How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful

Quinn was falling asleep when he heard Kathryn’s voice call his name. But that wasn’t possible—he’d gotten the news a few days ago. Kathryn was gone to a place he wouldn’t soon follow. He was too shocked to grieve, but knew it was coming. Must’ve been a hypnagogic hallucination. He’d just read about those on Reddit, they were not uncommon. Or…he was losing his mind.


When you’re dead, you’re a time traveler. Well, technically, no one ever dies.

Energy can neither be created nor destroyed, only transformed. Energy inhabits a physical container, whether it be plant or animal. Through such containment, the energy itself becomes physical. It becomes what we consider alive.

The physical perishes, but the energy remains. It transforms to nonphysical again, back to what humans call souls. Most humans are so dependent on their physical senses the extrasensory have atrophied. They’re swimming in a lagoon of disembodied souls and don’t know it. What they don’t know won’t hurt or horrify them.

“Quinn,” Kathryn said softly.

“He can’t hear you,” Archangel Gabriel sighed.

“But—but, you said I could be with him.”

“Not in his world, doll. There’s too many rules there. We’re free to do anything here.”

“He isn’t here!”

“Imagine he is. I know it’s hard to grasp at first. The afterlife transcends time and space. You can go backwards or forwards. I don’t recommend forwards. That’s reincarnation. Dig into your memories, and stretch them. Stretch the truth until it wraps around you and becomes your reality. Think of it as a lucid dream you never wake up from.”


“Uh, yeah. Unless you want to do the reincarnation thing, but again, I do not recommend it. You’re lucky I grabbed you when I did. You were about to go into the light. FYI, the light comes from maternity wards.”

“Why’d you save me? Why not everyone?”

“People are annoying, that’s why. I don’t foresee you being a problem. Just pick a memory to go back to and play around with. And don’t choose the memory of your death, getting stuck where you died. I don’t know why people do that. So morbid!”

“Thank you, Archangel Gabriel. I have one more question. How do I pick a memory? I don’t even know where to begin.”

“They’re organized by color. Something tells me you prefer a cool tone. Try blue.”


And just like that, she was transported.

Blue was the ’79 Lincoln Continental, still a cherry in August of 2011. It’d been Suzanne’s father’s, and later Suzanne’s when he died. Now Suzanne was gone too. Kathryn was Suzanne’s sister. Kathryn was the most beautiful woman Quinn had ever known. He stole glances at her as he drove her father’s—sister’s—her car? She chain-smoked, puffing out the open window. Wind tousled her dark hair.

Blue was the pastel, cloudless sky that day. The once bustling Locust Avenue was quiet. Remnants of sidewalks crumbled and buckled. They passed faded markers of Plum Street, Apple, and Grape.

Quinn pulled into a field dotted with wildflowers and cottony dandelion fluffs. Three steps ascended to nothingness, marking where Kathryn’s house once stood. She jumped out as he cut the motor, grabbing a shovel from the trunk. It was called a living urn. They weren’t forbidden to do it, but weren’t granted permission, either. Don’t ask, don’t tell.

Suzanne’s cremains were in a biodegradable cardboard container. They covered them with the proprietary ash neutralizing agent, soil, and wood chips, like the directions said, planting the seedling of an eastern redbud in them, as she’d wanted. They buried the urn in what had been her childhood backyard, near the huckleberry bushes, pouring bottled spring water over it.

Blue were the cerulean domes of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which rose like a mirage on the hillside. Orthodox crosses shone from the cupola and towers. It wasn’t a Wild West outpost, but an American ghost town all the same. The small Pennsylvania town had been on fire since 1962. Trash incinerated at the landfill seeped into a coal seam, eating through a massive honeycomb of underground tunnels, igniting pure anthracite coal. Scientists estimate there’s enough coal in the eight mile mine to fuel another 250 years. No one knows how to put it out, so they put the people out instead. Quinn and Kathryn were trespassing.

“No,” Kathryn thought. She needed to go further back.

Suddenly it was 1980, the year Quinn was in the eighth grade and Kathryn in the seventh. The US Bureau of Mines released a thick, sobering report: “The mine fire has not been extinguished and is not controlled. The measures used to date in attempts to control the fire have not been effective, and in some cases may have influenced the propagation of fire.”

Blue were the flames of methane flickering from the abyss. They put boxes in homes that ticked, measuring carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide that crept in. When levels soared too high, the boxes shrieked, but what could anyone do? They opened a window.

Kathryn had been the girl next door, dark as their Iroquois momma, tiny and angular. Suzanne was fair-skinned like her father. She was chubby with pale gray eyes. Everyone was her friend. No one knew Kathryn well except her big sis, who loved her fiercely. Kathryn was always so quiet, which added to her allure.

Purple-blue was the eerie sheen of the black smoke from the boreholes around town, lit like cigarettes from the underground fire, the smoke rising in fifteen foot plumes. There were almost twice as many boreholes as people.

A twelve-year-old boy was swallowed up by a subsidence, a spontaneous sinkhole behind his grandmother’s house. The hole turned out to be close to 300 feet deep. You could see the smoke from Apple Alley. He miraculously survived without brain damage or scalding, grabbing onto roots and then his cousin’s hand. Dozens of families sold their homes to the federal government for next to nothing, not waiting for it to be their kid.

“Not here,” Kathryn thought.

She traveled to the summer of ‘82. Suzanne was dating Rodney, the older brother of Quinn’s best friend Jay. Kathryn went everywhere Suzanne did. Quinn and Jay took any opportunity to hang out with Rodney, who had a driver’s license and a car. The five of them became inseparable.

Blue was the cotton candy Kathryn had at the Bloomsburg Fair. She held out her paper cone to Quinn, who sat next to her on the Ferris Wheel.

“Want some?”

He pinched a piece off and ate it. His fingers were sticky. Fluffs of candy remained, speckled with sugary saliva where his mouth had been. Kathryn grabbed his hand and sucked the sweetness from his fingertips. It made him feel hot and dizzy and alive.

On Halloween that year, they drank liquor in the woods from their parents’ stash. Kathryn wore a black turtleneck, black leggings, and a headband with black plush cat ears. Her gold-green eyes, which looked like a cat’s anyways, were heavily lined and wing-tipped in kohl. The air was crisp. When the bone white sky faded to a dusky purple, they played hide and seek, though they knew it was dangerous because of subsidences. They were young and dumb and wasted.

Kathryn wasn’t it, but found Quinn. They hid behind a large overturned dogwood. They sat with their backs against the rough bark, their knees up, their shoulders pressed together. He inhaled her smoky vanilla scent. He thought his heart would barrel right out of his chest the way it beat, like when Miss Batdorf made them do suicide sprints across the gymnasium. She stubbed out her cigarette.

She put her warm mouth on his, not quite kissing him, just testing. He bit her bottom lip softly. She sighed, like she’d been holding her breath since summer and finally let go. Her tongue was on his. She tasted like bourbon. Her long hair tickled his face as the wind blew. She started to run her hand up his wool sweater, but stopped. She laughed.

“I’m not…” she said, her head shaking no. “I’m sorry, I’m not.”

The following week, Kathryn became Jay’s girlfriend. Quinn caught phantom sicknesses, or found himself overwhelmed with homework whenever Jay invited him out. Jay and Rodney went on double dates with the girls.

After Christmas break, Quinn saw Kathryn in the hallway at school with her friend Meg. Her almost-black hair was cut in a shoulder length shag with bangs, like her idol Joan Jett’s. It emphasized her perfect cheekbones. She wore violet shadow on the lids of those amber-green eyes. She looked so good he couldn’t stand it.

“I like your hair,” he said.

“Did you hear something?” she asked Meg, glaring at him.

Kathryn shook the memory away. She was ashamed of how mean she had been to him. They stopped speaking after that.

Suzanne went away for college in Pittsburgh. Kathryn moved in with her aunt in Sacramento, starting sophomore year there. She never said goodbye to Quinn. Her parents moved to Harrisburg in May, a year before Quinn graduated. Their house was boarded up and painted with blood red numbers for demolition.

“Oh, Quinn,” Kathryn sighed.

She had to go back to when they trespassed together. Even if it hurt to remember Suzanne’s death, which had wrecked her. She contacted him over Facebook. He was living in Guam at the time. He was a sailor in the US Navy. He took leave to be with her. Both her parents were gone, her sister was gone, and she didn’t know who else to reach out to. Her marriage was not doing well. She feared it wouldn’t survive through her time of grief.

That evening, after they’d laid Suzanne to rest, they drove to Harrisburg where Suzanne had been living last. They stayed in her home. Kathryn drank entirely too much. She wanted to kiss Quinn again.

“I’m sorry,” she blurted. “I’m—Quinn, I adore you. But I’m not a lesbian.”

“And I’m not a woman.”


“No, listen. I know what I am. I know my sex is female. But we both know that I’ve never fit the gender, which society created. You’re not attracted to femininity. And I’m not feminine.”

“Are you saying you’re transgender?” She hadn’t thought of Quinn that way before.

“No, baby. I’m pleased with how God made me. I just mean… like, when we took Spanish class. Words were either masculine, or feminine. I’m a masculine woman, and I don’t mind being called he/him if it makes things easier. Some of my guy friends refer to me that way endearingly. It’s better than being called a dyke, or queer. I don’t believe hateful words can be reclaimed. Sometimes, strangers see me and call me sir. I can live with that, that’s a term of respect.”

“People were so awful. I remember you used to go by Q, until the kids at school started saying ‘Q is for queer.’ And I wasn’t always nice to you.”

“You weren’t. But that’s the past.”

“What happens now?”

“Whatever you want. Literally, anything you want. Just tell me.”


Before the fire, a sense of trust united the town. Trust that evolved from generations of loving and living and dying in clusters of clapboard row houses. They were content to marry, raise children, and grow old, like their ancestors who settled the northern bend of the Appalachian Mountains. Some wanted the government to put the fire out, or money to move. Others didn’t believe there was a fire. They talked of companies and government officials conspiring to get them out, with millions worth of coal rumored to be under their properties.

Friends stopped speaking. Husbands and wives separated when one wanted to stay and the other wanted to take the kids somewhere safe. Everyone agreed the government had abandoned them. When they claimed eminent domain on all remaining homes, some refused to go. Two years after Suzanne’s death, the last six residents finally won the legal right to live and die in their homes.

But first, Hurricane Irene hit in late August. Tropical Storm Lee hit in early September. President Obama declared an emergency in Pennsylvania on September 9th. Harrisburg was evacuated a few weeks after Kathryn and Quinn were there.

First, Obama made a statement on September 20th: “Today, the discriminatory law known as ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is finally and formally repealed. As of today, patriotic Americans in uniform will no longer have to lie about who they are in order to serve the country they love.”

More than 14,500 service members were thrown out of the military since Clinton signed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 1993 – the year the government condemned the houses in Quinn’s hometown and evicted families. Quinn came out as gay. He never physically transitioned, but began identifying as masculine, since that’s how others saw him anyways. After his visit to Pennsylvania, he flew back to Guam. Kathryn flew back to California, to her husband. The marriage survived. Deep down she was miserable.


Kathryn is dead. Or, that’s what physical beings would call her. Which is ironic. The body is slowly dying from the moment the soul animates it. The soul is eternal. The body is nothing more than a temporary home, like the shells of a hermit crab, tossed aside each lifetime. So who is really dead? Not those in the afterlife. Kathryn went back to the memory of that night in Harrisburg, her only night with Quinn.

“Look at me,” she’d said. She took off her dress and undergarments.

Blue were Quinn’s eyes. Deep blue like the sea at dusk. Quinn looked at her with an intensity no one ever had before or since. Her body had gone soft with age, but when Quinn looked at her, she felt as if she could live forever. And that she did, in his memory.

“I want to see you too,” she’d said.

She had no tattoos, but loved Quinn’s. A mermaid with tendrils of hair floating outward like the whorls of Van Gough’s Starry Night, an octopus with tentacles wrapped around an anchor, a sea urchin. A ship with a banner beneath that read “Loose Lips,” swirls of steam rising above. Nautical stars. All black ink with intricate shading. They covered his upper arms, normally hidden under his uniform. His breasts were small and firm.

“Hold me,” she said. She rested her head against his bare chest. They spent the night like that, going no further. Somehow it felt the furthest she’d ever gone. She’d never felt so comfortable, so safe, or so close to anyone. Perhaps it was the grief, or the Chardonnay. Or perhaps it was intimacy, which is rare.

The body is ephemeral and memories are fluid. Identity is transient. This person who was once Kathryn time traveled to a moment, stretched it, and wrapped it around her, soft as cashmere. She spent her afterlife doing all she’d been afraid to do while in the flesh. She imagined a life with Quinn, a life that would’ve happened had she been brave enough to leave her husband. She lived this lucid dream. Someday, Quinn will join her in this alternate timeline, for it is his “what if” too.

Author’s Note: Thanks for reading! I made a playlist to complement this story.

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