By Bryce Yoder

Avery didn’t remember passing out. He didn’t remember losing consciousness or where he was when he did. When Avery woke up in a small office, he couldn’t really remember anything. He knew his name. His mom’s name and dad’s name He remembered his birthday and his favorite color. But that’s where the list started to run dry. He would have tried to remember more, but his curiosity regarding the office he’d awoken in outweighed any realization of a loss of memory.

The office was small but professional. It was sparsely decorated with non-specific picture frames and a small cactus in a pot on the desk. There was no computer or phone, as one may expect there to be in an office.  There was no coffee maker, no vases or flowers, no windows. The more he looked around, the less convinced Avery was that he was actually in a real office. Aside from the chair he was sitting in, there were no other chairs, and there was only one table. And on that table sat a man.

Avery didn’t recognize the man. He had no defining features. He was plain looking – dark brown hair parted to the left, some stubble, brown eyes. He was wearing a black long-sleeve shirt and dark jeans. But none of that explained where Avery was or what he was doing there or how he’d arrived there in the first place. Though it felt like his brain was moving a mile a minute, Avery couldn’t process more than a handful of the thoughts he was having. He had a long list of questions, but no intuition as to where to start. Before Avery could make a decision, the man spoke.

“I know you have questions, but it’s best you save them for the time being.”

Avery wanted to respond, but no words made their way to his mouth. At first, he thought it might be amnesia, that maybe a bottle of Jim Beam and a pack of Smirnoff Ice wasn’t the recipe for fun he’d imagined it’d be. Wait, do I even drink Jim Beam? Avery second-guessed his mind’s recollection of a drinking binge he may or may not have had, though that was secondary to the cartwheels his mind was doing, trying to figure out who this strange man on the table was. He knew the easiest way to accomplish this goal was to ask the man who he was, but as he attempted to ask the questions, his words faltered, and he mumbled something incoherent.

The man on the table cocked his head. “What was that?”

Avery opened his mouth but said nothing.

“I know,” said the man, “it’s harder to think here. You don’t have nearly the mental capacity you’re used to.”

With that sentence, a switch flipped in Avery’s brain and his words returned to him.

“Who are you?” Avery waited for a response, but when none came, he continued. “Where am I? Who are you? How did I get here – what the hell is going on?”

The man on the desk smiled ever so slightly – the kind of smile you get when you feel more pity than joy.

“Avery,” the man said, “You’re in The Middle.”

Avery stared in confusion. “The Middle?”

“Yes, The Middle.”

“What the hell is The Middle? Is this some sort of doomsday cult or something? Am I being Punk’d?”

It looked like the man might smile again, but this time, he sighed and lowered his head.

“Avery… you’re dead.”

The silence that followed was deafening. Avery tried to formulate a response, but nothing that made sense in his mind could be articulated into words. His instinct was to snort, chuckle and chalk it up to a well-executed prank, but something about the man, the way he spoke, the way he was… Avery grasped at vernacular he thought he might have known once upon a time, but his vocabulary faltered, and he settled gracelessly on “What do you mean ‘I’m dead’?”

“I mean, it’s exactly what it sounds like. Your heart stopped. Your brain stopped. You died. I know it’s troublesome, but it’s a pretty common occurrence.”

“Yeah, I understand the concept. But I definitely see you. I hear you. I understand you. But I don’t think this is Hell. And it sure as hell isn’t Heaven.”

The man smiled again. “You’re very correct. I told you: it’s The Middle.”

“That means nothing to me.”

“I wouldn’t expect it to. Everyone’s always expecting Saint Peter or Lucifer. Or the skeptics, they just think they’re dreaming. Hah.”

Avery took a moment to process, but he still couldn’t formulate any coherent thoughts. He quickly ran through what he could remember – his mom and dad, Marissa and Patrick. His birthday, December 21st. His favorite color, yellow.

“Avery, you can stare into the void and try to make sense of it all you want – I promise it won’t help.”

Avery looked around the office again, scanning for any kind of clue that might indicate that all of this was part of some elaborate ruse.

“Look, we don’t have a ton of time, Avery,” the man continued, “so you can keep trying to figure out if this is another one of Joey’s pranks, or we can get to the purpose of your visit.”

Avery snapped his head back towards the man. He wanted so badly to scream, but he didn’t have any comprehension of what he’d even be screaming about. Between his rapid decline in mental processes and the extreme clairvoyance and apparent omniscience of the man on the table, he began to accept that he might actually be dead. Jim Beam or no, this was too real to be a dream. Taking a deep breath, he looked at the floor and spoke.

“How did I die?”

The man on the table looked at Avery, his face showing more pity than anything else.

“Do you really want to know?”

Avery thought about the question a moment. Of course, I want to know, he thought, but his brain couldn’t convince his mouth of such a fact. He fell silent a moment before asking a different question.

“What’s your name?”

The man on the table cocked his head to the side as if the question had caught him off-guard.

“My name?”

“Yeah. What’s your name? I figure if you’re here to judge my soul or explain life or whatever the hell your job is, well I figure I should at least be able to call you by your name.”

The man looked at Avery quizzically. He’d been doing this for a long time. Or at least, it felt like a long time. He didn’t have any way to know for sure how long he’d been at this particular endeavor. But regardless of any passage of time, no one had ever once asked for his name.

“I…I don’t really have a name,” he finally replied.

Avery looked at him curiously. “What do you mean? Everyone’s got a name.”

“Not me. You don’t really need one here.”

Avery sighed. “Well, I’ve got to call you something.”

The man thought for a while, then smiled.  “You can call me…X.”

“X?”

“X.”

“Like, the letter? Like, solve for?”

“Yes, the letter.”

Avery said nothing for a moment, then laughed.  “You know…I like you. Alright then, X. I’m dead. Got it. What is this place?”

X smiled. “You’re in The Middle,” he began. “Think of it as a waiting room.”

“For the afterlife?”

“Eh, kind of. Your memories, they’re starting to fade, right?”

Avery nodded.

“Don’t feel bad, it happens to everyone. Well, this place, this waiting room, it’s where you make your decision.”

“My decision?”

“Yes.”

“And what am I deciding between, exactly?” asked Avery, his confusion dissipating into genuine intrigue.

“The Great Beyond and The Timeless.”

Avery stared back at X, daring him to act like the sentence he’d just said was real.

“I’m gonna need some subtitles or something.”

X smiled understandingly.

“Believe me, I’d love to give you the full rundown of both options, but unfortunately you only have until your memories are gone to make a decision. Plus, most of it you wouldn’t be able to comprehend anyway.”

“Wait,” Avery quickly replied, “what do you mean I only have until my memories are gone?”

“Well,” X began, grimacing, “once your memories have totally faded out, your decision is made. Except it’s a third option – an option that isn’t even worth mentioning. Now, as long as you can remember your name, you’re fine. But once you begin to forget who you are, that’s when the proverbial clock has run out.”

“The proverbial clock?”

“Yes. The clock has to be proverbial because time, well, time doesn’t really exist here.”

Avery looked around the room, confused. “Time doesn’t exist, but I only have a certain amount of time to make my decision?”

“Well, yes and no. I say time only because that’s the concept you’re familiar with. See, you have until your memories are gone. Once your memories are gone, you’re just lost. There’s no way to retrieve them and no way to use them. You will, quite simply, cease to exist.”

“Well that’s comforting,” Avery replied. Death may have been slowly stripping his memories, but Avery’s dry sarcasm remained intact alongside the memories that hadn’t yet left him. His mom, Marissa. His dad, Patrick. His birthday, December 21st. His favorite color, ywkkps. No, uelkp.

          Shit.

“But that’s the worst option,” X quickly reminded him. “The other two are infinitely better.”

“Right,” remembered Avery. “The Timeless and The Great Beyond.”

“Precisely.”

“So, can I get a synopsis of the yellow wood here?” Avery asked. His genuine intrigue was wearing off quickly. His memories were fading faster, he could feel it. He was Avery, he knew that. His mom was Marissa and his dad was Patrick and his birthday was…it was sometime in…before…

          Dammit.

“I can’t explain every detail,” began X, “but the gist of it is that, if you choose to wander with The Timeless, you’ll know everything. All your memories will be restored, as well as all knowledge you could ever possibly fathom. The cure for cancer, advanced physics and mathematics, why the world exists and what the point of anything really is.”

“It feels like there’s a big but coming,” Avery noted, growing evermore uneasy.

           Avery. Marissa. Patrick. Avery. Marissa. Pat. Avery. Marissa. Paxon.

“But you stay in a dimension removed from the plane of time,” X admitted. “You’ll have the unfettered knowledge, but you won’t be able to do anything with it.”

Avery barely registered that X had spoken when he requested the alternative.

“The Great Beyond,” X said, “is the exact opposite. Your memories are completely erased. You know nothing more than a newborn infant – no life experience or knowledge to be thought of. But you get to keep on living.”

“How can I keep on living if all my memories are gone?”

“Well, I suppose that you don’t keep on living, not as you are now,” X conceded. “But part of you moves on to a new life.”

“Life without anything I know,” Avery pondered, his heartbeat rapidly increasing in speed, “any of my memories…would, would that even be a life worth wanting?”

X shrugged – not an apathetic shrug, but a shrug of genuine inability to answer. “That’s for you to decide.”

“So really, really it’s literally just the red pill or the green pill?” asked Avery.

“The what?”

“From that movie. The Matr…Martyr…The Matryoshka. The one about the…the one…you know, with the guy and the pills…one purple…one…one…” Avery’s voice trailed off as he began to realize that he didn’t know what he was saying. He recalled no such movie. He thought he did, but he couldn’t remember.

“Avery,” asked X, “are you okay?”

Avery was beginning to sweat profusely as his heart rate continued to elevate. He was falling in a broken elevator and quickly reaching the point of no return. He was Avery. He knew he was Avery. He was Avery and his mom was Marissa and his dad…did he have a dad? His mind attempted to summon a firm handshake and playing catch in the backyard and going fishing on weekends, but no such memories were found.

“Avery, look at me. Look at me.”

Avery jerked his head towards X. His eyes were bulging, and he was struggling to speak.

“Avery, come on. Tell me your name.”

Avery opened his mouth, but no sound followed. He swallowed, a piercing swallow – the kind that gets stuck in your throat like Tom the cat swallowing an anvil. He shook his head, tears beginning to well in his eyes.

“I’m….I’m Av…Avery. Mom…mom…Marissa…mom…”

Avery’s head had fallen into his hands. He was losing control and he knew it. He could feel his spirit giving up on him, his memories catching the midnight train out of the station. He knew he was running out of time.

“Avery, you’ve gotta make a decision,” X said, pleading. “You’ve gotta make the call. You don’t have much left.”

Avery’s heart pounded in his throat. He could feel his final memories losing their grip on the cliff of his subconscious. Looking into his mind’s eye, he saw his mom, holding on for dear life, fingers bleeding, straining to keep from falling into an abyss of things he’d once known.

“I want…I want – I – I want to, to see my – my mom,” Avery stuttered, tears slurring his speech into a barely distinguishable mess of sound.

X shook his head. “That isn’t one of the choices.”

“I…keep living – see my – my – my – my mom.”

“Avery, that isn’t how it works…”

“I need – I – I – I – I want, to – to – to see – her.”

“Avery, you can’t.”

Marissa’s fingers slipped closer and closer to the edge.

           Avery. Marissa. Avery. Mom. Mom. Mom. MOM. MOM.

“I can’t… I – I can’t – forget, her.”

“Avery, you have to choose.”

Right as Marissa’s last finger gave way to the persistence of gravity, Avery came flying to the edge of the cliff. Reaching down, he grabbed hold of her arm, refusing to let her fall into the abyss.

“I CAN’T FORGET MY MOM!” Avery screamed, his words coming back to him for one moment. As soon as the sentence had passed the farthest-most point of his lips, Avery collapsed. X stared at him, twisted into a heap, half sitting in the chair, half lying on the floor.

“Okay,” whispered X. “Okay.”

X kneeled down next to Avery, placing his hand on Avery’s forehead. He waited there a moment as if he expected life to return to the crumpled mass of flesh in front of him. When he was satisfied, X rose. As he walked out of the office, he turned to look at Avery one final time. In the blink of an eye, the heap where Avery had been collapsed moments before was nothing more than a chair resting on a soft carpeted floor. Sighing, X traversed the doorway, closing the door behind him.

When Avery woke up, he knew exactly where he was. He remembered passing out. He remembered the office and X and that he hated Jim Beam. He remembered that he’d overdosed on a Hell’s Kitchen concoction of lemon-lime Svedka and enough Vicodin to remedy the pain of every CTE injury the NFL had ever caused. He remembered his childhood dog, Sparky,  how he loved to go outside in the rain and play in the mud despite the fact that a stern reprimanding was always in order from dad. His dad. Patrick. Whose favorite movie was always The Matrix. And when Avery was just nine years old, he’d watched the movie with his dad, and when his dad asked him which pill he would take, Avery’s response was “the Hot Tamale one!” He remembered how much he loved the color yellow and how it made every cloudy day just a little brighter, and maybe that’s why he’d fallen in love with Jenny Lyradoe and the bright yellow sundress she loved to wear when Mother Nature forgot that it was supposed to be October. And he remembered how excited his mom was when he was accepted into Northwestern – the school he’d always dreamed of attending.

Avery smiled.

His mom.

He remembered her.

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