Chapter 12 — The Cool Room


Each member of Hunter’s Council of Friends embraced him; some kissed him; they all wished him well on his continued watch back on Earth, then gathered for one final group farewell before Hunter left the rotunda of the Flow Theater and returned alone to the piazza outside.  The Council of Friends remained behind in the rotunda.  Hunter wondered why they did not leave with him but figured they probably had a private followup meeting among themselves to assess how things had gone before concluding their business.

Upon leaving the theater, Hunter found the piazza much busier than it was before.  It was now crowded with souls.  Somehow the hustle and bustle seemed incongruous with how Hunter pictured Heaven or Elysium or—in this case—Gourd should be.  Until then, he had always thought of the hereafter as a place of serene recreation and languid pastimes—souls strolling about in their white robes on Palace of Versailles-type grounds, carrying bouquets of flowers, or some such thing.  But Gourd was not that.  Not that it aroused anxiety; no, not at all.  But, it  did buzz with excitement, wonderful, electrifying excitement.  It felt like Christmas and shopping downtown with one’s billfold bulging with money.

He looked for his guide, thinking he might be there, somewhere.  But the being of light could not be found in the hubbub of the city.  So Hunter searched for directional signs to indicate where the bus depot for Earth might be found.  But there was none: no signs anywhere on the streets of Gourd.  So Hunter simply stopped and looked skyward, thinking perhaps that if he stood still long enough he might just float away and return to Earth the same way he had gotten to Gourd.  But that didn’t work, either.  Now sensing some urgency, he finally decided to ask directions of a couple who were leisurely passing by.

“Say, I’m sorry to disturb you but I’m kind of lost; I’m wondering if you could help me?” he began.

The couple exchanged smiles; then the woman responded:

“You’re of Earth aren’t you?”

“Yes, and I was—”

“Such a pleasure to meet you.  I’m Scötina and this is my dear brother, Hoop.”

She embraced Hunter’s shoulders with her hands and kissed both his cheeks.

“My name is Hunter, at least that’s my earthly name.  My name here is—”

“Ēsel!  Oh yes, of course, we know you.  What I mean is, we have followed your watch on Earth.  It’s very exciting!  Did you know I actually visited you once?”

“Really?  I mean, I don’t understand.  When?”

Hunter felt embarrassed that Scötina treated him like a celebrity.

“I came to you as a fragrance,” she said.  “As you know, there are strict limitations as to how we souls here may reveal ourselves to those of Earth, while they’re watching.  I visited you as the scent of ivy when you were about six and a quarter Earth-turns of age.  You were about to enter a gate, over-grown with ivy, with a small companion of yours, when I visited you as the fragrance of ivy.”

“Really?  That’s very interesting because, from childhood, I do remember a gate, covered with ivy and the beautiful fragrance it gave off.  It was both a strange and beautiful experience at the same time and that’s why I remembered it.  You’re saying the ivy was you?”

“Yes, it was me.”  Scötina was pleased with herself; she shrugged and smiled smugly.  “Guess I made an impression,” she boasted to Hoop before turning back to Hunter.  “Thank you for indulging my folly but as I recall you were needing our assistance, weren’t you?”

“Oh yes,” said Hunter, “I’m lost.”

“One is never lost, only temporarily misplaced,” she said.

For some reason the saying struck Hunter as funny and he, with Scötina and Hoop, laughed at it.

“Yes, well, I’m temporarily misplaced, as you say, and I don’t know how to get home.  I mean, I don’t know how to get back to Earth and my guide seems to have disappeared.”

“Oh yes, well, we can certainly help you with that,” said Scötina.  She gripped Hunter by the shoulders and turned him around then pointed over his shoulder past the Flow Theater towards a towering obelisk.  “There!  See that tall pointy thing?”

“It’s an obelisk,” said Hoop.

“Whatever,” retorted Scötina playfully.  “You want to go there, to that tall, pointy thing.  It’s a transfer station.  Just give them your ticket and they’ll let you go home.”

“But I don’t have a ticket,” said Hunter.

Scötina and Hoop laughed again.

“We know that, honey; I was playing with you.  Go to the obelisk.  They’ll send you where you’re supposed to be.”

Hunter thanked the couple, waved goodbye, then hurried off, down the busy avenue, on his way to the station.


The obelisk stood at the center of a broad, circular plaza.  It was a gorgeous plaza made of polished turquoise, it appeared, bound by what looked like a three-feet-wide border of opal stone.  The turquoise and opal were polished so brightly that they shone like glass.  And the turquoise was beautifully veined with irregularities so that no one could doubt its authenticity as real stone.

Attendants, clothed in turquoise and white tunics (their tunics secured at the waist with silver sashes) loitered on the plaza and nonchalantly visited with one another while waiting for travelers.  From time to time, someone would step forward out of the crowded area onto the opal border and an attendant would then direct him, or her, to where he should stand on the turquoise part of the plaza.  For some reason, it was important that travelers position themselves precisely where directed.

The attendants did not speak to the travelers, only motioned to them using hand-signals, like traffic police directing motorists with such messages as: “move this way; that way a bit; more; stop!; that’s good!”

Hunter watched for a couple of minutes to learn how things worked.  But the process was extremely simple:  Step onto the opal ring.  Wave to gain the attention of an attendant.  Follow the attendant’s directions to the place where he wants you to stand.  Then just wait for liftoff.  And within seconds, you’ll launch like a missile—slowly at first, but then quickly gain altitude and velocity to shoot skyward at hypersonic speeds.  Wow, thought Hunter, this is trippy.

It took watching two or three travelers shoot from the plaza before Hunter mustered the nerve to step forward himself.  I wonder if anyone ever ends up in Australia or somewhere they’re not supposed to be? he asked himself.  What happens if I accidentally stand a little off the mark?  Perhaps I’m sent to the wrong place and won’t know how to get back.  Maybe that’s how souls become ghosts.  Finally, however, Hunter doused his fears and stepped forward, onto the opal boundary.

Just as he started to raise his hand, an attendant turned and pointed at him.  Instinctively, Hunter pointed to his own chest and mouthed the question “Me?”  The attendant smiled and nodded and, with the sweep of his arm, pointed to a position on the plaza, quite close to the obelisk.  As Hunter walked towards the designated place, the attendant angled in the same direction, all the time waving him forward, then, at last, pointed directly at the spot on the plaza where he wanted Hunter to stand.  Hunter stood where the attendant indicated.  The attendant gestured his approval with a thumbs up sign, then returned to his colleague, a few yards away, and resumed their conversation.

Hunter felt a sudden jolt.  But looking down at his feet, he saw they were still planted on the pavement.  Then instantly, he bounced four feet off of the ground, paused momentarily midair, before beginning his ascent.

At first the acceleration felt like that of a jetliner headed down a runway for takeoff.  But suddenly the rate of acceleration resembled nothing he had experienced before.  It felt so much faster, even, than when he had traveled the universe with the being of light.  In a moment, he was traveling so quickly that it frighten him.

His stomach leapt into his throat but, at the same time, he felt the most thrilling euphoria.  How much fun it must be to be a bird he thought.  He felt like a shooting star because he was enveloped in a pale blue light as he streaked upward.  Then he lost orientation and could not tell whether he was soaring or falling because, now, ahead of him, a planet appeared and it seemed he was plunging headlong towards it.  The planet was about the size of a quarter when it first came into view.  Hunter assumed it was Earth.

But he could not tell, yet, if it was indeed Earth when he suddenly began veering left and soon noticed a second, slightly larger body which was not illuminated very much at all.  All that was visible of the second planet was a pencil-lined edge, shining white with light.  Now he shot towards the second body at a tremendously high rate of speed and realized that the fist orb was, in fact, the moon, not Earth.  He passed the moon while falling quickly towards the dark side of Earth.  Then it appeared he was going to miss Earth entirely by falling past its northern pole.  But then, his body corkscrewed a half turn and he realized he had been flying upside down.  So, what a minute ago was Earth’s North Pole now became its South Pole.  But then it appeared he was going to land somewhere in Antarctica or the Southern Ocean if his trajectory did not change.  But, happily, it did change.

To Hunter’s right, the brightly illuminated edge of Earth now spread quickly westward, across the face of the planet as he veered north and to the right on his descent.  As he drew closer, tiny smudges of light (the artificial lights of cities) became visible in the shadowed area of the planet.  But soon they were not visible again because the sunrise in the East blinded him with its brilliance.  He squinted as the Sun came into full view.  What a glorious star the Sun was!  Until then, he had not truly appreciated just how glorious it was.  In all of the universe our Sun must be something exceptional he thought.

The Earth fattened in front of him and colors became more distinguishable.  The solid, bright gray turned into patches of faded turquoise, olive, and ocher.  Soon he could make out where the oceans separated from land masses, where clouds shrouded both, where the Earth was bald of vegetation, and where the hairy forests overgrew it.  He recognized the shapes of India and the teardrop island of Sri Lanka off India’s southeastern tip, the place once known as Ceylon, renown for its spices and tea.

A plethora of historical, geographical, and cultural facts, which Hunter had absorbed by reading volumes of The World Book encyclopedias as a child, came rushing back to his memory.  Soon, he saw the coasts of Vietnam and China, snaking northward, and the broad blue Pacific beyond them.  Then the islands of Southeast Asia, looking like flotsam, littered the South China Sea.  They were thousands of islands, brimming with beautiful and exotic lifeforms.  From his altitude, of course, he could not see the beautiful and exotic lifeforms but he knew they were there.

His trajectory flattened more as he sailed eastward over the Pacific.  He was above the clouds still but low enough to see clusters of islands at times where the clouds separated, giving him an unobstructed view of the water.  Then there were no islands or land, nothing but water and clouds: clouds in the distant south that looked like rolling waves, so there appeared two oceans, one above the other.  But soon, the only feature of the great Pacific he could see was its gray-blue surface, the texture of slate.  It looked solid and hard.  It seemed that Hunter traveled a long time over the ocean, though he knew he must be traveling faster than a jetliner.

Then ahead, a cloud bank formed.  Its bottom looked close to the surface of the sea and turned, in color, Payne’s Gray, a hue resembling that of a deep contusion.  Passing above the storm front, the ocean disappeared beneath a thick layer of cloud-cover for as far as Hunter could see, north, south, and east.  Then, unexpectedly, the day ended and he entered night.

The blanket of cloud-cover below lit up, here and there, with flashes of lightening but, at the same time, Hunter was engulfed in the great tranquility of stars which beamed overhead.  The storm with all its violence seemed trivial compared to the universe.  Our problems are small, he thought, as he gazed upward.

When he finally reached the back edge of the storm he realized he was no longer over ocean but was now above a landmass.  He could see more clearly the smudgy lights of cities on the darkened continent.  He guessed he was somewhere over the United States.  The faintest of light began to appear on the eastern horizon to separate Earth from its firmament.  Dawn was coming.

Then the speed of his flight slowed considerably, to the point of a crawl, it seemed.  Now by comparison, it felt like he floated in a hot air balloon over the countryside and had dropped in elevation, making it possible to recognize stands of trees where they traced creek beds and rivers.  Still there was not enough light to see much on the ground, only that the wooded places were darker in hue than the open fields.  Then there was a highway and cars traversing it, their headlights gleaming.  He realized he was still quite high but descending.

At that point, the whole landscape came into sharp focus, though it was still night or early morning.  Perhaps he had dropped below the mists.  Then he heard sounds he had not heard since leaving Earth: car and truck motors on the highway, an airplane in the distance, somewhere.  These sounds seemed strange and chafing to the ear.

Ahead lay a town.  In the gray pre-dawn light the streets of the town were dimly illuminated by the yellowish light of its street lamps.  The town still slumbered, the streets vacant.  Hunter saw a paperboy cutting across front lawns in a residential neighborhood, delivering newspapers, tossing them on porches.  Suddenly he recognized the town as Waterford.  He had come home.

He felt a pinch of excitement in his stomach.  He wanted to see Mandy and Greta, wanted to embrace them, to tell them everything about what had happened on his long journey in the spirit world.

Seconds later, Hunter found himself standing on the broad porch of the emergency entrance at Waterford Mercy Hospital.  An ambulance had just pulled up under the awning and with it came a controlled level of activity.  A gurney, bearing an elderly man, who sat up and looked capable of walking without assistance, was pulled from the ambulance and rolled inside.  Two orderlies came out to receive him then wheeled him slowly into the Emergency Unit, talking to him casually as they went.

Hunter could see everything inside the waiting room area through its expansive windows.  Things were quiet.  The waiting room was well lit but mostly empty.  And those in the waiting room, slept in uncomfortable positions in their chairs as they awaited news for, or the return of, family members locked behind faux-wood paneled walls.

At first Hunter was disoriented and did not know why he had been dropped at the hospital.  But then he remembered the ambulance ride and the intense expression on the paramedic’s face who had sat beside him.  He also remembered floating out of the ambulance on its way to the hospital.  Oh yeah, my body must be here he thought.

As it turned out it was not as easy finding himself in the hospital as he thought it would be.  Hunter searched behind every curtained-off “room” in the entire emergency area, looked in every bathroom, and checked the private waiting area for Mandy and Greta but found neither his body nor his family.  I’m wasting time, he thought, which as soon as he thought it realized it was the first time he’d even been aware of time since the beginning of his fantastic journey.

One interesting incident happened during Hunter’s search of the emergency unit area.  As he stepped through the curtain of one room to look for his body, he came upon a small, elderly woman, sitting up in bed.  Her eyes grew wide as saucers when she saw Hunter before her.

“You’re here for me aren’t you?” she asked.  “I was beginning to think you’d never come.  We’re going to go now, aren’t we?  I can hardly wait.”

All of the other patients Hunter had seen behind the curtains had either been asleep or, if awake, had not noticed him as they watched their televisions or conversed with family or consulted with nurses or the emergency room physician.  They had all been blind and oblivious to his presence but not this tiny, elderly woman.  She saw Hunter’s soul and was sure he had come to ferry her away to Heaven.

“No, not yet, ma’am,” replied Hunter, “I was looking for someone else.”

“Oh,” she said disappointedly.  “Could you tell them I’m ready?  I’ve waited quite a while.”

“I’ll do what I can, ma’am,” said Hunter.

“Thank you, young man.  I’ve had my supper too, so I’m all set.”

“If I see anyone, I’ll tell them you’re ready.”

“Oh, bless you,” she said.  “Be sure to tell them where I am so they can find me.”

“I will,” said Hunter before rushing to the next room.

After his extensive and fruitless search of the emergency unit, Hunter stopped to ask himself: Where else in this hospital might I be?  The first answer that popped to mind was: in the basement, in a refrigerated steel drawer.  But he quickly tossed that answer out in hopes of something better.  My body would probably be on life supports, he told himself, so that would put me in the Intensive Care Unit.  This idea was more agreeable.  So Hunter headed next to the third floor where the ICU was located.

Quickly striding down the corridor from the elevator, ahead, Hunter found a nurses’ station and, beyond it, letters above a wide sliding glass and aluminum doorway reading: “ICU/CCU – Intensive and Cardiac Care”.  Another sign on one of the glass doors read: “Restricted Area”.

Hunter had focused his attention on the nurses’ station that was inside the glass doorway and almost walked past the windowed enclosure to his right, which was the ICU/CCU waiting area.  But luckily he happened to notice a woman entering the enclosure wearing a lab coat.  With a second glance, he also noticed two women in the waiting room as they stood to meet the woman in the lab coat.  Then he recognized the women in the waiting room as Mandy and Greta.  What a relief to finally find them!

So Hunter leaped through the waiting room wall and ran through chairs, tables, and lamps to get to where the three women were about to meet.  The woman in the lab coat was apparently a doctor.  And the hospital ID card, on a lanyard, hanging around her neck, confirmed it.  A stethoscope bulged the right pocket of the lab coat.  The doctor looked weary, her hands buried deeply in her coat pockets.  Greta gripped her mother’s waist tightly with one arm and stood close beside her.  Greta’s eyes were red and puffy and dread marred her young face.

“Hi,” said the doctor meekly as she stopped close to Mandy and Greta.  She stood close enough to them to be inside their circle.  Only a woman doctor would do that, thought Hunter—share their anguish.

“You can see him now,” was all the doctor said.  Mandy nodded but did not reply.

The doctor turned and held out her arm to usher Greta and Mandy forward then placed her hand on Greta’s back.  Greta still clung to Mandy as the three women left the waiting area.  They walked down a hallway that led away from the entrance of the ICU.  Hunter followed.

The hallway was narrow and blank: no framed prints of idyllic meadows where children played, no decorations at all, just slick, smoke-gray walls.  About half way down this hallway, another short passage opened on the left.  The doctor entered it and led Mandy and Greta to a door at the back.  She opened the door and ushered them into a small room.  The room was empty except for a gurney, pushed against the wall at the far end, and on the gurney lay Hunter’s body, covered to the chest with a thin, blue blanket.  He was dressed in a hospital gown.  The little room felt overly cool to Hunter and sent a chill up his spine.  He noticed that Greta shivered, too.

“Take as much time as you need,” said the doctor and withdrew, closing the door behind her and leaving Mandy and Greta alone with Hunter’s body, pushed up against the far wall.

When the door closed, Mandy released an audible gasp as she cupped a hand over her mouth.  Greta stood frozen, motionless, staring at the gurney, unable or unwilling to approach the body.  But Mandy crept forward, shoulders bent, to take a closer look and make sure the body before her was indeed her husband.

They’re afraid of me! thought Hunter.  They’re terrified of my body!  How can they be terrified of someone they have known so long and loved so well?  But at the same time, he too was shocked by the sight of his lifeless form.  The color around his mouth was dark gray.  His face was so pale that it made the nostrils, five o’clock shadow, eyebrows and eyelashes all appear too dark.  In fact, it seemed to Hunter that his body did not really look like himself and could have easily been mistaken for a different man.

Mandy drew close to Hunter and, with tenderness and curiosity, began to examine him, just as a mother does when meeting her newborn for the first time.  She eased back the blanket so his hands and arms were exposed.  She picked up his right hand and looked at it, turned it, caressed it, held it to her face, examined its nails.  The nail beds were blue.

“You were always a nail-biter,” she whispered.  “It was the only way I knew when something was bugging you.”

She smoothed the hair on his forearm and patted it.  She leaned over him and placed both hands on his cheeks, traced the features of his face with her fingers, bent forward and kissed his forehead.  Then she straightened, sighed deeply, folded her hands on his chest, and bowed her head as if in prayer.  But her shoulders shook as she could not contain the anguish in her heart.  A weak, broken plea escaped her throat:

“Why?” she wailed pitifully, then broke down and wept outright.

“Mom, let’s go.  I can’t stand it in here,” said Greta apprehensively.

Swallowed by grief, Mandy could not respond.  Hunter wanted to comfort his wife, to tell her everything would be all right, that he would return, though at that moment he did not know when or how.  He came close behind Mandy and attempted to embrace her but there was no substance in his arms; he had no solid form with which to hold his wife.  He suddenly understood what a gift the human body was and why souls envied the experience of having one.

Then, as it happened, Mandy’s anguish went on a scavenger hunt for logic in an attempt to make sense of her broken world.

It’s strange that when experiencing joy, we seldom ask ourselves, Why?  Why has this happiness visited me?  But when called on by grief, we invariably demand to know for what reason we have been singled out and become its victim.  Perhaps by nature we feel entitled to joy in our lifetimes and immunity from sorrow, in the same way we are drawn to bright colors but tend to avoid the drab and neutralize hues which are necessary in every good painting but not pleasing to the eye.

Mandy startled Greta when, suddenly, she screamed, “Why?!”

“Why wouldn’t you listen to me?  Why?” she demanded, screaming with uncontrolled fury at Hunter’s lifeless form.  “You had to ruin everything!  What did I say?” Mandy sobbed.  “I said don’t walk the plank!”  And to punctuate that sentence and release the energy of her immeasurable grief and despair, she pounded three times on corpse’s chest with the words “don’t,” “walk,” and “plank”.  And that’s when it happened!

Hunter Carr returned from the dead.