She stepped from the darkness and opened her eyes. Light surrounded her, shining from everywhere and nowhere. People milled about the space, a space so large there were no walls, no ceilings. Just white light.
She was alone. She’d hoped that she’d been wrong, that he would be here with her. They always came here together. Always had, always would. That’s just the way it was.
“Ah, Psi-28657. Welcome back.” A clipboard-toting agent appeared in front of her. He — or she; an agent’s gender was never apparent — checked his watch and wrote something on a piece of paper. “As usual, we’ll set up inspection and confession, then go from there.” The agent looked up from his notes. “Where’s your other half?”
“I don’t know.” She couldn’t meet his eyes. No one came here alone. “I arrived like usual, but he…” She brushed a tear away with her sleeve. “He didn’t.”
“Most odd,” murmured the agent. He glanced at his notes again. “They’re supposed to tell me about these…situations.”
“Hurry up,” said a voice behind her. “We don’t have all eternity!”
She glanced over her shoulder. A dozen people stood waiting to be checked in. All had partners.
“Yes, quite right,” said the agent. “As you can see, I’m quite busy. If you’ll have a seat in the waiting room, an agent will be over to explain your options.”
She nodded and headed towards a cluster of couches. Muzak whispered from unseen speakers. She sat down and flipped through a stack of magazines. It felt strange being here by herself. Her other half had always been here too. They’d usually stroll around the rose gardens while waiting to go back out, catching up on their experiences and plotting their strategy for the next time. Not that they remembered when they went back out, not right away at least. Now, however, it was just her.
She’d read through half the December 1974 issue of Reader’s Digest when an agent approached her. “Psi-28657B? This way please.”
She followed the agent down a hallway that materialized five feet in front of them and disappeared five feet behind. The agent stopped in front of an open door.
“Please, come in.” The agent waited for her to enter, then shut the door and sat down behind a formidable wooden desk. She perched on a cheap chair that left her head slightly below his.
“Let me bring up your file.” The agent typed on the computer that appeared on his desk. “Sometimes paths are crossed, signals are mixed. Could just be a glitch in the system. Let’s see. Female, 42 years old. Not a full life.”
“Ah, yes, there it is. You had cancer, and he had — oh. Oh dear.”
“What?” She leaned forward, gripping the edges of her seat. “What happened to him? What did he do?”
“Oh, dear,” repeated the agent. “This is quite unexpected. Did you have any contact with your other half while out?”
“No,” she admitted sadly. “We didn’t meet up this time. It’s happened before, but less and less frequently as we’ve had more experience.”
“Yes, yes, I see that quite plainly here in your file. What I mean is, any dreams of him? Revelations? Prophecies?”
She thought for a moment. “Yeah, now that you mention it. I had a dream about him not too long ago. I thought it was an effect of the medication.”
The agent watched her through the thick, black-framed glasses that all agents wore. All had the same white tunic with a gold sash, the same black hair that reached just below their ears. “And what was this dream about?”
“He told me not to worry. I thought he meant the cancer.” She tried to swallow the lump that was growing in her throat, push it down and squelch the knot of fear in her stomach. “Did he do something wrong?”
“It appears he struck a deal with a representative, and he wasn’t able to follow through with his end.” Though his voice was still level, impassive, she thought she could detect a hint of sympathy. “I’m sorry.”
“A deal? Without talking to me first?”
“The representatives can be quite persuasive.”
“There’s nothing you can do?”
“I’m sorry. A deal is a deal. He knew the terms going in.”
“So what happens now?”
“Well, you have options. We can assign you a new half; there are others in similar predicaments who are willing to be reassigned.”
“But he was my match! I won’t be compatible with anyone else. Not long term.”
“I understand.” The agent pecked at his keyboard. “It appears you’re not quite ready to be a bodhisattva. You could go back and try on your own.”
“Does that work?”
“No, not really. The system was designed for partners.”
“So I’m screwed.”
“Well…” The agent bit his lip and glanced around. “There’s a third option.”
“I’m not technically supposed to tell you this, but there’s a small chance that the representatives would be willing to strike a deal with you to get him back.”
“I’ll do it!”
“Keep in mind, their terms are quite strict. Nearly impossible to meet.”
“I don’t care. I’d do anything to get him back.”
“Are you sure this is what you want?”
“Yes. How many times do I have to tell you?”
“Three, which you’ve done.” A thick stack of papers appeared in front of the agent. “Now if you’ll just fill out these forms, we’ll process your application and a representative will meet with you.”
She sat in the waiting room, Muzak still playing. She’d lost track of time, but the pile didn’t seem to be shrinking. He’d better appreciate this. Like the man behind her had said, it’s not like she had all eternity.
E.D. Martin is a writer with a knack for finding new jobs in new places. Born and raised in Illinois, her past incarnations have included bookstore barista in Indiana, college student in southern France, statistician in North Carolina, economic development analyst in North Dakota, and high school teacher in Iowa. She draws on her experiences to tell the stories of those around her, with a generous heaping of “what if” thrown in.
She currently lives in Illinois where she job hops while attending grad school and working on her novels. Read more of her stories at her website.
“Bardo Bureaucracy” was originally published by Farther Stars Than These, 10 May 2012.