By David Oppegaard
You are riding on a train. You’re alone and the seat across from you is empty. An old man in a dark business suit is sitting across the aisle from you, reading a newspaper while the window behind him is a blur of sky and scenery you can’t quite make out. You can tell it’s a beautiful day, though. You can tell there’s never been quite such a beautiful day in all of human memory. A day made for picnics, bare feet, and lovers. For lying on a soft blanket and peering upward into the firmament, for observing how patches of sky placidly drift around like floes of ice on the ocean.
The train is moving fast. You can feel the hum of the rails rising up through your seat, the friction of energy transferred. It’s a purposeful feeling. Driven. You are on your way to somewhere and you will be there soon.
The old man looks up from his paper to look out his window. The train begins to lift, liberated from its track.
Everything is dark and hot inside your hood. Your hands are bound and your back is pressed against something flat and immoveable, either a brick wall or a mountain. You can hear your own ragged breathing. Your heart beating in your chest. Someone shouts something in a language you can’t understand, though you can sense the anger in their voice. The stern reproach.
A flood of light and fresh air. You gasp, grateful for the reprieve. Your hood has been removed.
Four soldiers dressed in army green stand in a line twenty feet away, rifles raised and pointed at you. The soldiers are young. Practically teenagers. There’s no mercy in their eyes. No light. You open your mouth, trying to speak, but you can’t think of anything to say. A man you cannot see barks an order and the young soldiers fire in unison, filling the world with noise, and what feels like a giant’s punch hits you in the chest.
You are standing on the roof of a tall building, which is consumed by fire. In fact, the heat from the building’s fire is so great your clothes are already smoldering and you can feel your shoes melting into your feet. You inch up to the edge of the roof and cautiously peer over. You know you have to jump, though it so far down. The people on the street look small, like pepper sprinkled on a sheet of paper.
Something in the building explodes behind you. You step off the roof without additional thought. You can hear the flapping of your untucked shirt as you plummet through the sky, that very specific rippling of windblown fabric as your soft belly is exposed.
You’re sinking through dark water. Something big and hungry has wrapped itself around your foot, pulling you down. You can tell it doesn’t care how much you plead with it, or how violently you thrash.
Actually, it likes it when you thrash.
You’re very old. You’re lying in bed, in your own bedroom in your own house. You are about as comfortable as possible beneath a pile of beautiful, heavy quilts, your back gently propped up by a small mountain of feather down pillows. Everything is a little fuzzy because of the pain meds you’re taking, but not too fuzzy. You can still see your loved ones, gathered around your bedside, their faces filled with love and kindness, their eyes soft with tears. They all look so beautiful, like candles burning on a dark night. Your faithful lover, your lifelong companion, is holding your hand and wiping your brow with a cool washcloth. Your children and grandchildren are smiling, trying to be brave because they are brave, because they are everything you could have hoped for and more.
You tell everyone you love them and close your eyes, ready to go. Someone coughs. Someone else sniffles. You hear someone at the edge of the room mutter “fucking asshole” as you exhale one last time, your soul already rising from your body.
You’re sitting at a sidewalk café in Paris. It’s the middle of the afternoon in August and the city is half-asleep. Beautiful men and women saunter past your table, holding hands and smiling, their shared joy so obvious they feel no need to speak. You’re nursing a glass of red wine and nibbling at a plate of bread, cheese, and prosciutto. You’re alone at your table, but you’re content with your aloneness. You have a notebook and a pen and you’re writing down thoughts as they occur to you. Future plans. Little poems. Random observances of the city. The sun comes out from behind the clouds and you sit back, basking in its warmth like a cat.
Your café table has a view of Notre-Dame, set grandly on an island in the middle of the Seine River. You’ve already visited the cathedral earlier that day and marveled at its beauty, inhaled the centuries of burnt incense. You’re not religious, but visiting Notre-Dame made you feel religious for a few hours, as if you’d unexpectedly brushed up against a truth greater than anything you could put into words, anything you might convey in a journal entry.
You drink the last of your good French wine and look around, hoping to catch your waiter’s eye. There’s a flash of bright light in the far distance, like lightning but not, and a wall of fire rises up beyond Notre-Dame, surging across the city and toward your table. Your heart flutters in your chest as the heat consumes you, consumes everything around you. It’s like being devoured by beauty.
You sit by her bed while she dies, and when she’s gone you are the last living person on the face of the Earth. You wander the fallow croplands and the swampy jungle cities and listen to the wolves howling and the birds trilling. The wind sometimes sounds like it’s forming words, even full sentences, but you know it’s only the wind and your lonely madness speaking.
One day, during your endless wandering, you find an old train sitting abandoned on a track overgrown with weeds. You board the train without a ticket and choose a seat. The seat across from you is empty. Your entire compartment is empty.
You look out your window at the verdant landscape beyond. You mutter a small prayer, feeling unreasonably hopeful, and wait for the track to start humming.