This story is by Rebekah Fernandez and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Oh, just kill me now!”
“You will please suppress your melodramatic tendencies.” The case worker yawns.
“I can’t fill out another form. I just can’t. I won’t.”
I cross my arms and legs for good effect and slump in the hard chair. To my left, a plume of cosmic dust wafts through the atmosphere around the Astral Substantiation Zone. It swirls across a large sign that flashes “Departing,” under which a concourse of unborn souls descend through empyreal turnstiles—Ding! Gone. Ding! Another gone. Ding!
The case worker catches me eyeing the turnstiles and sighs.
“Stop. Right. There,” I say. I know that face.
He draws in a deep breath and before he can speak I’m crouched on the desk with his lips pinched between my fingers, inches from his squirrelly face.
“Mfm wthlbm pwssm…”
I don’t need another lecture about how everyone goes through the same process, passes the same tests, fills out the same forms, blah, blah, blah. Pfft.
“I’ve done everything you’ve asked, passed every test. It’s my turn! I don’t even know why I’m still here.”
The side of his mouth cracks. “Missm, ifm you mwould kindly mremove yourself, I mwill explainm.”
Ha! I inch closer and give him a cold stare. He raises an eyebrow.
A Returned once told me he could hypnotize people into doing what he wanted by staring deeply into their souls. I don’t really know how, but the case worker doesn’t have to know that.
Without blinking he lifts a hand and gestures toward my chair. (Great gobs, I’ve been here so long I’ve started thinking of it as my chair.)
“Fine.” I release him and take my—the chair. Not my chair. Not anymore. Determination is my name. Steel is my will. Unyielding, my soul. “Get on with it, boss man.”
He smooths back his long white hair and straightens his tie.
“Yes, of course. Ah-hem.” He flips through a stack of folders and selects an especially thick one.
“Haven’t you ever heard of a computer?”
“Down there. They’ve got electronics now. Store zillions of bits of information and retrieve them in nanoseconds. Nice user interfaces, too. I’m partial to Apple, myself. Sounds tasty, ya know? I’d like to taste an apple. Have you ever tasted an apple? Of course you have, you’re a Returned. You’ve been there and back again. What’s it like? To taste, to feel, to smell? I bet it’s—”
“Fine.” I wave him to continue his archaic fiddling. I lean my head back and rest it on my—the chair, THE chair, and stare into space. Ursa Minor is especially bright tonight.
“Policy 19Z00258 has been amended, and your waiting period has been extended. As such you must complete an extension addendum along with this ‘21st Century Agreement.’”
“You filed a ‘20th Century Agreement’. That deadline passed years ago.” The case worker shuffles through a sudoku puzzle of forms on his desk. “Ah, here it is. You must also re-submit a ‘My Favorite Things’ evaluation.”
“You know those are bogus, right?”
“How am I supposed to know if I like SCUBA diving more than rollerblading, or painting more than bass fishing? Or salted caramel truffles more than Snickers? What is a Snickers anyway? Must be something great. People down there are shoving them into their pie-holes like candy.”
“Specifics are unnecessary. The instructions at the top are clearly spelled-out.”
He shakes his head and mumbles, “You’ve been spending too much time with the Returned. The Queued should never mingle with the Returned. Gives them ideas.”
I smile sweetly. “I wouldn’t be spending too much time with them if you would let me GO!”
The Returned are the only ones on this rock who hold any sort of interest for me. Most of them are, well, the opposite of him. Glowing beings bursting with knowledge and experience. Stories like you wouldn’t believe. Yeah, who would want to hang out with those guys?
“I got no stories, no experiences. How could I? I’ve been stuck in this eternal queue line for my entire existence.”
“And the hair! Long flowing luscious locks. . .”
“Your soul will conform to the assigned body. You do not get to choose your hairstyle.”
Pfft. “They’re so cool and I’m, well, look.” I spin my humanoid soul in a circle. Wisps of ethereal matter break off and mix with the cosmic dust in the atmosphere.
“I gotta live! I need to know what it’s like to go skiing in the Rockies, to fight yetis on Mount Everest—”
“Yetis are not real.”
“—to kayak in the Amazon!”
“To be eaten by an anaconda?”
“Exactly! Now, you’re getting it!”
He rubs his forehead.
I wish I had a forehead. My head is smooth and featureless as an eggshell. On second thought, maybe I’m all forehead?
“You can’t keep me here any longer. It’s torture. It’s inhumane!”
For the first time, his eyes widen at my outburst.
I stifle the inferno in my chest and remind myself the only way out of here is through him. “Okay, okay. Let’s say I fill out all your paperwork. Again. Then, I get to go, right?”
“Yes! Thank you!”
“—once your application has been reviewed by the Board, analyzed by the Recruiters, placed in submission, held for retrieval, assigned a latitude and longitude…”
“Then, I get to go?”
“Granted there is still a hospitable environment to send you to by that time…”
“Then, I get to go.”
“And the proper actions are taken by those gone before you…”
“Then, I get to go!”
“Oh for the love of—just tell me!”
I growl under my breath. Just enough to let off steam without him hearing.
“Then,” he clears his throat, “you get to go.”
“However, I have yet to explain all the policy changes.”
I whoop with joy, fly to my feet, shake his hand until it near falls off.
“Ttthe ooother ccchanges are vvvvery impppportant, Missss.”
“I’m going, I’m going, I’m going,” I chant. “Internets and sunshine. Surfing and watching the leaves change color. Baseball and birthday cakes.”
“But, there is a chance you may be assigned—”
“The animals! I think I’ll get a pet iguana. What do you think? Iguana. I love saying that word, don’t you? Eeee-gwannna.”
“Miss, kindly calm yourself. I have to warn you—”
“The papers. Yeah, I’ll have them to you within the hour. BYE!”
With a swipe of my arm I gather the horrid, beautiful forms that are my key, my chance, my liberation.
Finally, I’m on my way!
What a strange sensation. I can’t quite place it. Random colors scatter into a million spots of refraction. With a tilt of my head I can see a wide green expanse. Leaves? Giant leaves crackle all around me. Where in the world am I?
I wiggle my arms and legs…and legs.
Goodness, how many legs do I have? Being in a body is weirder than everyone said.
I bring my front arms together and hear a quiet clink. My exterior is tough and hard. I thought flesh was supposed to be soft.
The leaf starts to sway and I jump, pushing with my powerful back legs. Whoa! That was fun. I jump again. Not quite sure that one was voluntary, but who cares? I’m ALIVE!
A twitchy motion above me catches my attention. I jump again. It twitches again. Did I do that? I focus for a moment and sure enough, two spindly sticks at the top of my head shudder back and forth. Are those…antennae?
A sudden tremor throws my balance. A swoosh of air knocks me to the side, but my sticky feet hang on to the giant leaf under me. The scent of heat radiates from behind. My multi-faceted eyes spy a black feather, easily three times my size, drifting by.
“Squawk!” The roaring screech vibrates my whole being.
Panic. Panic. Panic! I jump again, and again. The third time my feet never find the ground. I am yanked violently upwards, then CRUNCH! My insides go numb and the world goes black.
No. Oh, no. No, no, no. It can’t be. Maybe if I don’t open my eyes…
I open my eyes.
Yep, shouldn’t have done that.
I’m back in my chair. The chair. Ugh, my chair.
The case worker’s voice breaks the silence. “Welcome back. I trust you enjoyed your time on Earth?”
I muster up the nastiest stink eye possible, which must be impressive now that I have five eyes, two of which are enormous.
He coughs. “I did try to warn you.”
“Very well, then. Would you like another try? If so, please return to the end of the line. . . and fill out this form.”