One Good Memory: A Short Story

There’s an old Twilight Zone episode where these three astronauts crash land on this planet where everything and everyone is frozen. What a strange setting, I always thought. So I wrote this short story. It’s just like that story. Except with different characters, which I hope really make it a whole different story all together.

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She’s stopped shaking, starting to pull at her clothes, trying to undress. [1] Jack has already draped his coat over her lanky frame, but Maggie is still crying. Pako, her other best friend, pulls his jacket off, wrapping it over Jack’s coat. “This’ll help,” he says. But the initial pain of hypothermic onset has already subsided. Fear is what persists. The boys huddle around her and each other, trying to share body heat. They’ve been lost for more than 6 hours. Within 45 minutes these three young adventurers will die in the woods, quietly, in the dark.

“Maggie…” says Pako, holding her head against his chest. She feels small. “Stop. You need those.”

“What?” she asks. “What’s going on?”

Pako was a boy scout, for 2 months. During that time he learned almost nothing of value. But he did go camping once, because his childhood friend, Nash, convinced him to go. On that trip Nash’s father, Dr. Terry Soh (Ph.D.), spent a lot of time talking about hypothermia. [2]

Pako learned that when your body gets too cold, it starts to shiver to generate more heat. Blood vessels constrict, skin turns pale. Heartbeat accelerates and breathing becomes fast and uneven. These uncomfortable functions, Dr. Soh explained with some delight, are actually good signs. They indicate that your body still has hope. It’s when the shivering stops that you need to be worried.

Maggie stumbles as they inch forward. She is already past those early stages of hypothermia. She doesn’t feel cold anymore. But is instead confused and clumsy, her heart rate, breathing and core temperature slowing down to preserve the little energy she has left.

The alcohol doesn’t help. Having made them feel warmer than they are. And clouding their judgment while disorienting them, even here, in the familiar mountains of their childhood.

There is no light left and the trail is snowed over. Pako is sure that they need to keep heading south, down the mountain. They couldn’t be more than a quarter mile from the old ski hut. But Mt Baldwin is a big hill, and the hut is a small speck on its side. If they miss it, it’ll be far too far to try to make it to baseline before freezing.

“Pako,” says Jack. “You sure this is the way?”

“Yeah, man,” he replies. “Keep going, slow and steady.”

#

It began as a heist. All day, from prep through lunch and up until the start of happy hour, they stashed bottles in their baggy pants’ pockets to be deposited into a cardboard moving box in the cab of Pako’s F-100. [3] Every smoke break, a couple bottles. At lunch break, a couple more. By the end of their shift, Jack, Pako and Maggie had absconded with 12 Coronas, 7 Coors Lights, and 6 assorted Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers. They are 17 years old. And though they aren’t popular or well-to-do, they are good, smart kids with aspirations bigger than their semi-rural town. And despite their genetic inclinations towards alcoholism, none of them have ever drunk more than two drinks at one sitting. [4]

Giddy as they clock out, Maureen, their shift manager, rests her elbow on the thick resin of the bar-top, her chin in her palm. With her other hand she gently brushes the liquor bottles in the well. They clink softly one at a time, like notes on a piano scale: vodka, scotch, gin, tequila, triple sec, rum. “VSG-TTR,” she recites. “Very Sexy Girls with Terrific Tatas Rule.”

She eyes the boys, paying particular attention to Pako, the tall one, the dark one, the one with the easy smile and soft, ever-squinty eyes. She watches as he laughs, playing audience to Jack’s interminable antics.

The three junior beer bandits return their time cards to the rack and walk towards to the staff door. Their steps are slightly delicate so as to avoid attention. Jack, ever daring, is carrying a bottle of Geyser Peak Shiraz in his underpants. As Maggie passes, Maureen stops the boys. With her eyes still on Pako, she addresses Jack.

“Jack,” she says.

“Yee-app,” he responds.

“I’ve noticed that your attention has not been distributed in an even fashion.”

Jack rolls his eyes. “Um, o-kay. What does that mean?”

“Don’t roll your eyes at me,” she says. “This isn’t playtime. You’re here to bus tables, not hang out.” She emphasizes “hang,” shaking her ass disjointedly and waving both arms in the air as she does so.

Before Jack can worsen the situation, Pako says, “Sorry, M. It’s been a long day. Seriously, we’ve been here since early.” He leans into her a little bit. “Promise, I’ll keep an eye on him.”

“Seriously, guys,” she says. “This is work. We’re not friends when we’re here. Okay?”

Jack is already out the door. Pako smiles at Maureen and mouths “sorry” as he backs out the staff door. She mouths back, “Where are you going?” Pako shrugs his shoulders and waves before turning and shutting the door behind him.

Once they’re out the door, Jack grabs Pako by the shoulders and drives the crown of his head into Pako’s stomach. He’s stifling a coarse laughter that turns into a cough. “Oh, God, man!” he says. Pako doesn’t say anything. Patting his friend on the back, he sees Maggie is waiting by the truck, smoking a cigarette.

“What the heck, guys?” she says.

“Nice, having our backs, Maggie,” says Jack, sidling up beside her. He takes her cigarette from her hand. “May I?” he says, taking a drag without waiting for her answer. Jack makes attempts at smoke rings as Pako takes his place at her other arm. Standing in a row like that, they resemble Japanese Tansu steps. Maggie is exactly 2 inches taller than Jack, and Pako is 2 inches taller than Maggie. A fact that Pako rarely acknowledges, but privately holds onto as the inevitable tiebreaker between the boys.

“Haha, yeah, like I’m ever going to take a bullet for your incompetence,” she retorts. “Don’t you know, all’s fair in love and work.” [5]

“That’s terrible,” says Jack, referring to her attitude as well as her pun. He pushes her softly in the arm, leaving his hand awkwardly on her tricep. She brushes him away. “Well, come on, let’s go!” she says. “It’s not getting any warmer out here!”

They pile into Pako’s truck. All three jump in the front bench. Maggie on the passenger side, Pako driving and Jack laying his head in Maggie’s lap. Pako tries to smile while shoving Jack’s feet off his lap. Jack kicks him, hard enough to make a point.

It’s no secret, they both have huge crushes on her. She doesn’t share in their feelings but loves them both like brothers. The boys are almost old enough to know how precious that is. As they drive out of the Love and War Bar and Grill parking lot, Maggie runs her fingers through Jack’s hair. She’s watching the sun float towards the horizon. The sky is blue, but there are clouds in the distance.

#

Jack has now stopped shivering. The pain of his freezing skin giving way to numbness in his fingers, in his toes. He blows his warm breath into his cupped hands, but doesn’t feel anything. Leaning backwards slightly, he exhales a billowing stream of white steam into the sky, imaging himself the last mighty Tyrannosaurus to succumb to the ice age. As he returns his gaze to the horizon, he spots a figure in the distance. He squints his eyes and tries to make out what looks like a person waving at him. “Dude, there’s someone over there!” he says to Pako, “Come on, we got to get to him!”

“What,” says Pako. “It’s just a tree, man. That’s not a person.”

Jack ignores him, leaving his friends to slog through the snow. “Hey! Jesus, thank God you’re here! We need help!”

The stranger doesn’t respond, standing perfectly still. It seems to take forever getting to him, like running in a dream. The stranger’s right arm is extended at a 45-degree angle, fingers outstretched as if he is about to catch something. As Jack gets to him, he can finally make out the stranger’s face. He looks like an older man, chubby in the jowels and around the waist. He has a broad and content smile across his face. Jack grabs him by the shoulders. “Hey, Man! What’s going on? We need help!” As Jack pulls at the stranger, he falls forward and they both land in the snow. Jack is immediately alarmed by how hard, cold and rigid the man is. [6] “What the hell?” Jack says.

As he pulls himself up, Jack scurries backwards, trying to get away from the immobile man.

“What’s going on?” asks Pako.

“I don’t know, man,” says Jack. “Something’s wrong with this dude.”

Pako comes over, still holding Maggie. “What?” he asks, letting go of Maggie as he drops to his knees. “I don’t understand.”

The stranger is completely motionless. In his left hand, he holds a picture of a chubby young boy and a golden retriever. Jack checks for a pulse.

“There’s no pulse,” says Jack, leaning in to the man’s face. “He’s not breathing either. I don’t know what’s up.”

Pako rubs his eyes and then blinks several times. In his head, he counts the blinks. Five. What he saw as a small tree or a tall shrub, now looks to be a partially snow covered man.

“This is messed up, Pak. We gotta go,” says Jack. “Is she okay?”

They both look over to Maggie. She’s wandering sideways, walking towards what looks like two other people. The boys plow through the snow as quickly as they can, but Maggie gets to the two strangers first. She reaches her hand out to touch the hair of one of them. Her hair is jet black and perfectly straight. It is the only part of the two that moves. As Pako comes close he sees that they’re two women dressed in ski clothes. They are middle-aged and very pretty, holding hands. The shorter one has her head on the taller one’s shoulder.

Jack approaches last, moving slowly, slower than he needs to, with dread in his steps. “What is this,” he says. “The fucking Twilight Zone?”

A glow comes over the mountain. Jack gently pulls Maggie away from the two women. Pako surveys the area, his mind working to make sense of the scene. He sees frozen figures all around them, growing out of the mountain like mangled adolescent conifer trees. Some stand in groups, some in pairs, and many alone. All of them posed in some kind of pleasant moment: laughing at a joke, holding a trophy in the air, hugging someone. “The dead,” he whispers.

Maggie is coming to. “What’s happening?” she asks.

“I don’t know,” says Pako. “I think maybe we’re dead.”

#

The 7-mile drive up to the trailhead takes them through the wealthy part of town. From Baseline on up, even the smallest houses look big enough to fit Jack’s, Pako’s and Maggie’s entire families with room enough for occasional long-term guests. Without being aware of it, this environment relaxes them, the clean streets and stylistically uniform houses. Everything seems in place, nothing out of order, nothing out of control.

Pako fiddles with the tape deck, ejecting Jack’s Bad Boys Blue cassette. “Are you for real with this?” he asks, shaking it out the window.

“Hey, don’t be a asshole! That’s a fuckin’ import; can’t get those at like the Wherehouse!”

Jack motions as if he is about to sit up from Maggie’s lap. But the soft bliss of his situation soothes him. As he settles his stout frame gently back, he says, “Carry on, chauffer!” Pako flicks the tape at his friend, who lets it bounce off his elbow without any fanfare.

Shaking her head, Maggie pops open the glovebox, rummaging blindly through papers, empty cigarette boxes and other artifacts, pulling out what seems to be a bottomless pit of uninspired musical choices. In her mind, she’s looking for something to bring the moment into focus, but most of Pako’s tapes are thrash metal bands: Sepultura, Anthrax, Pantera.

“Why do kind, sensitive boys always listen to such angry music?” she says, not expecting an answer.

Wedged between a torn Thomas Brothers book and an overdue take-home geology exam, she pulls out a white cassette tape without its case: Tea for the Tillerman. A satisfied smirk comes across her face as she plugs the tape into the stereo. “Miles From Nowhere” comes on, and though Jack and Pako don’t notice it, Maggie senses that some magic presence has just joined them.

#

Swaying from side to side, their once frozen senses return. Pako notices Maggie’s perfume, rose petals and oil. He watches Jack’s frame relax into a casual gait, with his arm around Maggie. They might just as well be strolling across the campus quad. Whatever grip the cold had on them seems to have loosened, or maybe even let go all together.

“I think maybe we’re dead,” Pako repeats, not sure if he means that their fate is sealed or that they are actually, literally dead.

“Not quite yet,” says a friendly voice. The three friends turn around to find a tall, elderly woman looking down at them. Jack reflexively reaches out to poke her in the arm. The old woman’s eyebrows perk up and then she smiles. She asks them, “What are you kids doing out here?”

The friends are still bewildered. “Well, of course, you must be lost.” She motions to them. “Come with me. Let’s get warmed up.”

Just a few steps away, they come upon the old woman’s home. It is big and welcoming, two stories tall, bay windows and well-lit interiors. A generous front porch literally emanates warmth, drawing the frozen young people in. They enter the home, feeling prickly needles in their extremities. Jack’s shivers return while he furiously rubs his hands together. He can barely laugh in-between his micro convulsions as he playfully places his heated hands on Maggie’s face. She sighs and relaxes into his palms as the old woman begins with introductions.

“I am Ms. Joanne Isodore, the caretaker here. And you are?” The three friends introduce themselves to Isodore. Jack, much calmer now, asks, “What is going on here, Joanne?”

“Ms. Isodore, please,” she corrects him. “This, Jack, is a final resting place. A place for the deceased to carrying on happily into eternity.”

“Like a cemetery?” asks Maggie.

“Yes, exactly!” says Isodore. “But a bit more refined than your average plot of grass! You see here we not only store the remains of the departed, but we arrange them in their most cherished memories. Memorials to their happiness.”

The friends wander around the cabin. Admiring innumerable photographs arranged on bookshelves and framed on the walls. Pictures of happy people. Isodore presents a tray of hot coffee and asks them to join her in front of the fireplace. A gently rousing hearth soothes the nerves of the young people. The coffee is good.

“I’m curious,” says Isodore. “About your happiest memories?” She gestures towards Jack, “You for instance, Michael Aaron ‘Jack’ Jackson. Tell me about when you were most happy.”

Jack smiles an honest smile, unaffected by his usual self-conscious bravado. “When I was a kid, like 10,” he says. “My dad took me fishing up around here. Just me and him. We got a boat. We caught fish, but mostly him telling me stuff. Like advice and stories and stuff like that. I felt like strong, you know? Like I was getting something from him, like how to do great things.”

“Hmm,” says Isodore. “Yes, father son memories can be very sweet.”

“Yeah,” says Jack. “But then, the next day, he was drinking, like a lot. Started saying messed up stuff. About my mom.” Jack’s half smile fades. “He left us, like a month later.” [7]

“Oh, my boy, I’m sorry to hear that. Bittersweet then, right?” says Isodore, patting Jack on the head while abruptly turning her attention to Maggie. “And you, Miss Maggie Lynn Kwong, what about you, dear?”

“Well,” she begins, tears already forming in her eyes. “Actually the happiest I think I ever felt was when I got my acceptance to Yale. It was the weirdest feeling. I just sat there, holding that letter for like an hour. I didn’t want to tell anyone. I just sat there feeling satisfied. And calm. Like all those days, all those years, of worrying and working, trying so hard. Finally, it was over. I did it.”

“What’s wrong, dear?” asks Isodore.

Maggie continues, “I’m not going. My mom, my sisters. So much going on. They need me to stay. I didn’t tell them. I’m just gonna go to CMC. [8] It’s fine, it’s a good school. But.”

Isodore nods and directs her eyes down. They all sip their coffee. They gently turn their attention to Pako. William “Pako” Pak, the thoughtful one, the grounded one. Pako’s been thinking about his old memories. Some happy times here and there. Good times: his first kiss, graduation, Nash. But, whenever he thinks about anything good, he always comes back to Maggie and Jack. Whatever else there is going on, good or bad, he’s happy as long as he’s with them. And today was the same. Today was about as happy as he’s ever been, up until they got lost. And now, warm and safe in Ms. Isodore’s house, he’s as happy as ever.

He tells them, “This actually, right now, us three together. This is my happiest memory.”

The old woman smiles, contentedly, “Yes, yes, that’s good. It’s a good memory to hold onto. Forever.” She looks around her sitting room, evenly distributing her attention. Each child smiles in empathic agreement. Maggie taking Jack’s hand in hers as Pako rests his index finger on the tip on his nose. And so, though unspoken, their hearts all agree that the happiest moment the three have ever seen is here tonight together. Their frontal cortex still slightly drunk and their legs sore from dancing. And their incomparable experience of facing death, eye to eye, and, however temporarily, living to tell the tale.

Ms. Joanne Isodore whispers a prayer, “Sleep sweetly, tender hearts, in peace; Sleep, holy spirits, blessed souls. While the stars burn, the moons increase, and the great ages onward roll. Sleep till the end, true souls and sweet. Nothing comes to thee new or strange. Sleep full of rest from head to feet; Lie still, dry dust, secure of change.” [9]

Together, the three friends doze off, slowly dying in the cold. They are all three smiling, seated in a row. Maggie with Jack in her arms, and Pako leaning on her shoulder.

#

NOTES

[1] Maggie is suffering from Paradoxical Hypothermia, a frequent precursor to lethal hypothermia. In such cases, the victim experiences intense heat and proceeds to remove their clothing. The mechanics of this phenomenon are complex and theoretical, but the phenomenon itself is common. It is one of the reasons why hypothermia is considered a painless death since the process involves hallucinary sensations of numbness, warmth and a cozy sleepiness that slowly overtake its victims.

[2] Dr. Terrance Soh is an astrophysicist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Though prodigious as a student, his career is markedly average. His dissertation focused on virtual time travel, centering on the accumulation of near infinite earth data collected from deep space. But Dr. Soh’s currently regarded as little more than a glorified lab assistant, at least as far as the world at large is aware.

[3]Pako’s truck is a 1965 Ford F-100. A gorgeous teal and white classic sporting a roaring 352 V-8. Pako isn’t particularly gear-heady, but his stepfather, Jimmy, restores classic cars. Even though the two of them have never seen eye-to-eye, Jimmy always loved Pako and has never found a way to express that except by painstakingly restoring this old truck.

[4] Jack technically consumed 6 beers during the Chandler Sisters’ Fifth of July party last summer. But, once he started feeling lightheaded, he began dumping his beer into the toilet as he urinated. Any accurate count of his consumption that day was lost once he began this practice.

[5] As with all employees of the Love and War Bar and Grill, our three protagonists make every effort to refrain from uttering the phrase “all’s fair in love and work.” Up to this point, none of the three have spoken those delightfully dread words for well over a month. It is worth noting that the last one to do so was also Maggie and was said in reference to her accepting a date to see Neutral Milk Hotel with the restaurant’s new bartender, the 31-year-old Echo (not his real name). Jack and Pako pretended they were upset about missing the show, but of course their true feelings were much more possessory in nature.

[6] Jack attended his first funeral when he was 11 years old. It was for their childhood friend, Nash Soh. During the viewing, an overwhelming desire to hold his friend consumed Jack. On this impulse, he reached into the coffin and took hold of Nash’s shoulders. His hands unconsciously expected to feel the warm softness of living human flesh, but were instead met with what felt like a solid block of ice carved into the shape of a boy. Jack quickly pulled back. His mother held him close and whispered, “Don’t ever touch the dead, honey. Otherwise they can’t go to heaven.”

[7] All three friends have spent the majority of their lives without their fathers. In a curious moment of clarity, Jack compiled a list of all his friends and found that nearly 4 out of 5 grew up with at least one parent missing. Teresa Chandler, whom Jack had developed a crush on, inspired this project. She came from a traditional nuclear family. Her father was a police officer and her mother was a teacher at the local Catholic school. In their one serious conversation, Jack discovered that all of Teresa’s friends came from similarly “intact” homes. The contrast between their worlds threw Jack into a funk and he immediately ceased pursuing Teresa. This was unfortunate, because she really liked him as they had an immediate and easy rapport.

[8] Technically, Maggie is not enrolling at CMC (Claremont McKenna College). Admitted to all five colleges in the Claremont Consortium, she narrowed her choices to Pitzer and Harvey Mudd. Pitzer, the school for slackers and revolutionaries and Harvey Mudd, for serious minded scientists. Though these two institutions appear offer opposite paths, she feels empowered by either option.

[9] Joanne Isodore’s prayer is a pluralized version of Alfred Tennyson’s “To J.S.” She briefly contemplates concluding her business here with lines from another of Lord Alfred’s works, “In Memorium A.H.H.” If she were to do so, she might softly recite: “Forgive these wild and wandering cries,
Confusions of a wasted youth;
Forgive them where they fail in truth,
And in thy wisdom make them wise.”

[0] This story is based on the Twilight Zone episode “Elegy,” which originally aired in 1960.

 

 

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