“There are no unnatural or supernatural phenomena, only very large gaps in our knowledge of what is natural. We should strive to fill those gaps of ignorance.” —Edgar Mitchell, Apollo 14 Astronaut
On his death day, Henry missed his chance to slip the earth and instead found himself in an Atlanta TV studio watching his daughter Jessie, a news anchor, deliver the evening news, live. Henry didn’t know how he did it, but in the absence of any natural law forbidding consciousness after death, he discovered a continuing stream of probability, and he rode that lawless wave.
His transition had been abrupt. One minute he was home in Florida, taking his last nickering of breath, and the next he was hovering in a television studio four hundred miles away. How was this possible? Wasn’t his brain supposed to stop functioning when he died? Was this some cosmic mistake designed to tip the imagination off to what had been passing for a given but was really just foolish consistency?
Henry found that his “I” was gone. He’d still have to use the personal pronoun, but it wasn’t the same as when he was alive. He stood outside his self now, bodiless, a virtual narrator of what he could see and hear. He had only those two senses, and thought, if you can call that a sense. So, Carl Jung and Willie Nelson, and a bunch of other guys were right about the psyche: it isn’t confined to space and time. It doesn’t die.
Now Henry could see who he’d been when he was alive. How his lifelong desire to be someone and fit in had ruled him. He’d been a builder, but a dreamer too, forever up in the clouds. Scientific American was his favorite magazine. He loved quantum physics and understood that everything changed form—subatomic particles swirled in space and could not be measured or fixed in either space or time. But no one had ever proven these particles didn’t have thought. Now he saw that he had only been an ordinary man. And he saw how strange being ordinary was, in the grand scheme. I’m not even sure the world will say I have been here.
Henry suspended his head trip to focus on the blazing television studio, which looked like a mixture of heaven and hell if there were such places. Bright lights flashed, turning the very air of the room red. The place reeked of reality, of the confusion caused by infomania, by television. Faint music that sounded like dying cicadas pulsed in the background, as his daughter Jessie delivered bad awful news: murders, accidents, home invasions, political corruptions. Why do we default to the worst news? Why did he think Jessie could make an art out of news casting? It was his fault she was here. He had influenced her to choose what he now saw was a torturous job. Why did I do that? It’s unforgivable.
Maybe because she had gravitas at an early age. And her voice was exuberant, full of those feathery polytones the female nurtures babies with. He’d told her she was telegenic, made for TV. But now he was appalled by how all this terrible news dark-shadowed her world, by the treacherous music, mockingly urgent. He wondered why it had never bothered him when he was alive, why he’d been so numb to it all then.
No, there was no way Jessie could be happy talking this trash. I must find a way to save her…if this wave holds. Oh boy, everything’s impossible, till it ain’t.
He watched Jessie at the news desk wrapping the show:
I’m Jessie Pettengill. Thanks for making Ground Witness News your number one choice.
The director called, “We’re clear.”
A production assistant handed her a phone. “It’s your brother Tom, in Florida.”
Jessie shivered. She didn’t ordinarily take a call on set, especially not one from Tom.
Seaborn Pettengill, Jessie’s husband and camera operator, zoomed in. He captured Jessie paling as she listened on the phone, and real life burst upon all the monitors.
Jessie clamped her hand over her ear and gasped. “What Tom? I didn’t hear you,” wishing she hadn’t heard.
Tom raised his voice and repeated himself, a stutter from childhood resurfacing. “He d-d-died, a little before s-s-six…a h-h-heart attack.”
Jessie let out a cry that pierced the din of the studio-like shot. Her sapphire eyes consumed the light and turned milky blue. She swayed dizzily, a coldness seeping into her veins.
Henry leapt forward, but the light shined right through what he was now. It was impossible to be forceful, if you were invisible. He called out to her, I’m still here! but she couldn’t hear. He had no way to cause anything to happen. He was only a ghost.
Seaborn shut down his camera and ran to Jessie.
She gazed at Seaborn, shock and anguish ruining her face. Her hands raked the air and her legs splayed apart. Seaborn swooped in and caught her before she hit the floor. He knelt holding her. “It’s Daddy,” she whispered. She closed her eyes and thought she could feel Henry there.
But Henry was dwindling, leaving the bad news factory behind. He took a last look and realized he might not always be seeing Jessie as he did in this instant. He was sorely disappointed. If only he had a way to get through to her.
If only, if only, if only, he chanted like a mantra, to hold back the loss. Who said, don’t be afraid, you won’t miss yourself when you die? It’s another lie.
Henry saw his life and even his death had all been leading up to this little fable, this lore after death. But the wave wasn’t holding—he was sinking…desperately he crooned, though no one could hear him: Babble for her Mr. Brook / Kiss her for me Mr. Raindrop / And keep her under your roof / Please Mr. Sun…
Henry loved songs.
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