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FICTION / Passing Days / Leland Cheuk

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We apparate upon the crest of a foothill, one of many that go on and on into the darkness. Not much light here in the celestial; you can never see anyone too clearly. I wonder what Allison looked like in the light of the living. She was only forty-five, went well before her time. I died smack on the average global lifespan. Sixty-eight years and six months, leaving my husband Tim and our son Charlie, who we adopted from China. Allison and I look up at the black-blue of space where The City hung like an elaborate necklace of stars—the world of the living.

“You don’t say much,” Allison says.

I force a smile. “I still can’t believe I’m here. I feel so good. Like I’m eighteen again. Well, maybe not eighteen. Thirty-five? It’s been so long since I’ve felt even okay. I had leukemia. The end was long and arduous.”

“I don’t remember my cause,” she says. “Must have been sudden. But I feel twenty-one! I’ve heard the feeling wears off though.” The sky, she faces. “As they forget.”

I’ve been told that our continued existence is a mere manifestation of the memories of the living—our friends, family, friends of friends, friends of family of friends of family, and so on. As their memories weaken, we gradually fade and feel worse and worse until we’re gone for good. Turns out death is much like life. 

Alison looks beyond me. Others head for our hill. Groups of four and five and seven or more. We can hear their voices, see their silhouettes.

“So many,” I said.

“This place is getting gentrified.”

I laugh. Laughter here feels so good. One laugh feels like tens of thousands of living laughs. If there’s a prize to dying, it’s the laughter.

I try to touch Allison’s face, even though we don’t have real bodies anymore. I guess you can call us ghosts, only we don’t haunt. She reaches out and tries to grab my arm. Her hand goes right through me. We laugh and feel amazing again.  

Imagine a dark and neverending night hike where you don’t have to worry about the weather, your footing, critters, or having to go to the bathroom. That’s what death is like.   

The first group crests our hill and congregates facing away from The City where Allison and I lived. They speak French. They must be facing France.

“Shall we walk?” suggests Allison.

“What else is there for us to do?” I say, letting her lead the way.

One can’t spend all day gazing up at the living, just as one can’t spend every living day pondering death. So we walk and talk. We share the stories of our lives. We develop friendships. We again pretend that we have infinite time. 

Allison says she’s lived many lives. She was a dancer—ballet. Then she was teacher. Then a choreographer. Then she made jars of preserved fruits and sold them at farmers markets. Then she got breast cancer and beat it. She never married. That surprises me, though I can’t pinpoint why. Even in the darkness, she’s lovely, with the aura of a woman in her twenties at first glance. She must have attracted men and women and those in-between. I’m attracted, and I didn’t even go for women when I was alive.

“I never fell in love,” she says. “Maybe I was too focused on myself and what I was doing.”

“That’s a shame.”

“Can you tell me what it was like?”

I loved Tim in all the ways that love evolves. First, physically, then, as we grew older, the caretaking of each other felt like an indispensible part of our humanity. There were times I felt he was my human pet and I was his. To care for another, to desire deeply an individual’s most comprehensive happiness, that is the greatest privilege of being alive. I tell Allison something to that effect.

Her face seems to brighten…with anger. “Now I feel like shit because I missed out.”

I feel bad for making her feel bad, though I’m not sure what answer she expected. For what seems a lifetime, Allison is quiet. 

“You don’t have to keep walking with me,” I offer finally.

“Okay,” she says, drifting off by herself into the black, soon disappearing up another trail, yet another hill.

 

*

 

Yes, heaven—if that’s what this is—is not all it’s cracked up to be.

Even good dead people are still sadly just people, with all our sad foibles.

Here you realize that you’ve become rather accustomed to a certain level of the material, a standard of living even in death. Tim had so much stuff around our house. I once called him a hoarder, with his books and knick-knacks and plants. Why do we need all this stuff? Why get sucked into our consumerist world? Then, when I got sick, and my life became ever more limited, I stopped caring about anything other than my ability to get to the bathroom without soiling myself or breaking a hip by tripping over our robot dog floor cleaner.

Well, let me tell you, I could use some fucking meaningless stuff right now. There’s nothing here. No books, no TV, no bed, no desk, not even a smartphone to distract you from the tedium of the days of the dead. Just us apparitions and hills and the stars above. I wish I had a luxury car to drive me around. I yearn to feel my able body pressed against fine leather seats, vibrating with the purr of an automobile engine. Even a golf cart would suffice.

“Don’t you miss things sometimes?” I say to my new friend Swale, an executed serial killer. At first I was apprehensive when he approached, but then I thought, what’s the worst he can do: kill me?

“I was in prison for twenty-six years,” Swale says. “I have a pretty good idea of what it feels like to have nothing.”

“So what was it like?” I say. “You know, to kill someone.”

Swale never looks at me. He always faces forward. He doesn’t gaze at the stars either.

“I’m going to be remembered forever,” he says. “Memories of killers and the killed are always too strong. If I knew that then, I would have tried harder not to do it.”

 

*

 

I’m on a hill with John Lennon. Well, it’s not just me. There are millions of us. Luckily, being in a crowd isn’t uncomfortable when you don’t have a body. I’ve been told that David Bowie and Prince aren’t far away either. Lennon patiently responds to questions from the other dead. I wait days for my turn. When I finally get there, I tell him that “Working Class Hero” is my favorite song and that when I was living, I considered myself working class.

“The song was sardonic,” he says.

“Really?”

“‘There’s room at the top they are telling you still,’” he says. “‘But first you must learn to smile as you kill?’” He shakes his head. “Yoko warned me people wouldn’t get it.”

John’s face turns up, looking for her in the sky.

 

*

 

I start feeling pain in my side. My neck is sore from stargazing. It seems to take me longer to get from hill to hill.

Tim and Charlie are forgetting me.

 

*

                  

“Don’t you wish you had more time?” I’m asked by Barrett. He was just seventeen. Got in the car with a friend who was driving drunk. His friend survived. Barrett was in a coma for several days before passing.

“I wouldn’t mind a little more time,” I say. “But I’m not the ‘I would give anything for another moment with my family’ type. I think it’s because I really suffered those last few years. Not like you.”

“I wish I had at least another day,” Barrett says.

“You probably wish you didn’t get into that car that night,” I say.

“If I had another day, I’d go back up there and kill him,” he says. “I think about it constantly. I’d like to slit his throat and watch him bleed out slowly while he looks in my eyes. I’m going to think about it constantly until they forget about me.”

 

*

 

It’s a miracle when you meet someone you know. Mike and I did standup comedy back in the day. He was the nicest guy. Unlike most standups, he wasn’t petty or self-absorbed or insecure. He was like a guru. Centered and at peace with himself. Before he started doing comedy, he was a vice-president at a bank for thirty-two years. It had been his life’s dream to be a standup since he was a kid. He ended up opening for a bunch of famous comics before he dropped dead the morning after his daughter’s wedding.

“I’m sorry I never visited you in the hospital,” Mike says. “We all had an idea you were really sick. Sometimes you just make excuses for not showing up. There was always an errand to run on the other side of The City or something else to do.”

I tell him it’s okay, that down here, I try not to dwell on stuff that didn’t happen. “When I heard you passed, I was so sorry I didn’t get to see you on stage before you went.”

He smiles. “When you’re my age, what do you say to a friend you haven’t seen since grade school? Do you still like purple?”

We laugh ecstatic. “That was my favorite joke of yours,” I say.

“What do you say to a friend you haven’t seen since you were living?”

“Do you still like purple?” I replied.

Mike didn’t laugh. “Yeah, it’s not the same,” he says.

 

*

            

After awhile, you spend your days walking alone. You tire of having to talk to people. You realize how little you can actually connect with someone through talking. How did you die? What did you do when you were living? Who are you survived by?

Quickly, you run out of things to talk about. The world you share with the dead is colorless, without detail, and infinite. There are only so many hills with famous people to chase.

Then you start seeing that the new dead are like young adults. They don’t ask you questions because they’re afraid or they don’t care or they don’t think they can learn from you or they think they have so many passing days left that none of their interactions are urgent. But these days pass quickly. Just look at your fellow dead. Soon, you witness their fading. At first, you think maybe your eyes are going bad. The ones who have been here awhile seem to blend into the darkness, their outlines fainter than before. Then they’re missing a hand or a foot. Next, full limbs disappear and their gaits slow to the point they’re barely moving and quietly groaning through clenched jaws—the mien of someone trying to grind through the aches of being forgotten, trying to hang on a little bit longer, just a few more passing days.

 

*

            

I wonder what Charlie is doing. He came out to me while I was during chemo. He cried, which made me cry. While we were crying, I asked him why he was crying. 

“Figuring out what kind of life you want to lead is the ultimate luxury,” I told him. “Make quick choices and don’t look back. You don’t get the time you spend waffling returned to you.”

That just made him cry harder. He told me that being homosexual wasn’t a choice.

“Of course I know that, Charlie,” I said. “Do you think I’m an idiot? I’m talking about life more generally, about figuring out who you are and moving forward. Get on with it and just be. You’re thirty-five already! You should have come out twenty years ago!”

He did not appreciate my candor. For some reason, whatever I said on the topic after that day disappointed him. Charlie never felt I fully accepted his sexuality. Not true. I guess I just didn’t think it was that big of a deal. I wasn’t a perfect mother.

Maybe his negative feelings towards me will keep his memories of me alive longer. 

 

*

 

I believe Tim was faithful to me while I was alive. But I wonder if he’s found someone new. He was always so genial and well-liked, far more so than I. I bet he’s in love. And yes, I would consider it a betrayal. I always suspected my college friend Cara. She and Tim had chemistry. She never married. That bitch was just waiting me out. She even visited me in the hospital, all smiling like she was happy I was wasting away, peeing into a bag. I noticed Tim sneaking glances at her while the three of them (Tim, Charlie, and Cara!) conferred with the doctors outside my room. 

Rage and jealousy are certainly emotions I didn’t expect to follow me to the grave. 

 

*

 

I’ve started avoiding the crowds. I’m growing faint and I don’t feel much like being looked upon with pity by the new dead. But today I hear a familiar voice behind me. It’s Allison. She’s fading too.

“I’m sorry about the way I behaved that day,” she says.

I accept her apology. “Maybe I should have kept my thoughts private,” I tell her. “There just didn’t seem to be much point in holding back at the time.”

“My throat is raw,” she says. “I can hardly breathe.”

“I have a constant headache.”

“I wish I could make you feel better.”

“So do I.”

“To care for another,” she parrots. “To desire deeply another individual’s most comprehensive happiness, that is the greatest privilege.”

I smile. It’s become harder to laugh. When you do manage to, it actually hurts, slicing like a tubercular coughing fit. My face feels heavy, cracking, like dried mud.

“I never asked about your life,” Allison says. “What was your work?”

I tell her I was a fifth-grade teacher for thirty years, and while I enjoyed hearing about the occasional successes of my students when they grew up, I found it somewhat expected. I taught at a very good public school in a rather tony neighborhood. The kids had every advantage. After we adopted, I first and foremost identified as a mother.

“Can you tell me what that’s like?” asks Allison. “I promise I won’t get mad. Or I will get mad on the inside. Because I’m still upset at not having more time up there.”

“Motherhood is not something you do,” I say. “Like most aspects of life, it’s something you become.”

“You must have been a very good teacher.”

“I held my own.”

“Do you think we’ll run into our parents?”

“If we do, they’ll be very faint and weak,” I say. “After all, we remember them best. Unless your parents did something that’s still remembered and have a building named after them or something.”

I feel a sharp pain in my lower back, like someone has taken a metal rod to it. Allison asks if I’m okay. Then she can’t help blurting, “oh dear,” her eyes lowering. I follow her gaze and see that my legs have disappeared. I think of Tim living happily ever after with Cara. Charlie finding love. Have I made a big enough mark on them so that when they arrive, I’ll be here to meet them? I am but a vessel brimming with dubiety.

“Will you keep walking with me?” I ask Allison. “Even though I’m so slow?”

“For as long as we have left,” she replies. “What else is there for us to do?”


A MacDowell Colony and Hawthornden Castle Fellow, Leland Cheuk is the author of the story collection LETTERS FROM DINOSAURS (2016) and the novel THE MISADVENTURES OF SULLIVER PONG (2015). Cheuk’s work has been covered in VICE, The Millions, The Rumpus, and Asian American Writers Workshop, and has appeared in or is forthcoming in publications such as Salon, Catapult, Joyland Magazine, Electric Literature, The Rumpus, Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, [PANK] Magazine, among other outlets.