Part 1 can be found here.
The colors of the soccer field were shot. Sideways rain had petrified above the hobo gloves and soccer jerseys littering the field. The smooched ball was far away from a juvenile Edgar. Edgar squeezed his lips and crossed his arms. Valdís traversed past the woman with the glistening sleeves, across the dead grass, to the empty-handed boy. Keres stayed put.
“Where is our new book?” she asked.
Edgar plopped his small body onto the veering white-paint line. “I’m not telling you. Stop making me feel this way first.”
“I’m not making you feel anything,” she uttered. “You’re fortunate in comparison. How many math tests have you passed with me? Would you rather cry in front of your friends?”
“I don’t care!” raised Edgar, hyperventilating. “I don’t need school! I’m going to draw for the rest of my life. Every time I want to draw, I get the scary rumbling inside, and you come and take my Scitific Weekly!”
“It’s Scientific Weekly. But what I’ve been trying to tell you-“ She extended her hand out to kneel on the ground. “What I’ve been trying to tell you is that that doesn’t matter. When you die, I get to bring you to another world. Think of it like-“
“No! When I die, I go to Heaven and get to meet Jesus!” he spat out.
“You don’t. You should know this by now.”
“Yes I do!”
“Have you not figured this out!” She snatched his turquoise jersey as she stood. “Do you still believe your liar of a mother, still think I’m part of an imagination that can die! One touch of my skin brings death. I killed your Jesus. He approached death calmly for someone on a cross, but there have been far braver men with far worse deaths. I know them all. I am Death, and I am The Truth.”
She threw him to the wet ground, and he curled up to a heaving mass. As Keres approached, Death pulled in the rope tight, bringing up the dog on its back legs. Edgar emitted retching sounds, spat on the ground in between each groan. Now sweat began to mix with the rain on him.
Neither of them had a watch, but Death could count down the dwindling number of places she was at. A limp teen in a room full of razors and an old man covering his ears dissolved, with their worlds, under her touch; time started to stop even for her.
Edgar rolled away from her, shivering his clutched body.
“Edgar, you have panic attack disorder. I assumed so since I did your first test, but I read more about it to confirm. Your stress summons me and stops your world; only calming down will let you return.”
She knelt down beside him, filling her mouth with the marble voice she learned from the psychologist.
“I can help you with this. But you’ll have to listen to me seriously, so you can travel between the layers after your death and bring news to me. Are we clear on this?”
Edgar, still facing away, shook his head.
“I hope you enjoy my realm, then.”
Valdís gave Edgar his first ritual at a Jr. High dance, where haphazard handprints on preteen dresses created dark pockets in the gym. “As soon as you are able, gather the names of all the elderly in your town. You will recite them every morning.”
“What?” Edgar’s wet pits enveloped the scratched armrests while he sank in his chair, next a table of bowled juice and tasteless pretzels. “That sucks!”
“It will seem repetitive,” she explained as Keres created loops with his rope on the reflective, open floor. The two talked in their own cove by the bleachers, away from the frozen dance. “But it is essential that you continue this until you’re ready.”
Edgar pulled up the loops on his streamlined pants, tapped his throat in two beats. “I’m sorry I said ‘sucks.’ I guess you’ve been nice to me.”
“How does that make you-“
“Hey, why couldn’t the lifeguard save the hippie?”
After Valdís responded with only an arched, faint eyebrow, he mumbled, “My dad says I should use humor if I think I may be nervous. Sorry if I’m not so good at jokes.”
“Well,” Edgar spoke to his murky shoes, kicking at the encyclopedia of music under his seat, “It’s because he was too- far out, man.”
“Right. So your father doesn’t believe that you have panic attacks, then.”
Edgar’s seat wobbled as he slunk nearly through it, his wide eyes checking the dark corners of the room. A cross hung above the gated clock. “It sucks. Not him, just this.” With his polo shirt stretched by his uncoiling arms, he yawned and glanced up at the hard rubber skin of the teacher of layers.
“I forgot to tell them how long I’d be gone today,” Edgar whined as Keres sniffed the levitated cloth over the gurney. Arrested in that pushed hallway were countless white coats against a yellow-striped, portrait-laden wall. Valdís look out to the fuzzy black outside the high window. At another death, she waited as the little-bearded man with a concaving head writhed to crawl without legs from under an upturned car.
“Do your parents know why you’re here?”
“I… told them I hope to be a doctor someday,” said Edgar, clutching a scratched-up, coverless book to his thigh. “They’re not ready for the truth yet. Did you say why I’m supposed to read here again?”
Edgar walked on a plastered rooftop towards Valdís. A balled newspaper, hanging in the moonlit air, gave Edgar a support to grab and a time to breathe. In front of the hazed, ridged buildings of the horizon, Valdís kept the balls of her feet on the roof’s edge. A high whine emitted from below.
“Curious,” Valdís mentioned, descending to her knees and pinging the rope until Edgar’s hyperventilations distracted her. “You have followed the rituals for several visits now,” she began. “Tell me what you think of them.”
Edgar’s left foot swiveled on the gloomed gravel. “They’re all right. Can we work on stopping my panic attacks now? I’m a long way from home.”
“Don’t be polite.” She turned the phrase into a request midway, conjuring in her mind the psychologist with the marble voice. “Tell me how the rituals make you feel.”
After shaking the next moments away, enveloping the newspaper with both of his hands, Edgar muttered, “It’s- it feels pointless. I’d be able to have more fun without it.”
“Exactly.” Valdís’ first step to Edgar wobbled too, before her bare feet tiptoed closer to him. “Reading in an emergency room, memorizing the elderly, spitting off of rooftops: all rituals made in vain. Just like your drawings, just as your life was, as was mine. Now, like myself, you can begin to open up to the layered world, and perhaps become the first to travel between layers.”
Edgar bit his bottom lip listening, and smiled past his shivering when he spoke. “I can have a geezer list bonfire, if I ever find the darn things.”
In the driver’s seat, Edgar clenched the wheel and hollered. It was no scream of rage at the now stopped trucks or a cry to the highway darkness, but a yell of release. Valdís squirmed in her sudden seat, with Keres pacing in the back on top of dollar store wrappers.
“You need to calm down,” Valdís stated.
“Lost!” Edgar’s eyes had grown to cabbages, and he continued shrieking as he rocked himself between the wheel and the fuzzy seat. “Should be home! Streets changed! Wrong exit!”
As he screamed, Valdís tilted her head down to the pedals. “People rarely die while the car’s still moving. What would happen if you started driving?”
Now Edgar’s yell did hit the tone of rage, and he yanked up the lock to open his door. He tumbled out to the road of potholes and grit below. His mentor exited on the other side before approaching him.
“Edgar, you’ve gone through worse in this car. We still need to talk.”
But the teen had curled up, convulsing his body and puffing his cheeks, orange-stained fists scrapping against the ground. He whimpered as she watched, standing both here and in an eroded beachfront where she sent a child with covered ears to the next layer.
“Edgar- tell me a joke.”
When he didn’t respond, she crouched over him. “Well, I met someone you may enjoy. I found a buzzed-hair man in a crater after the last visit, right in a wide vase of water. He was sucked out of his plane, he told me.” After an itching pause, she continued in the man’s soft, rhythmic accent. “Well, the plane was a-going’ down and I had no way out so I figure ‘what the hell’ and found a pool and did the most beautiful cannonball.”
Edgar gave a hoarse laugh between heaving breaths, separated his arms from his rocking legs as Valdís stepped back. “You should do that- everyone. Give them last laugh.”
“I give them the secret of the layers, the answer of the afterlife. They must take me seriously.”
“Why do I have to go here?” Edgar asked after a silence in the white headlights. “I can’t tell anyone else how I feel, and all these rituals eat up my time.”
“And I’m not good at those. Or maps. Or anything, just drawing, because they really like what I draw from here. And they still ask what I really plan to do with my life.”
Keres had wrestled down the window crank with his paws, and now plunged out of the car to approach the teen. Edgar received the dog’s ears with open eyes.
“Thank you,” he said to the short woman.
“It’s Keres’ doing. But you’re welcome. You can be rather polite for someone in your position.”
The teen shrugged, muttered, “Yeah, they say that.”
“No, I will be too.” Valdís smiled, stood above him. “You’re learning about what’s below us. If you study well, a return voyage is within the realm of possibility. If Homer brought back the lightning of Olympus itself, he would not outlast your fame on this second layer. An artist of a new world order: this is my gift. You are worth it.”
Edgar caught his yawn, apologized, stretched. “And that loser thought he made a big crater.” He stood up, yawned again, and shuffled his way back to his maroon car.
To be continued in Part 3.