Thursday, September 28, 2017

9/28/17

Earth Breathing
By A. J. Howells


Rex woke with a start, gasping for air. It only took him a few seconds to realize he didn’t need to breathe anymore, so he stopped and waited for death to whisk him away but soon realized it already had. He hoped there was more to death than what he could currently see, which was nothing. Looking down, he couldn’t even see his own body through the black blanket that had enveloped him. He could, however, hear a shuffling sound, so he turned in its direction. Rather, he thought he turned it its direction; he couldn’t tell if he had actually moved.
A lamp clicked on. This lamp rested on a stand several feet away, and the person who had just turned it on sat next to it in a recliner, which sat in the upright position. The lamp’s light illuminated only the lamp itself, the stand, the chair and the person. This person was Rex, but not the Rex of now, which was a jaundiced and skeletal shell. This was the Rex of last year, plump and lively. This was as Rex appeared prior to his death sentence diagnosis.
Rex looked down at his own body, still clothed in hospital linen. His stomach was larger. He examined his hands, and they were a younger man’s again, not the brittle claws of a chemotherapy patient.
Welcome, the armchair Rex intoned. He spoke without opening his mouth.
“Who are you?” Rex asked, taken aback by his old voice’s reappearance. “Are you me?”
No, the doppelganger replied. He offered no further explanation, choosing instead to stare at Rex.
“Then who are you?” Rex was afraid of the answer, so he added, “Where am I?”
You are everywhere. Look around. Rex’s mirror image lifted a hand from the recliner and made a sweeping motion in a circle over his head. The darkness lit up with stars. Rex looked down and found he was floating in space, above more stars. The mirror Rex floated as well, though he remained in the armchair. The table and lamp had disappeared, no longer needed because of the flood of light the cosmos provided.
Turn around, the mirror Rex said. Rex did. In the distance was the sun, a shimmering pinprick, but growing. Stars were now shooting past him, leaping over his shoulders. Some of them grew much larger, transforming into hulking gray planets that flew by without a sound. The effect was disorienting, yet Rex felt securely fastened to the ground. Familiar planets flew past, but Rex didn’t care to inspect them. His home was getting closer.
Soon the earth loomed over him, clouds crawling slowly over her surface, revealing the oceans and continents hidden underneath. Somewhere down there was his family, huddled around a hospital bed, crying over something but not somebody. The somebody was standing right here, staring at his home, his gut dropping as he realized he was barred from returning.
Would you like me to turn it off? the other him asked. Rex turned around to face himself and slowly nodded. The other him reached over and flipped an invisible switch. With a clicking sound, the lamp and stand returned. The surrounding stars and planets flickered out.
“What now?” he asked. The mirror Rex rose to his feet and stepped to the side of the recliner.
Now you sit.
“That’s it?”
That’s it. The mirror Rex motioned to the seat. It’s quite comfortable.
“This doesn’t sound like heaven,” Rex said.
Who said it was?
“So I’m in hell?”
No. The mirror Rex motioned to the seat again. Please. Sit. You’ll understand.
Rex walked to the recliner and turned to face the blackness. He lowered himself onto the cushion, then looked over to the lamp. He didn’t look at the mirror Rex as he spoke to him, and he found that he no longer needed to open his mouth in order to speak. Can I turn the stars on? Can I watch my home?
You can. Anytime you choose.
Rex reached out to the lamp and placed his hand on it, the switch resting beneath his thumb.
You can watch your home, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Rex turned to the other Rex, but he had disappeared. He flipped off the switch, and the black blanket returned. He sat in the recliner and began to force breaths he no longer needed to move in and out of absent lungs. He counted them until he focused his concentration enough that he became his breaths, and his body dropped away.
He was no longer sick. He no longer missed his family. This made him neither sad nor happy. Rex just was and wasn’t there, and he now realized that this was all he’d ever wanted.


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A. J. Howells is a high school English teacher living in the woods with his wife, son, and soon-to-be-born daughter. His work has previously been featured in ABSENCE.


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