

"Looking good if you are," Rosencrantz smiled.

"B-but-my life was nothing more than existential tedium! Is my afterlife going to be equally monotonous?"

"Looks like it," Guildenstern shrugged.

"If I was stupid enough to believe in some objective standard of justice, I would ask what a guy has to do to get a break around here!"

"Where did that savage go?" Mr. Kurtz asked.

"Probably looking for locusts?" Rosencrantz suggested.

"Come back here, you brute, I'm not done reforming you yet!" Mr. Kurtz took off. The man he was chasing reached for his gun, but didn't find it, such implements being useless in such a plane of existence. So instead he turned and body-slammed Kurtz, who tried to fight his way free. Kurtz's size was formidable, but his adversary's wrestling ability was more so.

"Come on," cheered a spectator, "you can do better than that!"

"L-l-look who's talking, you g-g-got killed b-by a bunch of slaves," his friend stammered.

"Yeah, so I'm out for revenge. Also, what are you doing here?"

"I d-died."

He laughed. "Well, yeah."

Another man walked up and watched the wrestling. The stutterer panicked. "G-get away from me!"

The newest wrestling fan just smiled silently.

"Y-you made m-my life horrible. D-don't haunt m-my afterlife too."

"Well, you didn't make my life particularly pleasant either," the smirker retorted.

Crushed under a burden of racial guilt that would have made any revisionist historian quietly applaud, the stutterer turned and ran.

"You, on the other hand..." The two remaining spectators faced each other. "...I thought I'd gotten my revenge on you by terminating your existence. Obviously I need to think of something better."

"Hey, now, let's take it eas—Whoa! Look out there!"

Had their fight occurred in the mortal realm, Kurtz surely would have long since conceded defeat. With nothing able to harm him anymore, however, he futilely fought on against his skillful opponent.

"So what are you going to do to me?" The ex-slave just smiled furtively, and his onetime master grew increasingly nervous. "C'mon, just tell me."

Kurtz, meanwhile, was trash-talking his opponent in a cultured European style. "I say, chap, you know you're an utter savage?"

Instead of replying, the wrestler fought on, thriving in an environment where physical rather than rhetorical strength seemed to be valued.

"Say something!" the former slavemaster roared.

"It's no use." Jay began wandering away. "I could probably get a tumid river to show up, if that would make you more comfortable with the idea that these guys don't have to talk."

"No rivers!" roared Kurtz.

"Whoa, what's the matter with rivers?"

"They'll take me back...I don't want to go back..."

"You actually like it here?"

"Well, no," Kurtz admitted. "But as soon as this primitive fool runs out of strength, I will!"

"It's not going to happen."

Jay's words proved prophetic (though not like that) more quickly than he anticipated; just when Kurtz seemed to be beginning to break free, his opponent slammed him to what passed for the ground. With his new angle, he glimpsed yet another man watching impassively. Like his silent adversary and the silent slave, this fellow had skin much darker than Kurtz (or indeed Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, or Jay).

"What's your prob—oof!"

"I have no problems," the newcomer beatifically smiled. "I am utterly content."

"Well, what are you doing over here?"

"Enjoying the company of others."

"I don't really know what you find enjoyable about this crowd," Jay muttered.

"Ah, but we are all one, are we not? The imperialist and the galley slave, the deferential advisor and the interchangeable deferential advisor? The river was my path, but it is not necessarily yours."

"No, I think we can all agree that it isn't my path. To where do these paths lead, exactly?"

"Enlightenment."

"Yeah, I think I took a detour somewhere along that road."

They stood in silence, either too content to need to speak, too cynical to bother, or too entranced by the wrestling to do anything else. Kurtz was still losing, and would have been losing even more pathetically had it not been for a well-placed boot to his opponent's face.

Kurtz's opponent attempted to pull the new combatant into the fray, but he backed off. "Whoa! Just because I'm randomly inclined to commit senseless violence against people with darker skin doesn't mean I'm a bad guy! I just got corrupted, that's all. No need to be so touchy about it."

"That's the spirit," smiled the Spanish wrestling fan. "The name's Aranda."

"Fresleven. Nice to meet you."

"You too."

"...Um," Fresleven went on, seeing that nobody else was interested in conversation. "I'm from Denmark. What about all...you people?"

"THEN BOW TO YOUR LIEGE!" An intimidating form, clad in war-armor, strode up to them.

"Um?" Fresleven bowed frantically. "Pardon me, your royal...ah...sir."

"That's better. Right, um, anybody seen my brother around?"

"Your highness!" Rosencrantz bounded forward. "We've been looking all over for, well, one of your relatives."

"Hmm, keep looking."

"Yes, sir." Guildenstern wandered off. "Come on."

The courtiers slowly left.

"Right," said the king, "any of my other subjects being traitorous?"

He glanced from the happy Indian to the focused Spaniard, from the sullen African to the Briton (or perhaps United Statian, it was difficult to tell), from the European of indeterminate nationality to the Ibo six inches away.

"Take that as a no. Carry on!"

And he retreated to the place where an Indian woman was glaring at him.

"It's okay," he reiterated. "You're among...friends...let's call them. There's no one here who can hurt you."

"I'm telling you the truth!" she snapped. "This snake just came out of nowhere, crawled inside my dress, and bit me!"

"That's what they all say. But really—"

"Your highness!" called Rosencrantz.

"What, already?"

"No, but your wife is here."

"My wife?" he said incredulously, just as the nearby courtesan was saying "Your wife?"

"Yeah...she met, um, well, just come and see."

"Sorry," muttered the king, trekking behind Rosencrantz to where Guildenstern watched two angry women yelling at each other.

"...and then, my brother-in-law married me-"

"You think you have it bad, honey?"

"Gertrude!" exclaimed the king.

"Which one is he?" Jocasta raised an eyebrow.

"My hus-well, okay, the first one," Gertrude answered.

"Hey, how should I know your true love from somebody else?"

"By his cockle hat," sang a young woman nearby.

"But I'm wearing my armor!" protested the king.

Jocasta raised her other eyebrow. "Exactly."

"He's also dead," volunteered the sing-songesque maiden. "Your true love, that is."

Suddenly, Gertrude's second husband materialized in front of them.

"Well, that doesn't help," sighed Gertrude.

"...Hi," smiled Claudius.

"BEGONE FROM MY SIGHT, FOUL USURPER!" thundered his brother.

"Um, yeah. Hamlet should be around soon." Claudius turned and fled.

"Poor kid. So, whaddaya say, Gerty-baby, wanna pick up where we left off?"

"She says he's not your true love." Jocasta nodded at the nearby lady.

"True..." Gertrude weighed the options. "But then again, she's also out of her mind. Let's go!" And she and her husband meandered happily away.

"Hey!" snapped the lady. "I'm out of my corporeal body, but I'm in my mind."

"Really?" said Guildenstern. "How does that work?"

"I don't need any of your misogynistic manipulations!" she crowed, twirling about in the freedom of the grave.

"Didn't know I had any, but whatever," Guildenstern shrugged.

"So, are we all dead here?" asked Jocasta.

"Looks like it," said Rosencrantz.

"Hey, Laius, get over here!"

"Well technically speaking," Guildenstern rushed to clarify, "just because everyone here is dead doesn't mean that everyone dead is-"

But his semantic lecture was cut short by Laius walking up.

"Hi, honey!" Jocasta purred.

"Hello," he groused. "Not much of an afterlife."

"You're here."

"Yeah, well, the gods aren't. I deserve some sort of explanation for this."

"You showed up pretty quickly when I called for you. Maybe you haven't been looking hard enough?"

Suddenly, a man popped up in front of them. "Um...who are you?"

"Laius, king of Thebes!"

He blinked. "This is some sort of a bad dream."

"It's not, though," Guildenstern called over.

"How do you know?"

"I'm dead too."

"Dead?" He raised one hand to the side of his head. "That'd explain the bullet hole, I guess."

"See, Laius?" beamed Jocasta. "I always told you these "gods" were a bunch of bumbling fools."

"Whoa, gods? You've got the wrong guy."

"Who are you?" demanded Laius.

"Just a suburban programmer. All I want is to be home with my kids, none of this hallucination stuff."

"Jesus!" Rosencrantz grinned from ear to ear.

He shook his head nervously. "N-no way."

"You're just in denial. Give it a day or three and we'll see."

"How do we measure time here, anyway?" asked Guildenstern.

"We don't," Laius responded.

"So maybe it's already been—" The programmer broke off. "Oh, hi. Alfred, right?"

"How'd you remember?" said a dejected man shimmering insubstantially in front of them, at the same time Jay was saying "Jay Alfred."

Rosencrantz turned his head from the programmer and Alfred to Jay and the wrestlers, who showed no signs of tiring. "Wh-how?"

"Oh, please." Jay rolled his eyes. "You're telling me that after everything you've gone through, or may still be going through, depending on whether this guy," Jay nodded at the Indian mystic, "is on to something, you expect this place to obey the laws of Euclidean geometry?"

"I thought it might," Rosencrantz sheepishly smiled.

"It doesn't," he snapped.

"What's up?" the programmer kindly asked Alfred.

"I was at the music school—and then I thought I was dying—and now I'm here. Wherever here is."

"We're still trying to figure that out," Guildenstern said.

"Some sort of heaven, huh? Guess the church got something right after all."

"Don't give him ideas," muttered the programmer, surreptitiously indicating Rosencrantz.

Guildenstern looked from Jay to Alfred. "You two are both...less here...than the rest of us. And you're both named Alfred."

"Do you think there's some sort of a connection?" Alfred posited.

"That's Jay Alfred to you!" Jay retorted. "...Not like it matters."

"Well," Alfred said defiantly, "my name is Alfred Schweigen. And—and I exist!"

He seemed to flicker out of focus.

"In time!"

Jay tilted his head to one side, curious.

"And space!"

"Which this mockery of Euclidean geometry isn't!" added Rosencrantz.

Alfred glared at him, then disappeared.

The assembled crowd glanced at each other, except for the wrestlers, their loyal fans, and the Indian sage.

"...Was he Jesus?" Rosencrantz finally hypothesized.

"No," said the programmer.

"He only thought he was dead," Jay pointed out.

"Could the music school have something to do with it?" Guildenstern wondered.

"Well, are there any musical critics with a slightly tenuous grasp on reality around?"

Suddenly if a bit predictably by then, two musical critics with slightly tenuous grasps on reality materialized.

"...I'd go so far as to call it thought-tormented," said the younger of the two. "There's no expression there at all."

"But expression doesn't matter," wheezed a man who by rights looked as if he should barely have been able to stand up, "if one hasn't a grasp on the notes."

"What's left if you take away the feeling?"

"More than Algernon ever has a hope of mastering."

"Sorry, guys," interrupted the programmer. "Have either of you seen a guy named Alfred recently?"

They both shook their heads. "You sure you don't mean Algernon?"

"Unless he's got some other name, no."

"Were either of you at music schools?" Guildenstern asked.

The old man shook his head; the younger stared into space. "I guess you could say that. My cousin gives lessons out of her home."

"We're looking for...all right, we're not looking for him, but we want to know what's going on. He looks...he's dressed sort of like that guy." Guildenstern nodded at the programmer.

"I'm sorry."

"It's okay."

"In that case," said the young pundit, turning to his venerable companion, "who's Algernon, and why is he hopeless?"

"Algernon's my only friend," he sighed. "He always says he'll visit me, but he never comes, always off chasing women."

"That sounds like fun!"

"You can't form a meaningful relationship either, huh?" sighed Jay.

"Nope."

"We should go try sometime."

"Yeah, we...waaaait. With who?"

"Oh, just random women we meet."

"Oh, okay. In that case I'm up for it."

"Awesome, let's go."

"Like, now?"

"Why not?"

"Good point."

"Okay, let's go..." Jay squeezed his eyes shut, clearly making a valiant effort to return to reality. "It's not working."

"But you're dead," Rosencrantz reminded him.

"Wait, what?" said the young pundit.

Before Rosencrantz could answer, another man appeared. "Am I dead?"

"Yeah, probably," Jay said.

He crossed himself. "Where's St. Peter?"

As Rosencrantz looked around nervously, Jay lambasted the new arrival. "You believe in mythical figures from two millennia ago? What's wrong with all you people?"

"Doesn't the fact that we're walking and talking after being dead make you wonder what else there could be, though?" suggested Rosencrantz.

Jay philosophically raised his index finger to his chin. "...No."

The newest arrival pressed on in an Italian accent, "Okay, how about St. Michael? St. Michael around?"

"I don't think that's a very good—" began the young pundit, but it was too late; another decidedly non-angelic man strolled up to them.

"Hello!" he smiled. "Welcome to the afterlife."

"Thanks. Where are God and everyone?"

"Jesus is over here!" called Rosencrantz.

"No he isn't!" called the programmer.

"Who are you?" asked the newly-deceased (probably—the flow of time is never particularly predictable in "places" like that).

"Michael Furey."

"The angel?"

"No, he's not," said the visibly worried pundit. "Um. Are you?"

"Not as far as I know," Michael laughed casually. "Just a tour guide."

"Tour?" repeated Jay. "Aren't we here forever?"

"You know what I mean. Come on, I'll show you around."

"I want to see your boss," demanded the Italian.

"My what? I don't work for anyone."

"Well, who's in charge up here?"

"Nobody."

"Where am I?"

"Here."

"And where is here?" asked Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Jay.

"I don't know. Don't worry about it, though."

"You've been dead for decades!" raged the younger pundit. "And you don't know what this is?"

"Nah. Come on, you."

"Wait!" the young pundit pleaded. "Pl-please. Don't go."

"What do you want?"

"For you to settle this argument. Which is more important in a song, technical accuracy or expression?"

"Feeling, of course."

"But if you don't have technical accuracy," rebutted the old pundit, "all you get is aw yisuefhak swrfsezer fae r."

"What?" said the young pundit.

"My point exactly."

"But if you don't have emotion," Michael retorted, "you're...um...what are you?"

"Dead," moped the young pundit.

"I was going for something like "antisocial nerd interested only in the trivialities of literary form", but I guess "dead" works too."

Hey, it's us antisocial nerds interested only in the trivialities of literary form that are prolonging your existence, so watch it.

"Quality, not quantity!" Michael spitefully replied.

"Who are you talking to?" asked Rosencrantz.

"The narrator."

"What?"

It's not what you think. You either, Giuseppe. But yeah, I don't even have to be here. I—the narrator broke off. I thought I was getting the classics! Easy, light stuff like murder and incest. I thought only the really hard class would have the, the implied rape and the genocide!

"No," Michael challenged. "That's not why you took this class. You took this class because you didn't get in to the most advanced class. Your teachers didn't think you had the interpersonal skills to manage it. Isn't that right?"

But there was no answer.

"I put on my biographical lens," he explained to the gaping crowd.

"Let's get this tour taken care of," said Giuseppe, wondering what else might be going on.

"Oh, that was a surprise to me too," said Michael, but he led him away anyway.

"That proves it," Guildenstern said insistently. "A "narrator" who our survival depends on? There's more to life...or death, I guess...than you could dream of."

"Try me," Jay muttered. "I have the weirdest dreams."

"Do we sleep here?"

"I don't." Jay approached the pundits, who were back at it.

"...Michael agreed with me. He knows what he's talking about," the young pundit reluctantly admitted.

"The narrator agreed with me!"

"...and you see what I mean?" Jay said to Guildenstern. "Those two would keep you up all night. Right. You two. Agree to disagree, please."

"But I'm right!" they both protested.

"Or I'll deconstruct both of you! I bet the two of you would cancel each other out nicely, don't you think?"

That shut them up—they quivered as if vanishing, but managed to remain where they were.

"I should try that on the wrestlers," he smirked. "Hey! You two! You're never going to resolve your differences! Get out of here!"

Nothing happened, not even a flinch.

"I'm not sure they know what deconstructionism is," Guildenstern pointed out.

"I'm not sure I know what deconstructionism is!" Rosencrantz protested.

"I say—oof!—old fellow—ow!—where are you from?" asked Kurtz, whose sudden entry into the conversation was allowing his opponent a sizable advantage.

"Who, me?" Jay replied.

"You're not old!" Rosencrantz told him.

"That's very kind of you to say," Jay sighed, "but alas...I'm really old."

"I wasn't—aah!—talking to you, you—ooh!—insolent fool, I was talking to—ouch!—that elderly gentleman over there."

"I'm from England," said the old pundit.

"We were in England!" Rosencrantz began as Guildenstern rolled his eyes.

"Aha! And—aak!—you sir," Kurtz nodded at the young pundit before his opponent got ahold of his neck. "whrryfrm?"

"What?" the young pundit asked.

"Where—blurg!—are you from?"

"How does the place where I happened to be born have any bearing on my individual merit?"

"Ire—gah!—land, right?"

"How'd you know?"

"Your—watch it!—accent."

"Can all of us understand each other?"

"When people aren't being all literary, yes," Rosencrantz answered.

"I'm..." He glanced around at Kurtz's opponent, Aranda, and the mystic who was still standing around. "surprised we're all speaking the same language."

"Do—aaugh!—some of us—errg!—sound like we have accents?" Kurtz inquired.

"Yeah, actually." The young pundit squinted. "Those two." He nodded at Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. "Can't place it. So I guess it makes sense that that's how you could tell...but why are we all speaking English?" Before anyone could answer, he continued, "That's it! The afterlife is a world where everything makes sense, and language isn't used as a tool of delusional nationalists! Or am I being redundant?"

"Actually—hey!—the British dominance —aww!—of the Irish—eek!—comes at a time—oh!—when they're internally—ger!—suffering from pretentiousness—ech!—and vapidity. So they would naturally—bwarp!—seek earnestness and sincerity—not there!—such as actual competence. Whereas the Irish—owie!—being subjugated—"

"Wait," said the ex-slave, commanding everyone's attention. "You're calling him subjugated?"

"Yeah," said Kurtz, inspiring his opponent to hit back all the harder, knocking Kurtz out.

Jay raised his eyebrows. "Does anybody have any better theories?"

"Yeah," said a man who walked up out of nowhere. "But it's a secret."

"You can go ahead and tell us. It's not like any of us are going back to Earth. There's nothing to be afraid of."

"The country doesn't have anything to do with it! We're mortal! We're matter! Garbage! That's all."

"I don't feel very mortal," Rosencrantz noted.

The newcomer scowled, critically looking at his armpit. "Me neither. So much for that theory."

"Do we exist, though?" Guildenstern asked.

"I think so," Rosencrantz answered.

"Then there's a you..." Guildenstern Cartesianally began, before trailing off into uncertainty.

"Should we exist?"

"Are you still dumb enough to search for objective truth in matters of "morality"?" Jay made quotation marks in the air with his fingers.

"Yes," Rosencrantz curled his lip defiantly.

"You're being too limiting thinking about just "we"," decreed the sage.

"You're being too limiting thinking about just "you"," the young pundit retorted.

"He's got a point, though," said Jay. "We're not special. This is bigger than all of us; it's the question everybody has to face."

And suddenly, just in time to use the infinitive form if ridiculously distorting the temporal continuum, Hamlet appeared.

"To be or not to be?" he asked. "That is the question."

"Yeah!" said most of the crowd around him.

"...So what's the answer?" Guildenstern pressed.

"Don't know," Hamlet admitted. "What are we right now?"

"Are we?"

"Yeah."

"Then it's to be."

"But we're dead."

"Exactly," said Hamlet. "We're dead."

"Again, you're being too specific," protested the sage.

"Again, you're using the word "you"," retorted Guildenstern. "Are you dead or not?"

Unable to answer the question without ascribing to "himself" an individual identity that "he" did not desire, the mystic decided it would be best to achieve liberation from the cycles of reincarnation in a way that did not involve being in that particular realm of existence. "He" emitted a faint aura momentarily, then transcended that realm entirely.

"...Take that as a no."

"Hey!" Jay cried out. "I thought none of us were returning to that world!"

"We don't know where he went."

"Alfred went back to Earth," Rosencrantz pointed out. "So it's not impossible."

"How do you know he went back to Earth?"

"I don't."

"But what if he's spreading the secret?" Jay panicked. "I have to do something about it...No I don't, actually. But I'm gonna!" And with that, he disappeared.

"Where's everyone going?" asked Guildenstern.

"Don't know, but there's just as many coming in." There were more; Rosencrantz nodded towards a cluster that was forming around the man with the hole in his armpit.

One of the newest arrivals surveyed the lack of landscape; it was as desolate as one might expect. "Is this a cloud?"

"No, this is the afterlife," groused the man with a hole in his armpit. "Which apparently exists."

"Yeah," he said dubiously.

"Sw'rdd?" asked a man with crab apples in his cheeks.

"I can't hear you," said the man with a hole in his armpit, "you have crab apples in your cheeks."

He opened up his hands to reveal rubber balls. "Nhvrbrblsnmhnds."

"I still can't hear you."

He glared, frustrated. "Whndsths,'mgngtSwdn," he said, disappearing and suddenly materializing at the edge of the Baltic Sea.

"How did that work?" demanded the man who wanted to know if he was in a cloud or not.

"People have been disappearing," Rosencrantz explained. "Generally ones who think they still exist."

"Well, I obviously exist, don't I?"

"Looks like it."

"Let me out of here!" he yelled.

"There's nobody to listen to you," Guildenstern told him.

Hey, I'm here! said the indignant narrator.

"Sorry about that."

"Can you send me back?" asked the man who wanted to go back.

No, sorry—I can't save someone whose original author wanted them dead.

"What do you mean, "original author"?"

It's a long story. Well, six long stories, one short story, three plays, and two poems. But...your author wasn't really clear...I think you could go back to Earth if you wanted.

"How?"

I think just imagine yourself on Earth. Preferably after the war, back at home.

His eyes clenched shut, he disappeared.

I always hated authors that left things open-ended.

"What about me, am I dead?" asked another man.

Depends.

"On what?"

Um, do you want to be?

"Of course not!"

Then you don't have to be. Just head back.

"They still think I'm dead."

Hmm, good point. How about after the war?

"I just do your mind-game hokey-pokey and I'm there?"

Yeah. I promise. I wouldn't leave you hanging. You readers, either.

"Who?"

Never mind.

But, distracted, as he too turned to disappear, he overheard the old musical pundit making his case once more. "No, you don't need sheet music! You don't need any sort of plan! Sing out with your heart!" Only conscious of the middle portion, he wound up diverted to Lansing, Michigan. But he wound up living happily there until he actually died.

"But what if I didn't have a heart?" the young pundit challenged.

"Then you'd be in...well, you're dead, so you don't need one."

"Oh, I have it. It's just that metaphorically speaking, I don't use it to love my country or my wife or anything like that."

Aw, don't bemoan your lack of empathy. I know how it feels.

"You know how it feels to not know how it feels?"

Right.

The young pundit narrowed his eyes. "What?"

Logic failed him, and he flickered out of the afterlife and back into normal life, metaphorically reborn to love his country and/or wife.

"Now what?" asked the old pundit. "Do I get out of here too?"

"Exactly how tenuous is your grip on reality?" asked Guildenstern.

"Well, I was...it's funny, I don't remember."

"You don't remember?"

You were a fictional excuse invented by someone who was himself fictional. You're doubly fictional! You don't even belong here!

"Oh," he said, and disappeared.

"Is everyone left here actually dead?" Rosencrantz rightfully wondered.

But just as he was about to take their silence as a "yes", he heard an anguished cry from afar. "Gertrude!"

"Your highness!" Rosencrantz bowed. "What happened?"

"She just disappeared! I'm the one that's supposed to go back and haunt people."

"Was she really dead?" Guildenstern asked.

"Absolutely," Hamlet stated. "Well..."

"As absolutely as anything can be in a modern world without objective moral standards?"

"Yeah," said Hamlet. "That. Except...this place is enough to make you question your unbeliefs, isn't it?"

"Or was it my lousy excuse of a brother?" fumed the king. "Has anybody seen him?"

"He's gone," sang the far-off sing-song maiden.

"Dead and gone?"

"Just..." she smiled mysteriously, "...gone."

And she vanished.

"Ophelia!" screamed Hamlet. "What's going on?"

"I thought I saw Polonius," his father said, "but now I can't find him either."

"So now it's not to be versus not not to be?"

"What?"

"Ah, forget it." And Hamlet was no longer there.

"This isn't right," said Rosencrantz.

"No," said Guildenstern. "This isn't."

And all of a sudden it wasn't—or they weren't—

and then they were, just not there. They were emerging from underneath the stage in an auditorium in some high school, somewhere, somewhen, somehow, and turning their heads to look at each other, mouths falling open in we're alive shock, taking their bows as the audience roared—and there was a ninth grader in the auditorium, smiling with them, thinking wasn't it great how it all worked out, wasn't literature beautiful

and I'd tell you that they all lived happily ever after, but so many of them were dead. And even those that lived, was it really them that lived? The director of the play, was he still the director years after the ghost light had gone out? Or was he just another AP Lit teacher? The person who used to be the freshie lives still, but is no longer a freshie.

But as long as somewhere out there there are happy endings, then what the freshie believed in will never die.