Written by Gwendolyn Lopez
Art by Eberhard Grossgasteiger
The world beyond is full of lies. At least that’s what the Centipede always says.
He also says that it’s wonderful, charming, and full of the most delicious strawberries, and even after nearly a month in this place, I still don’t know what’s true and what isn’t. Granted, that month might have only been a week, or a day. Perhaps even mere seconds—who knows? The world beyond has long since shattered my perception of impossibility.
One thing’s for sure:after you die, things quickly start to make less and less sense.
The world beyond—at least, that’s what the Centipede calls it—never takes a break. It’s constantly shedding its skin—trying out landscapes like coats from a closet, dusting on weather conditions like different colors of eyeshadow. An indecisive, impatient place. And somehow I’m supposed to call it my new home.
The Centipede calls himself a veteran. He’s nice in a way that’s condescending, and proud in a way that makes me self-conscious. The world beyond has shuffled him—he has a hundred faces, but only one leg. But it doesn’t hinder him, not at all. Believe me, I’ve tried to run before, and either the world beyond is slow or the Centipede is lightning, because I never get far without seeing him again.
I watch him now, sitting on the stump of a redwood. Bright pink snow softly falls from above, and as I walk forth to approach him, my surroundings flicker from the quiet forest into a searing desert. I sigh. The world beyond must be in a bad mood.
“No.” The Centipede spits out a cherry pit. He seems to be doing that a lot recently, or was it always? I’ll never know. “It’s awful today, though. More so than usual. You might be stuck here even longer.”
The silence between us stretches. Before it gets too long, I blurt out, “I have a question.”
The Centipede raises one hundred eyebrows. “Yes, Lila?”
“I know you said death doesn’t matter here. And that this world is beyond death, beyond love, beyond life. But, I just, I was wondering…”
Another cherry pit flies from the Centipede’s mouth, landing in the foliage below. The landscape flickers again—this time a bustling metropolis. A car nearly flattens the Centipede before it all switches back.
“What were you wondering?” he asks, unfazed.
“I was just wondering what got you into a place like this.” Half of the Centipede’s faces frown, and I quickly add: “Not just dying, I mean. But before that, before death… what happened? There must have been something else, right? Something… more.”
Our surroundings shift permanently now, and the redwood stump under the Centipede turns into packed ice. A blizzard envelops us, and even though I stopped feeling pain a long time ago, the phantom sensation still crawls up my arms.
“I really don’t want to talk about it,” the Centipede says, each word hesitant and slow.
“Please. After this, I won’t mention it again. I promise.”
The Centipede shifts on his seat and sighs a hundred sighs. I stand there and wait, suddenly feeling very small. The world beyond changes two more times before the Centipede opens his mouth and begins to speak.
He tells me a story about a young boy who was a jack of all trades, master of none. He tells me of love and heartbreak, of sorrows and joy, of a life pulled out from its roots. I stand there and I listen. The tale seems far too normal, far too vulnerable to be about the Centipede, who has never thought twice. Perhaps I should have found it familiar, since it came from the same place I did. After all, wasn’t my whole purpose to get out of this forsaken place? Didn’t I want to return to where I had come from? Didn’t I have unfinished business?
Where had I even come from to begin with?
My name is Lila Henkins. I am dead but I don’t have to be, and I need to get out of this place—I need to find a door and go home. I’m a sister and a daughter and the strings of my life are too young to be cut off. I’m supposed to become a doctor—I’m supposed to fall in love and get drunk and watch the sunrise and scream until my throat goes raw. I need to get out of this world beyond, I need to get rid of the Centipede, I need to go back… I need to… I need…
My mind suddenly feels hazy. The Centipede asks me if something is wrong.
Are these the consequences of death? Is there nothing I can do now besides forget?
I suddenly wonder if this is exactly what happened to the Centipede. I wonder if he made up a fairy tale—if he always has—just to appease me.
Eventually, I manage to shake my head. And the next few seconds seem to pass like weeks.
I am wood burning on an open fire, I am the cliff eroded from seafoam. I am the drowning bird, the flying fish; I am the sky that opens up to catch you. I am withered and empty, full of contradictions. I’m the woman with a hundred different faces.
The minute passes. A newcomer comes to the world beyond, searching for a door to escape. He calls me the Centipede and I tell him fables of a girl with a forgotten name.