Xan

Thirty Days Left

Which is worse: to die or to be the one left alive?

“Xan!”

I don’t need to hear her to know she’s calling for me. I have no idea where I am or how I got here—here being the epitome of hell—within an arm’s reach of my girlfriend, Lila Walker, but not able to touch her. Not able to hear her.

“Lila!” I pound on the thick barrier that separates us. I have to stop her from blaming herself. I need to stop her from wondering if she could have saved me had she done one thing differently.

She doesn’t flinch, and my hands should be bruised. They’re not. They don’t even hurt. I strike harder than the time I shattered the glass when I locked my keys in the car. It’s like I’m an exhibit at a museum, watching from behind a piece of soundproof Plexiglas as the world continues on, oblivious to my existence.

Lila has just finished covering my casket with lilacs and orchids. There have to be hundreds of them. With my coffin covered in flowers, she can pretend it’s not me being lowered into the ground. She can—even if it’s momentarily—push the fear of being forgotten by the person she loves more than life itself out of her head.

I could never forget her. Ever.

The cemetery is reminiscent of a mythical land I read about in eighth grade. I keep expecting Spartacus to jump out from behind one of the unfinished stone structures and threaten Lila with a sword. Snowstorms and sweltering heat have begun to crumble the massive pieces of rock while vines and spongy moss compete to be the one to get to cover the only proof that these people ever existed. “A magical oasis next to the Great Lakes in Milwaukee,” that’s what Lila calls it.

We went to the park next to the cemetery I’m being buried in on our first date two years ago. She danced under the trees, blending in with the swaying branches while I tapped out beats on an old tree stump. She wanted who gets married in this park. Now I don’t know if she’ll ever let the roars of Lake Michigan transport her to that world where she is invincible again.

Where I am now, it’s what I imagine solitary confinement to be like. No, I think even in prison they give you lights. Here I have a tiny window in the otherwise dark realm, a porthole to the present, reminding me what I’m missing. No lights. No sounds. No answers.

I’m not looking forward to nightfall.

“What the—?” I rub my eyes. It doesn’t help. The window is shrinking. Lila is fading. “No!” I try to knock on the glass. I can’t. It’s gone. There is no wall. No window. Just space, lots and lots of dark space.

It takes a few minutes for my eyes to adjust. When they do, I see a new, different light, similar to a big-screen TV. My brother Adam and I made a pact: When our demo got picked up by a record label, we’d get an awesome flat-screen. This is much, much bigger than the one we picked out.

I’m on this giant TV screen in front of me.

The image that flashes across the screen, I remember the day. All I wanted to do was visit Lila, but the stupid hospital receptionist wouldn’t let me through because I wasn’t family. I was pissed.

The picture changes and the receptionist is gone. I’m happy to be looking at Lila, but this isn’t how I want to remember her. She looks like a corpse lying in her hospital bed. She was so skinny. My hand goes through her when I try to touch her. I never told her I felt this way, but I believe getting injured saved her life. If she had kept dancing, she’d be the one who is dead.

Before I’m ready to say good-bye, the image changes and Lila is gone. It’s me back on the screen. Only this time I’m older than I am now—older than I was. Maybe twenty-one or so, definitely not seventeen, the age I was when I died, when I was buried today. The version of myself on the screen has the same body and structure that I had when I died, only my long hair is much longer and lighter and incredibly straggly. I can’t be sure, but I think my eyes are green rather than brown. And I’m thinner—scrawny, even. I’m drunk. And dirty.

Another change. Lila’s back, and she can’t be more than fifteen. Except that her hair is jet black instead of blond, she looks identical to the Lila I met when she was fifteen, two years ago. Why is she covered in blood?

Who keeps channel surfing? “I’d like to see more than a second!” I yell, looking around. Somebody has to be doing this. Magical TV screens don’t appear out of thin air and change channels by themselves. The latest scene shows both of us dressed in orange jumpsuits. We have to be over eighteen; those are not juvie jumpsuits. Once again, aside from a few minor feature changes, Lila and I both look the same as we did two weeks ago. A change of hair or eye color, a different haircut, and different styles of clothes—it’s like someone has been playing paper dolls with our bodies. The next image catches my attention more than any of the others. There is a tiny baby surrounded by tubes and machines, fighting for her life in a clear plastic box. I know that baby. Why do I know that baby? How can I feel her tiny fingers wrapped around mine?

I try to touch her as she fades. She’s gone. The confusing images of Lila and  me  have  disappeared, but  they  remain ingrained in my brain.

“Hello, Xan.”

I jump three feet in the air when I hear an Australian say my name. I look left to right, up and down. Nobody. A heart that no longer beats thumps inside my empty chest. Adrenaline searches for a living vein to flow through. Together they form a perfect melody of death.

I’m not a fighter, but my fists are clenched guarding my face, ready to strike whatever it is that’s coming my way. I have never understood the appeal of scary movies, and now I seem to be starring in one. “I’m not afraid of you,” I lie, preparing to defend myself.

His energy surrounds me, holding me in place with its barbed-wire restraint. He is everywhere. “Put your hands down, Xander.  Stop being ridiculous,” he says. “I’m here to help.”

I do as I am told. I lower my hands from covering my eyes just in time to see a featureless figure coming toward me. He looks like that statue of the naked guy thinking, only this guy/ thing is not smooth like marble. As relieved as I am not to be alone, I have no idea what he is. Why doesn’t he have a face? I touch my face and find I still have my nose, mouth, and eyes. Where did he come from?

“Where am I?” I don’t give him much time to answer before asking again, this time less hesitant. “Where am I?”

“You must have done something right, mate. You’ve been given a final chance,” he answers.

I think he just punched me on the shoulder, like Charlie and Adam used to do after I rocked out a song.

“A chance to what?” What the hell is he talking about, and why does his voice sound familiar? I don’t know anybody from outside Wisconsin. I don’t even know any foreign-exchange students.

“Make it right,” he replies, stepping to the side so I can see through the window that has reappeared.

Lila’s back.

I breathe a sigh of relief. Then I remember I’m dead. “Make what right?” I ask.

He doesn’t answer.

He doesn’t need to. For some unexplainable reason, I understand his silence, and the confusing pieces surrounding my death come together. “She will never believe it.”

“Love will make you do crazy things,” he says. “A good drink will make you do really stupid things.”

I think he is trying to make me feel better about the situation. I’ve done stupid stuff before. Lila knows I would never choose to leave her, to put her through this. “She won’t.” Again he doesn’t acknowledge my need for reassurance. “The girl”—he points to Lila—“the way you look at her, it’s as if

you are looking at the most spectacular thing you’ve ever seen.”

He isn’t looking at me anymore; he’s looking at her. He sounds intrigued, in awe.

“She is.” Before I met Lila, I don’t know, something was missing. I came to life the day she walked into class.

Jason has finished loading the rental chairs into the truck. The only chair left is the one Lila has been sitting on for the past twenty minutes. Everyone else has moved inside to celebrate my short life with cake and punch. Motionless, she watches her future be lowered into the ground, all contained in one big brown box.

My fear of the unknown no longer seems important. I shove past Shadow Man so I can get closer to her, to comfort her. I can’t. I can’t get past the invisible wall. It is no longer me protecting her from the world; it’s him. Jason Montgomery. It’s his chest she’s clutching. I want it to be my flesh she is digging her nails into. I need to be the one taking away her pain, promising she’ll be okay. “It’s over, isn’t it?”

“Not necessarily.” His words of hope interrupt my thoughts of hatred toward Jason. I’ve never understood why Lila is friends with him; he’s a creep.

The electricity radiating from Shadow Man is less intense. Cautiously, I take another look at the dark, featureless figure that is inches from me. Invisible pins run up my spine as I feel his unidentifiable face studying mine. He is as incomprehensible as the place I am in. I force myself to look away.

“Is it time to make a deal with the devil or something?” I wouldn’t think twice about trading my soul for one more day with her.

“Your soul is spoken for. But you do have a choice to make,” he says.

I should have known. Mr. Australian Shadow Man is here for business. “Okay . . .”

“Option one: You stay like this.” He motions to the nothingness that surrounds me. “You’ll be able to see Lila for the rest of her life.” He stops me before I can speak. “Until the day she dies, you will see her, not touch her, not hear her, and not smell her.”

As he tells me what I feared, an eerie wall of storm clouds moves in from the east in the outside world. I may not be able to hear, but it is clear Jason is trying to get her inside, away from the trees before the storm hits. “Just Lila?” I question.

I’ve been dead for a while. Twelve days to be exact. All I’ve thought about is Lila. She is the one I worried about when they couldn’t find my body. Every minute I see her, I thank God that I don’t need sleep, because I couldn’t close my eyes. What if she wasn’t there when I opened them? Why haven’t I missed my parents? My brother? Charlie, my best friend since kindergarten? Only Lila. I miss her so much. I miss the things that seemed so little, like holding her hand.

He nods. “The connection between two stars that fall at the same time is very powerful.”

I’m about to ask where we fell from when images similar to the ones I saw earlier start playing out in front of me. This time, though, they are not on a screen. They’re in my head.

Oh my God. “How is that possible?” I ask, watching more and more recollections fly out of my mental file cabinet. They are memories.

“What do you notice?” he asks. He’s a nosy shrink prying for information.

I remember all of it. Every single moment of every life we’ve lived together. All five. I remember all the mistakes. So many mistakes. “I don’t know,” I decide.

He crosses his massive arms across his even bigger chest and calls my bluff. “By the look on your face, I am guessing you remember quite a lot.”

“What does it mean?” I ask. Why is this the first time I am recalling all of this?

Taking an unnecessary deep breath, he delivers my fate. “It means if you don’t get it right this time, it’s game over.”

The only thing I can offer him is my hands up in the air. I don’t know what I would say even if I could speak.

“You just saw five versions of yourself,” he continues, sounding like a broken record. Like this is the millionth time he has given this speech.

I did.

“You’ve used five human lifetimes trying to find your way back.” He shakes his stony head. “You always find each other, but then one of you makes a stupid mistake and you accrue more karmic debt. I don’t know how you’ve gotten so many chances.” “Karmic debt?” Where are we trying to get back to? This is

not happening. Maybe I’m in a coma. That’s it: I’m dreaming.

I must not be doing a very good job disguising my skepticism. He continues to face me, I think. I imagine if he had a face, he would be staring at me with such disappointment and frustration—frustration that I am just not getting what he seems to think is obvious. I feel like he is struggling to find a way to explain the explainable. That’s the energy I feel. I throw my hands up again, giving him the go-ahead to continue his attempts to make me a believer. What choice do I have but to hear him out? What can it hurt?

After taking a deep breath, he continues, “You lost sight of your true self, causing your divine glow to dim. As a punishment, you were sent to a world of imperfection and temptation to rediscover your purity. Lila was sent at the exact same moment, and as the two of you fell to earth, your souls merged.”

This sounds like something I didn’t pay attention to in philosophy class because my parents told me to ignore anything that questioned Christianity. “So we’re, like, soul mates? Like, literally?” Did he just tell me that I was a star?

“You’ve yet to live out a full life with Lila. In order to return to your original state of celestial purity, you must be at peace when you die. It’s impossible to be at peace when you’re missing half of your soul.”

“What happens when we die in peace?” I ask, not sure I really want to know the answer.

“You move on to the final realm.” He points up, to where the stars would be if I could see the sky.

Is this guy serious? “Reincarnation?” I ask.

I think he is waiting for me to react. I want to tell him he’s lost his mind, but if what he’s saying is bogus, how am I, the dead guy, able to see Lila, the living girl? And why do I suddenly have a million memories of things that have never happened, or so I thought? “The memories?” It’s my turn to ask the questions. “Anything from previous lives is not easily accessed while

you’re alive,” he starts to explain.

But I cut him off. “Lila’s déjà vu.” This is insane. It’s insane because it makes sense.

“Yes, from past lives,” he confirms.

“What’s my second choice?” I wonder what could be better than seeing her when I am, well, dead.

“You can have it all. Hear her voice, smell her perfume, feel emotions, and even touch her.”

“And?” Wait for it, wait for it . . .

“And you can have all that while you are here. But if you want a chance to live one more life with her, you must find a way to show her that you are still connected, that you haven’t left her.”

There it is. I think the last time I blinked was five minutes ago. I would never leave her. “What kind of idiot would choose option one?” He may not have any features, but I’d bet a million dollars he just rolled his eyes at me. What’s his problem?

“The kind of idiot who likes to play it safe,” he snaps. “If you go with choice number two, smart-ass, and fail, you will be judged and be forced to spend the rest of eternity paying for your ignorance. You may never see Lila again.”

“Ever?”

Ignoring my question—again—he says what he wants. “Keep in mind that whichever choice you make, you will feel everything your soul mate does until the day she dies. Each time she cries, you will feel her pain; when she is happy, her joy; and when she falls in love again, you will feel that too.”

I’d rather suffer for all of eternity knowing I did everything I could to be with her. What about her, what will happen to her if I fail? Is it better to wait sixty years for a guarantee, or do I try? This sucks. It would make my decision so much easier if I didn’t have anything to lose.

I have everything to lose. “You can make it right, Xan.”

I can’t help but be drawn to the outside world. The wind has picked up and the swells of Lake Michigan are violently engulfing the rocky shoreline. A sliver of sun hovers above the giant churning clouds as beams of light shine out to the exact place where I lie. God lights, that’s what my mom called them.

My casket is nearly out of sight when I see Jason trip and fall into the hole. If my coffin were to open, we’d be face-to- face. “Awesome!” I mutter under my breath.

“You made the right choice, Xan.” He pats me on the back the way my old band teacher did when I nailed a song no one else could. “Did you see her react when she felt you make that breeze during the funeral?”

I don’t know at what point he assumed I was going with option two, but he did. I don’t think I would have risked it if I’d had to make the choice on my own. I know I wouldn’t have. “I didn’t do anything.”

“You did. And the light on her hand, nice touch!” he says, voice trailing. “Thirty days isn’t going to be a problem for you.”

What? I know he’s gone, but I yell at him anyway. “How am I supposed to figure this out?” I shout into the darkness, which has once again turned cold. He can’t just leave me here. “Coward!” He couldn’t tell me I have thirty days to my face? People can’t learn a new language in thirty days!

“Xan.” Lila’s voice chokes out my name. With an impressive amount of strength, she pulls Jason out of the ground so she can crawl in herself.

Does it surprise me to see her curling up in the dirt next to her dead boyfriend? No. She would do anything to be close to me. “I love you,” she whispers.

“I love you,” I whisper back.

“I will always love you.” Talking to my casket, she traces the exact perimeter of my face, as if she can see me lying under the closed lid. “We’ll be together again.” She gives me one last kiss before climbing out of the muddy hole. “Until then, you are the air I breathe. You have to be, because without you, I can’t survive.” I watch her succumb to the tears that have become too much for her to hold off as Jason helps her up and guides her

away from me. I don’t panic.

I don’t panic, because I heard her.

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