Authors: Lenore Appelhans
Many thanks to the following for their generous support during the writing of these stories: Christian Trimmer, Stephen Barbara, Ann Bonwill, Jenny Bragdon, Christina Franke, Justina Ireland, and Daniel Jennewein.
The Best Things in Death
is a collection of short stories conceived as a companion to the Memory Chronicles novels. I wanted to share four new memories. Two are from the perspectives of characters you met in
The Memory of After
and two come from the points of view of characters you’ll meet in
Somewhere in Level Two
The best things in life are free. Sometimes I think about the air I breathed, the water I drank, the minutes and the hours and the days, dizzying in their abundance, that I could spend however I liked. I think about how I took them for granted. Until death came and stole them from me.
The best things in death—reliving any memory of your life in full sensory detail and experiencing all that you never had the chance to via the memories of others—are also free. Or they are now, at least. When the corrupted Morati angels controlled the net, we had to pay credits to rent outside memories. But those Morati are locked up and the net is gone, along with all the hives and memory chambers and drugs that kept us compliant.
So we relive memories for free, but it’s more complicated and less private. We do it by pressing our palm against someone else’s palm. One of the two people involved chooses a memory and both parties share the experience. The idea is to work through your most painful memories, such as your untimely exit from your mortal coil. Most of us buckle down and do this eventually, because even without the Morati keeping us prisoner, Level Two is hardly a place that anyone wants to inhabit in the long term. We traded never-ending rows of stark white hives for fields of wildflowers, monotonous in their unchanging loveliness.
But in the meantime, we seek out five-star memories, the ones that help us remember what a gift it was to live. Because we can’t search for specific memories from others, we flit from person to person, hoping to stumble upon a spectacular helicopter flight over Victoria Falls or the classic novel we never got around to reading. And if we want to access our own memories in full, we require a partner for that, too—preferably someone who can understand how special our favorite moments are.
Luckily, I have Neil. Our conversations about our pasts are enhanced by memory transfers. If I want to show him what it was like to swim with dolphins, I press my palm against his and pull up my trip to the Galapagos Islands. If he wants me to understand how it feels to be onstage, he selects a scene from one of his performances.
But even though I’m prepared to share almost anything from my life with Neil, there’s a part of him that he keeps locked away. I’ve noticed that he always skips over his first year of high school. He dismisses it by saying it was a bleak time not worth revisiting, and I don’t force the issue. Yet the more he avoids it, the more it becomes like a black hole, threatening to suck us both in.
Sometimes I wish the net architecture were still in place. A free version without the bad parts like being locked up and drugged. I miss the capability to use search terms for instant access to any type of memory I want to experience. I mean, I
even search for “freshman year” in Neil’s memories and sate my curiosity. Not that I
Mira told me that angels have the power to sift through memories and choose which ones to push to the surface. What if I could do that? What if I went around touching palms with the phrase “the best things in life are free” in mind? What might I see?
Corbet, Neil. Memory #33376
Tags: The Best Things in Life Are Free, Swimming Hole
Neil leans back in his mesh lawn-chair recliner. He can’t recall ever seeing such a perfect day. Above him, a few fluffy cumulus clouds float lazily against a deep blue backdrop, and the sun is warm and golden. Felicia lounges next to him, and the other graduating girls from the youth group—Savannah, Belen, Lucy, and Tamara—sit nearby. He breathes in the scents of summer: freshly mown grass, sunscreen, and Felicia’s lavender perfume. Perfect weather for swimming and a perfect opportunity for fellowship.
Today might even be the perfect day to tell Felicia he loves her.
He likes nothing better than relaxing at the swimming hole. It is tricked out like a public waterpark with waterslides, rope swings, canoes, paddleboats, and a platform diving board. The church pianist, Mrs. Fogarty, owns the land and rents it out for cheap to the church for Vacation Bible School and for summer camp. The best thing is that she doesn’t mind him and his friends coming out to swim for free as long as a certified lifeguard is on hand. Neil has both his CPR and lifesaving merit badges through the Boy Scouts, so that counts with her. In summers past, Mrs. Fogarty brought down gigantic trays of fresh-squeezed lemonade in the afternoons. But since her hip replacement, she stays up at the house.
It was Savannah who suggested that they come out today to celebrate the end of school and the start of summer vacation. They’d all begged Neil and Felicia to come, even Andy who hasn’t spoken three words to him in weeks. It felt like a miracle to be included in their happy bubble again after the fight he’d had with Andy. The argument was sparked by Neil quitting the worship leader position, which resulted in Andy dropping him as an accountability partner.
Of course, after delivering the cooler, Andy and the rest of the guys ditched the girls to play paintball. Only Neil stayed behind. He was annoyed at first, but he’s not going to let Andy spoil his mood. Not today. He has decided that life is too short to waste it by getting angry.
“What is everyone doing this weekend?” Savannah asks. Her outfit is much too fancy for swimming, and her hair is a marvel of feminine engineering. It’s swept into an elaborate updo, like a layer cake of braids and butterflies. Neil wonders how her neck can support the weight of it.
“We’re going to Neil’s cousin’s wedding,” Felicia says cheerfully. She looks stunning in her purple bikini and red flip-flops, and her long hair is loose and wavy over her shoulders, the way Neil likes it best. He has a sudden urge to blurt out “I love you” right here and now, but something holds him back. It’s silly, maybe, but she’s been through so much lately with her friend being murdered and her mother sending her away. She was serious and contemplative from the time he met her up until a few weeks ago, and now she’s like a bird who has found its wings and chosen to fly. What if he tells her he loves her and the declaration becomes like a cage? He wants to guard her heart, not lock it up.
“Your cousin Angela?” Belen asks, squinting. While all the other girls wear huge sunglasses, Belen refuses because she claims to hate the sweat beads that form on the bridge of her nose when she does.
“That’s right,” Neil says. “To her girlfriend.”
“Oh,” Belen says. He assumes her terse response means she doesn’t approve, but he doesn’t know for sure.
Neil juts out his chin. “Angela should be able to marry whomever she chooses.” Neil can accept most doctrine without question, but since spending time with Angela and her girlfriend, he has wrestled with his church’s rigid stance on same-sex marriage.
Belen and the other girls shrug, clearly uncomfortable, and there’s an awkward silence.
“And then, Sunday is my birthday!” Felicia sways her torso from side to side and pumps her arms in a cute little dance, which immediately diffuses the tension. She winks at him, and he relaxes.
“You have to throw a party,” Savannah says to a chorus of yeses from the others.
“Yeah, Grammy is so not going to go for that.” Felicia pokes Neil in the leg with her big toe. He raises his eyebrows in question. Does she not want a party? Does she want him to offer up his house as a venue? He wishes he spoke Girl better.
“We’ll have it at my place,” Savannah declares, putting an end to the debate before it has begun. Neil is grateful that the girls, and especially Savannah, are so eager to include Felicia. His parents have not been as generous. Felicia is persona non grata around his house since she refused to sign the “True Love Waits” pledge. They think she’s a bad influence on him, causing him to backslide, a notion he rejects.
“I’ll bring the music,” Tamara offers. When she carts in her turntables, you know you’re in for a fun night. She always plays a great mix of Christian rock and secular music.
“I’ll bake cupcakes,” Lucy says.
Neil’s mouth starts to water. Lucy won a ribbon for her cupcakes at last year’s county fair bake-off, and she doesn’t make them for just anyone. “Ooooh, the carrot cheesecake ones?” he asks. “Those are my favorites.”
“Any flavor y’all want.” Lucy’s family moved from Tennessee about ten years ago, and while she’s lost her accent, she does sometimes let Southernisms sneak in when she’s excited about something.
“It’s settled, then,” Savannah says. And just like that, they’ve planned a killer eighteenth birthday party for Felicia. Neil is thrilled because she deserves something nice. He’ll make it even nicer by giving her a whole week of presents. He’s good at picking out gifts and he enjoys seeing people’s reactions to his thoughtfulness.
Savannah scoots her chair back and rises. “Who wants a drink?”
“I’ll take a Coke,” Neil says, and Felicia says, “Me too!”
Savannah extracts two Cokes from the cooler and hands them to Neil and Felicia. Then she selects a grape soda and pulls the tab. The liquid fizzes out in a rush, and the can slips out of her hand and splats onto the hard dirt. She gasps in horror.
Purple droplets are everywhere: Savannah’s dress, the leather straps of Neil’s sandals, and the edges of Felicia’s orange towel.
“Flapjacks!” Savannah curses. “My cover-up is ruined!” She unlaces her sandals and flings them at her chair. Neil braces himself for an epic diva meltdown.
But then Felicia pops the tab of her Coke and it sprays straight into her face. She laughs hysterically and pivots the can so that the spray showers Neil. He ducks to avoid the onslaught as much as possible. Then he shakes his own can of Coke and retaliates with a shining arc of soda that douses the entire group. The others scramble for the cooler, grabbing sodas and using them as weapons of mass carbonation. All at once, it’s a full-fledged soda fight, with tabs popping and colors fizzing. Neil hasn’t let loose like this in ages. The oblivion of adrenaline pumping and soda-bomb dodging feels amazing.
When the cooler is empty except for boring bottles of water, they stop to survey the mess they’ve made.
“Whoever said that the best things in life are free wasn’t talking about free soda, apparently,” Savannah says, breathless and with a hint of a smile. She’s as soaking wet and sticky as the rest of them, and her updo hangs at half-mast. “That’s the last time I trust Andy to get the drinks.”
“I think you meant ‘best soda ever,’” Neil protests. He loves getting so caught up in the moment that he doesn’t have to think about anything else—about conforming to the high standard he’s set for himself. It’s why he loves acting. He can slip into someone else’s skin and forget the pressure of being
all the time.
He’s also never seen this easygoing, un-self-conscious side to the girls before, even though he’s known them his whole life. He’s both flattered and a tad disturbed that they’re acting like he’s one of them.
Felicia grabs Savannah by the wrist and Neil by the hand. “C’mon,” she says, pulling them both toward the water. They jump in at the same time, and his muscles tense as he hits the freezing water. When he surfaces, both Felicia and Savannah splash him and dive back underwater, kicking past him. The other girls clutch an inflatable raft when they leap in to join them. Soon, the water is choppy with churning arms and legs. Shrieks of laughter pierce the air. Neil knows that a summer day at the swimming hole is nothing special, but at the same time, there is nothing more special than this.
Neil holds on to one end of the raft and Felicia the other so that Lucy can do increasingly difficult flips into the water. They all cheer her on, Neil loudest of all. Each one of them then takes turns in succession. Savannah and Belen perform swan dives. Neil does a cannonball. Felicia manages only a series of belly flops.