Clara gazed at the pictures along the wall while she waited. When Greg came down the stairs, he saw her staring at the one of a young man with dirty blond hair and a swimmer’s body. He knew she would assume it was a picture of him.
“I’d tell you it’s not me in that picture. You may think me a liar, but more than likely you would ask…” He paused so she could.
“Then who is it? If not you?”
“My twin brother, John.”
“You don’t have a twin brother.”
“I did. He…died. In a car accident.”
“I was driving,” he said, surprising himself. He’d never told the story even to his friends. “We had gone to a bar for a friend’s birthday and he had too much to drink so I took the keys from him. I was being responsible, but someone else that night wasn’t. We were hit head on. John died before the ambulance showed up.”
John woke to the calling of his name. He sat up, stretched, then climbed out of bed. He came down the stairs and saw a young woman looking at pictures in the hallway. He’d never seen her before, or anyone in this place, but somehow he felt like he knew her.
“I’d tell you that’s not actually me in that picture. You may think me a liar, but more than likely you would ask…” He paused, letting her.
“Then who is it? If not you?”
“It’s actually my twin brother, Greg.”
“You don’t have a twin brother.”
“I did. He’s still alive.”
He smiled. “Yeah. It’s good. When the paramedics showed up, they went to him first. I guess we were both on the same time limit, but he got to stay behind.”
“Do you miss him?”
“Do you ever wish he were here?”
“Yeah, sometimes,” John said, “It’s too late now, but he’ll find his own way.”
“We were pretty close,” Greg said, “Practically best friends. We did everything together.”
“Do you miss him?”
“All the time.” He fell silent. Thoughts rushed through his head. Of John. Of what happened. Of his parents. He began wondering where his parents were and then wondered how Clara got in the house. He began to realize he had never met her before but the feeling vanished when she spoke again.
“Come on, I’d like to show you something,” she said and walked out the front door. He followed her outside and into his car. The fact that she was driving never occurred to him.
“Where are we going?” he asked.
“It’s a surprise.”
He didn’t argue. He looked out the window at the row of old oak trees that lined the road. The newly formed leaves were still wet with the morning dew. They drove in silence. Greg turned and looked at Clara. Taking her in for what seemed the first time. She had jet-black hair tied back in a pony-tail. Her bangs hid her forehead and stopped right above her blue eyes which shone brightly against her fair skin.
She noticed him staring and smiled.
“What?” she asked.
“Have we met before?”
“Here it is.” She slowed the car suddenly and turned onto a narrow road leading into the countryside. A short distance brought them to a small house with a red roof. It was his grandparent’s cottage.
“Here we are,” she said.
“And why are we here?”
“It’s a surprise, silly.”
“So where are we going today?” John asked as if they had been spending the past several months together.
“There is a place I would like you to see.”
“And where would that be? I can’t be bothered going out to the city again.”
“It’s actually in the other direction.”
“You said we weren’t supposed to go out there.” He paused. Their previous conversation floated through his head while his memory doubted every word.
“It’ll be okay,” she smiled.
He followed her outside and they walked along the dusted landscape away from the abandoned city. He was thankful for the change. He wondered why he never explored outside the city before. He was surprised that he felt nervous.
“Are we able to die here?” he asked.
“Why wouldn’t you be able to?”
“Well,” he paused, “because I’m already dead.”
“You look alright to me.”
“But you know I died.” Another conversation echoed in his mind.
“It’s the only way to leave that other place,” she said matter-of-factly. “Come on.” She waved him to continue and he followed obediently. He was curious.
“Are there ways to leave this place?”
She stopped at this and smiled, “This isn’t the last stop, silly. Let’s go.”
They walked along remnants of the road away from the city.
“Why are we here?” Greg repeated
“It’s an intermediary of sorts.”
“An intermediary for what?”
“Today? For you.”
He gave her a quizzical look, but she ignored him and skipped out onto the deep green grass of the field south of the little cottage.
“Aren’t we going inside?”
“That’s not where it is.”
“Where what is?” he called after her.
“The intermediary. Don’t you listen?”
He sighed, trying to calm his nerves before they fired up. She was becoming extremely trying, but he followed her out onto the grass and into the sun. He instantly felt its heat beat down on him. He suddenly felt obligated to see through whatever this was. He briefly looked back at the small cottage where he and John spent every holiday. Then he looked at his car. He couldn’t just go home. She had the keys. He turned just in time to see Clara disappear into a small grove of trees. He remembered those trees, but something about the memory seemed false.
“Come on,” Clara’s voice yelled.
They had been walking for hours. John didn’t know who to thank for the clouds blocking the sun so he thanked the clouds themselves.
“Are we almost there?” he called.
“Yes, yes. So impatient,” she called from in front of him.
He looked at her then as if for the first time. She had jet-black hair that fell straight to her waist which swayed side to side when she walked. He began to wonder where they first met when she abruptly turned and stared at him with her bright, blue eyes. A smile flashed across her lips.
“Here we are,” she said.
John looked around at the dirt-covered road and vacant landscape. “This is it?”
“No. This is just our turn.” She stepped off the road, onto the dead grass, and walked off in a straight line. “Come on lazy bones,” she yelled back without looking at him, “Unless you have somewhere else to be.”
He tried to think of where else he would like to be, or could go, but nothing came to mind. He still wasn’t exactly sure where he was. He sighed heavily and stepped off the broken road and followed her.
“This is it,” Clara said, popping her head out from behind a tree as Greg entered a small clearing in the trees. In the center was a stone well.
“No, it’s the intermediary.”
“The well is the intermediary?”
“Of course. Take a look,” she pulled him to the edge of the stone circle. He looked down and saw nothing.
She looked inside then checked the watch on her wrist.
“Hmm, we must be a bit early. I guess we’ll just have to wait,” she said and sat down on the grass. She pulled up a few blades and began braiding them together.
“What are we doing here?” Greg asked.
“Waiting now. You’ll see. Just be patient. It will happen in a few minutes.”
He could feel his shoulders tighten as she said the words. He knew he wouldn’t like the answer but he asked it anyway. “And what are we waiting for?”
“For the intermediary, silly.”
“Here we are.”
John caught up to her and looked at the stone circle. “This is it?”
She hit him. “Don’t be silly. It’s inside.”
He looked down into the well and saw nothing.
“There’s nothing in there.”
She looked at her watch. “Hmm. Keep looking. It should be happening soon.”
“What’s going to happen? We haven’t done anything but walk all day and now we are standing at a dry well in the middle of nowhere.” He looked around at the brown fields that surrounded them. “I know there isn’t much going on in this place, but I’m sure there are better things to do than be out here.”
“Oh hush. Just keep an eye on what’s down there.”
He sighed and returned his attention to the well. He glanced at her when she sat down on the dead grass and began ripping blades up. She tossed them into the air but there was no wind to catch them.
“I am,” he said and turned his attention back to the depths of the well.
Greg kept looking down in the well as she instructed. Nothing happened for a while and he was growing more and more irritated. Then he saw something move. Something was coming toward him. It took a moment before he realized it was water quickly rising. The well was filling up.
“Somethings happening,” he said.
For a moment he thought it might not be water because it was as clear as the air it replaced only somehow darker. It rose to the brim and stopped. He looked down through the water and into the darkness behind it. His reflection soon came into view.
“Now,” Clara said, popping up off the ground, “we are finally here, and with only a minute to spare.”
“You can bring your brother back. If you want to.”
“What?” He looked up from the well and his throat caught.
“At the cost of your own life of course.” She said matter-of-factly.
He stared at her in disbelief. “But…”
“All you have to do is jump in,” she told John.
“Who would ever do that? I mean, yeah it’d be nice to be alive again, but not at that cost.” He stopped looking in the well and focused on her. “No one would make that choice.”
“Some do. But that doesn’t matter. What matters right now is that you only have a handful of seconds to decide.”
“No,” he said, “That’s my decision. Consider it made.”
“Okay,” she said, “but I do have to warn you. Your brother was given the same choice.”
“He has the same choice, but vice-versa. He can jump in the well and trade his life for yours. You may see him briefly depending on what he chooses.”
“That’s insane.” He ran back and looked inside. His reflection stared back, as if it had never left the water.
“So I jump in and he comes back?”
“Yes. You may even see him briefly.”
Greg looked at his reflection in the water. “He’ll come out of this well as if nothing happened to him?”
“All in one piece. Healed. Presto. Alive again. That’s the intermediary for you, but time’s running out. You have to choose soon.”
He stared down into the water. It was an obvious decision and his brother deserved it. He reached one hand in and watched it disappear into the blackness behind the surface. The water remained clear but his hand was gone beneath it.
A hand emerged a second later next to where his had entered. Its palm opened toward him. On it, written in ash, was the word Don’t. He stared at it. Then the hand rotated and the middle finger lifted from a clenched fist.
Greg smiled. “You’d hate me for it, wouldn’t you? Dick.”
“That should do it. Now, when will this be over?” John said.
“It already is,” both of the girls named Clara said in unison.
John looked over to see the girl had duplicated. He looked back at the well and found it empty again.
“Congratulations.” The girls said.
He shook his head. “Can you stop doing that?”
“Talking at the same time.”
“Sure,” one Clara said. “It’s time for you to move on,” said the other.
“So it wasn’t real?”
“Of course it was real.” “Now it’s time to go.”
“Where are we going?”
“You are going on to the next place.” “And we are staying here.”
“What about Greg?”
“He will live his life.” “Until he moves on to his next place.”
“Whichever place is next for him.” “With your decision, he will likely skip this phase.”
John smirked. “Good. He wouldn’t last two days here.”
Greg jumped at the knock on the window. He looked up to see his grandfather waving to him. He was parked in front of his grandparent’s cottage. His grandma waved to him from the front door. He got out and stretched.
“What brings you by?” his grandfather asked.
He didn’t remember driving into the country and wasn’t sure why he had come out this way.
“Just thought I’d come say hi,” he answered, “Get out of the city for the afternoon.”
“Well you’re always welcome here. Come inside. Your grandma just made some fresh scones.”
Greg let his grandfather guide him toward the cottage. He glanced over at the field south of them. The open ground was filled with nothing but rolling hills of grass. A memory of a cluster of trees flickered across his mind then faded into nothing. Something about him felt lighter. He turned and hugged his grandmother before going inside.