“Gregory Joseph Thorner. You are the one hundred and twenty five thousand and twelfth person to die today”
He couldn’t recall when he had ever been called by his full name, he had always been known as Greg. He hadn’t been christened, nor was he married and never when he was in trouble with his Mother. He didn’t think saying someone’s full name when you’re telling them off was really a thing, like so many people claimed. But you could say he was in trouble. Like the Leaders of Limbo said: he was dead!
He had thought about death ever since he was a teenager. Whenever he did, silence would fill the space where the white light didn’t reach. His anger would dissipate as peace surrounded him and Angels protected him with love. He finally felt like he belonged.
And now here he was, dead, and it was nothing like that. It was overcrowded, full of confused faces and disbelieving moans. And it was really really busy.
The Leaders of Limbo continued to speak. “You are to remain here in Limbo. Your Assignment will be delivered to you within 24hours.”
With that Greg was led down the walkway. Each step he took, another hundred or so people, with ashen faces and wide eyes, appeared at either side of the aisle, where he was, just mere moments ago, waiting for their turn to meet with the Leaders.
Can you call them people? Spirits? Souls? What were they? What was he?
He knew he wasn’t going to survive when he briefly regained consciousness at the hospital. Doctors and Nurses really shouldn’t be poker players he thought. The urgency in their faces gave the game away. He had drawn the death card.
Memories of happy times didn’t come flooding back; he could feel himself drowning in regret. Such pain. Old wounds reopened. Scene after scene repeatedly playing. One, two, three times over. The room had started to spin and his body convulsed trying to fight the images.
He remembers closing his eyes, just for a moment, to ease the tension. When he opened them, he no longer felt pain. For the first time in years he felt relaxed. That’s when he knew he’d let go.
A large clock was projected on the wall of his room. He sat on a stool in the corner watching as the numbers disappeared before reappearing to show the next minute.
His right hand traced the outline of each of his knuckles on his left hand, his chapped lips pursing every time his stomach trembled. He only tore his eyes away from the wall to look down at himself occasionally. He’d never seen grey military trousers before; the t-shirt was a slightly darker shade of grey.
Suddenly a note appeared under the door, giving him reason to move from the position he’d been sat in for the past three hours.
‘Room 124R’ was typed on the front of a square piece of card. He immediately left the room, following the directions on the back of the card.
Silence had never sounded so loud as thousands of people bustled from place to place. The occasional sigh or moan could be heard between the shuffling of feet, all clad in the same grey pumps. He felt like he was in London on a foggy Autumn morning: solemn faces rushing to places they didn’t want to be. Eyes, shoulders and heads down.
Greg positioned himself at the back of the auditorium which was made up of four rows of chairs. Static bounced about the large screen which occupied the entire front wall. It didn’t take long for other people to arrive and, soon, the remaining 23 seats became occupied.
Classical music filled the room as the lights dimmed to a comforting darkness and the screen came to life.
A figure appeared on the screen, robed in black. Piercing hazelnut eyes and full cherry lips stood out beyond the long draped hood. As the music subsided, she slowly pulled back the cape and began to speak.
“Many people believe in fate. Those unexplainable moments when the Universe is looking out for them.”
He was mesmerised by every part of her. Her silky smooth tone: so poetic! He clung to every word. Maybe Angels did exist!
“Unfortunately your time on Earth has come to an end. Where you go next depends on how well you fare on your assignment. Each of you are going to be assigned to someone who has a second chance to live.”
Faces appeared on the screen, slotting besides each other like a jigsaw puzzle, as gasps, whimpers and cries rang out across the auditorium. He realised why when an image of a young woman joined the sea of faces. He managed to stifle a moan but couldn’t keep his eyes from burning.
“You hold the power to set your assignment on a different path. You are their ‘Fate’. Some days their ego will resist the opportunity. Your task is to help them open their eyes and say yes to another way of living. Whether you spend the rest of your time with regrets or memories will depend on them.”
The screen returned to static and Greg lowered his head, rubbing his temples and the bridge of his nose with both hands.
Each time he watched the video of Eva more pain surged through him, making him grip the pillow with his calloused hands, his slender fingertips turning white with the pressure.
He started the video again and watched as her pace quickened, turning into a run as she turned the corner. The wheeze from her chest pushing her back, but still she ran. She knocked on the door but her pleas were ignored. The driver pulled away without a glance in her direction.
“Fucking Bastard” She yelled, pulling her head back with her hair, her face turning red. She kicked the bus shelter and slid to the floor.
He watched her as she cried on the phone, choking on her words. Pulling his knees to his chest, he slowly rocked and cried along with her. And in that moment, literally worlds apart, he felt the strongest sense of connection that he’d ever had with his daughter.
As the days merged into weeks, Greg enjoyed getting to know Eva, spending most of his time in his room, which was now set up with a TV screen, live broadcasting his assignment. Watching her stumbling through life, never catching a break, he felt like he had forged a bond with her, making up for lost time. The way she expressed herself in her anger, how she would be physically sick with worry and the sweet way she lined up all her teddy bears in age order, brought about extra layers of regret. Yet he couldn’t switch off.
The footsteps from the hall got louder. Greg hid in the kitchen. He wouldn’t be seen but didn’t want to chance it. The door swung open. He held his breath. Silence.
Who was that? Where was Eva?
The wooden floor creaked, sending shivers down Greg’s spine. That smell. Roses and Lavender. So sickly sweet, he could taste it. His breathing quickened as the smell and the footsteps got closer. His stomach churned while his jaw tightened. He remembered that smell. Roberta! This is not what he’d planned.
Heat flowed through him. He puffed up his chest. He took a large step into the centre of the kitchen. He was now face to face with Roberta. Roberta froze. Her face tightened as she slowly scoped out the room. Could she sense him?
The door slammed again.
Eva ran into the kitchen and flung herself into her Roberta’s arms.
Anger bubbled up inside of him as he looked on. The mistakes he’d made flew around in his mind. He was young. Naive. A lousy partner. But he didn’t deserve to lose his daughter.
He had just turned 18 when he met Roberta. Her deep [Office1] brown eyes inquisitively darted from his driving licence to his face, holding his gaze for what felt like minutes, before she smiled and said “Happy belated birthday”. She kept looking over to him as she was pulling his pint. He tried often, but he’d never been able to capture that taste again. His first legal drink and meeting her at the same time - it made it the best pint he’d ever had.
Over the next few months he made sure he visited the family-run pub often. Coercing his friends to go there before they headed off to livelier places. He would purposely wait for her to be free to serve him. Was it just wishful thinking on his part, or did her face light up when she was talking with him? A stark contrast to whenever her father or brother was in the vicinity: he’d noticed her demeanour change. She’d appear to shrink. Her smile would become taught as she busied herself with cleaning things that didn’t need to be cleaned. Part of her face would become childlike making her look almost half her 22 years.
It had taken him five months to build up the courage to ask Roberta out for a date and then an additional five weeks for her to say yes. He persisted each time she quipped: “You’re too young. I’m too old for you. My family won’t like it.” He didn’t care for any of these excuses as he knew that she liked him and that was enough ammunition for him to keep asking.
It was fun dating in secret. They would take walks in the woods, skimming stones in the stream, sharing details of their day. She would lie on his stomach and let him run his fingers through her coarse black hair as she told him how she dreamed of getting away from living in such a small town. She’d go to London, Manchester or further afield maybe? She’d read that Australia was vibrant. She longed for a new beginning, in a city where she could disappear and fit in. He loved getting swept away in her stories.
They hadn’t planned for people to find out about their relationship so soon, but with Roberta expecting and her insistence on keeping the child, it was the sensible choice. Roberta had wanted them to run away, start a new life - like the ones she shared from her dreams. He’d managed to talk her round and, contrary to her belief that her father wouldn’t take kindly to their news, he was welcomed into the family.
As the years tumbled on, he built up a bond with Roberta’s[Office2] brother, Liam. “Half-brother actually” (she would always correct him). They’d go to the races or stay up late playing [Office3] poker. Whenever he tried to get away early, to get back to Roberta and their young daughter, Liam would manage to keep him out, mainly to help him chat up some girl or other.
He could guarantee that every time he got back from seeing Liam a row would erupt with Roberta, the moment he stepped through the door. He recalled the last argument they had ever had.
“You’ve been with him again haven’t you? Why can’t you spend time with me and Eva?”
“Roberta. He’s your brother”
“What does that matter? He’s family. I’m making an effort, why can’t you? You’ve changed so much since leaving the pub. Since having Eva. You’ve become distant. They want to spend time with you. They want to see Eva. Why won’t you let them?”
“You wouldn’t understand. You wouldn’t want to understand”
“You’re acting so immature Roberta. You’re 26years old. Things have to change!”
“Yes, you’re right. They do.”
Roberta, retreated to the bedroom they shared with their daughter. It was a small space, but Roberta had lovingly turned it into a home. Greg headed to the fridge to get a beer, not ready yet for the awkward silence which would greet him when he went to bed. She was always awake, but with her back to him. He could hear her quick and heavy breathing and noticed the way she laid unnaturally still. Her body spoke words that her voice never could, but he couldn’t decipher the message.
Then June happened.
As he returned home from the pub after a trip to the races he was hit with a peaceful yet cold and empty feeling as soon as he opened the door. His mind crowded with dread. Roberta and Eva had gone!
“Tell her Roberta.” Greg shouted. “Tell her the truth!”
Pulling away from Eva, Roberta shook her head. Greg knew he’d got in her mind. “I know you can hear me Roberta. I’m not going anywhere. Tell our daughter the truth. You left without a trace. I bet you told her I was the one that had left. That I didn’t love her.”
Roberta took Eva’s hand and sat her down at the kitchen table.
“Mum, what’s wrong? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“I’ve not been entirely honest with you.” Roberta replied, still scanning the room. “It’s time you knew the truth about your past. About our past.”
Eva gave out a nervous laugh, and released her hand from Roberta’s grasp.
“I was the same age as you are now when I left…”
Greg watched as the Paramedics rushed Eva into the white room. His selfishness had brought her here. He winced as a Nurse shoved a tube down her throat. He was meant to be saving her life - giving her a second chance.[Office4] But he wasn’t thinking about her at all. He was hell bent on hurting Roberta.
“Eva Jane Huntingdon. You are the thirty thousand and eighth person to die today”
That voice played on repeat in her head. She looked down at her body, entangled in wires attached to machines.
She felt a rage she’d never felt before. She had so much hate for the woman who was standing over her lifeless body. The conversation they’d had in the kitchen.
“How could you have lied to me for so long?”, she’d shouted; “I don’t know who I am. I don’t know who you are.”
The words pierced through Eva’s heart as she recounted them “You are a warped woman. You’ve ruined my life. I never want to see you again.”
In the auditorium when Eva came to hear of her assignment. She wasn’t going to help Roberta. She didn’t deserve a second chance. She’d stolen her chance at life, what did she owe her? Nothing.
Eva had stomped back to her room, ready to wait her days out in Limbo until she was led to a life full of regret. So heavy was her anger that she didn’t watch footage of Roberta for two whole days. When she finally started she was immediately irritated as she watched Roberta, at the hospital bedside, confessing her wrongdoings through thick tears and a voice made up of whimpers.
“Eva. I’m sorry I concealed our past. I wanted to tell you years earlier but there was never a right moment. Well of course there wouldn’t be a right moment. The day I told you, you asked if I’d seen a ghost. I felt the presence of your dad. I sound bonkers here but it was so real. I heard him. He was angry. He wanted you to know the truth. I cracked. I had to tell you. You didn’t hear everything though. You ran out of the house before I could tell you”
Eva’s heart raced as she rewound Roberta speaking:
“you asked if I’d seen a ghost. I felt the presence of your dad. I sound bonkers here but it was so real. I heard him...”
Was her dad in Limbo too? Who was he trying to save that day in the kitchen? If it was her, he’d done a lousy job.
“Your dad wasn’t a bad man and I really did love him. He was young and ever so handsome. He was humble and shy - just like you. He loved the small town we grew up in, sometimes I think more than he loved me. I would have been happy to live a monotonous life with the three of us - if it had only been the three of us.
He started to get close to my half-brother and father even though he knew that I hated them. I thought having you would be the best opportunity to get away, start afresh and wash myself clean of them. Your dad thought if he could bond with them it would change things. It’s not all his fault. I didn’t tell him every detail about my upbringing. I didn’t want to relive it.
My half-brother was always sniffing around him and I just couldn’t stand to see you grow up around that. I wanted you to have a chance in life that I didn’t. I hadn’t planned on leaving but the arguments became too frequent. He’d gone to the races again, even after I begged him to stay home. My heart took over. I grabbed you, your favourite teddies, a few clothes and left.”
Eva wanted to switch off but her tear-filled eyes were fixed on the screen.
“I wrote letters. The ones I wrote to your dad came back to the PO address unopened. He must have moved out of our place after we left. I couldn’t remember his parents address, they never liked me anyway, I wasn’t good enough for their little boy. So I wrote to my family. Most of the letters were returned, after they had been opened.”
Roberta retrieved a handful of letters from her bag, gripping on to them tightly.
“I’m so sorry darling. I should have done more.”
Eva managed to reach the bin in time to be sick. She laid in the foetal position on the floor, waiting for the cramps that usually followed when she was sick but for the first time ever she truly felt peace.
Greg watched as the image of Eva on the TV screen disappeared into darkness, moments later it was replaced with a message:
Gregory Joseph Thorner
Leaders of Limbo