By Gray Winsler
Art by Caitlyn Grabenstein
Published Issue 096, December 2021
Mason gasped in a breath of air, its chill jolting him awake. His eyes were wide, searching for a pattern in the blue mist that blurred the sky above. He had no idea where he was, but panic pushed him off the grass and to his feet. He turned, spinning in all directions, looking for something to ground himself, something familiar that might betray his location. But he saw only that cloudy mist and a distant row of trees on the horizon.
“Hello?” Mason called. His mind churned, trying to piece together some believable story to explain where he was, to explain how he got here.
“Mason!” A voice boomed from the ether, interrupting his thoughts. He spun, trying to pinpoint where it came from. But he heard it from all directions at once, as if the voice was a part of the very fabric of space he found himself in.
“Sorry to startle you, lad. Normally I like to put on some material form, but, well — it’s been a long millennia, and I’m just not feeling quite up to putting on that itchy flesh suit. How I managed to spend so many decades in that thing back on Earth is beyond me.”
Mason was silent, trying to work out where the voice originated.
“You’ll get your neurons twisted trying to work that out, lad.”
“Did you … drug me?” Mason asked the voice of the ether.
“Oh heavens no! You really think I’d do such a thing? No, I’m afraid something far worse has happened to you.”
Mason staggered backward, shaking his head. None of this makes any sense … This person is crazy… He searched for any explanation, and finally, one came. Kidnapped! I’ve been kidnapped!
“I wouldn’t —” The voice began, but Mason was off, sprinting across the grass, through the mist, toward the line of trees in the distance. He pushed forward, certain now that running from his captor was his only escape. He ran and ran in the silent mist, ignoring the pangs in his legs, ignoring the cold wind scratching at his throat. He ran until his lungs ached and he could run no more. He looked up, but the line of trees appeared no closer, little more than a blur of blueish green on a distant horizon. His breath was heaving as he rested his hands on his knees.
“Are you finished?” The voice called again.
“Who are you?!” Mason shouted at the sky.
“Me? Oh, well, I’m just a messenger.”
“Listen, why don’t we speed this up a bit. I can see you’re struggling to piece things together, so might I ask you: what’s the last thing you remember before you woke up here?”
Mason paused. He closed his eyes trying to recall. “I was at home, in bed. I was watching … Parks and Rec! Yes, I was watching Parks and Rec and then … I fell asleep?”
“Indeed! And I’m afraid you didn’t wake up, not on Earth anyway.”
“You’re dead Mason. Dead as a doorknob, as they say. Though I never quite understood that expression. I mean, why a doorknob? Is it just for the alliteration?”
Mason shook his head, stammered, “I don’t …”
“Yes, it comes as quite a shock to us all. Think about how it was when I died — we didn’t have messengers back then.”
“You’re fucking crazy man.”
The messenger laughed. “Am I? I’ve often wondered that myself … But then again, I’m not the one shouting at a disembodied voice in the sky, am I?”
Mason hesitated, his mind grasping for alternative explanations.
“That’s not … I can’t be dead.”
“Are you sure? Because I can turn you into a ball of light, if you’d like. That’s how we used to wake people up — caused quite a bit of panic as you can imagine. ‘Ahhhh! Where’s my body??’ People went on like that for hours, drove me mad. But that’s not to say it wasn’t effective for getting the point across.”
Mason was silent for some time. He began to notice things about his body, most notably that his heart was not beating. He checked it a dozen times, prodding every part of his neck and wrist trying to find a pulse, but there was none.
“This can’t be happening …”
“You should try holding your breath — that’s a real doozy.”
“How … ?”
“Heart attack, I’m afraid.“
“Heart attack.” Mason repeated to himself, the words feeling distant.
“So, do you believe me then, or would you like to go running for those imaginary trees again?”
“If I’m dead,” Mason began, “is this — heaven?”
“Hah! You think you did that good, eh?”
“Well, I —”
“Only teasing you, lad. Heaven’s not real.”
“Oh don’t go getting all religious on me now. When’s the last time you went to church with your mum? Hell, when’s the last time you even called your mum?”
“That’s what I thought. But not to worry. For all the rampant speculation as to what happens when we die, no one’s quite yet been able to pin down how exactly things work up here.”
“So, are you ready then?”
“Your judgement, of course!”
Mason jumped at a clap of thunder. This mist above him shimmered. Slits of light danced in the sky, stretching their prismatic edges into windows of light, entrancing Mason, and from one of those windows a figure emerged, shadowed at first, hard for him to see, but slowly the silhouette became clear — an astronaut. He was in awe as the figure floated closer, raising its hands to its helmet, taking it off to reveal Mason himself inside the suit.
“Whoa.” As Mason spoke the words he noticed that other figures had emerged from their own windows of light — all versions of himself dotting the misted sky above.
“I don’t understand …”
“This is you, lad. All of the potential versions of you, that is. All of the yous that could have been.”
“Hm,” Mason said, smiling up at himself in that space suit. I look good, he thought, feeling a strange sense of pride knowing that he was capable of such a feat. He remembered looking up at the stars as a kid, promising his mom that one day he’d make it out there, and it warmed him seeing a version of himself that kept true to that dream.
Mason wandered along the grass, looking up to the other versions of himself along the way. He saw himself with a couple of twins chasing each other around his feet, giggling. He watched them for a time, remembering the dreams he had of one day raising a family of his own.
He wandered on further, seeing seemingly endless possibilities of all the lives he could have lived. A Mason that died in a plane crash. A Mason who lived a full life as an alcoholic. A Mason living in a Buddhist temple in northern Sweden. So many Masons, so many possibilities.
And then, as Mason wandered, a thought began to sow in his mind, a stab of regret. “There was so much I could have done …”
“Indeed. But these aren’t the yous that came to pass, are they?” As the messenger spoke, the other Masons began to fade away, dissolving into the mist above. And just as those Masons dissolved, so too did that fleeting feeling of pride. Because what replaced those potential Masons was the real Mason.
A series of spectral images erupted, the whole of Masons life projected out in all directions, surrounding him. He saw the same days, the same actions, repeated endlessly. The spectrals compressed time, allowing Mason to see the years spent staring at a screen, all alone, his face lit by the glow of his computer, always clicking one more episode, always scrolling ever downward. A collage of frozen pizzas, porn, and 2 a.m. YouTube nights flickering constantly in all directions.
“Oh god …” Mason said as that stab of regret bled out to his whole being, driven by the realization of what’d he done, of what he’d wasted.
Tears filled Mason’s eyes now as he spoke: “I could have … I …”
“You could have done a great many things, lad.”
“If I just had more time … I just need more time!” Mason pleaded to the messenger in the sky.
“Time is a fickle mistress. She presses on inexorably to our end — regardless of what we may wish.”
“But then why — why show this to me?”
“Well, that’s one thing the religious folk got right. Your life on Earth is somewhat of a test. You see, how you’ll spend the afterlife is determined in precise accordance with how you lived your life on Earth — the choices you made, the impact you had. You, Mason, lived a quiet life. You didn’t make waves. You didn’t cause a scene. If you had never lived, the world would be just as it is now. No better, and no worse. In that sense, you never existed, and so now you shall cease to exist.”
“What? No, I — There must be another option?”
“I’m afraid all decisions are final, lad.”
“No … No, no, no. Look, just give me another shot, a few more years.”
“No can do.”
“But it’s not fair!”
“You knew the rules, Mason.”
Mason felt the urge to run again, to escape from this nightmare, but when he looked down his feet had begun to dissolve, his body fading into the mist. And as he faded, he felt his will to fight, to deny what he’d done, to fade too.
“Any last words, lad?”
Mason paused, trying to calm himself, trying to think of something he could say that might make it all worthwhile, that might ease the regret.
“I’m sorry.” He said, not to the messenger, and not to himself, but to all the potential versions of himself that he let die along the way. “I’m so sorry.”
Gray Winsler is the first ginger to be published in Birdy Magazine, Issue 091. He loves living in Denver despite his allergy to the sun. He spends his mornings with his dog Indy by his side, writing as much as possible before his 9-to-5. If you’re curious about Normal, IL or why TacoBell is bomb, you can find more on his site.
Caitlyn Grabenstein, a.k.a. Cult Class, is a collage artist, sketch artist, and designer out of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She started doing art at a very young age and has pursued it in different forms throughout her life. While working in the music industry and running her own charitable business, BANDADE, she began creating websites, ultimately hosting more than 50 charitable shows with over 60 different artists including Imagine Dragons, Jason Isbell, Maren Morris, Ingrid Michaelson, the Goo Goo Dolls, Alabama Shakes, Florence Welch and more. During this time, Caitlyn started collaging out of necessity to create concert posters. She fell in love with the process and began collaging regularly. Caitlyn now runs her own design business, CLG Design Co.. Her work can be found in buildings around Philadelphia. Caitlyn’s pieces have been commissioned by individuals, musicians, businesses, and real estate companies from Chile to Germany to Los Angeles. Check out more of her art on Instagram.