On July 5th, in the Year of Our Lord two-thousand and fourteen, the following was written in the diary of one Charlie Chambers:
I got a text message from a friend this morning. It was Chloe. She misses me. Probably in a platonic way. I said I miss her too, but I don’t really. If she’d been sleeping with me, maybe I’d miss that. The text just said, “I miss you Charlie! Hope you’re having a nice day!” I hate it when people call me Charlie. It reminds me of Charlie Brown, or Charlie's Angels or maybe a Charlie-horse. People called me Charlie when I was a kid, and I guess I had no choice. Now people ask me if they can call me Charlie. I say I prefer Charles. I like to think I'm someone more distinguished, like Charles Dickens, or Charles Darwin, or Charles Manson. Turns out my parents named me after Charlie Chaplin. Well, actually it was my mother's idea. I didn't think to ask her until I was fourteen, about a year before the accident. Of course, his first name was really Charles. My mother, Margaret, was always obsessed with cinema, theater, poetry, literature, art – really any form of creative expression. Chaplin was one of her favorites.
Chloe is technically just a friend. But her sweet eyes are like the sun, maybe a solar eclipse, or an atomic bomb blast swallowing up a million unsuspecting indigenous peasants. She walks the earth like them – inquisitive, but more naïve and optimistic. The point is that it’s tough to look directly into her eyes without getting an intensely warm yet uncomfortable feeling. I’ve always wanted to make love to her. Really, always. Even when she had a boyfriend. Monogamy is such an absurd cultural construct. If you’re into stereotypes, Chloe is a neo-hippie alternative girl who is always reading poetry and talking about her horoscope and spirits and dream interpretations and chakras and all sorts of abstract, bastardized aspects of Eastern culture.
I met someone new the other day - Nicolette. We got coffee – I paid for hers – and took a nice walk down by the river. We went out on the dock, and I thought about what it would be like to drown, or to drown someone else. Just to hold them under until they stopped struggling. I wondered how many spontaneous murders have taken place, and how many have never been discovered. We ended up having conversations about existentialism and monotheism and sports. I really hate talking about religion, but she brought it up. I wondered how long it would be before I slept with her. Maybe a week or so.
Nicolette is almost too smart for me, but I am probably more witty than her. I’m also more unconventional. My complete apathy toward sports is a decent example of that. But also my atheism, which I regret using as part of my identity. Let me clarify that: I regret the fact that our society rewards credulity, superstition, and fear. My parents never mentioned any deities or barbaric fairy tales while I was growing up, and I don’t think such ideas would have occurred to me naturally. My father was a marine, then a police officer. My mother raised me, and then became a librarian. They were patriotic Americans, and they didn’t need some ideological crutch to comfort them. I intend to carry on their legacy.
On this aforementioned day, Charlie was alone, casually milling around his apartment with no specific plans. He was cleaning things that didn’t need to be cleaned and organizing things that were already in order. He was paging through books he had already read. Many of Charlie’s friends said he was obsessive-compulsive, but he often insisted that he just liked to be organized – to know where everything in his apartment was located. It was true, after all, that Charlie took great care to maximize the cleanliness and efficiency of his living space. His dishes were done in a timely manner, and a full trash bag never remained on the premises for more than twenty-four hours. The floors were swept and mopped at least twice each week. His closet was arranged according to the color of the article, and his books were arranged by genre. His pocket items (wallet, cigarettes, lighter, lip balm, eye drops, cell phone) were neatly placed on the windowsill in his bedroom. Charlie sometimes wrote himself notes in order to remember his priorities, but he came up with another method for certain reminders. Since everything was usually in such immaculate order, he always noticed if something was out of place. He realized that if he purposely misplaced an item, it could represent a component of some unspoken “to do” list. For instance, when he ran out of a certain spice or condiment he turned the receptacle upside-down. A few weeks earlier, when his supply of coffee had been nearly depleted, Charlie opted to move his coffee maker a few inches forward from the wall. The next day, he immediately noticed this atrocity, and promptly went to the store to purchase another bag of coffee. On the topic of caffeine, Charlie had had his fair share of stimulants that day. During his usual breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast, and coffee, Charlie washed down an amphetamine tablet with a pint of orange juice. Around 1:00 p.m., he cut up a small line of cocaine with his credit card and snorted it with a rolled twenty-dollar bill.
Charlie noticed The Tibetan Book of the Dead sitting on his dresser. He picked it up and began perusing. Before long, Charlie began thinking about all the people he had known over the years who had died. He counted thirteen. But then his mind began to wander, and he entertained the possibility that he may have interacted with others who are also now dead. Maybe dozens more. Out of all the people he’s greeted in passing, briefly made eye contact with while waiting in line at the bank or the supermarket, how many more are now decaying mounds of flesh and bone trapped in the cold ground?
The fact that Charlie’s thoughts were so vehemently drifting toward the macabre was no coincidence; this day marked the six-year anniversary of an incident that would live in infamy. Charlie himself had little or no recollection of what had transpired that day, only the mundane details of the events leading up to the accident. Charlie was fifteen years old and had recently obtained a temporary driver’s license after completing his driver’s education course. It was a Saturday evening - July 5th to be exact - and the Chambers family was headed to the movie theater, in a way attempting to continue the exciting yet serene spectacle of flashing lights from the previous evening. But this satin white Subaru Outback, this specific vessel of transit, was stopped short of its destination.
Uncle Jack, a greasy and corny man whom Charlie never really cared for, was towering over him as he awoke to a painful new reality in a sterile hospital bed. Surprisingly, Charlie only suffered a mild concussion, a fractured collarbone, three fractured ribs, a sprained left wrist, and substantial bruising. After attempting to comfort his nephew, Jack relayed the details of the crash, often rolling his glassy eyes upward, striving to recall what the officer had said. According to Jack, the family was traveling down a rather curvy stretch of County Road “A” a few miles south of town, when Charlie swerved sharply, attempting to avoid a collision with an intoxicated driver who had crossed over the dividing line and into their lane. His father was in the passenger seat, and his mother was sitting directly behind his father. Their car collided into the approaching vehicle with the passenger side facing forward, causing the parents to be killed instantly. After all these years, Charlie still feels guilty about how it happened and he wonders if, within that split-second, he made a conscious decision to spin the wheel to the left. Did he purposely sacrifice the lives of his beloved parents to save his own? This is what has been on Charlie’s mind. This is why he has become increasingly nihilistic, distraught, cynical, and jaded. He doesn’t know why he did what he did. He wants to believe he would have traded his own life to save his parents (or other loved ones, for that matter), but he is uncertain, and that uncertainty only adds to his sense of meaninglessness and insignificance. An outside observer might conclude that Charlie has gradually attempted to fill the void left by the loss of his parents with drug binges, promiscuous sex, creative expression, and other forms of indulgence. Now that he is twenty-one years old, he more often than not adds alcohol to the mix. One might disapprove of this cathartic path, including the manner in which this young man has been squandering both his potential as well as the funds he received from his parents’ life insurance policy. His actions may seem sleazy, especially when taking into account the fact that Charlie had promised many of his family members and friends that he would use the money for his college education.
Charlie’s only concrete memory regarding that fateful drive was the song “Strange Magic” by the Electric Light Orchestra playing on the radio. The song was still playing in Charlie’s head when he awoke, but it was faded, illusory, as though it were being pumped through a seashell. One might presume that the song took on negative connotations in Charlie’s mind following the accident. Quite the contrary; Charlie had always enjoyed the song, and now it simply reminded him of his parents – the meals they shared while watching campy films from the 1980s, the inside jokes they cracked at holiday celebrations, the walks they took in Springtime – it did not remind him in the least of the accident. After all, Charlie had no actual memories of the accident itself. He found the song rather comforting.
Charlie cooked himself dinner, but shortly after dusk he had a surreal and unexplainable experience, which inspired him to converse with a certain acquaintance.
Chloe approached confidently, her black leather boots reflecting the moonlight as she strutted down the vacant sidewalk toward Charlie’s apartment. Charlie stood outside, acting like he didn’t notice her yet.
“Oh! Hey, thanks for meeting me…” Charlie said, fumbling through his pocket to clumsily pull out a pack of cigarettes and a sky blue lighter.
“Of course,” said a twenty-six year old woman, slender, with pale skin and hair as black as the night that surrounded her. “What’s on your mind, cowboy?”
“You’ve always been a good listener, and I really just wanted to tell you about something. It happened like an hour ago. Well…” He took a quick drag of his Lucky Strike and exhaled a burst of smoke. “I’m pretty sure it happened. I’m struggling to believe it…I mean, I have been a little fucked up today. But I don’t think it was a hallucination.” Charlie was fidgeting, sweating, and talking rather quickly.
“Hey calm down, Charles – it’s gonna be okay,” Chloe said, in a composed and soothing tone, almost like she had previously rehearsed for that very moment. “What happened?”
Charlie paused, his pupils shooting around every which way, as if he were following some elusive insect. “Have…have you ever heard the song, ‘Strange Magic’?”
“I haven’t told anyone this before, but one of the last things I remember before the accident was that song playing on the radio.”
Chloe’s demeanor changed. She appeared genuinely concerned and sympathetic. He didn’t talk about the accident much, but she was certainly aware of this tragic aspect of his past. Charlie was staring directly into Chloe’s eyes. He had become lost. A moment later, he hastily looked downward and ashed his cigarette.
“Anyway, I was just hangin’ out at my apartment, cookin’ some food, and I thought I heard that song playing. I walked into the living room and it got a little louder. Then I realized it was coming from the TV. But here’s the thing – the TV wasn’t on!”
Chloe’s sea-green eyes widened with interest. Her beautiful ivory face drew nearer as her graceful neck craned slightly. Charlie continued explaining the occurrence, and brought up a few additional strange things he had noticed around his apartment recently. He told Chloe a candle was once burning when he didn’t recall lighting it. He mentioned a few items that were out of place, and he didn’t recall misplacing them. He said he had justified these other mysterious moments to himself by assuming the drugs had significantly altered his perception of reality.
“So… You actually believe me, or what?” Charlie tossed a mangled cigarette butt into the street.
“Do you think someone’s just fuckin’ with me? I don’t even know how th-”
“No,” Chloe proudly interrupted. “It’s them - it’s your parents! I think they’re trying to contact you from the other side…”
Charlie was baffled, yet skeptical. “What other side?” Charlie asked. “Where do you think they are?”
“Heaven and Hell are real, my dear. Your parents miss you terribly! They want you to join them…in Heaven!”
“But how can that be?” asked Charlie. “My parents were atheists!”
A warm and disarming smile swept across the young woman’s face. “Ah, but the criteria for our place in the afterlife is not determined by humankind – not even by the holy texts, which were written by Man…”
Charlie didn’t believe a word she was saying. He was humoring her – just trying to be affable. Maybe to flirt a little. Still, he knew he couldn’t explain the peculiar occurrences. They talked for another twenty minutes, and at some point Chloe said something that really stuck with Charlie:
“You seem open-minded, and I assume you describe yourself that way… This is a chance to truly embrace open-mindedness…”
And so, Charlie tentatively decided it was time to abandon the reason, logic, and secular perspective he was raised with, and embrace superstition. It was part of his newfound narcissistic quest for “open-mindedness”. In fact, there seemed to be evidence that such a reaction was now reasonable. It was time to explore the realm of the soul. One might say it’s not what his parents would have wanted – it may have seemed counter-intuitive to the ideology they espoused during life. But one’s priorities sometimes change after death.
Charlie returned to his apartment, and though he was initially thinking about what Chloe had said, he was now involuntarily imagining her without clothing. The mop bucket was still on the kitchen floor and Charlie decided to dump it down the drain. As he opened the bathroom door, he paused to look at himself in the mirror. Then, what seemed like a brisk, yet faint gust of wind suddenly engulfed Charlie’s body, sending a chill down his spine. He abruptly spun around, eyes widened and mouth agape.
“Chaaarles,” the voice whispered.
Charlie was alone in his apartment.