Sean pulls into the back parking lot of Charly's and I hop out of the passenger seat. I know this can't be happening, but I let myself melt into the moment, fewer and fewer these days. We walk through the back door, through the short hallway that leads to the bar. Cheri is standing at the well, pressing a cigarette into an ashtray. I am taken aback to see her here. She is short and heavy set, but her smile, always truly dazzling despite yellowed, rotting teeth, is now bright white and symmetrical - perfect. I think I know what is happening, but it is confirmed when, in the corner of the bar I see Nick, James, Krystal, Amy. They've all got just one thing in common.
They're all dead.
My hand is clasped in Sean's and he pulls me along to a barstool. "It's fine. Just sit down." His deep voice strikes me, and I nod obediently. I am confused. "You need a drink," and again, I nod, and instantly Gabriel is walking across the bar towards me, clasping a beer in both hands. He is 19.5 inches tall, but he skillfully sets the bottle in front of me and squeezes a lime through the neck, then beams at me proudly, like he's been waiting for years to do this for me. I finally find my voice.
"What are you doing here?"I demand, and his lower lip quivers, stabbing me with immediate regret for how I've handled this reunion that I've longed for. "Come sit with Momma." He slides from the bar to stand on my lap, turns himself around, and sits on me, pulling my arm securely around him. I stroke his bandaged head and tilt his face up to kiss his forehead and my heart throbs. I rub his slender arms and legs, my chin resting on his head, and I feel like I can stay this way forever. This is the closest to whole that I've felt in so long.
The door opens, and Elliott walks in. Gabriel leaps from my lap, hoists himself onto the bar, and runs to Cheri, who hands him a drink for Elliott. Beside me, Sean reminds me of his presence with a nudge. "I'll be right back." He stands.
"No. No, don't go. Stay right here."
"I'm just going to the bathroom."
"Don't go. Please."
"I'll be right back." He cups my face with his hand. It all feels so familiar. I watch him walk away, through the doorway, until he disappears behind the door. I brace myself for the feeling of helplessness that will soon swallow me. The sound of the gunshot does not surprise me. but I can still feel it all through me. I sit, my voice caught in my throat, and scan the barroom for comfort. Only then do I notice that James, Kim and Krystal are all staring in the same direction, a fresh bullet wound in each of their temples dripping down their necks. Amy is lying with her face on the bar, unconscious, and Nick is reaching for her, a syringe hanging from the crook of his elbow, a tie-off wrapped around his bicep.
I don't want to be here anymore. I'm not done. I miss them, I miss them all, but this is not what I thought it was. This is no Heaven.
I begin to wonder. where are the old people? Where are my grandparents, or Jack or Sue and the others who died of natural causes after a long full life? That is what I want. I don't want to be here.
Then I feel a tug at my sleeve. I turn. Gabriel is looking at me with the grey eyes that I have missed every day since he's been gone. It's my job to care for him, but I'm looking to him to save me. "Momma, it's Eden." My mouth drops open. Tears fill my eyes, spilling onto my cheeks, onto Gabriel's arm still clinging to my sleeve. I can hear Eden's babbling through the static of the baby monitor. My eyes remain locked with Gabriel's as I teeter on the edge of consciousness, knowing that I must wake up to tend to my daughter, but reluctant to leave the son I can only hold in my dreams. He leans in to kiss my wet cheek, and I close my eyes until I can't feel him anymore.
When I wake, the hollow in my heart is visceral and real. Just as I allowed Sean to lead me through my dream, I follow Eden's cues, which prompt me to put one foot in front of the other. I navigate another day in the life of a woman torn between Heaven and here.