A young man named Gabriel discovers that his life isn’t what he thought it was. Writing to his soul, he begins to see and talk to spirits and discovers the nature of reality. This realization conflicts with his life in a small southern town, where he is recently married and expecting a child. Gabriel has to learn how to create a balance between his new interest in spirituality, a nine-to-five job, the Christian culture of the area, and being present for his pregnant wife. If he chooses to live in the physical world, he could lose his new abilities that have rekindled his vitality, but if he chooses to delve into his gifts, he could lose the life he’s worked so hard to make for himself.
It was dusk when I awoke in this body for the first time.
I was on a screened porch watching the light fade from the clouds with an old friend I hadn’t seen in a while. We sat on wooden chairs carved by his grandfather and looked out over the back of his land. It was shadowed fields of greenery at this point, and a few dark spots that could have been cows or bushes depending on whether they moved or not. Over the canopy of trees farther back, a smoky gray blue of fading light traced the tops of the leaves, and I could easily picture the crescent moon rising behind us. I watched Tom get out a bag of tobacco and separate two papers. The smell was distinct and familiar to me. Tom carefully put everything into his antique cigarette roller and fashioned perfect cylinders with it. He extended his hand containing one of the cigarettes towards me, and at first, I shook my head and said that my wife Charlotte would kill me, but after some convincing, I took it between my thumb and pointer finger. It was light and delicate, and completely harmless unlit. My mother always used to say, anything is peaceful in the absence of a spark. A single candle was lit for light, and then I was handed a matchbox, pulled a match, and fired up my cigarette.
I coughed on my first inhale and felt a headache rise behind my brow. It was a hot and humid night, so the smoke clouded before us, and proceeded slowly away from the porch each time a small breeze came through, which was not often. I was offered moonshine next, which I refused more stubbornly this time. Tom took a swig and we talked about the old days when I lived a few dirt roads away. Every Sunday as my father gave the sermon, Tom and I would sneak under the pews and tickle a churchgoer’s leg or make farting noises near the old women. Each time was worth the beating. Tom never got in trouble; his dad left when he was a baby, so it was just him, his siblings, and his mom, who was too busy to yell at him even on slow days. My dad on the other hand had no problem disciplining me, and if he could catch Tom’s arm before he could run, he would discipline him, too. This of course, was after the sermon had finished.
I grew up the only son in a small farmhouse, and when it wasn’t the day of the Lord, we would be out in the fields, or out handling the cows and chickens. I remember the first time I ever saw my father wring a chicken’s neck. It was after church when he had given a sermon on all of God’s creatures being important and equal, and how we should treat all of them with care. When we got home, I went out back to climb our peach tree, and I watched from the branches while my dad yelled at my mom for something on the back deck, stomped down the stairs towards the coop, grabbed a hen by the neck, and killed her. He threw it onto the deck and told Mom she could pluck and clean it because she needed to toughen up. I ran over to Tom’s and spent the night there.
Tom and I talked about work and family, then reminisced about Barbara Waters, the head cheerleader from high school, and her exceptional bosom. Tom said that he saw her years later at a bar and she looked rough, like she had moved to the city and gotten on to one of those new drugs that makes you skinny and haggard.
“I don’t know how you manage to stay sober, living in that cramped shithole of a town.” He said, “You need open land.” I hadn’t really seen anyone from school since I moved to the city. Our high school was in the middle of nowhere, even for the kids of farmers. Let’s just say it wasn’t a very stimulating place to learn, so I decided to live out of my truck and go to community college in town. I studied auto mechanics and ended up working for Daren Automotive, a new dealership in town. It’s soothing work until it isn’t. Mostly it’s just oil changes until you get one old lady with snakes in her engine that you have to remove, but those are just the interesting days. Most everyone I knew from school just ended up working on their parents' land, and a handful ended up going to New York or California and were never heard from again. Me, I’m happy with my decisions. I have a small house, a loving wife, and a baby on the way. My life isn’t interesting, but it’s as good as it could be, and you won’t hear me complaining about anything often.
“Gabriel, I’m dying.”
I tore my eyes away from the sky to look at Tom, confused and expecting some sort of joke. He didn’t look at me and just took a long drag on his cigarette. He wasn’t trying to pull one over on me. I asked him of what quietly, and he said cancer. I asked him what type of cancer, and he said prostate.
“Are you in pain?” I asked him.
“I’ve been in pain since the day I was born,” he answered.
I asked, “How bad is it?”
“What do you think? Fuck yeah it hurts, it’s cancer, not a cold.”
We were both quiet for a while, and as I looked back at the fading light, it was like the scene had changed, and I was in a different place. It seemed like the trees were now disappearing against the sky as everything turned dark blue, sucking all the other colors out of the atmosphere. Everything seemed washed out now, the shadows larger than before. I glanced down at the candle and saw the bottle of moonshine beside it. I grabbed it and took a swig.
“Are you afraid?” I asked.
“I’m not afraid, Gabe, I’m scared,” he said, sporting an expression I had never seen before. It was like wincing, but not from pain, just his own thoughts.
“What’s the difference?”
“Afraid is something you can be when the cause is distant, scared is when it looms over you every second of every day.”
One of Tom’s hands gently held his nearly finished cigarette, and the other gripped tightly onto the armrest of his chair, and his jaw stuck out as though he was clenching his teeth. He didn’t seem like he noticed the stress in his body. I handed him the bottle, which he took gladly. Silence weighed down our tongues, making it hard to initiate conversation again, and somewhere on its periphery, you could hear crickets near us, and the occasional engine of a car on the road.
This time Tom looked at me and asked, “What do you think happens after we die?”
“I don’t know,” I said and joked, “maybe my old man was right after all.”
We both gave an unenthusiastic chuckle, and Tom tried to ask again. I thought about it for a moment; death was something I had not thought about in a long time, and life after death was a subject I avoided.
“Heaven obviously, heaven or hell.”
Tom looked at me with a pitying expression and asked again. I started to quote the Bible to him and he interrupted, “In a world where you weren’t a fake Christian, what would you believe? Stop dodging the question for once.”
I sat there for a second and thought about it. “I don’t know, I wouldn’t think there was nothing, maybe those people that believe in reincarnation are right,” I said.
Tom nodded. “I think so. Have you ever seen a ghost?”
“No.” I scoffed at the question.
“Well, I have,” he said. “The last time I was in the hospital, I was having a rough time, so the nurse put me on a handful of painkillers. They didn’t work, and I could still feel everything. It was like pins and needles were being pushed through my fingertips and toes all the way up my arms and legs. The second night I was there I woke up, and there was a figure sitting in the corner. I called out and asked who it was and they didn’t answer. The only thing they said was that I had eight months left. Gabriel, I know it was my father, I could feel it. The next day the doctor told me the exact same thing. Eight months.”
The Tom I remembered was very different from the one sitting next to me now. He was the class clown in school, and even with everything going on at home, always had a smile on his face. The one before me was older, tired, and more honest. And, as I thought about it, I remembered that Tom never used to smoke or drink, because his mom always talked about what his dad was like when he did. He must have started after he got his diagnosis. I told him it was a really interesting dream he had, and after that he put out his cigarette, gripped his chair with two hands, and turned it to face me. I put my cigarette out as well since I hadn’t wanted it in the first place, and he told me I wasn’t being honest with myself. I was confused and asked him what he meant, and then without moving his lips, I heard him ask why I wanted to remain asleep, in the dark.
A different voice repeated the word awaken three times.
In that moment I couldn’t hear the crickets, I couldn’t see the sky, and I couldn’t even feel the hard chair on my back. All I could see were his eyes, black in the night, probing my brain, beckoning me towards understanding. I felt myself enter a different space, from which I watched our bodies look at each other. I was not next to or across from them, but I was almost in another dimension. But this wasn’t me, even though the memories and consciousness related to me. In this form I felt like I could access anything or see anything. I felt myself pull back towards my body, and the intelligence tapered off the closer I got, until I was looking and feeling through my own body again.
Tom was waving a hand in front of my face saying my name.
I blinked, and he laughed. “You spaced out for a second. Here I am dying, and you can’t even pay attention. Classic Gabe.”
I studied Tom to see if he had felt what I did, but it was clear he hadn’t, so I chose not to say anything about it. We talked for a little longer, and then I said goodbye and headed home. When I put the key in the ignition and turned it, the sound of the engine seemed deeper in tone, and I felt more awake than normal. The texture of the steering wheel was smoother, and I didn’t have to think about where I was going, I just knew. I remember pulling into my driveway after being in a daze the whole ride back, and then I remember my head hitting the pillow. I know I slept deeply and had many dreams, but I couldn’t remember them in the morning.
I felt energized when I woke up the following day. I sprang out of bed to get ready for work while Charlotte grumbled something about a smoke smell. I didn’t have quite the vibrant feel of the night before, but I felt healthy and even-tempered. I went to the bathroom to shower and shave, and as I did so I started humming an Irreversible song I hadn’t heard in a while. I don’t really think I was humming it because it’s a hard song to hum to, but I did my best to match my voice with the guitar. I didn’t want to play it out loud since Charlotte was still sleeping, but I could hear it note for note in my head. I stepped out of the bathroom and stopped to look at her for a moment. She was lying down facing me with her eyes closed, sleeping on her side because of the baby.
I stared at the small gold ring on her finger, wishing I had gotten something flashier like she wanted. We hadn’t been married for long, in fact we got married after Charlotte found out she was two months pregnant. We had a shotgun wedding with a few of her relatives so that we could do things the right way. I always thought the first months of married life would be the best, but Charlotte was having a hard time with the pregnancy since she didn’t want a child, so I could only hope it would be better after the birth. Charlotte had a small frame and a fragile look about her. She had a small nose and always breathed with her mouth open when she slept. She was a nervous woman, and whether asleep or awake, always had an arm wrapped around herself like she was uncomfortable. I came from a rural family and she came from an old money one. She wanted to get away from her family more, so she worked as a waitress in the restaurant my coworkers and I used to always go to, and after a while I built up the courage to ask her out. She had a bit of a reputation as wild around town, but she had changed her drinking habits a lot since I met her, and now that she was pregnant she didn’t drink at all. I think people just love to make up rumors about beautiful women.
I walked out of the bedroom and made myself a cup of instant coffee, then guzzled it down, burning my tongue in the process, and hopped in the truck for work. The ride was quiet, as it was too early for traffic, and I had time to stop at a diner for some breakfast, since I had forgotten to eat breakfast. There were a few other men at the bar, but aside from them, just the cook and two waitresses, one young and one old. The older waitress’s hair was starting to gray; she had been working at the diner as long as I’d lived in town and knew everything about everyone. She was patient with the worst customers and had always been kind to me.
The young one fluffed her hair, and took my order: bacon, sausage, and a gashouse egg, the usual. I came here a couple times a week, and they always saved the least likely expired meats for me, which I greatly appreciated. You could tell the younger one was more concerned with the way she looked, as she was always glancing at her reflection in the window while adjusting her hair and uniform. She had straight brown hair and always wore the same red lipstick.
“It was just horrible,” said one of the men to my left. As I waited for my food, I glanced up to see three truckers that looked bothered by something. The oldest and heaviest of the three, who had a large gut tucked into worn jeans with the longest belt I had ever seen, was talking to the older waitress about something. His build matched his plates of food, which were filled with triple servings of meats and eggs. He raised a hand to scratch the baseball cap that covered a probably balding head, like he was stressed out, and the other hand rested on his belly, covered by a shirt with an American flag on it. Patches of thin hair trailed his jawline, like he had been trying to grow a beard but had failed horribly. You couldn’t find a more stereotypical trucker in the world.
“I left it in the truck,” the youngest one said frantically. I leaned in to hear him better and glanced over discreetly. He looked lean and muscular, unlike the other two. He wore all black, and when he turned to face the third trucker, I caught a glimpse of a large scar across his forehead.
“He’ll never find it,” said the third. Glasses slipped down his nose from his perspiration, and he was blotting his neck beard with some napkins. There were bandages covering the arm he wasn’t using. I wondered what trouble glasses and pretty boy could have gotten into to get roughed up like that. Now, I was always brought up with good manners. My mother always told me never to eavesdrop, but sometimes I have found it to be useful and even helpful to those who I’m listening in on. And as far as I had read in the Bible, I didn’t see anything from John or Mark saying not to.
I heard the pretty boy say something about an accident, and they nodded. He kept saying it was terrible, whatever happened. Suddenly the clatter of a plate made me jump. The young waitress had placed my food in front of me, bringing me back to reality, and instead of walking away like she normally does, she gave me a stern look, leaned in and asked, “Is there anything else I can get you?” She must have known I was eavesdropping. I said no, and she hesitated, getting in my face and asked if I was sure, to which I said yes. After she left I returned to eavesdropping.
“I saved up for the longest time to get it, a gold ring with a small diamond. Angel and I saw it in a store on a date once, and I knew I had to get it. You know how much Angel likes diamonds. It’s in that dark red velvet box that I showed you, the small one that could fit in your hand.”
I was confused as to why they were making the oldest man look, but I sympathized as a recently married man myself, so after I finished my meal I walked up to him.
“If you want, I can help you look for the ring in your buddy’s truck,” I offered.
The man looked at me with wide eyes and asked what I was talking about. Now I was even more confused. “The engagement ring your buddy has, if you’re looking for it I can help.”
“Go away man, you’re crazy,” he replied. He looked extremely uncomfortable and scratched his head.
I put up my hands and shrugged, but before walking away, I glanced back at the youngest trucker who had lost the ring.
He shrugged and said, “You tried.”
I exited the diner and glanced over my shoulder one last time before getting in my truck, and only saw the man I had offered to help sitting down. The others were nowhere to be found. I wouldn’t have blamed them if they had gone in search of a better friend. I clocked in five minutes early at work, and I was glad I did as it turned out to be a busy day. I worked on a transmission and replaced a timing belt among other smaller jobs before breaking for lunch. I sat down with a couple of the guys in the break room while my can of chicken noodle soup warmed up in the microwave. I’d put it in a bowl this time, since I figured out the week before that cans don’t do well in microwaves. The boys laughed and said I was born to be a bachelor. They were talking about some ridiculous accident that happened that morning on the highway nearby, and that a few people died in the crash. I thought about the truckers earlier and wondered if they might know anything about it. Then I pushed the thought out of my mind. I wasn’t going to ask anyone who called me crazy anything.
After lunch, work piled up again. It was a hot day, so we had the fans cranked up full volume as well as the AC. Working in the heat isn’t fun, but there’s something about fixing cars that soothed me. I felt like a surgeon working on a person half the time and wished they could take a day in my job and see how intricate it could be. I would have never been able to do more school and be a doctor or a lawyer, hell, I was still paying off my community college education. It took me a long time not to scoff at university folks because I felt like they had everything handed to them. Meanwhile, I was over here working my ass off just to keep my head above water. But after a while of being in school, I realized I was just as smart as they were. I probably read more books than they did, in fact. My dad’s church had a library that people in the congregation would donate to. Every Sunday afternoon I would spend time in that library reading anything from kid’s books to Moby Dick.
On my way home from work, Charlotte called and asked me if I could pick a few things at the store, and I begrudgingly said yes. I am not a man with a temper, but there’s nothing that gets my goat more than impatient, ungrateful shoppers at a grocery store. All of the screaming children, the dead-inside cashiers, and those old women that pay with checks. When I got to the Meadow Market, naturally I grabbed a squeaky grocery cart so that all the lonely older women could hear me coming down the aisles and try to start a conversation. Dodging each attempt, I nodded at a few and smiled at one as I grabbed the pasta and canned tomato sauce. I wasn’t a fan of the attention, in fact, I found it kind of creepy. Next, I went to the bakery and got some bread, then headed to the meat section for some ground beef.
The meat section always creeped me out. I remember when I was little, and we would go to the real butcher for our meat. It was when we had lost most of our animals in a drought, and it had been a hard year. My dad tried his best to hunt but on days when nothing turned up, he would take me to the store for meat. We would walk in and smell the blood and raw meats. Once you entered, to your right was the register, and to your left was a line of young men, and one older mentor, each taking a carcass, and hacking at it with a large butcher knife. Sometimes, if you came in earlier in the day, you would see them skin the beasts, taking extra care to gut them, and then taking less care and tossing the entrails at a bucket, and often missing. The floor was covered in blood and bowels, and it almost looked like a painting if you could forget about the smell. It was poorly lit, and lined on the shelves were sausages, ground beef, and various steaks and chickens. The meat in a regular grocery store offered a stark contrast to what I had grown up with.
The meat here never smelled like anything but cleaning supplies, which to me was worse than blood. It was so sterile and organized, and each cut of meat was perfectly sized. After it was prepared, it was placed in Styrofoam and plastic, and then in more plastic so that it would look prettier. And we customers would go buy it, and happily forget about where it came from. After my first visit to the butcher, I told my dad I wasn’t going to eat meat anymore. He asked me if I was sure, and I said yes. Every meal for the next week he only served me meat until I got too hungry and gave in. My mom tried to sneak me food once, and he backhanded her so hard she fell over. She didn’t try to help after that. I didn’t mind eating meat now though; it was just too easy buying it here, and there was no guilt attached to it.
I grabbed the ground beef and tossed it in the cart and then headed to the flower section. I looked at the lilies and roses, and then at the daisies and orchids, trying to decide if I wanted to get one for Charlotte or not, pricing it in my head. I ran my hand over each petal, some were soft, and some were rubbery. Some stems were strong, others were fragile and easily bendable. Then I looked at the colors, some felt light, and others heavier, and I would lean in close to see how fragrant they were. In this moment I would close my eyes and block out the rest of the store, all of the noises, sights, and smells, and just live in the scent of the flower. After smelling each one, I drove the squeaky cart towards the checkout stands without picking one. I went to the flower section every time I was in, but I had yet to find the right one to give Charlotte. I was waiting for something perfect.
I was behind three people in line and looked around to see if they had updated their candy section, but it was the same as always. Babe Ruth’s, Snickers, and Hershey bars, then a cooler of energy drinks for the kids. All of the magazines there had been there for months, unsold and very used. Finally, it was my turn to check out, and I made small talk with the cashier while he priced my items. I paid and left quickly, and then felt bad because I forgot to tell him to have a nice day. But I dismissed it and drove home.
I parked in the gravel driveway and swung open the gate on the short chain-link fence around the yard. I walked up the sidewalk to the small front porch, stepped over my herbs that sat in clay pots along the edge, and fumbled around for my key while making a mental note to mow the yard soon, and to paint the door, since it looked washed out from age. To some, my house might have seemed as boring and ugly as the grocery store, but I loved it because it was mine. I suppose we all choose our own dullness to be proud of, and judge others for theirs.
I opened the door and Charlotte was sitting down on the couch watching TV. The couch was set up in the center of the small main room, with a brown carpet and white walls surrounding it, and an olive-green kitchen behind it that I had painted myself. To the right of the kitchen was a door to the bedroom, to the left, a bathroom that I had redone. I had given this house a lot of TLC since I bought it. There were still boxes here and there, since Charlotte was still moving her stuff in, but overall the house was clean and still had my touch. The living room had a fireplace that was never used, and above it sat a few knickknacks I had collected over the years that I had displayed on shelves. There were snow globes from the other cities I had travelled to, as well as a few pots and vases from my grandmother, and a dusty Bible.
Charlotte turned toward me to say hi, and I leaned down and kissed her. Then I unloaded the groceries in the kitchen and started on the pile of dirty dishes in the sink.
“Baby, did you not go into work today?” I asked. She didn’t answer and just kept watching jeopardy on the TV. I dropped the question and figured the baby just had her in a bad mood, but finally she offered an explanation.
“I quit today.” I stopped washing dishes for a second and turned to face her. She didn’t say anything else, so I asked her why and she just shrugged. I slowly finished washing the dishes, keeping my composure on the outside and letting my anger build up on the inside. I loved her, but ever since we started seeing each other, Charlotte had started getting to work late, missing shifts for no reason, and saying it didn’t matter because I had a good job. I had worked hard since I was a kid and never relied on others when I could avoid it. Charlotte, on the other hand, was too comfortable letting me do everything for her. I picked up the last plate, dried it off, and threw it at the refrigerator. She flinched as it shattered.
“You just don’t care about anything anymore, do you?” She knew it was a rhetorical question, stayed quiet and still, and I could see her eyes start to water.
I knew I was right to be irritated, but I couldn’t maintain the emotion for long, I had to be a man and take care of her, for our sakes, and for the child growing inside her. Even if she wasn’t going to be an adult, I had to for the both of us. I went over to her, hugged her and said I was sorry, and that I knew it was hard, and that everything would be okay once the baby was born. She rolled her eyes and said I was just trying to make her feel better, and I didn’t know what to say so I just hugged her tighter. Finally, I took a deep breath and said I’d cook tonight. Her eyes got wide and she asked if I was joking.
“I can cook if I need to,” I responded.
She laughed. “Yeah, about as well as you can’t get a woman pregnant.”
I ignored the comment and was just happy to see a smile on her face. I cleaned up the broken plate shard by shard, not even earning myself a single cut. Then I rummaged around for a pot and pan to cook the pasta and sauce in. Finally, I found one and filled it up with water, then took the pasta box and read the instructions to myself out loud. I lit the stove and turned it on high. Then I placed the pasta pot on it a bit too roughly and spilled a bit of water. Charlotte looked over concerned. I put the pan on the stove and cut open the ground beef to place it in.
“You need to oil the pan,” said a voice behind me. I hadn’t helped in the kitchen since my mom died, so I was out of practice. I went to the cabinet and looked around until I found the canola oil and poured some in. “Not that much!” I chuckled and put the oil back. Then I dropped the ground beef in and started cooking it. The water had started to boil so I put the pasta in and more water fell out. I guess I had put too much in. Charlotte finally got up and said to get out of the kitchen, trying to hide a smile. I watched as she fixed everything smoothly and cleaned up my mess, and I regretted not getting the daisies for her. Next time I would.
I think Charlotte desired to feel like she was needed by someone. Everyone was being so careful now that she was pregnant, and they wouldn’t put her on as many shifts at the restaurant. Between that and her negligence, I think she felt useless. She finished the sauce and strained the pasta, and then toasted the bread in another pan. It smelled amazing. I had always wanted to learn how to cook, but every time I tried I just messed something up, so eventually I just gave up and got my pre-made meals and ate out when I needed food. Until Charlotte, I couldn’t even toast bread without burning it. Now that she was in a better mood, she set the table and asked me about my day and how the night before had gone with Tom. I told her my day was fine and recounted the trucker story.
“Tom is dying,” I said finally and told her about the cancer.
Then something came over me mid-sentence, and I remembered the out-of-body moment. I hadn’t thought about it all day. Charlotte said my name and I snapped out of my thoughts. I shook my head. “Last night was just weird, that’s all.”
She asked what I meant so I described it to her. Charlotte looked confused, brows furrowed, and lips pursed, and she responded that it must have been that damn cigarette I smoked, and no good could come from them. She continued her rant, and I mulled over the experience, and what it was like to float outside of my body. It was actually a comforting sensation, like I wasn’t tied down by anything.
We finished dinner, and she went back to watching her show. I headed to my shed to work on a woodcarving I had been doing. It was a scrap oak log a neighbor offered me, and I was shaping it into a bear. I had always loved working with my hands, and woodcarving was the perfect way to unwind from the day. I would put a CD in my stereo and sing along while I worked. I opened the can of beer I had brought in and took a swig, then got started. Each time I worked I would drink a bit, turn on the stereo, and sit cross-legged like a kid in front of whatever I was working on, and just breathe for a while. I would look at it and imagine what it could be, and after a while start carving. Sometimes I would get frustrated and give up for the night, and sometimes I would be out until three in the morning working on it. Charlotte never came out here, and she didn’t even know it was a hobby I had. No one did, it was mine alone, and it was a safe place for me. There were tools scattered across the floor and old carvings lining the wall of various animals; a deer, a hawk, an owl, and a buffalo I had seen in a western once.
I think that most men would be better off doing something like this. My dad used to say a real man didn’t need a hobby, but I think it makes a man less angry and hateful. I wish I would’ve tried painting or sewing or something, but I always thought I would get made fun of. And here I was with a closeted wood carving hobby, working with cars during the day, creating by night. But at least I had something to get me by. I sat in front of the bear and just breathed, then all I remember was with each exhale the room got darker and darker.
Suddenly my alarm went off.