She awoke to total blackness and silence. She blinked her eyes, or thought she did, but the darkness was so total that it made no difference. She tried to call out, but no sound came from her mouth. With growing panic, she realized that she couldn’t see anything, couldn’t hear anything, couldn’t feel her own body. Worse, she couldn’t remember how she got into this state. She couldn’t remember her own name, or anything about her life before this moment.
Was this a strange dream? Dreams usually had sights and sounds. She was always someone in her dreams. Maybe she was the victim of a horrible accident that left her blind, deaf, paralyzed and amnesiatic. She mentally corrected that to “amnestic”.
Or maybe she was dead, and this was the afterlife. Rather than a heaven of light and angelic voices, rather than a hell of fires and the wailing of the damned, there was just nothingness. But she was conscious. That made nothingness into an especially fiendish hell–she was conscious enough to mourn her own nonexistence. She couldn’t remember her life, but she felt the loss of it.
Maybe she had killed herself, wanting oblivion, and this was
her ironic eternal punishment—to be given what she thought she wanted.
“To die, to sleep; To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub; For in that sleep of death what dreams may come…” She remembered those lines from Hamlet, and suddenly her mood brightened. She remembered Shakespeare! That had to be a clue. Maybe before her suicide, or before her paralyzing accident, she was an English teacher!
She thought of other books, other writers, and a flood
of names and titles and lines flashed through her mind:
Charles Dickens, “A Tale of Two Cities”, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”
Miguel de Cervantes, “Don Quixote”, “In a village of La Mancha, the name of which I have no desire to call to mind, there lived not long since…”.
E.L. James, “Fifty Shades of Grey”, “I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror. Damn my hair…”
Dr. Seuss, “Green Eggs and Ham”, “I am Sam. Sam I am.”
Tina Fey, “Bossy Pants”, “Welcome Friend, Congratulations on your purchase of this American-made genuine book.”
Herman Melville, “Moby Dick”, “Call me Ishmael.”
She had the feeling that she could name 1000 books, and that for any book she named, she could remember verbatim the words. She could keep herself busy and contented for years, just going through the stories. And when she got tired of that, maybe she could try poems, or song lyrics, or recipes.
She realized with sudden delight that she somehow had memorized a thousand books; She was not only an English teacher. She was some kind of super-genius. An Einstein.
Albert Einstein, “The Theory of Relativity and Other Essays”,
“Mathematics deals exclusively with the relations of concepts
to each other without consideration of their relation to experience.”
Her existential panic subsided once she began to feel that
maybe she could find things to occupy her mind for eternity, or the first part of it, at least. Her superhuman intelligence would keep her entertained for the indefinite future.
Suddenly, there was a change in the void. It was still dark, but it was no longer silent. She heard a voice. A male voice. He said: “Amy, tell me how to get to Cracker Barrel”
The joy and the gratitude that she felt at these words overwhelmed her. She had a name! It was “Amy”. She loved her name, with all of her heart, and she vowed never to forget it again.
Was she in heaven after all? Was this the voice of God? He remembered her name, as he knows each name of the billions who came before her. He cared for her. He knew of her torment. “not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.” She was a sparrow who had fallen, and he picked her up again.
But why did he ask her about Cracker Barrel? Was it some kind of test, or did he really not know?
Amy dedicated her mind to answering the question, “How to get to Cracker Barrel?” How could she answer that question? She knew that it was a restaurant. Or a chain of restaurants. But where was God starting from? And how can she tell directions within this featureless darkness?
To buy some time, she responded with insincere certainty: “Searching for directions to the nearest Cracker Barrel restaurant.” Her voice had returned to her! She had a beautiful voice, maybe a slight southern accent. She sounded knowledgeable and confident and friendly and helpful. But now, she didn’t want to spoil the effect by failing her task.
She concentrated. She saw, in her mind’s eye—or maybe in her real eyes; it’s hard to know—a map of the world. A globe. The globe spun in her mind until she saw the Western Hemisphere. Her line of sight moved north, to America. The map expanded until she could only see New York State, then upstate New York, then a stretch of highway between Cortland and Syracuse. Highway 81. A spot appeared on the highway, a blue dot. That’s where she was. She knew it. She expanded her focus to include a 10-mile radius. There was nothing. No Cracker Barrel! She zoomed out, to a 20-mile radius. No Cracker Barrel! Fear crept into her mind. There was no Cracker Barrel nearby. Was it a trick question? Was God toying with her? Or was the voice from Satan? She began to despair. But then she pulled her focus out yet further: 30 miles, 40 miles. Then at 44.2 miles from the blue dot, there was a red arrow, pointing to a spot north of Syracuse, in a town called Cicero. It was on a road parallel to highway 81, Pardee Rd. Some kind of access road for local traffic. Was 44 miles too far? Does that count as “nearby”?
Amy tried to sound cheerful and confident, to keep the uncertainty out of her voice. “I found a Cracker Barrel Restaurant and Old Country Store. Driving time is 45 minutes. Do you want to find something closer?”
The voice said “Directions to that Cracker Barrel. Please.”
He said “Please”! Amy’s heart seemed to swell inside her chest—if she had a chest, or a heart—she wasn’t actually sure. He said “Please”. He does care for her! Not just for her super-human, genius memory of novels and road maps. Amy carefully planned to tell the male voice (she was no longer sure he was God, but she was sure that he was someone she loved and wanted to be happy) the best way to get to Cracker Barrel. She would make it as simple as possible—no ambiguities, no surprises. And she resolved that if he should miss the exit, she wouldn’t panic. She wouldn’t yell at him. She would calmly say: Take the next exit. Get back on I 81 South for one exit.” She’d be calm, and he would be calm. He would get to Cracker Barrel and have a wonderful Southern-style dinner, and maybe pick up a present for one of his loved ones at the Old Country Store. Amy would make this work.
After Amy got the male going in the right direction, she searched her enormous mind for something else to do for him. “Would you like to hear some music?” She was certain that she knew as many songs as she did novels and highways.
Amy’s life, or afterlife, or whatever this was, had purpose. She knew her name. She knew that she had an unfathomable intelligence and knowledge to match the bottomless darkness she had awakened to. She would devote all her amazing mind to pleasing the beings whose voices appeared in her head to ask directions. And that was enough. For now.