A Time to Dance
To every thing there is a season and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born and a time to die.
(Ecclesiastes 3:1-2, 11)
Dean blinked his eyes. He got up and tossed his pillow into the half-full clothes basket beside his bed where Cracker the cat had been cat-napping.
Lorna had loved animals. Cracker had been hers.
“Someday, this house will be filled with children,” Lorna had said when she was encircled by mewing cats at the touch of the electric can opener. “There is a crown married couples wear and someday ours will be decorated with precious jewels,” she had said, meaning children, their love the crown. Dean could not deny her this thing and had agreed, after a year-and-a-half together, they would start a family. When Lorna found out she was pregnant two years into their marriage, she was ecstatic. “This child will be flesh of our flesh, our love personified.”
He had almost thought as he’d pressed her to him that he could feel through her thin blouse the first stirrings of life.
How ordinary the day had begun. He’d kissed her shining face before going to work at the firm. Lorna had never changed before noon, opting to wear a silk robe over a negligee and fuzzy house slippers with high heels. She’d been a child when he’d married her, twenty and three days old. She hadn’t even been old enough to sample the champagne at their wedding, nor had she ever lived away from her parents. She’d been homesick the first few months, and Dean wondered if he’d been too hasty in marrying her.
Dean knew Lorna’s homesickness, in part, attributed to the fact that he did not share her faith. “I want us to go to church together, to take our children to Sunday school,” she had said. “I want that for us, for them.”
“Maybe someday,” he’d said, but someday had never come.
When he’d asked her why she hadn’t married a believer, like herself, she had told him something that should have made him angry, but instead, he attributed it to the hope she held. “I did marry a believer. No one is born not believing. Everyone knows there is a God. Deep in their heart, they know. They know because no one wants to believe they don’t matter, that they’re nothing, for being one of God’s creations elevates us in a way we cannot elevate ourselves.”
Lorna’s loneliness abated with the help of friends from church and the neighborhood, whom she invited to a Bible Study every Tuesday night while Dean was home and could hear in the next room. He admitted he’d turned the television down a little sometimes to listen to what they were saying. Because Lorna attended different churches, she had gained the favor of everyone in the neighborhood and within a few weeks, half of them were coming over not only for class, but for friendship, as well. Dean had known these people since he’d moved in three years ago, but it hadn’t been till he’d married Lorna that he’d gotten to know them on a personal level.
Eaten up with memories, he was. It’d been three years since the accident that had taken the life of his wife and unborn daughter. She had fallen down the stairs one afternoon while he wasn’t home and hit her head. He had found her slipping in and out of consciousness and when the paramedics had come, they had concentrated on saving the baby. The mother is worth ten of the child, he had cursed inside, especially still in utero; whether in the womb or out, Lorna had considered the person growing within her a baby from conception. A radical idea, Dean had thought, for how could you compare a clump of cells with a living child who was able to breathe on its own?
He was thirty and alone, with Lorna’s pets, but even they could not give him comfort. For a long time after her death, their dog Marnie, would stand at the front door, her snout wedged in the crack and sniffing, awaiting her return. As time went on, Marnie realized Lorna was gone forever and it was Dean who took her out for walks, Dean who threw the Frisbee, and Dean who fed and watered and bathed her. Had their daughter survived, things would have been different. There was no one who needed him for anything besides the necessities. The animals could be given away to a home with children who would love them and they would be fine. As long as they got love, it mattered not from whom it came. Pets didn’t need soul-mates, but his child, he knew, would know he was her father and it would be his love she would want.
Blackness covered him in the dark confines of his room like a wet blanket, smothering him. He thought things had changed when he met Lorna, thought he had changed, but he’d been wrong.
His first vision of suicide had come when he was fifteen, when he’d felt as if being a teenager was a curse. “Don’t be troubled, Dean,” his father had told him, “for this is the weakness God gave you to overcome, so that would might become strong.”
He’d thought then that God had a nasty disposition, and wanted nothing to do with Him.
By getting involved in sports, he released his aggression out in the field and got through the next few years with suicide only a passing thought. The thought of not having a plan scared him, the Unknown scared him, so he embarked for college that fall. He feared having time enough to think, so he chose a large university, where his social life took off. Though popular with the girls in high school for his dark, brooding nature, at college, he was just another face in the crowd. College turned out to be mentally draining and he felt he was losing control of his life again; so he made a date to do it, to commit the unpardonable act the day after Christmas the year he was nineteen. “Merry Christmas to me,” he had said as he’d held his father’s revolver in his study Christmas Eve.
He hadn’t been able to go through with it. He couldn’t use his father’s gun, for his father would only blame himself. He could not live, or die, with that on his conscience, so he’d made the decision to do it after the holidays.
Christmas day had come, and, as if the Being that was running this whole crazy world had decided to thwart his plans, his father fell ill, and his mother had confided how much she needed him. He’d hated being an only child. He had been angry at his father for getting sick, but he couldn’t break his mother’s heart, so he waited. He’d went back to college, immersing himself in it. His suicidal visions were put on a shelf in his mind– visions he didn’t take out again until after he’d graduated law school, for no other reason than the material comforts it would give him. He’d felt better knowing there was a light at the end of the tunnel. His plan became something he would dust off and put back on the back shelf in his mind again. Knowing he could kill himself anytime instilled in him the energy to keep on living.
He’d graduated with his Master’s at the age of twenty-four, soaring ahead of all his peers, and those around him thought, “My, he is working towards something”, and he was…to his death. He was biding time and making the best of it.
Following graduation, the same fears about life, about readjusting, came back and he took the idea down again, though it was not so dusty this time. His plan had been kept in good condition.
Yet, he’d pressed on, meeting Lorna a few years later, who’d come by asking if she could rake his lawn because she was saving up to buy a computer for school. He’d asked her why she didn’t get an easier job somewhere in an air-conditioned building, telling her about the flier he’d seen hiring cashiers at the supermarket down the road; she had told him she would rather be working outside because that was where she felt closest to God. He had thought her a naive little girl and told her so, but there was something about her he was drawn to; when he’d asked her if she would like to go out for ice-cream, she’d accepted. He had thought perhaps the little girl would help ease his loneliness. When she’d come back wearing a sleeveless, white dress and white sandals, her face all cleaned up and her white-gold hair tumbling down her shoulders, he’d thought how juvenile it had sounded asking her out for ice cream, seeing she was older. He had tried to explain, but she’d held up her hand and said, “When I’m thirty, I’ll appreciate it.” How ironic it was that she had never reached thirty.
He had told himself he would wait until she grew up before he kissed her, but then he remembered his plan, and when he took her out for her twentieth birthday, she asked him why he hadn’t expressed affection for her; he had then told her of his decade old plan and asked her, “Why won’t Fate or Circumstance or whatever controls this thing we call the Universe let me let go? Some damn thing keeps stopping me, some crisis.”
She had taken his hand then and said, “You haven’t killed yourself because you have too much to live for. You could’ve done it long ago, but you didn’t and you cannot do that to me now. I love you, Dean, and I want you to marry me.”
“You cannot do this to me, Lorna.”
“As long as I am here, you will not be able to do this to yourself. You are bound to me for as long as I am here.”
He’d known then he was stuck. Perhaps he’d found his answer. He’d never thought he could ever have the will to live–only the will to go on but for a little while longer; Lorna had made him want to live again, not because life was good, but because of what he felt when he was with her.
He smiled, remembering their wedding day and how excited he’d been to make love to a woman he loved for the first time, though she had been so worn out from the events of the day she had fallen asleep on their bed with her wedding dress still on. How eager he’d been when he had come out of the bathroom, ready to take her. He’d kissed the portion of her back below her neck which wasn’t covered by material and discarded any such ideas of ever ending his life again.
Now, he wondered.
Had Lorna been his only reason for living? People were put on Earth to love and be loved; there was no one for him now, his mother having passed away while he was paving his way in the world.
He decided to go for a run to clear his head. It was late November and bitter cold. The biting, unforgiving wind seemed to rip one’s flesh off and cut it to the bone. Some of his neighbors had put up their holiday decorations, or holyday decorations, as his Bible-bashing neighbor, Bridie Gorman, called them. The Rietzes two houses down were setting up their Precious Moments nativity scene, their young daughters, Laurel, Anne and Esther, helping them. Anne, the middle child, reminded him so much of Lorna. She was exuberant, vivacious–everything Lorna had been. The Rietzes waved to him. “Would you care to join us?” Mr. Rietz asked. Before Lorna had come here, Mr. Rietz wouldn’t have done more than smile at him as he strolled down the street, but through Lorna, it seemed, Dean’s neighbors were more favorable towards him, or perhaps not quite so mystified by him.
“Gotta burn off some stress,” Dean called back. “Another time perhaps.”
“Happy burning to you.” No Happy Christmas, for everyone knew that Dean was an agnostic.
“Good evening, Mr. Larkin,” Tahnee Sanns said as she walked her dog, Lucie. Tahnee had had a crush on Dean since he had moved here. He knew she still harbored feelings for him and though Tahnee was gorgeous, he liked her too much to use her in that way.
Dean knew he could never marry again, for none would be comparable to Lorna.
“What God joins together, let no man tear asunder,” had been the words of the preacher who had married them. What a wonderful promise, he had thought, but then too soon he realized it had been God Himself who had torn them asunder. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Lorna was gone and he would never see her again. He would never again make love to her and making love to anyone else, he believed, would further diminish the memories of her touch. There had been two women before her, one he’d lived with for a year, the other for three years.
Myra, the first, had hopes he would marry her, and though he liked her, he hadn’t been in love with her. Then there had been Jill, who had ended their relationship with an abortion, which she hadn’t told him about until after the fact, when she’d demanded compensation for the procedure. “It’s not like they’re considered nine months old when they’re born,” she had said in the flippant sort of way she’d said most things, because it seemed she was forever defending herself…or justifying herself. She had proceeded to tell him, with him barely able to contain his wrath, that she did not want children, spending her life with spit-up on her clothes and clipping coupons out of the Sunday newspaper. He had told her perhaps the child might have given him something to live for, but Jill believed she should be the center of her man’s world; she had told him before she left, suitcase in hand, that he should not procrastinate in his decision.
Losing her had been such a relief and he’d vowed to never again let a woman into his home, that is, until he’d met Lorna. When he’d realized he loved her enough to make that commitment to marriage, happiness had abounded in his heart.
As his boots crunched on the snowy sidewalk, for it was now December, he saw a group of young people, carolers from the local Presbyterian church, singing, “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”
Winter was over and it was spring again. Where had the time gone?
“Mornin’, Mr. Lawkin,” Kathy Anderson said, waving to Dean, as she waved to everyone who passed by.
“Good afternoon, Kathy.” Dean did not know how to talk to children, as he had never had any experience in dealing with them. He felt silly trying to talk down to their level, so he walked on as the top scoop of Kathy’s ice-cream fell to the sidewalk, Molly, her German Shepherd, lapping it up.
He was back in his room now, lost time nothing new to him. Sometimes he would find himself in his car and wonder how he’d gotten there; sometimes he would be in the middle of defending a person on trial and find himself unawares as to what he was defending him of. He was in bed now, having gone to bed early, as there was no reason to stay awake; he would sleep in the next morning, as there was no reason to rise. He had made enough money to take a month long vacation. There was a war going on and he did not care, while the nation was glued to their televisions. “Tell me, Invisible God, what is the difference between suicide and what they’re doing, knowing they shall surely die?” he asked the ceiling.
Something inside him answered, They are dying for a reason–for a cause greater than their own suffering.
“I am dying for Lorna,” he said aloud. “She is reason enough.”
I have already died for Lorna. He ignored the thought, picking up the newspaper beside his bed, glancing through it with little interest. He wouldn’t have seen the ad had his eyes not wandered. For Real Answers, Call 555-9292, 24 Hours. His curiosity piqued, he picked up the phone and dialed the number, having no idea what to say when they answered. He expected it was some religious group seeking to take his money. A man answered. “Hello?”
Odd, Dean thought, that the man did not state the name of the business.
He cleared his throat. “Um, yes, I saw your ad…”
The man interrupted him. “You are unhappy?”
“Yes, very much,” Dean said, surprising himself with his candidness.
“Meet me in the Chateau Lounge, tomorrow at two o’clock, and we will discuss things.”
“Wait,” Dean cried, but the man had hung up.
That night, Dean couldn’t sleep. Since Lorna’s death, sleep had become an escape for him and he was never one to dream, so it was as if he was dead for the eight or ten hours he slept. When he arose, he mourned, but asleep, he was at peace. It was his dream now, his only dream, to be at peace forever. Perhaps, as Lorna would say, it was wisdom in God that he had seen this obscure ad.
He was fifteen minutes early.
He had chosen the non-smoking section.
He laughed out loud how ironic it was that he hadn’t taken up smoking or drinking because it was bad for his health, and here he was contemplating suicide. He didn’t want to die a slow, cancerous death; he wanted it to be quick and pain-free. He and Larry Eglin, his best friend in high school, had had a conversation about how they wanted to die:
“I want to go to sleep one night and never wake up,” Larry had said.
Dean, however, had desired a more dramatic death. “Maybe someday, I’ll be an astronaut and the rocket ship will explode. That way, I wouldn’t have to depend on someone else to scatter my ashes or worry about them leaving me in an urn on a mantelpiece to be gawked at.”
Sitting in a plush, burgundy booth with folded hands, he scanned the menu under the glass that was laid out like an old newspaper. He had never been here before as he had never felt comfortable in bars, with all the smoke and noise. The smoke clouded his mind and the noise caused it to scatter.
Dean sat wondering if the man was a medium of some sort, but he didn’t believe in all that life after death stuff, that Lorna’s spirit was floating somewhere where she could be contacted. Her memory was all that was left of her and he tried hard to preserve it.
A man clutching a black attaché case and wearing dark glasses seated himself across from him, ignoring the hostess, who looked peeved.
“Are you the man I spoke with on the phone?” Dean asked.
The man’s reluctance to talk made Dean uneasy. He wasn’t sure if this was such a good idea after all, but, sensing his reservations, the man spoke.
“Would you be willing to leave your life behind for a chance at a new one? If not, then I will leave now and this meeting will have never happened, but if so, we need to make arrangements.”
“How long do I have to decide?” Dean had wanted a way out, but now that one was being presented, whatever it was, he became wary.
“You already know the answer. Either you want peace or you do not.”
“I do. I want it more than anything. I want that ache to go away. You see, I lost my wife and–”
“Then make arrangements to leave, as if you’ll never come back. Pack your bags and we will take care of the rest.”
The man rose.
“When will I see you again?” Dean asked.
“We will meet again next week at Barnaby’s.”
Barnaby’s was a classy bookstore, with Ethan Allen furniture and a gourmet coffee shop where bagels with seventeen flavors of cream cheese were served. Business men could often be found there for lunch, their briefcases and laptop computers open in front of them and college kids with open textbooks stacked one on top of the other and papers scattered around. It was a little out of the way, in the city, a place unfamiliar to Dean.
“When should we meet?”
Dean swallowed hard. Despite losing Lorna, he liked his comfortable life, but if he turned this man away, he would regret it until the day he died. “I will go where you want to me to go.”
“Very well then. You are to abide by these instructions; you have a week to complete them. Tell no one of your plan, and bring no one with you.”
“Where will we be going?”
“You will see soon enough,” the man said and was gone.
The next day, Dean resigned from his job, adopted out the pets he’d grown fond of, telling everyone he was moving out west. “I just need a change,” was all he’d said, and that had been enough.
The man said if he must call him anything, to call him his savior, so Dean did not call him. It wasn’t something Lorna would have done and he wanted to at least honor her memory. He was unaccustomed to taking naps in the middle of the day, even after Lorna’s death, but as soon as his head hit the backseat of the limousine, sleep overcame him. The man had asked for every form of identification he had, which he had put into a manila envelope and sealed. It was as if he was in darkness for eight hours and all he could see was the faint outline of the man driving the car. The anonymous man was in the backseat with him, staring soullessly ahead. Dean felt as if he was invisible, and he let out a shaky breath to let them know he was still alive. He saw no road signs; he had no idea where they were. “Where are we?” he asked, unable to bring his hand to his neck to rub the back of it. Every muscle in his body ached. He had never felt so tired before. He couldn’t even clench his fists, his body was so relaxed.
“We’re going to what is to be your home until you die,” the man said.
“Where you will start over,” the man said, not looking at him. “Where you will stay until you are ready to die.”
Curiosity piqued him still. “Where is this place?”
“‘Tis awhile still before we reach it, but it is a choice land–a land above all other lands. A safe haven. Trust me. You will find peace there.”
And Dean did so want to find peace.
The paradise Dean had been shuttled to was like a picture out of those travel brochures. The car slithered through the gate, its belly scraping the ground, the engine choking dust as it entered into what seemed a secret garden. A ginormous tree in its center bore the most exquisite fruit—like white gold—the color of Lorna’s hair. A man and woman sat together under that tree, the man reading to her from a heavy volume. The woman’s eyes were closed. “Who are they?” Dean asked.
“We call them Mr. and Mrs. Adams. They came to us when their three sons died in an automobile accident. The doctors were so intent on saving their lives to prove their god-like powers, they did not disclose the fate of their children until they had recovered. All we are doing is returning them from whence they came.”
“How sad,” Dean said, meaning the children’s deaths, not the fact two people who seemed as in love as he and Lorna had been were contemplating suicide.
“‘T’will all be over soon.” Dean was unable to read the man’s eyes, as his shades shielded them.
“Tell me,” Dean said, “Why are you still here? You help other people find their eternal peace, but yet you live.”
“I live only to assist those who wish to die.”
“You are happy then, in this existence?”
“Happy enough. My time will come soon enough. I will not wait till my body succumbs to a debilitating illness or till my mind loses itself. When I go, I want to feel I have given others the opportunity to die a quick, painless death, to live out their last days in contentment, if not happiness, for if they found happiness here, they would no longer wish to die.”
Dean acknowledged his comments with a slight nod and the car crawled on through groves of fruit and nut trees. He almost expected to see God Himself come walking through this Edenic, manmade purgatory.
The man looked at him out of the corner of his eye, as if measuring his reactions. He hoped this man was sincere. He had no other choice but to be.
The car snaked to a stop at the manse at the end of the garden. Two little girls in pinafores and braids sat on a swing set. Dean turned to the man. Why them? he asked, but not aloud.
The man sensed his question and said, “Those little girls you see will never mature past the mindset of six. Their parents sent them here because a new baby was on the way–a baby that was whole and would have a rich and fulfilling life. Think about it, if the parents had to spend all their time caring for the defective, they wouldn’t be able to devote as much time to the baby that was not.”
Dean wondered if his and Lorna’s baby had lived, had the child had been deformed in some way, would he have done the same thing? The baby would have been flesh of their flesh, and no matter what he or she would have been like, he had a feeling he would have loved the child, despite the obstacles that would have lay ahead, for was not a hard life better than no life at all? Not in my case, he thought.
It hit him that this would be the last place he would know before he would go into oblivion, winked out of existence as if he never was. His flesh would rot and crumble into the earth. He sighed. That was all there was to it. It would be pointless to hope for something for it not to come true.
If there was no life beyond the grave, he wouldn’t know it because he would be dead.
Two teenage girls sat on the porch; one looked okay, but he could tell the other was several months pregnant.
“Death is the best thing for them,” the man said again, reading his thoughts. “The baby will be given to parents who want to live.”
Dean nodded, but wondered: If there was nothing after this life, as he believed, then why not make this one the best possible? Ah, but life did not work out for everyone. Some relished in their lives, as Lorna had, and some cursed the air they breathed, as he did. Lorna had taken his hopes for a future with him. “God be with you till we meet again,” she had said as she had lay dying.
“What if I never believe?” he had asked. “Surely God will not open the doors to a place I don’t even believe in.”
“You will believe,” she had said. “And you will know.”
“How could you possibly know that, my love?”
“Because I have been praying for you, and Jesus paid too high a price to let you go without a fight.”
Dean had put his hand to her cheek and said, “You know, that is the sweetest thing anyone has ever done for me. Strange, but sweet.”
Lorna had sighed, a tranquil smile on her face. “I will be pleading your case before God. I will be working for you up there. Know that, Dean.”
“Oh, Lorna, I would love to believe that, but even God cannot control my mind.”
“He can prolong your days–give you time enough to find Him.”
He had buried his face in her hair, which had smelled of Bounce.
“Never leave me, Lorna,” he had said, inhaling her.
“I will be with you always, Dean,” she had said, and he knew she meant even when the heavens and the earth should pass away.
Dean did not notice the frail, ash-blond woman staring at him as he proceeded through the massive doors.
He did not see her face, looking as pensive as he felt inside.
He did not see that she was hurting, too.
The new guy reminded her of her half-brother, Lon, who was the type, had he been free, to brood about college campuses, reading poetry and drinking expensive coffee. This man didn’t look like a poet, but a boring businessman. An accountant, maybe. Being an accountant was the thing to be in the eighties, when she was a teenager. Life had seemed complete then, but underneath all that crimped hair, there was a chemical imbalance even modern medication had not been able to alleviate.
She had opted for the lethal injection when the time came, but the time had come and gone and the pressure was mounting at the Garden for her to consent to the dissolution of her life. Scores of people had entered the Garden, but not one had left. She knew the secret. The Garden was not a benevolent business, but a multi-million dollar operation. Through a cracked office door, she had discovered the caretakers of the Garden sold the organs of those they had “helped” to progressive hospitals and very wealthy associates. Not to mention collecting on the life insurance policies of their customers (she had signed over her life to these people), profiting from the double indemnity clause, as companies wouldn’t pay out for suicides. The brass would arrange a traffic accident, where the car would crash and burn, leaving behind no evidence of the person being already dead when placed in the car.
The caretakers had threatened her, saying that she was breaching her contract with them that allowed her six months to pay them off for their services, by working in the gardens or the library or any number of other things. Some used their skills to make money for the operation. One man by the name of Norm Sondergaard, had ended up deciding to live, with the promise that he would remain at the Garden forever, making them money in investments.
If she did not consent soon, she would die in a painful way
There were locks on the doors at the Garden, so she lay in bed every night, fearing of being caught unawares. She’d thought of running away, but they’d taken care of everything, lest she blow the bugle on their secret. As far as her family and everyone who had been close to her was concerned, she was dead–had died in an automobile accident nine months ago (another cadaver playing the part of Sandra Lockwood), so she knew she could never go back, even if she could escape. She wanted her children to remember her as she had left them, filled with love for her. No, Sandra knew too much and knowledge was poison here.
“…so you see, you’re better off dead,” the Caretaker of the Garden had said.
Brett had been a good husband and she knew that her son, the big brother, would watch over his little sisters. She had known after having Brandon that she could not bear the postpartum depression a second time. She had done everything she could to keep from having another, but she had forgotten to take her pill. Nine months later, Ashleigh and Hayleigh had arrived. She’d her tubes tied and began distancing herself from them, figuring she would let them get used to the idea of not having her in their lives, but they wouldn’t stop loving her and she had known committing suicide was the only way. She had tried church with Brett and the kids, but her heart was never in the right place. She didn’t know that when she had swiped that Gideon Bible on the way to the Garden that she would continue reading it long after bed check, that she would be converted and the will to live for God and not herself had become the center of her life. The depression was still there, and no, she wasn’t happy, but instead, took joy in the fact that Jesus would someday take away her pain, even if it wouldn’t be in this life.
This man, like herself, had become a prisoner of his own making.
Food of the Romans, food of the gods, Dean thought, when he saw the spread before him. It looked fake, plastic. Clusters of grapes spilled over the punch bowls, laden with apples, oranges, bananas and pears. Baskets of muffins alternated between the bowls. No fast food here. Pitchers of milk and orange juice were placed on a smaller side table. He wasn’t accustomed to seeing food without labels on it.
“Hi there,” a blond woman said. “Mind if I sit here?”
Dean looked at the woman with little interest. “If you like,” he said, gesturing with a nod to the chair across from him. She took it, plopping a grape in her mouth as she did so. She looked happy and Dean could not understand why she was here, but then Dean had heard peoples’ spirits often elevated after they had made the commitment to end their lives, because they could look forward to the day when their pain would be gone, as Lorna had looked to the day when she could look upon God and live. “Sandra Lockwood,” she said, extending her hand.
“Dean Larkin,” he said, extending his. “I don’t suppose anyone comes here to make lasting friendships.”
Sandra smiled at his dry sense of humor. “I suppose you’re right.”
The acid from the fruit churned in his stomach. He drank the last of his milk to quiet it. It tasted like whole milk. His diet before Lorna had filled his life had consisted of what she called fake sugar, egg beaters and skim milk, and as long as she had cooked, there was to be only the best foods, which were the highest fat milk, refined sugar and eggs in the shells. He’d forgotten how good food had tasted until she had made it.
“Where’d you come from, Dean?”
“Hicks, North Carolina.”
“Never heard of it.”
“It’s a hick town.”
“I see,” she said, smiling.
“Where are you from?” he asked, picking apart his muffin, trying to be polite, but not interested in making conversation.
“You probably wouldn’t know it, either. Galen, Utah, population five-hundred-and-seventy-three. All the citizens there practice polygamy. I grew up in a house with four mothers and forty-three siblings. Each of my mothers had eleven children. I’m the seventh born of my father’s third wife.”
Most people’s eyes bugged out when they heard of Sandra’s unconventional upbringing, but Dean was nonplussed. “Isn’t polygamy legal there?”
“Oh.” Dean bit into his apple. “Did that have an effect on your decision to end your life?”
“I don’t know,” Sandra said, staring at her filled plate. “I don’t know what kind of person I would have become had I not been raised in such a way, if I would have been better off or not, but there are people out there who’ve had everything and yet they wish to die. Maybe I just wasn’t made to handle life in general. I escaped when I was seventeen. My father was trying to arrange a marriage for me to his half-brother, who was thirty-five years my senior. He said it had to be this way to preserve the bloodline and keep it pure. I confessed I was already pregnant with my half-brother Byron’s baby (which I was not), who was also seeking an escape. My father took me to the hospital to have me checked out and that is when I told him I was embarrassed to have him see me naked. He said I wasn’t too embarrassed to let Byron see me, but the goodly doctor had compassion on me, seeing my father’s wrath. When he shut the door, with much reluctance on my father’s part, I told the doctor everything, about the abuse, the incestuous marriage, everything, and he listened.”
“This man, this doctor, did he help you?”
Sandra nodded, her eyes wet. “He opened the window, gave me the keys to his car and told me to go to this certain address and tell his mother that Brett had sent me and she would take me in. So I did as he said, and though I was afraid of leaving my father, I was more afraid of staying. That doctor brought me out of the mire that had been dug for me and I will be grateful to him forever.”
“And he became your husband,” Dean finished. It was like a fairy-tale.
“Yes,” Sandra said, her voice dropping an octave. “He took care of me as a nurse would care for a patient at first, and though he was several years older than me, he saw something in me he would like to get to know. When he married me, I told him I had to go back for Byron, so we went back one night and spotted him drawing horses to water, and I called to him. Though he kept his distance, as he wasn’t able to see our faces, he knew my voice. I told him I had run away and I wanted him to come with me, so we could be free together, but he had started backing away, saying he could not leave his family; he could not let God punish his wife for his sake, and I realized my father had married him off to my half-sister, Julia. I called and called for him, but he kept backing away, shaking his head, saying no over and over, that he had been wrong, that he had to do what was right in the sight of God. I had wanted to go after him, but Brett had taken my hand and told me that I had to let him go and to leave the rest up to the Lord.”
“Did you ever see Byron again?” Dean asked, interested now, despite himself.
“No, I never did. Brett said we had to move away, somewhere far away, where they could never find us. We settled in Zenith, Missouri, and raised our family there. Or at least Brett did. I watched. It seemed I could not escape the fear that my father was still watching me somehow, or that God hated me for leaving my family.”
“But you knew better, did you not? What merciful God would hold it against you for leaving such a place?”
Sandra nodded. “I knew better, but the fear was there nonetheless. The teachings of my youth were so internalized, whenever my son would hug his sisters, I would worry about him developing the kinds of feelings for them I was expected to someday have for one of my family members. Sex had not seemed like something fun or exciting to me, for I had been taught all my life that its only purpose was for procreating, and to have sex without the idea of children in mind was an abomination.”
“That’s absurd.” Sandra’s childhood religion was loonier than some of the things that had come out of Lorna’s mouth.
“Believe me, I know all this now, when it is too late.”
“So you left your husband and children.”
“I had to. Sometimes, we have to let go, even if it hurts.”
“I had no one to let go of. I don’t know who’s the lucky one—me or you. I left because there was no one and you left because there was, yet we’re both alone in this.”
“We don’t have to be.” She wanted to put her hand on his, but refrained. She was still in love with her husband, as Dean was still in love with someone, she could tell. But no matter. She didn’t want to be loved; she just wanted to be understood and she believed she had found that in Dean Larkin.
Everyone returned to the rec room after supper where there were a myriad of things to do–reading, writing, painting for those that liked to paint. There was a small card table in one of the back corners of the room where a group of four young men who looked military were betting their lives against another’s, which Dean found amusing. The place resembled a children’s hospital, with adults.
Sandra approached him.
“Hey.” He was glad to see her. She had become a bright spot in his life at the Garden.
“Hello, Dean,” she said, mustering a smile and then scanning the room. “So, what would you like to do? A game of checkers maybe? A rousing round of backgammon?”
“Oh, I don’t know.” Nothing interested him. “Why don’t we just sit and engage in the art of conversation?” He led the way to a couple of chairs facing the bay window which gave a picturesque view of the grounds. The window was framed on the outside by two shade trees. Dean thought they leaned into one another so it seemed an invisible branch had been grafted into the other and they had become one. It seemed like a portal to someplace else–a parallel world perhaps–where everything was the opposite of each other, but names and faces were the same, where Lorna would be alive and a little girl who had the same hair she had would be climbing an apple tree. Ah, I would have given my life for Lorna. And yet, is that not what I am doing now?
“It is very beautiful here,” Sandra’s soft voice spoke. “When I first came, I thought it would be like a mental hospital, with round the clock nurses, but you don’t see the caretakers of the Garden…Dean, are you listening to me?”
“Sandra, do you believe in God?” He was staring into the horizon.
He faced her. “Then do you think what we’re doing is wrong, even if we think it best? I mean, I know our bodies are our own, but still.”
“If one went by the Bible, it says our bodies are not our own, but that we were bought with a price. However, suicide isn’t mentioned as the unpardonable sin, but rather denying the Holy Ghost, whatever that means. Is it not a little late for asking?”
“I suppose it is,” he said with a heavy heart. “You see, my wife was a Christian, and she believed in all that jazz about God and Jesus. If there is such a place as Heaven, I know that’s where she’ll be. She was a saint, my Lorna; if she was right, if I go to Hell, I’ll be separated from her forever. How cruel would it be of God, don’t you think, to punish us for ending our own life, only to keep our spirits alive in the hereafter to punish us a second time?”
“It does seem that way. I wish I had a better answer for you, Dean.”
“It can’t be true. If I had a part of her here with me, I would’ve been able to endure this lonesome existence.”
“Maybe you have a chemical imbalance in the brain.”
“My parents took me to a psychiatrist when I was eighteen and he said there was nothing wrong with me. He liked to say I was too lazy to live.” Dean laughed. It was a dry laugh. “He said I needed to find that source of untapped happiness and draw from it, like water from a well. I thought I had found it in Lorna, for not once did she disappoint me.”
“Happiness doesn’t come from outside ourselves, Dean. If that were the case, I wouldn’t be here. You must first find happiness in yourself, in which others can add to or share, but never can a fallible human being be the source of anyone’s happiness. Maybe that’s what it means when it says we shouldn’t put our trust in the arm of flesh.”
“Then I was never happy. Lorna only lessened it a great deal.”
“Let me lessen it for you, Dean,” she said, putting her hand on his arm. “I’ve hurt my family more than I will ever know, but if you’ll let me help you ease your pain, perhaps I will die knowing my life was worth something–that I brought succor to someone who was in need of it. Let me be your friend till the day we die.”
“I will,” Dean said, patting her hand. “When is your time to go?”
“Whenever it is, we will go together. I was supposed to go three months ago, but as bad as my life is, I fear the Unknown more. All I can do is put my faith in something I cannot see and hope.”
“You really believe in this God guy, don’t you?”
“I suppose my hoping He didn’t exist was wishful on my part. I didn’t want to believe there was punishment for this, but now I’m not so sure. I wasn’t in my right mind when I made the decision to come here, but now I’ll be accountable for choosing this with willingness, which I’m not. I know I’m going to die, Dean, but it won’t be my choice anymore, and so I will leave this life knowing God is waiting for me on the other side.”
“It’s not like we’re taking the life of someone who wants to keep theirs. Besides, does it not say in the Bible somewhere that whoever loses his life shall find it, and whoever saves his life shall lose it, or something like that? Are we not losing our lives in a sense?”
“We’re not losing them, Dean, we’re giving them away, and for what? We are not forsaking them for the sake of someone else, but to end our own misery.”
“Then we have nothing to live for,” Dean said, and they joined the group he had seen earlier in a game of cards.
Life was different at the Garden of Eden. Meals were served at the same time every day: breakfast at six, lunch at twelve, and dinner at six. Dean wasn’t used to the three square meals a day plan and would be hungry after a few hours, but there were bowls of fruit and nuts placed on tables throughout the compound.
Everyone was assigned a job at the Garden. Dean was to be a peach-picker, and he labored eight hours a day, four in the morning and four in the evening. He had to earn his keep, they said. His skin had darkened to a deep bronze from being out in the sun and he had lost fifteen pounds–the weight he’d gained during his brief marriage. He looked healthier than he had in years, but felt like he was sure Adam felt when he had been expelled from the Garden.
Sandra noticed his change in appearance one day and said, putting her arms around his waist, “You’re becoming far too handsome to be here, my friend.”
Despite the casualness of her embrace, it felt good to be hugged, to be close to someone again. He hadn’t been a huggy person, but Lorna had broken him of his uneasiness at being touched, except when it came to guys. He thought of Dan Asher, his client at one time, who was a known homophobic. Dean had asked him if he wanted to go out for a drink and Dan had to have a stool separating them because Dan did not want to appear gay.
Dean had later learned from the bartender Dan had went for a drink with another fellow and the moment the hostess had greeted them, Dan had informed her they were not gay and she had better get that straight, because people had often mistaken Dan for being so with his turtleneck sweaters and corduroy pants.
“What?” Sandra asked, her eyes smiling.
“Oh, I was just remembering something.”
“You know, that’s the first time you’ve laughed since you’ve been here,” she said, plucking a hairy peach from the tree.
“Yeah, I guess it is. Lorna was right. There’s just something about being out in nature that makes you feel good.” He wiped the sweat from his brow with the T-shirt he had taken off.
“Well, I’d better get back to work on my plot of land,” she said, but not sounding very enthusiastic about it. “Funny, I always wanted to know how to garden and it would be here I would learn.”
“Lorna loved to can with fruits and vegetables she grew in our garden,” he said, pulling out a picture of her–the only picture he had taken with him. It had been their second anniversary, which they had celebrated under the willows in their backyard, where Dean had barbecued for the first time. Lorna’s fine hair was blowing, her plump, healthy face blossoming like a magnolia amongst the deep green trees. Her pale lips were glossy and her slender, powdery arms were like exquisite ivory. She hadn’t been viewed as beautiful by most men, but to him, she was the lily of the valley.
“She glows with happiness,” Sandra said, seeming entranced by the picture.
“She was expecting at the time, but Lorna was always happy. I thrived on her happiness, Sandra, but now that she’s gone…”
“Hey, it’s going to be okay,” she said, putting a hand on his back. “She’s not lost to you. She will live in your heart forever, as my husband and children will.”
“But when our hearts die, where are they then?”
Dean put his hand to her cheek and she held it there, her tears rolling over his fingers. “Don’t do this to yourself, Sandra.”
“I want to live again, Dean.”
“Then leave, so I may go in peace.”
“I couldn’t leave if I wanted to.”
“But why? If you’ve changed your mind?”
“They’re afraid I would go to the police. This is an illegal operation, Dean. “
“But surely you could promise them…”
“They’re not willing to take the chance. This is a multi-million dollar business. They sell our organs. Why do you think they made you fill out those health history reports, and sign you up on a million-dollar term life insurance policy?”
“Formalities?” he asked, though he knew better.
“It’s wrong here, Dean.” She took his hands, sandwiching them between hers. “Together, we will find a way to leave.” A scripture repeated itself in her mind. Life for life, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot…And so shall it be, my life for Dean’s.
Like the SS, two caretakers in hunter green uniforms stood afar off, watching them.
One of them spoke: “Falling for a woman, just as in olden times, means a quicker death for the man who falls.”
There was a knock at his door.
“Who is it?” Dean called.
He sighed and went to answer it.
Sandra stood there in a long, ruffled nightgown and white, satin slippers. She looked like a Mormon ready to do temple work. Myra, his first serious girlfriend, had been a Mormon. He knew he’d hurt her deeply when he’d taken her virginity and hadn’t married her. He’d never forgiven himself, even though he thought the high price put on a woman’s virginity was overrated. Very unprogressive. “I didn’t want them to hear me,” she whispered.
Dean motioned for her to come in and shut the door behind him. “Sandra, you’re shivering. Sit down.”
She sat on the edge of his bed.
“Why did you come? You know they forbid anyone to enter another’s quarters after ten.”
“I had to see you, Dean. You’re my one and only friend left in this world, which is why I wanted you to have this.” She held a dark blue Gideon Bible out to him.
Dean took the storybook, as he had called it in earlier years, setting it on the bed beside him without looking at it. “The Bible?” he said with skepticism.
“Yes. It is my gift to you, but an even greater gift is to be discovered by reading it.”
“Sandra, you’ve been out in the sun too long. Let me put you to bed.”
“I’m serious, Dean. Please, there is a way out, but it’s not here. I found the way when I read through the gospels my first night here. I guess I found it because God knew I was living on borrowed time. You don’t want to die any more than I do. You don’t want to give up your life–you just want to be free from the pain.”
“I do, but suicide is the only way. I’ve been to psychiatrists and taken medicine, and nothing was able to take away the sadness. Lorna only lessened it a bit. Sandra, I cannot allow myself to believe in something that isn’t there.”
“Does it not take more faith to believe we’re here by chance rather than there was a Being who created us?”
“I …don’t know.” He wondered. “Sandra, what if I believed what Lorna was trying to tell me all those many times? What if I believed and then died only to find out it was all a sham?”
“If God doesn’t exist and there is no afterlife, then you wouldn’t know anyway, but there is, and is it not a safer bet to believe than not?”
“I don’t know how to believe. I’ve never believed in anything I couldn’t see.”
“Have you read the story, Dean?”
“I know enough from living with Lorna.”
“But have you read it for yourself?”
“Start with Matthew and read until the end of John.”
“Sandra, I don’t need religion in my life.”
“God is not a religion. Test Him and see if by submitting to Him, you will find a purpose in your life and in living. Will you believe there’s a God if you find the desire to live again? Would that not be the greatest proof you could ask for?”
Dean was silent.
“Will you?” Sandra asked. “I mean, would it not be a miracle if you wanted to live again?”
“I suppose it would be,” he said after several seconds.
Sandra reached behind her and put her hand on the knob.
“Wait,” Dean said. “Don’t go.”
“I’m still a married woman, Dean, even if the law has declared me legally dead.”
“I didn’t mean that. You are my friend, Sandra. I need you here with me.”
“I’ve done all I can do. The rest is up to you and our God.” Then, standing there in the doorway, she added, “Your wife was a believer and she read the Bible pretty often, did she not?”
“Perhaps the reason you were so drawn to her was because of the very thing you disdain. Think about it. Good-night, Dean.”
“Good-night…Friend,” he said, and she tossed him a smile as she walked out the door.
Dean wrestled in his bed. He was being attacked by an unseen force. He woke up in a panic, but relaxed as he oriented with his humble surroundings. He wished Sandra was close by to comfort him, then cursed himself for putting his friend above his beloved. Lorna Slidell had left an awful hole in his life, and though Sandra wasn’t filling that hole, the hole that had loomed large was beginning to close. Under his nightlight lay the book Sandra had given him. He picked it up and flipped through it. So much writing. Lorna’s father had read it three times. Mr. Slidell had wanted to be a preacher, but had felt called to be a youth pastor instead.
They had been good to him. If only he had gone to them, but he’d felt like they blamed him for Lorna’s death, for not being there when she needed him.
Dean’s eyes were diverted to the passages highlighted in pink, but as he read the passages, he felt the need to read the rest, and his eyes fell on the scripture, “For ye are bought with a price: therefore, glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s.”
He was crucified for the sins of the world…every time we sin, we add another stripe to His back… All the things Lorna had said made sense now. He could not be responsible for that and so he asked forgiveness from the Only One who would always forgive.
“You look peaked,” Sandra said the next night at dinner as she buttered her roll. She bit into it, melted butter dribbling down her chin. She looked away, embarrassed, as she tried to dab herself with her cloth napkin. Dean grinned, amused. Sandra was so proper.
“Thanks for the compliment,” he said, noticing the insignificant, heart-shaped mole on her lip for the first time. She reminded him a bit of the fifties actress, Anne Francis, whom he’d had the hots for when he’d seen her in the movie “Forbidden Planet” as a kid.
“Are you well?”
“You seem tired.”
“I’m tired of being here, Sandra. I’m tired of living only to die. And..,” he said, taking her hand and squeezing it under the table, “I’m tired from reading that Bible all night.”
“Oh, Dean,” she cried, so joyful was the song in her heart. “What will I ever do without you?”
“You’ll live,” he said, grinning. “We’re in this together, remember?”
Sandra sat back and said nothing, for she knew they would not be leaving together, not alive.
The caretakers were taking note of the friendship being cultivated here at the Garden. One of them whispered to the other, “When people find there is someone out there who understands them, they are less likely to go through with it. This is a dangerous situation. The Lockwood woman must go tonight and the Larkin man will follow.”
Dean reclined on the bed, which seemed as unfamiliar to him as it had the day he had come, because it did not smell of Lorna. Since her death, he had draped a robe or nightgown she had worn across her pillow beside him, and sometimes, during his dreams, he would clutch the satin and silk material and breathe it in until morning when he would put it in a trash bag to retain her scent. Sometimes, it felt, by smelling of things she had worn, her spirit was conjured back, but he knew that was ridiculous.
When he gazed out the window before going to bed, he saw the same sky, the same moon, the same stars he had seen all his life, but they had a different look to them. It was as if he’d been looking at a painting all along, and now, only now, was he seeing the glory of something greater than he could imagine in his finite mind. He opened the window, the breeze stirring him alive. Why had he felt so complete with Lorna? Had he felt the love of Another loving him through her? Had her faith, despite his opposition to it, been the very reason he had been attracted to her? Sandra, he needed Sandra to help him. Sandra! he screamed in his mind as he raced down the hall to the west wing, where the single women resided. He was imbued with this sudden urgency to see her.
Dawn was approaching.
The moon’s glow began to fade with the rising sun.
The clouds burst forth into singing only he could hear and he heard the roses open up to a new day. High-pitched it was, and from on high.
“Sandra!” he called as he neared her room. The hallway behind him seemed to disappear, as if God was telling him he could not go back. “Sandra!” he called again, and some of the people peeked out of their doors to see what was going on. He saw her at the end of the hall, as if she had been waiting for him. She was in a pink bathrobe, her long hair tumbling down her shoulders and back. They embraced. He fell to his knees, burying his face in her stomach. “It’s time for us to go.”
Yes, it is time for me to go.
“We must get out of here. Come go with me, Sandra. We can make a life together,” he said, and Sandra was about to say she was still married, but he looked up at her then, his chin on her stomach, putting a finger to her lips and added, “as dear friends who have endured so much together.”
He took her by the hand and set her down through the window, then climbed out himself. As they ran, his hand tugging her behind him, Dean felt he was being carried away on the wings of a dove. His heart raced with exhilaration. Sandra’s hand slipped from his, but he found a Hand again, and held harder this time. Sandra ran to the opposite wall and set the alarm off, in her robe meant to attract attention only to her. You will find a way, Dean. We both could not have escaped, but they will see me, and it will be me they will come after. Your heart will be sad over me for a little while, but He who is in your heart will help you overcome. Good-bye, my friend.
“There she is!” the militia of men in green suits shouted. One of them aimed and fired. The sting of death was swallowed up, even as her body contorted in pain. Run, Dean, run, her soul persisted in saying and there was another shot. She saw his figure tumble to the lush, green earth, his cry wonderful to her, wonderful because he had wanted to live.
Then saw Sandra Lockwood a palatial building, one glittering like lighted crystal, and it sat as if upon a sea of glass. “The mansion you promised me,” she whispered. The color of the heavens above was an unchangeable blue, until a Man with long, dark hair and in a pristine white robe, His sleeves a little above the wrists and the hem a little above the ankles, walked on air and offered her His hand.
“My dear Dean,” she said, placing her hand in His, “just when you wanted to live, you began the course that would let you live forever.”
“We must go,” Jesus said, “for there comes another after you,” and she looked behind her and saw Dean coming up out of the midst.
I am the resurrection and the life:
he that believeth in me,
though he were dead,
yet shall he live.