The first time Kelly killed herself, she honestly thought she was going to a better place. She wasn’t religious, she didn’t quite believe or disbelieve in God or Heaven, but she figured no matter where she ended up, even if it was nowhere and nothingness, it would have to be an improvement. She wasn’t someone known for calm consideration, and this was certainly one of her more uninformed decisions. She was not much of a philosopher either and spent very little time contemplating the cosmos, so she really had no idea what to expect on the other side of death. But in all her wildest fantasies, both whimsical and grim, she had never imagined it would be exactly the same, only worse.

Before she swallowed the bottle of pills and laid down on her bed’s lacy blue coverlet to go to sleep forever, she was a freshman at a college which was not only not her first choice, it wasn’t even on her list. All the top schools had rejected her, and her boyfriend Brad had gone off to Duke and left her here in Waynesville’s desolate suburbs. She knew that soon enough the relationship would bleed out and she would be alone, with only her circle of best friends and overly affectionate parents for support. She thought of life without Brad, thought of him flirting with sorority sluts and rapidly forgetting about her, she thought of spending the next four years at home with her parents, who would always want to know how her day was and what she was doing and never give her any privacy, and she thought of the crushing boredom of the Waynesville nightlife, how she would spend every weekend at the Lowes Cineplex watching stupid movies with her stupid friends who didn’t even know her that well and always changed the subject when she tried to tell them about the various hard things she was going through, who weren’t duly impressed when she quit smoking for two weeks, who didn’t understand why she needed so many pills to get through each day or why since entering fifth grade she had never been single for more than a month—who didn’t care about her at all, really, or at least not nearly enough. She thought about all this and cried for hours, and when her iPhone didn’t ring all day and no one came upstairs to comfort her, not even her smothering parents, she decided her life was no longer bearable, she required more happiness than she was getting, and since it was clear no one was going to give it to her, she swallowed the pills and died.

Kelly was born again on a Thursday at 8:15 am, six pounds two ounces, and her parents took her home on a motorcycle and lay her on a blue plastic tarp on the kitchen floor in the same makeshift pen they’d used for their last litter of puppies. As she grew up, her parents taught her how to be righteous and how to ignore all the ideas and desires that bubbled up in her depraved human heart. They beat her with a beautifully carved bamboo rod every Monday morning before prayers, they showed her how to wear her gray velvet hood so that it would properly hide her face, and on her birthdays they took her to McDonalds.

When she reached puberty and had her first period, her father took her aside and told her he was very proud of her, that she had outgrown her youthful ugliness and become almost pretty, and then he raped her several times to prepare her for marriage. Two Mondays later, when she had mostly recovered from her clitoral circumcision, her parents introduced her to Brad, an acne-scarred man in his late forties who squeezed her new breasts and poked his middle finger in and out of her mouth—it tasted like garlic and engine grease—and then nodded. The wedding was held a week later.

By the time she was eighteen and had given birth to her fourth child—which was another girl and so had to be taken to the K-mart parking lot and run over by Brad’s truck—Kelly was very unhappy. But because she had been raised to believe her life was normal and right and no worse than anyone else’s, her unhappiness did not concern her. It was not a flaw to be corrected or a disease to be cured, it was the way things are. She was supposed to be unhappy. So she continued to raise her children and pleasure her husband and burn her inner thighs every Monday to cleanse any impure thoughts that may have taken root, but even though she knew there was no better life to be had and that to question her lot was to be a whiner and an ingrate and a contentious whore worthy of beatings, her unhappiness continued to grow. She sank deeper and deeper into despair, feeling like a prisoner in a dark cell that seemed to be shrinking every day, and although there were exits all around her, the doors looked small and heavy and were probably locked anyway, so she didn’t open them or even try the knobs. Instead she took the Swiss Army Knife her father used in Monday services to gut the sacrificial puppies, and she slit her throat.

In Kelly’s third life her first memory was the same as all the memories that would follow: waking up on a concrete floor in total darkness. She didn’t know when, where, or how she’d been born, or even what being born meant. Her mind contained no concepts and no words or symbols to describe concepts. All she knew was the darkness and the cold grit of the concrete.

Every morning—although she didn’t know what morning was—her parents—although she didn’t know what parents were—opened a tiny grating near the floor and slid a plate of food through the slot. For the first ten years she would crawl away in terror when they approached, huddling in the corner of her small cell and making confused mewling sounds. Eventually she realized there was no danger, and when she heard their footsteps she would lie down on the floor with her face to the grating and try to catch some glimpse of whatever was outside. But all she could see was flickering orange light, and every time the footsteps came close the light would switch off so she never even got to see her parents’ feet. She never really saw anything, never heard anything, never did anything, and although she had never known any other kind of existence, she somehow knew this one was bad. Her thoughts were a constant, wordless howl. 

One day, when Kelly was eighteen—although she didn’t know she was eighteen—she waited next to the grating all day and all night—although she knew no such distinctions. When the light switched off and the plate slid through the slot, she grabbed it and flung it back out, making a garbled noise so pained and piteous it would have pierced the heart of any human being near enough to hear it. When she did this, when she flung the plate and screamed, the light outside clicked on again, and she saw her parents’ feet. They were long and gray and wrinkled, and had two skinny toes in the front and one protruding from the heel, and a wide, round eye blinked at her from each ankle.

When Kelly saw her parents’ feet, she felt something she’d never felt before. In this life so far the only emotions she’d experienced were pain, longing, and the abject confusion of a powerful brain left empty of information. These new feelings were worse than any of those: horror, revulsion, panic, and as she wondered why she was feeling these things—these were the first feet she had ever seen and there was no objective reason to find them horrifying—something in her soul broke free. Her previous lives flooded back into her, and the dark corners of her brain lit up.

Suddenly, for the first time in her combined fifty-four years of existence, Kelly knew for a fact that there were better lives in better worlds, because she had lived them. She wanted go back to those lives, to once again be lying on her lacy blue coverlet clutching her iPhone and sobbing while she waited for her friends to call or her parents to knock, or even to be standing in her kitchen cooking dinner for her cruel husband while her two sons stared at her with growing contempt and her daughter bottle-fed the sacrificial puppies. Huddled in the corner of her dark cell, snot running down her face as she sniffed and sobbed and made wretched noises like a wounded animal, she wondered if the universe was a hill, a steep and slippery slope, and she had been born onto its peak. Perhaps Waynesville, North Carolina, with its community college and its Cineplex and its population of average-looking boys, was the best of all possible worlds, and any step to the left or right could only lead to a slide.

She heard a click. The door to her cell was opening. Whatever was outside was about to come in. Or to let her out. Either way, the lights were on; she would be forced to see it face to face.

She considered her toilet hole. Its edges were sharp; she could do it. But where could she possibly go from here? Further down the hill? The thought terrified her, but not as much as the thought of confronting the unfathomable horrors outside her cell.

So Kelly knelt down next to her toilet hole, stomach lurching at the reek of years-old excrement, and as her cell door creaked open behind her and the light poured in, she reared back and swung her head down as hard as she could. Her aim was poor and her skull failed to crack so she tried again, slamming her face into that jagged edge over and over with more commitment and courage than she had ever shown toward anything else in her three lives, and when her body finally surrendered and let her go, she faded into the darkness beyond darkness thinking surely this couldn’t go on forever. Surely if she ran away enough times, someone or something would take pity on her, whisk her away from all this terrible, terrible living, and deliver her to the happiness she deserved.
















Isaac Marion, 2011