I am lying flat on the ground in a quiet living room in a quiet home in the kind of quiet suburb everyone’s at least driven through, if not lived in. I am breathing deeply, from my diaphragm, like the VHS instructed. My eyes are open but unfocused, and all they make out is the soft purple light coming from the TV, sticking to the walls, my face. Above the TV are rabbit ears. One of the antennae points to a far wall where, if you come at it from the right angle, you can follow our family’s progression. First it’s Mom and Dad with their poofy hair, at a carnival somewhere before us, smiling just to smile. Then it’s me and my twin brother Sam, us as toddlers posed with parents for a Sears photoshoot. Then it’s us in our Halloween costumes at five, me as Raphael and Sam as Donatello. Then a candid shot of us a couple years ago, playing a multiplayer shooter, a big piece of cardboard taped to the screen to prevent screen-peeking. One more photo of Sam and I, my arm around his shoulder, before his hair fell out, us laughing at someone or something offscreen, both of us wearing cool guy sunglasses. In every photo after that, Sam is gone. Even when we’re smiling in these later-on photos, a vital piece of us is missing. On the TV, the VHS is damaged enough where the title screen music tips up and then down in pitch, and tracking distorts the top of the frame, but it still works. The official-sounding announcer talks about astral projection, spirit walking, visiting the souls of the dead. All of the things that are possible with out of body experiences. I’ve watched this enough to memorize the process, the droning voice and diagrams, rope coming out of the head and up toward the vanishing point. I’ve tried this enough to assume it’s bullshit, but I try one more time anyway. Upstairs, in my bedroom, is an acceptance letter. A piece of paper with news that’s supposed to be good. I put the paper out of my mind, put Sam back into it. Close my eyes. Breathe.
And so what do you do when it actually happens?
When your astral body detaches, half opacity, from the physical one and rises up to the ceiling and then beyond it? When the purple light from the TV screen somehow clips through too and you can see now what the sky really is, the black and white scatter of static that it’s always been? When you say holy shit and your dead brother says put a quarter in the jar and there he is, out within the sky’s static and purple light? When you’re floating off center like action movie wirework gone wrong, kicking and flapping your limbs to propel over to him, and he’s walking across the sky like it’s nothing, so you let him cover the rest of the distance? When you try to give your brother a hug but go right through? When he says oh yeah. Should’ve mentioned that. Your dead brother tells you you don’t have much time, this out of body stuff doesn’t last. He’s the same age as you. The exact same. He tells you time keeps going on here, that it’s a long story, that you need to go back. Accept the school’s offer. Get on the Greyhound. You tell him you’re not going back, and as you do, the house below you starts to fade. The sky’s purple goes deeper. Static grows stronger. Has a sound now. You swim away from your dead brother, a little more coordinated than before. He tells you it’s now or never. You swim toward the static, your brother following behind as the movie of your lives projects itself in rewind behind you, into static sky, a reverse picture show where first you’re in all-black and crying onto cold, hard earth. Then you’re in a hospital room with him. Next, it’s helping him check out and go home. You’re giving him his sunglasses back, coordinating putting them on together. Faster now, and you’re running backwards on a beach, waves crashing in reverse, back into the greater whole they came from. Years erase themselves in seconds, till the two of you are little again, till you’re riding the school bus together, sun in your eyes. You synchronize putting on your sunglasses, laugh. The movie plays to the end of the reel, or the beginning, back and into static. You’re crying now, trying to catch your breath, and Sam is right there, always right there. You inhale. Let him go. Fall back down to earth. Wind whips past, the dollhouse of your home fast approaching.
I startle awake on a Greyhound, city scenery a blur past the window my face is pressed against. I catch my breath. Remember to breathe deeply, from my diaphragm. On my lap, a faded old backpack is loaded up to its limit. I don’t know why, but I reach into my jacket pocket. Pull out what I find: Sam’s old pair. With the early morning sun blazing as it is, I’ll need them. There might be static up in the sky, way way out there. But then again, it might just be a trick of the light. I put the sunglasses on and set my head back against the window.
LIZA OLSON is the author of the novels Here’s Waldo, The Brother We Share, and Afterglow. She’s also the Editor-in-Chief of (mac)ro(mic). A Best Small Fictions nominee, finalist for Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction Award, and 2021 Wigleaf longlister in and from Chicagoland, she’s been published in SmokeLong Quarterly, Hobart, Fiction Southeast, and other fine places. Find her online at lizaolsonbooks.com or on Twitter @lizaolsonbooks.
HOWIE GOOD is a widely published poet, whose latest collection, FAILED HAIKU, will appear this summer from Grey Book Press.