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India's Afterlife

After her heart stopped in her sleep at age nineteen, India Romero woke up—not to the  

last-remembered comfort of her bed but in a gray expanse. The first thing she noticed was an icy surface beneath her bare feet. Glancing down, she found it to be a floor the color of smoky quartz stretching forward indeterminately. No walls or furniture rested upon it, and no grass or flowers grew beyond it. The air hung gray around her, moving in misty patches, and though she squinted hard, she could detect nothing else in it. India saw herself, suddenly, as a little lifeboat stranded in a vast ocean, and she began to cry. 


Then a movement—a something in those far foggy reaches—caught her eye. It resembled a grimy fingerprint smudged against glass and stretched, like taffy, to a towering height. As soon as she saw it, the thing began moving rapidly towards her. It drew across the floor as if impelled by some invisible force, its gray form making no discernable movements in itself. India’s knees softened like butter beneath her, and she collapsed. The thing loomed above  

her; she pulled herself into a kneeling position and bent her head before it. 


She waited for a small eternity, trembling, before finally croaking out, “Are you . . . God?” 


The thing emitted a low rumble, like a laugh. “You can call me that.” 


India hesitated, then asked where they were. 


“An in-between place,” the thing replied. “A place existing only for this conversation.” It 

explained that her recent earthly departure necessitated an important decision. A decision, it emphasized, that would impact her eternal fate. “You have two choices,” it continued. “The first is termination, returning you to nothingness. The second is a partial termination—your physical body is terminated while your mind is preserved. Your consciousness, then, would be sent back into a gallery of your memories. Lacking a permanent physical form, you could not alter the memories or create new ones . . . yet your consciousness would experience the old memories as if living them again.” 


Shaking, India mumbled a question regarding heaven . . . new life eternal . . .. 


Heaven.” The thing rumbled again. “If I had wanted you to live forever, I never would have killed you in the first place; you could have continued to live on earth indefinitely. But imagine—for just a moment, please—the magnitude of a human race that refused to die . . . each individual life expanding infinitely, new lives constantly jumping in. You would be like ants in a jar—as your numbers swarmed forth and filled it, the jar must expand in endless proportion. No, that would be too much for even me to manage. It’s much better to deal with the finite.” 


India began to cry again. “Please, I was so young.” 


“Make your choice.” 


She took one last rattly breath and said, “Memories. Let me live in my memories.” 


In the next instant, everything before her blinks away—she is floating, suddenly, in a  

pitch-black pool, weightless as an astronaut. How much time passed, she can’t be sure—maybe a second, maybe years—before a thin line of light slices through the darkness like a comet. It blazes away from her, sparks crackling, and her weightless form rises, hurdling after it. The thing grows bigger, more defined as she pursues it; she realizes, gradually, that it isn’t a comet at all but a tiny red car blazing across a night highway. The distance between them closes—the car swells bigger and bigger, and shadowy tree shapes lumber out of the darkness beside it. Through the car window, she glimpses a familiar, brown-skinned girl sitting in the passenger seat. Slipping through the roof of the car, she is drawn to the girl like a rushing stream, then slips inside her.  


Gravity slammed into her, and she was hit by a million sensations—the rumble of the  

vehicle beneath her, the brush of silk against her leg, the icy embrace of silver around her throat. She felt her head turn to the left (her mind rides along with it, peering out the eyes), and then she saw him. Staring ahead, smiling slightly, and drumming his fingers against the wheel. 


(“Dad!” her mind screams. She tries to part her lips, coax the word out) but the lips sat  

like cement blocks, glued together. (“Dad!” A tsunami of love washes over her, pulls her under. She can’t breathe; her throat fills with burning saltwater. She tries to lift her hand from beneath the waves, tries to clutch at him) her arm rose; it reached towards the radio, turned the dial up. (“Dad!” she cries. “Do you know yet? Are you okay?”) Instead, she said, “Hey, you’ve played this song around the house before, right? It sounds familiar.” 


Dad looked at her. Grinned. “Yeah, it’s Tom Petty. Even the Losers. My favorite song of  

his.” 


Her lips pulled into a smile. “It’s beautiful.” Tom Petty’s voice swelled in the small car,  

filling the black air they flew through and all the spaces in between. He crooned, howled:

“Well, it was nearly summer, we sat on your roof. Yeah, we smoked cigarettes and stared at the moon. And I showed you stars you never could see. Babe, it couldn’t have been that easy to forget about me.” 


Trembling, her mind pulls away; with a great effort, she pops out her skin like a cork from a bottle, and then she is flying, weightless again, through the black space. The car shrinks into the distance, twinkles, then disappears. Racing along, India catches far-away glimpses of color, a parade of images thrusting into her mind. She remembers: 


Her first step. How her dad beams and claps, but there are tears in his eyes. 


Her first month of college. Weeks: classes and studying; weekends: her empty dorm room  

and more studying. Another lonely weekend . . . sitting on her bed, her phone upon her lap—open to her dad’s number. Her finger hovers again and again over the call icon, but she can’t press it. She turns her phone off. She doesn’t want him to know. 


Sleeping over at Grandma’s house: she’s tucked in a sleeping bag in the basement, and  

her twin brother Lucas lies beside her. They are eight years old, and she whispers ghost stories to him all night long. He whispers back in the dark, “I won’t be able to sleep ever again,” and snuggles closer to her. 


Her mind flies on and on. Gradually, a faint sound rises around her in the darkness; it  

starts off soft, far-away, little more than a hum . . . but as she rushes forward, it swells around her, rumbling—vibrating the air. “Baby, time meant nothing,” Tom Petty cries. “Anything seemed real.” Then she sees the red car again, and the music catches her, pulling her in like a current. The car grows closer again as it pulls into a crowded parking lot, and she sinks back into her body. 


All around them, kids in shiny dresses and tuxedos were spilling out of cars, holding hands, rushing like colorful dust motes into a large building. Music pumped through the building’s walls like the pulsing of a giant heart. 


She gazed at her dad’s face, glowing in the darkness like a large brown moon. “Be safe,”  

he said. 


“Of course.” India kissed him on the cheek, laughing a little. “It’s only prom.” 

She stepped out of the car, and the gleaming mass of teenagers swept around her like a  

river, delivering her to the building’s doors. She was almost inside, a little pebble lost in the sea of people, when she stopped. Bobbing in the doorway, she turned and looked back. People pushed and jostled against her, yet she remained anchored, her eyes sweeping across the parking lot. Finally, in a glistening moment, she found what she had been searching for: she locked eyes hand back. The moment broke, and time rushed on; India let herself be swept away again. Her dad watched those big doors swallow her as Tom Petty cried, “Baby, even the losers get lucky sometimes. Even the losers keep a little bit of pride. They get lucky sometimes.” 


She slides out, suddenly, into the darkness, as fast as she was sucked in. Memories flash  

madly around her—bits of color, sound, and smells flaring in and out of existence in the blink of an eye. 


She’s been in college for a little over a month now; it’s yet another lonely weekend. She  

sits on her bed again, her finger frozen over her dad’s number. She contemplates touching it—her finger twitches—and she imagines the phone ringing in shrill cries, like an infant or lamb warbling for its parent. A knock sounds at her door, and she glances up from her phone. Turns it off. She walks to the door and opens it to a girl’s face, vaguely familiar. The face smiles. “Hey, I’m Gina,” it says. “I live just down the hall.” She extends an invitation to India— “Come hang out with us”—and India accepts. She steps out the door and enters a new world. 


She is six, and her dad has just smacked his elbow hard against the dinner table as he sits down. Wincing, he cradles his arm and wonders aloud, “Why do people call it the funny bone? More like the hurts-like-hell bone.” India and Lucas erupt into laughter; they shake in their chairs and shriek, “Hurts-like-hell bone, hurts-like-hell bone, hurts-like-hell bone!” Finally, Dad says, “That’s enough!” but he is laughing too, little tears leaking out the corners of his eyes. She’s been at college for three months now. She and Gina have formed a poetry club. They meet once a week in an empty classroom: seven students armed with the poems they have discovered. They pour over them together, dripping a feverish sweat as they laugh, love, shake, cry, and mourn. The fever spreads to their fingers, and India  

remembers the crackle of electricity as her pencil hits paper and words spill out—frantic, alive, devouring the page. Oh, she would kill to feel that lightening of new words, of fresh revelation, race out her fingertips anew .  . . but this one thing she no longer remembers how to do. 


She remembers the prom now: how she dances the night away, how the boy places his  

hands over her hips, how she takes off her high heels and lets the music pulse up her legs. The music dies and the lights turn back on and she picks up her phone to call her dad (he had promised to wait up for her, to give her a ride home) when the boy she danced with leans down, whispers in her ear. And how she hesitates for a moment . . . then looks at him, smiles, and nods. 


She remembers going home with him, and she watches the silhouettes of their bodies move against his white bed sheets. She watches, afterward, as they lay silently side by side; he’s on his phone, scrolling through Instagram, when he gets a call from his friends. “After-party at someone else’s house,” he tells her. “Want to come?” She watches herself shake her head. He shrugs. Pulls on his clothes. “I guess I can drop you off. Lemme go to the bathroom first.” He ambles out the door.  


She watches herself gather the boy’s covers around her, her shoulders trembling, and  

then she is pulled down, down, down: 


and she reached to the bedside table, grasping her phone with trembling fingers. The  

screen, shining in the darkness, announced the time (2:45), seven missed calls (five from her dad, two from Lucas), and a flurry of texts (all from her dad). 


“Do you need a ride home?” the first text read. 


Then: “Lucas is home now . . . I know that he drove separately and that he was hanging out with his friends for a bit after the dance. He said he thought he saw you leaving the dance with a group of girls? But they were kind of far off and he couldn’t be sure. I’m fine if you hang out with friends but you need to let me know.” 


“Have you seen these texts? I’ve been calling you.” 


“I just want to let you know . . . I had the most surreal moment dropping you off at the  

dance tonight. You were walking into that dance hall, my beautiful, beautiful girl, and then you stopped. You turned around, waved, and smiled this big goofy grin at me. And right at that moment, Tom Petty sang, ‘even the losers get lucky sometimes.’ And I thought to myself, God, this loser sure did get lucky. God blessed me with you, India. I love you.” 


Love like a tsunami washed over her, pulling her under; it swelled in her veins, burned  

in her lungs, and she couldn’t breathe. Its blaze lingered for one glorious time-stands-still moment and then collapsed. In its absence, the chill crept in. She saw that love is like a beautiful white fabric that someone hands you. You grasp it gratefully without noticing the grime on your hands, and now you’ve gone and stained it with thick black handprints marching up and down. Desperately, you dunk the fabric into the waters of your life, praying to redeem it and glimpse its perfect white shine again. You scrub and scrub, but you gradually realize, with dawning horror, that the waters are dirty—a gray mixture of your shame and sorrow and fear. Finally, you lift the sopping fabric to the light and know that you’ve lost something you can never get back. 


Wiping away a tear, India began to type: 


(“Dad—I love you! I love you you are my everything I miss you I want to talk to you again I want to tell you how much I love you and how sorry I am and”) 


“I’m coming home now. Getting a ride from friends. Don’t wait up for me.” She sends  

the text and turns her phone off as the boy walks back into the room. “Ready?” he says. 


Wrenching her mind away, she hurls through the sea of memories, flipping through them like TV channels. She finds one—drops into it: 


Weeks after prom . . . she lay in bed, curled beneath the covers. The door creaked open; she heard him walk into the room. Silence for a long time. Then he sat down, his weight shifting the bed and forming a hollow beside her. “India, honey. What’s wrong?” 


Her secret sat in her belly, gnawing from the inside out. (“Dad, I love you, please help  

me”


He took the covers and gently lifted them from her body. “India, you can tell me  

anything. . ..” 


(“I want to, Dad! I want to I want to you’ll never know how much I wanted to”


“I love you, India.” 


She rose, snatching the covers from his hands and pulling them back over her. “Go away,  

Dad! I don’t want to talk to you, and there is nothing wrong!” 


The bed shifted again as he stood (“No don’t go away please don’t leave me here  

alone”). His footsteps receded, the door closing softly (“Stay please stay I miss you Dad, I miss you I love you—” She wills her limbs to budge, her hands to throw off the covers, her feet to run after him. Exerting every effort, every muscle, every fiber of being) yet she laid still, sobbing night into morning.  


Detaching, she flies backward, backward through the flurry of images. “Please,” she  

begs, “let me go back. Let me find it and let me fix it.” And there it is: 


She stepped into her house after prom. It was 3:30 am. Her dad waited in the living room,  

sunk in his recliner under the light of a single lamp. She stopped. She tries to say, “I love you,” then catches his eyes in the dim light. She sees that they are nothing but big glass orbs stuffed in his sockets, returning her own reflection. She understands; she loosens her grip on the memory, lets the rushing black current sweep her away, and she is lifted through countless moments, images. She watches one after the other after the other after the—she arrives at the last memory, sinks into it as if it were a recliner at the end of a long and tiresome day: 


Late at night. In her dorm room. She lounged in bed, her phone tucked against her neck,  

calling Lucas. In holy rapture, she listened to him describe his fish biology class—Tiktaalik. 

Actinopterygii. Sarcopterygii: their fin-bones resembling the human hand; a mere 0.0238 percent of fish species spawning the entirety of amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals. 


India posed questions—they marveled over them: how did language originate? How did  

we develop consciousness? Why are humans the only species to exhibit metacognition—the 

only species advancing language beyond a few programmed barks, whistles, and whines indicating territory, mating, meals. Why are we able to discuss free will, the future, the existence of heaven, love? “Why,” India asked, “are we so alone?” 


The minutes spun by and, finally, she told him, “Lucas, I could talk to you for an eternity.  

I can’t wait to see the amazing things you’re going to do with your life—the things you’ll learn and discover and change.” 


He laughed. “Thanks, India. I love talking with you too. You sound so alive when you talk about your English major—all the books you’re reading, the stuff you’re starting to write.” 


She smiled. “I am, Lucas. I feel like there’s a story inside me—maybe a million—but  

they’re locked in and burning me away. But when I write—oh man, I can’t describe it. It’s  

like I’m unleashing that fire, and maybe then it’ll be alright . . . maybe it’s a fire the world needs. I don’t know. All I know is that I have so many stories I need to tell—and I can’t wait.” 


“I can’t wait either,” he said. “It’s getting late, so I should go. Goodnight, India. I love you.” 


“I love you too.” She hung up the phone, tucked herself in, and fell slowly asleep. 


Pulling away, she hovers above the motionless body and listens to its heartbeat slow,  

teeter, and still. “God,” she thinks. “Are you there?” 


She hears nothing. The absence of her heartbeat resonates around her. 


“I know that I made my choice. But—is it too late to change my mind? I know the other  

option is permanent. I won’t come back. But I think—I think that’s okay. I’ve already left 

behind something I can never return to. Please terminate me.” 


And then—just like that—India Romero blinked into nothing. 

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