each affects the other, and the other affects the next,
and the world is full of stories, but the stories are all one.
- Mitch Albom
"This isn't how you expected to go out, I suppose?"
Even before she opens her eyes to see who's speaking to her, Emily knows that something went wrong. She might only be seventeen, but she isn't stupid. Perhaps she twisted the hanger at an odd angle, perhaps she pushed a little too hard.
In any case, this is what she knows for sure:
- it hurt.
- a lot.
- so much blood, so much.
- but she didn't scream, no. She told herself she wouldn't scream, no matter how bad the pain was. She didn't scream.
- God did take her home.
It's anywhere from five minutes to five years before she allows herself to sit up, squint into the blinding brilliance and breathe again.
She accepted that while her eyes were closed, of course, but that doesn't mean the revelation, the sheer finality of it, doesn't leave her stunned. Dead. For a brief moment Emily wonders which poor soul will walk into the cubicle the next morning and be greeted by a corpse of a girl, metal wire still clutched too-tight in her fist.
"That's right." A familiar voice pipes up, and she turns to face a slip of a girl. She can't be more than nine, short and slim with a pair of glasses resting on her nose. There's a smile on her face as she looks straight at Emily without blinking. "You're dead. I know what you're about to say." The girl raises a hand to her, and despite her tiny stature and unassuming stance, Emily halts midway. "God called you to heaven, etcetera, etcetera. I'm sorry to say that's not exactly accurate. But all that in good time. First, you have to come with me."
Emily stares at the girl. The girl does nothing more than stare back for a long, long moment.
And then something grips her, settles like a pebble in her throat. Her hand flies to her abdomen instinctively, pressing her palm against the smooth, flat curve of her stomach. "Are you...?"
The question lingers, electricity in the air, copper clinging to the inside of her mouth. Something about the girl's innocent expression softens even further as she steps forward and touches Emily's hand. "I am not your daughter." She smiles reassuringly at Emily, and the fist around her heart eases its grip just the slightest. "There is no need for you to feel any guilt, do you understand? What you tried to deliver, what you tried to destroy, was not me - was not any child, for that matter. I am not your child. I am just a child."
"We're all dead up here," she answers, and her laughter reminds Emily of the wind chimes they had at the halfway house. They hung them on the roof, at the porch, and she used to sit there and listen to them sometimes. They reminded her that there was a world beyond the prison she was trapped in, reminded her of sunshine on her skin.
"Who are you?..." Emily asks warily, her hand falling to her side again.
The girl's eyes light up at her question. "My name is Rhona, and I'm here to guide you home."
So apparently they're not actually in heaven yet. The proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, Rhona explains, is just the beginning. There is an actual stairway to heaven everyone has to walk before they reach the ever-after, and everyone gets a guide. Rhona is her guide, and someday, she'll get to be someone else's guide, too.
"Would you like to see your mortal body before we leave? Some people do."
Emily thinks of the copious amount of blood, of the agonising stab of pain just before she passed out, and shudders. Rhona takes her cue, and begins to walk away, clearly expecting Emily to follow her.
They're just a few steps on when the light begins to clear like fog rolling away, and she realises they're walking on a path, of sorts. They're both barefoot, and she's still in the hospital drapes she was dressed in when she died. Rhona is silent, leads her down a straight road that never seems to curve, or rise, or plateau, with undistinguishable horizons all around them.
It's her who finally breaks the silence. "How did you... die?"
"Murdered," Rhona responds, so matter-of-factly that Emily nearly balks, and her fingertips unconsciously brush against her stomach again. "No. Not what you thought murder meant. Murdered. I got abducted, and then killed in a shed just a couple of kilometres away from my home. I suffocated to death." There's a smile on her face, mirthless, bitter; a smile that looks grotesquely ugly on a face of a girl so young. "It wasn't so bad, really. Not as painful as..."
"Were you scared?" Emily interrupts, not willing to hear any more. She digs her nails into her fist, mouth going dry as she imagines, just imagines -
Rhona slows her pace, waits for Emily to catch up, glances back at her with questioning eyes. "Weren't you?"
Of course I was, she thinks. She's just seventeen, still young, and she pretends like all of her friends that she's tough and smart and knows exactly what she's doing and what she wants out of life, but at heart, like all other seventeen-year-olds, she's still just a child. She was scared when he grabbed her by the collar and shoved her against the bed and crushed her beneath his weight. She was scared when her mother started screaming and throwing things around when she told the truth. She was scared when she stole the hanger and hid in the washroom, unbending the wire in trembling hands.
Of course they were scared, both of them.
"There's nothing that isn't terrifying about dying young... dying when there's so much ahead of you. All that potential, all that you could have been, all that you wanted to be... it just vanishes." Rhona chews on her lip thoughtfully. "You know, one of the last things I did before I was kidnapped... I rifled through my older sister's makeup, made a disaster out of it on the canvas that was my face. All I wanted to do was look a little older. See what it was like being a grown-up. I thought one day I'd get to see myself in the mirror looking like my sister, with her eyeshadow and blusher and all."
She doesn't need to say any more.
They walk for... hours? Days? Centuries? Time is hard to tell when the sun overhead doesn't move, when they don't cast shadows, when the path never changes. For a so-called 'stairway to heaven', it seems pretty flat. She's not sure when the silence stopped being tense and started becoming comfortable.
Not that speaking isn't, though, and when Rhona talks again, Emily feels a unmistakable relief flood her. "Did you think this was the only way out?"
Even now, she's not sure what else she could have done. Kept the baby? Have the baby? A wave of nausea nearly sends her reeling at the thought. "This was all I thought I could do."
Rhona makes an noncommittal noise of understanding. "Despair makes us clutch at the most absurd of solutions, doesn't it? And all we can do once we've made our choice is to wonder what could have been."
Thoughts swirl in her mind - what if she had kept her child? What if she'd given her baby up for adoption, or maybe even raised it, somehow or another? She entertains the thought for a minute, imagining a rose-tinted life involving a little girl by her side as she slogged through college and university, balancing coursework with storytime, having a little cheerleader by her side when she went out job-hunting. Watching her baby grow up.
"Can you show me? What could have been?"
The sadness in Rhona's expression makes her heart sink. "That's what we all don't realise - that there is no what-could-have-been. There are no existing paths carefully laid out for you at an intersection. You made your choice, and that is the only future that was crafted."
"Then that's it? I'll never know what I could have been as a mother?"
That laugh, again. "You make your own future." And is that wistfulness Emily detects in her words? "And the rest? That's what dreams are for."
Somewhere along their hike, she becomes aware that it's getting brighter. That there are sounds, soothing, like rain pattering against windowpanes and the rustle of the breeze through the trees. Her heart feels lighter, as if she's being purged of her guilt and anger and pain.
The stairs aren't there one moment, and they materialise before them the next. Without asking, Rhona slips her small hand into Emily's and begins to walk up the stairs, both of them side by side.
"Are you ready to go home?"
They stop in front of a very familiar door, the sight of which sends chills down her spine. The panic rises inside her, renewed, as she turns to her companion. "No. I can't go in there, I can't, that's where it happened, that's - "
Rhona silences her with a kiss to her cheek, and Emily feels the distinct stickiness of lip gloss leaving an imprint, raw, pale pink. With one hand she presses a ring of keys into Emily's palm. "They are just doors, I promise. Once you walk through them, you will be home. Not this home. Home."
"Don't leave me!" Emily gasps, terrified at the thought of her guide abandoning her.
It's only with that reassurance that she allows herself to search through the keys to find the old house key, pushes it into the rusty lock, and opens the door.
So many places from her memory. The home she grew up in. The classroom she first met him. The room in which she was hurt. The halfway house. Her ward in IMH. Her ward in SGH. The washroom, her final destination.
She doesn't recognise the last key.
Rhona tells her it's for the final gate, that she just has to push past the door behind which she knows lies her body, crumpled and pale and lying in a pool of her own blood.
I can't, I can't, I can't, I can't, I can't -
She has one hand on the door, and Rhona lifts her own to rest over hers. "Just close your eyes, and push, and you'll get your happily ever after. It is a promise."
- she just imagines this little girl, with her own companion by her side, looking at the door of the shed in which she was killed and having to open it -
Emily pushes -
and then -
When she opens her eyes again, it's not to light. It's not to darkness. It's to...
she's in a room.
A bedroom. What seems like a perfectly normal bedroom in all aspects.
Is this home? Is this heaven?
Emily stands, and realises she feels... different. Not in a bad way, but it's something she can't place.
Until she looks in the mirror, directly across the bed she was seated on, and -
she's older? She looks older. She's lost some of the youth and childishness of her features, looks more elegant, just a little taller, perhaps.
She doesn't understand. Isn't this supposed to be heaven? Her heaven? Isn't that what she was supposed to get after opening the last door?
"But it is your heaven."
Rhona's standing at the door of her bedroom, a smile on her face. A real smile. And from afar Emily thinks she hears the echo of a baby's cry, feels an overwhelming sense of joy down every single nerve ending, and she understands.
"Welcome home," Rhona says, and she's far too wise for her age but maybe that's okay, maybe that's how it would have, should have, could have been. Emily opens her arms in an embrace and Rhona runs into the hug, and something settles right in her heart.
She is seventeen but she's not seventeen anymore, and God might not have called her but perhaps second chances and salvation can be found without the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit but in the form of a little girl who died too young.
And now they have a forever to make their own future in.