On the day Liz died she learned that there is no white-robed father in the sky waiting to embrace confessed sins, nor is there a sinister spirit waiting to make you pay for every dirty or shameful thing you ever did. There were no silver-lined clouds or furnace of flames waiting for her arrival.
On the day of her burial, she had no regrets. She did not regret buying lottery tickets so that she could have lived in a fancy house or traveled to Bora Bora each winter. She did not regret having no children. She’d never been able to imagine tiny beings made of herself.
Liz’s family stood around the gravesite speculating.
“Jesus Christ,” Uncle Joe muttered, fingering a fresh lei that he’d brought from Hawaii. “Did she really have to throw in the fucking towel?”
“Joseph, watch your mouth,” snapped Edna, her ninety- year old grandmother who wore a gold cross around her neck and thanked Jesus with every shuffle of her cane.
“Forgive me, ma. But I keep seeing Lizzie’s smile,” Uncle Joe said.
“If you ask me, she never did smile much,” Edna screeched, holding the gold cross with crooked fingers.
“If you ask me, she never should’ve stopped that prescription for happy pills,” said Uncle Rick.
“Forget happy pills. Being happy is a choice. It’s much easier to perpetuate misery,” Rick’s wife, Rhonda, remarked.
“Maybe she truly needed it,” Uncle Rick said.
“No, the prescription,” Rick snapped.
Liz felt a tension shifting the dirt above and around her. It was a spring day, like the day she was born, when her mother pushed for sixteen hours with no painkillers.
“This baby’s fighting against the world,” the doctor had joked.
“I would, too, if I could do it over again,” the nurse had said without smiling.
Liz’s mother had told that story to Liz’s friends for years.
“She must’ve still been torn up over what’s-his-name,” said her cousin Geneva.
What’s-his-name was Geoffrey. He was there at the gravesite, out of earshot from Geneva. Geoffrey and Liz had surfaced in and out of love for nearly four years, until Geoffrey set out for America’s highways on his motorcycle. It was a single-seater and it would have been illegal to put her on the back, he’d claimed.
But I’ve ridden it before, she’d argued.
Yeah, but I can’t take you cross country on this thing, Liz. We’ll kill each other before we hit halfway.
“It was premature,” said Uncle Steve, pulling at the knot of his tie.
“Fucking premature,” Uncle Joe agreed.
“Joseph!” grandma hissed.
“Watch your language, Joey,” Liz’s mother piped up, as if Uncle Joe were her child instead of her kid brother.
Below them all, Liz listened. It never took too long for bickering to rise above conversation in her family.
It wasn’t an early mid-life crisis that was responsible for Liz being covered in dirt before experiencing old age. It was that the energy inside her had grown too weary. Death’s voice had grown exponentially louder and more insistent than the voice of life. The call to live had thinned, diminished.
She had celebrated her fortieth birthday twenty days before her body was autopsied. At the coroner’s, she had acquiesced to their poking and prodding, the rote manipulation of her organs. It wasn’t strange when a stranger in a lab coat and latex gloves pulled her heart out of its bone cage. She’d removed the muscle herself and it had bounced around in the hands of lovers like an object in the childhood game of hot potato. A slice of it had been buried with Rufus, the dog that belonged to her for fifteen years, and who had been responsible for keeping her heart intact during repeated misuse. Rufus had no idea of the weight he’d left the world with.
Hers was a calm exit—a death without bells or whistles or a trail of letters. No stains on the carpet or lacerations on the neck. She wasn’t going to shoot herself in the head, nor jump off a thirty-story building. She wanted a quiet death, but couldn’t visualize waiting until she was Grandma Edna’s age, a wrinkled sack of skin lying in a lonely bed. She might have stayed around for the dog, but since he was gone, she still felt an empty space, her very best companion turned to dust.
Liz learned there is no home in the sky, nothing but dirt over bones, over dreams, and over skin that is meant to disintegrate. Indeed, there was no flowing white-robed father to make her pure. No fiery furnace of flames. These—as she’d predicted—are metaphors for the states of self. Polar opposites created within. She’d chosen hell, but there had been brief, sweet phases of heaven.
Lying in middle ground, in no man’s land, she waited to shed skin, waited for her heart to be released and her bones to become chalk. Under dirt, there was a sense of coolness—a still, inviting obscurity. No need to fake a smile or force laughter. No worms had come to visit yet. She let the persistent darkness drain every dangling perception out of her head.
Brittany Michaelson’s work is published in numerous literary journals including PoemMemoirStory Magazine, If & When Literary, The Whistling Fire, Bartleby Snopes, Toasted Cheese, Flashquake, Glossolalia, Effluvia, Split Lip Magazine, and Backhand Stories.