The Waiting Room–Published Short Fiction by Shad Olson
James Grandy awoke to find himself surrounded by a blinding envelope of white nothing. His eyes fluttered for a second and then snapped shut again, awash in a sudden freshet of tears that stung his eyes and wet his cheeks. Where was he? What was this place? In the brief instant of vision, James had the peculiar sensation of what it must be like to be suspended on the inside of an electrified florescent tube. His teeth and lips quivered with a strange resonance of unfamiliar conductive warmth. Where was this place?
“Welcome, Mr. Grandy.” The booming voice seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere at the same time. Rather than emanating from a single amplified source, it seemed to vibrate and issue from the very cells of his body. His eyes and skin and ears and hair tingled with the buzzing sensation. It would take some getting used to. Perhaps, he never would.
“Where am I?”
“What is this place?”
As he formed the words, James realized that his ownvoice was carried with the same buzzing transcendence as the magnificent internal intercom from above. He heard the sounds in a muffled echoing blast from inside his head. It was like blowing the words outward underwater in the bubbling, swimming pool games of childhood.
Just like an underwater tea party at Cody Park Municipal Swimming Pool.
How strange it all felt! So very different from the vivid- real connection to the physical world of life on earth. For this wasn’t earth anymore, or was it? James wasn’t sure of anything, anymore, but he knew that much, at least. He was no longer on earth. Something had happened.
Don’t be silly, Mr. Grandy. You’ve never been to Cody Park Municipal Swimming Pool.
What? Who had said that? The words came from inside his head, again, but this time, James jolted with a start as he noticed a newly arrived figure emerging from the milky stillness of one of the florescent walls, if this place had walls. He felt a certainty that the approaching entity had spoken the words, or was at least responsible for having them enter his mind. Was this the telepathy that people talked about, from time to time? Aliens communicate that way, they do. Put the words directly inside your brain. Saves time and effort. It’s efficient, that way.
On earth, he had been a businessman of some distinction, in charge of financial strategies that made money for his investors and a comfortable living for his family; his wife, Susan and their three children, Tom, Molly and Sarah. Tom and Molly were away at college already and doing fine. Sarah was a high school junior, enjoying the absence of her older siblings and luxuriating in her newfound status as the lone recipient of her parents’ attentions. The baby of the family, Sarah was smart, headstrong and independent, just like her mother, and pretty, besides. She had her mother’s golden locks and the same set of dramatically arching cheekbones and pearly-perfect teeth. She was a handful of sass that was at once, gray-hair inducing, and undeniably, exuberantly invigorating to be around. She radiated the joy of life and celebrated every moment to the fullest.
Just like her mother. Just like her beautiful, unmatchable mother. My wife! My beautiful wife!
Suddenly, James Grandy collapsed to his knees, his eyes awash in tears and his chest constricted by the choking arrival of memory and grief. He missed his wife and his family. It was as if a portion of his most tender flesh had been rendered from his body and tossed away. His soul ached at the emptiness and at the hollow longing for reunion. Would he ever see them again? What had happened? Why had he been taken to this place?
“Don’t be alarmed, Mr. Grandy. The memories will soften. They will fade with time, and once they’ve lost their jagged edges, you’ll come to prize them as the greatest treasure of all. They will not remain as painful as you find them to be at the moment.”
Grandy looked up from his kneeling collapse to see the figure that had approached from out of the milky stillness, beyond. It was a young boy of maybe seven or eight. He had sandy blond hair, cut pageboy style, framing a face that was to Grandy, both angelic and oddly familiar. His eyes, though blue and clear, seemed impossibly ancient and wise. They belonged in the face of someone much older, who had seen a life filled with both tragedy and redemption. Grandy found them instantly comforting and worthy of trust and respect. He was glad the boy had arrived. Despite his obvious disadvantage in stature, the boy had no trouble helping Grandy to his feet. Words entered Grandy’s mind exactly as if they’d been spoken by a human mouth and resonated on human eardrums, but Grandy noticed, the boy’s lips never moved. Not at all.
“Come with me, Mr. Grandy. Let me show you around, a little. There are some things I think you need to see.”
“But, where am I?” James asked. “What is this place? Am I in Heaven?” James had the feeling he was capable of the same thought-speak that the boy was using to communicate, but he spoke the words in the normal fashion anyway. It was an earthly habit he wasn’t ready to relinquish. Not yet.
“All in good time, Mr. Grandy,” the boy said, without speaking. “Let us walk for a while, and talk. It will give you a chance to relax and settle in. It’s something that everyone experiences when they make their reawakening.”
With that the boy took Grandy’s hand and began leading him gently forward, farther into the whiteness that seemed a formless void without wall, floor, or ceiling. Walking itself was a strange sensation to Grandy. Despite lacking any discernible surface, or distinguishing separation between up, down, or sideways, there was firmness beneath his feet that supported their progress. They were moving, to be sure, step-by-step, but direction and destination were impossible to determine. For the moment at least, it was utterly beyond Grandy’s understanding. It was a predicament the boy seemed instantly to recognize and understand.
“Just walk with me, Mr. Grandy. Your eyes will adjust, as will your feet and your balance. You’ll soon discover there’s more definition to this place than you realize but with absolutely no danger of falling down, or up, or in any direction, for that matter.”
Grandy was thankful for the stabilizing addition of the boy’s hand in his own, and realized that like his attachment of familiarity to actually using his mouth to speak, his stepping feet were equally unnecessary. The boy was allowing him to walk to ease his adjustment to a state of being that was unsettling in every way. This place would take some getting used to. Again, the boy understood.
“What you’re discovering, and about to discover, Mr. Grandy, are things that even the wondrous complexities of the human mind are completely incapable of fully containing. There simply isn’t room for all of it, all at once. It would be like attaching a water balloon to a fire hose. There’s no sense in overwhelming the system.”
A water balloon and a fire hose.
The mere mention of earthly connections sent Grandy into another memory rush containing a kaleidoscope of images from his earthly life. He saw himself in the backyard of the Grandy family summer cabin, the air filled with the shrieks and laughter of three children engaged in all-out combat. Armed with squirt guns and water balloon grenades, they were chasing each other this way and that, shouting threats of watery revenge before taking careful aim or ducking for safety.
Susan was watching them with smiling eyes, her thick hair pulled back in a rubber band. She was wearing a brightly colored, two-piece swimsuit and one of his button down dress shirts as a cover-up. She looked amazing, as always, sun-kissed and mischievous in that playful way that he loved, and could never resist. In one hand, she held a sweating glass of sun-brewed iced tea. Peppermint and Lemon zest. Her favorite. James saw himself, busy over a sizzling barbecue of hamburgers and hot dogs and foil- wrapped corn on the cob. It smelled delicious, and it had tasted even better.
Later that night, after the grill had cooled with the approach of evening, and the meal scraps had been cleared away, all five of them had relaxed on the sloping grass to watch fireworks burst and explode, high above the lake. As the reds and blues and showers of gold trailed down to leave their blurred reflections on the stillness of the water, his oldest daughter had laid a tired head against his shoulder. With his firm wife on one side, and his children snuggled around, his daughter Molly had wrapped her ten-year old hand around his finger as she watched the explosions overhead. It was their special game, he remembered. A reminder of the day she was born when he’d held her for the first time in the hospital operating room and she’d done exactly the same thing, grasping his finger tightly in one hand as her tiny lungs gulped in their first breaths in the bright and newly discovered world. He’d told her the story over and over as she’d grown up, turning that single moment into dozens more, when father and daughter would share again the joyful recollection of her blinking arrival into the world and into their family. It was one of Grandy’s favorite snapshots of a life he’d loved, and would never live again.
I love you, daddy.
With those words echoing in his head, James Grandy realized he was weeping again, torn back to this empty place of never ending white where he was walking an unseen floor, toward an unseen, unknowable destination of light. The hand holding his finger belonged not to his beloved daughter but to his tow-headed companion, who was still leading him forward, deeper into the milky stillness of a dream.
“It’s ok, Mr. Grandy. The memories will pass. They’re painful, for all of us, I know.”
James was puzzled at that, and more than a bit out of sorts. What could this boy know of losing a family? What could he possibly understand about having a life ripped away in an instant, never to be reclaimed, with so many unfinished moments and possibilities that would never be realized?
All of us? What did that mean? What did any of it mean? Why was he here? Where was he being taken?
“Be patient, Mr. Grandy. The answers to all of your questions are here. They are all here. But it isn’t time yet, and there’s just enough time for a nice walk to help with it all. You’ll be glad for the walk, when it’s all said and done.”
James Grandy noticed that the boy never looked up at him when he spoke, and never made a move to draw closer, even when he’d been in the midst of his latest bout of memory and sadness. They never stopped walking, as if the destination mattered far more than anything James was experiencing along the way. The boy’s wise and ancient eyes stared straight ahead in a fixed gaze, as if he was seeing something miles, maybe years away, behind a curtain that James could not yet see beyond. Still, there was something oddly familiar about the boy, and familiar too about the grasp of his small hand around James’ fingers. Oddly familiar. James scanned the boy’s smooth face for any sign that his thought had caused trouble, or reason for explanation, and saw none. For James himself, his own thoughts were proving troublesome enough. Why was he here? From where had he come? Swirling images of memory danced inside his mind, tumbling this way and that with smoky shreds of detail, here and gone again. Memories of journeys and rest, of love and of sadness, precious moments of simple pleasures, captured and floating like dandelion seeds, blown away in a spring breeze.
Dandelion fuzz. Another memory.
With a handful of words, James was gone again, back to the world of sunshine and clouds, and color, where three children frolicked and played in an open field. The girls in their summer dresses, and Tom in his overalls, they ran and raced and jumped in a green meadow, filled one end to the other with the downy cotton of dandelions, gone to seed. The floating mirage of liberated peach fuzz curled and undulated in exploding clouds, wherever the children’s feet would touch. It trailed out behind them like the gauzy tail of a comet, marking their path. They were lost in the moment. From a soft picnic blanket, James and his wife watched their children’s happy, dashing adventure before leaping to their feet to give chase. James tugged on his wife’s hand to lead the charge as they ran whooping and laughing across the cottony meadow for a game of tag. One by one, they took turns running after each other and dodging, before collapsing in a giggling pile of sweat and exhaustion, ready for a glass of lemonade and a patch of well-earned shade. It was another wonderful day. A day he would always remember. A day among thousands that had made him the happiest of men, content and alive in the family-rich details of daily life. From the dandelion patch and the game of tag, James indulged himself with a series of clippings from his memory basket, smaller notions of this thought, or that, pausing only to absorb the simple emotions that acted as bookmarks in the vast filing system of his life. At times, a single object, sound, or smell that would carry him instantly to the places of emotion where he stored his favorite bits of a life well-lived.
The basketball hoop in the driveway. White flowers on his wedding day.
A baby bassinet.
Molly’s favorite blanky.
Fishing poles and cross-country skis.
The family Christmas tree, trimmed in cranberries and popcorn.
Susan under the mistletoe.
His beautiful Susan.
How he missed his wife! How he missed his family, his children, his life! Why had this happened? How had it happened? He was dead now, obviously. His life over in an instant to be replaced by this sterile waiting room outside of heaven, if that’s where he was. There was so much he didn’t understand and so many questions without answers.
“No, James. Not dead. Not killed.”
Still walking with his young escort in this place of blinding light, James was brought back to the endless trail of his feet on a path he could still not see. He was getting tired of this walking game. Of what use is walking in Heaven? What was it for? Where was he going? Couldn’t luminous beings of spirit and light move about as they pleased, without the crude conventions of walking? Of course they could. James remembered a conversation with his childhood pastor from long ago, a man who had noticed James’ abilities for deeper thinking and who had used that fascination to draw James’ deeper into his faith. Einstein got it wrong, my boy, his pastor had said. The most overpowering velocity in the universe is not the speed of light. It is the speed of a thought! The speed of thought is God’s ultimate speedometer. It’s the speed that brought the universe into being and flung the stars into space with a single word. It’s the only speed that really matters. The speed of thought, or the speed of a memory. James longed to wing away to this land of remembrance, and be gone forever, lost amid the stacks of his favorite earthly images. It was a tempting alternative to a journey he could still not understand or comprehend. Why did he have to die? What would happen to Susan and the children? Who would provide for them? What about their educations? Tuition? Books? Food? Mortgage?
A myriad of detail rushed through James’s troubled mind as he struggled to piece it all together. Once again, the boy understood perfectly what the man was thinking and why. With a single sentence, he caught James’ attention and held it, instantly drawing the man’s eyes to his own, with a gaze that seemed finally ready to unveil the secret knowledge that had puzzled and perplexed the man for what seemed like eons, since his arrival. As the boy began to speak, James was suddenly aware that they were now surrounded, as far as he could see in every direction, by children dressed in white. They were similar in age to the boy who had led him there, and standing very still, as if they each knew what was about to be said.
“James. You never died. You haven’t been killed.”
“You never died, because you were never born.”
The words hit their mark. James staggered where he stood, collapsing again, downward amidst the outstretched tiny arms and hands of the multitude of linen-clad children who instantly pressed in to support him. Their knowing faces were filled with the light of recognition and sorrowed wisdom. James thought he finally understood.
“My mother. It was my mother, wasn’t it? Did she……? Did they…before I was born….?”
The unfinished question, choked in his throat, was precisely the one the boy seemed to have expected, they had all expected.
“No, James. It was not your mother. That would have been impossible. You never had a mother, either.”
For the first time in several moments, the young boy turned and lifted his face to allow James to look upon him in a way he’d prevented since they began their walk of memory, what seemed like forever ago, centuries ago, perhaps. The boy’s clear blue eyes were brimming with tears that spilled onto his smooth skin, untarnished by earthly elements. The features were still familiar to James in the way that had at once comforted and puzzled him when he’d first arrived. Suddenly, he knew why. It was a face from his memories, but much younger than the way it was contained in snippets and shreds of what James had always believed were the earthly recollections of his life, past. The boy was his father.
“James, your mother did nothing to you, because she never existed.” The boy spoke the words the old fashioned way, actually moving his lips for the first time since James had heard him speak. The movements of the mouth and the formation of the syllables removed all doubt as to the boy’s identity, and instantly explained why he had chosen telepathy in the early going. The true depth of knowledge would have been far more than James could have handled. Even now, the implications of what he was saying were too much.
But, you’re my father! I remember you! I loved you!
You hugged me and held my hand a thousand times, just as surely as I held the hands of my daughters, and hugged them and kissed the lips of my wife, and held my newborn children in my arms! I lived! I breathed! I watched all of it happen! I know it happened! It all happened! I lived it all! Every bit of it!
James screamed the words inside himself with a voice that was a crushing wave of bitter anguish and realization. Fragments of floating memory swam before him, seeming to lose their shape somehow, stretched and distorted like the overgrown soap bubbles he’d watched his children play with on the winds of a thousand, joyous summer days.But I never had children? I never played with them? Never knew them? Never loved them? Never, really? It was all a dream? A dream I never lived?
“A dream in the mind of God,” the boy-father said. From the depths of his soul, James Grandy was weeping now, but not alone. They were all weeping. As far as his tear- flooded eyes could see, James saw he was afloat in an ocean of lost and crying children, just like himself. From horizon to horizon, forgotten children, dressed in white, swaying together in a mass choir of shared sadness and the longing of memories they had never lived. They knew his pain, and he knew theirs. They shared it, together. It washed over them and across the far reaches of this whitening place like a torrential chorus of pleading voices lifted to heaven.
WE WANTED TO LIVE! WE WANTED TO LIVE!
Over and over, their shared shout of lost lives echoed and tumbled. James and his unborn father lifted their voices in unified longing, cleansing and capturing the sadness of new arrival and awareness in a way that began to soothe and quiet the ragged edges of pain too deep to measure. And then, from somewhere amidst the stilling crowd of forgotten mourning, it happened. A tiny hand, much smaller and more delicate than the boy’s, reached up to grasp a finger of James’s right hand. The encircling warmth of a familiar grip caused James to look down into an upraised face that had filled so many of his sweetest memories. It was the face of his oldest daughter, smiling the familiar smile that would never be seen, or enjoyed by eyes of flesh and blood and heartbeat. It was Molly. And beside her, a younger boy and girl, their faces and hair so soaked with tears it seemed they had come fresh from a water fight in the backyard of a summer home they would never truly know.
I lived too, Daddy.
And I remember you, Daddy. We all do. And we love you.
We love you, still. We’ve always loved you. And we always will.
The words brought James Grandy to his knees, for good, dissolved in hugs and kisses and the ocean of tears that would never end. Generations of souls, set to flight in the Creator’s mind, yet never allowed to spread their wings on earth. The weeping chorus of reunion and regret began anew, and continued, until the oldest soul of the Grandy clan spoke again. You see, James, my son, our destinies exist, and ultimately, whether we are born or not, have their only existence, inside the mind of God. For Him, there is no past and no present, no future, and no end, no distinction between His purpose for us, and what ultimately happens in a sinful, fallen world before our birth. There is only the, “Eternal Now,” as we’ve come to call it. And the sadness of a Father-Creator who has watched generations of His children snuffed out before they lived to see the physical destinies of His creation. An ocean of souls He has breathed to life, never allowed actual breath down below.
For James Grandy, the words were only the start of a journey that would require dozens more connections before his understanding would be complete. Hadn’t he still a thousand-thousand memories of life on earth, containing even the most minute details of physical experience? The sweet taste of a juicy watermelon on a summer day. The musky stir of an autumn breeze as it rattled through piles of crispy fallen leaves. The creamy- cool goodness of a vanilla ice cream cone. The gentle brush of his wife’s sugar-sweet kiss on his lips. What of those? Where had they come from? How could he be so certain of a life he was never allowed to live?
The answer is simple, my son. What you feel and taste and touch and “remember,” as you might say it, about your life and the memories of it, are the dimensional tracings of what your life would have been, but that exist now, only in the mind of God, Himself. You are conscious of them, because He allows you to be, in the same way He allows all of us to see the goodness and beauty of our lives as we soak in His presence and His infinite love. I’ve come to understand that it’s a gift that He gives each of us as a sort of compensation for what we never experienced in fullness. A final confirmation of the good and perfect gifts He intended for us to enjoy on earth, but that were never allowed manifestation in the physical realm.
With that, James Grandy, his unborn father and unborn children and all the million voices of lost and misplaced generations turned as one to make their way toward the source of the brightness taking shape beyond the veil between fading memory and pain. HE was waiting for them there, as He always was when new arrivals had been suitably welcomed and settled in. It was time for reunion, and peace and healing; the kind that only their Papa-Yahweh could provide. A precious embrace reserved only for those forgotten, eternal souls destined to spend their forever’s forever, remembered only as the snowy- white wisps of a dandelion dream, breathed to life inside the mind of God.
“Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you…” Jeremiah 1:5