Written by Shelly Moore
Larry Kemper was a short man with an even shorter temper. Each day he’d rise before the sun; chip already firmly planted on his shoulder. He’d stop for his morning coffee at the local cafe just down the street, where the baristas knew him as “that grumpy old bastard who never tips, but always complains.” His commute to work was without music, as you would expect, because the music would disturb the constant bitterness that flowed through his mind.
One such morning as he drove north on I-495 toward his place of employment, his phone rang. He shifted his weight to the side to reach for it from his back pocket, and glanced down at the screen to see who was calling.
“Ah, god dammit… what the hell does she want,” he grumbled aloud. “What?” he answered.
“Well, good morning to you too, son,” his mother said on the other end.
“I’m driving, what do you want?” he snapped.
“Always such a ray of sunshine,” she said. “My birthday is this weekend. I was wondering if you wanted to get together for cake or something.”
“I’ll think about it. I’m driving. I’ll call you later,” he said, tone rich with aggravation, before abruptly ending the call.
His phone rang again.
“God dammit, I swear to God…” he mumbled to himself as his face reddened with frustration.
“Hello?” he answered.
“Why’d you hang up on mom?” his sister asked.
“Because I’m driving,” he said.
“You don’t have to be so fucking rude, you know. It’s her birthday,” Lisa said.
“Her birthday isn’t until this weekend. It’s only Tuesday. Bye,” he said, again abruptly disconnecting from the call.
Larry went about his usual morning routine. He clocked into the computer at the front desk, then made his way down the long hallway to his own windowless office. No pictures hung on the walls, nor did any adorn his desk. His computer screen was that of the standard wallpaper that came with the computer when it had been brand new. He had a mini fridge, his only addition to his office during the seventeen years of which he had been employed there, which was stocked with bottles of water and a couple of cans of store brand soup.
He sat in his chair and grumbled about back pain, and then about the amount of work that needed to be done with not enough time to do it. He thought of things like how useless his coworkers were, and how nothing would ever get done if he weren’t around. He clicked through emails, to which he had something negative to say about each and every single one, and when he had finished he pushed his chair away from his desk and reached down for a cold water from his mini fridge.
As he opened the bottle, his phone rang again. Not even bothering to check the caller I.D. this time, he put the phone to his ear and said, “This is Larry.”
“I just wanted to say thank you for helping me with grocery money last week,” his ex-girlfriend Lynn said. “It really helped out a lot. The kid’s school lunch account has been overdrawn for a month and I just can’t seem to get caught up-“
“Two hundred bucks is a lot of money. When can you pay me back?” he said, cutting her off.
“I don’t know, Larry, but I will as soon as I am able. I know how you are about your money,” she said bitterly. “I thought I’d just say thank you. Maybe inject a little joy into your joyless day.”
“I’m plenty joyful. You owe me for fixing your stairs last month, too,” he said, and finished with, “and your dad owes me for working on his water heater.”
“I thought you fixed that to help him out, Larry. He’s eighty-six and barely surviving on what’s left of his pension. How do you expect him to pay you for forty dollars’ worth of service? You can’t just do one god damned thing out of the goodness of your heart?” she pleaded.
Larry laughed sarcastically, “Forty dollars? Put a one in front of that and you’re getting closer. I don’t do handouts.”
“Bye, Larry,” Lynn sighed reluctantly before hanging up.
Larry tossed his phone onto his desk with a thud, leaned back in his chair, and propped his feet up onto his desk.
“Everyone always wantin’ freebies,” he grumbled to himself. “She lost that privilege when she left me. Bitch.”
Lynn had somehow managed to stay with Larry for just short of ten long years before finally mustering the courage to pack her things and move out. Larry had been the primary breadwinner, telling Lynn for years that he’d rather her stay home with the kids than work, but not because he wanted her to be a stay at home mother and enjoy every moment of her young children while she could. He had told her on numerous occasions he’d prefer she didn’t work because he was afraid she’d find another man and leave him. Lynn made due for years; all too happy to spend the extra time helping her children with school work, gardening, and taking care of the house, but his bitterness chipped away at the light within her during that decade, and she had become depressed and but a dim shell of who she once was.
She left with less than two hundred dollars in her bank account and a quarter tank of gas. She stayed with a friend for a few months and then another, before finally finding work at a local grocery store as a cashier, where she was eventually able to save enough money for a one-bedroom apartment in a shitty part of town for her children and herself. She left a beautiful house with a park-like back yard in a safe little town in a top-notch school district to save not only herself, but her children from his all-consuming bitterness.
She had watched their little lights begin to diminish over the years as well. Larry didn’t play with the kids. He didn’t joke, in fact, he didn’t interact with them whatsoever unless it was an angry snap about how the dishes hadn’t been done, or whatever it was that he could find to argue with them about. They never witnessed love between their mother and this man, and Lynn realized how damaging that could be for them. Larry, she had come to realize, was incapable of love while lost within the resentful, spiteful burrow he had dug himself over the years, and although she used up what she had left of her light trying to fix him, she knew that only he could fix himself.
Larry picked up the receiver on his desk phone and dialed James “Jim” Lutinski.
“Morning, old man,” Jim answered playfully.
“I’m only thirty-four,” Larry replied.
“Your mom might have pushed you out of her cooch thirty-four years ago, but you, my good sir, are nowhere near thirty-four. Add about three decades to that. Maybe four.”
“Fuck you,” Larry said.
“You’d be so lucky,” Jim said.
“Did you send those invoices over to that bitch at Mohave & Sons yet like I asked you to?” Larry asked.
“Her name is Jill, and she’s actually quite pleasant. She’s the one that sent us those donuts last Friday. Do you know why she sent us those donuts, Larry?”
“Don’t care. She’s a bitch,” Larry said dryly.
“She sent us those donuts because I sent her those invoices the same day she asked for them. Be nice to her, she’s a nice little lady,” Jim said.
“What’s that supposed to mean? I am nice to her.”
“You’re a dick,” Jim laughed, “You know, my mama used to tell me a person is only ever as good as how they treat others. You, sir, are a dick. You wear it like a damned coat of armor.”
“I don’t see it. I’m nice when I need to be,” Larry said defensively. He meant it.
Jim laughed a deep, throaty laugh before responding, “Oh, Larry. Larry, Larry, Larry. I’ve known you for what… going on sixteen years? I’ve never once seen you act genuinely kind. Hell, I can’t remember the last time I even saw you smile! I don’t think I know what your laugh sounds like,” Jim laughed again. “It’s sad, really. It’s sad how little self-awareness you have.”
“Any more insults you want to throw my way before I hang up on your ass, dickhead?” Larry asked.
“No one’s insulting anyone. Just trying to make you aware, that’s all. Life’s too damn short to be so god damn miserable all the god damn time. Then again, I suppose Lynn probably tried the same thing for years and look where that got her.”
Larry disconnected the call. Jim was his closest friend.
On the way home from work that evening, Larry thought he’d try to find some good tunes to listen to. He scanned through the stations a full four times before getting frustrated that the radio no longer played any good music, or so he grumbled to himself out loud, so he angrily punched the power button to once again continue his drive home in silence.
His phone rang, startling him, and he shifted his weight to one side while he muttered a few four-letter words to himself as he reached for it. He glanced down to see who was calling, and as he did the phone slipped from his hand and fell onto the truck’s floorboards below.
The sun had begun to set, and the sky held hues of pink and gold swirled with deep blues and violets; as if some heavenly artist had painted it with oil-based paints on a vast canvas. Larry, however, hadn’t noticed. He was now trying to divide his attention between the highway in front of him and the floorboards which held his incessantly ringing cell phone. He reached down with his right arm while trying to keep his eyes on the road ahead, but the phone was just out of reach. Finally, the ringing stopped.
“Fuck it. I’ll get it when I get home,” he said aloud to himself, just as the phone began to ring again.
“Dammit!” he yelled, his face reddening and blood pressure soaring to great heights. He attempted to reach down again to the passenger floorboards where his phone lay vibrating and ringing; his blood pressure spiking higher and higher with each ring. He took his eyes off the road long enough to bend down for his phone, and before he could utter another curse word his truck veered left, hit the cement barrier at eighty-six miles an hour, then went sky-born for three full seconds; sending the truck careening across three empty lanes of traffic while flipping two and half times before landing upside down in a small body of water behind the tree line that acted as a highway barrier.
It was noise like he had never heard before; noise that filled his ears and jarred his very soul. Metal scraping asphalt, glass shattering, water splashing, bones crunching and flesh tearing; followed by an eerie, deafening silence.
The world around him faded to black as he lost consciousness.
He awoke in a dimly lit room sitting in a wing-back style armchair. Across from him sitting in a similar chair was an elderly man, who he then realized was Lynn’s father, Ed. Ed was watching his usual programs on the television, which provided the only light in the room.
“Ed?” Larry called out shakily; his voice was so meek it was hardly recognizable as his own.
Ed McAdderson didn’t seem to be aware of Larry’s presence. He stared blankly at the television screen, his mind in neutral and body on auto-pilot.
“Edmund? Why am I… How did…” Larry began to remember the crash, and his mind went into overdrive.
Just then, Ed slowly turned his head toward Larry. They locked eyes.
“Well, hello there, Larry! Wasn’t expecting company or I’d have put my house shoes away and put on some of Sunday’s best. I don’t get company much these days. It was nice when you came and fixed my boiler though. I enjoyed that,” Ed smiled jovially. “Well, what can I do you for?”
Larry just stared at Ed in complete bewilderment. Why was he here? How did he get here? He remembered being on the road… his phone rang. He dropped it, that’s right. He remembers dropping it onto the floorboards. It troubled him that he couldn’t remember what happened after that, but he convinced himself rather quickly that he must have just blacked out for whatever reason; Lynn must have called and asked him to stop by her fathers on the way home. It was rather alarming to have lost so much time, but he assured himself he’d likely remember later. He’s been working a lot lately and was likely tired; his mind playing tricks on him.
“Lynn said you needed something fixed?” Larry asked, hoping for confirmation.
“Hmm. No, no… I don’t think so. Everything’s all gravy baby now, thanks to you. Let me tell ya though, Lare, if you have a spare minute I could use the conversation. I can make us a pot of coffee, and I have one of those cherry pie’s from Bilbury’s on the table there that has a slice or two with your name on it!” Ed said as he reached shakily for his cane, which was resting against the small table beside him.
“No, don’t trouble yourself, Ed,” Larry said shortly as he stood from the chair. “I really need to get home.”
Ed withdrew his reach and slumped back into his chair, defeated. A deep sadness crept into his being. Ed could somehow feel it, and it was crushing. It was an utter hopelessness. A soul that had been beaten, bruised, and weathered over nearly a century by hardships that Larry had never even begun to scratch the surface of in his own lifetime.
The loss of his mother when he was just small child. The subsequent beatings from his father, who somehow blamed little Eddie for the death of his own mother even though it had been bone cancer that stole her from this world. He felt the bullying and beatings he’d endured as an adolescent from his peers for having a slight overbite. He felt the burying shame from a molestation he endured at just eleven years old when his own father traded his innocence for a pack of cigarettes. He experienced the bone-chilling fear of crawling on his elbows through mud thick with blood and bits of the flesh of his friends while bullets flew by him. His chest caved with the agony of losing his first wife at just twenty years old during childbirth; the child, his first and only son, had passed away as well just two days later.
Larry caught himself weeping as he felt the deep, unconditional love of his second wife, Lynn’s mother Effie, which was just overwhelming as the sadness, but in a quite different way. He had never experienced love like that. Not from his own mother or father, not from his siblings; but then again, how were they supposed to know how to love if it wasn’t properly taught to them by example?
As if a hand swiped over the scene to erase the warmth of love from the room; it was replaced once again with a deep despair as Ed’s eyes locked onto Larry’s. Tears fell silently down sun-spotted, age-worn, wrinkled cheeks.
Larry struggled to figure out what was going on. His grounded mind couldn’t define what it was that he was feeling. If he didn’t allow himself to think too hard about it, he could tell you exactly what it was. He was somehow feeling and experiencing the depth of Ed’s soul and all of its battle wounds.
Larry felt the overwhelming longing for human interaction. He felt the depths his loneliness.
Through all of that, Larry suddenly had the realization that the one emotion he didn’t feel through all of this pain; all of this deep, encompassing sorrow… was bitterness.
Ed didn’t harbor resentment for anything or anyone that had been a part of his past. He harbored no ill-will, no long-standing grudges, and no spite.
Larry felt Ed’s soul somehow communicate to him that although his life had been burdened, he had always chosen to be grateful for the experience because it molded him into who he had become as an adult.
At this realization, Larry wept. He reached for Ed, wanting to hold his hand. He wanted to tell him how sorry he was for pushing him away. He wanted to tell him how much he admired him with all that he’d been through. He wanted to tell him he was sorry for being such a shitty person to him; that he deserved more, but no words escaped Larry’s lips.
As the world faded to black from the outer edges inward, the last thing Larry saw was a small wisp of light leave Ed’s abdomen and gently rise toward the ceiling, and Ed’s chin dropped to his chest.
Larry could only see black. He was searching desperately in the dark for something to hold onto, but it was a vast void. All of the sudden his hair felt wet; soaked and dripping droplets of water not downward onto his shoulders, but instead somehow upward. Larry felt fear creep in. Panic set in. He tried calling out into the void but he had no voice. He couldn’t call out.
His head began to ache, crescendoing with its intensity until he thought it couldn’t possibly handle any more. Then his back began to ache as if some medieval torture device was pulling it in opposite directions until his vertebrae cracked and splintered. He was in absolute agony, and that’s when he awoke.
He was upside down in his mangled truck. Some time had clearly passed because it was now dark outside. Crickets chirped nearby while bullfrogs croaked. Cicadas buzzed in the trees above. The top, which was now the bottom, of his truck was submerged in murky pond water that tasted like algae and frog piss. The water, luckily, was only up to his hairline, leaving his forehead and below dry… except for the blood, that is. Thick, metallic-smelling blood flowed from various areas of his body where metal and glass had punctured his skin as if it were as delicate as rice paper. The pain was tremendous. It took him a moment or two to realize the screaming he heard was coming from within himself.
“Help! Someone help!” he tried yelling out, but his mouth couldn’t seem to form the words properly. He tried reaching up with his left hand to feel his lips, but when the arm didn’t respond, he glanced over and realized it had been ripped off completely just below the shoulder during the accident. The only thing keeping him from bleeding to death at this point was the fact that the twisted metal of the truck’s door frame had managed to clamp his arm tightly within; becoming a tourniquet of sorts which ironically kept him alive. He then reached with his right hand to his lips and realized his face had been cut up like a fresh fruit. The pain became too much and once again he lost consciousness.
He fluttered his eyelids awake groggily, and as the scene around him came into focus he realized he was in a woman’s body. He wasn’t in control of the body, however, he was more so an observer. He was sitting at a dining room table which he recognized as Lynn’s. He hadn’t been to her apartment since the split, but he knew the table because it had been theirs when they shared a home. Strewn across the table were papers, no, bills, he realized. The electric bill, the phone bill, the children’s school lunch account… all overdue. She felt her deep depression. He felt shame. He felt her guilt.
“No, Lynn… don’t feel guilty. It’s not your fault,” he tried to tell her, but she was completely unaware of him. He felt her despair, her failure. He felt her ask herself, “What if I would have just stayed? Toughed it out for the children to have a beautiful home. Stability. What if I would have just continued to sacrifice my own happiness for theirs?” He ached inside with pity, but strangely it wasn’t his own pity for this woman that he was feeling; No, it was her pity for him.
He felt her resilience. He felt her deep compassion. He felt her many, many nights of crying herself to sleep not because of her own loveless life, but because she worried about him. She prayed for him nightly, asking some heavenly being to take away his anger and bitterness. She prayed to surround him with the loving arms of all of his ancestors; to hold him and cradle him and allow him to know what love feels like so that he can allow his own to sprout from his hardened heart.
He never knew.
He felt her soul grow wary over time from having to put forth so much of her own light to try to heal his. He felt depression spider web its way into her heart and soul. He felt the shame she felt when he’d say things to her like, “What’d you do all day? Sleep again?” and how she wanted to tell him, “Yes. Yes, I slept all day because my dreams are my only escape from this empty life with you,” but she never would. She would never say anything to hurt him because she knew that a soul that carries around that heavy of a burden day in and day out must be tortured enough. She couldn’t live with herself if she knew she willingly added to his suffering.
Just then Dylan, Lynn’s nine-year-old, ran into his mother’s arms from the other room. Lynn kissed the top of his head and held him tight. Larry felt that same deep, unconditional love that he had felt from within her father’s soul what seemed like days earlier. Then he started to remember in fragments about the strange experience with Ed, and then the crash, and the pond water taste flooded his mouth again.
He did little but blink, and he was back inside the capsized truck, submerged in the chilled water. The excruciating slammed back into his body like being hit by a freight train this time; there was no gentle crescendo to it whatsoever. It was so jarring, so shocking that he vomited, and continued to vomit until he had successfully purged his stomach empty.
He moaned in agony. He could feel his body weakening. Was this really it? Was he actually dying? Is this how he’s going to go?
“Well,” he tried to say to himself aloud, “it’s a hell of a way to go.”
“A hell of a lot more interesting than anything else you’ve ever done with your life, that’s for damned sure,” a man’s voice said from beside him.
Larry turned his head as far as his destroyed body would allow him to, and there strapped into his passenger seat was a man of about thirty, dressed in a baby blue suit with a bright red rose neatly tucked into the breast pocket. His hair was dark and slicked back, and his eyes were a deep, warm brown, and he smiled as Larry caught his stare.
“Who the hell are you,” Larry tried to say.
“Ssshh, sshh now, Larry. No need for all that. You don’t have much battery left in that old meat suit you’re wearing, anyhow. Save it, mmkay?” the man said. “We have a few things to talk about.”
The pain intensified and Larry felt himself start to slip out of consciousness again.
“Don’t fight it, old pal. Just let it do what it needs to do,” the stranger said, placing his hand on Larry’s hand.
Larry let his soul slip away from his body once more, and he found himself sitting on a comfortable leather chair with an I.V. attached to his arm. He had a blanket covering his lap, and the room, although dressed to look warm, was cold and smelled sterile. He felt fire in his veins.
“I came with you this time, old friend. I hope that’s okay,” the man in the blue suit said from behind him.
He walked around to the front of Larry and took a seat on the floor in front of him, crossing his legs as if he were a child. He held his knees with hands, interlocking his fingers, and said, “It’s your mom.”
Larry realized again that he was unable to talk, but the man answered his questions anyway.
“This body you’re in now. It’s your mom, Lilah. Breast cancer. She’s had it for about six months now, but doesn’t want to worry you so she’s kept it a secret. Goes to these chemo treatments by herself twice a week. Talk about a strong lady. Stubborn, too. As a damn mule. Apple didn’t fall far from that tree, huh old friend?” he joked.
Larry didn’t find any humor in this situation whatsoever. He looked down at the hands folded in front of him; they were certainly his mothers. They shook. He felt her intense worry. He felt her sense of inadequacy as a mother. He felt her loneliness. He didn’t want to dive down this rabbit hole again; the physical pain he was feeling in waking life was awful, but this? The emotional pain was far too much for him to handle. He had pushed away emotion his entire adult life. He had experienced his fair share of trauma as a child, having walked in on his mother cheating on his father, and in that moment he subconsciously chose to never experience emotion again; except anger. Bitterness. Resentment. These emotions he could handle. Day by day, year by year, he slowly rewired his brain to shy away from joy and instead put fear in its place. He pushed away that precious sense of childhood freedom to feel carefree because he knew now, deep within his heart, that it would only be temporary and some sort of pain would always be just around the corner.
He learned to live his life in such a way that if he concentrated fully and completely on the fears of what could go wrong, he felt he could somehow be ready for them when they came to be.
In doing so, he robbed himself of life’s greatest experiences.
He let the scales tip too far to one side, and his soul grew painful thorns where flowers should have blossomed.
“Now you’re getting it, old friend,” the man in the blue suit smiled. “What a waste, right?”
Larry blinked again and was once again in the submerged vehicle.
“Well, you had a shitload of passes we tried to give you,” the man said. “That time when you were seventeen and that guy offered you that job traveling the country? That was the first one. I thought for sure you’d grab that one. Your soul ached to explore. It would have made you so happy, old friend! But you chose to stay in the same place you’d been working that you were absolutely miserable at because you feared change.”
Larry was so weak he could no longer turn his head. He remained motionless, the only movement was the blood streaming down his body to pool in the water above his head.
“Then when Susan in accounting asked if you wanted to go to that blues concert with her? Remember that? She was your soul mate; sent to you as a gift from me. You were trying online dating at the time and kept cursing it saying it’s all bullshit, it doesn’t work, yadda yadda,” the man said in a playfully mocking tone, “but it’s because of you that it wasn’t working. You were already walking around with that nonsense chip on your shoulder, and the ladies, my old friend, the ladies don’t find that very attractive at all, now do they?”
“Who are you,” Larry tried to ask.
“You’ll remember shortly enough, old friend. Oh! Remember that time at Jack’s Sports Bar when the cute redhead backed her car into yours? I sent her to you so she could teach you how to lighten up. She was a feisty one, you would have liked her quite a bit. But no, no, no. You, my old friend, got out of your car screaming and yelling and spitting all over the poor thing, calling her every name in the book. Not an ounce of compassion within you. That was when I knew we might have to cut this one short, old friend.”
The pain began to ease up a bit, and Larry began to feel lighter. It was quite a relief, although small.
“Your body is dying, old friend. Won’t be long now,” the man said. “Then we can get moving. We have to work a brand new one up for you now that you went and messed this one up. Not a body, well yeah, that too, but a life is what I am referring to. You didn’t learn what you needed to learn this round, old friend, so unfortunately you have to do it all over again. Maybe you could be a woman next round. That way you have innate empathy woven into your soul. Then again, that might be cheating, wouldn’t it?” the man laughed.
“Oh good! Ed’s here, Larry. I brought him to help you transition. Let’s get to it, shall we?”
The world faded to black from the outer edges to the inner, and then a vacuum feeling; as if a soda lid had been lifted from its glass bottle and the pressure of the carbonation had been released, and he was free.