When William Asher looked back fondly upon his own death, he couldn’t help feeling the slightest shadow of dissatisfaction. This feeling concerned him to a rather considerable extent, as he had progressed quite steadily toward a state of what some would call enlightenment in the time since his passing on from living in a bag of meat. Before he’d stopped being a person, William vaguely remembered being worried about what happened after the big “The End,” but he knew now that being thrust out of flesh-bound life and heading toward enlightenment meant that you didn’t have to worry about the onset of male pattern baldness and nothing bothered you in the least, not even all that money lost on taxes. Best of all, if you thought you were happiest eating ice cream all your time in eternity, then you damn well believed you were eating ice cream all your time in eternity, regardless of whether ice cream actually existed outside of the mortal realm or not–William had seen as much when Juliette had finally achieved it. Juliette who had come as the a shade of her former self, settled on the star at the far left of Orion’s belt, and with very little visible effort gone on to become her own floating ball of light. Enlightenment was decidedly a Good Thing, and William was in the very vicinity of the Good Thing, and the odd fact of his own personal dissatisfaction was such a nuisance and so out of place that it made Linny frown and it even bothered Edith. Though he only knew as much about Edith because she said so.
It was difficult for William to read Edith without verbal expression because while her essence bore the imprint of her face–that of a thirty-year-old who’d married rich–it never actually seemed to physically represent any sentiment and Edith seemed to have actually fallen out of her body after at least one hundred years of inhabiting it. “The Botox,” she’d introduced herself when William had arrived, “That shit sticks with you, but I look like a goddess. Don’t I? Pardon my French.” Sometimes it seemed as if the star on which she perched was working to feed her energy, rather than the other way around. Initially, William had difficulty acclimating to the fact that he’d been consigned to inhabit the same district of the Orion constellation as Edith, mostly because he’d never in life had the nerve to breathe the same air as such a person. Much less attempt to guess their mood by voice alone for the sake of intellectual, if one could call it that, exchange. But there was always Linny to turn to. Just to look at the girl, really, since she wouldn’t actually speak.
“I don’t think you’re supposed to do that,” Edith said when she first heard of William’s dissatisfaction.
Linny nodded along, her brown pigtails bouncing high on her head.
“No shit,” William had replied.
Linny nodded again.
The conversation continued on that way for what seemed eternity–mostly because there were no days to speak of once one left the realm of standard earth time. There were variations in divergence, of course. But the potential for topics were truly limited when the same two people were picking them up time and again, and another person was nodding in the background.
“Well,” Edith replied sometimes, “Why are you doing it?”
“Thinking about my death?” William would ask.
Linny would shrug with open hands.
“You can think on that all you like,” Edith would say. “Why are you being dissatisfied? It’s over.”
William often mulled over this. The end itself had been a fairly spectacular one for someone of his former mortal position, though it may not have been as painless and peaceful as he would’ve once preferred. He could never recall all of the details perfectly, but he knew enough from his own experience that death by massive ball of flame was not the expected end of life for a man who sat around all day waiting for that one burnt flake of bran cereal to appear on a conveyer belt so that he might flick it away from the path of consumer packaging with his spoon. No, the actual death itself had rather surpassed the expectations of the man divested of the duties of Quality Assurance. It had to be what came before that worried him. Which was odd, because there wasn’t so much that actually did come before. Life for William had been his work, his television, and the occasional walk around the duck pond. Sometimes, contrary to the wishes of the local authority, he even fed the ducks. It was a rather risky thing to do, he knew, because citizens were watched like small, squirming prey by the large-engined black-and-whites. He’d seen a jaywalker chased down by three of the massive uniformed-filled creatures once and had resigned himself to never walking faster than the safe, steady pace of two miles per hour. All of these factors–his speed, his propensity to walking around the duck pond, his lack of will to do anything else with his life–had led to him meet the turtle in the park.
The creature had not seemed unordinary upon first glance. The shell was about the size of William’s palm. Orange streaks on the sides of the turtle’s head marked the organs for hearing. Otherwise the pattern on its skin alternated between stripes of mute, brownish green and pale yellow. Had it not been placed on its back in the tight dirt between the walking path and the pond, it might never have caught William’s attention. But the short, clawed limbs that waved wildly out of the overturned shell had given William pause, and against his typical unobtrusive nature, he had strayed from his usual path and crouched down to help the creature.
“Poor thing,” William had said.
“Little bastards,” the turtle had replied in a gravelly voice.
With his hand upon the shell, William froze and stared down at the creature.
The turtle stopped flailing for a moment. “Are you going to help me?”
“I,” William said.
“This is,” the turtle said after a huff, “precisely why I was against bestowing your kind the faculty for speech. Flip me.”
“You’re a turtle?” William said, unsure.
“Flip me, would you?”
William righted the creature. Then he slipped down to a kneeling position and placed his palms over his thighs. “I almost flicked a good bran flake,” he paused to breathe as he reasoned aloud, “I was ready to sweep it off the belt today. I thought it was burnt, but it wasn’t. Maybe I am losing my mind.”
The turtle took several stiff steps on its four legs before retracting them so only his head remained. “Don’t get me started on opposable thumbs,” it said, its beak clicking a little as it spoke. “We give you opposable thumbs, and you use spoons! To waste bran flakes. Bran flakes??” It shook his head. “You have teeth.”
“Wait,” William said suddenly. “Why are you talking that way?”
“As if you’ve given me something?”
The turtle stared unblinkingly at the man. “This is what you ask me when you’re afraid you’ve lost your mind?”
“Point,” William said. He pressed his lips together, biting gently on them with his teeth. “I’m going to go now.” He pushed up to his feet.
“Wait,” the turtle said grudgingly. “Wait,” this time annoyed.
William gulped and remained standing, listening to the voice that was much quieter now that his head was at his full height.
“What? Does it look like I’m going to eat you?” the turtle said. “Come here.”
William leaned down. “Why am I interacting with you?” he asked himself distantly.
“Listen, you did me some good, so I’ll do you one right.” The turtle swung his head around to confirm the security of their surroundings before he continued. “Anything you want, I’ll give it to you. Just one thing–a wish, whatever you want to call it. But I’m not a genie and if you try to rub me, or anything, limbs will be lost to the cause. Straight?”
“Straight?” the turtle said again. “You got it? You understand?”
“I think,” William said.
“You’re thinking now!” the turtle said. “Excellent. Let’s have it then.”
“The thing you want. Tell me so I can give it to you.”
“R… right now?” William stuttered.
“No, in fifty years you’ll totter out with a cane to the duck pond and I’ll be waiting right here, rolling around on my back again,” the turtle said.
“No!” The turtle lowered its head to the ground. “Come on already.”
“I,” William started. “Don’t want anything.”
William wondered if it was too late to change his mind. He didn’t want to push the turtle any further in mood. He shrugged. “I just want to be happy in life, I guess.”
The turtle turned its head to watch William clearly with one eye. “You contradict yourself.”
“Really? Sorry, I–”
“But you’re smart,” the turtle went on. “We’ll see what happens.” The turtle withdrew its head into its shell, and all softness seemed to melt from it as if it had always been merely a stone.
“Hello?” William said.
He stepped forward to touch the rock. It was cold, rough, and heavy in his hand. There was no trace of the shell pattern. Curious, he began to turn the rock over to look at its underside, but he decided against it.
So he left the rock there beside the pond where the brown-spotted ducks were flipping their beaks down one at a time, and he went back to his life. He lived. Then he died, a good deal earlier than expected. And now he was dissatisfied.
When Linny finally opened her mouth it was because her smile deepened. She turned to William to show her raised cheeks and her teeth and William began to suspect she was that sort of girl who would rather smile than talk to people because she was hiding something.
“You’re dead like the rest of us,” he said, leaning toward her. “You can talk, you know.”
“Leave the dear alone,” Edith said, “She’s a bit blue. I think she’s about to become a star.”
“How’d she manage that when we haven’t gotten anywhere?” William wondered.
“Likely,” Edith said, “it helped that she didn’t talk about her feelings all the time.”
William watched Linny carefully. “How do you feel about your death?” he asked.
Linny’s shoulders jerked up in a shrug.
“What about,” William said, “What about your life?”
Linny shrugged again.
“So you’re just happy?” William asked. “That’s all? You don’t care?”
“This is worse,” William said, “Than trying to infer your emotions, Edith.”
“I will have you know,” Edith retorted, “I have kept you well-apprised of my emotions since Donnell took up on Betelgeuse.”
“Do you ever feel like that?” William asked suddenly.
“Like what?” Edith said.
“Like you don’t care about what happened before?”
Edith reached up to touch her face with her fingers. She pressed them against the area where wrinkles would have fanned out from her eyes. “Doesn’t it show?”
Linny grew brighter. She began to look less like a shape that had once been some part of a person. Light was reflecting off of her, showing fluffy edges of a dust cloud.
A woman’s voice called from the nebula behind the girl: “Linny? Honey?”
Linny turned and waved at what only she could see.
For some reason, William felt he gained more insight on his life by looking at what happened afterward rather than before. The before was a reflection pool of monotony now that he wasn’t in it anymore. It had taken him a good portion of timeless existence to come to this conclusion, but now that he had, he realized what his life was like; he could know no better than through the eyes of people who’d watched live it.
The fire had not left much. The fire sparked by an exposed wire burned the bran flakes William needed to fulfill his duties had been hungry, and in the search for oxygen, had charged through the tunnel of the machine and into the area of William’s line of vision. Having sniffed something burnt, the young man had leaned forward, readily brandishing his spoon.
His mother had been relieved that she did not have to buy a cemetery plot. She went to several discount websites online to compare prices on flights out to Hawaii and used the insurance money to fund her one-way trip. George, his old roommate from university had asked after the service, but the viewing, according to his mother, was sufficient even if there wasn’t anything to view. His coworkers were all redistributed to assure quality in other capacities of the cereal plant. They left a pile of spoons out near the area that was closed off. Twin cousins, Valentine and Hunter, had stopped by to go through his collection of robot models.
The only other person in the world William could have cared about was his father, but his father had already passed on. Only once had William wondered where his father could be among the stars. If perhaps he were sitting on what once was the man in charge of his life. William often thought this was when he started to feel dissatisfied.
“I don’t think I was happy,” William said suddenly.
“No one’s ever really happy down there, darling,” Edith said, “Why do you think we all died?”
“No, I,” William murmured, “I was supposed to be happy.”
“Well you’re happy now, aren’t you? Or, you’re close enough.”
“No,” William countered. “I’m dissatisfied.”
“Well if you’d stop being dissatisfied, maybe you’d get a chance to enjoy enlightenment a little. Come on. You can even have ice cream if you want.”
“No,” William said, “Not really.” He looked at Edith. He looked through her. Down, somewhere past her, was a sort of bluish dot that represented Earth. “Linny’s getting what she wants,” he told that blue dot, “But I don’t have anything to want.”
“Actually,” a gravelly voice said behind him, “Earth is over this way.”
“William,” Edith said slowly, “There is turtle here. Speaking to you.”
“Turtle!” William said, turning to face the turtle. It was perched on a rock the size of a two-hand fist. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m a god,” the turtle said without opening its beak, “as it happens.”
“You’re still a turtle,” William said. “Up here.”
“Yes,” the turtle said. “I was wondering when you would notice something was wrong.”
“I’m dissatisfied,” William admitted with a nod.
“You don’t think that an existence without unhappiness,” the turtle jerked its head toward the other stars, “all that, is going to be enough for you?”
“I think it’s all fine,” William said. “But I won’t care.”
“I think I want to miss something,” William said. “And I don’t.”
“You’d rather have that?” the turtle asked.
“Yes.” William thought a moment. “Is that selfish?”
“Utterly,” the turtle replied, “and completely. But that only means you get to be human again.”
“What?” Edith said suddenly. “No, William, you mustn’t–”
“You can’t just drop happiness into a life,” the turtle went on, “No one’s going to give it to you. It’s up to you to find it. This is your chance. Then we’re done. We’re even.”
“How’ll I know?” William asked.
“You told me,” the turtle said. Before William could express further concerns, the turtle stretched his head forward and he tapped William’s essence with its beak. What had been William became the hazy atmosphere around the rock that leaped away after being nudged by the turtle. It started on a path steadily away from Orion.
“Well,” Edith said. “Suppose I’ll miss him.”
“He’ll be back soon enough,” the turtle said. “May not remember you, though.”
“Will he find his happiness?” Edith asked.
“He knows that happiness lies in no material thing,” the turtle said. “That should be enough to set him right. And what about you, Edith?”
“What about me? I look like a goddess, don’t I?” Edith gave her hair a pat.
“Wouldn’t you rather feel like one?” the turtle asked.
Edith shook her head. “Not just yet.”
“All right,” the turtle said. “Linny, let’s go make you a star.”
When everyone else had gone, Edith looked at the star on her right, then the star on her left. The two extra seats on Orion’s belt were vacated yet again. In want of energy, they flickered. Edith, not certain of the source of it, glowed.
Clarity is currently a graduate student pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts at the University of California, Riverside. When she’s not writing her butt off, she enjoys books at the snail’s pace that is her reading speed. Sometimes she gets caught doing that when she’s supposed to be shelving books at a library in Orange County. (But it’s okay. Her co-workers are awesome.) Her ultimate dream is to become a librarian and have to find her own books for a patron.
Clarity’s first favorite book was a medical encyclopedia.