“I’ll get you the money by the end of this week, Mr. Herman,” Tony promised.
Mr. Herman gingerly dusted off the cuff of his Italian suit. “This is your last chance, Tony. If you can’t scrape up the money for this toilet, I’m going to flush it,” he said, throwing a disgusted look around the café.
Tony nodded, biting back his bitter retort. Theodore Herman was one of the wealthiest men in town and found sport in squeezing every penny out of his tenants. Leering condescendingly, Mr. Herman strutted out the door. Through the window, Tony watched his landlord climb into a flashy, white BMW.
“Surprised it’s not pure gold,” Tony muttered. Tony’s eyes swept across the empty room, frowning. The once bright red booths now were faded and worn. An omnipresent film of dust coated the black tiles. What had happened to the place he remembered? For just a moment, Tony saw the mirage of a young girl spinning unsteadily in front of him, swerving back and forth before collapsing in a fit of giggles. Tony swallowed down the lump in his throat that had become a frequent companion and blinked. She was gone.
He turned back to look out the window. That’s what happened, he thought. The pain. The loss. The bills. The emptiness. There had been no coming back from that.
As he watched, a woman and child appeared in the window. The stout dark-haired woman walked slowly, keeping a hand under the boy’s arm. The thin boy glanced through the window and waved enthusiastically, his happy grin juxtaposing the dark circles under his eyes.
Tony’s grimace softened, recognizing Marty Artego and his mother. Eight-year-old Marty had already looked sickly before being diagnosed with congenital heart disease. Since then, it had only gotten worse. The family had been waiting for a compatible heart donor, but Tony knew the truth: even if Marty’s body didn’t reject the donor heart, their wallets certainly would. Most people around here survived on a pittance. He frowned again as the Artegos passed out of the window. As always, everything in life was kept out of reach of those who needed it most. Fortune always seemed to favor those excessively fortunate.
Depression had only sunk its claws deeper into Tony by closing time. He locked the door and stepped into the dark, cold street. As he hurried against the chilly breeze, Tony saw a figure moving behind a loaded grocery cart.
Homeless, Tony thought. The street was a common gathering area for the lonely and poor. People with nothing left seemed to end up here. Like me, Tony acknowledged miserably, crossing the street. Why do I even do this? It’s the same stupid thing everyday. I work in a crummy café, sleep in a crummy apartment, barely getting by while—
A loud screech cut through Tony’s thoughts, and he turned. Two bright headlights burned his eyes, and Tony threw himself to the side. A terrible pain ripped through his head, and everything went black.
His eyes flew open.
Blinking, Tony leaned forward. He was sitting in a velvet armchair. Stroking the soft cushion, Tony stared around. The car was gone. He was in the center of a vast library. Walls of books extended so high that Tony couldn’t see the ceiling, and ornate gold staircases twisted like lavish ivy across the partitions. Several feet away, a wood table stood solitary, littered with books. Tony massaged his forehead. What happened?
“Hello, Anthony Denton. Welcome to the Midway,” said a melodic voice.
Tony whipped around. What had been a wall of books now gaped with a wide doorway. The towering entryway framed an ethereal figure that glided toward Tony. Tony gawked, awestruck. The beautiful woman’s long white hair floated around her ethnically ambiguous face, and the white linens that draped across her shoulders refracted light into a beautiful rainbow haze.
“The w-what?” Tony stuttered.
She smiled. “The Midway is where souls reside when their life hangs in the balance. They then return to their corporeal forms or pass on. I am the Gatekeeper called Atla, who determines the next chapter of your journey. Come,” Atla said, striding smoothly to the table of books. “Let us consider your record.”
Tony watched as she extracted a small, black notebook from beneath a child’s journal. Atla flipped through the pages, scanning each quickly before pressing on. Suddenly, she froze, staring intently at a page halfway through the book. “I am concerned with your record, Anthony,” Atla murmured.
Atla turned the page to face Tony. Tony glanced down to see… nothing. Two blank pages stared back.
“Every person writes their own record when they choose to experience life and find their soul’s connection to the Great Energy that bonds humanity,” Atla explained. “Your record begins like many others, with optimism. However, it appears that you have stopped writing your record for many years. A great trauma cut your soul so deeply that your soul essentially ceased to live.”
For a moment, Tony saw the young girl spinning and giggling in the back of his mind. “Yes,” he whispered.
Atla watched him carefully. “I know your pain. To lose a child so young begets unspeakable agony. However, to stop living because she died does nothing but rob the world of two souls instead of one,” she said gently. “You have potential to do good in the world.”
“Why should I do anything for the world?” Tony croaked. “It’s done nothing for me. If you wanted something good for the world, you should given her back to me.”
Atla shook her head. “Your daughter’s story was completed. And it was a beautiful one, filled with so much joy and life. But there are others whose stories you can still transform,” she said, and she paused. “Anthony Denton, I have determined your next chapter. You will return to your life to fill your pages. Let your soul live.”
“But,” Tony said desperately, “I have nothing. Nothing to live for, no money… nothing to make life worth living.”
“I will provide the means to take your first step. But I warn you,” Atla added, suddenly looking grave, “not to confuse wealth with substance. Money can offer opportunity but never true happiness. Many of the records in this library are written by the poorest of pockets but richest of souls.” She picked up the child’s journal from the table and flipped to the last entry on the second-to-last page. “This record is by your young friend Marty Artego. Even in his suffering and with his limited time, his soul thrives. And now you must do the same,” Atla finished, and she stepped back.
Suddenly, a warm breeze began to flow through the library. The iridescent haze around Atla began to glow as brightly as if she had ensnared the Sun itself in her figure. Tony took a step back as a wall of light blinded him. It was too much. He felt the light overpower him, and everything went black.
His eyes flew open.
Lying on the side of the street, Tony could feel his head pressing against the curb, already starting to throb. Groaning, Tony pulled himself to his knees. As he pushed himself up, a thick envelope fell out of his jacket.
Examining it closely, Tony tore open the paper. Into his hands dropped two stacks of green bills. Tony’s jaw dropped. Benjamin Franklin gazed back at him. He counted quickly. Eighteen, nineteen… $20,000. Breathing heavily, Tony noticed a small note stuck to the second stack of money. In the moonlight, he could barely see three words: Finish your story.
The next morning, a loud knocking echoed throughout the Herman household. The door swung open, and Mr. Herman’s eyebrows shot up in surprise.
Tony cut him off, shoving an envelope into his hands. “The rent due, Mr. Herman. Oh,” he added, handing the stunned landlord another paper, “and I’m moving out. You can find another schmuck to shake down every month.” Not waiting for a response, Tony turned and marched down the driveway. As he climbed into the waiting shabby taxi, Tony noticed the white BMW glinting ostentatiously in the sunlight. “Take me to the nearest car dealership,” Tony ordered the sullen driver.
A leased convertible. Then a designer suit. A gold watch with matching cufflinks. A pair of Italian leather shoes. As he sped down the busy highway, Tony glanced at himself in the rearview mirror. He himself would not have recognized his own reflection yesterday. This is what a man living his best life looked like.
Isn’t it? Tony couldn’t help thinking. Brushing it off, he pressed down on the accelerator. First ten miles, then twenty, then thirty… Finally, Tony saw the glint of blue on the horizon. As he drew closer, he could see temperate waves crashing down on a pristine beach. A hazy, orange sun sat on the water, reflecting light across the surface like shattered topaz in a wall of emerald. Slipping out of his shoes, Tony sunk his feet into the blanket of sand. The aroma of salt water filled Tony’s nostrils, and as the breeze washed over him, Tony closed his eyes. And waited.
He could feel the breeze ruffle his hair. He could feel his watch ticking softly on his wrist. He could feel the dull beating of his own heart.
But he felt nothing else.
Tony’s brow furrowed in frustration. This was supposed to be his moment of triumph, of new beginnings. As he stood at the edge of the world facing the infinite opportunities ahead of him, shouldn’t he feel fulfilled? Complete? Something?
As if on cue, the little angel of Tony’s memories danced again through his mind, spinning and laughing. Tears burned Tony’s eyes as he dropped to his knees, sinking into the sand. As silent sobs shook his shoulders, Tony looked up into the shocking shades of pink and purple that painted the evening sky. I don’t know what to do, Atla, he pleaded silently. You were right about money. It’s not enough. But you were wrong about me. I have nothing else to offer.
As Tony sat shuddering in anguish, a different face suddenly replaced his daughter’s—another blissfully innocent child, his grin framed by a mop of black curls. Tony’s breath caught. Marty Artego, so brave, so pure… so young to be ending his story so soon. Tony pictured Marty’s colorful journal in Atla’s hands. It only had a page or two left.
“There are others whose stories you can still transform.”
Atla’s words cut through Tony’s memory like an arrow finally finding its target. His eyes flew open. And for the first time, he saw.
A switch had finally been flipped, illuminating the darkness. Tony sat up slowly. As the ocean waves splashed on the beach, something else washed over him. It spread slowly from the top of his head to the tips of his fingers. At last, Peace was extending her comforting hand.
Tony took a deep breath. It was suddenly so clear. “Atla,” he whispered, and somehow he knew she was listening. “I… I understand. I know what I can offer.” He paused. “Give the rest of my pages to him. Finish my story by letting him continue his. Give him every cent and second I have left.”
As the last streak of light disappeared over the horizon, Tony felt a sudden release, like heavy chains had been lifted from his chest. Closing his eyes, his body grew still. As he took a final deep breath of the salty air, warmth engulfed Tony’s soul. After so much time estranged, Peace embraced him, old friends reunited at last.
A loud ring shattered the silence.
She threw her hand out, grasping blindly for the phone. Who would be calling at this time of night? “Hello?”
“Mrs. Artego,” an excited voice exclaimed, “it’s Marty’s doctor. I have wonderful news.”
Her eyes flew open.