Just after my fifth birthday, I died during surgery.
Yes, there was a light, just like they say. And no, the doctors couldn’t make me alive again. I’ve been dead ever since.
At first I didn’t have any idea what happened. I didn’t remember anything after the nice people gave me medicine to make me go to sleep. But when I woke up something was wrong, like my body didn’t fit anymore. It felt really tight all over, like somebody had grabbed me in their fist and squeezed until I couldn’t breathe at all.
I fought it really hard. I didn’t want to be squeezed into nothing. I had to wiggle and kick and push until finally I got free and could breathe again. Except… now I didn’t need to.
A big hand took mine and pulled me up, away from the room with the doctors and nurses and machines and what used to be me. It was somebody I didn’t know, a man, wearing pajamas and a robe with slippers on his feet. His eyes were kind and brown, but his face looked really tired, wrinkled up between his brows with sad lines around his mouth.
“I’m so glad to see you, Rhys,” he said.
I tried hard to remember him. I couldn’t. I had never seen him before.
I felt like Jell-O inside, all quivery and see-through. “How do you know my name? Who are you?”
His smile looked so nice, like he really wanted to be my friend. “I was told to wait for you. My little girl needs you.”
I didn’t know what he meant. He said things I didn’t understand. But he seemed happy to have me there with him, like he’d been waiting a long time for me to show up.
“Do I know her?” I asked. “Your little girl?”
The room with the doctors and nurses had gone away. Maybe it had fallen, or maybe we were flying. But we couldn’t be, because we were walking, down a long white hallway with doors. A white light shone from beneath one of them. It reminded me of the Christmas decorations at Town Square, where my mom and dad took me before I went to the hospital. They glowed so brightly we could see them from the upper end of Main Street, where we stood for a long time just watching them flash and twinkle on the snow.
The man stopped outside the door and reached for the handle.
“She’s here,” he told me. “Her name is Addigan. She’s five, like you, and she’s very lonely. Very, very sad.”
Just like he was? “Why?”
The man squatted down. His eyes level with mine, he put his big hand on my shoulder and squeezed. But I couldn’t feel its weight. I couldn’t even feel the squeeze, but somehow I knew he’d done that, and it made the Jell-O inside me stop shaking. “I’m like you, Rhys. I’m here, instead of there with her, and she misses me.”
“What…what happened to you? Why are you here?”
“I was sleeping,” he said softly. “And I never woke up. My heart stopped , like yours. Except I had a heart attack.”
And then I knew. I didn’t know exactly what I was, but I knew exactly what I wasn’t–alive.
Fear made the light go dim, like a cloud passing in front of the sun. I lifted my chin and stood as tall as I could until everything was bright again. “But how can I help? What do I do?”
“Go through that door. She’s there. She needs you.”
“But, why can’t you go in and be with her? It’s you she wants. She doesn’t even know me.”
He smiled, but his eyes looked like they’d rather cry. “I can’t. I’m not allowed. But you’re different. You’ve been reassigned. You have a new purpose. You get to go back and be with her instead of being here, like me.”
I had no idea what a purpose was. Or what I was. A ghost? A spirit? Just dead?
The man looked so sad. But hopeful. I realized I was that hope. “What do I do when I get there?”
“You’ll know. You’ll know as soon as you step into the light.”
It all seemed so impossible. But that look of sadness on his face–I just wanted it to go away.
I nodded. And with that he seemed to relax, as if peace came with my agreement. He stood and led me toward that incredible white light.
The door opened and on the other side of it, the light started to change. Its edges began to shimmer pink. I’d never seen anything so bright, but it didn’t hurt my eyes. In fact, nothing hurt, anywhere. It felt good. I couldn’t remember the last time some part of me didn’t feel as opposite of good as bad could be.
I stepped forward.
The light surrounded me, warm and soft, like my mother’s arms. Summer and Christmas and my birthday all wrapped into one. And that’s when I knew everything. I knew that I’d died during surgery, from some unforeseen glitch with the anesthesia. But that was okay, because I also knew that my Grampa waited for me somewhere safe, that my aunt Edie wasn’t sick with cancer anymore, and that she was waiting, too. I smiled because of all the things I knew.
With my new, grown-up knowledge, I expected to see a grown-up body to match my grown-up thoughts, but when I looked down, I was still a little boy, fragile and innocent.
Surprised, I stepped out of that incredible light, and another door opened. A closet door this time, in a regular room, in a regular house. And there she was. Addigan. Blonde and blue-eyed, dressed in pink. She looked even sadder than her father, if such a thing were possible.
Her pale eyebrows shot up in surprise. “Who are you?”
“What are you doing in my closet?”
I smiled. “I’m here to take care of you. Your daddy sent me so you won’t be lonely or sad anymore.”
“But who are you? Are you an angel?”
“No, Addie.” And at that moment, I knew exactly what I was meant to do, who I was meant to be. I took her hand. “I’m your imaginary friend.”