Q: What if you could talk to the dead, paying a year of your life for each minute of conversation?
(scroll down for Chapter three)
Chapter one - Golden Hour
Death was no longer final. There would always be a voice beyond the grave. A voice that could never be silenced. Ever.
He wanted me to call him, I could tell. The multiple robins flying in through my window, the smell of his aftershave lingering in the morning air, the dreams that haunted me each night. He was sending me signs.
Ever since the proliferation of AI led to the discovery of necrophony, the dead were still very much part of the living. Many deceased professionals still consulted from the other side, making it even harder for younger generations to compete in the jobs market. They weren’t the only ones pained. The captains of industry who had finally reached the apex of their careers found their moments of glory overshadowed by the once living. Previous generations were supposed to hand over their batons to the next weren’t they? This lot weren’t budging.
As with all laws of natural selection though, today’s dominants invented new technologies with new job specs to befuddle the old timers and toss them aside in their wake. Ironic that in doing so they threatened their very own existence.
I stared at the phone. It was one of those old-fashioned, rotary phones considered ironically cool by the tech bros. All I had to do was dial 9, say his name and I would get through. A year of my life for each minute of conversation. A condition enforced by the AI so that they could start collecting human life years. We all knew how this would turn out but no one wanted to face up to the truth. It was easier to leave it to the next generation.
I wasn’t ready to speak to him yet. He had only been gone a month and the grief was still raw. I was mad at him…for leaving me, for making me alone again. I had finally found the love of my life, my future, the family I never had. He knew how much my adoption had affected me, how the search for my birth mother had occupied every waking thought… until I had met him. Why did he have to go and ruin it all by getting himself killed?
A tear rolled down my face. Of course I knew it wasn’t his fault. I just missed him so much. Heartache does crazy things. Knowing I could still speak to him wasn’t the same as having him next to me. I stroked the nose of my mother’s china horse, it’s missing tail resembling an open wound akin to my own heart. It soothed me when I was anxious. I was going to repair it, just as soon as I found the lost appendage. The letter she left next to me, as I lay swaddled in a basket, mentioned its whereabouts. Beauty can be found in imperfection. She had it with her, I knew it. She was going to give it to me, as soon as I found her. It was her way of asking forgiveness for giving me up; she just wasn’t capable of looking after me then. She needed time to grow up, for me to grow up…and now, with time on our side, our reunion was going to be that moment of beauty. It was an image that kept me going.
As soon as I could, I filled in a Subject Access Request form and found her name. Marissa Collins. There were over 90 on the internet, 7 dead. I was so desperate to see if my birth mother was still alive that I called each one of the deceased first, knocking years off my life but it was worth it to know that she was still on this side of the realm.
I dialled and spoke his name. He needed to talk to me. He had sent multiple messages after all. The line crackled and then came the all too familiar dialling tone. Pause. I heard him clear his throat and then a hesitant whisper. Aala? Yes, yes Dillon, I whispered back, it’s me. Why are you calling me, he said? We promised. Only in an emergency we said, he continued. What’s the matter? Quick, tell me, don’t waste your time.
I was taken aback. He was the one who had wanted to speak to me, wasn’t he? Before I could say anything, he shot back with frustration in his voice. Aala, you have to take more care with your time. Stop wasting it on pointless calls. Wait, this isn’t for another one of your silly clients is it? Remember what we said. Life is too precious. Revere it. Now darling, go now. I love you. I always will. I’ll be watching over you from the other side. Forever love.
And then he was gone. Again. The phone went dead. I felt a lump rise in my throat and the shock of the harsh conversation made me burst into tears. What was going on? He was the one who had reached out to me, wasn’t he? And what did he mean by silly clients? WTF. I felt the tears turn into anger. He always disapproved of me making calls on behalf of my ‘near death’ clients. They usually had a few years left, many issues to resolve before they crossed over and I was happy to help with a phone call here, a phone call there. It reassured them. I took a deep breath to calm myself down. Breathe, I would say to them. For breath is what gives us life, it’s what separates us from the AI. I was a Kintsugi healer… combining therapy with the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold.
I stroked the nose of my china horse. If it wasn’t Dillon who was it, I wondered? Who wanted me to call them? I looked out. The brilliant sun was setting behind the green hills and I felt a tightness in my throat. The Golden Hour. It was so beautiful, just no one to share it with.
Another robin flew in and sat on the edge of my desk. It chirruped and stared at my mother’s handwritten note. Was this a clue? Did someone have some information on her whereabouts? But who? How would I find them to ask? A sudden bout of coughing broke my concentration. Not again. Ever since Dillon’s passing it was getting worse. I took a sip of water. Maybe I could ask him to probe around in the afterlife for me. Suss it out. But you heard him, he hated me calling from that phone. Would he even take my call? I knew what he would say to me. Focus on the present, stop digging up the past. If she wanted to be found, she would find you. But what did he know? He never had a gaping hole in his heart.
The last sliver of burnished gold was about to dip beyond the horizon. I released a deep sigh. What was I to do?
Chapter two - bleeding gold
Dead. The line. Every time I called him. He didn’t want to talk to me, that was clear. Why was he being so cold? Did I no longer matter now that we were on different sides? I knew his intentions were good, that he didn’t want me to waste any more of my time but this was ridiculous. All I wanted was a quick hello, barely a minute, not even a year off my life and here he was controlling my choices from beyond the grave. Let me waste my life if I want to! He was beginning to piss me off. Just pick up you dead fucker. Jesus, just pick up!
I hated it when he thought he knew better than me. It had always been a contentious part of our relationship but we had always managed to navigate around it. We no longer had the luxury of time to talk through it though. Fine, I’ll call his aunt, the one who doesn’t stop talking, the one who drives him completely nuts and get her to make him call me. But as I was telling her how the cactus that she had given me was thriving even though I had barely touched it, I realised my mistake. She was talking me into my grave. I really have to go Aunt Flo, I mumbled, I think there’s someone at the door. I don’t think so dear, she retorted desperate to cling on to the living, I can’t see anyone. Shit, I forgot the omnipresence of the dead. I really need to go… I whimpered, irritation and despair in my voice, my finger hovering over the receiver button. How could I end this call without appearing rude? I could sense the loneliness in her voice but years were tumbling off my metered lifespan. I felt something brush past my head. Shit, what was that? Without realising, I pressed down on the button, cutting off Aunt Flo. The line went dead. Oops. It was that robin, again. It looked at me and then flew away.
That night I dreamt of my mother. How I imagined her to be. Auburn hair tumbling down her shoulders, translucent green eyes, haunting yet beautiful. She cuddled a sleeping bundle, tenderly kissing it until she handed it over to me before disappearing into the mist. Don’t go, I called but it was too late. I held the swaddling close to me and felt the hard bones against my breast. Odd. I peeled back the clothing to reveal a horse’s tail made out of china, bleeding gold. In my confusion I dropped it and it smashed, the pieces of the white porcelain scattering in all directions. I woke up with a start, coughing, blood on the pillow. My heart was racing. What did this all mean?
White, clinical walls and blue-patterned curtains enfolded my bed. I lay waiting. I was back here again. The last place I wanted to be. The place where I had said my last goodbyes to Dillon, the place where my fate was sealed. The doctor came in, rolled over a chair and sat facing me. It was written all over his face. I was running out of time. The cancer had worsened. I mean, of course it had with the amount of calls I was making to the other side. It was inevitable.
We need to run more tests, just to be sure, the doctor said. I nodded, resigned to the misery awaiting me. I felt nauseous. The doctor looked uncomfortable too. Are you ok, I asked? He nodded and smiled at the role reversal. He then let out a heavy sigh. I’ve got something to tell you, he said. He looked awkward and immediately my worst thoughts overran my brain. I’ve spoken with Dillon, he said. That was not what I expected. What did you just say, I spluttered? I could feel the bile rising. Dillon came to me in a dream and asked me to call him, said the doctor. He said that you’d be visiting me, that I was to let you know that your mother hadn’t used her real name on the paperwork. I felt my heart beating erratically, heat rising. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Why hadn’t Dillon told me himself, put me out of my misery instead of ignoring my calls? I took a deep breath. Did he tell you…give you the correct name, I stuttered. The doctor looked deep into my eyes, trying to read me, trying to work out how I was going to react, whether I was going to shatter like a china ornament. Tell me, I cried. Aalana Lowden, he replied. Aalana… she had given me a part of her name. Tears sprung up. At once, I felt much closer to her. There was so much to ask… where had she grown up, who were her parents, who was my father. I swallowed away the lump that had been building up in my throat. I had been thinking the worst and then this happens. Did Dillon say where she was, I asked? The doctor looked away. My elation waned. I’d seen that look before. When they couldn’t bear seeing you break. And then I knew. She’s with him, isn’t she, I asked. He nodded. She was on the other side.
My world crumbled around me. I no longer had Dillon, I no longer had the search for my mother, I no longer had hope. What was there left for me? I didn’t have long in this world, the cancer was about to ravage me, I felt exhausted from it all. All I wanted was to talk to her, to get answers, what did it matter if I ended my time here prematurely? Would we be able to continue our conversation face-to-face in the other realm? Had Dillon and my mother met on the other side? How did it all work?
The doctor took my hand, first asking for permission to do so with his eyes. I nodded. I made a promise to Dillon, he said, that I wouldn’t let you waste any more of your life. Yes your cancer has worsened but it doesn’t mean that all is lost. There is still more that can be done. Please let me help you. I stood up, I didn’t want to listen to him any more. I was still feeling beaten up from my previous round of treatments, the thought of putting myself through that again was unbearable.
I saw the robin outside the window. It was back. My mother’s robin, telling me to call her. I now knew here real name. I would get through.
Promise me that you won’t call her, the doctor said. Don’t give up now, we can still save you, we can make it go away. You can do it, I know you can, he said. For a moment, a vision of my clients working on their kintsugi, on their selves, paint brushes of bleeding gold healing their wounds came to mind. I couldn’t give up on them, could I? They needed me.
But I needed answers too. I needed to complete my own kintsugi and join that broken tail to my china horse. I had waited all this time to find out about her, about myself. I had lived my whole life in anticipation. I was so close but yet so far. My heart felt heavy. I didn’t know which way to turn. What was I to do?
Chapter three - a mother’s love
Pain. Like shards of glass piercing my heart. My broken dreams shattering into small pieces.
The realisation had struck me hard. I was never going to feel my mother’s arms around me, comforting, reassuring, unconditional. Or know that fierce mother’s love that people talk about. I shed tears for all the pent up hopes and fantasies that I had created over the years. All the it will be fine when… They were never going to happen.
All I had left was her voice, her stories, her answers. Consolation was in having something to hold on to. Pain was in the forgetting, not remembering.
I picked up the phone. A dead line. Odd. I tried again but nothing. The door bell rang and I went to get it, irritated by the distraction. An empty porch; a prank by kids. I checked the surrounding area but all I could see was a robin flying away. Mother? Was she sending me more signals. I’m trying, I called out.
I returned to the phone and picked up the receiver. An urgent voice. Aala? Weird, I hadn’t even dialled. Yes, yes it’s me, I replied. Is that you Dillon? Why won’t you talk to me? Is she there? Is my mother with you? The line went dead.
Thud, thud, thud. What now? A flurry of brown and red. A blur of midnight black. A crash as a whirligig of russet and vermilion collided into the window behind me, again and again, each impact leaving a larger smear of crimson on the glass. Jesus, the robin. A black crow on its tail. Stop, stop, I waved my arms but it was pointless. Wings broken, beak bloodied, the little robin torpedoed one final time into the glass before sliding to the ground. Dial tone returned. I ran out but it was too late. The little bird was dead.
Covering it with leaves and washing the mess off the window, tears welled up. Everything around me magnified and blurred by the meniscus of my tears. What had just happened? What was going on? Tears tumbled down my cheek. Shaken, I returned inside and steadied my nerves. Someone really didn’t want me to call her. Dillon. But why? I felt more determined now. The robin’s death was not going to be in vain. I dialled. My heart thud, thud, thudded as I waited. Was this to be the moment that I finally get through? Was I actually going to speak with my mother? My heart raced, out of control, unbearable. Then I heard her voice. Aala? It was soft and breathy, higher than I had expected. Aala is that you, she repeated. I squeaked, lump in throat, unable to speak, tears streaming down my face. My darling, she said, my dearest Aala, we don’t have long, Dillon will be back. I have to speak with you. Are you there, my sweet Aala? Can you hear me? I have to tell you how sorry I am, how terribly sorry I am for letting them take you away from me…I couldn’t cope, it didn’t come naturally to me and I lost my head…I know we don’t have long…but I need you to understand. I need you to know. I didn’t abandon you. I was always coming back for you… but…
Her voice cracked. A muffled pause. I could hear her trying to collect herself. It’s ok Mum, I soothed. I heard her take a deep breath and whisper to herself, breathe…for breath is what gives us life. I felt my emotions rising in my throat. That was my saying! Or was it? I didn’t know any more. I waited for her to continue. I was always coming back for you, she repeated, but I ended up here…where I’ve been watching you from afar my darling…how amazing you’ve become…how proud I am of you…helping all those people…so many people…and I wish someone could help you, that I could help you fix that heaviness in your heart…make you whole again. She sounded like she was openly crying now. I was too, gulping air, wishing I could hug her, hold her, smell her. But we were on different sides of the realm, separated at birth and in death. Mum, I sobbed. Aala, I have to finish, she wept, I need to make you understand. To heal, you need to understand. I love you Aala, I always will. Oh my goodness, I have so much to say but there’s no time, I have to let you go. Dillon will be here soon. He doesn’t know. I can’t let history repeat itself. A child needs its mother, just like you needed me. Not again. I’m not going to let it happen to you and your daughter. You don’t have long my darling but enough time to heal for her.
Wait. I felt an ache in my heart. What was she talking about? Who was she referring to? She said, for her? My daughter? I could feel the blood draining from my head. I felt faint as black and white lines zigzagged in front of my eyes. What daughter, I asked? What do you mean Mum? Then I understood, the nausea, the overwhelming feelings, that night with Dillon before he passed.
All the questions I wanted to ask my mother, of her life, of my father, the pieces of my puzzle suddenly fell into place. They didn’t matter. What mattered now was the preservation of my life for my unborn child. I saw the black crow return as a coughing fit engulfed me. I fought back. I wasn’t going to let them take me. Mum, I have to go, I gasped. Tell Dillon that I love him, that I’ll do everything I can to stay with her until she no longer needs me, that I’m going to be the best Mum a little girl could ever hope for and that I’m going to show her what a fierce mother’s love feels like. Tears of joy were spilling down my face now. Thank you Mum, for calling me, for sending me your robin. I have to go, I have to stay alive. I’m hanging up now…
Wait, she called out, wait, that was Dillon with the robins, trying to protect you, to stop you from wasting your time, looking out for his family from the other side. Forever love. With that, the line went dead.
I remembered all the times the robin had appeared, watching over me, cutting short my phone calls, pointing out my mother’s handwritten note, Beauty can be found in imperfection. Wait… I suddenly looked at it. Wait…Then I understood. The answer had been there all this time.
Sometimes we have to break before we can make ourselves whole. The art of kintsugi had taught me that. I had spent my whole life looking for the broken tail in order to fix my mother’s china horse, to fix me, only to discover that it had been there all along. Inside. I knew where to find it as soon as I had that moment of enlightenment. It was inside the horse. Perfectly lodged within its flanks. One strike with a hammer and it fragmented nicely. Beautifully pieced and easy to put back with gold paint. Whole again. Like me.
The brilliant sun was setting behind the green hills. The Golden Hour. It was so beautiful, watching it sink beyond the horizon with our little daughter, perfectly swaddled in my arms. A little robin fluttering by our side. A black crow never too far away. I was at peace, enjoying the moment. Finally happy. The gaping hole in my heart sealed with the golden light.
Dedicated to my ever-vibrant friend Vanessa, who passed over to the other side before her time. I wish I could call you…
If you are suffering from grief, reach out - www.mind.co.uk/bereavement
If you need to talk to someone, call The Samaritans on 116 123 (UK) or 1(800) 273-TALK (US).
🖼️: DreamStudio by Stability AI