She wakes with a choking gasp. An obscure fog clouds her vision, causing her to squeeze her eyes shut and put her effort into breathing, but it’s to no avail. She feels as if an intense flare is sitting on her chest, brutal and corrosive and biting, and she can’t help but cough so forcefully that she wonders if she’s feeling her lungs shrivelling up inside of her.
She passes out. Or at least, she thinks she does.
And then she wakes up again.
Tessa inhales and thanks the higher deities when breathing comes easier to her the second time around. She swallows and her throat feels remarkably fine despite its earlier dryness. And then she lifts her eyelids.
For a while, all she sees is bright-white sunshine and the wood of the walls and ceilings, and she wonders to herself… where the ever-loving fuck is she?
She sits up quickly, feeling surprisingly refreshed. She was, it appears, asleep on the couch inside a cabin. Which makes absolutely no sense to her whatsoever, considering that she wasn’t planning on being at a cabin today, and it’s not even her family cottage. It’s an unknown expanse that surrounds her, and she looks on at her surroundings in confusion until she sees Scott, sitting at a window seat, quiet as he glances outside the scopious window with a pensive look on his face. She wonders what he’s looking at.
“Scott?” she asks, tone clearer than she expected it to be. It’s usually raspier when she first wakes up. He doesn’t seem to hear her, continuing to watch outside, lost in his head.
She wasn’t supposed to meet up with Scott until today, actually; she had been planning to drive to him. She’s incredibly confused about how she even ended up here in the first place. She’s tempted to go up to him, greet him with more enthusiasm and warmth—it’s been two months since she last saw him, sometime during the summer when they both had a free day and were in London together—but the sheer bewilderment of being in a foreign place momentarily overrides how much she has missed him.
(And yet. Her chest still aches when she sees his form, a comforting presence and a bruising reminder of everything she is and everything she’s not.
It was trial and error throughout their post-retirement years, both of them attempting to work out the kinks in their friendship of codependence.
It was hard. It is hard. It never gets easier being without him, and it never gets easier being with him.
It never gets easier.)
Tessa stands shakily, eyes still blurry from her being unconscious just minutes before. She doesn’t repeat herself, realizing he’s too lost in his thoughts to notice her movements or hear her voice.
He’s at the other end of the room, a bit too far out of reach, so she takes a moment of her time to look around. Nothing looks out of the ordinary. It’s just a cabin. A very lovely cabin, but not one she’s familiar with. The kitchen is quite nice, but it’s a little empty. Come to think of it, the entire room is empty. Not literally—it’s filled with items and clearly looks like a place that anyone could stay at, but that’s exactly what it is: anyone could stay here. It’s not cozy or lived-in and it feels sterile, almost, when she takes a closer look at the lack of dust and spotless floors and flawless cream-white furniture. It clearly doesn’t belong to anyone. She idly wonders if they’re in Montréal, as she moves toward the window, curious to see what it is that Scott is enamoured with outside.
When she reaches him, her first instinct is to touch him. She places her hand on his shoulder, gently, and when he doesn’t flinch away in the slightest, greets him. “Hey,” she says, voice soft so as to not scare him. Her touching him eases the tightness inside her chest; it allows her to breathe easier, finally, and she finds herself not minding that she’s in a place that she does not know.
If anything is wrong, at least she has Scott here with her.
Scott finally turns to look at her, and—wow, he looks good. “Hi, Tess.” His voice sounds remarkably rough, and the look in his eyes is unmistakable: dread, loss, and sadness.
“Are you okay?” she asks him instantly, already knowing he’s not. Scott swallows in response, searching her face as if he’s wondering if something is wrong with her. Or, she thinks that that’s what he’s thinking. It’s hit and miss when she guesses these days, but she still usually gets it right. She lowers her voice to adopt a serious intonation, recognizing that he’s off. “What’s wrong?” she tries instead, when he doesn’t answer her first question.
Scott turns away from her, staring at the window once again, looking like a lost little boy. Tessa wants to grab his face with both her hands and turn him toward her so she can get the truth out of him, but when she finally takes a glance at what is outside, the view holds her attention, captures it, taking her far away from this world of worry and into another one of complete and utter confusion.
Her breath catches in her throat and a feeling of uneasiness builds inside of her.
Quite honestly, she isn’t sure what she’s looking at.
Outside the cabin is pure nature: beautiful green, full trees, longrass at one side and bushes at another. Songbirds fly as if nothing is amiss, existing in pure innocent ignorance. A cherry blossom tree stands in the middle of the picture: stoic, tall, and proud. Behind it, an expansive river, flowing its course and naturally in tune with the wind.
Most confusing of all: a pretty little bridge spans across it, leading to absolutely nowhere.
And by nowhere, she means nothingness. There is only white, after ten feet of the bridge. Blurry at the edges, but beyond it, emptiness. If she were to describe it to someone (not that they would believe her) it would be that this is a beautiful landscape, but it turns into an unfinished painting. She wonders if it is a painting, actually, placed outside their window.
But it’s moving.
That can’t be right.
How can there be nothing past the life that she can see, if this is what is outside? It simply doesn’t make sense.
She swallows. “Scott?” Tessa says, quiet. He hums in acknowledgement, still not turning toward her. “What is this?”
“Tessa,” he rasps out. This unsettling feeling continues to rise inside of her, as if her body knows something dreadful her consciousness does not.
She doesn’t know what he’ll say next, but she’s sure that it’ll change everything. She holds her breath, waiting, and then he says it.
“I think we’re dead.”
Her brain shuts down.
“What?” she replies, sharply, immediately. “No. That can’t be. That can’t…”
Tessa looks outside again, toward the abyss. She wonders what would happen if they walked into the whiteness. Would they be able to come back, or would it be like some unique kind of wormhole?
Her eyes sting and her heart, oh, her heart has been pounding inside her chest for a long while now, she realizes. Since she first saw what lay outside the window. But then she notices: her heart—it’s still inside of her chest: racing, alive. There’s no way she can be dead.
But Scott’s tone is too serious for him to be joking with her. He must be hallucinating, then. His mind must be playing some awful trick on him; both of their minds must be, on them both.
“Tessa,” Scott says, and she realizes he’s been saying that for a minute and she hasn’t noticed. He reaches upward and captures her chin between his thumb and fingers, and turns her to look him in the eye. His eyes have always been so brown, green flecks flickering inside of them in a beautiful combination. Usually, his gaze steadies her. Today, it terrifies her. “Tessa, I’m serious. I need you to breathe.”
She shudders. “We’re not dead,” she tells him, using the last breath that she has inside her.
Then, she passes out again.
Tessa is driving to the brink of her destruction, but she doesn’t know it yet.
She’s brimming with buoyancy; the excitement of being reunited with Scott is overwhelming her. On the stereo in her car, she’s listening to Sufjan Stevens. She’d never heard of him before, but the song played on the first episode of that one popular show from a few years ago, This Is Us—the one that she never got a chance to watch before when she was too busy competing—and since she finished binging the show a few months ago, the musician has been a constant on her playlists. He’s quite talented and not too intense for when she needs something to listen to that isn’t girl-pop or ballads or nothing at all.
(When this memory comes to Tessa later on, she might find humour in it all, well after coming to terms with the fact that she’s deceased. She drove toward her death to the song Death with Dignity. It’s a little ironic, isn’t it?)
Scott would like the show, she thinks, as she drives along the highway. She isn’t sure if he’s watched it. Scott reminds her of the main character sometimes, actually: a bit country, a lot loving, always striving to do the right thing by his family. A good man, he is. She smiles subconsciously, thinking of how much Scott has grown in the past few years. She’d thought he’d grown up between Sochi and the comeback, but that was nothing compared to who he’d become now. Still a little impulsive, still much too passionate—although that was never a bad thing. But stable, now, in a way he wasn’t before. Sure of himself. Hardworking, but in a different, healthier way. Much more wise and self-aware than he was previously. She’s proud of him.
She sees him a lot, still, but a lot isn’t enough. Will anything ever be enough? So many years spent together, never apart, hands either in each others’ back pockets or intertwined or in dance hold or touching, touching, touching. They still touch when they’re together, they still have that connection; that’s not something she can ever see changing, the very foundation of their relationship.
It’s just… different. Different in a more grown-up way.
She loves and hates it both simultaneously, knowing that this is what is best for them, this is what is supposed to happen. They’re supposed to do this: learn to be apart. They’re supposed to become accustomed to it.
It’s been years. She can admit it to herself, when she’s being honest and not trying to push through the hard parts, but: she isn’t used to it, not at all. She still sees him enough, but it’s not enough, it’s never going to be enough, and she misses him. God, she misses him.
Today she’ll see him and she’ll spend time with him on this designated day put aside for them both. Some years ago, about a year and a half after their retirement, they decided that they’d spend their anniversary with one another every year. It was their day. It’s… odd, calling it their anniversary, but that’s what it is. It’s the day that they became what they are.
What they are, she still isn’t sure. All she knows is despite everything, despite the changes, despite the distance: he’s still everything.
And she’s still everything on her own, too, so there’s that as well. And if she already has everything, and he’s everything… what does that amount to?
Tessa already has all that she needs. She does.
All she knows is that today, she can’t wait to see him again, finally, and have that throbbing feeling that permeates every inch of her skin ease a little once he’s in her five-foot radius. She can’t wait to hug him, feel him real and alive against her skin once again.
She can feel it in her: today will be the best day she’s had in a long time, and it’ll be all thanks to the abounding happiness that she feels when she’s with him after they’ve spent time apart.
The memory comes to her in a floaty dream when she returns to her consciousness.
Then, she hears an unknown voice. “Fuck, can you please chill with the questions? She’s going to wake up soon, little dude, can’t you wait for her?”
A harumph. “Hey, man, I only look a few years younger than you.” It’s Scott speaking now. Her eyes are shut while consciousness rises inside of her; she’s half-attempting to listen to the conversation, even though her brain isn’t really registering its contents.
“In the flesh, yes. But in the mind, I can promise you that I am infinitely more wise.” This guy sounds like he’s stoned, Tessa thinks deliriously, snuggling further into the pillow beneath her.
“I’m sure,” Scott’s voice says drily. “I’m Scott, by the way. And what did you say your name was, again?”
“I didn’t,” the other voice replies. “God, it’s always the fucking Canadians, ain’t it? So gosh darn polite. Of course I know you’re Scott. Who else would you be?”
“Um,” she hears Scott say. “Is the politeness a bad thing?”
The other person sighs. “It’s annoyingly predictable, and I respect it more when people choose to spice things up. My name is Marner, if you care.”
She can hear the excitement in Scott’s voice in her half-conscious state. “Oh! That’s my favourite hockey player.”
“I know,” the other guy replies in amusement.
“That’s…” Scott sounds unsure for a moment, “…weird, actually.”
“I’m weird. That’s my entire shtick. Anyway, your girlfriend is waking up.”
“Oh, actually, she’s not—”
“I don’t care.” The other guy cuts him off, voice monotonous and blunt.
Tessa blinks, bleary-eyed as she takes in her surroundings once again. She’s still in this cabin, for some reason, so that means it wasn’t a dream. She rubs the sleep from her eyes, pushing a plush blanket off of her body. I need a coffee , she thinks instinctively. Although, when she focuses on how she feels inside, she notices that she doesn’t truly seem to be craving one.
“Jeez,” Scott whispers under his breath. Tessa studies them. Those two do not seem to be warming up to one another. “What a fantastic, caring guide we were sent.”
Tessa clears her throat, and the two men turn to look at her with much more affection than they have for each other.
“Hello!” the man says to her, bright and enthusiastic. “You’re dead. Welcome to the afterlife.”
Tessa chokes on air. “Excuse me?”
He stares at her blankly. “I said: ‘You’re dead. Welcome to the afterlife.’”
Well then. It appears she really is dead.
Scott rolls his eyes in exasperation at the man’s thoughtlessness. “That didn’t go over well with me —what makes you think it would be okay to say to her , after she passed out before?”
“I’m brutally honest! What can I say?” the man says, smiling at them both with all of his sharp teeth. He seems ruthless, but with an odd kindness to him beneath the eyes. “I’m the gatekeeper.”
Tessa blinks at him, looking at Scott for an explanation. He shrugs, seeming just as lost (but infinitely more done ) compared to her. Were those words supposed to mean something to them? “The… gatekeeper?”
The gatekeeper smirks. “Indeed. I keep gates.”
Tessa squints in confusion.
He sighs. “That’s a joke. God, you humans are always so serious once we tell you that you’re dead. Can’t make a fuckin’ joke around you for a good few hours.”
She ignores his comment, needing more explicit answers than what he’s offered. “Which gate are you ‘keeping’ exactly?”
“The gate to the afterlife,” he says.
Scott cuts in, frustration seeping into his voice. “I thought this was the afterlife.”
The gatekeeper sagely shakes his head. “Nah, this is In Medias Res—or as we affectionately call it: The Middle.”
“The Middle… of the afterlife?”
He tilts his head from side to side. “Kind of. You’re both here because you have, and I quote from my very thorough assignment folder, ‘some unfinished business’.” He crosses his arms, looking at them with intense curiosity. “Most people who enter the afterlife have to deal with a similar issue, actually. But your case is interesting, and quite peculiar…”
His voice trails off, so Tessa prompts him: “What do you mean?”
He explains. “Simply that people don’t usually enter The Middle with another companion. It’s usually some self-growth and awareness that is gained here, but it’s almost always done in solitary. There have only been few cases where it’s occurred in pairs or threesomes.”
Scott moves from his spot beside the gatekeeper to sit next her on the couch. She shifts toward him, knees touching, needing some comfort in proximity after her discomfort from being in an unfamiliar situation.
Scott asks what is floating around in her mind. “So… why were we placed here together?”
“Because,” the gatekeeper says, grinning with his shark teeth, “your lives were irreversibly intertwined to the point where almost everything that has happened in your life”—he looks at Tessa—“has affected yours,” he says, looking toward Scott. “And vice versa.”
Deep down, she knows this. But it’s odder to be told this fact by someone who barely knows them. It’s always weird to hear people who don’t know her inexplicably know her.
“And, greater than that…” he continues, as if he’s not dropping a bomb: “you died together.”
She swallows hard. Of course they did.
She hears Scott take a deep breath beside her, as if in preparation, and she can practically predict what is going to come out of him next. “So… how did we die?” he asks, voice quiet.
Tessa swallows, glancing at Scott in the process to see if he has any clue. She isn’t sure of that herself; everything from the day of their death is a blur for some reason. The only thing she can remember, now, is driving toward Montréal. But if they died together…
The gatekeeper holds up his hands, like they’ve come to a brilliant revelation. “That, my friends, is your Task.”
Scott tilts his head and Tessa shakes her head, both in confusion. “Our Task?”
“Yes,” the gatekeeper replies, feeling around his jacket as if he’s looking for something. “Your Task. Everyone who dies has a Task. Yours is to figure out how you died.”
Tessa bristles a bit inside. “That’s a little ridiculous, don’t you think? We’re dead. Don’t we deserve some answers?”
The gatekeeper rolls his eyes at her prissiness. “That’s just how it is, my child.” Child? He couldn’t be more than a few years older than her, to be honest. “Once you figure it out, slowly, you will get your answers. But you need to go through the steps of Lifting The Fog.”
“What’s that?” Scott asks, seeming to get more and more frustrated. “God, does this place come with a thesaurus? Because I’m getting a little lost, here.”
“Actually,” the gatekeeper replies brightly, “yes!” Then, he finds what he’d been looking for inside of the inseam of a jacket pocket.
If Tessa weren’t so appalled, she’d laugh. “You have pamphlets for the afterlife?” she asks in disbelief, taking it from the gatekeeper when he reaches over to hand it to her.
“Ugh, I know, right? I’ve been telling them to redo the program for years, but nooooo, I don’t ‘have enough experience’”—he says, making air quotes and rolling his eyes—“to contribute my opinions. Nonsense, if you ask me.”
This entire thing is nonsense, if you ask Tessa.
“And it’s an instruction manual, not a pamphlet,” he corrects her. As if that matters.
She holds the manual out between her and Scott, flipping it open to glance at its first page. It’s not too heavy—only around twenty pages. On the outside, it reads, in big block letters, looking incredibly unprofessional: CONGRATS, YOU’RE DEAD. HERE ARE SOME STEPS FOR DEALING WITH THAT.
The gatekeeper continues: “It outlines the steps you must take to completing your Task. In your cases, that means remembering the day of your death. Lifting The Fog is what all humans must do once they enter The Middle; its meaning comes from lifting the burden of your problems from your shoulders, or the heaviness of repressed issues in your past life, by discussing them.” He waves his hand around. “Usually this is done with a holographic facilitator when it’s just one person here, but you two are required to do it with each other.”
She can’t help but feel overwhelmed by all the information being thrown at her. In typical Tessa fashion, she attempts to understand by studying the material, skimming the words on the first page. However, Scott, unlike her, was always an auditory and hands-on learner. “So we need to talk things out?” he clarifies. “Sort of like… therapy?”
“Exactly!” the gatekeeper shouts with enthusiasm, jumping onto the coffee table in a surge of excitement. She leans back, shocked by his antics, but genuinely amused by his distinctive personality.
Scott groans at his response. “I’ve had so much therapy. Enough therapy to last a lifetime. Enough therapy that did last a lifetime. Now I need more?”
“Er,” the gatekeeper replies, looking sheepish. “...yes?”
She sighs. This process seems much too complicated for her to handle. She’s going to need to read this entire manual and study it twice before she gets the hang of this.
The gatekeeper looks at their exhausted faces. “But the payoff will be worth it! Slowly, as you talk through issues, the cloudiness in your minds in relation to the day of your death will be cleared, revealing to you the way in which you died. And once you remember how you did die, The Gates will appear. You see how the outside fades into nothing? They’ll show up right there.” He smiles reassuringly, as if he’s trying to comfort them, but it also looks slightly pinched. She wonders how many times he’s delivered this speech to dead people. “So, what do ya’ say?”
Scott slumps on the couch. “I say: I thought the afterlife was supposed to be relaxing.”
“Well, you’re not at the afterlife yet,” the gatekeeper reminds him, voice wry. “Do a little more work and we can all move the fuck on, ‘kay, children?”
“We aren’t children,” Tessa and Scott reply in unison, then look at each other in surprise. It never gets old having moments like that.
“Sure, children,” the gatekeeper replies with a shit-eating grin, clearly just fucking with them. “I’m off, now, to go drink a piña colada. They have unlimited drinks at the bar.”
What bar? Tessa thinks in bemusement, briefly contemplating if their gatekeeper is drunk. She’s not sure if she wants to know.
“What if we have questions, or we don’t understand the pamphlet thingy?” Scott asks, an urgency to his voice. “Is there Google in this place?”
Tessa snorts, covering her mouth with her hand to keep from laughing too hard. She’s pretty sure there’s no WiFi in heaven, if that’s what this is.
The gatekeeper hops off the table without answering Scott’s (rhetorical, she hopes) question, and then she realizes. “Oh, wait!” Tessa tries to stop him, realizing she forgot an essential step. “What’s your name?” She feels like he said it to Scott earlier, but she was half-asleep then and has already forgotten.
The gatekeeper lets out this loud, frustrated sigh. “God, they really don’t pay me enough for this shit. My name is Buttercup. Peace, my dudes. Ring me if you need me.”
He throws up a peace sign and promptly disappears into nothingness like a bizarre magician.
“Buttercup?” she says to herself. What a peculiar name for a human. Although, her first dog was named Buttercup, after The Princess Bride, and suddenly she feels a strange affection for the man who just left.
“He told me his name was Marner,” Scott says from beside her, seeming slightly irritated. “After my favourite hockey player.”
Tessa furrows her eyebrows, realizing she’s been duped. “And Buttercup, after—”
“—your childhood dog, I know,” Scott finishes, lip twitching in amusement. “Who knows what the guy’s real name is.”
All these years, and they’re still on the same wavelength. She snorts. “We should just call him Wacky Waititi. You know, because he seems like a wacky version of Taika Waititi,” Tessa comments, laughing at her own comparison.
He blinks at her. “Who is that?” Scott asks, blankly.
Tessa suppresses a smile. She should have expected that reaction; Scott hasn’t become a connoisseur of popular culture despite his improvements in recent years. “Nevermind. Just know that the resemblance is uncanny.”
Scott relaxes into the sofa, mind elsewhere. “Okay.”
She sighs, leaning her head back against the sofa. “So… what now?”
“I don’t know, T,” Scott says to her, voice gentle. As if he knows she needs him to reply with care right now. “I just…”
He reaches over to hold her hand, but she feels herself grow cold. She doesn’t know if she wants to be comforted by him, to have him touch her for reassurance. His hand doesn’t feel warm; instead, it feels heavy, too much sensory overload for her at once.
She’s unbelievably confused.
Easily, she squeezes his hand in lieu of thanks, then untangles their fingers.
Silence overcomes them.
Tessa wrings her hands together, trying to come to terms with this new reality. She glances around the room, this unfamiliar space that she’s being forced to live in, and suddenly, she misses her family’s cottage. Suddenly, she misses her family.
God, her family.
She’s never going to see them again.
And Scott’s never going to see his again, either, she realizes. She looks at him, knowing the same thoughts are passing through his head as the silence falls over them, like an all-consuming presence. Her heart hurts for him, and for herself.
The instruction manual in her hand suddenly weighs as much as a brick. God, she doesn’t even know how she died. How, apparently, they died.
She drops it on the coffee table in front of her as if it’s on fire.
Scott might be the most comforting presence in her life, but right now, he feels all too suffocating. Or, actually, that’s unfair. It’s this entire place that feels suffocating, not him. She feels like it’s swallowing her whole, gnawing at her ripe flesh until she’s spat back out a bright, shiny person. Right now, she doesn’t feel bright and shiny. Nothing like that at all.
She’s dead, and so is her best friend.
“I’m going to walk around, okay?” she tells Scott, voice butter-soft, not wanting to hurt him.
She doesn’t want to unfairly attribute her sadness to Scott, so she does the only thing she knows how to: Tessa walks away from him and toward the kitchen, recognizing that right now, all she needs is a moment alone.