Short Story: Trip to Paradise

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It was early afternoon when the telegram came. There was no earth shaking reverberation to announce the transition, just a knock at a perfectly normal door.

The message read clearly enough… there was nothing in it that seemed unusual. It was dated that same day and read quite simply,“We have moved to Paradise. Wire when to expect you. Love, Karl and Gracia.”

Paradise? I thought. How quaint. Americans are world-renowned sentimentalists, and there were other towns named Paradise, why not one in Michigan? I told the boy to wait while I composed my response. “Paradise sounds good to me. I’ll catch the 9:20 bus from Port Huron. – Gee”

Paradise—it seemed to be filled with promise, and I found it odd that I had never heard of it before. Just twelve hours away lies Paradise, man-made, summer-blessed, and caressed by cool pine-laden breezes. Probably a fisherwoman’s delight, I thought humorously.

The bus left promptly at 9:20 in the morning, and I didn’t pay much attention to my companion travelers until we were well away from Port Huron. The lakeside drive was lovely and I was remembering places as we passed; practically all of my life had been spent here. Now my children were men and women with families of their own. They had a place in this new world; their lives were in the future—mine was in the past. I suddenly felt old and alone. We rode on down the long white ribbon of concrete—on to Paradise.

Then someone spoke. It was a quiet voice with a peculiar, penetrating quality that interrupted my somber reverie. I looked at the person seated next to me.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” he repeated.

“Yes, it certainly is,” I answered.

My, what a funny little man, I thought. His hair was red, with a queer, fiery glint I had never seen before, and his eyes were blue—as blue as the waters of the Great Lakes. His face was smooth, lightly tanned with crinkles at the mouth and eyes that bespoke a sense of good nature and tolerance. He was dressed in a dark suit and held—of all things—a bowler hat in his hand. As odd as he appeared, I couldn’t help but feel as though we’d met before, and I felt distinctly comfortable in his presence.

He caught me staring at him and smiled. I suddenly felt a delighted sense of well-being. Little ripples of laughter caught at me inwardly. Why, it was wonderful just being alive and on this bus!

“Where are you going?” he asked.

I answered, “Paradise,” and felt a little silly. He must think I’m an idiot, I thought.

“Isn’t that nice?” he answered, smiling again, “So am I.”

I turned to him. “Oh, have you been there before?”

“Oh, yes. My, yes. Many times. In fact, I live there.” He smiled.

“Is it? Is it—” I stammered.

“It certainly is,” he returned.

Then we both laughed. The other passengers looked at us and smiled. Everything seemed to take on an aura of friendliness. There seemed to be lightness and laughter everywhere; the trees, rocking lightly in an offshore breeze, were laughing—even the sunlight catching on the waters of the lake seemed to be laughing.

What a wonderful, wonderful day.

We talked, the little man and I, about everything. Rather I should say I talked and he listened. We stopped several times, and climbed out to eat, or just to stretch. The hours seemed to fly by as quickly as the miles. We reached Mackinac and the Straits at about dusk. The crossing was a pleasant one, and soon St. Ignace passed by and we were headed once again for Paradise.

Darkness settled quietly over the land and I was at peace with the world. I must have dozed, for when we reached our destination someone was shaking me and saying, “We’ve reached Paradise.” I looked around quickly but the little man who rode with me was gone. I realized I was disappointed. I gathered my things, and the driver carried my bags out ahead of me to a little way-station at the side of the road. Then, with a roar and a clash of gears, the bus sped on.

Paradise didn’t look like much. There was no one to meet me, and the only sign I saw of other humans was a quick lunch stand a few yards away. I picked up my bags and started toward it, thinking, Karl or someone will be here soon to meet me, and I need a cup of coffee or something.

I wondered what had happened to the little man—why, I didn’t even know his name!

I waited for what seemed like hours. It was quiet—so quiet I began to be a little frightened. Why did no one come?

Then it began: music so soft and still, so beautiful; I strained to hear it. Louder and louder it came, like a crescendo that might never cease to grow. Then there came light—such glorious light!—and in the midst of it came the little man, whistling the music that seemed to be everywhere. Again, I was struck by the familiarity of this character that I had just met. I couldn’t help but feel that I knew him somehow, but for the life of me couldn’t recall where we might have met.

He slowly sauntered toward me, still whistling—such beautiful whistling, too—and smiled broadly, as if at some private joke that only he understood. As he approached he removed his bowler hat, once again revealing his tousled, red hair, and reached out a hand for me. The light kept growing brighter, until it washed out all but his hand, reaching to me through the glare. I reached out to meet his grasp—

And the world went dark.

***

I stood up and looked around, but there was nothing to see. The light had gone, the music stopped, the world around me was still. The man with the red hair had disappeared as suddenly as the rest. I felt lost and frightened. What was happening to me? Was I going mad?

At last, far off in the distance, the light of a car appeared. I ran, stumbling and crying to the center of the road. The car approached more and more slowly, then stopped. The door opened and I ran toward the silhouetted figure. It was Karl.

Karl, who I had not seen for years, but had always been a dear friend.  Karl, whose message had brought me here, seemingly on a whim. “Karl,” I pleaded, “what’s happening here? Where am I?”

He just smiled and looked around, as if the answer were obvious. “Why, Gee, you’re in Paradise, of course.” He must have seen my confusion, because he continued, “Well, this is the outskirts, actually. We haven’t made it to Paradise proper yet. You’re going to love it though. Here, hop in,” he said, motioning to the vehicle, where the door was propped open. Inside, I could see Gracia sitting, smiling, and beckoning for me to join her.

It took me a moment to calm myself, especially after the shock of the preceding minutes. Everything felt so strange, yet I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of calmness emanating from Karl, and even the car itself. It was as if all were right, and that by simply entering the vehicle all would be well again. I hesitantly got into the car, sitting on the rear seat, which cushioned me, the plush leather of the upholstery conforming to my every curve. I was a little nervous at first, but that feeling of well-being seeped into me, warmed me, and calmed my nerves.

Karl closed the door and returned to the driver’s seat. The car quietly rolled forward, seemingly floating on air; I could feel no bumps or jolts as we moved along the road, continuing my journey to Paradise.

We rode in silence, with nobody speaking. I stared out the window, marveling at the scenery surrounding me. Outside, the light had returned, brighter than ever. I knew deep down that something was very odd—that it could go from dusk to afternoon in a heartbeat—but the thought was shoved aside by a cozy sensation, and I forgot all about it. I could see trees of all sorts lining the road, from evergreens, to broad leafy oaks; the canopy was beautiful—a rainbow of colors on display. Though we were firmly in summer, the leaves had a distinctly autumn feel. As we drove on, the leaves turned more and more to an emerald green, and the sun shone brightly through the canopy, casting marvelous shadows upon the ground. Those shadows extended into the car as well, a flickering darkness, brightness, darkness, across Gracia’s face and the back of Karl’s head. There seemed something unnatural about everything around me, yet I felt serene and tranquil for reasons I couldn’t explain.

I turned to Gracia, the questions apparent in my expression, but she just shook her head slowly, that smile still plastered across her face. She said quietly, “Just wait until we get there; you’re going to be amazed.”

I looked back out the window, and continued watching the scenery pass by. I saw countless squirrels playing in the trees, acorns spread across the ground, and could tell that even the animals considered Paradise a wonderful place to live. I found myself growing impatient to arrive, in order to see it for myself.

Gracia must have sensed my anxiety. “We’re almost there. Just a couple more minutes,” she said.

I continued to stare out the window, mesmerized, watching as we passed still more trees, then a small lake; the water was a deep cobalt, reflecting the pale blue sky. It was extraordinarily beautiful. In the lake I spotted children splashing happily, and adults everywhere. Some were sunbathing, soaking up the bright afternoon sunshine; others reclined beneath colorful canopies. I spied one or two picnic baskets, and many, many smiles. People waved as we drove past, and I found myself waving back shyly.

Moments later, the car slowed, turning onto a long, unusually straight road. In the distance I could see buildings, none of them taller than three or four stories. They appeared to surround a broad square, and as we approached, I saw that indeed, there was a quaint town square here, with an enormous gazebo in the center, on which children were currently occupied, playing whatever games children played these days.

I was immediately overwhelmed by how perfect this place was; surely this was Paradise! The sense of calm and well-being returned, almost like a physical force, and I found it difficult to do anything but smile. My whole body felt pleasantly warm, as if wrapped in a cocoon, protected from the outside world by some unseen force.

Karl parked the car in front of a drug store, and I could see people inside, sitting at the counter, drinking soda-pops through long striped straws. Everyone was smiling and it seemed that all eyes were on me as I stepped out of the car. Ordinarily, I would have found it unsettling, but here in Paradise, it felt oddly natural, as though I were among friends. Indeed I was, as Karl and Gracia came and enveloped me in hugs. It felt wonderful to be with such wonderful companions once again; It had been far too long since we’d seen each other.

They led me down the sidewalk, toward a small motel which, they explained, is where I would be staying, “until you find something permanent,” Karl said with a knowing smile.

“Oh, I don’t think I’ll be staying,” I said. “I’m just here visiting you two.”

Karl’s smile never faltered, but something in his eyes changed, a look of sorrow, perhaps? “Oh, give it time. You’ll come to find that there’s no place like Paradise.” Gracia nodded her agreement, and again, I was overcome by a feeling of contentment. I could already tell that Paradise was like no town I’d ever seen before—but I’d spent most of my life in Port Huron, so decided to keep an open mind. Besides, these were two of my closest friends—if I couldn’t trust them, who could I trust?

They left me in my motel room—Room 96—to rest, and I wasted no time unpacking my few belongings, placing them into the drawers of the dresser. Though I knew my visit was only temporary, unpacking felt somehow permanent, as though subconsciously I was ready to call this home. It was a silly notion, of course—Paradise may be beautiful and idealic, but it wasn’t my home; I was just visiting. Still, deep inside, something questioned if I would ever see Port Huron again.

After unpacking, I found I was deeply tired. The long journey and stress of the strange experience upon arriving had exhausted me. I stretched out on the bed, which was amazingly comfortable, and fell instantly and deeply asleep.

***

Consciousness returned to me slowly, and I took my time coming fully awake. I laid there, eyes closed, enjoying the feel of the soft sheets and warm blanket enveloping me. The thought of getting out of bed was almost intolerable; I felt like I could stay like this forever.

Eventually, I forced my eyes open. When I did, the room was dim, but had a beautiful orange glow, as the outside light illuminated the patterned drapes of the window. A tiny strip of light peeked between the curtains where they met. That strip sliced its way across the floor, up and across the bed, including my legs, all the way to the opposite wall, where the relatively gaudy wallpaper was reflected back, bright purple flowers clashing with the sunny yellow of the walls themselves. I could feel the warmth of the light where it intersected my legs.

I pulled back the covers, and slid my legs over the edge of the bed, letting my bare feet rest on the soft carpet. I stretched, long and luxuriously, releasing the last of the tension my body felt. After the trip, the car ride, and the strange, unsettling experience of the day before, I found it relaxing to take my time getting up. I reached for my robe, but then remembered that I had left it at home, choosing  to pack a light nightgown instead.

I took my time in the shower, letting the water course across my shoulders, and just enjoying the feel of truly hot water cascade over me. After the shower, I dressed in comfortable slacks, and a lightly-colored blouse.

Once fully clothed, I cracked open the door to the motel room, and peered outside. Again, the square was a hive of activity, where children played around the small park and the immense structure of the gazebo. There were many couples meandering arm-in-arm, appearing to be madly in love, gazing into each others’ eyes like they had just met. I opened the door wide, testing the temperature, in case I needed a wrap, but the air felt perfect; not cold enough to draw goosebumps, but not warm enough to be balmy. It seemed like a gorgeous day in Paradise, so I stepped out, closed the door, and made my way out into town.

As I strolled, not really having any destination in mind, I was greeted by what seemed every passer-by. Some simply smiled, but a few men tipped their caps to me, to which I responded graciously. Most greeted me with a cheery, “Good morning, Ma’am!” to which I could only respond with an equally cheery, “Good morning to you!”. It didn’t take long before I could feel my smile pulling at my face, and I feared all this smiling would start to hurt, like when posing for photos—the way holding a fake smile became practically painful after a while. But that didn’t happen; after all, this smile was genuine, and it felt wonderful.

After a few minutes of wandering around, I spotted Karl coming out of what could only be the town hall. The building was taller than all those around it—perhaps six stories, where the rest were no more than four floors high. Styled grandly, with a marble facade, it had big wide steps leading up to a second-floor set of double-doors, which was clearly the entrance. As he exited, he appeared nervous, and rather anxious, as though he’d just received troubling news.

He noticed me across the square and waved, practically running toward me, and I met him about halfway across the grass-covered park. “Good morning, Gee,” he said, panting slightly from his exertions.

I returned his greeting. “Why did you rush over here?” I asked him, “Is something wrong?”.

He responded without hesitation, “Oh no, nothing at all!” He paused, as if searching for the right words. At last he seemed to give up, and just blurted, “I’m just excited that you’re here. It’s been such a long time since we’ve seen you that Gracia and I were ecstatic to learn you were coming.”

I accepted the compliment, and asked what he and Gracia’s plans were for the day.

“That’s up to you, really. We’re both free, but we thought you might enjoy a picnic and some swimming.”

I recalled the lake we’d passed the previous day, and thought it was a marvelous idea, but, “I’m afraid I didn’t bring a swimming suit with me,” I said, practically pouting.

Karl snapped his fingers, and smiled. “No problem. Gracia has an extra suit in the car you can borrow. I think you two are about the same size, right?”

Karl, polite as ever, was careful not to make light of my weight, which I was none too pleased with, ever since the children had been born. All these years later, I had never truly lost the weight that being a mother had put on. His courteousness was not lost on me, and I let it show as I responded, “I believe you’re right.”

We both laughed, and walked slowly back toward my room. We stopped at Karl’s vehicle, parked once again before the drug store, and retrieved the extra swimsuit that Karl had mentioned. He walked me back to my motel room, and waited patiently, seated on the bed, while I changed in the bathroom.

“Ready to go?” he asked when I returned to the room.

I looked around, feeling as though I were forgetting something, but couldn’t see anything out of place. “Ready.”

We spent the rest of the morning, and all of the afternoon at the lake, where I alternated between swimming and floating on the cool water, enjoying the sunshine, and the feel of its warmth on my skin. By the time I left the lake, and returned to the little umbrella Karl had setup, my fingers were all wrinkled from the water, and I felt certain that I must have a sunburn, but Gracia assured me I wasn’t red anywhere at all.

We picnicked on sandwiches and iced-tea, and Karl had brought a few apples and oranges for something sweet to indulge in. I sat for a long time, just watching the people mill about, and the children frolicking in the water. It seemed so peaceful here, so enjoyable. It was hard to contemplate what winter would be like in Paradise—it almost seemed like it could never change from this—the way it was right now. I found myself wistfully wishing I didn’t have to leave Paradise, that I could live here, like Karl and Gracia did.

I had to stop myself from the indulging those thoughts, however. You have children back home, I told myself. Even if they are all grown, they still need their mother around. Two days before, I never would have contemplated the idea of moving away from Port Huron—away from my family—but today… Well, change is always something to consider.

We stayed at the lake until dusk, then loaded the umbrella, picnic basket, and towels into the back of Karl’s car, before making the short journey back to town. Karl said he would have invited me to dinner, but they were having work done on the house, and that it wasn’t presentable at the moment.

“Oh,” I said, more than a little disappointed that I wouldn’t get a chance to see their home, at least not yet. Karl offered to buy me dinner, or to pick something up for me, but I declined; I was still full from the late lunch we’d eaten.

We parked in front of the drug store once more, and Gracia walked me to my room. She hugged me, and told me again how happy they were that I was here. We parted after I yawned, unable to hide my fatigue any longer, and Gracia told me to get a good night’s rest—that they had a surprise for me tomorrow. Too tired to dwell on the mystery of what more they could possibly surprise me with, I stripped out of my clothes, hastily completed my nightly ablutions, and slipped into bed.

Just before drifting off into a peaceful slumber, I thought, Such a perfect little town. How is it even possible…?

***

When I woke, it was dark outside. For a moment, I was afraid I would find things as before, where the light had gone out of the world—that I would be alone in a void. I slowly became aware of the room around me, dim, but visible. I rose, drew back the curtain slightly, and saw that the world was still present. Outside, the gazebo was still visible across the street, though the children were gone, most assuredly at home tucked into bed, slumbering peacefully.

There didn’t seem to be many people out at this hour. I saw a few couples strolling along, arm in arm, but nobody else. I opened the door to my room, and made my way out to the square, marveling in the warm still air of the evening. Paradise seemed to have perfect weather! Everything seemed exquisite about this town, from the color of the brick buildings, to the perfectly coifed blades of grass about the square. There wasn’t a piece of trash anywhere on the ground, or anything out of place. The American flags waved proudly, snapping in the breeze, and their color was bright, new, not at all faded. If anything, it all seemed too perfect.

I still felt the warmth and comfort that Paradise seemed to emanate from all over, though it wasn’t affecting me as before; perhaps it was a symptom of my nap. I could feel this place pushing at me, almost like being covered by a blanket. I tried ignoring it, but it weighed on me even more, like someone trying to force me to be comfortable. I heard a faint murmur in my ears, like someone whispering that everything was going to be alright, but there was nobody nearby; the sounds seemed to come from nowhere. And that music! Again, I heard the music from when the bus had dropped me off. Though it was very soft, it joined with the murmuring voices to be a distinctly eerie experience.

My heart suddenly hammered in my chest, and a spasm of pain coursed through me, causing my legs to give out, and I collapsed to the ground. Somehow this seemed familiar, as if snatches of memory were trying to surface. Something extraordinarily painful had happened, but try as I might, I couldn’t recall what. After a few moments—but what felt like an eternity—the pain faded, and my strength returned. I stood up, and rushed back into my room, slamming the door closed behind me. The sensation of forced calmness lessened, but only slightly. Something is wrong here, I thought to myself, but couldn’t understand exactly what it was.

I grabbed another blanket from the closet, spread it out on the bed, and laid down once more. Again, sleep overtook me almost immediately, and I dropped back into a somewhat troubled sleep.

***

The dream I had that night was strange. I was back with my parents, in the house I grew up in. Karl and Gracia were there, sitting at the kitchen table, and the odd red-headed man from the bus was present, too. It seemed wrong that he should be here—in my childhood home—but somehow I was comforted by his presence. My father stood over me, smiling, and saying how he was glad I was coming home at long last; my mother told me how much she had missed me.

Then other friends and family members started arriving; but they had all been dead for years, some of them almost as long as I had been alive, and I barely remembered them. All my pets were here too, all of them that had passed away, all the way back to childhood. I pet them all, ruffling the fur on their necks, and scratching just above their tails. Everyone was telling me how glad they were to see me, how it was so good to have me back.

But this was wrong. I kept telling them that they were all dead, asking how could they be here? Everyone simply laughed, as if I had made a particularly funny joke. I grew increasingly frantic, until I found myself grabbing Karl, shaking him, trying to get someone—anyone—to listen to me. He took my hands and held me at arms-length. He said, “You don’t understand yet, dear Mary, but you will.”

I realized he had used my name, rather than my nickname, Gee. Karl never called me Mary, which made the situation all the more confusing. I wanted to scream, to make them understand that this was all terribly wrong. “You’re all dead,” I kept repeating. Then I was being surrounded, and the distance around me was closing, until I was enveloped in a crush of bodies, grasping at me.

I woke once again with a start, and panicked for a moment as I felt something holding me close, before realizing it was the blanket wrapped around me. With all my tossing and turning, I had gotten wound up in it.

It was light outside again, the bright cheeriness indicated it was morning. Morning in Paradise; this should be interesting, I told myself. I noticed that the strange feeling of happiness from the day before was gone, replaced instead with an unsettling premonition that something was utterly out-of-place—I just couldn’t put my finger on what.

I strode to the window, and again looked out the curtains. I saw the children once more occupying the gazebo. While I watched, however, a man in a three-piece suit was shooing them away, and I could see several members of a band carrying their instruments to the central square. I recognized a tuba, a trombone, and a trumpet, but couldn’t make out the instrument that the fourth man carried. Each member was dressed in a bright candy-cane striped suit, and wore a funny little hat; they had the appearance of a barber-shop quartet.

I don’t know how, but I immediately knew that the man in the suit was the Mayor of Paradise. He had a huge white beard, and sort of resembled Santa Claus, but was much, much thinner—nearly emaciated, in fact. From my motel room, I couldn’t see much more of him, and yet he had a calming presence, and those around him deferred to him reverently.

Another duo of young men were setting up a ladder, a banner of some sort on the ground at their feet. I couldn’t read it from where I stood, peeking out the window. I watched with curiosity for a few more minutes, then decided to take a shower and get dressed for the day. I went into the tiny bathroom, removed my slip and undergarments, and turned on the water. Afterward, I wrapped a towel around myself, went to the dresser, and removed clean clothes. It seemed like nothing I brought was suitable for this idealic town, and I went through three outfits before finally settling on a light-yellow, flower-patterned dress.

The late morning sunlight was brilliant as I stepped outside, and I had to shade my eyes to see. The young gentlemen were struggling to hang the banner I’d seen before, stringing it across the entry to the gazebo. I caught snatches of the printing on it, “Welc”, which I presumed said “Welcome,” though I had no idea who they would be welcoming—most likely some town guest, or out-of-state functionary. Maybe a congressman, or senator was coming by; this seemed like a natural place to vacation.

I strolled along toward the drug store, where Karl had parked yesterday—in fact, his car was still positioned in the same spot, which I thought rather odd. I assumed that he lived outside of town, in a quaint little house, with a white picket fence. That had always been his and Gracia’s dream—to have that white picket fence, hemming a perfectly groomed yard. Everything else about this place was perfect, so I saw no reason they wouldn’t have realized their dream. Why else move to Paradise, after all?

I was about to enter the drug store, when Karl appeared from nowhere. “Good morning, Gee!” he exclaimed. He seemed happier than I ever recalled him being.

“Good morning to you, too, Karl.”

“It’s a splendid morning, is it not?” he asked.

“It is indeed,” I responded cheerily. It seemed the effects of the Paradise were returning once again, and I found myself happy to be here. Perhaps it was the sunshine, or the fresh clean air of this place that affected me so. Whatever it was, it was intoxicating, and impossible to resist. “Where is Gracia this morning?” I asked.

“Oh, she’s at the school, teaching the students.”

“A teacher? I never would have expected that of Gracia,” I said, surprised. “I guess Paradise doesn’t live up to its name for the children, if they still have to go to school,” I joked.

“Oh, you’d be amazed.” Karl grinned slyly. “Paradise has a way of affecting people—but in a good way,” he said. “Would you care to join me for breakfast?”

“I’d be delighted.” I was famished, and relished the idea of a good meal.

We walked arm-in-arm to a nearby diner, just a couple doors down from the drug store, and sat in a booth by the enormous plate-glass windows. The interior was absolutely spotless; not a speck of dirt or grease to be found anywhere. I was immediately suspicious of eating there. “How can any restaurant have good food and be this clean?” I asked Karl. I was more accustomed to eating in greasy spoons—filthy restaurants, but fantastic food.

“Just wait, the food here is the best I’ve ever eaten,” he boasted. I remained dubious.

The waitress came and took our order, with Karl choosing an omelette, and coffee, toast and jam for myself. The coffee came out first, and as I sipped it cautiously, I was astounded by the flavor—I had never had a better cup in my life, I was sure of it. When the toast came, it was equally amazing; not burned, but just perfect, and the raspberry jam was so flavorful it nearly drew tears.

Karl noticed my enjoyment, and caught my eye, beaming, and said, “Didn’t I tell you?” I could only nod in agreement.

After eating, we returned to the square, where so much of the town seemed to congregate. There was a large crowd outside now, gathering near the gazebo, and Karl led me across the narrow street to the grass. As we approached, I was finally able to make out the sign, which read, “Welcome to Paradise, Mary!” I stopped dead in my tracks.

“How do they know my name?” I asked Karl.

“We told them, Gee,” he responded, still using my nickname.

“But why would they welcome me?” I was confused, and a little afraid at the prospect that anyone would be focused on me. After all, I had only come to visit, not live here. The sense that something utterly aberrant was occurring continued to grow inside me, my senses telling me to be wary. Yet at the same time, I could feel that sensation of tranquility fluttering about me, like a butterfly, trying to land upon me and make me feel at ease. I buried the impulse and remained alert.

“We welcome everyone when they come to Paradise,” he said, as if explaining to a child. “You should have seen when Gracia and I got here,” he said. “It was an incredible celebration!”

I pulled away from Karl, removing my arm from his. “I don’t want the attention, Karl, I just wanted to come visit you and Gracia.” I wasn’t smiling anymore.

“Now, Gee, calm down. People are just trying to be friendly. If you don’t want the party, that’s no problem.” Without a word or gesture to anybody, the gathered people started disbanding, walking away from the little park in the center of the square, and entering the buildings, or getting into their cars and driving away. The two men I’d seen earlier began taking down the banner they had just finished hanging.

I looked around, confused, becoming more uncomfortable with each passing moment, more and more convinced that something here was wrong. Everything was much too perfect; not a hair out of place on Karl’s head, not a loose leaf blowing around the street, not a bubble-gum wrapper, nor cigarette butt on the ground—all the things I would expect to see in an American town—even one that was extremely well-kept—would have the occasional glimpse of imperfection. But not here, not in Paradise. Nothing was out of place. Now that I thought about it, every time an obstacle seemed to introduce itself, there seemed to be a solution immediately at hand, making everything easy.

“What is this place?” I asked.

“This is Paradise, Gee,” he said. Something in his voice belied his words, however.

“No, I mean what is this place?” I was growing more uneasy as I looked around. The square had cleared, except for the Mayor, looking out of place in his three-piece-suit. He still stood in the center of the gazebo, looking straight at me, not smiling, but looking concerned. It was the first time since arriving in Paradise I’d seen someone without a smile on their face. How is it possible that nobody here is ever unhappy? I asked myself.

Karl tried to corral me toward the wooden structure where the Mayor stood, but I shrugged him off, moving away from him. Now he looked confused, hurt, as if he weren’t aware of why I would reject him. On a hunch, I hurried toward the opposite end of the town from where we’d entered the other day. If we came into Paradise that way, then surely going the other direction would yield different results…

Karl called after me, imploring me to return, but I kept moving, resisting the impulse to run.

Just past the outlying buildings, I encountered dense trees, which quickly became an enormous forest. It seemed strange—the trees were far taller than the buildings of Paradise, and yet their tops couldn’t be seen from within the town. What is going on here? I thought, growing increasingly agitated.

I wandered for hours in that forest, and may have been going round in circles for all I knew. I couldn’t see the sun from the forest floor, so trying to judge the direction—or even the time—was impossible. Something inside told me that even if I could see the sun, I couldn’t rely on it to be accurate. Paradise was obviously not what it appeared on the surface; that much was clear to me now. The entire experience, from the moment I’d heard the knock on my door, now felt ominous, and foreboding.

At last I stumbled out from beneath the trees into a large clearing, where hundreds—no, thousands—of dogs ran playing, seemingly happier than they had any right to be. Again I was struck by how ideal it all was. There were no feces on the ground, and none of the dogs were on a leash, yet they all behaved themselves, and were playing gleefully. No humans guarded them, or gave them direction, or shooed them away from one another. There were all these dogs getting along perfectly, without people to monitor them. As I stood, transfixed, I noticed that one of the dogs looked very familiar. It reminded me of a pup I’d had as a girl. I called her name, knowing there was no chance she would respond, but she stopped, looked at me, and tilted her head for a moment, contemplating this new situation. In a clear sign of recognition, she bounded over happily, barking at me. I sunk to my knees, and she licked my face, just like she had when she was alive…

Alive! This dog had died decades ago, when I was still a child. I remembered putting her in the ground, shoveling dirt on top of her. How could she possibly be alive, unless—

Unless I was dead, too. No, that’s not possible, I told myself. I had been at home, talking on the phone with my children just two days ago—hadn’t I? I realized I couldn’t recall. I remembered the knock on the door…but nothing before that. My heart hammered loudly in my chest. Surely that wouldn’t be possible if I were dead, right? I asked myself. My heart wouldn’t be beating at all if I were dead. The growing sense of panic became more tangible. My hands shook, and I felt faint. I staggered back toward the trees, my dog whining in confusion as I left her standing there. My breath was coming raggedly, and my chest hurt. I felt a sharp pain down my arm, and dropped to my knees. The ground came up to meet me as everything went black.

***

When I came to, I was lying in a bed, staring up at a beige ceiling. The room was silent save for my breathing. I took a moment to take inventory of my body, noticing that there was no pain in my arms or chest; I could breath deeply without trouble. Nothing felt damaged or in pain; in fact I felt no pain at all—no arthritis pain, no aching joints, no stiff muscles—not so much as a headache. I tried sitting up, expecting my body to cry out in torment, but felt nothing. I didn’t feel hungry or thirsty, warm or cold. I was back in my motel room. I ran my hand across the sheets on the bed, feeling the delicate texture, and I could detect a faint scent of the fresh grass that was outdoors, so my senses were intact, but anything unpleasant seemed to be…disconnected somehow.

Someone cleared their throat, startling me. My head whipped around, and it was then that I noticed the man sitting in the rocking chair in the corner. He faced the bed, slowly rocking back and forth. He was watching me with astonishingly bright blue eyes, whose depths went on forever. Without ever having met the man, I could tell his wisdom was endless. He was, of course, the Mayor, still wearing his three-piece-suit, which I could now see was pristinely pressed, not a wrinkle or fold out of place. I had come to expect nothing less of Paradise; its perfection was untouched everywhere I looked. But then I saw his face. It was wrinkled beyond measure, most of his features nearly lost in those folds. His skin was neither tan, nor pale, and his ears were entirely ordinary. Apart from the wrinkles and his stunning eyes, his only other prominent feature was a long white beard, which was very full, and thick. Santa would have been jealous of this beard.

Again, I was reminded of age, and wondered how old this man was. In fact, I couldn’t recall having seen anybody elderly here in Paradise. Even Karl and Gracia had seemed as if they were in their prime, but they had died as senior citizens. It seemed like everyone in Paradise was frozen in time, returned to a former glory of years past. Strange that I hadn’t noticed it before.

I glanced down at my hands, realizing for the first time that they were free of wrinkles, unmarred by the crippling arthritis that had transformed them into claws, more than usable hands.

The changes weren’t limited to my hands, however. I rushed to the mirror, taking stock of myself, and drew in a sharp breath when I saw my reflection. All the wrinkles were gone, the age spots disappeared. My hair was once a lustrous auburn, but had long since turned grey, then silver; now the color had returned. Parts of my body that had sagged over the years were again firm, my skin no longer hung loose under my arms, or around my face. And my face! Staring back at me incredulously was the beautiful young woman I had been—the one who only existed in old photos, from before the children had been born.

Absolutely speechless, I staggered back to the bed, collapsing as my knees grew weak.

“I hope you’re feeling better,” the Mayor said. His voice was a somber baritone, not too deep, but not highly-pitched; immediately understandable, brooking no confusion. I doubted he ever needed to repeat himself.

“I—I am, thank you,” I replied quietly. The silence continued for a long time. He continued rocking in the chair, and I just sat there, breathing in and out quietly, not sure what to say. Finally, I worked up the nerve to ask, “Where am I?”

He stopped rocking, and fixed me with his intense gaze. “You already know the answer to that question.”

Though it was a confirmation of what I had already surmised, the answer terrified me. I had hoped he would reveal a different truth, as impossible as I now realized that was.

“Is this Heaven?” I asked. “Am I dead?”

He began rocking again, and craned his neck to look out the window into the town square. He remained silent, continuing to stare through the panes of glass. He was quiet for so long, I was beginning to wonder if we was going to answer when, “Those are two very different questions,” he said. He turned his gaze from the window and fixed it once more upon me. “Yes, you are dead to those who still live on Earth. However, here, you are very much alive, and surrounded by those who did—and still do—love you.”

“And this is Heaven?” I repeated?

“This place is called many things; Heaven, Utopia, Nirvana, Zion, Elysium, and many more. We prefer to call it Paradise. Though this is just a taste,” he added, “to help you in your path to Paradise. You’ve yet to arrive.”

It took me a moment to take in what he was saying—the idea that I was dead, that I would never see my family again—grieved me more than I could have imagined. I would miss so much. “I don’t remember dying,” I said, quizzically.

“Most seldom do,” he said. “It’s a mercy I grant them. Death is the most painful experience one can go through—worse even than the pain of birth.”

“Birth?” I asked, intrigued. Having delivered several children myself, I understood the pain involved, though the thought that anything in life could be more painful than giving birth to a child seemed silly. But of course, this wasn’t life—this was death—and I supposed the ripping out of a soul would be far less pleasant than inserting one into a child; so in a way, it made sense.

“Birth is more traumatizing for the child than the mother,” he said softly. “Most children don’t remember it, if they’re lucky. Death is exponentially worse, so I avert people from recalling it.”

I realized just what he was saying, and found it difficult to comprehend. This unassuming man couldn’t be all-powerful. “Are you God?”

“Again, many names, but none of them important. All that matters is your belief and faith in me.”

He rose from His chair, and stretched out His hand, beckoning for me to accompany Him. Hesitantly, I took the proffered hand, feeling the strength and care in that grip. I immediately knew I could trust Him, and there was no question in my mind that He was the Creator, and that I had come home.

We left the motel room and walked into the square, where once again a crowd was gathering. This time though, I realized that the people weren’t strangers, but rather people I had lost over the years, friends and loved ones—the same people from my dream. Their presence this time, however, was comforting and joyful. I was ecstatic to see them all, so many people I had loved and lost. My mother and father were here, beaming with joy at our reunion. Grandparents, uncles and aunts, even cousins that had long since passed away were again present, shaking my hand, and wrapping me in hugs, showering me with kisses. It was the most wonderful feeling in the world, to be surrounded by so much love and happiness. I saw Karl and Gracia once more, and hugged them, thanking them for helping me to get here.

Then I heard a familiar voice behind me call out. “Gee,” it said.

I turned, and my breath caught in my throat. It was the man from the bus, with the red hair and the bowler hat. But of course, this wasn’t just any man, this was my wonderful husband, gone for so many years, returned to me at last. We embraced, and I felt secure in his arms, as I hadn’t in so long. Tears streamed down my face, blurring my vision, and I couldn’t help but cry in happiness. He cooed softly to me, muttering private assurances in my ear.

I broke the embrace, and turned to look again at the man who’d made me understand where I was. He smiled gently, and asked if I was ready to continue.

“Continue?” I asked. The thought of leaving this place was overwhelming.  It felt like I had just arrived. I didn’t know what to expect, and desired strongly to remain where I was, continuing this wonderful reunion with loved ones.

“You must continue your journey. This is a wonderful place, but it’s merely a waypoint to your destination.” He gestured toward the gazebo, which seemed to be lit from within.

“But what of everyone else? They’re not staying here, are they?” I was afraid that I would move on without them, and this moment of happiness would disappear forever.

“They’re not really here,” the Man said. “They’re only representations, helping you transition. They’re waiting for you on the other side.” Indeed, as He spoke the words, they began fading out, all except my dear husband, who gave me an encouraging smile and nod.

Reluctantly, I released my love’s hand, and followed—God?—toward the gazebo. As we approached, the color began fading from the world, and a bright light shone out of the wooden entrance, beckoning. This must have been the ‘light’ that people spoke of when describing death. It was unimaginably beautiful, and I was inexorably drawn toward it. I stopped, and faced Him. “What do I do now?”

“You need only move toward the light.”

“And what of him?” I asked, looking back at my husband, who stood back, smiling, his eyes sparkling with joy.

“He is already waiting for you.”

Indeed, as I watched, his form started fading, becoming transparent, and I could see the grass and the buildings across the way, showing through him. He had taken on a ghostly aura, and it renewed the apprehension I felt.

I was still scared, more so than any other time in my life. The thought of abandoning everything I’d ever known—to enter that light completely unsure what I would find on the other side—was terrifying. Still, I found comforting the knowledge that everyone I loved would be waiting for me, and that my children, my grandchildren, and their grandchildren would one day join me, and I could welcome them back into my loving arms once again.

I stepped toward the light, slowly at first, then with more confidence. It grew brighter and brighter, until the whole world was pure white light, surrounding me, enveloping me, and then…

I truly saw Paradise for the first time.

© 2011 Bradley K. Brown. All rights reserved.
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