People always say to be strong, as if strength and our capacity for it were something within our control. But strength runs out; it’s inevitable. At some point or another, we fail. We fail so supremely that we just can’t get back up again. It doesn’t have to be any one failure either. In fact, what’s most lethal is the combination of all our little failures. Millions of missed opportunities and shattered dreams forming this nightmare amalgamation of inferiority. And we just break. We just fall and keep falling and don’t get back up.
That’s what was happening to me. I’d messed up one too many times, and now I had to live with it. Well, die with it actually. Because my failure warranted my termination, effective the very next day.
I turned my ticket over in my hands a thousand times. The departure date was stamped on it clearly. I had less than twenty-four hours before my train left. As for my destination, that was anyone’s guess. No one knew what happened at the far terminal. No one had ever come back from it.
In perfect honesty, I was hoping it really was the end of the line. It’d be easier that way. I’d had enough new beginnings to know how much I hated them. An end sounded so easy. No one to meet or try to impress. No one to disappoint. Perfect.
But as much as I wanted that, I couldn’t help my fears. If it was death, if I’d never see another day after tomorrow morning, what did that mean? Would there just be darkness? Would I have consciousness? Or would I be judged? Were my actions and their lack of significance truly about to determine my eternal resting place? I started digging through memories. I’d never been exemplary—that was what landed me in my current situation—but neither had I been particularly bad. I was more or less neutral. But nobody tells you what happens to neutral souls. The gray area doesn’t seem to exist in the afterlife.
But I deserved to die. The ticket office had read my application and confirmed that I had nothing substantial to offer the community. I hardly remembered what I’d written. I’d been in such a state of panic and hatred and sheer desperation that the whole process was just an angry blur in my memory. Earlier that day, something had just clicked in my head, and suddenly I was reeling through every stupid mistake I’d ever made, regardless of how minor it may have been. It was happening more and more, these episodes of turbulent self-loathing, utter disgust at what a useless nothing I was.
When I first started feeling this way, back in a time I had to fight to remember, my mom had told me it was just my fire. I was supposed to embrace it, somehow use it to my advantage. So I tried. I’d paint with it or sing with it or write with it, but I only made myself feel worse. Because it was all so ugly. Everything about me, the true crux of who I was, was just this hideous mess of unyielding devastation I couldn’t make sense of for the life of me.
The door opened and I jumped. I fought the urge to hide my ticket. She had to know. I couldn’t just disappear the next morning; she’d be devastated. I owed her closure at the very least.
My mom was everything you don’t want in a mother. If the goal of procreation is to produce more advanced offspring than the previous generation, I was a major evolutionary setback after her. Mom was an artist. She was every kind of artist. I’d grown up amid paints and instruments and the people who could turn them into magic. In the artist community, she was a goddess. Seriously, her artist followers had elected her their community representative on the city council, a figurehead position for the most part, but one that branded her the best in the business. And the worst part was how effortless it all was for her. She never had to think. She’d just smile and a full masterpiece was born in a matter of moments.
She set her bag down on the table, her hands still splattered with paint from her latest project.
“What a day!” she sighed as she sat beside me.
“Oh, no, just the day. The sky! It’s different everyday, every moment. What I wouldn’t give to be able to change like that. To be everything and anything, a whole universe of change in a single day.”
That sounded awful. We’d never seen eye to eye on the beauty of unpredictability. But I smiled.
“But work was good?”
She pointed at me. “Never work. Work is cleaning up or grocery shopping. What we do is pure joy. And we’re going to have another mural night tonight. Play your cards right and I can get you on the scaffolding with Deb’s son.” She winked at me.
I took a breath. “Actually, Mom—”
“Jane,” she insisted. “I’ve told you. In the community, we’re all of one soul, one generation. Call me Jane.”
She meant well, but in this particular instance, I really just needed her to be my mom. But I nodded. “Okay, Jane… We need to talk. I…” I glanced at the ticket in my hands.
She blinked. “Oh… Is that…? Well, this is something. It came in the mail?”
Nervously, I nodded. “Right… I leave tomorrow.”
“What?” She grabbed the ticket. “No notice? Oh, they’re so rude with these things. It was the same way with your father’s ticket. Well, how on earth are we going to cram all the things you want to do into such a short time?”
I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t that. I was dying. Couldn’t she at least pretend to freak out? Couldn’t she summon her beautiful, ever-changing temperament to have a decent reaction for the death of her child?
“You know, I’m okay. I don’t need to do anything special. Just a normal night.”
She smiled. “If that’s what you want. And Tony is so good at last minute speeches. You’ll have the prettiest eulogy ever heard. He’ll have a ball with this.”
I felt my stomach twisting at her total indifference.
“Actually, maybe we could keep it to ourselves? It might kill the mood.” The absolute last thing I wanted was one of Tony’s weepy speeches stirring up the community sympathies.
She set the ticket down, prepping for another lecture. “In our culture, everything is cause for celebration. We crave inspiration like this… But maybe that’s the problem. You haven’t got enough time to make something of your inspiration, is that it? You’ll leave with all the energy still in you?”
For half a second, I considered telling the truth. Telling her I wanted this, that it was all too late and I couldn’t do this anymore. I hadn’t been inspired in years, since before I could remember. That cheerful little artist child she so wanted me to be had died long ago.
But I swallowed that down. She didn’t need to know. I knew she’d be fine as long as she could keep believing it was out of my hands, that this was truly a community decision and not just some tragic exchange between me and whoever approved ticket applications. She needed to understand it was my fate, something unavoidable and truly for the best. She might not have trusted my judgment alone, but I knew she wouldn’t dare to second guess the whole community. At least, she never had before.
“Yeah,” I said. “That’s probably it.”
She took my hand. “Then I’ll move to make you mural captain tonight. We’ll paint one of your designs.”
“No!” I said too quickly. “I mean… I want to save my designs for when they’re ready. Who knows? There could be paint in the afterlife.”
She sighed. “It’s not the afterlife, Laura. It’s a continuation of life. And it’s whatever you choose to make it. Your dad called it a blank canvas. You can make a mess or a masterpiece. It’s all up to you.”
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