Here is a lucid, deftly told story of the healing power of love
and the tenacity of spirit. But this is also a suspense tale with a
redemptive twist a genuine metaphysical thriller that seizes
the soul and keeps you up until midnight turning the pages.
author of The Monk Downstairs, A Hell of Mercy,
and California Book of the Dead
Love After Life
a parable of parallel realities
by D. Patrick Miller
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E X C E R P T
It isnt fair! Lucas meant to scream, but the cry stopped in the middle of his throat just as it had stopped so many times before in his fifty years. How many times had this complaint seemed utterly justified, yet somehow too brazen to voice? It just isnt fair, Lucas would be ready to declare; then he would hold back, uncertain of whether he should come right out and say it like that.
This time was different, however. This time, his habitual complaint was physically submerged in his throat, drowning in a lethally impolite rush of something cold and liquid, like water. His head was swimming literally, he realized with a deep fright. Then there was a violent thunk against his skull that reverberated far down his spine; the second thunk, he suddenly remembered, since the world had abruptly inverted and gone murky not ten seconds earlier. His spirits lifted as Lucas felt close to figuring out what was going on. There must be a good reason his feet were kicking wildly beneath him, struggling mightily to give him a decisive thrust that would finally lift him out of this Christ where am I?
Thunk. The last surge upward did no more good than previous attempts. This time, in fact, Lucas felt wrenchingly sick to the very pit of his innards oh my god and then he couldnt feel his feet anymore, or anything else. Even his thinking seemed to have been jarred right out of his head. Dammit this is it. This last unfairness had got him; Lucas was a dead man, and he didnt even know how it had happened. He concentrated intensely, thinking that it was only fair he should know how his demise had come about. Desperately wanting to sob out loud caused Lucas to open his mouth and suck in a last, heavy, saturating draft of the river. He convulsed into stillness and began to sink.
Ten minutes earlier, Wendy Palmer had been sitting cross-legged at the end of a narrow pier extending about fifty feet into a wide, slow spot in the Russian River. Once she had been out there for a while, staring at the water, she had begun warming to the sunny situation. It was like having her own private island. Looking up from her thick paperback of The Devil’s Own Crosswords, Wendy sighed with petulant self-satisfaction — proud as always of her complicated emotions — and let her mind drift from the challenge of finding a five-letter synonym for imbroglio. “Wendy’s Island” was the kind of thing you could tell your lover, and he wouldn’t think it was silly; he would think it was endearing. Weren’t real lovers allowed to share silly things as part of their intimate repertoire?
Wendy sighed again, feeling excluded from real love even though she had a boyfriend, more or less. She gazed down blankly at the water, noticing that the surface ripples were looking kind of stressed as they approached the pier. Following them back to their unnatural source, she gradually lifted her eyes to peer curiously at her father Lucas rocking inelegantly back and forth in an ancient rowboat, about forty feet farther out in the dredged, lakelike spread of this part of the river.
God only knew what he was doing out there now, but his ultimate goal — getting her into that thing with him — was certainly hopeless, another of his well-intentioned but out-of-touch schemes on her behalf. Letting him lead her, a paranoid non-swimmer, this far out over the water had been crazy enough. But get into a leaky, unstable rowboat without any connections to solid earth? No way.
She watched with consternation as her father took out a paddle and clumsily began rowing the boat in a small circle, grinning brightly to show her how much fun he was having, how there was nothing to worry about and so on. Wendy smiled vaguely back at him, hoping that her big straw hat was shading her face enough to hide her disdain. She didnt want to hurt his feelings, after all. She had stopped wanting to do that in the last few years, something that her latest therapist confirmed was a sign of real growth. But she still couldnt figure out how to make him stop trying to fix her life.
This ridiculous trip to the Russian River was a perfect example. A few weeks ago Wendy had had a little crying jag about Wayne again — always Wayne — bringing herself out of it by exclaiming bitterly, “I think I’ll just become a lesbian!” She had been improvising; it was an impetuous bit of theatrics her mom would certainly have appreciated. But her hapless father had not gotten it. He just pursed his lips, curtly nodded his head and, to Wendy’s well-worn dismay, pulled a small notebook from his shirt pocket and jotted something down. She’d forgotten all about it until a couple weeks later, when Lucas proposed a weekend for just the two of them at a family friend’s house by the river in Guerneville.
Diane Sawyer canceled on me again, he chuckled weakly, and I cant imagine anyone else Id have more fun with than my own daughter.
Fat chance was what Wendy had wanted to say; her therapist had warned her to watch out for those self-punishing slips of the tongue about fat. So shed just said the usual, something like Um, yeah, okay. By the time her dad had gone this far with one of his help-Wendy conspiracies, it was too late to point out without hurting his feelings that hed made yet another colossal misreading of her real desires, not to mention her entire personality. So here they were in Guerneville because her father had gotten the nutty idea into his head that she would somehow meet a nice woman there, sometime between Saturday morning and Sunday afternoon.
In fact shed mostly seen cute, well-mannered male couples in the town and by the water like the two guys shed been assiduously trying not to watch about a hundred yards out of the corner of her eye, on a little beach beneath a two-story vacation home. Theyd come down to the shore about a half-hour earlier, waving and shouting Hi! to her and Lucas while laying out a no-doubt gourmet picnic for themselves.
It was a little while later after Lucas had set out from the pier in the flimsy boat and Wendy had sardonically called out Youre a dead man, Dad and he had gamely retorted, Oh, youll see, little girl, soon youll be begging to come out here with me when shed next glanced over at the picnic boys to see that they had finished a pretty rapid lunch and were now in a clinch, maybe naked under the blanket wrapped incompletely around their lower halves. This had been going on for a while now, periodically distracting Wendy from her struggle with lunch.
Her therapist had convinced her that it was less important to try not to eat the stuff she really liked than to add healthy stuff to her menu, eat that first, and then see if she still wanted junk after she was nutritionally sated. So, in between her desultory attempts at the crosswords, she had been eating handfuls of dry trail mix and staring disconsolately at a huge, cellophane-wrapped chocolate cupcake, four hundred calories at least. Picking out the peanuts first from the mix had helped, but the familiar compulsion the magical promise of the cupcake that was somehow grander than the cake itself was only growing stronger. Wendy wanted to cry. She knew it was really crazy to get this anxious over lunch. And lunch was only a prelude to dinner, when even bigger decisions had to be made.
There was a rattle and a splash out in the water, and Wendy looked up to see her father on his knees in the boat, reaching far over the side to retrieve his paddle. Da-ad? she whined in her worst sing-song voice, and he turned about immediately to face her.
I think Ive just about got the hang of this thing! he cried.
Wendy sat up straighter, feeling a little tired, momentarily conscious of her heavy breasts, and leaned forward to squint toward her father. A sudden glare of sunlight on the water made him hard to see. She waved one arm high in the air like a beauty queen and said softly, My father is a total loon!
Lucas paddled out of the glare and lifted a hand to his ear, yelling What did you say, honey?
I said, Write home real soon! she shouted back. Lucas waved her off and got up on his knees again, looking for a moment as if he were praying. With a big, theatrical sigh Wendy leaned all the way back on her elbows in such a way that would allow her to peek covertly at the boys on the beach. She thought shed caught a flash of bare buttocks when she heard a new commotion in the water, and heard her father saying, almost matter-of-factly, Oh shit.
She sat up straight again, just in time to see something that didnt make sense: her father, Lucas Palmer, going over the side of the wildly rocking boat, his legs twisted underneath him by something she couldnt see, his head clipping the wooden rim of the rickety vessel and leaving a bloody smear just before his whole body plopped into the water. A whimper rose in Wendys throat but stopped midway as she got unsteadily to her feet. By now her father had disappeared. She heard a muffled thunk and the boat bounced a little in the water.
Daddy! Wendy screamed, finally getting out a full, blood-curdling shriek. There was another thunk and Wendy saw a hand briefly rise above the water, reaching ineffectively for the lip of the boat, then disappear. Jesus, Daddy, I cant swim! she shouted angrily, then spun around in a half-circle looking for help, afraid shed lose her own balance and end up in the water too. Her eyes fell on the boys on the beach, who were just sitting up now, looking confused.
Please! Wendy yelled savagely at them, my dads out there and I cant swim! Youve got to help me!
Immediately one of the men rose from the tangle of the picnic blanket, kicking off the shorts around his feet, his long, lithe frame interrupted only by a half-erect penis jutting out from his middle. Wendy heard him bark something aggressively to his partner, something about 911. The standing man stared briefly at the pier and the water beyond, as if he were calculating distances, then pointed toward the house and yelled loudly at his still-seated friend, Go, now! Wendy felt tears sting her eyes as the tall man headed for the water in the fastest, most long-legged and beautiful run she had ever seen. He splashed about ten feet in before leaping into a shallow, risky, but expert dive, disappearing briefly under the surface.
Wendy turned back toward the boat, her heart in her throat, just in time to hear a third, fainter thunk, this time issuing from near the nose of the boat, driving it slightly backward in the water. Then, nothing. Wendy knew with a sick certainty that her father was sinking. She felt like an idiot standing motionless on the end of the pier, the junk of her lifestyle spread all around her: an unwrapped chocolate cupcake, her battered purse, a rumpled beach towel, a stupid book of crosswords, and trail mix that had scattered over everything when she stood up abruptly. The lone item not belonging to Wendy was an inflated inner tube her father had placed on the pier just in case of an emergency.
Meanwhile, a strong and courageous rescuer was churning through the water toward the drifting boat, swimming as swiftly and purely as an Olympian, as though hed long prepared for this real-life starting gun: the explosive moment that a stranger would call upon him in desperate need.
For all his speed and valor, the rescuer was now only half-way to his destination. Wendy felt a fatal point in time approaching, cruelly faster than the swimmer, and realized that she was not prepared for an actual crisis in her life.
Lucas felt like a kite lighter than air, soaring upward in a carefree, sensually zigzagging pattern, unexpectedly released from every kind of weight hed ever known: the weight of his body, the weight of his worries, the weight of waiting on life to come across with something really good and long denied. The world was dropping beneath him like a landscape seen from a glass elevator. In fact, when he looked down he seemed to be peering through a wide, oblong lens suspended in space; all around the lens was a cloudy and infinite fog. Lucas wanted to ask someone about this peculiar circumstance, but he seemed to be alone.
At about sixty feet above terra firma the joyride slowed to a stop, and Lucas took the opportunity to survey the scene beneath him in detail. Of course hed looked at natural topographies from the sky many times before in his career, aboard slow-flying planes and helicopters. But somehow his perception had never been so clear, so untrammeled by what? By his own mind, Lucas realized abruptly; never before had his mind been so free of anxieties, anticipations, and both petty and large resentments that he was able to see like this, with such startling acuity. His whole being felt transparent, beatific. The piece of the world that he could see through the lens was startlingly beautiful.
Something odd was going on down below, Lucas noted in his happy dispassion. For some reason his daughter Wendy was doing a jumping dance at the end of the pier where he had left her a while ago leaping, waving her arms, emitting a wild yelp with every other hop. Lucas was afraid she might lose her balance and topple in the water, and shed always been terribly afraid of the water.
Be careful there now, honey! he called out with a laugh, bemused by the fact that he couldnt hear his own voice. He was about to try again, louder, when Wendys dramatic gestures directed his vision over the water beyond the pier, to some bubbles surfacing next to an old wooden rowboat. Lucas felt a glimmer of concern at the sight; there was something not right about it. Then a mans head and shoulders burst through the surface of the water. The man flailed around for a moment before abruptly up-ending himself, his naked backside glistening in the mid-afternoon sun just before he slipped from view again.
Lucas glanced back at the pier to see Wendy down on her knees, her arms out to either side as if to steady herself. Then she reached for her purse, grabbed its shoulder strap and placed it between her teeth. Lucas recoiled inwardly, his happy emptiness rapidly replaced by a dark foreboding. Wendys strap-chewing was a very bad sign, historically speaking; something awful was going on to trigger that compulsion. Lucas reluctantly returned his view to the vicinity of the boat, where the diving man was now wrestling with someone in the water. No he was trying to hold onto someone, with one arm draped over the side of the boat and the other encircling the chest of a limp, half-bald man from the back.
But the small, empty vessel was unstable, about to tip over from the combined weight of the two men. Lucas could discern that the rescuer was furiously treading water to keep the other man afloat. Then he shouted something and Lucas saw Wendy react by scrambling to her feet, looking desperately around her before grabbing the inner tube Lucas had put near the end of the pier to reassure her. She did an awkward but rapid spin with it, as if she were heaving a shotput, slinging the tube with a ferocious accuracy to within fifteen feet of the two men in the water. The swimmer abandoned the rowboat and dog-paddled over to the tube, hauling the limp mans torso out of the water and laying it across the circle of rubber with surprising efficiency. From there it was no more than half a minute before the swimmer had pushed the tube over to Wendy, scrambled onto the pier with Wendys help, lifted the limp man out of the water and laid him out flat.
Without knowing how he did it, Lucas telescoped his vision nearer the surface of the pier as if he were only ten feet above the scene and noticed with mild surprise that the man who had been pulled from the water was himself, looking soaked inside and out, insensible and blue in the face except for a messy redness on his right temple. Strangely, the deep concern that had arisen when Wendy started chewing her strap now subsided; Lucas felt more confused than disturbed.
There was something going on that hadnt quite registered; he wasnt getting it, as Wendy always complained. Perhaps the swimmer was confused too, because Lucas noticed that he was scratching his head and looking around uncertainly. Then he seemed to make up his mind, assertively turning the head of Lucas body to one side and beginning to push roughly on his chest. Some water dribbled, then bubbled abundantly out the mouth. After two or three rounds of this, the man who was trying to revive Lucas sat back on his haunches and said something to Wendy who answered What? and then slowly, wonderingly handed the man a cupcake.
Lucas would have wondered what that was about had his vision not speedily, sickeningly reverted to its far perspective, then faded along with the mystical lens into the surrounding foggy blankness just as he got it. He was no longer uncomprehending of why he was voiceless when he said to himself in amazement, Oh my. . .
COPYRIGHT 2022 D. PATRICK MILLER. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
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