At the age of five, highly gullible Lewis Coughland had fallen prey to his older cousin, Vicki. She had convinced him that since he hadn’t been baptized that he and all he loved would go straight to hell upon the Second Coming unless he took “counselling” from a good Christian (i.e. Vicki) who had a direct line of communication with the All-mighty. Since it was “too late” to do anything about the baptizing (which “forbade” Lewis from shaping prayers of his own), nine-year-old Vicki had graciously volunteered herself to serve as Lewis’s go-between in all matters Heaven and Earth; all Lewis had to do in return for this service was become Vicki’s personal slave. The counselling had been big on tough love and discipline. A typical session went as follows:
Whenever Lewis failed to be all the slave he ought to be, Vicki would mournfully shake her head and close her eyes and clasp her hands together and whisper, “Dear Lord and Father, I don’t know what to do about my cousin Lewis who lives on Victory Drive in Charleston. He won’t mind me. Maybe you ought to do something to his mom. She lives in the same house. ” This counselling was highly effective, and the arrangement lasted for a season or two until Vicki got bored with it and Lewis in general.
In later years, at family gatherings where cheap wine was poured into Styrofoam cups and the cans of budget-beer refused to taste cold no matter how much ice had been dumped into the coolers, Vicki would speak freely about the “little arrangement.” She found it charming and recalled it as a humorous, innocent and even feminist take on Tom Sawyer tricking the yahoos into white-warshing the fence for him. Lewis wasn’t as charmed. He’d recall the fear he had felt whenever his family visited Vicki’s parents out in the wilds of Torqwamni County. He thought about the associated bad dreams that had once caused him to wet the bed before such a visit. Still, Lewis would sip his beer and wonder if there might possibly be a form of cosmic justice after all: Cousin Vicki had married early, poorly and often; wore huge, ill-fitting dentures, and had as many chins as she had soft-minded children.
When he was in the third grade Lewis spent four months certain that he’d die from a burst appendix prior to the start of summer vacation. He sat third in his row, and whether it be by coincidence or the hand of God, the first two kids in his row had to have emergency appendectomies—the first during Christmas Vacation, the second in February. “You’re next, Lewy,” evil Roxanne Passinetti said after Mrs. West had told the class that they would be making and signing a get well card for Yvonne Hanrahan (the second victim) during Art Class that afternoon. Lewis had been taking a long drink from the drinking fountain when Roxanne had laughed that notion into his ear. No worldlier than he had been when he had fallen under Vicki’s wicked spell a few years earlier, yet destined to be the owner of his appendix until the day he died, Lewis found himself “checking” his lower right abdomen so often for the remainder of the school year that the bigger kids accused him of playing with himself. No cosmic drop of the gavel ever happened here; Roxanne grew up to be an airline pilot who is so remotely beautiful that she seems to have been carved from blue ice.
A couple of years farther down the timeline, Lewis fell in love with the girl across the street, Kimmy. Everything was right about Kimmy except her age; at fifteen, she had too much of it. Since Lewis had four years and a half-head in height to make up for, he began to engage in acts of conspicuous bravery that he wouldn’t have otherwise attempted. This situation has been a fatal flaw in the male of the human species ever since Adam had tried to impress Eve with his snake handling skills. Even though there was an apple tree in the lot that lay beside Lewis’s house, he had found a chance to display his manliness in an old fir log that had become home to a quarter-million or so fire ants.
“Hey, Kimmy, wanna see somethin’ cool?” He’d called out to his Lady Fair while he was in the lot and she was passing by.
“All right,” she said with a crinkled nose and tilted head, both of which went on to fuel more than one prepubescent fantasy.
Lewis led her to the log and hurled a large stone at it. Although the stone hit home, not a single ant had exited the log to check out the disturbance. Every other time he had done such, thousands of them would swarm up to have a look. Three more stones yielded the same non-result. Kimmy cocked an eyebrow at Lewis and began to go away. This is when Lewis was introduced to a Cosmic Constant (a.k.a. the Fatal Flaw) that pre-dates the planting of Eden: Unimpressed women cause men to do stupid things. Desperate, Lewis begged Kimmy to wait, and he hopped onto the log and began to jump up and down on it. Naturally enough, all quarter-million fire ants (who had seemingly had been planning a counterattack for the longest time), and perhaps a zillion reinforcements called in from other logs, swarmed all over and even in Lewis.
All thoughts of winning Kimmy’s approval went directly to hell when Lewis realized what had happened. Not necessarily the toughest boy on earth, the frenzied, biting ants all on and in his blue jeans motivated him to bolt from the log and run home as fast as possible, all along the way screaming something that sounded an awful lot like “MOOMMMEE!!!” but, in all fairness, could have just as easily been “EEEEIIEEE!!!” Mom refused to let Lewis enter the house. She forced him to strip to his shorts out in the front yard while she washed him over with the garden hose and passed harsh observations: ”Jesus Christ…stop screaming like a little girl.” Plenty of neighbors had watched this little vignette unfold. Kimmy included. Yet according to the crinkle of her nose and the tilt of her head, Lewis had been honest with her: he had shown her something cool.
These are just three (of many) of the earliest difficulties Lewis had had in life while dealing with the female of the human species. Perhaps it is fitting that the trend that had begun long ago should continue after his life had ended.
The three relics from Lewis’s past entered and vanished from his consciousness, as did a procession of memories as plentiful as the fire ants in the old fir log. These recollections came all at once, yet each one was somehow distinct and complete, as he lay dying from a heroin overdose at the foot of an oak tree in New Town Cemetery. The cliché is true: Your life does pass before your eyes at your point of dying; you will remember everything.
There’s Crazy Lee vaporizing a blue jay with a shotgun from a distance of, say, fifteen feet; and Dave Currier vomiting non-chewed orange wedges onto his desk in the fourth grade, how everybody laughed; and of course the Sherriff’s pant leg hiking up and exposing a diabetic scab on his shin as he got out of his car the day the world ended… The worst: Grandma Louise feeding swine the leftover buffet from Mom’s funeral…And faces…and words…endearments…recriminations…dissipation…Redemption?
These memories didn’t necessarily follow a linear course, but they weren’t random, either. Each one connected to another and another and more; together they formed lights that fed a greater shine, which encompassed the past and the now and even the yet to come. Lewis did not understand what this all meant, but he knew that he would soon enough, for he had remembered everything.
Lewis experienced neither sadness nor regret when he awoke from his dreams and saw that he was standing before his dead body, which still lay at the foot of the oak. This is not to say that his continued consciousness moved forward without the detraction or enhancement of emotions, but the lamenting of useless objects was no longer a viable feeling in him. And although he was no longer flesh and blood, he remained, in essence, a material object. He turned to the female ghost who had attended his death and saw her as radiant and complete as he had when she had first come to him in his final moments. And he looked at his hands and felt his face and form and then knew that he was just as complete. Lewis neither experienced fear nor confusion upon cross-over; for it had been as natural as awakening from a nightmare and finding yourself safe in bed. But that didn’t mean that he didn’t have a few thousand questions to ask the person whom he had assumed to be The Dow Lady of local legend; yet, oddly, he found no great sense of urgency in that. Perhaps ironically, Lewis discovered that he had never felt so alive and joyful in his life; for the first time since prior to the end of the world, optimism and a positive outlook lay within the driving forces of his consciousness. This revelation came to him just before the last time he ever thought about heroin without being asked about it first. “Smack’s got nothing on dying.”
The physical shapes that the Dow Lady and Lewis had been then dissolved, yet they remained intact in each other’s minds. Before this had occurred, anyone could have seen their shapes, which were neither completely here nor there, yet here enough to attract unwanted attention.
“Will this make someone you love sad?” The Dow Lady, who had a many years Americanized British accent asked, with a nod at Lewis’s body.
“No,” he said, absently. “All my people went first. Will I see them again?”
“If they are buried here, you may see them as they had been,” she said. “Nothing new can pass between you and those you shall be. Only you and I retain our consciousness. Everyone else buried in the cemetery is a Legend; full and complete yet as sensate of the now as a library book.”
During the flashes of images that had filled his mind upon dying, Lewis had been aware than he had been uploaded like a file by a mind he instinctively knew as The Keeper. Although nowhere nearly as thorough, a great deal of information had been downloaded into Lewis’s mind. For instance, he knew that he and the woman existed because of the Keeper; he also knew that all knowledge of the Keeper came on a need to know basis. And he knew something about the Legends she had spoken of. Although a large portion of human emotions are enhanced by physical stimuli—and that fear, want, and pain vanish when the body goes and the mind remains—an intertwined sense of trepidation and giddy anticipation rose in him upon mention of the Keeper. You will remember everything.
“Do you remember everything?” the Dow Lady said.
“Yes,” he said. And he saw her as he had first seen her. She was lovely in her own singular way—which doesn’t mean that there was distance between her appearance and true beauty; it’s just that Lewis had never seen anyone like her before. Everything about her came off the way it should: her extremely long Titian hair, which she wore in a long braid that looped once around her neck and down the front of her white dress; her active, friendly and bright eyes were full of intelligence and curiosity; her personalized smile, enhanced by the slightest overbite—all of these were just fine and much appreciated. And although Lewis had just become the same sort of being that she already was, he knew that she had had the time to evolve into a greater being, and that this evolution had probably come at a very high price.
Then he smiled at her. “And I’ve also learned some things; for instance, you aren’t the right Dow Lady.”
She laughed loudly. As time went by, her manner of laughter was to become something that Lewis loved dearly about her, even though there would come several times when he wished she hadn’t come to him as he lay dying. Whenever she laughed out loud, she’d pause and clasp her hands together then turn her head from the left to right and fling her laughter similar to an athlete hurling a discus. Lewis always assumed that this was a habit of hers that extended all the way back to her original life, and it always made him happy to be the cause of it.
“My name is Emma Wick,” she said, after her laughter had subsided. “I’m pleased to meet you.”
“I’m—or was, Lewis Coughland.”
“Oh, no, you’re not past tense,” Emma said, “just transformed. Neither of us is actually dead. But that doesn’t mean that I haven’t been aching to clear up the Dow Lady nonsense for—what year is this? I lose count now and then—“
He told her.
Another clasp of the hands and a delightfully thrown laugh. “Seventy-two years,” she said. Then she added, “I really should have known,” but mostly to herself.
She then held up her hand and seemed to be listening to something far off. “A morning jogger,” she said with a smile. “She will find you lying here and tell the world. Better that than let the rats get at you.”
“No matter,” she said. Then she took both his hands in hers and gazed into his eyes. Lewis felt himself becoming someone else who had lived and died a long, long time ago. “Don’t be afraid,” she said. “It’s time for you to dip a Legend and then come home to me.”
“All right,” he said as he felt his consciousness slipping away from her. He knew that he was falling back into time, into one of the Legends, but little else.
“Will I, will I?” he called back to her.
“Yes,” she said softly, “you will remember everything.”