Hangin’ Around – 2
2 – The Not So Great Beyond
It took the better part of the afternoon for Adam to stop asking repetitive questions. Otis sat patiently through three hundred ‘why’s and ‘where’s before finally losing his cool and telling the man to suck it up. “We all got to die some time, just happened to be your day was today.” Those words had sent a cold silence into Adam that carried the three deceased into evening.
No longer compelled to help by the young man’s weeping, Otis floated over to Maggie as she stared across the desert toward the setting sun. Despite the macabre nature of the hill, it provided spectacular views of the mountains, towering high and jagged above the flat expanse of dried rock.
“That’s breaking it to him gently?” she asked with a hint of a smile.
Otis sighed and stayed quiet for a minute, looking for something far away. “No, I’m not sure there’s a way to do that. It’s why we bet, isn’t it?”
“No doubts there, but ‘we all have to die sometime’ is a bit rough.”
Otis shrugged. “How about: Sorry, kid, there might be a great beyond but this ain’t it. All your friends are somewhere high above the clouds while you’re stuck here kicking around with our dusty old asses.”
“It is an improvement.” A fly buzzed through Maggie’s nose, she swatted at it. It had been nearly fifteen years since losing her body, but she still hadn’t managed to kick the instinct. “Never thought I’d miss squashing flies.”
“And I never thought I’d miss repairing shoes for people who hated my guts, but here we are.”
Beneath the tree, Adam finally managed to float from his kneeling position to an awkward stand. A hard determination had replaced the tears in his eyes.
“He’s going to run,” commented Maggie.
“They always do.” Otis glided toward Adam, but the kid was already moving.
Adam churned his legs as if it still mattered and zoomed across the dusty ground like an undead bullet. Otis and Maggie watched as his pale form streaked across Hangman’s Hill, heading for the desert beyond.
“You really don’t want to do that,” called Maggie, putting no effort into it.
“Everyone has to experience it at least once.”
Adam heard neither of them and ran as fast as he could, trying to outrun whatever horrible limbo he was stuck in. Then, he hit the barrier. A blinding wall of white energy shot into the sky, soon fading to a wisp like a transient version of the Aurora Borealis. Adam flew backward, his otherworldly energy bursting and throwing up puffs of greenish white steam.
“And down he goes. Good legs on him though. Took me forever to figure out how to move like that.” Otis flexed his legs as they hovered an inch above the ground, a strictly performative act that helped bring a sense of normalcy to a situation that was anything but. In the spirit world, movement was a matter of will more than anything else, and Adam clearly had that in spades.
The explosive force of the barrier threw Adam backward, leaving him stunned and rotating midair. When he had recovered enough to feel pain, he let out a curse so loud that it could have cleared the desert for miles. Of course, the only people that heard it were the deceased.
“Now that’s a swear I haven’t heard before.”
Maggie whistled. “Alright, I guess I’ll take a turn.” She walked to where Adam was floating, still sizzling from his collision. “Hurts like a bitch, don’t it?”
“How? How does it hurt?” Adam’s voice was strained and filled with pain.
“Not sure exactly, but most try it at least once.”
“Where the hell are we?”
Maggie floated down, kneeling so they were eye level. “I don’t know, but we have some guesses. Why don’t you come over with Otis and me? We’ll fill you in.”
Adam tried pushing himself to a standing position but succeeded only in pushing his limbs through the unnoticing earth. He grimaced and kicked his feet, sending himself into a slow spin.
“Ah, yeah, that’s not how it works here. Try thinking about floating upright, but make sure you don’t go too high. Next, you’re going to get the bright idea that you can fly out of here, but let me tell you, it’ll hurt worse.” Maggie thought about her first attempt and felt the burning sensation on her scalp from where she had hit. “Suffice it to say, we’re penned in. It’s a pretty pen – when there aren’t rotting corpses that is – but it’s still a pen.”
Adam strained, floating to a lopsided standing position. “Is this Hell?”
“If it is, God didn’t put anyone here to torment us except us.” Maggie smiled. “Probably closer to the biblical concept of purgatory.” She floated in Otis’s direction and motioned for Adam to follow.
He didn’t move, instead looking at her with suspicion.
“Oh, come on, you’re part of the club now.” Maggie motioned to the scar around her neck and tried to ignore the neat bullet hole in the center of Adam’s forehead. Lucky for the kid, there were no mirrors and he wouldn’t be able to feel it.
Adam floated forward, unsteady at first, but finding his way.
“As far as we can tell, we’re stuck here.” Otis made a motion to the hill.
“On Hangman’s Hill?” asked Adam.
“Well, as it turns out, that’s not what the natives called it. The first hangman probably thought it looked like a good place to die, and didn’t bother to read the carvings at the base of the tree, or the signs along the trail to get here for that matter.”
Adam squinted at the base of the tree. “Those are words?”
“Just because our forefathers were ignorant, doesn’t mean we have to be.” Maggie rolled the words over in her mind, feeling a sting of pain saying them again.
“She’s a bit touchy on the subject. It’s why she was hung in the first place.”
“For reading the native tongue?”
“Shoshoni,” corrected Maggie.
“For suggesting we’re equal with them.”
“Turns out, freedom isn’t actually meant for everyone.” Maggie stopped the rage bubbling inside and thought about the memory of what it was like to take deep breaths. It helped bring her back to a sense of relative calm. “In a fitting fate, the men who hung me couldn’t read Shoshoni. This was a place of communion with the gods, and that script was meant to keep unwanted spirits out of the conversation.”
“Unfortunately, we think that’s what’s got us penned in.”
Adam put his head between his legs, turning his slow spin into an endless somersault. “So, we’re stuck here forever?”
Maggie chuckled at the morose corpse spinning like a children’s top. In death, she had found humor in the little things. “Not to put too fine a point on it, yes. You can stop that spin if you like, just think—”
Adam let out a choked sob.
“You’re embarrassing yourself more than usual for a man who’s soiled himself in front of company.” They might not have been able to smell it, but there was a telltale drip off Adam’s corpse as it swung lightly in the evening breeze.
Adam stopped spinning and glowered at her. “You have some kind of—”
“Boy, the sunsets sure are nice,” broke in Otis. “Why don’t we all take a moment and enjoy that before we return to this existential debate.”
Over the horizon, the sun sank low in its arch, bathing the desert in blood red light. The blue sky turned shades of purple streaked with gold. Jagged outlines of far distant mountains became silhouettes of teeth consuming the fleeing sky. A coyote howled in the distance, waking for a night of hunting.
Adam took a moment away from his petulance to appreciate the natural beauty of their surroundings, but quickly became distracted by the memory of his own corpse.
Otis looked at him with genuine pity. “That’ll be gone soon enough, don’t worry about it.”
“What happened to yours?”
“I think there’s still a rib bone over there somewhere.” Maggie pointed toward the hanging tree. “But the animals out here are hungry and quick. Trust me, they may not be here yet but they’re coming.”
“What my tactful friend here is trying to say is that it’s all part of the cycle of life. The earth has fed you for many years, and now it’s your turn to give back.” Otis gave Maggie a reproachful look.
“That is a nicer way of putting it,” admitted Adam.
“Best we turn around and talk about something else.”
On cue, moonlight reflected off a pair of eyes approaching from the darkening desert.
Otis grimaced. “Maggie’s right though, they’re hungry. This might be the way of things, but it’s going to be gross. Why don’t we just walk away?”
Adam’s eyes were fixed on the coyote.
“You really don’t want to watch that.” Maggie was already floating away.
Adam didn’t move.
“Look, you might think you’ve seen it all, being that you’ve died and arrived on the spiritual plane, but watching yourself get eaten… No one needs to see that.”
Adam remained silent.
“Suit yourself, kid.” Otis joined Maggie just as the first coyote made its way up the hill.
“Shoo! Get out of here!” Adam yelled.
Otis shook his head. “That one’s going to be a handful.”
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