Touching the Surface
the other side
My body smacked the water. Thoughts scattered like a handful of beads dropped on a bare wood floor. I gasped for air and the current rushed in. My throat burned. Panic, thrashing, spots of light exploding in my head. Surrender. I sank softly down . . . until . . . fingers wrapped around my wrist, yanking me out of the water. As my head broke the surface it all became clear. I had died . . . again.
• • •
I stood on the end of the dock that jutted out toward the middle of the lake, fingering the silver eagle feather charm that hung in the hollow below my neck. The chain tangled in the short hairs below my ponytail. I was stunned and spots bounced in front of my eyes. Memories of Mel and my previous visits
to the Obmil were rushing at me, but when it came to knowing who I was in my last life, all I could pull from the murky haze was the fact that I was a girl. A girl and a failure.
“Samantha? Is that really you?” Mel inhaled deeply and smiled, confirming that she knew exactly who I was.
It was starting to come back to me now. Everything around me looked the same as it had on my last two visits. I, on the other hand, was guaranteed to appear completely different. But that wasn’t unusual or problematic. A soul in the afterlife is recognizable. When you arrive at the Obmil in the last body you inhabited, it really isn’t much different than showing up at a family reunion in a different outfit. Everyone has a scent, a personal pheromone that overrides the optical illusion of the body they’re wearing. I’m told my soul smells a little like freshly cut wood and dark chocolate.
Mel took another deep breath and smiled at me, her face warm and welcoming. Slowly, the knot of information in my head was unraveling. It was Mel’s familiar hand that had pulled me from the water, out of my third life. That made sense. After all, she’d greeted me on my last two arrivals at the Obmil Center for Progression. Crappity, crap, crap—this meant I was here for the third time. I was stuck.
Mel studied me for a moment, then dropped her gaze and focused on recording my arrival in her notebook. She was big
into journaling, but I also suspected she was giving me time to get my bearings. Her pen flew across the page as she wrote down tidbits of information. I could imagine her comments about my future. Lost soul—going nowhere fast.
I thought about it for a moment, realizing that I wasn’t Samantha anymore. That had been my name in my second life, the last time I’d taken a detour through the Obmil. I could feel the skin between my eyes crinkle up as I searched my memory. Who was I now?
On my first visit to the Obmil, my memories of life had been like Swiss cheese: baby Swiss, to be exact. There was more information present than missing. As a Second Timer the gaps were larger. It took a little longer for the memories to return, but with time, all the voids were filled. Honestly, it had almost been easy. No Delving was necessary for First and Second Timers. But I could still hear Mel’s voice warning me last time that remembering my past wasn’t my primary goal, I was supposed to be learning something deeper about myself during the process, to avoid ending up at the Obmil again. Why hadn’t I done it then? Being a Third Timer was humiliating. It was like failing gym because you refused to change for class. But as stupid as I felt for being in the afterlife again, I also knew I would have to find out what had led me here.
Last time, I’d tried doing what Mel suggested, letting one
of my memories go deeper, but it had been like rubbing my heart against a cheese grater. In my second life, my husband had cheated on me. Repeatedly. Remembering that was painful enough, but then I discovered my response to his philandering. I’d thought I could fix it. I thought it was me. I was convinced that if I put my mind to it, I could be whatever it was that he needed. I stayed—in an all-star show of pathetic behavior—and then he dumped me. I’d wanted to kill myself and maybe would have, if it hadn’t been for my best friend. She’d saved me from doing something unforgivable.
What I’d learned from the exercise was that self-examination hurts. It had taken my breath away. I never wanted to do that again. Things were better on the surface.
Standing on the dock now, the memories from my previous life as Samantha raced past me like a train passing through the station. I was so engrossed in the slide show in my head that I sucked in my breath when the recollections suddenly stopped short at the end of my second life. Who was I now?
Mel’s hand steadied my elbow and I knew without a doubt that this time around, things were different. I was empty. There weren’t any significant memories from my third life for my mind to grasp. The whole thing was one big, blank hole. I didn’t know my own story. It was the Obmil’s way of forcing my hand, upping the ante.
“Samantha?” Mel waved her hand in front of my face.
I felt a small ping. Like the wink of a firefly, one small memory shot across my mind. “It’s Elliot. Elliot Turner,” I answered.
“Elliot . . .” She rolled the name around on her tongue, looking me over from head to toe. “You’re younger than you were on your last visit. Not as curvy, either.”
I hugged myself, trying to make my own acquaintance, more small details starting to emerge. I squeezed tighter, attempting to reconcile the changes between my body as Samantha and the new me—Elliot. My hands and arms crushed my chest and sides. My new shape wasn’t a roller-coaster ride, that was for sure. Leaning over, I found my reflection in the smooth water of the lake. Seventeen was a lot younger than forty. I studied my face. It was plain compared to Samantha’s. The new me appeared forgettable. I turned away from the water.
Mel tilted her head to the side. “How was your trip in?”
Sarcasm? I wasn’t sure where that came from. Maybe it was my first clue to my new personality.
Mel paused for a second, maneuvered her mane of frizzy red hair out of the way and gave a chuckle. Everyone who came to the Obmil through a waterway was dry as a bone when they exited. It was one of the perks of being dead. There were
others. The last time I’d been here I’d dropped in from the sky. Cause of death: plane crash due to mechanical failure. Luckily, high-impact landings were about as painful as water entries were wet.
Searching Mel’s sympathetic eyes, the full realization of being a Third Timer crashed over me like a wave. Without thinking, I flew into her arms.
“I don’t remember anything at all this time.” Small hiccups bounced my shoulders up and down. I remembered my first two lives, but my life as Elliot felt as if it was tucked away, someplace long forgotten, and no one had given me a map to find it. I buried my face in the crook of Mel’s neck where she always smelled the strongest of lavender and peppermint.
“Sshh . . .” Mel crooned in my ear. “It’s okay. There’s nothing to feel embarrassed about. I know you thought you’d figured it out last time, but I did try to warn you. It takes more than just touching the surface.” She squeezed my shoulder and smiled. “It’s fine, it wasn’t meant to be. Besides, if you’d gotten it right, I wouldn’t have the chance to see you again.”
I sniffed once or twice, allowing myself to feel safe for a moment, wrapped in her arms and her confidence.
“Enlightenment is highly overrated,” I said, pulling back and shrugging my shoulders. I thought about the cheese grater pain of recollected memories and deeper emotions. I shuddered.
“I’m not in a rush anyway. Staying here isn’t so bad—I’ll just hang around with you for a while.”
“You don’t want to do that,” Mel snapped.
I looked up in surprise. She was usually as even-tempered as they come.
“Listen, Elliot, I’m not really supposed to interfere too much with a soul’s personal journey. I’m simply a guide. But you should know that there are consequences for lingering too long at the Obmil. It’s okay to take all the time that you need if you’re actively working toward your growth plan, but eternal avoidance isn’t an option.”
“What kind of consequences?” I asked, noticing how her mouth was a thin hard line.
“It’s—let’s just say the consequences can be hellish.” She shifted her gaze away from mine.
“So, what you’re saying is that there really is a he—” Mel cut me off with a sharp stare before I could finish. Everyone at the Obmil was always speculating. Do all souls move forward after their time here, or are there other options—less pleasant options?
Mel cleared her throat. “I’m just saying that the best way to handle being a Third Timer is to take Julia’s approach.”
Mel gave herself a light thunk on the head. “Sorry. Julia is Emma.”
Emma. My best friend in life and the afterlife. During my first life she’d also been a he. In fact, we were eighty-year-old twin bachelor brothers named Arty and Jim. We’d both died in our sleep and woke up in “twin” beds at the Obmil.
During my second life as Samantha, Emma was my best friend. We’d met at a divorce support group. She’d found me when I was at the end of my rope. We were on our way back from a retreat when our plane went down. Twice we’d been in the same life and afterlife together.
“When did she get here? Is she my age? What does she look like? Does she remember her last life? Has she started Workshop yet?” I would’ve kept going but Mel had a funny expression on her face, like she was sucking on something sour.
“What? What’s going on?” I dug my nails into the palm of my hand, but nothing happened. I glanced down, realizing I no longer had Samantha’s perfectly manicured fingers. I fought the urge to yank at a hangnail with my teeth.
“Going—Julia Going.” Mel stumbled over her words. “That’s her last name. And, well, she isn’t in my Workshop this time.” The corners of Mel’s mouth turned down ever so slightly.
“What do you mean? Why didn’t you take her?” My voice was louder than I expected and it echoed off the rock walls.
“I tried to take her.” Mel folded her arms and then unfolded them. “She didn’t want to be in my Workshop.”
“Come sit with me.” Mel patted a sun-warmed spot at the end of the dock. The warm cedar smell lured me closer.
I sat down next to her and she put her finger up and touched it to my lips, stopping the next question that was sitting on the edge of my tongue. “Elliot . . .” She removed her finger and began tapping it on the wood. “She didn’t want to be in the same Workshop as you.”
I was sure I hadn’t heard her correctly. My jaw hurt from grinding my teeth together. I was not going to cry again.
“Before you ask, I want you to know that I don’t know the answer. She wouldn’t tell me why she didn’t want to be with you. You’re going to have to ask her yourself.” She waited, but I was suddenly out of questions.
“Can I be selfish for a moment?” Mel asked, reaching for my hand.
I nodded, unable to say anything.
“I missed you. I love everyone who walks into my life at the Obmil. I’m where I am today because I’m good at connecting with lost souls, but you and I have a special bond, Elliot.” My name already slid off her tongue like it was the only one I’d ever had.
I felt just as strongly about her. I wanted to tell Mel how special she was, not selfish at all, but I felt like a leaf floating
haphazardly downstream. I couldn’t stop thinking about Emma. Wait, she was Julia now. Unfurling my clenched fingers, I wiped them against my pants. I could feel Mel’s gaze as I picked at the cuticle of my thumb.
“Is she a lot older than me or something?” I needed to find a reasonable explanation.
Mel winced. “She’s nineteen.”
Mel stood up and dusted off her wildly colorful peasant skirt. “Come on,” she said. The two inches of silver bangles on either wrist jingled. I glanced at her untamed hair, down to her toes painted in a rainbow of colors. Even if Julia was mad at me for some strange reason, how could she not want to be with Mel?
“Let’s go up to the Haven and get you settled in your room.” Mel tilted her head toward the path. “We should get out of here. David’s on his way down to the lake. Looks like he’s meeting someone who’s arriving in a little bit.” She peeked back at me with one eyebrow raised. I didn’t like David and I wasn’t fond of Mel’s eyebrow at that moment either. Not wanting to get cornered on the dock with David, I double-timed it to solid ground with Mel. Now that I was paying attention, I could feel the subtle vibration in the air that gives advance warning of a new arrival. Follow the quivering and you’d have
a pretty good idea where the next dead soul was going to pop up. Even though the vibrations were stronger facing the lake, I turned and watched David make his way toward us.
David also worked at the Obmil, but he was nothing like Mel. He oozed arrogance. I opened my mouth to say something unpleasant about him, but Mel put her finger to her lips. I wasn’t sure if this was because David was striding toward us or because she didn’t want to hear me bad-mouth another “dedicated” soul at the Obmil. Before I could find out, David was standing four inches too close. I could smell his overpowering cologne as his bulk towered over me, blocking out the sun. He leaned over and gave a big mucous-filled sniff.
“Samantha.” His voice boomed. “You’re back so soon.” He plucked at his bushy mustache, then started counting on his fingers.
“It’s Elliot Turner now,” Mel said.
He shrugged and continued like he’d never been interrupted. “Miss Turner, doesn’t that make this your third visit? Time for you to step up. When you’re a Third Timer, you have to truly resolve your issues before you get to move on. Unfortunately, you don’t seem like the type who’s very self-motivated.” I gasped. He cocked his head to the side. “Or maybe, you have a reason for avoiding the truth.”
Everything he said was too loud. His smile was overly
big and bright. Even though he was an overfed, overdressed windbag—more like a caricature of a powerful man than an actual one—I still stepped behind Mel like I was seven instead of seventeen.
I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. He dismissed me with a wave of his hand and sauntered past us, speaking over his shoulder. “Must be going. I’ve got to hurry and register this new arrival because it’s almost time for Workshop. I don’t want to keep my prize pupil waiting.” He stopped walking for just a moment and winked. “I suspect that unlike you, Miss Turner, Julia Going is going places. She’s very motivated and can’t wait to leave the Obmil.”