He’d climbed this hill a hundred times. It’d been 60 years, though, but the hill was still the same steep sonofabitch in the foothills few people bothered to summit. Jarod climbed, step-by-step, his cane steadying his once proud legs over the path’s occasional scree. Now, just like then, the journey bothered his left knee, only now a needling pain ricocheted from the outside of his knee to his ankle and back. It made Jarod gasp each time and he would chuckle; the pain, the hill, the memories – they were not long for this world. His silver mane tussled by the wind, Jarod scooped his head up towards the sky despite the sharp pinch in his neck and shoulder; it’s not here yet. His sexagenarian pocket watch – a gift from an unforgotten paramour – confirmed it. There was still time.

Time for what he wasn’t sure. To tell his human life to go fuck itself in the face of an Earth-shattering asteroid? To sigh in resignation that, well, at least it’s finally over? (And not just for him, for everyone. They all deserved it.) Or maybe it was time to plead with someone – he didn’t know who exactly – to make any of the past 78 years make sense. Decision-making; the bane of this existence. And yet he’d decided to come here just like he said he would, like they both said they would. If they ever knew the world was going to end, they said they’d face it together. The symbolism aside, this was more about being true to the one decision Jarod had been able to make in his life, so long ago when he didn’t question the folly of his young body and mind.

A few more steps, a few more gasps. God, he hated this body. He’d always hated its flaws. He even hated how its brain made him think. He could never stop thinking. And he despised feelings; those were the worst. Feelings could turn a perfectly fine and sunny day into a worst-case scenario.

A monolithic stone cross, moss-crusted, at the hill’s crest looked down on the man. It threw an unflinching glare being less worse-for-wear than it’s aged visitor. 60 years and the stone cross was still here, watching over the town, more like a city now, below. Jarod placed a shaky hand on the base of the cross not only to steady himself, but to feel once again what had been lost in the haze of a fading memory.

“Hello, old friend,” Jarod creaked. “Still strong, proud, I see. Do you know what’s coming?” Jarod swiveled his hips and his left knee forgot to go along for the ride. He winced as he plopped his bones on the cement. My, that used to be a lot softer, the senior thought as he recalled the love made here.

“Do you know what’s coming?” he asked again. No reply from the stoic. “You probably don’t know where we’re going either.”

Jarod looked over the town he’d lived in six decades ago; so much progress since then. So many new buildings. The forest that was home to this hill had been encroached upon but not toppled, fortunately, and for a moment Jarod got lost in the symbolism before acid spit into the bottom of his throat. “Today is the last day of the rest of our lives,” he bowed his head.

“Trouble in paradise?” a scratchy voice came.

The old man, his hearing not what it used to be, never heard the crunch of gravel and stone approach him. Jarod looked up. A woman, her face scored by decades of experience. It was hard for Jarod to tell; maybe it was the voice, maybe it was the underlying structure of her face. Is it…? Who has that strength of conviction anymore? Jarod does, so it’s not like it’s impossible.

“Any more front row tickets available?” the woman asked.

Jarod patted the stone perch beside him. The woman stepped towards on less than confident legs and accompanied him. The old man had already turned his attention back to the sky but could tell the woman was smiling, happy almost. She radiated a vibe, something above and beyond the four dimensions Jarod was bound by.

“You’re not bitter?” Jarod asked as he clasped his hands over the butt of his cane.

“Bitter about what? I’ve lived a good life, a full life. Love, family, friends, children. Been around the world.” Her voice wasn’t light and as high pitched as it may have been in her youth, but it was sure, confident. She continued.

“Should I be bitter about this old body? It made it this far, far enough to go out in a ball of fire.” She laughed before stopping to cough. “Ahem, that’s a hell of a lot better than lying in a hospital bed pumped full of pain killers.”

Jarod turned his head to look at her. No, no, just wishful thinking, he thought. But that does sound like something Amelia would say.

“I don’t know,” Jarod began. “My body’s been in pain so long I don’t remember what it’s like not to be in pain. I’ve lived with it, though. More important things have been lost.”

“Let me guess,” the woman smiled at him and leaned in, “There was this girl…” The way she smiled with the right side of her lip higher than the left, it was so damned familiar.

Jarod leaned back; she’d invaded his space. He’d become too comfortable within his bubble. He never wanted the bubble. It’s one of those damned things humans put themselves in when they’ve been left alone for too long. But weren’t bubbles made to be burst? Many of his had been.

“You seem satisfied with the love you’ve had in your life. You sound like you’ve never lost love. But who wouldn’t spend a lifetime fawning over you?” Jarod finished leaning back in towards the woman. Screw the bubble. The possibility of rejection didn’t matter at this point.

The other half of this equation threw her head back. She slapped her thigh and hooted before collecting herself. Amelia used to do that.

“I’ve been through so many loves!’ she said. “I’ve lost loves and found loves a few times over. And each time it meant something, everything. It was beautiful every time. Did it ever hurt? Sure. But then it didn’t. That’s the beauty of it.”

Jarod squinted. He frowned. He shook his head. “There was never one that stood out, one that mattered more than all the others, one you didn’t quite recover from?” He scoffed. “I don’t see any beauty in that.”

The woman turned her body towards him and put her hands on his knees. “I never recovered from any of them, Jarod. But you press on, find new loves, and you love in different ways. But love and the pain that goes with it, that’s the point.”

“How do you know my name?” drifted out of the old man’s mouth. “Amel…”

“No, I’m not Amelia.” Jarod’s companion sat back straight and crossed her legs. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t trying to get your hopes up. Say, do you want to tell me what else is on your mind?”

Confirmation enough. Amelia never asked him what was on his mind. She just knew. But this woman knows a few things herself.

“Could there be anything else but to be angry that the grief never ended?” Jarod carved out. “You’re so wise this would be a good time to clue me in.” Jarod stomped his cane on the ground.

“It’s just that I need to hear you say it,” she replied. “That other thing that bothers you. Like how you wished you’d never been in love. Like how you’ve always felt the things you feel you wish you never had to, because that’s not who you really are. You never wanted any of it, not once you felt it.”

How was she inside his head? No, it was deeper than that. She saw into his soul.

“What are you?” the senior man asked. “An angel, a demon, here to whisk me off to the afterlife? You’re more than reading my mind.”

“I am. We’re connected, of course. All of our kind are.” She turned to Jarod again. She took one of his hands in hers and pulled it into her lap. “It is me. I mean, I was Amelia. But then I remembered.”

“I don’t understand…” The words were spoken weakly. A lack of understanding usually is.

“None of us were supposed to remember until it was time. But you hit your head as a child and, let’s just say the human brain is so fragile,” the woman said.

Jarod shook his head and clenched his jaw. A dozen loudspeakers could be heard announcing something in the city below. The end must be nigh. Maybe the asteroid has already hit and his mind is grasping at straws. Then the scratch of the woman’s voice centered him.

“You’ve never really agreed with their morality, or what passes for it on this planet. You’ve never agreed with any of their politics. You’ve never understood their economics. You’ve cried over the way they treat each other. You’ve even cried over how they treat other living things. You’ve despaired as they ravaged the planet. All of your frustration, all of your anguish, all of your rage – you had no choice but to feel it because that’s what you signed up for. You’re not one of them. You never have been,” the person formerly known as Amelia explained.

Jarod’s eyes were circled with water. He knew it. He knew it.

“Why are we here?” the old man asked as a tear finally fell.

“We’re scientists. We were sent to experience life as humans. Apparently, we didn’t expect it to be this bad. At least we have all the data we need now.” The woman stood up as a word emanated from the metropolis below. Ten. And, as expected. Nine.

The woman extended her hand towards Jarod.

“Are we going home now?” Jarod almost choked as his hand reached out to meet hers. She smiled. Her eyes welled, too.

“Let’s go home,” she said.

Eight…seven…six…

Jarod, aided by the woman, stood up. He tossed his can aside. He sniffled then cast his eyes on the city below. “The asteroid. Is it us?”

The woman tossed her head and her hair flipped back with it. When her head came back she smiled before nodding towards some undefined place.

“Good,” Jarod said.

“Now, now,” the woman patted Jarod’s hand. “We’re scientists from another world. Don’t be so human.”

Two…one…

And then they were gone in a brilliant flash of gold light and red flames.

John J. Vinacci (c) All Rights Reserved September 2021

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